Albums of my years – 2020

First off – yes, I’m jumping ahead by a fair leap from the last of this series. Why? Well, the original premise was to go through each of those years leading up to my 40th. Problem is I didn’t account for my own lapse in prompt posting, the restraints such an ambitious series has on getting out other posts (I’ve still a couple more Bruce posts in the tank and countless others that were in the works) and that target drifted past last October. 2020 was a bloody weird one for me, for all of us I’m sure, and while I had more time on my hands as a result of spending the majority of it on furlough (and a small part job hunting) and coming to terms with release from a toxic work environment for some years and its impact, I simply wasn’t in the mental state needed to keep a schedule and get that target home. Plus – given that it’s now still just about January – it feels more fitting now to blast out a 2020 wrap up and fill in the gaps on an ad-hoc basis.

2020 was, understandably, a real weird one in music from February onwards. Most music news focused on the cancellation of tours, delays in releases and – most sadly – those who had died after contracting Covid-19. As we got used to the new state of things artists both decided to release albums anyway or, often, had so much time off-cycle that they were able to turn around entire albums in the lockdowns that most of the world were under (and still are, here, as I type). Music news and the presentation of new music shifted into a different phase as ‘guest spots’ on TV shows came via webcams and concerts were streamed from artists’ homes and rehearsal spaces right into those of the audience. While this served a welcome relief and distraction for music lovers including myself, I cannot overstate how damaging an impact this pandemic has had and is having on the events industry.

With the news cycle this year being one of the strangest, it’s easy to forget some of the events that took place in 2020. Hell, March 2020 seems like a decade ago so the fact that, say, Pearl Jam released their first album in seven years is almost forgotten. That they too had the anticipated rollout and tour cancelled no doubt threw a spanner in the works. While we’re still on the subject of the news cycle I think we can, all of us around the right-thinking world that is, agree that the best news to come out of 2020 was the defeat of that contemptible sack of shit and a potential end to the plain insanity and ‘alternative-fact’ delirium. Well done America and thanks.

The start of the year saw reunions and reunion tours announced for bands like Genesis and Rage Against the Machine only for them to be promptly postponed, leaving them in the odd position of being together again but not really. It would be hard for a band to be together long enough to decide to break up in 2020 – a few did but nobody that you’d call any great shakes with the exception, for me, of Milk Teeth – but we lost a lot of great musicians in 2020. Thanks to Coronavirus we said goodbye to John Prine and Fountains of Wayne’s Adam Schlesinger. Country singer and fried chicken connoisseur Kenny Rogers died at age 81 as did Bill Withers and Spencer Davis. Neil Peart, long held in high regard as one of the greatest drummers to sit on the stool, died in January, Little Richard passed away in May. We also said farewell to Peter Green, blues guitarist of choice and founder of Fleetwood Mac, Justin Townes Earle and Ennio Morricone – one of the most emotive film composers to score a film – left us in July at the ripe old age of 91. And perhaps most surprisingly, after increasing rumours of ill health, Eddie Van Halen lost his battle with cancer in October. A guitar player like no other, he was a real ‘light the fuse and watch the fireworks’ player who seemed unable to pick up an instrument without riffs and melodies falling out of him.

So what albums made it through? It was a great year for post-rock releases. Caspian’s In Circles, Toundra’s Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (a re-imagined soundtrack for a silent German horror film), Audiolepsia’s Waves & Particles and I Hear Sirens’ Stella Mori all got a lot of ear time in 2020.

Stone Temple Pilots released their second album with singer Jeff Gutt (I always have to double check that’s actually his name) – Perdida is ‘ok’ but it’s a long way from Core. Nada Surf’s Never Not Together is pleasant enough but nothing to really stick in the mind like Lucky and Bob Dylan emerged from years of cover albums to release his first album of original songs in eight years: Rough and Rowdy Ways. If not being able to tour is affecting anyone it’s gotta be bothering Bob – not that he’s likely to be at a loss having sold the rights to his entire back catalogue to Universal for a rumoured $350 million. I don’t think I’ve listened to the album more than once though. One I have listened to a lot and took almost as long to release is My Morning Jacket’s The Waterfall II. Back in 2015 when The Waterfall was let loose on us, the band said they’d recorded two album’s worth of material and the second would soon follow…. since then nothing. Until Jim James took a walk during lockdown with his iPod and heard the songs again, prompting its release shortly after. It was worth the wait but I’m itching for some ‘new’ MMJ…

I started getting into Courtney Marie Matthews in 2019 and was pretty chuffed when she released Old Flowers in 2020 – a gorgeous album with lots of brooding and burning guitar leads buried in a lush atmosphere supporting her great vocals. ‘If I Told’, in particular received many a repeated listen:

In a ‘back from the past’ file you’ll find Bush – known for finding more success in the States on the back of the post-Grunge boom than in the UK – but they’ve been back together for a while and putting out music that’s pretty bloody strong considering, their 2020 album The Kingdom got a good few streams my end as did Alanis Morissette’s Such Pretty Forks which is a surprisingly strong and consistently good album given I’d almost completely tuned out of new music from Alanis for over a decade. Somewhere in there I also discovered the music of Rose City Band in 2020 – via a real vibe of an album Summerlong that you could just put on loop and drift away to somewhere else in your mind.

Milk Teeth released their second album, following a series of EPs,  a self-titled effort brimming with their mix of 90’s inspired punk and rock before calling it a day. Down In the Weeds, Where the World Once Was found Bright Eyes returning nine years after their last effort with a much strong effort that I was expecting though I’ve yet to part with coin for it. One I happily did part with coin for was Thurston Moore’s By The Fire – a great album that’s probably the strongest of his post-Sonic Youth and, with Steve Shelley handling a lot of the drum duty, is as close to that band’s sound as you’re gonna find on a new release. Big Thief were a big discovery for me in 2019, in the space of a year I went from not having heard of them to grabbing each of their four albums (two of which were released in 2019 alone) and getting very quickly addicted. For some reason I was a little late, then, in listening to Adrianne Lenker’s 2020 release Songs and Instrumentals but I’m glad I did – it’s my favourite of her solo work to date and very much worth a listen.

Billy Corgan decided to stop being a moaning dickhead long enough to make another Smashing Pumpkins album – Cyr is a double album in which I doubt there’s even a single good album. Someone really, really needs to tell him ‘nah’ more often.

For all that, when it comes to new music (as opposed to the discovery of new-to-me bands and older music that seemed to dominate 2020 for me listening wise), there were two albums that got the most ear time with me and it’s unlikely to be any surprise which. Both had been the subject of rumours swirling ahead of their actual drop and both proved a very welcome relief in terms of both quality and distraction from the world’s troubles.

So let’s do this:

Bruce Springsteen’s 2019 album Western Stars, his first since his residency on Braodway, was a a real outlier in his catalogue. A ‘solo’ album in the sense that it wasn’t an E Street Band affair but nonetheless bathed in sound. There was to be no tour. A ‘live’ film and soundtrack quickly followed and then the rumours started as Bruce mentioned he’d started writing for ‘the band’. And then, when we needed it most after half a year thwarted by lockdowns and pandemic, the announcement came: the new Bruce Springsteen album, backed by the E Street Band, Letter To You was coming. Not only that, but it was recorded in a matter of days, live in the studio, minimal overdubs! Could it be? Could the sound of the E Street Band in its prime – Bruce hadn’t recorded live with the band without at least demoing the material since the early 80s – without the interference of extra layers and gimmicks that had afflicted his last three albums (even Western Stars couldn’t escape it) all produced by Ron Aniello? The answer was very much ‘yes, yes and YES!’

Letter To You is Springsteen’s finest album since Magic and the sound of the E Street Band (with the Charles Giordano and Jake Clemons filling in for the faithful departed) at its glorious best in a way it hasn’t been captured on ‘tape’ in a long-ass time. The album moves with a confidence and power that I honestly didn’t expect was there anymore. There’s something both comforting and exciting about hearing that sound on new songs that just makes you want to head straight back to the start after finishing the album.

