2018 end of year favourites (music)

20 12 2018

Here are my favourite music releases from 2018 AKA good ideas to use up your Christmas Amazon gift vouchers. You can thank me later.

Top 5 new albums (in no particular order)

Blancmange – Wanderlust

wanderlust

Blancmange released their tenth studio album, Wanderlust, in October. Wanderlust is a much more stark electronic offering than the early Blancmange albums, but it contains three of my favourite songs of the year with Distant Storm, the insanely addictive In Your Room and Not a Priority (featuring Hannah Peel). The album is a real late-career highlight.

Read my full review of Wanderlust

Buy the album at Amazon

The Midnight – Kids

the-midnight-kids

The Midnight were a new band to me in 2018. I stumbled across them via an online recommendation from Jacob Holm-Lupo from White Willow / The Opium Cartel, and 6 months later they are my 3rd most played artist of 2018 (thanks to Last.FM). If you are interested – my top 5 most played artists (via scrobbles) last year were

1. David Bowie
2. The Stranglers
3. The Midnight
4. Roxy Music
5. Sweet Billy Pilgrim

Anyway, back to The Midnight. They are an electronic act from the USA, described as being part of the synthwave collection of artists, and are heavily influenced by 80s music / pop culture. Their artwork matches the music perfectly, and putting it simply, they write well-crafted electronic pop songs.

Kids is The Midnight’s most recent album, and features the pure-pop of America 2 and is bursting at the seams with analogue synths and drums that sound like Simmons sds9.

Vocalist Tyler Lyle and fellow band member Tim McEwan perfectly capture that feeling of nostalgia and hope (tinged with melancholy) that ran through the music, film and TV of the 80s. I dare you to listen to their music and see if you can resist digging out your copy of The Stand, Back To The Future or any of your favourite series or films from that decade.

Buy Kids by The Midnight on Amazon (MP3)

Sweet Billy Pilgrim – Wapentak

sweet billy pilgrim

The newly streamlined (now just Tim Elsenburg and Jana Carpenter) Sweet Billy Pilgrim released the wonderful Wapentak in mid-2018. Available in digital form from Amazon, or in physical form direct from the band, this is my favourite Sweet Billy Pilgrim album to date.

I love the way the album slowly builds as each song progresses. The first few songs are stripped back and highlight Tim and Jana’s perfect vocal interplay. By the time we get to Junkyard Dogs, the beauty of this album fully reveals itself. The trio of Why the Long Face, The Briar Bell and A Shelter of Reeds hits the absolute sweet-spot for me.

Why the Long Face feels like Steely Dan with a sprinkling of Field Music, and boy oh boy, what a perfect chorus. The Briar Bell highlights the vulnerability in Jana’s vocals that sit so well with Tim’s aching harmonies.

A Shelter of Reeds is simply stunning. At times the arrangement (especially the Danny Thompson influenced bass parts) remind me of Never For Ever period Kate Bush, and the two vocalists hit a real peak on this song.

Have a listen to A Shelter of Reeds and then buy the album (CD or mp3), it deserves to be added to your collection.

Tracey Thorn – Record

record

Record is an album full of one word titles and shifting moods, from the electronica of early single Queen, the love song to pop music that is Guitar and one of my favourite songs of the year Face.

Face is up there with personal favourites By Picadilly Station I Sat Down and Wept and A-Z as one of the most moving songs in Tracey’s solo catalogue. The whole album is musically and lyrically so strong and uplifting, and feels like an antidote to the often bitter and cruel world we currently live in.

Buy Record on Amazon

Lunatic Soul – Under the Fragmented Sky

fragmented sky

Under the Fragmented Sky is a companion piece to 2017’s Fractured album, and finds Mariusz Duda continuing to explore textures and moods with this largely electronic project. Album opener He Av En uses voice as an instrument, and adds Cure like guitar lines to the mix.

The fractured, jittery synths of The Art of Repairing sit in stark contrast to the more traditional arrangement of the title track. I love how the music of Lunatic Soul continues to evolve with each album, and Under the Fragmented Sky continues the journey.

Buy Under the Fragmented Sky on Amazon

Honourable mentions

Other albums that I have loved in 2018

David Bowie – Welcome To The Blackout

BLACKOUT

My favourite Bowie live album (it’s Stage on steroids, or maybe it’s the side-effects of the cocaine?) and worth buying for the version of Stay alone!

