Best Of 2020: 24. Keeley Forsyth ‘Debris’

Pretty much anything from prior to March doesn’t feel like it happened in 2020. It is almost as if the overwhelming sense of the inevitable that descended in the middle of that month was a hard reset on the year and it just rebooted in some sort of actually-not-all-that-safe mode. Looking back on those initial weeks, it’s noticeable how a number of releases from the first quarter have been re-cast by what followed. 

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I remember my first listen to ‘Debris’, early one Saturday morning in late January. It was prompted by the pretty emphatically positive notices it was receiving from trustworthy types on Twitter and I had missed any PR build up. The biographical details supplied with its release – most striking was the use of music as a form of communication following a period of serious, incapacitating illness – added to the sense that this might be something special, something different. Reviews and features referenced late-period Scott Walker and the mesmeric Aldous Harding. Fine points of reference but there is different, more sparse production at play here that makes for a sharply compelling listen.

Forsyth’s voice is unlike any other I can recall. At times, especially on the title track which opens the record, it almost sounds like a string instrument at play. It is front and centre of this album and the accompaniment is minimal, with harmonium, cello and deft synths offering occasional embellishment to guitar and piano. ‘Look To Yourself’ possesses a hypnotic and metronomic quality, evoking the sense of a timeless folk track, and its refrain “we are only human” has felt rather fitting as the months have worn on. 

Centrepiece ‘Lost’ is a brave and visceral inclusion, starting with the lyrics: “Is this what madness feels like? The smooth space after all boundaries have been dissolved. Where there is wind, high wind, but no tall trees for it to grapple with.” The lines are initially sung-spoken at breathy speed before opening up, with a whirling wash of sound anchored by the indefatigable harmonium almost pushing up against the vocals. It is truly incredible. Even after dozens and dozens of listens, I don’t think I’m even faintly close to fully experiencing everything it has to offer. 

No words I can write here will adequately conjure what you will experience by hearing this album. For some, it will be too raw, too stark, too other to fit with their musical palette but, where it clicks, I suspect it will stay. I don’t play it that regularly, as it does seem to pull events and emotions into its orbit without too much effort, but it hasn’t retreated too snuggly into the racks just yet. And I feel I should conclude with a word on that concise but faultless title. For the writer, for the performer, for the listener – this is all about the bits that are left behind. 

Buy ‘Debris’ from Sister Ray

Best of 2020: 25. Kylie ‘Disco’

Kylie is truly great. From the self-titled 1994 Deconstruction album onwards, there have been considerably more hits than misses. ‘Fever’, ‘Body Language’ and ‘Aphrodite’ were all awash with stone cold classic melodies and the sort of meticulous production that ensures they haven’t dated in the way plenty of hugely successful pop can. When you’re as good at this as Kylie is, you know how to get it right. Her live shows evolve the songs to capture the zeitgeist in a fashion on a par with the Pet Shop Boys. If you need convincing, listen to the re-work of ‘On A Night Like This’ from the ‘Aphrodite Les Folies’ tour and how it segues into ‘All The Lovers’ at its conclusion. Euphoric.

Recent projects have included an acoustic and string-driven catalogue reimagining at Abbey Road, a pretty impeccable Christmas record and a country-pop album that had its moments. What’s really noticeable is the creative restlessness that is prompting some wonderful music. There have been missteps too but anyone who writes Kylie off, just assuming they know what her music sounds like, runs the risk of missing out. 

As ever, we start with an irresistible one-listen-and-you-know-it-inside-out banger. ‘Magic’ is not one that will emerge too proudly from much lyrical scrutiny but it has a chorus melody to cherish. ‘Monday Blues’ joins the list of catchy countdowns of the days of the week, with subject matter that is entirely revealed in its two word title. Crucially, the emphatically chic, or Chic perhaps, guitar motifs around the chorus are a delight. 

The initial teaser ‘Say Something’ is a fine bridge from ‘Golden’ with an electronic hook that, while re-cast to maximum disco, wouldn’t have been out of place in that record’s surrounds. Here, it’s a mid-paced shimmy that does that hugely addictive nearly-but-not-quite-exploding moment several times before, having pleaded “can we all be as one again?”, reaching a compromise where all of the different bits of the song combine for an uplifting final passage. 

Side two opens with ‘Last Chance’, full on late-period Abba, while ‘I Love It’ takes the rapidly sweeping, genre-appropriate strings route to enlivening a slightly less robust chorus. A similar formula is deployed on ‘Where Does The DJ Go?’ where the frenetic rhythm evokes the delirious freedom of ‘Light Years’. ‘Dance Floor Darling’ defies the burden of its title and throws pretty much everything into the mix, including half of Daft Punk’s act. 

