20: Peach Pyramid – Repeating Myself (2017)
I’m pleased still to be feeling the influence of John Peel in my music discoveries. From his championing of Neko Case I found the New Pornogaphers, and through them Immaculate Machine, the band of their member Kathryn Calder, who has gone on to her own solo career and also to found Oscar St Records. It was this connection that brought Peach Pyramid to my ears – often credited as principally the project of Jen Severtson, but really a three-piece band. Sonically Peach Pyramid are at first sunny and tuneful, with plenty of layered harmony vocals and bright-sounding guitars; but lyrically there is uncertainty, doubt and self-reflection on offer, regularly undercutting the poppy melodies. It’s a rich and enjoyable listen, all the more for not being as sugary as its production sometimes suggests it might be. Would Peel have played it? Well, who knows really – but quite possibly he might.
19: Frankie Machine – Frankie Machine Has Been Shipwrecked on a Desert Island (2015)
The 2010s brought two new albums from Rob Fleay, aka Frankie Machine (and erstwhile Validators bassist), with an accomplished range of musical pals in support. As before, the music was acoustic and at times delicate, and the songs telling emotional vignettes – sometimes overtly but effectively sentimental, and increasingly funny from album to album. Of the two records, this and Squeeze The Life Back In (2011), I’m going for Shipwrecked mainly down to the inclusion of the particularly excellent Shilton’s Fingertips and How Great Thou Art, though there’s quality running throughout both.
18: MJ Hibbett and the Validators – Still Valid (2016)
It’s been a hugely prolific decade for Hibbett, but unlike in the 2000s when a Validators album emerged once every three years, with solo outings in between, his output in the 2010s has straddled scripts for stage, screen and radio, at least one novel, four Edinburgh fringe shows and, oh yes, two albums with the Vlads. The first of those was an adaptation of the two man Edinburgh show / rock opera Dinosaur Planet, and the second was a straight-down-the-line Validators record in a recognisable line of descent from 2006’s We Validate! and 2009’s Regardez, Ecoutez et Repetez. Looking at it now, it found Mark in often reflective mode, with songs like In The North Stand (hankies out for that one), Hills and Hollows and The 1980s How It Was, as well as elsewhere pulling off his rare trick of writing songs that are positive and optimistic without being insufferable (20 Things To Do Before You’re 30, Can We Be Friends?, I Want to Find Out How It Ends, (You Make Me Feel) Soft Rock). New Validators material is apparently in the pipeline, though more likely as a series of EPs in 2020 rather than a full album.
17: James – La Petit Mort (2014)
What I liked about this record is that it sounded like the album James would have made if they’d been given access to 2014-spec production techniques back in the early 90s. It certainly didn’t sound like the record of a band of middle-aged men resting on their laurels, but had a certain urgency to it. In restrospect the of-the-moment production sells is marvellously, as a slightly more orthodox ‘band’ sound was deployed on its two successors, which were good records, but not as exciting as this.
16: Misty’s Big Adventure – The Family Amusement Centre (2011)
I bloody love Misty’s Big Adventure. They’re one of a handful of bands where I’d say if you have a chance to go and see them, you should always take it. The number of those opportunities tailed off a bit in the middle of this decade, perhaps partly because at least one key member of the band was living overseas. This album turned out to be their only full release of the decade, though a follow-up is in the pipeline, and there have been occasional releases of non-proper albums (see their Bandcamp, you’ll get what I mean), and even a best-of this year! It completely delivers as a coherent record, culminating in a closing track, A Long Line of People, that is a more optimistic and positive response to their earlier rumination on life and mortality, The Long Conveyor Belt.
15: Half Man Half Biscuit – No-one Cares About Your Creative Hub So Get Your Fuckin’ Hedge Cut (2018)
The mistake with HMHB is to think they’re a funny band, and it’s a mistake that keeps getting worse. Over the past decade, Nigel Blackwell’s songs have, if anything, gone to ever darker and more obscure places. Yes there’s humour and there are outre cultural references, but as comment and satire, Half Man Half Biscuit songs have become even more pointed and complex. No wonder there’s an entire website dedicated to picking over their meaning. Their most recent album showcases this best, and has both a depth and an edge, if it’s possible to have both at once, that was only hinted at in their records of the 90s and early 2000s.
14: Old Crow Medicine Show – Remedy (2014)
The Old Crow carry on their bandwagon of bluegrass with a punk rock sensibility. This was the middle of their three studio albums over the course of the decade, and certainly the one I’d point you towards as a first choice. The songs range from the tender to the exuberant to the acutely pointed, and setting them all so clearly within a coherent musical tradition is a difficult knack that they make sound natural and easy.
13: Dawn Landes – Bluebird (2014)
It’s a terrible thing about liking country music: when a favourite artist gets divorced, you really look forward to the next album. Country music fans, it follows, are bad people. In truth this was the first of Dawn’s records that I really got to know, having encountered her on a joint headline solo tour with the wonderful Sylvie Lewis, and I only found out it was made in the wake of a divorce after the fact – so it’s not an obvious ‘divorce album’, though some of the melancholic songs, which nonetheless look forward positively, make a certain sense in that light. Either way, this is a record with tremendous depth, both in the songwriting and in how the songs are arranged and presented – while Dawn is most readily described as a country singer, she’s towards the independent and more musically adventurous end of that spectrum, and this record can be enjoyed straightforwardly as an excellent showcase of American songwriting. Re-married and with a daughter, Dawn returned in 2018 with a very down-the-line country collection, and a joyous UK tour – a rather different but still hugely enjoyable proposition.
