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

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UrfMXtA9oGg

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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J-Smoov to John Wick

It has taken a while, but the journey from new arrival  on the other side of the world to local took a big step forward the other night.

Driving home around rush hour, taking the required right-hand turn meant joining a queue of traffic which threatened to take longer than the rest of the journey.

But six months living in – or very near – Canberra has started to seep in.

From shying away from driving in the opening weeks and requiring directions to pop down to the local shop, a bit of acquired knowledge kicked in and sailed smoothly over the traffic lights, round the back of the outlet centre and back onto the main road by the park and ride.

It was a small thing – regardless of the smug feeling from the driving seat – but the latest step in learning to live like an Australian.

Have embraced the weekend trip to Bunnings – an Australian institution and roughly their version of Homebase – which comes complete with the compulsory sausage sizzle where some fundraising group will sell you a sausage in a piece of white sliced bread for less than £1.

Beats a bunch of disinterested Cubs packing your supermarket shopping and an idea the Aussies have taken a step forward with the democracy sausage – the same thing, served up after you vote.

But perhaps the best way of measuring my adjustment to life in Australia is via the medium of kangaroos.

For the first few weeks, almost from the moment we pulled away from Sydney airport, the only sight of the national symbol was lying flat on the side of the road.

Then, amid much excitement during breakfast on the deck, spotted one hopping across the field behind our house – the only thing between us in New South Wales and the ACT.

Kangaroos
Ever get the impression you are being watched? Kangaroos in the nature reserve unusually not fleeing as soon as a camera appears. ACT border just behind those trees

The excitement grew when finally headed for a post-work stroll through the field – a nature reserve hemmed in houses, a main road, the border and a prison – and a few appeared on the other side of a fence.

More and more appeared on repeat visits until the point it is almost impossible to wander over there without huge groups popping up in the grass – you spot one and, as you move closer, a second, a third and then there are suddenly dozens.

They are skittish, watching you closely and then when one hops away as you move closer, off they all go. Which is pretty much guaranteed to happen the moment you lift a camera up to grab a picture.

My excitement – and it remains a thrill every walk or even from over the back fence when they venture up to the top of the field – does mark me apart from the locals, but head out now not in excited hope but in expectation of where they are likely to be hanging out and how best to enjoy watching them.

But those road signs which catch your eye on first arrival are not just there for the tourists.

The best time to spot them is just before dusk. Which is also the best time to hit them as their jump across the road – in our case, from the reserve to the nearby cemetery or the park which borders our back wall – coincides with your arrival on the same stretch of tarmac.

Kangaroos
Kangaroos with road sense. Or good luck

And it was as darkness fell that a sizeable shape lumbered alongside my car window and straight across the right hand turn home.

If it had been in the first few weeks, would no doubt have been like a kangaroo in the headlights – another issue – but was able to react and actually enjoy watching him bounce into the darkness.

Sure there are plenty of other opportunities to come to experience occupying the same space as a large kangaroo, which ends badly for the animal and the car and is not one that is on my list of Aussie experiences.

But it is a near miss chalked up so can nod sagely next time anyone mentions the dangers of kangaroo collisions.

In many other ways have not totally assimilated to Aussie life – opening my mouth tends to be a big clue (and occasionally a useful shorthand for not having the slightest idea what is going on).

And asking for “red sauce” is akin to speaking a foreign language and needs a local to do the “It’s OK, he’s English” intervention.

Even more so if you opt not to squirt it all over a pie.

Have embraced certain key parts of Australian life and am cheering on Penrith Panthers, the Brumbies (via regular trips to the coldest part of the coldest city in the country) and Sydney Swans.

Even understand (most of) what is going on in Aussie rules. Possibly. Feel uneasy calling it football.

Draw the line at supporting any team wearing green and gold (whatever nickname they carry) and the odd one all in white, which made for some interesting evenings and early mornings during the Ashes – ending all square probably helped our relationship.

Australia and England winning their groups avoided a showdown in the match we had tickets for in Brisbane during the Women’s World Cup at the start of our honeymoon (albeit before the actual wedding – of which more next time, probably deserves a post of its own).

Instead we became part of a select group of people to see England win a World Cup penalty shootout, the later finish sparking a rush as pretty much the entire stadium raced to find a nearby screen to watch the Matildas.

