Tuesday 12 December 2023

The Year 2023 In 15 Musical Highlights

I've been away ... will, not away just lacking inspiration (and time) to compose informative missives and critical investigation of musical things (and any other slightly mad thoughts that pass through my head).

Or maybe it was just listening to a combination Mike Oldfield and Yes that rendered me incapable of putting finer to keyboard since mid-Summer.
More of that to follow soon (I bet you can't wait, can you ...)

Inspiration may still be lacking, and in October and November only ONE new thing arrived to fill my over-clogged shelves, so I'm not sure a fix is fully in place, but:

I was lost, now I'm found
I believe in you me, I've got no bounds
I was lost, now I'm found
I believe in you me, I got no bounds
I'm movin' on up now
Gettin' out of the darkness
My light shines on, my light shines on
My light shines on

But ... I can't let a years ending pass without getting excited about some musical highlights from the past 12 months.

The Top 15 essential purchases of the year 2023 are:

1. Jim Bob - Thanks For Reaching Out

You know you're doing something right when an album you release in 2021 is still getting plenty of playing time as the new one arrives.  So much so, that my brain now perceives 'Who Do We Hate Today' and 'Thanks For Reaching Out' as a double album.
'Thanks For Reaching Out' arrived with a press release of some hyperbole, but as soon as the title track starts, one can see the reason for the PR excitement.
My earlier review placed the album as "a collision of indie, punk, folk, Billy Bragg, Buzzcocks, Slade, and Ian Dury (without the funk)".  Add in social comment, biting criticism and rhyming couplets abound, and there's enough going on here to keep the listener entertained for another 2 years until the next Jim Bob missive may arrive.

2. Blur - Ballad Of Darren

The phrase "return to form" or "their best since {insert name of favoured album}" may be an overused staple, but in this case I can't think of a better summary.  'The Ballad Of Darren' contains everything that was great about peak-Blur with added experience.  And in the shape of  "The Ballad", "St. Charles Square", "Barbaric" and "The Narcissist" this album contains songs that are destined to form a true part of Blur's legacy.
(interestingly, Britpop associates Suede did a similar thing last year (although with a couple more "reformed" albums under their belt - back for a second shot and  unleashing a new album every bit as good as their first outings, and scoring a highly acclaimed album - number 3 on my 2022 list, which is, after all, the only list that counts.  Both bands will probably hate me for this, but they are destined to be intertwined in history, legacy and output - usually with Blur a year behind)

3. Wreckless Eric - Leisureland

Wreckless Eric had his moment in the spotlight at the fag-end of the 70s, and then went and explored his "art".
Since 2015 he has released 4 stand-out albums, maybe not reaching a big audience but they probably deserve a wider hearing - as does his 3 outings with spouse Amy Rigby.  Liesureland continues that run of highly listenable albums featuring Eric's unique vocal stylings (OK, not to everyones tastes), his lo-fi playing (with added sheen on this album), some fine melodies, and a bit of depth in the songs and lyrics.
Liesureland largely imagines life and going ons in the run-down town of Standing Water (possibly based on Cromer in Norfolk, although Mr Goulden will neither confirm nor deny).  Not all the songs relate to the overall narrative, but mix into the story with no jarring or loss of mood. 

4. Sparks - The Girl Is Crying In Her Latte

After more than 50 years, one would think that Sparks may be entering that formulaic, easily recognisable phase.  Not a bit of it, they have released another album stuffed full of great songs that burrow there way into your imagination.
Always different, but always unmistakably Sparks.
Although, I may be the only person on the planet who dislikes the title track (even with Cate Blanchett's mad dancing), but second single - "Nothing Is As Good As They Say It Is" - restores all faith in Sparks ability to deliver wonder.

