Wednesday, December 24, 2008
THE ‘BEST VIDEO YOU COULD ONLY WATCH ONCE BECAUSE IT FREAKED YOU OUT SO MUCH’ AWARD
There was only ever going to be one winner of this category as soon as I clapped my eyes on ‘Stress’ by Justice:
As you can see it’s a decidedly unjaunty tale regarding some roustabouts in Paris. As with a number of controversial videos released of late it’s not so much the violence itself that captives, more the unglamorous, matter-of-fact nature of its cinematography and of course the twist that comes about two-thirds of the way through. It certainly provides a lot of thought for the viewer, the main one being “Urrrgh!”
THE ‘BEST INTERNATIONAL SONG THAT GIVES US AN EXCUSE TO USE THE PHRASE “THOSE WACKY FOREIGNERS!”’ AWARD
Now this award was still up for grabs at the 11th hour, but only a matted of days ago I was pointed to this little gem: ‘Les Limites’ by Julien Doré:
You may be forgiven for thinking this is your typical slice of obscure arthouse Gallic eccentricness. So it may surprise you to learn that not only did this prove to be a real summer smash (peaking at No. 2 in the French singles chart) but Monsieur Doré is a recent product of ‘Nouvelle Star’, France’s equivalent of Pop Idol/X Factor. Yes, the same media phenomenon that brought you Steve Brookstein and Michelle McManus is responsible for this, which owes more to Serge Gainsbourg than Simon Cowell. On a serious note, it does highlight the important point that good singing is not about high are the notes you can hit or how long you can sustain them for (though of course these abilities do help), it’s about how much emotion you are able to project in your voice and the level of characterisation you can emit - something that appears to be lost on all but the best reality-show hopefuls.
THE ‘BEST NEWSWORTHY EVENTS BY AN ARTIST WHO DIDN’T ACTUALLY GET AROUND TO RELEASING ANY RECORDS IN THE YEAR’ AWARD
This one goes to the group that made the transfer deadline day look like a game of one-man musical chairs, those lovely ladies that are (or indeed were) in The Pipettes. Firstly in April there was their outdoing of the Sugababes by going from Mk1 to Mk3 in one step. Then even the new line-up didn’t make it to the end of the year, with Anna (that’s the one that wasn’t Gwenno or Gwenno’s sister) choosing to pursue her own song writing career (which currently includes a co-credit for ‘Girls’ by the aforementioned ‘babes so the jury’s still very much out). Is Gwenno really that much of a tyrant to work with? I’ve had a number of ex-admirers getting quite tired of the situation and taking the view that they should just give up now before they become (even more of) a joke, but there’s been reports that their new material is even better than their debut album (which, faults an’ all remains extremely listenable), so like the most desperate Jimmy White fan I still remain hopeful.
THE ‘BEST ATTEMPT TO ROB GAVIN OUT OF HIS EVENTUAL RETIREMENT NEST-EGG’ AWARD
I very grudgingly give this award to Mute Records for re-releasing the BBC Radiophonic Workshop CDs. To explain this let me take you back to 2002; how my friends laughed when I spent quite a reasonable sum of money on a brand new copy of the album originally released in 1975 (a brilliant record covering a vast scope of the Workshop’s capabilities). How vindicated I felt when the CD was deleted shortly after, with copies selling online for even more considerable sums. And now this. Sure, normally I’d be very pleased that this masterworks are being made more available for a new generation to appreciate them, but music don’t put food on the table mister (unless your name is Brian Higgins of course).
THE ‘MOST WORRYING ABSENCE OF NEWS REGARDING SOMETHING WE’VE BEEN PROMISED FOR AGES’ AWARD
For the first time in living memory this award does not go to G’n’R for Chinese Democracy, an album I have yet to hear and is therefore immune to any criticism. Instead the spoils go to The Beatles. Another year gone, and while the Fabs themselves have been keeping in the news for various reasons, still no sign of the digitally remastered albums they’ve been talking about since the Moon landings. You remember them, the Beatles albums? The reason why they became international superstars and loved by people aged 1 to 100? Well it appears that EMI never have, which is why even to this day the Beatles CDs you buy in a shop (if you’re still lucky enough to live anywhere near a music shop now) still sound utterly terrible, every instrument sounds like it’s been separated from the others and is now competing with them rather than complementing the sound. For the time being, we’ll have to rely on the rather excellent bootleg jobs than audiophile fans have completed instead to the real thing. But surely that magical day will come - but for god’s sake get a move on, Sir George isn’t going to be around forever you know - unless there’s the quite plausible thought that he is God, and that’s why we’ll all be eating & drinking too much today. Merry Christmas everyone!
Monday, December 22, 2008
Pay TV “Fashion Report”
Written by: Er...
Produced by: ...I'm not sure to be honest. But whoever it was is a bloody genius.
Highest UK Chart Position: did not chart
Ciarán: How brilliant is this? It’s easy to forget that from time to time pop can throw up things like this Swedish girl-trio. All of their output is worth a listen, but this particular single is amazingly funny and sharp. Apart from the fact that it reminds me of his 1967 “Qui Est In, Qui Est Out” single, it’s just like the sort of dry, dark pop Serge Gainsbourg became so adept at writing. “The loving God is ‘out’/ Jihad is very, very ‘in’/ Just to live and then die is ‘out’/ To commit suicide is ‘in’ again”. Now that’s a brave lyric. Serge wrote a Eurovision winner of course, and it’s no surprise that Pay TV were participants in Sweden’s Melodifestivalen recently (i.e. their equivalent of ‘A Song For Europe’ as was). “Fashion Report” is as delightfully perverse as any single by The KLF, and as catchy and daft as The Reynolds Girls’ “I’d Rather Jack”. If it weren’t so obscure it would be much higher in our chart. The video is a must, too. The whole “package” is based on such a simple idea, but is so brilliantly carried off. Superb stuff.
Gavin: I was a bit late to the Pay TV party, but was soon enticed by great songs such as Fashion Report. Nothing earth-shattering, and their lyrical stances are as subtle as a bulldozer, but with melodies like this it doesn't matter. Will look forward to more of their stuff, would have possibly put this a bit higher myself but we'll see what the other 49 are like…
Neon Neon featuring Kate Le Bon “I Lust U”
Written by: B. Hollon and G. Rhys
Produced by: Boom Bip
Highest UK Chart Position: did not chart
Ciarán: From “Stainless Style”, which was one of the year’s outstanding albums. Gruff Rhys and Boom Bip’s Neon Neon project might have looked odd on paper, but the fruits of the collaboration were very worthwhile. “I Lust U” involves a neat examination of celebrity relationships (“You and I get along famously…staring from the cover of a magazine/ Selling our souls for the highest fee/ And I love you, yes I’ll love you if the price is right”). Its parent album is a concept LP about John De Lorean, the Belfast car entrepreneur and millionaire who was a minor celebrity in the mid eighties and whose bankruptcy was major news. Hence the track’s bank of synths and and air of mischief. It’s all just quirky enough without being annoying, never sounding in-jokey, and it certainly has a great tune and atmosphere. Rather touching in a funny sort of way.
Gavin: Very pleasant, all the right components are present & correct, catchy melody but ultimately there's a punchiness lacking from the tune to stop it being any more than, say, the 49th best single of the year.
48. and 47.
M.I.A. “Paper Planes”
Written by: M.I.A. and Diplo
Produced by: Diplo
Highest UK Chart Position: 19
Santogold “L.E.S. Artistes”
Written by: S. White and J. Hill
Produced by: Jonnie “Most” Davis, S. White and J. Hill
Highest UK Chart Position: 27
Ciarán: The late 00s may in time come to be remembered as the period in which pop went truly global. In this regard M.I.A., Santogold and Bishi are like harbingers of a new era. Mixed race, multi-ethnic jet setters, the lot of them, and the world is their oyster. It’s not that mad to imagine that in the next decade (whatever it will be called) the emergence of exciting new pop from rural Asia or Africa will be a continuing trend.
