My Songs of 2016

Given singles are increasingly irrelevant, I’ve done a list of songs I loved this year.

My Albums of 2016

In no particular order, though ★ was definitely my number 1. It goes without saying that three artists loomed large in my listening this year and here are the posts I wrote to mark their passing:

David Bowie


Leonard Cohen

George Michael died late in the year, during that period when everything grinds to a halt. I marked it on Instagram.

2016 was a fucking terrible year in so many ways. I hope 2017 is better.

Do not let the spark of my soul go out in the even sadness


I cannot believe we are here again. It feels like the cosmos is snuffing out the lights, one by one. Yet I know that Leonard Cohen would not agree. There is a crack in everything – that’s how the light gets in. And oh how brightly, how magnificently, Leonard shone, illuminating and warming the world.

I came to Leonard very late, in his latter-day renaissance when he was a man in his late seventies. He was producing some of the greatest work of his long career and remained doing so right until the end. As I wrote then I felt, and I feel, enormously privileged to have been able to see him live (twice, as it turned out). Truly, in a world where the word ‘privilege’ is thrown around with abandon, we were fortunate to find Leonard:

Watching Cohen made the modern obsession with mocking ‘authenticity’ seem infinitely mean-spirited and short-sighted. Here was a man who clearly approached his craft as high art, giving himself entirely to its calling with a refreshing and seductive humility and self-deprecation.  At one point he praised his backing singers (a phrase which seems almost insulting, such was their brilliance and centrality to the show), begging them to never leave as without them, ‘no-one would come to see my show’. The musicians on stage all clearly had a profound respect for one another, a spark amongst them which frequently ignited into a dazzling flame. So often I felt that I was witnessing true brilliance, a transcendental magic which made me feel privileged to even be in the same room.

The poem at the top is taken from a pocketbook of Leonard’s poems and lyrics which I have returned to many times over the years. Sometimes, like today, I put it in my bag and carry it with me. All of the wisdom of the ages seems contained in its pages. Only yesterday I was listening to Everybody Knows and thinking how apropos it was for the age we live in:

Everybody knows that the dice are loaded
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
Everybody knows the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost
Everybody knows the fight was fixed
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich
That’s how it goes
Everybody knows

Everybody knows that the boat is leaking
Everybody knows that the captain lied
Everybody got this broken feeling
Like their father or their dog just died
Everybody talking to their pockets
Everybody wants a box of chocolates
And a long-stem rose
Everybody knows

Everybody knows – but few knew like Leonard. There is some comfort to be found in the awareness that he seemed to know this was coming and had made his peace with it. You didn’t have to parse his last album very closely to know what much of it was about. I’m leaving the table, I’m out of the game. I’m travelling light, it’s au revoir. Hineni, hineni – I’m ready my Lord. In his final letter to Marianne Ihlen he wrote:

Marianne it’s come to this time when we are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon. Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine.

These two lines, with their compassion, comfort, self-deprecation and deep, deep well of love capture Leonard wonderfully. Even as an old man he seemed to possess wisdom drawn from another place and a grace which took you gently into its arms and cradled you. Now he is going home and he has earned his sleep:

Leonard will always be with me. I know that I will return to his songs and his words, so without parallel, until the day I too am taken. For now, it’s closing time and I will raise a toast to a truly wonderful man before heading out into the cold.

The days may not be fair, always
That’s when I’ll be there, always
Not for just an hour,
Not for just a day,
Not for just a year, but always.


RIP Leonard Cohen.

Albums of 2014

Playlist here.

Again, no particular order though Jenny Lewis would definitely be my album of the year and the Manics would probably be second. I ‘discovered’ the Rosanne Cash album due to her being interviewed on Radio 2 whilst I was having my haircut. Great times. Special shout-out for the King Creosote album, a project tied into the Commonwealth Games which I think does a better job of capturing the Scottish psyche than a million indy ref thinkpieces.

