Saturday 16 December 2017

The Essential Selection 2017

I’ve read a lot of Year End Lists, and there is one abiding thought I take from all that I've seen.
They're wrong.
So, to redress the balance of correctness in the Universe, I bring you the only true and correct Year End List for 2017.

But which order do I publish it?
A selection of daily (or bi-daily) posts expounded the greatness of each individual selection?
A simple 1 to 10, or maybe a 10 to 1?
A series of cryptic clues to keep the 9 people who read this dross guessing?

I'm a bloke, a list is a list and certain rules must be followed.  So it will be a single posting (this one), with each album ranked from 1 to 14, and then some other stuff tacked on the end.

  1. Conor Oberst – Salutations
    At the back end of 2016, Conor Oberst released 'Ruminations' - a collection of vocal/piano/guitar/harmonica tracks (basically demos).  There was a brittleness and something raw about all the tracks.  And a very good album it was too.
    In March, 'Salutations' took those 10 songs, adds seven more, and they were re-recorded as full band and studio production jobs.
    Initially, you may fear that this is slightly lazy songwriting, and or the songs may lose something in translation.
    Not a bit of it - the intimacy may be diluted, but the emotion and brittleness remains.  As a result, 'Ruminations' may now be seen as a Work In Progress, and although the songs are the same there is enough difference for both albums to be as equally rewarding.
  2. Public Service Broadcasting – Every Valley
    Public Service Broadcasting hit their third album, and like the two previous is something of a "concept album".
    Album 2 'The Race For Space' told the story of the 1960s Space Race between USA and Russia, this album looks closer to home examining the rise and fall (mostly the fall) of Coal Mining in South Wales.  As a result of the subject matter, the air of triumph is somewhat pared back, almost becoming claustrophobic. 
    Now, the nature of the subject matter ensures that the air of triumph isn't quite as obvious, but this does not detract from the sheer quality and effort placed on the music and it's complimenting of the chosen archive voice tracks.
    And that choir on the closing track is guaranteed (ish) to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.  Triumphant?  In a way, yes.
  3. Len Price 3 – Kentish Longtails
    5 albums in, and 4 yrars since the last release, the Len Price 3 (yes, there are 3 of them but none of them is called Len) are still making a glorious garage-powerpop-mod-psych noise (was that enough genre coverage?).
    There's a couple of gear changes down, proving they can do slower tempo tenderness equally as well as full-on vitriol.
    There is no let up in quality over 5 albums, and this is the one that contains enough "open-ness" and accessibility to perhaps elevate LP3 from "phenomenal live, yet still a bit of a cult" to "slightly more mainstream than the occasional play on 6Music".
    On the one hand, I really hope so,  And yet, the music snob in me says "please stay a cult band and hidden secret"
  4. Sparks – Hippopotamus
    It takes some doing to produce an album where every track sounds like you know it, or have heard it before somewhere, and at the same time be totally new.
    The music on this album is something special, and the lyrics are served up laced with wit and dry and/or wry humour.  A right rollicking dollop of fun to be had.
    Thoroughly entertaining from needle drop to run-off groove (not that I own the album on vinyl, but you know what I mean).
     Given Sparks propensity for humourous album titles in the past, I only wish they had released and album titled: 'Pushing Aside Graham Parker'
  5. Paul Weller – A Kind Revolution
    Paul Weller may be slipping seamlessly into the position of an old curmudgeon in the eyes of many onlookers.  And yet he still retains the capability to produce a cracking album each time he enters a studio.
    This one started life almost immediately after 2015s 'Saturns Pattern', and that same groove is evident.  And then in true PW "I'm doing what I want" style it strays off somewhere else.  Not into the comfort of Weller's past 40 years in the biz, but somewhere else again.
    OK, it's not massively avant garde or experimental, but it does take the boy from Woking onward again.
    Where next? A long as it's not a deeper revisit of The Style Council euro-jazzy tones, then I'll continue to be a happy bunny.
  6. The Professionals – What In The World
    Like Weller above, the drummer on this (Paul Cook) is also 40+ years long in the tooth.
    Formed from the remnants of the Sex Pistols, and then falling apart in a catalogue of contract battles, drugs and car crashes, it took 33 years to re-form.
    Steve Jones opted to stay in LA, and Ray McVeigh (rhythm guitar) is no longer in the band, but this new album features a host of "stellar" guitar guests (including Jones-y (both of the Steve and Mick variety)), Phil Collen and Billy Duffy.  Chris McCormack of 3 Colours Red also puts in appearance, and must've done a good enough job as he is now a "full member".
    Powerpop/Powerrock, big chunky riffs, lyrics that you don't have to try to find "hidden depths" - on the whole: bang it on turn it up and enjoy the moment.  That's what Rock 'n' Roll is about (isn't it?)
  7. Noel Gallagher – Who Built The Moon
    Noel's third post-Oasis set, and still delivering the goods.
    Sometimes you just wish he would go all-out rocking, but there is something "right" about his solo output - mid-paced, almost inward looking.
