Thursday, 24 December 2015

My Top Ten Albums of 2015 - Number One

Shoo-do-bop-bop, shoo-do-bop-bop...

We need more shoo-do-bop-bops in contemporary popular music, of that I have know doubt at all.

My very first thought on hearing John Grant was realising a new album... Will it be as good as Pale Green Ghosts? Will it be my album of the year (as that was in 2013)? Can he do it again?

The weight of too much expectation is never a good thing when it comes to judging new music. When an artist delivers an album that makes us laugh, cry and see the world in a different way, they're damned when it comes to the follow up. So while Grey Tickles isn't quite the album Green Ghosts was, it's still an amazing piece of work from an artist with one of the most individual and entertaining voices in music.

The record opens (and closes) with the popular Corinthians wedding reading, "Love is patient, love is kind..." and certain tracks suggest that Grant is a little more happy and settled in his love life than on the previous album...
Sure, I like to see the fellas
Skateboard in their Vans
Stripped down to their shorts
So they can work on their tans
I know I shouldn't care
'Cause I'm a taken man
But I guess you can look
Nobody said that you can't...
That's from Global Warming, a typically sly and witty JG number in which he also wonders how he can possibly live in a world without Madeline Kahn (to be honest, I didn't even know she was dead, but it was 16 years ago, so you'd think he'd be over it by now) before complaining that "global warming is ruining my fair complexion". I found myself wondering if this was the kind of song Morrissey might write if he'd finally step out of the closet and lighten up a bit. We'll probably never know.

So, yes, there are love songs here. Most notably Disappointing (with guest vocals from Tracy Thorn) in which Grant lists everything he finds disappointing "compared to you"...
Frances Bacon
And the Dolomites
Ballet dancers
With or without tights
Central Park on an Autumn day
Will always be stunning
And never cliche...
"There's nothing more beautiful than your smiles as it conquers your face" is a cliche, but one written and delivered with the punch of poetry. And that's what makes Grant stand out as the best lyricist of the 21st Century.

Elsewhere, he brings the lust on Snug Slacks, coming on like a gay Prince and out-camping both the Scissor Sisters and Stephin Merritt in the process. It is the filthiest song you'll hear all year (yes, I know I said that was Philomena by The Decemberists... but I had to reconsider), but also one of the funniest, particularly when John tries to woo his fella by getting him tickets to see Joan Baez...
Oh, I guess I misunderstood
I've never heard of Joan As Policewoman
But I do love me some Angie Dickinson
And let's be clear: Joan Baez makes
GG Allin look like Charlene Tilton
OK, so the references are pretty obscure, but if you get them, you'll be howling. And if you don't, it really doesn't matter: it's all in the delivery.

And then comes Voodoo Doll, the finest 'cheer up, it'll be all right' song you'll hear this year. If only we could use a voodoo doll to make our sad friends feel better as John does here. It'd be a much more positive use of creole magic than sticking pins in your enemies...
I made a voodoo doll of you
Then I gave it some chicken soup
Did you feel any warmth down deep inside?
Did you feel how your blues went away and died?
However, if you think all this means John has left behind the arch bitterness and cynicism that marked much of his previous work, you can rest assured you'll find plenty of that here too: most notably on the stunning You And Him (featuring Amanda Palmer: damn, but he sure knows how to pick his collaborators) in which he suggests a new beau for his ex-boyfriend...
You and Hitler oughta tie the knot
You could do it at Taco Bell
To spice up the plot
Get on the phone
And call your buddy Pol Pot
You could play some Twister
And watch Heavy Metal Parking Lot
(I had to google Heavy Metal Parking Lot to check if it was a real thing or just the product of Grant's wicked imagination. I'm not sure which would have been better. Sadly, although it does exist, it's not a reality show where Lemmy, Lars and Clownface from Slipknot work as valet parking attendants... with hilarious consequences. But it ought to be.)

I could go on, but the fact that I could write about - and heavily quote - just about every track on this album should be enough to convince me. John Grant has done it again. He may have Grey Tickles (an Icelandic expression for middle age) and Black Pressure (Turkish for nightmares) but he'll forever have my respect and admiration.

Now I'm really scared about his next record...

And that was my year in music. Which of your favourites did I miss out? Do let me know. Happy Christmas. See you in '16.

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

My Top Ten Albums of 2015 - Number Two

Consistency can be a great thing, but it's also a little dull to write about. Earlier this year, Frank Turner released his sixth studio album, and it was no better nor worse than any of the previous ones. Which is to say that it was uniformly excellent throughout: inspirational and life-affirming, lyrically rewarding and fist-pumpingly anthemic. In a just and sane world, Frank Turner would be a household name rather than a well-kept secret indulgence. Still, I think he's probably quite happy doing his own thing with the support of a devoted army of worshippers (a little too zealous for some: a Turner gig can be a daunting prospect for anyone who's only casually acquainted with his back catalogue, especially when everyone else knows every lyric and wears the best of them as tattoos).

