TOP NOT-TENS OF TWENTY-TWENTY
by Dave Thompson
Yes, it’s that time again, the list of lists that try, for better or worse, to corral a full twelve months’ worth of new releases and reissues into some kind of… what? I dunno. When Spin Cycle look at other publications and sees the things held high as the best of the year, it feels as though we’ve spent the entire time living under a rock. Who are these people? What are these records? And goodness me, is Bob Dylan still making records? Where is Beatle band?
As autopsies go, it’s strange how similar they all turn out to be.
Instead, here’s an utterly personal and entirely subjective list of the things that floated Spin Cycle’s boat throughout our last circuit round the sun, as featured either on line or in print in Goldmine magazine.
TWENTY-ONE NEW RELEASES
Danny Adler - De Luxe Blues Band 1983: The R.S. Mobile Sessions (Alternates) (Roogalator Ltd)… from the uncrowned king of post-seventies blues, a thrilling collection of classics old and new.
Boomtown Rats - Citizens of Boomtown (BMG)… for the best opening line of any album this year, the Rats’ return can only be celebrated. The rest of the record’s damned good as well.
Brian Bordello - The King of No-Fi (Metal Postcard Records)… he may be the king of low-fi, but Bordello’s also the king of curmudgeonly observation. And when you slam the two together with as little sonic trickery as possible, the end result is akin to an evening spent listening to your own thoughts on… well, everything…
Rob Clarke and the Wooltones - Putting the L into Wooltones (Kool Kat Music)… Words cannot express how much fun this album is. Or rather, they can, but why waste time telling you why you need to hear this, when you can just hop onto Bandcamp and sample it for yourself?
Custard Flux - Oxygen (custardflux.com) - Once more into the breach for Gregory Curvey’s solo show, and the opening “Oxygen”/“Gelatinous Mass” (great title!) is evidence that all the joys promised by the Flux’s last couple of albums remains intact across this, the third.
John Foxx and the Maths - Howl (Metamatic Records)… Forty minutes of unfettered rage, anguish, noise and dynamism add up to the closest Foxx has come in years to recapturing the punk fury of the first Ultravox album, and the furthest he’s spun from anything approaching whatever you’re expecting in even longer.
Martin Gordon - OMG (Radiant Future)… there are few songsmiths around who can actually top an in-form Martin Gordon when it comes to constructing infuriating earworms, and OMG is, once again, loaded with the creatures.
Mark McDowell and Friends - Breakthrough (Fruits de Mer/Friends of the Fish)… unhinged diversity gives Breakthrough its cohesion. That and a vocal which hangs poised somewhere around the early-nineties post-Stone Roses,baggy rave scene, and lends everything a sense of wide-eyed wonder.
Pet Shop Boys - Hotspot (X2)
For a band that seems so synonymous with a passing moment in the mid-1980s, the Pet Shops have proven remarkably resilient. This is probably their best album in twenty years, and “Monkey Business” their best single in even longer.
Prana Crafter - MorphoMystic (Cardinal Fuzz)… Prana Crafter do not make “albums” for you to “play.” They make great slabs of sound that envelop, engross and enfold you, instrumental epics that don’t so much start and finish as float into earshot, hang around for a while, and then float away to be replaced by… more.
Stephen Prince - The Corn Mother: Night Wraiths (CD, download)…a one man soundtrack to Prince’s recent novella, The Corn Mother… or, perhaps, to the 1982 movie of the same name. Which, according to the book, has since vanished without trace, alongside all popular references to the Corn Mother herself. Now, only the music survives. Listen, in case it, too, disappears.
Philip Rambow - Canadiana (Fretsore Records)… one of this year’s most unexpected, unimpeachable and all round shit-kickin’ fun and games -laden new releases.
Reg Omeroyd and the Lounge Bar Orchestra - Pilot Episodes (Fruits de Mer)… a collection of television themes for shows that did not exist, that sounds exactly like you’d hope it would.
Rowan-Morrison - Lost in Seaburgh (Miller Sounds)… An uncanny twining of esoteric instrumentation and vista-shifting voices, heavenly harmonies and wordless melody. MR James would love it.
Schizo Fun Addict - The Last Wave (Flicknife)… ten songs to wash you away on a wall of warmth and sunshine, but ten melodies as well, tunes you could actually sing if you felt so disposed, and which will get stuck in your head, whether you want them to or not. The best-kept musical secret of the 21st century isn’t so secret any longer.
