I was worried when I heard Bowie had gone jazz with NY sax player Donny McCaslin and his band. But this is no 70s jazz rock, nor is it cheesy cocktail grooves, or even - urgh! - fusion. Instead, it's a densely textured, darkly dynamic collection of seven songs that contains all the elements that have made the best Bowie albums so good: courage, melody, mystery, experiment, drive - and that voice.
David Bowie, "blackstar" (Sony)
The Fat White Family
A bit more synthy than their debut, this second album by the Fatsos from Brixton feels a bit like joining Donna Summer, Iggy Pop and the New York Dolls in the kitchen of a Krautrock commune circa 1973. Some of the tracks go on a bit, but the instrumental interludes with their oompah and Third Man mood are particularly welcome in their playfully confrontational bloody-mindedness.
The Fat White Family, "Songs for our Mothers" (PIAS)
Trawling through a distant corner of my collection, I chanced upon this. I'd forgotten how brilliant it is. Not amongst the favourites of Ayers Believers, I believe, "Confessions" (originally released in 1974) is a lot darker than the rest of his stuff. It's still got some whimsical bits, but it's also got "It Begins With a Blessing/it Ends With a Curse". And it's got the ice queen, Nico.
Kevin Ayers, "The Confessions of Dr. Dream and Other Stories" (Island)
The master guitarist who died in 2011 recorded this gorgeous album in the late 1970s where it duly disappeared in the fog of disinterest that made folk music pretty much invisible for a while. The six instrumental pieces, including the suite that gives the album its title, were recorded with Jansch's old Pentangle pal Danny Thompson on double bass and the superb multi-instrumentalist Martin Jenkins, ex-Dando Shaft. A re-release was long overdue.
Bert Jansch, "Avocet" (Earth)
Palehound are a guitar/drums/bass trio from Boston, based around the songwriting skills of their singer, Ellen Kempner. Inspired by her first proper love breakup, apparently, Kempner approaches her subject matter with considerable energy and ire. There are nice, quiet acoustic songs, too, but the louder ones, reminiscent somewhat of Kristin Hersh, are more memorable. An array of pedals and beautifully recorded guitars round off a fine debut album.
Palehound, "Dry Food" (Heavenly)
Dralms are a new band formed by the Canadian singer/songwriter Christopher Smith. These are beautiful songs, produced beautifully, and soaked in a deep blue bath of dub. The basses are deep, the drums hard and precise, the pauses vibrate with subtle tension, and the whooshing synths add a warmly atmospheric sense of playfulness. And then there's Smith's voice: featherlight and languid it glides across these shimmering soundscapes with magical ease.
Dralms, "Shook" (Full Time Hobby)
United Sounds of Joy
USoJ are Miraculous Mule Michael J. Sheehy together with Alex Vald who, many years ago, was a member of Sheehy's tragically underrated first outfit Dream City Film Club. Sheehy's twanging guitar and eery voice are as present as ever. This is not a sweaty blues or gospel outfit, however, but a darkly and elegantly tripping studio confection that mixes organic instruments with suitably spooky machine sounds.
United Sounds of Joy, "ditto" (Bronzerat Records)
Rob Smoughton is usually busy with Hot Chip and Scritti Politi or his alter ego Grosvenor. Now, he has assembled this devilishily funky six-piece with pedal steel and marimba to play a blend of all the old music he likes: Little Feat, Tropicalita, Wild Tchoupitoulas, Allman Brothers...Thanks to the palpable musicality and enthusiasm of everyone involved, it works brilliantly. Especially the bits where Sunny Ade gets teamed up with Manassas.
Black Peaches, "Get Down You Dirty Rascals" (1965)
This is Mark Pritchard's (Global Communication, Jedi Knights, Wiley, Africa Hitech and many more) first solo album in five years. Reviving the recording techniques of the Sixties and Seventies, he has made a richly atmospheric and varied album of drones and songs (guest vocalists: Thom Yorke, Beans, Bibio, Linda Perhacs) that is reminiscent in spirit of Eno's "Another Green World".
Mark Pritchard, "Under the Sun" (Warp)
The Oscillation have supported the likes of Wooden Shjips and Silver Apples which defines the spectre of their nebulously heavy psychedelic grooves quite nicely. This is their fourth album, and it drones along beautifully and hypnotically. And it's even got two ghost tracks tacked on way beyond the end.
