Best of 2020: Apologies For The Break In Transmission

Well, that was unfortunate, wasn’t it? On reflection, it was crazy to try and do a full length countdown last December. After the year we had all faced and juggling a proper job alongside various other writing, the time just wasn’t there. I stumbled on until 2020 was almost extinguished and then admitted defeat. Sadly, this left thirteen albums unaccounted for and the list jarringly incomplete.

With the intention to do a more lightweight format for the 2021 list, it seems only right to put to bed its predecessor, however briefly, before moving on. Forgive the brevity, but I’ll annotate as we go and see if I still agree with my views from twelve months ago. Epic level naval gazing, I know, but a few of you have asked so hopefully this will scratch that itch as well as allowing my completist urges to be sated.

13. Roisin Murphy – ‘Roisin Machine’ – A phenomenal record which feels like a collection of full length, heavy disco tracks pulled together into something seismic. Great sleeve too.

12. Douglas Dare – ‘Milkteeth’ – A record I took a little while to fall in love but for which I fell hard when it did click. It’s all about the purest, most remarkable vocal performances you’ve heard in some time. Mostly piano accompaniment. Fabulous artwork. Still holding up incredibly well despite the distance.

11. Kelly Lee Owens – ‘Inner Song’ – An absorbing album which necessitates the right conditions to click. Sadly, I never found a decent vinyl copy of it but the music itself is excellent. It has tremendous space in the cover of Radiohead’s ‘Arpeggi’, beguiling vocal layering for ‘On’ and shimmering phases to ‘Jeanette’.

10. James Dean Bradfield – ‘Even In Exile’ – Good old Jimbo. The piano work on this would go on to inform this year’s ‘The Ultra Vivid Lament’. With lyrics from a different Jones brother than in his day job (Patrick, Nicky’s older sibling) and a back story which helps to put it all in context, this felt a little like a trip through the sensational guitarist’s record collection. I did a lengthy review for Clash, if you’d like to know more.

9. Matt Berninger – ‘Serpentine Prison’ – A gorgeous album which has aged almost as well as Berlinger himself. While it’s obviously ‘the bloke from The National’, he opts to use his voice in different ways. Early lyric “my eyes are t-shirts, they’re so easy to read” had me and tracks like ‘One More Second’, ‘Silver Springs’ and ‘All For Nothing’ beautifully highlight the influence of Booker T. Jones as producer. Check out the deluxe edition tracks too, especially for the sensational version of ‘Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye’. Vinyl roulette required for GZ discs, but a stunning record. Should have been higher, on reflection.

8. Alabaster DePlume – ‘To Cy And Lee: Instrumentals Vol 1′ – Technically a compilation of sorts, but it works splendidly as body of work. Released by the always excellent International Anthem and available as a Pallas pressed vinyl edition, this music is remarkably lyrical for something with no words. A hugely eloquent saxophonist and inspired arranger, DePlume’s work here is stirring and often transcendent. Everyone I’ve ever recommended it to seems to love it, so you may as well join the club if you haven’t done so already. ‘Whisky Story Time’ or opener ‘Visit Croatia’ should suffice at winning you over.

7. Sault – ‘Untitled (Rise)’ – The second of two flat out fantastic albums delivered by elusive soul collective Sault in 2020. In the context of lockdowns, limited socialising and a shuttered music scene, instant and unexpected releases took on a whole extra layer of meaning and impact. Having become known for their genre-melding approach, it was no surprise to find electro soul, pure disco, wide-panned Brazilian percussion, squelchy funk and much more besides in this potent collection of songs. They reflect on ‘Scary Times’ before finishing on the shuffling majesty of ‘Little Boy’, which offers some hope in resilience.

