Wednesday, 18 January 2012

2011: A Year In Music [Part 4 of 4]

5. Morrissey - Bona Drag

The few Morrissey albums that I had prior to this one (Your arsenal, Vauxhall and I, You are the quarry) are all good (the latter) to excellent (the first two), but were still in a different ballpark to most of the work he did with his former band The Smiths. Bona drag is a compilation of his non-album singles, with the exception of Suedehead and Everyday is like Sunday which both also appeared on his solo debut Viva hate (anyone who has heard Ryan Adams' debut album Heartbreaker will find this little tidbit amusing). Consider it his Louder than bombs, if you will.

Anyone who has several Morrissey solo albums but doesn't own this compilation isn't getting the full picture of his solo career, and that makes this essential listening. Some of his finest moments are here -- November spawned a monster, The last of the famous international playboys and of course the aforementioned Viva hate singles.

The highlight of the album for me is Hairdresser on fire, a typically camp Morrissey number with a melody to die for and lyrics detailing the frustration of trying to make an appointment with his hairdresser. It all sounds typically over-the-top, but it's a fantastic song that would have sit quite nicely on any of the Smiths albums.

4. Ringo Starr - Ringo

Ahhh, Ringo. Always the punchline of Beatles jokes, but we know Ringo will have the last laugh when he is the last surviving member (and you know he will be). And for a short time in 1973, he demonstrated that he too could release a great album, with a little help from his friends of course.

This solo Beatles album is special, as it's the only one which all of the ex-Beatles appeared on. Ringo was probably the most diplomatic and likable Beatle, which is probably why he didn't have a falling out with any of them. Each of the ex-Beatles wrote a song for him -- I'm the greatest (Lennon), Six o'clock (McCartney) and Sunshine life for me / You and me babe (Harrison). George Harrison also helped Ringo co-write Photograph, one of my favourite solo Beatles songs, which made it to number one in the US singles charts.

The production on the album is amazing, with the crowd cheers on the opening and closing tracks reminding me of George Martin's production work on Sgt. Pepper's (and fitting in well with the theatrical feel of the album cover). This is a fun album with incredibly catchy songs which is a pleasure to listen to. While it's not as deep as Imagine or All things must pass, it's an album I can see myself returning to again and again.

3. Loudon Wainwright III - Attempted Mustache

With the purchase of this album, I think the Wainwrights' may be the biggest musical family in my CD collection (Loudon's children being the folk singers Rufus and Martha).

This is Loudon's 4th album (from 1974), and is best described as folk music with a sense of humour. Opening track The swimming song is a catchy, banjo-driven number which is memorable from the first listen and only gets better with age. Bell bottom pants and I am the way are hilariously cynical portraits of the hippy-era and religion respectively (the latter being based off a Woody Guthrie song, but with updated lyrics).

I already knew the amusing ballad The man who wouldn't cry as Johnny Cash covered is on his American recordings album (Cash's version is quite similar to the original here). Nocturnal stumblebutt is a song about Loudon trying to find his keys and cigarettes in the dark without waking up his partner. The closing song Lullaby is about how his baby boy Rufus was keeping him up at night, and includes pearlers such as "You're a late night faucet that's got a drip".

Suddenly, the vitriol that Martha Wainwright expressed in her song Bloody mother fucking asshole (apparently an ode to her father) is starting to make a lot more sense.

2. Galaxie 500 - On Fire

Indie publications like Pitchfork and the like have been praising the work of Galaxie 500 for a while, in particular this album from 1989. Galaxie 500 were part of the "slowcore" movement, bleak music with languid tempos and often heavy use of reverb. I bought this album with much trepidation, expecting an album that had been surpassed by the work of bands who it had influenced. It took several listens to make me realise that I was dealing with a very special album.

The songs tend to blend into each other on the initial listens, but over time the nuances of each track appear. The beautiful harmonies on Tell me, the whining, desperate vocals of Snowstorm and Strange and the stunning, minimalistic landscape of Decomposing trees (one of the few tracks from the 80s which has a sax-solo and doesn't sound the least bit dated). It is all capped off with a cover of George Harrison's Isn't it a pity, a radical reinvention that gave me a renewed appreciation for the song.

1. Nina Simone - Sings The Blues

I didn't really think I was a big fan of the blues, but it took a masterpiece of a record from one of the greatest vocalists of the 20th century to sway me.

