Albums

2018 – albums at half-way

It feels like this year has been very strong for new music, so here’s a set of videos from probably my 15 favourite albums in the first half of the year – though I could have listed as many more again that I’d recommend. The full playlist is here on YouTube, or click on the individual videos below. They’re presented in release date order, and the title given is the album, not necessarily the song.

1. The Go! Team – Semicircle

2. Kyle Craft – Full Circle Nightmare

3. Shannon and The Clams – Onion

4. The Lovely Eggs – This Is Eggland

5. Gwenno – Le Kov

6. John Prine – The Tree of Forgiveness

7. Tigercats – Pig City

8. Traveller – Western Movies

9. Charles Watson – Now That I’m A River

10. Half Man Half Biscuit – No-one Cares About Your Creative Hub So Get Your Fuckin’ Hedge Cut

11. Jennifer Castle – Angels of Death

12. Polychrome – Polychrome

13. Red Red Eyes – Horology

14. Tracyanne and Danny – Tracyanne and Danny

15. Holy Now – Think I Need the Light

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2016 albums

Back in July I compiled a list of my favourite dozen albums from the year so far.

A quick survey of the records I’ve enjoyed since them – some released before July, but unheard by me at the time – produced 15 favourites. Giving a rather unwieldy top 27 for the year. So I added another three to make it a round 30.

My main reflection from this is that it’s been a particularly good year for Americana, but there’s all sorts of other things in there too. The full Youtube playlist is here if you just want that (and the Jan-Jun one is here).

1. Kristin Kontrol – X-Communicate

The most polished pop record I’ve enjoyed in 2016.

2. Laura Gibson – Empire Builder

Idiosyncratic American folk that I found only revealed itself after quite a lot of listens – it was worth sticking with.

3. Karl Blau – Introducing Karl Blau

This is the first of two Tucker Martine-produced records in a row – Blau presents a collection of 60s and 70s country tunes here, with a great deal of charm.

4. case/lang/veirs – case/lang/veirs

Pretty much what you’d expect, and no less welcome for that.

5. Let’s Eat Grandma – I, Gemini

I don’t think I’ve heard a record quite like this before. I like both the way the songs are allowed to run to their own (often languid) pace, and the name being based on a grammar lesson.

6. Sara Watkins – Young In All The Wrong Ways

Lyrically quite raw, but musically mostly pretty refined, this is a great record.

7. MJ Hibbett and the Validators – Still Valid

I said In July I expected this would be GRATE. It is. Genius video for this song too.

8. Haley Bonar – Impossible Dream

This is a listenable, absorbing record.

9. Lydia Loveless – Real

Lydia’s set another new direction here, heading towards pop or at least indie rock. My first impressions were muted, but I found listening to the album on shuffle that the songs individually stand up better than I first thought, so maybe there’s something about the running order that didn’t click for me. Lydia consistently refuses to make the same record twice and seems to be on a journey with her sound – I’m looking forward to seeing where it takes her next.

10. Bloom – What Is Life

Formerly The Beautiful Word, Brighton’s Bloom have swapped one slightly rubbish name for another, but produced an absolutely belting record. I was very pleased to support the crowdfunder for this – it’s ace.

11. Angel Olson – My Woman

This seems to have got to the upper reaches of a lot of end-of-year charts, and I can see why. I particularly like the fact that they made a video for this eight-minute-plus song, which has a stunning outro (admittedly accounting for most of the eight minutes).

12. King Creosote – Astronaut Meets Appleman

This was the year, long overdue, when I started paying proper attention to King Creosote.

13. The Tuts – Update Your Brain

It was great to see The Tuts finally get an album out, and doubly so that it delivered on the sass, snarl and sometimes chaos they offer when playing live.

14. Amanda Shires – My Piece of Land

This was one of several recommendations by Laura Cantrell in an online end-of-year article, and wasn’t the one that grabbed me most on first listen – but having got to know it, I’d now say it’s probably my favourite of those records. Really lovely.

15. Pixies – Head Carrier

It seems bizarre that it’s getting easy to take a new Pixies album for granted. Let’s not do that.

16. The Hidden Cameras – Home on Native Land

An unexpected foray into country and soul for Joel Gibb – the covers are nice enough, but the original songs are the real attraction here.

17. Hope Sandoval & the Warm Inventions – Until the Hunter

You know what you’re getting with Hope Sandoval, and it’s good.

