R.E.M. – Present Tense

November 1998. Quite how a band reported to have signed a $80 million record deal only two years previous has become the underdog is anyone’s guess. One of their most loyal corners of the UK media has them on the cover again with the imperative headline “Don’t Panic! It’s the all-new R.E.M.” functioning as an instruction for the band as much as the readers.  Mike Mills goofs around with his hands over his ears, Peter Buck tilts his sunglasses nonchalantly and Michael Stipe smoulders impossibly, a hand on his hip accentuating a pose eager to prove it’s business as usual.

Bill Berry? He’s not there, of course, his departure from the band having brought about the three-legged (under)dog. The band that will not tour its first record as a trio may be keeping up appearances on the front of the monthlies, but starting that album, ‘Up’, with the lo-fi buzz of ‘Airportman’ is a bold double-bluff. The poise of ‘Drive’, the arrogance of ‘What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?’ and the swagger of ‘How The West Was Won And Where It Got Us’ were assertive openers one and all. But not ‘Airportman’. Its subdued hostility hints at fragility, appears to be inviting the listener to propagate a narrative that R.E.M. have lost their invincibility. And then ‘Lotus’ kicks in and you can picture the grin on Stipe’s face, the involuntary shoulder lunge of Buck and Mills’ studied ease.

Almost two weeks after the album’s release, BBC2’s late-night music totem ‘Later with Jools Holland’ takes the unusual step of handing over an entire hour-long show to the band. On a stage adorned with artwork from ‘Up’, they are in radiant form. Peter’s body jolts and curls as it moves with his playing, Mike looks reassuringly zen as he basks in the beguiling beauty of his contributions and Michael is in his element playing to a euphoric crowd. His simultaneously endearing naivety and absolute awareness of his status manifest themselves in his between-song request – “May I have some more of this incredibly delicious apple juice, someone? Anyone?” – creating a moment that will linger long in the memory. They own this stage, they own this moment, they own my heart. As Stipe notes four minutes later, freshly filled glass in hand, “The magic of television.”

This is a reflection upon the part of a band’s life that routinely gets the fast forward treatment in biographies and documentaries. The ultimate irony that more time is always spent on the imperial phase, about which we already know the most, is endlessly frustrating. When things get complicated, when artists adapt or wither: that’s where it gets really interesting. Despite knowing the hits, such as they were, when your first proper engagement with R.E.M. was ‘E-Bow The Letter’ on ITV’s Saturday morning music video countdown ‘The Chart Show’, it’s hard to escape the latter-day suspicion that your relationship with them is formed on slightly different ground to those who joined for mandolins or muttered lyrics. I knew I was playing catch-up, despite having enjoyed those indestructable singles and even picked up a sleeveless cassette of ‘Automatic For The People’ at a car boot sale. For me, the moment where an act relocates to the ‘Favourites’ list happened with this band in August 1996.

The droning cable car momentum of that song does not scream chart smash in the context of the rest of their work, let alone alongside the rest of the UK Top 10 in that particular month. ‘Wannabe’ is still at Number One, while George Michael’s silky smooth ‘Spinning The Wheel’ and the nimble funk of Jamiroquai’s ‘Virtual Insanity’ complete the top three as new entries. Two more debutants follow, Louise’s ‘Undivided Love’ is in at five and one above sits this curious dirge. It was a chart entry generated by the faithful and not the casual daytime radio listener. For one thirteen year old it was fascinating: ballsy, but clearly not ballsy enough to actually backfire. This was a band at ease in its own collective skin and then add in Patti Smith too. This wasn’t music, some cried. No, no it wasn’t. This was an education.

In a remarkably accurate sign of what was to come, I was already reading Q at 13 and so that front cover, “Would you pay $80 million for this band?”, was my chance to fully understand what I was getting into. It situated the band at the centre of the music industry, mentioning Bono’s annoyance at them completing another album and offering tips for alcoholic drinks. It told the story of the ‘Monster’ tour and its array of medical emergencies. It foregrounded their humour, their distinct personalities and their clear love of their work. I was in. ‘New Adventures In Hi-Fi’ is a truly magnificent record, my favourite of theirs. A recent reissue generated a little more reverence but it still seems a little overlooked, despite its ability to capture the various different musical strands of R.E.M. and expand upon them. But I won’t dwell here. If you were hypnotised by them when ‘Out Of Time’ emerged, you were there for the summit. Hop on board after saving up for their lengthy (slightly misrepresented) ‘road record’ and they’re about to lose Bill Berry and head into an identity crisis. 

There was a lot of good will towards ‘Up’, a record which is actually magnificent but suffered from being oversold in much of its coverage on sentiment rather than songs. People loved this band and wanted to know they could carry on with a quarter removed. And yet, it is arguably the most adventurous album of their thirty-one year career. Synths, drones and textures abound, the pace whatever it needs to be in service to the song. As Peter Buck put it to Keith Cameron in a 2003 Mojo piece, “it is too long, but I don’t know what you would take off.” It breaks plenty of rules and ‘Daysleeper’ was an almighty canard of a lead single, but it is majestically flawed. 

Even as a sixteen year old using birthday money to buy it in the week of release, I knew I was in possession of something special. Was I confused by that opener? Of course. The slower pace of its concluding section failed to fully reveal itself in those early listens too, but this was surely the case for many. But I stuck with it, the first of their albums I could just walk in and buy immediately, if only down to a coincidence of timing. I still find new things now. Pick any song – though possibly not ‘Airportman’ or “self-immolation writ large,” as Stipe put it in that same Mojo article – and give it your undivided attention. Turn it up and notice parts that you never realised were even there. Seriously, listen to the opening of ‘Why Not Smile’ as it sputters into life. Lulling and fragile, it seems to open up before us, like a slowly burning firework. It never becomes more robust, it just manages to find myriad ways to reach your heart. 

It may have nearly broken them – as every interview for the next decade would gently paraphrase – but it was a present to us. We’re still here if you are, it seemed to say. Its shirt was untucked and it lacked the self-confidence to know exactly when to shut up, but it was raw, honest and a little wounded. I’m really looking forward to hearing how the band talk about it now for the inevitable twenty-fifth anniversary next year, as it was all a little too recent when they were still active. Indeed, in 2001, Buck told John Harris in Q, “I listen to it and I hear a whole lot of faults. We had to play it for a press meeting: it went directly from the studio at 10 in the morning, to making copies to be pressed. By the time I’d heard it a couple of times, I realised that the sequence doesn’t work at all.” Harsh. It is a little illogical, it is all over the place, but it’s ‘Up’. 

During their 2001 MTV Unplugged set, around the release of ‘Reveal’, there is a woman near the front of the audience with her hands splayed across her mouth in awestruck supplication before the gentle majesty of ‘At My Most Beautiful’. This human devotion, this involuntary gravitational pull is real and one night in Sheffield a few years later it was uniquely put to the test by circumstances eerily reminiscent of a decade previous. An icy evening was at risk of becoming truly glacial as the house lights failed to fully fall and the casually attired pairing of Stipe and Buck took to the stage with nothing but humility and an acoustic guitar. Mills had been taken ill that evening and, at the very last moment, the show was off. With an audience who had battled through unforgiving conditions to be there, it could have been a tricky situation to manage, but they delivered an impromptu four-song performance to an unconventionally illuminated arena and promised they’d be back a few months later. The collective reverence afforded our heroes that night was beautiful and mojos lost or found were not anyone’s concern.

To become a fan at the tipping point, to become obsessed as others are cashing in their chips is an unusual sensation. Even now, I will have conversations with friends who dismiss everything after the mid-Nineties as offering diminishing returns. Tell that to 2003 Stipe as he lurches and contorts before a stunned Parkinson audience, as if trying to clamber out of the screen and convey his fury about the subject of ‘Bad Day’. The suited 2008 incarnation would be similarly unconvinced, seemingly electrified performing the rebooted, route one songs from that year’s ‘Accelerate’. For those still watching on, the light was undimmed and the band’s willingness to quickly concede 2004’s ‘Around The Sun’ was a disappointment made it abundantly clear that they didn’t feel like they were owed anything from us. As Buck told Tom Doyle for Q in 2008, “Even Michael was going ‘Y’know, if we make another bad record, it’s over.’ It’s like, ‘No Kidding.’”

It seems hard to escape the sense that I might have been a little more forgiving of their nadir as their by-now sizeable catalogue suggested it was unlikely they would have actually made a bad album. Is it possible to will a good record into being, or at least train your ears to find some strengths? Anyone whose formative listening years happened at a time when each new album required saving up for a carefully considered purchase will likely argue yes. ‘Leaving New York’ was R.E.M. by numbers, but it was a thoroughly pretty first single that cast a warm melodic glow. Perhaps, just as the front of ‘Collapse Into Now’ pictured the band waving goodbye, the out of focus album cover for ‘Around The Sun’ was a more striking admission than many realised at the time.

As has since been well documented, the band paused in the middle of its genesis to work on a Best Of, ‘In Time’, and complete an accompanying world tour. Once they eventually resumed work, it was neither reassuringly close to completion nor an appealing project to evolve further. It was over-produced, over-long and, potentially, a sign of being over the hill. And yet, there are some strong songs struggling to breathe beneath the performative, apathetic micro-management. ‘Electron Blue’ continues in ‘Reveal’ territory, ‘Wanderlust’ thrums merrily with the simplicity of a strummed acoustic and prominent piano and then there’s ‘Aftermath’, with its so-bad-its-not-awful video and woozy melody.

In the way that music fans do when still (relatively) young, I felt slightly saddened on their behalf at the slide from relevance that was so pronounced around this time. The simple fact is that when somebody wants to put an R.E.M. album on, there are so many actual classics to choose from that ‘Around The Sun’ is highly unlikely to be the record they select. But, being only a decade into my obsession, it didn’t feel like a betrayal so much as a first inkling of frailty. A realisation came that, as we discover with family, these important adults were capable of failure. If this sounds fabulously lacking in a sense of proportion then I fear you have yet to grasp just how much this band mean to me.

When ‘Accelerate’ came around, its direct thrills were appreciated and somewhat disproportionately lauded. Q made quite the fuss of how they were back on form and restored them to the cover. In the accompanying interview, Tom Doyle was – entirely understandably – keen to pick over how the ship had been steadied and the momentum regained. It felt a little calculated and like it mattered more than anyone wanted to let on. Indeed, it was a little rich for Stipe to respond wearily to such questioning with, “I just don’t want this to be the only story that’s written about this fucking record,” having agreed to be daubed in gold body paint for a front page proclaiming “Rejoice, they’ve struck gold again.”

