2021: It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there…

2021 wasn’t a great year for me – my dad, show business broadcaster and journalist, John Hannam, died in late September, aged 80, after a short illness, and I had a lot to deal with, both emotionally and logistically.

I was very close to my dad and owe so much to him – he always supported me and offered encouragement, and he was responsible for getting me into music in the first place – when I was a child, he was always playing LPs in our house.

I can remember enjoying albums by Duane Eddy, Ennio Morricone, John Barry, The Shadows, Nancy & Lee and Scott Walker. I inherited my dad’s love of ‘60s sounds, twangy guitars, spy film and Spaghetti Western soundtracks and rich baritone voices.

Shortly before my dad died, he spent some time in hospital and I went to visit him in an end-of-life care ward. He was conscious, but heavily sedated – thankfully, we managed to share some precious moments  during the last few days of his life and listened to some music. There was a CD library in the ward, so I played him some albums that I knew we would both enjoy, including Paul Weller’s acoustic live record, Days of Speed, a ‘60s hits compilation and Best Of collections by Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan.

‘When I was a child, my dad was always playing LPs in our house. I inherited his love of ‘60s sounds, twangy guitars, spy film and Spaghetti Western soundtracks and rich baritone voices’

One of the songs that I played several times while sitting with my dad was Dylan’s stately twilight ballad, Not Dark Yet, which is from his 1997 album, Time Out Of Mind.

It’s a hauntingly beautiful track and has been interpreted as Dylan contemplating his mortality: Sometimes my burden is more than I can bear. It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there.  I was born here, and I’ll die here, against my will. I know it looks like I’m movin’ but I’m standin’ still…”

It’s a song I’ve always loved, but this time around, it took on added meaning and poignancy.

The last thing my dad said to me was “lovely music.” After he died, I took a few days off work and then decided to keep busy. I’m always getting sent new music to review and I threw myself into listening to a bunch of records that were due to be released in autumn / winter 2021.

The one that I kept going back to was Imposter by Dave Gahan & Soulsavers – a covers album by the Depeche Mode frontman and his collaborator, the producer / engineer/ musician, Rich Machin.

It’s a dark, intimate and moving record, which suited my mood, but, funnily enough, one of the 12 songs on it was a brilliant version of Not Dark Yet. Gahan and Soulsavers overhaul the track and make it more dynamic, much heavier and even moodier.

‘The one album I kept going back to was Imposter by Dave Gahan & Soulsavers – a covers record by the Depeche Mode frontman and his collaborator, Rich Machin’

As Machin said when I interviewed him a few weeks ago: “It’s about trying to go into different worlds with stuff, rather than just recreating the original version. Dylan did it his way, which is the definitive version, but I could hear it differently – I played around with it. Lyrically it’s a very dark song and I was going for more of a raw, ‘60s fuzzy psych guitar feel – there’s no bass on it. I felt it really worked.”

It certainly did, as did the rest of the record – Imposter is my favourite album of 2021 and one of the best covers records you’ll ever hear.

As I said when I reviewed the album for consumer magazine, Hi-Fi+ earlier this year, it’s an eclectic selection of songs, with Gene Clark sitting alongside Charlie Chaplin, Cat Power, Dylan, Neil Young and Mark Lanegan, whom Soulsavers first collaborated with in 2007.

There’s a pretty faithful rendition of the shadowy, infidelity-themed, country-soul classic The Dark End of the Street, albeit with some gospel stylings; a gorgeous, hymnal take on Gene Clark’s Where My Love Lies Asleep; a version of the jazz standard, Smile, as sung by Charlie Chaplin and Nat King Cole, among others; Cat Power’s Metal Heart; PJ Harvey’s The Desperate Kingdom of Love; the urgent, raw,  trad blues-rock of Elmore James’s I Held My Baby Last Night, with squalling electric guitar, and a stunning and dramatic reading of Neil Young’s A Man Needs A Maid, with the rich orchestration of the original replaced by atmospheric piano and unsettling, spacey sound effects.

‘Imposter is my favourite album of 2021 and one of the best covers records you’ll ever hear’

The majority of the songs on the record have been reinvented, which, of course, is the trick to making a great covers album. You have to bring something new to the party.

Writing in Hi-Fi +, I said many of the choices, which are often dark and full of pain and suffering, sound like they were written for Gahan to sing.

Married three times, he is a former drug addict – he overdosed on a lethal cocktail of heroin and cocaine at the Hollywood Sunset Marquis hotel in 1996 and spent at least six minutes clinically dead. He’s a man who’s seen some harrowing sights – so much so that he doesn’t just sing these songs, he lives them and inhabits them.

The title of the album may be Imposter, but Gahan was born to perform many of these compositions. In fact, talking about the record, he says: “When I listen to other people’s voices and songs – more importantly the way they sing them and interpret the words – I feel at home. I identify with it. It comforts me more than anything else. There’s not one performer on the record who I haven’t been moved by.”

Imposter moved me and it became my soundtrack to the last few weeks of 2021.

Dave Gahan & Soulsavers: Photo: Spencer Ostrander

 

Following my dad’s death, my sister and I have inherited his extensive record collection – vinyl and CD. I’ve spent some time going through it and pulling out albums to listen to – so much so that, coupled with having to deal with my dad’s passing, I haven’t listened to as much new music as I perhaps should, however, there are still plenty of new records I’ve enjoyed, so here’s a rundown of some of them, plus a Spotify playlist to go with it.

Don’t worry – it’s not simply a list of intense, harrowing and miserable albums that I’ve liked during 2021. There’s still room for the odd power-pop song, jangly guitars, psych sounds and gorgeous harmonies. It’s not dark, but it’s getting there…

