Whilst Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” bestrode the Blackcountryrock household in 2016, this year’s music has seemed to come in phases, quite often linked to gigs. Much of the stuff I’ve enjoyed I’ve written about already in 2017 and there will be a couple of LPs appearing on the blog in coming weeks. In the meantime, here’s a round up of our highlights.
The start and the end of the year have both been spent in the company of Ryan Adams. February’s “Prisoner” album was one of Ryan’s better quality releases, following a winning streak that started with 2011’s “Ashes and Fire”. My initial reaction to “Prisoner” was guarded enthusiasm and that was the way it remained until recent weeks when Rough Trade reissued the LP with a bonus CD of a Ryan instore performance in their Brick Lane shop. This was Ryan where he excels – an intimate performance with just an acoustic guitar. The stripping back of the layers of the “Prisoner” material revealed the rich melodic quality of the songs. If you haven’t bought the LP already, then get over to Rough Trade and bag yourself the bonus CD too. We are nearing “Heartbreaker” standards and coming from me, that is no faint praise. His cover of the whole of Taylor Swift’s “1989” has also stuck around in our house and in particular, the gentle acoustic take on “Blank Space” which works perfectly with his constant streak of vulnerability.
Ryan is at the helm for hopefully one of 2018’s highlights too. L.A.’s Starcrawler’s gig at the Boston Arms in Tufnell Park in September was full of youthful exuberance and I’ve already ordered their debut album which has been produced by Ryan. They aren’t big and they aren’t clever. They are fun and cartoonish in the vein of the Ramones and Guns’n’Roses but we needed some frivolous stupidity in 2017, when there was so much serious stupidity around to deal with. Their single “Let Her Be” was a step forward from “Ants” and bodes well for the new LP.
Thundercat’s “Drunk” slowly revealed its charms too. I’d spotted it when it was released and was still listening to it at the end of the year, the sheer breadth of material drawing you back to it and revealing new directions. No track sticks around long enough to outstay its welcome. Rough Trade have also done the bonus re-issue thing with this LP, releasing a full remix entitled “Drank”. Again, if you going to buy the LP, why not do it from here.
He also appears on Kendrick Lamar’s “Damn”. Bearing in mind that it took me two years to fully appreciate “To Pimp A Butterfly’s” merits, expect “Damn” to pop up in my 2018 highlights. Whilst I enjoyed the beautifully packaged Floating Point’s “Reflections-Mojave Desert”, it didn’t quite hit the heights of 2015’s “Elaeneia”. However the end of year epic 12″ single was gorgeous and I’m pretty sure that whatever Sam Shepherd does will have an element of beauty around it.
Summer and Autumn were largely soundtracked by four albums.
Our wet week in Wales was accompanied by This Is The Kit’s “Moonshine Freeze”. Melodic but squally, charming but not twee, this was music from a typical British summer, as their cagoule clad video for “Hotter Colder” recognises. The wonderfully ramshackle gig at the time of launch at the Old Dentist’s in Hackney was the icing on the cake.
Ghostpoet’s late summer “Dark Days and Canapes” was the commentary to the freakish political year we’ve had where the worst snap election campaign that I can remember meshed with the post Brexit referendum chaos and the tragedy of the broken system that allowed Grenfell Tower to happen. “Freakshow” was a “Ghost Town” for our times and Ghostpoet’s performance at Rough Trade East in August revealed how Nick Cave has a rival in the compelling storytelling frontman stakes. Ultimately “Dark Days” is melodic and approachable if not starting from a rather dour place. There is still hope.
If Ghostpoet’s work was focussed on dystopia than optimism in the autumn came from an unlikely source. The congregation of the ex-members of the might Fall under the guise of the Extricated was reason to celebrate enough. When one then factors in Brix Smith’s return to the musical spotlight, it really is something special. The band showed all of their musical chops when I saw them playinglive twice at the end of their year. This wasn’t all about technique. There was so much visible pleasure at playing together again whilst letting bygones be bygones that it all got a bit emotional. Add in Brix’s own special re-emerging talent as a front person in her own right, this musical second act is rather special. She’s a defiant stroppy presence centre stage, righting wrongs and breaking bones. The Fall material is performed with love, underlining its quality and the new stuff from their debut album “Part 2” stands up by comparison too. The band are already enthusiastically tweeting about live dates in 2018. Hopefully this one will run and run. On a personal level, the use of social media by the band plus the intimacy of the venues that they’ve played and their engagement with their audience really does enhance “the last gang in town” aura around the Extricated.
There were other house favourites. Queens of the Stone Age’s “Villains” got a good airing, especially after their stellar arena show at the O2 with the swinging single “The Way You Used To Do” and the emotional “Fortress” both highlights. Angel Olsen has continued to be a feature with her album of last year continuing to get airtime, particularly after her show at the Roundhouse. LCD Soundsystem’s return to live and studio work was exemplary. America’s ugly year was accompanied by the Drive-by Truckers 2016’s album “American Band.” Their Roundhouse show was a personal highpoint, showing how a rock’n’roll band stays relevant in 2017.
So to the last two picks for now. Run The Jewels incendiary set at Glastonbury after Jeremy Corbyn’s speech was an unexpected highlight. An old fashioned two MC’s and one DJ line up got the place rocking. The sound was stripped back bringing to mind Run DMC’s heyday. The more I dug into the band, the more I liked them, whether it be their stance on stopping sexual harassment at their gigs or their support of the American underdog. Killer Mike was an articulate advocate for Bernie Sanders in his 2016 presidential campaign. It wouldn’t have taken much of a swing to get the Bern into White House and wouldn’t that have been a refreshing re-adjustment to the world’s axis as this interview will demonstrate.
If you want to see a distillation of the Run The Jewels formula, check out this Tiny Desk Concert. It is smart, witty with fantastic wordplay and we’ve played it to death this year. And it grooves and kicks. Hip hop is derided as self interested and misogynistic. These guys are the antidote.
My final choice brings us back into the realm of pop. We saw Lorde twice this year. In hindsight, the Glastonbury gig was more impressive than the Alexandra Palace concert. Playing to a neutral audience and winning them over is more challenging than a “homer”. I see the Guardian has nominated “Green Light” as song of the year. I’m going to go for “The Louvre” as my choice from the album (although it could have been “Perfect Places” too). It captures the rush of being freshly in love with a hint of “Born To Run” and contains the killer line:
We’re the greatest, they’ll hang us in the Louvre, down the back but who cares, still the Louvre
I love the qualified expectation and the acceptance of happiness. It is such a clever line. Come to think of it, this may be the family album of the year for 2017, which is a neat follow on to “Lemonade” which had the same honour.