2016 – A Year In Review Part One: Album Of The Year

empty-pageNo sooner have the Creme Eggs gone from the shelves it seems it’s year end and time for the writer’s favourite, the annual album of the year bonanza. You’ll remember (because of your loyalty to both myself and this very intermittent blog) that 2015 was a very close-run contest indeed, with the inimitable Ghost scooping the gong on countback.

2016 has been a different kind of year in music with a load of new kids on the block all fighting it out to be crowned King Dong of the rock and roll world. And oh there is a winner. But as is tradition, let’s first take a look at some of the records that came close but no cigar, and what a strong year it’s been.

Pledge Music has certainly become the record releasing channel du jour with great new independent outings from Wildhearts bassist Scott Sorry, Blacklist Saints and Role Models while erstwhile Terrorvision vocalist Tony Wright ramped things up with his first solo electric outing, the brilliant Walnut Dash.

Of course there were a few Ginger Wildheart collaborators knocking about and doing their own thing too and The Dowling Poole unleashed the viciously satirical One Hyde Park which sounds even better live than on record, whilst The Empty Page‘s grunge throwback Unfolding helped to produce a gig of the year candidate for its launch show.

Former Wildhearts drummer Stidi also banged out a great debut with new band Drama Club Rejects as did former bassist Danny with The Main Grains. A pair of throwback records, both showed enough punky vigour to warrant repeat listens rather than just being nostalgic novelties and proved that the spirit of The Wildhearts lives on in many shapes and forms.

metallicaAs an “Event” with a capital E, you can’t get much bigger than a new release from Metallica and 2016 saw just that. As the band have grown older, we’ve seen a bit more of a, shall we say, self-indulgent theme to their music but in 2016, to keep pace with the young ‘uns, Hetfield and co well and truly upped their game.

With Metallica‘s Hardwired…To Self Destruct spreading itself over two discs, it took patience to get to grips with, but the thrashy power of the band’s latest saw a return to form that no-one expected. Not to be outdone, Megadeth snuck out their best record for a decade with Dystopia, proving Dave Mustaine still has bite, but both bands must be glancing over their shoulders at the upstarts in Gojira who produced yet another modern classic in Magma.

A new Volbeat record is always a bit of a big deal too and although Seal The Deal & Let’s Boogie didn’t set anything alight, it was still a solid outing as was the sophomore outing from Scot rockers The Amorettes, White Hot Heat.

A few eagerly awaited debuts also landed in 2016 with Love Zombies, Tax The Heat, Black Peaks, Vodun and the workaholic Heck finally all finding time from their mammoth touring schedules to unleash prime cuts of studio-based bliss. Heck in particular did something nobody expected with a 16 minute album-closer that proved the boys have the songs to back up what they do on (and mainly off) stage.

asylumsThe surprise debut success of 2016 however has to go to Asylums. Nobody expected such a gloriously passion-filled record to hit in 2016 but Killer Brain Waves proved that a 90s alt-rock influenced sound could be modernised to such an extent it would blow much of the more established competition out of the water. Keep an eye on this lot, they’re heading straight for the top.

 

Up next – the winners…

The Affs Awards 2014 – Gig of the Year

Black Moth @ The Roadhouse

Black Moth – unflappable.

 

Lists. Everyone likes a list. Whether it’s the top ten chores you’re not very likely to complete this year or a batch of unachievable New Year resolutions, you’ve probably scribbled down a few words on the back of a fag packet as Big Ben struck midnight. And as critics around the world compile their lists to summarise the year that’s just passed, it’s time for the definitive catch up on 2014’s finest in live music from none other than yours truly with the Affs Award 2014 for Gig of the Year.

