Best of 2020

Christmas has been a bit different for many people this year, even before the late changes to tiers and coronavirus restrictions.

Certainly the first one partially spent dressed in a sloth onesie for starters (and it was really warm) while there are even decorations up in my flat – the two things may be linked.

And this is the first for many years spent in this country – discounting those in Africa and South America – when have not been working right up to Christmas Eve and heading back into the office within a day or two.

What that means is there has been time to draw breath over the holiday period, to look ahead and back over a difficult year – and time to write the traditional Travel Marmot post on the year’s best music.

The first of two traditional posts – the second, state of the nation article may even be posted on (or near) New Year’s Day – that time has allowed it to take on a different look with top 30 lists of albums and, for the first time, tracks.

They have changed considerably, the relistening which has soundtracked the last few weeks in the home office bumping a few albums up the list and seeing several more tumble.

That reshuffling is likely to continue, particularly in the lower reaches, as albums fail to last the course of time or others receive more attention.

There is one big change this year – boys with guitars which dominated the last couple of years being replaced by a fair few female singer-songwriters at the upper end – although many familiar faces remain.

So here they are, the albums and tracks which soundtracked a year of working from home, an issue which definitely helped shape the upper reaches of these lists.

Albums of the Year

1 Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher

“Some serious songwriting chops are enough to leave you wanting more… one to watch”

That was what this list said of Phoebe Bridgers when her debut album Stranger In The Alps was Discovery of the Year in 2017 and she has featured highly every year since – there was even the Phoebe Bridgers Album of the Year category last year.

Those serious songwriting chops reached new levels with Punisher, a pretty clear winner of this list.

Despite being completed before the onset of the pandemic, it has a sense of claustrophobia and bleakness which fits the feelings of the last nine months without losing a sense of insight, warmth and even humour which ensures a listen remains an uplifting, fulfilling experience.

There are plenty of layers here which are still being unwrapped after multiple listens and different versions floating around – almost inevitable given her prolific nature – as best witnessed by the tracks on the Copycat Killer EP and slower versions of Kyoto, the upbeat single which she was convinced to speed up to prevent the album being too similarly paced.

One to watch, to listen to repeatedly and to savour.

2 Waxahatchee – Saint Cloud

If Punisher has been holding on to top spot from release, Saint Cloud spent much of the year further down this chart before repeated revisiting has seen it rise and rise.

Katie Crutchfield’s previous solo work has always registered as worth a listen without making a huge impact.

But with her fifth album and her first since giving up drinking, she moves away from the indie toward Americana and really finds her voice.

Would work as the perfect soundtrack to an American road trip through wide open spaces, which just bumps that a further few places up the travel wishlist.

3 Drive-By Truckers – The Unravelling/The New OK

If there have been positives of the last four years under Trump’s Presidency, it has been the transformation of Drive-By Truckers from American band to American necessity, their anger and frustration at what was happening to their country spelled out in classic songwriting.

American Band was the Travel Marmot album of the year in 2016 and they returned this year with another delight – they just did it across two records at either end of the year which, combined, earn them another high placing.

Not everything works – Babies In Cages is just too obvious, lacking the depth of their best efforts – but when they get it right (Thoughts and Prayers, The New OK) it becomes clear why they have emerged as one of the most important American groups around.

Possibly bumped up a few places by The Unravelling being listened to (repeatedly) for the first time during 24 hours in a hammock crossing the Amazon.

4 Grandaddy – The Sophtware Slump… on a wooden piano

It is not new – a 20-year-old album played on what seems to be an even older piano – but my blog, my rules and this new version of a true classic is the perfect reissue we never knew we needed.

On the back of one of the best Twitter listening parties hosted by The Charlatans’ Tim Burgess (surprise candidate for musical hero of the year), it spelled out what a great album it is.

And it is amazing just how well these songs have held up to both time and the stripped-back versions here – epic opener He’s Simple, He’s Dumb, He’s The Pilot is perhaps the one which works the least well.

