2015: the year in music

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Well, I surprise myself. (And at my age, that’s a surprise in itself.) I have a solid 15 albums, all released this year, worthy of compiling into an end-of-year list. I will put them in qualitative order, despite the iniquity of doing so – I purchased three of these albums in the last couple of days, keen to catch up, so while the majority have had a really meaningful run around my head in the car (we drove from London to Cork in October, there and back, and many points inbetween, with a battery of CDs to guide us), on foot and on public transport, Adele, Kendrick Lamar and John Grant have some catching up to do. What the hell. Here goes.

1. Sleaford Mods Key Markets Harbinger
2. Adele 25 XL
3. Young Fathers Black Men Are White Men Too Big Dada
4. Carter Burwell Carol Varese Sarabande
5. Foals What Went Down Transgressive
6. Jamie xx In Colour Young Turks
7. Debbie Wiseman Wolf Hall Silva Screen
8. John Grant Grey Tickles, Black Pressure Bella Union
9. The Maccabees Marks To Prove It Fiction
10. Kendrick Lamar To Pimp A Butterfly Interscope
11. Pete Williams Roughnecks + Roustabouts Basehart
12. Rob St. John Surface Tension Rob St. John
13. Hot Chip Why Make Sense? Domino
14. Lana Del Rey Honeymoon Interscope
15. Blur The Magic Whip Parlophone

Sleaford Mods have been my lifesaver this year. I am at an age where I don’t expect to have my head turned by new artists (or newer artists, if you got there before me, and I rather expect you did). But this pair of East Midlands fortysomethings with their bendy vowels sounded as good as they read on paper. Good to get in at the ground floor with their eighth album – and I promise to dig backwards forthwith – but I’ve found it difficult not to play Key Markets through my ears. The only problem with it is that it demands your full attention. It’s not background music. So I’m reading less on public transport. And hearing the word “coont” a lot more.

I don’t discover music or artistes any more. How could I? I come to them at my own speed, and pay for the pleasure. I am no longer someone record companies or pluggers send records to. Why would they? (Actually, the quality indie reissues house 3Loop do, and I appreciate their loyalty.) This means I have entered a state of grace. I am a 6 Music listener, a Guardian music section reader and viewer of the BBC’s scant musical output (Later … With Jools Holland, Glastonbury, essentially) and these three institutions continue to direct me to a physical record shop on a physical high street. Not every month. Often in mini-binges, to catch up (and the prospect of a driving holiday in Ireland caused a phenomenal influx in late September).

ACsaturday-night-at-the-movies

The big change in listening in 2015 has been Classic FM, who took me on in March. On a weekly basis this year I’ve been helping to curate a two-hour show of orchestral movie music and it’s been an education, as well as an excuse to play scores I already love. I’ve included two new, full scores in my Top 15, Carol and Wolf Hall, as I’ve listened to both as albums and returned to them again and again. The bulk of my iPod year has been taken up with classical music, and my savage breast is all the calmer for it.

And a final note about Kendrick Lamar. It was 6 Music and Alexis Petridis who between them led me to this artist and what turns out to be his third LP, and his second million-seller. Who knew? I bought the album – the “album of the year” for many critics – having only heard two tracks, and while slightly disappointed by the amount of “motherfuckers” on it, it’s clearly a work of uncommon invention and pluralism, and is a friend of jazz. I’ll need to try harder to get into it, as I really don’t like the interludes, but there’s something going on here, I’m just late to the party. As always.

RobStJohnSurfaceTension

Oh, and a nice little link between two very disparate LPs: Rob St John’s delightfully immersive multimedia experience Surface Tension is based on recordings taken along the River Lea in London (it’s an elementally London record); Adele’s 25, which may have sold one or two more copies than Rob’s but they’re not really competing for the same audience, contains a lovely, gospelly song called River Lea. You have to look for connections, but they are always there. Buy both.

