Saturday 27 December 2014

My Top Ten Albums of 2014 - #1

1. First Aid Kit - Stay Gold

So far in my Top Five, I've revealed the coolest record of the year (#5), the most beautifully crafted (#3), the most fun and feelgood (#2)... and the most Morrissey (#4). What's left? 

First Aid Kit's third album was a true treasure trove. It's a timeless album of sunshine and sadness: delicious harmonies, evocative imagery and achingly melancholic stories from a band displaying a wisdom beyond their years. It's a record about growing old, about happiness being fleeting, about not knowing what you've got till it's gone... and yes, Joni would approve.

Even if I wasn't already a fan from their last LP, the first single, My Silver Lining, would have sold it to me. 
I don't wanna wait any more
I'm tired of looking for answers
Take me some place where there's music and laughter
I don't know if I'm scared of dying
But I'm scared of living too fast, too slow
Regret, remorse, hold on - oh no, I've got to go
There's no starting over
No new beginnings
Time races on
And you've just gotta keep on keepin' on...
 Straight off the back of this came single #2, Master Pretender, the second best New York song of the year (any other year it would have taken the top slot)...
I always thought that you'd be here
But shit gets fucked up
And people just disappear
So honey now, don't be mad
Time has told me it can't be that bad
And if it is... well, I'll be goddamned
But I'll stick around...
They edited that for the radio, of course, but you've never heard cuss words sound so sweet... or so sad.

And then, just when you thought it couldn't get any better came single #3... the title track: pure gold. 
What if to love and be loved's not enough?
What if we fall and can't bear to get up?
Oh, I wish for once we could stay gold...
Don't we all?

Those first three singles were also the first three tracks on the album, and I can't think of a stronger opening to any album this year. But it didn't end there... there's only ten tracks on this LP, but every one is a masterpiece, and every one could have been a single. These two young women from Sweden (via LA) have produced the most mature, beguiling and emotionally affecting record of 2014. As long as there is still music such as this being recorded - and finding an audience - the music industry will survive just fine.

And that's it for 2014. How was it for you... did your Top Ten feature any of my selections? Do let me know.

Happy New Year to all My Top Ten readers. I'll be back on January 1st with a special Top Ten for a special person. Normal service will hopefully resume soon after that.

Friday 26 December 2014

My Top Ten Albums of 2014 - The Runners Up

Before we get to my favourite album of the year, here's a few that would have made the Top Twenty. Let's start with the obvious one...

In case you thought you'd sussed my Number One through the process of elimination - sorry to disappoint. Bruce doesn't make it this year. Mainly because, although there's much to enjoy about High Hopes, it still doesn't feel like a proper album. It feels like a contract-filler, a compilation cobbled together from various sources and with an odd insistence on promoting the work of guest guitarist Tom Morello.The best songs have been heard before, although the versions included here are stronger. American Skin (41 Shots) was originally released on the 2001 Live In New York CD. It's an emotional retelling of the story of Amadou Diallo, shot by the NYPD in 1999... sadly still timely considering recent events in America. There's also a barnstorming rock version of The Ghost of Tom Joad, originally recorded on the 1995 acoustic album Devils & Dust: this one blows the roof off. The album concludes with a hypnotic cover of Suicide's Dream Baby Dream (also previously released). None of the new songs can really match these three. There are rumours of another new album in 2015: let's hope Bruce breaks back into my Top Ten next year.

Top Track: The Ghost of Tom Joad (2014)

Eels are another band who usually make it onto my year end list. This year saw another fine album from the man called E, promoting his true identity as never before on The Cautionary Tales of Mark Oliver Everett. Worth buying the deluxe version for an excellent live cover of Fleetwood Mac's Oh Well.

Top Track: Lockdown Hurricane 

My second favourite album of 2013 was Rewind The Film by the Manic Street Preachers. I generally find I prefer the Manics albums the critics dismiss, so it was unsurprising that this year's critical darling, Futurology, didn't quite do it for me in the same way. A little bit more experimental, a little bit more political, this was best when taking on Facebook and Twitter on The View From Stow Hill and eulogizing Richie Edwards (although the band claimed it wasn't about him at all!) on the opening single...

Top Track: Walk Me To The Bridge

Having finally taken off her Cardigans, Nina Persson released her debut solo album, an intriguing affair with some quite beguiling songs like this...

Top Track: The Grand Destruction Game

Most of the music press seem to have plumped for Lost In The Dream by The War On Drugs as one of their top albums this year. I loved Under The Pressure but found the rest of the album a little oblique for my aging tastes. Similarly Sharon Van Etten's critical darling Are We There... I thought Every Time The Sun Comes Up was fantastic. Nothing else came close. Meanwhile, I've not heard enough of Weezer's Everything Will Be Alright In The End to form an opinion yet... but Eulogy For A Rock Band is fantastic.

