Mojo Review Challenge #004 – Voodoo Queens – Chocolate Revenge

MOJO4_FrankZappaWhere I dig into something I’ve not heard before, from the reviews section of old Mojo Magazines, on an irregular basis.

The Voodoo Queens were a big-ish enough deal at the time of Mojo #004 that their name adorns the cover. Along with an interview, there was a lengthy review about their one and only album – Chocolate Revenge.

There were two distinguishing things about Voodoo Queens – their riot grrrl energy and sound, as well as South Asian background of lead singer Anjali Bhatia, as well as the ethnic backgrounds of the others. Along with the emerging Cornershop, the critic world started to wonder if there was a scene coming along. Fear not, as the Strokes came along and that was that.

On the back of some fun singles (‘Supermodel Superficial’) and some making fun of Keanu Reeves, there was some anticipation for the band’s debut record. The result was a slightly over produced record that is not very riot grrrl. A lot of things that probably got A&R’d to be potential hit singles. It sounds anonymously 90s.

There are some fun moments – and they are the silly ones. ‘I’m Not Bitter – I Just Want To Kill You‘ or ‘You’re Dumped‘, are as silly as the titles suggest. Big fat guitars make them even sillier. But then there’s ‘Neptune‘, which sounds like Pavement, or ‘Face Ache‘, which is so one note that it seems almost incompetent. It’s a little all over the place.

Luckily, the album ends with a brace of great pop songs. ‘Shopping Girl Maniac‘, ‘Chocolate Eyes‘ and ‘My Favourite Hand Bag‘ show a band just having fun, but writing catchy songs. ‘My Favourite Hand Bag‘ in particular seems to merge it all together, and the best track on here.

It’s more teen garage rock than the teeth of riot grrrl and maybe their fans turned on them. Regardless, the album didn’t really do anything, none of the songs got away, and the band broke up soon after.

A shame as there is a lot of interesting things about the band and on the record. There’s definitely a fun girl power on show here that would be watered down a few years later. Some cool guitar playing all over the record. But it’s not raw or daring enough to be indie, and to weird for the pop charts.

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Top 5 Albums of 2014 So Far

Compared to other years, I’ve not spent that much time with new bands, or maybe those bands have not hit me in any way. That said, that cynicism applies to a couple of old hands as well. The new Beck record and the new Neil Finn album are the worse in their careers. Maybe it’s a slow year.

So this list is full of old guys. Guy Garvey of Elbow, at age 40, is the youngest songwriter on this list. This happens, last year there was almost none of them.

Here’s the five faves of the year so far.

5. Elbow – The Take Off And Landing Of Everything

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Ever since this band found it’s footing with The Seldom Seen Kid, Elbow have been getting better and better. They are that odd band that gets radio play and are mainstream (in the UK anyway) yet continue to do lots of weird long songs and sound like no one else.

This batch of songs are as epic as their recent work, with the smell of New York, where Guy Garvey now lives. He knows how to paint a picture with words, and the band still knows how to make an interesting racket. It’s life affirming stuff, in a big hearted poetic way.

I really love ‘Honey Sun‘, with it’s insistent beat and the gospel-ly harmonies. It’s a hymn for NYC. ‘New York Morning‘ is also particular touching, with the line getting a lot of attention about how the city’s folks are nice to Yoko. It’s a beautiful line on so many levels. The film clip is also amazing. Surely an odd choice for a single.

4. Old 97’s – Most Messed Up

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The reason this record is only at 4 is because for whatever reason I’ve not spent enough time with it. For a blistering rock ‘n’ roll band, this is one of the Old 97’s most blistering rock ‘n’ roll records, and getting huge acclaim in the US. Amazingly, it’s studio album number 10 for these guys.

It is an ode to rock ‘n’ roll and all it’s peripherals – dancing, girls, drinking and more. Can it be summed up any better that the single is called ‘Let’s Get Drunk & Get It On‘? Without the major label budgets and the need for radio hits, the sound continues the last few albums of being raw and rare. A pop song like ‘The Ex Of All You See‘ could easily have ended up an anonymous pop song. Here, someone left the feedbacking guitars on and it sounds great.

The opening track ‘Longer Than You’ve Been Alive‘ is the most self referential the band has ever been (except maybe ‘The One‘ from Blame It On Gravity). You can feel a number of these songs becoming staples in this band’s decades long career and that’s quite an achievement.

