While this site is largely concerned with reissues and box sets and the like, of course I still buy new albums and as such here is my review of some of my favourite releases for 2018. Before next week there will also be a look back at some of the best reissues of the last year…
SDE ALBUM OF THE YEAR: Joan As Police Woman / Damned Devotion
I’ll be honest, I loved Joan As Police Woman‘s first album (Real Life from 2006), liked the second one (2008’s To Survive) and then slightly lost track. 2011’s The Deep Field and 2014’s The Classic had their moments but ultimate didn’t really do it for me, while Benjamin Lazar Davis collaboration Let It Be Me was bought, filed but shamefully I ‘forgot’ to listen to it…
Cue the power of a good old fashioned ‘catchy’ song. While a pop chart hit is fairly much out of the question these days, for an artist like Joan As Police Woman, the quality of first single ‘Tell Me’ was more than apparent. Like much of the album, the song concerns communication. It’s a plea for articulation, expression and directness. Literally, ‘tell me what you want and I can try and give it to you.’ There’s something fantastic about the honesty of the sentiment, and the economy and relatively simplicity of the arrangement.
JAPW’s Joan Wasser has an incredible singing voice, but prefers understatement rather than over the top vocal gymnastics. ‘Tell Me’ is slinky delight and memorable enough that my kids were singing along to it when I ‘forced’ my playlists on them on holiday in the summer!
But one song does not a good album make and I think there’s two key things at play here that make the Damned Devotion such a success. Joan’s adventurousness, in terms of experimenting and ‘beat-making’ at her Brooklyn home has really paid off and at the same time she has just hit a rich vein of form and written and produced an incredibly intimate long-player full of moving and memorable songs. It’s a very pure album – it feels like musical and lyrical ideas have flowed straight from Wasser (with the help of trusted collaborators like Kindred Parker) right onto the grooves of the vinyl, unencumbered by a band working out arrangements in a traditional studio environment, where something excellent can inadvertently be shorn of its magic.
Opener ‘Wonderful’ is a delicate rose with electric piano, beats and lots of atmosphere. That song semi-segues into ‘Warning Bell’, where Joan muses about missing the tell-tale signs in a relationship and how she ‘never sees it coming’ into a pillow-soft arrangement.
There’s some exciting rhythms in a more funky middle section with ‘Steed (for Jean Genet)’ and in particular ‘The Silence’ which continues the album’s lyrical themes (“we have so much to say, why don’t we say it?”). One highlight here is the chanting middle eight, which ends with a blistering and satisfying distorted guitar solo.
‘Valid Jagger’ has beautiful melody that sucks you in and a lovely organ denouement, while ‘What Was It Like’ is a moving tribute to Joan’s Dad. ‘Talk About It Later’ is another funky number with an amusing lyric (“later as in 2020…”) and ‘Silly Me’ and ‘I Don’t Mind’ are the ‘come down’ tracks and complete the album.
This is one of those life-changing records. It is that good. Sit back and listen to all 12 tracks from start to finish and you’ll discover that Damned Devotion messes with your body. It gets under your skin, squeezes your heart and perhaps occasionally stirs the loins. It’s Joan As Police Woman’s best album and by a long margin my favourite of 2018.
Suede / The Blue Hour
Good old Suede. The first two albums were brilliant (particularly 1994’s Dog Man Star), Coming Up was a perfect pop reinvention and then it all went tits up with the what-were-they-thinking Head Music followed by the BORING A New Morning. The latter was so bad the band broke up and disappeared for seven years.
Because they skipped most of the ‘noughties’, when they came back Suede were shocked to see that while their audience still liked shaking their bits, there were no ‘hits’ to speak of anymore. ‘Woolies’ was out of business, Top of the Pops was finished and the UK singles chart was so disfigured it could only be identified by reference to its dental records. Damn! Or maybe not damn, because Suede were suddenly no longer judged by their hit singles any more. Ten years earlier, no hits meant you were dumper-bound, but now everyone else was not having hits too – hooray! Also, you didn’t even need a record label anymore, you could engage with some kind of ‘label services’ company, own your own music and stick it to ‘the man’.
If you believe the narrative, around 2012 Brett Anderson gathered the band together, furrowed his brow and said “let’s record a triptych of albums”. “Alright then…” came the response. The Blue Hour is the third in that ‘triptych’, after 2013’s Bloodsports (don’t mention the awful deluxe) and 2016’s Night Thoughts.
So the idea with the last three albums is to be conceptual, to embrace widescreen grandeur and to reach beyond the confines of the three-minute pop song, and with Night Thoughts – which came with a feature film – even the standard pop promo. So with that in mind, The Blue Hour opener ‘As One’ is all ominous Ave Santani-style chanting mixed with John Barry guitar lines and the anthemic Wastelands ends with a spoken word linking section. This is a good thing, obviously. During the atmospheric Roadkill a conversation ensues about a ‘dead bird’ then lo and behold there is a song called Dead Bird later on! That’s what I’m talking about!
Okay, I’m poking fun a little bit here, but I do really like this album, even if it’s VERY ‘Suede’ in places. During Beyond The Outskirts Brett sings of ‘small town dreaming’ (a recurring Suede theme), but it’s still quite moving and the payoff line at the end about having the “same blank feeling… I wonder where you are tonight” is quite moving. This song also benefits from a great and satisfyingly rocky middle eight section. ‘Flytipping’ gets very close to parody in places, with lines like “I’ll take you to the verges” and “careful as you go”. For a while, I was wondering if there was any metaphor here at all and perhaps this was Brett genuinely singing about a baggy-jeaned white van man with no sense of social responsibility but I think he just about gets there in the end because he sings of ‘shiny things that turn into rust’, so it’s probably about relationships decaying on the hard shoulder of life. Or something.
