BEST OF 2019: Part 3 – 5 – 1

Having finished this, it possibly requires even further splitting up but, hey, it’s January now and nobody needs another end of year list being drawn out any longer than is strictly necessary. Still, strap in for a lengthy explanation of my top five favourites from 2019. What a year for music!

  1. Weyes Blood – Titanic Rising [LISTEN]

Sometimes, an album just gradually takes over. You don’t expect it, you don’t realise how much you’re playing it and you suddenly twig that you know it inside out. The sweeping orchestral backdrops to many of the songs on ‘Titanic Rising’ have been on a loop in my subconscious for much of this year, occasionally getting loud enough for me to realise what it is I’m humming away at. The woozy swirl of ‘Andromeda’ is utterly hypnotic, Natalie Mering’s emphatic vocal exerting a gravitational pull on everything around it.

‘Everyday’ stomps about with an early-Seventies pop-rock swagger with hints of ELO and all sorts in there, while ‘Something To Believe’ builds to a full on late-Beatles, early-solo Macca crescendo that is on a par with most of Teenage Fanclub’s ‘Songs From Northern Britain’ as having the capacity to achieve a musical mental reboot. The bleepy synths take a curiously stately sideways turn towards the end of ‘Movies’ and ‘Wild Time’ evokes memories of (the soon to finally release another album) A Girl Called Eddy. ‘Picture Me Better’ feels like it belongs in the reflective moment of a redemptive musical and the instrumental conclusion that follows neatly rounds of a rather grandiose experience. It’s out of time and yet timeless. One for the contemplative hours of winter that lie ahead. 

  1. Michael Kiwanuka – Kiwanuka [LISTEN]

I adored ‘Love and Hate’ but it came out in the year of no full listso I didn’t get to hammer that point home around 2016’s festivities. My emphatic Clash review is still online though, should you need any persuasion to give that corker a go. In the three years that followed, one whole album’s worth of material was scrapped and a fresh approach was taken. The epic Seventies soul of his second record is still at play here colliding with Nineties electric soul and 21stcentury jazz, while David Axelrod symbolically twiddles with the controls. The scope is phenomenal and the ground covered on one record makes it feel like one of those ‘Buried Treasure’ titles you read about in Mojo which are pitched as world beaters. I appreciate I’m having my hyperbolic cake and eating it with that statement but a) it deserves it and b) that’s all the rage these days, right?

One moment of glory is when Kiwanuka’s lead vocal comes back in around the 2:15 mark of ‘I’ve Been Dazed’. Another is the string swell around 1:40 of ‘Piano Joint (This Kind Of Love). Then there’s the start of ‘Hero’ when it becomes clear that the recording has been tinkered with. What about the dragged-heel drum that brings back the beat four minutes into ‘Hard To Say Goodbye’? Oh, there is a great deal to love here. Crank it up on your preferred listening setup and let it do its thing. Michael Kiwanuka is a very special artist and I’m genuinely excited to see where he goes next.

  1. Stella Donnelly – Beware Of The Dogs [LISTEN]

My Green Man envy was especially strong this year. Almost all of the most splendid people on my Twitter timeline were there and raving about various wondrous performances across those few idyllic days in the Welsh countryside. We’re wondering if it might be time to introduce the little one to the experience in the next year or two, but for now it’s all vicarious. Amongst the noise this time came much chat about Stella Donnelly. I’d seen the sleeve of her EP, ‘Thrush Metal’, posted online a few times but had listened without giving my full attention and moved on. This time, however, I thought I should probably investigate and what I found was a brilliant lyricist with some outrageously catchy songs.

The keening harmonies at the start of ‘Mosquito’ are more restorative than an afternoon nap. The mid-paced jangle of ‘Season’s Greetings’ is joyous, making its eventual conclusion all the more striking. Her voice is utterly brilliant, ascending majestically at times while being pointedly, ironically conversational at others. This is a performance in so many ways and this is an artist who truly understands the power of language, something I find myself gravitating towards more and more in this world so increasingly disinterested in experts and knowledge.

The twitchy rhythms of ‘Die’ and the Dubstar-ish ‘Watching Telly’ hark back to aspects of the Nineties indie fringe (scene, not Ashcroft) while the lilting title track is stunning building to such a potently ferocious conclusion. You might already know ‘Boys Will Be Boys’ from its appearance on that aforementioned EP, but that doesn’t negate what a brilliant song it is. The combination of some meticulous lyrics, a ranging, raw vocal and a sparse electric guitar accompaniment make for something truly potent.

It’s funny, it’s shocking, it’s righteously furious and it is oh so very great.

  1. Purple Mountains – Purple Mountains [LISTEN]

I genuinely think any of the big five albums of 2019 could have been list toppers in other years. What a record this is. The music of Silver Jews had been in my peripheral hearing for some time but, for whatever reason that massively escapes me right now, I hadn’t ever really taken the time to appreciate what was so clearly a band ideally suited to my tastes. That group was parked in the late-Noughties and its leader, David Berman, retreated from the spotlight for almost a decade. His re-emergence under the name Purple Mountains in 2019 was a cause for much celebration in certain quarters and the lead single, ‘All My Happiness Is Gone’, quickly caught my ear. But, still, I didn’t follow the thread. It was only when the horrible news of his death emerged in August that I read so many compelling pieces about his work that I properly took the time.

If you don’t know his music, be sure to listen to ‘American Water’, ‘Starlite Walker’, ‘The Natural Bridge’ and ‘Bright Flight’ some time soon. And then the rest. And then buy ‘Actual Air’, his recently reprinted and often stunning poetry collection. The first song on the eponymous Purple Mountains has the following stanza labelled as the chorus in his handwritten lyrics:

“A setback can be a setup

for a comeback if you don’t let up

but this kind of hurting won’t heal.

The end of all wanting is all I’ve been wanting

and that’s just the way that I feel.”

Echoes of ‘Blackstar’ abounded as some of his biggest fans expressed disbelief that they hadn’t seen it there, right in front of them, when they had first played the album. It is, of course, one of those records that will now forever be entwined with the circumstances close to its release. Berman was due to go on his first tour in an age only days after the point when he ended his life and there was such visceral shock from those to whom his music had always meant so much. I’ve since joined those ranks, but I’ve got a lot of catching up to do.

Let’s not generalise this record and overthink every lyric. The luscious wash of ‘Snow Is Falling In Manhattan’ is utterly gorgeous, despite a chorus that just involves the word “snow” being repeated with its vowel elongated to varying extents. And then there’s the lyric to ‘Maybe I’m The Only One For Me’. Whatever the subtext, “If no-one’s fond of fucking me, maybe no-one’s fucking fond of me” is a hilariously brilliant line.

This will be heralded as a masterpiece one day, so let’s just get in ahead of the crowd. A truly, truly special album.

  1. The National – I Am Easy To Find [LISTEN]

With a couple of weeks remaining before Christmas, Cardiff’s Motorpoint Arena played host to arguably my band of the decade, The National. ‘High Violet’ was the moment where I truly fell in love and I have written at length previously about how it got me through a pretty grim year. Curiously, they have offered that service several times since and ‘I Am Easy To Find’ has been ballast and balm in the choppy waters of 2019. I have listened to this album more than any other in the past twelve months, and by some stretch. Not since ‘High Violet’ has an album dominated my listening quite so much and it actually reminded me of the pre-digital era when you would play your purchases over and over to make sure they seemed like good value. It was off-line on my phone, the first thing streaming in hi-res when I finally embraced the 21stcentury and added a streamer to my setup and, I’m slightly embarrassed to admit, I own three different vinyl editions of this record. Not the red swirly bollocks though, obviously. To witness these songs played live was something incredibly special. Screens offered images adorned with the paint streaks of the artwork, while an audience resisted the temptation to talk through the slow ones. ‘Quiet Light’ had me moist-eyed within the first ten minutes and by the time the audience singalong of ‘Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks’ neared its conclusion I was in a state of near-euphoria. Not at all bad given the state of the world right now. Seriously, look at this setlist.

I could wang on about this record for longer than it takes to play the thing. It’s one thing to work with a range of female vocalists across the course of an album, but it’s quite another to find such utterly perfect fits. Gail Ann Dorsey is a sensational choice, elevating ‘Hey Rosey’ and ‘You Had Your Soul With You’ to stratospheric heights, her voice the note perfect foil for Matt Berninger’s ageing creak. Kate Stables’ work on the title track and long-term live favourite ‘Rylan’ is similarly glorious and when both combine with Lisa Hannigan on ‘Not In Kansas’ it’s very special indeed. That track in particular is one highlight amongst many. Lyrically, it is immense, sprawling all over the place in a piece which is split into several movements. Evocative landscapes emerge:

“My bedroom is a stranger’s gunroom

Ohio’s in a downward spiral

Can’t go back there anymore

Since alt-right opium went viral”

both offering political heartache and plain nostalgia:

“I’m binging hard on Annette Bening

And listening to R.E.M. again

Begin The Begin over and over

Begin The Begin over and over.”

It’s somewhere between songwriting, poetry and performance art and as much as I understand why it didn’t make it to a live setting, I would have appreciated the opportunity to see if my emotions exploded in its presence.

The aforementioned title track is staggeringly pretty, the lift in Stables’ voice on the line “if you ever come around this way again you’ll see me” one of my favourite musical moments of 2019. And all this is without mentioning ‘Where Is Her Head’ featuring Eve Owen, a British singer-songwriter just embarking on her career. She takes the lead on a frantic charge, proving to be the fourth perfect additional voice for this band to be used on one album. I understand why the purists might not be able to trace the line from ‘Alligator’ to here but I feel like they are massively missing out.

