2019 has been a whirlwind annus mirabilis of musical innovation and sonic excess here in Sheffield. An incredibly diverse array of insanely talented noise-shamans have released all kinds of bliss junk across town: it’s been a feral year of psychedelic klezmer, outsider folk, ecstatic prog-skronk, robot funk, surf-pop, indie bop, hip hop, death jazz and glittered tropicalia.
It will come as no surprise to denizens of this lambent city that its reputation for wild and beautiful music stretches to the far reaches of the multiverse. Ask an alien where the centre of musical gravity is in the infinite, rainbowed void of turbulent existence and they will quickly answer, ‘erg zwwxx Sheffield, qiin qiin’ (Ed. translates loosely as ‘Fucking Sheffield for sure innit’).
End of year lists are supremely nerdy (which is why we love ’em!) and obviously enormously subjective: despite this we’ve attempted to create our definitive, unarguable, immovable Top 50 Songs of Sheffield 2019. It was a gargantuan task: so many fantastic tunes have been birthed and unleashed into the aural savannahs of this creatively incandescent city that whittling the list down to just 50 was no easy job. The PROLE JAZZ elves worked overtime to support our team of discerning hacks Henrik Endor, Oliver Porpoise Firefly and Captain Jack Avery in their endless ruminations, arguments and debates. Disagreements on song placements were generally resolved without bloodshed: pistols were fired only once, and paper-scissors-stone moderated many a quarrel.
We had a few rules – no two songs from one musical project/release (although the discerning reader will note that musicians can and do appear multiple times, either in different guises or augmenting their own joyous output with collaborations). Songs had to be released in some form in 2019, although they could have previously appeared on e.g. an album from 2018. We were very lax about e.g. albums released in late 2018 that only hit Spotify in 2019. At least one major player in the band had to be Sheffield-based, or have very strong historical links with the city (such that they are essentially adopted by the town itself, despite being geographically located elsewhere at the present time).
Before we continue my friends it is seems fitting to note an observation: to us here aboard the PROLE JAZZ mothership it appears that as the quality of the mainstream declines and falters, independent music in Sheffield and beyond grows in stature. We have a lot to be proud of here in this mad town! Here’s a toast to all the musicians and performers, artists and freaks, poets and vinyl cutters, promoters and DIY communities, deejays and emcees, photographers and radio hosts, local label bosses and dancers, gig-goers and merch purchasers, friends and family that keep the music scene strong in this red-walled hub of creative freedom and sonic exploration! You are awesome!! Hats off to you all! Kisses!
And so ~ the Top 50 Songs of Sheffield 2019 awaits. Today we have the countdown from 50-26, enjoy the illustrious sounds of the greatest music of the year. The final countdown (later this week) will include a Spotify playlist…
P.S. The song / band name is (usually) a link to their Bandcamp site. Click it! Especially if you like what you read you can support the artists by following the link and listening to their music, buying their mp3s or merch, liking them on FB or Insta, following them on Spotify and going to their gigs. Big up the Sheffield Community! Stay strong my friends!
~ the PROLE JAZZ team
Scraping into the PROLE JAZZ Top 50 by some wild act of roguish editorial nepotism it’s skronkster beatniks Cosmic Triceratops, who released their lathe-cut, limited-edition, vinyl-only, hand-painted Hippies! EP at the end of this year (actually pilfered from their SEXY FUTURE debut of 2018). But really the tune went all void-wild & space kaleidoscope & transcendent rapture-monkey at Peace in the Park this summer, where a delirious crowd lost their shit most pleasingly to the daft refrain of the title track. Intergalactic klezmer punk that will immortalise all you fucking Sheffield hippies for aeons to come!
Netherlands-born LIO’s lake-clear voice shimmers above synth in this sonic tale of heartbreak and loss. Harmonies flit and soar above thumping toms and 80s-tinged guitar as the song builds and lifts beautifully. Burn is the sound of regret, the sound of the emotional journey from reflection to sadness to anger following the end of something cherished, and a sombre indie classic of 2019.
Sunny Days is 2019’s zeitgeist anthem from Northfield Records’ Ill Tribe that juxtaposes the positive imagery of sunshine with the menacing subtext of a world in climate crisis. It’s a tapestry of sound: the soulful vocals of Bert Rogers narrate a tale as Lynchian guitars noodle over rumbling bass and fizzing synth.
It’s all here – the lackadaisical fuzz-bass, the Spirit in the Sky tom-tom drums, the glassy-eyed cool, the narcotic vocal. Coco Don’t appeared on the scene earlier in 2019, heralded at the time by music zine Pink Wafer as ‘the most exciting new band in Sheffield this year’. Go Go Go is not afraid to wear its glam rock meets Garbage influences freely and this band for sure shows promise. We look forward to hearing more in 2020!
There’s something of Tom Waits in Dead Man’s Uke. This is urban blues created with a double bass and a ukulele, backed by an infectious clicky, percussive beat played on what sounds like it could be a kitchen counter top. It’s outsider folk, music for smoke-filled ale houses and whisky-soaked blues bars. I imagine these guys wear slightly shabby suits whilst playing, road musicians with cigarettes hanging from the edge of their world-weary mouths, hitching a ride out of town to the next gig. Lovely stuff!
