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Favourite Albums of 2013

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2013 has been a great year for music, so here are my favourite albums. My top three are so different it would be unfair to choose a number one, so they’re equal first. What are your favourites? Do share them. Albums are listed in order of release within each section.

Top Three Albums

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Push the Sky Away
An album I came back to time and time again during the year, especially for late night listening. It’s a laid back and reflective album, with a depth of emotion and meaning, as well as an enigmatic final track. It also contains the wonderfully titled Higgs Boson Blues.

David Bowie – The Next Day
David Bowie is one of my favourite musicians, who never disappoints. This album came as quite a surprise when it was announced, and has given me much enjoyment during the year.

Black Sabbath – 13
From the heavy metal group (who arguably invented the genre) came an album true to their tradition, but distinctly modern. I can only describe it as an absolute belter! [play at high volume]

Remaining Top Ten Albums

Atoms for Peace – Amok
This debut album features Radiohead singer Thom Yorke (vocals, guitar, keyboards and programming) and longtime Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich (production and programming).

Johnny Marr – The Messenger
A magnificent debut solo album by the former guitarist of The Smiths. The great songs just keep coming and coming, it’s refreshing and exhilarating. The effect is of the sum total being greater than the individual parts, always the mark of a good album. Strong contender for a top three place, but it just missed out. This would have been my favourite album of the year had it been released in 2012, but 2013 has been such a good year.

Laura Mvula – Sing to the Moon
A lovely album by the singer-songwriter from Birmingham, full of interesting and beautiful harmonies. Another strong contender for an equal first position.

Hookworms – Pearl Mystic
A great debut album from this Leeds-based five-piece psych-rock band whose members eschew celebrity, being known simply by their initials. I came across the band when I heard them on BBC Radio 6 Music in the car one evening.

James Blake – Overgrown
Second studio album by the wonderful James Blake and winner of the 2013 Mercury Prize. Good late night listening, a haunting album.

The Fall – Re-Mit
Another album of incomprehensible brilliance from the prolific Mark E Smith and his gang.

Arctic Monkeys – AM
It’s taken me a while to appreciate the music of the Arctic Monkeys, but I’ve enjoyed this album immensely.

Just outside the Top Ten

Stereophonics – Graffiti on the Train
As I listened to their new album I put aside the usual ‘meat and potatoes’ criticism of this Welsh band. I’m pleased I did, as this is a fine piece of work in my humble opinion. I defy anyone to listen to the last track without a tear in the eye!

Petula Clark – Lost in You
80 year old Petula Clark needs little introduction. Her latest album is beautiful, notables tracks are a new version of Downtown and a cover of Gnarls Barkley’s Crazy (yes, you read that right).

The National – Trouble Will Find Me
An album I came to late in the year, checking it out after seeing The National on Later with Jools Holland, worth listening to.

Laura Marling – Once I was an Eagle
An album that was originally in my top ten, but which dropped out during the year. A great album nevertheless from a wonderful singer-songwriter.

Tamikrest – Chatma
An excellent album from a group of musicians who belong to the Tuareg people. The band was founded in 2006. They mix traditional African music with Western rock and pop influences and sing in Tamashek.

Agnes Obel – Aventine
Something different, definitely worth a listen. Singer-songwriter Agnes says of the album: I recorded everything quite closely, miking everything closely in a small room, with voices here, the piano here – everything is close to you. So it’s sparse, but by varying the dynamic range of the songs I could create almost soundscapes. I was able to make something feel big with just these few instruments.

Arcade Fire – Reflektor
An excellent double album from the Canadian band.

Boy George – This Is What I Do
If you simply associate Boy George with the 80s you really need to listen to this great album.

Favourite Independent Albums

Jack Hertz – Gilded Skies
Excellent ambient music, free to download or stream. One of my photos on the cover. See also here. Released by We Are All Ghosts netlabel, founded by my good friend Thomas Mathie aka @headphonaught on Twitter and elsewhere.

