Good Eatin’ – Monkfish Liver on Crackers

So, a few days ago I made an enquiry into where to buy the final Irish cheese for the food list. I thought that since this cheese didn’t have far to go, it would be an easy one to cross off. Then I got this e-mail:

So… that means this list has become impossible to complete. I have asked the cheesemonger for their recommendation of a similar cheese so I can cross this food off in spirit. So, yea… I think I need to evaluate just how many of these are things I won’t be able to eat – whether it be down to ceased production, ceased growing or an embargo on harvesting.

Anyway, onto something a bit more positive.

List Item: Try three quarters of the 1001 Foods You Must Try Before You Die
Progress: 745/751Food item: Monkfish Liver

Oh, so what did you have as a late night snack whilst watching Review With Forrest McNeilI? Why, it was monkfish liver on Italian lingue crackers. Sounds a bit highfalutin, especially when I think how expensive monkfish steaks, but this tin was just over 3€ from the same website that I bought the figatellu from.

Honestly, there was a bit of trepidation as I opened this can. You’d think that after eating lamb’s brain and bull testicle I would have become a bit more cavalier about things. Then again, it isn’t every day you eat fish liver.

I’ve seen it written that monkfish liver is the foie gras of the sea… which isn’t the best thing to bring to mind as I didn’t think too much of foie gras. I guess that what struck me first about the monkfish liver was just how soft it was to slice, it was softer than butter.

The liver itself was rich and unbelievably mild. It had a mildly briny taste and aroma which came alive when it was topped with a pinch of salt on top and when served on a lightly salted cracker. Since the hub didn’t like it too much, I had to to eat the whole thing myself. To be honest, a whole tin made me feel a little bit sick. I guess it was just a bit too rich for me to eat in large amounts.


World Cooking – Yemen

List Item: Cook something from every countryCountry: Yemen
Progress: 12/193

For most people in my generation the country Yemen is known firstly for the joke in Friends and secondly for the war that continues to ravage it to this day. But this isn’t the place to talk about either of those – so let’s look at the food.

On the whole there is a lot of overlap when it comes to Middle Eastern cuisine, but thanks to it’s history as a trading post with the East – there are a lot of Indian influences alongside the more local Turkish and Levantine traditions. Since I couldn’t find a dessert for Yemen I figured that I could make a side dish instead. I won’t always make two things, but I figured that this would give me a good chance to try and make bread.

Side Dish: Khobz Al Tawa

I have not made flatbreads since the ajowan parathas and so I was feeling a little bit anxious about making something like this again. However, the recipe from Sheba Yemeni Food made me feel as if these could be within my wheelhouse… and what would you know, these turned out beautifully.

For bread like this, I know that it is traditional to make this is in some form of stone oven – but this recipe was made to work by frying it and for that I am grateful. This flatbread was buttery and incredibly moreish. It was like someone made a naan bread using filo pastry… which is something that I could not believe that I was able to make. This is going to be a bread that I continue to make as I do more Middle Eastern countries for this list.

Main: Saltah

Right so this recipe required making two condiments to be added at the end – hubla and bisbas. The bisbas was easy to make and went really well with saltah. The hulba, on the other hand, did not work out. The recipe says to whip the re-hydrated fenugreek powder until it turned white. Well, I whipped it for a solid 20 minutes. Twice. Neither time did it change colour from the original brown. So, with no hulba, I improvised and topped the saltah with a mixture of bisbas and tahini. Sure this isn’t accurate to the dish, but the taste combination really worked.

In addition to these condiments, there is the saltah itself. It’s essentially a shredded beef stew that’s served bubbling hot with flatbread and makes for a good lunch dish. The broth itself could have had more flavour (then again, that’s why you add the bisbas and hulba), but the beef had really absorbed the flavours of the turmeric, cumin and coriander.

I think that if I were to make this again I would, firstly, buy premade hulba instead of give myself arm cramps as I unsuccessfully try to whip it into a frenzy (or at least find a different recipe). I would also add some more vegetables like potato or tomato, or maybe even some rice to give it some real bulk. This is something that, with some extras, I can see adding to the repertoire.

It’s back to Africa with the next food country and, once again, I am going to be with one of the smaller countries in Africa, which is also the only enclaved country on the continent. That’s right, grocery shop willing, I will be making a dish from the nation of Lesotho. I will be getting to the larger nations at some point, but I’ve had this recipe for a while… so why not cross it off early.

🎻♫♪ – Motets by Orlande de Lassus

List Item: Listen to half of the 1001 Classical Works You Must Hear Before You Die
 38/501Title: Motets
Composer: Orlande de Lassus
Nationality: Franco-Flemish

So, it would seem that this set of works from Orlande de Lassus (whose nationality is rather complex thanks to how often borders have shifted in the last 500 years) will be the last set of motets that I will be listening to for the sake of this list.

