Another great year of music, but actually quite an easy one in which to pick my top ten. They are just the ones I’ve played most. Just recently I’ve been trying to catch up with albums I’ve missed, either through ignorance or inertia. And some have been good, but none have demanded a place in the ten. And that includes U2. I listened to “Songs of Experience” on Spotify last weekend, and found it dull and formulaic in the extreme. I don’t think I’ve ever thought that about a U2 album before and I will give it a few more goes. Maybe it will reveal itself to me – but not in time for the 2017 top ten.
I’ve cheated just a little this year – there are records in this list which were released in 2016 – but late on, and I didn’t come across them until 2017, so as far as I’m concerned they count! And that applies to the No1, which can only be…
No 1 – “Babes Never Die” by Honeyblood
I love this album so much. Every track. It feels like I’ve listened to it more than all others combined, and I’m still coming back to it. For me it has everything: punk energy (“Babes Never Die”, “Ready for the Magic”,”Sea Hearts” – what an opening trio), pop melody “Justine, Misery Queen”), haunting beauty (“Walking at Midnight”), social observation (“Gangs”); and then, the two most resonant songs of all – “Hey, Stellar” a truly uplifting break up anthem, poignant and liberating; and “Cruel”, a moving, messed-up love song, full of self-loathing and desire, with a lovely simple guitar motif. It’s those last two in particular where that phrase I use quite a lot, celtic soul, really comes into play. The band are brilliant live, too. Just the two of them: Steena on guitar and vocals and Cat on the drums. In the short festival sets, like the one I saw at Latitude, they concentrate on the rock’n’roll – from this album and their eponymous first, from 2014 (how did I not hear that?) – and it is an absolute, energy-laden joy. I saw a full set at Koko in Camden, and that was one of my best concerts of the year. I’m popping up to Nottingham Rescue Rooms on 19 December to see them play. It will be a fitting last concert for me in a great year of concerts, by the best band of 2017.
No 2 – “Party” by Aldous Harding
Aldous Harding’s music has been described as gothic folk. I think you could say that about her debut from 2014, but “Party” is a much more varied piece, which conjures up comparisons with Bjork. Tori Amos, Joanna Newsom and any number of jazz torch singers, as well as the darker side of folk music. It’s an extraordinary, intriguing album, as Aldous’s voice ranges from a deep jazzy hue to something closer to a young child. A simple guitar underpins most of the songs, but electronics subtly alter the tempo of some of the tunes. And the lyrics – well, they are never less than interesting and are sometimes downright weird. There are some fascinating thoughts going on inside Aldous Harding’s head. So, it’s an album full of beautiful melodies, but with a fragility, an angst behind them. Live she is captivating. The songs move slowly, tentatively, easily broken. There’s something edgy about the performance – and entrancing. Favourite songs on the album include the wonderfully bizarre “Party”, “Living the Classics”, “Blend” and her best known song, “Horizon”. But the whole piece is a thing of real beauty, which bears many listens.
No 3 – “Visions of a Life” by Wolf Alice
It’s a funny thing with Wolf Alice albums (well, the two of them) – on the first listen, you think, this is OK, nothing special. And then, after two or three listens, all these melodies, big guitars, surging choruses, reveal themselves to you, and you think, this is brilliant. So yeah, this is brilliant. My appreciation was enhanced recently by seeing them live at Alexandra Palace. It’s a cavernous hall and they absolutely filled the space with sound and fury. It was a superb concert – they have really mastered the dynamics of live performance. “Visions of a Life”, in places, has quite a 70s rock style, updated of course. On things like the title track, the dread word, prog, has even entered my musings. The opening four tracks are indicative: “Heavenward” grandly atmospheric, “Yuk Foo” an angry punk thrash, “Beautifully Unconventional” one of those 70s tunes, but very catchy and great live, “Don’t Delete the Kisses” a sugary, electro pop anthem, with a hint of Pet Shop Boys in the verse. They demonstrate the range of music that Wolf Alice cover. This is an album that works in big venues, and, no doubt, has been written with that in mind. The only way for Wolf Alice is up.
