So, another year, another list of albums that I fell in love with (writes Andy Wood). Who gives a damn? The world is full of end of the year lists already, let alone one that has appeared weeks, even months after the start of the new year. Does anyone even read this stuff? I don’t know but I felt compelled to do this again. And Mike did ask nicely a few weeks back if I was ever going to finish it.
Every year people bemoan the fact that the year that has just passed was a fallow year for great music, and sure, if you don’t dig deeper and keep your eyes open then any year can appear to be a fallow year for music. I’m sure people have been complaining about the lack of great music each year since, oh I dunno, 1957 or something, since the birth of popular music at least. Equally, people often seem to bemoan a perceived dearth of political music and yet, again, there are some astute, smart and biting songs out there. None of these artists sing anything as prosaic as ‘Fuck the Tories / Fuck Trump’ but I’ve never been much moved by simple sloganeering or obviousness, but STOOR and POZI, to name but two, offer up a critique of 21st century politics that are both razor sharp and moving. And, in the case of STOOR’s Fleam, often darkly humorous.
I’m not a tribal or local-nationalist kind of person but there are a number of artists in this list either from Dundee or with close links to the city in the list – STOOR, Andrew Wasylyk, SHHE, Fenella and Rev Magnetic. I don’t apologise, I’m not saying my town is better than anyone else’s town, they are all in this list purely based on merit rather than place of birth or residence.
As ever, I have probably missed tons of great stuff out. Life has a habit of getting in the way of other stuff but hey, you can make your own list up.
Anyway, enough of my ramblings, here are my favourite albums of 2019. You can dig it or ignore it, argue for or against it but here they are. I am the only arbiter of my taste, like Judge Dredd, at least here, I am the law. I hope you enjoy this list or at least find something in it worth your attention. They are not necessarily in any order. Absolute favourites changed places multiple times over the year and still do. Some albums didn’t make the cut, not because I won’t come to love them but, for the moment I haven’t found my way through them yet, such as Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds Ghosteen which I came late to. Also Honeyblood’s third, which is probably my favourite record by them and Pip Blom, both of whom were great live but I just didn’t spend that much time with the records although I’m sure I’ll return to them. So, this is my list. Dive in.
Fontaines D.C. – Dogrel (Partisan Records)
My days of knowing what is and what isn’t cool are long gone (if they ever existed) but I vaguely knew of Fontaines D.C. before I heard them, mainly through word of mouth recommendations. Then I heard ‘Big’ on the radio one Sunday afternoon and was totally hooked. So much so that I bought Dogrel the very next day. It has been constant aural companion throughout most of 2019 and into 2020. It’s a series of hypnotic, spikey vignettes of Dublin life at the end of the second decade of the 21st century narrated by a poetic street-urchin in a broad accent and harsh but beguiling voice. Full of hooks, twists and turns, Dogrel packs a solid punch but also contains a huge degree of tenderness, particularly on songs such as ‘Roys Tune’, ‘The Lotts’ and the bruised epic ‘Dublin City Sky’. I finally saw them live in Newcastle in January and they didn’t disappoint despite having a speedy ascent from tiny venues to huge sold out shows. In my humble opinion Fontaines D.C. are the best new band in a long time. Do believe the hype.
STOOR – Fleam (Stereogram)
Tricky second albums? Difficult follow-up? Bugger that. STOOR seem to make this record making business look a piece of piss. Fleam picks up where the superb self-titled debut left off and smashes most of the competition out of the park with this absolute monster of a record. It swaggers and bludgeons like an unstoppable prize fighter, swatting away wannabe contenders out of the ring with ease. Fleam isn’t just fierce and relentless though, it’s also playful and funny, both musically and lyrically, tearing through modern ills and evils and with an exhilarating fun fair ride atmosphere. Full of contrasting shades of light and dark, Fleam is a joyfully, spikey rollercoaster ride. STOOR are the true heirs to the post-punk lineage, articulate and artful, twisting a seemingly strange range of influences into a splendid sound that also carries a wonderful way with a melody. One day the world will catch up… or not. Your loss.
POZI – PZ1 (Prah Recordings)
I bought this in Rough Trade East on a trip to London last May. I can’t put my finger on why, but the sleeve and the brief description added by Rough Trade staff just stuck in my head for a couple of days and I went back and it bought it unheard. All a bit random but I’m glad I took the plunge as I adore this record so much. POZI also draw upon post-punk as an influence but it’s a more stripped-down affair, just drums-bass-violin and vocals and the songs are almost skeletal in parts yet pack an emotional punch. The songs are hypnotic and beautiful and, like Stoor, they dissect modern life and all its shades of joy and pain. I caught them live twice last year and they were a joy. This record is also a joy. And in the form of ‘KCTMO’, a song about the Grenfell Tower atrocity, absolutely heartbreaking with lines such as ‘The state shrugs its shoulders, it has nothing to say’ a chillingly accurate and summation of the Government and Council’s appalling lack of real response to the horror of the events or their complicity in them. Anyone whining that no one writes political songs any more should a.) have their ears syringed and b.) try listening to more music.