6. Wilma Archer – ‘A Western Circular’ – Early in the first lockdown, BBC 6 Music adjusted its schedules to reduce the number of people in the studios each day. The biggest perk from all of this was the decision to extend Gilles Peterson’s imperious Saturday afternoon slot to four hours. It broadened his playlist even further and established a fierce bond with those listening in very dark times. His approach was so very human and his subsequent book collecting much of his work in those times is deeply affecting. One of the records I discovered thanks to him championing it during those broadcasts was ‘A Western Circular’. A new moniker for Will Archer, who had previously traded as the rather less appealing Slime, this is spacious, righteous, epic soul and more. Instrumental when it needs to be, elevated by guest appearances at other times, it’s a potent, commanding listen. The late MF Doom leads on ‘Last Sniff’, while Future Islands’ Samuel T Herring delivers understated beauty on ‘The Boon’ and ‘Decades’. The standout, though, is ‘Cheater’ which features Sudan Archives. Nimble but insistent, it is glorious. A great, somewhat underrated release from last year.

5. Fiona Apple – ‘Fetch The Bolt Cutters’ – If I’m honest, I’ve not been back to this one very much in 2021, despite being wowed by it at the time of release. One of many albums to appear digitally before we could get our hands on a physical copy, it seemed to draw the majority of online discourse into its orbit for a few days. The Waitsian percussion and raw piano is what most cut through with me, although the lyrics – helpfully and sensibly given their own booklet in the vinyl edition – are remarkable. The scale of the drums and the visceral thud of the piano on ‘Under The Table’ still delights and there’s so much happening across these thirteen tracks. It was the album that prompted some of the best music writing of that year and these two pieces from Laura Snapes and Jenn Pelly are worth reading if you haven’t already done so.

4. Alice Boman – ‘Dream On’ – A quietly haunting, woozily hypnotic record which had already charmed me prior to the start of end times, ‘Dream On’ suddenly became a balm during those early months of trying to figure out what the fuck was going on. There are hints of Stereolab and Broadcast in here, along with the Cocteaus and Aldous Harding also in the mix. It seemed to perfectly capture the isolation and emotional claustrophobia that we were facing, despite existing before it had all happened. I watched a recent interview with Damon Albarn in which he argued, in typically lackadaisically mystical fashion, that artists often write about things before they happen as they are channeling events around them. However much one might chose to buy into that, ‘Dream On’ is incredible and its reverb-heavy, funereal pace mixed with heart-melting beauty and timeless reference points make it a very special album indeed. While many missed it, every time I mentioned it online it prompted comments from those who had fallen hard for ‘Dream On’. ‘Wish We Had More Time’ and ‘The More I Cry’ will give you the idea, but 2020 in a record would probably be this.

3. Laura Marling – ‘Song For Our Daughter’ – I will never not be slightly in awe at how many incredible records Laura Marling had released before she turned 30. She continued the trend with the first release of her fourth decade, which was another album contextualised by lockdown. Released five days after Marling announced its existence, having opted for a revised approach once it became clear that the pandemic might be sticking around (oh, how little we knew), it was digital only for a few months. After the poise and drama of ‘Semper Femina’, this was different. In some respects, it feels a little like Marling flexing all of her many styles in one stunningly concise document. Her vocal seems to pull away from the tired rhythm of ‘Held Down’, while ‘Strange Girl’ picks up some of the playful, jazzy shuffle from ‘A Creature I Don’t Know’. The orchestral delicacy of ‘Blow By Blow’ is strikingly, sincerely beautiful. Closer ‘For You’ points elsewhere, though we probably shouldn’t be foolish enough to try and predict where Marling will head next.

2. Sault – ‘Untitled (Black Is)’ – To return to that Saturday afternoon lifeline provided by Gilles Peterson, it was the very first week that he returned to his 3pm start that he decided to play an album in its entirety. His social channels had captured the excitement around a new release he had received early that morning, which would turn out to be Sault’s third studio record, but it wasn’t until he got on air that afternoon that you knew you were going to be part of something. Who knows how many of us were on their Bandcamp page for its release the following Friday as a result of this infectious enthusiast, but here was a crossing of the platforms as old and new coalesced thanks to the urgency, potency and immediacy of these songs. Pandemic politics and the destructive rapidity of populism has accelerated news cycles to the point where it might seem like a reach to draw the mind back to events of the summer of 2020, but from the closing section of opener ‘Out The Lies’ this felt like a righteous commentary that expected the listener to keep up. While the wonderful, genre-bending soul-centred mix of sounds I mentioned above is present here too, this record was so much more than just a collection of songs.

