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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Best of 2019

THIS blog revels in its traditions, even it they are only a few years old.

And possibly top of that list is the New Year’s Day reflective post and its accompanying look back on the best of the previous year’s musical offerings – both of which will almost certainly not be posted until well after January 1.

Bucked that trend a little this year by publishing the new year address on the intended date, but the music one has had to wait a bit – partly down to a hectic few weeks on the road in South America, partly due to no power in the laptop and, to be honest, it is hot and it all seemed like a lot of work.

Better late than never, here is an abridged version of the Travel Marmot Best of 2019 – split the difference between the two posts and they are round about the right time.

It has all been a bit different this year, partly due to circumstances – been on the road for the last few months, so not had complete access to new releases or the traditional end-of-year trawl through the lists elsewhere.

Working on that, so the list at the end may earn a spot in the higher echelons or vanish without trace. Or get ignored once the new Drive-By Truckers album comes out.

And my music buying (well, downloading) was a bit different with a change of iPod leading to an increased used of Apple Music and the chance to fill in some older gaps in the collection.

It has also been a bit different music wise.

Last year’s list had a fair amount jingly-jangly guitars and female singer-songwriters (one of whom features again), but this year the top spots are taken by what John Peel described as “white boys with guitars”.

Or, to be more accurate, Irish boys with guitars.

Album of the Year: Dogrel – Fontaines DC

Not been this enthused by a new act for a while. Not everybody’s cup of tea – one person exposed to Hurricane Laughter moaned about them shouting at her – but this is literate, passionate, powerful and catchy as any guitar music of the last few years.

And it’s just bloody good, Boys In The Better Land probably edging the song of the year title as well.

Don’t believe me? Six Music named it album of the year and have come to trust them over the last few years.

And still jealous at someone seeing them twice in a week without me.

The Other Irish Album of the Year: When I Have Fears – The Murder Capital

Not as polished, not as convincing as their Irish counterparts, but there’s plenty of promise.

One friend who saw them at Swn Festival in Cardiff described it as being in at the start of something which feels important. He may be right.

Phoebe Bridgers Album of the Year: Better Oblivion Community Center

Two years ago it was her haunting solo debut Stranger in the Alps, last year it was her all-female supergroup Boygenius, this time Phoebe Bridgers makes the top end of the list with her side project with Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst.

Dylan Thomas was close to being song of the year and is the highlight of an album which has grown on me through some long days on the back of a truck.

Worth A Listen/Still Exploring

Shepherd In A Sheepskin Vest – Bill Callahan
Thrashing Through The Passion – The Hold Steady
Inferno – Robert Forster
i,i – Bon Iver
I Am Easy To Find – The National
Girl – Girl Ray
Ode To Joy – Wilco
The Talkies – Girl Band

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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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How Cruel to Hysterical Strength

Day 21 as the blog post a day in May gets back to plan with a return to its roots and reaching another landmark.

TRACK 5,160 on the journey through my iPod from A-Z is not one that jumps out as significant.

No disrespect to St Vincent who rounded out the latest section (which started with The Kingsbury Manx – bought, if memory serves, after they appeared on an Uncut magazine CD and failed to live up to the billing) with Hysterical Strength, it would not normally be a track worthy of note.

But as the 679th and final track beginning with H, it represents a notable point in the trip.

Have mentioned before that, like any long journey, the final stretch of each letter can become a bit of a slog. The musical equivalent of ‘are we nearly there yet?’.

Not that there’s necessarily anything more exciting on the horizon, but there is something fresh, a new impetus to the journey lurking just over that horizon.

Having taken a peek, there is a pretty big expanse laid out in front of us as the start of I offers up something to rewrite the records of this journey and will need one of my personal rules to be set aside for a while or it will get very confusing.

Also plan to do something a bit different with one of the upcoming posts which may well be more of a test – for writer and reader – than the blog post a day for a month idea. Which is saying something.

More of that nearer the time – it will be trailed in advance – but before then we need to do a quick catch-up on the songs from A-H which have been added. A while since done that so some of them are a bit of a shock as being supposedly new tracks. Others had forgotten about totally.

But before all that, we’ve got that final stretch of H songs to work our way through.

It might just be the nearing the end of the journey feeling, but the standard final stretch of tracks for each letter tends to throw up little in the way of excitement. A sense of wanting to eat up the miles rather than savouring the scenery.

This has not been the case with the final 80-odd H tracks throwing up enough gems to keep things bouncing along (actually listening to the last dozen or so while writing this to get totally caught up and REM’s Hyena was a welcome distraction – their second in this block after How The West Was Won And Where It Got Us).

Amid all that was a track that just sneaked in rather than being shunted into the catch-up playlist from a young Irish band that has me about as excited as any for a long time.

Knowing it was coming, been trying to come up with an accurate description of Fontaines DC – best advice is click on the video up top there of Hurricane Laughter and crank up the volume. And repeat.

Most common point of reference is Fugazi or Killing Joke, but personally hear a collision between the joint winners of last year’s Travel Marmot Album of the Year, Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever and Idles. Fronted by a cross between Ian Curtis and Shane Macgowan.

Maybe that’s just me.

Whatever their influences, they are bloody good. Suggest Dogrel may be in the running for album of the year this time round.

Not that everything in this section was so worth a listen, scratching my head as to how any Muse (Hyper Music, which is currently playing) has made it into my collection.

Always totally baffled by their popularity. Akin to fingers on a blackboard and, thankfully, over.

Still fighting with the listening to Ryan Adams issue and he cropped up a few times, most notably (courtesy of some weird downloading issue) four times with a live version of How Much Light.

But there were plenty of great moments to savour, starting in Manchester with How I Wrote ‘Elastic Man’ by The Fall and two outings for How Soon Is Now (one with, one without the question mark) which is from the top echelon of Smiths tracks.

Jason Isbell’s two offerings (How To Forget and Hudson Commodore) were not from his top echelon, but still worth a listen, while there were familiar faces in The Wedding Present (Hude Dnipro Hude, twice) and Mercury Rev (Hudson Lines) while The Be Good Tanyas popped up with the free track which first brought them to my attention, Human Thing.

And from two ends of the the career scale, we had some Johnny Cash (it comes towards the end of H, work it out) and Camp Cope.

Something is happening in Melbourne. After Courtney Barnett and Rolling Blackouts CF, this lot complete a pretty good hat-trick. Album has a way to go, but ones to watch.

And so on to I…

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