Ladies and gentlemen, in time honoured tradition, it’s time for the bi-annual Brightonsfinest Half Year review. Every six months we ask our writing team to look back over the past half a year in order to pick out some highlights and to identify some great music that we’d somehow managed to let slip between our fingers. Every writer is asked to pick out the best album and best live show we’ve reviewed in the last six months, as well as an album that we didn’t manage to write-up. 2018 is shaping up to be a pretty solid year for new music, so far. We’ve actually reviewed over 160 new albums so far this year and sent reviewers to over 120 live shows!
As we look back it’s worth reminding ourselves of all the good stuff we’ve been up to at Brightonsfinest HQ. Our radio show and website have continued to go from strength to strength while we also launched our first foray into print. Our Brightonsfinest Music Guide’s seventh issue has just hit the streets of Brighton, paired with the Latest Brighton lifestyle mag, and it’s been great getting some much needed music-focussed reading into the hands of Brighton people. We’ve also just had our most successful showcase for The Great Escape festival, taking over St Mary’s Church in Kemptown with a buzzy line-up, topped with a stunning set and light show from local heroes Phoria. Head over to our YouTube Channel for our highlights video of the show. As things finally start to chill-out for the summer it’s great to cast our eyes back over the past six months to remind ourselves of some of the best that new music has had to offer, while we start scheming our next steps for the rest of 2018 and beyond!
Almost completely eschewing the folk roots that informed much of their back catalogue, Seedlings All – released earlier this year on Rough Trade Records – was a remarkable album put together by Brighton-based guitarist and producer Ben Walker with long-time collaborator, the singer and songwriter Josienne Clarke. The album is made up of largely acoustic-based pop-balladry with hints of jazz and just a smidgeon of folk. Live, the five-piece band add weight and substance to the studio recordings, helping to elevate Clarke’s beautiful voice into the realms of the sublime. It’s a knowing and controlled voice, that drips with melancholy, as did most of the songs performed during this night, mostly culled form Seedlings All, but also featuring work by Dolly Parton and Gillian Welch, songs from ostensibly country artists, but whom Clarke and Walker twist and turn into their very own. Despite the downbeat, poetic lyricism of Clarke, she is a terrifically engaging raconteur in-between songs, a smile on her face, and an eager liking for swatting away those irritating folk comparisons. Together with the tasteful yet inventive playing and arranging of Walker, they produced a sparkling show, displaying an uncommon talent.
Around the time of the release of The Go! Team’s previous album, The Scene Between, it felt and sounded like Ian Parton was ready to throw the towel in. For all intents and purposes his solo album (with guest vocalists) failed to make a mark commercially, barely scraping the Top 100, and his hometown gig of Brighton didn’t even sell out. Fast forward a couple of years and, despite there being little fanfare, Parton released The Go! Team’s fifth album, which rather unexpectedly made the Top 40. Furthermore, their gigs were being upgraded, the band eventually selling out Concorde 2, as well as making a headline appearance at this year’s The Great Escape. How to explain this? Timing, it seems. For there seemed to be a renewed interest in this explosive band who made such an initial mark with their brilliantly conceived mash up of hip-hop, noise rock and samples, fed through some unearthly distortion, and topped off by a gang-having-fun mentality; an exuberance that was there for all to see on the live stage. The ‘template’ hasn’t changed much, but in the bands of Parton, his musicians, and the many (often unknown females) vocalists, SEMICIRCLE was another melodically riotous journey into everything he loves, but with a little more emphasis this time around on American soul and brass.
Favourite Album Missed: Ryley Walker – Deafman Glance
The Chicagoan singer/songwriter and guitarist extraordinaire may have been going through some personal demons of late – involving the temptations of life on the road and being a musician – but musically he remains as prolific and adventurous as ever before, if not even more so. Following on from the brilliantly received Golden Sings That Have Been Sung, and his instrumental collaboration with long time friend Bill McKay just last year, Ryley Walker’s Deafman Glance represents a further trip down the improvisatory highway that is his calling. Rather than a collection of songs honed and crafted before he entered the studio, the pieces here are more instinctive, and worked up with a band while making the album. Yes, folk, jazz and a pastoral ambience still permeate, but there is a much greater, free-flowing aspect here, his voice more soulful, and the songs generally allowed a little bit more breathing space, while the lyrics zero in on his love affair with his home city. Shaking off the influences of Bert Jansch and John Martyn that informed his previous solo albums, Deafman Glance is the work of a consummate artist who continues to make a big and growing artistic mark.