Thing is… these just felt like the other motets that I have listened to for this list so far. If you you read around about Orlande de Lassus liked to do different things with his compositions. However, I couldn’t really get any of these in the collection of motets that were highlighted by the book.

In the end, I guess that I don’t know enough about motets to get some of the weirder stuff that de Lassus was doing here. Considering just how long motets had been around at the time of these being written it makes perfect sense that someone has tried to play with the format. Retrospectively, I guess I can see some of it… or I’ll just take the word of the internet at this point.

In other exciting news for this list – due to how much I enjoyed The Sleeping BeautyI booked tickets to see Salome live in a few months time. This will be my third opera I’ve ever seen, so I cannot help but wonder if I’ll enjoy it (like Manon) or not (like La Traviata).

Level One – Minecraft

As part of the New Year’s 2018 update of PlayThatGame’s list, one of the games I’ve played fell out of the Top 100… so the numbers have been adjusted from here on out.

List Item: Play 100 of the greatest computer games
Progress: 76/100Title: Minecraft
Developer: Mojang
Original Platform: PC
Year: 2011

Right so I originally crossed this off of the video games list back in 2014, but I probably spent a few hours playing this (whilst listening to the My Dad Wrote a Porno podcast) and figured that was enough. However, after a recent(ish) visit to the in-laws my hub and I decided it would be worth us setting up our own Minecraft server and giving it a proper go in co-op mod.

Given my ever present fear of zombies, we decided that we would play it on peaceful mode. However, we wanted to still play it properly so we set it to Adventure Mode rather than Sandbox. So this means we don’t get attacked by random creatures, but we also have to craft and mine like with a regular game.

And so an addiction has been born. So far we’ve built bridges, houses and watch towers together. We’ve farmed spruce trees, sugar, wheat and obsidian (unsuccessfully). We’ve died a number of times falling into ravines and lava as well as off of one of my watch towers. So many times we have stayed up a bit too late on a weeknight as we try and finish off our latest construction project or mining attempt.

We’re still in the middle of making a mansion (although I have already completed a rather nice looking stable for our two riding horses) and I can how this may be one of those games (much like Skyrim) where we end up doing a lot of hours just wandering around to see what we can see. After all, I still haven’t seen an ice or a dessert biome (although I have been lucky to see the mushroom forest).

I really love this game.

XL Popcorn – Journal Of A Country Priest

List Item: Watch all of the “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die”
Progress: 689/1007Title: Journal d’un curé de campagne (Journal Of A Country Priest)
Director: Robert Bresson
Year: 1951
Country: France

A few years ago I saw L’argent where I got a bit annoyed at the pretence of someone committing a bank robbery out of desperation of being out of work for a week. I thought it felt a bit of a stretch and didn’t allow me to feel fully invested in the characters. This is not something that I can say for Journal Of A Country Priest. 

For one thing, this film has an incredibly impressive debut performance by Claude Laydu as the titular country priest. In fact, this film does remarkable work from a group of mostly unknowns – but this completely belongs to Laydu. His character of the idealistic and particular priest who is rejected by his parish is… remarkably tragic.

Seriously, this film is just this slow burn of sadness as you watch this young nameless priest being ostracised and basically destroyed. I mean, one of the first things you learn about him is about his poor constitution (i.e. his stomach only being able to take dry bread) and this becomes a ticking time bomb.

The big thing that Bresson and Laydu are able to do with Journal Of A Country Priest is make you feel. So many of the priest’s interactions with his parishioners just make you feel so incredibly angry (especially Chantal… seriously she can rot for everything that she did) and it feels like none of this was warranted. Sure, he’s pernickety and very by the book – but he’s a priest after all.

I am getting so close to 700 films that I can almost taste it, especially since I am currently making my way through Dekalog as part of the 1001 TV Shows list. More on that soon, I guess, but I suppose it’ll be worth my picking out a pretty big film for this next landmark and we’ll see what the other films that’ll make up this mini-countdown.

World Cooking – San Marino

List Item: Cook something from every countryCountry: San Marino
Progress: 11/193

Ah the Most Serene Republic of San Marino. The oldest constitutional republic in the world (founded by Saint Marinus in 301 AD) as well as one of the smallest countries by both area and population. It is also an extremely beautiful country that I hope to visit at some point in the future thanks to it’s magnificent castle and it’s expanse of green countryside.

Despite being a small country that’s completely surrounded by Italy, it wasn’t too difficult to find a dish that could be described as uniquely Sammarinese – a dessert which I somehow managed to make despite being unable to find suitably large wafers (more on that later). For a main dish, I went something that a few websites have identified as being both Sammarinese and Northern Italian. I could have gone for a really delicious looking hot sandwich, but I decided for something a bit more photogenic.