‘So Far So Fast’ is a curious beast, with six and a half minutes of fidgeting synths below Lisa Hannigan’s glacial poise, Berninger’s emphatic mid-song participation and skittering percussion. It’s unlike anything else on the album and utterly beautiful in its assertively slow pace. And let’s not forget the majesty of ‘Hairpin Turns’, with Dorsey and Hannigan, and closer ‘Light Years’ which evokes the joys of non-album single and soundtrack piece ‘Exile Vilify’.

The art direction is magnificent and the accompanying film offers an interesting route into the songs. The lyric booklet included with the vinyl is a delight and I can’t think of a single thing I’d want to change about the whole album. It hasn’t been a critical favourite in the end of year lists, possibly because they’re established, it’s quite slow and pretty long. But, honestly, don’t see any of those things as negatives because they oh so emphatically are not once you actually hear the thing.

I Am Easy To Find over and over

I Am Easy To Find over and over.

BEST OF 2019: Part 2 – 15 – 6

I know I said Part 2 would wrap it up but I ended up writing more than I intended to for albums 15-6 and thought it best to add a further split. So, below you will find the next ten corkers from 2019. As always, feel free to comment either here or on the ‘socials’.

  1. Better Oblivion Community Center – Better Oblivion Community Center [LISTEN]

Conor Oberst and his Bright Eyes work have always  been easy on the ear but it was the presence of Phoebe Bridgers in this double act that commanded my attention. Her marvellous ‘Stranger In The Alps’ debut from 2017 was in my top ten of that year and her work on the boygenius EP – with Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker – from 2018 is well worth a listen too. Their combined musical DNA is a logical brand of folk-rock with effervescent chugging and elevated choruses. There’s something of a Crowded House sensibility in there amongst many other things, particularly when Oberst is hovering behind Bridgers’ vocals, as on ‘Dylan Thomas’. ‘Exception To The Rule’ pairs a metronomic synth with crunched percussion and builds a beautifully warped pop smash. There’s much to like here, with two artists who just seem to bounce off each other naturally. Really love the sleeve too!

  1. Cate Le Bon – Reward [LISTEN]

Regular readers of these lists will not be in anyway surprised to find ‘Reward’ occupying a slot in the 2019 countdown. Cate Le Bon is consistently brilliant. She doesn’t release bad records and if you don’t already own ‘Mug Museum’, you really should be kind to yourself and sort that out. ‘Reward’ is arguably a little more immediately accessible than some of her previous records and came out of a period of time in the Lake District in which she “may have lost [her] mind a little at times.” Opener ‘Miami’ is a floaty, hazy dreamscape before giving way to ‘Daylight Matters’, which feels like slightly more familiar territory. The plucked rollercoaster of notes that form the core of ‘Home To You’ is a particular highlight. Aching lyrics are often lost amongst playful melodies but give it time and ‘Reward’ is an incredibly compelling listen. Still brilliant.

  1. Aldous Harding – Designer [LISTEN]

Her debut album was released on a very poor quality vinyl pressing, but the music still shone through. It was one of those releases about which Ash from Spillers Records in Cardiff – one of the world’s very best music shops – was emphatically rhapsodising. When that happens, you purchase on trust. To listen back to that album now – ticks, pops and crackle included – is fascinating. From the Celtic folk flushes of five years previous we get to the enveloping, atmospheric intensity of ‘Designer’. The hiccupping, Beta Band-y percussion of ‘Designer’ is utterly magical while the languidly hypnotic ‘Zoo Eyes’ has more than a hint of the aforementioned Cate Le Bon about it. ‘The Barrel’ is another corker, bedecked with some very fine bass clarinet from Stephen Black, Mr Sweet Baboo. I’d like to think I’d say this even if it didn’t have him on it and it hadn’t been recorded in Monmouth and I hadn’t first encountered her thanks to Spillers, but I really feel like this album sounds pretty Welsh to me. A great recent piece by Jude Rogers adds some detail.

  1. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Ghosteen [LISTEN]

What is there left to be said about this album? ‘Skeleton Tree’ was hugely important to me back in 2016 when I experienced loss and new life but failed to compile a list. The sonic intensity, full of scratchy unease, captured raw emotions applied to songs written before the loss of his son, and ‘Ghosteen’ comes after several years of reflection and unthinkable grief. It is beautiful, often relatable and best consumed in its entirety. ‘Waiting For You’ is heart-breaking but strangely uplifting by giving form to difficult feelings. Indeed, that is what much of ‘Ghosteen’ does so well. The artwork is bizarre and the two parts to the record a little curious, but this is a standalone piece. This won’t be filleted for a greatest hits one day. As much as I identify with those saying how well it captures notions of grief, it is for that reason I can’t spend too long with it right now. I know it’s special, but I don’t often reach for it. Should it be higher in the list? Maybe.

  1. Lucy Rose – No Words Left [LISTEN]

I knew the name and the previous releases had briefly held my attention, but I really didn’t expect to find a stark, plaintive piano-driven album that scratches a Laura Marling-shaped itch here. The polished indie and sanitised soul of previous efforts which seemed calculated for afternoon slots at boutique music and food festivals across the land have all vanished and this feels like an artist finally setting out on their own and following their muse. ‘Solo(w)’ builds to a quite magnificent conclusion that clambers out of the speakers and purposefully occupies the space around you. ‘Conversation’ and ‘Treat Me Like A Woman’ address her concerns about life and its requirements in sparse but intense performances while ‘Nobody Comes Round Here’ conjures a partially condensed window view of rain-soaked countryside. It took me a few attempts to get a good vinyl copy, but don’t make the mistake of assuming you know what Lucy Rose sounds like without spending time with the wonders of ‘No Words Left’.

  1. Big Thief – U.F.O.F. [LISTEN]

Two great albums in one year is just showing off. I’d say this just nudges ‘Two Hands’, but it’s hard not to think of them as one body of work. Back in the Noughties, it would have been a deluxe CD reissue set with a bonus disc called something like ‘Autumn Tour Edition’ or somesuch. These days, it’s two separate albums launched into the streaming hellscape. They’ve always struck me as a band to do on vinyl, personally, even if 2017’s ‘Capacity’ was a pretty horrific pressing. Thankfully, the good folk at 4AD have much higher standards. The enmeshing swirl of acoustic guitar on the title track offers a gorgeous wash of sound, while ‘Century’ has a chorus that seems to sneak out of nowhere, naggingly repetitive and unshakeably melodic. Occasionally they erupt, but this is beautiful indie folk – the simplicity of ‘Orange’ is utterly satisfying. Be sure to check out both and, as appears to be something of a motto for this list, spend some time with them so as to let them breathe a little.

  1. Yola – Walk Through Fire [LISTEN]

Those of you who follow me on Twitter – and why wouldn’t you? – may recall me banging on about this album quite early in 2019. I heard a track whilst flitting through some new releases and was suddenly stopped in my tracks. Because, good people, what we have here is one hell of a voice. Yolanda Quartey has sung for The Chemical Brothers and Massive Attack in the past, as well as being a member of Bristol band Phantom Limb, but only embarked upon this iteration of her music career in 2016. ‘Walk Through Fire’ was recorded and produced by Dan Auerbach and his sonic signature is there but rather more subtle than it can be as this is an artist who’s had enough of doing what anybody else wants. A little more of the back story is here.

The sheer force behind some of these songs is wondrous, especially ‘Lonely The Night’ which I honestly believe is one of the very best songs of the entire decade. This is modern soul with a fondness for the greats, incorporating a little country and folk along the way. The songs contemplate splitting with an ex and splitting with a past that Yola is glad to leave behind. But when the chorus comes in on that track, the clichéd hairs on the back of the neck leap up, physical tingles descend and I can’t help but twitch an emphatic arm. It is so, so good. ‘Faraway Look’, ‘Shady Grove’, ‘Ride Out In The Country’ and ‘Love Is Light’ are also great and I can’t quite fathom why this album hasn’t had more attention. Anyway, you know what to do – ‘Lonely The Night’. Then the rest of the album.

  1. Elbow – Giants Of All Sizes [LISTEN]

I got a bit tired of the Elbow formula at one point. I truly loved them in those early years and fondly remember a former reviews editor of mine taking the time to say how right I’d been about them back when I used to wang on about ‘Leaders Of The Free World’ after they’d seen sense following the breakthrough with ‘The Seldom Seen Kid’. ‘Build A Rocket Boys!’ wasn’t quite the majestic follow up I’d hoped for but ‘The Take Off And Landing Of Everything’ had some deliciously delicate moments. ‘Little Fictions’ I rather liked on release but it has faded from my affections. This, though, feels much more like that band I obsessed over back in 2005. The angular onslaught of ‘Dexter & Sinister’ sets the tone, while ‘Empires’ allows Guy Garvey’s voice to soar and twirl in non-saccharine fashion and serves as a reminder of what a wonderful instrument it truly is. ‘The Delayed 3:15’ even sounds like a track from ‘Leaders Of The Free World’, from the charming but ultimately bleak title onwards. The woozy ‘Doldrums’ is a great example of the fine art of the notably different double-tracked vocal. ‘My Trouble’ is wistful and melancholic and the album closer is a lyrically-brief, musically enormous tribute to Garvey’s late father which weaves together the arrival of a newborn and the loss of a parent. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I adore it. If the ‘man of the people sunset at Glastonbury’ schtick wore you down, it’s safe to return.

