Department S - Sub-Stance

I’d only ever been marginally aware of Department S and hadn’t even heard their sole hit single Is Vic There?, but thanks to a boozy amble around Wikipedia one evening in the Spring of 2021 I inadvertently became a huge fan. They never actually released an album in their life time – Sub-Stance had been recorded in 1981 but never issued due to wrangles between the band and Stiff Records. That album, combined with B-Sides and the lone single released under the band’s previous guise as Guns For Hire is an impressive set of songs, and it’s a massive shame that so much of their work remained locked in a vault until 1993, two years after the death of charismatic frontman Vaughn Toulouse.

One of the first things I noticed about Sub-Stance was how familiar it sounded. Having long been a Smiths fan it was surprising to note how similar their stuff was compared to Department S - a lot of the guitar work treads a notably close path to that of Johnny Marr, and Vaughn Toulouse’s lyrical wit is not a million miles away from The Smiths best work. Even the titles – Somewhere Between Heaven and Tesco’s and Ode to Koln - evoke the droll humour of Morrissey.

A genuine hidden gem, Sub-Stance deserves to be far better known.

Kasabian - Kasabian

There’s a certain received wisdom that Kasabian plough the same dismal musical furrow as Oasis, trotting out predictable generic lad rock for the masses. I find this baffling as Kasabian were always far more interesting than the Gallaghers, and probably never more so than on their debut album. Things would certainly become a little less interesting when Chris Karloff left the band, at least for a while, but Kasabian could always be relied upon to offer up a thrilling mix of masculine swagger and unexpected musical and lyrical elements.

Kasabian includes an unstoppable quintet of heavyweight singles – Club Foot, Reason is Treason, Processed Beats, Cutt Off and the blissed-out L.S.F - but there’s zero filler present elsewhere on the album. Indeed, there are other peaks just as high - personal favourite, both then and now, is woozy 1967/2005 hybrid Test Transmission, which would still be great even if it weren’t attached to a particularly memorable couple of hours spent in a grubby indie club with a man called Michael.

Sleeper - Smart

Having experienced the sheer breadth of good indie stuff around in the 1990s it’s vaguely irritating to see how often it all gets reduced to Oasis and bucket hats. There were so many excellent bands knocking about then, some of whom may only have released a few top notch singles, but all of whom deserve proper recognition in retrospect. Sleeper released three albums but were never really given their dues, either then or three decades on, which is a shame when you consider how great their wonky brand of indie-pop actually was.

Smart was released in early 1995 and included their EPs and singles to date along with several new tracks. It’s a remarkably consistent album, with Louise Wener’s wry turn of phrase providing the slice-of-life throughline amongst the fuzzy guitar and angular riffs. Particularly glorious are Delicious and Twisted, both songs which send me straight back to student parties and a more carefree time. I must dig out my bucket hat...

"appealing in its
synthy weirdness"

Abba - The Visitors

In 1981 ABBA were very familiar indeed to quite a lot of people. After the warm jingle jangle of 1980’s Super Trouper it’s probably fair to say that few of those people could have predicted that the poptastic Swedes would next release an album as dark and peculiar as The Visitors. Though there had been clues on the preceding album – Super Trouper was largely business as usual but it did contain oddities like the Vocoder-ed madness of Me and I and the bleak longing of The Winner Takes it All, a song which would define much of what was to come the following year.

There’s no gentle easing-in to the strangeness here. The title track, apparently sung from the perspective of a fear-ridden political dissident, is an uncomfortable, icy slab of experimental production that has more in common with Drowning in Berlin or Vienna than Voulez Vous. To my seven year old ear it was as appealing in its synthy weirdness as any of those other pop songs of the time.

I’ve remained a fan of ABBA’s music ever since but it’s The Visitors I keep coming back to. There’s something about the post-imperial phase of an artist’s output that I’ve always found slightly more engaging, as they skid from the main lane into more unpredictable territory.

The Cardigans - Gran Turismo

Another Swedish band who would confound expectations with a sudden change in output, The Cardigans jettisoned the early 60s cuteness that had defined their career so far and began to present themselves in a way which more accurately reflected their darker side. 1998’s Gran Turismo is a beautiful riposte to those who’d never seen the bleak and spiky undercurrent that had always existed beneath The Cardigans’ ironic lounge stylings. It’s an album which pushes all the crystalline Scandinavian coldness and dark humour to the surface and slathers it in sharp guitars and electro. It’s hard to top the three excellent singles (My Favourite Game, Erase/Rewind and Hanging Around) but for me the pinnacle of the album is Explode , an icily calm set of assurances made to an egotistical and demanding pop star (“Ease your trouble, we'll pay them double, Not to look at you for a while”), that demonstrates how good a lyricist Nina Persson is.

