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.

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Online On The Road

ONCE upon a time, in lands far, far away, overland travelling was a very different experience.

Roads on which we have sped along smooth asphalt in a matter of hours had a reputation as being mud-soaked traps waiting to snare trucks and cause hours of digging and slow progress to less than a crawl.

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Thirsty Work – Sampling the local brew in Jinka

Communication with home was restricted to the odd postcard and, maybe, just maybe, a phone call from a major city, while trying to keep up with the Ashes score or the latest from the Tour de France from the heart of Ethiopia took some serious digging.

But things are changing, the Chinese playing a major role in paving a smooth ride through large chunks of Africa.

What they are getting in return from countries rich in natural resources but not so rich in the means of making full use of them is one to mull over, but the invasion of Chinese civil engineers has been welcomed by those of us bounced around in the back of the truck on the still not insignificant stretches of virtual off-roading.

Possibly the clearest indication of the Chinese influence came as we crossed, eventually, from Nigeria into Cameroon onto a stretch which has become legendary on Trans Africa trips for the deep mud, slow progress and plenty of digging to keep the truck moving.

See any pictures from past Trans trips and they are likely to include at least one of travellers caked in mud around a stranded yellow truck. It will be from this road.

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Fascinating Country – So much so, it was hard to take it all in

Instead we whistled along the nice new road – so new, it was still being finished – bar a turn off to camp on the old road, where the heavens immediately opened and we discovered just how quickly it turns into a messy bog.

Thankfully, given the events of that night, there are no more pictures from this stretch.

But the biggest change in overland travelling has come with the digital revolution and the ease with which we are able to keep in touch with the real world.

Not always. One of the reasons bush camps are so popular is that we are far removed from internet access and instead of burying our heads in laptops and phones, we are (perish the thought) forced to talk to each other – although local SIM cards did enable Joe to give us the nightly reading of the scores and transfer gossip during the football season.

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Lush View – Not the archetypal view of Ethiopia

Certainly, on arriving anywhere remotely built-up, earlier tour leaders did not have to deal with the twin questions asked repeatedly and often before people had even left the truck – “Is there Wi-Fi?”, followed immediately with “What’s the password?”.

And so as everyone moans at everybody else for using the internet and slowing it to a crawl for them, everyone reaches for their array of appliances and conversation dies, bar somebody pointing out the latest ludicrous transfer news affecting their team, while we like and comment on the Facebook posts the person sat two yards away has just put up.

But since we turned north into Ethiopia to start our final leg of this epic journey, there has been a distinct shift in mood reflected in how we use our precious internet minutes – free access to which has provided a huge boost to the takings of one Addis Ababa bar round the corner from our hotel.

Instead of Facebook, sporting results, checking for any important e-mails from home among the piles of spam and attempting to load blog posts, there are, all of a sudden, practicalities to be dealt with as reality takes a stronger hold on our thoughts.

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Eco Freaks – Our base for the night at an Eco Lodge in Kenso. Eco meaning no chemicals to kill all the bugs

For those of us not continuing travels, flights home are being booked (with a new, slightly delayed arrival in Cairo prompting one or two worries among those who have opted for an earlier flight) and the search for jobs and arrangements to resume normal lives is underway.

And with it, thoughts have begun to drift to lives at home and while most of us are in no undue rush to board that flight home – via, in my case, a layover in Jordan that is not quite long enough to get out of the airport and chalk up another country – the countdown to the end of the trip (or anything which might be waiting for us at home) is under way in earnest.

Which is all a little bit unfair on Ethiopia, which deserves a lot more of our attention (certainly more than the handful of pictures which added to my collection since we crossed the border with Kenya, partly due to photo fatigue and partly due to the risk of losing hold of my phone as we bump along in the back of the truck and breaking a fourth camera on this trip).

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Cashing In – Vance did stump up for a few pictures of the Mursi tribe

It marries a fascinating history (which we will be sampling in the next week or so) with some beautiful scenery and, as the only African nation not to be colonised, retains some unique culture.

Our stay in Addis Ababa – prolonged by those visa delays which will see Joe left behind for 24 hours or so when we finally roll out in a couple of hours – has seen us spread over the city, searching out the things to see (lots of museums, evidently), buy, eat and drink (plenty of coffee for those who are that way inclined and some decent beer) and reliable internet. Some of us may have done a lot more of the last few things than the first two.

All with plenty of willing guides keen to show us places of interest. For a small fee, of course, whether you wanted them with you or not.

You get used to it, even when you tell them repeatedly that you know where you are going and have no money (quite easy when heading to the bank to retrieve the debit card swallowed by the ATM at the hotel, having waited in all the previous night for the bloke to arrive and empty it as promised).

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Pay Per Person – A potentially expensive shot

What is frustrating is that you give short shrift to people who are genuinely interested in chatting with you, practising their English or just finding out what you think of their city and country.

We had been warned about all this as we headed out of Kenya, but found few problems as we headed off to the Lower Omo Valley to get a closer look at some of the tribes which make up those unique cultures.

Given the early start to head out to visit the Mursi tribe in the Mago National Park – and the state of the roads en route – maybe it was not such a good idea to do a thorough investigation of the local brews the night before, but those of us who signed up did make it in one piece.

What greeted us was a scene from another world. Or at least another time.

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Beach Cooking – Boiling the kettles on the shore of Lake Labango

It was a fascinating, if short, trip. Especially for those who opted to contort themselves through the small door into a hut to hear the guide run through all we really needed to know. Those of us left outside were distracted by puppies.

And then it all went a bit weird as the tribes folk covered themselves in traditional attire – a lot of paint, spears, fancy headwear and large lip plates for the women – and posed for pictures. At a price.

Payment was per head, so the more people you got in the picture (singular, take more than one and that increased the price), the more you paid. Quite what the small children running around with their share of the bounty were going to spend it on was not clear, but they seemed keen for more.

Personally, it was all a bit unseemly and my camera stayed firmly in my pocket.

There were more tribes on view when we pulled up in the market town of Keyafer and proceeded to meander our way around what was on sale with a growing coterie of hangers-on and groups of small children, keen to follow us, hold our hands and, in one case, talk football in perfect English.

And collect any money on offer as soon as our cameras came out.

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