    Never the strongest of voices, he uses it as another texture/instrument.
    He can glam-stomp with the best of 'em, and then go all French cinema in the same 40 minutes. He's still nicking stiff and "re-imagining it", but what's wrong with that when you come up with an album as good as this one?
  8. Sharks – Killers Of The Deep
    Another entry from the "old guys rule" file, and another return after many years away.
    The Sharks were formed in by Andy Fraser when he left Free.  Vocalist Steve "Snips" Parsons and session guitarist Chris Spedding were also in the band.
    Fraser baled in 1973, and after a couple of low selling albums, the band ended. Spedding and Parsons briefly re-united in the mid-90s, and again in 2010.
    This album from the reconvened band (plus Paul Cook (see The Professionals above)) is a collection of songs from the greatest pub band you'd want to hear (and that is not meant as a dis-service).
    Rocking, riffing, grooving with a touch of Some Girls-era Stones meets New York Dolls thrown in for good measure, this album is proof that a little bit of experience goes a long way.
  9. The Disappointment Choir – Vows
    Admittedly, I (sort of) know the duo behind this.  But this album aint here out of some form of loyalty.  It's here on merit.
    11 tracks of pure pop joy.  This is both spritely and downbeat (but definitely not down, down (if you know what I mean?)) 80s synth-pop meets Indie, with diversions into folkishness, funk and a bit of proggishness thrown in.  A simple one liner I read said: "Erasure fronted by Morrissey", and that ain't far from the truth.  Both voices provide a different perspective and tone in each song, and compliment each other brilliantly when harmonising, or sharing vocal duties.
    Plenty here to worm your way into your head, and at times insanely memorable - you could walk round for days with the melody to "Heartstrings" firmly lodged in your frontal lobe.
  10. Steven Wilson – To The Bone
    He's still progging like a good 'un, but has now added a pop slant to his output.
    All the tropes of previous releases are still evident, as is the immaculate production (what else would you expect from him?).  There's hooks-a-plenty, layered instruments, atmospheres, a bit of psychdelia for good measure.
    At times you feel you could be listening to a lost recording of late period Rush or Pink Floyd (and there's a bit of Genesis in there too -  and then he chucks in a bit of "Abba meets Bollywood".
  11. John Otway and The Big Band – Montserrat
    Otway is either a genius or completely mad - I'm plumping for the genius category, or at the very least a Great British eccentric.
    It's been 10 years since his last album, so this time (with the help of Kickstarter) he decided to go and record on the island of Montseraat, where no-one has been since the a violent hurricane in 1989 destroyed most of it.  Just one problem - he may have to re-build the studio first (see, genius!).
    Despite the daft idea, record in the Carribean he did, and what he came up with was a rollicking, loud, sometimes painfully sang (but always perfectly enunciated) collection of songs which stand alongside anything else he has done.
    Don't let the mad hair fool you, these are really cracking songs which will hang around your brain for days.
  12. Paul Heaton & Jacqui Abbot - Crooked Calypso
    OK, if I'm honest this third album from Paul Heaton & Jacqui Abbott is not as strong as the previous two.  You do get the feeling theres a couple of bits of filler crept in.
    That said, there is still much to please the ears on this one.
    There is still the wry observtions and with in the lyrics, great arrangements and top notch delivery of the vocals.  The music as ever is a sprawling variation of styles (soul, Motown, R&B, Housemartins-y pop).  As ever, there always seems to be a bit of an edge, or barbed comment going on somewhere.
    Music for grown-ups that is not bland MOR or TV stars having a crack at singing.
  13. Declan McKenna – What Do You Think Of The Car?
    Do you ever get those moments when you think "Hang on, that singer is younger than my children. Sh*t, maybe I'm to old for this game?"
    Well, Declan caused me to have that though this year.
    The songs are are lyrically great wonderfully arranged.  Considering he's only 18, this is a massively mature album (how old does that make me sound?).
    There's no histrionics, no show-boating just great indie-pop(ish) songs with a nod towards David Bowie, The Beatles and all great pop in between, whilst still steadfastly flying the indie-flag.
    The great hope for the future?  Time will tell, and by then I may have reconciled the fact that there are people releasing records who are younger than some of the old band T-Shirts I own (and still wear on occasion).
  14. Liam Gallagher – As You Were
    Afterr several listens, I can declare Gallagher The Younger's latest solo effort to be "a triumph of synergy" (ie greater than the sum of it's individual tracks).
    Many of the tracks here, when taken on their own, would probably not pass muster for a reconvened Oasis album *
    The album itself is a generally inoffensive set of songs that wouldn't sound out of place on Radio 2 or out of the mouth of Robbie Williams.  There are moments however when the boy from Burnage is standing and snarling (in a nice way) right in front of you, just to remind you that he is a fine vocalist and has achieved what he set out to do (or at least in his brothers words) and be a Rock & Roll Star.