“Paper Planes” is from M.I.A.’s 2007 album “Kala” and was released as a single at the time but didn’t do much “business”. Now it’s had a slight remix and is a decent sized hit. The playful rhyming and sound affects made the single one of the year’s highlights. Santogold’s “L.E.S. Artistes” is quite simple but no less effective. It’s just a good vocal and groove. Sometimes that’s all it takes.
Gavin: On "Paper Planes" it sounds like Musical Youth have grown up and got in with the rough girls at college. Rymichally pleasing, well produced, yes I quite like this one. Lyrics (and indeed sound effects) a tad tiresome though, maybe I'm missing the point? The Santogold one sounds like Nelly Furtado when she remembers to pack a tune. The chorus is something of an anticlimax after an unconventional & interesting verse structure, and goes straight for the aural jugular instead. Still eminently listenable nevertherless.
Lykke Li “I’m Good, I’m Gone”
Written by: Lykke Li Zachrisson
Produced by: Bjorn Yttling
Highest UK Chart Position: did not chart
Gavin: I can't decide whether this one is beautifully charasmatic in its instrumentation or insipid due to its lack of hooklines (though the chorus is not completely forgettable). Best bit? The surprise introduction of lingering male vocals at the 2-and-a-half-minute mark, that sound like a (frankly more interesting) Spiritualized song has accidentally wandered in, then leaves the room almost as quickly.
Ciarán: This wasn’t a hit at all? The world has gone mad. Lykke Li’s “Youth Novels” was one of the best albums of the year – a really strong record that rewarded repeated plays - and this is its most immediate and toe-tapping moment. She might sound like a three year old at times, but she’s a bloody talented song-writer. This track, like the rest of her album, was produced by Bjorn Yttling of Peter, Bjorn and John. It’s surprising it didn’t sell by the truck-load. Expectations for her next album will be high. Speaking of which…
Annie “I Know UR Girlfriend Hates Me”
Written by: Annie, Richard X, Hannah Robinson and Timo Kaukolampi
Produced by: Richard X
Highest UK Chart Position: 54
Ciarán: Now it’s not that big a surprise that this wasn’t a hit, it was more “sadly inevitable”, like Manchester United winning The Premiership again. The record company (Island) screwed up, basically. This got bugger all promotion and limped into the charts at number 54, after which Annie was dropped, and her album “Don’t Stop” (which is very good) was put on indefinite hold. “I Know UR Girlfriend Hates Me” is effortlessly good, a bit like “Chewing Gum Part 2”. There are lots of great things about it; the “ringy-dingy-dingy-ding-ding-ding” bit, the line “Life’s too long for you to get it wrong” (take heed record companies!), the sound of the ice-cream van at the end, the sweet chorus... Hopefully things will right themselves in 2009 and Annie will rightly become the biggest pop star in the universe. Yeah, wishful thinking. “Fun” fact: Hannah Robinson (who is Richard X’s long-time songwriting partner) co-wrote most of Ladyhawke’s whizzo debut album. More of which later.
Gavin: For me the greatest disappointment in music this year was the problems Annie faced in attempting to release new material. Those who have heard "Don't Stop" in its provisional form will know it's a largely great album made up of so-so songs and utterly amazing pieces of work, of which this single lies somewhere in the middle (speaking of middles, if only they'd put a proper middle-eight in there!). Was it the ridiculous lack of promotion that led of its chart failure, or is it simply never going to happen for Annie no matter what? All I know is that if "Songs Remind Me of You" was released as a single Ciarán & myself could have spent a total of 30 seconds on this list, with that song unarguably at the No. 1 spot. Whether it'll have a chance to top next year's poll remains to be seen.
Written by: Bob Gaudio and Peggy Farina
Produced by: Madcon
Highest UK Chart Position: 5
Ciarán: It might not be immediately obvious, but Madcon are in fact Norwegian. Norwegian hip-hop/soul/”urban” music isn’t the anomaly you might expect. Hot-shot production team StarGate are also Norwegian and they’re involved in a couple of singles further along our list. Although when Norway’s Laid Back released “Sunshine Reggae” back in 1983, it probably did seem a tad incongruous. Pop really is the only truly “world” music. “Beggin’” might not leap out of the speakers and whack you over the head, but it does involve a canny use of the sampler. It’s a sort of cover of The Four Seasons’ “Beggin’” from 1967 but with added (w)rapping. Dancing Drunk At A Wedding music. “Beh-gin’ beggin yoooooo-oooo, put your luvvin’ hands out bay-bay…(hic!)”
Gavin: Sorry, but it's the first tune to do nothing for me at all. A very unexciting sound, nothing to grab me, little differentiation between verse & chorus, what's the appeal? A rare miss, Ciarán!
Written by: Allen Toussaint, Anna MacDonald, Nicole Jenkinson and Keisha Buchanan
Produced by: Melvin Kuiters, Si Hulbert and Mike Steven
Highest UK Chart Position: 3
Ciarán: The music out of the Boots ad. Featured in just about every ad break on ITV or Sky Digital throughout 2008. Played to bloody death. And yet I’m still rather fond of it. It’s punchy and lively. “Stop speculatin’, I’m a regular girl!” I can’t think what Keisha imagines she’s referring to when she’s singing that bit. Sugababes are only about 4% as exciting as they used to be. But they were very very exciting. So that still makes them about the eighth best pop group around at the moment. (Enough spurious “maths”, get on with it! - Ed)
Gavin: This reminds me a bit of Charlotte Church's pop output from 2005 - everything's been thrown into this track and it has the impression of being record-company rubber-stamped, but the final result leaves you a bit cold, especially given the 'Babes previous ability to come back with stonking singles once you've written them off. Sure it's allright, but as they are finding to their cost 'allright' just doesn't cut it in today's world. Here's hoping they can bounce back yet again.
Britney Spears “Womanizer”
Highest UK Chart Position: 3
Ciarán: Have you tried miming along to the chorus of this single? It’s bloody impossible! Give the girl a break…
Just when it looks like she’s gone so far off the rails that there can be no coming back, she comes up with a “Toxic” or a “Gimme More”. “Piece Of Me” was this close to making it into the Top 50 too, but it feels like that was released several aeons ago. “Womanizer” is the latest in a series of bonkers singles. The invention going on here sonically and lyrically ("You you you-ah, you you you-ah womanizer womanizer womanizer baby…” - excuse me, but…what?) is a joy to behold.
Gavin: Perhaps unfairly, I'd always given Britney's songs short shrift (mostly because I've spent most of the last 10 years dismissing her as spawn of the devil) but following a number of recommendations by friends whom I trust I've decided to take a more open-minded attitude to her music. And I'm glad I did because I think this is a bit of a corker. In a complete contrast to the Sugababes song previously, this one shouldn't work but the forcefulness of the beat and the repitition in the vocals prove inexplicably irresistible. But a few marks off for slightly straying into your tendency to provide "look-at-me" lyrics, Ms Spears.
The Long Blondes “Century”
Written by: Kate Jackson and The Long Blondes
Produced by: Erol Alkan
Highest UK Chart Position: did not chart
Ciarán: The Long Blondes split up during 2008, which is a real pity because as this single shows they were capable of producing real pop magic when the mood took them. “Century” is doomy but hook-laden. Genuinely one of the most exciting singles of the year, the thought that it might be a hit had me expectantly awaiting the Top 40 countdown. In the end it didn’t even make the Top 75. Nevertheless, it’s every bit as good as “Giddy Stratospheres” or “Once and Never Again”. Erol Alkan’s production is just the cherry on the cake. Here’s hoping Dorian and Kate Jackson are making great records like this again soon.
Gavin: There ain't no love and there ain't no use! Sorry, was the first thing that came into my head. Despite that, and despite owing more than a little debt to Sarah Cracknell, this is still quite an ambitious record that fulfils and captivates. Good change of tempos too.
