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Top Ten Albums of 2016

This year I took on a new job that requires a lot more travel which, looking on the bright side, gave me the opportunity to listen to a lot more music.  That meant this year I also had a much more difficult choice of what to include.

1. Field Music - Commontime

As my previous best of year lists show, I adore Field Music. They took a couple of years off (during which they seemed to work harder than ever), had kids, and came back with an album that is a perfect pop distillation of their strengths. David Brewis' previous project School of Langauage where he indulged his love of 80s soul-pop has leaked into FM and produced some of the most remarkable results. While they wear their influences on their sleeves it always has a unique FM spin. The Noisy Days Are Over may be influenced by Prince but he would never have written lyrics about struggling to party as you get older.  And would Hall & Oates ever have suggested their lover might be Disappointed? This album is joyous, inventive, and entirely apart from anything else around at the moment.

2. Sanguine Hum - What We Ask

After their previous prog rock 2 CD epic this release is a grab bag of songs from their early days. This is much more mainstream affair than their previous album and shows that not only can they write more conventional songs but can do it brilliantly if they wish. In particular check out Juniper that is a masterful bit of pop song writing that many a songwriter would have killed to have written. 

3. Weaves - Weaves

There hasn’t been a great deal of top notch power pop lately but this is truly superb.  They seem to delight in sounding slightly drunk and there is something just so uplifting about the organised chaos at work here. Check out tracks Tick and Shithole which are utterly brilliant.  

4. D D Dumbo - Utopia Defeated

An electronic album that doesn’t want to sound electronic.  When ever I hear this I can't help but recall the time when I had cassette tapes of Talking Heads Little Creatures and Paul Simons Gracelands. It's rhythms and rich palette of organic sounds is really something to behold.

5. Tigercub- Abstract Figures in the Dark

I'm always going to be a little bit of a goth and this superb album really scratches that itch.  What is most remarkable to me about this album is that it never falls into cliche and has loads of surprises from begining to end.  

6. Future of the Left - Peace and Truce / Christian Fitness - this taco is not correct 

I've been a fan of Future of the Left for sometime now so was only too happy to fund this album on PledgeMusic.  If you're new to FotL then you might not want to start here as this is a harder and more abrasive sound than previous albums - but it's a grower and there are some colossal riffs and lyrics here.  I've twinned this with Falco's latest solo album which is a great addition for anyone hungry for more. 

7. GoGo Penguin - Man Made Object / Naima- Bye / Neil Cowley - Spacebound Apes

Welcome to jazz corner.  I'm going to pile these all together because I feel they share an aesthetic - and also because while I enjoyed all of these albums, neither one really stuck out on their own.  I was a bit disappointed that Neil Cowley Trio's latest effort wasn't as great as their last two albums, probably because the space motif has led to a bit too much sparseness for my tastes, but don't be put off because there are some great moments here.  Similarly I loved GoGo Penguin's previous albums but felt this album similarly failed to take off despite great moments.  Naima are new to me and there are a few tracks on here I absolutely love (just try the first couple of tracks and see how you fair).

8. Three Trapped Tigers - Silent Earthling / Cleft - Wrong

These albums have little in common other than they are both instrumental and they have a prog-ish element to them. Cleft are shutting up shop with this final album and it's pretty amazing. 3TT on the other hand follow up their incredible Route One or Die album with a follow up that is very nearly as brilliant - an achievement not to be sniffed at.

9 - Knifeworld - Bottled Out of Eden 

While not as great as their previous album The Unraveling, this still has some great tracks on it. I Am Lost and High / Aflame are tremendous examples of psychedelic / prog rock.

10. The Monkees - Good Times

Let's be honest, it's not been a great year. Everyone has gone insane and pop stars have been dropping like flies. Thankfully someone had the good sense to call The Monkees and they came back to save the day. It's absolutely joyous to hear them, not just coming back, but coming back with what could be their best album ever (no mean feat). The best loved pop stars of the sixties not just surviving but doing the best work of their lives.  
Do you know what? Maybe there's still hope. 

