Sunday, 21 December 2014

2014: Another year in music

This has been my favourite year for music in a long time, if not ever. Good and very good albums have been released regularly throughout the year, and I've done my best to listen to as many of them as I could. In the last few years, I've sought out music that perhaps didn't fall naturally in my own taste bracket, due, to an extent, to a dearth of natural favourites, but there's been no need to do that this year, as it's really been a fine year for the indie-rock stalwarts, and there's no denying the fact that my natural inclination is towards the indie-rock stalwarts.

Many of the artists I grew up with have released albums this year - it's felt just as much like 1994 or 2004 as 2014 sometimes. Why, there's even been an anniversary album by the Wu-Tang Clan with a splendid opening track called 'Ruckus in B Minor' (Wu-Tang count as indie rock stalwarts, don't they?). It's like 'Bring da Ruckus' but with a dose of cheese and an absence of menace.

Anyway, everywhere I've looked I've seen an old favourite coming out of the woodwork. One such old favourite delivered my Album of the Year. That's Gruff Rhys' 'American Interior'. It's probably sentiment that makes me place it right at the top of the pile. In truth, for me there were three utterly outstanding albums this year, and a few others not far behind. The other two near-faultless works, for me, are 'St.Vincent' by St.Vincent and 'Benji' by Sun Kil Moon.

Both have figured close to the top of critics' lists too, with the three most acclaimed albums probably being 'St Vincent', 'Run the Jewels 2' by Run the Jewels and, above all, 'Lost in the Dream' by The War on Drugs.

The latter's pre-eminence (indeed, all the critics' lists collated place 'Lost in the Dream' at the very top) puzzles me a little.   During a slightly ugly mini-spat between Mark Kozelek (who is Sun Kil Moon) and the largely blameless War on Drugs, he described their sound as "beer commercial guitar" and I see the point. Not that I mind beer commercial guitar, in fact this is a genre, this widescreen Americana, which I'm very well acquainted with. That's why I'm so puzzled. Very often, when an album is widely acclaimed and I just don't really get it, I can accept it's because it's not my natural oeuvre - something like Frank Ocean's 'Channel Orange' or  anything by, say, Aphex Twin. But 'Lost in the Dream' is right up my street, I just don't think it's that good. It's quite good. I've never disliked it. I've listened to it quite a lot, and it lives up to its name in that, without fail, I lose the thread and start daydreaming. There are a couple of good ones at the beginning, a good one in the middle, a good one at the end. There's a lot of epic noise, a lot of portents of meaning, but no phrases or tunes that particularly stand out. It really bothers me that an album that sounds a bit like Springsteen, The Waterboys, Dylan, The National, all acts I love, has been swooned over by even the hippest publications and I just don't get what they're going on about. It's an album that screams  "23rd Best Album of the Year", not critical domination.

Mark Kozelek (Sun Kil Moon) took a little off the shine off his year by being a bit of a nasty bully to The War on Drugs but his album 'Benji' is a masterpiece by comparison. It's just songs, relatively bare songs, autobiographical songs about family and friends and awkwardness and tragedy and death and massacres and memories and middle age and it's utterly compelling from start to finish.

St Vincent's self-titled album is likewise great all the way through. It's so clever and arresting, there are some proper weird ballads, great guitar solos, great lyrics which jump out and make you laugh, there's not much not to like about it. Indeed, the only negative I have about it is I wish it was a couple of songs longer, and that's hardly a negative.

And what of 'American Interior'? Regular readers will know I don't put anyone above Gruff Rhys - not Bob Dylan, not The Beatles, not Shed Seven, not Bad Boys Inc, nobody. So I'm biased. 'American Interior' was fairly acclaimed and has shown up a little in end-of-year lists, but not all that much. So be it, but I do think it's worth re-emphasizing exactly what he's achieved with this release.
- an album, book, film, app, educational concert tour
- opening up a fascinating and unknown footnote to history, becoming an expert in the subject of the album, the Welsh explorer John Evans
- successfully drawing links between Evans' quest and his own, making something timely and timeless about Welsh and American identity
- making a rarely cohesive concept album, where the songs hold together in their own right, nothing feels forced, which stands up as collection of songs even if you don't know what he's going on about
-performing and engaging audiences for 2 hours with nothing but his guitar, a slide show, and pure comic timing
- the old Gruff Rhys trick of using humour and lightness to create something profound
- more things ....

Anyway, for me 'American Interior' in toto is undoubtedly the "thing" of the year. Whether the album on its own is the best is almost a moot point, the album is successfully a part of something bigger. And, anyway, I think it is my favourite album, that's what's important.

So those are my favourite three. What else? A lot. I've clearly relaxed my music tastes because I've actually found myself enjoying a Damien Rice album, not to mention a song sung by the guy from Maroon 5. Unforgivable. I initially thought this was Elbow's first dud album but as the year's progressed, I think it's become my favourite of theirs. Sharon Van Etten's 'Are We There' is making a late run, certainly in terms of emotional heft.  I'm very surprised by how much I enjoyed the La Roux album 'Trouble in Paradise'. I had no interest in La Roux, but its really enjoyable all the way through. FKA Twigs' LP1 was likewise pretty compelling and something that broke beyond its supposed genre. I wouldn't say it was all enjoyable, but it's pretty great. Critics are currently going crazy for the new D'Angelo album and saying it's a late contender for Album of the Year. Well, we'll see. i've only listened to it once and I never really got all the fuss with D'Angelo. In my further noble attempts to like music which tries in vain to suggest that I have eclectic taste which goes beyond sludgy guitar music, i've rather enjoyed the soulful, squinky, dance music you can't dance to of Caribou's 'I Can't Do Without You' album.

There were so many releases by people I like, people who've soundtracked my life for 20 years, from Leonard Cohen (the best of the over 75s)  to Damon Albarn, Tim Wheeler, Ryan Adams, Jenny Lewis, Hamilton Leithaiser, Jeff Tweedy, James Yorkston and King Creosote, the Manics, Bright Eyes, Ed Harcourt, First Aid Kit and Belle and Sebastian. I mean, who has any time for exploring new and interesting things ...

... and what of the mainstream. I haven't looked all that closely, unlike in previous years, but it seems fine. The big success stories, Sam Smith, Ed Sheeran, Paolo Nutini, they've kind of mastered "inoffensive" in that they genuinely don't offend,  as opposed to being "offensively inoffensive". They're pretty good, so their success doesn't make anyone angry. The songs are good. If they weren't successful, people like me would like them ...

Hopefully next year I can really let go of the idea of providing some kind of objective assessment on music and just like what I like and not pretend I have a clue beyond that. Who am I kidding?

Anyway, if you take anything from this, if you're someone who's interest in music has gradually waned as you don't have the time and as more important things come up,  trust me, there's still loads to love, more than ever. I'm going to give a long list of songs and of albums, and, honestly, I'm not making up the numbers, I've derived pleasure from every single thing I'm listing here, and more.


1. American Interior - Gruff Rhys
2. Benji - Sun Kil Moon
3. St Vincent - St Vincent
4. Are We There - Sharon Van Etten
5. The Cellardyke Recording and Wassailing Society - James Yorkston
6. LP1 - FKA Twigs
7. Carry on the Grudge - Jamie T
8. The Take Off and Landing of Everything - Elbow
9. Problems  - Leonard Cohen
10.My Favourite Faded Fantasy - Damien Rice
11.Trouble in Paradise  - La Roux
12.From Scotland with Love - King Creosote
13.Futurology - Manic Street Preachers
14.I Never Learn - Lykke Li
15.Everyday Robots - Damon Albarn
16.Lateness of Dancers - Hiss Golden Messenger
17.I Can't Do Without You - Caribou
18.Stay Gold - First Aid Kit
19.Salad Days - Mac DeMarco
20.The Voyager - Jenny Lewis
21.Rips - Ex Hex
22.Run the Jewels 2 - Run the Jewels
23.Lost in the Dream - The War on Drugs
24.Lazaretto - Jack White
25.Sukierae - Tweedy
26.DEAD - Young Fathers
27.Small Town Heroes - Hurray for the Riff Raff
28.At Best Cuckold - Avi Buffalo
29.Lost Domain - Tim Wheeler
30.Ryan Adams - Ryan Adams
31.First Mind - Nick Mulvey
32.Black Hours - Hamilton Leithauser
33.Everybody Down - Kate Tempest
34.Post Tropical - James Vincent McMorrow
35. Black Messiah - D'Angelo


I'm going for the title track from 'American Interior' as my Song of the Year. It's a conventional rock groove, the kind that might have given the Super Furry Animals their biggest hit if they'd released it back when indie bands still had hit singles. Other songs may have taken me on more involving journeys, but it's 'American Interior' that's undoubtedly been the soundtrack to my year above all.