Lovely stuff.

5 Fontaines DC – A Hero’s Death

Last year’s album of the year winners did not rest on their laurels, returning with the follow-up mid-pandemic.

For a while, A Hero’s Death was heading to the slightly disappointing pile but prolonged exposure revealed a step forward which was not only worth repeated listenings but also laying the foundations for a longer future beyond being the current darlings of guitar music.

These songs maybe lacked the initial clout of Dogrel, but more reflected the impact the success had on the band – songs which moved on relentlessly without ever taking the next step you expected (and which maybe would have come on their debut) and it is that sense of anticipation which adds life and promise. For now and the future.

It stands alone but also as a sideways, possibly slightly backwards step, to clear a path for what comes next.

6 Taylor Swift – folklore

The undoubted surprise entry in the upper reaches of this list and it is there for a simple reason – it is really, really good.

Dubbed her indie album, it undoubtedly benefits from its collaborations with The National’s Aaron Dessner, Jack Antonoff and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, but this is Swift’s work, her songs supplying a pop edge to her co-creators’ backgrounds.

Any unwarranted doubts about her songwriting ability are dispelled by penning exile, the great Bon Iver song we have been waiting for over the last few years.

It is maybe three of four songs too long and the insistence on everything being lower case is frustrating (or is that just me?) but it stands up to repeated listening. Trust me.

7 Soccer Mommy – color theory

More lower case and another female singer-songwriter in the upper reaches, Sophie Allison’s second album takes a significant step forward from the promise of her debut.

The first new album which was played repeatedly on my return from travelling, soundtracking several long walks as lockdown took over our lives and somehow seemed to make total sense.

There’s a long, detailed explanation of the album being based in sections on colour but really, just listen to it and enjoy.

8 Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit – Reunions

If the upper reaches of this countdown belongs to female singer-songwriters, there remains a place for Jason Isbell.

Reunions leans like its predecessor The Nashville Sound slightly towards Radio 2 territory and polished mainstream more than the great double whammy of Southeastern and Something More Than Free which chronicled his new-found sobriety and move from a rock and roll lifestyle to domestic contentment.

But Isbell remains as good a songwriter as there is around and Reunions is never less than sharply observed and richly created.

9 Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever – Sideways to New Italy

My move from jingly jangly indie to Americana is reflected in this list, but there remains a place for shimmering guitars.

The Australian band jointly topped this list two years ago (with IDLES) and their sophomore effort takes a step forward from Hope Downs without lessening the number of interwined guitar lines, harmonies and damn good songs.

The sound of the summer we never really enjoyed.

10 IDLES – Ultra Mono

One of the most anticipated albums of the year and, to be honest, among the most underwhelming.

If IDLES can ever underwhelm.

There is enough in Ultra Mono to deserve this high placing – it has bounced around the fringes of the top 10 when putting the list together – but it is in danger of becoming too draining an experience for repeated listening.

When it hits its target (see below), it is as good as anything they have done, but relies too heavily on going for huge knockout blows when the odd body punch would get the message across just as well over the length of an album.

You do not need to shout to make yourself heard all the time.

11 Sufjan Stevens – The Ascension
12 Porridge Radio – Every Bad
13 Working Men’s Club – Working Men’s Club
14 Bill Callahan – Gold Record
15 Margo Price – That’s How Rumors Get Started
16 Laura Marling – Song For Our Daughter
17 This Is The Kit – Off Off On
18 Bob Mould – Blue Hearts
19 Matt Berninger – Serpentine Prison
20 Disq – Collector
21 Fiona Apple – Fetch The Bolt Cutters
22 Stephen Malkmus – Traditional Techniques 
23 The Orielles – Disco Volador 
24 Taylor Swift – evermore
25 Bright Eyes – Down In The Weeds, Where The World Once Was
26 Sports Team – Deep Down Happy
27 Boston Manor – GLUE
28 Dream Wife – So When You Gonna…
29 Fleet Foxes – Shore
30 The Flaming Lips – America Head

