Another year, and another raft of records has come and gone. Some good, some bad, some completely off the bat-shit crazy scale (did The Residents have anything out this year? I'm still recovering from hearing 'Animal Lover' back in 2005...) Rather than compile a simple top ten of 2018, here are some of the albums that ticked some slightly different boxes for me this year...
ALBUM OF THE YEAR
ARCTIC MONKEYS - "TRANQUILITY BASE HOTEL & CASINO"
My, how some bands change over the years. If you told the cheeky, loveable rogues who released 2006's 'Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not' (with it's tales of Sheffield life, mardy bums and a scummy man who featured in one of their iconic tracks) that twelve years later they'd be releasing a sci-fi themed, quasi-lounge album about a fictional space hotel, they'd have probably called you something offensive and laughed you out of the room. But that's where we are: the current stop on a journey that has seen Arctic Monkeys progress from being a mid-noughties Myspace indie-rock phenomena, progress through 'desert-rock', cooler-than-cool photo shoots and working with Queens of the Stone Age's Josh Homme. Those expecting the percussive, frantic songs that have helped define the Monkeys' previous assaults on the charts and live venues may be initially disappointed to find this is languid in the extreme. The often minimal lyrics are stretched out to fill space. There are hardly any flashy solos or showmanship on offer. Guitars take a back seat for the majority of the time. The lyrics that Alex Turner has conjured up here are still often wonderfully surreal, showing the same spark and verve for the English language as he has since their debut record, but are delivered here in a croon that would sound like he was taking the piss if it didn't suit the mood of the album so well. 'Four Out of Five' is the stand-out moment of the record, describing the rave reviews the protagonist of the song receives for opening a taco restaurant near the Clavius moon base. As you do. Closing track 'The Ultracheese' is perhaps the closest in sound (and song title) to the Arctics of old; a farewell lament with hints of 'Que Sera Sera' underpinning it. While it was a brave move of the band to progress and record the songs presented here, it was perhaps a necessary one, a jolt to the system of fans who had grown used to their style and sound. It may not be what you were expecting, but after the obligatory bedding in period, boy is it good. Hidden depths are exposed on repeat listenings, minute layers of detail that are pulled away like veils; the eureka moment when you finally "get" what the group had in mind and everything clicks. Is it pretentious? Possibly. Is it slightly up their own arse? Oh yes. But in doing so, in having the brass bollocks to release an album like this shows the band aren't afraid to embrace a new way of working, of ditching the choruses and rhyming couplets and creating something that feels - initially - unfamiliar and alien, but at the same time makes perfect sense. After all, how could an album with a song called 'The World's First Ever Monster Truck Front Flip' not?
HIGHLIGHTS: Star Treatment/Golden Trunks/Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino/Four Out of Five
QUIRKIEST ALBUM OF THE YEAR
LUKE HAINES - "I SOMETIMES DREAM OF GLUE"
It seems Haines is Mr. Productivity at the moment, releasing eleven albums in the past decade alone. Free of the shackles of being in a 'traditional' band (as he was in the early 90s with The Auteurs, and in the late 90s/early 00s with Black Box Recorder), he was able to dedicate his energies into crafting fantastical, pseudo-concept albums about such diverse subject matter as talking animals, British nuclear bunkers, caravan holidays and the golden era of British wrestling. Admitting that he is practically a "cottage industry" who records and releases albums to keep himself happy and bugger everyone else, its refreshing to be a fan of someone who takes so much joy in being this prolific, preferring to stick an album out every year than keep people waiting three or four for their latest album. Some may question the quality of these annual releases, but in the case of '...Glue' (or any Luke Haines solo effort, in fact) they needn't worry. It's almost as if Haines writes the ideas for his albums as short stories, which are then crafted into the individual songs that make up the LP. For this album, Haines imagines a commune of tiny people formed when an experimental substance invented to end all wars is spilt on the roadside, and who are addicted to sniffing glue and are almost constantly horny. Oh, and they also have a fixation with the programme 'Michael Bentine's Potty Time', naturally. We said it was quirky...Merging ideas from the likes of 'The Wicker Man', children's fairytales and public shagging into the narrative, the tracks never outstay their welcome (most pop in and say toodle-pip by the two minute mark) and err on the side of folk-like whimsy for the most part, with vocals and all instrumentation handled by Haines himself (he also plays a mean flute). As with his 'Rock 'n' Roll Animals' album a few years back, this is a short affair, lasting just over 30mins, but almost feels like the soundtrack to some subversive stop-motion children's animation that never got made - 'Camberwick Green' for the Bostik generation, perhaps.
