Acoustic Rick James Style to The Jello Fund (Best of 2023)

Second of three end-of-year/new year wrap-ups with a bit of housekeeping to get the A-Z posts bang up to date, mixed in with the traditional best of… post.

It is rare that this blog and its subject matter have been in sync in recent times – one of the (many) reasons (excuses) for such sporadic activity.

Since returning from South America and then wading through the seemingly never-ending run of I tracks on the journey through my iPod – not to mention the almost as endless catch-up through A-I added in that time – have been playing catch up with blog posts.

It, admittedly, became a bit of a chore – especially when spending all day in front of a laptop at home post-lockdown and without the momentum built from either travelling or listening to the next tracks on this journey, bringing with them fresh ideas to drive things onward.

But as 2023 drew to a close, new home, new life and things began to line up again – the I tracks had been cleared, the catch up spanning several years had followed and J was a mere sprint.

Meaning all that was required to end the year up to date was a further catch up through the most recent arrivals.

That journey took us from one Lemonheads track to another courtesy of a 30th anniversary reissue of Come On Feel… which saw tracks dotted along the way.

They provided enough proof to remember why they could, and possibly should, have been the biggest band in the world. Mixed in with enough to remember exactly why they were not.

There were a few bits filling in gaps in my collection such as The Triffids, Ride, Husker Du – whose Zen Arcade did the job of checking downloads were working after a switch from the UK – and The National, despite being convinced the album containing Bloodbuzz Ohio (my favourite song of theirs) was already in my collection somewhere.

There was a taste of what is to come in 2024 from IDLES (along with LCD Soundsystem) but most of the catch-up consisted of those songs and tracks contending for a place in the Travel Marmot Best of 2023 list.

The fight for album of the year has been a three-way fight for a while – one which topped many end-of-year lists, one which popped up occasionally and a third which was barely mentioned. Until now at least.

A few final listens cut that down to a two-horse race, the winner taking the verdict by a short head.

So here, only a few days late, is this year’s selection…

Album of the Year: The National – First Two Pages of Frankenstein

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UrfMXtA9oGg

It was a tight-run thing and may well change my mind – it has happened before. But a band once dismissed as another generic indie guitar band with The… in the name took the honours. Got that first impression badly wrong.

They came close to top spot a few years ago, but this just has too many really good songs to deprive them again. And there is something about the drumming on their songs which manages to both drive them on and keep them in check simultaneously, to say nothing of Matt Berninger’s delivery.

It is not perfect, it is a bit one-paced. Swap in a couple of tracks for some from Laugh Track, their second album of the year, and the victory would have been even clearer.

And like everything else in 2023, it had a bit of Taylor Swift. To say nothing of Phoebe Bridgers. Speaking of which…

Obligatory Phoebe Bridgers Entry of the Year: Boygenius – The Record

It has become a running joke that Phoebe Bridgers has to feature in each of these lists (even if it required a bit of cheating last year to shoehorn her in), but this is here purely on merit.

Do not fall into the typical image of a Boygenius fan, if reviews concentrating on the audience’s gender and sexuality at live performances are to be believed as the bandwagon gathered speed, but the songs are too good for pigeonholing.

Their debut EP, good as it was, smacked of solo work with the others supplying support. This appears as a collaborative effort by three singer-songwriters lifting each other.

Not Strong Enough was a genuine contender for track of the year.

Completing the Podium Album of the Year: The Murder Capital – Gigi’s Recovery

The other Irish guitar band have played second fiddle somewhat to their contemporaries Fontaines DC, but the slow burn which runs through their career and much of this album is coming close to ignition.

A friend seeing them live a while back reported the feeling of being present for “something important”. He may be right – their Glastonbury set was the highlight of what made it over to Australia.

Return to Form of the Year: Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit – Weathervanes

His last couple of albums have been far from bad. But, clad in a more Nashville country sheen, they had to contend with following the remarkable double whammy of Southeastern and Something More Than Free.