Mystery Jets “Two Doors Down”
Written by: B. Harrisson
Produced by: Erol Alkan
Highest UK Chart Position: 24
Ciarán: Another Erol Alkan product, here. Mystery Jets really came into their own this year. Their album “Twenty One” was a belter. A very 80s sounding record. The b-side of “Two Doors Down” was a cover of Aztec Camera’s “Somewhere In My Heart” making this single the feel-good indie hit of the summer. Or something. One of those songs about having a crush on someone you bump into everyday, and not having the courage to do anything about it. A very teenage preoccupation, that. Annoying bit: “I hear that she likes to dance around the room to a worn out 12” of ‘Marquee Moon’…” KLANG!!!! That was a reference, kids!! Everything else about it is lovely though. It has saxophones on it too which is always a bonus.
Gavin: Urgh, here come the LOLZ! I'm very suspicious of songs that I perceive to be taking the piss, and whilst I don't completely hate this on first listen (always a good sign) the excruciatingly calculated namedropping in the lyrics is very infuriating. But is it an allright tune? I think I'll have to pass judgment until we know if the Mssrs Jets' intentions are true. See you in a few years…
Hercules and Love Affair “Blind”
Written by: Andrew Butler and Antony
Produced by: Andrew Butler and Tim Goldsworthy
Highest UK Chart Position: 40
Ciarán: Hercules and Love Affair’s album was released to enormous acclaim in 2008. Five stars in the Guardian, and just about everywhere else. According to Mojo it was “a gorgeously burnished fusion of three decades of classic dance music, from disco to house, acid to synth-pop, Derrick May to Giorgio Moroder”, It could have done with being a bit more Scissor Sisters too, because they did neglect to put a tune in on occasion. “Blind” is undoubtedly the album’s highpoint. Not only does it actually deliver on the promise hinted at by the reviews, it has a cracking lyric and vocal from Antony Hegarty to boot. A marriage of the tragic and the euphoric. Completely ace.
Gavin: Oh, you know this is going right up my alley with my current Giorgio Moroder obsession. Not just gets the synthesized parts right but is suitably epic when it needs to be. Great vocal as well, just a pity it doesn't really know how to end. Ooh, harsh.
Vampire Weekend “Oxford Comma”
Written by: Ezra Koenig and Vampire Weekend
Produced by: Rostam Batmanglij
Highest UK Chart Position: 38
Ciarán: This gets in ahead of “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” and “A-Punk” because it’s the loveliest track on Vampire Weekend’s debut album. You almost forget the notice the whopping great swear word in the chorus. The band’s background got a lot of attention; they’re Ivy Leaguers - very well educated and posh and wealthy. The sort of people who aren’t supposed to muscle in on rock and roll, in other words. That Vampire Weekend’s sound also owes a debt to West African music just got them into even more trouble. The whole “debate” was ridiculous, passive-racist nonsense so we’ll sidestep it here. You only have to hear “Oxford Comma” once and you’ll carry it around in your head for a month. Their album was bristling with similarly great tunes, so don’t be surprised if Vampire Weekend are around for a long time yet. “Fun” fact: This year, Peter Gabriel recorded a cover of the Vampire Weekend song which namechecks him: “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa”.
Gavin: Hmm. A bunch of young urchins have a go at being Divine Comedy. Well, they've got the smugness right but this tune is lacking any real charm, strong vocals or any other reason for me to stop these childish criticisms. Next!
Black Kids “I’m Not Gonna Teach Your Boyfriend How To Dance With You”
Written by: Black Kids
Produced by: Bernard Butler
Highest UK Chart Position: 11
Ciarán: It’s obviously indebted to The Cure, which is no bad thing, and it was an indie-disco anthem in its own right. The spirit of the 1980s seemed to haunt the indie pop of 2008. The Long Blonde’s “Century” sounded like something that came straight out of 1981. Vampire Weekend revisited Paul Simon’s “Graceland”. This is like something from “Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me”. It’s interesting how pop music moves in these cycles. This single gets in also because of its memorable, shout-along chorus and palpable sense of fun.
Gavin: A 'good' single - passable verse, reasonable chorus but a thrilling pre-chorus (I'm a sucker for high-pitched chanting in records). Fortunately these guys keep the smugness down to a minimum, something I was particularly worried about given the title. Overall a fairly solid pick.
The Pussycat Dolls “When I Grow Up”
Written by: Rodney Jerkins, Theron Thomas, Timothy Thomas, J. McCarthy, P. Samwell-Smith
Highest UK Chart Position: 3
Ciarán: Boy, do The Pussycat Dolls annoy people. To some, tracks (like “Beep” which appears to be a song about leering, and “Don’t Cha” which is all about a foxtress tempting some bloke to leave his missus) are so offensive they’re just off the scale. Yet it always seems to be that the same people who complain about “the failure of feminism” then go on to make demands on what The Pussycat Dolls should or shouldn’t be. They have fake tan! They’re marketed as being sexually aggressive women and… they don’t even write their own songs!!! Oh pur-lease!
“When I Grow Up” – like most singles by PCD – is brilliantly (expensively) produced and ultra-catchy. The lyric tackles the seedier side of fame head on. “When I was younger I would say ‘When I grow up I want to see the world, drive a nice car, I want to have boobies’…” it goes, “…but be careful what you wish for cause you just might get it”. I understand the counter-argument: “We knew the entertainment industry was tawdry to begin with, so we don’t need to be hectored by these perma-tanned puppets”. Okay. Pop music of this kind is stupid and filthy and morally suspect. Hey! That’s why I love it.
Kanye West “Love Lockdown”
Written by: Kanye West
Produced by: Kanye West
Highest UK Chart Position: 8
Ciarán: There were signs this year that Kanye West does have a sensitive side after all. After allowing an early version of “Love Lockdown” to leak online, he took subsequent criticism of that version to heart and went and had a rethink. The original was strikingly good if you ask me. West has claimed that 2008 was the worst year of his life. His mother died and his long-term relationship came to an end. Consequently, “808s and Heartbreak” is a bit of a downbeat album in places (as you’d expect) but it’s completely wondrous. “Love Lockdown” captures the spirit and mood of the album quite well and is one of Kanye West’s best singles so far. It’s all very “minimalist”. Then those clattery drums kick in on the chorus. It’s melodic, moving and just a bit surreal.
Gavin: Wow, this sounds like Daft Punk having a go at R n B and largely succeeding. Again this another artist I've tended to overlook, though I've always been aware of his powers of great single creating. Admittedly the song tends to tread water after the first verse & chorus, but I'm happy to just wallow in the waves…..
Madonna “Miles Away”
Written by: Madonna, T. Mosley, J. Timberlake and N. Hills
Produced by: Timbaland, Justin Timberlake and Danja
Highest UK Chart Position: 39
Ciarán: Life on the road! Useless isn’t it? Having to watch This Is Spinal Tap on the tour bus again and having that conversation for the umpteenth time with the drummer about how he never gets to play the one he wrote. Good grief. It’s almost enough to make you write a dreadful song about being a rock star away from home. And here’s Madonna’s contribution to the “oeuvre”. Except it’s not dreadful at all – in fact it’s pretty fab, being by far the sweetest and most melodic thing on the recent “Hard Candy” LP. So why it only got to number 39 in the charts is anyone’s guess really. Shame.
Gavin: Sorry, but there's nothing contained here that's the least bit captivating. The melody is forgettable, the production bland and it's at least a minute too long. Was this really the best thing on Hard Candy? I have to agree with the previous post on this blog, that album of ballads can't come soon enough.