    * Sorry Noel & Liam, but you know that anything you do will always come back to:  when's the reformation?

Haven’t got it yet, but expecting great(ish) things:
U2 – Songs Of Experience
It may be loyalty or collection filling, but I'm really hoping that this is the equal of 'Songs Of Innocence' - the only difference is that I have to pay for it this time.

Courtney Barnett/Kurt Vile – Lotta Sea Lice
Based on one single ("Continental Breakfast") and a quick listen on Spotify, I'm looking forward to the day I remember to buy this one (it's gradually making its way up the priority list)

No matter how many listens has not gained a place in the essential selection:
Elbow – Little Fictions.
Is one of the little fictions that Elbow's 2017 album was actually any good?
'The Seldom Seen Kid' in 2008 really was something quite special.  2011s 'Build A Rocket Boys' was close to achieving the trick again (but ultimately fell short).
But this ... I have tried, but I just can't find a way in. At varying moments, it is bland, dirgy, directionless and/or over-produced.
No Score Draw

Father John Misty – Pure Comedy
I know some people have been raving about this one (it's appearance in many year end charts backs this up), but it just comes across as a bit arch, a bit knowing, a bit clever-dicky.
There is nothing "bad" about this album, just nothing (beyond one and a half songs) that has really floated my boat.

Marillion - Misplaced Childhood
One of my most favouritist albums this year celebrated the monumental 32nd Anniversary.
To mark this exulted milestone, it has been re-masterd (by Steven Wilson) and re-issued in a 4 CD Box Set, along with alternative mixes, demoes, a Live Show (including a performance of the whole album) and a DVD/BluRay containing a documentry and two further Steven Wilson mixes of the album in 5.1 Surround Sound and 96/24 Stereo Remaster (whatever that means?).

Phil Collins - Not Dead Yet
A child actor with a love of music and drumming gets the gig with a group of ex-Public Schoolboys and becomes the go-to drummer for all Proggers wanting to go solo.
After taking the step forward from drum kit to Microphone, he too decides to have a crack at solo stardom.
And he does pretty well out of it.  Albeit becoming something of a figure of fun and over-exposure.
He comes across as a sound bloke, self-deprecating and willing to admit to his own mistakes.
He knows he over-exposed himself (oo-er?) in the 80s, but as has been said in many bios, he felt if the work was offered how could he turn it down because it might all end tomorrow.

I haven't been inside a cinema since Toy Story 2, so am unlikely to recommend any of the Big Budget Blockbusters, or Scandinavian Art House films that may be floated the boats of others.
Maybe I just don't have the patience, the intelligence or the imagination to really lose myself in fiction, and find myself more drawn to the documentary end of film-y things.  As a result, I highly recommend the recent Sky Arts doco XTC: This Is Pop (this has also led me to questioning why I don't own many of their albums, and am currently visiting Amazon to rectify this oversight)

It may not be Album Of The Year, but it does contain the Track Of The Year.
Father John Misty - Ballad Of The Dying Man

Conor Oberst - Gossamer Thin

Monday 4 December 2017

But which is better: Noel or Liam?

In the words of Harry Hill - there's only one way to find out.

Only this fighting is not done in the boxing ring, on stage or in the pages of the highly respected, and always correct, media.