Weathervanes finds something of a middle ground, confirming Isbell’s place as one of the great contemporary storytellers (to say nothing of his singing and guitar playing).

Promising Late Discovery of the Year – Wednesday: Rat Saw Good

Otherwise known as the pick of the albums tried out because they kept appearing in end-of-year lists (pretty thin pickings, which says something about the reviews, the year in music or my hunger for new music as the years roll on – possibly all three).

Wednesday lived up to most of the recommendations, like Soccer Mommy fronting Porridge Radio or Camp Cope. With bonus points for name checking the Drive-By Truckers

Honourable mention to Mitski’s The Land Is Inhospitable And So Are We.

Where The Hell Did That Come From… of the Year: Slowdive – Everything Is Alive

Back in the days when my fingers got inky at least once a week with the ritual study of the NME, Slowdive were one of a slew of shoegazing bands in the one-time flavour of the month movement.

Fuzzy guitars should really have been right up my street, but for some reason never fully connected – even with my teenage propensity to gaze at my shoes through what passed for a fringe. Back in the days when it had a hope of making it down as far as my eyes.

Slowdive were not among the bands that really gripped me back then, so their second (or even their third) coming has been a truly pleasant surprise.

Maybe staring at your shoes is better with age and Ride’s Nowhere made a welcome return after initially buying it on vinyl (sadly, left behind – albeit to a good home with my stereo – in the UK).

New music from the original line-up of Drop Nineteens – much more on my radar and contributors to a teenage Winona obsession – came from even further out of left field and is worthy of further investigation.

Need to Spend More Time With/Old Dependable of the Year: Sufjan Stevens – Javelin

Keep being told it is his best for some time. And his best his sensational – several tracks contending for any Desert Island Discs list, even if they are about serial killers or losing someone to cancer.

It is good, just hasn’t really grabbed me yet – although some of his best stuff suddenly leaped out after repeated listens. So will be doing that. And time spent with Sufjan is never wasted.

Honourable mention to The Coral’s Sea of Mirrors.

It’s Good But… of the Year: The Clientele – I Am Not There Anymore

Had several people rave about the latest from a band who apparently have been going for more than 30 years but passed me by completely.

It’s… OK. In places, really good. Benefits from definitely not sounding like it came from anytime recently. Don’t quite get the praise some people lauded on it.

But then said that about The National for a long time

Well Worth Anyone’s Time of the Year…

Girl Ray – Prestige
Wilco – Cousin
Margo Price – Strays
The Hold Steady – Price of Progress
The Wedding Present – 24 Songs
Drive-By Truckers – The Complete Dirty South
The Gaslight Anthem – History Books
Teenage Fanclub – Nothing Lasts Forever

Track of the Year – The National: New Order T-Shirt

It could have been Not Strong Enough and another title for Phoebe Bridgers, it could just as easily have been a couple of contenders from The Murder Capital. Or from Jason Isbell, King of Oklahoma was definitely in the running.

It might even have been Eucalyptus, another song by The National.

But from pretty much first hearing, Matt Berninger’s tale of keeping memories of an old flame alive (“I keep what I can of you”) through an item of clothing has been leading the race for this accolade.

Replace a T-shirt – and sort of want one of the charity ones they made to go with it – with songs and that was one of the inspirations for this entire musical journey.

Share

A-Men to Into the Groovey

NEW country, new home, new job, new pet and all the stuff which goes with them – surely there has been something to write about in the return of the blog?

To say nothing of an impending wedding and, as this is supposed to be a blog about the A-Z journey through my iPod, ticking off another landmark.

One that has been a long time coming – something you could say about all of the above.

This blog post, in keeping with so many of its predecessors, has appeared on the to-do list numerous times only to be bumped off by something a bit more integral to moving across the world.

But gradually that scarily long list of things which needed doing before and after moving to Australia has been whittled away to nothing – well, almost – and even the wedding list is all but ticked off (bar the last couple of jobs and the vows which should be writing instead of this).

