[Andrew Waterfield is a charmingly British News Editor.]
From where I am now, itís really difficult to see this year as a whole. On the one hand, Iím on half the dosage of antidepressants I was on at the start of the year, I can run further, lift more, my football club are doing well and Iím closer to the people that mean most to me than Iíve been in a long time.
On the other hand, my best mate Lee died last month, and itís hard to see the preceding months clearly with something like that slap bang at the end of a year. Twenty six is no age to die, and itís no age to bury someone you grew up with, but Iím determined to honor Leeís memory by living well, and being better than Iíve ever been before.
Hereís hoping 2013 brings plenty of opportunities to do that.
The best way I can think to describe Lowell, Mass.'s the Fake Boys is as Samiam with a harder edge. Introspective, angry and catchy as anything, Pig Factory was a go-to record for me in the early part of the year, usually between leaving work and heading to the gym. Good record to get wound up to.
Plan B: ill Manors
ill Manors, as well as being a companion piece to the feature film of the same name, is perhaps the most important overtly political album to emerge from British youth culture in the past decade. At it's simplest level itís a response to tabloid condemnation of impoverished youth following the summer riots of 2011, but it's also a study of extreme poverty, and the potential for brutalisation through experiences most of us are lucky we'll never have to face. The title track alone is worth the price, with bars like this:
"We got an eco-friendly Government,
They preserve our natural habitat,
Built an entire Olympic village,
Around where we live without pulling down any flats."
During the London 2012 Olympic games, it was easy to ignore the fact that millions had been spent on a month of spectacle within spitting distance of one of the most deprived areas in the country, but Ben refused to let us forget, thankfully.
Around the middle of the record, things get extremely bleak. If you can listen to "Pity the Plight," featuring punk poet John Cooper Clarke, without feeling sick to your stomach, you've got a stronger constitution than I have. Still, it's a powerfully humane melding of two generations of popular verse. Toward the end, the album is a lot more hopeful, but it's hard to get the rest out of your head. There aren't many answers here, but there is the impetus to look, listen, and think, and that's got to be the first step.
Audra Mae & The Almighty Sound: Audra Mae & The Almighty Sound
Were I a musician, or well versed in musicology at a theoretical level, I could probably describe the interweaving of country, folk and soul influences on this record properly. As it is, I'm not, so I'll just describe this as a countryish/folkish/soulish thing, with the latter of the three particularly evident in Audra Mae's vocals.
It's a cracking record from start to finish, but my favourite track by a long chalk is 'Little Red Wagon', mostly for the following:
"My dog does tricks,
But I'm not about drama,
Cos I love my apron,
But I ain't your mama!"
Thereís a decent mix of upbeat danceable tracks, and a few ballads. If you listen to it on the wrong speed you can dance and cry at the same time. Lovely.
I find it difficult to write about Red Collar with anything approaching detachment, because I bloody love them. Seriously. They're basically my go-to band when my depression is getting on my tits and it's too late at night to ring a mate, or if I don't feel up to talking. I found their debut album, Pilgrim, right after I was first diagnosed, when I felt like I was falling apart at the seams, and I spent a lot of sleepless nights with that record, so Welcome Home had a lot to live up to. It did.
As I've already said, I'm not very good at describing the nuts and bolts of music, but I'd describe Red Collar as a country-punk band. I honestly don't care what you want to call it, because to me it feels honest, comforting, hopeful, and utterly cathartic, and that's what I got into punk for in the first place. Itís definitely what I stay for.
Show of Hands: Wake the Union
Hands on Music
I'd like to say I've known about this longstanding West Country folk act for years, but I haven't at all. I happened across them on one of the BBC's specialist folk music programmes, and I got pretty stoked. A great many of us have been dabbling as far as listening to folk goes, and Chuck Ragan, Tim Barry and the Wild can only make so many albums, so I decided to seek out some other stuff outside our little punk rock corner. I'm really glad I did.
Basically, Wake the Union takes from a number of folk music traditions, both musically and in terms of subject matter, most obviously English, Irish and American. The American influence is particularly evident in the eerily haunting "Katrina," about the grief and awe which can only be laid down by natural disasters. I recently lost my best friend, and that song has been invaluable in helping me process the shock of that loss. On the English side, "Cruel River" is a tragic love story in the grand old style.
It's not all dark, and there are some beautifully uplifting songs here, especially "King of the World," a rollicking singalong about what you'd do if you held the reigns of power. Worth a look, especially if you're into that Frank Turner bloke, but fancy something a bit more left wing, with a few more miles on the clock.
If I had to describe this record in a single phrase it'd be "Occupy Hip-Hop." A much more focused album than Never Better, We Don't Even Live Here sees P.O.S articulate the righteous fury that can often seem like the default position for thinking people of our generation. This is a record about a generation which has been failed by the institutions our parents paid into, by the governments we trusted to back us up in tough times, and our peers, many of whom seem more interested in conspicuous branding than equality of opportunity.
