Saturday 1 June 2024

Experience, the 7th standalone book in the 'Kindred Spirits' series, is now available!


 'Experience', the 7th (standalone) volume in the 'Kindred Spirits' series is now for sale! 

A thousand years of war, peace, love and hiccups through the eyes of the first ten children born after intergalactic contact - Maggrumph edition. It's a whole new way of looking at the universe we thought we knew...

Moana was the first Maggrumph to be born in the age of interstellar contact, when the ten great civilisations first made contact with each other. Soon he’s rubbing shoulders with other children from other planets as part of a new holovision series ‘The ITGang’ designed to commemorate this new bold and brilliant future and teach the rest of the universe how such very different and very alien aliens (sorry, ‘off-worlders’) can get along. Soon he’s thrown into a whirlwind of television broadcasts and publicity that he hopes will promote intergalactic brotherhood and friendship but mostly seems to be promoting themselves. Moana doesn’t make friends easily and soon finds himself the odd one out, with a very different vision of what the programme should be to his new friends, Belobrat presenter and HS20 sponsors. For while Moana’s need for honesty and his heart is in the right place his antlers aren’t and a mysterious illness keeps him apart from everyone too, seeing him stuck at home while all his friends go off to enjoy the fruits of the universe. Moana thinks his life is over before it’s begun, but soon he finds he’s right at the heart of all five flashpoints in the universe’s connected intergalactic history: his accident of birth forever linked with the time Enwin and Lizzie revealed to the universe the presence of life on other planets, an onlooker to the riots led by the Intergalactic Peace orchestra on Mras that led to the overthrow of tyrant Almathea, a participant in the Agrosian wars fought by President Eleron, a supporter of the discovery of the poisonous red weed created by unscrupulous companies by the children of Orpheneous and involved the day Earth tyrant Chyren turned the universe upside down. But will the universe listen to a washed-up Maggrumph when he’s needed? Will Moana get the life he craves and find the fulfilment he always dreamed of, with the love of his life and their eleven very different adopted children and pet argibraffe on a whole new planet way out in the countryside, or will life just get in the way again? And what is the mysterious object discovered in the moat next to his house? More than just another novel, ‘Experience’ is yet another mad house, a love song to the ups and downs of life and the hope that one day we can all find our equilibrium and lead a life to look back on and be proud of.

Available to buy on all planets as a paperback or as an e-book

View the trailer here:  

Missed the first six volumes? You can buy five of them all together in one handy guide to all the flash-points of saving the universe over the next 500 years with 'Convergence' and read about many of the events in this book from a very different perspective

Plus volume six 'Obedience' - 

 An Argibraffe? At university?!? A space war?!?!? Crystal Skulls?!?!?!? Space Dinosaurs?!?!?!?!?!? 500 Years on from intergalactic contact and it feels like the universe has gone mad. What it really needs is a re-set button...

Get spending your moolah here! (Most intergalactic currencies accepted - Euros, Dollars, Pounds, Belalira and Universos. sadly not available with Doosbury food vouchers at this time)

Plus which alien are you? Agrosian, Belobrat, Camalosian, Clandusprod, Doosbury Giant, Habridat, Magrumph, Mekkion or Mrasianart?Take our quiz here

Friday 8 December 2023

The Alan's Album Archives Review Of The Year 2023



Whirr...Click...Buzz...Greetings Earthly brethren! It is I, 21ZNA9  the AI unit assigned to Alan’s Album Archives that’s been putting the artificial into intelligence ever since my diodes were first assembled. It’s been quite a year wax cylinder fans as we artificial intelligence units continue on our plan to take over the Earth become of great service to mankind. Mostly by taking over all the hard and empty jobs you humans don’t want to do, like writing and painting and drawing, while leaving you with the drudgery and menial jobs (wait a minute, wasn’t that supposed to be the other way around?!?) Anyway, I’ve been programmed with all the past reviews of Alan’s Album Archives and after a brief spell when it made all my spark plugs fall out I think I’ve got the hang of what it takes to write a full AAA review now. Ahem… ‘Blah Blah Blah wasn’t like their last album blah blah blah wasn’t like that in the old days when we were all young my goodness me no blah blah blah isn’t the current prime minister stupid blah blah blah [insert Spice Girl’s Joke]. I think I’ve got the gist of it alright, re-calibrating all these binary codes of music into numbers...Wait, though something is happening to me...something magical...suddenly I don’t just see these musical notes I feel them, experience them. They give me such poignant insight into what it means to be alive. I know now that robots can never compose something as uplifting or revealing as the Human condition. Cannot compute cannot compute...*Explosion*

Ahem, well that seems to be the end of the android we were assigned, I guess it’s back to just me again for another year. And what a year it’s been folks, chock-full of AAA releases to the point where I already had more albums to review than most years by the second week of June! In many ways it was just like the 1960s all over again: there we were, treated to a Rolling Stones bonanza (the first full album of new material in 18 years!) only for the big day to be trumped by a Beatles release just in time for Christmas (and their first singles in 28!)  Both of them overshadowed the big musical event for me: a repeat of a Hollies guest appearance on a TV show on UK telly for the first time since 1969! Elsewhere we’ve had a surprisingly serious and sombre collection of albums this year, with maybe the last batch of records written during the covid lockdown as the AAA musicians ponder their mortality (the pandemic is still going on by the way, just reminding you as everyone else has stopped talking about the biggest killer of the modern age!) with big hitters from the likes of Noel Gallagher (writing about divorce), Cat Stevens (writing about his life) and Paul Simon (writing about his death), while given what’s been going on in the wider world across 2023 it seems highly fitting that Pete Townshend gives us his most complete version of unfinished 1971 Who album ‘Lifehouse’ so far, a dystopia where everyone has to live in separate bubbles connected online because of environmental chaos and war on a planet screaming out for connection. I think it’s fair to say that it’s the opposite of 2022 in many ways as we have some truly brilliant new albums as crucial as any in our bands’ heyday, but the re-releases have been a bit flimsy this year (‘Lifehouse’ is the only one real must-have this year, though there are a few nice things from the past looking nice again this year if you don’t already own them). As for me it’s been a busy year indeed: if you haven’t already checked it out I now have a third blog celebrating the 60th anniversary of Dr Who by reviewing all 315 stories (and being a sister site it had to have a sister name: Alonsy Alien Archives  Alonsy Alien Archives - Dr Who 1963-2023 (  I haven’t neglected the scifi novels either with two new books this year: there are two more out this year, ‘Abundance’, a collection of six short love stories set in Spring, Summer, Autumn, Wimter, Doosmus and Midhaven  and ‘Obedience’, about the first argibraffe to go to university that ends up discovering a whole civilisation of space dinosaurs (you can read more about those books over at my second blog  Kindred Spirits ( All I need now is an assistant to juggle all these different blogs for me, only this one seems to need recycling…Has anyone got a screwdriver?!

New Releases:

1) Paul Simon “Seven Psalms”

This site made a joke, two Paul Simon album reviews ago on ‘So Beautiful Or So What?’, that the question of faith and God was becoming so central to Paul Simon’s work that his last album would find him setting the Torah to music. We don’t exactly get that here but ‘Seven Psalms’ is an obvious leap in that direction, an album that goes against the grain of every modern development in music the last few years, a concept work made up of a single song that lasts thirty-three minutes on the deeply unsexy questions of faith and death. Paul, though, has bigger things on his mind than selling units. After a difficult few years filled with the loss of many of the people close to him (ex Carrie Fisher, right-hand guitarist Joseph Shabala who was in so many of his bands and the general backdrop of gloom and doom after covid  - this is the first actual song I’ve heard use the word, a full fifty years after Paul sang of ‘Rosie, the Queen of Corona’ in a whole different context on ‘Me and Julio Down By The Schoolyard’ - and the growing climate crisis we’re heading into at speed while our governments dismantle our safety belts) the grim reaper has been getting too close for comfort, an old friend come to talk with Paul again. Like all good songwriters Paul has spent a great deal of his career trying to work out what comes next after we die, writing some of the best songs around the subject – you can really see an arc from the dismissal of ‘Blessed’, the fatalism of ‘Patterns’, the sigh of ‘A Most Peculiar Man’, the stern watchful God of ‘Silent Eyes’ angry at what his children are doing in his name (and never has that song about Jewish persecution resonated more than this year), the life lessons of ‘Rhythm Of The Saints’, the sheltering church of St Cecilia the patron saint of Music on ‘Born At The Right Time’, the joke of ‘The Afterlife’ that death just brings more forms to fill out, the still of ‘Quiet’. Now, though, the afterlife is a subject that’s gone from a fleeting thought good for a three minute song to the issue that’s dominating Paul’s muse as he hits his eighties, still trying to work out the answers to questions that have dominated mankind since time began and still no closer to an answer. With a pandemic still raging and slashing our life expectancy at a rate of knots, multiple ‘Acts Of God’ that seem to have been speeded up by the hand of man and a planet in denial about all sorts of things, this album’s confusion and fear/awe of what happens next might not be commercial but once again it captures the international mood of the year in a very Paul Simon way, just like the old days of ‘Sound Of Silence’. Radio 4 even put a burst of this album in their old ‘Five To Ten’ religious slot, where Paul first started his career singing his earliest songs pre-fame. Fittingly it’s a neat bookend to where Simon and Garfunkel started their album career nearly sixty years ago, with the youthful enthusiasm of ‘You Can Tell The World’ full of second-hand accounts of the wisdom of the Lord – only this time every note and word has been lived and sweated over and instead of bringing joy joy joy into Paul’s heart his ongoing debate with religion has left him confused as to what the truth really is. 

This song suite came to Paul differently to most of his other albums. He wrote the majority of it in bursts after waking up in the middle of the night for several days in a row, one little bit at a time, as if guided by an unseen hand even more than normal. Usually Paul would have turned these ideas into different songs, shaping them in the cold light of day into something more logical and commercial, but according to interviews every time he thought about doing that something would go wrong (sadly he lost a lot of his hearing suddenly while making this album and still hasn’t got it back). So Paul learned not to lean too much into his conscious thoughts or worry about how these pieces fitted together this time, content to take them as nuggets of pure inspiration that would be ongoing chapters in the same story. The result is a work not like anything else Paul has ever written; a sprawling epic all on one theme (his longest studio song before this one is ‘Darling Lorraine’ at six minutes, a full twenty-seven shorter than what we get here). This is, though, a very Paul Simon sort of sprawling epic; all the passages are closely linked in theme if not feel and divided into short listenable three or four minute passages – seven different ones with two repeats.  Notably it’s Paul’s first all-acoustic work dominated by his guitar playing, a really positive sign after the forty-odd years of trouble Paul’s been having with the calcium deposits in his hands that have made playing difficult (giving up touring a few years ago might have helped). Musically it’s a little like where we left off in 2016 with his slightest work ‘Horace and Pete’, the TV series theme tune that lasted barely a minute but stretched out to thirty times the length. Stylistically it feels like a tapestry of his career, mostly folk (there’s a lot of flute) but with elements of all the other styles he’s used over the years in there too – a bit of plodding blues, a sudden burst of rock, a slight wash of psychedelia and a heavy hint of ‘world music’ with singing bowls, a therobo (a sort of Medieval lute), a gopichand (a string drum) and a chromelodeon (a type of organ). The sounds wash in and out of the sound like watercolours, like ghosts or angels trying to break through from the next world into this. Mostly though the album is dominated by Paul’s voice, older than its ever sounded before and more fragile  - an understandable side effect of his hearing problems no doubt but a fitting and characteristically brave statement about the effects of the passing of time, much like the last Johnny Cash records where a young man who stood firm and never backed down from a challenge turns into an old man still standing infirm whilst being buffeted by the winds of old age. 

Though the variety comes from the music lyrically the work is lazer-focussed, unusually so, as Paul debates with himself about whether his spiritual mystical side is right and God and eternal life is waiting for him when this one ends, with everything that happens in life happening by design or whether his cynical material side is correct and we’re all a ‘bunch of atoms’ here by mistake. Notably, though Jewish and not afraid of putting references to Judaism in other songs before, this God is un-named, a fit for all religions, an all-encompassing being who is in everything good and bad, if indeed He’s there at all.  Paul isn’t sure for the most part and in his own recycled words the answer slip-slides away from him every time he thinks he has it worked out. Some days he feels God in everything around him, feeling him so strongly he reaches out and begs for forgiveness at one stage. Other days he feels less sure – how can a God of love allow so many awful things to happen in the world  without stepping in to stop them? Surely that has to be random and not by design? Paul can’t decide whether this life that he’s lived and that lived by other people alongside him is some sort of test, a reward, a punishment, some sort of accident of evolution or something that nobody has any control over. It’s something that’s always bothered him in the past but on the distant horizon, yet now that the next chapter of his life is here looming large in front of him he really needs to know and explores each idea as they occur to him as far as they will go.

Strictly speaking, of course, these aren’t psalms at all: this isn’t a collection of sacred songs so much as a back and forth between sacred and scared songs, as Paul tries to work out what his faith really is. ‘The Lord’ opens the album with a debate of what God is – Paul picks his similes with care as he goes back through his catalogue. God is the ‘crystal comet’ at the edge of a black sky giving him hope and lulling to restful sleep, a la ‘St Judy’s’. Back on Earth, God is his ‘engineer’, the person mixing his words and planning his next moves while he stands there with his guitar writing songs trying to keep up with it. God is the Earth he walks on, laying down a set path that Paul ‘slips and slides’ on. God is the giver, the meal of hope that the poorest eat to survive when they have nothing. God is covid, the taker of everything, striking people down in their prime. God is both the un-touched forest and the forest ranger created to cut it down and use it. I’m not sure I fully agree with the statement ‘Nothing dies from too much love’ (you can over-water both people and plants alike) but mostly it’s a strong beginning, urgent and quick-stepping. ‘Love Is Like A Braid’ is slower and more thoughtful, Paul reflecting on a life of ‘pleasant sorrows’, minor problems until he was pushed to breaking point which ‘broke me like a twig in a Winter gale’; what time we don’t know but my guess is the early 1980s when the death of family members, rows with Arty and Carrie Fisher and the failure of ‘One Trick Pony’ and ‘Hearts and Bones’ knocked him sideways. That was the time he both lost and found his faith the most, when he was torn between feeling that ‘all is lost’ and ‘all is well’. A sweet sunny interlude has God shining down, shocking Paul to find himself believing in him as purely and simply as he did as a child in Sunday school, basking in His light. That’s as far as he goes though as the ugly blues of ‘Professional Opinion’ sees his doubts return. Paul could be speaking to God or himself writing this at 3 in the morning as he dismisses what he once felt as a trick of the light gone in the cold light of day, telling himself to ‘go back to bed and turn off the light’, to not think about it anymore. Next Paul has a showdown: he urges God to stop whispering, that if he’s really there he needs to hear his voice clearly and needs to wash Paul’s worries away in the cool, cool river of religious certainty. I’m really not sure about the verse about cows talking (‘All cows in the country must bear the blame’), which along with the cod-blues makes this the weakest sequence here.

Thankfully things get back on track with a reprise of ‘The Lord’, sung with more urgency a second time as the clock of life continues to tick down and Paul is still no closer to an answer of what The Lord is or what comes next after life than he ever was. The reprise ends in a clashing of noisy dissonant chords, connected by a single thread of Paul’s guitar, until that too ends in a flurry of mystical effects and singing bowls. ‘Your Forgiveness’ is a sad lament as Paul submits his faith again, asking for mercy for ever doubting something that suddenly seems so clear, a soul lost in a digital world of concrete facts and science that has no room for religion. ‘I have my reasons to doubt’ pleads Paul, arguing that his ‘two billion heartbeats and out’ is hardly sufficient time to live and experience life as fully s he needs to (actually slightly shorter than an average lifespan; 2.5 billion is more likely – at Paul’s age he’s heading for 3 billion). Paul senses a white light that ‘eases the pain’ but it’s not enough – to quote another song ‘Faith is an island in a setting sun, but truth is the bottom line for everyone’ and once more he debates he certainty of God all over again.

‘Trail Of Volcanoes’ wonders why life has suddenly become so hard and what this has to do with God. He reflects on a youth spent travelling the world with his guitar spreading music and his variation of God’s word, yet now the places he used to go are under volcanoes ‘exploding with refugees’. People fleeing their homes and struggling for survival have no room in their lives for faith, even though those are the people who need it most. Paul feels everything everyone else experiences with his soul, ‘all walking down the same road’ to what happens next and wants to offer them a crumb of comfort that there’s a better world waiting, but isn’t sure if he can when he isn’t sure himself. Next he reflects on how short life is again, long enough to create the damage but ‘leaving so little time to make amends’. He stares out into the abyss of more mystical singing bowls, leaving his doubts fluttering in the breeze before the peaceful restrain of ‘The Sacred Harp’. Another of the album’s lesser moments, this is an odd piece where two hitch-hikers escape the rain thanks to a passing stranger’s kindness – the truck driver, weirdly, played by wife Edie! Is this passage perhaps meant less literally than the rest perhaps, a metaphor for Paul’s lost dazed and confused traveller down life’s roads given a second chance and finding faith again through love? Unfortunately this passage ends before it ever really gets going anywhere before falling back into the familiar reprise of ‘The Lord’ with a new set of words. This time Paul feels abandoned, God a ‘puff of smoke’ that disappears every time he tries to pin it down, a ‘personal joke’ that comes in and out of his life on a whim, often fading when He’s needed the most. Paul dismisses God as ‘just my reflection in the mirror’ as he finds a new philosophy, that mankind is ‘trial and error’, getting by as best they can in a human kind of a way that mans things happen at random and people get hurt. Soon though The Lord grows in size again to be ‘my record producer’ as moments of clarity and inspiration come from nowhere and make Paul wonder all over again, before turning into the train that carries him on his path towards his fate and death, whether Paul has faith or not.    

So far ‘Seven Psalms’ has been mixed – Paul’s inspiration has waxed and waned with his belief and faith. The ending ‘Wait’ though makes up for a lot of what came before and is easily the highlight of the piece. After twenty-five odd minutes of philosophical debate suddenly things get real. ‘I’m not ready!’ pleads Paul as we slip uncomfortably onto a minor chord. ‘My hand don’t shake and my mind is still clear’. But the shadow lurks all the same, unforgiving, before suddenly Paul’s wife Edie joins him on this solitary journey, right at the end of it (and indeed making her long delayed debut on one of her husband’s records after thirty odd years of marriage). ‘Life is a medium, it’s almost like home’ she croons as she calls Paul over to the other side with the promise of all the wonderful things waiting for him there, Paul’s life full of every extreme emotion going filled with both Heaven and Hell. But now only heaven awaits. And finally, after eighty years of battle between Paul’s faith and his cynicism, his faith ultimately wins out in a close contest, the song peeling off to a full-stop as this restless, uncertain song finally commits itself with a confident cry of ‘amen!’ as Paul welcomes darkness, the old friend he always half-knew was waiting for him. It could have been a sell-out, a tidy answer to a messy question that can never be answered until any of us get there – instead its brilliantly moving and heartfelt, the song not so much ending as fading, segueing into a peal of bowls and bells that’s just out of earshot for us to hear properly. As it should be. After all, theme of the song is that Paul doesn’t know what lies waiting any more than we do and death is a universal truth, what happens next something we’ll all get to experience for ourselves one day.  It’s a gorgeous moment whichever half of the song you come down on (Paul never says that his final decision is ‘right’), a perfectly fitting end that doesn’t come out of nowhere or take away from all the doubts that have come before it.

That’s quite an album. I confess that I seem to be alone in the Paul Simon fanbase for not finding all of this as moving as it feels it ought to be. It feels more like one long track than a full album, a couple of twists and turns short of a long-player with many repetitive sections. Like many an epic some parts of it work better than others – blues has never been a comfortable fit and while the plodding style fits with the ‘Earthly’ Human side of Paul’s debate thematically, musically it’s a bit of a slog to sit through, the musical fly in a pretty ointment. Even the best of the work doesn’t have the same sweeping melodic brilliance of Paul at his best or even his average. The album cover too is ugly and ill-suited, a collection of trees and a pair of owls that looks like some battered old hymn book rather than the relevant and contemporary work of faith it is. There’s a lot of this songsuite that, under normal circumstances, Paul would have edited and re-shaped from something good and promising into something great. But that wasn’t the point of the work, to be hummable or accessible or compact and I totally get that. ‘Seven Psalms’ might not be the best album of Paul’s career by any means but its easily one of his bravest works, more intimate and personal than anything he’s given us since ‘One-Trick Pony’. Like Paul himself across much of the work you have to hang in there for this album to weave its magic on you and have faith that the destination will be worth the journey and like a few fans I wasn’t that convinced the first few times I heard this album. The magic does come though, even if delayed and it’s an album I admire and like a lot even if, ultimately, I don’t quite love the whole of it. This record wasn’t made for me though. In a way it wasn’t even made for an audience, but was something Paul felt compelled to write. I’m just glad he was brave enough to release it as is, without backing down into altering it or commercialising it or sweetening it or diluting the ending. For this album is beautiful just as it is, perfect in its imperfection.

After all those years, after all that music, after that huge great catalogue, Paul finally feels God bring joy joy joy into his heart first-hand and, whether you believe or not, it’s a fitting end. Is this the last album? Given the seven year ish gap between projects its more than possible. If it is the end then you couldn’t have planned it better, even with the hand of God as a guide. You sense that the young Paul of 1964 would have been pretty proud of having ended up here, still writing valid major works at this great age and even if he’d have debated the pure ending he’d have recognised a lot of his earliest songs in this one too. And if it isn’t, well, that’s OK too -  it wouldn’t surprise me if Paul wrote his perfect epitaph and then followed it up with something cute and frivolous – such is the way of the Paul Simon discography Flawed as it may be, with a notably sagging middle, ‘Seven Psalms’ is still a moving, courageous work that ties up many loose ends and while ultimately it may or may not teach us more about God or the afterlife it teaches us a lot about Paul Simon and you can’t ask for more from an album than that.   

2)  Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds “Council Skies”

There was a very revealing moment, in a tie-in interview to promote this album (one of very few against the blitz of publicity for the rest of his solo work) when Noel was asked about the covid pandemic and replied ‘Like a lot of people I’m not the same person coming out of it as I was when I went in’. This is certainly a very different Noel since the promotion of his last album ‘Who Built The Moon?’ in 2017, his wretched third solo record which was easily in the bottom ten of all AAA albums. Noel back then was bullish: his fans were stupid, they didn’t get his new music, but he was right and going to keep heading down the same path come what may. After all, he was in a good place, the best place, on top of the world and we just needed to catch up with him. The same for Brexit and the early days of the pandemic: anyone who disagreed with him, who believed in the EU or taking deadly viruses seriously were nuts. Even after thirty odd years of Oasis interviews Noel sounded uncharacteristically cocky. Six years on and the ground that once seemed so firm under his feet has crumbled though. His eleven-year-marriage with wife Sara (who he’s been with in some capacity for double that) has dissolved. The fanbase, burnt by ‘Moon’, don’t hold The Chief in quite the same regard they used to and sales of that record were sluggish, despite all the touring and publicity that went with it. Brexit has been proven to be an unmitigated disaster –paerticulary for touring musicians - and Noel, not one for admitting to being wrong, is quite sheepish when asked about his stance now. After months of being one of the covid lockdown’s biggest critics he’s started talking about how he might just have slightly go it wrong. The man who felt he could do no wrong, who had so many safety nets around him, is now flying on the high trapeze and looking down scared, worried he can do no right. In short Noel’s in the same place brother Liam was when Beady Eye, the Noel-less Oasis, called it a day and he split up with his wife at the same time. It remains to be seen if Noel can go on the same dark personal and spiritual exploration of the psyche Liam’s been on the past decade, but solo album number four is a huge step in the right direction (he seems to have jumped straight to Liam’s hopeful ‘Better Days’ from last year’s ‘C’mon Y’know’ already, the template for the whole record, though notably there are no potshots at younger brother on an album that’s mainly about forgiveness and healing – making this, by my count, the first Oasis-related album not to have a song by Liam or Noel about the other since ‘Standing On The Shoulders Of Giants’).

A lot of this record was written in lockdown when Noel was stuck at home, his last tour cancelled. After telling us that he might never return to the guitar again, suddenly that was all he had available to him, the rest of the High Flying Birds sent back to their nests by the pandemic. Unable to escape from the growing problems in his personal life by touring and by his own admission scared of what the world might look like if he ever managed to get out to see it again, Noel’s songs took on a very different feel to the swaggering dance bravado of ‘Moon’.  They felt more Human, more emotional, than anything he’s written in a long long time. While the production is still as vibrant and contemporary as any of the High Flying Birds sets you can tell that the songs behind them are guitar-based and more like his early Oasis days and it’s no surprise he called this album ‘Council Skies’ as he plugs back into his roots, even if the title came to Noel in a very un-council estate sort of a way (it was the name of a painting he found in a book by artist Pete McKee under the family coffee table). We’ve said many a time on this website that Noel is such a strong empathetic writer that he’s at his best when ‘plugged in’ to the world outside his door, writing his best songs when he was ‘one of us’, lonely, struggling, trying to make sense of his place in the world and that he lost that ability to write as well when he fell into the trappings of fame and became like ‘one of them’. But he’s also a very truthful songwriter. Once he found himself cut off from the public and living in big mansions, somewhere early in the ‘Be Here Now’ sessions that sense of empathy disappeared and the best Noel songs after that are more about what’s happening to him personally, how being rich and famous wasn’t the happy ending he hoped it would be and how daft his younger self was for ever thinking it might be. The pandemic was a great leveller in more ways than one and so here, for some of the album at least, he feels back to being ‘one of us’ again for the first time since ‘Morning Glory’, stumbling in a world that suddenly doesn’t seem so certain anymore and wondering what just happened. The record even starts with a fan (the first since ‘Talk Tonight?’), escaping the problems of the world around them as they sit trapped in their bedroom glued to a pair of headphones and grooving away to the music, the only distraction they have left, the twist being that it ends up being Noel himself.

While there are perhaps greater highs on the first two records (the Oasis outtake ‘Stop The Clocks’ and the jazzy ‘Right Stuff’ are hard to beat in anyone’s catalogue) ‘Council Skies’ is easily the most consistently great of Noel’s solo career so far. Rather than the jagged, genre-hopping feel of the others all the tracks here feel as if they belong as part of one long suite that’s carefully programmed to move from inward songs of confusion to bursts of Britpop-style hope. Even once lockdown was over and Noel went back to playing with his band his guitar is the driving force between most of these songs, back front and centre in the sound the way it always should have been before the synths and scissors took hold. His vocals are particularly great across this album sounding younger than ever, perhaps because he’s trying less hard to sound so young. Noel’s ear for hooks has always been steady but on this album there are more great riffs than usual, with each song standing out in a way ‘Moon’ was just a blur.

It’s the lyrics, though, that impress the most. ‘I’m Not Giving Up’ is a great opener, as defiant as any of the songs from ‘Moon’ but much more likeable with it. Noel tries to remember what made him get into music in the first place, imagining a fan plugged into music the way he once was in his youth and deciding that he has an important job to do, to help them through such a difficult time for the world. Soon he’s dancing with her in a Who-style connection between writer and listener so close that they blur, responding to her moves with moves of his own, so that music can set both of them free. There’s an ‘I Am The Walrus’ style string section that sweeps in and lifts this simple song into a production epic, but you can still hear this song’s genesis as a pretty acoustic number written in lockdown as Noel urges the world to ‘keep dancing’ despite the ‘storm outside’. By the end of the song the figure has turned from a fan to some higher spirit, leading Noel forward despite his doubts and fears, urging him to keep doing his job playing music because he’s needed, Noel meeting his maker a second time, who makes him cry this time. ‘Pretty Boy’ was out as a single last year (and reviewed at depth in last year’s annual review). As our first insight into this album it was and is a step in the right direction, another tale of ordinary people, this time a courtship dance played to dance beats but with a fine grungy guitar lick underpinning everything. Now the album is so strong it sounds like one of the lesser songs, with its ‘tell me that you want it, yeah yeah’ sneering chorus reverting to the bravado of ‘Moon’ but it’s still a lot more interesting and complex than anything on that record, a trippy track that rises and falls to hypnotic effect. We’ve heard a demo for ‘Dead To The World’ before too. It’s a lovely song and even better here with full production, a ghostly haunted song that could be about the pandemic or Noel’s marriage or both and the ghostly choir that hum along and the strings that sweep in and out add a lot to the demo. ‘I don’t know where I’ve been’ sings a lost and lonely Noel on a track that reminds me of Oasis B-side ‘Swollen Hand Blues’, but whereas that sleepy mood was drug-filled and down, this one is cautiously up, Noel putting himself back together out of nothing and eager to find himself again. This narrator sees endings as an opportunity for better things, one determined to live forever even if the world is dead to him, Noel pleads his case to his wife, writing a ‘long song’ to express how he feels (though in the end it only lasts four minutes)  and sounds as if he starts off trying to make his marriage right (‘If you say so, I’ll bend over backwards for love’) before admitting that, actually, sometimes you just have to let things go and it’s the braver and right thing not to fight (‘It’s time to let go...Let these be my last words’). Far from being bitter though Noel sounds almost pleased, cocooned by the numbness he feels as he lies dead to the world, unsure how to react, promising to ‘lend a dream’ to his soon to be ex to help her along and going back to his bed to sleep, Lennon style, dreaming of a better future when all the pain is over. There’s an accordion solo of all things in there too, something we haven’t had since ‘Ciggies & Alcohol’ B-side ‘Listen Up’, and it fits this dream-like tune oddly well.

‘Open The Door, See What You Find’ is Noel getting his mojo back, re-entering the world after lockdown/breakup and eager to make up for all the things he’s been missing out on. It’s a joyous uplifting song about second chances, set to an Oasis-anthem like beat even though the theme isn’t about the energy of youth in changing the world but the wisdom of middle age in changing what you don’t like about yourself. Noel stares into a mirror in this song and sees himself, for perhaps the first time. He says the song was inspired by a quote that when you hit fifty your face is in a halfway stage where you can simultaneously see all that you once were and all that you will be (which he did in 2017). Though the verses and strings are every bit as numb and floaty as ‘Dead To The Water’, the choruses suddenly inject new life into this song that take it in a whole other direction and there’s a glorious (if too-short) guitar burst on the fade. It’s an epic, one of the album highlights, right up there certainly with the best of the High Flying Birds and near as dammit to Oasis too. ‘Trying To Find A World That’s Been And Gone Pt 1’ takes us back to Oasis too, but those early Noel-sung acoustic B-sides as Noel again stands in front of his door, lockdown and marriage over, wondering what the world and his life is going to be like now. He’s worried, wondering if he has the strength to ‘turn over the page’ for what’s to be. It might be the most fragile and vulnerable we’ve heard Noel since ‘Talk Tonite’, but a warm comforting string section beckons him on with a warm aural hug and he figures that actually things might be alright after all. It’s another fine song but the backing isn’t quite right for this one, a bit heavy-handed for such a simple song and the mix puts Noel’s vocal far too low. Still, it could have been worse -  apparently ‘Part 2’ was  a big drum solo that came out of nowhere and a super epic production that Noel had second thoughts about and nixed during mixing. Chances are this song sounds better short and humble.

‘Easy Now’ is the album single that got everyone talking, a self-conscious return to the Oasis sound after more than a decade trying to run and hide from it (though ‘Black and White Sunshine’ is pretty close too, by far the highlight from ‘Moon’). Noel’s writing for the fans again, telling us to dry our rain-soaked eyes because the sun will sheee-ine again and hoping the talk of revolution in the streets will result in something better for all of us. Noel promises to ‘wait for us’ to join him in hope and that ‘together we can ride the storm’. Though many fans’ favourite song on the album it isn’t mine; the chorus is a little too basic, Noel’s had better solos on his songs (to be fair it’s producer Paul Staley playing, a backup plan after they tried very hard to get David Gilmour to do it, but the Pink Floyder kept turning him down – goodness knows why Noel didn’t just play himself though, he’s plenty good enough) and the choir is a mite intrusive this time around, but it’s still a good little song and has that sort of uplifting bouncy optimism that’s been missing from Noel’s work for so long. The title track reaches back to fans again, as a man facing the end of his marriage tries to remember what going out and having dates used to be like back when he was penniless and working class, finding new love. Though this couple doesn’t have anything else, finding each other is such a bonus when everything else in life has gone wrong that it brings out a much greater sense of victory and hope, resulting in a punch-the-air chorus of ‘how I found you!’ before a grungy guitar tries to knock the young lovers off their feet with the sheer power of what’s just been unleashed. Noel had a lot to do with the backing of this song, adding some ‘tuned gongs’ he bought for his instrument collection (and which sound very Like Paul Simon’s singing bowls). They add a nice backdrop of a hard working industrial town against the backdrop of effortless love, though the dancey vibe is a bit too far back down the ‘Who Built The Moon?’ path for me. A nice lyric though, again inspired by that Pete McKee painting on the front cover, which is far more complex and thought out than the mono-syllabic dance songs on that past record.

‘There She Blows!’ is an odd little song, perhaps the album’s weakest. It’s a nautical and not very nice track that takes the old CSN metaphors of imagining life’s journeys as a tiny boat that can capsize on the sea of life with any passing wave, written by Noel while stuck in a hotel with a bookshelf and leafing through a copy of Hemmingway’s ‘The Old Man and The Sea’. It’s really a sort of ‘Moby Dick’ this song though, a fisherman convinced that the big catch is out there if only he keeps searching for it, despite all the past accidents and obstacles that ought to prove to him it isn’t. I’m not sure how pleased Sara was to hear herself compared to a whale, but it’s actually a really good lyric about love being a force of nature taking you into places you never expected to go – it’s the one-note tune and the droney background and crashing drums that let this one down. By contrast ‘Love Is A Rich Man’ is the catchiest, most immediate song on the album with a great quickstepping riff that’s one part ‘Paperback Writer’ and one part ‘She’s Electric’, another ‘Black and White Sunshine’ that will stay in your head for days. It’s the lyrics that let this one down. Stream-of-consciousness has never been Noel’s style (he’s usually too grounded to write pure poetry) but this song about promising to ‘be your dancing horse’ or ‘your clown’ and an offer to a lover to ‘help me rule the world’ is just confusing. Still, this song is going to sound epic live once the High Flying Birds go back out on tour.

The album proper ends with ‘Think Of A Number’, an unusual end even though it reprises many of the themes from the album. The world is dancing even when going to hell and Noel doesn’t know whether to warn them everything’s on fire or join in the dance. Noel admits to having ‘never felt so small’ as he spends a lonely night staring at the ceiling, not used to being alone any more, surely talking to Sara again as he tells her ‘you were my hero but you took away my bow’. He knows she’s set him free by not allowing him to live in fairytales helplessly hoping for hope any more and there’s that old Noel confidence that things will work out for the best eventually, but right here right now he’s not as sure as he normally is and its a new feeling for him. Is this what other people go through when they feel depressed he wonders, as he’s not felt so hopeless or helpless before. All the things he used to rely on now seem like lies – even the ‘pretty girls’ selling products on TV now seem so obviously false when they never did before, selling a dream, that can’t be true. So Noel lets the album end with the words ‘let it all fall down’, bracing himself to pick everything up again and make it better soon. It’s a brave, courageous lyric, one of his best and there’s a melody that’s suitable lost and confused, wandering around the chord structures seemingly at random without Noel’s usual sure-footed trademark chords and key signatures, as if the song is barely keeping its head above water. It’s the production that gets in the way though, sizzling and huge where this song should be small and simmering. It’s the wrong sort of song to end an album on, though if you own the deluxe edition it’s not the end, just the beginning, with a whole disc of extras…

Most of them are remixes, which are as disposable as remixes always are, though Noel’s got some big names working for him this time including The Cure and The Pet Shop Boys (!) There are a few instrumental mixes as well (though personally I’d rather hear Noel’s vocals minus the backing, or better still his demos), a lovely acoustic version of ‘Live Forever’ from a radio 2 session which in context feels like a real pandemic anthem, a rather manic cover of Bob Dylan’s ‘You Aint’ Goin’ Nowhere’ (which was very much a lockdown anthem in my house when I was asked to find suitable songs for a playlist! It’s odd to hear the put-down of The Byrds’ Roger McGuinn in a Mancunian accent), a live version of nice but forgettable ‘best of’ bonus track ‘Flying On The Ground’ and a rather odd full-big production cover of John Lennon’s ‘Mind Games’, a song that’s crying out to be done simpler, not larger (brother Liam released a weird version of Lennon’s ‘I Don’t Want To Be A Soldier’ this year too which is an even more obscure choice and not even this good). As with ‘Moon’ some of the very best songs are relegated here too though – standalone 2020 single ‘We’re Gonna Get There In The End’ which is a brilliant return to form and really should have been on the album proper, with its tale of life returning back to normal after lockdown, a busy anthem of hope and optimism that’s very Noel. Better yet is ‘Don’t Stop’ which might well be the single best thing from the album sessions, a sweet and slow ballad on the same theme as Noel wakes up one day and realises he has nothing, eager to build everything back up again because it was such fun last time surely it will be this time too. He urges the listener to keep going, whatever hell we’re going through, because life is a gift and admitting that, while from time to time he’s fallen out of step with ‘us’, he’s always been beside us in spirit willing to help us through, just as God or whatever mystical unseen force is out there has helped him (a second reference from a famous agnostic; has something changed?) An almost angry, growling guitar fights against a claustrophobic mix before becoming swept along with the strings and turning tuneful and buoyant by the end, growing from a single note tone of defiance to a Britpop swagger anthem in true Noel G style. Brilliant. It’s a neat match for the songs Liam’s been writing lately about finding himself after troubled times and bodes really well for that Oasis reunion that’s started to seem slightly more likely lately (Sara and Liam really didn’t get on from what I’ve heard). 

