Category Archives: Music Homage

David Bowie Returns

David Bowie (http://www.billboard.com/news/david-bowie-releases-first-single-in-a-decade-1008075182.story#/news/david-bowie-releases-first-single-in-a-decade-1008075182.story)

David’s back and this time it’s personel (Picture from Billboard)

What a way to celebrate your 66th birthday… by surprising the entire world. No rumours, no press release, no blog chat, no previews, just appearing out of the blue, what a complete and utter legend. Happy Birthday David Bowie.

Here is the video to his new song, “Where Are We Now” which has thrilled the world in just one day.  The song delights in its personel and thoughtful reflection of his own humanity and memories of his life, especially his time in Berlin.  With an album due in March, (“The Next Day”, his first since 2003’s “Reality”), the whole world holds its breath to the prospect of a tour.

Whatever happens, the song is a testament to an artist who has always known how to retain that sense of majesty and grace.

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situpandlisten#11

A short selection of some of the eardrum seducers this week:

Nothing Nothing” by Young Husband:  A little bit of psychedelic indie lo-fi to start things off with the London based band.  Rediscovered this on the often ill-fated shuffle button this week and have thoroughly enjoyed kicking back Young Husband style. Something something

“Flights To The Sea (Lovely Rain”) by Graham Coxon:  Being part of one of the best (and one of my favourite) British bands that ever took on London, its difficult to remember that Coxon has also had a reasonably successful solo career. A+E (album number eight) came out this year, but I’ve been enjoying 2006’s “Love Travels at Illegal Speeds”.  A lot of Coxon’s work  contains  that gritty garage rock, featuring some of those hard Blur-esque guitar lines.  However this particular song is a lovely little ditty; smooth, slow and calming acoustic guitar, floating piano keys and drums all accompanied by Coxon’s soothing tones.  Lovely Gra-in.

“People Chat A Lot” by Hairy Hands:  I’m very excited by this guy. James Bright, AKA Mr. James Bright AKA Hairy Hands is a Winchester based beat maker creating an exciting fusion of electronica, folk and acoustic sounds.   Absorbing and interesting listening, Hairy Hands, with an album and a recent series entitled “Hairy Hands Vs:” already circulating online, is an artist who deserves plenty of attention, displaying a huge range and diversity in his music.  Try out lead single, “People Chat A Lot” for starters.  Hands down.

“After the Gold Rush” by Patti Smith:  Patti Smith returned with her 11th studio album this year.  “Banga” rolls back the years with Smith doing what she does best.  One of the picks has been a cover of the Neil Young classic. And it’s rather sublime.  Golden

“They Are Night Zombies!! They Are Neighbors!! They Have Come Back From The Dead!! Ahhhh!” by Sufjan Stevens:  The name and indeed length of the title itself makes it worth listening to.  Quite a startling composition off an equally astonishing concept album, Come On Feel The Illinoise! Sufjan Stevens should go down as one of the most innovative artists of his generation. Don’t get mad, get Stevens

Sufjan reacts to the news that strangefascinations is a big fan of Illonoise

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Sitandupandlisten#10 (Before I Fade Away: The Rolling Stones immortalised in a list)

“Successful Darts Team in Career Change Shocker” – The Stones… still at it at 50.

The Rolling Stones have been performing for fifty years.  Having had the privilege of seeing them live, its no secret why they continue to hit the road.  Apart from their inability to be crippled by time, drugs or coconut trees, they have quite a breathtaking back-catalogue of songs, spanning decades and styles. It seems the whole world is trying to unearth the best Stones songs ever at the moment.  So here goes.  A top thirty list is ludicrous, and I hope it isn’t too off putting.  It’s a testament to them, that this list took me a fairly long time to organise, and there are so many brilliant songs, which were expelled from this mega list (probably should have done 50… Duh. Embedding is hard work).  See if you agree.  I didn’t feel like any additional explanation was needed other than song, album, year.  Otherwise it’s going to be a blog post of endless superlatives.

My most loved Stones Albums (and proved by the list) are Let It Bleed, Beggars and Exile.  But while you here, don’t skimp out on the likes of Sticky Fingers, Flowers, Between the Buttons, Aftermath, Out of Their Heads… and on and on and on.

*Note: Some of the songs chosen may have appeared on different albums in the US, but since they will always be one of the finest bands that ever existed from the UK, the album details are therefore strictly British. Sorry to disappoint the American readership. Also, as we are celebrating 50 years of the Stones as a gigging outfit, most of the song clips are live performances. Big love to all who provide the videos; for without you, I’m nothing.