Buy Welcome To The Blackout at Amazon

The Midnight – Days of Thunder / Nocturnal

nocturnal

These are not 2018 releases but I am breaking the rules and including them here, as I first heard the albums this year. Sadly not available on CD at the moment, the albums are available on vinyl and download only.

If you want your pop-fix, you will fall in love with the feeling of Light Years (feat. Nikki Flores), but the title track, with its deep bass and neon-lit synths hits all the right buttons for me.

Buy Days of Thunder (mp3)

Buy Nocturnal (mp3)

Favourite re-issues of 2018

Kate Bush remasters

KB-CD-Packshot-2-Square-3000 2

The Kate Bush remasters finally arrived this year, and whilst the only new material was one previously unreleased track, Humming, the album’s have never sounded so good. If you don’t have much Kate Bush in your collection, the box-sets are a great way of collecting the vast majority of Kate’s music. 

The highlights for me are improved versions of The Dreaming and Aerial.

Read my full reviews of Part I and Part II

Buy Kate Bush – Remastered Part I  

Buy Kate Bush – Remastered Part II

John Foxx – Metamatic (Deluxe Edition)

meta500

This year saw the release of the definitive version of this electronic classic from 1980, which contains 49 tracks across 3 CDs. 

Read my full review.

Buy Metamatic (Deluxe Edition)

This Mortal Coil – It’ll End In Tears / Filigree and Shadow / Blood

Blood

The three albums from This Mortal Coil were made available in remastered form for the first time this year (the remasters were previously part of a now out-of-print box-set).

I think most people would be interested in the first album, It’ll End In Tears from 1984, due to the inclusion of Tim Buckley’s timeless Song to the Siren, featuring Elizabeth Fraser & Robin Guthrie (Cocteau Twins) but all three albums are worth investigating.

Filigree & Shadow (1986) is my favourite and is a perfect winter album. Live piano and strings cosy up with discordant electronics to create a gothic masterpiece. The Jeweller (Dominic Appleton, Deirdre and Louise Rutkowski with Simon Raymonde) segues perfectly with a Simon Raymonde composition, Ivy and Neet.

Talking Heads Drugs (from 1979’s Fear of Music) is given a radical refresh by Alison Limerick with members of The Wolfgang Press and Colourbox.

The third and final release Blood, like Filigree & Shadow, was a double album on its initial vinyl and cassette release. Each album is a single CD disc for these reissues. Randy California’s Nature’s Way is a highlight, with powerful vocal performances from Alison Limerick and Deirdre Rutkowski.

Buy It’ll End In Tears 

Buy Filigree and Shadow 

Buy Blood 

Here’s to a great year of music in 2019.





2017 end of year favourites

23 12 2017

I haven’t done this for a few years, but here are my favourite music, tv and film releases from 2017.

Top 5 new albums

In no particular order:

Paul Draper — Spooky Action

Spooky Action from former Mansun mainman Paul Draper is a strong debut album. The songs are ambitious, a mix of new wave and alternative with a slight hint of prog. Whilst the album has hints of Drapers old band, it does not trade off nostalgia.

Tracks such as Don’t Poke The Bear and Friends Make The Worst Enemies are angry and highlight Paul Drapers powerful vocals. Jealousy Is A Powerful Emotion breaks new sonic ground for Draper, and is an album highlight.

The contribution of Catherine AD aka The Anchoress  to Spooky Action is noticeable and welcome.

Tim Bowness – Lost In The Ghost Light

2017 saw the release of the Tim’s 4th solo album, and my favourite to date. You can read my full review here.

The most progressive sounding release so far from the no-man vocalist, the album has a concept built around the onstage and backstage reflections of a fictional ‘classic’ Rock musician in the twilight of his career.

My favourite track on the album is one of my most played songs of the year, the haunting Nowhere Good To Go.

CousteauX – by CousteauX

The comeback of the year for me. Rising from the ashes of the late 90s band Cousteau, CousteauX take the Bowie-esque vocals of Liam McKahey and the razor sharp song-writing of Davey Ray Moor to new levels. Whilst retaining the charm of the original band, CousteauX have added a much more powerful and darker hue to their new songs.

Read my full review here.

