Sunday, 24 January 2016

Sound waves: Alice Coote and Julius Drake

Although I've been a few times now - especially if you count the concerts given in the church as well as the hall - I still find going to hear music at Temple quite a surreal experience. The 'Inns of Court' (for readers unfamiliar with London lore) are small areas of London containing the 'chambers' where barristers live and work - suffused with arcane city atmos, they tend towards a mix of beautiful old architecture and green space in relative seclusion. They effectively run and police themselves and, indeed, at the weekends are generally shut off from the eyes of the general public. (Once I was following a 'London walk' in a book, and got trapped, lost, inside one of the Inns for well over half an hour, until I could find my way out again. I remember thinking, "I probably won't actually expire in here, but if I'm breaking any laws - this lot will know.")

Two Inns - Inner Temple and Middle Temple - co-exist in one overall 'Temple area', which also contains two gorgeous venues. So, inside what feels a bit like a kind of tiny walled city - a secret that luckily lots of music-lovers happen to know - the brilliantly-named Temple Music Foundation (backed by a small army of sponsors and supporters) can put on a substantial series of mouthwatering concerts every year. Once, at Temple Church, we saw the Hilliard Ensemble sing one of their final gigs with Jan Garbarek - unforgettable - but on the other occasions we've been, the venue has always been the remarkable Middle Temple Hall - which looks like this:

It's a fantastic place for song recitals. Not only are the acoustics marvellous, it's a 'wide' rather than 'long' room, so to speak: the audience stretches out to the sides and as a result, quite a large proportion of the audience can feel reasonably close to the stage. Here's our view (I love it when I manage to sit a little to the left of centre - good keyboard sightline!):

I was particularly hoping for good seats for this particular concert, as the performers were mezzo-soprano Alice Coote, accompanied on piano by Julius Drake. Regular readers of this blog - thank you, darlings, thank you - will know what a huge fan I am of both these artists. Not only that, the programme they had put together was irresistible: lieder by Schubert and Strauss, followed by a chance to hear Elgar's 'Sea Pictures' in its voice/piano version. (It's more familiar as a work for voice and orchestra - AC has a very up-to-date association with the suite, performing it with the Hallé Orchestra at the 2014 Proms, and subsequently on one of their most recent discs.)

Schubert had the whole first half to himself. The selection made by the duo seemed tailor-made to show AC's command of character and mood to its fullest. Renowned for her versatility, not least in taking on both male and female roles (I previously wrote about her remarkable Handel recital, 'Being Both', where she performed arias for the two sexes), she can switch at will between tender, delicate, fearful, resolute and threatening personas. Here, we were able to properly appreciate the way she manages to do this with both face and voice.

For example, in 'Der Tod und das Madchen', she captures the terrified girl with both expression and tone - and then, as the 'voice' of the song shifts from the girl to Death, you can see the cloud come over her brow, her stare towards the audience grow more intense, and hear the icy steel enter her voice. Yet because death benignly attempts to comfort the girl, AC still manages to end the song with a poignant (and audible) smile. We're taken on an epic emotional journey in these eight lines.

We also heard the famous 'Erlkönig', Schubert's setting of Goethe's horror-poem about a father and son galloping home through the forest - the boy is terrorised by the 'Erl-King' (who apparently only he can see), but the father chooses to comfort him by insisting its just the wind and shadows. At journey's end, the father discovers that his son is dead - his spirit taken by the supernatural being after all. The song itself hurtles along with the horse' gallop, and the singer must tell the story and portray all three characters (the boy near the top of the vocal range, the father near the bottom, and so on). Again, AC not only makes them all utterly distinct vocally (her whispery sheen overlaying the Erl-King's speech was especially chilling) but is able to fully act the son's terror, the dad's obstinacy and the spirit's evil allure - all with the eyes, supported by subtle changes in stance and posture (son on the backfoot, Erl-King forward, beckoning). Also worth saying that JD played a thrilling accompaniment, which has to be fast and frantic - but never so loud or unhinged that the singer is overwhelmed. The balance felt exactly right here.