I just read an article that claims 2014 has been the worst year for album sales and new artist releases in the History of Time. Of course, such articles always pop up around this time of year, but it made me feel a little better about not having as much money to spend on new music as I once did. And generally the music industry works in peaks and troughs, so 2015 could well be a stormer.

One final 2014 album worthy of mention - once again from an old warhorse, but always a safe pair of hands. Tom Petty's Hypnotic Eye remains in my car stereo as we head towards the New Year. Here's my favourite track from that... you could well take it as a metaphor for the music industry this year, though I'm not sure it was meant that way.

And finally, we get to my Number One. After crossing the above albums off your guess list, what's left? Find out in a couple of days...

Wednesday 24 December 2014

My Top Ten Albums of 2014 - #2

Whenever anyone says to me, "I don't like country music," I always agree. Then I tell them, "I don't like rock music, either. I don't like soul, rap, jazz or reggae. I don't like indie. The only type of music I like... is good music. Regardless of genre." (They usually punch me at this point. I usually deserve it.)

Of course, I'm a hypocrite. You may have, on occasion, heard me say, "I don't like dance music." And of all the musical genres, that's the one I struggle most to find any common ground to stand on, mainly because (to quote you-know-who), "it says nothing to me about my life". But, arguably, dance music isn't supposed to say anything about our lives. It scratches a different itch... one that I've rarely needed scratching. But even then... Fatboy Slim, The Chemical Brothers, Daft Punk... occasionally, dance acts do break through my force field and connect with me in one way or another. But I digress...

I'm now at an age where it's probably more appropriate for me to be listening to country music than hardcore drum 'n' bass. And while I've always been a fan of classic country - Cash, Rogers, Kristofferson - lately, I've been drawn to the music made by a number of contemporary "pop" country artists such as the Dixie Chicks, Carrie Underwood and Tim McGraw. Brad Paisley, however, is in another league altogether. Not only has he become my favourite purveyor of country music, he's now one of my favourite songwriters period. (Yes, I used the Americanism on purpose. Full stop.) A recent live performance recorded  for BBC4 in which Paisley and three of his Nashville co-writers spoke about their approach to songwriting helped me explain why. Unlike a lot of lyricists (not just country), Paisley doesn't just write songs about love and loss, or cars and girls. His canvas is a broad as life itself - crime and religion and racism, fame and ego and money (or lack of it), the internet, parenthood, time travel, death and resurrection... you name it, Brad Paisley's probably written a song about it. With humour, sensitivity and lyrical dexterity. Along the way, he's worked with Clint Eastwood, LL Cool J, Eric Idle and William Shatner. And even though a lot of his songs are set in the southern United States and speak directly to his core fanbase, they also manage to say a hell of a lot to me... about my life. And they never fail to make me smile.

All that said, when I first listened to his latest album, Moonshine In The Trunk, I wasn't sure it was destined to become a classic. After last year's magnum opus, Wheelhouse (#4 in My Top Ten Albums of 2013), Moonshine seemed necessarily throwaway. A party album, perhaps, after the master's thesis in songwriting that Wheelhouse represented. Here, instead, were clichéd country tunes about drinking, acting dumb and taking your girl for a drive. Or so it seemed... 

But Moonshine In The Trunk is an album that snuck up on me. There are songs here deeper and more mature than anything Paisley's written before - perhaps because, as well as being an expert storyteller, Paisley's finally learning the power of a good metaphor. Back on that aforementioned BBC4 special, he talked a lot about his straightforward approach to songwriting, confessing admiration for lyricists such as Lennon & McCartney whose best work is more poetic in nature. "If we wrote a song called Strawberry Fields Forever," he humbly suggested, "there'd be a pick-up truck parked in the middle of that strawberry field with a couple making out in the back". On the best crafted songs here - Shattered Glass and Perfect Storm - he employs allusion, metaphor and other rhetorical devices and suggests ideas to the listener to develop themselves rather than straight-out telling the story. And, just like the Beatles, he understands that the best albums jump from light to dark, from heartfelt to hilarious... from Something to Maxwell's Silver Hammer. 