Main: Nidi di Rondine

Nidi di Rondine, also known as Swallow’s Nests, is a dish consisting of pasta roses (containing cheese, ham and bechemal sauce) and marinara sauce that is baked in the oven. In a way it’s a bit of a deconstructed (then reconstructed) tortellini, bit sure looks a whole lot more impressive this way.

To make this I followed a recipe from Mission Eurovision, which is such a cool idea for a food project, who also tried their hand at another Sammarinese recipe. On the whole I have to say I was really happy with how these pasta roses turned out (although I think it could have done with a bit more prosciutto and a bit more marinara sauce to help the pasta fully cook). It takes a while to roll all the roses, especially as you need to do it quickly in order to properly pack them into the dish, but it really is worth it for the effect as it leaves the oven.

Dessert: Torta Tre Monti

For a dessert that is considered a national dish – it was surprisingly difficult to find a recipe for this online. Most people who blog about Torta Tre Monti tend to have imported it in from San Marino rather than make it from scratch. However, there was one place where someone had come up with a recipe… but it was in Norwegian. Thanks again Google Translate.

Having translated the recipe from Nasjonalgastro I was left with the challenge of finding large circular wafers that I could use in the recipe. As you can see in the picture, I was unsuccessful. Oh well, at least I could buy a pack of 50 smaller wafers and make my own variation of the Torta Tre Monti – which is a 5 wafers filled with a hazelnut-chocolate spread (made from scratch) which is then brushed on the outside with melted chocolate.

It was a bit of a fraught construction process to get the whole thing stable, but the result was delicious and easy to cut into 10 individual pieces. This may be one of the best desserts I have made so far and, if I am able to find larger wafers next time, one of the easier to make.

So that’s San Marino. Whilst there are still a few smaller nations on the list, I doubt that they’ll be as delicious as this one – although I suppose Monaco, Tuvalu and Nauru could surprise me. However, it’ll be a while before I get to those for next time will be my first foray into the Middle East as I try my hand at some Yemeni cuisine.

Acclaimed Albums – Automatic For The People by R.E.M.

List item: Listen to the 250 greatest albums
Progress: 162/250Title: Automatic for the People
Artist: R.E.M.
Year: 1992
Position: #42

Like thousands of other people, I listen to the Earwolf podcast R U Talkin’ R.E.M. RE: ME? where hosts Scott Auckerman and Adam Scott go through and discuss each of the R.E.M. albums in order (when they aren’t inventing other weird sub-podcasts). I’ve gotten to the point where the next album they’re going to cover is Automatic for the People – so I thought this would be as good a time as any to give this a spin.

As I have been realising whilst listening to previous episodes of the R.E.M. podcast, I actually know a lot of this album from my mum. I remember, when I was much younger, her playing R.E.M. every now and then (mostly Automatic for the People and Out of Time) so it has been an interesting bit of nostalgia to properly listen to these songs.

For the most part, Automatic for the People is actually quite a bit darker than I first realised. This isn’t just because of ‘Everybody Hurts’, which I remember crying to when I was a teenager when I was in my more fragile moments. No, there are tracks like ‘Sweetness Follows’ which deals with death and ‘Monty Got A Raw Deal’ which is about the unfairness of Montgomery Clift’s live post-car crash.

However, whilst these songs can be a little bit maudlin, the album never succumbs to the weight of it’s own darker topics. For one thing, Automatic For The People also contains three far more positive and rocky songs that help to break up the sadness. ‘Man on the Moon’ is one of my favourite R.E.M. songs ever and knowing more about the weird references to Andy Kaufman and the conspiracy of his faking his own death just makes it better. ‘Ignoreland’ is an angry look at the Republican party and there is ‘The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite’ which is just a whole lot of fun.

What makes me enjoy this album more than Murmur is how far their melodies have come. By this time R.E.M. were in the spotlight more than ever, but they still never allowed themselves to become fully mainstream. Unlike a lot of other bands, I don’t think you can accuse them of selling out or not trying to stay true to who they were. Automatic For The People is the best that they ever sounded and whilst future releases still contained flashes of their genius, this is where they peaked. At least for me that is.

In Review: Music Of 2018 (10-1)

Well hello there. Thanks for clicking on to see the second part of my year in music review. Yesterday I got to my #11 of 2018, so let’s finish that countdown and see who ended up at #1.

#10 – The Lookout by Laura Veirs

I think it’s the first time since starting this blog where Laura Veirs has released a solo album of original material. I’ve loved her since reviewing her July Flame in 2010 and she’s since become one of my favourite purveyors of folk music. Yet, she still remains pretty much remains an unknown to most and that feels downright criminal.