Say It With Garage Flowers: Best Albums of 2021

  1. Dave Gahan & Soulsavers – Imposter
  2. The Coral – Coral Island
  3. John MurryThe Stars Are God’s Bullet Holes
  4. Peter Bruntnell – Journey To The Sun
  5. Dot Allison – Heart-Shaped Scars
  6. Bobby Gillespie and Jehnny Beth – Utopian Ashes
  7. XIXAGenesis
  8. Nick Cave and Warren Ellis – Carnage
  9. The Underground Youth –  The Falling
  10. Hans Zimmer – No Time To Die (original motion picture soundtrack)
  11. Whatitdo Archive Group The Black Stone Affair
  12. Starlight Cleaning Co. Starlight Cleaning Co.
  13. The Courettes – Back In Mono
  14. Manic Street Preachers – The Ultra-Vivid Lament
  15. Paul WellerFat Pop (Volume 1)
  16. Matt HillReturn of the Idle Drones (Greedy Magicians II)
  17. Matt McManamonScally Folk
  18. Brent WindlerNew Morning Howl
  19. Spearmint – Holland Park
  20. Starry Eyed and Laughing – Bells of Lightning
  21. Andrew Gabbard – Homemade
  22. Departure Lounge – Transmeridian
  23. Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio – I Told You So
  24. Cool GhoulsAt George’s Zoo
  25. Matthew Sweet – Cat’s Paw
  26. Bob Collum and the Welfare Mothers This Heart Will Self Destruct
  27. The Mountain Goats – Dark in Here
  28. Steve CradockPeace City West (2021 remixed and reissued version)
  29. Teenage Fanclub – Endless Arcade
  30. Andrew Taylor and the Harmonizers – Andrew Taylor and the Harmonizers
  31. The Boys With The Perpetual Nervousness – Songs From Another Life
  32. M G Boulter – Clifftown
  33. Danny George WilsonAnother Place
  34. The Poppermost – Hits To Spare
  35. Daniel Wylie’s Cosmic Rough Riders Atoms and Energy
  36. Ian M BaileySongs To Dream Along To
  37. Nelson Bragg – Gratitude Blues
  38. Tobacco City – Tobacco City, USA
  39. Rose City Band – Earth Trip
  40. Chrissie Hynde – Standing In The Doorway: Chrissie Hynde Sings Bob Dylan
  41. The Delines – The Night Always Comes (soundtrack to Willie Vlautin’s novel of the same name)
  42. Dean Wareham – I Have Nothing To Say To The Mayor of L.A.
  43. TriptidesAlter Echoes
  44. Matt Berry – The Blue Elephant
  45. The Blow MonkeysJourney To You
  46. O’Connell & LoveWill You Be There?
  47. New Morning BluesLondon
  48. Dark Mark & Skeleton Joe – Dark Mark vs Skeleton Joe
  49. The MarinersTales From The Great Central Line (Vol 1)
  50. Ryan AllenWhat A Rip
  51. Kevin Robertson – Sundown’s End
  52. RW HedgesYear After Year
  53. Steve DrizosAxiom
  54. Star CollectorGame Day
  55. Brand New Zeros –  Back To Zero
  56. Mark & The Clouds – Waves
  57. The Gary 7 – Three Of Our Agents Are Missing
  58. Alan Tyler – Made In Middlesex
  59. Steve RobertsAll Power to the Bookshop
  60. Dean Friedman American Lullaby

This year saw several of my favourite singer-songwriters release albums, including John Murry, Peter Bruntnell, Matt Hill and Paul Weller.

Like its two predecessors, The Graceless Age and A Short History of Decay, Murry’s The Stars Are God’s Bullet Holes was a surprising, brilliant and inventive record – rough and raw, dark at times, but also not without its fair share of black humour.

It opened with the funky dub-meets-country groove of Oscar Wilde (Came Here To Make Fun Of You) – an infectious pop song subverted with a disturbing lyric that referenced the Oklahoma City bombing.

The startling and moody title track, which started with the lines “Of course I’d die for you. You’d watch me, wouldn’t you?” rode on a wave of heavy, fuzzed-up guitars, over which Murry told us he’d been made in God’s image: “Born to die – to take love songs and crucify ‘em.”

Di Kreutser Sonata was a sparse ballad with haunting pedal steel guitar, which found Murry “stuck somewhere between a memory and a dream,” and wrestling with issues from his adopted family upbringing.

I Refuse To Believe You Could Love Me had a New Wave / garage-rock feel, and the atmospheric Ones + Zeros was based on a pretty piano line and featured guest vocals from singer-songwriter, Nadine Khouri.

Murry also threw in an inspired, spacey and psychedelic cover version of Duran Duran’s ‘90s comeback single, Ordinary World, which was driven by a throbbing bassline and electric piano – both were played by Bristol-based John Parish (PJ Harvey, Eels, Sparklehorse), who produced the album.

Speaking about working with Parish, Murry said: “It was interesting – I’ve never made a record like that before. It was uncomfortable and nerve-wracking to begin with, because I didn’t know where we were going.

“It was like, ‘I don’t know what the fuck’s going on, or if this is even a record,’ but then suddenly, he played me stuff back and it worked – we did more and more stuff in an uninhibited way, without thinking about it.”

He added: “It was like we were both trying to figure each other out the whole time – that process created the record. I didn’t have a lot of the songs finished – I just wanted to bring them in and see what happened. John has an incredible ability to create a collaborative process and space.”

Peter Bruntnell - Journey To The Sun

Peter Bruntell’s latest record, Journey To The Sun – his twelfth – was written and recorded during lockdown. It was more sparse and stripped-down than his last few releases – gorgeous, haunting and folky, but with some vintage electronica sounds and even a couple of spacey sci-fi instrumentals.

Opener, the stunning, Dandelion, was an atmospheric folk-horror song, like Matt Deighton, or Pink Moon-era Nick Drake being produced by Brian Eno; the lovely Lucifer Morning Star had warm, burbling synths and chiming 12-string guitar, while Heart of Straw was classic Bruntnell – an aching, acoustic, country-tinged ballad – and You’d Make A Great Widow was laced with his trademark wry humour and melancholy, but wrapped up in one of the prettiest melodies you were likely to hear all year.

Some of the songs were co-written with Bruntnell’s long-time collaborator, Bill Ritchie, while US musician and mastering engineer, Peter Linnane, laid down some Hammond and pump organ, concertina, Mellotron and piano, and Iain Sloan played pedal steel guitar on the track Dharma Liar.

Matt Hill

 

Nine years after the release of his 2012 live album, Greedy Magicians, UK Americana / folk/ protest singer Matt Hill – the artist formerly known as Quiet Loner –  recorded the follow-up, Greedy Magicians II – Return of the Idle Drones.

‘Greedy Magicians II was a brilliant record – stripped-down and intimate, angry, acerbic, funny and moving, with musical nods to genres including folk, country, blues and European balladry’

Released on CD and download via his Bandcamp site, it was a collection of ‘live in the studio’ modern protest songs. Recorded in two days by Hill, long-time associate, James Youngjohns (Last Harbour, Willard Grant Conspiracy), and engineer Adam Gorman of The Travelling Band, in a Victorian mill in the historic Ancoats district of Manchester, it was described as ‘the sound of two musicians sat two metres apart, as they rip through the songs as if they were playing a concert.’

It was a brilliant record – stripped-down and intimate, angry, acerbic, funny and moving, with musical nods to genres including folk, country, blues and European balladry.

“My original plan was to do this as a ‘10 years on’ project recorded in front of a live audience in the same venue, with the same musicians,” said Hill.

“Sadly, the pandemic scuppered that, so we did it as a ‘live in the studio’ album with just me and James. It allowed us a bit more freedom and I’ve tried to channel some broader musical influences here, such as Randy Newman, Scott Walker or Glen Campbell.”

The song Strike was about the matchgirls’ strike of 1888, while Talking It Out tackled billionaires, oligarchs and the super-rich.

Aside from social commentary, there were personal stories too – the middle-aged person struggling to work whilst chronically ill (Times Are Getting Tough), or the soldier and his wife trying to settle back to normality in post-war Britain (Making Sense of the War).

Aside from putting a stop to him playing live, lockdown was good for Paul Weller. In just under 12 months, the elder statesman of Britpop released two albums – the summery and soulful On Sunset and its follow-up, Fat Pop (Volume 1), which, like its predecessor, was one of the strongest records he’d ever made.

It was the latest in a purple patch that started with 2018’s True Meanings – his stripped-back and orchestrally-aided, introspective folk-rock album, which coincided with him turning 60. That was a career highlight and, along with his self-titled solo debut, from 1992, it’s easily one of Say It With Garage Flowers’ favourite Weller records.

Some of Fat Pop (Volume 1) was cut from the same [three-button mod suit] cloth as the album that came before it. There was a strong soul and funk feel to a few of the songs, but there was also plenty of, er, fat pop.