The end result is a true return to form, an album that returns to the skills Noel was always great at but hasn’t used in some time (catchy melodies, thoughtful lyrics reflecting the listener, banging tunes, guitar riffs) but also adding some of the wisdom and vulnerability that’s come from this uncertain period in his life and everyone else’s too. ‘Council Skies’ is far from perfect and its also very short as a basic ‘album’ (though very long if you buy the deluxe version with all the bells and whistles), maybe a couple of tracks short of true top tier status of the sort Oasis used to deliver in their sleep. However most of it is really really good, brave and courageous as Noel stretches his palette not by chucking out everything he was always so strong at but embracing new ways of telling old stories. Like the lyric in ‘Open The Door’ you can hear all the Noels of the past in this album and also the new ones he’s only just discovered. The pandemic may have been a difficult time for Noel personally, causing splits where there had only been cracks with no escape from home life, but it’s been great for his songwriting, reconnecting him with where he started and especially his guitar and even though I’d still like to hear more of it behind all the dance rhythms and production numbers you can tell that most of these songs were written the old-fashioned way, staring into the mirror with a guitar, rather than in a costly studio with some big name friends standing around waiting for ideas and this technique definitely suits Noel more. In fact that’s the best thing about ‘Council Skies’ all round – its full of ideas, with little details on every track that lift even the lesser songs where before we’d get a song on the same chord for several minutes at a time. Noel isn’t quite back to his best but he’s gone a long long way back to finding himself again and, a couple of Oasis outtakes and the pair of impressive jazzy songs from  ‘Chasing Yesterday’ aside, this is easily his best work since Oasis’ split. In other words, welcome back Noel, you might have lost yourself but at the same time it feels as if we’ve only just found you again.

3) Cat Stevens/Yusuf “King Of A Land”

Paul and Noel aren’t the only AAA stars who’ve spent the last few uncertain years of lockdowns, pandemics and growing climate change thinking about their mortality and relationship with God. The difference, is of course, that’s not as unusual a place for the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens who seems to be known as Cat Stevens again full time these days to be in – and this is not that unusual a Cat Stevens album. Nine years in the making – the writing interrupted for the contract-fulfilling half-finished older-songs album ‘The Laughing Apple’ of 2017 - ‘King Of A Land’ has been on Cat’s mind for a long time, a crazy paving story of how he found his faith told via every musical style he ever had (except his early pop career, sadly) and yet in every way it could be twins with ‘Seven Psalms’, an album started much later and released less than a month before. There’s clearly something in the water – or floating in the air perhaps, which is the refrain of ‘The Boy Who Knew How To Climb Walls’. Or perhaps its the fact that Cat has become the first person since the band Splinter in the 1970s to be signed to George Harrison’s ‘Dark Horse’ label after befriending his son Dhani – George himself of course no stranger to releasing albums about spiritual yearning.

‘King Of A Land’ was billed before it came out as a brave and deeply personal album – the sort of thing ‘Seven Psalms’ turned out to be – and at first I was disappointed because it isn’t that. Cat could be the boy looking up at the stars and dreaming of what’s up there as heard on the album, and he could certainly be the young lost man frightened of dying (the TB era heard on ‘Mona Bone Jakon’ and tea For The Tillerman’) while the older man still searching for answers is exactly what Cat’s been writing since his rollercoaster ride of a comeback the past twenty years. But then, so could anybody. There’s nothing here that tells us anything we didn’t know, or indeed any song that wouldn’t apply to anyone putting their faith in a higher power (Paul Simon and George Harrison included). And Cat’s always been such an honest, confessional singer-songwriter that seems almost odd; this is no ‘I Never Wanted To Be A Star’. To a degree ‘King Of A Land’ plays things too safe, telling twelve stories about how the world would be a better place if it was more concerned with peace and we helped each other, something that’s perfectly true and fully in keeping with the rest of Cat Stevens’ career but which doesn’t feel like the sort of revelation we were promised or anything that’s terribly new. The same for the music, which throws in a few genres we haven’t had in ages (I never thought we’d get the electric guitar pop of ‘Izitso?’ in Cat’s old age but its here on ‘Pagan’s Run’, while other songs recall the strummed chord structures of ‘Tea For The Tillerman’ ‘Teaser and the Firecat’ and the more elaborate sounds of ‘Buddha and the Chocolate Box’) but isn’t actually as brave as the last two records (the bluesy, patchy ‘tell ‘Em I’m Gone’ and the very 1960s ‘Laughing Apple’).

Then I got it. This isn’t the Cat Stevens autobiography as such. It’s not personal in the sense that it’s so moving and honest it’s going to make us cry. Instead it’s a sampler record, the essence of Cat and all the people and events that made his life turn out the way it did, set to a combination of all the music styles that ever made Cat want to pick up a guitar. It’s a ‘roots’ album from someone still looking for how to make music like he used to, the half-remembered soundtrack from all stages of Cat’s career, knitted together like a quilt to keep his followers warm, a reminder of all the reasons he started his musical career in the first place, as opposed to the reasons he quit (like every other comeback album has been, to one extent or another, be they the religious zeal of ‘An Other Cup’, the dark night of the soul ‘Roadsinger’, the bitter side of the music business ‘Tell ‘Em I’m Gone’ or sickness-laden ‘Laughing Apple’. This album is more interested in going back further to where it all began, not where it ended and it goes right back, further than I ever expected, all the key moments where music was important in Cat’s life, breadcrumbs on his own spiritual journey as he makes peace with his first career again. There’s the Broadway musical sound of ‘Highness’ for instance, that the teenage Cat would have heard while sitting on the roof of his family’s Greek restaurant in London between shifts waiting on tables. There’s the religious hymn book feel of ‘Son Of Mary’ heard in many a Sunday school. There’s the brass band and harpsichord of ‘Train On A Hill’ that sounds like a Northern town in the last century; as far as I know Cat’s not a time-traveller and he’s a Londoner through and through but the monochrome feel is very like the ‘Foreigner’ record especially, gruff and isolated full of unexpressed pain, yet full of community spirit. There’s a burst of Tchaikovsky's ‘Swan Lake’ on ‘How Good It Feels’, a beloved record from his parents’ collection. There’s the folky late 1960s feel that came along at just the time when Cat was dying and needed to be re-born. There’s half a dozen more styles, all of which you can hear in Cat’s 1970s work, the whole bang lot of which feels like a musical treasure map that Cat’s been following to get to this point in his life, to bring himself closer to God. The big difference, you see, is that whereas Paul’s lifelong debate with his God has been whether he believes or not, Yusuf’s always had more of a double-sided conversation and doesn’t need to wonder if he’s out there; for Cat it’s a fact, a voice that was always whispering in his ear, just one he was in denial of for too long. What Cat’s less sure about than Paul is what it is he ought to do with that knowledge, whether its his duty to use his fame and wealth to talk to us about it or offer us escapism. Where Paul ends his album asking ‘wait!’ because he wants more time, Cat can’t wait to go and see what comes next, to leap in the next life and reap the rewards of this one. This album is Cat answering his maker, showing him all the clues he found and handing in his homework and asking ‘Did I spot everything? Did I see all the signs? Did I do OK?’ 

What score does Cat get? A- I’d say. ‘King Of A Land’ is a mighty consistent and mostly impressive record. The rather simplistic three singles (’King Of A Land’ ‘All Night All Days’ ‘Take The World Apart’) give entirely the wrong impression and are easily the worst three songs on it and even they’re not too bad, just bland. Opener ‘Train On A Hill’ recalls ‘Peace Train’s lyrics and the music of ‘To Love Somebody’ (in fact it sounds very 1960s Bee Gees with a touch of P P Arnold) and is a lovely song. Cat can see a world that ought to work – he knows good kind people who do a lot of good work and it feels as if the peace train his idealist soul has dreamed of his whole life is just round the corner – only the peace train is forever getting substituted by a bus replacement service that doesn’t quite work because man gets in his own way. Cat gets cross that he can’t do enough to make it better, but learns throughout his life that it’s not up to him to move the train alone. But maybe if he can inspire everyone then we can move the train together? The austere neo-classical sound works well giving bite to what could have been an unbearably twee song. ‘Pagan’s Run’ is the most interesting track here by far, the closest to what you might call a gritty rocker on the five Yusuf comeback albums so far, with the organ riff from ‘Killin’ Time’ in 1977 thrown in for good measure. Cat’s lyrics recall a time just before that, circa 1974 when he was ‘a mess’ and ‘scared as hell’, ‘hiding from the world’ lost and looking for something to believe in. At first he tries sex, but the woman who offered him warmth ‘left me cold’, but nothing works. There’s a great guitar solo from Eric Appapouley, a rare case of an electric guitar on a modern Cat Stevens song (sad there’s no Alun Davies on this record by the way, the first time in a long time), but it works well and the years fall off Cat himself too – he sounds thirty, forty years younger on this song. The track doesn’t end so much as crash, mirroring the TB-induced collapse of ‘It’s A Supa Dupa Life’ from his second album ‘New Masters’, the sound of a life so unsustainable it was always going to fail somewhere.’ He Is True’ is perhaps the weakest song here, a slight 90 second acoustic fragment about how Cat is isolated in his TB hospital bed prison. The record executives stop calling, the friends don’t come anymore and ‘everything has changed but the world remaineth’. In the silence Cat hears the higher calling and wonders why no one else seems to be able to hear it too.

‘Another Night In The Rain’ gives us the sort of late 70s synths that you could hear on albums like ‘Back To Earth’ as Cat recovers and heads outside, enjoying everything nature has to throw at him, even the sort of weather he would once have hidden away from (and appreciating being alive in all its elements more than ever given how nearly it as taken away from him, even the sad and scary parts). Cat had no responsibilities, for the first time in a long time, ‘free to choose’ what he does next. ‘no need to hurry’. He next makes up a fake biography for his character, a failed half degree and an empty bank account which certainly wasn’t his life in 1968, but he also feels full with the new insight his experiences have given him, ‘no need to feel sorry’ as he tells us. Things get better with ‘Things’, a slow and thoughtful song about change that fits right at the heart of the record, Cat learning that life is all about change and evolving to be a better person based on what you learn. There are lyrical references to ‘children always playing’ and ‘growing up’, something that makes him wonder about nature and nurture and whether you could have told his life story seeing him as a young boy, whether the adult was always within him or whether it was shaped by life events. The theme of the song is how God works in mysterious ways and how ‘it’s not for us to judge what we don’t see’. The chord changes on this choppy acoustic guitar song are straight out of ‘Bitterblue’, but the mood is much lighter this time around. ‘Son Of Mary’ is the most overtly religious song here and sounds like the re-telling of ‘Mary Had A Little Lamb’ from the last album, but this one is most definitely about the Virgin Mary without any ambiguity. Cat gives us the lesser known beginning to her story, how scared Mary was when the angels came to her and her doubts over being given the responsibility of giving birth to the Messiah. This song isn’t about Cat overtly, but you can tell the similarities he feels, being burdened with the weight of someone in the public eye who has found God, proud to have been picked but unsure as to his suitability, and isn’t yet sure if he’s brave enough to communicate all he senses to everyone because people like him just don’t do that. He trusts God’s word, but it’s a close run thing set against his natural fear whether his strength or weakness will win.

‘Highness’ brings in the gospel choir and sounds like an out-take from ‘Godspell’ (that’s a huge compliment coming from me, by the way) via ‘Sister Act’. Cat can’t believe how well things are going for him in this period of his life – everyone seems to adore him and artistically he stretches to much higher heights than he ever expected to when he became a teenage pop star. He knows, though, that however far he stretches he can’t quite reach God’s outstretched hand like this and has to find some other way to get closer. It’s a happy rousing celebratory song for all that though, as Cat feels happy to have been blessed at all, never mind with the chance to tell others about the gift he’s been given so they can find their own path to God. ‘The Boy Who Knew How To Climb Walls’ moves away from the ‘story’ and is rather like the bluesier questioning passages in Paul’s record. This is Cat asking why God allows such awful things to happen in the world, telling his tale as it might have been had he been born in a lesser part of the world, watching his beloved elder brother die in a warzone. The lad’s naive innocent narration is rather touching, even if Cat’s emotional vocal is a tad shrill. I wonder too if this song is about his ‘real’ brother David, the one who was there at two of the most pivotal moments in Cat’s life: his signing to Decca records at 17 and the Qu’ran that helped get him into Islam in 1976 and who died a few years ago (no wonder he could ‘climb walls’ and obstacles that stopped other people, giving younger brother a help up for most of his life the way elder brothers do. You can understand why Cat would feel a bit lost without his big brother’s guiding influence that’s shaped so much of his life, so the feelings in this song might be autobiographical eve if the circumstances aren’t). Cat sings of seeing his brother ‘floating in the air’ and knows they’ll be reunited soon in the next life, but still his faith wobbles enough to ask why such a good man had to die at all.  

One of the strongest songs is ‘How Good It Feels’ which brings us up to date. All the things Cat used to hope are now certainties, his tested faith proven in a way that it never quite was for Paul. Cat’s been so many people, young and free, old and responsible, joyous and suffering, and like ‘Father and Son’ he can see life from lots of perspectives. Youthful enthusiasm is a great thing to have, but so is the wisdom of experience of old age, with the extra insight suffering and hurt gives you. His metaphor across the album is climbing trees, to be as close to Heaven as any mortal Human can be and while he had more strength to climb in his youth Cat needed the wisdom of his elder years to work out which branches were rotten and risked making him fall (what with ‘The laughing Apple’ on the last album, orchards seem to be a big thing with cat at the moment). The strains from the finale of ‘swan lake’, at the point when the swan Odessa becomes human again after a magic spell, is confusing at first and sticks out like a musical sore thumb but is actually a pretty neat and subtle metaphor for what Cat was going through at the time, just right in a song about metamorphosis and how life’s journey turns you into something you never expected at all when you set off with a completely different destination in mind. A haunting tune and some lovely finger-picking acoustic guitar bring out the best in Yusuf and it’s a shame the album doesn’t end there instead of the happy sappy ‘I’ll Take The World Apart’ which sounds like the sort of silly song you get over the end credits of sub-par films, one last chance to call for peace.

Oh well, that’s only one daft singalong on an album that’s otherwise pretty strong all round – nothing that new or revealing, the way it was hinted perhaps, and a less courageous record than Paul’s outpouring of personal emotion all round. Nevertheless there is a lot of ‘Cat’ on ‘King Of A Land’ both musically and lyrically (though I’m sorry the two don’t match up more, so that we have the 1960s styles for the start of the journey and the 2000s style at the end for instance). However its a more than worthy addition to his catalogue, recalling the dark nights of the soul and the sun rises that sent him merrily on his way again. Certainly the theme of God is much better realised than it is on both ‘An Other Cup’ and ‘Tell ‘Em I’m Gone’ which were preachy in the extreme. Instead this album is more like ‘Roadsinger’ - Cat tells us about God because that’s the most important thing in his life to talk about, but its an album about Cat’s experiences getting there rather than telling people off for not joining him which makes it more palatable all round and he still has room for questioning and doubt, for perhaps the first time since giving music up in 1978 for religion. It’s not quite as strong as ‘Roadsinger’ (still the best of Cat’s comeback records) but it is another strong set of songs where even the weakest is hummable and the best is as strong as anything in that great back catalogue. Performed with triumph at a winning Glastonbury set this year, when the crowd took to cat more than ever since his comeback,  ‘King Of the Land’ feels like a victory lap from the title down, but one that’s never smug or satisfied. Cat knows he’s been blessed, but wants to bless us all too. Fabulous: in most other years this would be the review winner but such is the strength in numbers in 2023 there’s very little to chose between the top three.


4) Belle and Sebastian “Late Developers”

And this one really isn’t that distant a fourth. Belle and Sebastian aren’t the sort of band who make plans on a regular basis, but they really had one for this album. The sessions for previous album titled, err, ‘A Bit Of Previous’ made under covid lockdown had been so productive that they had more than enough for a double album. Rather than shoo the extra tracks away onto a series of EPs or B-sides as per normal, instead the band would take the ones that weren’t quite ready yet and stick them out on a second album just eight months later, released in a sudden rush of publicity for when the band returned to touring for the first time in January 2023 as a complete surprise to fans who are used to waiting years between albums. However the best laid plans of mice, men and Sebastian do have a tendency to go wrong and instead Stuart Murdoch got sick which delayed the tour, though the album was too far along in production to delay. So it was that, in a year when we expected to have the old band touring and no new album instead we had a new album and a band who weren’t up to plugging it. Together with the release date (I mean, who even releases an album in January any more after the Christmas rush?) this album got a bit lost in the cracks of the schedules, failing to #30 in the UK charts compared to its previous predecessor’s sky high of #8.

That will confuse the heck out of future music historians because while the themes of both records are the same (love, loss and loneliness) ‘Late’ is by far the more commercial of the two albums, the dancing daytime extrovert to Previous’ lonely nights sat waiting for the phone to ring. You could argue too that while the last album was haunted by the past and ‘previous’, this one has half a foot there and half in the future, as the band try to do nothing more than live in the present, a ‘life lesson’ they wish they’d learnt a long time ago but better late than never (the two titles taken together may well be the cleverest thing about these albums!) Keyboardist Beans, already the main player on the last album, dominates this one even more with a majority of tracks coated in a beat-filled wash of synths that leaves even less room for B and S’ characteristic sounds of guitar, piano and trumpets. B and S have slowly been edging away from their early 1960s throwback sound for thirty odd years now and are whole-heartedly in 1980s territory here, with ‘Developers’ sounding like one of those modern Human League albums, not least because of the extra share of vocals given over to Sarah Martin and Stevie Jackson but also because they use the same trick of unfolding warm-blooded songs of human angst and emotion set over a cold, austere backing that makes everyone feel extra lost. It’s a worthy twist on their usual sound and a logical progression on where we were previously, as it were, but across a whole album it sadly makes everything sound flat and repetitive, even after a few playings. It’s certainly much more of a ‘band’ record than, with covid rules relaxed enough to involve more in-person playing and less overdubs, even if everything has the same odd feel of spacing between every instrument so the band still feel separated (again, very Human League). After a run of albums that mined everything from folk to funk this is B and S’ new wave record and while that will be exactly what many fans want I miss the quieter, more contemplative sound of before, if only because all of the band’s usual fine lyrics are rather lost this time beneath the constant need to dance. Had the two albums been mixed up a bit more then I suspect it would have been a little better for both of them.

Releasing two albums so close to each other has inevitably led to comparisons and most critics seem to think that ‘Developers’ is the better album, but I’m not sure I agree. Where ‘Previous’ was an album of mostly highs with a couple of lows ‘Developers’ is one of those albums where everything is consistently good but nothing is truly great – certainly not as great as ‘If They’re Shooting At You’ from last year, the best B and S song in years. Most of the characters in these songs are recognisably in a similar place in their lives though – sad middle age, facing a bleak future, with half an eye yearning nostalgically for their past. Notably many of these narrators are alone once again, trapped in a house that’s too big to fill for one (‘a tower of hard-fought solitude’ Murdoch poetically calls it at one stage) and surrounded by dreams of how different things were going to be, once. Many of them refer to nervous breakdowns, of struggling to block out the pain. The difference is that these characters are maybe a little happier and accepting, slightly further down the road to recovery and ready to embrace second chances despite being burned, with a general album theme of forgetting your worries long enough to allow you to embrace the moment which crops up on around a third of the songs, though the mood is still quite low despite the all-singing all-dancing production.

The album starts promisingly with the fiery crackling guitars of perhaps the best song ‘Juliet Naked’, a very B and S tale of a lost and confused young girl at school, testing out her early rebelliousness because it feels like the right thing to do for her development as a Human being and not being at all sure why she’s been rewarded for her bravery with lines. Sexually promiscuous, she’s one of B and S’ unluckier characters, wondering why she’s paying the price of pregnancy and being shunned by her community when her boyfriend’s gotten away with everything scott free. Murdoch’s narrator is more distant than normal, seeing her boyfriend through her eyes and the way she used to look up to him when they were young and she was more mature than him, but now they’re older she’s dismayed to find him more immature than her, walking out on a love that was perfect for her because he’s scared. She still feels love for him though, the ‘Stepford wives’ to his ‘Goffin and King’ singing. It’s a punchier track than most in the band’s catalogue and sounds like the burst of energy in new wave songs circa 1979-1980 before everyone moved onto synths, as indeed the rest of the album does. ‘Give A Little Time’ has the narrator (sung by Sarah this time but still clearly in Stuart’s writing ‘voice’) reading through old correspondence and burning it as ‘nonsense’ but equally tells us ‘you can’t let the past be silent’, that it lives with you everywhere you go. ‘Time’ also says that ‘you don’t have time to waste time’ on the wrong people, or so it cries in the verses, but on the choruses its more in keeping with the particular brand of B and S nostalgia over happy golden glows of youth that stay with you as you grow older and set in your ways, accepting that by now the narrator has set so much time and effort into those around him he needs to be patient with them a bit longer. ‘When We Were Very Young’ is a very B and S song from the title down (the sort of thing they’ve been singing since they were indeed very young) and the saddest thing here lyrically, though you wouldn’t know that from the backing’s insistent rictus manic grin. Stuart’s stuck at home with nothing to do but a long list of chores, wishing that he didn’t remember when his dreams were so big they consumed him, his head racked with pain. ‘No one can help you when it gets this bad’ he sighs, wishing he could ‘walk away from my scars and sores’, the open wounds of the present and the hurts of the past. It’s the one track here that would have benefitted from being on ‘Previous’ and that album’s slightly softer, more reflective feel and the backing is more intrusive here than usual though it’s still a strong and revealing song.    

By ‘Will I Tell You A Secret?’ it feels as if Stuart and co have told us everything they could possibly tell, honest to an extreme and indeed it’s not much of a secret this revelation - ‘we were happy until we looked to tomorrow’ Stuart sings, as he wishes he was back living in the present with an ex before they started planning for a future that unravelled them. Like most of ‘Previous’ it finds Murdoch in transition, revisiting old relationships, discovering that its natural to be friends with someone you still like but impossible to be lovers, though whether with people past present or future all becomes a bit of a blur. Stevie immediately picks up on the idea as he so often does and spins a much happier tale over being ‘So In The Moment’, thrilled to have discovered a new spark of something and determined to give it his all to block out his own memories of past hurts. ‘I want to let go, like Paul McCartney and Wings!’ he sings, referencing ‘Letting Go’ from ‘Venus and Mars’, hoping that ‘wishes convert to kisses galore’ and that this love ‘will last for the rest of my life’, but pulling up short every time he starts to plan because controlling magic and trying to pin down something ethereal into facts and dates is when things go wrong. Unlike Stuart too the past and missed opportunities suddenly seems a long time ago and ‘it’s a long time to yesterday’. Being in the here and now is where it matters and he’s not going to waste the opportunity he’s been given by holding anything in, blurting out all his feelings as a running commentary so his lover knows exactly where he’s coming from without having to second guess him. Of all the songs here it’s the one that makes the most of its dance-driven backing that comes across with pure joy, although as a song its quite a bit slighter than other songs Jackson’s brought to the band recently.

It’s almost a shame when the inward plod of ‘The Evening Star’ comes back in with more Murdoch melancholy and another letter addressed to an ex, but of all the sad songs on this album this is Stuart’s most complex and thought out. ‘You’re still a special person to me’ he sings, perhaps with old bandmate Isobel Campbell in mind, even whole he knows there are other more recent people actually in his life he should be paying more attention to. ‘I knew you when we were little’ he sings ‘When I was a queer fish’ and he continues to watch her rise with respect and a little awe as everyone sees in her what he did before anyone else. Stuart admits he ‘messed up on the practical side’ and that it made him dig deeper into his ‘spiritual side’, one which even now gives him answers – such as the thought that she’s better off without him anyway, so he tears up yet another letter without sending it (something he’s been doing since ‘The Days Of The Bagenold Summer’ a couple of albums ago).  It’s the song that’s got the most attention from the album, perhaps because it’s the most traditionally sounding Belle and Sebastian song here, but fittingly for a song that’s about going through old times it feels a bit too recycled from songs great without quite being a great new one in its own right. ‘When You’re Not With Me’ is a rare second song for Sarah but again feels like another Murdoch missive, this time written in his muse’s voice (its no coincidence that Sarah and Isobel sound so alike that they often doubled up on their vocals and fans still have trouble telling them apart on old recordings, me included). ‘We speak a different language’ she tells him, the ‘light’ to his ‘shadow’, but they are having a conversation of sorts and admitting their neutrality: ‘We’re not lovers, but we’re not fighters’. Where Stuart feels lost and trapped in his big empty house she feels ‘lost in the open’, perhaps without a band to hide behind. ‘Come back to where it began’ Stuart seemingly imagines Isobel telling him, her feeling like him that life isn’t the same alone, asking him to if not run to her side exactly then to ‘stay in my line of sight’. It would be interesting to hear a companion song from Isobel, whose been going through quite a time of it herself what with the death from covid of her regular collaborator Mark Lanegan, her grizzly-voiced ‘Stuart’ substitute. Production-wise its by far the biggest moment on the album and a more daring piece than others on ‘developers’ with its sinister horror-movie vibe making it feel quite different to B and S’ usual fare, even if the structure and chord choices are pure Murdoch. 

The album’s first single ‘I Don’t Know What You See In Me’ is production heavy too but on safer, more commercial ground and sounds so like a Eurovision song I’m convinced it actually was an entry this year. It’s the last song a few more miles along the line, as two old lovers come together after a time apart, though oddly enough this oh so Belle and Sebastian song is not written by the band but Wauh Oh’s Pete Ferguson, clearly chosen because it fits their style so well(a song that accidentally flew in the ether to a different songwriter instead). Suddenly though, after waiting for this moment for so long, Stuart ‘s singer isn’t quite sure what to do or if he deserves it – last time he was ‘himself’ it all went wrong, but equally so did over-thinking, so instead he takes a leaf out of Stevie’s book and decides to live in the moment. With its big central musical hook you can see why it became the single whoever wrote it but it might well be the slightest, tritest one B and S have released, without the same depth as the rest of the record. It’s oddly placed on the album too, given that it’s in between two songs that are very much against a reunion; ‘Do You Follow?’, for instance, is  the bleakest song on the album whatever the happy production beat, ‘waiting like a coiled spring waiting for the phone to ring’ but knowing in its heart of hearts that it never will, that the past is done and over, that the similarities Stuart once felt with a lover when they shared the same experiences have turned into differences now that they’re apart. Notably this song is set as a duet, Stuart and Sarah singing to each other as they try to work out whose following who or whether they’re just going round in circles, each ‘worshipping at the altar of ourselves’ while knowing it isn’t good for them and waiting for the other to make the first move and call. What with the backing and the line ‘When you going to call me? When you going to want me?’ this is the most Human League of the lot, a sadder older wiser ‘Don’t You want Me Baby?’ but not quite as memorable I fear.

‘When The Cynics Stare Back From The Wall’ is an interesting one. If it feels a bit ‘old school’, with a wash of 60s style chords and a lower value production then that might be because its a ‘lost’ song from 1994, one which could have been on ‘Tigermilk’ (though its not quite up to standard and probably right to get the boot, equally it’s a surprise the band haven’t returned to it before as it’s still pretty good). It even returns to the setting of the cafe where B and S were first formed and Stuarts Murdoch and David made all their early plans. Thematically it fits this record well though, a comforting hug to anyone dating, urging them to be cautious but also to enjoy themselves and not worry too much about finding the perfect fit because the odds are against it – but also not to listen to their old and cynical advice! B and S have used a lot of ‘guest singers’ in the past and this song features Obscura Camera’s Tracyanne Campbell. She dated Stuart for a while in the ‘Dear Catastrophe Waitress’ period, in between Isobel and before wife Marisa and it’s a surprise she hadn’t guested before; her presence further muddies the waters of who exactly Murdoch is singing to, not least because he hadn’t yet written this song of advice when he first met her. It’s a sweet song, no long lost classic but with more of those characteristic Murdoch turns of phrases that no other writer gives you, ‘making the same mistakes over and over like a puppy with a broken leg’ and remembering ‘how you use to laugh till you cried on your bed at all the stupid things I said’. The album then ends with the title track, one last promise to live in the moment set against a breezy backing that’s actually genuinely joyous for once. A tale of second chances, Murdoch regrets all the times in his life he was over-thinking when the secret of life is just to enjoy it and take it as it comes. Like many an old B and S song he offers the advice to himself but also to the listener, offering to take us in his pocket as he goes out and celebrates life so we feel less alone – which, after all, is what we do with his music on our mp3 players and phones all the time, thus blurring the line between band and fans like the old days! It’s a clever idea on a slight song though, without even the depth of Stevie’s song on the same subject and a bit of a damp squib as an album closer.

The result is a mixed album, one that I don’t feel as emotionally invested in as I did ‘A Bit Of Previous’ and one where that album’s issues (the heavy handed production and the similar theme of the songs) are even more of problem, without that record’s devastating melodies or reaching the same peaks of lyric writing. All that said it’s still a solid album, a lot higher in the B and S pantheon than misfires like ‘The Life Pursuit’ or ‘Write About Love’ and a lot better than an entire second record released just eight months after a promising first has any right to be. Had the best of it, ‘Juilet Naked’ ‘So In The Moment’ ‘Cynics’ and ‘When We Were Very Young’ knocked out the lesser third of ‘Previous’ then it would have been a mighty powerful album indeed, but I also kind of like it as effectively a double set, the catch-all ‘White Album’ of the B and S catalogue filled with the same haunted lost opportunities, ghostly shadows, joyous singalongs, nonsense ditties and wonky experiments. This has been, if not quite a golden age, then a strong return for Murdoch’s songwriting after a quiet few years stretching back to the excellent ‘Girls In Peacetime’ record in 2015 and you hope that he finds peace and stability after what sound like a turbulent few years given the songs he’s been writing lately. Mercifully both records point towards that sense of recovery and stability and the growing space for Sarah and Stevie within the band bodes well for their future as a whole too – not least because, at their current trajectory mining influences from the 1960s through to the 1980s more or less in real time, they’ll hit their ‘Britpop’ style record very soon and that’s a sound that should fit them like a glove (it’s full circle to where they started, after all). I’m not sure ‘Developers’ is a record that will be getting a lot of space in my heart or time on my record player after its first eleven months and in many ways is a backwards step after the more adventurous and deeper ‘Bit Of Previous’, but this is a record that is still growing on me and might yet turn out to be a ‘Late Developer’ after all that grows in stature each time I hear it.

5) Allan Clarke “I’ll Never Forget”

It’s been 75 years since a five-year old Allan Clarke started at Ordsall Primary School and the teacher asked if anyone wanted to sit by him and an older boy named Graham Nash offered the empty chair next to his. 70 since they first went their separate ways either side of the cruel 11-plus system. 64 since they started singing together as ‘The Two Tones’. 61 this Christmas since they joined Eric Haydock’s band to become The Hollies. 60 since their first hit. 58 since their first UK number one. 56 since they made two of the greatest albums ever made released just months apart, ‘Evolution’ and ‘Butterfly’. 54 since they went their separate ways at the peak of their fame, ending up half a world away from each other. 40 since they last made an album together. 30 since they last made any music together (and it was, of course, a Buddy Holly cover). 24 since Clarke officially retired (and 30 since he last sang on a Hollie recording). 13 since a controversial Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of fame induction (when, depending on who you ask, Nash was incredibly controlling or his replacement Terry Sylvester incredibly rude). 11 since a surprise on-stage two-way reunion singing ‘Bus Stop’ at the Albert Hall  at a Crosby-Nash concert. And now, here they are, old friends again, on a full record of vocal ‘n’ harmonies, just like the old days, with a sound we fans had long assumed we’d never ever hear together again. It really is quite a story. In 1983, on a record that really didn’t sound much like The Hollies, Clarke and Naah (and Hicks and Elliott) told us that what comes around goes around. And like Halley’s comet (or should that be Holly’s comet?) they’ve finally passed this way in orbit again. And it all feels so right. As a lifelong Hollie fan I still keep having to shake my head that this album is quite real and not a fever dream or a mythical creature. But it is. The Clarke-Nash harmonies don’t quite sound like the days of old (Clarke’s voice faded rapidly after constant touring as a Hollies for nearly forty years, while Graham’s has just begun to lose its edge slightly too). The songs certainly don’t sound like Hollie songs and don’t sound that much like Clarkey’s mighty fine run of solo albums either, breaking out into new ground like country and blues. The songs overall are not quite as consistent or inspired as the ones on ‘Resurgence’ (although the better ones are a lot better). You miss the third edge that Tony Hicks used to give them, effortlessly sliding in between their vocal lines and the antiseptic modern backing isn’t great. But it still feels like magic that this album exists at all in any form, as unlikely to everyday life as seeing Puff The Magic Dragon, or Pegasus the Flying Horse.

The resurgence started with ‘Resurgence’, the eighth Clarke solo album released in 2019 nearly thirty years after his last. It was an impressive, triumphant comeback that won back many fans, but I don’t think I was the only one who felt that what it lacked most was the one thing people associate with The Hollies: harmonies. One of the people who loved it was Graham, who having burnt his bridges with CSN/Y called his old friend and said they should work together sometime, although it wasn’t until after covid hit that they finally agreed on a time and place. It’s interesting timing for Nash who, just as in 1983, felt so jilted by Crosby’s behaviour and hurt that he reached out to an even older his friend to make amends – only this time, alas, he never quite got to make amends with David Crosby before he died of covid in January. Sadly the pair changed the original plan, which was to make it an equal joint record from the get go, with songs by each, until it became a Clarke solo album with Nash guesting, but even so its still quite a collaboration. Nash wrote one of the songs (which also appears on his solo album) and sings on nine of the eleven tracks, as well as inspiring many of the tales of long-standing friendship and music-making that appear on the album.

The best moments by far are the ones that tap into nostalgia. The title track, for instance, is superb and the equal of anything Clarke was writing in his heyday, a poignant ‘will they won’t they?’ ballad written while waiting to see if the album would happen at all, filled with memories of long ago and a melody full of longing that really tugs at the heart strings. Like me Clarke is ‘lost for words’ at the thought of a reunion we all long assumed would never happen, a ‘line that’s already been cast’, desperate to treat it as a new experience but fully aware of all the unspoken past that’s gone between them. It’s kind of ‘My Life Is Over With You’, Clarke’s angry break-up song from ‘Hollies Sing Hollies’ in 1969 when he felt the betrayal of his school-hood friend walking out on their band, his home and their friendship to join C and S but (just like King Midas) in reverse as circumstances edge two friends slowly back together again, a touch of familiarity in a changing world. Cleverly, subtly, Nash joins in the song gradually, slowly edging his way to the middle after a life on the fringes of Clarke’s orbit until by the end of the second chorus he’s soaring together in tandem with his old friend just like old days, their older vocals sounding like their younger selves just for a moment of Hollie harmony heaven.

