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Written to an imaginary child about what it is to be a woman in this society, the singers seventh album is alternately intimate, sneering and sad, and lavished with gorgeous melodies

Laura Marling has described her seventh solo album as a kind of conceptual work. Song for Our Daughter, she says, is about trauma and an enduring quest to understand what it is to be a woman in this society. The songs are written to an imaginary child, offering her all the confidences and affirmations I found so difficult to provide myself. It has also turned up months earlier than expected. Scheduled for release in August the beginning of the annual three-month season when albums by major artists traditionally appear it has been brought forward. In light of the change to all our circumstances, Marling wrote on Instagram, I saw no reason to hold back on something that, at the very least, might entertain, and, at its best, provide some union.

The artwork for Song for Our Daughter. Photograph: Publicity image

However altruistic her intention, its quite a canny move: a lot of people have a lot of time on their hands right now, which may cause them to focus more intently on a singers work. Yet there is always the chance the opposite may happen. These are, as you can hardly have failed to notice, extraordinary, unprecedented times. There is no escape from whats going on in the outside world: to release an album now, an artist would have to be pretty confident theyd made something capable of cutting through the constant roar of news about the terrifying global crisis; something capable of subverting our natural inclination to react by turning to stuff we already know and love and find comforting. But a lack of confidence has never been Laura Marlings undoing: as so-called sensitive singer-songwriters go, she always cuts a remarkably robust figure. I have not a fuck to give, she snaps on opener Alexandra, and all the contents of Song for Our Daughter are distinctly less gooey and self-absorbed than an album offering advice to an imaginary unborn child might be in less assured hands.

Marling is still wont to change her accent with the frequency that some singer-songwriters change plectrums. Indeed, she sometimes changes accent in the middle of a song, as on Hope We Meet Again, where she keeps dipping out of the mid-Atlantic twang thats presumably necessary if youre going to write songs with words such as highway and momma in them, into the kind of cut-glass RP you might expect from someone who comes from Berkshire. The first song that lyrically fits with the advice-to-an-imaginary-child concept, Strange Girl, finds Marling singing in the Dylan-derived sneer she deployed on Master Hunter, from her album Once I Was an Eagle, with what appears to be a little of mid-70s Lou Reeds patent brand of bored contempt stirred in. Which is certainly a bracing way of delivering maternal counsel.

Laura Marling: Held Down video

In fact, it doesnt sound much like maternal counsel at all, more like Marling talking about her own past with an appealing roll of the eyes: Build yourself a garden and have something to attend / Cut off all relations because you couldnt stand your friends / Oh girl, please dont bullshit me. Certainly, its more successful than the title track, where the emotions she summons when imagining her daughter in some pretty grim situations blood on the floor, with your clothes on the floor, taking your advice from an old, balding bore tend to nothing sharper than sighing, well-I-tried-to-warn-you sadness. Its a song written by someone trying to picture what its like being a parent, and not quite pulling said picture into focus.

That said, the title track is extraordinarily beautiful, a quality it shares with the rest of Song for Our Daughter. One of the albums musical touchstones was apparently Paul McCartneys 70s albums, and whatever else you think about post-Beatles Macca, youd have a hard time arguing he was stingy with the tunes. And so it is here. The piano-led Blow By Blow, the gentle strum of For You, and the feedback-flecked Held Down are all lavished with gorgeous, effortless-seeming melodies.

The effect is heightened by the production. Its a highly polished piece of work, big on rich string arrangements and intricate harmony vocals. Theres a particularly striking moment when a swirl of voices all Marlings, multi-tracked to infinity rises up to underpin the line I love you, goodbye, on The End of the Affair. But its recorded in a way that creates a live feel, the lack of echo giving the illusion that Marling and her band are in close proximity to the listener. The effect is impressively punchy on Strange Girl, but on the songs that fill the albums second half, which are largely reliant on vocals and fingerpicked guitar, the production conjures a warm, fresh intimacy that feels welcome in a world of Zoom meetings and FaceTime catch-ups. Perhaps now is the perfect moment to release it after all.

This week Alexis listened to

Jon Brooks – Fonn
Electronic auteur Jon Brookss new album How to Get Spring is pastoral and wistful: sonic lushness spiked with an aching hint of melancholy.

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The 60s folk troubadour is on an environmental mission, in tribute to Greta Thunberg. He discusses love, success, Brian Jones and how drugs became big business

Donovan, born Donovan Phillips Leitch in Scotland in 1946, was famous enough before he was 18 for the world to be on first-name terms with him. You dont have to be a boomer to remember Mellow Yellow, although it may help if you want to remember his famous stand-off with Bob Dylan in Dont Look Back, a really poignant moment of the old folk against the new (Dylan, new folk in this narrative, is actually older by four years, Donovan is keen to stress).

Now 73 and living in Ireland, he has wild grey hair and a gentle, thoughtful face; he looks, in real life, like an atmospheric black-and-white photo of a folk singer. His conversation is as wild as his hair, completely ungoverned by conventions such as sticking to the point or answering the bloody question. His mind comes into focus every now and then, when he wants to tell me what to write, how to write it and how to ask a question. I have actually since considered some remote therapy to try and figure out why this annoyed me so much.

Anyway, he is out of retirement with Eco-Song, a tribute album to Greta Thunberg that he has recorded with his wife, Linda. No, wait, its not a tribute album; its an album of songs from across his career with an eco theme, waiting to be turned into a stage opera. He and Linda want to take it to schools, to universities, want the youth performing it up and down the land. They have a plot strung around the songs four young students in Cork, meeting up on a Friday night, after a climate strike but, for the time being, the songs have been released as a standalone CD. A month ago, in an entirely different world, he was planning to take it on tour.

We met before the lockdown in a London hotel; the coronavirus crisis was serious enough then that we bumped elbows as I came in, unserious enough that we forgot not to shake hands at the end, serious enough that his roadie immediately handed him some hand sanitiser. Donovan wanted to explain why he and Linda have dedicated themselves to Thunberg.

It starts in quite an unlikely place, this explanation with Mary Shelley, who first sounded the alarm about the dangers of science while all the great poets were silent (She was the wife of the poet Shelley, we know that now, he says, in a tone of aching significance, though surely we knew that then). And her monster, science, is now raging throughout the earth. OK It was a young woman who sounded the alarm back then. And I rang the bell, 50 years ago, in 1968, alone among my song-poet peers. I think he means the bell for nuclear disarmament. His lyrics, from the start, often had a pacifist edge, along with social conscience; he performed at benefit gigs for striking shipbuilders, contributed two songs to Ken Loachs Poor Cow (which was to domestic violence what Cathy Come Home was to homelessness).

Mellow Yellow may be the song that floats to the top of the memory, but electrical banana / is gonna be a sudden craze is by no means the summit of his lyrical endeavour. We actually invaded pop culture with meaningful lyrics, he says. He was very anti-nuclear and still is but I could get no further detail on which bell he is talking about, that he rang and none of the other song-poets did. Never mind that now.

And then, 50 years later, in 2018, a wee lass called Greta rings the bell again. At first, shes alone. Linda and I waited to see if her generation would have their own songwriters. But they had none. (I would love to drill into this large statement, that there are no songwriters in Generation Z. But Donovan expressly forbade any questions until the tea had arrived.) Rebellions and movements need songs. And Linda and I found it extremely significant that it was Mary, not the poets, and its again a young woman, its Greta, pointing to the disaster approaching. The male domination of science and industry has meant that theres no nurture, anywhere, nature has been raped and pillaged by the male sensibility. Its always a woman who sounds the alarm although, in this timeline, Donovan appears to be an honorary one. Ah, tea. So, about this eco-mission

Donovan: The singer started off as a kid with a guitar, a bard in the old Gaelic tradition. Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Guardian

In fact, it is a bit of a stretch to talk about retirement, since it is only five years ago that he was releasing a greatest hits album to celebrate 50 years since his first release, and even more years of being Donovan, a kid with a guitar, and a song, and a hat, and a harmonica, the traditional troubadour, minstrel, bard, in the old Gaelic tradition. He grew up in Glasgow, of Scottish and Irish descent, in a song-filled house that was also alive with his photographer fathers unpublished poetry. He has had periods of intense introspection, deepening his relationship with transcendental meditation with sundry Beatles, mainly George Harrison, and periods of hightailing it to Bhutan and Nepal to meet Buddhists in exile, but since he got his first contract in 1964, he has never really stopped releasing music. Its the mission, he explains. He has to go wherever the mission takes him. Nevertheless, youd call the 60s his heyday, the decade of Epistle to Dippy and The Hurdy Gurdy Man, often playing on his own, doors swinging open wherever he went.

