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