The Strauss selections culminated in two beautiful settings of John Henry Mackay verse, 'Heimliche Aufforderung' and the celebrated 'Morgen!' As the programme note mentions, much of Mackay's (pseudonymous) writing championed homosexual freedom, and these two poems - especially in Strauss's settings - exude the twin forces of suppression and release, the sheer beauty of 'Morgen!' attaining an almost ecstatic stillness. In the former, as the moment of assignation approaches, the vocal almost seems to calm down as the piano (representing inner urges, perhaps - bodily desire?) surges and soars at the prospect of the meeting. In these performances, the particular telepathy this partnership seem to share was well in evidence - the pauses in 'Morgen!' saying as much as the notes - and how well-suited AC's mezzo is to songs of freedom versus constraint: a perfect fit in timbre and temperament.

The 'Sea Pictures' were exhilarating and exciting - AC as solid as a rock in this repertoire, directing her soaring voice in all direction across the hall like the beam of a lighthouse, with JD's swelling waves buoying her up. While this duo are one of the most 'equal' recital teams I've ever heard, it's in this part of the concert that JD doesn't just get to represent the sea - he's being the orchestra being the sea, and his swelling crescendos are truly heartstopping. While - if I had to pick favourites - I would take the first picture, 'Sea slumber-song' with its stately lullaby, to my desert island, there can be few more blisteringly powerful recital endings than the final climax of the final piece, 'The swimmer', and the accompanist lifted his hands to reeling, rapturous applause.

But as ever - he's my favourite composer, after all - my thoughts wander back to Schubert. We were treated to 'Nacht und Träume', surely one of his most widely loved and performed masterpieces. It struck me how used I was to hearing versions by sopranos, or baritones at their most hushed. Both seem to give the song an angelic, ethereal air - a kind of gossamer gentility - which, don't get me wrong, makes for beautiful listening. Tonight, however, felt like a revelation: JD's soft but not sentimental pulse, the deft rhythm necessary to conjure up an image of sleep - all underpinning AC's warm vocal - this was the sound of active slumber, comfort and calm, depth and darkness. As the song ended, I had one of those moments of rapture where I thought I would never hear anything quite as perfect again - so right did this interpretation feel. (It made me wish fervently that the pair might one day release a CD of 'stand-alone' Schubert lieder. We have a 'Winterreise' so far - and it's one of the best, I believe - but to my knowledge they've not released any Schubert since. We need more!)

Temple being the strange, off-world place it is, we floated out of the concert, and let ourselves out of one of the locked exits, into the ordinary, public, unmusical night.

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Retrospecstive 2015: live

Sequels certainly come round more quickly these days. Following my first post of the year covering my recorded highlights from 2015, I'm now stimulating the memory cells to conjure up my top 15 live musical experiences.

I can tell it's been a fantastic year, partly because of my horror at some of the recitals and concerts I've had to leave out. Some of my favourite composers and artists have been dramatically edged out - but then the list is a cruel tyrant and is not here to show me mercy. It's to remind me how privileged I am to have heard and enjoyed so much brilliant music. In particular, this lot - in chronological order...

Christopher Ainslie, James Baillieu, Gary Pomeroy (Wigmore Hall)
A January highlight that still stands head and shoulders over much of the year, this extraordinary recital from countertenor Ainslie featured 'songs of night and travel', allowing him to range from Schubert and Wolf to Bridge and Vaughan Williams. Inspired by what Ainslie felt was his own nomadic statelessness, the high register of the voice - hinting at fragility but utterly confident - was the perfect vehicle to convey his personal investment in the songs.