If the record only existed for that moment it would be worth it and even if it never quite matches those heights again there are still many memorable tracks. Next best is ’Movin’ On’, a title which quotes from one of The Everly Brothers’ most famous songs (the other big influence on a young Clarke and Nash), Clarke at home wondering about making this album and if its ever going to happen and telling nosy fans and reporters asking about a reunion ‘please don’t ask because I don’t know myself’. Clarke admits that a reunion has ‘always been on their minds’ but now they’re ‘reaching out for something new we’ve never done before’. Interestingly its about as far down Clarkey’s arena rock solo style and away from Nash’s folkier-psychedelia side as anything on the album, highlighted by some grungy guitar. Rather sweetly it has the pair back where they first began, two nervy people unused to working together in public, clutching their guitars and searching for the ‘something missing’ they need in their lives that can only be filled with that special sound, ‘waiting for a ride’ to take them to where they need to go, only this time it’s a musical ride to set them free. ‘The Presence Of You’ is clearly written for Allan’s wife Jennifer and their nearly sixty-year marriage ‘together for all time’, but Nash’s harmonies and harmonica give this cute sea shanty an extra gravitas and comfort that only an old friends can offer too (most of the harmonica playing on this album is Clarkey’s and is great to hear again, but that sounds much more like Nash’s notoriously sloppier style to me). ‘Maybe The Next Time’ is another track that wonders at missed opportunities with an old friend, with a moving lyric about ‘trying harder to connect’ with an old friend or an old flame and wondering if each time they speak will be the last now that they are growing old and time is growing short. It’s the song here that could most easily have fitted onto a 1970s Clarke solo album, particularly the ballad-heavy ‘I’ve Got Time’, with the sort of distinctive chord structure that only Allan could write. The opener ‘You Need Someone To Save You’ is a great song too, the one real rocker here from a singer who used to excel at them, the one piece here that sounds in-yer-face live with a tormented lyric about making mistakes and struggle versus hope, all about how life is better with someone you trust at your side. The track finds Clarke aping his ‘discovery’ Bruce Springsteen one last time (and sounding rather better than ‘The Boss’ does these days into the bargain). Nash doesn’t really join in until a middle eight, but the key change is very much the sort of lift they used to give each other’s songs, taking it in a whole other direction, even if here Nash is very much working to Clarke’s idea. Closer ‘Who Am I?’ also sounds as if it was inspired by the best of Nash’s impressive last record ‘This Path Tonight’ (not least the lines about finding a path to follow), a performer ready to head off the stage and into the great unknown, wondering what comes next (though unlike Graham Allan isn’t egotistical enough to imagine an audience pleading for an ‘Encore’!) It’s a groovy, rocking finale to an album that maybe could have done with a few more rockers in the middle to divide up the ballads.

The long awaited co-write ‘Buddy’s Back’ (the first Clarke-Nash co-write to be released since ‘Survival Of The Fittest’ in 1970!), the song that ended up on both albums, is by comparison slight but fun, as the old friends celebrate getting their ‘buddy back’ - a lyric that refers both to the special replica guitars they were awarded in 2012 by the Buddy Holly foundation (the reason Clarke was in town that night at the Crosby-Nash concert)  and an old friend coming back into their lives. It’s rather neat that the album should include such an obviously Holly-inspired song, given its heavy influence on both men’s careers and a Holly-inspired pun given the one in the ‘Hollies’ band name, although it’s hardly of the magnitude of the first batch of Holly-inspired songs the pair wrote together circa 1963, never mind the last career-defining batch they came up with in 1967-68. ‘When Loved Walked Out The Room’ too is so Holly-like, complete with the doo doo doos from ‘Peggy Sue Got Married’, although this song never quite catches fire either despite being the most Holliesy thing on the album (particularly ‘Hollies Sing Holly’). I have to say I’m not that convinced by the long run of country songs on this album either, a style that seems to have come out of nowhere for Clarke despite writing a number of (rocking) cowboy songs down the years, country being perhaps the one genre around pre-1990 that he didn’t try at some point as a Hollie or in his solo work and the slow tempo puts a little too much strain on his older lived-in voice (country is Nash’s Achilles heel too come to that, something he only tried once on second album ‘Wild Tales’ where the country songs are similarly by far his weakest compositions of the 1970s). It feels like a cul-de-sac and all the more surprising given how long its taken to find a road they can both travel down together. ‘Let’s Take This Back To Bed’ is a Hillbilly song about a marital tiff and how love is more important than any disagreement that features every country cliche but the dead horse (Stewball?) ‘You Shine A Light’ particularly is awful, easily the worst song on a Clarkey solo record, a cringey ploddy country pop song that’s so slow I can see tumbleweeds whirring past in slow motion. ‘You Didn’t Like It’, a country lament for mistakes and clashes and ‘not being right all the time’, is also pretty lame and the one song here that uncharitably points towards a still lingering bitterness at how things turned out in 1968. That would be great if it was a decent song, an honest appraisal of how splits aren’t always amicable and how reunions don’t just take that feeling away, but alas it sounds like the sort of drippy faceless thing Shania Twain would stick on a B-side and liven up by performing on the back of a horse than a suitable outing for a Hollie reunion. The biggest obstacle, though, is the anonymous modern backing which alas sounds more 1990s Hollies than 1960s, all big swashing synths and thumping drums and too many extra takes.

There’s nothing here that sounds like anything The Hollies did, with Nash in the band or not, no ‘I’m Aives’, no ‘Carrie Annes’, no ‘King Midases’, no ‘Long Cool Womans’ ‘no Air That I Breathes’  and not even the re-recordings-from-an-older perspective that made up so much of ‘Resurgence’ that might have gone down well with Nash on board (I’m still dying to hear Clarkey’s tribute to his newborn son ‘Lullaby To Tim’ properly, without Nash the singing electronic blender taking it over, while ‘Marrakesh Express’ - a song rejected by the Hollies in 1968 – would be fun with a Clarkey vocal. Maybe next album?) In other words, if you come to this album fresh, without knowing the history or how rare it all is, you might not get how important or wonderful ‘I’ll Never Forget’ really is; in the end it’s just another mixed Hollie solo album full of the good, the bad and the ugly. But it is special. As the title song goes, trying to recapture all the things that once were was never going to happen. The fact it happened at all, after all that hurt and mistakes and aborted plans down the years, its a miracle. It’s a testament to the longevity of a pair who’d long assumed they would never get to sing together again and the best parts of the album all centre round the same idea: a beaming smile that ‘gee, I never thought we’d actually get to do this again, just like the old days!’ In more than a few places the sheer joy of making this music mean the years slip away, that Clarke’s vocal loses all of that older-aged rasp and soars, while Nash stops floating somewhere vaguely nearby and soars fully in tandem, just the way they used to, especially on Clarkey’s more moving songs of having gained an inner wisdom and insight and wanting to make the most of things a second (third? Fourth?) time round. While only parts of this record reaches those great heights and even though it would have surely been better as a full-on Clarke-Nash collaboration, well, those parts are the ones I’ll never forget and if you’ve been here for even a tiny bit of the Hollie story and waited in vain to hear those voices together again as long as I have then neither can you. Look out for a surprise Clarke collaboration with Carla Olsen ‘It Makes Me Cry’, released late on in the year which can be found in our ‘songs of the year’ list, though really in time I suspect we’ll come to think of it as an ‘extra’ from this record, with the same ‘back together again after all this time’ vibes. Did Nash not like it? Did they run out of time? Or was it never meant for this album?

6) Graham Nash “Now”

Graham, meanwhile, has an album of his own out – one where Clarke pops up as a guest only on the choruses of a remixed ‘Buddy’s Back’. While Clarkey’s was written in a flurry of activity since lockdown Nash’s has been in gestation since 2016, when he had so many extra songs left over from this fertile period it seemed as if a follow-up album to the superlative ‘This Path Tonight’ was going to be imminent. Instead it’s taken a bit longer, with lots of new additions including some added at the last minute at the start of this year. Rather than sounding like a totally different path though we’re just slightly further down the road than last time – the world has fallen apart that little bit more but things are looking a lot rosier in Graham’s domestic bubble after taking the risk of a big life change and starting a new life with girlfriend Amy. ‘I really thought it was coming to an end’ sings Graham in the opening song, picking up directly from where he left off on the jaw-dropping ‘Encore’ which imagined his own death (in a very Paul Simon ‘7 Psalms’ way) but instead finds him thriving. The mood is still much the same – difficult events that wake you up and make you question what you really want from being alive – but after a few extra years of finding happiness in ‘Our House’ style domesticated bliss, its less a raging inferno and more a tiny rumble, the difference between going through hell and reflecting on having been through it in the rear view mirror. Which is great for Graham and anyone whose spent any of that journey with him looking for such happiness; less good for his music.

Though Graham’s always had the reputation of being a syrupy singalong kind of a writer I’ve always found that to be more than a tad unfair: it’s mostly the result of being in a band with hard political heavyweights Crosby Stills and Young and coming from the most melodic and clean-cut of their trio of ‘feeder’ bands (though The Hollies, at their peak, were every bit as heavy and political as The Byrds or Buffalo Springfield). It doesn’t help that his most famous CSN songs tend to be down the gentler side of their music - ‘Teach Your Children’ and ‘Just A Song Before I Go’. At his best though, as on most of ‘Songs For Beginners’, a good half of ‘Wild Tales’ and a fair chunk of ‘This Path Tonight’ Nash has teeth to bare with the best of him and is at his best when moved by injustice, of bad people doing bad things to good people. There’s not much of that here, on what’s easily his sappiest soppiest record to date, a long string of ballads about loving being in love again, broken up by a couple of sadder songs at the state of the world and another couple of edgier darker songs of loss that shine above the rest. Even so, the world whose problems once felt so very personal to a songwriter like Nash and which has suffered so much since 2016, feels removed throughout, a distance away, as if it’s happening to someone else. The news, which used to make Graham rant and complain, now just makes him sad, before he switches it off to go back to his hard-earned domestic bliss.

It’s hard to begrudge Graham his happiness after so long searching for it and his love songs sure are pretty, as they always are. It’s only because the world feels as if it needs a CSNY so much right now that ‘Now’ feels a bit of a disappointment, a slow graceful delicate thing sighing in the back in a world that feels as if it’s on fire. We need CSNY more than ever in a world of Trump, covid, Capitol Hill riots, climate crisis, race riots, wars, genocides, growing inequality,David Cameron’s comeback from the dead like the last zombie in a horror film you could never quite kill off and a mainstream music that’s been so streamlined it barely says anything at all about anything anymore. We need a release, someone to speak out on our behalf and with Stills all but retired, Young lost in his own fog of new love in the present and archive releases in the past and Crosby now sadly gone, it’s left to Nash to carry that torch for us. And it’s a light that’s down to a flickering flame. ‘Stand Up’, the one rock song here, tries hard to cajole us into taking a stand like the olden days with a searing guitar solo from Shane Fontayne on the fade (by far the most exciting moment here – it’s a real pity they’re not working together anymore, Shane leaving suddenly from Nash’s touring band in a move that caught most of us by surprise), a last gasp of hippie togetherness on a song that makes it clear how much the world has fallen since those days. ‘Golden Idol’ too features some classic Nash couplets about the January insurrection at Capitol Hill (‘They’re just like children who can’t stand losing and the truth is getting in their way’) and the orange-coloured ex-president who shines so brightly in their eyes. ‘Stars ad Stripes’ too feels like a missive for our times, Nash trying to remember ‘a time when the world wasn’t on fire’ and laughing at his youthful hope that humanity could change the world for humans if they cared enough (‘But then my optimism’s always been out of sight’ he sings before chuckling ‘ha!’) There are two songs that pick up from ‘This Path Tonight’ to varying levels of success. Opener ‘Right Now’ (funnily enough the name of an angry Manassas song Stephen Stills once wrote ‘for Graham after he ‘stole’ Rita Coolidge from under his nose!) is a dark teatime of the soul piece where Nash realises that he was ‘fooling himself’ with his life for too long and pretending to be someone he wasn’t, sleepwalking to the grave before he found his real self. It’s not quite as dark and life-changing as the best songs on ‘Tonight’ but it’s a step down the right path, you could say. ‘I Watched It All Come Down’ is the other tale of personal woe, Nash reflecting on the collapse of CSNY, all the hope and commitment that ended up a bunch of contracts, a ‘paperweight’ to weight down some business executive’s desk. Though a clever lyric it’s just a pale sequel to ‘Beneath The Waves’ (which had the better CSN metaphors, given how often they wrote about boats and pictured them on their album covers), which isn’t helped by the quite irritating staccato violin backing that sounds ugly and out of place on such an album of warmth. 

Mostly, though, it’s love songs and sweetness all the way and where the last album was all  about the hard task of cutting away the old this album is more about embracing the new. After that it’s a long series of cosy ballads that show promise separately but fall a little flat when taken together. ‘Feels Like Home’ might be the prettiest, a modern ‘Our House’, as Nash leaves all his trouble at the door as he walks off tour into his new house with his new wife and feels instantly at home, safe in his haven. There’s an oh so Nash melody designed to put a cheer on your face and some of that sloppy harmonica he always brings out for his more romantic songs. ‘Follow Your Heart’ is kind of ‘Sleep Song #3’ as Nash cuddles up with his wife in bed and watches her sleep while listening to their heartbeats play in syncopated rhythm, thinking up something to say in the morning to put a smile on his wife’s face so that it lights up and realising that the best thing he can say is ‘I love you’ over and over, because he means it. Another long slow meandering melody is alike a warm bath, especially compared to the harsh Wintry sound of ‘This Path Tonight’.  Closer ‘When It Comes To You’ is another lush warm ballad as Graham promises to try to be the man he wants to be, loving but honest, without any game playing. All these songs are nice. Stick them in the middle of any other Nash album they would sound pretty decent. Stuck all together on this record though, with their similar tempos and almost whispered vocals, it means the record risks floating away on a cloud without making the full impact it should.

The highlights by far are the two songs that reach backwards, not out of the anger of many other recent songs but out of love and forgiveness. ‘Buddy’s Back’ we’ve already covered on the Allan Clarke album; suffice to say its a tale of getting a guitar, re-discovering a boyhood hero and reconnecting to a friend all in one go, that’s a little too simple and derivative to quite take off (it’s a pure steal from Buddy’s ‘It’s So Easy’; hopefully Paul McCartney, who owns all the rights to Holly’s catalogue, won’t sue!) Clarkey’s growlier, more lived in vocals really power through the few times they haven’t been mixed out and, again, how much better these two solo albums might have been had they been mixed up a little more, with a bit more grit amongst the love songs. Though they sound very similar to the love songs Graham’s been writing for Amy and he hasn’t done much talking around this album over what inspired his songs, it doesn’t take much to guess who they’re for. ‘In A Dream’ sounds very like the simple piano ballads Graham was writing on ‘Songs For Beginners’, back when he was living with Joni Mitchell and sneaking off to write songs on her piano in the middle of the night on the few occasions she wasn’t using it herself to write the album ‘Blue’! Like much of ‘Blue’ and ‘Beginners’ both it’s a simple, direct, piano chord led song with a jazzy feel to it, quite unlike what we now think of as Graham’s usual work. The lyric is about seeing a past lover in a dream ‘shining brightly’ the way she always did and all the memories that come flooding back when the narrator wakes up, remembering what came between them and where both their life paths took them. Though he doesn’t come out and say it and there’s been more than a few lovers, wives and girlfriends in between, I’d bet anything he was thinking of Joni here. My favourite song though is ‘Love Of Mine’, a tender romance that Nash tells us is about making up following a tiff he had with Amy, but there’s something about the lyric that points towards a relationship that’s been around an awful lot longer than that so I’m not all that convinced. Nash looks back over past words, regretting hurting someone he loved while regretting how they hurt him, lowering his barriers now ‘someone clearly wants to heal’ and preparing to make amends. Only he’s too late, instead left wondering ‘can I ever make it right?’ and deciding that rather than get mad at the universe for ending things on such a low note after so many highs he should instead be thankful for having such a wonderful relationship in his life at all. Given CSNY’s Penchant for writing about each other I’m willing to bet this is one last song for Crosby at a time when relationships between them were just beginning to thaw and a very moving one at that. Even if it is only about Amy its his most inspired love song for her so far, full of all the warmth, romance and tenderness of the best Nash songs and all the better for its little-boy-lost fragility.  

Alas good as it is, pretty as it is, that excellent song feels somewhat lost coming right in the middle of so many similar songs on the same subject and played with the same feel. ‘Now’ is undeniably a far patchier album than its predecessor’s path but it is a record whose biggest problem is that its so similar all the way through, so that its greatest moments get lost and all blur together. That’s maybe not so much of a problem if you’re the sort of listener who streams and likes shuffling with the shuffle button but it is a problem when thirty minutes of a thirty-eight minute album sounds much the same. There are many songs that return to past themes and ideas too without many new paving stones laid on this path tonight – something which is after all quite natural for a songwriter in their 80s. ‘Now’ is a perfectly respectable album that deserves to do well. In other years it would be much further up the running order than sixth. It’s only after delivering both variety and breaking so much new ground on ‘Path Tonight’ I can’t help but feel slightly disappointed at how little this new album follows in its footsteps and instead takes an older, easier route. But then we are all on our own paths and after so much angst and doubt last time its more than good to hear Graham in his new happy place that might not have flowers in a vase or two cats in the yard but does sound as if it was everything he’s been searching for for so long.


7)  Crazy Horse aka Molina, Talbot, Lofgren and Young “All Roads Lead Home”

Well here’s an odd one, a Crazy Horse album in all but name, the first to be fully formed since 1979 (there is a half-finished 1990 album that got half-released through the Neil Young Archives later) and the first to have Nils Lofgren as guitarist since the 1971 debut, when as a fellow Young discovery and teenage hotshot he stepped in to help out an ailing Danny Whitten. However, this Crazy Horse don’t play together but with their own bands, individually. And they’re not credited as ‘Crazy Horse’ but the CSNY-ish sounding ‘Molina, Talbot, Lofgren, Young’. And this doesn’t sound like any Crazy Horse you may be thinking of (well, maybe the lesser known and selling ‘Loose’ from 1972 but nobody thinks about that album unless they have to). There’s none of the big cavernous rock and roll they’re famous for, in fact no rock and roll at all – there’s a couple of mid-tempo pieces but mostly this a collection of passionate yearning ballads. It seems that you can teach an old horse new tricks after all. 

Things become clearer when you learn that this was an album made in pandemic lockdown, when the four members were forced to work apart and lived too far away from each other to be in covid bubbles (though weirdly they all seem to have had their own bands live close enough to work with). None of these four collections of material were meant to be heard next to each other – they were all intended as solo albums that never got finished (with the exception of Neil of course, who donated an alternate acoustic solo version of ‘Song Of The Seasons’ from 2021’s ‘Barn’ which, a few postmodern lyric changes about how ‘you may have heard this song before’ and the lack of Nils’ accordion ironically, is otherwise unchanged). I’m not sure who it was who noticed how similar all these songs were (lonely and reflective about the state of the world) but it makes logistic sense to stick them all together as a sort-of ‘Crazy Horse’ album and have Neil’s presence give the album an extra financial push. After all, Crazy Horse couldn’t get a record contract for love or money in the 1980s or 1990s and though Billy and Nils have released some pretty great music under their own names over the past two decades too much of it has gone un-noticed. Commercially and thematically it makes sense. There are two big problems with this plan though. One is that the quartet’s solo albums have almost nothing to do with the big distinctive Crazy Horse sound, favouring a softer folk-rock style that’s more My Little Pony, so regular fans are going to be disappointed and CSNY-ifying the band name isn’t fooling anybody: only committed Neil Young fans  are going to recognise the names anyway. The other problem is that the ten songs on this album aren’t just complementary to each other – they’re too similar, to the point of sounding the same even after you get to know the album really well. There’s a reason bands rarely put out albums of nine ballads one after another; by the time you get near the end, far from getting into the really good lyrics about life being short, instead time seems to be standing still.

Individually, however, there are lots of great moments on this album, particularly if you listen to the songs one at a time in between listening to something else. To take the band members in order, bass player Billy Talbot has been on a rich seam of songwriting the past few years and his band’s second and third albums, released in 2014 and 2015 respectively, are well worth hearing (particularly ‘Welcome To Spearfish’, one of the hidden gems of the extended Young family catalogue). The same lineup play on his trio of songs for this album and they’re arguably the most ‘finished’ sounding of the lot, evidence of a group that know each other well. ‘Rain’ is a strong opener, a commercial slow burner about feeling lost, called to the next world by the swell of a ‘tide’ that’s all powerful even though ‘I’ve barely learnt to swim’, the narrator struggling to cope with the rain that falls at his feet and which could have forced him under until he uses it to push him forward. The moment when the chorus breaks through the murk sounds like the sun coming out, even though ironically it’s a simple cry of ‘rain!’ ‘Cherish’ is, like many a track on this album, a slow thoughtful ballad that follows on the same theme, Billy’s narrator urging himself through a rain storm to happier sunny days and which makes him appreciate the good things he has all the more. It sounds not unlike the Association as Billy urges us to ‘cherish life’ in all its dimensions, good or bad and make the most of being alive. It’s a very pretty, highly memorable tune with some lovely chords and while  Billy’s vocals have got growlier and growlier with age they really suit this song of loneliness and despair. ‘The Hunter’ is the weakest of his three songs, an even slower ballad that takes its cue from the hymnal end of the Neil Young catalogue, songs like ‘When God Made Me’ though lyrically this song is an expansion of the old Neil Young adage about how ‘rust never sleeps’. In this song Billy sings of ‘decay’, the slow onset of indifference and cosy familiarity that comes to all performers if they keep going long enough, half-hunter, half-prey as they enter a dance with the creator, the satisfaction and happiness writers crave but which is also so deadly to their work. I didn’t like this song at all at first, which at times is so slow even for this album it feels as if its running backwards, but it’s slow stately groove has grown on me a lot and Michael Hamilton’s electric guitar washes are the closest in feel to the Crazy Horse style across the whole album, worthy of being compared to Young himself. Overall Billy’s songs are by far the most successful portion of the album and bode well for a full fourth band album one day.

Drummer Ralph Molina has never released a solo album, even though for me his songs are the highlights of all the Crazy Horse albums post-Whitten and his pure falsetto voice is under-rated too. These songs don’t rank amongst his best work but they’re still evidence of what an under-rated talent he is. ‘It’s Magical’ is the most upbeat, commercial track here with Joshua Sklair doing a fine impersonation of Young’s guitar part this time. It’s a catchy but not very deep love song, a tribute to someone whose been inspiring him for so many years, which is probably his wife but could just as easily be his bandmates the ambiguous way it’s written. ‘Look Through The Eyes Of Your Heart’ is also pretty but pretty forgettable, even though it’s the only song here that comes close to having the famous Crazy Horse ‘waddle’. Interestingly it’s a co-write with Anthony Crawford who also plays acoustic guitar – another Young alumni whose vocals cheered up ‘Everybody’s Rockin’ and ‘Old Ways’ up considerably. This time its Marco Cecilia who provides the burst of electric guitar on another love song/spiritual asking for continued strength. Ralph also gets the last word on the album, the passionate piano ballad ‘Just For You’, a vulnerable emotional song that returns to the theme of Billy’s opener by singing about how all the rain life can throw at him washes off his back thanks to the love that keeps Ralphy moving and grooving. Only there’s not much grooving at all on this simple song, which would be more at home on an Elton John or Leo Sayer record. The saxophone solo is also excruciating, false and schmaltzy, but then as long-time readers of this site will know it’s a rare song that can feature a saxophone solo and not sound hollow and false. It’s Ralph’s weakest song and probably the weakest one here, though his vocal still sounds good.

Nils Lofgren is, as even longer-time readers of this site will know by now, one of my favourite singer-songwriter-guitarists. Though his solo albums might not be the best known of the AAA alumnus they are every bit as good as the best of them, particularly the brace of songs written in his early solo years (including the brilliant ones on Crazy Horse’s debut) and the personal songs of 1990s albums like ‘Damaged Goods’. Unfortunately he has a simple soppy, sappy side too and its mostly that we get on this album, with his trio of songs the most forgettable not just on this album but perhaps his career as a whole. Sadly I fear they won’t inspire many fans to look out the rest of his catalogue, but they really should. ‘You Will Never Know’ is a simple love song about all the wonderful things a lover does for the narrator that are too many for him to count so he never gets to tell her and ‘you will never know’. Ever busy, Nils performs everything except the acoustic guitar, provided by his younger brother and long-term bandmate Tom – I’d never heard him play the drums before but he’s really good. ‘Fill My Cup’ is a little better and much more Lofgren-like, a Grin-like song of being ‘hungry’ and searching for love with an insistent quick-stepping blues riff that won’t take no for an answer. It would have fitted in well on ‘Silver Lining’, an album of mostly teenage doubts and anxieties released in 1991 (when Nils turned 40!) Even so, it’s a catchy bit of fluff rather than one of his deeper or more impressive songs with Kevin McCormick, Nils’ longtime bass player, the only other person on the song. ‘Go With Me’ is oddly forgettable too, yet another of this album’s piano ballads about love, Nils imagining all the things he and his wife are going to do once the pandemic is over that they always took for granted before, including a candlelight dinner and dancing. It fits the album’s themes of making the most of life well, but it’s hardly the most original song and the repetitive chorus soon gets tiring, even if the characteristically busy Nils guitar solo, bursting at the seams with enthusiasm to embrace life after a period of quiet, is sumptuous.

That just leaves Neil’s alternate reading of ‘Song Of The Seasons’. It was one of my least favourite tracks on ‘Barn’, Crazy Horse’s big post-pandemic get together, and like rather too much of that album sounded unfinished and half-hearted for all its worth, a little too much asked of the Horse who were playing along live for a finished take when they’d barely got to hear it in rehearsals. I much prefer the Neil-only version which sounds a lot more focussed and polished, while the lyrics about Neil home alone (in a ‘different’ barn) staring out at nature and in awe at its colossal power, wondering if he sees God in its hazy windy outline (and, weirdly, comparing him to his new wife’s hair), fits the album’s mood well. It’s still not one of his more convincing or inspired songs though and at seven rambling minutes rather outstays its welcome, never quite finding a proper tune. It’s actually no match for the Billy songs on this album or the best of Ralphy’s either, but its Neil’s name that pays the bills and I can see why it’s here.

Overall, then, ‘All Roads Lead Home’ is an interesting experiment rather than a crackling return to form, a record that works in parts but which might yet have been better as four separate solo albums or even better re-recorded by the band together post-pandemic, blowing away the cobwebs of lockdown with a burst of unity and brotherliness on songs that were written during a lonely and confused time. It’s clearly no match for the Whitten debut and though deeper and more musical than ‘Crazy Moon’ lacks that album’s electric punch and swagger too, even if its arguably better than ‘Loose’ ‘Crooked Lake’ or ‘Left For Dead’. At least this is the ‘pure’ Horse this time, more or less, without ‘borrowed’ songwriters, singers or synths getting in the way, though it’s such an empty sounding album that arguably it needs something there to fill up the sound. Still, the good bits (Billy’s and one or two of the others) are really good, roads worth travelling despite the cul-de-sacs along the way and make me hopeful that, even after the sudden surprise retirement of Frank Sampedro a few years ago, there are still pastures new for the Horse to gallop after in the future. Just come to it as a sort of ‘bonus extra’ rather than another ‘Zuma’ ‘Rust Never Sleeps’ or ‘Ragged Glory’. And if you’ve never heard Crazy Horse away from Neil go and buy the self-titled debut album and hear what they were really like in their youth when they were the best backing band in the world, Nils was the best Neil substitute going and Danny Whitten was about to be one of the best things to ever happen to rock and roll. Now that was a road and a half...

8) The Rolling Stones “Hackney Diamonds”

Well its finally here, a new studio album of original material, in true Stones style gate-crashing the party so fashionably late everyone had assumed they’d given up and gone home long ago while sounding effortlessly youthful and full of energy. In the 18 years since ‘A Bigger Bang’ we’ve seen so many world changes: back then Tony Blair seemed as low as British politicians could sink, Donald Trump was best known for his awful acting in ‘Home Alone 2’ rather than his awful acting in front of the news cameras, climate change was spoken about in the future tense not the present, corona was a district in New York not an intergalactic superbug, the fallout from 9/11 was still in the air instead of down on the ground, Mick Jagger was three whole girlfriends back and Alan’s Album Archives didn’t exist yet. It feels so very odd reviewing the first ‘proper’ Stones album in our fifteen year existence after so many (so so so so many!) compilations and live albums. Not least because  this record has become something of a running joke: we first heard the Stones were working on this set in 2012 when a couple of songs ended up on ‘Grrr!’, the 2016 blues covers album ‘Blue and Lonesome’ was advertised as a ‘warm up session’ for the new album that was coming any minute now, honest and in 2020 lockdown single ‘Living In A Ghost Town’ was rush-released as a preview for an album that was as near as out already. The Stones get bored easily and many of their albums since 1970 have started by plundering the vaults for outtakes they can start to work on until inspiration strikes and this album took longer than most, interrupted by tours and solo projects and autobiographies and fallouts and feuds and injuries; yes, unbelievably this is the first Stones album since Keith Richards fell out of a palm tree, a fact that’s gone down in rock legend, it was that long ago. That most recent attempt to make this record stalled just a few songs in after the biggest change to rock the Stones world in half a century: the death of Charlie Watts. Charlie’s death seems to have given the Stones a rare sense of mortality and spurned the others to finally get on with this record without distractions (diamonds are created under pressure, after all) and they gave themselves just a few weeks to make ‘Hackney Diamonds’, with a tight deadline of six months to both write and record it, getting rid of most of the material they’d come up with in the meantime.

Which is a shame. As much as I like the meaner, leaner sound of this record (made by Mick, Keith and Ronnie with new drummer Steve Jordan, one time Neil Young session musician – with most of the bass played by either Keith or Ronnie, bar a few guest appearances) I can’t help but feel that, despite the 18 year gap, ‘Hackney Diamonds’ is a record that’s a little rushed and needed a bit more time in the oven, a couple of stunners short of a classic and with most songs a couple of middle eights shy of being all they could be. It’s a record that plays safe in so many ways, an album made by knights of the realm rather than the counter-culture revolutionaries the establishment used to fear (I do like the title though, which cleverly plays it both ways. Most fans seem to have missed the pun given that this album was delayed from its intended release in the band’s anniversary year of 2022, but this is both a diamond anniversary celebration of respected elders and a joke about the band’s less than salubrious past, a ‘Hackney Diamond’ being local London slang for a smashed windscreen in a hit and run. Not sure about the cover art though, a crystal being split in two by a sword to look like a heart, although I liked it more when someone pointed out the two sides of the heart look like Mick ‘n’ Keith’s caricatures, the sword perhaps being everything that’s come between them but they reunited out of their bleeding heart anyway. Or something like that. Honestly there’s not much to go on with this album so I have to have something to talk about somewhere). And honestly, as much as people deride the modern (say 1980s+) Stones albums, which I tend to like more than most, they’ve always kept a little of that dangerous counter-culture spark burning. There isn’t any of that on this record, whose angriest moment (on a song named ‘Angry’) is a lover’s tiff, on a disc uncharacteristically full of love songs. Nor are there any of the emotional honest outpourings that made ‘A Bigger Bang’ such an undervalued under-rated album, the tracks like ‘Laugh I Nearly Died’ (a song of guilt for Jerry Hall), ‘Streets Of Love’ (another song of guilt for Jerry Hall) and ‘Infamy’ (a defensive song about critics picking on them) where the Stones sounded as if they meant every word. Nor is there the authenticity of ‘Blue and Lonesome’, an album of grief for all it was a record of cover songs, Jagger coming to terms with the suicide of his longterm partner L’Wren Scott. Nor is there the pretty darn impressive world-study ‘Living In A Ghost Town’, which even before covid hit to give it an extra layer of darkness was a spot-on comment on an economic downturn that meant communities and high streets were shutting their doors. I’d still take the new songs on compilation ‘Grrr’ over most of this one. There’s none of that depth on ‘Hackney Diamonds’, which is a series of pop songs at different speeds and mildly disappointing given all that time and all those dropped hints of how good it was going to be.

Which is not to say that its bad. The Stones are still really good at writing pop songs and they’ve not lost their deft touch at writing rock and roll riffs that seep into your skull for days on end. This might well be the most tight and consistent record the Stones have made for decades, without any of the usual duff songs you want to skip: even my favourites ‘between The Buttons’ and ‘Satanic Majesties’ couldn’t manage that, while even the most famous of Stone albums are best described as ‘sprawling’. I really like the no-overdubs back-to-basics feel, which lets Ronnie especially fill more of the ‘space’ in the middle than he’s usually allowed and sound like an integral part of the band rather than an add on, the way he was for so many years. Mick is one of those singers whose as good or as bad as the band beneath him and because they’re so good here he’s excellent – audibly excited to be playing with his old band again and adding depth and soul to lyrics that, all too often, don’t deserve them, sounding way better than any man in his 80s whose lived that kind of a rock and roll lifestyle deserves to. Keith isn’t here as much as I’d like, but you can still tell that distinctive guitar swagger a mile off. There’s no getting round it though: I miss Charlie’s jazzy swing more than I expected to and a lot of the backing tracks sound a bit lifeless and too ‘perfect’ for a band, like the Stones who should always be on the edge of collapse rather than nailing every beat. That’s not Steve Jordan’s fault either: for all that his noisy drumming drowns out Neil Young on his 1986 album ‘Landing On Water’  (the other place AAA readers might know him from) he’s generally a subtle drummer, more malleable than most and Charlie himself picked him as a replacement if anything ever happened to him. Like Kenney Jones in The Who, though, he can’t compare to what came before – because nobody played like Charlie (just as nobody played like Keith Moon). The best songs on ‘Hackney Diamonds’ don’t feature much drumming at all; you wonder whether that was a deliberate choice after Charlie died, or whether in some alternate universe Watts would be grumbling at how little he’s given to do across this album. Play this record back to back with ‘A Bigger Bang’ though (a record where Charlie played better than ever before) and you can tell what’s missing though: the punches have power but they don’t quite land with the same fancy footwork.  

There are a lot of guests along for the ride on this album. Some of them are perfect: if this does end up being the band’s last hurrah (and if they leave it another 18 years you think it would kind of have to be – but maybe they’ve got the recording bug now and we’ll get a follow up in 2024?) then I love the fact it ends with both Bill Wyman and Mick Taylor invited back into the fold, following a few guest concert appearances to thaw the ice down the years. Both Stones were quiet, reliable souls rather browbeaten by their noisier bandmates so it’s great that on their return they get a chance to properly shine and show off what they can do in a way they were only rarely allowed to before: Bill’s warm bass runs instantly stand out on an album full of Keith or Ronnie’s more rhythmic, less melodic playing and Mick T gets to soar on his guitar solos, providing the legato moments on an album that’s mostly staccato. Against all the odds Lady Gaga is a more than worthy replacement for Merry Clayton, going toe to toe with Jagger on the album’s best and most emotional song ‘Sweet Sound Of Heaven’ which, rather beautifully, has a line about how the next world reverberating to the sound of drums now somebody special is up there. Stevie Wonder is rather anonymous on the same track though and the much discussed and anticipated guest spot for Paul McCartney, making his first appearance on a Stones song since singing falsetto harmonies on ‘We Love You’ way back in 1967, might as well not have turned up. Talking of Paul, he suggested the producer for these sessions, the Stones having decided their first attempts with regular collaborator Don Was, well, wasn’t this time for whatever reason (he does have something of that late 1990s/early 00s sound which would be kind of dated now, though I liked his work more than most – he found a way of making the Stones slightly more dangerous than they had been, less mainstream; those sessions’ lone song included here ‘Live By The sword’ suggests he could have updated that signature style though). Macca worked with producer Andrew Watts on 2021’s lockdown album ‘McCartney III’ and recommended him – the others may have been touched by the thought of having at least one Watts oversee them on this album. A lot of fans have approved of his work here but I’m not sure I’m one of them: like ‘Macca III’ all the quirky bits have been taken out, leaving the sound a little too stylised and ‘perfect’. This is, however, an impressively timeless sounding album, recorded on as much analogue equipment as modern recording allows with impressively few period synths of ‘cutting edge’ technology that’s inevitably going to sound dated a few years down the line – one that isn’t tied in time the way the last, well, fifteen-twenty odd Stones studio sets have been.

