It’s hard for me to match all the year-end “best of” lists as I listen to very little new music…It’s not that I don’t listen to new music, I do, but I tend to give new arrivals the time they deserve as opposed to flitting through Spotify play lists… Streaming isn’t my thing, and I find that it’s a poor medium for listening to music critically with all the distraction and interruption. Also, if I like a band and what they’ve produced, well I think they deserve to get paid for it, and most importantly I like to own an artefact. Great art deserves a tangible presence in my life.
Similar to other years, I’ve spent a lot of time listening to my favourite Americana bands like Son Volt, and The Jayhawks, as well as my go-to punk bands – The Misfits, The Ramones, and Rancid along with old staples such as the Beatles, Bowie, Danzig and Zeppelin.
Live highlights included seeing former Go Between Robert Forster in Whelan’s – what a very pleasant man he is, as well as Suede in the Big Top in Galway, Teenage Fanclub in the Academy, Slayer in The Olympia, Sleaford Mods in Vicar Street and Elvis Costello in Iveagh Gardens. Anyway, here’s the new music that made an impression on me this year in no particular order.
David Bowie – Blackstar
According to a friend who works in Tower Records on Dawson Street, Blackstar is their biggest seller on vinyl this year. I didn’t get around to listening to it until August as I wanted to avoid all the hype and hoopla after the great man left us in January. I reckon Bowie’s steady run of excellence in the 70s is matched only by Neil Young. Both artists fell off a cliff in the eighties with Young returning to form much earlier than Bowie when he released Freedom in 1989. I’m unfashionably fond of the first Tin Machine album (1989) and quite enjoy Black Tie/ White Noise (1993) and Outside (1995). Blackstar is as good as the hype says it is and is probably Bowie’s best work since Station to Station (1976) – the album it resembles more than any other in structure and style. The electro-jazz vibe throughout brings Scott Walker’s The Electrician to mind and the title track is stunning and up there with his finest work. The man bowed out in the way that only he could.
Gojira – Magma
This is undoubtedly the most interesting metal album I’ve heard in years. In fact I thought I was beyond being able to like this kind of record. Gojira hail from Bayonne in France. They are regarded as being a very technical band with thrash and death metal influences. To be honest what they’ve cooked up on Magma is far too good to sit easily in conventional classifications. I’ve always struggled with the approach of certain metal bands to vocal delivery, and I abhor the guttural death metal toilet bowel delivery style that bands like Lamb of God have used. Gojira frontman Joe Du Plantier’s vocals are a mix of clean and growl that I can live with. When I listen to Magma I hear Voivod; I hear their compatriots Air; I hear Spiritualised; I even hear a bit of Skip Spence. The arrangements are tight, technical and very atmospheric. Metal mightn’t be your thing and it’s a genre that seems to be viewed through the prism of the work of a number of the heavyweights from the late 1970s and 1980s. Gojira might be one of the few modern metal bands that have managed to build something outside of that figurative sarcophagus.
Suede –Night Thoughts
I picked up a ticket to see Suede play the Big Top at the Galway Arts Festival as I’d never seen them live and love their first three albums. Bowie’s influence runs deep through Suede and if their first album riffs more than a little bit off Hunky Dory well who’s complaining. It’s their second album Dog Man Star (1994) which is their deepest, most enduring and rewarding record and it’s no lie that the rest of their output has lived in its shadow. This year’s Night Thoughts is their first album to stand on its own two feet without suffering from an inferiority complex. It’s a proper long player without any obvious singles and that’s fine by me. Highlights include No Tomorrow and Like Kids. The album’s release was accompanied by a feature film which they played during the first half of their shows earlier this year before launching into the hits. Night Thoughts was probably the big surprise of the year for me.
Teenage Fanclub – Here
For a band that have produced so many fantastic songs – and they’ve produced heaps – it’s amusing how un-rock ‘n’ roll Teenage Fanclub actually are. How can a band who have produced superb rock songs like The Concept and Alcoholiday just look and behave like a bunch of your mates from the pub who appear to be ageing as you are and have the same problems? The band will always be remembered for Grand Prix (1995) and Songs from Northern Britain (1997) – their best records by far – but they’ve produced plenty of strong material in the meantime. This year’s Here blends the mellow low-fi approach of Man Made and Shadows with the edgier pop songs from Songs from Northern Britain. Songs such as the magnificent I’m in Love, Thin Air, Hold On, The Darkest Part of the Night, and With You continue with and develop the darker lyrical themes that began to appear on Man Made and Shadows but they don’t suffer for it and sit well alongside the band’s very strong back catalogue in a live setting.
Calexico – Edge of the Sun
Ok, Edge of the Sun was released in 2015 but I wasn’t paying attention and didn’t hear it until half way through this year. I was impressed – so impressed actually that I went on a binge and bought, borrowed or stole any of their stuff that I hadn’t already heard. I enjoyed Hot Rail (2000) and Feast of Wire (2003) back in the day but as good as those records are they’re not as enduring as the album that was their template, 1998’s The Black Light. A sprawling mess of brilliance that mixes mariachi, Americana, and jazz, it’s possibly the most atmospheric album for driving through the countryside of any country in any climate at dusk. They adopted a more conventional and focused approach to their song writing with 2008’s Carried to Dust. Edge of the Sun is possibly Joey Burn’s best and most cohesive set of conventional songs yet, but they are heavily embellished with the return of their earlier Latin and mariachi influences and it works a treat.
Happy Christmas and see you in 2017.