Monday, December 30, 2013

The Best Music of 2013

In the past, I've compiled numbered lists of my favorite albums of that year. I've decided not to do that this time around. Quite simply, I'm not sure how to rank and compare albums from genres as divergent as prog, indie rock, jazz, blues, folk, electronica, pop, world music and classic rock. Nor is there much point to such an exercise. This year, I've decided to limit myself to noting my 21 favorite albums of the past 12 months. They aren't listed in order of preference, though I will say that my absolute favorite record of the year was Steven Wilson's The Raven that Refused to Sing (and Other Stories). I've hyperlinked to the albums I've reviewed or written about.

The video of the top of this post is for Vertical Horizon's "Instamatic," featuring Rush's Neil Peart on drums. (Look carefully and you'll spot me lurking in the background of the video.) It was my great pleasure to write the sleeve notes for Vertical Horizon's Echoes from the Underground this year. Matt Scannell, the band's singer, songwriter, guitarist, and producer, created the best Vertical Horizon album to date, full of fresh stylistic departures in the band's pop sound. It's one of the year's most consistently strong records.

Best Studio Albums

The Besnard LakesIn Excess, Imperceptible UFO
Boards of Canada—Tomorrow's Harvest 
David BowieThe Next Day
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds—Push the Sky Away 
Elvis Costello and The Roots—Wise Up Ghost
Francis Dunnery—Frankenstein Monster 
Nils Frahm—Spaces
John GrantPale Green Ghosts 
Patty GriffinAmerican Kid
Laura MarlingOnce I Was an Eagle
Queens Of the Stone Age—…Like Clockwork
Rovo and System 7 (feat. Steve Hillage)—Phoenix Rising
Otis TaylorMy World is Gone
Richard Thompson—Electric
Emiliana Torrini—Tookah
Rokia TraorĂ©—Beautiful Africa
Jonathan Wilson—Fanfare
Steven Wilson—The Raven that Refused to Sing (and Other Stories)
Laura Veirs—Warp and Weft
Vertical Horizon—Echoes from the Underground 
Anna Von Hausswolff—Ceremony

Best Live Album
Portico Quartet—Live/Remix

Best Soundtrack album
Boss, Original Soundtrack—Brian Reitzell

Best Covers album
ShearwaterFellow Travelers

Best Reissue
Yes—Studio albums box set, 1969-1987

And, finally, my Song of the Year (at least, one that wasn't penned by Steven Wilson), may just be Amplifier's "Matmos." (The parent album, Echo Street, is good, but a little uneven.) Here, below, is the video.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Now on Newsstands: Francis Dunnery interview

I interviewed Francis Dunnery for a big feature in the current issue of Prog magazine, which is now on UK and US newsstands. In the interview, Dunnery talks in-depth about his incredible career over several decades.

I've been a fan of Francis Dunnery for quite some time. In 1987, when I was but a young teen growing up in South Africa, I took a chance on a cassette copy of the album Big Lad in the Windmill by Dunnery's first band, It Bites. The British band scored something of a novelty hit in 1986 with the absurd, yet catchy, song "Calling All the Heroes." I could tell there was something interesting about the band just from that one song and purchased the album in a bargain bin. I loved it. It was poppy but ambitiously so and Dunnery's guitar work stood out. In retrospect, I realize this was probably the first sorta prog album I ever bought, though I wasn't particularly aware of prog-rock as a "genre" at the time even though I loved Pink Floyd.

It Bites created an even better and far more progressive follow-up album in 1987 titled Once Around the World. For all its catchy songs, it never really took off for the band. Nor did the next album - the more rock-oriented (and awfully titled) Eat Me in St. Louis in 1989. Around that time, I moved to Manchester in the UK and got to see It Bites perform on what would become their last tour. (At least, until they reunited several years ago with new guitarist and frontman John Mitchell.)

It wasn't the last time I saw Dunnery, however. I still remember the day that I opened up an issue of Q magazine (an indispensable source of music news in the pre-Internet years) and read that Dunnery was joining the band of my favorite singer: Robert Plant. Dunnery played some great guitar parts on Plant's exceptional 1993 album Fate of Nations. I caught four shows on that tour, too, and it was quite evident that the singer and guitarist enjoyed a great rapport on stage. Indeed, Dunnery later told me,
"I don’t think Robert invited me to the band for my guitar playing. He’s not that keen on my guitar playing! He invited me into his band more for my energy. I’m quite uplifting to be around. I’m always up and I try to keep my energy warm and friendly. I think he appreciated that. And I didn’t want anything from him - and he knew it. I think I was one of the few people who wasn’t trying to get him to put one of his songs on my CD. I was just hanging out. I had plenty of money at the time, I had a record deal, I had a publishing deal, and I had a manager. All those things he had. So, I think it was easy for him to give me the job rather a lot of the guitar players who came to audition who quite frankly played the Led Zeppelin music a lot better than I did."
Francis is being rather modest about his guitar playing. His technique would trip up most people's fingers - check out the video below - and he's a virtuoso acoustic player. Dunnery can also play very emotive solos. (Hear, for example, his guitar solos on the It Bites songs "You'll Never Go to Heaven," "Still Too Young to Remember," and "The Ice Melts Into Water." Or solo tracks such as "Jackal in Your Mind," "Immaculate," "Grateful and Thankful," "Blinded By the Memory," and the 2009 version of "Staring at the Whitewash.")

