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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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 Problem With Numbers – Vevo’s 23%

On the 17th April, Vevo put out a press release that was picked up by various media. The story was about the state of Vevo’s service, and video services in general, in Australia. The claim: Vevo’s reach is 23% bigger than all the catch-up TV properties online.

The digital world is full of numbers. You just need to read any article about piracy to see that these numbers have an agenda. And how easy it is to make a headline that sounds good.

So here are the four TV catch up services that have been included in their survey – Channel 7 (through Yahoo7), Channel 10, Channel 9 and SBS. This excludes ABC’s iView and Foxtel’s Go (Full disclosure here – I work for Foxtel, but hey we were not included). These figures come from Nielsen, the all conquering ratings company, and they can’t get what they can’t get.

But is it fair to compare Vevo to these services? And is reach really a true metric of this?

I say no to both counts.

Vevo’s reach is now 123% the size of the catchup TV properties combined.

1) Music vs TV

Vevo is about music videos. It’s not show prgramming.

But you can argue – hey, what is it that is taking up Australia’s attention? and sure, it’s fine to say people are moving away from (catch-up) TV, and we have more options. But those options include YouTube. And Angry Birds. And any streaming video. (I recently watched a great hour long interview Conan did with the Simpsons creators. It was awesome).

Australia’s streaming video options are pretty low. We don’t have Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go, BBC iPlayer or a myriad of other services. What we do have is a black screen and the words “this video is not available in your country” (including the odd Vevo video, to be fair).

Comparing a streaming video service to just catch up TV is to say bread sells more than caviar. Both can be eaten, but they are eaten for different reasons and different occasions. and this is catch-up TV – plenty of folks are still tuning into their TV sets.

Catch Up TV and Music Video – they don’t compare.

2) Reach

Reach is how many people you get to. Is it unique views? Or number of streams? Either way, the form of the content is so vastly different.

The last season premiere of doctor who had a record breaking 80k views on ABC iview. That took 80k man hours to watch. 80k views of Gangnam Style – that takes 6k man hours to watch. You can simply watch more videos.

Vevo themselves claim their average is 15 videos, and 60 minutes use a month. That means one TV show a month, is their average use. And so, the fair comparison, in per hour usage, the VEVO should be divided by 15. Suddenly Vevo’s time spent is 8.2% of the combined catch up TV channels. I can play with numbers too.

Reach is deceptive, when one player has lots of short content and the other has longfrom. It’s points counting, but comparing cricket runs to soccer goals.

So here’s the point. Vevo’s not wrong. They need to make money. But it’s these little bullshit press releases designed to get a cheap headline that really piss me off. Because misinformation ruins us. We could be so far ahead – we as Australians have such a thirst for technology. But big companies are misrepresenting us, and that showing of bullshit trickles down to us all. That a company like Vevo is willing to send out such an openly decieptive numbers, to try and get a cheap PR win, hurts us all. It poisons conversation. It skewers public perception. It’s a blatant lie.

Be careful of numbers – and whose behind them. 23% of statistics are made up anyway.

Jolly Coppers On Parade

This morning, the Police Association Of NSW issued a statement. The statement was in reaction to a story that has been picked up on the mainstream news. At the heart of it is a video of a young man involved in a scuffle with police.

There is a lot to be said, and probably will be said in the coming days, about the content of the video. I have my opinions, sure. But reading some of the press this morning, I feel more clearly disgusted at the Police Association’s statement.

Lets have a look at the statement from Scot Weber from the NSW Police Association.

The Police Association hasn’t seen the footage from the Mardi Gras yet, but in saying that, we need to go down the proper lines of investigation

We’ve seen time and time again where footage looks very adverse, such as we saw at the Sydney Cricket Ground, but then on proper investigation it was easy to highlight that the police officer’s actions were justified.

It is, frankly, an insult.

The Police Association hasn’t seen the footage from the Mardi Gras yet.

It is the most talked about video in Australia this morning. It’s on all the major news outlets. It directly concerns you and your employer.

When do you think you might get around to watching the video? Is the Internet down at the Police Association of NSW headquarters? How much time is allowed to lapse before you get around to watching it? I would think that’s the first thing you would do. How can you make a statement with such arrogant ignorance. To be proud of it.

Of course, it’s not that simple. He didn’t want to be questioned about the content of the video, and protected himself. It is the only thing that makes any sense. Which makes Weber a clear liar. Otherwise the NSW police can’t even type YouTube into their Google.

Or worse of all, they don’t even care to watch the video. Which leads us to this….

We’ve seen time and time again where footage looks very adverse … on proper investigation it was easy to highlight that the police officer’s actions were justified

This first of this two line statement was an awful lie. The second is truly scary. They’ve passed judgement.

Go back to sleep everyone. Shut up. Turn your computers off. Move along. Fuck off.

They haven’t seen the footage, but they know how it’s going to go. Well, Mr Weber, h about Rodney King? What, there’s no correlation between Rodney King and this? My bringing it up just poisons the conversation in one particular way? Yes.

How about those hidden cameras of corrupt NSW cops taking bribes from over a decade ago? Is that relevant?