The main album concludes with ‘Celebrate You’ – “everything I like about myself is better with you” – an emphatic, piano-driven belter with a trademark higher-register chorus. It resists the temptation for yet another ending where the beat drops out and the last few words of the vocal are slathered in reverb and just fades merrily, as if the party were still going on somewhere. In this year of all years, that nod to a collective experience is very welcome. That it should be this good is a genuine treat.

(It might be useful to know that it has a very well mastered and cut vinyl release too, which is certainly appreciated. I do wish BMG were more consistent in that regard.)

Buy the limited edition vinyl from Raves From The Grave

Best of 2020: 26. Elvis Costello ‘Hey Clockface’

My relationship with Elvis Costello’s music goes back to a double CD compilation that was released to cash in around the time he recorded his version of ‘She’ to feature on the soundtrack of ‘Notting Hill’. Looking back now, it has one hell of a tracklist. From ‘Pump It Up’ past ‘Shipbuilding’ and on to ‘God Give Me Strength’, all within 40 odd tracks. It pointed the way for what would follow in the twenty-odd years since. A ferociously creative force who clearly thrives when pushing himself beyond the familiar, Costello has tried on many hats, both musical and sartorial. 

clockface

My first ever published review was, somewhat bafflingly, a full page piece in an early issue of The Word (or simply Word, as it was in the early days) covering ‘North’ and a batch of reissues that happened to be coming out around the same time. Quite why Paul Du Noyer thought I was the writer for that gig, I’ll never know but I’m eternally grateful that he did. I was quite partial to ‘North’ and I loved those 2CD reissue sets that Edsel and Rhino put out between them across the Noughties. Buying up his catalogue non-chronologically and with a manic energy that could only exist in an original branch of Fopp, I was equally fascinated by ‘Punch The Clock’ and his often stunning collaboration with Anne Sofie Von Otter, ‘For The Stars’

As a consequence, I’ve never been troubled by his stylistic lurches and his willingness to ignore the prevailing wind. One album might be country rock, the next a collaboration with members of The Roots. What makes ‘Hey Clockface’ so intriguing is that it takes this dismissive attitude to genre to its logical conclusion and weaves piano ballads, old-time swing, crunchy beats and spoken word pieces into one, not entirely cohesive whole. I love it, flaws and all. 

There are moments. So many moments. The woozy trumpet of ‘Radio Is Everything’. The resonant flugelhorn and brief burst of pure falsetto on ‘The Whirlwind’. The early hours fragility in ‘What Is It That I Need That I Don’t Already Have?’ “I read by line by line by line / That old sarcastic valentine / That you denied you’d sent to me / Then took it back.” In fact, the whole of ‘Byline’, from its magical piano opening onwards, especially the repetition of the title and tingling sense of the epic that descends early and doesn’t let up until its final words.  And many more moments.

Is it a concept album? No. Would it have ended up like this without lockdown? Almost certainly not. But, tempting as it is to try and impose a theory upon this approach, to seek out coherence where one actually suspects there quite gleefully is none, the curious tracklist is a rare delight. If Costello has never convinced you in the past, he won’t manage it now. His voice is – ever-increasingly – not for everyone, but the occasional rough edges suggest an artist having great fun in the studio, using music to find a way through the stasis of 2020. 2018’s ‘Hey Now’ was a cohesive, poppy grower which has matured nicely. I’ve no idea what I’ll think of ‘Hey Clockface‘ in a few years from here but, for now, in the oppression of mundane repetition its desire to be different, its capacity to unsettle and its restless imperfect energy is very, very welcome indeed. 

Buy ‘Hey Clockface’ on vinyl from Badlands

Best of 2020: 27. Andrew Wasylyk ‘Fugitive Light and Themes of Consolation’

For one of the excellent Bandcamp Fridays, an ongoing initiative which gives the company’s share of any purchase within those 24 hours to the artist, I was scouting about for interesting things to try at the height of summer and found several folk whose ears I trust recommending the previous album by Scottish multi-instrumentalist Andrew Wasylyk. ‘The Paralian’ had passed me by previously but proved to be an excellent tip. Largely instrumental music which was built around a restored 19th century harp and a grand piano, it occupied a jazzy, ambient, bleepy, folky territory that was instantly appealing and ensured a keen interest in his subsequent release, ‘Fugitive Light and Themes Of Consolation’, which emerged in September.

