Friends, loyal readers, people who dislike me reading this trying to find a chink in my armour (and failing), this is my favourite post of the year. In this post, I have the honour of paying homage to albums which I’ve truly enjoyed throughout the year, but for whatever reason have not made it to Album of the Month. This is also the longest post of the year, consisting of twelve mini-reviews. I hope you’ll do me the kindness to bear with as we embark on a retrospective musical journey through 2019…
- A Storm In Heaven – The Verve (1995)
There is so much to say about this album. It is hair raising from the opening note. Filled with magnificent psychedelic delights, this album is almost overpowering in parts. The Verve’s prowess in taking on on a cosmic voyage through sound is unrivalled. This 1995 album is a gift to new generation rockers. Overall, this is an ethereal psychedelic journey of an album.
- Already There (“I thought I watched my best years leave / then I watched them come back”) – reminiscent of Us and Them by Pink Floyd.
- Sun and the Sea
A Storm in Heaven is the dark, mysterious stranger of The Verve’s discography. As drugs and creative differences eroded the band’s professional and personal relationships, they upsettingly exiled themselves from their debut’s inimitable personality. Drowned In Sound
2. A Deeper Understanding – The War on Drugs (2017)
I liked this album so much I had to buy it on vinyl. Over the course of the year, this has become a very special album to Matthew and I. Another example of prime psychedelia rock, A Deeper Understanding does what it says on the tin. At points this album becomes deeply introspective and in a way allows us to reflect on our own vices. But in addition to being accessible, this does provide a high quality and large sound. The scope of this album and the beauty of its sequencing are not to be underestimated.
- Pain (“I resist what I cannot change”)
- Holding On
- Clean Living
Granduciel’s work finds its meaning in the totality of its sound, in how writing and arranging and perfecting every detail in the studio is part of building music that carries you with it. His way of understanding the world is to use that sound machine to excavate and explore his interior life and hopefully shape it into something listeners might understand, even when he’s not entirely sure where he’s going. Pitchfork
3. Are You Experienced? The Jimmy Hendrix Experience (1967)
There are few albums which everyone can agree on as being superlative. This is one of them. As a debut album, the breadth Hendrix achieved here is astonishing. Are You Experienced covers rock, blues, soul and folk, culminating in a seminal rock n roll album. Rolling Stones considers it the 15th Best Album of All Time. “Rock’s most innovative and expressive guitar record” about sums it up. I wrote in my notes that this was a gift to Rock.
- Hey Joe (See the Soft Cell Hendrix Medley)
- Red House
- Foxey Lady
The sound forged on the album synthesized elements of 1967 psychedelic rock with traditional rock, blues, and soul. This was all topped off by the proficient and original guitar work by Hendrix, who used cutting edge techniques and technology to create sounds never before heard. Hendrix also composed solid songs, rooted in heavy blues and roots rock. This, along with the frantic but solid rhythm by Redding and Mitchell, gave Hendrix the perfect canvas on which to paint his guitar masterpieces. Classic Rock Review
4. One of These Nights – Eagles (1975)
One of These Nights didn’t make AOTM at the last minute because Country Joe & The Fish took me by surprise. I think it is remarkably accomplished and quite unique by comparison to the rest of their arsenal. This album seems to be journey through the lyricists’ pain. Lyin’ Eyes speaks of an adulterous woman, Visions talks of ambition and After The Thrill… well you can guess the subject matter. Overall I found the album beautifully sequenced, evocative and touching.
- One of These Nights
- Journey of The Sorcerer (theme tune to Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and “best theme tune of all time” according to St Nick.)
Their music reflects the Hollywood ethos of glamorous, narcissistic ennui, exhibiting the contradiction between the city’s atmosphere of “laid-back” machismo and its desperate rootlessness of spirit. Even the Eagles’ more plaintive songs have a surface sweetness that belies the jaded pessimism of so many of their lyrics. This sweetness, combined with superb arrangements, brilliant playing and the seamless vocal harmonies of Glenn Frey, Don Henley and Randy Meisner, accounts for the band’s popularity, for it evokes everything gratifying that people would like to fantasize about L.A. Rolling Stones
5. Adolescent Sex – Japan (1978)
In my top albums of all time, this ranks very highly indeed. Adolescent Sex is an album of supreme technical brilliancy with the relentless hooks and almost overwhelming rhythms. Every track is absolutely perfect and remarkably different from the last. The solos are outstanding. David Sylvian’s voice is magnificent, the whole thing is great, except one thing. the reason this is not Album of the Month is because it is too good. It should be Album of the Year. The reason it cannot be Album of the Year is because of the track Don’t Rain on my Parade which I believe is a complete butchery of the wonderful original by Barbara Streisand in the movie Funny Girl. Alas it must be relegated to Almost Album of the Month. AOTY must be perfect, you understand.