The first half - Side A, for those of you listening on vinyl - of Moonshine... is a perfect record in that regard. Every one's a winner, as Errol Brown once said. The opener, Crushin' It, is the song that set me up to believe this would be a more frivolous work than Brad's last album. It's basically a song about a screw-up whose only real talent is drinking. But, of course, it's about more than that. It's about self-doubt, realising you're never going to be a rock star or a rocket scientist, and being happy with whatever talents you've got. As with all Paisley songs though, it's the little details that sell it, as the familiar domestic tableau below demonstrates nicely...
They say your baby's mad cause you told her that you'd hang some pictures for her
You know the ones she framed late last spring of you and her in Florida
You're up on the ladder when it shatters into smithereens
She shakes her head, looks at you and says
"Ain't you good for anything?" and you say...

Every week has a weekend, by this time Friday night
You want a margarita, I'll get Tequila and ice
And I'll be crushin' it, with a cold one in my other hand
I'll be crushin' it, when I'm finished with my can
I can stomp it with my boot, crunch it with my fist
Smash it on my forehead, yeah I got this
I'll be crushin' it, oh I'll be crushin' it
Then comes the lead single, River Bank, a 'be happy with what you've got' anthem with a water-skiing squirrel in the video. Now, I'm always wary of multimillionaire rock stars singing songs about how you don't need money to find contentment, but I also hate it when songwriters who specialise in writing about the everyman forget what it's actually like once they hit the big time. Paisley manages to still write songs from the ordinary Joe's perspective even though he's now living an extraordinary life. And long may that continue.

Next up is Perfect Storm, a love song written for the wife of one of Brad's co-writers, Lee Thomas Miller, (though most of the lyrics came from Paisley himself), packed with metaphor, but boiled down it's about a woman you love... even though she's got a temper on her that'd drown George Clooney.
And she destroys me in that T-shirt
And I love her so much it hurts
The above couplet sums Paisley's lyrical skills up well. The natural detail of the first line breaks the cliché of the second line. Genius.

Then comes High Life, an affectionately hilarious character piece written from the perspective of a bunch of lazy-ass, welfare-sponging low-lives who'll do anything to avoid doing an honest day's work. You know the sort...
I heard a song a couple months ago
It was Carrie Underwood on the radio,
Reminded me of a poem my brother wrote
Back in the second grade
Now I know she didn’t steal it, but so what?
We lawyered up and we sued her butt
These days we figure we’d pretty much
Get paid to go away.
Turns out the song's also a sly dig at an actual lawsuit filed against Brad's co-writers for "stealing" ideas for one of his earlier hits. Morrissey would be proud.

The title track, with its ZZ Top guitars, Springsteenesque opening lines and Dukes of Hazzard references is possibly the most Country thing on here... but it's a great driving anthem too. And then comes Shattered Glass, an empowerment anthem for women who are finally breaking through the glass ceiling. Shades of Bon Jovi or Bryan Adams in the music, but (much as I love 'em) those guys never wrote anything as clever as this. And finally, there's Limes, another song ostensibly about drinking (Tequila, again), although I've definitely been encouraged by the sentiment... even though it's been years since I touched a drop.
When life gives you limes...
Make margaritas!
Like the rest of this record, Limes made me feel good about myself at a time when I really needed to do that. Moonshine... was the happiest, most upbeat album I've heard all year... and that was exactly what the doctor ordered. And if Side 2 wasn't quite as strong, despite entertaining songs about going green and why we shouldn't give up on space exploration... well, I still enjoyed the hell out of it.

I've spent a large part of my life listening to feel-bad music, but this year in particularly - despite all the amazing things that I've seen and experienced - I really needed a margarita. Thanks, Brad.

I'll be back after Christmas with some runners up and my big Number One. In the meantime, enjoy the festive season - and crush a beer can or slim some lime in your tequila on me.

