Thursday, 1 January 2015

Ten Songs For Another World

Best of 2014

If I'm planning to do more writing in 2015 then a good place to start would be a review of last year. I wasn't sure whether to compile my favourite albums, as I often do, or my favourite songs. I've gone for the latter, as many of these are stand-alone songs rather than being on an album. They are probably, although I'm not quite so obsessive that I've counted, the songs that I've played the most.

If I'd gone for albums instead then are of course many from artists who don't feature here - Swans, Einstellung, War On Drugs... I could go on, but you would rapidly lose interest. Due to the sheer amount of music consumed this year, those who made it into the top ten - and I hope some of you are reading - should feel very proud.

10. KNIFEWORLD - The Skulls We Buried Have Regrown Their Eyes
So, a song with the word "skulls" in the title and the opening line "When I awoke this morning it was raining, just like the previous 2000 days." Hands up if you weren't expecting this to feature in my top ten? The man behind Knifeworld, Kavus Torabi, was in the most recent line-up of one of my favourite bands, Cardiacs. Their sound was described as "pronk" - a combination of prog and punk - but with Knifeworld most of the punk element has been cast aside to leave something resembling the bands from the original Canterbury scene.
Tying in with this, Kavus has also been playing with the latest incarnation of Gong. I'm ashamed to say I only have one of their albums - the obvious one - so perhaps my first New Year's resolution should be to give a bit more attention to Gong and their contemporaries.

9. HOOKWORMS - The Impasse
These Leeds psych-rockers are rather mysterious. There is minimal information on the record sleeve and the band are only credited by the initials MB, MJ, JN, SS and JW. I believe MJ is the singer but I'm not even 100% certain about that. The music features repetitive riffs, reminiscent of my old favourites Spacemen 3, combined with hints of Krautrock but it's the Robert Plant-inspired vocals that really make this work. This is very welcome as I had already been giving my old Led Zep LPs a serious re-visit when this came out.
It's certainly been a year of music that draws from the past but this doesn't mean that artists are running out of ideas. Mixing elements from existing genres can often create something fresh and if records such as this inspire younger listeners to check out bands from before they were born then this can only be a good thing.


8. GOAT - Talk To God
I took far too long getting round to checking out Goat. Their first album completely passed me by and I finally bought "Commune" when I saw a lovely splatter vinyl copy in a local record shop. That might seem a rather shallow reason for a purchase but in this case the blurred patterns spinning around perfectly complement the glorious racket contained within the grooves. The real beauty of this is that I haven't a bloody clue what's going on. I have no idea if the chanting is in English, Swedish or some made-up mystical tongue. I have no idea which instruments are being played; there are some words, which I believe to be Swedish, on the sleeve but I've not yet consulted Google Translate to determine whether these are the musician credits or a witch doctor's incantation. I'm not even sure if the back story is true - allegedly the band have existed in some form or another for over 30 years, living in a small voodoo community where their music is part of the local tradition. If you know the answers then please don't tell me and spoil the mystery.

7. BEN CALVERT & THE SWIFTS - The Sea, The Sea
Ben is a good friend and is highly respected in Birmingham and beyond, so I was pleased to see him return - even if he did only play one gig and write one new song. Although it does feature his backing band, this ghostly number bears the hallmarks of his early, stripped-down solo work. The song is inspired by an Iris Murdoch novel, which I have admittedly never read but it seems to be the tale of a playwright who becomes withdrawn from the real world after quitting the theatre. This is fitting as Ben's day job is as an actor.
My only complaint is the availability. In the past Ben has sold music through Bandcamp where the download comes with a physical object such as a set of juggling balls or a condom. This time he has committed the heinous crime of releasing the song through iTunes. I will have to nag him about putting it somewhere without the risk of infestation from the deadly U2 virus.

