The History of Punk: Still a Work in Progress…

The History of Punk: Still a Work in Progress…

Cover photo of Syl Sylvain's book "There's No Bonies in Ice Cream" about his time in the New York Dolls.
Syl Sylvain’s book covers his time in the New York Dolls.

I blame the New York Dolls for this. Well, to be more precise, I blame Sylvain Sylvain. In his recent biography, “There’s No Bones in Ice Cream”, which is well worth a read, he covers his life up to the (first) demise of the New York Dolls. In it he describes how the idea to wear bright red clothing and use the communist flag came from the Dolls themselves. They were talking to Malcolm McLaren at the time, and that led to Vivienne Westwood making the red gear for them. In common with most people, I had always believed that the communist image was McLaren’s idea, whereas his only contribution was to write the “manifesto”, which came later.

McLaren had wanted Sylvain to join the Pistols. He even took Sylvain’s Les Paul Guitar and Fender Rhodes piano back to London with him. He also promised to send Sylvain a ticket for his air travel.  Needless to say, the ticket never arrived, and McLaren apparently gave Sylvain’s Les Paul guitar to Steve Jones and sold the piano to pay for the Pistols’ rehearsal space on Denmark Street.

Cover photo of Jon Savage's book, "England's Dreaming: Sex Pistols and Punk Rock"
Jon Savage’s “England’s Dreaming”, regarded by many as the definitive book about Punk.

These two episodes set me thinking about punk rock’s history and some of the other half-truths, myths and fibs that are lurking out there. So I decided to go back to Jon Savage’s “England’s Dreaming”, which many people describe as the definitive book about punk. Having been around at the time—I used to frequent the Rock Garden in Middlesbrough—the way that Savage describes the punk rock scene is not quite how I remembered things in the North East, at least. I have high hopes that the book, “Gob on The Tyne”—which also covers Wearside and Teesside—when it finally emerges will provide a much more accurate picture of events in North-East England between 1976-1980.

In my view (and I am not alone here), “England’s Dreaming” presents a somewhat over-intellectualised, one-sided view of punk rock. It takes the view that punk more or less began and ended with the Sex Pistols, and lays the blame for their demise largely at the feet of John Lydon. The book was originally published in 1991 so it may be partly attributable to the inherent problems of trying to write history several years after the event: it invariably ends up being revisionist, and the authors always put their own particular spin on it.

As an aside, 1976, nominally the start of the punk rock era, saw the release of Peter Cooke and Dudley Moore’s “Derek & Clive Live”. Even though a lot of the material had been kicking around on bootlegs since 1973, the album still reached no. 12 in the UK charts, where it spent 15 weeks in the top 40. It was the first time that obscenity had really been available on record, and Peter Cooke maintained that his character helped to provide the basis for the persona of Johnny Rotten.

So, if punk didn’t begin with the Pistols, who were the first punk band? I would probably plump for The Sonics. Hailing from Tacoma, Washington in the USA, they are more often described as a “garage” band, but they certainly have punk credentials. Their history, which began in 1960, is documented in last year’s well-received film, “Boom! A Film About The Sonics”, which is on my must-see list

Cover photo of the Julian Temple DVD "The Future is Unwritten" which focuses on Joe Strummer.
“The Future is Unwritten”, the second part of Julian Temple’s trilogy on 1970s music, focuses on Joe Strummer.

If you were to ask me who invented (re-invented?) punk rock in the 1970s, though, that would be a much harder one to answer. McLaren (surprise, surprise!) always promoted the idea that he was the one behind it all. If you watch Julien Temple’s fine documentary, “The Future is Unwritten”, however, you can see Bernie Rhodes—who worked very closely with McLaren—say that it was he that formed The Sex Pistols, that it was he who found John Lydon, and that it was he who was the philosopher behind it, boldly claiming, “I am Punk”. Maybe the forthcoming Stranglers documentary will offer some further insights, given that they formed before the Pistols, in 1974.

Cover photo of John Robb's book, "Punk Rock: An Oral History", which is made up of quotes from many leading punk and post-punk musicians.
“Punk Rock: An Oral History” captures the spirit of the times in the words of Punk and Post-Punk musicians.