 1: Gimme Shelter

(Let It Bleed 1969)

2: Play With Fire

(B-Side 1965)

3: Paint It Black

(Aftermath, 1966)

 

4: Jumpin’ Jack Flash

Single 1968

 5: Midnight Rambler

Let It Bleed, 1969

6: Let’s Spend the Night Together

Flowers, 1967

7: Get Off Of My Cloud

December’s Children (And Everybody’s) 1965

8: Wild Horses

Sticky Fingers, 1971

9: Stray Cat Blues

Beggars Banquet, 1968

10: Rocks Off

Exile On Main Street, 1972

11: Street Fighting Man

Beggars Banquet, 1968

12: Sway

Sticky Fingers, 1971

13: (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction

Single, 1965

14:You Can’t Always Get What You Want

Let It Bleed, 1969

15: Salt Of The Earth

Beggars Banquet, 1968

16: The Last Time

Out of Our Heads,1965

 

17: Brown Sugar

Sticky Fingers, 1971

18: Under My Thumb

Aftermath, 1966

19: Torn & Frayed

Exile On Main Street, 1972

20: Sympathy For The Devil

Beggars Banquet, 1968

21: Rip This Joint

Exile On Main Street, 1972

22: Ruby Tuesday

Flowers, 1967

23: Sister Morphine

Sticky Fingers, 1971

24: Happy

Exile On Main Street, 1972

25: Complicated

Between The Buttons, 1967

26: Let it Bleed

Let It Bleed, 1969

27: Jigsaw Puzzle

Beggars Banquet, 1968

28: Time Is On My Side

The Rolling Stones, No. 2, 1965

29: Tumbling Dice

Exile On Main Street, 1972

30: My Obsession

Between The Buttons, 1967

“It’s a gas, gas gas”

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You really had something there: “but, I don’t want you to go”

There is something else: the rather tragic instance when a band, for whatever reason, just when things are starting to kick off, decides to pack it in.  Those bands who, upon hearing the news of the split, catapult you into five stages of grief:  

1) Denial:

“pffff , stupid internet forum rumours”

2) Over the top realisation and reaction: 

[Sobbing] but I don’t want you to go, I, I, I love you and your vision.  Oh curse you, foul music industry temptress! A pox, a pox on your houses! I’m building a shrine in my kitchen”.  I need a lyric for my MySpace profile NOW”

3) Backcataslog © – Loud and Proud:

“What do you mean ‘turn it down’? Haven’t you heard the news?  Show some respect for their bootleg EP I downloaded and debut album I was given at a free concert”.

4) Philosophically facing the truth:

[Smoking a pipe, gazing out of the window, holding a photo of said band in-between your thumb and forefinger] I truly wonder how far they might have gone.  This is a sad loss to the industry”.

5) Moving on: 

Well these things weren’t meant to be.  Let’s see what else is out there…”

*Google searches ‘hot new indie bands’*

Luke took the news of N’ Sync’s breakup very badly; getting his newly found father to cut his hand off, then chucked himself down an air shaft.

Of course, over time, short-lived bands have made quite an short, sharp and oh so meaningful impact: Buddy Holly and The Crickets; Cream; The Jimi Hendrix Experience; Joy Division; Nirvana, amongst others, and of course, the band which quite probably defined my youth: the whirlwind adventures sailing on the Good Ship Albion with my boys in the band, The Libertines, sadly sunk after drugs and break-ins replaced the music I cherished. We all know about that little episode, so here for you, are three other bands I loved and lost too quickly, also brought to you by the letter “L”.

Les Incompétents

Around the same time as I was listening to the Libs, acing my A-levels and kissing girls for the first time, I was heavily immersed in the chaotic sound of London’s six piece, Les Incompétents.  The sound in question was bawdy, raucous, full of intellectual drunken ramblings from a bunch of guys who at the best of times were comically dressed and pissed on stage.  And I sucked it all in.  Around the time when nights out began to mean something to me, Les Incompétents were a welcome inclusion into this world I had just discovered.  Their debut single, the swirly, boozy “Reunion” gave terrific insight into the kind of ramshackle outfit London had on its hands, a cross between The Pogues, Adam and The Ants, Tenpole Tudor and The Coral having a session.  And not the right kind of session.

“How It All Went Wrong” remains fondest in my memories, with lead singers Billy Leeson and Fred Macpherson stumbling through a night out, and coming to blows with Andy (?) the disco queen (“drinking Braaandy”).  It’s a wonderfully unruly song, one that I had the pleasure of seeing live at a venue I can’t remember the name of, possibly in Camden, maybe at the Camden Crawl.  It was my first stage invasion and the first time I had my hair washed with cheap lager, made friends with the guy who pulled me from the heaving crowd, and walked away with ripped clothing and bruises on my body.  Riotous would have been an understatement, as they injected a heck of a lot of life into London’s live music scene.  I also saw them support Babyshambles in a comparatively placid set.

And so where did it all go wrong?  Well foremost, lead singer Billy Leeson was disturbingly assaulted and put into a coma for several weeks, after an altercation on a bus. It also became clear, that members of the band were having the classic “creative differences”.  After Leeson had recovered from his attack, Les Inc played their farewell gig at the 100 Club off Oxford Street, and that was that.  A posthumous release of their only album, “End of an Error” featuring everything they had ever recorded was followed by Leeson heading Ox.Eagle.Lion.Man, while Macpherson later went on to form one of my new favourite bands, Spector.  Short, but happy whirlwind times had by all with London’s Les Inc. *see comment regarding the formation of Ox.Eagle.Lion.Man – Thanks for this, Neil Martin.