Sepultura @ The Ritz

Sepultura – Chaos 2014

First off, it’s the honourable mentions section, this year going to 2013’s winners, Manic Street Preachers who belted out a storming rendition of classic LP The Holy Bible in December. Stalwarts Sepultura also proved there’s plenty of life left in them yet with a furiously heavy outing back in February, whilst Volbeat sold out Manchester Academy once again and proved they’re one of the best bands on the planet for creating a party at any size gig. Towards the end of 2014 Mastodon, Machine Head and Behemoth all showed what it takes to be a big modern metal band with sets full of dizzying invention and showmanship, all three of whom should count themselves unlucky to just miss out on the very top of my list.

A few individuals and bands also deserve shout-outs simply for working their arses off in 2014. Turbowolf played two outstanding headline shows in Manchester alongside a triumphant set at Camden Rocks that saw the whole Electric Ballroom jumping. I can guarantee right now that 2015 will be their year. Chris Catalyst also toured his gig trousers off with Eureka Machines shows at Camden as well as their own headline run, with the frontman somehow also finding time to help out Ginger Wildheart and Tony Wright on numerous dates throughout the year and belting out a brilliant acoustic set of his own in a cramped and sweaty Brewdog Camden basement.

Tony Wright @ Gulliver's

Tony Wright – rock and sausage roll

Speaking of the erstwhile Terrorvision frontman, Tony Wright provided us with a few shows of absolute comedy and songwriting gold as he embarked on début solo outings in 2014, whilst dynamic duo The Dowling Poole served up glittering acoustic pop rock ahead of full-on electric shows in 2015. Therapy? frontman Andy Cairns followed up last year’s solo shows with an excellent new set, giving us 20 years worth of classics in a stupidly intimate environment, also taking his band out earlier in the year to celebrate two decades since the release of the seminal Troublegum LP.

God Damn also saw their stock rise with a couple of headline jaunts and a destructive support slot with Turbowolf, whilst Beastmilk brought some beautifully melancholic noise to these shores on a couple of occasions. UK music continued to rule the roost with Black Moth covering us in a shroud of wondrous doom off the back of their brilliant second opus and Tropical Contact fortunately deciding not to call it a day, whilst our US cousins threatened to upset the balance by sending Butcher Babies over to blow us away with crunchy riffs and some insanely catchy yet heavy tunes.

It wasn’t a year solely of metal either, with two gigs in particular standing out for their sheer camp spectacle. I usually avoid arena gigs like the plague but there was no denying Lady Gaga put on a mammoth performance and was note perfect alongside the dancing and costume changes, whilst Erasure rolled back the years with a succession of perfect pop classics.

But now, onto the top five…

Rival Sons @ Gorilla

Rival Sons – unrivalled.

4= Black Stone Cherry @ The Ritz and Rival Sons @ Gorilla

I’m putting these two shows together for a couple of reasons. Firstly, both bands have played far bigger shows in Manchester since, and I feel truly privileged to have snagged tickets to such intimate occasions. Secondly, the first time I saw both of these bands was when Rival Sons supported BSC at the Academy, so for me they’ll always be intertwined. BSC’s gig at The Ritz in 2014 felt like a fan club show where we got to sit in the band’s front room as 20-odd tracks were interspersed with banter and Q&As that you wouldn’t normally get from such a huge group, all inside a cosy 1,500-capacity venue. Not only did we get a one-off experience, BSC were also on fire, blitzing out old and new tracks alike with power and emotion that you couldn’t help but be taken in by.

Fellow Southern rockers Rival Sons played across the road on a different night at the even cosier Gorilla. Essentially a back-room-of-a-pub gig, seeing these guys so up close was an absolute honour and proved why they’ve rocketed in popularity so successfully over the past couple of years. As far as 70s-influenced bluesy riffing goes, Rival Sons are going to be tough to beat for the foreseeable future.

Kerbdog @ The Ritz

Cormac Battle – crushing dummies.