Favourite 50

American Interior - Gruff Rhys
I Knew Your Mother - Loudon Wainwright III
Nobody's Empire - Belle and Sebastian
Severed Crossed Fingers - St Vincent
Broken Wave - James Yorkston
Forty Days of Rain - Roddy Frame
Just One of the Guys - Jenny Lewis
Two Weeks - FKA Twigs
Pauper's Dough - King Creosote
Gold - James Vincent McMorrow
Overwhelmed with Pride - Avi Buffalo
Love Me Like I'm Not Made of Stone - Lykke Li
Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes - Sun Kil Moon
Your Love is Killing Me - Sharon Van Etten
Zombie - Jamie T
Seasons (Waiting on You) - Future Islands
Carissa - Sun Kil Moon
Archie Marry Me - Alvvays
Walk into the Wilderness - Gruff Rhys
Almost Like the Blues - Leonard Cohen
Short Movie - Laura Marling
The Way That I Live - Ed Harcourt
I Can't Do Without You - Caribou
Nothing Will Change - Sharon Van Etten
Ben's My Friend - Sun Kil Moon
Saturday's Song - Hiss Golden Messenger
Uptown Funk - Mark Ronson
Uptight Downtown - La Roux
Young Blood - Sophie Ellis-Bextor
The Smallest Splinter - Hamilton Leithauser
My Sad Captains - Elbow
Get Up - Young Fathers
11 O'Clock Friday Night - Hamilton Leithauser
Everytime the Sun Comes Up - Sharon Van Etten
Cedar Lane - First Aid Kit
Trusty and True - Damien Rice
Holding On For Life - Broken Bells
Prince Jonny - St. Vincent
Lost Stars - Adam Levine
If I Had Wings - Oscar Isaac and Marcus Mumford
Liberty (is where we'll be) - Gruff Rhys
Let's Go To War - Manic Street Preachers
You Got Me Singing - Leonard Cohen
Sweet Malaise - Ed Harcourt and Ren Harvieu
The Moon Song - Karen O
Feels Like Fire - Ryan Adams
The Very Very Best - James Yorkston
Guy Fawkes' Signature - James Yorkston
Boys - Sky Ferreira
Ruckus in B Minor - Wu-Tang Clan
And 50 more ... (not in order)

Adding the Blue - Chrissie Hynde
Burning - The War on Drugs
Cargill - King Creosote
Close Your Eyes (and Count to Fuck) - Run The Jewels
Coming Home - Kaiser Chiefs
Cucurucu - Nick Mulvey
Diamond Lights Pt 1 - Tweedy
Do It Again - Royskopp and Robyn
Fancy - Iggy Azalea
Fly Boy Blue/Lunette - Elbow
Ghost - Ella Henderson
Goodbye Weekend - Mac DeMarco
Hideaway - Kiesza
I Don't Want to See You Anymore - Brendan Benson
Iron Sky - Paolo Nutini
Largs (Long) - King Creosote
Late Bloomer - Jenny Lewis
Love is Just a Heartbeat Away - Jamie T
Low Key - Tweedy
Mahogany Dread - Hiss Golden Messenger
Mecca - Wild Beasts
Medicine - Tim Wheeler
My Silver Lining - First Aid Kit
My Wrecking Ball - Ryan Adams
New Moon - Tweedy
Passing Out Pieces - Mac DeMarco
Photographs (You Are Taking Now) - Damon Albarn
Pressure - My Brightest Diamond
Put Your Number in My Phone - Ariel Pink
Radio On -Ex Hex
Refugees - Embrace
Say Goodbye - Beck
September Fields - Frazey Ford
Set Fire to the Stars - Gruff Rhys
Sing - Ed Sheeran
So Now What - The Shins
Super Rat - Honeyblood
Swimming Pool - Emmy the Great
Teenage Exorcists - Mogwai
Temporary Ground - Jack White
The Blues You Sang - James Yorkston
The Body Electric -  Hurray for the Riff Raff
The History of a Cheating Heart - Damon Albarn
The Last Conquistador - Gruff Rhys
The Man - Aloe Blacc
The Next Jet to Leave Moscow - Manic Street Preachers
The Prophet - Jamie T
The Voyager - Jenny Lewis
Would You Fight For My Love? - Jack White
You Are Your Mother's Child - Bright Eyes

Friday, 7 November 2014

Where you grew up is probably awesome. Is it as awesome as Ealing?

I grew up in a nondescript terraced house in a nondescript little road in a nondescript part of a relatively nondescript borough. That's how I saw it when I was growing up, it's by and large how it would be seen now. Between Northfields and South Ealing on the Piccadilly line. When people look at Northfields and South Ealing on the blue piccadilly, they don't think to themselves "there is the glamorous centre of the universe!" and they're right not to.

I think fondly of it, but it's hardly a golden wonderland. When growing up, I imagined many more exciting, meaningful places.

Except ... I was wrong. It's turns out Ealing actually is the most significant and amazing place in the world. Who knew?

If you grew up in what you thought was a fairly nondescript place, you might well find out on a little investigation that it's full of secrets and sites of wonder.

Though I've always been a chap interested in acquiring knowledge, I was surprisingly uncurious and unimpressed about the wonders all about me growing up.

If you're a film fan anywhere in the world, you hear the word Ealing, you surely follow it with "Comedies" or "Studios". I knew about Ealing Studios growing up, I knew because they were 10 minutes walk away but I didn't fully appreciate how enormously excellent a place those studios have a place in the history of world cinema, how "Ealing" carries as much cache and inherent meaning as, say,  "spaghetti western", "screwball", "Disney" (well maybe not quite Disney ...) or "film noir".

So I had little excuse for not realising Ealing was a bit marvellous. Even more so as, at my first Ealing home (where we left when I was 5) our nextdoor neighbour, Tony, had collaborated on an actual Top 3 single in the early 80s, which we found terribly exciting. As a child, that was his most exciting feat. When I heard about him also being in bands with oldies with names like Jack Bruce and Jeff Beck, that seemed comparatively small fry. Just the most renowned instrumentalists in the history of rock'n'roll.

Aah, the history of rock'n'roll, that's what little Ealing was really about. When I say little Ealing, I also mean Little Ealing, the specific area where I lived. Who was a former student of the former convent school across the road? Mary O'Brien... who became Dusty Springfield.

And just a bit of a walk away, over towards Ealing Common, around the same time Dusty was growing up, so was Peter Townshend. And just by Ealing Broadway was the Ealing Club, where Jagger and Richards met Jones and the Stones played many of their first gigs, where The Who and Cream and Manfred Mann and Fleetwood Mac were all part of Alexis Korner's scene.

Townshend and Ronnie Wood also went to Ealing Art College. As would Freddie Mercury. I remember going into a pub near me when I was about 19, no longer a Queen fan, and seeing a little bit on the wall about Mercury hanging out there, and thinking how insanely excited that would have made me a few years earlier.

Oh, and look, that's not all. The park just over the road from mine was called Blondin Park, and that's because Charles Blondin, the great daredevil of the 19th century who was the first man to tightrope walk across Niagara Falls, when he decided he needed to chill out a bit, retired and died in Northfields.

And the Brentham club, the scene of many teen cricket matches, was where none other than Fred Perry, master of the polo shirt, learnt his tennis.

There's more, plenty more. That acid jazz thing of the early 90s, Jamiroquai and the Brand New Heavies and what have you, that's Ealing. Hell, there's Sid James and Peter Crouch and Neil Kinnock who I stuck my tongue out at. There's Ho Chi Minh, too ...

Ealing may be a little bit remarkable, i mean, there can't be too many suburbs that can really claim to be the birthplace of British rock'n'roll and not be laughed at, but I bet if you looked into it, you'd find some pretty amazing things about where you're from, things someone told you when you were a kid but you didn't care about, but now are just mindblowing.

All those blue plaques for slightly boring historical figures in the centre of London, but by the 20th century, it was all going on in the suburbs, wasn't it? That's where the early history was made.

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Boardwalk Empire - (a non-musical post)

"In the final end, he won the war, after losing every battle ..."