Kylie Minogue “The One”
Written by: Kylie Minogue, Richard Biff Stannard, James Whittaker, Russell Small, John Anderson, johann Emmoth, Emma Holgren
Produced by: Richard Biff Stannard and The Freemasons
Highest UK Chart Position: 36
Ciarán: Say what you like about her gay disco iconic status or her multiple re-inventions or her brave fight against illness, but I yearn for the days when Kylie was equally loved and despised for releasing brilliant singles like “Step Back In Time”, “Hand On Your Heart” and “Got To Be Certain”. The PWL version of Kylie made pop at its purest. And this decade, “In Your Eyes” was a bit of an overlooked classic, which is to say nothing of “Can’t Get you Out Of My Head”. Recent songs however, like “2 Hearts” and “Sensitized” (lurking on the album “X”), are all very breathy and allegedly “sexy”, and sample Serge Gainsbourg records and what-have-you, but there’s something to be said for simplicity isn’t there, and Kylie’s best singles are the very straightforward ones. “The One” is a case in point. Despite not really having chorus, this was something like Kylie at her glorious best. It’s two parts “I Believe In You”, one part “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head”, and one part New Order.
Gavin: More Moroderness, fab! There really is nothing better than the sound of throbbing analogue synths. Nice breezy chord changes, decent vocals (lead and backing), a typical good Kylie record.
Wiley “Wearing My Rolex”
Written by: G Keane, J Stone, L Julian, P Klein, R Cowie
Produced by: Bless Beats
Highest UK Chart Position: 2
Ciarán: You can’t make the words out, and it goes thump thump thump. Just like the best pop music should do. All at once, “Wearing My Rolex” was funny, sinister-sounding and groovy. But one can’t help but feel that it might have been improved still further if “they” had put a donk on it. Don’t you agree?
Gavin: From the offset this is definitely an exciting production, the opening very reminiscent of the early 90s chart-dominating rave. Doesn't really go anywhere but the tune is short and sweet enough for the hook to keep you entertained for its 2 and a bit minutes.
Written by: Brian Seals, Chris Brown, Andre Merritt and Robert Allen
Produced by: Brian Kennedy and Makeba
Highest UK Chart Position: 3
Gavin: What number single was this off her album? Whatever it was, it sounds like she's reached her equivalent of "Filmstar" (No. 5 off 'Coming Up', still made Top 10!) or "Liberian Girl" (No. BLOODY NINE off 'Bad').It's not offensively bad, just completely inoffensive in every way. Would have made perfect Side 2 album filler but such is the way of the Rihanna music industry juggernaught these days
Ciarán: An excellent single which provides further evidence that while Rihanna’s ballads are “very good and that”, her upbeat records are some of the best things in the world of pop and she should release more of them. Loses marks for not being “Don’t Stop The Music”.
Katy Perry “Hot N Cold”
Written by: Katy Perry, L “Doctor Luke” Gottwald and Max Martin
Produced by: Dr Luke, Benny Blanco and Gary Silver
Highest UK Chart Position: 4
Ciarán: If you haven’t seen the video for this you need to right now. It features an army of jilted brides on bicycles at one point. So here you go…
“I Kissed A Girl” could so well have made Katy Perry a one-hit-wonder. Then she came out with this which is very nearly as good. Katy was one of the best pop stars of 2008. She was like a cross between Cyndi Lauper and another Cyndi Lauper. Great opening line: “You change your mind like a girl changes clothes!” As well as having an absolutely brilliant chorus, “Hot N Cold” provided the opportunity to discover that the word “bitch” is still deemed offensive by MTV and daytime radio. “You’re hot then you’re cold, you’re yes, then you’re no, you’re in then you’re out, you’re up then you’re down…” - you could mine that lyrical seam for an age couldn’t you. What a way to follow up a massive hit like “I Kissed a Girl”. Triumphant.
Gavin: Want to hate this, but can't. Subsequently feel dirty. Verses substantially more interesting than the chorus (typical US-pop 'rock out'), definitely hints that Ms Perry could be an artist to look out for once she gets all the attention-seeking out of her system.
The Ting Tings “Great DJ”
Written by: Julian De Martino and Katie White
Produced by: The Ting Tings
Highest UK Chart Position: 33
Ciarán: The Ting Tings have a knack for releasing infuriatingly catchy singles which you end up loving almost despite yourself. This single, which encapsulates the euphoria of a night out or the joy of a rock festival, should have been a much bigger hit. Repetitive and annoying, yes. But in a good way.
Gavin: There's a real mish-mash of influences in this record, none of which I can quite make out (the punkish Junior Senior songs? Guitars lifted straight from a 4AD record?). Nor do I care, when the end product is very satisfying to listen to, even though the song is not without its weak moments (why are we struggling to hear killer choruses today?).
Duffy “Warwick Avenue”
Written by: Duffy, Jimmy Hogarth and Eg White
Produced by: Jimmy Hogarth
Highest UK Chart Position: 3
Ciarán: Yes alright it sounds like something that would be on the soundtrack to a Bridget Jones movie. And yes it sounds a bit like Amy Winehouse and Gabrielle and Dusty Springfield (like that’s any kind of shame). But there’s nothing more refreshing or original than a bloody great song, and this is a bloody big ballad of the mascara-streaming-down-your-face variety. A lot of rubbish was thrown at Duffy this year, but her “Rockferry” LP was the biggest selling album of 2008 for the good reason that it was a really really good record. I was tempted to put “Stepping Stone” and “Rain On Your Parade” in this list too.
Gavin: It was very easy for me to dismiss this song during the year, having not really taken the time to listening to properly. It was very easy for me to think of Duffy as a Radio 2-approved dilution of 'proper' singers. And yes, this song wears its influences on its sleeve like a garish, brightly-coloured t-shirt. But it's unquestionably full of memorable hooks, wonderful melody and will most likely only continue to grow in my estimation.
Written by: Tim Rice-Oxley, Tom Chaplin and Richard Hughes
Produced by: Keane
Highest UK Chart Position: 23
Ciarán: The much trumpeted make-over was a bit of red-herring. It’s not as if “Perfect Symmetry” was that different from the Keane albums which had gone before. Its lead single, “Spiralling” was the sprightliest thing Keane had released in ages though with a great, hooky, chorus. This didn’t translate into sales unfortunately. They’re the whipping boys of the music press these days and this seems a little unfair to me. It’s as though they’re being punished for sins which were committed in a past life. As Noel Gallagher put it: “the singer could start injecting heroin into his knob and you’d still say ‘Yeah but your dad’s a vicar’…” He has a point. And it’s got nothing to do with the music Keane produce.
Gavin: It's not the revolutionary change that some parts of the media would have you believe, but it still represents a marked improvement on their previous works. If they continue come Album No. 60 they might be as good as The Beatles. Or they might not.
Pink “So What”
Written by: Max Martin, Pink and Shellback
Produced by: Max Martin
Highest UK Chart Position: 1
Ciarán: The way she says “Nope!” after the bit that goes “I guess I just lost my husband, I don’t know where he went/ So I’m gonna drink my money, I’m not gonna pay his rent.” Hilarious! The similarities between Pink and Katy Perry are obvious. Both work with Max Martin, both benefit from great choruses, witty lyrics and buckets of “attitude”. “So What” is the latest in a long line of undeniably spot-on Pink singles. And she blows a raspberry right at the end.
Gavin: The next installment in "Popstars I've always found a Bit Annoying". After what has seemed like an eternity (possibly from the early 90s onwards) of dreary ballads and over polished "urban" music dominating the airwaves it seems as though having a decent melody now counts for something if you want to have a big hit. This record typifies a lot of the good pop we've seen of late. Just about raucous enough in the choruses to avoid criticisms of faux-rock, with a good childish catch in the verse to draw the listener in.
Saturday, December 13, 2008
I really really hope Alexandra wins X Factor tonight. She'll be duetting with Beyonce so she is bound to do well, but I fear lots of people from Derry are going to vote for Eoghan bloody Quigg. Today's Evening Herald has also "backed" the "plucky" teenager.
"It's shit, but at least it's Irish shit." How that mentality pervades our culture... :-(
Sandwiched in between the main show and the results show tonight is a Girls aloud TV special. It's said to feature "special guests". I'm hoping for Pet Shop Boys (who've co-written their new single "The Loving Kind"), Johnny Marr (who plays on what should be their next single "Rolling Back The Rivers In Time"), and Annie (whose track "My Love Is Better" featured backing vocals from Girls Aloud until they were removed, boo!). One of these is likely to happen, the other two are very unlikely.
