Becoming a parent means that 2018 has provided much less time to listen to music than what I would consider normal; which I suspect will become the new normal. (So much so that this review is not even being written in 2018, regardless of what the publish date says.) This means most of my choices this year come from a much smaller selection than usual, and contain fewer finds that seem to come out of the blue from hours of semi-random listening.
Still, 2018 has provided a few opportunities to explore something new; the first was from Elija Wald’s The Blues: A Very Short Introduction, which introduced a lot of songs that trace the history of the Blues. I’ve been aware of the Blues for as long as I can remember hearing music, and its strong influence on current music, but less about it’s history and origins. While, as the name suggests, only a short introduction, as someone who knows almost nothing about the history of the Blues, it was very interesting, especially the early blurred beginnings between professional performers and amateurs, the ideas passing back and forth. Contrary to what I used to think, this means there’s not really such a thing as ‘pure’ or ‘original’ blues untouched by popular performance, as early blues evolved in both environments at the same time.
The second came from a Mix Mag article and playlist charting the history of dance music, through 50 albums, with a suggested track for each. Again, a genre of which I understand little, and while having tried previously, never really found a good route in. Perhaps this is it, it certainly helped listening to the song with a bit of context, and being guided from one to the next to hear the evolution in styles and sounds.
The last was reading Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born to Run’ autobiography, and listening to the related songs on ‘Chapter and Verse’. Unlike the above, there is already a lot of music from Springsteen that I’ve heard before, but it did reveal some material I didn’t know. It’s also a fascinating autobiography that details how focused and driven he was from an early age to make a living writing and performing music, as well as his song writing process and experiences.
Here’s this year’s playlist , with the usual bonus tracks so it’s not over as soon as it starts.
If you see the same parts of the Internet I do, then IDLES have been almost impossible to avoid, but with good reason. They hit that sweet spot of raw high energy music, and live performance, with smart, comic and political lyrics. The best single example of this is ‘Never Fight A Man With A Perm’, cutting, powerful and still funny, it’s a great summary of what makes IDLES great.
Of the fifty songs on the Mix Mag list, this was my favourite. While probably no longer a typical example of Aphex Twin’s work, he’s become much more Avant Garde, its a great track. Those ticking, shifting, hi-hats are brilliant. In lots of ways it seems simple, but over the five minutes it drifts and morphs into many different things.
‘Darkness On the Edge of Town’ is an album of which I’d only previously heard songs as part of compilations, but in listening to some of Springsteen’s albums in full for the first time ‘Candy’s Room’ really leapt out. Frantic, maniac and desperate with that relentless snare drum it’s something else.
I first heard and saw Muncie Girls, what seems like a lifetime ago, in the back room of The Croft, a former, brilliantly grotty punk venue in Stokes' Croft, Bristol; I think they were supporting Crazy Arm. Whatever the reason, they were touring in 2011 after releasing Revolution Summer, an EP of great pop-punk songs (as I heard it many years ago, according to my own arbitrary and arcane rules, I can’t now recommend ‘Feel It Soon’ from that EP to you, but shhh, I didn’t say anything, go and listen to it). ‘Fixed Ideals’ is a great collection of songs, and ‘Jeremy’ especially is a catchy angry attack on an absent father, who’s lack of answers keeps chipping away at you in the dark hours of the night. The other good news is that Muncie Girls are still touring, and still great live.
So the voice. It’s the first thing that you notice, and in lots of ways I still can’t decide if it’s good or bad, but you’re certainly not going to mistake it for anyone else. There’s that vaudeville element that reminds me of Tom Waits, with the songs describing a cast of misfit characters and supernatural encounters. I can’t decide if ‘High Beams’ is being sung before or after a chance a redemption has passed by, but it’s captivating all the same.
Reading a book like ‘The Blues: A Very Short Introduction’ is great in the time of streaming services with almost infinite catalogues, as you can find almost all the songs mentioned, without needing to own an impossibly large and expensive music collection. It’s an obviously impossible job to pick out one song, or even a hundred, to that encapsulates the blues based on the new things I learnt in Elijah Wald’s book; but for the style and impact I think a Howlin’ Wolf classic is a good example. ‘Moanin’ at Midnight’ combines many elements you hear again and again in blues songs with an amazing delivery.
This year’s best album for me was IDLES ‘Joy as an Act of Rebellion’, it’s been a while since I’ve heard a band with the same kind of energy, post-punk riffs and sharp lyrics, so it was a real joy.