3. Wilko Johnson & Roger Daltrey – Going Back Home

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Oh Wilko Johnson. Diagnosed with cancer and given only a few months to live, he should have been dead last October. With no treatment and a lot of unfinished business, his last year has been one of the most interesting stories in all music. One of the most inventive guitarists of all time, he teamed up with his old friend Roger Daltrey to record some songs. He didn’t even think he would live to see the album released. It debuted at number 3 in the UK charts.

Without the shadow of the Who, Daltrey cuts loose. Under the watchful eye and the state of the art Who studio, Johnson’s work has never sounded better. Cutting through 11 R&B, rock and old Dr Feelgood classics, this is just a whole lot of fun. The guitar work is flawless. It’s typical of Johnson’s positive outlook that this album is so warm and inviting. He’s not sad to be dying. He’s going to shake his hips until the end.

Highlights abound. Most of these songs are new to me, many coming from Johnson’s long and scattered solo career. So something like ‘Ice On the Motorway‘ is a new delight. But their version of Dylan‘s ‘Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window‘ and the Dr Feelgood classic ‘All Through The City‘ out spark bands half (or even a third) their age.

Fuck, there’s even music videos.

2. The New Mendicants – Into the Lime

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The second of three unlikely team-up records. Is it a thing? Joe Pernice of the Scud Mountain Boys was one of the great Americana songwriters in the 90s. Norman Blake of Teenage Fanclub led the Scottish wing of Brit-Pop. Both men in their late 40s found themselves in Canada. So, why the hell not, they made a low key record together.

And my word is it low key. Some of the tracks are so spare there is but one acoustic guitar and a bongo. But both men wrote great melodies, and those really shine. Without full bands to back them up, there is something alarmingly honest and intimate. It’s a quiet, minor work in the careers of both men, but I’ve not been able to stop listening to it. Odd that the less there is, the more there is for me to dig into. There are some rockers – ‘Shouting Match‘ and ‘Lifelike Hair‘ – which are more short garageband sloggers than well crafted rock epics.

Pernice actually pips Blake with a slightly stronger set of songs. His voice is more suited to the empty space. The best track for my money is ‘High On the Skyline‘ – the best example of the two men working together, but opener ‘Sarasota‘ is not far behind.

1. Paul Heaton & Jacqui Abbott – What Have We Become?

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A more unlikely return to the pop charts than Wilko Johnson. Our third duo team up record. But Paul Heaton of The Beautiful South reunited with his old singing partner Jacqui Abbott and made an album full of piss and vinegar. No stranger to pushing buttons and speaking his mind, his matched it with the sweetness of Abbott’s voice. And he’s brought a rocking band and his best melodies in decades.

Music (and art) helps us make sense of the wider world. When the world seems to be falling apart, Heaton’s album helps us make sense of it. Every single track here has four or five lines that I can no longer live without. It starts with ‘Moulding Of A Fool‘, and how we pump out more and more stupid people, and it ends with ‘When I Get Back To Blighty‘ with it’s coda of ‘Phil Collins must die’ over and over.

There’s a lot to say here. Like the how the American Baseball Cap is maybe as dangerous as a Burqa. Or the big answer to the question ‘What Have We Become‘ being opinionless, sad and overweight. It’s a world full of hollow politicians, cheating husbands, fame whores, pathetic tortured artists and more. This is workingman’s music at its best, and a welcome comeback. That Heaton is now interviews on BBC One and playing Glastonbury, playing sold out shows etc…is so weird. But maybe people are listening. I hope so.

On top of all that, the songs are a lot of fun. Here’s my favourite, ‘Moulding Of A Fool’ and the single ‘DIY’ – both infectious fun with a lot of bite.

Mojo Reviews Challenge #001 – The Best Of 2-Tone

Where I dig into something I’ve not heard before, from the reviews section of old Mojo Magazines, on an irregular basis.

MOJO1_DylanLennon#001 – The Best Of 2-Tone

When Mojo started in 1993, the review section was very different to what it is today. They only really reviewed 10-20 albums, and the lead reviews would cover several records as one story.

With that, the choices are pretty limited in these early issues. The ‘new’ albums are full of established classics – In Utero, Come On Feel The Lemonheads, Thirteen, Together Alone, New Miserable Experience….