That certainly does not apply to Boardwalk Empire's main character, Nucky Thompson, who dies in the closing scene, but I rather think it applies to the show itself. In the final end, in the final assessment, for all its flaws, Boardwalk's final season, final episode, final scene have earnt it a place as a truly great TV show, rather than just a very good one.

I'm surprised. It begun to great fanfare, not to mention vast budget, with Terence Winter in charge and Scorsese on board, but the first season disappointed just a little. Not only did it take a fair while for the characters to bed in (including the fact that, for me, Steve Buscemi, Michael Pitt and Kelly Mcdonald all took a while to convince as leads), but, in truth, not all that much seismic and thrilling happened and there were a few accusations of misogyny, or at least over-masculinity, flying around.

Still, if one looked on the bright side and believed in the show, one could take confidence from the relatively gentle pace of the first series. It's just possible they've got this all figured out ...

And now it's over, of course i'll never know if they had it all figured out or if they made it up as they went along, if the best of it came about by accident, but what's important is that as I watched that closing scene, I felt rewarded, I felt impressed, I felt like I'd been told the full story, I felt like the show had given me everything important it possibly could have done. Boardwalk Empire wasn't just a flashy quasi-historical tale of gangsters and guns, it was the immaculately paced tragedy of Nucky Thompson.

When it was announced, shortly after the end of Season 4, that Season 5 would be the last, I was surprised. Though I've tried, I haven't been able to find out if closure was prematurely forced on the showrunners. I'd felt at that stage that Boardwalk could run and run. Why, we'd only got from 1921 to 1924 after 4 seasons. Prohibition didn't end till 1933. Nucky Johnson (on whom Thompson was, it turns out very loosely, based) didn't die till 1968. How are they going to tie this up?

Then, when Season 5 began with the jump 7 years forward to 1931, it seemed obvious. Building to the end of Prohibition, the downfall of Capone and, most crucially, when the big boys made their play and took over, the guys that dominated American crime for a long, long time -  Luciano and Lansky. Real people, real events. Whatever happened in Boardwalk Empire, these guys had to emerge the winners.

The show's treatment of its most famous characters - besides the likes of Warren Harding, Eddie Cantor, Jack Dempsey and Joe Fitzgerald making occasional appearances - Charlie "Lucky" Luciano, Meyer Lansky, Ben "Bugsy" Siegel  and indeed Al Capone, cemented its mastery for me.

Particularly the first two - from the start, Luciano, as played by Vincent Piazza, was a little unconvincing. Really, this guy? He seemed like a little bit of a dumb small-time hood. His authority and poise grew, but slowly. So, when he made his devastating play in Season 5, Nucky was as surprised as the viewer. "I underestimated you, Charlie ..." as we all had, and suddenly, finally, Luciano looked like a dark overlord, an embodiment of evil.

Lansky had been even more innocuous and inconspicuous, (superbly played by Anatol Yusef) small, composed, watchful, articulate, in just one small scene had he kicked the crap out of someone who slighted him, just to show what must have been there. Apart from that, he was background boy, businessman. Again, the show got it just right. Nucky referred to Luciano as "his boss". Mistake. Lansky's full power is a bit shrouded in mystery - was he really one of the most powerful men in America, or was he more of an accountant, a sideman? We'll probably never know. But we know he lived till the 1980s, so he must have been pretty smart to manage that.

In both cases, Nucky got them wrong, underestimated them. He was a smart guy, but he made some terrible decisions when trying to thwart the tide of history and they contributed to his downfall.

But, as that final season so expertly unravelled, his real downfall lay in one moment, 30 years earlier, one sin which he never recovered from, one decision where ambition turned to evil and crushed decency. He gave up the teenage Gillian Darmody to the horrific Commodore and got what he deserved for it, killed by her teenage grandson, to whom he hadn't been able to show enough kindness to redeem himself.

So, in the end, Nucky's downfall was wrapped up with three generations of Darmody (fictional characters)  more so than Arnold Rothstein, Johnny Torrio, Esther Randolph, Joe Masseria, Nelson Van Alden, Valentin Narcisse, Gyp Rossetti, Al Capone, Harry Daugherty, J Edgar Hoover, George Remus, Waxey Gordon, even than Luciano, Lansky and Siegel, he'd managed to escape from all those enemies with his life still intact and a couple of million in the bank. It was his terrible betrayal of a girl who trusted him as a young man who might still have been good and the course that took him down that destroyed him.

But, still, what a list of enemies! After its steady start, what an extraordinary gallery of memorable characters and memorable performances there were in Boardwalk Empire. What an incredible thing that the one character of unimpeachable moral goodness, the one that everyone was rooting for, whose trials tore at the heartstrings more than any other, was a man who'd killed over 200 people in cold blood. Richard Harrow was just one of many brilliant characters whose impact grew and grew. Van Alden, of course, Chalky White, Gillian, Rothstein, Narcisse, Sally Wheet, Eddie Kessler, Mickey Doyle, the list goes on. And then there was Gyp Rossetti.

Perhaps he was a bit too much, perhaps the show loved him so much that he rather dominated Season 3. But has there ever been a more frightening, nightmarish, memorable villain? I dreaded every time he appeared on screen. Narcisse, a more calculated, chilling evil had almost the same effect on Season 4. His comeuppance in the very last episode seemed well deserved!

Because, of course, the fictional characters, well, most of them, had to die to clear the way for the cold hard history of organised crime in America. From Jimmy Darmody  and the despicable Kaestner to Owen Sleater to Eddie Kessler to Richard Harrow, then on to Season 5, in quick order, Sally, Van Alden, Chalky and finally Nucky himself. Somehow or other Eli's still alive, Gillian (but what kind of life?) and Margaret, shrewd and independent, in the best shape of all of them.

Boardwalk Empire managed to tie up all its loose ends, to give the impression that every scene, every moment had been meticulously planned all along, however untrue that may be.

Finally, a word on Steve Buscemi, who took a while to convince me as a ruthless gangster, but grew, showed more layers to the character, every episode of every season. Perhaps the best thing about the show was how, throughout the early seasons, he allowed other characters to dominate scenes around him, but then, in the end, was able to seize his moment and make Boardwalk Empire his story all along.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

So, you ask, what should have won the Mercury Prize each year?

Strangely, it's a slightly different question from What was the Best British Album of each year since 1992, and it's certainly a bit different from What was my Favourite British Album of each year since 1992.

It's difficult in some years because there are too many great contenders, it's difficult in other years because there's a desert of good British albums (I kind of understand now how Speech Debelle won), it's difficult for me to do this because, who am I kidding, if it was me there'd be about 5 Furries albums, 3 Blur albums, 2 James Yorkston albums, 3 Belle and Sebastian albums and probably a Bob Dylan album for good measure.

Still, I think I've come up with an OK alternative (where alternative is actually required) list, and a few others for some years which would be worthy winners.

But this is a bit unsatisfactory and I acknowledge I'm narrowing the range rather than expanding it. There are a few years where you can safely say they chose an album that didn't go on to great acclaim and success, which looks strange in hindsight, and I can reasonably suggest what would have been a more fitting winner, but there are other years where my alternative choice is a little weak,

I've tried to get it right in terms of the fact that entries are usually July to July or so each year