Jo Quail and friends (St John on Bethnal Green)
Between albums, cellist-composer JQ - a very familiar name to Specs disciples (Spectacles?) - put together a very special concert that it's hard to imagine anyone else even dreaming up. The evening was primarily built around the live premiere of her 20-minute masterpiece for strings, percussion and choir, 'This Path with Grace'. But we were also treated to cello-quartet covers of some of her favourite music - from Bartok and De Falla to Van Halen and Nine Inch Nails - and ramped up versions of her solo, looped composition. A journey round a unique talent.

'The Mastersingers of Nuremberg' (English National Opera, originally for Welsh National Opera)
Making five hours go by in a flash and a sausage baguette, this magnificent production featured a stunning performance of Hans Sachs by Iain Paterson - not only with the voice but even in moments of physicality and poignant silence - against a visually vibrant and relentlessly witty production. Plus - almost goes without saying at ENO - gorgeous work from the chorus and orchestra under Edward Gardner.

'Die fliegender Holländer' (Royal Opera House)
More Wagner, this time a mystical, muted affair at Covent Garden which fully allows for the possibility that the heroine - already obsessed with the Flying Dutchman legend - imagines the whole thing. It makes for a fascinating psychodrama, completely sold by the charismatic conviction of the two leads. Bryn Terfel, made for the Dutchman role, elusive and menacing, embodied the thrilling, but threatening escape Senta can never quite grasp. And Senta herself was brought to life with great spirit and sensitivity by Adrianne Pieczonka, one of the performances of the year.

'Krol Roger' (Royal Opera House)
I felt this was a real triumph for the ROH - a captivating and haunting score (by Szymanowski) , a strange and production and a superb cast. Again, we were almost certainly inside the mind of the main character - as literally expressed on stage by a huge head with chambers large enough to enact scenes from the opera inside it. As the King (in a terrific central turn from Mariusz Kwiecień) undergoes his spiritual crisis, dancers writhe around his brain like electric synapses, until he emerges from his dark night of the soul in glorious affirmation.

'The Queen of Spades' (English National Opera)
Edward Gardner, again marshalling the unstoppable ENO orchestra and chorus, uses his and their considerable powers for evil, as Tchaikovsky's terrifying adaptation of the Pushkin ghost story came to surreal life in eerie colours and images. I loved everything about this production: it was visceral and macabre, but left the sensation to the increasingly oppressive music as the plot ground on to its twist-in-the-tale conclusion. I particularly enjoyed Peter Hoare as anti-hero Hermann, using his angular tenor to sound sinister and strung-out. A brave and unsympathetic performance, balanced by a fearsome opposing cameo from the great Felicity Palmer in the 'title role'.

Wovenhand (Scala, London)
An incendiary performance from one of the best US bands, made all the more precious by the infrequency of their visits. Incantatory Americana - sounding like a kind of heavy, brooding, scorched-earth Bad Seeds - led by the shamanic David Eugene Edwards, whose lyrical themes of Biblical wonder, mixed with ritualistic signs and movements on stage, make the group such a compelling presence on stage as well as on record.

'A Poet's Love' (St John's Smith Square)
A weekend of pure joy, as tenor James Gilchrist and pianist Anna Tilbrook expanded on their most recent recording project - the three great Schumann song cycles 'Liederkreis' (times two - Opuses 29 and 34) and 'Dichterliebe' - to create a mini-festival of five concerts featuring more song and chamber music by both Schumann and Mendelssohn. A masterstroke was to bring in Carolyn Sampson alongside JG to perform Schumann's 'Myrthen' collection of songs - one can only hope for a follow-up disc with CS helping the duo 'complete the set' on record.

Trembling Bells (Café Oto)
To launch their album - which happens to be my rock CD of the year - the Bells took over this intimate venue for a two-night festivalette - a little bit like a mini-Meltdown (which, given Oto's soaring temperatures is all too appropriate!). So, we not only heard barnstorming sets from the band themselves, but also guest appearances from, among others, Martin Carthy (yes!), Alasdair Roberts and a special enthusiasm of mine, Crying Lion - a spin-off group who mostly sing feverish unaccompanied folk, featuring Alex and Lavinia from TB, along with Katy and Harry from Muldoon's Picnic. A sprawling, barely hinged affair - wholly appropriate for their full-to-bursting sound.

