BEST OF 2012: 22. Graham Coxon – A+E

My general Blur infatuation extends to Graham Coxon‘s solo work, whatever mood he’s in. I enjoyed the scratchy early efforts, leapt around shamelessly to the poppier pair and then fell deeply in love with his acoustic epic, ‘The Spinning Top‘. The man responsible for some of the greatest guitar lines in musical history cannot avoid cracking riffs and beautiful melodies, even when he is leaving the edges of his music unsmoothed. And he really is on ‘A+E‘, which from its cover inwards suggests an album that’s given up gently flirting and being nice and is now opting for the take me or leave me strategy.

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What’ll It Take‘ lurches forward, all bleepy electro noises across the trademark Coxon chug and an especially minimalist lyric, largely asking “what’ll it take to make you people dance?” It’s hugely infectious, a little bit silly and utterly adorable. It is what we look to Coxon for and what he so often delivers perfectly. The guy in the skinny fit t shirt and the battered trainers to the right of Damon was always the manic, geeky indie kid and that passion for sound is present in everything he does. ‘A+E‘ is the closest he’s gone to his more abrasive sound in some time, but this is far from inaccessible. Just don’t have your first listen with it as background music. Let it wash over you, toy with your ears and draw you in.

Yes, you can pluck the odd track for a playlist or as part of an unimaginative shuffle, but this lot works best taken in one sitting. The substantial mid paced rumble of ‘Meet And Drink And Pollinate‘ beefs up the first side of the album, while ‘Seven Naked Valleys‘ is as good a start to the second half as most records have managed this year. Scuzzy horn sounds loop around an exhilarating mess of a guitars, bass and organ, while a drum pattern which wouldn’t be out of place on a funk 45 drives it all long. The old cliché that Graham was always pulling against Damon’s preference for pop melodies is one again dimmed here, with plenty of ‘A+E‘ proving to be thoroughly hummable. ‘Running For Your Life’, with its repeated “get back down the M1 cos we don’t like you” refrain, catches the slacker indie sound of the Nineties perfectly, sounding at once like a revered tune from that time. In a year when looking back at the majesty of Blur was once again a pleasure, Coxon has also manage to move forward in triumphant fashion.

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2009 – The Spiffing List

A little late, I know, but it would probably be more accurate if I waited until around March time, by which point I might have fully absorbed the 2009 albums I have. Can’t imagine there’d be much interest by then though, so here it is. As with last year, this is a Top 20 list of albums I’ve thoroughly enjoyed across 2009. I make no apologies for excluding certain albums that have appeared near the top of many media lists and am confident that you’ll simply look at the list as a curiosity that might make you explore one or two titles that you’ve either not heard or not spent long with. As with the 40 From The Noughties list, I fully expect many of you to heartily disagree with this list but all I’m saying is that these are my top 20 of the last year as things stand now. It may well change in time and, if you look at the 2009 albums in the aforementioned 40, you’ll see that some of them have already changed positions since I put that list together. Anyhoo, let’s get on with it, shall we?

20. Super Furry Animals – Dark Days / Light Years

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Not sure how it ended up falling so low in the end. Still a wonderful album, it just didn’t have quite the staying power I thought it might have had.

19. The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart – s/t

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Great fun, from start to finish. Reminds me of when the NME was published on tatty grey bog roll.

18. Atlas Sound – Logos

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I was bit late to the party on this one, but was glad I finally made it. Quirky washes of sound. A bit like Animal Collective with more tunes.

17. Camera Obscura – My Maudlin Career

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They don’t make bad records. Every one of them is a gem. This was another quietly brilliant record.

16. Annie – Don’t Stop

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The power pop album of the year. Xenomania in full flow and, in the absence of new Girls Aloud, it does the job just fine.

15. M. Ward – Hold Time

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Coffee shops and Apple may love him, but that doesn’t mean you can’t. A wonderful sleeper of an album. His entire back catalogue is great and don’t forget to check out ‘Monsters Of Folk’ which just missed out on this list.

14. Magnolia Electric Co – Josephine

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One of the first albums I reviewed for Clash and it’s a good ‘un. Jason Molina with his finest album in some time. He also released ‘Molina and Johnson’ this year which is almost as good and would have been No.22 had this list gone beyond a top 20. Well worth listening to both. 

