BEST OF 2017: 27. Jake Xerxes Fussell – What In The Natural World

While the Christmas shelves are packed with hellish covers albums by the like of Bradley Walsh, Alexander Armstrong and even Nick cocking Knowles, the finest example of the concept delivered in 2017 is surely this nine track delight. Four traditional pieces rub shoulders with other folk songs of varying lineage and a piece from Duke Ellington’s 1941 musical revue, ‘Jump For Joy’. I won’t pretend that its best setting is probably the fading summer evenings of late June, but it can still enchant as the de-icer reigns.

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Having played the blues from his teenage years, fronted a country band and learnt from fabled fingerstyle guitarist Steve Mann, Fussell’s impressive pedigree is on full show on this second solo outing. It’s certainly better than some of his Welsh pronunciation during his endearingly playful take on ‘Bells Of Rhymney’ that closes the first side. The remarkable propulsion of his playing style is utterly absorbing and this is a very easy album in which to get lost. I’ve come to, stirred out of my moment by the repeating click of the runout groove with this one on several occasions.

The aforementioned ‘Jump For Joy’ is the sort of performance that would ensnare a curious but previously unaware festival crowd, while ‘Have You Ever Seen Peaches Growing On A Sweet Potato Vine?’ is almost meditative at moments. ‘Canyoneers’ soars on some eloquent steel guitar, while ‘St. Brendan’s Isle’ is a full band rumble. The album’s final track, ‘Lowe Bonnie’, features guest vocals from Joan Shelley, whose self-titled record from this year is also worth a listen. This spacious reading whirls hypnotically for almost seven minutes and is a suitably serene conclusion for an album that is considerably more emotionally affecting that it might at first seem. If it hits you the way it hit me, you’ll be wanting to pick up his self-titled debut album pretty quickly too.

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BEST OF 2017: 28. Molly Burch ‘Please Be Mine’

I make a point of visiting a number of record shops whenever I can, going beyond my regular haunts. While I may only make it down to Totnes once or twice a year, I can always be sure of receiving some wonderful recommendations from Rupert, Jenny and the team. Sometimes that happens during a lengthy chat over a cup of tea, on other occasions it’s just a result of reading their info labels on the records. It was the latter that resulted in this particular album ending up in my collection back in April and it didn’t disappoint.

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There is a slightly festive feel to some of the retro country soul jangle on offer here and it’s a constant joy, with poised yearning commandeering centre stage. Think She & Him if they weren’t so cynically cold in their delivery and you’ll be somewhere in the right ballpark, but this is far from novelty. These songs are beautifully arranged and perfectly produced, Burch’s resonant vocals rising out of the aching backdrop on tracks like ‘Loneliest Part’ and ‘Not Today’.

Reviews around the time of release couldn’t seem to decide whether it was full on Patsy Cline or in the shadow of Phil Spector and, as a result, I didn’t pay much attention. How grateful we should be for the independent record shops that wade through the new release and leave them on the shop stereo all day before deciding what really matters, otherwise records like ‘Please Be Mine’ would skip through the cracks. Only last year, Drift turned me on to The Radio Dept, a band I’d somehow overlooked for about thirteen years. Those writers can be forgiven as this record doesn’t naturally sit in any one box or lend itself to a particular label. What I can say with certainty is that I’m still finding it magical, many months later, and it definitely suits the December chill should you be seeking a new listen.

BEST OF 2017: 29. Sufjan Stevens, Nico Muhly, Bryce Dessner, James McAlister ‘Planetarium’

Even an educated guess informed by the names of those involved in this ambitious project wouldn’t have come close to capturing what the seventy-six minutes of ‘Planetarium’, a conceptual song cycle about the solar system, actually sound like. It was an album I was asked to review, something of a rarity as most of my writing these days being about releases to which I’ve been drawn. This element of uncertainty was  compounded by the record’s length, even with several promising names on the cover. Thinking back, a mildly trepidatious frame of mind was probably ideal for the first listen and it was almost impossible to feel at ease, so frequently were my expectations confounded. Early tracks offer up an electronically embellished nod towards the piano-driven simplicity of Stevens’ sublime ‘Carrie & Lowell’, but vocals suddenly pitch up or disappear behind vocoder effects.