Like Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley, Nina Simone is known more for being an interpreter of songs rather than a songwriter, and that is reflected in the track-listing of this album where only 4 of the songs were composed by her. I'm glad to say that 3 of the songs that she did compose here (Do I move you?, Real real and I want a little sugar in my bowl) are probably the finest on the album, so calling her an amazing singer is still doing her a massive injustice!

Opener Do I move you? begins with seductive verses before exploding into a wonderfully shambolic chorus. Real real is my favourite number here -- it swings, it bops, it gets the blood pumping through your veins. It's a delightful number, and like all of the songs here, is a perfect showcase for Simone's uniquely androgynous vocals. Her interpretation of the traditional The house of the rising sun (made famous by The Animals) reinvents it as a fast-paced number. The album alternates between slow-paced torch songs and more rhythmic numbers, and it never fails to hit all of the emotional notes.

Disclaimer: There are several versions of this album available -- I have the one called The blues (from 1991) which has a different cover than the one above and appends 6 bonus tracks to the end. Normally I'm not a big fan of this, but the bonus tracks are all high quality (in particular the drug ode The pusher) and it's easy enough on the iPod to separate the bonus tracks from the album proper.

That concludes the list of my musical discoveries of 2011 -- I hope you have enjoyed reading it.

What did you enjoy listening to throughout the year?

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

2011: A Year In Music [Part 3 of 4]

10. Rolling Stones - Singles Collection: The London Years

The Stones didn't really become an "album band" until Beggars banquet in 1968 (although some may argue that their first great album was Aftermath from 1966). I have their 4 classic albums released between 1968 and 1972, and a few other recommended works, but there was a giant hole in my CD collection where Satisfaction, Paint it black, As tears go by, Jumpin' Jack Flash, and Honky tonk women needed to sit (many of which were released as stand-alone singles, as was the style at the time).

For a long time I have been researching about the best way to plug the gaps in my Stones collection. I considered the 2CD Hot rocks set (which was my first exposure to the Stones, via my brother's CD collection) and also their Big hits (High Tide and Green Grass) collection from 1966. Hot rocks is a killer set, but overlapped a bit too much with their classic run of albums; Big hits omitted a lot of their later classics (such as Ruby Tuesday) as it was released earlier in their career.

Further research eventually led me to this 3CD set, considered by many critics (Allmusic included) to be the definite Stones singles collection. While not as tight as Hot rocks (which is all killer no filler), there's no denying the breadth of this set. The first CD focuses more on their early blues-based material, the second CD covers their mid-late 60s work (my favourite of the set) and the third CD overlaps most with their 1968-1971 albums and was the least essential to me.

There's an abundance of brilliant material here, but it was also great discovering lesser-known hidden gems like The spider and the fly, Dandelion and The lantern. Just a warning - most of the songs here are in mono; if you want stereo versions you may want to stick with Hot rocks. This doesn't bother me so much; that's how the songs were released originally so it feels authentic.

9. Neil Young - Harvest Moon

Harvest moon was considered to be the long-awaited sequel to Young's most commercial successful album Harvest, released 20-years later in 1992. Harvest has never been one of my favourite Young albums; I preferred his music when it became less MOR and "headed for the ditch" as he so eloquently put. For this reason, I never considered Harvest moon an album which was worthy of attention.

I'm glad to say now that I own it that I was wrong; this may just be in my top-5 Neil Young albums (and there's a lot of competition!). This is a very rootsy country-folk-rock album and quite a change in sound from his previous raucous affair, Ragged glory from 1990. It's easy-listening, but never bland. Neil is in fine voice throughout and the performances are all impeccable. My favourite cuts are the political War of man, and the epic live finale Natural beauty which doesn't outstay its 10-minute running time and is one of the most beautiful songs Young has released to date.

8. Hank Williams - 40 Greatest Hits

Harvest moon has a great song on it called From Hank to Hendrix, which provides a nice segue into this album. Hank Williams was obviously a country music legend, a man who died very young but left an indelible impression on the music industry. I read about this compilation in a Rolling Stone (magazine) countdown of the 500 greatest albums of all time.

To be honest, I wasn't expecting much. The songs on this compilation were recorded between 1947 and 1953 (the year that Hank died, on New Year's Day). With the exception of Robert Johnson, this is the oldest music in my collection. I was expecting this to have more historical value than music I would enjoy listening to; an album that wouldn't get a lot of spins but fill an imaginary void in my collection.

While I expected the music to be dated and cheesy, instead I got an honest singer-songwriter performing songs that anyone can relate to. So many of the songs on this collection have been covered enough times to be considered standards -- Lost highway, I'm so lonesome I could cry, Hey good lookin' and Your cheatin' heart amongst others.

