If there’s one thing the album of the year polls tell me, it’s that I don’t hear as much new music as I used to. Twice upon a time I would have heard everything on the main lists, and most records on the more niche selections, but this year I’m struggling. It was the same last year too: I hadn’t heard of Chance The Rapper or Hookworms until the end of year charts told me about them.
I might need to make more time to hear new records, but that doesn’t mean I’ve eschewed all music this year. In what has been the most eventful and bizarre year of my life, certain pieces of music have soothed me, moved me, transported me and exhilarated me, just like they always do.
Here is my year in music.
January to March
I used to have quite a senior job at the university where I work. It was pretty full-on. I spent every minute of the working day doing things and concentrating. I had no space in my day for music.
When I got home at night I didn’t really do anything beyond recharge my batteries for the next day.
It was stimulating, and I learned a huge amount, but I was perfectly content when my contract came to an end. Time to do something else.
My partner and I had by that stage planned to go travelling. I completed my work, she agreed an unpaid leave of absence, and together we set off around the world.
So for the first three months of 2014, before we left the country, I basically didn’t listen to music.
I don’t plan on repeating that particular experiment any time soon.
April and May
If you want to read the full unexpurgated version of our backpacking trip, you’re welcome to head over to our travel blog: https://ianandcharlie.wordpress.com
Otherwise, here are the musical highlights.
We landed in Tokyo, where we spent three bizarre days drowning in jet lag. From there we flew to Hong Kong, which was amazing, before arriving in Hanoi, Vietnam.
Hanoi is a remarkable place; vibrant, wild and fun like no other city we visited. It was in Hanoi that we realised how the backpacker economy has skewed accommodation prices in Asia. We looked at some hostels, and they were all affordable enough, but then we realised that it was cheaper to stay in a hotel. The gap year travellers are actually paying a premium to hang out together in relative squalor.
Our hotel was super-cheap (about a tenner a night if I recall correctly) and utterly beautiful. It had a faded, French grandeur, and our room was easily ten times the size of the hostel we rented in Hong Kong.
Something about Hanoi’s magic-hour light followed by the stately gloom of our seventh floor quarters made Everyday Robots by Damon Albarn resonate with us.
It was streaming via iTunes while we were staying there, so we streamed it all the time. We only had the meagre music on our phones to listen to while we were away, so it was a real treat to have an album of such beauty placed in our hands. By that stage we hadn’t quite twigged that we could listen to music through YouTube, so it was appreciated all the more.
Everyday Robots is a wonderful album: sad, beautiful, subtle and elegant. Damon’s voice has worn into a gorgeous, wistful thing, and he sounds deeply human on these songs.
He seems to split opinion even today, but Damon was a true companion to Charlie and me when we were in Vietnam.
We travelled through Vietnam from north to south on the Hanoi-Saigon railway. That’s a seriously uncomfortable night’s sleep, but you get to watch Vietnamese Rail TV during the day. Most of the time they show music videos, and every single song is called Vietnam, or Vietnam Ho! or something along those lines. And they’re all brilliant. The best one sounded like One Direction. We still haven’t got it out of our heads – its failure to become a worldwide mega hit is an enduring source of amazement to us.
Or maybe our standards had dropped a bit by then.
We spent May in Thailand. We planned to spend some time in Bangkok but the army staged a coup while we were there. The combination of soldiers with machine guns on every street corner, the 10pm curfew and the TV blackout all served to shoo us away from the capital. After a week on Phuket we spend a blissful fortnight on the idyllic island of Ko Samui.
Most people go to Ko Samui or Ko Phangan for the full moon parties and suchlike. Not us – we’re really boring. We generally spent our days sipping beers on our sunloungers, before going to sleep at about 11pm. Party time.
We had by this stage realised that all of the songs in the world can be heard via YouTube. As such, we suddenly had a choice of music.
So how did we soundtrack our fortnight in paradise? Well, we listened to, um, early 90s dance music and late 90s r’n’b.