As an album on its own, Positive Songs For Negative People does exactly what it says on the tin. If 2013's Tape Deck Heart was his heartbreak disc, this is the recovery record. Virtually every song is about coming out the other side and getting on with your life, and if you were to boil the whole record down to one lyric it would be this...
I'm trying to get better, because I haven't been my best
She took a plain black marker, started writing on my chest
She drew a line across the middle of my broken heart and said,
"Come on now, let's fix this mess..."
We can get better - because we're not dead yet.
Nothing can defeat Frank Turner on this album - from heartbreak to demons to a particularly tough tennis opponent... to death itself. Yes, as he reveals on Silent Key, he's not even worried about the big sleep, not since the secrets of the afterlife were revealed to him via ham radio when he was four years old. He even manages to write a tribute to a suicidal old friend and remain positive. I think I'm going to keep this CD in the car permanently; then, whenever I've had a bad day, I can put it on and get better... because we're not dead yet.

Which brings us to Number 1, perfect for lovers of voodoo, tickles and matching sweaters. My wish, granted.

Monday, 21 December 2015

My Top Ten Albums of 2015 - Number Three

Most of the artists on this list are my age or even older, but the combined age of the guys in Slaves is probably younger than all of them. Which is reassuring to an old muso who thinks he might be falling completely out of touch with teenage pop culture. Circa Waves, The Bohicas, Drenge, Wolf Alice... there's been a brace of interesting new guitar bands this year (let's face it: there is every year, though they rarely trouble the mainstream any more) but Slaves are by far the most exciting.

On the surface, they follow that minimalist guitar 'n' drums approach that worked for The White Stripes, adding lashing of snotty, punky attitude and most important of all, two things that are missing from the majority of contemporary chart music (pay attention James Bay, et al.): A SENSE OF HUMOUR and SOMETHING TO SAY.

Everything kicks off with the wonderfully belligerent The Hunter in which Laurie & Isaac (not the most punk rock names, but in their own strange way they're more punk rock than Johnny Rotten ever was) bemoan the "experts" who are making money out of global warming before spitting out their mission statement...
The feeling is mutual 
You don't like what we do 
Because we say what we are thinking 
And that shocks and frightens you
Next comes a long-awaited dig at the capital... with the indisputable Video of the Year (see below).
Cheer up, London
It's not that bad
Cheer up, London
You're already dead and it's not that bad
Cheer up, London
It's not that bad
Cheer up, London
It's really really not that bad, is it?
How can it be
So bad
When you're already dead?
I've already featured track 3, the glorious Sockets (The Clash meets The Evil Dead), but shortly after that comes the sublime Do Something in which the band turn all Tyler Durden on our asses before forgetting their own second verse. 
Your worries and your fears
Manipulating you
The ringing in your ears
Is self-inflicted, too
Doing damage to your health
To get the instant fix
It really is incredible
How people get their kicks
Looking at the floor
Won't get no answers there
The product in your hair
Or her lacy underwear
Are you happy?
Or are there things that could be done?
Whether you're midway through the process
Or you haven't yet begun, come on!!!
And there's what surely must be the Student Anthem of the year: Wow!!! 7AM. (They can't remember the last time they saw that time of day.)

To be honest, the second half of the album can't quite live up to Side A, but it doesn't matter. Slaves did more to grab me by the throat on those first seven songs than any other band of urchins or whippersnappers this year... and I have high hops for their future.
You're not stuck in traffic...
You ARE traffic.
Do not overtake on a bend.

Next, at Number 2, let's be frank: plenty of pluses and no minuses at all.

Saturday, 19 December 2015

My Top Ten Albums Of 2015 - Number Four

It's been a while since I paid much attention to The Decemberists. The Crane Wife was an excellent album but that was nearly ten years ago now and they'd slipped of my radar a little since then. I'm not even sure why I bought What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World... I quite liked Make You Better when I heard it on 6Music, but I think it's probably the name of the record itself which tipped me over the edge and got me to give it a shot. Rarely has an oxymoron been so true.

The record opens with a sly wink to the band's devoted fanbase, particularly anyone who thinks about criticising their new stuff as "not as good as the old stuff".
We know, we know we belong to ya.
We know you built your lives around us.
But we had to change some...
You know, to belong to you.
In its own way, it's as sarky as the Manics singing 'You Love Us', but this is a much older (and wiser?) band, with very little of the piss and vinegar Nicky, Ritchie and James Dean had on their debut. Then comes the second single, 'Cavalry Captain', the closest thing to The Crane Wife here: it's folk with a capital F, but still poppy as hell. Things really start to get interesting with 'Philomena' though, probably the muckiest song I've heard all year, it's a Shakespearian ode to cunnilingus. Fantastic.

