More than grunge – Two great American bands: The Afghan Whigs (Koko, London, 30th May 2017) and Buffalo Tom (Islington Assembly Hall, London, 9th June 2017)

These two bands have many things in common: they were considered part of the grunge movement whereas in reality their roots are more to be found in traditional American music, they have great leaders/singers, they stopped for many years after the 90’s, they recently came back though…and your host had the pleasure in catching them live in a 10-day period. No excuse then not to do a review of these concerts.

  • The Afghan Whigs – London, Koko – 30th May 2017

No need to tell my whole story as not fascinating but I decided to go and try my luck literally one hour before the start of the show after a long and tiring road trip from France. I was rewarded thanks to a nice lady who sold me the ticket of her sick husband…for £10! And this for a band for which I came especially to London when I was not living in London in 2012 (I’ll be your mirror Festival)… On the other side, I lost all my pictures of the concert due to a computer issue so I guess bad and good news were balanced.

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Although I had seen a great solo concert of their leader Greg Dulli last year, this concert from The Afghan Whigs was at the same place as last time in 2015. Koko (formerly known as the Camden Palace) is one of the most extraordinary theatre I know and seeing this great band again in this same place was really great.

Not sure what I can add on this band which to me is one of the best ever. Their new record “In Spades” has recently been this blog’s album of the month. The way the setlist was built was particularly remarkable as the new songs from the two latest LP’s were totally integrated with older classics, such as “Gentlemen” for instance. Despite Greg’s fight against one or two members of the audience who were taking picture with flash on, the show was particularly moving, knowing that their guitarist Dave Rosser was absent because of his current fight against cancer. If I could add one thing on top of my previous posts on this great band, it would that Greg Dulli is a hell of a singer. I was also very pleasantly surprised to see the great Ed Harcourt as an opening act and playing many songs with the band as well as a second guitarist.

  • Buffalo Tom – London, Islington Assembly Hall – 9th June 2017

Lead by the excellent Bill Janovitz on guitar and voice, Buffalo Tom is an American power pop rock trio who have made eight brilliant records between 1989 and 2011. I never had the opportunity to see them live and this year was a fantastic one as they were celebrating the 25 years of their best album “Let Me Come Over” released in 1992.

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On top of being a brilliant musician, Bill Janovitz has more than one string to his bow and he is in particular an excellent writer. I recently wrote his 33 1/3 series book on The Rolling Stones‘ “Exile on Main Street” and I must say this is one of the best.

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Their set was brilliant and the least one can say is that the band are as dynamic and punchy in their current early 50’s incarnation than they were twenty-five years ago. The songs were played with a real density but also with a great pop sensitivity. The way the set was structured was really good: the band were their own opening act, playing first eleven songs covering all Buffalo Tom periods. After a short break, they came back to play the gorgeous “Let Me Come Over” in its entirety, before playing two encores…for a total of twenty-six songs!

As usual in this kind of celebration, the audience was looking like the former French Parliament (mainly men in the fifties) and it would be good to see more female and youngsters as in the current French political trend. However, if this is the price to pay to see such a great band, so be it!

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May 2017 Album of the month: The Afghan Whigs “In Spades”

Once again, another great month in terms of releases. Despite new excellent records, bands or artists such as At The Drive-In, The Charlatans or Todd Rundgren were not selected so enjoy the following great records!

 

Album of the month: The Afghan Whigs “In Spades” – Soul Grunge Rock – The Afghan Whigs are one of my favourite bands ever and their come back record in 2014 (“Do To The Beast”) after a 18-year hiatus was sensational news. However, despite being very good, one was expecting an even better record for their future ventures… and “In Spades” is such a record. Greg Dulli’s voice has never sounded so good and all the songs are memorable, beautifully mixing a soul sensitivity with a grunge sound. This has always been their forte but the least one can say is that they are back to stay this time. Nice cover as well from a Brazilian artist.

  • Runner-up: Mac DeMarco – “This Old Dog” – Cool Rock – The more it goes, the less Mac DeMarco should be considered as a nice and funny guy in the music industry but as a real fantastic songwriter. You will not find a cooler record to listen to during summertime but behind the easiness of the music lies fantastic songs.
  • Also recommended:
    • Paul Weller  “A Kind Revolution” – Mod Psychedelic Rock
    • Jane Weaver – “Modern Kosmology” – Space Pop
    • Benjamin Biolay “Volver” – Bittersweet French Pop
    • Slowdive“s/t” – Shoegaze Rock
    • The Mountain Goats “Goths” – Literate Rock
  • Lest we forget: album of the previous month  Kendrick Lamar – “DAMN.”

