8. UP THE HILL AND DOWN THE SLOPE 2010 – 2015
For as long as I can remember I have imagined my life as a steep hill. Starting at the bottom, as I walked up I became more and more confident. Occasionally life proved troublesome with obstacles in the way which I’d traverse the best I could. At some indeterminate point I reached the top and began to walk down the other side. Shit still happened, but nothing I experienced prepared me for Tuesday 2nd March 2010 when an act of war 4,525 miles away changed the course of my life in an instant.
Apart from the regular ebb and flow we all have living in these mean and desperate times, there had only been a handful of events I would call life changing, so by its very nature, the death of my 23 year old son at the hands of a Taliban sniper on the southern edge of Sangin, Afghanistan was the most devastating. In fact so traumatic was it that even now almost ten years later I still find it difficult to write about, not because I can’t or don’t want to, but because words alone can never express the overwhelming sorrow of his absence.
Corporal Richard Green of 3 Rifles Reconnaissance Platoon was killed at 10.25am (5.55am GMT) while manning an impromptu checkpoint less than 100 metres from the relative safety of his patrols operating base. Receiving one shot to the temple, he would have known nothing about it. ‘You never hear the bullet that kills you’ he always used to say. As his next of kin I was informed of his death five hours later at work by two understandably apprehensive army officers dressed in civilian suits who had spent the last hour tracking me down after going to our house and finding no-one home.
As a professional combat soldier and veteran of three tours, Rich was well aware of the risks involved and the odds on losing his life. Having witnessed the horrific deaths and injuries of comrades first hand, he knew it was just a question of luck, of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The day before his return to the frontline after a mid-tour R&R break just two weeks before he was killed, he sat me down to explain the brutal facts of war as sensitively as he possibly could in a conversation no parent wants to have. But I’m glad he had the courage and the foresight to have it because in the immediate aftermath of his death, through the long, exhausting hours, days, weeks and months of grief and bewilderment, his acceptance of the dangers and his potential fate gave me the strength not to drown in his death, but to move forward through disorientating times and escape the gravitational pull of my life’s new and devastating year zero.
We had spent an inordinate amount of time together over the years, throughout his boyhood and more recently on the long drives to or from army barracks and bases across the land from Hounslow to Chester, from Brecon to Brize Norton. As close as any father and son could be, with nothing left unsaid and nothing left undone, I had no regrets on that score. Nor did I have any axe to grind or anger to vent at the Taliban, Afghanistan, Muslims, the military or the labour government as so many other mothers, fathers, wives and husbands did in the misguided belief that apportioning blame would somehow relieve their suffering.
Maybe it was my near hallucinatory state of shock but I found the reaction of those from both inside and outside our family circle to what was an emotive and very public death, baffling. The extraordinary circumstances of a nation at war, the return of Richard’s body to RAF Lyneham with four other soldiers, the parade through Wootton Bassett and the funeral itself which were all broadcast live on national television led to some most bizarre and unexpected behaviour.
From ridiculous, unnecessary rants about Prime Minister Gordon Brown and his poor hand writing to the close friend I didn’t hear from again for two years, and from my devout, Methodist mother temporarily losing faith in her beloved God to the hordes of unsolicited visitors who besieged our home intent on livening up their own miserable existence by basking in the reflected glory of a dead ‘hero’, it was a salutary reminder of how self-serving some folk can be. Then again, I guess we all have an emptiness we need to fill, it’s just unfortunate that so many choose to fill theirs with malicious gossip, social media lies, sensationalist news and the misfortune and misery of others.
At eleven years old I chose to fill mine with music, and so, in what felt like a perfectly natural if futile, attempt to navigate my way through the sadness of Richard’s death, I immersed myself in a manic, obsessive cycle of downloading and listening to songs. I had been crate digging, curating CD-R’s and writing about all types of music since the turn of the new century purely for my own pleasure, but when Daniel launched the website Green Inc, initially as a form of therapy and platform for my more erudite ramblings, not only did it reignite a literary spark I thought I’d lost, it pushed me into seeking out music I would never have listened to otherwise. And yet strangely, no matter how much I tried, I struggled to form any kind of committed relationship with new, post millennial artists.