Almost every song in this collection is worth listening to -- Jambalaya (on the bayou), Kaw-liga, the poignant I'll never get out of this world alive (sadly, the last single released during Williams' lifetime). This is an amazing retrospective of a musical legend.

7. Lyle Lovett - Pontiac

Most will remember Lyle Lovett as the unattractive man with the funny haircut who Julia Roberts married in 1993. I'm not sure what made me investigate his music, but I started reading about his music and his 2nd album Pontiac (from 1988) was commonly accepted to be his masterpiece. $3 later on eBay and the album was in my possession.

This is a folk singer-songwriter album with elements of country, and a lyrical quirkiness that's not too far removed from the early work of Tom Waits. If I had a boat is a charming opener with cute, nostalgic lyrics that sets the scene for the rest of the album. Other great songs include the Dylan-sque murder ballad L.A. county and the misogynist She's no lady.

The latter part of the album changes the pace considerably, with the jazz textures of Black and blue, the beautifully understated melody of Simple song and the poignant portrait of a WW2 veteran in Pontiac. A short and sweet album that's worthy of your ears.

6. Leonard Cohen - New Skin For The Old Ceremony

Prior to picking up this album, I had a few early Cohen albums from the late-60s/early-70s (Songs of Leonard Cohen, Songs of love and hate) and his excellent late-80s record I'm your man. His early work is very understated, with acoustic guitar, subtle string sections and Cohen's monotonic (yet powerful) baritone delivering lyrics that can only be described as poetry. I'm your man introduced some 80s production elements, but it's to Cohen's credit that only a few of the songs come across as dated now; his composition abilities and delivery are able to transcend the era.

New skin for the old ceremony was his 4th album, released in 1974, and provides an early indication of his evolving sound. New instruments are introduced here, including banjo and mandolin, giving the album a much fuller sound than the earlier records. Cohen's "sexually religious" lyrics as usual steal the show -- from the odd metaphors of the opening track ("You were K.Y. jelly / I was vaseline") to the hotel-act captured on Chelsea hotel #2, one of the finest Cohen tracks (supposedly about his affair with Janis Joplin).

Closer Leaving green sleeves is a reworking of the traditional folk song; in typical Cohen fashion it ends with him screaming the lyrics while the music fades away. This is an incredibly underrated album and probably the Cohen album I have enjoyed listening to most.

Monday, 16 January 2012

2011: A Year In Music [Part 2 of 4]

15. Gram Parsons - Grievous Angel

Gram Parsons, considered by many to be the godfather of alt-country music, only released 2 solo albums in his lifetime. Combining this with his work with the Byrds, Flying Burrito Brothers and International Submarine Band, he left behind a remarkable oeuvre which influenced countless bands in the subsequent decades.

I picked up his 2-albums-on-1-CD set which included his solo debut G.P. and his swansong, the posthumously released Grievous angel. Both are very solid albums, but Grievous angel hits a few more emotional chords with me -- from the lucid storytelling of the opening semi title-track, to the poignant closer In my hour of darkness (with chanteuse-for-hire Emmylou Harris sharing vocal duties), via the emotive honesty of centrepieces Brass buttons and $1000 wedding, this is music with heart and soul from a talented musician who left the world way too soon.

14. The National - High Violet

I'd been putting off buying this album for a while, but I'm very glad I caved in and bought it. Their previous album, Boxer, was a real slow-burner for me -- an album with some immediate standout moments but others which took a bit longer to reveal their deeper layers to me.

I think that I may prefer High violet even more. I've talked a lot about how claustrophobic production can affect my enjoyment of music, but this is one of those albums where the production actually adds to the vibe of the album. Where Boxer was more about rhythms and textures, this album puts frontman Matt Berninger in centre stage where his haunting vocals take the spotlight on most of the songs here.

Opener Terrible love is a bit of a false start for me; it's a song where the production hinders rather than improves the song. The mid-album peak of the ominous Afraid of everyone and single Bloodbuzz ohio (with the outstanding lyrical imagery of "I was carried to Ohio in a swarm of bees") seems like it would be hard to beat, but the lower-key ballads on the latter-half of the album (Runaway, Conversation 16, England) all maintain that beautifully eerie tension that makes The National one of the better bands releasing music these days.