1. Taylor Swift – ‘folklore’ – It might seem a little jarring to have another record above one which so vividly represented a moment in time, but no album came close to the presence ‘folklore’ had in my 2020. Released with almost no warning just as I was concluding a week away in Wales in the early stages of lockdown easing, my first listen was early on that Friday with the Pembrokeshire skyline to accompany it. Like so many of the titles I have written about above, it seemed so of the moment, so implicitly of 2020 that it resonated in ways it took me a long time to identify. The involvement of The National’s Aaron Dessner clearly played its part, with aspects of this album feeling of a kind with so much of my favourite of 2019, his band’s ‘I Am Easy To Find‘. Swift’s gift as a songwriter is surely her capacity for concise but intricately painted narratives. Lines like “the wedding was charming if a little gauche, there’s only so far new money goes,” in ‘The Last Great American Dynasty’ lodged quickly, amongst fantastic key changes and the perfect drop out at 2:48 before returning for a soaring conclusion. The understated piano and strings of ‘Seven’ are naggingly seductive, making it a song that never seems like a standout only to suddenly switch to firm favourite status after half a dozen plays. Despite a shoddy vinyl pressing, it’s an album to which I have returned a great deal in 2021. No doubt, ‘evermore’ would have been in here somewhere too had it been released a little earlier and I tend to think of them as a piece. However, ‘folklore’ is the superior record to these ears and, in a year of unique albums, it still feels like something that will have indestructible longevity.

BEST OF 2017: 21. Laura Marling ‘Semper Femina’

It seems impossible that Laura Marling could already be on her sixth album. More striking, perhaps, is the sonic development over the nine years since the relative simplicity of 2008’s ‘Alas I Cannot Swim’. That said, there is more than a touch of the composed, intense brevity of ‘I Speak Because I Can’ about ‘Semper Femina’, a record that considers female identity and relationships between women.  ‘Wild Fire’, which reflects on how Marling appears in a friend’s diary, is a beautifully executed piece of Laurel Canyon soul, while ‘The Valley’ attempts to understand another woman’s palpable sense of loss assisted by a captivatingly measured string arrangement.


Lead track ‘Soothing’ is a striking way to commence proceedings, the rhythm section’s simmering malevolence reinforcing the message “I banish you with love” as intimacy ends and the subject is told “you don’t live here anymore.” ‘Next Time’ reflects on regret, initially in delicately acoustic surroundings before a manic, fuzzy string break suggests that it might not be so easy to put the ghosts to bed. Having not enjoyed the act of self-producing 2015’s ‘Short Movie’, Marling recruited fellow guitarist Blake Mills to take control. His fondness for pushing familiar sounds beyond their natural confines has a subtle but defining impact upon these nine songs. ‘Semper Femina’ concludes with the melodic crunch of ‘Nothing, Not Nearly’, a hasty spoken-sung vocal almost pulling the band with it towards a swooning chorus before an abrupt end announced with footsteps, a closed door and birdsong.

Initial copies of the impressive vinyl release included a bonus disc featuring a live take on the whole album recorded in Chicago, which has since reappeared as the ‘Deluxe Edition’. It’s well worth seeking out still, as the set captures the loose, spiky magic that is often present in Marling’s early performances of new material and is more than just a means of peddling this unsurprisingly wonderful record. It’s no surprise for Marling to feature in one of my end of year lists and I’m conscious of the fact that she seems to be slightly lower down the list each time. I’m not sure if there’s a risk that I’m simply taking her brilliance for granted after such a consistent run of albums here, as this is right up there with the rest. Whatever the number next to it, ‘Semper Femina‘ is a captivating delight.

BEST OF 2015: 14. Laura Marling ‘Short Movie’

There is a tension in the air on ‘Short Movie’ that hasn’t been present since 2010’s transitional ‘I Speak Because I Can’, when Laura Marling sought to quickly escape the rather jovial indie-folk scene and find a “stepping stone” to other musical climes. It added a sharply affecting air of world-weary melancholy and an acerbic imagery that has mutated over the past five years. That 2011’s ‘A Creature I Don’t Know’ and 2013’s ‘Once I Was An Eagle’ were both such supremely accomplished and often beautiful records, made it rather likely that the artist had found her furrow and would conceivably plough it successfully for many decades hence.