Monday 22 December 2014

My Top Ten Albums of 2014 - #3

3. Elbow - The Take Off And Landing Of Everything

For the first six months of the year, I was pretty certain this was going to be the best record I would hear in 2014. Elbow's sixth album is a thing of great beauty: achingly wistful, filled with heartbreaking imagery, sublime wordplay and self-deprecating humour. I'm always wary of calling lyricists poets - particularly as I tend to favour story songs over poesy - but Guy Garvey must be the finest bard of his generation. Few other contemporary lyricists write songs - or use words - such as these (from Honey Sun)...
She and I would death defy and promenade
She and I were profligate as de rigueur
She and I were for a Burton Taylor made
She and I won't find another me and her
From a writer's perspective (I used to think of myself as one of those, you know) or even a lover of the English language, every line on this record is gold. Every word perfectly chosen. There's a lot of surprising, oftentimes contrasting imagery, mixing the majestic with the mundane, the exhilarating with the everyday... yet it all fits together so well. This is not an album that was written: it was crafted by a master.
Presidential delays
Suppose I'm just lucky
I'm having a shindig
Me, Red Bob and The Ivory Host
And someone's shouting on the box
A chinless prefect gone Godzilla
My newest friends have forgotten my name
But so have I so far so good and home
You and me trampoline
And oceans of crash site love
(Fly Boy Blue / Lunette)
In my next post, I'll discuss the kinds of songs I like most. Stories about everyday people that I can relate to with the devil in the details. And in many ways, with his obscure references and guesswork metaphors, Guy Garvey should be exactly the kind of songwriter who leaves me cold. But every line here suggests a story, every word is one I wish I could have written myself. Added to that, as listeners to his 6Music show will know, Garvey is one of the most generous and down-to-earth rock stars you could ever hope to encounter. As I've said before, despite the fact that he's written the soundtrack to much of my life, I wouldn't ever want to go for a coffee with Morrissey. But Garvey, like Jarvis Cocker before him: he's the sort of songwriter you feel you could shoot the breeze with. Although chances are he'd want something a little stronger than coffee...
I am electric
With a bottle in me
Got a bottle in me
And glory be, these fuckers are ignoring me!
I'm from another century...
When I do my Top Ten Songs About Boozing, Charge will surely be Number One.(The video, sadly, edits the best line.)

I could write a paragraph about every song on this album, but I'll spare you. There's two more that must be heard though, My Sad Captains, which cements Garvey's reputation as unbeatable in the arena of Songs About Old Friends... and this: possibly the best song ever written about New York City. And, as you'll know, that's a pretty competitive field...
Every bone of rivet steel
Each corner stone and angle
Jenga jut and rusted water tower
Pillar, post and sign
Every painted line and battered ladder building in this town
Sings a life of proud endeavour and the best a man can be...

For every soul a pillow and a window, please
In the modern Rome where folk are nice to Yoko

Chances are you might not dig my #2. Chances are you might wonder what the hell it's doing above Elbow, Morrissey, Jack White et al. But hear me out. I'll do my best to convince you otherwise...

Saturday 20 December 2014

My Top Ten Albums of 2014 - #4

4. Morrissey - World Peace Is None Of Your Business

And so, the inevitable Morrissey review. It's been another horribilis annus for the Mozfather, although it started out pretty well. Riding high on the critical acclaim of his Autobiography (which I still haven't read: I'm ashamed to admit I've read three books in total this year and those I have managed to get through had CHAPTERS and PARAGRAPHS) with a new two-album record deal signed, the release of World Peace... was met with uniformly glowing reviews and all seemed rosy in the Mozcamp. 

We knew it couldn't last. Within ten seconds of his album crashing into the charts at Number #2 (held off by Dial-A-Cliche Ordinary Boy Ed Sheeran... oh, the indignity!) Moz had dumped his new record company, slagging them off to all and sundry for not promoting the album correctly, not spending any money on any decent videos and making him stand on top of the Capitol Records building at sunrise... with Pamela Anderson. Then, just as the Mozzosphere was reeling from that body blow, our hero announced he was having treatment for cancer: “If I die, then I die. And if I don’t, then I don’t." After that, his questionable dalliances with the utterly loathsome Russell Brand, his refusal to trade blows with The Queen on Christmas Day, and his announcement that he was off to write a novel next (hopefully, this time, with CHAPTERS)... well, it may have been business as usual, but it was all tinged with worry. Imagine a world where Morrissey wasn't here to spark outrage by talking equal parts nonsense and common sense. It'd be a much less interesting place.

Anyway,enough with the preamble... what about the record itself? Well, first off, you have to buy the Deluxe Edition. Because Morrissey being Morrissey, a couple of the best tracks are on the b-sides (now that b-sides are a thing of the past, that's Disc 2 of the Deluxe Edition). Particularly the hilarious Art-Hounds in which Moz lets rip with his very best Alan Bennett putdowns...
Art-hounds in a restaurant
They bring along
Their loving aunt
But when they can't find a table
For their fat aunt Mabel
They stamp their feet and cry
Bonus disc dealt with then, the album proper is so close to being classic, I think we can call it. I don't think I liked it as much as the critics who declared it a glorious comeback, his best since You Are The Quarry (or even, in some reviews, his best since Vauxhall & I) but then most critics tend to forget that every Morrissey album (with the possible exception of Maladjusted) is described as a comeback by somebody.