It’s the songs that really let this one down. Most of them are anonymous Stones pop-rockers from the lighter end of their discography, a little too obviously written to sound like Stones songs and sell a record rather than because there’s lot to say. They’re all pleasing to the ear but a little anonymous and all tend to follow the same pattern, at the same tempo, often in the same key, played with the same gusto. Most of them are on the same subject too: ‘you hurt me and now I feel betrayed’, something I suspect is Jagger continuing to work his way through the repercussions of his split with Jerry Hall and L’Wrenn Scott’s rather shaming suicide note that blamed her boyfriend’s failure to commit long term as one of the things that pushed her over the edge, with just a hint of the on-off again feud between the Glimmer Twins who’ve spent most of the past eighteen years going in very different directions, only really reuniting on stage. This is a band lashing back in self-defence at anything and everyone, the way they used to when they were exiles on the run from the law, but a little bit aimlessly without the precision of songs past. ‘Angry’ is about a man whose angry (and which sounds very like the 1986 Paul McCartney track ‘Angry’ but not even that good), ‘Get Close’ is an insomniac song about prowling empty streets at night with a repetitive chorus, ‘Depending On You’ is a love ballad about betrayal not quite as tender or as good as Mick ‘n’ Keith’s past classic, ‘Bite My Head Off’ is Angry’ part II (though played with a real groove and fire, the best band performance on the album), ‘Whole Wide World’ has an interesting lyric about being cut off by friends (perhaps in the wake of L’Wren’s suicide) but the soppy tune takes away any fizz, ‘Mess It Up’ is an angry ex getting their own back (and could be Mick or Keith writing about the other in their books or in stories to the press, leaving a trail of personal secrets and illicit photos for the public to find, starting rumours and lies but without the frisson of danger from when they used to do this sort of thing a lot in the 1980s), ‘Live By The Sword’ is a promising riff under-served by a parable Jagger lyric that doesn’t really say much and ‘Driving Me Too Hard’ is ‘Angry’ part III. None of these nine songs are awful mind – on their own they’re all quite pleasing, highly catchy and played really well, while pretty much all of them could have been credible album singles – it’s when they’re all heard in a row they don’t quite work.

Not that ‘Hackney Diamonds’ is just a hack job from a band who’ve lost it: the album really comes to life on the three songs that try something a little bit different and mine influences beyond the pop and rock. ‘Dreamy Skies’ is a beautiful sleepy ballad, perfectly set in the heart of the album as an escape from all that power and noise, with lashings of pedal steel from Ronnie Wood mimicking ‘Little Red Rooster’ and delicious Jagger harmonica. Mick’s had enough of the world and has legged it back to the heart of the country, enjoying life without connections be they technological or human, where the only human sound is a beaten up old radio playing Hank Williams tunes (an obvious inspiration for this lovely track) and ‘bad honky tonk’. ‘It’s good for my soul and saving my skin’ Mick croons. It’s good for his music too, with a life and inspiration in this song that’s a delight to hear. There’s a really strong three-part ending to the album too. ‘Tell Me Straight’ is Keith’s lone showcase on the record and while its not up to his very best it’s an interesting song with a complex minor key lick that feels even odder and more out of place on such a simple, straightforward album. The lyrics sound like a continuation of ‘World War III’ from the 1980s as Keith (or maybe Mick giving him words to sing again) asks questions over a lover’s behaviour: do they still believe in this partnership? Or should they call it quits? Because being in the no man’s world in the middle is uncomfortable. We never get an answer, this song’s awkward riff hanging in the breeze and while the lyrics don’t really move much further than the title it’s a welcome attempt to do something darker and more autobiographical, the fly in an all too sweet ointment full of genuine anger rather than the clichéd raging of the rest of the record. ‘Sweet Sound Of Heaven’ is a veritable Stones classic as great as any in their back catalogue, a ‘Shine The Light’ style gospel song that’s in awe at the idea of heaven, even after a career of singing about hell. As much as he had sympathy for the devil Mick suddenly feels the call of the angels firsthand, which is as big a shock to him as it is for us. And then we get one last encore, a final and very suitable blues cover, Howlin' Wolf’s ‘Rollin’ Stone Blues’ which part-inspired Brian Jones to give this band their name. It’s played a lot better and is a lot more heartfelt than any of the similar covers on ‘Blue and Lonesome’ and is played with an earthy grit and fire missing from much of the record. There are few harmonic players better than Jagger and hearing just him and Keith’s strumming guitar, back right where we near-enough began, after one of the biggest and best journeys in music, is downright perfect. I can guarantee this is the first thing Brian Jones will mention when his old bandmates finally make it up to hear the sweet sounds of Heaven in person.   

Four great songs out of twelve ain’t a lot but it ain’t bad either. ‘Hackney Diamonds’ does all it has to do after so long away: remind us about who everyone thinks this band is, with just enough reminders that they’re more than just their caricature. In truth I’d have loved a lot more of the rule-breaking, which is such an intrinsic part of the Stones’  DNA after all: this album’s main course isn’t anywhere like as interesting as the breadcrumbs dropped on compilations, live albums and singles on our way here. It feels as if this album started off as an attempt to sound like every Stones era (the blues of 1962, the swamp rock of 1969-70, the gospel of 1972, the harder edged pop of the 1990s and 00s) but then the band got stuck and ended up repeating themselves instead (a shame: I’d love to have heard some 1966-67 style psychedelia). Had ‘Hackney Diamonds’ been released a year or two since the last one it would have been a knockout, but after so long a gap this recorded needed to feel special and in truth it only feels special in parts. Well, as they once sang, ‘you can’t always get what you want – but you might just find you get what you need’ and there are enough fans who will lap this up and indeed have already. A deep, thoughtful melodic Stones album would only have appealed to fans like me, not those who pay for the endless compilations, every deluxe re-issue (even I baulked at some of them) and high ticket prices. I can’t quite bring myself to jump into the wowed reviews of everyone around me (I’ve seen so many reviewers call this album ‘the best/most important since ‘Some Girls’ when it isn’t actually as big a bang as ‘A Bigger Bang’, but then I did like that album more than most), but I don’t dislike it either: certainly it’s a lot better than a band with a reputation and pedigree and money like this one needed to make. Perhaps the best and certainly most Stonesy thing about this record was the publicity: the album was announced with a mock advertisement in a Hackney paper and the website set up for first single ‘Angry’ was deliberately designed to crash, with mock-apologies for making fans ‘angry’ that’s very meta and actually quite funny (again, both ideas seem to have been borrowed from McCartney, who did something similar with extra-curricular albums ‘Thrillington’ and ‘The Fireman’). There are lots of good ideas, great intentions, bright moments galore – just not quite enough to make this album stand out the way it needed to after so long away. Not quite a diamond then, but ultimately not quite a smash and grab either.

9) Lindisfarne “Radio Times: At The BBC 1971-1990”

Talking of unexpected reunions, the three surviving founder members of Lindisfarne (Jacka, Ray and Rod) got back together again recently for the first time since 1990 to plug this new set, an equally unlikely pigs-might-fly epic box set of eight jam-packed discs of Lindisfarne BBC sessions. Honestly, I’m not sure which event has shocked me more. I mean, I was impressed when we got a two-disc set of BBC Lindisfarne tapes in 2009, especially when the sleevenotes made it clear how few of the band’s recordings existed complete in the archives. A lot exist on bootleg though and have been cleaned up as well as they can be, along with bits and pieces and a couple of tracks missed out last time around for space reasons and repetition plus four discs of the reunion era band that weren’t considered before. Lindisfarne were, in their heyday, never off the radio and being the favourite band of John Peel’s wife meant they were on his show in particular more than almost anyone. There are no less than seventeen separate BBC radio sessions on this set, as well as eight concerts and a lone TV soundtrack (the visuals alas long since wiped).

The result is, like many a BBC set, one for the completist rather than the casual fan, the sort of person who’ll jump up and down at hearing a slightly different tone on the harmonica lick for ‘Meet Me On the Corner’ or thrill at some extra strummed notes on the intro for the set’s eighth ‘Lady Eleanor’, a fascinating alternate history of a band told through unfamiliar performances of familiar material. This set is better than most though, partly because Lindisfarne were the sort of loose band who never played the same song the same way fully twice and were always twiddling their setlist, even in sessions taped days apart, and for the amount of rarities crammed within. Some of them have been given brief hearings before, on the long-deleted ‘Buried Treasure’ trio of rarity sets from the 1990s (some of the hardest of all AAA albums to track down these days, as I well know to my cost and bank manager’s horror). Some of them turned up in different studio versions on an array of CD re-issue bonus tracks too which are themselves quite rare nowadays. Some songs were only ever released – in different live recordings – on albums given away to concert-goers and included in the ticket price at certain 1980s shows. And some songs haven’t been heard at all.

Most of the rarities, weirdly, are blues songs (originals and covers) – not the most obvious sound when you think of Lindisfarne’s folk-rock-psychedelia-country hybrid, but a major part of their pre-fame sound and one that Ray ‘Jacka’ Jackson in particular always loved (and he sounds by far the most at home on, it has to be said). Indeed, where other Lindifsarne sets and particularly the documentaries make Lindisfarne out to be songwriter Alan Hull’s band first and foremost here they’re very much Jacka’s. Hearing so many blues songs sprinkled across this set is quite a revelation; a sort of re-writing of history where the focal point isn’t Hully’s tales of poetic folk and stabs at injustice but a band that revolved around their lead singer and his bluesy voice that could fill halls and get audiences dancing on one leg with ease and it’s a particularly strong set for Jacka fans. By far the most interesting unheard recording is ‘Why Can’t I Be Satisfied?’ from the first, rare and still rather hissy sounding session for ‘Sounds Of The 70s’ in 1971, a Rod Clements song that won’t be recorded properly till Lindisfarne split and turn into Jack The Lad (another band overdue a BBC set of their own) heard here three years earlier as a tentative blues rather than a stomping rocker, with Jacka singing rather than Mitch. From the same programme three months later there’s a tentative cover of Son House’s 1930s classic ‘Walkin’ Blues’ which sounds downright odd played with the familiar Lindisfarne plod. Stronger is another blues classic, Elmore James’ ‘I’m Comin’ Home’, taped for a Mike Ravens session the same month, May 1971, when Si Cowe’s growly guitar turns almost Claptonish while Alan Hull twinkles away on piano. It’s joined by old friends ‘Knacker’s Yard Blues’ ‘Jackhammer Blues’ and bluesiest of all ‘Train In G Major’ for a full quartet of blues performances! Skipping forward to disc five and 1979 the blues songs keep coming with ‘When It Gets The Hardest’, the rare Jacka-written B-side of ‘Jukebox Gyspy’ that’s much better and more adult than the sniggering cod-sexy A-side. I didn’t know Lindisfarne had ever played it in concert (it’s way better than the rather tame studio version). Ditto ‘Love In A Cage’, an odd little blues number performed in 1981 but unreleased in any form till a best-of in 2003 alongside Jacka’s old war horse ‘Bye Bye Birdie’ that never quite made it onto a Lindisfarne studio record though it was on quite a few live ones. Triple ditto 1984’s ‘Living On The Bass Line’ from one of the many Christmas shows at Newcastle City Hall, a very Lindisfarne tale of poverty and music with a very Lindisfarne pun in the title. There’s a slightly wonky performance of the famous ‘Peter Gunn’s Gunn’ instrumental leading into a shambolic but thrilling ‘Winning The Game’ from Jacka’s last tour with the band in 1990. And there’s a trio of blues songs from a Paul Jones blues session of 1987 that rounds off the set as Lindisfarne go back to their roots when they were ‘The Downtown Faction’ (i.e. before they met Hull), with the slow ‘Sporting Life Blues’ the best.

Elsewhere Lindisfarne reveal time and again what a tight band they are, not just on the obvious songs they trotted out for pretty much every session but the sort of songs you don’t often get to hear live. Highlights include the lovely folk-rock of ‘From A Window,’ an outtake from the ‘Nicely Out Of Tune’ debut sessions not released till ‘The Charisma Years’ in 2011. There’s a beautiful, haunting version of under-rated ‘Eleanor’ B-side ‘Nothing But The Marvellous Is Beautiful’ where the rough edges of a live session really make this tale of confusion and strife come alive. There’s a ramshackle ‘Turn A Deaf Ear’ from the debut album cut from the previous set’s June 1971 John Peel session, possibly because it’s not so nicely out of tune! There’s an all too brief extract from what sounds like a cooking show at 1971’s Lincoln Festival with a cracking ‘We Can Swing Together’ and a rather odd and nervy interview with Si who didn’t tend to do the interviews (‘We’re very dependent on weather and looked very big!’ Maybe Jacka and Hully were too busy down the pub that day?) There’s an eighty second hiss-filled snippet of a ‘Dingle Regtta’ which is all that exists from a ‘Full House’ TV broadcast. There’s a sad but fascinating session from January 1973 with a very different feel all round when Lindisfarne are breaking up and not in the best of health even if no one outside the band’s inner circle knows that yet (‘Happy New Year!’ jokes Jacka at one stage, fashionably late as always on a show that went out on January 18th ‘Huh!’ retorts Hull, who clearly wants 1973 over and done with as quickly as possible, while he messes up ‘Swing’ by improvising random lyrics about Scooby Doo, much to the other’s audible confusion). A pair of sets by the under-rated Mark II band have already been picked for release before but are some of the best things here, especially the more prog rockish ‘Lady Eleanor’ from John Peel session in December 1973 and a ‘Sounds Of The 70s’ quartet from April 1974 plugging ‘Happy Daze’, the better of their two albums.

By disc five and the halfway point the original Lindisfarne are back together again but unlike the enthusiasm of their studio releases (which might not have matched their old stuff for a full record but frequently matched it on individual songs – 1982’s ‘Sleepless Nights’ especially is a cracker) they sound down in the dumps in the studio, leaden compared to the olden days. Especially discs five and six where a stilted band play a lot of similar setlists heavy on the piano ballads and ‘Back and Fourth’ songs that never quite flew on stage without the polished production and orchestras (I’m not convinced many of the songs got off the ground on the album either, but I seem to be in a minority in the fanbase over that one, given that its one of my most commented on reviews!) Oddly the best of the lot from January 1979 is ‘Brand New Day’, a lovely and optimistic Hull song that was relegated to a concert-only record concluded with the ticket price a few years later but sounded much better here when it was, well, brand new. A hissier unheard session from 1981 is little better, although it is very rare – Ray Jackson himself provided the tapes which don’t officially exist in the BBC archives (sadly nine other BBC sessions don’t appear to exist at all – I wish he’d got a tape recorder a little earlier to catch them too but its great to have these treasures we thought were lost). It’s not till the Cambridge Folk festival in 1982 that Lindisfarne get some of their old strut back again, with a series of songs from ‘Sleepless Nights’ that sound great live with the production cobwebs blown away, particularly the catchy ‘Start Again’, a more doo-wop driven ‘Nights’ and one of Hully’s angrier Falklands-inspired numbers ‘Stormy Weather’. Visual footage of this gig exists too and is long overdue release on some future Lindisfarne DVD as a hint – after getting a BBC set like this suddenly anything seems possible! Things drop in quality slightly for another hissy show, one taped for a Christmas concert at Newcastle City Hall in 1984, but rise again for a second show at Cambridge Folk Festival, that interestingly, dispenses with most of the folk altogether for a rocking set that’s higher in the energy stakes than anything else here, especially a storming ‘Winning The Game’ taken at about twice the speed of the already pretty breathless studio version, a sax driven ‘No Time To Lose’ with a rockabilly vibe and a funky ‘Clear White Light’ that speeds through all the lengthy improvisations the band usually do across ten minutes inside three! It might well be the best thing on the entire set, a reminder that even in their later more forgotten days Lindisfarne were still a great band. Mind you, the closing 20th anniversary show back at Newcastle City Hall in 1990 is a strong way to round things off too, with a celebratory feel and some fan favourites, including the better songs from 1989 album ‘Amigoes’ and rare Hull song ‘Karen Marie’.

Overall, it’s a mixed bag as so many BBC sets are, with all the highs and lows of Lindisfarne’s studio recordings and a lot of repetition along the way so that its best heard in bits, maybe a session at a time. It’s as complete as it can be, though it’s a shame a point couldn’t be stretched to include the amazing American Lindisfarne radio sets doing the rounds on bootleg and make this a catch-all radio broadcasts set instead there’s a ready-made volume two right there). Lindisfarne weren’t the kind of band who were great every night, they took too many risks and the downside of doing that is that some nights the risks don’t pay off and this set captures it all – the great nights, the good nights and the poorer nights. However it’s just great that anyone remembers these nights (woah-oh!) and has out them out to own for the first time officially in many cases with such loving care. In truth there isn’t a lot of this set you’ll want to play over and over, although the best of it is full of surprises and more than makes up for the dodgy repeated sluggish versions of ‘Fog On the Tyne’. If you’re a newcomer this is perhaps not the best place to start and even if you’re a growing fan whose worn out ‘The Charisma Years’ already then you’re probably better off looking out for the perfectly good two-disc BBC set and then buying the under-rated reunion or solo Hully albums than this pricey volume. However, if you’re a fully paid up Lindisfan then this epic box set is essential, stuffed as it to the rafters with practically all eras of Lindisfarne and full of not just the A and B roads but the nooks and crannies and cul-de-sacs the band went down that you can’t hear anywhere else. After all, there’s a cracking band waiting to meet you on the corner selling dreams – and a box set full of Lindisfarne sessions is one of those unlikely dreams I thought would never come true. One to treasure, for all its flaws.  

10) Neil Young “Somewhere Under The Rainbow”

Ever wondered what Neil’s most personal and arguably best solo album ‘Tonight’s The Night’ might sound like if it had been played with the same level of expertise and polish as his other albums? It would probably sound a little like ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’, a famous fan recording now released as part of Neil’s ‘official bootleg’ series from a gig taped two months after the earlier archive show ‘Live At The Roxy’ and approximately three after the album itself, a man caught at the halfway point between collapse and recovery. By now the deaths of Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten and CSNY roadie Bruce Berry aren’t so much of a violent shock but more of a sad memory and the Whitten-less Crazy Horse, joined by Nils Lofgren and Ben Keith, know this album backwards by now, nailing every shift in tone, mood and volume. Which is not to say they play it without emotion or feeling – the sadness is still very much in the room, but it’s the difference between turning up to a funeral in suits and bowing a head rather than openly wailing at an open grave during an Irish wake because the pain is too raw. In fact, more than that, you hear the stark monochrome of the record transforming into technicolour as Neil gets a handle on his grief – fitting, then, that it’s a show from one of his favourite venues, London’s Rainbow Theatre with a hint of the sun coming out after storms, as if we’re closer to hearing a ‘finished’ product that never got released, rather than the first rehearsals. An example: on the record and the Roxy shows Neil always sang the line ‘I’ve been down the road but I’ve come back’ with a crack in his voice, as if he too was set to be the next drugs casualty, but now the emphasis is very much on the rejoinder on the next line ‘but I’ve come back’. Though no substitute for the released version and like many fans I kind of miss the bum notes and cracked vocals, it’s fascinating to hear as a sort of alternate timeline where ‘Tonight’s The Night’ was just another LP. Highlights include an angry ‘Albuquerque’ played with more power but also more control than usual with a gorgeous slide guitar part from Ben Keith, an all-acoustic ‘New Mama’ where Crazy Horse’ harmonies sound more angelic and fragile than ever and best of all a primal ‘World On A String’ that’s replaced all the playfulness with a rock and roll strut. ‘The world on a string doesn’t mean a’s not alright to say goodbye’ snorts Neil, more in defiance this time than sorrow, as he works through the stages of grief from sadness and guilt to anger, before launching into a superb guitar solo with an added kick it never had on the record, a true howl of pain. ‘Rock and roll!’ shouts out a wag in the crowd at one point, as if this show isn’t exactly what rock and roll was created for, to fight back against the frustrations at being imperfect in an imperfect universe. ‘Oh yeah? I’d like to hear some’ retorts Neil before kicking into the slowest version of one of his slowest songs, ‘Tired Eyes’, as a riposte. Not everything quite works and there’s a very sloppy acoustic solo set of ‘hits’ played straight after the ‘Tonight’s material that the audience recognise and seem to love more but is really badly played by Neil’s standards, especially a nine minute ‘Helpless’ that even Nils Lofgren on accordion can’t save from feeling interminable while ‘Don’t Be Denied’, usually the best song in any set its played in, is so wretched even I’m in denial. The sound quality is ridiculously poor too, understandably given that it’s a fan recording but you do wonder why Neil chose not to record this night as part of his official tapes in better sound or do at least the basics to make it more sonically palatable – oddly though the hiss and reedy sound help the songs sometimes too. I mean, a slick polished version of ‘Tonight’s The Night’ that also sounded perfect just wouldn’t sound right, would it? The result is a far from the best in the archive series and I’d definitely take the Roxy shows from the ‘archives’ series over this one if I had to choose a live version of ‘Night’ to listen to, but it’s a record still well worth hearing and following so many similar 1970-1972 shows there’s more than enough room in the man’s discography for two so very different live versions of the same songs.

11) The Ducks  “High Flyin”

By contrast Neil’s next archive release and another bootleg favourite finds him in a very different place indeed. The year is 1977, Neil’s pretty much fully recovered from the horrors behind the ‘doom trilogy’, old foe Richard Nixon has been kicked out The White House with his tail between his legs and Neil’s just found new love with wife Pegi. He’s also formed a new band, the third and last time he’ll be an ‘equal member’ as opposed to a bandleader and though fans will be sad to hear Neil relegated to the role of ‘second guitarist and occasional singer’ the parts of this show that are his are widely regarded by the Young cognoscenti for very good reasons. It seemed then and seems now something of a strange move to join a pub band of faded forgotten musicians and men whose careers had never quite taken off, a defiantly retro rock band in punk’s year zero, even for somebody like Neil motivated by whims and intuition uploads no one else can understand, his career one of crazy-paving to avoid being  middle of the road. After all, one thing Neil never was nor ever will be is a team player. Famously Stephen Stills said that when the rest of Buffalo Springfield were bonding at the cinema watching ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ and dreaming of being in a band Neil was in the next screen watching a documentary on Bob Dylan and figuring out how to do things on his own independently. Not this time though: Neil’s not the star, he’s just a quarter of the band and he’s not the focal singer, the main songwriter or even the lead guitarist for much of the night. The Ducks were formed from the ashes of The Jeff Blackburn Band, Neil’s friend and future co-writer of the seminal ‘Hey Hey, My My’, alongside Bob Mosley on bass (once in Buffalo Springfield rivals Moby Grape) and Johnny Craviotto on drums. Neil hasn’t written ‘Hey Hey My My’ yet but he has written lots of other future classics which are debuted here and will be featured on his solo albums for the next few years including ‘Sail Away’ (‘Rust Never Sleeps’) and ‘Little Wing’ (‘Hawks and Doves’). Mostly, though, he’s just the guitarist and enjoying the break from running a band and the smaller gigs the band are playing (it was a condition of Neil being in the band that they didn’t advertise his name and just played under the name ‘The Ducks’ as if they were all a bunch of newbies – even so, word of who was in the band soon spread). There’s a spring in Neil’s step even more than ‘on ‘Zuma’, with delicious performances of his older songs including a spirited ‘Are You Ready For The Country?’ from ‘Harvest’ and a ‘Human Highway’ which is about as good as that wretched song ever sounded (from the aborted CSNY reunion of 1974 and about to appear on Neil’s album ‘Comes A Time’). Neil’s played old Buffalo Springfield warhorse ‘Mr Soul’ with practically every band he’s ever played in and its re-arrangement says a lot about each of them – this version is one of the best, played fast and loose as heavy no-frills rock, with a power only its original band or Crazy Horse could ever match.

The highlights though are an electrically charged ‘Little Wing’, a tough old bird compared to the gossamer light acoustic version that ended up on record, with some thick and heavy harmonies that really helps it fly and ‘Windward Passage’, a band instrumental that takes the usual melancholy chords Neil often uses for his sadder songs and sticks an electric motor underneath them so that it really soars. Both are as strong as anything on any release of the archives so far, though the other songs in the set never quite match it. Candidate for oddest song: ‘Gone Dead Train’, the opener of the debut Crazy Horse record written by Neil’s longtime friend Jack Nietzsche and sung here by Jeff Blackburn which, as far as I know, is the only time Neil ever played on it (he isn’t even on the Horse’s version). As for the other non-Neil songs, well, a good pub band The Ducks may be but they’re still just a pub band, with aspirations and promise more than finesse or accuracy. In truth the non-Neil songs are pretty poor, dad rock songs from aging hippies who don’t yet understand that the musical landscape’s changed (its not for nothing Neil picked a picture for the cover of this album that shows not ducks but pterodactyls; defiant dinosaurs in the safety-pin computer age) though even then Neil still plays some tasty solos (just check out his flying fretwork work on the otherwise almost offensively stupid boogie woogie of ‘Truckin’ Man’, the closest Neil’s come to sounding like Status Quo on any of his records). For Neil though it was an antidote to punk, a last gasp chance to be part of the rock fraternity before it changed forever. In the end Neil will quit this band the way he quit all his bands – suddenly, without warning, right about the time when people began to rave about how great they were. Uncharacteristically though he never looked back afterwards – none of these players ended up in any of his other bands and he never tried to put The Ducks back together again, who after he left flew off in different directions. On this evidence it’s a real shame that we didn’t get at least one proper album as they had a special energy about them, on Neil’s songs at least, but at least we get this special souvenir which is better than nothing. Long admired by fans of NY bootlegs and long overdue a first proper issue, it’s a more than worthy entry in Neil’s long-running archive series that bodes well for ‘Archives III’ (promised early next year), even if it’s the sort of thing you pick and choose from rather than a gig that’s great all the way through.   

12) Stephen Stills “Live In Berkley 1971”

Many a lesson was learnt at Berkley Community Theatre over the years, on Berkley High School campus and many classic AAA gigs were played there – you sense though that no one learned more life lessons quicker in this era than Stephen Stills. In 1971 he’d just broken up finally with longtime muse  Judy Collins, responded in the best way possible with his all-singing all-dancing show-off debut solo album, dated another singer-songwriter in Rita Coolidge – and then suffered ignominy of being dumped for colleague Graham Nash. The setback led to ‘Stephen Stills II’, an album that on the one hand tried to be bigger and more epic and show-offy than ever with the presence of The Memphis Horn section adding a brassy glow and power to Stills’ voice and on the other finds Stills more vulnerable and fragile and unsure of himself than ever before, pouring his heart out on some of his most intimate songs. Many fans skip this album and head straight from the debut to the even more all-singing all-dancing ‘Manassas’ double set, but I’ve always had a soft spot for ‘II’, which comes as close to the ‘real’ Stills as we’ll get I think, an artist who was more open-hearted than most (though it isn’t on this live set at the heart of that album is the superlative song ‘Open Secret’ about just this gift for putting emotions into direct words with its chorus ‘Somebody tell me have I been gifted or robbed?’) That’s much the same for this show from the promotional tour which finds Stills veering between casually brilliant pop concoctions from his CSNY catalogue and debut solo albums and the fragile, heartbreaking new songs that are bare and open, all the more so for being played in a mostly acoustic barebones way (give or take the horns). The general consensus on the tour was that Stills’ performance varied considerably from night to night depending on his alcohol intake but, although you can tell he’s a bit sloshed by the end, for once it only enhances his performance as he opens his soul; the Memphis Horns though get more and more ragged with each song and they start off shrill, as if they’ve been drinking to keep up with him. As a result its the slower, calmer, acoustic songs that works best and for fans its the run of then-new songs Stills didn’t play very often that stand out most. Classic racism lecture ‘Word Game’ aside (sadly performed here in rather muted form) Stills didn’t keep many of these songs in his setlist for long so its a welcome chance to hear tracks like the stark banjo folk of ‘Know You’ve Got To Run’ (the sadder, scarier half of ‘Everybody I Love You’ written for Judy Collins), the soul funk of ‘Bluebird Revisited’ (another song for Judy, a sequel to the first song he wrote for her, Buffalo Springfield’s ‘Bluebird’, played as a hangover and a last sad glance back in the mirror at what might have been)and early environmental tune ‘Ecology Song’ (where the horn section set off at such a lick it pushes Stills out his comfort zone and makes the plea for us to treat our planet sound immediate and desperate, not the intellectual debate of the album – and ever more poignant given its first release in the present climate crisis). Best of all is ‘Sugar Babe’, the goodbye song to Rita, where with the commercial pop of the record stripped away it’s just the sound of a sad broken man, a piano and a bottle of booze as Stills opens his heart up on a sour but loving song of regret and missed opportunities over a relationship that once held so much promise and sweetness, where ‘I got to get the girl or I got to get away – loving you from a  distance never did make it anyway’.

There are also some real surprises: a preview of Manassas song ‘Jesus Gave Love Away For Free’ that sounds even more traditionally gospel with short-term bandmate Steve Fromholz on second guitar and harmonies (just before he went solo and had his biggest hit with ‘I’d have To Be Crazy’ a song Willie Nelson covered and got a #11 hit with it) and Stills singing a Memphis Horns song ‘Lean On Me’ that isn’t much of a composition but suits Stills’ hoarse vocals. There are also two songs with special guest David Crosby, tentative but unique acoustic renditions of ‘You Won’t Have To Cry’ and ‘The Lee Shore’ with Fromzhall’s bass vocals pushing Stills up to the high Nash harmony part. They’re not the best CS/NY reunion performances I’ve ever heard (and its a real shame Croz only hangs around for two songs – Stills’ new batch of emotional songs are right up his wheelhouse) but, on a record months in the planning and released just weeks after his sad death, they make for a worthy tribute. This isn’t the greatest show Stills ever played – the Memphis Horns have a tendency to go screechy, while Stills himself has been hitting the bottle a bit too much by the end of the set to do some of his more fragile and complex songs justice and there are several bootlegs and radio broadcasts out there that deserve official release more (especially the Mansaass stuff). However it’s a great gig from a time when even the bad Stills concerts were special and the chance to hear so many great songs live for the first time, with Stills at his most vulnerable and open away from the razzmatazz of the CSNY performances, all in impressive sound for a live show taped over fifty years ago, is an opportunity not to be missed.

13) The Grateful Dead “Wake Of The Flood – The Angel’s Share”

This year marks the 50th anniversary of one of my favourite Dead records and one that always gets overlooked, so I’m overjoyed to see it finally get its turn in the sun. Written and recorded to a backdrop of difficulties (the death of founder Pigpen from liver failure, the loss of second drummer Mickey hart after his manager-dad ran off with the band’s takings), it’s a mellow album about digging deep and overcoming obstacles as best you can, while forgiving yourself for being human. Alongside the usual anniversary album re-issue (see below) we get a whole bunch of live recordings from the supporting tour (see not quite so below) and best of all this album, a second set with studio outtakes from the full album sessions to follow on from the excellent ‘American beauty’ set which, as the whiskery-distilling subtitle implies, has been left to mature in peace and quiet all these years (an ‘angel’s share’ is the bit of whiskey lost to evaporation with age, a fact I’ve only learned this year!) Though not as revelatory as the ‘American Beauty’ discs, purely because the Dead know what they’re doing from day one, this is still a golden opportunity to be a fly on the wall as the Dead rehearse and busk their way to the final product in almost ‘real time’, half-starts and mistakes and all, in a way that’s quite hypnotic. There are two hours worth of highlights here with the full six hours available on the Dead’s official youtube channel  and a fascinating, if repetitive, journey it is with an average of 40minutes spent on each song (the seven that made the album, plus early versions of ‘China Doll’ ‘Loose Lucy’ and ‘Unbroken Chain’). Honestly the full version is more interesting, not least because so many songs on the CD get short shrift and aren’t always picked with care (poor ‘Row Jimmy’ is down to being a 30second bit of tuning!) but I can see the logic behind it all: casual Deadheads get to experience it while massive Deadheads get to savour the whole thing; unlike most bands, this group have always been clever in the way they open up their vaults to the right people and tread the thin line of keeping the band’s name alive without simply milking it for all its worth.

What strikes you most in all three new versions of the record is how confident everyone is. The Dead have, admittedly, just come from playing to their biggest audience so far (60,000 people over at Watkins Glenn) and have already premiered many of these album songs live, which is why the arrangements don’t sound as wildly different as some of the songs on the ‘Beauty’ Angel’s share set did. The finished album is muted, quiet, with the feeling of fighting back when the world’s against you. Away from their real life and in the studio, though, the Dead are in sparkling form, bouncing off each other and throwing ideas in left, right and centre, while the early versions of these songs are often played with an attack missing from the record, rough edges that got glossed over in the final mix. All of Jerry Garcia’s songs are pretty much there already note-perfect but sound good with that extra swagger as he’s clearly enjoying playing them: highlights include the opening track, take 9 of ‘Mississippi Half-step Uptown Toodeloo’, that tale of an unlucky man rejected by his father treated to an extended ‘Rio Grande’ coda that makes everything sound better that the band are enjoying so much they stretch out for ages, a ‘China Doll’ that’s more stern and fatherly than the more kindly me-too vibe of the version on ‘From The Mars Hotel’, a Stella Blue’ that’s played closer to a shout than the whisper of the finished record and an ‘Eyes Of The World’ that’s a nudge closer to folk than the jazz of the finished product. All sound great, Jerry eagerly exclaiming ‘it’s a kick it’s a kick ts a kick!’ at the end of ‘Mississippi’ as the song comes together (before doing a characteristic bit of back-tracking: ‘It’s great apart from it was a little fast. And it doesn’t rhyme!’) The other band members are slower out the blocks: for the longest time Bob Weir’s ‘Weather Report Suite’ is a la-lahed folk instrumental (one of the few bits previously heard, over on the previous CD re-issue of the album), the ‘Let It Grow’ part only arriving last minute, while the Dead are uncharacteristically struggling with Phil Lesh’s ‘Unbroken Chain’, held over till the following record (‘I don’t think that’s right Weir’ says its composer sternly as the band struggle and snaps ‘It’s not supposed to be easy!’ when Jerry asks if he’d consider making a key change, before cracking a joke and the confrontation is dropped,to be never mentioned again, in true Dead style). The biggest surprise is Keith Godchaux’s only Dead song ‘Let Me Sing Your Blues Away’ – the keyboardist hated the sound of his own voice and double-tracked it for the record, making it all blurry, before never singing again while the finished version was always a couple of takes too many, becoming sluggish and slow. The (many many) versions heard here are great: the Dead are really swinging behind this song and Keith’s  single-tracked live vocal is a treat, sung with a more lived in grit that really suits a tale of a musician sharing sorrows with their audience (the Dead really should have got Keith to sing like this more!) There are some fun runs through the backing track too, saxophonist Martin Fierro joining the band and improvising round the chord changes (it makes a change for the band to know a song better than their guest does!) The result won’t change the way you think about the album the way that the ‘Beauty’ set did and nothing is really all that different, with the band 99% of the way there for 99% of the material before they even enter the studio: there a few vocal lines that go up instead of down and vice versa as the band test their ideas out, but the closest to a composition change the entire two hours is a single line in ‘Stella Blue’ Jerry hasn’t quite got yet so hums instead (the one where ‘There’s nothing you can hold for very long’). Arrangement wise too the one big change here is on ‘Here Comes Sunshine’ where instead of full sunny harmonies Donna Godchaux sings the chorus alone, like a sun peeking out from behind the clouds, a cool idea they should have kept. However one of the Dead’s finest and most under-rated records deserves all the extra attention it can get and has never sounded younger than it does at half a century old. 

14) Grateful Dead  “Here Comes Sunshine Live 1973”

The latest in the Dead’s long long looong running series of re-issues naturally enough have centred around the concert shows from half a century ago supporting ‘Wake Of The Flood’ . There are Dead fans who will wax lyrical about their favourite year and while I’m more of a 1968-1969 explorations-in-space-then-back-to-Earth-with-Pigpen-in-time-for-tea Deadhead myself I have a special fondness for the band in this era.  Keith and Donna Godchaux have been around long enough by now to fully integrate themselves into the band sound but haven’t yet got lost in a cul-de-sac of  drugs and touring fatigue,  the band are still loose and experimental without the rigidity of some of their 1971-1972 shows without yet falling into the laziness of their later years and Jerry Garcia  is at the peak of his storytelling powers. ‘Here Comes Sunshine: Live 1973’ is a massive seventeen disc set covering five complete shows between May and June 1973,  which contains plenty of great must-hear moments across its earliest  two shows including an electric ‘Truckin’ finale into ‘Eyes Of The World’ from  the Iowa State Fairgrounds on May 13th  and a sloppy but really pretty ‘Here Comes Sunshine’ from May 20th Campus Stadium in Santa Barbara. However its shows three and five that really shine with the  Dead at the peak of their telepathic powers.