It’s a joy to hear those older (‘Janey Needs a Shooter’, ‘If I Was The Priest’ and ‘Song for Orphans’ date back to ’72) songs songs dusted off and, at last, given life. The newer songs – which all came quickly to Bruce once he started playing a guitar given to him by a fan – sit amongst his best. There’s at once a sense of ‘this is who were then and this is who we are now’ as there’s no getting around the fact that time marches on (hell, it’s there in his voice) while at the same time letting you know that there’s still gas in the tank to go.

While Western Stars was an album that wouldn’t really transfer to the world’s stadiums and arenas, Letter To You brims with songs that need to be heard live – let’s hope that tour can happen soon.

And that just leaves…

Pearl Jam – Gigaton

Once upon a time you could set your clock by Pearl Jam releases. Every 18 months or so you’d get another slab of the great stuff. But that schedule, sadly, is close to 20 years ago… gaps between albums started to get longer: nearly four years separated Riot Act and Pearl Jam, another three until Backspacer, then four again before we got Lightning Bolt and then…. the longest wait to date came to end this year with Gigaton, their first album in seven long years and their first since 2006 with a new producer; sessions and work with Brendan O’Brien not hitting the mark for the band (or fans, see ‘Can’t Deny Me’).

As a long time fan, I was growing tired of the rumours – the fake supposed track lists and titles (some better than others, most featuring ‘Of The Earth’ and ‘Can’t Deny Me’ as attempts at validity), the ‘massive tour featuring both small venues and stadiums in each city’ and claims of ‘two new albums and an Ed solo’. It would come when it would come. And then, early in 2020, there were some very real hints, snippets of a strange new sound doing the rounds, an app and map to hunt down images around the world, an album cover and, finally, the email from Ten Club arrived ‘Dance of the Clairvoyants’ – it was time!

Now, I’ll be honest, at first I was a little ‘do what?’ But by the end I was hooked and going back for another spin – a lot more than can be said for ‘Can’t Deny Me’. It’s definitely Pearl Jam but it’s Pearl Jam sounding more focused and engaged than they have on record for a while, working with Josh Evans had clearly allowed them to take a freer approach to their experimental side in the same way as working with Tchad Blake and Adam Kasper had. If this was a sign of what was to come on Gigaton a) sign me up and b) what’s next? Well, ‘Superblood Wolfmoon’ showed that ‘DOTC’ was a deliberate left-field choice, it was a more straight-ahead song but, again, the band sounding tighter and more ‘on’. From the conversations online I saw, it did the job of shutting up those bemoaning DOTC’s ‘weird’ sound. And then came ‘Quick Escape’ and I new that Gigaton was going to be great:

It’s a belter of a song, guitars to the forefront and a scathing lyric  – “crossed the border to Morocco, Kashmir to Marrakesh, the lengths we had to go to then to find a place Trump hadn’t fucked up yet”. What was I expecting – an album with the experimental textures of Riot Act with the power and engaged lyrics of Pearl Jam. What I got was exactly that and it’s fucking great – even though ‘Buckle Up’ took a lot of listens to not skip.

Since Binaural I’d started to consider Pearl Jam a band of second halves on their albums – from the mid point on things got tastier. ‘Light Years’ through to ‘Parting Ways’, ‘Nothing As It Seems’ through ‘All Or None’, ‘Just Breath’ onwards etc is where you found the juicier cuts of meat. But Gigaton is not only front-loaded, the mid section is dazzling – ‘Seven O’Clock’ is easily Vedder’s wordiest lyric and is powered along by a melody that has the rare distinction of being a ‘Ament, Gossard, McCready, Vedder’ composition, and ‘Take The Long Way’ is one of those great Matt Cameron composition – and closes strong with ‘Comes Then Goes’, ‘Retrograde’ and ‘River Cross’, Vedder’s touching lament on fear and the nature of doubt in life underscored by an antique pump organ (the take used retained from a 2015 demo for the song).

I’ve played this album through so many times this year I’ve lost count – I even picked up the CD too (as Pearl Jam don’t seem to grasp download codes with their vinyl) so I could spin it in the car on my new commute – and am still not tired of it. Pearl Jam haven’t sounded so consistently engaged and willing to ‘go for it’ in pushing their sound for years and it’s a joyous listen that, in a year of turmoil, managed to provide an uplifting soundtrack. It’s an easy choice for me to highlight this as my album of 2020 on so many personal levels.

Messages keeps gettin’ clearer, radio’s on and I’m movin’ ’round my place: the ‘other’ Born In The USAs – Part 3

“Much of Born In The USA was recorded live with the full band in three weeks. Then I took a break, recorded Nebraska and didn’t return to my rock album ’til later… Then brain freeze settled in.”

To read Springsteen’s biography Born To Run you’d almost believe that the writing and recording of the songs that made up Born In The USA was a relatively succinct period divided up into a couple of sessions and that the only songs that exist from the time graced the two albums it bore: Nebraska and Born In The USA.

Both Tracks, studio logs and his own Songs book tell a different story though. Between Bruce’s sitting down with “some books, a few scattered guitar picks, and a harmonica rack jostled with the crumbs of the afternoon’s lunch” and, importantly, a Paul Schrader script for a film called ‘Born In The USA’ and penning a song that he initially title ‘Vietman’ and the song hitting the airwaves were several years and a LOT of songs.

Following the decision not to release ‘Murder Incorporated’, and despite the idea of keeping studio costs down, Bruce headed back to New York’s The Hit Factory with The E Street Band from May – June of 1983, though without Van Zandt for the most part.

These final sessions were the end of an era, not realised let alone acknowledged at the time. Aside from the missing Van Zandt’s input, the last sessions for Born In The USA would be the last time Springsteen entered the studio with the full band for a long time to come and would be the last time in which songs would be written and then worked up and arranged with the band until 2020’s Letter To You. It’s also the point at which Springsteen’s prolific period of song writing began to slow and the security around the vault would tighten.

From May through June of ’83, though, Bruce and the band worked on more songs to add to the pile as Springsteen searched for the right sound and feel to make it an album. In fact, it looked like this was it and recording went straight into mixing in July and a possible track listing was born:

Side One:

Born In The USA

Cynthia

None But The Brave

Drop On Down And Cover Me

Shut Out The Light

Johnny Bye Bye

Side Two:

Sugarland

My Love Will Not Let You Down

Follow That Dream

My Hometown

Glory Days

Janey, Don’t You Lose Heart

This album doesn’t ring as cohesive as ‘Murder Incorporated’ ever did. Some of the songs come from the earliest sessions, some from Springsteen’s LA recordings and FIVE new songs from the May-June sessions all of which, as they were mastered, would either go on to serve as b-sides or  appear on Tracks. However, songs like ‘Cynthia’ and ‘Janey, Don’t You Lose Heart’ (she still needed a shooter) aren’t his strongest from this period – Janey the better of the two – and their inclusion here, to me, is indicative that he was doubting the more direct, ‘pop’ leaning of the other material as they harken back more to his work of the previous decade than anything else from this period.\

The lack of cohesion was apparent to all and this version of the album was shelved. The mix and feel of Springsteen’s LA cuts jarring too much with the rest of the cuts. It was back to the studio, again, for another period of writing and recording from the end of ’83 into early ’84. However, it was at this point that ‘brain freeze’ kicked in and work ground to a halt.

Thanks to the increasing security on sessions and the vault the fruit of these last periods of writing and recording are harder to identify. But Springsteen suggests, in ‘Born To Run’ again, that these would have included ‘Bobby Jean’ and ‘No Surrender’ and, er, ‘Refrigerator Blues’, ‘Swoop Man’ and ‘Ida Rose (No One Knows) were also written write before then end of the album’s writing and recording period.