3 Kerbdog @ The Ritz

No write-up of 2014 would be complete without mentioning certain comebacks. Baby Chaos nearly made this list just from the pure euphoria of seeing them get back on stage and bang out half an hour of perfect pop rock, but the most welcome return has to have been Kerbdog. Not content with just playing a couple of club gigs to test the waters, they brought a load of old muckers along for the ride which saw Hawk Eyes, Nine Black Alps and Amplifier get us giddy with anticipation. But it was the Kilkenny four-piece who provided the biggest roar, making it hard to believe we’ve only ever had two albums from them, the latter of which emerged 17 years ago. Treated like returning heroes, Kerbdog had not lost a beat in the intervening years, nailing a high-octane masterclass and leaving a gleeful crowd relishing more new material in 2015.

Frank Turner - reach for the stars.

Frank Turner – reach for the stars.

2 Möngöl Hörde @ Academy 3

In between larger shows, Mr Frank Turner likes to get back to basics with the odd small and sweaty gig, and by taking his hardcore outfit Möngöl Hörde out on the road it was easy to fulfil such ambitions.  A dirty, punky and most importantly, fun show, this was a brilliant showcase of not just Turner‘s songwriting prowess but also an opportunity to pay homage to his influences. Covers of Rage Against The Machine‘s ‘Bulls On Parade’, Faith No More‘s ‘Epic’ and Sepultura‘s ‘Refuse/Resist’ all sat comfortably side-by-side with tracks off the Hörde‘s début album, and Turner himself surfed and threw himself all over the place in an energetic display of rock and roll splendour. It’s tough to beat a show that sees everyone in the room let themselves go with sheer enjoyment, but there can be only one winner…

Ginger @ The Roadhouse

Ginger Wildheart – father and son.

1 Ginger Wildheart @ The Roadhouse

I saw Ginger five times in 2014, once with The Wildhearts, once for his Halloween Hootenanny, once for his annual Birthday knees up, and once standing outside the packed Baby Godzilla show at Camden Rocks, but it was his gig at the smallest venue I’d seen him at since an acoustic show at Ashton-under-Lyne’s Witchwood in 2011 that really resonated with me.

After the hangovers had subsided from the aforementioned Halloween shindig, the relentless mainman took his merry band of cohorts as well as The Scaramanga Six and Eureka Machines on a jaunt North, and their first stop was Manchester’s Roadhouse. I was lucky enough to attend a pre-show meet and greet where Ginger seemed on excellent, relaxed form alongside his family and this atmosphere definitely seeped into the gig itself. Ginger smiled away throughout, Random Jon Poole and Kelli Compulsive bounced around like lunatics, and Chris Catalyst enhanced his pitch for Man of the Year with another show of double-duty perfection. The setlist was pitched brilliantly between classics and new songs that were only a few months old and for once the Manchester crowd did themselves proud, belting out each and every line. A family affair in the truest of senses, Ginger’s Roadhouse show was everything you’d want from an intimate gig with music, crowd and artist all simply falling into place, leaving the lucky punters who’d managed to grab a ticket grinning from ear to ear. Live music at its most joyous.

The Affs Awards 2011 – Gig of the Year

The Lemonheads @ Manchester Ritz 2011

Evan Dando and Meredith Sheldon

Following on from my Album of the Year Award, and keeping to the musical theme, next up is the Affs Gig of the Year Award for the best acts to tread the boards throughout the past 12 months. As a 2011 resolution, getting out and about to see more live bands was always going to be an enjoyable one, so it came as a pleasant surprise that so many amazing groups chose to tour in recent months. It truly was an eclectic mix of old favourites that I hadn’t seen in years, bucketlist bands who I was watching for the first time, groups suggested to me by friends, and a few local and random acts thrown in for good measure.

I’ve always been a huge fan of live music so trying to see as wide a variety as possible in 2011 was always the plan. My first ever gig was way back in January 1994. The band? Manic Street Preachers at Bristol Anson Rooms, at a time when the group were nothing short of dangerous but imperious and Richey James was fortunately still with us. I think this event also saw me consume my first ever pint (Fosters, natch) and this double virginity loss really did have a massive impact on my life.