  1. Leonard Cohen – Thanks For The Dance [LISTEN] 

This shouldn’t be so good. It’s a posthumous collection clocking in at under thirty minutes, with some of the musical accompaniment finished off by Cohen’s son, Adam, who assembled sympathetic musical accompaniment. ‘Happens To The Heart’ sets a high opening standard. It will be largely familiar to those who bought the poetry collection ‘The Flame’ as it’s a variation on its breathtaking opening piece, featuring the lines “I was always working steady, but I never called it art.” Delivery is very similar to that of 2016’s ‘You Want It Darker’ but barely any less accomplished, despite the circumstances around its creation. Indeed, to suddenly hear some of the written words from that special collection suddenly delivered by that voice is all rather moving. I’m not sure what I was anticipating prior to dropping the stylus into the groove for the first time, but it was an overwhelming listen. There were tears, smiles and a pillowy calm. To be this good at making records when you’re dead is quite the skill. ‘Listen To The Hummingbird’ is a brief, beautiful conclusion, repurposing a not overly high fidelity reading of a poem into a perfect final address. Stunning.

  1. Richard Dawson – 2020 [LISTEN]

Here’s an interesting one. I had tried Richard Dawson’s solo work previously and not really connected. It had been highly praised and I arrived at ‘Nothing Important’ with high hopes. I didn’t dislike it but it didn’t click. What did was the Hen Ogledd album, ‘Mogic’, which I tardily purchased at the very end of 2018, having heard a track played by Marc Riley on 6 Music. Although Dawson is just one of this group, something about the musical construction of that record ensured I made a mental note to try again. When ‘2020’ arrived with reviews proclaiming it as an astounding social commentary and highlighting its empathetic honesty – all of which is true – it had to be done. A stop off at Spillers back in early November and some ensuing rowdy enthusing in the shop resulted in a purchase and I’ve not looked back. Opener ‘Civil Servant’ builds in a gnarly, increasingly unflinching fashion, immediately highlighting the continuation of his unique vocals of old and a slightly more conventional approach to structure. This is far clearer on ‘The Queen’s Head’ with a vintage folk feel, even if the lyrics could only be from now. ‘Two Halves’ has, perhaps unsurprisingly, two different modes, one more nimble than the other. ‘Fulfilment Centre’ is seasonally appropriate and offers as erudite a contemporary commentary as one might hope for. Closer ‘Dead Dog In An Alleyway’ has a jarringly jovial chorus melody, highlighting the capacity of ‘2020’ to cover so much in relatively little time. The first time I played it in full I genuinely uttered “wow” and applauded as the stylus hit the runout groove. I don’t know what that makes me but this album is a pretty remarkable release and one that captures our fractured times superbly.

BEST OF 2019: Part 1 – 30 – 16

It’s with a mix of disbelief and nostalgia that I reflect upon how I managed to roll out ’40 From The Noughties’ the last time a decade concluded. Going back over all of that music was a joy and writing (most of) those pieces similarly enjoyable. I even put up an end of year list to go with it. Fast forward to 2019 and I’m a parent in a job that is almost unrecognisable from its 2009 incarnation with a lot less time and a little less inclination. However, I still love lists. Bloody love lists, me! So, in an even more condensed format than last year’s copout, allow me to present my favourite albums from the past twelve months for your mild diversion and occasional delight. Part One is below, covering 30-16, with 15-1 to follow any day now. I hope.

I’m going to be brief, but listening links are available for each should you need to acquaint yourself with any of these corkers.

  1. Clairo – Immunity [LISTEN]

An early morning scroll through new releases on a streaming platform fortuitously guided me to the alternative electro-pop of Clairo. It’s hard to pin down its sound and there are influences going back at least thirty years. The swing of ‘Softly’ feels gloriously 1994 to me.

  1. Bruce Springsteen – Western Stars [LISTEN]

No, me neither. But, somehow, after the brickwalled chaos of more recent efforts, Springsteen has offered up his best collection of songs since ‘The Rising’, at the very least, and ‘There Goes My Miracle’ is an especially beautiful piece of music. It does sound like studio trickery has been massaging his vocals, shall we say, but the recently released ‘soundtrack’ to a live performance of the album presents him in a favourable light. It might actually be better than the studio version.

  1. Carly Rae Jepsen – Dedicated [LISTEN]

It was always going to be tricky to follow up ‘E*M*O*T*I*O*N’, but ‘Dedicated’ is no slouch. ‘Julien’ sets the panoramic pop course and those wanting another album like ‘1989’ from Taylor Swift should find plenty to enjoy here. The piano swagger of ‘Everything He Needs’ is pretty joyous and the shameless explosion of the ‘Real Love’ chorus always delights. A better winter pick me up than the left over box of mince pies on the side in the kitchen.

  1. Carwyn Ellis & Rio 18 – Joia! [LISTEN]

The Welsh indie Tropicalia scene is not a big one. Perhaps it should be. The ever-brilliant Carwyn Ellis – you need to listen to Colorama if you’ve never previously done so – teamed up with Brazillian producer Alexandre Kassin in Rio De Janeiro and crafted ‘Joia!’ It more than lives up to its title and shimmies around deftly, offering an unlikely but very plausible home for the Welsh language. Best enjoyed on August evenings, but always great.

  1. Lana Del Rey – Norman Fucking Rockwell [LISTEN]

I’ve never previously been convinced by Lana Del Rey. It hasn’t helped that some of her vinyl releases have been notoriously shoddy, but the songs never quite stuck. However, when so many people whose opinions you trust and whose tastes so often align with yours are raving about something, you need to give it a go. And I’m glad I did. This is an album full of wonderful songwriting. It’s lyrically sharp, musically luscious and utterly enthralling. Try ‘How To Disappear’ if you’re still a non-believer.

  1. Richard Hawley – Further [LISTEN]

It felt like Hawley had arrived at something of a creative impasse at the conclusion of his previous contract with Parlophone. ‘Hollow Meadows’ is largely lovely but it seemed at the time that the world had stopped listening a little. Refreshed, renewed and relocated – now housed with the variable folk of BMG – he delivered a pithy but stirring set which feels like a reassertion of what made us all love him in the first place. There’s plenty of the shuffling acoustic guitar, haunting melodies and soaring choruses of old along with a few more snarling moments, with even a Lanegan hint here and there.

  1. Kevin Morby – Oh My God [LISTEN]

Just listen to the piano on the first and title track. Seriously. That’s got you hooked, right? There was a lot of fuss around its release as it was one of the early indie-exclusive Dinked titles, but it’s the music that matters here. ‘No Halo’ should seal the deal, with its frantic claps subsiding into a languid but forceful second movement. You’re making your own jokes now. Anyway, great sleeve, great songs. Who cares what colour vinyl it’s on?

  1. Angie McMahon – Salt [LISTEN]

A good friend with whom I exchange music tips across hemispheres pointed me in the direction of Angie McMahon before the UK release of ‘Salt’. I was won over by a song called ‘Pasta’ but the album is a much more complex listen, showcasing her remarkably emotive and gnarly vocals. Electric folk is probably the label to use, but there’s some variety here with ‘Keeping Time’ offering a scuzzy strut and the more jagged end of Mazzy Star being evoked at times. Good stuff.

  1. Bill Callahan – Shepherd In A Sheepskin Vest [LISTEN]

I’m not sure I’m built for lengthy Callahan records. There’s plenty here to enjoy and the vinyl side by vinyl side reveal of the record via streaming platforms was a nice touch, but the whole thing hasn’t truly cohered in the way his previous albums so often have done. ‘747’ and ‘Call Me Anything’ are particularly  great, the latter with more than a little bit of Tim Buckley mixed in there. It’ll probably click at some point and I feel like I’ve not spent long enough with it, to be honest.

  1. Jenny Lewis – On The Line [LISTEN]

She’s rarely less than great, but it took her wondrous support slot on the recent tour by The National to remind me how much I’d enjoyed this album when it first came out. The thunderous chorus of ‘Heads Gonna Roll’ was hypnotic in the not especially salubrious surrounds of Cardiff’s Motorpoint Arena, highlighting the inimitable power in her voice. It’s that power which she so dextrously manoeuvres across these songs, building slowly through centre piece and highlight  ‘Dogwood’. This hangs together really well as an actual album, rather than a selection of songs destined for the abstracted dystopia of endless playlists.

  1. Julia Jacklin – Crushing [LISTEN] 

This is a slow-burning delight. Jacklin’s voice is pretty immediately special, but these are songs which take time to embed themselves in your consciousness. Sure, the Jen Cloher, Liz Phair and Courtney Barnett  comparisons make sense, but I’d also like to throw in the Noughties era of Graham Coxon’s solo career too. Ragged melody is an especially enjoyable soundscape and ‘Pressure To Party’ and ‘You Were Right’ belong to that world completely. That said, opener ‘Body’ is a beautifully nuanced piece, full of oppressive layers, and closer ‘Comfort’ has more than a hint of Jessica Pratt’s stark style.