It was a rich-sounding and eclectic record – vibrant and colourful – and, considering the wide range of influences and styles, it hung together really well and felt like a complete piece of work, rather than just a collection of songs.

Fat Pop (Volume 1) saw Weller continuing his working relationship with producer Jan ‘Stan’ Kybert, who has been at the helm since 2012’s Sonik Kicks.

Sadly, the first single and opening song, the psychedelic, synth-pop-meets-Krautrock of Cosmic Fringes, wasn’t about lockdown haircuts, although Weller was sporting long locks in the accompanying video.

Lyrically, the song concerned itself with a keyboard warrior: “I’m a sleeping giant, waiting to awake/I stumble to the fridge/then back to bed”, but to be fair, that did sound a lot like lockdown…

The punky True featured an unexpected jazzy sax break, as well as guest vocals by Lia Metcalfe of Liverpool alt-rock band The Mysterines, while the dramatic, soaring and symphonic Shades of Blue was co-written by his daughter, Leah, who shared vocal duties on the song.

The title track, a paean to the power of music, had a heavy, dubby bassline – Weller described it as “Cypress Hill doing something that sounds like a DJ Muggs production.”

Glad Times was beautiful and melancholic – space-age soul with strings – while Testify, with guest vocals by Andy Fairweather Low of ‘60s Welsh pop band Amen Corner, was a great, ‘70s-style, funk-soul strut, with flute and sax supplied by acid jazz veteran, Jacko Peake.

Pastoral and acoustic guitar-led ballad, Cobwebs/Connections, which could’ve come off True Meanings, featured a lovely string arrangement by Hannah Peel, who worked on that album. She also scored the gorgeous closing song, Still Glides The Stream – another reflective moment that was written as a remote collaboration between Weller and long-term guitarist Steve Cradock (Ocean Colour Scene).

Paul Weller

If it was angry Weller you were after, you needn’t have worried, as he hadn’t completely mellowed with age. On the choppy, ska-tinged rallying call, That Pleasure, which was written as a reaction to the Black Lives Matter campaign and was swathed in lush, ‘70s Marvin Gaye-style strings, he urged us to “Lose your hypocrisy… lose your prejudice, lose this hatred,” adding, “It’s time to get involved.”

Weller’s orchestral arranger, Hannah Peel, also worked on another of our favourite albums of 2021 – Dot Allison’s Heart-Shaped Scars.

On her fifth solo outing, the former vocalist in ‘90s Scottish electronic act One Dove, who, throughout her career, has collaborated with the likes of Massive Attack, Scott Walker, Paul Weller and Pete Doherty, went back to nature.

Several of the gorgeous, stripped-down, pastoral folk songs featured field recordings of birdsong, rivers, and the ambience of the Hebrides, where she has a cottage.

Dot Allison

Musically, she cited Karen Dalton, Gene Clark, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Carole King, Nick Drake and Brian Wilson as influences. There was also a nod to the soundtrack of ‘70s cult folk-horror film The Wicker Man, which is set on a remote Scottish island.

Heart-Shaped Scars was a long time coming – her last record, Room 7 1/2, was released 12 years ago. After that, she took time out to start a family.

Recorded at Castlesound Studios, in Edinburgh, with arranger, Peel, Heart-Shaped Scars was a haunting record, musically and lyrically – quite literally, as one of the album’s prettiest moments was called The Haunting and opened with the lines “Slip inside this haunted house – tip toe silent, not a sound.”

There was also a track called Ghost Orchid – a stately piano ballad with mournful cello.

In the past, Allison has dabbled with genres including pop, trip-hop, psychedelia, electronica and folk, but Heart-Shaped Scars was her most rootsy sounding album so far.

“I like to try and explore new sounds and styles, so as not to stagnate. I love the evolution of The Beatles – that’s a good model. I find it interesting to explore new areas,” she told Say It With Garage Flowers, in an exclusive interview.

Four of the songs featured a string quintet, and other instruments on the record included ukulele, keyboards / synth, piano, guitar, bass, drums, harmonium and Mellotron. The vocals and the ukulele were recorded together on a Neumann U 67 microphone – the album sounded hushed and intimate.

Allison usually writes songs on piano and guitar, but the first single from the album, the fragile, cinematic and dreamy ballad, Long Exposure – Orchards of cherries lie bruised on the ground” – was one of the tracks she composed on ukulele, after picking up the instrument during lockdown.

‘Dot Allison has dabbled with pop, trip-hop, psychedelia, electronica and folk, but Heart-Shaped Scars was her most rootsy sounding album so far’

Lyrically, Heart-Shaped Scars referenced several of Allison’s interests, including literature, science and nature. “I wanted it to be comforting like a familiar in-utero heartbeat – a pure kind of album that musically imbues a return to nature,” she said.

In fact, one of the songs was called Can You Hear Nature Sing? It was autumnal folk and co-written with Zoë Bestel, who provided guest vocals.

The record’s most brooding and dark moment was Love Died In Our Arms, with dramatic strings and moody synth – a flashback to her trip-hop and electronica roots.

Matt McManamon
Matt McManamon

Matt McManamon, the former frontman of noughties Scouse ska-punkers The Dead 60s, put out his debut solo album, Skally Folk this year, but don’t expect to be able to skank to it, though…  His first release in 13 years, it was a strong collection of reflective and autobiographical songs that were steeped in the tradition of Irish folk music – Liverpool-born McManamon’s family are from County Mayo – as well as the jangly Scouse indie sound of The La’s, and the Wirral psych-pop of The Coral, who were former Deltasonic label mates of The Dead 60s.

Mulranny Smile was a haunting, folky ballad that was shrouded in Celtic sea mist, and if Lee Mavers had had tunes like What About You?Out Of Time and Every Time I Close My Eyes up his sleeve, that second La’s album might’ve actually come out and been another classic.

For his latest record, Atoms and EnergyDaniel Wylie, the former frontman of late ’90s / early noughties, Alan McGee-endorsed jangle-poppers, Cosmic Rough Riders, reacted against his 2017 album, Scenery For Dreamers, which showcased his love of heavy Neil Young and Crazy Horse-like electric guitars and the chiming Rickenbacker sound of The Byrds.

Atoms and Energy - Daniel Wylie

The follow-up was much more stripped-down than its predecessor. Young was still an obvious influence, but it was the Young of After The Goldrush and Only Love Can Break Your Heart, rather than Cortez The Killer.

“I wanted to make a completely different album from [2015’s] Chrome Cassettes and Scenery For Dreamers. Both of those had a similar approach and vibe to them and I felt it was time for a change,” he told us.

“I wanted to write a classic ‘70s acoustic record, lyrically based around what was currently occupying my thoughts, and musically like my favourite ‘70s Neil Young, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Cat Stevens and James Taylor records. That was the plan and I think we pulled it off pretty well.”

He certainly did.

One of our favourite country records of the year was This Heart Will Self Destruct, by Olkahoma-born, Essex-based Americana singer-songwriter, Bob Collum, and his backing band, The Welfare Mothers.

It covered lyrical themes including anxiety, hope, fear, humour, uncertainty, love, disappointment, redemption and faith.

Judging by the subjects he chose to tackle, you won’t be surprised to find that the record was mostly written during the first Covid-19 lockdown. Collum said the album “began life on the cusp, before the insanity of 2020”, and added: “I think it captures the last year quite well.”