AWFLATOC

This new set picks up where its predecessor left off and is music for burdened minds and frazzled souls. Wasylyk’s fondness for David Axelrod, Alice Coltrane and, notably, the remarkable Virginia Astley is worn lightly but endearingly across these pieces, which fill the room thanks to the exquisitely sensitive mastering. I am reminded of the King Creosote and Jon Hopkins collaborations, the melodic jazzy soundscapes of Bill Wells and the instrumental dexterity of Mark Hollis. The whole package is a delight, starting with the striking artwork before browsing the accompanying glossy book of photography.

While Wasylyk is joined by a variety of musicians to provide some strings and wind instrumentation, he takes care of the rest, including Mellotron, Moog, glockenspiel, Fender Rhodes and a selection of field recordings. The very best instrumental work is still overwhelmingly lyrical and such is the case here. ‘The Violet Hour’ paints images of sweeping autumnal views as the light retreats, the temperature drops and the darkening colours perish to the floor.

The almost macabre combination of the beat and piano part for ‘In Balgay Silhouettes’ is deliciously enigmatic, crying out for an incident in the gloaming to accompany. The promotional literature made clear the connection to Wasylyk’s native Eastern Scotland in these pieces and the knowledge helps when attempting to gain purchase on the vivid imagery conjured. ‘(Half-Light Of) The Cadmium Moon’ builds to a conclusion so intense it seems to send a strong breeze from the speakers along with the piercing instrumentation. It is stunning.

The whole record is one that repays repeated listens and which truly opened up after I neared double figures. Once the melodies were familiar, I found myself focusing much more on the specific parts, the layers and the consistent emotional impact of these special songs. As others recommended Wasylyk to me, I emphatically continue the chain.

Buy ‘Fugitive Light and Themes Of Consolation’ on vinyl from Resident 

Best of 2020: 28. Paul Weller ‘On Sunset’

‘Long Hot Summers’, a rather wonderful recent documentary which tells the story of The Style Council, finishes with an unexpected and understated reunion performance of ‘It’s A Very Deep Sea’. With little fanfare, and all participants clearly enjoying the moment, a thirty-five year old song is relocated to the here and now with the full knowledge that it will mean so much to so many. It is just one moment which demonstrates Paul Weller’s light touch in his approach to his history. His willingness to discuss and perform songs from the past half a century without feeling constrained, defined or filed away surely stems from his continuing joy at being in the studio.

Read interviews with Weller and you’ll find a person buzzing about the most recent thing they’ve recorded, happy to discuss where the inspiration is coming from and where he’s off to next. In retrospect, the dearth of inspiration around the early Noughties to which he freely admitted and that prompted the not unpleasant but far from essential covers set ‘Studio 150’, was integral to rebooting him for this latest phase. The run he has been on since, starting with ‘As Is Now’ and arriving at 2020’s ‘On Sunset’ has been largely excellent. This latest was a huge headphones record for me during the summer and I love the rhythm of it all.

The spacious soundstage of ‘More’ is a fine example of Weller’s current strengths, foregrounding percussion, elevating striking but brief piano motifs and eking out mystery from an acoustic. It also features a small passage in French, courtesy of Julie Gros of Le SuperHomard. The gradual ascent to a tight but effervescent wig-out is euphoric. The title track follows, floating on a mix of his eternally soulful vocals, strident strings and measured but uplifting brass parts. The raw majesty of his singing was laid bare on 2001’s still remarkable ‘Days Of Speed’ solo live album and his use of his voice has been especially dextrous since.

Much has been said about the eight minute opener, ‘Mirror Ball’, which slowly shimmers, occasionally drops out – either to experimental noise or a brief acoustic phase – and concludes with looping music box chimes. In some respects, that sense of several different things happening at once is an accurate marker for what follows. ‘Old Father Tyme’ coats the verses in reverb atop a strutting, hiccuping piano line, while ‘Village’ is a glorious, mid-paced reflection on contentment that is deftly and warmly rendered where once it might have been gratingly bombastic.

Indeed, there is still a little bit of genre-hopping at play here, following the pastoral folk re-fit that he pursued with 2018’s ‘True Meanings’. ‘Equanimity’ has a deceptively retro ‘Ringo song’ rhythm, but the instrumentation is arrayed with an elegant nuance that steers it somewhere special. ‘Earth Beat’ is a fairly logical place for the Paul Weller of The Style Council to find himself thirty years later, melding the old and the new. It’s a long way from ‘Heliocentric’ but he seems very happy to be there.