I’ve oft had a love affair with all things Scandinavian and The Cardigans have soundtracked much of that – I took this album with me to Sweden, Denmark and Norway and it’s now enmeshed with those memories forever.

"I took this album to
Sweden, Denmark & Norway"

Iamamiwhoami – Bounty

There probably comes a time in the life of most music fans when they begin to suspect that their capacity to be roundly surprised by new music has diminished. I never stopped liking new music but it’s true to say that by 2009 I thought my days of being blown away by a new band were over. It was therefore quite startling to experience iamamiwhoami’s brilliantly conceived bounty project, finding myself keenly anticipating the release of each new video as it was uploaded, unannounced, to YouTube (and then discussing what I’d just seen with other viewers). It’s hard to fully describe how odd it all was – a six song sequence accompanied by a downright unsettling set of videos starring Jonna Lee as an unearthly creature borne of mandragora folklore. Even Kate Bush had never done anything quite this...niche. A few months after the individual parts of the sequence had been released iamamiwhoami performed the lot in an eerie night-time livestream direct from some unspecified Swedish woodland, during which they taped up a volunteer in a cardboard box and apparently set him on fire. I mean, it’s hardly Chas n Dave is it? Still, I came for the strangeness and stayed for the songs, though the strangeness lingers; I can’t listen to bounty without getting the urge to don a body stocking and vicar’s collar and nip off for a stroll in the woods.

Ladytron – Gravity the Seducer

Two words I’ve used elsewhere in this piece are “icy” and “strange” and that’s as good a description of Ladytron as is possible. There’s not so much that’s strange on their fifth album Gravity the Seducer, but the iciness abounds, even if it’s now tempered with a warmth that’s perhaps unexpected from Ladytron.

The chilly charms of Gravity the Seducer appeared in September 2011, preceded by three corking singles (including the beautiful White Elephant, which is surely the best thing that Ladytron have ever recorded). I’d not been overly keen on the previous album Velocifero – I felt it was Ladytron on autopilot and perhaps a little bereft of new ideas. The three Gravity singles had renewed my interest and the album, when it came, demonstrated a band that seemed reinvigorated and more progressive. It’s a sleeker album, with an optimism that offsets the trademark Ladytron dourness. Transparent Days and White Gold are shimmering slabs of synth-heavy coldness but there’s an uplifting quality to them that’s hard to define.

In one of my more depressed moments it was said to me that I’m a just a disappointed optimist. No wonder then that Gravity the Seducer appeals; the sound of being out on the tundra but with one eye on the horizon waiting for the sun to rise.

"my parents were clearly
dead keen on the idea"

The Donnettes – Country Christmas Vol.1

Back in the 60s and 70s there were a whole raft of record labels dedicated to releasing low-cost albums performed by session musicians, usually sold through shops like Woolworths. The most famous of these was the Top of the Pops series from Hallmark Records (chart hits sung by sound-alikes and packaged in a sleeve featuring a saucy madam wearing very few clothes) but there were other purveyors that are now largely forgotten. In 1979 one such label, Chevron Records, released two albums of inexplicable provenance, Country Christmas Vol.1 and Vol.2, lovingly executed by ghost-artists The Donnettes.

Quite what the mandate was for these albums is unclear – I can’t imagine the people of Britain were clamouring for a collection of Christmas tunes performed in a Country & Western style, complete with slide guitar. Still, whatever the feelings of the wider UK population, my parents were clearly dead keen on the idea – they purchased both volumes and gave one to me (Vol.1) and one to my sister (Vol.2) as Christmas presents. I don’t know if it’s just nostalgia but I absolutely love Country Christmas Vol.1. in spite of my general aversion to the genre. The album has become part of the familial Christmas tradition, getting an airing throughout the festive season every year, however judgemental the neighbours might be.

Track down a copy and play it on Christmas Eve with a glass of something warming in hand. You’ll thank me.


Matt Bennett is 48 and lives in Cardiff Bay with one husband and one dog. Neither appreciates Country Christmas Vol.1 to any obvious extent. He works for the NHS and enjoys rock-climbing, Norway and drunk Cluedo.