Friday, 27 December 2013

Music in 2013

I always come up with an End of Year list of my favourite songs and albums, and always think it gets harder by the year, which may or may not be an illusion.

Still, as I put together this year's list, struggling somewhat, initially, to fill it with songs I loved without measure, I  decided 2013 deserved a little more thought and discussion than just 10 songs out of context.

I've really tried to rekindle my passion for pop music (for what else is there?) this year, after a few years of drifting away not only from any knowledge of the mainstream but also of regular purchases. So, this year, I've bought everything that even moderately piqued my interest, I've listened to the radio, I've even followed the charts a little. I refuse to let myself get old and settle into my tastes just yet.

So, yes, this year the disappointment at struggling to put together a ten song "Best of" was palpable. Are songs just not as good as they used to be, I wonder?

It's not such a silly question, and I think I actually have an answer. SONGS! are better than they used to be, but songs are less good. OK?

It's pretty inevitable that since the SONG!/track became king about ten years ago, since it became de rigueur even for supposed hardened music snobs (like me) to pick and choose songs from albums, that, gradually, even if the artists themselves have fought it (which I expect many of them have) the single song has been honed to a fine art, the cream has risen to the top, and the "filler" has become just that. A great album of 12 songs might have contained 80% songs that at some point are your favourite song on the album. Well, I just do not think that can be the case anymore. There'll likely be three or four that grab you at best. That's the listener's fault and the artist's dilemma.

Let's simplify by talking about rock against pop music, rock, loosely, being album music/guitar music/music I grew up being into, pop music being songs in the charts/electronic music/music I grew up despising. Pop is winning. How can there be any doubt? Has it won already?

When I think of this year in music, I think of songs like Get Lucky and I Love It, I think of Kanye West and Beyonce, they've forced their way into my sphere. My natural taste is for guitar-led Americana, sweet, sad folk music, sharp and smart indie rock'n'roll. And for many years it was good enough, strong enough to resist the invasion of the brash outsiders, I could stay in my sphere and know that, whatever, anybody else might think, I had the best stuff. Josh Rouse, James Yorkston, Brendan Benson, nobodies in the wider music world, but I knew I had the best talent on my team.

Well, I'm not sure any more. Rock has not just lost out commercially, but it's lost out critically too. Kind of, maybe.

Just as I wrote that, I thought "Well, what's actually my favourite song of the year?" and it's the most traditionalist, old-fashioned, hairy piece of west coast rock imaginable.

There's a very basic, harmonious, charming, bland American rock band called Dawes, whose albums I've bought almost despite myself, and I have to admit that a track on their latest album 'Stories Don't End', indeeed the cheesiest song on the album, the egregiously titled 'Hey Lover' (a line that should only ever be said by Bet Lynch with a menthol cigarette creeping out of the corner of her mouth), has given me more pleasure than anything else. It's nothing but an explosion of major key jolliness, which, 2 minutes in, has a really super bit of male duetting, which somehow reminded me of the Proclaimers, Crosby Stills and Nash and vintage Dexys all at the same time, a rare moment of sheer abandon which reminded me that the men with the guitars hadn't given up just yet.

And what's my favourite album? Well, here I'm going with the crowd. Near the top of most of the lists I've seen has been 'Modern Vampires of the City' by Vampire Weekend, and I'd agree that it's the most complete, enjoyable, consistent, clever, thoroughly excellent album I've heard this year. It's exactly what it should be, a very good band getting better, raising their standard on their third album rather than falling away.

In rock/indie terms, they're very successful too, Number 1 in the USA, Radio 1 airplay. But here's a great little article about how, these days, crossover success for rock bands is always relative Reflektor Debuts at #1—But Why Haven't Arcade Fire Conquered the Singles Chart?

Which leads nicely on to the next issue, of hype and disappointment, of things not being as good as you hope they're going to be.

Arcade Fire are a good place to start, with their heavy publicity campaign, their class, their mystique, their (self) importance, and their third dud album in a row. If you're a rock fan, there weren't many bigger releases all year, and the fact that it was being produced by James Murphy really made me think they may nail it this time, but hell no, not another double album! Hell, no, not more portentous yelping! They're turning into a less successful Coldplay, always talking a good game of innovation and reinvention, but hampered by thoroughly marmite lead vocals.

What makes it more annoying with Arcade Fire is that they've got a ready-made lead vocalist in the band, who's the lead singer's wife, and only gets a couple of leads per album, mainly consigned to ego-stroking backing vocals. If there are any big fans of the band out there, I ask you, would they not be a lot better if Regine Chassaigne was lead vocalist rather than Win Butler? Delicate subject ...

Where else disappointment? Well, the year was bookended by two underhyped, then overhyped works, two slick, clever comebacks which appeared on iTunes out of the blue, by Bowie and Beyonce.

Initially, Bowie's comeback was thrilling. 'Where Are We Now?' was the record I dreamed of him making, elegiac and sad, pure and graceful. But the album, 'The Next Day' ... it was, sniff, ok ...
Likewise, as detailed previously, 'Beyonce'  was always going to be the Beyonce album I bought, and it's a tremendous package, again dropped out of nowhere, with a video per song, and thoughtful subject matter and great production. But (and I've only listened to it a couple of times to be fair) it's a little disappointing. It's a little too clever. And it's all very well not having stone cold classic singles if you're not Beyonce, but if you are, they should be statutory.
This modern, spare, ghostly r'n'b/hip-hop is sweeping all before it in critical terms, but it's somehow all a bit tasteful for me.

The same can be said (though it's very different music) of the likes of Mercury fodder The XX and James Blake etc, these dance/indie kids who ought to have the best of both worlds, but are just a little bit boring as far as I'm concerned.

Talking of dance/indie kids, one of the biggest releases of the year was 'Random Access Memories' by Daft Punk, an album I could be sniffy about, but I found myself enjoying it anew yesterday.

It's an odd listening experience, a little empty at times, a little devoid of a centre, but once you're on board with the "mixtape" concept, there's a lot to enjoy, not least the contributions by indie stars Julian Casablancas on 'Instant Crush' and Animal Collective's Panda Bear on 'Doin' it Right'.

But, Jesus, like Arcade Fire, like Beyonce, it's another long, long album. Who's listened to all of it all the way through more than three times? Or do they stop at Get Lucky?

Get Lucky is the "song of the year", of course, despite the fact that Blurred Lines has sold more copies in the UK. It's fine, isn't it? I mean, it's good. Maybe it is just the bassline, but it's as catchy as it gets, and it's not greatly offensive, unlike its main competitor.

Wedding disco fodder, really, but who doesn't like wedding discos?

Blurred Lines is a different matter of course, rightly lambasted by the right-on, a weird combo of R Kelly at his worst with Robert Palmer. First time I became aware of Robin Thicke, which was several years ago, he creeped me out, and the least said about him the better, frankly.

Except he seems to be part of something of a cabal of rich, clever, urbane, not quite young male pop stars dominating the charts and being lauded for their all round excellence. I don't want to lump the like of P. Williams, Levine, Timberlake and Z in with Thicke because they've all got plenty to recommend them, but it's all a bit fuckin smug, isn't it?

And then there's Kanye West, who's been something other than smug this year. This is the year I almost came round to Kanye. 'New Slaves' and 'Black Skinhead' are superficially powerful, almost punk-rock in their anger, but Jesus, Yeezus, it's somehow so unpleasant, the targets need to be spot on to melt under the weight of its own ego, and I just don't think they are. Reminds me of Russell Brand a bit, if you see what I mean.

Well, anyway, there've been lots of pretty enjoyable singles this year, from Daft Punk to Icona Pop and Bastille, to the surprise hit of the year, 'Royals' by Lorde. Is it ok to call a 16 year old smug and self-important though? Am I just going to call everyone smug and self-important? That seems a bit self-important.

Right, so, enough background. What's actually been good this year? Like I say, I've really bought a lot of albums from old favourites to new stars.
The consensus hits of the year are probably Modern Vampires of the City and Yeezus, though the NME went for AM by the Arctic Monkeys which I've got a lot of time for. Mercury went for James Blake, who I find a bit yawnsome, while Uncut went for My Bloody Valentine, who are bit beyond me, really.

Arctic Monkeys are a real old-fashioned band, who go against prevailing trends by releasing album after album with great speed - AM was their fifth in 8 years, and none the worse for it. Maybe some others should try it. Another fast worker is Laura Marling, whose 'Once I Was an Eagle' was her fourth in 6th years. It's a beautiful work, but I've got to be honest, I once again found it too long and short on HITS! [If this all says more about the dulling of my own listener habits rather than an intrinsic failure of the artist, that's rather the point, isn't it?]