Basically, it's an unapologetically pissed off record, and although there's a lot of humor here too, it's got an edge to it. In terms of overarching themes, there are a lot of similarities with ill Manors, but P.O.S. forgoes the concept album route in favor of a collection of individual tracks that, while they sit well together, are works in their own right. Likewise, where Plan B follows an individual character through, the closest P.O.S gets to this is dropping into the first person plural. As such, it's a much less grueling work, and this allows much more comfortable listening, which in turn allows the lyrical content to get under the skin in a much more intense and insidious fashion.
Anyone remember the Matches? One of my favorite bands, as it happens. Oakland pop-punk band whose third and final album, A Band In Hope, sought to meld pop-punk with the pomp of A Night At The Opera-era Queen, to mixed results. Basically, this album is that sort of thing, but Fun. do it a whole lot better.
I've never been averse to theatricality in music, and I've been pleased to see pop reacquainting itself with spectacle and bombast in recent years. This position has led to a great many drunken defences of the collective works of My Chemical Romance, Lady Gaga and Nicki Minaj among others, but whatever. I like it when bands show me how much they love Ziggy Stardust style nonsense, and this record has that all over it!
Yes, "We Are Young" is a boring slab of translucent turd-rock, but the rest of the record is like a toddler covered in glitter and on a sugar high. There's a bit of a lag in the middle, presumably when the sherbet supply ran dry, then it all gets going again, as the tears are wiped away and sparkly, rainbow-colored vomit rains down on all who dare approach. In a world where punk is afraid to reclaim the flair it got from glam-punk, I don't mind going to pop for my fix. This is a perfect pop record. Apart from "We Are Young." Christ.
I don't like synth, and I really don't like prog. Those are rules I have, and they're rules that have served me well, like the one about washing my hands after using the toilet, or the one about putting clothes on before getting on a bus. However, this album has synths, and it's a bit proggy too, and yet I still love it.
Basically, this record sounds like what it might feel like to have a drink and a smoke in a secret hidden page of a Jack Kirby comic from the '70s. One of those super trippy ones with universal godheads and cosmic revelation.
If you like the sound of that, pull up a beanbag, and give your third eye a wipe. I find Joe Casey and Tom Scioli's GÝdland goes particularly well with this dish.
Cory Branan is a genuinely brilliant musician. I don't say that lightly. Every time I've seen him play live he puts a different spin on each song. If you turn up expecting to see a simulacrum of his recorded work, you won't get it, and I love that. Every show is a joy, every song a surprise, favorites feeling like they're being heard for the first time.
As his core, Cory is a great songwriter, and regardless of how many varied influences and instruments he layers on top, it's always the songs that shine though. That's not to say there's anything wrong with the arrangements, but they augment the songs, rather than prop them up in any way. That's why he can stand alone with a guitar on a huge stage and hold a room of people unfamiliar with his work in the palm of his hand, and it's why this is the (second) best album of my year.
I first saw Apologies, I Have None supporting Defiance, Ohio in Islington in May 2009, and I've got to be honest, I wasn't entirely sure why the London kids went so nuts for them. At the time, there was a strong early Against Me! influence there, and I felt that it dominated their sound in such a way that they felt derivative. I mean, I'm a huge Against Me! fan, so I got why kids were into it, but not that into it.
In the intervening years, Apologies have come on leaps and bounds as a band in their own right, and it's been a pleasure to watch them develop. Moreover, it's been a pleasure to find myself falling in love with them as a unit. Make no mistake, London is a magnificent record, the best debut album since Not Like This, at least for my money.
While I have a lot of friends who live in London, and adore it, I don't get on with the place. I grew up a couple of hundred yards from farmland. In fact, if I stick my head out of the window and breathe in, I'll probably catch a whiff of manure. Basically, I don't feel particularly comfortable if there isn't countryside within a few miles of wherever I'm at. A metropolis like London feels like a trap to me; cold, impersonal, uncaring. You get the idea.
How ironic then, that an album called London makes me feel precisely the opposite of those things. While it deals with some difficult topics, not least struggles to manage paranoia, anxiety and rage, it feels hopeful, liberating and, yes, cathartic. I don't get all the Braid references, but that doesn't make any odds.
I feel at home with this record, and I feel at home with this band. It helps that they tour as often as they can, and are always super friendly. I've turned up at Apologies shows off the back of nasty bouts of depression, but after a couple of hugs from the lads, and two or three singalong choruses (and there are plenty of those), that stuff falls away.
I rattled on about my mental health stuff (depression and anxiety, if you're playing psychiatric bingo at home) in my list last year, and I got some stick for it in the comments, but it's impossible for me to write meaningfully about the records I really love without acknowledging that context. There are days, and far too many of them lately, when I need music that reminds me who I am and what I'm fighting for. What I'm fighting toward. For me, this year, London has been that record, and I'm extremely grateful to Apologies for putting it out there.