One suspects that this realisation also dawned on Marling, prompting a transatlantic relocation and several years spent living in Los Angeles remembering how to be young, confused and wide-eyed. 2014 began with the writing of an album inspired by this shift and concluded with a return to London, where these songs were recorded. The itch that sent her out there is present throughout these jittery fifty minutes, most noticeably captured by the preference for an electric guitar over the acoustic.

By her own admission, Marling plays both instruments in largely the same fashion, but there is a fidgety energy in the way she launches into tracks like ‘False Hope’ and ‘Don’t Let Me Bring You Down’ that is confirmation that the ‘more of the same’ predictions were wide of the mark. Opting to self-produce after three records with Ethan Johns at the helm, there is a certain loss of polish but with that come some risks. Most noteworthy is a decision to record several string parts with almost no direction for the players beyond the key and chord progression, creating a background bustle behind the more conventional renderings which were then placed in the foreground of the mix. Opener ‘Warrior’ slowly emerges out of a reverb-heavy soundscape, the unsettling swirl ever-present throughout. When first single ‘False Hope’ initially does something not dissimilar, it’s tempting to think that the sonic palette for ‘Short Movie’ has been set, but one of the album’s most significant shifts occurs on the minute mark. As Marling sings “a storm hits the city and the lights go out before I can prepare”, the band suddenly take flight, mid-line, and pounding drums accompany a malevolent guitar part as the weather pens the singer in. Before long the tempest has twisted into a claustrophobic concern about the future, only to come to an abrupt halt.

While the rumbling heft of certain songs is justifiably proving a substantial talking point for this album, several of the more subdued moments are no less stirring. ‘Walk Alone’ finds Marling rebutting a claim that she can’t love, stating that “I can’t walk alone”, before imploring “I just need a little more time” in a fractured, strained falsetto that warrants multiple replays. As if reeling from such openness, it is followed by the playfully snarky ‘Strange’ which charges along with an unashamedly affected vocal informing the listener of the many lies told by dubious lovers.

Other words are borrowed for ‘Gurdjieff’s Daughter’, with much of the lyric built around a story told by Alejandro Jodorowsky about an encounter with the daughter of spiritual teacher G. I. Gurdjieff. During an intimate entanglement in a hotel room, she proffered forth a list of rules by which society should live, many of which have now been appropriated by Marling. For someone reconsidering their place in the general scheme of things, it’s not difficult to see the temptation of the words “Never give orders, just to be obeyed / Never consider yourself or others, without knowing that you’ll change.” Already bedecked with a beautiful chorus and perhaps the album’s finest realisation of her more energised electric sound, it has one final surprise to deliver, suddenly fading with a jangling rapidity that will have fans of The Smiths in raptures.

The title track hinges on the world view of an ageing hippy she encountered in California, planting his “it’s a short fucking movie, man’ at its centre, while ‘How Can I’ seizes the initiative and seems to pave the way for the return home, reinvigorated and restored, though not without concerns. ‘Short Movie’ is a record by an artist shaking her life up, spending a little more time peering at the stars and resisting the lure of the familiar. It is, as a result, a commanding and sincerely fascinating listen that stands tall in a catalogue a regue already awash with magic. While the live shows supporting it were a curiously mixed bag, held in a moment, these songs are a delight.

BEST OF 2013: 21. Laura Marling – Once I Was An Eagle

It was pretty much a given that a new Laura Marling album would be excellent, after her three records to date, and so it proved. All the talk prior to its arrival was off the four-song suite that opens proceedings, which certainly withstood the amount of expectation put upon it, tipping us off that she had moved on again. This is, by far, her most complex release and it oozes the confidence that anyone who saw her on the tour to promote her first album knows was sorely lacking at the start. The sublime but slight instrumental ‘Interlude’, which seems to mark a shift in the record’s momentum, has come to be one of my favourite moments on ‘Once I Was An Eagle’, perhaps because it represents the scope of this set.