13. Pet Shop Boys – Yes

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Their best in some time. ‘Pandemonium’ is ridiculously over the top, but in that oh-so-forgivable PSB way. A delight from start to finish and there’s a decent track-by-track commentary on Spotify for free too.

12. Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest

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A great overall sound to this one. Hadn’t really bothered with them up until this, but quickly retraced my footsteps and put that right. ‘Two Weeks’ and ‘While You Wait For The Others’ were classic singles. Not on Spotify, but click the picture for the latter of those two singles on VerTube.

11. Sleeping States – In The Gardens Of The North

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The first of the Noughty 40 to feature in this list also. A great record, still worthy of plenty of your time. It needs a few listens, but if it clicks, it’ll stay with you. 

10. Manic Street Preachers – Journal For Plague Lovers

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The most fun you can have with a Manics album in some time. Great packaging, great songs, great performances. Check out the Saint Etienne re-tooling of ‘Jackie Collins’ too. In the aforementioned 40 also.

09. Graham Coxon – The Spinning Top

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Another Noughty 40 album and one that splits opinion. I think his voice sounds charming on this record and I would argue that it’s his best by some distance. Beautiful at times. 

08. Richard Hawley – Truelove’s Gutter

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An album which I loved at the start, lost interest in for a bit but have since returned to at some great length and have realised just how spiffing it really is. Should have been in the big list and is probably his second best album to date.

07. Bat For Lashes – Two Suns

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One of those albums that you pootle along listening to every so often without realising how much you’re enjoying it. When it came to thinking about this list, I returned to it and it all clicked into place. This one has staying power, methinks.

06. MapsTurning The Mind

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I think I may have said enough about this one already. It’s in the big 40, and my review described it as ‘bordering on genius’. Job done.   

05. Doves – Kingdom Of Rust

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Ok, so it’s no ‘Lost Souls’ but then what is? To be fair, they sound like two different bands. This is the New Order phase and it’s bloody good. CD sounds like shite though. Treat yourself to the deluxe vinyl edition. Made #20 in the 40.

04. Trashcan Sinatras  – In The Music

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Still not Spotify-able but bloody lovely nonetheless. Gentle, well-crafted and beautifully sung. Just like every other Trashcans record. A welcome return and a great album. Highly placed in the 40 too. 

03. The Low Anthem – Oh My God, Charlie Darwin

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There are those who’ll bang on about how this is a 2008 album because they self-released it at the end of that year, but the world only really heard it in 2009 and it was only released over here in 09, so I’m having it. A quirky cross between gentle harmonies and Tom Waits honking. Splendid stuff and a Noughties classic also. 

02. The xx – xx

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Even a couple of months ago, I had no idea how high up the list this one would finish. It crow barred its way in to the Noughty 40 at the last minute and continued to impress all through December, resulting in this placement. It’s hard to define, but I had a go here.

01. Lily AllenIt’s Not Me, It’s You

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Justifiably highly placed in the big list and the top of this one, ‘It’s Not Me, It’s You’ is the best pop album I’ve heard in years. The lyrics are brilliant and musically it gets every single call just right. I have never tired of it since the day I first played it. There’s a bargainous CD/DVD edition available right now for not all that much cash and I can’t recommend it enough. 

39. Graham Coxon – The Spinning Top

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I remember dashing down to what was then a Virgin Megastore in Leeds one Monday during my time at uni in Leeds in order to grab one of the limited edition 7” pressings of ‘Freakin’ Out’, a marvellous power-punk single from Graham Coxon’s fifth solo album, ‘Happiness In Magazines’. The rough cardboard sleeve and garish artwork impressed but it wasn’t until I put it on the turntable, turned it up really very loud and started pogoing round the room that its position as one of my all time favourite bits of vinyl was assured. I soon stopped pogoing, by the way; a man of my size combined with a wooden floor do not a happy stylus-groove situation make.

And so vinyl has gone on to dominate my relationship with Coxon’s solo output. Although I owned the early albums on CD, it wasn’t until vinyl copies entered the collection that I really took them seriously and, similarly, it wasn’t until my double vinyl pressing of ‘The Spinning Top’ arrived that its standing in my collection was awarded. Having said that, I’d had the chance to hear it a little way ahead of release and duly loaded it onto the iPod and then left it for a bit. One Saturday evening, feeling full of cold and ensconced within more pillows than I thought we owned, I stopped scrolling at this album and set it going. When it came to a close, almost seventy minutes later, I was a little shocked to realise how well it had held my attention. For the next couple of days, I played little else. By the time the vinyl arrived, I already knew the album inside out and yet I was still ludicrously excited to play it.

