Today I finished the editing and indexing of my music book, “I Was There – A Musical Journey”. Next steps: finalise cover pictures and find a printer. Early not-for-sale edition to friends and family while I work out what to do about clearing quotes. It’s a laborious process when you’re working and living your life at the same time: it’s taken all of 2015 to get from finishing the first draft to finalising it. You might call that inertia. I’d struggle to disagree. But I am now poised!
Today, as I completed the index, I remembered another band I’d forgotten to write about. My Bloody Valentine. A great band. Late 80s/ early 90s. Only two albums in that period, but influential. Waves of warped guitar. Hidden melodies. A strange air of melancholy amid the chaos. A cross between Cocteau Twins and Jesus and Mary Chain. I had to write something, but I didn’t want to disrupt the page numbering. I managed to squeeze in a paragraph in the eighties indie chapter which only required changes to The Smiths’ pages, so got away with it. But I suspect I would have waxed more lyrical if I hadn’t forgotten in the first place.
The trials and tribulations of the part-time writer!
In finishing the book now though, I inevitably thought, shall I slot in a postscript, a 2015 chapter? So the likes of the The Unthanks, This Is The Kit, Daisy Vaughan, Genghar get some recognition; and The Staves and Chvrches get even more? I decided no in the end. It would disrupt the flow. And lose the end, with my girls’ music choices – see this blog – which describes what always felt like a good way to sign off.
So this blog is the alternative chapter. Out there before the main thing.
It could be lengthy, so I warn you now.
I summed up my musical choices not so long ago, with my Top Ten, supplemented by another ten which weren’t far off. They were a mixed bunch, but, as my friend DC pointed out, the female voice was prominent. Coincidence? Yes and no. Yes, because it all depends what turns up through the year. No, because my affinity for what I call celtic soul, or in a few cases, duende, in my book, sounds best, to me when sung by women. You can’t really generalise about these things without risking a descent into caricature, but there is a tenderness and fragility, which suits the music, which women are just better at. Of course men can do it, but it’s more maudlin, less subtle. I don’t know whether that makes sense. In words, in logic, probably not; but that’s how I feel about the music in question. And as David Mitchell wrote in his brilliant novel, “Black Swan Green”:
If the right words existed, music wouldn’t need to…
So, The Staves, This Is The Kit, Daisy Vaughan, The Unthanks, Astrid Williamson, Samantha Crain, Lindi Ortega, Laura Marling and Rozi Plain all appeared in my top twenty, singing what might all have got filed in the folk section, when we had record shops with folk sections. But in there too were Lauren Mayberry of Chvrches, Courtney Barnett and Ellie Rowsell of Wolf Alice. It was truly the year of the female singer as far as my choices were concerned.
Top though, was Genghar, an indie guitar band. All boys, though singer Felix Bushe did go for a dreamy falsetto, which complemented the music. That was a bit psychedelic in places, full of catchy melodies, but also liable to veer off in odd directions, which was a key part of the appeal. It wasn’t your standard slow-quick-slow-quick pattern, though there were some mighty guitar passages at the end of songs, which especially worked live. I saw them twice this year – at Latitude and then at the Scala in Kings Cross in October, and they were brilliant both times. They’ve picked up a lot of fans, but didn’t manage to get into too many journos’ top tens just yet. I find this inexplicable, but it must come – I just think indie generally isn’t the in-thing at the moment.
Wolf Alice were probably the new indie band who got the most plaudits over the year. And they can’t be begrudged that. They were a huge hit at the festivals. I saw them at Latitude and they put on an awesome show. You hear so many things in their sound: grunge, Blondie, metal, punk and a good dose of modern pop. A contemporary sound, drawing on past icons. I had really high expectations of the album, “My Love is Cool”, but I when I first listened to it, it didn’t blow me away. That knocked it off the player for a bit, though I didn’t forget it. And when I was compiling my top ten, I was struggling to leave it out – it was the fabled No 11 in the end. But that made me listen to it a few times again, and now I’m hooked! But I wouldn’t know what to leave out to make way for it.
There was another aspect to the top ten: the jazz/rap fusion, as personified by Kendrick Lamar and Kamasi Washington. It’s a mix I’ve always liked – I devote a fair bit of space to it in my book. Its heyday was the 1990s, when a compilation series called “The Rebirth of Cool” took fusion to places it had never been before. DJs like Gilles Peterson still keep the faith – listen to Gilles’ BBC 6 Music show on Saturday afternoons for a true musical education.