So we go to the reissues. The lead review both have to do with Reggae, and it’s tight trousered younger brother, Ska. A 4 disc Jamaican overview called Tougher Than Tough, and a 4 disc box set on of the 2-Tone label called The Compact 2-Tone Story. There’s a one disc version – The Best Of 2-Tone. That’s our pick.

According to the review, the 4-disc 2 Tone set is too much, but the 1-disc is not enough. But I know so little about 2 Tone, I figured the 1 disc is the way to go. Nothing but the towering anthems.

There’s svereal big ones here. The Specials loom large – the set opens with their immortal ‘Ghost Town‘ and ‘Nelson Mandela‘. In fact, the Specials make up half the collection. There’s some ‘name’ appearances by Madness and Elvis Costello who all recorded for the label at some point, but broke out of that scene very quickly. Which sadly leaves little room for The Beat, The Selector and others.

What is clear on the first couple of listens is that this collection is a whole lot of fun. It sounds great in the car, and I’m in West London in the late 70s. Theres only ‘The Boiler‘ that brings the mood down, but the rest are all big sing-along anthems, the masterpieces of the genre that won over a generation. Fun music, and important too.

Great to have this stuff on the iPod finally. Pretty embarrassing that I didn’t have ‘Nelson Mandela‘ on there before. This world – that can fill a whole record store like Honest John’s, has always been a bit of a blind spot for me. Let’s see where this leads.

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THE BEST ALBUMS OF 2013 PART 4 – #2 & #1

And this is the end…

SameTrailerDifferentPark2. Kasey Musgraves – Same Trailer Different Park

I love a good musical smartass. Be it Prine or Newman or Wainwright, someone who can have a clever turn of phrase will always get me. Rarely do they come with such optimism, and in the frame of a 24 year old woman.

This album is a delight. It just brings a smile to my face, line after line. There’s a girl here who knows who she is, and doesn’t pander to the pop market now, and reaping success because of it. She’s so cool I want everyone to know her. Someone with something to say that isn’t just about her.

Follow Your Arrow has been getting a bulk of the acclaim. If you aren’t bowled over by the opening couplet then this probably isn’t for you. If you do, then you will find more sweetness in My House and Silver Lining. There’s a beating heart under all this too – closer It Is What It Is cuts to the core, but in a clever way too.

Being clever is not often rewarded, and it’s not what this album is about. There is a sweetness and an optimism that seemed to be missing in all other music I heard this year. And it’s not banal, brainless happiness. In fact, it’s the smartest album of the year.

1. Frank Turner – Tape Deck Heart

Broken people can get better if they want to.

This has been a terrible year, one of the worst. Music played the least role in my life than any year I remember. And there was only one record that I returned to time and time again for solace. When you love something so much that just listening to it makes you feel better, like the drag of a cigarette.

I’ve never really been one for sad music. This is one of those escape-your-sadness albums. It’s an age old rock n roll trope – our lives can be better (yeah!) but given a new set of clothes. The fact that Turner is around my age helps.

The album opens with Recovery, a plea for help but also something stirring, moving out of the fog. Throughout are thoughts on the fleeting nature of life, seizing every moment and all that jazz. Polaroid Picture and Losing Days are other highlights.

For Turner, it’s a slight change from his last album. It’s more a love story, and the piano is now an integral part of his sound. The songs are just about the strongest his ever written, and it’s now my second favourite of his after Love, Ire and Song.

But it’s my favourite album of the year so more about me. Artists are people who teach you something, who see the world in a way most people do not, and then captures that lightning and shows it to you. In a depressing, confusing, frustrating year, this album and this man taught me more than every other album this year combined.

In the end, life is a fight, but a good fight. And I’m thinking of getting my first tattoo.

The Best Albums of 2013 Part 3 – #4 & #3

Part 3 of this year end round up. One more post to go.

4. Laura Marling – Once I Was An Eagle

Every Laura Marling album so far, once I’ve fallen in love with them, are 5 star albums. Every new Laura Marling album turns the old one into 4 star albums. She manages to progress at an epic pace. Once I Was An Eagle is, once again, her best record yet.

It’s a record in two halves. The first feels like a song suite. The tracks merge together, although the songs change. It’s an extended sequence of sex and passion. She is still writing about the clash that happens when a poetic young woman meets a charming young man. But in her songs, as epic as they are, covers so many emotions it’s almost overwhelming. She’s also abandoned that ‘Hissing Of the Summer Lawns’ jazzier stuff for something a bit more straight forward.