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Opening track ‘Jupiter’ burbles away quite beautifully until, five minutes in, it’s shredded by machine gun beats. The orchestral leanings of Dessner and Muhly ebb and flow, taking flight during the majestic ‘Pluto’ only for the track to then retreat to a Stevens vocal atop some skittering synth. Although it occasionally feels like a bit more of that distinctive voice would be desirable, if only a quarter of your album occupies the same territory as his stunning 2015 release you’re still going to be worthy of note.

That’s not to say that collective efforts of Muhly, Dessner and McAlister aren’t pretty special also. I’m rather partial to ‘Uranus‘ (fnarr-fnarr) which progresses through several movements, including a choir of Sufjans. The twitchy beats of ‘Moon‘ are positively Yorke-ian and ‘Saturn’ is crying out for a full on house treatment. Fifteen-minute near-finale ‘Earth’ is something of a precis of all that has gone before, leaving ‘Mercury’ to conclude proceedings with a demure beauty. Its capacity to be both frenetic and glacial without feeling disjointed is impressive. Despite its considerable length, ‘Planetarium‘ is a record that needs to be played in full to truly hit home.

BEST OF 2017: 30. BNQT ‘Volume 1’

Midlake haven’t quite been the same since frontman Tim Smith headed off for solo pastures from which he has yet to fully emerge. He did put in an appearance on this year’s Lost Horizons album, his track ‘She Led Me Away‘ proving to be the clear highlight of a very mixed bag. While Eric Pulido stepped up to sing for 2013’s ‘Antiphon’, multiple alternative realities present themselves with this debut set by the indie supergroup he conceived, BNQT. Writing and vocal responsibilities are shared equally between Band Of Horses’ Ben Bridwell, Franz Ferdinand’s Alex Kapranos, Grandaddy’s Jason Lytle, Travis’ Fran Healy and Pulido. The resulting classic rock tinged Americana is largely glorious, despite still feeling a little like some vintage compilation handed down through the generations as a result of the distinctive voices involved.

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Unlikely Force’ shimmers delicately atop a splendidly assertive piano line and ‘Failing At Feeling’ is a gloriously grandiose, slow-burning, string-laden slice of vintage Grandaddy. From its opening notes ‘Mind Of A Man’ sounds like a late-period Travis song, a good thing in my book but I’m ducking in anticipation of your digital missiles, and ‘Hey Banana’ is propelled on a signature Franz strut. ‘Real Love’ appears to have drums played by Animal and evokes solo George Harrison at his melodic peak. Closer ‘Fighting The World‘ finds Kapranos on less familiar ground, soaring atop a glistening mid-paced mooch of a track.

The varying styles coalesce naturally, helped by the rest of Midlake forming the backing band for the entire record. With its varied pace and stellar cast, ‘Volume 1’ is a joyous and uncomplicated debut, all topped with artwork perfect for evoking a bygone era. Regular readers will know that I don’t really go in for the media fetishising of my favoured format, but this really is one of those records that doesn’t feel right unless you’re dropping the needle at the start of each side.

One year on: Ready to go again

Having just re-read my piece from this point in 2016, I’m happy to report that, with a month remaining, 2017 has been a less emotionally intense year. For me, at least, as I don’t live in America. Those of you who just swing by for a mix of effusive similes, unbridled passion and withering sarcasm will be pleased to know that I have no cause to dwell upon personal events this time. As always, I’ve listened to a lot of excellent music over the year and I continue to resolutely rebuff anyone who tries to argue that there’s not as much good music these days. I may struggle ten years down the line, once our sub-Spotify culture has completely eroded the means to make a living by making art, but there have been many, many tremendous releases since January ticked around and I’ll endeavour to convince you of that fact while December breezes by.