It’s different cops, different situation, different case. You aren’t even entertaining the thought of judging or investigating this on its own merits. Has the NSW Police taken a stand to disregard any consumer video footage as evidence? And is this policy? I would like these questions answered.

But I would imagine Mr Weber could be presented with the Rodney King beating and say “we’ve seen time and time again…”. And not even watch the footage. It could be a video of a police officer jerking off into the face of a puppy. How the hell would Weber know?

Our culture has a long history of people protesting films, music or more, from reactionary groups who have never even seen it. I think it’s clear that we all think that is not the best part of us as humans. An awful part of us that the NSW Police are embodying, this morning at least.

Who knows what will happen with the video. I am going to be extremely forgiving and say this. It was most likely a heightened situation. And on both sides, any wrongs, were not premeditated, likely regrettable and ultimately forgivable.

But to make a planned statement that is deliberately, wilfully and belligerently ignorant, and to pass judgement on the case already, is an insult. If there is police brutality, ever, it’s your help we, the community, need.

Haven’t you ever seen Serpico?

The Reservations – Victorias

I’ve been sitting on this album for a while. I figure putting it out there might be the thing to do. Recorded over a year ago with friends and members of what has become the loose collective of The Reservations.

The songs were written and about my time in London. It was supposed to be a very long album, but in the end became a very short album. Anyway, enjoy. For the record, I think the song Strummer has some pretty good lyrics.

Top 10 Films of 2012

1. Cabin In the Woods

Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard created a mini masterpiece. Hilarious, scary and about the art of film itself, it questions what we love about violent films. A bunch of teenagers set out on a camping trip in a cabin, and they are soon attacked….but by what? and why? It’s a horror for those who hate horror, with the two funniest performance of the year from Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford. Also two of the most holy shit moments of the year – one involving a motorbike, the other a big button. But anything more is spoiling this wonderful puzzle of a film.

2. Holy Flying Circus

Another fun film with a really strong message. A BBC telemovie about the banning of Life Of Brian, it is a Monty Python film about Monty Python. It is, of course, hilarious, and the performances – Darren Boyd as John Cleese in particular – are perfect. I love letter to Monty Python, but also a stand against this culture of offense that we are trapped in. The film asks – why can’t we be offensive? In the era of oublic apologies for Tiger Woods, David Petraeus and the Jonathan Ross fiasco – should we give a shit that people get offended? Are people who get offended inherently shit? We need offensive humour more than ever, and a reminder that people are often stupid and we should rally against the idiots.

There’s no trailer so here’s a key clip.

3. Moonrise Kingdom

I love Wes Anderson, and the films that people don’t like, I love. So it’s weird to see one that everyone likes, which has all the elements of Anderson that people usually hate. It’s perhaps the sweetness of the story – two kids on island runaway and build their own fantasy life – while the adults around them fall apart. It’s high fantasy, on an Amelie-esque level, but it works perhaps it’s easier to swallow when it’s a kid’s fantasy. Anderson is on fire – the scene where Sam and Suzy write letters – is the kind of thing that only Anderson can pull off.

4. 21 Jump Street
This is the funniest film of the year. This is Zoolander/Anchorman level humour. Every second line is awesome, dozens upon dozens of laugh out loud moments. There’s no reason for this film to be this good. But every cliche is popped, but it’s a well made teen drama action thing. It doesn’t blow minds like Cabin In the woods, but it’s just funny. Channing Tataum, who I’ve never seen before, is the funniest thing in the film. And the greatest cameo of the year. Put it on, turn your mind off a little and just laugh.

5. We Bought A Zoo

I saw this on a plane, on my own, thinking a lot about people dying. And Cameron Crowe, for better or worse, can really tap into heart strings. Based on a true story about a family dealing with loss by buying a zoo, it’s a family film with cute kids and cute animals. But above all that is those moments that make Cameron Crowe such a crowd pleaser. When Matt Damon explains how he met his late wife, it’s one of the more heartbreaking and sweet scenes you’ll ever see. The film goes exactly where you expect – it’s happy, quiet heroism. But done really well and again, much better than it needed to be.

6. The Master

Long, rambling, and there’s no story to speak of. But it’s brilliant. Always captivating, every frame is a winner, and nailed down by Joaquin Phoenix, who I normally hate, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Phoenix in particular is totally lost in his character. For my part, it is the struggle for control – a man who wants the world to bend to his image, and the impossibility of people being tamed. As much as it’s denied by the filmmakers – it is a tale about religion, and the struggle of religion. Weird, wonderful and you hold your breath the whole time.

7. The Avengers

In a lot of ways, the fact this film exists is a miracle. It’s easy to pull apart the elements that don’t work, but it terms of pure superhero joy, it doesn’t get better than this. A big colourful spectacle, with big laughs, air punching moments and just enough sophistication to lift it above the summer blockbuster. The praise for this film mainly comes from the fact it’s not utterly terrible. I’ve never loved the Avengers, or any of the films before it, but the pay off was completely worth it.