Kendrick Lamar peaked this year with his album “To Pimp a Butterfly”. The music covered his heritage, the lyrics his past, his struggles, the struggles of his people. It was heavy, but exhilarating stuff. I said in my top ten blog that I heard traces of Prince in some of the music. And, of course, Kamasi Washington was producing. His own album, the jazz epic called “The Epic” was pretty mind-blowing. It took time to get into because it was just so vast. But it is worth the effort. An extraordinary work. Together, Kendrick and Kamasi are taking their music to amazing places. Be on that journey!
Going back to the beginning of the year, I took a week off after New Year, having worked between Christmas and New Year’s Eve. Three great things happened. I finished the first draft of my book. I saw some amazing art. See my blog at the time. And I truly discovered the music of Sharon van Etten. I’d liked her before and had the 2012 and 2014 albums, “Tramp” and “Are We There”. But it wasn’t a big connection. Then, for reasons I can’t quite remember, I gave the albums another go. Probably because she had a tour coming up. On my museum visits, walking round central London, I had “Tramp” on, and specifically the song “Give Out”. It suddenly hit me. The beauty of the melody, the angst about a new relationship, the optimism and fear – extraordinary. I played that tune about six times in a row as I walked from the National Gallery to the Victoria and Albert. In the heart of the city I love, listening to a song that just bowled me over.
I couldn’t stop listening to Sharon’s music for a while after that. I bought a few of the older albums and came across an impossibly beautiful song called “Keep”, off “Because I Was In Love”. So simple, so resonant. That celtic soul, or just soul. Pure love. I still quiver every time I hear it.
My wife Kath and I went to see Sharon at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire in April. Guess what, the show was brilliant! I reviewed it here. I think that starting the year in this way may have set me up for the music I loved most over the year. The year of women.
I had a bit of a spell with The National, too, early on in 2015. I explored all the albums, but kept on coming back, in the end, to one song, off the most recent album, 2013’s “Trouble Will Find Me”. A very good album, all round. But the song of songs was “Pink Rabbits”. I loved the melancholy air, the minor chords, the lyrics where more words than usual were crammed into the lines, the beats. And my favourite lines of all were so offbeat, and yet they told you everything about the protagonist and his self-loathing and pity:
You didn’t see me, I was falling apart, I was a white girl in a crowd of white girls in the park; You didn’t see me I was falling apart, I was a television version of a person with a broken heart.
2015 was the year when NME – the New Musical Express – gave up the fight too. Not completely – it’s in hiding as a free listings sheet with a few articles. But now, really, only an online presence. A good presence, but inevitably without the same impact it used to have. The NME was my musical bible in my teens and twenties, and I continued to rely on it for good tips about the music to listen to pretty much up to the end of its days. The 70s were the absolute heyday, when punk and new wave was in the ascendancy and the NME was their mouthpiece. Journalists like Tony Parsons, Nick Kent, Julie Burchill, Charles Shaar Murray, ruled the roost. As an 18 year old I hung on their every word. The paper remained like a good friend who knew all the best music. I was sorry to see NME give up the main paper, but I hope the combination of listings and online keep it going. I still want to know what the NME thinks the best 50 albums of the year were. There’ll be a few I haven’t caught up with and that will be my cue.
Along with the Guardian. As the NME has declined, The Guardian has just got better and better. And on the radio, BBC 6 Music. Marc Riley between 7 and 9 pm works best for me and I’ve picked up so much from his shows. But Mary Anne Hobbes, Lauren Laverne, Tom Ravenscroft, Gideon Coe and Don Letts and, of course, Gilles Peterson, have all been brilliant. Between them, I get the ideas and the inspiration to explore. Pretty well everything I’m recommending this year has come from the Guardian, 6 Music, the NME or Latitude…
Ah yes, Latitude.
This is now the central musical event of the year for me and my friend Jon. Along with various of our children. I won’t repeat the detail in this blog – it’s all here, if you haven’t seen it before. But each year it is inspiring, in different ways. You discover new bands, confirm your love of others, dip into a bit of literature, poetry, comedy. Enjoy the late night dance events, where the youth truly take over, but you are tolerated. And just forget all your conventional responsibilities for a few days. It’s wonderful! Hightlights for me, this year, were Genghar, Duke Garwood, Rat Boy, James Blake, Jon Hopkins, Clark, This Is The Kit, Manic Street Preachers, Noel Gallagher and, in a bizarre way, Thom Yorke, in the “secret” gig. But all 30-odd bands I saw were an important part of the experience. A special time.