Year Actual Winner My Winner Alternatives
1992 Screamadelica -Primal Scream
1993 Suede - Suede Suede Tindersticks - Tindersticks, Giant Steps - Boo Radleys, Modern Life is Rubbish - Blur
1994 Elegant Slumming - M People
Parklife - Blur Dog Man Star - Suede
1995 Dummy  - Portishead Dummy The Bends - Radiohead, Definitely Maybe   - Oasis, Maxinquaye - Tricky, Grand Prix - Teenage Fanclub
1996 Different Class - Pulp Tigermilk - Belle and Sebastian Help - War Child, Fuzzy Logic - Super Furry Animals, Different Class - Pulp,  Everything Must Go - Manic Street Preachers, What's the Story … - Oasis
1997 New Forms - Roni Size/Reprazent OK Computer - Radiohead If You're Feeling Sinister - Belle and Sebastian, Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space - Spiritualized, Blur - Blur, Radiator - Super Furry Animals
1998 Bring it On - Gomez When I was Born for the 7th Time - Cornershop
Mezzanine - Massive Attack
1999 OK - Talvin Singh Guerrilla - Super Furry Animals (A TRICKY  YEAR!) Surrender - The Chemical Brothers, Come On Die Young - Mogwai
2000 Hour of the Bewilderbeast - Badly Drawn Boy Hour of the Bewilderbeast Doves - Lost Souls, Little Black Numbers - Kathryn Williams
2001 Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea - PJ Harvey Asleep in the Back - Elbow Free All Angels - Ash, Rooty - Basement Jaxx, Kid A - Radiohead, Gorillaz - Gorillaz, Here Be Monsters - Ed Harcourt
2002 A Little Deeper - Miss Dynamite Run Come Save Me - Roots Manuva Original Pirate Material - Streets, Moving Up Country - James Yorkston and the Athletes
2003 Boy in Da Corner - Dizzee Rascal
Boy in Da Corner Hate - The Delgados
2004 Franz Ferdinand - Franz Ferdinand Franz Ferdinand A Grand Don't Come For Free - The Streets,  Dear Catastrophe Waitress - Belle and Sebastian
2005 Hope There's Someone - Antony and the Johnsons
Arular - MIA Silent Alarm - Bloc Party
2006 Whatever People Say  I Am … - Arctic Monkeys
Whatever People Say …
2007  Myths of the Near Future -  Klaxons Back to Black - Amy Winehouse
2008 The Seldom Seen Kid - Elbow Midnight Organ Fight - Frightened Rabbit In Rainbows - Radiohead, 22 Dreams - Paul Weller
2009 Speech Therapy - Speech Debelle When the Haar Rolls In - James Yorkston Lungs - Florence and the Machine
2010 xx - The xx The xx Total Life Forever - Foals, I Speak Because I Can - Laura Marling, The Defamation of Strickland Banks - Plan B
2011 Let England Shake - PJ Harvey
Let England Shake
2012 An Awesome Wave - Alt-J An Awesome Wave (PRETTY TERRIBLE YEAR)
Mid Air - Paul Buchanan, Django Django - Django Django, iLL Manors - Plan B
Overgrown - James Blake
AM - Arctic Monkeys
Settle - Disclosure
2014 DEAD - Young Fathers American Interior - Gruff Rhys DEAD - Young Fathers, The Cellardyke Recording and Wassailing Society, LP1 - FKA Twigs

Friday, 31 October 2014

The Mercury 2014

I don't know what compels me to keep writing about the Mercury Prize each year, as if it actually matters anymore than any other list of the best albums of the year, whether it NME's, Uncut's or Fearne Cotton's. I suppose it's a triumph of brand management that it seems like it's the prize that ought to matter to "serious music fans", 20-odd years on. It got it right in its first couple of years, with Screamadelica and Suede, such that it felt like something actually worth following, then actually got it right the next year too, in a way, by getting it so wrong in going for Elegant Slumming by M People rather than Parklife. Look, we're a bit rogue, we're not indie as such. Very clever.

This year, I've had more interest than most because I think it's been the best year for British music in a long time. I already got my humphing out of the way when the shortlist was announced as, in my slavish devotion to middle-aged Celtic white men, I am quite convinced that the best British albums of the year by a mile are American Interior by Gruff Rhys and The Cellardyke Recording and Wassailing Society by James Yorkston (with an honourable mention for From Scotland With Love by King Creosote and Futurology by the Manics). None of them got a sniff and the only middle-aged representative was Damon Albarn's first solo album Everyday Robots. Now, if this had been the album for which Albarn finally won the Mercury, that would have been some travesty. It's a nice album, interesting to consider, a bit boring to actually listen to, about the 8th or 9th best album he's ever been involved with.

In the end, I think this may be one of the years where they got it just about right. My complaint with the shortlist was that it was a very urban, hip, Anglocentric thing with little regard for the outposts  (no wonder all the Scottish musicians want independence!)  but then, they've given the prize to a Scottish-Nigerian-Liberian hip-hop trio, so, you know, fair enough.

And it's really good. DEAD by Young Fathers. Really enjoyable and varied and compelling and it's a new sound and really does seem to fulfil the remit of exposing an obscure album which actually does have commercial potential to a wider audience. I've listened to it a couple of times and I'll listen to it plenty more. A tick for Mercury. I wouldn't have liked it if Albarn had won, nor the bookies' initial favourite, Everybody Down by Kate Tempest which is a story-based concept album by a poet-rapper which I don't think quite works as it only stands as an entity all the way through, none of the songs are great in their own right, and though the wordsmithery is neat, it's hardly a riot of the imagination and of beautiful and stylish wordplay, it's led by story, and ultimately it's just a bit like A Grand Don't Come for Free by The Streets, which means that it becomes annoying and unlistenable after about the 5th listen. I've been a bit negative, a major talent, but I just don't think it quite works as an album. More varied music, more proper songs, that's all that's needed.

And the other favourite was LP1 by FKA Twigs, which is really good and would probably have been a worthy winner. Will be interesting to see if she remains a hipster's favourite or actually gains commercial success. It's austere, slightly frightening R and B, the album holds the interest all the way through and has some standout songs.

OK, that's this year. Let's look at the Mercury in general. Does it get it right or wrong more often? Is there any point to it? What's wrong with it? People sometimes criticize it on genre, say there's never any metal, too much jazz which doesn't win, not enough commercially successful stuff. I don't really care about that - I expect the motivation is true and it genuinely does try to just select the best albums it hears. And as the chairman of the panel said, it's tricky with metal because if you don't love it, you kind of hate it and think it's completely fucking lame, that seems to be the unfortunate truth. There's not much of an in-between in a way that isn't true of other musical forms. For those superhip, oh-so-open-minded folk, hip-hop, indie, r'n'b and jazz we don't actually listen to are surprisingly comfortable bedfellows.

Yes, I think it suffers for being judged by music journalists only in that, having read music journalists obsessively for a couple of decades, they really are constantly trying to be cool, so the list and winner does really always try to be cool. I mean, honestly, let's talk about Gruff Rhys for a second. Two Gruff Rhys albums ever have been nominated and one of them is Neon Neon? Serifuckiously? Cos it's electro and ironic? One King Creosote album?  Diamond mine? Cos it's a bit electro? Total ballbags, obviously.

I look at the list of winners and, funnily enough, there's only one of all 23 of them that I unambiguously love, and that's the somewhat inconsequential Hour of the Bewilderbeast by Badly Drawn Boy, which probably folk might in general might see as a judging mis-step, but just happens to be a glorious, beautiful, career-defining album.

There are indie-rock winners which I ought to love, but funnily enough I don't. I wonder if it's chicken or egg? Did I slightly look askance at them because they won the Mercury? I don't think so. Screadamelica, Suede, Different Class, Franz Ferdinand, Whatever People Say I Am, Seldom Seen Kid ... big indie albums, most of them influential, all pretty good, but not personal favourites. I wouldn't say any of them were bad choices though.

There's a real absence of "singer-songwriter" winners - lots of nominees but not winners. I suppose you've got BDB and then two wins for PJ Harvey - I'm surprised 'Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea' won in 2001, it's got some great tunes but it's a little lopsided. 'Let England Shake' in 2011 is really great. Can't really argue with that.

Which takes me to the general lack of winners for the big players of British music, both commercially and artistically. The "breakout/crossover" album has hardly ever won, whether it's What's the Story, 21, Back to Black or something by Coldplay. And the real supergeniuses of British music have hardly ever won, whether it's Radiohead, Damon Albarn, Gruff Rhys. PJ Harvey is the only winner who belongs on that exalted company. I mean, Radiohead never having won is a little daft, isn't it, even if (like me) you're not in complete thrall to them.

So, let's go through it, right or wrong?