The songs. It opens with four that all go down as classics. Take The Night Off urgency sweeps into the lovely, seductive I Was An Eagle. It’s those moments, the sneaky changes (the jump to a high note, the introduction of drums, etc) that makes the suite side so great. The other song in the album title – Once – may well be her best standalone song, with an organ sound lifted straight from a Band record, a sound I cannot resist.

And her. Laura herself. Still a mystery, and still progressing at an unbelievable pace. She avoids the spotlight, and seems so out of time. Her music could be a lost folk record from the early 70s, yet she is defiantly of our time. And already she has been playing new songs on tour and they are all over YouTube. A true Artist in every sense of the word.

3. Melody Pool – The Hurting Scene

I discovered Melody Pool’s music through someone who knows her. I was given some headlines – there was break up, she sounds a bit like Joni Micthell (a pattern emerges…). Then I heard ‘Henry’, as breathtaking a dissection of an ex-lover as any Bob Dylan song. And I was hooked.

This is, I guess, a country album, but it’s very pop. Behind the dials (and recorded in Nashville) is Brad Jones, who has produced three of my favourite albums – Josh Rouse’s 1972 and Nashville, and Bob Evan’s Suburban Songbook. This album mixes the same pop smarts with country music ideas. Occasionally, it even rocks out. But in the end it’s the stories, this Melody Pool person, finding her voice and finding herself.

Henry is the standout, but it’s not indicative of the album. The title track and Lion On the Loose both rock out with a decent band. Somebody You’ve Never Met Before being the most devastating of the rockers. After 100 years of people trying to write about love, this young woman from the central coast has found yet another new angle.

Who knows where she’ll go. She could front a rock band, or she could be a troubadour. It seems she has that side to figure out. In the meantime, her voice and her songs are already there.

The Best Albums of 2013 Part 2 – #7-5

The second part of our yearly round up of music and more.

7. Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires Of the City

It feels like his album came and went. No one really talked about it, and it’s a shame. I loved their first two albums, and this one, whilst very different, is just as good. It’s heavier, and less a sum of their influences. No one is going to think this sounds like ‘Graceland’.

Diane Young‘ (great title…) sets the scene. It keeps the youthful energy that is all over their early records, and makes it more barbed. ‘Step‘ brings in a hip-hop sound that has gotten our next album so much acclaim. Their strange lyrical pictures remain evocative and mysterious. But it’s the hooks, dozens upon dozens of them, that make this record. It’s bridged with quieter moments, such as the magnificent ‘Hannah Hunt‘. I have, as usual, no idea what they are on about, but it sounds mysterious and intriguing.

I found myself returning to this album over and over again. The songs rolled around in my head, and they followed me around for long walks and long drives. Maybe, if it was 10 tracks like their other albums it would have been more punchy.

I imagine that Vampire Weekend will have to do something very different next. This is the same record with a bit more oomph, but that might not be enough.

6. Arctic Monkeys – AM

There’s already a lovely album called AM. So that was never going to help this, a somewhat make or break album for the band. Suck It And See was as inventive and catchy as any of their records, but they seemed to have lost their motivation. AM recaptures some album magic, and they’ve made a dark and sleazy album.

It took me far more listens to get my head around this album than every Arctic Monkeys album. This is a nighclub album, and I didn’t do much clubbing this year. But its groove is undeniable. And the songs grew on me.

There were some big singles. RU Mine?, Do I Wanna Know?, Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High? (all questions for some reason) keep the Arctic Monkeys thing of songs that are far too complicated than they need to be, mixed with hooks that radio couldn’t resist.

The best track on the album, for mine, is Mad Sounds. Its the best Lou Reed song I’ve heard in decades. And the crazy, outspoken and restless characters from Lou Reed songs also populate this record.

A detour or a new direction? I don’t know. This experiment works – just – but it feels like the band is still searching. They are trying to be anything but the Arctic Monkeys who came before. Who knows where they’ll go next.

5. Travis – Where You Stand

Look. I love Travis. Fran Healy is just a classic songwriter – in the same world as Neil Finn, Paul McCartney and more. The classic song, and great chorus, a good middle eight. Songs for everyone and for every day use, not just being a self centred saddo with a guitar. Where You Stand, their first album in five years, sees them returning to classic songwriting, and some of their best songs.