Curiously, I even lost my brand loyalty to the major figures from my youth. In the spring of 2013, when my old beau Bowie reappeared to be showered in praise for his first new album in a decade, I couldn’t have been less interested. Notwithstanding the odd spark of purposeful brilliance from LCD Soundsystem, James Blake, Frank Ocean, M.I.A., Kendrick Lamar, Young Fathers and Chance The Rapper, every time I heard a new song the only thing that seemed to matter was whether I could hum it or not. Without even realising it I had succumbed to the power of the earworm and turned into a willing polygamist, spreading my love thin and wide to become a shallow, restless listener, easily amused yet very easily bored.
With the ability to access every song ever recorded since time immemorial, it felt to me like a large part of the mystery and otherness of music had disappeared forever. Maybe Richard’s death had something to do with it or maybe it was because I was finding the sheer volume of new music available overwhelming, but my once missionary zeal dissipated too, although that didn’t mean that music lost all of its evangelical power. Ironically, the songs I managed to find that really did mean something became even more significant and precious.
In the age of shuffle, the quantum leaps within the endless, interchangeable puzzle of modern music culture and its role in our daily lives and habits continued to be driven more by the ongoing, ever evolving process of technological advancement than the actual music; YouTube’s popularisation of songs old and new giving way to smartphones equipped with 24/7 streaming and machine learning algorithms to determine your listening for you. Choice didn’t come into it unless you wanted to be a vinyl Luddite paying through the nose for a scratched up piece of black plastic, albeit with cool artwork.
However, the greatest shock to my system came when Apple quietly killed off the sole source of my musical pleasure for over a decade, iPod production ceasing in September 2014 just as Spotify became the premium, audio format. Historically speaking the classic iPod era (from 2001 until 2007 when Apple introduced the evil iPhone) passed in the blink of an eye, and yet in the second decade of the 21st century, plugging my little black box into the computer, waiting forever for iTunes to open and sync, curating playlists and manoeuvring the click wheel beneath my thumb in search of the perfect song, still felt like the sci-fi version of flipping through the LP’s in a record shop from my youth or obsessively organizing my CD’s into hefty Case Logic binders. Except with my battered and bruised, sixth generation, 160GB classic, I had all of my music, all of the time.
Safe within my warm, comfortably numb bubble of downloading, listening, writing and archiving, it’s true to say that I became a bit of a social hermit, doing little beyond watching TV and submitting to the anaesthetising solace of The Sound of Music and repeats of Time Team and River Cottage. Soon enough it began to take a gargantuan effort for me to even leave the house, not that I was suffering from agoraphobia or any other phobia for that matter. After all, I still had to go to work. It’s just that I couldn’t be arsed with socialising and chatting bollocks. Like a permanent outsider in a kaleidoscope of shit, my remaining friends disappeared and I withdrew into self-imposed exile, mentally adrift from the tedious celebration of the mundane that seemed to dominate the thoughts and conversation of those around me. That is when they could be bothered to look up from their smartphones and string more than a couple of syllables together, their illuminated handsets offering them the brainwashing balm of permanent distraction.
The death of my son and the actual, physical, pain of grief that no-one ever tells you about certainly caused me to take the occasional, nostalgic trip up my own arse to ponder on everything from the evolution of my inner morals to the ugly truths of my childhood and the nagging memories that still seemed so important. But it also pushed me into seeking a future free from the commonplace and baseness of human existence. Acutely aware of my own mortality and of time running out, I began to think seriously about what it would mean to live on the margins of society and how that might be sustainable.
It’s funny but I’d always told myself that at some indeterminable point in the future my real life, or rather the one I secretly imagined, was finally going to start. Of course, when it gets right down to it, giving up your dreams for a reliable job that pays the way and corrodes your soul is no-ones preferred option. And yet, only too aware that it wasn’t my high falutin’ punk principles alone that put food on the table, clothed the kids or paid the mortgage, I kidded myself with the thought that jerking off the machine for fun and profit was the next best thing to saying ‘fuck you, I’m off’.