It seems clear to me, then, that the history of punk rock is still being written. To get a better, more complete understanding, you have to go beyond “England’s Dreaming”. Fortunately there is an ever-expanding collection of other resources that can be consulted. John Robb’s “Punk Rock: An Oral History” captures a bit more of the spirit of the times, and beyond, for example, while Sylvain’s book fills in some of the pre-punk background. The latter left me with the overarching impression that Malcolm McLaren was even more of a chancer than I had previously thought. He was more than willing to appropriate ideas from anywhere, as long as it furthered his own agenda, which he seemed to make up as he went along.  The infamous Bill Grundy television appearance, for example, only came about because Queen pulled out at the last minute, but McLaren milked the subsequent publicity for all it was worth, maximising the notoriety of the band.

Cover photo of John Lydon's book, "Anger is an Energy".
Lydon puts across his side of the story in “Anger is an Energy”.

Anyway, John Lydon has always been pretty scathing about “England’s Dreaming”. In his erudite (and entertaining) autobiography, “Anger Is An Energy”, he talks about how he feels that Savage essentially stitched him up. He also flags up how punk rock was very much into equality, and there were many women who played in bands and formed bands of their own.

Cover photo of Helen Reddington's book, "The Lost Women of Rock Music".
“The Lost Women of Rock Music” gives voice to many of the women involved in Punk and early post-Punk.

The role of women in punk (and beyond) has been elaborated at length (albeit with a more academic slant) by Helen Reddington (aka Helen McCookerybook) in “The Lost Women of Rock Music” and, more recently, captured on film in “Stories from the She-Punks” (also on my must-see list) and in Vivien Goldman’s book, “Revenge of the She-Punks”. As Reddington highlights, the female musicians and bands (The Slits, The Adverts, Poison Girls, X-Ray Spex and many more) provided a major contribution to what was still, up to that point, a very male-dominated rock scene.

Cover photop of the Julian Temple DVD "The Filth and the Fury".
“The Filth and the Fury”, the first part of Julian Temple’s trilogy on 1970s music, focuses on The Sex Pistols.

Lydon’s conflict with Glen Matlock during their time in the Pistols has been well documented. Julien Temple reveals a bit more of the background to the spat, however, in another great documentary, “The Filth and The Fury”. Steve Jones describes how McLaren stirred things up by telling both Lydon and Matlock untrue things that the other had said about them. McLaren already had first hand experience of how infighting was at the heart of the New York Dolls, having invited them all to air their grievances in a group meeting. He appears to have believed that these tensions were one of the reasons why the Dolls were so good. Knowing that now makes me wonder if that was why he stirred things up between Lydon and Matlock.

Cover photo of Wolfganf Buld's DVD, "Punk in London".
“Punk in London” provides a snapshot of the Punk live scene in 1977.

If you believe the vision of the punk rock world in “England’s Dreaming”, then The Sex Pistols were, more or less, the only game in town and the only town that (really) mattered was London. This vision is somewhat reinforced by Wolfgang Buld’s documentary “Punk in London”. Filmed in 1977, it gives a very limited picture of what was happening back then. It’s worth pointing out that it uses overdubs and the DVD (at least) includes Berlin(!) footage of The Clash tagged on the end, which some have suggested was a marketing ploy. It overlooks the many bands that were already active elsewhere in the UK, e.g., The Jam, who appear in both, were from Woking, rather than London, and The Jolt (sometimes described as The Scottish Jam) who appear in Buld’s film, were from the Glasgow area, although they did move to London. Faye Fife recently reiterated that The Rezillos had never even heard of the Pistols when they originally formed in Edinburgh in 1976, the same year as The Jolt and, in Dublin, The Radiators From Space were coming together. Bearing in mind that the Pistols did not play all that many gigs in the UK, and they were usually to small audiences, perhaps their influence may not have been quite as widespread as some people claim.

The question of exactly how punk rock began is a difficult, maybe impossible, one to answer. What is clear, however, is that several of the musicians on the front line of punk (in The Pistols, The Clash, The Stranglers, The Jam, and The Ruts, for example) could already play and had been doing so for a while.  I have no doubt that there were many that could not play too, but that was also true of several Scottish beat bands in the 1960s, for example, as highlighted in the series “Rip It Up Unwrapped”, which recently aired on BBC Television. So a lack of musical talent was hardly a new thing.

It is particularly worth noting the effect of guitarist Chris Spedding’s on the direction of The Pistols’ early career. In his biography entry for 1976, Spedding notes that he produced demos for them in May 1976, which brought them to the attention of producer Chris Thomas. He also points out that they could play, and were actually good, in spite of what others said. He helped bolster their confidence, however, as Caroline Coon indicates in “England’s Dreaming”. This episode appears to be another example of McLaren’s opportunism: Spedding believes that he was chosen for the job simply because he was just about the only musician that McLaren knew.

