Songs Of 2014

Funny old year. As I’ve only posted 7 largely ignored screeds over the year, it’s a bit presumptuous to do a roundup of the year. But as I’ve listened to a bunch of good stuff, I might as well do something, eh?

Best Lambchop/Jeff Buckley Mashup

The Antlers – Parade

Fantastic. Written about at length here, and brings a warm smile to my face every time I listen to it.

Buy The Antlers “Familiars” Here

Best Instrumental Guitar Piece

Runner Up

James Blackshaw – Fantômas : Le Faux Magistrat Part 4

Fantômas : Le Faux Magistrat isn’t James Blackshaw’s best album, though it is certainly an interesting one. The first recorded with something approaching a full band, a live recording made to soundtrack a silent movie, the album is around 75 minutes long. But it’s this five minute section I kept coming back to (around 02:50 in the video below):

Buy “Fantomas: Le Faux Magistrat” Here


William Tyler – Whole New Dude

Boy, can this guy play guitar. I met Lambchop many years ago, and Kurt Wagner said something to me about the fresh-faced chap who’d come on tour to play guitar with them. “The kid can really play guitar. We’re really pleased he’s with us”. For years, providing atmosphere and the occasional rollocking line (such as on “National Talk Like a Pirate Day”), it wasn’t obvious exactly what he could do. On his solo albums, he’s demonstrated that he’s up there as one of the best fingerstyle guitarists currently doing the rounds. And on “Whole New Dude”, that he can play with a full band too.

Buy “Lost Colony” Here

Best Line

Perfume Genius – Queen

“No family is safe when I sashay” is this year’s “The only words I’ve said today are ‘beer’ and ‘thank you'”. As in, distilling absolutely everything there is to say about a character in one hugely memorable line. It’s the kind of line that empowers people, and it’s the only time I think I’ve ever read YouTube comments on a song and not wanted to wipe out the entirety of humanity.

Buy “Too Bright” Here

Best Random Appearance of Bonnie Prince Billy in a Videogame

So there I am, playing/listening to the wonderful Here And There Along The Echo, the most recent interlude in the Kentucky Route Zero series, when the voice on the other end of the phone starts singing about the animals he catches and eats along the Echo River. The voice sounds strangely familiar. On getting to work, I find out it’s our old friend Bonnie Prince Billy. As though it could be anyone else.

And whilst we’re at it, Too Late To Love You. Not for the song as such, but the direction. Manages to be one of my musical and gaming highlights of the year.

Best Mid-Life Crisis

Runner Up:

Future Islands – Seasons (Waiting On You)

One of the knock-out moments of the year. A true “What the hell is he doing?” statement, and a sign that rock music can, even in its dotage, still surprise you. Shame the rest of the album didn’t hit the same heights.

Buy Future Islands “Singles” Here


Sun Kil Moon – Ben’s My Friend

Wow, has Mark Kozalek been having a mid-life crisis. First he releases another album of low-key, slightly alarming acoustic songsmithery (the one about all the women he has slept with is rather more than just slightly alarming), topped by this brutally honest tale of a mid-life breakdown. Then he starts yelling at bands half his age at festivals, releasing songs asking them to do rude things to him, printing t-shirts calling audience members rednecks, the whole shebang. Can’t say I blame him. The youth of today are fucking annoying.

Buy Sun Kil Moon “Benji” Here

And so, my friends, this is my song of the year. Maybe it’s a sense of my own impending middle age that has struck an AmDim7, but who cares? This is a fantastic song that deserves a wide audience of paunchy men, who spend their weekdays in jobs that they have a growing sense of dislike for and their weekends cycling around Surrey on £1,000 road bikes, clad in lycra. Slowly.

And on that note, I’ll leave you for today. Tomorrow, Albums of the year. Two posts in two days? You’ll believe it when you see it.

Albums Of The Year – James Blackshaw

As I idly flicked through my iPhone the other day, looking to see what I’d been listening to this year, a thought struck me. The thought was this: In this year of being unadventurous, not actively seeking out much new music, retreating into known acts releasing their umpteenth album, a record that I would choose as one of my favourites of the year would be one by a largely unknown English guitarist whose album takes its name and song titles from a somewhat obscure SF writer named James Tiptree JR. Or rather, Alice B Sheldon.

