I do love a list, but I don't think I can be bothered to do one this year ... only kidding
(although when you've finished it you'll probably wish I hadn't)
2021 has delivered plenty of new music, and has also marked a (slight) return to what we used to call "normality".
Edit: did I speak too soon ...
It may not be huge numbers, but I've managed 2 gigs (2 more to come in the coming weeks), a visit to Belfast, a Curry night with old friends and one or two (twenty or thirty?) meals out.
Still working at home (going into the office usually once a week), and I've finally bought a proper monitor rather than just squinting at a 13" laptop screen. Plus working at home means I can get my hands (and ears) on new stuff as it is delivered (not much of a life advantage, but I like "little victories").
I thought I'd got my list sorted, but then Hamish Hawk and the (late) purchase of The Stranglers threw a Spaniard in the worms.
And to be sure of my ranking, I went back and listened to them all again - some adjustments up and down were made, but rest assured this ranking is based on important research and not just an arbitrary "that'll do".
And so ...
1. The Coral 'Coral Island'
A double album clocking in at around 45 minutes isn't really a double album. Unless it is 2 distinct parts that need to be purposefully split.
And that is the case with 'Coral Island' - a thematic story of an imagined seaside town - first at the height of Summer, and the second when it closes down (either for the winter, or for good).
Part 1 evokes summer - you can almost smell the chips, and then feel they grey and cold of a deserted and/or forgotten seaside town (I've been to Skegness in October) in Part 2.
It mixes jangly indie, 60s Garage, and throws in a mix of Inspiral Carpets, Richard Hawley, The Shadows and Joe Meek for good measure. A football analogy: they may have spent 20+ years in the Championship with the odd excursion to the Premier League, but this is the album that cements their position ion the top league. Possibly hyperbole, but I believe it to be their best album of their career.
2. Jim Bob 'Who Do We Hate Today?'
Lockdown wasn't too bad for some, and produced some very good albums. This is not a Lockdown Concept album, but does touch on the subject and comments on the world it finds itself in.
From Glam Rock-ish stomps to brittle ruminations, with clever wordplay akin to Ian Dury, humour and cynicism in equal measure, there's much to like for the (slightly) unreconstructed indie fan from the early 90s (ie me).
The commentary says: OK - the world's not really "great", but it's not that "shit" either - this is the "real" somewhere inbetween (you decide?).
3. Hamish Hawk 'Heavy Elevator'
If Jim Bob's wordplay errs on the realistic and cynical, Hamish Hawk goes for wordplay of the more literary kind. The sort of reference you need to hear a couple of times to get, or just need to go away and look-up ("for years I was Lennon's Imagine track three" a case in point).
And all this is set to a variety of musical backdrops and styles - some immediately recognisable, some a collection of bits and pieces, but always unique in delivery.
There is yearning, there's humour, there's rocking moments, and all through is a clear commitment to make each track unique and the best it can be.
4. Alice Cooper 'Detroit Stories'
The run of albums from 'Killer', 'Schools Out' and 'Billion Dollar Babies' would grace anyones back-catalogue. And it is to that sound Alice returns, rather than sanitised shlock-horror image with a (often) over-produced sound.
This album is a nod to the rocking Detroit sound of those 4 albums, plus the whole Detroit scene - featuring prime movers like Wayne Kramer (MC5) and Mark Farner (Grand Funk Railroad) - and also peers like Iggy Pop, The Stooges, and more who were part of it, or inspired by it.
Alice is back, and despite the concerns that re-living his past would not deliver, it most certainly does.
5. Paul Weller 'Fat Pop'
A new year, a new Paul Weller album - and this one is perhaps the best of the immediate past.
Rather than take flight in a now genre obsession (whilst still being unmistakably Weller) 'Fat Pop' appears to distill the relative tangents of the past and also hark back to the past catalogue to create a recognisable, yet still challenging and driving forwards, listening experience.
The sub-title states "Volume 1" - can we have Volume 2 soon please to sit alongside this little corker.
6. Stranglers 'Dark Matters'
A late entry (as I didn't get round to buying it when it first appeared). Is it the thrill of the new, or actually up there? The latter.
Dark Matters contains all the hallmarks of The Stranglers - musicality mixed with confrontation. It may only be JJ left from the original line-up (Dave Greenfield sadly passed before his contributions were complete). It may be 9 years since their last release (and 44 years since their debut) but The Stranglers (albeit in reduced form) are still delivering.
7. Manic Street Preachers 'Ultra Vivid Lament'
With 'Ultra Vivid Lament', the Manics continue their high quality consistent run of albums. Gone are the incitments to revolution of the past, the espousing of socialism. The 6th Form Poetry in the lyrics still remains, as does the interpretations in song of the lost/missed Richey Edwards (not perhaps as overtly as before but it's still (possibly) there. Every Manics album of recent years has contained a call and response duet, and this one boasts two. It also feels (as do many previous outings) as a continuing saga/history. Rooted in the same ideals but not falling back on the same stories.
For a band that was supposed to have a short life, they are now reaching "elder statesman" status, and are one of those bands that everyone knows about. Like the Ravens at the Tower Of London, they are just there - and continue to underline their relevance in the world.