The best album of the first half of the year for me is easy, and I could have picked it a week or so into 2018. The early promise of the Brixton scene has started to be fully realised this year, beginning with Shame and Songs Of Praise. A breath of fresh air upon first listen, it immediately felt like an important and vitally prescient release. The following few months have seen them reap their just rewards, and they now feel very much like one of the bands that will come to define this generation. Meanwhile, in Charlie Steen they have one of the most charismatic, intelligent and thrilling frontmen for a long time. For me, it is the album’s power to hone in on the true nature of 2018 that just pips two fine releases from Marmozets and Black Foxxes in what is shaping up to be a stellar year for British rock music.
Gig of the year throws up some more challengers – Shame at The Haunt was the most explosive, Superorganism at the same venue was the most fun. However, for me, seeing the legendary Patti Smith at Brighton Dome was a truly unforgettable experience. With a voice (and passion) that is undimmed by the years, what was ostensibly a warm-up show became a near spiritual awakening. Seeing Smith and her majestically talented band power through ‘Gloria’ in a manner that made it feel like it was written yesterday was simply breathtaking; Smith cajoling and leading the crowd into exaltation in a similar manner to one Nick Cave. Moments and nights to cling on to.
Favourite Album Missed: Graham Coxon – The End Of The F*****g World
Lastly, and always the trickiest one – picking an album that slipped through. I’m going to cheat somewhat (sue me), with one soundtrack and one from 2017 that I have just discovered. First up, Graham Coxon releasing new music is always a big deal. The Blur guitarist’s soundtrack to The End Of The F*****g World was sensational, a perfect accompaniment to the hit Netflix show. Lastly, I discovered German duo The Picturebooks at a festival this weekend. With a brutal, hard-rocking style that sounds like two early humans discovering blues and Southern rock, their set and album, Home Is A Heartache, is simply one of the finest, most exhilarating, turn-it-up-to-11 pieces of music I have heard in an age. Seek it out.
Favourite Album: Leon Bridges – Good Thing
While Leon Bridges’ arrival on the scene with Coming Home was a beautifully laid-back slice of life wholly inspired by Sam Cooke, his sophomore effort Good Thing was his coming of age. Featuring a much more varied melting pot of influences – from 70s and 80s r’n’b, with splashes of funk, jazz, disco and soul – it saw Bridges showcase his seductive, sultry side with steamy numbers such as ‘Bad Bad News’ and ‘If It Feels Good (Then It Must Be)’. Plus, disco foot stomper ‘You Don’t Know’ is one of the freshest dancefloor fillers in years.
Favourite Gig: Superorganism – The Haunt, Brighton – 9th March 2018
If 2018 has proved anything so far, it’s that Superorganism are one of the most exciting, flashy and intriguing prospects for a long, long time. As well as their brilliant debut eponymous album, which we called “A breath of fresh air, and an utter delight”, all eight members of the band crammed themselves onto The Haunt’s stage for one of the most playful, surreal and downright colourful shows of the year. It had everything; from colourful costumes, to unconventional musical props, it was a show that kept giving and giving until its awe-inspiring finale.
Favourite Album Missed: Pusha T – DAYTONA
While everyone waxes lyrical over Kanye West’s provocative, controversial return with both ye and KIDS SEE GHOSTS, it’s strange that the best Kanye-starring project of the year – Pusha T’s DAYTONA – has gone much more unnoticed. Featuring incredible production from Mr West, which harks back to The College Dropout and Late Registration-era Kanye West, as well as Pusha T’s fiery, aggressive verses that are spat with venom from start to finish, DAYTONA feels fresh and vital and places Pusha T as one of the finest rappers of his generation.
