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 2015: 18. Kamasi Washington ‘The Epic’

Listening to Gilles Peterson’s show on BBC 6 Music is always a risky business, as far as my not inconsiderable penchant for purchasing records goes. Over the years, he has prompted all sorts of things to enter my collection, from an early play of the full length re-edit of Elton John’s ‘Are You Ready For Love’, past Amy Winehouse’s stunning ‘Take The Box’ and more recently Finish folk Kaveri Special’s self-titled folk-pop splendour, to name but three from a list of dozens and dozens.

Kamasi

The Epic’ is another such example and, as with all the others, I have no regrets. An almost three hour long, triple album built around seventeen songs excerpted from forty-five of Washington’s compositions he contributed to a month long session featuring ten of the Jazz world’s most promising talents, it can feel too big to get a proper handle on it. Having honed their sound and ploughed through hours upon hours of each other’s material, most participants are now working on their respective records upon which they will all guest from their share of those recordings. ‘The Epic’ comes first and the bar is set almost unsurpassably high.

Taking its cues from the more chaotic, pulsing electric era of Miles and the gorgeous intersection of jazz, funk and soul, this set is hard to digest in one sitting but quite the trip if you do. I’m loathe to single out individual tracks as the gear changes across the three discs keep things lively. The euphoric impact of a twenty-piece choir contrasts with free-jazz intensity and wall of sound release. It can be a challenging listen but may, oddly enough, be a way into jazz for the uninitiated. Its stylistic whirlwind is invigorating and infectious and it demands repeat plays, at least partly just to map the landscape.

Washington’s role in Kendrick Lamar’s ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ has been widely discussed elsewhere, but he’s even better given free reign to do as he pleases. The addition of a thirty-two piece orchestra performing a score he wrote to add to those original recordings ensures that it’s not just epic in length. ‘Re Run Home’ and ‘Change Of The Guard’ are two pieces which openly nod to Washington’s influences, but in gloriously confident and forgiveable fashion. An energetic, ambitious and utterly unabashed attempt to shake up the order of things, ‘The Epic’ is an enjoyably pig-headed triumph. It takes confidence to assert that you need to release this much material in one go, but it needs true brilliance to pull it off.

If you’re not sold yet, you never will be but I have one simple instruction for you. Just listen.