Best Albums of 2013

          Midnight At The Wheel Club - Cover


Country, Americana and melancholy baritone singer-songwriters loom large in my Top Ten albums of 2013.

The album of the year accolade goes to London-based act Dead Flowers, for their astonishing debut record Midnight At The Wheel Club.

Recorded late at night, in wintry conditions, it’s a collection of dark, intimate, haunting and confessional songs, inspired by gravel-voiced singer/songwriter Ian Williams’ travels through New York and Montreal.

Ian Williams - Dead Flowers
Ian Williams – Dead Flowers

Set against a backdrop of the spooky, deserted Coney Island funfair, the songs Wonderwheel and The Beach are gorgeous, folk-tinged tunes, while the stunning, piano-led ballad Supernova is the saddest song I’ve heard all year…

Dead Flowers have been compared to Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, Mark Lanegan, Lee Hazlewood and Lambchop.

When I interviewed Ian earlier this year, he described the album as, ‘like a morbid, little dinner party – if you mess with the seating plan, it will all fall apart’.

The next time I host a dinner party, Midnight At The Wheel Club will be the soundtrack. You can bring the whisky and cigarettes…

Special mentions must also go to country duo My Darling Clementine for their superb second album The Reconciliation?, which saw them adding Southern soul and El Mariachi influences to their sound; Manchester’s Nev Cottee for his debut album Stations (think Lee Hazlewood fronting Spiritualized) ; Richard Warren for Rich Black Earth –  raw blues, country and eerie, echo-laden ’50s twangy guitar – and Nick Piunti for his sublime 13 In My Head – an instant power pop classic that’s high on harmonies, hooks and killer choruses. 


Here’s the list of my favourite 30 albums of 2013 and a Spotify playlist to go with it.

1) Dead Flowers – Midnight At The Wheel Club

2) Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Push The Sky Away

3) My Darling Clementine – The Reconciliation?

4) Nev Cottee– Stations

5) Nick Piunti – 13 In My Head

6) Richard Warren – Rich Black Earth

7) Mark Lanegan – Imitations

8) Jason Isbell – Southeastern

9) Lloyd Cole – Standards

10) Johnny Marr – The Messenger

11) Primal Scream – More Light

12) Manic Street Preachers – Rewind The Film

13) David Bowie – The Next Day

14) Parlour Flames – Parlour Flames

15) Elvis Costello & The Roots – Wise Up Ghost

16) Daughn Gibson – Me Moan

17) Mark Lanegan & Duke Garwood – Black Pudding

18) Marc Carroll – Stone Beads and Silver

19) Ashtray Hearts – The Strangest Light

20) Bill Ryder Jones – A Bad Wind Blows In My Heart

21) James Skelly & The Intenders – Love Undercover

22) Adam Green and Binki Shapiro – Adam Green and Binki Shapiro

23) Pet Shop Boys – Electricity

24) I Am Kloot – Let It All In

25) Depeche Mode – Delta Machine

26) Camera Obscura – Desire Lines

27) Billy Bragg – Tooth & Nail

28) The National – Trouble Will Find Me

29) Gun Club Cemetery – Gun Club Cemetery

30) The Idyllists – The Grave and Unfortunate Life of Lord Hoffway and his Magnificent Piano

Cold calling


Liverpudlian singer-songwriter Steve Roberts has just released a new EP that’s themed around the concept of the Cold War.  I spoke to him about why he prefers George Smiley to James Bond, prog rock opera and what goes on in The Bunker…

Let’s talk about your new EP – Cold Wars: Pt 1. Can you tell me about the background to it? Why the Cold War theme? What drew you to that subject matter?

Steve Roberts: I’ve always been intrigued by the Cold War. I was a strange kid, obsessing about such things. The idea of patriotism and nationalism meaning more than love or friendship, or even ‘the truth’, is something I don’t understand. This led me to writing character songs that dealt with a dilemma – betray your country, or betray the person you love. I’d also have to say “cheeky bastards” to anyone in authority who feels they deserve respect because they have power over you. The Soviets and, in particular the East German governments, were madly into the power of authority.

