Best of 2021: 5-1

Inevitably, anyone who reads my monthly columns for Clash or scrolls past my turntable shots on Twitter will have a rough idea of what to expect as this list comes to its conclusion. Each year, numerous folk reckon they know what the top spot will be with varying degrees of success. Wonder no more, for here we go…

5. Manic Street Preachers ‘The Ultra Vivid Lament’

Nearly thirty years on from their debut, it is increasingly hard for the Manics to release a record without drawing comparisons to their past. With bassist and lyricist Nicky Wire’s fondness for regularly articulating and updating the mythology around the band, listeners are only too aware when they’re going for pop-rock with strings, as on 2018’s ‘Resistance Is Futile’, or capturing a “harrowing 45 year old looking in the mirror” for 2013’s ‘Rewind The Film’.

‘The Ultra Vivid Lament’ is a mutation of several different strands of their musical DNA, evoking some of the melancholic textures of 2004’s unfairly maligned ‘Lifeblood’, the angles of 2014’s ‘Futurology’ and even the luscious Bacharachian harmonies favoured on B-sides from the ‘Everything Must Go’ era. Having spent more time at the piano when crafting his 2020 solo album ‘Even In Exile’, frontman James Dean Bradfield foregrounds that instrument in many of these songs and it serves to open up the band’s sound.  

‘The Secret He Had Missed’ is yet another triumphant duet in a remarkable recent run, featuring Julia Cumming from Sunflower Bean and wearing the ABBA influence that can be found on a number of tracks especially proudly. Lyrically, it explores the differing experiences of artistic Welsh siblings Gwen and Augustus John, highlighting their preferred subjects and referencing a transformative event on Tenby beach. It is also one of numerous moments on this record where Sean Moore’s dexterity and energy as a drummer is prominent.

‘Quest For Ancient Colour’ is sublime, Bradfield’s performance seeming to pull away from the serene backing vocals as he sings of a nostalgic ache for an undefined but easier time. Opener ‘Still Snowing In Sapporo’ slowly unlocks a fond memory of Japanese tour in 1993 – “the four of us against the world” – with a taut bass and acoustic interplay nodding affectionately to The Cure, igniting from a reverb-drenched and pared-back introduction.

‘Into The Waves Of Love’ channels chiming, ‘Reckoning’-era R.E.M., guitar and piano almost tripping over each other in the early bars and even daring to go back to Rockville at the end of its chorus. A strident Roxy/Bunnymen hybrid, ‘Complicated Illusions’, is polished without feeling as synthetic as some of the excessively buffed pieces on ‘Resistance Is Futile’.

Not content with one fine guest, Mark Lanegan puts in a generously understated appearance on ‘Blank Diary Entry’, drawing out the ominous sense of emptiness in the lyrics. ‘Don’t Let The Night Divide Us’, meanwhile, picks up where ’30 Year War’ left off. “Don’t let those boys from Eton suggest that we are beaten” makes for an emphatic chorus that resonates on plague island. While subtle, this album captures the evolution of a band in their element once more.

As you may have figured from the length, that’s a full review I wrote for Clash. The vinyl cut is excellent, even if the pressing requires a game of GZ roulette. This album has endured through the autumn and it’s sincerely one of their finest. Great sleeve too.

4. Low ‘Hey What’

I have often found myself caught up in conversation with people who are displeased or even aggrieved at a band’s change of sound. I never really understand the logic, given that their catalogue prior to the moment of transformation isn’t wiped out by any shift in approach. If you loved them for a specific thing, continue to love them for it and, if this isn’t for you, leave it alone. As I explored in some detail back in 2018, the noise and moments of oppressive distortion on Low’s more recent work are not effects applied afterwards but fundamental components of the songs themselves. While it took me a little while to click with ‘Double Negative’, eventually my second favourite of that year, I went into ‘Hey What’ fully aware of what to expect and I do think they’ve evolved this alternative way of doing things rather wonderfully.

I’ll admit that I prefer the slightly trimmed version of opener ‘White Horses’ which opens the splendid vinyl cut of the album, reducing the wilfully confrontational ticking, jittering outro, but the song itself is pure Low. Alan and Mimi combine in that alchemical way they’ve been doing now for nearly three decades and the jagged, overloaded riffs are a delight. The ebb and flow of the sonic chopping on ‘I Can Wait’ forms its percussive structure, while the partially submerged vocals of ‘All Night’ perfectly suit the lyrics, “am I on the other side, so blind, so long, goodbye.”

‘Disappearing’ feels like it shares its DNA with some of the more stately processions on 2011’s ‘C’Mon’ – my album of that year, this lot have form – while the fabulous construction of the final track, ‘The Price You Pay (It Must Be Wearing Off)’, with its near a cappella opening which then mutates into a muscular, strident beat for its second half, is a fine demonstration of how this way of working is no less expressive or emotional than their earlier recordings.