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2014: My Top 50 albums

wu-tang-clan-a-better-tomorrowTVOTRSeedsManic_Street_Preachers_FuturologyJamieTCarryOnTheGrudgeg-i-r-l-pharrell-williamsElbow-The-Take-Off-and-Landing-of-Everything   Noah2JackAdaptorJAccuseDamonEveryday2aphex-twin-syroBEN WATT hendra space 2

OK, I’ve checked fairly carefully and I think I’ve only listened to 11 albums that came out in 2014. That’s fine. I’ve spent a great deal of time listening to existing music. I’d get to 12 if I included Pale Green Ghosts by John Grant, whose music I had never listened to before watching Glastonbury on television this summer and finding out that he was incredible. I was duly inspired and purchased both this, released in 2013, and The Queen Of Denmark, from 2010, two fabulous pieces of work from a man whose talent had lain hitherto undiscovered by me (but discovered by others). So in my slow world, Pale Green Ghosts, whose electronic, Icelandic influence I prefer of the pair at a pinch, is one of my Top 50, or Top 12 albums of the year.

John_Grant_-_Pale_Green_Ghosts

I don’t have an album of 2014, although I’m currently listening to the plangent and subtle Everyday Robots by Damon Albarn and A Better Tomorrow by a reinvigorated, still-on-it Wu-Tang Clan a lot as they are recent purchases and near the top of the virtual pile. (You may be interested to know that I tend to buy my albums in physical form, otherwise I forget I’ve got them.) I spent most of my adult life being sent records, first as a journalist, and latterly as a DJ, so the world of music was my oyster, particularly the new stuff. Since 6 Music lost my phone number over two years ago, the automatic supply has stopped. Therefore, with limited funds, I take few risks with what I buy. That said, most new music I hear sounds like old music, so I may as well listen to the old music, which I already own! (I like the sound of the new James Blake album, but it doesn’t sound different enough from the last James Blake album to spend a tenner on. Am I being harsh?)

I guess it says a lot about my conservatism that Elbow, Damon, the Manics, TV On The Radio, Jamie T, Wu-Tang and even The Aphex Twin are among my purchases this year. That’s hardly playing with fire, is it? (Actually, thinking about it, I was sent the Manics album as I retain a working relationship with the PR company who have looked after them for 25 years, although I did humbly request it.) I loyally watched every edition of Later and The Mercury Prize coverage, as if in parody of my age group and time of life, and occasionally someone caught my ear. I found FKA twigs interesting, and Jungle, and that duo with one bloke on drums, shouting, and another man on guitar, and that band where the singer gets really het up and emotional. I am not immune to the charms of the new. But rarely do I hear something truly original. This is not a problem for me. There’s enough music out there already, and the themed Global Globules compilations Stewart Lee kindly sent to me – again, old music, but new to my ears in many cases – are proof.

Global27Global21Global22

I include GIRL by Pharrell Williams in my list, but if I’m brutally frank, I only really like half of it, and Happy knocks the rest of it into a cocked hat. I bought Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories in 2014 too (it came out in 2013), but again, it was the hit single that made it. Maybe a great album is hard to achieve in a world of tracks and downloads. Maybe people don’t put as much due diligence into them? The golden age of the long player may be over, but again, it’s not the end of the world, as there’s almost a century of recorded music already in the tank.

I’ll list my Top 50, in no qualitative order. If they’re on the list, they’re good enough for me.

The Wu-Tang Clan A Better Tomorrow
Damon Albarn Everyday Robots
John Grant Pale Green Ghosts
Aphex Twin Syro
Pharrell Williams GIRL
Manic Street Preachers Futurology
Elbow The Taking Off And Landing Of Everything
Jamie T Carry On The Grudge
Jack Adaptor J’Accuse
Clint Mansell Noah
TV On The Radio Seeds
Ben Watt Hendra

Now, I must try and remember the name of the two bands whose names I can’t remember (one is one word, beginning with “S”, the other is a definite article, The Something Somethings, like Crystal Castles but not that, possibly American). They might be worth investigating so that I can list their 2014 records in my 2015 roundup!

