Top Albums of 2017

Here are my favourites of the year. I think it was a fairly strong one for music, although from my perspective there were no instant classics to match the likes of Lemonade or To Pimp a Butterfly. My number one choice is a little too uneven for my liking, and try as I might I couldn’t find much jazz, metal or electronica to tickle my fancy, all of which I find disappointing. Still, I had a busy year, and I still managed to discover these 40-odd albums of good-to-great quality, without much difficulty. Which goes to show that the industry is still going strong for us poptimists. As usual, I’m sure there’s plenty I’ve missed – please feel free to share your favourites. I’m always on the lookout for more great music. Just please don’t mention Father John Misty…



1) Angaleena Presley – Wrangled

It can feel pretty lonely as a British country music fan – there are sadly too few people to share my passion with. So two years ago I attended one of Angaleena’s gigs in Bristol, and along with the 100 or so other people gathered there I was transported to another realm that was as exhilarating as any live experience I’d ever had. Angaleena embodies all that I love about the best country music: its plain-spoken everyday wisdom, its addiction to “three chords and the truth”, its striving for beauty over innovation. Wrangled is far from perfect. But Angaleena’s seeking out of her own brand of perfection within genre limitations, driven by a poignantly unrealised desire for commercial success, inspired me like nothing else in music this year. Plus “Bless My Heart” is the funniest country song since “Gravity’s a Bitch”.


2) Lana Del Rey – Lust for Life

This has the best Love/Lust duo of the year (sorry, Kendrick), and for once Lana’s ethereal voice sounds tethered to a grounded optimism. It’s long, but then who sets a stopwatch on amazing music?


3) Music From the American Epic Sessions

I loved everything about the American Epic project – the 3-part documentary series exploring the lives of some of the founders of American music, the 1-disc soundtrack, the 5-disc collection – but most of all I loved this, a 2-disc celebration of the series’ music with contemporary artists recording old and new songs using the very first recording equipment. The primitive technology means that they have to record live in the studio: one take, no multitracking, no overdubs. The results are revelatory and enormous fun. Highlights include several Jack White numbers, Nas demonstrating through his cover of “On the Road Again” that gangsta rap is as old as time, Ashley Monroe sweetly duetting with a sonorous cello on “Jubilee”, and Beck sounding like he’s discovered gospel for the first time on “Fourteen Rivers, Fourteen Floods”. But there’s so much more.


4) Randy Newman – Dark Matter

This cynical old bastard just keeps on getting funnier – and as he gets funnier, remarkably, he also gets sweeter. Dark Matter summarises the state of the world in 2017 pretty well, one in which Putin naturally gets centre stage, much to any thinking person’s dismay. Yet it finds redemption in curious places. Not least in the pathos of “She Chose Me”, which could easily have appeared on the Toy Story 2 soundtrack.


5) Fever Ray – Plunge

Take the plunge into this sometimes harsh, dissonant electropop and come out drenched in erotica and right-on political creeds to quote at your enemies. Go on, I dare you.


6) Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.

I resisted for a while, because I missed the deeper funk of To Pimp a Butterfly, but it’s damn hard to resist the pull of the greatest rapper alive. There’s simply no doubt that this is the most lyrically engrossing album of the year: profound, interconnected, mysterious, and of course challenging, like all of the best art. I still find it a tad musically inconsistent. But it’s the earworms of “DNA.”, “LOYALTY.”, “LOVE.”, and several others that keep me coming back again and again to explore the words.


7) The xx – I See You

So gentle it’s easy to miss. Indeed, it’s been passed over in many EOY lists. Yet its calmness bespeaks a confidence: the band use samples without worrying about dullards in the indie circle who bark on about “real music”, and their songcraft this time around has a hopeful romanticism about it. Their sound is forming an ever-clearer vocabulary of its own, that is nevertheless always evolving. And I’m all on board.


8) Sampha – Process

Proof that nice guys don’t always finish last. He’s the most promising Mercury Prize winner since The xx. He sketches soundscapes with vivid imagination, shading them with snatches of melody that are usually affecting. Many want him to come through and change the R&B world, but I merely want him to be himself, because the self that comes through is so scintillating.


9) The Magnetic Fields – 50 Song Memoir

50 songs covering 50 years of Stephin Merritt’s life rarely get tiresome, even as the music flits from style to style, e.g. from solo ukulele to disco to new wave pop. Though it’s not a straightforward A to B autobiography, covering musings on various other topics, its autobiographical details when they come are always lovingly and humorously sketched, maximising emotional involvement.


