Third in this series of reviews of the year, from my humble perspective, is music. While live music was only occasional, and then too often disappointing (I shall mention no names), recorded music was quite splendid. Spotify is one of the great cultural enablers of the age. Yes, the audio quality is sub-standard, and the remuneration to artists risible, but the sense of limitless adventure is exhilarating. And if there’s anything I really like, then I buy the CD, because I’m old like that. Anyway, here is some of what delighted these ears in 2018, using a mixture of Spotify (which gives you a 20-second clip unless you long on) and Bandcamp (which will play the whole track if it’s available and embeddable).
Two of the albums I heard for the first time this year are classics of the highest order. How had I missed Karen Dalton before now? Bob Dylan calls her his ‘favourite singer’ in Chronicles. She was part of the Greenwich Village folk crowd, singing folk-blues with an in-your-tracks-stopping vocal style owing more than a little to that of Billie Holiday. Hers was a difficult character and she led a troubled life, dying in a state of near vagrancy aged 55, in 1993. Of the two studio albums she left us, It’s So Hard to Tell Who’s Going to Love You the Best (1969) is very fine, but In My Own Time (1971) is extraordinary. ‘Something On Your Mind’, the opening track, is the purest fusion of vocal, instrumentation, song and feeling.
The second classic album that I had perversely overlooked for forty years is Joe Higgs’ Life of Contradiction, from 1975. Higgs was a mentor to many of Jamaica’s reggae musicians, notably Bob Marley. He was 35 before he made an album of his own. One might have expected a record that looked back musically, but Life is Contradiction is instead the most imaginative, genre-defying album in all of reggae, pushing the music into new, explorative territory. There are touches of blues, jazz and soul, and a mournful, reflective tone that is all its own. ‘Who Brought Down the Curtains’ is the stand out track for me.
My new musical discovery of the year is Hayden Petigo. I’m a sucker for guitarists on the experimental edge of things, and the twenty-four-year old from Amarillo, Texas, combines graceful fingerpicking with occasional avant garde flourishes just to catch you off-guard. He has been in the news recently thanks to a campaign to serve on his city council enlivened by some surreal promo videos. He’s playing witty games, but the guitar music is beautiful, all the more impressive for its arresting simplicity. ‘Dream Plains’ is a thing of beauty.
I’ve already praised the title track from Kinky Friedman’s latest album, Circus of Life, in my recent post on country music. The whole album is a pleasure, the work of a ribald satirist of long-standing, now taking stock in old age. ‘Sister Sarah’ from the album is sweet and thoughtful (‘Every saint was once a sinner / Every sinner once a saint / Everything we think we are / Is everything we ain’t’).
Mbongwana Star must bid fair to be the coolest musicians on the planet. They hail from the DR Congo, they have two lead singers, both in wheelchairs, and they look and sound sensational. Their raucous set at last year’s Glastonbury did them few favours; in the studio, with a smart production bringing out every subtlety, they sound like world-beaters. It’s Afro-electro-dance music of a kind that sounds like it has returned from the future to show us the way things can go. ‘Malukayi’ is probably the highlight. but when you are done with it, try the delicate ‘Coco Blues‘ – it is entrancing.
I loved Ian Hunter when he sang with Mott the Hoople. I loved his first solo single, ‘Once Bitten Twice Shy’. Then I forgot to take any further notice. More fool me – he went on to produce a lot of gritty, witty, soulful music, as I have been discovering. ‘Standin’ in My Light’ comes from his 1979 album You’re Never Alone with a Schizophrenic. It gives anthems a good name.
An odd diversion. The comic actor Matt Berry is a musician first and foremost, but one who seems never quite sure how to get the best out of a peculiar talent. This recent album of TV tunes given a surreal edge gets things right. Here is the theme of the dismal BBC 1980s comedy series Sorry!, as a sort of dub jazz.
John Prine has been an American great for decades. He sings country folk, with sharp lyrics sugared by catchy melodies. An operation on his throat after cancer has left him with a gravelly voice that he employs to telling effect on his excellent latest album, The Tree of Forgiveness. ‘Lonesome Friends of Science’ is typical Prine in its tunefulness and wry social commentary (‘The lonesome friends of science say / The world will end most any day / Well if it does then that’s OK / ‘Cause I don’t live here anyway’).
Michele Bonifati is an Italian guitarist. He has produced one album, Another Kind of Bob Dylan, featuring instrumentals of Dylan songs that are taken in strange directions. It’s one of the best sets of Dylan covers that I have come across. Here he blends ‘Sara’ with ‘Simple Twist of Fate’ in haunting fashion. More people should know about this very fine album.
Kate and Anna McGarrigle’s eponymous debut album is a revered classic. Their later work, held to be patchier, I did not make the effort to track down at the time and thereafter it became hard to find. Again, more fool me, but now it has appeared on Spotify and I am saved. The music sometimes take a while before it sinks into your head, but it’s so worth having made the effort. It is roots music with the deepest, the truest of roots. ‘Matapédia’ is the title track of a 1996 album; it is hypnotic and quite magical.
I wrote earlier this year about my surprise discovery of country rap. Don’t run away. Listen. The Redneck Souljers’s 2018 collection The River is powerful and arresting stuff. Title track ‘River’ is particularly arresting for its questioning of religion, but every track is a strong one. It’s certainly a long way off from Hank Williams.
In the summer I produced a list of twenty cover versions boldly defined as being ‘better than the Beatles‘. The list was topped by Junior Parker’s unearthly cover of ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, which never gets mentioned when people usually talk about Beatles’ covers, for who knows what reason. I only allowed one artist per song, so had to leave out Parker’s mysterious, soulful version of ‘The Inner Light’, which otherwise probably would have charted at no. 2. Here it is. Be amazed.
Amanaz came from Zambia and were key figures in the 1970s ‘Zam-rock’ movement, when some African bands were soaking up all sorts of influences from Western music, including heavy rock and psychedelia. I don’t know if they ever heard the Velvet Underground, but ‘Sunday Morning’ from their 1975 album Africa shares not only the name of a Velvets number but the sort of languorous, melancholic mood that Lou Reed would have been proud of. The production is rudimentary, and the ending abrupt, but this is a classic that ought to be heard by many more than just the specialists.
How had I missed Sonny Sharrock before now? He was an American free jazz guitarist who flourished for a while in the late 60s, effectively retired for a while, only to be encouraged back in the 1980s. His music is fabulously inventive, though a little challenging for most. His most interesting work was done in collaboration with his vocalist wife Linda, who supplies the shrieks in ‘Portrait of Linda in Three Colors, All Black’, an exhilarating piece from their 1969 album Black Woman. Just the sort of music to play if you want to clear a room at Christmas.
The one person not to let me down in concert this year was the American jazz trumpeter Dave Douglas, one of my musical heroes. I saw him at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London with a starry line-up including guitarist Mary Halvorson and bassist Bill Laswell. Douglas always has several projects on the go, with different line-ups, and the graceful ‘Ups and Downs’ is from his 2018 collaboration Scandal with saxophonist Joe Lovano.
He’s my brother. He plays the guitar and sings (but not on this track). He’s made two CDs but only put the one on Spotify. He’s quite good.
The album of 2018 comes from 1975. More Blood More Tracks is the ‘Bootleg’ series version of Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks. It’s available in a single CD or 6-CD obsessive’s version. Apart from the abiding excellence of every song, in every version, the release challenges our idea of what the album as a musical art form is. There are countless permutations of Blood on the Tracks that you could make out of what has now been published. All may be true, so what is true? ‘Call Letter Blues’ was a song they left off the record in 1975. It’s perfect, of course.