Cousin Silas – East
A wonderful double album from Cousin Silas, who I count as a friend I haven’t met yet. Haunting synths, gentle lilting percussion, vibrant bass, intriguing field-recordings and vocal samples, and his guitar all come together in such an exemplary manner (Thomas Mathie). Check out his ongoing Dronescape series of ambient soundscapes, you won’t be disappointed.

Other Albums (worthy of a mention)

Katherine Jenkins – L’Amour
My fiancée Naomi received this as a present for Christmas. Although not strictly fulfilling the criteria as it’s a compilation, I did enjoy listening to it while travelling in the car over the holiday period.

Jimi Hendrix – People, Hell and Angels
This is a posthumous studio album by the legendary guitarist Jimi Hendrix. It contains twelve previously unreleased recordings of tracks and is well worth a listen.

Finally, here’s a selection of albums I’ve enjoyed in 2013 which didn’t quite make it into the lists:

Billy Bragg – Tooth & Nail
Everything Everything – Arc
Foals – Holy Fire
Goldfrapp – Tales of Us
Joe Satriani – Unstoppable Momentum
Manic Street Preachers – Rewind the Film
Nine Inch Nails – Hesitation Marks
Palma Violets – 180
Primal Scream – More Light
Queens of the Stone Age - …Like Clockwork
Sigur Rós – Kveikur

Written by John Ager

September 14, 2013 at 9:30 pm

Passion for Running

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What do you think when you see runners pounding the street? I suppose there are a whole variety of reactions, but for me (up until a few months ago), they merely served to remind me of my lack of general fitness and need for more exercise.

Over the years I’ve kept myself fairly fit in a variety of ways, but in the last few years I’ve gone through difficult personal circumstances. One of the downside of this was comfort eating and the inevitable weight gain, but by taking up running (along with careful eating) I’m fitter and trimmer than I’ve been for a long time.

I’ve done some distance running in the past, but not to the extent or level I’m at now. Each Saturday morning I run with several hundred other runners in an organised 5K Parkrun round Albert Park in Middlesbrough, and this Sunday (8 September 2013) I’m running the Middlesbrough 10K for the Salvation Army’s community and social work in the UK.

My personal best (at the time of writing) for the 5K is 25:22 and I’m hoping to run a sub 25 minute in the near future. I’ve run 10K in 58:08 and I’m looking to beat this on race day. If you would like to sponsor me you can do so here, thanks in anticipation.

Update: It was a significant challenge deciding to take part in this road race, so I felt a real sense of achievement when I completed it with a good time of 56 minutes and 18 seconds.

Interfaith Ramadan

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The Muslim holy month of Ramadan started a few days, and it was also the start of my daughter’s Interfaith Ramadan project on her popular and well-read blog. This is a very constructive and positive initiative, which I can wholeheartedly recommend. Click on the links to follow this ongoing project.

I felt very privileged to be asked to contribute a guest post, and the response so far has been gratifying. Here’s the opening paragraph, followed by a link to the whole article on her site:

It would be perfectly acceptable to ask the question, ‘Why, as a Christian leader, are you so interested in interfaith dialogue?’ Indeed, it’s one that I’m asked in a variety of ways, although the question is often implied in a negative way, with the suggestion that I’m somehow diluting my own faith by association. As a Christian, I firmly believe you can celebrate diversity, whilst at the same time remaining true to your own faith tradition. Continue reading.

Sickening Headline

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I was sickened when I saw this morning’s Daily Mail front page. Not because of the evil Mick Philpott (although I’m sickened by his actions), but by the way the events were being reported. The clear implication of the headline is that he killed his six children because he was in receipt of benefits, with the wider implication that those on welfare are somehow an underclass. It’s a very worrying trend in today’s society. Of course Mick Philpott abused the benefits system (that’s self-evidently the case), but the responsibility for the deaths of his children is solely down to him. If we continue dehumanising everyone on benefits, we’ll slide into a very black hole! The headline perpetuates myths about poverty, some of which are demolished here. Ann Widdicombe has a good perspective on the issue in this BBC video, as does Bishop Nick Baines in his blog, and Owen Jones in this piece for the Independent.