Recognising that Springsteen was at an impasse with his album – and, presumably, with the record label chomping away at his ear – Jon Landau stepped in. He did two things. First, he compiled what he thought were the best of the songs recorded into an eleven-song track list:

Side One:

Born In The USA

I’m Goin’ Down

Cover Me

My Hometown

Bobby Jean

Side Two

My Love Will Not Let You Down

Follow That Dream

Glory Days

Protection

Janey, Don’t You Lose Heart

I’m On Fire

I don’t dig this track list anymore than that created in July of ’83. The songs here are still missing something but it seemed to do the job of giving his charge a charge, if you will. For Springsteen, armed with his newly- recorded songs, then “circled back to my original group of songs. There I found a naturalism and aliveness that couldn’t be argued with. They weren’t exactly what I’d been looking for, but they were what I had.”

They weren’t exactly what I was looking for…. but they were what he had. To me, this suggests a sense of weariness perhaps. Realisation, maybe, that whatever it was he was looking for wasn’t going to be found and he needed to get something, anything, out? Even if it meant it wasn’t as realised to him as, say, Darkness On The Edge of Town was? It’s a sensation that’s gotten across in the album’s first single:

‘Dancing in the Dark’ came from a now-famous moment when Springsteen was told the album needed a ‘hit’ single to get it on fire on the radio. Tired and weary after what was three years plus of writing and recording for the album and having already stockpiled more songs for Disc Three of Tracks to be one of the strongest, Bruce told Landau that if he wanted it so much, he should it himself.  Springsteen refers to the song as being “about my own alienation, fatigue and desire to get from inside the studio, my room, my record, my head…” It was the last song recorded for the album in February 1984.

Born In The USA changed Springsteen’s career. It pushed him from arenas to stadiums, muscle-bound and posing for the big screen projections to the cheap seats with hit after hit released from it. I’ve covered the album itself in more detail as part of my ‘Least To Most’ Springsteen series so won’t reiterate that which I’ve already covered. It may well have been his biggest but it’s far from my favourite and, with hindsight, Springsteen himself has certainly cooled toward it – it’s grab bag feel still apparent. But it did the job.

Following it would never be easy especially when you take into account the album’s arduous gestation period. Tunnel of Love, a far superior album, was a much more subdued affair and it would be another decade or two before Springsteen was comfortable finding his ‘rock’ voice again. The hesitancy and labouring over songs would also be borne out on the much-maligned Human Touch and his second-guessing over releasing albums would permeate through the next decade as there’s another rumoured album that sits abandoned in his vaults.

Perhaps it, like the wealth of songs recorded during Born In The USA‘s sessions, will see light on the in-the-works Tracks 2 project. Of those songs recorded and cut from the album we know of ‘Murder Incorporated’, ‘Pink Cadillac’, ‘Shut Out The Light’, ‘Johnny Bye-Bye’, ‘Stand On It’, ‘Janey, Don’t You Lose Heart’, ‘A Good Man Is Hard to Find (Pittsburgh)’, My Love Will Not Let You Down’, the brilliant ‘Wages of Sin’, ‘This Hard Land’, ‘Frankie’, ‘Cynthia’, ‘Lion’s Den’, ‘Car Wash’, ‘TV Movie’, ‘Brothers Under The Bridges (’83)’, Man At The Top’, Rockaway the Days’, ‘County Fair’ and ‘None But The Brave’. That’s 20 songs, for those who are counting.

But… those that haven’t been officially released?

Here’s the list, just as indication that there’s a HUGE amount still in the vault. Each of these, in some way, went into the making of the final album and it shows just how much Springsteen put into the sessions even if he never found what he was looking for:

PROTECTION

THE KLANSMAN

SEVEN TEARS

FUGITIVE’S DREAM

ONE LOVE

BETTY JEAN

UNSATISFIED HEART

LITTLE GIRL (LIKE YOU)

DELIVERY MAN

FOLLOW THAT DREAM

SUGARLAND

DON’T BACK DOWN

JAMES LINCOLN DEAR

RICHFIELD WHISTLE

YOUR LOVE IS ALL AROUND ME

STOP THE WAR

BABY I’M SO COLD

BELLS OF SAN SALVADOR

ON THE PROWL

NEBRASKA – E STREET BAND VERSION

ATLANTIC CITY – E STREET BAND VERSION

MANSION ON THE HILL – E STREET BAND VERSION

JOHNNY 99 – E STREET BAND VERSION

HIGHWAY PATROLMAN – E STREET BAND VERSION

USED CARS – E STREET BAND VERSION

OPEN ALL NIGHT – E STREET BAND VERSION

REASON TO BELIEVE – E STREET BAND VERSION

LOSIN’ KIND

FADE TO BLACK

ROBERT FORD

WILLIAM DAVIS

GUN IN EVERY HOME

COMMON GROUND (STAY HUNGRY)

TRUE LOVE IS HARD TO COME BY

I DON’T CARE

THE MONEY WE DIDN’T MAKE

JOHNNY GO DOWN

BODY AND SOUL

SAVIN’ UP

OUT OF WORK

LOVE’S ON THE LINE

CLUB SOUL CITY

HOLD ON (TO WHAT YOU GOT)

WORKIN’ ON IT

GONE, GONE, GONE / SEEDS

KING’S HIGHWAY

JUST AROUND THE CORNER TO THE LIGHT OF DAY

INVITATION TO YOUR PARTY

BAD BOY

GLORY OF LOVE

SHUT DOWN

100 MILES FROM JACKSON

ROLL AWAY THE STONE

SWOOP MAN

UNDER THE BIG SKY

REFRIGERATOR BLUES

IDA ROSE (NO ONE KNOWS)

NOW AND FOREVER / SUMMER ON SIGNAL HILL

That’s an additional 58 songs in varying forms of completion, mastering and circulation. With those already released and the 12 that made up Born In The USA‘s final track list and that gives us…. 90 songs.  With the suggestion – that kicked off this series – from Max Weinberg that nearly 80 were recorded with the band… it’s likely that a few of these were either not recorded or never went beyond Bruce, a guitar and a basic recording.

With less songs written for Tunnel of Love – only an additional eleven on top of the album – and subsequent albums, Born In The USA was the end of Springsteen’s most prolific period of song writing, it even looks to have knackered him out for writing for some time to come. It – along with the missing album from the 90’s – represents one of the few remaining rich seams of  work that have yet to tapped. Those efforts that didn’t make his later-career albums were cherry-picked for the hotchpotch High Hopes and they weren’t anything like as strong as those that made up The Promise or The Ties That Bind collections. So, here’s hoping we get to hear from both these periods soon because there are some fucking BELTERS awaiting mastering and release in this treasure trove:

 

Winterkill by Ragnar Jónasson

From the PR:“Easter weekend is approaching, and snow is gently falling in Siglufjörður, the northernmost town in Iceland, as crowds of tourists arrive to visit the majestic ski slopes.

Ari Thór Arason is now a police inspector, but he’s separated from his girlfriend, who lives in Sweden with their three-year-old son. A family reunion is planned for the holiday, but a violent blizzard is threatening and there is an unsettling chill in the air.

Three days before Easter, a nineteen-year-old local girl falls to her death from the balcony of a house on the main street. A perplexing entry in her diary suggests that this may not be an accident, and when an old man in a local nursing home writes ‘She was murdered’ again and again on the wall of his room, there is every suggestion that something more sinister lies at the heart of her death…

As the extreme weather closes in, cutting the power and access to Siglufjörður, Ari Thór must piece together the puzzle to reveal a horrible truth … one that will leave no one unscathed.

Chilling, claustrophobic and disturbing, Winterkill marks the startling conclusion to the million-copy bestselling Dark Iceland series and cements Ragnar Jónasson as one of the most exciting authors in crime fiction.”

I’m not happy to be writing this review, not happy at all. This cannot be the end of the Dark Iceland series, surely. The compelling journey of Ari Thór, steered by the massively talented hand of Ragnar Jónasson, from rookie newcomer to seasoned Siglufjörður resident and police inspector has been an absolute pleasure to read. This can’t be the end. And yet, here we are.