In the years that followed, my friends and I would be ferried about by our parents to venues across the South West, and sometimes we’d brave crossing the Welsh border to Newport Centre, or go on a field trip to Donington to scoff death burgers and get in on some metal festival action. Gigs were cheap (Ash for £5 just as they were on the cusp of greatness) and so was transport (the parents seemed to enjoy it. Maybe).

Eventually though, we went our separate ways to University and I didn’t really hook up with that similar a crowd taste-wise whilst there, so I missed out on a good few years of gigging.

When I then moved to the North West, I didn’t really know too many folk who wanted to attend gigs that veered towards the heavier side of the musical spectrum so I became content in CDs, cinema-going and video games.

Then something just changed. A couple of friends started playing in bands and as soon as I went to various venues to cheer them on, the bug bit back. I loved the mustiness of old man boozers, the creaking, sticky floorboards of venues that should probably be condemned. The whole friendly atmosphere of the scene hadn’t changed that much since I’d been away, only this time, I was hearing this stuff with musically mature ears.

And so here we are taking a look back on 2011, a golden year for live music, and one so crammed full of top quality concerts, it seems churlish not to give a few shout outs. First off I thought I’d throw in a couple of surprise packages. I’m so grateful and lucky to have friends willing to invite me along to new gig experiences, and through them I caught both My Morning Jacket and Twin Atlantic in 2011.

I didn’t really have any idea how big the ‘Jacket were around the globe, but I was truly impressed with their show. Despite some lengthy tunes, they kept an obviously very knowledgeable crowd entertained throughout, and have some serious songwriting skills on display.

Twin Atlantic were pitched to me as “an indie gig” so I was a little surprised at how heavy these guys can get. Both the ‘Jacket and Twin Atlantic seem to have massively strong and supportive fanbases and it reminds me of how things were 20-odd years ago, with perennial live favourites just failing to make it into the mainstream British consciousness. Nevertheless, TA pulled out a stormingly energetic set and I’m going to be looking out for them next time they swing by.

I also got to see some bands in 2011 that I’ve loved for years but never got round to seeing when I was still able to jump around properly, namely Kyuss, Queens of the Stone Age, The Lemonheads, My Dying Bride and The Smashing Pumpkins. The Lemonheads in particular, through being down the front on the barrier and watching them plough through the whole of It’s A Shame About Ray was a true 2011 privilege. Kyuss, QOTSA and the Pumpkins all also proved, despite the line-up changes, that they can still throw down with the best of them and produced three great nights out which left me exhilarated and smiling all the way home.

As far as guilty pleasures go I also managed to nail down two childhood faves this year; Kylie (look, I got some free tickets!) and Roxette. I’d recommend anyone goes to see Kylie simply for the camp spectacle. The little minx put on a great show and I may even have sung along a couple of times. No sequins were harmed in the writing of this blog.

I loved Roxette when I was approaching my teenage years and I will unashamedly say that I also loved every minute of their show at Wembley Arena in 2011. It was great to have them back after a few difficult years, proving beyond doubt that they’ve written some of the greatest pop songs of the past couple of decades.

Special mention should also go to three bands I saw this year (on more than one occasion) who feature among their ranks some good friends of mine. First of all, Latitudes are a great post, well, everything band, with some spiralling sonicscapes that take on more and more meaning as they burrow deeper into your brain. Even in small venues with slightly ropey sound, Latitudes can really crush with their masterful riffing and technique. Definitely one to watch, and a new album in 2012 should see them get the recognition they deserve.

Also getting a commendation for services to live music are Hopes. They’ve only been around for about a year, but they worked their backsides off in 2011, playing all sorts of venues to get their ‘core songs out to the masses, and they were rewarded with a support slot for Feed The Rhino and a glowing mention in Kerrang! because of it. These lads will really shine more and more when given opportunities and they always throw every last ounce of energy and passion into each of their performances. A festival or two in 2012? Here’s Hopes-ing.