Add an accompanying band-compiled mix CD that was free with the issue and a show for briefly voguish offshoot Q Radio heavily promoted alongside it, who knows what PR wrangling had gone on behind the scenes for that particular coverage. If ‘Leaving New York’ had aimed for ‘Losing My Religion’ territory then ‘Supernatural Superserious’ switched to their other mode, somewhere between ‘What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?’ and ‘Bad Day’. Peter Buck took charge and kept things tight for much of the album. Its energy is contagious and I still leap around the room to huge chunks of it fourteen years later. It’s not a classic but I don’t need it to be to enjoy it and it massively benefits from no longer being part of the ‘is it a return to form?’ carousel. 

It is possible to both be sad that there will never again be a new R.E.M. album to anticipate and aware that carrying on would have been no guarantee of quality. ‘Collapse Into Now’ struck me as a strong final statement, but I know others were underwhelmed. It’s careful, crafted and conscious of its role, but it’s not a band fading. They’re songs about calling it a day. While my attachment to the band might render my critical faculties unreliable when it comes to those later releases, I’m long past worrying about where any album fits in some notional rank order. They took a prominent position in my life as I became a teenager and shut up shop just before I hit thirty. They taught me much about anticipation, attachment and identity. My commitment to them has arguably grown stronger in the years since they parted.

That 1998 ‘Later’ special lived on in my head, long after the VHS recording I had of it was rendered obsolete by technology. The colours, the emotions and the charm. When the ‘R.E.M. at the BBC’ boxset was announced in 2018, with that whole show included on the DVD, there was a faint creep of fear that memory may have elevated it to a level that reality would fail to reach. But it was somehow better. Their vulnerability was intertwined with the pressure of being the band with the $80 million record deal, of delivering a performance worthy of their own episode of an important TV show. Whether I bring most of that narrative to the performance myself or if it speaks similarly to others doesn’t massively concern me.

David Belisle via @REMHQ on Twitter

March 2011. Stipe shows light beard growth, though nothing like what would follow. Buck is swaying contentedly, master of all he surveys. Mills looks a little distracted, perhaps all too well aware of the significance of the performance. Having recorded parts of what would eventually be confirmed as their final album in Berlin’s Hansa Tonstudio, R.E.M. are now arranged there in their live formation with Scott McCaughey and Bill Rieflin. A spattering of friends and family encircle the band as they deliver a selection of tracks from the new record, bringing to an end a little over three decades of collaboration. As ‘Discoverer’ reaches its climax, Stipe seems lost in his band’s music for one last time. The song concludes and he drops to the floor. Their time in the present tense concludes.

Best of 2021: 5-1

Inevitably, anyone who reads my monthly columns for Clash or scrolls past my turntable shots on Twitter will have a rough idea of what to expect as this list comes to its conclusion. Each year, numerous folk reckon they know what the top spot will be with varying degrees of success. Wonder no more, for here we go…

5. Manic Street Preachers ‘The Ultra Vivid Lament’

Nearly thirty years on from their debut, it is increasingly hard for the Manics to release a record without drawing comparisons to their past. With bassist and lyricist Nicky Wire’s fondness for regularly articulating and updating the mythology around the band, listeners are only too aware when they’re going for pop-rock with strings, as on 2018’s ‘Resistance Is Futile’, or capturing a “harrowing 45 year old looking in the mirror” for 2013’s ‘Rewind The Film’.

‘The Ultra Vivid Lament’ is a mutation of several different strands of their musical DNA, evoking some of the melancholic textures of 2004’s unfairly maligned ‘Lifeblood’, the angles of 2014’s ‘Futurology’ and even the luscious Bacharachian harmonies favoured on B-sides from the ‘Everything Must Go’ era. Having spent more time at the piano when crafting his 2020 solo album ‘Even In Exile’, frontman James Dean Bradfield foregrounds that instrument in many of these songs and it serves to open up the band’s sound.  

‘The Secret He Had Missed’ is yet another triumphant duet in a remarkable recent run, featuring Julia Cumming from Sunflower Bean and wearing the ABBA influence that can be found on a number of tracks especially proudly. Lyrically, it explores the differing experiences of artistic Welsh siblings Gwen and Augustus John, highlighting their preferred subjects and referencing a transformative event on Tenby beach. It is also one of numerous moments on this record where Sean Moore’s dexterity and energy as a drummer is prominent.

‘Quest For Ancient Colour’ is sublime, Bradfield’s performance seeming to pull away from the serene backing vocals as he sings of a nostalgic ache for an undefined but easier time. Opener ‘Still Snowing In Sapporo’ slowly unlocks a fond memory of Japanese tour in 1993 – “the four of us against the world” – with a taut bass and acoustic interplay nodding affectionately to The Cure, igniting from a reverb-drenched and pared-back introduction.

‘Into The Waves Of Love’ channels chiming, ‘Reckoning’-era R.E.M., guitar and piano almost tripping over each other in the early bars and even daring to go back to Rockville at the end of its chorus. A strident Roxy/Bunnymen hybrid, ‘Complicated Illusions’, is polished without feeling as synthetic as some of the excessively buffed pieces on ‘Resistance Is Futile’.

Not content with one fine guest, Mark Lanegan puts in a generously understated appearance on ‘Blank Diary Entry’, drawing out the ominous sense of emptiness in the lyrics. ‘Don’t Let The Night Divide Us’, meanwhile, picks up where ’30 Year War’ left off. “Don’t let those boys from Eton suggest that we are beaten” makes for an emphatic chorus that resonates on plague island. While subtle, this album captures the evolution of a band in their element once more.

As you may have figured from the length, that’s a full review I wrote for Clash. The vinyl cut is excellent, even if the pressing requires a game of GZ roulette. This album has endured through the autumn and it’s sincerely one of their finest. Great sleeve too.

4. Low ‘Hey What’

I have often found myself caught up in conversation with people who are displeased or even aggrieved at a band’s change of sound. I never really understand the logic, given that their catalogue prior to the moment of transformation isn’t wiped out by any shift in approach. If you loved them for a specific thing, continue to love them for it and, if this isn’t for you, leave it alone. As I explored in some detail back in 2018, the noise and moments of oppressive distortion on Low’s more recent work are not effects applied afterwards but fundamental components of the songs themselves. While it took me a little while to click with ‘Double Negative’, eventually my second favourite of that year, I went into ‘Hey What’ fully aware of what to expect and I do think they’ve evolved this alternative way of doing things rather wonderfully.

I’ll admit that I prefer the slightly trimmed version of opener ‘White Horses’ which opens the splendid vinyl cut of the album, reducing the wilfully confrontational ticking, jittering outro, but the song itself is pure Low. Alan and Mimi combine in that alchemical way they’ve been doing now for nearly three decades and the jagged, overloaded riffs are a delight. The ebb and flow of the sonic chopping on ‘I Can Wait’ forms its percussive structure, while the partially submerged vocals of ‘All Night’ perfectly suit the lyrics, “am I on the other side, so blind, so long, goodbye.”

‘Disappearing’ feels like it shares its DNA with some of the more stately processions on 2011’s ‘C’Mon’ – my album of that year, this lot have form – while the fabulous construction of the final track, ‘The Price You Pay (It Must Be Wearing Off)’, with its near a cappella opening which then mutates into a muscular, strident beat for its second half, is a fine demonstration of how this way of working is no less expressive or emotional than their earlier recordings.

And let’s not forget ‘Days Like These’. It’s a stone cold classic of their catalogue, opening with the partial harmonising of Alan and Mimi and somehow distilling the magic that one senses in the crowd at their gigs despite the clear studio impact. The almost ambient wash of its latter phase pushes and pulls individual elements of the early sections in such a way that keeps the listener on their toes, unsure if that soaring vocal line is going to return or not. More immediate than ‘Double Negative’, ‘Hey What’ is yet another superb Low album. Let’s be sure never to take them for granted.

3. Damon Albarn ‘The Nearer The Fountain, More Pure The Stream Flows’

Seven years after his debut solo album proper, ‘Everyday Robots’, the pandemic ended up causing a follow up. In May 2020, a Boiler Room livestream offered up some stripped back versions of pieces which were designed to be part of a project inspired by his second home of Iceland that he had been due to tour at that time. As the return to live performance got pushed back further and further, the desire to use this writing and move on grew too strong. Always one to have multiple projects on the go, he decided to transform those soundscapes into songs and so, this slow-burning, beautifully arranged and gorgeously sung record came into being.

Named after a line from John Clare’s poem ‘Love and Memory’, which also provides the lyrical inspiration for the title track, it is a wistful, often mournful collection that truly feels like a quest to find beauty during confined, concerning times. That opening piece is a beautifully transparent evocation of grief, not least for the loss of Albarn’s close friend and collaborator Tony Allen in the early stages of the global shutdown. Setting up camp with a number of his regular supporting musicians and skewing towards older, less dependable equipment, this music both reflects recent times and seems to point a way out of them.

While it is often meditative, there are still a number of hook-driven delights woven into this body of work. ‘Royal Morning Blue’ feels in line with Albarn’s more solo-focused ‘The Now Now’ Gorillaz sound. ‘The Tower Of Montevideo’ has the woozy, wobbly wash of sound that harks back to Blur’s ‘Ghost Ship’ but which seems to drift skywards on a synth wash and some driven saxophone. And then there’s ‘Polaris’, which emerges as the sonic clouds disperse, hingeing on a coiled spring of a rhythm that sounds like it’s about to go off at any point. It slowly expands and pulls everything into its orbit, a little like a slightly more mid-paced ‘Souk Eye’, another of his rather overlooked corkers. It’s an album with which I’ve spent a great deal of time these past few months and I imagine that will only develop, given Albarn’s tendency to write songs which never stop growing.

Such majestic music deserves decent treatment and, thankfully, Transgressive have delivered on that front. Mastered and cut by John Davis at Metropolis, the parts for the various vinyl editions were sent to several plants. The standard black edition is a pleasingly silent Optimal pressing, while the rather costly deluxe edition features a white disc pressed at Spinroad in Sweden. This had some light surface noise on a few occasions, but preserved the excellent sonics of Davis’ cut, while the accompanying exclusive 7” of ‘The Bollocked Man’ was an Optimal pressing. For silent playback, go for the black but every edition sounds great.