Trio Mediaeval (Wigmore Hall)
Could their be a better atmosphere than late night in the Wigmore Hall for a group of women who can sing like this? They were performing their latest programme (based mostly on the recent CD, 'Aquilonis') ranging from centuries-old sacred music from Iceland through to contemporary pieces. As with the previous time we'd seen them, they processed around and behind the audience in stately fashion, filling the air around us with their voices, underpinned only by their trademark melody chimes. Unforgettable.

Alice Coote's 'Being Both' (Royal Albert Hall)
The first of two Proms to make my list, this bravura performance from mezzo-soprano AC showcased her ability to play both male and female operatic roles through a specially-chosen selection of Handel arias. Part of AC's genius idea was to use a sparse collection of props and reject a flamboyant concert gown in favour of a simple black trouser suit, so that the recital also doubled as a powerful artistic statement: how the singer who becomes adept at these 'trouser' roles can spend much of their working life 'suspended' between the sexes, and what effect this might have on their artistic approach. With sympathetic backing by the English Concert, most of all we were able to focus on that beautiful, brilliantly versatile voice.

Yo Yo Ma (Royal Albert Hall)
'Single instrument Bach' was a running theme at the Proms (the Goldberg Variations and Sonatas/Partitas also got an airing), but surely this was the most singular effort of them all. Yo Yo Ma had undertaken to perform all six of Bach's Cello Suites in one evening, with no interval. (In fact, he had a very short break between 3 and 4, but we all stayed put.) Clearly, the outcome - deliberate, I'm sure - was to place us all in a kind of special 'zone'; 2.5 hours of some of the most perfectly conceived music ever written, with the cellist playing from memory, so channeling these pieces directly to us... it was almost trance-like, except we were all concentrating, savouring each moment. A total 'Proms experience', somehow shrinking the entire Albert Hall to a transfixed audience sat round a man in a chair, watching and listening to his every move.

Anna Caterina Antonacci (Wigmore Hall)
This lunchtime recital was well worth the day's leave necessary to attend it! After seeing the powerfully charismatic ACA sing in concert with the ROH orchestra, there was no way I wanted to miss out on this perfomance of Poulenc's one-woman opera-in-miniature, 'La voix humaine'. Normally performed with orchestra, this gig had the twin coup of seeing ACA in such an intimate venue, plus hearing the piano-only version of the piece. One side of the final conversation between a woman and her former lover (now with another), the soprano usually acts out the role with, crucially, the phone as her key prop. As she keeps getting cut off and the operator calls back, the piano trills the phone's ring. ACA, in gorgeous voice, constantly mobile and agile, her face travelling from euphoria to despair and all expressions between, was the consummate singer-actor.

Angela Hewitt (Royal Festival Hall)
Just a magical performance which seemed to give a snapshot of the many facets of AH's playing - two pieces by Bach (the subject of perhaps her most wide-ranging survey of works for Hyperion), and a second half devoted to more recent or ongoing concerns of Beethoven and Liszt. However, the revelation for me was a trio of breathtaking Scarlatti sonatas - happily the focus of a new disc she's due to release shortly. An unashamedly upbeat and enthusiastic perfomer, the exuberance and brio of these works made an indelible impression on me.

Barb Jungr and John McDaniel's 'Come Together' (St James Theatre)
We finish with Cavern-based cabaret, as a perhaps slightly odd couple tackle one of the most imposing catalogues in modern music: the Beatles. Barb Jungr is one of our finest interpreters of popular song - rooted in jazz but in fact able to transform any tune, particularly those written or performed by men, into a sometimes bruised, sometime brittle, but always beautiful anthem. John McDaniel is a celebrated US arranger, and, it turns out, a rather special pianist. Their across-the-pond rapport is hilarious and pin-sharp, and they're not afraid to move away from the 'hits' and include numbers that deserve a wider hearing. Even Beatles songs are happy to join an orderly queue to be sung by this voice. The kind of gig that has you skipping out of the venue.

