Paddy McAloon: The Crimson / Red interview

In celebration of the February 2019 release of “I Trawl the Megahertz” as a Prefab Sprout album, we here republish an interview with Paddy McAloon, originally written by Michael Björn for Japanese music magazine Strange Days #170, pages 34-40, January 2014*.

Copyright © Michael Björn 2014

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Although tinnitus hinders him from playing with other musicians and detached retinas in both eyes shadows his sight, Paddy’s musical genius remains unsoiled, like a force of nature. New album ‘Crimson/Red’ is almost as good as the early albums. A pop classic, simply put.

Paddy McAloon has not released newly recorded material since ‘I Trawl the Megahertz’, although partly re-recorded demos for the aborted Prefab Sprout album ‘Let’s Change the World with Music’ from 1993 were released four years ago. Hence, it is a great joy to welcome Him back, and my voice cracks up with sheer emotion at the beginning of this interview. Luckily, Paddy is not embarrassed, instead he is full of warm laughter and seems very relaxed. He appears satisfied with the good work he has completed – although, as you will find out, he had forgotten he had a deadline and just happened to miss it by several years.


First of all, I would like to express my gratitude for getting a new Prefab Sprout album.

Paddy: Thank you, ha ha! That is great, it is my pleasure to give it to you!


It is a fantastic album…. It was leaked on the Internet under the name ‘The Devil Came A-Calling’. Did you change the title or was it not the title?

Paddy: No, it is not the title. That’s clearly someone’s assumption from maybe the first song that they heard from the Internet. I considered calling it all sorts of things, ‘The Best Jewel Thief in the World’ and I considered ‘The Devil Came A-Calling’, but I never shared those thoughts with anyone. I didn’t want to give attention to any particular song by singling it out.

And had I called it ‘The Old Magician’, that would have just made it even more of a pressure than it has been in terms of the press saying: ”Well you look like some old wizard! Is that how you see yourself?” It was difficult for me to find a title; I wasn’t sure what to call it. Then I saw the two words lurking in the lyric of ‘Adolescence’. And I thought ‘Crimson/Red’. It has implications of passion and a kind of burning brightness and I wanted to call it something like that.


My son is ten years old, and although he is not an English native speaker, suddenly he sits there and very carefully listens to your lyrics and thinks about the meaning. How can you write lyrics that are very specific yet so universally applicable somehow?

Paddy: That is very kind of you to say. I don’t know. I particularly like ‘Adolescence’, it is one of my favourite songs, and I have a ten year old daughter. She was the first person to hear it, when I was working on it. And she said to me: ”Dad, has anyone heard this?” She got into that and she knows all the words to it too. I don’t know how that works.

All I can remember is, at that age myself, I was probably more curious about music than adults realised. You know, things that strike us when we are young, they seem to be enormously formative. Maybe your son is like you, and maybe my daughter is like me. That could be it; where that curiosity is there. Say hello to him from me! One of my youngest fans, so I must cultivate his attention very carefully! Ha ha ha!!

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If you are ten today, there is just this flood of music, all over you. So how can anything stand out?

Paddy: Sometimes I think: ”What exactly are you doing? You are just adding to the music mountain.” Once you’ve used up images, it is difficult to return to them with a feeling of freshness. So when I sit down to write now, I will often find that I am writing a line or a lyric, or I’ll use a word or some device that I have used before. So there is a kind of penalty to having written so much stuff. If it is the first time you’ve ever rhymed the words ‘you’ and ‘blue’ and you have never done that before, you might come up with a fresh image, whereas for me it gets increasingly difficult because I’ve used those words so many times before.

I don’t know how it works when you make it stand out, but it’s a tough thing.


Speaking of it becoming increasingly difficult, this was the album the record company forced you to do.

Paddy: This was all my own fault, I can’t really blame anyone else. I started recording the album on October the 12th or the 15th of last year, because of a phone call that I had which reminded me that I was years behind on a deadline. And that had escaped my attention. Don’t ask me how. I hadn’t realised there was time pressure there. So I just thought: ”Oh my God, I have been working on this other set of music for so long that I’ve let the deadline go by, and these people are not very happy because they had investors in the music.”

