Britpop: A 20 year anniversary celebration…

It has been decreed that “Britpop” is twenty years old this year and it, therefore, is time for lots of journalists to look back and either fondly reminisce about the time when some genuinely great music, the sort of thing that exists only on the fringe these days, became mainstream or decide that it was a fake, faux-patriotic pile of claptrap that allowed lots of substandard indie bands to jump on the bandwagon. The truth, as always, lies somewhere in-between the two absolutes and it’s all a matter of opinion as to which end of the scale it actually rests. I have read quite a few articles with interest and have been surprised by the harsh tone of some of them, especially Taylor Parkes’ enjoyable assassination, “A British Disaster: Blur’s Parklife, Britpop, Princess Di & the 1990s” for The Quietus, and they have inspired me to commit my thoughts to writing, mainly because that era of music is very close to my heart. Firstly, I have to say that I loathe the term “Britpop”. It is not only a bit of a naff term, it seems to have a huge amount of negative connotations these days, only really representing the most popular and plastic aspect of British musical culture at the time. However, after the domination of primarily American music from the grunge movement in the early nineties (Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden et al), the fact that there was a mainstream shift in popular taste from the US bands (which arguably ended when Kurt Cobain decided to take his own life in April 1994) to up and coming home-grown talent, such as Blur, Suede and, yes, Oasis, all appeared to offer something fresh, new and unashamedly British, all steeped in the legacy of The Beatles, The Kinks, David Bowie, The Buzzcocks and The Jam.

It’s all a bit vague as to when Britpop actually started and it’s pretty much a certainty that there was no cynical attempt to start a movement from any of the bands involved. Oasis and Blur, the two heavyweight contenders of Britpop who the media seemed to mainly concentrate upon, came from two very different places in their career. The rookie Noel Gallagher, with a bunch of songs he wrote whilst being a roadie with Inspiral Carpets together with his brash brother couldn’t have a clue of how successful “Definitely Maybe” was going to be. Blur, working on their third album which was, essentially, their last shot at making it in the music industry, were just trying to write a good album that would finally get them into the big time or, at the very least, get them a new record deal. Both had aspirations, I’m sure, but the origins of the two bands couldn’t be more different. Oasis’ brand of working-class confidence and swagger against Blur’s tales of detachment, alienation and human fragility; the northern salt-of-the-Earth Oasis against the posh art-school mockney Blur were a sensationalist newspaper and music magazine’s wet dream. For people who really knew the music scene, though, there was an awful lot more to it than just Blur and Oasis and those who got caught up in the near football-club polarised rivalry of which tribe you belonged to were missing the bigger picture anyway.

Blur Parklife

I turned 19 years old in the summer of 1994, still smarting from the death of Kurt Cobain. I had started working in a record store in Coventry and was a fierce advocate of ‘proper’ guitar music, having embraced the grunge scene wholeheartedly, after a childhood of Beatles and Bowie and my formative mid teen years spent listening to Alice Cooper, Guns ‘n’ Roses and Extreme. When I heard Oasis’ “Rock ‘n’ Roll Star” and “Shakermaker” for the first time, I thought they weren’t bad, but they seemed a little basic and cartoonish. That all changed when I heard “Slide Away” and “Live Forever”, usually at top volume at a city centre pub with work colleagues and those songs, together with “Cigarettes & Alcohol”, T-Rex riff and all, turned me into a believer. The first Blur songs I heard, “Girls and Boys” and “Parklife” made me instantly hate them; Damon’s mockney singing voice made it sound as if they were taking the piss. Then, one day, I happened to hear “End Of A Century” and liked it. Really, really liked it, much to my annoyance. I reluctantly spent the pittance I got paid for my part-time job on a copy of “Parklife” and realised what an idiot I had been, as I melted to the sound of “Badhead”, “To The End” and “This Is A Low”.

1994 turned into an incredible year for music with Suede releasing their seminal “Dog Man Star”, Elvis Costello producing the magnificent “Brutal Youth”, Portishead’s trip-hop revelation “Dummy” expanding my musical horizon and the Manic Street Preachers’ life-changing masterpiece “The Holy Bible” also being released; all four albums, I have to say, being way more important to me than both the Blur or Oasis releases at the time, as good as they were. Then, of course, there were still excellent albums coming in from the USA, such as Green Day’s “Dookie”, Grant Lee Buffalo’s “Mighty Joe Moon”, R.E.M.’s “Monster”, Weezer’s self-titled “Blue” album, Jeff Buckley’s sublimely beautiful “Grace” and Soundgarden’s “Superunknown” featuring the huge MTV hit, “Black Hole Sun”. Considering the amount of non-British albums that dominated my trusty portable cassette player (I couldn’t afford a real Sony Walkman), it didn’t exactly feel as if the Brit bands had quite conquered the world. Indeed, one of the most highly anticipated albums of the year, The Stone Roses’ “Second Coming” was a massive disappointment to Stone Roses fans and a bit of a commercial flop compared to what it could have been. It really should have been one of the most important British bands in recent history heading a resurgence in British music, but it turned out to be a bit of a damp squib for many people, with guitarist John Squire seemingly having listened to a lot of Led Zeppelin records prior to making an album jam packed with Jimmy Page-esque blues-rock riffs. Actually, I really quite liked it.

Oasis Definitely Maybe

Despite the excitement I felt at discovering some excellent new bands, the rise of Blur and Oasis didn’t particularly feel like a movement at that point, more like a continuation of good, indie music that had been around for a while, but it was the fact that people were sitting up and starting to really notice it, instead of just people like me who religiously bought every music weekly and monthly magazine, that is what had changed. Just like every other popular art-form, it only seemed to become important when the media decided it should and, although the term Britpop had been coined in the late eighties and the melodic indie bands with sixties and seventies classic influences that rose as a counterpoint to the shoegazing band had actually started in around 1992, the media decided that everything was fresh and brand new in 1994 which was, really, not true at all. Suede’s Brett Anderson, for example, had appeared on the April 1993 edition of Select magazine draped in a Union Flag, together with the caption “Yanks Go Home!”. If that isn’t an example of a Britpop icon, then I don’t know what is. However, the mainstream success of big indie bands in 1994 opened the doors to other musicians who had, up to that point, been only modestly successful, as well as making some newcomers to the scene ridiculously popular almost instantly.

Select Yanks Go Home

1995 saw the release of new albums by Oasis, the massive selling “(What’s The Story) Morning Glory” and Blur, with “The Great Escape”. Although the latter received many rave reviews, history and hindsight hasn’t judged it as kindly, although I, personally, think it has some undeniably excellent tracks and much prefer it to Oasis’ effort. The year also saw emergence of albums by the punky Elastica, Sleeper and Supergrass, who were all catapulted into instant stardom by a press eager for fresh meat on the scene. Some of the more established artists who had been producing good music for quite a while got noticed a lot more because of the spotlight on British music. Teenage Fanclub’s excellent “Grand Prix” got the acclaim it deserved and Paul Weller’s “Stanley Road”, as great as it was, got the praise that its superior predecessor “Wild Wood” should have received. The Charlatans’s self-titled fourth albums meant that many people discovered their existence for the first time and Cast, a band formed by ex-La’s bassist, John Power, were responsible for “All Change”, one of the surprise hits of the year. The Boo Radleys also joined the list of Britpop artists with one of the feel-good hits of the summer, “Wake Up Boo”, and the subsequent album “Wake Up!”, the change of direction on which was met with discontent by many of their existing fan-base.

The biggest comeback kids, of course, were Pulp. I remember lots of people at the time referring to their incredible début album “Different Class”, when Jarvis Cocker and the band had been releasing records since the early eighties. I’m not being too superior, because I’d only ever heard of “His ‘n’ Hers” and that’s only because it had been advertised in Viz and was nominated for the Mercury Music Prize the year before. In fact, when I first heard “Common People”, I instantly dismissed it as terrible because, according to my sage wisdom at the time, “it sounded as if it was being played on a Bontempi keyboard”. Yes, I was an idiot, you don’t have to tell me. “Different Class” was, aptly, in a different class to most records (and won the Mercury Music Prize in 1996). When Blur sang about working-class alienation, it seemed like they were trying to write a clever song about something they didn’t really understand. When Jarvis Cocker sang about working-class alienation, rum and coca-cola and wood-chip on the wall, it felt like he was telling us about his life and a life that most working-class people could relate to, myself included. They remain one of the only bands to escape from Britpop with their reputation in tact.

Pulp Different Class

The whole Blur v Oasis farce rose to its fervent peak in the summer of 1995 when there was a completely manufactured battle for the number one single position between Oasis’ “Roll With It” and Blur’s “Country House”. Neither was either band’s best song by a long way, but Blur emerged as victors of that particular skirmish and the idiotic hype that surrounded the “battle” catapulted Britpop onto the front pages of British tabloids whilst the crisis in the Balkans got relegated to a few column inches within the papers. It was at that point the key-players from Blur got a nasty taste in their mouths, felt as if everybody was being manipulated and retreated from the spotlight to concentrate on the music (well, all apart from Alex James, of course). The music scene rode on this belief in British talent over the next year and 1996 gave an opening for Ocean Colour Scene’s album full of retro anthems “Moseley Shoals” to sell a bucketload, for Shed Seven’s “A Maximum High” to get airplay it probably wouldn’t have a couple of years previously, for the Bernard Butler-less Suede to release “Coming Up”, one of their most jubilant records, and for Sleeper’s “The It Girl” to become the most successful album they were ever going to enjoy.  The Boo Radleys amusingly freaked the hell out of all the fickle people who only liked them because of “Wake Up Boo!” by releasing the follow-up, “C’mon Kids”, a purposely loud, challenging record, sabotaging their short-lived Britpop career.  Oasis, the biggest band of the whole Britpop movement, arguably reached their pinnacle in the summer of 1996, playing to 250,000 people at Knebworth, a gig of such an immense scale that it seems like an exercise in arrogance and hubris more than a triumph.  It all seemed to be downhill from this point.

The epitome of everything that went wrong with Britpop
The epitome of everything that went wrong with Britpop

The fact of the matter is that, to a music fan and at the peak of its success, Britpop seemed like a total hi-jacking of the music I loved, giving it a false sheen and the distasteful glow of showbiz. As the movement put the music that meant so much to me into the hands of the fickle and the shallow, I resented their ownership of it, however temporary. 1997 is the year when it all seemed to go wrong and, although I had loved much of the music over the past couple of years, I was glad when it did. It was the year when the British iconography seemed to matter more than the music, the year that saw Geri Halliwell from The Spice Girls in a Union Flag dress at the Brit Awards, when David Bowie wore the same flag on a jacket on his drum ‘n’ bass experimental album, “Earthling”.  Of course, Geri Halliwell and David Bowie had bugger all to do with Britpop, but the lines were really starting to blur (no pun intended).  It was also the year when Oasis released the most overblown, indulgent album of their career, “Be Here Now” which, to be fair, had a couple of decent songs under the deafening wall of guitars; the only problem is that every track seemed to go on and on. It committed the worst crime an album could – it was simply boring. However, by the time “Be Here Now” was released in August of that year, it was pretty much all over. In my opinion, the death of Britpop began with the release of Blur’s self-titled album in February of that year; inspired by US lo-fi indie bands Pavement and Sonic Youth, it was an album so different from anything they had done before, it announced that the game had changed. I’ve seen criticism levelled at Blur that this was a cynical move and they simply stole the sound of another band, but the whole tone of the album is fuelled by a meltdown in the band, by Damon Albarn’s heroin use, Alex James’ shallow playboy lifestyle and Graham Coxon’s battle with alcoholism. It has a startling bleakness which turned off some of the band’s more fickle fans, but to others, it was the antidote to a music scene which had started to become a little stale and clichéd.

