END OF YEAR CHARTS: Lee Fisher | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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5) Band Of Holy Joy – Easy Listening

Band Of Holy Joy Easy ListeningAfter their remarkable run in the eighties – full of timeless gems like Tactless and Real Beauty Passed Through and Fishwives – I have to admit I lost touch with Band Of Holy Joy for a while, although my belief that Johny Brown was the best songwriter this city ever produced never waned. But Easy Listening made me fall in love all over again. It’s a big, beautifully arranged album full of romance and anger and soul that harks back to those eighties releases but never sounds like a re-tread.

Brown has always had a genius for conveying working class pride and for finding beauty in the mundane, the poetry of the broken. Closing track A Train Ride To Another Place perfectly exemplifies this, a truly uplifting and powerful song that almost seems like a statement of intent or a manifesto, with its lines about “worshipping the flowers that burst through the cracks.” When asked about it, Brown commented that it’s just a statement that I’m alive and I love beauty, I love the things that are around us… it’s a celebration of being alive and having the capacity to be poetic.” And it’s a testament to his songwriting that very few artists communicate that love and that poetry as clearly as Band Of Holy Joy.

4) King Champion Sounds – Songs For The Golden Hour

king champion soundsThe antecedents of King Champion Sounds’ music are easy enough to pinpoint – punk, Afro-jazz, krautrock, dub, The Fall of course – but it’s what KCS do with these raw materials that is so impressive, so thrilling. The Anglo-Dutch seven-piece sort-of-supergroup’s second album has taken the potential of last year’s Different Drummer and created something truly original and joyful. “Joyful” isn’t a word that comes up a lot in reviews, especially not for music of this kind, but when vocalist GW Sok’s measured intensity is really on point, when the low-end rumble is hitting you in the solar plexus, when the brass is soaring and the guitars are flailing, when it’s all just the right side of chaos, when that combined energy and momentum and power REALLY gets you… well, fuck, “joyful” is the only word that describes it short of me posting a picture of my arm hairs standing up right now as I listen to this album for the 100th time.

3) Frontier Ruckus – Sitcom Afterlife

frontier ruckusThere are bands that almost by definition will only ever have niche appeal, and sometimes you’re happy to keep it that way, a little secret society of likeminded souls. There are a few bands, however, that you yearn to see as radio-friendly unit shifters, massive headliners filling big halls just so you can stand among thousands of like-minded people and experience the kind of collective euphoria that’s normally reserved for fans of empty, egregious nonsense like Coldplay or the fucking Mumfords. Frontier Ruckus are such a band, and their continued lack of ubiquity and massive record sales, four albums in, is a source of considerable pain and confusion to me.

Sitcom Afterlife should, in theory, be the album that turns them into global behemoths. It takes everything that’s great (really, REALLY great)  about their songs – Matthew Milia’s utterly unique lyrics, the folk-infused, banjo-driven, brass and musical saw-accented indie that’s reminiscent of The Weakerthans, Neutral Milk Hotel and, on this album in particular, mid-80s REM – and really ups the melodic ante. Milia’s words – still vividly evoking the minutiae of suburban American life – are perhaps more accessible, more sing-along-able, than ever, like polaroids or haikus or Raymond Carver stories, full of betrayal and disappointment and frozen lakes and high school grievances. Sitcom Afterlife is packed with songs that would sound INCREDIBLE coming out of your radio, full of fist-pumping, whooping moments, moments when you find yourself bellowing “drinking Shell station WII-IINE” at the top of your voice and then catching yourself because you’re on a crowded Tyneside high street.

Surely Frontier Ruckus are one Letterman appearance, one advert, one Rolling Stone feature away from getting the kind of audience they deserve. Listen to this and you’ll find out why.

2) Richard Dawson – Nothing Important

richard dawsonI feel like I’ve written more about Richard Dawson in my time contributing to NARC. than any other artist and I might be running out of ways to praise him and to convince readers that there is a bona fide genius here in Newcastle. So let’s keep it short: I sincerely believe Nothing Important is the greatest – and probably the most important – album ever to come out of this city. What Dawson has done, to breathtaking effect, is to take elements of folk music (proper folk music, in all its messy and tragic and political and powerful glory) and marry it to something more leftfield and experimental and intense. Add to that Dawson’s own raw, compelling, honest, gutwrenching commitment  and a lyrical style that in its universal minutiae actually reminds me of Frontier Ruckus, and you have something visionary.