Bob Collum
Bob Collum

 

The Welfare Mothers comprise Mags Layton (violin and vocals), Martin Cutmore (bass) and Paul Quarry (drums and percussion).

Honorary member, guitarist Martin Belmont (Graham Parker and the Rumour, Nick Lowe, My Darling Clementine) played the Fender Stratocaster and Fender VI bass on the album, adding a mean, Duane Eddy-style, twangy solo to the jaunty Shake It Loose.

Belmont’s ‘70s pub rock influence also came across on Giving Up, which was an infectious power-pop song – kind of New Wave meets country.

Elsewhere, there was tongue-in-cheek country (the title track);  echoes of early R.E.M (Second Fiddle); a sad and reflective country ballad inspired by the likes of Johnny Cash (From Birmingham) and a raucous, fiddle-fuelled rockabilly cover of Saved, which is an R&B-flavoured song written by Leiber and Stoller and first recorded by Lavern Baker in the early ‘60s. Elvis Presley and Joe Cocker have released versions of it.

Collum also dipped into blues (Tall Glass of Muddy Water) and soul territory (Spare Me). On the latter, he was joined by Peter Holsapple (The dB’s and R.E.M.), who played a mean Hammond B3 organ and also sang backing vocals. The song was an intercontinental collaboration between him and Collum.

Cool Ghouls

 

2021 wasn’t just all about singer-songwriters – Say It With Garage Flowers fell in love with plenty of offerings from bands too – some old favourites, as well as new acts.

San Francisco’s Cool Ghouls turned 10 this year and released their fourth album, At George’s Zoo. It was their best and most diverse record yet – a mix of Byrdsy psych, ’60s-style garage rock and gorgeous, Beach Boys/Jimmy Webb-inspired pop, with harmonies, piano, horns and lush strings.

The opening track, It’s Over, was wonderful, with a great horn arrangement, a Beach Boys-like intro and some lovely harmonies. There was also a bit of The Notorious Byrd Brothers about it, with some psych-soul going on…

Surfboard was the song of the summer and I Was Wrong had a definite Pet Sounds Surf’s Up feel, while 26th St. Blues sounded more like the Cool Ghouls of old – very ’60s garage rock.

Triptides

There was more cool, summery psych-pop, but mixed with some far-out space rock, from L.A-based trio Triptides, on their album, Alter Echoes.

It was recorded prior to the pandemic, in Hollywood’s Boulevard Recording studio, which was previously the legendary Producer’s Workshop, where Pink Floyd, Fleetwood Mac, Steely Dan and, er, Liberace made, or mixed, records.

Speaking to Say It With Garage Flowers about the band’s sound, band’s frontman and multi-instrumentalist, Glenn Brigman, said: “There’s such a wide range of influences it can be hard to pin them all down – from Coltrane to Hawkwind. So many different groups. But I think being in L.A, working together as a band, touring together – it all influenced how the record came together. We knew each other’s strengths and made sure that we played to them.”

Meanwhile, back in the UK, ’60s-obsessed, East Midlands psych-pop band, The Mariners, released their second album, Tales From The Great  Central Line Volume One, which was less psych and more pop than its predecessor, The Tides of Time, but was essentially a similar trip down Dead End Street and Penny Lane, but with some added country rock and folk influences.

It contained no less than five songs with girls’ names in their titles – one of which, the first single, Dear Genevieve, was an irresistibly jaunty strum that was a love letter to frontman Luke Williamson’s young daughter.

The groovy, organ-led There Before Time was a close cousin of The Zombies’ She’s Not There, the gorgeous and reflective Catch My Breath was a stripped-down acoustic ballad, while Royston’s Lament was a yearning and melancholy tale of growing older by the day that lamented the loss of community and showcased a slightly darker side to the band’s sound.

In a similar vein to The Mariners, cosmic Scousers The Coral’s latest record, Coral Island, was the best thing they’ve ever done – an inventive and adventurous, 24-track double concept album, with spoken word passages narrated by 85-year-old Ian Murray (also known as The Great Muriarty), who was the granddad of band members James and Ian Skelly.

Coral Island was inspired by faded British seaside glamour, childhood holidays to North Wales, end-of-the pier amusements, pre-Beatles rock and roll, ‘death discs’ and jukebox pop.

Musically, its list of influences included Duane Eddy, Chuck Berry, Sun Records, Joe Meek, The Kinks, The Byrds and Crosby, Stills & Nash.

Change Your Mind was Byrdsy jangly guitar pop with a great melody and harmonies, while Mist On The River was even more West Coast – it sounded like Crosby, Stills & Nash.

Autumn Has Come, which brought the first half of the record to a close, was very haunting and melancholy song. You could imagine Scott Walker or Richard Hawley singing it…

Golden Age had spooky organ and whistling on it, as well as a Johnny Cash ‘boom-chikka-boom’ rhythm, and sounded like the soundtrack to a Spaghetti Western set in a haunted fairground…

In the age of streaming playlists or single songs, Coral Island was an album that needed to be sat down and listened to in its entirety, as a complete piece of work. It was available as a nice heavyweight, double vinyl package, with a book – truly an immersive experience.

XIXA

 

A band who take the Spaghetti Western sound to a whole new level are guitar-slinging six-piece XIXA, from Tucson, Arizona.

Their second album, Genesis, was an extraordinary, exotic and often intense listen –  an intoxicating mix of Ennio Morricone, Gothic horror, psych, rock, Latin, ’80s glossy pop, desert rock and electronica.

Talking to Say It With Garage Flowers, band member, Gabriel Sullivan, said: “The inspirations that go into XIXA are always evolving. We started as a covers band playing Peruvian chicha and that was definitely the foundation for the band. From there each members’ personal influences and identities began to seep into the music. We’re always looking for new things to influence our music, from literature, mysticism, rhythms, guitar tones… We have no boundaries as to what can guide our music.”

Starlight Cleaning Co.

The desert is also an influence on US duo Starlight Cleaning Co. (Rachel Dean and Tim Paul Gray) – hell, they actually live in the Mojave Desert!

Their self-titled album from this year was a wonderfully melodic record that was in love with ’70s/’80s New Wave guitar music, glossy L.A. pop, country rock, Americana and soft rock.

Opener, Don’t Take It Away, achieved jangle-pop perfection, with harmonies ringing out high over the desert landscape; the chugging, organ-fuelled and anthemic Train Wreck was like Tom Petty doing Springsteen’s Atlantic CityThe Race was melancholy and reflective dream-pop, with a superb haunting guitar solo by the late Neal Casal (Chris Robinson Brotherhood, Ryan Adams, Circles Around The Sun), and Joy Killer and The Current had the swagger and style of vintage Pretenders.

Hip, Reno-based recording collective Whatitdo Archive Group are also used to hanging out in the desert – in fact they recorded a promo video for their album, The Black Stone Affair, in one…

 

To describe an album as “the soundtrack to a film that doesn’t exist” has become a music journalism cliché, but in the case of The Black Stone Affair it was perfectly true.

They wanted to create a record that encompassed everything they love and admire about old Italian film soundtracks and scores and bring that energy back into the spotlight.

They certainly achieved it, as The Black Stone Affair was dramatic, atmospheric, exotic – even erotic at times – and very, very authentic.