How can you resist Moving? It’s as great as any of their anthemic ballads, but about the small things of moving around, trying to find your place. But it’s so lovely, so positive, and so full of life. Better still is Where You Stand, as devotional a love song that they’ve ever written – and they’ve written their share.

There’s lots more than just lovely songs on show. Another Guy follows the path of previous songs of strange, experimental music with pretty melodies on top. Mother sees them cutting loose yet, again, sounding a little Lou Reed, ‘Loaded’ era. They mix it up enough to remain the critics darling.

The key is song craft. It’s songs that sound like they’ve been around your whole life. Which only very few people on the planet can do. It’s not cool – but why be trendy when you can be timeless.

The Best Albums of 2013 Part 1 – #10-8

It’s top ten time again. Counting down the records first, then some other bits of writing to round out the year to come.

10. Jason Isbell – Southeastern

My bible in the late 90s was No Depression magazine, whose tagline was ‘Alternative Country Music – Whatever That Is’. Well, it sounds like this album. There is something very late 90s about this album. When that music was only ever going to appeal to a few thousand people worldwide, and a lot of young men discovered the power of being simplistic.

Isbell’s been around the traps for many years now (solo, and as a Drive By Trucker), but he’s cleaned himself up, in sound and in life. There’s a purity here that has been missing in his music. This is not the music to play over a crowd of drunks. It’s direct, occasionally devastating, down-to-earth romantic and doesn’t fuck around.

Highlights abound. ‘Traveling Alone‘ is probably his most pop song, but paints a vividly evocative lyric on top. ‘Elephant‘ is rightly praised for it’s amazing subject matter. But the quieter moments and album tracks, like ‘Relatively Easy‘ and ‘Different Days‘, are showing a new maturity.

I gave up on Isbell after the album he did with the 400 Unit. I figured I left him to a life of hard drinking on the road, and he wuld continue to write about less and less. But he got off that path and now I’m back on board too.

9. Manic Street Preachers – Rewind the Film

Still angry, still vital, but something has changed in the Manic Street Preachers this year. The loud electric guitars were put away, and something more reflective was given to us. 2010’s Postcards From A Young Man, from the title down, was trying to recapture that youthful energy (and volume) of their early records. Rewind the Film sounds like men their age, still trying to find relevance and fire.

The album opens with perhaps the quietest song in their 20 year career. ‘This Sullen Welsh Heart‘ is a humble hymn, but an ode to never being happy. Is it depression – or how we’re made? And then we find ourselves in 70s Elvis period for ‘Show Me the Wonder‘, probably the most optimistic song they’ve ever written (and the first single ever not to feature an electric guitar).

The album moves into all directions from there – and some work better than others. ‘As Holy As The Soil’ is as touching a love song as they’ve ever written. However, the six-and-a-half-minute, Richard Hawley sung title track meanders and gets lost in it’s own pompousness. But there are so many pretty moments on this record. Yes, Manic Street Preachers, the pretty band.

This album is Poscards To Middle Aged Men. We’re not sure what punk bands are supposed to do, two decades in. Many don’t survive that long. Perhaps, making quietly triumphant records is the new path. It certainly works for our number 8 entry.

8. Billy Bragg – Tooth & Nail

I’m not a young man anymore, and that has been reflected in my music choices this year. How to age gracefully, and find my age. Bragg is the same. An early 80s punk rocker that is still going, how do you not turn bitter (Elvis Costello), obscure (Wreckless Eric) or dead. He’s opened his heart even further, possibly more than he has since his mid 80s, for his sweetest collection of songs.

It’s really the lyrics that hit home. Musically, he’s the same one guy with a strong accent, but he’s got a new wit about him. How’s this for an opening verse for the entire album.

I’m so tightly wound in tension
Feel just like a guitar string
Wait until revealed emotions
Touch me and you’ll hear me sing.

Bragg has been using the internet to get out his topical songs as soon as possible. Which means it has been 5 years since his last album, and the songs he had left the rebellion behind. While it doesn’t rock out or get too carried away, he is busy laying out a consistent humanity. ‘Do Unto Others‘ and ‘No One Knows Nothing Anymore‘ addresses today’s issues from the heart, not the head.

Handyman Blues is a great summary of the album. Funny, sweet and from the heart. And one of the better film clips of the year.

Parts 7-1 coming very soon.

Best Albums of 2013 So Far

Bit late with this but here’s my favourite albums of the year so far, a mid year list.