The plot itself… well, the case looks to be a non-starter at first. Yet as keen as Ari Thór is to park it and focus on spending time with his son and work out his relationship with Kristín (oh how I longed for that to end differently), too many little things begin to pop up and Ari Thór knows something isn’t right. There’s something lurking behind the apparent suicide that he needs to know and, in unravelling that thread he begins to reveal a lot more than expected all the while wrestling with his desire to not be so involved with the case and his intrinsic sense of humanity and drive to discover the truth. It makes for a brilliant read.

One of the key elements in making the Dark Iceland series so addictive is Jónasson’s skill as a writer. He’s brilliantly adept at weaving  a deep and intricately plotted  mystery while simultaneously keeping the reader engrossed in Ari Thór’s own personal pressures in a way that makes Winterkill a gripping book.

Siglufjörður makes for a superb setting for a mystery novel: it’s both chilling and remote and even if it’s no longer as cut-off from the rest of Iceland as it once was you get the feeling that despite an additional tunnel and the ease with which, say, Ari’s old boss Tómas can be reached on the phone, there’s still a sense of isolation in the town that really adds to novel’s atmosphere, especially when the snow storms kick in. As with previous novels in the series, Jónasson populates Winterkill with a brilliantly vivid cast of characters that, were I to find myself in Siglufjörður, I would honestly expect to meet in the street. His portrayal of the grief-stricken mother is really powerful and the degree to which I know it will stay with me for a while is a testament to Ragnar Jónasson’s skill. It’s just so very well written.

What’s made the Dark Iceland series, and Ragnar Jónasson’s writing, standout and prove so enjoyable to read is how subtly your attention can be hooked by little details and how many doors these open for further exploration. Winterkill is no exception – in its gentle pacing, the plot touches on so many intrigues and characters as it builds up a real momentum, Jónasson expertly leading us along until a real ‘what the fu..’ shocker comes barrelling in and, in Winterkill, it’s a real shocker that will stay with you.

So, is this the end of the story for Ari Thór? There’s a little note from the author at the start of Winterkill in which Ragnar Jónasson points out that the story is for those fans that kept asking for one more Ari Thór story. I can’t help but think there’s a lot more to be told about Siglufjörður’s police inspector, what was the secret of his parents hinted at in previous books, for example? What will the growing number of people coming into the town mean for crime in a place where seemingly nothing happens but so much is going on? Who knows, maybe if we ask Ragnar enough…..

My thanks, as always, to Karen  at Orenda Books (a continual source of high-quality fiction) for my copy of Winterkill and to Anne Cater for inviting me to take part in this blog tour.

 

 

Unsatisfied hearts and murder, incorporated: the ‘other’ Born In The USAs – Part 2

“Halfway though recording the biggest record of my life, Steve Van Zandt left the band. I’ve always felt a combination of personal frustration, internal politics and unhappiness with some of my decisions led to Steve’s departure…. the timing must’ve felt to him like now or never. Looking back today, I think Steve would agree it didn’t have to be that way. We could’ve done it all, but we weren’t the same people then that we are today.”

In the summer of 1982, following the decision to release Nebraska as it was, Steve Van Zandt had visited Bruce in a New York City hotel room to discuss his role their creative partnership. Bruce, though, didn’t feel they were in a “partnership” and steered his ship his way, it’s how it had to be to work the way it did. Van Zandt wanted a more collaborative deal and greater involvement. It couldn’t be. So he bid farewell to E Street. Though a formal announcement wouldn’t be made until May 1984 and he’d grace the linear notes of Born In The USA, Van Zandt’s input from this point forward would be minimal.

I think Springsteen is perhaps more sensitive to feedback than he’d let on. Look at the mixed response that Human Touch and Lucky Town garnered – it meant he ended up ditching a complete album’s worth of material in the 90’s in favour of getting the band back together for a Greatest Hits, as though to remind the public of what they loved about him in the first place. The reaction to Nebraska surprised Springsteen. This quiet set of songs, so far from the sound of The River, was oft-cited as one of the year’s best albums by critics and, while many Springsteen fans were surprised by it, the positive feedback to what was essentially a series of demos meant Bruce paused in his push to Born In The USA‘s thumping beats.

After the release of Nebraska and his ‘Jersey Shore Bar Tour’, and best man duties at Van Zandt’s wedding, Bruce took off west. In search of sun and escaping the Jersey Devil over winter? Maybe. But as ’83 arrived, Bruce was already busy. Through winter he’d worked at ‘Thrill Hill Recording’ – his home studio in his Hollywood Hills studio (though in ’83 this wasn’t the ‘bourgeois house in the Hollywood hills’ bought ‘with a trunkload of hundred thousand dollar bills’) – with yet another album’s worth of material emerging. Only these weren’t of the ‘Glory Days’ ilk, these songs were closer to Nebraska in theme and approach.

Sandwiched oddly appropriately between the recently released ‘classic’ concerts and 2019’s Western Stars in my iTunes is a Springsteen bootleg called Unsatisfied Heart. These dozen songs of surprisingly good quality for something so desperately unofficial, all come from those sessions at Thrill Hill Recording over the winter of 82-83. There’s a longer, better take of ‘Johnny Bye Bye’ and ‘Shut Out The Light’ with ‘County Fair’ making its earliest appearance, but the rest… remain the stuff of vaults and bootlegs (and, perhaps, a Tracks 2, now we know that such a project is in development) and I’m very glad to have these in any form. Why? Well, some of these are among his most compelling to date, even 40 years on.

Take ‘The Klansman’ as an example: never performed live and only one take circulating but while the music is richer than the material on Nebraska (drum beats and synths appearing) the lyrics are pretty heavy “I was ten years old when my Pa said, “Son, some day you will see, when you grow to wear the robes like your brother and me”:

Songs like the two above along with tracks like ‘Richfield Whistle’ – a real hefty story song in the vein of some of The River‘s ‘down on their luck’ character songs – or ‘Sugarland’ are both lost for now in terms of official releases but represented a different tact for Bruce. These are more fleshed out in sounds and found him leaning more toward drum beats and synth sounds that he’d later take further, albeit after Born In The USA had died down and the E Street Band had been parked. It’s a shame but, as is often the way, Bruce was exploring every possible avenue on the road to his next album and was still in the midst of a prolific song writing period.

‘Follow That Dream’, though, seemed to stick out for Bruce and would appear on a few tentative album track lists. Springsteen took Elvis’ 1962 song, changed up the lyrics and rearranged the pacing, slowing it right down:

Having decided that a follow up to Nebraska wasn’t in the works just yet, Springsteen instead returned to the East coast with the idea of combining the work previously recorded with the E Street Band and the best of his Thrill Hill sessions and releasing an album called Murder Incorporated:

  1. Born In The USA
  2. Murder Incorporated
  3. Downbound Train
  4. My Love Will Not Let You Down
  5. Glory Days
  6. This Hard Land
  7. Johnny Bye Bye
  8. Frankie
  9. I’m Going Down
  10. Working On The Highway
  11. I’m On Fire

It’s a stellar track list and he even went so far as to list ‘Sugarland’, ‘Follow That Dream’, ‘Don’t Back Down’, ‘One Love’ and ‘Little Girl (Like You)’ as probable b-sides. Whether or not tracks like the already pretty great ‘Don’t Back Down’ from the Thrill Hill sessions would’ve been re-recorded with the full band… we’ll never know but Murder Incorporated would’ve made one hell of an album. Let’s face it, ‘Born In The USA’ aside, any album with ‘Murder Incorporated’, ‘My Love Will Not Let You Down’, ‘This Hard Land’, ‘Downbound Train’ and ‘I’m On Fire’ on is gonna be a knockout.

Hell, for my money, it would’ve been a more consistent and less ‘grab bag’ album and I’d have rated it a lot higher than I do Born In The USA. Not feeling me? Try it:

See? It fucking kicks.