Anyway, the tea is here and I am allowed to ask a question, except: First Im going to read you something. It takes four minutes. Ive measured it. Its the mission that has brought Donovan and Linda back in the saddle. If you want me to expand, I can. Tell me more, you should say. He then reads me the speech, which is essentially a longer version of what he had already told me about the young-women-plus-Donovan bell-ringers before the tea.

As the encounter turns into something more like a recognisable conversation, he circles again and again back to the start of his career, meeting Linda, losing her, finding her again. He is the most fantastic name-dropper, but if you ask him for any more detail Ah, celebrities, he says, knowingly. You want to hear about the celebrities. Its amazing, isnt it, how that connects with hell begin, before haring off to the absolutely least connected thing. He is delightful and maddening, although maddening can get the upper hand. Sod it, lets start where he wants to start at the beginning, with his unholy talent.

While the Beatles were doing their famous 10,000 hours gigging in Hamburg, he didnt need to do all that (although he did play Hamburg once, in 1965 It was like a Popeye cartoon: the street was like madness, sailors and tourists and police. Halfway through singing my first song, the wall behind me collapsed and the club behind broke into mine, and everybody was fighting).

I realised television was for me; I picked it up very quickly. Everything jazz, blues, folk, pop music, literature, feminism, ecology I just absorbed it like a sponge, and I was prepared, because I had had poetry of noble thought read to me as a child. He was recording a demo in London when Brian Jones, the founder of the Rolling Stones, walked in. He knew that I was something that was going to happen, and he said to Ready, Steady, Go [like a 60s Top of the Pops, only bohemian]: If you dont have him on, youre going to be sorry.

He thus got his first TV performance before he had even released a single, and slips into the third person, awestruck. And suddenly, he connected with millions of people. How did he do that? And the cameraman loved it, and the directors loved it, and the producers loved it. How did I learn it so early? Because, what Im about to sing to you, you already know. The Gaelic singer-songwriter tradition is actually four: poetry, music, theatre and radical thought.

Or perhaps it was astrological: Im a Taurus, and the Tauruss area is the throat, and Im very highly skilled with vocalising. I can really impress and project a very special feeling. And then he veers into reincarnation: Did I learn this before I was born? Or is it a continuum, that you are actually not a person, but a force, you are an energy, and this energy is manifesting itself in a character called Donovan, but I dont own it, its part of a tradition?

A portrait of the song-poet as a young man: Donovan in the late 60s. Photograph: David Redfern/Redferns

That night on Ready, Steady, Go was fateful for another reason he met a woman called Linda Lawrence in the green room, all dressed in black, pure, white, blanched face, a bohemian girl. My dream. They were both just 18, but things were already quite complicated. She wanted to marry Brian Jones, with whom she had a child. She wasnt his first girlfriend he had two or three kids already. He was like the god Pan; he was spreading kids around every six months. Thats one way of putting it, I guess. Jones drowned in a swimming pool at the sadly young age of 27 in 1969, although not before he had counselled Linda that, even though where he was going, she couldnt follow, she should choose someone other than Donovan as her next partner, someone mature.

Whether heeding this or for some other reason, she went to Los Angeles on her own (later moving her young son over to the US to be with her), and Donovan, bereft, went to Japan. Because, can you believe that in 1969 the government were taxing the Beatles and I and others 96%? Why, yes, I can believe it, because I recall a whiny Beatles song about it. Taxman, he croons momentarily. But still, we were rich. I dont think we ever saw any real money, because we were moving so fast and doing exactly what we wanted to do. We never had a purse. Ah, hippies; too cool to have a wallet, never so cool as to forget about money altogether. As long as I didnt put my foot on UK soil, I didnt have to pay any income tax. It wasnt the money, it was the principle.

The Japanese tour was flat, not for audiences, but for Donovan, who was miserable. It wasnt drugs and he wasnt overly crazy on alcohol, he just had a broken heart and its hard to stay interested in your mission through one of those. Without the mission, I wasnt in good shape, he says. Gypsy Dave was always with me. Gypsy Dave crops up a lot when he talks. He was there at the start, apparently, when they were sleeping rough in Liverpool (Well, on benches in graveyards, with a sleeping bag; but that was the rough. The smooth was in St Ives, sleeping on a beach under the stars). Dave makes sage remarks throughout the Linda separation (There are plenty more fish in the sea), but it remains hard, maybe because of his handle, to remember that he was a real person, the sculptor and songwriter Gyp Mills, rather than a kind of spirit animal.

Anyway, it was Dave who insisted that he couldnt keep on gigging in Japan when his heart wasnt in it, that he had to go home. My agent, Vic Lewis, said: As soon as you put your foot on [the British airline] BOAC in Tokyo, youre on British soil the whole tax plan is out of the window. I was about to earn more than any British artist had ever earned on a year dropout $7m. Today it would probably be a lot more. Vic was on his knees in the airport, because he stood to get 10%. I quite like this tableau, the mystic bard shuffling sadly on to a plane, foregoing his ancient principle of opposing a supertax, as his agent prostrates himself on the ground for his lost 700 grand. Wheres Hans Holbein when you need him?

Donovan with his wife Linda Lawrence on their wedding day in October 1970. Photograph: Bill Orchard/Rex/Shutterstock

So he was home, and Linda had come back to England, too, after life in the US got too dicey. The drug dealers were moving in, and he takes an interesting detour through the end of the psychedelic dream. The drugs were quite safe to begin with, but as the 60s progressed, it was becoming big business, and a lot of our songs were singing about it. So it became like we were the ones who were commercially promoting it. The pair reunited in 1970 in a touching scene involving a cow. We walked up to the woods, me with my guitar, and we sat in the field, and we didnt say anything. Until I said: Do you want to get married now? And she said: I still feel the same. And I started singing a song, and a cow came up and licked Lindas face while I was singing. Id never heard of anything like that happening. And you cant make that up. It must be a Taurus thing.

If his first decade of fame was all about love found and lost, its eventual resolution liberated both Donovan and Linda to delve into the deeper significance of the human condition transcendental meditation. Me, David Lynch, Paul McCartney, but dont focus on me, focus on what the teaching says. This might be part of your article. O K. There are three levels of consciousness, waking, sleeping and dreaming, and we move between the three of them. But there is a fourth level, superconscious transcendental vision.

If you never access that, you never truly relax, and this in a roundabout but mainly non-verbal way, explains why the world is in such a mess and we stockpile nuclear weapons. Yet why have we not already destroyed ourselves? Why has it not already happened?

Go on then, wise guy Well, its extraordinary in itself.

On the plus side, everything you need to know is already inside you you just need to access it. Will our self-awareness come too late to halt the climate crisis? Greta says no. Her generation is saying no. It is an extraordinary mission, and the mission is eco. And I think thats it.

Encounter completed. I dont know what Greta Thunberg is going to make of this intervention. But I hope Donovans tour goes ahead in the future, if only because I am hoping for a future in which all tours go ahead.

Donovans album Eco-Song is available to download at The rescheduled show at Cadogan Hall, London, will take place on 12 October.

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Singer says Murder Most Foul, recorded a while back, is a gift to fans for their support and loyalty over the years

Bob Dylan has released his first original music in eight years, a 17-minute long song about the JFK assassination.

A ballad set to piano, strings and light drums, Murder Most Foul retells the 1963 killing in stark terms, imagining Kennedy being led to the slaughter like a sacrificial lamb they blew off his head while he was still in the car / shot down like a dog in broad daylight. He paints an epic portrait of an America in decline ever since, but offered salvation of a sort in pop music: the Beatles, Woodstock festival, Charlie Parker, the Eagles and Stevie Nicks are all referenced in its lyrics.

Dylan made subtle reference to the coronavirus crisis as he launched the song on Twitter. Greetings to my fans and followers with gratitude for all your support and loyalty across the years, he said. This is an unreleased song we recorded a while back that you might find interesting. Stay safe, stay observant and may God be with you.

