2018. Another amazing year of music. I probably saw more concerts than ever before. And so many good bands coming through. The return of a few artists whose records I’ve loved in recent years too. I get asked how I find out about all this music (even though I really only scratch the surface of what’s out there). The answer is listening to BBC 6 Music, reading the music press, following bands on Facebook and Twitter, and the live experience. Concerts in London and occasionally elsewhere, and the two festivals, Latitude and End of the Road, which introduce me to great new bands every year. There’s so much to love, and I’ve been loving it more than ever before in 2018!
And so here are my top ten albums of the year, plus a few others that came close, some great individual tracks and a few albums from 2017 that I missed last year. All represented on the Spotify playlist at the end of this review.
No 1. “Golden Hour” by Kacey Musgraves
Wembley Arena, 27 November. The lights go down. At the top of a staircase a shaft of light shines down on Kacey Musgraves, briefly alone with her acoustic guitar, strumming the opening chords of “Slow Burn”. Born in a hurry, always late, never been early since ‘88… I feel quite moved, the tears well in my eyes. “Slow Burn” is the opening song on my favourite album of the year, “Golden Hour”, and one of the best on the album. The best things can take time; I’m alright with a slow burn. “Golden Hour” has felt like the soundtrack to my life in 2018. It’s that rarity: a happy country album. Well, sort of happy – it has its moments of doubt and gloom too. The song that perhaps sums the whole thing up is “Happy and Sad”, where Kacey reflects on her feelings at times of real happiness – downhill from here! “Golden Hour” is a celebration of love and hope – Kacey married not so long ago – interspersed with those doubts and fears and some put downs of the arseholes in songs like “High Horse” and “Wonder Woman”. Along with “Slow Burn” and “Happy and Sad” my two favourites are “Oh What a World” and “Golden Hour”, both unashamedly sentimental and positive. Beautiful love songs; the perfect antidote to the crazy world in which we live.
The music on “Golden Hour” is, on the surface, barely country at all, though I dare say that the melodies, stripped down, could cruise along easily enough to a bit of weepy steel guitar. This is high class pop, beautifully produced, with half an eye on what a Taylor Swift has achieved, without going the whole hog into dance mode. “High Horse” is Kacey’s disco number, and it went down a storm at Wembley. But the template is more an updated Fleetwood Mac, without forgetting those country roots. Above all, “Golden Hour” is a feel good album that never fails to give you a warm glow. Easy and deep. A sound to wallow in, songs to swoon to. It’s winning a lot of big awards in America at the moment. People were surprised at first, but it’s no surprise to me. The USA has recognised the brilliance of Kacey Musgraves and this wonderful album.
No 2. “Talk of this Town” by Catherine McGrath
So continuing the country/pop theme, our own contender, and my No 2 of the year. Catherine McGrath is a young country singer from Northern Ireland and “Talk of this Town” is her debut album. Regular readers of this blog will know that I love her music and have been following her progress since I first saw her at Latitude in July 2017. I went to see her that summer afternoon because I’d read in the programme that she was inspired by Kacey Musgraves. So there’s a connection! “Talk of this Town” is a mix of some of her “old” songs re-recorded and a batch of fresh tunes, with a rockier edge in many cases, and definitely an ear for the pop sensibility of Taylor Swift. Lyrically, most of the songs are about lost love, missed opportunities, what-ifs, but the music is uplifting and at times, just plain beautiful. There are so many highlights, but I love the upbeat punchiness of newer tunes like “Enough of You” and “Lost in the Middle”, the defiance of “Talk of this Town” and the anguished should have been me cries of “Wild”, one of her oldest songs, now with full Tayloresque production. “Don’t Let Me Forget” is a lovely duet with Hunter Hayes, and the re-makes of the wistful ballads, “Cinderella” and “She’ll Never Love You” twang the heartstrings. Like Kacey’s “Golden Hour”, Talk of this Town” is always an album to put on and feel good.