The Voyager – Jenny Lewis
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Soundtrack – Various
Futurology – Manic Street Preachers
Take Me When You Go – Betty Who
Me. I Am Mariah…The Elusive Chanteuse – Mariah Carey
Xscape – Michael Jackson
No-One Is Lost – Stars
Popular Problems – Leonard Cohen
Stay Gold – First Aid Kit
Ghost Stories – Coldplay
High Hopes – Bruce Springsteen
The Take Off and Landing of Everything – Elbow
The Cautionary Tales of Mark Oliver Everett – Eels
Do It Again – Royksopp & Robyn
Are We There – Sharon Van Etten
Ruins – Grouper
From Scotland With Love – King Creosote
Live In Dublin – Leonard Cohen
Unrepentant Geraldines – Tori Amos
Tough Love – Jessie Ware
The River & the Thread – Rosanne Cash
Food – Kelis
Kiasmos – Kiasmos
Xen – Arca

And not on Spotify but definitely in my top 5 albums of the year:

I don’t think 1989 is as good as Red – it properly goes off the boil in its second half – but its high points are high enough for it to be included here. Particularly the bonus track New Romantics which, had it been released, would’ve been my single of the year.  But Swift hates the internet so go illegally download it.

Leonard Cohen

The absolutely sublime Recitation performed by Leonard Cohen at the O2 last night. I wrote a post last year about my experience of seeing him for the first time and there’s little to add to that now. Suffice to say that he didn’t disappoint the second time. As my friend (who was having his own first experience of Leonard live) said, “he takes you on a journey” and you feel that you’re witness to the mysteries and majesty of music. It was a fitting and satisfying end to a Sunday which started with the new Britney dreck

You can see the full set of photos and videos here.

Click the link for a Spotify playlist of my albums of 2012. I tried to reflect what I actually kept returning to this year against albums I admired but rarely listened to. Whenever I look at previous lists I’m always surprised by the ones which endure in my affections. There is no strict order here but it’s safe to say that the first 10 dominated my year. I’m particularly pleased to have ‘discovered’ Akala and Sharon Van Etten. Further down, however, albums from Admiral Fallow and The Magnetic North are the kinds of subtle pleasures which pop into your mind on some idle afternoon and cause you to fall in love with them all over again. I don’t think efforts from Taylor Swift, Alanis Morissette and Garbage were their strongest work but they had enough knock-out songs for me to keep returning.

The albums:

MDNA – Madonna
Old Ideas – Leonard Cohen
Wrecking Ball – Bruce Springsteen
Knowledge is Power Vol.1 – Akala
iLL Manors – Plan B
The North – Stars
Tramp – Sharon Van Etten
Lotus – Christina Aguilera
Mid Air – Paul Buchanan
Red – Taylor Swift
The Idler Wheel… – Fiona Apple
Tree Bursts in Snow – Admiral Fallow
The Spirit Indestructible – Nelly Furtado
Not Your Kind of People – Garbage
Out of the Game – Rufus Wainwright
Play for Today – Ultrasound
Orkney: Symphony of The Magnetic North – The Magnetic North
Havoc & Bright Lights – Alanis Morissette
Misty Eye – Aiden Grimshaw
Piramida – Efterklang

My Albums of 2012

Even Damnation is Poisoned with Rainbows

I watched ‘The Lives of Others’ on Friday night, after years of hearing about how brilliant it is. And brilliant it was, an engaging drama by any measure but also raising complex issues of morality and personal responsibility (so it’s no surprise that it resonated with me.)

The scene which most struck me, however, was not dramatic or concerned with BIG questions of good and evil. Instead it featured a character sat at a piano playing a piece called “Sonata for a Good Man”. Clearly this has a symbolic importance within the film yet it was the character’s words which moved me:

Can anyone who has heard this music – I mean really heard it – still be a bad person?

A silly thought, perhaps (some interesting thoughts on it here), yet the line hit me like a truck because it perfectly externalised something I have often felt while listening to certain artists and songs. Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits are perfect examples. Their music is so humanistic; so bursting with empathy and what can only be described as heart yet disarmingly lacking the ostentatious egotism which we associate with popular music. Because of this listening to it is a jarring experience. It removes me from myself and places me as part of a greater whole. It takes me to a place where confronting and acknowledging your worst traits and impulses is no weakness; where accepting the inevitability of your flaws is a quiet, sincere privilege. When I listen to them, and to others with whom it comes to me like a surprise gift on some grey Wednesday, I feel connected to something better than myself and I feel that I can almost touch it within me. Like the character in ‘The Lives of Others’, then, I have been so moved and humbled by the beauty of what these artists have revealed (both to me and within me) that I can’t imagine anyone who has been similarly touched being a ‘bad person’.

