That Was The Year That Was

One reason I haven’t written many new posts this year (besides being a lazy fucker) is that I’ve become quite anti-nostalgia lately which makes it a little hard to do what I usually do here. It was The Beatles’ 50th Anniversary boxsets that broke me. My Twitter feed was full of people going over and over them with the sort of worshipful reverence given to stone tablets handed down by ancient Gods. I just wanted to scream “MOVE THE FUCK ON!” at them. Add to that all the chatter about Joy Division books and Dr. Who blu-rays and it drove me a little nuts.

I understand the impulse, we’re all getting old and there’s a warm attachment to the culture that impacted your life when you were young and irresponsible and I’ve been writing a blog about it for over a decade. But now it’s grown into some vast Nostalgia Industrial Complex that is endlessly repackaging and reissuing basically the same 20-odd years of popular culture to separate (mostly) middle-aged men from their money. But if you want to spend $70 on a CD (a CD!) of London Calling just because it comes with a book of photos, don’t let me stop you. I’m old too, but I’m not dead.

So, being a contrarian bastard, my instinct has been to run screaming in the other direction into the now and, as a result, I’ve spent most of 2019 listening almost exclusively to new music. Luckily it was a very, very good year for that, one of the recent best I can remember. Such were the riches on offer I had a hard time ranking these and the order kept changing while I was writing, almost every one could be my album of the year.

Norman Fucking Rockwell! – Lana Del Rey
Because Lana is so dedicated to her own unique aesthetic it’s easy to overlook how much she’s grown as an artist. If you’d said back in 2012 that she would become one of the best songwriters in America you’d have been laughed out of the room, but her we are in 2019 and she clearly is now. The narcotic Flower Child vibe of this album was the most vivid soundscape she’s played in since the dusty, reverb-drenched Ultraviolence and her vocals have never sounded better. Years after her “act” could have become tiresome, she remains vital and fascinating.

All Mirrors – Angel Olsen
Angel has spent her career slowly shedding the skin of the ghostly folk singer she started out as, and All Mirrors was the album where she emerged from her chrysalis as a magnificent Goth Queen butterfly. Whether howling into a raging hurricane of strings and synths or gently sighing on neon-lit ballads, she spread her gossamer wings and soared to the heavens.

Western Stars – Bruce Springsteen
I haven’t really loved a Springsteen album since Tunnel Of Love 32 long years ago, but he won my heart back with this beauty which is basically an album full of Wichita Linemans. Soaring strings, twangy guitars, crooning vocals, and beautiful, widescreen songs about open roads, county lines, and wild horses. Melancholy, reflective Bruce has always been my favourite kind of Bruce and now he’s a pensioner the mood fits him like a favourite old denim jacket.

Ventura – Anderson Paak
This had the bright, funky vibe of a 70s Stevie Wonder album cross-pollinated with modern hip-hop beats and hit a massive sweet spot for me. Anderson sang and rapped like he had a big smile on his face and, as befits the album’s title, it sounded as warm and inviting as a California beach. Proof you can have an old school heart without sounding old fashioned.

Lover – Taylor Swift
For the past few years Taylor has been suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune: feuding with other celebs, attacked for being too apolitical, and loved by actual neo-Nazis. But, as they say, success is the best revenge and Lover was a massive flex on her part. Overflowing with cracking songs in a smorgasbord of styles, she regained the mojo she seemed to be losing and left the haters in the dust. Candy-coloured pop record of the year.

Late Night Feelings – Mark Ronson
Ronson gave his Rolodex a real work out to assemble the all-female cast of singers — Alicia Keys, Miley Cyrus, Angel Olsen, Camila Cabello — on this brilliant collection of what he called “sad bangers” that were designed for dancing and crying. Every track was a winner, and while I wouldn’t call most of them “bangers” in the modern sense, they had the kind of swishy beats and proper choons that would go down a storm at the local high street disco. It warmed the cockles of this old clubber’s feet.