During the year, I saw 18 concerts, which is probably a record for me. Children older, a bit more scope to do this sort of thing. We don’t go to that many together, but who knows in the future? I enjoyed some old favourites like Nils Lofgren, Robin Trower and The Waterboys a lot. I confirmed my love of contemporary bands like The War on Drugs, Courtney Barnett, Sharon van Etten and British Sea Power. Jon and I were energised by a fantastically noisy NME Radar concert comprising Palma Violets, Fat White Family, Slaves and The Wytches at the Forum in Kentish Town. We watched from balcony seats as the youth went ape in the stalls! Lager in hand, feeling nostalgic – and happy to see the rocking continue, rather than regretful we weren’t down there. Nils Frahm’s electronic/ classical vibe was extraordinary at the Roundhouse. The basslines made the seats shudder at times! Blur were superb at Hyde Park, with a great mix of old and new tunes. U2 were brilliant at the O2, the Dome, revisiting old memories, keeping the spirit alive. Samantha Crain was wonderfully warm and sincere at the Forge in Camden, and I’ve mentioned already how good Gengahr were at the Scala. This is The Kit were too. Kate Stables has such a beautiful voice and plays a lovely guitar and banjo. We had a great time at Chelsea’s Under the Bridge skanking to Rankin’ Rodger and his version of The Beat, which included his son on vocals with him. And a special mention must go to The Staves. I saw them twice, first playing the whole of their new album, “If I Was” at Wilton’s Music Hall in the East End; then in November at the Roundhouse. Each time they seem better than the last time. They’ve done well this year, but really, I say to you all, give them a listen. Their voices are supreme.
I must say something about Daisy Vaughan, who I only really discovered towards the end of the year. It’s a great example of how something just suddenly creeps upon you and becomes your next big thing. I’d heard a lovely track called “Earth Let Me In” on Marc Riley’s 6 Music show, made a note of it and then rather forgot it. But one evening I decided to catch up on all those notes I’d made – I write loads! I checked her album, “Light on Our Limbs” on Spotify. It was so beautiful I downloaded it immediately. And it became my new favourite, It’s a sparse, simple, fragile work – all those qualities I talked about earlier in this piece. She’s 18 and who knows where she’ll go from here. I hope the management don’t take hold of her and get her to do more pop/glam stuff, like has happened to Gabrielle Aplin and Ellie Gould, for example. Equally, that will make her money, so good luck to her if it does go that way. I’ll always relish this beautiful album, some of the loveliest songs I have ever heard.
Yes, the true pop world rather passes me by now. I don’t disrespect it – there’s just too much other good music for me to like. Of course I know a bit about the likes of Adele and Taylor Swift, but I leave them to my kids – and the other 95% of the western world who clearly buy Adele’s music. My sense is that in 2015 the music biz is worried because no-one is really challenging those two. They like repeat performers, but like a new phenomenon too. I’m not sure any of my choices will get there!
Having said that, one of my old favourites, Disclosure, are now really popular with the teenage generation. Their 80s/90s dance has broadened to include a stronger pop feel, and just about every 16 year old I know – mainly my own daughters! – wanted to be at their recent Alexandra Palace shows. In a nice touch this Christmas, my girls got me the vinyl version of Disclosure’s latest album, “Caracal”. The vinyl comeback… discuss!
I know that all this stuff, all this music, is ultimately trivial, compared to the big concerns that dog the world. But you know, I write about music because I do think it matters. And it brings people together as well as giving them solace – and energy – as individuals. Think back to the tragic events in Paris, including the gruesome attack on the Eagles of Death Metal concert at the Bataclan. A mixed, but mostly young audience gunned down by nihilists who believe that rock’n’roll is in some way evil, a threat to their own culture. If they believed that at all, and didn’t just want to cause maximum shock.
Utterly tragic, but only last night I was watching U2’s concert in Paris, during which they invited the Eagles of Death Metal on for an encore right at the end. It was such a powerful moment. The response from the crowd was fantastic, of course. A reaffirmation of life, love, music. They sang Patti Smith’s “People have the Power” together, before U2 left the Eagles of Death Metal to do one of their own songs. It was a beautiful, moving scene. Typical of U2’s generosity towards others, I should say.
The power of music. It won’t bring anyone back, won’t solve the problems of the world. But it might give people inspiration to give it a go. Because it unites as well as meaning so much to so many people as individuals. Giving them strength in times of adversity. The universal language of hope.
Because where the right words don’t exist…