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Top Ten Albums of 2017

In previous years I have bothered to put my selections into order of preference but this year I can't be bothered. Hey, it's all good.

Dutch Uncles - Big Balloon

I've been following and enjoying Dutch Uncles for some time now and every album has been a delight. I feel with this album they've really hit their stride and come out with an album that is confident and effervesent. Much of it borrows the spirit of eighties pop without quoting anyone in particular, which is a neat trick.

Joanna Wang - House of Bullies

Joanna Wang appeared to me out of the blue, and I'm very glad she did. The over riding influence here is Danny Elfman's soundtrack to Nightmare Before Christmas alongside Cardiacs and They Might Be Giants. Those are some pretty strong falvours, and this may put some people off, but don't let it. Wang synthesises all of these influences seemlessly and with charm and confidence.  Her voice veers from ice maiden, to bratty teenager, to Rex Harrison half-singing, to effortless lounge bar jazz all without sounding like she's trying too hard. One of the most enjoyable discoveries of this year.  

Interestingly if you look up Joanna Wang on Apple Music or Spotify you will find the album above but you will also find some smooth jazz artiste doing light covers of MOR classics. This sort of thing happens all the time when two artists have the same name. Interestingly in this case they are one and the same and she has had a rather extreme career change. You can read her story here. Good for her! 

Richard Dawson - Peasants

I loved Dawson's previous album Nothing Important and thankfully his latest doesn't disappoint. While this album has a more convential approach than the previous album which had four epic songs unaccompanied, the strange sound of Dawson's voice and twanging guitar remains the same as always. The songs are as melodic as anything Paul McCartney might concoct but retain a Whicker Man style paganism that makes them sound other worldly and unsettling.

Idles - Brutalism

Punk will never die but at least it has moved on from lazy three chord rock and honking sloganeering. Or at least it has for some. Idles are genuinely exciting. They're smarter than the average punk but feel no need to prove it - they just settle for witty lyrics and sharp inventive music.

Spoon - Hot Thoughts

Spoon are almost part of the furniture these days but they always manage to sound fresh and inventive. This album is probably their most energetic effort for a while.

Sparks - Hippopotamus 

Everyone loves Sparks. Quite right too. Unfortunately their output of recent years has been admirable but not especially exciting but this all changes with Hippopotamus. They seem to have found a way to reference their past without being enslaved by it, creating an album that is constantly inventive and energetic. It's good to have them back at full strength - we need Sparks now more than ever.

Hundred Waters - Communicating

A few years ago Hundred Waters came out with a tremendous album, seemingly from nowhere. Apparently with this album they've joined Skrillex's record label which I guess has reinvigorated them because it's a fantastic return to form.

Venn - Runes

I don't remember where I heard about this album but I'm glad I stumbled upon it. It's a black clad, gothic, krautrock, singalong - a perfect new blend of old influences.

Penguin Cafe - Imperfect Sea

A year or so ago I discovered Penguin Cafe Orchestra and was delighted to find these rather odd albums that didn't really fit into any particular category but somehow felt ahead of their time. Somehow I had also missed these new albums from the son of the creator of PCO. This album is quite beautiful, full of looping, fractal melodies.

Snapped Ankles - Come Play The Trees

I discovered this via snooker player Steve Davis' Interesting Alternative radio show. Roughly speaking it's motorik rhythms and rock and roll riffing. You can't go wrong.

Everything Else

And the other stuff that I enjoyed this year:


Dennis Potter - Binge Watch

A couple of weeks ago I started reading The Art of Invective: Selected Non-Fiction 1953-1994, a collection of writing by Dennis Potter.  I'm not sure why I was so keen to read this book since I’ve hardly watched any Dennis Potter, but I do remember his interviews and always thought he was rather good company.  The book does not disappoint.  It does however, unsurprisingly, make reference to his various bits of TV work and I realised I should do the right thing and get up to speed.

To this end I bought the box set The Essential Dennis Potter which includes all the most obvious works - but I decided to be perverse (as seems appropriate) and start with some less celebrated work.  Thankfully the BBC has done us all a great service by releasing many of Potter’s plays and serials digitally here.  I love this because, while some things are clearly too niche to be released on DVD, at least this stops them moldering in the archives and Auntie Beeb gets to make a few extra bob too.  Everyone’s happy.

I started off with Traitor, a play I’ve been curious about for years.

This play was inspired by Kim Philby, a British double agent who handed secrets to the Russian government and, when he got caught out, then defected to Russia where he remained until he died. The entire play takes place in the Russian apartment of Adrian Harris, a spy who has defected. He is being interviewed by a group of newspaper journalists asking him to justify his behaviour. 

Throughout we see various flashbacks that may explain how Harris has arrived where he is. While it is partly a story about spying and betrayal it's also about Britishness and Class. As one of the journalists asks him, why would a comfortably off upper class gentleman decide he'd rather live in the austerity of Soviet Russia?  Harris struggles to tell us but the flashbacks we see to his youth suggest that his beliefs are not so alien or inexplicable. 