The Lookout is an example of the sort of folk music that Laura Veirs does well. Her beautiful and instantly recognisable voice just seems to float above a guitar style that has become her signature. On many tracks she has perfected her formula from the last few albums (like ‘Seven Falls’, ‘The Meadow’ and ‘Margaret Sands’), but on others (like ‘Lightning Rod’) it’s good to see that she is still experimenting with possible augments to her sound and has gained a more political streak.

Is this the best Laura Veirs has ever sounded? Maybe not, but it’s another entry in a great discography. It’s also an interesting album to listen to after her collaboration with Neko Case and k.d. lang as it feels like she learned a lot from working with them.

Top Tracks: Seven Falls, Everybody Needs You, Watch Fire

#9 – Dirty Computer by Janelle Monae

I’ve been a huge fan of Janelle Monae for the last 8 years, starting with that very first play of her first studio album (and, to me, her magnum opus) The Archandroid. She’s a unique and much needed voice in the arts and has produced some of the most interesting music in the last decade (as well as demonstrating some considerable acting chops in films like Moonlight and Hidden Figures). It would be enough to make you sick, if the talent and ouvre didn’t live up and exceed the ever increasing hype.

As someone who has so been enjoying her concept album series Metropolis it saddened me somewhat that Dirty Computer would not be following up where Electric Lady left off. Thing is, that fictional series can always wait – Dirty Computer is the album she felt the need to make now and she delivered another excellent piece of work (even if I do end up skipping the ending raps from a number of tracks).

Compared to her previous work, Dirty Computer is more political and less experimental – which is why it is probably my third favourite of her three albums (and yet still in my top ten, which goes to show how stupid it is to rank Janelle Monae against herself). It took me longer than normal to get into this album, but I am there now and still finding an almost daily reason to listen to ‘Screwed’.

Top Tracks: Screwed, Pynk, Make Me Feel

#8 – Hell-On by Neko Case

Few artists are as consistently amazing as Neko Case. I think this is her fourth album in a row (including ‘Case/Lang/Viers’, her collaboration with Laura Viers and k.d. lang) that has ended up in my end of year list, and this includes some of the best songs I’ve ever heard her sing.

Her sound continues to mature in such a satisfying way. Songs like ‘Curse of the I-5 Corridor’ and ‘Hell-On’ feel like world away from what she first released way back when on The Virginian. In an age where more and more comes out about the mistreatment of women in the arts and workplaces, it’s encouraging that artists like Neko Case are still finding ways to amplify their voices.

I think that, once listening to this album, it’s really worth tracking down the episode of the Song Exploder podcast where Neko Case breaks down ‘Last Lion of Albion’. It was always one of my favourites on the record, but finding out the inspiration behind it and finding out about all the symbolism shed inserted into the lyrics just utterly floored me.

Top Tracks: Curse of the I-5 Corridor, Sleep All Summer, Last Lion of Albion

#7 – Bloom by Troye Sivan

A real latecomer to this list, to the point that I have seen Bloom climb and climb in the final weeks of the year. Despite being released in August, I was a bit prejudiced against this album as I had made the incredibly inaccurate assumption that Troye Sivan was being marketed as a new Justin Bieber.

I cannot believe how wrong I was. If it wasn’t for his collaboration with Charli XCX then I might have let this album pass me by. A wonderful and intelligent pop album that sings about things from the gay perspective. I can only imagine what an album like this would have meant to me when I was a teenager – because mainstream albums like ‘Bloom’ just didn’t exist 10-15 years ago.

It feels one part Carly Rae Jepsen, one part Lorde and other parts of various artists including Sufjan Stevens. Songs like ‘Seventeen’ just strike such a chord about the uncertainties of that first gay experience whilst others like ‘Bloom’ and ‘Lucky Strike’ are great songs about same sex love. So glad that albums like this are being made now.

Top Tracks: Seventeen, Dance to This, My My My!

#6 – Isolation by Kali Uchis

Of all the albums in my year end list, Isolation easily wins the prize of having the most collaborators. This beings in a multitude of influences from US and South American music, with Kali Uchis’s sultry vocals being delivered in tracks taking on elements of rap, tropicalia, bossa nova, R&B etc, but the album maintains a consistent character and throughline – to Uchis’s credit as well as the record’s producers.

It might also be the best sequenced album on this list as playing it out of order feels so incredibly wrong. For the purposes of writing this year end, I always play the album on random to help isolate my favourite songs. Playing Isolation this way just felt like some sort of sacrilege.

 It’s not like the songs can’t stand on their own, but together the whole thing just sounds more than the sum of its parts. That being said, there never seems to be a bad time to roll out ‘Tomorrow’. That is really one hell of a song.

Top Tracks: Tomorrow, Miami, Your Teeth In My Neck

#5 – Am I A Girl? by Poppy

It started out as a Spotify recommendation of her amazing cover of Gary Numan’s ‘Metal‘, only to have her music dominate the last few months of my year. Poppy isn’t just a cool take on what a pop star could be; she is also a fully-realised character that plays with the uncanny valley and fembots.