2. Self Esteem ‘Prioritise Pleasure’

Sometimes the stars align for an artist and sometimes an artist makes it their time. Rebecca Lucy Taylor grabbed hold of 2021 and delivered a record which is often remarkable, full of hooks and possessed of as distinctive a sense of voice as any philosopher, theorist or author. That the wonderful people at YourShelf have also produced an accompanying text that is described as “part diary, part poetry…[a] collection of Rebecca’s thoughts, lyrics, draft and notes” gives you a sense of how important the words are for an album where the messages are clear and necessary.

It’s not always an easy listen, either because of subject matter or sonic onslaught, but that is one of the key aspects of its brilliance. This is lived experience as songs, with noise required to convey the reality of being female in the music industry and, frankly, the world. “It happened lately, as I willed a sunset to go quickly, always thinking what next. Never have I just enjoyed the moment, happening right now. I’ve never known how,” Taylor sings on the album’s title track. The list of actions which follow, each accompanied by the refrain “That’s just for me” act as a clear statement of making decisions based on their personal merit rather than in the context of the expectations of the Male Gaze and how it can make people question their own free will.

The moment at which I knew this record was special was the first play of ‘I Do This All The Time’. It’s a truly incredible track to release to radio and as a preview of an album. The spoken word sections are laced with humour but delivered with pure intent. The mix of monologue and emphatic, euphoric, BIG pop chorus is genius. That melodic expertise is right across ‘Prioritise Pleasure’ – try and listen to ‘Fucking Wizardry’ only one – and it makes these songs far easier to listen to than one suspects their inspirations were to live through.

1. Villagers ‘Fever Dreams’

Despite our hopes in January, 2021 proved to be another year which necessitated some musical comfort blankets. Most luxurious of all was Villagers’ majestic album ‘Fever Dreams’. Last year’s tenth anniversary vinyl release of Villagers’ debut, ‘Becoming A Jackal’, made all the more stark the evolution of Conor O’Brien’s songwriting. Its indie-folk charms remain bewitching, but the inventive, hook-laden and soulful incarnation that took shape with 2018’s ‘The Art Of Pretending To Swim’ is fully realised on ‘Fever Dreams’. Having pushed in a more electronic direction with that previous record, using samples and programmed beats, this set of songs found their groove at the hands of his band.

Recorded in the year preceding the original lockdown and then manipulated in those strange months that followed, this is an album of release which attempts to turn away from relentless, oppressive digital connectivity. Early single ‘The First Day’ builds and builds, serving as a hymn to opportunity and a confident statement of intent. ‘Full Faith In Providence’ offers a fragile contrast, guest vocalist Rachael Lavelle gradually weaving around O’Brien and a vintage piano, while the guitar parts on ‘Circles In The Firing Line’ land somewhere between Pavement and Graham Coxon at his most frenetic.

At seven minutes long, album highlight ‘So Simpatico’ gradually expands into a hypnotically beguiling meditation on devotion. Conor O’Brien’s underrated but genuinely remarkable voice has never sounded better than on this album, with this opulent track its highpoint. The effortless mid-paced early-Seventies soul rhythms are irresistible and the sax break – yes, it has a sax break – is a lyrical and affecting intervention, which then continues in the background as if to underline the explosive physical and mental impact of love. “Little did I know, you were here all the time,” repeats O’Brien on a track which manages to be enormous and enveloping without ever becoming bombastic. Tired minds, aching souls and the ever so slightly broken can find inspirational and uplifting balm right here.

Having always enjoyed Villagers’ releases, it was 2016’s acoustic reworking of moments from their catalogue for Domino’s short lived ‘Documents’ series – ‘Where Have You Been All My Life?’ – that elevated them in my affections. Suddenly, Conor O’Brien’s songwriting made much more sense and I wrote about it at that year’s end. I’ll never tire of recommending that album, which is an all-time favourite, and since that connection formed I have awaited each new release with genuine excitement. 2018’s ‘The Art Of Pretending To Swim’ was great but ‘Fever Dreams’ is very possibly Villagers’ most ambitious and endearing record to date. Essential.

Best of 2021: 15-6

The response to the first half of this list was both heartening and reassuring, so let’s go with the unprecedented step of trying to wrap the whole thing up pretty much on time. Without further ado, let’s cover another ten corkers:

15. Declan O’Rourke ‘Arrivals’

He was one of those names I was aware of but I couldn’t hum you one of his songs. I’d enjoyed his debut, Since Kyabram, which I reviewed for The Word back in 2004, but I hadn’t really kept an eye on what followed. This time around, it was a mention of O’Rourke’s new album in a piece about Paul Weller. The latter was in the producer’s chair and this seemed to suggest it might be worth sampling. Not long into ‘In Painters’ Light’, the album’s opening track, I was hooked and it soon felt like there was a logical link between this and Weller’s 2018 pastoral delight, ‘True Meanings’.

While this record is exactly the sort of thing that pithy ‘also released’ review round-ups tag singer-songwriter and move on, there’s much more to it than O’Rourke’s weathered voice and acoustic guitar. Not that those two ingredients aren’t excellent, but when lyrics add “Johnny cooks a steak from Lidls on a Friday night” and “when you live by the weather every wind has a tail” it ensures you don’t treat ‘Arrivals’ as background music.

Sympathetic but understated strings mix with delicate organ parts as O’Rourke paints landscapes, toys with narratives and gets under the listener’s skin. Fans of the late, great Gavin Clark could find an echo of his masterful communication in these skilfully arranged tracks. A slow-burning delight, I’ve found myself returning to ‘Arrivals’ regularly as the year progressed. Give it time and attention and you may find yourself similarly smitten.

14. Spiers & Boden ‘Fallow Ground’

In the first half of this countdown, I mentioned by fondness for Hudson Records and their membership scheme. I first became aware of it because of the wonderful Bellowhead live release, ‘Reassembled’, which captured their December 2020 reunion livestream for posterity. But for my reluctance to include non-studio recordings in my list, it would have been amongst this company. Having had my love of that band rekindled, I was curious to know about this label I’d never heard of and to see what else they were responsible for releasing. I soon discovered that Spiers & Boden, the duo out of which the aforementioned band formed for live performance, had recorded their first new release in a decade. ‘Fallow Ground’ skews towards the more upbeat end of their sound, comprised mainly of John Spiers’ melodeon and Jon Boden’s fiddle.

While Boden’s voice is magnificent, one might best get a feel for this often euphoric record by sampling one of the original tracks, ‘The Fog’. The interplay between the pair is quite magical and, in this curious time of ours, the one gig I was lucky enough to attend this year was in support of this album. Watching their instinctive understanding of the music combined with their vivid delight about being able to bring it to life on stage has now been baked into my feelings around ‘Fallow Ground’. They are compelling hosts as well as striking musicians and a little of their passion even permeates the comprehensive sleeve notes which accompany each album, contextualising the pieces.

The record opens with an Australian folk song, ‘Bluey Brink’, which dramatically renders a story that includes sulphuric acid and a dog with the mange. ‘Giant’s Waltz / The Ironing Board Hornpipe’ merges a Boden piece and one by Spiers into a rather magnificent five minutes. As for some of the track names, to quote Spiers from that October night in Frome, “you’ve got to call them something.” The delayed but decent vinyl pressing is now out there and this will bring some light and joy to grim winter evenings ahead.

13. The Antlers ‘Solstice’

There are albums, dear reader, for which the first listen is a curious mix of emotions. Spacious, delicate and precise recordings can simultaneously wow one’s heart and make the brain flutter. The realisation that it is a keeper can be rapidly offset by a fear that the vinyl edition might not be much cop. After the less-than-stellar pressing afforded their 2014 delight, ‘Familiars’, the return of The Antlers was cause for such mixed emotions.

2011’s ‘Burst Apart’ is an album that everyone should own, offering a soulful, jazzy indie-Prince approach that still sounds sublime and suited the analogue realm perfectly. 2017’s ‘Impermanence’, a solo effort from beleaguered frontman Peter Silberman, was the product of him reframing his songwriting in light of debilitating tinnitus and revelled in the notion of quiet.

As a result, The Antlers’ ‘Gold To Green’ is similarly muted at points, although the lineage from ‘Familiars’ remains logical. The beautiful gatefold sleeve follows the colour scheme dictated by the record’s title and houses an excellent cut via Optimal. The lulling, enveloping build towards the end of ‘Volunteer’ will make you long for an overgrown field in which to mooch or laze, while the title track possesses the languid slinkiness that so impressed a decade ago. The standout is, arguably, ‘Solstice’ which chimes serenely despite a “wo-ah-woah” chorus that feels ever so slightly beset with anguish. Transgressive have delivered a pleasingly affordable, near-silent pressing that does justice to this mesmerising album. A very special band indeed.

12. Ed Dowie ‘The Obvious I’

Regular readers of my vinyl column will be aware of the consistently high quality of everything released so far by the Needle Mythology label. Catherine Anne Davies and Bernard Butler’s ‘In Memory Of My Feelings’ was in last year’s list and, once again, the label prevails with this tremendous record by Ed Dowie.

‘The Obvious I’ is both the second album by this artist and the second new release by a label more associated with reissues. When their boss, Pete Paphides, opts to put out something contemporary, it has to be pretty special. Richard Dawson-esque falsetto layers combine with chiming synth lines, most notably on the title track. Some of the harmonies, with a little reverb but much less than on his debut, evoke early Beta Band. That said, no matter which reference points are likely to hook you in, it’s worth giving this album a listen as there’s a good chance you’ll find yourself stumping up £20 soon thereafter.

The high quality artwork, Abbey Road cut and Vinyl Factory pressing combine to make an exquisite package for a tremendous album. The record’s lilting textures are utterly hypnotic and it’s a heartening reminder that exceptional editions can be done for very normal prices where there’s a will. In 2021, this level of care and attention seemed rarer than ever. Treat yourself to a copy.

