Well, this has been some year. My generation is of an age where its cultural heroes are getting old & a certain amount of loss is to be expected. In 2016 the Grim Reaper seems to have been on some sort of productivity bonus & too many of the good & the great have left the Earth. The impression made on my own life by Muhammad Ali, Johan Cruyff & Prince ensures that their memory is eternal. There are others, it’s a list & it’s a long one. Parallel to this exit of giants has been the rise of political pygmies. The success of Theresa May, Nigel Farage & President Trump (now there’s something to choke on), pedlars of fear, hawkers of hatefulness & nostalgia for an age that never was, has been, for myself, a shock & a disappointment. Thank Jah that music is still able to calm my unease & to raise the spirit.
So #1 in my heart for this year is “Light Upon the Lake”, the debut LP from Whitney. This Chicago band came almost out of nowhere, I knew the Smith Westerns, less so the Unknown Mortal Orchestra. This short, 10 tracks, 30 minutes, collection of mostly break-up songs doesn’t waste a moment. The individual falsetto of drummer/singer Julian Ehrlich is a taste worth acquiring because repeated listening brings out the band’s Country Soul. Of course references to past music will be made, the use of brass reminds me of Calexico, while the guitar insertions of Max Kakacek (co-writer with Erlich) have the economy & taste of George Harrison, not a name you hear enough nowadays.
At a time when I’m finding the output of established American artists to be mining a seam that, while still productive, was providing a greater return 10 years ago, Whitney sound fresh & modern. The songs they choose to cover indicate a finely tuned taste. There’s a touch of Allen Toussaint in the way the songs are short, sweet, restrained & melodious. “Nashville Skyline” Bob Dylan provides “Tonight I’ll be Staying Here With You” & anyone who checks for NRBQ is OK by me. Have just one more. This swashbuckling version of “No Matter Where We Go” was a digital release which brings to mind the pop sensibility of Big Star. That’s some heavy names & no-one here has mentioned the Band…Get on this record !
New music can take longer to reach me now. Johnny Marr’s solo LPs were released in 2013/14 but it was only this year that I really came around to them. Similarly the melancholy Merseybeat stylings of Bill Ryder-Jones’ “West Kirby County Primary” was almost a year old before it made a very good impression around here. Anyway, I keep returning to the music of Steely Dan & Donald Fagen, some of it 40 years old now, a reminder that intellect, sophistication & a jaded cynicism are still to be valued. Here’s #2 on this year’s Hit List.
Way, way back in the early 1990s while the world was going “grunge” & then, over here, buying into the Britpop thing there was a thread in British music, collectives who were listening to House, Hip Hop & Dub before creating their own sounds. Dreadzone, Leftfield. the Bristolians Massive Attack & Tricky were all making music that seemed more acute than the rock retreads of boys & girls with guitars (Teenage Fanclub being the exception). Underworld’s “Dubnobasswithmyheadman” & “Second Toughest in the Infants” LPs were a one-two knockout combination of high quality techno & world class production placing the trio in the vanguard of the new dance music’
An Underworld b-side “Born Slippy. NUXX” featured in “Trainspotting”, Cool Britannia’s flagship movie. “Lager lager” was a popular flavour at the time & the group had a big hit on their hands. Subsequent releases did not match the quality of those two records, we were chilling out & trip-hopping while they were becoming Underworld-by-numbers. This year’s “Barbara Barbara, We Face a Shining Future” is their first release for almost 6 years. They are back to the original duo & Karl Hyde’s collaboration with Brian Eno, 2 albums in 2014, was a tip off that they had got it going on. It’s a collection for the head, the heart & the hips, strong songs topped by the glitter-rock done by the Fall of “I Exhale”, tailed by the shimmering beauty & power of “Nylon Strung”. Underworld know what they want & know how to get it done. Listening to”Barbara…” is, for me an exhilarating & uplifting experience & 2016 sure needed some of that.
OK, the 3rd choice is a tough one. For most of the year Daniel Romano’s “Mosey”, an exercise in Bohemian Country, was almost nailed on. Later in the year the 2 Knowles sisters, Solange & Beyonce, impressed with their new records. Common’s “Black America Again” sounds like Hip Hop as it should sound while the return of Tribe Called Quest always demanded attention but “We Got It from Here…Thank You 4 Your Service” came a little late & well…I miss Phife. This past month I have been listening to a lot of Sade !
“SADEVILLAIN” is a 20 minute mix made by young Portsmouth producer Seanh2k11. It matches #1 rapper MF DOOM with Ms Adu, a prominent purveyor of Eighties coffee table Soul & man, it sounds very good to me. DOOM sampled Sadie’s “Kiss of Love” on “Operation:Doomsday” his debut back in the last century (1999) & Sean Harrison has merged the greatest hits of both of them with imagination & skill. His Soundcloud page is well worth a visit. I am familiar with Sade’s work, I knew a lot of women who loved her back then. The light jazzy tinge suits DOOM’s other-worldly flow & gives a consistency to the 8 tracks. I recently watched Common’s NPR concert, Jazz-Rap in the White House Library is a little too refined for me. “SADEVILLAIN” is as cool as I need Rap to be. While we wait for DOOM’s collaboration with Ghostface Killah, this will do !