Elsewhere, songwriter Colin Meloy is still in thrall to Morrissey on 'Lake Song'...
And I, seventeen and terminally fey
I wrote it down and threw it all away
And never gave a thought to what I'd paid.
And you, all sibylline, reclining in your pew
You tattered me and tethered me to you
The things you would and the things you wouldn't do...
To tell the truth, I never had a clue.
'Reel Around The Fountain', anyone?

Then there's 'Better Not Wake The Baby', no doubt inspired by the early months of his second child, Milo Cannonball Meloy (kudos), addressing an issue you don't often hear rock star dads singing about: the difficulty of practising your vocation in a house with a young child...
How long will this go on? 
How long indeed?
Bang your drums till the money's all gone
But it better not wake the baby!
The album's title comes from the penultimate track, 12/17/12. Written in reaction to the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, it finds Meloy holding on tighter to his own son to shield him from the horrors of the world... without depriving him of its beauty. Maybe that's why I liked this record so much: it's not an album for teenagers, it's an album for parents. Embrace middle age!

(Plus they got Ron Swanson to star in their video.)

Next, the Top 3 kicks off with a pair of yobboes who left me feeling very satisfied. 

Thursday, 17 December 2015

My Top Ten Albums of 2015 - Number Five

Midway through Belly of the Whale, the eighth track on Guy Garvey's debut solo album, the jazzband accompanying him break into an off-kilter rendition of George Michael's A Different Corner. As well as being a crafty wink at the moment when a frontman finally goes it alone, this jaunty little intermission also sums up perfectly what's so refreshing about Courting The Squall: it's the sound of Guy letting his hair down.

When asked earlier this year why the time was right for a solo album, Guy explained it away jokingly as a mini mid-life crisis, but also revealed that because every Elbow album is a negotiation with the entire band, each song meticulously crafted to perfection, there was no way to become more prolific with those guys. So while Elbow will continue at their own pace (indeed, this year they've released some of their best material to date, albeit not as an album: The Lost Worker Bee EP was a glorious 4-tracker, while What Time Do You Call This?, the theme to a Simon Pegg romcom, was their best single since One Day Like This), a solo career also allows Garvey the opportunity to get a few more songs out of his brain and into the world before he "dies".

There's a freedom to the tracks on this record then that you might not find amid the shimmering beauty of an Elbow album. Sounding at times like 80s Peter Gabriel with a splash of Paul Simon, Garvey experiments with world music, jazz and orchestral pop (plus a wonderfully smoky Cole Porter impersonation on Electricity)... but however he dresses them up, his lyrics still shine with pure poetry. I have a theory that Guy keeps a notebook at his bedside where he collects "Words you don't often hear in pop songs": and then, he puts them to work. And so we get lines like these...
Love came down like a cooling tower...

Life stands still at an unmanned till...
In the hills it's an overcoat colder
(Courting The Squall)
And I'm flip and indignant and then again, ten again
Your voice is an opium smoke plume
And the room melts away in a velvet irrelevance
(Harder Edges)
Elsewhere you'll find gingerly, barnacles, Tupperware and Eton Mess, but my favourite verse comes in Juggernaut...
Years on, in a winter cafe window
Proper Hopper in the hurry home gloom
As the tail lights spidered through
You were cursing the folly of a three dollar brolly
In your after work make-up and still-at-work shoes
When you blustered through the room...
Which is as good a verse as Simon Armitage ever wrote - and I'm a huge Simon Armitage fan.

Next, at Number 4, the end of the year brings both beautiful and terrible things...

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

My Top Ten Albums Of 2015 - Number Six

The older you get, the more you lament the fact that "they don't make 'em like they used to"*. And you recall the albums of your youth with a deeper fondness than they deserve in some cases. But the artists in questions (if they're still around) are either shadows of their former selves, or they've grown and matured (and their sound has done the same). When I was younger, I loved 70s & 80s American rock - obviously Bruce and Steinman-era Meat Loaf, but also John Cougar Mellencamp, Tom Petty, Bob Seger and, yes, even Bon Jovi. None of those guys make records today that sound like the ones they made in the 80s (with the possible exception of Jon BJ, but he really needs to grow up), and I didn't expect to ever hear a new record from a younger artist that reminded me of those days...