Blur Blur

Some of the best artists of that era seemed to escape the Britpop tag, despite releasing melodic guitar-based indie rock. The Manic Street Preachers, for example, even with their most successful album to date, “Everything Must Go” never seemed to get entangled with the whole Britpop scene. Their fellow Welsh countrymen, Super Furry Animals, released a couple of the most striking albums of the time during the Britpop years and never really seemed to get tarred with the same brush. Teenagers Ash, whose flame burned brightest on their 1996 album, “1977” managed to get lots of column inches in the NME, but very few look back at them and consider them part of the Britpop movement. That, of course, is probably more of a blessing than a curse and is most likely because Britpop was a shamelessly London-centric movement. Artistic groups such as The Divine Comedy and Belle & Sebastian were probably seen as being too “clever” to fit in with the mainstream and Radiohead, despite the quality and success of “The Bends” and the fact that their guitar music met the criteria for Britpop, somehow also escaped that label. Whilst people would select Radiohead tracks on jukeboxes alongside Blur, Oasis and Pulp songs, they always seemed too aloof to be a real part of the popular scene. Indeed, the art-rock brilliance of “OK Computer” was one of the albums that helped signify the end of the popular Britpop movement and told us it was time for us all to grow up and move on.

Britpop faded away rather than suddenly dropping dead. 1997 still saw some really good records being released, such as Supergrass’ second album, “In It For The Money”, “Do It Yourself” by Seahorses (featuring The Stone Roses’ John Squire) and Ocean Colour Scene’s underrated “Marchin’ Already”, but despite a few hangers-on, it seemed quite clear the party was over. The whole “Cool Britannia”, with Noel Gallagher drinking champagne at Downing Street with Tony Blair didn’t help, either. Once Government, put its stamp on something, it ceases to be cool and many bands voiced their dissent about the whole Britpop movement taking on a slightly nationalistic bent. Even England’s presence at the Euro ’96 football tournament had its own excellent, catchy Britpop anthem (written and performed by The Lightning Seeds, with David Baddiel and Frank Skinner) and strengthened the association between national identity and music. It had all started to be a bit too establishment. To be fair to Noel Gallagher, I am of the same generation who grew up with a Conservative government from the age of four until I was twenty-two, so I don’t actually blame him for going to a party held at a place that the sworn enemy had occupied for the past eighteen years and having a triumphant drink with the new Labour Prime Minister. It felt euphoric at the time and the promise of change, however short-lived, was very powerful. Noel wasn’t to know how it was going to turn out; not many of us did, but that’s a subject worthy of a whole other article, so I’ll leave it there.

Noel and Tony

In essence, Britpop was destroyed by the very thing that created it: the media. Like any fad, it started off as being a fresh, new, exciting celebration of talent and got every single ounce of originality beaten from it by over-exposure and by it becoming part of the establishment that youth culture generally rebels against. It started to crumble when suddenly every guitar act had an instant shot at fame and fell to pieces when the term had been taken over by pop acts like The Spice Girls. By the time the whole hype machine was at its most active, in the summer of 1997, it was already over. What came next in the mainstream was pop blandness, with cyclical interest in rock, indie and whatever the industry decides the kids should be into, led, these days, by Simon Cowell and his never ending X Factor/Pop Idol/Britain’s Got Flatulence type shows. However, it’s not like good indie music has ever gone away, but it is supported by people who love the music rather than by the mainstream. There have been numerous successful post-Britpop indie bands and the death of Britpop didn’t kill the genre completely, but I do feel sorry for the artists who released pretty good albums just when the Britpop genre (if you can call it that) was rapidly falling out of fashion, bands like The Supernaturals, Octopus and Tiger whose début albums are all very worthy and would have probably been successful if they’d all have been released a year earlier than they were.

One of the most annoying characteristics of the multitude of articles looking back at Britpop and the comments about them on Facebook and Twitter is the derision some bands get. “Oh, wasn’t Britpop crap. Menswear! Snigger. Echobelly! Chortle. Marion! Guffaw! Sleeper! Pfft… stop, you’re killing me!”… they’re cheap laughs and they’re unfair. Actually, I can understand people’s reservations about Menswear, seeing as they were pretty much cynically put together by a record company to cash in on the Britpop revolution, but their debut album, “Nuisance”, whilst not a classic, by any means, isn’t the car wreck that people will have you believe. True, there are a handful of wince-worthy moments, but believe it or not, there are a moment or two of greatness; “I’ll Manage Somehow”, for example, stands side-by-side with some of the best indie pop from that era and “Piece Of Me” is a particularly tasteful helping of melancholia. What has to be remembered is that although it’s a hastily cobbled together album, there were at least a couple of talented people in that band, people whose love of music is reflected by what they’re doing today. Naturally, it’s difficult to feel too sorry for them and the reputation of the band, knowing how much they got paid for such a brief career, but that highlights the madness that was the Britpop Camden scene.

Menswear Nuisance

Echobelly, for some reason, seem to get their unfair share of snide remarks for a band that certainly weren’t crap. In fact, they were responsible for a couple of enjoyable, more than competent albums that demonstrated good musicianship, wit and ear for a great melody. The same could be said about Sleeper, Shed Seven and many others that people enjoy putting down; these bands are responsible for more than a few really excellent songs. I even bought the first Northern Uproar album for a few pennies last year just to see if it was half as bad as I expected it to be at the time and was almost disappointed to find that it wasn’t actually that terrible (I wouldn’t recommend it, however). Oh, and Marion, as short-lived as they were, were pretty bloody fantastic; their first album is evidence of their energy, ability and creativity. I get the impression that people who take the piss out of these bands have never listened to the albums. Certainly not actually sat down listened to them, twenty years later, and re-appraised just how good they were. Their loss, because the vast majority of the music really stands the test of time and, oddly enough, some albums I loved when they were released have revealed themselves to be even better with time.

It could be argued that Britpop went on beyond 1997, but, realistically, the wind had been taken out of the sails of the genre and the so-called second generation of Britpop artists, such as Rialto, Gay Dad, Theaudience and Snow Patrol met with considerably less enthusiasm and certainly diminished commercial success, although one of those bands obviously persevered and broke though (no prizes for spotting which one). Of course, you could argue that the lack of success was down to their material, but I would bet my next wage packet on the fact that Rialto, if they’d released their début album in 1994 and not 1998, would have been one of the big names of the scene. The artists who made their names during the era carried on, with varying success. Some, like Oasis, struggled to repeat their Britpop success. Others, like Supergrass, made their best albums once they had escaped the shadow of the label and Pulp helped put another nail in the coffin of Britpop with 1998’s brilliant but dark “This Is Hardcore” before splitting a few years later after one final album.

Pulp This Is Hardcore

To surmise, I think it’s perfectly fine to hate the Britpop tag and all the idiotic connotations of the term. I certainly do, especially when it’s used by Americans who give the label to bands who had bugger all to do with that era, but to be dismissive and derisive about bands from a beautifully creative few years is foolish, to say the least. There were very few successful bands that got together to cynically exploit the popularity of melodic indie, if any. There was no Britpop band factory spitting out blokes in Parka jackets complete with earnest expression and a ready-tuned guitar trying to get people to part with their money, just lots and lots of individual bands who became very famous and successful within a very short period of time, many of whom had been playing for a good few years with very little success before a freak of fashion catapulted them into the limelight. To put down a genre of music from a period that included all the bands I have mentioned so far, plus superb albums from the likes of Black Grape, Dodgy, Space, Gene, The Bluetones, Heavy Stereo, Longpigs and My Life Story – you either don’t like this kind of music at all or you’re a bit of an idiot. The fact is, the very best music of those three short but prolific years lies a little deeper than “Parklife”, “Don’t Look Back In Anger”, “Wonderwall” and any over-used music clip that Channel 4 will use to illustrate a story based on that period of time. The exception to this, of course, is Pulp’s “Common People”, which is one of the few tracks that gets played regularly and justifies its timeless popularity, despite some clueless bumpkin from Coventry saying that it sounded like it was played on a Bontempi keyboard when he first heard it. He knew nothing, but has hopefully learned a little since then.

Andy Sweeney, April 2014. 


Live Review: Suede – “Dog Man Star” at the Royal Albert Hall, 30th March, 2014

Live Review:  Suede, “Dog Man Star” at the Royal Albert Hall, Sunday 30th March, 2014.

I can’t emphasise how much I was looking forward to this gig. I was nineteen years old when “Dog Man Star” was released and working part-time in a record shop in Coventry. I had really enjoyed Suede’s début album, but “Dog Man Star” was like a full and immediate realisation of their potential, all in one ambitious, overblown, bombastic, Bowie-esque swoop. It was dark, beautiful, artistic and it was mine, one of the first albums released in my early adult life that blew me away, a piece of work that made me, for the first time, feel part of the musical present rather than being someone who was constantly harking back to the music of the past. It was true, up until that point, The Beatles, Bowie, The Rolling Stones and other giants of rock had made me feel like the very best music had already been written. Even Oasis’ admittedly thrilling “Definitely Maybe” which was rocking my world at that particular moment in time felt like a re-hashed version of the music I – and, obviously, they – loved.

My first copy of “Dog Man Star” was on a cassette. Although I hated the vulnerability of that format, one play in a low quality deck could impair the sound on that thin bit of magnetically-charged plastic forever and I found myself avoiding playing it because it became too precious to risk on all but my trusted portable cassette player, so it was something that I only listened to when I was travelling to and from work. That was enough, though. Those mundane moments on a Coventry bus from the outskirts where I lived, into the City Centre, were transformed into something special. I absolutely adored everything about it, the artwork, the otherworldly lyrics describing a life that was completely out of my reach; tales of glamour, drugs, seediness, romance and heartbreak. What was especially heartbreaking was the fact that Bernard Butler had left the band before the tracks had been finished; this was the sound of a Suede that would never be the same again. Although I was someone pretty much devastated by Butler’s departure from the band, the fact that it was to be the last album featuring the original line up added to the attraction and the immortality of the songs.

Brett Suede

I went to see Suede live at Leicester De Montfort Hall, on the “Dog Man Star” tour and witnessed replacement guitarist Richard Oakes replicate Butler’s sound, look and stage presence eerily. It was my first ever General Admission gig and I got right down the front and gloriously drunk to one of the most bittersweet experiences of my life… yes, it was Suede, but it wasn’t. Needless to say, I’ve got over the departure of Butler. His reunion with Brett as The Tears in 2005 was decent and enjoyable, but proved that the brilliance of their two albums they wrote together were never going to be replicated by any subsequent collaboration – they were of their time and impossible to re-capture. I last saw Suede in October 2013 at a small gig for Q Magazine at The Garage in Islington, London, which was the first time I’d seen them live since Leicester. The band looked at bit different (apart from Brett who has defied the ageing process miraculously), but they were absolutely incredible. Learning that they were going to perform “Dog Man Star” in its entirely, one of the most important albums of my lifetime, at the Royal Albert Hall, for the Teenage Cancer Trust was an experience not to be missed and I was fortunate enough to be able to bag myself a really good seat and the slightly painful price of fifty quid seemed to be just about worth it, especially given the cause.

The dreadful support act “Eagulls” couldn’t burst my enthusiasm and my excitement built with every single minute I waited for them to take the stage at the Royal Albert Hall, sipping my £8 a glass white wine as conservatively as anyone with a grasp on the value of money would. There was a little apprehension as I tried not to allow my expectations to be unrealistic, but it was truly difficult to keep my feet on the ground. As the band took to the stage to the electronic throbbing of the opening track, “Introducing The Band”, the dry ice swirled and almost obscured the stage completely, until the slender figure of Brett Anderson appeared, moving to the pulsating beat of the music. The magic started then and didn’t stop until the final orchestral bars of “Still Life”. The audience sang the chorus of “We Are The Pigs”, enthusiastically and rapturously back at Brett as Richard worked away crafting the chords and tremolo-laced licks and Anderson went down to the front row of the standing audience, being embraced by the collective as the individuals strained to touch the hand of their hero. Then came “Heroine”, the chopping guitar chords, the double-meaning of the lyrics, Brett’s soaring vocals; the adrenaline was pumping through my limbs and my heart beating so profoundly, I could feel it thumping along with the pounding drums of Simon Gilbert.