And fair enough, for the ones that have invested in something that has not appeared, it looks like maybe I just don’t care or maybe I am engaged in some form of deception. And I wasn’t, I was just being the very slack artist. So I needed to get down to work, and that is what I did. I just picked ten songs that I thought I could do reasonably quickly, and worked very very hard, that’s the truth of it. Long, long hours. And made ‘Crimson/Red’ for them – I think they are happy.


Will they manage to force you to that deadline again?

Paddy: No. So far as I know it, I have no commitments to anyone now. I haven’t signed any contracts to anyone else. Actually, I specified in my contract for this album that there would be no follow-up option, because I am never sure if I want to make another record or not.

But although I haven’t made many records over the years, I am always working on something, and not doing nothing.


I understand that you originally formed Prefab Sprout already in the mid 70s?

Paddy: I had the name for the group in 1971, when I was about 13 or 14. I used to make tapes and write the words ”Prefab Sprout” on the box. When my brother Martin, who is five years younger than me, was a bout 14 or 15, we formed what you might call a proper group, with a friend of ours who lived down the street. So we have been going since the 70s, we just took a long time to get round to making records, that’s all.


You actually sent some demos to Brian Eno already in 1976?

Paddy: Yes, that is true! But even before that, I sent a cassette of songs to Track Records. But I didn’t get a reply back – and I am not surprised, because the cassette was a complete load of rubbish! I was about 15 then, but a few years later, I had another attempt: I had read that Brian Eno was forming a new record label. The truth of the matter is, I didn’t send him any songs that I had been saving up that I thought were good. I just sat down one week and made up a whole bunch of stuff, very unusual things – none of it particularly good either! – and just sent it off to him. About a year later, I got this very polite rejections letter and thought no more of it.


What kind of music were you playing then?

Paddy: I didn’t have a synthesiser, but I had a cassette player and I found that if you connect a wire to the microphone port, and you touch the wires with your bare hands, you could get this very strange sound on the cassette. I used to put it through some loudspeakers and record it, sort of almost like feedback. It sounded a bit like radio static, sort of like a short wave receiver. I was very much into the idea of electronic music, without having heard a lot of the actual stuff itself.


Your first singles ‘Lions in My Own Garden’ and ‘The Devil Has All the Best Tunes’ were a big shift into pop music then.

Paddy: That’s right, it was a big shift. But both Martin and myself, we were very broad in our musical tastes. We didn’t really draw a distinction between Stravinsky’s ‘Firebird Suite’ and Television with Tom Verlaine’s guitar playing. I think there is a time in your life when you are very receptive.

I suppose the thing is, when you first start out as a band, you sound primitive sometimes because that’s all you can afford. As much by circumstances then, we had that post-punk sound or whatever you would call it. We couldn’t have afforded a decent keyboard to get into any kind of real electronic shenanigans, ha ha!


A year later, in 1984, ‘Swoon’ came out. It is still one of my all-time favourite albums.

Paddy: You know, I sit and think about ‘Swoon’ some days, and play little bits to myself. And I have considered re-recording it, just to make it even more unusual than it is. Just to try some different approaches to it – not an acoustic version, none of that stuff, just make it more like it should be, more unusual.

I spent a long time trying to get away from that album. I was trying to get simpler, which I think I did, and just got more like everybody else in some cases. But now, later in life, I do have days where I think: ”How did you use to write back then? Try and get back there.”

I think, part of the thing there, was that no one was watching us,. And I seemed to have unlimited time, as you sometimes feel when you are in your twenties. You know, the clock doesn’t concern you. Time to experiment and make unusual structures in music.


You have referred to it as ‘Sprout Mask Replica’ which I think is a telling name.

Paddy: Ha ha ha, yes! ‘Sprout Mask Replica’. I know nothing is as far out as Captain Beefheart stuff. But yes, we would sometimes call it that, as our little joke to each other.