Other Notables

There are a couple of albums that didn't quite make the list despite the fact that I really enjoyed them.
Somewhere between The Fall and Pavement is the experimental pop of Human Performance by Parquet Courts. The chugging Dust or the zombie rock of I Was Just Here are irresistible.
I also really liked Steve Mason's Meet the Humans - there are moments on it that really remind me of why for a brief period we all got rather excited about the Beta Band.
In addition to this there were a couple of albums that I became aware of a bit too late to include them but that I've really enjoyed a lot so far.
Firstly Teleman have come up with an album of really intriquing pop music - as if Kraftwerk met 10cc.. or something.
And the new album from Phall Fatale is a real oddity, a complex mix of styles that feels really new and fresh.


Top Ten Albums of 2015

No time for a commentary this year so let's get straight to it, starting with the best...

1. Sanguine Hum - Now We Have Light

2. Eureka Machines - Brain Waves

3. Dutch Uncles - O Shudder

4. Slug - Ripe

5. The Cesarians - Pure White Speed

6. Jaga Jazzist - Starfire

7. John Grant - Grey Tickles, Black Pressure

8. Sleater-Kinney - No Cities to Love

9. Steven Wilson - Hand Cannot Erase

10. Christian Fitness - Love Letters in the Age of Steam


Other Notables


Labour Leadership Contest: Two Tribes

To my mind the discussion the Labour party is having over it’s leadership is really a fight between two different electoral strategies.

On one side you have the Triangulation advocates. Their position is that the electorate has moved to the right and the only way you can win the next election is by grabbing some of the territory of the Tories thereby enticing some of the electorate to vote Labour. For example they might pledge to get tougher on immigration, something that’s traditionally a stronghold of the right. Triangulation was a major strategy in Tony Blair’s victories (imported from Bill Clinton) and so is, unsurprisingly, seen as the only way forward according to many Blairites.

On the other side you have the Get-Out-The-Vote advocates. Their position is that that the key to victory is amongst the people who don’t vote but would traditionally be Labour voters: the working poor, the young, those struggling to find employment. And it is certainly true that turnout amongst these groups is very low. They argue that previous use of the triangulation strategy has turned off these voters as they see both main parties as being too similar, too right wing, so now they’d rather stay at home than visit the ballot box.

In the leadership election it is clear that Corbyn falls into the latter camp while the other three have taken the former approach to, arguably, slightly different degrees.

The truth of course is that we cannot possibly guess which of these approaches is the correct one. Both sides can point to different things that support their case: The GOTVs point to the SNP’s enormous success in Scotland by occupying the ground to the left of Labour, the Triangulationists point to the rise of UKIP in England. We can only guess.

My personal view is that the GOTV strategy is the right road to take, and therefore Corbyn is the candidate to choose. Before you think I am merely a relic of a bygone age (which I am, but nevertheless) allow me to explain.

One problem with the Triangulation strategy is that, while it was enormously successful for Tony Blair, we don’t live in those times anymore. Blair’s opposition was John Major, then William Hague, then Ian Duncan-Smith and then Michael Howard. It’s hard to imagine a more feeble and moribund array of nonentities than that. Triangulation only worked because Labour were easily able to grab ground from a weak opposition that had lost it’s confidence. The Tories today, by contrast, have no such problem. David Cameron is standing down in a couple of years and there are at least three candidates that will be perfectly credible: George Osbourne, Boris Johnson and Theresa May. Osbourne has managed to pull off a bit of Triangulation of his own by grabbing the initiative on the Living Wage, and it looks like he’s playing a canny game to secure his position. Boris Johnson, as any Londoner can tell you, is a sick joke of a candidate who lacks gravitas and comes with baggage - but he has been bewilderingly popular with many so, who knows. Theresa May is, to my mind, the most dangerous candidate; while Osbourne and Johnson dogmatically assume the rightness of all they do with debate being beneath them, May seems to be a convincer and could probably grab a lot of ground from the centre left.