London’s Les Inc outfit appreciates St. Pauls Cathedral (whilst probably drinking Braaaannnnndddy)

Larrikin Love 

What first attracted me to Larrikin Love was the sheer amount of energy poured into their music.  The fusion of Irish romantic gypsy folk calypso punk ska sea shanty reggae bluesgrass was so refreshing and exciting, and something, which we might never hear again.  I had heard a series of rough demos and drooled over the prospect of a polished studio version, yet also felt the rough sound of the demos suited their style of music and deportment.  Songs such as “Edwould”, “Meet Me By The Getaway Car”, “On Sussex Downs”, and the brilliant “Downing Street Kindling” – a vitriolic rant at Tony Blair (of all people) were perfect examples of what the band were doing.  The language from Ed Larrikin remains beautiful; poetic and heartfelt, covering a variety of areas from identity, love, politics, to child abduction, all complemented with incredible melodies and such a wide array of instruments and rhythms.

Seeing them live at Reading Festival in 2006 was completely awesome, losing myself in the sheer passion and liveliness the band created in a flash of a fiddle, or puff of a pipe.  A month later, they released “The Freedom Spark” and it met all my expectations.  Featuring assistance from the likes of Patrick Wolf and Jamie T, the album made it’s way to the top of my pile. Presenting itself like prose, with a story like shift between emotions, the record was a mesmerising adventure captivating you even further.  Destined for greatness, they surely were.

Not long after this, sadly, the band announced out of the blue, they were going their separate ways.  It was a bitter blow, considering I had monitored their progress carefully, and moved with the hype and expectation chronologically from demo, lives performance to debut release.  Each went off to explore new musical outings including Ed Larrkin pursuing his new band, Pan I Am.  Sorely missed.

“Yes? May we help you with something?” Larrikin Love and their short lived Irish romantic gypsy folk calypso punk ska sea shanty reggae bluesgrass sound.

The Long Blondes

It’s easy to get upset about a break-up of a band, especially when you are utterly and unashamedly besotted with the lead singer.  Kate Jackson of The Long Blondes was, and most likely still is, cool, feisty, chic and dresses extremely well – a sort of sexy librarian, if you could imagine. Her charisma on stage was matched by a cracking voice and a group of similarly cool looking cats, who most likely owned vintage fashion shops or were part time teachers or art students, or models.  Dorian Cox, the hardworking, broody, unruffled lead guitarist and co-singer/songwriter, Rennie Hollis and Emma Chaplin often stood there glamorously playing synth, bass or rhythm guitar, while the drummer Screech Louder (real name Mark Turvey!) completed the outfit.   The Sheffield quintet caught my attention early 2006 with a glamorous art indie pop dance sound, crammed full with clever and sophisticated literary and pop culture references, everything from Alfred Hitchcock, Edie Sedgwick to Bobby George and Scott Walker. The debut “Someone To Drive You Home” dealt with everything from jealousy, seduction, useless loveless relationships, suspicion, faded glamour, aspirations and looks. Plenty of feedback, pulsating rhythms and all the hallmarks of an eighties tinged disco pop band, a Blondie, Human League, Roxy music fusion.   Puuuufffeeect.  “Lust In The Movies” summed this up well, as well as “Giddy Stratospheres”, the popular “Weekend Without Makeup” and the fantastic “You Could Have Both” with a delicious and bold spoken word section towards the end. It was a fearless and relentless debut, an album for misfits across the country.

Seeing them live was a lot of fun. I saw them in a small tent in Reading, a big stage in Glastonbury, in Leeds and in a small converted church in Brighton, in which during the set, she bent down to the crowd, singled me out, looked into my eyes and STROKED MY FACE.  Just goes to show, it pays to turn up super early to get the best spot in the crowd. Needless to say, it was the best thing that has ever happened to me.  No matter where they played, they had an enthralled, suave following, they commanded the stage and always a set to match.   The follow up, “Couples” (the use of the quotation marks in the title was a tribute to Bowie’s “Heroes” = instant win) toed the line and provided a similar energy, containing a bit more synth aesthetic (Erol Alkan produced it), rather than Cox’s guitar.  It still had that quirky fantasy pop tinge to it, with songs like “The Couples”, or the seductive “Too Clever By Half” There was a hint of new direction with the minimalist stripped back “Round The Hairpin”. With two neat little albums plus a host of unreleased demos later put out on “Singles”, (“Christmas Is Cancelled” was one of the first song Long Blondes songs I heard, and is brilliant) and a Phillip Hall Radar Award from the 2006 NME awards, previously won by Franz Ferdinand and The Kaiser Chiefs, the band were set to continue their success, and develop their cult following, in like, the coolest way possible.  Before Rough Trade snapped them up they were probably the greatest unsigned band of the time (post-Monkeys watershed).