Suede Dog Man Star

To hear this album, this deeply personal and precious piece of work being performed in front of my eyes was almost too much and as Neil Codling played the opening bars of “The Wild One” on the acoustic guitar, I could feel my eyes misting over. When Brett burst into the chorus, “And oh, if you stay…”, the floodgates opened. I was nineteen again, heartbroken from a teenage romance I hadn’t yet got over, deeply immersed in lyrics both fatalistic and hopelessly romantic. The underrated “Daddy’s Speeding” was superb and all of the haunting power of the song was interpreted perfectly by the on-form band and refrain of “The Power”, accompanied by a small string section, made all of the hairs on the back of my neck stand up in appreciation. The catchy-as-hell “New Generation” was met by a wave of pleasure and an enthusiastic vocal performance by the audience. “This Hollywood Life” rocked the Albert Hall hard and those in general admission swayed and rippled in time to the undulating riff. “The 2 Of Us”, supposedly written about Lennon & McCartney, but given a more personal meaning by the departure of Bernard Butler was poignant, powerful and beautiful and “Black And Blue” simply gorgeous. Personal favourite “The Asphalt World” was as sublime as ever, but I can’t help wishing that Richard had performed the extended guitar solo I’d seen in Leicester nearly two decades before which had sent the venue into a collective orgasm. The climax of the album, “Still Life”, again featuring the string section, which Brett dedicated to his late Father, was utterly magnificent and the performance of the album ended, once more, with more salt water in my eyes. It was every bit as mind-blowing as I hoped that it would be.

Suede then returned after a brief intermission and played a mixture of hits, B-sides and other tracks. As much as I enjoyed this set which included “Trash”, “Animal Nitrate”, “So Young”, “Metal Mickey”, “Beautiful Ones” and more obscure treats for fans such as “Whipsnade”, “My Dark Star” and ended with “Stay Together”, I was pretty much spent after seeing “Dog Man Star”, especially as I’d seen them perform a superb varied set in late 2013. The second half of the set was arguably just as good as the first, but for me, personally, “Dog Man Star” is what it was all about and I found myself reflecting on just what the compositions from that album meant to me whilst simultaneously singing along to the song they were performing at that time (who says that men can’t multi-task?). I came to the conclusion, that there aren’t many albums which have been released in my lifetime that have meant as much to me as Suede’s second. I was going through an unsure and not at all enjoyable time of my life and it helped me escape away to a different, beautifully rich, interesting world, a world that I found myself deeply immersed within on a memorable Sunday night at the Royal Albert Hall, many years later. Worth every penny.

Suede Brett

The 25 greatest gigs of 2013, according to andrewdsweeney

I’ve been to over fifty gigs this year, including a trip to Glastonbury Festival, and thought I’d give a little personal round-up of my favourite live experiences of 2013.  It was going to be a top twenty, but I couldn’t leave the other five out.  I’ve also cheated a little by combining a couple of gigs as one choice, therefore squeezing a couple more dates into my list, but I just see that as giving you more for your money…!

25.  Christy Moore, 15th October, 2013, Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, UK.

A wonderful evening was spent with the legend of Irish folk music, with just Christy and Declan Sinnott on stage, playing acoustic guitars (with the occasional bodhran), telling stories and running through some of Christy’s greatest songs. It was a delightful mix of humour and seriousness that had the audience laughing one minute and with tears in their eyes the next. I’ve been a fan of Christy’s music for a long time and, as he was a favourite of my Dad, who passed away nearly ten years ago, to go and see him for the first time with my Mum was quite a special thing. The highlight of the evening for me was when he asked for requests and I called out for “Ordinary Man”, with Christy then giving a passionate performance of what I consider to be his greatest song.

24.  Space, 31st October, 2013, Borderline, London, UK.

Back in the nineties, I really loved Space; they were a fun band with well-written, quirky catchy songs. Back then, however, I didn’t have the money to go to live gigs and so missed out on catching them live. I was able to rectify that this year and have an exercise in pure nostalgia on a Halloween evening at The Borderline. My expectations were low and I expected a fun night rather than any deep and meaningful experience, but it turned out to be quite an emotional evening as Space took me back to a rather torrid time in my life where their “Tin Planet” album was one of my only escapes. They played all of their hits and I felt genuine euphoria when “Avenging Angels” and “Female Of The Species” was performed with gusto. A brilliant evening, which was topped off by meeting Tommy Scott afterwards although, it had to be said, I couldn’t understand a word he was saying!

23.  Glenn Tilbrook, 16th December, 2013, Komedia, Brighton, UK.

I’ve seen Squeeze several times and, also, many Chris Difford solo shows, but had never had the pleasure of seeing Glenn do a solo show – and it really was a pleasure. With a mixture of material from his forthcoming album, his solo archives and pretty much all of the old Squeeze favourites, Glenn, armed with just a guitar, demonstrated his superb guitar playing ability, affable demeanour and the richness of his songwriting, giving credit where it was due to Chris Difford, who was in the audience. There were too many highlights to mention in any great detail, but a gorgeously sung cover of “Witchita Lineman” was rather special. I met him afterwards and mentioned, while he was signing my new album, that I never knew what to say to people I greatly admire and always end up babbling about utter rubbish. Glenn said that he understood and that he’d been exactly the same when he’d met Chris Powell, the manager of Charlton Athletic, recently! That just topped off a great evening and, needless to say, if Glenn returns to Brighton, I will definitely be seeing him again.

22.  Spin Doctors, 1st February, 2013, Sub89, Reading, UK.

Back in the early nineties, “Pocketful Of Kryptonite” was one of my favourite albums and this gig was actually billed that the band were going to play that album in its entirety. However, it didn’t turn out that way and, although I was looking forward to hearing the whole of that album, Spin Doctors didn’t disappoint at all, with a selection from that album and others from their excellent new hard-edged, blues album. The whole band were superb, giving a very tight, powerful performance, but Chris Barron with his high kicks at head-height, spins and general classic frontman demeanour, really gave us a show to remember. It was a superb evening, an absolute pleasure to see Spin Doctors for the first time, and I enjoyed it so much that I have already booked tickets for their gig in London in February, 2014.

21.  The Fratellis, 24th November, 2013, Shepherds Bush Empire, London, UK.

I regretted passing by the opportunity to see The Fratellis live when they were first around and, when they went on “hiatus” and Jon Fratelli started exploring other avenues, I thought I would probably never get the chance to see them. Thankfully, they reformed, recorded an excellent new album, “We Need Medicine”, and took it on the road. They were everything I’d hoped they would be, pure, unadulterated fun, full of energy and irresistible, bouncy tunes, delivering a good mix of old and new material. Looking down from the level one balcony at Shepherds Bush Empire, we were very glad not to be in the standing area as there was a metal-style moshpit throughout most of the performance. That kind of thing definitely isn’t for me any more, but it was entertaining watching so many (younger) people getting such a buzz from the music.

20.  The Levellers, 19th July, 2013, The Dome, Brighton, UK.

This was one more tick off my live “bucket list” and seeing The Levellers in their home town was a real treat that I couldn’t pass by. They were supposed to be playing in St. Bartholomew’s Church, but demand for tickets was so great that they switched to The Brighton Dome instead – a wise move, seeing as they sold that out too. The Levellers have a reputation as a great live band and they certainly didn’t disappoint, their mix of folk and rock providing a massive adrenaline rush to the whole crowd, a crowd who were probably one of the best, most involved, joyous audiences I have ever been part of. Playing what was, essentially, a greatest hits set, there was song after song of recognisable, well-loved songs that the audience roared back to the band. It was an incredible evening and I left there buzzing. A special mention must be given to Electric Soft Parade who opened the evening to a very small audience indeed, but they were absolutely fantastic and played nothing but material from their incredible new album, “Idiots”.

19.  KT Tunstall, 29th June, 2013, Acoustic Tent, Glastonbury Festival, UK.

It’s strange, nearly all of my highlights from this year’s Glastonbury Festival were acts playing the smaller stages and it was on the Saturday afternoon that KT Tunstall took to the stage in the Acoustic Tent, a stage so small that the BBC didn’t even bother filming it. Mining mostly from her beautiful new album “Invisible Empire // Crescent Moon”, there was no pretence that this was an acoustic performance as her full band provided a competent, full sound for a dazzling, playful KT, who was obviously in a very good mood. Older songs, “Black Horse & The Cherry Tree” (which had a beat-boxer morphing it into The White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army”) and “Other Side Of The World” were received rapturously, not least of all by me and I found tears seeping from my eyes for the latter. Technological hitches didn’t derail KT’s set or her spirit and she delivered a short, but memorable, set to provide one of my most endearing memories from the Glastonbury weekend.

18.  Dexy’s, 20th April, 2013, Duke Of York Theatre, London, UK.

I watched Dexy’s perform their latter day masterpiece “One Day I’m Going To Soar” at the Barbican in London in 2012 and it was such a great gig that, when Dexy’s announced a residency at the Duke Of York theatre in the west end of London this year, I couldn’t resist the chance to see it again. I’m so glad I did, because it was an even more assured performance than the one I’d enjoyed in 2012. They were better rehearsed, more polished and everything seemed to come together magnificently as they performed the album from start to finish, masterfully. The only misstep of the evening was a high-tempo Latin-infused version of early hit “Geno” which was a desecration of the highest order, but even that couldn’t take the shine off a truly excellent show, although the venue left a lot to be desired for a regular concert-goer in terms of prices, leg-room and accessibility.

17.  Ocean Colour Scene, 12th December, 2013, Shepherds Bush Empire, London, UK.

I actually saw Ocean Colour Scene in early 2013, promoting their enjoyable new album, “Painting”, at the Electric Ballroom in Camden, with Andy Crofts’ band The Moons as the excellent support act. It was a brilliant evening, but somehow their show at the Shepherds Bush Empire, despite there being no support act, seemed to be even better than the sweaty, boisterous gig in Camden. This time they were playing their third album, “Marchin’ Already” from beginning to end, which, although heralded as a fans’ favourite, hadn’t been one that I’d particularly loved. However, seeing it live gave me a whole new sense of appreciation for it as nearly all of the songs including the hits “Hundred Mile High City”, “Better Day” and “It’s A Beautiful Thing” were replicated with Simon Fowler’s voice sounding as good as it does in the studio and Steve Cradock’s phenomenal guitar work being the icing on the cake. The second half of the show was a greatest hits style set and all of the crowd-pleasers were delivered with style and craftsmanship. Simply put, it was a great night.

16.  Jarrod Dickenson & David Ford, 10th July, 2013, The Hope, Brighton, UK.

After seeing Jarrod Dickenson support and play with David Ford during a couple of gigs earlier on in the year, I was pleased that he was returning to the UK for some headlining solo shows and that David Ford was going to join him in Brighton, upstairs at a small-ish pub called The Hope, a fairly popular live music venue on Queens Road. Unfortunately, it was a particularly hot day and the inadequate air conditioning in this small room made it an almost unbearable atmosphere, with many t-shirts and blouses absolutely wringing wet with sweat. The music, however, was wonderful as Jarrod and David took turns to perform a couple of sets of their songs. After the interval, the two musicians took to the stage to announce that, because of how hot the room was, they were going to go across the road to the local park and play a few songs there… so the entire audience followed them across the road to the grounds of the United Reformed Church and cooled off a little while Jarrod and David performed a few songs with guitar and banjo, including a cover of The Band’s “The Weight”. It was a truly special moment, a piece of spontaneity that made a very enjoyable gig something utterly unforgettable.