...until I came across Will Hoge. Although Hoge is classed as a country artist, his latest album is deeply rooted in 80s American rock, so I shouldn't have been surprised to discover he's exactly the same age as me. (So... not that young, then, but not in his 60s like most of the guys named above.) He's obviously raided his record collection to create Small Town Dreams, but the occasional sense of homage doesn't stop this being one of the catchiest albums I've heard all year.

The album opens with a classic Springsteen sentiment turned on its head. Here, the small town teenager who was so desperate to escape the sticks returns home older and wiser, and proud to have "grown up around here". Track 2 nails Hoge's plan with a title referenced above (*)...
Story after story
Of all your faded glory
Is all I ever hoped to live up to
I know as I get older
I'm standing on your shoulders
Trying to be just like you...
But they don't make them like they used to
'Better Than You' is the track that introduced me to Hoge (courtesy of Bob Harris), although vocally he sounds more like Elvis Costello on this one (admittedly, Elvis in his Americana phase). Americana is the word here, from the small town snapshots of 'Middle Of America' to the best song Jon Bon Jovi never wrote ('Guitar Or A Gun' - full of Jovi-isms, right down to a guest appearance from Jesse James). If occasionally the record slips into pastiche ('Just Up The Road' opens with the title followed by '...there's a road that leads to another road'... which almost sounds like the Flight of the Conchords doing Springsteen), it's forgivable when the standard is set so high elsewhere. The closing track, 'Til I Do It Again' starts out like 90s Bruce but then kicks into a tongu-in-cheek Steinman-esque chorus that Meat Loaf would kill to get his hands on in 2015...
Oh my, hear the church bells ring
Saturday night spilled into Sunday again
Tell you I'm sorry and I know it's a sin...
It's the last time I do it... 'til I do it again
 So, no, they don't make 'em like they used to. But every now and then... they come damned close.

Next, Number 5... including a Wham! tribute with plenty of elbow grease...

Sunday, 13 December 2015

My Top Ten Albums of 2015 - Number Seven

I've been a fan of Craig Finn's band The Hold Steady and their thrift-store Springsteen routine for a number of years now, but I had started to wonder if they were going off the boil a bit, particularly on last year's patchy effort Teeth Dreams. So I was pleasantly surprised by just how much I enjoyed Finn's second solo album, which might well have been subtitled Ten Songs In Search Of A Good Lawyer.

Finn's songs always gravitate towards the seedier side of town where people live their lives on the edge, but this is his grittiest offering yet: ten short stories that come on like Raymond Carver meets Dennis Lehane.

The opening track finds its narrator scouring the south western States looking for his missing boy (who, it's hinted, may have committed an unspeakable crime) and going off the rails himself when he gets involved with a Waco-esque cult.

And then there's Christine, a love song to a woman with really awful taste in men.
She went to Memphis
With some dentist
That she met on
Some weird website
She came back
Three days later
She couldn't speak for a week.
You've got to feel bad for poor, love-struck Craig when she tells him, 'You're such a good guy.' That's gotta hurt.

The album's full of semi-tragic heroines, from Christine to Sandra From Scranton ("She's got medical reasons for all these prescriptions") to poor old Sarah, Calling From A Hotel. He hasn't heard from her in nearly a year, when out of the blue she phones him from a hotel to apologise for how they ended. And then, before she hangs up, she tells him...
Here he comes
Oh god, I gotta go.
Here he comes
He's got a gun.
I gotta go.
Despite all this darkness (and, as in a lot of Hold Steady songs, lashings of Catholic guilt), there's a morbid wit at work here. Most notably on the final track, which features yet another beleaguered female protagonist, although the title keeps reminding me of that sketch from The Day Today in which Steve Coogan plays a nighttime swimming pool supervisor...

Next, at Number 6, small town dreams come true on a flashback to the very best of 80s rock...

Friday, 11 December 2015

My Top Ten Albums of 2015 - Number Eight

Although I didn't get into last year's much-acclaimed Sun Kil Moon album, Benji, until early 2015, I'd now rate it as a classic of 2014. So I was very much looking forward to Mark Kozelek's next record, Universal Themes, which dropped in the middle of this year. It had a very hard job to maintain the heartbreaking and hilarious standard of Benji - an exercise in autobiographical songwriting unlike anything I'd ever heard before - and to be honest, it doesn't really come close. But it's still a good record if you try not to make the comparison.

The obvious problem with Universal Themes is that, despite its title, it really has no theme. Whereas Benji was ultimately a meditation on growing older and losing people unexpectedly (following a series of - at times, bizarre - bereavements among Kozelek's social circle), this record really does sound like pages ripped from his rambling, stream-of-consciousness diary. There's very little to connect them beyond the songwriter's starkly confessional and wry, occasionally abrasive, outlook on life.