Dylans recent albums have featured cover versions of American pop standards. The most recent was triple album Triplicate in 2017. His last album of original songs was Tempest in 2012.

Murder Most Foul is also the first original song he has released since he became the first songwriter to be awarded the Nobel prize for literature, in 2016.

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Nashville folk singer died of an apparent heart attack aged 71 during a performance at a Florida music festival

Respected American singer-songwriter David Olney said sorry to fans before he died during a performance in Florida. The 71-year-old was mid-song when he stopped, apologised and shut his eyes, said musician Amy Rigby, who was performing alongside him at the 30A Songwriters festival in Santa Rosa Beach.

Rigby said: He was very still, sitting upright with his guitar on, wearing the coolest hat and a beautiful rust suede jacket I want the picture to be as graceful and dignified as it was, because it at first looked as if he was just taking a moment.

Olneys fellow musicians, doctors present in the audience, and paramedics unsuccessfully attempted to revive the singer. His publicist believes he died of an apparent heart attack.

NPR critic Ann Powers described Olneys death as a major loss to the Nashville songwriter community.

David Olney: You Never Know (Songwriter Series live performance) video

Olney was born in Rhode Island in 1948. He moved to Nashville in 1973 and formed a band called the X-Rays, who recorded two albums in the 1980s. As a solo artist, he released more than 20 albums. Artists including Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt, Steve Earle and Steve Young have covered his music.

The late songwriter Townes Van Zandt wrote the liner notes for Olneys third album, Roses, released in 1991. Any time anyone asks me who my favourite music writers are, I say Mozart, Lightnin Hopkins, Bob Dylan and Dave Olney, he wrote. Dave Olney is one of the best songwriters Ive ever heard and thats true. I mean that from my heart.

Olney is survived by his wife Regine, son Redding and daughter Lillian.

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From John Fahey, the Sonics and the Waitresses to Slade, Wizzard and Mariah Carey, we count down the best festive numbers

50. John Fahey

The First Noel

Tiring of the fact that no one wanted to buy albums of experimental American primitive guitar music, but they bought White Christmas every year, John Fahey recorded an album of Christmas instrumentals. It was, by a margin, his bestselling record. Atypical of his work, but beautiful.

49. The Sonics

Dont Believe in Christmas

The Sonics believed some folks liked the taste of straight strychnine, so of course they didnt believe in Christmas. What happened when they stayed up late to try to catch a glimpse of Santa? Well, sure enough, dont ya know / The fat boy didnt show. Cheeky so-and-sos.

48. Emmy the Great & Tim Wheeler

Christmas Day (I Wish I Was Surfing)

Sounding much more like Ash than Emmy the Great and the loudest, most raucous thing on their 2011 Christmas album this is a song that sounds joyous, but is really about the desire to escape, to anywhere that isnt cold. So long as its not alone.

47. Little Joey Farr

RocknRoll Christmas

Rocknroll and rockabilly are a treasure trove of Christmas novelty numbers (try Marlene Paulas I Want To Spend Xmas with Elvis), but weve only got room for one. So, given Christmas is all about the kids, bless their souls, lets have a song by an actual kid who promptly disappeared from the pop world.

46. Lou Rawls

Santa Claus Is Comin to Town

One imagines this would be the soundtrack to Don Drapers Christmas as creamy as eggnog, with a supple swing thats nagging but not unobtrusive, its exactly the sound of an idealised Christmas from the 60s. Rawls made a ton of Christmas albums, but his first from 1967 is the best.

45. Ronnie James Dio, Tony Iommi, Rudy Sarzo & Simon Wright

God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen

How would Christmas sound reimagined by Black Sabbath? Almost exactly as you would imagine, to be honest. The most oddly foreboding of all the big Christmas songs suits the grinding and roaring. And it helps, naturally, that it contains a reference to Satans power.

44. Saint Etienne

I Was Born on Christmas Day

From fire and brimstone to prosecco and chocolate, bursting with optimism for the winter: Getting groovy after Halloween / Mid-November, got back on the scene / Im so glad that I just got my pay / I was born on Christmas Day! A song as sweet as a selection box.

43. The Free Design

Close Your Mouth (Its Christmas)

Probably the song that goes on in Don Drapers apartment after Lou Rawls, when the hip young kids have arrived. Get to know the people in your house, they sing. You might like them. Draper knocks back a whisky, raises an eyebrow and shakes his head.

42. Sally Shapiro

Anorak Christmas

A gorgeous bauble from the mid-00s wave of Scandinavian music that crossed electropop with the feyest indie. Sally falls in love on a Tuesday before Christmas, at a gig with a band that we both liked. But will she end up by herself or in the perfect kiss?

41. Solomon Burke

Presents for Christmas

The king of rocknsoul pitches himself somewhere between a revivalist preacher and Santa Claus: We want to give out a present to everybody this Christmas! All around the world for every man, woman, boy and girl! he exclaims in the intro. One of the few artists whose spoken sections routinely rival the songs (track down a copy of Soul Alive! if you dont believe me).

40. Joy Zipper

Christmas Song

Blank-faced and affectless, heres Christmas for the shoegazers from the duo briefly toasted at the start of the last decade. Kevin Shields and David Holmes produced, and you can bet Beach House were listening.

39. Neil Halstead

The Man in the Santa Suit

Truthfully, this version is only here because the Fountains of Wayne original an homage to the Kinks Father Christmas isnt on Spotify. But what a perfect, sad song: And hes a big red cherry / But its hard to be merry / When the kids are all laughing / Saying: Hey, its Jerry Garcia.

38. The Everly Brothers

Christmas Eve Can Kill You

The Man in the Santa Suit is a laughfest compared to this Everly Brothers number from 1972, about a hitcher alone the night before Christmas. Organ and pedal steel sound like the wind whistling through the trees as our hero trudges on: The sound of one man walkin through the snow can break your heart.

37. Santo & Johnny

Twistin Bells

Do we need cheering up? I think we do. Thank goodness, then, for the twangy guitars of Brooklyn duo Santo & Johnny, the gaudy, overlit shop window that contrasts with the stark loneliness of the Everly Brothers.

36. Run-DMC

Christmas in Hollis

Hip-hop hasnt been a huge source of Christmas songs, but Run-DMC were on top of it back in the first golden age. What would you do if you found Santas wallet on Hollis Avenue? Its a perennial question. Run decides its best to post it back; he is rewarded for his honesty.

35. Shirley & Dolly Collins

The Gower Wassail

Two of the greatest British folk voices combine for a drinking song that, if were honest, is unlikely to be ringing out in pubs this Christmas. The asceticism of the British folk tradition can be a useful astringent amid the sleigh bells and tinsel.

34. Tracey Thorn

Snow in Sun

Originally from Scritti Polittis sublime 2006 album White Bread, Black Beer and reworked by Thorn on her gorgeous album Tinsel and Lights which is enough to qualify it as a Christmas song here is a featherlight breath of winter to freshen your face.

33. Mahalia Jackson

Go Tell It on the Mountain

You cant really have Christmas without acknowledging that someone significant was born on 25 December and not just Bob Stanley of Saint Etienne. The queen of gospel wants you to spread the news far and wide, and she imparts her message with due gravitas.

32. Big Star

Jesus Christ

Big Stars Third is the least likely album to contain a Christmas song, but amid the desperation and despair was this huge burst of fervour. Did Alex Chilton mean it? Was it a joke? Its effect is magnified by the music that surrounds it on the rest of the album.

31. Calexico

Green Grows the Holly

Gorgeous and stern, and undoubtedly the best adaptation by an Americana band of any poem written by Henry VIII. The horns bloom, like the flowers of the song, turning something indisputably English into a desert lament.

30. Jimmy McGriff

Winter Wonderland

McGriff opens with a squall of organ that doesnt lead you to believe Christmas is coming anytime soon, then takes Winter Wonderland at such a leisurely pace that it takes a moment to recognise it. (If you like this, try Jimmy Smiths Christmas 64 as well.)

29. Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings

Aint No Chimneys in the Projects

When you live in poverty, certain logistical problems come to mind. Namely, if youre in a big public housing block, how does Santa get the presents underneath the tree? A fabulous addition to the long line of socially conscious soul and funk Christmas music.

28. Sons of Heaven

When Was Jesus Born?

