This year was a strange one for music and me; there were numerous second releases by previous favourites (Parquet Courts, Broken Bells, Shabazz Palaces) which didn't quite live up to expectations, and a few solid more-of-the-sames from dependable stalwarts (Mark Lanegan, Sharon Jones) . Also, I appear to have stopped paying attention to new music in about August, and subsequently missed several new releases (Shellac, Cloud Nothings, Blood Red Shoes) so we have a few glaring omissions in the list. But here goes, as usual in no order:

Warpaint - Warpaint

The first album I bought this year, I believe. 2010's 'The Fool' has remained a constant companion, so much so I was surprised it's been that long since it came out. 'Warpaint' is slightly less ethereal and shoegazey than its predecessor, more synthy and loopy.

Hour of the Dawn - La Sera

I was extremely excited for this album. It was preceded by 'Losing To The Dark' - without a doubt my Song Of The Year, and contender for Top Ten Perfect Guitar Pop Songs Ever. The album would always struggle to deliver on the promise of that single, and it doesn't manage to, but there's plenty to like here.

Do To The Beast - The Afghan Whigs

Of course it's on the list. The Best Band In The World release their first album in 15 years, and I am officially old. Any doubt that this is a bona-fide Whigs record, Rick McCollum's absence notwithstanding, is dispelled by the opening two-chord swagger of 'Parked Outside'. 'It Kills' might be the best song Dulli has written since 'My Curse', and 'Algiers' is accidentally the theme to True Detective. So good it broke my card CD player.

Are We There - Sharon Van Etten

Less exposed than 2012's 'Tramp', both figuratively and sonically, 'Are We There' sees a more confident, or at least less vulnerable, Van Etten backed by a wall of horns, strings and pedal steel guitars. One of the more thoughtfully assembled albums I can recall in recent years, 'Afraid Of Nothing' and 'Every Time The Sun Comes Up' bookend a journey through quietly seething relationships.

July - Marissa Nadler

I came to this beautiful album late in the year, thanks to the Drowned in Sound Best of 2014 list. Picks up where the last Sharon Van Etten album left off, with a hint of Jeff Buckley in there. Gorgeous, played to death in three weeks and immediately in my list.

I Never Learn - Lykke Li

I Never Learn is as distinct from the Nick Cave/Gallon Drunk-esque filth of Wounded Rhymes as that album was from the twisted pop of Youth Novels. By turns, this has bombast ('No Rest For The Wicked'), vulnerability ('Love Me Like I'm Not Made Of Stone'), and lighter-in-the-air anthemic balladry ('Never Going To Love Again').

Honourable mentions and surprising omissions

Yawn Zen - MNDSGN

Run The Jewels 2 - Run The Jewels

Dead - Youngfathers

Hum - Hookworms

This Branch is open for your comments and your own lists. Also - how are people discovering music lately? I'm thinking about changing things up in the New Year, so taking recommendations.

I've been meaning to try pickling some onions at Christmas for a few years now, but kept forgetting to do it early enough. Last year, I apparently decided to send future me a present in the form of a reminder to get my act together. This happened to pop up in October around the same time as I was experimenting with my cold-smoker, and so the idea for Smoked Pickled Onions was born.

I combined a couple of recipes to get a consensus over pickling method, as I wanted something straightforward and traditional - the twist to this is the smoking of the onions, rather than any pickling cleverness.


  • 1kg small onions
  • 1l White wine vinegar
  • 400g sugar
  • Sea salt (flakes, preferably)
  • any combination of mixed peppercorns, cloves, chili flakes, star anise or mustard seeds
  • a red chili


  • A cold-smoke generator
  • Oak dust
  • cardboard box, barbecue with lid, or other chamber for smoking
  • pickle jars

Remove the loose, dry skin from around the onions. Place in a bowl or large pan and cover with boiling water. Once the water is cooled, peel the onions under the water. Cover the peeled onions in salt flakes, wrap in a tea towel, and leave overnight.

The next day, rinse the salt from the onions and dry them thoroughly on kitchen paper. Arrange on a wire rack in your preferred smoking chamber and cold-smoke for 4-6 hours.

While the onions smoke, sterilise your jars by boiling them in a large pan and drying them in a low oven. Let them cool.

Shortly before the onions are done, dissolve the sugar in the vinegar over a low heat, and add your peppercorns and whatnot. Pack the smoked onions nice and tight into the jars along with a red chili pepper (sliced lengthways) and pour over the warm vinegar.