HIGHLIGHTS: Angry Man on a Small Train/Oh Michael/I Fell in Love with an 00 Scale Wife
MOST WELCOME RETURN OF THE YEAR
SARAH NIXEY - "NIGHT WALKS"
Continuing the Black Box Recorder theme, Sarah Nixey (she was their main vocalist) made a more than welcome return to the world of music this year with her first solo album since 2011's 'Brave Tin Soldiers'. Written during a period where Nixey suffered with insomnia, the album features a whole cast of characters existing in a strange sub-world where the responsibilities and dangers of reality are neatly side-stepped. Dream-like fantasy merges with the perils of modern life, and On 'Coming Up for Air', a mother sings to a seemingly suicidal offspring, urging them to take her hand and be rescued, Nixey's voice retaining the sexy, wispish, breathy quality it had since her days with Black Box Recorder. The album was recorded with her husband and producer Jimmy Hogarth, with just a hint of the electronica that made her previous band so appealing. The subject matter on the LP is certainly diverse, covering broken communities and slums ('Merry England'), burning lovers meeting their end in airships ('Zeppelin'). A number of tracks appear to be about the allure and dangers of city nightlife and evading responsibility through your vices - a desperate state for the characters who inhabit Nixey's vision, but one you hope may improve. 'Planet of Dreams', the album closer, is a fine track to end with, summoning a feeling of both night-time terror and the promise that things will get better for all concerned. It sounds cruel to suggest that perhaps Nixey's prolonged insomnia was a fine source of inspiration, but when the end result is as good as this, it surely makes it all seem worth it. Sweet dreams, Sarah, and here's to more solo material in the future!
HIGHLIGHTS: Planet of Dreams/Love is Blue/Neon Moon
REISSUE OF THE YEAR
KATE BUSH - "REMASTERED"
Formed of two CD box sets and four vinyl sets, 'Remastered' is the first time that all of Bush's studio albums, ranging from her 1978 debut 'The Kick Inside' to 2011's '50 Words for Snow', have been given a thorough spit and polish. Her 2011 album 'Director's Cut' was the closest we got to such a project previously - that LP featured re-recordings of selected tracks from her past (with a collector's edition featuring 'The Sensual World' album in full as well as an analogue remastering of 'The Red Shoes'). As an appendix to the original albums, a number of rarities are included in the second of the reissued sets covering her later work, including five 12" mixes, a selection of B-sides and cover versions. Whilst pricey, the sets are the only place to obtain the rarities, unless of course you own them from the historic CD and vinyl releases back in the day. There's something about having an artists' complete back catalogue in striking, neat-looking box sets that makes collectors quiver, and it has to be said the Bush boxes are quite possibly the most anticipated for some time - regardless of the extra material on offer. Of course, there's no pleasing everyone, and the notable omissions of some of the rarer songs or vintage live performances will irk some. But to experience the work of a true trend-setter, who was unfairly branded "weird" for most of her career, in sets such as this really is a treat and brings a new appreciation of her music. With such a large body of work, there are some inevitable stumbles, but for the majority this is a stellar discography of memorable, influential, catchy, haunting and sublime songs. The 'Ninth Wave' suite on side two of 'The Hounds of Love' is quite rightly regarded as one of her masterpieces - so much so that it was performed in its entirety for the 'Before the Dawn' run of shows she performed in 2014. But even in her later years, Bush is still dialling up the strange, the evocative and the beautiful, including another song suite on 'Aerial' (this time examining the comings and goings of a summer's day and night) and the almost conceptual nature of her most recent LP '50 Words for Snow', each song taking place in a different snowy landscape. If you can't afford the complete box sets (and they are a hefty whack, approximately £150 for the CDs, and £320 for the vinyl), perhaps now is an ideal chance to pick up her past studio albums on the cheap and immerse yourself in the unrivalled talent of one of Britain's true musical treasures? You won't regret it!