After starting the year by contributing to a couple of issues of a magazine apparently committed to my preferred format but almost entirely reviewing from streams and downloads, as well as permitting the use of the term ‘vinyls’ in one feature, the potential print utopia revealed its true colours and my quiet retreat continued. A happy medium has emerged whereby Clash, and allow me a quick nod to the ever lovely Felicity and Robin over there, have given me an opportunity to occasionally flag things I know I could do a decent job with and, as a result, I’ve done a few long-form reviews across the year. Having made peace with it now being a headspace-offering hobby, I no longer feel the need to say yes to loads nor to do the usual suspects, unless they genuinely appeal. Apart from a ludicrously short turnaround on the comically MOR Liam Gallagher album, it has been a thoroughly pleasant experience. As an aside, there’s normally a reason why they’re keeping access that tight. How likely is it that you would have a record so good you don’t want people to hear it yet?

For those of you with a grasp of calendar years, you’ll be aware that the little person has just turned one and I’m happy to confirm that she remains a delight. She has kindly agreed to a regular sleep pattern so that I can now resume my traditional end of year format of counting down thirty wonderful records released since January. Having started from a short(long)list of 74, I’ve whittled it down to what will shortly follow. As always, click the artwork to launch a stream and feel free to chip in at any point. I’ll keep an overview list ticking along too and we’ll aim to have the whole thing wrapped up by the time the festivities properly commence. So as to avoid what modern folk term spoilers, I’ve put a picture of some of my favourites from last year at the top of this page. One day, I’d like to put up the missing list for 2016, but let’s not run before we can walk, eh?

BEST OF 2016: Songs Of Loss

It was interesting to hear Francis Whately this week confidently asserting that David Bowie didn’t stage manage his exit quite as perfectly as the timing of events makes it so tempting to assume. Johan Renck, the director of both the ‘Blackstar’ and ‘Lazarus’ videos, confirmed in Whately’s ‘The Last Five Years’ documentary that the setting for the latter’s visual representation had been decided prior to Bowie hearing that his treatment was to be concluded. It’s an almost instinctive reflex to think that some of the performance was altered as a result or that aspects were plotted with knowledge of the likelihood of his circumstances in mind, but we’ll never know for certain. Interpreting the ‘real’ meaning behind art is tricky enough at the best of times but, when it comes to scrutinising work born of grief and manifestations of mortality, our tendency to apply additional layers of interpretation from a distance in the future, laced with comforting hindsight, is almost unstoppable.

Three of 2016’s finest albums fell into this bracket for me. Two appeared to confront their maker’s demise, one more literally than the other, while the third seemed inextricable from the tragic loss of a child. Only ‘Skeleton Tree’, by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, was released with the audience fully aware of those additional, meaning-distorting events. Both ‘Blackstar’ and Leonard Cohen’s ‘You Want It Darker’ just made it out into the world prior to their creators’ final breaths. Re-reading reviews of Bowie’s final album published just prior to his passing, it’s startling to be reminded of the theories around ISIS and shunning fame when scrutinising the lyrics. Whereas Cohen’s words were less oblique and had a finality suggesting at the very least a second retirement, it was simply unthinkable that Bowie – only recently returned from a lengthy absence and seemingly in prolific form – might be talking about himself. The difference in listening to ‘Dollar Days’ and ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’ on Friday January 8th 2016 and on Monday January 11th 2016 spelt this out as clearly as any words can do now, some twelve months later.

By the time ‘You Want It Darker’ emerged, David Remnick’s remarkable piece on its author had been published in The New Yorker. It was clear from his encounter with Cohen that Remnick saw the reality of this man’s situation. Much coverage was generated by a comment about some new lyrics, “I don’t think I’ll be able to finish those songs. Maybe, who knows? And maybe I’ll get a second wind, I don’t know. But I don’t dare attach myself to a spiritual strategy. I don’t dare do that. I’ve got some work to do. Take care of business. I am ready to die. I hope it’s not too uncomfortable. That’s about it for me.” If there had been any uncertainty about the meaning behind some of the songs on what would soon be confirmed as his final album, and there clearly was from reading advance reviews, then this largely put paid to it, coating it in a layer of grave meaning too heavy to shake.

