2018 – what a year!. Politically it has been turbulent around the world, and in the UK our politicians appear either to have lost their minds or their nerve, as we head towards a break with the European Union which will yield no benefits whatsoever, just deep division and self-inflicted damage to our economy, our society, our nation and our influence in the world. Personally, it’s been a time of change, especially with my decision to retire, which I did in September. And boy, have I enjoyed being freed from the shackles of commuting, dealing with moaning MPs and spending hours in meetings that no-one wanted to be at! More positively, I’ve been doing lots of writing, reading, a bit of painting, plenty of cycling and walking, visiting galleries – and seeing friends. And, of course, enjoying a huge amount of music: on the radio – 6 Music, I salute you! – on Spotify and my iPod, and live. Oh yes, live! I think this is probably my record year for concert-going. In a spot of statto-nerdism, I went through my diary and blogs the other day and counted 44 concerts, plus three festivals: the one-dayer at All Points East in Hackney back in June, and then the two fixed points in the year – Latitude in July and End of the Road in August/September. Those last two events added another 50-plus shows to the list! A lot of music, and a lot of wonderful experiences and precious memories.
It’s been a great year for recorded music, too. I say that every year, but there is so much creativity, so much variety, innovation, excitement. Plenty of tried-and-trusted experiences too – nothing wrong with taking comfort from the familiar, something to rely on, retreat to, in this mad world. I published my Top Ten of 2018 a couple of weeks ago, and mentioned another ten albums and a few tracks, just for good measure; but since then I’ve been listening to a lot of music that I’ve heard in 6 Music round-ups or read about in the best-of lists in the media. It’s mind-boggling! There is so much good stuff out there that I hadn’t heard – or even heard of. That’s despite spending a fair amount of my life listening to and seeking out new music. One of my favourite DJs on 6 Music is Lauren Laverne. She has been on between 10am and 1pm for many years, although she is about to take over the breakfast show. The timeslot has meant that I didn’t get to hear her that often, although you can listen to anything on delay these days, and she also does a very good “Recommends” hour one midnight each week. I’ve been listening a lot more since I retired, and just before Christmas I caught her round-up of her favourite tunes of the year. It was brilliant! A fair few tunes made their way immediately onto my Best of 2018 playlist on Spotify, including “Boys” by Lizzo, “Charcoal Baby” by Blood Orange, “Boyfriend” by Confidence Man and “Girlfriend” by Christine and the Queens. None of these are obscurities, but I was only just hearing them. “Tints” by Anderson.Paak (ft Kendrick Lamar) and “Offence” by Little Simz were already on the list, courtesy of earlier shows. I’m getting my dance music bug back, after the dominance of indie and country in recent years. Back to the 90s!
But let’s not get carried away. Indie and country remained my staples, especially in the live environment, and on my endlessly listened-to playlists which accompanied a lot of my writing and even more of my tube journeys. My top albums were both by country artists – Kacey Musgraves and Catherine McGrath – although both were basically just very good pop albums. With, for me, some very moving and resonant songs. I was really pleased to see the recognition that Kacey has received for “Golden Hour”. And in the way of these things, a media bandwagon develops and suddenly the album is getting in everyone’s Best-of lists. So much so that in the recent BBC poll of 35 music polls, “Golden Hour” came top. Well-deserved; and I hope similar recognition will, in time, come Catherine’s way. Her debut album, “Talk of this Town” didn’t make any Best-ofs I’ve seen (though I’m sure it would have featured in some UK country lists) but she has made a great start to her career and is a joy live. I saw her three times this year, each show a sell-out and each a step up from the previous one. The last was at the Scala, Kings Cross, in September, part of her tour to promote “Talk of this Town”. It was a couple of days after my retirement, so I guess it will stay in my memory for that reason too!
Kacey’s show at Wembley Arena in October was one of the highlights of my musical year. A really wonderful, moving experience. I’d put that show in my top three of the year. It’s hard to pick three from so many; but without taking time to analyse it, or go through the list and start to revise the choice, there were three that jumped out. The other two were Taylor Swift at Wembley Stadium, who really was amazing; and, of course Bruce Springsteen’s solo show on Broadway. I had the good fortune, thanks to my friend and colleague at IPSA, Matthew, to get a face value ticket for the show on 30 June. Face value was bloody expensive! But it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, an extraordinarily powerful mix of the spoken word and Bruce on acoustic guitar and piano. His wife, Patti Scialfa, joined him for two songs, but otherwise it was just Bruce and his story. While I was watching, I’m not sure I took it all in. It was afterwards, walking the streets of New York, that I started to process it, to remember key moments, to reflect on what it meant to me. I’ve written before on how Bruce’s music, from when I first heard “Darkness on the Edge of Town” at the age of 19, became a soundtrack to my life – a bit less so these days, but a lot so in my 20s and 30s especially.
Over the years I’ve invested a lot of time and emotion in the music of Bruce Springsteen. Sometimes it has been music to celebrate to – like when I finally passed my driving test, in 1997, got home and put “Meeting Across the River/Jungleland” on. There was no other choice. Sometimes it has been music to get angry to. Quite recently, in 2015, I got so incensed about something at work that I went for a walk along the river and listened to “Darkness on the Edge of Town” all the way through, metaphorically punching the air, kicking the cat, etc. I felt better by the time I got back. Sometimes it has been music to feel miserable and self-pitying to – see entire late teens and early 20s! Sometimes it has been music to feel love to – like the time in 1996 when my baby son was lying ill on my lap and “The Ghost of Tom Joad”, a song about despair, had the opposite effect. I wrote two chapters on Bruce in my book “I Was There – A Musical Journey” if you want more of this!
A recording of “Bruce on Broadway” is now on Netflix. I’ve watched it once; in the New Year a few of my old friends are coming round for a Bruce and beer-fest. Back to 1978 all over again!