And let’s not forget ‘Days Like These’. It’s a stone cold classic of their catalogue, opening with the partial harmonising of Alan and Mimi and somehow distilling the magic that one senses in the crowd at their gigs despite the clear studio impact. The almost ambient wash of its latter phase pushes and pulls individual elements of the early sections in such a way that keeps the listener on their toes, unsure if that soaring vocal line is going to return or not. More immediate than ‘Double Negative’, ‘Hey What’ is yet another superb Low album. Let’s be sure never to take them for granted.

3. Damon Albarn ‘The Nearer The Fountain, More Pure The Stream Flows’

Seven years after his debut solo album proper, ‘Everyday Robots’, the pandemic ended up causing a follow up. In May 2020, a Boiler Room livestream offered up some stripped back versions of pieces which were designed to be part of a project inspired by his second home of Iceland that he had been due to tour at that time. As the return to live performance got pushed back further and further, the desire to use this writing and move on grew too strong. Always one to have multiple projects on the go, he decided to transform those soundscapes into songs and so, this slow-burning, beautifully arranged and gorgeously sung record came into being.

Named after a line from John Clare’s poem ‘Love and Memory’, which also provides the lyrical inspiration for the title track, it is a wistful, often mournful collection that truly feels like a quest to find beauty during confined, concerning times. That opening piece is a beautifully transparent evocation of grief, not least for the loss of Albarn’s close friend and collaborator Tony Allen in the early stages of the global shutdown. Setting up camp with a number of his regular supporting musicians and skewing towards older, less dependable equipment, this music both reflects recent times and seems to point a way out of them.

While it is often meditative, there are still a number of hook-driven delights woven into this body of work. ‘Royal Morning Blue’ feels in line with Albarn’s more solo-focused ‘The Now Now’ Gorillaz sound. ‘The Tower Of Montevideo’ has the woozy, wobbly wash of sound that harks back to Blur’s ‘Ghost Ship’ but which seems to drift skywards on a synth wash and some driven saxophone. And then there’s ‘Polaris’, which emerges as the sonic clouds disperse, hingeing on a coiled spring of a rhythm that sounds like it’s about to go off at any point. It slowly expands and pulls everything into its orbit, a little like a slightly more mid-paced ‘Souk Eye’, another of his rather overlooked corkers. It’s an album with which I’ve spent a great deal of time these past few months and I imagine that will only develop, given Albarn’s tendency to write songs which never stop growing.

Such majestic music deserves decent treatment and, thankfully, Transgressive have delivered on that front. Mastered and cut by John Davis at Metropolis, the parts for the various vinyl editions were sent to several plants. The standard black edition is a pleasingly silent Optimal pressing, while the rather costly deluxe edition features a white disc pressed at Spinroad in Sweden. This had some light surface noise on a few occasions, but preserved the excellent sonics of Davis’ cut, while the accompanying exclusive 7” of ‘The Bollocked Man’ was an Optimal pressing. For silent playback, go for the black but every edition sounds great.

2. Self Esteem ‘Prioritise Pleasure’

Sometimes the stars align for an artist and sometimes an artist makes it their time. Rebecca Lucy Taylor grabbed hold of 2021 and delivered a record which is often remarkable, full of hooks and possessed of as distinctive a sense of voice as any philosopher, theorist or author. That the wonderful people at YourShelf have also produced an accompanying text that is described as “part diary, part poetry…[a] collection of Rebecca’s thoughts, lyrics, draft and notes” gives you a sense of how important the words are for an album where the messages are clear and necessary.

It’s not always an easy listen, either because of subject matter or sonic onslaught, but that is one of the key aspects of its brilliance. This is lived experience as songs, with noise required to convey the reality of being female in the music industry and, frankly, the world. “It happened lately, as I willed a sunset to go quickly, always thinking what next. Never have I just enjoyed the moment, happening right now. I’ve never known how,” Taylor sings on the album’s title track. The list of actions which follow, each accompanied by the refrain “That’s just for me” act as a clear statement of making decisions based on their personal merit rather than in the context of the expectations of the Male Gaze and how it can make people question their own free will.

The moment at which I knew this record was special was the first play of ‘I Do This All The Time’. It’s a truly incredible track to release to radio and as a preview of an album. The spoken word sections are laced with humour but delivered with pure intent. The mix of monologue and emphatic, euphoric, BIG pop chorus is genius. That melodic expertise is right across ‘Prioritise Pleasure’ – try and listen to ‘Fucking Wizardry’ only one – and it makes these songs far easier to listen to than one suspects their inspirations were to live through.

1. Villagers ‘Fever Dreams’

Despite our hopes in January, 2021 proved to be another year which necessitated some musical comfort blankets. Most luxurious of all was Villagers’ majestic album ‘Fever Dreams’. Last year’s tenth anniversary vinyl release of Villagers’ debut, ‘Becoming A Jackal’, made all the more stark the evolution of Conor O’Brien’s songwriting. Its indie-folk charms remain bewitching, but the inventive, hook-laden and soulful incarnation that took shape with 2018’s ‘The Art Of Pretending To Swim’ is fully realised on ‘Fever Dreams’. Having pushed in a more electronic direction with that previous record, using samples and programmed beats, this set of songs found their groove at the hands of his band.