Fader — First Light

A real surprise this one. The album crept up on me after two or three listens and it has remained a favourite throughout the year. Fader are Neil Arthur (Blancmange) and Benge (John Foxx & The Maths / Gazelle Twin).

First Light is a very low-fi electronic album containing one of my favourite songs of the year in Launderette. Apparently a “very British take on the solitary mood of Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks”, this brooding, pulsating piece of electronica is timeless.

Read my full review here.

Hannah Peel – Mary Casio: Journey to Cassiopeia

A mostly instrumental album, Mary Casio: Journey to Cassiopeia has picked up new fans as the year has progressed. One for fans of Mike Oldfield, John Foxx and Jean Michel Jarre, its a very moving album. The mixture of synths and a (real) brass band works surprisingly well, and Mary Casio: Journey to Cassiopeia is one of those albums that you should listen to in one sitting, in the correctly sequenced order. Turn off your shuffle!

Read my full review here.

Honourable mentions

Other albums that I have loved in 2017

My favourite progressive album of the year was White Willow – Future Hopes. Dropping the metal leanings of earlier albums, and adding a wonderfully colourful warm palette, Future Hopes is a synth lovers dream. My favourite track on the album is the gentle Silver And Gold. Read my full review here.

Destroyer – ken was released quite late in 2017, and is still seeping into my heart. Destroyer are definitely a marmite band – but I’m a huge fan. ken feels like a love song to the electronica of bands such as New Order. Just listen to the way the synths sweep in on opening track Sky’s Grey. An album for fans who enjoy uneasy listening!

Atone by White Moth Black Butterfly is a very commercial progressive / pop album from members of the bands TesseracT and Skyharbor. Delicate vocals (reminding me of the late George Michael at times) sit atop sweeping orchestral decorated songs.

There are some really strong performances and clever production touches to this fine album. At times I am also reminded of This Mortal Coil in some of the arrangements and reverb-heavy keyboard treatments.

Atone is on its way to becoming one of my favourite albums of the year.

The first album from Cigarettes After Sex might only have one gear – a slow gear – but I have grown to really love this album. I adore the guitar sound – sort of like The Cure mixed with I’m In Love With A German Film Star. The lyrics are intriguing, if slightly pervy and the Twin Peaks vibe makes for a rewarding listen.

Favourite re-issues

David Bowie’s A New Career In A New Town (1977 – 1982) covers my favourite Bowie era (the “Berlin” trilogy). Apart from the dreadful error with the Heroes album (I’m still waiting for my replacement disc, record company grrrr) I’m happy with this box-set. Its great having the Moroder version of Cat People (Putting Out Fire) and the full Baal EP on CD, plus the Tony Visconti re-mix of Lodger is fascinating and very different from the original.

The 30th anniversary re-issue of Scalywag Jaz by Thomas Lang brings all the associated tracks from the period, plus live recordings and a couple of new songs, into one package. Its a great value, definitive release for one of the finest albums of the 80s.

Read my full review here.

I also think the remaster of Tango In The Night by Fleetwood Mac deserves a mention at this point. The deluxe version includes some fascinating (high quality) demos, 12″ mixes plus the main album has never sounded so good. Big Love from me for this 2017 reissue. I’m so sorry.

TV and Film

My favourite film in 2017 (although the film was released in 2016 I caught it on bluray this year) was Nocturnal Animals.  Produced and directed by Tom Ford, and starring Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Shannon, this psychological thriller kept me in a state of unease until the very end of the film.

The TV event of the year for me was by far Twin Peaks: The Return or as it is billed on the bluray, Twin Peaks: A Limited Event Series. I was a fan of the original series when it aired on TV in 1990, then fell in love with it again watching the series on its DVD re-issue many years later. I had high hopes for the new series, but after the initial nostalgia fuelled first few minutes, it was clear that Twin Peaks: The Return was going to surpass the original.

It wasn’t perfect, but then neither is life. There were entire sections and episodes that frustrated and baffled, but they were out-weighed by the visceral brutality of some of the characters (new and old) and their actions. This new series took me to places both wonderful and strange, and if this is the end of the Twin Peaks story, I’m so happy that we got to witness the return.

Episode 8 – watched in the early hours (the time it was broadcast in the UK), was one of the most mind-blowing experiences I have ever had. I simply could not believe what I was watching, and I went to work shortly afterwards with a mixture of euphoria and confusion.