Instead, though, Bruce decided the timing wasn’t right and – despite the original plan behind getting a four-track to reduce studio time and cost – went for some more studio sessions instead, returning to New York’s Hit Factory in May 1983. Given that Steven Van Zandt – at that point known as ‘Miami Steve’ – was busy working on his second solo album – it would be the band’s first without him and their first sessions in nearly a year.

You’d think they were nearly there but a lot more songs, doubt and writer’s block lay ahead while a good couple of album’s worth of songs lay behind.

 

Fallen Angels by Gunnar Staalesen

From the PR: “When Bergen PI Varg Veum finds himself at the funeral of a former classmate on a sleet-grey December afternoon, he’s unexpectedly reunited with his old friend Jakob – guitarist of the once-famous 1960s rock band The Harpers – and his estranged wife, Rebecca, Veum’s first love.

Their rekindled friendship is thrown into jeopardy by the discovery of a horrific murder, and Veum is forced to dig deep into his own adolescence and his darkest memories, to find a motive … and a killer.

Tense, vivid and deeply unsettling, Fallen Angels is the spellbinding, award-winning thriller that secured Gunnar Staalesen’s reputation as one of the world’s foremost crime writers.”

Okay, no preamble here let’s get straight to to the facts: Gunnar Staalesen is on a different level, an all-time great of of Nordic Noir and Fallen Angels is an astonishingly good novel that’s a shoe-in for the best read of 2020.

This is the seventh Staalesen novel I’ve read though is, in fact, the eighth Varg Veum book, originally published in Norway in 1989. Published now in English for the first time by the powerhouse and champion of great literature, Orenda Books, Fallen Angels won multiple awards upon release and was the novel that gave Staalesen his reputation as the father of the genre. Before there was Harry Hole or Kurt Wallander, before Inspector Van Veeteren or Mikael Blomkvis, Varg Veum was cracking complex and disturbing cases and Gunnar Staalesen was perfecting a style that’s about as good as it gets in literature.

Fallen Angels is a vital component to the Varg Veum series,  both revealing a great deal about the Bergen investigator’s past while unravelling a chain of deception that will leave its mark on him for years to come.  It’s as hard-hitting and powerful as they get when it comes to the key to the killings and there’s nobody who can wind up to a gut-punch that leaves you on your knees like Staalesen. This one hits harder than any I’ve read for some time.

The denouements in Gunnar Staalesen’s novels have never been anything less than knockout , you’re in the hands of a real master of the form here; every strand of the novel tying together and leading you through a beautifully crafted and increasingly intricate plot that doesn’t feel the need to rush or throw in the kitchen sink before delivering that final piece.

Reading a Varg Veum novel is always a real joy that I genuinely look forward to. Staalesen’s writing style and Varg’s methods are worth savouring every word, not a single on of which  ever wasted. There’s a preciseness to his writing that’s deceptive because it takes a real skill to deliver something as rich and involved with an economy of words and Staalesen is just so incredibly talented it makes anyone who wrestles with the written word on the daily envious.

Varg Veum is one of those rare protagonists that I can’t get enough of. He’s an honest, yet flawed character with a moral compass that points true north and is driven by the right motivations, even when he’s not on the clock. There’s a real charm to Veum as a lead in a mystery, his is  technique and style that’s compelling and his propensity for getting into more than his share of scapes in his determination to pick at threads people would rather leave buried makes for great reading. Combine that with a cast of equally compelling characters, a hugely complex plot, a good mix of humour, plenty of music references and plain brilliant prose and you’ve got a great book in your hands.

Fallen Angels is a slow-burning delight that packs an almighty punch. Expertly written and massively addictive. I cannot praise it enough. My thanks to Orenda for keeping my Guunar Staalesen addiction fed and to Anne Cater for inviting me to take part in its blog tour.

 

 

 

Blog Tour – A Song of Isolation by Michael J Malone

From the PR: “Film star Amelie Hart is the darling of the silver screen, appearing on the front pages of every newspaper. But at the peak of her fame she throws it all away for a regular guy with an ordinary job. The gossip columns are aghast: what happened to the woman who turned heads wherever she went?

Any hope the furore will die down are crushed when Amelie’s boyfriend Dave is arrested on charges of child sexual abuse. Dave strongly asserts his innocence, and when Amelie refuses to denounce him, the press furore quickly turns into physical violence, and she has to flee the country.

While Dave is locked up with the most depraved men in the country and Amelie is hiding on the continent, Damaris, the victim at the centre of the story, is also isolated – a child trying to make sense of an adult world…

Breathtakingly brutal, dark and immensely moving, A Song of Isolation looks beneath the magpie glimmer of celebrity to uncover a sinister world dominated by greed and lies, and the unfathomable destruction of innocent lives… in an instant.”

Where to start with A Song of Isolation? Well, let’s start by saying ‘holy shit, this is a good book’. This Michael J Malone is a sneaky one… each of his previous four novels published by Orenda have managed to deliver a massively rewarding read that takes a detour from the expected and with A Song of Isolation Michael J Malone has  once again managed to deliver a thriller that subverts the genre’s tropes – there’s no body in sight for one thing – with a plot and narrative that packs real power and surprise.

Forget mysterious bodies and murders, broody cops with an alcoholic tendency or ex-military bruisers: A Song of Isolation is a much more taught and intellectual thriller that gets its tensions from the pain of injustice and the constant shadow of threat and panic that hangs over its principal characters.

What’s really compelling is Malone’s portrayal of characters in crisis and under pressure in situations nobody would expect or ever want to encounter. How would any reader respond if they or their loved one were falsely accused and charged of this most heinous of crimes and nobody believed the truth? Remember that phrase about how a lie can travel around the world before truth is still getting its pants on? Here that lie relates to a crime that is an instant – and understandably – gut-reaction button for everyone. I think we’ve probably all read a story in the press where someone is accused of it and instantly wished them hell before any evidence is heard. But this time the lie is told so convincingly that telling the truth is like screaming in the wind and innocent lives are cracked, ruined and thrown upside down – it’s real page-turning stuff.

Malone tackles some massively difficult subjects in A Song of Isolation – there’s the fact that we have a young girl being coached in giving evidence in a sexual assault trial, the perversion of justice, the treatment of the wrongly accused (David’s journey through the system and how he is handled specifically), self-harm and some unpleasant stalker stuff too – and he does so with a style that’s at times intense and unflinching but without resorting to shock value for the sake of it. Meanwhile his handling of some of the more sensitive elements – such as Damaris’ internal dialogue – is deft and insightful.

I really dig Michale J Malone’s style; it’s concise yet powerful and he’s got a really crafty way of hooking you in deep so before you realise it you’ve burnt up half the night reading and you still don’t want to put the book down. It’s really bloody good stuff.

My thanks to Karen at Orenda Books for my copy and to Anne Cater for inviting me to take part in this blog tour.

Blog Tour – The Seven Rooms by Agnes Ravatn

From the PR: “University professor Nina is at a turning point. Her work seems increasingly irrelevant, her doctor husband is never home, relations with her adult daughter Ingeborg are strained, and their beautiful house is scheduled for demolition.

When Ingeborg decides to move into another house they own, things take a very dark turn. The young woman who rents it disappears, leaving behind her son, the day after Nina and Ingeborg pay her a visit.

With few clues, the police enquiry soon grinds to a halt, but Nina has an inexplicable sense of guilt. Unable to rest, she begins her own investigation, but as she pulls on the threads of the case, it seems her discoveries may have very grave consequences for her and her family.”

Agnes Ravatn’s The Bird Tribunal was one of my favourite reads of 2016 so I’ve been very much looking forward to more from the author and The Seven Doors does not disappoint. No: what it does is captivate from the word go and hold you in its grip well after finishing.

First off this is not your standard mystery – it’s a real slow burning joy of a novel that rewards on many levels.

The plot is a quiet, tightly orchestrated masterpiece and when it all comes together so many little details that had been sewn into the narrative earlier are all bathed in a new light and there’s a real “ohhhh” moment. Not to mention the fact that when it does all click it’s a real ‘holy crap’ moment – I mean, I’ve read more thrillers and mysteries now than I can count but I don’t think I’ve read anything as intense and bitingly real as the final confrontation between Nina and the guilty party (I really really don’t want to give anything away).

