Monday 30 December 2013

My Top Ten Albums of 2013

At last - the big ten. What took me so long? I'll delay you no longer on the intro, I'm sure you just want to read the numbers and skip the waffle. (But allow me the waffle anyway, it's the only writing I get time for these days.)

10. David Bowie - The Next Day

This will no doubt be many people's album of the year and it certainly was a return to some kind of form... though I've enjoyed bits of most of the albums the Dame has released since his 80s zenith/nadir (depending on your point of view - there are those who count Scary Monsters as his last truly classic album, but I'd have to go with Let's Dance and irk the purists). The Next Day was certainly a triumph of marketing - or anti-marketing, if you prefer - and Where Are We Now? was a brave and inspired choice for lead / surprise single. Brave because The Stars (Are Out Tonight) and Valentine's Day were much more obvious pop songs; inspired because of the way it opens with Dave catching a train, then mocking us for believing he never does stuff like that. (He probably doesn't.)

Top Track - The Stars (Are Out Tonight) (The video is hilarious.)

9. dan le sac vs. Scroobius Pip - Repent Replenish Repeat

The "vs." is apposite. Scroobius Pip is probably my favourite contemporary lyricist. I couldn't be less into the music of dan le sac if it'd been used to torture me non-stop for 36 months in a dripping dungeon in Doncaster. IDM, they call it (Intelligent Dance Music.) "Noise," is what Alan Partridge would call it, and I grow closer to Alpha Papa with every passing year. Yet I find myself more than tolerating the le sac racket: I find myself embracing it when it's paired with Pip's stunning storytelling. On their latest release, those stories include a guided tour through an asylum for disturbed ladies (Alice, Dorothy and Wendy... you may recognise the names); an explosive attack on bling culture; an anarchic team up with former King Blues frontman Itch; and the mesmeric tale of a doomed love affair, a true onion song that you need to listen to again and again, peeling back the layers to get to the truth...

Top Track - Terminal 

8. Public Service Broadcasting - Inform - Educate - Entertain

What the hell's this - more dance music? Well, this is about as close as I get. Unjustly compared to both Jean Michel Jarre and Jive Bunny (by utter, utter philistines who don't know what they're talking about), PSB steal samples from old Public Service Announcements and layer them over varied musical accompaniment to create sonic cathedrals of brilliance (TM NME circa 1987). Check out the W H Auden flavoured Night Mail as a starter...

Top Track - Night Mail

7. Billy Bragg - Tooth & Nail

Yeah, this is more like the sort of thing you expect to find in my Top Ten... and who am I to disappoint? Billy delivers exactly what his fans desired on his latest album - a mix of personal, state-of-the-relationship middle aged anthems (my Top Track below became a much-played retort in the year that Louise expected me to become a DIY supergod) and trenchant state-of-the-nation/world protest songs that resolve themselves in both resignation (No One Knows Nothing Anymore) and optimism (Tomorrow's Going To Be A Brighter Day), all recorded over five days in a Pasadena basement. And in the year that his old nemesis finally passed, Billy responded with more dignity than most.

Top Track - Handyman Blues (Another classic video, directed by Johnny Vegas.)

6. Frank Turner - Tape Deck Heart

Which brings us to Frank, in many ways the next generation's Billy Bragg, although his politics are far more complicated. Another artist virtually guaranteed a place in my year end countdown any time he sees fit to release a new record, and Tape Deck Heart was a sterling addition to the canon. Packed with hummable tunes, the latest set from Hampshire's punk rock Springsteen delivered an angry address on how love isn't like it is in the movies ("Amelie lied to me"), an appeal to parents everywhere (if you want your kids to grow up to be songwriters - don't be nice to them) and plenty of fist-in-the-air "I believe in the power of music" singalongs. Plus, if you were smart enough to buy the extended version, further classics involving time machines, undeveloped photographs and Gene Simmons. More smart, witty, thought provoking lyrics than you'll find crammed into any other record this year... with one possible exception (see below, #5). Oh, and live, Frank still blows the roof off.

