Join Wales Arts Review every Friday as we count down the one hundred greatest Welsh albums of all time, as chosen by the Wales Arts Review team and friends of the Review. Week three sees us count down from 80-71 of the greatest Welsh albums.
Beauty of Youth
(2019, Big Machine Records)
The punk aesthetic that dominates the sound of Beauty of Youth is laid out without frills, but Merthyr teenagers Pretty Vicious have an uncanny ear for the catchy rock tune. They may have plenty of Sex Pistols about them, but there is an unashamed smattering of more polished acts too, from early U2 to The Cult to The Libertines. The anthemic chanted chorus of “Move” follows the announcing of an important new act in the rock sphere with the bold, brash “These Four Walls”. As a curtain raiser, it can’t help but bring to mind the spirits of trailblazers like The Stooges or The MC5. That Beauty of Youth would end up being the only album from this incarnation of the band places them firmly in the misted middle distance of rock mythology. What could they have gone on to achieve? Does it matter? Pretty Vicious were young, angry, loud, fast, unapologetic, ballsy, and knew how to carry a melody, and who knows what edges would have been smoothed off had they lingered. Those who had the chance to see the band live – their natural environment – will claim Beauty of Youth is a distilled version of the band’s sound anyway, smooth enough already from the act that blew people’s minds across Wales in 2015 (check out Kevin McGrath’s review of their performance at the Ebbw Vale Institute in 2015 for a taste of the impression they were capable of leaving). If Beauty of Youth is indeed a smoothed out major label version of the band than that’s a shame, but it doesn’t mean the album doesn’t do a mighty fine job of battering and jabbing and spitting and sweating. Those boys were the real deal. They had the songs, the attitudes, the presence, and with Beauty of Youth they had the album.
(2019, Klep Dim Trep)
This 2019 solo debut from Gruff ab Arwel, released under moniker Bitw, is a soundscape of soaring lo-fi idiosyncrasies with breezy acoustic riffs and uncanny trickles of jingling electronica. A debut album it may be, but ab Arwel was making sonic tracks in the years prior to its release as one-quarter of the instrumental surf-rock band Y Niwl, an outfit characterised by woozy, clean guitar riffs and clicking percussion recorded straight to tape. Arwel’s talent and vision has drawn praise from some of the loftiest corners of the Welsh indie scene; Cate Le Bon has followed ab Arwel’s career since the days of his school band, Eitha Tal Ffranco, describing his solo debut as “sci-fi mountain music”, while Huw Evans (H. Hawkline) provided the sleeve artwork and design for the Bitw cover. Stamped with a DIY edge, Bitw’s bilingual tracklist pioneers surrealist lyrics packaged in catchy refrains, disrupting its familiar indie stage dressing with the eerie heart of strangeness beating arrhythmically at its centre. Transitions from folk-tinged strumming into static otherworldly swirls feel like scene changes in the score of a baroque folk-sci-fi epic – ab Arwel’s voice a consistent melodic thread tying together an album of unique and decidedly wondrous proportions.
Jac Da Trippa
Kim Chong Hon
Hailing from Caernarfon, Jac Da Trippa first made a name for himself as a member of the hip hop group 3 Hwr Doeth. Kim Chong Hon, his debut solo release, is characterised by an eclectic feel and a hushed tone, that leaves us somewhere between a ramshackle show and the feeling something is waiting to pounce. But Trippa, laid back and most at ease when rapping about his local environment – the pubs and the cobblestones of his hometown – is always just a line away from a sharp political rant (or even a blunt one), and artful as that may be, it’s this energy which drives the album. It’s an enjoyably messy, funny, visceral record, and perhaps one of the finest bilingual synergies yet committed to tape. Some of the rapping is rudimentary stuff but it packs a punch, and Trippa’s enormous personality stands over the scope of the album in a completely winning fashion. There are nods to Public Enemy and Cypress Hill in tracks like “People Abused by Witchcraft Beliefs” and “Old School Cake”, but the influences feel much wider than that. There are flashes of funk, some echoes of Herbie Hancock and perhaps a bit of Joe Zawinul and some Krautrock. Kim Chong Hon is about a time and place and a way of bringing together all those influences into a corner of Wales and creating a new sound, an unnerving one dominated by the place; one you’ll struggle to find anywhere else.