Listening without prejudice

TallShips

As previously revealed, I took home around 20 pre-release CDs – mostly singles; a couple of albums – from my  6 Music pigeonhole last week. I uploaded them all at the weekend and have been listening intently on my ancient iPod ever since. (I’ve noticed that as iPods get smaller, headphones are getting bigger and bigger; my iPod is massive, and my headphones tiny. I’m no follower of fashion!) Anyway, I counted 19 new songs, most of them coming out in February or March. Few had actual paper press releases attached, and if they had information on a sticky label affixed by their plugger, I deliberately avoided reading it, so as to be able to listen to these artists, mostly unknown to me by name, without prejudice. Sometimes, seeing a picture of a band can influence the way you feel about their song.

Now, it’s inevitable that I won’t like everything, or even the majority, in a mass listening session like this, but let’s take out the artists I’d heard of first: Johnny Marr, The Vaccines, Low and The Wonder Stuff. I continue to be underwhelmed to the point of toothache by the Vaccines, who are doing very nicely without me anyway, so I shan’t lose sleep over our lack of a connection. I am already mad about The Wonder Stuff, in person and on record, and fully approve of their From The Midlands With Love project, whose final addition is Planet Earth and Get Up! Johnny Marr’s single Upstarts is OK, confident, driving, but again, he doesn’t need my support. Minnesota’s Low are minor legends, and their new single Plastic Cup is slow, lilting, melancholy and lovely, and its lyric actually has content (“the cup will probably be here long after we have gone”), which is something to cherish in this grey age. Oh, and ex-Beta Bandsman Steve Mason is also well established, and his new single Fight Them Back is effortlessly brilliant.

Since working with Josie two years ago (is it really? yes it is), I have become reconnected with new music, and new artists. So let us praise those songs by bands and songwriters about whom I know next to nothing. The pic at the top is of Tall Ships in action. As I type, I know I really love their coruscating but joyous single, T=0, but I have yet to look them up. They appear English, but who knows? Theirs is the real find of the batch, along with Wanderlust by Cloud Boat. (Nautical theme entirely coincidental.) Again, I know not who Cloud Boat are, or is. But the song is like a mini-symphony, even the three-minute radio edit; I’m getting James Blake, I’m getting My Bloody Valentine, I’m getting early Cocteau Twins … I’m getting something so delicate it makes a kind of mockery of what “a single” is, or should be. I have just found this image of Cloud Boat. Of course they’re in a church.

CloudBoat

Of the rest, I was initially quite taken by the sheer bombast of Pompeii by Bastille, even though it seems to be squarely aimed at the charts with its autotuned vocal and singalong chorus. Far cooler seeming are Io Echo, whose Ministry Of Love has real atmosphere, with female vocals far away in the distance, and more than a hint of Goth in its distorted guitars. Disco Sucks by The Computers has a good title, and is driven by old-fashioned rawk grit. I’m guessing they’re American, and very glad that Jack White came along a few years ago. Further up my street is the driving Ocean by Coasts (heavens: more water!), although, again, it sounds as if it has its eye on the post-Metronomy/xx prize. Also good is On The Spines of Old Cathedrals by Shrag, as it sounds like it was released in the early 90s. Spiky male-female vocals, apologetic drumming, but real energy. Unlike Bastille and Coasts, they don’t sound like they care too much whether or not you dance to it in a club.

I won’t mention the new bands whose tracks I didn’t latch onto. What would be the point of that? Not everything is for everyone. And anyway, I seem to have liked exactly half of the songs I uploaded. That’s pretty cool.

And now, to complete my experiment, I shall look up the bands I like, and provide links to their websites.

Tall Ships are from Falmouth, it appears. (I once lectured at Falmouth University – what a fantastic place.) There is another, American band called The Tall Ships, which is unhelpful, and the phrase “tall ships” mainly takes you to tall ships if you tap it into a search engine, but their MySpace page is here, the video is here, and their product is here.
Cloud Boat have their Facebook page (I really can’t get on with Facebook, but you may be more conversant with its workings), and the video for the full-length version of Wanderlust is here. If I was a band, I’d have a website that just showed a picture of me, and said where I was from. (Follow them on Twitter here.)
Coasts are a mystery. I don’t have the disc in front of me, so can’t even check the sticker. Look them up and find nothing as I did. Maybe I’ve got their name wrong. Still like the song!
Shrag have just announced that they’re calling it a day. Brilliant. This is me really getting in at the ground floor – they’ve only released three albums and about ten singles without me noticing. Still, I like the song, their blog is here, and they even have a Wikipedia entry. I’m going to seek out their last album Canines, from which the single is taken. It looks brilliant:
SHRAG