But from Harry Hill's TV Burp at 6.40 onwards ITV tonight is something approaching TV heaven.
This will keep you going for the weekend, it's some amazing pieces of music from Super Mario Galaxy, which for Ciaran's benefit is a video game! When done well, games can be the most captivating and immersive entertainment experience around (and so they should be given that the big titles have budgets to match movie blockbusters), and the full blown Mario titles represent a true purity in gaming (typical of Nintendo at their creative peak). For example, whilst the graphics are not the most technically proficient due to the limitations of the Nintendo machine, they more than make up for it in the incredible imagination in the visuals, creating a magical world for the children and adults who play the game. This was the first Mario game where a full orchestra was used for many of the tunes, and complements the majesty of the game with a fantastic soundtrack that could be described as 'celebratory' in tone. The first couple of tunes I've selected are the more serene, ethereal pieces (that reflect the levels set in space which they are used in). For the third piece note how the hookline from the previous piece is subtly used, this time creating a dramatic charge. Enjoy!
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
"We begin to feel the happy exhilaration of being fully conscious in the present moment. We begin to be fully alive in the Now."
Whilst reports of the death of the single have been greatly exaggerated, there is no question that the format has recently been deprived of a number of commercial avenues that it once took for granted. A sharp downturn in physical sales has resulted in the High Street chain stores replacing the space it occupied with video games, DVDs and whatever other merchandise they can move in a hurry. A shift in televisual viewing patterns has meant it nigh on impossible to see the video of your favourite band enjoy mass exposure on the terrestrial airwaves. Fortunately there is still one long-running music industry institution that wholeheartedly celebrates the wonder of the pop single, and it’s appeal is currently as strong and vibrant as it’s ever been.
Volume 71 of Now That’s What I Call Music was recently released in November, following hot on the heels of the fastest-selling Now! Album ever (a record set by Vol 70, which broke the previous record set by Now 69) with first-week sales to rival Oasis or such acts at their prime. Proof need be that the series which first launched 25 years ago still has a large place in the heart of the music-buying public. But what has sustained its commercial and cultural appeal over that time, while other acclaimed and popular compilation series have been forgotten? I hope to answer that by explaining my passionate love affair with these records and exactly why they are not only the biggest compilation albums ever seen, but also the best.
On its release in 1983, there were two very important differences between the Volume 1 of Now That’s What I Call Music and other compilation albums that existed around that time. Firstly there was the unprecedented step of rival record company teaming up in order to expand the number of hit songs they could put onto the albums. Whilst the majority of the tracks were the result of the agreement between the two big guns of EMI and Universal, smaller and independent labels were also involved whenever they could bring some hits to the party. The abundance they had at their deployment was extremely noticeable on Volume 1, which contained a staggering 11 No.1 singles (still a Now! Record) Secondly, it was the first major series of compilations to be released as double albums instead of a single LP. This meant that more songs could be included without having to sacrifice audio quality (as squeezing more tunes on a piece of vinyl meant thinner grooves and a thinner sound, such was the practice employed on other compilation specialists like K-Tel and Ronco).
Like many other youngsters, what initially drew me to the records was the outstanding value of money that they offered. When even one 7” single represented a significant outlay of pocket money, to be able to collect a minimum of 30 chart hits in one very reasonably priced-set felt like Christmas had come three times a year. It was the availability of competitive compilations like Now! that rendered the budget compilation albums such as Pickwick’s Top of the Pops obsolete. The point is even more apposite in recent times, with Nows holding up to 50 tracks over their 2 CDs. The more cynical music aficionado would suggest that the economic benefit is the only why these albums are so popular, that they represent a tawdry bargain too good to be true. But there’s more to it than that…
For example, there’s the vast scope of all the different styles that are contained within the albums, something that you won’t get in the majority compilations that rigidly stick to certain genres. The delicious irony of the Now! Albums is that selecting tracks using the deceptively conservative criteria of record sales leads to a complete lack of prejudice in what sort of music goes on them, tracks that are as varied as they are variable. Where else are you going to find a range of good songs such as“Ms. Jackson“ by Outkast, “Destiny“ by Zero 7, “Don‘t Stop Movin“ by S Club 7 and “Pyramid Song” by Radiohead? Or where Supergrass is followed by Shaggy?* Now 71 continues this wide range of sounds, housing Kings of Leon, Katy Perry, The Script and The Saturdays all together.
Of course it wasn’t long until the other major companies wanted a piece of the action, and clubbed together to release compilations of their own, the most notable being the “’Hits’ collaboration between CBS and Warners. This series initially enjoyed similar levels of sales and interest to the Nows, helped by the fact that they had access to arguably the three transatlantic pop heavyweights of the 80s: Prince, Madonna and Michael Jackson. But whilst the Nows have consistently been at the top of the compilations tree, Hits has been subject to numerous rebrandings, relaunches and relatively sluggish sales. Why did they fall by the wayside? Whilst both series were comparable in terms of the commercial calibre of the artists, Hits tended to lack the variety contained within the UK Top 40, and bar some notable exceptions (“April Skies” by The Jesus and Mary Chain for example) the compilations had a very un-British metallic sheen about them, as if they had been in rubber-stamped in a record company office rather than jacking up a high-tech tape recorder to someone’s house party.
The first set that I purchased was Now 10 in 1987, amongst its many attractions was the beautiful neon sign & twilight sky that adorned the sleeve. It was representative of the golden age of Now! Artwork which at its best brought to life all the romanticised extravagance of the 1980s, and helped establish the series as premium pop product. After a few years of jauntily haphazard sleeves (which sometimes involved a collage of the artists involved and/or the cartoon pig lifted from the Danish Meat Industries advert that inspired the series title), the graphic design department started to push the boat out from Volume 6 onwards. Other notable sleeves included the sunshine n skyscraper effect of Vol. 11, the Castrol GTX-esque liquid metal sleekness of Vol. 8 and the Blue Peter inspired plastic fire-propelled rocket of Vol. 13. Not only did the sleeves look fantastic, but one couldn’t help but marvel at the physical attention to detail that went into producing these iconic images, when a lazy trip to a copy of Photoshop was not an option. Exactly how many takes did it get the swimming pool photo of Vol.12 just right? Sadly the necessary evil of brand-recognition came around in the 90s (not helped by the monstrosities that were the sleeves for 17-19), which is why the design has remained stubbornly consistent from Now 20 onwards. But despite not being part of the releases in nearly 20 years the motifs and design of the early albums are fondly remembered and helped establish the series as the brand leader.
Ultimately records can only be judged by the level of satisfaction that they bring to the listener, and the true appeal in listening to past Nows is that they represent a true snapshot of whatever the pop landscape happened to look like at that time, good songs and bad. I cannot stand the re-writing of cultural history that occurs on a constant basis within the media and the industry, and it’s the record labels in particular that have been ravaged by the nostalgia bandwagon. Visiting an old Now is truly visiting a non-revisionist heaven, the bona fide pop classics plus the refreshment and joy got from listening to the songs modern-day compilations wouldn’t touch with a bargepole.
Sadly there was a distinct lack of inspiration in track selection in the woefully point-missing retrospective “Now That’s What I Call 25 Years” released earlier this year, which contained only songs that we have heard (and still hear) all too often. But those after a true nostalgic experience could well be in luck, as early next year sees the release of Now 1 (previously never released on CD before), indeed this is the first time a past now has been re-released ‘as-was’ with its original track listing. A perfect way for a new generation to experience the new joys of old Nows. In another 25 years time, who knows what music we’ll be listening to, on what format, or how we will purchase it. But as long as the Nows are around, we will always have a definitive document of what new music fans were listening to.
*The answers are Volumes 49 and 31 respectively.