10) Old 97’s – Graveyard Whistling

In which Rhett Miller thanks God for Irish Whiskey and Pretty Girls, and God (a woman) tells him to behave himself. Yea verily, the time has come in this band’s life to contemplate their own mortality, just like countless others before them. Luckily they’re no hacks and their sturdy country-rock, the best by far this side of the Drive-By Truckers, is up to the task.


11) The New Pornographers – Whiteout Conditions

12) Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit – The Nashville Sound

13) Conor Oberst – Salutations

14) Sleater-Kinney – Live in Paris

15) Paramore – After Laughter

16) Tinariwen – Elwan

17) The National – Sleep Well Beast

18) The Bob’s Burgers Music Album

19) Sunny Sweeney – Trophy


21) Courtney Barnett & Kurt Vile – Lotta Sea Lice

22) Orchestra Baobab – Tribute to Ndiouga Dieng

23) Jlin – Black Origami

24) Jay-Z – 4:44

25) Chuck Berry – Chuck

26) Hamell on Trial – Tackle Box

27) Syd – Fin

28) Saint Etienne – Home Counties

29) Nicole Atkins – Goodnight Rhonda Lee


31) Starlito & Don Trip – Step Brothers THREE

32) Mount Eerie – A Crow Looked at Me

33) Margo Price – Weakness EP

34) Swet Shop Boys – Sufi La

35) Trio Da Kali & Kronos Quartet – Ladilikan

36) Alvvays – Antisocialites

37) Prophets of Rage – Prophets of Rage

38) Dawn Oberg – Nothing Rhymes With Orange

39) Charli XCX – Pop 2

40) Withered Hand & A Singer of Songs – Among Horses I

41) Whitney Rose – South Texas Suite

42) Sheer Mag – Need to Feel Your Love


Top 10 Songs of 2017


I love lists, always have done. But let’s face it, they’re a pretty ridiculous exercise in trying to exert order over chaos. Why do these 10 songs, out of all the tens of thousands released this year, particularly appeal to me? I can try to explain, but really there’s no logical explanation. They just hit me in the gut, and make me want to scream about them from a rooftop. It’s that latter part that makes this all worthwhile – it’s fun to scream about things you love. And maybe you’ll find 1 or 2 songs here that you wouldn’t have otherwise known about had a madman not been screaming about them from a rooftop.

Probably not though. Most likely you’ll look at these 10 songs and think “ok then” and move on with your lives. Which I’m cool with. But as they mean the world to me, prepare to be shouted at. Here goes:


1) The New Pornographers – High Ticket Attractions

Proof, if any more were needed, that bouncing male and female vocals against each other atop joyously modulated waves of synthetic music, with a killer rhythm section and hooks thrown in for good measure, creates guaranteed jubilation. Like much of the best pop music, what this band says matters far less than how they’re saying it. And like much of the best recent indie, how they’re saying it is with a goofy grin and a tongue-in-cheek nod back to 80s pop. It’s pastiche done right. So right.


2) Kendrick Lamar – DNA

The double helix around which the rest of the album revolves. The themes of Loyalty, Lust, God, and all the others, so vital to Kendrick’s vision of himself at this moment in time, all pop up in various forms. So if you were going to save just one song from the album, this would be it. It epitomises everything else. And oh yeah, it’s also the catchiest and has the slinkiest beat to boot.


3) Conor Oberst – Napalm

If you’re going to crib from someone, might as well be a genius like Dylan. And if you’re going to crib from Dylan, might as well be his “wild mercury” sound from Blonde on Blonde – it’s so distinctive, so magical. Luckily Conor Oberst has the talent and the backing musicians to pull it off; with added snottiness, this could easily have fit onto that great double album. Yet here it is in 2017, proudly serving as the highlight of Oberst’s underrated (he’s always been underrated) Salutations. It’s a must-hear for anyone who still clings on to that musty old dream we call rock n’ roll.


4) Fever Ray – To the Moon and Back

Chipmunk-styled synths would normally make sane people snigger, but not in this case. Because this is the most powerfully erotic song of the year, squeaking its way towards an unbridled ecstasy that’s seemingly related to Fever Ray’s recent divorce and her subsequent release of homosexual energies. “I want to run my fingers up your pussy” she declares, and the surging musical backdrop makes that idea sound every bit as exhilarating as her voice portends.

There’s a bonus for Donald Trump in the music video; just check out the golden showers, sir!