Manual labourer or manager, digging out weeds or managing a three million pound budget, apart from the early nineties when the militant, union led proletariat permanently teetered on the brink of anarchy, there was never too much enjoyment to be found in the soul sucking monotony of the local government waste collection game or the profit and loss led lies of the recycling industry. Certainly my reputation as an opinionated, argumentative, rebel rouser heading up a disparate band of unruly out- siders and scumbags feared and loathed in equal measure by a new breed of kiss arse, corporate cunts with the mindset of Nietzsche’s Last Men didn’t help although most of the time I was left alone to get on with it.
Then, just a couple of years after Richard’s death, I began to notice a change in attitude amongst the increasing number of grumbling white collar housing officers and highways inspectors who had heard rumours of the overtime and bonuses being paid to my crews and demanded a slice for themselves. Eaten up by rage and bitterness, their jealousy manifested itself in a cabal of sneaky snooping and snitching on my staff together with a series of anonymous letters accusing me of everything from accepting holidays paid for by a council contractor to marking staff in work when they were off sick.
Admittedly I’d been involved in my own fair share of scams and dodgy dealings over the years, but the allegations detailed in the letters were works of pure fiction, rightly poo-pooed by the powers that be until that well known scourge of local government, the recently employed consultant out to make a name (and plenty of money) for himself, spotted the opportunity to claim a significant scalp and make a saving on my salary in the process. And so it was that in the spring of 2015 I finally realised that my days were numbered. The time had come to come to get out on my own terms, and yet before I could come up with an exit strategy, I fell victim to a fatal, cowardly act of betrayal by my most trusted lieutenant. At the time I assumed he was being leaned on to drop me in it as his own job was under threat but it turned out that he wasn’t the only one. Folk who I had worked alongside for two decades or more and counted as friends deserted me in their droves, never to be seen again as I was cast adrift to drown in their tide of lies and rumour.
Suspended on full pay I faced six months of uncertainty, the resulting investigation rapidly descending into the kind of inefficient farce so typical of local government. Despite numerous interviews and reams of information scrutinised at extortionate cost, no evidence was found of my alleged crimes apart from hearsay, which given my innocence was just as well. Nonetheless, when a hearing date was fixed for the week before Christmas 2015, I feared the worse until my nemesis, who disconcertingly shared his name with that of my favourite Prestwich wordsmith, finally admitted defeat and raised the delicate question of whether I would be prepared to accept a payoff. Seizing on what after all was a once in a lifetime opportunity, I negotiated a huge one off payment and generous annual pension that meant I’d never have to work again and skipped out the door.
It was a fitting end to the darkest, yet at the same time, the most extraordinary five years of my life, my mind liberated by a brutal act on one of my own that ultimately gave me the courage to accept Richard’s fate, confront the injustice facing me full on and escape the slavery of work once and for all. It felt very much like my son’s parting gift and what a remarkable gift it was. Still I keep on travelling down the slope ready to face the many adventures and misadventures that lie ahead, but now there’s a new path to help me fulfil my dream of a life less ordinary and find whatever it is I’m looking for. The old life is over, the new life has begun. It might just be the best yet!
SLEIGH BELLS ‘Rill Rill’ (Treats LP February 2010)
In the first few months of 2010, as my son’s friends and brothers in arms began to fall with alarming regularity and the chance of him coming home with anything less than a life changing injury stacked up, music took a backseat. And yet even in my permanent state of anxiety, it was impossible to deny the greatness of ‘Rill Rill’. Based on an instantly recognisable sample from Funkadelic's ‘Can You Get to That’, it sounded so bold, optimistic and young that it couldn’t help but bring a smile to my face.
GONJASUFI ‘Sheep’ (A Sufi And A Killer LP March 2010)
Once upon a time there were two waste collection vehicle drivers, one a sheep, the other a lion. Within the space of a couple of months they were involved in two separate yet equally gruesome fatal collisions with pedestrians. Both were completely blameless but it still came as something of a shock when the sheep returned to work within days, his mind unconcerned about anything (least of all his victim) except the overtime payments he would lose out on should he remain on the sick. As for the lion, so wracked with guilt and remorse was he that within six months he’d suffered a complete mental breakdown, the disintegration of his marriage, a non-existent relationship with his young kids and a life of semi vagrancy. Lions you see, they think too much. Sheep? Do they think at all?
