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)

New Music Monday: Count To Fire & Weller

Any band born out of a love of Wilco and My Morning Jacket deserves, at the very least, a quick listen. Such namedropping was enough to lure my attention in my inbox last week and the band in question, Count To Fire, have a mighty single on the way in September. Hailing from Exeter but recorded in Canada, this lot sound a little like The Coral with added pedal steel. They may look a bit Mumfordy but don’t be alarmed.

CTFphoto

The album appears to have been out for yonks but a renewed push means that ‘I’m The Man You Need’ will be released on 7” vinyl on September 12th. With such solid gold influences, the melody is as good as you’d expect and the vocal starts off sounding a little like a slightly less fragile Ron Sexsmith. Provided he was from Exeter, of course. Have a listen below and see what you make of it.

 

At the other end of the spectrum, Paul Weller’s ludicrously strong late-period purple patch continues apace with this belting bit of disco-soul. At first ‘Starlite’ seems a little slight but that chorus does its job and before long it’ll have earworm status, mark my words. Weller’s gorgeously emotive voice has been put to fine use in recent years and it’s heartening to hear a man who clearly loves his soul music adding something new and relevant to the genre. It’ll be out on August 7th, backed by various remixes, and won’t be on the forthcoming new album.

Mercury Music Prize 2010 shortlist – Just Played Verdict

mercury

I know that convention dictates that I start off with a sizeable rant about the MASSIVE WANKERS who decide on the Mercury shortlist and moan about how safe and, largely, shit the choice of albums is. I whine about how there are so many more deserving titles out there and wonder why they even bother doing this. Well, fuck convention.

It’s not a bad shortlist really. Could be a hell of a lot worse and there are some rather good albums on it. Yes, you can tell that almost nobody on that judging panel is medically allowed to let their blood pressure rise too dramatically and that ‘a nice glass of red’ probably accompanies all of these records rather effectively, but that doesn’t immediately make them all crap records. Just Biffy Clyro, and that was crap long before it got this nomination. Indeed, it has been crap since the hellish day that the group birthed it through the band’s collective arsehole; the result of a blessed constipation that finally subsided only to gift our ears with this limp, fetid dross.

I wasn’t exactly enraptured by the Foals album either, but it certainly has its moments. The vocals are a lot less ‘toddler with a foot stuck in a door’ and a bit more ‘artsy indie band with ridiculous hair’. The sound is a massive leap on from the frankly infuriating debut which started badly with the atrocious cover and didn’t improve much thereafter. This one is bold, adventurous and, at times at least, rather good. Also in the ‘no need to get the bunting out’ category is Corinne Bailey Rae’s ‘The Sea’. This particular record received such astonishingly positive press that it seemed like we were about to witness the second coming, albeit it at No.17 in the Asda album chart. It is quite nice. She’s stopped banging on about putting records on and is now singing about sad things because of the, admittedly tragic, loss of her husband. Musically it’s much less annoying than her MOR stylings of old but, for the life of me, I couldn’t really tell what it was that I was meant to be so overwhelmed by.

Then there’s the folk-pop boy band in waiting, Mumford And Sons. They are, as far as I’m concerned, traitorous bastards for wooing us with lovely limited 10” single releases only to then not put the album out on vinyl. Add into that the fact that they are now so ubiquitous they’re like flying ants or pollen and it’s hard to retain the early love. The songs are undeniably great and Marcus Mumford has a cracking voice. But, the production is oh-so-very polished and somewhere along the line it seemed to lose its soul a little. I’m by no means trying to be all snobby about this record; I still quite like it, but from the very first play it didn’t sound as raw it could have and should have and that’s a great shame. That said, I’m not sure it would be on this list if they’d gone down that route.

Dizzee Rascal, love him or hate him (or just laugh at him for being a bit of a cock), has produced some belting pop songs of late and such a consistent run of hits deserves recognition. Unfortunately, the album doesn’t really offer anything else to match those glorious singles and only serves to confirm that he is best in small doses. When in a good mood. And not especially bothered about what you’re listening to. A plausible choice, a maker of top pop but not an album to yearn for or fall in love with.

