10. Working Mens Club
Let’s face facts. It’s a terrible name. Not Elbow like terrible, or The Beatles like terrible. Maybe just Shame or, God help us, Slaves like terrible. Working Men’s Club is a terrible name. Is it meant as a homage to life spent in a northern town or something smarter than that? There are great bands with awful names and vice versa. That’s the deal with popular music.
The band may have had bands with far better names in mind when fashioning their bold and brittle debut. ‘Travelogue’ era Human League, the Euro-swagger of Simple Minds circa ‘Empires and Dance’, the detachment of Daniel Miller’s The Normal and an always welcome slice of Cabaret Voltaire. ‘Dour northerners?’ Oh, you really can’t please some people.
All of this is evident on the robust opener ‘Valleys’ – it’s layers of dark synth pop, stomach trembling bass and modified vocals shouldn’t lead you on to the dance floor, but this does so effortlessly. The surreal repetitions of ‘A.A.A.A’ mix with manic yelps lead into the gloomy disco of the splendid ‘John Cooper Clarke’ and the post punk funk of ‘White Rooms and People’. The only place on this album where lazy comparisons with Bernard Sumner have any resonance.
Of the ten songs that make up this album, it’s the skyscraping invention of the twelve minute closer ‘Angel’ that hints at what an exuberant and intoxicating live act the band are. We hope and hope to see them perform on stage one day. Until then, their records will just have to do.
9. IKLAN - Album Number 1
For very good reasons, I'd imagined 2020 would be a vintage year for music and yet the results, now here to hear, have been routinely nugatory. As reliably manufactured and predictable as the contents of a branded can of tomato soup, ringpulled open and gently splashed into the pot. Few artists took the opportunity to give us something we have not had from them before. More of the same nothingness whether you want it or not. I was wrong to expect more, I keep mistaking pop music for art, pop musicians for artists, I always will. Given the business cycle, the music business cycle, maybe 2021 should see some of the greatest releases of all time? The music, in a non-product-y way, the product of our parasympathetic nervous systems that in 2020 were never switched off. I'll be listening, and I feel pretty sure, upon hearing IKLAN's Album Number 1, one of the most ambitious and entertaining records of 2020, that IKLAN will be among those pushing all of our musical buttons and boundaries in 2021.
Philosophically tuned in, IKLAN left their perfect pop singles off an album which then runs unfettered by the old collective rules for 23 wholly marvellous minutes. The singles, the sumptuous Big Bear (omg! The most played song at next years' WeHo Halloween parade & simultaneously Bearwood's new national anthem...) and Have You Met Stanley could come from St. Etienne mixing it up in the ring with the Slits or Big Joanie, Pop music gets bruised; and in RockTheHouse, IKLAN had the single most insistent insidious druggy paranoia floorfiller of this Berlin year. Before you ask, that is a category in our end of year poll.
While the majority of the lead vocals are exquisitely handled by Law Holt, Album Number 1 is very definitely leaning heavily on the squad system. Layers of layered vocals come from sisters Pauline and Jacqui Cuff who'd been working with chief button pusher, sonic controller Timothy London on and off for a while. The result is audibly confrontational. Clothing and graphics designers and writers round out the team. On Bandcamp the record came with a gorgeously produced situationalist magazine.
I love the records that I can drive through empty cities at night and Album Number 1, smattered through with a sequinned sequenced primitive early 80s electronica... a blob of Blancmange here, a glob of Grace Jones there, the glitzy grit of Goldfrapp... Elsewhere... just does it for me. At night. Car in Drive. Skyscrapers speeding by. What's not to love.
One of my favorite things I ever read in a review was of Tricky's Christiansands... "perhaps this is the sound Lee Harvey Oswald heard in his head as he lined up three bullets for JFK..." Something like that... In the end, Album Number 1 was the only record I put on repeat all year. All the while trying to figure out what the hell just happened. - Ancient Champion
8. Women in Music Part III – HAIM
It’s not often that I’m forced to delve into my Neil Diamond playlists (yes, that’s a plural), but the opening number on HAIM’s fabulous third album had me doing just that.
Women in Music Part III’s opener ‘Los Angeles’ follows disillusioned Danielle as she grows distant to the city she was raised in and, even at one point, looking to the alternative and recalling time spent in New York, the ‘supposed greatest city in the world’ and only remembering how cold the winters are there.
Suddenly the spectre of silk shirted Neil appears with his observations form the early seventies ‘LA’s fine but it ain’t home, New York’s home but it ain’t mine no more’ (‘I am, I said’) and it feels like a mirror is being held up.
Just as Neil was conversing with his therapist’s chair and reflecting on his own loneliness, so the HAIM sisters are now presenting an album that delves into feelings of isolation, grief and the knotty territory of broken relationships. And, much like their MOR predecessor, HAIM could deliver all of their angst wrapped up as perfect singalong pop.
Take the single ‘The Steps’ as an example, it sounds like a chant a ong anthem but, in truth, the singer is exhausted from trying to repair a crumbling relationship where the partner has just given up. The anger at the injustice is dominant throughout. The toxic mix of ruined relationships and depression mix with the pulsing bass and funky guitar on the single ‘Now I’m in It’
Not wanting to sign off a negative note, the smouldering ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ sax (there’s a song writing credit to Lou Reed) of closer ‘Summer Girl is a genuine uplift. There’s a deliberate lift from Joni Mitchell, a plea for equality in a relationship (‘walk beside me, not behind me). And the final acknowledgement that arriving back home, they are in their favourite place, forget that initial alienation, as another local songwriter noted ‘I Love LA'.
7. Walking Like We Do – The Big Moon
There’s a handful of albums on a much-used streaming site that are gathered together under the banner of ‘It’s Going to be OK’. Marching to the front of this list is the Big Moon’s big move forward – their second album ‘Walking Like We Do’
It’s an odd banner, possibly the category of ‘trying to make sense of your life in a world gone to shit’ had already been taken. Lead single and opening track ‘It’s Easy Then’ may be one of the few songs about social anxiety (‘I walk into a room and forget why…I’m waiting for the piano to fall’ etc), whilst ‘Dog Eat Dog’ paints a realist picture of modern life (‘There’s always someone out there screwing somebody, but we only see the things we want to see’). But there’s a dry humour that runs through these songs that makes rising out of the more seem achievable.
But it’s the sweet harmonies, elevating guitars and (lead songwriter), Juliette Jackson’s frequently droll but hugely perceptive lyrics of ‘Your Light’ that is the greatest pick-me-up on this record. It’s a song that encourages ditching your troubles and what’s more, it has a delightfully daft video to accompany it. Unsurprisingly, that streaming site also informs me that it’s my most played track of the year.
Maybe, just maybe, it’s going to be okay after all.
the main image on this page... Law Holt from IKLAN, by Zeinab Batchelor