Alternative Jewels (say hello to the modern)

4 03 2018

Alternative Jewels (say hello to the modern) is the second in a series of blog posts attached to Spotify playlists I will be putting together, alongside my regular reviews of new releases. Alternative Jewels (say hello to the modern) is the first of two playlists of some of my favourite alternative songs.

I hope my playlists will shine the light on artists that you might not be familiar with, and maybe remind you of some acts that have slipped off your radar. I would love to read your comments about the tracks I have chosen – please feel free to follow my playlists and share them.

I hope you enjoy listening to Alternative Jewels (say hello to the modern).

Opening up the playlist are The Dear Hunter, with one of my favourite tracks from their Migrant album. Bring You Down is one of the band’s most accessible songs, and a great live track. That chorus!


The Dear Hunter now count one of my favourite singer-songwriters, Gavin Castleton, as one of their members, so I am even more keen to see them live again whenever they next head back to London. I also recommend The Color Spectrum and any of the Act albums, especially Act III: Life and Death.

Crowd Surf Off A Cliff by Emily Haines & The Soft Skeleton is one of the most simple yet haunting songs of recent years. The key track on the Knives Don’t Have Your Back album never fails to move me.

Next up in my playlist is the more Fleetwood Mac than Fleetwood Mac pop/rock of Dreamworld by Rilo Kiley, taken from the Under The Blacklight album. I’m probably straying a little from the alternative music genre here, but its such a good song.

My most played track from St. Vincent is the short but achingly beautiful piano instrumental We Put A Pearl In The Ground from the Marry Me album. Cherokee by Cat Power, from her Sun album, is so evocative. Close your eyes and you can feel the blistering desert sun on your skin.

starsIn Our Bedroom After The War is my favourite Stars album (closely followed by Heart). Personal is a tale of dating ads and rejection, and one of Stars most heartbreaking songs. You and I Are A Gang Of Losers by The Dears is a great single, with an amazing chorus and powerful lyrics. The Gang of Losers album is the perfect starting point if you are new to the band.

Hello? Is This Thing On? by !!! or Chk Chk Chk as they are often known, is the song that first introduced me to this wonderful NYC based dance-punk band. I get real Sandanista mid-period The Clash vibes from this track. The paranoia is off the scale here, and you will not be able to keep still whilst listening to this song. Dance suckers!

open heart zooI had to include Danish prog-poppers Mew in this playlist. You can’t go wrong with any of Mews albums, but a good start would be No More Stories… from which Silas the Magic Car springs forth. The first UK artist on this playlist is Martin Grech, who has gone a little too quiet over the past few years. There have been rumblings of new material recently, so hopefully new music is not too far away. Tonight is one of my favourite songs from the Open Heart Zoo album. A lovely, beautifully paced arrangement and production.

Stay Tuned from Anja Garbarek’s Smiling & Waving features Richard Barbieri on atmospheric synths and co-production from Steven Wilson. An evolving, often stark production gives way to a delicious, Portishead like chorus.

I am a newcomer to the music of Destroyer, and whilst Poison Season and Kaputt are my favourite albums so far, Shooting Rockets (From The Desk of Night’s Ape) from Trouble In Dreams is one of their finest songs and so an obvious choice for my playlist. A bold, often discordant arrangement pays dividends after several listens.

midlakeShearwater are really an albums band, so it was hard to pick one track, but just for the vocal effects on the songs end section alone, I had to pick Leviathan, Bound from Rook. I fell in love with Midlake around the same time as Shearwater, and The Trials of Van Occupanther is such a  thoughtfully constructed album. Head Home could easily have been released in the early to mid-70s and the song surely would have been a staple of FM radio in that era.

Another stripped back song is up next, with Joseph Arthur’s A Smile That Explodes from Our Shadows Will Remain. This is the Joseph Arthur that I prefer – an intimate, natural performance from a great singer-songwriter.

