Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Turn on the Christmas lights...

A homegrown melancholy festive moment for your delectation...

MP3: Last Night's TV - Christmas Lights

Visit the LNTV website

Best Albums of 2008

1. Elbow - The Seldom Seen Kid

2008 hasn't been a classic year for albums, but a handful of records stood out, none moreso than this brilliant set from Elbow. They've never convinced me over the course of an album before, despite a handful of tracks from each previous release making an impact. This time though, the heartfelt and powerful songwriting of tracks like One Day Like This, Bones Of You and the astounding Mirrorball have made this an essential listen.
MP3: Mirrorball
2. The Week That Was - The Week That Was

Last year's Field Music album was a great pop record, but it didn't give any clue as to the change in direction Peter Brewis would take next. While his brother David put out skewed experimental pop as School of Language, Peter made an 80s-tinged detective novel of an album, full of odd time signatures and cryptic lyrics but retaining his signature melodic nous. A true masterpiece.
MP3: Learn To Learn

3. Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes / Sun Giant EP

White Winter Hymnal is one of those songs where the first listen is like being transcended to a higher plane. Many subsequent listens haven't diminished even a bit of its brilliance, and it was fantastic to find the album and accompanying EP were full of similar moments. Stunning melodies and even better harmonies, seeing them do it live at the Brudenell in Leeds confirmed that this is truly a band who are going places.
MP3: White Winter Hymnal

4. Justin Currie - What Is Love For

A 2007 release but one I didn't get til this year, this is a truly jaw-dropping record, the kind that gives fresh life to the singer/songwriter tag. I have Del Amitri's Best Of and knew Currie was a good pop writer, but this collection shows a writer of hard-hitting, mature compositions, shown best on the title track and the heartbreaking Still In Love.
MP3: Still In Love

5. Josh Pyke - Chimney's Afire

A second full-length from Josh Pyke in the space of two years, and once again crammed with instantly memorable pop songs. Maybe not as great overall as Memories And Dust, but the formula is certainly working at full strength on tracks like The Summer, You Don't Scare Me and Eat Me Alive, where he's really perfected his own style.
MP3: The Summer

6. Tim Finn - The Conversation

Yet another cracker from Tim, but this time stripped-down chamber-pop, following on from the polished pop production of 2006's Imaginary Kingdom. The songwriting and voice are to the fore on these guitars/piano/violin arrangements, with a fine set of folky tunes to match. Proving once again that he never makes the same record twice, this style suits his current songwriting perfectly.
MP3: Straw To Gold

7. Robert Forster - The Evangelist

His first new material since the final (and best?) Go Betweens album Oceans Apart, The Evangelist finds Forster still firing on all cylinders, the little vignettes he's famed for making a welcome return. Add to that songs like the gorgeous Demon Days, which built upon ideas from the late Grant McLennan, and this is a stately if understated set.
MP3: Demon Days

8. Republic Tigers - Keep Color

I'd bracket the Republic Tigers in with bands like Guster, who on the surface are just a bunch of blokes making effortlessly melodic pop/rock, but once the songs get under your skin, they're hard to shake. Random Youtube surfing suggests they might not be much cop live, but on this wonderful album they're a fantastic proposition, particularly on tracks like Weatherbeaten and the brilliant Buildings & Mountains.
MP3: Buildings & Mountains

9. Captain Wilberforce - Everyone Loves A Villain

Leeds' primary (and only?) power-pop merchant released his second album this year, a fantastic set of songs that sound like what you might get were you to stick Squeeze, the Beatles and Jellyfish in a blender. Timeless pop melodies and a way with words mark him out as one to keep an eye on.
MP3: Confetti Champagne & Roses

10. Coldplay - Viva La Vida Or Death And All His Friends

Given that the last two Coldplay albums topped my Best Of polls in '02 and '05, I had high hopes for this one. So it was something of a letdown to find they've mostly abandoned their classic songcraft in favour of trying to be experimental. Saying that, Violet Hill and Viva La Vida are cracking tunes, so it wasn't a total waste.
MP3: Violet Hill

And the rest...

Aside from Captain Wilberforce, there was a fair bit of other good stuff coming out of Leeds this year. The Rosie Taylor Project's debut album This City Draws Maps is a mellow pop album centred around the brilliant single Black And White Films. Benjamin Wetherill made a top-notch folk record, Laura, in Hungary, making good on the promise of previous singles and EPs. Duels' second album, The Barbarians Move In, was an all-encompassing brooding monster of an album, taking the pop stylings of their debut and making something altogether darker and more sinister. A great collection, and in Regeneration they had one of the year's finer singles too. Originally from the Leeds area but now based in the States, Your Vegas's debut A Town And Two Cities was full of bombastic stadium rock but with tunes to match. The Research also returned this year, and despite no longer having EMI to bankroll them, The Old Terminal sounded in many ways more accomplished production and arrangement-wise. Song-wise it maybe wasn't as satisfying as 2006's Breaking Up though. The Lodger also returned with a second album of effortlessly brilliant indie-pop, which is well worth seeking out.

