The best 50 albums of 2013, according to andrewdsweeney: the full list

Here is the final instalment of my favourite albums of 2013 countdown. Before we get to the final ten, here is a re-cap of the forty excellent albums that precede them.

11. Steven Wilson – The Raven That Refused To Sing
12. Pearl Jam – Lightning Bolt
13. Caitlin Rose – The Stand-In
14. Eels – Wonderful, Glorious
15. Jake Bugg – Shangri La
16. Sting – The Last Ship
17. The Duckworth Lewis Method – Sticky Wickets
18. The Leisure Society – Alone Aboard The Ark
19. John Grant – Pale Green Ghosts
20. Suede – Bloodsports
21. Manic Street Preachers – Rewind The Film
22. Josh Ritter – The Beast In Its Tracks
23. She & Him – Volume 3
24. John Fullbright – From The Ground Up
25. Elton John – The Diving Board
26. KT Tunstall – Invisible Empire // Crescent Moon
27. Billy Bragg – Tooth & Nail
28. Dawes – Stories Don’t End
29. Ocean Colour Scene – Painting
30. Matt Berry – Kill The Wolf
31. Kathryn Williams – Crown Electric
32. Brendan Benson – You Were Right
33. Laura Marling – Once I Was An Eagle
34. Walter Trout – Luther’s Blues
35. Cold Crows Dead – I Fear A New World
36. Avenged Sevenfold – Hail To The King
37. Ed Harcourt – Back Into The Woods
38. Ron Sexsmith – Forever Endeavour
39. The Fratellis – We Need Medicine
40. Jason Isbell – Southeastern
41. James McCartney – Me
42. Elvis Costello & The Roots – Wise Up Ghost
43. Christy Moore – Where I Come From
44. The Graveltones – Don’t Wait Down
45. Spin Doctors – If The River Was Whiskey
46. State Of The Union – Snake Oil
47. Yoko Ono & The Plastic Ono Band – Take Me To The Land Of Hell
48. Stereophonics – Graffiti On The Train
49. Chas & Dave – That’s What Happens
50. Dream Theater – Dream Theater

For detailed write-ups of each album, please check out the relevant ‘blog:

https://andrewdsweeney.wordpress.com/2013/12/28/the-best-50-albums-of-2013-according-to-andrewdsweeney-11-to-20/

https://andrewdsweeney.wordpress.com/2013/12/25/the-best-50-albums-of-2013-according-to-andrewdsweeney-21-to-30/

https://andrewdsweeney.wordpress.com/2013/12/24/the-best-50-albums-of-2013-according-to-andrewdsweeney-31-to-40/

https://andrewdsweeney.wordpress.com/2013/12/23/the-best-50-albums-of-2013-according-to-andrewdsweeney-41-50/

Without further ado, here are my top ten favourite albums of 2013:

10.  David Bowie – The Next Day

David Bowie The Next Day

The fact that this album exists was a massive shock to most people when it was announced very shortly before it was release. A new Bowie album? Produced by Tony Visconti? Amazing! Many people, myself included, believed David to be in very poor health and had written off such a thing happening a long time ago. I can’t remember an album having so much hype and excitement surrounding it for a long time, which probably explains why, when I finally heard it, I was a little disappointed. Let me clarify that. Yes, I thought “The Next Day” was very good indeed, but it wasn’t the work of genius, the magnificent masterpiece that some people had started saying it was. So, from the initial let-down that comes from believing the hyperbole of people simply delighted to have a new album from Bowie, I have had to listen to it many, many times and re-adjust my expectations before being able to form a proper opinion about it as a whole. Now, many months after the initial release, I finally feel as if I have a balanced, stable view about how much I like this album and where it fits into Bowie’s catalogue. In a nutshell, I like it a lot and love certain songs (around half of the album), but I think, for the first time in a long time, after many years of his latter-day albums perhaps not receiving as much critical acclaim as they deserve, one of David Bowie’s albums has been slightly overrated.

“The Next Day” opens with its title track, a cracking, rollicking, dirty rocker, sounding very much like a missing single from “Scary Monsters” with lyrics that allude to his perceived illness (“Here I am, not quite dying”); it’s quite a statement. “Dirty Boys” with its honking saxophones and disjointed feel is a little more difficult to love, but the chorus brings it all together brilliantly. “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)” is a curious one that seems to have been singled out as something special, but, although I find it quite pleasant to listen to, it’s not one of my favourites on the album, as there seems to have been little attention paid to any kind of melody line. The appeal of “Love Is Lost”, a song that never quite gets out of first gear, goes over my head a little too, although it’s also perfectly listenable. The single, “Where Are We Now”, almost undisputed in its magnificence, has a stately tempo and grandiose arrangement that almost makes it sound like David is delivering a eulogy for his own life. My favourite track on the album, however, is probably “Valentine’s Day”; it’s a classic Bowie superior pop song, equally catchy as it is poignant, with killer lyrics.

“If You Can See Me” is the only composition on “The Next Day” I actually don’t like at all; I find it messy, unfocussed and easily the worst thing on offer here. Thankfully, the memory of it is short lived, as it is followed by the brilliant “I’d Rather Be High”, easily one of the stand-out tracks of the whole project, pinned together by an insistent, catchy guitar riff and an excellent chorus with some chord changes that confirm Bowie’s genius (if you weren’t convinced already). “Boss Of Me” took some getting used to thanks to some slightly ordinary lyrics, but the insistent hook gets you in the end and your attention is rewarded by some inventive, pleasing saxophone work and a really quite cool groove throughout. I can take or leave “Dancing Out In Space”; it sounds quite pretty, but it’s slightly unsubstantial as a composition. “How Does The Grass Grow” is much better, reminding me of Bowie’s underrated “Buddha Of Suburbia”/”1. Outside” phase and it boasts an irresistible chorus that will be firmly planted in your head for days. “(You Will) Set The World On Fire” starts brilliantly, with a meaty guitar riff that Jack White would be proud of, but the whole song doesn’t quite live up to the early promise and it pans out as a relatively ordinary composition, albeit with some brief glimpses of magic. Big ballad “You Feel So Lonely You Could Die” is so close to being mind-blowing without actually achieving it, it’s actually quite frustrating. It’s a beautiful song, there’s just something about it that doesn’t quite reach magnificence, although it’s fantastic to hear that drum pattern at the end, harking back to “Five Years”. For me, that’s where the real enjoyment of the release finishes; “Heat”, as lyrically interesting and attention-grabbing as it is, is almost an anti-climax to what is a largely excellent album and the bonus tracks were definitely best left off the main body of album, if they were ever contenders.

“The Next Day” sounds gorgeous; Visconti’s production gives the album a full, warm character throughout and ensures that it actually feels like a proper album, rather than just a collection of songs, something that is becoming rarer and rarer these days. I have a theory that, had this particular album been released a year or two after 2003’s “Reality”, it would probably have been happily received, been given a four star average rating in the music press, warmly praised and talked about in the same kind of reverential terms that 2002’s “Heathen” received. However, because ten years have passed without a Bowie studio album, people seem to have gone a bit overboard in their praise for this one. It’s a very good album indeed, excellent in places, but it’s about as good as “Heathen”, not quite on a par with “Hunky Dory”, “Ziggy Stardust”, “Aladdin Sane”, “Low” or “Heroes”. If you compare it with the music that occupies the mainstream radio stations and music TV channels, yes, it’s undoubtedly better than the vast majority of commercial dross that sells millions of units, but compared with Bowie’s own work, it falls comfortably within the second tier of his output. This, his twenty-fourth studio album, would perhaps just about manage to sneak into a top ten of Bowie’s releases. However, that doesn’t mean it’s not a brilliant release, because it is (and it’s certainly one of the better albums by anyone released this year), but the breathless, gushing praise for “The Next Day” that happened on the week of release overstated exactly how good it is. Excellent album? Without a doubt. Masterpiece? No. There are quite a few Bowie albums much more deserving of that particular accolade. Having said that, what a pleasure it is to have that voice back and to be able to own another quality album of Bowie compositions when many of had come to believe that something so wonderful was all but an impossibility. I only hope we won’t have to wait another ten years for the next one…

9.  Richard Thompson – Electric

Richard Thompson Electric

Richard Thompson is a mercurial talent, a genius of the guitar who isn’t quite as well known as he deserves to be, but also makes the kind of music that perhaps wouldn’t be universally appreciated. I haven’t loved absolutely every album that he’s released, but, then again, there are very few artists for whom that would be true. “Electric”, like many of his albums, took quite a few listens for me to start to fully appreciate it, but – wow – when the brilliance of this album hit me, it hit me hard. I also went to see him live for the first time in early 2013 and it’s no exaggeration to say that he blew me away. He truly is one of the most exceptional live artists I have ever seen and watching him play the guitar is like watching a genius at work; the way he plays is close to impossible for other guitarists to replicate. I was awe-struck. The songs from this album were featured in that live show and it gave me a greater appreciation for a set of songs that, up until that point, I had only played once. Although a slow-burner, “Electric” is certainly my favourite Richard Thompson album since 2007’s outstanding “Sweet Warrior” and both his songwriting, much of it characteristically dark, and guitar playing are phenomenal.

There are almost too many great compositions on “Electric” to mention, so I will attempt to mention all of my favourites whilst keeping it relatively brief. The album opens with an absolute corker, the blackly humorous folk-rock of “Stony Ground”, complete with twisting, undulating guitar solo. “Salford Sunday” is a more gentle, foot-tapper with a pleasing melody and a theme of regret, whereas “Sally B” is a waltz-time, dramatic song about a political figurehead, with a couple of truly excellent guitar solos. “Stuck On A Treadmill” is a brilliantly bleak song about the mundane life of working in a factory and barely surviving, “My Enemy” is a beautifully written and performed emotive, minor key piece which finishes with a truly outstanding extended guitar instrumental and the catchy “Good Things Happen To Bad People” is perhaps the closest thing this album has to a radio-friendly hit, so much so that I could envisage son Teddy successfully covering it. “Another Small Thing In Her Favour” is incredibly gorgeous, despite the subject matter of a wife/partner leaving with the children and Thompson’s voice, especially in the bridge, is just spine-tingling and his slightly restrained, pretty guitar solo suits the track perfectly. “Straight and Narrow” is an almost straight-forward, up-tempo rock song, with a nice organ motif, excellent guitar work (which almost goes without saying) a bit of a late sixties feel. My last pick of the album is “The Snow Goose”, a beautiful acoustic classic Thompson composition, which features Alison Krauss on harmony vocals.

The deluxe edition with additional disc is well worth buying, too. You get seven additional songs, four of which, in my opinion, are excellent (“The Rival”, “Auldie Riggs”, “Auldie Riggs Dance” and “So Ben Mi Ch’a Bon Tempo”) and provides more value than many other deluxe versions of other albums where the additional material is often disappointing. One of the many things I love about Richard Thompson is his individuality; he sings with a most distinctive tone and his guitar playing is equally unique. His versatility sees him move, with ease, between rock, folk and jazz influences, with his compositions and playing spanning these genres and adapting to the music with a skill that makes him surely one of the most talented guitarists alive. This is an exceptional piece of work from Richard and, although there have been a few people grumbling about the production, I actually like the way it has been recorded. The near-claustrophobic treatment suits the tight, small-band sound and it gives Thompson that chance to fly free with his voice or guitar when needs be. I would also advise people to play this album quite a few times before making up your mind about it, because, like the work of many musicians who compose music with depth and intricacy, listening to the album once or twice simply won’t allow your mind to process everything “Electric” offers. When you do get to know it, however, you will hopefully come to the same conclusion that I have, that it is another superb album from Richard that stands proudly amongst his best work.

8.  David Ford – Charge

David Ford Charge

David Ford. What a great guy. Proud of never having made it into the mainstream, of not having to compromise his artistic vision, of never being a puppet of the music industry – and rightly so. This, his fourth solo album, is possibly the least commercial of the lot, an eclectic mix of southern blues (I’m talking USA, rather than Sussex), heartfelt, sincere ballads, tongue-in-cheek humour and honest, autobiographical lyrics. You open a vein on Ford’s arm and he bleeds these songs. They are him… that’s what makes him, and this album, so lovable and remarkable. The sentiments of a song such as ‘What’s Not To Love’, for example, would sound mawkish and trite in the hands of a lesser, more chart-friendly artist, but David pulls off one of the most beautiful love songs of the decade.

I’d heard some of these tracks before, in slightly less-polished form, both live and on the EP’s David has released over the last year or so. All are improved on the album, all are the finished product and sound bloody brilliant as a result. Even the songs I wasn’t quite sure about when I first heard them, such as the rocking Santana-flavoured blues of “The Ballad Of Miss Lily” and the love song to Ford’s favourite US city, “Philadelphia Boy” have been transformed into firm favourites. “The Ballad Of Miss Lily”, especially, has a guitar hook that got inside my mind and refused to leave for days. The stomping opener, “Pour A Little Poison” is already a live favourite of mine, as is the incredible finale of the album, “Every Time”, a truly magnificent six-minute epic which has a slight E-Street Band feel to the arrangement and which grows and builds to a delightfully profane sign-off, referencing both his autobiography and one of his signature compositions, “Song For The Road”.

I could go on and rave about other songs on the album. “Perfect Soul”, for example, is funny, toe-tapping, soulful and human and “Isn’t It Strange?” is a superbly told sad tale of a dysfunctional relationship, however every single track on this album is excellent. If you want me to recommend the “picks” of the album, just read the track listing. I can’t find fault, nor would I want to. It’s a absolute delight to listen to and gets better and better each time you play it. This may just be the most accomplished album of his exemplary solo career. Is it his best album? I can’t really say. I’d feel as if I was doing his other three excellent albums a disservice by saying that this one was better, but it’s certainly a strong contender. If there was any justice in this world, it’d be number one in several dozen countries and Ford would be the most sought after star for interviews, product endorsements and… actually, he’d probably hate it. So, maybe the fact that David has the life he wants, being a hard-working, honest, ignored-by-many, adored-by-the-knowing-few, completely respected, authentic musician really is justice. But, still – you really ought to buy this album. Just don’t shout too loud about how good it is, because people may just take notice.