Bubbling Under (or in need of more exploration)
…And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead – X: The Godless Void and Other Stories
beabadoobee – Fake It Flowers
The Big Moon – Walking Like We Do
Gorillaz – Song Machine, Season One: Strange Times
Jordana – Classical Notions of Happiness
Becca Mancari – The Greatest Part
Sufjan Stevens & Lowell Brams – Aporia 
US Girls – Heavy Light

Tracks of the Year

Have stuck to albums on these annual lists before with maybe a passing mention of what was the track of the year, but if we can’t do these things differently this year, when can we?

1 IDLES – Grounds

“Do you hear that thunder?”

In a year when there has been plenty to get angry about, these lists are perhaps surprisingly lacking in fury, Bob Mould turns up the anger with Drive-By Truckers and Sufjan Stevens voicing frustrations in different ways.

IDLES had no hesitation in expressing their anger and on Grounds they packaged indignation as we entered lockdown and somehow foresaw some of the wider issues which would fill the following months.

And by slightly dialling down the scale of the backing – if not the intensity – they turned up the impact.

“Not a single thing has ever been mended, By you standing there and saying you’re offended”

2 Phoebe Bridgers – Kyoto
3 Drive-By Truckers – Thoughts and Prayers
4 Taylor Swift (feat Bon Iver) – exile
5 Phoebe Bridgers – ICU

6 Sufjan Stevens – America
7 Fontaines DC – A Hero’s Death
8 Phoebe Bridgers – I Know The End
9 Taylor Swift – the last great american dynasty
10 Waxahatchee – Lilacs

11 Porridge Radio – Sweet
12 Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever – Cars In Space
13 Phoebe Bridgers – Halloween
14 Soccer Mommy – circle the drain
15 This Is The Kit – This Is What You Did

16 Bob Mould – American Crisis
17 Phoebe Bridgers – Chinese Satellite
18 Taylor Swift – betty
19 Waxahatchee – Fire
20 Drive-By Truckers – 21st Century USA

21 Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever – Falling Thunder
22 Phoebe Bridgers – Garden Song
23 Soccer Mommy – bloodstream
24 Waxahatchee – The Eye
25 IDLES – Model Village
26 Sufjan Stevens – Video Game
27 Jason Isbell – Only Children
28 Waxahatchee – Can’t Do Much
29 Waxahatchee – Hell 
30 Fontaines DC – Televised Mind

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About the Light to Hey Heartbreaker

Day 24 of the blog post a day in May (and the 200th post on Travel Marmot) with a bit of tidying up in the A-Z iPod Challenge – with a little bit of politics thrown in.

A FORMER editor once stared at the list of sports stories presented at Monday morning conference for that day’s paper, glared at me and shook his head.

That was not that unusual, but this was for different reasons to normal.

No, he was not interested in what was being put forward for the back page or what we had spent much of Sunday coaxing into the pullout. He had his own idea for the big story from the weekend.

As all eyes turned to me – my colleagues revelling in the complete state of confusion taking over my face – as he outlined what he had in mind.

The entire golf club, he explained, had been gripped by TV coverage of one our golfers fighting for victory in a leading US event. Appalled that nobody else seemed to be covering our local boy’s achievements, he wanted that all over the back page.

It was all anyone could talk about the night before, one of ours beating the best in the world, it would be what our readers wanted to see on a Monday.

Totally confused, returned to my desk to find out what was going on. My colleagues were not much use, so scanned the news wires… still nothing. Eventually, went in hunt of the TV listings to find out what had been on and discovered what had happened.

Armed with the listings magazine and a cutting from a past paper, returned to the editor’s office to explain what was going on. And why, as he had demanded to know, we had missed it.

As diplomatically as possible, pointed out he and his golf club friends had been watching a re-run of the previous year’s event after the live coverage had been washed out by rain – our local guy having missed the cut two days earlier this time around.

His success the previous year was reported in the cutting.