Sendelica - Cromlech Chronicles IV: The Door into Summer (Regal Crabomophone) … wholly instrumental, jam-centric and wild, Sendelica actually push further into the cosmos than anyone this side of Sun Ra, and the three tracks here conjure a journey that resonates long after the music’s over.
Sky Cries Mary - Secrets of a Red Planet (Trail Records)… up there with the best of the band’s mid-1990s peak period, and it possibly tops it as well. Take a listen to “Drunken Pilot” and you will surely agree.
TV Smith - Lockdown Holiday (Easy Action)… Acerbic, acoustic and remarkable, it’s effectively a COVID concept album, whose genesis lies in Smith’s own brush with the virus back in March. It’s where we’ve all been since then that powers the music, though.
The Soulless Party - The Black Meadow Archive Volume 1 (Castles in Space)… Accompanying the publication of Chris Lambert’s book of the same name, the Soulless Party’s latest excursion into the darkness of the Black Meadow is, like their first, a chilling journey, more akin to the soundtrack to an unnamed documentary than a simple album, and probably best heard with the book open on your lap. “Probably,” because you’ll find it demanding your attention as much as the words, and that can be awfully distracting.
Trappist Afterland and Grey Malkin - The Trappist and the Hare (Bandcamp)… a darkly illuminated frolic through sundry folky atmospheres that never quite touch upon traditional toes, but come delightfully close all the same.
Nik Turner & Youth - Interstellar Energy (Cadiz Entertainment)… driving space rock with a dramatically dancey twist, Turner’s sax to the forefront, with Youth’s rhythms swirling around, and the band - the Space Falcons - going hell for leather behind them.
SIX (well, seven) STRAIGHTFORWARD REISSUES
The Deviants - The Deviants (Music on Vinyl)… Much reissued over the years, this is the sharpest sounding version that Spin Cycle has heard since a friend unlocked the bank vault and produced a seldom-spun copy of the 1969 UK original.
Fleetwood Mac -Then Play On (BMG)… a gorgeous package for a wonderful album, bolstered with bonus tracks aplenty and, though it was never intended as such, a well-timed tribute to the late Peter Green.
Gong - Live in Sheffield (Culture Factory)… Nothing can detract from the sheer joy of the classic Gong line-up in full flight, and while the sound quality does have its occasional problems… it’s Gong. We’d listen to them with wet cheese in our ears.
Hawkwind - Roadhawks (Atomhenge)… Mid-70s collection compiled by Dave Brock with such an eye for detail and continuity that it is, in the world of “best of” collections, more or less as good as they get. But also… Hawkwind - At the BBC (Parlophone)… Recorded in September 1972, on the eve of the epochal Space Ritual tour, a peerless hour long distillation of the full live show.
Jonathan Richman - I Jonathan (Craft Recordings)… From the early 1990s, the one post-70s album that truly felt as though it could go the farthest. Maybe even restore him to the glory of the “Roadrunner” years. It didn’t, but it’s still got that magic.
Soft Cell - Cruelty without Beauty (Big Frock)… awe-inspiring remaster of the “forgotten” fourth Soft Cell album, plus a disc of bonus remixes and live cuts. Their version of the Four Seasons’ “The Night” is worth the price alone.
THE ARCHIVE OPENS
Bryan Ferry - Live at the Royal Albert Hall, 1974 (BMG). A glorious time capsule to remind us just what courageous releases Ferry’s first two solo albums were. He was the man who sang of blow-up dollies and Virginia Plain. What the devil was he doing singing “It’s My Party”?
Jimi Hendrix Experience - Live in Maui (Experience Hendrix/Legacy) … In the world of classic Hendrix concerts, Maui might be the least “essential” one yet to have been given a full release. But that is not a criticism. Because it’s in those less-frequented corners that a lot of Hendrix’s most powerful performances lurk. So while it would be nice to finally have an official release for… name your Jimi Dream Date here… while we wait, more like this would be marvellous.
Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets - Live at the Roundhouse (Sony) This should probably be listed under new releases, but it’s too late now.
Slade - Cum On Feel The Hitz: The Best of Slade (BMG). Coz you luv them. Even the later stuff in disc two.
The Stooges - Live At Goose Lake: August 8, 1970 (Third Man)… the best sounding vintage Stooges live album yet is everything you could hope for, the full Fun House album sounding as urgent, threatening and magnificent as it did the very first time you played the original record.
EIGHT BIG BOX SETS (Part One): How many versions of the same album do you really need?