7.  I Am Kloot – Let It All In

I Am Kloot Let It All In

“Let It All In” is the Manchester-based band’s sixth studio album and the second produced by Elbow’s Guy Garvey and Craig Potter and, in my opinion, is probably the best thing the band have ever put their name to which, given the quality of their previous material, is no small claim. It took a few plays, but once the songs established themselves in my mind, there was no removing them. This is simply a marvellous, beautifully written and performed piece of work from the first to the last note. John Bramwell, the singer, guitarist and songwriter is currently in the form of his life and this album is comprised of ten individually superb slices of emotionally-charged indie. If you can pigeon-hole the wonderful breadth of creativity on display here into a single category, that is (you can’t!).

Album opener “Bullets” is a mournful, minor-key piece of dramatic brilliance which almost reads like a psychological thriller: “You treat your body like a cheap hotel/somewhere you can stay but never stop”. The instrumental break almost brings to mind a dance number in a darkened cabaret room as the guitar solo viciously tears apart the melody line. The chorus of sublime (near) title track, “Let Them All In” offers the first warm positivity of the album and feels like sunlight breaking through the grey clouds. “Hold Back The Night” starts with a minimalist approach of bass and Bramwell’s pained vocals, with guitar and drums joining in tentatively, hesitantly, building the fullness of the sound with each verse, until the instrumental break kicks in, when some sumptuous, scintillating strings take over the piece and make it soar, building to a goosebumps-on-the-skin climax with the lead guitar that leaves the listener almost breathless. Nostalgic ballad “Mouth On Me” features a tumbling bridge which cascades beautifully and “Shoeless” is tender, wistful, romantic and lovely.

The gently magnificent “Even The Stars” washes over you like one of Richard Hawley’s finest performances and the folky, chirpy “Masquerade” (featuring the superb lines “the mad arrangements of my day/my descent into beige”) continue the likeable, hummable high quality feel of the release. Perhaps the most catchy and commercial song on the album is “Some Better Day”, which has a Beatlesque quality to it, an everyday subject matter and some lovely brass augmenting the subtle jauntiness of the melody. It’s certainly one of my favourites on an album packed full of genuinely great songs. The album is brought to a conclusion with the strongly string-driven “These Days Are Mine” and the pensive, melancholy “Forgive Me These Reminders”, finishing the record beautifully.

I’ve read quite a few reviews and there are some I Am Kloot fans who don’t consider this album to be one of their best. I can’t claim to understand that point of view. All I can say is that, since its release in January, I have fallen deeply in love with this album, felt that the songs more than compared with their previous work when I saw the band live in Brighton earlier this year and it is, to me, one of the best albums I have heard all year. Of course, people have their own opinions, but this is mine – “Let It All In” is absolutely magnificent.

6.  Paul McCartney – New

Paul McCartney New

As a lifelong Beatles and McCartney fan, each new release by Paul is met with a mixture of excitement and slight nervousness as to just how good it is going to be. Over the decades, Paul’s albums have been of varying quality, but even the efforts which didn’t meet with critical acclaim (“Wild Life”, “Press To Play”, “Driving Rain”) aren’t without at least a handful of tracks which make the purchase more than worthwhile. His very best albums (and they’re the majority) are packed full of excellent songs with maybe one or two lesser songs, as if to prove that he’s human like the rest of us. The great news about “New” is that, for me, it falls into the latter category of Paul’s excellent albums with only a track or two that doesn’t quite cut the mustard… and even that is down to personal taste.

As I believe in delayed gratification, I had completely avoided all of the online previews of the tracks from “New”, with the exception of the title track which had been played on the radio and had also gone almost instantly viral within the Beatles community upon release. “New” (the song) had really whetted my appetite for the new album, as it is a classic McCartney composition, one of those rare, beautiful beasts that could have easily have been a Beatles track. However, I have to admit that, when I first heard the album from start to finish, I really didn’t care for it at all. I was bitterly disappointed, really disliked the pop production and the only track that really had something going for it other than the title track was “Appreciate”, one of the more left-field efforts on the album. “Queenie Eye” was undeniably catchy but, on first impressions, there was something just a little too obvious about it. I was unimpressed and didn’t get the instant rush I’d enjoyed from many of his releases in the last twenty years. Then, on the third listen, I started to really enjoy it and every subsequent play revealed something new and wonderful.

Now, on my umpteenth listening session, every song on this album genuinely has something good to offer, much of it is truly great and, in my opinion, it’s his most creatively rich release since 2005’s “Chaos and Creation In The Backyard” which, I feel, is his modern day masterpiece. “New” really isn’t that far behind, though. It also has the commercial sensibilities of 2007’s “Memory Almost Full” and manages to combine the best of both albums whilst also giving nod or two to musical phases from all through Paul’s career. The fact that McCartney has worked with four different producers on this album I believe has helped raise the quality of “New” above his last couple of albums full of original material (“Electric Arguments” and the aforementioned “Memory Almost Full”), both very good releases, but Epworth, Johns, Martin and Ronson have obviously given their individual tracks a lot more attention than a single producer would have and, as such, the fresh ideas and musical detail of each track means that “New” rewards the repeat listener with something pleasing each time and gives a lovely eclectic feel to the whole project.

Nearly every track on this album is a highlight in its own right. “Save Us”, co-written with and produced by Paul Epworth, is a cracking opener and a fantastic mature, powerful pop song. The harmonies on the chorus are gorgeous, especially when the song title is sung with that gorgeous minor-chord transition. I wasn’t overly fond of the production of the track, but it has certainly grown on me. “Alligator”, produced by Mark Ronson and performed by McCartney’s band, is an absolutely superb song, musically, and reminds me heavily of mid-70s Wings, but the lyrics are a bit hard to swallow at times. Nonsense, vague lyrics aren’t anything new for Macca; some work, others don’t. I think he just about gets away with it here, but it’s a closely-run thing. The creativity of the instrumentation and arrangement, as well as the contrast between the tense verse and the sweet release of the strummed acoustic guitar in the chorus make this a very enjoyable listen. I really love the electric guitar work on this one, too.

“On My Way To Work” is the first Giles Martin produced song on the album and it’s one that, initially, I found to be quite ordinary. However, I like it immensely and love the way the sound becomes fuller as the track develops, with some tasteful strings embellishing the later verses and concluding with a rather grand finish. I particularly like the detail in the lyrics, the dreamily philosophical nature of the song and the gently optimistic “How could I have so many dreams and one of them not come true?”. Apart from the title track, “Queenie Eye” is probably the most infuriatingly catchy song on the album. As soon as I heard it, I saw what Paul was trying to do with this and, believe me, I resisted. However, it’s very difficult to resist against something that is absolutely irresistible. It’s simply a fantastic, bouncy, melodic song which has a very “in your face” feel, using a children’s game as a loose metaphor for the tribulations of a relationship. The finished product is even more impressive when you discover that Paul plays everything on the track, apart from drumming duties which are undertaken by producer and co-writer Epworth.

The beautiful “Early Days”, impeccably produced by Ethan Johns (one of my favourite contemporary producers) is one of the most “stripped down” on the album, with Paul’s voice wonderfully unaltered, giving the song a feeling of honesty and intimacy. Paul has written about his earlier life before with a little bit more of a swagger (“That Was Me”), but this paints a picture of both his relationship with his friends (you assume it’s John, but assumptions are never wise). Paul’s personality shines through as well, turning “pain to laughter” and his love of music. There’s even a bit of a ticking off to those who theorise about his life, telling them that they simply weren’t there. Even the slightly frail high note at the end adds to the sheer beauty of the track and it makes me want to hear a whole album with Paul and Ethan. “New” is Paul at his melodic, commercial best; an absolute gem of a song, almost perfect in every way. The lyrics, melody and performance are all simply stunning and it’s marvellous that he’s written a love song about the excitement of a new romance which doesn’t stray into over-sentimentality. I also take my hat off to Mark Ronson, not one of my favourite producers by a long way, but he’s captured something very special here. Of course, I’d have loved to have heard what someone like Nigel Godrich could have done with it, but I’ll certainly take this, one of the best things Paul has done, ever.

“Appreciate” was one of the few tracks I loved from the very first time I heard it. Produced by Paul and Giles, it has a sublime, chilled out vibe during the major-to-minor chord motif verse and an explosive “chorus”, as well as a superb guitar solo by Rusty Anderson closing the song. It feels like pure McCartney, but also has as contemporary a feel as anything released this year. This kind of left-field gem makes you wonder if he really is 71 years old! “Everybody Out There”, also produced by Paul and Giles, is, to me, is the first slightly disappointing, average song on “New”. The lyrics are a little one-dimensional and, sadly, a little poor. However, it’s a very catchy song and there are several crafty little hooks in it to make it rather enjoyable and certainly not something you’d skip when it came on. All-in-all, a good song, but if a little more thought had been given to the words, it could have been brilliant. When I first heard “Hosanna”, an Ethan Johns (and McCartney)-produced track, I quite honestly thought it was a little dull and unremarkable. However, repeated listens gave me a greater appreciation for this little jewel of a song. It reminds me heavily of the work Neil Diamond accomplished with Rick Rubin, simple songs of love, simply presented. There are some nice backward sounds at the end of the track too, which naturally give it a bit of a Beatle flavour.

“I Can Bet”, a fantastic, cheeky little rocker, is reminiscent of Paul’s work on “Flaming Pie” and, so far, never fails to put a smile on my face when I hear it. It has a great sound, thanks to Giles and Paul’s production; I especially like the electric piano on the verses and the acoustic guitar-driven chorus, together with a lovely bit of Hammond organ on the bridge. Simply put, I love it. “Looking At Her”, however, is perhaps my least favourite song on the album, one of Paul’s “isn’t my other half beautiful” type songs. You know, there’s a reason that everybody looks at your wives, Paul, and that’s because they’re married to you. I enjoy the raucous little instrumental break after he sings, “I’m losing my mind”, but that’s about it, I’m afraid, and this is the dud on the album, in my opinion. “Road” is a real grower. A moody, sizzling track written by McCartney and Epworth which requires a few plays for the dark lyrics and subtle melodies to sink in. It’s actually rather brilliant, even if it isn’t something you’d generally expect from Paul.

“Turned Out” is last of the Ethan Johns-produced songs. It’s enjoyable enough, has a nice slide guitar on it and an inventive arrangement, but there isn’t anything particularly special about the song itself. “Get Me Out Of Here”, a Giles Martin-produced number, is a pleasing little bit of skiffle to end the ordinary version of the album. Apart from the “Oh Boy” calls which steer a little too close to the Buddy Holly song for comfort, it’s really quite charming. I could help but smile when Paul, with tongue-firmly-in-cheek, proclaims, “I’m a celebrity! Someone get me out of here!”. The last track on the album, “Scared”, is a hidden track and is a strong contender for the title of best song on this album. With little more than Paul’s vocals and piano, this heartbreakingly vulnerable composition brings to mind Elton John at his very best, back in the early seventies. It finishes the album impressively, leaving a slight trace of salt-water in your eyes and a lump in the throat the size of a golf ball. It’s doesn’t exactly have the sheer magnificence of “Maybe I’m Amazed”, but it is of the same quality. It’s a remarkable piece and means that “New” both starts and finishes brilliantly, with only one or two minor hiccups on the way.

So, that’s what I think. Just one man’s opinion. I find it remarkable that I’ve written this gushing review after being severely nonplussed and disappointed about it when I first listened to it, but “New” is genuinely one of the best albums that Paul McCartney has ever put his name to. I sincerely believe that it can be spoken about in the same terms as his greatest work, like “Ram”, “Band On The Run”, “Tug Of War”, “Flowers In The Dirt”, “Flaming Pie” and “Chaos and Creation” (as well as my own personal favourites that haven’t met with perhaps such universal acclaim). All of these very different albums have one common theme – a dazzling, rich creativity and a willingness to experiment and push the boundaries. That Paul McCartney still has the hunger inside him to not rest on his laurels and release something that would have been a lot less laborious is incredible. That Paul McCartney can return with an album so (almost wholly) brilliant when his advancing years have been a little too apparent during his live performances, it’s nothing short of amazing. However, people, this is no mere mortal… this is Paul McCartney, the only living legend who has sold millions of records, had dozens of number one songs and albums, who has played on the biggest stages there are… the only living legend who could possibly be described as underrated, but – my word – he really is.

5.  Queens Of The Stone Age – …Like Clockwork

Queens Of The Stone Age Like Clockwork

It’s finally happened, Queens Of The Stone Age have made a stone-clad classic, worthy of standing shoulder-to-shoulder with all of the rock greats. Like many great albums, it was born from extraordinary circumstances; this one being Josh Homme nearly dying and being bed-ridden in hospital for weeks on end after complications from a routine knee operation. “Like Clockwork” combines all of the best elements of QOTSA’s music; the melodious nature of the more gentle songs with the power of their heavier albums to produce an album that screams quality the very first time you hear it. I can quite honestly say that this is Homme’s most accomplished album to date and even my previous favourite of his, “Songs For The Deaf” just can’t compare with an album filled with song after song of absolutely brilliance. Of course, what this album has in common with “Songs For The Deaf” is a return of Dave Grohl to the drums for half of the album and there are other guest appearances by rock heavyweights such as Trent Reznor, Nick Oliveri and, er, Jake Shears.

It’s very difficult indeed to pick out favourites when the whole album is excellent, but I will give it a go. “I Sat By The Ocean” is the first stand-out track in this set; it’s catchy, powerful and brilliant. “The Vampyre Of Time and Memory”, an excellent composition, is specifically about the numbness of feeling nothing when ending a relationship, but Homme’s hospital experience is surely referenced when the swelling music that accompanies the line, “I’ve survived, I speak, I breathe, I’m incomplete, I’m alive, hurray!” builds to a bitter climax and tears at your heart. “If I Had A Tail” (featuring Arctic Monkeys’ Alex Turner on vocals) begins with some tongue-in-cheek nonsense lyrics, but really grabs you when the arresting guitar bursts in on the chorus. “My God Is The Sun” is probably the most typically like tracks from other QOTSA albums, with a spiralling guitar riff, pounding drums and ethereal harmonies, but it’s still a winner. “Fairweather Friends”, co-written with long-time friend Mark Lanegan and featuring Elton John on background vocals and piano, is one of the best tracks on “Like Clockwork”, boasting a truly beautiful melody, superb delivery and some of the most gorgeous guitar work I’ve heard all year.

