Sorry I’ve been a bit quiet of late, but there’s been good reason for this as most of my free time in December was spent listening to dozens of albums and putting together a ‘Best of 2020’ show for The Smelly Flowerpot on Cambridge 105 Radio. Readers of an earlier blog will know that I paused the show in September, mainly due to the challenges in trying to put together a radio show in a house occupied by four children and a dog that have little respect for the recording process. Hence the increased activity on the blog since then- you don’t hear their screaming over make-up, the arguments over the missing remote control or the dogs tail thudding against the door in my typing. Anyway, due to the enthusiasm shown by the good people at Cambridge 105 Radio and the power of chocolate to mute children, I have managed to put together a 2 hour show featuring 1 single, 1 retrospective, an EP and 22 albums that have particularly grabbed me this year. I’ll caveat those selections by saying they’ve all featured on the show or the blog over the last year and are therefore all by artists that, with the odd exception, don’t get regular playlisting on national radio. This isn’t because they’re not worthy- quite the opposite- but more due to the fact it’s such a crowded market that only a fraction of music released will ever get playlisted on national radio. This is often due to having the right backers or marketing and a huge slice of luck. The whole ethos of The Smelly Flowerpot is to support those artists wherever I can. Consequently, relatively more well known artists like Bill Callahan, Flaming Lips and Bob Dylan won’t be considered for the list despite releasing wonderful albums.
By the time I’ve finished writing this blog entry, the show will have been broadcast and repeated (Christmas night and December 28th), but I will post a link to the Mixcloud upload at the bottom of this entry so you can listen at your leisure. Below you’ll find a run down of the tracks and a hint of what to expect from each. I trust you’ll find something in there that tickles your fancy…
Single of the Year: The Broken Orchestra feat TinB- Someone Just Pressed Pause
I’ve followed this band for several years now and managed to catch them live at Humber St Sesh Festival a couple of years ago. Dusky beats with layered keyboards which skitter and swell as they gradually build. The lyric is a spoken one which eloquently and powerfully deals with the effects of the pandemic, recognising the negative aspects while encouraging people to take the opportunity to do something positive. The show features an edited version, but check out the bands Bandcamp page for the full version.
Also, rather brilliant: Black Country, North Road- Science Fair. Discordant, anxious, tense, thrilling, mind warping, unsettling and riveting don’t even come close to describing this. I can’t wait for the debut album in 2021.
Anthology of the Year: The Distractions- Nobody’s Perfect 2020
I first fell in love with The Distractions in 1979, catching them live in 1980 at The Welly Club in Hull, then again in 2012 at The Kings Arms in Salford. There aren’t many bands who leave it 32 years between first and second album releases. That first album, Nobody’s Perfect, was released in 1980 to critical acclaim and relatively few sales. Until now, it had never received a digital release but thankfully that’s been put right. The release features the album in its original form plus an updated mix (one of the few complaints about the original was the production) by latter day Distraction and head of Occultation Records, Nick Halliwell. Also gathered together are the singles and EPs from the original band plus a number of demo’s and unreleased tracks. It’s a collection of beautifully imagined sixties pop songs given a post punk pop makeover. The track played on the show, ‘Looking for a Ghost’ having echoes of The Beach Boys in its layered harmonies. Other excellent collections well worth a mention are Phil Rambow’s ‘Rebel Kind- Anthology 1972-2020’ which collects his original albums from the 70’s plus tracks recorded with the likes of Brian Eno, Mick Ronson and Kirsty MacColl as well as some more recent releases which show he hasn’t lost any of his abilities as a singer/songwriter. ‘The Colossal Youth- 40th Anniversary Edition’ by Young Marble Giants is another welcome anthology of singles and EPs as well as the titular album.
EP of the Year: McCookerybook and Rotifer- Equal Parts
This wasn’t quite long enough to class as an album but it would have been a tragedy to leave it out, hence it has a section all of its own. It’s been reviewed in an earlier blog, but suffice to say, this is a joy to listen to from start to finish. Full of enthusiasm, warmth and quality performing and writing, it exudes charm with the odd hidden barb under the surface. Imagine a collaboration between an anglicised Doris Day and an Austrian Lee Hazlewood and you won’t be far off the mark.