5. Hamish Hawk - Angel Numbers

The collison of Scott Walker meets Morrissey with literary and thesaurus referencing lyrics continues from where 'Heavy Elevator' left off.  And after multiple listens, 'Angel Numbers' is an even stronger, more consistent album.  "Once Upon An Acid Glance" may well be one of the best song titles of the year, but then again "Elvis Look-alike Shadows" isn't far behind.  And if the song titles are good, then the songs themselves more than live up to it.  All is well in the world of Hamish Hawk, and long may it continue.

6. Public Image Limited - End Of World

I saw John Lydon  in early 2022 on his Q&A "An Evening With ..." tour, and whilst in sparkling form it was clear how strong his love for wife of 44 years Nora.
January 2023 saw the release of "Hawaii" written for Nora - an atypical ballad written in her honour.
("atypical" and "perfectly normal" are interchangeable phrases in the world of PiL)
When Nora's passing was announced, many expected John to retreat to the shadows (as would be his right).  Yet second single "Penge" hit the streets soon after, followed by the full album in August.
It would be easy to give 'End Of World' extra points in sympathy or recognition of his loss, but that does the album an injustice.
OK, not everything on here can be considered in the mould of "classic Pil", but after 8 years since it's predecessor it's more than a welcome return. 

7. Duncan Reid & The Big Heads - And It's Goodbye Form Him

After starting out in The Boys (who in January 1977 were the only Punk Band in the country signed to a major label (well, Nems were a national label, not an independent), followed by a period working for Andrew Lloyd Weber, and then a spell as a Director of Nottingham Forest FC, Duncan Reid returned to performing, first with the reformed The Boys and then with his own band with The Big Heads.
Since 2012, Duncan Reid & The Big Heads have released 4 albums (including this offering) and played to rapturous audiences all over the country and beyond.  However, all things must come to an end, and this is the last outing from The Big Heads.  And this last album is a fitting epitaph containing all the melody and punk-pop attack of old.
All things must come to and end, but with an album as strong as this and a firm following (admittedly at a club/small theatre level, or lower down the bill of a festival) one must question why now?

8. The Damned - Darkadelic

The Damned's original deal with Stiff was for one single.  Whilst recording their debut album, they were effectively unsigned and in negotiation with Dave Robinson at Stiff to release more stuff (namely the album they were recording, and he had paid for).  Hence, The Boys info-nugget above.
Since that 1977 debut album, they have been through more line-up changes, hiatuses, disbandments, and reformations than most, but are still performing and recording - the core revolves around Dave Vanian and Captain Sensible, but next year original member Rat Scabies is re-joining permanently alongside Paul Gray.
The pressure may be on to do the "cabaret" / greatest hits shows, but when you have an album as strong as 'Darkadelic' under your belts, why go for the comfy option?
All known bases of The Damned are covered from the Scott Walker-esque vocal (I'm sure Dave's voice is getting deeper), the dark gothic undertow to the delivery of the lyrics (no matter the subject matter) bolted to soaring melody and guitars with a sprinkling of psychedelia and glam rock stomp thrown in.

9. Madness - Theatre of the Absurd Presents C’est La Vie

Did Madness really believe they'd still be active 45 years after their first release.  And they would surely not have believed they would (or should) fall in the "National Treasure" bucket.
But here they are releasing another album of ska-infused Music Hall, and as expected it is recognisably Madness from first listen.  The prime difference being that (certainly since 'The Liberty Of Norton Folgate') Madness now work in the album mode rater than being the Singles band they will forever be known for.  Now constructing albums that can have singles lifted from it, rather than constructing albums around the singles.
And this surprised me - this is the first Madness album to achieve a Number 1 placing in the Album Chart.  And a thoroughly deserved accolade it is too.