Carwyn Elis & Rio 18
(2021, Recordaui Agati)
The follow up to Joia!, Mas is a further exploration of cultures far away from Wales geographically but a celebration of common ground and universal experiences and concerns. Once again singing in Welsh and recorded in Rio de Janerio, Wales and London, Carwyn collaborates with musicians home and abroad, aided and abetted by producer Shawn Lee. The gathering of friends and firming up of bonds across the miles creates an addictive infectious melting pot of pop and Tropicalismo, Bossa Nova, Samba styles. Mas is a gorgeous positive call to action. Climate change, migration, the rise of megacities may be heavy and worrying subject matter but ones we can still reflect and act on while we dance.
The Joy Formidable
(2016, C’mon Let’s Do It)
Coming off the back of two big indie-rock records of stadium-epic proportions, The Joy Formidable returned in 2016 with their third album, Hitch, not diverging from what came before so much as conjuring new intricate aspects with the insistent (and sometimes melancholy) thrum of a breakup album. Self-produced in their North Wales recording studio, Hitch is still all-in on the singalong big-tent choruses, yet its surrounding guitar distortions and synth loops feel focused and purposeful in a way that they hadn’t always before. It’s not so much that Hitch does away with the commercial polish – single ‘The Last Thing On My Mind’ and track ‘Radio of Lips’ are classic melodic guitar and drum anthems – but more that the precision and honest relish of its rocking out feels confident and honest. A characteristic grunge tinge is everpresent, and some tracks linger beyond the seven-minute mark just for the sheer fun of it. There’s the prerequisite dabbling of dreamy acoustic numbers (‘Underneath the Petal’ ‘Don’t Let Me Know’), but it is, as ever, Ritzy Bryan’s lyrical persona mingled with propulsive, crashing guitar which makes Hitch a key wrung in TJF’s eponymously joyous discography.
(2015, Fortuna POP!)
The story of how Cardiff’s noise-pop five-piece band Joanna Gruesome met isn’t a static one. On their rise up – with their 2013 Welsh Music Prize-winning debut Weird Sister, and continuing with their 2015 follow-up Peanut Butter – press releases circled posing different comic artifices detailing their “original” meeting (a wine-o holiday? Anger management class?). And that penchant for both the ironic and the comic is keenly felt within Peanut Butter. Sonically it’s a helter-skelter ride of dizzying proportions with cloying pop hooks obscured not just by dissolving fuzz and scuzz but catty yelps and buttoned-up harmonies. Its minutiae lyrical observations (‘There is No Function Stacy’ details the story of a woman who gets the date of a party wrong) and circa-2008 txt spk (‘Honestly Do Yr Worst’) are so hilariously mundane that they gleefully dare the listener to cock an eyebrow. That, after all, is what they’re all about – running rampant with a zine-like collage of irreverent sound and influences. The point? Surely that there isn’t one. Still, Peanut Butter’s volatile energy and expressive polarity demands attention, stamina and a total relinquishment of expectation.
(2013, Moshi Moshi Records)
Sweet Baboo, the musical alias of Stephen Black, managed the impossible for the release of his fourth album; Ships features track titles like ‘Twelve Carrots of Love’, ‘Build You a Butterfly’ and (most spectacularly) ‘The Morse Code for Love is Beep Beep, Beep Beep, the Binary Code is One One’ without being a nauseatingly twee collection of inane, cute-for-its-own-sake indie-pop. Instead, his aquatic inspired album gets the balance between whimsy and cynicism exactly right. Shells are a recurring motif in his poetic and spiky songwriting and they embody the musical tone of Ships: simultaneously robustly strong and easily broken. This is likely to be partly due to musical influences; his fondness for Super Furry Animals and Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci is evident in a shared approach of self-aware playfulness that undercuts pretension. Sneaking melanchol
Dylan Fowler and Julie Murphy
(2001, Fflach Tradd)
Released at the turn of the Century, this album is an unassuming classic, who’s influence is still felt far and wide. Julie Murphy is the singer with Welsh folk rebels Fernhill as well as her solo projects, while Dylan Fowler is a virtuoso guitarist well known in the world music, folk and jazz worlds. ‘Ffawd’ meaning ‘fate’ in Welsh is also a play on the Portugese word ‘Fado’ – very much the domain of a female voice accompanied by guitar, yet, this is an album full of re-imaginings of Welsh folk tunes, sung with complete control and intensity by Julie Murphy and accompanied majestically by Dylan Fowler’s fado-esque guitar. Much of the credit for the re-imagining of these Welsh folk tunes must go to the producer Ceri Rhys Matthews who did sterling work at the beginning of this century with Fflach Tradd records releasing a string of important completely unique Welsh folk albums (Boys From the Hill, Sild, Llio Rhydderch, Cass Meurig to name a few) and this is the star of the bunch. Quite simply, this is a beautiful album. There are definitive versions of ‘Morgan Jones o’r Dole Gwyrddion’ and ‘Hiraeth am Feirion’ and Murphy’s a-capella reading of ‘Y Deryn Du a’i Blufyn Shitan’ is simply stunning.