The album opens with the author stumbling across an old, injured possum in his yard and attempting to nurse it back to health. Then he goes off to see the band Godflesh playing live in San Francisco and leaves the possum with his girlfriend but the poor animal eventually dies and both Mark and Caroline are sad. Rambling? Yes. But there's still something here. Some truth, about life, that you rarely hear in a pop song. And that's pretty much the whole album in one song.

Elsewhere in the diary, Kozelek plays himself in a Swiss film (and resists getting off with the make-up girl), gets upset because a band doesn't play his favourite songs at a concert, meets Jane Fonda in a hotel lobby, sacks a band member and feels bad about it, discovers that he has the same embarrassing phone as a famous nuclear physicist, and name-drops everybody from Powers Boothe to Eric Clapton, Jimmy Buffet to Gomez, Aleister Crowley to Mick fuckin' Jagger. Oh, and the possum makes a comeback. Sort of.

No, it's not as good as Benji. But you still won't hear another record that sounds anything like it this year.

Next, at Number 7, Craig holds steady to his faith in the future.

Wednesday, 9 December 2015

My Top Ten Albums of 2015 - Number Nine

The Dude abides. The Dude is my hero. The Dude can do no wrong.

But that doesn't mean I agree with everything The Dude says... and there is one area in particular in which I just cannot agree with him.

"Not the Eagles, man. I hate the fuckin' Eagles."

And I know it's not just The Dude. It's a popular opinion, particularly among snobbish musos... but I for one love The Eagles, and I have a special fondness for their drummer - surely the greatest singing drummer in the history of rock? Surely only Dave Grohl can offer him any competition? Who else are you going to suggest? Ringo? Collins!? Maybe Father John Misty...

Anyway, Henley released a couple of my favourite albums of the 80s, but he's been pretty quiet of late. In fact, Cass County is his first record in 15 years (the kind of statistic that makes me and my record collection feel very old). Still, as soon as I heard the debut single, Take A Picture Of This, on the radio, I knew very little had changed.

Let's put it like this: he's still got that voice. And he can still tell a damned good story.

Much hullaballoo was made around the time of Cass County's release that this was "Henley's country record"... but the Eagles were always a country rock band... and although there are fine collaborations here with the likes of Miranda Lambert, Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams and Merle Haggard (not to mention Mick Jagger), much of the record sounds like classic Henley. Take A Picture... could easily be an out-take from his 80s highlights The End of the Innocence or Building The Perfect Beast.

Although some of the tracks do veer closer to old-style country than he's ventured before, they all tell very affecting stories - many from the perspective of a seasoned 60-something, which is not a voice you hear a lot of in rock songs (despite the fact that many classic artists are now that age and older). Take A Picture... is told from the perspective of a man looking back on a long marriage (with a sting in its tail); That Old Flame finds an older guy flirting with the possibility of rekindling a long-dead romance; Train In The Distance (not the Paul Simon song) has a Stephen King-esque quality to its childhood nostalgia.

Henley was always well known for his political activism - both in his lyrics and in his support of the Democratic party - and the angry young man still has something to say at 68, especially on tracks like No, Thank You and The Cost of Living.

Finally, there's a couple of stand-out short stories that deserve repeated readings. Waiting Tables and Praying For Rain prove Henley can still turn his imagination to lives outside the world of a grumpy old Eagle.

A very satisfying return, then - let's not leave it another 15 years, eh, Don?

"Yes, The Eagles, Dude. I love the fuckin' Eagles."

Next, at Number 8, a rambling lunatic reads the entire contents of his diary onto record. 

Monday, 7 December 2015

My Top Ten Albums of 2015 - Number Ten

I think it's fair to say Courtney Barnett is an acquired taste, and (I, at least) had to work hard to acquire it. Her first collection, the double EPs released as an album called Sea of Split Peas last year, was intermittently intriguing, but a little too abrasive and hard to fathom at times. I figured the same would apply to her debut album proper, Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit (extra points for quoting Winnie The Pooh), and at first it seemed like my prediction would be right on the nose. But I persevered and, slowly, this record revealed its true charms. And now I think Courtney can count me as a fan.

Like a lot of the artists in my Top Ten of 2015, Courtney Barnett is a storyteller who also happens to sing and play a few instruments. But she's a writer first and foremost and if these stories didn't have a beat, I'd still want to read / hear them more than once. Take the opening track, Elevator Operator, in which a hard-luck twenty year old has a chance encounter with an older woman in rooftop elevator...
A lady walks in and waits by his side
Her heels are high and her bag is snakeskin
Hair pulled so tight you can see her skeleton
Vickers perfume on her breath
A tortoise shell necklace between her breasts
She looks him up and down with a botox frown
He's well used to that look by now
The elevator dings and they awkwardly step in
Their fingers touch on the rooftop button...
Was he going up there to jump? Was she? There are no easy answers.