But at the same time you were surprised that it didn’t become as big as ‘Thriller’ by Michael Jackson.

Paddy: Yes, that is true! The thing about recording music, the way I see it, is that the fact that you get very familiar with it means that you think it is catchy. If you play anything often enough, you follow all the twists and turns. And that’s where we were coming from. We were thinking: ”This isn’t so obscure, this is great! We know exactly what we are doing! We know that this bit is coming up next, and…”

Well, the real world, the outside world, doesn’t always work like that, and that was our naivety. We really thought it was going to be a big time record.


But then you recorded ‘Steve McQueen’ and ‘Protest Songs’, from a song writing perspective going more back to the earlier singles.

Paddy: Yes, I suppose they are. With ‘Protest Songs’ I had the idea of cheating people’s expectations. I noticed what a great reception ‘Steve McQueen’ had had, and I put a lot of that down to the fact that Thomas Dolby could produce a very sophisticated sound.

I simply wanted to diffuse the problem of following that up with a big follow-up. And, what could we do that would be interesting but more low key? That is how ‘Protest Songs’ came about. It is a bit unfinished and I haven’t listened to it in a long time. In fact, I should probably dig that out and have another try, because sometimes in my mind, I go off and even dismiss it. It is a funny thing, maybe it is just a writerly thing to do, so you can move on.


I can recommend it, it is a great album.

Paddy: Ha ha ha! I’ll put it on my list of: ”If you like ‘Crimson/Red’, you might like this”. Ha ha!!

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In between there was of course ‘From Langley Park to Memphis’ which is probably your best selling album.

Paddy: Yeah, probably, yes. That was more of a collection of disparate ideas. Part of my thinking after ‘Steve McQueen’ was to do some stuff that was a bit lighter in mood. ‘Steve McQueen’ had a great atmosphere, but I felt that I could do other things, things like ‘Cars and Girls’ and ‘King of Rock’n’Roll, I just wanted to relax a little bit. But in terms of success, having a hit single on it really really helped.

It did sell a lot of records. I am not sure that it holds together in the same way as other things that we’ve done. But back then I was definitely chasing something else.


On the next album, ‘Jordan the Comeback’ you were chasing a more complex sort of animal again.

Paddy: Yeah…! Well, that came about in a very unusual way, which was in a way slightly self-indulgent. I had made a demo-tape of ten or twelve songs. In those days I had a really big quarter inch reel-to-reel recorder, and it used to take quite a while to rewind between listens when I was mixing.

One day, I picked up the guitar while a song was rewinding, and ‘One of the Broken’ just kind of fell out. It just happened, I was quite amazed at it. So, then I sort of repeated the trick a day or two later when the tape was rewinding, and I came up with ‘Doo-Wop in Harlem’. And then ‘Michael’ and then ‘Mercy.

So, in essence, while I was finishing off this demo tape of what was going to be ‘Jordan, the Comeback’ with the Elvis songs on, I came up with this other selection of four or five tunes which maybe are better than the other things on the record, I don’t know. So I thought: ”OK, this could be a double album”, which the record company did not want, but I was headstrong and persisted with it really.

My mad desire to do some of these things often has implications further down the line. Because there were so many songs on ‘Jordan’, that maybe led to us not recording ‘Lets Change the World with Music’. Maybe it wore everybody out, Thomas and the band and everything. Maybe I should have listened to people and made it a slightly more compressed record. I don’t know, what do you think?


‘Jordan…’ is an amazing record. Being a fan of ‘Swoon’, I like the complexity.

Paddy: Yes, I see that completely, and that would definitely have been my mind-set at the time. Complexity and depth – or what I thought was depth, so that people could get into it over a period of time and it would last. I have done that a few times, when I thought it was OK. Much later than that, I suppose it would be something like ‘I Trawl the Megahertz’.

It also connects back to electronic music or at least the FM noise part of that.