Favourite Album: Father John Misty – God’s Favorite Customer
It came so soon after Pure Comedy, that it seemed like it could only be some sort of bonus prize. It was the deconstruction of the human condition, the irreverent interviewee and the grandiose arrangements that helped me fall head over heels in love with Josh Tillman’s writing last year, but I was not anticipating such a double whammy. A much shorter run-time and a singularly self-consumed narrative, coupled with this motor mouth artist declining to do any press gave me low expectations for GFC. I was pleasantly surprised, and it’s turned out to be a real grower, with tracks like ‘Please Don’t Die’, ‘The Palace’ and the title track only starting to grip me after a dozen or so listens.
Favourite Gig: Paul Draper – Electric Brixton, London – 8th March 2018
I got to see two dates of the Mansun frontman’s Attack of the Grey Lantern anniversary tour. This dip into nostalgia came after his triumphant return following a 20-year absence from music, with the excellent Spooky Action in 2017. If the opening night at The Haunt, Brighton, was a joy, Brixton was a wonder. Especially as, reportedly, the show nearly came off the rails a few nights earlier in Nottingham. The album was performed flawlessly in order, with all the original interlude sections sampled from the master tapes. Seeing one of my favourite 90s acts with a new lease of life was a real pleasure, especially as Draper’s voice is in such fine form, and his songwriting talents seem to have dimmed little in the interim. I’ll keep my fingers crossed for a Six tour next year, and hopefully more new material too.
Favourite Album Missed: Poliça and s t a r g a z e – Night For The Long Emergency
I stumbled across this album when I was researching the orchestral collective s t a r g a z e, ahead of their appearances with Deerhoof and This Is The Kit at the Dome during this year’s Brighton Festival. This minimalist Berlin orchestra really seem to get around, hooking up with all sorts of interesting alternative musicians, for reinterpretations and to craft interesting orchestral arrangements onto music that usually eschews those older, more traditional instruments. This is a really varied collection of songs, that take you up and down in regular shifts of pace through the first half, before settling into two, instrumental-heavy, ten minute long tracks at the end. The orchestral stuff marries beautifully with Poliça’s synth-heavy alt pop: a pleasing clash of digital and acoustic sounds that hits the mark far more often than not.
What a belter Holy Doom is – right from the off you are sucked into the uneasy yet addictive sinister world of Demob Happy and you’re not let go till its end. Their previous album, Dream Soda, was an unappreciated triumph to come from 2015 and, after jumping a fair few hurdles to get to the release of their second LP, including transforming from a four-piece to a three, Holy Doom is a remarkable riff-riddled success. The album is a ‘Best Of’ for sleaze, swagger and fuzz in rock’n’roll. Demob Happy have always had a keen eye for pop hooks and a love of harmonies, but on Holy Doom they have outdone themselves by creating an album that’s as incredibly catchy as it is devilishly dark.
Not many bands can announce a gig at The Haunt and sell it out months before even their debut album comes out – it’s a good sign that a band is onto something great. The group were last in Brighton for The Great Escape festival in 2017, when they had a legendary, yet brutal, Alternative Escape show where the venue’s bouncers yanked an animated lead singer off the stage and dragged him into the street only for the venue’s other muscle to savagely pull moshing members of the crowd out with them – it was a special set up till that point. It’s safe to say Shame are one of the most exciting bands in the UK right now and they put it all on show at an enthralling performance at The Haunt. In the opening song’s first chorus, the lead singer jumped head first into the crowd, creating a raucous moshpit that never let up. Yet, it’s not all just about the mighty performance, Shame have a strong arsenal of post-punk songs which the room continuously screamed back in their faces.
Favourite Album Missed: Sam Evian – You, Forever
When delving through the expansive Great Escape 2018 festival line-up, I came across New York’s singer-songwriter/producer Sam Evian, whose dreamy Americana immediately put his name on my list of music must-sees. Between then and now, I became obsessed with his 2016 debut LP and the more recent AA single (both sublime), while his festival show was phenomenal and it felt like the majority of the crowd had fallen for Sam’s music in the way I had. Then came the release of You, Forever which, even with my high expectation, is spectacular. A mellow 60s/70s sound mixed with sharp production and beautiful lyricism has made Sam’s second effort one of my favourite albums of the past couple of years, let alone the first half of 2018.