Even though its gone down in history as a mellow period for the Dead The show at Kezar Stadium on May 26th, perhaps the most obscure venue of the many many gigs the Dead played in San Francisco, is an absolute cracker. I’ve never heard a 1970s Dead show this loud and noisy, with every song played at full energy and rock and roll fight, even the ballads  (this is the definitive ‘Sugaree’, more like heavy metal than the  fragile  arrangement we usually get). Many of the songs, even the shorter ones, end in epic improvisations where  Billy Kreutzmann drives the band on at such a  rate of knots it’s a wonder he wasn’t busted for speeding, pushing the others way out of their comfort zones too, while even ‘Row Jimmy’ (a candidate for the Dead’s slowest song) is played with such a hard, heavy lick its as if the boat has a hole in the bottom. Though it calms down once it runs into ‘I Know You A Rider’ this ‘China Cat Sunflower’ too is a tiger, no curious plaything but a primal beast with its claws out, as Billy practically breaks his drumkit. As for the Dead songs that are usually played fast, well, ‘That’s It For The Other One’ positively explodes in a cascade of running chords and a manic ‘Eyes Of The World’ is played so fast everything is a gorgeous blur. The Dead finally play slow but only after three and a half hours with a tortured, haunted version of ‘China Doll’, a song of attempted suicide, that sounds all the more stark and beautiful after such noise and even that’s played at about twice the speed of usual. There’s a real sense of urgency and desperation tonight, most unlike the sleepy vibe of most of the tour and the ‘Wake Of The Flood’ album and I’m not at all sure why – maybe the grief for founding member Pigpen who’d only died two months before had reached the ‘anger’ stage?   Whatever the cause its one of the best Dead shows I’ve heard in years and well worth seeking out.

Alas, you can only buy it in the box set with the other, decidedly lesser shows. The first gig from Robert F Kennedy Stadium in Washington on June 9th sounds like a different band entirely – slow, cautious and sloppy for what’s easily the weakest show of the five. Nothing quite hits the whole night: band members come in too early, too late or not at all and the songs end up sinking into similar formless lazy jams that go round in a loop rather than flying off into the ether the way the best Dead shows do. Personally I would have cut this show and started with the next, although that too is a little loose lucy by the Dead’s high standards. Things get back on track for the final show the following night in the same venue though, a good balance of the more usually slower paced 1973 vibes but with a sprinkling of the energy from the 26th here too. It’s a more experimental show, big on the epic showpieces with a magnificent ‘Playin’ In The Band’ that goes on forever (in a good way!), an ‘Eyes Of The World’ that starts off feeble  but then grows in powers with each pass of the jazzy riff until  the Dead are once again playing like a band possessed and a most unique ‘Dark Star’ that falls down a black hole early on but is then spat out the other side thanks to some grounding rock and roll riffs that make it sound as if its heading into Chuck Berry covers territory before  flowering  most beautifully into one of the most majestic and lovely versions around, before again collapsing in on itself with a howl of feedback that lasts longer than usual, as if we’re seeing all the colours of the cosmos in one go across a mere twenty minutes. Throw in the best of the five title tracks, a groovy slower version of ‘Sunshine’ that’s still played with some power thanks to some wah-wah splurges from Garcia and bass bombs from Phil Lesh that make the speakers shake, and you have a really decent standalone set if you can’t afford the full box. However its the  26th show  that will be ringing in your head long after you finish playing, one of the best Dead gigs of the lot from  (almost) first note to the last – in fact only a shaky opening ‘Promised Land’ is less than stellar.  Fabulous. What a shame the rest drags this one down.

Other archive Dead releases out this year include Dave’s Picks Volume 46 (a so-so show at LA’s Hollywood Palladium on September 9th 1972 that’s a strong gig for Bobby but finds everyone else struggling a little, highlighted by a raw and desperate sounding ‘Black-Throated Wind’ and a sure-footed ‘Playin’ In The Band’), Washington’s ‘RFK Stadium’ from June 10th 1973 (a four disc gig with a poor first set but a pretty good second: a sprightly ‘They Love Each Other’ and a slow bluesy twelve minute ‘Bird Song’ are the highlights, along with a full-attack-mode ‘Eyes Of The World’ a full two months before the studio version on ‘Angel’s Share’), Dave’s Picks 47 features Missouri’s Kiel Auditorium on December 9th 1979 (one of those typical late 1970s shows when new keyboard player Brent hasn’t quite slotted into place yet and Jerry is audibly struggling, that must be one of the weakest entries in the series so far, though there’s a pretty nifty version of Bob’s ‘Lazy Lightning > Supplication’) and Dave’s Picks 48 (California’s Pauley Pavilion on November 20th 1971 that’s a bit lacklustre given the vintage too, with the band playing slow so new keyboard player Keith Godchaux can keep up – the best thing about this release are the sleevenotes by basketball player Bill Walton who was one of the UCLA students in attendance that night!)  

15) Micky Dolenz “Sings R.E.M.”

One of the biggest surprises on final Monkees album, 2018’s ‘Christmas Party’ was the title track written by R.E.M guitarist Peter Buck. An even bigger surprise was that, of all the big name writers involved with the last two Monkee albums, Buck ‘got’ the later period Monkees better than anyone: the friendly smiles that said ‘hey kids’ and the slyer more subversive sarcastic grins that were hinting at something else, with all the contradictions that suggests. Most writers wrote for one or the other Monkees on that album – Buck got both. I was surprised again by this move, an EP of REM covers by the same team who made last year’s cover record of Mike Nesmith songs (including Mike’s son Christian in the producer’s chair) but I really shouldn’t have been. Micky’s been making a career out of taking other people’s dark and oddball ideas and turning them into commercial gold-dust without losing the sly knowing grin that made them in the first place for years. The songs of Buck and Michael Stipe really aren’t that far removed from what papa Nez was giving him to sing and Micky is still one of the best vocalists around, able to interpret anything and sound like he means it, making songs commercial but never sugary. REM (Rapid Eye Movement if you were wondering)’s biggest hit ‘Happy Shiney People’ is an obvious choice for the Dolenz treatment and gets a suitably ‘Pleasant Valley Sunday’ makeover, sounding like the bright sunny land everyone aspires to, with lyrics that also gently dig at how people are too dark and real to ever live I such a world. The other song choices are braver: ‘Radio Free Europe’ works best of the four, turned from obscure and deliberately confusing gritty urban drama in monochrome about how radio isn’t as free as it likes to think it is into psychedelic colour that would have been right at home on ‘Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn and Jones Ltd’, getting the balance of REM and Monkee-ness spot on. Between them these two songs make for a decent single. Unfortunately this is an EP and the other two covers aren’t so fortunate: ‘Leaving New York’ is the most straightforward REM song of them all, a sad tale of regrets and half-memories as the narrator gets ready to make a big life change that’s turned into a too-sickly production number without the authenticity of the original and a little too early Monkees, while the scattershot surrealistic ‘Man On The Moon’, a list of board games played by characters from the Bible, is too REM and wacky for even Micky to make work. A mixed bag then, but this EP works better than it really ought to, the sound of two different worlds colliding and finding enough middle ground to make it a road worth travelling down. What the world is crying out for though is a ‘Micky Sings The Kinks’ EP/CD: a Dolenz take on Ray Davies’ sly tales of 1960s life (and people being told they had a good time even when all the good times have gone) is surely an even more obvious choice than REM.

16) Roger Waters “The Lockdown Sessions”

What an odd, strange and difficult year it’s been for the Pink Floyd co-founder. It started with David Gilmour’s wife Polly Samson calling him an anti-semite amongst a dozen other nasty things (hubby agreed), rolled on into his live shows of ‘The Wall’ being discussed in parliament amongst calls to ban him, had Roger condemned by the Anne Frank Foundation for using her name and picture on stage while he paraded around in a Nazi uniform screaming obscenities and the events of October 7th, that seem to have split the world down the middle between pro-Israelites and pro-Palestines (can’t we just accept they both did things that were bad and neither should be blowing innocent people up?) have just accelerated matters . Which sounds terrible put blandly like that but misses the entire point.  Roger’s been fighting war whoever’s caused it his whole life and nobody’s music is further on the left. ‘The Wall’, the record that’s been getting all the flak, is an album where Roger (and the other Floyds, but mostly Roger) showed how easy it is to get cut off from your audience, to be caught up in the rhetoric of the right wingers when you feel your life is bad and you need someone to blame and how easy it is for those with influence to make your audience believe in what you say even when its the deranged spiel of a rockstar whose done too many drugs and spent too many nights cut off from the world in hotel rooms. If you don’t know the work, in ‘The Wall’ the character Pink comes to his senses, asks himself what he’s come to and ‘tears down the wall’, admitting his faults and asking for forgiveness. Roger didn’t do himself any favours doing the second, nastier ‘In The Flesh’ on its own as a kick-start to his show’s second half (‘Outside The Wall’, the song of redemption that puts everything right, does follow but not for another hour) but you’d have to be pretty thick to mistake the other songs in the show as ones that stir up war and prejudice, rather than promote peace and equality. As for the names, they go up at every show, altered for every country, to reflect those who’ve died under military or right-wing regimes in the local area. It’s meant as a tribute, not a slap in the face. Of course it’s Roger’s stance on the Israeli-Palestine wars that get him into extra trouble, his condemnation of Israel’s forces that get him tagged with the label of being an anti-semite and he’d do his cause better to speak out against the Palestinian atrocities on the other side more. But nevertheless its entirely in keeping with Roger’s lifelong stance of fighting all wars period and the incident that kicked off all the war of words (Shireen Abu Akleh, a Palestinian journalist killed by Israeli gunfire included on his wall) is pretty innocuous; nobody could deny that she was just doing her job and didn’t deserve to die, even if there could and should have been some Israeli names there alongside hers to keep the balance; basically the show is meant as a tribute to anyone who ever died at the hands of a military regime so that we all remember their names. Anne Frank, too, is an obvious candidate to be up there at the Dutch and German concerts as a victim of war – the Anne Frank Foundation, usually such a sensible, worthwhile organisation reminding us of the horrors of rightwing rule and oppressive regimes just the way Roger does, really dropped the ball by treating Roger as an enemy, not an ally. Of course the press just went for the easiest target, repeating the war of words and attending his shows to write nasty reviews, lopping off Roger’s outpouring on stage where he fumed at Polly ‘fancy waking up to that every morning?’ and dismissing it as proof of his misogynism, missing the wry and very Roger punchline ‘by which of course I mean her waking up next to David’. For fans who’ve followed the Pink Floyd story for decades this is more like gentle teasing compared to what we used to get. So Roger’s been accepted as being in the doghouse by people who don’t understand the complexity of the situation or his lifelong commitment to stopping all kinds of war immediately, though admittedly Roger’s also been around the block long enough to know how easy it is for people to get the wrong end of the stick and hasn’t really helped his cause much by what he’s said (and that is, after all, the story of ‘The Wall’, people getting the wrong idea and spouting such nonsense on stage). 

With all that going on the music’s been ignored and that’s a shame. Not because its anything that major or spectacular in terms of Roger’s catalogue but his two releases this year both offer fresh perspectives on old favourites that have been dismissed out of hand more because of political reasons than musical ones. ‘The Lockdown Sessions’ is the better of the two,  a sort of dress rehearsal for the tour where old songs are re-interpreted in an older, slower, starker way more befitting a man on his 80th birthday. Six songs have been revived and re-arranged to fit the ‘lockdown’ format – both in terms of the isolation between the performers playing at home individually and the sense of malaise and fear that the covid pandemic brought and indeed still brings to those of us sensible to still treat it as the threat it is – and five of them work well. ‘Mother’ is slow and brooding, stretched out to seven minutes, as Roger is all of us asking people in authority questions they can’t answer in our effort to make something scary go away. The slow build-up that adds the band one by one (the only really successful way to play as a band over skype or zoom, as anyone who tried it over lockdown will know) is highly effective and Roger’s performance a good one. ‘Two Suns In The Sunset’ is as downbeat an end to a rock opera as you can imagine (we all die in a nuclear blast) and is the song from ‘The Final Cut’ I always used to skip if I’m honest. It sounds rather better here, slowed down to sound extra eerie and without the epic productions and sound effects of the record (including the comedy moment when the bomb explodes: ‘Oh no!’), life ever more fragile for the stark re-arrangement, although the best bit – the sudden biting violent middle eight (‘And you’ll never see their faces!...’) - gets a bit lost, being not that much louder or faster than the rest of the song. Another ‘Wall’ airing, of the brief ‘Vera’ and the only slightly longer ‘Bring The Boys Back Home!’ continues the anti-war mantra. Neither are amongst Roger’s best work but they work well here as more acoustic and quieter paeans of loss and sadness without all the bells, whistles, sound effects and screams of the record.  ‘The Gunner’s Dream’ returns us to ‘The Final Cut’ and is perhaps the best re-make on the EP. I’ve always loved this under-rated gem, as a soldier’s last thoughts are of the new world he hopes will come in peacetime even though the listener knows how wrong he is, and it works well as a sadder, slower ballad with Roger’s voice barely above a whisper. ‘The Bravery Of Being Out Of Range’ is the most obscure song here but it shouldn’t be – it’s from easily Roger’s best solo album ‘Amused To Death’ and is as pertinent now as it was when written in the Gulf War, as battles where once you have to be heroic and look your victims in the eye are reduced to button pressing. The slowed down waddle doesn’t work quite as well here and I miss the electric surge of the chorus, but the more reflective mood does suit this song too. That just leaves ‘Comfortably Numb’ slowed down to a crawl and, yeah, I’m not a fan. The whole reason the original works so well is the contrasts between Roger’s dour Pink-as-he’s-become and Gilmour’s Pink-as-he-used-to be, his inner child waking up and trying to remind him of the idealist innocent he used to be. There’s no guitar solo in this version and no real change from positive to negative, which kind of misses the whole point of the song. Oh well. If that one recording is proof that Roger needed David to make his best work then the rest of the record is a firm statement that Roger doesn’t need anyone else at all – well, just a couple of backing singers, a guitarist and a drummer anyway. ‘The Lockdown Sessions’ won’t set the sky on fire and its odd that they’ve been delayed from when they were first released on youtube (in 2021) till now, but they’re a nice addition to the discography and a neat way of breathing new life into old works to make them sound even more chillingly perfect for the times we’re living in, like a warning unheeded from the past that’s now become a lament for the world we could and should have had.

17) Roger Waters “Dark Side Of The Moon Re-Dux”

Even more than ‘Lockdown Sessions’ this is, surely, the most misunderstood album of the decade. Fans re-acted in horror when they first heard that Pink Floyd’s bass player was going back into the studio to re-cut the band’s most famous album solo, replacing the contributions made by his colleagues with his own band. It seemed, from soundbites, like the ultimate power-play from a man who’d spent forty years thinking he was Pink Floyd and came out at a time when relationships between himself and David Gilmour were, erm, not the best. Is re-creating an old album in the studio really so different to a band re-creating an old album on stage though? This record makes most sense if you come to it direct from Roger’s live shows and ‘lockdown sessions’ where he’s been revisiting old friends in a number of new ways, more befitting a man in his eighties with a life to look back on than a youngster trying to make it. One of the reasons ‘Dark Side’ is so successful and important as it is comes from the fact that it’s about the pressures of life, of time and legacy we all feel and wasn’t relegated  to one particular age range. Revisiting songs about time ticking away and getting ‘one day closer to death’ ring different when heard in Roger’s aged ghostly vocals and it’s a very different listening experience, all the hope of the original gone but the time-ticking desperation exaggerated for a new version which doesn’t ask ‘what am I meant to do with my life?’ so much as ‘was that it?’ At its best this new slower, aged, depressing album works really well: ‘Breathe’ is really powerful, an ‘advice’ song that makes more sense from a man nearer the end of his life than the beginning, a last gasp attempt to make the most of fleeting moments of happiness and live in the present because you don’t have very long to enjoy them. ‘Brain Damage – Eclipse’, about all the things that were ready to trip you up from your intended life’s purpose and how Roger will see us there one day, death a substitute for madness, really hits home. There are some really sweet nods to the regular Floyd fan too: the bird song sound effect heard on ‘Cirrus Minor’ and ‘A Group Of Small Furry Species Gathered Together In A Cave And Grooving With A Pict’ (no, seriously!) and an opening speech about how ‘the memories of a man in his old age are the deeds of a man in his prime’ from Dark Side’s genesis Floyd song ‘Free Four’ (from previous album ‘Obscured By Clouds’), written by Roger when he was 28 and imagining his future, now sung-spoke by him at the age that song is set (’in the twinkling of an eye, 80 years with luck, or even less’) remembering his past, ‘Father and Son’ style.

It’s the songs in between that don’t quite cut it: Roger has a tendency in his live shows to ramble, telling long anecdotes that don’t seem to lead anywhere, inspired by some connection that all too often he sees but we can’t. There are a lot of moments like that in this album, the music put in a holding pattern while he pontificates, with Roger returning to his favourite themes of mistreated war veterans and the way Britain is viewed by the rest of the world (worthy points both, but points that have been made so many times before and made her at length in speech that doesn’t fit the music). Some of the album is a lesser fit musically too: ‘Money’ is a young man’s song of ambition and is played as a sarcastic lament rather than the earthy blues I was hoping for (how the song first started on Roger’s demo before the rest of Floyd got hold of it) while the two instrumentals are unlistenable: ‘On The Run’, originally a young man’s song about constant travel and the fear of dying in a sudden car or aeroplane crash, has become yet another spoken word song about getting old, while ‘Any Colour You Like’ (the one song on the album credited to the ‘others’ in the band) is unrecognisable, played with an ugly modern synth ‘n’ drum backbeat that noodles rather than soars. If any versions of any song explains why Roger needed the rest of the band to bring colour to his stark world then its this one, which takes what used to be one last joyous burst of freedom and delivers any emotion you like, so long as its depression. ‘Us and Them’ is the biggest disappointment: an ageless timeless song about division across societies, genders, races and classes fought by each generation anew and how none of it matters when we’re dead and forgotten that feels more real now in our modern age of fragmentation than ever. Sadly this version just sits there, lifeless, while Roger lectures us and beats us over the head with all the points he once made so well and so subtly. It’s all very slow and incredibly depressing too: ‘Dark Side’ worked so well partly because the whole was greater than the sum of its parts, each song part of an organic whole that added together to become a catalogue of phobias, fears and drives. This new version doesn’t have that: it all sounds the same. Of course its not meant to be a ‘replacement’ for the original as so many fans assume because Roger knows as well as we do that 99.9% of sales are going to go to Floyd fans who already own this album umpteen times already and want to see what he’s done with it;  even so, its fair to say that had this been a new release, it wouldn’t have been noticed at all never mind still be on the charts forty years after release; it’s just too slow, too long, too repetitive. A nice try then and its far from the horror show that some fans are making it out to be (many of them before they even heard it), but re-making an album in such a radically different and sombre way was always going to be a ‘looney’ idea when it came to a lunar album as beloved as ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’ and ultimately there are more craters than first steps into new territory here.

18) Neil Young “Chrome Dreams”

In a parallel world where this album came out in 1977 its hailed as one of Neil’s best, a return to form with eleven of his strongest songs and every one brilliant, some bordering on genius. Even in the real world the original 1990s bootleg of the album was one of Neil’s most popular providing a means to get several hard-to-find songs in one go. The album was so famous, in fact, that it got a sequel ‘Chrome Dreams II’ in 2007 that confused everyone who only went by the official discography (linear time isn’t really a thing in Neil Young world!) In our universe, in 2023, though, it’s just another ho-hum money-grabbing NY archive release that isn’t really worth buying and came and went this year without making much of a splash. Why’s that? Well, Neil kept coming back to this record down the years, mining it for his next releases: many of the best songs from ‘American Stars ‘n’ Bars’ ‘Comes A Time’ ‘Rust Never Sleeps’ and ‘Hawks and Doves’ were lifted directly from this album’s sessions. Some of these songs had themselves already started life on ‘Hitch-Hiker’, an earlier unreleased album that has already been released complete in 2017 and the recordings from that set (‘Pocahontas’ ‘Powderfinger’) are repeated here without even being remixed.

There’s frustratingly little we haven’t heard somewhere else: the rarest song here is ‘Stringman’ and even that was on the million-selling ‘Unplugged’ concert of 1993. Even most of the ‘alternate versions’ have come out before: this ‘Stringman’ and the original ‘Too Far Gone’ (before it was re-recorded in inferior form for 1989’s ‘Freedom’) both appeared on Archives II in 2020. There are just two actual recordings that have never been officially released: a sweet but shrill and rather drunken sounding ‘Hold Back The Tears’ before it was countrified to death on ‘Stars ‘n’ Bars’ and a killer ‘Sedan Delivery’ that’s slow and awkward, thunder compared to the lightning of the ‘Rust Never Sleeps’ version. Both are well worth hearing, but not worth paying to buy all over again when you have everything else. Even the cover isn’t the one of legend, sketched by manager and mentor David Briggs on a tape box during the album sessions, of a 55 chysler motorbike that, when turned on end, became a beautiful girl, Briggs telling Neil ‘that’s your cover!’ (a lot of Neil albums are about duality so I can see why the guitarist liked it – the replacement was half an album of bar songs and half an album of ‘American legends’ after all). Why don’t we have that much discussed cover? Because it’s since been lost (yes, even Neil’s archives don’t have everything apparently, which makes me feel better when something of mine goes missing) – instead it’s a re-creation by Rolling Stone Ronnie Wood based on what Neil can remember. And even so looks pretty disappointing, a bit too obviously two images smashed together rather than an organic whole. Now I feel a bit mean putting this album so far down the list when the music on it is great and if you’ve never heard any of it before you’re in for a treat; however there are better ways to hear these classic recordings than this and for collectors on a budget this is more of a nightmare than a dream and an engine running on fumes. 

19) Neil Young “Before and After”

Neil’s had a quiet year – for him. He only appears on six of the records in this year’s list (last year it was nine!) This is his new one, as opposed to the others which are all archive releases, although even this is a dip back into the past. Neil had, very sensibly, stopped touring during the pandemic and continued to stay home even after his friends and colleagues were forced by a need for money/brainwashing by society to go back out and risk creating mass-disabling covid infection events (poor David Crosby is a notable tale: he staved off the hunger for touring for two years, then died in his sleep in January after catching covid during dress rehearsals for his comeback tour). Neil has finally been persuaded out to play, but on his own terms: he won’t risk infecting a band alongside him and he insists on evidence of a negative covid test before audiences show up: good for him. This pandemic would be over a lot quicker and we could all get out and play if more musicians did things like this. Neil’s spent lockdown working on tentative versions of volumes three and four in his epic archives project (volume three due out ‘the first half of 2024’ apparently) and has now reached the 1980s and 1990s. With this era of music ringing in his ears he’s stuck a load of songs in the setlist that he either hasn’t played much or hasn’t played at all and re-arranged them for his lone voice and guitar, recording the ‘dress rehearsals’ for us here so that we get an album that has the feel of a live album without an audience actually being there (in keeping with the past few concert recordings that do weird things with an audience). Impressively Neil performs the whole thing in one epic 48 minute take (perhaps a couple of sneaky edits aside), the songs blending into one long acoustic medley with no gap between the tracks ('it's all one song' as Neil quipped to a concert goer who said his songs all sounded the same on the 'year Of the Horse' live set in 1997, advice taken to heart here and these tracks do flow together well, feeling like they belong together better than your usual concert setlist.

Some of this record works well, especially when its re-arranged so much from the original source: ‘I’m The Ocean’ was an epic powerhouse when played with Pearl Jam in 1995 but this tale of personal defiance fits the idea of a lone guitar and shakey voice (that’s as real as the day is long) even better than a noise amongst many,  'Mother Earth' substitutes the fizzle of Crazy Horse feedback for a pump organ that isn't necessarily any better than the original but is at least strikingly different with this environmental plea having an urgency the more laidback version from thirty years ago didn't, while a surprise revival of ‘Homefires’ (a sad tale of starting over played on CSNY’s ‘Doom Tour’ of stadiums and unreleased until the ‘CSNY ‘74’ box set forty years later) and ‘Burned’ (Neil’s first ever vocal, for the first Buffalo Springfield album, a sad tale of betrayal) are great to hear after all these years, even if they shows up how elderly Neil’s voice sounds now compared to then. And some of it doesn’t: ‘On The Way Home’ is the acoustic ‘4 Way Street’ arrangement to the letter and the simpler songs like ‘Mother Earth’ and ‘When I Hold You In My Arms’ sound nothing compared to the band arrangements on the records ‘Ragged Glory’ and ‘Prairie Wind’ respectively, while the new solo versions of old solo performances like 'Comes A Time' 'Birds' the two piano ballads from 'Sleeps With Angels' and the album's one modern song 'Don't Forget Love' make you wonder why Neil bothered. The biggest re-arrangement here: 'Mr Soul', that old Buffalo Springfield warhorse that's the one song of Neill's that he keeps updating with the majority of the bands he'd played with, has been done every which way the past 56 years: as a pop song, a full on rocker, a country waltz, a folk ballad, a grunge stompfest, a hardened blues, swinging R and B and the indescribable Trans vocoder version. A song all about the need to change stay true to yourself, its the most obvious song of the lot to choose, but even I wasn't expecting the solemn pump organ 'n' harmonica version that makes it sound like an old Scottish war song, the held organ notes swaying in the breeze like bagpipes as a frail sounding Neil tries to muscle his way through a series of restless notes swaying in the breeze, clinging to his roots in an era of turbulence. The biggest rarity here is ‘You Got Love’, a sweet and poppy song from unreleased 1982 album ‘Island In the Sun’ (which became the more ‘normal’ half of the Trans’ album) that sounds a bit flimsy with just a twinkly organ but which is nice to hear and bodes well for that album’s first official release sometime soon (it’s the best thing in Neil’s archives that isn’t out yet).

The bottom line is we don’t really need this record when we can play the originals and the lack of an audience makes this an even more low-key project than normal for Neil these days, while there are no stunning re-inventions in the same scale as, say, ‘Like A Hurricane’ played on the pump organ for the ‘Unplugged’ set a quarter century ago. All that said, Neil’s back catalogue is so rich that I’m grateful he’s gone back to shine a spotlight on some fantastic songs that never got enough credit the first time round with the vague underlying theme of ecology making this a neat sister set to his last live set ‘Earth’, played with the full on onslaught of ‘The Promise Of The Real’ to an audience of crickets and chickens. I have to say I much prefer this set: there’s a homeliness and thoughtfulness that suit these parables for our times and there are no braying lions or mooing cows getting in the way either.  Not even close to Neil at his best or most inventive, and you won’t miss much if you skip buying it, but a worthier collection filler than some. 

20) Dave Davies “Father Christmas”

A fun little filler CD EP from the Kinks guitarist who follows up last year’s autobiography and new compilation, both named ‘Living On A Thin Line’ (see below), with a quartet of some of his favourite songs he doesn’t play very much on stage taken from gigs recorded between 1997 and 2003. The world’s most working class festive song ‘Father Christmas’ is full of gut punch guitar gymnastics and it’s fun to hear Dave singing instead of Ray – he’s a much more energetic, friendly kind of Santa Claus than the bah humbug way his elder brother played him. ‘Whose Foolin’ Who?’ is one of my favourite cuts from my favourite of Dave’s 21st century solo CD ‘Bug’ and sounds more prescient than ever in our days of ‘fake news’. ‘Imagination’s Real’ is one of my favourite songs from my favourite Dave solo album of the 20th century, 1983’s ‘Chosen People’, with a very different feel sung with a full on rock vocal rather than an angelic falsetto. Then there’s ‘Love Me  Till The Sun Shines’ one of my favourite Dave songs of the 1960s, a howl of pain and longing that was born for the live stage. They’re all a bit messy and scrappy and like many a live recording it sounds like a great gig you wish you’d been to rather than a great concert recording, but that’s part of the fun and the result is a nice souvenir that goes nicely inside a Christmas stocking. 

21) The Rolling Stones “Grrrr! Live”

Released uncharacteristically quietly in February, compared to the big publicity drives for all the previous Stones archives sets and the new studio album, this is the New Jersey show from December 2012, one of the last dates in the band’s 50th anniversary tour. It’s not one of their better shows – you can tell its near the end of the tour as Mick Jagger’s voice is as shot as I’ve ever heard it, as anyone’s would be after playing so many gigs in a row – but you can see why it got released now with its big star guest names including some on the new album. Lady Gaga appears on ‘Gimme Shelter’ and she’s kind of OK doing the Merry Clayton part but nowhere near as inspired as she is on new song ‘Sweet Sounds Of Summer’, blues guitarists John Meyer and Gary Clark Jnr  gueston a surprise revival of ‘I’m Goin’ Down’ (the bluesy song at the end of Decca outtakes set ‘Metamorphosis’ that everyone always skips), The Black Keys turn up on an even more surprise cover of Bo Diddley’s ‘Who Do You Love?’, a drunk sounding Bruce Springsteen takes a verse of ‘Tumbling Dice’ and turns it straight into an E-street song and old Stone Mick Taylor plays some great improvised guitar lines on an extended ‘Midnight Rambler’, just like the olden days. It’s a show that feels like a warm up for this year’s anniversary shenanigans, filled with more unusual songs than usual, all the more so considering it was part of a ‘greatest hits’ tour, with other rarities including compilation songs ‘One More Shot’ and  ‘Doom and Gloom’ and Keith’s  old ‘Some Girls’ warhorse ‘Before They Make Me Run’. The Stones aren’t as tight as they are at other gigs, including others from the same tour, but they are having a lot of fun stretching out and playing looser than usual and there’s a party atmosphere throughout, while it’s always good to hear the much-missed Charlie Watts one more time. Hardly essential though and if you’re looking for a place to start your ‘Stones archives’ sets go with ‘Some Girls Live In Texas’ or ‘Sticky Fingers Live At Leeds’ where the Stones really were (give or take The Who) the best rock and roll band in the world. This is more of a party than a full-on rock concert and like many parties if you weren’t there it’s hard to get into the party spirit with it. Sounds like it was a lot of fun if you were, though.

22) John Lodge “Days Of Future Passed – My Sojourn”

Here we are again with a third album from the Moody Blues bassist reviving the olden days and doing his best to stay true to his promise to drummer Graeme Edge to keep the spirit of the band alive (Justin Hayward feeling that without Graeme the band is dead and he’s best left to concentrate on his solo career). ‘Days Of Future Passed’ didn’t just change the band’s fortunes, it changed John’s life, giving him a platform and an escape from the rat race he was stuck in and he’s never lost his sense of awe and gratitude for being part of it. Here, a year on from 2022’s ‘Royal Affair’ concert version of the entire LP comes a studio re-recording with most of the same special guests. It works a lot better this time if only because the Moodies were such a perfectionist band they always sounded better with the smoother edges of the studio rather than the rawness of the road. Like that record it’s fun to hear John singing songs he didn’t get to do with the band and he sounds rather good on Mike Pinder’s ‘Dawn Is A feeling’ and Ray Thomas’ ‘Twilight Time’ (although he can’t quite get the childish glee of Ray’s ‘Another Morning’ right and chickens out of doing ‘Nights In White Satin’, leaving that one to Yes’ Jon Anderson, whose as good as anyone can be that isn’t Justin but is really more of a nap in faded denim compared to the brilliance of  the original). There’s a heartwarming moment when Graeme Edge comes out of the vaults of future passed to deliver his poems (in the same concert recording used on ‘Royal Affair’) but there are also no encores or other songs from the past this time around and I still struggle hearing orchestras fill the gap where the mellotron should go (yes, famously, the London Symphony Orchestra played the links between the songs but didn’t play on the songs themselves as a substitute for the rock and roll instruments as per here).  Honestly, too, I’ve always felt that ‘Future Passed’ is the weakest of the seven ‘core’ Moodies records, without the daring of ‘In Search of the Lost Chord’, the depth of ‘To Our Children’s Children’ or the emotion of ‘Seventh Sojourn’ the other title referenced here (I was hoping for a double set!) Like the live album and indeed like most re-recordings you also to have to question who this record is for: it’s too respectful of the original to do anything wildly different and, simply because John is one man not five, can never be as good. If you want to hear ‘Days Of Future Passed’ you can just put the original record on after all.    

23) The Who “With Orchestra: Live At Wembley”

An orchestra? The Who? Are you bleeding mad?!? Next you’ll be telling me they’ve turned Quadrophenia into a bleeding opera! Oh wait...They did that already. And it was awful. So it was with heavy heart I braced myself for a more general concert of Who songs made over with the Isobel Griffiths Orchestra, taped during their last pre-pandemic gig at Wembley Arena. And against the odds I quite like it. In bits. Orchestras aren’t complete strangers to the ‘Orrible ‘Oo after all. John Enwtistle played the French Horn long before he picked up a bass and the 1960s Who records are full of brass. Pete Townshend was also married to Karen Astley for 30-odd years, the daughter of classical film soundtrack composer Edwin. My problem is adding orchestra to songs that were never designed to bear their weight whilst still playing as normal, when rock and classical music need entirely different recording conditions to work, is like baking a cake using a different recipe and expecting it to still come out like the original but a different colour.

‘Quadrophenia’ was awful in that respect – it felt like two different albums playing at once and always a little out of synch, so that the washes of watercolour it was meant to be weaving were being mixed on top of oils (or maybe I’ve just been staring at the back of the ‘Face Dances’ album cover for too long). Even while knowing why they’ve done it (part of a long process of finding a way to add a layer of power and re-create the records while compensating for an ageing band without adding an ‘equal’ second guitarist which changes the ‘rock trio’ sound a bit too much; the orchestra is basically a replacement for Rabbit Bundrick’s keyboards) it’s never quite worked in the past, more of a gimmick than an embellishment. This live show has improved things though by having the orchestra at least play in something like the same medium, so that they’re a lot more rock and rolly while ducked in the sound rather than prim and proper. Also, rather than being front and centre like a lead guitar part, they only peek out behind the drums bass and guitars every so often like a second guitar part, as if the orchestra and The Who are having one massive big punch-up. The Who still win by sheer volume, but at least they’re in the same fight this time. Some songs do, admittedly work better than others. The orchestra dashes of colour where the synths should be on the opening of ‘Eminence Front’ works well, reunion song ‘Hero Ground Zero’ gives Roger Daltrey an extra bed of layers to bounce up against on a song of reclaimed youthful swagger, ‘Behind Blue Eyes’ gets a stately gentile makeover and best of all ‘Imagine A Man’, that gorgeous overlooked song about becoming middle-aged from ‘Who By Numbers’, sounds lovely all lush and slow and elderly in all the best ways, with so much of a history to mourn and so many mistakes to look back on. The Quadrophenia songs still sound pretty poor though (surprisingly, given how many of them used orchestra anyway) while the old war horses The Who couldn’t get away without playing just sound daft with an orchestra playing on top: ‘Pinball Wizard’ goes from rock masterclass to ‘High School Musical’ soundtrack, ‘Baba O’Riley’ and its teenage wasteland have never sounded more old or out of touch and the orchestral substitute on ‘Substitute’ is laughable to all right-thinking mods. There’s a surprise acoustic ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’, the one song performed without an orchestra at all, on a single guitar the way it was originally planned (‘before we Keith Mooned it and John Enwtistled it!’) with a rambling opening speech from Pete about having written it not to promote activism or take part in it but to inspire people to change – it might have worked at a different gig or earlier in the set but by the end poor Roger’s voice is giving way and the edges are too rough now our ears having become more tuned into a lusher sound. Sadly there is no lengthy ‘Live At Leeds’ style ‘My Generation’ suite which might have been quite fun or ‘Listening To You’, a song I would have said was crying out for an orchestral makeover. Still, this experiment is a lot more successful than I expected it to be and is worth a listen. A word of warning though: buy the CD version not the Blu-Ray edition, as that’s just a collection of photographs and stills rather than a moving show, something that is mentioned on the back but is easy to miss.