 

Less means more…a certain idea of music: Bill Callahan, 5th May 2017, Hoxton Hall – Brad Mehldau Trio, 19th May 2017, Barbican

Quite often, I realised afterwards that there had been a certain trend in a few gigs I attended in a row. Purely coincidental I guess…but good to fight writer’s block and get a new approach to concerts’ reviews!

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Bill Callahan and Brad Mehldau do not play exactly in the same musical field as the former could be described as an indie-folk songwriter, guitar player and singer whereas the latter is more associated with the jazz scene and is probably the most talented piano player of his generation. However, this would be too easy and lazy a shortcut. Bill Callahan’s music has always been something very personal which would not have the same weight if held by another singer. His music has evolved throughout the years towards more warmth and optimism than in the past whilst still keeping this intriguing and sometimes frightening aspect.

Brad Mehldau on his side is a supreme talented and gifted piano player but his musical tastes and his personality have always made him more than a jazz performing monkey as is unfortunately often the case in this music scene. He is famous in particular by his superb and very personal covers chosen in the pop and rock scene, The Beatles and Radiohead being good examples.

The main thing that made me think to link both musicians and concerts was their use of silence either in their songs…but also in the way they once in a while communicate shyly with the audience! I would recommend my beloved readers to read the article by clicking on this Sydney Morning Herald article which says it all on the relationship between Bill Callahan and silence. Same kind of thing for Brad Mehldau either in his capacity in playing just a few notes only, even during his songs à la Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour or when he collects his thoughts while patiently listening to his musicians during their solos.

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These two concerts were also quite similar in their stage nakedness. Bill Callahan was sharing his small space on stage with long-time collaborator Matt Kinsey on electric guitar. The latter is also responsible to the excellence of Bill Callahan’s concerts in the last years as his playing can go very quickly from a very sensitive ballad to repetitive loops and drones. Brad Mehldau was playing with his regular trio, i.e. Larry Grenadier on bass and Jeff Ballard on drums whom I both had the pleasure to see live with Pat Metheny in Brasil in 1999. This rhythm section is probably one of the best ever but once again Brad Mehldau’s strength is to make them play in the same spirit as his’.

Two great gigs then for two musicians whose stage presence equals beauty and subtlety. Highly recommended. Please click for Bill Callahan’s setlist. I did not find Brad Mehldau’s set list but recognised his ending the show with the wonderful “Still Crazy After All These Years” by Paul Simon.

P.S. No photos allowed at the Barbican so this Brad Mehldau Trio’s picture is not mine.

April 2017 Album of the month: Kendrick Lamar “DAMN.”

April was a very good month in terms of diversity and I listened in particular to a few very good metal/doom records. They were not in the final choice but that was just to illustrate that there are so many good releases on a monthly basis…and hip-hop is back to the top this month.

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Album of the month: Kendrick Lamar “DAMN.” – Hip Hop – I hesitated a lot this month between Kendrick Lamar, Joey Bada$$ and Father John Misty as these three Americans all released splendid records that may be considered as masterpieces when/if time confirms it. I did not find Kendrick’s new LP as great as the previous ones after a couple of listening but this album is a real grower and on par with his best material when you take the time to do so. What puts Kendrick aside from the rest of the competition today is probably the fact that he has the best balance between sound creativity, quality of songwriting and subtlety in words. To put it differently, today’s fight against the powers that be is to me more powerful if done this way rather than stating the obvious. One should note as well that Kendrick reminds everyone here of his excellence as a MC…and that the collaboration with U2 (“XXX.”) is actually very good!