But but, a never-ending cascade of buts. Concepts of ‘good people’ and ‘bad people’ are endlessly problematic, while feeling the emotions described above inevitably suggests you identify yourself as belonging more to the former group. This seems to ridicule and defile the humility which the music inspires. It is a horrible post-modern disease that we are self-aware enough to second-guess after the fact the profound moments of beauty we experience. Yet ultimately I feel at ease with that. In one of his most famous songs Cohen sings ‘There is a crack in everything – that’s how the light gets in’.  However it makes me sound, I feel enormously blessed to be so enormously affected by this music, to have cracks which allow its light inside. It affects my whole life, my entire being and when you meet other people who have ‘really heard it’ you can tell, because they have been irrevocably altered too. It’s for this reason, this knowledge of the unfathomable possibilities inherent within pop music, that I have so little patience for those who treat it as junk to be distorted and disrespected for profit. I worship at the ‘tower of song’ and it pierces through my clouds. As Cohen sings in another song: ‘Even damnation is poisoned with rainbows’.

Leonard Cohen

I came to Leonard Cohen very late. For many years, he was the gruff-sounding bloke who had two songs on the ‘Natural Born Killers’ soundtrack. Then in 1999, Tori Amos put a cover of the heavenly ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’ on the b-side of her ‘Glory of the 80s’ single. This deeply moving song led me to investigate Cohen a little more. I discovered that he’d written Jeff Buckley’s transcendent ‘Hallelujah’; that his song ‘Suzanne’ had inspired R.E.M.’s ‘Hope’ on 1998’s ‘Up’ album; that he was exalted by artists from U2 and R.E.M. to kd Lang and Rufus Wainwright. My interest piqued, I listened to him properly for the first time.

I still wasn’t a massive fan, however. I was only half-listening, really, wanting to hear what these others heard in him rather than approaching him wide open to his charms. So in 2008 when it was announced that he would be playing London’s O2, I was rather bemused. Surely these intense, enormously literate folk songs wouldn’t translate to the arena where I had seen Madonna, Rihanna, Kylie Minogue?! I didn’t go and I thought little more of it.

It was the release the year after of the ‘Live in London’ album, recorded at the O2, which changed everything. This was one of those albums that could change your life. Cohen was funny, engaging, genial and seemed to possess a wisdom which came directly from some long-obscured and forgotten source. More importantly, something clicked and the songs burst into technicolour life for me – I got it and felt foolish that I ever hadn’t. The big secret? Cohen has a reputation as a miserablist, a gloomy troubadour who surrounds himself in darkness. It’s an easily understood misunderstanding – that voice repels many casual listeners from the off – but it is certainly wrong. Instead, Cohen is one of the most funny, most magnetic and most humane songwriters I have ever encountered. That latter point is perhaps the key one – Cohen has such a tender understanding of the human condition that it frequently proves disarming, bringing me to the point of tears. His genius is in showing us our flaws, inspiring us to reach for ideals that seem just out of reach, yet never seeming superior or hectoring. Instead you get the sense that he’s learning too and just has the humble grace to want to share some of what he knows.

So, when he announced a date in Kent this year, I had little hesitation in buying tickets. There are few artists who could cause me to part with £200 and endeavour to travel to Kent and back for an outdoor gig in September. As it happens, at the last minute the gig was moved to Wembley Arena – far more convenient for me, yet post-gig I can’t help think that sitting beneath the stars at Hop Farm watching Leonard would have been a truly once in a lifetime experience. A minor quibble, however, because last night’s gig was undoubtedly one of the best I have ever witnessed. Cohen was everything I expected, everything I hoped for. You could tell that some in the audience were angry about the late venue change – Cohen addressed them after the first song, apologising and referring to ‘invisible hands of commerce’ which he never got to ‘shake or crush’. Instantly, you could feel the atmosphere change – all the anger disappeared as 12,000 people fell in love with the 77 year old on stage.