Have used this tale a few times over the years to illustrate the dangers of listening to a small group, special interest or section of readership, however vocal, when deciding what we should concentrate on as journalists.

And it seemed somehow apt listening to the reaction and fallout as Theresa May finally succumbed to the inevitable and announced the schedule for her departure as leader of the Conservative Party and Prime Minister.

As those who have been messily plodding on with their prolonged political assassinations – a milk shake would appear to carry more cutting edge than any of their thrusts – came out of hiding to push themselves forward, the golf club could easily be substituted for the Conservative Party and various subsets within it.

Confined to listening to the people around them – largely there because they share the same views and ambitions – they are unable to contextualise anything and see the bigger picture. That what they are claiming is for the greater good is really for the greater good of their immediate peers.

Take one Steve Baker MP.

Sure confirmed politicos know exactly who Steve Baker is but for the uninitiated (had to check this), he is the Tory MP for Wycombe and deputy chairman of the European Research Group (basically the Brexit wing of the Conservatives).

That’s deputy to Jacob Rees-Mogg, having succeeded the odious Mark Francois.

And he filled the empty time on BBC News just before Mrs May emerged from Number 10 to announce her decision by explaining he could be in the running because “some colleagues” thought he should.

That’s some colleagues in a small – if powerful – part of a governing party which cannot command a majority in Parliament as a mandate for a run at the top job in the land.

And according to reports, around 15 other Conservatives think they have the same sort of backing to take the job.

Some of my colleagues have suggested my performances in the office quiz were enough to apply for Pointless. Other stupider ideas have been suggested by friends over a few pints.

They have as much weight as Steve Baker’s claim to the iron lady’s old throne (zeitgeist meets political gag there). But were soundly ignored (well, bar a few of them after a few pints)

Baker and his pals have summed up a lot of the problems gumming up any progress in British politics – not just Conservatives by the way, before someone accuses me of bias (they just happen to be the ones, supposedly, in power).

More than happy to lob a verbal milkshake in the path of other parties. Or anything whatsoever to do with Farage.

They are all so cloistered in their own clubs – golf or otherwise – watching their own interests, hearing what they want to hear on social media and disregarding (or discrediting) the rest, they cannot break out and see that for all the talk of compromise, it is destined to remain elusive if they see everything as binary and insist only the other side should be making any changes.

What do they know of Brexit, who only Brexit know?

(To quote Kipling – or more accurately steal a Billy Bragg line – for the second time in a week).

What they need to do, in a desperate attempt to get this away from politics to the matter at hand, is have a look around and see what else is going on.

Which is what the A-Z iPod Challenge has been doing (told you it was desperate) with a catch-up on the tracks from A-H which have dropped into the alphabetical list after that section was covered.

Been a while since we did this so there’s a lot which does not seem new – tracks from last year’s joined album of the year from Idles for starters

Same goes for the likes of Low, Mogwai, Jason Isbell’s live album and Five Eight among others.

Deafheaven soundtracked all 20 minutes on a gym bike – very loudly – with two tracks and there was promising new(ish) or largely unexplored stuff from Drema Wife, The Orielles and Better Oblivion Community Centre.

We also had some vintage Madder Rose, downloaded after a night sidetracked by the suggestions on You Tube.

And it was rounded off by two great white hopes from Ireland – Fontaines DC, who were raved about in the last post but make no apologies for banging on about, and The Murder Capital.

We certainly don’t want any sort of border keeping that sort of stuff out.

  • One last thing on the whole milkshake throwing debate. As much as the sight of Farage, Yaxley-Lennon and co being cut down to size is to be savoured, not a fan of them being thrown – however much they have brought it on themselves. Mind you, the prospect of large numbers of people merely holding them as they walk by…
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Honey and Smoke to Hope We Make It

Day nine of the post a day in May and the schedule has gone out of the window. To such an extent this is the topic that was planned for today before being shuffled around and back again. Just not in this format.

IT is the shortest section of the A-Z iPod Challenge to date.