5) Lorde – Green Light

As far as I’m concerned, this is the second time Lorde’s topped a pretty good album with its irresistible lead single. I’m in the minority, I accept, but in the future when I fancy me some 2017 Lorde, I’ll likely just play this one and stop. Why go downhill from such a high?


6) Khalid – Young Dumb & Broke

He ain’t dumb or especially broke no more, and he won’t be young for much longer. This look back to goofing about with relationships in high school tacks refreshingly away from the opposable perils of nostalgia and cynicism. Instead, it manages to steer a perfect course through lazy memories of adolescence, guiding listeners unsentimentally through their own.


7) Randy Newman – The Great Debate

In which the irascible equal-opportunities-offender puts everyone on trial in the form of a debate: believers, atheists, straw men, Randy Newman… Who wins? Come off it. This is satire, so everyone looks worse coming out than they did going in. Brilliantly arranged for maximum comedic impact, I’ve yet to tire of this elaborate joke, which is less a song than an operetta, complete with distinct movements separated by recitative.



With its demented sax riff and boogie-inducing rhythmic propulsion, this is my favourite of the many tracks released across BROCKHAMPTON’s three SATURATION albums this year. Seeking to redefine the label of “boy band”, which they assigned to themselves, they lay out their clearest statement of intent within this track’s madness: “Best boy band since One Direction/Makin’ niggas itch like a skin infection”. Um, does that count as lucid? Perhaps not. But it makes me giggle – these young hip-hop hopefuls really are a lot of unruly fun.


9) N*E*R*D – Lemon

Like most of the tracks on N*E*R*D’s latest album, the ace up this one’s sleeve is its guest star. True, it manages to work up a sweat all on its own, thanks to the Neptunes’ production which works an irresistible beat that feels like it could suddenly bounce off in any direction – just like dropping a lemon. But it’s Rihanna who gives “Lemon” its life force. She breezes in sounding like the baddest motherfucker in the world, which she undoubtedly is. Her frosty flow is so self-assured it commands the attention every time, like Jay-Z at his best. Her swagger’s always been perfect for hip-hop, and here the production is strong enough to help maintain her at career peak level, which began with last year’s ANTI and I hope won’t end any time soon.


10) Sampha – (No One Knows Me) Like the Piano

Piano ballads are treacherous ground for most people, but most people don’t have the keen ear of Sampha. He knows just how much to plink away at your heartstrings with his chosen instrument, the one that’s in his mother’s room and now reminds him of her absence (she passed away from cancer). His voice doesn’t go too far into over-emoting; it goes just far enough to suit the purpose of the song. It’s a triumph of exquisite judgment.

Courtney Barnett & Kurt Vile: Lotta Sea Lice (2017) – Album Review

Lotta Sea Lice.jpg

Lackadaisical charm personified, this album deserves to be played next to chestnuts roasting on an open fire. It’s a warm record where the underlying theme is companionship, despite the fact that there’s a cover of Belly’s appositely titled “Untogether”. Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile manage to turn that indie downer and most of what else they touch (each other’s songs, new songs, and especially Barnett’s wife’s song) into good-natured noises in the extreme. It’s the opposite of Eminem’s latest, in other words.

Recorded in Melbourne, these intercontinental friends share a knack for songwriting that appears offhand but, particularly in the case of Barnett, is actually rich in illuminating details. They also share a, shall we say, tangential interest in singing, their lazy drawls (those hooked to more conventional singing should look elsewhere) easily blurring into each other on this album. Which works fine, because the general atmosphere is so hazy and relaxed anyway. And because their guitars prod and play with each other amidst the haze in such a way as to keep one’s interest; some of the licks have had a way of teasing their way in and out of my consciousness for several days now, always with a pleasing effect.

Lotta Sea Lice starts off with a bum note, however. “Over Everything” is too long and has too much Kurt Vile (Barnett is the superior songwriter), both of which could be fair accusations of the album as a whole. Because the album’s tone is one-note, and no matter how pleasing that one note might be, perhaps this would’ve hit harder as a mini-EP?

Maybe. But there are at least 5 tracks that I would have had to insist remain: “Continental Breakfast” is an acoustic delight and one of the most touching odes to friendship since “Two of Us”, “Blue Cheese” is laugh-out-loud silly, “Peepin’ Tom” is gender-bending of the highest order and contains Barnett’s best vocal performance to date, and the aforementioned cover of “Untogether” vaults over the song’s meaning to find a deeper resonance in the aurally evident enjoyment of the two working together as friends.

