Album of the month
November’s album of the month is a bit of a surprise – not least to me. I had fully expected would be Jarvis, Joanna Newsom or most likely Amy Winehouse. But despite such heavyweight competition, the winner is London-based singer-songwriter James Mathe, who because of the colour of his facial hair, records under the name Barbarossa (‘red beard’ in Italian, fact fans). Despite his location in the capital, he’s part of the Fife-based Fence Collective – a group of folk musicians who ply a wonderful trade in off-kilter folk music.
Chemical Campfires is his debut full-length album, released on Fence Records, who also put out his previous mini-album Sea Like Blood. The album features other alternative folk luminaries such as Findlay Brown and Daily Growl favourite Johnny Flynn on violin. It’s a lovely record. One that is understated yet totally addictive. The song that first got me hooked was the first track, Love and You. It’s beautifully simple - melody, acoustic guitar, fragile vocals - and really just plain beautiful. The rest of the album fits into a similar vein. It may well fit under the much abused term 'folktronica', though there's more of the 'folk' and less of the 'tronica'. But nevermind labels. Have a listen to these tracks.
Download: Barbarossa - Love and You
Download: Barbarossa - Seven Years
The album's not actually had its proper release yet, but you can get it from some of the country's better quality record shops. Like Rough Trade. Buy here.
Songs of the month
She may have missed out on album of the month, but in every other way, there's really no holding back Amy Winehouse. She's blasted back onto the music scene, leaving behind the patchy jazziness of Frank for full-on retro soul on her new album Back to Black. And what a result! It's a fantastic album, and this is my favourite track - retro soul doesn't get much better than this.
Download: Amy Winehouse - Back to Black
The real purist's album this month though is Joanna Newsom's Ys. Is it possible for any other album this year to come laden with so much acclaim? Hyperbole has been unloaded by the truckload, but I'm not going to add to it here, mainly becaue I don't think I've spent enough time with it to be honest with my superlatives. But I can be honest about the first track - Emily, because it's amazing.
Download: Joanna Newsom - Emily
This track was one of the stand-outs from the 1990s' storming CSS support slot the other week. These guys don't have any pretensions. No angular guitar sounds or haircuts. Just rockin' riffs and chunky tunes. They're a party band and this is a superb case in point. Actually I fear that they may never better this track, and end up flabby rockers like Oasis or Primal Scream. But so what? This is good, and I'm enjoying it before it gets tainted elsewhere.
Download: 1990s - You're Supposed to be my Friend
As previously reported, Sufjan's awe-inspiring Barbican concert at the start of the month had something new to excite even further. His 10-minute epic Majesty, Snowbird, which only serves to confirm his genius even further. This track is still only available as a live bootleg, but the quality on this one is pretty good. Makes you salivate at the prospect of the next album.
Download: Sufjan Stevens - Majesty, Snowbird
And finally, another new band. It's hard to keep track of new bands sometimes. For example, Good Books. Good Shoes. Blood Red Shoes. It's hard when so many of them ply the same spiky guitar rock formula. It's even harder when the names seem to run together. I get confused sometimes. But not confused enough to recognise that this is a top tune. To be honest, I'm not even sure what it is that makes this track stand above its peers, but somehow I really like it. Maybe someone can help me on this.
Download: Blood Red Shoes - You Bring Me Down
Now, while I'm on listings, I should really turn my mind to my best of 2006. Unlike last year, I'm struggling to come up with any hierarchy this year. It's going to be hard. Hopefully I won't take too long over it.
While you wait, here's some more lists to puruse. You probably know about Uncut's uninspired list, but have you seen the choices of the folks at top London record store Pure Groove? Nice.