This is no longer somebody finding their sound, something which, arguably, ‘A Creature I Don’t Know’ put to bed. Instead, it is the wielding of a phenomenal talent with masterfully dextrous control of the tiller. Marling’s key facilitator and musical foil, Ethan Johns, plays his part once again, as well as a range instruments where required. While the result may be quite something to behold, the process was brief, understated and organic. The way Marling tears into songs is a delight, building on the bite and ebullience of 2011’s ‘The Muse’ and ‘The Beast’. ‘Master Hunter’, appended to the aforementioned opening suite and very much of a piece, may be the best thing she has ever done, weaving in and out of itself in a fashion not dissimilar to the whole album, which truly has a sense of coming full circle by the time of its conclusion.

The pace drops in its final third as several, more melancholy characters are explored before rolling to a halt at the feet of album closer ‘Saved These Words’. It seems to simmer and shudder like a kettle on its way to boiling point, the percussion growing in intensity and volume while Marling’s vocal is half-sung half-spoken in a fashion that seems somewhat alien to her, building to the killer lines “thank you naivety for failing me again, he was my next verse”. It seems a fine point to stop and a neat summation of the considerable ground covered across the album’s duration. In many ways, it seems odd to be placing this album outside the twenty, let alone ten, best of this year and it may be down to her own incredibly high standards. Marling’s considerable and truly unique talent is such that we’ve come to expect such remarkable records from her.

BEST OF 2011: 4. Laura Marling – A Creature I Don’t Know

I wasn’t sure what to expect from album number three. ‘Alas I Cannot Swim’ was an utterly irresistible debut, blessed with a little naivety and some grand tunes. Then ‘I Speak Because I Can’ arrived, with Marling seeming to have aged fifteen years since its predecessor and taking far bolder steps and inhabiting characters far from what we’d come to expect from her. Largely no bad thing but slightly easier to admire than truly love. With talk of a second album of new material only months behind it fading quickly, it was still a relatively swift turnaround from the early 2010 release of that record and the September 2011 unveiling of ‘A Creature I Don’t Know’. My review copy arrived just as we were knee deep in house hunting for a cross-country relocation. As a consequence, it soundtrack a lot of car journeys and several quiet evenings in unfamiliar locations. It didn’t take long for it to become a comforting friend.


However, certain aspects of this album have prompted dissent, most peculiarly the album’s excellent opening track. The jazzy whirl of ‘The Muse’, sounding, at times, like a more forceful and jagged ‘Poor Boy’ by Nick Drake, is a stunning statement of intent and the most relaxed start to a Marling album to date. The sense of an artist no longer feeling the need to prove herself runs throughout these ten songs, and it is clear that the transition to songwriter of note begun on ‘I Speak Because I Can‘ is now complete. The fact that it doesn’t sound like anything she’s previously done struck me as a good thing and quite why it garnered accusations of smoothing out her sound or even trying to sound like Norah Jones is baffling. Listen to the thing. Then do it again. It’s not got easy listening pop smash written all over it, has it?

Beginning delicately, ‘I Was Just A Card’ unfurls magically, with Marling shaping and pushing her voice in new directions. The vintage Joni Mitchell comparison point is, by now, utterly undeniable but it’s a source of inspiration rather than a simple sense of imitation. Lyrically, her ability to inhabit a song and deliver a story remains beautifully intact, the line “my mother, she’s the saviour of six-foot of bad behaviour”, in ‘Salinas’, curls magically around the melody. This bluesy number builds to a crescendo which then seems to abate with the quiet start to ‘The Beast’, only for it to explode into the most malevolent sounding thing Marling has ever released. ‘A Creature I Don’t Know’ really feels like an album, rather than a collection of songs, and an album of two halves at that. That Marling has been increasing her vinyl collection of late at a rate of knots is perhaps no coincidence. There is a real focus on how things sound together, be it the tremendous force at the conclusion of ‘The Beast’ to end side one or the wonderful way in ‘Don’t Ask Me Why’ changes pace so as to descend smoothly straight into the beginning of ‘Salinas’. Ironic, then, that the picture disc vinyl included in the deluxe edition of this album sounds so indefensibly shite.