8. The Raid Redemption

A brilliant martial arts film. A group of police men raid a slum tower, hoping to get to the boss at the top. But they are trapped and the entire tower turns against them, and they have to fight their way out – or to the top. It’s one big video game of a film, but it’s the action – old school martial arts film with some of the most inventive fight scenes you’ll see this year. It’s never indulgent, very cool characters and a great ride of a film.

9. Hugo

This probably should be higher but it came out in January in Oz, and these kinds of lists are awlays tough on January stuff. A love letter to the silent era, it’s a fairy tale of a boy who lives in a Parisian train station, trying to build a clockwork robot. But it quickly turns the magic of robots into the technical magic of film. Surrounded by fun chracters, and set in a time and place that I love, it’s just a quiet thrill of a film.

10. To Rome With Love

I love Woody Allen, and I’m utterly biased. His humour just gets me, and as soon as he’s on screen, it lights up. The film is big and silly – four stories set in Rome that have little connection – but it’s chance for Rome to look pretty, some fun escapism, people looking sexy, and killer one liners. Nothing deep – it’s a throw back to Allen’s weird, funny films.

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 2

5. Craig Finn – Clear Heart Full Eyes

I started off on the wrong foot with this album. What to expect from a Craig Finn solo album? Would he follow his hero Springsteen and make that deep, searing Nebraska album? Or would he follow his hero Paul Westerberg and make a play at the pop charts? It’s none and it’s both. It’s Finn’s least serious, and most fun, album.

Which I guess I miss. I love the ‘important’ songs by the Hold Steady. Initially, it made this album feel slight. But maybe it’s not all about teenagers wallowing in their own doom. How can you not love the line “It’s hard to suck with Jesus in your band”?

And it’s the songs, man. The aforementioned ‘My New Friend Jesus’, the lonely ‘Rented Room’, the wonderful ‘Jackson’ and more. Finn is at his most tuneful – he’s almost singing! But it’s a fun, relaxed record – a talented writer enjoying not rocking out and making important statements. Rather he’s just singing a tune and telling a yarn.

4. fun. – Some Nights

Well, who would have thought it would all happen for Nate Ruess? Ten years, several label label deals and bands, he finally scored big with fun. It’s mainly off the back of one track, We Are Young, currently playing over your supermarket stereo. It’s a pretty good song, with a huge chorus. In fact, every song has a HUGE chorus. Once you get your head around it, it’s a lot of – well – fun.

There’s something really exciting about this album. It’s like Ruess had something to prove and he brought his A game. The second single ‘Some Nights’ is another killer. My favourite is ‘Why Am I The One?’. There’s shadows of Graceland going on here too. Big sing-alongs with world music rhythms.

Who knows where this will go. Could well be this year’s ‘Pretty. Odd’. A wonderful, one off aberration. Because after this, Ruess has nothing to prove.

We Are Young and Some Nights are probably overplayed, so here’s an acoustic version of Why Am I The One.

3. Jack White – Blunderbuss

Thank god for Jack White. When you look around at the music world, and you wonder what will last, you know you can count on Jack White. And having worn himself thin with all the collaborations, it’s great to hear his voice on it’s own.

He’s actually reined it in a bit. It’s not that far away from later White Stripes. It drifts from piano tinkering to full rock mode, but never once losing his sense of a tune and a great lyric. I mean, it’s Jack White, the guy can do it all.

It’s worth the wait for him to get it right. And he is someone else with nothing to prove. When Icky Thump was maybe trying to hard, Blunderbuss revels in it’s simplicity. It’s a directness that White hasn’t used in years, and it’s great to have it back.

2. The Shins – Port Of Morrow

He fired the whole band, and then started again. This album could have been anything. And guess what? It’s a friggin perfect album. Every track is a highlight.

It’s ever slightly more pop than ever before, but in some weird brittle 80s way. Songs like ‘No Way Down’ or ‘Fall Of ‘82’ are so pop. Then there’s the beautiful ballads – ‘It’s Only Life’ or ’40 Mark Strasse’. And some mid tempo rockers. It’s standard operating procedure for the Shins.

They haven’t reinvented the wheel but the wheel is so good, and I’m back on the ride.

1. Joel Plaskett Emergency – Scrappy Happiness

After a crazy, schizo triple album, it’s weird to get just ten songs for a Joel Plaskett album. But it’s so clear what he’s doing – making a fun guitar rock album. It’s been a long time since he’s been so fiery with his guitar. His lyrics and his voice are the best they’ve ever been. And the songs are stunning.

The album hangs off the rockiest rockers – all six-and-a-half minutes of Lightning Bolt, he’s best ever song and his masterpiece. You’re Mine, North Star and Tough Love are about as heavy and powerful as Plaskett’s ever gotten. It’s music that illicits a physical reacton – writing about it here feels odd.

There’s lovely slower songs that break it up. Each of them are lovely. But I can’t get over the rockers. And after all this time, I’m still enthralled by a fucking fun, sparkly, heavy rock record. Some things might never change.

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.

A Quick Site Update

A quick update regarding the site. Plenty of half finished blogs on various records that I will finish soon, but right now the site is taking a small break. I will however post a top 10 albums and movies for the year so far at the end of June.

There’s also a new digital project on the boil…. To be announced soon.