So, did you consciously set out to make a concept EP about the Cold War, or did you have a bunch of songs that all shared the same theme?

SR: I set out to make a concept album, but I became impatient at the amount of time it was taking. I’m no longer a full-time musician, so I decided to do it in two parts. My first thoughts were to do a protest album, but there have been some great ones recently – in particular Quiet Loner’s  Greedy Magicians  – so I decided instead to take a different look at how we are betrayed by our governments, who expect us to put our lives on the line at their say so. The Snowden revelations merely confirmed my view of our so-called democracies. I’m no fan of Stalinism, but it kind of kept the West relatively honest with its own citizens – that’s changing big style at the moment.

Your EP is very timely, as the BBC recently showed a TV series about the Cold War (Strange Days: Cold War Britain). Did you see it? What did you think of it?

SR: Yes – it spooked me out at first. Are ‘they’ inside my head? I’ve been disappointed by some shows – in particular the Strange Days  series. I thought the presenter was an oaf and I believe they missed out on giving us a really fascinating insight into one of the craziest eras in the history of our mad world. I’m a massive fan of John Le Carré and I loved the interview he gave. Of course, having the original George Smiley back on the telly was an absolute joy. Tinker  Tailor  Soldier  Spy  is one of my favourite books and I loved the TV series. Give me Smiley over Bond. On Netflix I’ve been re-watching the Michael Caine Harry Palmer films and also Sean Connery in  The Russia House. I also love that German film  The Lives of Others. I played in old East Germany a few years ago and parts of it were strange – familiar, but bent out of shape.

Let’s talk about the songs on the EP, the songwriting process and the sounds… You started writing these songs in April of this year, on piano, didn’t you? How do you find it writing on piano, rather than guitar?

SRFor more than two years I’ve suffered from frozen shoulders –  first the right one, then, as that one got better, the left one decided to get in on the act, but it was even more painful. I had therapy, but it became impossible to play the guitar for a few months – it was really depressing. We’d bought an old piano and I found my shoulder didn’t hurt too much when I was messing about on it. I got a chord book and started plonking away. What I’ve enjoyed is using different bass notes to the chord you’re playing – that’s probably the main way I got simple chords to sound a bit different.
I haven’t written a song on guitar in ages, but I do play it now, now that my shoulders are about 90 per cent recovered. What I’d really love to do is write songs on the piano like Randy Newman or Tom Waits, but that might be beyond me. I’m up for the challenge, though.

steve piano

Can you tell me more about the songwriting and recording process for the EP? It was written and recorded in your studio – The Bunker – from April to October 2013. Are there any stories behind the songs? There are some gorgeous melodies on the record…

SR: Thank you. My first thing was to try and tone down the melodic content a bit – I tend to get a bit Rutles at times and go for the sing-a-long chorus. I’m envious of people who write melodies that weave into you, rather than just swat you on the back of the neck. I have a friend, Brian Chin, who lives in Brighton and he is the only person I’ve ever properly co-written with. I wanted to get him involved, as he is a fantastic musician and he will tell me if I’m being a bit cheesy – or not cheesy enough… Unfortunately, his timetable and mine weren’t compatible, but I tried to keep him in mind when I was editing myself.

Many of the songs started with a load of phrases I’d write down and Cold War trigger words like ‘faded giants’,  ‘hawks’ and all that. I was thinking in terms of it being a book or a film – a story of two people who love each other, but circumstances force them to make difficult choices. I’d then bash away on the piano until I found something I liked. I’d record the piano on to my iPad to a metronome, and then transfer it to my computer and start building things up around it.

I’ve got a music shop and I would take instruments home with me and try them out – in particular a lovely Danelectro guitar, which some bugger then went and bought! I like to do my lead vocals in one take, rather than piece them together. So, if I got one I liked, I knew I was on my way. I then messed about programming drums, textures, a bit of Moog and all that, until I liked something. I enjoyed knowing it didn’t matter, as I was doing it all without anybody there to laugh at my bad attempts. Lyrically, Orwell was a big influence – particularly 1984: “Under the spreading chestnut tree I sold you and you sold me.”