  • Runner-up: Father John Misty – “Pure Comedy” – Pop/Rock – Quite difficult to summarize this record how complex and demanding it is. In terms of music style, Joshua Tillman digs the 70’s Elton John sound he started to play with his excellent former 2015 “I Love You, Honeybear” album. But the texts are amazing here and not easy to put in boxes. These are the words of a man in the middle of a weird and wide political and emotional world. Best way to understand what I am talking about is to listen to the 13-minute song “Leaving LA“.
  • Also recommended:
    • Timber Timbre “Sincerely, Future Pollution” – Synth Folk
    • Joey Bada$$– “ALL-AMERIKKKAN BADA$$” – Hip Hop – An extraordinary record as well; it would have been record of the month if no such competition.
    • Splashh “Waiting A Lifetime” – Indie Rock
    • Gorillaz “Humanz” – Damon & friends playing all kinds of music
    • Robert Cray & Hi Rhythm “s/t” – Soul Blues
  • Lest we forget: album of the previous month  Spoon – “Hot Thoughts”

 

Econo gigs: Grandaddy at Rough Trade East, 4th April 2017 / Alejandro Escovedo at the Bush Hall, 5th April 2017

“We Jam Econo”. This motto may ring a bell to those familiar with late 80’s US rock bands and The Minutemen in particular. Well, London is for sure an expensive place but there are plenty of ways to attend gigs without spending too much money if you are curious, if you have the time to do so…and if your idea of a good night out does not mean seeing a Drake’s concert (I swear not to mention again Drake throughout this post).

  • Grandaddy, Rough Trade East, 4th April 2017

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Once more, another great set at one of my favourite record stores from an excellent band I had not seen for a long time. As usual for this kind of events, the show was free and open to all, subject to have the precious wristband showing that one had bought the record at Rough Trade.

Grandaddy made a comeback album recently with “Last Place” and this album was actually in our selection of the best albums of March 2017. The band is more than ever under the leadership of Jason Lytle but the funny thing is that a Grandaddy song does not sound as one of his solo songs. For those who have never heard one of their songs, the best lazy description would be to say that this is a mix between The Beach Boys and Pavement, with a touch of 80’s British synthesizers. I know it sounds weird as such but the results are much better than my comments.

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These Rough Trade events are indeed shorter than proper concerts but with generally a 40-minutes setlist, they are not that different from those one can listen to at a festival for instance. The band were as professional I guess as the proper concert they played in London the previous day. Quite funny also to see five big guys on such a tiny stage! I also increased my collection of signed LP covers and I had a bit of a chat with the band. Last but not least, their super cool producer DJ Danger Mouse (The Grey Album, Gnars Barkley and producer of basically everyone) was hanging around with a few friends in the store so that was a nice moment!

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  • Alejandro Escovedo, Bush Hall, 5th of April 2017

Direction to the Bush Hall the following night to attend my first ever gig of Alejandro Escovedo, a musician whose records I like and who has an amazing reputation of being a great live performer. I would be happy to find a better deal as Bush Hall tickets are around £17…

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Born and raised in Texas with Mexican origins, Alejandro Escovedo is one of these guys very famous amongst his peers but who never got the fame he could have deserved. I guess he does not give a s*** as the 66-year old guy is to me the epitome of a rock’n’roll singer and guitarist who has lived and worked throughout his life for and by his passion. For the record, he is the uncle of Sheila E., the great percussionist who played with Prince. He used to be a member of the 80’s US band The Rank and File before going solo. I would describe his music by saying this is a mix of Texan punk with a Bruce Springsteen sensitivity. I did not mention the Americana style on purpose as he did a few jokes about it!

The gig started with a very interesting Italian band called Don Antonio. After having been blessed by their funny leader, they played a kind of Sicilian cowboy music with great skills and a nice desert groove. They came back for the show as they were actually Alejandro’s live band…and probably the happiest band on earth to do so.

The show was extremely good and I must say I had not experienced such a strong interaction between a band and their audience for a long time. Don Antonio in particular is an amazing guitar player and I was also particularly impressed by the energy and beautiful gravel voice of Escovedo. He is everything I like about this music when played as such: fun, skills, authenticity and emotion. His version of Leonard Cohen‘s “A Thousand Kisses Deep” was particularly beautiful (thanks to my Juillac gig partner for the spot by the way…). Catch Alejandro Escovedo live if you can and you will spend a great and friendly evening.