15.  John Grant, 18th May, 2013, The Junction, Cambridge, UK.

I had booked this gig before the release of John’s second solo album, “Pale Green Ghosts”, and, unfortunately, when I heard the album, I wasn’t very keen on it at all, apart from a couple of tracks. However, I was convinced that it would still be a good show, even if I didn’t like some of the material, and went along determined to enjoy it. What actually happened was that, after spending a couple of hours in the company of the funny, brilliantly talented Grant, I ended up loving many of the songs I hadn’t particularly cared for when I’d first listened to the album. He explained the songs, delivered them beautifully with that heavenly, honey-soaked baritone of his and gave the audience plenty of laughs with his gently biting, albeit profane, asides; the story he told about Ernest Borgnine was absolutely hilarious. It was an eclectic, delightful evening, despite a heckler (ok, tosser) telling John to “get on with it” when he was trying to relate to us how he felt when he was diagnosed as being HIV+, causing a ripple of disapproval to pass through the room. I went expecting to enjoy the songs from his exceptional solo debut, “Queen Of Denmark”, I left wanting to get back home to give “Pale Green Ghosts” a few more plays; after that, it became one of my favourite albums of the year.

14.  The Leisure Society, 5th December, 2013, Shepherds Bush Empire, London, UK.

2013 was the year I discovered that The Leisure Society were one of my favourite new bands, with the release of their superb third album “Alone Aboard The Ark” and, at the end of November, while I listened to the album, idly wondered if they were doing any forthcoming shows. I then discovered that not much more than a week later, they were playing the Shepherds Bush Empire. That stroke of luck led to one of the most enjoyable gigs I attended during the whole year. Nick Hemming and band were absolutely brilliant, running through a selection of songs from all of their albums and a couple of rarities, concentrating primarily on their latest offering which, by the way, I recommend wholeheartedly. Their brand of baroque pop, reminiscent of bands such as The Divine Comedy and Belle & Sebastian, made for one of the most uplifting, pleasurable evenings of music I’ve ever had and, although they only half-filled the Shepherds Bush Empire, it seemed that the rest of the audience were as enraptured with the music as I was. Definitely a band I would like to see again, soon.

13.  David Ford (Milk & Cookies 2013), 19th & 21st December, 2013, Zanzibar Club, Liverpool & Bush Hall, London, UK.

I wasn’t supposed to be at either of these gigs. Unfortunately, thanks to a ruptured disc (or two) in my spine, I spent the majority of December unable to go to work because of the painkillers I’ve needed to take a few times a day. This meant that I was able to go to David Ford’s “Milk & Cookies” charity gig in Liverpool, but not the sold out London show, so I travelled up to Liverpool, watched David perform his annual selection of his own songs, songs chosen by the audience at random and a performance of a song which he’d be absolutely crazy to try to replicate by himself; this year’s mammoth composition was Paul McCartney’s “Live & Let Die”. I also managed to get myself a ticket to his London show while I was at Liverpool, thanks to the man himself. As much as I enjoyed the chaotic fun of Liverpool, the London show proved to be the best, with David on top form and performing his loops to create a one-man band faster and more efficiently than I’d ever seen him before… years of industrious touring and performing have certainly paid dividends. We were treated to some excellent new songs of his and, during the encore, some from his first solo album, including “Katie”, which I don’t think I have ever heard him perform before. Some of the random selections saw Ford performing Lionel Richie’s “Hello”, The Jam’s “Going Underground” and David himself chose to play a superb rendition of Stevie Wonder’s “I Was Made To Love Her”. They were two superb nights and I consider myself very lucky to have been to both… it’s almost worth putting up with the bad back.

12.  Duckworth Lewis Method, 21st September, 2013, Shepherds Bush Empire, UK.

Sometimes the craziest ideas are the best – not often, I grant you – but sometimes they really pay off. On paper, an entire album by Neil Hannon of The Divine Comedy and Thomas Walsh of Pugwash that is completely about cricket seems like madness, but it worked. It not only worked, but it was brilliant. However, the follow-up Duckworth Lewis Method album, also entirely about cricket? Surely that would be utter folly? As it turns out, no, not at all, it was truly great stuff. So, given that they have two whole albums, 2013 was the year when Duckworth Lewis Method went on the road to perform a handful of live concerts and they, together with their cricketing costumes and slightly saggy inflatable palm trees, gave a packed Shepherds Bush Empire, some in cricketing garb, some special guests (including the man whose memorable streak adorns the cover of their latest album “Sticky Wickets”) and lots of Hannon and Walsh fans a night to remember. The whole evening was superb, with Neil’s solo spot, “Jiggery Pokery”, being particularly delightful, as was “Nudging and Nurdling”, featuring musician and comedy actor Matt Berry going through the front row of the audience with a microphone so the audience took the place of the various celebrities who spoke the lines on the original. It was a melody-enriched, warm-hearted, splendid night and it really knocked me for six.

11.  State Of The Union, 19th September, 2013, The Greys, Brighton, UK.

State Of The Union, a collaboration between Ely-based songsmith Boo Hewerdine and Georgia-born guitar virtuoso Brooks Williams, released their second album, “Snake Oil”, this year and it was a fine album, a more than worthy follow-up to their début. They came to Brighton and played probably the smallest venue I’ve ever seen a gig in, The Greys pub, in Southover Street, which made for a genial, intimate atmosphere. We were packed in so tight, that I even ended up being used as a music stand, holding up the lyrics to a piece they’d had trouble remembering. I’ve seen Boo play quite a few times and State Of The Union once before, but hadn’t seen the two of them play a headline gig together, so was able to thoroughly enjoy their full repertoire in unique surroundings which felt ideal for this folky, acoustic-based material. The vast majority of their two albums were played as well as a couple of solo spots from both Boo and Brooks, the pick of which was probably Boo’s rendition of one of his attending fan’s favourite, “Joke”. It was a truly lovely evening of music (and ale) and my wife and I left the pub with a warm, happy glow inside.

10.  Simon McBride, 21st March, 2013, The Haunt, Brighton, UK.

Simon McBride’s “Crossing The Line” was one of my favourite albums of 2012 and so, when he toured the UK this year, we were very fortunate that Brighton was one of his calling points. I have to say that, without hyperbole, Irishman McBride is one of the finest rock-blues guitarists I have ever seen in my life – only Walter Trout and Joe Bonamassa have been more impressive. Every song was delivered with passion and breathtakingly gifted guitar playing which often left me open-mouthed in awe of his sheer talent. I commented to my wife that evening that Simon won’t be playing venues as small (and as dingy) as The Haunt for much longer and I’m sure he won’t; McBride is a big name in the making and I’d advise any blues fans to go and see him if they’re able, before the rest of the world catches on and you’re paying silly money for a ticket, like you have to now for Joe Bonamassa.

9.  Suede, 16th October, 2013, The Garage, Islington, London, UK.

The re-formation of Suede and new album, “Bloodsports”, is one the best things that happened in 2013. I was a first-generation Suede fan and only ever saw them live once, back in 1994, on their “Dog Man Star” tour, just after Bernard Butler had left. Well, of course, they all look a bit different now, but they have come back to performing with an obvious hunger and love for performing as they did this special small, intimate show for Q Magazine’s awards. I only managed to get a ticket because I was ready on the computer when they went on sale at 9am one morning; this literally sold out within minutes. The support act, The Graveltones, were excellent, like a mixture between The White Stripes and Band Of Skulls, and gave Suede a difficult act to follow. However, they more than acquitted themselves and gave a magnificent performance in the stifling heat of this small London club. Something deep inside me stirred when I heard old favourites such as “So Young”, “Animal Nitrate”, “Daddy’s Speeding”, “New Generation” and many more songs which were so important to me a couple of decades ago (and still are). The new songs also sounded excellent too, although I did question the decision to perform a new song during the encore, which meant that the end of the gig was a slight anti-climax. Having said that, it was a minor misjudgement which didn’t spoil an absolutely superb gig one iota and I hope Suede stick around for a while now they’re back as I’d definitely like to see them again.

8.  The Proclaimers, 29th June, 2013, Acoustic Tent, Glastonbury Festival, UK.

Arctic Monkeys, Rolling Stones, Mumford & Sons… I’m sure they were the highlight of many people’s Glastonbury experience this June, but, for me, the absolute peak of enjoyment was seeing The Proclaimers in the Acoustic Tent on Saturday afternoon. They had less than an hour for their set, but packed it with some of their most brilliant compositions, all performed magnificently by the Reid twins and their excellent band. The elongated soundcheck and the anticipation of waiting for them to take to the stage heightened the excitement and, when the music started flowing, it was sheer bliss. For those who don’t really know much about The Proclaimers and write them off as a novelty band with only a couple of good songs, it would be difficult to understand the attraction, but they are, in my opinion, amongst the UK’s greatest songwriters and performers. I have to admit, tears were flowing from my eyes during “Sunshine On Leith”, but pretty much the rest of it had me rapturously singing along at the top of my voice. At the end of it, I was left feeling completely satisfied and utterly spent; nothing else that weekend came close to even equalling it.

7.  I Am Kloot, 21st February, 2013, St. Bartholomew’s Church, Brighton, UK.

First of all, who came up with the idea of hosting music gigs in churches? We spent about half an hour queueing outside in the freezing cold and, once we got inside, it wasn’t much better as the radiators on the side of the building failed to adequately heat a church built to the same dimensions of Noah’s Ark. Not only that, but they were literally selling only tea, coffee and orange squash! Not my idea of a good night, I have to say, and the fact that there was a rather kooky support act that failed to engage me meant that I was in a bit of a bad mood by the time I Am Kloot took to the stage. However, the warmth came from the stage and grew inside as John Bramwell and band gave a spellbinding performance and made my first ever Kloot gig one to remember. Mainly promoting their incredibly good new album, “Let It All In”, they ran through most of the songs from their latest release as well as selected tracks from their back catalogue. The acoustics of the church were rather spectacular, I have to admit, and the beautiful music completely turned my mood around, leaving me beaming and gushing about the band’s performance at the end of the night. It was a wonderful evening and, although it was completely worth it, I’d think twice about going to a gig in a church again, for sure!

6.  Electric Soft Parade, 23rd October, 2013, Bush Hall, London, UK.

After buying and absolutely loving their new album, “Idiots”, as well as seeing them support The Levellers, I was delighted to see that Electric Soft Parade were doing a few shows to promote their latest release. After seeing the excellent support band, Cold Crows Dead, Thomas and Alex White and band took the stage to deliver an hour and a half of blissful, melodic indie-pop which, despite some sound difficulties early on, really hit the spot. Although I’d seen them supporting The Levellers back in July, it was an absolute pleasure to be at a headline show by ESP and to be treated to old favourites from “Holes In The Wall” as well as from my favourite album of the year, “Idiots”. There haven’t been many gigs I’ve been to this year which has given me such a sense of euphoria throughout it. Without the sound problems, who knows, it could have been my favourite gig of the year too, but it certainly added a certain edge to proceedings and a steely determination from the brothers to give the audience a show to remember, despite things not being quite how they wanted it to be. It was also great to talk to Thomas and Alex afterwards, two very nice guys indeed who love and live their art.