11. Katherine Priddy ‘The Eternal Rocks Beneath’

I have written previously about Gideon Coe’s capacity to cost me money and this is yet another example of how I ended up buying an album within half an hour of tuning in to one of his consistently excellent evening shows on 6 Music. A national treasure who is soon to mark 20 years on the station (let’s hope he continues to evade the tendency to tinker with the schedule that has become evident of late), his musical taste marries up with mine phenomenally often. The second I heard ‘Letter From A Travelling Man’, I was hooked and ‘The Eternal Rocks Beneath’ had been ordered within minutes.

Priddy, signed to thoroughly dependable British folk label Navigator, has delivered a remarkably accomplished debut which works perfectly as a complete album but is unconcerned about genre constraints. These songs head off in numerous different directions, all linked by her lyrical vocals. ‘Wolf’, ‘About Rosie’ and ‘Eurydice’ are all beguiling, the first galloping like the animated end of Marling’s catalogue, the second a slowly unfurling, plucked narrative piece and the latter varies the delivery, textures and subject matter, with a nod to Greek mythology.

While there are references to luminaries and methodologies from folk history, this is a decidedly contemporary record and marks out a singular talent offering a distinctive and captivating approach. There are plans for vinyl in the year to come, but don’t wait. While the album does make you excited for what might be ahead for Priddy, there’s more than enough here with which to already be thoroughly delighted. Rosemary would, indeed, be proud. 

10. Jon Boden ‘Last Mile Home’

Rare are the times when an artist makes it into my countdown twice, but the Spires-less Boden is here with the third and final part of a trilogy of records centred around our awareness of and reaction (or lack thereof) to climate change. For these albums, Boden prioritises the guitar over his more usual fiddle and the tracks are all originals. While it’s undeniable that certain aspects of the arrangements pull from the folk tradition that he explores elsewhere, these songs are rather more conventional in a modern context.

The light touches of field recordings, natural sounds and even wax cylinder noise ensure a distance sonic landscape but all of this would be worth little without excellent songwriting. ‘Honeysuckle Halo’ is an obvious entry point, with its emphatic chorus and slightly gnarly vocal production. ‘Lay My Body Down’ is sublime, a chiming, plucked introduction setting a sparse scene for a song which makes peace with ageing and the natural world whilst also seeming to raise questions about our collective willingness to accept the current circumstances.

The imagery is vivid throughout and Boden’s vocals are wonderfully intimate. It’s worth subscribing to Hudson Club to be able to access an archived launch event for the record, a film which captures the often transcendent beauty of musicians delivering a performance as lyrical as the words which sit atop. There’s plenty more in his catalogue to delight, but ‘Last Mile Home’ is a fine way in.

9. The Anchoress ‘The Art Of Losing’

Catherine Anne Davies found her music subject to a variety of hold-ups in recent years. First came the fantastic collaboration with Bernard Butler which I mentioned earlier that was finally retrieved from the shelf by the Needle Mythology label in 2020 to justified acclaim, while her second album as The Anchoress was delayed as a consequence of the pandemic and only emerged in March of 2021. From its striking cover art onwards, it is a stunning achievement which tackles grief in a way that doesn’t seek to protect or insulate the listener. The confrontation and resultant catharsis are part of its power.

The synth-driven title track’s deliberate juxtaposition of a poppy “do-do-do-do-do” refrain against lyrics like “do you want the marks to prove that you do matter more than he says” is just one example of intricate craft and unrestrained artistry at play. The self-production is entirely fitting for such an honest record and the attention to detail is well-served across an excellent Optimal double vinyl pressing.

This is especially important in the album’s latter stages when the arrangements are more sparse, most notably on the truly remarkable ‘5am’ which would only be spoilt by a precis of its message here. Seek it out, take in the meticulous sleeve notes and just listen. A special CD edition is coming in the spring and it’s well worth keeping an eye on The Anchoress’ mercy page for all sorts of special physical releases and Bandcamp Friday exclusives. A unique artist in the form of her life, ‘The Art Of Losing’ will likely be a springboard to even more remarkable music.

8. The Weather Station ‘Ignorance’

Around Christmas time 2020, several publications were getting very excited about the imminent release of this record. While previous records were there to be heard, it was clear that ‘Ignorance’ was a step on. Tamara Lindeman, who wrote and produced the album, leads this Canadian band which has hitherto delivered endearing but conventional folk music. No bad thing, of course, but this wasn’t what had gone before.

From opener ‘Robber’ – which evokes the sonic palette of Bowie’s ‘Blackstar’ album – onwards, it’s evident that their sound has evolved. Programmed beats and synths are woven into these songs, making for a hypnotically propulsive record about heartache. Honestly, that opener is one of the very finest songs of 2021, with a heightened saxophone solo towards the end that is visceral. ‘Atlantic’ sustains the pace, with further skittering drums and majestically melodic textures.

‘Parking Lot’ does nod more clearly to the world of classic pop rock, mirroring Sunflower Beam’s modern Mac style, but ‘Separated’ is another twitching, intense corker. The frenetic energy which radiates from ‘Ignorance’ is channeled into meticulously crafted songs which are much more hooky than may seem obvious from an initial listen. There are quieter moments, most notably the stately, stirring procession of ‘Trust’, with Lindeman’s voice deployed superbly. Sadly, my experience with the vinyl pressing wasn’t great, but there might be good ones out there for the patient. Well worth the effort, regardless.

7. Loney Dear ‘A Lantern And A Bell’

While Emil Svanängen’s stage moniker Loney Dear may not quite be a household name, those who have encountered him in the past rarely forget his work. A run of gorgeous records during the Noughties – ‘Citadel Band’, ‘Sologne’, ‘Loney, Noir’ and, most notably, ‘Dear John’ – ensured he was one of those artists you heard playing in your local indie store and ended up buying as a result. His distinctive, deceptively nimble vocals can hold an audience in the moment and escape the speakers with a magnetism that is hard to define and harder to resist.

Having label-hopped during his first decade as an artist, Svanängen arrived at Peter Gabriel’s Real World imprint for 2017’s self-titled outing and has delivered what might well be a career best in ‘A Lantern And A Bell’. A near-silent cut through Optimal, mercifully given the music in those grooves, it has been no stranger to my turntable throughout 2021.

‘Mute / All Things Pass’ and ‘Trifles’ both explore tone and intensity to great effect while the plangent tip-toe tune of ‘Go Easy On Me Now’ is accompanied by a staggeringly direct vocal performance that must be heard. Any format will suffice for such magnificent music, but the vinyl has been done very well indeed considering the beautiful nature of the recording. With each listen, I think I love this album a little more. Everyone I’ve recommended it to has said something similar, so I suspect it’s a fairly risk free purchase.

6. Lump ‘Animal’

On their 2018 debut record as Lump, Mike Lindsay and Laura Marling demonstrated a promising interplay over a small but appealing collection of songs. It arrived with minimal fanfare, charmed pretty much all who heard it and then normal business for each resumed. Lindsay’s Tunng put out the magnificent ‘Songs You Make At Night’ followed by a multi-media project about death. Marling released 2020’s early-lockdown surprise ‘Songs For Our Daughter’, one of her very best.

And yet, Lump returns and this time it feels more substantial, built around a cohesive and beguiling body of work. The methodology, as Marling again intones over the final moments, remains the same: Lindsay conjures soundscapes ready for some lyrical and melodic inspiration to strike his collaborator. That it works this well speaks to the magic of what the project does for each artist, Marling often sounding completely unlike she does on her solo records. The mantra of the title track is compelling if a little unsettling, while Metronomy fans will likely enjoy the burbling layers of ‘Paradise’. The woozy, wonky closer ‘Phantom Limb’ might well be their finest moment to date, but there’s plenty to choose from here.

There are several vinyl editions available, including a deluxe set with extra art and a die-cut sleeve. Thankfully the disc in that edition is black and largely silent, although for the column around the time of release I sampled the indies exclusive edition which looks like someone dropped a dollop of wet plaster into an aquarium. ‘Turquoise and white swirl’ apparently, and presumably linked to the artwork. Cut by Barry Grint at Alchemy and pressed at Optimal, the sonics are excellent but best enjoyed via the slightly more costly deluxe version. Largely and inexplicably overlooked in end of year lists, ‘Animal’ marks Lump out as much more than a casual side project.

Best of 2021: 30-16

Having taken thirteen months to complete the 2020 list, I thought it was best to opt for the shorter format which I’ve used on a few occasions here. Some of the very kind folk who keep a casual eye on my turntable shots and occasional grumbling about pressing plants on Twitter insist that these countdowns are helpful, so here we go. Obviously, it’s my perception of what is best, but I think that’s fairly glaringly obvious, right? In most cases, I’ve cannibalised previous comments I’ve made on these records during my monthly column for Clash Magazine, also entitled ‘Just Played’. If any of these take your fancy, it would be especially splendid if you were then able to purchase them via one of the nation’s many, fabulous independent record shops. They’ve not had an easy year of it and who knows how many of these I might not have ended up loving without them? Ok, enough preamble – let’s get on with it.

30. Flock Of Dimes ‘Head Of Roses’

Early in the year came the latest solo offering from Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner under the Flock of Dimes moniker, which is some leap from that project’s debut, 2016’s ‘If You See Me, Say Yes’. Indeed, ‘Head Of Roses’ is many things all at once, ranging from autumnal folk to glitchy electronica. Compare the psych-rock of ‘Price Of Blue’ with the indie-funk of ‘One More Hour’ to get a sense of what awaits. The striking gatefold contains a nuanced and involving Optimal pressing that opens up nicely with some volume. It has stayed there with me throughout the year and its textures suit this time of year rather well.

29. Sons Of Kemet ‘Black To The Future’

Those who purchase plenty of vinyl become accustomed to certain signs that they’re in for a treat. A poly-lined inner, a tip-on sleeve or Kevin Gray’s initials next to the matrix info can all bode well. The size of the deadwax is also of interest – too little and the worries about inner groove distortion are significant and normally well-founded, too much and you’re wondering why they’ve not used the full space available. Some were a little concerned at reasonably substantial runout grooves on the four sides of the new Sons Of Kemet album, ‘Black To The Future’, but they simply tell the tale of a dynamic, meticulous and utterly captivating cut. Sterling Sound in the US produced the lacquer and Pallas in Germany delivered this impeccable pressing.