Some of the tracks have synth-like effects on them. What was your aim or inspiration for the sound of the EP?

SR: The main sound of it is the Mellotron, which was basically the very first synthesiser. You can hear it on some of The Beatles’ later songs and on Bowie’s Space Oddity  and things like that. I’d first used it on my first solo album on a song called The Sunny One . I didn’t have one for this EP, but a couple of months ago I bought a Mellotron app for my iPad that is just perfect. It’s got real flutes and strings, choirs and brass – it’s all wobbly and other-worldly. I went mad for it, as they used to say. It sounds like the Cold War era to me. Someone dubbed the songs ‘a Cold War prog opera’ when I played them live, which gave me another pointer – prog rock! More the Soft Machine playful side of things than Yes, I hasten to add…

The track Lucinda and Michael is your first instrumental. It’s a very haunting and cinematic piece. It reminded me of Bowie circa Low – very European/minimalist/Eno-esque. Would you ever consider composing a film soundtrack?

SR: I’ve always wanted to write an instrumental, but I never felt capable. But, because, in my head, these collections of songs were cinematic, I decided to have a go and on the first attempt I came up with Lucinda and Michael.  It was brilliant that it just appeared. I’d love to do more.


You’re planning a second Cold Wars EP, aren’t you? When can we expect that to be released?

SR: I’m hoping it will be ready in the spring, I’ve written some of the songs, started a bit of recording and have ideas for others. I just hope they’ll come out well. I’m an instinctive musician, rather than a good one, and I tend to do bits and stick them all together. I’d love to play finger pick guitar and piano beautifully but, alas, I just tend to hit my instruments. I think the next one will have a ‘brighter’ sound, but I’m not sure what I mean by that.

You were in Liverpool band 16 Tambourines, who enjoyed some success in the late ’80s/early ’90s. Looking back on those days, do you still have some good memories? What was it like at the time? How do you feel about it now?

SR: I had a mixed time of it. We were a good little band and great things were expected of us. The NME  were convinced we were chart-bound, but we were engulfed by the Madchester tide and were therefore cast aside, really. It was weird, because although it was great to be in ace studios and to be able to buy a new shirt, the record company seemed not to want you to be who it was that they’d signed. They would remix songs and book you gigs that didn’t make any sense and all that… Still, I have some wonderful memories of things I’d have never experienced if I’d just worked in an office. We had some brilliant gigs in Scotland that are burned into my memory. Being dropped was awful. I ended up on the dole, I lost my house and I was depressed for about 10 years…. But I think it was better to have done it than not, but who knows?

In 2008, incredibly, you wrote and recorded a song a week for a whole year (52 songs) and then posted them to your website…

SR: I was drunk on New Year’s Eve and my family were away. I was feeling a bit sorry for myself and had a cold and a bottle of brandy. I wrote a song recorded it and posted it on my website. I awoke to see I’d said I’d do one every week. That was a big hangover…I managed to do it and was amazed with myself really. It was like a muscle was being exercised or something and it got quite easy for a few months. The hard bits were the last few months, as we were selling our house and moving. I was determined, though. Everywhere I went I was thinking about songs – scribbling notes and recording melodies or riffs. By the end, though, I was exhausted and very pleased when it was over. I’m not certain what the goal was, to be honest. I’d got drunk, made a promise on my website and just did it. I’m not sure how when I look back…

You took a break from music for a while, didn’t you? How does it feel to be back, writing and recording?

SR: I started playing with a band again a couple of years ago. It was going ok, but with my shoulder problems and the trouble you have running a band when everyone has kids and other responsibilities, it was difficult. Deciding just to write songs and worry about it all later was the best thing I could have done for my sanity. I record when I can and how I can and I love it. Now I know it’s only me who I can blame and I’m used to that! But I do miss playing with others and hopefully I’ll do that again.

So, what’s next for Steve Roberts?

SR: Part two of the Cold Wars  EP is my immediate priority, but it’s also possible I’ll be re-recording lots of the 52 ‘song-a-week’ tracks, as they’ve never really been finished. I want to make more of them than I did. I’d like to play live more often and I’m trying to develop a solo ‘show’ of sorts, so it’s not just me playing a guitar in an average fashion. I’m not a good traveller, though, so maybe I’ll just do it from my front room and beam it to 25 people via the Internet.