Suncorp Stadium
Darkness falls over Suncorp Stadium ahead of England v Nigeria

But that only delayed the inevitable and a more high-stakes meeting in the semi-final, two days into our married life.

Tried to be magnanimous in victory.

Not everything has changed that much. The commute to work still involves stumbling out of bed and, via the shower, to a desk in the next room.

With the office in London, there is not that much chance of popping in to show your face.

Even my nearest colleague in Australia is about three hours’ drive away near Sydney.

Or just down the road as they call it over here.

And, so far, the weather has not taken that much of an adjustment as made the move on the cusp of a Canberra winter.

The temperature drops as low as at home overnight with frost pretty common for several months, but it rarely stays that way – even in the midst of winter there is plenty of sun and it usually works its way into double figures.

But that is starting to change as spring emerges and, while there is still the threat of some cold nights, the shorts and flip-flops (refusing to call them thongs) are appearing as the temperature heads into the mid to high 20s.

There is a lot more to come and determined not to complain about the heat.

Well, not much.

Which just leaves the latest batch of the A-Z journey through my iPod – after all, that is sort of the point of this blog.

Not sure too many, if any, of the tracks which kicked off the relatively brief journey through J were in contention for the wedding music (at which the iPod paid a price, of which more next time) as we made our way from Stephen Malkmus to Dry Cleaning.

Via quite a few names and the 7,000th track on this journey (JFK by Lambchop).

We hit a seam rich with Jack (Names the Planets, Ash), Jackie (Down the Line, Fontaines DC,) Jacqueline (Franz Ferdinand), James, Jane, Janie (Jones, one of the great album openers from The Clash), Jeane (Billy Bragg), Jed (a selection of Grandaddy tracks) and assorted spellings of Jennifer and Jenny (& The Ess-Dog, Stephen Malkmus).

The Pogues gave us a homage to Jesse James while Nirvana reckoned Jesus Don’t Want Me For A Sunbeam and Wilco gave us two versions of Jesus etc and Iron & Wine kept it biblical with Jezebel.

And there was still more from Jessica, Jill, Jim (Wise and his bright red cardinals, Sun Kil Moon), Jimmy (squared by The Undertones), Jo, Joan and Joe.

Which took us to the end of this section, pretty much halfway through the J section in one go – but not without the wonderfully dark and quite beautiful John Wayne Gacy Jr by Sufjan Stevens, part of his career-high obsession with Illinois.

There was even some non- names, Whiskeytown remembering the Jacksonville Skyline (with the still awkward moment when you realise how good Ryan Adams could be when not… well, let’s leave it there), and Bill Callahan’s lovely Javelin Unlanding – part of the playlist which was on constant rotation around Africa.

And just when it was getting a bit quiet, Sonic Youth chipped in with JC, backed up by Sugar’s JC Auto.

Probably enough to scare off the kangaroos.

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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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Seven Day Challenge

WAS nominated recently to take part in the Facebook Seven-Day Musical Challenge – picking a song each day for a week that means something to me.

Opting to steer well away from any sort of ‘best of…’ list, my choices were a sort of musical journey through my life, both personal and my musical life (although the two are pretty much entwined.

The A-Z blog is on a bit of a pre-Christmas hiatus (of which more in a couple of catch-up posts before a few changes – on and offline – in the year), so to fill a bit of a gap, here’s a version of those seven days…

Day 1

Once had to do a top 10 for my old newspaper to fill a hole just before a Christmas deadline. One of our celebrity columnists failed to deliver, so it fell to a distinctly non-celebrity columnist – albeit the column in the weekly sports result paper or the stand-in when someone was on holiday – and my entire music collection went out of my head.

Doubt if too many of that 10 would make any such list now, but this one would.

Echo & The Bunnymen were my band, my first gig (well, sort of) and my fashion gurus (hence me stealing my grandad’s old, long overcoat, which had very deep pockets to hide pint glasses in for the walk home from the pub). Accelerated my NME-inspired descent into an 80s indie ghetto.

