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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