Paddy: That is absolutely right, the static and the FM noise. Even now, since about August, I have been thinking about music that would incorporate those kinds of sounds again, with songs. That’s where my head is at the moment. I don’t know when I will do that, but definitely, it’s a recurring theme. There’s something intriguing about noise and about static and it adds a more interesting texture sometimes than you get with a conventional instrument.

*Footnote: Please note that this is the original English article manuscript submitted for publication, and there were a few omissions in the Japanese translation to make the article fit in the allotted space. The interview was part of a Prefab Sprout feature – intro and outro were originally written in Japanese and have not been translated here.

Rainbow Ffolly: Spectromorphic Iridescence


The fact that I am such an irreparable anglophile is an influence from my beloved late father. He was the one who introduced me to Monty Python and we would watch the shows on TV together. The first episode aired in Sweden in November 1969 and I was so small back then that I am not sure how much I understood. But I liked it. Later on when we had a video deck, my dad would buy tapes with several episodes, and we would go down to the TV room in the basement, turn on the telly and binge watch together. It changed me.

And then there was that other weekly TV show, I was probably around 11 or 12, and it featured women dressed in ornate Elizabethan clothes who would lift their legs up high in front of the audience while dancing, and in the process displaying their equally ornate underwear. It was incredibly exciting and I always made sure to go the TV room when my parents were watching it.

On this show, it wasn’t just the women’s dresses that were ornate. The announcer himself would go on and on, piling arcane adjectives on top of each other for ever and ever. And then some. The audience would go “oh” and “ah” the more convoluted and gaudy he became. In the beginning, I just wanted him to get on with it so I could get a glimpse of the women’s underwear, but at some point I also started enjoying his absurd verbal torrents.

The show was called ‘The Good Old Days’ and the flamboyant announcer was Leonard Sachs. On their 1968 debut LP ‘Sallies Fforth’, Rainbow Ffolly start off with a parody of him and continue with a shambolic pop album that feels just like a Monty Python show. Things happen seemingly randomly but still manage to make some sort of inexplicable sense. Unwittingly, then, my father really primed me for this album, since it combines the Good Old Days and Monty Python like no other. (It even features a woman showing her knickers on the back cover; certainly not a coincidence.)

I didn’t discover the album until around year 2000, when living in Tokyo. It was easy to get hold of since it had been reissued two years earlier, and had seen its first round of reissues and reappraisals as the wonderful late 60s funny-mirror collage that it is.

For me it was like opening a secret door to my half-forgotten childhood. Naturally, it became one of the cornerstones and starting points in my treasure hunt through the British late 60s musical underground that I hadn’t really explored until then.

What I didn’t know back then and in fact hadn’t really understood until I read the booklet accompanying the new, improved, stereoscopic, monaural, dazzling and complete Rainbow Fffolly 3CD box set now being released by David Wells’ Grapefruit Records, is that the band themselves never intended this to be released. Instead, this is really a set of demos strung together with banter and pieces of unrelated recordings by a studio owner who had a deal with EMI for a string of exploitation albums. It was sold without giving the band either proper payment or a proper recording contract.

As a consequence the whole thing petered out after a single from the album had also been released but didn’t sell well.

It would take the band until 2016 to release another album, appropriately titled ‘Ffollow Up’. I bought it right away although it was very difficult, as the release was limited and the band very slow to respond to my inquiries. The album consists partly of songs written back in the 60s and is a surprisingly good effort. However, being made more in earnest, it lacks the spontaneity and outright silliness that made the debut a classic and a must-hear 1960s artefact. Needless to say, it is included in a remastered and expanded version on the box.

You also get an astounding wealth of pop-archeological tracks, demos, front-room recordings, radio sessions and hospital (!!) radio jingles, making this yet another essential release from Grapefruit. Spectromorphic iridescence indeed!

There is even a home-recorded cover of the Honeybus near-hit “I Can’t Let Maggie Go”. What more can you ask for?

In a word, ffantastic!