10. Glen Matlock - Consequences Coming

And here's another still doing the rounds since the late 70s.  Maybe not as visibly as Madness, but always around, often as a sideman gun for hire (currently assisting Blondie) but also pursuing a low-key solo career.
I was due to see Glen Matlock live - first in April which was then postponed to November.  And then cancelled.  Glen remains the only active past member of the Sex Pistols I've not seen live (yet). Following on from 2018s 'Good To Go' the rockabilly tendencies remain but now with a smoother delivery, and almost as much venom on a coupe of tracks as his Pistols days.
'Consequences Coming' is a more consistent (or maybe just better sequenced?) set, and boasts one of those seemingly unlikely cover version choices in the shape of kd lang's "Constant Craving".

11. Wingmen - Wingmen

The members of Wingmen have a few years experience under their belts, comprising Baz Warne (The Stranglers), Paul Gray (The Damned), Leigh Heggarty (Ruts DC) and Marty Love (Johnny Moped) they've broken free from their host bands to produce an album stuffed full of top tunes for no other reason than they can.
The songs here could've found a home on their "home" bands output, but this was obviously a case of "I have some songs and my band is not doing anything at the moment.  Who do I know that will give them life?".  This collaboration may be a one-off (although there is possibly enough life to go again), and they may scuttle back to their original homes, but the sheer joy of playing together and breathing life into these songs is most welcome.

12. The Coral - Sea Of Mirrors

I think of The Coral as one of those bands that no-one can really dislike.  There is something appealing about their jangle, noise, delivery and creation.
Things is with "likable" bands, there is often substance missing - well not in the case of The Coral.  'Sea Of Mirrors' proves that 'Coral Island' was no blip in the matrix.
And couple this album with 'Holy Joe's Coral Island Medicine Show' and The Coral deliver yet another stunning listen.

13. Joe Jackson - Presents: Max Champion in “What A Racket!”

Purporting to be a collection of newly discovered songs from little-known Music Hall entertainer Max Champion (so little known he has no presence on the internet), what this actually is Joe Jackson looking to start a Music Hall revival (and what not, he's tried it before with swing and jazz in the early 80s).
The songs have a whiff of the Hackney Empire about them, so much so you could almost believe the conceit.
Goes nicely with Matt Berry's TV Themes album from a few years ago - an album you want to return to, but need a combination of the right mood and the right audience to indulge.

14. Alice Cooper - The Road

I admit that this isn't a truly strong album, but the choruses of many songs have the ability to play in your head on auto-repeat.
Musically it's a bit formulaic, especially when one considers last years 'Detroit Stories', but it does have just enough about it to play again (and again).
Will I still be playing it this time next year?  Maybe not regularly, but I'm sure selected bits will get continued airtime

15. Rolling Stones - Hackney Diamonds

Arriving in a hail of hype and expectation, this news Stones album probably get more column inches than their last 5 albums (going back to 'Steel Wheels') put together.  It even get a mention on the BBC News.  Does it deserve the plaudits?  In the main, yes.  This is The Rolling Stones being The Rolling Stones, and proving that no-one does it better.  Featuring a guest list including Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney, Elton John, Lady Ga Ga, Benmont Tench, past member Bill Wyman, and Charlie Watts last recorded work.  If this is the last Stones album, then it is a fine way to sign-off

Observations?  Where's the new bands.  I am patently aware that the whole of my list is "of a certain vintage" - only Hamish Hawk has a recording career in single figures, and only Wingmen can be classed as a debut album (but the members of the band have plenty of past experience and glories).  Thing is, I've not truly found anything this year that makes me go "Hang on, that's a bit good".  Still, there might be something in 2024 ...

But ... all is not lost of the "new music" front - the debut album from Sharp Class arrived on my doormat - a punt based on some Facebook posts, and one or two tracks heard on Youtube, and admittedly with a 2022 date stamp, but I wasn't aware of it until this year.
Whilst the whole album may not be Top 15 worthy, it does contain one track that was stuck in my head for most of the summer.
OK, I know what you'll be thinking: "hmm ... sounds a bit like The Jam circa 1979".
And that's a good thing, The Jam in 1979 were pretty much unimpeachable

Sharp Class - Tales Of  A Teenage Mind