Compare these three Tory possibilities to the four candidates standing for the Labour leadership and there really is no competition. The Labour candidates are all quite unconvincing - even Corbyn, who I plan to support, is hardly electoral gold. More importantly, the idea that any of the three Labour candidates who favour triangulation are somehow going to grab ground from Osbourne, Johnson or May is risible.

So then we’re left with GOTV - is this credible? Maybe. What is particularly interesting is the research into what the polling companies got wrong in the run-up to the election (article here). They’ve looked at the data and it seems the problem wasn’t shy Tories, but lazy Labourites: many people who said they were going to vote Labour in the election seemingly didn’t bother to come out and vote on the day. It looks like this was decisive. But other than that there is little doubt amongst those studying the voter turnout that the young and the working poor were the least likely to vote. I think that ignoring this part of the electorate is suicide for the Labour party. For Labour MPs to complain that this part of the electorate is unreachable is much like the stand-up comedian who performs to a room of stony faces and blames the audience. The comedian’s job is to make the audience laugh, the Labour MPs job is get the people they represent to vote for them - if they can’t then the comedian should accept he is in the wrong job, and the MP should accept that he’s in the wrong party.

Finally I want to touch upon another important point in this debate that is so often ignored. The next election is not until 2020. The Triangulationists are taking the view that they should wave through great swathes of Tory policy because they believe this is what the public wants. For the moment let’s leave aside discussions of how one can assume this from the general election result. These people want us to believe that they can wave through tax changes that will leave the poorer in society worse off, but it is a price worth paying because come 2020 they will win the election and set all of this right. Next year we might see them waving through policy that shrinks the NHS, but don’t worry, it is a price worth paying because come 2020 they will win the election and set all of this right. The next year we might see them voting through policy that gives greater tax breaks to property owners, but don’t worry, it is a price worth paying because come 2020 they will win the election and set all of this right. The problem is by 2020 more people will be in poverty than ever before - and by then it will be too late to help them.

Politics is about more than just elections, and the idea that the Labour party putting up effective opposition is less important than winning the next election is a position that could only be taken by someone who thinks sitting it out for five years is OK. Lots of people don’t have that luxury. Lots of those people should be voting Labour. But they won’t if the Labour party tells the working poor to take their lumps from the Tories and wait until 2020 when the likes of Andy Burnham can ride in on his white horse to save the day. There may not be much left to save by then.


Top Ten Albums of 2014

Here are my favourite albums of this year starting with the very best and working down towards the almost very best.

1. Touch and Flee - Neil Cowley Trio

The Neil Cowley Trio created one of my favourite albums of 2012 - The Face of Mount Molehill. Molehill, with it’s 30 piece string section, was a kitchen sink production with great big bells and whistles on it. This time out it seems that the trio have decided to take a slightly more pared down approach and many tracks here are more fragmentary, spaced out. It’s a less immediate album than previous but is all the more rewarding for it.

2. In Droplet Form - Stars in Battledress

This album was a total surprise to me. I heard “A Winning Decree” and thought it pretty enough in the manner of chamber music, but hardly exciting enough to quicken the heartbeat. I’m very glad I got hold of the album because it really is quite remarkable. The arrangements largely stick to piano, guitar and close harmony singing but the intricacy of those arrangements and the beauty of the melodies really bowled me over. Just listen to the capitalist satire Buy One Now or the folk-tinged Unmatchable Bride. It might not be rock and roll but it's like living in a beautiful Georgian mansion.

3. The Unravelling - Knifeworld

Kavus Torabi is a man of many bands, including Cardiacs and Gong, but Knifeworld is very much his own personal monster. Their previous album, Buried Alive, was an interesting record but lacked the killer thrust; The Unravelling is where it all comes together. It’s a swirling brew of prog and psych that never wanders too far without a killer riff or a pop hook - no mean feat. In fact it’s this amazing knack of weaving pop into the unlikeliest of musical settings that really shows that his professed adoration of Madness is no affectation - although you’re not going to find many lyrics about trousers or condoms here.

