This is the 26th year I’ve made a best of year compilation (with cover photo – Season’s End tomatoes – and track veto from my partner, Sue), on cassette and, since the turn of the century, on CD. Since 2010 I’ve put the tunes on the net (copyright holders, I’ll remove on request, these are a promotional tool only up for a short time etc etc). I have friends who do the same, though none have lasted the course (plaudits to Jon & Veronica for the longest continuous run). Those friends who still get a cd might want to look away until theirs arrive. Some compile two cds, but I’ve always restricted myself to one, thinking enforced brevity the best way to ensure quality.
1. Young Fathers – Get Up If one single thing justifies the existence of the Mercury Music Prize, it’s this year’s win for the Young Fathers, who I’d never heard of. Their album is ebullient and original, taking hip-hop somewhere new. Earlier today, I got the spot to review the band when they make their Nottingham debut on May 26th, only to have to pull out when I realised that I’m teaching that evening. But I’ll probably buy a ticket (only a tenner) and catch as much of their set as I can anyway. This is the catchiest tune on the album, a great way to start the CD.
2. Mary J Blige – Therapy For reasons best known to Mary, she debuted new songs on Later months before her London Sessions album came out. I ended up watching her astonishing performance of this one four times. The raw lyric – hardly matters if it’s autobiographical or about, say, Amy Winehouse – make it a brave song to kick off an album with. And it tells such a striking, involving story that I was shocked, when it finally did come out, last month, to find that it’s only three minutes twenty seconds long. A soul classic.
3. Spoon – Do You? I came slightly late to Spoon, in 2005, but have followed them closely since, even managed to see them twice, despite their aversion to touring the UK. They Want My Soul is another really good Spoon album. Is it as good as Ga Ga Ga or Gimme Fiction? Time will tell, but this track is yet another catchy corker, with that pleasing Lennonesque rasp in Britt Daniels’ voice.
4. Ronika – 1001 Nights Skip to the post below for more on Ronika, who we saw supporting the Human League this week, making a strong debut at Nottingham’s Royal Concert Hall. I’ve been a fan since Mike Atkinson introduced me to her at the Bodega Social two or three years ago, and took a bunch of people to her album launch there this summer. Named after much missed Nottingham music store, Selectadisc, which was one of my top haunts from 1976 until its closure a few years ago, the album has an embarrassment of riches to choose from (it also features my old mucker Charles Washington on one track, as did the Bodega gig). Search Siren was my initial choice but, after Tuesday’s gig, Sue insisted on this disco thumper, making it the last addition to this year’s CD. No argument here.
5. Mark Ronson feat Bruno Mars – Uptown This number entered the charts at number one yesterday, released by public demand I gather, and is so ubiquitous that I don’t need to post it, do I? Oh, alright then. Shades of Prince in another classy disco-thumper. Did I tell you I saw Prince from close-up in Leeds earlier this year?
6. Hello Saferide – I Forgot About Songs New album The Fox, The Hunter and Hello Saferide has no release date in the UK and is only available as a pricey import or download, but it’s well worth seeking out, nonetheless (thanks to Scott, for pointing out its existence). That this group haven’t appeared on the best of year CD is down to my constantly playing catch-up with them. I was intrigued by The Quiz and knocked out by its glorious double A side I Was Definitely Made for These Times so immediately started playing catch-up (including Annika Norlin’s work in Swedish, as Säkert!). You could, if you want, define some of their work as twee. Sure, there’s an element of adolescent innocence to these songs, but they’re also quirky, observational and, most of all, life affirming. This song more or less sums up why I make an annual best of year cd.
7. Leonard Cohen – Samson In New Orleans There’s some debate about the quality of Leonard Cohen’s Popular Problems. One music magazine had it in the top three albums of the year. In others, it barely scrapes the top forty. Old Ideas, his wonderful comeback, was my favourite album of a couple of years ago, easily Cohen’s best since Recent Songs or even I’m Your Man. Two years is a short gap for LC, and while this album is really good, it’s not great (at least, not by his standards). This track, however, is quintessential Cohen. I must confess that, to my surprise, I’ve listened to his son Adam’s new album at least as much as Leonard’s. But it’s an odd listen. Adam has explicitly embraced his dad’s legacy and there are times when he sounds so much like the Leonard of Songs From A Room, 45 years ago, that it’s scary. My favourite song on We Go Home, ‘Fall Apart’ addresses this whole area and is a fascinating listen. Originally it appeared on our CD directly before his dad, but Sue vetoed its inclusion (along with one by John Fullbright; ‘too many miserable songs’). Here it is, anyway.