I’ve still not watched ‘One More Time With Feeling’. I intend to, but couldn’t quite bring myself to attend a late night screening on my own of something I knew would likely dislodge certain emotions. The imminent DVD release will do for me, but coverage of it and ‘Skeleton Tree’ have hardly held back on the curious nature of the subject matter, with most of the lyrics written prior to the death of his fifteen-year-old son, Arthur, in the summer of 2015.  Some of the seemingly prophetic imagery is disconcerting and it’s pretty clear that the sonic palette of the record reflects the conditions of its creation, even if the raw materials had been crafted in advance of them. It is a staggering record, both ugly and beautiful at different times and sometimes simultaneously both. Else Torp’s majestic presence on ‘Distant Sky’ offers the closest thing to balm, while ‘Anthrocene’ seems consciously grubby in its production. The overall effect of ‘Skeleton Tree’ is less oppressive than one might expect and certainly not an album that one avoids because of its raw emotions. It is, as with all three of these records, great art from adversity.

After the comically awful artwork for 2014’s nevertheless pretty decent ‘Popular Problems’, it would have been reasonable to assume that Leonard Cohen was unlikely to ever add another classic to his beautiful but sporadic output. Not only were the visuals pinpoint perfect for ‘You Want It Darker’, but the thirty-six minutes of music serve as a quite magnificent farewell. The proximity of its release to my own loss perhaps played a part in this becoming so resonant and affecting, but it will be as tied to 2016 for me as ‘Blackstar’, despite the lack of a modern jazz band. The arrangements are sparse but specific: no lack of attention to detail for this final statement. ‘Leaving The Table’, ‘Travelling Light’ and the title track are particular high points, each addressing the subsequent departure in their own particular ways. However, the track to which I keep returning is represented in two parts. ‘Treaty’ appears to be a reflection on his relationship with God, Cohen’s low rumble stating rather wearily, “I’m angry and I’m tired all the time.” A deeply powerful track, no matter how many times you return to it, even its creator couldn’t resist revisiting it before pulling down the final curtain, concluding things with ‘String Reprise / Treaty’, elevating the refrain to elegiac status and allowing one final trip around those aching emotions. The procession concludes and a remarkable talent is lost to the world.

Like many others, I’m braced for the curious emotions of the media commemorating Bowie during the week marking one year since his death. While Cohen’s departure felt sad but at least plausible, the sudden switch from an imagined immortality to complete absence in the case of the dame was so hard to process. I have been watching endless YouTube clips of him pretty much ever since, lunging at each rediscovered interview from several decades ago and absorbing anything I didn’t already know about him. Adam Buxton’s ‘Bowie Wallow’ podcasts were a soothing treat and a righteous celebration, while Steve Schapiro’s book of photography offered fascinating snapshots from one of my favourite eras. My iPod has pretty much the entire discography on it, just in case there’s something obscure that I need to reach for at any given moment. The immersion in his work that was prompted by his passing faded a little over the months, but not a lot. ‘Blackstar’ didn’t leave the car for over a month after the news, ‘Station To Station’ soundtracked the journeys to and from the hospital during my dad’s final days and there was a week in the summer when I played almost nothing but ‘Low’, over and over. ‘Blackstar’, however, has been picked over time and again and I fear I have nothing new to say about it.

Having gleefully dragged my wife into the living room after she arrived home from work to hear the line “Man, she punched me like a dude” delivered with such gusto at the start of ‘’Tis A Pity She Was A Whore’ on the day of the album’s release and puzzled over the references back to ‘A New Career In A New Town’ on closing track ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’, we then spent an hour or so the following morning flicking through the ‘Best Of Bowie’ DVD, still in awe of the man. The weekend around the release of ‘Blackstar’ was as Bowie-saturated as any I had had in some time. It made the winding sensation upon being told on the following Monday morning by a colleague that he had died all the more sickening. Unlike some, I didn’t avoid the album as a result. It was a way of dealing with the news. A focal point for a potent range of emotions. And so began the process mentioned earlier, of applying hindsight to a set of songs that had already begun to assert themselves according to one set of rules only for everything to change entirely.

Blackstar’, ‘Skeleton Tree’ and ‘You Want It Darker’ have little in common musically or lyrically. They are linked by circumstance and by theme. They are all subject to the distortions of their audience but they all rise to the challenge rather than buckling under such weight. They bring comfort in times of distress and offer perspective when clarity is lacking. They are inseparable as my albums of 2016 and their potency remains undiminished.