Also in this category are Turbowolf. I’ve written before about how brilliant these Bristol good-timers are and through a selection of 2011 gigs they grew in stature before my eyes, culminating in a superb headlining set at Alter Ego. Their album is one of my top picks of last year and surely they must also be en route to a storming 2012.

Three gigs that came very close to breaking into my chart toppers of the year came courtesy of Ash, Trivium and Mark Lanegan & Isobel Campbell. It seemed to be a bit of a 2011 trend that bands were getting back together to perform classic albums in their entirety, and Ash decided to celebrate the tenth anniversary of Free All Angels. It’s not actually an album of theirs that I own but the prospect of seeing the guys again after what must be 16-odd years spurred me on to pop down to the Ritz. I certainly wasn’t disappointed, especially when they banged out an awesome Kung Fu encore. As close to an Affs Happy Place that you can get.

Mark Lanegan & Isobel Campbell would definitely have been in my top three were it not for the venue spoiling things a little. Playing in Manchester Cathedral suited their soulful duets beautifully, but unfortunately, towards the end of the gig a fire alarm was set off by some tramps with a toaster in the Cathedral’s homeless project area. The show was abruptly halted mid-song much to the bemusement of Lanegan, but never restarted and it made for a disappointing trip home. Tickets for Mark and his band are already on the 2012 noticeboard so we’ll see if he can make next year’s podium instead.

Finishing off the chasing pack, and this one was definitely a strong fifth place for the year, came a surprisingly excellent Defenders of the Faith tour. Set up by Metal Hammer as a showcase for the brightest and best in metal both new and old, the gig saw Rise To Remain prove a few points to the masses whilst both Trivium and In Flames showed me what I’d been missing out on by only casting a brief ear to their output in recent years. But it was Ghost who really stole the show for me. Having already heard their incantations on disc, they were even more brilliant, spooky, funny, and, overall, massively entertaining live. Playing the majority of their album helped as each song was so familiar, but even so, as a new band in a big venue, to a big crowd, they performed with absolute skill. I can’t wait for a headline tour from these ghouls in the next 12 months.

Okay, it’s top four time and this has probably been harder to pick than my album of 2011.

Volbeat are a surprise inclusion in this list but a deserved one. The Danish crew have been around for a while, and in all honesty I only bought a ticket for their show because Black Spiders were supporting. Whilst the Spiders were typically brilliant despite a condensed set after some major sound issues, it was Volbeat who really converted me that night. Their latest album, Beyond Hell/Above Heaven is a complex concept CD but still hugely accessible and the amount of clued up fans that night really surprised me but also added massively to the vibe and enjoyment of the show. Volbeat play with a smile on their faces and passion in their sweat-drenched brows which meant they tore out everything that any fan could’ve wished for and more.

Black Spiders @ Manchester Academy 2011

A triumphant Black Spiders

There’s a tie for third place, with Affs Album of the Year Award winners Black Spiders drawing with, er, themselves. I really can’t choose between their sets at Bristol and Manchester on their tour with Viking Skull (legends themselves) and Turbowolf. Imagining that this time last year I had never heard anything by Black Spiders seems absolutely alien to me when I think of where these boys are in my life now. The Croft gig in Bristol was sweaty and jam-packed, and the Spiders threw everything into it. When we got home that night, we probably played the album back to back at least three times, reliving the experience over a few beers. Knowing what to expect when they hit Manchester only meant that I enjoyed it even more. I was screaming along with the best of them to Kiss Tried To Kill Me and the Spiders are not going to be playing small-ish venues like the Roadhouse again, believe me.

Not so surprisingly being given the runner-up award is Ginger. I’ve seen the guy on numerous occasions over the years and he never fails to show his love for live music and his fans each and every time. I’m cheating a little as I saw Ginger do both acoustic and electric sets this year but I really can’t choose between them, so I’m going to class them both together as one super set of true awesomeness, and give him the runner-up in Gig of the Year. It’s my Awards, I can do what the hell I like.