For me, this was by far the best set of the bands I saw at the festival. I’ll go further than that and bet it was the best set of any of the 450+ bands playing in Brighton over The Great Escape weekend. Led by Shabaka Hutchings, Sons Of Kemet transformed Patterns and proved there’s an appetite for the new jazz wave in Brighton – unbeatable.
Ady really made us wait a long time for this, but it was absolutely worth it. The result of years of work is a near flawlessly realised record that I’ve still got on high rotation, months after it came out. Sadly I couldn’t make his show at The Great Escape, but he’s earned a place on my bucket list. Let’s hope the next one doesn’t take so long.
Favourite Album Missed: The Last Poets – Understand What Black Is
50 years after their inception, it’s incredible that The Last Poets are still making music. In an interview with us for radio, founding member Umar Abiodun told us, “After the murder of Martin Luther King, I wanted to pick up a gun. But instead I made my mouth a gun, and words my bullets.” It’s heavy stuff, and a legacy that endures in their latest album, Understand What Black Is. A real shame we didn’t cover it, or their show at the Brighton Festival.
Favourite Gig: Paloma Faith – Brighton Centre – 12th March 2018
This was an evening I won’t be forgetting anytime soon, a diamond lit stage, stunning vocal work and some classic singalong tunes which got the entire room dancing in unison, Paloma Faith was a true experience from start to finish. The stand out moment of this show though was actually from support, XamVolo, who has easily become the single most talented artist I’ve ever seen live. His style of nu-soul is simply a revolutionary experience which I can’t quite put into words, just look him up and thank me later.
Isaac Gracie is one of the UK’s freshest acts to come out of the past decade. His sensitive and heartfelt material is emotional, charismatic and features some of the best vocal tones I’ve come across in an awfully long time. I can assure you too, his live performances shed an equal level of talent and energy and have begun to solidify him as an upcoming staple to almost any playlist. As soon as I heard Isaac’s debut record, there was no question that it was going to be record of the year.
Favourite Album Missed: City Calm Down – Echoes In Blue
Echoes In Blue is a little bit of a late newcomer and peaked my interest since seeing City Calm Down perform at this year’s Great Escape. The band’s live energy was so enthralling that I simply had to get on board with their sound and I can assure you that it more than transcends into their recorded counterparts. Bringing a sombre yet incredibly powerful sound, Echoes In Blue brings a colourful listen from cover-to-cover, which you’ll definitely be able to sink into. City Calm Down may be one Australian group based on the other side of the planet, but I can assure you that as soon as they touch down again in the UK, I’ll be first in line!
You don’t see many bands perform like U.S. Girls nowadays, not in such small spaces anyway. A stunning show that was orchestrated perfectly and was completely unexpected by the crowd. It really was as a show should be, gigs without a performance are far too commonplace, it was almost a shock to the system. Performance aside, the band all played like pros, cheesy to say but you can really tell they all live for these moments, the music is just a further extension of them. A truly stunning show and an experience I would whole heartedly recommended to any music fan. Nobody plays like U.S. Girls do.
Parquet Courts are the great modern day rock band. With Wide Awake! they take their DIY ethos and channel it through something new. All the right DNA was in there, yet a fresh set of ears on production in the form of Danger Mouse really elevated Wide Awake! to something special. In sound it was a band reflecting on their beginnings, taking with them what they’d learned over the process of recording their four albums. Lyrically, the band are fresh and sound renewed, no more content nihilism, more a positively focussed sound of frustration. Wide Awake! is the balance of all aspects of the band’s sound, their most focused and channelled record and arguably one of their best.
Favourite Album Missed: Daniel Blumberg – Minus
It’s been so long since we’ve heard a peep out of Daniel Blumberg I’d stopped periodically Googling his name. After falling head over heels for Yuck in 2011 and after Daniel’s departure from the group, a solo album seemed more and more likely, yet it never came. Minus is an outpouring of the mind of a unique man. A record that sounds loosely held together and raw, it almost sounds broken in places. Minus is a tricky one to grapple with at first, it’s a challenging listen and its sombre tone rubs off on the listener. It’s a very powerful record overall, one that has stuck with me since first listen and kept me talking about it to just about anyone who will listen. A fantastic return from a one-of-a-kind artist.