Next, on the supremely self-deprecating Pedestrian At Best, Courtney explains the complexities of being in a relationship in ways that makes her sound totally schizophrenic... or just very, very honest...
I love you, I hate you, I'm on the fence
It all depends whether I'm up I'm down I'm on the mend 
Trendsetting on reality 
I like you, despise you, admire you
What are we gonna do when everything all falls through? 
I must confess I've made a mess of what should be a small success 
But I digress 
At least I've tried my very best 
I guess this, that, the other 
Why even bother? 
It won't be with me on my death bed but I'll still be in your head
'Put me on a pedestal, I'll only disappoint you,' she confesses in the chorus... and you begin to realise where those Morrissey comparisons are coming from.

As with a lot of great writers, Courtney's devil is in the details. She even manages to write a song about a sleepless night and make it fascinating...
I lay awake at three, staring at the ceiling
It's a kind of off-white, maybe it's a cream
There's oily residue seeping from the kitchen
It's art-deco necromantic chic, all the dinner plates are kitsch with
Irish Wolf Hounds, French baguettes wrapped loose around their necks
I think I'm hungry, I'm thinking of you too
Musically, she owes quite a bit to 90s American alt-rock. Think Pavement, Juliana Hatfield-era Lemonheads, Kim Deal. There's the same slacker ethos to her attitude as well, and a lot of dry, world-weary humour. Whether she's shopping for organic vegetables ('Dead Fox'), considering a move out to the Melbourne suburbs ('Depreston') or expressing the eternal party-goers dilemma ("I wanna go out but I wanna stay home" on 'Nobody Really Cares If You Don't Go To The Party') she always has something interesting to say and a unique perspective to say it with. She may ultimately disappoint me, but it's too late: the pedestal is hers.

Next, at Number 9, an old drummer sings for the first time in 15 years.

(No, it's not Collins.)

Saturday, 5 December 2015

My Top Albums of 2015 (20 - 11)

It's the time of year when everybody has to compile lists... for once, it's not just me.

2015 has been a fine year in music... if you know where to look. I've no idea what's happening in the mainstream anymore, and I've no idea what the musos will pick for their end of year lists. But it was easy enough to work out My Top Ten Albums of 2015.
Before I get onto those, here are a few also rans. Many fine records, worthy of note, if you're into this kind of thing... 

20. Paul Heaton & Jacqui Abbott - Wisdom, Laughter & Lines

Paul Heaton's long-awaited reunion with his former Beautiful South chanteuse easily made my Top Ten last year, so I'm not really sure why its follow-up barely scraped into this year's Twenty. I've been a Heato fan since the Housemartins, and while he rarely puts a foot wrong, this one didn't quite do it for me. He's long made a career contrasting catchy, upbeat, Radio 2 friendly melodies with arch, cynically caustic lyrics... that's exactly why I love him. However, Wisdom, Laughter & Lines occasionally felt like a step too far: the tunes just a little too perky, the lyrics just a little too wilfully obnoxious. It's most noticeable on Heatongrad, which frankly sounds like Chas 'n' Dave singing NWA. Ironically, the best song on here is the mock-Morrissey tune, Horse & Groom. Well, if Moz is too busy writing crap novels and sacking his record company to put out a new record, perhaps Heato can fill his old rival's shoes...

Top Track: Horse & Groom

19. Wolf Alice - My Love Is Cool

I still need to listen to this one a bit more, but what I've heard so far has convinced me this Elastica-esque four piece have a bright future. If indie guitar bands have any future at all, that is. Reminds me very much of the music I listened to twenty years ago, without being too derivative. A lot will be written about them by the cooler sections of the music press in the year end lists, so go read those guys if you want to know more. I'm just gonna turn them up and party like it's 1993.

Top Track: You're A Germ

18. Kacey Musgraves - Pageant Material

Now that Taylor Swift's gone all pop, Nashville needed another young female singer songwriter to carry her baton, and Kacey Musgraves seems made to order. Although this is her second mainstream album, she had self-released three before signing to a major label and at 27, she's actually 2 years older than Taylor. She's also much more of a rebel - her songs tend to be more outspoken, referencing drugs and teenage pregnancy while taking potshots at beauty pageants and the male-dominated music industry. She also sounds a lot more traditional country than many of her peers, with steel guitar, banjo and mandolin to the forefront.

Top Track: Family Is Family

17. Idlewild - Everything Ever Written

Idlewild were always one of my favourite post-Britpop guitar bands, but I'd long since given up hope of hearing anything new from Roddy Woomble and the boys.