But guess what?  It wasn’t to be.  Dorian Cox unfortunately suffered a stroke, which led to a series of cancelled gigs.  The band felt they could not go on, as Cox underwent physiotherapy to learn how to play guitar again.  The band went off in different directions, forming new projects.  Jackson is working on her new solo album, which I know will be awesome and Cox is, I believe, recovering well and performing in his new band, Milkteeth.  But the audacity in their approach to their music, outlook and generally being utterly absorbing and interesting without, it seems, a great deal of effort makes the legacy of The Long Blondes something that British music itself should miss dreadfully, as well as me.

“I’m sorry. The library is closed. I’m afraid you’ll have to leave”.

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You really had something there: from “wow” to “wasters”

We all want to make it. Secretly. Even if you possess no real music talent, you want to be a rock and roll star. Why? Why the heck not? What an incredible lifestyle. We all become slightly jealous of all your favourite scenester bands that are increasingly becoming the same age as you, went to your school, met on your campus, played their first gig at your union bar, went out with your best mate’s ex-girlfriend for three and a half months, wrote their debut single’s lyrics on the back of a napkin in your favourite bar in Shoreditch. What a life: hype, mini tour, radio sessions, viral YouTube sensations, debut release, larger tour, festivals, new material recording in a chateau in the Dordogne, 2nd album, 3rd album, greatest hits and so on. But as much as they can be embraced by the warm bosom of the music world and above all it’s critics, the loyal fans, at the bat of an extended fake trendy eyelash, they can also get chewed up and spat out quite as easily:

“Wow [insert band name] what an incredible debut album. So fresh and new and exciting. I am totally [insert relevant and current adjective] for the follow up. I’m not even going to read anything about it. I’m going to [preferred music outlet] blindly and will purchase this album, safe in the knowledge that it will rock my summer of [insert appropriate year]. Here we go… Oh… well… it’s good…I think. I like the first song. I just need to listen to it some more… Oh. My. God. This [insert relevant and current adjective]. I don’t like it very much. Lazy. They’re not even trying. I’m so despondent. You were the voice of my generation. Now you’re just wasters”.

Evil cruel mistress, thy name is music industry. From “wow” to “wasters” in the space of 18 months, why is it that so many bands seem to fail to follow up some incredible early success? Is the industry moving so fast, that when a new sound is sprawled across the radio waves, people simply aren’t impressed by a few months later? Or is it a case of the musicians not being creatively capable of bettering or even matching their first outing? OR IS IT JUST ME?

Growing up, I’ve been hurt in a non-emo way, by a lot of bands that simply couldn’t do it again. Do we exist in a conveyor belt industry, where everything has to sound amazingly new and fresh? That by the time Bloc Party released A Weekend in the City” every band had bought a synth and pedal effect sound sampler 3000. Are we in a culture of masterful debuts, followed by flat difficult second albums, followed by anonymous third and new direction fourths? Not entirely.

An enormous plethora of bands I love, continue to impress and improve in little tiny ways or even produce similar sounding material, which nonetheless take your breath away. From Arcade Fire, Beach House, Arctic Monkeys, to Franz Ferdinand, Interpol, Mystery Jets, The National and Yeah Yeah Yeahs, I don’t think if you like a band that much, and are loyal from the outset, that it’s possible to find fault in their follow ups. There are many people, for example who will punch you if you suggest that The Stone Roses’ Second Coming was a five year miserable anti-climatic pile of manure, while I will happily claim that there’s no such thing as a bad David Bowie album (in fact, if anything, his “best material” starts at “Hunky Dory” – album number four), and I will challenge you to knives at dawn anyone who badmouths “Icky Thump”. Flaws there may be, but I don’t want to know. The White Stripes were always there for me, and I will defend them to the hilt. So what, you ask was the point of that stream of consciousness?

OK. I know what happened here. The other day I was listening to what I can only describe as my ‘growing up music’. These were the tender years 2000 – 2006, where music was like, my identity, you know? I looked for heroes, and proudly displayed them on my wall or on my chest, and crouched for warmth in some dingy ally-way outside the Shepherd’s Bush Empire for a glimpse of said heroes at the grave risk of missing the last northbound train and gaining hyperthermia. Maybe apart from the abovementioned, a lot of the featured in the expansive playlist just seemed to fall into a murky decline.

Bloc Party. The 2005 debut “Silent Alarm” full of ‘conversational’ guitar and some furious percussion, with some intense poetic lyrics, followed by a disappointing sink into synth and electronica on “A Weekend in the City” and “Intimacy”, and those stand alone singles “Flux” and “One More Chance” all drowning out the qualities which made the band so powerful and captivating. Here’s hoping that this year’s comeback; the fourth album entitled “Fourth” (sigh) will drag back to the glory days. Similarly Maximo Park with the wonderful art-rock debut “A Certain Trigger, may have finally come full circle again with the release of The National Health this year. The Strokes released probably one of the most important albums of my generation in 2001 with Is This It, an energetic powerhouse of a record, dipping into the glamorous and wild New York scene, somehow beautifully crammed into forty odd minutes. It’s funny, its touching, its brilliantly written, its how we all felt in those tender years; restless and energetic. If that was “it” I certainly felt like my life was complete. Tragically, the band dubbed “the greatest rock and roll band since The Rolling Stones” went on a catastrophic decline, churning out disheartening follows up over an eight-year period, and not even looking capable of revisiting the glorious summer of 2001, in which I actually visited New York!!!!! PLEASE sort it out, guys.