‘Cold Hands’ is a great rocker, ‘Chalk Circles’ has some more of that chanting and ‘Life Is Golden’ is a mid-paced song with some sunny positivity. Arguably, The Blue Hour lacks a really massive standout track (and probably isn’t home to anything quite as good as Night Thoughts‘ ‘Outsiders’ and ‘No Tomorrow’) but with these thematic concept albums that can easily be flipped into a positive. It’s the sum of the whole and not about individual songs grabbing the spotlight.
Brett sings beautifully throughout and The Blue Hour is largely a triumph. It really suits them. Suede seem to have found their calling with these kinds of albums, so I hope they don’t abandon the idea and try to go all ‘pop’ for their next one.
Paul Weller / True Meanings
I think I’ve been suffering from Paul Weller fatigue in recent times. The ex-Jam and Style Council man has been knocking them out regularly for quite a while and although there’s been nothing really wrong with the likes of Saturns Pattern and A Kind Revolution, it feels like ages since I really loved one of his solo efforts (probably 2008’s 22 Dreams). But True Meanings has reversed that trend. It’s a beautiful record. I’m a sucker for that pastoral, folky vibe, but crucially, the songs are also very good. ‘Gravity’ and ‘Glide’ drip with acoustic regret while ‘Old Castles’ has a wonderful jazzy lilt. Best of all the mood and tone is consistent throughout and therefore this feels like a proper album, to sit back and enjoy.
Elvis Costello & The Imposters / Look Now
With all Elvis Costello‘s various projects and collaborations it’s surprising that Look Now was his first ‘proper’ studio album since 2010’s National Ransom. The new record is a shorter more focussed effort than that eight-year old long-player and benefits from sounding a bit more like a ‘classic’ straight off the bat, thanks to a trio of songs written with Burt Bacharach (‘Photographs Can Lie’ is as good as virtually anything on 1998’s Painted From Memory) and the brilliant ‘Burnt Sugar Is So Bitter’ (written with Carole King). Not that Costello needs ‘helpers’ particularly. Eight of the 12 tracks are solo efforts with ‘Unwanted Numbers’, ‘Under Lime’ and ‘Why Won’t Heaven Help Me’ all from the top drawer. A wonderful album.
Paul McCartney / Egypt Station
I can understand why Paul McCartney continues to tour and reissue his back catalogue, but it’s less clear why he bothers with new albums. He has nothing much to gain, plenty to lose and the ‘new’ songs rarely make it beyond the current tour unable (in Paul’s mind anyway) to compete with the gold standards of the past. He’s also hampered by a voice that’s, frankly, past its best.
But bother he does. He’s chosen a fine collaborator for Egypt Station in producer and multi-instrumentalist Greg Kurstin and that may have made all the difference. There’s a few duffers, inevitably (‘Who Cares’, ‘Confidante’, ‘Fuh You’) but the album is memorable for it’s high quality compositions such as ‘Hand In Hand,’ ‘Dominoes,’ ‘Caesar Rock,’ ‘I Don’t Know,’ ‘Despite Repeated Warnings’ and ‘Hunt You Down/Naked/C-Link’. Short of pulling another ‘Hey Jude’ out of the bag, this is realistically, as good as McCartney can really be in 2018. Incidentally, the super deluxe edition box set version of this album still hasn’t been released.
Anna Calvi / Hunter
If the whole gender debate/subject matter puts you off, don’t let it. Like with Christine and the Queens such concepts and subject matter can rather get in the way of some great songs. I was present at two interviews this year for Anna Calvi and Christine and the Queens and on both occasions the interviewer hardly asked them about music at all, so pre-occupied were they about ‘gender journeys’, sexuality etc. (Calvi wasn’t impressed with the female journalist asking her about ‘big dick energy’!). Not that that these discussions aren’t interesting, but hey, I’m here for the songs, and luckily Hunter is full of great ones. ‘As A Man’ is a fine and strident opener and has some lovely guitar playing, while ‘Don’t Beat The Girl Out Of My Boy’ was the hooky number that got me interested in the first place. Calvi is a brilliant performer and the songs on ‘Hunter’ bristle with atmosphere, intimacy and menace, like something you might find on a David Lynch soundtrack. Recommended.
Sting & Shaggy / 44/876
I’m putting on my tin hat for this selection, but I don’t care, I loved 44/876. A mainstream pop album by two relatively old blokes – especially if one is Sting – is never going to be hip, but this is a fine summery blast of reggae-pop that could probably have spawned four top 20 hit singles, had it been released in 1991. So yes, it’s a little bit ‘out of time’ but it’s full of songs that make you smile. I’m aware that Sting and Shaggy together (at last!) is slightly absurd but that’s part of the fun. The ex-Police frontman hasn’t been this relaxed for ages and there’s loads of variety, plenty of hooks and some pretty good songs. Sometimes it’s best not to overthink these things. Put it on the car stereo, hang your elbow out of the window and enjoy.
What were your favourite albums of 2018? Do leave a comment – would love to hear about what you’ve been listening to!