1992 - Screamedelica - Primal Scream - RIGHT - still seen as a classic, very influential, very crossover
1993 - Suede - Suede - RIGHT - a hugely influential indie album, which presaged the rock revival of the mid 90s.
1994 - Elegant Slumming - M People - WRONG - joking aside, no one thinks this is a classic album. I can see that they didn't want to get stuck in a guitarpop rut, but no, they got this well wrong
1995 - Dummy - Portishead - RIGHT - almost a definitive Mercury winner, so achingly cool. Can't really argue though.
1996 - Different Class - Pulp - Hmm, equivocally right - I suppose it defines the time, never a big Pulp fan myself, but fair enough.
1997 - Reprazent - Roni Size - WRONG - anyone still listening to this? A nonsense, of course
1998 - Bring it On - Gomez - WRONG - as above. Not a great year, to be fair. Just to be clear,  a RIGHT winner might, I think, either be an album which holds up to history, an album which defines the time, an album which is the start of a major career, something like that. Gomez went nowhere.
1999 - OK - Talvin Singh - WRONG - again, all due respect, but this went nowhere
2000 - Hour of the Bewilderbeast - Badly Drawn Boy - another equivocal RIGHT. I love it, but i recognise that BDB hasn't gone from strength to strength since.Still, history unfairly overlooks this fine, fine work
2001 - Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea - PJ Harvey - an equivocal WRONG, just because there are other albums I prefer on that year's list. Hardly a massive mis-step though.
2002 - A Little Deeper - Miss Dynamite - hmm RIONG - career has gone nowhere since, but it was thought a reasonable call at the time. This would have been a good year for Run Come Save Me by Roots Manuva to win.
2003 - Boy in Da Corner - Dizzee Rascal - RIGHT - a striking album, which kicked off a major career.
2004 - Franz Ferdinand - Franz Ferdinand - RIGHT - a very indie year, this one, but this was the favourite and probably a fair winner.
2005 - I am a Bird Now - Antony and the Johnsons - WRONG - obviously, because it's not a British album. Nonsense.
2006 - Whatever People Say I am, that's What I'm Not - RIGHT - not a massive fan of this, but can't complain
2007 - Myths of the Near Future - Klaxons - WRONG - thought this band were a complete nonsense at the time, history has agreed. Terrible choice. Back to Black could have won.
2008 -  The Seldom Seen Kid - Elbow - I'm going with WRONG - I like this album, but this is an odd choice which unfairly lifted just another album by a very good band. Why bother doing the this year and not other years?
2009 - Speech Therapy - Speech Debelle - WRONG - probably the most notoriously wrong choice.
2010 - xx - The xx - RIGHT - I've tried with this band but they're still like watching paint dry for me. Still, they really seem to define where cool UK music is at these days, for better or worse.
2011 - Let England Shake - PJ Harvey - RIGHT - it's a great album
2012 - An Awesome Wave - Alt-J - WROIT - can't stand this lot, can't stand this album, but I will say their second album has been successful, and, again, the kids seem to dig it.
2013 - Overgrown - James Blake - WRONG - they went tasteful again, and everyone shrugged. If an album's got a singer, and it's got beeps, those music journos they're all over it.
2014 - DEAD - Young Fathers - RIGHT - yes, seems fair enough.

So I think that's 8 right, 5 equivocally right and 9 wrong. It's an outrage! Sack the board! But yes, I think it's time a songwriter album won without beeps. Something simple and beautiful. I predict the winner in 2015 will be Laura Marling with a 5th album which finally brings all her qualities together for a masterpiece.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

What is that makes the all-star version of 'God Only Knows' quite so awful?

So that's the question and that's the tone for what I'm going to write. I'll try to keep anger and blame out of it, I'm not going to presume bad intentions or hurl too much abuse at the participants, though I expect that, this being a piece of polemic, there will unavoidably be a little.

It's a bad record. These things happen. I'm quite sure everyone involved was doing their best to make it good and I expect loads of people rather like it, but no, not I. Firstly, it's not the mass celebrity singalong per se I have a problem with. There's always been a bit of fun in them - (this is how it's done!), even when they've sounded a bit daft, and every now and then, they're actually rather joyful (not to mention the fact that most of them are for charity, which requires even the gravest cynic to dial it down just a little and cut some slack). I have a huge soft spot for this song's predecessor, from 17 years ago, 'Perfect Day'
So, what makes that, despite its flaws and absurdities, a heartwarming hit, while this current attempt to replicate the formula  is a dispiriting nul points?

The formula and style is similar, very similar, visually and musically - the short vocal phrases shared round, the unlikely juxtaposition of  different styles, the instrumental breaks. But while both have the avowed intention of saying "Here at the Beeb we really do cater for every taste in music", you truly believe it from 'Perfect Day' but 'God Only Knows' just leaves you feeling your musical future is a Radio 2-sponsored homogenised gloop.

Who's to blame? No one... well, maybe the person who chose the song ... it's the wrong song, dudes. There are loads and loads of other classic songs you could have worked with which have scope for a bit of messing. 'God Only Knows' by The Beach Boys is perfect. Acknowledged perfect, as a recorded moment by a close-knit but tortured collective from a strange moment in time almost 50 years. But break it apart, like has been done here, and it's not perfect anymore. Dare one say it, it becomes a little bland.

There are only two interesting, intriguing lines of lyric in the song - the first, "I may not always love you" which gets thrown away to the smugness of Pharrell Williams (a smugness which, don't get me wrong, works wonderfully well in the right context, but will Pharrell ever perform vocals on a great pop song which do not require him to be smug? No, of course not ...) and the last of the second verse - "so what good would living do me..." which could have given the song a little bit of edge halfway through, but Stevie Wonder does it, and this is not Stevie's finest 5 seconds. There are moments in his recording career of glorious poignancy,  but this is not one of them. A disappointment to hear one of the greatest vocalists of all time make a line hinting at potential suicide and the bottomless despair of heartbreak sound so unutterably glib and jolly. You remember that Stevie Wonder hasn't released a great record for almost 40 years, and you feel sad.

Apart from that, there's not much grit - in the song's words and in the melody lines pulled apart from their whole - for the vocalists to work with; it's all sing-song lovey-dovey stuff. Hard for anyone to make their mark on the song. What a contrast that is with 'Perfect Day', which has so many odd, notable lines, which the well-assigned vocalists really go to town on (I'll come to this in more depth later).

So, who's to blame? The producer, the beardy chap at the start of the video? I doubt it - Ethan Johns is a man who has produced some really fine, fine records, including several favourites of mine, and is known for his no-frills, clear, rootsy approach. I just think he had a thankless task. But, also, Ethan Johns is not a Beach Boys-type producer - he's much more a Dylan/Band/Johnny Cash-type producer, if you get what I mean. Perhaps they should have got someone like Dave Fridmann, who brought sweet, acid-fried Americana magic to the likes of Mercury Rev, Flaming Lips and Tame Impala.

Who's to blame? The song's creator? Ha, hardly. There he is, blessing the enterprise, Brian Wilson. Aah, that's nice. But why does that make me feel so sad? Because Brian Wilson, despite the way the music press would have it, was not The Beach Boys. And Brian Wilson, though the song's composer and arranger, is not 'God Only Knows'. It's a Carl Wilson lead vocal, one of the most perfect lead vocals ever from the very best singer in the Beach Boys. I've heard Brian do 'God Only Knows' in his amazing 'Pet Sounds' concerts of a few years ago - no one would say he could, now, then or 50 years ago, do 'God Only Knows' as well as his brother (he knew it himself, that's why he gave the song to Carl to sing). Arguably, Brian Wilson was the 3rd or 4th best Beach Boy as lead vocalist (this isn't a terrible list to be 3rd or 4th in). But there's no Carl and Dennis on this record, they're long gone and that's super sad, there's no Mike Love either (well, he's not even on the record actually!) or Bruce Johnston. So be it, it can't be helped, but it's just a bee in my bonnet I have about the industry of Brian Wilson's deification above all the other Beach Boys, which this only serves.

Anyway, the point is, there are people called great singers/vocalists like Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, Joe Strummer, Mick Jagger, who even their most ardent fans would admit are hardly Caruso, man. Which means that they're coverable. Not necessarily for the better, but there's endless scope in their work for reinterpretation. A soul, jazz, country, pop singer, hell, even a rapper, can hear a Bob Dylan song and think "I can do something with that". But you don't improve on the Beach Boys. How many famous covers of Beach Boys songs are there? Up to now, precisely none, because the Beach Boys, on all their greatest songs, nailed it, nailed it beyond improvement, that's the point*. That's what makes them great.
* OK, I know this isn't true of Smiley Smile/Smile, but no one has ever looked to "re-interpret" it, Brian Wilson himself has merely aimed, throughout his life, to find it, to pin it down, to do justice to it..

This record, then, was on a hiding to nothing. It could only ever be, in every second, every note, every frame, worse than the original. But here's the thing. It desecrates it, it spoils it. It makes you think less of the original, it takes its less interesting aspects apart and makes you think "hmm, maybe 'God Only Knows' isn't one of the greatest moments in the history of mankind after all, maybe it's just a rather bland collection of platitudes" and that's the bit that's quite hard to keep an even temper about.