5.  Billy Joel, 5th November, 2013, Hammersmith Apollo, London, UK.

I actually never thought I’d ever get to see Billy Joel again. I had only ever seen him once, during the River Of Dreams tour in 1994, at the Birmingham NEC and that remains one of my greatest concert moments ever, as he played for nearly three hours and just about exhausted his back catalogue. This time round, I fought hard for these tickets on the morning they were put on sale as he made a baffling decision to play the Hammersmith Apollo instead of somewhere bigger like Wembley Arena, and ended up sitting a few rows and a couple of dozen seats apart from my Mum as the only way we could have gone was to get two separate tickets. Still, it was well worth it as a Billy Joel, distinctly older and unable to quite hit the high notes he used to, gave a brilliant performance, with a mixture of the big hits and deeper cuts such as “Where’s The Orchestra?”, “Vienna” and “She’s Right On Time”. It was the less obvious songs I enjoyed the most and it was a set much shorter than the last time I saw him, at just over an hour and a half, so there were some surprising omissions. However, I have no complaints at all and probably would have wanted more regardless of when the gig ended. He’s not quite the performer he used to be, but he’s still one of the best live acts in the world today and it’s an evening that will live with me for the rest of my life. A special mention, also, for support act Fyfe Dangerfield who, arguably, gave a better performance of “She’s Always A Woman” than the great man himself; unfortunately he almost spoilt his entire set with a dreadful version of “Moon River” at the end of it, but, apart from that, he was a very good support act indeed.

4.  David Ford, Jarrod Dickenson & Emily Grove, 3rd April, 2013, SCALA, London, UK. (Also: 27th March, 2013, Electric Circus, Edinburgh, UK.)

I’ve been a big fan of David Ford for many years now and am well into double figures for the number of times I’ve seen him live. However, perhaps apart from an unforgettable band performance at KOKO in Camden, in 2010, this year saw the best ever gigs he has performed that I have been fortunate enough to be able to attend. In fact, earlier in the year, when this tour was announced, I was annoyed because my shifts at work meant that the only date I would be able to attend was in Edinburgh which, obviously, I wasn’t going to do. As it got a little closer to the date and the new album, “Charge” was released (which I absolutely loved), the temptation got to be too much and I decided to go up to Edinburgh on the day of the gig, returning on the Sleeper train that night. What a great decision that was, because it was an excellent performance and David introduced me to two remarkable artists in Jarrod and Emily. After such an enjoyable night, I asked work if I could have the 4th April off so I could attend the London gig on the 3rd April and, thankfully I could, so I bought tickets for that one too and it turned out to be even better than Edinburgh, with a bigger, more enthusiastic crowd. I was a little more struck by Emily’s music than Jarrod’s in Edinburgh, but having heard Jarrod’s songs once before in Scotland, was suddenly aware of how good they were when they were performed in London. David and his band, which included Jarrod and Emily, ran through many of the new tracks from “Charge” as well as some old Ford favourites and, accompanied by my 16 year old Stepson, had one of my favourite ever Ford experiences that evening, leaving SCALA with an even greater love of all three artists (but especially David) than I had before. Edinburgh was a fantastic night, but London was an absolutely unforgettable evening.

3.  Richard Thompson, 9th March, 2013, St. Albans Arena, St. Albans, UK.

This was my first Richard Thompson gig despite loving his music for years and I really didn’t know what to expect, but having really enjoyed his latest album “Electric”, thought that it was probably a good time to catch one of his live shows. I was lucky enough to bag front row seats as I was able to buy them right when they went on sale, so had one of the best spots in the house. Playing as a three-piece, guitar, bass and drums, Thompson and band went on to play one of the most astonishingly good sets I have ever seen in my life; what that man can’t do with a guitar isn’t worth knowing. Most of his latest album got a live airing and sounded fantastic, but there were some old favourites as well as a blistering cover of Cream’s “The White Room”, with RT joking about them being a “power rock trio”, although the way they performed that song, really was no joke. Both my friend and I exited that concert slightly shell-shocked at what we’d witnessed; one of the greatest live performers I have ever seen in my life.

2.  Elvis Costello & The Imposters, 4th & 5th June, 2013, Royal Albert Hall, London, UK.

This year saw the return of the “Spectacular Spinning Songbook” where Elvis Costello takes to the stage with a gigantic wheel filled with Costello songs, some well known, some slightly less so, and invites members of the audience to come up to spin the wheel, with the band then playing what ever the wheel lands on. Pretty cool, eh? I thought so, that’s why I decided to go to six of these shows up and down the country, starting with two out of the three nights Elvis did at the beautiful Royal Albert Hall in London. The first night was excellent and Costello put on an incredible show, although sound problems marred some of the set, the second, amazingly, was even better, with some of my favourite album tracks such as “All Grown Up” and “London’s Brilliant Parade” being performed, rivalling the first time I even saw him at the Birmingham Academy back in 2002 as my best ever Costello gig. I then went on to see thoroughly excellent shows in Sheffield (where I met Elvis after the gig), Liverpool and Southend until…

1.  Elvis Costello & The Imposters, 22nd June, 2013, Brighton Centre, Brighton, UK.

This was my final Elvis Costello show of 2013 and, thankfully, it was a case of saving the best until last. I attended with my wife, Corinne, and, thanks to Josephine, one of Elvis’ glamorous assistants spotting me in the audience, got called up on stage, along with my other half, to spin the wheel. I told Elvis I’d like to hear “Riot Act” and gave the wheel an enthusiastic spin to get “(I Don’t Want To Go To) Chelsea”, remaining on stage in the “lounge area” whilst Elvis and band performed the song, brilliantly. It was a massive buzz and the high I got from that experience stayed with me throughout the rest of the evening, which ended with Elvis coming back on stage for an entirely acoustic solo encore, something he hadn’t done on all the other dates I’d seen him, and played gorgeous versions of “Alison” and “Accidents Will Happen” as well as “God’s Comic”. Add to that some of my favourite Costello compositions such as “Suit Of Lights”, “Human Hands” and “The Other Side Of Summer” being performed as well as a guest appearance by Squeeze’s Chris Difford and a rendition of “Take Me I’m Yours”. I’m not sure I can confidently say that it was a better gig than the 5th June at the Royal Albert Hall, but – for me – going up on the stage with Elvis Costello made this the best gig experience of the year. It would, wouldn’t it?

Tribute Bands

As well as going to see big names and new original artists, I also enjoy going to a little place in Sutton called The Boom Boom Club (located in the clubhouse of Sutton United F.C.), run by promoter Pete Feenstra. As well as attracting some really big names in rock and blues to the place (The Zombies and Walter Trout amongst others have played here), one of the main attractions of the place is that they put on some of the best tribute acts there are. Four bands I’ve seen this year at really reasonable prices are Imagine The Beatles (a thoroughly enjoyable Beatles experience – Robert Simpson’s Paul McCartney, especially, is one of the very best and liveliest impersonations), Too Petty (probably the best tribute act I have ever seen, they perform Petty’s songs with passion, energy and attention to detail), Rollin’ Stoned (a superb bunch of musicians who play a good mix of obvious and obscure Stones tracks) and ELO Again (who are, to date, the best ELO tribute act I’ve enjoyed, bringing Jeff Lynne’s music well and truly alive with a superb performance by Colin Smith as Lynne, as well as a live cellist and violinist). They’re nights of sheer music enjoyment and I’m sure I’ll be there a few times in 2014 too – definitely for the 30th May show when they have The Move, featuring original members Bev Bevan and Trevor Burton… looking forward to that one!

A Minor Rant

One of the worst things about attending live performances last year is the lack of respect that some people give both the artist and their fellow gig-goers. This has happened too many times this year to list every time, so I will focus on one particular gig – Richard Hawley at Troxy in London, back in February. I’d been looking forward to this one, as I’d not seen Richard live before, but it was absolutely ruined by people talking all the way through it, like they were on a night out down the pub. Now, Richard isn’t a loud, metal act where the music is loud and you can block out the ill-mannered chattering, his performance is shades of light and dark, it’s something that calls for complete silence so you can fully appreciate the music. So, apart from wondering why the hell people would buy tickets to a Richard Hawley gig and not be interested in listening to the man play, I have to say, in the strongest terms possible, that this kind of behaviour just isn’t acceptable – and it seems to be prevalent in London gigs more than anywhere else where, perhaps, the price of a concert ticket doesn’t mean as much to people there as it does to those elsewhere around the country on tighter budgets.

I’ve tackled people about this before and their attitude is that they have paid for their ticket, so they can do as they please, but I completely reject that argument. The right of the individual to be anti-social and ruin other people’s enjoyment is completely trumped by the right of the collective to enjoy what they have paid for. People buy a gig ticket to go and hear the band, not to hear about what a brilliant time the person had last night, what relationship problems they’re having or what new car they’re thinking about buying. So, my message to those people is this: if you are not interested in seeing the band: don’t buy a ticket. Go and do something else where you can chat freely without making people around you pissed off with your actions. There are plenty of pubs and clubs that play recorded music that you can enjoy and have a conversation at the same time… and they really need your custom at the moment, the way the economy is, so go there instead. If you’re not prepared to shut up and just listen for a couple of hours, then leave live music for those who actually love it. Basically, it boils down to this: if you do go to a gig, show the artist and your fellow audience members some respect and, to quote Hugh Cornwell at his Brighton gig in November of this year, shut the fuck up.

Next Year…

I’ve actually vowed to go to less gigs next year, mainly because I have back problems, but also mainly because it hits my wallet hard and I have a family to support, as well as my music addiction! However, I already have gigs booked for My Life Story, John Bramwell, Spin Doctors & Dodgy, Boy and Bear, Jarrod Dickenson, Franz Ferdinand, Manic Street Preachers, Fish, The Move, Jonathan Wilson and a little music gathering called The Isle of Wight Festival… and that’s all in the first six months of the year, so my vows are already looking a little empty. I think I may have a problem. Is there an organisation I can call to help with this?

Anyway, thank you for reading, I wish you a very happy, healthy, musical 2014!


The best 50 albums of 2013, according to andrewdsweeney: 11 to 20

Hello, welcome back and, once again, thanks for reading – here are my penultimate ten album picks of the year. Check out the previous three ‘blogs if you haven’t yet read my choices for 21 through to 50.

20.  Suede – Bloodsports

Suede Bloodsports

One of the most exciting pieces of news this year, apart from the new Bowie release, was the reformation of Suede and a new studio album, although I have to admit that, when I heard the news, I wasn’t overconfident that it was a particularly good idea. However, the re-releases of all of their expanded albums in 2011 had certainly reminded me just how brilliant they were in their prime and that it was a shame their popularity had dwindled, especially as their final album, “A New Morning” (2002), had been quite underrated and certainly an improvement over their penultimate release, “Head Music” (1999). I would also have been keen on some kind of involvement from Bernard Butler, as my two favourite Suede albums are their first couple of releases, when he was a huge creative force in the band, but it was obviously not meant to be. All of these factors led to low expectations when I first heard “Bloodsports”, despite reading some very positive reviews, and I was soon very pleasantly surprised by the excellent quality and appeal of the material on the album.

It’s a hugely enjoyable affair and, although not every song on here is entirely brilliant, it’s all highly listenable and there are at least half a dozen superb additions to the Suede catalogue. I have to admit that when I first heard “Barriers”, I thought the band were aping The Killers, but then the chorus explodes and it’s pure Suede, with that trademark vibrato guitar sound and Brett’s lofty vocals; it’s a fantastic start to the album. “Snowblind” is also a classic Suede track, with a guitar line reminiscent of the “Dog Man Star” era and a catchy-as-hell chorus, “Strangers” has a beautifully dreamy feel to it, but is also quite a powerfully emotive song and “Hit Me” could have easily have been a single from “Coming Up” with all those brilliant ingredients of the band combining for a near-perfect Suede experience. Perhaps my favourite song on this album, however, is the magnificent and truly beautiful “Sometimes I Feel I’ll Float Away”, which has the dramatic, grandiose feel of some of Suede’s finest moments.