Purchase the purple vinyl edition from What Records

Best of 2020: 29. Catherine Anne Davies & Bernard Butler ‘In Memory Of My Feelings’

When I first heard that journalist, author, broadcaster and all round lovely bloke Pete Paphides was going to be launching his own record label, it struck me as one of those rare moments in the world where exactly the right constituent parts are assembled for a project. The stellar array of less than predictable reissues that followed – if you want a sample, see what he did with Ian Broudie’s beautiful ‘Tales Told’ – only served to confirm that belief. This, however, is the first all new release to appear on Needle Mythology.

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A chance conversation with producer, writer and truly remarkable guitarist Bernard Butler resulted in Paphides being sent a link to an album constructed in collaboration with The Anchoress’ Catherine Anne Davies. It hadn’t yet found its place in the world, but Butler’s trust in Paphides opened up a route to a release and here we are.

The sparse but stately opener, ‘The Breakdown’, explores the impact and aftershocks of the aggressive pursuit of wealth, reflecting on the life of a banker post-crash: “Do you make the money, or is the money making you?” Other destructive impulses, including the pressure to adhere to performative behaviours, are explored on the wonderfully energised ‘Sabotage (Looks So Easy)’. ‘The Patron Saint Of The Lost Cause’ fondly evokes some of the similarly alchemical results witnessed when Davies worked with the Manics on ‘Dylan And Caitlin’ for 2018’s ‘Resistance Is Futile’.

One particular highlight is the title track of ‘In Memory Of My Feelings’, with its absolutely majestic transitions between several different paces. Davies’ voice is never less that stirring but it is especially resplendent on this one, sounding like a long-lost classic on the very first play. Another indisputable belter is ‘No More Tears To Cry’, a muscular pop-soul gem which apparently poured out in this form in the collaborative heat of the studio, having evolved from a previous incarnation as a sweeping Sixties-styled ballad. 

It’s a fabulous, timeless record and it’s possible to understand why Butler had been unsure about when and how it would come out. It is no criticism of these songs, more a suggestion that they exist in a space outside the zeitgeist, informed by two masterful songwriters in remarkable form. And then there’s that cover…

Buy the CD from Rough Trade

Best of 2020: 30. A Girl Called Eddy ‘Been Around’

The music industry was in a very different place in 2004. The top five best-selling albums in the UK that year came from Katie Melua, Maroon 5, Robbie Williams, Keane and, at the top, the Scissor Sisters, while the Christmas Number 1 was Band Aid 20. R.E.M. and George Michael released their worst albums, while almost everybody else decided it was time for a Greatest Hits. Within this rather variable landscape emerged one of the finest records of the last twenty years and an enduring favourite of mine: A Girl Called Eddy’s self-titled debut. Erin Moran’s first set, recorded with Richard Hawley, fused a New Jersey sensibility with the spacious atmospherics of Sheffield’s finest. It has hints of Bacharach and Aimee Mann, to name just a couple, but it stands alone, unique. And it often seemed that it would stand alone as the only album of her career, with rumoured follow-ups mentioned and forgotten at several points in the decade and a half that followed.

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However, after news emerged at the end of 2019, January delivered ‘Been Around’. Given my adoration of the debut, this was a must-listen and with it came a set of expectations so ridiculous it was almost impossible for those initial plays to be remotely objective. It took a little while for it all to click as, entitled music lover that I am, I somehow thought things would pick up where they were. Because, you know, we’re all still listening to Katie Melua, Band Aid 20 and Keane right now, aren’t we?*

The production is smoother, the songs more soulful and the whole thing rather bigger than its predecessor. The Bacharach swoon is still there, with lashings of Seventies guitar and AM radio horns. Working with Daniel Tashian, who was involved in Kacey Musgraves’ wonderful ‘Golden Hour’, Moran has put together a record that offers hope in winter and exudes warmth from every note. Its sheen may catch you out if you approach  in the claustrophobic chasm of exasperation that events in 2020 can initiate, seeming a little too plush for this world, but a more casual listen may quickly transform into a moment of delight. 

From the neat “Girl, where you been?” that prefaces the opener onwards, it’s clear that there is a lightness at play. This is not the tortured outcome of sixteen years of perfectionism. In setting the scene, the title track explains that Moran has “been around enough to trace the years upon my face; this is the place I’m happy to be.” The highlight is ‘Jody’, a tribute to a departed friend which celebrates a life well-lived across a buoyant, soulful backdrop. The lyric “He liked to call me kid, I liked it when he did” captures something about their relationship that makes me well up each time I hear it. I’m not sure I can say how or why, but that’s sort of the point of music, right? It can do those things that mere words cannot. It is a confluence of different aspects of existence that – every now and then – cuts through everything else. 