  1. Damon Locks / Black Monument Ensemble – Where Future Unfolds [LISTEN]

International Anthem is a label seemingly incapable of releasing a bad record. Seriously, spend an hour or two at their Bandcamp page and see how quickly you fall in love. ‘Where Future Unfolds’ is a must-have from its foil-printed sleeve onwards. Coming on like some sort of sampled-laden collage of vintage recordings that would make shimmering dicks dust off phrases like ‘crate-digging’, it’s actually a recording of a live performance from 2018 with fifteen artists capturing something genuinely unique. Gospel and hip-hop offer some sort of markers on the continuum, but let’s not get hung up on genre here. No one track can do it justice and I’m pretty certain you can spare the 45 minutes required to immerse yourself in its world. Thank me later.

  1. Sharon Van Etten – Remind Me Tomorrow [LISTEN]

At the turn of the year, the talk was of a new sound for one of the great artists of the decade. Following ‘Tramp’ and ‘Are We There’ takes some doing and a more textured, heavier sonic palette offered a beguiling evolution of Sharon Van Etten’s already exceptional work. The strident synth-pop of ‘Comeback Kid’ – fairly – drew comparisons with St Vincent, while ‘No One’s Easy To Love’ is built on a fabulously precarious beat. ‘Jupiter 4’ has some corking reverb while ‘Seventeen’ is the one to bung on a compilation. A very fine record. Still not convinced by the sleeve, mind.

  1. Taylor Swift – Lover [LISTEN]

Well, whatever the fuck ‘Reputation’ was, this is not cut from the same cloth. But it’s also not really an obvious evolution of ‘1989’ either, pleasant as that might have been. Who knows what the structure of the campaign was all about and why she opted for those lead tracks, but we are where we are. Opener ‘I Forgot That You Existed’ is a fine pop track with a frustratingly nonsensical lyrical conceit, while ‘The Man’ is pretty much Christine And The Queens. Which is to say it’s bloody great, but the stealing is shameless. The title track is Mazzy Star’s ‘Fade Into You’ sped up a little and with a solid gold stadium chorus pasted over the top. I adore it. Swift’s writing has gone up a notch for much of ‘Lover’, even if ‘London Boy’ made it on. And ‘ME!’

  1. Beck – Hyperspace [LISTEN]

I wasn’t hugely fond of Beck’s last album, ‘Colors’, despite having loved much of his output for the best part of twenty-five years. It felt too calculated, too polished and too desperate. I could see how people enjoyed it, but I always picked other records of his when browsing my shelves. There are those who see ‘Hyperspace’ as more of the same, and it’s definitely from the ‘pop’ side of his act rather than swinging back to folk, but I think it’s much more successful. It seems similarly superficial at first, but after repeated plays it connected with me. ‘Chemical’ is a great example of the hook-laden, electronically enhanced pop at play here, still driven by acoustic guitar and featuring one of his best vocal performances in some time. ‘See Through’ is much more skittering and low key but similarly great. It might just be me, sorry ME!, but this one’s a keeper.

 

BEST OF 2018: Part 3 – 10-1

With the festivities receding, it’s time to conclude my little round up of the finest music of the past twelve months. As with the first two posts, there are links within the paragraph or very obvious ‘Listen’ options next to the final list at the bottom of the post. Happy New Year to you and yours!

It was not an immediate winner in my book. The concept intrigued me but an overpriced RSD 12″ coupled with a dodgy, coloured vinyl release had the hackles up. I wonder if I might have fallen in love fairly rapidly if Number 10: ‘Lump by Lump had been an album I was reviewing, shorn of commercial concerns? A couple of aborted attempts to get it on the turntable later, followed by some less than fully-engaged Spotify streams, and I’d established I quite liked it but that it wasn’t anything all that special. And then I just happened to put it on at the right time, travelling through rural West Wales in the gloaming. It suddenly made perfect sense and its looseness and brevity became strengths rather than sources of criticism. The incessant drone that connects the tracks is a neat touch, but it’s the use of texture and space that really sets this album apart. The mellifluous chorus of ‘May I Be The Light’ seems to come from nowhere, Mike Lindsay of Tunng’s simmering electronic burbles accompanying Laura Marling’s vocal and the different parts seeming to fall out of sync towards the song’s conclusion. A bizarrely wonderful record which perfectly highlights how the instant fix culture of streaming doesn’t serve some music well at all. (Tunng’s 2018 record, ‘Songs You Make At Night’, is also well worth a listen.)

A late surge from Number 9: ‘Golden Hour by Kacey Musgraves saw it leap into the top ten after getting plenty of plays during a difficult few weeks towards the end of the year. I wasn’t familiar with her previous work but the press campaign on this one was top drawer and it got favourable notices in all the right places. Not without merit, it must be said, and this pop-country crossover is frequently majestic. The lulling opener ‘Slow Burn’ is a near-perfect piece of music and there’s plenty more of this seemingly effortless melodic sheen across what follows. I adore ‘Butterflies’ for its up/down chorus line, ‘Happy & Sad’ is a wonderfully excitable but melancholic singalong, ‘Wonder Woman’ has the most fantastically nonchalant hook and ‘High Horse’ evokes a sense of late-Nineties pop nostalgia. It is, to use a well-worn cliche, like listening to a Greatest Hits album. However good the PR campaign might have been, the reason people are still playing this record so much is its consistently brilliant songs. A joyous surprise.

It’s rare but not impossible for a long-standing band you’ve always liked to suddenly pull an album out the bag which has that magical something else that elevates it above their past work. Such is the case with Number 8: ‘There’s A Riot Going On by Yo La Tengo. Now, I’m well aware that there are plenty of great albums in their catalogue – I own them – but they’d never quite clicked in that ‘I must play this over and over all week long’ kind of way prior to this one. It’s a curious beast, shifting across Velvets jangle through pillowy, jazz-tinged electronic drones into skittering Nineties indie. Opener ‘You Are Here’ is a luscious, enveloping embrace, while ‘For You Too’ sounds like its bleeding through from the next stage. The disorientating nature of ‘Forever’ typifies the increasingly disparate feeling of the second half of the record and the final track, ‘Here You Are’, feels a little like Virginia Astley with added acoustic guitar and laconic percussion. Yo La Tengo have always been beloved of music writers, with a hardcore following to accompany them. This one has the potential to pull in listeners from further afield.

Rather more critically revered this time out than last is Number 7: No Shame‘ by Lily Allen. I really, really love Lily Allen’s music. The debut isn’t perfect but it shows such promise and is the musical equivalent of particularly intelligent people who speak really fast because their brain is flitting all over the place, just with hooks and genre switches. The follow up, ‘It’s Not Me, It’s You’ pretty much is perfect. It was my album of the year back in 2009 and I would still rather listen to it than anything else released at that time. ‘The Fear’, ‘22′, ‘Never Gonna Happen’, Who’d Have Known’ and the rest, frankly, are beautifully realised bangers. It was always going to be tricky to follow up and so it proved. The reasons have been addressed in her recent autobiography, ‘My Thoughts Exactly’, but ‘Sheezus’ was hit and miss, and definitely more the latter. However, ‘No Shame’, at least partly built on the premise that the label couldn’t give a shit so she may as well just do what she wants, is right back in that mercurial groove driven by a truly great musical mind. The incessant genre hopping, inch perfect featured artists and raw honesty make for a stirring listen. It’s hard to think of many other artists for whom the tracks ‘Apples’ and ‘Trigger Bang’ would or could appear on the same album, but it all works. ‘Three’ is a straight-forward heartbreaker while ‘My One‘ has the kind of twisting, slinky-on-the-stairs melodic progression that is such a hallmark of Allen’s work. On the off chance you’ve steered clear of ‘No Shame’, be sure to give it another go because it’s not what you’re expecting. No matter what you’re expecting.

The DJ previously known as Jo Good introduced me to the next artist by posting the video of ‘Tilted’ up on Twitter in January of 2016. The production was enough to win me over but the performance in the video hinted at something more. A subsequent Glastonbury set and one of those lovely campaigns where an audience just seems to naturally fall in love with an act over a period of time followed. And now, in 2018, we have Number 6: ‘Chris by Christine & The Queens. There has been wonderful writing on Héloïse Letissier around this record, topped by Laura Snapes’ quite brilliant profile for Q (Q389), genuinely taking the time to consider the artist alongside the music and branching out beyond the usual topics. ‘Chris’ is a relentlessly excellent album, in either English or French. Admittedly it makes more sense to me in the former, but I’ve enjoyed the latter plenty too. The early singles ‘Girlfriend’ and ‘Doesn’t Matter’ were fitting signs of what to expect, the Eighties soul influences inspiring rather than defining this record. Several Jacksons have clearly left their mark but irrespective of where ‘Chris’ may have come from, Christine & The Queens is a sincerely unique act within the current music scene. Watching the staid environs of Later… being thoroughly energised by a choreographed performance of that first single, one was reminded of the power of actual performance rather than performativity. ‘5 Dollars’ is just the right side of saccharine and, as a result, probably my favourite track here, while ‘Comme Si’ features lyrics showing the stepping up in confidence from the debut, ‘Chaleur Humaine’, “There’s a pride in my singing / The thickness of a new skin / I am done with belonging.” I’m genuinely excited to see what comes next.