Smooth Sailing” is a rather enjoyable groove of a song, although I’m not sure what Rossi and Parfitt would make of Josh’s promise to “Blow his load all over the status quo”. “I Appear Missing”, a quiet/loud masterpiece, is amongst the best pieces of music on this release and, even at six minutes long, doesn’t outstay its welcome for a second. The album finishes with an utterly sublime cut, as the melancholy title track is perhaps the most beautiful piece of music Homme has ever written. It is after the album has finished, when the silence is louder than usual, when you find yourself still reeling from what you’ve just listened to that you realise that this piece of work is something very special indeed, something that makes you reach for the play button to hear it all over again right after it has finished. Without any hyperbole, “Like Clockwork” is not only of the best albums to be released this year, it’s one of the best heavy rock albums of all time.

4.  Jonathan Wilson – Fanfare

Jonathan Wilson Fanfare

From the very first minute of the title track, “Fanfare”, you can tell that this is going to be a very special album indeed, as it introduces the album with an instrumental mixture reminiscent of Pink Floyd and The Eagles before exploding into a beautiful near-classical grandiose rock, resplendent with thundering, echo-laden toms and rich strings which are more Electric Light Orchestra than Crosby, Stills and Nash. It’s majestic, astonishing, wonderful stuff. One thing is for sure, this second album is a different proposition than Wilson’s excellent Laurel Canyon-influenced debut, “Gentle Spirit” (although the same influences are still very much present and correct) and whether you are open to a departure from that style or not will go a long way towards determining whether you will like this album or not.

I’m going to lay my cards on the table right away. I think this is a dazzling album and one of the very best albums I have heard all year. It is one of those records that demands your attention; you simply have to stop doing anything else and listen to it. One of those very special albums that very much deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as the rock classics which have become household names. I’m not convinced that this will happen, as the general public’s taste in music seems to be very different to mine these days, but the musicianship and creative vision on “Fanfare” is incredible, head and shoulders above some rather ordinary records by well-known names that most people seem to gush about. Had this album been released in the 1970s, exactly as it is, it would have been heralded as an important piece of work, I’m sure, but here we are in 2013 and, sadly, this beauty will only be heard by a relatively small amount of people worldwide.

There are so many excellent tracks on “Fanfare” that it is difficult to choose highlights or, indeed, favourites. It is probably best listening to it as a whole, rather than sampling individual tracks, that way you can appreciate the rich range of textures on offer here. I mentioned the magnificent title track, but virtually everything on offer here is terrific and is evidently influenced by the very best music of the seventies. “Future Vision”, for example, is a superb Lennonesque ballad which almost purposely samples the different aspects of the former Beatle’s solo career, including a gorgeously dirty guitar solo. The epic “Moses Pain” reminds me of Elton John’s brilliant “Levon” to start with, but then expands into a tumbling country track which features not one, but two, sublime piano solos. The guitar work in “Dear Friend” is a revelation, the lyrics in the David Crosby and Graham Nash-backed piece of acoustic perfection “Cecil Taylor” dreamy and other-worldly, the mesmerising “Illumination” slowly unfolds into a stunning piece of psychedelic rock and “Lovestrong”, part Elton John, part Pink Floyd, is simply magnificent. Even the sole cover, “Fazon”, fits in perfectly with the rest of the album and has a scintillating saxophone solo. I could go on, but I won’t. Each song has something noteworthy about it and this is a brief review, not an essay!

I cannot recommend this album highly enough. Jonathan Wilson is an exceptional talent (songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and producer) and this is perhaps one of the most beautifully sounding albums I’ve ever heard. Quite honestly, I can’t say that I’ve heard anything better than this all year, so it is, without doubt, a very strong contender for my choice of album of the year and a firm addition to the (as yet unwritten) list of my very favourite albums of all time. Absolutely outstanding.

3.  Anna Calvi – One Breath

Anna Calvi One Breath

As someone who enjoyed Anna Calvi’s début album a lot, I was looking forward to seeing whether she could follow it up with something quite as good. I’ll cut to the chase – forget accomplishing something as good as her eponymous début, she has, in my opinion, probably bettered it. “One Breath” is an utterly magnificent piece of work, a series of powerful, dramatic, edgy compositions that radiate such beauty and artistry, it often takes your breath away. This exemplary piece of work could almost be described as a cross between the grandiose sound of Florence & The Machine and the edginess and left-field nature of Arcade Fire; I’m sure that lovers of both bands will find much to enjoy here, as well as those who bought and enthused about Anna’s first album. “One Breath” is an album that I’ve found difficult to stop playing since I bought it, one of those rare beasts that is excellent from start to finish and that not only bears repeat playing, it demands it. It’s not often that, when an album finishes, do I want to put it back on and enjoy it all over again, but Calvi’s second album does that to me.

This album is song after song of atmospheric, crescendo-laden, orchestrally minded, artistic genius. “Suddenly” is a fantastic opener, a powerful, atmospheric piece with a rather catchy chorus, “Eliza” thumps, stomps, soars and is utterly magnificent artistic indie and the slow-burning “Piece By Piece” has rhythms and a feel reminiscent of “Hounds Of Love” era Kate Bush. “Cry” is a superb song that has some heart-stopping moments where the music literally explodes from the speakers whereas “Sing To Me” is a hauntingly beautiful song with a wintry feel and Calvi’s voice drifts over the music like a sea-bird over the ocean. The irrepressible “Tristan”, possibly the most commercial piece on the album, reminds me of Sinead O’Connor, although, in my opinion, a lot better. Title track “One Breath” starts with whispered lyrics and slowly adds instrumental layers until the classical-influenced instrumental epilogue, “Love Of My Life” is a blustery, bombastic, brilliant composition, the kind of song Arcade Fire excelled at, at the start of their career and “Carry Me Over” ebbs and flows gorgeously with Anna’s beauteous vocals being poured over harp (or harp-like) arpeggios. The penultimate song, “Bleed Into Me” is an expansive, sumptuous composition with natural, flowing rhythms that seem to echo the ocean’s tides and the album finishes with “The Bridge”, a delicate piece of choral music that seems almost like something you would hear in a church or cathedral.

Anna Calvi has most definitely risen to the challenge of the “difficult second album” and has produced a dark, edgy, beautiful, mature and fully accomplished piece of work, arguably even better than her much loved and critically acclaimed début. “One Breath” is an album that I have fallen deeply in love with, a highly original, intricate and artistic project that takes the listener on an emotional journey throughout the eleven individually remarkable songs. It is also a piece of work that manages to be, as a whole, greater than the sum of its individual components and the kind of album you really need to listen to in the old-fashioned, linear way to fully appreciate the dynamics and context of the songs. Admittedly, there are breathtaking tracks which you can enjoy in isolation, but, overall, Anna Calvi’s truly excellent second release is a perfect example of why the album format really cannot be allowed to die. With such an excellent follow-up, the multi-talented, multi-instrumentalist has cemented her credentials as one of the most exciting, emotive and interesting voices making music today. There are very few albums that have been released this year that I would deem essential listening, but this is one of them; buy and enjoy.

2.  Jarrod Dickenson – The Lonesome Traveler

Jarrod Dickenson The Lonesome Traveler

Note: This album was released in the USA in 2012, but is included on this list as it received a UK release in 2013.

I was fortunate enough to see Jarrod Dickenson a couple of times in April 2013, supporting (and appearing with) David Ford. The first time I watched his set, I enjoyed it and considered it to be gentle, pleasant material. The second time, I was pleasantly surprised at just how much I loved his performance; the songs really leapt out at me and his sweet, melodic Texan voice delivered those songs so beautifully, I fell very much in love with his country-tinged Americana and felt compelled to buy his album after the show. I certainly didn’t regret the purchase because “The Lonesome Traveler” is richly descriptive, old-fashioned storytelling at its very best, painting pictures with his words, bringing to mind the fine work of Jim Croce, early Josh Ritter, solo Mark Knopfler and the greats of country rock, such as Jackson Browne and The Band. This is a particularly timeless record, too. It could have been released any time in the past fifty years and could easily have been heralded as a classic singer-songwriter album during the seventies, arguably the height of the genre.

The musicianship on display on this album is also rather special. Less is more with many of the tracks, for example the uncomplicated, but shimmering, perfect piano accompaniment to the beautiful “Rosalie”, the excellent banjo work on the heartfelt “No Work For A Working Man” and the smouldering organ on “Little Black Dress”. Indeed, there are some truly accomplished and exquisite performances throughout the whole album, all held together by Jarrod’s elegant, beauteous guitar and crowned with his sublime vocals. One of the very best tracks is the album’s closer, “Seasons Change”, which is the very pure, but truly magnificent, pairing of vocals and picked acoustic guitar. Although this is a very understated piece of work, the songs demand your attention. It’s an intimate set, more a late night listen with the lights down low and a glass of wine in your hand than a Sunday morning soundtrack. This is bewitching, finely-crafted music which tackles the subjects of life, love, longing, passion and loss with the subtlety and finesse of a true artist. “Come What May” is simply one of the most beautifully romantic songs I’ve ever heard and, like most of the songs on offer here, deserves a much wider audience.

To surmise, seldom do I discover such a rare and alluring album. I fully admit that I did not fully discover the full beauty of the album until I had played it a few times and, if you are not paying attention, the music is gentle enough to wash over you. However, if you give Jarrod’s songs the focus they deserve, you will soon discover an album as magnificent as the best work of some of the greatest singer-songwriters who have ever lived and will find yourself wanting to re-listen to this wonderful record time and time again. Yes, it really is that good and I recommend this as highly as I possibly can. One of the very best albums I have heard this year.

1.  Electric Soft Parade – Idiots

Electric Soft Parade Idiots

Brighton brothers Alex and Thomas White a.k.a. The Electric Soft Parade released one of my very favourite albums of 2002, “Holes In The Wall”, an album that had songs so catchy, so rich in melodies, harmonies and creativity, it strongly hinted that they were going to be an absolutely massive band. It was an absolute crime that it missed out on the 2002 Mercury Music Prize to Ms. Dynamite’s album, but – no matter – it seemed like this indie/power-pop band were destined to be one of the all-time greats. Unfortunately, it didn’t really turn out that way as their second album, 2003’s “The American Adventure” was met with large indifference and, although 2007’s “No Need To Be Downhearted” was a rather good release, it has to be said that it appears that ESP seemed to have had their chance and let it slip by. In fact, the last I heard of the White brothers was when I went to a Ben Kweller gig at the Electric Ballroom in Camden in November 2012 and they were his backing band. This led to me being reminded of what a great band they were and pulling out their CDs for a trip down memory lane. “Holes In The Wall” has stood the test of time and remains one of my favourite albums ever released. Thanks to my new-found interest, I also started following them on Facebook and was pleased to discover that they were working on a new album.

Well, here it is… and it’s absolutely bloody brilliant. It’s a sheer pleasure to listen to an album which is finally a worthy follow-up to their superb début. The gold-plated tracks start immediately; “The Sun Never Sets Around Here” is a shimmering slice of layered, hook-laden, indie-pop complete with chiming pianos, widdly synth solo and happy hand claps. “Summertime In My Heart” continues in the same vein, being a thoroughly appealing three and a half minutes of upbeat, sunny, joyous guitar runs and smooth, soaring harmonies. The lead single from the album, “Brother, You Must Walk Your Path Alone” is a nice, mellow, cheery song which has a sound reminiscent of much of Chris Difford’s solo material but, I have to say, is an odd choice for a single when there are much stronger songs on the album. “The Corner Of Highdown And Montefiore” is absolutely gorgeous, a stunningly beautiful, slightly mournful song, which builds to a refrain which throws in strings, harps and, I’m sure, at one point, the kitchen sink. It runs the risk of outstaying its welcome, just like 2002’s “Empty At The End”, but I think they just about pull it off.

The chiming title track “Idiots” reminds me of a more lushly-produced Teenage Fanclub and has lots of sublime major to minor key changes, whereas “Mr. Mitchell”, a jaunty, electric-piano led, character-based song is part Whitlams, part Lightning Seeds that, melodically, never goes quite the way you expect it, making it a pleasingly original and enjoyable listen. “One Of Those Days” is pleasant enough but a little ordinary, whereas “Lily”, although slightly reminiscent of Ben Folds’ “Give Judy My Notice”, is a great, brilliantly written track. Penultimate track, “Welcome To The Weirdness” is a glistening, shiny helping of indie-rock with a beautiful, grin-inducing Queen-like guitar solo at the end and the album ends with a gentle piano ballad, “Never Again” which brings the album to it’s conclusion tastefully and succinctly. It’s difficult to think of a demographic who wouldn’t thoroughly enjoy this album. It’s indie enough to appeal to the discerning crowd, has enough pop sensibility for the more mainstream music crowd to love it, their evident Beatles influences should be enough to draw in the classic rock lovers and their intelligent, creative arrangements may even pull in the prog-rock chin-strokers. Although the musical path they tread isn’t particularly ground-breaking in itself, the compositions and arrangements give “Idiots” a very fresh and original flavour. All-in-all, although there are a couple of tracks which don’t quite hit the heights of the rest of the album, The Electric Soft Parade have released the strongest album of their career so far and, in my opinion, the best album of 2013 which, considering the competition in a year that has seen some truly outstanding music released, is a massive compliment and testament to the brilliance of “Idiots”.

So, that’s it. The culmination of months of listening, writing and some tough decisions. I’m sure you don’t agree with most of it, that’s why it’s called personal taste, but I hope I have at least caught your attention and piqued your interest in a few albums you had maybe passed by or hadn’t heard of before. As I mentioned before, I have listened to 104 new albums this year (it has now turned into 105, but Roger Taylor’s new album sadly wouldn’t have made the top fifty anyway – sorry, Roger).

Here are some very good albums indeed which were strong contenders for inclusion in my top 50:

Arcade Fire – Reflektor
Arctic Monkeys – AM
Bill Callahan – Dream River
Black Sabbath – 13
Boats – A Fairway Full Of Miners
Brooks Williams – New Everything
Camera Obscura – Desire Lines
Edwyn Collins – Understated
James Skelly & The Intenders – Love Undercover
Jim James – Regions Of Light and Sound of God
Kacey Musgraves – Same Trailer Different Park
Kodaline – In A Perfect World
Miles Kane – Don’t Forget Who You Are
Okkervil River – The Silver Gymnasium
Tom Baxter – The Uncarved Block (Part One)
Tribes – Wish To Scream

So, they occupy numbers 51 to 66… but not in any specific order. I haven’t heard any particularly terrible albums this year, although my least favourites have included the new ones from Blitzen Trapper, Caro Emerald, Justin Currie and Texas. One thing I will conclude, it has been a really wonderful year for music… 2014 has a huge amount to live up to. Thank you again for reading and feel free to leave comments if you wish… it’s almost guaranteed that I will reply.