Patience – Dizzy Spells (Night School / Winona Records)
Another unexpected purchase although in this instance I actually heard this in Monorail and had to ask who it was. Patience trade in slick, gorgeous electro-pop but with a nice edge. It seduced and dragged me in to its world within a song or two. Patience is the new project by Roxanne Clifford, once of the wonderful Veronica Falls and it is both a million years away from and yet in tune with that band. Packed full of sweet melodies and great hooks, Dizzy Spells is more machine-honed and polished than Veronica Falls yet it retains a spirited, raw feel. Every song feels like it should be on the radio, on the hour, every hour but as much as I’ve played this it never wearies or dulls. Patience kind of remind me of the period in the 1980s when New Order were releasing what seemed like classic single after classic single and there’s a definite influence on songs such as ‘Living Things don’t Last’ and especially ‘White Of An Eye’ but this isn’t a snarky po-mo pastiche but a fantastic, engaging sound for now.
Toy – Songs Of Consumption (Tough Love)
This is a strange but lovely record. Eight cover versions, stripped down and reinterpreted, ranging from The Stooges feral ‘Down On The Street’ to a Soft Cell b-side, ‘Fun City’. This is a beautiful, atmospheric record that holds together as a single piece rather than just a collection of oddities despite the disparate range of source materials. It’s a strange thing, the covers album. Most of the time they suck or don’t really add any personality to proceedings unless your personality is desperate to look cool arrogance – does anyone remember Duran Duran’s contribution to this genre? At other times they can be amazing – Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds Kicking Against The Pricks being a longstanding favourite of mine. At times Cave and company’s versions surpassed the original material. While I wouldn’t go as far as to say Toy quite achieve this they do give the songs a thoroughly new framework and slant that is both elegiac and gorgeous.
Purple Mountains – Purple Mountains (Drag City)
I was so happy to discover that David Berman had resurfaced after a lengthy absence and that rumours of his demise were exactly that. The Silver Jews are one of those bands that I have loved for a long time and now Berman had a new album and something of a media profile. The happiness was short lived by his untimely passing and there’s a sense that this record will always be looked at and interpreted through the lense of that. Yet while there are plenty of references to illness, physical and mental and a life lived full of regret, this is also an album laced with a dark humour and playfulness. Embracing a sound that is at times ramshackle at others quite epic with lush sound and arrangements, this is an album that, while tinged with a deep sadness, I find uplifting as well as heartbreaking.
Andrew Wasylyk – The Paralian (Athens Of The North)
Along with Stoor, Purple Mountains and Nick Cave this was another album that I was anticipating hearing with growing excitement. And, as with these records, The Paralian didn’t disappoint but even managed to exceed my high expectations. Prior to the sublime Themes For Buildings And Spaces it would be honest to say that I wasn’t a great fan of Andrew’s work. I kind of appreciated where it was coming from but it didn’t really grab me much. Personally, Themes For Buildings And Spaces was a major game changer and its follow-up, The Paralian, equally blows me away. For this album, Andrew Wasylyk moved further up the coast from urban Dundee and its edge lands to the North Sea coastline around Arbroath. Again, the music and compositions are firmly located in a geographical setting yet The Paralian reaches out further as the reviews and end of year lists have highlighted. Nine of the ten tracks on The Paralian are instrumental yet it is lyrically rich, a dreamlike, almost magical evocation of land and seascapes that has a demonstrably emotional impact. This record moves me in so many ways, envelopes me in its atmosphere and frees my mind up from the day to day to dream and reflect. Sublime. I saw Andrew Wasylyk perform in two very different spaces at both ends of the year and it was very special indeed. As is this record.
Fenella – Feherlofia (Fire)
Fenella have foregone the Kool Aid and instead went gathering the mushrooms on this mesmerizing, trippy debut album. Fenella is a collaboration between Jane Weaver, Raz Ullah and Peter Phillipson, begun in the North West of Scotland and brought to fruition in Manchester. It was conceived as a new soundtrack to the 1981 animated film, Feherlofia which I had never heard of before. However, it transcends its function as a soundtrack and stands up well as a record on its own merit creating a unique dreamscape and world.
