It's that time of year - "Thud bash! Manically on high..." - when we give thanks for the shiny silver things that have brought us pleasure over the last twelvemonth...
ROBERT PLANT - "Lullaby and... The Ceaseless Roar" (Nonesuch)
I really admire Robert Plant for sticking to his own guns, releasing albums which wave two fingers in the direction of the tedious "When's the next Led Zeppelin reunion then?" brigade. "No, that was then... this is what I do now..." he seems to be saying, and all power to him. I suspect that he needs Led Zeppelin a lot less than they would need him, preferring to act his age, cast off the 'rock god' trappings altogether and indulge in whatever musical journey takes his fancy. With the latest line-up of Sensational Space Shifters being to all intents and purposes a virtual WOMAD house band, this album carries on where "Mighty ReArranger" left off, before Percy took a detour to do his lucrative country-crossover projects. That means mixing the rockist power chords with African instrumentation (lots of hand-percussion; various plunky lutes and fiddles with strange-sounding names; Justin Adams' grungy 'desert blues' stylings; his "JuJu" mucker Juldeh Camara), then layering some of that good old Bristol trippy-hoppy electronica on top of the whole shebang. And the occasional banjo. And some more guest vocalists. Sensational indeed!
A few words about the sleeve:- It's one of those miniature masterpieces that are intricately and expertly conceived, probably full of deep and hidden 'meaning'. Like a paragraph of "Finnegans Wake", a painting by Miro or an episode of "Twin Peaks", you can stare at it for ages, wallow in its beauty, be mightily impressed and enjoy it for what it is, but be absolutely none the wiser at the end of it... Likewise the title.
PINK FLOYD - "The Endless River" (Parlophone)
Twenty years on and a 'new' Pink Floyd album... and would you believe it!? It sounds just like Pink Floyd! Providing, of course, your idea of a good Pink Floyd record is one full of impressionistic soundtracks for lazing around in Mediterranean beach bars ("More"; "Obscured By Clouds"; "Echoes"; Richard's "Wet Dream" album; David's "On An Island"), rather than one in which Roger Waters works out his mental issues in the form of an angst-in-your-face concept album (you know the ones I mean)... I certainly know which sort I prefer! Personally, I'd have thought that this (mostly instrumental) record would be strictly "One For The Fans". There are no real surprises here and nothing to win new converts. As I said, "it sounds just like Pink Floyd". It is generally regarded as the companion piece to "The Division Bell" of '94, but there's nothing here that couldn't have just as easily appeared on the "Wish You Were Here" album of forty years ago! But what would I know about public tastes? It's zoomed straight to the top of the charts (yes, they still have those, apparently), which means you can buy your copy at any local supermarket or garage. File it under "Suitable for Sailing". I wouldn't recommend it for car journeys though - far too somniferous for that!
ENGINEERS - "Always Returning" (K-Scope)
I'll admit up front that the only way I became aware of the existence of this 'band' is because they share a record label with that Steven Wilson fellow. Given my usual saturated listening habits, 'current' bands wouldn't usually get a look in. Frankly I don't have a clue (or care) what passing fad the kids are listening to these days. But in this case, the entire thing was 'previewed' on the K-Scope Soundcloud page, giving me ample opportunity to fall in love with it before I bought a proper tangible copy of it. I'd be hard pushed to describe these chaps' music to the uninitiated - the best I could come up with is "a meeting between Pink Floyd and Scritti Pollitti"... It sounds curiously 'seventies' and 'eighties' both at the same time. One thing I can say for certain is that, as a delightfully wistful piece of prog-lite pop fusion, it pisses all over the recent Yes album!
TIM BOWNESS - "Abandoned Dancehall Dreams" (Inside Out)
MATT BERRY - "Music For Insomniacs" (Acid Jazz)
PAT MASTELOTTO & TOBIAS RALPH - "ToPaRaMa" (Unsung/Bandcamp)
TRAVIS & FRIPP - "Discretion" (DGM/Panegyric)
REGAL WORM - "Neither Use Nor Ornament: A Small Collection Of Big Suites" (Quatermass/Bandcamp)
Reissues & Back Catalogue
Of course, the big news this year in the wonderful world of nostalgia was a couple of bloody enormous KING CRIMSON box sets, "The Road To Red" and "Starless", each of which finds you mortgaging everything you own in the name of completism... should you feel, as I do, that you simply must own everything recorded by the band during those heady months between Autumn 1972 and Summer 1974. Some of it you'll want several times in multiple formats. "The Road To Red" carries a release date of 2013, so under the strict rules of "PICK'O'THE YEAR" it doesn't really count as 'this year'. I know, I know, I'm being Pedantic! What is more, I probably won't get to hear much of "Starless" until next year, because I've bought myself that for Xmas. I'm sure it's very good though ;-) So instead, what else is new in Old...?
EMMYLOU HARRIS - "Wrecking Ball" (Nonesuch)
A near-perfect album just got even better with this expanded edition... Sometime in the mid-nineties, this record changed how I felt about so-called country music for ever. Being the English suburbanite that I am, I would naturally have dismissed all C&W as being either redneck hokum or some sort of AOR-with-stetsons-on. Disgraced world music guru Andy Kershaw would enthuse on the radio about Hank Williams, I just didn't get it. Then Daniel Lanois came along, bringing the same cavernous production techniques he'd used on U2 and Peter Gabriel albums, and applying them to an album featuring one of country's most enduring 'First Ladies'... and nothing would ever be the same again. It was 'roots' music, Jim, but filtered through the rock experimentalism of Hendrix and his psychedelic contemporaries. Once I'd witnessed first hand Daniel Lanois and his power trio frighten away an entire WOMAD audience, that clinched it for me! Musical 'purists' should not apply. Twenty years on... you only have to listen to any of T-Bone Burnett or Buddy Miller's production work ("Raising Sand"; the "Nashville" soundtracks) to hear how the influence of this record has rubbed off on country music in general... and now I get it!
STEVEN WILSON - "Cover Version" (K-Scope)
No 'new' Steven Wilson album this year (We can probably expect one of those this coming Spring!), but it was nice to re-visit these tracks on a 'proper' CD at long last. SW originally issued these songs on a series of seven-inch singles, at the dawn of this century. Eventually they also became available as downloads via his website, which is where I first got to hear them. Each single consisted of a cover version (not named on the original labels) and a song from the Wilson pen. The cover versions range from Alannis Morrissette's "Thank You", which also featured in the Blackfield setlist from time to time, to The Cure's "A Forest", here given a very skeletal electronic treatment. Along the way, he covers Abba, Prince, Donovan and Momus (and a trad folk song!) in all sorts of interesting ways. Some of them are faithful to the originals, some of them... not quite so much! His own songs aren't bad either!
MILES DAVIS - "Bootleg Series Vol.3: At The Fillmore 1970" (Sony Legacy)
MAN - "All's Well That Ends Well" (Esoteric)
STICK MEN - "Power Play" (Unsung/Bandcamp)
STICK MEN - "Unleashed: Live Improvs 2013" (Unsung/Bandcamp)
JOHN WETTON & RICHARD PALMER-JAMES - "Monkey Business 1972-1997" (Primary Purpose)
FRIPP & ENO - "Live In Paris" (DGM/Panegyric)
As I went to only one gig this year, there's really not a lot of competition in this category, is there?
THE CRIMSON PROJEkcT - Shepherd's Bush Empire, 12th March 2014