18. Maggie8 – LO

There’s no online video for this album that does it justice – it’s mostly much more dramatic and energetic than this suggests. The meld of styles to produce ‘Hindi indie’ is what mostly gets written about where Maggie8 are concerned, but there’s a sense of Northern melodrama about some of these songs that reminds me of early Smiths, even though sonically there’s hardly any resemblance at all.

To save you the clicking, here are the dozen albums I particularly enjoyed in the first half of the year.
1. Emma Pollock – In Search of Harperfield
2. Nervous Twitch – Don’t Take My TV
3. Basia Bulat – Good Advice
4. Steven James Adams – Old Magick
5. Emmy the Great – Second Love
6. TeenCanteen – Say It All With A Kiss
7. Kate Jackson – British Road Movies
8. Laura Cantrell at the BBC
9. Evans the Death – Vanilla
10. Garbage – Strange Little Birds
11. Robert Ellis – Robert Ellis
12. Chris T-T – 9 Green Songs

2016 – albums so far

We’re half-way through the year, so here’s a quick run-down of my favourite albums so far (with a couple of EPs and other honourable mentions at the end). Here’s the full playlist, if you just want to watch that.

Emma Pollock – In Search of Harperfield

The first record I really enjoyed this year, and a really accomplished album.

Nervous Twitch – Don’t Take My TV

Yes the vocals are flat, but who cares? This record is enormous fun, and rewards a lot of listens – it’s much more smartly put together than the indie presentation suggests.

Basia Bulat – Good Advice

Produced by Jim James of My Morning Jacket, who found a distinctive and unusual way of showcasing these excellent songs that still sounds quite full and lush – this live rendition is a bit more orthodox than what you’ll find on the record, but still very recognisable.

Steven James Adams – Old Magick

Adams’ most considered, thoroughly produced record, and a consistently powerful and compelling listen all the way through.

Emmy the Great – Second Love

Superb tunes on this – lush-but-sparse seems to be the production mode du jour, and it’s used to great effect here.

TeenCanteen – Sister

This came out via PledgeMusic, and has a much more varied and polished sound than you’d expect if you were simply told TeenCanteen are a Scottish indie band. Belting.

Kate Jackson – British Road Movies

What a welcome return this is. There’s the odd place where I’m not sure the production serves the songs on this record, but mostly it’s a poised album that puts its songs across every bit as artfully as you’d expect.

Laura Cantrell at the BBC

A collection every bit as lovely ask you’d expect, though with two tracks sourced from off-air recordings because the BBC’s masters were ‘unavailable’ – I wonder why? (And no, the video’s not a track from the album, but it’s roughly contemporary with the version of the song on the record, I think).

Evans the Death – Vanilla

Full of angst and also a horn section. No prisoners taken on the mostly recorded-as-live album, that takes Evans the Death still darker and still heavier. (No official videos from this – the clip’s just audio.)

Garbage – Strange Little Birds

Garbage always mine the same seam, and they’ve done so successfully again here – it sounds like a Garbage album, and not just that, but one of the best Garbage albums.

Robert Ellis – Robert Ellis

I’m all in favour of indie country singers getting more adventurous with their production, but it sometimes goes awry and obscures the songs. Not so here – this is polished, pin-sharp and showcases the songs brilliantly. They range from charming to touching to emotionally devastating, and are top notch thoughout. A real achievement of an album.

Chris T-T – 9 Green Songs

A follow-up of sorts to 2005’s 9 Red Songs, although with a much more full band sound. It’s a shame the referendum has made this seem like it’s from another age, as it skewers Cameron-era politics incisively, but always tunefully.

GUMS! / The Just Joans / The Hector Collectors – Just Lovely EP 


Long-awaited Scottish indie heroes split release, and every song is great. This track has more cult TV references than even I can keep up with.

Colour Me Wednesday – Anyone and Everyone EP

Yet another canny release from Colour Me Wednesday – this video doesn’t showcase it, but I love the crunchy guitar sound they always manage on record, which lots of bands seem to struggle to achieve without it sounding weedy.

Special shout-outs:
MJ Hibbett and the Validators – Still Valid: the long-awaited new (non-dinosaur) Vlads album technically comes out in July (and more pertinently, the promo video isn’t online yet), but it’s GRATE!
Case / Lang / Veirs – Case / Lang / Veirs: I fully expect this is brilliant, I just haven’t listened to it properly yet! What I’ve heard has sounded grand, though.