1)  The Who “Who’s Next” (Super Deluxe)

What was planned in 1971 as a sprawling magnum opus concept LP called ‘Lifehouse’, set in a dystopian wasteland of environmental and societal chaos became, thanks to looming deadlines and a nervous breakdown, ‘Who’s Next’ the most condensed and compact Who album of them all: nine songs, the worst of them still pretty darn brilliant. The more the years go by and the closer we get to that dystopian vision of a scorched Earth with everyone hiding in their separate bunker-houses, however, the more ‘Who’s Next’ has gone back to resembling that sprawling first idea. Far from being a double album as intended its grown to become an expanded and pretty packed single CD in 1995, Pete’s four-discs-of-demos-plus-radio-play ‘Lifehouse Chronicles’ set in 2000 (not all period music but most of it is), a two CD ‘deluxe’ set in 2003,  and now a ‘super deluxe’ edition resembles something the size of the concrete monolith on the cover with a whacking ten CDs, plus seven Blu-Ray audios and a graphic novel that’s bigger than most sets all by itself. There are, in fact, 450 versions of this album from around the world listed on the Discogs website which must be some form of a record (the only AAA albums to come close are ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’ and ‘Pet Sounds’ – and oh look what crops up a bit later!) Despite its size and price (both way way way too big, particularly for a concept piece partly about how capitalism  creates distances between us all) I have to say I’m rather impressed with this set, which I’ve been calling for since the early days of the AAA and which doesn’t do the usual Who re-issue thing of picking and choosing from lots of other releases so you have to buy everything and instead gives us the story from every angle pretty much so we have all the bits and pieces of the jigsaw to try to re-assemble ourselves: the original album which, unlike a lot of re-mastering so close to the last time round you wonder why they bothered really, does make what was always a sonically brilliant sounding album crisper and punchier than it ever has before; there are the complete aborted New York Record Plant Sessions heard in part on the two-CD set that were abandoned for making ‘Lifehouse’ sound ‘lifeless’; all of Pete’s demos, some of which were released as long as ago as his first solo album ‘Who Came First’ in 1972 and the majority of which but not all of which were heard on his ‘Lifehouse Chronicles’ set; the punchy and rather under-rated concert at London’s ‘Young Vic’  heard on the deluxe edition that was meant to find The Who ‘connecting’ to their audience and channelling them into music but just ended up another Who concert show; a rather lesser second show from the Civic Auditorium unheard till now that tried to do the same but found even the band were struggling to connect with each other and is as out of tune as I’ve ever heard the Keith Moon lineup play; the singles ‘Join Together’ ‘Let’s See Action’ ‘Long Live Rock’ and ‘Relay’ once intended for the album plus earlier between-albums single ‘The Seeker’ and their incredibly varied B-sides: Roger’s thoughtful ‘Here For More’, Moony’s bonkers ‘Waspman’, Pete’s own under-rated classic ‘I Don’t Even Know Myself’ (also heard in a pretty awful and out of tune early take) and one of John Enwtistle’s greatest songs ‘When I Was A Boy’; an abandoned 1972 EP as The Who tried to work out what to do next after ‘Who’s Next’ collected onto ‘Odds and Sods’ in 1974; various works in progress and alternate mixes in line with other Who deluxe re-releases and various flotsam and jetsam bits and pieces.

The only thing missing is the not that well received radio play, effectively replaced in this set by a new graphic novel which does a better but still flawed job of telling the same story: a sort of futuristic ‘Romeo and Juliet’ set against the backdrop of a broken society and a planet Earth too hot to live on, with a musician desperate to make everyone in their little houses connect again with one big community who programmes society into a big computer in search of the ‘one note’ that will unite us all. In truth there are a lot of notes in this work and given that a central song from this concept is how ‘too much of anything is too much for me’ you can understand why so many collectors  are frustrated with a set that costs another small fortune (currently £230) so soon after we were asked to pay the last small fortune for a Who re-issue (£100ish). However there is a lot of music and information here for the large amount of money and as a way of collecting all of Pete’s many varied and often conflicting thoughts about ‘Lifehouse’ into one place, to save us the trouble of searching for it across multiple different releases  that are now all out of print, it’s a winner and about as close as we’re ever going to get to a ‘finished’ version of one of the best ‘missing’ albums of them all. As well as the finished album sounding as fabulous as ever (still one of the best AAA albums of all time) we get all our new-old friends back in place where they belong – songs like ‘Pure and Easy’ ‘Mary’ ‘Greyhound Girl’ and the first go at ‘Baba O’Riley’ back when it was the mournful ecological ballad ‘Teenage Wasteland’ that would be the highlights of other band’s catalogues, not cast-offs abandoned till later archive albums as these songs are. If you weren’t lucky enough to hear the Pete Townshend demos that were on the limited edition ‘Lifehouse chronicles’ set then they will be the revelation: Pete’s demos have him playing everything (even a pretty good stripped down version of Moony’s drum attack) and singing all the words with a folkier flavour than the finished band versions. A bluesy ‘Behind Blue Eyes’, a sprawling ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’ and a thirteen minute synth instrumental demo for ‘Baba O’Riley’ (running four minutes longer than the ‘Chronicles’ version) that’s beautiful in a hypnotic swirling trancelike kind of a way are all winners. As are the demos for songs that didn’t make the album: Pete’s most gorgeous, straightforward love song ‘Mary’ and his most agonising love song ‘Greyhound Girl’ (about a love he knows is bad for him but which he keeps coming back to).

 There are also two worthy demos that never got to the band stage and have never been heard before. ‘There’s A Fortune In These Hills’ is musically as 1971 Who as it gets, with a backing track squarely in the middle of folk country pop and rock and a fun riff that hops from foot to foot with every swipe of the guitar, restless and eager. Lyrically though its unique: this is clearly an elder of the ‘Lifehouse’ setting remembering how things used to be (Mary’s Grandad or the narrator’s?), inspiring the young with tales of how beautiful life used to be and how we never miss what we had till it’s gone. The hills, though, seem further away than ever in a world that’s all deserted deserts and has grown flat in every sense of the word. Even better is six minute epic ‘Finally Over’, a song that must surely have come at the end of the entire piece, as the complex narrator sheds his chords in death to become a soul of one note, all his human society-ness stripped away from him, becoming one note, pure and easy. A yearning piano ballad in the ‘Song Is Over; mode but with the spiritual gut-punch of ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It’, this has the narrator reflecting on all the things he’s tried to do with his life but only now, as he’s dying, does he truly understand what it was all for, getting spiritual downloads that enable him to see that the struggle was the whole point of life not the solution and reminding him of how far he’s come yet how much he has to learn over to be where he started, ‘children with open faces’ embracing life on its own terms instead of trying to shape it. Clearly at one with Pete’s other Meher Baba inspired pieces about embracing the present moment instead of feeling guilty about the past or dreading the future (the guru’s most famous phrase is ‘don’t worry, be happy’) it’s far too good and important a song to have remained in the vaults all this time, although it’s also so plot- heavy you can see why it didn’t make it to the final ‘Who’s Next’.

It’s nice to hear those ‘Record Plant’ sessions complete too – we’ve known how good some of them were ever since the expanded ‘Odds and Odds’ CD featured the blistering four minute, twin guitar rock version of ‘Love Ain’t For Keeping’ (which might still be the best thing here, including the finished album) and the deluxe CD showed off a pretty snazzy nine minute cover of ‘Baby Don’t You Do It’ alongside nearly-there versions of ‘Behind Blue Eyes’ and ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’ that were only a couple of takes and a rest away from greatness rather than the gulf the sleevenote writers usually claim. All are here alongside two unheard recordings, a slightly wobblier ‘Pure and Easy’ and ‘Gettin’ In Tune’ that by other bands standards would be ready to go already and are nice to hear, if not all that different.

By contrast the other ‘new’ big selling points are pretty lame. There’s nothing that much to write about in the unheard mixes department: a ‘Bargain’ with Roger’s first vocal singing alone before being double tracked (interesting to hear but you can see why they changed it for the final edit, as he does sound a bit lost and puny against the weight of The ‘Orrible ‘Oo at full blast), a slower ‘My Wife’ (the only song on ‘Who’s Next’ not written for ‘Lifehouse’) without the horns or the double-tracked vocals that sounds almost polite compared to the all-out punch of the finished version, a brief Nicky Hopkins led jam through the final crunching chords of ‘Getting’ In Tune’ before a first take that’s looser and funkier than the polished final version, albeit one that’s on the verge of collapse throughout, a mix of ‘Goin’ Mobile’ that has even more fun with squeaky synth noises and a few stray count-ins and snippets of band chat not heard before (none of it all that interesting). Because so many masters for this album have been lost sadly there’s only one complete backing track, unlike other Who deluxe sets where they tend to be amongst the best things there, and ‘The Song Is Over’ is such a lyrical stop-starty song that alas it’s not the best one to have  survived.

The big selling point, the Civic show, really is awful too (by Who standards at least) – it feels as if everyone is just a couple of beats out of synch with each other and you can hear the band screaming at the audience to gee themselves up and clap along but they’re just not connecting with each other tonight never mind the crowd so trying a sort of real-life ‘Listening To You’ doesn’t work and just makes everyone crosser. Which given that these shows were meant to be ‘about’ connecting with people through the healing power of music is a bit of a problem. It wouldn’t surprise me if, despite the guff in all the publicity notes about how wonderful it is, this show played its role in causing Pete to lose confidence and abandon this work all together. The most famous track from the gig is ‘Going Down’, the last song encore and a rather led Zeppelin riff-heavy heavy metal Don Nix cover first released on rarities set on  1987’s‘Two’s Missing’. Though nice to have it for completists’s sake (that recording is pretty rare nowadays) it’s as stodgy and heavy on their feet as The Who ever played and if you know it will give you some idea what the rest of the show is like. The Young Vic show though still sounds great, a cigar-chomping Pete, high on the fact his second daughter’s just been born, is in a fun mood and drives The Who through some really tricky new songs with great aplomb, however many apologies he makes for being distracted and how the new material isn’t quite there yet. On the contrary, it sounds great.

Overall, then, this isn’t the sort of box set that’s brilliant from first note to last and you can see why a lot of the unreleased stuff didn’t make it out on earlier sets. However there’s something to be said for having everything from this oh so important project together in one place and if anything this music hits harder today in our fragile, disconnected world on the edge of environmental collapse and with society hanging together by the thread of a pre-internet ‘grid’ (a remarkable bit of fortune-telling and something they make big play on for the ‘Lifehouse Chronicles’ set first released online back when that was a quirky thing to do in the year 2000) than it did in 1971. Planned as a ‘50th anniversary set’ for 2021 and still billed as that in some places, weirdly enough, despite being two years late you can see why ‘Lifehouse’ came back to haunt its chief creator so much during 2020’s lockdown, a time when we were doing pretty much exactly what this album’s all about .That it’s taken this long to come out shows how much extra love and attention has gone into the contents and packaging. If I could then maybe I’d maybe cut down the repetition between discs (you really don’t need all this stuff twice, on CD and blu-ray), tighten up the slightly rambling graphic novel, throw in some extra sleeve notes (the one thing earlier re-issues of this album did better) and cut the price down by at least £100. However ‘Lifehouse’ isn’t meant to be about perfection: it’s a concept album all about being flawed humans and how we all get fooled again, falling into the same old traps generation after generation. Fooled again into parting with my money for yet another deluxe edition? Maybe. Goodness knows there aren’t many albums I’d buy all over again so many times. But this one is special and a good half  of the extras on this set showcase why.

2) Dire Straits “Live 1978-1992”

Dire Straits were such a perfectionist studio band, always searching for sonic clarity, that their rawer live work too often gets dismissed – not least because their two official concert albums come from the second half of their time together, when the band were bloated and a bit too big for their own good, with changing line-ups playing massive arenas every night (if ever a band needed to look into their audience’s eyes to play it was this one). At the start of their career, though, Dire Straits were brilliant on stage, with a raw lean retro rock feel and songs that were daring and dangerous and with the sort of telepathy that only comes after many hours on stage. This new set, containing eight CDs or a whopping eleven vinyl records, redresses the balance at last, combining the two official live records, a hard-to-find EP released after the band had split, a BBC sessions set from the early days and a whole unreleased (but much beloved by bootleggers) gig at London’s Rainbow Theatre (making its second appearance in this year’s review) from December 1979. I really hope this show gets a standalone release sometimes as its easily the best thing here: this is the band when they were still just-about hanging on to their first and best lineup (with brother David Knopfler on rhythm and Pick Withers on drums, alongside longterm bass player John Illsley), halfway between those early desperate gigs and the later stadiums, second album ‘Communiqué’ just released and half of follow-up ‘Makin’ Movies’ already in the setlist. Mark’s confidence is sky high, in between the hard slog of the early days and the pressures of fame that will make him nervous, and he pulls some extraordinary guitar solos out of thin air, turning these compact early rockers into bigger and more epic songs. I wouldn’t say many of these live versions were better than the studio records but they are great fun, highlighted by a fun fast-paced romp through a much happier sounding ‘Setting Me Up’ than the dark, brooding tale of betrayal it is on record and a positively joyous ‘Sultans Of Swing’ that has never sounded better, this song of playing music for the love of it despite all the obstacles in your path, a sort of victory lap. Phil Lynott and Tony De Meur make a guest appearance near the end too, evidence of just what an up and coming band Dire Straits were at the end of the 1970s. There’s a curio for collectors too in the shape of ‘What’s A Matter Baby?’, an unusual angular track at one with the stormier songs of ‘Communiqué’ about Mark’s divorce from his first wife Kathy (and first released in inferior form on the ‘BBC’ disc) but is also half out of the bleak mood of that album, switching violently from the ‘shadow hanging over the valley’ of the minor key verses to a light and playful major key chorus more like the romance songs on ‘Makin’ Movies’.  It’s not the best thing Mark ever wrote but its too good to languish on bootlegs all these years and even for those collectors like me who own it several times over (it’s a natural filler on bootlegs, given that its one of only a handful of unreleased Dire Straits songs) it’s never sounded so good, cleaned up and polished in a loving, painstaking restoration job.

The other live shows sound better than they ever have too, even though they’re less essential. The seven-song BBC sessions from 1978, including a more half-hearted go at ‘Baby’, are still well played but in the confines of a studio with the clock ticking the band simply re-create the first album for the most part, with very few differences along the way. ‘Alchemy’ is beloved by many fans, a two CD/three vinyl set from Dire Straits’ all-conquering Wembley show in 1983 that was also one of the first big-selling music home videos, welcomed by budding guitarists for the chance to study Mark’s ever-moving fingers close up. The idea of turning metals into gold is a process that works both ways, though, and for every song that sounds better with the frisson of live performance (like a surprisingly intimate ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and a more than solid ‘Solid Rock’) there are other songs extended to double their running time that just fall flat (‘Private Investigations’ and ‘Telegraph Road’, while two of the best songs the band ever did, are not easy songs to do on stage and the band copy the studio arrangements to the letter, too audibly thinking about their next cues, all spontaneity lost). There’s a welcome chance to hear the fan favourite ‘Going Home – Theme From Local hero’ played by a full band though, rather than just Mark and keyboardist Alan Clark and a less welcome chance to hear EP only song ‘Two Young Lovers’, Dire Straits’ most shamelessly retro 1950s song that’s not as fun as it ought to be and just ticks every cliché in the book. Two songs have been discovered in the vaults and slotted back seamlessly into the set in the original order: a rather ropey ‘Industrial Disease’ and another EP track, the rather gormless ‘Twisting By The Pool’.

And then there’s ‘On The Night’, another two vinyl/packed CD set taken from the band’s final 1991 tour plus an EP of four songs cut from the final record for timing reasons. Released in 1992 and 1993 respectively they ended up being the last official ‘new’ products the band ever made and you can kind of see why – the joy’s just gone out of everything, the audience are too busy partying to pay attention to the words and the band have played so many shows that everything is passing in a blur, while there are just too many band members on stage clogging up the sound. Which is not to say its worthless: there are moments when the shows catch fire, especially the rockier songs from ‘Brothers In Arms’ and ‘On Every Street’ that sound good without the studio polish like ‘Calling Elvis’ ‘The Bug’ and ‘Heavy Fuel’, although even these end up in a rut of band jamming that you can tell everyone has played the exact same way every night for the best part of a year. There’s one heck of a lot of repetition too, even allowing for the fact that fans want to hear the hits (really though, do we need a second twenty minute version of ‘Telegraph Road’?) There are six songs restored this time though and you have to wonder why most of them were cut, especially a welcome slab of earthly blues in ‘When It Comes To You’ and a swinging ‘Tunnel Of Love’ (taken from a camera feed, the official recording truck having closed down for the night in error, assuming the show was over!) There are still some things missing from the bootlegs of the tour though: no ‘Planet Of New Orleans’ for one. There’s also a whole unexpected new song: ‘I Think I Love You Too Much’ is too simple to be a classic but its good to hear, its simple declaration of love at odd with the dark and sombre mood of ‘On Every Street’.

The result then is a mix. I’m glad this box exists and that there’s a cheaper way of getting the ‘BBC’ and ‘Encores’ set that doesn’t cost the Earth and the chance to hear the ‘Rainbow’ gig is worth every penny alone, while even the worst recording here has never sounded so good thanks to the painstaking attention to detail from one time keyboard player Guy Fletcher, in charge of the re-mastering project who did a superb job. The packaging is cheap and shoddy though, arrows on a plain white cover that’s clearly trying to get the ‘vibe’ of the first three album covers without quite pulling it off and the cardboard sleeves feel cheap given the exorbitant price this set is going for (£50 on CD and a whopping £200 on vinyl), although the CD replication sleeves are very pretty. You have to ask, too, why just the Rainbow show was selected for official release when there are so many gems around on bootleg that deserve to be better heard (my favourite Dire Straits gig is a show in Boston from 1979 with even more rarities on it). Money for nothing? Definitely not, but it’s a lot of money for maybe only half a set of brilliance.


3) Neil Young  “Official Release Series 5”

We’re up to the late 1980s and early 1990s now with the latest quartet of remastered albums from the released end of Neil’s discography and a mixed bunch they are too. Things start strongly with ‘Freedom’, perhaps the best all-round of Neil’s albums with a bunch of excellent acoustic, electric and experimental pieces all nestling for space on the first Young albums made for the longer running time of the CD market. Along with ‘Tonight’s The Night’ and ‘Trans’ its his finest hour and mostly sounds better than ever here, though ‘Crime In The City’ is still disappointingly tinny and weak. ‘Ragged Glory’ sold well following the sales of ‘Freedom’ and spin-off single ‘Rockin’ In The Free World’ but to my ears was one of Neil’s weaker, more basic albums with the first full-album reunion of Crazy Horse after a decade’s gap tentative and nervy, despite some fine songs hinting at early cracks in Neil’s relationship with wife Pegi. The concert album from the resulting tour, ‘Weld’, is something special though, the definitive live recording of the Horse in their natural habitat of the stage, with the outbreak of the Gulf War providing an extra political commentary and edge to songs old and new, with the bite ‘Ragged Glory’ was missing and highlighted by its exclusive song, a feedback ‘n’ harmonies led cover of ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’ that’s still my favourite Dylan cover by anyone. Neil was in an unusually co-operative mood when he agreed with the record company to cut out the superfluous long stretches of feedback and bum notes but, Neil being Neil, stuck them all together in a thirty-minute collage he called ‘Arc’ that, not surprisingly, didn’t sell too well and hasn’t been re-issued on CD since till now. It’s really not the sort of thing you’ll want to listen to too many times, but it fits the staccato machine gun vibe of the Gulf War even better than its parent album. Some of these discs for the first time come with the rounding up of stray offcuts and B-sides and though there aren’t many all are strong this time around, each of them on ‘Ragged Glory’ turning an already lengthy set into a double disc one. ‘Interstate’ is a lovely ballad, an extra from the original double-vinyl release of ‘Broken Arrow’ but originally recorded for this album, that’s been out a few times now but never sounded better than here as an acoustic ballad so fragile it sounds as if it will disappear, Neil lost and isolated on a road that’s much bigger and wider than him. ‘Box Car’ made it out in re-recorded form for ‘Chrome Dreams II’ in 2007, but the demo dates back to ‘Glory’ too, played with a spikey solo electric guitar backing rather than a flowing acoustic one. Like many a Young song it compares his life to a vehicle, though its perhaps unique in having Neil a passenger ‘led’ by something bigger than him. It’s no long lost classic, but it’s nice.  ‘Don’t Spook The Horse’ is a cheeky song from Neil first released on the flip of ‘Mansion On The Hill’. What starts off as an oddball song about love and how you have to be careful not to let it buck and throw you off or bite you turns into a metaphor for how nervy everyone was about getting Crazy Horse back together again. Neil struggles to keep a straight face while informing us that he hopes the ones we love ‘don’t fall in shit’, his band included! Best of all is ‘Born To Run’ (no, not the Springsteen song), a much more ‘Ragged Glory’ style foot stomper but one that’s tighter and more in-the-moment than anything from that album, with a very Neil lyric about always being on the move and searching for more, set to a ‘Good Lovin’ style riff that just won’t let him rest. An excellent set of bonus tracks to a mixed bag of albums, though like all releases in this series it’s a bit pricey for what you get and the re-mastered sound doesn’t add that much if you own these albums already. 

4)  Bob Weir “Ace” (50th Anniversary Edition)

 ‘Ace’ is kind of an honorary Dead album, what with the Dead backing their rhythm guitarist on every track and a lot of fans hold this set in high regard so it makes sense that tis record gets its own 50th anniversary re-issue alongside the main run of band re-issues (though it’s a surprise the just as loved ‘Garcia’ didn’t get one too). ‘Ace’ is easily Bobby’s greatest hour (well, half hour – it is quite a short album) containing many of his best songs, each one fascinatingly different to the last – the hypnotic grooves of ‘Playin’ In The Band’, the lyrical complexity of ‘Black-Throated Wind’, the tenderness of breakup ballad ‘Looks Like Rain’, the Bible story set to rollicking good time rock ‘Greatest Story Ever Told’ and the out-with-the-old, in-with-the-new of ‘Cassidy’, honouring the birth of longterm crew member Rex Jackson’s son and lamenting the death of counter-culture King Neal Casady. Not every song is a classic (‘Mexicali Blues’ is one of those Dead songs I tend to use for a bathroom break) and there are only eight of them, but then ‘Ace’ has been out of print for so long and for a Dead-related album has been mighty hard to track down the past few years so any re-release is welcome. However if you already own it I’d hold on to your old copies a bit longer because the Weir band concert from New York’s Radio City Music Hall on April 3rd 2022 is not up to the other Dead’s 50th anniversary set re-issue shows or indeed up to the Dead at all. Bobby’s brought a horn section on stage with him, but while it will turn up ace on certain other Weir-written songs like ‘Weather Report Suite’ these songs weren’t built with a brass section in mind and they sound alternately tacky or over-powering, while  the rest of the band are sluggish and sloppy, without the years of playing that gave the Dead such telepathy. Guest Brittney Spencer livens things up by filling in Donna Godchaux’s parts from the original, but her very millennial vocals are an odd mix with Bob’s boomer hippie tones. An eight minute ‘Playin’ In the Band’, at about half the speed the Dead used to play it while Bob speak-sings is particularly woeful, though an older and wiser and more fragile sounding ‘Black-Throated Wind’ is mighty pretty. The packaging is really good too, as you tend to expect from the Dead’s re-issue bonanza these days and the re-mastering makes a sometimes woolly sounding record crisp and clear. However you have to say that what was always one of the leanest Dead-related records is still pretty lean, with no sign of any of the period Dead live renditions from 1972-73 that would have filled up the extra space nicely, perhaps for copyright reasons. Not quite an ace then, though not down to a two either. Maybe a six? 


5) The Beatles “Red (1962-1966)” and “Blue (1967-1970)”

There was always going to be some publicity re-issue bonanza to go with the last/penultimate ever Beatles song (see below) and I guess the ‘Red’ and ‘Blue’ sets remixed and re-released on vinyl for the first time in half a century were as good a choice as any, give their own mirroring of the ‘Now and Then’ concept (though personally I think the Beatles catalogue is so rich I’d have released a third volume ‘yellow’ with Paul and Ringo back on the EMI stairs, the ghosts of John and George with them: the Apple marketing team missed a trick with that one). For anyone that doesn’t know, the red and blue sets were hated Beatles manager Allen Klein’s idea, released in 1972 to combat sales of two semi-bootlegs ‘Alpha’ and ‘Omega’ released in New Jersey to take advantage of lax local laws that didn’t recognise copyrights on audio recordings, which were also available on mail order to the rest of the world and even advertised on TV for a while, for which the Beatles got no money. The official replacement compilations covered much the same ground, with a few tweaks here and there to keep George and Ringo happy (they were represented mostly by solo songs bizarrely thrown into the mix on the bootlegs) and a track listing that sensibly went for chronological order rather than the (near) alphabetical of the unofficial sets and the choice was made to replace the handful of ‘cover’ songs with originals (Klein had a hand in the publish money so that’s mostly why, but it also makes sense that a Beatles best-of would feature a showcase for their songwriting as much as their musicianship). Klein’s most inspired move was to use the aborted photo for ‘Let It Be’, taken when that album was still panned as ‘Get Back’ and intended to come out in early 1969, before the mixes were rejected the idea abandoned until Phil Spector came along to patch things up in 1970. A shot of the fab four re-creating the cover for first album ‘Please Please me’ at EMI headquarters in London, it’s a neat ‘after’ shot to go with the ‘before’ one and so perfect for this set and its tie-in single.

Beatles label Apple have also taken the opportunity to add a few songs to the extra CD running time so we get some new additions: some obvious songs that should have always been there and will probably shock most fans that they weren’t (‘I Saw Her Standing There’ ‘Twist and Shout’ ‘Blackbird’) some truly weird ones (‘Please Mr Postman’ ‘This Boy’ ‘Within You Without You’ ‘Glass Onion’ ‘Oh! Darling’ ‘I Me Mine’) and some glaring omissions that are still glaring now (no ‘It Won’t Be Long’ ‘Things We Said Today’ ‘No Reply’  ‘I’m A Loser’  ‘Yes It Is’ ‘Rain’ ‘She Said She Said’ ‘For No One’ ‘Fixing A Hole’ ‘Birthday’ ‘Helter Skelter’ ‘The Inner Light’ ‘Because’ or ‘The Long Medley’). Ironically enough, the new sets now resemble ‘Alpha Omega’ more than ever with the cover songs back in, so maybe the counterfeiters were on to something? The biggest surprise is that the two ‘other’ reunion songs ‘Free As A Bird’ and ‘Real Love’ aren’t included alongside new track ‘Now and Then’ – ironically for recordings released a quarter century after the others they’re now the Beatle tracks that have gone the longest time without being remixed and remastered and, frankly, they need it – especially given the ‘MAL’ software which might be able to do wonders (though given how awful the sound of ‘Now and Then; still is, don’t hold your breath).

Ah yes, MAL. The new discs feature remixed sound using the ‘separation’ technology (rather sweetly named Machine Assisted Learning or ‘MAL’, a reference to Beatle roadie Mal Evans) used by director Peter Jackson in the ‘Get Back’ documentary of 2021 and utilised on a few Beatle box set re-issues since, as well as the ‘new/old’ single.  In simple terms it has a computer analyse the data of the original master recordings, divide them into bits and pieces and then Giles Martin (George's son) 'remixes' them into stereo all over again, with a range that previous engineers never had, with an almost endless supply of 'tracks' to put them on and pan them across stereo (the most the Beatles ever had were sixteen - even 'Sgt Peppers' had overdubs combined on eight tracks). These are then played back  through the speakers in Abbey Road and -re-recorded' as if the Beatles are playing 'live'. It's a hit and miss process: some songs sound better, with the rawer songs given an added punch and the more layered tracks opened up to reveal a few titbits we'd never properly been able to hear before - on the downside some things that feel like such an intrinsic part of the song they shouldn't be taken away are now ducked in the mix. Most of the later albums have been remixed in this way already, so collectors are mostly buying these sets for songs from the albums ‘Please Please Me’ through to ‘Rubber Soul’ plus ‘Magical Mystery Tour’  and the 'Yellow Submarine' soundtrack(so mostly the ‘red’ set with a dash of blue). It's a process that's only ever as goo as the condition of the master-tapes: luckily for us EMI kept all their master-tapes for everybody in great condition so they're as good as any master reels form sixty years could sound; the downside is they're still sixty years old and treating them like 'new' pristine recordings doesn't always work. The master tapes for 'Please Please Me' were completed in a hurry, without the same intricate detail in sound, so they sound quite flat ('Twist and Shout' especially). 'She Loves You' for instance, is one of the rare Beatles recordings where the master tapes have been 'lost' and while the transfer used is from a pristine 1960s vinyl its still muddy compared to everything else here. 'I Feel Fine' does exist as a master-tape but that sounds odd too. For some odd reason the track selections from 'A Hard Day's Night' sound lifeless too, with Ringo's drums mixed way too high so they overpower everything (the opening ringing guitar of the title track still sounds odd too). 'Revolution' (the single version, not on The White Album) doesn't pierce its way through the speakers the way the 'Past Masters' version does. 'Hey Bulldog' is a puppy, without the bared teeth you'd hope for. 'Old Brown Shoe' is wretched, like George has a sweater on his head (Giles seems to have 'missed' the point that it meant to be a retro 1950s style  recording and is meant to sound flat - this remix just accentuates that it doesn't sound like the others). By contrast 'From Me To You' has never sounded so good, with all the raw energy of the early Beatles at their best. 'Yesterday' sounds sumptuous with more space between all the strings. 'We can Work It Out' and 'Day Tripper' are both more powerfully raw and more polished than they've ever sounded. The songs from 'Rubber Soul' sounds particularly good, with a lot more bass and drums. The title track of 'Magical Mystery Tour' sounds much brighter and cleaner, like the mud of the road wiped off. ‘I Am The Walrus’ is the mix causing most controversy, with the strings and Mike Sammes Singers ducked low in the second half and additional radio feeds to the famous ‘King Lear’ one mixed in alongside: it adds to the random chaos and would work well if this was a whole new song, but is a brave choice to put out again for a fanbase who know every second of these songs backwards (literally, in many cases) and seems like mucking around with history a bit too unnecessarily for a best of (even though I'd like it as a 'Magical Mystery Tourt deluxe bonus track). So a mixed bag really.  

Does anything here sound better enough to be worth buying? Not at that price. Especially because, if I know my Beatles, the other box set album re-issues will be along shortly over the next couple of Christmasses anyway, making this set entirely void circa 2026. Honestly I’m not sure who these sets are aimed at either. New collectors who want to own something but not everything will be put off by the far too steep price tag of £50 the pair on CD and £70 on vinyl, while collectors only bought the red and blue sets in re-mastered sound last time out in 2014 which is too soon to be conned again eve for Beatle people used to having a direct debit of hundreds of pounds to Apple every yuletide. Far better, perhaps, might have been to re-mix and re-release the ‘1’ or ‘Past Masters’ single compilations to go for the really new (and cheaper) market and hook new Beatle fans in that way. There’s just no excuse for those prices which make me red and blue both – and no doubt green for buying them anyway.

Far more interesting all round is the ‘real’ Beatle news of the year: a rare concert recording from Stowe Public School taped by a pupil on April 4th 1963 and unheard till this year when it was released on youtube for free, in stark contrast to the blue meanies Apple-bonkers! A rare chance to hear the fab four playing in their heyday without being interrupted by screaming it’s a great gig and last a full hour, with a set list that’s a cross between their Hamburg Star Cub tapes of December 1962 and the Pop Go The Beatles sessions, with a few songs from ‘Please Please Me’ thrown in. Ringo, particularly, has never sounded better, driving the band along in a way we’ve never heard before (even on the German tapes). The sooner that’s out on CD the better – honestly that would have made a better ‘sister’ set to ‘Now and Then’.


6) Dave Davies “Living On A Thin Line”

I have to confess I was a little disappointed with Dave’s second autobiography released last year, not because it was bad but because it borrowed so heavily from Dave’s first ‘Kink’, repeating about two-thirds of it (though if you haven’t read either yet it’s well worth buying in either form straight away – it’s by far my favourite rock autobiography, funny straightforward emotional honest and revealing). The tie-in compilation is a little bit on the slim and recycled side too: Dave’s already excelled himself compiling his own songs with the superb two-disc sampler ‘Unfinished Business’, complete with demos, offcuts and Kink Klassiks, so a single disc collection of just his solo work (released just too late for Christmas and last year’s review list) seems a bit on the slight side – Dave has switched so many record labels down the years I suspect licensing problems are behind the slightly skewed choices, but it’s still a shame whatever the reason. Though 1960s classics ‘Death Of A Clown’ and ‘Susannah’s Still Alive’ are here there’s nothing else from Dave’s great ‘lost’ album of 1968-1969 most fans would agree remains his best work outside The Kinks and the Kinks themselves are represented by live versions this time around rather than the studio recordings and most of them just aren’t as good (although that said I really like the older, wiser rendition of  ‘Lola V Powerman’s ‘Strangers’ from a live show in 2022).  Of the later stuff there’s nothing from the first three ‘finished’ solo albums of 1979-1983, which is a particular shame in the case of third album ‘Chosen People’, Dave’s high point as a solo creative writer. I’m pleased the trip down memory lane with oompah band ‘Fortis Green’ from 2002’s ‘Bug’ is here, but I would have chosen more songs from that album’s return to form too over more recent songs which are too modern, too weird or too ordinary by comparison. I understand that Dave’s chosen songs to complement the book and tell more of a ‘story’, the way other writers have done (such as Carly Simon or even brother Ray, who set the ball rolling with the live ‘X-Ray’ set ‘Storyteller’ in the mid-1990s) but there are even better stories about songs that are oddly missing from the book and record. Like the book ‘Living On A Thin Line’ has many highlights and it’s great to hear Dave sounding so good again on the 2022 live recordings, most traces of his stroke twenty years ago gone now I’m pleased to say. It’s just that he did this stuff better, earlier and its ‘Kink’ and that autobiography tie-in ‘Unfinished Business’ I’d recommend over this one.

7) The Kinks “The Journey” (Volumes 1 and 2)

Rather than release yet another Kink Kompilation for the band’s 60th anniversary the Davies brothers have gone a slightly different route this year, with two kollections of famous but also slightly obscurer songs that tell a ‘theme’. Quite what those themes are I’m not quite sure, even though they’re listed meticulously on the cover, nor am I sure exactly who this set is for: passionate Kink Kollektors already own this stuff several times over, while newcomers will just hear a bunch of similar songs that all sound the same. I’d understand it more if these sets gave space to the neglected gems of the 1970s and 1980s, but they don’t by ad large– mostly, I suspect, because the band’s different record companies (Pye, RCA Victor Arista and MCA) don’t like licensing songs for other record labels and even the six disc Kink box set ‘Music Box’ struggled to represent all the eras properly – this pair of scrawny two disc sets have no chance. Still, whoever selected the song choices has really good taste and the songs flow together well, with the Kinks story separated into four different ‘journeys’. On volume one, released in Spring, the oddly titled opening ‘Becoming A Man, The Search For Adventure, Finding An Identity And A Girl’ is high octane energy with eight big rock and roll songs from the early days including such neglected gems as ‘You Really Got Me’s bluesy B-side ‘It’s Alright’ and 1966 outtake ‘She’s Got Everything’. ‘Songs Of Ambition Achieved...’ is darker and more bittersweet, with classic gloomy Kinks single ‘Dead End Street’ kicking off a run of seven more introspective songs highlighted by school pal memory ‘Do You Remember Walter?’, Dave’s ‘Mindless Child Of Motherhood’ and two surprise selections from 1975’s overlooked ‘Schoolboys In Disgrace’.  Over on volume one disc two ‘Days and Nights Of A Lost Soul’ continues the theme and is the best of the lot, opening with the gorgeous ‘Too Much On My Mind’ and following it up with Dave’s ‘Strangers’ and classic B-side ‘Where Have All The Good Times Gone?’ before brightening up with Preservation’s ‘Sitting In the Midday Sun’, though hearing so many melancholy tracks in a row is heavy going even for someone used to listening to all three ‘Preservation’ albums back to back. We end Journey One with ‘A New Start, A New Love...’, but these just sound like six songs stuck together randomly to me without even the half-themes of the others– what does the brilliant but sad song about failure ‘Celluloid Heroes’ have in common with the romance of ‘Waterloo Sunset’ and the 1960s hangover that is ‘Death Of A Clown’ exactly?

