Is it that time of year already? Did I say that last year? It seems only nine months ago when the release of a decent album in 2017 seemed as likely as transgender politics not being divisive. Then there was a flurry of releases, which saw more money leaving the wallet than the latest EU demand. As ever it would appear that in answer to the last song on the recent Killers album Have all the songs been written? The answer is no, they haven’t.
One of the worst things about aging, apart from not taking sugar in your tea, is watching new bands flinging about gender fluidity to derivative new wave pop as though they’re the first ones to truly understand Bowie, clearly ignorant to the thousand of bands who’ve already done the same thing since 1976. I’m not sure when bands became so conformist, but for someone they all fight to hate, Trump seems the biggest influence on pop music since the Beatles.
For anyone still listening, the album of the year is easily GENTS. This is a band everyone falling in love with pop’s bedsit heroes Pet Shop Boys in 1986 has been waiting for. At least that’s what I told the band, several times, until was dragged from their dressing room after a rare live gig in east London.
Gents – About Time
They are frustratingly un-Google-able, but once you get past listings for barbers and a Yorkshire band of the same name you find lustful imagining of neon urban nights, with the sort of wistful dream-pop that shuns irony by aiming straight for the heart. They’re a classic synth duo, with singer Niels Fejrskov Juhls adding guitar to unfeasible tall partner Theis Vesterlokke’s synth stabs and ambient washes. They’ve already released an EP, and About Time is a stunning collection of understated electronica. And TUNES.
Few enough bands nail it; even fewer hammer it home with the ease of GENTS. It’s the suburban blues that never needed guitars. It’s as raw and romantic as the Pet Shop Boys in their innocent prime. GENTS are utterly perfect.
Shout Out Louds – Ease My Mind
GENTS are not the only scandi-pop to feature, as it was also the return of these lovable indie disco moppets. This album was in the list before I’d even heard it. In fact ever since the sublime Optica of 2013. Four years is a long time to wait for a band that barely charts their own Sweden, much less London, but a new Shout Out Louds LP has been sorely needed. Contemporaries of the Strokes and Magic Numbers, they’ve never fully crossed over, but Capital radio’s loss has been intimate gigs with resplendent cowbell breakdowns and stage invasions gain. From the epic romance of Jumbo Jet to the hopeful No Logic it’s a master class in harmonies and the bitter / sweet vagaries of love. For any fans of the Cure’s poppier moments, or the effortless melodies of Steve Mason or the Concretes they are not to be missed.
War on drugs – Deeper Understanding
So, here’s an album you might actually find on NME’s yearly list. There’s been no better album this year for the open road. This is dad rock at its best. All hypnotic jams that remarkably maintain focus, propelling rhythms and searing guitar solos. It’s perfect for that wanderlust, the soundtrack to the imaginary road, as you press your foot-to-the-floor, gently, as you leave for Co-op after dropping the kids off at school. It has that immaculate production of John Hughes and Stranger Things. It’s Neil Young’s Harvest gorged on Phil Collins and Dire Straits.
Charlatans – Different Days
So, this is a bit cooler. The evergreen Charlatans, who tragically lost their drummer in 2013. This is not Dad rock, but Dad dance. On this LP they have dispensed with recent albums sounding like New Order to actually recruit their drummer Stephen Morris on several songs (along with Peter Salisbury from the Verve). From the gently plucked guitars of the Balearic opener Hey Sun Rise we find baggy shuffle and sultry organs all present and correct, with added handclaps and sunshine.
The unmistakable chime of Johnny Marr follows the Spoken word of Future Tense by Ian Rankin on Machinery. It’s a good tune, albeit drawn from a stronger place than Marr’s own workman-like solo LPs. But it’s side two that soars, with the scat backing vocals of There will be chances and the loping Over Again mingling the synth flourishes of New Order’s Gillian Gilbert with funk. It’s unlikely, but it’s probably their best album yet.
Cut copy – Haiku from Zero
Their last album Free your mind was such a shameless celebration of Italo-disco and rave that it was hard to look in the eye the following day. It was a flawless shiny masterpiece and quite adrift from the scratchy indie disco of their earlier years. There was barely a guitar in sight behind the breaking banks of synths and piano. This is a retrench to their indie roots, while not entirely losing eye contact with that night. While there’s nothing quite so ecstatic as Heart’s on fire, it’s a slow burning masterpiece.
Killers – Wonderful Wonderful
The new wave abandonment of Out of my mind is a surprising highlight, as it cheerily echoes the synths of Mr Brightside. It’s more throwaway than they’ve recent dared and it works. Meanwhile there’s a dusty bar room band somewhere missing the Calling as its late night sleaze set closer. You can almost hear the bottles spinning through the air before a car park brawl and home to bed. But it’s splashed with enough electronic flourishes to maintain its pose.
There’s a blur developing between Flowers’ solo albums and the Killers, but if Wonderful wonderful is the sound of a crisis in confidence then there’s more fuel in the band’s tank than recent problems suggest.
Some other honorary mentions –
The Horrors also mined the 80s with the enthusiasm that the 80s mined the 60s. It’s a schizoid album of discordant guitars and blemish-free synths. XX was easy to admire, but hard to love, while Rag n Bone Man appeared to have studied Adele and the cross-generational appetite for safe modern soul. Meanwhile, for Future Islands – the Far Field redefined more of the same. They have always succeeded in making no lead guitar, indecipherable lyrics and never varying tempo interesting, as their recent live shows demonstrated, but there was the sense that even the band knew they were treading water in following up the perfect Islands album.
Unlikely Song of the Year – Shake it on – by Jamiroquai – who’d have thought it. A thoroughly modern shimmer through electro synths that the once west London jazz-funkateer might have once baulked at. If guilty pleasures even exist then this its definition.
And book of the year is of course the Life Assistance Agency – thanks to all who have reviewed it, and if not then please do – the more the better.
The Life Assistance Agency – selected by WHSmith Fresh Talent 2017 – is available here – – http://myBook.to/lifeassistance
A farcical road trip around Europe. ‘This is what would happen if the Blues Brothers went on a search for the Holy Grail.’
and on ebook here –