Store the jars in a dark, cool place for eight weeks or so. (This batch I just did was down for nine weeks and the onions retained a good crunch).

Recent months have seen some significant updates to 3 of my most-used apps - Drafts, Launch Center Pro and IFTTT. The updates have made them more powerful, and less dependent on hacky steps to chain them together, but the available documentation on the web is a bit confusing. As it took me a while to get my head around, I thought it was worth summarising here.

For the uninitiated, Drafts is an app for quickly capturing text, then doing something with it, usually by invoking another app. Launch Center Pro is speed-dial for apps, allowing you to set up actions that you can launch with a single tap. IFTTT (If This Then That) is a web service that chains together web services, allowing an action in one to trigger a related action in another; the app enables further integration with iOS.

Drafts and LCP use a standard called x-callback-url to communicate with other apps, and there's much overlap between what they can accomplish, but this same standard can also be used to chain them together to create really powerful workflows. Add to this the recently added Launch Center Pro channel on IFTTT, and there's a world of possibilities, if you can figure out how to make them work.

Let's take a simple example. I use a Google Spreadsheet to keep track of my expenses, and I want a simple way to insert the date, the amount, and a brief description in that spreadsheet, without having to faff with a spreadsheet app on my phone. I'd ideally like to use Drafts for this, because that's where I capture everything else.

IFTTT has a Google Drive channel, with an 'append to spreadsheet' action, but there's no way to trigger this from Drafts. However, I can trigger it from Launch Center Pro. I create an IFTTT recipe, and set it to be triggered by LCP. It asks me to define a name for the trigger - I'll use "LogExpenses".

Creating the Trigger

I then choose the Google Drive 'Append to spreadsheet' action, pick the name and location of the spreadsheet I want to update, and define how I update it. Here I am passing the date triggered, and two values from Launch Center Pro which will be my value and description (you can pass up to 10). The three pipes delimit the spreadsheet cells.

Creating the Action

Now, this is the clever bit. Thanks to the x-callback-url implementation in Drafts and LCP, we can trigger this IFTTT recipe directly from Drafts, without messing with LCP at all.

I create a new Log Expenses Drafts Action, with a 'URL' action step, and type the following URL:


Breaking this down:

  • launch:// - The URL for Launch Center Pro

  • x-callback-url/ - Tells LCP that we're using this standard, so to expect an x-something parameter later

  • ifttt/ - Tells LCP we're using IFTTT

  • trigger?name=LogExpenses - Tells LCP to use the Trigger "LogExpenses" that we defined in IFTTT

  • &value1=[line|1] - Use the first line in Drafts as Value 1 in the IFTTT trigger

  • &value2=[line|2] - Use the second line in Drafts as Value 2 in the IFTTT trigger

  • &x-success=drafts4%3A - use the x-call-back-url standard to return control to Drafts (the %3A is a colon - for some reason this has to be URL encoded)

Now, when I want to log an expense, I open Drafts and type something like:

Train ticket

I then invoke the Log Expenses action, which momentarily activates LCP, then drops me back into Drafts. A few moments later, I get a notification from IFTTT that my spreadsheet has been updated.

The fact that the trigger doesn't need to be created in the LCP app doesn't appear to be documented anywhere, and it allows for an impressive amount of flexibility and reusability. For example, one could set up a single generic IFTTT recipe, which updates different spreadsheets depending on what is passed in the Drafts action.

I finally got around to completing Music On Plastic, the photo series that I started last December when I wanted a hero image for my Albums of 2013 post. I shot three-quarters of it within a few weeks of each other, but it's taken me forever to get round to doing the CD - I suppose I don't really have as much affection for CDs as I do for vinyl, tapes, and even my early iPods, so it just felt like something I'd be doing to finish the set. However, I'm pretty pleased with the way that these turned out.

I'm toying with the idea of getting a few of these printed nicely. Do let me know via Twitter if that's something that would be of interest...

Our summer holiday this year was in Croatia, just south of Dubrovnic. We had terrible weather - on one afternoon we had the equivalent of three months' rain. We got stranded in a bar, which would have been fine if except the bar then flooded, and they stopped serving for fear of electrocuting themselves.

In an attempt to escape the (apparently very localised) weather, we took a boat trip to the Elafiti islands which included, for lunch, a choice of 'Delicious Sandwich' or 'Fish Picnic'. Most people went for Fish Picnic. It was delicious; I can't speak for the sandwich.