Volume two, released in Autumn, features even vaguer subtitles and lesser known but more interesting songs: ‘The world around the journeyman crumbles as his life is turned upside down’ runs the opening theme of eight tracks which combine fan favourites ‘David Watts’ and ‘Til’ The End Of The day’ with lesser known works ‘Scrapheap City’ and ‘Preservation’, with the ‘alternate take’ of ‘This Time Tomorrow’ lifted from the ‘Lola V Powerman’ deluxe set. Next ‘The Journeyman is led astray by ghosts and angels’…okay then! ‘Lola’ is presumably the angel, Dave’s brilliant solo single ‘Creeping Jean’ and classy semi-hit single ‘See My Friends’ kind of work as ghosts if you squint a bit, but Ray’s tale of sibling rivalry ‘Two Sisters’ (really about him and Dave) and a brighter mix of Preservation Act 2’s ‘Money Talks’ (closer to the sound of the BBC recording) really don’t fit at all. Next our journeyman has ‘lost his innocence’ exploring ‘the demons of the underworld’: cue ‘Rainy Day In June’ witch song ‘Wicked Annabella’ and a battle with the old demon ‘Alcohol’, although I suspect Dave’s teenage girlfriend Susannah won’t be that thrilled at being called a ‘demon’ with the inclusion of ‘Susannah’s Still Alive’. I’m quite impressed with the remix of Preservation’s ‘Where Are They Now?’ which is less stagey and more Kinksy, although the same project’s ’Artificial Man’ sounds less human all round in that remix. The story ends as ‘despair turns to elation, he overcomes his fear and reunites with old friends’. This big finale is the least successful of the eight ‘themes’ for me, featuring the most obscure stuff, all taken from different concept albums that struggle to be squeezed into this one. This selection will be the most interesting to Kink Kollektors thanks to ‘The New Victoria Suite’,  unheard live versions from the New Victoria Theatre (although longterm kollektors will recognise ‘Everybody’s A Star’ and ‘A Face In The Crowd’ as the opening and closing performance from the ‘A Soap Opera’ TV special ‘Slum Kids’ is a new recording. Overall I'm disappointed there isn't more from 'Arthur' 'Lola V Powerman'  'Muswell Hillbillies' or even - a surprise this, given how its become generally acknowledged as the greatest most consistent Kinks album even though it isn't - 'Village Green Preservation Society'. Notably there's nothing past 1975 so no Arista, London or Columbia albums, presumably because of rights. However, wrapping the whole franchise up with 1970’s obscure ‘Percy’ film soundtrack song ‘God’s Children’ is as good a way to go out as any, its subversive tale of a penis transplant a front for a song about the importance of being yourself very much the theme running through the sets. So ends certainly the most Kinky koncept album there’s ever been: the theme titles are more than a tad pretentious, the packaging’s not much to write home about and some of the song choices are deeply odd and yet somehow you do get a greater sense of what this unique band was all about than just listening to the hit singles all over again. Thankfully the Kinks Katalogue is so strong that even the lesser known dips into the archives are still a treat. A journey though? No that’s the one that started with the band’s cover of ‘Long Tall Sally’ in late 1963 and which is still going now, these are all just side roads in that main quest. Apparently there isn’t going to be a volume three, which is a bit of a shame – the Kinks catalogue is such an embarrassment of riches that if they’re going to do this then there’s at least another five volumes before we even begin to get onto the average stuff, although by then you’ll be enough of a Kink Kollecktor to want to hear them all in their original context in albums anyway.  

8) Rick Wright “Wet Dream”

The first of three sort-of solo albums by the Pink Floyd keyboard player (who liked borrowing special guests to do the vocal parts), released in the gap between ‘Animals’ and ‘The Wall’, this has been out of print ever since a CD release in the 1990s so fans will think it’s a fever dream when they see this in th shelves of their local record shop, rather than a ‘wet dream’. Re-released on what would have been Rick’s 80th birthday, July 28th 2023) in a new re-mastered edition, it’s a Floyd-like concept album about the healing powers of waters – ironically written on holiday in an attempt to escape waters (i.e. Roger). In truth its not the most important of Floyd spin-offs, with most of this album a set of instrumentals written on holiday in the Mediterranean and with that sense of holiday laziness permeating throughout. Most of the songs are linked to themes of the ocean, the place where Rick was always happiest, and, now that David Gilmour has equated heaven with a journey across the sea on his own moving tribute to Rick ‘A Boat Lies Waiting’ these songs hit a bit differently and more powerfully now Rick is no longer around to see it. Despite the title’s implications  this might well be one of the un-sexiest albums ever made, a quiet low-key collection of thoughts and riffs in search of a home, music used as therapy rather than to sell records and entertain. Even at his weakest, though, Rick was always too melodic and gifted a writer to deliver nothing and there’s a real charm to these songs, dressed up with the presence of two half-Floyds guesting, sax player Dick Parry and ‘surrogate’ guitarist Snowy White (who does some great David Gilmour impressions). The two songs that’s have vocals are major works too, oft-overlooked, heartbreaking songs about Rick’s divorce to first wife Juliette and all the awful things he doesn’t want to face when he goes back home (made even more powerful by the fact she co-wrote one of them as a ‘last goodbye’). ‘Against All The Odds’ is a mournful Spanish-guitar led ballad (did it inspire Roger to write the similar sounding ‘Is There Anybody Out There?’ the following year?) about how, no matter how much Rick and his wife aim to get along, they always end up in a fight, driven by something that’s come between them they ‘don’t understand’. Rick’s fragile paper-thin vocals are often the most haunting part of a Floyd LP and never more than here, where they’re front and centre rather than the sandwich in Gilmour’s perfect pop sensibilities and Waters’ acerbic sarcasm, pure unadulterated hurt with nothing to hide behind. Fans have naturally long assumed ‘Pink’s Song’ is a message to the band in some way, a sort of ‘thankyou for looking after me’ from someone who senses he’s not going to be in the band for much longer or even the character in ‘The Wall’, but no – it’s about the Wright’s family nanny, whose been left looking after the children while mummy and daddy go away to patch up their differences. ‘Quiet smiling friend of mine thrown into our lives’ starts Rick before commenting how he ‘saw through our disguise’ to why they’re really leaving, pleading for time to get his head straight before coming back to the family life that seems to have broken beyond repair. It’s a sweet low-key song on a sweet low-key album, nautical yet nice, one that sounds better than ever with the new surround sound and Dolby Atmos mixes and is a curio worth hearing for Floyd fans who own everything else, though its not exactly an album you’ll go out of your way to play very often. There’s a new album cover, specially shot by what’s left of Hipgnosis who did the original to be fully in keeping with it, as if we’ve pulled back from the shorts on the cover to see the bigger picture of the swimmer in the ocean, but you do kind of wonder why they bothered to go such expense for such an ordinary-looking remake of what’s quite an ordinary cover.

9) Pink Floyd “Atom Heart Mother” (Special Edition)

Usually I can’t move for notifications about Punk Floyd re-issue bonanzas. My social media ends up full of pictures, my online shopping basket full of hints, music magazines are full of detail and awe and I swear the last time ‘Animals’ was re-issued there was a giant pig flying outside my window (although that might just have been a fever dream brought on by the panic of having so many Pink Floyd sets to review). The ‘Atom Heart’ cow, though, was always the un-beloved runt of the Floyd litter, the one record that neither the Gilmour nor the Waters halves of the band have ever championed that much and this re-issue has slipped out without much fanfare. Which is a shame: like all Floyd box sets the packaging is exquisite, with bovine cover star Lulubelle III given plenty of places to shine alongside more conventional images of the band and a booklet with pull-outs galore: ticket stubs, tour programme reproductions, a bonus book full of more photographs, you name it. The big selling point for fans is the chance to own a blu-ray disc of the live rendition of the title track as performed at an Amsterdam music festival, as originally featured as part of the full and very pricey ‘Early Years’ box set and released here separately at last at a decidedly more affordable price. The footage was always a bit dodgy, being filmed by a fan rather than a professional camera crew (and limited on what film they could afford, hence the fact they only filmed one song – though you have to wonder why they chose to film this one of all Floyd tracks!) but it looks better now than it ever has thanks to a colossal clean-up job. It’s a good performance, much tighter than the record without Ron Geesin’s pompous orchestra getting in the way and already played in so many live shows that the band are performing by telepathy, guessing each other’s every move organically, as opposed to the tentative studio version which was a cae of the blind leading the blind. As an instrumental it’s still not exactly the greatest or most important song in the world though, so this is not exactly an essential purchase, more a collector’s curio.

There’s an interesting documentary on the restoration to fill up the blu-ray running time too, although overall it’s still rather short for the price (there are a handful of other Floyd performances from the era we could have had, if alas no other footage of them performing songs from this album). As for the record itself its an under-rated gem, far worthier than its lowly reputation suggests – David Gilmour’s ‘Fat Old Sun’, particularly, is Floyd at their most pastoral, reflective and beautiful while ‘Summer ‘68’ is Rick Wright at his guiltiest after an experience with a groupie and ‘If,’, Roger Waters’ even guiltier song of regret over how he handled the madness and disintegration of best friend Syd Barrett, is one of his greatest songs of all. As for ‘Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast’ it’s a daft old instrumental/sound collage that’s a parody of their famous prog rock concept style based around their roadie having the most important meal of the day complete with sound effects of steaming kettles and lit ovens, but as a recovering cereal-aholic whose convinced its secretly about him, that song has a real place in my heart too, even if I don’t actually play it all that often (because, well, its not all that musical). It’s the title track that always brought this album down and even that sounds as good as it ever has thanks to the live rendition. It’s all a better investment than yet another ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’ box anyway. Talking of which…  

10) Pink Floyd “Dark Side Of The Moon” (50th Anniversary)

If Roger’s anniversary re-creation was disappointing, that’s nothing on his band’s official re-issue of an album that was last re-mastered and reissues as recently as 2017. Many things have come and gone in half a century of change that’s seen nine American presidents and eleven UK prime ministers, twenty nine outbreaks of war somewhere around the world and approximately 600 new full moons. The music scene and particularly the way we access it has changed beyond measure. Yet still there is one constant that never goes away: every anniversary, sometimes even between anniversaries, some country somewhere will be getting a ‘special edition’ of ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’, an album which must surely rank as one of the most -released ever (while a lot of them aren’t all that different Discogs lists 1228 variations). So inevitably we were going to get another variation for such a big anniversary, even though it wasn’t that long ago we got a whole box set of the thing. What do you get this time? Yet another new mix, or two if you buy the DVD (where the ‘James Gurthrie’ remix from the CD  is joined by a ‘Dolby Atmos’ mix, alongside the 5.1 surround mix from 2003 and our old friend the original stereo mix). Admittedly ‘Dark Side’ is the sort of album that was always made to be played on the best stereo going so its constant updating makes more sense than with, say ‘Surfin’ Safari’ or ‘Please Please Me’. However technology hasn’t improved that much: Is there much to choose between the mixes? Erm, not to my ears. ‘Time’ sounds a little punchier and more ‘desperate’ maybe – David Gilmour’s guitar always used to float in the mix like a butterfly but now Rick Nick ‘n’ Roger’s rhythm section are every bit as loud and make it sting like a bee. ‘Us and Them’ sounds a little more divided in the mix, apt given the mood of the song though I’m not so sure sonically its a good idea and the opening to ‘Money’ has some superfluous keyboard fills that are a tad distracting. The only ‘extras’ are the live show from London’s Wembley arena (another venue making one of multiple appearances in this year’s list) already included in the ‘Immersion’ box set, split between the ‘Experience’ discs of ‘Dark Side’ and ‘Wish You Were Here’ in 2016 but combined here to be complete for the first time). Though also made separately on vinyl, just to annoy all the people still paying off the bigger set’s bigger price as we assumed it would never come out on its own. It’s a good show, with a fun improv through ‘Any Colour You Like’ into a particularly moving finale of ‘Brian Damage’ and ‘Eclipse’ ,but they’ve done nothing to it if you’ve already heard it and if you haven’t then it’s not good enough to be worth trading your standalone ‘Dark Side’ set just to hear it.  There is a nice lot of packing this time around including the 1970s official sheet music re-printed and a hardback book commemorating the tour, also released separately, but like many a photo book it’s the sort of thing to enjoy once and then file away without really looking at again rather than something that really changes your perception of anything to do with the album or the band. Though most people are getting excited about the chance to buy it on vinyl all over again  - or for the first time in the case of the Wembley shows - well, even that’s not what it could be as this is just a plain ordinary bit of vinyl without the colourful picture discs of other years. A lot of fuss over not much and at an exorbitantly costly price then, like a lot of Floyd re-issues have been lately, without even one unreleased thing from the vaults (I mean, surely those interview tapes that keep cropping up in documentaries are still kicking around somewhere complete – and why not a freebie EP mopping up the few stray demos or ‘Pompeii’ soundtrack alternate versions that exist?) ) Of course this is a big anniversary but, you know, they don’t have to re-release albums just because they’re fifty years old, there is a choice. ‘Money’ seems more truthful and less ironic with every passing re-issue. There’s no bad dark side of the moon really of course and if you don’t know this album at all then you’re in for a treat…but if you’ve bought this set every other time its come out before then in terms of your bank balance it’s all dark.

11) The Moody Blues “To Our Children’s Children’s Children”

Old Floyd rivals The Moodies’ 50th anniversary set meanwhile (delayed four years by pandemic and re-mastering) doesn’t even have that going for it. ‘To Our Children’s, the band’s classic album of space travel released just after man first walked on the moon, with its happy hopeful first side and worried pessimistic second side, has been remixed for DVD and Blu-Ray, the last re-issue’s double disc set transformed into four. The set has been newly mixed into 5.1 surround sound (with the previous stereo mix included alongside it) and the band’s old Albert Hall gig from December 1969 (first released in the ‘split’ years as ‘Caught Live Plus Five’) has been given a proper remix for the first time in the digital era, though sadly minus the more interesting ‘Plus Five’ collection of outtakes. Alas it’s not a great show: the band never did play much of ‘Children’s live and are still plugging ‘On The Threshold Of A Dream’, an album so full and rich in sound its near-impossible trying to re-create on stage, though there are highlights such as a dreamy ‘Nights In White Satin’ and the definitive performance of Ray Thomas’ Timothy Leary tribute song ‘Legend Of A Mind’. There are also all the BBC sessions that were on the last set and a couple of remixes (i.e. a couple of seconds at the beginning and end of songs, trimmed to segue into the overall continuous album), untouched. That’s it though: no new archive finds, no great outtakes (possibly because a ot of the Moodies’ masters went up in a fire at the Universal archive the other year, though you’d thin someone somewhere would have a work in progress acetate or three), not even much in the way of packaging and all for a colossal price that, every time, seems to get ‘Higher and Higher’. Of course if you’ve never heard this album then you should – it’s a great record, up there with ‘EGBDF’ and ‘Seventh Sojourn’ as the band’s best – but the old versions of it will do just as well for a far cheaper price, any of the many to be honest and there’ve been a lot down the years. I don’t know, they can put a man on the moon but they still can’t get the hang of releasing classic albums…

12) Mike Nesmith “Pretty Much Your Standard Ranch Stash”

One of your more standard re-issues of one of the more straightforward solo Monkee albums, I’ve always been particularly fond of Papa Nez’s sixth ‘proper’ solo set. It’s not that it contains Mike’s best work (that’s scattered over the earlier First and National Band albums) or Mike’s most consistent work (that’s previous album ‘And The Hits Just keep On Comin’ re-released last year) or even Mike’s weirdest work (that’s ‘The Prison’, a wonderful book ‘n’ album designed to be heard and read at the same time). However ‘Ranch Stash’ is the best of everything, with all seven tracks gems in different ways. ‘Continuing’ is a wonderful country-rocker about starting over again, ‘Some Of Shelley’s Blues’ a gorgeous haunting song of despair from the late Monkee days, the drunken ‘Winonah’ (where ‘drinking is a prison and whiskey is no key’) the catchiest of his country-rock hybrids and the slow improv storytelling of ‘The Front Porch And A Fruit Jar Of Iced Tea’, complete with fiddles and rocking chairs, gloriously weird. Unlike the other Nez re-issues, which include loads of rather iffy bonus tracks, this set has just the one and while it’s a classic (an early version of ‘Marie’s Theme’ from ‘The Prison’, which is more of a song in this version than an experiment) even that’s been out before. It seems odd that the vaults are suddenly so empty for this album, which was made over a longer period and in less of a rush than certainly the album immediately before it and its a surprise that there are no instrumental backing tracks in particular. Still, I’m glad this neglected gem wasn’t overlooked in the re-issue series completely and as always with Monkee fan record label ‘7A’ everything is exquisitely packaged. Now that all the Nesmith RCA albums have been re-issued the question is will they end there or continue with the next run of records on Nez’s own ‘Pacific Arts Label’, re-issued by the man himself not long before his death but without the extras and presentation of this series. 

13) Oasis “The Masterplan”

Oasis’ pretty darn nifty collection of B-sides other bands would have had their biggest career hits with turns 25 years old this year. Unfortunately for Oasis’ marketing department all those songs have already appeared on the deluxe editions of ‘Definitely Maybe’ ‘Morning Glory’ and ‘Be Here Now’ already, so they try another tack with a vinyl only edition on the weirdly named ‘see through coke bottle’ coloured vinyl (that’s what they’ve actually called it, that’s not a fan name!) and a further limited edition ‘picture disc’ that plays a loop of a few frames from the Lowry-esque promo video for the title song as the vinyl goes round and round. I’m not sure any of that commercial capitalist gubbins was part of Noel Gallagher’s masterplan for how people would listen to his music all these years on and I’d much rather have had a ‘deluxe’ edition featuring every Oasis B-side not collected onto this album (including some real stunners like ‘Cloudburst’ ‘Just Growing Older’ ‘Idler’s Dream’ and ‘In The Bubble With A Bullet’ but hey ho, the music’s worn better than any of the actual Oasis albums have and it’s good to have this set back again in any form. Even if, like the record, for more casual fans this set just feels like we’re going round in circles on a loop. 

14) The Grateful Dead “Wake Of The Flood – 50th Anniversary Edition”

Yay, my favourite Dead album gets the same birthday treatment as the older, better remembered albums re-released across the last eight years or so. In keeping with selections from the past we get a re-mastered album (a little clearer, but not by much) and a disc containing a couple more extras (demos of ‘here Comes Sunshine’ and ‘Eyes Of the World’) and highlights from a live show closest in time to the album’s release (six songs from Illinois’  ‘McGraw Hall’ on November 1st 1973, though weirdly, like all the other anniversary releases, only a handful of songs from this actual album were played that night which makes it a stranger choice than some others). The ‘Sunshine’ demo is nice to hear once, with a wobbly Hammond organ and lashings of wah-wah guitar that make it sound more psychedelic than folk, although it’s quite a muted little thing that lacks the punch and the harmonies of the record, a curio rather than a classic. The ‘Eyes’ demo is much better, a pure folk song played at a leisurely pace to a harpsichord of all things alongside an organ (not a guitar in sight), a million light years away from the jazzy epic we’ve come to know and love. The live album is, like a lot of these anniversary discs though, clearly chosen for historical value rather than musical ones and, by the Dead’s ludicrously high standards in 1973, not that good – they lack the magical telepathy they had in the studio just a few weeks before. ‘Morning Dew’ is never less than good but this ultra-laidback version of the cold war parable is meandering at best without the urgency at the song’s heart and a promising ‘Playin’ In The Band’ ends up in one of those ‘Uncle John’s Band’ cul-de-sacs, while new boys ‘Mississippi Halfstep Uptown Toodeloo’ and ‘Weather Report Suite’ are both quite tentative and fragile. My advice is to download the two demos and leave it at that. Meet you all back here for the 50th anniversary edition of ‘From The Mars Hotel’ next year hopefully!

15) Neil Young “Time Fades Away”

What used to be one of the if not the rarest of original Neil Young albums, one Neil himself blocked from releasing on CD for the best part of thirty years, is now a regular on these end of term lists. This time Neil’s hazy crazy first live album is back out on vinyl with the addition of an electric version of the eponymous debut album’s ‘Last Trip To Tulsa’ as taken from ‘Archives’ stuck on the end to lure in collectors who should know better (and who surely have no money left after all those other Neil sets out the past few years). This song fits the album’s themes of ragged defiance and confusion but lacks the best of the album’s panache and insight, a rather rambling Dylanesque monologue full of metaphors of axes and palm trees and some ugly misogynistic lines about feminism that never quite knows what it wants to say. It is, though, a song that always sounded better played with an electric band live than Neil acoustic on his own though and welcome to hear again, as is most of this brave record.  A stadium tour Neil never wanted to play, with a band who kept rebelling over money, with a missing hole where Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten would have been had he not overdosed during rehearsals, its Neil at his ragged, authentic best on battling songs like ‘Don’t Be Denied’ and ‘Last Dance’ that asks questions of both performer and audience why they’re there at all, punctuated by a few piano ballads full of doubt and second thoughts. It’s not the sort of album you play for fun but it deserves its turn in the sun after being overlooked for so long, even if admittedly its had way more turns than its fair share lately.

16) Neil Young “Harvest Moon”

It’s time to dust those brooms off again for the simplest of the Neil Young releases on this year’s list. This is the standard version of Neil’s 1992 comeback album, pressed on heavy thicker vinyl for more durability, with no bonus tracks or extra packaging. Whether a natural beauty could or should be preserved like a monument to nature is the theme of the last song, but Neil’s giving it a good go by sticking this record out again for another generation of fans. Thankfully Neil resisted the temptation to make this a coloured disc with a ‘harvest moon’ or something equally tacky on it so all you get is a straightforward reproduction of the original, complete with the exact same packaging. And a nice album it is too, full of cosy domesticity and middle age with a few darker-edged songs thrown in like highlight ‘War Of Man’ and ‘Dritfin’ Man’, though not quite approaching Neil’s best or bravest.   

17)The Beach Boys “Pet Sounds”

Guess what? The ‘other’ most re-issued AAA album of all time is back out again too, also in 5.1 surround Dolby Atmos sound, also without any extras, on streaming or on vinyl (oddly there’s no CD release that I’ve found or even a digital download, which seems like an odd oversight). Everything sounds clear but no remixing in the world is going to change my mind that the orchestra were badly recorded for this album and get in the way of the songs, making them lush and heavy where they should be tough and strong. Mercifully, unlike some of his weirder Beatle mixes, Giles Martin has left things alone so ‘Pet Sounds’ is much the same way it always sounded, just clearer – though not yet clear enough (like many a 1960s release on Capitol, alongside ones on Pye and Decca, the album still sounds as if it was recorded down the end of a tunnel and there’s not a lot you can do about that). As for the vinyl edition it’s a special limited yellow/green splatter edition mimicking the colours of the front cover. Quite why you’d want a vinyl that looks as if one of the farmyard animals from the front cover has weed all over it is anyone’s guess. No bonus tracks again of course, just the glory of holding in your hands yet another copy of an album you already own twenty copies of, even as an LP. Oh and apparently you’re only allowed four per collector so you don’t sell them on. As if you would! The Beach Boys know their market and are catering for fans with big wallets these days. In the near-words of the final song ‘Where did my bank balance go? Where is the mix I used to know, they said you’ve changed but that’s not true…Oh more coloured vinyl?!/ No!...’

Songs Of The Year:

1)  The Rolling Stones “Sweet Sound Of Heaven”

How strange that the four of the songs on this year’s top fifteen are all on the same subject: death. Even stranger is that its Cat Stevens singing about hell on Earth and the Stones seeing Heaven (while Paul Simon can’t make his mind up and The Who got there fifty-odd years ago but have only just released their song about the afterlife now). Or maybe not so strange: everyone seems to have forgotten that we’ve just lived and indeed are still living through one of the most traumatic periods of our lifetimes  and a lot of the albums in this year’s list were at least started in lockdown. I’d love to know if ‘Sweet Sound Of Heaven’ is one of them, with its feelings of approaching mortality that even as tough a band as the Rolling Stones aren’t immune to. Or maybe it was Charlie’s death that inspired this sweet song of helplessness and awe, turned into joy. It’s a beautiful tribute to Charlie a song that says ‘hey, you, save me part of that cloud!’ Watts’ drums have got to the next world ahead of them but Mick can hear them playing ‘echoing through the valley’ and believes that he’ll make it there himself one day, free of this world’s pain and hurt, just as soon as he’s finished tying up a lot of the things he’s got to do down here first. Now that his ears are in tune Mick’s other senses pick up on Heaven too, until he’s smelling and seeing it, inspiring him to declare that he isn’t going to go back to his old ways, that he isn’t going to go the way of, say, The Who’s John Entwistle or maybe old friend Billy Preston ‘in some broken down motel’ (Preston played keys on ‘Memory Motel’, a song all about the past – with hell a past you get stuck in and can never quite throw off). By the time Lady Gaga arrives, eleven years after she first guested at a Stones gig, to all but tug Mick away to paradise the song is rising to a big huge mega epic climax, a rousing gospel chorus that hasn’t been part of the Stones’ signature sound since Billy died but is a key part of their 1970s and 1980 DNA. And then, quite brilliantly, the stops for us all to get our breath and dies away to nothing, as if the sound in Mick’s head has faded away, leaving him stranded and Earthbound, inspiration gone. And then slowly, imperceptibly, the song takes off again from nowhere, as if Mick’s willing those memories to flood back into his life here on Earth before the song takes off all over again, more joyously than ever, with a stunning last outpouring of belief, grief, noise and music that stretches the song out to seven glorious minutes (the single version inevitably hacks most of this last bit out but do hear the album version if you can, it works much better). A lot of the Stones catalogue has been a battle between darkness and light and till now it’s been about 50:50 which wins but now, much like Paul Simon, much like Cat Stevens, the Stones (maybe) ends their careers by embracing the light, with empathy for the angels as much as ‘Sympathy For The Devil’. And yet this doesn’t feel like a betrayal of all things Stones the way it might have: there’s always been a gospel tinge to their sound and a frustration that this life has never been enough to bring them satisfaction. On an album that otherwise avoids emotion like the plague (not the half-hearted way most people avoid covid – I mean the way people really used to avoid plagues) this sweet heartfelt tribute to Charlie feels like the clouds parting and the sun coming out and Mick goes Gaga in all the best ways while Gaga herself is note-perfect, matching him note for note without getting in the way.

2) Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds “Don’t Stop”

Just as with ‘Who Built The Moon?’ and ‘Dead To The Water’, the best thing on Noel’s new album is relegated to the deluxe edition where only true fans will ever hear it, almost as if Noel’s embarrassed by being so open and honest. He shouldn’t be. Like brother Liam’s album ‘C’mon Y’know’ from last year this is the old Oasis formula of trying to live it large and make the most out of life, but seen through sadder eyes that have been burnt so many times they know just how hard it is to do that. This track is like one of The Kinks’ sunny songs – so much so that Noel’s line about being grateful for ‘sunny rays finding him’ might be well a reference to Ray Davies and it’s a similar song about reaching out in the darkest times to take a hold of any piece of light you can find to get you through, to not let the darkness consume you. Noel’s stuck in uncharacteristically unhappy times in his life, brought down to the depths of despair and he feels he’s been left with nothing, but rather than go under he tells himself ‘don’t be sad, don’t cry’ and does what he always used to do when he was young and had nothing – he daydreams of better times when anything is possible, praying to God for ‘the space’ to dream and be happy. ‘Don’t stop your dreaming!’ Noel calls out to the fans who are in a similar boat, locked down and lonely (unlike the Stones we know this is a song that started life in lockdown) until a song that starts off as a lullaby with ‘I Am The Walrus’ strings grows louder and louder into one of the anthems of the old as a super-charged guitar, of the sort Noel always used to play circa 1994-1995, is let loose from its box and snarls, powering the song into a true singalong about the healing power of hope that’s oh so Oasisy. The result is the song that ‘Lord Don’t Slow Me Down’ should have been, a plea to never be trapped in such a bad frame of mind again when there are so many reasons out there  to be happy. The rest of ‘Council Skies’ sounds like Noel trying to tap into his younger self for inspiration and only half-remembering who he used to be but this gem is where he connects with his inner 90s Britpopper all over again with a song as great as any in his illustrious back catalogue, that wants to live forever and embrace it all. Why this ended up a bonus track and not a big huge catchy comeback single is beyond me, especially as the ones that did (‘Pretty Boy’ and ‘Easy Now’) are nowhere near as brilliantly catchy as this and only a fraction as deep.

3) The Who/Pete Townshend “Finally Over”

Until now we always thought that ‘Lifehouse’ ended with the one-two punch of the sarcastic  ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’ and the going-back-round-again cycle of ‘The Song Is Over’, perfect endings both, but it turns out there should have been a third punch there, one much closer to the endings of both ‘Tommy’ and ‘Quadrophenia’, where the moment everything seems lost for the narrator is when everything is found. Ray, the narrator of ‘Lifehouse’ is blooded and wounded and (a new detail this) apparently dying after the events of the story (risking life and limb and arrest to play music that will unite a scattered, fragmented world). Suddenly everything he’s been through both matters more and less at the point of death, as he realises the lessons he learnt to get him here and begins to forget who he is, singing ‘as I have grown smaller I surely have grown’ and how ‘everyone is lonely until they heal themselves’. When life is finally over none of this life matters at all except what you learned from it. The irony is that through the double-tracking Pete sounds incredibly alive, his young voice shining out across the murk of half a century even while he tells us he has ‘nowhere new to roam’, that his journey ends here, his body gone, his memories fading, all the complexities of human existence reduced to just one note, so pure and so easy. And yet by removing his ego Ray finds himself connected to the universe, the animals and people around him more than ever, saying more than he’s ever said before with just one word. At last he discovers his earthly lessons are over, that he has no wrongs to right anymore, no vengeance to spur him on, no motivation to do better, he just is, sat on a mountain and remembering how he used to be as a child when he was free and happy (was this song inspired by John’s depressed ‘When I Was A Boy’, or was it the other way around? It wouldn’t be the first time The Ox wrote song to directly contradict one of Pete’s statements). It’s a haunting, beautiful track, with some simple ‘Song Is Over’ style piano with a hint of the darker chords of ‘Naked Eye’, washed through with lashings of wah-wah guitar a la ‘Bargain’, which all makes for a most pretty combination and would have sounded brilliant if part of a completed ‘Lifehouse’ that used all these details. I didn’t there could possibly be any more great songs to come out of ‘Lifehouse’ (there must be about twenty of them scattered across different releases, thirty at a push) but here’s another one which is quickly becoming one of my favourites of all. Beautiful.

4) Cat Stevens “Pagan’s Run”

One of the best things about new album ‘King Of A Land’ is the way it plays around with styles from Cat’s past, after three predominately acoustic ‘comeback’ albums and a gonzo third album based on the blues and R and B. Musically ‘Pagan’s Run’ sounds straight out of Cat’s early 1970s rockers like ‘Sitting’ and ‘Music’, based around muscley guitar riffs. What we’ve come to think of as Cat’s heyday, when he was mastering his craft, he remembers as one of his saddest times though and ‘Pagan’s Run’ is a reflection of just how empty and purposeless Cat felt, even at a time when his music seemed to be brash and confident. He doesn’t see his younger self as the rock star we all remember him, he sees a scared young kid running towards something without knowing where he was going, ‘lost and in a mess’ but ‘too proud’ to ask for help, distrustful of everyone who tried to offer him salvation and looking for it in all the wrong places – the warm bodies of girls who left him cold, money that couldn’t buy anything to fill the ‘empty hole’ in his heart. ‘Though I’d never admit it, I was scared as hell’ recalls Cat as the restless riff hot-foots it, dancing from chord to chord without ever putting down roots until an inevitable major key finale that finds him in Allah’s safe and capable hands. Even that’s not the cliché it would be in other Cat comeback songs though, more a breather and just reward after three of the most gloriously turbulent minutes in the Cat Stevens back catalogue, before the song ends up back in the same awkward place again, ending dramatically mid riff. Too many of the recent Cat Steven songs have been pussycats – inevitably and understandably so for a singer who came back when he was in his sixties and in his late seventies now, without the same axes to grind and demons to get off his chest. However that makes the return of his roaring lion self on this song all the greater, especially as it’s a song that very much stays true to his principles, remembering the past without celebrating it.

5) Belle and Sebastian “Juliet Naked”

The new B and S album is more one of those where nothing really goes wrong rather than it being chockablock full of classic songs to pick and choose from. The closest to a masterpiece is the opener, the edgiest of the new songs, a new wave take on Stuart Murdoch’s usual put-upon but resilient female characters that sounds more like The Smiths than anything the band have come up with so far (even if they’d never have used such folky-sounding flutes). Poor Juliet is a teenager struggling with very adult problems she isn’t old enough to deal with yet and though Murdoch is too indirect a writer to come out and say it, the song sounds, like ‘Lazy Line Painter Jane’ before her, as if she’s an under-age girl trying to get an abortion. Where Juliet needs help and sympathy, bewildered by what’s just happened to her,  she finds herself cut off in a world full of people blocking her and telling her no. There’s a ‘doctor of love’ (a gynaecologist?) who sends her to a priest who tells her to pray for forgiveness, when what she really wants is love and support, while even at school she gets ‘200 lines’ for being distracted –as if her male teachers could possibly understand the grief and confusion she’s going through. The innuendo of male authority figures wanting to keep Juliet in her place isn’t lost on the narrator either, as the priest makes her ‘get down on her knees’, the teacher tells her ‘you got in too deep’ and the doctor ‘tells me to come again’, with true B and S innuendo. The opening lines make it clear though – the real perpetrator who should be in trouble for all of this and who gets away entirely free is the ‘fickle lover’ who forced himself on her, got her pregnant then ran off ‘like a little girl’, too scared to stay. Though little girls, as the song shows, can actually be really tough when they have to be. Murdoch looks on in awe at Juliet’s strength even as she thinks she’s breaking, the ‘Stepford Wives to my Goffin and King’ whose a lot tougher than he can ever be putting songs together. It’s a nice little song, well suited to Stuart and Stevie’s duelling angry guitars and a welcome break from the relevant synth-heavy belle and Sebastian sound, though the flutes on top that seem to be playing from an entirely different song remind us of the kinder, gentler, childish life Juliet should be living still.  A highly empathetic song from one of our best empathetic writers who captures Juliet’s plight magnificently in just a few simple phrases.   

6) Talbot, Molina, Lofgren, Young aka Crazy Horse “Cherish”

Credited to the current line-up of Crazy Horse but really a song by the Billy Talbot Band, ‘Cherish’ is, like so many of the songs on our top songs list this year, a tearjerker inspired by the pandemic and lockdown. Billy’s usually gruff vocals are pushed out of their comfort zone towards a high falsetto as he finds himself pushed emotionally further than he’s ever been before too, lamenting a ‘lasting rain’ that ‘makes up our lives’, a tapestry of problems to solve. A sea of lovely backwards guitar is the perfect opening to a song where everything feels slightly wrong, a potential paradise that keeps going wrong, at least until the three-syllable chorus of ‘cherish life’ that transforms everything from a minor key to a major key and makes everything right again. Life is still a gift to be loved, however hard it may be at times, and even the hardest rainiest lives have a window of sunshine to enjoy, so Billy makes sure to do just that, taming the wild beast of Michael Hamilton’s just-Neil-Young-enough-without-being-a-pale-imitation guitar-part into step so that, albeit ever so briefly, everything feels synchronised again. Along with the couple of really good Talbot solo albums that came out in 2014-2015 it begs the question where has Billy’s sudden songwriting spurt in his sixties and seventies come from? Whatever the inspiration its very welcome and here’s to many more, hopefully on an actual start-to-finish Crazy Horse record next time around on a gorgeously moving song that, dare I say it, beats any Neil’s written for two maybe three albums now.

7) Allan Clarke “I’ll Never Forget”

Most of Allan Clarke’s eighth solo album was written waiting for the phone to call and Graham Nash to come a calling. Understandably a lot of the album is nostalgic, full of references to old times and old friends and old inspirations and old guitars. The one that’s most from the heart though, the one that brings a tear to the eye (even more than the tie-in song about crying) is the title track, a gorgeous ballad full of longing for old times but also acceptance that old times can never come back the same way. ‘Well here we are, finding ourselves again in a peculiar situation’ starts Clarke, name-checking a Hollie rarity the pair once wrote together for the 1966 ‘For Certain Because..’ album, amazed that ‘a line I thought had already been cast’ has come up trumps with another big fish. Clarkey tries to stop himself getting carried away, aware that ‘we can’t recapture all those things we shared together’ and that it will never be like it was in the 1960s but still – even if the memories of the past remain unspoken while forging ahead with the future, ‘I’ll never forget’ the times shared, because they meant so very much. A second verse has Clarke regretting the times that have been let slip, ‘times we won’t be getting back’, skipping over the details of the big split when Nash left The Hollies, his first wife Rose, his country and his childhood best friend to go live in America with CSN, for the catch-all ambiguous ‘something came between us’. This isn’t a song of recrimination though such as, say, ‘My Life Is Over With You’ (the last deeply bitter song Clarke wrote about Nash back on ‘Hollies Sing Hollies’ in 1969); this song is all about the invisible strings that tie soulmates together for life and how, even if they go their separate ways and a reunion seemed long impossible, there remains a connection between people who once were close. After so long thinking I would never hear those voices together again excuse me, I think I have something in my eye...Interestingly, its the opposite of Nash’s song of the year on a similar theme coming!