For “Love Is The Plan, The Plan Is Death” is James Blackshaw stepping away from the 12-string, bringing in a vocalist for a song, and learning that sometimes, less is more. His albums have previously been marvellously technical affairs, with a guitar-playing style that borders on the obsessively, ludicrously skilled, leading them to become exercises in going “Oooh, how the hell does he do that?” rather than “Oooh, that’s a record I want to play again and again”. For all their beauty, they do not necessarily have the musical charm to keep you coming back for more. That’s not to say that they weren’t often heartbreakingly beautiful; they were, but at times they were just too much.

But “Love…” is different. Blackshaw has moved to using a 6-string nylon guitar, simplifying his sound, and overlaying gentle piano and other keyboards. Instead of the flurry of notes, there’s more space, a breadth to the music rather than the somewhat cloying feel of some of his older records. That’s not to say he’s suddenly become simple, or easy listening. This isn’t the kind of music you can make without putting a huge number of hours in, refining and purifying each bar, each scrape of nail on string.

The opening, title track, sets out his stall early. I first heard this driving down one of those wide, wide American roads, four lanes and about as many cars, in the twilight of a hot humid day, window down, wanting to hear what James had come up with. As the song progressed, I can still remember thinking to myself “Hold on a second here…” and realising that there was something special going on. “Her Smoke Rose Up Forever” follows with delicate arpeggios falling into beautiful chordal work.

Then comes the momentous moment, the moment all true Blackshaw fans had been dreading….the singing. And whilst I’d never knowingly pick out “And I Have Come Upon This Place By Lost Ways” to listen to all on its own, it’s better than I was expecting; it’s vaguely reminiscent of one of those Jarboe Swans songs off of “Children Of God”, which I’m assuming won’t insult either Blackshaw himself or singer Geneviève Beaulieu. “The Snows Are Melted, The Snows Are Gone” is probably Blackshaw’s finest piano piece. Normally his piano playing is far, far removed from the skill of his guitar, to the degree that with a fair wind and some practice, I could do a passable replication. On “The Snows…” he’s finally transcended his prior limitations and made a stunning piece of music. Again, it’s not the skill on show, it’s the haunting nature of the melody, the simplicity, the space between the notes.

In all, “Love Is The Plan, The Plan Is Death” is Blackshaw’s finest album, an album filled with beauty, melancholy, joy, and above all, tunes. Blackshaw himself might be annoyed to read this, but you know what, great music comes down to melodies that fix in your skull and refuse to be removed. From Beethoven, through The Shangri-Las, to this, they all share that ineffable essence of greatness. By spending less time demonstrating his near-unique skills, he has finally made an album that demands to be played again, and again, and again, to become the album I played more than any other this year.

Love Is The Plan, The Plan Is Death by James Blackshaw

Buy “Love Is The Plan, The Plan Is Death” Here

Review Of 2010 – Songs, Gigs, Gubbins

So here we are then. The last part of my review of the year. Hope you enjoy. (Parts One and Two are here, and over there)

Songs of the year

Avi Buffalo – Truth Sets In

On first hearing, I thought this song was pretty good. On second, third, fourth, all the way up to the hundredth, I thought this song was the best I heard all year. I adore it. The lines “Witchcraft seems to unload and say\That you don’t love me anymore” are just wonderful. Truly, if you don’t like this, you don’t like music.

MP3: Truth Sets In by Avi Buffalo

Buy “Avi Buffalo”

Bright Spark Destroyer – They Already Know

A song of the year from an unsigned band? Off their first EP? How come? Because it’s great, that’s why. The moment, about 2 minutes in when singer James Ellis suddenly sings an impassioned “And if you say you love me”1, tears my heart open each time I hear it. If it doesn’t do that to your heart too, then truly it is made of stone.

MP3: They Already Know by Bright Spark Destroyer

Buy their stuff here.

The Morning Benders – Excuses

Borne aloft on a wave of hype, I expected big things of this record. The album didn’t quite reach those expectations, but this song did. Even more lovely in its acoustic form, here:

MP3: Excuses by The Morning Benders

Buy “Big Echo” (CD)

Local Natives – Wide Eyes

Borne aloft on a wave of hype, I expected big things of this record. The album didn’t quite reach those expectations, but this song did. What? Oh. “Airplanes” is damn good too, in case you’re interested.

MP3: Wide Eyes by Local Natives

Buy “Gorilla Manor” (CD/MP3)

Paul Thomas Saunders – The Death Of A Sports Personality

Haunting and quiet. I want to hear lots more from this chap. How he’s not got himself signed to Big Evil Record Company is beyond me.