This battle is being fought across the airwaves. and probably cooked up by one of the record companies (or both) to ensure maximum notice, interest and potentially sales for the "Fiery Feuding Brothers" (© The Sun, The Mirror, The Mail, etc).

Both these new albums are their third offerings since the inevitable, but strangely unexpected end to Oasis back in 2009.
Liam was the first to release post Oasis material in early 2011 (beating Noel's High Flying Birds by about 8 months).
To all intents and purposes, Beady Eye was basically the last Oasis line-up with Noel Gallagher.
That first album contained some good moments, unfortunately not enough to sustain interest for a long period of time.  What was missing was Noels knack of writing a tune that was both original and reminiscent
Beady Eye managed a second album, without really breaking sweat, and limped to a conclusion soon after.

Three years since Beady Eye's last outing comes his first solo effort 'As You Were'.
There has been mention, not least by Liam, that this album was his "last chance".  I don't think that is entirely true, but the record company were obviously concerned with his shortcomings as a songwriter he was teamed with  co-writers and a producer to ensure a smooth, commercial product.
And in the main it has worked - the rough edges are shorn, and the album is a return to Britpop-ish/Oasis-esque material with a lighter touch (one can't help but fearing the homogeny of sound his found Liam veering into Robbie Williams territory).
The album starts on a high - the feedback (recalling Morning Glory), crashing guitars and harmonica opening "Wall Of Glass".  But the songs never really build or lift from there - all competent stuff, but never really hitting new ground.
That said, "You Better Run", "Come Back To Me" or "For What It's Worth" (along with the aforementioned "Wall Of Glass") are amongst the very best his post-Oasis career has produced.
Sometimes the lyrical back references grate a little (Purple Haze, Tomorrow Never Knows, Helter Skelter and Happiness is still a warm gun all get a mention), but the vocal delivery, and charisma, remain second to none and re-inforces the notion that Liam does indeed posses one of the most recognisable voices of the past 20 years, and with the right song one of the best too.
There's much to like and enjoy here, but sometimes you just yearn for a bit more "edge" to it all.

Just over a month after Liam's 'As You Were', Noels Gallagher also releases his third set.  Unlike Liam, who seems happy/comfortable to remain in the rocking vocalist position, Noel always seems to be striving to do something a bit different.
Weirdly, across 3 albums there is a lot of moving forward and trying of new things, but always seemingly staying in the same place (is that possible?).
Ultimately, in my mind, Noels solo output has ultimately been more rewarding than that of his sibling.  And there is no change here, although I must add that of the 3 so far, this one is probably the weakest - it just doesn't seem to "hang together" as well as his last two offerings.

If Liam is "the voice of a generation", then Noel is "the songwriter of a generation".
The songs may not be complex, or breaking any new songwriting craft, but they are direct, accessible and memorable.
And that's what you get here - 11 tracks (12 on the bonus edition) which have all the hallmarks of Gallagher The Elder, as well as the desire to change the template.

It wouldn't be a Noel Gallagher album if he didn't implore us to "hold on", and that's just what he does on the coda to opening track "Fort Knox" (an instrumental not a million miles from Oasis's "Fuckin' In The Bushes").
Unlike past albums, there is no rehash of the "Wonderwall" chord structure, but there is plenty of references to influences, all wrapped in in his own package.
All the favourites/expectations are here: Beatles, Stone Roses, Smiths etc.
"Holy Mountain" adds something new with a Mott The Hoople stomp, a bit of The Vaccines and a bit of a Plastic Bertrand "oo-whoo-oo" backing.
Whilst the album is not an out-and-out rocker, there is plenty to keep spirits up, and also a couple of well placed instrumental atmospheric-y outings in the shape of "Interlude (Wednesday Part 1)" and "End Credits (Wednesday Part 2)".
Noel has never had the strongest of voices (certainly not in comparison to his younger brother).  To compensate for this he places his voice somewhere in the mix, rather than above it, and uses it as another texture/tool of the song.
And like everything Noel seems to release, both Paul Weller and Johnny Marr are once again drafted in for support (Weller on "Holy Mountain" and Marr on "If Love Is The Law").
The album is a bit of a mixed affair, but repeated listening reveals more and I think it might be a stayer.

Who wins?
On balance, I think it might be a score-draw.
But Noel may just nick it in the last minute as I think 'Who Built The Moon' has more staying power (and is more likely to return to mu CD player more often) than 'As You Were'

Liam Gallagher - For What Its Worth

Noel Gallagher - Holy Mountain