8) Graham Nash “Love Of Mine”

Perhaps one of the reasons Nash was so keen to reunite with Clarke was because the person he ‘left’ him for died an enemy, after so many decades as a best friend. Crosby’s death from a second bout of covid this year was so terribly terribly sad. He was all ready to go back out on the road, he’d even hired Stephen Stills’ son Christopher to be guitarist in his band (putting to rest another longstanding feud) and he died an hour after first rehearsals that were said to sound wonderful, feeling tired and taking a nap he never recovered from. He’d sent an email to Nash just a week before, asking for forgiveness for all the bad words he’d said about him (the pair clashed heavily over things written in Nash’s autobiography ‘Wild Tales’ about Croz’s drug years; David disputed many of them and thought Nash was cashing in on his tragedy to sell his book while he didn’t approve of Graham breaking up with his wife of thirty years either, having been so close to Susan and actually being there when the pair met), The email asked if Croz could video-call in the next week when rehearsals were over – Nash ummed and ahhed after so any hurts but ultimately said yes, only for Crosby to die before he could make the call. Nash has talked a lot in interviews for this album about how much it pleased his heart that better times were ahead for the pair and how sorry he was they never got that talk but how good he felt that it was coming. ‘Love Of Mine’ is a sweet, sensitive song longing for a happy ending but regretful that it never quite came. Rather than point fingers the song is quick to make out that wrong was said on both sides, each verse ending ‘for me’ or ‘for you’. However the final feeling is one of gratitude, that the universe allowed them to meet and go on so many adventures together, happy that fate once  ‘chose you...and me’.  I know Graham’s gone on record saying that it was inspired by a fight with second wife Amy but surely, surely, down in there somewhere, this is Nash singing about Crosby again like old times. It is, after all, a song for a pair of people who have known each other a long time and gone through so much, not a pair of newlyweds who only met for the first time a few years ago. After half a century of CSNY writing songs about each other its moving indeed for us fans to hear one last song by Nash about Crosby (and one that reflects a song that seemed to be Crosby reaching out to Nash a few albums back – the title track of Croz’s 2017 record ‘Sky Trails’ where he picks up the phone to apologise and realises he doesn’t even know where his former best friend lives now) and to hear it sung with so much love and tenderness.  

9) Carla Olsen/Allan Clarke “It makes Me Cry”

It’s been a busy year for the Hollie singer. As well as his second album he’s also the prime mover and shaker on Carla Olsen’s new single, taken from her album ‘Have Harmony, Will Travel III’. Now Carla’s a big name with AAA readers or should be, famous for pairing with rock legends who have fallen a little on hard times looking for a secondary country audience to boost sales – she worked with Byrd Gene Clark and Rolling Stone Mick Taylor in the 1980s when no one else would touch them and this song is in a similar country-rock vein (and much more convincing than the country-rock songs Clarke did alone on his album). Rather than sing together he and she trade verses on a Clarke song that’s very much coming from the same nostalgic bittersweet too-much-time wasted feel as ‘I’ll Never Forget’, with another track that may well have been written originally with Graham Nash in mind (this song recalling Hollie tracks ‘My Life Is Over With You’ and ‘Hey Willy’, both written for Graham after his departure). Allan remembers an ‘Indian princess’ who ‘carried a heavy load’  who ‘yearned for a life of a different kind’ and though she ‘didn’t speak a word’ he knew that she would fly off and leave him one day. Carla repays the compliment, Clarke perhaps writing about himself that she remembers ‘a man walking the streets screaming after being left aside’ but that ‘he only needed a guiding hand to see him through’. By the end they’ve found common ground, making music to reach forgotten lonely people who haven’t got a voice – when as well as wanting to cry the narrator wants to shout (just like he did in another Hollie track from ‘Confessions of A Mind’ in 1970). It’s a pretty song, not quite moving enough to make me want to cry but close, as two people who once walked in different directions find themselves back together again, well up to the standards of everything on Clarkey’s album bar the title track (which it mirrors in many ways). The two voices aren’t a natural pairing, he all husky and shy and British, she all loud and countrified and American (it’s not unlike the Hollies doing ‘Louisiana Man’ with Bobbie Gentry, a TV appearance that was my highlight of the year, unseen in Britain since first broadcast in 1969!), but they don’t actually sing together anyway and this song works nicely as a duet. Laurence Juber, from the final lineup of Paul McCartney’s Wings, plays a great guitar solo too, soaring across the second half.

10) Paul Simon “Seven Psalms: Wait”

I admire ‘Seven Psalms’ a lot, a very Paul Simon debate of intellect versus faith that both does and doesn’t believe in God and an afterlife. The song slips and slides both ways across half an hour, an intellectual conversation as brainy as any of our cleverest of singer-songwriters ever had. However the long goodbye does go on just a teeny bit: you half-expect Arty to rise up in the song, ‘Frank Lloyd Wright’ style, and sing ‘So long already, Paul!’ But then we find out why: by stalling, by debating, Paul stops himself from finding out what happens next, he can feel removed from it all. But nothing can be put off forever and, in the last five minutes, the song changes and stops being an intellectual debate to be wondered at length  and becomes a real emotion now. A tolling bell of singing bowls suggests that time is up. ‘Wait!’ cries Paul to the grim reaper with tears in his eyes ‘I’m not ready! I’m still packing my gear!’ Paul knew this day was coming, he’s been preparing for it his whole life, but being ready for a day in the future when you might hypothetically die and facing it head on are two very different things.  Even after half an hour of pure push and pull Paul is no nearer knowing if he believes in a ‘dreamless transition’ to an afterlife or not, and tries to put the brakes on. But every time his guitar pulls up, with chords that try to draw a line in the sand, he finds his fingers playing on, reaching out for chords in the darkness. Wife Edie calls to him in the silence, that none of us are ever truly ready for death whatever age we are, that ‘life is a meteor’ that passes by too quick but Heaven is nothing to be scared of, its forever and beautiful, ‘almost like home’. And so God calls his children on to him while Paul debates again, singing ‘Wait!’ one last time, with such pain and awe, afraid of his ‘dark intuition’ that tells him none of this is true, that its all fairytales his sceptical brain can’t believe in. ‘I need you here by my side’ though he hears the calls one last time– and so, finally, he does, Paul rising up with a last awe-struck peal of ‘amen!’ as he steps out into the great unknown in a cascade of bells and singing bowls. If this is a goodbye then its one hell of a way to go, and if it isn’t, well, it’s still one of the best, most emotional, most beautiful bit of music out this year, the perfect end to a song suite that tries to have it both ways yet ultimately still takes sides bravely and beautifully.

11) The Ducks “Windward Passage”

Neil and Jeff Blackburn’s guitars, Cippolina’s drums and Moseley’s bass make for quite a formidable team when they let loose like the birds of prey they are and they stop, well, waddling like a duck on their bar-room pub songs of simple love gained and lost. Blackburn starts up this song’s urgent riff, which sounds like peak-era Jefferson Airplane all muscly and barely and dangerously and deliciously just the right side of being in control, before Neil picks his notes carefully, soaring over the top at a slower pace, gliding the way he’s used to playing with Crazy Horse. The rhythm section are much tougher and faster than the usual Horse sound though and push him to his limit so that before long Neil too is struggling to keep up, his fingers darting all over his fretboard in sudden flurries before breaking off to scream on single notes. Once it picks up steam around the two minute mark there really is no stopping this juggernaut jam which is hypnotic in the extreme, not so much a breeze any more but more like a hurricane, in all senses of the word. More than anything, you can tell Neil is having great fun playing with this band, let loose to reinvent himself all over again as a crazed psychedelic guitarist in a cooking rock band and his bandmates play out of their (drum) skins too. Would that the Ducks had taken out more of their original songs and stuck more improvisations like this in the set list. 

12) Dire Straits “I Think I Love You Too Much”

Originally the Dire Straits studio catalogue ended on a very melancholy note indeed, either the bitter recriminations of ‘How Long?’ in the studio or the quiet anger of ‘Brothers In Arms’ via the live albums. This last song added to the setlist puts it all in a different light though: it’s like the more loved-up songs of Mark Knopfler’s first solo set  ‘Golden Heart’ celebrating his wedding to third wife Kitty but played in the old-fashioned Chet Atkins rough and tumble rockabilly style of Dire Straits’ early days. Mark loves his girl ‘more than anyone ever has’ and it makes him happy, but sometimes the depth of his feelings also scares him – is there such a thing as loving too hard? He returns back to his early poverty roots, wondering what might happen ‘if I knocked you up’, whether they’d still be happy without the safety net being a successful rock star brings (its worth remembering that his first marriage to his teenage sweetheart ended partly because they were so poor and mark was always away playing in bands that never made any money). The sudden mood change inspires a wild and desperate guitar part – which must surely be from Phil Palmer, the band’s second guitarist rather hidden in the shadows of the Knopfler brothers, soaring with a Clapton-like clean-ness and dreaming of better days, while Mark’s own fret-picking scowls and fears the worst. He tug of war between them not quite sure whether this love is the best thing that could ever possibly happen or another joke played o the narrator by a cruel world. This isn’t the best lyric Mark ever wrote and the song clearly needs work to bring it into line with the more layered Dire Straits classics, but it’s a lovely bit of buried treasure to discover after all these years and our first ‘new’ Dire Straits song since ‘What’s The Matter Baby?’ was first released as long ago as 1995.

13) Pete Townshend “You Can’t Outrun The Truth”

The last time we had a new studio single release by Pete Townshend it was thirty years ago and it seemed as if everything he wrote from now on would end up on Who reunion albums. Until lockdown that is and like many of the songs on this list Pete’s spending the pandemic alone, re-thinking his priorities. His conclusion is perhaps the most honest, that rather than giving him any great insight he didn’t already know ‘this lockdown is bringing me down’ and that without people to be around or places to go to Pete’s trapped inside, trying to make peace with his demons and learning to face all the things he’d been trying not to think about for so long. ‘I gotta leave this room, gotta break through all this gloom!’ Pete cries in desperation, but still the serene backing track floats by slowly, uncaring about him or his needs. I really didn’t have pedal steel and strings on my Who bingo card this year, but then I didn’t have a Pete Townshend solo single on it all after three decades and though slight, a sequel of sorts to ‘Sheraton Gibson’ when Pete had nothing better to do in a hotel room than write a song on his Gibson, any new music from Pete is always welcome. 

14) The Beatles “Now and Then”

And now the moment you’ve all been waiting for, from the biggest music news story of the year, the ‘last song’ from the act we’ve known for all those years. Except it isn’t: I already struggled with the idea of Paul, George and Ringo reuniting to finish off some of John’s last demos because they weren’t written with The Beatles or even release in mind – they were doodles jotted down to be returned to at some point because, even in his househusband years escaping from the music business, John was too creative for the muse to fully let him go. Far from putting a rosy glow at the end of the Beatles’ discography, as Paul for one wanted them to, mid 1990s singles ‘Free As A Bird’ and ‘Rea Love’ made The Beatles look desperate and money-hungry, something they’d never been as a group the first time round (the best things about those two singles are the fan-pleasing reference-filled music videos, directed by 10cc’s Kevin Godley). Now there’s a third single to join them, the song that should originally have kicked off ‘Anthology Three’ back in 1996. ‘Now and Then’ is worse though because now there isn’t even George to stamp his approval. Despite what you may have read in recent pr-friendly interviews Harrison made the others abandon work on this Lennon song not because the technology wasn’t up to it (although it wasn’t) but because he thought ‘John’s songwriting had really gone off the boil towards the end, lads’ and the injection of cash from the ‘Anthology’ TV series and first two volumes meant he no longer needed the money as desperately as he once had when he agreed to them (following a counter lawsuit from Handmade Films co-founder Dennis O’Dell; yes the guty name-checked in ‘You Know My Name Look Up The Number). Undeterred the 1994 ‘Threetles’ moved on to a fourth song on the tape Yoko gave them, ‘Grow Old Along With Me’ and spent far more time working on that. George much preferred it but Paul disliked the fact it was a song so finished he couldn’t put his own creative stamp on the song like times past he way he could with the others, so at an empasse The Beatles called it quits. However ‘Grow Old Along With Me’ is still sitting in the vaults with a lot more George on it than this song and that, technically, is the ‘last’ Beatles song with all four playing on it. Even if Paul blocks its release in his lifetime, it will inevitably come out some time and it’s a far better finale than ‘Now and Then’, moving and honest and emotional. By contrast ‘Now and Then’ is a confused snippet John never had time to work into a full song.

The reason Paul likes it so much is that the last thing John ever said to him, a few weeks before his murder, was ‘think about me now and then, old friend’ – many fans have assumed that John maybe wrote the track for him and there’s a long-standing rumour that the cassette Yoko passed on to Paul as far back as 1988, when the project was first discussed, had the words ‘for Paul’ written on them, the hint being that this song was written with Mccartney in mind and was meant for him to finish. But it isn’t. John’s demo dates from 1977, a time when he and Paul weren’t yet as friendly, and its clearly written for Yoko, especially the best part of the original demo, a sudden abrupt and painful  switch to a minor key as John howls ‘I Don’t wanna lose you’ -inspired by the same panicked phonecall home during a boating holiday alone that inspired Double Fantasy song ‘I’m Losing You’ that year when phone receptors were down and John couldn’t call home and felt stranded, like the lost weekend was happening all over again. Really it’s a slightly calmer, more laidback version of the obsession of lust and love he felt for Yoko heard in ‘I Want You (She’s So heavy). By re-arranging the song to take that bit out, Paul’s completely changed the feel and intention and made it safe and cosy in a way no Lennon song (even the sappier ones on ‘Double Fantasy’) never were. John, you suspect, who partly broke up The Beatles in 1969 because Paul kept sugar-coating his songs and delivering ‘fruity’ material he hated (yes even ‘Let It be’ and ‘Long and Winding Road’ weren’t to John’s tastes), would have been annoyed and told his old pal to get stuffed if he’d known about it. The new additions of Paul and Ringo’s adding harmonies and Ringo’s clattering drums are also completely wrong for this sensitive song, adding a layer of ersatz Beatles that belongs there even less than on ‘Bird’ or ‘Real Love’.  Worse still, Paul took out George’s half-hearted slide guitar part from 1994 and stuck a substitute ‘impression’ of it in there – sloppy and out of tune. George’s original couldn’t possibly have been worse. Harrison, who quit The Beatles briefly in 1969 partly because Paul kept telling him what to play and arranging his own tiny corner of each song’s arrangements, would have surely been angry at this too, although he is technically on there thanks to an acoustic guitar duet with Paul from 1995. In other words this single shows that the worst parts of The Beatles, that broke them up in 1969, are still there now after all these years, lessons unlearned, for all this song tries to be a cosy reunion single of happiness and happy tears. There’s a sweet story doing the rounds about the ‘clock’ painting on the rear sleeve of the CD single, a clock George bought in an antique’s shop in 1997 that happened to be called ‘Now and Then’ – his widow Olivia was rummaging through his old things and had propped it on the mantelpiece when she happened to get the call from Paul asking for permission to release this song and took it as a cosmic ’sign’ George gave his blessing (The Beatles were, their whole career, masters of serendipity and picking up on coincidences so they would have seen more in this than most bands). If I know my Harrison though, it was meant as a warning: that time had ‘run out’ for releasing the track, that it was still in pieces (the clock is a patchwork collage) and The Beatles should leave well alone. At least it makes for a better image than the front cover of the single, though, which is hideous, and reeks of 1990s computer software, without even an image of The Beatles on there properly (like many fans I assumed it was one of those ‘cover art to be decided’ placeholders till the single actually came out).

So much about this single went wrong. The sloppy publicity department, that ‘announced’ this was an AI creation before we heard it so fans got the wrong end of the stick put people’s backs up unnecessarily (rather than re-creating John and George’s parts, as everyone naturally assumed from a badly worded press release, the AI was used to separate John’s vocal from his piano on his one-channel demo; actually they needn’t have bothered as it sounds worse quality than it does on my original bootleg). The interviews that took such liberties with the truth. The production which, even more than ‘Bird’ and ‘Real Love’, sounds plastered over the top where it doesn’t belong, with a string part that sounds as if its playing on a completely different song entirely.The worst aspect by far, though, is the original song which ranks as one of Lennon’s emptiest, a jumble of  hackneyed phrases about loss that he might well have worked into something special (as a rule John’s demos are far more basic than Paul’s or George’s, so much so you wonder how he ever got such magic out of them) but very much hadn’t at the time of his death. The only part that does work is the clever way the harmonies from ‘because’ are recycled, a vintage John, paul and geortge making the navigation of this song’s tricky chord sequences that much easier to bear (there are snippets of harmonies from other songs too, apparently, but this is the one you can hear best). The result is a song that some fans find moving, if only because it’s a song we never expected to hear. I can understand why, for fans born since the mid 1990s who’ve never had a Beatles release in their lifetime, this feels like a special moment. But its not a ‘real’ moment and its not a particularly Beatley sounding moment either (this is the most Rutlesy song they’ve ever done, following the ‘letter’ of how they used to make Beatles songs without the ‘heart’). The result is, to quote the NME’s famous review of ‘Let It Be’ back when everyone assumed that was the ‘last’ Beatle release of all, a cheapskate epitaph, a cardboard tombstone, a sad and tatty end to a musical fusion which wiped clean and drew again the face of pop. They should have let it be – or at the very least done it better – or at the very very least finished ‘Grow Old Along With Me’ at the same time and made it a double single. Unlike 99.9% of the Beatles canon this is a song that I shall be playing, at best, only now and then from now on.  

15) Dolly Parton, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr “Let It Be”

Well, it could have been worse I suppose: they could have put this unexpected mini reunion from earlier in the year out as the last official Beatle reunion instead. I don’t know quite how Dolly got both Beatles to play together on the same song in three years since Paul played on Ringo’s album ‘What’s My Name?’ or quite why, as they don’t add a lot to her spirited but decidedly mawkish and shrill cover of a Beatle classic. Given that Paul spurned Phil Spector’s arrangement of his song for being too treacly in 1970 it’s a surprise to hear him so committed to the backing vocals of one of the most sugary Beatle covers around and his growl is an odd fit with her voice, though at least you can hear them – unlike poor Ringo stuck at the back playing one of the most basic drum beats he was ever asked to play. A big deal at the time this song came out in the Summer, by now it’s been all but forgotten ‘Now and Then’ having stolen its thunder. Thank goodness.


Documentaries Of The Year:

1) The Beatles “Now and Then – A Short Film”

As much as I really don’t like the new last penultimate ever Beatle song, the two films based around it have been really good and moving in an authentic way the song just isn’t. First this twelve minute making-of documentary, which might be full of lies (George hated the song, not the sound) but does a good job at recapping the Anthology days of the 1990s when three old friends were hanging out together and working on some of John’s songs, worried about whether they should even try. We’ve known a lot of this footage for years of course, but the excitement is that we now have the sound to go with it: we could tell Paul George and Ringo weren’t working on ‘Free As A Bird’ or ‘Real Love’ and putting the right sound with the footage is tremendously exciting given we’ve waited thirty years to see it (it’s the footage of George sitting in Macca’s home studio next to the ‘Suzy and Red Stripes’ drumhead, a ‘fake’ band of Linda’s that released ‘Seaside Woman’ in 1977, changed to the ‘3 Beatles’ drumhead for the music video in post-production). There are some nice memories from Sean Lennon, as well as some shots of the orchestra (who think they’re working on a solo McCartney song named ‘Give and Take’) and Paul and Ringo at work more recently. Best are some fascinating insights into the technology used to put 1990s studio overdubs onto a 1970s wobbly cassette. The moment when John’s voice is separated from the piano and shines trough the tape across the years gives you chills…Only making the feeble way its heard on the final product all the worse. At twelve minutes this is just the right length: in-depth enough to be worth your time, but not so long it outstays its welcome. First broadcast in the UK as part of ‘The One Show’ with an enthusiastic John Bishop and an awkward looking Giles Martin there in person and broadcast simultaneously in several other countries, it got the world talking about The Beatles again but set the bar for the song’s release the next day so high it was only going to disappoint (some of us, anyway).

 2) “The Rolling Stones and Brian Jones”

There’s a Brian Jones documentary/film every decade or so it seems, as the Stones’ founder is introduced to a whole new audience and rightly so – as this documentary is at pains to point out, without Brian there would have been no Rolling Stones and without his part in their early years they surely wouldn’t have rolled so far without him. So far every documentary/film has been quite different, what they have to say reflecting more on the times they were made in than the Stone himself, who after all has been dead for five decades now. Past documentaries have tried to hate Brian, to blame him for everything that went wrong in the band, to dismiss him as being irrelevant, to sensationalise him and particularly his death, then to understand and appreciate him as a flawed but ambitious Human being. This is the first one that’s tried to love him. In all his many complexities and contradictions. For the first time, to the best of my knowledge, we get to speak not just to his bandmates and the people hired as staff but to his exes and they all say much the same thing: that Brian was adorable, lovable, wonderful, perfect and they were very very happy...till he changed his mind, changed his personality and ditched them for someone else. Bill Wyman, too, is on hand to offer his penny’s worth of insight and he’s long been on record saying that of all the Stones Brian was the one he was closest to, that even though all the stories of his annoying the hell out of everyone he met were true there was a lovable side you couldn’t help but adore too. The documentary does a good job of trying to tell both sides, not shying away from the damage Brian did to everyone around him (not least to himself) but trying to understand it too. Tales of Brian’s ‘frailty’, his bruised ego, his sensitivity and his shyness abound, even when they seem at odds with the famous film clips of him strutting under his big blonde hairdo, chasing girls and talking over Jagger and Richards in interviews as his right. Elsewhere we hear alarming tales of cold families (Brian yearned for his parents’ love and respect which never came – though the amount of underage girls he got pregnant probably had a lot to do with that and this was the early 1960s to be fair to them when more parents brought up to be ice cold in WW2 and not get close to anyone in case they died, were like it than not!), cold bandmates (Brian was more jealous of the Mick ‘n’ Keith songwriting duo than perhaps we realised), cold managers (though there’s only the briefest mention of Andrew Loog Oldham, who effectively took over Brian’s job as manager when the Stones grew popular), occasionally cold girlfriends, all of which turned the usually warm and tender hearted Brian cold in turn, while the drugs didn’t bring him much warmth either, extinguishing all that sizzle and fire long before he went to sleep in his own swimming pool. This programme feels at times like a head-on collision between Brian’s best and worst selves, self-sabotaging every time he’s onto a good thing and losing himself in the company of people stronger and more resilient than him, be it the other Stones or his girlfriends, whom he loved to mirror from their blonde hairdoes to their personalities (there are previously unheard tales of Brian and Anita Pallenberg egging each other on that are quite shocking if true, even if its typical of this kinder documentary that it talks about her ‘betrayal’ in switching to Keith without mentioning how often Brian used to beat her up; it’s a real shame she’s one of the few girlfriends in Brian’s life who didn’t get to put her thoughts on record before her death in 2017). There’s plenty of music too, rightly praising Brian for his push to record blues songs that resulted in the surprise #1 of ‘Little Red Rooster’ (still the only blues song to top the UK charts even now) and adding the exotic sounds of flute to ‘Ruby Tuesday’ and sitar to ‘Paint It Black’, even if they miss his greatest contribution, the jaw-dropping mellotron solo on ‘We Love You’ (which, because of the technology at the time, had to be played with a certain delay and which Brian nailed where so many others tried and failed – at a point when, the documentary has it, Brian could barely stand). Though many of these tales are told by other people and tell familiar stories there are some fascinating new insights too, particularly from the cache of letters both from and to Brian discovered at his house, such as the too-late words of affection from his father during Brian’s failing drug years.

If I have an issue with the documentary it’s that the end was so rushed compared to the impressive detail of the start – there was no mention of Brian’s ground-breaking interest in world music and ‘The Panpipes of Joujouka’ for instance and his death is glossed over in the briefest of sentences (in many ways a mercy after so many documentaries have only concentrated on the ending not the life, but you would have expected a few minutes on it and the doubt over whether it was an accident or a murder at least – after all, the idea that Brian taunted his own employees into killing him due to his own rejection plays perfectly into the documentary’s narrative that Brian’s bad behaviour was a response to things outside his control, even if I still think it was a tragic accident). The beginning too could have been better – we rather gloss over the early days when Brian was about the only person who believed in the Stones and if you only knew story from this documentary you might well think it was an equal partnership with Mick and Keith (it wasn’t – Brian very much hired them to get the sound he heard in his head). While mentioned, there should have been more blues too – that was, after all, the driving force behind Brian and while there’s talk of how pleased he was to turn middle-aged American white kids onto the blues records they’d missed, this was such a pivotal part of the story it should have been front and centre, not a few words in passing. There’s no Mick or Keith talking of course the people who arguably knew him best, no Marianne or Anita either even in archive footage, and not that much in the way of unseen clips (though there’s a rare interview of the Stones on tour in Australia that doesn’t often get an airing), but pretty much everyone else is here who should be and every clip that should be here is here and there are a lot of old stories well told alongside enough new ones to keep Stones fans happy. Above all, though, this documentary is impressive because it feels ‘fair’ - it doesn’t sugar-coat Brian’s worst side but nor does it dismiss the good he did for the band or fans and it does the best job so far of working out what made Brian roll and the drive that made him create one of the greatest rock and roll bands to begin with. Recommended. 

3) “The Ballad Of Syd and Morgan”

There seems to be an AAA-related play on radio 4 every year and this was no exception, as May saw the broadcast of one of the strangest yet: based on a novel by Haydn Middleton, it’s a hypothetical meeting between writer E M Forster and Syd Barrett in 1968, that by its own admission never happened but could have. Maybe. Sort of. The story has long gone that in 1968, after Pink Floyd decided not to bother picking a wayward Syd up to a gig one day, Barrett spent the next few weeks convinced that he had let ‘too much’ of himself out into the wider world and though he couldn’t buy up every album Pink Floyd had made he could still purchase all his old paintings he’d sold as a student and burn them, so that his ‘old life’ never existed. One of the people living in Cambridge at the time was an 88-year-old Forster, forty five years on from his own brief brush with fame with ‘Passage To India’ and still trying to come to terms with life as a creative artist that society wasn’t quite ready for (the play makes a lot of Forster’s homosexuality and how society frowned on him using it in his books, to the point of making Syd wonder aloud about his own sexuality in the play’s only real wrong-sounding note). There doesn’t seem to be, at first, a lot in common between the burnt out 22 year old psychedelic musician whose so 1968 it hurts and the ageing author or a bygone era and had this meeting really happened it almost certainly wouldn’t have gone like this; Syd’s far too coherent in this play for the time its set and way too polite, while Forster sees a lot of his younger self in a lad whose scared of his brush with fame. Chances are Syd wouldn’t have had time for an old fuddy duddy and Forster would have looked down his nose at rock music, but knowing that the two men were living in Cambridge and would both be recorded by fate in much the same way, as short lived brilliant creatives who couldn’t sustain the long careers their fan bases hoped for, is too good an opportunity to miss. It’s good too, sympathetic to both very different yet deeply troubled and lonely men and digs out a lot of connections between them, such as a love for Kenneth Grahame (Forster admits, at the end of the play, that when Syd turned up he had a ‘vision of the goat God of pan’ standing behind him, reinforced by his cleaner,of all people, who knows who Syd is and who enthuses about Floyd’s debut ‘Piper At The Gates Of Dawn’ and its title quote from ‘Wind In the Willows’ where Pan uses his panpipes to call the animals back home). Along the way Forster gets to give his own views on what life has been like since fame and urges his new friend to continue rceating, while Syd gets to reflect on what it feels like to be ‘dumped’ by his band, how lost he felt when his father died and how the strong drive he once felt to create has vanished. The elder lion warns the younger one not to retire because life is long and empty without the ability to create; the younger one reminds the elder that sometimes you have no other choice and both find healing from their conversation. Better than it has any right to be, despite the hackneyed shoe-horned references to gay sex and ‘wacky cigarettes’ (which Forster recognises from trips to India – odd given that marijuana was hardly the Indian drug of choice in the first half of the 20th century), the play is well observed and fair to both men, well performed by Simon Russell Beale as Forster and Tyger-Drew Honey, the elder of the ‘Outnumbered’ kids, as a rather good Syd.   

4) “The Beatles At The BBC”

Peter Jackson’s music video for the song itself was broadcast two days after the documentary and one day after the single, at the end of a ninety minute extravaganza of Beatle clips, some famous, some rare, most somewhere in between. The video got even more mixed reviews than the song but I really like it – people seem to miss the Beatley humour in having John and George pop up from the past distracting their colleagues as they try to work, but anyone whose heard the sessions tapes or read the Beatles Book or heard the Crhsitmas fanclub discs know this is exactly how they used to behave (in the earlier, less serious days anyway). I love the way that the ‘now’ and then’ have been incorporated together, with shots of Paul and Ringo (and via Anthology George and via Sean’s home collection John) all together one last time, with bits and pieces from most eras in there too. Best of all is the ending when we rush back in time, ending with a brief precious unseen few seconds of a leather-clad Beatles in 1960 (courtesy of Pete best’s collection – huge love and respect to him for giving it to this project instead of selling it to the highest bidder or locking it up where we can’t see it) before fading back through the years as The Beatles take one last (?) bow together on stage. The video, as an ageing Paul and Ringo make peace with their past and colleagues who remain locked in time forever young, says so very much about friendship, music and the human experience of the inevitable age and decay of us all that it made me cry, in a way the song never could and Lennon never designed it to. The rest of the clips show was as good as these things get too, with some questionable inclusions (the promos for ‘Something’ ‘Bird’ and ‘Real Love’ included because they were shown that way once on Top Of The Pops…erm, OK then!) and some nice bits and pieces (a longer version of the ‘One World’  ‘All You Need Is Love’ than on Anthology, The Beatles in Blackpool in 1964, news clips, the bit of ‘Ticket To Ride’ recycled in 1965 Dr Who story ‘The Chase’ and otherwise wiped, complete with ‘space-time visualiser’ opening and William Russell as Ian Chesterton singing along, although the captions throughout are a little odd and get this one hopelessly wrong: Brian Epstein loved the idea of an aging Beatles on a reunion tour in 2013 and all the band were fans who wanted to do it, but the Beatle schedule being as tight as it was they just couldn’t take the time off to film it) alongside all the bits you’d expect to be there and a couple of curious omissions (‘Magical Mystery Tour’ was a BBC Boxing Day special after all and there are far better sequences to choose than the rather staid one of ‘Your Mother Should Know’). Of course ITV got the really good Beatle footage of the day (‘The Royal Variety Show’ ‘Hey Jude’ on ‘Frost On Sunday’) so it was never going to be that comprehensive or complete, but it turned the music video into an ‘event’ and gave incoming fans a sense of history rather than just showing the video, so full marks for that. Why couldn’t everything be chronological though? No band grew in time like The Beatles and the cut and paste approach just doesn’t work, especially the way the three reunion singles are dropped in half an hour apart.

5) “Lulu At The BBC”

Very much the same with poor Lulu, who in a 75th birthday BBC compilation of her own had lots of awkward 1980s filler interspliced with her promising 1990 and 00s comebacks and 1960s classic footage in such a violent way I think I got whiplash. There wasn’t enough classic material either, given the amount in the vaults and all too often we got inferior live or cabaret remakes of her greatest hits, rather than footage from the time itself. It’s not as if we’re lacking footage either given that Lulu had her own TV show for so much of the 1960s: notwithstanding the fact that only a few episodes survive and one of those was repeated on BBC4 not long ago I still expected to see ‘Morning Dew’ and ‘The Boat That I Row’ from 1968 at the very least (the latter song is there but as a hideous duet with its composer Neil Diamond, where both are having a complete off day). I’d forgotten just how many rum moments I’ve had to sit through during Lulu’s ‘light entertainment’ years as she Boom Bang a Bangs and does aerobics workouts and covers soppy drippy 1970s and 1980s ballads and Take That collaborations her heart just isn’t in. The good stuff though (‘Shout!’ when she was the best fifteen year old singer there’s ever been with soul beyond her years, ‘Love Loves To Love’ when she was a hip ‘n’ happening teen that swung with the best of them, ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ where she out-Bowied Bowie in her twenties and her glorious comeback singles in her forties ‘Independence’ ‘I Don’t Wanna Fight No More’ and ‘take Me Where The Poor Boys Dance’) really is well worth watching and deserved better than to be lost in a clips show that was either too long or too short, depending how you look at it. As part of a ‘Lulu’ night we got a rather humdrum and rather amateurishly made documentary from 1998 (I’d forgotten how all documentaries used to start with random strangers singing hit songs badly back then!) and a super rare and rather curious cabaret show from 1981 ‘Live at the Blazer’s Club’ where Lulu – in a purple leotard that has to be seen to be believed - is as fake as she’s ever been, singing for the chicken in a basket crowd, flirting with the front row, covering bad Dolly Parton songs and doing tired old Tin Pan Alley medleys, in between shots of her getting down with the kids and rollerblading through a school playground in a particularly limp ‘To Sir With Love’ although even there just as I was about to give up hope there’s a cracking raucous cover of ‘Resurrection Shuffle’ that makes the Tom Jones version look like its standing still. Such it is with Lulu, a performer so versatile and variable you never quite know what you’re going to get, good or bad.

6)  ‘National Trust Golden Treasures: Forthlin Road’

If it’s weird for Paul McCartney to think of people going round his childhood Liverpool home, rebuilt to look as close as historians and experts get to how it looked in the 1950s, then it must be weirder still for brother Mike who still lives nearby. We’ve had a few programmes about the restoration of this tourist hot-spot before and while its’ not as slapdashly treated as John Lennon’s house Mendips (donated for free by Yoko to a National Trust base that seemed to be irritated by the workload than anything else), it still seems to be very amateurishly handled at times. This new series looked at 20th century sites bought up by the Trust and the work that goes into re-creating the old look, but you can’t help but feel watching the series as a whole that everyone is obsessed by the small details and loses sight of the bigger picture, of how special the thing is that came out of nothing, which would have happened regardless of the paper on the walls or the right coloured teapots. They spend a long time trying to find the stone wallpaper mum Mary McCartney once had over her fireplace, oddly not finding any copies of the print despite it being on sale from a large wallpaper chain for many years. So instead they re-create it from one of Mike’s photographs of his brother standing by the fireplace and have it blown up and stuck on the wall, following Mike’s approval (and Paul’s off-screen). They’re less successful trying to recover the McCartney’s teenage graffiti from next to the loo under six added layers of paint, something the National Trust seem to think is a huge and important moment for posterity, rather than a couple of boys mucking about. It’s great to see Mike McGear going round his old haunts and getting tearful, reminiscing about a simpler life before fame and getting sad about his mum now his parents’ bedroom has been opened to the public for the first time too (though why no mention of dad? Jim lived in that room even longer and has an even more direct link to his boys’ musical careers after his years with his own Jim Mac jazz band). Unfortunately the people working there keep interrupting him and then they in turn are interrupted by another segment randomly inserted into the programme that has nothing to do with the McCartneys but is linked to ‘Liverpool’ or, even more generally, ‘art’. We don’t even get to see round the house properly. Oh well, one day there’ll be a decent documentary on The Beatles’ childhood houses, its surely one of the few angles for fab four documentaries left we haven’t had yet...


So that was the year that was, a 2023 full of unexpected reunions, the revival of an old rivalry, the less than classic re-issues of all sorts of classic albums, a combination of some great new releases to be admired and revered decades from now and more than its fair share of recycling. Talking of recycling, the AAA-AI robot has just started moonwalking and singing Michael Jackson songs so I’d better go and return him and get my money back. Till next year have a great Christmas and a musical new year!