If you ever go to a seaside resort in England, they make a point of telling you not to feed the seagulls because they're vicious scavengers who will nick your icecream and peck out your toddler's eyes. The chef on the boat took great delight in casting the remains of our picnics into the sea, attracting these flocks of hungry gulls.

My backlog of unprocessed memory cards goes back until just before Easter, when we took a slightly-too-early break to Northumberland. Amongst the shots of that holiday were this one, of a lifejacket station on Alnwick beach.

For the last 15 years, I have hosted a Halloween gathering. The format has changed ever so slightly over the years, but two ingredients have remained constant: horror movies, and chili.

It is looking likely that this year may be the year I break my run, but I am amused and excited that Chiloween is going transatlantic, with a West Coast franchise courtesy of Dave. I've spent the last 15 years honing my Halloween Chili recipe, and it's time to let it free into the world.

Please note: I make no claims that this chili is 'authentic' or 'proper'. I've visited chili cook-off forums as a part of my research and am fully aware of how many cardinal sins are committed herein. It has beans. It has tomatoes. It has marmite. It is my Halloween Chili. I'd also like to recognise the Serious Eats Best Chili Ever, to which my recipe bears a resemblance, mostly by coincidence. I have them to thank for the addition of Marmite or anchovies in the base paste, and star anise in the spice mix - the rest I arrived at through many years of trial and error.

Halloween Chili

Ingredients (serves 12, or more if you serve with rice / potato skins etc)

1kg chuck steak, in slices rather than cubed

2 dried Ancho chili peppers

6-10 dried Habanero peppers (depending on preferred heat)

4 dried chipotle peppers

4 large cloves garlic

250ml bourbon whiskey

2 tbspn cumin seeds

1 tbspn coriander seeds

1 star anise

1 tbspn Marmite, or 6/7 tinned anchovies chopped very finely (or half and half, if you like)

500g dried pinto beans

3 large onions

4 tins of tomatoes

250ml full-bodied red wine

50g good quality dark chocolate

A day ahead of serving

Soak the pinto beans according to instructions.

De-seed the chili peppers, and slice open so they lay flat, then slice again into half-inch pieces. Lightly toast them in a dry frying pan, then add the bourbon. Simmer for a few minutes, then set aside.

Again with the dry frying pan, lightly toast your cumin, coriander and star anise, then crush in a pestle and mortar.

In a blender, blitz the bourbon chili mix with the toasted spices, the garlic and the marmite/anchovies until you have a smooth paste. Make sure you have a lid on your blender, otherwise you may inadvertently pepper-spray yourself with your now-weaponised aerosol dinner.

Take the steaks and sear them well on all sides in a hot pan. Leave them to rest, then dice into chunks of your preferred size. I like smallish cubes, personally. Mix the meat into the base paste and leave to marinate for an hour or so.

Chop the onions and sweat them in some butter and oil in the bottom of a large pot. Add the marinated meat (with its marinade), the tomatoes and the wine. Bring to a good strong simmer to cook off the alcohol, then reduce the heat to the lowest you can manage and cook with the lid on for 2-3 hours, stirring occasionally. Allow to cool, then leave in the fridge overnight.

Two hours before serving

Drain and rinse the pinto beans, and add to the chili pot. Mix thoroughly, and put on a low heat.

Taste it. At this point you may decide it needs a bit more heat - I use chili flakes, usually, but if you have a favoured hot sauce then knock yourself out. Season with salt and pepper.

Allow to heat through, uncovered, on a slow simmer, with occasional stirring. It will now start to reduce, so keep an eye on it to ensure it doesn't cook down too far. If you like, throw in a few whole chili peppers - they won't add any heat to the dish, but they'll be a tasty treat for one or two lucky guests.

Ten minutes before serving, take off the heat and add the dark chocolate. Stir, cover and allow to sit. Serve with your preferred accompaniments.

The Leamington and Warwick Sikh temple is an imposing building, made all the more so by being in the middle of a retail and business park; surrounded by supermarkets, office buildings and a bowling alley, the architecture looks that much more impressive, and it dominates the horizon beyond my office window.

I happened to have my camera with me in work on Friday, so was able to capture this amazing view, as the late afternoon sun found a chink in the clouds.

Today was Arthur's first birthday. We had a little party for him and discovered he has tonsillitis. Unsurprisingly, I've learnt a lot of things this year. Here are the two most important lessons The Boy has taught me

1 The birth is only the beginning

Midwives, antenatal classes and parenting books all talk about the importance of having a birth plan. This is so that, in the midst of the tiredness and pain and confusion of labour, the mother and her birth partner have a record of the way that not-tired-and-confused them would prefer the birth to unfold. It generally refers to things like pain relief and intervention, but also things like music to make the experience more comfortable.