Favourite music of 2014

If anyone had the misfortune to hear my end-of-year radio show on Cam FM (I’m not linking to it, it was a shambles) you’ll know I wasn’t planning to do any end-of-year music lists. But as the radio show turned out such a mess, I thought I’d do a couple of 8tracks mixes, so here they are: one for favourite albums, another of favourite individual tracks.

 

The album tracks are presented in (more or less) alphabetical order by artist; I couldn’t settle on a favourite single album or a specific top ten, so I’ve just picked the albums I thought were the best as complete records. Turns out there’s 14 of them. If you just want to browse the lists rather than listen, here they are…

Favourite album tracks
Elbow – Real Life (Angel) (The Take Off And Landing Of Everything)
Robert Ellis – Houston (The Lights from the Chemical Plant)
The Hidden Cameras – Carpe Jugular (Age)
James – Curse Curse (Petite Mort)
Dawn Landes – Heel Toe (Bluebird)
Nikki Lane – Sleep with a Stranger (All or Nothin’)
Jenny Lewis – She’s Not Me (The Voyager)
Lydia Loveless – Wine Lips (Somewhere Else)
The New Pornographers – Champions of Red Wine (Brill Bruisers)
Old Crow Medicine Show – 8 Dogs 8 Banjos (Remedy)
St. Vincent – Digital Witness (St. Vincent)
Slow Club – Complete Surrender (Complete Surrender)
The Understudies – Everyone Deserves At Least One Summer Of Love (Let Desire Guide Your Hand)
Withered Hand – Horseshoe (New Gods)

Favourite tracks (NSFW)
Thee Ahs – I’m not Angry Anymore
Night Flowers – Embers
Mega Emotion – B R A I N S
Magoo – A Feel Of Its Own
Mark Morriss – A Flash of Darkness
Elephant – TV Dinner
Jessica Lea Mayfield – Standing in the Sun
Howling Bells – Your Love
Morrissey – Kiss Me a Lot
Steven James Adams – The Volunteer
Hospitality – Rockets and Jets
The Vaselines – Crazy Lady
Steelism – Caught in a Pickle
Gruff Rhys – Walk into the Wilderness
GUMS! and Callum Baird – Something Rotten
Jeffrey Lewis and the Jrams – Outta town
Nat Johnson – Not Now, Horse
TeenCanteen – You’re Still Mine
Half Man Half Biscuit – The Unfortunate Gwatkin

Top 10 albums

2013 albums mixThis is probably a more conservative list than my top 10 albums of the last few years. Somehow 2013 has seemed to be a year of recent favourites splitting up, new bands releasing enjoyable debuts, and old favourites being the class of the field. So there are only two debuts in here (compared to four in 2012), neither by artists new to me this year; and while last year only three records were by artists I’d known for more than three years, this year most entries are from artists I’ve known and liked for a long time, a decade or more in many cases. Still, conservative list or no, they’re all great records – listen to the 8tracks mix for a taster of each.

1. Laura Cantrell – No Way There From Here
Why do I always seem to plump for a country record as my favourite of the year? This, Laura Cantrell’s first album of original material in eight years, is ostensibly straight-up country music: the songs melodic, her voice as clear and expressive as ever – if anything, more so. But listen closer and it’s clear these are often not conventional country lyrics, bar perhaps the sincere and totally un-feminist portrait of domestic life chez Cantrell, Can’t Wait. Beyond that, as the title might suggest, the record mines a rich seam of melancholy (see the title track, Washday Blues, Someday Sparrow, Letter She Sent) and offers other unexpected curios – surprisingly sensual account, for a country song, of a one-off sexual encounter in Barely Said A Thing. It has a smooth production, certainly, though often based around understated brass and woodwind parts, which complement the six-strings, mandolins and pedal steels surprisingly well, and again showcase an approach that is unexpected without being contrary. It’s certainly as strong an album as Laura has ever produced – one cant help but think John Peel would have enjoyed it greatly.