Elsewhere, you look at the debut offerings from bands such as Johnny Borrell’s Razorlight, the city lyefffff of The Rakes, The “fun-time” Futureheads, the echo-reverb shoe-gazers, The Music and my lovable Liverpudlians, The Zutons and see what happened next chokes me up. Even The Ordinary Boys. Yes, judge the young buck that I was, I really enjoyed Over the Counter Culture”, with it’s combination of cheeky lyrics about the everyday, brass and joyful guitar was smashing (my choice of word for summer 2004). Even listening to it now, it ain’t that bad. Yet the follow up Brass Bound – awful, just awful, and the latest one, I don’t even know, and quite frankly, I don’t want to know, not to mention the figure of Simon Amstell ridicule fodder that lead singer Preston has become. Finally, three bands who boast a respectable longevity, and two, maybe three, maybe even four quality opening albums, but who have slipped into states of almost self-parody: step forward The Killers*, Muse, and Kings of Leon.

* I happen to think that the second Killers album Sam’s Town is better than their debut Hot Fuss”. Just saying.

This might sound a wee bit harsh and a classic blogger’s rant. After all, who am I to sit here and demand continued perfection from every band who has the honour of gracing my eardrums? And this is of course, is an insight into my own music taste, which is obviously not gospel and therefore cannot possibly reflect music as a whole. There are also, of course a multitude of factors, which affect the quality of an album, from timing of release, to the handling and management of record companies. Yet it’s something I’ve noticed with these bands, and obviously something that’s worth sharing with you lucky people.

Maybe I did expect too much. Maybe I love too much. Bands can’t go on forever. And the important thing is that at some point, they made a significant impact on someone’s music taste, even if the follow up failed to live up to my expectations anyway. Then again, if you were a staunch defender of the realm of Bloc Party, you would argue, like I would with The White Stripes, that all the material is awesome. What kind of a conclusion is this really? Rant, rant, rant followed by “oh but it all comes down to the music taste of the individual and spare a thought for the pressured lifestyles these musicians have in a highly demanding industry”. I’m going round in circles. Lets end it with this:

“Wow [insert band name]. I really liked your first album. But your new stuff really does [insert relevant and current adjective]. Yet somehow, I feel I have a permanent soft spot for you. Maybe it’s because I was discovering who I was when I first heard you. I owe a lot to you. And I can’t really hold (what I see as) your sad decline against you, because you brought me so much [insert relevant and current adjective] early on. I love you. I’m going to listen to you right now, and make an awesome playlist called [insert awesome name here] in which you feature heavily”.

Part two coming up shortly.

http://www.mojobar.co.uk/blog/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/TheStrokes.jpg

“Guys, I think he died from disappointment”

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Top 20 albums of 2011

Lists are irritating – mainly because a definitive list is so hard to define these days, because music (for me anyway) is very much dictated by moods and circumstance.  It is therefore incredibly difficult to pinpoint a list of albums, which I could listen to any day at any time. The other annoying thing is that no matter how unique or kitsch you think your list is, the chances are there already exists many lists containing your cherry picked choices.   Having said that these 20 albums have really made me sitandupandlisten2011 – Shall we?

20:  Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues:  They sure know how to make a good melody.  The Seattle outfit returned this year, with a similar, but no less beautiful sounding album than their debut outing. The acoustic blues folk is dreamy listening and touches on an array of subjects from growing old and the unpredictability of one’s travels through life.  This is a sound that doesn’t need changing.  Plus the beards are still very much there. (Helplessness Blues)

19:  Tom Vek – Leisure Seizure:  Effortlessly cool stuff from Tom and his indie breakbeats.  It’s taken him six years to produce album number 2, but the wait was certainly worth it.  Sneering, pretentious and someone you would want to have a glass of indie wine with. (Aroused)

18:  Little Dragon – Ritual Union:  a triumphant third outing from the Gothenburg quartet who’s mixture of harsh electro beats and soft synths come together in a most endearing manner.  Full of contrasting songs, but each give the same amount of dedication and attention, Little Dragon progressed quietly this year. (Ritual Union)

17:  Fool’s Gold – Leave No Trace:  The Californian band return with the follow up to their eponymous debut with a catchy guitar album full of life, emotion and thankfully less brass and Hebrew.  The 80s-indie-wave disco guitar pop is a worthwhile listen, and subtle air-guitar on the back of the bus would be greatly understood. (The Dive)

16:  Danger Mouse and Daniele Luppi – Rome: A modern day spaghetti western soundtrack, Bryan teamed up with Italian composer Luppi and got some help from Norah Jones and Jack White to produce this stunning arrangement of music featuring strings, choirs and chimes.  Danger Mouse certainly has added another string to his enormous bow, as this filmic album sound tracked mid 2011 very nicely.  A fistful of talent. (Morning Fog)