HIGHLIGHTS: Wuthering Heights/The Kick Inside/Wow/Babooshka/Army Dreamers/Suspended in Gaffa/Cloudbusting/And Dream of Sheep/Watching You Without Me/Running Up That Hill/This Woman's Work/Top of the City/Rubberband Girl/Lily/How to be Invisible/Pi/Lake Tahoe/50 Words for Snow
UNEXPECTED GEM OF THE YEAR
LADY GAGA/BRADLEY COOPER - "A STAR IS BORN: OST"
Admit it, the idea of a Bradley Cooper (the actor - from the likes of 'The Hangover', 'Limitless' and 'American Hustle') album probably doesn't stir much in the way of positive vibes, in much the same way a live gig by TV presenter Nick Knowles doesn't. Add the Marmite vocals of Lady Gaga and you potentially have an album that you'd vow to never listen to as long as you have breath in your lungs. For those not in the know, the album is the soundtrack to the modern-day remake of the Kris Kristofferson and Barbra Streisand rock movie that came out back in the 1970s (which itself was a remake!). There's a real mixture of musical styles on offer here, from the tender emotion of Gaga's tracks such as 'Remember Us This Way' and 'I'll Never Love Again', with songs like 'Heal Me' and 'Look What I Found' feeling as if they could almost be from a new solo record. 'Maybe It's Time' is a great country-rock ballad, and 'Shallow' (which, for all intents and purposes, was the lead single from the movie soundtrack) showcases both Gaga and Cooper in a lovely duet. It was perhaps necessary that Gaga reigned in the surreal persona she adopts for a lot of her work, and this comes across in both her acting and also her vocal performance on the album. Likewise with Cooper - yes, he voice trained for eighteen months in preparation for the role, but you can't take away how good his voice sounds, and how suited to the whole project it is. Looks like a solo recording career for him may not be such an outlandish idea after this album...
HIGHLIGHTS: Shallow/Maybe It's Time/Diggin' My Grave/Alibi
NERDIEST ALBUM OF THE YEAR
MATT BERRY - "TELEVISION THEMES"
Actor-cum-musician Matt Berry is a busy boy most of the time, appearing in a whole host of TV comedy, lending his voice to adverts and somehow finding the time to squeeze in the recording of a number of albums over the past few years with his backing band, The Maypoles. After his solo efforts 'Kill the Wolf', 'Music for Insomniacs', a live album and 'The Small Hours' comes a more straight-forward cover versions set, although not of bands and artists Berry reveres, but rather TV theme tunes. Focusing mainly on the hey-day of the seventies and eighties, a raft of classic and hummable themes are included here, all given that special twist by Matt. Like a modern day Mike Oldfield, Berry plays the majority of instruments here as well as arranging the music, assisted ably by members of The Maypoles on some tracks. There's a good mix here too, some fairly obvious and recognisable ('The Good Life', 'Rainbow' - all the more poignant following the death of presenter Geoffrey Hayes), 'Blankety Blank', 'The Liver Birds', 'Doctor Who' etc.) and some less obvious ('Wildtrak' was a show I wasn't immediately familiar with) and he even manages to shoehorn in some of the brass-heavy old-school TV idents for companies such as London Weekend Television, Thames Television and the musical motif that signalled the 'Open University' programmes. Despite being a labour of love for someone influenced by the television of his youth, the album has actually been one of Berry's biggest sellers - it seems some people can't get enough of the themes to 'Sorry!' and 'Top of the Pops' (the one that used Phil Lynott's synth-and-vocoder spectacular 'Yellow Pearl' in case you were wondering). The initial pressings of the vinyl version came on a rather pleasant orange LP signed by Mr. Berry if you got in quick enough, and while there wasn't a specific tour to mark the album's release, Berry is well known for using TV themes as segues and interludes during his live performances (including the 'World in Action' theme). A lovely little slice of nostalgia in a time when we're all too obsessed with downloads, streaming and, God-forbid, 'The X Factor'...
HIGHLIGHTS: Rainbow/Doctor Who/Blankety Blank/Top of the Pops
BOX SET OF THE YEAR
THE LEAGUE OF GENTLEMEN - "SPECIAL STUFF - THE LEAGUE OF GENTLEMEN'S VINYL CUTS"
It's frankly astounding that the box set of the year title goes to an act not known for their musical endeavours (save the excellent 'Voodoo Lady'). Comedy stalwarts The League of Gentlemen continue their fine work they began with the 2017 comeback Christmas special episodes with this chunky 12LP box set that features their original 1997 radio comedy series in full, spread over three LPs (an episode per side of vinyl). The three BBC television series are also featured, with the audio of said episodes lovingly pressed onto splendid coloured LPs. Needless to say, it helps if you are a long-time fan of the series and therefore familiar with the show; the visual gags might confuse first-time listeners wondering why there are periods of random laughter punctuating the proceedings. This is playfully referenced in the liner notes, where writer Jeremy Dyson wonders why someone would want to own something like this, and theatre group leader character Olly Plimsoles remarks that prior knowledge of their material may be beneficial. The set is lavish; four gatefold LP packages contain the LPs, with each member of the team writing about the radio series or the TV series specific to that LP set. Also included is a one-sided 7" of the Creme Brulee single 'Voodoo Lady' (the song the hapless musician Les McQueen is "famous" for in the show), with an etching on the B-side. Four art prints featuring the cover illustrations by the artist Graham Humphreys are provided, and the limited first run of the immense set (seriously, the postie will be cursing you when they have to deliver this) also comes with a signed photo print of the League, which would doubtless look lovely framed. Some wonder why the live shows and anniversary episodes were not included here (cost? Size of the set?) but what is included is presented amazingly well. True, it's a curio and one for hard-core 'Gentlemen' fans, but at around the £130 mark, it's not actually that badly priced for 12 LPs, a bonus 7", a signed photo and some fantastic prints. Rather than there being "nothing for you here!", there's positively tonnes to enjoy.