Thankfully, a couple of the big items on the list were ticked off before leaving Gloucester – not only was somebody waiting for me at the end of the flight to Sydney, she came complete with somewhere to live.

And a cat – possibly more of a culture shock for an avowed dog person than the kangaroos which accompany the after-work walk (of which more next time).

That is our cat, apparently. Apart from when she noisily lets us know she wants breakfast before 4am, when she very much becomes Lisa’s cat. Not that she does that if the person who has agreed to look after her while we are on honeymoon is reading.

Work was probably the biggest worry about the move – not being able to find anything suitable was far more of a concern than actually making such a big leap in life.

But things fell into place remarkably quickly and smoothly.

One of the first people who was told my visa had come through and the move was about to happen instantly sent a link to a job he had seen.

One application and an interview before work at 7am (arranged out of habit as most applicants were already in Australia) later and employment was sorted before my flat was packed up.

Still reckon it was recognising a Strictly… dancer in a quick picture test of my news knowledge which clinched it. Even with the admission it was only because he had been a guest on House of Games the previous week.

Sure that carried far more weight than spotting Mark Harper lurking in the background of a group of front benchers in the Commons.

Meur ras for the lead, as they apparently say in Cornish, to the regular blog reader for the tip.

And for any former journalist colleagues back home who have noticed and wondered – a couple have asked – that is my byline popping up on the wire and various publications on a wide variety of PA Media stories (the news agency which most UK publications use).

Be it news (some interesting people – or at least their press officers – have been chased late at night and are filling the growing contacts Google Doc), sport – which really rolls back the years – subbing, raiding the overseas wires or the first tentative steps into editing video clips, our spare room has become a little PA news bureau.

As the London office winds down overnight, our Australian team takes over.

Which means the spare room is operating in its own time zone as it sticks on UK time, something which took a bit of getting used to, especially having just moved to a completely new time zone – we start at 11pm in London, which went from 10am in Canberra to 9am and then 8am in my first three weeks courtesy of clocks changing and sparking a weird form of work-related jet lag.

So have settled into a new job, home (complete with newly constructed bed which brought accompanying blisters from a screwdriver and wooden map of the world on the wall of the front room which means we will struggle to move without a replastering job) and country (with plenty more plans to explore after one weekend in Sydney and various ventures out closer to home).

And most of those jobs – bank, pensions, driving licence etc – are ticked off that list, bar those like the next stage of the visa which have had to wait until after the wedding.

Ah yes, the wedding.

It is a small affair as close to eloping as it possible to do so without just heading off and not telling anyone.

The ceremony will happen in a garden overlooking a beach on an island off the coast of Queensland, which should at least bring some welcome relief from a Canberra winter (sunny and pleasant in the day, often down below freezing at night), especially as it came on the back of the British equivalent.

Think we are as excited at the prospect of a couple of weeks off which will take in a Women’s World Cup match during a few days in Brisbane (possibly England v Australia, which post-Ashes would provide another early test to the marriage, but potentially neither), a visit to Cairns before heading to the island and a few days in Port Douglas capped with a boat trip out to the Great Barrier Reef.

Vows, the details of the ceremony and sorting a cake apart, one of the few remaining jobs is sorting any music for the ceremony.

Where we have drawn a blank. Musical tastes do not cross over that much – Ever South by The Drive-By Truckers is about as close we have to “our tune” – and most of my suggestions have been brushed off as too miserable for a wedding. Or too “shouty”.

Certainly don’t think there have been too many options from the latest chunk of the A-Z journey through my iPod, which was the catch-up of the tracks added from A-I while that adventure was stuck in the I tracks.

As that section lasted several years, an overland adventure, three continents, four jobs, as many homes, a pandemic and a couple of iPods, it easily topped 600 tracks and needed another catch-up before we were finally up to date to start out on J (a much shorter chunk which is halfway done already).

