Sunday 27 December 2015

It's That Time Of Year Again

The moment when everybody is doing their Annual Roundup of "Stuff I've Done Which Was Better Than The Stuff You've Done", organising a ranking Albums, Films, Books, TV Programmes and Tea Towels into handy Cut Out and Keep Guides for the discerning (and not so discerning) public, and generally casting a warm glow over the nostalgic (or soon to be nostalgic) events of the Year.
I have always viewed myself as bit of a maverick.  Always out to do the unexpected, so I'm not going to do the the Yearly Compendium thing?

Actually I am going to do the listing thing, but first (and excuse the self-indulgence), it has been a bit of a sh*t year personally.
Starting with the completely insignificant failure of my new lighter, from that point on the months seemed to spiral downwards.
Along the way was a blown head gasket in my car, a broken fence, a water leak, and a complete meltdown in the middle of Brussels.
The summer offered no respite with the information that as a result of an organisational review, my job was "at risk of redundancy".  I survived, but it was squeaky bum time, and this information did little to restore my faith or confidence within myself.
The personal re-building started in Autumn, and I seem to have shaken off my feelings of self-hatred and paranoia.
Why am I writing this?
Along with possibly stupid belief that new glasses, cleaned up ears (I can finally hear properly again) and a new pair of shoes, this is another step in the Rebuilding Programme.

I know there are people who have had a tougher time, but it was not a comfortable 12 months for me.

Thank You for listening.

Now normal service will be resumed ...

Despite the personal tribulations, 2015 listening has been a rare old year.
Every magazine and website is publishing their Top 10s, and on cursory viewing I note 2 things:
1.  They're all wrong
2.  10 is not enough to do justice to many of the superb release of 2015.

So, Ladies and Genitals.  Please be seated/upstanding (whatever?) for the Rigid Digit Top 16:
(a brief note of explanation - no matter how objective I am, I just can't split the Top 3.  Each have their own merits, but none deserve to be be bumped to a lower place.  That is why, like a Primary School running race, I have 3 Number 1s)

1. Public Service Broadcasting - The Race For Space
How many males growing up in the 1970s were not fascinated by Space Travel. This album records the USA vs Soviet Union Space Race, and employs the Public Service Broadcasting rasion d'etre of laying music tracks over voice recordings documenting the first statements of intent to the final Lunar Missions of 1972.
Whilst I hate the phrase, this album really is a "journey" and best listened to in one sitting.  From the moment of "We WILL do it", the first man in space, the first space walk, the actual moon landing.

1. Cathal Smyth - A Comfortable Man
There are moments on the PSB album which are melancholic, but then the mood is immediately lifted by the next track.  Cathal Smyth's solo offering remains rooted in the melancholy.  It is dark, confessional, raw, and personal.  But yet also life affirming and oddly lifting too.  There's a story being told, and Cathal is telling it straight and true - one can't help but admire his honesty.

1. FFS - FFS
Franz Ferdinand and Sparks?  Together?  On the same album?  How does that work then?  Answer: absolutely brilliantly
There are moments when you hear each band independently, but then they come together and the result is "greater than the sum of it's parts".
This album contains everything you'd expect from these two - overblown bombast, spiky guitar riffs, narrative story, and with "Collaborations Don't Work" they are both (sort of) taking the p*ss out of themselves and creating a grandiose epic akin to the madness of Bohemian Rhapsody.

4. Courtney Barnett - Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit
Buying an unheard album on the strength of one track can often lead to disappointment.  Not in this case - "Dead Fox" was merely an introduction to the world of Courtney Barnett.  There's something here for everyone.  From 90s indie (with a dash of Americana) to a Blues Jam to a Suzanne Vega-esque navel gazing musing.  There are flashes of humour, clever use of lyrics and an almost deadpan, narrative vocal delivery, coupled to a freshness to the performance which never fades.

5. Public Image Limited - What The World Needs Now
This is the sound of PiL doing what they want, and who would expect anything else from the band.  The only obvious difference to note is that this is probably the most accessible of all the PiL catalogue.  The opening track ("Double Trouble") sounds like an attempt to out-Sleaford Mods the Sleaford Mods, but PiL exist in their own universe and the is no way that that shorthand description is in any way a criticism.  You've got the snarling John, the musing on life John, the attacking the absurd and contradictory John.  And then to top it all off, in the middle you've got PiL delivering a love song.

6. Iron Maiden - Book Of Souls
Iron Maiden sort of "lost it" when Bruce Dickinson jumped ship in 1992.  The two albums with Blaze Bayley were interesting if not vital.  If I'm honest, it was sort of Maiden by Numbers without the focus on the Vocals.  Since his return, they've got better with each subsequent release culminating in this album which is pretty much everything you could want from 21st Century Maiden.  Where previous albums have gone down the Prog-like drawn out epic route, this album balances the proggy-ness with the galloping tracks of old, all punctuated with liberal use of Nicko McBrain's ride cymbal.

7. Frank Turner - Positive Songs For Negative People
Six albums in, each album has (to paraphrase one of the tracks on this album) Got Better.  OK, so perhaps the music has become shinier and more radio friendly, but no matter, what you've got here are 12 songs of joyous air-punching Folk-Punk mixed with more introspective musings.  Maybe not as strong as previous releases, my only fear is he may be becoming a bit "formulaic" (future albums may well prove me wrong).

8. Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds - Chasing Yesterday
There is a certain familiarity to many of these songs, almost sounding like Noel's "partially solo" outings in Oasis, but add in some greasy saxophones, a bit of melancholy, a touch of attempted jazz-iness, and a dollop of psychedelia (think: Pink Floyd, Syd Barrett, and even a smidgeon of David Bowie) what you end up with is an album of Noel being Noel, and thoroughly enjoying it.