Further afield, Jaymay's elegant folk-pop on Autumn Fallin' perfectly captured the feeling of Autumn in New York, her wordy and literate lyricism suggesting a Woody Allen fan. Great tunes too, the gorgeous Blue Skies being the pick of the bunch. Jenny Lewis's Acid Tongue also had some fine tunes, Black Sand and the title track being particularly good, but the album felt a bit weak toward the end.

Eric Matthews released the excellent The Imagination Stage this year, probably the best work he's put out since 1995's It's Heavy In Here, with the usual compliment of intricate instrumentation and breathy vocals very much in place. The Magnetic Fields' Distortion was a great set of songs too, assuming you could get past the production quirk. Would've been a more sustainable listen without the distortion, but that would defeat the objective.

Stinker of the year? That'll be Ben Folds with Way To Normal. I'm a huge fan and was very much looking forward to this, and I can't recall being more let down by an artist. Okay, so Cologne is wonderful, and You don't Know Me an okay single, but the rest of it is substandard at best. I eventually got round to picking up Ben Folds Five's Unauthorised Biography of Reinhold Messner this year, which kind of illustrated just how far his songwriting has sunk. The brilliant Rockin' The Suburbs increasingly seems like a solo fluke.

Live event of the year: Nothing could possibly come close to Crowded House and Don McGlashan at Sherwood Pines Forest back in June. Having free tickets and backstage passes were a bonus, of course, and getting to have a good chat with Don was the icing on the cake. Don's back in the UK in January for a one-off London gig, which I can't recommend highly enough, and both he and Crowded House have new albums scheduled for 2009, which will be essential purchases.

Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Great Closing Tracks: Playlist #1

It could well be due to the kind of artists I mostly get into, but there does seem to be a trend in my record collection for closing tracks to be the emotional heart of the album. So how about an album's worth of closers for a reflective hour's listening, eh?

We kick off with Envy of Angels, from the same-name album by The Mutton Birds, and a song which may well be the greatest 6 minutes in songwriter Don McGlashan's back catalogue. If the descriptions of the New Zealand countryside in this song don't make you instantly want to get a plane ticket to Auckland, you truly have a heart of stone. I've just had chills down my spine listening to this tune for the first time since June, when I had it on loud it in the car having just interviewed Don after his gig with Crowded House in Sherwood Pines Forest. A lovely guy and an immense talent whose forthcoming second solo album is hugely anticipated around these parts.

Other highlights include possibly the greatest moment in either of the Finn Brothers' back catalogues, some acappella loveliness from The Research, Darren Hanlon's magnificent piano-led Old Dream, a brilliant dash of Jason Falkner (with a fantastic Beach Boys 'Til I Die'-inspired coda), and a drop-dead classic from Scott Walker. Enjoy!

MP3: The Mutton Birds - Envy Of Angels
Info -- Buy Envy Of Angels

MP3: The Finn Brothers - Gentle Hum
Info -- Buy Everyone Is Here

MP3: Darren Hanlon - Old Dream
Info -- Buy Fingertips & Mountaintops

MP3: Bic Runga - Gravity
Info -- Buy Beautiful Collision

MP3: Candy Butchers - Hunker Down
Info -- Buy Hang On Mike

MP3: Josh Rouse - Snowy
Info -- Buy Country Mouse City House

MP3: Hunters and Collectors - Long Way To The Water
Info -- Buy Juggernaut

MP3: Jason Falkner - Goodnight Sweet Night
Info -- Buy Can You Still Feel

MP3: The Starlets - Firestorm
Info -- Buy Surely Tomorrow You'll Feel Blue

MP3: Trashcan Sinatras - Weightlifting
Info -- Buy Weightlifting

MP3: Scott Walker - Rhymes Of Goodbye
Info -- Buy Scott 4

MP3: The Research - Splitting Hairs
Info -- Buy Breaking Up

Friday, 18 July 2008

Too much time to find for ourselves...

I fancied a trip down memory lane recently, and dug out a Pet Shop Boys compilation I put together a few years back. Some great stuff, and a reminder of what a brilliantly consistent singles band they were (and still are, to some extent, although their last two or three albums haven't really registered on my radar). They always stood out, largely due to Neil Tennant's ability to spin the kind of intelligent lyric that really shouldn't have fitted comfortably with the 80s/90s pop scene, but somehow did.

I remembered seeing this site a while back eulogising Being Boring as the most beautiful song ever written - how many songs have a whole website dedicated to them? Whether or not it's *the* most beautiful is obviously questionable, but listening to its lyrics can certainly send a chill down the spine. Especially the last verse:

"Now I sit with different faces
In rented rooms and foreign places.
All the people I was kissing,
Some are here and some are missing
In the nineteen-nineties.