(2020, Recordaui Agati)
Chaos Wonderland is the ninth album from Colorama (the moniker for multi-instrumentalist Carwyn Ellis), arriving three years after his acclaimed LP, Some Things Just Take Time. Despite being recorded in 2018, Chaos Wonderland is aptly named for the year of its release, the album itself reflecting broadly on themes of global disruption and political disease but honing in on the dissonance of personal experiences of beauty and love. With a late ‘60s sensibility and occasional turn to the cinematic, Chaos Wonderland comes with an analogue edge and instrumental flourish that will be familiar to both longtime Colorama fans and appreciators of Ellis’ producer on this record, Shawn Lee. Indeed, the whole album tracks an eclectic journey through Ellis and Lee’s off-kilter sonically conjoined imaginations, dips into Motown pastiches, and then returns to the more familiar shores of indie-pop and indie-folk melodies. From the soft, sparkly, hymnal ‘Me & She’ to the breezy modern soul of ‘Reconciliation’, Chaos Wonderland is an escapist joy, perfectly timed for the dark days of the pandemic, but with a durability that is sure to take it into a time far beyond.
The Darling Buds
(1988, Sony Music)
And in the beginning, there was ‘Blonde’. If you believe ‘the beginning’ to be 1987 that is, and ‘Blonde’ to be anything other than the lazy knee-jerk construct of a music press unable to see beyond the junk-shop Monroe glam exemplified by the collective vocalists of Transvision Vamp, The Primitives, and Newport’s own The Darling Buds. Though the hair and cheekbones of Andrea Lewis grabbed the headlines and flashbulbs, it would be unfair to view the rest of the band as some kind of embryonic test-environment for Sleeper-blokes. Guitarist Harley (né Geraint) Farr had evidently read all the right books, watched all the right films, and had styled himself in the prevailing 50s rebel chic of the mid to late 80s. While bassist Chris McDonagh was that most Newport of things, a seemingly reluctant refugee from the town’s thriving American hardcore scene. A man who, within the space of two years, went from watching Hüsker Dü at the Stow Hill Labour Club to batting off the inanities of Timmy Mallet on the sofa of The Wide-Awake Club.
Pop Said nevertheless remains a cluster-bomb of joy, exuberance, and it’s-now-or-never urgency. Its production catapults Lewis’s vocals to the very forefront of the forefront and casts her as the indisputable star of the show. Its guitar sound reflects the jangle-pop sound of the era, but without any of its cloying in-built shyness. Collectively, it’s a sound that aspires to venues much bigger and far beyond that of TJ’s – at the time, a serious act of cultural heresy for anyone with a guitar and a NP postcode. Take a moment to give ‘You’ve Got to Choose’ a spin – a shimmering post-punk take on the peerless 60s girl pop output of Decca and Pye – and raise a glass to the bedroom students of pop’s secret history. It may taste like sugar at times, but this is a record that smells of hairspray and gasoline.
Join us next week for 70-61 in the Wales Arts Review 100 Greatest Welsh Albums of All Time.
List compiled by Wales Arts Review and friends of the Review. Words by Cath Holland, Tilly Foulkes, Caragh Medlicott, Gray Taylor, Nerys Williams, Craig Austin, Jude Rogers, Jack Boyce, Gareth Smith, Tomos Williams, and Gary Raymond.