Cover photo of Idles' CD, "Joy as an Act of Resistance".
Idles cover “Don’t You Feel Like Cryin'” on their “Joy as an Act of Resistance” album.

Despite what some may think, punk rock did not spontaneously appear out of nowhere, in complete isolation from all other forms of music. You do not have to look far, for instance, to see/hear the influence of the likes of pop music—The Clash’s “Spanish Bombs” and The Pistols’ “Pretty Vacant” both owe a debt to Abba—and reggae (The Clash, The Ruts, The Slits and so on). Lydon’s well-documented love of reggae (and dub) led to Virgin taking him to Jamaica (with Don Letts) to seek out artists for their Front Line imprint (he wrote the introduction to their 2014 anthology “Sounds of Reality”). Elsewhere, Paul Weller was a big soul fan, and several bands, including The Jam, used to include soul covers in their early live sets. Many band also covered songs from the 60’s and 70s including The Pistols (The Monkees’ “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone”), The Saints (Connie Francis’ “Lipstick on Your Collar”), and London (The Easybeats’ “Friday On My Mind”). This is not unusual, many bands do this in their earliest days, and some carry on doing it as they progress: Idles, for example, covered Solomon Burke’s “Don’t You Feel Like Cryin’” on their mighty “Joy As an Act of Resistance” album.

The high energy was not unique to punk, in its various guises, either. Much of it, in the UK at least, came from the pub rock/rhythm’n’blues scene (bands such as Ducks Deluxe, Brinsley Schwarz, Dr Feelgood and The Pirates). Lydon has openly acknowledged how much he liked the early Dr Feelgood. It is also likely that more of the early punk bands had heard Dr Feelgood than had heard The Sex Pistols, given that the former had already released two albums in 1975, and their live album “Stupidity” reached number 1 in 1976. (If you want to see a rowdy, scary-looking pre-Punk bunch of accountant types, track down the recording of their 1975 performance of “She Does It Right” for ITV!)

Cover photo of the compilation CD box set "All the Young Droogs".
“All the Young Droogs” provides many of the missing links between Glam Rock, proto-Punk and Punk.

You can also hear the seeds of punk being sown in the early 70s on the recent compilation album, “All The Young Droogs”. Many of the bands may not be familiar, but you should recognise a few names, including one TV Smith, who was very much a glam rocker! You can also hear the beginnings of the raunchy guitar sound favoured by many punk bands in The New York Dolls, Iggy and the Stooges, and the MC5 (have a look for their 1970 live recording of “Looking at You”, later covered by the Damned), or going back further to Lenny Kaye’s “Nuggets” album.

Cover photo of Buzzcocks' second album, "Love Bites".
“Love Bites” made Pete Shelley have doubts because Punks were not supposed to be successful!

One of the cornerstones of punk rock was that anyone could do it: the DIY ethos. It is true that many bands did, either producing their own singles or signing to small independent labels. Most of the biggest bands, however, were signed to major labels: The Clash (CBS), Buzzcocks and The Stranglers (United Artists), The Sex Pistols (EMI, A&M and finally Virgin, although it was still essentially a large independent label at the time). The main exception was The Damned, who were signed to Stiff. This all seemed to go against the DIY ideal and, when interviewed by Steve Lamacq about “Love Bites”, Buzzcocks’ Pete Shelley confessed to having doubts because of the band’s success. This was not what was supposed to happen in the punk world! He even considered leaving the band, and discussed it at length with their manager Richard Boon. There were also many bands who never got further than doing it themselves, though, and for many reasons, e.g., some just ran out of steam and/or money, while some were just never going to get signed because, in truth, they were not very good! One of the few people who has followed the DIY ethos throughout his long career is Billy Childish (in all his different bands), which is captured on the new compilation “Punk Rock ist Nicht Tot: The Billy Childish Story 1977-2018”.

Cover photo of Stuart Cosgrove's book, "Detroit 67: The Year that Changed Soul".
Did John Sullivan, one time manager of the MC5, inspire Malcolm McLaren?

