Lists. Don’t you just love lists? Well I do. I made a list this morning of all the things I had to do today and took great satisfaction from ticking them off. Walk Bruno. Tick. Phone the double glazing company. Tick. Do some washing. Tick. Prepare the Maths lesson for the student I am tutoring. Tick. Read John’s paper cuttings. Tick. Phone John. Tick. It’s amazing how busy one person can be…..?
The best lists, of course, are those stating categorically, without fear of contradiction, what the best albums of the year are. Your list, my list, a list from a magazine – they will all be different. For years, I’ve discovered some great music by studying end-of-year lists from New Musical Express, Melody Maker, Zigzag, VOX, Q, The Word, UNCUT or MOJO. In recent years, UNCUT and MOJO have delivered, through my door, at no extra expense, a CD with their view of the best music of the year. However, their CD is selective, depending on whether the record companies give them a license. This post is about the UNCUT CD, which consists of 15 songs and comes highly recommended. There are some great tracks here – only four from albums I own but I intend to put that right soon. Arooj Aftab and Rosali: making their way to a CD player near here soon.
Harmonia’s Dream from “I Don’t Live Here Anymore” by The War On Drugs
The War On Drugs introduced me to the concept of “heartland rock”. This is, I believe, straightforward roots-based rock music with a social conscience. Bruce Springsteen appears to epitomise the best of heartland rock music but I also hear elements of Simple Minds, Kraftwerk and Steve Earle in their layered sound. “Harmonia’s Dream” is one of the more up-tempo songs from the magnificent “I Don’t Live Here Anymore”, which is one of my albums of the year. UNCUT = 8, MOJO = 17 (i.e. UNCUT placed it as the 8th best album of 2021 and MOJO put it at Number 17).
Michelangelo from “An Overview Of Phenomenal Nature” by Cassandra Jenkins
Cassandra Jenkins is a 36 year old ambient-pop singer from Brooklyn. Her whispered vocals are not especially to my taste but the slow-paced distorted guitar break towards the end of the song is stunning. A review on “Stereogum” includes the opinion that the songs on the album “drift off into the air from which they first emerged.” UNCUT = 7.
Vacancy from “Coral Island” by The Coral
I bought the double CD, “Coral island”, earlier this year. I played it, enjoyed it and completely forgot about it so it’s good to listen to this song again. The album is categorised as psychedelic folk and is a concept album about a seaside resort called Coral Island. This is an agreeably up-tempo song featuring keyboards vaguely reminiscent of Ray Manzarek’s playing on “Light My Fire”. UNCUT = 22, MOJO = 7.
Atlantic from “Ignorance” by The Weather Station
The Weather Station is a band fronted by Tamara Lindeman. “Ignorance” is a sophisticated baroque-pop album which I played a lot when it was released in February. The NME described this as “moody folk-pop with an ABBA disco sheen.” It’s much better than any comparison with ABBA might hint at. Her piano playing dominates this lovely track. UNCUT = 1, MOJO = 12
Fishcakes from “Spare Ribs” by Sleaford Mods
I know nothing about post-punk band Sleaford Mods who were formed in Nottingham in 2007. “Spare Ribs” was released in January and Andrew Trendell of the NME described the album as “graffiti on a concrete wall; there’s no manifesto, no easy answers and nowhere to hide”. “Fishcakes” is a description of life as a 12-year old on a council estate. “And when it mattered, and it always did. At least we lived“. The music has a simple drum beat and a keyboard which only changes notes every 20 seconds or so. I’m reminded of Arab Strap, Half Man Half Biscuit and The Streets. UNCUT = 16, MOJO = 13
Swift Breeze from “Urban Driftwood” by Yasmin Williams
Yasmin Williams is a guitarist from Virginia. This instrumental displays astonishing virtuosity. She has played with William Tyler, another incredible guitarist. She says “A main theme of the record is expressing my heritage. There are a lot of West African influences as well as some hip-hop rhythms and a soul/R’n’B vibe” UNCUT = 51.