As well as musicians and recording engineers, the members of Whatitdo Archive Group are voracious vinyl collectors.

They spent nine months of research, digging through their records and studying the works of composers including the legendary Ennio Morricone, as well as Piero Piccioni, Stefano Torossi, François de Roubaix and Alessandro Alessandroni, before composing their imaginary cinematic soundtrack and working with over 24 other musicians – there are some superb orchestral and brass arrangements on the album.

Talking to Say It With Garage Flowers, the group described the album as ‘classic Spaghetti-acid-western-spy-crime-blaxploitation-giallo-adventure-noir.’ What’s not to like?

‘The Black Stone Affair is dramatic, atmospheric, exotic – even erotic at times – and very, very authentic’

Finally, one of Say It With Garage Flowers’s favourite records of 2021 was actually 10 years old…

Singer-songwriter, producer and guitarist, Steve Cradock, (Ocean Colour Scene, Paul Weller and The Specials) kept himself busy during lockdown by revisiting his 2011 solo album, Peace City West, which he remixed and remastered for its first ever vinyl release.

Recorded in December/ January 2010 at Deep Litter Studios, on a farm, in rural Devon, it’s a lost gem – a collection of 10 really strong and highly melodic songs, from the infectious and jangly, Beatles and Jam-like power-pop of opener Last Days Of The Old World, to the ’60s psych of The Pleasure Seekers, the pastoral cosmic pop of Kites Rise Up Against the Wind, the gorgeous and folky ballad Finally Found My Way Back Home –  co-written with Weller associate Andy Crofts and ’60s soul singer P.P. Arnold, who Cradock produced a solo LP for in 2019  – and the country-tinged Lay Down Your Weary Burden.

After the original version of Peace City West came out, Cradock decided he wasn’t happy with the final mix of the album, or the psychedelic instrumental interludes that he’d put in-between the songs, so, 10 years later, he decided to do something about it.

“We mixed it badly on a laptop in January 2011 and then it was finished, but listening back it just sounded bad because of the mix,” he told us. “It was time to re-do that, get rid of the interludes, make it sound like it should’ve done and put it on vinyl – those were the three things that were missing for me.”

We missed out on this record the first time it came out, so we’re really grateful that Cradock decided to reissue it.

Steve Cradock

 

“The new version gives it more focus,” he said. ” I like the fact that it’s now simple – it’s just the songs. Hearing the vinyl test pressing made me smile, which was good.”

He added: “There was a lot of meandering nonsense on the old version, but, at the time, that was where my head was at – I thought it was interesting. There were bits of road music on it, from when I was in Egypt. I recorded a guy saying a prayer. I was enjoying that self-indulgence, but, in 2020, I wasn’t.”

At the risk of us being self-indulgent, here’s a playlist of songs from some of our favourite albums of 2021.

Please note: not all the albums are on Spotify, but if you want to hear them, you can support the artists by purchasing their music on Bandcamp etc. That would make their year.

Best of 2021 Spotify Playlist

Best albums of 2017

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This year has been a remarkable one for new music – in fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s the greatest in the history of Say It With Garage Flowers, which launched in the summer of 2009.

Most of my favourite contemporary singer-songwriters and bands unleashed new albums in 2017 and I was lucky enough to interview several of them to find out the stories behind the songs.

Sadly, I haven’t been able to arrange an in-depth chat with the man whose album has made the top-spot in this year’s ‘Best Of’ list, although we did come very close to doing an interview a few weeks ago, but it got postponed at the last minute. I live in hope that we can rearrange it for next year – both of us dearly want it to happen…

In the meantime, I will have to be content with listening to his latest record, A Short History of Decay, which is my favourite album of 2017.

John_Murry_1400_X1400

The second solo record by John Murry – an American singer-songwriter who was raised in Tupelo, Mississippi, but now lives in Kilkenny, Ireland –  A Short History of Decay is the follow-up to his 2012 masterpiece, The Graceless Age – one of the greatest records of the last few years.

Back in 2012, I said of The Graceless Age: ‘It’s a deeply personal work that deals with the darker side of life, including drug addiction, loss and loneliness –  it’s one of those records that’s meant to be listened to on headphones, alone, late at night, as it draws you in with its lush orchestration, gorgeous, spiralling melodies and twisted tales. Misery seldom sounded so sublime.’

Five years later, Murry finally released its successor. It was always going to be a tough act to follow such a brilliant record as The Graceless Age, but for Murry it was doubly difficult. Since its release, he’d had personal problems and demons to deal with, including family issues and the death of his close friend Tim Mooney, of American Music Club, who had produced his first album.

Michael Timmins from Canadian alt-country act Cowboy Junkies came to Murry’s aid. He’d seen him supporting his band in Glasgow and was captivated by his performance – I’ve seen Murry play live 13 times and he is one of my favourite artists to watch in concert. His shows are intense and extremely powerful – you never know what you’re going to get, but it’s always one hell of a ride. He is an extraordinary performer.

‘It was always going to be a tough act to follow such a brilliant record as The Graceless Age, but for Murry it was doubly difficult – he’d had personal problems and demons to deal with, including family issues and the death of his close friend Tim Mooney’

Timmins and Murry talked about making an album together – Timmins wanted to capture the rawness of Murry’s songs – and the result is A Short History of Decay.

It was recorded over five days in Timmins’ Toronto studio with a band comprising of his brother Peter (Cowboy Junkies) on drums and Josh Finlayson  (Skydiggers, Gord Downie, Lee Harvey Osmond) on bass. John brought along Cait O’Riordan (The Pogues, Elvis Costello), whom he’d met in Ireland – she contributed backing vocals to the album.

Talking about the sessions, Timmins said: “I felt that it was important that John got out of his own way and that we set up a situation where he would just play and sing and the rest of us would just react, no second guessing, just react and capture the moment. It was a very inspired and inspiring week of playing and recording. Very intense. And I think we captured the raw essence of John’s writing and playing”. 

They certainly did – A Short History of Decay is looser and much more raw than its predecessor. The wonderful first single, Under A Darker Moon, has fuzzy, fucked-up guitars and punk-rock sensibilities, but, at its heart, is a killer indie-pop tune.

My favourite track on the album is Wrong Man. A dark, stripped-down, Springsteen-esque ballad that deals with the breakup of Murry’s marriage – “I’m the wrong man to ride shotgun on your murder mile” – it makes for uncomfortable listening, but is such a beautiful song, with a simple, sparse keyboard and guitar arrangement. 

A Short History of Decay has its fair share of gallows humour, too. Despite its title, One Day (You’ll Die) is one of the album’s lighter moments  – a weird, mutated, but very catchy, pop-reggae (!) groove, with a guitar solo that sounds like it’s been lifted from the ’50s rock ‘n’ roll instrumental Sleepwalk by Santo & Johnny.

Similarly, Countess Lola’s Blues (All In This Together) is another song with an irresistible, sing-a-long melody, but when the dirty garage guitar comes in, it kicks ass. 

The album’s closing track is a stunning cover of What Jail Is Like by The Afghan Whigs. I will scratch my way out of your pen, just so that I can claw my way back into it again,” sings Murry, over psychedelic guitar sounds.

It’s great to have him back.