BEST OF 2016: Suggested Listening – Part 1

As is the nature of these things, I said I would write about some of my favourite albums of the year, rather more informally than normal, across the past month. I really intended to, but only the piece on the Villagers made it to the site. Now, with only two days of 2016 remaining, I’m going to resort to several summary pieces. The first of these can be found below. Click the album titles if you want to have a listen to anything. A second summary piece and a rough rank order will follow. Probably.

Meilyr Jones’ excellent solo debut, ‘2013’, was an early highlight, mixing hints of Randy Newman and Morrissey’s better side. 2015’s taster track ‘Refugees’ didn’t exactly set the scene, although subsequent singles have had the same pleasant problem. It sounds like a best of that ranges across the various eras of an artist’s career rather than the product of one period of writing. It makes for heady listening and pay close attention to the little details, including some beautiful field recordings.

A late addition to the list was The Radio Dept.’s ‘Running Out Of Love’. An emphatic recommendation from Totnes’ ever splendid music emporium Drift, this Swedish group’s fourth outing occupies a space somewhere between Erland Oye’s solo album and a fair chunk of New Order’s output over the years. It appears to have upset some of the faithful because of the reduced use of guitars, but it’s a magnificent record and one which works majestically in its entirety. Had it not escaped my attention on release it would likely be higher up my list.

With ‘Super’, Pet Shop Boys once again showed that they’re not ready for the  smooth, elegiac descent that ‘Elysium’ implied, continuing the fine form of ‘Electric’ and delivering one of their finest ever singles in ‘The Pop Kids’. It’s a short, lively record that isn’t perfect but which indulges a fondness for high camp and almost comically excessive harmonies to a remarkable degree.

Although not really a 2016 release, or even 2015 if you go back to its original French language form of 2014, Christine & The Queens’ ‘Chaleur Humaine’ is a very special album indeed. You’ll know the glorious single ‘Tilted’ and may have been lucky enough to see some of her magical performances across the year. These are songs with a social message, a powerful, particular voice and a genuine purpose, as well as some of the finest pop hooks I’ve heard in an age. Most of that could also be said about Solange’s  ‘A Seat At The Table’. Vintage soul grandiosity is a touchstone, but there’s no mistaking when these songs were made, adding all sorts of alternative, jazz and electronica references across its 21 tracks. It’s as fine a critique of modern America as several dozen lengthy New Yorker pieces will ever give you. I’ve still not quite fully got my head around it, but I already know it’s great.

Teenage Fanclub’s ‘Here’ offered welcome autumnal sunshine, marking their finest album since 1997’s ‘Songs From Northern Britain’. Mid-paced jangle and soothing textures are the order of the day and ‘I’m In  Love’, ‘Hold On’ and ‘Live In The Moment’ are useful ways in for the unitiated. Georgia Ruth broadened the sonic landscape of my album of 2013 to craft ‘Fossil Scale’, co-producer David Wrench adding yet another triumph to his collection, as her strident folk melded with a little more electronica than of old. Radiohead’s ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’ provided several of my all time favourite songs of theirs, not least the exceptional ‘The Numbers’, which has an oddly jazzy looseness to it that is utterly stunning. The deluxe edition was a right con though and the mastering left more than a little to be desired.

Michael Kiwanuka made a fair old leap from his rather lovely debut ‘Home Again’ on ‘Love and Hate’, being to the orchestral soul sound of the 1970s what Amy Winehouse’s ‘Back To Black’ was to the emphatic propulsion of 1960s Motown. It’s an album that needs taking in its entirety and it will hypnotise you over a decent pair of headphones. Another which suits that method of consumption, but also served to be one of my preferred driving records of the year, was Ryley Walker’s superlative ‘Golden Sings That Have Been Sung’. His previous album had already shown a fairly remarkable talent in the making but this was a tour de force, underlined by the bonus edition containing a forty minute workout of ‘Sullen Mind’ that pushed and pulled the song all over the place. Lyrically great and musically full of confidence, there were still shades of Tim Buckley but with added touches of Jim O’Rourke and Wilco at their most strung out. It’s an album with an evocative atmosphere across its duration, slightly out of step with the times of its creation.