A couple of great female alt-country singer songwriter albums were 'Fossils' by Aoife O'Donovan, and 'The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You' by Neko Case, which was the closest contender to 'Modern Vampires of the City' for my Album of the Year.

British troupers still churning out the goods included Steve Mason (formerly of the Beta Band) and the Manic Street Preachers, Camera Obscura, Franz Ferdinand and the Electric Soft Parade. All very decent albums, but beyond the point of gaining any critical hype.

There were quite a few American disappointments, like Iron and Wine, Local Natives, Janelle Monae, whose second album seemed almost an exact repeat of her first stylistically and conceptually, but without the sparks of genius, John Grant, The Strokes and dare I say it, the National. Well, not exactly a disappointment. The National's 'Trouble Will Find Me' is one of my favourite 5 albums of the year, but they just began to show signs of a band past its peak. We'll see.

The thing is none of these felt like truly great albums, albums I'd be listening to in years to come. Would any of them make it on to my Top 10 of 2001 or 2002 list (to me, these were great years for music, perhaps they weren't for you)?

However, one thing that's apparent, contrary to what I said earlier, is that the artists have not given up. They're still trying to make grand artistic statements in album form. Beyonce, Janelle Monae, Laura Marling, Arcade Fire, Steve Mason, Daft Punk, Lady Gaga, Justin Timberlake, all made grand, sprawling works, which they clearly wished to be taken seriously as masterworks.

Still, the essential truth about albums remains true. 95% of great albums are between 10 and 14 songs. That's the form, and if you fuck with it, you'd better be up to it.

I bought around 50 new albums in their entirety this year, but my favourite purchase of the year, somewhat tragically, was 'Songs for Beginners' by Graham Nash, which is over 40 years old and as safe and sensible as they come - just 10 simple songs by a simple man, an unexpected delight from an artist who is usually seen as hanging around greatness rather than possessing greatness himself.

And talking of greatness, the big guns are still hanging around. There's Bowie and his comeback, the Stones headlining Glastonbury, Elton John and McCartney releasing relatively acclaimed new albums, Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan touring triumphantly, even Joni Mitchell has been seen (briefly) on stage again after a long illness. Easy to fall back into the tried and tested. I first heard 'Blue' 14 years ago and I listened to it more this year than any time since.

Still, I don't suppose there's too much to worry about. Decline needn't be perpetual. Most observers are saying 2013 has been an unexpectedly vintage year in cinema and perhaps 2014 will be in music.

And, look, there has been plenty to enjoy this year. We'll end with a couple of cheerful lists, of Favourite Songs and Favourite Albums etc

20 Favourite Songs (20 because actually when you start looking there's loads!)

1. Hey Lover! - Dawes
2. Where Are We Now? - David Bowie
3. Duet - Everything Everything
4. Steady Pace - Matthew E White
5. Higgs Boson Blues - Nick Cave
6. Sea of Love - The National
7. Pompeii - Bastille (guilty pleasure of the year)
8. The Mother We Share - Chvrches
9. Fight Them Back - Steve Mason
10. Nearly Midnight, Honolulu - Neko Case
11. No Destruction - Foxygen
12. Demons - The National
13. Doin' it Right - Daft Punk
14. Unbelievers - Vampire Weekend
15. Brother, You Must Walk Your Own Path - Electric Soft Parade
16. Another Small Thing in Her Favour - Richard Thompson
17. New Slaves - Kanye West
18. Let the Love In - Josh Rouse
19. I Owe You This - Chad Valley
20 Show Me the Wonder - Manic Street Preachers

10 Favourite Albums

1. Modern Vampire of the City - Vampire Weekend 
2. The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You - Neko Case
3. AM - Arctic Monkeys
4. Trouble Will Find Me - The National
5. Big Inner - Matthew E White
6. Fossils - Aoife O'Donovan
7. Arc - Everything Everything
8. Monkey Minds in the Devil's Time - Steve Mason
9. We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace and Magic - Foxygen
10. Random Access Memories - Daft Punk

10 Greatest Disappointments

1. The Walkmen splitting up
2. The Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds album
3. Blur not coming up with an album yet
4. The David Bowie album
5. The Haim album
6. The Arcade Fire album
7. Top of the Pops not coming back yet
8. Super Furry Animals not getting back together yet
9. The Janelle Monae album
10. Fence label falling apart acrimoniously

10 Greatest Joys

1. Leonard Cohen live - start to finish
2. David Bowie making a comeback
3. Graham Nash's album 'Songs for Beginners'
4. Listening to the Walkmen constantly
5. James Yorkston performing 'Sweet Jesus'
6. Bob Dylan doing 'Simple Twist of Fate'
7. Interview with Joni Mitchell
8. Youtube clip of Wilco, Mavis Staples and Nick Lowe doing 'The Weight'
9. Vampire Weekend
10. Making my lists

Happy New Year - may it bring a Blur album, a proper classic alt-country album and less self-important pop stars.

And, look, I haven't mentioned Miley Cyrus. What kind of review of 2013 is this?

Friday, 20 December 2013

2002: Bright Eyes - Lifted Or The Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground

Talkin' New Bob Dylan Blues. Must be hard being a new Bob Dylan.

There used to be loads, from Loudon Wainwright to Bruce Springsteen. There'll be fewer and further between these days, though it's still a term that gets bandied about pretty absurdly. Most absurd? I've heard Irish honkhorn Damien Dempsey (the worst lyricist since Des'Ree) being described thus by Billy Bragg, and I heard Chris Evans describe whiny kid of the moment Jake Bugg thus recently. Seriously?

In recent times, I suppose the best contenders in terms of impact, status and quality, though obviously not style, are Eminem, Beck and this fellow, Bright Eyes, Conor Oberst. He's ended up buckling under the weight of his possibility, but that's fair enough.

This album (let's call it 'Lifted' henceforth) was the first I heard of Bright Eyes, though he'd already released several albums as a teenage wunderkind, and it was my favourite album of 2002. To be honest, though, I'm not sure I've listened to it in its entirety since.

How striking it was though, messy mayhem and lyrical vomit. Taking confession and clever-cleverness to a new level, Oberst's overwrought vocal is an acquired taste (no, not exactly an acquired taste, it's a taste you fall in and out of), the album is full of long under-produced splurges of song and angst, but the tunes and the insights are unmistakeable. There's something of the spokesman-of-generation-in-waiting about it, and it straddles the line between emo, indie and folk.

Some see this as Oberst's high water mark, this and his previous album Fever and Mirrors. After this, he almost hit the big time, and it almost worked, but maybe it broke him.

Next came two albums released on the same day, one in the traditional singer-songwriter style, 'I'm Wide Awake It's Morning', the other more like spare electro-pop, 'Digital Ash in the Digital Urn'. And it was a pretty massive success (comparatively), both making the US Top 20.

Now, I think 'I'm Wide Awake It's Morning' is pretty fabulous, an improvement actually on 'Lifted', and 'Digital Ash ...' has some great moments too. One 'I'm Wide Awake ...' are 'Lua' and 'First Day of My Life' which are love songs for the ages.

'Cassadaga' his next album as Bright Eyes, was an even bigger success, though older fans were beginning to get worried. Still, I love it, especially the first half. It's a really fine country-rock album.

Since then, well it's hard to keep up, really, there's been another Bright Eyes album, there's been an album with Monsters of Folk (a little underwhelming) and several albums under his own name.

At the time of 'Lifted' he seemed to be the head of something meaningful - Omaha and its booming music scene. There were lots of acts working together, collaborating, and it all sounded pretty exciting. Perhaps it hasn't died down at all in real life, it just feels like it has.

Anyway, I'm listening to Lifted right now. It's still heady stuff, if you're in the mood. Oberst's vocal, and his sense of his own importance, is probably the main obstacle to genuine crossover. It can be a turn-off, no doubt.

So, he hasn't been the new Bob Dylan, I suppose. Or maybe he has. It's just not enough people noticed.

Here's a collected Conor Oberst compilation.

