The last twelve months have been everything I really shouldn't want from life as I approach forty; chaotic, dramatic, upsetting and sometimes really, really horrible. However, the end of the year saw things settling down a lot more, and, as I stopped being such a stupid bastard, I could begin to realise that the last 12 months have thrown up some of the best music of my life.
I'm picking ten albums here that have meant the most to me this year. They'll have had to have been released in 2011, but that's the only rule. Some, like the mighty self-titled Help Stamp Out Loneliness album I can barely listen to past track three because it evokes such self-loathing; whereas others like the Let's Whisper record bring back happier memories. Both, though, it has to be said, are amazing albums.
Here's my top ten of 2011, in chronological order.
1. Slow Down Tallahassee - Curly Cuh (Thee SPC)
A massive, big, fuck-off farewell of an album which saw me through some dark nights in January and February, and is home to 'Knees as Sweet as These' - possible the most affecting song I've heard this year. In January I said: "Some of the best days and nights of the last few years have been watching or listening to Slow Down Tallahassee. Sheffield is a poorer place without them, but with 'Curly Cuh' they've left a mighty, mighty epitaph."
2. The Andersen Tapes - As I Write 'Today' Ten Times (Fraction Discs)
A record almost too perfect thar you daren't listen to it. Back in January, I gushed: "At times this album can seem almost glossy, but you'd be fool to think so, 'cos at its heart is a beautiful mixture of all that's wonderful in indiepop today. You can hear Liechtenstein in there, parts of Crayon Fields, the odd nod towards Pocketbooks, and then you think "Oh! Maybe those bands took their inspiration from Amanda Aldervall". Only then you realise how important it is to have her back."
3. Comet Gain - Howl of the Lonely Crowd (Fortuna Pop!)
Their best album? Probably, and when Comet Gain's back catalogue includes 'Realistes', you'll understand how much this album means. In March I said: "Comet Gain offer us hope after all. These are songs about belief and hope as much as they are about the daily drudge. And that’s why this album is so special, really."
4. Let's Whisper -The Shorterst Days (WeePop!) Just when you need a hefty dose of cheer, along come Let's Whisper with perhaps the most inventive record of 2011. "It’s easy to write off Let’s Whisper as a side-project of a band perhaps more feted by Those in the Know, but that would be to undervalue an album like this. It’s only March, but I’d bet by the end of the year I’ll come back to this and realise it has more depth, joy, happiness, and big pop moments than 99 per cent of the rest of albums released this year". In retrospect, I reckon that's right.
5. Help Stamp Out Loneliness - Help Stamp Out Loneliness (WIAIWYA/Papillon Noirs) I think I've played this record more than any other since it landed through my door in April. It's the sound of a band sprinting at full velocity - a mesmering set of songs that I was lucky to see live four or five times over the summer and into the Autumn. I said in April: "When you get to your late thirties there aren’t many records that make you want to get up off your knees, stick some clothes on, and go out and find out what the city holds at night – but this one does."
6. Moustache of Insanity - Album of Death (Fika/Pull Yourself Together) All good, clean, harmless fun from the indiepop superduo. As I sweated like a pig in July, I opined: "There, beneath the daft name and keraayyzee samples on this album, lies a beating pop heart - a pop heart we all need."
7. Prince Edward Island - This Day is a Good Enough Day (Crocfingers Records)
I've not really any idea how I first heard this, but I'm glad I did. Musically, it's all over the shop, but post-Indietracks it was all I was listening to. It inspired to be plumb the depths of satire, saying: "To say this album is ambitious would be like saying David Cameron is merely an annoying, shit-faced twat."
8. Pocketbooks - Carousel (Odd Box)
It seems daft to call such a fresh, vital band "veterans", but it seems Pocketbooks have been with us forever now, and thank heavens for that. This, their second album sounds almost like a soundtrack to a musical, and is the perfect accompaniment to late December nights, I've found recently. In September, I was going on about: "When Pocketbooks played some of these songs to open Indietracks it was a bit of emotional experience for some of us. That they manage to carry that feeling onto record is testament to how special they are, and this album is. Proof, if it were needed, that pop remains supreme."
9. Bart & Friends - Stories With the Endings Changed (Lost and Lonesome)
An album that seemed like a long, lost friend. Clocking in at somewhere around the twenty minute mark didn;t matter - Bart Cummings had done it again. I got all dreamy in September, saying: "Again the songs are short, but its hard to be this tender for longer than a couple of minutes without exploding with love. That's what I love most about it; the fact that Cummings packs so much feeling into a couple of minutes that you simply couldn't go on loving these songs for longer."
10. Standard Fare - Out of Sight, Out of Town (Thee SPC/Melodic)
If I'm really forced to choose, then this is my favourite album of the year, and a more whole set of songs you'd be hard pushed to hear. The memory of their perfect, joyous, sweaty performance at the Nottingham all-dayer in October will live with me forever. "I think they call that 'timeless,'" I said in October.
In another year of wonderful albums, Standard Fare's 'Out of Sight, Out of Town' nipped in at the end and stole the show. More confident than the raw naivety of the band's debut 'The Noyelle Beat', 'Out of Sight Out of Town' is my album of the year, and it should be yours.
I emailed Dan and Emma some questions, and by golly they answered them.
Tell me about how long the new album took to record? Was it longer than 'The Noyelle Beat'?
Emma: We recorded the new album in ten days in the studio but we did that over about 8 months. Some songs like 'Suitcase' and 'Call Me Up' we'd written while touring the first album and others such as 'Older Women' and 'Bad Temper' we wrote the week before the last couple of days in the studio.