Days Like These from “Hey What” by Low
Hang on, I thought Low were a dreamy shoegaze band but this song has lovely harmonies and dynamic, hard-hitting music. But wait! The song soon develops into a strong vocal with bizarrely distorted backing music. It’s very effective. My parents once told me that their record player was not made to play songs like “Revolution” by The Beatles. What they would have made of this unusual sound is hard to fathom. The review in UNCUT contentiously states that “it is easy to make music that is difficult and it is easy to make music that is beautiful. But it is quite the trick to be both at the same time, and on “Hey What”, Low mark themselves out as masters of the art.” Is it easy to make music that is beautiful? Pedantry aside, I agree that this track is beautifully difficult. UNCUT = 4, MOJO = 4.
Taliat from “Afrique Victime” by Mdou Moctar
Mahamadou Souleymane is from Niger and plays Tuareg blues music. The Guardian review from May compares his extraordinary playing with Jimi Hendrix and Eddie Van Halen. UNCUT = 13. MOJO = 20.
Here We, Here We, Here We Go Forever from “As The Love Continues” by Mogwai
Oh yes, Mogwai. Another dreamy post-rock shoegaze band. Er, no actually. This sounds like a heartland rock song with distorted keyboards and an insistent riff that builds to make a pleasant instrumental. Mogwai are sometimes compared to The Cure and I can see that with the heavy bass and precise, slow, sparkling, lead electric guitar. “As The Love Continues” went to Number One in the UK Album Charts in the first week of its release. UNCUT = 15, MOJO = 26.
Baghon Main from “Vulture Prince” by Arooj Aftab
Aroof Aftab is a Pakistani singer and this beautiful song has the same feel as Van Morrison’s “Haunts Of Ancient Peace”. There are elements of jazz, blues and classical to be heard here. It sounds to me like this album is well worth exploring. UNCUT = 6.
New Long Leg from “New Long Leg” by Dry Cleaning
Reminding me of The Smiths and Television, this London post-punk band make a contrasting sound to Arooj Aftab. It sounds like the lyrics are particularly important. “Would you choose a dentist with a messy back garden like that? I don’t think so.” UNCUT = 17, MOJO = 15.
Carnage from “Carnage” by Nick Cave & Warren Ellis
I have one Nick Cave album: “The Boatman’s Call”. I don’t especially like it and I don’t especially like this song either. I know he’s good but I just can’t warm to his voice, his music, his outlook or anything really. I realise that I’m wrong but hey, it’s all a matter of taste. UNCUT = 3. MOJO = 5
Bones from “No Medium” by Rosali
The title of the album comes from “Jane Eyre”. “I know no medium: I never in my life have known any medium in my dealings with positive, hard characters, antagonistic to my own, between absolute submission and determined revolt. I have always faithfully observed the one, up to the very moment of bursting, sometimes with volcanic vehemence, into the other.” This track is terrific – her vocals remind me of Chrissie Hynde. The songs were written during a two week retreat the hills of South Carolina in 2019. This is a hard hitting rock song and the album definitely seems to be worth further attention. UNCUT = 74.
Science Fair from “For The First Time” by Black Country New Road
I bought this album but wasn’t sure whether or not I liked it. This is a mad song, with manic lyrics, wild saxophone and an out-of-control vocal performance from Isaac Wood. Hugely enjoyable in a Soft Machine/Arthur Brown/Frank Zappa sort of way. Progressive underground music for the 2020s. UNCUT = 9, MOJO = 14
Movement 1 from “Promises” by Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders & The London Symphony Orchestra.
This is a very unusual album, consisting of a collaboration between a classically trained Mancunian called Sam Shephard and Pharoah Sanders, a saxophonist from John Coltrane’s band in the Sixties. The album consists of two pieces (although the CD and Spotify have broken the music into nine movements). When asked about the plaudits that the album received, Sam Shephard said “It seems quite a niche idea to have four chords repeating for 46 minutes.” In truth, it’s more sophisticated than that. UNCUT = 2, MOJO = 1