No 3. “Fixed Ideals” by Muncie Girls
I came across Muncie Girls for the first time when I was asked to review “Fixed Ideals” for the Punk Archive website in August. I immediately liked the sound – mostly upbeat melodic punk combined with Lande Hekt’s distinctive, West Country tinged voice. So far so good, but on reading the PR blurb which came with a link to the album, a lot was made of the honesty and bite of Lande’s lyrics and how they dealt with her upbringing and battles with depression. So, on the train up to Edinburgh for the festival I had the album on repeat, and those lyrics did start to reveal themselves. There is an unvarnished candour, a real vulnerability, amid the anger at politics, at sexist men and at life, really. Lande doesn’t go for metaphor or allusion much, she tells it like it is in her world. And I found that the songs really grew on me, that the vulnerability and sadness in the words, were really quite affecting. So, on the one hand she excoriates her errant father on “Jeremy” as the riff struts and leaps into action; on the other the simple plea that we were friends at least; oh we were, weren’t we? in “Hangovers” is one of the most heart-rending things I’ve heard this year. Those two songs are the most memorable for me; but I love the Strokes-style guitar in “Fig Tree” along with the put down of one of those sexist blokes, and “Clinic” and Picture of Health” combine punky riffs with brutal honesty about what has gone on in her head. “Fixed Ideals” led me to Muncie Girls’ debut album “From Caplin to Belsize” which came out in 2016. They are fairly similar – “Fixed Ideals” perhaps a little slicker – and I’ve come to listen to them as a double album. The wonderful, wistful “Social Side” has become something of a companion piece to “Hangovers”. The band – a three piece – are excellent live too. Modern punk at its best.
No 4. “Silver Dollar Moment” by the Orielles
The Orielles make music that is diamond-edged, jangling, funky and melodic, echoing the indie sounds of the 80s with a bit of 70s Isley Brothers style funk thrown into the mix. But with a sound which is very distinctly their own. “Silver Dollar Moment” is a joyous album which has grown on me over the year, and really took off after the brilliant live performance I saw at Heaven in November. I love Henry Carlyle Wade’s stop-start guitar motifs, complemented beautifully by Esme Dee hand-Halford’s elastic basslines and airy vocals. Highlights include “Let Your Dogtooth Grow”, “Sunflower Seeds”, “Old Stuff, New Glass”, and the slow one “Liminal”, accompanied by its 60s film theme shadow “The Sound of Liminal Spaces”, but the whole thing shimmers and delights. This band are capable of anything in the future.
No 5. “Where Wildness Grows” by Gengahr
Gengahr’s debut album “A Dream Outside” was No 1 in my top albums of 2015. I loved the twisted melodies, the eerie vocals of Felix Bushe and the expressive guitar sounds of John Victor. The best indie guitar album for a long time, I suggested. “Where Wildness Grows” is the next step on the journey. It’s lusher, more complex, but retains the essential qualities of the first album. The guitars sing, sometimes they surge, and the tunes remain entrancing. The best song of all is “Carrion” which carries you along on a wave of sound, and was magnificent live, when we caught them at “All Points East” this summer. I’ll be Waiting” chugs along catchily, a little like “Heroine” before it, and “Rising Tide” has a lovely, languid melancholy. “Where Wildness Grows” is another triumph, and I can’t understand why the music press haven’t picked up on them in a big way yet.
No 6. “Clean” by Soccer Mommy
Soccer Mommy is the vehicle for Sophie Allison, and “Clean” is officially her debut album, although she has had a couple of previous collections of songs. The sound is a combination of sensitive singer-songwriter and low-fi indie jangle. The songs pack a punch lyrically, but also have a real tenderness at times. Live they work beautifully, and never more so than when Sophie goes solo and just sings along to a sparse accompaniment from her electric guitar. I’ve seen the band three times this year; at a crowded Moth Club in Hackney, at End of the Road and then supporting Kacey Musgraves at Wembley Arena. “Your Dog” and “Cool” are the defiant rockers, the likes of “Still Clean” and “Scorpio Rising” the ones that work so well unaccompanied live. This album is a simple delight.
