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

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.

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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.

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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 Few Months to Fool’s Errand

ONCE upon a time, my working world extended rather further than my desk and the screen in front of me.

Sure, most of my time was spent tapping away at a keyboard, laying out pages and ensuring newspapers got out on time without anything that could have meant any legal implications (the part of my job many keyboard warriors who just slap things online unchecked can never understand).

But back in the day, Saturday afternoons – which shows how long ago this was – and more than occasional midweek evenings were spent peering out over a rugby pitch, pad in hand.

Facilities varied widely. Reports were filed standing on top of a radio van in a storm to peer over a crowd lining the side of the pitch, from phones with no view of the pitch, sat next to a fire on a sofa in one press box, surrounded by increasingly drunken fans blocking the view and even, on more than one occasion, on the bench. Thankfully, never got on.

Ebbw Vale, 1961

Among my favourite places to cover matches was Eugene Cross Park, home of Ebbw Vale, which became my regular Saturday haunt for a few seasons.

It was a typical Welsh club ground, cricket pitch off to one end, a wonderful, steep terrace cut into the valley running the length of one side and a loyal following of familiar faces and supply of sweets from a fellow press box regular in return for spotting all the substitutions.

The Steelmen had  a pretty good side at the time, guided by a future Grand Slam-winning coach, supplying a number of Welsh internationals and reaching a Welsh Cup final. Played, bizarrely, in Bristol and the only time I turned up late for a game when working.

It also came with its own climate and you could spot those who were not used to it – interviewed great All Black Zinzan Brooke as he shivered in shorts and a T-shirt after a pre-season friendly against Harlequins in August. Those of us in the know were clad in multiple fleeces kept in the car for trips to the head of the valley, however glorious the weather was just 20-odd miles away.

Emergency office

There were frequent sprints (yep, long time ago) to the phone box up the road to phone in reports to other papers for a few quid – no chance of a mobile signal up there – and an interview with one of the players through a blocked door as he carried out a post-match drugs test.

Was even accused by some of the faithful of brokering a move for two of their international players to Gloucester when financial problems hit. May have answered a few questions about Gloucester and broke the story, but that’s as far as it went. Agent’s cut would have been nice.

Things have changed. Ebbw Vale don’t produce internationals anymore, although they more than hold their own at the semi-professional level, and my rugby watching is much closer to home – bizarrely, a row in front one of those former players at Kingsholm at a pre-season game which saw a rare move from The Shed to a seat in the stand.

But the town has popped back up in my consciousness in recent months, courtesy of what is a fairly clear leader in my list of albums of the year and which has popped up a few times in the A-F catch-up on the A-Z journey through my iPod.

Have liked Public Service Broadcasting before. When they get it right, their blend of samples from old films, TV and news reports over a carefully-built soundscape – ooh, feel slightly queasy writing that – is excellent.

But it’s been more the odd track rather than album that’s caught my attention, more the first than the more widely-favoured follow-up Race for Space.

And then they released Every Valley, recorded in a makeshift studio in the town’s former workers’ institute.

It is, quite simply, a work of art (ooh, drifting off in to slightly pretentious critic territory now) as it explores the culture, high hopes, crushing collapse and determination of the mining industry with liberal sprinklings of Welshness,  from the unmatched voice of Richard Burton, through contemporary soundbites from miners and wives, a dash of the native language to a male voice choir for the finale, perfectly pitched to deliver one final emotional punch.

The music has the ability to get in your head, those soundscapes (stop it, now) working alongside the samples rather than overpowering them and at times veering in to Mogwai and even, bear with me here, Godspeed You! Black Emperor territory. The gentle border territory.

The guest vocals of James Dean Bradfield of the Manic Street Preachers – from just down the road in Blackwood – is maybe the one track which sits slightly uneasily on the journey which needs to be made from start to finish. No shuffling, always the mark of a good album.

There’s been a couple of tracks from the album in this catch-up, the title track and All Out, where it hits the heart of the strike.

Arcade Fire

We’ve had a fair amount of Arcade Fire – not quite sure what to make of their latest album, but the fact it has not caught hold of my attention probably says it all.

Among others, there’s been the debut from Girl Ray – the band which features an old friend’s daughter, just to make me feel old – new stuff from the always interesting John Murry, comebacks from Ride and At The Drive-In and a couple from the latest Jason Isbell offering.

After releasing the couple of great albums we’ve been waiting for Ryan Adams to come up with for years, he appears to have released an album we’ve received more than once from Adams. It’s OK, but…

And then there’s The National.

Have mentioned before on this trip that they are a band which largely passed me by. For some reason, suggest they were dismissed as just one of a bunch of anodyne The… bands which were around at the time. So anodyne, can’t really remember who they were. The Script? The Feeling?

Various friends rave about them, one whose musical judgment is pretty trustworthy, but they continued to pass me by although they snuck in to my collection courtesy of a few borrowed CDs from an ex-flatmate which went largely unheard.

They pricked my attention early in the journey when they seemed to pop up very regularly, but vanished just as quickly. Until now.

Their new album is pretty bloody good. At its best – Day I Die on this stretch – it is very good and while it doesn’t all live up to that, there’s enough to keep dragging me back and delve into that back catalogue.

In among starting on G…

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