Wednesday, 30 December 2020

20 for 2020 #4

I'm not going mention any of the records that disappointed me this year - there were a few. God knows we've had anough negatives over the past 12 months. I'd rather focus on the positive side of things, so here's the final selection of my favourite albums of 2020.

PUBLIC ENEMY 'What You Gonna Do When The Grid Goes Down?'
What makes me happy is that Public Enemy are still making music in 2020. What makes me sad is that the messages they were preaching in 1987 remain just as relevant in 2020. For their 17th album, Chuck, Flav and Lord roped in friends from the hip-hop community including the Beastie Boys, Run DMC, Ice-T, Nas and Cypress Hill to name a few. A couple of old tracks were given a makeover too including 1990's anthem Fight The Power, one of the most powerful protest songs of all time. In the current landscape, it's never sounded so necessary.

CULTS 'Host'
There were two distinctive firsts on Cults' fourth 'proper' album: they used mainly live instruments instead of synths and electronics; and it contained songs written by vocalist Madeline Follin, who had been hording them for some time. The result is possibly their best album to date.

SORRY '952'
Another duo - Sorry hail from London and released an intriguing debut album which kind of defies categorisation (though if you like Beetlebum-era Blur, you might well enjoy it). There's a lot going on here, and they certainly wear their influences proudly on their sleeves. I play this album when I'm not sure what I'm in the mood for, and it always does the trick.

LAURA MARLING 'Song For Our Daughter'
I mentioned earlier in the year how Laura Marling's latest effort is an absolute joy. An album of intimate and sparsely-arranged songs for an imaginary daughter, it was inspired by an eclectic bunch of writers and musicians including Maya Angelou, Graeme Green, Paul McCartney, Leonard Cohen and Robert Icke. Laura Marling is fast becoming a national treasure, and she's still only 30!

And to finish off, how about the comeback record of the year? Despite reforming in 2000, the Psychedelic Furs toured for the best part of the next two decades without releasing any new material. And then this little beauty hit the shelves, a full 29 years after their last record 'World Outside'. Got to say, it was worth the wait. Some brilliant, brilliant songs on this one.

Shout outs must also go to:
Sparks - 'A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip' (one of Mrs Robster's faves)
Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs - 'Viscerals' (definitely not one of Mrs Robster's faves...)
Ian Skelly - 'Drifters Skyline'
Mourn - 'Self Worth'
The Strokes - 'The New Abnormal'

OK, I'm done. I could make this list twice as long but that would be boring. Hopefully this time next year I'll have just as much to write about, maybe I could even get a few gig reviews in as well!

Back to the burrow I go. Wake me up when something good happens...

Wednesday, 23 December 2020

20 for 2020 #3

Another five of my faves of the year, all of these have been played a lot. This is probably the most stylistically diverse selection of this run of articles.

YOUNG KNIVES 'Barbarians'
Young Knives' fifth album was their first in seven years, and if you were expecting anything along the lines of classics like Weekdays And Bleak Days, Here Comes The Rumour Mill and Turn Tail, you were in for a shock. For 'Barbarians' is completely bonkers, a turbulent masterclass in off-the-wall experimentation rooted in chaos and nihilism. They ask the question: "What if cruelty to others is just part of who we are? How do we live with that?” 'Barbarians' is the rather disconcerting answer.

WILL BUTLER 'Generations'
If you want to know who the real brains behind Arcade Fire's best moments is, just listen to 'Generations', the second solo record by the Canadian band's keyboard player Will Butler. In complete contrast to the Young Knives, Butler offers hope and optimism wrapped in terrific melodies and exhuberant delivery. The closing track does sound like that song from Toy Story (it really does!), but the rest is good enough to let that slide.

WIRE 'Mind Hive'
Once again, Wire hit the mark. 43 years after making one of the greatest, most influential debut albums of all time, they delivered their 17th album and they somehow still sound fresh. It met with some of the highest critical acclaim of their recent career too.

THE KILLERS 'Imploding The Mirage'
Now, this one was a bit of a surprise. Ever since their brilliant debut, The Killers have got worse and worse. I personally lost them when they released the dire Human and hadn't gone back since, until I heard some of the tracks from 'Imploding The Mirage'. I know I risk losing whatever crdibility I have left, and it doesn't reach the heights of 'Hot Fuss' - not a lot does - but it reminded me that, on their day, The Killers can be such a good band.

TORRES 'Silver Tongue'
Another one I featured back in my Lockdown posts, and I still haven't lost any of my love for what is by far Torres' best record to date. After an acrimonious split from her record label 4AD, she refocused her energy into writing an album of songs about love and relationships. But, as you'd expect, these aren't typical soppy ballads, and it's difficult to pin a genre on it. It's just beautiful.

Next Wednesday, the final five.

Wednesday, 16 December 2020

20 for 2020 #2

Last week I gave you my Top 5 albums of the year. The thing is, it wasn't quite that simple, as when it came down to it, only the top 3 were unarguable. For positions 4 and 5, I had three to choose from. In the end I plumped for Nadine Shah and Katy J Pearson to take the slots.