6. SHE MAKES WAR - Drown Me Out
I might be cheating by including this song as it hasn't actually been released yet, but I could hardly leave out She Makes War, could I? Laura Kidd describes her sound as gloom-pop, so I was obviously drawn in from the start. I discovered her by chance at a gig put on by a friend of a friend, and it's no secret that I've since become just a tiny bit smitten with her - something that even the lady herself can't have failed to notice.
Her Pledge-funded third album is being recorded as we speak and the songs previewed live have shown a move from her previous fragile sound into PJ Harvey territory. Whether the recorded versions will maintain this level of fury remains to be seen, but it's certain that "Direction Of Travel" will get a mention when I compile my list of albums this time next year.

Again, I could be bending the rules here. There was certainly an album from Birdeatsbaby this year but I have a sneaking suspicion that this solo effort from their orange-haired-vegan-piano-warrior (her description) might have come out in 2013. I discovered the band through or some other automated recommendation site - "You listened to the Dresden Dolls so you might like this..." They were right in saying I would like it, but it's a rather lazy comparison. Sure, they use pianos and have something of a cabaret feel but Birdeatsbaby (and Mishkin) have a more expansive, orchestral sound and the lyrics deal with more personal issues compared with the Dolls' tales of fictional characters.
At first I wasn't aware of the connection with my other new favourite artist - Laura appears on this album and Mishkin has just recorded her contribution to "Direction Of Travel". Each of them has their own distinct sound so any crossover is bound to be fascinating.

The buzz around this collaboration between the drone metallers and the world's most reclusive songwriter was so intense that some were bound to be left disappointed. There were certainly comments from a few listeners that it was not what they were expecting, but Scott being Scott, I had no idea what to expect.
The contribution from Sunn O))) is very different from the sound of their own records but the vocals are so dominant that it takes a few plays before you notice what's going on beneath. As always with Scott's lyrics, you will spend the duration of the album wondering what it could all possibly mean but this song does contain two of my favourite lines of the year: "Woke nailed to cross, could not give toss" and "Leaping like a Riverdancer's nuts".
I don't often do this but I made a special trip to buy this on the day of release, rather than waiting until the weekend or ordering online. The first time I played it, I turned out all the lights. Perhaps not the best idea, given the dreams I had afterwards.

3. MAZZY STAR - I'm Less Here
Mazzy Star could hardly be called prolific; they've released just four albums since 1990. This song has featured in their live set under several different names but the 7", released for Record Store Day, is the first recorded version to be made available. The minimal nature, with Hope Sandoval's vocals backed by David Roback's gentle strumming, does suggest that the song dates to the same period as their classic "So Tonight That I Might See" album.
Hope's voice can reduce me to tears, even though her delivery often makes the words hard to discern. The lyrics that can be made out here suggest a longing for a time gone by. But then her words become indistinct and we're made to feel that perhaps even our memories of that time have become blurred. The saddest song of the year.

2. PSYCHIC TV - After You're Dead, She Said
You never know what you're going to get with a PTV album, and that exciting unpredictability is one of the reasons I've stuck with them through the ups and downs. They've spanned an impressive range of genres and if I'm honest their series of live albums, including the ones reissued for Record Store Day this year, can be unlistenable at times even by my standards.
The latest album, "Snakes", features a combination of psychedelia and melodies, something you might not expect from the founder of Throbbing Gristle. This song contains echoes of their best-known hit, "Godstar", and despite the morbid title it's an uplifting piece. You might be surprised that I listen to uplifting songs but this one never fails to raise my spirits.

Far and away the best song I've heard all year. It has pretty much everything you could ask for: short and to the point, a guitar sound harking back to the golden age of indie, striking verse/chorus contrast and lyrics that are precise while at the same time being open to interpretation for your personal circumstances. Plus how magnificent does Simon look in this video? It almost, but not quite, makes me want to try eyeliner. I bet he even goes out to buy a pint of milk looking like that.
Their debut album will be with us any second now and my only concern is whether the new songs will be able to match the splendour of this one. Somehow I doubt that I have anything to worry about.


warriorgrrl said...

Mishkin's solo album is available here (including "Stitches")!

edporteous said...

I really liked the Desperate Journalist song, and I'm not even a Morrissey fan (you've got to admit, the Smiths comparison is pretty striking).