Feherlofia is a gorgeously intoxicating listen, at times quite intense, at others almost ambient but always an intensely exhilarating experience. At times it has that haunted feel explored by the likes of Ghost Box artists a good few years ago, digging into an alternative past and future which gives it a disorienting, disturbing feel but overall it is an extremely immersive and lovely experience.
Jane Weaver – Loops In The Secret Society (Fire)
A second entry for Jane Weaver reflecting a very productive year for the Mancunian artist. Jane Weaver has been making music for a long time but in recent years a lot of it has bypassed me for reasons that reflect on me rather than the quality of Jane Weaver’s output. Loops In The Secret Society is a great way to jump back in and If you haven’t really engaged with Weaver’s music before I’d recommend this as an excellent starting point. The album contains 22 tracks, mainly solo re-workings from recent albums but rather than a recent ‘Greatest Hits’ type thing this works splendidly as a coherent record. As with the Fenella record, there is an eerie, haunted feel to the music contained on this album but there is also a celestial beauty and sense of joy with Weaver’s lovely vocals and melodic sensibilities to the fore. At times the songs have a propulsive, motorik element, at others they are gentler. The electronic instrumentation builds up gentle layers without overwhelming things and it has a brilliant atmosphere throughout. The packaging is pretty spectacular as well with an accompanying DVD which I have yet to dive into as there is so much going on musically here.
Jeffrey Lewis & The Voltage – Bad Wiring (Moshi Moshi)
Another artist who has paid serious attention to the packaging of their music is Jeffrey Lewis. Even before you play a note of Bad Wiring the packaging grabs you with its cut-out sleeve, gorgeous artwork and blue vinyl, all designed lovingly by Mr. Lewis himself. Confusingly, The Voltage isn’t a new band backing Jeffrey Lewis but the Los Volts, Brent Cole and Mem Pahl. The sound is recognizably Jeffrey Lewis, like The Fall, always the same but always different and the quality control extends from the luxuriant packaging to the 12 songs contained in the grooves. Lewis is a fine composer and lyricist and Bad Wiring is a worthy follow-up to the genius that was Manhattan. Collaborating with producer, Roger Moutenot (Yo La Tengo, Lou Reed), the sound is pretty expansive but cohesive, from the Velvets-Garage rambunctiousness of ‘LP’s’ to the melancholy but lovely, ‘You’re Invited’ to the lush sounding ‘In Certain Orders’ this is a fine record of varying moods and sounds. Jeffrey Lewis is always finding new ways to thrill listeners and there is nothing wonky about the fixtures and fittings on this fantastic album.
Rev Magnetic – Versus Universe (Rock Action)
All hail the return of Luke Sutherland, author, one-time front man of the wonderful Long Fin Killie and Bows and sometime violinist with Mogwai. And what a return. Versus Universe is an ambitious, epic album. The subject matter and arrangements are expansive but Rev Magnetic also focus on the spaces in between, combining subtle moments and movements with nosier sections, dreamy vocals interspersed with spoken word sections, nature recordings and microsounds. The Universe is both cluttered and vast, but also tiny and full of things we can barely hear or see. Versus Universe took a while for me to orient myself in but it is a universe well worth exploring and reveals something new on every listen. A very special return.
SHHE – Shhe (One Little Indian)
Another welcome return for me in 2019 was that of Su Shaw who recorded a series of lovely E.P.’s and singles as Panda Su before scrapping a proposed album and starting again from scratch, moving to Dundee and learning to produce and engineer for herself after becoming frustrated at having to rely on the ears and hands of others to interpret the sound she wanted. This album, released on One Little Indian, is another record that didn’t immediately reveal itself to me but seeped into my consciousness over a number of plays. Again, patience brings great rewards as SHHE’s debut album is full of multilayered moods and atmospheres, creating an insular but welcoming universe. There is a gorgeous stillness to the songs, valuing space rather than the need to fill every second with sound but for all the starkness of the songs there is a warmth to the music as well. It’s perfect music for reflective solo listening but I could also imagine some of these songs radically reworked as dance tracks for a club sound system as well as there is a sense of sublimated euphoria within them as well.
The Monochrome Set – Fabula Mendax (Tapete Records)
The Monochrome Set have been consistently making fantastic records since the late 1970s without really troubling the mainstream. In the past, I’ve described them as making quintessentially English records but I don’t mean this in a way that is a reductive slur. They embody a restless, eccentric and unique approach to music that embraces a wide range of influences, from 60s pop culture to this new album, a concept based on the writings of a 15th century French writer, Armande de Pange, a companion of Joan of Arc. Bid has one of the most distinctive voices in music and The Monochrome Set still manage to sound fresh and enervated after 40 odd years in the music world. Fabula Mendax is a fabulous, narcotic record, giving me a joyous, uplifted feeling without any comedown.