This year also saw the return of another Say It With Garage Flowers favourite. Back in 2014, miserablist duo Pete Fij (Adorable and Polak) and Terry Bickers (The House of Love and Levitation) released their debut album, Broken Heart Surgery, which topped my end of year poll.

2017 saw them follow it up with the brilliant We Are Millionaires – an album that I played to death this year. 

As I wrote back in the summer, ‘like its predecessor, it’s full of deadpan humour and dry wit. With influences including John Barry, The Velvet Underground and Lee Hazlewood, and lyrical nods to movies The Third Man and The Birds, it’s like a soundtrack to an imaginary, downbeat, British, black and white kitchen sink-drama-meets spy-film – part Hancock, part Hitchcock – but this time around, there’s even some optimism.’

And while we’re on the subject of Lee Hazlewood, the legendary moustachioed maverick is a huge influence on Manchester singer-songwriter Nev Cottee, whose third album, Broken Flowers, was another highlight of this year. 

His darkest record to date, it was written in the aftermath of a failed relationship. Nev’s rich, baritone voice is backed by lush, cinematic strings and the album moves from twilight country music to bluesy psych-rock and spacey, hypnotic grooves. First single, Open Eyes, sounded like Lee Hazlewood hanging out in Cafè del Mar.

Staying with Manchester melancholy, Morrissey came back in 2017 with Low In High School – his strongest album in years – but, sadly, the record was overshadowed by controversial comments he made in the press. Songs like the brassy, glam rock swagger of My Love, I’d Do Anything For You, the electro-tinged I Wish You Lonely and the epic Home Is A Question Mark would easily find their place in a list of his greatest tracks. 

Ex-Only Ones frontman Peter Perrett surprised everyone by releasing a superb solo album, How The West Was Won, which was loaded with wry songs in the vein of Dylan and Lou Reed.

Husband and wife country duo – and Say It With Garage Flowers regulars – My Darling Clementine – returned with the excellent Still Testifying. Their third album saw them building on the Southern soul sound that they explored on their 2013 record, The Reconciliation? More Delaney & Bonnie than George & Tammy, and with gospel leanings and luscious horn arrangements, it could’ve emerged from Memphis, Alabama or New Orleans, but it was actually made in Tooting, South London.

Another husband and wife duo who are no strangers to country music – The Rails – impressed me with their second album, Other People.

Recorded in Nashville and produced by Ray Kennedy [Steve Earle and Lucinda Williams], it was a darker, heavier and more electric record than their critically acclaimed 2014 debut Fair Warning

Moving away from the band’s traditional folk roots – it had ‘psychedelic’ tinges and  ’60s organ –  it wasn’t afraid to speak its mind and deal with modern social issues.

Gravel-voiced Mark Lanegan’s Gargoyle was also high up on my list of 2017 albums of the year. The latest in a long line of great releases by him, it continued to mine the seam of dark, brooding electronic rock he’s explored over his last few records. 

Singer-songwriter Richard Warren – who’s played guitar for Mark Lanegan and Soulsavers – returned with his latest album, Distentangled. It was less dark than some of his previous releases – more soulful and stripped-down – but still with a nod to the ’50s sounds of Sun Records, melancholy, late-night ballads in the vein of Nick Lowe, Roy Orbison and Richard Hawley, and twangy guitar instrumentals that could be soundtracks to arthouse films that don’t exist yet. 

A debut album that I fell in love with this year was This Short Sweet Life by Nottingham’s Torn Sail – coincidentally an act linked to Richard Warren, who played with them in a previous incarnation.

Written and produced by singer-songwriter Huw Costin, it was a haunting and gorgeous record –  sad, but also uplifting and spiritual – an intimate, late-night soundtrack for the lost and the lonely that reminded me of Jeff Buckley at times.

PP

Two of my favourite albums of 2017 weren’t actually from this year! Soul legend P.P. Arnold and Neil Young both released ‘lost’ long-players.

Arnold’s album The Turning Tide was a collection of songs from ’69 and ’70. Produced by Barry Gibb and Eric Clapton, the album was aborted and remained unfinished. Thankfully the master tapes were finally located, the tracks were completed and the album was issued 47 years later. It’s a great collection of groovy soul-shakers – her blistering versions of Traffic’s Medicated Goo and The Stones’ You Can’t Always Get What You Want are guaranteed floor-fillers – and tender ballads, like the lushly-orchestrated gospel song Bury Me Down By The River. 

Young’s intimate Hitchhiker – it’s just vocals, acoustic guitar and harmonica – was recorded in a single night, in Malibu, California in 1976, but didn’t see the light of day until September this year. I’m so glad it did – it’s up there with his best work.

The dark and menacing title track is jaw-dropping – a staggeringly honest autobiographical tale, which sees Neil on a road trip with just his drug stash for company, before things take a turn for the worse and he ends up a paranoid wreck who has to escape from the L.A. rock ‘n’ roll scene and hole up in the countryside…

L.A. is the home of singer-songwriter Marlon Rabenreither, who, under the name Gold Star, released his excellent second album, Big Blue, this year, and, funnily enough, it often sounds like ’70s Neil Young, as well as early Ryan Adams. 

I’d like to say thanks to Alex Lipinski who invited me to his album launch at Pretty Green in London’s Carnaby Street in November this year – I loved his latest record, the raw and bluesy Alex, with its mix of Dylan and the La’s.

And finally, I must mention the UK label Sugarbush, which continues to put out great jangle-pop, power-pop and psych albums on vinyl – both new releases and re-issues. This year saw Scottish guitar band The Carousels, who are on Sugarbush, release their gorgeous second album, Sail Me Home, St.Clair, which was heavily indebted to the sound of the Byrds’ 1968 country-rock cult classic, Sweetheart of the Rodeo

I’m listening to it now, as I write this article and sail off into 2018… 

Here’s a list of my favourite albums of 2017 and a Spotify playlist to go with it:

1) John Murry – A Short History of Decay

2) Pete Fij & Terry Bickers We Are Millionaires

3) Morrissey – Low In High School

4) Mark Lanegan – Gargoyle

5) Nev CotteeBroken Flowers

6) My Darling Clementine Still Testifying

7) Torn Sail This Short Sweet Life

8) The Rails Other People

9) Peter Perrett – How The West Was Won

10) Neil Young – Hitchhiker 

11) PP Arnold The Turning Tide

12) Gold Star – Big Blue

13) Richard Warren Disentangled

14) The Carousels Sail Home, St. Clair

15) Jeff Tweedy – Together At Last

16) The Clientele – Music For The Age of Miracles

17) Ralegh Long – Upwards of Summer

18) Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit – The Nashville Sound

19) Mark Eitzel – Hey Mr Ferryman

20) Alex Lipinksi Alex

21) Little Barrie – Death Express

22) The National – Sleep Well Beast

23) Juanita Stein – America

24) Martin CarrNew Shapes of Life

25) The Dials – That Was The Future

26) Michael Head & The Red Elastic Band – Adios Senor Pussycat

27) Chris Hillman – Bidin’ My Time

28) Liam Gallagher – As You Were

29) William Matheny – Strange Constellations

30) Cotton Mather – Wild Kingdom

31) Matthew Sweet – Tomorrow Forever

32) Daniel Wylie’s Cosmic Rough Riders Scenery For Dreamers

33) The Jesus & Mary Chain – Damage and Joy

34) Duke Garwood – Garden of Ashes

35) Timber Timbre – Sincerely, Future Pollution

36) Luke Tuchscherer Always Be True

37) Frontier Ruckus – Enter The Kingdom

38) Sophia Marshall – Bye Bye

39) Co-Pilgrim – Moon Lagoon

40) GospelBeacH Another Summer of Love

41) Bob Dylan – Triplicate

42) Papernut Cambridge – Cambridge Circus

43) Luna – A Sentimental Education

44) Steelism – Ism

45) The Len Price 3 – Kentish Longtails

46) Wesley Fuller – Inner City Dream

47) Hurricane #1 – Melodic Rainbows [UK version]

48) Alex Lowe – Rancho Diablo

49) The Blow Monkeys – The Wild River

50) Colman GotaFear The Summer

 

 

 

Best Albums of 2015

 

minesweeping

As we approach the end of the year and overindulge in festive celebrations, hangovers are a daily occurrence.

