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 2016: Villagers – Where Have You Been All My Life?

It all hinges on ‘Wichita Lineman’, a piece of music so ubiquitous that one could be forgiven for thinking that it’s impossible to do a bad version of it. There is some truth in that, in as much as a truly great song will eke out a shallow breath even after some fairly brutal treatment at the hands of a careless producer or inept vocalist, but it’s actually a little more complex. In fact, what is so often the case with songs like this is that the really tricky thing is doing a version that is genuinely, sincerely great. It is at the other end of the scale where so many artists flounder. The song is golden and they’re dab hands themselves, so what could go wrong? As it turns out, after half an hour of rummaging around on Spotify, quite a lot. I’ve always been partial to R.E.M.’s raw live take released around the time of their finest album, ‘New Adventures In Hi-Fi’, and there’s a Smokey Robinson & The Miracles version that I didn’t know but now rather like, but most of what remains would make for a fairly mediocre lift experience. Johnny Cash’s late period approach almost flattens it, Sergio Mendes rips out its heart, Tom Jones over-emotes it in a way that only a man who believes he’s far sexier than anyone else does could do and whatever the hell botoxed Marti Pellow thought he was up to is not immediately clear. In short, ‘Wichita Lineman’ can make some of the best, and Marti Pellow, sound like X Factor third week evictees if it’s not treated well.

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All of which is a lengthy way of setting the context for this overlooked gem of a record that crept out on January 8th. As was the case for most things released around the time of Bowie’s death, it had little chance of catching the public’s attention. Add in the fact that it was a collection of intimate re-workings of mostly previously released material, recorded in a day, and it doesn’t sound like one to set the world alight. A quick dash through the tracks upon release was arrested after trialling yet another take on the aforementioned Jimmy Webb-penned classic about the lonely worker. Conor O’Brien’s tender, creaky delivery breathes new life into a song that’s had more than its fair share of outings. As an album closer it is majestic and it is a compliment to his own material that it sounds entirely in keeping with the fifty minutes of music that precede it here.

Opening with two tracks from 2010’s ‘Becoming A Jackal’, it becomes immediately clear that there is a logic behind this endeavour. While that debut holds up six years on, the refinement on show here serves to recast some of those tracks as modern torch songs. ‘Set The Tigers Free’, with its hushed drums and lulling synth is a glorious opener, conveying the fact that O’Brien’s voice is a much more nuanced vehicle for these words than it once was. The descending piano part on ‘Everything I Am Is Yours’ extracts one of the glorious but subtle elements of the original and foregrounds it as the whole thing speeds up and take off.

Songs that might have otherwise been regarded as pleasant parts of previous records suddenly appear fully realised. ‘My Lighthouse’ benefits from a sparse performance, with just a little light flugelhorn and dramatic reverb taking it somewhere other than its incarnation on 2013’s ‘{Awayland}’. ‘That Day’, from the debut, loses its zip of old and instead becomes all the more forlorn and enveloping, the final minute one of those magical examples of an artist and their band slowly removing themselves from the landscape note by note and decibel by decibel.

The Soul Serene’ is one of the more grandiose moments on a largely demure set, imbued with a little more energy than the version on 2015’s ‘Darling Arithmetic’, while ‘Memoir’ makes its first appearance as a Villagers song, having originally been written for Charlotte Gainsbourg. A nimble shuffle with a beautiful chorus, it should serve as another incentive for anyone grumbly enough to feel like the logic behind this release isn’t worthy of their time. The burbling electronica of 2013’s ‘The Waves’ makes way for the alchemical fizz that can emerge from a small group of musicians playing in front of each other, lost in the moment. In crafting a cohesive palette for all twelve songs, O’Brien has arrived at something truly special.

Perhaps most telling in my assertion of the quality of ‘Where Have You Been All My Life?’ is the fact that none of Villagers’ previous albums have made it into my end of year countdowns. This spontaneous performance became a perfect storm. From the title and artwork right the way through to the final studio ambience that concludes ‘Wichita Lineman’, this is a musician in his element, portraying the strongest examples of his work in the most magical of lights.

Where Have You Been All My Life?’ is out now on Domino.

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