“Bloodsports” is now my fourth favourite Suede studio album. That probably doesn’t sound very inspiring or impressive, but it was always going to be very unlikely that anything Suede released in 2013 was going to surpass either “Suede” or “Dog Man Star”. Richard Oakes and Neil Codling’s debut album with Suede, “Coming Up” was a shimmering, irresistible piece of indie-pop that would have also taken something very special indeed to better. Whilst “Bloodsports” doesn’t better their 1996 chart-topping album, which was jam-packed full of catchy singles, it comes a very close second and there is a greater depth to their songwriting on this release than on “Coming Up” which could give weight to the argument that this is the better album, as there is perhaps greater substance over style. However, one thing is for sure, if they’d have followed “Coming Up” with “Bloodsports” instead of “Head Music”, the history of the band and of British indie music could have been very different. Here’s hoping this won’t be a one off and the band will continue to work together on new music, but, either way, this collection of songs serves as an excellent reminder of exactly how good Suede were (and are) with what is surely an essential album for any fan.

19.  John Grant – Pale Green Ghosts

John Grant Pale Green Ghosts

I fully admit that “Pale Green Ghosts” was a bit of a shock when I first heard it. Having truly loved “Queen Of Denmark”, I then delved back into John’s past work to discover all of The Czars’ albums and in the space of just a couple of years went from not really knowing about John Grant to being a huge fan of his work. It’s actually only because of my respect for him and the fact that one track, in particular, “Glacier” struck me as a work of genius did I play this album more than once because, I have to be honest, when I listened to it for the very first time, I really disliked it. I’m not a fan of modern electronica (although it you’re talking about late seventies and eighties electronic music, I’m rather partial) and much of the album grated. However, I persevered, started to enjoy a few more tracks, went to see John in concert in Cambridge and then, as if by magic, the next time I listened to it, this intricate jigsaw of an album really came together and I was able to thoroughly enjoy the whole album from start to finish, particularly enjoying the textures and dynamics of this unusual piece of work. There are hints of the beautiful big balladry of “Queen Of Denmark”, but those who wanted an exact replica of that magnificent album and aren’t open to something quite different and adventurous from Grant are possibly going be disappointed by at least half of the tracks here. You really do have to widen your horizons a little or have a penchant for the sort of music he has embraced here to enjoy this release, but for those who are able to embrace the changes or who choose to listen to electronica anyway, this album has so much to offer and each repeat playback rewards the listener with a greater return.

Album opener and title-track “Pale Green Ghosts” (named after the olive trees adorning the roadside near Grant’s home in Colorado) still isn’t one I have warmed to fully and proves to be a low-key start to the album, although it is most definitely a bold electronic statement that this project is something completely different to his solo breakthrough. The excellent “Black Belt” has robotic rhythms and some bitchy, pithy lyrics that match the cold, detached feel of the song perfectly and the slightly bitter but undeniably likeable, self-promoting yet self-deprecating “GMF” is the first track, musically, on “Pale Green Ghosts” that could have comfortably fit on this album’s predecessor. “Vietnam”, the sound of a man battling against his (ex?) partner’s unforgiving silence, has a musically hollow verse but the sumptuously melodic chorus, augmented by soothing strings, is like aural honey, sweet, soothing and completely contradictory to the pain expressed in the lyrics. The heartbreakingly beautiful “It Doesn’t Matter To Him” sees John pouring his sadness and frustration out into some gentle, dignified musings that anybody who has been involved in a painful break-up will understand and empathise with. The instrumental epilogue of the track is dreamy and gorgeous; an exquisite end to an emotive piece. “Why Don’t You Love Me Anymore” is less likeable, however, and is quite a bleak, angry synth-laden track that covers the same ground as the previous song, but with a little less restraint.

“You Don’t Have To”, with its slightly eighties sound simple synthesiser motif, is a wistful, tender reminiscence about a lost relationship with some amusingly biting, honest lyrics, whereas “Sensitive New Age Guy” is an up-tempo slice of electronica which, although has some interesting synth touches, is a bit less enjoyable than most of the other tracks. The sonically bleak “Ernest Borgnine” isn’t really to my taste, either, but the superb “I Hate This Town” (with a chorus almost borrowed from ABBA’s “Chiquitita”, according to Grant) truly raises the bar once more. It is almost as if the very best was saved for last on “Pale Green Ghosts”, as the last composition, “Glacier”, an intelligent, fierce rebuttal of homophobic slander and hatred is truly magnificent, featuring a sublime vocal performance by John and a classically-tinged piano and strings climax that is both beautiful and passionate in equal measure. Even if a lot of the album isn’t to your taste because of the electronic content, I would defy anyone who enjoyed “Queen Of Denmark” to listen to “Glacier” and not be blown away; it’s a moment of sheer genius on a creative, eclectic album that has so many more excellent tracks than not. It’s the track that forced me to re-listen to the album time and time again and to turn an, at first, uncomfortable listening experience into something that is now one of my favourite records of 2013. I imagine “Pale Green Ghosts” isn’t for everybody and it very nearly wasn’t for me, but a willingness to absorb the new direction and a little perseverance could mean that it slowly turns into one of your favourites of the year too.

18.  The Leisure Society – Alone Aboard The Ark

Leisure Society Alone Aboard The Ark

I thoroughly enjoyed The Leisure Society’s debut “The Sleeper”, but the follow-up “Into The Murky Water” didn’t quite hit the same heights, so this third album is a very welcome release indeed, as it is excellent. It’s one of those albums that keeps the listener’s interest throughout, doesn’t contain any filler and has more than a handful of stand-out tracks that keep you coming back to the album again and again. It is actually quite difficult to categorise the type of music that The Leisure Society produce. I would hesitate to call it “pop” of any description because it’s the type of music that, whilst it could easily make the playlist of a station like Radio 2, simply wouldn’t trouble the singles chart. You couldn’t call it “easy listening” either (although it is certainly very gentle on the ear) because it is miles away from the likes of Michael Buble (thankfully!). They remind me of Belle and Sebastian without the lofty tweeness, or, perhaps, The Beautiful South without the pithy lyrics. Some songs remind me of Noah and the Whale’s later material (“Fight For Everyone”, for example), only much better, but their eclectic nature in terms of instrumentation and arrangements are one of their strengths and the fact that it is so difficult to categorise the music can only be a good thing.

Although this is an excellent album overall, my favourite tracks on “Alone Aboard The Ark” are plentiful. “Tearing The Arches Down” (although it reminds me a little of Queen’s “Drowse”) is absolutely superb, disjointed guitar solo and all, “All I Have Seen”, is a dreamy little waltz-time gem, with a beautiful string section, a melody-line reminiscent of The Housemartins and a gorgeous climax to the track and “Everyone Understands” is a jaunty number that could easily have come from the pen of Neil Hannon. Echoes of The Divine Comedy can also be heard on the excellent “One Man and His Fug”, a catchy baroque pop delight, the dramatic “Forever Shall We Wait”, with a slight Latin lilt almost sounds like a piece from a musical and the wonderfully hazy “We Go Together” is a perfect end-of-the-evening anthem, complete with a lovely vocal theme to sing along to. Recorded in Konk studio in London, thanks to their friendship with Ray Davies, they have managed to release an album just as strong as their brilliant début which is beautifully arranged and performed, features Nick Hemming’s wonderfully crafted songwriting throughout and is a rather pleasurable experience from start to finish. If the lyrics has just a little bit more of an edge to them, they’d probably become one of my favourite bands, but, quite honestly, they’re rather good as they are and I’d recommend this one highly.

17.  Duckworth Lewis Method – Sticky Wickets

Duckworth Lewis Method Sticky Wickets

When I reviewed The Duckworth Lewis Method’s “début” album, I theorised, quite confidently, that, surely, it would be a one off. After all, how much mileage is there in a group specialising in songs about cricket? Turns out there’s enough inspiration for at least two albums from The Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon and Pugwash’s Thomas Walsh to indulge and fuse their love of the sport and classic pop/rock. Their new album “Sticky Wickets” (originally conceived to have an album cover lampooning The Rolling Stones’ “Sticky Fingers” which would have been great) is a smashing helping of fun and, although it doesn’t match up to Hannon’s main body of work, it’s still a thoroughly enjoyable piece of entertainment and there are a few choice tracks which make this a more than worthwhile purchase and will appeal to the vast majority of fans of both of the main players. The inclusion of Crowded House’s Nick Seymour on bass as well as a plethora of special guests including Stephen Fry (on “Judd’s Paradox”), Daniel Radcliffe (on “The Third Man”), Henry Blofield (on “It’s Just Not Cricket”), Matt Berry (on “Mystery Man”) and more famous names than you can shake a cricket bat at on “Nudging and Nurdling” make this a star-studded affair.

The first highlight is the catchy “Boom Boom Afridi” which has a chorus that sticks in your mind way after the album is over. “It’s Just Not Cricket”, a song about fair play, is certainly one of the best songs on the album and “The Umpire”, a beautiful piece of music about the lonely world of being one of the game’s law-upholders, is perhaps the most Divine Comedy-like track on this release and could easily have come from any of Neil’s last few albums. The seriously excellent “Third Man” tells the story of the fumbler who gets stuck in that position, dreaming the game away and features some inspired, jaunty strings (all arranged by Hannon). There is even a near-disco pop song, “Line and Length”, boasting heavy beats, scratching and eighties synth sounds which is many times more hook-laden and enjoyable than it really should be. “Mystery Man” is a brilliantly catchy, bouncy, insanely good song which should put a smile on the faces of most listeners and “Nudging and Nurdling” is one of those songs that refuses to leave your brain, even when you want it to.

Much has been made of Duckworth Lewis Method’s love of The Electric Light Orchestra and, given some of the write-ups I’ve seen, you’d be forgiven for putting the album on and expecting to hear something straight from the pen of Jeff Lynne, however, if that was what you were expecting, you would be disappointed (or relieved, depending on your opinion on the bearded one). There are moments where you can tell that they’ve paid homage to Lynne’s music and production style, but this album has an individual, distinctive character to it and the wide range of styles and genres of music on display here, as well as the great creative minds of both Hannon and Walsh, mean that if you want to hear “Out Of The Blue”, you should go and play that, rather than hoping for a “Concerto For A Rainy Day” on “Sticky Wickets”… derivative, this isn’t.

So, is it as good as the first Duckworth Lewis Method album? Well, not quite, but that was always going to be a tall order. However, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t a seriously good album, tremendous fun and a really accomplished piece of masterful musicianship which only becomes apparent the more you listen to it; fine purveyors of melody Walsh and Hannon make writing classic compositions and arrangements sound easy, just as the very best batsmen make the game appear easy to play. Much of it is very easy on the ear indeed, is delightfully whimsical and should be immensely pleasurable to existing fans, even if it may not win them any new ones (apart from within the cricketing fraternity, perhaps?). All-in-all, The Duckworth Lewis Method’s “Sticky Wickets” is a superb summery sporting soundtrack (which you can enjoy immensely without even liking cricket) and a more than worthy companion piece to their 2009 self-titled début. Worth the gamble, I’d say.

16.  Sting – The Last Ship

Sting The Last Ship

Anyone who approaches this album wanting something similar to The Police or Sting at his most mainstream should probably stop looking at this item now and go and replay their favourite albums instead. However, if you are open minded for something different from Sting (and let’s face it, the last few albums have all been “something different” and I would forgive anyone for losing patience with Mr. Sumner) and have a liking for either folk or theatrical music, then you may find much to please you here. “The Last Ship”, for me, is the best piece of work that Sting has released for a couple of decades. It is very much a concept album, based on the Tyneside shipbuilding industry and the characters who populated it. Musically, it’s generally quite a gentle album, but exceedingly rich with melody, interesting arrangements and instrumentation. Lyrically, it’s outstanding; each track is musical storytelling at its finest and it’s intelligent enough to give the listener food for thought yet accessible enough to recognise and empathise with the songs that tug at the emotional heartstrings for differing reasons.