Andy Sweeney, December 2013.

The best 50 albums of 2013, according to andrewdsweeney: 41 to 50

Introduction

Thanks for stopping by to check out my “favourite albums of the year” list for 2013. Just a little about myself: I’m 38 years old, I buy a lot of new music each year, based on artists I know I like, recommendations from friends, acquaintances and music writers I know to have decent taste in music and, also, some albums which make a big noise in the musical world. I really believe in the album format and still buy compact discs (I can’t bring myself to become a vinyl collector; I think my bank manager – and wife – would cry) and, the vast majority of the time, listen to music the old-fashioned way… by putting an album on and enjoying it from start to finish.

I think 2013 has been an exceptionally good year for music and the creativity has been astounding, from both established and (relatively) new names. Of course, my end-of-the-year list is entirely my opinion. I say this every year, but I really don’t care about coolness, how much an album has sold, whether it is an indie darling creamed over by so-called hipsters or whether it has shifted hundreds of thousands of copies. Popularity (or lack thereof) is not really an indicator of quality and, while some of the biggest sellers of the years are amongst the worst albums you could have the misfortune to buy, some of the artists you will hear on 6 Music at midnight on a weekday have also sold very few records because, well, they’re not that good. I’m interested in the music itself, not how championing certain artists will make me sound or look… that kind of superficial “music as fashion” attitude is something I detest.

I bought 104 new albums last year and listened to each one at least three times. If it was good enough, it got put on my short-list, which came to about 75 titles. From that, I listened to all of them again, wrote about them and decided if they would feature in a top 40 of the year. The top 40 turned into a top 50, thanks to the quality of the music released this year and some really good albums missed out entirely. I have been working on this project for the last three months, so a lot of time and effort has been invested into my choices, rather than just looking at a list and putting a bunch of records into a vague order; in other words, I have taken this seriously (perhaps a little too seriously)! The reason I do it is so that hopefully I can turn people onto some albums they’ve passed by or perhaps never heard of before and, if I reach just a couple of people, then it has all been worth it.

However, in the end, it is just one person’s opinion and one person’s taste in music. I’m not saying I’m right about any of this… it’s just how I feel. However, I do listen to a lot of new music, go to at least one gig a week and have a love for music that comes only second to the love of my wife and family… and I’m sure, sometimes, they must wonder whether music really does come second! So, I’m going to do this over six ‘blog posts, counting down ten at a time, and then a summary list of my entire top 50.

Thank you for reading.

50.  Dream Theater – Dream Theater

Dream Theater Dream Theater

As far as Dream Theater go, I’m somewhere in between a layman and an aficionado. I have plenty of their albums, have enjoyed their output over the years to differing degrees and often put one on when I’m in the mood for some excellent symphonic, progressive metal. I didn’t enjoy their last album (“A Dramatic Turn Of Events”) as much I had some of their previous releases with their former drummer Mike Portnoy and was therefore interested to see if they could recapture their magic this time around, now new drummer Mike Mangini has had time to settle in and provide his own creative input. I have to say that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed their eponymous album and have produced a piece of work that compares favourably with some of their best music, whilst falling a little short of actual greatness. The best tracks on the album, to me, are “Behind The Veil”, with its winding, twisting guitar solo over crunching power chords providing the pinnacle of the song, “Surrender To Reason”, which quickly goes from strummed guitar-driven dramatic ballad to emotionally charged prog-rocker and the superb “Illumination Theory” (all twenty plus minutes of it) which starts with an almost E.L.O.-like orchestral theme and develops into a suite of songs which is easily the best thing on offer here, utilising several different time signatures, tempos, riffs and several excellent keyboard and guitar solos as well as a rather beautiful symphonic piece written for strings, revisiting and expanding the opening theme.

I think some fans had written off the band after Portnoy’s departure, but when you have a replacement as talented as Mangini and a virtuoso band including the incredible Petrucci on guitar, you would have to be a bit foolish to do so. Whilst admitting wholeheartedly that I’ve heard better from Dream Theater, this is still a rather great piece of work and manages to occasionally thrill and always entertains for the duration of the record. It demonstrates that the band is far from finished, creatively, and are merely entering another chapter of their history. I think that long-term fans will be looking for a little more ambition, arrangement-wise (if everything here was like the final track, that wouldn’t be an issue), and perhaps a quickening of the tempo next time as this album sometimes settles into a low gear a little too easily and both drummer and vocalist seem a little content to cruise than to push themselves. Other than those minor criticisms, it’s a rather good listen and a welcome addition to my Dream Theater collection.

49.  Chas & Dave – That’s What Happens

Chas and Dave That's What Happens

Anybody who approaches this album with any kind of negative prejudices should probably skip reading this and go straight on to the next choice, because, let’s face it; you’re probably not going to enjoy it at all. However, if you are a fan of Chas & Dave, know the entire range of their material, their influences and their long, varied career (or, at least, quite like them are open minded enough to give this a go), then you are almost guaranteed to really enjoy this album. I hold my hands up; I’ve never been anything but neutral about the “rockney” duo. I invested in a best of earlier this year as I was going to a Chas & Dave gig with a friend and found that I really quite liked a lot of it, although I admit that plenty of the enjoyment was down to nostalgia as, when I was kid in the early eighties, they seemed to be everywhere for a while. When I heard that there was a new Joe Henry-produced album coming out with some well-respected special guests, I was intrigued and knew it was either going to be very good or dreadful… thankfully it’s the former, rather than the latter.

This album is an attempt to re-introduce Charles & David (perhaps they should have called themselves that!) to the world as the serious and very capable musicians they have always been. It’s still a fun endeavour and there are plenty of songs to sing along and tap your feet to, but the overall tempo is somewhat slower than the piano hammerers they’re best known for and there’s a nice mix of rock, blues, skiffle, boogie-woogie and much of the music that has influenced the duo over the years. There are a few standards here such as “San Francisco Bay Blues”, “Midnight Special” and “Glory Of Love” which are respectfully and joyously tackled by the band. Everything on this album is at least listenable, but most of it is really very good indeed.

I have a handful of favourites on “That’s What Happens”. The powerful “Two Worlds Collide” is a really fantastic song and has a full, meaty sound featuring saxophones and violin which, apart from the poignant re-working of “Ain’t No Pleasing You”, is probably my pick of the album. “Rocking Gloworm”, an excellent piece of instrumental boogie-woogie (it’s almost a rag) is also one of my favourites. I can’t honestly state that this is the most brilliant, outstanding piece of work I’ve heard this year, but it’s certainly one of the most relaxed and uncomplicated albums, which means that it is very easy to just lose yourself in and simply enjoy. It’s just a lovely, unpretentious, charming listen which has just the right mix of fun, serious musicianship and character to stay on the right side of tastefulness and could easily win them many new admirers and persuade others to realise that there is much more to Chas & Dave than their stereotypical “knees up” image from a few decades ago. Let’s hope so.

48.  Stereophonics – Graffiti On The Train

Stereophonics Graffiti On The Train

“Graffiti On The Train”, Stereophonics’ eighth studio album, is unlikely to win them any new fans, garner any reviews littered with gushing accolades or, indeed, change many peoples minds about them. It is, however, rather an enjoyable listen for somebody who has always liked the band and Kelly Jones’ writing, without always liking everything they have always done. I’m not convinced that this album is any real new direction, but it certainly features a slight more widescreen, evolved, mature version of the band which, considering the fact they’ve been around for over twenty years, shouldn’t be much of a surprise. However, this album is most definitely recognisable as a Stereophonics release, even with the added orchestral touches and the usual bombast toned down a little, so there is no chance of them alienating any of their current fans.

The strings-adorned title track with its rather beautiful guitar solo is certainly one of the highlights, although the point Kelly is trying to make through the lyrics, if any, has been lost on me. “Indian Summer”, again featuring plenty of strings boldly punctuating the chorus, is a particularly likeable song, “Catacomb” is a pounding, relentless chunk of indie-rock which, frankly, sounds great and “Roll The Dice” is a classy, emotive, ambitious composition and is, in my opinion, probably the best thing on the whole release. Final track, the poignant, vulnerable and rather beautiful “No-one’s Perfect”, completes my personal pick of the highlights from “Graffiti On The Train”, but it also has to be said that there is also nothing particularly dislikeable on the album either.

It seems like having a break for a few years, recruiting a new drummer and spending a long time choosing the songs and getting the album sounding exactly how they wanted has paid off. It’s a very good album indeed, with a handful of stand-out tracks which make this a worthy purchase for anyone who has enjoyed a Stereophonics album in the past. OK, it’s not exactly “Performance and Cocktails”, but it’s a much better album than most people would expect from the group at this stage of their career and deserves a wider audience than they get these days. A lot of people seem to have written Stereophonics off… rather unfairly, it seems.

47.  Yoko Ono Plastic Ono Band – Take Me To The Land Of Hell

Yoko Ono Take Me To The Land Of Hell

What a great album.

I realise that this isn’t a very fashionable view and it’s much easier to make Yoko a figure of fun than to review her work seriously, but the world’s general view about Yoko Ono and her creative output are usually quite unfair. She and the people she surrounds herself with (such as son Sean, Yuka Honda and all her special guests such as Questlove and Lenny Kravitz) are fantastic musicians and true artists who are focused on nothing other than creating challenging, thoughtful material. This enjoyable piece of work is a continuation of a particularly rich run of form and “Take Me To The Land Of Hell” is an eclectic, creative, brilliant album. The rhythms, instrumentation, lyrics and beats are as inspired and vital as any other album released this year, much more so than most of the mainstream artists you will hear on contemporary radio.

Let’s face it, Yoko’s quite an incredible lady. Eighty years old, continuing to make music, working with artists half a decade younger than her and she’s to continuing to push the boundaries and produce original, engaging music. It’s probably disrespectful to describe her as being a bit bonkers, but every great artist sees the world in an individual way and interprets and expresses it in a manner that interests and challenges their audience, so the fact that Yoko continually surprises and amuses is a completely good thing. Of course, Sean Ono Lennon is one of the major creative forces behind this album and he has yet to receive the critical and artistic praise his talents deserve, but I am sure that his ability, craftsmanship and artistry will be recognised in years to come.

There’s a nice mix of upbeat songs and more measured numbers, with dance music, avant-garde rock and emotional ballads on offer. Yoko’s voice can be quite divisive amongst listeners, but I prefer to enjoy what she does with what she’s been gifted with and to listen to what she’s saying and how she’s delivering it, rather than focusing on her technical ability. I’m not going to claim that this is the best album I’ve heard all year, but it’s certainly one of the most interesting and if you’re interested enough in Yoko’s work to be reading this review, then you should take a chance because you will probably enjoy this album a lot more than you’d expect to. I’ve spent my life listening to people knocking Ono for so many reasons and, although I haven’t always enjoyed all of her work, she is currently making music that not only holds its own alongside most contemporary artists, but teaches them a thing or two as well.

46.  State Of The Union – Snake Oil

State Of The Union Snake Oil

“Snake Oil”, the second collaborative album from national treasure Boo Hewerdine and Georgia-born, England-residing guitar virtuoso Brooks Williams, had a lot to live up to, as their first album was an absolute joy. I’m happy to confirm that their follow-up album is very close to being as wonderful as their first, but the second release concentrates more on the more vintage sounding tracks which littered the eponymous début. The folk/pop crossovers such as “Rent” or “Sweet Honey In The Rock” which made the first album such an eclectic delight are sadly absent on their latest collection, but what it does mean is that “Snake Oil”, as a whole, flows nicely with a slightly more coherent musical theme. It’s a slightly more laid-back album than its predecessor, but doesn’t suffer for being so.

Gentle, piano-led ballad “Blaze Of Glory” opens the album, with Hewerdine’s mellow, congenial vocals relating a dramatic, fatalistic, yet romantic tale in a beautiful and completely captivating way. “Haunted”, featuring guitar and ukulele, is a charming ragtime piece delivered by Williams and the weary title track, “Snake Oil” is an atmospheric piece with some lovely background harmonies, nice guitar work and the lyrics could easily be used as a metaphor for the mainstream music business. “Daydreamin’”, as the title suggests, is a delightfully lazy piece and Boo’s voice floats over a gently picked ukulele and guitar, and showcases a light, playful guitar solo. “Going Away” is a pleasant, gently-flowing song, the feel of which slightly betrays the hurt of the lyrics and “Man With The Hammer” is a subtle but decent toe-tapper which boasts some bluesy slide guitar but, unfortunately, both contribute to the feeling of a mid-album lull.

Luckily, the brilliantly likeable “Hellzapoppin’” takes “Snake Oil” on an uphill trajectory again, with lyrics and a infectious beat belonging to music made a century ago and the resigned and sublimely melancholy, “Rags and Bones” is a both a classic Hewerdine composition and vocal performance. “Leaving In Her Eyes” is beautiful and is one of those kind of songs that you’d expect to hear in a seventies Woody Allen film, being played over a gramophone, depicting early twentieth century America. “Georgia”, a slide-guitar-embellished ode to Brooks’ home state, manages to be amiable without really hitting the spot, but “Beyond The Next Horizon” concludes the album with a winningly descriptive, cheerful stroll of a song, signing off on a genial note.

Overall, “Snake Oil” is a really lovely album, a beautifully crafted piece of work which transports you back to another time and allows you to escape the realities of today’s hectic world, an antidote to the stresses of modern life which should really be available on prescription. A sepia photograph of the State Of The Union duo may have suited the content of the album more than the striking (but very classy) green and blue marbled album cover, but perhaps that’s an idea for the next album. Hopefully there will be a third collaboration, because Hewerdine and Williams together are a rather special combination and, from the sound of “Snake Oil”, our union is in a fine state.