The band’s fourth album has already been justifiably lauded, making greater use of guest voices to amplify messages about the state of the world while still delivering sax riffs to which resistance is futile. Oh, and aesthetes will be delighted to learn that it has the classic Impulse spine design too. When so many are making do, ‘Black To The Future’ demonstrates what this beloved format can still achieve.

28. Floating Points / Pharaoh Saunders / The London Symphony Orchestra ‘Promises’

From the moment this collaboration was announced, managing expectations was always going to prove tricky. However, the label Luaka Bop knew that no such dampening was needed as ‘Promises’ is unlikely to disappoint anyone who spends some time in its company. A spiritual, hypnotic and entirely immersive piece spread over nine movements, the vinyl mastering by Chris Bellman is absolutely on the money. Sadly, the pressing were all over the place and a little time spent browsing this album’s page on Discogs will reveal some of the anguish the label have been through. Perhaps buy the CD of this one.

27. The Coral ‘Coral Island’

Three years on from 2018’s unconvincing ‘Move Through The Dawn’, The Coral have returned with possibly their finest release to date. ‘Coral Island’ is loosely themed around different seasons in a seaside location, songs woven together by spoken language excerpts from a work of fiction entitled ‘Over Coral Island’, written by the band’s keyboard player, Nick Power. Such stitching is atmospheric but don’t go thinking this is some impenetrable concept album.

The 2LP set, pressed at Takt in Poland and silent other than a couple of slightly noisy run-in grooves, sounds fulsome and maintains decent separation during the jubilant jangle of ebullient highlights ‘Change Your Mind’ and ‘Take Me Back To The Summertime’. There are nods to the frenetic psych of their early output alongside more melancholic mid-paced treats like ‘Strange Illusions’. James Skelly’s voice only seems to be improving with age and such is the quality of the songwriting that a double album at this stage in their career is most welcome.

26. Field Music ‘Flat White Moon’

It’s fair to assert that Field Music don’t make bad albums, but it’s still worth highlighting the considerable quality of their latest, ‘Flat White Moon’. Shimmering opening track ‘Orion From The Street’ features cascading piano lines which array themselves in the soundstage before you, wider percussive aspects framing a sensory carnival. The detail is taken very seriously indeed and it’s noticeable just how alive the bass and acoustic guitar sound across the whole record.

‘Not When You’re In Love’ comes on like ‘I Am The Black Gold Of The Sun’ before frenetic percussion makes full use of the stereo spectrum. The Brewis brothers’ consistently inventive capacity for building an angular musical landscape is remarkable and the clear, near silent vinyl Optimal cut that I’ve played often this year is a joy to experience.

25. Jarvis Cocker ‘Chansons D’Ennui’

After the recent work as Jarv Is, it is something of a surprise to listen to Jarvis Cocker’scollection of sweeping French language covers inspired by his audio role in Wes Anderson’s ‘The French Dispatch’. Together the musician and the filmmaker assembled a selection of vintage pieces for Cocker’s ‘Tip Top’ persona to lovingly record. The production of ‘Chansons d’Ennui Tip-Top’ is excellent, evoking a little of the vintage psychedelic sheen favoured by Matt Berry. Whether it’s the fuzzy knees up of ‘Les Gens Sont Fous, Les Temps Sont Flous’ or the stately duet with Laetitia Sadier ‘Paroles, Paroles’ that hook you in, the whole set works incredibly well and goes far beyond mere pastiche.

Cocker’s breathy vocals are as varied as they have been in many years and the instrumentation is vivacious and emphatic. Mastered and cut by John Davis at Metropolis, the vinyl sounds excellent, if slightly sibilant on the aforementioned duet. The copy I received for a Clash review looks to be a US pressing, likely to be through RTI, although it would seem Takt have also manufactured some copies for the EU so be careful!

24. Tindersticks ‘Distractions’

The continuing creative urge at the core of Tindersticks is a regular delight, resulting in some additional late period delights since the 2008 re-boot with ‘The Hungry Saw’. Anyone who purchased their previous album, ‘No Treasure But Hope’, on vinyl will likely be a little trepidatious this time after widespread issues with noise plagued rather delicate music. Fear not, however, as ‘Distractions’ is a very well cut and splendidly pressed affair via Optimal. Take care removing it from the potentially problematic paper inner and give it a clean if circumstances permit so as to ensure the quietest possible background for these seven glorious songs.

Opener ‘Man Alone (Can’t Stop The Fadin’)’ may be eleven minutes long but it doesn’t feel like its sprawling or noodly, instead proving oddly confrontational at times and robustly hypnotic. It’s hardly standard fare and a very fine statement of intent. As with the rest of the record, rhythm is tight and engaging while the vocal sound sits naturally in the room rather than pulling you back to the speakers. Most definitely safe to proceed.

23. Dry Cleaning ‘New Long Leg’

4AD’s strike rate continues to impress, with these London post-punk types and their debut album ‘New Long Leg’. The musical interplay between the four piece is joyfully energising and they were poorly served by having this moment in the spotlight while the nation’s venues remain closed and quiet. Seek out video of recent KEXP performances to get a sense of how this band work together and this will also add a little extra valuable context before embracing the album fully. Florence Shaw’s mostly monotone, wry spoken words often paint enigmatic fragments, mixing found phrases with a poetry of everyday life.

The indie-stores-only yellow vinyl cut via Optimal does a decent job of keeping Shaw out of the space of the pulsing rhythm section. So distinctive is the delivery that it can take a few listens to really identify the varied approaches being taken by guitarist Tom Dowse, bassist Lewis Maynard and drummer Nick Buxton. The comparisons with Wire and Magazine make sense, but there’s plenty of genre-hopping going on and closer ‘Every Day Carry’ possesses some of the spectral poise of Mogwai. A quick nod to the label for very reasonable pricing on this one too.

22. Knomad Spock ‘Winter Of Discontent’

Within seconds of hearing Knomad Spock’s voice, it’s pretty clear that you’re listening to something pretty special. The delicate, intimate tone has a definite folk feel but the songs on his debut record, ‘Winter Of Discontent’, have a palpable jazz sensibility in their use of space and the presence of the drums. Their skittering presence on ‘Egypt’ is utterly beguiling and, as one might expect from an artist who is also a poet and rapper, the words assert themselves in very deliberate locations also.

Get in quick for one from the hand-numbered initial pressing of 250 copies on Hinterland Creative, which features a separate lyric sheet and a selection of black and white photography to accompany the music. It’s a relatively quiet GZ cut which benefits from a little clean, but this music will cut through any distractions. One to watch, certainly, but also one to listen to right now.

21. Francis Lung ‘Miracle’

Discovering a record has been released by Memphis Industries gives it an automatic head start, such is the quality of that exemplary indie label. Francis Lung, the current stage name of Tom McClung formerly of Wu Lyf, unveiled his second solo album, ‘Miracle’, and it needed no such favours to warrant your attention. The most frequent point of comparison used for his music is Elliott Smith, which is undeniably fair, but there’s also hints of Big Star, Emitt Rhodes, Gorky’s and much, much more in this wonderful album. It takes a little time to grow on you, but the vintage singer-songwriter production is masterful and allows these songs to slowly lay siege to your waking hours. ‘Want 2 Want U’ is especially infectious, alongside already released teaser tracks like ‘Blondes Have More Fun’ and the harmonic charge of ‘Bad Hair Day’.

For the Clash column, I received the delightful Dinked edition with an alternative, mirror board sleeve, mint green vinyl and a bonus flexidisc. The song thereon, ‘Internet’, is a beauty which reflects upon our recent circumstances, but flexidiscs have never and will never sound great. The LP itself is an Optimal cut with only a little surface noise. Whichever version you can lay your hands on, be sure to seek it out.

20. Hamish Hawk ‘Heavy Elevator’

Regular listeners to 6 Music will be well aware of Hamish Hawk’s voice, his single ‘Calls To Tiree’ having been ever-present there in late summer. The parent album, ‘Heavy Elevator’, found its vinyl edition caught in the general delays and it finally arrived at the end of October. Hawk’s wonderfully expansive baritone has predictably though understandably picked up some Scott Walker comparisons. Try the tremendously titled ‘This, Whatever It Is, Needs Improvements’ to understand where that link has come from.

But that’s not all Hawk does. Explore the tremendous chorus of recent single ‘The Mauritian Badminton Doubles Champion, 1973’, the slightly manic Editors energy of ‘Caterpillar’ or the mid-paced glinting of ‘Daggers’. A compelling, autobiographical collection, it’s an album which repays repeated listens. The vinyl edition sounds pretty solid, a GZ pressing through Assai. I was sent the spangly Dinked edition for review, which was clear with black splatter. Playback was largely quiet after a clean, so it is possible for a record to look and sound nice at the same time. Regular readers of my writing here, there and everywhere will know that this is something of a rarity.

19. Nick Cave & Warren Ellis ‘Carnage’

After several recent albums with the Bad Seeds which were unavoidably inseparable from context, the surprise arrival of ‘Carnage’ at the start of 2021 resulted in it falling a little below the radar. This was very possibly no bad thing as I found it to be a record which gradually crept up on me as the months progressed. Ominous strings and malevolent synths are prominent, with the creative tensions of recent times still present. The jarring explosion of opener ‘Hand Of God’ becomes more striking which each play, switching from physical shock to captivating artistic vision.

These are often beautiful songs, as much because of rather than in spite of the various textures deployed. The title track is captivating, with its curiously swaying percussion, while ‘White Elephant’ feels a little like a different, previous Nick making a return. Then there’s the elevating piano notes of ‘Albuquerque’, of which I suspect I will never tire. It’s a Takt pressing, just like the troublesome B-Sides box set, so you may have to try a few. I waited until a few weeks ago to pick mine up and it’s pretty quiet, so there may be a fresh, better batch out there now.

18. Arlo Parks ‘Collapsed In Sunbeams’

The long-awaited debut album proper from Arlo Parks, ‘Collapsed In Sunbeams’, flew out on vinyl upon release at the end of January. It’s a wonderful pop-soul record with a powerful bottom end that needs a little taming for the analogue realm. Matt Colton at Metropolis has had a valiant effort, although the medium’s inherent tendency to blur heavy bass – often described as vinyl’s ‘warmth’ – means it still feels a little muddy at times.