Albums of the Year
Before I crack on with the 22 albums that made the show, let me mention a few albums that made my short list, making the task of narrowing it down to 22 nigh on impossible. These are all worth checking out and I’m sure I’ll look at this list over the coming months and think ‘How did I manage to leave this off the show?’. In no particular order:
Global Charming- Mediocre, Brutal. Quirky post punk with Beefheartian guitars from Dutch band. Songs about the mundanity of life never sounded so good.
Anton Barbeau- Manbird. No-one does psych pop like Anton. This one comes across like a life’s travelogue with plenty of avian analogies.
Dislocation Dance- Discombobulation. Welcome return of 80’s soul/funk band to help raise funds to treat singer Ian Runacre’s son, who has a serious brain condition.
The Lounge Bar Orchestra- Pilot Episodes. Imaginary themes/soundtracks to shows on Ousewater TV, as written by the mysterious Reg Omeroyd in the 70’s.
Tensheds- Days of My Confinement. Dramatic piano led songs by classically trained artist, recorded at home during lockdown.
Pavey Ark- Close Your Eyes and Think of Nothing. Do exactly that and wallow in the yearning, acoustic driven songs backed with beautiful string arrangements.
Steve Cobby- СТИВИ. The latest in a run of impressive albums mixing a variety of genres from the mix master himself. Jazzy, proggy, post rocky, trip hoppy, entirely Cobby.
Tim Holehouse- Lost. Takes another left turn, introducing beats, rap, hip hop and electronica as he chronicles the struggles of coping without being on the road and gigging.
Jinder- The Silver Age. Beautifully sung ruminations of joy and pain with characteristically varied, stirring and lush backing.
The New Fools- Mershmellow. Too long to be an EP, too short to be an album, but still very impressive. Lots of nods to musical heroes.
Moff Skellington/The Bordellos. Not a duo, but two artists who have been ultra-prolific during 2020 (not to mention previous years). Difficult to pick an album each from the myriad to chose from, so when you get time, visit their respective Bandcamp pages and dive in randomly. I’m confident you won’t have heard anything like them.
The albums that made the show
22. Lexytron- Something Blue. Lexytron is Manchester born, part English, Greek and Persian and now living in New Zealand. This, her debut album, is full of vibrant and catchy pop/rock songs with one foot on the dance floor. Dealing with love, loss and lust, it’s an invigorating affair.
21. Tidal Rave- Heart Screams. Another debut from another NZ based band, this one a six-piece including three female songwriter/singer/guitarists. Densely interwoven guitars, an insistent rhythm section and organ battle constantly to produce a punchy garage rock sound which is lent variety by changes of pace and the use of four different vocalists.
20. Lewsberg- In This House. Another Dutch band with a debut album. Deceptive in that the strident guitars, which quickly settle into a groove on each song, and mainly spoken lyrics hide a quirky catchiness. Post punky in the main with hints of Lou Reed and Jonathan Richman.
19. Stuart Moxham and Louis Phillipe- The Devil Laughs. Two great musicians with excellent CVs team up to produce a delightful album of quality song writing and performing. The pair complement each other beautifully with Louis adding stylish flourishes to fill out the otherwise subtle beauty of Stuart’s songs. Louis adds a couple of gems of his own. Some lovely harmonies and sweeping strings help give this a timeless feel.
18. Santa Sprees- Sum Total of Insolent Blank. Here, the Anglo-Japanese duo present an album that is as epic in length as it is in scope. Full of lo fi gems with tracks that barely get started before cheerily waving goodbye to fully fledged folky pop songs which sweep you along with their infectiousness. And singer Anthony Dolphin sounds weirdly like a pre fame Tyrannosaurus Rex era Marc Bolan, which is clearly a good thing.
17. Rosie Abbott- Magnified. The Nottingham based singer/song-writer/multi-instrumentalist/producer and sock puppet maker takes another leap forward with her third solo album. Her love of 60’s bands such as The Beatles and The Kinks shines through on her melodic songs which often take little unexpected twists and turns on their sonic journey. Lyrics that are clearly personal make her all the more loveable.
16. Polypores- Azure. Released on the excellent Castles in Space label (possibly the best source of new electronic and ambient music around), Polypores is the work of one Stephen Buckley, who has been releasing his brand of synthesiser-based music for several years and umpteen releases. As the album and song titles suggest, this is a soundtrack to drifting through the world’s oceans evoking the awe and wonder of everything that inhabits it or has been consumed by it.