We all know the answer, but when its posed this beautifully, in such impeccable close harmony, the obviousness of the question can be forgiven. There are many versions of this, but its a hard song to do anything but beautifully.

27. Thea Gilmore

Listen, the Snow Is Falling

Yoko Onos is the original version and Galaxie 500s rendition is more celebrated, but Thea Gilmore gets the perfect ratio of iciness to wonder it sounds like a Christmas tree, if such a thing were possible. The 2009 album Strange Communion is highly recommended.

26. The Temptations

Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer

Oh, wrap yourself in the blanket of those glorious voices! Motown took Christmas seriously, with the result that you could probably do this list entirely from Motown tracks. This one gets selected because what is really a fairly dismal song is transformed by a perfect arrangement.

25. Clarence Carter

Back Door Santa

Pure Christmas filth. Back Door Santa can make all the little girls happy / While the boys are out to play. But dont mistake him for Father Christmas: I aint like old Saint Nick / He dont come but once a year. I dare you not to dance, though.

24. Ramones

Danny Says

Merry Christmas (I Dont Want to Fight Tonight) is better known as a Ramones Christmas song, but the sublime Danny Says gets the nod, qualifying on the grounds that the desperate, lonely band are stuck on the road deep in winter and it aint Christmas if there aint no snow.

23. Cristina

Things Fall Apart

No matter how bad your Christmas is, its not as bad as Cristinas. Mind you, given its the early 80s New York art underground, she was probably forbidden from liking something so bourgeois. Even a party cant cheer her: I caught a cab back to my flat / And wept a bit and fed the cat.

22. Joni Mitchell


Joni Mitchell is bereft, too, on this gorgeous piano ballad, when Christmas just makes her mourn her relationship and flee Laurel Canyon for her home in Canada, where there might be a frozen river she could skate away on, away from everything.

21. David Banner

The Christmas Song

Completing the mini-run of joyless Christmases, heres the most joyless of all when the only way to pay for Christmas is to rob and deal and kill. The climactic jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way is not intended as cause for celebration.

20. Lindstrm

Little Drummer Boy

Hans-Peter Lindstrm takes almost 43 minutes to assemble a Christmas song from electronic squiggles, through the martial drumbeat, to the melody coming in at eight minutes. It then spends a further 25 minutes warping and mutating, picking up and discarding musical phrases, before exploding orgasmically in its final 10 minutes or so.

19. William Bell

Every Day Will Be a Holiday

It doesnt actually mention Christmas, but gets counted and not just by me as a Christmas song because of the little horn lift from Jingle Bells, for it being about being lonely waiting for his baby to come home (presumably for Christmas), and because its B-side was Please Come Home For Christmas. Its also a fabulous piece of Stax soul.

18. Belle and Sebastian

O Come, O Come Emmanuel

On the 2000 charity album Its a Cool Cool Christmas which was pretty strong Belle and Sebastian took on the most beautiful of all the Christmas hymns. Something so delicate suited them. Also recommended: El Vez merging Feliz Navidad and Public Image.

17. The Staple Singers

Who Took the Merry Out of Christmas?

The Staple Singers are worried: too many wars, too much space exploration means people are searching for light and cant seem to find the right star. Jesus isnt just another baby boy, they warn. So show some respect. Glorious.

16. The Watersons

Sound, Sound Your Instruments of Joy

Just listen to the voices: this is Christmas as it must have sounded when it was a religious festival in the depths of winter, rather than an excuse to rack up debt. Make your own fun! Maybe weave an Action Man out of three pieces of straw! And yet its so beautiful.

15. Eartha Kitt

Santa Baby

Were into the start of the big songs now, and Eartha Kitts contribution is the precise opposite of the Watersons vision of Christmas. She wants a sable, a convertible, a yacht, a platinum mine She wants every sensation. And whats Jesus got to do with anything?

14. Otis Redding

White Christmas

Who knew the most famous Christmas hit of all could be so emotionally wrought? Where Bing Crosby sounded as if he was fondly pondering his Christmas, Otis sounds like hes breaking into a sweat trying to will it into existence through sheer force of desire.

13. The Pretenders

2000 Miles

Sometimes simple is best: Robbie McIntoshs guitar playing on the Pretenders 1984 hit is a model of folk-rock restraint, taking from the Byrds, and offsetting Chrissie Hyndes voice and lyric with a sense that everything, somehow, is going to be OK.

12. Bob Seger and the Last Heard

Sock It to Me Santa

Santas got a brand new bag! hollers Bob Seger, who was a Detroit R&B shouter years before he became a heartland American beard rocker. Sock It to Me Santa is a fabulous explosion garage rock and soul brought together into something made for the best bar in the city on Christmas Eve.

11. Wham!

Last Christmas

A big Christmas hit that was unlike previous UK seasonal singles it wasnt wrapped in sleigh bells, there was nothing consciously novelty about it. Perhaps George Michael had been paying close attention to some of the great US Christmas soul singles, because this was a heartbreak song that just happened to be set in December.

10. Darlene Love

Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)

A Christmas Gift to You from Phil Spector codified the sound of Christmas: maximal, filled with signifiers of the season (there is nowhere sleigh bells cant be draped). Darlene Loves Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) was the standout on a record on which the quality didnt drop from start to finish.

9. Wizzard

I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday

Roy Woods enduring contribution to the season owed a huge debt to Phil Spector theres almost certainly a kitchen sink section at work somewhere in the mix but it transcends imitation by its sheer verve. It was recorded in summer, with the studio air conditioning turned down to make everyone feel wintry. Attention to detail, right there.

8. Slade

Merry Xmas Everybody

Christmas 1973 brought not just Wizzard but the most enduring of all British Christmas singles. Forty-six years later, people still bellow Its CHRISTMAS! in Noddy Holders face, which, apparently, gets a little wearisome. The whole thing was Jim Leas mums idea why didnt Slade have a song they could release every year? She got her wish.

7. Donny Hathaway

This Christmas

It wasnt a hit at the time, but took off when it was included on a 1991 reissue of the 1968 Atco compilation Soul Christmas. To which you can only say: why did it take the world so long to notice? Its a Christmas song that stands up regardless of the season. And according to the publishing body Ascap, its now the 30th most performed Christmas song of all time in the US.

6. Tom Waits

Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis

Probably not one to play when youre unwrapping the presents. A character study that begins grimly, then offers hope, as the narrator says things are getting better before ripping the rug away without ceremony. Do you want to know the truth of it, she asks: Charley, hey, Ill be eligible for parole come Valentines day.

5. Marvin Gaye

Purple Snowflakes

A song so beautiful its almost otherworldly Marvin Gayes flawless falsetto, the unexpected chord changes, the sense of mystery. Yet its wrapped up in the most comforting of Christmas imagery chestnuts roasting, blankets of white without ever explaining why the snowflakes are purple.

4. The Waitresses

Christmas Wrapping

Like Cristinas Things Fall Apart, Christmas Wrapping was originally written for the Z labels 1981 compilation the most punching-above-its-weight Christmas comp ever. Its a fabulous stream of consciousness, during which Patty Donahue talks herself from wanting to miss Christmas to knowing she cant miss Christmas, that bursts into joy at its horn refrain.

3. Low

Just Like Christmas

Lows 1999 Christmas EP released as a gift to fans was one of the most unexpected seasonal delights: ascetic indie band embracing the season without irony. Its lead track was a joy, the discomfort of touring reminding them of when they were young, and it feeling just like Christmas. Just two verses, and a repeated refrain perfect.

2. The Pogues

Fairytale of New York

Theres almost nothing left to be said about Fairytale of New York, a song that has been impossible to avoid for more than 30 years. Such is the strength of the songwriting and the grace of the performance that, despite the overexposure, it feels fresh every single time. That a scrappy folk-punk band produced something that will endure as long as Christmas itself is a real Christmas miracle.

1. Mariah Carey

All I Want for Christmas Is You


The best Christmas songs should only work at Christmas. They should make you feel festive, in the same way that the 174th repeat of The Snowman does. They should work anywhere in shopping centres, in bars, pumping out of PAs in gig venues after the band has gone off, on the radio in a cafe, in your home or on your headphones. All I Want for Christmas Is You is all of those things. Its a shameless pastiche of Phil Spector thats so brazen and joyful and simple it took Carey and Walter Afanasieff only 15 minutes to write that it transcends its lack of originality. Its the rare modern Christmas song that has become a standard, and deservedly so.

