I have been compiling my top ten records of the year since about 2002, and I am an avid reader of everybody else’s as well. It is the time of year that everybpdy can get self opinionatged about their own tastes, and I have nopticed something peculiar this year; even the top tens produced by bloggefrs and magazines, which I regularly read because my tastes on the whole correspond with theirs, are completely different to my top twn. In most cases, there are no points of correlation. I always thought that I had fairly catholic tastes in music, but it appears that mine are far more mainstream than I thought. The thing that I’m trying to figure out now is whether my tastes are excessively banal, or whether the aforementioned writers either have impossibly obscure tastes or have deliberately choszen massively obscure records in order to show how hip they are…
This year I am being very brutal with myself. There have, after all, been some excellent records, which have not made it onto this list. But albums like Songs of Experience by U2, which released in early December, have just not been around long enough for me to be able to make a properly informed decision. However, a cursory investigation does suggest that they may have returned to form with this record.
Others, like Oczy Mlody by The Flaming Lips, are more problematical. Whilst undoubtedly a great album, it is still too wilfully impenetrable for it to be classed as one of this singular band’s great records. Sad, but true. And, another one of my favourite records of the year, J’Ouvert by Haitian producer Wyclef Jean turned out to have been first released in 2016, so it doesn’t count.
1. Roger Waters: Is This The Life We Really Want?
This record is something that I’ve been looking forward to, without much hope, for 30 years. After the release of Radio K.A.O.S. in 1987, there were almost immediately rumours that a new album, called Amused to Death, was imminent. Actually, it took about 5yrs, and when it arrived it was – to me, at least, although friends of mine think differently – a big disappointment. There seemed to be too much emphasis on sound effects, and Roger’s lyrics contain some of the most irritating writing that he has ever done. A couplet when he rhymed Chiang Kai-shek with “dirty rat” was particularly irksome. Since then, although we had all hoped for a return to form, there had been nothing but a few standalone studio tracks, several live albums, and an opera in French.
Then, this year, our Rog delivers the goods. And how! This scabrous album could well be described as the stylistic sequel to the Animals album, released by Pink Floyd 40yrs ago. However, it contains some wry humour, and – unusually for Rog – the jokes don’t suck. The sound is delightfully stripped down and claustrophobia, like a chamber ensemble version of Pink Floyd. It might just be the most successful solo album ever released by an alumnus of that fine band. The fact that it came totally out of left field when the artist responsible was approaching his 74th birthday makes it even more extraordinary. Animals took many pot shots at people like Mary Whitehouse, but this time it is Donald Trump who is firmly in Roger’s crosshairs. “Imagine a leader with no fucking brains”, he growls. This is an awesome record, and one which is now in my list of all-time favourite music. Well done Roger.
2. Gorillaz: Humanz
I have been an avid follower of this conceptual/cartoon band since their first album nearly 2 decades ago. I have always admired their environmentalist stance, and – as an admirer as Jamie Hewlett’s graphic novelisations – I have found the way that the ongoing saga of the four cartoon characters has been seamlessly woven into the ongoing musical narrative to be both innovative and entertaining!
Whilst this is a very good record, and certainly deserves to be included in my top 10, it is probably their weakest offering yet. And this is probably because – for the first time – the guest stars overwhelm the artistic input of main man Damon Albarn. And it is, after all, Albarn’s singular vision that one has grown to appreciate over the years. Although he became famous as front man of Blur, his work with Gorillaz, and his subsequent other projects have been stylistically far more inventive. Until now. This is an excellent sampler of contemporary hip hop styles, but somehow something has been lost. For the first time, the narrative seems obscured and sometimes even missing, and it doesn’t really feel like a Gorillaz record. Which is a great pity. It is still a bloody good album, though!
3. Neil Young: Promise of the Real
Neil Young is one of those irritatingly prolific artists, liked Frank Zappa or Prince. All 3 of them produced/produce enormous amounts of product, and as a result, some is obviously going to be better than others. Neil Young, in particular, has the artistically admirable trait of jumping off at tangents from the main arc of his career, to such an extent that it is well nigh impossible to judge what that ‘main arc’ is. He is also a doggedly curmudgeonly old sod, as referenced in his new online archive, which may feature freely listenable to copies of every record he has ever made, as well as a bunch of archive unreleased stuff, but is presented with such an eccentric search engine, that listening to records in a linear fashion is almost impossible. In the last 20yrs, he has released a whole slew of records, and I have loyally listened to them all. Some have been better than others, and some have been truly great, but – if I’m honest with myself – I have always been wanting to hear a record that has been as good as Harvest or After the Gold Rush, and none of them have come close. Neil Young is an irritatingly erratic talent, and his records this century have included country, soul, rock and avant-garde outings. So, I was not particularly enthusiastic when I heard that he had just released a new record. Boy, how wrong I was! I have done my best to be positive about all his other recent records, but the truth is that I have listened to all of them once or twice and then forgotten about them . This new record, however, for the first time in many years, bristles with ideas, and – even better – has lyrical and musical hooks which stick in your mind like post-it notes. It is too early to tell whether Promise of the Real is truly a career high, but I have a sneaking suspicion that it might be.
4. British Sea Power: Let the Dancers Inherit the Party
God, I love this band! They first burst into my consciousness back in 2002, when my buddy Jon Hare turned me on to them, and ever since then I have been an admirer of their peculiarly skewed vision. They are very much a British band, and their musical vision singularly reflects the sights and sounds of rural and liminal Britain. Let the Dancers Inherit the Party is a very strange album; the title implies that we should be dealing with some sort of post-modern disco record, but it is nothing of the sort. Imagine the dancers as being those jolly celebrants seen during the merry making scenes in The Wicker Man, and you might have some sort of inkling of what this record is all about. The word ‘pagan’ means – literally – someone who lives in the fields, in the same way that the word ‘heathen’ means someone who lives on the heath. I have no idea of the spiritual affiliations of the members of this band, and don’t really care, but – unusually for an indie/post-punk band – they have tapped into some strange zeitgeist, originally mined by Kipling’s people of the hills. This is a band that one has real issues trying to imagine staying in an inner city, and this new record simply magnifies and elaborates on their complex myth.
5. Peter Perrett: How the West was Won
The weird thing about punk was that the movement that the media perceived gathered together a whole bunch of disparate musicians who really had nothing much in common with each other, although most of them were fans of bands like the Velvet Underground, Television, or Hawkwind. One of the oddest of these strange bedfellows was a group called The Only Ones, which was fronted by a legendary dope dealer called Peter Perrett. Their most famous record was, of course, Another Girl, Another Planet, which had been released in 1978. But Perrett had very little in common with the other luminaries of the punk scene. The drummer of The Only Ones had been a member of ‘Spooky Tooth’, for example, and the bass plater had a pedigree which went back even further. The Only Ones were together from 1976 to 1982, after which Perrett disappeared for the next 12 years. He poked his head above the parapet again in the mid 90s for a couple of years, but disappeared again. These continued hiatuses have been blamed on serious drug problems. Then, bizarrely, The Only Ones reunited again in 2007 and have been going on ever since... on and off. But then in April this year, Perrett released How the West was Won, and it is a minor masterpiece. I have described it as being a cross between Blonde on Blonde and the first Modern Lover’s album. However, everybody I have used this description to has just laughed at me. So what do I know? What I do know is that the clever word play and down to earth acoustics of this record are irresistible, and I strongly recommend that you all go out and check it out, if you haven’t done so already.
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