Given his superior axemanship, Dunnery's next move was something of a shock: He eschewed lead guitar heroics on a lushly produced modern R&B-influenced solo album titled Fearless. Dunnery wisely sought to sidestep getting pigeon-holed as a guitar hero. He wanted to showcase formidable his talents as a songwriter, which he further showcased on the next album, 1995's punk-raw album Tall Blonde Helicopter. Dunnery's solo career since then has been just as wildly unpredictable - excitingly so - as he's veered from style to style. A truly progressive artist. I've bought every album. The one constant in his career has been his confessional style of songwriting and his fearlessness is laying his soul bare.

Dunnery's brand new album, Frankenstein Monster (available at is yet another delightful stylistic swerve. It sounds like a long lost treasure from the 1970s. That's because it it kind of is. These songs were all written by Dunnery's older brother, Barry, who was in a short-lived band called Necromandus. They were managed by Tony Iommi and Melody Maker described their sound as "Black Sabbath plays Yes's biggest hits." But their 1973 album wasn't released until 1999 and they never received the fame they deserved. (Here's David Fricke's appreciation for Necromandus in Rolling Stone.) Following Barry Dunnery's death several years ago, Francis has re-recorded these songs anew as a tribute to him.

Frankenstein Monster is notable for being Dunnery's most guitar-heavy album ever. The solos on this record are ridiculously exhilarating. And also beautiful - take a listen to the gorgeous guitar solo around the three minute mark of this track.

In fact, you can stream (and also purchase) the entire Frankenstein Monster album over at Bandcamp. For starters, watch the music video for the title track, below, which is the only original song Dunnery wrote for the album.

A wonderful talent with a discography well worth exploring.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Playlist: December

  • Jonathan Wilson—Fanfare (2013)
  • Neil Finn—Dizzy Heights (2014)
  • Imogen Heap—Sparks (2014)
  • Butterfly Boucher—Happy Birthday Flutterby (2013)
  • YES—The Studio Albums 1969-87 box set (2013)
  • Midlake—Antiphon (2013)
  • Marillion—Brave Live (2013)
  • Marillion—"Carol of the Bells" digital single (2013)
  • Steve Hogarth and Richard Barbieri—Arc Light (2013)
  • Shearwater/Low—"Novocane"/"Stay" split 7" single (2013)
  • Shearwater—"This Year"/ "Black River Song" 7" single (2013)
  • John Wesley—Disconnect (2014)
  • Rush—Vapor Trails Remixed (2013)
I'm hugely enjoying Jonathan Wilson's second album, Fanfare. It sounds like a blend of Meddle-era Pink Floyd, Laurel Canyon folk, and the sound of Pacific Ocean Blue by Dennis Wilson (no relation). Moreover, it features songs co-written with Roy Harper (Wilson produced Harper's latest album) and includes the likes of Graham Crosby and Graham Nash and Jackson Browne. You can very much hear all the influences, but Wilson's channeled them all through the funnel of his own vision - It's a grand and ambitious record that pays off in every way. Watch this music video above - at the 3:15 mark, the song plunges down the rabbit hole into an utterly sublime and trippy guitar solo.

 Marillion has released a brand new charity single, a brilliant and fun version of "Carol of the Bells."


And, finally, here's Shearwater's cover version of Frank Ocean's "Novocane," which is available on a 7" single they split with Low for Record Store Day.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

My interview with Shearwater

Track-by-Track: Shearwater on “Fellow Travelers” - The Complete Interview

By Stephen Humphries

For Under the Radar magazine's Track-by-Track feature, we go in-depth with an artist about each song on their new album. This week the magazine features of Shearwater's Fellow Travelers. It's an album of cover versions of songs by bands and artists that Shearwater has toured with over the years, including St. Vincent, Coldplay, Wye Oak, and Clinic.

There's an added twist to the concept behind Fellow Travelers - Shearwater invited most of those artists to guest on the album, but not on their own songs.

 As regular readers will know, Shearwater is my favorite American band with a unique sound that emulates the spirit of late era Talk Talk without sounding like that group. Among Shearwater's fans: Robert Plant, Steven Wilson, and Marillion's Steve Hogarth.

I interviewed frontman Jonathan Meiburg about each of the songs on the band's new album of cover versions. Read the whole thing here. (But first, check out the music video for "I Luv the Valley, OH!" above.)

Shearwater fans should seek out the recent limited edition 7" single that Shearwater split with Low. Shearwater did a brooding version of Frank Ocean's "Novocane" that I can't get enough of. Low turned in a beautiful, haunted version of Rihanna's "Stay." Also a must-have: The limited edition 7" single that came as a bonus from early orders of Fellow Travelers at You need to treat your ears to Shearwater's slow-creasting tsunami of a cover version of "Black River Song" by Angels of Light (Michael Gira's band outside of Swans).

Finally, here's the band's cover version of "Fucked Up Life" from Fellow Travelers.