Recorded in the year preceding the original lockdown and then manipulated in those strange months that followed, this is an album of release which attempts to turn away from relentless, oppressive digital connectivity. Early single ‘The First Day’ builds and builds, serving as a hymn to opportunity and a confident statement of intent. ‘Full Faith In Providence’ offers a fragile contrast, guest vocalist Rachael Lavelle gradually weaving around O’Brien and a vintage piano, while the guitar parts on ‘Circles In The Firing Line’ land somewhere between Pavement and Graham Coxon at his most frenetic.

At seven minutes long, album highlight ‘So Simpatico’ gradually expands into a hypnotically beguiling meditation on devotion. Conor O’Brien’s underrated but genuinely remarkable voice has never sounded better than on this album, with this opulent track its highpoint. The effortless mid-paced early-Seventies soul rhythms are irresistible and the sax break – yes, it has a sax break – is a lyrical and affecting intervention, which then continues in the background as if to underline the explosive physical and mental impact of love. “Little did I know, you were here all the time,” repeats O’Brien on a track which manages to be enormous and enveloping without ever becoming bombastic. Tired minds, aching souls and the ever so slightly broken can find inspirational and uplifting balm right here.

Having always enjoyed Villagers’ releases, it was 2016’s acoustic reworking of moments from their catalogue for Domino’s short lived ‘Documents’ series – ‘Where Have You Been All My Life?’ – that elevated them in my affections. Suddenly, Conor O’Brien’s songwriting made much more sense and I wrote about it at that year’s end. I’ll never tire of recommending that album, which is an all-time favourite, and since that connection formed I have awaited each new release with genuine excitement. 2018’s ‘The Art Of Pretending To Swim’ was great but ‘Fever Dreams’ is very possibly Villagers’ most ambitious and endearing record to date. Essential.

REST OF 2011 – King Creosote & Jon Hopkins – Diamond Mine

In my defence, the vinyl pressing I bought was a little noisy and this is an album of very quiet music. That is where I run out of excuses though. How this wasn’t in, let alone near the top of, my list of the best releases of 2011, I’ll never know. It wasn’t even in my tidy up post that followed, suggesting that sometimes you just have to wait for brilliant music to click. If enough people are telling you something is excellent, it probably is. A little perseverance is not a bad thing when it comes to matters such as these. Fast forward two years and I can pretty much play the entire thing through in my head without needing the record. When Green Man confirmed this pair for the Sunday of their 2012 festival, I went back to the record – having previously loved the work of both artists individually – and experienced something of a revelation.

Kenny’s fragile but emotionally powerful vocal seemed to lift out of the ambient mire, field recordings now seemed vital in establishing the mood and delicate layers of sound crystallised where once they had blurred. As its artwork implied, it is essentially a traditional folk album which has then been pushed, pulled and polished by Hopkins’ sonic nous. It is one of the very best record I know of for early morning listening. I’m always the first in the office and that pristine and still time is more often than not soundtracked by ‘Diamond Mine’.

‘Bats In The Attic’ is the track to play if you need a quick in. The first touch of the piano several seconds after Kenny’s vocal begins is one of those moments of musical alchemy I like to bang on about. The sense that the song is already playing through a distant transistor radio before it truly starts adds to the delicate reverential air. It is a pretty much perfect song that I could listen to on a loop for a good hour with getting bored. But it’s far from the only moment of magic on this short record. ‘Running On Fumes’ is a gorgeously mournful piece, bedecked with bursts of an engine running and the almost omnipresent buzz of field records which knit the album together. ‘Bubble’ takes the album’s formula and manipulates it subtly, the skittering electronica coming up into the mix in its first half before the gentle wash of more conventional instrumentation returns. ‘Your Own Spell’ feels like a slightly more buoyant late-period Talk Talk, while album closer ‘Your Young Voice’ is centred entirely around Kenny’s endlessly beguiling vocal and slowly fades itself out over the final minute, like it’s delicately creeping out of the room. With an album quite so immaculately delivered, you may well find yourself inviting it quickly back.

REST OF… 2011: Nicola Roberts – Cinderella’s Eyes

As part of this end of year list jamboree, it seemed a good time to address some of the glaring omissions from previous countdowns. In the introductory blurb to last year’s thirty, I mentioned several 2011 albums that had subsequently turned out to have far more longevity than a number in my actual list. Chief amongst them is ‘Cinderella’s Eyes’, so it seems the ideal choice to kick off this little diversion.