It starts with a typical Morrissey rant about rubbish politicians which I wholeheartedly agree with... until he sides with the aforementioned blight on society, Russell Brand ("Each time you vote you support the process") at which point he loses me slightly. The second single, Istanbul, is this album's First Of The Gang To Die (although not quite as poppy), a stark tale of a father scouring the streets of one of Moz's favourite cities in a desperate attempt to find his "blue-eyed son". It's a heavy song, though 6Music A-listed it (after ignoring the title track)... perhaps because the riff owes something to The Smiths. Curiously, that station went on to A-list the camp and poppy Kiss Me A Lot which wasn't released as a single. Iffypedia tells me that Earth Is The Loneliest Planet (great title; swirling I Know It's Over style histrionics) and The Bullfighter Dies (a 2 minute accordion-laced "ha ha" that's somehow much more satisfying as an animal rights anthem than Meat Is Murder ever was) were released next: I never heard either of these played from the radio-box.

Elsewhere, Moz shows sympathy for stressed students driven to drastic measures when they fail their exams (Staircase At The Museum)...
"If you don't get three A's"
Her sweet daddy said
"You're no child of mine
And as far as I'm concerned 
You're dead."
...and surprises us with a love of Jack Kerouac (Neal Cassady Drops Dead) that punningly makes explicit one of the album's recurring themes (Morrissey is not a well man)...
"Everyone has babies
Babies full of rabies
Scarlett has a fever
Ringlets full of ringworm
Angel of distemper
The little fella has got rubella
Nipper full of fungus
Junior full of gangrene
Minor's melanoma
Tyke full of grippe
Whippersnapper scurvy
Urchin made of acne

Get that thing away from me!"
The album's stand-out track, however, is the scathing 8-minute assault on masculinity I'm Not A Man.
Ah, but lonely
Well, if this is what it takes to describe...

I'm not a man."
As I said earlier, a world where Morrissey is no longer around to write such things... now that really will be the loneliest planet.

Which three records were better than Morrissey? Well, to start with, the worst parts of any plane journey - enjoyed with a Gee-Gee. 

Thursday 18 December 2014

My Top Ten Albums of 2014 - #5

5. Jack White - Lazaretto 

Musically, Jack White's second solo LP after the dissolution of the White Stripes is very much what you'd expect. It sounds like a classic bluesy rock record that could have been recorded at almost any point in the last 70 years... while at the same time also sounding utterly contemporary. Lyrically, however, it is deeper, angrier, funnier and more intriguing than anything he's ever written. And, as the Lynchian video for Would You Fight For My Love? proves, it is by far the coolest record of the year.
The album opens with a hilarious remake of Blind Willie McTell's braggadocious Three Women in which JW boasts of having three women - one in California, one in Nashville, and one in Detroit - all of whom seem happy to put up with his polygamous antics. 
Well, these women must be
Getting something
Cause they come and see me
Every night!
Air miles, perhaps?
The title track, in which Jack gets quarantined on the Isle of Man (that's what a Lazaretto is, in case you were wondering, an isolated quarantine station for sailors) is Jack's Bohemian Rhapsody or Paranoid Android. Utterly insane, loud as hell, unlike anything you've ever heard before and fearlessly released to radio as an opening single... possibly the least radio-friendly track on the album, at least until you've heard it ten times when, BANG, it suddenly sounds like a Number One.
Meanwhile, High Ball Stepper makes instrumentals vital again - it ought to be a theme tune for an action-packed TV detective show, while on Entitlement, Grumpy Old Jack goes off on one about "Kidz These Days"...
There are children today who are lied to
They're told the world is rightfully theirs
They can have what they want
Whenever they want
They take like Caesar
And nobody cares
 ...before pissing on all our chips...
Not one single person
On God's golden shore
Is entitled to one single thing
We don't deserve a single damn thing.

Hands up if you honestly feel you can disagree with him?

And then there's the glorious That Black Bat Licorice, in which Jack unleashes a ballsy pop-rap anthem that Pink or Lady Gaga would have given their perfectly white star teeth for. Or maybe it's Jack does Purple Rain era Prince? Whatever, it's utterly spectacular. Just like the rest of this album...

Next, at Number #4... ITMA. Victim - or life's adventurer? Which of the two is he...?