If you’re a twat, and there are plenty of them out there, then it’s possible that you perceive popularity as a sign that something isn’t worthy. I was fascinated to see somebody on Twitter, to whose opinions I often pay attention, recently feeling the need to comment that big-selling, award-winning books can still be read for pleasure. I couldn’t imagine it ever being otherwise, but similar – normally – unintentional snobbery comes out in the music world around jazz. “Jazz for people who don’t like jazz” was used by many to describe Number 5: ‘Heaven And Earth by Kamasi Washington. You know what? It’s possible to love ‘In A Silent Way’, ‘Complete Communion’ and ‘Journey in Satchidananda’ and Heaven And Earth’, you sanctimonious pricks. In my review, I described it as “an album with soul jazz, spiritual jazz, jazz-funk, electro-soul and many more genre-busting approaches incorporated across 16 wondrous pieces, aspects of free rhythms nestling next to vintage seventies soul sounds.” It is an absolute belter that needs to be turned up loud and played over and over. It is bold and playful, ominous and sincere. It is a split message across the two parts, responding to a damaged world on the ‘Earth’ album and exploring the artist’s own view of our existence on the ‘Heaven’ set. ‘Fists Of Fury’ got everywhere, because it’s amazing, but ‘Testify’, ‘Vi Lua Vi Sol‘, ‘Street Fighter Mas’, ‘Show Us The Way’ and ‘Will You Sing’ are all similarly remarkable in their own, different ways. I doubt there are many left who haven’t heard it but are likely to give it a go, but don’t be deprived of its joys just because it’s actually sold a few copies, eh?

Having already been contented with the aforementioned Gorillaz effort ‘The Now Now’, I was genuinely surprised to learn from Mojo magazine that Damon Albarn’s so-called Brexit album, Number 4: ‘Merrie Land by The Good, The Bad & The Queen, was imminent. Where had it come from? Why that group after eleven years? Why so brief a gap from announcement to release? Who knows, but it was afforded a fairly low-key entry to the world and has sold relatively poorly compared to his catalogue. Despite all of this, the resulting record is a beautifully composed meditation on perceived patriotism, this “funny little island of mixed up people” and the truth about Merrie old England. The stream of consciousness style delivery credited to Iggy Pop took some getting used to, words written for words’ sake and melody considered at a later date. I was not fond of the title track initially for this reason, but it has since performed quite the volte face – or perhaps that was me. ‘Gun To The Head’ is, according to my review, the “out and out pop smash and it sounds like calling in for a middle-aged catch up with the ‘End Of A Century’ folk.” There’s certainly an occasional sense of Albarn checking in with the faded glories of his Nineties cast of characters, but no risk of a Damien Hirst video to follow. The most stirring track is ‘Lady Boston’, which sits at the midpoint of ‘Merrie Land’ and hails from Penrhyn Castle near Bangor. Its concluding refrain of “Dwi wrth dy gefn”, sung by Penrhyn’s own male voice choir, is Welsh for ‘I’ve got your back’. It’s a rousing reminder of the power of community from an occasional quartet that offers a compelling advert for collaboration. In a year of oppressive political dunderfuckery, it was something of a release for several worlds to collide. Tony Allen has a little more freedom than on the band’s debut but Paul Simonon remains the lithe heartbeat of this operation, exuding a warmth that gives Albarn yet another fruitful creative avenue. Not helped by a shambolic early preview on Later…, ‘Merrie Land’ has just drifted into the world. I have a feeling it will make for a very apt soundtrack to the dead of winter.

“The brainchild of an artist with a diverse record collection and an addictive love of music, Davey Newington’s stage name sits atop a wonderfully rich set of songs. Having drummed for Charlotte Church’s similarly joyous Late Night Pop Dungeon and with parents who met in the BBC National Orchestra Of Wales, his pedigree is assured.” Not a bad little summary, taken from my original review of Number 3: ‘(One) (Two) (Kung Fu!) by Boy Azooga, and thinking back I had only pitched to write about it because of a neat, but dependable, triangulation of interest from Adam Walton on BBC Radio Wales, Spillers Records and Sweet Baboo. They were, as always, on to something and as the first tracks emerged, it was pretty clear that a fairly phenomenal debut was on the horizon. The Onyeabor influence on ‘Face Behind Her Cigarette’ is both hugely welcome and utterly endearing, while ‘Losers In The Tomb’ has more than a whiff of the Super Furries about it. ‘Waitin” is an entirely spellbinding, burbling synthy explosion. I get the odd whiff of prime-Guillemots from it, and I mean that as a compliment. The whole thing pulses with energy and it is a massively addictive listen. I’ve yet to have the pleasure of seeing them live but public opinion suggests I need to put that right pretty quickly. If you need something to put a rocket up you for the new year, you won’t go wrong with this corker.

There will be some reading this who reckoned they had the top spot figured out. I suspect they were anticipating the appearance of Number 2: ‘Double Negative by Low in that final berth. It was a close run thing and I do think it was the most remarkable release of 2018, but I can only be honest! I can’t have been the only person who played the initial triptych video used to launch the record and wondered what was going on. There had been signs on 2015’s imperious ‘Ones & Sixes’, but this was all in, no regrets. In my original review, I wrote, “the search for beauty in dark times may require extra effort, but it is all the more rewarding when it emerges. When your understanding of your country is skewed by events beyond your control, how do you channel that into art? Is it as simple as writing a set of protest songs or is there another way?…The wilful mangling of melody that lies at the heart of ‘Double Negative’ is a remarkably powerful reaction and a deeply moving listen.” For some listeners, the intensity of distortion at the heart of ‘Double Negative’ has proved confusing. The temptation to perceive these songs as having been tampered with or disrupted is understandable but it really wasn’t the case that these were effects added to finished tracks, and the band didn’t want a scenario where, as Alan Sparhawk explain in an interview I did for Clash, “it’s just a song with a bunch of noise applied. Ultimately the goal was how do we come up with sounds that are the song? How do we come up with something that’s the rhythm, or does what the rhythm needs to do, but it’s not drums, not just sounds on top of what we normally do? It was something we were conscious of. It isn’t just a case of let’s try a different noise on top of it.” It’s a truly staggering record and it took quite some time to really click for me. I was perilously close to writing a very confused piece before the tenth listen did the trick. I point you in the direction of my full review for as good an appreciation of the record as I can muster and really recommend reading the full interview I did. Alan was a joy to chat with and his thoughts around the creative process genuinely added to my understanding of the record.

I have known what would top this list for a good four or five months. No other record has been played anywhere close to as many times as this one. No other record has given me so much joy, so often moved me to tears and so often made me get up and dance like a twat. It is a celebration of all that is great about music and a perspective on life from somebody who is not only a phenomenal songwriter but also columnist and author. Number 1: ‘Record by Tracey Thorn is an album about which I was immediately excited but I had not banked on it being an instant classic. Self-described as a set of “feminist bangers” and with a song like ‘Guitar’ deliciously wrong-footing the casual reviewer armed with a textbook set of preconceptions, ‘Record’ is euphorically great. It is, at times, hilarious too. “Though we kissed and kissed and kissed, you were nothing but a catalyst,” she sings on the tribute to the instrument not its owner, while ‘Babies’ includes the lines “feeding you at 3am, rocking chair at 3am, go to sleep it’s 3am, please, please. Lay your pretty head down, get the fuck to bed now.” The delivery actually adds even more, trust me. Thorn’s use of her voice has always been noteworthy and so it continues here, an emotive, soulful flexibility for the epic ‘Sister’ and a much more plaintive, front and centre frustration for the character at the heart of the social media travails in ‘Face’. The final track, ‘Dancefloor’, is a compilation staple for me and a piece of music to which I turn almost instantly when in a dark spot. Its ability to capture a moment, to convey Thorn’s love of the experience and its uncynical referencing of other massive disco smashes is restorative – “play me Good Times, Shame, Golden Years and Let The Music Play.” Amen to that. Honestly, I can’t remember when I was quite so utterly head over heels in love with a record. It is a tonic, a form of ballast, a friend.

10-1

10. Lump – Lump (Listen)

9. Kacey Musgraves – Golden Hour (Listen)

8. Yo La Tengo – There’s A Riot Going On (Listen)

7. Lily Allen – No Shame (Listen)

6. Christine & The Queens – Chris (Listen)

5. Kamasi Washington – Heaven And Earth (Listen)

4. The Good, The Bad & The Queen – Merrie Land (Listen)

3. Boy Azooga – (One) (Two) (Kung Fu!) (Listen)

2. Low – Double Negative (Listen)

1. Tracey Thorn – Record (Listen)

BEST OF 2018: Part 2 – 20-11

It’s curious how Wilco have sort of become like the latter days of Woolworths. Something warm and familiar to which one dedicates time whenever convenient but hardly essential. Dependable and tied in with many memories, a source for shock and sadness in the event of end times. Hopefully, the former are some way from their 70% off everything days, but ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Schmilco’ are albums I have in my collection without really being able to hum a note from either. This is not true, however, of Number 20: ‘Warm’ by Jeff Tweedy. As well as publishing a fine memoir, ‘Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back)’, he also delivered his finest solo effort to date and his strongest set of songs since 2011’s ‘The Whole Love’. There’s some country twang in there, ‘I Know What It’s Like’ and ‘Let’s Go Rain’, along with some plaintive croaking evoking memories of turn of the millennium Wilco, ‘Bombs Above’ and ‘How Will I Find You’. It’s an album that best suits being heard in one sitting and which bears repetition, but it’s a quiet beauty and one not to carelessly overlook under the assumption its contents are obvious.