Crap video, uncrap song, and as good an introduction to this blog as any:
Just as it was fun to ponder on possible TV programmes to name-check on a modern-day version of "Matthew" that was posted on this blog recently, what combination of immortal/topical names would work on this now?
Tuesday, December 09, 2008
Jesus Loves You "After The Love" (1989)
Lovely Balearic house single from 1989. Memorably sampled by The KLF on their "Chill Out" LP. Boy George is capable of real brilliance, I'd like to write him a fan letter to cheer him up in "chokey".
Wednesday, November 19, 2008
Barbara Dixon "January February" (1980)
He then went on to have a hand in most of those brilliant mid 80s singles by A-ha, before racking up further hits with St. Etienne and Pulp. The man is a legend.
Saturday, November 15, 2008
Top Of The Pops To Return - As Public Service TV
From Timesonline. This is the best news I've heard in ages. Not sure what that says about the quality of my life at the moment but there you go.
I've just posted the following on Popjustice...
"Incredibly excited about this. Must. Calm. Down.
I was loyal to TOTP right to the bitter (and blimey it was bitter) end. I agree with the poster who complained about the word "content" being bandied about, that gets on my nerves too. I say look at Top Of the Pops from January 30th 1994 onwards. Ric Blaxill got the DJs back, booted most of the Albums Chart nonsense into touch and made the show a whole heap of fun. Another thing he remembered to do was to chuck the odd left-field performance into the mix. During those first few months we got the see Mark E. Smith, Laetitia Sadier (from Stereolab) and Killing Joke on the show alongside the Wet Wet Wets and Boyzones of the day. Those WTF? moments were what made TOTP really brilliant.
When it moved to Friday nights and the first show featured two songs from Paul Weller backed by Ocean Colour Scene at the end, I thought the show was doomed. And I think whatsisface from the Tube and The White Room (Chris Cowey?) did as much to ruin the show as Andi Peters did. So long as the next producer and director remember that this is TOTP fer-crying-out-loud and not Later... or Glastonbury coverage or Strictly Come Dancing then all will be well.
God I hope this happens...."
And the following on Analogue, as news...
"Stop whatever it is you’re doing (actually, hang on, don’t - just keep reading) because great news is just in. Rumour is circulating that the best TV programme in the history of the universe, Top Of The Pops, is to return to the BBC on a weekly basis during 2009. There has been a bit of a “kerfuffle” of late regarding the cancellation of the Top Of The Pops Christmas Special (which is so obviously the best thing about Christmas TV that I hardly need to go into details). Simon Cowell threatened to step in and take the show to ITV, but apparently BBC “bosses” are reconsidering their decision to CANCEL CHRISTMAS.
Now, according to “insiders” a proper return is on the cards, with miming and the charts and probably dancers and balloons and Radio 1 DJs and all of those things that made TOTP brilliant in the first place. There is an argument being made that the resurrection of Top Of The Pops would amount to a public service. Noel Gallagher - never one to talk out of his rear end of course (cough) - blames the recent growth in knife crime to the lack of pop on telly. While visiting Westminster, Lemar of all people told the UK’s Culture Secretary Andy Burnham that TOTP urgently needs to return. The cabinet minister agreed. This speaks volumes about the show really. Top Of The Pops was always very “establishment”. Rivals like Ready Steady Go, The Tube, Whistle Test and The Roxy set out to be raucous and “edgy” but all fell by the wayside after a few short years. There’s nothing more boundary pushing or shocking than rolling out a show which features Cliff, Paul Young, Kylie, Bananarama and Midge Ure, and then throwing Nirvana or The KLF or the Manic Street Preachers in balaclavas into the midst of it. That’s how to do “subversive”.
Pop fans like myself have been deprived of a fix of mainstream pop performance on telly for too long. And as we approach 2009 the charts are in rude health. Singles, or downloads, climb the charts over several weeks, just like they used to. Then big hits stick around for two or three months just like they used to. It’s great being a chart wathcer these days, and that’s all TOTP needs to focus on - the UK Top 40. From now on, they’ll want to feature more forthcoming releases but otherwise it’s simple: stick to “the formula” (something TOTP stridently failed to do in its later years) and you can’t really go wrong.
To conclude my rather excited post, then: THIS MUST HAPPEN.
My favourite Top Of The Pops moment happened in 1987. After showing the video for George Michael and Aretha Franklin’s I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me), John Peel quipped: “Aretha Franklin, the first lady of soul there - she could make any old rubbish sound good. And I think she just has…”'
Wednesday, November 05, 2008
1. I've moved house.
2. I've started to take driving lessons.
3. I've learned to cook (a bit).
4. I've decided I want to be an occupational therapist.
5. I've started applying for work experience in that area.
6. I've watched my flatmate have dreadlocks put in.
7. I've played the new Girls Aloud album about 30 times. OMG!!1! It's literally AMAZING! etc. As Popjustice would no doubt "have it".
8. I've been writing for, and copy editing, the new issue of Analogue.
9. I've been listening to that same flatmate learn to play the trumpet.
10. I've listened to another of my flatmates learn to play the saxophone. It is like living in a Steely Dan lyric: (i.e."I'll learn to work the saxophone/ I'll play just what I feel/ Drink Scotch Whisky all night long/ And die behind the wheel..." ) Well, hopefully not that last bit obviously.
12. That's it!
Here's an old tune. Listen out for Kevin Rowland right at the end.
*i.e. No-one's lips.
Thursday, October 23, 2008
Friday, October 03, 2008
Have I ever mentioned the time our next door neighbour dropped around with some records she'd found in a dustbin? It was in 1990. Our next door neighbour in Balbriggan, Mary, was working in the Grand Hotel (which had fallen out of use for some years and which is now called The Bracken Court Hotel) when it was undergoing renovations. Parts of the grounds of the hotel had been untouched for years, and I like to think that it was in that part of the hotel that she made her find. She'd discovered about seven or eight vinyl LPs in a forgotten dustbin. She had no use for them herself but knew that my brother had a big record collection so she thought he'd like them. The records were (if I remember correctly):
Black Sabbath "Black Sabbath" (Vertigo, 1970)
Magna Carta "Seasons" (Vertigo, 1970)
Free "Tons Of Sobs" (Island, 1969)
Blood Sweat and Tears "Blood Sweat and Tears" (Columbia, 1969)
Rock Workshop "Rock Workshop" (Columbia, 1970)
Jimi Hendrix (I'm not sure which but I know it was a cheapo live album, possibly "Isle Of Wight Live" from 1971)
The Edgar Broughton Band "Wasa Wasa" (Harvest, 1970)
Pete Brown and Piblokto! "Thousands On A Raft" (Harvest, 1970)
They were all original vinyl copies in various states of distress, most of them were in gatefold sleeves, some were almost unplayable. My brother and I were familiar with some of the names there; Black Sabbath, Free, Blood Sweat and Tears and Jimi Hendrix. We had no idea who the others were. In fact I seem to remember my brother writing off to Mat Snow at Q Magazine to find out more details about these artists. This was a long time before the internet of course. I have since discovered that Pete Brown was involved with Cream and co-wrote their biggest hits.
The really brilliant thing about it was it was like discovering a time-capsule from 1970. And some of the records were brilliant, particularly "Black Sabbath" which also has just the most fantastic sleeve art. Earlier this week I dug out the records from above which I still own; Sabbath, Magna Carta, Rock Workshop and the severely warped Free record (it was like that when we got it). Magna Carta's "Seasons" has really grown on me over the years. Because this childhood memory has fired my imagination ever since, I have recently bought some prog-folk-rock box sets; Island's "Stranglely Strange But Oddly Normal: The Anthology 1967-1972", Harvest's "A Breath Of Fresh Air 1969-1974" and Vertigo's "Time Machine: The Anthology". Each set has three discs and a very detailed booklet (typically running to 40 pages and featuring band biographies and release dates etc.) And the music is largely brilliant. I'm going to collect up as much of this stuff as I can get. Even if it has to be on CD.