In the dead of winter

Dead Flowers 6 - Hi Res

London-based band Dead Flowers have made one of the best albums of 2013. Recorded late at night, in wintry conditions, Midnight At The Wheel Club is a collection of dark, intimate, haunting and confessional songs, inspired by gravel-voiced singer/songwriter Ian Williams’ travels through New York and Montreal. I spoke to Ian to find out more about the record, which he describes as ‘like a morbid, little dinner party – if you mess with the seating plan, it will all fall apart’.

Congratulations on Midnight At The Wheel Club. As I understand, it began to take shape in 2011, when you were travelling in America, during the winter. Can you tell me more about your travels and how your experiences inspired your songwriting?

Ian Williams: There were a few trips that have all blurred into one for me, but, to cut a long story short, the travels included time in Austin – for the SXSW festival, a few days in New York and lots of time spent in Montreal. In New York and Montreal, I was lucky to be able to stay in people’s apartments, rather than hotels, which really helped in terms of getting into a groove and feeling like you are living somewhere, rather than just passing through. Songs crept up in the most unexpected places, on the beach (Coney Island), in a Laundromat (Montreal) and on various rooftops. We visited Coney Island in early spring, so all the rides were shut down and it was pretty much deserted. There was a spooky, jarring beauty about seeing a funfair and the rickety old Wonder Wheel at that time of the year – it was a bit like a tree with no leaves. I started writing the song Wonderwheel right there on the beach and the name crept in. I guess I just liked the way it sounded.

What about The Wheel Club that the album takes its title from? Where is it? Are you obsessed by wheels?

IW: There’s no use in denying it. I am a wheel obsessive. The Wheel Club is an old time country club / working men’s club on the outskirts of Montreal. On a Monday night they have a hillbilly night, which has been running since 1966. It’s sort of an open mic arrangement, but with a house band and some pretty hardcore rules – you can only play songs written before 1966 and there are no drums and no electric instruments allowed. It’s a wild night, with lots of line dancing, big pitchers of beer and an amazing selection of snacks. On my second visit, I plucked up the courage to get up and sing a Hank Williams song with my good pal Ragged Dick . We were kind of lousy, but the old folks were very kind to us. If I could only recommend one place to visit in Montreal, The Wheel Club on a Monday night would win hands down.

So, is the new record a concept album?  If so, how would you describe it?

IW: Most of the songs were born out of travelling, but it’s possible a couple of them came out of some dark corner back on dry land, too. I wouldn’t say it’s a concept album, but I definitely think the songs belong together. It’s like a morbid, little dinner party – if you mess with the seating plan, it will all fall apart. Actually we had to throw a few of them out fairly early on, as they just weren’t getting on.

There’s a dark beauty to the record. It’s very intimate and atmospheric. What were your intentions when you set out to make it?

IW: A lot of the records I admire have an  immersive quality and I think a lot of that is down to the way they are sequenced and how things open up and ‘pay off’ as you travel through them. We aimed to make an album which flows naturally and will keep someone’s attention and maybe let them lose themselves a little for half an hour.

Although the album is largely melancholy in tone, a song like Fences is hopeful. I’m thinking of the line, ‘the songs that I write give me a chance to survive.’  Do you see music as your saviour?

IW: Your question made me think of the Wilco song Sunken Treasure:  “Music is my saviour, I was maimed by rock and roll. I was maimed by rock and roll. I was tamed by rock and roll. I got my name from rock and roll.”  I don’t think I can put it better than that, so I’m not going to try.

Supernova is one of the most moving and saddest songs I’ve heard all year. How did it come into being?

IW:  If you watch a lot of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos while going through a breakup, then these things can happen. It’s a pretty grandiose statement, so I have no choice but to stand by it completely.