2. Neko Case – The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You
This is a really striking record, and I hesitated to put it in second place behind the Laura Cantrell one – they’re both great, but at the moment I’d say this one comes slightly second in my personal preferences, not least because it’s a slightly more challenging listen. A short UK tour in early summer showcased some of Neko’s new material, and they promised to be bold, ferocious songs. There’s less focus on the natural world than on 2009’s Middle Cyclone, more on people and their emotional failings – it’s angry in places; in others frustrated, or simply resigned. Musically the backing is an imaginative and compelling take on American traditions. A great record, and Neko’s best yet – it makes her dark and adventurous albums of the previous decade seem plain and simple by comparison.

3. Edwyn Collins – Understated
For his first album wholly written and recorded after his stroke, Edwyn Collins has honed the musical template of 2010’s Losing Sleep: muscular songwriting, still showing where so much jangly indiepop branched off from his earlier career, allied to a stompy soul sensibility. For my money, Understated presents it much more sharply in every respect. The big pop tunes are more immediate and grabbing, the melancholy more direct and reflective, all expressed through remarkably well-judged and delivered vocals.

4. I Am Kloot – Let It All In
This is one of those albums curiously released early in the year, so at risk of being overlooked in end of year polls, especially as it followed only 18 months from the acclaimed Sky At Night. The rather bland title didn’t help its cause either. Nonetheless, Let It All In shows a similarly considered approach to production, though ultimately maybe a bit more direct in places, and hones the Kloot sound: menace and drama (Hold Back the Night) alternate with warm yet melancholy reflection (Mouth On Me, Some Better Day), finally drifting into wistful sadness (Forgive Me These Reminders). And John Bramwell is surely one of the great vocalists in popular music at the moment.

5. Johnny Marr – The Messenger
For a short while this autumn, I was listening to Johnny Marr’s album while reading Morrissey’s autobiography; my enjoyment of the former surprised me much more than of the latter. Fundamentally this is an album of great tunes, and distinctively Marr: each element on here is fairly simple, but stitched together with verve. They’re not great songs necessarily in terms of lyrics, but certainly work well enough. Overall the effect is very satisfying: it rewards revisiting multiple times, and is a good end-to-end listen

6. Just Handshakes – Say It
With 2013 being a year of indiepop splits, most notably Shrag and Standard Fare, and a year of recording 2014’s albums for other bigger names like Allo Darlin’ and Tigercats, the way was open for some of the newer bands to make a mark with their debuts. Spook School, Joanna Gruesome and Colour Me Wednesday all put out enjoyable first albums, but probably the strongest of the crop came from one of the more established bands, Leeds’s Just Handshakes (no longer specifying “(We’re British)”). The jolting, angular guitar backing is in common with many current bands; Just Handshakes ally it with a well-judged sheen of synths, distinctive, unconventional but highly successful vocals and a dynamic, punchy production, to produce an at times arrestingly dramatic debut.

7. The Leisure Society – Alone Aboard the Ark
It’s not the point, but I love the inter-war style artwork on this record. Musically, this is another album of highly attractive songs, but while maybe in the past they’ve been just a bit too light and pretty for my taste. Here, The Leisure Society experiment with the template a little: there’s a bit more electric guitar and rhythmic variety; overall the effect is a bit more dramatic. Lovely stuff.

8. Victoria and Jacob – Victoria and Jacob
It’s still a bit of a mystery to me how this electro-pop duo have become so closely enmeshed with the indiepop circuit – maybe there’s something of that sensibility subtly pervading the music. Certainly it’s agreeable to my ears, and over the course of the album offers a varied electronic soundscape at times dark and forbidding, at times light and open. The album also has the advantage of being released on Where It’s At Is Where You Are records, which reliably makes a point of doing interesting things with its releases – in this instance, a mini-album’s worth of remixes to accompany the several singles taken from the album, a lovely-looking vinyl release and a striking use of the signature artwork, built around a simple templates of the artists in silhouette. If anything this seemed to make the CD release seem a bit throwaway – picking it up for a mere fiver felt like robbery somehow. I’m not sure whether more hardcore electro fans would find this satisfying, but I’m not the best judge – perhaps it’s the ideal gateway record.

9. The Wave Pictures – City Forgiveness
My first instinct towards double albums is always: really? But there’s no need for scepticism here. I’ve become a convert to the Wave Pictures principally through their live shows, and this album comes the closest so far to capturing their compelling, muscular live sound. There’s tons of guitar solos, all the songs are high quality, and the album presents some more nuanced moments too, not least fast-established live favourite Red Cloud Road.