Keen readers will have noted the absence of ‘Humanz’ from last year’s Best Of list, despite my unashamed love of all things Albarn. I didn’t get it. Still don’t. Some decent things there but it really isn’t an album. This was, perhaps, best highlighted by the ludicrous 14×12″ vinyl box set which paired each song with a bonus track, completely disrupting the flow of the record. Then came news that another album had been recorded around the same time and it had plenty of the key ingredient that had been so conspicuously absent from most of its predecessor – Damon vocals. Honestly, Number 19: ‘The Now Now’ by Gorillaz would make it into this list for ‘Souk Eye’ alone, the closing track with eighties dance stabs, a gradual ascent to an all out house crescendo that never comes and a nimble melody that I have returned to so very, very often this year. It’s easy to dismiss Albarn because of how much he puts out and the expectation that it will all be of a certain standard. And he doesn’t help himself with some of his media appearances but I think the Damon: Twat or Not Twat ship has long since sailed for anyone who cares. ‘Idaho’ is a shimmering delight, ‘Tranz’ is a flat out banger. ‘Humility’ has a tremendous, hiccuping beat and ‘Kansas’ has a light R&B strut to it. It may have been forgotten by many, but there is much to love here.

Some records defy adequate description. Some records absolutely do not suit every mood or every time of day. Some records are just obviously genius from the song titles onwards. ‘It Get Be So Swansea’ and ‘Dealing With Hoarders’ confirm that Number 18: ‘Now (In A Minute)’ by Audiobooks belongs in the third category and even a cursory listen should convince you of its credentials for the first two also. Art student and musician Evangeline Ling and wondrous producer David Wrench are an unusual pairing but it is alchemical from the off. These warped pop songs are joyously bizarre. ‘Hot Salt’, for example, is a track I like to imagine as a duet between Cassie and Sunny from ITV’s Unforgotten. Seriously, listen and see what I mean. It works, right? The aforementioned paean to the twenty-fifth largest city in the UK is a giggly, vocoder-driven mid-paced electro-pop corker and ‘Friends In The Bubble Bath’ rides high on glorious synth stabs. Just listen to it, buy it and thank me later.

Opening up like a vintage folk album and progressing with staggering attention to detail, Number 17: ‘Wanderer’ by Cat Power is a record upon which there is not a second wasted. Chan Marshall’s voice remains a visceral thrill and the largely sparse arrangements here give it the kind of platform that was missing from 2012’s variable ‘Sun‘. ‘In Your Face’ and ‘You Get’ are both twitching, percussive wonders while ‘Horizon’ is a delicate wash of shimmering sounds that is all over most of my compilations (or playlists, if we really must) from this year. A fabulously sincere cover of Rihanna’s ‘Stay’ is utterly at home in the centre of the record and the chiming piano of ‘Nothing Really Matters’ is almost hymnal. An album that already sounds like a classic.

When the promo email came through announcing a new Spiritualized album, I was impatient for the follow up dispatch with a download link. Thankfully, it wasn’t far behind and the music was, frankly, surprisingly great. I can’t have been the only one wondering if Jason Pierce had it in him to make another great album after the fits and starts of his output since the early Noughties. But Number 16: ‘And Nothing Hurt’ by Spiritualized put that worry to bed. Opening track ‘A Perfect Miracle’ was a sweeping, slow-building epic in the customary mould and it was like revisiting an old haunt and finding one of the few places that remains how you remember it. ‘I’m Your Man’ has a light swing to it while ‘Here It Goes (The Road) Let’s Go’ is a classic exercise in euphoric mantras and counterpoints that stirs the soul. Even the sax is acceptable on that. ‘On The Sunshine’ is a standard ‘everything at 70mph, into a strong wind, towards a blinding light’ cacophony and thoroughly delicious as a result. Lovely artwork too.

When I first drew up the end of year list, this album had just snuck in but its impact on me has been reignited in recent weeks thanks to a quite brilliant documentary film about the band responsible. Number 15: ‘The Blue Hour’ by Suede is a curious, unashamedly grand record and, in my review around its release, I described it as “unlikely to win Suede many new followers, but it should convince any fans of old that their vitality is restored and they are at the peak of their powers once more.” I’m not sure I can put it any better three months later, but I am adamant about its charms. ‘Life Is Golden’ is one of their very finest songs ever while ‘The Invisibles’ and ‘Flytipping’ are both majestically scored pieces that only improve with time. The aforementioned film, ‘The Insatiable Ones’, did such a fine job of traversing their career with honesty and excitement that it sent me crawling back over the entire catalogue. ‘The Blue Hour’ held up well in such company and it really does warrant some serious attention.

I wasn’t entirely sure about ‘International Blue’ at first. If 2010’s ‘Postcards From A Young Man’ was “one last shot at mass communication” (followed by two blisteringly different but equally brilliant album in ‘Rewind The Film’ and ‘Futurology’) then what the fuck was this glistening, radio-friendly pop jangle all about? It has since grown on me massively, helped considerably by witnessing it performed live in Cardiff back in May. The band were on fine form and Number 14: ‘Resistance Is Futile’ by Manic Street Preachers was a welcome return from one of my absolute favourite bands. ‘Liverpool Revisited’ is a crisp and brisk encapsulation of Nicky Wire’s love of Liverpudlians and their dignity while ‘In Eternity’ is up there with St. Vincent’s ‘New York’ on my list of excellent Bowie tributes. In my review of the record, I referred to ‘Dylan & Caitlin’, a beautifully realised pop duet featuring The Anchoress, as The Beautiful South Wales and I stand by it. They were open about aiming for a ‘Don’t Go Breaking My Heart’ feel with this track and it certainly paid off en route to this melodic triumph. ‘Broken Algorithms’ is a bit shit, but ‘Vivian’, ‘Hold Me Like A Heaven’ and ‘A Song For The Sadness’ are all prime Manics tracks and very welcome additions to the soundtrack of an obsession lasting well over twenty years now. I have been working up a piece on the ‘This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours’ reissue which will hopefully get finished fairly soon. I’ll bung it up here when it’s done.

I was originally down to review Number 13: ‘The Art Of Pretending To Swim’ by Villagers and so spent much of the summer with this as one of a select number of albums providing a very welcome soundtrack. My transformative moment with Conor O’Brien’s work came with 2016’s ‘Where Have You Been All My Life?’ I had all of his albums and had enjoyed them, but something about hearing them stripped back for those new recordings at RAK studios with some tweaked arrangements and a different sequence elevated them to a place of rare beauty and I was thoroughly smitten. That experience appears to have had some bearing on this latest effort, continuing my love affair wholeheartedly through the fizzing, fidgeting rhythms of ‘Again’, meandering melody of ‘A Trick Of The Light’ and woozy warmth of ‘Love Came With All That It Brings’. It’s a very strong set of songs and one which confirms O’Brien as quite the talent. A real joy, from start to finish.

Back in 2015, Pete Paphides’ Soho Radio show introduced me to Daniel Knox and his self-titled solo album topped my Best Of list for that year. Number 12: ‘Chasescene’ by Daniel Knox is the follow up and would likely be higher up this countdown, had it not been released at the start of this month. Irrespective of bizarre record company schedules, this is another stunning collection of songs which have little regard for genre and serve as a tremendous platform for Knox’s involving baritone. In my review for Clash, I described him as a “truly compelling presence” and picked out ‘Capitol’, with guest vocals from Jarvis Cocker, and ‘Me And My Wife’ for particular attention. The former is a curious bit of cabaret and Jarv’s delivery of “you’re nothing to me” is one of my musical highlights of 2018. The latter is “a dark narrative played straight and with a swelling conclusion that deposits ‘Chasescene’ on a locked groove.” Get me, quoting myself. Anyway, the quality does not relent and don’t let the preposterous timing of its entry into the world allow you to be deprived of its charms.

Back at the start of the year, I’d forgotten when the MOT was due and had ended up with a last minute change of plan for a ‘while you wait’ booking to avoid being illegal. Just as I was due to head out for that endeavour, the promo of Number 11: ‘Everything Is Recorded by Richard Russell’ by Everything Is Recorded landed in my inbox for review. And so, this musical box of tricks is forever entwined with a freezing but bright January afternoon, blaring in my ears as I mooched around Bath killing time. I’d already loved the early singles and the full set did not disappoint. Overseen by XL main man Richard Russell, the production style did not come as a surprise to anyone familiar with his work, especially Damon Albarn’s ‘Everyday Robots’, but the array of talent on show was remarkable. ‘Wet Looking Road’ features Giggs, while Kamasi Washington is on ‘She Said’ and ‘Mountains Of Gold’. Ibeyi do a fine job of covering Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson’s ‘Cane’ and Sampha is imperious on the Curtis Mayfield-sampling ‘Close But Not Quite’. As an early pace-setter, it would be easy to forget this album when doing the end of year reckoning but for the sheer quality of its ensemble cast.

In the final post, I’ll count down my top ten from 2018.

20. Jeff Tweedy – Warm (Listen)

19. Gorillaz – The Now Now (Listen)

18. Audiobooks – Now (In A Minute) (Listen)

17. Cat Power – Wanderer (Listen)

16. Spiritualized – And Nothing Hurt (Listen)

15. Suede – The Blue Hour (Listen)

14. Manic Street Preachers – Resistance Is Futile (Listen)

13. Villagers – The Art Of Pretending To Swim (Listen)

12. Daniel Knox – Chasescene (Listen)

11. Everything Is Recorded – Everything Is Recorded by Richard Russell (Listen)

BEST OF 2018: Part 1 – 30-21

At least several people like to read my countdown of the year’s finest music around the festive season and I’m also fond of having a record of my preferences, so here goes a rather more compact format for the class of 2018. It has been a very busy December round these parts and so my traditional post by post reveal went out of the window. Instead, I’m going to go with some picture montages, rambling paragraphs and streaming links across three posts. As always, I’d love to know if you discover anything as a result of reading this or if you think I’ve criminally overlooked something. All suggestions welcome. Right then, shall we?