There’s plenty more to impress here, from the stark organ opening of ‘Lucky Jack (20-1)’ to the stuttering rhythm of ‘Finest Actor’ that sounds like it belongs on ‘Painted From Memory’, Bacharach’s sublime 1998 collaboration with Elvis Costello. The artwork, however, is less triumphant, but this is a minor gripe. 

While you might need to give it a few listens at different times and in different moods, ‘Been Around’ is an album which slowly but surely connects. It doesn’t sound like a follow-up to that striking debut, but then why would it? 

 

*I know you weren’t then, either. 

 

Purchase the vinyl from Raves From The Grave

Best of 2020 – Introduction

While this blog is traditionally dragged out of disrepair each December for some sort of assessment of the year in music, the countdown has been a little truncated of late given other commitments. However, with the need for head space, distractions and communal experiences in these difficult times, it seems the right occasion to try and do a proper Top 30 with the accompanying write-ups. 

The artwork will no longer take you to a certain streaming site, as I think we’re all well aware of how much they actually contribute to most of the artists appearing in this list. Instead, Bandcamp links will be provided where available and independent record shop purchase options will also be included. If you like the sound of something here but it’s new to you – and you can afford it – why not support those wonderful folk at the end of a trying year?

Most of my music writing these days goes into the vinyl review column on Clash Magazine’s website, also called Just Played. I should, once again, publicly acknowledge Robin Murray’s support with that venture. It had always amazed me that there wasn’t one somewhere else and, with his help, it became clear that the easiest solution was to do it myself. I have been delighted with the response and it continues to gather momentum. You can find the most recent edition here.

It has been another excellent year for music, although I’m generally inclined to think that such a description applies to almost all years providing you keep your ears open. It would seem that the impact of life on pause, through lockdown and lockdown-lite, was to refocus many people’s minds on their record collections. Some pulled everything off the shelves and started listening again, others made mail order a mission. My thoroughly pleasant social media circles have been awash with recommendations and observations over these months, which has been like a fuzzy, nostalgia-drenched theme park dedicated to what Twitter used to be like.

With that spirit rekindled, I’m going to give a full countdown a go for the first time in a while. Feel free to subscribe to get each update as it goes live or follow @justplayed for, quite possibly too many, notifications. As ever, comments are welcome and I hope you find something in here to embellish your music experiences of 2020.

While my list unfurls, you can also browse some very fine lists from the aforementioned indie troopers who have kept us in cardboard-wrapped vinyl this year:

Resident Music

Drift

Rough Trade

Bear Tree

So far:

30. A Girl Called Eddy ‘Been Around’

29. Catherine Anne Davies & Bernard Butler ‘In Memory Of My Feelings’

28. Paul Weller ‘On Sunset’

27. Andrew Wasylyk ‘Fugitive Light and Themes of Consolation’

26. Elvis Costello ‘Hey Clockface’

25. Kylie ‘Disco’

24. Keeley Forsyth ‘Debris’

23. Mirry ‘Mirry’

22. Jason Molina ‘Eight Gates’

21. Georgia Ruth ‘Mai’

20. Bill Callahan ‘Gold Record’

19. Owen Pallett ‘Island’

18. Hen Ogledd ‘Free Humans’

17. Cornershop ‘England Is A Garden’

16. Pet Shop Boys ‘Hotspot’

15. Phoebe Bridgers ‘Punisher’

BEST OF 2019: Part 3 – 5 – 1

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

  1. Weyes Blood – Titanic Rising [LISTEN]

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

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

  1. Michael Kiwanuka – Kiwanuka [LISTEN]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Purple Mountains – Purple Mountains [LISTEN]

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

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

“A setback can be a setup

for a comeback if you don’t let up

but this kind of hurting won’t heal.

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

and that’s just the way that I feel.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“My bedroom is a stranger’s gunroom

Ohio’s in a downward spiral

Can’t go back there anymore

Since alt-right opium went viral”

both offering political heartache and plain nostalgia:

“I’m binging hard on Annette Bening

And listening to R.E.M. again

Begin The Begin over and over

Begin The Begin over and over.”

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

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

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

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

I Am Easy To Find over and over

I Am Easy To Find over and over.

BEST OF 2019: Part 2 – 15 – 6

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

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

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

  1. Cate Le Bon – Reward [LISTEN]

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

  1. Aldous Harding – Designer [LISTEN]

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

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

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

  1. Lucy Rose – No Words Left [LISTEN]

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

  1. Big Thief – U.F.O.F. [LISTEN]

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

  1. Yola – Walk Through Fire [LISTEN]

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

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

  1. Elbow – Giants Of All Sizes [LISTEN]

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

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

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

  1. Richard Dawson – 2020 [LISTEN]

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