Don’t knock it!
We were rocking out to all sorts: Haddaway, Urban Cookie Collective, K Klass, Mr Vain, I Luv U Baby, Ride On Time – the classics. Not to mention Ashanti and Ja Rule (what happened to them?), Eve, En Vogue and SWV.
Okay, so the other guests took the long way round to avoid hearing the tunes from our apartment, but we know who was having the best time.
We were on holiday, ok?
We had to cut our trip short after Thailand due to a family illness. That meant we were back in Scotland for its big summer. Oh, and the World Cup.
Remember that Brasil, Brasiiiiiiil song? Sound of the summer, surely.
Not really a music story, this one, but still worth telling. Charlie and I went camping in the week of the semi-finals, and headed off in search of a pub to watch the Brazil vs Germany semi-final. Alas, no tellies were to be found, so we headed back to our tent to read our books and monitor the scoreline on Twitter.
You may recall that match.
I got a text message from my sister indicating that Germany had scored. At that moment, Charlie headed off to brush her teeth. The bathroom area was about fifty metres away, and I would estimate that she takes about the same amount of time as anyone else over her teeth-brushing.
When she got back it was 5-0.
A remarkable sound filled the campsite: the sound of demented, disbelieving laughter. It was a brilliant and extraordinary noise.
Naturally this caused some degree of confusion among the uninitiated, not least Charlie. “How long was I away!?”
People emerged from their tents and just laughed together. Five nil in the blink of an eye. Football, eh? Bloody hell.
Because we thought we’d be away travelling for seven months, we hadn’t entered the ballot for Commonwealth Games tickets. Finding ourselves unexpectedly home for the games, we worried that the party would pass us by. Happily that proved not to be the case.
The full tale can be read in our other blog here: https://ianandcharlie.wordpress.com/2014/08/05/open-city/
Our lovely friend Laura procured tickets for the Rugby 7s for us, which was our first ever egg-chasing experience. Our favourite bit was the organised crowd singalong at half time and between games. Not only did we experience rugby for the first time that day, we also enjoyed 500 Miles by the Proclaimers for the first time. At the millionth attempt.
500 Miles is not the sort of record you would ever listen to by choice. It gets played at weddings and sporting events, so everyone knows it, but nobody owns it. I always dreaded its appearance at Hampden Park at half time during Scotland games. Terrible, childish music.
Except it somehow sounded absolutely amazing at the Commonwealth Games. For some reason, all of the civic pride that was bubbling up across the city, and the country as a whole, turned 500 Miles into a genuine popular anthem. I’m not really one for crowds, but it felt good to be part of that.
Especially when the crowds, who made even the Proclaimers sound good, turned their attention to better music.
Charlie and I spent two hours queuing for Commonwealth Games tickets after our rugby sevens experience, and managed to wangle a couple of trips to Hampden Park for athletics, and the first session of the boxing finals at the Hydro. Each venue played host to a genuinely moving musical moment.
We only got tickets for the morning sessions in the stadium, so we only saw one medal awarded. It was in the parasports men’s hammer, and you’d struggle to witness a more amazing sporting event. Charlie and I rooted for a Nigerian athlete who was brilliant at the hammer despite having one leg (how he kept his balance after the point of release remained a mystery after countless replays), but he was beaten into bronze medal position by an English competitor.
Much was, rightly, made of the non-partizan and welcoming nature of the crowds in Glasgow, and nowhere was this better exemplified than at the medal ceremony. I hadn’t realised until it started playing that Jerusalem had been chosen as the English anthem for the games. As a cricket fan there’s a special place in my heart for Jerusalem, but i’d never previously heard it performed in public (it’s not on the playlist in Scottish state schools, y’see). Hearing those stately, wistful notes resound across Hampden was a genuinely emotional experience. It was, of course, observed impeccably by everyone in the stadium, and I might have had something in my eye at the end. The non-Scottish athletes looked taken aback at the warmth of the crowd towards them, a theme of the games throughout that fortnight.