So while the rest of the albums in this series are not listed in any particular order, the first of today's choices is 'the one that got away', the record that just missed the top 5 by an absolute whisker.

Phoebe only became known to me in the latter part of the year. I can't really believe how she'd escaped me before. 'Punisher' is an album of personal, confessional, sometimes confrontational songs that no one her age should be able to write. But she's channelled her experiences into making some of the most beautiful songs of the year. The apocalyptic I Know The End also has one of the most stunning videos of 2020.

I was a big fan of Polly's debut album way back in 2009. It took her four years to follow it up and sadly that one didn't do much for me. Her new album, arriving a further seven years later, is a real return to form. Plenty of quirky songs that veer from dark masterpieces like Red, to gentle piano ballads, to strange electronic spoken word pieces. She's not one to rush things, but on this evidence that's no bad thing. Another exceptional video here.

What a record this is! Mali's finest Songhoy Blues have been building to this, their third album, which knocked me for six. As wll as the sociological lyrics that depict struggle and adversity, the power of the music is ramped up a notch, giving us their hardest hitting set of songs to date. "Ir Badala in Songhai means "I gon't give a fuck", and is inspired by the youth in Mali, especially young women, who are pushing back against patriarchy & societal controls. This song celebrates that courage, fearlessness & agency through the story of a woman ending her relationship, and choosing her own destiny."

BOB MOULD 'Blue Hearts'
After last year's album of sunny, happy songs, Bob made a quick turnaround with a record of extra-loud angry noise. In many ways, it sums up the times we live in, especially this past 12 bizarre months. My fave track on the album is also its most melodic, but its message is as powerful as Bob's usual barrage of sound!

IDLES 'Ultra Mono'
Having reached mainstream-level status, Idles are showing no signs of letting up. Some may write them off as punk for the woke generation, but you know what? They make great music. That's all I care about. 'Ultra Mono' saw the band reach out to friends and acquaintances, and as a result you'll hear David Yow of The Jesus Lizard shouting on this, as well as a piano intro from, erm, Jamie Cullum...

More to come next week.

Wednesday, 9 December 2020

20 for 2020 #1

Well. Fuck me! That was one completely messed up year, wasn't it? The things we'll tell our grandchildren about 2020. The pessimist in me wonders if they'll say: "We know what a pandemic is granddad, we've had six of them in our liftetime!"

And on that jolly old prediction of the future, let's look back at the sounds that got me through the weirdest 12 months I've ever known. I've already told you about some of my fave records of the first half of 2020 in my Lockdown posts, but it's time to round up the whole damn year. There have been quite a lot of really good records, despite many getting delayed and delayed again, now not due until 2021. But, of those that did make it out into the big bad world, I've chosen what is probably my top 20. These are the albums that kept me going, the ones that made me smile, that made me sing, that made me feel some sense of normality when the rest of the world was bulk-buying bog roll, hand sanitiser and alcohol.

I'm going to give you five records a week for four Wednesdays - today you get my Top 5, the rest will be in no particular order. All five of these are nestled snugly in my vinyl collection.

I mentioned this album back in April and said it would be right up there on my best of the year list come December. And what do you know - it is. not only that, it holds the honour of being my album of the year. A wonderful record I haven't remotely tired of.

IST IST 'Architecture'
Another one I featured a while back - it's perhaps to easy to write off Manchester's Ist Ist as mere Joy Division revivalists, but while their debut album evokes the spirits of Ian Curtis et al, it also has some exceptional songs. So good they are in fact, that 'Architecture' is also one of MrsRobster's fave albums of 2020. High praise indeed.

THE BETHS 'Jump Rope Gazers'
New Zealand's best new band continue to show their worth. Their second album feels a little darker than its predecessor, yet after a few listens it truly sparkles. The title track could well be my song of the year. In Elizabeth Stokes, The Beths have one of the most promising songwriters in pop music right now. The video is, I think, some metaphor on falling in love. Personally, I think you should listen to the song without the visuals. It's perfect that way...

NADINE SHAH 'Kitchen Sink'
It's bound to happen one day that Nadine Shah will let us down, but she is showing no signs of that at the moment. 'Kitchen Sink' is another collection of songs tinged with biting social comment and sharp wit, delivered in Nadine's inimitable style.

And wrestling with Ist Ist for the title of debut album of the year is this little beauty. Katy J. Pearson has been teasing her album all year. When it finally arrived, we weren't disappointed. I absolutely love her voice, which certainly evokes Stevie Nicks in places - a very good thing in my book.

There'll be another selection next Wednesday.

Sunday, 25 October 2020

John Peel Day

My good blogging chum Webbie posted a tribute to the late great John Peel today, the anniversary of the legendary DJ's untimely passing over on JC's The (New) Vinyl Villain. I posted a comment which included links to the Peel podcasts I posted (and subsequently reposted) for Webbie's own Keeping It Peel project back in the day.

For some reason my comments haven't appeared on t(n)vv, so I thought I'd post them here instead. I've re-upped the files but they will only be available for a limited time. Enjoy them.

