In such a politically traumatic year – the year of Brexit and Trump – and a year of many horrors, including Aleppo, the murder of Jo Cox MP here in England, the killings in Berlin just the other day, what place is there for music?
A bigger place than ever, I’d say. We need music to help express the feelings we find hard to articulate. Music brings joy, love, escape, discovery, celebration, reflection, togetherness. The good things about humankind.
And 2016 has been another wonderful year for music.
I accept my music world doesn’t really encompass the truly popular, with one or two exceptions. I got a post on Facebook from Spotify recently which listed the 40 most popular songs of the year. I was familiar with most of the artists, but had only heard two of the songs. That’s partly because my children, as they grow older, don’t force me to listen to Capital Radio in the car, and I don’t need to make playlists for youth club parties. And my staple listening is BBC 6 Music, which plays my kind of music. Latitude alerts me to one or two rising stars in the pop world, but I’m out of touch with the big sellers. It took long enough, but it had to happen.
But, but, there has been so much great music in my world too. My Top Ten of 2016 gives a flavour. I want to take three themes from that comment above about what music gives to us: discovery, celebration and reflection. And then a tribute to some of the departed. It has been quite a year for departing.
Time was when I bought most of my music on the strength of written reviews. Now it’s much more either hearing it on 6 Music or experiencing it live at the festivals I go to. This year, as well as Latitude, I went to End of the Road. Both were brilliant, highlights of the year.
Let me just list the performances at those two festivals that I absolutely loved.
Chvrches – The National – Slaves – Courtney Barnett – Let’s Eat Grandma – Pumarosa – Roots Manuva – Lonely the Brave – Mura Masa – New Order – Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats – David Rodigan’s reggae show – Adam Buxton’s tribute to David Bowie.
The Shins, Teleman, Amber Arcades, Dilly Dally, Eleanor Friedburger, Margo Price, Blue House, Field Music, Younghusbands, Laura Gibson, Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker, The Big Moon, Savages, Jeffrey Lewis and Los Bolts, M.Ward, Bat for Lashes, Feels, The Blind Shake, Thee Oh Sees, Joanna Newsom, Teenage Fanclub.
Latitude pointed me to Pumarosa, who I saw at the Village Underground in Shoreditch in October. I’m sure they will be big, when they’ve released an album. It confirmed, too, the promise of Let’s Eat Grandma, two young women who mix prog and dance and all sorts of other things together in a bizarre but highly entertaining way. And Slaves confirmed the awesome power of their music in a rip-roaring show in the 6 Music tent. A highlight.
But it was End of the Road that really led to discovery. When Jon G and I decided to go, I remember looking at the line up and thinking, I hardly know anyone on this list. But there were so many good bands. It revived my indie muse, for sure – and pointed me towards some music of great beauty too. Amber Arcades were wonderful – and now have my top album of the year, “Fading Lines”. The voice of Josienne Clarke, echoing across the Garden Stage, was a truly moving experience. Dilly Dally and The Big Moon were raucous fun and I saw both of them at the Scala later in the year. They were both full of the essence of rock’n’roll. Savages were awesome as their set got going, and singer Jehnny Beth surfed the crowd magnificently. And maybe best of all were The Blind Shake and The Oh Sees who played wild rock’n’roll that was just out of this world. Go and see either of these bands if you can. You don’t need to know their music beforehand. They just overwhelm you with their riffs and energy there and then.
Two bands who were at End of the Road that I didn’t see have become favourites since, helped by a great double CD compilation that Rough Trade put together of bands appearing at the festival. Julia Jacklin and Whitney. Jon and I saw them both at Koko in Camden in November. One of the gigs of the year.