12: Tigercats – Pig City (2018)
It’s been a journey through the decade for Tigercats, and I bloody love them. I first encountered them in 2010, supporting The School at a Christmas show at the Luminaire in Kilburn – the last time I ever went there, in fact. The obvious comparison point for them might have been Television. The line-up has gradually shifted over the years since, with lead singer Duncan Barrett and his brother (also bassist and ever-more accomplished producer) Giles the only consistent members throughout; Laura Kovic had become a lynchpin of the band by the time debut album Limehouse Nights emerged in 2012, while the addition of Paul Rains, sometime and now ex of Allo Darlin’, was another important change in time for second album Mysteries. They’re one of the bands that never makes the same album twice: Limehouse Nights’ playful, scratchy indie guitaring generated the band’s crowd-pleasers, while the altogether more sophisticated Mysteries managed the rare feat of being a captivating record of entirely mid-paced songs. But when the band took the stage at the Fortuna Pop! farewell weekender in 2017, they debuted a third incarnation: playing a set of almost entirely new material, they emerged as the “kalimba-led psychedelic pop” band their Facebook bio now describes them as, and knocked everyone else playing that weekend into a cocked hat. The album eventually followed in 2018, and deployed the new template across a set of at times ferocious and angry songs, capturing the tumultuous times they were written in. If I have one slight qualm about the record it’s that it does use the same formula throughout (bar the very final track), and maybe a touch more variety could have complemented the new approach – but when it’s such a strong formula, that seems a churlish grumble. Next album as soon as possible, please!
11: The Just Joans – You Might Be Smiling Now (2017)
It’s rare that a band produces a song with a chorus so memorable that you can sing it back flawlessly for days or even weeks after hearing it just once, in a live performance. The Just Joans managed it with If You Don’t Pull, which I first encountered on the first full day of my first Indietracks, back in 2010. Being show-offs, they repeated the trick a few years later with I Only Smoke When I Drink. But that first set at Indietracks marked them out as one of my key discoveries at that festival, and probably the most important to me over the following decade. The next day, attempting to describe them to a friend who’d missed them, I came out with “a cross between MJ Hibbett and Arab Strap”. I worried immediately that the Arab Strap comparison was lazy shorthand for ‘Scottish’, but on reflection I stand by it: there’s a frankness about relationships, particularly in the earlier songs, that definitely recalls Aidan Moffat. Equally, the acutely drawn, observational lyrics come with a level of emotional nuance that recalls Hibbett, and at times belies the Just Joans’ reputation as purveyors of miserable songs: If You Don’t Pull seems to start out as an ode to shagging around, but turns out to be about a desire for a more substantial romantic connection; their defining What Do We Do Now appears to wallow in nostalgia, but ultimately rejects the past in favour of looking to the future; more recently, Who Does Susan Think She Is appears at first to be an almost Half Man Half Biscuit-style piss-taking class rant, but reveals itself in the end to be about the insecurities in a friendship where one friend has moved on in her life; and so on.
Another thing I’ve come to admire about the Just Joans is that David writes songs that nobody else has written, and with pop music now well beyond middle age, that’s a hard thing to do. But I simply can’t think of other songs that explore the same topics as, for instance, Five Beer Bottles or What Do We Do Now? Elsewhere, while Kiss And Break Up might be, obviously enough, a break-up song, there are precious few of those that acknowledge the sadness and the change, but look optimistically ahead at the same time.
Curiously, this record is the Just Joans’ only ‘proper’ album of the decade. That’s a misleading statement in lots of ways: for a number of years, the band’s output was made up of EPs / mini albums on the Wee Pop! label, in limited runs of three-inch CDs, each individually packaged – some of the very best-formatted releases in indie music. The CDs are long sold out, but the EPs are available on Bandcamp, and chart the band’s development from a lo-fi bedroom sound through to really quite rich and confident arrangements (see for instance Are You Dancin’, with its woodwind accompaniment, on the final EP, 6.9 Love Songs). Plus there was 2012’s Buckfast Bottles in the Rain, though as it’s a re-working of the earlier Last Tango In Motherwell, I’ve opted for 2017’s You Might Be Smiling Now for this list instead.
In places, it mines seams familiar from the band’s previous work: a semi-comic tale of obsession with an ex (Big Blue Moon); a semi-comic portrait of a gently ageing lush (I Only Smoke When I Drink); a semi-comic episode of high school pregnancy (“They’ve let down their families / they’ve let down themselves / but I’ve let down no-one / thank fuck I’m a virgin” – Johnny, Have You Come Lately?). But elsewhere it presents those distinctive songs: the creeping realisation of being a generation older on a big night out (“I think I might go home / I feel like someone’s auntie” – No Longer Young Enough), or David urging his partner to step into the limelight, volunteering himself for a supporting role (“I’ve nothing much to offer you / but a Fila top, and a heart that’s true” – Sleeperbloke) – in both cases, I’ve never heard anyone else write those songs.
You can hear my interview with the Just Joans (plus a track from their forthcoming album) on this edition of John Kell Vs Satan, from August 2019. This video of David, Katie and Fraser in the merch tent at Indietracks 2016 got many, many more views than any other video I uploaded from that weekend.