Will gladly argue (and have, many times) that the second half of Ocean Rain is the most perfect run of songs on any album. This is oft-overlooked amid the other classics, but it’s my favourite…

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3zbdy8eidI0

Day 2

Second one sort of surprised even me, but part of a key role in my musical development when the teenage me was listening to a solid diet of British indie.

My sister started going out with some bloke (who she later married) who made me a C90 that threw in plenty of domestic indie, but also opened the door to American guitar bands, which I ran through gladly – The Replacements, Big Black, Sonic Youth, Red Guitars, Husker Du and some lot from Athens, Georgia, among others.

Could have picked almost any of the tracks (still have that tape somewhere), but stayed nearer to home.

A few years later, used to make my own C90s for a mate and his wife for each of my regular trips to London. On one of them was this and lead singer Pete Astor, who years later ended up as a friend of my mate with their sons in a band together (Let’s Wrestle). Also fulfils my jingly jangly quotient.

Day 3

This one sort of links on from the previous day when my indie ghetto started to be stormed by American guitars (red or otherwise).

Last track on that C90 was Superman by REM, a band I’d heard of but knew nothing about – hearing Superman, thought you could decipher all their lyrics.

They went on to be the biggest band of my late teens and beyond (pretty much till Bill Berry left when it all went a bit awry) and they produced, from Murmur to Green, possibly the greatest run of albums of any band.

Also pointed me in the direction of many other bands and an American road trip just had to stop off in Athens.

Could have chosen any number of tracks, but Life’s Rich Pageant was first up for me and, hey, I believe in coyotes and time as an abstract…

Day 4

As the ’80s turned into the ’90s, school was finally behind me, university drifted out of reach (something to do with spending a bit too much of the previous couple of years in the pub or listening to loud music, rather than doing any work) and, eventually, my career in journalism got off to a start just before my teens ended.

Music was still centred around jingly jangly indie and American guitars and the regular Banana Club live nights at the Gloucester Guildhall (at one of which they shot the video for EMF’s Unbelievable), before the real onset of grunge (take it or leave it) and the largely forgettable onslaught of Britpop.

And there was this lot. Still one of the finest albums, still one of my loudest gigs (quiet, loud, quiet, loud, very loud – second only to Sugar, who so nearly made the list) and soundtrack to an awful lot of memories.

Day 5

The bit when it gets a bit emotional. We’ve done musical education and the 80s, time for the only entry from the 90s. But this one is timeless.

There had to be a bit of Billy Bragg in there, a constant since the mid-80s – trying to work out if seen him live in three or four different decades.

My favourite song of his changes, The Saturday Boy, Levi Stubbs’ Tears, The Short Answer… the list goes on. Even some of the stuff he did with Wilco. But none matches the emotional punch and resonance of this one.

Have written a few times about the background to jacking in a good job (twice) to go travelling because you never know what might happen if you put off living. Get paid to organise words into a meaningful order, but never managed to put some of those personal feelings as well and as powerfully as this.

Day 6

Having hung around in the ’80s for a while, it’s straight from the early ’90s into the new millennium and the discovery of a new obsession.

First stumbled across Ryan Adams on an Uncut magazine free CD and tracked down a copy of Heartbreaker – spent an entire afternoon reorganising and cleaning a kitchen in a shared house, just so I could listen to it over and over again. I

t was not only discovering Adams, it took me on a road that saw indie replaced by (to quote a friend after he’d been listening to my iPod) ‘melancholic Americana’ as a mainstay of my collection.

Day 7

Final part brings us not quite up to date, but a song which formed a huge part of the soundtrack of the last year or so.

The last song always had to be one that soundtracked my travelling years as we head into time to settle down and concentrate on the career (and bank balance) for a while.

There’ll still be travelling, but shorter trips more often rather than long adventures around much of the globe or Africa.

Those trips have largely been soundtracked by playlists set up before and could have provided any number of nominations.

But Sufjan Stevens wins out (just edging Carissa by Sun Kil Moon) as he soundtracked two trips, this one the most played of 10 months on the road in Africa. Who said travelling had to be happy?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PcQjQD88t1M

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Depression Era to Dig For Fire

EVENTUALLY, think my father forgave me for crossing the bridge and decamping to live and work in Wales.

He never quite got the hang of deadlines and would call for a chat after major rugby matches, no matter how many times it was explained to him that the final whistle was when producing sports reports and pages really got busy and was not the time for a post mortem.