No 7. “Goat Girl” by Goat Girl
Ah, I love this band! I just love their attitude. There is loads of it. No bullshit. Taking on the sleazy elements of London life. Live they have a real swagger, as they rattle through their songs, sometimes rocking out, sometimes drawling, twanging in a rockabilly style, or hinting at reggae. “Goat Girl” is their debut album. 19 songs, fragments, blurring into each other, confounding the expectations of what we were going to get first time around. As a piece it’s grower; individually the standouts are the ones that rock live: “The Man”, “Country Sleaze” (a new version), “Cracker Drool”, “The Man with No Heart and Brain”. It’s going to be fascinating to see what direction they take in the future.
No 8. “Liberty” by Lindi Ortega
This is Lindi’s fifth album and quite different to its predecessors. The sound has a definite echo of the spaghetti western soundtrack. Rather than Nashville, this is Arizona, New Mexico. The themes are familiar – variations of country heartbreak, Lindi’s voice as achingly beautiful as ever. She toured the UK this summer and I saw her twice. Two of my musical highlights of the year. Overall, this isn’t her greatest album – the songs are less distinctive than some that have gone before. But there are many wonderful moments. My favourites are “In the Clear” – relief after the storm – and the gorgeous “Lovers in Love”, which is up there with Lindi’s best. Still my favourite country artist (well, with Kacey, maybe!).
No 9. “Love is Dead” by Chvrches
“Love is Dead” is Chvrches third album, and continues their journey from electro-indie to triumphant dance-pop. But still with an indie edge. It took me a little while to get the most from it, but the infectiousness of songs like “Get Out”, “My Enemy” (with the National’s Matt Berninger duetting) and “Heaven/Hell” won over me in the end. Actually, “Get Out” was a hit first listen. Definitely learning a few lessons from Taylor Swift there. Lauren Mayberry’s voice remains a thing of great beauty, set against the pounding dance beats; and live she is now an exceptional performer. Can’t wait to see them at Alexandra Palace next February!
No 10. “European Heartbreak” by Amber Arcades
Amber Arcades’ debut “Fading Lines” was my No 1 of 2016. I couldn’t get enough of those pristine Euro-melodies and the shimmering guitars. And then there was the electro-pop workout “Turning Light”, which was always the highlight live. “European Heartbreak” is a more subdued, melancholy affair, a lament for lost love, and for Europe. Only “Where Did You Go” really lets the guitars loose. The songs are lush, reflective, almost with a 60s feel. You could compare some of them with First Aid Kit. Singer Annelotte de Graaf, who also writes the songs and plays rhythm guitar, invests the songs with a wistful beauty. It’s another album that grows on you, that reveals more of its depths with each listen. Not as uplifting as the first, but ultimately a more profound listen. And in “Goodnight Europe”, we have a suitably regretful song for Brexit.
“Nowadays” by Palace Winter takes up where the magnificent “Waiting for the World to Turn” left off, without quite as many memorable tunes. “Lush” by Snail Mail has been getting in a lot of year end best-ofs. It’s similar to Soccer Mommy” – a bit less varied in sound, maybe a bit rockier. Great live at End of the Road.
I’m only just getting in to Courtney Barnett’s “Tell Me How You Really Feel”, but I’m liking the guitars and there are more of her unsettlingly honest lyrics amid some catchy melodies. Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever on “Hope Down” have a rolling, rambling guitar sound that reminds me at times of REM and War on Drugs. Hollie Cook’s “Vessel of Love” is an easy-grooving collection of reggae with a lovely dub feel that really came across live at Latitude in the early hours. Hollie’s sweet vocals would have made this lovers’ rock in the 80s – maybe still do.