15:  Anna Calvi – Anna Calvi:  Apart from being beautiful and mesmerising to watch on stage, Anna Calvi’s eponymous debut struck a chord this year.  Shortlisted for the Mercury Awards, Calvi’s free-flowing guitar album with hard drums and mixed with her most beautiful and intense voice has been a joy to listen to.  For someone so petite, to produce such a voice and to play the guitar the way she does adds an extra wonder to this debut masterpiece.  Marry me Anna. (Suzanne and I)

14:  Radiohead – The King of Limbs:  Radiohead caused quite a frenzy this year, when they released without warning The King of Limbs online.  It impresses the die-hards without even scratching a new direction.  As with a lot of latter day Radiohead, it requires a few listens to enjoy it, and this has plenty of great moments, all chaotic and uncomfortable, with an overriding sense of simultaneous crisp and neatly layered experimentation.  It’s innovative, it’s exciting and that’s just the way they promote it.  I tip my bowler your way, boys. (Lotus Flower)

13:  Wild Beasts – Smother:  The 3rd offering from Wild Beasts is beautifully atmpspheric, with a variety of sounds and vocal sounds floating gently through the air.  Surprisingly not shortlisted on the Mercury’s, 2011 has finally placed them on the marauding musical map.  Endearing, haunting and ever so tender songs. (Bed of Nails)

12: The Horrors – Skying:  How do they manage to change direction so freely?  A lot of bands have reproduced successful sounds this year, but the mystical band from Southend, have somehow channelled simple minds and other 80s synth pop into their music.  Faris Badwan is far more intelligent and talented than most originally thought, especially when he called himself Faris Rotter.  Skying is a dreamy, perfect summer accompaniment album, which surprised me in the level of depth and attention given to the songs and the successful overuse of slow keyboards, synths and guitar effects.  Soothing and calming listening and works well in the outdoor environment (Sunsets optional). (I Can See Through You)

11: Dirty Beaches – Dirty Beaches:  Filthy neo-noir, Alex Zhung Hungtai was a man after my own heart, with this incredibly filmic Lynchonian album.  With distorted amps, whelps and yelps, and ultra-rough sounding songs, this gritty rockabilly album sends you right back to the 1950s, which is no easy feat these days.  Some are filthy two-tone riff-tastic ha-cha-chas, others sweet crooning ballads.  Dirty Beaches stood out this year as something a little different in the sense of a well-used sound being somehow appropriate in a dissillsioned and chaotic 2011.  Like I said at the time, think Elvis on Acid. (Speedway King)

10:  The Kills – Blood Pressures:  A grand old year for VV and Hotel – marriage, tours and a back to best Blood Pressure album, full of filthy reverb, sultry lyrics and catchy little hooks and drums, The Kills still and will always have ‘it’.  Listen to this, and you will feel like a bonafide chain-smoking, whiskey drinking, leather jacket wearing rock star. (Future Starts Slow)

9:  Arctic Monkeys – Suck it and See: Suck It and See’s brilliance is its combination of the previous three albums.  Its entertainment levels of wacky and obscure lyrics and metaphors are matched by an increasingly beautiful poet in Alex Turner and well-produced mixture of clean sounding ballads with raw and rough rattle rock and roll.  It’s very listenable and a sure sign of progression. (The Hellcat Spangled Shalalala)

8: Metronomy – The English Riviera:  Admittedly I was a little quick to dismiss The English Riviera as a decent album, but nothing in the way of the fellow contenders in the Mercury Awards.  Only after the awards were announced, did I give the album a proper listen.  And it’s rather special. This is a small apology to Metronomy. The lead singles are all fantastic, but the running premise of the dreamy trip through seaside towns is a wonderful exploration into British nostalgia.  It’s a summery sound, but the recent long winter nights allows one to drift off at bus shelters across London, and romanticise about far-flung Riviera nights.  Catchy melodies, smooth intelligent playful words, with a persistent restlessness (to return to the Rivera) in tireless use of synths and drums. Positive and reflective desires to revisit the past, Metronomy are deservedly frequently featured in many end of year shortlists. (Everything goes my Way)

7:  NewVillager – NewVillager:  A tiny, not that well known band from Brooklyn takes on an awful lot of styles within one album and is both endearing and unique, but has also provided something a little different.  Backed by an artistic concept, the sheer variety of vocals, styles and pace of the songs makes this a thoroughly entertaining contribution to 2011. There’s dance, grimy electro, folk, ballads with guitars and pianos all climbing all over each other to reach some kind of destination by the end of the album. A wild, exciting, powerful soundtrack to my 2011, and well worth a place in this illustrious list. (Shot Big Horixon)

6:  James Blake – James Blake:  With all this talk of Dirty Beaches and English Riverias, what would it take to produce a brand new sound?  Step forward a polite little London lad, Mr James Blake.  Experimental Trip/Glitch Futuristic Electro Techno Soul Dub – for starters.  The music is quite extraordinary.  A mega mash of sounds and styles, slow-paced and remarkable vocal harmonies and exploitation, it’s a breathless journey, because even after six or seven listens, you still hear something new.  It’s unpredictability, and at times unnerving progression really could define the future of music – bold statement, but if there is but one artist who can do this every year, the music industry will continue to progress nicely. (The Wilhelm Scream)