When the Brakeman Comes My Way
Danny Callahan - Conor Oberst
False Advertising
Laura Laurent
Jejune Stars
First Day of My Life
Cape Canaveral - Conor Oberst
Hot Knives
Take it Easy (Love Nothing)
Four Winds
Road to Joy

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

1963: Bob Dylan: The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan

Regular readers of the blog could almost certainly have guessed both the album and the artist to follow Blur (and not just because I actually told the most regular reader of the blog who was coming up next). There's not much between Blur and Bob Dylan in the alphabet (I'm neither a big enough fan of Bo Diddley or Boards of Canada) and, with the Beatles having already gone, there's really not much else in my realm from 1963.

So Freewheelin' it is. The first great Bob Dylan album. The start of the singer-songwriter. Pretty much the start of everything, albeit 'Please Please Me', the Beatles' debut album, was a couple of months earlier.

Another wonderful wonderful album cover. Young Bob in love with Suze Rotolo, arguably the most important of the many muses throughout his career. What might Bob Dylan have been without Suze Rotolo? One more thin gypsy thief ...

The first Bob Dylan album, 'Bob Dylan', is fine. Some very nice folk covers and a couple of tentative attempts at writing. I don't believe it set the world on fire at the time.

Why did Bob Dylan start writing his own songs? Because no one else had written the songs he wanted to sing.

There is a certain disappointment when one delves into the life and times of Bob at what that "songwriting" often entails. Recently, we know he's been borrowing a few words, and early on, he used a lot of pre-existing melodies. It's no secret, and it's also not true to say that Dylan never came up with any great melodies. As his career progressed, there are many, many melodies of his own, great Bob Dylan songs of all different kinds of styles and patterns. It irritates me if anyone says otherwise.

But 'Freewheelin', great as it is, is basically Dylan learning how to speak his mind over old tunes. The result is several songs which are classics to this day, so not many are complaining.

I think I prefer 'The Times They Are a Changin' which came a year later. It's more austere, more serious, sadder and harsher, but to me the songs are even more breathtaking. On that album, there's 'With God on Our Side', 'One Too Many Mornings', 'When the Ship Comes In', 'Boots of Spanish Leather' and 'The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll' - the latter alone is, to me, one of the greatest works of art of the 20th century, and I'll stand by that.

What's on Freewheelin?  The tracklistin' is
Blowin in the Wind
Girl from the North Country
Masters of War
Down the Highway
Bob Dylan's Blues
A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall
Don't Think Twice it's All right
Bob Dylan's Dream
Oxford Town
Talkin' World War III Blues
Corrina, Corrina
Honey Just Allow Me One More Chance
I Shall Be Free

Come on, it peters out a bit, doesn't it? It could lose at least two, arguably four.

But just imagine hearing it when it came out. Especially the first half. Just imagine. There are all the song types which well be the template for his career, in excelsis.

The idealistic, questioning one
The nostalgic, romantic one
The angry one
The richly metaphorical one
The sweetly, slyly, bitterly cynical one
The funny one

They're all there.
I'd been listening to Dylan for maybe a year or two, in the form of a couple of mixed up compilations before I bought this, along with Highway 61, Blonde on Blonde and Blood on the Tracks when I was 18. A favourite can't be picked from these 4, but I think this may have made the earliest impression. I knew the first, second and sixth track already, but they worked far better in their right context.
Don't Think Twice It's All Right was the biggest winner for me, I couldn't believe how pretty it was (here was a particular disappointment when i later discovered it wasn't Bob's own melody).

I did love the two talkin' songs on the second half, Talkin World War III Blues and I Shall Be Free - how fabulously silly, surreal and smartass he could be.

And Masters of War, well it seems a bit basic and unnuanced now, but jeez it was powerful back then when I heard it, so again, just imagine how powerful it will have been at the time.

Perhaps it would be silly to think that "political" "adult" songwriting in the pop charts wouldn't have come about anyway without Bob Dylan, but, you know, maybe it wouldn't. What would have happened to the Beatles? Would they have stayed fun, got boring and would rock'n'roll have died a fairly quick death? It's not a ridiculous question.

This was a cultural phenomenon that did need to gain momentum in the early 60s, it hadn't really gone anywhere for a few years, and this album was unfathomably important in that.

It still sounds great. Just great.

I saw Dylan at the Albert Hall last week. My view was terrible, right in the gods, and so the sound was hard going. He didn't play anything from Freewheelin', sadly, indeed he hardly played anything from the 60s, which is pretty bold. He plays a lot of his recent stuff, and the fact is that's the stuff that wounds best and often gets the best reaction now.
I've seen him play 'Blowin in the Wind'  and 'Hard Rain' and that may be about it from this album. He probably has a pretty good idea of which songs from his back catalogue he can do justice to. These songs deserve to be sung by a young guy with an old voice and an acoustic guitar. 50 years on, it's incredible that Bob Dylan can still perform new songs that people want to hear.

Oh, and I realise I didn't do a Bob Dylan compilation. Got to keep it to 20 songs. I toyed with imposing one from each album but then, how about non-album tracks? So this would be my Bob Dylan compilation, with no restrictions.

Like a Rolling Stone
Lay Down Your Weary Tune
Idiot Wind
The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll
Isis (Live)
Workingman Blues
To Ramona
Boots of Spanish Leather
Visions of Johanna
Simple Twist of Fate
When the Ship Comes In
I Threw it All Away
She's Your Lover Now
One Too Many Mornings
Not Dark Yet
Positively 4th Street
Love Minus Zero
Every Grain of Sand

Something like that, anyway

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

1993: Blur - Modern Life is Rubbish

This is another wonderful album cover, and the album that is seen in some ways as the "start" of the Blur we know and love and the seminal album of British music of the decade.

Perhaps. Perhaps it's more about what it represents than what it is. It's not my favourite Blur album - 3rd or 4th favourite really. The tale of its genesis, though, is fascinating in itself.

Blur's first album 'Leisure' was significantly more successful in both the UK and the US, but it's also a bit rubbish. There are a couple of great baggy singles, 'There's No Other Way' and 'She's So High' which showed Damon Albarn's gift for pop songs, but it was generally dismissed as copycat trendhopping.

Funnily enough, I do remember Blur on Top of the Pops in around 1991, and thinking they were rubbish, disconcerting and interesting (legend has it they were on ecstasy, which might explain a bit) so I kept a look out for the name. The early 90s was a musical black hole for me, however and if I'm honest, Blur between 'Bang' and 'Girls and Boys' passed me by entirely. Which is when all this stuff happened.

So the story begins ... they had a terrible US tour where they all psychologically disintegrated and fought each other and were ignored and hated their own music and most of all hated America. So they determined to become a proper British band. First up was the single 'Popscene', all stabbing brass, which was a big flop but is now seen as one of the best singles of the 90s.

Then came the recording of Modern Life is Rubbish, which had the working title Britain Vs America. The eventual title is a lot better. Albarn says that the rubbish means garbage, detritus, i.e. the modern world is just the leftovers of the clogged up past. Nice.

Here's an interesting thing. OK, it's now seen as a classic and proof of Albarn's genius in defiance of prevailing trends and the record company, but perhaps that's not the whole story.

Blur submitted the original album and were told it needed more in the way of singles, so Albarn wrote For Tomorrow. Then they wanted another "more American" single so they recored Chemical World.
So, really, who's the genius? Would this be half the album without those two songs, two of the finest in Blur's canon which they still play to this day? OK, Damon Albarn is a magnificent songwriter but it was not his instinct to include the two best songs on the album.

It was still be a good album with a great idea and great theme without those songs and Blur would probably still have gone on to do Parklife because it's not like For Tomorrow and Chemical World were career-boosting hits at the time. But, still, they make the album.

It's funny to think that before Modern Life, Damon wasn't thought of as much of a lyricist. For Tomorrow, the first song on the album, is one of his great tours de force, a lovely splurge of words, a romantic London song which really was the definition of the music I loved back then.

Starshaped is another cracking song (and the name of a mad Blur documentary of the time) and the song which really epitomises the cliche of oompah-loompah gor blimey guvnor Blur is Sunday Sunday - I've got to say I love it.

There are plenty of other good songs on the album, Advert and Colin Zeal and Oily Water etc. Still, few would say they didn't improve on the template with Parklife.

Seeing Blur in 2009 at Hyde Park was an indescribably awesome gig, especially since, for my own sins, I'd missed them first time around. It was a massive gig and it felt like I was part of a generation of like-minded people, which truly is a feeling I've hardly ever had in my life.

Blur were my band like they were for tens of thousands of others, the band that got me into modern music, to indie music, to real music. It was End of a Century, from Parklife, which really did it, I loved the lyrics and the brass. I loved the tracksuit tops. Later on, I loved the guitar, the ideas, the intelligence, the personalities (apart Alex James, who I always thought seemed like a cock, which he probably is, but his book is really a hoot. However, he's done a lot of TV in the last decade or so s if people think he's going to be more louche, witty and debonair than he is. Really, he's just a guy that got oh so lucky).