These were the wilderness years. Girls Aloud had been at the top of their game, even reaching the heady heights of ‘Biology’ and ‘The Promise’, but after the ‘Out Of Control’ tour had dropped off the radar and, to all intents and purposes, split up. As we scholars of pop now know, it wasn’t quite to be as the splendid final flourish of recent times proved, but all the focus was on who would make it our from the group as a solo success. Cheryl Cole‘s identikit r’n’b pop waned rapidly, whilst Nadine Coyle took the curious approach of recording a bizarre late-eighties pastiche and then releasing it via Tesco only. Seems obvious when you look back on it, but at the time it was very confusing. So confusing, in fact, that almost nobody bought it. Which was, I think it’s fair to say, just reward for the contents therein.

Opening with the wonkily aggressive intrusion of ‘Beat Of My Drum’, perched on the precipice between brilliance and annoyance, it’s fair to say that ‘Cinderella’s Eyes’ didn’t quite begin as you might have expected. And it carried on in that fashion. The gloriously attitude-packed ‘Lucky Day’ is truly made by Roberts’ distinctive vocal, not least on the “boom boom, baby’ line on the way into the chorus. Both vocally and lyrically, this is the only solo Girls Aloud record to truly stand tall. For all the lazy cliches thrown around about artists from pop groups and reality TV shows, the hugely expressive vocal performances really are what makes this album brilliant.

As ‘Porcelain Heart’ builds towards its explosive chorus, French producer Dimitiri Tikovoi manages to capture a wonderful electropop tension that still sounds crisp and fresh several years on. A couple of tracks are also handled by Metronomy, their trademark rhythm section underpinning some of Roberts’ most ambitious pieces. ‘I’ is a curiously liquid track, roaming all over the place and taking well-realised shots at several deserving targets. While these producers have a part to play, this is unquestionably Roberts’ album and her artistic vision is resolute, bold and brilliant. Nowhere are scores more intelligently settled than on album closer ‘Sticks + Stones’, which is the apogee of those cutting lyrics. “How funny that I was too young for so many things,” sings Roberts, “yet you thought I’d cope with being told I’m ugly.”

There’s little to dislike amongst these twelve tracks, but plenty to love. Chief amongst those is the third single, ‘Yo-Yo’, which skitters about merrily and possesses a fabulously memorable melody. It’s a fine representation of the craft and verve found across this excellent album. Quite how it missed my original list, I’ve no idea, but if it’s eluded you so far, be sure to seek it out.

BEST OF 2011: List Anxiety, Near-misses and why I love Huw M

The list is done, the end of year compilation is complete and the festivities can begin. Except, how did I miss out the Wild Beasts album from the Top 30? Why didn’t the Huw M album come out a little earlier, as it would have been guaranteed a good placing? What do I write about now that I’m not knee deep in a list? Ah, list maker’s anxiety has set in. Watching music journalists, music makers and music fans on Twitter over the last week or so, it’s been a familiar tale of people realising either that they’ve missed out something crucial from their list or that they simply can’t boil down what they like into a manageable ten, twenty or forty. For some reason, it matters. Not to everyone, admittedly, but to those of us who try to fill our days with as much music as humanly possible, the opportunity to present our likes in a clearly defined format is exciting and important. Partly, it’s another way of showing the world who we are, and it also allows us an opportunity to range scrupulously over our music, revisiting albums we’d forgotten or never quite clicked with. It’s an event.


This year it seemed particularly difficult to do: on the one hand, because of how many utterly wonderful albums have come out and, on the other, because I’ve been hoovering up new music for the last twelve months. The vinyl revival (hey, good name for a radio show) has continued apace to the point where pretty much any alternative music gets a release on the magic wax. Indeed, but for my still not especially forthcoming right ankle, I could lay out my entire Top 30 on the floor, on vinyl, for a real-life version of that montage picture I made for the Spotify list. I rather like that. Ok, not all of these records have recent prime-quality pressings, but the vast majority sound wonderful on the superior format. An album like ‘C’mon‘ is absolutely suited to the inherent warmth that format affords, likewise the magical ‘Tamer Animals‘ by Other Lives.

Anyone who looked at the list I produced in July, as a half-way point round up of the year in music, will notice that both Alessi’s Ark and Elbow slipped from the top ten to outside the thirty come December. Alessi’s Ark simply got worn out, and I still wonder if I’ve been unduly harsh. Elbow, however, I’m struggling with a little. It’s sonically outstanding, just like ‘The Seldom Seen Kid’, but ‘Build A Rocket Boys!‘, from its missing comma onwards, just seems a little to poised. I find myself listening and thinking, ‘ah, there’s man of the people Guy Garvey extending some syllables in a matey fashion’. I’ve always loved Elbow. I adore their debut and ‘Leaders Of The Free World‘, and regular readers will remember that ‘The Seldom Seen Kid‘ just pipped Laura Marling to the top of the 2008 albums list. Whether it’s overexposure, less exciting songs or a little bit of music snobbery kicking in, I seem to have lost the bug. My first listens left me cold – which, having been tasked with reviewing it, was an immediate puncturing of the bubble – but then it grew and grew, a more subtle offering than its predecessor. Now though, I’ve no idea. Sometimes music doesn’t make sense, does it? I’m sure it’ll click at some point. Feel free to give me some pointers.