Poppy’s debut album, Poppy.Computer, themes itself around robots and technology, but with Am I A Girl? her character has left the inter web and is walking about us. On ‘Time Is Up’ she tells about how she will be what is left behind after humans destroy the environment, whilst in the titular track she provides a rare example of a gender-queer anthem as she questions her own concepts of gender.

Am I A Girl? is a confident, and sometimes sassy, take on electropop (and, at times, nu-metal) that has largely gone unnoticed despite collaborations with the likes of Diplo and Grimes. It may not be to everybody’s taste, but it feels like it might just be a matter of time before Poppy makes something that crosses over. Someone really worth keeping an eye on.

Top Tracks: Time Is Up, Play Destroy, X

#4 – El Mal Querer by Rosalía

When I first started writing this little piece for El Mal Querer it was placed at twelfth place. By the time I got to the second go it was ninth and now it has settled in at number four. So is the bewitching power of Rosalía’s second album, and the fact that both this and Bloom ended up dominating my internal soundtrack when on holiday in Riga (more on that when the blog posts go up… in early June 2019).

The thing that makes it so easy to come back to El Mal Querer is down to how foreign it is. The music itself is such a fusion of genres, such as new flamenco, pop, contemporary R&B, and a bit of electronica (including some interesting samples of sword fights and traffic) . So many experiments like this can make an album feel a bit disjointed and without a tangible identity – which is where Rosalía’s presence comes in.

You won’t understand her words if you don’t speak Spanish, but you always understand the emotions behind them. As I’ve found in some of the flamenco songs from the 1001 song list, the singing style is incredibly emotive and filled with an Arabian otherworldliness – which is amazing when paired with this modern musical fusion.

Top Tracks: Pienso en Tu Mira, Malamente, Di Mi Nombre

#3 – POST- by Jeff Rosenstock

At the beginning of the year I started out with the aim of listening to 100 new albums. This clearly didn’t happen, but because of this self-imposed challenge I picked up POST- on January 1st as that was the only new album. Going into this as just the first of 100, I had no idea that this would end up being near the top by the end of the year.

In all honesty, this album would have probably ranked in the lower part of the list based just on ‘USA’ – one of the few songs that gives me goosebumps nearly every time and makes me chant along towards the end. There has always been a part of me that enjoys a rockier/power pop album and POST- is so good at scratching that particular itch.

Seriously though, I can only imagine how amazing it would be to see this album being performed live. I would be in a tearful frenzy by the time ‘USA’ only to start jumping around as soon as he starts playing ‘Melba’ or ‘Powerlessness’. There is so much generational anger in this album that is incredibly relatable (probably more so in his native US) and makes this such a high energy blast.

Top Tracks: USA, Melba, 9/10

#2 – Golden Hour by Kacey Musgraves

After a very slight sophomore slump, it feels like Kacey Musgraves came back with one of the best country albums that I have ever heard. Like a lot of other artists before her, Musgraves has begun to weave in some pop influences to create this release – epitomised by the Daft Punk-esque voices that bookend the truly beautiful ‘Oh, What A World’ and the disco-influenced ‘High Horse’.

Not only are so many of these songs gorgeous to listen to (or profoundly honest, like ‘Mother’ which is about a bad drug trip), but she remains a brilliant country lyricist. ‘Space Cowboy’ is a take on a breakup, with a title that makes you think of ‘The Joker’ and there’s ‘Velvet Elvis’, a love song about a black velvet painting of Elvis Presley.

With this, her major label debut and her brilliantly festive A Very Kacey Christmas – Kacey Musgraves is one of those artists that I feel I’ve been a little late to the party to (like with Bon Iver), but I am very much a fan. With Golden Hour being looked at as the example of what modern country could become, this is going to be a tough album to follow-up.

Top Tracks: Oh, What A World, High Horse, Velvet Elvis

#1 – In A Poem Unlimited by U.S. Girls

I love it when am artist that I have never heard of can swoop in and take the top spot (it hasn’t happened since Father John Misty did so in 2015 with I Love You Honeybear). The moment I got three tracks in on my first listen – I could tell that this would end the year as one of my favourites. Now, it’s hard to describe offhand just what makes this my favourite album, other than it was near impossible for me to put down for about a month and I would fall head over heels for a new song each week.

Few tracks this have had the same repeat value as ‘M.A.H.’ – her song which, much like Anohni in 2016, fires shots at the expectations of former U.S. president Obama that ended in disappointment. She does this in a modern take of the old-style girl groups, with many a neo-psychedelic twist.