David Robinson (a friend of mine) used to work as a benefit fraud investigator. He points out that very few individuals actually committed fraud, and says that the big cases were landlords who made up claimants who didn’t really exist, although (again) only a small minority did this; but the amount of money defrauded on this way was staggering. He was involved in one case where the landlord claimed hundreds of thousands pounds falsely until he was uncovered. Most claimants he came into contact with were just trying to get by!

At our weekly Salvation Army drop-in meal for the homeless and vulnerable yesterday, I went round (as I always do) speaking the people who come. I approached one man and said, “How’s things?” To which he replied, “You don’t want to know!” I explained that if I didn’t want to know I wouldn’t have asked, so I sat down and he started talking. Because it had been a double Bank Holiday weekend he hadn’t been able to get his benefit, and hadn’t eaten for three days. He’d been on the telephone to the benefits office for over an hour and had been cut off when he didn’t pass a security check as he’d recently moved. After leaving us he was going to have another go, and then probably eat another charity meal in the evening. Some of the stories I hear are heartbreaking, especially from those with untreated mental health issues. Yes, there will always be people who are after what they can get, but generally (as David said) they are just trying to get by, and are often thwarted at every turn.

It’s long been my contention that the rich have more opportunity to cheat the system, and we know that many do. A few years ago Chancellor George Osborne was on BBC television explaining how it was possible to fiddle (sorry, legally avoid) paying inheritance tax, even admitting that he probably shouldn’t be saying it. The poor often have fuel meters that have to be paid in advance at high cost, compared with those who pay by direct debit in arrears much cheaper, the cards are stacked against the poor in so many ways. Yet, interestingly, those on lower income give a greater proportion of it to charity than the rich.

A couple of things to finish with. Larry (the Number 10 cat) on Twitter said, “I must have missed the Daily Mail front page where hereditary privilege was blamed for the murder Lord Lucan committed.” It was also suggested that this is what the Daily Mail front page should have looked like, click here. Finally, The Sun had to make changes to its editorial after complaints, which you can see here.

Note: I telephoned the Daily Mail news desk to complain, and the person I spoke to could at least see where I was coming from. Mind you, at one point he suggested I was supporting Philpott! We agreed to disagree.

Update: BBC News report on the Derby fire deaths: Philpotts and Mosley jailed.

Resurrection: Rob Bell

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This is a great video that captures the true meaning of Easter. Even if you’re not a person of faith or agnostic in your outlook, do give it a look as it has something to say about our world today. Best in full screen view. Oh, and there’s a great soundtrack – so turn the volume up! Happy Easter!

Note: You can find the full transcript of the video here.

Written by John Ager

March 31, 2013 at 12:44 pm

Good Friday 2013

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See from His head, His hands, His feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down!
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?

As a matter of fact it’s all dark

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There are certain albums that have become legendary and (quite possibly) changed the course of music history. The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is clearly one, but so is Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon which celebrates the 40th anniversary of its release in the UK today. I well remember buying this album in vinyl with its iconic gatefold sleeve, which I poured over as I listened to this amazing music for the first time, wondering what a EMS VCS 3 was! Nothing like this had been heard before.

Often referred to as DSOTM, it’s the ultimate concept album; moving (through its roughly 43 minutes) from birth to death, describing the human condition. It still speaks to us today, and I expect people will be listening to this album long into the future. Life, time, fear, madness, money, war, suffering, solitude, withdrawal, selfishness, relationships, breakdowns, fame, politics and (ultimately) death. Yet this merely touches the surface of what Pink Floyd manage to squeeze into this magnificent work. The themes are bleak and dark, yet the album is positive in the sense that it’s asking the listener to explore what it means to be human, to embrace our common humanity.

Notes: The image used in this post can be found here. I expanded this post for a devotional thought here.


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