But within the 28 songs it took to travel from Case/Lang/Veirs to Turin Brakes, we hit a major landmark.

It was not marked in any great fashion, merely the fact that it had just stopped raining and was able to take my jacket hood down but the first strains of Hook, Line, Sinker by Stornoway ushered in the 5,000th track on the journey through my iPod.

Only another 8,703 to go. And rising.

And while drying off on the regular weekly walk to check on the latest weight loss progress, the original idea to write about travel was replaced by one to mark the occasion with a blog post.

So let’s rewind right back to the beginning and explain for any newcomers what this musical odyssey is all about, a few facts and figures and the self-imposed rules which govern it.

Are you sitting comfortably? Well you are one up on me, but let’s start anyway.

What?

Pretty simple, listen to every track on my iPod from A-Z.

Why?

Will ‘it seemed a good idea at the time’ suffice as an answer?

Tried it once before (with a much smaller musical collection) but it sort of ran out of steam having reached midway through C.

Think was struggling to find anything to grab my attention and, having planned several times to dig deep into my collection and listen to some stuff that had passed me by or been forgotten, it seemed a way of doing it.

Raised the idea again around the same time this website was created in March 2014 to house blog posts for past trips and the then looming Trans Africa trip.

Looking for something else to write about, some bright spark suggested combining the two and writing about the iPod. That’s the Cornish for you.

The rules

  • My iPod decides the order – It’s in-built alphabetising system is the one which will determine the running order.
    Somehow it has changed, Vampire Weekend’s A-Punk relegated from the opening track on the initial attempt to somewhere in the pack of A songs, letting The Beatles kick things off with A Day in the Life – although a quick check reveals the first song on the list is now (A Belated) Invite To Eternity by Stornoway which had been listed under B.
    Some of the alphabetising is a bit weird, especially with definite and indefinite articles.
  • No skipping – To count, the song must register as having been played in my iTunes library, which means playing it until the end. Long silences at the end of songs push my patience on this one, especially in the gym.
  • It’s the tracks that count, not songs – Multiple versions of the same song all have to be listened to. The most found so far is five – one cover and four of the original in various different guises. That’s five tracks to be listened to all the way through.
  • No revisionism – There’s some rubbish on there, no hiding away from the fact. But nobody put it on there but me (even if the reason is lost in the mists of time), so there’s nobody to blame. It has to be listened to before moving on.
  • New additions count – This remains an evolving collection, so when something is added and drops into the list before the current point, at some point there will be a catch-up session.
    Do this at the end of each letter via a playlist which any new songs from earlier in the journey get dropped into.
  • Breaks are allowed – Let’s be honest, all this time without any new music or being able to choose exactly what to listen to is not really an option.
    This is a challenge to be paused and picked up again from where it was left off. There have been some very long breaks, getting on for a year in a couple of places.

The landmarks

At the time these were the songs sat in the most notable figures:

And the songs sitting in those positions at the moment:

  • 1,000 Birch Tree – Foals
  • 2,000 Coaxed – Avi Buffalo
  • 3,000 Drinking At The Dam – Smog
  • 4,000 The Gator – Will Oldham

The stats

  • Longest track to date: 27.37 Driftin’ Back – Neil Young & Crazy Horse
  • Shortest track to date: 6 seconds Hive Mind – They Might Be Giants (the shortest track in my collection)
  • Longest section: Songs beginning with All which have held the title since occupying tracks 160-267. About to be totally blown out of the water.

The latest section

Apart from Stornoway grabbing the limelight, inevitably at the moment, we had The Beatles – twice in just 28 songs with Honey Don’t and Honey Pie.

There were also two appearances for Billy Bragg, both solo (Honey, I’m A Big Boy Now) and with Wilco (Hoodoo Voodoo) and two versions, one live, of Hope The High Road from Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit. Not his best but still good enough to get on here twice.