M.I.A. ‘Born Free’ (Download April 2010)
The tired old argument that even the most sophisticated new music is merely a postmodern pastiche of sounds mined from the obscurities of Rock’s Rich Tapestry could easily be applied to a song like ‘Born Free’, a propulsive fuzzbomb of punky pop built on a sample of Suicide's ‘Ghost Rider’. Even if that were true, there was still something extremely appealing about the sheer wilfulness and daring of an artist like M.I.A. renewing her one woman, global pop insurgency with such a blistering statement of intent.
LCD SOUNDSYSTEM ‘I Can Change’ (This Is Happening LP May 2010)
‘This is really happening’ was a phrase we kept telling ourselves as we trudged through the long list of ceremonial engagements that inevitably follow the death of a young soldier; shaking hands with the royal, the holy, the great, the good and the not so good in palaces, cathedrals and memorials across the land. James Murphy‘s choice of the same phrase felt strangely prophetic, especially as LCD Soundsystem were one of the last groups to sustain my interest. That and the fact that songs like ‘I Can Change’ were a warm celebration of the last thirty plus years of new wave, post-punk, disco, house and glam made it feel even more relevant to a man tiptoeing around the memory ghosts of his recent past.
ARCADE FIRE ‘Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)’ (The Suburbs LP August 2010)
In 2009 Arcade Fire sent my son off to war with the grandeur of Neon Bible ringing in his ears. In 2010 the quiet desperation of The Suburbs helped me come to terms with the crushing sadness of his death and, as clichéd as it sounds, start living again, Regine Chassagne tempering lyrics like ‘These days my life I feel it has no purpose / But late at night the feelings swim to the surface’ to transform ‘Sprawl II’ into a life affirming message of defiance in the midst of crushing circumstance.
ROBYN ‘Don’t Fucking Tell Me What To Do’ (Body Talk LP November 2010)
A fuck off song to end a fucker of a year.
P.J. HARVEY ‘The Words That Maketh Murder’ (Let England Shake LP February 2011)
Polly Harvey’s new album arrived when the fog of loss and grief had lifted just enough for me to try and find meaning and significance in Richard’s death where ultimately there was only unfortunate coincidence. There was certainly a plethora of death evident on Let England Shake, ‘The Words That Maketh Murder’ opening with the lines ‘I’ve seen and done things I want to forget / I’ve seen soldiers fall like lumps of meat / Blown and shot out beyond belief / Arms and legs were in the trees’, a depiction of war my son experienced more than once.
JAMES BLAKE ‘The Wilhelm Scream’ (James Blake LP February 2011)
James Blake’s ultra-sensitive, downbeat electronica placed shadowy sub-bass alongside plaintive gospel vocals, glitchy R’n’B samples next to stately piano chords. An eerily spacious, new, sonic variation, ‘The Wilhelm Scream’s yearning melody and sighs of loneliness tapped right into my deepening sense of alienation.
JAI PAUL ‘BTSTU’ (Download April 2011)
The furore surrounding Jai Paul from bloggers, critics and contemporaries alike was so deafening it damn near put me off, although singing ‘Don't fuck with me, don't fuck with me’ in an angelic falsetto not twenty seconds into your debut was guaranteed to grab my attention, the songs perpetual state of collapse and disorientating waves of distortion and digital interference even more so. As for whether Jai himself was a man of genius or just another cynical record company con, I couldn’t have cared less!
FRANK OCEAN ‘Novacane’ (Download May 2011)
‘Fuck me good, fuck me long, fuck me numb’, it’s not often that songs about fucking are quite so explicit or honest. Taken at face value ‘Novacane’ was ground breaking enough, a mid-tempo, sex and drug ballad that together with Frank Ocean’s cachet of underground cool restored some much needed credibility to R&B’s faded reputation and artistry. And yet it was also a song about the dumb, human bullshit that can get in the way of relationships, how sex can magnify that disconnect, and the irreparable, crushing loneliness that often remains once the act is over, an unspoken truth I know only too well.