So, who's to blame? The casting director, maybe? Who are this lot? Oh, I expect you recognise them, most of them... but what have they got to do with The Beach Boys? Like the producer, Ethan Johns, none of them are from that lineage. There are so many bands  and acts who could be said to be, in some way, influenced by the Beach Boys, so how come none of them are on this record? There's a total disconnect. The only vague connections are Stevie Wonder, who, in some ways, was Brian Wilson's successor in creating impossibly beautiful, kaleidoscopic music in a music studio, and, bizarrely, One Direction, who are, at the very least, a five-piece male vocal harmony group. Except, Jesus .... they're not quite the Beach Boys are they? I never thought I'd feel nostalgic for Boyzone but their bit on the '98 'Perfect Day' looks like Crosby, Stills and Nash by comparison. 1D are completely exposed, not daring to do anything interesting with their line because they can't. There have been loads of girl and boy bands which have at least created nice/interesting sounds with their different voices, but you could replace One Direction with five different identikit vocalists, give them a couple of hours rehearsal and no one would notice the difference.

Who else, then? Who are this lot? Well, they really seem to have followed the Bono credo of "Biggest is best" (perhaps the only relief of the record is that Bono isn't on it, though to be fair, he does one of his least annoying vocals of all time on 'Perfect Day'.) They've really brought the big guns out, the most obvious, best selling, archetypal, dull picks they could have gone for. Who "represents" indie? Oh, Jake Bugg, good god, little boy lost, not even trusted with a full line. Wow, I'm really, as a fan of indie rock'n'roll, in safe hands with the BBC if they're foisting Jake Bugg on me ... Everyone is exactly who you think it's going to be, so all the way through, you're thinking "there's going to be a Jamie Cullum, I know there is ..." and just when you think you might get away without a Jamie Cullum, there he is, bafflingly omnipresent as ever, despite the fact that no one you've ever met has ever bought any of his music and quite possibly, none of it actually exists and he's just an elaborate wheeze by Dom Joly.

Look again at who's on 'Perfect Day'. It really wasn't the biggest stars in music, it was a ragtag assortment of whoever might be on a slightly unusual episode of Jools Holland. And, to kick it off, not just Lou but the song's original producer, Bowie, singing his lines absolutely beautifully, and then all these other oddball folk who clearly love the song and have thought about how to do it justice - shit, there's Shane McGowan, Dr John, Emmylou Harris, proper individual voices from the leftfield. And it's a song with a darkness and with different segments and textures. Even the notorious belting of Heather Small "you're going to REAP just WHA-AAT ya sow-yeah" kind of works. The song allows that. 'God Only Knows' doesn't.

It's a bad, bad record, this, a spoiling of the unspoilable, a poor ad for a great broadcaster, and in as much as it's entirely intended to celebrate the manifold joys of music, it could not fail more dismally.

Monday, 6 October 2014

Screen Stars

I'd like to keep this blog going regularly with a little less structure, but I've found down the years that I need a structure and a unifying idea to get my shit together and write. So I've been pretty silent for a couple of months, and I can't see a big surge of activity in the near future unless I pull an idea out of the bag.

Still, I've been enjoying music plenty. It's been a fabulous musical year as far as I'm concerned, on every level, and I've had a lot of real-life musical projects to concern me, whether it's this blog, creating music questions for work or slaving for months over wedding playlists.

Of course, at the start of the year, I did my list of the 1001 Greatest Songs of All Time, and I recently got round to putting all of those songs on one playlist, which I've been listening to a lot. Of course, if I did that list again, it would be a bit different, but I still don't think I'm missing all that much or that there's all that many (ok, maybe a few) which are wildly out of place.

Still, of course, Pop Music bursts beyond its pantheon all the time.  I've read some really interesting things about songs as social history recently, including a book by Stuart Maconie on 50 Songs which tell the story of Britain, and then an interview by Greil Marcus publicising his own book, The History of Rock'n'Roll in 10 Songs. I'll get round to reading the actual book soon, I hope, but he has interesting things to say in the interview. Sure, my  idea of a "1001 Songs" is reductive, hall-of-famy silliness, but still, I like to test myself and it's a great list, so I'm cool with it.

Anyway, here's another great thing about 2014 in music, notwithstanding the large number of really very enjoyable albums I've listened to. The people I like are crossing media and with great success. Whether it's King Creosote's soundtrack to the social documentary 'From Scotland with Love', James Yorkston writing an acclaimed touring diary, Stuart Murdoch directing his own reasonably well-liked (haven't seen it yet) musical movie 'God Help the Girl', Joanna Newsom narrating and appearing in the next Paul Thomas Anderson film, Gruff Rhys' extravaganza of all things 'American Interior' or Nick Cave helping conceive and starring in his own quasi-documentary '20000 Days on Earth', these are people with shelf life and it's gratifying.

We went to see Gruff Rhys a couple of weeks ago - the banter and the American Interior slideshow, over two hours of complete entertainment.... well, you know what I think about the chasm between the level of fame and acclaim he deserves and what he has. All you really need to know is that the songs sound great, the voice sounds great, and Ashford rose to him!

Saw the Cave film on Saturday - very funny, very clever,  great anecdotes about Nina Simone, interesting stuff about his writing process and particularly about the transformative nature of performance, I'd really like to see it again actually.

I love pop music so much, I love it more and more the older I get, I know more and more I'm not going to "mature" to classical musical, it's the other way round, pop music has truly "matured" to cultural equivalence, indeed supremacy, you can't beat it so you'd better to join it. The more successful collaborations there are, the more great books/TV shows/films there are by and about pop musicians, the happier I'll be.

Monday, 18 August 2014

2014: The Next Great Album

It's rather worrying when the person in charge of the nation's music thinks this ...

My natural reaction is, of course,  ... smug face, corporate goon, his favourite album is probably 'Back to Bedlam' by James Blunt or 'Rockferry' by Duffy ...

But does what he's saying actually carry an uncomfortable truth? Will we all be listening to playlists rather than albums in a few years time? Have we already lost the art of listening to albums? Have artists lost the will to, and the art of, making albums?

Well, first up, he's not the first person to say something like this, and they're not all goons.

I do recall a favourite band of my youth, Ash, saying that the album format was dead to them and that they would release a single a fortnight for a year, and it being deemed fairly revolutionary.

Then again, Ash were always a "singles band" as some acts just are, across different genres - bands or singers who master the shorter form, who have many hook-laden crackers and pepper the charts but you wouldn't always want to give a straight hour of your time to. It's always been thus, and often people have seen soul, pop and hip-hop acts in particular in these terms. Yet, as I observed last year, several of the biggest commercial acts seemed to be suggesting the album form was anything but dead in making huge, ambitious, conceptual albums, from Beyonce to Lady Gaga to Justin Timberlake to Jay-Z to Kanye West. Hard to know if any of these were massively successful artistically as actual albums but certainly the aim seems to give the lie to the notion that no one cares about albums anymore.

And, the obvious thing is the album format suits the artist, in terms of booking studio time, having a period of writing and set of emotions to get out in one go, having songs cohere into a unity due to that time factor- it may be that the listener tires of the format before the artist wants them to, and then who'll win out?

But will the music fan really tire of the album? Has it all changed and will it all change so much? We've always liked to make our own compilations and playlists, certainly since the dawn of taping. I'm a little behind the times with things now, I still buy via iTunes rather than streaming, which I know is what the kids are all doing, and that may have a profound commercial impact, but I'll treat the business side as a separate issue for now, one which I'm not qualified to comment on.

What I do feel is that this blog strand has reinforced for me the ongoing strength of the album format, and it seems like the man who blithely disregards that and says "hey, there may be the odd big album, but playlists are where it's at now" has never really understood the possibilities of popular music and is as big a tool as he initially seems to be.

Albums are great if they gather momentum, if they express a world view, if they share with you the room they were recorded in, if they have subtle or explicit leitmotif, if they surprise you, if they have sub-sections, if they reveal the character of the band and reveal different kinds of virtuosity, if they make you feel you've got a friend, if they introduce you to new concepts, if they tell you about the times they were recorded in, if they reveal secrets on repeated listens, if they're different from the album before, if they're over-ambitious, if they're perfectly timed, if they're any or all of those things which mere playlists can hardly be or do.

A great album is capable of being the equal of a great novel, a great film, a great TV drama. Are we all going to be watching clips shows in future? No, people's thirst for vast, expansive dramas only increases.

I've taken so much pleasure in listening and re-listening to the 50 albums for 1963 to 2013, trying to find a meaning or an idea to inspire 1000 wordson them. There've been surprises, nearly all good ones, and above all, a re-cemented respect for the form.