‘Gap Species’ from the NSRO – all highlights, no gap filler


The ‘Gap Species’ compilation by the North Sea Radio Orchestra suddenly arrived on Bandcamp without much fanfare. This is incredibly welcome, not least since that this wonderful English band mixing pop and classical music without the bombast that often comes in tow, only have four previous albums to their name.


Even more intriguingly, according to the sparse information supplied, these tracks mainly date from the period after the demise of the Shrubbies in 1998 and leading up to Craig Fortnam forming the NSRO whose first album arrived in 2006.


These humble beginnings are probably easiest to spot in the two “organ miniatures” that feel like the result of Craig just noodling around on keyboards until he found what he was looking for. But what he found turned out to be the pot at the end of the rainbow. Even these simple pieces combine a gentle surface with an strong melodic depth that has been their hallmark ever since. Tellingly, an organ miniature also opened the NSRO debut album.

Next, ‘The Flower’ goes for a much fuller orchestration. But Sharon Fortnam’s vocals keeps the pure feel of the opening piece and adds an ebb and flow on top. Originally the opening track of their first single and then reappearing on second album ‘Birds’, the version here is most likely earlier, since the organ takes on the role of the strings on the later versions.

Then, ‘Nest of Tables’ starts almost like another organ miniature but then adds more instruments, that build to the characteristic NSRO sound.

That sound is then taken to its upper limit on ‘Move Eastward Happy Earth’ with the addition of a big choir. Initially appearing on second album ‘Birds’, the version here seems slightly slower in tempo, yet is shorter overall. There is also more distortion on the choir, giving it an even more numinous feel. A song for wintry nights that is so good it makes you long for wintry nights!

From track five onwards nothing has, to my knowledge, appeared anywhere else before. And there are quite a few gems, such as ‘The Lintwhite’ with Sharron’s vocals to the melodic fore. Like many tracks by the NSRO it seems rather simple the first time you hear it but gets increasingly complex on each consecutive listen. I have no idea how they pull that off!

There is also a trio of tracks featuring the inimitable James Larcombe from Stars In Battledress. He also appears in many other related bands, including  the collaboration with Craig Fortnam on the amazing second Arch Garrison album ‘I Will Be A Pilgrim’. He opens ‘Stations Green’ with some wonderfully odd organ notes and gradually hands over the melody to the violins; on ‘L.U.C.A.’ his melodic counterpart is a vibraphone; and finally on the title track ‘Gap Species’ he is up against clarinet, bassoon and oboe.

Speaking of woodwind, other highlights include the neo-classically oriented ‘Music for Two Clarinets and Piano’ and the the ten minute chamber piece ‘Lyonesse’ with violin and piano to the fore. Not something you expect to find on a pop record exactly, but at this point you are already so taken by the sheer beauty of the NSRO music that you just follow along.

‘Gap Species’ holds together very nicely as an album and certainly is no gap filler. There is an understated sadness throughout that makes me think about Robert Wyatt – an artist whom the NSRO have spent much time covering, especially live, but also on record. The presence of Cardiacs bandleader Tim Smith is also clearly felt. Not only because he has mixed most of this, recorded the vocals and contributes some backing vocals of his own, but also in the moods conjured up.


This album will definitely be in my top list for 2019. Now, how do we make sure this eventually gets a physical release? This absolutely is the kind of album I want to hold in my hand while listening!

The best unpopular music 2018

anti-clock [24-44]

There are two ways to look back at music in 2018. 

On the one hand, and as I hope these lists will prove, it has been a year of wonder. Everything listed here is quite marvellous. Stuff that makes you happy to be alive.

On the other, music may never have been as marginalised, despite being a child of the political 60s. Now Trump, May and countless other leaders ignore the need to stave off global warming and instead form a new axis of selfishness without much of an opposing musical scene taking shape.

There were two great Brexit albums, namely Robert Rotifer’s ‘They Don’t Love You Back’ and ‘Merrie Land’ by The Good, the Bad & the Queen. But two isn’t a crowd, it’s hardly even company. I vaguely remember reading an article by Nick Currie of Momus already back in the 19080s about the rise of unpop (unpopular music, a type of music that sounds very much like it should be popular, except it isn’t). It feels like unpop fragmentation has just continued since then and the idea of a common dream isn’t even on the table.

