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Ben Howarth in his 'Condemned to Rock 'n' Roll' column mourns the loss of one of his favourite venues, the Luminaire in London, and describes his favourite albums of the year
As Simon Cowell complained on live television that some people had the cheek to try and derail 'The X Factor' talent contest by voting for Wagner, whose act may or may not have been a joke, Kilburn’s Luminaire venue announced that it was to close its doors at the end of the year.
Alas poor Luminaire, I knew you well. Since moving to London in June 2007, I’ve seen more gigs there than at any other London venue. I always liked the signs telling the audience they’d be asked to leave if they talked through the bands. I loved the sound (alas, this seems to have been the downfall - replacing the equipment broken by its least careful clientele appears to have proven too expensive) and I was grateful for their help whenever I turned up earlier than the bands I was expecting to interview.
A sad end to a good year for my kind of music. Three of the bands in my end of year played at the Luminaire recently and the others would all have fitted in nicely.
Meanwhile, a contestant on 'The X Factor' bleats that she hopes the audience vote for her so that she can pursue her dream - the thought that it is possible to pursue a life in music without a prime time television show, a chart topping mentor and someone else hand picking your cover versions clearly never having crossed her mind. Its not that I’m especially angry about 'The X Factor' (it is entirely harmless, although I couldn’t bear to watch their Beatles special, for fear that my favourite songs would never be the same again), it is just that I’d rather listen to people whose ambition is to make records, not just to sell records.
Indeed, if there is any kind of unifying theme to my choices this year, it is the idea of ambition triumphing over modest means and unhelpful circumstances.
Somehow, having composed an elaborate folk opera, a crazy idea that could so easily have gone badly wrong, Anais Mitchell persuaded four singers (Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, the Low Anthems Ben Knox Miller, Greg Brown and Ani DiFranco - all considerably better known than her) to sing parts of it. The faith of anyone who believed in risk-taking as the best route to success would have been restored by 'Hadestown', a delightful record whose twists and turns will hopefully see it sell in bigger numbers when she brings a full-band performance to the UK early next year.
Darren Hayman began the year recovering from an assault in a Nottingham car park, an incident that evaporated whatever little enthusiasm for touring he had left. He ends it with 'Essex Arms' having surely convinced many that he will not be remembered only as the singer from Hefner. Anyone lucky enough to enjoy his music is in for a treat next year, as he has two albums in the works and is planning to write a record a song every day during January.
Canadian singer-songwriter David Celia will end 2010 in the UK, but the kind of riches his fellow countryman Neil Young might expect from such a venture seem less than likely. He will be playing small shows in Broadstairs (a seaside town on the Kent coast) and Chippenham (in Wiltshire), both nice places but neither with a rich heritage in rock.
Most singer songwriters playing a tour like this would be content just to play and hope for some applause. Not Celia! His best songs are gorgeous pop songs, with inventive brass, swooping melodies and an imaginative blend of humour and emotion. Most songwriters would need a budget ten times as large to make an album a tenth as impressive. Like many of my favourites, I like it even more now than I did when I first wrote about it.
Dan Michaelson has enjoyed a little bit of help. 'Shakes' was selected as album of the week by Rough Trade and might find himself better known this year. But, when I saw him, he was the support act in the basement of a small pub in Crouch End. He told the audience, “People often say I look depressed on stage. I’m actually incredibly happy right now”. His dark, delicate songs aren’t written to fill stadiums, but deserve more attention than they’ve yet had.
Otis Gibbs, likewise, deserves a much larger audience. “Thanks for givin’ a damn”, he wrote on the CD he signed for one member of the audience at his show in another pub basement at the start of November. His is an album I expect to be playing well into next year.
My winner was predictable, given that the Divine Comedy are my very favourite modern band. They released an excellent album that, as I expected, didn’t feature in the early December round-ups from the glossy music magazines. Neil Hannon’s disdain for the glum conventions of rock critics has seen him without much support from the press, but I remain dazzled by the sheer inventiveness of his songwriting. How does he possibly come up with so many brilliant songs about such bizarre subjects?
This time, he’s done all this without the support of the major label he was probably mistaken to sign to in 2001. Industry insiders will have dismissed ‘Bang Goes the Knighthood’ as a fanbase only release, but this member of the fanbase is quite content with that. Unbowed by the disinterest of his old friends in the music press, Neil Hannon ploughs on - still the most gifted songwriter of his generation.
Going forward into 2011, a sad world where the Luminaire will have closed and Simon Cowell will still be insensitively rich, it's nice to have some positives to cling to. And there’s always my favourite musical question - which album is next?