5Bon Iver – Bon Iver:  It’s so ambient, it’s so folky, and it’s so MOR.  I love that.  MOR.  Middle of the Road music.  Where Emma was the focus first time round, Justin Vernon’s love is in the form of towns, cities and cultures as he does indeed amble down the middle of some kind of road travelling in a dream like state with a variety of vocal styles and effects, guitars, keyboards and saxophones.  His journey is filled with a similar sadness, but sounds more progressive and liberating than the slightly stifled and introverted Emma. Bon Iver’s sound has that powerful effect of taking you places, when the world around you in full of chaos, commuters and cars. It’s tenderness, emotion and waves of nostalgia makes Vernon’s follow up one to cherish this year and beyond. (Holocene)

4: tUnE-yArDs – W H O K I L L:  Merril Garbus, the woman behind tUnE-yArDs, and for the powerhouse 2nd album W H O K I L L.  Meshing together a cacophony of folk, funk, reggae, R&B, rock and afro-beats, it’s musical soup.  Any flavour you want.  And Garbus garbles through a variety of subjects from inequality, feminism, sex, race, social greed and police brutality, in a creative and playful way.  There’s anger, sadness, humour and assertiveness.  This individual fusion of expression has made for inspiring listening in a year where the man has been getting us all down, a bit of zany kooky mid-fi music is all I need to get by. (Bizness)

3:  Ghostpoet – Peanut Butter Blues & Melancholy Jam:  The well-spoken and wonderfully articulate MC Obaro Ejimiwe offers insightful slow-paced ramblings about a bleak urban life.  Imagine if Maxi Jazz or Andre 3000 were given horse tranquilisers; then add a bit of electro to Gil-Scot Heron and you get Peanut Butter Blues and Melancholy Jam.  Ghost Poet’s laidback softly spoken and thoughtful tracks on nights out, and general musings and observations on the modern day are more spoken word than ‘rap’.  It’s more chilled than grime and less aggressive than hip-hop.  It incorporates aspects of garage, a bit of house and most importantly those addictive electro-hooks.  The refreshing thing about this album is the diversity of sounds, not to mention the distinct vocal stylings of Ejumiwe.  The dulcet slurry tones, the lyrical content surrounding excessive drinking, nights out, KFC, and dead-end lives, not to mention those catchy electro beats, act as constant reminders that this is a British debut album, and one which I thought I would never go for, but what a year of surprises this has been.  (Liiines)

2:  Summercamp – Welcome To Condale:  Since late October, I haven’t stopped listening to the London duo’s homage to everything 1980s.   Summer Camp’s ability to romanticise is neither too over-done nor generic.  In fact it’s positively fresh and innovative. This draw to the sounds and style of the 1980s in music (with those synths and hooks galore) and lyrics (which delve through all those angst ridden high school teenage moments) can provide the ultimate John Hughes soundtrack but also an escapism to a simpler time where society could be microcosmed within those high-school walls.  One should not cite this attempt to snapshot this period as pretentious or lazy.  Maybe, just maybe, music needs to look backwards to look forward, based on at least half of these albums in the list, it certainly works…for me anyway. (Ghost Train)

1:  PJ Harvey – Let England Shake:  This is not only a brilliantly constructed album, but it’s a very important one.  Channelling a rage and sadness to the many injustices of the British Empire past and present, Polly Jean’s well thought contribution to music this year has been monumental.  The timing has been spine-tingling apt when we consider the busy year outside of music with various wars, protests and riots.  And here we have a soundtrack to how our bountiful green and pleasant land is actually murky, stagnant and rotten.  Powerful judgments stand alongside more remorseful songs, in an exciting variety of subjects and style. How appealing could an album get when one singer takes on a nation’s crimes and grave shortcomings in one exceptional album.  Breathtaking, beautiful and true, Let England Shake deservedly swept home the prizes in 2011, but I’m sure PJ Harvey will be glad to have expressed herself in this way, above receiving any coveted prize or featuring on some guy’s blog page.  There are not enough superlatives. (Let England Shake)

From filmic albums from Danger Mouse, Dirty Beaches to Summer Camp, to nostalgic journeys with Fleet Foxes, Bon Iver or Metronomy, the best of 2011 have revived that old cliché of taking me away from it all.  Arctic Monkeys, Ghostpoet and Polly Jean however, have provided poignant soundtracks to modern life, something which no one can do without.  Nothing more to say, just listen.

Here’s to 2012.