Top Track - Four Simple Words

5. Eminem - The Marshall Mathers LP 2

My favourite TV character of all time is Andy Sipowicz, as played by Dennis Franz in NYPD Blue. Andy started out as a racist, misogynist, homophobic alcoholic, but over the course of ten seasons he was forced to face up to many of his prejudices, developing and changing like few TV characters ever do, while still remaining a loveable misanthrope at heart. As bizarre as it might seem, I see lots of parallels between Andy S. and Marshall M., although M&M is taking slightly longer to confront his intolerance and bigotry, there are signs of it on his new album... he even manages a "love song" (of sorts) dedicated to his much-maligned mom.

It's almost ten years since I paid any attention to Eminem, and to be honest, I thought I'd outgrown him. Following his last semi-essential album (Encore in 2004), he "retired" only to launch a half-arsed and ill-received "pop" comeback in 2009. So no one expected The Marshall Mathers LP2 to be much cop - particularly as sequels to successful albums are notoriously a one-way ticket to the bargain bin. (Tubular Bells II, anybody?)

But against all odds, Marshall has pulled it off. He even has the audacity to kick off the record with a follow-up to Stan, his biggest radio hit, in which the eponymous hero's brother comes looking for revenge. Along the way he debates the eternal question: "Is Eminem an 'Asshole' or a 'Rap God'?" while sampling everybody from the Zombies to Joe Walsh and spitting machine gun rhymes and quickfire quips that use up half the dictionary. TMMLP2 is frequently hilarious, often offensive, occasionally juvenile and always impressive. And while Eminem steals the "Most Self-Obsessed Songwriter" crown back from Morrissey, he also reveals a maturity and introspection only hinted at on previous outings. It's hardly redemption... but it's a surprising first step.

Top Track - So Far...

4. Brad Paisley - Wheelhouse 

From rap to C&W - you can't accuse me of not at least trying to be eclectic. Brad Paisley is my favourite contemporary country star and Wheelhouse is his masterpiece, a tribute to the "land of cotton" from which he hails, addressing many of the myths, misconceptions and prejudices associated with or aimed at the Deep South. Now I've never been to America and, if I ever did, I'd choose New York over Tennessee, but this record still spoke to me, made me laugh, made me cry, and affirmed my life as music should. Love and hatred, birth and death, religion and politics, marriage and divorce, karate and facebook... all human life is here, with guest appearances from Eric Idle and LL Cool J (on the really-shouldn't-work rap/country crossover that offers a solution to all southern racism). Plus, the song below, which made me sob like a baby more than once this year... for obvious reasons.

Top Track - Officially Alive

3. Prefab Sprout - Crimson / Red

Against all odds - including partial blindness and permanent tinnitus - this autumn, Paddy McAloon surprised everybody by releasing the first new Prefab Sprout material in 12 years (2009's Let's Change The World With Music was based on material originally demoed in the early 90s)... and it was as good, if not better than, anything he's ever recorded before. A set of flawless pop songs / short stories starring jewel thieves, teenagers, devils, magicians and trumpets left out in the snow: no other record made my heart fly and my smile beam as this one did in 2013. Glorious, heartwarming and beautiful; whether he's describing adolescence as "a psychedelic motorbike... you smash it up ten times a day, then walk away" or lamenting an old conjuror who "takes one last, one final bow... he's lost all his illusions now", Paddy may not use as many words as Frank or Marshall, but I'll be damned if the ones he does choose aren't all perfect.

2. Manic Street Preachers - Rewind The Film

On the evening of September 9th, in the very moment my son Sam was delivered into the world, the first single from this album was playing on the radio in the operating theatre. At the time, I believed the lyrics of the chorus to be...
Show me the wonder
I have seen the purpose of the universe
...which would have been perfectly apt. However, on further listens (and closer perusal of the lyric booklet), it turns out the words are actually...
Show me the wonder
I have seen the birthplace of the universe.
Spooky, huh?

