I never thought this would happen but I just couldn’t pick so we have a two-way tie for first.
Satisfyingly, the two albums sharing first place represent perhaps the two extremes of my taste, so there’s a pleasing symmetry.
Caitlin Rose’s debut album Own Side Now was something of a gem: classic country songwriting with enough ‘indie’ elements for the hipsters, and dominated by Rose’s amazing vocals – powerful without being overwraught, never resorting to warble or melisma. Here, Rose sounds even better, but a bigger budget means things have got fuller (great organ and brass, even some gospel-tinged backing vocals) without being remotely over-egged. There are covers, a collaboration with Gary Louris, even a loveable crack at Dixie jazz that works a treat. But mostly there is Rose with her solid gold songwriting and breathtaking voice and songs like No One To Call and Golden Boy that show up Shania and Taylor and the rest as shiny, empty clichés. – 5/5, Narc Review
01. Hey Colossus – Cuckoo Live Life Like Cuckoo (MIE)
This album is a fucking BEAST! 10 years after they formed, and a few months after they absolutely killed it at Supersonic, Hey Colossus are back with album number 8 and have clearly been re-energised by adding Tim ‘Every Great Noisy London Band Ever’ Cedar on drums. It’s lazy – but fun! – to think of Hey Colossus as simply the bastard spawn of The Butthole Surfers and Killdozer, but as Cuckoo… shows, there’s much more going besides arsequake noise (although there is PLENTY of that). Motorik epic How To Keep Time With Jesus sounds like Neu! down a K hole, Pit & Hope like a mutant Mogwai and Neanderthal opener Hot Grave is the very best kind of filthy riff nonsense. – 5/5, Narc Review
03. Bill Callahan – Dream River (Drag City)
I’m sure I’ve mentioned this before, but sometimes Bill Callahan’s albums slip past me. I barely remember listening to his last one Apocalypse. It’s not even like he’s as prolific as he used to be. But when I make time and really burrow into his albums, I generally get a bit obsessed about them. Dream River is no different. His lushest yet – flutes and strings and keyboards, flirting with a kind of jazzy sophistication that makes me nervous, in case a Steely Dan phase is in the offing, but really sounding warm and woody like early 70s Van Morrison. And Callahan’s voice is richer and deeper than ever. Then there’s the lyrics, some of the very best he’s ever written. Summer Painter reads like a short story. It IS a short story.
I painted names on boats for a summer
For luck, you keep the same first letter
You don’t want, you don’t want, you don’t want bad luck at sea
Rich Man’s Folly and Poor Man’s Dream
I painted these while beavers built dams all around me
And come September, come Fall
Holding a job was not believable behavior at all, so I split
But like a beaver is a dam builder, you never really quit
I made some dough and I socked it away
I always said for a rainy day
I never truly knew who I was working for anyway
The rich or the poor?
Who am I working for?
The rich or the poor?
When the hurricane hit
Some found it suspicious that I’d just since left the frame
Like all that time spent down by the water
Had somehow given me control over the rain
And some people say wrongly that I’ve wash things away
Guess I got my rainy day
Like a sorcerer’s cape!
The rain ripped the lips
Off the mouth of the bay
And rendered the eye
And sleighted the hand
And tricked the land
And blew the air away
Then came a quiet
No one should know
Rich Man’s Folly and Poor Man’s Dream
I’m painting these while beavers build dams all around me
04. The Ex & Brass Unbound – Enormous Door (Ex Records)
30-plus years in, The Ex are still finding fresh ways to be fantastic. This album of brilliantly uplifting punk jazz skronk feels like the ultimate iteration of what the Ex of recent years has been about: celebratory, angry, angular and joyful.
Fuck it, have an entire gig.