Is there one favourite to emerge from these 50? No, not really, just lots of different kinds of great works. I expect I extolled the virtues of Joni Mitchell's 'Blue' above all others, but I appreciate that's just one type of album for one type of occasion. There isn't one great ruling work above all else. Thank goodness.

So what of 2014, more than halfway through it? Well, I've loved music this year. Loved it more than any year for ages, and I wonder if my odyssey into the musical past has helped with that.

Funnily enough, it'd be pretty hard to pick one album/artist to write about for this year, as so many artists I've written about have released stuff this year. In particular, it's been the year of the Solo Record.

Damon Albarn, Conor Oberst, Jenny Lewis, Morrissey, Gruff Rhys, Hamilton Leithauser, Jeff Tweedy, all these are artists whose bands I love who've released or will shortly be releasing solo records this year, not to mention works by the Manics, James Yorkston, The Pixies, Ryan Adams - hell, there's even been a Michael Jackson album.

Of all these, my favourite is probably the Gruff Rhys album, and don't tell him people aren't making unified concepts anymore, when he's just released a album/app/film/book to almost universal acclaim.

Having said that, I listened to the new James Yorkston album for the first time today - The Cellardyke Recording and Wassailing Society, no less, a thing of what appears to be great beauty. And on the same day, I've bought and listened to the new albums by FKA Twigs and Kate Tempest, both tipped for the Mercury Prize, and, particularly by the former, been highly impressed.

Hell, no, the album's not dead.

Then again, despite my efforts to be down with the kids, I do finally feel my taste has pretty much split for good from the young and the hip. I would just generally rather listen to my old fogies.

Here's another bit of fun from the NME (with its tiny readership)
100 Most Influential Artists
However completely silly it is, there are interesting truths in it. I mean, they asked people and everything! Right now, it's probably true that people making music don't really listen to The Beatles, Stones and Bob Dylan that much. The pantheon doesn't mean what it once did. People find their own influences.

The ones I fell for, even recently, don't really figure (though Rilo Kiley do, oddly). No Wilco or Furries or Walkmen, though there is Beck, Blur and the Strokes.

Aah well, I'm rambling. There is, after years of trying to find a definitive answer, nothing anywhere near a definitive answer, and if there were, I'd be nowhere near the person to find it.

2014 has seen some really good songs and some really good albums, that's my review of the year.

Rather than talk about one, I will just list all of them I've heard so far which I think are worth investing your £10.99 at HMV in. That's how it still works, right?

Gruff Rhys - American Interior
Lykke Li -I Never Learn
Sun Kil Moon - Benji
King Creosote - From Scotland with Love
James Yorkston - The Cellardyke Recording and Wassailing Society
Manic Street Preachers - Futurology
FKA Twigs - LP1
Mac DeMarco - Salad Days
The War on Drugs - Lost in the Dream
Kate Tempest - Everybody Down
Damon Albarn -  Everyday Robots
Jenny Lewis - The Voyager
James Vincent McMorrow - Post Tropical
St Vincent - St Vincent
Hamilton Leithauser - Black Hours
First Aid Kit - Stay Gold
Elbow - The Take Off and Landing of Everything

Really and truly, I'm glad I bought all of those already and the year's not much more than halfway through. I bet I add at least another 10 to that list by the time the year's out. Long live albums! Long live rock'n'roll for grown-ups.

Friday, 18 July 2014

1996: Wilco: Being There

So, this is the last, alphabetically, of the series of 51 albums from 1963 to 2013. I didn't plan a big bang, but it's nice to end with an album by one of my favourite bands, albeit one of their (slightly) less celebrated albums.

It's not considered an especially important album, but I can certainly make a case for it being quite an important album in the arc which us overly serious rockist music fans and critics adhere to. It's an Americana album from 1996, which was a Britpop year. It's far from the first Americana album, however you use that term. It was made by a band led by the lesser member, Jeff Tweedy, of an influential Americana band, Uncle Tupelo. It was their second album, and the first 'AM' had been pretty underwhelming and shown no great signs of promise, while the career of his bitterly estranged erstwhile colleague Jay Farrar's band, Son Volt, seemed to be going from strength to strength.

Yet it's Wilco now who are one of the most consistently acclaimed bands of the last 20 years, who've been described in terms like "the new REM" and "the American Radiohead".

Looking back, I can say I had an inkling. I had never heard of Wilco, or Jeff Tweedy, or Uncle Tupelo, and I was still very much a Britpop boy, when I received an NME in early 1997 (while overseas) with a large, glowing review of this album (several months after  its U.S release). There was something fishy here. Why was the NME devoting so much space to this unknown American band when we all know they should only really roll out the red carpet for the likes of Mansun and Shed Seven? It seemed anomalous at the time, though looking back, one wonders if some kindly wise journo was saying "All, right, kids, that's enough of the stuff we were into when we were young, this is a little harbinger of what's going to matter to us all when we're adults" ... something like that.

I didn't listen to 'Being There' till two or three years later - it was its follow-up, 'Summerteeth' which really got me into Wilco, after Mercury Rev had really steered me in this new American direction. It's a double album, it's a statement of intent, not entirely consistent in its quality, but it makes its mark.

It's the first song, really. 'Misunderstood'. Like I said, 'AM' is a fairly bland album of unremarkable country-rock with a couple of nice tunes. Looking back, you can say it's the bridge between Uncle  Tupelo and the real Wilco but, at the time, it was largely ignored. Then came, at the start of 'Being There', 'Misunderstood', the quantumest of quantum leaps, a demanding, dark, atmospheric indie-folk-rock epic which presaged the truly great band Wilco were going to turn into. In truth, it fits better on their masterpiece 'Yankee Hotel Foxtrot' than it does on this album. It's a hint of the songwriter Tweedy was capable of becoming.

As was the six-minute Side 2 opener, 'Sunken Treasure', mournful in pace but quietly, sadly inspirational in outlook. The album is grounded in these two monster tracks, which are pretty much the only songs from this album I've seen Wilco play live regularly.

Otherwise, there's a little more to get your teeth into in Side 1 than Side 2. In the fly-on-the-wall documentary 'I am Trying to Break Your Heart' about the tough time Wilco had making 'Yankee Hotel Foxtrot', you see Tweedy dismissing the likes of 'Outtasite (Outta Mind)' and 'Monday' as "easy rockers", as if he was almost embarrassed by them, but they're top class easy rockers and, significantly, in recent years, as his fire has died down, Wilco albums have more and more easy going, catchy easy rockers, as  if he has accepted his gift for those kind of songs and finally run with it.

There are also several sweet, sweet country ballads, from 'Say You Miss Me' to 'What's the World Got in Store'. The second side is a bit more one-paced, but you can see the intent in making a double album and, for once, the intent overrides the content. Compared at the time to 'Exile on Main Street', this is Wilco expanding their sound, indeed expanding the possibilities of alt-country itself, you could say ushering in a new age of classic American rock, after Britpop had tried (and most would say, failed) to do the same for English rock.

This isn't their best album or the most enjoyable to listen to - if I was grading them, I'd put at least four conclusively above it, but if, like me, you think the best rock music of the last 20 years as mainly been made by groups of middle-aged American men, then this album can take a fair amount of the blame!

I gave Super Furry Animals a 40 song compilation, and I could do the same for Wilco, who, in consistent quality, in combining the old and the new, are America's equivalent. I won't though, as we can't have two winners. So 30 for Wilco ...

She's a Jar
Jesus, Etc
You'll Never Know
Dawned on Me
On and On and On
Ashes of American Flags
I am Trying to Break Your Heart
The Late Greats
Spiders (Kidsmoke)
Sunken Treasure
What Light?
California Stars
I'm a Wheel
I Got You (At the End of the Century)
Radio Cure
Say You Miss Me
Impossible Germany
I Might
I Must Be High
Hate It Here
One Wing
Either Way

Via Chicago
I Got you (At the End of the Century)

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

1987:Whitney Houston - Whitney

I had this album. Or rather, I borrowed it, aged 11, for an extended period, from a boy called Amit Arora, along with The Beach Boys' 20 Golden Greats, in exchange for 'Utter Madness'. And I admit, I listened to Whitney a lot more than the Wilsons.