Skip one or two tracks if you must. Or just press play and let its affable charms wash over you, unabated, as you flick through photos of your old friends, and are reminded of one of the key reasons to live – even more important than music.


Fever Ray: Plunge (2017) – Album Review


“Hey, remember me?/I’ve been busy working like crazy.”

That lyric applies to me here in China, working away at learning how to be an effective teacher, but it applies far more to Fever Ray.

One half of the brother-sister electronic duo The Knife, it’s been four years since their last album and eight years since Ray’s eponymous solo debut. So maybe you could accuse her of slack, but you’d be wrong; just listen to this new album and it will become self-evident how hard she’s been working at perfecting her craft.

Plunge may be the Swedish auteur’s most triumphant work of individualism to date. Always the more intriguing half of The Knife, she takes her electronic wizardry and carefully articulated vocals to new heights, and then douses it all in the kerosene that is her personality.

Where Fever Ray was a slow, sombre meditation on marriage and motherhood, Plunge erupts with a midlife vitality borne from the ashes of turmoil. Because, as 42-year-old Fever Ray, a.k.a. Karin Dreijer, confirmed to The Guardian in November: “Yes, I got divorced… This [album] is about freedom, and curiosity. Now I think it’s absolutely possible to create a family that isn’t a nuclear one.”

So Plunge is the sound of her explicitly breaking free from those domestic shackles, breaking free into the wider world again. In fact, it goes even further than that: it breaks free not just from the concept of marriage, but also from the idea of heterosexuality.

Plunge isn’t a “coming out” album per se, but it’s clearly a party thrown to celebrate the queer aspects of Dreijer’s identity. The most ecstatic moments come from sexual unions with women: “I want to run my fingers up your pussy” she declares, as a chorus of jubilant synths voice their approval, on the BDSM fantasy of “To the Moon and Back”. “She makes me feel dirty again” she sings with a sly confidence on “Falling”. And then there’s “A Part of Us”, set in a gay club, which is described as a “safe space”. Why? Because there’s “No disrespectful gaze.”

What makes this album so interesting is the apparently conflicting ideas of danger and safety combining in queer spaces to provide an electrifying union of sexual and romantic possibility. That’s what you can see in the video for “To the Moon and Back”, the album’s first single, in which the alluring (for some) transgressions of a BDSM gathering take place in the most innocent of settings: a tea party. And that same duality is all over the album: compare the fetishistic urgency of a song like “This Country” (“Gag me, awake my fighting spirit”) with the almost banal pronouncement of affection of a song like “Mama’s Hand” (“The final puzzle piece/The little thing called love”).

The frissons of sexual excitement and romantic possibility in the air, despite her frequent acknowledgments of heartbreak (“Wanna Sip” can be painful to listen to), give Fever Ray’s music huge reserves of confidence and buoys up the overall atmosphere. It’s a world away from the funereally paced and haunting dirges of Fever Ray. The beats are generally fast and punchy, the electronics upbeat and vivacious. It’s hard not to get caught up in the infectiously positive vibes. The great “IDK About You”, for instance, rips along at 150 BPM, seemingly denying the uncertainty of its subject matter through the vigour of a musical whirlwind.

It’s her most consistent set of songs to date, including the 5-minute instrumental title track, which several listens have taught me to respect as essential to the album’s narrative. Its ever-changing rhythmic backdrop captures the uncertainty of this moment in Fever Ray’s life, but its strength manages to convey how she will power through regardless. It’s a “Plunge” into the unknown that close listening reveals to sound truly exhilarating, and is vindicated by the celebratory “To the Moon and Back” that follows it.

If Ray’s style is still a little too arch for my tastes, a little too wilfully bizarre, well, that fault is probably my own. Because objectively speaking I admire every single one of these 11 tracks. And subjectively speaking, I enjoy returning to over half of them. Which is plenty.

Plus, there’s the very best political jibe of the year: “This country makes it hard to fuck”.

And she lives in Sweden!


Harmonium (2016) – Film Review


It’s that time of year again when every blogger is weighing up their ‘best of’ lists and scrolling through others to find out what they’ve missed. That’s why I leave my lists to the very end of December; I know there’s always more great stuff to be found. I’m never going to be able to catchy every worthy film, no amateur reviewer is, but it’s the effort that counts, because it uncovers hidden gems like this one.

Harmonium is a tragedy in miniature, impressively written and directed by Kōji Fukada. It won the Un Certain Regard Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival last year, and despite that honour it had only a very limited cinema release in the UK, hence explaining why I missed it.