One of the joys of the occasional status I now possess as a music reviewer is that I can pop my head above the parapet as and when things strike me as interesting. This can mean wonderful stuff from my favourite bands or the chance to arrange some words in response to a collaborative effort by Sting and Shaggy. This actually happened, fact fans. As such, certain names will initiate a quick pitching email and such was the case with Number 30: Tell Me How You Really Feel’ by Courtney Barnett. In the review, I described it as “a slow-burning triumph” and that still rings true for me. It didn’t leap out at me at the time, but I have periodically revisited it across the year. Lyrics like “indecision rots like a bag of last week’s meat and I guess it’s hard to keep everybody happy,” are a delight and offer an obvious link from her previous record, even if the shiny jangle has been dialled back more than a bit.

For some people, 2018 has been the year of trying to figure out what happened to the luscious, sparse melody of Sub Pop favourites Low. They need not have spent so long pondering, as the luscious, sparse melody of Sub Pop types Luluc would likely scratch that itch. An Australian duo with a languid folk sound, opener ‘Spring‘ on Number 29: ‘Sculptor‘ by Luluc is an aural hug of the highest order while ‘Moon Girl‘ tiptoes around gloriously. It certainly suits a certain type of mood, but it’s a very fine album indeed.

Those who enjoyed last year’s Number 28 album by Molly Burch will likely enjoy this year’s Number 28: ‘First Flower’ by Molly Burch. Picking up where ‘Please Be Mine’ left off, this second outing features the cascading chorus of ‘Candy’, lilting jangle of ‘Wild’ and hiccuping rhythm of ‘True Love’. At times, it’s a little like if the idea behind the sound of She & Him had actually really, really worked, instead of being rather cynically shit. A joy of an album, but one which particularly suits sunshine.

Regular readers will know that I’m never happy unless I’ve got a jazz/pop/prog record on the go and 2018’s offering is Number 27: ‘Phase’ by Mildlife. It’s all the rage with the ‘online folk’, don’t you know, and vinyl copies have been hard to track down at times. Think Hot Chip going in on Stevie Wonder’s synth era with a fondness for a decent disco stomp thrown in for good measure. I’m not sure I could do it justice in 500 words, let alone a few sentences, but it needs to be heard. I suspect you’ll either love it or hate it. Hard to imagine anyone being utterly ambivalent about ‘Phase’. Start with ‘The Magnificent Moon’.

One of life’s great pleasures is browsing the wall displays in record shops, occasionally elevated to a place of sweet majesty when accompanied by some enthusiastic chat with the staff about current, less-obvious delights. Returning from a restorative jaunt to the unimaginably beautiful environs of West Wales in November, a pitstop in Cardiff meant only one thing: Spillers. Amongst the tote-bag load I acquired was Number 26: ‘Longest Shadow’ by Ivan Moult. The folk singer-songwriter genre can hide a multitude of sins and there are many dozens of uninspiring acts for every true gem, but Moult is one to cherish. From the ever-dependable team at Bubblewrap Collective, ‘Longest Shadow’ possesses a cover striking enough to draw me in at the counter and music involving enough to have convinced me to purchase within sixty seconds of opening track ‘Keep Cautious’. At times, he’s Ray LaMontagne without the years spent gargling glass and rough liquor, at others he’s ensconced in early Seventies Island Records. Utterly, utterly magical stuff to see you right in the dark hours of winter.

Ah, the Modfather. Dadrock. Look at that hair. Etc. Considering the baggage which adorns Paul Weller, what he has actually released in recent years is actually quite remarkable. The spark of energy that ran through 2005’s ‘As Is Now’ paved the way for ‘22 Dreams’, ‘Sonik Kicks’ and Number 25: ‘True Meanings‘ by Paul Weller. A musician who truly loves music, he has followed his muse for over a decade and taken some thoroughly enjoyable diversions as a result. This latest is launched by a glorious collaboration with Conor O’Brien of Villagers, ‘The Soul Searchers’, and features early teaser-track ‘Aspects’, which sounds like some fifty year old classic that is dizzyingly emotive. Largely a soulful acoustic set, Weller is in very fine voice and melodically at the top of his game. The cliches are a long way off on this occasion.

I simply haven’t had enough time with Number 24: ‘Aviary’ by Julia Holter to do it justice, but my encounters to date have been stirring enough for it to be safely ensconced in this list. At ninety minutes long, it was never going to be an easy listen. But, unlike so many albums that one suspects are worthy but not actually enjoyable, it commands your attention throughout. The sonic experimentation and vocal layers are a fairly logical, if rather rapid, evolution from previous outings ‘Loud City Song’ and ‘Have You In My Wilderness’, especially if you’re familiar with 2011’s ‘Tragedy’. Avoid the temptation to try and sample it – either listen to the whole thing or don’t.

Quietly producing solo albums of the standard of Number 23: ‘Yawn’ by Bill Ryder-Jones is pretty much the norm for this artist. Looking back, I’m not really sure why 2013’s ‘A Bad Wind Blows In My Heart’ and 2015’s ‘West Kirby County Primary’ weren’t in my end of year lists. Both have much to recommend, although neither are as good as his 2018 offering. Somnambulant chugging is perhaps to be expected of an album with this title and it definitely has more than a hint of shoegaze about it. However, now that the twats who like free gig tickets and need website hits have decided shoegaze is ok again, that can’t be misconstrued as an insult. ‘No One’s Trying To Kill You’ is possibly the highpoint and definitely the place to begin if you’re looking for a taster.

2015 was a very strong year and a number of my top ten albums were by artists I’d not written about previously. At number three was the creator of this year’s Number 22: ‘The Future And The Past’ by Natalie Prass. Her distinctive and utterly endearing vocal style bowled me over back then and she continues to make wonderful music. After the Spacebomb slink of that self-titled effort, the 2018 follow up is a more disco and R&B affair which risks seeming a little lightweight on early plays. However, the songwriting remains up to scratch and ‘Oh My’ and ‘Lost’ are both glorious for different reasons. The former is an AM radio belter, the latter a stirring ballad. I’ll be honest, this would probably have been higher if the label hadn’t opted for a cheapo, coloured vinyl frisbee pressing via the good folk at GZ.

The info in my documents suggests that as New Year’s Day 2018 came to an end, I finished and filed my review of Number 21: ‘All Melody’ by Nils Frahm. The hints were there on 2013’s live recording ‘Spaces’, but this record marked quite the departure for a consistently impressive artist. Vocal tracks without lyrics, bleepy soundscapes and euphoric organ figures all play their part. Lovely artwork and a splendid Rough Trade bonus disc (‘Encores 1′ – later not actually exclusive after the chance to sell more overwhelmed the truth) all helped to make a rather special package.

The top 20 will follow soon…

30. Courtney Barnett – Tell Me How You Really Feel (Listen)

29. Luluc – Sculptor (Listen)

28. Molly Burch – First Flower (Listen)

27. Mildlife – Phase (Listen)

26. Ivan Moult – Longest Shadow (Listen)

25. Paul Weller – True Meanings (Listen)

24. Julia Holter – Aviary (Listen)

23. Bill Ryder-Jones – Yawn (Listen)

22. Natalie Prass – The Future And The Past (Listen)

21. Nils Frahm – All Melody (Listen)

Needling The Clientele – Vinyl Prices in 2018

People of a certain age will fondly remember the mid-price CD offers that Woolworths would flood their racks with throughout the year and the ‘Nice Price’ stickers that used to adorn successful titles that had sold their way into hundreds of thousands of homes and could now be offered for less, having recouped costs and some.

More recently, we have been made aware by the smaller labels of how much it costs to do small runs of vinyl and that the only way to get prices down is to do loads or go via not especially consistent manufacturers preferred by the intermediaries who broker the deals. The logical extension of this is, surely, that more popular titles being pressed frequently in order to keep them in stock in the nation’s most passionate supporters of the format, such as HMV and Sainsbury’s, should be cheaper based on quantity. Add in the old mid-price logic that ‘Parklife’ or ‘The Queen Is Dead’ are exceptionally profitable records for their label and it seems perfectly reasonable to expect Warner to be offering them to shops at a price that allows them to be sold well below the ever-increasing, approximately £20-a-pop, new release prices.

And yet news emerged this week, via Transmission and Mo Fidelity Records, that Warner has cranked its dealer price on exactly those catalogue titles and more, with customers likely to have to stump up an extra £10 on top of what they would have paid until now. Costs of production are rising as a consequence of increased demand but largely unchanged capacity, not helped by annual novelty frisbee day releases, but just as blighted by bonkers catalogue reissues whereby a mid-nineties Annie Lennox covers album now sits in the racks for £20.

However, the genius at the heart of all of this price gouging, which seems a not unreasonable claim at this stage, is the largely successful positioning of vinyl as a collectible, deluxe item posited on appearance, not sound. You don’t need a great deal of knowledge about vinyl to be aware that coloured pressings with bizarre patterns running through them will sound like horseshit. They look pretty though. £24 to you, thanks.

As generous as it is of certain labels to do variant coloured editions for independent record shops, it would be nice if they were to ensure the USP of these versions was being well-pressed and well-mastered. It’s quite the novelty these days, but not especially sexy. Increasing prices – and in the case of Warner: inflating prices – while presiding over a notable drop in production quality, does seem a surefire way to stymie the ‘vinyl revival’. Or perhaps the price hikes suggest that labels are spotting a slowing down already underway.

