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 everybody can get self opinionated about their own tastes, and I have noticed something peculiar this year; even the top tens produced by bloggers and magazines, which I regularly read because my tastes on the whole correspond with theirs, are completely different to my top ten. 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 chosen 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.
6. Gogol Bordello: Seekers and Finders
After a couple of albums, which, though not exactly lack lustre, didn’t really fulfil the promise of their first couple of records, it is nice to see that this globally diverse bunch of musical and stylistic misfits are back with a vengeance! For those of you who are not aware of them, the band, which is fronted by Ukranian born Eugene Hütz, mines a vaguely parallel cultural seam to that utilised by The Pogues three decades ago. However, whereas The Pogues never completely abandoned their roots in Celtic, and particularly Irish, music, Hütz, who comes from a Servo Roma background (these days it is not permissible to call them gypsies, although Hütz himself refers to the band as being ‘gypsy punks’) have their stylistic roots in klezmer and other Eastern European music. Seekers and Finders is their first record for four years, and is, in my humble opinion, their best since East Infection in 2005. This record doesn’t quite scale those heights, but then again, how could it? There are two minor nuances, which – to my mind – are really rather important here. First of all, it is the first of their albums produced by Hütz, and he has given them a wilder, more unleashed sound than on recent records, but it also their first album to be released on the legendary British label, Cooking Vinyl, a company with an admirable record on cutting artist-driven deals with their clients. I think, with this new arrangement, that Gogol Bordello have finally found an artistic home, where they can be nurtured, but still maintain their independence.
7. Tricky: Ununiform
I actually met tricky quite a few years before I started listening to his music. In the dying years of the 20th century, he and I were making records at the same studio complex at the same time. His sold masses, and mine never got finished, and I haven’t even got the tapes anymore. That is probably for the best, as they weren’t terribly good. I am not very good at delineating between the modern styles of music, and – to me – RnB still means the Rolling Stones! However, I have been reliably informed that Tricky’s music is a mixture of trip hop, hip hop, ragga, and RnB (and no, he doesn’t sound like the Rolling Stones) and I am quite prepared to take that description at face value. What I can tell you is that this new album is quite possibly the most in intelligent and literate album he’s produced yet, and mixes insightful word play with strange, electronically treated beats, which wouldn’t, all in all, sound out of place on a Can album. I have a sneaking suspicion that it is the fact that Tricky has been (and probably always will be) labelled a ‘hip hop artist’ that will put most people who read this, whom I believe have their tastes rooted securely in the music of the 60s and 70s, to ignore it. And that would be a great pity.
8. Yusuf Stevens: The Laughing Apple
When Yusuf returned to making pop records, 11 years ago, nobody was happier than I. And although these records have not reached the stellar heights of the albums that he released in his hayday, this is not entirely surprising. In fact, with the possible exception of Al Stewart and Roger Waters, I cannot think of any artists whose 21st century are as good as those from the height of his career. This is an interesting record on several fronts. First of all, it includes several songs that originally appeared on his second solo album from 1967. Apparently, he was never particularly pleased with it, and relished the opportunity to re-record them. Secondly, the record is produced by none other than Paul Samwell-Smith, who was, of course, the original bass player with the Yardbirds, leaving them in 1966, to be replaced by Jimmy Page. I have always been impressed with his production skills, with his 1973 album by Donovan being a particular favourite. It is difficult to explain why I like Samwell-Smith’s production so much, but somehow manages to combine the crisp clarity of the best modern recordings with a warm, organic feeling that is so often missing from them. Most of the media interest surrounding The Laughing Apple has been about the re-recordings, but I would not like to forget the fact that 6 of the 11 songs are brand new, and another has a completely new set of lyrics. It may not be Tea for the Tillerman but in a particularly unpleasant world, it is nice to know that the gentle hippy spirit which has always propelled Cat Stevens’ music is still alive and kicking!
9. Morrissey: Low in High School
What have me and Morrissey got in common? Well, we are both good at pissing people off! In the run up to the release of this, the long awaited new album by the ex-Smiths frontman, Morrissey hit the promotional trail. In doing so, he managed to annoy all sorts of people across both the conventional media and its amateur counterpoint. He was accused of being racist, sexist, fascist and all sorts of other things with -ist on the end, and the album cover, which featured a young lad standing outside the gates of Buckingham palace brandishing an axe an a placard proclaiming ‘axe the monarchy’ managed to offend all sorts of people, just as it was meant to do (I strongly suspect). Again, I came late to appreciation of this charming man, only discovering that I actually liked his music about 15yrs ago. This is his 11th album, and is both musically and lyrically the most adventurous thing he has done since the Ringleader of the Tormentors back in 2006. One of the standout tracks for me is Jacky’s Only Happy When She’s Up on the Stage, which was released as a single in early November, and is – in my opinion – probably the most successful of Morrissey’s third party stories to date. Sadly, I doubt whether anybody who’s not already a fan will get turned on by this album, however this is more by Morrisey – by his public statements and persona – does more to polarise people than nearly any other artist. I was particularly lucky to overcome my initial dislike of his work, which had lasted for nearly 2 decades; years which included me seeing him live on stage when he supported David Bowie in Exeter. Sadly, I think others will not be so lucky.
10. Tim Bowness: Lost in the Ghost Light
I have a long and strange relationship with Tim Bowness. I first heard of him many years ago, when I interviewed Steven Wilson of the Porcupine Tree, when he was visiting his first musical partner Malcolm somewhere on the edge of Dartmoor nearly 30yrs ago. He gave me some CDs, including some by his other band, No-Man, in which he collaborated with Bowness. I loved the records, which mixed the pop sensibility of the Pet Shop Boys with the feel and zeitgeist of the most accessible progressive British rock bands. And over the intervening three decades, I kept in touch with what both men were doing. A couple of years ago, I was commissioned to film Judy Dyble at a pastoral rock festival in Kent. I knew that she had collaborated with Tim Bowness, and I assumed that the piano player who was obviously acting as her MD was him. As it transpired, it wasn’t. But that is another story! This thing that’s most interesting about this new record by him is that it is a concept album revolving around the on-stage and back stage thoughts of a veteran musician, in a similar vein to some of the records made by Pete Townsend, featuring his fictional alter ego Ray High. Both conceptually and musically, this album is an absolute stunner, and I’m very pleased that – totally by accident – I came across it!