- Wish You Were Black
- Lovers on Main Street
Sparse, austere and melancholy are the last words you’d use to describe their debut and its successor, which took a randy sledgehammer to subtlety. They are abrasive, strutting, gobby, in-your-grill slashes of glam-punk-sleaze-funk, and pretty much everything the personnel, then aged around twenty, grew to aesthetically oppose. The Quietus
6. Air – Air (1971)
This is one of the treasures of my collection. I wish I had this on vinyl. While I will admit Googie Coppola (lead singer) does go a bit far at points in this album, her vocal range and the capacity of her voice are astonishing. She is able to captivate the listener and cut through the marvellous, complex rhythms underpinning each track. This is the height of funk and is a fantastic, excellently produced and splendidly varied album.
- Mr Man
- Man’s Got Style
Not to be confused with French duo Air, this group featured the amazing talent of Googie Coppola on vocals and an impressive cast of musicians who collaborated with Flora Purim and Ray Barretto. Whether it’s the funky groove of Mr. Man or the lighter touches of Jail Cell, the expressive voice of Googie blends itself in a unique way with great songwriting and a strong musical knowledge at work here. The beauty of a song like Sister Bessie is simply unbelievable and brings to mind some of Roberta Flack’s most memorable moments. Music is my Sanctuary
7. Blue – Joni Mitchell (1971)
Now this. I’ve been a fan of Hejira for a long while. Joni Mitchell’s ability to go on journeys and write about significant people or experiences she has, then translate them into a striking piece of music is remarkable. I found this acoustic album beautifully arranged. Joni Mitchell’s vocal range is so joyous to experience. This is a strong album on all fronts, superb arrangement, lyrically brilliant and melodies to die for. A truly special album which has become quite close to my heart.
- California (not so subtle criticism of France, which I always applaud)
- River (Listen to the Jingle Bells riff and see where she takes it)
- A Case of You (heartbreaking love song)
The accompaniment — James Taylor and Joni strumming a nervous, Latin-flavored guitar part over a bass heartbeat that throbs throughout the song — perfectly expresses Joni’s excitement and anticipation. So does the melody, a dipping, soaring affair which she sings in her sweetest soprano. Rolling Stone
8. The Kick Inside – Kate Bush (1978)
Let’s open with the fact that Kate Bush was 19 when she released this. Some of the songs contained therein were started when she was 15. When I was 15 I was doing all sorts of ghastly things, like reading Garth Nix and thinking it was first rate literature. Moving on from my startling confession, This album continues a theme which has been unwittingly running through this post: namely that I seem to gravitate towards strong purposeful women in music. Kate Bush’s debut is an unquestionable masterpiece. The vocal range, the harmonies, lyrical mastery, the sheer strength of this wonderful woman make for a stunning album. This album is so much greater than I can express here. The Pitchfork review, quoted below, is most excellent. This could have been album of the year. Perhaps this should have been.