Rising ambition!: how I recently read “Byrds – Requiem For The Timeless Volume 1” by Johnny Rogan and “Here, There, and Everywhere: My Life Recording the Music of The Beatles” by Geoff Emerick

Those closed to the shareholders of this blog know that the editorial team got a bit more time recently to focus on the musical side of things, hence the reason of this post. I had these two books in my library for quite a long time but I did not dare starting them before. I knew these two books would be fascinating but because they are very long to read I was afraid in not succeeding in enjoying them as much as I should have. So here you go now for your pleasure a review of these two music bibles.

  • Johnny Rogan – “Byrds – Requiem For The Timeless – Volume 1”

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The author of this book is one of the best music writers and has worked on other bands such as Roxy Music or The Smiths for example. However, his main obsession by far has always been The Byrds, one of the best bands from the 60’s and the 70’s. On my side, they did not make the cut when I had to choose my top 100 of best artists of all times but they were just behind and they always have been one of my key bands.

To make it short, The Byrds were a Beatles-influenced US band, beknown for their sense of melody and use of the famous 12-string Rickenbacker sound. The classic line-up was made out of Gene Clark (voice and guitar), Roger McGuinn (voice and guitar), David Crosby (voice and guitar), Chris Hillman (voice and bass) and Michael Clarke (drums) but did not last long as such and the group were to change musicians throughout their careers. They did a few great records…but maybe not as great as other seminal bands (The Doors, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, etc…) and were as much influenced by psychedelic sounds as by country music. They are actually supposed to be the inventors of country-rock music, thanks to the influence of one-album member and Keith Richards’ buddy Gram Parsons.

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Reading these comments, one may think that the book is an usual 350/400 page biography…but this is a mistake. This book has 1,200 pages…and this is only Volume 1! (Volume 2 should be released in the summer of 2017 and focused on the solo career of former Byrds members). So how to read such a big and heavy book as I read it in its physical format? Easy, I decided to read one chapter a day, come hell or high water, which was really great as I felt like meeting people I knew on a daily basis, reading their story from the 40’s to nowadays. This biography is for me very close to history books that one could read first in the sense of details but also on the fact that rock musicians are probably the last remaining ones to have such an incredible life. David Crosby’s life in particular is completely surreal as the guy should be dead for ages but keeps on surviving..and surprising everyone with new chapters in his life: conflict with fellow Byrds members, girlfriend dying from a road accident, new life with Crosby, Stills and Nash, heavy drug usage which led him to jail, heart attack, discovered paternity, help in making pregnant his lesbian best friends, etc… the list is endless!

If you like The Byrds or music biographies, read this book on holidays. If you do not have the time to read it, listen to a compilation or box set of The Byrds and you will feel you live in a better place than the day before.

  • Geoff Emerick – “Here, There, and Everywhere: My Life Recording the Music of The Beatles”

How many books about The Beatles did I already read? Probably too many.. but this one gives a totally different perspective (..and is “only” 485 pages!). This is actually not a book about The Beatles but the memoirs of Geoff Emerick, the sound engineer in many of their recordings at Abbey Road studios.

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This is a fascinating reading for all Beatles fans but also for those interested about  what was London in the 60’s as it gives a fantastic historical perspective written and narrated through precise anecdotes and stories. Geoff Emerick looks quite straight to the point and objective on many topics although it would be great to have the point of view of other key people who were there at the same time.

I thought I knew everything about The Beatles but I must admit I discovered new things on almost every page. The most incredible thing is to realise how sounds and specific gimmicks were created on songs or albums I have listened to hundred of times. I thought everything was very much created with a clear plan…but that was very rarely the case, hence the important of a position such as that of the sound engineer. Many of the marvels that the Beatles created in the second phase of their careers were actually experimentations made by sound craftsmen and mastered/arranged with scissors and glue on tapes!

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Very interesting to read as well for the subtle analysis on John, Paul, Ringo and George’s respective personalities, behaviours with others and actual music talents. Not a surprise as far as I am concerned but one of them was really above the others in terms of music skills…and gentleness with others. A must-read for all Beatles fans.

 

 

March 2017 Album of the month: Spoon “Hot Thoughts”

…one more month…and what a month it was in terms of quantity and quality of records. This blog’s writer is a pro so he went until listening to music he would never listened otherwise. Lots of records in March, a few regular favourites, a few big names (Bob Dylan), youngsters, veterans, a few deceptions (IAM, Jamiroquai), etc… So for the record: 1) Drake’s new LP is ok but no more 2) If you like Ed Sheeran’s atrocious new album, you probably are very sick and this blog is your cure!