Several people, most notably McLaren and his cohorts, claimed that punk rock had come along to blow apart the music (and political) scene. Whilst this may be true, the idea was not new and had been tried before. In “Detroit 67: The Year That Changed Soul”, Stuart Cosgrove describes how, in the late 1960s an organisation called The Steering Committee had threatened to disrupt Detroit using rock music. Their weapon of choice? The MC5! Cosgrove describes John Sullivan, a founder of The Steering Committee, as a man with “a rock journalist’s grasp of hyperbole” who “found high drama in every living moment”… sound familiar? Once he had met the managers of the Grateful Dead, he realised that you did not have to be a serious stuffed shirt to manage a band, and wound up as the MC5’s manager, sealing for them a place in annals of alternative rock music. After reading “Detroit 67”, if anyone tells me that McLaren was inspired by Sullivan, I would happily buy into that theory.

Cover photo of David Cavanagh's book, "Good Night and Good Riddance: How Thirty-Five Years of John Peel Helped to Change Modern Life"
Even though John Peel championed Punk he still played a lot of other music.

And, as for blowing the music world apart… if you look at the official UK singles annual charts for 1977-79, you can see that punk rock failed to make much of a lasting dent. Even if you look at what the doyen of punk, John Peel, was playing at the time, its impact does seem rather limited. A quick scan through the late David Cavanagh’s excellent “Good Night and Good Riddance: How Thirty-Five Years Of John Peel Helped To Shape Modern Life” shows that even Peel was still playing a lot of other music alongside punk. On his June 7th show in 1977, for example he included the likes of Dave Edmunds, Bob Seger, Status Quo, Van Morrison and Pink Floyd in addition to several punk tracks. Furthermore, several of the prog-rock bands that punk was supposed to kill off are still hanging around, and even thriving, over 40 years later.

At the end of the day I guess that none of this really matters that much, and a lot of punk stuff just comes down to a gut feeling. If you were there at the time, you mostly did not care too much about which school a band had attended, what social class they belonged to, or what colour or gender they were. It was just about the energy and excitement and the fact it made you feel good. As Blank Frank from Middlesbrough’s Blitzkrieg Bop put it in “A Hard Road to Nowhere”: “Punk occupied an infinitesimally small space in this universe, but if it was in your space, it was in your face. A full-on freak-out of fans and fanzines, a riot of ripped T-shirts and ripped-off bands.” And it’s still rumbling on, and refusing to lie down and die. Several of the original bands are still doing the rounds, and sounding as good as ever, new bands are emerging, and thriving. Bandcamp daily, for example, recently reported on the thriving punk scene in Yakutsk, one of the world’s coldest cities, with the local Youth of the North collective having uploaded 13 releases to Bandcamp in 2018. So there’s life in the old dog yet, and the history of punk is still being made and written (and re-written).

Films, Books and Music Round-up – 2018 (Q1)

A round up of some of the films, books and music that I’ve (mostly) enjoyed so far this year.


Darkest Hour: Oscar winning performance by Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill in a film focusing on his early days as Prime Minister during WWII.

Early Man: Latest Ardman stop motion animation based around when the Stone Age met the Bronze Age. Lots of gags for adults as well as kids.

Makala: Great documentary following a charcoal burner in Democratic Republic of Congo as he hussles to make a better life for his wife and children.

Sweet Country: Very good, hard-hitting (in all respects) Australian western, exploring racism in the Western Territory. Based on true events.

You Were Never Really Here: Joaquin Phoenix gives a great performance as a war veteran who routinely uses violence to rescue young girls from prostitution. Then he finds himself caught up in something much deeper than he thought. Another great film from Lynn Ramsay.

Books (Fiction)

Ascension by Gregory Dowling: Very good murder mystery with a good helping of political intrigue. Set in Venice in the mid 18th century.

Die of Shame by Mark Billingham: Excellent crime thriller in which the action centres around a self-help group of addicts. Decidedly different, and a real page turner.

Distress Signals by Catherine Ryan Howard: Crime thriller set around a cruise shipping company. Critically acclaimed, but some of the plotlines are rather preposterous.

The Beautiful Dead by Belinda Bauer: Very good crime thriller. A crime reporter who is very closely tracking a serial killer explores the lengths she would go to in order to get a scoop as their lives become intertwined..

Books (Non-fiction)

Wild Tales by Graham Nash: Biographies are normally narcissistic, but this one takes the biscuit. The first part is interesting (about his early career including the Hollies), but then the book mostly drones on about the dysfunctional nature of Crosby, Stills and Nash (and Young), and drugs, covering ground that he’s been documented before elsewhere.