No 4 – “One/ Starting from Now/ Talk of This Town” by Catherine McGrath
This is a collection of EPs and singles, the first of which came out in December 2016. Enough to count as an album! Catherine McGrath is a young Northern Irish country singer, with a pop sensibility. You can hear the Taylor Swift in some of her songs. I’d not heard of her until I went to Latitude in July. I was looking for people to check out in the early afternoon, and liked the blurb about her, with comparisons to Kacey Musgraves. There was a good crowd in the Alcove, a venue for new bands. And she went down really well. I loved it. Great songs, beautifully sung. And she told some funny stories in between songs. It’s nice to have an artist who engages with the audience in that way. When I got back from Latitude, I downloaded her first EPs, and couldn’t stop listening to them. Such beautiful, wistful songs, but with that pop edge. They are all about relationships – starting, not sure, ending, defiant, or more than one of those. I guess my two favourites are the lovely, hopeful “Cinderella” and the feisty “Hell Would Have to Freeze Over”. Since Latitude we’ve had “Talk of this Town”, which is all about her aspirations in the face of her doubters back home and “Thought it was Gonna be Me”, which I haven’t listened to properly yet. I’ve seen her live a couple of times since – one a showcase event, where she got to sing her full range of songs, and then one where she was support. Both were excellent, and with the second, she’d gone electric, with a full band. She has a couple of headline shows booked for London, in March and May. The first sold out in 24 hours. People are catching on to Catherine McGrath.
No 5 – “Truth is a Beautiful Thing” by London Grammar
The voice of Hannah Reid, London Grammar’s singer, is a truly wondrous thing. It hardly matters what she is singing – it will always be imbued with a beautiful, captivating melancholy. But the band write good tunes too – growers. Few jump out on first listen, like “Strong” from the first album did; but they work their way into you. It’s night music, music you could happily listen to into the dark, and let the tears well in your eyes with no-one noticing. Live at Brixton Academy they were magnificent. Haunting, atmospheric, reflective, entrancing. Although she is often sitting in the shadows, you can’t take your eyes off Hannah and wonder what she is going through as she sings these songs. Album highlights are “Rooting for You” (which is extraordinary live, as she hits the high notes), “Hell to the Liars”, “Non Believers” and “Truth is a Beautiful Thing”, but this is another album which reveals something new every time. The deluxe version also has a version of the Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony”, which is rather good.
No 6 – “Slowdive” by Slowdive
Slowdive were one of the leading shoegaze bands of the early 90s. Shoegaze was essentially bands playing dreamy melodies, with surging guitars, at a rather stately pace. While staring at their shoes, allegedly. I wasn’t that into them at the time. Slowdive re-united recently and this album is their returning statement. I love it! The ingredients are similar to before, but bigger and better, I think. I went back to their earlier albums, and I don’t think any of them are a patch on this one. That will be heresy to any true Slowdive fan, but in this case, I’m a late convert. The songs are quite magnificent, and it’s those surges of guitar, rushes of sound that feel quite anguished, emotional, that do it for me. Songs like “Star Roving”, “Don’t Know Why” and my favourite, “No Longer Making Time”. “Sugar for the Pill” has a gentler beauty at first, but the guitar still takes you into the atmosphere. On the Thursday night at End of the Road, on the main stage, under the night stars, they were heavenly.
No 7 – “Faye Webster” by Faye Webster
Back in November, I went to see Julia Jacklin at the Shepherds Bush Empire. There were two support acts, which the Empire’s Facebook page provided links to. I gave them a quick look and that’s when I first heard Faye Webster singing. It was a beautiful, simple, sad song called “Alone Again”. That gave me the incentive to see her perform rather than linger in the pub. She had a band, and came across as more indie than country, but I guess the music is a bit of both, with a large dose of 70s American West Coast pop too, even though she is from Atlanta, Georgia. This album isn’t her first – she made one when she couldn’t have been more than 16. But this one is a step up. It’s full of catchy, delicate, wistful tunes that you might feel you’ve heard before; and if you have, it might be a Fleetwood Mac or Stevie Nicks album. Now, that was never really my kind of music, though, of course, I own “Rumours”, and love it these days. So, if you like that era, you might enjoy it. This is a lovely album. The tunes are insidious. It’s that melodious steel guitar, as well as Faye’s fragile voice. As well as “Alone Again”, “She Won’t Go Away”, “I Know You” and “What’s the Point” are highlights. It’s not a world changer, but just great pop – as we used to know it!