If he was still with us (and my career hadn’t, via a circuitous route, switched from sport to news), not sure that would be a problem following my latest move – doubt he would be talking to me.

Wales is one thing, Bath is another. Behind enemy lines. It’s a Gloucester thing.

Bath Abbey. Not viewed from a car
Bath Abbey. Not viewed from a car

But, for a while at least, Bath is my destination for the (far too early) morning commute after a year of travelling and, for the last couple of months, freelancing was ended with a permanent return to the workforce.

Back on the payroll, back to a guaranteed salary, back to paid holidays (yippee), back to only five weeks off a year (booooo), back to the career. And back to being able to give an accurate answer about what my job is.

Well, almost.

It’s all been a bit confusing for the last few weeks, that limbo that became my life on returning from Africa transferring to the office (when it wasn’t still asleep on my sister’s sofa), neither out of work or employed, sat at a regular desk, but without any recognised role, a regular at leaving dos, without having actually started.

“What do you do?” was the short version of what one of our trainees asked at one of those leaving dos.

Best answer at that time was “whatever anyone is willing to pay me to do”. Well, within reason.

It was far too difficult to go any deeper as, at that point, two job offers were on the table, one further afield (and back in sport), one on familiar territory. Sort of.

Having spent a lot of time thinking on the back of a truck over the past year, one clear decision (along with vague plans to do a degree and finally write that book) was that putting down roots somewhere familiar was infinitely preferable to relocating and starting anew, even if life by the seaside had its attractions.

So back home to Gloucester (or Cheltenham, to be precise) it was… or was it?

Stiperstones, Shropshire Hills
Some Stiperstones, pre-descent, evidently

Pretty much a year to the day after leaving, my return to my old company was confirmed, complete with a twist. Not employed by my old paper or even in the old office, my new role was as an employee of the region, dispatched to where needed. Have log-in, will travel.

And where needed is, for the next couple of months, Bath where there is a need for a senior body on their news production desk. As Sam Burgess leaves town, another person not that hot at more than one position on the rugby field arrives – and comments like that are probably why my services won’t be called for on the sports pages.

Three days in and all is going well (at least nobody has told me any different yet), but in a World Heritage City, the main view so far has been the back of the car in front while sat in a traffic jam and questioning the decision to opt for a hire car rather than taking the train (long and circuitous) for the first couple of weeks.

It took almost as long to get out of Bath on my first day as it did to get the rest of the way back to Gloucester. That has improved – partly due to actually finding the right route – but it still means a lengthy commute at either end of the day.

Which means, in the evenings at least (radio in the morning), plenty of progress through the A-Z commute through my iPod (see, almost seamless link).

This latest chunk, plugged into the stereo of the hired Ford Focus with handy display identifying any surprise appearances, has taken us from Depression Era (Patterson Hood) through Desire, Desolation and Diamonds (with the odd bit of Devil thrown in) to Dig A Fire by Pixies.

Manics. Very handy for headlines
Manics. Very handy for headlines

There was also one of my common fallbacks which can be manipulated for headlines involving design (surprisingly common), the Manic Street Preachers’ A Design for Life.

Ryan Adams, almost inevitably, appeared just after with three versions of Desire, which fed straight into Desire As from Prefab Sprout, who also popped up with Devil Came A Calling.

The Devil… section was rounded off by Devils Haircut by Beck while on the opposite extreme, the Sugarcubes gave us Deus (although they are adamant he does not exist).

Paul Simon was the pick of the Diamond tracks (Diamonds On The Sole Of Her Shoes) while another musical veteran ate up the miles – even in a traffic jam – with more than 11 minutes of Desolation Row by Bob Dylan.

A couple of familiar faces popped up twice, Half Man Half Biscuit with Descent of the Stiperstones and Dickie Davies Eyes and Sufjan Stevens with the noticeably wordy Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head (Rebuild! Restore! Reconsider!) and, quite apt considering the number of festive stories which landed on my screen this week, Did I Make You Cry On Christmas (Well, You Deserved It!).

But pick of this section was the wonderful Different Day from the equally wonderful Jason Isbell.

Different Day, different traffic jam.

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