Tuesday 16 December 2014

My Top Ten Albums of 2014 - #6

6. Jenny Lewis - Voyager

I've been a fan of Jenny Lewis since I first heard Rilo Kiley's Portions For Foxes. So that's ten years now. (Insert your own 'times flies' 'we're all getting old' comment here, I'm tired of writing them.) Anyway, Voyager is her third solo album (not counting the album she did with her boyfriend, Johnathan Rice, which I haven't tracked down yet) and the reviews I read suggested it was a little too pop. Strange for an album produced by Ryan Adams, you'd have thought he'd have given it a bit more edge, but yes, this is a very sunshiny West Coast Fleetwood Mac sounding record. The lyrics still have that wonderful Lewis quirky kick though and although the first two songs could almost be vintage Madonna (before the old dear started knocking around with dance producers half her age in order to keep the portrait in her attic decaying), the rest of the record is storytelling gold...
When I turned 16 I was furious and restless
Got a chancy girl haircut and a plane ticket to Paris
I stayed there with Pansy, he had a studio in the Seventh
Lost his lover to a sickness, I slept beside him in his bed
That's when I met Nancy, she was smoking on a gipsy
She had a ring in her nose and her eyes were changing like moonstones
She said "Open up late bloomer, it will make you smile
I can see that fire burning, in you little child.
Lyrics that good (from the album's centrepiece, Late Bloomer) speak for themselves. That could be the opening paragraph of a classy short story by Raymond Carver or Joyce Carol Oates. And you know you'd have to read on. Because, like many of the tracks on this album, you find yourself speculating how much of it is meticulously crafted fiction... and how much of it might be autobiography. Lewis has certainly led a wild and bohemian life to this point, starting out as a child actress working alongside The Wonder Years' Fred Savage (in 1989 kids' movie The Wizard) before packing in thesping for rock 'n' roll. Although perhaps her biggest regret in all that is revealed on the album's debut single, in which she bemoans the inequality of the rockstar life and the fact that she'll never be Just One Of The Guys...
No matter how hard I try, to be just one of the guys
There's a little something inside that won't let me
No matter how hard I try, to have an open mind
There's a little clock inside that keeps ticking

There's only one difference between you and me
When I look at myself all I can see
I'm just another lady without a baby
Name another pop song that's tackles that issue in such forthright fashion and I'll send you a Cadbury's Creme Egg or a box of condoms. (The video guest stars Anne Hathaway and Kristen Stewart in case you're interested in such things.)

It's the little details that make Lewis's songs stick in your mind for days, turning otherwise common lyrical subject matter (She's Not Me: you've left me for another girl) into a page torn from a secret diary...
Remember the night I destroyed it all?
When I told you I cheated
And you punched through the drywall
I took you for granted
When you were all that I needed!
 Or how about this amusing anecdote from Aloha & The Three Johns...?
And John's been avidly reading Slash's bio
There was a TV set smashed out in front of his room
I didn't ask, I led a solo charge down to the sea
Where the fast-food trash and tourists made me fear and loath it
I could go on... hell, I could quote the whole album. But it's really better if you discover these stories for yourself. I'd hate to spoil your fun.

All of which brings us to the Top #5... beginning with a White bloke getting quarantined on the Isle of Man.

Sunday 14 December 2014

My Top Ten Albums of 2014 - #7

7. Pixies - Indie Cindy

Part of this record was released back in 2013 on the band's website, so it feels odd to be including it here. However, I stopped myself from including that in last year's countdown because it wasn't an album, so I could hardly ignore it this year.

The reformed Pixies then, now without both Kim Deal and the definite article: what else do you need to know? Their first album of new material in 23 years (yes, that'll make us all feel old) was almost as good as we wanted it to be: but certainly a hell of a lot better than we expected it to be. From the David Lynch does Talking Heads insanity of the lead single Bagboy, this was obviously a band still firing on all cylinders. And as opening lines go, Black Francis has rarely written better:
I had a bad reaction
To your public hobby writing
I get no satifaction
From your very recent sightings
Once he starts complaining that our bad breath and dirty teeth makes us all talk shit... well, even now, Bagboy remains my favourite song on the record. But there are many other great flavours to be found in this tube though, from the quintessentially Pixies What Goes Boom? (the video is worth 3 minutes 33 seconds of anybody's life) to Frank's nutty salute to Yorkshire witchcraft (apparently!) Blue-Eyed Hexe. Another Toe In The Ocean is the album's most radio-friendly offering while the title track is hilarious. Few of the lyrics make the remotest bit of logical sense, but when did they ever? They paint vivid pictures and suggest all kinds of hallucinatory insanity though, and that's exactly what you want from a Pixies album. Yeah, OK, as Martin pointed out, there's a few tracks in the second half that could be anybody (they're just not Pixies enough), but even without Kim, this doesn't feel like another Black Francis solo album. It feels like the band we all loved when we were 20 years younger. It's good to have them back.

Next up, at number #6... a former Kiley takes a journey.

Friday 12 December 2014

My Top Ten Albums of 2014 - #8

8. Sinéad O'Connor - I'm Not Bossy, I'm The Boss

Sinéad O'Connor always scared the hell out of me. On the lead single from her tenth album, however, she appears to be quite scared herself - perhaps as the result of some kind of mad mid-life crisis...