It concerns a family whose discord is evident from the very first scene: Akie (Mariko Tsutsui) and her daughter Hotaru (Momone Shinokawa) say grace at the dinner table as the man of the house Toshio (Kanji Furutachi) carries on eating. Conflicting worldviews are established without a single word passing between husband and wife. It reminds me of the opening of Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman, in which a shattered window foreshadowed the widening cracks in a seemingly content relationship. Here the mood is just as tense underneath the surface.

We find out that the girl, Hotaru, plays the instrument of the title and is going to appear in a concert. In order to perform, her hands must be able to play in harmony. Likewise, in order to perform the function of a working family, this trio must harmonise. Are they able to do so?

Well, it’s certainly thrown into doubt when a friend of Toshio’s, Yasaka (Tadanobu Asano), a man with a shady past, comes to the door seeking a job and lodging. Toshio obliges his friend, and we sense that this is not just because of the Japanese custom of politeness, but because he is atoning for a sin of his own from the past.

Yasaka seems to be a man of harmony: he is calm, collected, and is always wearing the same white shirt tucked into black trousers – he’s a picture of elegance and decorum. Yet he moves stiffly, as if weighed down by some burden, which indeed he is. And this burden will latch itself onto Toshio and his family, plunging them deep into a river of discontent, in which they might well suffocate.

Kōji Fukada directs his melodramatic story with a poise as careful as Yasaka’s, ready to pounce on an unsuspecting audience and shock them. He’s no Hitchcock – suspense is limited to one or two long tracking shots. But he maintains a constant gnawing sense of unease, one that remains right up until the tragic-farcical conclusion. And it’s to his credit that this unease sticks around hours after the credits have finished rolling.

Biblical themes of Catholic guilt and eternal damnation are dealt with, yet never heavy-handedly, and the ensemble cast convincingly portrays a dissatisfaction with life’s vicissitudes that manages to universalise these religious underpinnings. In this way, it reminds me of Leviathan, a film which also showed how momentary slips from the past, a.k.a. sins, can bubble up to deny redemption.

Harmonium isn’t as powerful as that film; it doesn’t have the same self-righteous anger. Yet it works very well as a study of one family who live as if they’re playing a harmonium with hands out of sync, and tragically it seems they always will be.


Marjorie Prime (2017) – Film Review

I haven’t posted in a while – partly because of settling in to life in China, partly because I’ve struggled to find worthy films to review. Here’s one.

It’s everything that Blade Runner 2049 should have been and more, and at just a fraction of its budget: a genuinely contemplative science-fiction film that’s also a moving meditation on the nature of memory and reality. Written and directed by Michael Almereyda, it’s an adaptation of a Pulitzer Prize-nominated play by Jordan Harrison about a family who use holographic projections (a.k.a. “primes”) to replace deceased relatives in their squeaky-clean luxurious home by the sea.

Marjorie (Lois Smith) is an elderly woman in the early stages of dementia who takes some comfort in talking to the hologram of a 40 year-old version of her deceased husband, Walter (Jon Hamm). She lives with her daughter Tess (Geena Davis) and son-in-law Jon (Tim Robbins), who later on will make use of similar “primes” to cope with losses of their own.

As there’s always been something distant about Jon Hamm, you never really question or forget that he’s a projection rather than a real human being in this film. And what’s interesting is that Marjorie never forgets it either – she always talks to him on two levels, on one level as if he really is Walter, and on another simultaneously aware that he isn’t. It’s the same technique we use to watch films: we interact with a film’s “reality”, taking its stories seriously, whilst also being aware that it’s definitely not real. Pretending in this way might just help us to cope with problems in our own lives; looking at fake projections is a form of therapy. And similarly, Marjorie copes with her grief by interacting with a fake, youthful hologram of the husband that she’s lost. It’s make-believe, but that doesn’t make it any less useful or therapeutic.

Lois Smith is really rather wonderful as Marjorie, a character that crackles with wit and intelligence, yet has a cold edge that gleams often in her eye, a steeliness that seems to have caused great damage to her family and in particular her daughter. To say any more would spoil the plot, what little of it there is, as the narrative pivots unexpectedly twice. Part of what makes the film so satisfying is adjusting to these jolts.

Like an Ingmar Bergman film, Marjorie Prime accrues emotional weight merely by having characters talk to one another, exposing their inner flaws and long-held grievances towards each other. And like many a play, much of the key action is held offstage, which means you really have to concentrate. Yet the long-held shots that linger on the character’s faces (real or not) and the remote beach locale in which much of the action is set, plus the lush string-laden score by Mica Levi, help to inject a cinematic flow into what is otherwise a stagey affair.