CASHIER NO. 9 ‘Make You Feel Better’ (Download June 2011)
Released during a period when I was not only looking for but finding significance in the day to day (a sunbeam bursting through the dark clouds, a robin bob, bob, bobbin’ along in the garden) and was glad to lighten my heavy glow anyway I could, for four minutes and 45 seconds, Cashier No. 9’s twangy, sun soaked, guitar pop really did make me feel better.
ZOMBY ‘Things Fall Apart’ (Dedication LP July 2011)
Packed with a mystifying vocabulary and never ending supply of artists and genre labels, EDM could be an impenetrable and incredibly daunting prospect. The epitome of the stereotypical lone bedroom auteur using primitive software as fuel for his alchemical, futuristic electronica, Zomby’s wilful genre blurring made Dedication equally impenetrable and impossible to pin down. Downbeat and wonderfully spooky, it didn’t quite go anywhere, but then neither did it have to.
NICOLA ROBERTS ‘I’ (Cinderella’s Eyes LP September 2011)
At its best British pop has always been about irreverence and irony, individuality and wit. We like our pop stars to be a bit wonky and Nicola Roberts, who came off the subs bench at 16 to win a place in Girl’s Aloud, is a classic case. Permanently wearing an expression that suggested she’d have been much happier working on the checkout in Sainsbury’s, Cinderella’s Eyes was a revelation, full of startling, bravely personal lyrics detailing the many insecurities blighting not only her life but the lives of most young women.
AZEALIA BANKS ‘212’ (Download December 2011)
Songs for teenage girls Part One. ‘212’s three and a half minutes of NYC attitude and filthy, X-rated, cunnilanguage blew the pre-teeny minds of my twelve year old daughter Charlotte and her giggly mates. Their first introduction to real pop, Azealia Banks immediately became the coolest girl on their planet by promising she was ‘the answer’. It didn’t quite work out like that, but for a couple of weeks at least, to a generation of young girls she really was.
THE 2 BEARS ‘Be Strong’ (Be Strong LP January 2012)
SCUBA ‘The Hope’ (Personality LP February 2012)
Who would have thought that two, big, cheesy, club tunes wholeheartedly embracing the communal spirit of house would come to mean so much during the most tempestuous period of my life? Certainly not cynical old me, but then I’m constantly having to remind myself how music can capture our own significant moments better than just about anything.
Maybe it was their clichéd titles, their ridiculous, swaggering shout out’s or their insane catchiness. Maybe it was because despite their uplifting optimism, they still felt wistful and cautious, shot through with a nagging undertow of sadness. Or maybe it was because they were both songs about escapism that reminded me exactly what or who I was escaping from. One things for sure, the magical healing power of ‘Be Strong’ and ‘The Hope’ worked a treat. And just when I was least expecting it!
GRIMES ‘Oblivion’ (Visions LP March 2012)
Songs for teenage girls Part Two. Pop was everywhere in the noughties, doing what it does best, invading the fabric of our lives in films, adverts, video games, shopping malls, lifts, pubs and TV no talent shows. Like a million others I began to take an interest, if only because of my daughters own obsession. Then, just as pop entered the digital valley of no return and began to choke on a diet of homogenised, hyper real, Autotuned goo, I began to hear a different kind of noise coming out of her bedroom.
Indie square peg Grimes was one of the first, ‘Oblivion’ a masterpiece in off kilter, electro pop that felt perfectly dreamy until you listened to the words. Sounding like a hit, it was never released as a proper single but did prove that teenage girls, or anyone else for that matter, have plenty of other pop options if they’re prepared to work just that little bit harder to find them.
BEACH HOUSE ‘Myth’ (Download March 2012)
A marriage of confidence and vulnerability is a rarity in rock, especially in dream pop where the slightest brush of a cotton dress against bare skin can qualify as foreplay. And yet somehow ‘Myth’ remained perfectly balanced between misery and bliss, it’s breathy, naïve beauty a testament to the last knockings of what used to be known as indie.