Nearly everything on “The Last Ship” is superb and there are only one or two tracks which took me a few listens to be convinced of their charm. Nearly everything else was almost instantly likeable and my love for these eclectic collection of songs grew each time I listened to the album. There are many songs here that I would count amongst my personal favourites. “Practical Arrangement”, for example, is probably the best song that Sting has written for many years. The powerfully emotive title track is superb (as well as the reprise), “August Winds” has a beautiful subtlety and “Ballad Of The Great Eastern” is folk storytelling par excellence. “I Love Her But She Loves Someone Else” is absolutely gorgeous and Sting is in particularly fine voice on this track, but it has to be said that he gives an absolutely excellent performance on each very different track. The special guests (Jimmy Nail, Brian Johnson, Jo Lawry and Becky Unthank) also work very well indeed on their respective songs and give the album the characteristic of having a rather versatile supporting cast of players.

I admit that this isn’t going to be for everybody and it’s the kind of work that polarises the listener – it’s probably going to be either a love or hate reaction when you hear it. For me, it’s a very genuine love for this heartfelt tribute to Sting’s native North-East of England. I bought the deluxe version of the album which, for a little extra money, gets you an additional CD with eight more tracks, some of them different versions of songs from the album featuring other artists, some of them completely new songs; all of them are excellent (well, “Jock The Singing Welder” perhaps isn’t quite as good as the others, maybe the only “ouch” moment on both discs) and are well worth the higher price you pay for the second disc. All-in-all, this is one of the most remarkable albums I have heard all year and I admire Sting greatly for having the courage to write and release something as different and unconventional as this; even if this isn’t quite to your taste, it is difficult to ignore the creativity and artistry behind this project. It could have easily backfired and given his critics further ammunition, but I’m of the opinion that this is actually one of the best things he has ever put his name to and is certainly my favourite Sting album since the underrated “Mercury Falling” from way back in 1996.

15.  Jake Bugg – Shangri-La

Jake Bugg Shangri-La

When an artist has such a strong and popular début, there is always a weight of expectation placed on them that makes a second album a daunting prospect. It was, therefore, a little surprising that Jake Bugg was following up last year’s breakthrough hit with another album so soon, although that fact that respected and talented producer Rick Rubin was at the helm of the project suggested that it probably wasn’t going to be terrible. However, the biggest surprise is that “Shangri La” (named after the studio it was recorded in), in my opinion, is arguably a better album than its predecessor; the eponymous début showed the raw promise of the artist, whereas “Shangri La” delivers on that promise. Bugg and co-writers Iain Archer and ex-Raconteur Brendan Benson (and guitarist Matt Sweeney on “Simple Pleasures”) have penned a very strong set of songs for this release and the excellent band, including Elvis Costello’s drummer, Pete Thomas, and Red Hot Chilli Peppers’ Chad Smith, truly do justice to the compositions with some very powerful performances. You could be forgiven for thinking that this album is simply more of the same from Bugg, given the album opener, “There’s A Beast And We All Feed It”, but when you get to track two things start to sound a little different and that’s when the truly outstanding material begins.

“Slumville Sunrise” is absolutely fantastic, an upbeat indie stomping monster of a track with a blistering guitar solo. “What Doesn’t Kill You” is also excellent, a fast-paced piece which gets the adrenaline pumping whilst it is followed by a track which is its polar opposite, “Me and You”, a gentle country-influenced composition which features a nice picked acoustic guitar line and a lovely soaring chorus. The influence of Brendan Benson, an artist and songwriter I greatly admire and enjoy listening to immensely, is apparent on the great “Messed Up Kids”, which is an irresistible helping of indie-pop. “A Song About Love” is perhaps one of the best tracks that Bugg has put his name to and showcases a superb, heartfelt vocal performance which surely could invoke an emotional response in even the most cynical heart. The slightly dark “All Your Reasons” is one of the slow-burners on the album but is a fine example of the growing maturity of Jake’s writing, whereas the almost instantly familiar and likeable “Kingpin”, a two-and-a-half-minute burst of pure energy hits you square in the face the very first time you hear it. “Simple Pleasures” is my last pick of the album, which has the feel of a rock track from the seventies and just oozes class, as does this entire release.

In my opinion, why “Shangri La” is such a triumph is partly because all of the ingredients that made Jake’s first album so enjoyable are still all present and correct here, but they have also been added to in order to make an album which has a little more depth and texture. The sound is fuller, the songs a little more ambitious, the writing is slightly more mature and the appeal of much of the material a lot more universal. The quirkiness of Bugg’s style and delivery hasn’t been compromised at all, but having Rubin as producer and by surrounding himself with great talents such as Benson, Smith and Thomas, their experience and know-how have helped Jake make an album that will please all of his old fans, win himself plenty of new admirers and, simply put, more people will enjoy. Not only is this, in my opinion, Bugg’s finest achievement to date (and let’s not forget – he’s still just nineteen years old), it is also one of the best albums released this year and deserves much critical acclaim and commercial success.

14.  Eels – Wonderful, Glorious

Eels Wonderful Glorious

I have loved Eels ever since “Beautiful Freak” burst onto the music scene in the mid-90s and completely changed my musical world. I’ve been buying every release by them since then and there have been very few disappointments, thanks to Mark ‘E’ Everett’s fantastic songwriting and his high artistic standards. Eels albums tend to be a cut above most other albums released and “Wonderful, Glorious”, their 10th studio album, is no exception. This is quite a heavy blues-rock dominated album and has more of a band feel to it, rather than simply being a vehicle for what can sometimes seems like an Everett solo project and, as such, there are plenty of band co-writes for the tracks. I find this quite an exciting record, most of the tracks get the adrenaline pumping and it’s perfect for listening to get you all set for a night out or just to get the household chores done to. Of course, it wouldn’t be an Eels album without a few dark tales of pathos and there just enough stories of hurt and woe to satisfy those who crave E’s trademark bittersweet balladry.

More than half of the tracks on offer here are absolutely top-quality. Thumping tom-toms announce this album’s rocking intent and the fuzzy, scratchy “Bombs Away” kicks off the music in a slightly low-key, menacing way. “Kinda Fuzzy” has a few great riffs and a superb groove, “Peach Blossom” is surely one of the best Eels tracks ever, despite it’s relative simplicity, boasting a formidable, powerful riff, thundering drums and a catchy vocal hook and the emotive “The Turnaround” has a brilliant refrain that builds to a smouldering climax. The pounding “Stick Together” is a marvellous aural assault, “True Original” is absolutely gorgeous, a magnificent composition on the same level as “That Look You Give That Guy” (from “Hombre Lobo”) and “Open My Present” is a mighty riff-driven moody blue-rock monster. “You’re My Friend”, a tribute to a particular friendship, really is quite a genuinely sweet song, without falling into the trap of over-sentimentality, the delicately beautiful “I Am Building A Shrine” is the track most like the early Eels sound on this album and the stellar title track, “Wonderful, Glorious”, ends the album with an accomplished string-laden flourish, almost saving the best until last.

To surmise, this is a great album. The bonus disc on the deluxe edition is great value and very much worth having, with some good, exclusive studio songs and eight great live tracks. It is perhaps not the greatest Eels album ever made (there are a handful of albums which have a more worthy claim to that title), but it really is an excellent, thoroughly enjoyable piece of work (and enjoyable isn’t something you can always say about an Eels album) that probably just squeezes into my top five releases by Everett and his band. I’d confidently say that it’s Eels’ best album since the incredible “Blinking Lights and Other Revelations”. I suppose that, at this stage of their career, they’re not likely to win many new fans because it’s not exactly news that a long-established artist has released yet another excellent record, but this is so much better than the vast majority of albums released this year. Not as exciting as a brand new, talented artist with unknown potential, of course, but much more satisfying and accomplished than most of the younger “big names” that dominate the album charts. This really does exactly what it says on the tin… “Wonderful, Glorious”, indeed!

13.  Caitlin Rose – The Stand-In

Caitlin Rose The Stand In

As far as pleasurable albums go, you won’t find many more albums released this year that will enrapture you as much as Caitlin Rose’s second full studio album does. This magical mixture of country and rock, all with Rose’s pretty, pure voice holding it together is good old-fashioned songwriting with masterful arrangements and perfectly judged instrumentation to give these tracks a timeless, classic feel. With the pedal steel guitars and her Nashville born-and-bred sweet country voice, you could forgive those who don’t care for country music to give this a wide berth, but this is a country influenced album that even people who don’t like country music will like. There are some tracks that sound a bit like they could have been sung by Patsy Cline, whereas other songs have more of a Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers flavour. It is an eclectic enough album to please people who love various genres – pop, folk, country, rock; “The Stand-In” has a near-universal appeal, touching on elements of those genres without ever getting in deep enough to alienate any listener who deeply dislikes any one of them. Simply put, this is a classic singer-songwriter album packed full of superb compositions, produced impeccably by Jordan Lehning, Skylar Wilson and Caitlin herself and, most importantly of all, all sung beautifully by the immensely talented Rose.

The album starts enjoyably enough, with the upbeat, inoffensive, full sound of “No One To Call” and the sweet, country-tinged “I Was Cruel” and you could forgive a first time listener for thinking this album was nothing particularly special at that point. However, after those perfectly pleasant opening two songs, it gets so very much better. “Waiting”, a superior country-rock composition, is one of my favourite tracks on the album, is superb, uplifting and catchy as hell. The high quality continues with “Only A Clown”, a chiming, jangly rock-pop song with a satisfying, almost Jeff Lynne style, snare drum sound and is followed by the beauteous, emotive “Pink Champagne”. The lovely “Dallas” is a big, expansive ballad, which sounds a little like those country-tinted Billy Joel compositions from his “Piano Man” and “Streetlife Serenader” albums, if they were delivered by a Nashville, sweet-voiced songbird, of course, whereas the lush “Golden Boy” sounds like the greatest Richard Hawley song he never wrote. The swelling, passionate “Everywhere I Go” finds strength in its subtlety and the George Harrison-esque guitar on the foot-tapping, hook-laden “Silver Sings” gives the excellent track a bit of a Travelling Wilburys feel. For my last pick of the album, we forward to the final song, past a couple of nice but unremarkable tracks, to the hazy, jazz-influenced “Old Numbers”, a sultry piece you could almost imagine her performing in a smoky cabaret somewhere, complete with irresistible mute trumpet solo.

I cannot recommend this album highly enough and cannot imagine anyone not loving this album, unless they exclusively listen to techno, death metal or some other extreme, ear-bleeding genre. “The Stand-In” is head and shoulders above your typical female solo artist fayre, Rose’s music has integrity, heart, soul and a superb cast of musicians to bring these songs to life. At just twenty-five years old when this was released, this mature, beautifully accomplished piece of work is just a couple of songs short of perfect, but with this amount of raw talent, the amazing instrument that is her voice and her impressive songwriting skill, the better songs (and they’re in the majority) already make this one of the very best albums of 2013. Her other album (“Own Side Now”) and E.P. (“Dead Flowers”) are also well worth checking out as they are, arguably, just as good as this one – I think the album certainly is, anyway. Although I haven’t finished enjoying this one, I will be looking eagerly forward to Caitlin’s next release, because this talented young artist has a very bright future indeed.

12.  Pearl Jam – Lightning Bolt

Pearl Jam Lightning Bolt

I am a first generation Pearl Jam fan. I was sixteen years old when “Ten” was released and they, together with Nirvana, Metallica, Guns ‘n’ Roses and Extreme, provided the soundtrack to my 1991, probably the first year in my life I actually started to pay attention to new music. Although I loved “Vs.” almost as much as their first album, other albums after that didn’t quite all hit the spot for me and Pearl Jam albums, over the years, have been hit and miss, although they nearly always have at least one or two worthy songs on each release. Still, I think it is fair to say that my love for Pearl Jam had seriously faded over the years, although a new album by the band is always of interest. I had already started to hear some positive noises about their tenth album, “Lightning Bolt” before its release, so I was expecting quite a good album when I first played it. On first listen, I was slightly nonplussed; it sounded fairly decent, but nothing special. On the second and third plays, some songs started to stand out and the album, as a whole, began to have a quality feel about it. After that, each time I have played “Lightning Bolt”, I have pretty much loved the vast majority of it and it’s now, to me, the best thing they have released since “Vs.”, back in 1993. Yes, it takes a bit of time to get to know, but when you do, what a brilliant piece of work it really is.