I’m genuinely delighted to see the marvellous I Am Kloot on the list with the recently released splendour of ‘Sky At Night’. I recently explained just why this record is deserving of a place in your collection and it is as good an album as the band have released to date. The vocals are quite beautiful and Guy Garvey’s string arrangements are superbly measured and precisely executed. As good a straight indie record as you’ll hear this year. Which briefly brings me to ‘Golden’ by Kit Downes Trio, which is potentially as good a jazz record as I haven’t heard this year. Is that the sound of a token being laid down I hear? Solitary nod to the ‘other’, I hear you cry. Well, yes. It’s not on Spotify, so I’ve not yet had the pleasure but, as I did with The Invisible last year, I’ll endeavour to have a listen. Find out what I end up thinking by following the Just Played Twitter here.

Wild Beasts’ ‘Two Dancers’ feels too old to be on this list, released as it was at the arse end of last summer but, it’s a wonderfully confident listen. By now, I’m sure you’ll know about Hayden Thorpe’s distinctive yelp, like a randy panda after a quick listen to ‘Grace’. It’s quite a voice and, while it might initially irritate, stick at it for there is much to love about ‘Two Dancers’. It took me a while to really get it, hence its absence from last year’s best of list. Unlike ‘xx’ by The xx, which rocketed up to second place in almost no time at all. It’s become a quite popular activity to criticise The xx for being trendy art-school types as a result of all of the hype they’ve received. Now, let’s briefly pause to consider why that is such a fuckwitted brainfart of an approach to this delicately grand music. They didn’t ask for the hype, it just gathered around them and, admittedly not always but sometimes, it happens for a reason. This time it was because of how good they are. The album is perfectly measured, charmingly executed and it offered something a little different towards the end of 2009, sounding quite unlike everything else released at the time. See here for my ‘40 From The Noughties’ piece about this one.

Old man Weller keeps on churning them out and, deep breath, he’s actually managed two great solo records in row. Indeed, I actually rather liked ‘As Is Now’ too, so that’s at least two and a half really. ‘Wake Up The Nation’ has been lauded as his best solo record in some quarters and has had fifty-something blokes in denim pogoing around like they don’t have mortgages, with their stomachs following soon behind. It is good, mind, and I have enjoyed great chunks of it. Initial plays felt a little like being able to hear a migraine, it was so phenomenally busy, but once you’ve adjusted to the frenetic pace of the thing, it actually shines through as a bloody decent set of songs. It firstly tells us that he has a cracking record collection, featuring plenty of southern and northern soul, and secondly that he has decided that prancing around in the street pissed with a near child on your arm and having one of the world’s shittest haircuts on your bonce doesn’t stop you from reminding people you were in The Jam. Fair play to him, I say.

Which leaves us with two. One of which, ‘Becoming A Jackal’ by Villagers, was recommended by Martin Rossiter (ex-Gene and thoroughly spiffing bloke) on Twitter a while back and I was won over almost instantly. I somehow missed the Later… performance that, apparently, turned most people in this record’s direction. I can see where the Rufus Wainwright comparisons come from, stylistically if not vocally, along with faint echoes of Simon and Garfunkel. It’s clever, melodic, sometimes melancholy singer-songwriter indie and it is executed to perfection. It’s a grower, a charmer and a winner. Though probably not of the Mercury Music Prize.

Not that I actually think that the quite divine Miss Marling will carry off the crown. I can’t help wondering if it will actually go the way of The xx or Mumford in the end, but that doesn’t stop this remarkable record being something to celebrate, shout about and buy in copious quantities for loved ones and friends. I’ve previously explored just what makes this such a mature and beguiling collection of songs, but suffice to say my opinion hasn’t changed, save to like it just a little bit more still. ‘Rambling Man’ is Joni, and Mazzy Star and Laura Veirs and oh so many other magical musicians rolled into one and yet still topped by a unique and stirring voice. She is a rare, rare talent and someone to be truly treasured.

Personally, I’m in a three way split with I Am Kloot, The xx and Laura Marling but, were I required to dish it out myself right now, I’d hand it to Laura. However, when the near paralytic Jools Holland steps up to the microphone in September, don’t be surprised if he utters the words, “and the winner is… The xx.”

2010 inverted

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.