“All Melody” by Nils Frahm, the German pianist/composer, is an adventure into sound – electronic and analogue. Quite beautiful – to immerse yourself in. And the foundation for an extraordinary live show. That can be said about Jon Hopkins’ “Singularity” too. More relentless electro-beats than Nils’s album, and quite amazing live at Latitude, enhanced by the stunning visual effects. “Dream Wife” by Dream Wife is a lively, assertive collection of indie rockers, embellished by the distinctive voice of Rakel Mjoll, who is brilliant on stage too. Adrienne Lenker’s “abysskiss” is a solo effort from the singer in Big Thief. It’s a thing of delicate beauty and I can’t wait to hear her perform it at Union Chapel in January. Finally, I haven’t really given “Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino” by Arctic Monkeys enough time yet; but I sense there’s an album in there that could really grow on me. It sounds more like a solo venture for Alex Turner, and more than anything, reminds me of the balladeering of David Bowie. That’s not a bad reference point.
Some standout tracks from 2018 and some 2017 discoveries
Retirement has allowed me to listen to more daytime radio, and I’ve got to hear some great new soul sounds, some jazzy, some imbued with the spirit of rap and dance. The 90s rebirth of cool/ acid jazz vibe updated for the modern age. The tracks I’m really loving include “Blue Lights” by Jorja Smith, “Used To” by Greentea Peng, and “Tried” by BADBADNOTGOOD (ft Little Dragon). I could add “Everybody Loves You” by Soak to that list, a real melancholy anthem. There’s a gorgeous new song from Faye Webster too, called “Kingston”. The word that comes to mind is luxuriant – both the sound and the accompanying video. Should be a massive, massive hit. Probably won’t, but the world doesn’t know what it’s missing. Sophie Allison of Soccer Mommy has also released a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire” which is stripped down and wonderfully atmospheric. And last but not least, two really beautiful songs from Billie Marten: “Mice” and “Blue Sea, Red Sea”. I first heard her a few weeks ago on Tom Ravenscroft, standing in for Lauren Laverne on 6 Music. Just loved her voice, and her laid back attitude when interviewed. Those two singles are follow ups to her 2016 album “Writing of Blues and Yellows”. It’s a good album, with a great mellow cover of Royal Blood’s metallic stomper “Out of the Black”. Shows there’s a lovely melody lurking in just about any song!
Four artists who had albums in 2017 that I missed, but I discovered thanks to End of the Road festival, also deserve a mention. Caroline Spence is a Nashville-based country singer with a beautiful voice and a wonderful album called “Spades and Roses”. I love it all, but the songs that stands out is “Slow Dancer”. Up there with Kacey’s “Slow Burn”. Big Thief are a New York band. Americana would be a lazy categorisation, but there’s an element of that. Chuck in a bit of Velvet Underground and U2 and you might start getting there. Adrianne Lenker, who I mentioned above, is the lead singer. “Capacity” was their 2017 album; “Masterpiece” came out in 2016. There are so many great songs, which can go off in all sorts of directions. “Shark Smile”, “Paul” and “Masterpiece” are my three current favourites. Julien Baker is another American artist. “Turn out the Lights” is her 2017 album and the title track starts slow and develops into a massive chorus. I really like her voice, though the music is a little overblown at times. Finally, (Sandy) Alex G. Recommended to me by one of our Latitude gathering. I saw his band at End of the Road and was amazed by their popularity with the 20 somethings. Their 2017 album “Rocket” is a bit of a mish mash, but I absolutely love the song “Proud”. A totally joyous sound, even though some of the lyrics are quite dark.
So that’s it as far as the words are concerned. But if you have Spotify and fancy a listen, here’s a playlist of the some of the music I’ve been writing about. Put on shuffle and enjoy!
One last photo of Kacey – just so it automatically pops up in my Facebook post!