4. Lucid - Matt Stevens

One of my favourite albums from last year was Spooky Action by The Fierce and the Dead - well here’s their guitarist coming out for another solo voyage. Normally on Stevens solo albums he plays acoustic with loop pedals but this time the electric guitar is in greater evidence and often he has the backing of a full band. The end result has a bit more grit than his previous solo records but isn’t quite as ferocious as Spooky Action - and it turns out this is a very smart move. Lucid is an album where chiming guitars build tension only to launch King Crimson-like fusillades of noise.

5. Brill Bruisers - The New Pornographers

The New Pornos have been producing impeccable power pop about fifteen years now and amazingly they’re still able to pull rabbits out of hats. They seem incapable of making a bad album, and while this isn’t their greatest, it’s far from their least exciting releases either. If you’re new to the band then go and get Together or Electric Version - but for those of us already well versed in the wily ways of The New Pornos this is an enjoyable trip. I always look forward to the Dan Bejar songs on any new New Pornos record but this time they lack his usual spark. Carl Newman on the other hand still seems to able to write a floor stomping pop song at the drop of the hat, while still bringing out the unexpected, with Hi-Rise and Backstairs bringing something fresh to their catalogue.

6. BOSH! - Cleft

Out of the whole river of math rock that has washed through my home this past few years I really think Cleft is one of the most exciting bands around. They have ready access to something many of their colleagues struggle to find - joy. BOSH! is really infectious stuff and never allows it’s impeccable musicianship to get in the way of a good time. And go and see them live - they really can play this stuff.

7. Bleak Strategies - The Dowling Poole

Apparently Random Jon Poole and Willie Dowling met on a Ginger Wildheart session and immediately hit it off. The result is an album where every single song has more pop hooks than the ABBA Gold. It won’t change the world (they can leave that to Russell Brand) but it’s irresistible stuff.

8. SLUG / School of Language / Paul Smith & Peter Brewis

I might be cheating slightly here. Field Music, one of my favourite bands, didn’t release anything this year but the brothers Brewis did produce two albums and a stonking single.

SLUG is a solo project of their touring bass player Ian Black, which they’ve lovingly produced resulting in the single Cockeyed Rabbit Wrapped in Plastic - listen to it and tell me that isn’t one of the best things you’ve heard all year. I saw SLUG play live previewing the album that will arrive next year and it all sounded fucking amazing.

School of Language is the side-project of David Brewis. He decided that for this SoL album he would go back to his first love - 80s electro funk. Oh dear. I suddenly had horrible memories in my head of Living in a Box and Curiosity Killed the Cat. I should’ve had more faith - Old Fears has some really terrific moments that are way up there with Field Music at their best.

Finally Peter Brewis worked with Maximo Park lead singer Paul Smith, converting some of Smith's poetry into songs. The poetic origins are sometimes quite evident but the rich and inventive string arrangements make this a pretty and playful collection that’s a joy to listen to.

9. Rave Tapes - Mogwai

I think Mogwai are a tremendous band but buying their latest album can sometimes feel like buying a remaster of your favourite record and finding it doesn’t sound much different. This can’t be said about Rave Tapes that really does feel like enough of a departure to inject some excitement, but not so much as to lose the magic. The main change is the extensive use of synths, very often leading the way rather than background textures. If you haven’t bought a Mogwai album in a while then this is worth a spin.

10. Black Moon Spell - King Tuff

This is the sound of Scooby Doo soundtracked by T-Rex. It’s irresistible bubblegum pop covered in fuzz. It’s a lot of fun - check it out.

And finally...

I’ve been doing these top tens for years and I’ve never had a harder time deciding what should go on the top ten - there’s just been lots of great stuff.

There were two albums I heard far too late to decide if they belonged in the top ten or not. La Isla Bonita by Deerhoof is already proving hugely enjoyable and I suspect that come mid-January I will regret not putting it on this list. [schack tati] by Mats/Morgan came into my life just two weeks ago and got even closer to being on this list when I just lost my nerve at the last minute - but it really is tremendous and very much worth your time if you fancy something melodic yet experimental.