THE MAGNETIC NORTH ‘Bay Of Skaill’ (Orkney: Symphony Of The Magnetic North LP May 2012)
In what turned out to be a rubbish couple of years, my most loyal and dependable friend was diagnosed with terminal cancer. An eighties, hardcore skinhead self-analysing his way through the messed up childhood that moulded him into a violent, raging racist, paradoxically in middle age his sole source of comfort came from the Cat Stevens records his father used to play, their questioning and heart searching the inspiration he needed to try and find the answers to the questions about his own life.
A lifelong technophobe I had been loading up his iPod for years, ‘Bay Of Skaill’ included on what proved to be my final update. As he wasted away to skin and bone before our eyes, The Magnetic North’s paean to a small bay on the west coast of Orkney allowed him to forget his own fragile mortality for a few minutes, its sparse simplicity a reminder of Tea for the Tillerman, Teaser and the Firecat and happier times long ago and so very far away.
SKY FERREIRA ‘Everything Is Embarrassing’ (Download August 2012)
Songs for teenage girls Part Three. We created it, they need to take it over because it’s a dog eat dog shit world kid and LA girl Sky Ferreira, sexually assaulted as an adolescent and a major label pop cast off at nineteen, knew all about it. I will probably only ever like one Sky Ferreira tune, but that’s OK, that’s enough.
JOHN GRANT ‘GMF’ (Pale Green Ghosts LP March 2013)
John Grant seemed to know a thing or two about ageing and what a bastard, beastly thing it can be and yet he still seemed determined to dance his way to death. Well into middle-age, Pale Green Ghosts was his album of personal confession and emotional catharsis, a public display of his darkest moments for the greater good of himself and the benefit of others like him. And what genius moments they were, especially ‘GMF’, to all intents and purposes a sweet and tender ballad before the acronym of its title revealed it as a manifesto for the disaffected to be sung from the highest rafters.
BILL RYDER-JONES ‘There’s A World Between Us’ (A Bad Wind Blows In My Heart LP March 2013)
It was writer Lawrence Durrell who first coined the term 'islomania' to describe ‘a rare but by no means unknown malady of the spirit where people find islands somehow irresistible’. If there really is such an affliction, three years after my son’s death I was suffering badly with a compulsive desire to escape to an island and be left alone with Claire, the only women I’ve ever loved. And so it was that with a bad wind blowing in my heart I was introduced to Bill Ryder-Jones defiantly old fashioned yet quietly beautiful ‘There’s A World Between Us’, which somehow said it all better than I ever could.
YOUNG FATHERS ‘I Heard’ (Tape Two EP June 2013)
There’s nothing obvious to connect me to Young Fathers, a multi-racial, multi-cultural, experimental trio with roots in Edinburgh, but the plaintive yearning of ‘I Heard’ happened to catch me feeling lost and a little unsure of the future, its choral chants, percussive beat and whirlwind of distortion perfectly capturing the essence of my confusion. Isn’t it odd how certain songs connect whereas other more likely candidates fall by the wayside?
SOPHIE ‘Bipp’ (Download June 2013)
LORDE ‘Team’ (Pure Heroine LP September 2013)
Loved and hated in equal measure, as much for their abstract aesthetic as their sonic invention, A. G. Cook’s PC Music and affiliate SOPHIE were my idea of what pop should sound like in the 21st century. With its ultra-glossy synthetic imagery, DIY spirit and playful use of new technology, the online and mostly free label was like a scaled down, contemporary version of Paul Morley and Trevor Horn’s ZTT, albeit one that repeatedly failed to find a commercial audience.
Lorde on the other hand was the real pop deal, a sixteen year old, multi-million selling megastar from New Zealand who was exactly what switched on teenage girl’s wanted with the genius to transform their fears and ordinary lives into something transcendent and glorious. What’s more, she did it without the usual throng of middle aged, award winning, writers and producers employed by cultural Brides of Frankenstein like Rihanna, Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift to define the borders of youth culture on behalf of youth. Amongst the ruins of Twitter, twerking, open letters and open legs, Lorde let us know that all was not lost. Not yet anyway.