10. Iron and Wine – Ghost on Ghost
Another extremely good album from one of the best songwriters in the world. That’s about it, really – either you already know Iron and Wine or you’re missing out.

For reference, here’s the tracklist for the 8tracks mix:

  1. Iron Wine – Winter Prayers (Ghost On Ghost)
  2. The Wave Pictures – Before This Day (City Forgiveness)
  3. Victoria and Jacob – Believe the Boy (Victoria and Jacob)
  4. The Leisure Society – Everyone Understands (Alone Aboard the Ark)
  5. Just Handshakes – November (Say It)
  6. Johnny Marr – New Town Velocity (The Messenger)
  7. I Am Kloot – Hold Back the Night (Let It All In)
  8. Edwyn Collins – Dilemma (Understated)
  9. Neko Case – City Swans (The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You)
  10. Laura Cantrell – No Way There from Here (No Way There from Here)

Favourite tracks 2013 (2) – NSFW

As promised yesterday, here’s the second part of my mix of favourite tracks of the year. It’s the 13th track that’s NSFW, if you were wondering.

Tomorrow I’ll be doing a post on the highlights from among the live music I’ve seen this year, with the top 10 albums post to follow on the 31st.

  1. Arctic Monkeys – No. 1 Party Anthem (AM)
  2. Cate Le Bon – Are You With Me Now (Mug Museum)
  3. Sweet Baboo – The Morse Code for Love (Ships)
  4. Grandmaster Gareth – Watch Your Step (Magical Sound Shower)
  5. Camera Obscura – William’s Heart (Desire Lines)
  6. Caitlin Rose – Everywhere I Go (Noisetrade Eastside Manor session)
  7. Adrian Roye and the Exiles – Seven Hours (Reclaimed)
  8. Eleanor Friedberger – I’ll Never Be Happy Again (Personal Record)
  9. Laura Groves – Pale Shadows (Thinking About Thinking EP)
  10. Hacia Dos Veranos – Limay (Limay)
  11. Lightning Dust – Diamond (Fantasy)
  12. Anna Calvi – Eliza (One Breath)
  13. Hard Skin – We’re Gonna Do Them (Why Do Birds Suddenly Appear)
  14. Yeah Yeah Yeahs – Despair (Mosquito)

Favourite tracks 2013 (1)

Here’s an 8tracks mix of singles, cuts from EPs and tracks from albums that didn’t make my top 10 (which I’ll be putting up here on the 31st, with another mix). I’ve split it into two, so there’s a second part to follow tomorrow – this one focuses pretty resolutely on indiepop, while the second one ranges a bit further. Enjoy!

  1. Gums – Function Suite (Antipathy EP)
  2. Darren Hayman – Old Man Don’t Waste Your Time
  3. Sparrow and the Workshop – Shock Shock (Murderopolis)
  4. The Crimea – Mid Air Collisions (Square Moon)
  5. The Beautiful Word – May Not Be Love (Particles)
  6. The Just Joans – Another Song About The Rain (6.9 Love Songs)
  7. MJ Hibbett and the Validators – I Want To Find Out How It Ends
  8. Colour Me Wednesday – I Thought It Was Morning (I Thought It Was Morning)
  9. The Tuts – Dump Your Boyfriend
  10. The Spook School – I’ll Be Honest (Dress Up)
  11. Fakebit Polytechnic – Hey Hey 16K (It Only Works Because You’re Hibbett)
  12. Art Brut – We Make Pop Music (Top of the Pops Disc)
  13. Future of the Left – Singing Of The Bonesaws (How To Stop Your Brain In An Accident)

Top ten albums 2012

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.

2012 – the Very Rest Of (2)

Here’s the second round-up of my favourite tracks from 2012, ahead of the top ten albums countdown…

  1. The Cribs – Come On, Be a No-One
  2. Tally Ho! featuring Rose Melberg – 02 Kid
  3. Cornshed Sisters – Dance at my Wedding
  4. Grimes – Oblivion
  5. Singing Adams – Black Cloud
  6. John Hiatt – I Know How to Lose You
  7. Noisettes – That Girl
  8. The Lovely Eggs – I Just Want Someone To Fall In Love With
  9. Ultrasound – Beautiful Sadness
  10. Alistair The Optimist – In The Wake
  11. Waco Brothers & Paul Burch – Flight to Spain
  12. Metric – The Wanderlust
  13. Iris DeMent – There’s a Whole Lotta Heaven
  14. Mary Epworth – Long Gone

Albums 2012: the mop-up

It can be hard to find things to say about every album, every year, so this time round I’m going to concentrate on a few more records I’d like to say a bit about. Beyond that, some albums fall neatly into some fairly obvious categories that don’t demand much explanation, so I’ve stuck a couple of lists at the end.