Indeed, some of the dialogue translates badly onto film, creating a few clumsy interactions that can damage your suspension of disbelief a little, which as we know is crucial – when this happens, the holograms onscreen are exposed for the actors they really are.

What’s worse, it winds up concluding in a scene that is too enigmatic for its own good; like The Tree of Life, its reaching for higher metaphors winds up deadening the overall emotional impact.

Which is not to say that you won’t be moved multiple times before the denouement. In particular, I was touched by the film’s portrayal of an old woman, for once, as a complicated web of personality traits, only one of which is adorably cantankerous. So it joins Amour in the list of films that manage to look at the ageing process unflinchingly – a list that I hope will grow, because it’s a rich, relatively untapped area for filmmakers to explore.

If there’s a finer film about memory this year, I don’t remember it.


Update on My Blog

I’ve been absent on here for a few weeks, and there’s a good reason for that… I’M MOVING TO CHINA! Tomorrow!!

I’m going to teach English in Guangzhou, which is the largest city in the south – it’s pretty near to Hong Kong. Needless to say, I’ve been busy getting my work visa and everything else sorted, so I haven’t been able to keep up with as many new films and albums as I’d like to. What I have caught up with hasn’t inspire me to write about them, either, which is another reason I’ve been silent. I was looking forward to writing about Blade Runner 2049, being a huge fan of the original, but frankly I don’t think it’s good enough. The critical adoration it’s received makes me feel a little uneasy, as it tends to overlook huge problems with the pacing, acting, dialogue, and even some of the basic plot elements. I don’t get, I just plain don’t get, certain critics who have said that it’s a better film than the original – it’s not even better than Logan, which is a far from perfect film, but is still my favourite blockbuster in what’s been a very disappointing year.

Another reason I’ve been quiet lately is that I’ve started writing for The Young Folks, an American reviews website. It’s voluntary, but it’s a lot of fun as I’ve been able to write pieces on older music that I love as well as more recent stuff. Here’s my review of Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers LP in case you’re interested, and my review of Tricky’s latest (mediocre) album ununiform that I wrote for them. I’ve just finished a piece on Bruce Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love which was a joy to revisit and write about, it should be up soon.

The final reason I haven’t been posting on here lately is that I’ve been editing a film that I made with my grandma, interviewing her friends, older people, about their views on Brexit. The results were fascinating, because in my hometown of Lewes most older people actually voted to Remain and were horrified by the outcome of the referendum, unlike the rest of the country where older people were much more likely to vote Leave. That’s because it’s a middle class community full of retired academics from Sussex University and London, what the Daily Mail would describe as ‘elites’ no doubt. But they’ve lived through a lot, most of them through WWII and all of them through the formation of the EU, so I think they’re worthwhile and fascinating to listen to, and you can often feel the weight of history hanging over their carefully chosen words. Here’s the video, in case you’re interested:

I haven’t decided what to do with this blog while I’m in China; censorship and a shortage of cinemas will sadly make reviewing films a lot trickier, and I don’t know how much of my listening time the music reviews for The Young Folks will end up taking. It’s possible I could start writing about my experiences of teaching in China instead. We’ll see.

But I’ll carry on coming over to WordPress to check out what you’re all doing, for sure. And if you don’t hear from me for a while, I wish you all the best in the near future and hope y’all carry on with your excellent blogging work.

Prophets of Rage: Prophets of Rage (2017) – Album Review


Public Enemy + Cypress Hill + Rage Against the Machine = FUCK TRUMP3.

So goes the formula for this group, formed during last year’s appalling US election campaign, which smashes Chuck D and DJ Lord from Public Enemy, B-Real from Cypress Hill, Tom Morello and the rhythm section from Rage Against the Machine, all together in a Hadron Collider of rage.

Don’t use the word ‘supergroup’ though – as Tom Morello told Rolling Stone last year: ‘We’re not a supergroup, we’re an elite force of revolutionary musicians determined to confront this mountain of election year bullshit, and confront it head-on with Marshall stacks blazing.’

Erm, ok then Tom. To be fair, I do understand what he’s trying to say – most supergroups are formed in order to massage their member’s egos and make them feel self-important, whereas Prophets of Rage have a specific purpose that exists outside of themselves, which is to create a ‘revolution’ I guess. Yep, I’m being snide: I don’t believe these chaps are any more capable of starting a genuine revolution than Russell Brand.