And then there are the ‘too late’ brigade. For most people, that means albums released in the last weeks of December, although for music monthlies it means mid-October onwards. This year, The Black Keys‘ cracking ‘El Camino‘ came out slightly too late to make the cut, its insane vinyl price not exactly inviting last-minute good will. It’s a great follow-up to ‘Brothers‘, to which I came rather late, with a punchy and brisk flow of soulful blues-rock. Let’s face it, if you know what The Black Keys sound like, it sounds like that. If you don’t, then I think soulful blues-rock is a fair summation.

The most unlucky release is the glistening majesty in musical form that is ‘Gathering Dust‘ by Welsh folk charmer Huw M. You may remember that his last offering, Os Mewn Sŵn’, appeared in my 2010 list after I chanced upon it during a visit to Spillers Records. This latest offering takes everything that made that album so special and develops it a little further. Whether its the gently swaying ‘Brechdannau Sgwar‘ or the wonderfully simple opener ‘The Perfect Silence‘, ‘Gathering Dust’ is blessed with both melody and absolutely stunning instrumentation. Featuring mandolin, cello, sitar, French horn, melodica and a good old Hammond organ, this is clearly not a balls-out rock record, but it is one of the most delightful folk albums of 2011, and would likely have been in my top ten had it come out in October. It bothers me that it’s not in there. It shouldn’t, but that’s list anxiety for you. Still, it’s a good way to use any Christmas money/gift vouchers/rent money you might have left after the big day. The aforementioned Welsh palace of glittering musical delights will be able to assist you with that and the debut. Honestly, if ‘For While I Wait For You To Sleep’ doesn’t get the hairs up on the back of your neck then your beauty regime is too intensive for us to ever be friends.

If you’ll forgive the phrasing, I think I’m almost done mopping up. The ‘Fame Studios Story’ boxset on Kent Records is a match for the sublime ‘Take Me To The River‘ set which they issued a few years back and the For Folk’s Sake Christmas album just nudged out Emmy The Great and Tim Wheeler‘s stonking ‘This Is Christmas’ effort for festive release of 2011. Say hi to the multiple remaindered copies of the She & Him record in Fopp in February for me.

The full list is still available for your perusal and I continue to invite your lists ahead of the December 31st deadline, when I will pick one lucky poster and send them a Low Anthem rarities 10”, a copy of the The National‘s double A-sided 7” and assorted other promo gubbins. It’ll be my pleasure. Thank you for reading this year, and for sticking around during the drought. This isn’t me entirely done for the year, but Merry Christmas to you and yours. Have fun!

BEST OF 2011: 1. Low – C’mon

The slow fade, the chiming and immersive backdrop, the delicate lullaby of the vocal – all combine to form the most startling opening to an album this year. Within a minute I was certain that I was going to adore this album and by the time it had finished the only thing I wanted was to hear it again. Few songs are so obviously classics on first listen that when one emerges, it’s like the first flutters of falling in love. ‘Try To Sleep’ is a bold choice as first track because it leaves a lot to live up to for the nine tracks which follow. Not that that seems to be a problem.


You See Everything’ is the first of Mimi Parker’s big numbers on this record, a glorious track with a grand sound and a hypnotic charm, taking the wash of luxury applied to the album’s opener and running with it. While ‘Witches’ is a fine example of how a different producer can eek out new things from old sounds. The bold, spacious and gnarled guitar lines which have graced so many of the band’s records are present, but set as part of a much bigger wall of sound, with driving percussion and the chiming gloss of the opening pair still operating underneath. Production duties are shared between the band and Matt Beckley, who has previously worked with Avril Lavigne, Leona Lewis and even the Backstreet Boys. Not that that is in anyway obvious, beyond the slight sheen given to the album’s more grandiose moments.

The constant use of the tag ‘slowcore’ does Low no favours, suggesting as it does that their music is melancholia bordering on the bleak whereas one of the most bare tracks on ‘C’mon’ is not overly gloom in its actual sound. ‘Done’, below lyrics telling us “if you see my love, tell her I’m done”, has an aching lap steel from Nels Cline which underpins it, emotive and rich. Sad songs don’t make sad people. That logic is imbecilic and lazy, just like happy songs don’t make for happy people. Think of the savings the NHS could make with a Girls Aloud album. A gentle ache is often euphoric in its execution.

Take Parker’s crowning glory, ‘Especially Me’, which opens with the sparkling line “Cry me a river, so I can float over to you”. A slow thud keeps time while an atmospheric wash of sound, with Alan Sparhawk very low in the mix, slowly gathers momentum behind her hymnal vocal. The stirring string break which captures the conflicted emotions at the heart of the song is so utterly enthralling that when, thirty seconds later, the song ends, you’re just left hanging. Only the very best music really manipulates your emotions and ‘C’mon’ can certainly do that.