8. Sleaford Mods – Middle Men I’ve had a couple of drinks at a Christmas do, so really oughtn’t to be writing for publication, but the condition feels entirely appropriate for Sleaford Mods, the band of the year (a year in which I’ve seen them three times, all great, but stonkingly superb at Spanky Van Dyke’s in September). They’re from Nottingham, near enough, and I first wrote about them over two years ago. Jason Williamson writes about contemporary society with a bile and passion that has found its moment. I love the way this starts as one industrial sound, immediately shifts into another and throws in an entirely pointless ‘New Labour!’ at the beginning and end to confuse yet sharpen its portrait of dead end drinkers in Sherwood, where I happen to live. And the Wilko’s mention. Class. I’d say more, but I really need to get some food down me.
9. Drive-By Truckers – The Part Of Him After the brutal yet apt transition from Cohen To Williamson, this is more a shift in genre than of content. Paterson Hood’s story is about ‘an absolute piece of shit, to tell the truth, but he never told the truth to me’. DBTs hardly toured this album in the UK. Shame. Their last Nottingham gig, six years ago was terrific, and I’ve since travelled to Birmingham to see them – one of the great live acts. Is this about a real person? Hood’s written about politicians before, notably George Wallace.
10. Beck – Blackbird Chain There hasn’t been as much love for Morning Phase as Beck got for his first acoustic album Sea Change, yet it seems just as good to me, all the more enjoyable for not being such a radical, spot-the-influence departure. There were loads of dreamy tracks I could have chosen, but this intricate piece of chamber pop is what I went for. What is a blackbird chain? The lyrics sort of slip by, I’ll need to listen again… Nope, didn’t help.
11. Gruff Rhys – American Interior Spelt ‘Gruff’, pronounced ‘Griff’, which I only worked out this year. Must also confess that, though I went to see him talk about his film/album/book at Green Man this year, I dozed off for the entire event, apart from his monosyllabic answers to the first two questions (he warmed up, according to my brother and sister). I haven’t paid the album as much attention as it doubtless deserves, but will make up for that before I review his Rescue Room show in February. This title track is gorgeous.
12. Future Islands – Seasons (Waiting On You) Took me a while to work out what this compulsive synth-pop anthem was reminiscent of, but this weekend it came to me – 80’s band Fine Young Cannibals (check out the brilliant Blue, if you’ve not heard of them) with the great, distinctive singer, Roland Gift. Future Islands have already had a longer artistic career than they did, but this is the song that has finally found them a large audience. I wanted to start the cd with this, but was over-ruled…
13. The War On Drugs – Red Eyes First discovered War on Drugs through Slave Ambient three years ago, the album arriving too late to penetrate our best of year cd but coming third in my albums of the year (safe to say that had I got it a week earlier, it would have come top). Lost In The Dream arrived early this year and has been steadily insinuating itself ever since. Yes, it is almost stadium rock, but if there is a certain U2ishness, it’s not the glossy sheen that spoilt The National’s last album, but something more universal. Why has this album topped so many end of year lists? Because it’s full of fantastic songs, and it strikes a universal chord. I’ve seen some great gigs this year, but my finest hour was watching War On Drugs at Green Man (a festival I went to largely because they were playing) and I can’t wait to see them play a full set at Rock City in February. To quote myself from earlier in the year: ‘I suspected that WOD were the best rock band in the world at the moment. Now I’m sure they are. Talking to strangers (20’s t0 50’s) between numbers, we were all saying the same thing: ‘I thought they’d be great, but I didn’t know they’d be this great’. Can’t remember the last time I got to the front and threw myself around the way I did that day. The album works better as a whole than as individual tracks. This one, which was the advance song, reminds me of the very unhip Big Country, but in a good way. The War On Drugs are too old fashioned to ever be as hip as half the acts on this CD but, like Sleaford Mods, their time has come.
14. Toumani and Sidiki Diabaté – Hamadoun Toure A guest post by my partner, Sue Dymoke, who chose this track. It has been an excellent year for the West African Harp what with Seckou Keita’s sublime live performance with Welsh Harpist Catrin Finch at St Mary’s Church in Nottingham and Toumani and Sidiki’s wonderful album. I would have chosen many tracks from this splendid collaboration but restrictions on world music space per best of year CD (Dave’s rules not mine) quickly narrowed it down to this, the first track which is named after a key union figure in the recent crisis in Mali who provided support for young people’s education and kept communications open between north and south. Toumani and his eledst son Sidiki both follow in the male Mande griot tradition and yet Sidiki (who is a Mailian hip hop star) gives the ancient kora sound a new contemporary twist. Enjoy!