45.  Spin Doctors – If The River Was Whiskey

Spin Doctors If The River Was Whiskey

I was a big lover of the Spin Doctors back in the summer of 1992 when tracks from their début album became amongst the the most played hits of that year and was completely won over by their sound, musicianship and energy. Unfortunately, nothing after that album seemed to be quite as good and they faded from the spotlight quickly, despite still releasing quite a few albums over the years and, pretty much, only hardcore fans stuck with them. I’d love to say that I was one of those people, but I wasn’t. However, when I heard that they were back in the UK this year and were going to perform “Pocket Full Of Kryptonite” in its entirety, I couldn’t resist going to re-live the nostalgia of that album and, with a friend, travelled to Reading on a extremely cold February day to watch them perform that evening. After watching their superb live show, I would have been entirely within my rights to have been annoyed with them, because they didn’t perform their first album in its entirety as the promotional material said they would (just most of it), instead, they were eagerly plugging their new album which, at that point, hadn’t been released, and proceeded to play quite a bit from that one instead. Instead of being a bit miffed, I found that the new material was actually rather brilliant and came away with this album, freshly signed by the band, in my very cold hands, three months before the official release date.

If you’re looking for a similar album to “Pocket Full Of Kryptonite”, you’d best not buy this album, because you will be sorely disappointed. This is a nostalgia trip of sorts, but not for the reasons old fans who joined them during the era of “Two Princes” may want. When I caught them on their UK tour in February 2013, lead singer Chris Barron told audience the story behind this new album between the songs. “If The River Was Whiskey” harks back to the days prior to the Spin Doctors making it in the big time, when they were slaving away at blues clubs in New York. One particular joint required them to stick to a prescribed set list of certain blues artists’ work and, feeling stifled after plugging away at the greats of blues’ well-known and obscure tracks, they started to write their own hard blues tracks and sneak them into the set list. Over time, these original Spin Doctors songs became favourites with the crowd and soon they were doing entire sets of their own material. It was at this point they came clean with their appreciative audience, once they had won themselves some ardent fans. This album is full of these tracks from the early days.

Of course, I’m not suggesting for a moment that you shouldn’t buy this album, quite the opposite, in fact. I just want to let people know that you’re not exactly going to get “Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong” or “Jimmy Olsen’s Blues” if you exchange your hard-earned cash for it. This album is full of hard blues tracks, gritty solos and more than a little hint of funk. Despite the high quality of musicianship, it’s not a piece of work designed for introspective chin-stroking blues snobs, either. This is crammed with ballsy, sweaty, energetic, authentic rockers, with more infectious riffs than you could shake a stick of Kryptonite at. These are songs you can easily imagine thrilling a packed out, boiling hot, Big Apple blues club and these high-octane blues numbers certainly created an electric atmosphere in the venue I saw the Spin Doctors blow the crowd away, back in February.

My personal picks from the album are the jaunty title track, “Traction Blues”, which combines a superb riff, great lyrics, a storming guitar solo and a brilliant up-tempo beat, the soulful “About A Train”, “The Drop” a superb performance which showcases the fluid, muscular musicianship of the band and the excellent introduction to the album, “Some Other Man Instead”. The rest of the album isn’t exactly filler, either. This isn’t the sound of a band trying something different, this is the sound of a band who have rediscovered what it was that made them the brilliant band they were – and are. Rarely have they sounded so fresh, unforced and natural on record and hearing the band like this is an unashamed pleasure. It’s like we finally get to see the real band… and that’s not in any way derogatory to their back catalogue, they’ve written and released some fantastic work, but this is surely the most alive I’ve ever heard them sound and I can’t recommend this album highly enough.

44.  The Graveltones – Don’t Wait Down

Graveltones Dont Wait Down

This time, a few months ago, I hadn’t heard of The Graveltones. I was, however, lucky enough to grab myself a ticket for Suede’s low-key show at The Garage in Islington in the middle of October 2013 and found myself really enjoying the powerful two-piece support act, who seemed to be a mixture of the heavier side of The White Stripes, Band Of Skulls and early Kings Of Leon. I think you can guess where I’m going with this – yes, it was The Graveltones impressing with a really outstanding, urgent set, leaving the main act with something really quite difficult to follow. Of course, after seeing them, buying the album was a no-brainer and I haven’t been at all disappointed by their début, “Don’t Wait Down”. This thrilling piece of work is a complete assault on the senses, a formidable, riff-heavy monster of an album and the two London-based Aussies, Jimmy O (vocals, guitars) and Mikey Sorbello (drums) have managed to transfer their blistering live form from the stage into the studio quite convincingly.

They’re not one trick ponies, though. Although the Led Zep-style riffs are present and correct on “Forget About The Trouble” and “Dying On Your Feet”, they show more mainstream indie-rock sensibilities on “Money” and a more sultry, restrained, smouldering blues on “Crime To Be Talkin'” (featuring Lauren Tate on vocals). “I Am A Liar” is perhaps the most different piece on “Don’t Wait Down”, featuring a bar-piano and mournful, weary vocals describing the pain of being dumped. It all works very well and adds to the texture of the album, so you never get overwhelmed with song-after-song of similar sounding tracks. There are a couple more highlights – “Catch Me On The Fly” is an infectious piece of blues rock and the album closer, “Six Billion” arguably saves the best until last with a sprawling, dramatic piece of theatre where the guitar solos explode from the speakers so hard, they almost punch you in the gut.

This album really ought to lose points for a lack of real originality, but it’s actually such a good album and the influences worn so blatantly on their sleeves that it really doesn’t matter. For a début album, this is really quite exceptional and I’d be extremely surprised if, given a little more exposure, The Graveltones weren’t playing in much larger venues in the next couple of years. They have certainly gained many plaudits over the last year and gathered plenty of new fans at each show (if their Facebook page is anything to go by), so the future looks bright for the hirsute duo – but this fresh, new album is here right now, so do yourself a massive favour, grab a copy and hear one of the very best débuts of the year.

43.  Christy Moore – Where I Come From

Christy Moore Where I Come From

The word “legend” is often overused, however, in the case of Christy Moore, I would consider it to be completely justified as he truly is one of the giants of Irish folk music. He has written and interpreted songs which tell beautifully descriptive stories, battle against prejudice and injustices, speak of drinking, romancing, dancing, being caught in the working class trap and many other subjects, usually with a dash of likeable humour. It also documents life in Ireland over the past century, the highs, lows, the deadly serious and the trivial, all with Christy’s very individual take on it.

Although this huge three-disc collection is labelled as a retrospective, there are two new tracks and the other forty-three tracks have all been re-recorded by Christy and long-time collaborator Declan Sinnott (amongst others), so this isn’t your usual greatest hits package and will be of great interest to admirers of Moore’s music. Indeed, there are some tracks that have been omitted that you will be surprised by, if you are a fan of Christy’s, but there is a certain near-live (a couple of tracks are actually live) character to this massive collection, so listening to this album, from start to finish, is like sitting through one of Christy’s wonderful live shows (something I did last month), albeit without his enjoyable ad-libs.

As this is such as massive collection, I simply cannot begin to talk about the merits of individual songs, otherwise I would be typing and enthusing all day – it’s pretty much all fantastic stuff. One thing I will say to surmise the content of this album is that if I could put my finger on one defining characteristic of Christy’s music, it would be his honesty. Whether singing about politics or matters of the heart, there is a fierce humanity in his lyrics and all of these songs chosen for this collection have been written by Moore himself (although some have been co-written, such as “North and South of the Border”, with Bono and The Edge), so you get a wonderfully rich and broad taste of the man’s work and words. This makes “Where I Come From” a rather good starting point for anybody curious soul wanting to find out what Christy’s music is all about, however, this is far from a definitive compilation of his songs, so it leaves the listener with plenty of brilliant songs yet to discover.

42.  Elvis Costello & The Roots – Wise Up Ghost

Elvis Costello Wise Up Ghost

I’m an enthusiastic admirer of Elvis Costello’s work. So much so, that I went to six of his “Spectacular Spinning Songbook” shows this year and have all of his albums, even the more obscure stuff, so I was looking forward to this collaboration with The Roots immensely, especially given some of the extremely positive reviews. However, after owning this album for a while and giving it many, many plays, I have to conclude that it’s not quite as brilliant as some critics have painted it and that it’s simply a very good piece of work, rather than one of his very best. Of course, it’s a highly listenable affair, with crisp beats, funky bass-lines, brass punctuation and impassioned performances from all involved. Costello himself is almost rapping his biting lyrics and The Roots’ input and arrangements certainly give this project a different feel to anything he has ever released before, so it’s most definitely interesting and for Costello, a man of many musical guises, to come up with something so different at this stage in his career is no small achievement. In addition, one of the small pleasures listening to this album for someone familiar with his back catalogue is to name the original songs where many of the lyrics have been lifted from and adapted.

There are a few choice cuts from “Wise Up Ghost”. “Refuse To Be Saved” (featuring lyrics from “Invasion Hit Parade” from “Mighty Like A Rose”) is an immense, high-energy track which ends with a maelstrom of orchestral instruments augmenting the sparse beats and brass riffs, “Tripwire”, a lovely near re-working of “Satellite” (from “Spike”), is a rare delicate and tender moment in an otherwise upbeat bunch of compositions and “Viceroy’s Row” has a near-hypnotic hook and features one of the more prominent melodies on the album as well as a beautiful disjointed piano on the penultimate verse. The title track, which samples “Can You Be True?” from the underrated “North” to great effect is also one of the very best things on offer here and my last pick of the album is “If I Could Believe”, a beautiful hymn-like composition featuring a fragile, but passionate, Elvis vocal, which is perhaps the only track on here that sounds like a conventional Costello cut, so much so that it almost feels like it’s a little out of place on this album.

I can’t quite explain why “Wise Up Ghost” doesn’t appeal to me as much as it possibly should. It’s a pleasurable record to listen to, I enjoy the creativity of the rhythms and arrangements and I certainly appreciate the fact that Elvis has done something this different, but it doesn’t really connect with me on an emotional level, the way his music normally does. There is a general lack of melody on “Wise Up Ghost” too and, as Costello is generally a master of a beguiling, intricate melody, the whole album feels slightly one-dimensional without many memorable melody lines in attendance here. Also, although there aren’t many direct lifts from Elvis’ formidable catalogue of songs, using lyrics that he has penned previously and adapting them takes away a little bit of originality and, if anything, makes me want to hear the originals rather than getting fully into these new tracks. By the standards of the majority of today’s music, this is a really good album. By the high standards that Elvis himself has set over the years, it doesn’t quite hit the mark… but, either way, it’s an interesting, enjoyable album which is well worth investigating and may introduce Elvis to an entirely new market, which can’t be a bad thing.

41.  James McCartney – Me

James McCartney Me

James McCartney has always been one of my favourite “Beatle kids”. The fact that he remained in the background for so much of his life, waited tables for a living whilst going through college and seemed determined to live as normal a life that the son of one of the most famous musicians on the planet possibly could are all to his credit. Occasional appearances on his Dad’s albums (the guitar solo on “Heaven On A Sunday” from the critically acclaimed 1997 album “Flaming Pie” and a couple of co-writes and appearances on 2001’s “Driving Rain”) made it clear that he had inherited some of the McCartney music genes and, for years, it was speculated on whether James would actually release anything of his own. Just when the Beatle community had resigned themselves to the fact that it would probably never happen, the first E.P.s appeared in 2010 and 2011 with little fanfare or fuss. I both bought these as well as going to see James perform with his band at the 100 Club in Oxford Street, London. My initial impression was that he was a good musician with some interesting songs and a very reserved stage presence – a genuinely nice, modest guy. Oh, and that he didn’t really sound like his Dad, either vocally or compositionally.

Now, a couple of years later, we have his first proper album, “Me” and, objectively, it’s actually very good indeed, better than his earlier material. Calling the album “Me” is almost self-explanatory, the need to stand or fall on his own merits is evidently a strong part of James’ personality and, although there are going to be many fans of Macca senior buying this for Paul’s involvement, this album has a distinct character of its own and, unless you knew previously, you wouldn’t necessarily guess that this album was by the son of Paul McCartney, just by listening to it. Fans will draw parallels and will be consciously listening out for similarities, but they would be better served by just listening and enjoying the album for the likeable, mature piece of creative, contemporary rock it is. It also packs a much more substantial punch than his previous work, so even if you were nonplussed by the E.P.s, “Me” is well worth checking out.

The vast majority of “Me” is excellent. The first album highlight, “Butterfly”, a superb anti-racism song, has a winding, twisting acoustic guitar line coupled with visually descriptive lyrics which leads into an arresting, thundering, powerful chorus. “Snap Out Of It” is a great song, with an acoustic guitar-led verse and a dramatic, exciting refrain. “Life’s A Pill” is a very catchy piece of power pop, with a lovely melody, nice harmonies and appealing use of layers of acoustic and electric guitars. “Home” is a pumping, high-energy rocker, as is the fantastic “Wisteria”. The folky, but pounding “Virginia” is a strong way to finish the album, with some nice backing vocals from Paul. The rest of the album is also pretty good too, above average songs with lovely instrumentation and arrangements; the strings on “Bluebell”, for example, are just beautiful and the piano line on “Snow” enchanting. The only track I really don’t care for on this release is “Mexico”, with the lyrics being a little shallow and perhaps not bearing a resemblance to the country that most who live there would particularly relate to – in other words, a bit of a tourist’s tune.

If there was to be one overall criticism of the album, it would be the vocals. James’ voice isn’t the strongest, but it isn’t exactly weak either. It’s quite a gentle instrument which suits the quieter songs a little better and tends to get slightly lost amongst the heavier tracks on the album. If it was slightly higher in the mix on those pieces then it may stand out more, but there may well be a personal reason it has been mixed to blend into the music a bit more than other lead vocalists’ performances generally would. It’s one of those competent but not outstanding voices, unfortunately, but that’s what James has been given and he makes the most of what he has. Being a “Beatle kid” is, in my opinion, much more of a curse than a blessing, but given the way James has conducted himself during his life and listening to the strongly individual, intelligent music on display here, he has the integrity and talent to succeed as a respected musician in his own right and, more importantly, on his own terms.

31 to 40 to follow tomorrow…

Album Review: Paul McCartney – “New” (2013)

Paul McCartney – “New” (2013)

Paul McCartney New

As a lifelong Beatles and McCartney fan, each new release by Paul is met with a mixture of excitement and slight nervousness as to just how good it is going to be.  Over the decades, Paul’s albums have been of varying quality, but even the efforts which didn’t meet with critical acclaim (“Wild Life”, “Press To Play”, “Driving Rain”) aren’t without at least a handful of tracks which make the purchase more than worthwhile.  His very best albums (and they’re the majority) are packed full of excellent songs with maybe one or two lesser songs, as if to prove that he’s human like the rest of us.  The great news about “New” is that, for me, it falls into the latter category of Paul’s excellent albums with only a track or two that doesn’t quite cut the mustard… and even that is down to personal taste.