Plus Nina makes for a really captivating protagonist, slowly unravelling a mystery while at the same time dealing with a major upheaval in her own life.

But, just like The Bird Tribunal, what makes The Seven Doors such a welcome addition to any bookshelf is Agnes Ravatn’s writing and style. Her style is deceptively unassuming yet completely mesmerising. There’s a real beauty in her prose and a wonderful ability to immerse the reader in the novel’s world. It’s there in both the setting of location and in the portrayal of her characters; a magical thread that seems to effortlessly (and making it seem easy is never easy) breathe a warmth and life into the pages.

Atmospheric, intricately plotted and brilliantly written, The Seven Doors is an easy entry onto the Best Books of 2020 list for me.

My thanks to Orenda Books for my copy of The Seven Doors and to Anne Cater for inviting me to take part in this blog tour.

Blog Tour – Long Hand by Andy Hamilton

From the PR: “Malcolm George Galbraith is a large, somewhat clumsy, Scotsman. He’s being forced to leave the woman he loves behind and needs to explain why.

So he leaves her a handwritten note on the kitchen table (well, more a 300-page letter than a note). In it, Malcolm decides to start from the beginning and tell the whole story of his long life, something he’s never dared do before.

Because Malcolm isn’t what he seems: he’s had other names and lived in other places. A lot of other places. As it gathers pace, Malcolm’s story combines tragedy, comedy, mystery, a touch of leprosy, several murders, a massacre, a ritual sacrifice, an insane tyrant, two great romances, a landslide, a fire, and a talking fish.”

Sometimes I’ll get an email about a book and I know straight off the bat I’m gonna enjoy it. This one was an immediate ‘yes’ for me just on the back of the author: Andy Hamilton has made me laugh on so many occasions over the years across TV and radio I knew this wouldn’t be an exception. A comedy writer, performer and director you may know him from his regular appearances on  the BBC TV panel shows Have I Got News for You and on Radio 4’s News Quiz and I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue. His television writing credits include Outnumbered, Drop the Dead Donkey, Not the Nine O’Clock News, Trevor’s World of Sport, Ballot Monkeys, Power Monkeys and many others. He also co-created the movie What We Did On Our Holiday. For twenty years he has played Satan in the Radio 4 comedy Old Harry’s Game, which he also writes.

So; who is Malcom? Well, as he puts it: “my name is Heracles and I think I may be immortal”. Yup, the Heracles – or Hercules as you may know him – sired by an hilariously bastard-like version of Zeus who discussed himself as Antiphon in order to have his way with Alcmene, Antiphon’s wife. The demi-god offspring manages to piss his ‘real Dad’ off no end by refusing to show Him the respect He feels is due . As a result, Heracles must spend his life – several hundred years and counting – never laying down roots because Zeus is bent on ensuring he’s never happy.

Having been settled for some twenty years with Bess in Scotland – though never ageing – Zeus has rocked up and, through a serious of stunning events laced in black humour, that it’s time to move on again, or else. Long Hand is written as Heracles’ explanation, confession and, at times, lament as he prepares once again to make a hasty exit.

I can’t remember the last time I laughed so much while reading, Long Hand is just deliciously and uproariously funny. An hilarious novel written by a genuine great of comedy writing – that he’s written this novel as a 300 page letter which never once loses momentum or interest and wrap it around a plot that combines classical mythology with modern life and style is testament to just how great a comedic writer Andy Hamilton is.

But Long Hand is also balanced with a real heart and poignancy (after all, those Greek myths are steeped in tragedy). This is a letter from a man on the run seemingly all his life and written against the clock.

I wouldn’t say I tore through this book, more that I devoured it hungrily, savouring every page of it. An absolute giddy joy of a read that I only wish had gone on for longer. Though given that Andy Hamilton wrote the novel by hand – over two years and 43 italic pens – I’m not sure whether it could be longer.

I can’t recommend this one enough. My thanks to Unbound for my copy and to Anne Cater for inviting me to read and take part in this blog tour.

Blog Tour – The Bitch by Pilar Quintana

From the PR: “Colombia’s Pacific coast, where everyday life entails warding off the brutal forces of nature. In this constant struggle, nothing is taken for granted. Damaris lives with her fisherman husband in a shack on a bluff overlooking the sea. Childless and at that age “when women dry up,” as her uncle puts it, she is eager to adopt an orphaned puppy. But this act may bring more than just affection into her home.

The Bitch is written in a prose as terse as the villagers, with storms―both meteorological and emotional―lurking around each corner. Beauty and dread live side by side in this poignant exploration of the many meanings of motherhood and love.”

Sometimes you’ll pick up a book that’s so intensely written and moving that you’ll wonder how the author has managed to pack so much power into so little space. The Bitch by Pilar Quintana is just such a book. I have a few of these ‘bantamweight belters’ on my bookshelves: Pereira Maintains by Antonio Tabucchi, Hemmingway’s The Old Man and the Sea and, more recent works such as Andrey Kurkov’s The Case of the General’s Thumb and Quintana’s novel sits right amongst those favourite titles which manage to deliver in just 150 pages a wealth of delight and literary brilliance.

In case it wasn’t clear – I bloody loved reading this book. The Bitch is an absolutely gripping and magnificent read that gets you right from the word go and takes you in deep. Its prose is simple and concise yet powerful and moving and conveys a world so vivid and detailed, in terms of characters and setting, with such precision and skill with the greatest economy of words it’s a genuine thrill and joy to read.

The bitch in question is the dog that Damaris takes in, it’s a blunt harsh title that’s in keeping with the prose and the life that the novel’s characters lead. The story goes beyond that of Damaris’ adoption of a dog – this is about Damaris’ life in a world where, as the PR suggests, life is a constant struggle. Having lost her mother at a young age to a stray bullet and forever haunted by the drowning of a childhood friend, not to mention the punishment received, The Bitch offers the story of Damaris’ life and her desperation for love in a hard world without lavish prose and manages to deliver all the more emotional impact as a result.

I’ve got no doubt that I’ll be reading The Bitch again, there’s simply so much to enjoy and admire in it that it I’ve already read it twice and discovered more upon the second reading that I hadn’t picked up first time around. It’s not a gentle read, it’s an on-the-nose book about a hard life in a tough environment but it is such a thoroughly well-written, powerful and rewarding read that I can’t recommend it enough. It more than deserves the accolades and prizes its already received (including the Colombian Biblioteca de Narrativa Prize and being chosen as one of the most valuable objects to preserve for future generations in a marble time capsule in Bogotá) and whileThe Bitch is the first of Pilar Quintana’s novels to be translated into English, I really hope that it’s not the last.

My thanks to World Editions for my copy of The Bitch and to Anne Cater for asking me to take part in this blogtour.

 

 

Albums of my years – 1996

1996…. in a way it felt like we’d sneaked unknowingly past a turning point. The initial surge that had powered ‘grunge’ into the mainstream had slowed and, post-Nirvana, that scene’s leading bands were singing a darker, less commercially-sheened tune. The midway point in the decade had slipped past and the second half of the 90s would have a distinctly different flavour… MTV was moving more into programming vs music, big budget videos and gloss were becoming the norm as each pop tart tried to out do the next boyband in video stakes. It was the year that Mariah Carey told us she’d always be her baby, Deep Blue Something asked if we remembered ‘Breakfast At Tiffanys’ and we said, well that’s the one thing we’ve got. It was also the year that The Spice Girls arrived and promoted Girl Power(!) by pointing out that if we want to be their lover then, first, we had to get with their friends… I mean, I’m all for polygamy if that’s your thing, man, but that seemed a little ‘say what?’… The Prodigy were starting fires, No Doubt didn’t want us to speak while The Fugees killed us, softly, with their song, boy bands like N Sync and Backstreet Boys were dumping raw sewage in our ears at the same time as Liam Gallagher bleated about a ‘Champagne Supernover’ but we were all too busy doing the Macarena.