MP3: The Death of a Sports Personality by Paul Thomas Saunders

Check out more of his stuff here.

The Songs Off The Disappointing Albums That Made You Remember Why You Loved The Band To Start Off With

Broken Social Scene – All To All

There’s always one truly great song on every BSS album (think “7/4 (Shoreline)”, “Churches…”). “All To All” is this year’s incarnation. Lisa Lobsinger comes of age.

MP3: All to All by Broken Social Scene

Buy “Forgiveness Rock Record” (CD/MP3)

Band Of Horses – Older

Saw them perform this live back in 2008, and hearing it again wonderful surprise. Hokey, sure, but marvellous. If only the rest of Infinite Arms had been so good.

MP3: Yeah, right, do I look that stupid?

Song of last year that I didn’t hear till this year (1)

Neko Case – People Got A Lotta Nerve

Great enough, and then the ascending vocals on the middle eight propel this song into whole new worlds of brilliance. So it came out last January. That’s January 2009. So?

MP3: People Got A Lotta Nerve by Neko Case

Buy “Middle Cyclone” (CD/MP3)

Song of last year that I didn’t hear till this year (2)

James Blackshaw – Cross

Astonishing. That’s the only word I can use for this song. Watch the video below of him playing this live, in a dusty park in Spain (possibly), and wonder how much time he’s spent learning to play this well.

Cross by James Blackshaw

Buy “The Glass Bead Game” (CD/MP3) (And you should)

Song Title Of The Year

Swans – You Fucking People Make Me Sick

Brilliant. The song’s not half bad either.

Gigs of the year, in reverse order

3. Russian Circles at Underworld, Camden

Small, packed out club – check. Devoted, slightly mental fanbase – check. Astonishing post-rock, post-metal music from just three blokes, who seem to have channelled the sound of the coming apocalypse to greater effect than anyone before, even Godspeed You! Black Emperor.

2. Swans/James Blackshaw at Koko, Mornington Crescent

Ow, my ears. And please stop staring at me like that. Preceded by oh blimey, how is he doing that? And can you all please shut up and listen?

1. Tortoise at Koko, Mornington Crescent

My word, I wish I’d been to see this lot in the past. I had a stupid grin all through the set, and still having it now typing it. The sound that aliens would make if you played them jazz.

Honourable mentions: Mastodon, Iron and Wine, Jason Lytle, The Xx, The Besnard Lakes, Joanna Newsom. I’ve been to a lot of great gigs.

Albums from 2010 That I Haven’t Really Listened To Yet And Might Be Good

The Walkmen – Lisbon
Shearwater – The Golden Archipelago

Considering I’ve loved albums by these two bands in the past, I really should listen to their new ones, shouldn’t I?

John Grant – Queen Of Denmark

Only given this one listen and am slightly intrigued, but having Midlake in full-on Minor Key Flutey Doomy Bollocks Mode has put me off a bit so far.

Which brings me to:

Albums From 2010 That I Was All Disappointed With, You Know (Redux)

Oh, Midlake, how could you?

And that’s it. If you’re lucky/unlucky, I’ll post something after the food and drink extravaganza that is Xmas in L&L&Family Towers. Hope you all have a great one, and don’t forget – a turkey isn’t just for Christmas, it’s for Boxing Day too, so stop stuffing yourself, eh?

1 Yep, I know that the first two songs are about broken love and all that, but aren’t the best songs?

Obsessions (Two)

The other song that’s really been swirling round my head recently is by James Blackshaw. He’s the kind of artist best experienced live, so you can get the full WTF!-edness of his music. Listening on record, part of your brain is saying to you “He’s not really doing this, you know. He’s got pedals and a laptop and other gubbins, I bet”. But he doesn’t. It’s just him, some very long fingernails, and about 16 hours a day in a room practising.

Incredible. There’s plenty more on YouTube like that, and I strongly recommend you give him a try. And see him live. Trust me on this one. All week I’ve had “Cross” from his 2009 CD Glass Bead Game floating round my head, like a particularly persistent earworm. Hopefully he’ll do the same to you too.

MP3: Cross by James Blackshaw

There’s also some of his stuff floating round on SoundCloud, such as this beauty:

Synonym For Vestige by shoryobuni

Buy “Glass Bead Game” (CD/MP3)