The rest of the album is profoundly eclectic from the screeching brass of ‘Rage of Plastics’ to the layered sampling work on ‘Pearly Gates’. In the age of Trump there are an increasing number of albums being released with a real feminist perspective and In A Poem Unlimited managed to succeed in promoting this whilst also making some brilliantly different takes on pop. There was no question about this number one – a truly sublime album.

Top Tracks: M.A.H., Rosebud, Incidental Boogie

In Review: Music Of 2018 (20-11) + An Honourable Mention

Another year comes to an end and, man, it’s been a real year of change on my end. New job in a completely new line of work that I seem to have a real aptitude for. Hopefully they’ll keep me on so I don’t have to go back to where I was (which would be very bad mental healthwise) and I can talk, next year, about my first full year as a data analyst.

Now, at the beginning of the year I had a goal to try and listen to 100 albums released in 2018 before the year was out. This… didn’t quite happen and I have ended up with 57 albums to make my Top 20 from. I wish I’d had more time to add to this list, but I had a real podcast renaissance that took away from my music time. Still, this is more albums than last year, which is an improvement.

As with last year I have an honourable mention before embarking on my Top 20 so let’s get started…

Honourable Mention: Mamamoo’s Four Seasons Project

Between Mamamoo and f(x), 2018 has started to introduce me to the world of K-Pop. I’m not exactly a superfan as my enjoyment is made more from exceptions than rules, but something about these two girl groups really struck a chord.

This year Mamamoo have started on a ‘Four Seasons’ project, with three of these EPs already having been released by the time I’ve written this post. On their own, only one of the EPs (Yellow Flower) got close to making a solo appearance on this list – mainly because of ‘Starry Night’, which ended up being one of my most played songs of the year. I can only imagine how good an album made of the highlights of the already released 3 EPs and the yet to be released final EP could have been.

Right, let’s get on with the actual countdown!

#20= – Digital Rain by Johnny Jewel 

I usually don’t go for ties on lists, but for this year I really needed to make an exception. Since music appreciation can depend heavily on mood, it makes sense that the two albums I have drawn at 20 have suited very different purposes in 2018.

First up is Digital Rain, an electronic album inspired by the artist’s nostalgia for precipitation, something that’s not too common in his current home of LA. Over the course of 19 songs this album creates various moods based on different forms of wet weather, whether it be a light shower, a downpour or snow.

At various points in 2018 this is an album that has come to my rescue during times of stress or at times where I need some ambient music to drown out the office for the sake of proof-reading. It’s not common for me to listen to albums like this, but the concept drew me in and then the moodscapes kept me coming back for more.

Top Tracks: Digital Rain, Double Exposure, Houston

#20= – Chris by Christine and the Queens

I have so much respect for someone who can sing in multiple languages, then you get Christine and the Queens who can concurrently create the same album in her native tongue and in English. Whilst I know that that are subtle differences between both albums, during the course of the year I only listened to the French version (with the exception of ‘Girlfriend’). Don’t know why, other than preferring how she sounds in French.

Where Digital Rain was a good album to sooth tension, Chris served a purpose as being a really satisfying walking and reading album. Songs like ‘Doesn’t Matter’ ended up on repeat a lot as I was writing blog posts and I randomly find likes from ‘Comme si on s’aimait’ and ‘L’étranger (voleur d’eau)’ popping into my head.

It’s a bit of a shame that all the stellar songs are so front-loaded into the album, much like with Bat For Lashes’ The Bridebut those songs are so good that you can just listen to those songs on loop again and again.

Top Tracks: Doesn’t matter (voleur de soleil), La marcheuse, Damn, dis-moi

#19 I’m All Ears by Let’s Eat Grandma

Ugh their minds. When I was 18/19 there is no way that I could come up with a lyric like “I pave the backstreet with the mist of my brain”, but that’s what they do on album highlight ‘Falling Into Me’ as their voices echo in the swirling synth-nirvana. Sonically this is one of the most beautifully produced songs I came across all year, and the rest of the album is pretty damned great too.

‘Falling into Me’ . I’m not entirely sure of the point of ‘Missing Call (1)’ other than something that I wish I could set as a ringtone on my new phone. It does, however, set an interesting barrier between the first half with the singles and the latter half that contains two very long pieces – album closer ‘Donnie Darko’ building and building the tension to an excellent conclusion.

It’s hard to believe that I’m All Ears is going to be the limit of the pop powers of Let’s Eat Grandma. If they continue on this path of development, when comparing this to their debut album I, Gemini, these two stand to be real forces to be reckoned with when it comes to pushing the boundaries of pop music.

Top Tracks: Falling Into Me, I Will Be Waiting, Donnie Darko

#18 – God’s Favourite Customer by Father John Misty

I think I was in the minority in not quite seeing what all the fuss was about with Father John Misty’s previous album Pure Comedy. It’s one of the pitfalls of singing songs with an almost-persona, sometimes that persona can take over – so I’m heartened to see him moving back to the sound that led me to use one of his songs for the first dance at my wedding.