More old favourites came in the shape of Leonard Cohen-inspired REM (Hope), The Wedding Present (Hopak, one of their Ukrainian tracks) and Sugar with Hoover Dam – one of the unwritten laws which have evolved says it has to be mentioned as it is from Copper Blue. And still brilliant.

For once, Sugar were not the loudest in this chunk. That goes to Deafheaven, all 11-plus minutes of it – an acquired taste which am starting to come round to.

But that was not the longest track of this section, followed immediately by 13 minutes of Honeymoon’s Great! Wish You Were Her by Josh T Pearson.

It all added up to something a bit different in the gym with those two back to back. Pretty sure was the only one in there listening to that.

But reckon that’s the case most of the time.

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The Best of 2017

REGULAR readers may well have noticed one thing missing from the last post – assuming that is, they have read these two sister pieces in the right order.

For a blog that rattles on about music, it was sorely lacking from the last entry. But hey, this started out as a travel-writing site and there’s been precious little of that recently.

Time to address both issues – if losing weight and getting is the main aim for the 2018, more regular articles and travel posts is the second.

As for music, there’s a good reason there was no mention of the A-Z iPod challenge, mainly because it hadn’t got anywhere (before this weekend’s travel-laced trip to London) since we left it at Girl From Mars.

That’s mainly because my listening has been concentrating on another annual tradition, wading through albums which made the 2017’s finest lists but which never caught my eye.

Still investigating some of them, but time for the end result of my much belated list of 2017’s best albums

  • Album of the Year – Every Valley, Public Service Broadcasting

No surprise to anyone who has heard me banging on about it. There’s even a post all about it. Not an opinion shared by all – many plump for their previous album The Race for Space – but the often emotional journey through the history and suffering of mining communities is by far their most complete work, imbued with a heart lacking in previous efforts.

  • Surprisingly Close to Top Spot – Sleep Well Beast, The National

Giving Public Service Broadcasting top spot would have come out of the blue not that long ago, The National hot on their heels would have been an even bigger surprise. They have totally passed me by for years, despite the devotion of some very good musical judges.

This album changed that. Every listen has closed the gap to top spot. Who knows where we’ll be as time goes by – Drive-By Truckers emerged from the pack to be undoubted number one a year ago.

  • Discovery of the Year – Stranger In The Alps, Phoebe Bridgers

Not one that popped up on too many best of… lists, but did crop up enough to pique my interest. And boy, was it worth investing some time in, gatecrashing the top three of the year.

It’s far from perfect. Like many debut albums, it does slightly peter out but her voice, sheer honesty and some serious songwriting chops are enough to leave you wanting more – especially given the 1-2-3 punch of the opening salvo of  Smoke Signals (possibly song of the year which manages to reference The Smiths, Lemmy and Bowie in the course of five extraordinary minutes), the catchy Motion Sickness and the emotionally fraught Funeral.

Ever so slightly in love with her. One to watch.

  • Really Can’t Decide Album of the Year – The Nashville Sound, Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit

Could easily have dismissed as disappointment of the year, but probably doesn’t deserve that – having heard much of it live, reassessed it. It’s just not a patch on Isbell’s previous two offerings.

Think the problem is summed up in the title. His Americana storytelling has taken on too much of a Nashville sheen, sounding too country, too corporate Nashville, too Radio 2.

  • Rethink of the Year – Prisoner,  Ryan Adams

Nobody crops up more often on the A-Z journey through my iPod than Adams – with the possible exception of Dave Gedge – but on first couple of hearings, wasn’t expecting this to appear on an end-of-year lists.

But when it kept cropping up in the upper reaches, went back to a second look and, you know what, it’s better than first thought. Not perfect, certainly not a Heartbreaker (what is?), but his most complete offering for some time.

  • It’s Good But… of the Year – American Dream, LCD Soundsystem

Another which kept cropping up near the top of magazine lists – right at the top of more than one. Another band  that have only really skimmed past my consciousness. At their best, very good, but the fall off is quite quick.