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What music it contains. Grizzly Graham is still there on ‘Sorrow’s Army’, sweetly innocent Graham pops up on ‘Feel Alright’ but new and improved folksy Graham steals the show. ‘Look Into The Light’ rightly won comparisons with Nick Drake, ‘In The Morning’ is an epic thing of gentle beauty which is pretty bloody splendid from the off but completely slaps you around the face when it starts properly noodling about around the five minute mark.

It’s a remarkably effective left turn after the commercial sound of the final two EMI albums and the lo-fi approach to the four before those. It is Coxon’s masterpiece, I’d wager, and while it received little attention due to the media frenzy over the return of his old day job it was one of the stand out releases of 2009.

I even went to Port Talbot for them

Last week, I attended my thirteenth Manics concert. Even I had started to wonder if I might actually get bored of them at some point and yet they proved once again why I adore them quite so much. The three of them truly love being in that band. They love being on stage with each other, they love playing those songs for these people and James seems to have really grown into the role of all-conquering showman. On this recent tour, they played the whole of the new album, ‘Journal For Plague Lovers’, took a ten minute break and then belted out an hour of classics. It’s hard to pick fault with a second of it.

‘JFPL’ is a monstrously great rock album. It’s been called The Holy Bible’s second coming and, to be fair, there are some similarities but I’m still not sure that that’s the best way to approach this album. If anything, it’s the perfect blend of the Manics just prior to Richey’s disappearance and the Manics not long thereafter. The quite beautiful arrangements on ‘This Joke Sport Severed’ and ‘William’s Last Words’ are pure ‘late period Manics’, while the splendidly shouty chorus of ‘All Is Vanity’ and  the terrifying propulsion of ‘She Bathed Herself In A Bath Of Bleach’ come straight from the military era of 1994. It’s a truly fabulous album and a likely contender for my album of the year. That said, if you’ve never liked the Manics, this isn’t going to change your mind.

The rapturous response to pretty much every song in the classics set further reinforced my belief that I will never tire of this band. ‘Motorcycle Emptiness’ is one of the best songs of all time to witness live and the ferocity of this latest rendition was probably the best performance of it I’ve ever witnessed. Even early b-side, ‘Sorrow 16’ (great chorus, forgettable verse), prompted plenty of cheers and by the time we were all haplessly singing along to ‘A Design For Life’ the world had been put to rights and James, Nicky and Sean had triumphed once again. God, I love this band.

I spent much of last night gazing out of the window at perpetual drizzle whilst listening to a selection of Manics b-sides from across the years, although I seemed to alight on the ‘Everything Must Go’ era. (Yes, I am sad enough to have all of the b-sides categorised by album on the iPod.) Now, I know that my love of these tracks come from my fanboy-ish desire to hoover up every last note whenever possible and thus, with familiarity, so often a liking grows, but I genuinely believe that there is some outrageously good songwriting tucked away on numerous Manics b-sides. If I were to pick three, just from that era, for you to track down, I’d send you off to hear ‘No One Knows What It Feels Like To Be Me’, ‘Mr Carbohydrate‘ and ‘First Republic’. Go on, treat yourself. And if you can’t, there’s an email address in the previous post, get in touch and I’ll see if I can help you, er, find the songs.

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As for albums of the year, if I had to pick my top 5 right now, it’d be these…

5. Super Furry AnimalsDark Days / Light Years

4. Trashcan SinatrasIn The Music

3. Graham CoxonThe Spinning Top

2. Manic Street PreachersJournal For Plague Lovers

1. DovesKingdom Of Rust

It’ll all change, of course, but there have been some truly wonderful albums already this year. Bubbling under for that list are Grizzly Bear, Lily Allen, Jarvis, Madness, Duckworth Lewis Method, Moz and the new Magnolia Electric Co album, ‘Josephine‘, which is the best thing Jason Molina’s ever done. I’ve not had it that long, so it’s not in the top 5 just yet, but I suspect it may get there.