Io Echo are easier to find, as their name is unique. They have a website, and although I can see that they are a duo, and look quite amazing, it doesn’t say where they’re from. They seem to be very new, with a debut album to come. At least they didn’t split up before I “discovered” them. (Their MySpace doesn’t say where they’re from either.)
Bastille seems to be one man. He’s British and his MySpace page is here. Apparently Huw Stephens likes the song, so it might be a hit. I have no interest in the charts or predicting hits.
The Computers turn out to be British, from Exeter in fact, signed to Fierce Panda, and they look like they wish it was the 1970s. Good on them for that, and for looking like a band. They seem to run a club night called Disco Sucks. I don’t think they have a website, but this is them.

The following artists are well-established, but I liked their songs, and will provide links anyway, since I seem to be running an online fanzine all of a sudden. Steve Mason is here. Low are here. And The Wonder Stuff are here.

Sorry to namedrop but I was having a heated conversation with genial Martin Freeman at the Radio Times party on Tuesday night. He’s a massive music fan, as you probably know – indeed, I first met him when we were teamed up on the Radio 4 music quiz All The Way From Memphis, and had him on Roundtable a number of times – and only a few years younger than me, so we’ve both experienced that awful realisation that modern music doesn’t quite do it for you in the same way that modern music did in the past. Martin wanted to know if it was an age thing, something we all inevitably go through, or whether his feelings about modern music have something to do with the poor state of modern music. I think it’s a bit of both, but more of the former.

True, the singles charts are unrecognisable to me now, with everybody “featuring” on everybody else’s record and slick R&B and autotuned identipop dominant, but without Top of the Pops, I’m disconnected from them anyway. (If it was on, I guarantee I’d watch it every week, and know more.) I’m not in any way disinterested in new music, as I hope this experiment has proved, but even though it’s easier than ever to access music, for free, I find I need a curator, a filter, a third party to keep me up to date. And I have a pigeonhole! (I think Spotify is a smashing thing, but it’s too big. Where to start?)

What do others think? In the meantime, I say hooray for Tall Ships, and Cloud Boat, and Shrag, and Steve Mason, and Low, and The Computers, and a band I’ve not yet heard of who are going to blow me away. (I also got the Palma Violets debut album, which I’m still investigating, but I liked them on Later as they seemed to be young men who’d heard the first Clash album)

Twenty Twelve: Music

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I cannot lie. I am out well of touch with modern popular music. I watched the Christmas Top of The Pops on Christmas Day and found much of it either underwhelming or actually irritating. Of the artists who’d evidently had hits this year, I obviously recognised the big-name artists – Coldplay, Florence, Robbie Williams, Girls Aloud – and I’d seen Emeli Sandé on the Olympics, plus I did well with the middle-aged musicians on the Christmas number one for the Hillsborough families, but a lot of the newer artists were just seemingly interchangeable young men and women singing in the same, Autotuned, post-X-Factor style.

I speak as a middle-aged man. I don’t lose sleep over my disconnect with what’s in the charts. Since Top Of The Pops was taken off-air, I’ve had no connection with the charts anyway – I assume Rihanna is having a hit at any given time, but have little idea of who’s placing where in the Top 40. (I could recite the Top 30 from any week in 1977 of course, thanks to the endangered TOTP re-runs, but that speaks volumes.) As such, having worked up a very good Top 11 albums, and a healthy list of 17 tracks I loved this year, I find that I seem to exist in a parallel universe.

There are one or two big names – Lana Del Ray, Dexys, The Wonder Stuff – but most of the artists below I’ve discovered through being sent their records by the pluggers who service 6 Music and kindly keep me on their lists, even though I don’t have a regular show. So thanks to those dedicated individuals really. Hip hop has passed me by this year, not least because so much of it has been swallowed up by R&B, which I cannot connect with in any meaningful way. (I tried the much-admired Frank Ocean album: nothing.) I’m certain I’ve missed a number of albums that I might love, but that’s the case every December when I compile these lists.