Overall I’m slightly surprised to find myself looking at this list and feeling it’s been a marginally disappointing year. As ever, there have been some albums I’ve loved and will love for years to come, but not much beyond that. Some that I’ve liked, certainly; but more that I’ve either been disappointed by or struggled to get along with. Is that a fair reflection on the releases, or a sign that I need to widen my horizons?

Still, let’s start with the albums I have things to say about…

Alistair the Optimist – Alistair the Optimist
This record was a big deal for me at the start of the year (and I declare an interest here) as I was involved in putting it out for work. Given that it was a charity record, one of the great joys of it was that it was also really good – no need for anyone to go along with it politely, as it was a quality product. The idea was for Alistair Banks, who has MND, to record an album while still able to play the drums; he succeeded, and picked up support from some interesting places along the way (some time in Peter Gabriel’s studio during the mastering, backing vocals from the wonderful Kathryn Calder). The result is an acoustic, folk-influenced album that can hold its own in any company. See here for details of how to buy it.

Cornshed Sisters – Tell Tales
It all suddenly burst into life for the Cornshed Sisters in 2012, with their album finally out and (seemingly) more gigs round the country than ever before. There are no direct comparisons for them, really – musically there are all sorts of influences in there, from folk to showtunes to Annie Lennox. The four of them rely on vocals, acoustic guitars and piano live, and the record is hardly any more orchestrated – it sounds no more and no less than one would expect from the live shows. Good work.

The School – Reading Too Much Into Things Like Everything
You know where you are with The School: thematically their songs can be grouped into “I’d like to kiss that boy”, “would that boy like to kiss me” and “that boy doesn’t want to kiss me any more.” Musically it’s textbook indiepop, with B&S and soul / girl group influences all going on. And the second album is basically that. It’s augmented by great presentation: white vinyl for them as care about such things, and a video for Why Do You Have To Break My Heart Again that’s a visual love letter to classic-style record covers – at once simple and incredibly deft (see it here). During their Indietracks set I slightly felt the songs off the previous album packed a bit more of a punch, but who cares really – I’ll happily take one of these records every other year thank you very much.

Future of the Left – The Plot Against Common Sense
After McLusky split up I somewhat wrote them off as a band I regretted never seeing live, and was only dimly aware that there was a successor band going on. I’m grateful to my old comrade-in-zines Al for switching me on to Future of the Left at perhaps the best possible moment, with an album widely hailed as their best (can’t comment) and a deserving winner of the Swn prize. It’s a noisy, shouty record, with the same maniacal imagery deployed as under McLusky: “Civilised people don’t fuck bears” and, ”I can show you how the generators work / but I cannot recognise my own face,” are firmly among my favourite lyrics of the year. Ironically, I have still not caught the madness live, as their autumn London show sold out.

Mark Knopfler – Privateering
Another couple of years, another mediocre album from Mark Knopfler. It’s ironic to think that Dire Straits changed their lineup, and developed their sound often quite radically, between albums; as a solo artist, however, when one might expect more freewheeling or experimentation, Knopfler has played consistently with the same set of musicians and produced very similar-sounding records for the last decade and a half. This is more of the same, only this time a double album. There are three or so good songs on it.

Ultrasound – Play for Today
The reunion of Ultrasound in 2010 was surely one of the most unexpected re-groupings of recent years – and, a cynic might say, one of the most pointless. This record gives the lie to that: it’s largely what the first album should have been, with mighty slabs of pounding rock from start to finish, sometimes degenerating a little into prog-ish backwaters, but always getting back on track quickly enough to be forgiven. Far better than most post-reunion albums; I doubt Suede can top it, somehow.

AC Newman – Shut Down the Streets
Best known as lead songwriter with the New Pornographers, AC Newman put out his third solo album this year. A marked shift from 2009’s punchy Get Guilty, it more recalled the clatter of the New Pornographers’ 2007 effort Challengers. But somehow it didn’t quite have the songs to make it work.