Born To Run by Bruce Springsteen: Frank appraisal of the life and times of Springsteen and some of the people of America that often get overlooked. Even if you don’t like Springsteen’s music, it’s worth reading.


Whyte Horses “Empty Words”: The mighty psych-poppers are back. Their first album was very good indeed, and this one is even better. Dom Thomas is a genius!

Hookworms “Microshift”: Hookworms add a dance spin to their previously raucous sound. Shades of LCD Soundsystem, in places, only much better.

Hollie Cook “Vessel of Love”: New label, but same old Hollie Cook, sounding better than ever as she works her way through 10 original reggae songs, all neatly produced by Youth (of Killing Joke fame).

Johann Johannsson “Englaborn and Variations”: A fitting epitaph to the sublime Johannsson’s life. Includes a re-mastering of debut album “Englaborn” and several variations of some tracks, either by Johannsson himself, or by others, such as A Winged Victory For The Sullen.

Nils Frahm “All Melody”: Frahm celebrates his new studio in Berlin with a blend of the classical and the modern, going for a bigger more expansive sound than usual. He also captures some of the sounds of the new studio along the way.

Loma “Loma”: Quite a low-key album (no pun intended), with shades of Low and even a bit of Clinic. This one’s a real grower that rewards repeated plays.

Field Music “Open Here”: If Talking Heads had been British, this is what they would have sounded like. This time around the brothers Brewis are trying to make sense of the Britain we now live in, in their own inimitable pop/funk style.

Albums of the Year 2017

Carrying on from last year, here’s my idiosyncratic round up of this year’s album releases that have given me the greatest listening pleasure. The list is ordered alphabetically. Feel free to add your own suggestions/lists in the comments.

AK/DK – “Patterns/Harmonics”: Think Clinic meets Suicide and you’ll be somewhere close to the Brighton group’s sound. First heard on Steve Lamacq’s Roundtable, where it deservedly received glowing universal praise.

William Bell – “This Where I Live”: The old soul master returned to his spiritual home at Stax and delivered a great (Grammy winning) album of contemporary soul classics. He was also the highlight of this year’s SummerTyne Festival for me.

Michael Chapman – “50”: 50 years in, Michael Chapman records yet another fine album with young Gunn (Steve) in tow. A brilliant guitarist, well worth catching live, Chapman continues to move forward, pleasing himself by doing the things he wants to do and playing the music that he wants to play. (I’d really like to hear him work with dbh.)

dbh – “Mass”: The third album from Manchester’s dbh contains some exquisite guitar playing, echoing shades of Bert Jansch and Vini Reilly. The album blends in easterns influences too on tracks like “Light Pools” and “Blues II” (maybe the influence of Davy Graham?) A welcome space of tranquility in these mad times.

Damien Dempsey – “Soulsun”: I’d read a lot about Damien Dempsey, but never really heard anything until this year. He’s much more than a traditional Irish folk singer, being happy to incorporate influences from other genres, including reggae. The thing I really like about “Soulsun” is that it has a sound that’s so much more expansive than traditional folk music.

Darren Hayman – “Thankful Villages Vol. 2”: I love this project in which Hayman has travelled around the thankful villages of England (where all the soldiers came back alive from WWI), and in each of them has tried to capture some essence of the village in music. He also recorded videos in each of the villages

Hurray For The Riff Raff – “The Navigator”: In which Alynda Lee Segarra deals head on with some of the issues of colonization, refugees and gentrification. It shows that there are still some musicians out there making serious protest music, and doing it in style. Essential listening.

Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit – “The Nashville Sound”: Country, rock and soul at its contemporary finest. Isbell remains one of the finest songwriters there is, and with the 400 Unit is one of the best live acts around.

Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings – “Soul of a Woman”: Sharon Jones was a real force of nature, and “Soul of a Woman” is a fitting (albeit poignant) celebration of a career cut short by Jones’ untimely death this year. There’s a lot of deeper soul and gospel here, which shows what a great singer Jones was, and what a tight band The Dap Kings are.

Steven Kemner – “Gradation Movements”: A late arrival, and the limited edition handmade edition features the best packaging of the year. Five beautiful ambient/drone instrumental pieces. Perfect for chilling out.

Memory Drawings – “The Nearest Exit”: Wonderfully evocative instrumentals from the Anglo-American band, combining strings with hammered dulcimer. There is also a (digital) album of remixes that comes with the download.