- Every single one
Yes, the song “The Kick Inside” is about childbearing, but the young woman is pregnant by her brother and on the cusp of suicide to spare their family from shame. Subverting the folk song “Lucy Wan” (the brother kills his sister in the original), it shows the depths of Bush’s studies and her everlasting curiosity for how far desire can drive a person. She was signed at 16 but her debut took four years to make, during which she engaged multiple teachers in a process of spiritual and physical transformation. She pays tribute to their lessons alongside rhapsodies on unexplained phenomena, delirious expressions of lust, and declarations of earthbound defiance. Rather than feminine function or freak accident, these are the cornerstones of creativity, she suggested: mentorship and openness, but also the self-assurance to withstand those forces. Her purpose was as strong as any of them. Pitchfork
What made Bush’s writing truly radical was the angles she could take on female desire without ever resorting to submissiveness. “Wuthering Heights” is menacing melodrama and ectoplasmic empowerment; “The Saxophone Song”—one of two recordings made when she was 15—finds her fantasizing about sitting in a Berlin bar, enjoying a saxophonist’s playing and the effect it has on her. But she is hardly there to praise him: “Of all the stars I’ve seen that shine so brightly/I’ve never known or felt in myself so rightly,” she sings of her reverie, with deep seriousness. We hear his playing, and it isn’t conventionally romantic but stuttering, coarse, telling us something about the unconventional spirits that stir her. Pitchfork
9. Wild is the Wind – Nina Simone (1966)
Haunting is the first word I wrote down for this album. Nina Simone embodies pain, more than this, she makes you feel it. Every note of her music is dripping with soul and genuine feeling. It is a marvellous achievement that this is translated directly for the listener. This album, made of ‘leftover songs’, is perhaps disjointed in terms of sequencing but no less hard hitting. Four Women hit me right between the eyes. The way Nina shows her disapprobation for the treatment of women of colour in 16 lines is breathtaking. Nina’s take of James Shelton’s 1950 classic, Lilac Wine, never fails to make me sob uncontrollably. This is also true of Wild is the Wind (Dimitri Tiomkin and Ned Washington 1957), which features prominently in my Top Ten Tracks.
I believe Nina Simone is a stalwart of music and a gift to us all. We could all learn something by listening to this album.
- Four Women
- Lilac Wine
- Wild is the Wind (This is in my top ten tracks ever)
“Although she largely interpreted other people’s songs, some of the strongest lyrical content in her catalogue comes from her own compositions, particularly “Four Women,” a spare, trenchant character study that manages to capture all the impossible contradictions of black American womanhood in just 16 lines.” Pitchfork
How best to describe her singing? Haunting is the first word to come to mind, although on 1966’s Wild Is the Wind—which was composed of songs left over from previous recording sessions for the Phillips label—she demonstrates conclusively that she’s anything but a one-trick pony. Just listen to the raucous opening track “I Love Your Lovin’ Ways,” a mighty R&B track on which Simone cuts loose on the vocals while also playing some bona fide gutbucket piano. And then listen to the remarkable “Four Women,” a stripped down jazz tune that celebrates the many varieties of proud black womanhood. Bassist Lisle Atkinson and drummer Bobby Hamilton provide minimal accompaniment on the track, while Simone pours a world of unmitigated anger into such lines as “My skin is brown/My manner is tough/I’ll kill the first mother I see/My life has been rough” and “I’m awfully bitter these days/Because my parents were slaves.” And she goes from defiant—she practically shrieks the final lines of “Four Women”—to flat-out brassy on the horn-driven “Break Down and Let It Out,” with its over the top arrangement by Horace Ott. Vinyl District
10. Lovesexy – Prince (1988)
Where to begin? This is one of the few Prince albums I possess on vinyl. A work of pure and undeniable genius. “An album so crammed with ideas it might have seen him through the 1990s had he been more parsimonious and spread them out.The Quietus” Lovesexy is a powerhouse of pop. A relentless album which does not stop to take breath, nor should it. It is massive and infectious and astonishing. Reading reviews of this album from people who know far more about this artist than me is humbling and awe inspiring. Again, this was far too superior to be Album of the Month.
- Alphabet Street
- Anna Stesia
- I Wish U Heaven
But nothing else had quite the instant effect upon me of Prince’s Lovesexy, which in 1988 made me feel as if a giant box of fireworks had been deposited in my brainpan and a lit match flung thereupon. The Quietus
Context, then. It had only been a year since Sign O’ The Times, which was already regarded as a masterpiece among masterpieces. Look at the run Prince was on – 1999, Purple Rain, Around The World In A Day, Parade. You had to go back to Stevie Wonder or Bob Dylan to find a solo artist in that form, and if you care to pursue the parallel, Sign O’ The Times was Prince’s Blonde On Blonde, his Songs In The Key Of Life. The moment of what could have been epic overreach but wasn’t, when the listening world was amazed to find it was all within his grasp – that his talent and vision really did match his ambition. Ibidum
Because Prince had made stronger albums than Lovesexy. He’d made tighter ones, and more ingenious ones. But what he had never done and would never do was make one that erupted upon the listener in such synapse-popping ecstacy. It’s an exploding kaleidoscope of a record. Ibidum
11. Skylarking – XTC (1986)
As with the last few, this could have been Album of the Year. Skylarking is an album of superlative scope, great depth and musical brilliancy. It should come as no surprise to you that it was produced by my hero Todd Rundgren, who featured so heavily last year. This resulted is a masterclass of sequencing. Listen and you’ll find no more than four instruments playing at once. There is, mercifully, much room to breathe throughout this work.