COURTNEY BARNETT ‘Avant Gardener’ (Download September 2013)
Almost a decade older than Lorde, Australian Courtney Barnett sounded like she came from an entirely different age long before her fellow Antipodean was even born; an era of street smart, radio friendly, indie rock when guitars ruled. It mattered not. By using her darkly comic tale of a gardening induced asthma attack to shine a light on life’s trivia, the mundane suddenly became the remarkable, which of course it is.
MUM ‘When Girls Collide’ (Smilewound LP September 2013)
As Iceland’s third placed musical export, múm get a little lost in the shadow of Bjork and Sigur Ros, their childlike yet jarringly intense music as understated as their name. Their sixth album Smilewound saw them creep ever closer to the structure of pop but still a long way from the mainstream, the sparkling exterior of ‘When Girls Collide’ gradually building to the resounding refrain of ‘It's time to break this bloody spell / It's time to blow shit up to hell.’
BROKEN BELLS ‘Holding On For Life’ (Download November 2013)
Superficially no song here epitomised my love of a good earworm more than ‘Holding On For Life’, wherein Shins frontman James Mercer and Gnarls Barkley musician/producer Brian ‘Danger Mouse’ Burton channelled their inner Bee Gees. To some it sounded too much like a post-disco pastiche with a severely restricted sonic palette, but like seventies disco itself ‘Holding On For Life’s deceptively bright and breezy hooks hid a much darker truth of hard lives and tough choices.
SISYPHUS ‘Calm It Down’ (Sisyphus LP March 2014)
An audio art project from rapper Serengeti, producer Son Lux and my favourite indie wordsmith Sufjan Stevens, a man who’s never been afraid to wear his spirituality on his sleeve, highlight ‘Calm It Down’ was more about stripping hip hop back to the bare bones. Kicking off as a goofy anthem with the simplest of Serengeti’s rhymes, the second half transformed it into a beautifully understated confessional, Steven’s sweet backing vocals underlining a message to tug at the heart strings.
SLEAFORD MODS ‘Liveable Shit’ (Divide And Exit LP April 2014)
Chronicling the finer details of life in an England lurching towards Armageddon as the incumbent slave masters, loan sharks, Dickensian landlords and corporate vultures pick over the bones, Sleaford Mods short, sharp songs were about as punk as it was possible to get in 2014. And the beauty of it was that by following the same straight talking tradition as their forebears, you didn’t have to be signing on or living in a grim council flat to understand exactly what they were on about or why they were so angry. Midlands white crap talking back!
DAMON ALBARN ‘Lonely Press Play’ (Everyday Robots LP April 2014)
REAL LIES ‘North Circular’ (Download June 2014)
Sometimes the here and now can be just a little too much. In these perplexing times it’s easy to understand our fathomless longing and incapacitating nostalgia despite being only too aware of time moving on regardless. Separated by a generation, our Damo and early twenty something North Londoners Real Lies evoked that same quiet melancholia, their dazzlingly lovely, ethereal textures overflowing with a peculiarly English sense of bathos that can be traced back through The Streets, Pulp, The Specials and beyond.
FKA TWIGS ‘Two Weeks’ (LP1 LP August 2014)
Hailed as the future of pop and a long awaited new direction for R&B FKA Twigs was neither, LP1 more like a radically updated version of vintage Bjork or Angels With Dirty Faces era Tricky. As for ‘Two Weeks’? In amongst the reams of trippy textures and hushed, sugarcoated breaths of melody, lines like ‘I can fuck you better than her’ made it clear that lust, sex and ecstasy were uppermost in her mind.