As well as the bluray of The Return, there are also two fascinating books from Mark Frost (The Secret History of Twin Peaks and Twin Peaks: The Final Dossier) to help fill in the blanks and the missing years. What a fine way to spend your Christmas vouchers!

My other favourite TV series of 2017 was HBO’s Big Little Lies. The series starred Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Shailene Woodley, Zoe Kravitz and Laura Dern, and kept the dark, brutal secret that rumbled through the entire series out of sight to the very end.

Finally, my favourite TV re-issue from 2017 was the blu-ray of Hammer House of Horror: The Complete Series.  The high definition remaster of the ITV series from 1980 features 13 spine-tingling stories starring Peter Cushing, Diana Dors, Denholm Elliott and Brian Cox.

Here’s to a great year of music, film and TV in 2018.





Hannah Peel – Mary Casio: Journey to Cassiopeia

3 09 2017

Mary CasioMary Casio: Journey to Cassiopeia is the follow-up to 2016’s Awake But Always Dreaming. Peel’s third full-length solo release heads off in a very different direction to recent album and EP releases from the electronic composer.

The music on Mary Casio: Journey to Cassiopeia was performed by Hannah Peel and Tubular Brass, and was recorded live in The Civic, Barnsley by Real World Studios. The album artwork is by Jonathan Barnbrook.

This mostly instrumental album is a mixture of warm analogue synths mixed with a traditional colliery brass band. On paper this should not work, but in reality the mixture of machine and brass band works surprisingly well.

There is a strong sense of nostalgia running through the veins of this album. Hints of the early 80s work of John Foxx blend with the 70s aesthetic of Jean Michel Jarre.

Colliery bands always conjure up a feeling of the early 70s to me. I always think of the late Peter Skellern and also the work of The Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band. The only other recent album I can recall using colliery bands is the wonderful Diversions Vol.2: The Unthanks With Brighouse And Rastrick Brass Band. Though you will not find any synths on The Unthanks album!

The brass swells offer a real emotional pull, especially on album opener Goodbye Earth.

The celestial sounds of Sunrise Through The Dusty Nebula is an album highlight. There is a moment when the analogue bass synth hits a peak with the brass that sends shivers.

The theme of the album is the story of 86-year-old Mary Casio and her lifelong stargazing dream to leave her South Yorkshire home in the mining town of Barnsley and see the star constellation of Cassiopeia. As the album progresses, you get the feeling that the journey may not be rooted in reality.

Deep Space Cluster uses the brass in the way that electronic musicians often use the slow-building repetition of sequenced synth riffs to build the tension towards the songs climax.

Andromeda M31 takes me back to the days of the 70s London Planetarium. I love the use of the often bubbling beneath the mix ambient bumps and noises that really help built the tracks mood. The synths add a real sense of the huge expanses of space, and makes this track one that 70s / 80s synth music addicts will really love. I’m sure Giorgio Moroder must have snuck into the studio when this track was being recorded.

Life Is On The Horizon is a sad refrain, that has a little of the feel of The Last Post about it. The bubbling analogue noises sound like comets or space debris flying past.

Hannah Peel Live

Archid Orange Dwarf lifts the mood, and is one of the only tracks with a noticeable human vocal element – no lyrics, but a warm vocal hum that adds to the joyful feel of the song.

The album closes with its longest track, The Planet of Passed Souls. Reverb-heavy organs usher in a song that includes a sample of Peel’s grandfather as a choirboy from 1928, mixing reality with fantasy, the distant past with the present. The end section of The Planet of Passed Souls is simply beautiful.

I might take a trip to the Royal Observatory Greenwich, which is not too far from where I live, with Mary Casio: Journey to Cassiopeia as the perfect headphone accompaniment. The album was built to be played in one sitting, in the original sequence. So turn off shuffle and enjoy your journey with Mary Casio.

I really hope she made it to Cassiopeia.

Buy Mary Casio: Journey to Cassiopeia on CD from Amazon

Buy Mary Casio: Journey to Cassiopeia on vinyl from Amazon





Hannah Peel – Awake But Always Dreaming

11 09 2016

awake-but-always-dreamingAwake But Always Dreaming is Hannah Peel’s second solo album. Following on from the more traditional music of her debut album, The Broken Wave in 2011, the next few releases included two Rebox EP’s (made up of covers of songs by Soft Cell, New Order, John Grant and others using music boxes).