I don't wanna love the way I loved before
I don't wanna love that way no more
What have I been writing love songs for?
I don't want to write them anymore
I don't wanna sing from where I sang before
I don't wanna sing that way no more
What've I've been singing love songs for?
I don't wanna sing them anymore,
I don't wanna be that girl no more
Hearing this song on the radio, it quickly became one of my favourite tracks of the year... and the accompanying video, in which Sinéad goes Shania (as implausible as that may sound), sealed the deal. That moment two minutes in where she tears off the red wig might well be the sexiest thing I've seen in a music video all year. And when you consider that 75% of music videos these days are pretty much softcore porn in disguise (and not very good disguises in a lot of cases)... well, like I keep saying, I'm getting old.

Anyway, Take Me To Church set up certain expectations of I'm Not Bossy, I'm The Boss... not least that it would be an album devoid of love songs. Imagine my surprise then when I finally got to hear it... only to discover it's an album all about love... and passion... and sex... and infidelity... and kinky stuff. Kinda like Sinéad's own 50 Shades, only well written, and with the woman calling the shots.

Turns out that Ms. O'C is in love. And getting a damned good seeing to in the process. (That's pretty much how she puts it.) As a result, she decided it might be fun to sex up her image for the first time in her career, all of which led to the latex dress album cover, the short red dress video, and having to learn how to walk in high heels for the first time in her life... from her manager! She explains all this in the amusingly candid liner notes, and also why she's decided to put away the Warrior Woman routine that's defined so much of her career and reinvent herself with added raunch. It's a bold, empowering move that results in her best collection of songs to date, from the cheeky Kisses Like Mine...
"You see, I'm Special Forces: 
They call me in after divorces" the proud-yet-self-deprecating and necessarily funky James Brown...
"I know I may look a little square, 
I know I look like a wooden chair, 
But I got... oh YEAH! 
And in the words of James Brown, 
I'm sorry but I came to get down, 
I'm sorry but I... oh YEAH!"
 ...from the terrifying Where Have You Been?...
"What does it mean when a man's eyes turn black
When you're making love?
Where have you been?
Where have you been?
Eyes more frightening I've never seen..." the playfully submissive How Nice A Woman Can Be...
"Please, baby, let me be your slave
Please let me clean your house all day
Please let me try to bake your bread
And tuck your sweet babies into bed."
Of course, there's nothing here as lushly romantic as the song that made her world famous (also referenced in the video below) - how could there be? - but still, you can't help feeling Prince would be proud. Plus she's still got the voice of an angel...

...and yes, she still scares the hell out of me.

Next up, at #7... a reborn band led by a Millennium man.(Yes, it's Take Tha... no, it's not. Robbie's left again.)

Sunday 7 December 2014

My Top Ten Albums of 2014 - #9

9. Luke Haines - New York In the '70s

Another year, another crazy concept album from the erstwhile Auteur Luke Haines. Following his ode to the Saturday afternoon Wrestling of my childhood, his alternate history of the British Isles in which DJ Chris Evans is burned as a witch, and his twisted children's storybook of rock 'n' roll animals narrated by Julia Davis... comes this, an affectionate tribute to the 1970s New York punk scene led by Lou Reed, Suicide and the New York Dolls. It's another surprising turn from an artist more recently obsessed with (southern) Anglophilia, and yet it makes perfect sense when viewing Haines's career as a whole.

The great adventure begins with Alan Vega Says, in which Haines cheekily pokes fun at the Suicide songwriter's lyrical laziness...
Alan Vega says, as he gets up off the bed
"I'm gonna freeform some lyrics, man
 Straight outta my head
Marilyn and Elvis, 
And a Chevy '69
I've heard it all before
But I don't mind"

And Alan Vega says
"It's gonna be a great big hit"
Well, if Alan Vega says so,
Then it probably is
"And I'm too lazy
To write my own melodies
Here's a tune I borrowed
From the TVPs..."
One of the central conceits of the album thus becomes: Why write a chorus when you can just sing the title of the song four times in a row? (See Drone City, Trick n Kicks n Drugs, NY In The 70s, NY Stars.) Haines breaks with this tradition only twice - on Lou Reed, Lou Reed in which the title is repeated ad infinitum save one short verse, and on Cerne Abbas Man... which really should have been titled Mythic Muthafuckin' Rock & Roll to follow the rules.

Yet, despite this constant repetition, NY is a fascinating album, redolent of the era it evokes and pays homage to. And because of this constant repetition, it's also an extremely catchy earworm of a record that drills its way into your mind and refuses to crawl back out.