Albarn and Coxon isn't quite Lennon and McCartney, Albarn is always the major talent, but it's a pretty tremendous meeting of talents and gifts. And the drummer Dave Rowntree is some people's favourite band member, of course, though he probably won't be prime minister any time soon.

Modern Life is Rubbish was apparently born of hatred of both America and Suede. I'd have to be a pretty one-eyed Blur fan not to recognise that Suede's first two albums were as influential or in fact far more so than Blur's. It's a genuinely bitter rivalry, that one, a personal and professional hatred that has never gone away. Well done to Suede for coming back rocking and with some very decent new songs but Blur took it to a significantly higher level as the two bands progressed.

Damon Albarns turned out to be arguably one of the five most prodigious, most varied, most consistent talents in the history of British pop music, and that, more than ambition, concepts and capturing the zeitgeist was the key to Blur's success and influence.

Still, perhaps if Modern Life is Rubbish had been rubbish, they'd have been dropped, split up and he'd have gone straight to making soundtracks for obscure films or something, so thank goodness for it.

Here's a compilation from the Blur members. No Fat Les.

For Tomorrow
Song 2
Best Days
He Thought of Cars
Bittersweet Bundle of Misery - Graham Coxon
A Soldier's Tale - The Good, the Bad and the Queen
Sunset Coming On - Damon Albarn
Under the Westway
Chemical World
This is a Low
Battery in Your Leg
End of a Century
19/2000 - Gorillaz
Good Song
The Universal
On Your Own
To the End

There were really far too many to choose from. For the sake of one Coxon song and a song from Mali Music, I've missed Badhead and Out of Time. Are there more great combined Albarn/Coxon songs (many Albarn, really) than almost anyone, even Lennon/McCartney?
I think the most amazing thing about Damon Albarn is that he's headlined big festivals with three different, entirely distincts acts, Blur, Gorillaz and the Good, the Bad and the Queen (yes, they headlined Latitude one year i went, not entirely triumphantly, but certainly atmospherically). Four if you count his operas Monkey and Dr Dee headlining Manchester International Festival.
Still, i'd easily swap everything else he's ever done for one more decent Blur album.

Sunday, 17 November 2013

1978: Blondie - Parallel Lines

1978, the year I was born, and a classic album cover. What a tremendous concept Blondie was, a punk band, a pop band, a rock band, a disco band, hip-hop pioneers, slick and shiny, grimy and druggy, as a notion they're one of the greatest bands ever. They probably didn't make enough great music to actually be one of the greatest bands ever, but this is an iconic band in the truest sense of the word.

Parallel Lines is considered their one great album, apart from Greatest Hits, obviously, and it's a virtual Greatest Hits in itself.

Like the Clash, Blondie broke down the barriers in the music of the time - it didn't have to be punk versus disco, pop versus rock, style versus success. Rather as I once mentioned with Martha Reeves vs Diana Ross, there's a megastardom Blondie didn't hold on to which means they might play tents at festivals in Suffolk and Madonna never drops below stadium level.

Deborah Harry was/is a star, but always an odd, cult, slightly dangerous one. She's the same age as my mum, already in her mid-30s by the time mega-success came. She dominates the band, embodies the band, of course, but they were always at pains to say they were an actual band. Perhaps they shouldn't have called themselves Blondie then ...

Does one see Deborah Harry in today's female stars? Well, no, not that much, nobody really has that coolness - you just see the grim version of blonde ambition which Madonna co-opted. Both did a fair bit of acting too - Deborah Harry was better but then, again, that's not saying much.

In indie music, there have been a fair few of those female-fronted, male instrumentalist bands - and then, perhaps Gwen Stefani is Blondie's most direct and obvious successor. Not a notion that fills me with great joy.

This is a great album - my favourite track, in fact my favourite Blondie song, is Sunday Girl. No real secret to why, it's just a cool tune. I loved the random French as well, I suppose. Then there's Heart of Glass, their disco pop sensation, which was probably the first Blondie song I heard, on a TV advert for the Best of Blondie. Shortly afterwards, on a school holiday, in dormitories, we listened to an awful lot of that album. Bizarrely, I remember the compliment of the time and place was "raj", and I remember the phrase "Debbie Harry is raj" ... being used. Odd.

It was also rather marvellous that, starting from 1998, they had a whole new career with new material and everything. Maria was a great comeback single and deserves its place amongst their biggest hits.

With Blondie, you can't look too far beyond the singles, I think. This would be my Blondie compilation

Rip Her to Shreds
Sunday Girl
Heart of Glass
One Way or Another
Fade Away and Radiate
Call Me
Hanging on the Telephone
Picture This

Basically, a greatest hits, sorry. With no Tide is High. Because Atomic Kitten ruined it for me.

Friday, 15 November 2013

1983: Billy Bragg - Life's a Riot with Spy Vs Spy

1983's a bit of a funny year, isn't it? Thatcher got re-elected, Thriller had just come out but Madonna hadn't hit yet, the Jam had split up to be replaced by the Style Council, new romanticism was a dominant commercial force, and I, I was not yet conscious. I mean, I was conscious, but I was not conscious that it was 1983. 1984 was my first year of historical understanding. Not much, but a bit, so it's quite hard for me to know what to make of 1983. It seems like a bit of a non-year to me. What were the classic albums? Anyone?

So I've gone for the first album (I say album, it's 7 songs in 15 minutes) by a quietly powerful presence in British music. Bragg's right there at the heart of the 80s alternative, with the famous Red Wedge which famously made absolutely naff-all difference, with that sturdy, strong voice from the left.

30 years he's been doing it, and he's made himself a kind of national treasure, a figure beyond music. Blackwell's, Charing Cross Road, 2001-2, we got a lot of famous folk in - I'll never forget my shock on my first day when Laurence Fishburne strolled in and asked to be directed to the drama section. But in my Social Sciences department, we were never so close to being starstruck, or at least wishing to go up and pat a celeb on the back and say "good on you" as when Billy was browsing the History section. He seems like a good one.

I was listening to this album earlier, and, to be honest, I wasn't enjoying it that much. It's got A New England, which is Bragg's most famous song, The Busy Girl Buys Beauty, The Milkman of Human Kindness, it sets a very nice template for his career, but it's obviously very one-paced and basic. Thriller it ain't.

I was reminded of something Jeff Tweedy slightly churlishly said after Billy Bragg and Wilco collaborated on Woody Guthrie lyrics for the Mermaid Avenue album. There was a bit of tension on the closing stages, apparently, and a falling out, which was least partially repaired. But I remember Tweedy being asked what he'd learnt from Billy Bragg in the sessions and him saying it was more along the lines of what Bragg had learnt from Wilco.

I kind of get his point. Tweedy is a master, a man who has gone from style to style, who creates all different types of songs, creates classic albums, makes strange and daring noises. I can imagine him making the simplicity of Billy's form seem a bit amateurish.

Not to say it was not a fruitful collaboration. There are some wonderful songs on Mermaid Avenue and Mermaid Avenue Vol II. And not to say that Billy Bragg is not awesome, with some awesome songs, but I think a 10 song compilation will be about right for him.

He's an astute, witty, lyricist, but I'm not sure there's that often enough in his songs to get lost in them over and over again.

His career's mainly been on the fringes, not many big sellers. Bizarrely, there's a Number 1 single from 1988, on a Double A side in aid of Childline with WetWetWet - they did With A Little Help from My Friends, he did She's Leaving Home - I've a feeling there's was the more popular number. Apart from that, a few Top 40 hits, Sexuality, Between the Wars, one called Take Down the Union Jack. He's never quite been able to move beyond being a one (no, two, Mr Love and Justice) trick pony.

Still, 1983 felt like Billy Bragg's year to me. The left is coming, I tell you. The left is coming.

Here's a list. Despite whatever negativity I've expressed, I like all these songs a lot, and two or three of them, I like an awful lot.

New England
Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key
Brickbat (oh I love this one!)
The Busy Girl Buys Beauty
All You Fascists Bound to Lose
St Swithin's Day
Between the Wars
Waiting for the Great Leap Forward
Greetings to the New Brunette

That's be mine. There should be more like Billy Bragg

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

2006: Beyonce - B'Day

I'm not going to lie to you, I don't own this album. I wanted to put together a Beyonce/Destiny's Child compilation, so needed to pick an album. So i chose the one with hilarious title, released on her birthday but beloved of fans of posh bathrooms. Also released the same year was 'Respect M.E.' by Missy Elliott, but not sadly 'R's Soul' by R Kelly.