JOAKIM ‘This Is My Life’ (This Is My Life EP October 2014)
In 1976 I saw the Sex Pistols live at The 100 Club. In 1978 all my favourite post punk songs were recorded. In 1981 I launched my first record label. In 1983 I launched my third record label. In 1986 I started promoting groups in my hometown. In 1987 I got my first Acid House record. In 1989 I had to get a ‘proper’ job. In 1990 I dedicated myself to full on fatherhood. In 1991 I saw the Manic Street Preachers live at The After Dark. In 1992 I started racing motorbikes. In 1993 I reignited my love for football. In 1994 I was diagnosed with Ulcerative Colitis. In 1995 I saw the woman of my life for the first time. In 1997 we spent the first six months of the year together either in bed or in the pub. In 1998 we bought our first house. In 1999 my father died and my daughter was born. In 2000 I thought it was time to become an adult. In 2003 I bought a third generation 40GB iPod classic. In 2005 my son went to war.
This is my life. What shall I do with it?
FATHER JOHN MISTY ‘Holy Shit’ (I Love You Honeybear LP February 2015)
A million miles away from the near future electronica of Joakim, and feeling very much like I’d jumped into the hot tub time machine only to emerge in the hedonistic maelstrom of mid-seventies LA, there’s no way I should have been loving Josh Tillman’s adopted persona as the amoral, drunken, drug fuelled lothario Father John Misty. But all was not quite what it seemed, the heartbreakingly lush magnificence of the melodies and sonic sparks of wonder and weirdness, juxtaposed with cutting, often cruel, sociopathic lyrics nudged the songwriting into genius. Hugely interesting and listenable, it may have been a fake construct of massive proportions, but I Love You Honeybear was a most unexpected gem.
KENDRICK LAMAR ‘King Kunta’ (To Pimp A Butterfly LP March 2015)
I gave up on hip hop in the mid noughties. Sick to death of the same redundant ideas, it was depressing to look on as the once revolutionary genre succumbed to the dollar and became more about the brand and transmedia empire building than the beats. And yet I knew immediately that To Pimp A Butterfly was sufficiently different to at least reach for the higher ground. Covering every aspect of Blackness in a little under eighty minutes, as a white, middle aged, suburban Brit, on occasion it did make me feel like an uncomfortable interloper, but by removing most of hip hop’s time honoured clichés to produce such a deadly serious, jazzed up, funked out masterpiece, Kendrick Lamar demanded attention from everyone.
TAME IMPALA ‘Cause I’m A Man’ (Download April 2015)
A languid slice of highbrow psych pop shrouded in bong session wigginess about how weak and useless men are, and how we make every excuse under the sun but really we’re just odorous, pathetic, ugly, male members of the animal kingdom with no self-control whatsoever, I couldn’t have agreed more!
DONNIE TRUMPET & THE SOCIAL EXPERIMENT ‘Windows’ (Surf LP May 2015)
The second album to renew my lost love for hip hop, Surf was the polar opposite to Kendrick Lamar’s grim reality tales. The fruits of a sublime collaboration between a bunch of young Chicago musician friends who included Chance The Rapper in their ranks, it was without question the most disarmingly happy album I’d heard in a long while, possibly ever. Chance himself appeared on less than half the songs but it was his vulnerability on ‘Windows’ and The Social Experiments nod to The Lion King soundtrack that ensured the consummate sunniness never felt naïve or phony. A bit of a morality play for the Snapchat generation, with its heavy sense of community and quest for righteousness, Surf was a tribute to the alchemical power of friendship.
YOUTH LAGOON ‘The Knower’ (Savage Hills Ballroom LP September 2015)
EVANGELIST ‘Whirlwind Of Rubbish’ (Evangelist LP December 2015)
I began this journey in the summer of 1976 with the back to basics gesture of The Ramones and end with their complete rock opposites; a weirdo, mid-twenties wunderkind recording in his Boise, Idaho bedroom and a recently deceased, middle-aged, father of five Londoner who sold a mere handful of records in his own lifetime. The Ramones inspired a generation of misfits to pick up guitars, while Trevor Power and Gavin Clark’s ability to say the bleakest of things in the most beautiful way made me reflect on how songs like theirs possess that indefinable otherness that helps us forget about the grey impotence of life’s tedium by moving us in ways we both can and cannot explain. But that’s the wonder of music isn’t it? The leap across the great divide and a means of healing not only the centuries old struggles of race, class, gender, sexual orientation and age but the bullshit of the everyday too!