We had a birth plan. It wasn't very detailed and we weren't 100% committed to it, if I'm honest. What I really wish we'd had, though, was a first-three-months plan.

Nothing prepared me for the utter insanity of the first three months of being a parent. We thought we were totally on top of it; in retrospect, we were running on little sleep and much emotion. Parenting is up there with religion and politics as a subject to avoid in polite conversation. Parenting decisions are driven by many factors and the Internet is as full of judgment and misinformation as it is helpful or factual advice.

We made a couple of decisions in these early days that were influenced by the well-meaning agenda of midwives, health visitors, and others. At the time they made sense, but on later examination we realised that they weren't our values, and weren't things that we felt strongly enough about to add stress or expense to our days at that point.

I wish we'd taken the time to write down the things that were important to us (as well as the things that weren't) before Artie was born, so that in the midst of the tiredness and euphoria and confusion of new-parenthood, we'd had a record of the way that not-tired-and-confused us would prefer our lives to unfold.

2 To stay present, plan to not be

Ed Morrish Tweet

The life-adjustment that none of the classes or books prepared me for was the complete lack of downtime. I was prepared to not sleep at night and I knew that my priorities would change, but I hadn't got my head around how that would impact the countless little jobs that I used to 'squeeze in' when I had five or ten minutes. Email, news, photo processing, general tinkering - all things I took for granted that I'd find a bit of time to do.

Of course, that absolutely didn't happen. Instead, I'd find myself trying to fit in a quick email reply while The Boy entertained himself on his playmat. Or I'd spend all of a sunny hour in the park trying to get a nice photo rather than pushing the swing.

After too long, the penny dropped. Although I was spending lots of time with Arthur, I was often distracted or, at least, he wasn't always my primary focus.

I'd already made commitments with myself (and agreements with my wife) to ensure I continued trumpet practice and exercise and other activities that require protracted periods of focus. I decided if these little jobs were worth doing (a question that itself required some attention) then they deserved their own chunk of time carved out to get them done, without them impinging on my attention the rest of the time.

And, on that note, if you'll excuse me, it's bathtime.

My birthday present from The Wife this year was a Curing and Smoking course at Seasoned Cookery School in Derbyshire. The rather wonderfully-named Turan T Turan took us through the processes of curing, brining, air-drying, hot-smoking and cold-smoking, and I left with various paraphernalia for food-smoking at home. Although I've done less with it than I hoped, I'm determined to nail smoked salmon by Christmas, and I have a couple of stupid ideas I'd like to try out. I also managed a passable slow-smoked pork shoulder on my barbecue.


  • 5kg boned & rolled pork shoulder
  • 250g soft brown sugar
  • Sea salt (flakes, preferably)


  • A largish barbecue with a lid
  • Apple wood chips
  • a deep foil tray, or a deep baking tray you don't mind getting all gross, filled with water
  • slow-burning charcoal briquettes

The pork needs preparing at least 24 hours ahead of cooking. Unroll it, and generously cover in the salt and brown sugar. Re-roll, cover, and put in the fridge, basting at regular intervals.

Lay your coals on one side of the barbecue - you need to leave enough space without coals for the water tray. Light them and, while they're getting up to temperature, soak a handful of the wood chips in a bowl of water. You don't need a lot of chips to get a reasonable amount of smoke, and it's easy to over-smoke, so be restrained.

Once the coals are up to temperature, put the water tray in the space beside them and put the pork on the grill above them. Then throw the wood chips onto the coals and shut the lid for 5 hours.

Before the lid went down

I made a simple dipping / mopping sauce by reducing 250ml of white wine vinegar with 2 tablespoons of brown sugar and some chopped chiles by about two-thirds so it was sticky but not syrupy.

I took a few notes for improvement next time:

  • The charcoal I was using was a bit rubbish, and needed topping up several times, which I think raised the temperature too high. Any recommendations for long-, slow-burning charcoal gratefully received
  • I put the pork on the grill skin-side-down, in theory to protect the meat, but in retrospect I might have been better off with the skin and fat on top so the pork self-basted
  • I don't have a very efficient process for the actual pulling of the pork. I used two standard forks, and it took quite a while to do the whole shoulder. Again, if anyone has a better method I'd be keen to hear it.

NB: this week's post was delayed by lack of Internet, which in turn led to unforeseen DropBox shenanigans.