Global folk act Mishra released this song-gem a few months ago. It’s almost Americana, reimagined through a world music lens. There’s melodic banjo, spiralling tabla, husky flute and some kind of Middle Eastern stringed instrument, quite possibly a bazouki. Currently definitely more honey than road dust Mishra are straight outta Cambridge Folk Festival, plundering the gentler elements of global folk traditions to create an impressive first single with a great pop sensibility and a lovely mix of instruments. With an album on the way, I have the sense we’ll be hearing lots more from this crew in 2020. Click the song title link to watch the video, filmed in one of Sheffield’s cosiest venues.
Tropical Cyclone Disaster is top-rate song-writing from Sheffield’s indie-pop stalwarts Lofter, who expanded their line up (and sound) in 2019. This new iteration is a good one: the congas and organ line intertwine with Ant’s guitar and vocal harmonies to create a 4-minute grunge-pop masterpiece. The main riff references Paranoid Android, the vocals are honeyed, the harmonies fantastically atmospheric. Listen close and there’s a treat of handclaps deep in the mix, too! Rumours have it that Lofter have recruited a full band for 2020, exciting times to come…
Acid Mass make experimental soundscapes of topographic and textural wonderment. Brown Paintings of Dead Romans is a melange of reverbed saxophone and relentless drum machine, a meditation not without moments of menace, awe and naivety. It’s aural complexity belies the relatively simple sonic palette all this is constructed from. It’s a soliloquy of psychedelic birds, a dialogue between landscape and beast, the free-jazz diary of a traveller lost, a butterfly wing at once winsome and torrid. All in all a revealing and satisfying listen suited to the more intrepid of sonic explorers amongst you…
Mim’s 2019 album hit the critical big time this year after being featured in hipster zine Pitchfork’s ‘Great Records You May Have Missed’ back in spring. Wewe is an 80s-tinged, synth-funk groove monster. It’s electro-disco, pop music from a future obsessed with the past. Mim’s soulful vocal holds together the kaleidoscopic mosaic of jangly guitar, burbling synth, house-stab piano and arpegiatted keys with majestic aplomb. It’s a wonderful slab of retro-futurism, and a PROLE JAZZ fave.
Ode to Brian is a wonderfully sparse and introspective home-recorded ballad. Meg’s ethereal vocal dominates, hovering like a dark but shining cloud above clifftops and moorland, as much a gentle threat as a promise. Something here reminds me of Alex Turner’s Submarine EP; Ode to Brian is a not dissimilar form of soft, pensive melancholia and in places the vocal delivery and accent of the two singers is eerily comparable. As song writing goes this is a triumph and Meg’s voice a lush and husky presence above glimmering keys and dour bass. We’re looking forward to hearing more from this new and elusive musician in 2020.
Fleeting birdsong grows to encompass shimmering fingerpicked guitar and R Loomes’ distinctive vocal, like a beam of light lambent with motes of dust spiralling slowly in orbit to some distant and mysterious gravity. Blood Lily, released in May on EP The Mind Wanders/The Flesh Follows, is an act of contemplation, it’s folk music that builds in layers of voice as the song grows and reveals its path. Despite the gentle guitar refrain there is something far more powerful and urgent here, a cry of unknowing that sends ripples across the mirrored surface of the otherwise still water of this enigmatic song.
This is lounge music for soul-freaks. Laid-back, jazzy beats and guitar licks pepper this groove behemoth, which features almost avian calls from Jackie Moonbather atop elliptical drums and deep funk basslines. It’s Swaby at his most eclectic and almost experimental, a great cut from a great EP. If it were a colour it would be indigo; it’s a post-club smoke haze of breaks and stoned utterances and jazz jams.
Sharron Kraus is a folk music innovator and traditionalist both, and this year released a wonderful collection of medieval folk and story-telling alongside Justin Hopper and Belbury Poly. Hal-An-Tow is one of the more song-focussed pieces on the album; it’s a sun fugue, a motif of drone and harmony, a song to welcome summer and draw a close to the tales of the album.
If there were a prize for best band name, Them Sardines might well win it. Sadly there isn’t (well not a PROLE JAZZ one, anyway), but all is well as the music is pretty fucking good too. It’s as if Lou Reed was born in Sheffield and eschewed guitar for synth and drum machine. Them Sardines peddle 80s-influenced art-pop: synths abound like robot animals, the vocals are a hair’s breadth from spoken word, and this all reminds me of a club I went to over in an industrial corner of Bushwick one time with smoke machines that rendered the room a glow-cloud of shimmer, people shadows in the gloaming, existence a morphine haze of sound, a narcotic dreamscape of half visible conversations and blithely forgotten names and faces.
Xybots have had a banging year. They dropped debut album Wormhole back in April and then proceeded to tear up the Sheffield live scene, playing shows from the Cremorne to Camp Disco. Dirty Junglist is a jump-up Drum n Bass classic, full of killer bassline, darkside sub-wobble and badass snare kicks. Rewind! Hold tight!