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The New Zealander can be an unnerving presence. Shes also one of the most original songwriters around. She talks about Meatloaf, Apocalypse Now and why her generation is so frightened

Look into Aldous Hardings eyes. Its hard not to. To be fixed by her gaze is to be profoundly unnerved. This is a large part of the appeal of this New Zealand musician, whose music is as disquietingly beautiful and unsettling as her image.

On stage and in videos, the strangeness of Harding is intensified. Take the video for her new single, Zoo Eyes: shes dressed like an overpainted clown from a Jodorowsky film. At festivals this summer, she wore burnt-orange workmens clothes and a porkpie hat, her eyes twitching, her mouth gurning like a silent film comedian. If felt like watching the deeply peculiar child of Patti Smith and Buster Keaton or a wayward musical niece of Kristin Hersh and PJ Harvey.

Despite the avant-garde approach, Harding is popular: shes sold out shows for her tour and headlines Londons Roundhouse next month. Young women who present themselves as she does, daring you to turn away, are rare these days. Shes also a discombobulating, impressive presence one-on-one, as I discover.

Terra Nova in Roath Park, Cardiff, is a lakeside cafe, noisy with mamgus (Welsh grandmas) entertaining their grandchildren. Harding is moving seats when I arrive to meet her: kindly giving up her big table for a couple. Im rain-soaked and I apologise for looking damply unprofessional. Oh no, you look perfect, she says. The phrase sounds sweet in her mouth, but also slightly sinister.

Watch the video for Zoo Eyes.

Harding lives nearby with her boyfriend, Huw Evans, AKA H Hawkline. (Before dating Harding, Evans went out, for 10 years, with Welsh musician Cate Le Bon; the two women share band members these days, which must make arranging tours interesting.) But Harding doesnt know what the local scenes like, she says just as she didnt in New Zealand: I spend too much time in my own head.

She talks very slowly, deliberately, precisely. Shes learning Welsh, she adds (she says it in the Welsh language, word by word, thinking her way through the sentence). Im very interested in how things sound. The details. Yes.

Born in 1990, Harding began life as Hannah Sian Topp. Harding is her stepfathers surname; he married her Canadian folk singer and puppeteer mum, Lorina, when Hannah was a teenager. A question about her stepfathers influence on her life, which she has mentioned elsewhere, is rebuffed, as are others; she doesnt like to answer questions if I dont feel like the answers going to come out in a natural, musical way.

Her mother remains a huge part of her life. She was the martial arts master twirling sticks in the video to Hardings breakthrough 2017 single, Horizon; her daughter appears in the video wearing black, eyes red-rimmed, possibly reaching out to her mother (although, as always with Hardings lyrics, the clues suggesting this are undone by other riddles and red herrings).

A clip from 2009 is also online, of Harding singing with her mother in a Wellington bar. The song, Exactly What to Say, is one they co-wrote about a typically fraught mother-teenage daughter relationship. You think that I dont listen, that I dont have a clue, Lorina sings, tenderly, but the things that happened to me back then/ I dont want them to happen to you. Harding duets, a ponytailed, hoodie-wearing 19-year-old, singing towards the floor about wanting to learn from her own mistakes. Aldous arrived a few years later. The name Hannah Harding sounded so much like a country singer. And Aldous She gurns. It may have been me seeing an Aldous Huxley book, but there was no deep association. I just thought it was interesting and looked good written down. And I just slipped into her and didnt look back, as corny as that sounds.

Like a cross between Kristin Hersh and PJ Harvey: Aldous Harding at Concorde 2 in Brighton last May. Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer

Harding hints at darker moments during her early 20s: times when she was drinking too much and when things felt overwhelming; early interviews mention her taking acid at church and the songs on her eponymous debut are full of cries for help. That album certainly begins joltingly, with Stop Your Tears, which she sang then like a long-lost, broken folk singer. I will never marry, my love, it begins. I will die waiting for the bells/ Death, come pull me under water/ I have nothing left to fear from hell.

Ive always been, like a lot of people, driven by fear, Harding says of that time. Always focusing on the fire on the rope, as opposed to what the rope is coming from. She feels shes changing now. And by 2017s Party (which documented her break-up with New Zealand singer-songwriter Marlon Williams, albeit abstractly), Aldous was getting bolder. Her performance of Horizon on Later With Jools Holland saw her wild-eyed, gesticulating theatrically, practically spitting into the camera. It felt as if someone was like, Can I have a bite of you? and I was like, Have it all, then. Is that what you want? And then, that feeling just went on and on. She was pleasantly surprised people responded to her, she says, but also I wasnt surprised.

Then came bolder artistic choices. In the video to Blend (2017), she dances in turquoise hotpants and bra, the camera objectifying her body as she glares at the viewer (comments on her YouTube page are, wisely, switched off). I recognised this as an outfit inspired by the Playboy Bunny scene from Apocalypse Now, I say, and she suddenly beams like a child. Do you love Apocalypse Now? I took to that film like a child with a toy! I felt like it was speaking to me and only me. It was like a puzzle. And a comfort.

Why a comfort? Maybe it was the presence of Kurtz at the end of the river, she suggests. The idea they were moving towards dread. And that was a comfort? Yes! Do you ever have dread? Do you ever look at your life and go, Oh, God, theres so much more time to go!?

Im the opposite, I say worried about life going too fast.

But are you open? Im all, Oh, my God, theres so many hours in the day. So many years in my life left. She says later: There are very few things in the world that make me feel a feeling, really.

We discuss music thats made her feel things. Meatloaf, she says: I love how the poetry and the strength of his voice made up for how ridiculous it was. Neil Young: If Im feeling confused, I always listen to him, and go, Thats how things should sound. In the sense that its music that leaves me hopelessly baffled by his intentions, his secrets. She was also a huge fan of Lisa Left Eye Lopes from TLC. She was so weird, so strange and so cute, but she was not vulnerable. I also realised I dance the way I do because of her: the arms up, the hips forward. She shows me, jutting out her chin.

Watch Hardings duet with her mother in a bar in Wellington.

Her recent album,Designer, also has a foot twisting gently in the realm of pop, although its catchy songs still have wrigglier, murkier lyrical roots. Take the sweet guitar-pop of The Barrel, full of puzzling phrases such as show the ferret to the egg and more emotional ones, such as when you have a child, so begins the braiding/ And in that braid you stay. Her ever-changing voice also leads the mood of the songs: gently heavenly on Weight of the Planets, sadly stern on Heaven Is Empty. On the title track, Harding sings the lyric give up your beauty with relish.

She has never tried to make art thats arresting, she says. All I ever wanted to do was to do something interesting. But she will admit that shes trying to work out whats missing in music. Im trying to hold your focus as an unremarkable person trying to do something remarkable.

And shes doing this while theres an aversion in her generation to admitting that youre even trying, she says. Why does she think this? Because there is so much to lose. Its like when people go to acting school and someone will say, Now, I want you to scream at the top of your lungs and they dont want to. They dont want to watch themselves fail. Fail at what? Hardings look lingers in my head long after I leave. Fail at what is basically being human.

Aldous Harding tours the UK and Ireland from 29 November (at the O2 Institute Birmingham) to 7 December (at O2 Academy Bristol)

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The master of British folk music has weathered a second divorce and lives in the US where Trump has ramped up bigotry considerably. At least ex-wife Linda has forgiven him

Richard Thompson is drinking mint tea in a Hampstead coffee shop he doesnt touch coffee or alcohol and between Islam and cricket, hes discussing the remarkable guest list for his upcoming 70th birthday celebration at the Royal Albert Hall in London. I dont like being the centre of attention, strange as it sounds, he insists. I just want to have a few friends over.

The man the LA Times once hailed as the finest rock songwriter after Dylan and the best electric guitarist since Hendrix will switch between electric and acoustic guitars, and hopes that most guests will have time to do a couple of songs. The 15 guests will include Pink Floyd hero David Gilmour, who has featured alongside Richard in a Rolling Stone magazine best ever guitarist list, and who, as a soloist, covered Richards 1975 song Dimming of the Day. Hell do that, says Richard. And then do something of his or Floyds. He has always been a nice guy and we share a love of all things Fender.