Maybe it’s because it’s been a very slow year for me. I’ve been let down by many artists I love, but it seems many of them have taken a break this year. New discoveries are few, but funnily enough they take up my top 2 anyway.

Some promising albums (Bell X1, Duckworth Lewis Method) I’ve not spent enough time with. And some great tracks with no albums to them. Here’s what I do recommend – and love.

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5. Modern Vampires Of the City – Vampire Weekend

There’s a few new things on offer – samples, autotune – but it’s still Vampire Weekend. And there might be a limit on how far they can go with their soweto schtick, but they pull it off again – and I think marvelously. That weird mystery of what they sing about is up front, and they’ve made a really modern pop record. And they know how to craft a hook – just let Hannah Hunt or Diane Young live in your head for a few seconds – it will last for days. Against all odds they made another really good album – maybe they are keepers after all.

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4. Tooth And Nail – Billy Bragg

The album I’ve wanted for years. Just Billy and a guitar again. No big rawkous rock band behind him, he hands in a bunch of crafty, sweet songs that are somehow deeply personal AND say his peice about the state of the world today. The opening three are the killers – January Song’s sly stabs at politics, No One Knows Nothing Anymore’s provocative uncertainty and Handyman Blues – as sweet a love song as he’s ever delivered. We always knew Bragg would turn into an fine angry old man, and if he can just not bury it keyboards, he is doing great.

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3. Once I Was An Eagle – Laura Marling

Laura Marling has a way of making her last 5 star album feel like a 4 star album. This album wrecks me. The title track is one of the sexiest things she’s ever done. Whoever is looking after her is doing a great job. They’ve let her develop into a pure emotional wallop. And to that the ridiculous guitar playing and that hammond organ – swoon. And the way the songs drift in and out of each other… It’s a beautiful hazy dream. And we’re four for four.

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2. The Hurting Scene – Melody Pool

Again, it’s the emotional honesty that really shines through. But this is a bit more fun, sometimes rocking job. Brad Jones, who did such a great job producing three of my favourite albums (Bob Evans’ Suburban Songbook, Josh Rouse’s 1972 and Nashville) does a great job here, really bringing pout the pop, without giving it too much of a gloss. But it’s the song – Someone You’ve Never Met Before, Xavier and Henry – all heartbreaking. A real star in the making.

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1. Same Trailer Different Park – Kacey Musgraves

It’s a year for the ladies. This album is so fantastic – it’s hard to imagine anything topping it this year. Funny, fun, tender – it’s like a Randy Newman album, written by a 24 year old woman. Highlights abound – Follow Your Arrow is an anthem for the ages, This Is What It Is breaks your heart, Silver Lining shows the kind of wisdom that songwriters get at age 60.

The Best Albums of 2012

2012, for me, was not a great year for music. It also wasn’t a great year of listening to music. I think I may have listened to the least music this year than any year since my teens. It’s still probably more than a lot of people, but it the year kind of got away from me.

Still, no huge revelations this year. No new sounds, and very few new artists. What got me through the year was mainly old songs. It’s happened before. 2002 in particular. Maybe there’s something about a decade finding her feet.
What else has gotten me through is film. I’ve watched a couple of hundred films this year. Perhaps it’s technology, and it’s nicer to look at a screen than out a train window.

Is it a break from music? Or a break up? I don’t know. I look at 2013 and no albums make me that excited. But maybe a break is good. There will be more to discover one day.

There were still at least ten records I loved this year. Here they are.

1. Joel Plaskett – Scrappy Happiness

I’ve been listening to Joel Plaskett since the 90s, when he was in a fine rock band called Thrush Hermit. I’ve enjoyed every album to some degree, but something happened on this record. First, his last was a TRIPLE album. As great as it was, this single album is a breath of fresh air. Second, it sounds like a classic rock record, no fancy stuff.

The album it really reminds me of is Electric Warrior. Bluesy, muscular rock n roll, and a handful of beautiful ballads. Lyrically there’s a whole lot of nonsense, but it’s that kind of nonsense that makes sense in a song. Short, sharp, fun. It’s my album of the year, and clutching to the blatant escapism in this record says a lot about my year.

2. The Shins – Port Of Morrow

Three perfect records so far, this album has a lot to live up to. Luckily those expectations were met. That pop sound, those lyrics, that voice – maybe it will just always get to me.