The second half of the record opens with ‘$20’, which it’s probably fair to say has plenty in common with Low records of old with its minimal sound and meditative delivery. Nevertheless, the occasional jagged strums of electric guitar maintain a certain edge, in keeping with the sinister undercurrents of old, even if the album as a whole is far lighter affair than recent releases. This idea is fully explored on ‘Majesty/Magic’, which starts in a similar vein but then builds into a crescendo of drums and guitar, with a pulsing energy and the feel of the threat of a far off storm.

Nightingale’ has the same sloping, soulful guitar sound which emboldened the album’s opening tracks and the chorus is heavenly, swooping down in its closing line with a grace and elegance that is simple yet breath-taking. The song washes over you, like the early hours of hazy summer light, leaving you prone for the eight and a bit minutes of ‘Nothing But Heart’. This track, more than any other here, highlights the power of this band’s sonics. Having gone loud(ish) with ‘The Great Destroyer’ and electronic with ‘Drums And Guns’, this offering serves to remind us that Low are capable of manipulating a soundstage in a fashion few can replicate. Over its duration, as the additional instruments appear including a gorgeous guitar break, the song gradually gets louder, until Parker unexpectedly makes an appearance around the six minute mark. It’s a wondrous piece of music and something which feels like the perfect way to end such an accomplished album.

And yet, ‘Something’s Turning Over’, a strummed folky song with gorgeous harmonies and little more than three minutes on the clock, serves to leave things on a musically optimistic note, even if the lyrics suggest otherwise: “just because you never hear their voices, don’t mean they won’t kill you in your sleep.” That this is then followed with a ‘la la la’ coda to close suggests there’s more than a little wry smile behind this supposedly gloomy duo.

There have been some very impressive, massively emotional and beautifully produced albums released this year, but very few have combined all three of those elements. Within that already tiny list, there is only one album which I have already installed on my favourite records of all time list, which I have played at least once a week for most of this year and which I would buy every single one of you if I could afford to. It is ‘C’mon’ by Low and it is a bloody triumph.

BEST OF 2011: 2. Bill Callahan – Apocalypse

Having recommended many albums for their beautiful layers of sound, intricate percussion and meticulous production, it might seem a little odd that an album which is so low-key, so unpolished and so simple is this high up the list. It might also seem a little odd that that is a description of ‘Apocalypse’ after the warm, luscious wash of sound that was Callahan’s last outing, ‘Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle’. Something of a critical darling, and rightly so after years of producing fantastic music as both Smog and under his own name, it’s telling that when Radiohead release an eight track album people turn round and ask where the rest of it is, but when Callahan unleashes only seven tracks on the world, we simply appreciate the chance to hear them.


With a controlled part-sung, part-spoken baritone, Callahan rarely disappoints, and even then you sort of suspect it might be you rather than him. Just as certain people radiate charisma in person, so Callahan’s voice is something of a magnet. Once he’s got you, there is a wealth of music to explore. Having enjoyed bits of his output in the past, it was only with ‘Apocalypse’ that it all truly clicked into place. It’s a very unassuming album, which may go some way to explaining why it appears to have been overlooked in some quarters come the end of the year.

Essentially recorded live, with a small but perfectly formed band, ‘Apocalypse’ is built using a relatively limited group of sounds and in some senses feels a little like a live performance is happening, albeit discreetly, in the corner of the room. Callahan’s vocals have always been pretty distinctive within the mix but, with songs gently strummed and adorned with sparse percussion, here he constantly hovers in the room. This is a headphones record and a speakers and comfy chair record. It’s a happy album and a sad album. It has a comforting warmth and a captivating confidence. Just as ‘One Sunday Morning’ takes as long as it needs at the ends of Wilco’s ‘The Whole Love’, so too the songs on ‘Apocalypse’, only one of which is under five minutes.

Riding For The Feeling’, perhaps the album’s most beautiful song, shimmers with an aching sense of regret. However, that dismay seems to stem from not feeling able to express himself when talking about his music. “I asked the room if I’d said enough. No one really answered,” he sings and are the faces “it’s never easy to say goodbye to” perhaps the songs on an album which are no longer his once they’re out in the world? It’s clear from Callahan’s interviews that he struggles to reflect on his music, often claiming to have forgotten the inspiration behind a song. Whatever the motivation, the result is staggering.

At the other end of the scale is the raw, lop-sided throb of ‘America!’ which has even been described by less self-conscious reviewers than I as “funky.” It’s an amusing tale of feeling distant, if not necessarily homesick, and how watching US talk show host Letterman on tour in Australia causes him to begin reflecting on America and, in particular, the military status achieved by various singers from his homeland. His already curious delivery is highlighted most obviously here. It’s great fun, and it makes you wonder if that is indeed all its meant to be, rather than a specific reflection on those named or the country of his birth.