Anyway, the title was a rare misfire for Beyonce, who is by a huge huge distance the great pop star of our age. Who are our megastars of pop? Britney Spears, Lady Gaga, Bieber, Eminem, Rihanna, Timberlake, even maybe Adele. Well, how much better is Beyonce than all of them?

Though still in her early 30s, she's a proper veteran - Destiny's Child's first hit was 16 full years ago, and they were immediately awesome, tight, futuristic r'n'b. And there's barely been a let-up sibce. That's a hell of a career. A hell of a lot of hits. And - perhaps someone can answer me this, what's not to like about Beyonce?

The worst one hears is that she's very focused, very driven, has a big, slightly imposing entourage, but she's pretty much entirely avoided the diva stories, the accusations of unpleasantness, stupidity, talentlessness, wild egocentricity and messiah complex, mentalness that accompany a lot of the biggest stars in pop.

And, sorry to sound like a grandad from Tunbridge Wells, but she's frankly a better role model, whatever the fuck that is, than the rest of these garish goons. She's a pro. She says measured, intelligent things. She doesn't slag people or groups off, ya de ya. I realise there's PR and reality, so I'll stop boring on about all that, and just remember how many awesome songs she's been a part of.

On 'B'Day' there are one or two crackers, including "to the left, to the left" Irreplaceable and Deja Vu (which I actually think is a little bit of a mess).

Being such a fan of Beyonce, I do wonder why I haven't actually shelled out on a full album, rather than the individual songs I own. Is that the essence, for someone looking for a little bit more in their music and believing it really is an art form, of the limitations of pop music? I can't lose myself in it and I don't hear enough different stories. I'll flirt with it then return to my folk, rock, country, whatever.

I do think Beyonce is capable of an album I would love and maybe next time I'll bite the bullet. She is capable of glorious soul music, songs you lose yourself in, she's capable of lots of different textures and moods. I actually think her voice isn't perfect, it's not effortless grace, you can really hear her putting the effort in and it sounds surprisingly shrill sometimes near the top. But, you know, it's a pretty great sound.

She gets songwriting credit on pretty much all her songs - what role she's played one doesn't know exactly but it seems she comes up with lyrics and melodies more than beats and instrumentation. Either way, there's no reason to doubt she's not got a real talent in that area.

There's a song on her latest album, called '1+1' which is quite a spare power ballad, but it really is a thing of wonder, which pushes close to breaking point, but is actually moving beyond what we've any right to expect.

Here would be my Destiny's Child/Beyonce compilation (it doesn't include their work with former Coronation Street star Matthew Marsden in the late 90s)

Crazy in Love (being the best song of the 2000s, according to the NME and pretty much everyone else)
Bills, Bills, Bills - Destiny's Child
Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)
Independent Women Part I - Destiny's Child
Jumpin, Jumpin - Destiny's Child
Lose My Breath - Destiny's Child
Nuclear - Destiny's Child
Say My Name - Destiny's Child

Pretty damn good that, and there's plenty more where that came from. Beyonce is the outstanding pop artist of our time, and just for once, you can stick your boys with guitars and beards.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

1966: The Beatles - Revolver

Right, no fucking about with this one. 1966 - Revolver, The Beatles. If you were to collate all the lists ever of Best Album ever, this would surely come Number 1. Because it's the Best Album Ever, I suppose.
And if it's not the best, no one's going to say it's not one of the ten best.

14 songs, which is quite a lot, but the hits keep on coming. Does anyone disagree with me that it's McCartney's album primarily? His finest hour. His songs on this one are Eleanor Rigby, Here There and Everywhere, Good Day Sunshine, For No One and Got to Get You Into My Life. For me, all of those except are Good Day Sunshine are stone cold classics, in my favourite 10 Beatles songs. Here There and Everywhere is the one Macca consistently says is his own favourite.

Though I'm generally of the McCartney beats Lennon persuasion, there are other Beatles album where I accept Lennon has the best moments and gives the album its heart. I even think Lennon is pulling away on the later stuff, but on 'Revolver', Lennon's stuff is great, Harrison's burgeoning but not quite at its peak. McCartney is at his most beautiful and perfect. And Ringo sings Yellow Submarine. Which is the best you can hope for, really.

I do understand why Sgt Pepper's was for a long time considered the best Beatles album. The concept is dazzling. The package is dazzling. The colours are beautiful. But we all know it's a bit silly, really, and there are really only about four great great songs on it.

Whereas Revolver is just a magnificent collection of talent. They give Harrison the first number, which is nice - Taxman - sounds great, but it's a bit moany. Then Eleanor Rigby, which only suffers because it's the pop song most patronisingly appreciated by dumb classical fans who think pop music actually has to justify its existence to them. Shitbags. Anyway ... it's a good song

As is I'm Only Sleeping. Better than the Suggs cover. Then more Harrison, Love You To. Well, ok, it's not necessarily a classic song in and of itself, but it's a real eye-opener, a real "look what we're doing now" moment. A nice bitter before the sweet sweet of Here There and Everywhere.
Then the heart of the album, with Yellow Submarine, She Said She Said (which sounds better to me now than ever), Good Day Sunshine and one of my favourite ever Lennon songs, And Your Bird Can Sing. 1.20 in "Tell me that you've heard every sound there is ...", that surely is one of the great "Here, this is the Beatles, this is how good they are" moments.
And then, wonder of wonders, For No One. Is this the Beatles' most mature, heartbreaking song? Did it create MOR? Either way,  it's an all time favourite of mine.
Then, a little dip, but perhaps a necessary dip and not much of a dip. Doctor Robert and I Want to Tell You, another one where Harrison is not quite fantastic yet but close enough. You can sense his muse coming.
Then time for the big finish. You can understand why Lennon's Tomorrow Never Knows gets the big finish. The way of the future. The way of the future. I wouldn't say I love it but I do remember how enormously impressed I was in the 90s that The Prodigy and the Chemical Brothers sounded no more modern than it, and it seemed that every strand of successful popular music was in thrall to the Beatles.
But anyway, McCartney's last shot is Got to Get You Into My Life, just as much a drugs song as Tomorrow Never Knows, but couldn't be more different in sound and feel. What a melodic gift he had!
And that's it - 14 songs but only 35 minutes. Perhaps it's not right to call it the perfect album, the best album, but it's surely the perfect "band" album, where there is space for different styles, different personalities, different aims, but it all sits together beautifully.
The debt we as pop music fans have to the Beatles and to this album is immeasurable. This is what gave it the momentum to be what it still is. It's a minor, trivial point, but this album was Number 1 in the same summer England won the World Cup. Was this as good as it got for this little country?

Anyway, I'm not going to write much else about the Beatles. I've heard a bit of McCartney's new album, and it's rather good, sounds like the Beatles, not just a pale facsimile.
Their story is the perfect happy accident - how did it happen that there was not one, not two but three of that amazing, world-changing talent (sorry Ringo) all in that part of Liverpool, all at that time? What are the chances? Seriously, statisticians, what are the chances?

How long should a Beatles compilation be, bearing in mind I'm allowed to incorporate the best of their solo careers too? 100 songs? Maybe 50? Jeez, this is tough.
I'll limit myself to 20, but I'll miss some of the greatest songs ever written, just because of the mood I'm in.

We Can Work It Out (this, by the way, is what I would call the perfect Beatles song. The perfect Lennon/McCartney song, if you will)
Penny Lane
In My Life
For No One
All Things Must Pass - George Harrison
I Want to Hold Your Hand
Day in the Life
You've Got to Hide Your Love Away
Here There and Everywhere
Happiness is a Warm Gun
While My Guitar Gently Weeps
Band on the Run - Paul McCartney
Ticket to Ride
Eleanor Rigby
God - John Lennon
Got to Get You Into My Life
And Your Bird Can Sing

What have I missed? I mean, seriously, the songs I've missed are still pretty much better than every other band in history's career, aren't they?

2013: Arctic Monkeys - AM

So the most recent happens to be by the band that comes first in alphabetical order. I'd have quite liked to write about Ash's 'Free All Angels' for the letter A, which I think is one of the unsung perfect albums of recent times, but 2001 was a bit of a busy year for albums, and the Arctic Monkeys work for 2013 in a way that nothing else does really.