Saturday, 1 August 2020

The final lockdown

Yep, this really is it. Is This The Life? is going back to sleep. You may have noticed (or not) I've been doing some R.E.M. stuff for JC over at The (New) Vinyl Villain and will continue to do so. That's been fun up to now, far more fun than writing stuff for this place. Plus people actually read Jim's blog!

I'm signing off with something very loud, very heavy and very, very good. Japanese experimentalists Boris must be one of the most prolific bands in existence. Their discography is vast and complex so I'm not even going to hazard a guess at how many albums they've put out, but it's not unusual for them to release more than one album a year, with or without collaborators. No two albums sound the same, different styles are interwoven throughout their output over the years. Last year's 'LφVE & EVφL' sat proudly on my top 50 albums of 2019.

Boris' latest record was released a few weeks ago. Entitled 'NO', it harks back in places to their roots as a doom metal band, but it mainly has lots of of hardcore, thrash and black metal coursing through its veins. The songs are short - only three breach the five minute mark, with most clocking in at less than 3 - out of step with much of their other recent material. But these bursts of angry disgust provide the perfect soundtrack to our world right now. The band describes the album as "extreme healing music", a frantic catharsis in which the anger and frustrations many of us feel right now can be released in the form of a primal scream therapy with very, very loud guitars.

No, it's not for everybody, probably hardly anyone who's still reading, in fact. But for me, right now, this is aural heaven and is where this blog ends for the foreseeable future. I'm gone. Here's Anti-Gone. Stay safe.

Wednesday, 29 July 2020

The Lockdown posts: Welsh Wednesday 2020 #10

Rabbit Hole by SERA

(This originally appeared last Wednesday for a few hours until I learned of Tim Smith's sad passing. So I replaced it with a piece about Tim and held it over to this week to avoid it getting lost.)

SERA has been making music for a number of years now, both under her current moniker and as Sarah Louise. A North Walian with Polish heritage, she composes songs in Welsh and English and has released a series of singles since her debut album in 2016.

Rabbit Hole came out last summer and is a little gem, a mischievous folk song with a slightly ominous vibe. SERA releases most of her stuff on her Soundcloud page, and I highly recommend a visit.

This is the final post of the series. It's a good way to bow out, I reckon.

Wednesday, 22 July 2020

Singing to God: Tim Smith RIP

What a shit day. The genius that is Tim Smith, beloved frontman of Cardiacs, passed away in his sleep through the night. He is already sadly missed, despite his chronic illnesses meaning he hasn't made music for more than 10 years. At least we knew he was still here.

I'd like to point you towards my Tim Smith series from a few years back, even if you already know and love his work as much as I do. I'll be adding YouTube clips to the posts over the next day or so you can hear the great man's voice again. In the meantime though, here's a couple of songs to tide you over.

Rest easy Tim. Sing to God, and make sure she grants you your every wish.

(Today's Welsh Wednesday post has been replaced and will appear next week instead...)

Wednesday, 15 July 2020

The Lockdown posts: Welsh Wednesday 2020 #9

Full Moon Vulture by Alffa

Alffa hail from Llanrug, a village near Caernarfon in North Wales. They're a duo very much in the Royal Blood mould, and somewhat predictably cite the likes of the White Stripes, Black Keys and Jimi Hendrix as influences. They've only been together five years, but there's something of a buzz about them already - in 2019, despite only having two singles out at the time, Spotify named them the most streamed Welsh language act of all time, garnering three million streams.

Since then, a full-length album has been released, the bi-lingual (and dual-titled) 'Rhyddid o’r Cysgodion Gwenwynig / Freedom from the Poisonous Shadows', featuring their first English language single Full Moon Vulture. 'Tis a bit of a beast of a song in truth, certainly bigger than a two-piece line-up suggests.

Wednesday, 8 July 2020

The Lockdown posts: Welsh Wednesday 2020 #8

Love Forever by Buzzard Buzzard Buzzard

It's the height of summer so time for a summer anthem. Buzzard Buzzard Buzzard hail from our capital, Cardiff, and have the second-silliest band name in this series. They make what can best be thought of as psychedelic glam rock, or what they themselves describe as “70s sheep in badly-made wolves clothing.”

Led by brothers Tom and Ed Rees (whose dad once drummed for the Bay City Rollers, no less), they've become huge favourites in their hometown and have released a string of the most catchy singles you're likely to come across on You Tube. They also provided last year's Homeless World Cup, held in Cardiff, with its official theme song. Their latest release, the 'Non-Stop' EP features 10 songs, which makes it the EP with the most songs ever released probably. I'm guessing ('cause I haven't heard it at the time of writing) some of the tracks are really short, but still, EP? It's out this week anyway.

The so-called EP doesn't contain today's track Love Forever, sadly. It was released last August and, to me at least, sums up all the best bits of Welsh psych-pop in the tradition of Sibrydion, Yr Ods and, of course, Super Furry Animals. Try listening to it without grinning your face off. It really is an antidote to the shit happening right now.

In a parallel universe where everything is better than the really fucked up one we're in, Love Forever would be being belted out at every festival on the planet.