I was sent the red pressing – although a picture disc was available for those who don’t play their records – done through GZ, which took a few cleans to tame the surface noise. While it’s not quite a perfect debut, the highs still soar with the year having passed. The tricky beat on ‘Hurt’ is magnificent, ‘Too Good’ somehow evokes the early Nineties (for some reason, the opening takes me to Shanice’s ‘I Love Your Smile’) with its emphatic chorus. More nuanced tracks like ‘Black Dog’ and ‘For Violet’ show that it’s not just all about the bangers. Not sure about the vinyl crackle effect on the latter, mind you.

17. Karine Polwart & Dave Milligan ‘Still As Your Sleeping’

The hopping across pavement slabs to avoid the cracks piano refrain which opens this album was enough to have me hooked. As the summer came to an end and my mood darkened a little, I found comfort in the often majestic music produced by the Hudson Records stable. Joining their ‘Hudson Club’ ensures immediate digital copies of all of their releases and so I became acquainted with this striking record. Scottish folk singer Polwart and pianist Milligan combine to offer an album which may be sparse but is far from sombre. Arranging several traditional tracks amongst more contemporary covers, Polwart’s beguiling delivery coheres the work of others with a number of new pieces into a very fine album.

‘The Path That Winds Before Us’, one of Polwart’s originals, has moved me to tears on several occasions. It is rare to hear voice and instrument quite so in-sync at they are on this particular track. If it does nothing for you, check for a pulse. ‘The Quiet Joys Of Brotherhood’ feels entirely in keeping with our impending climate catastrophe and if you, ahem, Do Look Up previous versions, you’ll find Pete Seeger and, most memorably, Sandy Denny have sung it previously. Milligan’s controlled intensity is especially noteworthy here. A decent vinyl pressing entered the world just before Christmas, should you be as smitten as I am.

16. Saint Etienne ‘I’ve Been Trying To Tell You’

Saint Etienne’s latest, ‘I’ve Been Trying To Tell You’, is something of a departure from their more recent releases, opting to fully submerge themselves in the bleary pop landscape of several decades ago. Using samples that populated daytime radio during the New Labour era, they paint watercolour washes of times gone by. A woozy, lulling capacity to both ensnare and slightly unsettle the listener makes for a unique record that gradually reveals its charms. The murky sample of Natalie Imbruglia’s ‘Beauty On The Fire’ which loops through ‘Pond House’ appears to be emitted from a submerged radio – fitting considering the source material’s original video – while elements of the Lighthouse Family and Tasmin Archer may not be quite so obvious to all. From the striking artwork on in, PVC sleeve aside, this is an aesthetic delight.

Demand coupled with the current pressing limitations met that, incredibly, different cuts were made via GZ, Optimal and Vinyl Factory. Having sampled the latter’s clear vinyl and Optimal’s black, this column would urge readers towards the second of those. The soundstage felt a little more controlled on that pressing and the clear version had a little bit more surface noise. Most striking, however, was the different space on each side used up, with Optimal favouring much more dead wax than The Vinyl Factory. Whichever variant attracts your cash, and there are a few, this record has true staying power. 

Part Two soon. Honest.

Best of 2020: Apologies For The Break In Transmission

Well, that was unfortunate, wasn’t it? On reflection, it was crazy to try and do a full length countdown last December. After the year we had all faced and juggling a proper job alongside various other writing, the time just wasn’t there. I stumbled on until 2020 was almost extinguished and then admitted defeat. Sadly, this left thirteen albums unaccounted for and the list jarringly incomplete.

With the intention to do a more lightweight format for the 2021 list, it seems only right to put to bed its predecessor, however briefly, before moving on. Forgive the brevity, but I’ll annotate as we go and see if I still agree with my views from twelve months ago. Epic level naval gazing, I know, but a few of you have asked so hopefully this will scratch that itch as well as allowing my completist urges to be sated.

13. Roisin Murphy – ‘Roisin Machine’ – A phenomenal record which feels like a collection of full length, heavy disco tracks pulled together into something seismic. Great sleeve too.

12. Douglas Dare – ‘Milkteeth’ – A record I took a little while to fall in love but for which I fell hard when it did click. It’s all about the purest, most remarkable vocal performances you’ve heard in some time. Mostly piano accompaniment. Fabulous artwork. Still holding up incredibly well despite the distance.

11. Kelly Lee Owens – ‘Inner Song’ – An absorbing album which necessitates the right conditions to click. Sadly, I never found a decent vinyl copy of it but the music itself is excellent. It has tremendous space in the cover of Radiohead’s ‘Arpeggi’, beguiling vocal layering for ‘On’ and shimmering phases to ‘Jeanette’.

10. James Dean Bradfield – ‘Even In Exile’ – Good old Jimbo. The piano work on this would go on to inform this year’s ‘The Ultra Vivid Lament’. With lyrics from a different Jones brother than in his day job (Patrick, Nicky’s older sibling) and a back story which helps to put it all in context, this felt a little like a trip through the sensational guitarist’s record collection. I did a lengthy review for Clash, if you’d like to know more.

9. Matt Berninger – ‘Serpentine Prison’ – A gorgeous album which has aged almost as well as Berlinger himself. While it’s obviously ‘the bloke from The National’, he opts to use his voice in different ways. Early lyric “my eyes are t-shirts, they’re so easy to read” had me and tracks like ‘One More Second’, ‘Silver Springs’ and ‘All For Nothing’ beautifully highlight the influence of Booker T. Jones as producer. Check out the deluxe edition tracks too, especially for the sensational version of ‘Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye’. Vinyl roulette required for GZ discs, but a stunning record. Should have been higher, on reflection.

8. Alabaster DePlume – ‘To Cy And Lee: Instrumentals Vol 1′ – Technically a compilation of sorts, but it works splendidly as body of work. Released by the always excellent International Anthem and available as a Pallas pressed vinyl edition, this music is remarkably lyrical for something with no words. A hugely eloquent saxophonist and inspired arranger, DePlume’s work here is stirring and often transcendent. Everyone I’ve ever recommended it to seems to love it, so you may as well join the club if you haven’t done so already. ‘Whisky Story Time’ or opener ‘Visit Croatia’ should suffice at winning you over.

7. Sault – ‘Untitled (Rise)’ – The second of two flat out fantastic albums delivered by elusive soul collective Sault in 2020. In the context of lockdowns, limited socialising and a shuttered music scene, instant and unexpected releases took on a whole extra layer of meaning and impact. Having become known for their genre-melding approach, it was no surprise to find electro soul, pure disco, wide-panned Brazilian percussion, squelchy funk and much more besides in this potent collection of songs. They reflect on ‘Scary Times’ before finishing on the shuffling majesty of ‘Little Boy’, which offers some hope in resilience.

6. Wilma Archer – ‘A Western Circular’ – Early in the first lockdown, BBC 6 Music adjusted its schedules to reduce the number of people in the studios each day. The biggest perk from all of this was the decision to extend Gilles Peterson’s imperious Saturday afternoon slot to four hours. It broadened his playlist even further and established a fierce bond with those listening in very dark times. His approach was so very human and his subsequent book collecting much of his work in those times is deeply affecting. One of the records I discovered thanks to him championing it during those broadcasts was ‘A Western Circular’. A new moniker for Will Archer, who had previously traded as the rather less appealing Slime, this is spacious, righteous, epic soul and more. Instrumental when it needs to be, elevated by guest appearances at other times, it’s a potent, commanding listen. The late MF Doom leads on ‘Last Sniff’, while Future Islands’ Samuel T Herring delivers understated beauty on ‘The Boon’ and ‘Decades’. The standout, though, is ‘Cheater’ which features Sudan Archives. Nimble but insistent, it is glorious. A great, somewhat underrated release from last year.

5. Fiona Apple – ‘Fetch The Bolt Cutters’ – If I’m honest, I’ve not been back to this one very much in 2021, despite being wowed by it at the time of release. One of many albums to appear digitally before we could get our hands on a physical copy, it seemed to draw the majority of online discourse into its orbit for a few days. The Waitsian percussion and raw piano is what most cut through with me, although the lyrics – helpfully and sensibly given their own booklet in the vinyl edition – are remarkable. The scale of the drums and the visceral thud of the piano on ‘Under The Table’ still delights and there’s so much happening across these thirteen tracks. It was the album that prompted some of the best music writing of that year and these two pieces from Laura Snapes and Jenn Pelly are worth reading if you haven’t already done so.

4. Alice Boman – ‘Dream On’ – A quietly haunting, woozily hypnotic record which had already charmed me prior to the start of end times, ‘Dream On’ suddenly became a balm during those early months of trying to figure out what the fuck was going on. There are hints of Stereolab and Broadcast in here, along with the Cocteaus and Aldous Harding also in the mix. It seemed to perfectly capture the isolation and emotional claustrophobia that we were facing, despite existing before it had all happened. I watched a recent interview with Damon Albarn in which he argued, in typically lackadaisically mystical fashion, that artists often write about things before they happen as they are channeling events around them. However much one might chose to buy into that, ‘Dream On’ is incredible and its reverb-heavy, funereal pace mixed with heart-melting beauty and timeless reference points make it a very special album indeed. While many missed it, every time I mentioned it online it prompted comments from those who had fallen hard for ‘Dream On’. ‘Wish We Had More Time’ and ‘The More I Cry’ will give you the idea, but 2020 in a record would probably be this.

3. Laura Marling – ‘Song For Our Daughter’ – I will never not be slightly in awe at how many incredible records Laura Marling had released before she turned 30. She continued the trend with the first release of her fourth decade, which was another album contextualised by lockdown. Released five days after Marling announced its existence, having opted for a revised approach once it became clear that the pandemic might be sticking around (oh, how little we knew), it was digital only for a few months. After the poise and drama of ‘Semper Femina’, this was different. In some respects, it feels a little like Marling flexing all of her many styles in one stunningly concise document. Her vocal seems to pull away from the tired rhythm of ‘Held Down’, while ‘Strange Girl’ picks up some of the playful, jazzy shuffle from ‘A Creature I Don’t Know’. The orchestral delicacy of ‘Blow By Blow’ is strikingly, sincerely beautiful. Closer ‘For You’ points elsewhere, though we probably shouldn’t be foolish enough to try and predict where Marling will head next.