Greatest album 2018

While not outright political, my top pick for 2018 is an album that makes fragmentation its core idea. Like the soundtrack to a film about a world where humans never regained language capacity after being punished for building the tower of Babel, it is an album where the narrative is pushed to the fore but the narrators have lost the ability to communicate. 

It also grinds musical languages such as ambient, experimental, electronic, musique concrète and progressive rock into a garbled whole. The effect is utterly captivating and I have played it almost daily since I got it.

Unfortunately, the album is even more marginalised than everything else. The ridiculously small pressing is long since sold out and right now even the digital download is unavailable. Calling all labels out there – reissue this instant classic right now!!

Sternpost – Anti-clock

12 best albums 2018 (in alphabetical order)

As always, it has been extremely hard to pair down the list and that is why I ended up with twelve rather than the proverbial ten. I just couldn’t make it smaller as everything here is really pure magic. And together with my greatest album pick, that makes for 13 albums this year; my lucky number!

Green Seagull – Scarlet Fever

Homunculus Res – Della Stessa Sostanza dei Sogni

Crayola Lectern – Happy endings

Simon Love – Sincerely, S. Love x

Palm – Rock Island

Papernut Cambridge – Outstairs Instairs

Regal Worm – Pig Views

Sanguine Hum – Now We Have Power

Testbild! – Stad

Cosmo Sheldrake – The Much Much How How & I

Slug – HiggledyPiggledy

Whyte Horses – Empty Words

Best singles 2018 (in alphabetical order)

I only listen to singles when there are no albums so it makes sense that this list should be short. And every artist here has made an album that I really love, not just this year.

With no less than five singles this year, it feels like Ralegh Long really could have made an album – and I hope he will in 2019. I picked one of his singles but all of them are equally amazing.

I should also say that although Beetles isn’t a very good band name, we find Tom O.C. Wilson behind that moniker. I selected his ‘Tell A Friend’ as best album of 2017, and since then, it has only risen in stature. In fact, it is so good that I haven’t even reviewed it, for fear of not being able to do it justice.

Beetles – Finding Fault

Chemistry Set – Firefly / Sail Away

Green Seagull – First Snow Of Winter / God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen

Ralegh Long – Super Blue Moon

The Wellgreen – Take What You Get / Cynthia Rhymes

Best archival issues 2018

An archival issue, as far as I am concerned, is an album that was never properly released when it was supposed to. 

Some years ago, a test pressing of the second and unreleased Honeybus album ‘Recital’ came up for auction at eBay. I put in my bid for £666. Of course I didn’t stand a chance in hell, as someone used a bot and put in a last second winning bid at £667. After 45 years this Byrds influenced yet quintessentially English baroque pop classic is now finally officially released.

Equally amazing is the story about Zuider Zee, who like Monty Python’s classic ‘Life of Brian’ movie were born in the bunk next to Big Star. Although they put out a fantastic self-titled album that has been criminally ignored to this day, 2018 saw the release of earlier studio recordings that are every bit as classic. As the story goes, Zuider Zee main man Richard Orange cried when he found the recordings after not having known of their exitence for decades. And they are in fact good enough to make any listener cry.

Honeybus – Recital

Zuider Zee – Zeenith

Best reissues 2018

Many other reissue lists have the Beatles ‘White album’ at the top. While that is my favourite Beatles album and I did pre-order it, I wasn’t really overwhelmed by its contents, simply as great as expected.

What did catch me totally off-guard, however, was the release of the rumoured double album version of ‘Red Rose Speedway’ by Paul McCartney and Wings. Macca played the underdog after the Beatles, and unfortunately ‘Red Rose Speedway’ was whittled down to a single album due to what might have been lack of confidence. 

Personally, I grew up with ‘Ram’ and still use it as the yardstick to measure everything else, so while I never held ‘Red Rose Speedway’ in the same regard, it is fascinating to hear the album in its full glory, complete with ‘Ram’ outtakes.