No 8 – “Earl Grey” by Girl Ray
Like so many of the bands that I’ve got into in recent years, I first heard Girl Ray on Marc Riley’s show on BBC 6 Music, which runs from 7 to 9pm, Monday to Thursday. If I have a night at home it is compulsory listening. Girl Ray’s sound is a mixture of the jangling guitars of Velvet Underground and the melodies of what I imagine to be a French jazz-pop band. The Style Council, when they went down by the Seine, would be a model. We saw them at Latitude. My friend Steve thought the singing was a bit off-tune. And it’s not perfect, I’d agree. But that is part of the charm. It works with the music. The album is mostly those chugging riffs, overlaid with wistful melodies, with “Just Like That” and “Stupid Things” the highlights. A couple of times things branch out. “A Few Months” gets into an Isley Brothers soul-funk riff. “Earl Grey (Stuck in a Groove) is 13 minutes of the Velvets groove, and a great vehicle, live, to rock out. A recent session on Marc Riley suggested they will make some harder sounds in future. It augurs well!
No 9 – “A Deeper Understanding” by the War on Drugs
The War on Drugs’ previous album, “Lost in a Dream”, was my No 2 in 2014, and could so easily have been No 1. It was a brilliant mix of deep melancholy, plaintive vocals and awesome guitars. There were strong hints of Springsteen, Dylan and The Waterboys. What was not to like? The band’s appearance at Latitude that year was the highlight, for me. “A Deeper Understanding” takes a similar template, but extends the songs – they are all pretty long. It’s discursive, powerful in places, meandering. So the initial impact isn’t as great. But, if you give it the time, it grows, and grows. And the guitars remain magnificent. My favourites, thus far, are ”Pain” and the truly awesome “Thinking of a Place”. The latter, live at Alexandra Palace recently, was sensational. Adam Granduciel continues to sing and play the guitar like a man with a lot of pain to share. I do wonder where they go to next, but for now, this is an album which I feel still has more to reveal and is already a grand confession.
No 10 – “Antisocialites” (and “Alvvays”) by Alvvays
Alvvays are a Canadian indie band with an ear for a great melody and an engaging riff. Fronted by Molly Rankin, there are inevitable comparisons with Blondie. And my top band of 2016, Amber Arcades, have a distinct resemblance. I first heard them at End of the Road this year. It started in my tent. I had a sore back at the festival this year, and was having a brief rest on the Saturday, about 5pm. I started to hear these melodies wafting over from the main stage. They were so good, that for a while they just kept me in the tent, wallowing in them. Then, I thought, I have to see this band. There was a huge and lively crowd – Alvvays were really having an impact. There were two albums involved – the new one “Antisocialites”, and the eponymous first, from 2014. When I listened to them later, it was the first, with songs like “Marry Me, Archie” and “Ones Who Love You”, that engaged me most. But “Antisocialites” does the business too, the more you listen to it. It still references punk, but in a tuneful way – songs like “Plimsoll Punk” and “Hey” are examples. The best two songs, for me, are “Dreams Tonite”, which is just a beautiful pop song, and the closer, “Forget About Life”, which is a potential stadium lighters-out anthem. I’m seeing them at the Roundhouse in February next year. I think it will be a big celebration.
As ever there are albums that could have been in the ten, if I’d listened to them a bit more. But then again, there’s a reason I didn’t – the ones I did listen to were in the way! So, top twenty candidates include: “Garden of Ashes” by Duke Garwood, “Moonshine Freeze” by This is the Kit, “Sweet Kind of Blue” by Emily Barker, “The Witch” by Pumarosa, “Young, Dumb and Full Of…” by Cabbage, “Lotta Sea Lice” by Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile, “Life Will See You Now” by Jens Lekman. And, of course, I must acknowledge the brilliance of Lorde’s “Melodrama” and Taylor Swift’s “Reputation”. They should probably both be in my top ten really – but who would I leave out?
I must mention Lindi Ortega’s EP “Til the Going Gets Gone”, too. It’s a brilliant country/folk collection, in which Lindi goes back to her roots. It includes the grim but beautiful cover of a Townes van Zandt song called “Waiting Round to Die”. She’s still the best, and I can’t wait for a new album, and, hopefully, a UK tour.
Pure noisy rock’n’roll
My top ten, apart from some punky moments from Honeyblood and Wolf Alice, is pretty mellow. But I did get momentarily excited by some great noisy tracks. They included:
“Dream Come Now” by Honey ( a New York punk band). “White City” from 2016 is also awesome. Heard “Dream Come Now” on Iggy Pop’s 6 music show. It just rocks!
“Dissonance” by Cabbage. They are great live. This is my favourite.
“Country Sleaze” by Goat Girl. Great band, can’t wait to hear their first album, which must be soon.
“Motorbike” and “Goodbye Texas” by Flatworms. Another US band who draw on the punk legacy. A Marc Riley favourite.
43 tracks for your delectation. Three from each of the top ten plus some extras, as mentioned.