Friday, 8 January 2016

Retrospecstive 2015: recorded

Happy new year to you, and welcome to the Specs 'round-up' of 2015 - part one. This year I thought I'd mix genres (so that people who like a bit of everything might come across something different) - so here are my 'recorded' highlights, covering CDs/downloads (including reissues) from both the classical and rock/folk worlds. I'll follow this up with a second post recalling my favourite 'live on stage' memories from the year.

I hope you enjoy it and - ideally - discover a new artist, band or composer to love.

(Quick digest for specialists - with my CDs of the year in bold type...)
  • Classical: Ian Bostridge & Julius Drake, Alice Coote & Graham Johnson, Mark Padmore & Kristian Bezuidenhout, Adrienne Pieczonka & Brian Zeger, Rachel Podger, Jo Quail, Dorothea Röschmann & Mitsuko Uchida, Carolyn Sampson & Joseph Middleton, Andreas Staier.
  • Rock / folk / other: Beirut, Calexico, John Carpenter, Clutch, Golden Void, Bert Jansch & John Renbourn, Myrkur, Sieben, Swans, Richard Thompson, Trembling Bells.

Onwards! Yet also backwards!


Beirut: "No No No"
Thrilled to see one of my favourite bands return in 2015, with a glorious, slight swerve of a record. Short, delicate and with less of the just-about-hinged clutter of some older material - here we get a focus on piano and drums. At times, both stately *and* slinky, as on this track, 'So Allowed'.

Ian Bostridge, Julius Drake: 'Songs by Schubert - 2'
The ongoing 'Schubert live at the Wigmore Hall' series from this duo continues to pay dividends with brilliant programming as well as performance. I thought the first CD was one of the great live albums in any genre, but this sequel has exhilarating moments even surpassing that, including a superb closing run featuring this track (Schubert riffing in his most sprightly fashion) along with 'Atys', 'Nachtviolen'... oh, just get it, it's fantastic. (I could only find a studio version of 'Fischerweise' to include here, but no matter!)

Calexico: 'Edge of the Sun'
Sometimes I feel a bit guilty for taking Calexico's scorched Americana for granted, but then they come along with the brilliant idea of adding the 'we-found-him-in-a-cave' whisper of their old mucker Iron & Wine's Sam Beam to their vocals on this track... and it reminds you how individual and precious they are. A lovely, but again slightly low-key album... I'm aware that really rating this and the Beirut record this year is almost certainly no coincidence.

John Carpenter: 'Lost Themes'
Who could've predicted this treat? In an era of cool retro electronica and resurrected soundtracks, the man on earth most able to scare you witless with both a movie camera and a synthesiser reappears with an album's worth of 'fake' film music. Take this superb opening track, 'Vortex', which will probably have you checking the corners of your laptop screen for agile shadows or sudden disturbances.

Clutch: 'Psychic Warfare'
A tight funk outfit trapped in the bodies of a metal band, Clutch are now decades into their existence but show no signs of running out of incredible riffs or whip-crack beats. I love the fact that even an in-your-face groover like this track, 'A Quick Death in Texas' - flirting with both Zep and ZZ Top - reveals more riches with each listen. An array of hooks - one for verse, another for chorus, another for middle eight, and a slightly warped version of the chorus riff for the outro; excellent use of the rock 'n' roll "Hey! Hey!"; gratuitous cowbell; and some born-storyteller imagery ("The saloon door stopped swinging / The piano player stopped playing"). One of their best albums in years, overflowing with ideas. Mostly noisy ideas.