These are very pure inventories, in that they are not influenced by fashion, or success, or even backstory (with many of the bands I don’t even know where they come from or what they look like). This really is just music I have listened to a lot this year. I have supplied label names with the LPs, but not the tracks, as names of labels don’t really have much bearing on downloads, right? It’s interesting, and organic, that three out of my Top 11 albums are on Fat Cat. Well done, Fat Cat!

ALBUMS 2012

1 LANA DEL RAY Born To Die | Interscope
2 THE TWILIGHT SAD No One Can Ever Know | Fat Cat
3 PETE WILLIAMS See |Basehart
4 BRETON Other People’s Problems | Fat Cat
5 MILK MAID Mostly No | Fat Cat
6 THE HEARTBREAKS Funtimes | Banquet
7 JACK ADAPTOR I Saw A Ghost | Supple Pipe
8 RUSTY BEAR Source To The Sea |Mollusc
9 ADMIRAL FALLOW Tree Bursts In Snow | Nettwerk
10 DEXYS One Day I’m Going To Soar | BMG
11 BALTIC FLEET Towers | Blow Up

TRACKS 2012

THE WONDER STUFF Far, Far Away
THIS MANY BOYFRIENDS Tina Weymouth (from album This Many Boyfriends)
FLATS Country
THE WINTER OLYMPICS I Prefer The Early Stuff
SHIMMERING STARS Into The Sea (this may well have come out in 2011, but I listened to it a lot this year)
A PLACE TO BURY STRANGERS Onwards To The Wall (Onwards To The Wall EP)
THE NEIGHBOURHOOD Sweater Weather
MEURSAULT Dull Spark
FUNERAL SUITS All Those Friendly People
FOXES Youth
FOREST FIRE Future Shadows
ESCAPISTS Burial (Burial EP)
CITIZENS! Reptile
CEREMONY Hysteria
LITTLE BOOTS Every Night I Say A Prayer
KIMBRA Warrior
RACE HORSES My Year Abroad
BINARY Prisoner (I know for a fact that this came out in November 2011, but I didn’t hear it until this year, and I’m still listening to it now – I have literally no idea who Binary are!)

Naturally, if you want to recommend something – especially hip hop – I’m all ears. Here’s to 6 Music giving me some more work in 2013 so my drip to modern music isn’t completely cut off. (I so miss my old 6 Music show with Josie Long. I think after a full year of not being asked back, we must always think of it in the past tense.)

2011: on a mission

Here, then, after much deliberation are my Top 27 LPs of 2011. I’ve placed them carefully in order of greatness, but, to dust down an old cliché, if they are in this list, they are great. (Also, by the time you are about halfway down, you can barely get a cigarette paper between them.) I know it doesn’t matter in the broader scheme of things, but I have spent the past couple of weeks intensively listening again to the contenders for the Top 10, sometimes mixing them up on my iPod so that I don’t know what’s coming next, which may be counter to the spirit of the album, but it helped me make some difficult choices. There’s nothing like the feeling when a track comes up on shuffle from a playlist comprising only your favourite albums of the year and you don’t immediately recognise it but you know you love it. That way, impartial assessment can be achieved. So …