For the second year running (yes, I’ve been compiling annual best ofs LONG before NARC. offered its writers the chance to share theirs online) it’s a draw for number one. And for the second year running, the two albums sharing the title embody the two extremes of my tastes: on the one hand, songs and melodies and country music; on the other, the visceral thrills of noise and frequencies and innovation. Last year it was Caitlin Rose and Hey Colossus. This year it’s…

=1) The Delines – Colfax

the delinesJumping Hot Club mainman Shippy tried to convince me, one drunken evening this summer, that he really doesn’t know what he’s doing most of the time. The Delines – who he booked to play in a tiny Easington barn at this year’s Jumping Hot Jamboree – are irrefutable proof that he knows EXACTLY what’s he’s doing.

It’s a long time since a band has stopped me in my tracks the way they did that night and Colfax is easily the album I’ve played most often this year. This is country soul: late night, dark, sweetly melancholy music, understated and subtle. Songwriter and novelist Willy Vlautin wanted to write songs for a woman to sing, hence the step away from his work with Richmond Fontaine, and in Amy Boone he found the perfect voice – weary but warm, reminiscent of Memphis-era Dusty – and in The Delines the perfect band. These are tales of blue collar America, full of bad choices and worse luck. Motels and seedy bars and dead end jobs and trucks and traumatised army veterans are given life by Vlautin’s lyrics (he really is a remarkable novelist too, and the two careers inform and fuel each other).

Years ago I had a really tough period during which Sparklehorse’s debut album kept me going.  As I come to the close of a truly dreadful year, it’s Colfax that I keep returning to, late at night, on my own. As their cover of Randy Newman’s Sandman has it, “It’s a great big dirty world, If they say it ain’t, they’re lyin’”. It really is, and The Delines ain’t lyin’.

=1) The Bug – Angels & Devils

the bugBack in August, my review of Angels & Devils said this and I reckon it still stands:

Through Kevin Martin’s 20 plus years working in every genre from industrial hip-hop to jazz skronk, there have been two constants in his output: an innate understanding of the power of bass and a love of extreme frequencies and sonic possibilities. It feels like everything he has done before was building up to Angels & Devils and by God, it shows.

Since the last Bug album London Zoo, Martin has released twisted dub as part of King Midas Sound, laid waste to sound systems across the world with The Bug live assault and given us tasters of what to expect from Angels & Devils with his Acid Ragga imprint and last year’s breathtakingly aggro single Dirty. Remarkably, the album is more than worth the hype. The first album (because you NEED to hear this on vinyl) is so intense and claustrophobic it seems to suck the air out of the room the way something like Tricky’s Hell Is Round The Corner did. Void – with vocals from Liz Harris (Grouper) – is a misleadingly sweet intro, while Fall (a reworking of The Bug’s previous Acid Ragga collaboration with Inga Copeland) is a twitchy, unsettling delight. Instrumental track Pandi is astonishing, like Orbital remixing Koyaanisqatsi; the other instrumental Ascension is bleak but beautiful. Mi Lost – voiced by live Bug regular Miss Red – sounds like a jaunty pop record in this context, a little bit of bashment light in the smoky murk; by contrast, album one closer Save Me, featuring Gonjasufi, is so whoozy, so drenched in THC and dread, it’s like throwing an aural whitey.

Album two is just brutal. From the MC braggadocio of Flowdan’s The One to the exhilarating closer of Dirty via dancehall killers like Fuck You (wherein a gloriously filthy Warrior Queen presents sex as blitzkreig) and the utterly menacing Fat Mac (Flowdan promising violent retribution over some Justin Broadrick-generated noise). But it’s Function that will slay you – a HUGE slice of steppas grime, Manga spitting furious bars over Martin’s most belligerent and triumphant riddim.

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