Gorgeous single ‘Sophia’ is elevated to greatness by the introduction of her band at its midpoint, another of those magical moments in songs that I so like banging on about, while ‘Night By Night’, one of the rare solo moments on the album, is a wonderfully balanced, emotionally loaded commentary on love. The album ends on the upbeat sing-song ‘All My Rage’, one of the tracks with which she seemed most satisfied during her recent cathedral tour.

A third wonderful album, then, and a sign that Marling has transcended the “nu-folk” tags, not to mention associations with Mumford & The Doom Sons, and carved her own magnificent identity. Where she goes next, I’ve no idea, although she recently declared that she’s entering her “electric phase” so expect something different again. One thing I can say for certain now is that a vast catalogue of wonderful music lies ahead, as Marling has asserted herself as singer-songwriter of rare talent. Here’s to that.

September Reviews–Laura Marling, Bjork and A Winged Victory For The Sullen

Sorry about the wait. Moved house, you see. I’m typing this from the floor of the third bedroom, surrounded by boxes still full of CDs as yet unboxed. Not that you really need to know that. Anyway, here’s this month’s Clash pieces. Two amazing albums and one I suspect I’ll grow to like more.

LAURA MARLING – ‘A Creature I Don’t Know’ (VIRGIN)


With two Mercury Music Prize nominations and a BRIT award in the bag, you might expect Laura Marling to capitalise on the exposure and tweak her sound in a push for the big time. Fear not, folk folks. The jazzy whirl of opener ‘The Muse’, sounding, at times, like a more forceful and jagged ‘Poor Boy’ by Nick Drake, is a stunning statement of intent and the most relaxed start to a Marling album to date. The sense of an artist no longer feeling the need to prove herself runs throughout these ten songs, and it is clear that the transition to songwriting great begun on ‘I Speak Because I Can‘ is now complete.

Continue reading “September Reviews–Laura Marling, Bjork and A Winged Victory For The Sullen”

12. Laura Marling–I Speak Because I Can

Best of 2010How do you follow a debut record of such quality, such depth and such beguiling songwriting that nobody was able to believe you were still in your teens when you made it? With relative ease, it would seem. At the risk of getting repetitive, it’s hard to believe she made this record whilst still in her teens too.

laura marling i speak

I Speak Because I Can’ was largely recorded live to tape, Laura Marling and her assembled band rattling through these tunes in one room under the guidance of the esteemed Ethan Johns. It should be noted that there’s a little less jangle than on the debut and this is a rather more intense affair. Opener ‘Devil’s Spoke’ is an all out folk assault, before the quieter textures of ‘Made By Maid’ and ‘Blackberry Stone’ move into view, the latter a rather more fulsome rendering than the b-side incarnation which previously accompanied ‘Cross Your Fingers’. Between these two sits the first of the album’s true gems, ‘Rambling Man’. A fine example of how to build a song slowly but surely, with no need for epic strings or ludicrous guitar breaks, it is also home to one of Marling’s best vocal performances to date. She languidly curls her larynx around the opening verse, gathering in intensity as the band come shambling in and yet still holding back until the final renderings of the chorus. This transcendent vocal flourish follows a quite startling breakdown in proceedings in which, with almost eerie conviction, Marling tells us that, “it’s funny how the first chords that you come to are the minor notes that come to serenade you. It’s hard to accept yourself as someone you don’t desire, as someone you don’t want to be.” The song seems to suggest that the character in the song, be it autobiographical or otherwise, is happy to not fit in, provided they be accepted for who they truly are. The almost euphoric chorus, reminiscent of ‘Blue’-era Joni, belies the rather more complex undercurrent.