As I believe in delayed gratification, I had completely avoided all of the online previews of the tracks from “New”, with the exception of the title track which had been played on the radio and had also gone almost instantly viral within the Beatles community upon release.  “New” (the song) had really whetted my appetite for the new album, as it is a classic McCartney composition, one of those rare, beautiful beasts that could have easily have been a Beatles track.  However, I have to admit that, when I first heard the album from start to finish, I really didn’t care for it at all.  I was bitterly disappointed, really disliked the pop production and the only track that really had something going for it other than the title track was “Appreciate”, one of the more left-field efforts on the album.  “Queenie Eye” was undeniably catchy but, on first impressions, there was something just a little too obvious about it.  I was unimpressed and didn’t get the instant rush I’d enjoyed from many of his releases in the last twenty years. Then, on the third listen, I started to really enjoy it and every subsequent play revealed something new and wonderful.

Now, on my umpteenth listening session, every song on this album genuinely has something good to offer, much of it is truly great and, in my opinion, it’s his most creatively rich release since 2005’s “Chaos and Creation In The Backyard” which, I feel, is his modern day masterpiece.  “New” really isn’t that far behind, though.  It also has the commercial sensibilities of 2007’s “Memory Almost Full” and manages to combine the best of both albums whilst also giving nod or two to musical phases from all through Paul’s career.  The fact that McCartney has worked with four different producers on this album I believe has helped raise the quality of “New” above his last couple of albums full of original material (“Electric Arguments” and the aforementioned “Memory Almost Full”), both very good releases, but Epworth, Johns, Martin and Ronson have obviously given their individual tracks a lot more attention than a single producer would have and, as such, the fresh ideas and musical detail of each track means that “New” rewards the repeat listener with something pleasing each time and gives a lovely eclectic feel to the whole project.

If you’ll indulge me, I’m going to give the album a track-by-track review, something I wouldn’t normally do for a new release, but this isn’t just another run-of-the-mill release, it’s something new by Paul McCartney, you know, the guy who used to be a Beatle and is arguably the greatest living composer of our time.

“Save Us” – Co-written with and produced by Paul Epworth, this is a cracking opener and a fantastic mature, powerful pop song.  The harmonies on the chorus are gorgeous, especially when the song title is sung with that gorgeous minor-chord transition.  I wasn’t overly fond of the production of the track, but it has certainly grown on me.  (9/10)

“Alligator” – Produced by Mark Ronson and performed by McCartney’s band, this is an absolutely superb song, musically, and reminds me heavily of mid-70s Wings, but the lyrics are a bit hard to swallow at times.  Nonsense, vague lyrics aren’t anything new for Macca; some work, others don’t.  I think he just about gets away with it here, but it’s a closely-run thing.  The creativity of the instrumentation and arrangement, as well as the contrast between the tense verse and the sweet release of the strummed acoustic guitar in the chorus make this a very enjoyable listen.  I really love the electric guitar work on this one, too. (9/10)

“On My Way To Work” – This is the first Giles Martin produced song on the album and it’s one that, initially, I found to be quite ordinary.  However, I like it immensely and love the way the sound becomes fuller as the track develops, with some tasteful strings embellishing the later verses and concluding with a rather grand finish.  I particularly like the detail in the lyrics, the dreamily philosophical nature of the song and the gently optimistic “How could I have so many dreams and one of them not come true?”. (9/10)

“Queenie Eye” – Apart from the title track, this is probably the most infuriatingly catchy song on the album.  As soon as I heard it, I saw what Paul was trying to do with this and, believe me, I resisted.  However, it’s very difficult to resist against something that is absolutely irresistible.  It’s simply a fantastic, bouncy, melodic song which has a very “in your face” feel, using a children’s game as a loose metaphor for the tribulations of a relationship.  The finished product is even more impressive when you discover that Paul plays everything on the track, apart from drumming duties which are undertaken by producer and co-writer Epworth. (9/10)

“Early Days” – This beautiful song, impeccably produced by Ethan Johns (one of my favourite contemporary producers) is one of the most “stripped down” on the album, with Paul’s voice wonderfully unaltered, giving the song a feeling of honesty and intimacy.  Paul has written about his earlier life before with a little bit more of a swagger (“That Was Me”), but this paints a picture of both his relationship with his friends (you assume it’s John, but assumptions are never wise).  Paul’s personality shines through as well, turning “pain to laughter” and his love of music.  There’s even a bit of a ticking off to those who theorise about his life, telling them that they simply weren’t there.  Even the slightly frail high note at the end adds to the sheer beauty of the track.  I’d love to hear a whole album with Paul and Ethan. (9/10)

“New” – This is Paul at his melodic, commercial best; an absolute gem of a song, almost perfect in every way.  The lyrics, melody and performance are all simply stunning and it’s marvellous that he’s written a love song about the excitement of a new romance which doesn’t stray into over-sentimentality.  I also take my hat off to Mark Ronson, not one of my favourite producers by a long way, but he’s captured something very special here.  Of course, I’d have loved to have heard what someone like Nigel Godrich could have done with it, but I’ll certainly take this, one of the best things Paul has done, ever. (10/10)

“Appreciate” – This was one of the few tracks I loved from the very first time I heard it.  Produced by Paul and Giles, it has a sublime, chilled out vibe during the major-to-minor chord motif verse and an explosive “chorus”, as well as a superb guitar solo by Rusty Anderson closing the song.  It feels like pure McCartney, but also has as contemporary a feel as anything released this year.  Is he really 71 years old? (9/10)

“Everybody Out There” – Also produced by Paul and Giles, this, to me, is the first slightly disappointing, average song on “New”.  The lyrics are a little one-dimensional and, sadly, a little poor.  However, it’s a very catchy song and there are several crafty little hooks in it to make it rather enjoyable and certainly not something you’d skip when it came on.  All-in-all, a good song, but if a little more thought had been given to the words, it could have been brilliant. (7.5/10)

“Hosanna” – When I first heard this Ethan Johns (and McCartney)-produced track, I quite honestly thought it was a little dull and unremarkable.  However, repeated listens gave me a greater appreciation for this little jewel of a song.  It reminds me heavily of the work Neil Diamond accomplished with Rick Rubin, simple songs of love, simply presented.  There are some nice backward sounds at the end of the track too, which naturally give it a bit of a Beatle flavour. (8/10)

“I Can Bet” – This fantastic, cheeky little rocker is reminiscent of Paul’s work on “Flaming Pie” and, so far, never fails to put a smile on my face when I hear it. It has a great sound, thanks to Giles and Paul’s production; I especially like the electric piano on the verses and the acoustic guitar-driven chorus, together with a lovely bit of Hammond organ on the bridge.  Simply put, I love it. (9/10)

“Looking At Her” – Produced by Giles Martin, this one is perhaps my least favourite song on the album, one of Paul’s “isn’t my other half beautiful” type songs. You know, there’s a reason that everybody looks at your wives, Paul, and that’s because they’re married to you.  I enjoy the raucous little instrumental break after he sings, “I’m losing my mind”, but that’s about it, I’m afraid.  This is the dud on the album, for me. (6/10)

“Road” – This one is a real grower. A moody, sizzling track written by McCartney and Epworth which requires a few plays for the dark lyrics and subtle melodies to sink in.  It’s actually rather brilliant, even if it isn’t something you’d generally expect from Paul. (8/10)

“Turned Out” – The last of the Ethan Johns-produced songs.  It’s enjoyable enough, has a nice slide guitar on it and an inventive arrangement, but there isn’t anything particularly special about the song itself.  A decent, but unremarkable up-tempo number. (7/10)

“Get Me Out Of Here” (bonus track) – This Giles Martin-produced number is a pleasing little bit of skiffle to end the ordinary version of the album.  Apart from the “Oh Boy” calls which steer a little too close to the Buddy Holly song for comfort, it’s really quite charming.  I could help but smile when Paul, with tongue-firmly-in-cheek, proclaims, “I’m a celebrity! Someone get me out of here!”.  Very nice, indeed. (7/10)

“Scared” (hidden track) – The hidden track is a strong contender for the title of best song on this album.  With little more than Paul’s vocals and piano, this heartbreakingly vulnerable composition brings to mind Elton John at his very best, back in the early seventies.  It finishes the album impressively, leaving a slight trace of salt-water in your eyes and a lump in the throat the size of a golf ball.  It’s doesn’t exactly have the sheer magnificence of “Maybe I’m Amazed”, but it is of the same quality.  It’s a remarkable piece and means that “New” both starts and finishes brilliantly, with only one or two minor hiccups on the way. (10/10)

So, that’s what I think.  Just one man’s opinion.  I find it remarkable that I’m writing this after being severely nonplussed and disappointed about it when I first listened to it, but “New” is genuinely one of the best albums that Paul McCartney has ever put his name to.  I sincerely believe that it can be spoken about in the same terms as his greatest work, like “Ram”, “Band On The Run”, “Tug Of War”, “Flowers In The Dirt”, “Flaming Pie” and “Chaos and Creation” (as well as my own personal favourites that haven’t met with perhaps such universal acclaim).  All of these very different albums have one common theme – a dazzling, rich creativity and a willingness to experiment and push the boundaries.  That Paul McCartney still has the hunger inside him to not rest on his laurels and release something that would have been a lot less laborious is incredible. That Paul McCartney can return with an album so (almost wholly) brilliant when his advancing years have been a little too apparent during his live performances, it’s nothing short of amazing. However, people, this is no mere mortal… this is Paul McCartney, the only living legend who has sold millions of records, had dozens of number one songs and albums, who has played on the biggest stages there are… the only living legend who could possibly be described as underrated, but – my word – he really is.

*****

Day 47: Paul McCartney – Paul Is Live

Paul McCartney – Paul Is Live (1993)

Paul McCartney Paul Is Live

When “Paul Is Live” was released, back in 1993, it surprised quite a few fans, myself included, seeing as his last live album had only been released three years previously and releasing another so soon after could be considered a little superfluous and inessential.  I still bought it, though, on the day it came out, because that’s the kind of fan I am.  I like to look at it as a supplement to “Tripping The Live Fantastic”, covering all of the new additions to his set, including excellent live versions of songs from his then new studio album, “Off The Ground”.  Fans should make the most of the live renditions of McCartney gems such as “C’mon People” and “Peace In The Neighbourhood” because I doubt if they will ever appear on a live set list of his any day soon, although some committed lobbying by fans saw Paul perform “Hope Of Deliverance” this year, so you never know.  Any song that appeared on the “Tripping” release (with the exception of “Live And Let Die”) is omitted here to avoid repetition, but a lot of people who had gone to the concerts felt a bit short changed that they weren’t getting an entire set from the tour they’d seen.

At the time, I quite liked it and still enjoy listening to it today, but I don’t feel as if it is half as good as “Tripping The Live Fantastic” and the fact that the acoustic set here draws heavily from the “Unplugged” session Paul did for MTV back in 1991 makes it sound less fresh than it could have been.  In fact, you could argue that not enough of his set had changed to justify a new live album and the very modest sales of this title perhaps support that line of thinking.  There are certainly inessential tracks, such as “Robbie’s Bit (Thanks Chet)” which, admittedly, is a pleasant bit of acoustic guitar work from Robbie McIntosh, but really, does it belong on a McCartney live album?  The inclusion of “Good Rockin’ Tonight” and “Kansas City” seem pointless and the sound-check excerpts at the end of the album are very tedious, apart from the reworking of “I Wanna Be Your Man”, which shows Macca having a lot of fun with one of his old songs. There are many positives, though, with the first live outings of “Drive My Car”, “All My Loving”, “Michelle”, “Penny Lane”, “Paperback Writer” and “Magical Mystery Tour” sounding great and definitely pleasing the fans.  One big stumbling block for me is the version of “Lady Madonna” which would have been excellent if not for the screaming keyboard “sax” solo which sounds horribly fake.  The keyboards on “Penny Lane” also grate slightly too, sadly.

For some reason, the band as you hear it here ceased to be after this tour, with Paul “Wix” Wickens the only member to feature in his live band thereafter.  It’s a bit of a shame, as Hamish and Robbie were great side-men, and nobody seems to really know exactly why this is, but after this album came The Beatles Anthology project and, of course, the sad passing of Linda, so perhaps it’s not at all surprising that Paul changed many things in his life, including the band that he and Linda last performed with.  All parties (or most of them, anyway) moved on to pastures new and it was an unceremonious end for a period of his career that had seen a resurgence in both Paul’s popularity and general musical standing, with both of 1993’s studio and live album seen as simply “not as good as the last ones”.  My opinion is that, while there wasn’t any great need for this album, it’s enjoyable to listen to. It is, however, also probably the most underwhelming live album Macca has ever released and should be one of the very last additions that any fan makes to a Paul McCartney collection.

***

Day 37: Paul McCartney – Off The Ground

Paul McCartney – Off The Ground (1993)

Paul McCartney Off The Ground

1989’s “Flowers In The Dirt” was seen as a hard act to follow, given the widespread critical acclaim and the “return to form” label that accompanied it.  Critically, “Off The Ground”, recorded with Paul’s then current touring band (with the exception of drummer Chris Whitten, who was offered a job touring with Dire Straits and was replaced by Blair Cunningham), didn’t quite match up to its predecessor.  However, it was the first McCartney studio album I bought on the day of release and I happen to think it’s much better than it was originally received back in 1993. In fact, I think it’s almost entirely excellent and one of Paul’s most underrated pieces of work.  I loved it at the age of eighteen and now, twenty years later, at thirty-eight, I still love it just as much.

My first encounter with the “Off The Ground” material was hearing “Hope Of Deliverance” on the radio on a cold winter morning in 1992, as I got myself ready for college. The first time I heard it, I wasn’t overly sure whether I liked it or not.  It sounded a bit almost religious and “happy-clappy” to my seventeen year old ears.  I reserved judgement.  However, the second time I heard it, it stayed in my head for a ridiculously long time and I was singing the hook for days afterwards.  Fast forward a few months and I was in HMV in Birmingham when the in-store DJ announced he had a sneak preview of the Paul McCartney album which was being released the next week.  He then proceeded to play the breezy “Peace In The Neighbourhood”, which had a great, wandering bass-line, a lovely message and lots of gorgeous jazzy chords which completely blew me away.  I was almost salivating when on Monday 2nd February, 1993, I went into HMV in Coventry, bought myself a copy and rushed home to play it.  I wasn’t disappointed.