In the here and now, Latitude and End of the Road (EOTR) were, once again, highlights of the year. Crucial moments. Moments of liberation, discovery, celebration, community, conversation and Carlsberg! Lots. And this year sun, sun, sun, both festivals. Which at Latitude, means dust, dust, dust! As ever, the music was fantastic and provided a template for music-listening for much of the rest of the year. Highlights for me at Latitude included: Palace Winter, Lower Slaughter (so angry!), Durand Jones and the Indications, Black Midi, Alvvays, Mogwai, Holly Cook, the Orielles, Idles, Wolf Alice and Jon Hopkins. At EOTR my pick were: Tiny Ruins, Amyl and the Sniffers, This is the Kit, Fat White Family, Shame, the Orielles again, Caroline Spence, Soccer Mommy, Vampire Weekend, Japanese Breakfast and Snail Mail.
A word on Idles and Shame. Both have won plaudits this year, both for their raucous live performances and their albums, “Joy as an Act of Resistance” and “Songs of Praise” respectively, which have ranked high in most Best-ofs that take punk/indie music seriously, including 6 Music, NME, Loud and Quiet and Rough Trade. Even the Guardian, which now just follows the mainstream pop/dance choices on the whole, acknowledged them. I’ve enjoyed their live performances, but on record, the odd track at a time is enough for me. I find whole albums, especially Idles, a bit too relentless, and, to be honest, a bit tuneless. The riffs are a bit sludgy too. Best experienced on the stage, I think; and stand back a bit unless you like a lot of laddish moshing.
I thought I’d end with another list. Twenty-one of my favourite live moments of 2018, in no particular order.
- The moment Kacey Musgraves appeared in a flood of light in the darkness at Wembley Arena, acoustic guitar in hand, and started singing “Slow Burn”. A truly moving moment that set the scene for two hours of bliss.
- Taylor Swift suspended over the Wembley crowd in a gilded cage, singing “Delicate”. Bizarre and wonderful.
- Bruce Springsteen’s brutal, raw slide guitar accompanying his searing rendition of “Born in the USA” in his “Bruce on Broadway” show. Reclaiming the song from the politicians.
- Everyone in a packed Roundhouse singing along to Alvvays’ “Archie”. Uplifting.
- Stina Tweeddale of Honeyblood drinking too much and losing it a bit at their show at Bush Hall in January – but still delivering a blistering set of punky rock’n’roll.
- Stina again, singing solo at the Leith festival, Edinburgh, in May. A touch nervous, which just added to the intensity. And she played “Hey Stellar”! One of my favourite songs of all time.
- Another joyous communal effort at the Roundhouse: Car Seat Headrest and the awesome “Killer Whale” chorus.
- Gengahr on a tiny stage at All Points East rocking out to “Carrion”. A wall of sound, the best guitars around.
- Everyone in the Scala singing along to “Thunder Road” with the “She Street Band”. The whole concert a total celebration of Brooooce!
- Lande Hekt of Muncie Girls launching into “Jeremy”, a song about her father she wasn’t sure she’d have the nerve to sing. It’s not complimentary!
- Watching Wolf Alice at the Q Awards aftershow at the Roundhouse, and feeling their time has really come. Truly magnificent.
- Standing close to the front of the Tipi Tent at EOTR, wallowing in the beauty of Caroline Spence’s country ballads and being bowled over by “Slow Dancer”.
- Skanking in the early hours at Latitude to the dubwise reggae rhythms and sweet melodies of Holly Cook and her band.
- The Orielles at Latitude in the Sunrise Arena and at Heaven in November: glistening melodies, elastic beats and diamond-edged guitar. So much promise.
- Catherine McGrath triumphant at the Scala in September, overwhelmed by the sight of so many people singing along to the words. Last song “Talk of this Town” a communal affirmation of how far she has come this year.
- The electrifying cartoon punk of Amyl and the Sniffers at EOTR. The Ramones meet AC/DC. Huge fun, and really bringing back the memories.
- Seeing Lindi Ortega twice in three days in June, close up at the Komedia in Brighton, then at the Garage, Islington. Wonderful songs, beautiful singing, superb musicianship, with “Lovers in Love” a new highlight.
- The moments when Sophie Allison of Soccer Mommy goes solo, with just her electric guitar. “Waiting for Cars” at the Moth Club in March, “Still Clean” in the Tipi tent at EOTR, Bruce’s “I’m on Fire” wafting around the spaces of Wembley Arena. Works of delicate beauty.
- The lary showmanship of Fat White Family and Shame at EOTR, undaunted by being on the main stage in the open air. Just more crowd to surf!
- Vampire Weekend lighting up EOTR on the main stage, Saturday night. A revelation. Who doesn’t love “A-Punk”, “Oxford Comma” and all the rest? Sharp and funky.
- The aural and visual assault of Jon Hopkins’ Sunday night show at Latitude in the BBC Music tent. Performing “Singularity”, his new album. Mind-blowing.
So, 2018 was pretty good! 2019 is already shaping up nicely, with a few gigs already booked, including Faye Webster, Adrianne Lenker (singer with Big Thief), Francis Dunnery (not again!), Black Midi (amazing and rather mysterious young noiseniks), Rival Sons (not heard any of their music, but I’m told they rock), Chrvches (hooray!), Sharon van Etten, Ward Thomas, Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets, Steve Hillage (really!) and Kylie, who is playing Hampton Court Palace in the summer. That should be rather special.
Many more will be added to that list, including, quite soon I hope, the return of Honeyblood, promoting a new album. Can’t wait for that! No 1 album of 2019 slot already booked? We’ll see. Nothing is certain. I mean, we might even end up staying in the EU…
Fingers crossed and have a great 2019.