Their first album in six years then was a welcome surprise, filled with the kind of tuneful and heartfelt Scottish indie anthems that made them 'famous' (and more of Woomble's fascinatingly evocative lyrics). The stand-out track was the album closer, Utopia, a haunting piano-based melody that promises much for the future path of this band... if they choose to follow it.

Top Track - Utopia

16. Public Service Broadcasting - The Race For Space

The second full PSB record is an elegy to the space race, and if anything is going to bring home to you how much of that is now ancient history - in an era where the most interstellar excitement we can get is the Mars Rover - this will do it.

As on their previous releases, PSB have raided the archives of the British Film Institute to provide the "lyrics" of their tracks. Rather than the old Public Information Films that made up much of the their last LP, they've used instead old news reports and actual recordings from the NASA control room.

The album sets its stall with JFK's inspirational speech about going into space "not because <it's> easy but because <it's> hard". After that we cross to the Soviet Union where the signal from Sputnik is used as the basis for a powerful piece of electronica, followed by a jazzy celebration of the world's first superstar cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin.

There's a massive shift in tone on track 4, built around a news report on the death of the Apollo 1 crew and backed by static and moody Vangelis-synths. It's a moving piece, so hard to listen to the band have refused to play it live, but it seems necessary to remember the lows as well as the high of the quest for space.

It's fair to say the second half of the record isn't quite as strong - though I have to applaud PSB for not going the obvious route and using Neil Armstrong's famous moon landing speech (or maybe they just couldn't afford it). However, while the first PSB record felt like a greatest hits collection with its magpie's eye and eclectic subject matter, here I found one subject (even one as vast as space travel) struggled to fill a whole album. It's still an extremely inspiring, affecting and, ultimately, sad listening experience... one that makes you long for the new hopes JFK outlined in his speech... while wondering whether we'll ever see those days again.      

Top Track: Gagarin

15. Eric Church - The Outsiders

My love affair with contemporary country grew deeper this year, even though none of my favourites (Brad Paisley, Blake Shelton, Lucinda Williams) released any new material. The one album I listened to more than probably any other this year was Shelton's ultra-catchy Bringing Back The Sunshine, but as that was released in 2014 it was ineligible for consideration in this list.

Anyway, I'd just about given up on anyone but Kacey Musgraves representing country here (there is, arguably, a country record in my Top Ten... but I'm the one arguing it's more a rock album) when Eric Church popped up with The Outsiders. I'd encountered Church before when he brought out his heart-punchingly catchy Springsteen tribute in 2011, but this was the first time he won me over with an entire album. He very much sees himself as the bad boy of 21st Century Nashville, and that's something he plays up more than ever before on this record, which - like Johnny and Waylon - finds the down 'n' and dirty ditch where country meets rock 'n' roll... and then kicks up a dust storm there. Especially on tracks like The Outsiders, Devil Devil and Dark Side. Most impressive of all though is his mission statement song, That's Damned Rock 'n' Roll, wherein he name-drops Hendrix, Joplin, The Clash and Nirvana...
It ain't a needle in a vein
It ain't backstage sex
It ain't lines of cocaine on a private jet
It ain't havin' a posse full of hangers-on following you around
It ain't long hair, tattoos, playin' too loud

It ain't a middle finger on a T-shirt, the establishment's tryin' to sell
It's a guy with the balls to tell the establishment to go to hell
It ain't about the money you make, when a record gets sold
It's about doin' it for nothin', 'cause it lives in your soul

That's damn rock and roll
Elsewhere, Church wants to have his cake and eat it. Roller Coaster Ride is as shamelessly poppy as anything Shelton's put out, while Talladega recalls the sweet sunset nostalgia of Springsteen (the song, if not the artist). Both are great songs, but they feel a little out of place on a record that's otherwise trying so hard to build a rebellious reputation.

Top Track: That's Damned Rock 'n' Roll

14. Brandon Flowers - The Desired Effect

There's no denying the fact that Brandon Flowers really, really, really wants to be a pop star. It's not enough being the lead singer of one of the biggest alt-pop bands of the 21st Century, he wants to be Bruce Springsteen too. Not the young and hip Born To Run Bruce or the old, respected Statesman of Rock Bruce we know today. No, Brandon wants to be Born In The USA-era Bruce. With a bit of Raspberry Beret-era Prince and True Blue-era Madonna thrown in. He wants to be a global megastar, a household name, a pop star of the kind they don't make any more... hell, the kind they haven't really made since 1985.

