This album is a clear number 2. These last two records twoer above anythign I heard this year, and are albums I will carry around with me for years.
I have loved so much music from Damon Albarn. Blur were a favourite, and the Gorillaz has many moments of pure joy. I like the man too, I love his approach to art, and what he has to say.
This is Albarn’s first genuine solo record. It took a long time, and a lot of flirting with opera and musicals before coming back with a pop record. But it’s not a Blur record, and he has synthesised his explorations in opera, world music and electronica, and then went and wrote some songs. Actual songs.
I listened to this album quite a bit and it never quite hit. But over time, those hooks, those melodies, and those sentiments started to stick. This is a grower, but I cannot imagine living without these songs. It makes little sense on first listen.
So many highlights – and oddly the singles are the least strong. The gentle History of a Cheating Heart, to the epic Heavy Seas Of Love. I love Photographs and the samples used. And Everyday Robots – the killer title track – it feels like Albarn has been trying to write this song his entire life.
The problem with Albarn is you never know what he will do next. Maybe his next record wont be so softly and lovely. Who knows where his spinning head might land next.
1. Paul Heaton & Jacqui Abbott – What Have We Become? Virgin
The voices of the Beautiful South return with my album of the year. A modern, angry political record, wrapped up in some of the prettiest melodies. I often complain that music has nothing to say – well there’s more said on this album that just about every album I’ve heard this year combined.
The world is broken. And Heaton, who has been writing scathing songs about life for over 30 years now, has plenty to say about it. The idiot who is led astray in ‘Moulding Of A Fool‘, the type that gets to vote and run our lives. How we should talk about the baseball cap like we do the burqa. The enduring image of pizza boxes stacked towards the sun.
The phrases, the ideas, and the story of this record still roll around my head. It’s Heaton’s talent that he can turn that anger into wonderful images and great songs. And then it was a stroke of genius to get Jacqui Abbott on board to make the medicine even sweeter.
It’s not for everyone – not everyone cares for the subtext. That has been Heaton’s trick from his very first hit single, Happy Hour. He has always hidden deeper meanings in songs that milkmen can whistle. He’s back at it, and I couldn’t be happier.
Modern music is supremely lacking in balls. No one is challenging anything. Our artists have stopped leading us, and left us with nothing to learn. This record was the only bright spot of a year of ball-less music. Maybe some of the bands Heaton has inspired, from Manics to Arctic Monkeys to Belle And Sebastian, will follow suit.
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
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
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
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
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?
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.