 

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Falls to Climb: A tribute to Up by REM

When REM announced their split this week after a near thirty-year career and 15 studio albums, the world eulogised the fantastic contribution made by the band from Athens, Georgia.  There is a case, that late day REM marks a rapid decline from the early days (I feel that bowing out after 2001’s Reveal would have been a gracious parting gift), yet they continued to work hard to produce a further three albums, making their work span over four decades. Perhaps the ‘decline’ of REM can only be measured against the very high standard Michael Stipe and the gang set early on in their career. Songs from It’s the End of the World As We Know It, to Imitation of Life, REM have a rousing back catalogue of songs, which everyone can enjoy, and which many musicians see as inspiration.  Rather than trawling through this impressive catalogue and explaining (as the world seems to be doing right now) the ins and outs of REM’s work, I will heap praise on my favourite REM album.  My own homage to the band’s very fine innings is the 1998 album, Up.

Having begun an experimental phase with the often-criticised New Adventures In Hi-Fi, the album that followed, Up, was even further removed from the early days; such commercially successful albums such as 1992’s Automatic for the People.  With the departure of drummer Bill Berry, the band appeared set for new directions. At the times of Up’s release, fans may have been startled by the quite deliberate replacement of Peter Buck’s guitar with catchy keyboard riffs, distorted electronica and sythned bleeps and creeps. Recall the beautiful Parakeet (delicate keyboards, matched only by Stipe’s contemplative dream-like philosophy about the demise of birds at the hand of greedy cats); the comparatively simple yet average Why Not Smile? or closer Falls to Climb (the latter with possible references to the band’s new direction, not to mention the title of the album itself). The album is daring for a band who appeared at this time to have the formula nailed for alternative rock music.  Yet people forget this album produced Daysleeper, which many regard as one of the best REM songs of all time.  It is undoubtedly a great song; beautiful, innocent and emotional, but with a bit of patience and perseverance, it is easy to understand the brilliance of the rest of the album.

Airportman opens the album, which risks sending you to sleep as Stipe murmurs: ‘He moves efficiently/Beyond security/Great opportunity…awaits’ but it is this obscure electronica number with soothing dreamy chimes that defines the album’s experimentation.  Before comatose sets in, we are hit with an almighty ‘HEY HEY’ as Stipe and the crew kick start the album with Lotus, one of my favourites.  A quite surreal song with Stipe proclaiming that he ate a lotus with robotic style vocals, accompanied with a minimal four note keyboard sequence and distorted guitar, this quite brilliant song is hard to forget.

The songs appear to convey feelings and emotions, beyond what is expressed in the titles.   Suspicion reverts back to a dream-like state.  Slow-paced lyrics from Stipe with more use of the keyboard and guitars that flicker in and out of earshot. But suspicion at this moment seems tranquil and logical, while hope (in Hope) appears irritated and frustrated in this abstract and complex number, driven by electronica effects and rhythms, discussing reptile DNA.  Diminished is simultaneously paranoid and enchanting.  Yet, despite these contradictions, Walk Unafraid is powerful, defiant and a quite breathtaking track; angry and determined on this otherwise placid album in which you punch the air as you walk down the road earplugs in. Additionally, one believes Stipe has genuinely learned his lesson at the end of the repenting The Apologist.   Sad Professor is a timeless REM song about a washed up alcoholic academic (a winning combination for any prose or poetry).  It could squeeze its way on to any album from Green to Around The Sun.  It is profound, its full of sadness and regret, and contains a charming address to the listeners, which sucks you in to Stipe’s words and it’s beautiful accompaniment including a very deserted guitar from Mike Mills: ‘If we’re talking about love/Then I have to tell you/Dear readers I’m not sure where I’m headed’You’re In The Air is by far the most anonymous song on the album, yet contains a delicious mandolin hook à la Losing My Religion, giving its only saving grace.

There is still one song, a song, which remains to this day, a silent classic.  Inflected with Beach Boys harmonies, sequences and choruses (God Only Knows springs to mind), At My Most Beautiful is a straightforward love ballad. No hidden meaning, or convoluted complex metaphors or abstract poetry, this is REM and particularly Michael Stipe at their most unusually stripped bare.  Full of silly, gooey, passionate declarations of love, this is quite simply one of the most wonderful love songs ever written.  There I said it.  ‘I read bad poetry/Into your machine/I save your messages/Just to hear your voice’ would make anyone smile. I defy you not to enjoy this song.  Unless your partner just left you…then don’t listen to this.  Listen to Blood On the Tracks (see Bob and I below) instead.  The slow march like drums are potently contrasted to the delicacy of Stipe’s voice, the soft cello sequence and the enchanting ‘do do do’s’ presumably from Buck and Mills.

It’s clear to see why REM fans of the time, would reject this experimental album, as long (over an hour long) pretentious (over-use of previous unheard of effects and sounds) and simply not what they originally loved which was jangle rock pop.  Yet Up is an absorbing album.  While the length risks disengagement from the individual quality of songs, the sleepy numbers are placed next to more uplifting fast-tempo songs to keep one on their toes.  The experimentation of this album is a true testament to the band’s creativity, and the complexity of emotions running through the album makes this one of Stipe’s more profound and personal contributions.  Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but it is clear that this is not an album, which you would refer to when talking about REM.  Lost in the late 90s final hurrah, Up for me, is a hidden classic, not just from the band, but also for the music world.

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