Sea of Bees – Orangefarben
Sometimes the mood or feel of an album is its main asset; the languid warmth of Orangefarben is hugely enjoyable, even if the songs never massively resolved themselves from each other to me. It doesn’t help in telling them apart that they all have one-word titles; Gone and Alien are highlights, while Leaving (a cover of Leaving on a Jetplane) is unnecessary.

Iris DeMent – Sing the Delta
One of the real treats this year was Iris DeMent’s first album of original material for twelve (or even m0re?) years. It’s a piano-driven, authentic, tuneful, gospel-y slice of the South that draws in rather than alienating. It’s unambiguously sung from the perspective of a family woman in middle age, as emphasised by the cover portrait of Iris, almost aggressive in its honest presentation of her. A truly distinctive record.

There are a few more records I rather liked. Tender Trap returned with Ten Songs About Girls; the follow-up to 2010’s Dansette, Dansette, and a record that makes me inclined to think Amelia Fletcher’s on the best run of form of her musical career.. Meanwhile, I never consciously considered Metric‘s synth-heavy Synthetica a particular favourite, but it was one I kept returning to on my MP3 player.

The year has had its disappointments too. I’ll probably never be the Cribs‘ greatest fan, but bar lead single Come On Be A No One, their new Marr-less album didn’t do it for me. Much hyped, Visions by Grimes also boasted an utterly superb single, Oblivion… but the rest of the record was classic similar-but-not-as-good fare, and by the end of the album I’m invariably struggling to remember why I liked it. Similarly the Noisettes record boasted a superb piece of pop perfection – That Girl – but the rest of the album seemed to be a mish-mash of styles that didn’t add up to anything very satisfying.

This year has also left me wondering what next for Allo Darlin’: still the, well, darlings of the indiepop world, their second album had some stand-out tracks but overall was a grower if you’re feeling generous, and just not as good as its predecessor if you’re not. Seeing them live at KCSU, it did rather feel as though the new album tracks were something to be got through before being rewarded with the old stuff – never a good sign. What can Elizabeth Morris offer as a songwriter that we’ve not already heard? And can the band truly cross over; if so, does it need a change of setting from that dependable champion of quality indie Fortuna Pop? I’m fond of Allo Darlin’, but I worry for them. Wouldn’t say no to a Bill Botting solo project though – what an asset to the band he is.

A couple of albums from indie favourites snuck out at the end of the year, that one might have expected to come out in 2013 rather than in the run up to Christmas. The first was Wildlife, the third album by The Lovely Eggs: it sounds much like their previous records, fun, eccentric, at times demented and often noisy; I Just Want Someone To Fall In Love With instantly became one of my favourite songs of the year (and a rival to Don’t Look At Me I Don’t Like It for the title of Holly’s Best Song Since Why Did You Let My Kitten Die?), while the rest of it had me smiling, no doubt inexplicably to others, as I walked to work. The second record did rather less to provoke smiles: Moves by the Singing Adams is a fairly miserable affair, more so than I can recall Steven Adams having produced before either on his own or with the Broken Family Band. That said, it’s also fairly concise, musically more adventurous than past efforts and still full of Adams’s characteristically acute lyrics. Both records made for an enjoyable end to a musical year that had threatened to tail off a bit.

List 1: another very good album by…

  • The Shins – Port of Morrow
  • Jesca Hoop – The House that Jack Built
  • Elbow – Dead in the Boot
  • John Hiatt – Mystic Pinball
  • Calexico – Algiers

List 2: albums that are probably pretty good but that I didn’t really get into that much

  • Laura J Martin – The Hangman Tree
  • The Maccabees – Given to the Wild
  • Sharon van Etten – Tramp
  • Richard Hawley – Standing at the Sky’s Edge
  • Mary Epworth – Dream Life
  • Gossip – A Joyful Noise
  • Anais Mitchell – Young Man in America
  • Strawberry Whiplash – Hits in the Car
  • Katzenjammer – A Kiss Before You Go
  • Corin Tucker Band – Kill My Blues
  • Paul Burch and the WACO Brothers – Great Chicago Fire
  • Bat for Lashes – The Haunted Man
  • Dingus Khan – Support Mistly Swans
  • Orca Team – Restraint