The concentrated trek from Goat Girl to Ciccone Youth’s Madonna cover included many artists we have touched on over the last few years, several of which have released more than one album in that time and appeared in the end-of-year lists.

There were plenty of familiar favourites (Wet Leg, Taylor Swift, Michael Head, The Murder Capital, Idles and Fontaines DC – a total wedding, or even car, no-no apparently who managed to put out two albums in the time covered by the catch-up) alongside stuff which has made less of an impression since being added to my library.

There has been older stuff filling holes on the iPod – not sure how the The Go-Betweens’ original of Cattle and Cane was not there earlier, although it dates back to the early days of the journey through I.

The Soup Dragons and Ciccone Youth were added in a bid to recreate an old mid-80s C90 – only missing America and Me by The Red Guitars – while a deeper dive into John Prine’s back catalogue followed his untimely loss in the early days of the pandemic and added the original (and Jason Isbell’s version) to the 10,000 Maniacs version of Hello in There.

And welcome discoveries (Bonny Light Horsemen) were joined by some new arrivals – The National, Boygenius and The Murder Capital (again) making strong plays for this year’s best-of lists.

Often as the soundtrack for watching kangaroos.

Share

Best of 2018

JANUARY is far closer than intended and the days are running out before the ice rink and the (still) disturbing green goblin vanish from outside my flat.

So time for another couple of traditions for this time of year – this blog’s end-of-year best album post and the excuses for not posting it earlier.

The New Year’s Day state of the nation post will complete the trinity of Travel Marmot traditions (hopefully without being delayed far longer into 2019 than was intended, one annual favourite that needs avoiding).

The excuse for tardiness was pretty simple and frustrating – especially as most of this best of 2018 list and the appropriate links were sorted a couple of weeks ago. The normal download bonanza after scouring various end of year lists was delayed by a laptop constantly grinding to a standstill, so a few of the late entries may yet move further up the list. Or vanish altogether.

So what do we make of 2018? Seen a couple of reviews claim it had been a year packed full of great albums, but not sure about that.

There has been a lot of good albums, just not sure there has been too many approaching great status. How many will still be on regular rotation in a year’s time or longer?

And there is not one standout – for the first time since doing this on Travel Marmot, there’s not one clear winner (the 2016 list did not pick an album of year, but American Band by Drive-By Truckers emerged as the unrivalled number one.

So it’s a top two. Neither of them reinvent the wheel – one essentially a jingly-jangly indie guitar offering, the other best classified as punk – but both do them with a lightness of touch and reliance on bloody good songs. And there’s not much wrong with that.

Albums of the Year

Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever – Hope Downs

The Melbourne five-piece rely on a pretty simple template – solid, if fairly unwavering, rhythm section over which three guitarists/vocalists weave any number of patterns that head off in any number of directions but always seem to complement each other.

A debut album – albeit one that has had a fairly lengthy gestation – crammed full of cracking songs, An Air Conditioned Man, Mainland, Time In Common and the summery Cappuccino City among others.

Idles – Joy as an Act of Resistance

Rolling Blackouts had top spot tied up for much of the year but the argument for Idles just became too strong to ignore.

In many ways it is angry young men with guitars raging against… well, what have you got? But it is done with wit, intelligence, no little charm and, tellingly, any number of great songs.

Several standouts – and each end-of-year list seems to have picked a different one, while strangely ignoring the wonderfully snarling Television – but Danny Nedelko is up there challenging for song of the year. And possibly most thrilling Later… performance since At The Drive-In.

Not Really An Album of the Year

Boygenius – Boygenius EP

Regular readers will know my ongoing (mild) obsession with Phoebe Bridgers. She didn’t follow up her wonderful debut Stranger in the Alps, which made the upper reaches of last year’s list, but provided some excellent left-field covers (check out her version of Teenage Dirtbag). And this.