But then I like Russell Brand, quite a bit actually, because he’s the rare celebrity who genuinely cares about improving himself and the world around him, even if his confusion and egocentrism often gets in the way of results. What’s more, he talks in a genuinely musical way, with a casual poetry that is quite absorbing on a surface level.

So it is too with Prophets of Rage: they don’t have the discipline to really change the world, but anyone expecting that from them is missing the real satisfaction, which is at the surface level: they’re rock stars and they rock pretty fucking hard. Anyone looking to rock stars to effect genuine change is delusional at best, so just sit back and enjoy the ride. If it gives you an outlet for expressing repressed anger about the current political scene, that’s great, but don’t expect any Trump fans to suddenly jump on board the progress train because a rap-metal album is yelling ‘No hatred! Fuck racists!’ at them (the chorus of ‘Unfuck the World’).

Me, I hate Trump and the way the world is going so much that I’m thankful for any soundtrack to vent my frustrations, and this album does the trick. Even if it never comes close to the subtlety of It Takes a Nation of Millions, the fist-pumping calls to action here make you feel a part of a community who genuinely care, if only for 40 minutes. Then it’s back to watching the news and feeling western democracy’s collective sanity eroding away…

It gets me pissed off and head-banging more than any other metal album I’ve heard this year, which is a good thing, when that anger is channelled into a cause rather than directionless, as is the case with so much heavy metal. And if Tom Morello falls back on his collection of sound effects rather than communicating genuine revolutionary fervour on his solos, the Rage Against the Machine rhythm section is the musical highlight here, particularly Tim Commerford on bass who funks it up to provide the catchiest moments – check him out on ‘Unfuck the World’ and ‘Smashit’.

His funk also allows the band’s roar to accommodate the three rappers, who manage to react with their heavy metal without combusting. Predictably, Chuck D is the most absorbing to listen to, his indomitable bass being one of the most consistent pleasures in musical history. Yet B-Real arguably gets more chances to shine, adding a touch of lightness on the weed-supporting ‘Legalize Me’ and then suddenly getting serious about homelessness on ‘Living on the 110’ to prove he’s not just a Flavor Flav. The difference of their unmistakeable timbres makes for intrinsic interest throughout.

I wish they’d call out Donald Trump more often, and by name. But as a collection of political sloganeering it has the same chant-along power of RATM’s ‘fuck you I won’t do what you tell me!’ It’s far more likely to move drugged-up crowds at a festival than get people marching on Washington, true. But then, ever since the 60s, that tradition has gifted us with a lot of terrific music, and if this doesn’t stand with any of the hippie-era’s greats, it’ll do the trick just fine at this awful moment in time.


The Bob’s Burgers Music Album (2017) – Album Review

The Bob's Burgers Music Album.png

After writing yesterday’s post about The National’s new album I was reminded to revisit this collection, in which the band feature on a bonus EP called ‘Bob’s Buskers’ (along with St. Vincent and Stephin Merritt) singing songs from the show. To hear the perennially humourless Matt Berninger cooing along to ‘Bad Stuff Happens in the Bathroom’ is an unmissable treat, especially for those who take indie-rock’s pretensions with a pinch of bath water salt.

The rest of The Bob Burger’s Music Album is comprised of 107 original songs taken from the acerbic and potty-mouthed American animated sitcom about a family who run a burger joint. The average length of the tracks is just over a minute – they make their point quickly and leave in a rush. As such, for those who aren’t well acquainted with the show, the experience of sitting and listening to them all in order can be an overwhelming experience, an onslaught of silly voices and fart jokes rushing by without subtlety or grace. The first time I listened all the way through it gave me a headache.

But revisiting it has assured me of the quality of the music here. An ace review over on The Skinny describes, better than a non-fanatic such as myself ever could, the importance of music to the show’s overall scheme. Bob’s son is supposed to be some kind of 11 year-old musical genius, a modern-day Mozart obsessed with scatology and cheap pop songs, and as such great care has been taken to make the satirical numbers genuinely musical, in honour of his genius. There are chirpy pastiches of James Brown (‘Funky Finger’), riot grrrl (‘Bad Girls’), musical theatre (‘Work Hard or Die Trying, Girl’), and country (‘I’ll Trade You These Tears/I Won’t Go Solo On You), to name a few. There are covers of pop perennials such as ‘One Way or Another’, ’99 Red Balloons’, and ‘Don’t You Forget About Me’ (changed to ‘Don’t You Love Cotton Candy’). All of these homages are, surprisingly, very respectfully done – the satire never descends into being needlessly gloating or cruel. And the production is just wonderful, crisp and clear, and with superb musicianship audible, particularly on the bass guitar and banjo which appear throughout. The ditties all have bounce, and are crafted with care: this is no cash-in hack job.