I'm quite obssessed with the very late 60s and early 70s now. Really the years 1969, 1970 and 1971 specifically. I even love films from that period. Especially creepy old horrors from the early 70s; things like "And Soon The Darkness" - a thriller thing with Michelle Dotrice in it which I remember staying up late to watch when it was shown on ITV in 1990 (it was a bit crap but that doesn't matter, I still might buy the DVD), "The Wicker Man" and "From Beyond The Grave" (both of which are from 1973) and old Hammer Horrors. That's the sort of time period covered in the records we found that day. I wonder who owned them originally? He was obviously a bit of a rocker with "a sensitive side". How long had they been in the disused hotel?
Yesterday I discovered this great website which is devoted to the early Vertigo "swirl" releases. There's nothing like fussing over old record sleeves, and those old Vertigo releases were beautiful things. Hope you enjoy perusing that site as much as I do.
I was wondering what I would put in a 2008 time capsule that might be discovered by some kids in the year 2030? If any readers have any suggestions I'd be interested to hear them.
By all accounts Drake was a shy, withdrawn figure. Here’s a short extract from Joe Boyd’s book “White Bicycles”, where the author talks about calling Nick for the first time to express an interest in hearing some of his demos:
“Uh, hello?” The voice on the other end of the line was low and soft, almost embarrassed. In the years to come, I would get used to Nick Drake’s way of answering the telephone as if it had never rung before. When I told him why I was calling he was surprised. “Oh, ok, uh, I’ll bring it in tomorrow.” He appeared at my office the next morning in a black wool overcoat stained with cigarette ash. He was tall and handsome with an apologetic stoop: either he had no idea how good-looking he was or he was embarrassed by the fact. He handed me the tape and shuffled out the door.
Stories like the one above have contributed to the mythology surrounding Nick Drake. It helps that on record, Drake’s voice is soft and gentle. So the image of the middle class, university educated poet is hard to resist; Drake is seen by some as a depressed, isolated figure who had led a rather charmed life in some respects. Drake was born in Rangoon, the son of a doctor, and he had attended public school in Marlborough. Well-posh. In Patrick Humphries’ excellent Nick Drake biography he mentions that, at one point at Marlborough, Drake had played in a band with one Chris De Burgh, adding that De Burgh was sacked from the band for being too short! It seems that many people admire rock’s outsiders, and while Drake certainly had links to the proper establishment (not just the rock establishment), I think it is his singularity, his peculiar talent for addressing subjects like the fleeting nature of fame and human isolation which endear Nick Drake to so many people so many years after his death.
I’ll write a little here about Nick Drake’s three main albums, all of which I believe to be essential listening for fans of English folk, or rock music of the late 60s/early 70s. Starting with 1969’s Five Leaves Left which was produced by Joe Boyd. Initially it was felt that Nick should work with a professional string arranger, but after some faltering sessions with Richard Hewson (James Taylor’s arranger) it was decided that Drake’s friend from Marlborough Robert Kirby should take on that role. Kirby had worked with Drake before any recording contracts or studio time had been negotiated, and it was felt by some people at those initial Drake-Kirby sessions that this was a bit of risk; to let an ‘unknown” amateur take the reigns could be an expensive folly. As they soon discovered, and as we all know now, Kirby’s arrangements are beautiful, and it’s impossible to overstate their importance on Nick Drake’s records. When they combine, Nick’s loud, ringing, finger-picking guitar and Kirby’s strings are one of the great joys of modern English music. Five Leaves Left is the example par excellence of this sound. It is sustained over ten extraordinary songs. On “Way To Blue” we’re left with just the strings and Nick’s vocal and it is probably my favourite song on the album. “Time Has Told Me” which opens the set is a combination of chiming acoustic and electric guitar and piano. Elsewhere “Cello Song” is as hypnotic a song as you could wish to hear in Drake’s catalogue. For me, it’s a record that’s full of colour and changes of pace and mood; there’s never an overly abrupt break in this mood, but listening to the cold wintry sounding “River Man” and then thinking about the bright “Thoughts Of Mary Jane”, I can’t help but be struck by the broad palette of sounds and moods contained on this album.
On 1970’s Bryter Layter, it sounds like an effort has been made to make a glossier, more produced-sounding record; perhaps an attempt at having a proper hit album. It seems that Nick was uncomfortable with being a marginalized talent, that he yearned for recognition, and the constant waiting for success to happen bothered him immensely. “Hazy Jane II” is startlingly upbeat. If it does represent a proper attempt to make an obvious pop song, I’m not sure it’s entirely successful. It isn’t tremendously catchy, and it sort of shambles along on a wind of brass. Drake is further back in the mix and sounds a bit lost. It is quite out of step with the rest of the album. “At The Chime Of A City Clock” is more representative of Nick Drake’s output overall – more downbeat and introspective and subtly arranged. Here we encounter a lone saxophone, which actually sounds like it has a right to be there and adds to the song where on “Hazy Jane II” the brassy bits distract the listener. The highlight of Bryter Layter for many, myself included, is “Northern Sky”. Joe Boyd, impressed by John Cale’s arrangements on Nico’s The Marble Index invited the ex-Velvet Underground member to contribute and the end result is just wonderful. “Fly”, was recorded at the same time, also with John Cale. Another personal favourite from this LP is “One Of These Things First”, again just a gorgeous mélange of piano and guitar with a drum part so subtle it’s almost subliminal. Perfect music for hangovers. “Poor Boy” is jokey and self-mocking in a way which is just great and a nice reminder that Nick Drake wasn’t necessarily this tortured artist, as he is so often portayed. It features a chorus of female backing singers bellowing “A poor boy! So sorry for himself!” It’s a solid album, but in some ways it feels like an end of the road, because from here on Nick became withdrawn to the point of losing contact with his friends and all of the people who wished to further his career and nurture his talent.
Nick had lost contact with his record company, management and friends by the time Pink Moon was recorded in 1972. An announcement/advert was issued in the music press to this effect: “PINK MOON – NICK DRAKE’S LATEEST ALBUM: THE FIRST WE HEARD OF IT WAS WHEN IT WAS FINISHED”. This is how the album was launched on the public. Nick had recorded the album without telling anyone but the engineer. By this time Nick was utterly disenchanted with the music business and seemed resigned to being a cult figure. The album itself is bleak and initially intimidating but it has gone on to be his biggest selling album. The standout tracks for me are the title track, “Road” and “Things Behind The Sun”. It’s a terrific, introspective record. Within months of its release Drake had a mental breakdown and was hospitalized. His subsequent recordings can be found on a compilation called “Time Of No Reply”. If anything, they’re even darker than the “Pink Moon” material. “Black Eyed Dog” is especially painful to listen to, Drake’s voice is shaky and distant – here he does sound like a man at the end of his tether.
The “Fruit Tree” box set has recently been reissued and features the three studio albums and a documentary DVD (parts of which are also available on YouTube). I’d recommend the box to anyone, but if you wanted to just tip your toe in the water as it were, the “Way To Blue: An Introduction To Nick Drake” CD compilation on Island is an excellent place to start. You’ll want to buy up everything else by the man anyway. I also recommend Joe Boyd’s superb autobiography “White Bicycles” and the Patrick Humphries biog “Nick Drake: The Biography”. Both books are examples of rock writing and its absolute best. Therein you can read about Nick’s formative years, in-depth analysis of his recordings and anecdotes and commentary from his family, friends and colleagues. I like the stories about Danny Thompson joking around with Nick in the studio, and Beverley Martyn plying Nick with chicken soup.