I had the opportunity to convey some warmth to the athletes in person when Charlie and I went to the boxing towards the end of competition. The Hydro was full of athletes who had already competed, such that I found myself behind the silver medalist from the women’s long jump in the bar queue. She couldn’t get her head around the fact that I recognised her. The humility of the athletes was very sweet.
The programme for the boxing finals worked itself out perfectly, with Nicola Adams roared to gold early on, and the two Scottish medal bouts on last. You can actually drink at the Commonwealth Games, and the Hydro has the best bar facilities of any venue I’ve ever been to, so the crowd was well refreshed by the time Charlie Flynn emerged to fight for gold.
As I say, I’m not one for crowds, and I’m always a bit uncomfortable around flags, but Flynn electrified the arena. It was utterly thrilling to watch him win gold. The roar when he was confirmed as the winner (by a mile) was seriously loud. That was followed immediately by another Scottish gold, albeit one that the crowd were rightly skeptical about (I was sure he’d lost comfortably), so the afternoon concluded with two renditions of the national anthem.
Now, this was about six weeks before the referendum. The tone would darken from the end of the Games until polling day, and have arguably got worse since, but at that point in time Scotland was a very self-assured country. I hope we get back to that feeling again. I grew up in a paranoid, bitter country that groaned beneath a massive inferiority complex. Yet by the time Glasgow hosted the Commonwealth Games it was hard to remember what those gloomy days had been like. We knew we could achieve things, just like normal countries did.
I thought that feeling would carry us to independence. It turned out to be more complex than that, though.
That feeling of self-confidence, of throwing off the shackles of collective doubt, of being able to treat the English as our equals, and therefore not having to moan about them any more; that feeling filled every venue throughout the games. And nowhere was that feeling more tangible than when Flower of Scotland was played for Flynn’s gold medal.
It’s a bit of a rubbish national anthem, frankly – we’d be much better off with Scotland The Brave if you ask me. It always sounds awful at Hampden because the band insists on playing it at half-speed. But that afternoon in the Hydro it sounded like the best song in the world.
Again, there seemed to be something in my eye at that moment. There was certainly lots of cider in my bloodstream.
Thank you Charlie Flynn; you made two Scottish people very happy when you won your Commonwealth title.
There’s only so much patriotic fervour people like us can take, so we decided to rejoin our round-the-world itinerary in August.
The complication was that our tickets required us to cross the Pacific Ocean, or else they’d be void. Awkwardly, we were due to head to Chile for the start of our next leg. The only way to get there via the Pacific was to fly to Kuala Lumpur (12 hours), then to Auckland (12 hours), and then to Santiago (14 hours). We had no choice, so we set off from Glasgow to Heathrow, and from Heathrow to Kuala Lumpur.
We were waiting for our next plane to New Zealand when Charlie got an email revealing terrible news: her dad had passed away. We cancelled our plans and flew straight back to the UK to be with her mum on the Isle of Wight.
I had never flown on a long-haul flight in my life until we went travelling, so I had no idea about the diverse choice of in-flight entertainment available on these planes. There are always dozens of films and hundreds of (quite trendy) albums to enjoy. For some reason I only ever listened to The 20/20 Experience (Part 1) by Justin Timberlake on all of the other flights we took over the summer.
If you’re cramped in economy class for a whole day, breathing recycled air and unable to sleep no matter what you do, try listening to JT. Nothing made me happier on a flight than hearing Mirrors. In fact, on a really gruelling flight from Mumbai to Heathrow on our first return journey, the falsetto coda nearly made me greet.
But on the plane back to London that night I didn’t listen to Justin. Knocked out by grief and the stress of trying to book a flight home (which is a whole other story), Charlie was out like a light on that flight. I was determined not to sleep though, because my body clock was still in GMT and I wanted to avoid any more jet lag. My mission, then, was to stay up for six hours.