I listened to this record a lot in the weeks following Sam's birth, and many of the songs spoke directly to me, as though the Manics put this record together with some foreknowledge of where my life would be when it was released.
I am as tired as John Lennon sang
Conveying exhaustion like no-one else can
I'm no longer the centre of the universe
A bare admission that makes it seem worse
This was also a record in which the group railed against there own middle aged spread, mocking their younger, more bombastic selves thus...
Only in you do we see ourselves
Only in you can we see our end
So sick and so tired of being "4 real"
Only the fiction still has the appeal
They saved their greatest anger, however, for the establishment, proving the years haven't dulled their political bite.
The lies of Hillsborough
The blood of Orgreave
All the evasion at the BBC

And the endless parade of old Etonian scum
Line the front benches, so what is to be done?
All part of the same establishment
I ask you again what is to be done?
I even grew to love the instrumental!

Top Track: Show Me The Wonder

1. John Grant - Pale Green Ghosts

John Grant's debut solo album missed out on my Top Ten of 2010 purely because I didn't get into it in time. I wasn't going to let that happen with the follow-up, and my pre-order was no disappointment. Even back in March, I knew this was going to be my album of the year - despite the fact that, musically at least, it's a little less cosy than its predecessor. Dance beats, electronica, a strong 80s influence... surely these things would spoil Mr. Grant's cutting and hugely personal songwriting? Not one bit.

Both a break-up album and a record on which JG comes to terms with being HIV positive, it doesn't sound like there'll be a whole lot of laughs to be had here... yet in fact, this is bitchiness central. Hilariously cutting, heartbreakingly honest, no other songwriter wore their heart on their sleeve like John Grant this year - not even Eminem! (He even swears more than Marshall, and a helluva lot more creatively.)
Remember walking hand in hand, side by side?
We walked the dogs
And took long strolls through the park...
Except we never had dogs and never went to the park.
Remember how we used to fuck all night long?
Neither do I, because I always passed out
I need lots of booze, to handle the pain
One minute he's comparing a former lover to "the Agent Orange they used to use in Vietnam", the next he's asking Ernest Borgnine for advice on how to cope when life deals you a shitty hand ("And when I think about everything that he's been through, I wish he'd call me on the phone and take my ass to school"). And then, of course, there's GMF, my song of the year. Don't forget - you could be laughing 65% more of the time...

So... those were my albums of 2013. What were yours? All recommendations will be given consideration...

Happy New Year!

Tuesday 24 December 2013

My Top Twenty Albums of 2013 (20 - 11)

Will I complete this countdown by the end of the year? Perhaps a Top 30 was too ambitious with everything else I've got going on, but there were so many great records I wanted to mention, I didn't want to leave the last ten out. Anyway, here's the second third...  

20. John Murry - The Graceless Age

I knew nothing about John Murry before I tripped over The Graceless Age; I know little more now. But it is a lovely record, from the same place as The National or Father John Misty (though not as fun as the latter), with echoes of the Stones and Dylan (particularly on the opener, The Ballad of the Pajama Kid, which is heavily indebted to Knocking On Heaven's Door). Worth a punt...

Top Track - Little Coloured Balloons

19. Suede - Bloodsports

Blimey, who let Suede back in the door? I was happy enough with Brett's solo albums, but this came as a joyous surprise. Like they'd never been away...

Top Track - It Starts And Ends With You

18. Skint & Demoralised - The Bit Between The Teeth

Sadly, this turned out to be the last album under the S&D monicker from Wakefield's greatest beat-poet, Matt Abbott. Let's hope he returns soon in another guise because he's far too engaging a songwriter and storyteller to fade into obscurity. The epic, visceral and heartbreaking opening track - Jarvis Cocker meets Mike Skinner meets Martin Sorcese (!) - is worth the price of admission on its own.

Top Track - Amores Perros

17.  The Electric Soft Parade - Idiots

Always good to have the ESP lads back too, and this was possibly their best record yet: a pure blast of summertime indie that reminded me of all the best bits of 1996 with a few lashings of ELO thrown in for good measure. And let's face it, they had me at the album title.

Top Track - Summertime In My Heart

16. The Indelicates - Diseases of England

Considering every previous Indelicates album has made my Top 3 come the end of its release year (and their debut is still my favourite album of the 21st Century), Simon and Julia will probably be disappointed at a Number 16 placing (yeah, like they give a shit). Diseases of England was a fine record by anybody else's standards, but a little too all-over-the-shop to form a cohesive whole (it didn't help that they released it in three chunks due to financial hardship). Still great: just damned by comparisons to its predecessors.