05. Low – The Invisible Way (Sub Pop)
The Invisible Way sees Low moving further than ever from their ‘sadcore’ reputation and lot of that seems to be down to working with Tweedy. “We went through to Chicago last spring and stopped by and he was working on some tracks for the new Mavis Staples record, and hearing the tracks – how raw and minimal the arrangements were – that brought it all together. And I asked him right there. It’s kind of a recording trick to keep something truly as it was and not have to mess with it too much. Not a lot of engineers can do it.” I suggested that, to very different effect, previous producer Steve Albini works in a similar way. “Definitely. It’s very much that idea of capturing the sound the way it really is, and as much as Steve comes across as an extremist about that, it really is a beautiful aesthetic. And once you have that as a basis, you really have a lot of freedom and can be really creative.”
- my Narc interview, March
And then later in the year, the kind of validation that must make any songwriter feel on top of the world, this happened:
06. Future Of The Left – How To Stop Your Brain In An Accident (Prescription)
(another signed copy, biatches)
All the best reviews tend to start with a grandiose statement, a gauntlet thrown down. So how about “Future Of The Left are the best guitar band in Britain and the best Welsh band ever”?
Somebody once asked me to describe what Future Of The Left sounded like and, being drunk, the best I could manage was ‘a cross between Shellac and Half Man Half Biscuit’ and I’m not sure that’s so far off the mark. Their new, brilliant, crowd-funded fourth album How To Stop Your Brain In An Accident is full of songs that are exactly that: taut, precise, bass-heavy hardcore tracks married to some of the most splenetic, witty and brilliantly furious lyrics I’ve ever heard. They’ve been a powerful, blistering four piece for the last couple of albums, with Julia Ruzicka’s bass a highlight ever since, achieving that perfect Bob Weston low end rumble. But of course, Future Of The Left aren’t content with being just a top notch hardcore band (although they definitely are that). As ever, the album is packed full of odd touches and curious tangents: the sweet harmonies of I Don’t Know What You Ketamine, the almost Mogwai-esque ballad French Lessons, the newsreader delivery of state of the nation address Singing On The Bonesaws, which is the centrepiece of the album – 5 minutes of loathing, sarcasm and scathing wit delivered in Falkous’ best RP diction. Kicking off with swipes at the music industry (a regular FOTL target), it takes in celebrity paedophiles, Daniel Day Lewis and Kim Kardashian being chased by an angry bear. Half Man Half Biscuit have recorded some similar list-songs in the past, but whereas Nigel Blackwell tends towards petty frustrations and irksome minutiae, Falkous sounds like he’s ready to lay waste to the fucking lot and start over. And of course, Half Man Half Biscuit don’t rock this hard.
Joe Orton once said “cleanse my heart – give me the ability to rage correctly”. I have no idea about the condition of Falkous’ heart, but by God his rage is perfect. 5/5 – Narc Magazine
07. Sleaford Mods – Austerity Dogs (Harbinger Sound)
“The original blueprint (of Sleaford Mods) from 2006 still stands and I have adapted it from album to album. It helps that Andrew sorts the music. His tastes are different to mine but I like what he brings to it. It’s given it a new life. We aren’t a hip hop act at all. We are closer to rap I think, and rap’s got a planet all of its own.. Hip Hop relies on a stern beat structure and it’s become an historic medium. Rap, for me, is still fresh – it looks after Grime and the Rant and still has uncharted territory.” As for comparisons for his vocal delivery, names like John Cooper Clarke, Mark E Smith and Steve Ignorant from Crass get bandied around a lot. Just don’t compare him to Mike Skinner: “I don’t like the Streets comparisons much, a lot of Mike Skinner’s work has dated really badly… he didn’t take care of it very well. People always use the excuse that when you make it you run out of things to say. I disagree, I ain’t made it so to speak, but the struggle never ends. No amount of reward can bury that surely? There is hell in everything and it needs to be pointed at.” - Narc interview, November
08. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Push The Sky Away (Bad Seed)
I didn’t get Push The Sky Away at first. I liked it, but it seemed like a minor Bad Seeds album. Only when I saw the songs performed live this year – at Glastonbury and Edinburgh – did it fall into place. Especially Jubilee Street – very good on the album, absolutely fucking raging live. This still isn’t in the very top flight of Cave’s work but it’s magnificent nonetheless.