But if you really want to talk about underdogs, you should look no further that Fickle Pickle. Despite making the most intelligent pop music in Britain after the Beatles – and before 10cc – their album ‘Sinful Skinful’ didn’t even get a British release. But now, pop historian David Wells have put things right with a massive three CD reissue of the album. Just wish he would have included the Morgan Superstars hits cover album as well to make things really exhaustively complete… 

Fickle Pickle – A Complete Pickle

Paul McCartney & Wings – Red Rose Speedway

Best compilation 2018

If there is one song that captured everything about the impending end of the 1960s, it must be ‘Fading Yellow’ by Mike Batt. Although compiler David Wells have elected to go for another Mike Batt track on this compilation, everything else here is basically essential for anyone who wants to get a feeling for the vacuum created in the wake of the Beatles. In fact, what we get here are bedroom symphonies that point towards the fragmentation that this article started with. So, by listing this as the final essential release of 2018, I have now come full circle.

Come Join My Orchestra: The British Baroque Pop Sound 1967-73

See you in 2019!

With that I would like to wish you a great new music year! As it happens, the Lost Crowns album will feature in my 2019 lists a year from now and is already up for pre-order. Get on, go out, buy one, you know why and you know how!

10 best albums Q4 2018


It is that time of the year. Everyone is scrambling to publish their year’s best music lists. But what’s the rush? Let us first focus on the final quarter of 2018. It has been great, musically speaking. Every single album on this list deserves a place in the yearly top 10, although that won’t happen since there were so many good albums also earlier in the year. 

In any case, make sure you don’t miss out. In alphabetical order, they’re all keepers!

Matt Berry – Television Themes

Jack Ellister – Telegraph Hill

Group Listening – Clarinet & Piano- Selected Works Vol. 1

The Good, The Bad & The Queen – Merrie Land

Hen Ogledd – Mogic

Julia Holter – Aviary

Papernut Cambridge – Mellotron Phase vol 2

Keiron Phelan – Peace Signs

Sanguine Hum – Now We Have Power

Testbild! – Stad

Keiron Phelan makes chamber pop for 2018


Listening to Keiron Phelan’s new album ‘Peace Signs’ makes you think about being Swedish. The reason is very simply that the subject of the first track ‘New Swedish Fiction’ is what the title states. I’m not into Swedish crime novels myself, but I appreciate someone who treats my country in at least a little more nuanced way than normally is the case. So no vikings, tall blond social democrats or free sex this time. Thank you for that. (Not that I mind vikings, social democrats or sex…)

But in this new era of protectionism, there is of course another aspect to nationality. Next year, Britain will leave the EU and that could mean import tax on all records from the UK, in effect doubling prices due to an import handling fee of about €7 on parcels from outside the tax wall.

So as 2018 draws to a close, I am also drawn to introspective and slightly quaint music like this, because it will become even more hard to get hold of in the future.

And this is a mighty fine album in its own right, irrespective of my Brexit-induced pre-emptive nostalgia.

‘Peace Signs’ is released on the wonderful Gare Du Nord Records label, and like many other releases on that label, has an early 70s sound. This is already very apparent on the nicely arranged title track, as well as on the following couple of tracks, not least the Stackridge sounding ‘Song for Ziggy’ and the lushly simplistic ‘Apple Shades’. 

Wistful melodies and beautiful acoustic arrangements. Definitely more Kevin Ayers than the Marc Bolan references so much favoured by label mates Papernut Cambridge. However, this isn’t just throwback music. Instead, this is chamber pop for 2018, made with a mindset very much filtered by Phelan’s other outfits such as the arty chamber sensibilities of Littlebow and the postmodern J-poppy feel of Smile Down Upon Us.

Although there is slide guitar on a few tracks, it isn’t until ‘My Children Just the Same’ –  which makes me think of the Water Boys – that I become aware of a rather strong country undercurrent. That continues on ‘Ain’t She Grown’ and peaks with an instrumental simply called ‘The Country Song’. I am normally not a big fan of country, but when it is done in a Byrds-turned-English way, it can work very well.