So here we go, 'AM' - a title shared with Wilco's 1st album, a nice little pun which was no doubt carefully thought through. And it's the Arctic Monkeys' 5th album, which means they've already caught up with Coldplay, who started 6 years earlier, and bearing in mind Alex Turner has also had time for a Number 1 album with the Last Shadow Puppets and a very good soundtrack to the film 'Submarine' he can fairly be described as prolific.

It's time for the cynics and doubters, who have included myself, believe me, to accept that the Arctic Monkeys are an all together good thing. They're Kaiser Chiefs, but good. They're Blur, but still together. They're Oasis, but consistent. They're Oasis, but nice. They're Oasis, but smart. They're Oasis, but not really Oasis, cos they're way better. They're every other British indie band, but enormously successful. In a good way.

When their first album came out to phenomenal success and they were 18 and I was 27, they were quite frankly a bunch of precocious smartarses. And so they remained for quite some time. I begrudged their success, their talent, their Northern wit. I was interested, but from a distance.

I'd bought the first album, but truly not enjoyed it all that much. Nothing else sounded as good to me as 'I Bet You Look Good On the Dancefloor'. Looking back, it's a phenomenal work by teenagers, a fine album ful lstop, but thankfully, and impressively, it's not their best. And it's reasonable to hope they'll only get better.

'AM' from 2013, is probably their most critically aimed record and the one where I finally realised resistance was futile. It's just really good. Every song is good, it's imaginative, it rocks, it's eclectic, it's got a bit of heart, it's just really good.

How often has a band who exploded on the scene like they did been able to cope with the gradual and inevitable decrease in sales and acclaim, while still keeping it at a very acceptable level (all their albums have gone to Number 1 in the UK and Top 25 in the US) and then rediscovered huge success and acclaim again on their 5th LP?

'AM' was recorded in America and has a slighly American feel, incorporating a bit of a hip-hop feel and also heavy rock and a few tales from the rock'n'roll road, but Yorkshire is unmistakeable.

America has often embraced British music but rarely has it embraced British bands who sounded totally and unmistakeably British and dealt in British idiom. Maybe the last one was  the Beatles. Are the Arctic Monkeys the new Beatles? I thought I'd give a shit about answering that question, but it seems I don't, thank goodness.

They're a bit of an anomaly, a proper indie band for whom success has come easy and stayed easy, who haven't blanded out. Now they're in their later twenties, I do confess it's easier to like them than it was. It's hard when the footballers and rock stars are all younger than you (Michael Owen will always be young Michael Owen to me) but I was dealing with it quite well til the Arctic Monkeys came along. 18? You're 18? Piss off.

It's not been perfect. They erred in that their one line-up change (bassist Andy Nicholson swapped for Nick O'Malley)  came after, not before, the first album (unlike, say, the Beatles!) creating the impression of disharmony or manipulation.

But there's a lot to like now. Including great drumming and great backing vocals (who's not a sucker for ooh-la-las?). Although most of the focus is on the lead singer Alex Turner, the drummer Matt Helders might well be the power behind the throne.

Perhaps both a strength and a drawback of the band is the pure attention to detail of Alex Turner's lyrics  - it can sometimes seem almost too perfect, too showy, like you can hear him slaving over it, rather than just coming naturally. There's a slickness and smartness to the internal rhymes and the long, elegant lines which is frankly enviable.

So, there we go, Arctic Monkeys, the band of the present, the band of the future.

Here is a 12 song Arctic Monkeys/Alex Turner compilation

I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor
Fluorescent Adolescent
Stuck on the Puzzle - Alex Turner
Snap Out of it
Knee Socks
Fake Tales of San Francisco
Do I Wanna Know
The Age of the Understatement -  The Last Shadow Puppets
A Certain Romance

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

50 Years of Rock'n'Roll for Grown Ups

It always helps with this blog to have a concept to work through at length, otherwise it can be a bit directionless, so first I had "Songs about ..." which was a big exhaustive concept, then I had "31 songs" which was a really fun and simple way to go off on a tangent when writing about songs.

So I've got another concept, quite a nice one. Rock'n'roll has been a grown-up for 50 years, hasn't it? No dissing Chuck Berry and Roy Orbison and Elvis and all those cats, but 1963 was the year Dylan and the Beatles really broke, Motown really started coming into its own. There were still a few more years before it got really grown-up, but 1963 is Year 1 for me.

I'm going to list one album for each year since (51 in total, therefore), write a little about the act and give a playlist for that band. The playlist will be 10, 12, 16 or 20 songs depending on what I think would be the best compilation for said act.

So it doesn't get a bit boring and predictable (for me more than you), I won't do it in chronological order. It'll be in alphabetical order of the acts, so will jump around the years a fair bit. So you can predict, if you wish, what year and act comes next. What fun that will be!

I reserve the right to change an album from my original list so the alphabetical thing might not hold perfectly. I've already made the list and some other albums/bands I really want to write about might come up.

These won't necessarily be my 51 favourites. Indeed, I've already found some irritating instances where I can't include some great albums/acts and then some years are a bit weak. So be it. Also, there might be some acts/albums I'm not a massive fan of, but I just think are worth writing about.  I'm really going to try not to just write about the same old shit I'm always going on about, the alt-country middleweights and the mystery white boys, but you know, there'll be a fair bit of that.

Also, I often discounted great albums because the acts in question only really did one great album so didn't actually make for a great compilation e.g. The Stone Roses and Love's Forever Changes. And I've given room for manoeuvre on what can appear on the compilation - it can be one band and related acts. It could be 'N Sync's ' Celebrity' for 2001 and then the album could contain the best of 'N Sync and all JT's solo stuff as well as his bandmates' solo wonders. It won't be.

There are some, like the Velvet Underground/Lou Reed recently, who I've already provided a good playlist for, so they'll only miss out because of that. Perhaps this concept will tell the true history of rock'n'roll.

Here's a random compilation to start - a massive 26-song list of one song for each letter of the alphabet. I'm making it up as I go ...

Side 1

Arcade Fire - Wake Up
Beta Band - Dry the Rain
Common - I Used to Love H.E.R
Del Amitri - Nothing Ever Happens
Echo and the Bunnymen - Ocean Rain
Frank Ocean - Bad Religion
Glen Campbell - Guess I'm Dumb
Harvey Danger - Flagpole Sitta
Idlewild - When I Argue I See Shapes
Janis Joplin - Cry Baby
Kenickie - Punka
LCD Soundsystem - New York, I Love You But You're Bringing Me Down
Matthew E White - Steady Pace

Side 2

Nirvana - Smells Like Teen Spirit
OutKast - Ms Jackson
PJ Harvey - Sheela-Na-Gig
Queens of the Stone Age - Feelgood Hits of the Summer
Robyn - Dancing on My Own
Squeeze - Tempted
Tom Waits - Martha
Ultrasound - Stay Young
Vashti Bunyan - Just Another Diamond Day
Wu-Tang Clan - Can It Be All So Simple?
XTC - Senses Working Overtime
Yeah Yeah Yeahs - Bang
Zombies - Time of the Season

Super. Not quite the conclusive story of rock'n'roll, but a nice start

Sunday, 27 October 2013

He's set free

So Lou Reed's died. When I was told, my initial reaction was strangely, a bit like "Well, that's sad, but that means more to other people than me". True to an extent, I wasn't part of the Lou Reed cult, and I haven't bought any recent solo records of his.

But ... I do love a lot of Lou Reed songs. Love them, not just like them. And it's never been any question that he holds an unimpeachable place in modern history, that he was cool beyond cool. The Velvet Underground & Nico, almost uniquely among all the great music of the 60s, is utterly modern. It's also a perfect album, like only a handful of albums in music history are.

It's possible you'd get as many great rock'n'roll musicians who'd say Lou Reed was their biggest influence as Bob Dylan.

There's very little doubt he was, for whatever reason deep in his psyche, a pretty impossible human being (having said that, if journalists find you impossible, sometimes the opposite is true. It's funny how journalists can't stand Sir Alex Ferguson but everybody else speaks about him in glowing terms. Perhaps Reed was a secret softie who just wouldn't put up with bullshit. Perhaps).

I'm not going to write much more. I wasn't an in-depth Lou Reed fan and I'm not grieving and I wasn't one of the people that listened to that album and formed a band. So I'll leave the real eulogies to more deserving folk.

But I love a lot of Lou Reed songs. And these are they.