I never dreamt that I would get to be
The creature that I always meant to be.
But I thought, in spite of dreams,
You’d be sitting somewhere here with me."

I love a good reminiscing lyric, and it's rare to find one as eloquent and resonant as Being Boring. Truly heartbreaking stuff.

MP3: Pet Shop Boys - Being Boring

And to prove they can do upbeat as well as reflective, here's a later cut from the mid-90s.

MP3: Pet Shop Boys - Se A Vida E (That's The Way Life Is)

Thursday, 24 April 2008

Come around to my way of thinking...

Anyone who knows me will know about my affection for the NZ pop band The Mutton Birds. With my co-conspirator Dave Thake, we've in the past been responsible for gathering together the band's long out-of-print b-sides and rarities for an audio project (the results of which can be downloaded at A Religion Of A Kind), and now we're turning our hands to the band's video work.

The above video, for should've-been-a-hit Come Around is one of a vast array of promos, interviews and live clips we've gathered together for a YouTube channel called Mutton Birds And Beyond (and all of the clips are also embedded for easier navigation at A Religion Of A Kind). The archive also delves into frontman Don McGlashan's work away from the band, from his time in NZ theatre duo The Front Lawn up to his recent solo record Warm Hand. From the latter, here's the stunning I Will Not Let You Down:

Don is touring with Crowded House over the summer - fingers crossed for some UK dates...

Friday, 11 April 2008

About to go down like a domino...

I've had a bit of a Squeeze-fest in the last few weeks, digging out the brilliant Big Squeeze best of and making inroads into the back catalogue. I've started at the end and plan to work backwards, so I have a newly acquired copy of Domino, the band's final (to date) record from 1998, while waiting the postman to drop 1995's Ridiculous through my letterbox. The singles off the latter were stellar, so I have high hopes for the rest of the album.

As for Domino, it's far from a classic album, but it has some very fine tunes indeed. Whether or not either Glenn Tilbrook or Chris Difford do any of these songs in their solo sets remains to be seen, but I won't be complaining if Glenn drops one of the following into his set when he plays Leeds in October...

MP3: Squeeze - Domino
MP3: Squeeze - Sleeping With A Friend

Buy Domino

Friday, 14 March 2008

No negotiation or debate...

A quick plug for my mates in the Leeds-based post-rock band I Concur, who seem to be doing very well for themselves at the moment. Their fantastic new single, Lucky Jack / Build Around Me is out now, and a Radio 1 session is booked in for the end of March.

Take a listen to (and buy) the new single over at, and while you're there have a listen to some tunes from their EP, including the spectacular Oblige.

Tuesday, 19 February 2008

If you want, we can get together...

Great Overlooked Albums #3

Astrid - Play Dead

Whereas nowadays the likes of Sons & Daughters and Camera Obscura see their wistful indie-pop on fashionistas' must-have lists, their fellow countrymen Astrid didn't have it so easy in their heyday at the turn of the century. Headed by frontmen Charlie Clark and William Campbell, Astrid had a pop sensibility that in any right-thinking society would've seen them propelled onto any radio playlist worth its salt.

Debut album Strange Weather Lately was a masterclass in short, sharp pop songwriting, and a slew of singles were spun from it, suggesting that their label Fantastic Plastic thought they were on to a winner.

I first came across the band when they were promoting the record on a free tour sponsored by Melody Maker, and would, in the following couple of years witness many more brilliantly energetic live shows which belied the fact there weren't actually many people in the audience.

When it came to making the follow-up, rumours abounded that after a chance meeting, Adam Schlesinger from Fountains Of Wayne was heading for the producer's chair. It would've made perfect sense if he had; in hindsight, Astrid's first two records echoed the FoW model of a blistering pop debut followed up by something that dug a bit deeper and revelled in mellower moments. But even by the high standards set by Strange Weather Lately and the mass of fantastic b-sides from its singles, it would've been hard to foresee a follow-up as fantastic as Play Dead.

The focus was still on the insanely catchy singalong melodies, but nestled in among the powerpop of It Never Happened and the singles Tick Tock and Modes Of Transport were chilled out moments of beauty, such as the wistful Alas, the countryfied Taken For Granted and - possibly the best of the bunch - the hidden bonus track We'll Drive Away.

A third album, in 2004, had a limited release in some territories, but inter-band conflict meant it was only a matter of time before it all came tumbling down. Charlie Clark was last seen in Cold Night Song, while William Campbell appears to be working with poet Kevin MacNeil.

MP3: Astrid - Modes Of Transport

MP3: Astrid - Wrong For You

MP3: Astrid - We'll Drive Away

Buy Play Dead