The start of the year saw the end of what seemed like such a perfect and completely natural marriage between Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley. Still, it was wedding bells for Meg White and John Anthony Gillis who were married in September – he’d take her last name and change his first name to Jack before the two formed The White Stripes a year later. Madonna got off to a bumpy start in ’96 – in the good news column for Madge her stalker was jailed on five charges of assault, stalking and threatening to kill her. However, she then received a lot of flack in Argentina including death threats after it was announced she was to play Eva Peron.

Bono had a weird shakeup too – the plane he was on (which belonged to Jimmy Buffet – who was, random aside, responsible for Harrison Ford deciding to go for an earring) was mistaken for a drug-dealers plane and the Jamaican authorities opened fire. Either that or they really really didn’t care for Passengers’ Original Soundtracks 1.

In what feels like a very ‘1996 MTV’ story – a judge ruled against Tommy Lee and Pamela Anderson who were trying to prevent someone publishing photos from a home movie that had been stolen from their home… I guess they must have been doing something embarrassing…. Speaking of MTV – MTV2 was launched in 1996. Now there’s a channel I watched a lot of. Launching with Becks’ ‘Where It’s At’, it was the network’s answer to critics that complained they didn’t show enough music videos anymore and, at least that I remember, showed videos of a more alternative bent.

Having released the first double rap album earlier in the year, Tupac Shakur was shot on the way home from the Mike Tyson and Bruce Sheldon fight at the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas. Shakur died from his injuries six days later. He was just 25 years old. Sticking with guns… one of my most hated things… Sheryl Crow’s self-titled album angered Wal-Mart who announced they wouldn’t be selling it thanks to the ‘Love Is A Good Thing’ lyric “”Watch out, sister, watch out, brother/watch our children while they kill each other/with a gun they bought at Wal-Mart Discount Stores.”  Let’s face it if you’re getting shirty about people pointing out the dangers of the guns you stock and still insist on selling them… well, you can fuck yourself in my book.

1996 marked the end of a beautiful relationship as tensions between Sammy Hagar and the Van Halen brothers reached their logical conclusion and created a real soap opera instead. Having recorded the song ‘Humans Being’ (great tune) for the ‘Twister’ (naff movie) soundtrack, Hagar left for home on Fathers Day. Eddie didn’t care for Hagar’s vocal and renamed the song and wrote the melody – which ticked off Hagar of course. The band were meant to record two songs for the soundtrack but Hagar was in Hawaii for the birth of his daughter so the Van Halen brothers recorded an instrumental instead. There were also disagreements over a planned ‘Best Of’ – Hagar wanted to work on a new album instead and suggested it should be a ‘Roth era’ only volume or that there should be separate volumes per singer (which, of course, would follow years later)… with more arguments and tensions boiling over and probably not helped with Eddie Van Halen calling David Lee Roth to work on two new songs for the upcoming comp. Hagar left.

Enter Roth and Roth’s gob. After recording two new songs – which were both released as singles – the band, with Roth, made their first appearance together in over 11 years on the 1996 MTV Video Music Awards where they were presenting Beck with an award. Well, that was the plan but somewhere in Roth’s head it turned into a “HEY LOOK AT ME! I’M DAVID LEE ROTH!” Which pissed off EVH – along with some apparent spiteful comments from DLR about Ed’s upcoming surgery needs – and the band soon announced that Roth, too, was out. Again. And some guy called Gary Cherone from Extreme was in instead…. while Roth claimed he was an ‘unwitting pawn’ in Van Halen’s publicity stunt. Never a calm day in the Van Halen camp. Best Of – Volume 1 hit Number 1 in the US…

So it was goodnight from Van Hagar in ’96 and 4 Non Blondes, Belly, Crowded House, Extreme, Fleetwood Mac (briefly), Heatmiser, The Kinks, Jawbreaker and Ride. Meanwhile Calexico, Coldplay, Dropkick Murphys, Fly Pan Am, Linkin Park, Queens of the Stone Age, The Shipping News, The Shins and Wolf Eyes were among those bands formed in 1996.

So, who released what? Well…

Tori Amos released her third album Boys For Pele and was sued when some bloke crashed his car after being distracted by a billboard promoting the album. The picture was of Amos breastfeeding a piglet. As you do. It was third album time for Frank Black too who released his The Cult of Ray in 1996 and The Cranberries who released their third album To The Faithful Departed.

Tortoise released one of post-rock’s most revered albums Millions Living Will Never Die in January and Palace, or Palace Music, Palace Songs, Palace Brothers or plain old Will Oldham – before he started trading under the name Bonnie “Prince” Billy – released the equally well regarded Arise Therefore. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ ninth album Murder Ballads was a great drop for ’96 – made up of new and traditional murder ballads with guests including P J Harvey and Kylie Minogue who duetted with Cave on the single ‘Where The Wild Roses Grow’ which gave the group a hit and pushed the album into big numbers.

The Afghan Whigs released Black Love, The Cure released their tenth and mixed-bag album Wild Mood Swings and, following the demise of Dire Straits, Mark Knopfler’s first non-soundtrack solo album Golden Heart arrived in March. Dripping in Knopfler’s guitar, it was clear he was still trying to find his sound as a solo artist and there’s probably a bit too much filler on it, though the title track and ‘Darling Pretty’ are pretty good. Speaking of solo artists finding their sound, Paul Westerberg released his second solo album Eventually – three years after his first. Eventually gets a real bad rap that’s unfair – it’s got some great Westerberg songs on it like ‘Love Untold’, ‘Once Around The Weekend’, ‘Angels Walk’ and the tribute to the recently departed Bob Stinson ‘Good Day’. That it’s an album of two producers – Brendan O’Brien and Lou Giordano  – it’s a really strong effort and there’s not a track on it I skip when I spin it.

Another bloody strong and oft-overlooked 1996 album came from Stone Temple Pilots with their third Tiny Music…. Songs from the Vatican Gift Shop. By this point in the band’s career Scott Weiland was pretty well into his drug addiction and trouble was circling with cancelled tours and drug busts but this is a great album. After the explosion of their first album, Rage Against The Machine released their second: Evil Empire. I think of the group’s three studio efforts this one gets my vote – ‘Bulls on Parade’, ‘People of the Sun’… fucking ‘Vietnow’! Amazing album.

Modest Mouse released their debut album This Is A Long Drive For Someone With Nothing To Think About and Dave Matthews Band Crash was their second and went bonkers in sales terms thanks to the presence of ‘Crash Into Me’ in seemingly every soppy bollox scene on TV while the power of being ‘Popular’ helped Nada Surf’s High / Low share many of the same shelves (though not as many). Jimmy Eat World’s Static Prevails (a cracking album) was released in 1996 too as was Fiona Apple’s Tidal.

If we wanna talk about albums that define the year then, at least this side of the Atlantic, this was the year of Manic Street Preachers’ Everything Must Go. An absolute power house of an album it was the group’s first as a trio following the disappearance of Richie Edwards and was a massive success both commercially and critically. A determined approach and change in sound heralded a new era for the group and shifted in the millions. Songs like the title track, ‘Kevin Carter, ‘Australia’ and, of course, ‘A Design For Life’ were everywhere in 1996 and just hearing any of them send me straight back to ’96.

The same could also be said for Kula Shaker who – with major-label backing seeking to look for ‘the next Oasis’ phenomenon – released their psychedic-rock tinged album K in 1996 and radios here began blasting ‘Hey Dude’, ‘Tatva’ and ‘Govinda’ with enthusiasm. Not a bad summer to buzz between stations really.

Back Stateside and The Black Crowes, following the disappointing sales of Amorica decided to rehash the album minus the pubes on the cover and, sadly, minus the quality and tunes, Three Snakes and One Charm was their weakest to date even with ‘Good Friday’. Soundgarden prepared and released what would be their final studio album for sixteen years: Down On The Upside. Helmed by band and Adam Kasper, Down On The Upside is still a bloody fine album and one I’ll return to just as often as Superunkown.