Don’t think this hits the heights of North American Scum, New York I Love You or a few others, but consistently pretty good. Just not that good.

  • Tenuous Claim to Fame Award – Earl Grey, Girl Ray

It almost hurts me to criticise this (however much that is mixed with praise), having first met the singer, guitarist and main songwriter when she was just a few days old. And been the best man at her parents’ wedding (her mum’s in the video just up there and her dad is, in many ways, the godfather of the Travel Marmot).

And do really like a lot of it. Just can’t help thinking they’d have been better off waiting before putting out their debut album and flesh out their sound bit more.

Definitely ones to watch.

  • Collaboration of the Year Award – Lotta Sea Lice, Kurt Vile & Courtney Barnett

Had a brief obsession with Barnett when she first appeared on the scene. This one came out of leftfield but after a couple of listens makes perfect sense.

  • Worth A Listen, But It’s Not…. Award – Shared between a string of old favourites who returned with perfectly decent albums. Just not ones which ever emerged from the shadows of earlier classics.

Between them, At The Drive-In (who returned 17 years after the truly wonderful noise that is Relationship of Command with in ter a li a), The Shins (Heartworms), Grandaddy (Last Place) and Billy Bragg (Bridges Not Walls) have released some of my all-time favourite albums. Bit further down the list this year guys.

Nearest to recapturing former glories were Ride whose Weather Diaries was one of the year’s present surprises. That Arcade Fire’s Everything Now failed to spark was not that big a surprise.

  • Well Worth Seeking Out – Not the top echelon, but worth anyone’s time. A few new discoveries, eponymous efforts by Cigarettes After Sex and The Weather Station , ever-reliable efforts from Mogwai (Every Country’s Sun) and  John Murray (A Short History of Decay) and the return of Michael Head, now monikered with The Red Elastic Band on Adios Señor Pussycat.

  • And The Rest… – Worth a listen and, in my case, further investigation:
    Antisocialites – Alvvays
    Love In The Fourth Dimension – The Big Moon
    Joan Shelley – Joan Shelley
    English Tapas – Sleaford Mods
    Relatives In Descent – Protomartyr
    A Deeper Understanding – The War On Drugs
    Out In The Storm – Waxahatchee
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A Flag In The Court to For Emma

PART of my day job is to fill swathes of white space with text. And pictures. A lot of pictures (or just really big ones) if there are not enough words and nobody else kicking around the office to write them.

And, as we always say with a hint of nervous laughter, we have not had to send a newspaper out with great empty spaces yet – although one day a sub will carry out the threat to do just that with a note explaining what should have been there and who failed to produce on time.

But despite what the anxiety dreams would suggest and against fairly hefty odds on some occasions, we get a newspaper out every day. On deadline. Or somewhere near.

Which is more than can be said for this blog.

There’s been a blank white space under the headline awaiting some words loosely linked to the latest chunk of tracks on the A-Z journey through my iPod for so long that the band which kicked it off have changed their name. Again – Thee Oh Sees dropping the Thee.

Bon Iver

There have been plenty of false dawns, sitting down to start filling the space from A Flag In The Court to Bon Iver’s For Emma (which really should have given me a fairly straightforward starting point) or mentally written on the way to work, just never actually transferred to that blank space – two of the next three posts are largely sketched out that way, plus one unconnected travel one so expect a sudden flurry of posting and inspiration.

And a good chunk of it was written down hot on the heels of the last post (when we were reeling in the news of a snap election and my main consideration was where to go to escape it) with the opening paragraphs on the ups and downs – and downs – of being a Gloucester rugby fan.

But while deadlines shape and drive my work self, the attention span of a goldfish and temptation to put off until tomorrow what you could do today away from the office (especially when there’s a to-do list to be drawn up or amended) meant it all dragged on a bit.

The end of the season stretched on with a couple of unlikely wins, giving extra reasons to delay and then before we knew it, something more serious got in the way.