Dear God was not supposed to be on the original album. Thankfully it was remastered to include this track in the middle of side two, though it is the final track on the CD version, bizarrely. I only mention this because the track is in my Top Ten Tracks ever. Overall, however, this is just a stunning album.
- Summer’s Cauldron
- Dear God
- Sacrificial Bonfire (pseudo orchestral)
With career-defining consequences. Skylarking – XTC’s ninth, reissued here with corrected polarity plus instrumental mixes and extensive demos – became their much-loved 80s fulcrum, enchanting fans with its misty-eyed portrayals of British pastoral, from the picnicky opening pairing of Summer’s Cauldron and Grass to the Trumpton-ish The Meeting Place and the gorgeously drizzly psych-pop of Ballet For A Rainy Day and 1000 Umbrellas. Here are the roots of Tears For Fears’ Seeds Of Love era, the Lilac Time’s career and Kirsty MacColl’s wonderful Kite. Louder Sound
12. Bryter Layter – Nick Drake (1970)
A poignant moment for me this year was undertaking a 30 mile cycle journey throughout Warwickshire (on a bike I’ve since been told has terminal cancer), ending in the picturesque town of Tanworth in Arden. This is where Nick Drake died tragically in 1974. Whenever in the vicinity of this musically and religiously hallowed ground, I make a point of visiting Nick Drake’s grave. The trains are so infrequent in that part of England that we had some time. I used this to listen to Bryter Layter in full while seated on a bench overlooking the rolling Warwickshire hills near St Mary Magdalene church. I count this as among one of the most moving experiences of my life.
The sad truth about Nick Drake’s music is that it was not appreciated while he was alive. This was due in part to his refusal to go on tour or to engage much publicity for his albums. In a time of blockbuster musical talent (ABBA, The Three Degrees, John Denver, David Essex, Barry White etc), it is difficult to be heard above the noise, pardon the pun. But Drake’s music would get the recognition it warranted in later years and he now has a considerable cult following. In fact, every year, The Nick Drake Gathering features in Tanworth.
The album itself is a considerable achievement. Music people will understand from the opening track that this is the kind of album one puts their phone away for. Northern Sky, a song about the positive effect loved ones can have on one’s life, is a favourite of mine. Poor Boy is evidently influenced by Bossa Nova (likely Stan Getz for the time period) and provides the closest track to pop on the album. Drake’s haunting impassioned whispering voice is at its apex in One of These Things First. Hazey Jane I encapsulates perhaps Drake’s greatest introspective criticism “Do you feel like a remnant of the past // do you feel like things are moving a little too fast?”. Yes, Nick, yes I do.
Overall this is a masterwork of majestic beauty. Its scope and the clarity with which it showcases the writer’s sorrow are second to none. It is no surprise Nick Drake is considered a seminal British musician who influenced legion artists after him. I am indebted to St Nick for bringing Nick Drake into my life. I also have him to thank for my enduring cholera, but that is a story for another post.
- Hazey Jane I
- Poor Boy
- Northern Sky
- One of These Things First
With even more of the Fairport Convention crew helping him out — including bassist Dave Pegg and drummer Dave Mattacks along with, again, a bit of help from Richard Thompson — as well as John Cale and a variety of others, Drake tackled another excellent selection of songs on his second album. Demonstrating the abilities shown on Five Leaves Left didn’t consist of a fluke, Bryter Layter featured another set of exquisitely arranged and performed tunes, with producer Joe Boyd and orchestrator Robert Kirby reprising their roles from the earlier release. AllMusic
Drake’s melodies are seldom less than enchanting. Built around acoustic folk-jazz guitar figures and muffled percussion, they become emotionally charged when shaded by arranger Robert Kirby’s poignant, eddying strings. Rolling Stone
Well we made it through another AAOTM. I hope you’ve enjoyed the preceding 3000+ words. This year has been quite the musical journey. I so look forward to what awaits me in the coming decade.