Sacred Paws – Run Around The Sun (Rock Action)
Sacred Paws are another band making good on the promise of a wonderful debut album. The sound is still unmistakably that of Sacred Paws but somehow seems more joyful and exuberant, fuller even. The lyrical guitar lines and energetic rhythms seem more so, the dual vocals even more perfectly competing and combining. This is a graceful, exciting and delightful record, buoyant and sweet and so much fun to listen to, it puts a bounce in my step and a smile on my face. As do Sacred Paws live performances which I found so sublime I was on a high for days after it. I can’t really describe this album in such a short space. Hearing is believing.
Ela Orleans – Movies For Ears (Night School)
Ela Orleans is a regular visitor to these albums of the year lists of mine, this is her third entry over the four years that I’ve compiled them. I wasn’t sure where to place this, is it a reissue as I’ve a CD-R purchased at a gig a few years ago of the same title, with all the tracks (plus more) on it and the songs have appeared elsewhere, mainly on limited edition releases. However, as it is the first ‘official’ release of the material I’ll include it here. That, and the fact that it is a superb listen and a brilliant introduction to Ela Orleans music and art. The ten songs on the vinyl release are remastered for this record and were originally recorded between 2009 and 2012. They sit together perfectly with a range of atmospheres, moods and styles creating a series of thoughts and images as you listen. As well as Ela’s own fine lyrics there are words from other poets such as Sarah Teasdale and Emily Dickinson on the gorgeous, eerie ‘Light At Dawn’ as well as Arthur Rimbaud and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Ella Orleans is a true artist, collaborating with and interpreting other works but bringing her own unique interpretations to the forefront. If you aren’t familiar with Ela Orleans, start here and work your way back, it is a journey well worth making.
Broken Chanter – Broken Chanter (Last Night From Glasgow / Olive Grove)
David McGregor, formerly of Kid Canaveral, is no stranger to Manic Pop Thrills. Stepping aside from Kid Canaveral after three fine records, he took some time out to write and collaborate with some new faces. The resulting album is rather stunning, developing new ways of working but retaining a distinctive melodic sensibility. Rather than an introspective solo album, Broken Chanter is pretty widescreen with a distinctive array of contributions from the likes of Gav Prentice, Jill O’ Sullivan and Audrey Tait, to name but three, combining with McGregor’s vision to produce a record that is fresh and forward looking.
The album that would have made it into last years list but I didn’t hear it until 2019!
Virginia Wing – Ecstatic Arrow (Fire)
I didn’t hear Virginia Wing until late 2019 and Ecstatic Arrow is one of the records that I think would make it into my best of in any given year. Even more regrettable is that they have been going for quite a while without even remotely impinging on my radar. I’m not sure why I love this record so much, but I keep I keep coming back to it while also working my way through the duo’s back catalogue. I love the unusual arrangements, the enveloping sound and the lovely songwriting. Mainly I just love everything about this album.
Electrical Language. Independent British Synth Pop 78-84 (Cherry Red)
With 80 songs spread over 4 discs and an accompanying book this is a monster of an undertaking and is well worth jumping into. There are some better known names contained in here – Human League, Thomas Dolby, Fad Gadget, Robert Calvert but the majority of the tracks contained here are by lesser known artists of the era. Electronic music in this era was just as punk as the music made by bands using ‘traditional’ instruments and was often more D.I.Y., played and recorded on basic equipment and often at home. The Normal song, ‘Warm Leatherette’, to give one tiny example, was recorded by Daniel Miller in his flat on rudimentary equipment, released as a 7” single and yet went on to influence many other artists and become a classic and even a hit for Grace Jones. And there are a lot of further tiny gems on this compilation, many of which I was hearing for first time ever. Lovingly put together as well.
Tim Burgess & Bob Stanley Present Tim Peaks (Ace)
As ever, I’m a sucker for these Bob Stanley (Saint Etienne) curated compilations. This time around he gets together with Tim Burgess (Charlatans) to re-imagine Twin Peaks set not in the Pacific North West but the North West of England. The 20 tracks include some all time favourite songs of mine – Young Marble Giants ‘Choci Loni’ and Galaxie 500’s ‘Flowers’, as well as songs by Durutti Column, Gwenno, Jane Weaver, Echo & The Bunnymen and Blue Orchids but there are a lot of songs that I’m less familiar with which has sent me off on a few avenues of investigation. It’s a lovely compilation, like one made by a friend with engrossing sleeve notes as well and has provided me with a lot of listening pleasure.
And that’s it for another year. Nineteen albums for 2019. Coincidence rather than desig