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)

I hardly said a word

I’ve had a thoroughly splendid week in terms of listening pleasure. I had an interesting conversation about musical snobbery and what makes a good pop song during several hours in bar that played the most chronic selection of shite I’ve heard in some time. A quick comment about how the Girls Aloud track playing when we went in was probably the best thing that they’d managed in about two hours spiraled off into something far more complicated. Anyway, the conversation leads me nicely to my first point of interest this week, Lily Allen.

A few months ago I read that she’d posted a couple of new tracks on her Myspace and I made a mental note to have a listen at some point. I finally did that today and I’m pleasantly surprised. There were some decent tracks on debut album; sampling Allen Toussaint is always good by me and ‘Alfie‘ is pop genius, but for the new record she’s gone in an electro-pop direction. The two new tunes are splendid, in particular the first offering, ‘I Don’t Know’ which has an enjoyable quiet/loud Girls Aloud/Sugababes feel to it. Not that I imagine she’d be especially thrilled with the comparison. The second track, ‘I Could Say’ sounds a little like a Pet Shop Boys ballad. Anyhoo, whatever I think, I’d recommend having a listen via the link above.

Speaking of the PSBs, they recently recorded a cover of Madness‘My Girl’ while rehearsing for a live performance with Suggs. On this delightful demo, Neil takes lead vocals and it’s a wonderfully quirky take on a classic tune. You can access it via the ‘exclusive tracks’ page in the ‘Product’ area on their website. Or you could just click here. You choose, why don’t you?

A final true ‘pop’ moment before moving on. As I’m pointing out rather splendid bits of popular music that I’m rather fond of, I’ll give a quick mention to Rihanna‘s ‘Don’t Stop The Music’. Now, I know this isn’t exactly new and I know that you probably cut your ears off after the ninety-seventh time you heard ‘Umbrella‘, but this is a true pop classic. Meticulously crafted, never quite as fast as you think it’s going to be and yet deceptively uplifting. Ver Tube allows a listen below.

I’ve been living with Weller‘s ’22 Dreams’ for a week now, and it’s almost as good as the reviews are suggesting. Let’s get one thing straight before we go on – it ain’t a five-star kind of album. It can’t be, really, because of its quite deliberate ebbs and flows. A few tracks add nothing, and the final, noodly instrumental track, ‘Night Lights’ really outstays its welcome. But it’s a definite four-star kind of album and one which repays repeated listens. That’s not especially surprising when you bear in mind that there are 21 tracks to absorb. Apparently, the deluxe edition has sold out already, but you’ll not be missing much if you’ve not got it. ‘Rip Up The Pages’ and ‘Love’s Got Me Crazy’ are the additional tunes – both rather good, and probably more deserving of a place on the main album that some of the more fanciful farting about, but all of that stuff does rather add to its charm. Have a listen via the link below and make sure you do it in one sitting; it works better that way.

I should just finish by noting the fact that a true great, Bo Diddley died earlier this week. If you know nowt about the man or his music, you should probably get that sorted. One of the ‘Chess‘ collections should suffice. Some far more professional and worthy tributes can be found via the following links:

1. Richard Hawley’s tribute on the BBC site

2. First ten minutes of Gary Crowley’s show, filling in for Tom Robinson on 6music on Friday 6th June

3. Mark Lamarr’s ‘God’s Jukebox’ from Saturday 7th June. Various tunes and references throughout.

"Well, hello there, girl’s name"

Musical Revelations Of The Week:
Spoon – ‘Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga‘ – As documented in yesterday’s post, I made a bit of a boob with this band, and ignored them because I, ahem, didn’t like the artwork of one of their old albums. Turns out I had my head nestled firmly up my arse. Feel-good indie with charming melodies that is a late contender for album of the summer. Mind you, summer’s late too, so who knows, the summer album might come out in October!
Lily Allen‘Everybody’s Changing‘ – Her utterly fabulous ska-cover of the pleasant-enough Keane single had passed me by until I was in a situation whereby I was listening to a compilation of live stuff from Dermot O’Leary‘s Radio 2 show. It turns out that it was the b-side to the 7″ of ‘Littlest Things‘, which is now winging its way to me. Who knows, if the posties show up to work tomorrow, I might even receive it.
Josh Rouse – ‘Country Mouse, City House‘ – Wooo. ‘Subtitulo‘ may have been mediocre tosh and ‘She’s Spanish, I’m American‘ was a quaint diversion, but this latest effort from Josh is right back up to his usual high standards. On the off chance we have some sunshine this week, feel free to dust down ‘1972‘ and ‘Nashville‘ and play them back to back with this newie for some genuinely sunny tunes. As cheesy a comment as I’ve ever made, but accurate, methinks.

Non-musical Revelations Of The Week:
Jekyll – What a fantastic conclusion. Some neat twists, brilliant acting and numerous laugh-out-louders. A genuinely brilliant piece of modern drama. More, I say, more!
Scrubs – Yeah, I know I keep banging on about Scrubs at the moment, but I’m only doing it because it’s ace. This coming Thursday on E4, at 9pm (repeated numerous times, including Saturday at 5.30pm) is a quite brilliant episode with a musical theme. I’m aware that truly shite shows have attempted this in the past, but rest assured that the Scrubs writers pull this off with aplomb. You’ll particularly enjoy the song about poo. No, really. Ah, go on then, here’s the two best songs:
‘Everything Comes Down To Poo’

‘Guy Love’

Nick Abbot on LBC – I used to love Nick’s phone-in shows of the 90s on Talk Radio and Virgin. Having been quiet for a few years, Nick returned to the phone last year and is now running at full speed. This week he filled in for Iain Lee for a few evenings, and I can’t recall sniggering at a radio show so much since Kevin Greening left daytime Radio 1 for the last time. While I can’t recommend future fill-ins, as I’m not aware of any, I can point out that he’s on every Saturday at 10pm, via channel 0177 on Sky and through their website at www.lbc.co.uk If you do fancy treating yourself, you can subscribe to their podcast service, which will allow you to download all of Nick’s past shows. If you happen to do that, and want some tips on which ones to get, get in touch.

Have a good week all.

I once sat a few seats down from farmer boy at a Rufus Wainwright concert

I picked up the ‘Glastonbury’ movie yesterday. Haven’t watched it yet, but did flick through the bonus material and got all maudlin at the interview with the late, great Peelie. Anyway, this reminded me of a genius Glasto moment from this year that I forgot to talk about. Namely…

Only Rufus.

T’is worth shoving the word ‘Glastonbury’ into YouTube. You can turn up all sorts of vintage performances. And The Seahorses doing ‘Love Is The Law’, back in 1997!

One other thing. I noticed that Dermot O’Leary’s Saturday Show on Radio 2 has spawned a compilation album full of live performances recorded for said broadcast. It has to be said that it is overwhelmingly average with one notable exception. That exception is a quite brilliant ska take on ‘Everybody’s Changing’ (the Keane tune) by Lily Allen. Genius, I promise.
EDIT: Oh, just found a slightly shite quality version with a truly terrible video on YouTube. Presumably the shitty video was made so that they could simply upload a cracking tune. Enjoy.