Ginger, for those who aren’t aware, is/was the lead singer and guitarist for The Wildhearts, a mid to late 90s band who could often be seen rocking Top Of The Pops when they snuck into the Top 40 by some sort of pop-rock-punk back door. Ginger has put together numerous side-projects over the years and never stops churning out amazingly catchy, quality music supported by a tremendous gaggle of associates. 2012 will also see him release an ambitious Pledge Music project, a triple CD set funded by fans, in aid of both the joy of music but also for Save The Children who will benefit from 10% of funds made. The project is currently over 450% of its target, showing the love people have for this man.

Anyway, let’s talk about Ginger’s live activities. First off, his acoustic show is probably one of the more raucous “stripped down” gigs you’re ever likely to attend. A true singalong with loads of audience banter and an atmosphere more akin to a gathering of friends than a gig. Ginger has the choruses to keep up with the best of them, from the anthemic Geordie In Wonderland through to the classic Loveshit, all of which sounded amazing in an acoustic setting.

As for his Moho Live electric gig, Ginger seemed on even better form, with a huge band and a set list for the ages. The place went absolutely crazy for I Wanna Go Where The People Go, just as they did for Cheers. Who’d have thought that an 80s TV theme tune would’ve featured at my second favourite gig of the year? That’s the power that Ginger possesses, and he thankfully shows few signs of slowing down any time soon.

Terrorvision @ Manchester Academy 2011

Terrorvision proving they’ve still got it

But this year’s winners are Terrorvision. I probably saw these Bradford oiks more times than I’d care to remember between 1994 and 1997, but they always had a special place in my heart. I spotted they were playing Manchester Academy in 2011 and so grabbed the opportunity to go, hoping they weren’t going to play much beyond their first three records, and that it’d be a pleasant enough trip down memory lane. As the gig got closer, I heard about a new CD they’d just put out, but I didn’t buy it in case it was more akin to their later output, of which I was never the biggest of fans.

When I got to the venue, I was glad to see a good selection of old(er) fans, all of whom probably never dreamed they’d be watching the ‘Vision whilst holding down a steady job, but here we all were, ready to neck a few pints and sing along to the classics.

I was also pleased to see that Gentlemans Pistols were supporting. They weren’t a band that I’d heard before, but I knew ex-Carcass legend Bill Steer was spanking his plank for them, so I got down the front early on. And what a great noise those boys made. Tossing out retro-tinged riffs like Sabbath had never gone away, the Pistols made a lot of new fans that night and were the perfect set up for what was to follow.

When Terrorvision hit the stage, grown men were hugging and practically crying with joy at the prospect of these boys strutting their stuff again after all these years. In fact, I dare anyone not to smile when Tony Wright pops on stage and grins like a Cheshire cat eating a particularly enormous piece of cheese, his boyish charm still prevailing in the face of (admittedly not that much more than my) age. Even with Shutty off enjoying his drummer retirement home and new sticksman Cam Greenwood being young enough for the rest of the band to have birthed him themselves, this was a group 157% at the top of their game.

What Terrorvision did that magical night was to throw in new songs alongside old hits like Pretend Best Friend as if all of them came from one SuperCD of pop-rock genius. People were hollering along to the choruses of the new songs like Pushover, embracing them like they were old friends. Sales of the new CD at that gig must have been massive, and I’m proud to say that the album I bought that night has barely left my stereo/generic digital music player since.

The fact that Discotheque Wreck on this night is my favourite single live performance of 2011 says a lot, especially when it had so many rivals for this accolade with Middleman, Enteralterego and Alice, What’s The Matter? all making an appearance during the show. It also says a lot for Terrorvision’s skill as entertainers that these songs sound as fresh and exciting as they did so many years ago.

So, a band that were a live favourite of mine nigh-on 20 years ago are my top tip of this millennia too. Not too surprising you might think? Well, Terrorvision had to work their socks off that night to get everyone, collectively, back into that unique mood, and that is exactly what they did. Well done Terrorvision, one of the great saviours of live music and my Gig of the Year 2011.