The plane was in darkness and everyone else was sleeping, because it was night time in Malaysia. We were, of course, the only people on the plane who had flown to Kuala Lumpur for three hours and then turned around again. But I wasn’t going to be cowed into nodding off.
I decided to read Warne by Gideon Haigh (a brilliant book) and drink Tiger Beer until it was bed time back home.
Except it was hard to concentrate with Charlie sleeping next to me. I was suddenly overwhelmed. I felt so sorry for her, and for her mum, and sad that I would now never meet her dad.
It’s not easy to look at your partner’s grief-bruised face and then try to read a book about cricket.
So I flicked through the in-flight entertainment and settled for some reason on Help by the Beatles.
I don’t think I had ever listened to that album before, and I don’t really listen to the Beatles very often in general. But I was drawn to that record at that particular moment, and it made me feel better.
And that’s when I suddenly realised just how wonderful the Beatles are. Can you even begin to imagine how many people have been cheered up in their lowest moments by Beatles records? The scale of the emotional support they provide to people across the globe suddenly dawned on me. Imagine being responsible for all of those songs, and all of those souls saved around the world.
I wouldn’t push this next argument too far, but I think about that moment of realisation whenever I read about a musician complaining about file-sharing or streaming services not paying them properly. Clearly, there’s something in what they say, but at the same time these debates seem to miss what art is actually about.
After our travels came to an end, and with it our travel blog, I wanted to keep writing. I had some things to say specifically about the referendum, and that’s where this site came from. I’ve had the bizarre experience of seeing two of my pieces find a fairly substantial audience (one comparing the three referendums, and one moaning about the more fanatical Yessers) and with that I’ve had people I’ll never meet tell me they like my writing. I also found a smaller but still sizeable audience for a football post about antifútbol, after which I actually got fan mail from Kenya!
I mention these unexpected pleasures not to brag, but because when someone from another part of Glasgow, or Scotland, or the world, finds something of value in what I write, it means more than any money I could make from selling my blogs.
And if my humble musings occasionally strike a chord with very generous-spirited people, just imagine being part of the Beatles, and touching the hearts of people everywhere. Mental.
I never managed to get any sleep at all on that plane, or indeed any plane ever, so I was in a bit of a mess when we finally reached the Isle of Wight several hours later. Rather than travelling across South America we spent the rest of August and the start of September with Charlie’s mum instead.
It doesn’t sound like the basis for a great four weeks, but it was actually lovely. We got to spend time with Charlie’s mum that we would never have been able to justify if we were working, and we did lots of swimming at the local pool.
Every now and then, though, I fancied a bit of space. If you’re staying in someone else’s house, no matter how hospitable (and Charlie’s mum is second to no one in that contest), it can feel a bit mentally claustrophobic at times. So I took refuge in some actual contemporary music!
I spent many an evening sitting in the garden in the dark, listening to Total Strife Forever by East India Youth on my headphones. And I spent many an evening walking around the island by myself, listening to LP1 by FKA Twigs on my headphones.
They are both exquisite records. The East India Youth album mixes perfect pop songs with dynamic, oily techno, and made me feel very happy and comfortable in my skin. The Twigs record, by contrast, is mysterious, deep red and skittery. It made me feel woozy and transported me out of my skin. There was a time and a place for each record, and I was so grateful to both of them at various points over that month on the island.
After a while, Charlie and I decided to return to Glasgow. We were home for about a fortnight before heading off to America with her mum for her brother’s wedding. In keeping with the rest of the summer, the weather in Glasgow was always glorious on weekdays, and then rubbish at the weekend. Sorry everyone who was working.
The late summer was soundtracked by a couple of lovely records. First, the curiously unloved Trouble In Paradise by La Roux, and second a 90s r’n’b compilation that we bought to keep the Koh Samui spirit alive.