In recent months, I’ve encountered faulty pressings from pretty much all of the major manufacturers, including those I would normally trumpet over the more notorious bargain merchants. The combined impact of churning out more and more bizarre back catalogue from the last thirty years with the urgent need for Shaggy 7”s and Belinda Carlisle box sets ahead of Record Store Day seems to be reducing the quality of the actual product still further.

Vinyl could never have plugged the sales gap caused by the dramatic drop in CD sales towards the end of the noughties and the failure of digital download sales to ignite. However, it was offering a foothold for our beloved independent shops and a totem for inventive labels across the world. By alienating shops with prices and customers with quality, the industry runs the risk of hubristically killing off a beloved format for, remarkably, a second time.

BEST OF 2017: 1. Kamasi Washington ‘Harmony Of Difference’

2015’s ‘The Epic’ clocked in at almost three hours and remains one of the most remarkable debuts of the decade, making no concessions to the potential listener and opting instead to simply array itself magnificently and wait for people to make sense of it. Those that took the time were slow to relinquish their newfound fondness for rhapsodising about an artist who could capture a delicious intensity on record and initiate those fearful of the genre into numerous corners of the jazz world.

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Alongside such company, ‘Harmony Of Difference’ is a mere slip of a release, termed an EP for barely exceeding thirty minutes, but much more substantial than that mantle implies. Indeed, only somebody who had put out ‘The Epic’ would feel minded to tag this release in such a way, so anyone about to grumble about an EP being number one should politely refrain. Intended as a neat musical metaphor for the joy of human diversity, these six tracks are all interrelated, with the concluding thirteen-and-a-half-minute piece, ‘Truth’, incorporating aspects of all that has gone before. And what comes before is quite a nifty genre primer for the uninitiated, hopping giddily across eras and styles with the sort of dexterity that will come as no surprise to those who are familiar with the debut. Coltrane, Hutcherson and Hancock each take their place in the DNA of ‘Harmony Of Difference’ and so too, on ‘Integrity’, does Sergio Mendes.

A polished swagger abounds on ‘Perspective’, appearing as the mists clear following the denouement of ‘Knowledge’. The song-suite nature of the EP is a joy and should ensure that nobody is foolish enough to skip about looking for cheap thrills. The rich soundstage and vibrant performances captured here are irresistible and further proof that Washington is a rare talent. The focus on melody and the concept of musical counterpoint make for a tighter affair than ‘The Epic’ and length isn’t the only reason why listeners may find this an easier starting point.

The spiritual swirl of the lead track, ‘Truth’, is quite staggering and its early release as a teaser for the whole set prompted entirely deserved adoration from many corners. The aforementioned interwoven motifs from the five shorter tracks that precede it make for an emphatic, instantly familiar, almost transcendental conclusion that is so gloriously absorbing that it takes considerable resolve not to put the whole thing on again the second that it stops.

I struggled to complete my initial review of this for Clash by the deadline, as it is such a grand concept achieved with remarkable efficiency that I’m not entirely sure I’m qualified to interpret it in any way. While ‘Harmony Of Difference’ will delight jazz fans, it is a truly incredible record irrespective of genre. If you are capable of feeling, you will find much to love here.

BEST OF 2017: 2. Amber Coffman ‘City Of No Reply’

I do not claim to understand how the record industry works in 2017, but I am fairly certain that putting an album out as a digital-only release, apart from a US vinyl pressing, doesn’t help with its exposure. As the year wore on, I remained perplexed that this glorious record hadn’t picked up more of an audience, but its relative obscurity may not have helped. Add in the obvious narrative around Coffman’s split from Dave Longstreth, with whom she was also a musical partner in Dirty Projectors, and it’s a wonder that people weren’t falling over themselves to offer up comparisons of this and the self-titled release by her former band, now essentially a solo entity. It’s worth saying, ‘Dirty Projectors’, with its not entirely gracious response to events, is pretty hard work and everything that ‘Swing Lo Magellan’ wasn’t. Intriguingly, Longstreth produced ‘City Of No Reply’ and was heavily involved in various aspects of its creation back in 2015, prior to a terminal rift in their working relationship opening up between its completion and that of his own record. Perhaps the twattiest line on that album being “What I want from art is truth / What you want is fame,” all part of a torrent of sniping that Coffman didn’t know was coming until its release was announced to the world. As a result of that timeline, however, it’s wise to detach all of that baggage from this record before listening.

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There is so much to enjoy here, rising out of a love of nineties R&B and seemingly obsessed with glorious, strident melodies. Opener ‘All To Myself’ will feel like safe ground for fans of Coffman’s previous work, with languid synths and a lackadaisical beat doused in reverb. It’s an incredibly strong way to set out your stall but the quality never relents. ‘No Coffee’ follows, an emphatically breezy track whose ebullient, Seventies radio sheen is instantly endearing. And they keep on coming. ‘Dark Night’ has those late-Nineties squelchy beats and what sound a little like steel-drum stabs, while ‘If You Want My Heart’ is a poised ballad that wouldn’t have sounded out of place in the Mary J Blige / TLC inhabited landscape of twenty years ago.

For ‘Under The Sun’, we’re back in vintage pop-rock radio territory, occupying similar ground to the recent trio of fabulous solo records from Eleanor Friedberger. The title track, meanwhile, has a dancehall nod and wouldn’t feel ridiculous with Wyclef Jean shouting ‘Shakira, Shakira’ over the top of it. The winding rhythm is a delight and the chorus an instant earworm. What you’re listening to is an expert pop album with a meticulously judged pace and a carefully crafted diversity. I still find myself marvelling at the trajectory ‘City Of No Reply’ takes over its forty-six minutes.

Nobody Knows’ follows an undulating synth line and feels like a critique of our permanently online culture: “I sit fixed, scrolling through words and pictures, like I’m paralysed / Nobody knows, nobody knows how I feel / Nobody sees my soul.” The piano figure with which it concludes is pretty special too. Closer ‘Kindness’ is built around a distorted organ line and talks of how “this love wants not to hinder our evolution.” One can only hope that, despite its confusingly low-key release, this marks the start of a long and similarly exquisite solo carer where that development can occur.

 

BEST OF 2017: 3. The National ‘Sleep Well Beast’

As an opener, ‘Nobody Else Will Be There’ suggests that the languid mid-pace favoured on ‘Trouble Will Find Me’ is now the norm for a band previously capable of working themselves up into a twitching frenzy. However, not only does this track possess some lovely textures and a loose, spacious mood that rewards close listening, but it also fails to fully represent what follows. That 2013 effort remains a wonderful record which, as the 2017 review narrative has declared must be stated, now attracts criticism for being too polished and one-paced. It’s not true, but it did lack the spasming riffs and fizzing, writhing vocals of Matt Berninger at his most effervescent.

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By the time ‘Day I Die’ has clattered into view as the second track, any such retrograde anxieties will be appeased. It bristles with a ragged, screeching, monumentally catchy riff that is repeatedly let fly across Bryan Devendorf’s unstoppable drums. There’s plenty of musical light and shade on this record, even if the majority of the lyrics are looking at the complexities of middle-age discontentment, when the familiar becomes jarringly so. “Forget it. Nothing I change changes anything,” sings Berninger on ‘Walk It Back’, while ‘Guilty Party’ deploys some skittering electronics below stately piano as our narrator, and it does feel a little like living in a Richard Yates novel at times, tell us “I know it’s not working, I’m no holiday” and “We just got nothing, nothing left to say.” Just as, seven years ago, I wrote about the joys of wallowing in the mood of this band’s music, there is still an oddly enveloping quality to these desperately sad snapshots.

The Carin of ‘Carin At The Liquor Store’ is Berninger’s wife and, it transpires, co-lyricist. Fact, fiction, bit of both? Who knows? As someone who spent much of Christmas Day and Boxing Day rebuffing attempts to be told the marital affairs of various actors and presenters by relatives who spend far too much time browsing MailOnline, I have only marginal interest in the specificity of these things. As much as I love a decent music biography, I’m not sure I need to know which aspects are mutated and which are verbatim to adore the barely vertical, on and off the beat vocal performance that seems to tumble from Berninger’s mouth on this song. It’s utterly, utterly glorious and not even being dedicated to Morrissey on Later… can spoil it for me.

The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness’ was a very fine way to tease the album’s release, with its early signs of the almost mischievous horns that pepper these songs, a righteous guitar break that elevates the track towards its oddly euphoric conclusion and a chorus you could use as a landmark in heavy weather. And then there’s ‘Turtleneck’, which feels deliriously primal amongst so much carefully layered music, with raspy, shouty vocals and everything-turned-up-to-ten garage rock.

There’s plenty more besides, such as the shimmering ache of ‘Born To Beg’ and the glittering but gnarly musical collisions of ‘I’ll Still Destroy You’, on what is a truly impressive step forward. You’ll always have those people who tell you that they’ve been putting out the same record for a decade, but that’s their loss. Indeed, this is arguably the biggest evolution of their sound since 2007’s ‘Boxer’, but I’m glad I didn’t go anywhere near it for reviewing purposes. It benefits from time and a variety of circumstances, slowly unpacking itself before you. It is one of the records of 2017 to which I have turned most frequently and which has proved hard to shift from in-car systems and the turntable alike. Always, always worth the wait, The National have yet again delivered a record that toys with your feelings with the same dexterity as some of the world’s finest writers.