‘Alpha Shallows’ appears in a more concise and haunting fashion than its previous outing on the ‘Night Terror’ single quite managed, while last year’s Christmas single ‘Goodbye England’ is not hindered by its festive associations and the refrain about never loving England more "than when covered in snow" seems more than a little prescient at this end of 2010. ‘Hope In The Air’ continues the moody and intense celtic folk tones first established by album opener, ‘Devil’s Spoke’. ‘What He Wrote’, on the other hand, tells the haunting tale of separated lovers over a sparse acoustic backdrop. ‘The waves came and stole him and took him to her’, sings Marling, and by God she sounds every bit the wronged wife. It is this subtle but quite magnificent vocal dexterity that sets ‘I Speak Because I Can’ apart from ‘Alas I Cannot Swim’, in the same way that that debut was a subtle, but notable, shift on from the sound of her early demos and EP. Progression is obvious, but in a fashion that I can only imagine will win favour with devotees of that stunning initial outing.

‘Darkness Descends’, replete with beautiful, double-tracked vocal, has a levity of touch that is welcome after the intensity of ‘What He Wrote’. The galloping drums are back on what is perhaps the most obvious indication of the album having been recorded with the whole troupe playing together in the same place. There’s a gentle, rough-around-the-edges feel to the arrival of some of the backing vocals and the halting of bits of percussion that is utterly, utterly charming. You’re probably smiling by this point. Album closer, ‘I Speak Because I Can’ quickly puts paid to that, opening with the line, “my husband left me last night, left me a poor and lonely wife.” The title track builds to a suitably wrought conclusion before simply stopping and bring the album to an atmospheric, anticipatory and downright amazing conclusion.

‘I Speak Because I Can’ is a less immediate record than ‘Alas I Cannot Swim’ and it is a step on from that record’s sound also, but it is a superb second offering and of a consistently high standard. While it doesn’t scream instant classic at you, after a dozen or so listens you’ll feel like there was never a time you hadn’t heard it. And that will make you feel good.

Mercury Music Prize 2010 shortlist – Just Played Verdict


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

Laura Marling – Legendary Status Assured

This was the first time I’ve felt old at a gig. Plenty where I’ve felt young but never previously old. Laura Marling has a lot of young fans. Who like to ‘woooo’ at their favourite songs. Mainly the girls, to be absolutely fair, although there were many ludicrously complex hairstyles from the lads, so as not to let the side down. Pleasant bunch, nonetheless. Just very young. Did I mention that?

Furnishing the assembled throng in Birmingham’s Alexandra Theatre with not one but two high quality support acts was rather generous and the first of these, Boy And Bear, might be best described as a cross between Fleet Foxes and Mumford & Sons with additional ‘wooos’. Which is not to say they’re made up of young, female Laura Marling fans. It’s more to convey their fondness for rather lovely harmonies. Decent stage banter and a splendidly warm sound too, topped off by a bloody wonderful rendition of Bon Iver‘s ‘Flume‘. They did point out that you can get some free music from their Myspace, so it seems only polite to do so

Next up was Alessi’s Ark, and Alessi’s initial, fluttery, kooky utterances make me worry that I might be about to witness a low budget Bjork impression, but she soon gets into her flow. She passes on wisdom learnt from one of Marling’s band too: "Did you know that the supermarket Iceland is run by a company from Iceland?" Such irreverent banter is entirely at odds with her bewitching songs and I look forward to getting to know her better when she releases an album on Bella Union in the second half of the year. Her thoroughly splendid EP, ‘Soul Proprietor‘ is already available and you can sample it on Spotify.


The night, perhaps unsurprisingly, still very much belonged to Laura Marling, however, and her set demonstrated exactly how far she has come since the relatively tentative steps of ‘Alas I Cannot Swim’. The peroxide hair colour now transformed to autumnal browns (something she appeared to have at least partly reversed by the time she appeared on Later) and stage banter something which has been thankfully added to the repertoire, this performance had little in common with the last time I saw her, towards the end of 2008, in a small venue in Nottingham. Equally spellbinding, I’ll concede, but on this evidence, Marling will be a musical force for decades to come because there is something genuinely distinctive about her style, her performance and her music.