HIGHLIGHTS: A Guest at the Dentons/Series 1, Episode 1/Series 2, Episode 6/Series 3, Episode 1
BELATED - 'THE MATRIX'-AND-'STRANGER THINGS'-THEMED-ALBUM OF THE YEAR
MUSE - "SIMULATION THEORY"
Coming three years after their brooding, ultra-serious concept album 'Drones' , Teignmouth's finest release their eighth studio album in the form of 'Simulation Theory', which saw it's first single released a full eighteen months before the "parent" record was actually came out. To be perfectly frank, 'Dig Down' wasn't the best choice of a single to lead off the album (it was their most disappointing new material since the Olympics tie-in song 'Survival'), sounding as it does like a bizarre mash-up of a remix of their own song 'Madness' crossed with a version of 'Faith' that George Michael probably discarded early on in the song's development (no offence, George, God rest your soul). It's by no means Muse's best album ever, however it does have its highlights. Album opener 'Algorithm', with its burbling synth lines, hard-hitting electronic beats, piano trembles and hints of Queen is suitably over-the-top, melodramatic fun, and this feel is reflected in the closing number 'The Void', which at times wishes it could be part of the 'Stranger Things' soundtrack, but doesn't suffer at all in doing so. The tracks listeners were familiar with prior to the album's release ('Thought Contagion', 'Something Human' and 'The Dark Side' - as well as most recent single 'Pressure') are perhaps the best tracks on offer here, with things coming slightly off the rails with the cringy power-ballad misfire 'Get Up and Fight', 'Break It to Me' (which just seems like filler) and the wannabe protest-anthem 'Blockades'. 'Propaganda', with its stuttering vocal refrain, breathy vocals and Prince-esque guitar licks, shows they can indulge their R 'n' B groove when they want to, but is hardly a genre-busting classic - after all, we heard similar (and better) on 'Supermassive Black Hole' back in 2006. The biggest moans I've heard personally from fans is that this record has ditched the riffs, the head-banging rock gems and the flair that make Muse one of the best live acts going - it's very synth-heavy (parts of 'The Void' sound like a Jean Michel Jarre composition), and despite the theme of us being trapped in a computer-generated, simulated world, the tracks don't really gel together as well as they should in terms of telling a story. It feels like a concept album without a fully-formed back story, as if parts of the plot are missing in action. The whole ethos of the album just seems a little too late to make a proper impact - pop-culture moments such as 'Blade Runner', 'The Matrix' and 'Stranger Things' are all fine to reference, but there's very much a sense of "been there, done that". The deluxe CD/vinyl edition takes things further, with spiffing clear vinyl LPs, some great 'Star Wars' and 'Stranger Things' style artwork and ten bonus tracks - unfortunately not brand new music, but reworkings of the album tracks in various styles. Some of these work excellently (the stripped down take on 'The Dark Side' - both with and without vocals, an orchestral 'Algorithm' and a piano-led 'The Void'). Some are fine alternate versions (a gospel choir on 'Dig Down', a live 'Thought Contagion', an American college brass-band version of 'Pressure'), but some are just a bit wonky (a crap remix of the so-so 'Break It to Me' and 'Something Human' and 'Propaganda' performed acoustically, neither of which fail to either add or take away anything from the originals). Saying this, the 2019 live shows will doubtless be spectacular, and Matt will very likely have a new guitar that he'll probably play via remote control. Or it will take off by itself and zoom around the stadium while he cranks out the solo of 'Plug In Baby' on a Kaoss Pad or something. There will likely be lasers. But after taking everything into consideration, one thing is for sure. 'Dig Down' is still shit.