The cast will also include old and new British folk heroes, from Martin and Eliza Carthy to Olivia Chaney. And then there will be Harry Shearer, the American actor and comedian, reviving his role as Derek Smalls from Spinal Tap, along with his wife Judith Owen who joined Richard in 2006 for the 1,000 Years of Popular Music project, in which they reworked anything from Sumer Is Icumen In to Britney Spears.

Richard Thompson may be a virtuoso guitarist, but he insists that its the songs that are most important to him. Most of what I do revolves around the song. If I play guitar, Im not interested in playing instrumentals. I like playing guitar to accompany a voice, or if there is a solo, then extending the narrative of the song. So are his thrilling, spontaneous-sounding acoustic or electric guitar solos inspired by the song? Yes, its that way round. Absolutely.

Remarkable output Richard Thompson. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

For more than 50 years, his songwriting output has been remarkable, from the gently bleak and lyrical ballads that are performed regularly in folk clubs (where some listeners probably think they are traditional) through to equally bleak, upbeat favourites like Tear-Stained Letter or the pounding, edgy and emotional stories of foreboding on his latest electric album, 13 Rivers.

Its a set filled with religious imagery, because I love the King James Bible, a beautiful piece of poetry, and you have to speak to people in a language thats familiar. And it was written, he says, in a difficult personal time. Last year, after the ending of his second marriage, to Nancy Covey, he quit California to move to New Jersey, home of his new partner, singer-songwriter and author Zara Phillips. But he insists that the album is not autobiographical. I have no perspective on what I am doing. I write a song and think, Where does this come from? Me? I wrote this? I write fiction Im just enjoying myself, throwing lines together. I think it always reflects your own experience and feelings, but it isnt always in a way thats clear. If you find something honest enough in yourself then it will be universal.

But The Storm Wont Come Theres a smell of death where I lay my head is surely about his divorce? But youve also got Trump in the White House, so maybe theres a little bit of that in there as well. And Her Love Was Meant For Me, isnt that straightforward? Its a song I find very confusing, actually.

Listen to The Storm Wont Come

Richard insists that the Albert Hall show wont be a retrospective, but it will certainly be nostalgic. Another guest will be Hugh Cornwell, of Stranglers fame, who played with Richard in his first band, Emil & the Detectives, when they were both 14 and pupils at William Ellis school near Hampstead Heath. Then there will Simon Nicol and Ashley Hutchings, who along with Richard were the core trio in different teenage bands who evolved into the first Fairport Convention. They will be joined by Dave Mattacks, the drummer who joined Fairport a little later, alongside the late Sandy Denny, to record Liege and Lief, the classic album released 50 years ago that kickstarted British folk-rock. We might dip our toe into that repertoire, says Richard. And someone is going to do a bit of Sandy.

So how did he feel about that era now? We thought that if we are in the charts and its taken seriously, it could change peoples attitudes to British music and you might have people stopping using American accents when singing. It was totally revolutionary at the time. Rock music with an element of British traditional music in it was pretty much our innovation, and Im very proud of that. And when people in other countries saw we did, it was possible for them to contemporise their own cultures.

After the Fairports, Richard recorded a serious of glorious, mostly bleak albums with his first wife Linda Thompson, a powerful, evocative singer whose career has been marred by dysphonia, a larynx disorder that makes it increasingly difficult for her to sing. Shell also be there, along with their musical children, singer-songwriter and producer Teddy Thompson and Kami Thompson, who works with her husband, the Pretenders guitarist James Walbourne, in the Rails. And to complete the family line-up there will Richards new partner Zara Phillips.

The band that kickstarted folk-rock Fairport Convention, with Richard Thompson in the box. Photograph: Jim McCrary/Redferns

So how would Linda feel if Zara sings one of the Richard and Linda classics such as I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight or Wall of Death, as seems likely? It wouldnt seem odd, Linda tells me. If it were Richard and Emmylou Harris I might be a bit miffed, because she is a genius! And I like Zara. And Richard has changed has a lot. He is much nicer and hes happy so thats great.

It was during his marriage to Linda that Richard discovered Islam. The son of a Scottish policeman, he was brought up as a Presbyterian which I was not interested in. I became a Muslim when I was 23 and have been one ever since. He discovered Sufism, a mystical form of Islam, after visiting a very old esoteric bookshop, Watkins in Covent Garden, and started reading about it. On the cover of their 1975 album Pour Down Like Silver, he and Linda are dressed in turban and headscarf, and for the next three years the couple disappeared from the music scene to spend much of their time in Islamic communities in London and then Norfolk. And it was a community, not a commune, said Richard. Commune implies sharing out the carrots!

Linda hated it. Sufism had appealed to me, but the guy who ran it was bit of a tyrant. There was lots of praying and guilt, and women were so subservient. Richard, who was attracted to Sufism by the nobility of being it seemed like the way human being should be, agreed that it wasnt ideal. It was full of human foibles. People are lustful, jealous, God knows what. But then we visited a sheikh in Morocco and saw the other side of it. And it was all wonderful.

By 1982 the marriage was at an end, but the deserved success of the Shoot Out the Lights album led to an infamous US tour. I was living on booze and antidepressants, Linda says. I was so angry I was kicking and hitting Richard on stage. I trashed a dressing room, stole a car and got arrested. But it was good for my voice. I guess because I was so heartbroken it freed me up. The dysphonia wasnt too bad in those days. At the end of the tour Richard rang and said: Bruce Springsteen is male singer of the year and you are female singer of the year. Was it in Time or Rolling Stone? I think both. Like everything, good comes out of bad.

So has she forgiven him? I have. It was a bad time but Jesus Christ it was 40 years ago. Forget it! But she is kind of dreading the Albert Hall because as a performer youd love to get up and wow the crowd, but I never know what will come out of my mouth. But Ill do something. Its going to be good.

Richard and Linda Thompson in 1975. Photograph: Rex

After the split, Richard moved to California, remarried, and relaunched his career. At aged 33, when I started singing solo, they treated me as a new artist and put me on college radio. So my audience in the States was 10 years younger than me, and it still is. And very, very slowly I did well. It was word of mouth. I toured America relentlessly, and I still do, and its still growing, which is amazing. Without having a hit record, more people come to shows now than they ever did. As for the move to the east coast, I was ready for a change. But being a performing musician I do 100 shows a year, and Im away 150 days, so where you are based is less important.

Does he have problems as a Muslim living in the States in the Trump era? Trump has ramped up bigotry considerably. If you are not a white Christian, the implication is that youre not a real American. Its incredibly destructive, divisive, and harmful. Well see how it plays out but the fact is that you still have more religious freedom in America or Britain than you do in a whole lot of Middle Eastern countries.

Thompson is a cricket enthusiast he cheerfully recalls his appearance on Test Match Special five years ago, singing 1952 Vincent Black Lightning and he insists he never wanted to be culturally absorbed by America. I can contribute more having a culturally British point of view. Even in the midwest, he can still knock them for six.

Richard Thompson: 70th Birthday Celebration is at Royal Albert Hall, London, Monday 30 September.

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The outspoken singer-songwriter and queer activist has spent a career getting on the wrong side of people. But shes not about to be cancelled by anyone

Ani DiFranco has been many things in her 48 years: a folk rocker, queer activist and campaigner against war and environmental disaster. But for the past 12 years, when she isnt touring, she has been a stay-at-home mother. My life here is one of mom, she says, laughing. A lot of typical mom stuff goes down.

The singer-songwriter, who has been responsible for more than 20 albums, including 1996s seminal Dilate, has lived in New Orleans for 15 years, and its from here that she is building on her three-decade career as a performer, label owner (of Righteous Babe Records) and now author. Her impassioned memoir, No Walls and the Recurring Dream, documents the first half of her life: growing up in Buffalo in New York state, moving to New York City after her parents divorce (her mother was moving to Connecticut and DiFranco did not want to follow) and the various trysts with men and women that ensued. We learn about her approach to her own image, the secrets of her songwriting and how she gained her fierce political views. The book ends after 9/11, before DiFranco became a mother of two. The momentum of what I was doing was so fierce for so many years that there was no time to re-think anything, she says of a career that felt non-stop.