There’s two other records that I feel bad about excluding. Fujiya and Miyagi released Artificial Sweeteners which I listened to a hell of a lot but when I came to compiling this top ten I just couldn’t convince myself to remove anything else to give it space. The album just doesn’t stand up as well as their two previous excellent records. Trojan Horse released their first album World Turned Upside Down and it’s great - inventive and with cunning twists and turns that make them a unique voice. So WTUD has a lot going for it and is worth your money and time - it just wasn’t consistent enough to make it on my top ten.

Happy new year!


Top Ten Albums of 2013

This year was a great year for new music. I hope you'll look into some of these recommendations.  I present these in order starting with the best.

Sanguine Hum - Weight of the World

From the very first moment I heard "In Code" I knew that I had to get this album. It easily and quickly became my favourite album of the year. Complex without being pretentious, melodic without being weedy, and all while feeling contemporary and unique. It’s so perfectly balanced towards my niche tastes that I can’t help but feel it was designed specifically for me. Having said that I was glad to see them in the latter part of the year at The Borderline and that I wasn’t the only one who turned up to see them. I was so taken with this album that I found myself getting hold of their previous album, Diving Bell, and boy, what an amazing album that is too. I can’t imagine how they’ll top this but if it’s even half as good as these efforts I will be very content.

The Fierce and the Dead - Spooky Action

I first encountered The Fierce and the Dead on the Stabbing a Dead Horse tour (a recreation of that tour will be happening this year). I was rather impressed with their album “If it Carries on Like This We’re Moving to Morcambe” which had the feel of a brooding movie soundtrack. It did not prepare me for Spooky Action, a album that is simultaneously grittier yet more melodic. No more brooding here - this is coming face to face with a grinning Charles Manson.

Haken - The Mountain

This album is really remarkable for it’s diversity and ingenuity. It sounds like a prog rock jukebox, combining all your favourite elements of your favourite prog bands but never feeling like a tired pastiche. Their musicianship is incredible and it does feel as if they could turn their hands to anything (oh, and I saw them at The Borderline and they were fantastic live too). 

The Scaramanga Six - Phantom Head

The Scaramanga Six specialise in a form of epic rock music with soulful singing that you could describe as small g gothic. They’ve been independently releasing excellent records for donkeys years and this time decided to team up with Steve Albini - a marriage made in heaven. It also helps that this probably their most consistent selection of songs to date. In support of this album they also played one of my favorite gigs of the year at the teeny tiny Buffalo Bar.

Marnie Stern - The Chronicles of Marnia

There was much discussion of this album being an attempt to reach the mainstream. This doesn't seem to be too mainstream to me but it is different from her previous albums - I think it's a distillation of her unique music that only makes it stronger. Or to put it another way this album is more Clear Spot than Blue Jeans and Moonbeams.

Chrome Hoof - Chrome Black Gold

I only caught this album in the latter part of December but was convinced almost immediately. It’s a bizarre soup of complex rock, neon electropop and soulful vocals. It’s relentlessly joyful and constantly surprising.

Tegan and Sara - Heartthrob

As I said earlier, I love pop music and it doesn’t get much popper than this. I’d really enjoyed Tegan & Sara’s Sainthood from a few years ago so was a bit surprised when I heard Closer as a taster for this album. It was almost shockingly mainstream. But once I got over my initial reluctance there is no doubting just how great many of these songs are.

My Bloody Valentine - m b v

Well this arrived out of nowhere. I’d heard they’d announced the release at a gig on a Sunday night and I assumed it was a joke but, no, here it was. And remarkably it was a fantastic album and a worthy addition to the cannon. MBV managed to tread a fine line between new ideas and familiar territory. 

Pea Sea - The Debatable Land

I’d heard about this via the Field Music Twitter account and I was really blown away. I love the loudly thudding drums, the slashing guitar and the singers up front singing style (reminiscent of Richard Thompson at his most strident) - it all feels like they're going for broke. 

The Leisure Society - Alone Aboard the Ark 

There’s not much change here from their previous albums - more pretty songs and beautiful arrangements. “Fight for Everyone” was certainly one of the best songs of the year.

Some Songs of Note

And finally some tunes that I loved this year (but the albums couldn't sneak into my top ten)