However, by the end of the album, we are safely back in Albion, with Phelan reading a Chaucer-related lyric on final track ‘Canterbury’. When wordless voices join in, it all turns slightly hymnal. A beautiful way to end a beautiful record.

The definitive British baroque pop compilation


How do you describe that rare sense of wonder that makes you sit up straight as a candle and listen? At least, that is how I felt when putting on “Come Join My Orchestra: The British Baroque Pop Sound 1967-73”.

A new compilation curated by David Wells is always cause for celebration, but although this one covers 1967-73 there is, thankfully, no mention of psychedelia. Instead, this is about a pop genre that may or may not have been accidentally invented by McCartney when he had the idea to use a string quartet for ‘Yesterday’. Legend has it that British baroque pop was born in that moment. But even though it was there right in front of everyone, the world didn’t notice.

And that is easy to understand. There is little if any testosterone. Voices have an unshakable air of naivety. The pace is slow and the atmosphere is generally very intimate. Bedroom pop played by made-up chamber orchestras.

And I love it.

In fact, some of what is on here belongs to the standard by which I find myself measuring music: Mike Batt, Honeybus, Fickle Pickle, 10cc (represented here as Festival, one of their many Strawberry Studios incarnations, but nevertheless), Tony Hazzard, Stackridge, to name some of them.

British baroque pop isn’t exactly exhaustively compiled. The only other officially licensed compilation, ‘Tea & Symphony: The English Baroque Sound 1967-1974’ was recently spotted for €150 on Discogs but isn’t available at any price anywhere as I write this. 

You can still buy the ‘Ripples’ compilation series but then you have to apply your own quality control as it collects soft pop in general. You would then be better served by the unofficial, yet trail-blazing Fading Yellow compilation series, now up to 16 volumes. 

But now this release gives you a choice, which is really David Wells meets Fading Yellow, without necessarily crossing paths. Partly this is due to the fact that we to an extent have David Wells compiling David Wells compilations here. So from his previous labels Tenth Planet and Wooden Hill, we find artists such as John Pantry, Howell and Ferdinando, Angel Pavement, Forever Amber and Five Steps Beyond that at least I would never have heard otherwise. 

As an example, when ‘The Upside Down World Of John Pantry’ was first released on Tenth Planet back in 1999 it forever changed my world of pop music. There was something pensively dramatic yet well-arranged and catchy to Pantry’s music that struck a deep chord in me.

And then there are artists like Bill Fay, Clifford T. Ward, The Alan Bown!, West Coast Consortium, Billy Nicholls and The Freedom who were slightly more known – but where David Wells added a whole new dimension by compiling their back stories. If you don’t have their David Wells compilations, you are missing essential pieces of the very fabric of pop music.

And it is all here represented here. Incredible stuff. But even though I have collected all of the above, there were still a full 19 tracks that I had no clue about. I can only listen in awe and be grateful to David Wells for again leading me down new paths of discovery. As a result, I have in fact already bought three LPs and a couple of singles on Discogs.

Finally, a minor complaint. I am afraid that a lot these tracks actually come from vinyl records and not from master tapes, yet this crucial information is nowhere to be found. For example, the Mike Batt track “I See Wonderful Things In You” seems to be very close in sound quality to the single I already own, so I assume it is unfortunately not from a master tape. But if the master tapes really exist, I would so much want a compilation of Batt’s late 60s singles. Could there be outtakes?? I would so love to hear them in that case! 

Speaking of Mike Batt, his protégée (or alter ego??) Vaughan Thomas put out a long string of singles and a great self-titled LP all in the time frame for this compilation. It is all baroque pop to the gills, and not including a single track or even a mention of Vaughan Thomas here is the one decision Davide Wells made that I don’t understand. 

Please David, if anyone can also give us the definitive late 60s Mike Batt and early 70s Vaughan Thomas story, it is you!!