Add in the verbalised puff of a fired gun several minutes into ‘Universal Applicant’, which triggers a brief, consuming pause before the song unfurls and the charming narrative of opener ‘Drover’ and this is already a pretty spectacular record. As the album comes to a close, Callahan sings its catalogue number, DC450, twice over the last, trickling notes of ‘One Fine Morning’, and the first time it made me laugh. It seemed like a quirky affectation but it serves to clearly mark the end of a collection of songs. It refers to how this particular source of entertainment is branded and it does make you wonder how much of what came before is autobiographical or metaphorical and how much he actually wants us to think about that. It’s already an album which is crying out to have one of the ‘33 1/3’ books written about it and for now I’m just going to continue enjoying its wondrous songs. ‘Apocalypse’ is quite possibly the best of his solo years and right up there with his finest moments as Smog. There have been more bombastic albums this year, more controversial, more innovative and more imposing, but few have been so purely and consistently engaging.

BEST OF 2011: 3. Gruff Rhys – Hotel Shampoo

Several years ago,  I had a conversation with a colleague about how the Super Furries had a tendency to deconstruct their own sound, wilfully spoiling the polish on some songs. We were talking specifically about ‘Phantom Power’, with passing reference to earlier work. The Beach Boys fascination which reached its zenith with the marvellous and yet bizarrely overlooked ‘Hey Venus!’ was clearly present long before that, but strung out, cut up and looped techniques used on their material at points made you wonder if they just didn’t want things to be just so or even, as at times they have been, perfect.


However, people change and, with ‘Hotel Shampoo’, Gruff Rhys has made his perfect pop album. The broad stereo sound, with two separate drum patterns and a beefy bit of piano, which sets out the stall on ‘Honey All Over’ is one of the finest individual music moments of this year for me. To me, it sounds not unlike ‘Phantom Power’ era SFA, but it’s unashamedly catchy, delicately arranged and, let’s not be coy, utterly beautiful.

Having been preceded by a quite stunning pair of singles, expectations for this album were high. First came ‘Shark Ridden Waters’ which bubbles out of the speakers, a chaotic and infectious signal of what is to come, while ‘Sensations In The Dark’, with its mariachi fascination and title based on the cheap, light-up Eighties keyboard on which it was birthed, truly raised the bar after the previous solo outings. Which is not to say that ‘Yr Atal Genhedlaeth’ and ‘Candylion’ aren’t worth your time, just that they both had their moments whereas ‘Hotel Shampoo’ is a whole album like that – full of ‘moments’.

Sophie Softly’ is another of those perfect tracks which evoke certain past SFA eras but with its gorgeous, sympathetic production very much belongs in the here and now. Gruff’s marshmallows-on-a-hot-chocolate vocal floats across these songs delightfully and it’s hard to imagine ever tiring of this album as a complete listening experience. I don’t skip bits, I don’t wait for the odd song to end and, though I can’t deny that ‘Honey All Over’ goes on pretty much any compilation I make at the moment, I regularly play this from start to finish.

Starting the second half with ‘Christopher Columbus’, a stunning, dub-inspired track with a repeated, distorted horn refrain is, in a similar fashion if not sound to when you first heard ‘Northern Lites’, something truly unexpected. And then there’s the sweetly sung ‘Space Dust #2’, featuring Sarah Assbring who, understandably, trades under the stage name of El Perro Del Mar (also worth checking out, music fans.) While the scuzzier side of the Furries isn’t often on show here, anyone who has ever had their heart slightly melted by one of their more swoonsome numbers, needs ‘Hotel Shampoo’ in their collection. ‘At The Heart Of Love’ has stately drums coupled with somnambulant piano which builds to a chorus to which one might gently sway adoringly. And then, just when you’re lost in a moment of almost tearful reverie, the bastard brings in a horn part to leave you helpless.

Patterns Of Power’ sounds a little like one of the men who made ‘Radiator’ getting a little older and, hey, what do you know? It has that familiar chugging verse, before a bustling chorus with falsetto and fuzzy guitar sounds that made SFA’s second album such a stunning release nearly fifteen years ago. Forgive the number of comparisons, but how do we judge things if not by putting them in the context of that which we already know? And if you already like the Furries, you will love this record.

‘Hotel Shampoo’ is an album which ticks all of the singer/songwriter boxes. It has lashings of melody, a sizeable tranche of singalong choruses and an enigmatic frontman. It should, by rights, have made Rhys huge. However, I’ll settle for knowing that all of you good people are suitably informed about this record and suitably entertained by its many, many charms.