Field Music cross so many genres. Whilst they clearly fit into the alternative genre, I hear shades of 10CC and other 70s acts in their adventurous arrangements. I recommend the short and sharp Plumb and their latest, Open HereThe Sexual Loneliness of Jesus Christ by the late Jackie Leven is the oldest track on this playlist. Leven was a Scottish songwriter who fronted the late 70s band Doll By Doll, and this song is a late career highlight.

lunatic-soul-IIThe final two tracks are worlds apart. I Need My Girl is taken from Trouble Will Find Me by The National, a band who I feel are making the best music of their career at the moment. Gravestone Hill is from Lunatic Soul II. Lunatic Soul is the progressive / electronic project from Riverside vocalist and bass guitarist Mariusz Duda. Lunatic Soul have gained a sizeable following and will shortly be releasing their sixth album. All of the albums are worth seeking out – but especially the two most recent albums – Walking On A Flashlight Beam and Fractured.

I hope you enjoyed listening to all of the songs, and maybe you’ve discovered some music you were not aware of. Feel free to leave a comment below and please share this blog / playlist. The next playlist will be the second Alternative Jewels – one of older songs – expect post-punk a-plenty.

To be informed of new posts, along with music tweets, please follow the Music Shack on Twitter @MkMusicshack.

Shearwater – Animal Joy

28 02 2012

The follow-up to 2010’s The Golden Archipelago is the Austin, Texas bands first on new label Sub Pop.

A more accessible album (mainly due to stronger, much more direct songs in my opinion), album opener Animal Life rolls along, topped with a Robert Fripp-esque guitar wail.

Breaking the Yearlings follows the Shearwater trait of being a homage to nature, animals (yearlings are young horses) and birds and this song with it’s full-on drums and 60’s organ riff, is another to add to the list.

Unusually for Shearwater, there are bluesey elements to some of the guitar parts on this album, particularly on the track Dread Sovereign.

The albums key track is You As You Were, which is already shaping up to be my favourite Shearwater track. Hammered piano over a metronomic kick drum gives way to a sweetly sequenced synth line, and a rapidly building frenzied vocal that leaves you breathless by the end of this powerful song.

Don’t take my word for it, have a listen to a stream of the track, from the Shearwater SoundCloud account, below.

“When you fell in the rocks
At a bend in the river
With the blood from your nose
Running hard on your fingers
And through the rest of your life.”

You As You Were

Stream on iPhone / iPad

Insolence sounds like Raintree Crow meets late period Talk Talk (come on, how could I write a Shearwater review without mentioning singer Jonathan Meiburg’s resemblance to Mark Hollis?) and Immaculate starts off sounding like Dr Feelgood until the vocals kick in, which was a bit of a surprise.

The drums and percussion are very prominent and high in the mix on this album, so on occasions the atmosphere / space usually found in Shearwater songs is toned down a little, but it’s forgivable when you hear songs as strong as You As You Were and Open Your Houses.

Run the Banner Down displays a lighter touch, compared to the majority of the album, with a delicate picked guitar and gentle tom and percussion work that gives the song its unique pace.

The album closes with Star of the Age, which is perhaps a little too “lighters in the air” for my liking and a track I won’t return to as often as others on this album. The penultimate track Believing Makes it Easy would have been a more fitting ending to Animal Joy, but if a track like Star of the Age brings the music of Shearwater to a wider audience, it’s a small price to pay for getting music of this quality out to a more mainstream audience.

Buy Animal Joy on Amazon

Visit Amazon’s Shearwater Store

All lyrics © Shearwater

Shearwater website

2009 Music Review

29 12 2009

Ok, its that time of year….  Here are some of my favourites from 2009.


I’m not sure how I stumbled across this Norwegian band, but I’m glad I did.  A classic rock fans dream, blending the guitar style of David Gilmour / Pink Floyd with early Porcupine Tree, and throwing in a little a-ha for good measure!

According to the wonderful stats provided by Last.FM, Airbag’s debut album Identity has been my most played album in 2009.