Hannah Peel – “Mary Casio: Journey to Cassiopeia”: A concept album about a fictional female astronaut’s journey into space. Peel brilliantly realises it by bringing together synthesizers with a 33 piece colliery brass band.  Older listeners will hear shades of 2001, but there’s way more to it than that.

Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever – “The French Press”: Short and sweet outing from the Australian four piece that raised their profile this year. Jangly guitars, spiky tunes, shades of The Go-Betweens: what’s not to like?

Nadine Shah – “Holiday Destination”: Ranks alongside “The Navigator” as one of the most important albums of 2017, unafraid to tackle the contemporary woes of the Western world head on. Hard hitting and visceral, Tom Robinson made this his album of the year. Essentail listening.

Songhoy Blues – “Resistance”: Another album of defiance from Mali’s Songhoy Blues. Born during a civil war, they focus their energies on making music that matters taking their influence from desert blues and the Malian Songhai traditions and turning it into a contemporary African rock-based sound.

Omar Souleyman – “To Syria With Love”: The legendary Syrian “weddding singer” is back, and this time with added techno beats. Don’t let that put you off though, this is still terrific music, made for dancing.

Footnote: Most of the albums were found through a combination of Uncut magazine, BBC Radio 6 Music, Bandcamp (often in combination with A Closer Listen), Clash Music Magazine and Soundcloud.

Music in 2017 – Half-term Report

Given that we’ve just passed the midway point of 2017, it’s time for a personal look back on what’s happened in my world of music.

Live Music

Live gigs have included trips to Newcastle to see King Creosote at The Sage, and the always excellent Michael Chapman and Ehud Banai at The Cluny. Much closer to home, the legendary Wiz Jones came to the local folk club, with the added bonus of Maggie Holland doing a few songs in the open floor spot. We caught The Stranglers supported by Ruts DC at the Alhambra in Dunfermline. Both bands are still going strong, and putting on great shows. A few of us also made the annual pilgrimage to Dundee for the Saturday of Almost Blue 2017 (June 30th – July 2nd), so technically it was really part of the second half of the year. There were lots of very good performances including the welcome return of Dr Brown and the Groove Cats, plus a couple of new names (to me): Riley James from the USA via Glasgow and Song For You from Dundee.

Recorded Music

On the album front, there has been plenty worth talking about. The decision of the UK to leave the EU, and the election of Donald Trump haven’t yet made a full impact on recorded music, although plenty of people have passed comment during their live shows. The one major exception is Hurray For The Riff Raff’s excellent album, “The Navigator”, which I expect to feature in many album of the year lists.

It was good to see the return of a few old favourites. William Bell went back to his spiritual home at Stax Records and delivered the Grammy-winning “This is Where I Live”, while Grandaddy ended their own recording hiatus with the widely acclaimed “Last Place”. There was also a welcome re-issue of Ethio-Jazz pioneer Mukatu Astatke’s “Mulatu of Ethiopia”, and Michael Chapman celebrated 50 years of recording with the appropriately entitled “50”, working alongside comparatively new guitar-slinger Steve Gunn.

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit released another great album of country/Americana/rock (“The Nashville Sound”). In related genres Valerie June (country/folk/blues) and Nadia Reid (folk/rock/Americana) both turned in second albums that surpassed the standards of their highly-rated debuts, with “The Order of Time” and “Preservation”, respectively. The second offering from Ibibio Sound Machine, “UYAI”, was also a thing of great beauty, reflecting the band’s roots in London and Nigeria.

Several other albums also deserve mention. “Thankful Villages Vol. 2” is the second installment of Darren Hayman’s pop-leaning pastoral songs written whilst visiting all the Thankful Villages of England. “Existential Beast” saw Mirande Lee Richards’ bringing more elements of psych-rock into her folk/pop tunes. Sinkane revisited his roots on the joyful “Life and Livin’ It” and Rick Tomlinson combined elements of prog-rock, folk, and world music in a captivating way on “Phases of Daylight”.

The one genre that I’ve probably listened most to, though, is contemporary classical music (including solo piano). In particular, I’m talking about music from Max Richter (“Three Worlds: Music From Wolf Works”), Stefano Guzzetti (“Alone (Night Music for Piano Solo”), Sophie Hutchings (“Yonder”) and Levi Patel (“Affinity”). All very good indeed.