As for the jokes, they come thick and fast too, so it takes quite a few listens to catch most of them. Again, not being a fanatic of the show, I’m sure I missed a lot more. But there are many that tickle me: ‘The Prince of Persuasia’ is a laugh-a-second riot from the perspective of a douchebag misogynist dating guru (like Tom Cruise in Magnolia), ‘T-I-N-A’ is an acronym that ends with ‘Asthma’, ‘Taffy Butt’ reels Cyndi Lauper in for her best performance since 1983’s She’s So Unusual, and ‘The Spirits of Christmas’ has Kevin Kline repeating ‘bourbon’ until it starts to sound like ‘burping’ in a truly surreal coup.

There are plenty of missteps, but that’s just the nature of these kind of rapid-fire comedy skits, and a remarkable number really do hit the mark. It may be impossible to sit and listen to the whole thing in one sitting, but when you split it up into digestible chunks, it transforms into really top-notch entertainment.

And it proves once and for all that ‘if it ain’t man on elephant love, it ain’t worth singin’ about!’


The National: Sleep Well Beast (2017) – Album Review


The cliché about bands like these is that they’re ‘growers’, i.e. you have to play their albums quite a few times before they begin to make sense. That cliché happens to be true with The National. Put on any of their discs and the first thing you’ll notice is Matt Berninger’s mumbling baritone, which can be quite alienating in how it drolly resists emotional affectations.

But give them a fair chance and the music starts to blossom – including Berninger’s vocals, which like so many rock singer’s gain heft when you start to notice how astutely they pivot on his natural-born limitations. There’s a great moment for instance on Sleep Well Beast where Berninger sings about seeing his wife, Carin Besser (who co-wrote many of the songs), for the first time: ‘I wanted to ask if you could stay’, and he deliberately misses the note on ‘stay’, making him sound just like an immature little boy afraid to ask his crush out on a date. It works; moments like these accrue until you start to become pretty impressed with what you’re hearing.

The other easy entry point for newbies is Bryan Devendorf’s drumming, which is obviously virtuosic without ever being distracting, and conjures up unusual rhythms whilst tricking you by repeating them until they sound obvious. Noticing his distinctive patters can lift The National’s music from being just good background music into your foreground consciousness, and once it’s there you can then begin to notice other excellent things such as Aaron Dessner’s guitar and the subtle musical arrangements. On this album, orchestral flourishes and electronic distortions on the intros and outros subtly comment on the moodscape being created, without ever dipping into fullblown melodrama, as Elbow tend to do, a band with whom they are frequently (for some reason) compared.

I think the first half of Sleep Well Beast is their best work to date. On ‘Day I Die’ they reach the level of genuinely anthemic for the first time, with Berninger’s best-ever vocal searching for an answer to the moving question ‘The day I die/Where will we be?’, his voice projecting the last word harder than he’s ever done before, into the uncertain future that his mind is conjuring up in a weed-induced haze. ‘Walk it Back’ is a rather alarming mumble-rap in which Berninger at last sounds as ancient as Leonard Cohen used to, and where he’s interrupted by a truly bizarre sample of Karl Rove (senior advisor to George W. Bush) talking about ‘creating other new realities’ that proves the concept of ‘alternative facts’ is nothing new (Rove hated the song, which is perhaps its most glowing endorsement). Lead single ‘The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness’ finds space for Aaron Dessner’s stinging guitar solo, lighting up spectacularly in order to contravene the idea of total darkness. And ‘Turtleneck’ is a straight-up garage rocker, wild and unhinged and finished in just 3 minutes, a flash in the pan where the band are normally content to simmer.

These are all career highlights; the pace doesn’t sustain. Although Dessner’s piano playing is real nice throughout, it dominates far too many of the ballads on the album’s second half, undermining the band’s usually spare aesthetic. Most of the tracks towards the end meander onwards way too long. They wander off into the rumbling darkness and tend to get lost, particularly on the title track, and the lyrics aren’t quite interesting enough to save them.

Still, this deserves a promoted place amongst their oeuvre, and the first half of the album (plus ‘Guilty Party’ and ‘Dark Side of the Gym’ on side two) should keep you coming back.