Recommended track: No Escape

Airbag website

Buy the Identity mp3 album from Amazon
Buy the Identity CD album from The Burning Shed

Blue Roses

Already mentioned in more depth elsewhere in my blog, 2009 saw the release of a wonderful debut album from Laura Groves aka Blue Roses.  An act I’m hoping to see live again in 2010 (I saw a woefully short Blue Roses show live at an Apple Store event in London during the Summer).

First Frost Night from the recent Does Anyone Love Me Now? Digital EP shows a real progressive feel seeping into their music.

Look, I didn’t mention Kate Bush!

Recommended track: I Wish I…

Blue Roses website

Buy the Does Anyone Love Me Now? Digital EP from Amazon

Buy the Blue Roses album from Amazon


Released in 2008, but only noticed by me in 2009, so included here, the album Rook from Texan band Shearwater is a delicate collection of songs driven by rich strings and piano mixed with acoustic guitars and lots of references to birds (band member Jonathan Meiburg is a graduate student in ornithology).

Singer Meiburg definitely has a hint of Mark Hollis in his vocal style, so a band that fans of later period Talk Talk will probably appreciate.

Recommended track: Leviathan, Bound

Buy Rook at Amazon

Butch Walker

Again, a 2008 release, but one I stumbled across in 2009 thanks to the wonders of Youtube.  I was aware of Butch Walker’s previous band, Marvellous 3, due to the power-pop anthem from 1999, Freak of the Week (a fair-sized hit in the US that I heard when on holiday in Florida).

I found clips of Walker performing songs from his solo albums, often alone with just acoustic guitar or piano, sometimes with a full band, but always entertaining. What sold it for me was solo version of Passed Your Place, Saw Your Car, Thought Of You from 2008’s Sycamore Meadows album.

From reading reviews, Butch Walker is not critically acclaimed in his native USA, but when did that ever matter?  Yes, his songs are often very sentimental, but again, when did that ever matter?  I’ve quickly snapped up his entire back-catalogue (at least the ones that I’ve managed to get from the US, I’m a couple of EP’s and a live DVD short of a full collection), and there are some real gems to be found. Mixtape from 2004’s Letters album is a career highlight, and one of the best rock songs about unrequited love.

You gave me the best mixtape I have
Even all the bad songs ain’t so bad
I just wish there was so much more than that
About me and you

Walker is a very traditional performer, which, again, is not a criticism, and he seems aware of rock history whilst knowing how to knock out a great song, so expect nods to some of his idols in live performances.  Either solo or with a full band, Walker seems to put 150% into every live performance (he reminds me of a mid-period Springsteen in this regard).

One of my most played artists of 2009, and someone I hope to see live for the first time in 2010, if he heads over to the UK to tour his next album.

Recommended track:  ATL from Sycamore Meadows

Some become lovers because of the sex
And some, you know, they just become friends
In our case, we just became bad at it all
And never got good at it again

Buy Letters at Amazon

Buy Sycamore Meadows at Amazon

Butch Walker website

Miike Snow

The part Swedish, part US band Miike Snow have released one album to date, and a clutch of classic singles.  For the fact-fiends reading this blog, the Swedish contingent in the band were responsible for the Grammy winning Toxic by Britney Spears.

I was lucky to be able to see one of the bands first live performances when they played at the iTunes festival in the summer of 2009 at London’s Roundhouse.  The recent single Silvia was a highlight of the live show, and is also a centre-piece on the studio album.

Maybe I’m a little odd, but if a group like 10CC formed today, I think they would sound like Miike Snow.  Too much modern dance music has disposable lyrics, with songs that are little more than icing sprinkled on a beat, but Miike Snow songs would work just as well in an acoustic environment, as they are strong enough to survive without the studio trappings.

Recommended track:  Burial

At your own burial, don’t forget to cry
At your own burial
Looking at my 81st birthday, everyday this body goes to waste
Remembering how I would raise an army when we went back to your place

Buy Miike Snow at Amazon

Miike Snow website

Others on the Kinski radar in 2009

Marina and the Diamonds

One of my favourite songs in 2009 was the perfect pop of  I Am Not a Robot.