The play is dizzying as we spiral downwards into Harris' despair and confusion. As a lover of British comedy Le Mesurier is a very familiar presence to me: the upper class authority figure, the well meaning patrician face of the establishment. Here he is a very different character but still playing to his strengths; he is absolutely brilliant. So brilliant that it makes me sad that he didn't play more straight roles. 

Of all of the Potter plays I saw this week this is the one that keeps replaying in my mind. I see Le Mesurier gripping his whiskey tumbler struggling to answer questions from three incredulous inquisitors. Strong stuff. 

Both of these semi-autobiographical plays were shown on following weeks in 1965. Firstly Stand Up covers a lot of ground in a short space of time, so clearly Potter had not yet learnt to pace himself.  But he did come back to this and cannibalise it for ideas later on (from the plays I watched this week I could point to Blue Remembered Hills and Traitor alone).  It can really be split into two parts: his struggle with becoming “classless" after leaving his working class mining town to go to Oxford, and a key incident in his childhood that clearly left him with a lingering sense of shame (and which turns up a couple of times in The Art of Invective too).  The former is interesting but particular to Potter, however the latter is something everyone can relate to and feels like it must have been a breakthrough moment for Potter as a screenwriter.

Vote, Vote, Vote is about the time Potter stood as Labour Party candidate in a safe Tory seat.  Apparently Potter was so disillusioned by the end of his campaign that he couldn’t even summon the energy to vote for himself.  Right from the start we are dropped into what is a miserable grind, and Nigel’s cynical agent speaks straight to camera about the home truths of political campaigning - it doesn’t look glamorous and it’s less glamorous than it looks.  In the end Nigel is crushed between conceding some idealogical ground to the electorate in order to attract votes, and the lofty, leftier-than-thou, idealism of the party membership.  At one point a party member says she would rather get no votes at all than give up her socialist principles.  A few years ago I would’ve thought that a very fanciful bit of dialogue but these days it’s the common chorus of the constituency Labour Party (yes comrade I sympathise, but the wilderness is no place for socialism).  It’s remarkable that a play like this can seem so current today but it really resonates.  The only thing that lets it down are some angry young mannerisms that were in vogue at the time.

From here I then went to a much more well known play: Blue Remembered Hills. It’s reputation is richly deserved although I feel I can’t say much about it without spoiling it.  In short it is Potter’s childhood memories of the Forest of Dean in war time but played out by adult actors.  The cast is brilliant and the performances faultless.  Most of all, such a simple idea works brilliantly.  At first the actors appear to be behaving childishly but before long we realise that they are adults being their true selves.  It is disturbing, creepy and funny, like looking into the monkey house in the zoo and realising that we have not changed so much as we like to think.

It had all been going so well so I then decided to watch Blackeyes.  This 4 part serial was famously a disaster at the time. This was Potter’s follow up to his greatest commercial success and was perhaps an unwise move on several fronts.  Yes, the press were deeply unfair, but this was too complex and flawed a concept to throw at the public after a massive success.

The central strand is the story of a model who calls herself Blackeyes and how she is sexually exploited by men. To one side of this is a second strand which is the story of how the novel about Blackeyes was written, its author and the woman he stole her story from. And then there is the third strand, the narrator, undermining and mocking everything.  This narration is voiced by Dennis Potter himself, writer and director of this series and author of the novel it is based upon. I wonder if that means something?

Focusing on sexual exploitation of women is a brilliant idea on television because television  sexually exploits women all the time, often while simultaneously tut tutting about it. It is  common that rape scenes are filmed to be sexually titilating, and then we get to cheer when the horrible rapist is killed at the end. The joy of double standards. Throughout Blackeyes it is clear that Potter is struggling with the way he manipulates his female characters as well as the actors that portray them, treating them like puppets for his own enjoyment, questioning his motives. He is showing the exploitation because his motives are pure but then realises that maybe his motivations are not pure at all and he is also an exploiter of women. 

Unfortunately once you understand this premise then everything else is repetition of the idea. There is not much of a plot. Is it a murder mystery? A revenge fantasy? A whowroteit (rather than a whodunnit)? All of these are mooted but none gain much traction. There are no real characters. Do I like any of these characters? No. Do I feel sorry for any of them? No. Am I given any reason to care? No. Do I hate any of them enough to hope I might get to see their downfall?  Sadly no. 

Without plot or character all you’re left with is chin-stroking about female exploitation and while worthy it just seems dramatically inert on it’s own. 

So what we get is the endless humiliation of Blackeyes. At one point a man attempts to rape Blackeyes and she screams so much and for so long that a group of men and women wearily and reluctantly enter the room. Blackeyes protests that she is not a prostitute. There is a brief pause and then the room erupts in loud derisive laughter for what feels like five minutes. Is this too 'on the nose'? It doesn’t make for good satire. 