Alice Coote, Graham Johnson: L'heure Exquise
A terrific year on record for mezzo Alice Coote - one of our finest, most involving and at times, intense performers - releasing a 'Sea Pictures' CD with the Hallé Orchestra and a superb disc of Schumann with pianist Christian Blackshaw. But on this gorgeous Hyperion album with Graham Johnson, she presents a selection of French mélodies that make full use of her astonishing emotional - as well as vocal - range. Bringing in a hint of the 'chanson' where appropriate, she's not afraid to temper the sheer beauty of the sound with mischief, seductiveness or ennui. A treasure trove.

Golden Void: 'Berkana'
This heroic track, 'Burbank's Dream', is a typical - and typically glorious - example of Golden Void's psychedelic rock. As out of their time as you'd expect from a band named after a Hawkwind track, the atmosphere is so thick, it feels like you're listening to it through smoke - and extra points for vocals that sound to me as if they're 'informed' by the marvellous Gary Brooker of Procol Harum. Prog-standard!

Bert Jansch and John Renbourn: 'Bert and John'
All of Bert Jansch's early records are being reissued. Great news for fans of spectral acoustic fingerpicking, clearly, but it also means I've finally got myself a copy of 'Bert and John', the informally named collaborative album Jansch made with John Renbourn, in their pre-Pentangle days. This track ('The Time Has Come') just has the pair take a channel each - the guitars miraculously dancing around each other as the voices gently harmonise. The art of sounding diffident, while knowing exactly what you're doing.

Myrkur: 'M'
Interesting stuff, this - Danish singer-songwriter Amalie Bruun, already successful in solo and band careers, decided to create an alias to record some of the music she really loves: black metal. While not without its ethereal touches (occasional passages of choir and piano make you wonder if this is what would result if Enya had grown up listening to Darkthrone), it's mostly a thunderous gallop of rumbling drums and buzzsaw guitars: totally true to its inspiration but not compromising other aspects of its creator's talent. An intriguing grower, recommended.

Mark Padmore, Kristian Bezuidenhout: 'Beethoven / Haydn / Mozart'
I'm desperate for this partnership to get together as often as possible and just record MORE STUFF. MP's measured, serene tone and KB's ringing fortepiano are a perfect match and produce a kind of jointly celestial sound. After a disc of mostly Schumann song, they seem to be gathering repertoire as well as pace and released this wonderful CD of the story so far. Here's LvB's 'Adelaide'.

Adrianne Pieczonka, Brian Zeger: 'Adrianne Pieczonka sings Strauss and Wagner'
AP is one of my favourite operatic performers, so any CD is most welcome. But this was a particularly exciting prospect, featuring songs by composers with whom she seem particularly at home on stage. It doesn't disappoint - she's in glorious voice: here's Wagner's 'Träume':

Rachel Podger: Biber 'Rosary Sonatas'
Slight red herring, this example (it was all I could find on YouTube) - as RP is playing the solo Rosary Sonata which originally appeared on her earlier CD named after it, 'Guardian Angel'. This year, she released a double album placing it alongside all the other Sonatas on it, too - so *imagine* how good that is. Surely one of the most accomplished Baroque musicians ever.

Jo Quail: 'This Path With Grace'
This cellist-composer - a very familiar name to Specs regulars, I'm sure - continues to push her writing and playing in unexpected, exhilarating directions. This incredible 20-minute piece, is scored for cello (Jo's electric instrument alongside a squad of traditional acoustic cellos), percussion and choir. From the opening blasts to the all-encompassing voices, you'll be transfixed as the piece comes 'full circle' to its climax, taking in rock, folk, choral and classical along the way.