On The Line – Jenny Lewis
Jenny has been an Indie It Girl for a long time now and, like a good California Cabernet, she gets better as she gets older. Her fourth solo album was probably her strongest collection of songs yet, full of hooks and wit and hard-earned wisdom. Like the lady herself, her brand of rhinestone-studded Laurel Canyon rock is both earthy and glam, and just as appealing.

Father Of The Bride – Vampire Weekend
Moving from the East Coast to California seems to have loosened up VM a little as this was the most baggy and free-wheeling record they’ve made. But these preppies hadn’t turned into hippies, the album might have a jumbled quality but the songs were still short, sharp, and crisply tuneful. While sounding at times like solo Paul Simon at his most jaunty and sing-a-long, under its sweet surface there was a lot of anxiety and restlessness. You can take a boy out of New York, but you can’t take New York out of a boy.

Two thumbs up to all these too:
Cheap Queen – King Princess
Immunity – Clairo
Atlanta Millionaires Club – Faye Webster
What We Say In Private – Ada Lea
Forevher – Shura
Miss Universe – Nilüfer Yanya
Stuffed & Ready – Cherry Glazerr
Lux Prima – Karen O & Danger Mouse


Suburban Gothic

Originally published June 2007

Strange things happen on the edges of cities, suburbia produces all sorts of weirdness from serial killers and cross-dressing accountants to Goth. Picture young Susan Ballion living in Bromley in the mid-70s. A girl with a Bowie and Roxy fixation who dreams of reinventing herself a la Ziggy Stardust (Bowie grew up in Bromley too) and escaping the dreary suburban hell she lives in. Maybe she has a Saturday job behind the make-up counter at Boot’s like other girls, but she also has a taste for “outsider” culture and spends her evenings at local gay discos. Then the Sex Pistols come along and she leaps at the moment, becoming part of the infamous Bromley Contingent that follows the band around, gets herself chatted up by Bill Grundy on television, and plays her first gig with mates Steve “Spunker” Severin and Sid Vicious under the name Suzi and The Banshees.

And years after all the Toyahs, Paulines, Poly Styrenes, and Hazel O’Connors had fallen by the wayside, Siouxsie was still standing proud — the Grande Dame of Post-Punk and a certified icon, surviving on strength of personality and sheer bloody-mindedness. And talent of course.

I had a serious Banshees fixation before I grew out of the whole teenage alienation thing circa 1983. I think I saw them live more than any other band and they were always insanely great. Siouxsie ruled from the stage like a glorious ice queen, giving withering looks to anyone who incurred her displeasure (like the punks at one gig who kept gobbing at her and calling for “The Lord’s Prayer” — if looks could kill they’d have been pushing up the daisies). She radiated that certain je ne sais quoi which makes a person a star, you couldn’t take your eyes off her.

I don’t listen to much Banshees these days but these tracks still light my fire.

This version of “Mirage” is from a bootleg album called Love In A Void which collected together the two John Peel sessions they’d taped in 1977 and ’78 before putting out any official records. A lot of fans at the time preferred that to their proper debut album The Scream because it was rougher and more punky. Personally I like the official album version better but this is pretty great, raw and trashy with the metallic guitar sound that used to literally make me feel a bit queasy like someone was dragging their fingers down a blackboard (which Siouxsie would probably take as a compliment.)

Download: Mirage – Siouxsie & The Banshees (mp3)

Four years later they had guitarist John McGeoch and drummer Budgie in the band who added more colour to their old monochrome sturm und drang and this extended 12″ version of “Spellbound” still sounds incredible, a blazing barrage of drums and swirling guitars. Apparently this is a bit of a Goth Disco favourite (I swear I wouldn’t know myself), perfect for modern-day Susan Ballion’s to whirl around to while dreaming about being someone else.

Download: Spellbound (12″ version) – Siouxsie & The Banshees (mp3)

The last Banshees album I bought was A Kiss In The Dreamhouse in 1982 which at the time I thought was their masterpiece and the single “Slowdive” one of the best things they ever did (though it was a flop on the charts). This still sounds great too, a tense dance number with a primitive, echoey beat and stabbing strings straight from the shower scene in Psycho.

Download: Slowdive (12″ version) – Siouxsie & The Banshees (mp3)