Throughout it, DiFranco has always been an emblem of progress. She came out as bisexual in her early 20s and her songs documented relationships with both sexes. She hopped around genres before it became fashionable to do so, exploring folk, jazz, roots and rock and absorbing the influences of Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Miles Davis and Betty Carter. She didnt pander to stereotypical appearances and chose unconventional haircuts (green and spiked on the cover of 1997s Spin, for example). And she was heavily policed, particularly by her own community, in a time that predated cancel culture. Ive never heard that term, she says. Her queer fans expressed anger when she married her roadie in 1998 (they divorced in 2003).

Its so unfortunate that marginalised communities are in competition for the tiny allotment of space society gives them, she says, empathising with the reasoning of her critics. You have to be queer enough to qualify; people judge each other about who can claim an identity. Here we are listing our labels in order of importance and lining up in the hierarchy of whatever. We lose each other as people. Im sorry if Im not what you need me to be in a moment. I can only be me.

In 2013, DiFranco apologised after it was revealed that she would be hosting a three-day workshop at a former Louisiana slave plantation. She cancelled it, but many (including this paper) didnt detect remorse. DiFranco issued a further apology days later. I needed a wake-up call and you gave it to me, she wrote on her website. She is still afraid that a mention of the incident will shake a dormant hornets nest.

Boy, theres so much to talk about around then, she sighs. I felt my chest sink under the weight of it all. She regrets attempts at self-defence now. I should have found the ultimate humility to put down my own hurt, and all of the misconceptions or mis-truths out there. You have to make yourself accountable. Theres a greater pain thats bigger than me, and its more important.

DiFranco performing at the CityFolk festival in Ottawa in 2018. Photograph: Mark Horton/Getty Images

DiFranco despairs for upcoming voices in the post-social media age. Its not getting any easier to be willing to make mistakes in public, which anybody has to do to stay alive, she says. The internet, she believes, has spawned a culture of gotcha!. One mistake and youre done! Its counterproductive. The idea that we can write each other off and kick somebody off the planet? Thats not how were gonna get to where we need to be. We have to go together.

She doubts her own story would be the same if it were being written now. I dont know that I would have felt as free or unfettered, she says. Mine was a world where every momentary choice didnt have to be one you were making in an endless eternity of scrutiny. Good luck to the artists today who are trying to break ground. God bless them.

DiFranco grew up with super progressive immigrant parents (her mother was Canadian, her father Italian). Theres a strong independent streak on both sides of my bloodline, she says. Family life wasnt dependable, hence the need for a teenage DiFranco to steer her exit. Her mother became an example of fearlessness after she split up with DiFrancos father, and gave the young singer the confidence to break rules. I saw her leave one life behind and go start another. Everything about her was going against the grain. She was the lady in the pink hat with the purple feather.

Songwriting came early on, spurred by familial drama and domestic silence. I had pain that I had to get out of my body, DiFranco explains. Art transforms struggle into something useful, something beautiful. Through picking up a guitar, she found the safety of connection. She built a fan base the old-fashioned way, playing venues door-to-door across the US, becoming a regular at womens music festivals, including Lilith Fair. I went out further into the world, searching for my family, she says.

In the beginning, she slept in bus stations. She once rented a room in a former sex club. She drove herself up and down the land with her self-released albums on her back. The songs came so unedited that they connected me with other beings like myself, even when there were only a few people in the room, she recalls. I did it human-to-human. Those moments were so healing that Ive stayed in search of them ever since.

In concert in 1994: I talk to every person like theyre my friend. Photograph: Steve Eichner/WireImage

A desire to connect has made her a consistent ally. I talk to every person like theyre my friend, she says, but she admits to situations where kindness has been taken for weakness. If you stand on every stage and talk like youd talk to your best friend, you might step on toes. That way of interfacing is not always appropriate or successful, but that is my way, and thats how Ill do it even when it bites me in the ass.

Her refusal to sign a label deal necessitated the creation of her own at the age of 20. She runs it to this day, offering a home also to Andrew Bird and Anas Mitchell, among others. If only white men are the delivery system, the translators, the sellers, the definers of the expressions of these diverse human experiences, then something is lost, she reasons.

She runs the label with a mostly female staff. Its not enough to write your own songs, she says. What if youre in control of the way they go into the world? I harnessed a lot of authenticity along the way. Not a lot of perfection. But freaking real as real could be.

Nevertheless, she has had a plethora of male mentors, including poet Sekou Sundiata and Pete Seeger, reasoning that men remain the gatekeepers for womens careers. Its ironic, since Im known as feminist queen of the universe, she says, self-mocking. When it comes to inspiring and encouraging people, it doesnt matter what make and model you are.

She cites her mother, and feminist writers such as Audre Lorde, Alice Walker and Lucille Clifton as her female educators, women who helped her know herself better.

Now married to her producer and the father of her children (a daughter aged 12 and a six-year-old son), the singer believes her best work is ahead of her it was such a juggernaut for so long that she didnt have chance to self-criticise. My kids got in the way of my music, very intentionally. That was a hard adjustment. Patience has been the upshot: it is changing the way she writes. I see a little clearer. Theres lots of time to question myself. Youth is so confident. Now I do a lot of dancing with myself.

No Walls and the Recurring Dream by Ani DiFranco is published by Viking (20 rrp)

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The 76-year-old musician will retire from live performance with a Homeward Bound tour that takes in Europe and the US

Paul Simon announces farewell shows

The 76-year-old musician will retire from live performance with a Homeward Bound tour that takes in Europe and the US

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St Vincent tops our countdown of this years most outstanding sounds, from complex rap to moody rock, alt-R&B, inventive grime and more


St Vincent Masseduction

A kind of teasing irony is detectable on Masseduction, a musical striptease on which Annie Clark who performs as St Vincent exposes herself on her own terms. The results are spectacular: full of drama and gratifyingly bizarre sonic choices. Clark makes a rock-star power play by embracing thrilling glam traditions while producing something strange, new and unequivocally moving. Read the full review


Kendrick Lamar Damn

Damn is a hit in every sense, earning hundreds of millions of streams and seven Grammy nominations, but its true success is the complexity of its vision. With an incendiary beginning and deeply personal social commentary, Lamars fourth album reveals an artist at his real and metaphorical peak. Read the full review


SZA Ctrl

Honesty is often seen as the holy grail in pop, but when its served up as nakedly as it was on Ctrl, Solna Imani Rowes debut album, it can stop you in your tracks. This is the perfect year for a record with such a defiantly female point of view, from decisions over leg-shaving to stark admissions that she cant open up emotionally. It seemed intimate but never one-note, and signalled an artist in complete ctrl. Read the full review

SZA. Photograph: Victoria Will/Invision/AP


Lorde Melodrama

If Melodrama looked on paper like the work of an artist whod had her head turned by success, it turned out to be anything but. The songs on Melodrama that depict the messy entanglements of early 20s life are as incisive, perceptive and shudder-inducingly familiar as the sketches of teenage suburbia on its predecessor. Read the full review


Perfume Genius No Shape

On his most sumptuously realised work, Mike Hadreas merely wants to be unbound, to hover with no shape in part, as a consequence of living with Crohns disease and the binary that exists around gender. Magnificently, his inventive score and dramatic arrangements more than live up to the challenge, as Hadreas swaps forms, time and again. Read the full review


LCD Soundsystem American Dream

American Dream, for all its declarative intent, didnt so much chronicle the state of the nation as James Murphys place in it now; the middle-aged cool guy in a middle-aged cool band, lamenting relationships and heroes, love and ageing. It is exquisite. A moody, pulsating epic that wears its references Berlin-era Bowie, 80s Talking Heads, the entire first decade of DFA Records output without being wearying. Read the full review

Moody and epic James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem. Photograph: Kevin Winter/Getty Images for FYF


The War on Drugs A Deeper Understanding

A Deeper Understanding contains an air of overwhelming but vague melancholy, yet for all Granduciels well-documented problems with anxiety and depression, it never threatened to tip over into anything more disturbing. Instead, the War on Drugs summoned that most delicious of moods: autumnal, slightly hungover, just a little sorry for oneself. Read the full review


Thundercat Drunk

When the world outside is weird, lets hear it for an album that processes it with absurdist humour and George Clinton-shaped surrealism. Drunk is the third release by LA jazz dude Steve Bruner, AKA Thundercat, and has finally taken him from being a kooky bass-playing Robin to super-producer Flying Lotuss Batman all the way to headline solo artist and one of this years breakthrough names. Read the full review