Be Bop Deluxe - Axe Victim (Esoteric)… one of the most audacious and even alarming debut albums of its age, and a thrilling, chilling reminder that not all glam rock was actually glamorous. You look at this bunch in make-up and you’d probably cross the road. Out-takes, radio sessions and a modern respangling fill the box.
Black Sabbath - Paranoid (50th Anniversary Vinyl Edition) (Warner). Suspiciously similar in content to what we must now refer to as the 46th Anniversary CD Edition, but Sabbath have always sounded better on vinyl. The original album, its quad counterpart (rendered in stereo, which still seems odd), and two full live shows. A poster, a hardback, a tour programme - all it really lacks are are the out-takes that made it onto a different CD a few years ago, but maybe they’ll turn up on for the 60th birthday.
Junior Byles - Beat Down Babylon (Doctor Bird)… Junior Byles was one of the greatest vocalists ever to come out of Jamaica and this was one of his greatest albums, reissued as a bonus track stacked 2CD set.
Motörhead - Ace of Spades (BMG)… Yes there is a two CD version, but the box throws in so much more. And that’s the thing with Motörhead. Enough is never sufficient. Plus, they were never this great again.
Lou Reed - New York Deluxe Edition (Sire)… In which Lou’s last truly magnificent LP is spread across three CDs, four sides of vinyl and a DVD, most of which is dedicated to the studio birth and in concert development of New York. Plus, for reasons unknown, a clutch of Velvets songs and “Walk on the Wild Side.” More demos would have been nice (and a weightier book as well), but this is exquisite regardless.
Rolling Stones - Goat’s Head Soup Super Deluxe Edition. (Rolling Stones Records). Oh they missed a trick there. Souper-deluxe would have been a far better subtitle. But you get a sharp revisitation of the original album, a disc’s worth of out-takes and odds, and the full Brussels Affair live album - which, had it been released at the time, would have readily displaced Get Yer Ya Yas Out as the greatest Stones concert disc of all.
Sigue Sigue Sputnik - Flaunt It! (Cherry Red)… Oh shush, you liked them really.
Ultravox - Vienna 40th Anniversary Deluxe Edition (Chrysalis). You may say it means nothing to you, but wait! Six discs spin through both the original and a modern remix of the album, live takes, demos, rehearsals, a full gig and a 5.1 surround sound thingy, a worthy booklet…. If you forgive the occasional duplication, it’s nigh-in perfect.
SIX BIG BOX SETS (PART TWO) Expansive period studies…
The Boys - …On Safari (Captain Oi)… A box of Boys. You know you want it.
Wayne County and the Electric Chairs - The Safari Years (Captain Oi)… for all her onstage volatilty, County was anything but the naughty novelty act that the UK media seemed to think. A savage songwriter schooled in the tunefulness of the British Invasion, but never content to leave her influences where she found them, County was at the forefront of punk rock’s charge into the post-punk era, and she was there before most punks even realized where they were headed.
Def Leppard - The Early Years (Universal)… an instant record collection for anyone who didn’t buy everything at the time, or who has simply burned through every other copy they owned. Beautiful packaging adds to the fun.
Elton John’s Jewel Box (UMC)… Three discs of wholly-unreleased early (pre-1971) demos, two more compiling post-mid-70s b-sides, and three further discs of his personal favorites establishes this not only as an extraordinary gift to collectors, but also a uniquely personalised take on what, for many other artists, is simply another way of milking the cash cow. You don’t even need to be an Elton fan to be impressed by this.
Soft Hearted Scientists - The Continuing Escapades Of… (4 LPs) (Regal Crabomophone)… Eight years on from the Whatever Happened To round-up the best of the band’s first three albums, this new package casts an equally curatorial eye over the four since then… for those slowcoaches among you who actually missed them.
Unicorn - The Recordings 1974-1979 (Esoteric)… the almost complete works by one of the UK’s almost completely forgotten mid-70s jewels.
Frank Zappa - The Mothers 1970 (Universal)… if you love Zappa’s Flo and Eddie period (and who doesn’t?), this is (almost) all you’ll ever need.
SEVEN SERVINGS OF VARIOUS ARTISTS…
A Band for All Seasons: Songs from the Four Seasons of Love 1966-1969
(Fruits de Mer)… upscaling the two-year-old Three Seasons of Love collection, if you had to find sixty-something bands to record sixty-something songs from the last years of the sixties, while demanding that everyone from Neil Diamond to Cream was represented, you really wouldn’t need to look further than this.