God’s Favourite Customer arose from some event in Tillman’s life that turned everything upside down. It’s lead to songs that are far more introspective and intimate, especially when compared to the proselytising on Pure Comedy. From the starting track ‘Hangout at the Gallows’ you know this is back to where I liked him best – there’s the emotional rip of ‘Please Don’t Die’ and the conversation between him and a fictional hotel employee in ‘Mr Tillman’.

Now, if there is one thing that’s missing from God’s Favourite Customer compared to I Love You, Honeybear it’s the sense of humour. I mean there’s no moment in here that comes close to ‘Chateau Lobby #4’, but that’s fine because we have the honest, heart-on-his-sleeve Josh Tillman back. I hope he’s recovered from what sparked this album’s creation.

Top Tracks: Mr. Tillman, Please Don’t Die,  Disappointing Diamonds Are the Rarest of Them All

#17 – 7 by Beach House

I hope I’m not the only person who ended up confusing Beach House with Best Coast way back when. Needless to say, once I heard the amazing Beach House song ‘Elegy To The Void’ a few years ago, I got the picture: Best Coast is light and breezy, Beach House is dream pop and the natural development of My Bloody Valentine.

is probably the most accessible album that Beach House has made, especially after the darkness of Thank Your Lucky Stars. Whilst their aesthetic is still undeniably the dark swirls of dream pop, they have really started to find a way to match this with hooks and some earworm worthy melodies. Take, for example, ‘Lemon Glow’ – I don’t know any of the lyrics but I can sure as hell envisage those pulses.

Whilst does lack some cohesion, it is still a privilege to get lost in their world. The ethereal vocals and the darkness of their soundscapes made for some interesting moods when I listened to this through a lot of May. If this album had come out when I was in my teens, this would have blown my mind and given me a proper introduction into a genre I would only discover thanks to album lists. Still, at least I have it now.

Top Tracks: Lose Your Smile, Lemon Glow, L’inconnue

#16 – Ephorize by Cupcakke

2018 has seen me listen to so many different things, but one of the big miracles was coming across a rare rap album that I could fall for. Never have I heard such a sex-positive, all-inclusive, raunchy collection of songs on a rap album. The fact that ‘Crayons’ has yet to appear as a lip-sync on RuPaul’s Drag Race is a travesty that I hope is down to them not being able to book her rather than it not being on their radar.

Compared to a lot of the safer music that I tend to listen to tracks like ‘Spoiled Milk Titties’ and ‘Cinnamon Toast Crunch’ serve as the perfect antidote. Cupcakke’s lyrics walk that line between filthy and hilarious, all served with a shameless style that make me just sit back in grinning admiration. If I had half the confidence I hear on these tracks, I swear I could take over the world – or at least a small village.

It’s not all raunch and sass, tracks like ‘Self Interview’ and ‘Total’ show more of a softness and some self-reflection. I don’t know necessarily if this is a good gateway album into rap or just an excellent rap album, but I know that I need to listen to her other 2018 album (Eden) at some point in the near future.

Top Tracks: Crayons, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, Total

#15 – I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life by Tune-Yards

Merrill Garbus of Tune-Yards has an incredibly impressive voice and her work with Nate Brenner has always led to albums that take a variety of world music elements and turn them into interesting indie pop. Their second album Whokill remains the highlight of their discography, but this year’s release (I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life) showed an interesting development in their sound.

Whilst they are still very music a band with global influence, these have now been paired with electronic elements – which has created their first album where you could dance to some of their tracks… even if their tracks are primarily concerned with the encroachment on privacy and identity politics. I mean, take my favourite track ‘ABC 123’ – in this they name check the NSA whilst also talking about voting, white centrality and fires in California.

So many albums I’ve listened to this year have been political in nature (because the times we live in, I guess), but I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life has been able to make listening and talking about these topics fun and danceable.

Top Tracks: ABC 123, Who Are You, Look At Your Hands

#14 – Honey by Robyn

For me, a new release from Robyn is a major event. The Body Talk albums were pop landmarks and her work with Royksopp in the interim years made for excellent stop gaps whilst waiting for her next full release. So here we are with Honey after an 8 year wait and, with the exception of single ‘Missing U’, Robyn has shape-shifted into something very different.

Not gonna lie, but during my first listen of Honey I was profoundly disappointed that this was not the same pop confection spinner that I loved on her self-titled album and on Body Talk. However, the beats she’d created stayed with me – specifically those of ‘Human Being’ and ‘Beach2k20’. Whilst I still miss the old pop, I cannot help but respect Robyn for her choice to innovate – something she really managed to succeed at here.