2. Sault – ‘Untitled (Black Is)’ – To return to that Saturday afternoon lifeline provided by Gilles Peterson, it was the very first week that he returned to his 3pm start that he decided to play an album in its entirety. His social channels had captured the excitement around a new release he had received early that morning, which would turn out to be Sault’s third studio record, but it wasn’t until he got on air that afternoon that you knew you were going to be part of something. Who knows how many of us were on their Bandcamp page for its release the following Friday as a result of this infectious enthusiast, but here was a crossing of the platforms as old and new coalesced thanks to the urgency, potency and immediacy of these songs. Pandemic politics and the destructive rapidity of populism has accelerated news cycles to the point where it might seem like a reach to draw the mind back to events of the summer of 2020, but from the closing section of opener ‘Out The Lies’ this felt like a righteous commentary that expected the listener to keep up. While the wonderful, genre-bending soul-centred mix of sounds I mentioned above is present here too, this record was so much more than just a collection of songs.

1. Taylor Swift – ‘folklore’ – It might seem a little jarring to have another record above one which so vividly represented a moment in time, but no album came close to the presence ‘folklore’ had in my 2020. Released with almost no warning just as I was concluding a week away in Wales in the early stages of lockdown easing, my first listen was early on that Friday with the Pembrokeshire skyline to accompany it. Like so many of the titles I have written about above, it seemed so of the moment, so implicitly of 2020 that it resonated in ways it took me a long time to identify. The involvement of The National’s Aaron Dessner clearly played its part, with aspects of this album feeling of a kind with so much of my favourite of 2019, his band’s ‘I Am Easy To Find‘. Swift’s gift as a songwriter is surely her capacity for concise but intricately painted narratives. Lines like “the wedding was charming if a little gauche, there’s only so far new money goes,” in ‘The Last Great American Dynasty’ lodged quickly, amongst fantastic key changes and the perfect drop out at 2:48 before returning for a soaring conclusion. The understated piano and strings of ‘Seven’ are naggingly seductive, making it a song that never seems like a standout only to suddenly switch to firm favourite status after half a dozen plays. Despite a shoddy vinyl pressing, it’s an album to which I have returned a great deal in 2021. No doubt, ‘evermore’ would have been in here somewhere too had it been released a little earlier and I tend to think of them as a piece. However, ‘folklore’ is the superior record to these ears and, in a year of unique albums, it still feels like something that will have indestructible longevity.

Best of 2020: 14. This Is The Kit ‘Off Off On’

I’ll admit that it took Kate Stables’ run off performances last year with The National, following her appearance on their 2019 masterpiece ‘I Am Easy To Find‘, to make me fully realise how fond I am of her work as This Is The Kit. In particular, 2017’s ‘Moonshine Freeze‘ was a record that had slowly grown on me with its approach to melody, but a new producer and vocal sound for ‘Off Off On‘ ensured it became a firm favourite almost immediately. 

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Anyone who spent even a brief amount of 2020 in the company of 6 Music will know ‘This Is What You Did‘, but this is really not all that representative of the album as a whole. Opener ‘Found Out’ does share some of the gnarly, whirly plucking of that first single, but ‘Started Again’ is a wonderfully metronomic yet woozy drift across a misty landscape. ‘No Such Thing’ was compared to Tortoise in the press release and this link certainly holds up in terms of the deliciously hiccuping drum patterns deployed. It also has a chorus which focuses as much on the sound of its words as the words themselves, with a drawn out delivery of “I do not see that; why should I see that? Why should that be? I did not say that; why would I say that? That would not be.”

A similarly musical approach to the lyrics is taken on the title track, reflecting on a friend’s serious illness and the hospital visits prior to his passing. The pattern of the words “Off Off On” are given weight by the neighbouring phrases such as, “Breathe out. Breathe in, but breathe out. Both ways, you’re leaving.” The syllabic echoes and the lulling delivery combine to capture those moments remarkably. 

The laconic swagger of ‘Was Magician’ saw it recently elevated to ‘single’ status with an intriguing narrative drawing on influences across literary fiction and musical contemporaries, while ‘Slider’ is a magnificently soulful piece which slowly intensifies until a saxophone solo from Lorenzo Prati somehow picks up where Stables’ words left off. It’s a hugely textured record which sounds confident and perfectly sculpted. There’s a Simon Armitage comment about poetry that I especially love which I think is pertinent when considering This Is The Kit’s approach to lyrics this time around:

“Prose fills a space, like a liquid poured in from the top, but poetry occupies it, arrays itself in formation, sets up camp and refuses to budge.”

***

Having expressed my fondness for the record, I then had the pleasure of conducting a lengthy Zoom chat for a piece that ran on the Clash website back in October. To add a little context, I’ve included some excerpts below: 

You have a different producer this time around, Josh Kaufman, and would it be fair to say that the vocal sound is pretty different for you?

I’m someone that always makes a fuss about reverb but Josh, god bless him, put his foot down. There are less effects than there were – we sort of came to a compromise – but I’m really pleased that he insisted because it makes it different. I think my main problem with reverb is that at a gig, when the sound engineer doesn’t know your music, they just decide to put loads on because you’re a female. That’s where my reflex against reverb comes from, but when it’s used carefully and thoughtfully it’s obviously a really great tool. 

On ‘No Such Thing’ from the new album, aspects of the delivery sound almost like a vocal going down some stairs with the angular way the notes are drawn out. There’s also a counterpoint on ‘Start Again’ with two distinct, simultaneous parts.  Is experimenting with your voice something that excites you?

I really like messing around with vocals and with the rhythm of them and I’m really fussy about harmonies. Un-thought out harmonies annoy me, so I’m quite fussy about which ones get used. Luckily, Rozi [Plain] and Jamie [Whitby], who do the backing vocals in This is The Kit are really good; they come up with things I like. I really enjoy it when people aren’t singing the same words: the kind of cacophonous effect. Also, part of it is because it’s fun to set me, Jamie and Rozi the challenge of then doing that live. It takes quite a lot of training sometimes for us to be doing one thing and then trying to do another on top – we try and make it as difficult for ourselves as possible. Sort of brain gymnastics trying to ward off the Alzheimer’s. 

How did you arrive at the album name ‘Off Off On’? Is it something about the title track that elevates it to being used for the whole record or is there another reason?

There’s this thing I have with words, just what it feels like when you say them. Sometimes that’s all you need to decide, the feel of words in your mouth, and I guess I’m a little bit drawn to things that are, not tongue-twistery, but just have that sensation. I just enjoy saying Off Off On and I find it funny when I have to introduce a song and say “this is a song on ‘Off Off On’” and I find it funny saying “this is a song off of ‘Off Off On’,” you know. It’s just me getting my own kicks, really. Don’t know if I should be owning up to this!

It’s as good a reason as any! The lyrics of the title track involve lots of mirrored phrases – such as “breathe out, breathe in, but breathe out / both ways, you’re leaving, both ways” – and clustered syllables. Is the sound of the words as important as the words themselves? 

For me, it’s such an instrument, the English language. Well, any language, but the English language is the language that I have learned. It’s a musical instrument, language, and it’s really fun to play with it and to make sounds with it.

I notice I’m not the only one to detect a jazz sensibility in this record. Was that a further aspect of changing your sound?

I think it just happened by accident; it’s just a kind of weird alchemy or chemistry between the people in the room at the time. I feel like there’s probably one particular track that gets people’s jazz radars going called ‘Slider’, because we got our friend Lorenzo Prati, who’s a really amazing musician, to play sax over it, all the way through. 

We were all just sat there in the room, not listening to the track, just listening to his saxophone playing and it was amazing. It was so important for me that we kept as much of that as possible. It was incredible being in that room and we were all totally silent, because there was no separation, no booth or anything. Maybe that track flags up a bit of jazz, or just the horns in general, I guess. Having horns just nudges you a bit closer to jazz. But not in a bad way – I’m happy that people hear that in it.

 ‘Was Magician’ is at least partly inspired by Ursula Le Guin. How was your reading over lockdown? Plenty of people said they found it hard to concentrate.

Mainly I couldn’t read, but then I had about a week or two where I could only read or I had to be existing in a book rather than in reality. I could only read Ursula Le Guin! I couldn’t read anything else. She’s written so many books that there’s still stuff I haven’t read. It was familiar in that it was her voice, but in stories that were new to me.

Buy ‘Off Off On’ from Crash Records

Best of 2020: 15. Phoebe Bridgers ‘Punisher’

It’s possible I’ve overplayed it. It might be the numerous, useless vinyl pressings I tried or the not especially great sounding CD copy I resorted to after abandoning the turntable. It might just be a little too much during these incredibly bleak times. Whatever the reason, ‘Punisher’ has slipped down my list somewhat in the last month or two. When I first heard ‘Kyoto’, I found it hard to imagine the album not being in my top 5 come the end of the year. I know, who thinks like that? Well, me. And possibly you, given you’re reading an in-depth countdown of the albums of 2020 according to one, not especially punctual, bloke and his natty but underused blog. It is a blistering song and one of the finest of this year, from the swift interjection of the drums and jagged guitar over the noodly background through to its standing-strong-in-the-face-of-a-gale start to the chorus. The long horn section, the slow bits as it descends back to the verses and the gradual additional layers as it progresses all make for a song that can be played at least a dozen times in a row without even vaguely grating.

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‘Garden Song’ is a track which makes plenty of writers get the ‘ethereal’ twitch. It is one of the great cliches of music writing and vastly overused, meaning that most of us run for the hills whenever it bubbles up from our subconscious, like ‘oeuvre’ and pissing ‘sophomore’. But I think that word probably does belong with ‘Garden Song’, given its constantly bubbling-under verses and its sort-of chorus. It’s the kind of song you need to be inside, without a sense of what is coming from the left and right speaker or headphone. When it swirls around you, it is meditative and remarkably personal.

The title track fits in with the largely sparse tone of the album despite feeling rather slight, while ‘Halloween’ continues in that fashion but possesses a nagging chorus. Its opening lyric “I hate living by the hospital, the sirens go all night” got rather mangled by the year’s events and I can’t hear it without thinking about a certain tweet I vividly recall from MSNBC broadcaster Katy Tur – who wrote an incredible account of Trump’s rise to power, ‘Unbelievable’ – describing New York’s horrific early days with the virus when she posted “The sirens seem worse than usual tonight.” It was distressingly simple, hugely emotive and a pithy encapsulation of where so many places were, had been or would be again. I know that’s not the song’s fault, but it’s forever attached in my mind.