BEST OF 2011: Single Of The Year–The National ‘Think You Can Wait’ / ‘Exile Vilify’

There were plenty of excellent tracks this year, and there’ll be another playlist to that effect in the next few days, but right at the top is this double-header. Having been responsible for my second favourite album of 2010, ‘High Violet’, The National were a band I wasn’t expecting to hear anything new from this year, particularly in light of the expanded edition of the album having appeared to mop up anything else we hadn’t heard.


But then in March came the quiet release of ‘Think You Can Wait’, from the soundtrack to ‘sports comedy-drama’ ‘Win Win’. It was initially just available as a download and very little fuss was made about it. Which is, frankly, ridiculous. With an echoing piano refrain we’re underway before the vocal delivery so beautifully presented on the slower moments of ‘High Violet’ puts in another appearance. What really elevates this track to greatness is the sparingly used backing vocal of Sharon Van Etten whose lulling tones sit beneath Matt Berninger’s voice as if they were made to be together. Similarly, the melding of strings and piano towards the end of the song is as close I’m ever going to get to describing a piece of music as poetic. Just as certain tracks – for me ‘Lemonworld’ and ‘Sorrow’ – on ‘High Violet’ crept up on you over time, while the big guns initially held your attention, ‘Think You Can Wait’ possesses a slightly hypnotic rhythm, delicately lulling you into submission and provoking the gentle headphone-wearer’s nod. As a one-off single, it had no right to be this good. I felt spoilt.

However, as if this wasn’t enough, in April we were treated to ‘Exile Vilify’ from the ‘Portal 2’ soundtrack. Built around stately piano, topped off with gorgeous baritone backing vocals and anxious strings, it is a wonder to behold. I rarely play things twice in one go. If I’m reviewing an album on a short deadline it might happen but otherwise it needs to be something truly stunning to have me starting it over again straight away. The day I downloaded ‘Exile Vilify’, I think I must have played it nine or ten times in a row, and all it did was make me love it more and more. It moved me to tears, it got inside my head, it left me amazed that this was even better than ‘Think You Can Wait’, albeit not by too much. The whole thing proceeds at a solemn pace, with cathartic swells and great lines like ”You’re thinking too fast, like marbles on glass.” Try listening only once.

Having received such a warm response, the band decided to put these two songs out as a double A-sided transparent 7” vinyl. It’s a glorious little item, released via their website only but it still seems a massive shame that these two songs are destined to become a footnote to the ‘High Violet’ era of The National. Had they been on the album, they’d have been rightly lauded for the fine, fine songs they are. The tracks remain available to download or stream separately, but if you buy the (admittedly not cheap) vinyl pressing you’ll have a delicious physical item and access to lossless downloads of both songs. Treat yourself, it’s Christmas.

By clicking on the cover, as with every Best of 2011 post, you can load the music I’m talking about. However, as they were initially released separately, you’ll need to go here for ‘Exile Vilify’. It‘s worth it.

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.

BEST OF 2011: Defining Features

As we near the top of the Just Played Best of 2011, there are a few others pieces I’m keen to fling your way. As well as some ‘Rest Ofs’ and a few particular tracks of the year, I thought it worth flagging up some of the pieces which really defined Just Played this year. Although this site is relative small fry compared to most of the big guns declaring their charts in your Twitter feeds at the moment, each year proves more successful than the last and several pieces prompted huge numbers of visitors this year, as well as the odd complaint! (That’s how you really know you’re on the right track)

In light of a substantial increase in Just Played’s Twitter following of late (@JustPlayed, if you’ve not yet had the pleasure) I couldn’t resist highlighting some pieces which relative newcomers might have missed. A number relate to record shopping and, more precisely, Record Store Day and the others are music features of note…

1. Back in February, I had a bit of a rant about how RSD needed to avoid lining the pockets of the eBay scalpers and match demand with supply.

RSD – If you’re gonna do it, do it right

2. Off the back of several responses to that first piece, I then spoke to a number of independent record shops around the UK to get some sense of how RSD operates beyond England’s capital city. There were a couple of grumbles…

RSD – Tales From The Shop Floor

(A tweaked version of this appeared on Drowned In Sound at the time, a link to which I’m posting here almost entirely for vanity reasons)

3. And then, to top it off, I have an account of a week touring record shops of the South West and surrounding areas. Lots of record shop chit-chat and reflections on RSD. Music geeks gather here.

Record Store Week – RSD and then some

4. When Radiohead thrust ‘The King Of Limbs’ upon us back in February, the internet appeared to almost eat its own head in the desperate race to be first to grumble about or even try and define this new offering. Within minutes of the downloads going live it started and I was more than a little disappointed that, given the chance to experience new music together again for the first time since leaking became as normal as urinating, this was how much of the music loving community responded. So I had a rant.

Just Played’s Verdict on ‘The King Of Limbs’

5. This isn’t a 2011 piece, I’m afraid, but I loved her album from last year and thing that she’s a candid and thoroughly lovely interviewee who more people should adore. This is a chat with Rose Elinor Dougall from around the release of her debut album.

A Chat With… Rose Elinor Dougall