Dorothea Röschmann, Mitsuko Uchida: Schumann and Berg Lieder
I was lucky enough to be at one of the Wigmore Hall recital evenings where this album was recorded. The duo have a fascinating dynamic in performance: extraordinary empathy (it struck me that it was all too rare to see a two-woman recital partnership, but could that have an effect?) and in some ways a reversal of the norm, with MU more likely to be the firebrand in perpetual motion and DR almost an old-school, regal presence. But in fact, the extent to which the pair clicked is audible: MU constantly looking from her music over towards her colleague, tracking her precisely, while DR's emotions are all filtered through her gloriously expressive voice, making this an ideal 'listening' recital. In this track (apologies if you don't have Spotify), you can hear them navigate Schumann's twist and turns as if they were a single entity.

Carolyn Sampson, Joseph Middleton: 'Fleurs'
My classical CD of the year. Carolyn Sampson ventures out of her familiar Baroque surroundings and into art song. Creatively and artistically, this is clearly a huge step - but how lightly she skipped over it. Thinking about the way she combines expressive purity of tone with speed and precision, it's a wonder she didn't try it earlier..! But one of the things I think make 'Fleurs' a truly great record is the programming as well as the performance. The duo have made a 'concept album' of sorts, with the floral link kept throughout as the track listing ranges across composers and styles, showing off the brilliantly versatile playing of JM alongside CS's 'born-to-this' renditions. I hope this is just the start of a really strong partnership (you get the impression from 'Fleurs' that their rapport is burned into the disc) and expect that future records and recitals from them will be equally as interesting and illuminating as simply, satisfyingly beautiful.

Sieben: Norse EP
Matt Howden - the man behind one-man musical phenomenon Sieben - is on a roll at the moment, releasing his forthcoming album in stages, as three quite distinct EPs. The familiar elements are there - voice, violin, loops - but with a constantly increasing majesty. Always pushing the boundaries of his chosen set-up, the current Sieben sound explores the epic: tracks of around 10 minutes each, layer upon layer of shifting sound, leaving behind a strict verse-chorus format to explore chant/mantra. This is new magic.

Andreas Staier: J S Bach Harpsichord Concertos
I first heard Andreas Staier through his marvellous fortepiano playing - particularly when accompanying Christoph Prégardien in lieder - but he's also 'rather good' at the harpsichord, and this year's Bach disc is understandably an embarrassment of riches. Listen to the full-on, exhilarating production on this track, the D minor concerto.

Swans: White Light in the Mouth of Infinity / Love of Life
One of the most intense rock groups ever, the current incarnation of Swans continue to put out vast albums, like universes unto themselves. However, in a previous life - with the band dynamic balanced between Michael Gira and Jarboe - they achieved a kind of wracked musicality. This year, the ongoing reissue series reached this pair of albums (they belong together and come in a single package) - and this track in particular seduced me back in the day and got me into them for the first time. I had to include it.

Richard Thompson: Still
As in, still brilliant. Another example of an infallibly reliable talent suddenly releasing not 'just' another great set of songs, but a record to sit alongside their best. Based around the 'Electric' trio - sounding very (a)live in a warm and sympathetic production from Wilco's Jeff Tweedy - but fleshed out with harmony vocals and tempered with acoustic touches (as on this track), it's the best of all old worlds.

Trembling Bells: The Sovereign Self
My rock CD of the year. Trembling Bells are, on the face of it, a folk-rock outfit, but they can't really be contained by that description - in the same way that their sound seemed barely kept in check by the studio or your speakers. Blessed with chief songwriter Alex Nielson's virtuosic jazz drumming (somehow keeping the beat while adding multiple shades of percussive colour) and Lavinia Blackwall's all-points-between-heaven-and-earth voice, they released a three-and-a-half minute spooky pop wonder, 'Hallelujah', for Record Story Day, along with their finest album yet, 'The Sovereign Self', where everything came together perfectly. Unafraid to stretch themselves on every track, a bewildering stew of musical styles bubble together in the cauldron - folk, country, even metallic riffage - not so much from song to song, but all the time, in the overall, consistent sound. This feels to me like my national music. Out there, but not as far as you think. A masterpiece.