Anyway, back to the present day (although remembering these moments in my life make me wish that buying albums still filled me with such youthful excitement and anticipation, but you don’t seem to get the same rush when you order them online and they fall through your letterbox).  The opening track, “Off The Ground”, when you listen to it now, immediately dates the album.  The McCartney & Mendelsohn production is a little soft, but it doesn’t destroy the beauty of this song about finding new love, although the soaring melody of the chorus does go a long way to distracting you from the easy rhymes of the lyrics. “Looking For Changes” is a harder-edged track, an angry piece about the mistreatment of animals, and manages to get the message across well without being too preachy, whilst managing to being a good rocker at the same time.  “Mistress and Maid”, the first McCartney/MacManus (Elvis Costello) collaboration of the album is superb.  The Costello influence is strong, both in structure and vocabulary, and this lyrically bleak but musically dreamy waltz-time story sees a weary wife, taken for granted, find the strength to break free from a dying marriage.

One of the greatest strengths of McCartney’s songwriting is when he finds great meaning in sometimes the most simplistic things.  “I Owe It All To You” is one of those moments he gets it spot on.  In the verses he describes some of the most profound sights (Egyptian temples, eternal gardens, glass cathedrals, golden canyons) and then breaks into the beauteous chorus which states, “Oh, I owe it all to you/you make me happy”.  As far as lyrics go, the line about the “distant islands listening to the sea bird’s song of joy” isn’t too shabby either.  The lyrically-painful “Biker Like An Icon” is one of my least favourite tracks on the album, although I have to admit that it has grown on my over the years (I enjoy the music, certainly) and the phrase “Biker Like An Icon” has a rather delicious taste to it. If Paul wrote an entire song around that one great random collection of words, I wouldn’t be surprised.  “Golden Earth Girl”is a truly captivating song, with piano chords slightly reminiscent of “Maybe I’m Amazed” introducing the piece and a delicate, delightful orchestration, with clarinets and flutes painting the musical picture Paul describes.

Probably my very favourite track on the album is the second (and last) McCartney/MacManus composition, “The Lovers That Never Were”.  A dark, magnificent and immensely beautiful paean to unrequited love, the tension and frustration seeps out of every line, the music builds up to a crescendo and, frankly, it gets me so emotionally involved, I feel almost exhausted and spent after listening to it.  “Get Out Of My Way”, however, brings you straight back down to earth, as it is nothing much more than a straightforward (but rather enjoyable) rocker which, if not for the brass joyfully punctuating the track and a decent bit of guitar, would perhaps be forgettable.  It’s perfectly fine, but it’s the kind of song that McCartney could probably write in his sleep… and he’s done that at least a couple of times.  “Winedark Open Sea” is a gorgeous track which, musically, tries to take the listener to the very sea being described in the song, but makes the minor mistake of overstaying its welcome.  The climax of the album, “C’mon People” was a blatant attempt to write a “big” song, in the same vein as “Hey Jude” and, you know what, he almost pulls it off. Lyrically, it attempts to motivate and pull people together, but the message itself is little vague and, as such, is slightly weakened. It’s still a terrific song, though, and it builds up impressively to a dizzying cacophony of sound, just falling a whisker short of true greatness… but he wasn’t far away from the mark.  A snippet of “Cosmically Conscious” ends the album on a silly (but fun) note and one of Paul’s most inspired albums comes to a close.

“Off The Ground” has now been in my life for twenty years and I am certain that it has been listened to in each and every one of those years.  If people wish to dismiss it as one of Paul’s lesser works, then that is their prerogative, but I believe that this is one of the most creatively rich collections of songs he has put his name to and, had it followed “Press To Play” in 1989 instead of “Flowers In The Dirt”, it would be much more widely loved amongst fans and critics.  I certainly count it amongst my favourite McCartney solo work and believe that future reappraisal of it, possibly when it is remastered, will bring a more balanced and appreciative reaction.  However, as this is Paul McCartney we’re talking about, who very seldom seems to get a fair hearing from much of the press, I won’t hold my breath.

*****

Day 25: Eric Clapton – Old Sock

Eric Clapton – Old Sock (2013)

Eric Clapton Old Sock

I can understand why many Clapton fans feel disappointed by this album, certainly those who are more fans of his rock and blues material and those who prefer harder-edged music in general. When I first played “Old Sock”, I was quite surprised at how gentle and sleepy this album is at times and wasn’t sure about it at all. However, after I’d given it a few more plays, I realised that there is plenty here to like, but only if you also enjoy your music at a more relaxed pace and aren’t expecting Clapton to be playing electrifying blues with any kind of fire in his belly. There are a few tracks which sound a little dated and have been given the gentle reggae treatment that Clapton favoured in the 1970’s, such as “Further On Down The Road” which kicks of the album with a whimper rather than a bang, and the distinctly average “Your One And Only Man”. Despite lacking any kind of edge, they’re pleasant enough songs, although I’m well aware I’m damning them with faint praise. Sadly, that is the story of most of this album as there is far too much pedestrian content on “Old Sock” for it be regarded as one of Eric’s better albums and there is nothing that really moves out of first gear.

The worst offenders on this disappointingly underwhelming album are the supposedly upbeat numbers, such as “Gotta Get Over”, which lack the punch they should deliver, whereas the slower, more purposely relaxed songs actually sound rather lovely. “The Folks Who Live On The Hill”, for example, is dreamy and romantic, “All Of Me” with Paul McCartney, is a charming rendition of the old standard, “Goodnight Irene” is genuinely likeable and “Our Love Is Here To Stay” is affably delivered. It is on the more crafted, subtle songs that Eric really excels and he manages to handle much covered material with taste and restraint. His tribute to Gary Moore, “Still Got The Blues” is superb. Eric could have gone for a straight forward cover, but his low-key, smoky rendition highlights the class and beauty of the composition. Sadly, “Every Little Thing” is, by far, the worst thing I have ever heard Eric Clapton release – an absolute abomination. I am not a great fan of artists adding a choir of children onto songs at the best of times, but rarely do they sound as cringe-worthy, twee and sickening as they do on this song. A seriously bad mistake. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I felt digusted and nauseous when I first heard it. I’ve subjected myself to it again before writing this review and I can only say that my feelings are not only upheld, but they’re possibly stronger in my hatred of this track.

So, is this a good album? No, not really. A bad album? I wouldn’t go that far either. It’s actually a rather confused mess of an album which lacks any real musical identity. Given my eclectic personal taste, I actually like what many of Clapton’s fans may hate about the album, the slow, relaxed, mellowed-out Clapton adding subtle acoustic guitar licks to old standards and covers. People who particularly enjoyed the “Unplugged” album, for example, may find plenty to enjoy here. I can’t help thinking that if the whole album would have been like that, it would have been a lot more likeable. A Clapton album of old standards would be divisive amongst his admirers, probably, but at least it would have been focused and cohesive. Anyway, it is what it is and there’s no point in ranting about what Eric “should be doing”. This is a musician approaching seventy years old who is making the music he wants to make and it’s our choice whether to buy it and listen to it or not. There’s just enough good music on this album for me to not regret buying it, but it’s a close call.

Incidentally, “Old Sock”, according to Clapton, is a term of endearment that older men address each other with – i.e. “Hello, old sock”. I will have to take his word for it, as it’s not something I have ever heard of before. Better luck next time, old sock.

***

20 MORE Amazing Music Facts That Will Absolutely Amaze You!

  1. Now he has announced his retirement from music, James Blunt has decided that he wants to pursue a profession where he receives much less hatred and abuse.  In a statement last night he said that he is deciding between Parking Enforcement Officer or Inland Revenue Tax Collector.
  2. Ozzy Osbourne was banned from the set of “Last Of The Summer Wine” for biting Nora Batty’s head off.
  3. In 2008, Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour did a guitar solo so long that he had to urinate in the middle of it, so he carried on playing whilst visiting the gents and just held a very long note whilst he relieved his bladder.  He even managed to get back on stage before the majority of his audience, many of whom were asleep, even noticed.
  4. Paul McCartney recently received a very special telegram from the Queen, congratulating him on reaching his millionth public performance of “Hey Jude”, the momentous occasion coming at Beatrice’s 9th birthday party last year.  The kids wanted some Lady Gaga and were mainly crying instead of joining in with the “Na na na na na na na, Hey Jude!” bit, but Paul was undeterred and claimed that it was a “great gig!” afterwards.  He then put both his thumbs up, tilted his head slightly and went “Dooooooooooo!”
  5. Liam Gallagher’s secret passion is train spotting.  You will often see him on the south end of Platform 6 at London Bridge in his overcoat, grasping a Thermos flask full of Oxtail soup, taking video footage of electric multiple units rolling in and out of the station.  In an interview given to “Rail” magazine, Liam claimed, “It’s really fucking rock ‘n’ roll, especially when you see a Class 73 locomotive come through, usually for engineering works or that kind of shit.”
  6. Dark lord of indie, Nick Cave, has opened a newsagents in his local neighbourhood in Hove.  Called “Cave’s Cavern”, Nick informs us that it is a really good place to buy newspapers, chocolate, cigarettes and hardcore pornography and offers 10% off every purchase of satanic magazines on production of this ‘blog post.  Only two schoolchildren at any one time, please. Paperboy (or girl) wanted, good rates paid.  Adverts can be placed in the window, 50p per week.
  7. Ex-Nirvana and Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl cannot go to sleep without his teddy bear, Chuckles, which he has had since childhood.  He once left on tour and forgot him and so hired a private jet to pick up Chuckles at the cost of $250,000. “It was well worth it!” said the nice man of rock, whilst hugging and kissing his plush pal.
  8. Adele once ate her entire body weight in Snickers bars.  Afterwards she passed a stool so big, it became the biggest shit produced by a music artist in recorded history.  The Guinness World Records confirmed that she had beaten Bryan Ferry’s previous record, held for his absolutely massive shits, Otis and Merlin.
  9. The Move and ELO drummer Bev Bevan’s actual first name is Beverage.
  10. Quiz fan Madonna recently applied to appear on BBC obscure knowledge programme, “Pointless”.  Richard Osman, host and producer, wrote back thanking her for her interest but refused her application, saying that she was far too pointless for Pointless and needed to wait for a quiz show called “Irrelevant” to come along.
  11. Rufus Wainwright recently paid $75million for Judy Garland’s toe-nail clippings which now take pride of place in a special display cabinet on the mantelpiece in his Montauk home.  Their previous owner, Mr. David Gest, was sad to see them sold for less than half of the price he paid, but said, “These are difficult times we live in and I’m just pleased they have gone to somebody who will really appreciate them.”
  12. The Prodigy’s Keith Flint likes nothing more than a nice cup of tea and a long, relaxing, mind-clearing session of yoga.  Apart from anal sex.  He loves that shit.
  13. Bjork is happily married to a Powdered Tree Frog called Simon.  This kind of inter-species marriage is perfectly legal in Iceland and they communicate with each other in a series of beeps and chirrups.  They have no plans, at present, to have any tadpoles.
  14. Old “slowhand”, Eric Clapton, recently had a beard transplant after he took too much of his beard off after his personal barber sneezed whilst precision shaving. Distraught Eric, 84, was rushed to a Harley Street Specialist who shaved thirty-seven badgers in order to fashion Eric his brand new beard.  No badgers were harmed during this process.  Apart from the thirty-seven who were shaved.  They died.
  15. Who legend Roger Daltrey was actually born in Sweden.  His real name is Rogg Daltruss and his family were pickled herring magnates.  Daltrey keeps this secret closely guarded and strongly denies it if ever asked.  This is how you know it is true.
  16. Suede frontman Brett Anderson eats nothing apart from Kentucky Fried Chicken and Strawberry milkshakes. Breakfast, lunch and dinner, that’s his entire diet.  “I don’t like those rubbish chicken pieces that are just ribs and skin though”, said Brett, munching through his regular three-piece meal, “They’re rubbish.  I always ask for one drumstick, one thigh and one breast piece.  If the man behind the counter tries to give me anything else, I just throw it back in his face and say “That’s rubbish!” and start crying until he gives me what I want.”
  17. Bob Dylan has announced a musical collaboration with his brother, Woody Allen.  Bob has written two hours of poetry loosely based on the terms and conditions you have to sign up to on iTunes, which he will recite to the sound of Woody’s clarinet.  The album, entitled “User?  Manual.” will be available from August 2014.
  18. Marcus Mumford from Mumford & Sons is so rich that he bought two hundred thousand copies of their début album to make sure they became famous and then then, after they hit number one, returned them all as faulty and asked for his money back. This is, of course, why HMV went into administration.
  19. The secret of why Elvis Costello always wears a hat has now been revealed – it’s where he keep his stash of Fruit Pastilles!  Yes, the bespectacled music legend has a secret passion for the sugared fruit jellies and always makes sure he has several rolls sitting on top of his head for when he needs them.
  20. Bryan Adams is planning a sensational return to the top of the music business by re-launching himself as a woman.  Calling himself Britney Adams, he will be swapping his guitar for a big lollipop which he will suck suggestively between songs, whist wearing skimpy, sexy outfits.  “I’m not going to shave every day though”, explained Adams, “Fuck that!”

Day 16: Paul McCartney – Unplugged: The Official Bootleg

Paul McCartney – Unplugged: The Official Bootleg (1991)

Paul McCartney Unplugged

This was one of my first Paul McCartney purchases, bought on the “wonderful” cassette format on the day it was released when I was a mere sixteen years old. Directly after I bought it, I went on holiday to a friend’s house in Scotland and played it for the first time on their very good stereo system. The first thing I was struck by was just how warm it was, both in terms of sound and presentation; it was like having Paul and the band in the same room as me. It was recorded strictly “unplugged”, in the respect that none of the instruments were plugged into an amplifier, unlike many other bands who appeared on the MTV Unplugged series. For Paul’s performance, microphones were placed in close proximity to each acoustic instrument, providing a beautifully sounding mix. Also, McCartney and his band seemed to be completely at ease with each other, making funny little between-song comments and generally seeming to have a great time which, seeing as they’d just come off a massive world tour together (with the exception of drummer Blair Cunningham who had newly joined the McCartney band and went on to record and tour “Off The Ground” with him) was a good sign for a man who, since the Beatles, had got through quite a lot of band-mates and collaborators.