I’ve decided to give Steely Dan the swerve for now because there is news just in… Q has been given a new-look this month. Not particularly exciting news, you might say, but they’ve actually put some real effort in. The November issue is on sale today. They’ve brought back the “Who The Hell…?” feature which helped make Q’s name but which was abandoned in 1997 (this month they feature Will Self, but it’s not exactly scornful of the man). Back also, are the Q Charts. They’ve also got John Harris, Dorian Lynskey, Billy Bragg and - best of all - David Quantick as regular columnists. There’s still lots of Bob Dylan and articles about Snow Patrol and Keane, but that’s what Q is there for (and by the way Keane’s new album looks like it could be really good). Why the interest in Q? Because it’s cheering to see printed music journalism take a step in the right direction, and once upon a time Q was a really great read.
It was launched in October 1986 by Mark Ellen who now edits Word. He established Q as a monthly, more grown up version of Smash Hits (Ellen and fellow Q founding staff members David Hepworth and Tom Hibbert had been Hits writers). It had a good word count, and a great sense of humour. Tom Hibbert’s “Who The Hell..?” column was the best thing about it, his interview with Ringo Starr was priceless (e.g.: “Ringo doesn’t like my question and lunges forward in the chair almost doing himself a mischief, and scowls ‘What’s wrong with you man?! This is a bloody legend sitting in front of you! I’m not asking you to comb the bloody legend’s hair but you could at least mention the new album!’”). It’s too much to hope that they get Tom Hibbert back. But with lengthy features on AC/DC, New Order and a lighter feel throughout, it is a good start. Here’s hoping they’ve left the stupid “100 Best Beatles Albums” stuff in the past.
Wednesday, October 01, 2008
The text reads:
"THE SECRET DIARY OF SONIA AGE 22 and a HALF
Mon 3: Got up. Felt suffused with a certain, indefinable weltschmerz. Was up 'til past three reading Kafka's Metamorphosis which might account for it. A brilliant mind, but such sadness. Watched some facile sop for the housewife called After Nine with Claire Rayner. There was quite an interesting item about global warming but it was spoiled by the fat woman's irksome familiarity. Quelle tristesse, as Flaubert would have it.
Tues 4: Checked engagement diary. Horrified to see that I have an appearance scheduled on Wacaday. That appalling dolt Mallett would try the patience of a saint. Things got even worse at the studio when I realised that those execrable ninnies Big Fun were also booked to appear. "What about the matching hooded tops then, son? Wicked eh?" My God. Had to endure 20 minutes of questioning by some demented brat. What would Turgenev have made of it all?
Wed 5: The pale autumnal sunlight prompted me to reach for my collected Keats. "Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness..." Immortal words. A delicious languor fell upon me. Interrupted by postman. Massive royalty cheque from PWL. Suddenly felt dead...like...errrrr vivacious and...err Scouse and, like brilliant. Dead, dead brilliant."
Thursday, September 25, 2008
Karel Fialka "Hey Matthew" (1987)
Me, I've been watching "The Family" on Channel 4. It's surprisingly good, isn't it?
You can read my interview with Laetitia from Stereolab over here. That's all for now except to say that there's a rather cruel, but nonetheless amusing, review of Seasick Steve's new album in this week's NME. Why have I started reading the NME again - out of nostalgia? Loyalty? I don't know.
Tuesday, September 23, 2008
Ladyhawke "Dusk Till Dawn"
Suffice to say: I bought this six days ago. My iTunes tells me I've listened to it at least 15 times right through so far. I'm going to stick it on again.
Great songs on "Ladyhawke": "Magic", "Manipulating Woman", "My Delirium", "Better Than Sunday", "Another Runaway", "Love Don't Live Here", "Back Of The Van", "Paris Is Burning", "Dusk Till Dawn", "Oh My", "Crazy World", "Morning Dreams".
Great songs which are NOT on "Ladyhawke": "Love Is A Battlefield", "Out Of Touch", "Kids In America", "Little Lies", "Rush Hour", "Obssession", "Easy Lover".
Monday, September 15, 2008
In other "news", Girls Aloud's new single, "The Promise" is very good. Surprise surprise, eh?
Susan Fassbender "Twilight Café" (1981)
Good piece of new wavey pop. There is another clip of this from TOTP2 on YouTube, but I fear that might have wanker wanker wanker WANKER Steve Wright talking over it, so I thought I'd spare you that. Anyway, I like these YouTube clips where someone just sticks up a bit of film of them playing an old single...
Saturday, September 13, 2008
Adriano Celentano "Prisencolinensinainciusol"
This basically invents hip-hop, disco, funk and music video in one fell swoop. In Italy in 1972! Amazing.
Wednesday, September 10, 2008
Songwriters: Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart (+ 1 with Roger Pomphrey)
Producer: Conrad Plank
Guest musicians: Marcus Stockhausen, Robert Gorl (of D.A.F.), Holger Czukay and Jaki Liebezeit (of Can), Clem Burke (of Blondie)
Recorded: February - June 1981
Released: October 1981
1. English Summer
3. Take Me To Your Heart
4. She's Invisible Now
5. Your Time Will Come
6. Caveman Head
7. Never Gonna Cry Again
8. All The Young (People Of Today)
9. Sing Sing
Alright, I'm not going to kid on that this is an earth-shatteringly brilliant record. But is it worth your time? I think so. Having lost guitarist Pete Coombes, ex-Tourists Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart form Eurythmics and off themselves to Connie Plank's studio in Cologne to record an album that teeters perfectly on the verge between avant-garde experimentalism and New Pop. Maybe they thought they had nothing to lose, but The Tourists did have two Top 10 hits and a Top 30 album behind them. I'd say they were taking a bit of a risk. The outcome of their German sessions was the 1981 Eurythmics debut 'In The Garden' which didn't get much record company support and failed to chart. The single 'Never Gonna Cry Again' just about charted (outside the happenin' 40) and it would take a further two years for the duo to taste proper pop star success again. So, the question is: were the Eurythmics ever any use? I think so. I first became interested in this album having seen the following clip on "Sounds Of The 80s" (back in the mid 90s, I hope you're keeping up)....
It was interesting to me that a band who I thought I knew inside out, and who I found slightly boring, had this interesting history. That they'd collaborated with one of Can - who I knew to be progressive German modernist types - was intriguing. I'm into records that don't necessarily have a catchy chorus as such, but which have an intriguing mood or atmosphere about them. There's something nice and dark about 'Never Gonna Cry Again'. It's completely repetetive, it's got sort of out-of-tune brass instruments on it. That's Holger Czukay wandering into view halfway through the 'Never Gonna Cry Again' performance, like some lost, senile old age pensioner. It's just all a bit wrong, but in a good way. I went and bought 'In The Garden' off the back of it and thought it was quite good actually. Here I was enjoying a record by bloody Brit Awards perennial Annie Lennox! Not a woman who I had a lot of time for during my youth I must say.
Opener 'English Summer' is pleasant enough. Half way through the music drops away and sampled sounds of the city in summertime are heard (echoes of Lovin' Spoonful there) and then the song fades right back up again. I know it's only a little detail but it makes a difference, makes it eerie. 'Belinda' is an uptempo should-have-been-a-hit sort of song. 'Revenge' the album's closer is similar, they've got great drum tracks and slightly funky basslines, but funky in the krautrock sense. Poor old Jaki Liebezeit has his name misspelt throughout the '87 CD issue's inlay, but never mind. Another good one is 'Sing Sing', which for some reason is sung in French. Perhaps it's just part of the cosmopolitan spirit of the times; this is from a period when Simple Minds were releasing similarly krautrocky records called things like "70 Cities As Love Brings The Fall" and "Constantinople Line". Sometimes it's better to leave things untranslated, but no matter - this is a mysterious sort of album anyway. 'Take Me To Your Heart', 'She's Invisible Now' and 'All The Young (People Of The World)' are all slight enough songs, but it's all about mood here. This is an album to buy if you're into Stereolab's later poppier albums, I think. It's full of ancient synths, Farfisa and - sorry to use the cliche again - motorik rhythm. But it's still a pop album. Most odd. Is this Can copping out? Or is the sight of Holger Czukay on national TV something to celebrate? I don't know, but I like the clash of personalities going on here.
I'll post the mp3s... soon alright? No promises here!