Watching Cohen made the modern obsession with mocking ‘authenticity’ seem infinitely mean-spirited and short-sighted. Here was a man who clearly approached his craft as high art, giving himself entirely to its calling with a refreshing and seductive humility and self-deprecation.  At one point he praised his backing singers (a phrase which seems almost insulting, such was their brilliance and centrality to the show), begging them to never leave as without them, ‘no-one would come to see my show’. The musicians on stage all clearly had a profound respect for one another, a spark amongst them which frequently ignited into a dazzling flame. So often I felt that I was witnessing true brilliance, a transcendental magic which made me feel privileged to even be in the same room.

The setlist was nigh-on perfect – a couple of favourites were missing, but there was not one song that I would have lost in their favour. How could you question a 3 and a half hour long set from a man approaching 80, displaying a playful energy which sometimes surprised in its bursts? I also fell madly in love with The Webb Sisters and Sharon Robinson, ethereal voices and artists generously given many changes to shine.

The video above sums the evening up very well – the warmth of spirit, the rapturous communal air. Cohen took us all somewhere else; somewhere where we are better. “This makes it all worth it”, he said at one point, directed to The Webb Sisters and Sharon Robinson as their beatific harmonies transformed a simple ‘da doo doo doo’ into a moment of towering elegance. That’s exactly how I felt as I left Wembley Arena. Artists like Cohen (a strange sentiment for someone so peerless) make everything all right.

It’s somehow fitting that Cohen’s new album should be due on the last day of January. It catches the despondency of the first month of the year while being in that almost-glorious period when you’re not quite so skint and the new dawn of February is near. Cohen tends to find some humour, however black and however resigned, in his darkness (and the darkness does tend to be greatly overstated anyway). He is very rarely difficult to listen to; very frequently witty, provocative, entertaining and moving. Sometimes all in the same song. He also often manages a righteous ire about the world without drawing the wrath of those who dislike ‘statements’. His live album from London a couple of years back is one of my all-time favourites – after 2 hours in his company you wish it was a regular engagement.

This piece raises the question of whether the ‘old’ can write pop. I always find this to be a very strange thing to ask, involving so many assumptions and pre-conceptions (the number of young artists making dreadful pop surely dwarves the number of old ones?) With classic songwriters of the kind Jones lists, it seems obvious that their new songs would reflect their advancing years and younger listeners would perhaps struggle to find things in them to identify with. However artists like Bowie, Dylan, Elton John and McCartney have certainly produced great albums past their 50s – indeed, it’s of note that they are all of a generation which tended towards producing their worst material in the 80s when they were in their late 30s and 40s. If there is any narrative to be had of this generation (who are, lest we forget, those who largely blazed the trail for ‘pop’ as we currently understand it) it is of a rise, a reign, a decline and finally a satisfied and satisfying acceptance of their position, status and age.

Such questions do always tend to involve the ‘classic’ songwriters and ignore artists who continue to be ‘current’ on the pop charts. Madonna’s ‘Hung Up’ and ‘4 Minutes’, released when she was 47 and 50 respectively, are (chart-wise) the most successful singles of her career. For all the debates over when artists such as she, U2, Prince or REM were at their peak, few without pre-determined chips would claim they had produced nothing of note in their latter years. There can be no doubt that as time progresses, the number of middle-aged and ‘old’ artists on the charts is only going to increase – from Kylie and Jennifer Lopez in the next decade through to Gaga, Beyonce and Rihanna, it would be a fool who bets against more and more great pop being produced by near-pensioners in the next thirty years.

The neat response to the question? Cohen was 50 when he released ‘Hallelujah’, the song which 20 years later became a number one for Alexandra Burke. Few would have anticipated such a thing at the time – who knows what treasures pop artists of the future might find on his new album?

Leonard Cohen is a rare thing: a pop grandfather who just gets better with age