8. Iron Maiden 'Senjutsu'
And here's another lot still producing valid work after nigh on 4 and a half decades in the biz. Save for a couple of mis-steps when Bruce and Adrian left the ranks, ver Maiden's output has always been top notch. And 'Senjutsu' is no different. OK, they may indulge their proggy tendencies and extend songs out for 8 minutes plus, but there is nary a note or interlude wasted. All the hallmarks remain, the quality is as high as ever, and this is no resting on the laurels - Maiden continue to push along and surely retain their position as Britain's (if not the world's) premier Heavy Rock band.
9. Matt Berry 'The Blue Elephant'
He's a clever bugger! Not content with performing the 9th best album of the year, he goes further by writing it all, playing everything (with some drumming assistance), producing it, and even painting the picture that adorns the cover. With all those additional responsibilities, has the songwriting suffered? Not a bit of it. Echoes of psychedelia, wallops of Prog, some (forgivably?) bad lyrics, this is one elephant in the room that you'd be happy to mention and talk about.
10. The Professionals 'SNAFU'
The Professionals original life was short and messy. Their reformation was supposed to be a one-off. There was enough support to warrant creating a whole album (2017s 'What In The World') and after 4 years of near constant touring (apart from 2020 for some reason?) and pleasing (admittedly middle-age) crowds up and down the country, this second album is spewed out. Energetic and committed from the off, the pace rarely reduces - and what a fine noise it is. It may not be challenging, breaking new musical ground, but it doesn't need to be when what is presented is more than satisfactory.
11. Parquet Courts 'Sympathy For Life'
On which the Parquet Courts continue their sound evolution. Imagine mixing The Strokes with Depeche Mode and adding sniff of New Order to the recipe. The Parquet Courts have, and whatresults is properly great. It may not be as immediate as it's predecessors ('Human Performance' and 'Wide Awake'), but stick with it and 'Sympathy For Life' reveals it be at least the equal. Across the tracks there are some very good songs, and a couple of "not quite as good" songs, but no clunkers and no skippers, and the energy levels rarely dip.
12. Wolf Alice 'Blue Weekend'
This was bought on the strength of one track. However, regular playing (note: not to convince myself of the investment) revealed a very fine album indeed. There's no fixed genre or style to the album, but it does feel a singular whole.
This album covers all bases from breathy minimalism to all out thrashy-trashy-indie rock, interspersed with and St Etienne-meets-Garbage moments, and bolted to lyrics that conjure evocative images (they may not be personal to you, but you can recognise the situation they conveying). The way some of the slower, more introspective tracks butt up against the louder ones may feel jarring on first hearing, but there is a natural flow and groove soon discovered.
13. Public Service Broadcasting 'Bright Music'
PSBs first album was called 'Inform-Educate-Entertain' and that is exactly what it did, mixing old news reel with newly created backing music. Subsequent albums repeated the trick with the Space Race and Welsh Coal Mining.
Now, maybe the subject matter here (Berlin) is a bit alien to this listener, but this doesn't feel as essential as previous outputtings. This is no criticism of the content - like with past music, you really feel that every note has been laboured over to endure it is perfectly placed. On the plus side, I did learn that Berlin was home to the first electric street lamp (so it's not all bad) and that in the shape of "Blue Heaven" may well have produced Song Of The Year
14. John Grant 'Boy From Michigan'
I will freely admit to being blown away by John Grant albums on first hearing, and then few follow-up enthusiastic listenings happen. Why? Sadly, because the albums aren't 'Queen Of Denmark' or 'Pale Green Ghosts' (and I don't think I've actually listened to 2108s 'Love Is Magic' since 2018).
However, I'm making the (hopeful) statement that 'Boy From Michigan' is a keeper. It's not QoD or PGG (get that from my mind!) but what it is is a sumptuous personal nattative of Grant's life, the prejudices he's faced, and the world as he sees it, addresses with wit, eloquence, under-statement, melody and musicianship.
15. Dead Men Walking 'Freedom - It Aint On The Rise'
Dead Men Walking, as a collective, have been doing the rounds since 2001. Their schtick is stripped back acoustice versions of Punk and New Wave songs, and their membership has included Kirk Brandon, Glen Matlock, Captain Sensible, and Mike Peters (among many others).
The current line-up is: Kirk Brandon (Theatre Of Hate / Spear Of Destiny), Dave Ruffy and Segs Jennings (Ruts DC), and Jake Burns (Stiff Little Fingers).
This album is a mix of half a dozen originals (mostly from Brandon and Jennings) mixed with the "classics" from each band stripped back to 4 blokes sitting on a stage telling stories and singing songs acoustically.
What I take away from this is: great songwriters continue to write great songs, a great song has the same (if not more) power when stripped back to the bones, and (on a personal note) I never realised how good Spear Of Destiny were.
(there should be a link here, but the album (or any of the tracks are not on YouTube))
There are two more which would probably be on the list, but I haven't actually bought them yet. Spotify only listening don't count - my rules are that I need to own the product. That way it becomes more than a casual listening experience. They are flipping good though.
- Robert Plant & Alison Krauss 'Raise The Roof'
- James McMurtry 'The Horses and the Hounds"
These oversights will be rectified soon (honest!)
Song Of The Year?
Well, that could very well be any one of the 15 links above.
But I feel I should highlight one of those stand-alone orphans with no albumular home
Sharon Van Etten & Angel Olsen - Like I Used To