There’s nothing like coming together and seeing your favourite bands. Celebrating their music, singing along, even, dare I say it, shedding a tear from time to time. Latitude gave us Chvrches, The National and New Order. I’ve followed Chvrches since they started. I love their sound. The voice of Lauren Mayberry is a wonder. I saw them at the Royal Albert Hall in March and they were awesome. But they were even better at Latitude. They are now a brilliant live band. Lauren really gives it some. And the bass lines at Latitude… rib-crushingly powerful. The best. The National were wonderful, and singing along to “Pink Rabbits” was probably my next best moment after Chvrches. New Order took a while to get going, but when we got the hits, like “Blue Monday” and Joy Division’s “Love Will tear Us Apart” at the end – well, what can you say?
Special mention has to go to David Rodigan’s history of reggae show in the early hours of Sunday morning too. A couple of hours of pure celebration, dancing and singing along to some of the greatest music ever. Just amazing.
End of the Road was mostly about discovery, but the very last show of the festival for me was Teenage Fanclub and they played most of their great songs from the classic album “Grand Prix”. I was tearful with joy (aided by beer) – and maybe regret – that this was the last show, throughout the concert.
But it wasn’t just the festivals. I saw Massive Attack twice, the best being their show at Brixton Academy in February. Forebodingly magnificent. In October, in an act of pure nostalgia for my teenage years, I saw Bad Company at the O2 Arena. They were terrific, but sadly, guitarist Mick Ralphs had a stroke soon after. I wish him well. Wolf Alice were fantastic in March, at the O2 Forum in Kentish Town. That gig cemented my feeling that their album “My Love is Cool” was one of the best of 2015. In the early months of 2016 I played it more than anything else. I went down to Brighton to see Lindi Ortega in February, promoting her latest album, “Faded Gloryville”. I loved the show. Of course I did! And I got to tell her afterwards as she signed my ticket. Aaaaah… And Augustines’ farewell London show at the same venue as Wolf Alice was uplifting. Here’s hoping they change their minds and continue. A very fine band.
But there were two concerts which rose above everything else. I was lucky enough to get a ticket for Radiohead at the Roundhouse, where they played the first five tracks off their magnificent album “A Moon Shaped Pool” (No 2 in my 2016 chart) straight off and got a hugely positive reception. After that it was a wonderful mix of old and new, ending with “Paranoid Android”. Never to be forgotten. And then Bruce at Wembley. What can you say? Three and a half hours of pure celebration, emotion, rock’n’roll. A journey through his whole canon. The best, the Boss – as simple as that.
This year I didn’t come across quite as much of that beautiful sad music – the thing I called Duende in my book. But Julia Jacklin gave me some of it in her lovely album “Don’t Let The Kids Win”. Listen to a track like “Motherland”, or “LA Dream”. Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker certainly did the business at End of the Road, where the music was just Ben on guitar and Josienne with her extraordinary voice. But on record, where there was more production, with violins, horns, all sorts of things, a bit of the impact was lost, I felt.
There were other lovely songs that need to be remembered this year. Whitney’s “No Woman”, which became an anthem at their Koko show; Blue House’s wistful “Ear to the Door” – a still-in-love-really song. Amber Arcade’s Annelotte de Graaf sang with a dreamy wistfuIness that was a big part of the appeal to my No 1 album “Fading Lines”. I continued to listen a lot to Daisy Vaughan’s delicately beautiful album “Light on our Limbs”. But there were no live sightings as far as I could tell. Sing to us Daisy!
And I rediscovered Kacey Musgraves’ album from 2013, “Same Trailer, Different Park”. Talk about country heartbreak! And defiance – fighting against expectations. The spirit of Bruce – like Lindi. Straight to the top of the list. And the best song of all was the closer on the album, “It Is What It Is”. Two people in limbo, not sure whether they are together or not. Both lonely, and Kacey singing come back, you don’t have to stay. So heart-wrenching, sung so tenderly.
It formed part of a small epiphany…
Every Thursday morning during term time I go into a school in Hammersmith, where I am also a governor, and read for half an hour with a pupil with some kind of reading difficulty. Normally dyslexia. It’s just half an hour, but over the weeks as you work with one person, you really can see the confidence build, practising reading or comprehension in a completely non-judgemental environment. I find it incredibly fulfilling, one of the most important things I do.