Then, just when you think you know what's going on... it all turns a little bit mental. On UK Punk and the aforementioned Cerne Abbas Man, Haines zigs when you expect him to zag and goes all Julian Cope on us, envisioning the famous chalk giant from a Dorset hillside stomping through the States, impressive phallus in hand...
Cerne Abbas Man steps out of the sand
Swings his giant gland into Manhattan
Three letters for priapic Dan
With his cock in his hand
R N R - rock n roll
For the original Rude Boy Man 
That's the great thing about Luke Haines: you truly never know what he's going to do next.

Next up, at #8... nothing compares to a Miley-baiting warrior woman turning raunchy sex symbol at 47.

Thursday 4 December 2014

My Top Ten Albums of 2014 - #10

'Tis the season to make lists, tra-la-la-la etc.

However, this year has been a bleak one in terms of my finances, so I haven't bought half as much new music as usual. Neither have I listened to that much new music - partly through time constraints, and partly because it may finally be happening... middle-aged ennui: as Eddie Argos put it, "popular culture no longer applies to me". There's no Eminem album in my countdown this year to keep me Radio One friendly and the Lana Del Rey record I'd pinned my hopes on fell flat when I grew tired of her sleazy shock shtick. As a result, the majority of this list will be comprised of the usual suspects, mostly artists even older than me. (I had a look through the NME year end Top 50 earlier this week and only recognised about 7 names. Though a few of the ones I didn't recognise did sound quite interesting...)

Still, of the records I have heard, there have been some corkers. Here's the first...

10. Paul Heaton & Jacqui Abbott - What Have We Become?

Since breaking up The Beautiful South due to "musical similarities" back in 2007, Paul Heaton has released a series of acerbic, amusing and always socially aware solo albums - plus one bizarre musical, The 8th, roping in everybody from Cherry Ghost to Reg E. Cathey from The Wire. But though each record was entertaining in its own way, none has quite scaled the heights of 0898, Blue Is The Colour or Miaow. There was always something missing.

Jacqui Abbott was the second of three female singers to perform in The Beautiful South alongside Heaton and third vocalist Dave Hemingway. She followed Brianna (You Keep It All In) Corrigan and preceded Alison (Stars In Their Eyes) Wheeler who joined when Abbott left to look after her young son. Although some fans preferred Corrigan's feisty Kirsty MacColl style, the band enjoyed the height of its success during Abbott's time. When she was suckered out of retirement to take part in The 8th, many fans wondered whether a full-on BS reunion would result. But sadly, Heaton's co-songwriter Dave Rotheray seems unlikely to return while Hemingway, Wheeler and the rest of the old band are plugging away on the tour circuit as The South (no longer Beautiful).

All of which brings us to the Heaton / Abbott reunion, a resounding success and Heaton's best album in any guise since 1998's Quench. It's wrong to label Abbott his muse, but as the man himself explained in interviews, sometimes it helps if his sharper lyrics are sung by someone other than himself. Particularly when that someone has the angelic tones of Abbott.
It's 11am
It's blue upon blue in the sky
But everyone around agrees
Phil Collins, Phil Collins must die

White t-shirt and faded jeans
Just an ordinary guy
But prisoner to his tax returns
Phil Collins, Phil Collins must die
He must die, he must die
Let's face it, if Heaton had sung the above verse (from state-of-the-nation closer When I Get Back To Blighty), it would have come across as just another socialist rant. Abbott's vocals give it an entirely different texture. Like if Morrissey wrote Life Is A Pigsty and then handed it to Rumer to perform. A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.

But the record's success isn't purely down to Abbott. Even on the tracks Heaton performs solo, he brings his A-game, most notably on the blistering I Am Not A Muse in which he takes aim at the daft and pretentious shit "serious" rock stars often say when getting interviewed...
I am not in a band
Because daddy didn't understand
I did not gain from others' pain
And then sell it back to them again
I'm not mad or insane
I'm not into early Miles Davis or John Coltrane
I'm not a muse well as bursting a few of the myths about his own "leg end".
I am not a northern star
I do not greet my friends
'Aye ups' and 'alright la's'
I don't sit outside
Italian style bars
And talk about The La's and The La's and The La's
Elsewhere, it's business as usual. Twisted duet love songs comparing relationships to overgrown gardens, bad DIY and fading romance on the 'Costa Del Sombre'. (The latter would have been a Top 10 hit for the old band in the late 90s, but those days are gone.) Savage digs at people whose lives are ruled by car adverts, outlet malls and twitter. Anger, pathos and resignation. Loadsa laughs.

Sadly, I only bought the standard edition of the album (it was very cheap and so am I)... now Heato's released one of the tracks from the Special Edition as a single, and damn if it I'm probably going to have to save up for another copy. These bloody pop stars - even the socialist ones are out to bankrupt me!

Coming next, at number 9... an Englishman in New York. (No, I promise, it's not Sting.)

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