Teaming up with fellow rising singer-songwriters Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus to form an indie supergroup of sorts, they each took two songs into the studio and combined their very different styles to form one excellent whole.

And Bridgers’ Me & My Dog should be on any song of the year list.

Honourable mention in this category to last year’s top dogs Public Service Broadcasting’s White Star Liner EP.

The Always Reliable national treasure of the year

Half Man Half Biscuit – No One Cares About Your Creative Hub So Get Your Fuckin’ Hedge Cut

In a country seemingly hellbent on tearing itself apart and losing any sense of perspective, it is good to know that some things can still be relied on as a sort of national pride.

It is not, as some claimed, among their very finest but Nigel Blackwell’s spot on skewering of hipsters in Every Time A Bell Rings and clueless contestants in Knobheads on Quiz Shows are about the most telling analyses of modern times as you will hear anywhere.

Honourable mention for Mogwai’s Kin.

The Surprisingly Good Comeback of the Year

Buffalo Tom – Quiet and Peace

Didn’t see this one coming from a band once described in one of my reviews for a paper as “the Norwich City of Premier League guitar bands”. That rather dates it but, after both disappeared from view, Buffalo Tom appear to be ahead of the Canaries in revisiting those levels.

Honourable mention for The Breeders – All Nerve

It’s Good But… Of The Year

Low – Double Negative

I’ll throw Wide Awake! by Parquet Courts in this category, but purely by dint of how high it appears in so many lists it has to be Low. It’s OK, but been told more than once it needs several more listens as a whole to really appreciate – that just sounds a little bit too much like hard work.

Time for a rethink of the year

Courtney Barnett – Tell Me How You Really Feel

The second album from Melbourne on the list and once almost consigned to the previous category – good, just not as good as previous efforts from a past obsession.

But went back on the basis of a couple of tracks dropped on a playlist and there’s reward for sticking with it. Maybe the Low fans have a point.

Ridiculously Young, Ridiculously Good Award 

This one is shared, courtesy of the plethora of really good albums from young, female artists and groups this year. Barnett and Boygenius could easily have been in here as well, but think we’ve already got enough claiming the spoils.

Snail Mail and Soccer Mommy add to the singer-songwriter quotient, Goat Girl outdid so much of the indistinguishable lads with guitars that make up much of today’s indie landfill while Let’s Eat Grandma have moved on from their hugely-promising debut, continuing to provide something different and more ideas in one song than most bands manage in an album (which is, mainly, a good thing).

Snail Mail – Lush

Goat Girl – Goat Girl

Let’s Eat Grandma – I’m All Ears

Soccer Mommy – Clean

And worth checking out (or in need of greater air time now the problem downloading them onto my iPod actually appears to have been sorted)…

Deafheaven – Ordinary Corrupt Human Love
Lucy Dacus – Historian
Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit – Live from the Ryman (OK, the songs aren’t new and not a huge fan of most live albums, but many Isbell tracks come alive out of the studio – Cover Me Up heading to a whole new level).
Car Seat Headrest – Twin Fantasy
Dream Wife – Dream Wife
The Orielles – Silver Moment
Yawn – Bill Ryder-Jones
Gruff Rhys – Babelsberg
Colter Wall – Songs of the Plains
John Prine – The Tree of Forgiveness
Camp Cope – How To Socialise & Make Friends

The Not Actually This Year Discovery of the Year

Five Eight – Songs for Saint Jude

Nothing new, but in a year without anything new by The Drive-By Truckers and The Hold Steady, this filled the Americans playing guitars like they are performing in the corner of a dive bar hole. Even if it was from last year.

and finally…

The album missed the list (worth a listen though, if only for driving me back to some old stuff and a brief obsession with all three parts of The Crane Wife) but they summed up much of the world in 2018 pretty well.

Share
 

Please log in to vote

You need to log in to vote. If you already had an account, you may log in here

Alternatively, if you do not have an account yet you can create one here.