My personal favourite musical moment of that sultry fortnight happened when Charlie went to a class at the Art School and I had a day to myself. I took my book to Cottiers and sat on their patio all afternoon in the sunshine, listening to La Roux and refreshing my mouth with guest ales. Marvellous stuff. I should also warn readers that walking in public while Juicy by Notorious BIG plays in your earphones can lead to dangerous outbreaks of smiling.
Towards the end of the month we went to America for Charlie’s brother’s wedding. A marvellous time was had by all, but there wasn’t much music involved so I’ll brush over that episode. The entries from the 17th to the 29th September on our travel blog describe the events in tortuous detail if you’re interested: http://ianandcharlie.wordpress.com
We finished our travels for good at the end of September, but still had the luxury of a free October before heading back to work. We were, as you might imagine, seriously short of cash by this stage (you can only fly home for family emergencies from the other side of the world so many times before it starts to bite). Happily, the wonder of National Public Radio gifted us free access to a wonderful record for a few weeks. That record was Tough Love by Jessie Ware.
I wrote about the album here in what remains one of my least read posts. Jessie’s voice propelled me off on a flight of fancy about why I don’t care about lyrics, and why My Bloody Valentine are the best band ever. I encourage you to click on that link. Go on. You’ll learn just how peculiar my listening habits really are.
Tough Love is a gorgeous record, and it soundtracked a very contented and lazy few weeks in our flat. No great anecdotes or dramas, just a beautiful album, a genuinely brilliant singer, and happy mornings free from the sound of an alarm clock.
October was also the month when I read David Stubbs’s book about ‘Krautrock’ and rediscovered its finest exponents. Many an evening was spent grappling with my new Open University course while listening to Tago Mago by Can, which is perhaps not the best choice of background music when you’re trying to concentrate.
And then we went to see Chvrches – you can read about why I love them here here and why they are one of my musical turning points here – and their intro tape included Computer World by Kraftwerk. Reminded of its majesty, the album of the same name subsequently soundtracked many a long bath.
(Incidentally, my cousin is in a famous band and they used to practice in his mum and dad’s back room. That very room was also the venue, many years earlier, of my first encounter with Kraftwerk and the red and blue Beatles albums. Give them a blue plaque!)
And so it was finally time to go back to work. And with that, it also turned out to be time for me to reconnect with my favourite album of the last couple of years, Channel Orange by Frank Ocean.
That album conjures up memories of house-sitting in Garnethill a couple of years ago. The house had lovely orangey lights that were the same colour as some of the music on Frank’s synaesthetically-titled record. The downbeat, secretive second side of the album gleams in the winter dusk, and was barely off my stereo or out of my ears all month.
2015 will almost certainly be the year when Frank Ocean cements his position as the world’s greatest. Just wait and see. And the album of 2012 remained vital to me in November 2014, just as it will in November 2064 if I’m spared til then.
Which brings us up to date. My December has so far been soundtracked by the self-titled Alvvays album. I thought my days of listening to jangly indie music were long gone, but Alvvays are worth making an exception for: deftly assured and dripping with melody. If you only buy one album this year that could have existed at any point in the last fifty, make sure it’s that one.
I’ve also been listening to an NPR stream of 36 Seasons by Ghostface Killah. He’s my favourite rapper, and I think this is a classic. It’s perhaps a bit early to tell though. Come back to me for next year’s roundup and I’ll let you know my definitive verdict.
But I’ve also spent lots of time with the album I’ve probably listened to more than any other this year. It doesn’t have a story attached to it, unlike the others described above, but it has been my revelatory soundtrack on countless occasions as I’ve done the dishes, or sat on trains, or walked round the supermarket, or typed out my rambling blog posts. And that sinewy, acrobatic, exhilarating album is the self-titled St Vincent record.
It’s been a strange, brilliant year for me, soundtracked by strange, brilliant records. But the plan for next year is to listen to many more records, and in far more mundane circumstances.