This blog site was set up to write about travel. When shackled to the 9to5 and not actually going anywhere, a friend came up with the idea of blogging my iPod. That took on a life of its own, the musical journey sort of merging with whatever life threw up to write about.

Somehow we had gone from something fun and flippant – my natural writing style – to something a bit more serious. There were even political outbursts (although you do have to stretch it a bit to collate the orange buffoon in the White House to politics).

And beyond just the timing – maybe out of season was not the best time to be writing about rugby – the summer produced a string of incidents which left me questioning about how to deal with them, if at all.

Each one just made it more difficult to ignore but, having seemingly done just done that, increasingly hard to step in to from a standing start.

Borough Market

The attacks on Manchester (was actually tapping away late at night when the news broke) and around Borough Market (part of a relaxed reunion weekend in London just weeks before), the most inept election campaign since somebody managed to lose to Trump, who continues to play at being charge while taking us as close to nuclear conflict as any time in the last 50-plus years, white supremacy marches in the US, the horrors of Grenfell Tower and the ongoing political inertia, finger pointing and lack of clear thinking and communication which has shackled this country since the Brexit vote.

And there’s been more, not least the fact Piers Morgan is still in gainful employment.

So before tackling that white space on my screen, there had to be an editorial decision before moving on. What is this blog? Flippant, furious or something else?

It has taken a while to come up with an answer and, as is usually the case, it has all become clearer – not even sure the question was that evident before – as the words filled the screen.

But let’s rewind a while (and find a link to the previous post). Election day to be precise.

At the moment the polls closed, my only contact with what was going on was via alerts on my phone, sidebars to a lengthy, transatlantic conversation between three different people in a Boston bar. Well, several really.

Dubuque, Iowa – Drive west from Chicago and when you hit the Mississippi, that’s Dubuque

On the one hand we had a Trump-hating actor (there was mention of Two Broke Girls) from California, on the other a Trump-supporting family man, car parts business owner from Dubuque, Iowa, who was as shocked that some bloke from England had been to Dubuque, Iowa, as he was that he was chatting amicably with two people who had such differing views than him. Not as surprised as when his wife allowed him to stay for another few beers mind.

Dubuque, Iowa

It had started out very differently, a varied group (swollen by a hen party) heading out on a guided, historic tour of some of Boston’s old watering holes.

But by the time the history was over and we were cut loose from the confines of the group and the rather sedate rate of drinking, the beer continued to flow and three of us put our views about Trump from both sides of the argument with the foreigner in a not totally unbiased mediator’s role.

What became clear very quickly was that neither side had spent much, if any, time talking to their fellow countrymen about why they felt the way they did, what scared them about what was or wasn’t happening or their voting decisions.

And what became clear as the beer rolled down was that both shared far more in common than split them. But something – circumstances, surroundings, upbringing, media, fake or otherwise – had concentrated on their differences rather than the common decency which was at the heart of both of their viewpoints.

The historic bars of Boston’s Blackstone Block

It all ended in smiles, photos, hugs and wandering off – one back to his wife and infuriated daughter,  one to an improv performance with an actor friend and one to find a bar showing the night’s Stanley Cup match.

Amid all the gloom of the summer, it echoed the message that there is more that unites us than divides us. A message which has cropped up more than once when my travels have crossed paths with other religions.

So that’s the future of the blog – it will remain flippant, it will touch on anything more serious when needs be and it will most definitely take huge detours into something totally irrelevant. Whatever it needs to be really.

And, eventually, it will get round to the music, of which Jason Isbell was the crowning glory in this latest section with Flying Over Water and Flagship (one of my pet subbing hates, how many stores do you know that actually sell flagships?).

Fittingly for the cross-Atlantic nature of this post, we’ve had guitar music from both sides of the great divide with Sebadoh (Flame), Modest Mouse (Float On), Folk Jam (Pavement) and REM (Flowers of Guatemala) countered by Fly Boy Blue from Elbow and Fools Gold by The Stone Roses. US victory I think.

One last thought, really ought to dedicate this belated filling of a white blank space…

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