Dan: We’d gigged a couple of the songs before we did the recording but most of them were still taking shape so it was pretty helpful having a bit more time. We recorded about 16 songs and picked out the 12 we liked the most, that did involve some bargaining of songs though; I see your ‘Older Women’ and raise you a ‘Suitcase’!
Did you find it easier to write the second set of songs than the first?
Emma: I don't really find writing songs hard or easy. I had a bit of fun writing ‘Crystal Palatial’ as it's more of a story song and I got to make stuff up a tiny bit. I wrote the lyrics to ‘Half Sister’ on a train, then when we were in the studio I started playing some chords and sang a melody for it while Dan was recording some of his guitar bits in the other room.
Dan: Yeah, it felt like a different way of writing, it felt a bit more creative having the main body of the songs ready but then figuring different things out whilst we were recording them. Like with ‘Half Sister’ I recorded the guitars when Emma and Andy went for lunch, and I played completely different parts to what I’d planned; I was quite relieved they liked them considering we’d aimed for it to be a disco song.
What - to you - is the main difference between the two albums?
Emma: This one's a bit more varied, a bit more loud, a bit more quiet, a bit more fast, a bit more slow. It was nice to put some violin and trumpet on there. The subjects are a bit more varied as well I have less of a bone to grind with this one. There were other things I wanted to sing about.
What's 'Crystal Palatial' all about? I love that song, but is it a true story?
Emma: Ha! It's a true story in the sense that it's based on getting together with someone and the events happened I just used some artistic license and set it 150 years ago at the world’s first Crystal Palace built for the Great Exhibition. I have been informed it's all horrifically inaccurate; it was a shilling day not a penny day and apparently it would have been difficult to buy a latte in Victorian London too. We played ‘Crystal Palatial’ in Leicester recently and the girl on the merch desk had clearly been trying to work out what I was singing for the chorus she'd written down something to do with fellatio!
Is 'Darth Vader' the next single? Why? What's it all about?
Emma: We chose it as the lead single but only in the sense it was the first track you could download and I wanted it to have a chance at being played on the radio. We thought it was a bit of a different sound for us and I'd had some fun making a video for it. It's a plea but also a bit of a dressing down for someone to stop feeling needy when there's really no need. Funnily enough it's been the one song that people think was written about themselves. Maybe most people aren't as needy as they think they are?!!
When you played our all-dayer in October you couldn't play some of the songs from the album. Is this always going to be the case?
Emma: That all dayer was ace by the way. A fantastic event.
Dan: Yeah that was an incredible gig, everyone was so overwhelmingly up for it! We just figured that some songs need a few listens before you can get into them, so rather than quieten things down we tried to make it flow better by playing just a couple of new ones mixed with some of the ones we thought people might know.
Emma: We're hoping to play a bunch off the new album at all future gigs, although we might not be able to always have the violin and trumpet bits live! And we will take requests, especially from you Sam!
Everyone says to me you should be huge. Would you all do the band full time if you could? Is that a really stupid question?
Emma: Right well that's nice of them! Difficult question. I know I would, but I can’t speak for Dan and Andy, and thankfully we've not had to cross that bridge and I doubt we will have to.
Dan: Haha, yeah and I can give them the hundred reasons why we’re not! I’d play all day if I could, but I don’t think we’re under any illusions.
What about the next set of songs? Got some ideas already?
Emma: I think Dan and I will always write songs. I've been thinking more about family since I wrote Half Sister and Suitcase and have a couple of other songs in that vein which I’m working on at the moment.
Dan: We had a day recording at Greenmount Studios in Leeds about a month ago, and we wrote a new song for that which came out quite nice, it sounded a bit grunge, so we are still writing things.
If your band ended tomorrow, what would be your most treasured memory of being in Standard Fare?
Emma: Oh wow so many! I think the times we've really managed to enjoy the moment together, like playing Latitude Festival or Athens Popfest or Indietracks or any of the real buzzing full gigs that were unexpected. Nottingham Pop Fest was a recent highlight. The feeling when we had a new song in the practice room and played it ten times in a row because it felt so good which has happened a load. Turning up at Maida Vale studios was exciting. Dan and I meeting in London to be interviewed by Steve Lamacq and then a few months later ending up in a taxi with him randomly. I really should write them all down or I'll forget half the things we did.
Dan: Ooh yeeh, there’s too many! One that comes to mind for me was when we played at a pop festival in France about three years ago and it was huge deal to us as it was our first trip away, we got to play on this massive stage. We were really buzzing after the gig and I remember us all drinking way too much and dancing like crazy!
A hectic work schedule combined with moving house has meant very little action around these parts. How have you, like, coped?
There's lot to catch up on, but let me start at the beginning with the excellent Kids, a five piece from San Diego who I wrote about a while back. The band have released a split EP with their pals Sledding With Tigers, and it's a right refreshing slab of messy pop.
Veering somewhere between Architecture in Helsinki's best moments and - wait for it - Scarce, Kids are a shot in the arm during such troubled times and the three new songs here seem a real step forward from the stuff I heard earlier in the year.
Meanwhile, everyone's (well, okay, a lot of people's) favourite pop picks Allo Darlin' have announced that their new album, 'Europe' will be out in May, and if we're all still alive by then, then there's no doubt it'll give the band the step up they deserve. There's a single out too on February 12th called 'Capricornia'. Both are out on good old Fortuna Pop!
Here's a video of 'Tallulah', which you'll have no doubt heard if you've not been living under a rock and not seen Allo Darlin' over the last year or so.