With a debut album, Family Jewels, on the horizon, one to watch in 2010.

Marina & the Diamonds website

Buy Marina & the Diamonds at Amazon




James Grant

Love & Money singer James Grant released the album Strange Flowers in 2009, unfortunately to little fanfare. It’s an amazing album, full of finely crafted songs, the highlight for me being the 9 minute plus bluesy My Father’s Coat.

In a stall in the marketsquare
I saw his old threadbare mohair
And I choked out the oath in my throat
Stood staring at my father’s coat

Buy Strange Flowers at Amazon


Wild Beasts

Cumbrian band
Wild Beasts second album, Two Dancers, includes When I’m Sleepy… , which evokes the spirit of the late, great Billy Mackenzie.

Watch the Hooting & Howling video.

Buy Two Dancers at Amazon.




Rickie Lee Jones

The latest Rickie Lee Jones album, Balm In Gilead, was released late in 2009. Opening track Wild Girl is a personal favourite, and has a lovely Steely Dan feel to the arrangement.

Wild girl in a red dress
Come on, speak up, say yes
This thing that makes you beautiful
Never comes out of a jar

Soundtrack King Jon Brion appears with Rickie on the track Bonfires.

Buy Balm In Gilead at Amazon.

McAlmont and Nyman

The Glare is the first (and hopefully not the last) collaboration between former Bernard Butler cohort David McAlmont and composer Michael Nyman.

Apparently a musical match made via Facebook (how 21st Century) the album is made up of Michael Nyman compositions turned into songs (and with lyrics added) by David McAlmont, all dealing with “The Glare” of being in the media spotlight.

So from Berlusconi, assisted suicide (the extremely moving Friendly Fire) to ‘drug mules’ In Laos, its a wonderful concept that sends you rushing over to Google to research the stories that inspired the non-judgemental lyrics.

I had a second, a single chance
To let the cameras see my face.
I hoped then I would make the news
And I prayed that you’d be tuned in

The Glare Dossier – The stories that inspired the songs.

Buy The Glare at Amazon.

Releases I’m looking forward to in 2010

Memories Of Machines – Warm Winter

The forthcoming collaboration between no-man’s Tim Bowness and Nosound’s Giancarlo Erra.  Highlights included the slow-burning At the Centre of it All and the perfect-pop of Before We Fall.  Memories of Machines website

Delphic – Acolyte

A band that I first came across as support to Bloc Party in 2009.

Sounding like a 21st Century New Order,  forthcoming single Doubt is the song that should give the Manchester band their first hit in 2010.

Delphic Myspace

Acolyte at Amazon.



Peter Gabriel – Scratch My Back


The next Peter Gabriel album is released in February of 2010, and will consist of twelve cover versions of songs by artists such as David Bowie, Elbow, Bon Iver, Radiohead, Paul Simon, Talking Heads and The Magnetic Fields, recorded using just orchestra and voice.

Buy Scratch My Back at Amazon



Hazel Mills


The next EP from Bristol’s Hazel Mills should be released in 2010.

Butterfly, the first Hazel Mills EP, was released more than two years ago now, so new music is long overdue.

Hazel Mills website.




A new album from Canada’s Stars, titled The Five Ghosts is due in June 2010.

The last Stars release was the Sad Robot EP in late 2008.

Stars Myspace



Favourite songs of 2009

Catherine A.D. Carry Your Heart

And as I fall from hope to here with your heart on my back
How did we get here? With your heart on my back…
And with your blood still on my tongue and words that can’t be undone
How do we get to carry our hearts?

Miike SnowBurial

Marina and the DiamondsI Am Not a Robot

James GrantMy Father’s Coat

The DecemberistsAnnan Water

GrammaticsInkjet Lakes

Blue Roses I Wish I…

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