Top Track - Pubes

15. Lloyd Cole - Standards

Lloyd, on the other hand, just keeps on churning them out... and every one's a gem. The record company (Lloyd and his son?) tried to differentiate this one by telling us he'd gone electric and dragged in a full band again. Whatever, it was business as usual... and what a business!

Top Track - Period Piece

14. Thea Gilmore - Regardless

Thea, too, seems incapable of making a bad record. This didn't stray far from her usual playpen, but if it ain't broke...?

Sadly, the glorious Ms. Gilmore (who's guaranteed a place in this countdown any time she releases a record) is the only female artist to make my list this year. I don't know why that is. If you want to recommend a few women I missed hearing in 2013, fill in the box below.

Top Track (well, the only one I can find on youtube) - Love Came Looking For Me

13. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - Push The Sky Away

Might have placed higher if Nick hadn't roped Ray Winstone in for the x-rated Jubilee Street video. That aside, this was his most consistently satisfying records since The Boatman's Call. And The Higgs Boson Blues is the year's scariest song... not just because Nick starts perving over Miley Cyrus halfway through.

Top Track - The Higgs Boson Blues

12. Justin Currie - Lower Reaches

While JC's third solo record doesn't reach the misanthropic heights of his last two, it confirms his position as National Songwriting Treasure. Lower Reaches begins at a funeral and ends at a wedding... and I reckon Justin probably enjoys the former more than the latter. Much as he wishes he wasn't at either.

If we are going to hell
We might as well enjoy the fall...

Top Track - Falsetto

11. Eels - Wonderful, Glorious

If there's a pattern emerging in this countdown, it's that a lot of the artists I loved ten, twenty - even thirty (!) - years ago are still producing great records, and while they might no longer be troubling the charts, they're still giving me a helluva lot of pleasure. Yes, I am officially a middle aged white muso, and most of the records I buy are by the same... although you might still be surprised by a couple of my Top Ten choices. Until then... enjoy this cracker from the latest Eels album. Age does not wither E...

Next week, the Top Ten. Until then, enjoy that Christmas thing, as much as you can. Thanks for reading...

Sunday 15 December 2013

My Top Thirty Albums of 2013 (30 - 21)

I've not had a whole lot of time for blogging lately, for small baby-related reasons (I'm not complaining!) However, I couldn't let the year pass without giving mention to the records that kept me sane throughout 2013. Before we get to the Top 20, here are a few interesting runners up...

30. Adam Ant - Adam Ant Is the BlueBlack Hussar Marrying the Gunner's Daughter

The album title alone gets it through the door. It's good to have him back.

Top Track - Cool Zombie

29. Jake Bugg - Shangri La 

There's no denying Jake Bugg can write both a TUNE and zeitgeisty lyric, and his debut album did crack me after a good few listens. Whether this will do the same, I've yet to see, I only got it a couple of weeks back. However, I did buy another record on the same day that's already made it into my Top 10. Sometimes though, growers are better than immediate sparklers. Only time will tell.

Top Track - Messed Up Kids

28. Noah & The Whale - Heart Of Nowhere

A concept album about a world where teenagers are illegal... or something. Hardly Tommy, and nowhere near as mindblastingly wonderful as their last record... but I do hope its lack of success doesn't put them off.

Top Track - There Will Come A Time

27. Bon Jovi - What About Now

Look, just deal with it, OK?

Top Track - Because We Can

26. Parquet Courts - Light Up Gold

If you want to get picky, this was originally released last year. But it got a big boost this summer by the promotion of its Velvets-meets-Pavement single, Stoned & Starving. If every track on the album had been as strong as that, this might have made my Top 3.

Top Track - Stoned & Starving

25. The Handsome Family - Wilderness

Who knows what goes through Brett & Rennie's minds? On their latest record, each track was named after a woodland critter. The songs were about far more than wildlife though...

Top Track - Woodpecker

24. The National - Trouble Will Find Me

Re-listening to this record in preparation for this countdown, I came to the conclusion I haven't given it enough time. So I've taken it to play in the car. In another couple of weeks, it might be Top 10.