This album is a testament to just how good the Paul McCartney band was at this moment in time. Wix’s piano solos are both impressive and fun, Hamish Stuart’s soulful vocals complimented Paul’s wonderfully and Robbie McIntosh’s guitar work is impeccable. There is a really great mix of Beatles, solo songs and covers, with Paul revisiting a few tracks from his 1970 solo debut, “McCartney” (“Every Night”, “Junk” and “That Would Be Something”), arranging, re-working and performing them lovingly – the harmonies on “Every Night” are exquisite. “Unplugged” was the first time I’d heard those three songs and I loved them so much that it led to me buying “McCartney” as soon as I could afford it, shortly afterwards. All of the vocal performances on this album are absolutely fantastic; the slower Beatles numbers (“Here, There & Everywhere” and “And I Love Her”) are soul-meltingly gorgeous, “I’ve Just Seen A Face” and “She’s A Woman” are toe-tappingly infectious (the latter has probably never sounded so good) and “Blackbird” (or should that be Blackboard?) is performed perfectly with a few genuine laughs prior to the performance.

Including the first song Paul ever wrote, “I Lost My Little Girl”, is a cute touch, but you can tell that it was written by a fourteen year old and why it hadn’t surfaced before this album. The choice of covers work really well with the exception of “Hi-Heel Sneakers” which, personally, I really don’t like. “Be-bop-a-lula” kicks the album of with style, “Blue Moon Of Kentucky” is very enjoyable, especially during the hoe-down at the climax of the song, “San Francisco Bay Blues” is great fun, “Good Rockin’ Tonight” and “Singing The Blues” are more than decent and the best of the bunch, “Ain’t No Sunshine”, features Macca on the drums and Hamish on lead vocals, which he handles superbly. Paul is in such great form throughout this performance that it feels as if this project came at the perfect time in his career. The entire album is just so likeable and has such a great positive feeling running right through it that listening to it is enough to put you in a great frame of mind for the rest of the day and there aren’t many albums which can do that. Simply put, I love this album. I wonder how many times I’ve played it since I first bought it twenty-two years ago? Much be at least a hundred. I never tire of it though, which tells you just how endearing it truly is. Maybe one day it’ll be re-released with the other songs he performed during this session (“Things We Said Today”, “Matchbox”, “Midnight Special”, “Mean Woman Blues” and “The Fool”). That’d be good. However, until that point, it’s just about perfect the way it is.

*****

12 Dreadful Tracks From Otherwise Great Albums

Well, I’ve been up most of the night with toothache, so I thought I’d use my grumpy state of mind to compile a short list of truly dreadful songs from otherwise great albums… and without further ado and in no particular order, here it is:

1. I Love You (But You’re Boring) – The Beautiful South
(from “Welcome To The Beautiful South”, 1989)

The Beautiful South, formed from the ashes of indie royalty, The Housemartins, made a superb début album which made for a cracking good listen, until you got to the last track. Then you got some strange acoustic guitar ditty with Heaton banging on about listening to his carousel, complete with street noises and all manner of weirdness. I’m not sure what they intended to achieve with this track, but it was simply tedious, rubbish and a frustratingly bad end to a great record.

2. Innocent Smile – Ash
(from “1977”, 1996)

1977 was a superb album from the young Northern Irish trio. A little rough around the edges, but you can expect that from musicians who were just around eighteen years old when it was recorded and released. However, this track should never have made the cut. It’s an over-long, over-loud, uncreative, dreary, tuneless piece of garbage which has you reaching for the ‘skip’ button not long into it’s near-six minutes of sonic mush. It also commits the terrible crime of letting you think that it’s over and coming back in during the fade-out. Utterly dreadful.

3. My World – Guns ‘n’ Roses
(from “Use Your Illusion II”, 1991)

Whatever your opinion on Guns ‘n’ Roses, most people who love the genre will agree that the “Use Your Illusion” albums were two pieces of metal genius… until you come to the end of “Use Your Illusion II” to hear a throbbing synth bass, electronic drums, Axl doing some kind of rap and the sound of him actually having sex with some woman, all captured horrifyingly within a couple of minutes of complete and utter nonsense. Not exactly the best way to end your magnum opus, but, then again, Axl Rose and good decisions aren’t well known for going hand in hand.

4. Meat Is Murder – The Smiths
(from “Meat Is Murder”, 1985)

I have nothing against the politics of the song. As a one-time vegetarian, I understand Morrissey’s point of view on this subject. My problem is that it’s a purposely bloody awful song and completely ruins an otherwise superb album. I get what they were trying to do, juxtaposing the harsh lyrics with discordant music to hammer home the point, but it literally makes it unlistenable and gets filed under the category, “I’m glad it’s the last song on the album because I can turn it off before this one comes on and I haven’t missed anything good”. Truly dreadful.

5. Motor Of Love – Paul McCartney
(from “Flowers In The Dirt”, 1989)

Paul McCartney had a torrid time in the eighties. After 1982’s critically acclaimed “Tug Of War”, everything went downhill. Sure, he had a few great singles which sold well, but the film “Give My Regards To Broad Street” was absolutely slated, he was (unfairly) mocked for “We All Stand Together” and his credibility and popularity slowly slid to an all-time low towards the end of the decade. Then he came back with “Flowers In The Dirt”, an absolutely superb piece of work, featuring some collaborations with Elvis Costello and it seemed as if he was back to his brilliant best… until you reached “Motor Of Love” at the end of the album. “Motor Of Love” is over six minutes of utter sonic slush, with both the words and the music making me want to reach for the sick bucket. With over-wrought vocals attempting to squeeze every last bit of faux-emotion and, frankly, a dreadful piece of imagery to start with, McCartney did his very best to sabotage his greatest piece of work for years. Thankfully, the rest of the album was good enough for it to remain well thought of, but this piece of dreary, nauseating mush could have derailed lesser albums completely.

6. I’m Scared – Brian May
(from “Back To The Light”, 1992)

Some may laugh at the notion of Brian May releasing a great album in the first place, but this first piece of post-Queen work from the influential guitarist was a piece of flawed genius and this is probably as good as some of Queen’s best work – apart from this track, of course. I haven’t actually counted how many times Brian sings the words “I’m Scared” on this four minute track, but I think it is in the region of 58,000. The music and the words are formulaic and the repetitive nature of the song make it one of the biggest hurdles to get over when considering the true greatness of “Back To The Light”. Of course, Brian committed worse crimes on other albums and projects, but none of which came as close to this one as being a truly excellent album. That’s what makes this turd in the punchbowl such a pity.

7. Les Boys – Dire Straits
(from “Making Movies”, 1980)

This was Dire Straits’ first real move into the big time of rock music. It contained solid gold hits such as “Romeo and Juliet”, the eight minute masterpiece, “Tunnel Of Love” and the meaty rocker, “Solid Rock”. You could argue that it already had a relatively weak link in “Skateaway”, but the rest of the album could have carried that one lesser composition. Unfortunately, it then ended with “Les Boys”, which is, frankly, the most unexpected, bizarre end to an album like “Making Movies” you could have ever imagined. I mean, it’s kind of fun; in the way that it’s so bad, you can’t help but laugh at it. Without it, this album could have been the coolest thing in music that year. With it – well, it makes everybody take the album a hell of a lot less seriously, which is a shame, because it’s arguably one of their best.

8. I Took A Trip On A Gemini Spaceship – David Bowie
(from “Heathen”, 2002)

“Heathen” is probably Bowie’s best album since 1980’s “Scary Monsters & Super Creeps”. It’s almost wholly brilliant, apart from this fly in the ointment – a pointless cover of a Norman Odam song. It has a ‘dance’ feeling to it which is slightly out of place on the album and the repetitiveness of it spoils what could have otherwise have been a perfect album.

9. Honey Are You Straight Or Are You Blind – Elvis Costello & The Attractions
(from “Blood and Chocolate”, 1986)

“Blood and Chocolate” is one of Elvis Costello’s many masterpieces. Unfortunately it contains this absolutely mind-numbingly dumb, insipid piece of meaningless nonsense. The very presence of such a throwaway song on such an otherwise magnificent album is a travesty. From a man who rarely writes bad lyrics, to write such a dreary piece of disposable pish and to put it in the middle of one of his finest albums just goes to show that even a genius like Costello can’t get it right all the time.

10. Caspian Sea – Graham Coxon
(From “The Spinning Top”, 2009)

“The Spinning Top” is a really wonderful piece of work, a creative triumph of an album by the former Blur guitarist. Apart from this shocking piece of headache-inducing inanity, of course. It crashes and swells like the sea it’s supposed to be describing, but instead of sounding inspired, it just drags on and on, overstaying its welcome by a good couple of minutes. A truly awful piece of foulness on an otherwise excellent album.

11. Working Class Hero – Manic Street Preachers
(From “Send Away The Tigers”, 2007)

The Manics’ 2007 album was, at that point, the most consistently excellent piece of work they’d released since “Everything Must Go” and there was a huge feeling of accomplishment and euphoria running right through each track. That is until you reach the bonus track, a dreadful and pointless cover of Lennon’s “Working Class Hero”. It brings the whole album down, completely, and – quite honestly – feels cheap. Whereas Lennon’s original was dark and understated, the Manics treat it with completely unnecessary bombast. Who ever had the idea to put this on the otherwise brilliant “Send Away The Tigers” – it was a bad one.

12. Revolution 9 – The Beatles
(from “The Beatles”, 1968)

It has to be said. The brilliance of The Beatles’ 1968 self-titled double album is beyond doubt, but if there was one track that makes all but the most hardened of Beatles fans reach for the “stop” button, it’s “Revolution 9”. The least heard of all Beatles songs is probably “Goodnight”, because not many people get that far (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as it’s not that great either). Long, boring and baffling, if it remained unreleased until the “Anthology” series, people would probably have denounced it as the over-long, over-indulgent piece of avant-garde nonsense it is, but because it was on an actual Beatles album, fans were forced to take it seriously. Yes, it may have been innovative, but not every innovation is particularly good and “Revolution 9” is proof enough of that.

Of course, there were other obviously candidates for thoroughly dreadful songs, but like “Bugs” from Pearl Jam’s “Vitalogy”, of “Delilah” from Queen’s “Innuendo”, the parent album simply couldn’t otherwise be considered a great enough album if those tracks were removed. Naturally, whether the tracks from the albums that made it onto this list are considered great albums at all are completely subjective opinions and, seeing as this is my ‘blog, these are mine. Please feel free to comment or to add your own suggestions.

Day 8: James McCartney – Me

James McCartney – Me (2013)

James McCartney Me

 

James McCartney has always been one of my favourite “Beatle kids”. The fact that he remained in the background for so much of his life, waited tables for a living whilst going through college and seemed determined to live as normal a life that the son of one of the most famous musicians on the planet possibly could are all to his credit. Occasional appearances on his Dad’s albums (the guitar solo on “Heaven On A Sunday” from the critically acclaimed 1997 album “Flaming Pie” and a couple of co-writes and appearances on 2001’s “Driving Rain”) made it clear that he had inherited some of the McCartney music genes and, for years, it was speculated on whether James would actually release anything of his own. Just when the Beatle community had resigned themselves to the fact that it would probably never happen, the first E.P.s appeared in 2010 and 2011 with little fanfare or fuss. I both bought these as well as going to see James perform with his band at the 100 Club in Oxford Street, London. My initial impression was that he was a good musician with some interesting songs and a very reserved stage presence – a genuinely nice, modest guy. Oh, and that he didn’t really sound like his Dad, either vocally or compositionally.

Now, a couple of years later, we have his first proper album, “Me” and, objectively, it’s actually very good indeed, better than his earlier material. Calling the album “Me” is almost self-explanatory, the need to stand or fall on his own merits is evidently a strong part of James’ personality and, although there are going to be many fans of Macca senior buying this for Paul’s involvement, this album has a distinct character of its own and, unless you knew previously, you wouldn’t necessarily guess that this album was by the son of Paul McCartney, just by listening to it. Fans will draw parallels and will be consciously listening out for similarities, but they would be better served by just listening and enjoying the album for the likeable, mature piece of creative, contemporary rock it is. It also packs a much more substantial punch than his previous work, so even if you were nonplussed by the E.P.s, “Me” is well worth checking out.

The vast majority of “Me” is excellent. The first album highlight, “Butterfly”, a superb anti-racism song, has a winding, twisting acoustic guitar line coupled with visually descriptive lyrics which leads into an arresting, thundering, powerful chorus. “Snap Out Of It” is a great song, with an acoustic guitar-led verse and a dramatic, exciting refrain. “Life’s A Pill” is a very catchy piece of power pop, with a lovely melody, nice harmonies and appealing use of layers of acoustic and electric guitars. “Home” is a pumping, high-energy rocker, as is the fantastic “Wisteria”. The folky, but pounding “Virginia” is a strong way to finish the album, with some nice backing vocals from Paul. The rest of the album is also pretty good too, above average songs with lovely instrumentation and arrangements; the strings on “Bluebell”, for example, are just beautiful and the piano line on “Snow” enchanting. The only track I really don’t care for on this release is “Mexico”, with the lyrics being a little shallow and perhaps not bearing a resemblance to the country that most who live there would particularly relate to – in other words, a bit of a tourist’s tune.

If there was to be one overall criticism of the album, it would be the vocals. James’ voice isn’t the strongest, but it isn’t exactly weak either. It’s quite a gentle instrument which suits the quieter songs a little better and tends to get slightly lost amongst the heavier tracks on the album. If it was slightly higher in the mix on those pieces then it may stand out more, but there may well be a personal reason it has been mixed to blend into the music a bit more than other lead vocalists’ performances generally would. It’s one of those competent but not outstanding voices, unfortunately, but that’s what James has been given and he makes the most of what he has. Being a “Beatle kid” is, in my opinion, much more of a curse than a blessing, but given the way James has conducted himself during his life and listening to the strongly individual, intelligent music on display here, he has the integrity and talent to succeed as a respected musician in his own right and, more importantly, on his own terms.

****