The set was heavily weighted in favour of the new album which suited me just fine, only serving to further clarify just how strong the new material is. She’s a captivating presence from the off and when her band melt into the shadows leaving the entire middle section of the show as a solo performance, it’s hard not to sit there slack-jawed in conspicuous awe. Unassuming, pathologically straight-forward and simply magnificent, Marling’s recent surge in popularity is both heartening and just. With a third album on the way before the end of the year, there will surely be another tour. I will consider you something of a fool if you don’t possess yourself of a ticket.

Can a serious font succeed?

After declining sales and declining standards with Conor McNicholas at the helm, the NME has undergone a major facelift and an editorial repositioning under the direction of Krissi Murison. The new editor of one of the music world’s legendary publications certainly talks the talk, as evidenced by a great interview in Monday’s Guardian, but can the redesigned magazine walk the walk?

nme laura

It’s certainly a striking new look, whichever of the ten covers you happen to end up with, even if Laura Marling‘s drooping fag isn’t the greatest stylistic decision I’ve ever seen. Most of the ten are worthy cover stars (Kasabian can piss off though) even if I’d have been a little more impressed if someone like Marling had got the cover in a normal week. Everywhere I went today, there were plenty of Florence, Jack White and Kasabian covers but less of the others. To continue to use Marling as our example, I saw one copy across a massive city. Still, I’m being picky.

The new main font is best described as ‘serious’ and, whisper it, it does bring back a few memories of the ill-advised and short-lived Q redesign from eighteen months ago. In Monday’s Guardian piece, Murison talked of focus groups wanting the NME to be "heavyweight." I can’t help wondering if that, rather simplistically, played into the font choice. That said, I think it looks rather nice, if not especially urgent. Pages seem simultaneously airy and ‘busy’, deliberate space contrasting with little fact sections and overspilling reviews. The idea seems splendid, even if the initial execution is a little cluttered. The format for the ten features for the ‘State of Music Today‘ piece is excellent: simple, clear and easy to read. It looks authoritative, informative and, unusually for the NME, like it’s designed with a slightly older reader in mind.

Praise be for the continued presence of the muso-baiting Peter Robinson and the reintroduction of a singles review. The redesigned news section is perfectly satisfactory, although the notion of a big piece on the big story, entitled ‘The Main Event’, is spoiled by it being yet another puff piece about The Libertines. Album reviews are now considerably less garish, though little else appears to have changed. ‘On The Road with…’ looks promising, a little like the main live review in Q where the journo has spent time with the act prior to the gig in question. All jolly entertaining stuff.

nme florence

However, while much of the effort seems to have been concerned with making NME a publication to take seriously, the letters page is a bit like Jonathan Ross‘ appearance at the Brits. For a start, it is trying far too bloody hard to be cool and, secondly, it might think it looks good, but it appears to have got dressed in the dark. We just want largely inane missives being ripped apart and mocked by a rotating collection of NME staffers. Putting ‘From’ and ‘To’ before each letter AND reply, is just rampant twattery. Oh, and just call it ‘Letters’ again, please. Sadly, nothing from Kinross in this week’s mailbag.

‘We Want Answers’ is now ‘Speed Dial’, which is a marginal improvement in name despite there being no discernable change in content. The usual ‘music that matters to me’ page is now called ‘Pieces Of Me’, while the ‘Talking Heads’ bit is basically the old section they got rid of that used to have a regular column by Mark Beaumont in it. Only without Mark Beaumont in it, sadly. But with Kate Nash guest writing this week, even more sadly. ‘What Rock’n’Roll Has Taught Me’ has been binned in favour of entertaining quiz feature, ‘Does Rock’n’Roll Kill Brain Cells?Johnny Marr is a fine first contestant and this does have the potential to dig up some cracking anecdotes from music royalty.

In conclusion, it looks largely lovely and I genuinely believe that Krissi Murison is capable of great things as NME editor, having already improved things greatly in recent months. The change is not as massive as you might be expecting and a lot of it seems to hinge on a typographical shift, but it’s nice to see someone aiming high. How many of these changes will still be in place in six months? Who knows, but there’s plenty there to enjoy and if you’ve not purchased for a while, now might be the time.

From: Just Played

Good work. But, next time you put Laura Marling on the cover, wait till she’s finished her cigarette.