Sweet Jane - The Velvet Underground
Rock'n'Roll Heart - Lou Reed
Oh Sweet Nuthin' - The Velvet Underground
Pale Blue Eyes - The Velvet Underground
Coney Island Baby - Lou Reed
I'm Set Free - Lou Reed
I Found a Reason - The Velvet Underground
All Tomorrow's Parties - The Velvet Underground & Nico
Perfect Day - Lou Reed
Rock and Roll - The Velvet Underground
Fistful of Love - Antony and the Johnsons with Lou Reed
Waiting for the Man - The Velvet Underground & Nico
There She Goes Again - The Velvet Underground & Nico
Satellite of Love- Lou Reed
Femme Fatale - The Velvet Underground & Nico
Walk on the Wild Side - Lou Reed
Tranquilize - The Killers with Lou Reed
Vicious - Lou Reed

Those are the ones I honestly love. See, I'm not a deep Lou Reed fan. But, that's a pretty great bunch of songs, ain't it?

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Dangerous minds etc

I'm going to take a brief detour from music (though the subject does relate to music) to something which I've been thinking about a fair bit lately. I'm going to keep it as short as possible because the more I go on the more I'll expose myself as out of my depth.

But there have been various stories lately about inner city schools banning various urban slang terms, and there has been this guy saying this (do read it, it's the first and only time I'll link to the Daily Mail).
Needless to say, being one of those metropolitan liberals he mentions (as opposed to a metropolitan egomaniac, which he clearly is), it made my skin crawl on a number of levels, but I'll try to keep it to just one of those levels.
[Initially, it got me thinking a lot about Shakespeare, and how important Shakespeare actually is, and whether actually it is possible to enjoy it initially without various forms of sweetening the pill. But that's for another time]

But there's a line in his speech which really stands out for me: "with, what's more, I'll wager, absolutely no hip-hop whatsoever". And that's where he loses entirely.

Because that's impossible. Because "hip-hop" is everywhere now.

The argument that the kids need to be kept from using their own language reminds me of when doctors and lawmakers and politicians and, dare I say it, parents pontificate on the dangers and social ills of alcohol. The classic Chris Morris line "Alcohol's not a drug, it's a drink" comes to mind. People seem not to accept that booze is everywhere, intrinsic to all our lives in an overwhelmingly good way. To me, it is wilful hypocrisy to talk about the downside of alcohol without fully explaining and accepting all the manifold positives for everyone. Who are people trying to kid?

I feel rather that way about hip-hop culture. It has so infused into every part of our culture, not just youth culture, that it is wild hypocrisy to try and hold back the tide. You think I'm exaggerating?
I was a posh white teenager 20 years ago with no great love for hip-hop music, but the slang, the language, the clothes, the style, was in everything. And I'm sick of people being negative about that, to talk about silly white kids ironically taking up black culture or trying to be cool etc's not a bad thing, it's awesome. It's because, languagewise,  it is rich. It's fun. It's imaginative. Hip-hop leads and the rest of culture follows.

And it is a true global phenomenon and a force for good. Don't take my word for it. Take another West London early middle aged white boy's word for it Where You're At - Patrick Neate.

Or just watch fucking Made in Chelsea, where their speech is covered in "bro" and "wassup" and "wack". Yes, it can sound ridiculous, but it's become intrinsic rather than affected. So they're allowed to use it but not the poor black kids?

Yes, the old argument that people won't get jobs if they don't know how to write formal English. Well, durrr. Twas always thus and always thus will be. Kids from Inverness to Sheerness need to be able to distinguish between their spoken and informal language and their written language. I did. You did. If you're smart enough to do that well, good on you. It's got nothing to do with slang.

I haven't made this point well. I know I haven't. I've got too involved. But really, all I'm saying is look around. Wherever you are. I'm in Sevenoaks, for goodness sake, the least hip-hop town in Christendom. But you'll see it, you'll hear it everywhere. Doesn't matter if you think that's good or bad (it's good!). It's just where it's at.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

What does the NME say?

Good old NME. They've relaunched with the DEFINITIVE Top 500 albums of all time. Good on them. And they've revealed the methodology, which seems very fair and well-rounded (ask loads of NME journalists young and old to give their Top 50 and then score accordingly), though if i'm not mistaken there is a flaw (including NME's Official Top 50 Albums of the Year list on top) which weights the list towards more recent albums.

Still, I come to praise the NME, which served me so well as I was growing up, and, though I hardly get it anymore, strikes me as, on reflection, one of the fairest, purest, most honest and unpseudy music publications out there.

So, sure, the Queen is Dead by the Smiths came Number 1. That's the NME. No problem.

You may recall I did my own list a few months ago 51 Albums, which in my arrogance was an attempt to come up with a DEFINITIVE list of my own rather than just my favourites.

So hopefully the lists stack up pretty well. Do they? I employed various factors which occasionally produced slightly surprising results in my list. Funnily enough, one of those was how low the NME's top album The Queen is Dead came in my list, in the 70s. I'm surprised at that looking back. It's an album I love and it's certainly been a favourite at times. However I stand by it having 2 or 3 total dud tracks which seriously counts against it. Come on, Vicar in a Tutu and Some Girls are Bigger than Others are not even filler, they're active horror.

In terms of the NME's 500, I own or have owned in their entirety almost exactly half and own some part via downloads of another 130, so I think I'm pretty well placed to compare.

Anyway, let's look at my Top 50 and the NME's Top 50 and see where they fell in the other list.


1 The Queen is Dead (David's list 77)
2 Revolver (1, hurrah!)
3 Hunky Dory (68)
4 Is This It (13)
5 The Velvet Underground and Nico (8)
6 Different Class (unplaced, oops)
7 The Stone Roses (27)
8 Doolittle (unplaced, to be fair, i mainly came at the Pixies via Greatest Hits and never have been able to quite get into their albums)
9 The White Album (35)
10 Definitely Maybe (26)
11 Nevermind (32)
12 Horses (unplaced, never dug this album)
13 Funeral (47)
14 Low (unplaced)
15 Let England Shake (34)
16 Closer (unplaced, will never get this band's status)
17 It Takes A Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back (31)
18 Loveless (unplaced, sorry, never got this)
19 Whatever People Say I am that's What I'm Not (102)
20 OK Computer (4)
21 My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (unplaced, and I've never heard it all the way through)
22 Parklife (37)
23 Ziggy Stardust (5)
24 Exile on Main Street (90)
25 What's Going On (112, this album is OVER RATED!)
26 Pet Sounds (23)
27 Screamadelica (unplaced, I hate this band, but I'm clearly wrong, i do know this is a great album)
28 Back to Black (unplaced)
29 Marquee Moon (unplaced)
30 Enter the Wu-Tang (60)
31 Dog Man Star (unplaced)
32 Paul's Boutique (unplaced, and, as with Kanye, haven't listened to)
33 Modern Life is Rubbish (75)
34 Abbey Road (50)
35 In Utero (unplaced)
36 Blood on the Tracks (45)
37 Forever Changes (28)
38 Never Mind the Bollocks (unplaced)
39 London Calling (15)
40 Unknown Pleasures (unplaced)
41 Daydream Nation (unplaced, and have never listened to all the way through)
42 Innervisions (79)
43 Rubber Soul (10)
44 The Holy Bible (91)
45 Parallel Lines (58)
46 Debut (unplaced, again, an artist I haven't really experienced via album)
47 Strangeways Here We Come (unplaced)
48 Hounds of Love (unplaced, i do like it though)
49 Sound of Silver (36)
50 Dusty in Memphis (142)

Not bad

Here's my Top 50 and where the NME put them

1 Revolver - The Beatles (NME 2)

2 Automatic for the people - REM (65)

3 Blue - Joni Mitchell (63)

4 OK Computer - Radiohead (20)

5 Ziggy Stardust - David Bowie (23)

6 Grace - Jeff Buckley (86)

7 Come on Feel the Illinoise - Sufjan Stevens (138)

8 The Velvet Underground and Nico - The Velvet Underground (5)

9 Tapestry - Carole King (82)

10 Rubber Soul - The Beatles (10)

11 Searching for the Young Soul Rebels - Dexys Midnight Runners (118)

12 Have one on Me - Joanna Newsom (unplaced)

13 Is This It - The Strokes (4)

14 Astral Weeks - Van Morrison (68)

15 London Calling - The Clash (39)

16 Yankee Hotel Foxtrot - Wilco (458)

17 The ArchAndroid - Janelle Monae (unplaced)

18 Songs in the Key of life - Stevie Wonder (172)

19 Ys - Joanna Newsom (unplaced)

20 If You're feeling Sinister - Belle and Sebastian (113)

21 Talking Book - Stevie Wonder (unplaced, bafflingly)

22 Times they are a Changin - Bob Dylan (likewise)

23 Pet Sounds - The Beach Boys (26)

24 Blonde on Blonde - Bob Dylan (62)

25 Hour of the Bewilderbeast - Badly Drawn Boy (unplaced)

26 Definitely Maybe - Oasis (10)

The Stone Roses - The Stone Roses (7)