15. Indiana – Only The Lonely Starting to put together my albums of the year list, distracted by a leaked copy of what may be the best album of next year, D’Angelo’s Black Messiah. One album that definitely won’t feature on the 2014 list is No Romeo, the debut of Nottingham’s Indiana, which I’ve had on preorder for more than six months, but keeps being put back (now until January 26th: looks like there are some bonus tracks, but maybe I need to cancel my original order to get this version.) I’ve heard the album several times, and it exudes pop class, as exemplified by this distinctive earworm. But I do worry that the delays, and a couple of ill considered videos (maybe that’s just me: check out the one for hit Solo Dancing and see what you think) don’t bode well for the album, and that her label haven’t worked out how to market Indiana, a mature, sexy woman who doesn’t fit current pop templates (see also Ronika, above). Hope I’m wrong. A Merry Christmas to all my readers. Sleeve notes resumed on Boxing Day, or soon after. Now we’re loading our car with the (two, so far) best of year CDs we’ve received from friends to play on the journey north.
16. Prince – Breakdown Lost count of the number of times I’ve seen Prince, but this is the first time we’ve got close-up (the usual crowd – me + my oldest friend, younger brother & Prince fanatic, this time joined by his partner & eldest son, who last went to a Prince gig when in the womb), front standing at Leeds Arena. A terrific night with loads of hits, deep cuts and a few recent songs. Though, sadly, not this ballad, the highlight of the two albums he put out this year. Classic Prince, knocking track 5, good as it is, into the proverbial cocked hat.
17. Bridie Jackson & the Arbour – Prolong Second consecutive appearance for this Tyneside group who specialise in exquisitely mournful, minor key ballads. This is from their second album, New Skin. I happened upon them on a double bill with David Almond at Iron’s 40th anniversary festival in Cullercoats last year, an enchanting performance. They’re touring again soon, though have yet to play Nottingham. Check them out.
18. Sturgill Simpson – The Promise I’ve learnt not to go to gigs on days when I finish teaching at half eight, as it’s a rush (this year I missed half an hour of Flaming Lips) and I can’t unwind enough to enjoy them fully. But I had to make an exception for Sturgill Simpson, whose terrific second album Metamodern Sounds In Country Music brings a Merle Haggardesque classic country voice to modern subject matter. I was particularly taken by this ballad, an 80’s pop song I’d never heard (until a moment ago – don’t think I’ll be listening to it again) slowed down into a haunting ballad. Got there at nine, in time to buy a pint as he came on stage. I was a bit frazzled, but he was great. Possibly this year’s best Cosmic American Music show. Have a listen.
19. Bruce Springsteen – The Wall This year’s Springsteen album, High Hopes, is unlikely to trouble best of year charts, as many of the songs are from earlier in his career, or covers (in order to limit my choice and keep this down to one cd, I have a self imposed rule about not letting rerecordings in, hence no tracks from Richard Thompson’s fine Acoustic Classics. I was tempted to put on a track from this terrific Jackson Browne tribute set (stream) in lieu of one from JB’s new album, but, in the end, neither fitted. Also sorry not to have room for Natalie Merchant, Adam Cohen, J Mascis, James Vincent McMorrow, FKA Twigs, Lucinda Williams’ title track, Rosanne Cash, Caribou, The Both, John Fullbright & many more). This ballad, in which a fan encounters one of his musical heroes at the Vietnam war memorial wall in Washington, DC, is classic Springsteen. Not the anthemic Bruce, channelled earlier by War on Drugs, but the reflective one who initially cast ‘Born In The USA’ as a slow blues.
20. Sharon Van Etten – Every Time The Sun Comes Up Another newcomer to the annual cd, although I’ve been listening to SVE for years without any of her albums really grabbing me. Latest Are We There is her strongest, and this dirty, drunken, celebratory final number is its highlight (and was the highlight of her Saturday afternoon Green Man set).
And that’s it for another year. Today I’ll be compiling my best of year albums list for the traditional midnight countdown and I’ll put it up tomorrow. A happy new year to all my readers. Come again.