There’s lots more to look forward to in the second half of the year too, with BBE Music’s “John Armstrong Presents Afrobeat Brasil” and the forthcoming Lost Horizons album “Ojalà” both catching my eye (ear?) so far.

Albums of the Year 2016

In recent weeks, the annual lists of top albums of 2016 have been circulating. Working on the principle “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em”, here’s a personal roundup of my favourite albums of the year. It’s broadly representative of the stuff I’ve been listening to in 2016, mostly found through a combination of Uncut magazine, BBC Radio 6 Music, and Soundcloud.

The list is ordered alphabetically. Feel free to add your own suggestions/lists in the comments. (Note: Michael Kiwanuka’s “Love & Hate” now added to the list.)

  • Pete Astor “Spilt Milk”. Clean crisp pop guitar. What’s not to like? Especially when it comes on white vinyl. (Also available on cassette!)
  • Bon Iver “22, A Million”. A bit less insular than his last album, which is perhaps why it’s more accessible to a wider audience.
  • David Bowie “Blackstar”. The old master re-invented himself for one last time in a sort of jazz-lite version with a bit of drum & bass.
  • Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds “Skeleton Tree”. You have to see the documentary “One More Time With Feeling” to really understand the humanity, love and laughter that went into the making of this album. It still has the dark, anguished streaks that are characteristic of Bad Seeds albums.
  • Wild Billy Childish & CTMF “SQ 1“. Prolific artist cum musician releases yet another cracking album. Raw and raucous, and rollicking good fun.
  • Field Music “Commontime”. Great album, great band. I just wish I’d seen them with the orchestral arrangements. Always interesting in a David Byrne type of way.
  • Le Gros Ballon “Cinefoumatic”. The Italian Duo with a French name. Bright and breezy instrumental pop with a cinematic slant. Sound of the Summer 2016 for me. (Digital only via bandcamp).
  • Nora Jones “Day Breaks”. Great singer, great songs with elements of gospel, soul and jazz.
  • Damian Jurado “Visions of Us on the Land”. The singer/songwriter’s final album in his trilogy. Sits at the point where folk meets indie and pop.
  • Michael Kiwanuka “Love & Hate”. If I had to pick just one album of the year, this would be it. He really comes of age with this album: really good songs, big arrangements, great production (Danger Mouse). He was also the best live gig I saw in 2016.
  • Junior Meyvant “Floating Harmonies””. Iceland is a really happening place at the moment (playlist). This one has more of a soulful bent than most of them.
  • Johnny Moped “It’s a Real Cool Baby“. Raw, rock and roll. Took a while to make, but well worth the wait.
  • Nine Below Zero “13 Shades of Blue”. Thirteen covers of songs that come within the broad remit of “blues”, all done in a big band style. First rate stuff.
  • Agnes Obel “Citizen of Glass”. I really like her voice, and the orchestral-style arrangements. The title is also very contemporary.
  • The Rolling Stones “Blue & Lonesome”. Back to their blues roots, and made in just three days. Great stuff.
  • Shearwater “Jet Plane and Oxbow”. Big-sounding rock album tackling some of the issues facing America, and Texas in particular, where frontman, and all-round nice guy, Jonathan Meiburg is based.
  • Paul Simon “Stranger to Stranger”. Old dog returns with new tricks. Not your typical singer/songwriter album, it’s almost like a cross-section of all the sounds he’s produced over the years, with a deep sense of rhythm running through it.
  • St Paul & The Broken Bones “Sea of Noise”. Seven piece soul/rhythm’n’blues band with roots in Muscle Shoals. New songs with an old feel.
  • Teenage Fanclub “Here”. Despite now being widely spread across the globe, they came up with an album that manages to sound both typical and contemporary.
  • Rokia Traore “Ne So”. The great Malian singer tackling the issues that have been affecting her homeland in recent years.
  • Jason Van Wyk “Attachment” (Digital version available on Bandcamp). Lots of contemporary classical keyboard music. Most relaxing album of the year. A good one to practise yoga to.
  • Whyte Horses “Pop or Not”. One that’s hard to categorise–mostly pop, or rock with a bit of psych. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though, and there’s plenty of  great music to enjoy on this one, which was Piccadilly Records’ album of the year. The version that was recorded with the children from St Bart’s School is also great . Whyte Horses front man Dom Thomas wants to make all their live shows an engaging audio-visual experience. I’m looking forward to that!