Top Track - Demons  

23. Luke Haines - Rock 'n' Roll Animals

Luke Haines's latest concept album insanity was a children's fable about three rock 'n' roll animals  (Jimmy Pursey, a fox; Gene Vincent, a cat; and a badger called Nick Lowe) who travel up country to battle the evil Angel of the North. Narrated by Julia Davis, naturally.

Top Track - Rock 'n' Roll Animals

22. Johnny Marr - The Messenger

Good to hear Johnny finally deliver the solo album we always knew he was capable of. Shame his former partner is too busy penning Penguin Classics to lend him a few spare lyrics. We can but dream...

Top Track - New Town Velocity

21. The Arctic Monkeys - AM

Alex Turner's Elvis-channeling Glasto performance and the NME's Album of the Year notwithstanding, this was just another year in the life of the Sheffield Monkees. Again, I only picked up their latest album a few weeks back and perhaps with a few more listens it might have crept into my Top 20. But I can tell already it's not up there with their debut or even their last two records. It might be better than Favourite Worst Nightmare... or I might just be being churlish.

Top Track - Number One Party Anthem

And now, because everyone's heard the Arctic Monkeys at some point this year, here's Adam Ant one more time. Because even at #30, he deserves it.

A few surprises there... I know, if some of those only made my Top 30, who the hell made better records this year? You'll have to wait and see.

Start laying your bets for the next ten... or the number one. Any guesses?

Tuesday 3 December 2013

My Top Ten Strike Songs

I've been on strike today for the first time in my life. I managed 41 years without ever going on strike; I've been a full time teacher just over a month and already I'm unionised and refusing to cross the picket line. Billy Bragg would be proud.... which probably gives away this week's Number One.

Special mention to the Flying Pickets... obviously.

10. Ewan MacColl & Peggy Seeger - Daddy, What Did You Do In The Strike?

Perhaps one day Sam will ask me this question. Perhaps I'll point him to this post.

The song itself... you won't hear a better chronicle of the darkest days of the 1980s.

9. Strike Anywhere - You're Fired!

Very loud but extremely apt.

Hopefully the name of the band won't lead me to the title of the song.

8. Elvis Costello - Clown Strike

I hate clowns, so they can stay on bloody strike for all I care. 

7. Titus Andronicus - A More Perfect Union

Perhaps not about that kind of union, but what it lacks in relevance it makes up for in passion. And any song that mixes Bruce Springsteen with Billy Bragg gets my vote every time...
No, I never wanted to change the world, but I'm looking for a new New Jersey
Because tramps like us, baby, we were born to die
6. Ry Cooder - Strike!

Lots of songs about striking miners... couldn't find any about striking teachers.

We've got it easy, to be honest.

5. Manic Street Preachers - A Design For Life

Growing up in Wales, the Manics were hit hard by the miners' strike. Their biggest hit was inspired by it... and they're still angry (referencing the Battle of Orgreave) on their excellent new album, Rewind The Film.

4. The Smiths - Bigmouth Strikes Again

Yes, yes, this is also somewhat off-topic... but you didn't really think I was going to leave it out, did you?

3. Billy Joel - Allentown

Even the union can't help the inhabitants of Allentown. For anyone who dismisses Billy as a balladeer, here he's as angry at his country as Springsteen on Born In The USA. Great song.

2. Pulp - The Last Day Of The Miners' Strike

Coming from South Yorkshire, Jarvis will have seen the worst effects of the miner's strike firsthand too. Working in Barnsley, I'm reminded of it regularly. Those scars are still raw.
Well by 1985, I was as cold a cold could be
But no-one was underground to dig me out and set me free
'87 socialism gave way to socialising 

So put your hands up in the air once more
The north is rising
1. Billy Bragg - There Is Power In A Union

Sharing its title with a song written in 1913 by Joe Hill (presumably not Stephen King's son... unless time travel or supernatural naughtiness are involved), Billy's version sounded defiant against Thatcherism in the 80s... but is it a forlorn hope today?
Now I long for the morning that they realise
Brutality and unjust laws cannot defeat us
But who'll defend the workers who cannot organise
When the bosses send their lackies out to cheat us?

Those were my striking anthems. Which one would cross your picket line?
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