The Oscillation, "Monographic"
(All Time Low/Hands in the Dark)
This one's going to devide opinion beautifully! Purson are a 7-piece formed around singer Rosalie Cunningham. The line-up includes sax, flute and cello - and there is a deeply patchouli-drenched aura of prog hovering above their juicy post-West Coast Jefferson Airplane/Curved Air/Duke Spirit crossbreed rock.
Purson, "Desire's Magic Theatre" (Spinefarm)
A six-piece led by Giant Sands' Brian Lopez and Gabriel Sullivan, Xixa play a juicy fusion of cumbia, tex-mex, rock and desert rock (Imarhan's Iyad Moussa Ben Abderahmane is a guest). There is great melodic warmth in this music as well as some fine, political lyrics ("Deadman", "Living on the Line").
Xixa, "Bloodline" (Glitterhouse)
The Hollywood Brats
The record to go with front Brat Andrew Matheson's brilliant book about the making of the record! Formed in 1972, these boozy sleaze merchants combined early Stones with the dirtiest bits of Mott and Bolan and a hefty dollop of make-up. The LP's been lost in a dank basement since then. No longer - and what a joyous riot is! And their Brady turns out to be my Kilburn pub pal Brady.
The Hollywood Brats, "Sick on You"
Ex-Fanfarlo Cathy Lucas's poly-cultural new outfit combines a love of old-style synths and pedals with a delight in percussive improvisation, rollicking good grooves and all manner of peculiar sounds. There's a hint of Broadcast, a smidgeon of Gorillaz and even an op-arty allusion to the Bonzo's "Tadpoles" on the sleeve. Very satisfyingly and robustly otherworldly.
Vanishing Twin, "Choose Your Own Adventure"
Lookman Adekunle Salami likes his Dylan early and his acoustic guitar plucked. Dextrous with words and fingers, he follows in a line of folky singer/songwriters from Guthrie via Bragg to Johnny Lynch. A fine band - piano, mandolin, that kind of thing - helps with arrangements to add welcome variety to the overall sound. Excellent stuff.
L.A. Salami, "Dancing With Bad Grammar"
Billy Bragg & Joe Henry
I love the concept: getting on the LA train in Chicago, getting off every once in a while and sing a song from the great catalogue of American railway songs in an impromptu station location. Songs by the likes of Woody G., John Hartford and Gordon Lightfoot.
Billy Brag & Joe Henry, "Shine a Light"
Teddy Thompson & Kelly Jones
Richard and Linda's son gets together with the American singer/songwriter Kelly Jones to record a lovely set of refreshingly and uncomplicatedly well-crafted Everly Bros/Buddy Holly-style songs devoid of zeitgeist, hip-hop beats or digital wizzardry.
Teddy Thompson & Kelly Jones,
"Little Windows" (Cooking Vinyl)
My playlist page is sparsely populated this year. The reason for this is not at all a waning of interest in new music, it's just that my involvement with the Cooking Vinyl book project completely took over my listening habits. Back to normal soon.
1) David Bowie, "Black Star"
2) Nick Cave, "Skeleton Tree"
3) Klaus Johann Grobe,"Spagat der Liebe"
4) Xixa, "Bloodline"
5) Purson, "Desire's Magic Theatre"
6) Damien Jurado, "Visions of Us On The Land"
7) L.A. Salami, "Dancing With Bad Grammar"
8) Imarhan, "Imarhan"
9) Shirley Collins, "Lodestar"
10) Vanishing Twin, "Choose Your Own Adventure"
11) Radiohead, "Moon Shaped Pool"
12) Fat White Family, "Songs for Our Mothes"
13) Black Mountain, "IV"
14) Virginia Wing, "Foward Constant Motion"
15) Daniel Romero, "Mosey"
16) The Magnetic North, "Prospect of Skelmersdale"
17) Fear of Men, "Fall Forever"
18) Billy Bragg & Joe Henry, "Shine a Light"
19) Emma Pollock, "Parks and Recreation"
20) Let's Eat Grandma, "I, Gemini"
My Top 20 for 2016
Warhaus, "We Fucked a Flame Into Being"
What a ridiculous and yet smug album title! And the music, a vacuous pile of super-calculated hipster bar crud with a singer who fancies himself as a master of laid-back cool. Nasty.