When I leave the school at around 9 o’clock and head into work, I feel a buzz, feel uplifted. That sense of helping someone to learn, to gain confidence, is something else. It’s why I have such admiration for teachers, who are trying to do this day in, day out, all day. I do half an hour a week!
And just recently I left feeling really good about a session I’d just had, where we made real progress. I always joke to myself that it’s downhill all the way once I get into work. I got onto the District Line and managed to get a seat. I pulled out my book, Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography, “Born to Run”. If you read my review of the book, you’ll know how brilliant I think it is – searingingly honest, hugely insightful. I’d got to the place where the Big Man, saxophonist Clarence Clemons, had died, and Bruce was paying tribute. It was incredibly moving, but also inspiring.
So the reading with the pupil, the reading with Bruce… I was soaring, sitting there on the District Line. And then, on my iPod playlist, on came “It Is What It Is”. Oh my God! My eyes just welled up. I wiped them as discreetly as I could, but wondered whether the woman sitting opposite had noticed. I avoided eye contact. But really, I didn’t care, because it was such a beautiful moment.
And music was the trigger.
Oh yeah, my book
Can I go through a review of 2016 without mentioning “I Was There – A Musical Journey”? Well, obviously not! A labour of love, put together over eight years or so. My story, told in music. It’s now published, on Amazon and Kindle. I like to think it’s a good account of the music of the last fifty years, as long as I liked it. There’s a bit of my life in there, but it’s mostly a celebration of the music. Like Lindi Ortega sings, if the music wasn’t flowing through the blood in my veins…
And departed heroes
We lost two of the greats this year – David Bowie and Prince. Many would add Leonard Cohen. I respect that; it’s just that I’ve never listened much to his music.
Bowie is up there with Bruce, Bob Marley, Elvis Costello, Bob Dylan, The Beatles, Van Morrison, The Clash, Radiohead, Massive Attack and U2 as a favourite artist of all time. He straddled so many genres, influenced so many other bands. I struggle to say what my favourite album is because there are so many candidates. Maybe “Station to Station”, but what about “Diamond Dogs”, or “Ziggy Stardust”, or “Aladdin Sane” or “Low”? A genius, an inspiration.
Prince straddled the genres too. He was rooted in funk and soul, but came closer than anyone to perfecting the fusion of rock’n’roll with soul. The 1980s were his heyday, when his imagination ran riot and he made a succession of great albums: “1999”, “Purple Rain”, “Parade” and “Sign o’ the Times” the best, I’d say. He lost his way in the 90s and beyond, with disputes with record companies and pretty much everything; but he stayed true to his muse when playing live. I was fortunate enough to see him at the Roundhouse with Third Eye Girl in 2015, and he was truly awesome. In the end an entertainer more than a pioneer – I always wondered why he didn’t experiment more with electronic sounds – but an entertainer like few others. And a huge influence on today’s R&B and rap music. Just listen to the great new artists like Kendrick Lamar and Frank Ocean and tell me you don’t hear some Prince in there. It’s obvious!
So Prince and Bowie are gone. But their music lives on.
And so to 2017
I would expect Pumarosa and The Big Moon to do well with their debut albums. But it is tough these days. I really wish Gengahr well with their second album – I saw them play quite a few new tunes in November in Shoreditch and they were good.
And already I’ve got a whole load of gigs lined up: Amber Arcades, Cabbage, Julia Jacklin, Underworld, ABC (blast from the past!), Car Seat Headrest, Moonlandingz, Bryan Ferry at Hampton Court (M&S picnic and champers beforehand, no doubt!). Can’t wait!
2016 was awful in many ways, but brilliant in others. And music of course was on the credit side. And always will be…
So here’s to 2017 in music.