NB the 8tracks mix mostly doesn’t contain the same songs as the videos – for a fuller sample of each album, play both!
1. Robert Ellis – Photographs
My top ten albums list always seems to be topped by a country selection for some reason – it’s not deliberate, but after Jessica Lea Mayfield last year and Caitlin Rose in 2010, I’ve been most impressed this year by a man who’s in many ways a peer of the latter, both building on the best traditions of country music but relying on their own songwriting talents rather than the well-worn lyrical conventions of the genre. I reviewed this superb album in February, and there’s little to add. Since then Ellis has come to the UK a couple of times and played some excellent shows (see the gigs post), and the album has attracted some word-of-mouth buzz, but not a huge amount. Since then Ellis has popped up on the Nick Lowe country tribute album, and been preparing a new album for release in 2013, which from the tracks he’s previewed live looks set to be at least the equal of this. It’s a class piece of work, and I’m looking forward to many more years of music from Robert Ellis.
2. The Just Joans – Buckfast Bottles in the Rain
Motherwell’s finest, the Just Joans, have been live favourites ever since I first saw then at Indietracks in 2010. They marry the acute observation and wry humour of, say, MJ Hibbett and Ballboy, with the ability to pack an at time surprising emotional punch (Card From A Multipack remains probably the most devastatingly sad Christmas song I’ve ever heard) and a penchant for craftily sneaking in elements from other songs – from the Wonder Stuff to Steptoe and Son. On top of that, David Pope’s lyrics also betray a real talent for melancholy, and at times quite brave candour about personal insecurities. Their back catalogue is rather complex however, being mainly a set of limited-release EPs, most recently on the Wee Pop label. For this album – not quite their first, but that’s long out of print – it would have been easy for them to assemble all the live favourites – If You Don’t Pull, I Won’t Survive, Hideous Accident and so on. In fact, they’ve done something less obvious and more sophisticated, trawling the back catalogue to produce what’s effectively a concept album: side 1 is about life in the sixth form; side 2 takes us into university and the world beyond. I’m a sucker for coming of age films, so an album along the same lines is right up my street. Though it lacks many of the obvious cuts, and any vocals from Katie, as a package in its own right it works superbly and is all the more impressive for not playing to the band’s obvious strengths live. Closing track What Do We Do Now is in pride of place as the climax of the album, as it always is of the live set – and its melancholy reflection on teenage days from the adult perspective is all the more effective for coming at the end of that journey on the record. Fabulous stuff – I’m not sure whether there are any copies of the very lovely gatefold vinyl and CD package left; if not, hopefully it’s still available on download.
3. Sylvie Lewis – It’s All True
All of my top three albums have really lacked the acclaim they deserve as far as I can tell – to an even greater extent than usual for music I like, anyway. This is Sylvie’s third album, its release noticed by almost nobody at all, which is fairly tragic – it’s every bit as good as her two previous outings (label-released, and promoted at least to some extent). Based in Italy, Sylvie has clearly adopted a lot of continental influences into her music – it might be more fair to call her a chanteuse than merely a singer-songwriter. The songs are top-notch, Sylvie’s singing beautiful and the production perfectly-judged – attractive, but not over the top. Yet another high quality release – will Sylvie play a show or two in the UK to promote it next year?
4. Tigercats – Isle of Dogs
Tigercats are a band who know what they’re doing. The guitars are choppy, the vocals shouted in an Essex drawl, the rhythm tight and… a bit funky. I was tempted at first to describe them as a cross between Hefner and Television… but there’s a twist of Fleetwood Mac in there too, perhaps signposted by a track titled Stevie Nicks – indeed, most of the tracks seem to namecheck either people (Konny Huck [sic], Kim and Thurston, Harper Lee) or places in London (Coffin for the Isle of Dogs, Limehouse Nights, Banned at the Troxy). They’ve come a long way since I first saw them in 2010 (thought they were pretty good, but didn’t suspect there was such a great record in them), and they’re clearly still developing, with double A-side Cats Run Free already being a clear development of the sound. A second album in 2013? I hope so.
5. Darren Hayman – The Violence / Lido
So this year we got a double-length album from the former frontman of a now long-defunct band, successful in their way but sometimes scorned as much as respected. But enough about Mark Knopfler. It can be easy to take longstanding presences on the scene for granted: last year I realised I’d been an idiot for not taking every chance I got to see Misty’s Big Adventure, and put it right; this year, I’ve had a similar sort of revelation about Darren Hayman. Ten years in, it’s worth reflecting on the shape of Darren’s solo career. Even during his Hefner days, he tended to write somewhat themed albums and collections of songs (his songs about men who’ve walked on the moon spanned, Hefner, the French and early solo records), and he’s been increasingly rigorous in this as a solo artist: early outings focused on British holidays and cafes, and were followed by a trilogy of albums about Essex. The Violence is the third of these, and unlike its predecessors is set in the past – it draws on the civil wars and Essex Witch Trials.