28 Forever Changes - Love (37)

29 Freewheelin Bob Dylan - Bob Dylan (306)

30 Fuzzy Logic - Super Furry Animals ( 245)

31 It takes a nation of millions to Hold Us Back - Public Enemy (17)

32 Nevermind - Nirvana (11)

33 Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes (unplaced)

34 Let England Shake - PJ Harvey (15)

35 The White Album - The Beatles (9)

36 Sound of Silver - LCD Soundsystem (49)

37 Parklife - Blur (22)

38 Songs of Leonard Cohen - Leonard Cohen (232)

39 The Boatman's Call - Nick Cave (257)

40 Everything Must Go - Manic Street Preachers (182)

41 A Ghost is Born - Wilco (unplaced)

42 22 Dreams - Paul Weller (unplaced)

43 Moondance - Van Morrison (unplaced)

44 What's the Story, Morning Glory? - Oasis (67)

45 Blood on the Tracks - Bob Dylan (36)

46 Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space - Spiritualized (156)

47 Funeral - Arcade Fire (13)

48 Thriller - Michael Jackson (131)

49 Bringing it all Back home - Bob Dylan (73)

50 Abbey Road - The Beatles (34)

 So not bad, eh? A few misses on both side, but I can't squabble too much with the NME. They're more Anglocentric than me, but why shouldn't they be?
My list is better though, isn't it? And certainly more DEFINITIVE!

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Cut Your Hair

Cut Your Hair - Pavement

I went to All Tomorrow's Parties in 2010, curated by Pavement. My friends were going and asked me if I fancied it. I'd been to ATP before, in 2007, and really enjoyed ever aspect of it (the music and the fact you can watch the music in relative comfort, and go bowling, and sleep in a bed etc) so I said yes, though not a fan of Pavement.

I expected lots of bands I loved to be added to the line-up, but it didn't really happen. In the end, that was a good thing. I was in the rare (for me) position of checking out lots of bands I didn't know that well, and there was some real treats - Calexico, Broken Social Scene, Mark Eitzel, Blitzen Trapper, Avi Buffalo, all very pleasant surprises, and that was the first time I saw The Walkmen properly.

And as for the headliners? Yeah, they were good. I'd actually done my preparation, buying lots of Pavement songs and giving it a good listen in advance, so, since it was a crowd-pleasing reunion tour, I already knew a lot of what they played.

And, as you'd expect, the crowd went nuts. The indiest of indie fans loving the indiest of indie bands. I thought it was alright.

Good little song after good little song. Bit boring after a while.

Pavement are good. But do they pass my "Yeah, but are they as good as the Bluetones?" test? No, they don't. No one thinks the Bluetones are the greatest band in the world, not even the Bluetones. I've said it before, and I'll say it again, but the best bit of frontman chat I ever heard was by Mark Morriss at the Bluetones' farewell gigs "It's time to go out and tell the world that they missed a really quite good band ..."

But some people seem to think that Pavement are the greatest band in the world. Including some reasonably influential American rock critics. They seem to be the very definition of a great band for Pitchfork people, just like the Smiths are the definition of a great band for NME people, and the Beatles are for everyone else..

I really like Pitchfork. Its reviews are often very well written, and get to the bottom of what is or isn't great about an album. They've done some really good hatchet jobs on shoddy albums, and they have an amusing contempt for the more lumpen elements of British rock. All good. But just like the man called Toby in a tweed suit who took apart my taste in films saying, good-naturedly, things like "that's just the kind of thing someone with your level of film scholarship would say", before revealing that his favourite film of all time was 'Pineapple Express', an indie fan's devotion to Pavement might lead to the question "Is that all you got?"

'Cut Your Hair' is Pavement's best known, and, arguably, best song, a real first among equals, and it's pretty great. I get pretty excited when it comes on the radio and I love the "oh-o-oh-oh-oh-oh" bit, but you know, I kind of wish it was a bit better after that. Just a bit.

Here's the thing, I've never heard a Pavement song that has broken my heart, and I can't conceive of a Pavement song that could even touch anyone's heart. In that sense, they're a very pure band, you might say, but surely sardonic and witty (but, you know, hardly laugh out loud funny) and slightly off-key can't be the only shade of a great band.

There are plenty of clever-clever bands, from Blur to The Strokes to the New Pornographers, whose greatest gift is that they can suddenly floor you with something sad and beautiful. Can Pavement do that? Really?

I've got a foot in both camps, really, the clever, lo-fi, pure indie, no bullshit camp, and the manipulative heartstrings man-rock side, but I kind of thing the best bands should have a foot in both camps too. We don't want everyone to be Keane but we don't want everyone to be Pavement either.

Monday, 21 October 2013

St. Patrick

St Patrick - James Yorkston

I never really got Elliott Smith. He seemed to fit perfectly into my realm, that kind of articulate, sad Americana which was my taste then and still is now.

But he just didn't really work for me. As if I was some kind of Take That fan or something, I found his songs boring. Didn't go anywhere. Ambled along.

It's only in recent years I've opened myself a bit more to his songs, still not in great breadth, but whenever one of the few Elliott Smith songs I own comes up, I listen closely and appreciate what I hear.

I suppose I "get" Elliot Smith now. I hear the hushed beauty, the melodies, the charm and sadness. The ... some other word. Some other word which is something I love, not all the time but when I love it I love it a lot.

What's the word? I still can't find it. If I tell you it can be found in Elliott Smith, Kurt Wagner from Lambchop, Leonard Cohen, Paul Buchanan and, high above all in my favour , in James Yorkston, does that help?

It's a kind of dignity, of calm and poise, a lack of desire to please or excite, but extraordinary mastery of the craft. Or, prosaically, perhaps, it's a limited, but perfectly honed, vocal range and a way with words.

What greater compliment have I received than when a brusque and knowledgeable friend of a friend said to that friend suddenly "I've got it! McGaughey IS Yorkston"? Sadly, he was not referring to my songwriting skills, magnificent folk guitar playing, rich, sad voice and quiet charisma, but, I presume, to the big Irish forehead (yes, I know he's Scottish and I'm English) and hairlessness I share with the man. And even that comparison does me some favours ...

But I do feel a certain kinship, I imagine as many as his fans do - there's something recognisable and applicable in his lyrics, something, as the cliche has it, which makes you think it's written especially for you.

This, the first song I heard of his, more than any others. Oh, dear St Patrick. Or, as we say as we watch countless goons in black and white hats roaming the cities in packs, Oh dear, St Patrick's ...

It was a double a-side with a song (I can't even remember which one) by the Lone Pigeon, which I was actually more interested in, and I remember hearing it on Radio 1 late at night, shortly before I was due to go to a little Fence show in London town.

I went to the show with a friend who left fairly early, but it went on and on and I stayed on alone getting more and more entranced and more and more pished. Various highlights from the evening - I walked in on the Lone Pigeon (Gordon Anderson) saying to himself in the mirror in the loos "You're a funny wee man with a funny wee beard", I offered to buy Lou Barlow from Sebadoh a drink (declined gracefully) and I heard Yorkston sing this song - at least, I think I did. Maybe he wasn't even there. I've certainly heard him sing it at least once.

It actually makes me feel rather emotional, this little song, and there's no harm in that. It's nice to imagine one has a patron saint.

It's a song with a certain hopefulness which emerges from a perfectly rendered solitary despair. It has a rich maritime feel, evokes the waves lapping on the shores of the Fife we all know and love. It's effortlessly poised, like everything of Yorkston's really.

This is a man who doesn't leave the stage for the bit between the end of his show and the encore. What's the point?

Perhaps an even greater achievement from this quietly magnificent artist is 'When the Haar Rolls In' from the album of the same name, another seaside song with several lines which you'd give £1000 to have written.

But it's St Patrick which is my favourite.

These aren't always the types of song you want to listen to. Sometimes you want something louder, more vibrant, less delicate, but when the mood to listen to a song like this does take me, I never regret it. Quiet is the new quiet.