They also played a major part in the making of Say It With Garage Flowers’ favourite album of 2015 – Minesweeping by O’Connell & Love.

One of the most eclectic and richly rewarding albums of recent times, it’s a collaboration between Larry Love, the lead singer of South London country-blues-gospel-electronica outlaws Alabama 3 and songwriting partner Brendan O’Connell.

As Larry told me when I interviewed him about the making of the record: “What was interesting with Minesweeping was the use of hangovers in the recording process. Brendan was financing the project and, basically, at the end of the night, we’d chuck some drunken ideas down, but the most important stuff was done in the morning after. I knew that unless I did some songs in the morning, Brendan wouldn’t buy me a pint in the afternoon.”

Reviewing it earlier this year, I described it as, ‘a hung-over road trip through the badlands, stopping to pick up some hitchhikers on the way – namely guest vocalists Rumer, Buffy Sainte-Marie, June Miles-Kingston, Tenor Fly and Pete Doherty.’

The record opens with the moody, Cash-like, acoustic death row ballad, Like A Wave Breaks On A Rock, visits Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood territory for the drunken, playful duet Hangover Me (feat. Rumer), travels across Europe for the sublime, blissed-out, Stonesy country-soul of  It Was The Sweetest Thing,hangs out by the riverside for the gorgeous pastoral folk of Shake Off Your Shoes (feat.Rumer) and heads out to the ocean for the Celtic sea shanty-inspired Where Silence Meets The Sea.

Larry Love and Brendan O’Connell

It’s an album that wears its influences on the sleeve of its beer-stained shirt – it’s like rifling through a record collection of classic rock and roll, folk, blues, country and soul.

There are nods to late ‘70s Dylan (The Man Inside The Mask), Motown (Love Is Like A Rolling Stone – feat.Tenor Fly ), Leonard Cohen (Come On, Boy – feat. Junes Miles-Kingston) and The Band (If It’s Not Broken).

I’m really looking forward to seeing O’Connell & Love play this record live in 2016 – according to Larry, there are plans for a UK tour.

In the meantime, I’m going to pour myself a large glass of something dark and strong and lose myself in Minesweeping.

One for the road, anyone?

As albums of the year go, singer-songwriters, alt.country, power-pop and Americana dominate my list.

Richard Hawley turned in a classic with Hollow Meadows, which was less psychedelic than its predecessor, Standing At The Sky’s Edge, and largely rooted in country, folk and the lush, late-night, ‘50s-tinged melancholy ballads that dominated his earlier albums. Although there was still room for some bluesy-garage rock (Which Way) and anthemic, widescreen guitar pop (Heart of Oak).

I was lucky enough to meet Richard after one of his gigs this year and when I told him that I preferred his new album to the one before, he simply said, ‘Well – you can’t please everyone, Sean…’

Other singer-songwriters who released great albums this year included Manchester’s Nev Cottee – Strange News From The Sun sounded like Lee Hazlewood on a spacewalk – and Vinny Peculiar, whose Down The Bright Stream was a witty, funny and moving collection of brilliantly observed pop songs, steeped in childhood nostalgia, teenage memories and wry social commentary.

Nev Cottee
Nev Cottee

John Howard’s new project – John Howard & The Night Mail – was a wonderful record, full of quirky, witty, intelligent, theatrical and nostalgic songs, from Zombies-like psych-pop to slinky retro mod-soul, glam-rock and observational Ray Davies-style tales of people’s everyday lives.

Detroit’s Nick Piunti – a Say It With Garage Flowers favourite – returned in a blaze of glory with Beyond The Static, which was the follow-up to his critically acclaimed power-pop record 13 In My Head, while Dublin-born singer-songwriter Marc Carroll’s latest album, Love Is All or Love Is Not At All, was his most political record yet.

Dead Flowers – who topped Say It With Garage Flowers’ album of the year list back in 2013 with their debut, Midnight At The Wheel Club, didn’t disappoint with their new record – Minor & Grand, which was often louder and much more electrified than their first album.

Manchester band Last Harbour made Caul – a brooding, cinematic masterpiece that recalled Bowie’s Berlin period, the industrial, electronic atmosphere of Joy Division and the gothic splendour of Scott Walker and Nick Cave.

Steelism

Instrumental duo Steelism, with their spy film guitar licks and surf-rock riffs, came up with a record (615 To FAME) that harked back to the glory days of ’60s instrumental rock & roll, but also threw in country, soul and blues – and even a touch of krautrock – to create their own dramatic soundtracks.

UK Americana label Clubhouse Records had a great year in 2015, releasing superb albums by alt.country band Case Hardin (Colours Simple), whose singer-songwriter Pete Gow played a solo show that I promoted back in October, and The Dreaming Spires (Searching For The Supertruth)– Oxford’s prime exponents of ‘60s-style jangle-pop.

I must declare a vested interest in one of my favourite records of 2015 – The Other Half, a collaboration between top UK crime writer Mark Billingham and country duo My Darling Clementine.

Mark discovered My Darling Clementine by first reading about them on my blog, so, I’d like to think that I set the wheels in motion that led them to record their story of love, loss and murder that’s told in words and music and set in a rundown Memphis bar.

Sadly, not everyone who released superb albums in 2015 lived to tell the tale. Gifted, but troubled, singer-songwriter Gavin Clark (Sunhouse, Clayhill) died in February, but he left behind Evangelist – a project that was completed by James Griffith and Pablo Clements, members of UNKLE/Toydrum and the owners of the Toy Room Studios in Brighton.

Loosely based on Gavin’s life, it was a dark, edgy, atmospheric and psychedelic-tinged trip that made for uneasy – yet essential – listening.

And finally, here are some nods to acts who didn’t release studio albums this year, but put out some records that I loved.

I’m not normally a huge fan of live albums, but Johnny Marr’s Adrenalin Baby was brilliant and really captured the feel and atmosphere of his gigs – it’s worth it just to hear his outstanding, europhic version of Electronic’s Getting Away With It.

And talking of live shows, UK folk duo The Rails gave away a seven-track acoustic EP called Australia at their gigs this year.

It served as a good stopgap until their next album and featured a killer, stripped-down cover of Edwyn Collins’ Low Expectations.

Liverpudlian singer-songwriter Steve Roberts followed up his 2013 concept record Cold Wars Part 1 EP with the five-track sequel – What Would You Die For? [Cold Wars Part Two].