Which then brings me to the next problem. Every man (with one exception) snarls and snears. All the time. Even the narrator. 

Ultimately this nihilistic thrashing away is exhausting. Every scene goes nowhere - it only serves to hammer in the same nail with the heel of an old boot. My tired old brain couldnt take the dull, thudding noise after a while. And then to stretch such tedium over four episodes is quite frankly taking the piss - two episodes would've been better, a single 90 minute movie would've been ideal. 

A side note: Traitor and Blackeyes both have a camera man grumbling about walking up stairs to take pictures in someones apartment. I wonder why?

Because of Blackeyes I felt I should see it's first incarnation: Double Dare

A scriptwriter who has been unwell for a year and has suffered writers block meets an actress at a hotel bar in the hopes of finding inspiration. He has a vague idea of a story that would require the actress to play a prostitute, and wouldn't you know it, there just happens to be a prostitute meeting her client right there in the bar. She looks an awful lot like the actress. At various times the scriptwriter is aware of what will happen before it does. It appears he is writing events and not just living them.

We know that the scriptwriter is reaching out from the page, through the actor and talking to us directly but the lines are blurred.  At one point Potter’s character is incredulous that the actress would do a highly suggestive commercial for a chocolate bar but then clearly has no issue having the same actress doing a sex scene in the very play we are watching.  Is Potter manipulating the actress for sexual kicks? Is he manipulating her in his play and in real life? Does he want to sleep with her? 

Knowing that the entire play was inspired by Kika Markham (the actress playing both leads in this play) and Dennis Potter meeting in a hotel bar and seeing a prostitute and her client does give the play an extra frisson. What is real and imagined?  Is Potter really acting out a fantasy? Potter and Kika, sitting in a tree, script R I T I N G. The fact that the viewer doesn't know about this additional layer if they've come to it cold is I guess what lead to Blackeyes and it’s multilayered commentaries. 

There is a thing about this play I struggle to get over and that is the idea that female sexuality is something that is sacrosanct and pure.  I’m sorry but I just don’t think that an actress getting her kit off is that big a deal as long as she’s comfortable to do so, regardless of it’s at the behest of a man or a woman.  Potter’s hand wringing over it just seems to be a bit overwrought.  Sorry to be all capitalistic about it but I would be more worried his female actors got paid the same as their male equivalents for the same sort of work.

But I’m being a bit churlish. This play could not be any more seventies and it should be seen in that cultural context - at least Potter has the decency to think about this stuff and make it the central issue. In 1972 feminism was still screaming in its crib and I don't imagine too many TV screenwriters were listening. 

A side note: there is a moment in Double Dare where we see the actress in an advert for what is clearly a Flake but being the non-commercial BBC, and seeing as Cadburys were unlikely to give permission for use of their brand, it becomes the very similar Fraggie bar.  Intriguingly the Fraggie bar also appears in Blackeyes.

Anyway, Double Dare is a better use of your time than Blackeyes not only because of its succinctness but because it's a much richer experience with never a dull moment or wasted scene. 


And here we have a play that's just as weird as all the others but rather more self contained. 

The story starts with a familiar scene of a middle aged suburban couple where love died long ago and there is nothing left to say. After hubby goes to work (to somewhere remarkably like Reggie Perrin's Sunshine Desserts) the wife suddenly has a mysterious visitor - why it's Tim Curry looking all wide eyed and crazy. This predatory lunatic has some secrets and home truths to share. 

Schmoedipus is madness on stilts, and creeps like a millipede.  It’s barking mad, unsettling and absolutely top notch.

Part of Potter’s obsession here is with people reliving their youth - inititally shown with the husband’s model railway which he pretends is a serious adult interest. What he would have made of adults today with graphic novels, Star Wars collectibles and fizzy pop one can only wonder.

Finally, in a desperate effort to tie this up in a neat little bow, how about I list the serials/plays in the order I would recommend them:
  • Traitor 
  • Blue Remebered Hills
  • Vote, Vote Vote for Nigel Barton
  • Schmoedipus 
  • Double Dare
  • Stand Up Nigel Barton
  • (Almost anything else*)
  • Blackeyes 
* While reading The Art of Invective I was delighted to find the following and you can see the famous clip he refers to here:
"But more delight came in Parkinson (BBC1), in which mine host –his nervous fidgeting and fawning long since flattened into weary ease –played the perfect straight man to a puppet emu. This horrible bird comes menacingly alive on the end of Rod Hull’s arm. It has bright blue feathers, a yellow beak which curls into a snarl, long loose legs and eyes which Angela Rippon keeps for news of the pound sterling. I thought Parkinson was overdoing it more than a bit when he greeted this bizarre creature with such an uneasy simper, and I scribbled the single word ‘fool!’ to help find a way through my brief, exclamatory notes. But there followed a scene so manically aggressive, so outrageously funny and so perfectly staged that I managed to cross out the premature abuse before collapsing into the longest and loudest laughs which the glum old screen has provided in months."

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.