Click here to listen to God*

 

The NME website is currently allowing you to stream the new Weller album, ’22 Dreams’, ahead of its release on Monday. My advice would be, do so. It’s really rather good. Perhaps even as good as some of the recent orgasmic reviews have suggested. Listened to ‘As Is Now’ on double vinyl today for the first time. It really is a wonderful record and I remain baffled by its failure to sell. If you haven’t bought it since it’s come down to, oh I dunno, £1.27 or thereabouts, then you’re a muppet. I know I risk alienating the casual reader with a remark like that, but there you go, eh? Life’s too short to hold grudges. Apart from in the case of George Lamb, obviously. What was I saying? Oh yeah, go here…

NME Weller Page

and scroll down to the Paul Weller Media Player section. You’ll need to register, but they don’t want much info. Then click and you’re off. Enjoy.

*It’s a track on the album.

Plus, you can hear the new album from, the rather fabulous, Ron Sexsmith here. I’ve not listened to it all yet, but if you like the old stuff you’ll like this. A little like Spiritualized, each album has plenty in common with the previous one, but if you like one, you’ll like them all. Have a listen. It’s free. That seems less of an endorsement than I’d meant. Never mind.

Weller-Weller-Weller-Uh, tell me more…

Despite receiving middling reviews for most of his albums since ‘Stanley Road’, Paul Weller is one of those artists who are almost entirely above critical opinion. They’re safe from attack and have pretty much carved out their own corner of cool, in which they will reside forever. Having witnessed him in action last night at Derby’s Assembly Rooms, I’m reasonably certain I get it.

Firstly, and this was the first time I’d seen him, he is a quite wonderful musician, whose boundless enthusiasm radiates from him for the duration of the gig. You can tell he really fucking loves the songs he’s playing, and it’s a sense of abandon you don’t see at many live shows.

Secondly, he’s just about got the art of building a set sorted. Admittedly, after the years he’s had to perfect this he should really have it perfected, but the material he played ensured that a state of rapture was duly bestowed upon all present by the point it was time to head homewards. Sadly, ‘The Eton Rifles’ got the biggest cheer of the night. While I understand this from the nostalgia angle, I’m a firm believer that much of what Weller has done solo is worthy of attention. Ok, so ‘Illumination’ is hardly an album that’ll appear in Mojo‘s ‘Buried Treasure’ feature in twenty years’ time, but can you honestly deny the quality of ‘Stanley Road’ and ‘As Is Now’? A friend I was with suggested that the audience looked like they were here just for ‘You Do Something To Me‘. I’d argue that that was far too modern for many of this audience. Not to say it wasn’t a great audience, mind. Weller seemed genuinely chuffed with the response he got – presumably this was at least in part down to the plethora of new tunes being debuted – and as a result we received a bonus encore of ‘All You Need Is Love’, which was thoroughly charming and almost as good an end to a gig as walking out of Richard Hawley‘s Buxton date to the strains of Louis Armstrong‘s ‘What A Wonderful World’.

Thirdly, the new album is likely to be shit-hot, based on the material offered up. Only the odd song ended up chugging as he was prone to do around the turn of the new millennium, and the upbeat stuff sounded urgent and, most importantly, fantastically soulful. I’ve long been of the opinion that he could release a truly beautiful soul record, in the mould of the live version of ‘Broken Stones‘ which builds on the already brilliant foundations of one of my favourite Weller tunes and takes it off into orbit. It was last night’s joint highlight along with ‘Wild Blue Yonder’, the recent one-off single that was supposed to launch a whole run of stand-alone singles. Ah well, he’ll do whatever the fuck he likes, one supposes.

Fourthly, and this is the weird bit, I don’t think I’ll ever feel the need to see him live again. Taking nothing away from what was, in the main, an excellent performance, there’s slightly too much of the self-indulgent guitar wankery that is so acceptable to fans in possession of rose-tinted ocular matter and the overwhelming sense of ‘hope he plays a few from his days in The Jam‘ that hung over the crowd a little to visibly is a little hard to ignore. I’m glad I saw him, and he kept me entertained. But with ticket prices at £30 and upwards, I’m not sure that’s the most likely route for my disposable income in the future. I can’t be the only one who feels like this after certain gigs, can I? Great, but once is enough.

I’ve pre-ordered the new album, ’22 Dreams’, mind. Here’s the new single.