Album of the month: Spoon “Hot Thoughts” – Pop/Rock – Spoon is one of my favourite bands ever and they are actually part of my Top 100. Describing them is difficult as their music sounds so simple and direct that they do not really impress at first. Their strength is probably to be found in this easiness they have in creating punchy and very rhythmic songs with a beautiful sense of melody. This new album is no exception and every new listen brings more pleasure and subtlety. Album of the first quarter by far!

  • Runner-up: The Jesus and Mary Chain – “Damage and Joy” – Rock – A not so unexpected come back from the Reid brothers 20 years after their last album. Very close to their 1994 “Stoned and Dethroned” album in tems of sound, they remain a fantastic force in the industry with their Velvet Underground meets the Ronettes style.
  • Also recommended:
    • Depeche Mode “Spirit” – Synth Blues
    • Aimee Mann – “Mental Illness” – Pop/Rock
    • Sleaford Mods “English Tapas” – Lad’s Laptop Punk
    • Grandaddy “Last Place” – Pop/Rock
    • Thomas de Pourquery/Supersonic “Sons of Love” – Space Jazz
  • Lest we forget: album of the previous month Aquaserge – “laisse ça être”

 

A Charming Man, really… Johnny Marr’s “Set The Boy Free” autobiography

Johnny Marr recently published his long-expected autobiography and the least I could say is that I was eager to read it. More precisely, I really wanted to get his side of the story in regards to the excellent and funny book written by Morrissey, his partner in seminal band The Smiths. So how good is it? Verdict below

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In terms of style, I guess Johnny Marr’s writing is probably the opposite of how Morrissey wrote his book: straight to the point, no bullshit and the story written factually as things occurred, no more, no less. It probably means this is not the kind of book one would read if one does not have any interest at all in British music from the 80’s and 90’s as the real jewel of the book is the story and the anecdotes, rather than the style. For instance, Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” would be different as one not interested in music could find great reward in reading that book and its values.

On the other side, for those who grew during this period and would like to know more about what happened behind the scenes, this is a fantastic book. For French guys not necessarily at ease with reading books in English, this is the one for you as I cannot see you getting any difficulties in understanding it all. Not the way I would describe Morrissey’s book for instance…

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So what do we learn?

  • Confirmation that the Smiths broke up for no real reason apart probably from the fact they did not have any proper manager and that Johnny Marr was fed up to do it all by himself
  • Johnny Marr is really a good guy for whom friendship and solidarity are not concepts. Description of his pact with The The’s Matt Johnson or the way he helped Oasis‘ Noel Gallagher by giving him his own guitars are a must to read. I have read also in detail all the pages where he writes about Morrissey and it is amazing how he keeps on saying nice things about his former partner
  • Johnny Marr is first and foremost a musician, like Bernard Butler for instance. It means that sometimes you lead great bands, that sometimes you are privileged to play with the greats like Keith Richards or Paul McCartney and that sometimes you collaborate on other bands’ projects…and that’s it really
  • Guys who run are great but those you know me already knew that
  • Nothing beats summer holidays in Wales near the beach
  • Oasis’ Liam Gallagher real nickname is Mr. Fish!
  • An amazing event occurred in September 2008
  • Quote of the book when Johnny Marr was interviewed after Michael Jackon’s death about what were “Thriller”‘s favourite songs of his: ” I didn’t like “Thriller”, I was in The Smiths

“Still life”… after Suede. Bernard Butler with Ben Watt (Field Day Festival, June 2016) and Mark Eitzel (Bush Hall, March 2017)

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It looks like Bernard Butler wanted me to write about him as I was lucky enough to attend recently two gigs where he was playing. For those not familiar with the name, Bernard Butler was Brett Anderson’s alter ago in Suede mark I. For many, the band had never been better than in this first incarnation and Anderson/Butler musical heights were not far from Morrissey/Marr’s best moments. However, a bit like Johnny Marr in The Smiths, Bernard Butler left the band quite early in their career and only played on the first two albums. Suede went on having a very solid career with an excellent new guitarist but things were never to be the same. A bit samey for Bernard Butler who has been since then more interested in collaborations than in leading his own band. Quite a remarkable choice if I may as many musicians struggle with fame and everything that is around it and prefer to follow their musical path.