Your song The Beach is like an Irish, funereal sea shanty. Although it deals with death, it has a spiritual, uplifting feel…

IW: It’s another song that was conceived on Coney Island. It found its way back to the UK, had a rest and then flew out to Montreal, where our friend Christopher Fox played the pump organ parts and then went on to mix the song. He brought it to life so much that we knew he was the man to help us finish this album. The string arrangement from Emily McGregor lifts it out of the doldrums and gives it a gleam of hope.

So, did you form Dead Flowers after your travels? How long have you been writing songs and were you in any bands before this one?

IW: Well this is my second ‘proper record’ – the first was an EP called Bible Black Heart, which I released under the name Ian Williams. It came out in 2009 and you can hear it here.

For a while after that, we played shows as Ian Williams and The Dead Flowers, but when it came to making this record, I wanted to steer things away from the whole singer/songwriter thing. There has been an ever-changing and revolving cast of players involved in the music over the years, all of whom I am massively indebted to. I think we are finally finding some stability though and the challenge of representing the album live is a rewarding experience.

What was the process of recording the new album like? How did you capture that late night, wintry sound? It’s the perfect record for this time of year…

IW: Well, we recorded an awful lot of the album late at night, often in pretty wintry conditions. Scott Fitzgerald, who played keys and bass on most of the record, and who was also involved in the engineering and production, is something of a night owl. The sessions in his studio in Bath often wouldn’t start until early evening and we would record through until the early hours. Pretty much all the vocal takes were done very late at night and the version of Pan which ended up on the album was recorded between about 3am and 6am.

We tracked the drums at a studio called The Pool, in South London. All the drum recordings were done in one day, which was a big challenge, but the sound engineer, Ben Thackeray, did an amazing job and our drummer Richie Harwood is a very patient man. All the strings, a lot of electric guitar and some of the vocals were recorded in my home studio in London. Fortunately, we have pretty deaf neighbours, so I think they were quite oblivious. Finally, we spent some time at Christopher Fox’s studio in Montreal, where we tracked vocals and did the pump organ and the mixing. We actually worked remotely with Christopher on the final mixes, sending files over to him via an FTP and then sending back notes and tweaks for his mixes. Given the number of different locations, engineers and players involved, Christopher did an amazing job in mixing it into such a fully-formed, complete sounding album.

Midnight At The Wheel Club - Cover

Musically you’ve been compared to artists such as Mark Lanegan, Lee Hazlewood, Lambchop and Leonard Cohen. Are they all influences on you? Who are your musical heroes and influences?

IW: Let me get this out of the way first – I don’t really care for Lee Hazlewood. I just can’t quite get into him. Maybe one day I will realise how wrong I was. Lambchop are a huge influence – we got to open for them in Leeds earlier this year and it was one of the most magical nights of my life. Kurt Wagner [from Lambchop] sat and watched the whole of our set, which has encouraged me more than I can say. Scott and I are both big admirers of Leonard Cohen and especially like his later recordings. I think the Ten New Songs album he put out, which is almost entirely MIDI in terms of instrumentation, is a work of genius. Ethan Johns and Ryan Adams working together has resulted in a collection of albums I have found to be massively influential. I go back to albums by Sharon Van Etten, Justin Townes Earle, Devon Sproule and Yo La Tengo a lot at the moment. They’re all very different in terms of their sound, but they all make immersive, interesting albums.

By pure coincidence, Dead Flowers is the title of my favourite Rolling Stones song. Did that tune inspire your band name?

IW: Not in a massively conscious way, but we certainly wouldn’t be called Dead Flowers if the song didn’t exist, so I guess I’ll have to say yes.

What are your plans for Christmas? Are you a fan of the festive season?

IW: I’m looking forward to a trip back to Wales, to see my family, eat a lot of meat and have some epic nap time. I can’t wait.

So, how do you see 2014 shaping up for Dead Flowers?

IW: Hopefully some big, established band will dig our fresh new sound and take us out on a world tour. We will aim to get into a studio early in the New Year and knock out the next album pretty quickly. The last one took a year to make, so I am hoping we can speed things up a little this time around.

What are your ambitions for Dead Flowers?

IW: If I keep practising guitar at my current rate – around one hour a week – then I should be ready to play my first guitar solo in Dead Flowers in about five years’ time…