It’s interesting to hear Darren reflect on writing these songs in interviews and the videos he put on his site: he’s been conscious of the need to judge how much narrative a song can carry, and how to avoid turning the record into a history lesson. And he’s judged it aptly – many years of songwriting practice and experience have clearly paid off, with what is a supremely well-judged suite of songs. The instrumentation complements them too: it’s not seventeenth century as such, but it features abundant woodwind and unorthodox sampled percussion, giving it a distinctive and appropriately un-modern feel, even though what’s on offer is essentially a set of top notch pop songs. I’ve struggled with one or two previous albums because they have offered rather polite, low-key renditions of the songs, perhaps a symptom of being recorded piecemeal at home rather than live (you’d never guess from the restrained reading on Pram Town that the song Big Fish often provides a late-set rave-up during Darren’s live shows, for instance); The Violence does the same to some extent, but it’s far less of a problem – if anything, it suits the songs. It’s a supremely strong record from a man at the absolute top of his game.
I’ve also slightly cheated here and included Lido, Darren’s instrumental album about open-air swimming pools – there doesn’t seem much point discussing it in a separate post. The idea of a man known for his lyrics producing an album of instrumentals, let alone the idea of an album of instrumentals being themed about something, illustrates Hayman’s commitment to doing the new and interesting rather than the obvious and expected. The results proved much more engaging than I’d anticipated – far from being the niche item I’d perhaps expected, it’s very melodic and highly charming. Lovely.
6. Hospitality – Hospitality
A debut album from a band previously unknown to me, Hospitality crossed my radar thanks to a recommendation on the Anorak forum. They’re three-piece from the US, but produce rather more rich music than that might suggest. I’d be tempted to describe it as a cross between Camera Obscura and Laura Veirs – it certainly appeals to the UK indie fan, but ultimately it couldn’t really be mistaken for a British record. Poptastic stuff – I hope they might come to the UK for a show or two next year.
7. Evans the Death – Evans the Death
If you’d told me at the start of this year I’d have Evans the Death in my top ten albums, I’d have raised a quizzical eyebrow at you and no mistake. This frighteningly young band have been around on the scene, firmly in the Fortuna Pop orbit, for a couple of years now, and I’d long struggled to see the fuss. Perhaps it’s because their strengths seem to rest mainly on distinctive lead vocals, plus a great drummer and even better lead guitarist – live, there can seem to be a bit of a disparity between these and the contributions of other band members. But the half-set I caught at Indietracks was a bit of a revelation – somehow on a big stage and, when standing back a bit, the songs resolved themselves with a clarity I’d never grasped before. I picked up the album and it stayed on my MP3 player for most of the rest of the year – it’s a satisfying, tuneful racket, and probably works better as a package than as individual songs given single releases. It’s also been very well produced: there are lots of nice touches with layered vocals and so on, but it never bogs down the songs or makes them seem in any way less direct. One of the most pleasant surprises of the year.
8. The Futureheads – Rant
For a good few years now I’ve been wondering where the Futureheads might be going. After three albums all in the same vein, I rather felt I didn’t need a fourth and so never picked it up. Did they have anywhere left to go? It turned out they did: this isn’t just a departure from their previous formula, it’s a hugely radical departure. They’d always made great use of layered vocals, so in hindsight it makes perfect sense to produce an a capella record. It works so well not just because of the performances, but also the song selection: the sequencing of old Futureheads songs, folk outings and modern covers has been got just right, and the songs all bend brilliantly to the Futureheads’ commands (indeed I got a bit of a shock when looking up some of the numbers I wasn’t familiar with, to find what they originally sounded like). An audacious and impressive record.
9. Shrag – Canines
From live shows in 2011 and early 2012 previewing the new material, some people took the conclusion that Shrag were going more melodic. When the album eventually did come out – somewhat later than everyone had hoped – this proved a bit wide of the mark: Show Us Your Canines and On The Spines of Old Cathedrals certainly head into more melodic territory (the latter becoming a bit of a New Order pastiche in its second half), as do Flinching at Forever and You’re the Shout to some extent. But the other song in that vein from the preview shows, Trains That You’re Not On, ultimately got relegated to b-side status, while elsewhere the songs continue to be choppy and shouty: Devastating Bones, Tears of A Landlord and Chasing Consumations, for instance, while a bit tighter and more polished, are unambiguously the same old Shrag. The choppy guitars, feverish imagery and shouty vocals are well recognisable from the past, and as strong as they ever were – if anything, rather than being more tuneful they’ve got heavier and more aggressive. All told, Shrag continue to count as one of the most worthwhile bands in the country for my money.
10. The Wave Pictures – Long Black Cars
The trouble with talented, prolific musicians can be that if you’re not in at the start, it can be hard to know where to begin with a back catalogue that has quickly got very extensive. This has been the year when I’ve tried to get my head round the Wave Pictures, having finally been converted at a couple of great live shows. For the uninitiated, I’d describe them as a cross between Hefner and early Dire Straits – but I may be the only person to whom that would sound at all attractive. Long Black Cars, however, is probably as good a jumping-off point as any, if you need one: the songs are the expectedly unexpected stories and eccentric vignettes. It’s not as scratchily produced as some past outings, but not needlessly smooth either. It was followed by David Tattersall’s solo guitar instrumentals album (which appears only to be available if you buy the vinyl), and no doubt there will be a new Wave Pictures album in 2013. I’m looking forward to it already.