A bit frustrating though as Bernard Butler is such a magnificent and original guitarist that it was a pity not to be able to follow him on a more regular basis. It looks though that things changed in the last months as he helped two fantastic musicians to put back their career on track through the excellent production work he provided to them.

Ben Watt, Field Day Festival 2016

The first very good surprise occurred a few years ago when Ben Watt (Everything But The Girl) announced his being back in the rock world after many years curing his very rare disease and then regularly DJing on the dance circuit. I am still hoping for him and his spouse Tracey Thorn to reform their common band but getting him back was already excellent news… and even better when the news were that Bernard Butler was very much involved in his band.

I saw the two great men on stage at the Field Day Festival in June 2016 and there is no other word than magic to describe the mood and the quality of the gig that day. I was personally facing a quite difficult phase and watching these guys on stage playing and singing their beautiful songs gave me back my confidence. The only slight frustration is that the show was a bit short due to festival constraints but apart from this that was probably one of the highlights of the year for me in 2016… just behind Iggy Pop at the Royal Albert Hall!

Back to the future for a few months with Bernard Butler now producing Mark Eitzel’s latest LP and playing with him live. Mark Eitzel is also the leader of the band American Music Club but honestly there is no major differences between his two aliases. Originally from San Francisco, California, he relocated to London to record his latest LP “Hey Mr. Ferryman” and one must admit this is probably one of his best.

Mark Eitzel & Band, Bush Hall 2017

After a warm-up a few weeks earlier at the Rough Trade East store for a short set, I went to see Mark Eitzel and his band at the Bush Hall theatre…which is literally 400 metres from home! I remember having attended an American Music Club gig in 1994 in France for the Inrocks Festival and being amazed by the intensity of the guy. He was singing as if his life depended on it. Did he change so much 23 years later? Well, not so much except that like all of us he has aged a bit and takes things probably with a cooler and more detached attitude. It has been a long time as well that I did not attend a concert when the singer was talking so much between songs. I guess it comes as much from the place which looks a bit like a big living room as from the man whose song very often require long and funny explanations, especially when they involve ménage a trois!

Mark Eitzel, Bush Hall 2017

Bernard Butler was there also with his great balance of presence without taking too much all the spotlights from his partners. His playing remains exceptional not only in terms of pure technique but also on the way he arranges songs and creates beautiful weird songs. Looking forward to seeing you Bernard with another great singer!

 

Record of the month – February 2017 – Aquaserge “laisse ça être”

Second edition of our new regular review. Once again, there is a bit of frustration as there are a few albums I did not have the time to listen to at all or not enough but I guess it will be the case all year-long hence the importance of the full year best-of list! This month, my choice was made after listening to…48 new records released in February. We are living in strange times when life as a musician is tougher than it used to be and at the same time there has never been so much music available. Lots of great records in all styles this month and I am happy to say that the album of the month is an amazing record!

  • Album of the month: Aquaserge“Laisse ça être” – Pop/Rock –  I often had the reputation amongst my blog followers to be a anti-French music snob and this despite my constant support to great artists such as Phoenix, Air, Benjamin Biolay, Mellow, Daft Punk, Serge Gainsbourg, Dominique A., etc… Anyway, this month’s best record comes from a French band from Toulouse…which by the way took much more risks and played with more inventive gimmicks than their football team. This album is a never-ending pleasure, mixing male and female voices, psychedelic and krautrock influences, incredible horns’ sounds and an overall dreamy pop feeling. Can meets Stereolab meets The Cocteau Twins meets Mellow…. Difficult to describe but the kind of records that deserves to be massive. Discover it!
  • Runner-up: Jesca Hoop – “Memories are now” – Folk/Rock – A beautiful record where Jesca Hoop has clearly upgraded her game either by the melodic simplicity of her songs or by the power of her words.
  • Also recommended:
    • Shannon Wright “Division” – Rock
    • Tinariwen– “Elwan” – Malian Blues
    • Dutch Uncles“Big Balloon” – Pop/Rock
    • Thundercat“Drunk” – Jazz/Funk
    • Stormzy “Gang Signs and Prayer” – Hip Hop/Grime
  • Lest we forget: album of the previous month The XX“I See You”