HIGHLIGHTS: Algorithm/The Dark Side/Pressure/The Void
BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT OF THE YEAR
PLAN B - "HEAVEN BEFORE ALL HELL BREAKS LOOSE"
It all seemed to be going so well for Plan B (aka Ben Drew). An explicit, acoustic-guitar heavy debut album that showed his chops as a serious UK rapper. A follow-up album that confounded all expectation and showed that he was actually a pretty fucking decent blue-eyed-soul singer who could appeal to the mums as well as creating a cracking concept album. A film ('Ill Manors') written and directed by him, with his third LP serving as the soundtrack, which featured a damn fine turn by the original punk poet John Cooper Clarke. And then...nothing. Plan B seemingly ceased to be. A mooted sequel to 'The Defamation of Strickland Banks' failed to materialise after Drew admitted he'd grown bored of the creation and was "sick of seeing himself everywhere". Which direction would he go in next? What would his new material sound like? In the end, it sounds like even he wasn't particularly sure. 'Heaven Before All Hell Breaks Loose' is apparently influenced by science fiction; the album cover shows an enormous planet apparently about to collide with Earth, much like in Lars Von Trier's hypnotic yet really quite depressing move 'Melancholia'. The problem here is the "comeback" album which promised so much after so long away from the limelight (six years) never really makes an impact. In that sense, it's the polar opposite of two planets colliding - more two wet flannels slapping against a brick wall. In the time he was away, it almost feels like Plan B forgot what his purpose was, and came limping back with a "will this do" collection of songs that, essentially, were OK, but didn't set the world on fire as he perhaps anticipated. There's no real vigour or ear-worm moments, no quotable, memorable lyrics or tunes that leave you wanting more. Lead single 'Heartbeat' didn't showcase a new, bold change of direction, but neither did it stick with the tried and tested sound he'd worked so hard to craft in the past. Instead, it was stuck somewhere in between, a light-weight, safe limbo that was neither here nor there, and felt like a tribute act to himself. Maybe it was Drew's physical appearance that had a part to play in this feeling that he'd forgotten who he was - with a new haircut, a vast drop in weight and the application of some strange white face paint - the purpose of which nobody really knows - he looked completely different to the slightly podgy rapper who actually managed to make himself look quite the dapper chappy in his Strickland Banks phase. Whatever the reason, something happened during those six long years that meant he'd lost whatever firing power he'd possessed during his trifecta of impressive albums that had gone before. On this evidence, it'll be a long, hard slog to get back to his place at the top of the mountain.
HIGHLIGHTS: We've yet to find one...
AUDIO DRAMA OF THE YEAR
'THE COMING OF THE MARTIANS' BY SHERWOOD SOUND STUDIOS
Directed by Lisa Bowerman and adapted from the original H.G. Wells novel by Nick Scovell, this 90-minute audio drama isn't technically an album, but was felt worthy of praise amongst the other releases featured here. Starring the likes of Colin Morgan (of 'Merlin' and 'Humans' fame on TV), Nigel Lindsay ('Four Lions', 'Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa'), Dan Starkey and Olivia Poulet, this is a very different, but no less stellar, than the world-famous Jeff Wayne musical version from the 1970s. That in itself was part audio drama, merged with the orchestral, disco and plain eerie melodies that linked the action. While there is less incidental music here, the action unfolds more in line with the novel (which featured different characters - the journalist's brother, for example), rather than veering off on musical interludes to explain what is going on. Initially, the lack of narration or voiceover (except in certain circumstances) can be disorienting for the listener, trying to work out which character is which (there's little of the hand-holding exposition featured in daytime radio dramas) but sticking with this amazing production certainly reaps the rewards. If you're *REALLY* not familiar with the tale (there's a clue in the title, folks), it places us in the before, during and after of a Martian attack back in the 1890s. A young journalist is caught up in the bedlam, and journeys across the country with a beleaguered artilleryman (the excellent Lindsay) who shows shades of PTSD caused by the whole affair to reach safety. The overall tone of 'The Coming of the Martians' (the use of the 'War of the Worlds' title was prevented due to trademark issues) is extremely dark; there's no punches pulled in terms of how characters treat each other (whereas in Wayne's musical version, the character of the Curate/the Parson was ultimately a pitiful figure who we felt sorry for - here he's viewed as very much an annoyance who nearly gets the main character killed, and thus is seen as expendable) and the violence and depiction of the alien destruction is very much dialled up. There's a certain fun to be had in identifying which parts of the story equate to the songs in the Jeff Wayne version ("oh, 'Dead London' will start up in a second..."), but to compare the two projects is ultimately wrong, and each deserves to be judged on their own merit. Add a 5.1 Surround Sound mix to the proceedings - as well as a raft of bonus material if you plump for the USB stick or DVD versions, and you have an atmospheric, powerful, emotive piece of drama that comes heartily recommended, sci-fi fan or not.
This feature was lovingly crafted by Pete Muscutt