9. Steven Wilson - Hand.Cannot.Erase
The terms "Prog" and "Concept Album" can invoke thoughts of impenetrable stories and musical virtuosity bordering on self-indulgence.  This album is both of those aforementioned terms, but does NOT comply with the simplistic, apocryphal definitions.  Yes, it is a concept album which needs to be heard from start to finish to be fully appreciated, but it is time well spent.

10. Paul Weller - Saturns Pattern
One of the tracks on this album suggests a certain contentment with himself ("I'm Where I Should Be").  Well, since the release of 'As Is Now' ten years ago, every album release has been rooted in a different style.  And every time, he's come up with a winner.  'Saturns Pattern' is another diversion, and another winning collection.  Funk, soul, a Stooges meets Hawkwind thrash, electronica, psychedelia - it's all here, and all works.  The only question is: where next?  what is his next challenge?

11. John Grant - Grey Tickles, Black Pressure
I have huge admiration for John Grant's debut album 'Queen Of Denmark', not so much for the follow-up 'Pale Green Ghosts'.  The second album was too electronic-y and downbeat for my liking.  Although over time I have come to appreciate it more.
This album offers almost a perfect compromise between the two.  It has the wry songwriting of QoD, and the elctronic/80s washes and soundscapes of PGG.  Oh, and the track "Down Here" is probably the biggest, most insistent earworm of recent months.

12. Gaz Coombes - Matador
The album where the Supergrass frontman becomes Thom Yorke.  Too simplistic?  Probably, but there is a comparison.
Gaz does just about everything himself here and has produced an album a mellow tracks with an air of darkness in places.  There are moments when maybe the presence of bandmates may have helped him edit a bit more, but the album is a wonderful piece of work and deserves a wider audience than it probably achieved.

13. The Decemberists - What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World
If you're going to release an album in January, make sure it is a corker to ensure that it will be remembered 12 months later.  That is exactly what The Decemberists have done here.  A great slab of Folky-Americana with slight stabs of Mumford and Sons (no, wait ... come back!), REM and Nick Drake (or at least that's how it came across to these ears)

14. Blur - The Magic Whip
'Think Tank' left Blur with a somewhat disheveled legacy.  Their 2009 reformation and Glastonbury headline offered hope of righting this limp ending.  Two singles have appeared since, but no full album.  Until now ...
'The Magic Whip' picks up where 'Think Tank' left off with added Graham Coxon, and 12 years experience.  There are moments where it sounds like a Damon Albarn album, but the rest of the band turn it into something more Blur.  "Ong Ong" has more than enough "Blur of old" about it, and in "Lonesome Street" there is another Blur classic in waiting.

15. Vaccines - English Graffiti
One of the biggest frustrations of being a 45 year old music obsessive is that there are very few "new" bands (ie young) that make you want to jump around like a nutter.  Enter The Vaccines - a band which offer hope to this middle aged curmudgeon.
Cleaner production and more "stadium rock" focussed than it's predecessors, it still contains the essential elements that you look for in rock music.

16. Tame Impala - Currents
The psychadelic overtones remain, but the guitars are stripped out replaced by synthesisers.  The sound is like a mash-up of Giorgio Moroder, Pet Shop Boys and Daft Punk, mixed with a bit of 67/68 vintage Beatles.  Influences and comparisons are all very well, but the songs are the most important part, and this album has them in spades.  Wonderfully written and constructed, and superbly arranged.

About time too: Dexys Midnight Runners - Don't Stand Me Down (The Directors Cut).
30 years I've been waiting to own a (legal/official) copy of this album, and never found one for less than the price of a small house in Doncaster.
This year, for no apparent reason, several copies became available on Amazon for less than £20.  Thank you very much, I'll have some of that!
Whilst not a new discovery, there is just a sense of achievement that I finally own this long sought after artifact.

Discovery #1: Hal - Hal
Released in 2005, but not heard until the opening track "What A Lovely Dance" was posted on a Music Website that I spend too much time on.  Bright, summery sound (think Beach Boys, Surf Music with added Nilsson, Beatles, Monkees and 1970s West Coast).
Perfect guitar pop?  Very probably (and only £1.59 on the Tax Dodgers website)

Discovery #2: Outlaws - Green Grass & High Tides (Best Of)
Fancy a bit of Countrified Southern Boogie?  Lynyrd Skynyrd may well be your first thought.  But wait ...  you can do a lot worse than delving into this lot.  Including one of the best versions of "Riders In The Sky", and with a guitar solo on the title track to match the enormity and magnificence of the accepted market leader "Freebird".

Should've been last year: The Strypes - Snapshot
Much like The Vaccines offering hope that there are still great new bands doing the rounds, there is also this lot.
Think Dr Feelgood mixed with equal parts early-Jam, and The Strypes will fill that gap.  From start to finish, this is a relentless assault of revved up RnB - whats not to like?  I just wish I'd not been so circumspect when I first became aware of their existence.

New Old: The Lambrettas - Beat Boys In The Jet Age
I only really knew 3 Lambrettas tracks ("Poison Ivy", "Go Steady" and "Cortina") - pleasant enough, but never considered the band to have much more about them.  Oh, I was very wrong.  The strength of this album shows that the band should be included with The Chords, Secret Affair and The Purple Hearts as being at the forefront of the Mod Revival.  May be a bit Mod-by-Numbers, but with added touch of Ska and strong songs delivered with energy and passion, this album lifts above many of it's contemporaries from the period.