The standout track This Is A Cold War was a stately, Beatlesesque piano-led ballad. Lennon and McCarthy?

And while we’re on the subject of spies, being a huge James Bond fan, I really enjoyed A Girl And A Guna 34-track tribute album of 007 songs and soundtracks by artists including Darren Hayman, Robert Rotifer, Ralegh Long and Papernut Cambridge.

Say It With Garage Flowers will return in 2016…

Here’s a list of my favourite albums of 2015 and a Spotify playlist to accompany it:

  1. O’Connell & Love – Minesweeping
  2. Richard Hawley – Hollow Meadows
  3. Vinny Peculiar – Down The Bright Stream
  4. John Howard & The Night Mail – John Howard & The Night Mail
  5. Nev Cottee – Strange News From The Sun
  6. The Dreaming Spires – Searching For The Supertruth
  7. Dead Flowers – Minor & Grand
  8. Evangelist [Gavin Clark & Toydrum] – Evangelist
  9. Duke Garwood – Heavy Love
  10. Mark Billingham & My Darling Clementine – The Other Half
  11. Nick Piunti – Beyond The Static
  12. Case Hardin – Colours Simple
  13. Last Harbour – Caul
  14. Steelism – 615 To FAME
  15. Bob Dylan – Shadows In The Night
  16. Jason Isbell – Something More Than Free
  17. Marc Carroll – Love Is All or Not At All
  18. Father John Misty – I Love You, Honeybear
  19. Gaz Coombes – Matador
  20. Wilco – Star Wars
  21. The Sopranistas – Cutting Down The Bird Hotel
  22. Dave Gahan & Soulsavers – Angels & Ghosts
  23. New Order – Music Complete
  24. GospelBeacH – Pacific Surf Line
  25. Sarah Cracknell – Red Kite
  26. Kontiki Suite – The Greatest Show On Earth
  27. Ryley Walker – Primrose Green
  28. Hurricane #1 – Find What You Love And Let It Kill You
  29. Jacob Golden – The Invisible Record
  30. Ian Webber – Year of the Horse
  31. Bill Fay – Who Is The Sender?

Best Albums of 2014

Pete-Fij-Terry-Bickers-Broken-Heart-Surgery-Signed

This year’s Say It With Garage Flowers number one album can be easily filed alongside Bob Dylan’s Blood On The Tracks, Nick Cave’s The Boatman’s Call and Ryan Adams’ Heartbreaker as one of the greatest breakup records of all time.

Broken Heart Surgery by singer-songwriter Pete Fijalkowski (Adorable and Polak) and guitarist Terry Bickers (The House of Love and Levitation) is intimate and stripped-down, with nods to Johnny Cash, Spiritualized, John Barry and The Velvet Underground. A raw, deeply personal, melancholy album, it documents the breakup of a relationship and the aftermath, but is shot through with plenty of gallows humour and deadpan wit. 

On the record, there are several lyrical references to material possessions – leaving them behind, or being saddled with someone’s else’s old stuff. There’s a lot of emotional baggage involved, but also a lot of physical baggage, too… There are some brilliant lyrics on the album – some of which made me laugh out loud when I first heard them. For example, “Hope – it’s more addictive than coke. Yeah – it’s cupid’s cruel joke…” (Betty Ford) and  “[she] just left me with cutlery and a whole pile of her duff CDs…” (Queen of Stuff).

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When I spoke to Pete earlier this year, he told me: “I wanted the album to reflect the various aspects of a breakup, so while some of the subject matters are taking place more in the head, there are others that have a very physical location and an obsession with small details – the division of objects between a couple (Breaking Up), the forgotten objects left behind in a now half-empty flat (Queen of Stuff) or the changing soundtrack to a couple’s life as their relationship deteriorates – from furtive whispers and kisses, to slamming doors and uneasy silences (Sound of Love).”

Asked what he wanted to achieve with the album, Pete said: “First and foremost, I wanted to make an album that I was proud of.”

Rest assured, he can hold his head up high – it’s a stone cold classic.

While we’re on the subject of masters in melancholy, Morrissey made a welcome return this year with World Peace Is None Of Your Business – his first album in five years. His best long-player since 1994’s Vauxhall & I, it was a glorious comeback record, with epic ballads (I’m Not A Man, Mountjoy), unabashed pop songs (Staircase At The University, Kiss Me A Lot, The Bullfighter Dies ) and lavish, exotic arrangements, including mariachi brass, strings and flamenco guitar.

Alas, due to a dispute with his record label, Harvest, the album is currently not available on Spotify or iTunes, so, instead, here’s a YouTube clip of the mighty Staircase At The University…

Other notable 2014 albums included Fair Warning by folk-rockers The Rails; Charade – the debut album from LA-based country singer Meg Olsen; A Swirling Fire Burning Through The Rye by San Fran garage-psychers Cool Ghouls ; Phantom Radio by the Mark Lanegan Band, which explored dark, electronic territory; The Breaks by former Boo Radley Martin Carr – gorgeous, lush guitar pop – and Alexandria by alt. country artist Chris Mills, which was his first album in five years and saw him team up with a new backing band – The Distant Stars.

Everything But The Girl’s Ben Watt impressed with his solo album Hendra, which featured former Suede guitarist Bernard Butler on a poignant set of songs that, at times, recalled the legendary John Martyn, while Cherry Ghost’s latest record, Herd Runners, was a soundtrack for the lost and lonely, similar to Richard Hawley’s late night laments…

Chris Mills
Chris Mills

Finally, it would be remiss of me not to mention News From Nowhere – the ‘long-lost’ debut by ’90s Britpop band Speedy. Recorded in 1997, the album finally saw the light of day earlier this year and was well worth the wait. The band even reformed and played live for the occasion. 

I  played a small part in getting the album released – a 2009 blog I wrote about the record attracted some interest and one thing led to another…

Here’s a list of my favourite 30 albums of 2014 and a Spotify playlist to go with it. 

1) Pete Fij & Terry Bickers – Broken Heart Surgery

2) Morrissey – World Peace Is None of Your Business

3) The Rails – Fair Warning

4) Mark Lanegan Band – Phantom Radio

5) Martin Carr – The Breaks

6) The New Mendicants – Into The Lime

7) Chris Mills & The Distant Stars – Alexandria

8) Cherry Ghost – Herd Runners

9) Ben Watt – Hendra

10) Meg Olsen – Charade

11) Johnny Marr – Playland

12) Cool Ghouls – A Swirling Fire Burning Through The Rye

13) Damon Albarn – Everyday Robots

14) The Delines – Colfax Avenue

15) Beck – Morning Phase

16) Speedy – News From Nowhere

17) Temples – Sun Structures

18) Cleaners From Venus – Return To Bohemia

19Manic Street Preachers – Futurology

20) Kings of The South Seas – Kings of The South Seas

21) Gallon Drunk – The Soul of the Hour

22) Len Price 3 – Nobody Knows

23) Little Barrie – Shadow

24) Tweedy – Sukirae

25) The Autumn Defense – Fifth

26) Neville Skelly – Carousel

27) Johnny Aries – Unbloomed

28) Pete Molinari – Theosophy

29) Dean Wareham – Dean Wareham

30) Elbow – The Take Off and Landing of Everything