That's why he released his second solo album album, a record accompanied by the boast that "every song is a single". And to a large extent, he's telling the truth. Every track here is as shamelessly insincere and gloriously overblown and ridiculously catchy as the very best pop songs of my youth (though it turns out Brandon is 9 years younger than me, so why exactly he's so enamoured of my 13th year on the planet - when he would only have been 4 - I have no idea). But time has moved on, and the days of the global megastar are gone (Adele excepted), so The Desired Effect probably didn't have the desired effect for Brandon. For me, it worked just fine. Even the track where he steals the tune of Jimmy Sommerville's Smalltown Boy, almost as though he's being forced to admit his own failures. Still, while most of today's pop stars are lying in the gutters... Brandon keeps reaching for the stars.

Top Track: Dreams Come True

13. Father John Misty - I Love You, Honeybear

Josh Tillman isn't the only singing drummer to make my end of year list in 2015, though he certainly is the strangest. Plus, he's written probably my favourite opening verse this year on the eponymously crafty Top Track below...
Oh, I just love the kind of woman who can walk over a man
I mean like a god damn marching band
She says, like literally, music is the air she breathes
And the malaprops make me want to fucking scream
I wonder if she even knows what that word means
Well, it's literally not that... 
That's the kind of distinctively sarcastic lyric you'll find me praising very soon on this year's winning album, so I'm not sure exactly why Father John only made it to Number 13... except that I didn't fall for I Love You, Honeybear quite as much as I did for its predecessor, Fear Fun. And it didn't stay with me in the car as long as any of the records that follow. Maybe it's one to revisit in the New Year...

Top Track: The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our Apartment

12. Mercury Rev- The Light In You

For the first time in forever
I laid the needle down inside the groove
For the first time in forever
I held my breath, waiting for side two...
I'd just about given up on Mercury Rev. In fact, I didn't think I'd even bought their last album, 2008's Snowflake Midnight, although it turns out it did make its way into my collection somehow. Listening to it now, it confirms my growing problem with the band: they'd just become too twee. Too mystical and airy-fairy hippy-shit. Too bollocks.
Bands crash and people cry,
Everyone here is really shook
Trying hard, the kids can't shake it
You can't fool ol' Peter Hook

They really want to but they just can't fake it,
Trying hard to look old and worn
Facebook butterflies flap their wings and
Suddenly a Brooklyn band is born 
So I wasn't holding out much hope for The Light In You, and with a track-list including Queen of Swans, Amelie, Sunflower and Moth Light, it seemed my prejudices were about to be confirmed. What a relief then to find them returning to form with the kind of upbeat, singalong, life-affirming alt-pop songs that made Deserter's Songs and All Is Dream such wonderful records.

Lovely stuff.

Top track: Rainy Day Record

11. The Indelicates - Elevator Music

A new Indelicates album is always a source of great excitement in this house. This is the band who, with their debut single, created - if not my favourite song of the 21st Century, then certainly the one against which I measure all others. "I love it... but do I love it as much as We Hate The Kids?" The answer is invariably no.

Five albums in and things have changed a lot for Simon and Julia Indelicate. They're no longer the darlings of the blogosphere, as they were back in 2006/7. Those kids they hate won't ever hear their music nowadays... and neither will many other people, save the devoted few. They're not cool anymore (where they ever?) and despite running their own record label, and recently becoming parents, you get the feeling time has passed The Indelicates by. Which is one of the greatest tragedies in "popular" music, if you ask me. But you didn't, did you?

All that said, there's really nothing to stop them making their latest album another (totally unhip) concept album, based around a mind-stretching sci-fi story about "the singularity, virtual realities and the generation stuck between space ages". If nobody's listening, you can be true to yourself and do whatever you like: and thus is true art born.

Anyway, I've listened to this record quite a bit and while I don't quite agree with the band's pronouncement that it's their best yet (if I did, it'd be Number 1, not Number 11), it's certainly their most varied and experimental (the video below is "an immersive 360 degree spherical video" - which is kind of like watching a pop video on google earth... and just as annoying). While their last concept album, 2011's excellent David Koresh Superstar, shared Trey Parker and Matt Stone's unabashed loved of huge American musicals (along with a splash of the South Park boys' irreverent humour), this one goes for broke with earthy folk songs, lush piano instrumentals and (as on previous records) huge rock numbers that sit firmly in the Venn diagram intersection between Bertolt Brecht, Carter USM and Jim Steinman. Beyond the moments which echo Public Service Broadcasting's lamentation for the death of the space race, I've no idea what any of this is truly about, but it is the most honest and individual record you'll hear all year, completely unconcerned with the vagaries of fashion. A lot is written these days about the death of indie, but that's just hogwash. The true spirit of indie will live on as long as the Indelicates are making their own music their own way.

Go here to find out more... and then share the love with anyone else you can.

So, those were the records that would have been my favourites this year... if not for ten other, slightly better releases. I'll begin revealing what they were in just a couple of days...

I bet you can hardly wait.

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