1. Rob St. John Weald

2. Ghostpoet Peanut Butter Blues and Melancholy Jam

3. Metronomy The English Riviera

4. The Horrors Skying

5. James Blake James Blake

6. Adele 21

7. Jonnie Common Deskjob

8. The Kills Blood Pressures

9. Battles Gloss Drop

10. Elbow Build A Rocket Boys!

11. Luke Haines 9½ Psychedelic Meditations on British Wrestling of the 1970s and Early 80s

12. The Wild Swans The Coldest Winter For A Hundred Years

13. Katy B On A Mission

14. Death Grips Ex-Military

15. Bon Iver Bon Iver

16. Anna Calvi Anna Calvi

17. Chris T-T Disobedience

18. TV On The Radio Nine Types Of Light

19. Lymes Goodbye Bangkok

20. Little Dragon Ritual Union

21. Frank Turner England Keep My Bones

22. Los Campesinos! Hello Sadness

23. Bombay Bicycle Club A Different Kind Of Fix

24. Alex Turner Submarine

25. Danger Mouse & Daniele Luppi Rome

26. Das Racist Relax

27. Martin John Henry The Other Half of Everything

Here’s what happens now: you’ll post comments beneath this list and ask me why I haven’t included an album you love, and it will be because of one of these two reasons – I haven’t heard the album, or I don’t like it enough to put it in my Top 27. So, no King Of Limbs by Radiohead or PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake. It’s just a matter of taste. There’s something very odd about liking one of the most successful albums of all time – Adele’s 21 – but I’ve had it for most of this year and I’m still enjoying listening to it. I can’t help liking so many of this year’s Mercury shortlist either – that’s just the way the cards fell. I have no desire to shock you with my obscurity or impress you with my cool. I am 46.

I do like the fact that my list is bookended by two Scottish-based solo records with a similarly pastoral/geographical looking cover, and that both are solo debuts, too. That seems entirely apt. I’ve found my love of music reinvigorated this year, as I’ve stated for the record elsewhere – by depping on 6 Music, by watching Later…, by hanging around Josie Long, and by the fact that smaller labels tend to put handwritten notes in with things, and that makes me take notice. I like that this has happened, as I was worried that I could no longer form new relationships with artists. This turns out not to be true. I’m genuinely more excited about the new than I am about the old as this year turns into another one.

Enough of my yakkin’ – let’s play some records!

2010: LPs

Let’s be clear about this. My criteria for what constitutes a great album has not changed since I was a teenager: it’s an album I want to listen to again and again. I wonder if my increasing failure to capture this in the 21st century is a symptom of my advancing years? No, it doesn’t compute, because when I do find an album that’s great I still find myself listening to it again and again and again. It’s plausible that I am becoming fussier in my forties, but this does not stop me loving the records that I love. Nor am I declaring the album a dead artform when I say that, again increasingly, I find myself enjoying one-off songs, or “tracks”, more than I do complete albums.

In the past, and I mean the distant past of the 70s, 80s and early 90s, if I fell for a song, it usually led to a more profound relationship with the parent album. This happens less now. Clearly, what follows is not only a personal list in terms of taste, it’s a list based upon what I’ve heard, which is, necessarily, not everything. Like the Pope, I am fallible. However, working at 6 Music, and reviewing for Word means that most albums of critical note pass across my desk, and frankly, if I’m not paying attention at track 3, unless I’m reviewing, I take the disc out and put the next one in.

When I heard the first bars of The Psychedelic Furs by The Psychedelic Furs, or It Takes A Nation Of Millions, or This Nation’s Saving Grace, or even, from before my time, Dark Side Of The Moon, Diamond Dogs, There’s A Riot Goin’ On, Let It Bleed or Freewheelin’, I was hooked in … and haven’t stopped playing these albums yet. Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs had this exact same effect on me in 2010, as did the others on this list. I’m relieved that this can still happen to me. But disappointed that it doesn’t happen so often. Feel free to leave comments demanding why your favourite album isn’t on my list, but I’ll pre-empt these with the answer: either I haven’t heard the album, or I didn’t get through it, or I never came back to listen to it again. I’ve put them in order of preference, but frankly, having battled to fill up a Top 10, and now finding myself with a Top 13, they’re all important. And a hello to Deerhunter’s Halcyon Digest, which I tried listening to on Spotify, but my wi-fi kept cutting out, and to The Defamation Of Strickland Banks by Plan B, which, again, I have only belatedly invested in.

ARCADE FIRE The Suburbs
DAN LE SAC VS SCROOBIUS PIP The Logic Of Chance
HOLY FUCK Latin
MASSIVE ATTACK Heligoland
KANYE WEST My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
EDWYN COLLINS Losing Sleep
GORILLAZ Plastic Beach
THE FALL Your Future Our Clutter
THE NATIONAL High Violet
THE ROOTS How I Got Over
BEN FOLDS and NICK HORNBY Lonely Avenue
CHRIS T-T Love Is Not Rescue
PAUL WELLER Wake Up The Nation

More Top 13s to follow. I shall probably do “tracks” next. I look forward to hearing about your favourites. There is no definitive list.