It’s been over 10 years now that James Mercer has soundtracked life. Something about his music is well shaped to place memories into, and this new one is no exception. Some say its samey, but I’d be pretty happy to get variations of this record for another decade or two.

3. Toby Martin – Love’s Shadow

The former(?) lead man in Youth Group went solo this year and it definitely doesn’t sound like a band. Mainly piano or guitar and a bit of strings, with a couple of louder exceptions. But it’s intimate and hidden away, but that’s perfect for an album of songs about loneliness, loss, missing people and keeping secrets.

I guess I love Toby best because he writes about Sydney, but not in a cheap, easy reference way. He squeezes out some romance to this city, but doesn’t fetishise it. In fact, there’s plenty of looking beyond it. This is a fragile, beautiful little album, that I kept returning to.

4. Jack White – Blunderbuss

We’ve been wondering for years what a Jack White solo album might sound like. Aren’t we glad it was actually wonderful? I thought the Raconteurs and Dead Weather was patchy. But he’s returned to something a lot simpler here. It’s not the primitivism of the White Stripes, but it’s close.

No one rocks like White, and no one knows how to craft a bizarre lyric like him too. It interests me how such a student of rock history is so great at avoiding cliché. He makes power chords sound fresh. This album made plenty of best of lists, and I’m definitely in the camp that’s good to have him back.

5. Ben Folds Five – The Sound Of the Life Of the Mind

I’ve loved every album Folds has ever made. I loved his wild ‘punk rock for sissies’ days of Ben Folds as a teenager, and I loved his more mature, understated work on his solo albums. ‘The Sound Of The Life Of the Mind’ is a bit of all of that – funny songs, ballads and even a Hornby collaboration. The kind of album that is probably really difficult to make, yet sounds like fun all the way.

6. Divine Fits – A Thing Called Divine Fits

Dan Boeckner of Handsome Furs and Britt Daniel of Spoon get together to bring a bit more of a raw, punk rock sense to Spoon’s groove. There’s not much to this album – it’s a bunch of great riffs, songs and sounds.

7. Hot Chip – In Our Heads

I love this band – but I occasionally have problems with some of their albums. They are too long, and this one is no exception. But they know how to craft a good pop single and they have 6 or 7 of them here. They’ve continued down their love song route. It’s like 65-era Beatles, but electro pop. It wasn’t a terribly exciting year for electronic music for me, but Hot Chip keep the flame alive for me.

8. Beth Orton – Sugaring Season

It’s good to have Beth Orton back, no matter how sporadic. We thought maybe she had left us, but maybe now she can just turn into one of those folkies who just makes albums in her own time.

This album isn’t really like her other albums. There’s a sweetness and prettiness on show that hasn’t been there before. She sounds happy, and here’s something nice to hear that, having followed her voice for a decade, through some incredibly low lows.

9. Nada Surf – The Stars Are Indifferent To Astronomy

A straight ahead, fun, rock ‘n’ roll record. I kind of miss the more tender moments they are so good at, but mixing it up 7 albums in is fine. It’s a really exciting record, and the pace doesn’t really let up. ‘No Snow On the Mountain’ and ‘Teenage Dreams’ are two of the best. They aren’t just boring rockers either. Another solid rock album, in year where they were few and far between.

10. fun. – Some Nights

Something strangely fascinating about this album. This band seems like assholes. The songs have been A&R’d within an inch of their lives. The film clips are annoying. But something about the songs that work. Something fascinating about someone trying to write a song that connects with millions of people. These wide reaching, open armed songs that can’t have too much complexity but enough to fascinate.

Its like those big 70s albums, where they knew they would be selling 20 million and unite an audience. It’s like watching big blockbuster films. The singles sound great. They will probably go down as a one album wonder, but this year, I enjoyed the bombass of it all.

Top 10 Albums of 2012 So Far….Part 1

Here’s 10-6. The rest later.

10. Loudon Wainwright III – Older Than My Old Man Now

I have loved the last two LW3 albums – (“High Wide And Handsome” and “Songs For the New Depression”). In his later years, he has made thematic albums, and this time, to honour him being older than his father when he died, it’s about age. 15 songs all about getting older – either wanting life to last twice as long (‘Double Lifetime’), being nostalgic for sex (‘I Remember Sex’) or time travel (‘Date Line’) – it’s amazing that he picked a theme this time that gives and gives.