One from 1996 I do play a lot more though is Screaming Trees’ Dust, the groups final and finest effort. Songs such as opener ‘Halo Of Ashes’ and the following ‘All I Know’ and ‘Look at You’ offer superb, textured sounds that still pack plenty of punch and anchored down by Lanegan’s distinctive vocals. ‘Dying Days,’  later offered up as a single, features some delicious blues guitar work courtesy of  Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready as Lanegan sings on the falling state of Seattle. Absolutely five star album and one of the most over-looked of the ‘scene’.

Often accused of ripping off the Seattle sound, Bush released their second album Razorblade Suitcase in ’96. This one had a fair few spins from me over the years but not as many as their debut, ‘Swallowed’ is a pretty decent tune. Weezer also released their second album Pinkerton in 1996. Pinkerton is one of those albums that’s become so beloved and heralded as a band’s highpoint it’d be hard to write anything about it that hasn’t already been – songs like ‘Tired of Sex’, ‘Pink Triangle’, ‘Why Bother?’ are great but, at the time, it was a bit of a flop – it was more personal and harder in sound than the group’s first album and, after the tour to promote it and shell-shocked by the reaction, the group went on a five year hiatus. During that time, though, it began building a cult following and bands began citing it as an influence. Despite this, though, Rivers Cuomo wouldn’t embrace it again for years, seeing it and its following as an embarrassment until 2008 by which time retrospective reviews from the same publications that had panned it on release were awarding it 10/10. It’s a strange world.

Tom Petty And the Heartbreakers soundtrack to the pretty-cack-really movie She’s The One arrived in ’96 and features a stack of great tunes from Petty and co including ‘Walls’, ‘Angel Dream’, ‘California’, ‘Change The Locks’… it really should be considered as one of their best. It was the first Heartbreakers album to be produced by Rick Rubin who’s name also graced Johnny Cash’s Unchained this year – the second of JC’s ‘American’ albums it actually featured Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers essentially serving as Cash’s backing band as he covered songs like Soundgarden’s ‘Rusty Cage’, Geoff Mack’s ‘I’ve Been Everywhere’ and Petty’s own ‘Southern Accents’ alongside a couple of originals across a stronger album than 94’s American Recordings.

TV sets were spewing ‘Baywatch’ in 1996 according to E – Eels Beautiful Freak was released this year and is still a regular play in my collection. Not my favourite of the group’s it’s still a fine album with ‘Novocaine for the Soul’, ‘Susans House’ and ‘My Beloved Monster’ (long before its application to a green ogre) doing the business on repeated listens.  Also doing well on repeated listens is Wilco’s Being There, the group’s second. Following the death of Shannon Hoon, Blind Melon’s remaining members put togehter Nico from unreleased songs and tracks started by Hoon and finished by the band with proceeds going into a college trust for Hoon’s daughter Nico. It’s actually the first Blind Melon album I got hold of – back in the days when Fopp were still a real thing rather than a HMV in different clothing – for a fiver and enjoyed immensely, still do. For a ‘rag bag’ album it works pretty damn well.

Is that it? Fuck no: 1996 gave us a lot more great albums. How about the second album from Counting Crows? Recovering The Satellites came three years after the band’s debut (better get used to that gap) and is a much stronger collection really though without the immediacy of August And Everything After so it didn’t go down quite as well in terms of sales. But check it out; ‘Angels of the Silences’, ‘Daylight Fading’, ‘Children In Bloom’, ‘A Long December’, ‘Goodnight Elisabeth’…. This is a great album. Hell, those first three Counting Crows albums are all really blood good but there’s something about this one, that stands out for me. Speaking of sounds that do it for me; Sheryl Crow released her second, self-titled album in 1996 and the sound – courtesy of Tchad Blake and Mitchel Foom – with a sort of off-balance production coupled with her strongest set of songs and some real genuine hits, made Sheryl Crow a deserved hit this year.

Are we there yet? Well it would be pretty remiss of me not to mention a couple more like Tool’s astounding Ænima. Dedicated to Bill Hicks and tacking a similar stance (goodbye you lizard scum) on the title track, Ænima is a stonking album of heavy, complex rock with unusual time signatures and dripping in aggression and cynicism that actually managed to reach number 2 on the charts. Oh and then Pearl Jam released their fourth album – the astonishingly great No Code. Recorded amidst tension and, as Stone Gossard later described it, ” just kind of winging it and trying stuff that maybe didn’t quite work… But you listen to it ten years later and go, ‘Fuck! That’s jamming!’” A further move away from the spotlight, another deliberate left turn from the glare of Ten etc, No Code is a massively rewarding listen and one of my favourite Pearl Jam albums.

But I’ve already highlighted No Code in detail before so it can’t be my pick for 1996, which can only leave:

REM – New Adventures in Hi-Fi

“Look up and what do you see? All of you and all of me
Fluorescent and starry, some of them, they surprise.” Man I remember sitting in the back of a car somewhere in August of 1996, the radio on and hearing the ‘new REM single E-Bow The Letter’ and just ‘wow’ – something in my head going ‘click’. Those opening words… I had no idea what an E-Bow was then (and as many times as I keep thinking to get one I still haven’t) or what it was about but that sound, that song… that went in and made me sit up and pay attention to REM all over again. It’s also got to be one of the least likely lead single choices out there, dropping a song like that in the summer as your first single… especially given the attention the band had gotten after resigning with Warner Bros for what was rumoured to be the largest record deal made at that point and here, with the comparative ‘meh’ response to Monster behind them they drop a song like ‘E-Bow The Letter’ to radio.. fuckin-a.

New Adventures In Hi-Fi has it’s origins in watching Radiohead. Radiohead supported REM on tour in ’94/’95 and recorded the basic tracks for The Bends during soundchecks and while on the road. REM had been talking about making a ‘road album’ for a while and so borrowed their technique with most of the songs recorded either live or at soundchecks with four additional songs being recorded in the studio at the start of ’96. Those four additional songs were the opener ‘How the West Was Won and Where It Got Us’, ‘E-Bow the Letter’ (to which Patti Smith added vocals), ‘Be Mine’, and ‘New Test Leper’. As the rest were recorded on the road they feature the band’s touring members and have a real sense of immediacy and looseness that I guess came from not being stuck in the studio for long periods of time. According to Mike Mills they wanted to catch the “spontaneity of a soundcheck, live show or dressing room.” I think they succeeded.

I think what I enjoy so much about New Adventures In Hi-Fi is that it covers the full spectrum of the ‘REM sound’ – the country-rock / folkier vibes of Out of Time and Automatic.. with the harder edge they’d pushed for with Monster – across the album yet the consistency is so high. After this – with the exception of the immediate follow-up Up – I don’t think they’d be this varied in sound across one album until their last, Collapse Into Now, and neither of those have such a consistently high benchmark in terms of quality. It’s all so fucking good.

As it’s a ‘road album’ there’s a sense of movement to it and quite a few of the songs touch on this – the above, awesome ‘Departure’, ‘Leave’ (which also made it to the soundtrack of ‘A Life Less Ordinary), ‘Low Desert’ – and there’s a sort of in-transit vibe to the album overall that I really dig. It would be the band’s last with Bill Berry who would leave in 1997 and become a farmer (really) and captures the band at their peak – all glad to be healthy and alive after a shocker of a tour which, as touched on in the ’95 post, saw Berry suffer an aneurysm which required immediate surgery, Michael Stipe suffer a hiatal hernia and Mills needing an appendectomy, tight after touring for the first time in years and at the top of their game in songwriting.

New Adventures In Hi-Fi was my first REM and remains my favourite. I’m really hoping next year heralds a 25th Anniversary treatment that’s already been rolled out for their other albums. Oh, and you gotta love the album’s closing lines: “I’m not scared, I’m outta here.”