35. The Galata Square ~ Al Gordon
Al Gordon is a genuine troubadour, a bluesman from the mould of the roaming songmen of the 30s, the kind of folkie venerated and resurrected in the early 60s folk scene that birthed Dylan. There’s something of the Dave Van Ronk here – Al’s fingerwork is beautiful, deftly conjuring rich tones from his guitar. His deep, compelling vocal floats atop chords that sound timeless, the narrative unfolds like a gentle story from a book written many years before you were born. He’s prolific live, too, and well worth a watch in 2020.
Thanks for this tip from Now Then’s musical editor Sam! I had never crossed paths with psychedelic skronk merchants The Apples of Pain until a couple of weeks ago, and now I have a pretty major crush on whoever the hell they are. Perhaps they should be a hybrid between House of Pain and Apples in Stereo but they’re not – this is like House of Jealous Lovers without the disco, it’s odd-pop with nods to all kinds of musical weirdos. I hear Zappa, and Bowie and even the occasional bit of Blur (at their most interesting and strange). Fantastically low-fi, in fact just fantastic. Listen to it!
This wonderful release from contemporary folk three-piece Auka has a Gaelic air to it. The evocative lilt of Kirsty Lomax’s Irish flute takes the space a vocal would occupy in many bands, sounding like the haunted, keening voice of some distant soloist in some distant land and time. Each musician responds with wonderful finesse and elegance to the others’ motifs, ravelling melody and feeling into a weave of illustrious sound. Despite the clear restraint there is a dynamic here, a language of emotion. Check out their eponymous debut EP, released this summer for more of Auka‘s enigmatic instrumentalism.
Accidental Sex Jam shows Sheffield’s indie rock heroes ISTSOF on fine fettle here. It has loads of joyous swagger, oodles of infectious guitar lines and a megaton of hip-shaking bassline. I have no idea what Accidental Sex Jam is but from the tune I’m guessing it’s not something you spread on toast (unless you’re feeling kinky). I’m gonna bet it’s sassy and catchy and has some badass funk at its molten core. ISTSOF show off all their chops on this fine tune, genre-hopping with flippant ease throughout what is without doubt on of the indie bangers of the year, and a shoe-in for best and most joyous guitar solo of 2019. Any doubters as to the legendary status of this band check out the irreverent and hilarious music video!
Heavy Lids play reverb-soaked dream-pop indie and Ariel is a stand-out from their growing catalogue of sub-aquatic, turquoise-lit tunes. It rises and glimmers, all early Stone Roses guitar and enchanted chiming voice and what sounds like some kind of tremeloed organ. The production and mix has a nod to those wonderful shoegaze songs where the vocals sit just below the surface, just outside of your sonic vision, silvered fish that skitter and dance at the slightest movement. Absolutely transcendent stuff from this incredible band.
Hiphop crew MOAN released this anthem for the zero-hour contract, cash-skinted, minimum wage generation some months ago and it’s as fresh as the day it dropped, perhaps made even more relevant in the wake of last week’s Tory landslide. The production is beautifully light and the emcees weave tales of the struggles of losing the game, of life on the edge, of holding it together whilst broke, of the neoliberal fuckery that leaves communities broken and people stressed out and bereft of cash whilst Etonian millionaires cut corporation tax for their old classmates. Verses flow over blunt-heavy bass, acid-jazz keys and sparse beats. A song for the times.
So much 90s joy to unpack here! This banger is a fantastic hybrid of Placebo-esque verses and a power-chord chorus worthy of Nirvana at their aneurysmic peak. The drums crash and guitars wail as Femur play beautifully with the dynamic, lulling the listener into a twitchy security before letting the whole thing unravel towards the inevitable feedback squall of the deliriously wonderful mosh-pit outtro. Grunge is dead? Not by the sound of this band…
Delicious Clam stalwarts Mr Ben & the Bens dropped an album of exquisitely twee indie this year (Who Knows Jenny Jones) but my favourite tune of theirs wasn’t even on it. Novia Scotia appeared as a single early on in 2019 and is a pitch perfect jangle-pop anthem, containing significant nods to CYHSY and an abundance of Mr Ben’s usual mischievous riffage and guitar interplay.
Rafiki Jazz play global folk music. Hailing from all seven corners of the planet each member brings something unique to this melting pot of sound and the results are alluring, esoteric, dream-like songs. Chad Gadya is a plaintive sojourn across a distant landscape; it has clear middle-eastern influence, it’s a tapestry of feeling, a lament perhaps for loved ones scattered like stars in the night sky, an evocation of regret. The musicianship is superb, the vocals haunting, the overall effect exquisite.
Originally released in 2018 on the Hoot’s cracking debut album No Reunions, the fuzzy melancholia of An Island Keen To Float is sadly as pertinent now as it was then, perhaps even more so. Song-wise it’s is a sonic delight, a brooding and introspective wanderer of a tune which lurches from a sober, lumbering Hookian 80s indie ballad to sheets of exquisite and glacial guitar squall conjured from the impressive fingerwork (and pedal board) of guitar man Hugo.
That’s it for now folks! Tune in later this week for revelations, cheap thrills, celebrity gossip, and the count down from 25 – 1…