It’s his usual mix. A couple of witty and clever numbers, then a couple of jaw dropping songs of stark directness. ‘FCC – in C’ is my favourite of the lot. He even rocks out a little on ‘The Here And Now’. But mainly it’s his love of folk, bluegrass and since ‘High Wide And Handsome’ that banjo.

9. Lightships – Electric Cables

Lightships is Gerald Love of Teenage Fanclub. It’s his first solo record, and on his own, it’s pretty clear what he brings to his day job. It’s VERY pretty. Very twinkly. It’s close to Belle & Sebastian in many moments – or Real Estate. It’s dreamy, jangly pop or the Sarah Records variety. It sounds a little like a throwback to the British jangly 80s, but it’s warm and lovely in a modern way.

It’s a confident debut. Every note, every guitar line, every harmony is perfectly placed. It takes it time. On first listen it sounds a bit samey (it’s broken up nicely on vinyl) – but go for a walk in the sun with it. Especially by the water. It’s quiet and medative, bit it’s deep and interesting too. The vocals are lightly buried in the wall of jangly guitars – it’s an album about sound.

But some moments do threaten to break free of it’s relaxed mood – the stunning ‘Sweetness In Her Spark’ is a sure bet for the end of year playlist.

8. Regina Spektor – What We Saw From The Cheap Seats

This is at 8 because I feel like I’m still getting to know this album. And maybe because it’s not the knock-out Regina Spektor album that I keep waiting for. The single ‘All The Rowboats’ was a bit of a dummy pass. That restless, relentless single is unlike the rest of the album. Stripping away the production excesses of “Far”, there are plenty of Regina and piano moments here. She lets her voice and her songs shine through.

Pretty moments shine through on first listens. ‘How’ is breathtaking – the kind of ballad that would have probably been boring in other hands. There’s some touching intimacy, such as ‘Firewood’. And then just when it all gets a bit serious and well crafted, there’s ‘Rowboats’ and the brilliant, brilliant ‘Don’t Leave Me (Ne Me Quitte Pas)’. I mean, just calling a song that is a risky move – how could anything beat the Brel song? But it’s a bit of pure pop bliss.

It’s not as good as Begin To Hope – something has been lost. But it’s a solid yet eclectic album. I can’t wait to get to know it better.

7. Bruce Springsteen – Wrecking Ball

This album has like 7 or 8 of the best songs I’ve heard all year. None of them sound like they’re from the same album. And then a couple of the worse songs I’ve heard all year as well. And that’s Springsteen for ya. He attempts to reach the heights few others do – and he’s willing to risk failing by doing it. So, we have another late era, wildly inconsistent album by the boss. But still full of lyrical fire and rock ‘n’ roll power.

I find this album rattling around in my head all the time. Those thundering moments – the chorus of ‘Shackled And Drawn’, the cry of ‘Easy Money’ and the title track itself. There’s a folky feel to the rockers – like a strng band giving it all. He’s lost little of his fire over the years

Then there’s a couple of wonderful songs about spooky suburbia. ‘Jack Of All Trades’ is probably his best character study since ‘Devils And Dust’. ‘You’ve Got It’ is a man that is not afraid to look you in the eye and tell it to you straight. Great songs by a man who is still pumping out great songs, 40 years into his career.

Then why the fuck is there crap like the hip hop fusion of ‘Rocky Ground’? This album is all over the place. But hey, great in the iPod era – great when you shuffle through a 2012 playlist. Can you fault the man for trying? Maybe just 6 places you can.

6. Alabama Shakes – Boys & Girls

OK, so first of all, terrible album title. And cover. It’s enough to put me off trying this band out, despite all the great notices they’ve been getting from folks I respect. But I’m glad I did. This is a soulful rock record. I’ve been obsessed by the Stones of late, and the Alabama Shakes have been occupying the same place in my ears and heart.

Brittany Howard’s voice. What an instrument. You just know this voice will be with us for a couple of decades. But it’s not just Brittany’s show. The band are firing on all cylinders here. Tasteful but all over the place. Simple but rocking hard. It’s one for the riff heads – the guitar playing is extraordinary.

The band have some sort of hazy ‘save me’ sort of thing going on. It’s very gospel – which suits their sound. It’s not the most lyrically compelling moment – but hopefully that will come. But it’s rock ‘n’ soul – and something new as well. Finally some swing is back – and for once, I’m not alone in thinking this is a good thing.