Kelela Take Me Apart

In revealing vulnerability, Kelela shows she is no longer interested in the cool pose of alternative R&B. She continues to work with avant-garde collaborators, but her main musical touchstone for Take Me Apart was Janet Jackson. Yes, the sub bass remains, as do the icy synths, but these future sounds are put to the service of classic structures, and powerful pop songs are the result. Read the full review

Future sounds Kelela. Photograph: Alice Chiche/AFP/Getty Images


Richard Dawson Peasant

There was something in Peasants detailed vignettes of dark ages beggars, weavers and prostitutes that felt unexpectedly resonant in 2017, a timely work from another time. Read a full review


Jane Weaver Modern Kosmology

Icily clear vocals provide a satisfying foil to the spacey psych-revivalism of Liverpool-born singers newest album the latest chapter in a three-decade career that has taken in Britpop and folktronica. Modern Kosmology is at once earthbound and otherworldly, with mesmerising vocals balancing on a whirring undercurrent of steadily throbbing synths. Read a full review


Wolf Alice Visions of a Life

Nobody has disrupted the death of indie narrative quite like Wolf Alice. The London foursome released an accomplished debut in 2015; now their second album proves their ability to fashion thrillingly modern music from the sonic customs of shoegaze and noisy 80s alt-rock was no fluke. Frontwoman Ellie Rowsell skips between sotto voce spoken word and a feral screech, while the bands tinkering with the indie-rock formula means theres never a dull moment. Read a full review

Never a dull moment Wolf Alice. Photograph: Christian Sinibaldi for the Guardian


Tyler, the Creator Flower Boy

The enfant terrible of hip-hop returned this year with a surprisingly gentle record, on which mellifluous melodies and gently piping synths along with the dulcet tones of Frank Ocean, Kali Uchis and Anna of the North softened Tylers abrasive flow. Whether or not this was in fact the rappers coming out album (something its lyrics hinted at), it was undoubtedly a lovelier one than anybody expected. Read a full review


J Hus Common Sense

This was a bumper year for J Hus, who reached the Top 10 thanks to an irresistible blend of grime and Afrobeats. As Common Sense proves, its not just his infectious take on African sounds that have propelled the London rapper into the big league its also his witty, inventive and refreshingly self-deprecating lyrics. Read a full review


The Horrors V

Southend outfit the Horrors were never an average indie band: instead of meat-and-potatoes guitar-pop, their 2007 debut bristled with nightmarish garage and goth rock. A decade later, theyve produced their most celebrated record yet. V swings from busy post-punk to languid electronica, with the morose new wave of closer Something to Remember Me By providing a gratifying climax. Read a full review

Not your average indie band Faris Badwan of the Horrors. Photograph: Shirlaine Forrest/WireImage


Father John Misty Pure Comedy

Ever since his 2015 album I Love You, Honeybear, Josh Tillmans wry surveys of contemporary America have felt increasingly indispensable. Clever, funny and usually despairing, his scabrous social commentary takes on a less arch and more heartfelt tone here, with acidic lyrics cushioned by gorgeous strings and calmly plodding piano. Read a full review


Drake More Life

Very much not an album, according to Drake instead this playlist gave him an opportunity to show off his taste by teaming up with his favourite artists. Baritone London rapper Giggs makes multiple appearances, as does silky-voiced Brum singer Jorja Smith. Thanks to solo tracks like Passionfruit, More Life is also proof that Drakes tropical-tinged blend of rap and R&B is as seductive as ever. Read a full review


Stormzy Gang Signs and Prayer

Effervescent grime meets an unexpected digression into R&B and gospel on Stormzys debut. While songs like Cigarettes & Cush showcase an impressive British spin on rap/R&B fusion, the grime-centric tracks lift the record into another league. With infectious production by the likes of Sir Spyro, songs such as Bad Boys and Big for Your Boots rival the master lyricists beloved previous singles. Read a full review

In another league Stormzy. Photograph: Andy Buchanan/AFP/Getty Images


Laura Marling Semper Femina

The Brits sixth album is a gorgeous collection of lightly folky fare – more pop friendly than her recent records, but as characteristically poised and lush. The title, based on a poem by Virgil, roughly translates as always woman, and the record pairs lyrics about femininity, friendship and sexuality with heady, sensual production. Read a full review


Sampha Process

After years spent lending his vocals to tracks by Kanye, Drake and Frank Ocean, this years Mercury winner created a stunning debut. A collection of heart-rending ballads and sublime electronica, Process puts Samphas velvety voice front and centre, the beauty of its tone belying the albums heavy themes, including the fallout from the death of his mother. Read a full review


Cigarettes After Sex Cigarettes After Sex

This Texas band was propelled into millions of living rooms across the world earlier this year when their spellbinding 2012 song Nothings Gonna Hurt You Baby was used in the TV adaptation of The Handmaids Tale. Their debut album, released in June, proved just as haunting and hypnotic. Backed by gently foreboding dreampop, frontman Greg Gonzaless delicate voice is reminiscent of Belle and Sebastians Stuart Murdoch. Read a full review

Gently foreboding dreampop Cigarettes After Sex. Photograph: Ebru Yildiz


King Krule The Ooz

Few contemporary artists sound as much like themselves as Archy Marshall, who seems to have bagsied a whole set of sadly chiming chords to go with his jarring baritone. His sonic sphere is so overwhelming that it often feels like another planet the space-age desolation of Czech One and serotonin-depleted jazz of Lonely Blue float in a hinterland between this world and another, while the monochrome punk of Dum Surfer takes rock tropes to a parallel universe. Read a full review


Vince Staples Big Fish Theory

Big Fish, the almost-title track of Staples second record, seethes at injustice over amusingly bouncy synths that blend old-school rap with bleeding-edge electronica. Staples takes this kind of combination to great heights on the album, which climaxes with the staggeringly brilliant Yeah Right, on which tinny trap entwines with bizarre pop parody by producer Sophie (listen for a guest spot by Kendrick Lamar). Read a full review

Genre-blending Vince Staples. Photograph: Alicia Canter for the Guardian


Protomartyr Relatives in Descent

Gothic post-punk is fuelled by a blast of fury on the Detroit rock bands latest. Vocalist Joe Casey airs his disgust at contemporary life I dont want to hear those vile trumpets anymore backed by a heavy, unyielding rhythm section that is satisfyingly cathartic. Read a full review


The National Sleep Well Beast

Music designed to soundtrack a midlife crisis was injected with unexpected exuberance on the Ohio bands seventh record. From Turtlenecks gnarly guitar-shredding to the breakneck tapestry of beats backing Ill Still Destroy You, Matt Berninger and co transformed the sorrows of middle age into something strangely rapturous. Read a full review

Strangely rapturous Matt Berninger of the National. Photograph: Mat Hayward/WireImage


Paramore After Laughter

The perpetually feuding emo band returned last spring with a surprisingly jovial collection of tropical house-tinted powerpop. Revelling in the funky guitars and frantic synths of the 80s, the trio channelled their emo roots into the lyrics, which retain the raw drama of their previous work and share stories of romantic tension and torturous experiences with depression. Read a full review


Marika Hackman Im Not Your Man

Opening with the frisky but superbly droll Boyfriend, the second record by the Londoner saw her expand on the bewitching folk of her first album and journey into more startling and direct territory. As its arty cover suggested, Im Not Your Man offered a compelling self-portrait, with Hackman frankly discussing her sexuality and her flaws. Read a full review


Slowdive Slowdive

The Reading shoegazers last released an album in the mid-90s, when the genre was blighted by backlash and mockery. But the music world is again embracing spacey guitars and wispy vocals. Not that the band are resting on past glories: their fourth album unexpectedly ups the game, feeling more accomplished and engaging than anything theyve done before. Read a full review


Alvvays Antisocialites

This Canadian crew channel the spirit of C86 with their jangly tunes yet on their second record they embrace the slickness eschewed by their predecessors. Antisocialites might be a paean to indies formative years In Undertow features Teenage Fanclubs Norman Blake; Lollipop (Ode to Jim) is directed towards the Jesus & Mary Chains Jim Reid but it is also a blast of fresh air. Read a full review

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