This is very much Whitney's imperial era, where nothing was going wrong and nothing looked like going wrong. As far as I can ascertain, there was no absence of genuine acclaim for Whitney Houston in the 1980s even from the so-called serious music press. Back then, she probably occupied territory currently occupied by Beyonce (though even more successful). It was only really with The Bodyguard soundtrack that she became a significantly more polarising figure. If you liked gloopy, warbly power ballads, you'd buy and cherish one of the best selling albums of all time. If not, she came to represent, along with Mariah Carey, something terrible in pop music.

Two of the very biggest icons of modern pop music died at a similar age within a couple of years of each other at a horrendously premature age.  They both (though Jackson a bit more so) straddle the eras between old and new chart pop music, which changed irrevocably in the mid-80s. Both were from old-school royalty, but made r'n'b/pop, not soul, music with very little of a retro edge to it. Of course, Michael Jackson's fame stands alone, but Whitney Houston is really not far behind, and some might argue she's been even more influential on modern chart music.

Every young female with a couple of octaves, a tear just behind the eye and a melisma is "doing a Whitney". I'll say right now I think her influence is pernicious, but I'll also say she's one of the most phenomenal pop singers I've ever heard.

Daughter of singer Cissy Houston, cousin of Dionne Warwick, goddaughter of Darlene Love and "honorary niece" of Aretha Franklin, it's safe to say that Whitney Houston had classic soul running through her. And she'd have been a great soul singer if she'd been born at the right time, just as she'd have been a great R'n'B singer if she's been born a little later. But she was of such an age that she became a star in the late 80s/early 90s, the age of the power ballad and the smoothing of soul into MOR, of dance-pop and key changes. And it's with that sound she'll forever be associated - looking back at it, there's something pretty joyful and awesome about the stuff on 'Whitney' and its predecessor, 'Whitney Houston'. You'd have to be a bit dour not to find some pleasure in the likes of 'I Wanna Dance with Somebody'. And when I was a kid, I can't deny I loved 'One Moment in Time' and even 'The Greatest Love of All'. This oddly earnest, solipsistic, inspirational flood, it was big business.

So, after a 3rd, more urban, album flopped by comparison, she hit even more paydirt with the noise that defines her, the soundtrack to The Bodyguard, and, above all, I Will Always Love You. When people talk about doing a Whitney, they're talking about that extraordinary, unbearable vocal performance (no, that r in the middle of that word is not meant to be a t).

To be fair to Houston, her acrobatics are relatively restrained compared to some of her peers and successors, but has there ever been a song when the listener's been so coerced into feeling something?

I felt nauseated, and that all but finished Whitney Houston as a listenable entity for me, so the fact that, at the end of the decade, when I found myself warming to the even more r'n'b direction she displayed on 'My Love is Your Love' and 'It's Nor Right But It's OK', it was very much a guilty pleasure.

By then, I think, the word was out on Houston's private life. It's something about the horrible nature of a) modern celebrity and b) hard drugs that she went, in public perception. almost overnight from a woman you could never imagine something bad happening to, to a woman whose early doom seemed inevitable.

A ghastly and grim death, after a tour where all reports suggested the flawless voice was completely shot, and, even worse, her death brought this famously maligned pap tribute from UKIP goon Tony Parsehole

Oh well, Whitney Houston. I'm not really a fan, as you can probably tell, so why did I choose to write about her? Because she's one of the most influential artists of all time, because she defined an era of pop, because, in a sense, despite it seeming like everything went right for her, everything went wrong for her. That's obvious. I don't even mean in the obvious sense. I mean, in the narrow way a chap like me looks at it, she comes pretty low on the critical scale, and really that's just an accident of history. Whitney Houston on Motown or Stax, that would have been great. Whitney Houston, as young artist, leading a band like Destiny's Child, that would also be great.

Still, I believe the children are our future ...

Saving All My Love For You
Million Dollar Bill
My Love is Your Love
One Moment in Time
I Wanna Dance With Somebody
I'm Your Baby Tonight
It Isn't, It Wasn't, It Ain't Never Gonna Be - with Aretha Franklin
It's Not Right But It's OK
How Will I Know?
Didn't We Almost Have it All?
Where Do Broken Hearts Go?
The Greatest Love of All

Thursday, 10 July 2014

2012: The Walkmen - Heaven

I think I've always had a "favourite band". Though I've listened to hundreds of other things, though Bob Dylan probably is who I rate the highest and have listened to the most, there's always been one band who I'd be able to answer was my favourite for a fairly long period of time.

It goes

Madness (8 to 13, say)
Queen (13 to 15)
The Jam (15 to 18)
Blur (18 to 21)
Super Furry Animals (21 to 25)
Wilco (25 to 31)
The National (31 to 33)
The Walkmen (33 onwards)

Yes, yes, it's obviously an inconsistent tale, I've just been telling you Super Furry Animals win pop music, so they should probably be my No 1 super heroes again, shouldn't they, but, do you know what I mean? From 18 onwards they've been bands who are very much alive, so it is rather to my disappointment that, not all that long after The Walkmen became my favourite band in the whole world, they announced they were taking an "extreme hiatus". Somewhat more cheerily, no sooner had they started this hiatus than they got together again for a charity show, so here's hoping the hiatus isn't too extreme, certainly not as extreme as the Furries or Blurries has been.

But it's the Walkmen I've been listening to above all this last few years. I've been lucky enough to see them on the old festival circuit several times. I'm sure it would be better to see one of their own shows, but seeing them take it to a mid-afternoon slot at a festival, winning new fans along the way, is a pleasure to behold.

They never quite won enough new fans though. They went on for a long time, did plenty of albums, sold a few records, but they'd get to the Top 40 or so in the USA, but they didn't have that big crossover, either instantly, like The Strokes (who they were erroneously compared to early on) or gradually, like The National. The life of the rock band can take various arcs - for the Walkmen and various of their type, they live the life, do the albums, they're really good, then, I suppose, they get to their late 30s with kids etc and it's probably hard to stay on the treadmill in the same way. So along comes the extreme hiatus and then, hopefully, the profitable reunion.

So why didn't the Walkmen get massive? They weren't as glamorous as The Strokes or as handsome, though cooler in a real way - a detached, lived-in, calm, almost patrician cool. They wanted to sound how they sounded, not how would sell records. They generally produced themselves, used vintage instruments, wanted them all to be heard, rather than a dense sound. Their most famous song, The Rat, is one where they let someone else produce it, and they apparently don't like the results themselves. It's too chunky, they say.

I can't say I agree, though I do hear how the sound is slightly different to most of their work. I'm happy with the production on The Rat, though, which I think is, unparalleled, the best four minutes of rock noise ever created, the most perfect unrelenting assault on eardrums from start to finish, an unquenchable exhilaration.

History will consider it so. Trust me. It makes The Ace of Spades, London Calling, Gimme Shelter, all of them, seem a little disappointing.

It's not typical Walkmen though. There's a lot more shade to them. I suppose you'd say they're mainly a winter band, but they can do summer too. Their main weapon is probably the singer, Hamilton Leithauser, with his fabulous powerhouse voice and rather intriguing persona. He plays the tall, privileged jock who doesn't quite believe in himself to perfection. So much of The Walkmen's songs are about winning and the doubt in whether the win will hold. Insecurity is always there.

This album, 'Heaven', looks like being their last, while it was also the first one I anticipated as a bona fide fan of the band. Was I initially a tiny bit disappointed? Did I find it overly stately and mature, did I perhaps think there weren't enough stonkers on it?

Either way, now, now I've been listening to The Walkmen more than pretty much anyone else for the last couple of years, I can say it's got much of their best stuff on it, warm and celebratory, a far cry from The Rat's solitary fury. The title track is one for the ages, a triumphal jangly classic, others to relish are Heartbreaker, We Can't Be Beat (always on about winning!), Song for Leigh, Love is Luck, The Love You Love.

Theirs is a perfectly cultivated brand of thrilling anthemic rock which deserves a lot more than it got, but you rather feel they never really wanted it anyway, they were never willing to reach out and grab more.

The marvellous Hamilton Leithauser (who may live in a lighthouse in New Zealand, but probably not) has just released his first solo album. It's not as good as The Walkmen, but there's some great stuff on it, which I've included on this here compilation ...

While I Shovel the Snow
Alexandra - Hamilton Leithauser
The Rat
Angela Surf City
We've Been Had
The Love You Love
Thinking of a Dream I Had
Little House of Savages
Song for Leigh
We Can't Be Beat
All the Hands and the Cook
11 O'Clock Friday Night - Hamilton Leithauser
In the New Year