Bubblerock is Here to Stay! The British Pop Explosion 1970-73 (Grapefruit)
Oh, you can’t even imagine how much fun this three CD box set is. You think you know your junkshop glam, your seventies kitsch, your scratchy old singles, and maybe you do. But secreted within the 86 tracks that lurk behind this garish cover, there are joys… there is fun… there are seasons that you’ve never heard of, all reaching out saying “play me… love me… and if you don’t, too bad”
Head in the Clouds (2 LPs, 2 CDs) (Strange Fish)… truly compulsive, a long night spent drifting through a myriad memories of old Brain, Ohr and Kosmische Musik labels as they spin in such an endless cycle that you completely lose track of what you’re hearing, long before you’ve lost interest in it.
The 17th Dream of Doctor Sardonicus - Live (Regal Crabomophone)… recorded last summer at the festival of the same name, And, before you open the shrinkwrap, you know you’re in for some remarkable treats, be it the Chemistry Set playing Hendrix, an epic Small Faces cover by Elfin Bow, appearances from Bevis Frond and the latest incarnation of the Groundhogs… and a handful of names that may be new to you, but that’s what festivals are for.
Super Sonics: 40 Junkshop Britpop Greats (RPM)… how many memories come screeching out of this, even if you’ve never heard the song before. That sound, that attitude, that ineffable specter of Fey Punks on Chamomile swaggering out of the speakers as every fresh number begins.
Surrender to the Rhythm: The London Pub Rock Scene of the Seventies (Grapefruit)… probably the last word we could ever want to hear on a genre that history seems to have crunched into a boozy after thought, but which in reality was the most fun you could have by saying “oh yes, I’m definitely over eighteen” in a deep voice on a Friday night.
1978: The Year the UK Turned Day-Glo (Cherry Red)… as thorough a snapshot of a really-not-so-bad year as you could hope for, and a lot more convenient than trying to hunt down the original singles and compilations.
AND, FINALLY, NINE DAVID BOWIE ALBUMS. BECAUSE THAT’S WHAT WE’VE HAD.
When Spin Cycle was small (and Christmas trees were tall, doo doo doo), new David Bowie releases were things of rare beauty, to be anticipated for aeons and then pored over for millennia. Until the next one came along.
Today… if you count reissues, remixes, archive exhumations and all, the man has probably released more “new” albums in the four years since his death than he did in the forty-plus beforehand. And that’s without counting the straightforward represses included in the box sets.
One does wonder what Bowie himself would think of this jamboree; as fans, we might be thrilled to hear him doing Marc Bolan impersonations on a remixed “Black Country Rock.” But they were omitted from the original mix for a reason, and maybe they should have remained that way.
Certainly there’s growing collector indifference to a lot of what’s being flung out now, but in among the swine there remain a few pearls, and with 2020 proving the most Bowietastic year of them all so far, you can make your own minds up about which is which. We’ll just list them in the order in which they might get played more than once.
The Top of the Poppers Sing David Bowie (Electronic Sounds)… An utterly bananas collection of period Bowie covers, as performed across a decade’s worth of budget-priced soundalike hits LPs. The best Bowie-related compilation you’ll ever hear.
ChangesNow (Parlophone)… This 1997 BBC radio session remains an enjoyable, and occasionally surprising romp through corners of the catalog that are rarely given such exposure.
I’m Only Dancing (Soul Tour 74) (Parlophone)… the third live album to be drawn from Bowie’s 1974 US tour catches our hero looking firmly towards the new year release of Young Americans.
Is It Any Wonder? (ISO/Parlophone)... To file alongside ChangesNow, a six track EP that includes the utterly irresistible 1997 remake of Tin Machine’s “I Can’t Read,” alongside a couple of period redoings.
David Bowie (Universal)… Technically not released until January 2021, but a picture disc of Bowie’s first ever album reminds us that it’s a lot more listenable than certain subsequent releases we could mention.
No Trendy Réchauffé (live, Birmingham, 1995) (ISO/Parlophone)… because you can never have enough latter-day Bowie live albums?
Ouvrez Le Chien (live Dallas 1995) (ISO/Parlophone)… I said…..
Metrobolist - Nine Songs by David Bowie (Parlophone)... Producer Tony Visconti’s re-grouts the bathroom titles and calls it The Man Who Sold the World. Listen with half an ear and you might wonder why you ever bought it; listen with both and you’ll probably ask whether you’ll play it again.
Tin Machine II (Music on Vinyl)... Seriously?