Honey is an album of heartbreak and survival disguised in pop, post-disco and beats. With those things considered, it’s no wonder that Robyn (the creator of ‘With Every Heartbeat’, ‘Dancing On My Own’ and ‘Call Your Girlfriend’) was able to craft something beautiful here.

Top Tracks: Human Being, Honey, Missing U

#13 – Dancing With The Beast by Gretchen Peters

Back in my 2015 list, in those days before I spent days working on writing blurbs for every album in my top 20, Gretchen Peters’ album Blackbirds sat at number 15 in what was an incredibly competitive year. This year finds her follow-up album Dancing With The Beast in a similarly competitive year, having been kicked out of the top 10 in the final few weeks of the year.

This is the first of three ‘women in folk’ albums that will appear in my year-end list (okay, this is more on the Americana) and, sadly, is yet another one of her albums that doesn’t have it’s own Wikipedia page or a mention on Metacritic. It’s just another album that proves the point that you don’t know what amazing music is being made unless you go out and search for it.

Dancing With The Beast is a beautifully crafted piece of dark folk/Americana. This collection of the songs tell various stories of women at different stages in their life. She goes darkest in songs like ‘Wichita’ and ‘Lowlands’, but it isn’t all like this. Towards the end, the album softens with tracks like ‘Love That Makes A Cup of Tea’ which is a bit twee, but is a lovely sentiment to end an album that deals with the hazards of being a woman.

Top Tracks: Lowlands, Dancing With The Beast, Wichita

#12 – Be The Cowboy by Mitski

There are times where I find it hard to believe that Mitski isn’t a side-project of St Vincent. I mean, have you ever seen them in the same place at the same time? Conspiracy theories aside, whilst Be The Cowboy may not be my album of the year it does contain ‘Washing Machine Heart‘ – my song of the year.

In the middle of album opener ‘Geyser’ where we see Mitski transform from the Puberty 2 version of herself into something stronger, more elegant and destined for stardom. Be The Cowboy sees Mitski doing something we haven’t seen her do before – sing as someone other than herself. With this different sort of freedom, she is able to soar and deliver her world view through so many more lenses than she has before.

Every year there is an album whose placement is likely to rise as the years go by – I think that Be The Cowboy could very well be that album for 2018. In the lead up to writing up this Top 20 I have been so focused on everything I’ve listened to this year that it has kinda gotten lost in the pack. Maybe we’ll see how things are when I do a decade end list.

Top Tracks: Washing Machine Heart, Geyser, Nobody

#11 – Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides by SOPHIE

It may have one the weirdest and nonsensical titles of any album this year, but the name of this album is not where the strangeness ends. No, Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides is an experimental avant-garde pop album and the first full studio album from producer Sophie Xeon. Her’s is a pretty unique voice and one you may have heard in their previous credits for Charli XCX, Let’s Eat Grandma and Madonna.

I’m not entirely sure if there are many albums out there with the same musical palette as Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides. However, considering the critical success and her growing list of collaborators, it’s likely one that is likely to be inspiring a slew of albums in the near future. So if you hear an album going forward with a weird music of grunge electronica mixed with sweeping pop vistas, you know the source.

Starting with ‘It’s Okay To Cry’ is incredibly disarming considering the songs that are to follow. Then again, as a trans-artist, Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides is one of a growing body of new stories that are just coming to the pop masses. Songs like ‘Faceshopping’, ‘Whole New World’ and ‘Immaterial’ all deal with the concept of gender whilst also delivering throbbing beats and an interesting take on pop sensibilities. Not necessarily an album you’ll get on the first go, but definitely one that rewards multiple listens.

Top Tracks: Faceshopping, Ponyboy, Immaterial

Good Eatin’ – Shanxi Aged Vinegar and Gyoza

List Item: Try three quarters of the 1001 Foods You Must Try Before You Die
Progress: 744/751Food item: Shanxi Extra Aged Vinegar

I have had this bottle of vinegar in my cupboards for months. Like a lot of my more recent food items, I had to buy this online as I feel a bit self-conscious when buying things like this in a speciality store where I need to check bottles against Chinese characters on my phone. Also, in this way, I don’t come home with products that turn out to be incorrect… which happened to me twice when trying to get this vinegar.

Since I figured this type of vinegar would work really well as a dipping sauce, I made sure that we got some gyoza during a recent takeout order. I didn’t realise, however, just how strong this vinegar was and how a little of it really does go a long way. Good thing I’m fairly conservative when dipping my dumplings.

The first thing that hits you as you open the bottle is smokiness. I guess that’s part of the result of the ageing process coming through, but it always throws me for a loop when something like vinegar has a smokey aroma. Underneath it, the taste has a sour and dark sweetness – like if you made vinegar using molasses or jaggery. I guess it’s like a really potent balsamic but with very little of the acidity. Not sure where I am going to use this other than as a dipping vinegar but whatever I end up doing with it, this will be used sparingly.