As well as working with John Foxx, Beyond the Wizards Sleeve and as a member of The Magentic North, Peel has released a series of increasingly electronic vinyl / download releases such as Nailhouse and 2014’s Fabricstate (with its moving lead track, Silk Road).

Awake But Always Dreaming is a natural continuation into a more electronic landscape. The album opens with recent single All That Matters, an upbeat (lyrically and musically) slice of hi-energy pop.

The pace of the album settles down with Standing On the Roof of the World, a slow-burning piece that ushers in the themes of the album – communication and the most emotive thread running through the songs, the effect that dementia has on people and how it impacts on their close relationships.

Hope Lasts feels like a potential single – the hook sticks with you long after the song has finished.

Tenderly has a potent mix of acoustic piano and electronics, and as the song progresses, I’m reminded of Vespertine era Björk (mainly in the glitchy percussion and deep synth lines). Tenderly is one of the album’s strongest tracks, and always a pointer of a good song – it would be just as moving if stripped back to its core components of voice and piano.

The lyrics start to take a darker turn at this point, and the music reflects this change in mood. Peel’s vocals on Don’t Take It Out On Me have an undercurrent of coldness and repetition that perfectly reflect the anger and resentment in the lyrics. As someone who is currently watching a loved one disappear under the cloud of dementia, this song hit me very hard.

“Wherever you have been, I am made of stone”

Photo by Adam Patterson

Beautiful piano lines drift in and out of focus during the intro to Invisible City, with moving lyrics that touch on the feelings of someone engulfed by the over-powering and all-encompassing illness.

“I built this city around my body, these walls they hold me, like you once did”

Even though Awake But Always Dreaming is clearly an album informed by Peel’s experiences with her Grandmother and her illness, it works on so many other levels. The lyrics are not so specific that it won’t mean anything to you if your life has not been touched by memory loss or dementia. If you’ve felt loss or loneliness in any form, the songs on this album are likely to resonate.

Awake But Always Dreaming is a well sequenced album. The instrumental Octavia almost feels like a musical nightmare, with what sounds like a Kate Bush / The Ninth Wave referencing whispered “wake up” towards the tracks end.

The album’s closing pieces seem to play out to the increased fog of confusion in the disjointed beats and vague whispers. Awake But Always Dreaming‘s title song references a life now often focused on the past, not the present and certainly not on new, shared future memories. Musically, its the most disturbing arrangement on the album and is a powerful prelude to the album’s key track, Conversations.

With what sounds like a projector running in the background (maybe showing film of the subjects past), ghostly memories drift in and out of focus as the film stops, and the lyrics begin.

“When I wake up, dont recall what happened yesterday”

Conversations is the highlight of Hannah Peel’s recorded output to date. An emotional, powerful vocal performance and a simple, direct and brutally honest lyric mark this out as the highlight of the album. There is no poetic licence in the words, no attempts to romanticise the situation, or to soften the blow. Its painful but so true.

“Where did you go?”

Foreverest is the albums longest track at just under 9 minutes. I love the ambitious arrangement on this track. There is a feeling of a release of tension on Foreverest as the journey nears its inevitable end.

Awake But Always Dreaming closes with the Paul Buchanan (The Blue Nile) song Cars in the Garden. Underpinned by Peel’s music box, this duet with Hayden Thorpe from Wild Beasts is an emotional finale.

“When you wake me up and say
All the love the others gave me
One day I could leave it all
And find the place that we forgot”

I hope this album starts conversations about memory loss and dementia. I will close by saying that in a time when NHS resources are stretched and people with dementia and their carers often feel unsupported and isolated, there are great organisations that can help – such as the charity Dementia UK , who support families through their specialist Admiral Nurses. Feel free to donate to the charity if you can.

And of course, buy Hannah Peel’s wonderful Awake But Always Dreaming album.

Buy the Awake But Always Dreaming CD on Amazon (includes mp3 autorip)

Buy the Awake But Always Dreaming vinyl LP on Amazon (includes mp3 autorip)

Buy Rebox on Amazon

Buy Rebox 2 on Amazon

Buy Fabricstate on Amazon

Buy Nailhouse on Amazon

 








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