Although not every single track is musical gold, the vast majority of the songs on this album are superb. The punky “Mind Your Manners”, although slightly similar to “Spin The Black Circle” from 1994’s “Vitalogy”, provides an early highlight and the angry, throbbing rock of “My Father’s Son” keeps the impetus going. “Sirens” is the first softer, melodic piece on the album, but definitely doesn’t lack power, featuring an emotive guitar solo and wonderful vocal from Vedder; it’s really beautiful music. “Infallible” is one of my personal favourites from the album (even if the chorus reminds me a little of Crowded House’s “Pour Le Monde”), utilising the trick of having a minor key, bluesy verse and then a deeply melodic major key chorus perfectly. With its acoustic guitar riff, the utterly magnificent “Swallowed Whole” almost has an R.E.M. vibe to it and is a very strong challenger for best song on the whole album, as is the dark grooves and catchy chorus of “Let The Records Play”. The charming, likeable “Sleeping With Myself” is my last pick from the record, with its ukulele and near-folky, bouncy feel, it’s only the chiming, shimmering guitars that remind you that it’s a Pearl Jam track. The album finishes with a couple of perfectly lovely songs, “Yellow Moon”, which sounds like a number of other Pearl Jam songs, and the gentle, almost hymnal “Future Days”; not quite my favourite tracks from this release, but they’re more than listenable and the latter, especially, has really grown on me.

Quite honestly, I love this album and “Lightning Bolt” has definitely rekindled my love of Pearl Jam. I saw them at the Isle Of Wight festival in 2012, before abandoning their set not even halfway through in favour of The Charlatans. If they were there next year and were playing the majority of this album, I really couldn’t see myself doing that now. They’ve always been a very good band, but I’ve been waiting a long time for an album from them to rival their first two releases, in terms of enjoyment and quality; with “Lightning Bolt”, it has finally happened. In fact, enjoyment is the key word here – I can’t remember a Pearl Jam album that I’ve actually truly enjoyed this much for such a long time. These songs make me grin, they make me want to punch the air in time with them… hell, they even make me want to dance and I just don’t do dancing (not when anybody is watching, anyway). Big fans of Pearl Jam will already have this album but I’d urge those who have fallen by the wayside over the years and have almost given up on hearing something truly special ever again from Eddie, Mike, Stone, Matt and Jeff to give this one a go, because it really is one of the best pieces of work they’ve ever put their name to.

11.  Steven Wilson – The Raven That Refused To Sing (and other stories)

Steven Wilson The Raven

This is an absolutely incredible piece of work. Seriously, it’s approaching genius level composition, arrangement and musicianship and has brought a much maligned genre (unfairly, in my opinion), prog rock, kicking and screaming into the 21st century. You can clearly hear the influences on this record, namely Pink Floyd, Yes, Rush, Camel, King Crimson, Jethro Tull and, naturally, Alan Parsons who is the engineer on “The Raven That Refused To Sing”. With this album, prolific Porcupine Tree frontman Steven Wilson has surpassed any previous work he has been involved with, either solo or with his band, and has made a beautifully complex, artistic record that would be hailed as a classic in any pretty much any year since the late sixties. This isn’t hyperbole; I own too many albums to be this impressed without good reason and don’t bandy the word “genius” around without there being justification for such a high accolade, but Wilson and this tremendous project deserve all the superlatives thrown at them.

Unfortunately, this isn’t an album I could write about easily without going massively in depth and I don’t have the spare time or inclination to write an essay about the choice of instrumentation, the specific influences on certain tracks, the time signature changes, the stellar performances all of the musicians give, the rich textures and dynamics or the deliberately dark, heavy and slightly opaque lyrics, but, if I had the time, it’s the kind of album I could enthuse about and analyse extensively. I will simply say that, from the moment it begins to the final notes, this is intelligent, emotive, creative, mind-blowing music at its absolute finest. I would recommend this without question to anybody who loves progressive rock, but would urge any lover of rock, jazz or classical to listen to this at least once, because this record has a depth and integrity that defies pigeon-holing it into any one specific genre. Just listen, that’s all I ask.

Please stay tuned for the final ten albums I consider to be the best releases of the year. Coming very soon!

20 Amazing Music Facts That Will Amaze You!

  1. It’s a common myth that Bob Holness played saxophone on Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street”. The original saxophonist was, of course, then session musician Prince. However, the Blockbusters host did play the clarinet on Chas ‘n’ Dave’s “Snooker Loopy”!
  2. Metallica’s Lars Ulrich is an avid collector of all things Chris De Burgh.  He once paid a massive $32.50 on eBay for the original handwritten lyrics of “Don’t Pay The Ferryman” and often wears the white suit Chris De Burgh wore in the video of “Lady In Red” whilst wandering around his castle in Rotherham.
  3. Yoko Ono literally means “farting fish” in Japanese!
  4. Bono and The Edge originally met in a Dublin queue to buy tickets for a Supertramp concert.  Bono said, “I love Supertramp, I do.”  The Edge replied, “Really, you too?”  Bono liked the phrase “You too?” so much, he decided to form a new band right there and then, shortening it to “U2”.  At that point, no member of the band could even play an instrument!
  5. Formed ELO frontman Jeff Lynne is addicted to Pickled Onion Monster Munch.  It’s not available in Los Angeles, so he pays for weekly shipments from the factory in Leicester direct to his California mansion.  His musical pal Tom Petty has to wear a nose peg when he visits Jeff, as he can’t stand the stink of the niffy fried corn snack!
  6. Luther Vandross’ real name was Eric Bristow, but he had to change it because there was a professional darts player of the same name.  They met to decide who had to change their name to Luther Vandross, but after Eric threatened to bottle the soul legend, Luther agreed that it would be him.  The pair never forgot their rivalry and once, when Eric was playing a very important darts match, Luther got very drunk on Diamond White and heckled him all throughout the match.  Eric had the last laugh, however, because he won that match comfortably.
  7. 12-bar legends Francis Rossi and Rick Parfitt of Status Quo once joined Bucks Fizz for a gang bang directly after their Eurovision triumph.  When Francis asked Rick which girl he was going to have sexual intercourse with first, he said that he was “Making His Mind Up”. Francis laughed so hard that his nose fell off and then Rick had a heart attack before he could do anything saucy to either of them.  It was after this incident that they both became teetotal, born-again Christians. Bucks Fizz, however, still battle their hard drug addictions.
  8. Most people don’t know that Slade’s Noddy Holder is actually royalty and lies 12th in line to the British throne.  His real title is Duke Noddington of Holder and is The Queen’s first cousin.  He was actually born and bred in Berkshire, but affects a Wolverhampton accent to further his rock and roll career.
  9. Crowded House rock star Neil Finn keeps dozens of fully grown pet crocodiles in his twelve bedroom bungalow near Bath to make him feel like he’s back down under.  He recently had a scrape with the law when one of them escaped and ate the postman.  The antipodean singer got a fine of £100 and was warned not to let his feisty reptiles eat postmen again otherwise the fine would be doubled.
  10. Parents in the 1980s would have been very surprised to learn who was under the Paul Daniels creation “Wizbit”’s costume.  The production staff were sworn to secrecy, but it was none other than grumpy Irish rock and soul sensation, Van Morrison.  He even penned the catchy theme tune to the show – “Ha ha this-away, ha ha that-away, ha ha the other way, my oh my”. The royalties for this song alone earned him more money than all of his other songs put together!
  11. Although blaming ill health, Phil Collins has actually given up his career in music to become a school caretaker.  Although he has asked all his friends in the music business to keep it a secret, he can be regularly found spreading sawdust on lumpy schoolboy vomit in a state-run Primary school in Nuneaton. “Beats playing the drums for a living”, he sniffed, before running off to tell a bunch of kids to get the hell off his lovingly-kept flowerbeds.
  12. Joan Armatrading invented Jeggings.  The once popular “Love & Affection” soul singer was watching her grandchildren run around in jeans and had a brainwave that they would be much more comfortable in trousers that looked like jeans but were softer and more flexible, like leggings. One phone call to her niece, Tasmin Archer, who works as Head Of New Clothes in Primark and her invention was on the shop floor within a week.  She has been able to retire to Bournemouth on the royalties and has vowed never to sing again.
  13. Bob Dylan has actually been dead for years.  His fourteen wives and seventy-three children cannot survive without his income so, every night, they find a tramp on the street and pay him to pretend to be Bob, so he can stand there drunk in front of the microphone mumbling incoherently while his backing band do all the work.  Thankfully, nobody can tell the difference. While he was alive, Bob made an album a week, so there is plenty in the archives to keep the impression of new releases going and his army of fans satisfied.
  14. Suede’s Brett Anderson is the world record holder for the number of Fox’s Glacier Mints held in his mouth at any one time.  In his 2011 world-beating attempt, he managed to cram sixty three of the transparent boiled sweets into his mouth, beating Sir Bob Geldof’s previous record of fifty-four. Bob complained, “It’s not fucking fair, they’re smaller than they used to be.  I’d like to see him do it back in nineteen-eighty-fucking-two like I did.”
  15. Craggy Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger claims that the secret of his youthful appearance yet being an octogenarian is sleeping nineteen hours a day.  Jagger will often snooze away the whole day, either in bed or his favourite rocking chair.  He only wakes to eat, use the bathroom, strut around like a chicken and fornicate.  Apart from that, he sleeps the day away.  “It’s true”, reported Stones drummer, Charlie Watts, “When we’re on tour, he’s a nightmare.  He only gets fifteen hours sleep a day and becomes really cranky.”
  16. Famous vegetarian Morrissey loves prawns.  He eats them all day long and won’t accept that he’s doing anything wrong.  When it is pointed out to him that a prawn is an animal, he pouts and tells them that they’re wrong, it’s a vegetable, and that he’s never seen a prawn in a field.  When they attempt to explain further, he puts his hands of his ears and shouts, “La la la la! I’m not listening, I’m not listening! La la la la la!”.
  17. Elton John’s hair is fashioned from the pubic hair of over a thousand Swedish virgins.  It cost him over three million pounds and is personally transplanted into his scalp by artist Damien Hirst.
  18. Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker suffers from a rare medical affliction which means that whenever he sneezes, he has an orgasm.  The young Cocker, son of Sheffield singer Joe, used to sit in class plucking out his nose hairs to make himself sneeze, until he was sent out of class, squirming with ecstasy.  He wrote most of his best known songs in that school corridor, including the smash hit, “Help The Aged”.
  19. Brian Epstein, the manager of The Beatles, is alive, well and living in Scarborough.  Racked with the guilt of discovering that he was actually heterosexual, he asked The Fab Four to announce his death so that he could marry his sweetheart, rotund Carry On actress Hattie Jacques, and moved to the seaside Yorkshire town to live a quiet life and to father six children.  McCartney sang about Scarborough in his 1979 single, “Old Siam, Sir”.  This was a secret reference to spending a happy week there, every year, in the summer holidays with his old friend and manager and their respective families.
  20. One Direction are the world’s first successful animatronic android band.  Programmed to be irresistible to foolish, impressionable teenage girls but incredibly annoying to everybody else, One Direction have become the perfect pop band for evil mastermind Simon Cowell, because he can get them to do whatever he likes and doesn’t even have to pay them.  Earlier attempts to form a robotic band failed because each member of Sugababes kept on exploding, with hastily assembled replacements losing them fans each time.