15. The Sound of Pop Art- To Dream the Most Fabulous Dream. Cambridge’s great pop dreamers return with an expanded palette of contagious and vibrant songs that add funk, acid jazz, soul and film soundtracks to their summery pop. Chris Free, Sara Onyett and friends have produced their best set of songs to date- irresistible and infectious, they’re a reminder of the days when charts were filled with such music.
14. Annie Dressner- Coffee at the Corner Bar. American born, Cambridge based, Annie’s latest album is another largely acoustic indie-folk-pop affair. Produced by hubby Paul Goodwin, Annie’s disarming, conversational style of singing draws the listener into her often nostalgic and personal songs. With additional instrumentation fleshing out and adding impetus to some songs, it’s a varied and warmly rewarding set of songs
13. Moonstrips- It Was a Different World When We Started. Though this is an album of live tracks and studio sessions (with embellishments!), it hangs together surprisingly well. There’s more variety than on the previous album, though Barney’s breathless sax and the mix of hallucinatory psychedelia and post punk guitars are never far away. The tracks recorded live support my belief that they’re one of the best live bands in Cambridge.
12. 2 Lost Souls- …the very last City. This is the second full length album from veterans of the music scene, Ian Moss and Paul Rosenfeld. With the frequently acerbic lyrics of Ian backed by the searing guitar playing of Paul, this is a thrilling ride. Perhaps less of an ‘outsider’ sound than other artists Ian has collaborated with, the music is a blend of effects laden blues and rock music which is faintly reminiscent of Peter Buck’s playing on REM’s Monster.
11. Harold Nono- We’re Nearly Home. Harold Nono is one of several mysterious enigmas who release intriguing and interesting music through Bearsuit Records, based in Edinburgh. Difficult to pigeonhole, this album is a dynamic and experimental mix of imagined soundtracks, industrial noise, electronic and ambient music that challenges as much as it satisfies. Never less than interesting and frequently magnificent through it’s 40 odd minute roller coaster ride.
10. John Howard- To the Left of the Moon’s Reflection. John Howard released the long-lost classic ‘Kid in a Big World’ back in the seventies and has been on a creative renaissance over the past decade. This album is possibly the best of his career. Beautifully flowing, largely piano based compositions with biographical lyrics by an artist who, decades into a stop/start career, appears to be completely at ease with his current life and situation. There’s a wealth of experience and stories to be told, something which comes across with humour and candour in his songs as well as in the interview he gave me earlier in the year.
9. Issac Navaro- Nijua. Issac, based in Dumfries, has been a fixture on German Shepherd Records since they first started, with six releases during that period. The latest album, who’s title was apparently suggested by a 7 year old, is a heady and potent mix of post rock, ambient and electronic music which reference the likes of sci-fi writers, Dutch footballers and moon landings. In among the lush layers of synths and insistent beats there are some delicious piano melodies and, on one track, a rare vocal. I read somewhere that this could be the last album from Issac, which would be a crying shame.
8. Danny Short- Pastimes. Danny has been quietly self-releasing music on CDRs and through his Bandcamp page for the last decade or so and it’s always a delight when one is popped through the letterbox. I first heard him through Stephen Doyle’s excellent show on Salford City Radio and probably have a dozen or so releases now. Though he majors on quality 60’s influenced songs full of energy, intensity, vitality and killer choruses, he often pops several tracks of a more experimental nature on each release. Though, as the title suggests, this is a collection of reworked tracks from his past, it’s brilliant from start to finish.
7. Becci Wallace- Present Tense. Scottish singer/songwriter Becci has produced her best work to date on ‘Present Tense’. Her intensely intimate lyrics deal with a variety of subjects from parenthood and love to grief and mental health, dealing with each subject with trademark candour and no little humour. That she matches each of these with a compelling and complimentary musical backing is mighty impressive. From minimalist piano backing to lush instrumentation and trip hoppy beats, there’s a beating heart to each track which grabs your attention, at times provoking a range of emotional responses.
6. Umbrella Assassins- Humanity. These guys have been gradually building an impressive repertoire of songs since they slimmed to a three piece and, roles in the band re-assigned, the creative juices not so much flowed as flooded out. ‘Humanity’ features many tracks in their chosen genre of ‘Shed-Punk’ though this only hints at what they do. There’s a primal energy and a vocal delivery which pummels you into submission on some songs and a fuzzy psychedelia on others, but there’s also an inventiveness on display which hint at possible future directions. Sing-alongs and a glorious Hendrix style whig out complete an impressive assault on the senses.