The story in ‘Moon Song’ typifies the observational honesty of Bridgers’ writing, an aspect which aligns neatly with the media narrative around literary fiction of late. It takes a magnificent swipe at Eric Clapton and references a potentially entertaining row about John Lennon. ‘Savior Complex’ has a precise combination of strings and vocals that is arguably the most beautiful thing on ‘Punisher’, while the fever dream fairground shuffle that starts ‘I See You’ is a very special hook indeed. The knowingly epic conclusion of ‘I Know The End’ rubs me up the wrong way though.

Much of what I loved about her marvellous debut ‘Stranger In The Alps’ is present here, although the songwriting is clearly a step up and a more cohesive soundscape holds this record together more effectively than her debut. In some respects, ‘Punisher’ suffers slightly by meeting the very high expectations I had for it. It hasn’t exceeded them but it’s still a special record and one I’m sure will be well served by some distance from 2020.

Buy ‘Punisher’ from Banquet

Best of 2020: 16. Pet Shop Boys ‘ Hotspot’

The moment when it became clear to me that Chris Lowe was part of the choreographed dancing in the video for – one of the singles of the year – ‘Monkey Business’, was typical of the utterly unencumbered joy that this band can proffer. Their collective sense of humour is legendary, highlighted magnificently in the recently reissued Chris Heath tour biographies ‘Pet Shop Boys, Literally’ and ‘Pet Shop Boys Versus America’, as well as their glorious reissue sleeve notes and DVD commentaries. Neil Tennant’s love of words makes him an exquisite lyricist, whether dipping in to early totems like ‘It’s A Sin’ or 2016’s beautiful ‘The Pop Kids’.

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A new PSB album is always cause for excitement, although January felt like the least appropriate time to unveil a record containing ‘Will-O-The-Wisp’, ‘Happy People’ and faintly ludicrous closer ‘Wedding In Berlin’. As it happened, a combination of needing dependable delights in early lockdown and the beautified editions of those two superlative books landed ensured it was a pretty prominent soundtrack to the early summer months. The variety of tones and fluctuation between mid-paced wist and synthetic banger is magical, managing to meld the best aspects of a number of late-period Pet Shop Boys albums. The pure pop nous of ‘Yes’ is here, as is the precision programming of ‘Electric’, and the more measured inclinations of ‘Release’ and ‘Elysium’ make an appearance also. 

‘Happy People’ has trademark reverb-heavy talky verses, falsetto euphoria from the chorus and then a frenetic middle eight build before it signs off with what seems to be a warped loop of church bells foreshadowing the final track. Excuse me while I play it six more times before moving on. It tees up ‘Dreamland’, which features Years & Years’ Olly Alexander and was the first single release from the album. Tennant and Alexander’s voices meld effortlessly on a buoyant, polished pop track which focuses on refugees amongst some more conventional love song vocabulary.

‘Hoping For A Miracle’ and ‘You Are The One’ can both seem a little slight when doing your cursory flick around the new releases on a Friday morning via your preferred artist-screwing streaming platform. It’s remarkable how much your mood at that point can dramatically affect the chance a new release gets. After my initial listens, both left little mark and I will confess I was rueing the low-key to upbeat ratio somewhat. However, as is so often the case with Tennant and Lowe, subsequent listens presented them more favourably as part of the constructed patchwork of ‘Hotspot’. Given their attention to detail with so many things, it seems logical to still take the tracklists of PSB albums as part of the process too. 

All of which does rather raise the issue of what is going on with the aforementioned ‘Wedding In Berlin’? It struck me as having been appended to a distinct album, without really forming much of a link with what had come before. Built around a sample from Mendelssohn’s ‘TheWedding March’ that seems to cut off just before you’d anticipate and punning on the name of an area of Berlin called ‘Wedding’, it feels a little frothy and throwaway. Discovering, via their commentary in this year’s ‘Annually’ book, that it was actually an audio wedding present for a friend whose ceremony they could not attend and that producer Stuart Price believed a stylistically tweaked version could work in these sessions did add some helpful context. It makes me smile a lot more now than it did at first, but it’s still a moderately ludicrous ending to an album. But I wouldn’t change it, much as I wouldn’t change them. The creative freedom and refusal to worry too much about what is expected is central to their ongoing appeal. Long may that last. 

Buy ‘Hotspot’ from Five Rise Records

Best of 2020: 17. Cornershop ‘England Is A Garden’

It was heartening to see the love for this album just as winter was coming to an end. It’s a record that sounded like it could engineer some of the most collectively joyful moments at the summer festivals and which would fill the nation’s venues with a huge, warm presence. A lot of people seemed to remember just how good Cornershop are and ‘England Is A Garden’ was certainly helping with that understanding. In the end, while its capacity for communal delight remains on pause, it achieved something not entirely dissimilar as one of the early subjects of Tim’s Twitter Listening Party. It wasn’t quite the raucous affairs that have since developed but it was lovely to witness people getting acquainted with this wonderful set of songs.

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As someone who writes about vinyl a lot, I try to avoid the word warm. It is often deployed about the format, not necessarily incorrectly, with reference to the fact that – essentially – the inherent flaws in the nature of such a means of playback often round off the sound in an endearing and less clinical fashion than other media. But ‘England Is A Garden’ is warm in sound and in nature. Flutes, violins, synths and big, splashy drums abound across an album which was surely great fun to record. As is so often the case with Cornershop, most of these songs could go on forever and give the impression of being euphoric jams out of which have been carved infectious chunks of pop.

It works best listened to in its entirety, but so many of these tracks could enliven pretty much any playlist or compilation you should wish to assemble. ‘St Marie Under Canon’ is a strident, soulful opening with a naggingly emphatic organ part that is as central to the song’s brilliance as its thoroughly hummable chorus. ‘No Rock Save In Roll’ takes a similar tack, but fuzz guitar and sitar are the dominant instruments this time around. These two tracks sandwich the lilting, back of your trouser leg dragging on the floor behind you rhythm of ‘Slingshot’, which is contrasted with the lightest, most buoyant flute line dancing about overhead.

‘Highly Amplified’ has a giddily melodic flourish towards its conclusion, apparently because the lyrics were too short, while ‘Everywhere That Wog Army Roam’ is the catchiest song not to be played on the radio this year.  ‘I’m A Wooden Soldier’ is a repetitive bit of Bolan-esque glam with some Eighties computer game noises thrown in for a good measure while the title track offers a brief, instrumental interlude before ‘Cash Money’  seems to offer a slower take on the structure of ‘No Rock Save In Roll’.

The penultimate track, ‘One Uncareful Lady Owner’, is ridiculously catchy, with a Hanna-Barbera drum part,  sitar played after three bags of Skittles and a chorus that doesn’t so much win you over as somehow induce nostalgia for something you’ve never heard. It encapsulates in just under four minutes what is so great about this album. Cornershop have always defied convention with the structure of their albums and the length of some of their songs, but they do it from the position of constant melody. Hooks are their trade and, no matter where else they might wander en route, their songs are a true tonic.

Buy ‘England Is A Garden’ from Drift

Best of 2020: 18. Hen Ogledd ‘Free Humans’

As somebody who is pretty obsessed with music, I have a fairly constant internal jukebox which picks out little bits of melody here or whole songs there with which to occupy the flexible territory between conscious distractions and the sub-conscious. Yes, this includes standard earworms, of course, but I’ll sometimes transpose songs across genres and imagine unusual cover versions. I’ll blend similar hooks and blatant rip-offs, Jive Bunny style, into one big tune. It’s often noisy, mostly welcome and frequently becomes the menu for what I’ll listen to next. It is all the fun of music with none of the constraints. And that’s what ‘Free Humans’ sounds like to me.

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The second album from the now established four piece configuration of the band, ‘Free Humans’ is infectious, erratic and genuinely unique. Hen Ogledd combines the musical and vocal efforts of Dawn Bothwell, Rhodri Davies, Sally Pilkington and Richard Dawson, whose fabulous album ‘2020’ made it into last year’s list. It will, even with one listen, remind you of dozens of songs, bands and genres but only in a fleeting fashion for each. Recorded over only three days, it contains an almost insultingly high number of ideas and is instantly loveable. The synth pop singalong of ‘Trouble’, for which Bothwell takes the lead, has a charmingly route one call and response approach to hollering its title. Once you learn that it is also the name of Dawson and Pilkington’s cat, the lyrics “Trouble is the name of my shadow” and “draped around my shoulders, finery” take on a clearer meaning and the delivery of the song’s name is situated in context.

‘Crimson Star’ deploys Dawson’s really rather affecting falsetto for its chorus and, just as it did on his previous solo album, it wins me over unreservedly. The combination of accent, the limit of his range and the joyous build to that melody is one of the pure pop pleasures of this dour year. Telling the tale of a nostalgic intergalactic cruise ship singer, it conjures glorious imagery in lines like “over tarry seas, through meadows of verdant ruby goes flapping the shape of a memory,” that lingers long in that mental jukebox of mine.

While some songs are far more conventionally poppy than others, the less conventional and textured tracks worm their way further into your affections over time. Davies takes centre stage on ‘Remains’, where the hook is “Good evening, radio audience” and synth washes do battle with noodly guitar parts and chiming percussion. It doesn’t sound like much – or at least not like anything endearing – written down, but the repetitive final section has a transcendent quality to it. One of the great talents of this particular working group is their ability to ensnare the listener and then elevate the music slowly but surely to a point of genuine delight.

Each of these songs deserves a mini-essay of their own, such is the diverse nature of ‘Free Humans’. ‘Time Party’ briefly goes Scissor Sisters at one point – and is bloody great for it – and then, just as you’re enjoying that, it’s the fucking Pet Shop Boys. Honestly, I implore you to listen to this album and see what it does for you. It won’t please all comers, but be sure to give it your full attention before making any judgements.

Oh, and don’t miss ‘Flickering Lights‘. It commences with an instrumental passage played on a church organ that features the celebratory, gradual ascension present in much of their work, but which is much more pronounced when performed with such a particular signature. The lyrics that are then delicately intoned by Dawson are stunningly beautiful. I know I’m quite fond of a touch of hyperbole but this story of a bereaved partner continuing conversations and imagining a familiar presence has moved me to tears on more than one occasion. It is pure, it is poetry, it is perfect.

Buy ‘Free Humans’ from Banquet