5. Tom Skelly- Slackhead. Listen to Tom’s excellent debut album of largely folk blues acoustic songs and then listen to this and you’ll see just how far his sound and song writing has developed in the intervening 7 years. The progression is impressive. Musically it can be a challenging but ultimately rewarding listen, sometimes within the same song. Acoustic strums can be interrupted by bursts of treated keyboards, stuttering beats, distorted guitars or an echoing glockenspiel. Equally, Tom’s vocals match the musical accompaniment, veering from a gentle folky croon to a howl of anguish with several stops in between. This being his third self-produced album in two years, you get the feeling his wanderlust of musical adventure has some way to go.
4. Naomi Randall- Tepid on My Trippin’ Heels. This release from Cambridge based Naomi comes seven years after her previous album, hence the album title, jokingly suggested by a friend. It mixes several strains of folk (traditional, freak, pastoral, psychedelic) to mesmerising and beguiling effect with some lovely instrumental flourishes. There’s an ethereal beauty to some songs, especially those with minimal backing, while others draw you in with their ability to relate tales and snippets of stories which capture the imagination. Naomi’s voice is captivating, an attractive mix of folkie with a dreamy hippy quality. On her Bandcamp page (and on the sleeve of the album), she suggests the success or failure of the album should be left to the listener’s judgement. This listener judges it a resounding success.
3. Aksak Maboul- Figures 1 & 2. This double album by a Belgian band who have been performing on and off for over 40 years is a revelation. An ever-changing line up (at one point featuring former members of Henry’s Cow) centred around founding member Marc Hollander has now settled with the addition of his wife, Veronique Vincent, on vocals. This magnificent, experimental double album requires multiple listens to even come close to revealing all its delights, despite the presence of some real ear worms. Compulsive rhythms from around the world are the back drop for a dizzying selection of jazzy, avant-garde and prog songs featuring the excellent guitar and keyboard playing of Marc. The lyrics, written and sung mainly in French by Veronique, deal with the dynamics between male and female and how things have perhaps not progressed as they should have over the years. Utterly wonderful.
2. Plantman- Days of the Rocks. By my reckoning, this is Plantman’s fourth album. It’s also my favourite, which is saying something as all the previous releases are excellent. Songwriter, singer and guitarist Matt Randall, along with some musician friends from the Southend area, has put together a set of songs that are so intimate and heart-warming in a squeeze-your-hand, tug-at-your-heart sense that they should come with a ‘Beware- Contains Human Emotions’ sticker. Listening to his vocals is like dipping in to a private conversation as he uses his present stage of life to reflect and better understand people and events from the past. He also has a real knack of setting his lyrics to a musical style that enriches and nourishes those words, adding further emotional heft as guitars are gently strummed with minimal adornments or as the sound is fleshed out with soaring lead guitar and heavenly harmonies. Maybe there’s something in the air around Southend way.
1. The Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus- Songs of Yearning/Nocturnes. Not one, but two albums, released simultaneously by a band that have been ignoring fashions and occasionally delivering albums as and when the time is right. I was smitten by ‘Beauty Will Save the World’ their album from 2016 which set me on a trail to discover more of their music. Though I find these albums inseparable in terms of quality, it’s rare that I listen to them together, mood dictating which one I might want to listen to at any one time. Elements of folk, ambient music, Eastern European religious themes, chants, hymns and occasional bursts of (relatively speaking) turbulence weave together like very little else I’ve heard to produce music of rare transcendental beauty. Though they sound nothing like them, the feeling I get when listening to these albums is similar to when I first heard the likes of Van Morrison’s ‘Astral Weeks’, Nick Drake’s albums or Joni Mitchell’s ‘Hissing of Summer Lawns’- like hearing something unlike anything I’d heard before. For a much more eloquent and expansive review of the albums than my attempts, try the following piece by Dave Cantrell of Stereo Embers magazine:
Though it’s been an extremely difficult year for obvious reasons, the one thing that’s been a positive for me is music. Its healing power is undeniable and the way many musicians have used the down time to write and release music or be creative in playing live has been an inspiration. Especially when you bear in mind the vast majority don’t make a living from it. May 2021 bring an upturn in fortunes for all musicians and may it give music lovers everywhere the opportunity to show their appreciation. I hope you enjoy this selection of my favourites from 2020. Much love and best wishes, Dave x