13. Phil Spector - Wall Of Sound Retrospective 12. Phil Spector - A Christmas Gift For You

Other than Gary Glitter's Rock and roll which I have on "The Full Monty" soundtrack, this may be the first time I own a CD by a convicted felon (okay, I'm prepared to be corrected on this one). Ignoring his recent murder conviction and incarceration, forgetting about his psychotic behaviour throughout the 60s and 70s (including keeping musicians in the studio at gunpoint until he got the take he wanted), there's no doubt that he is the most famous and influential music producer of the last 50 years.

I needed a Phil Spector primer in my collection, or at least a way to get a copy of the Ronettes' Be my baby (one of the great pop singles in musical history). I picked up the 2 CD box-set which contains a retrospective of his infamous "Wall of sound" production numbers, and his secular holiday album A Christmas gift for you.

Wall of sound retrospective contains many of the classic songs of the era from his favourite girl bands including The Ronettes, The Crystals, Bob B. Soxx & The Blue Jeans and Darlene Love. It's capped off with a few songs by The Righteous Brothers (You've lost that lovin' feeling, Unchained melody) and the song which he considered to be his finest moment (but a commercial flop in America) -- River deep, mountain high by Ike & Tina Turner. It's all essential listening; an important part of musical history.

A Christmas gift for you is often considered as one of the great holiday albums. The formula is simple -- take some famous songs from Christmas time (Rudolph the red nose reindeer, Santa Claus is coming to town), add some of Phil's favourite girl bands, cover the songs in dense wall-of-sound production, and listen to the magic. I have never celebrated Christmas, and I don't have the nostalgic attachment to these songs that I'm sure a lot of others would. But listening to this album makes me wish I did, just so I had an excuse to play it at that time of year. Christmas (Baby please come home) by Darlene Love is a stunning number and one of my musical discoveries of the year.

11. NRBQ - At Yankee Stadium

Despite the name, this isn't a live album. It's a tongue-in-cheek name from a band who you probably haven't heard of, who were certainly not afraid to have a bit of a laugh.

NRBQ stands for New Rhythm & Blues Quartet, a band with rotating lineups who formed in 1967 in Miami, Florida. It's hard to describe their music, but if you imagine a pub band who delve into jazz-rock, power-pop, swing and R&B, you'd have a pretty good idea of their sound.

I think I read something about this band when doing a bit of research about Brinsley Schwarz, Nick Lowe's former band. NRBQ were mentioned as a very underrated and under-appreciated band, and this album was singled out as a "lost classic" worthy of consideration.

There are a few covers here -- country-blues chugger Get rhythm (made famous by Johnny Cash), the rock 'n' roll classic Shake, rattle and roll, the R&B number The same old thing -- but the heart and soul of the album rests with the original NRBQ numbers. Just ain't fair is one of those songs that you feel like you've known forever; I love her, she loves me is a beautiful love ballad.

At Yankee Stadium is a tight, filler-free and fun rock album that doesn't outstay its welcome and makes you pretty goddamn happy for 35 minutes. What more can you ask for?

Friday, 13 January 2012

2011: A Year In Music [Part 1 of 4]

I purchased 56 albums in 2011, and only 2 were 2011 releases (Build a rocket boys! and The king of limbs). There's a few more albums on my "to purchase" list from 2011 -- in particularly Bad as me, 50 words for snow and The whole love. Needless to say that, similar to previous years, most of my musical enjoyment has come from discovering gems from the past.

Here is my top 20 list of my album purchases / musical discoveries of the year.

Enjoy the list - and happy new year!

20. Bob Dylan - Self Portrait

A bit of an odd choice, really. It's now been 50 years since Bob Dylan's self-titled debut album, and the man has one of the most expansive back catalogues in history. Once you have gone through the classics (Blonde on blonde, Blood on the tracks, Highway 61 revisited -- amongst many others) and uncovered some of the lesser-known gems, where does a Dylan fan go? You go to an album that was (and still is) considered by critics to be the nadir of the Dylan catalogue, an album which destroyed the near-flawless streak of albums that Dylan released in the 60s.

This was released in June 1970, and the whole package, from the album title, the cover, the long running time (73 minutes) is all somewhat tongue-in-cheek. If you try not to take this album seriously (a mean feat considering that it's about 2/3 covers, sung in Dylan's Nashville skyline croon) -- one can uncover many hidden gems here. Days of '49, Belle isle, Copper kettle, The mighty quinn and Minstrel boy are all great songs (the latter even sounding like it may have influenced Tom Waits' work).

I'm pretty sure that if this album didn't begin with All the tired horses -- a 3 minute repetitive dirge where the same line is repeated again and again by a female backing group -- history would have been a bit kinder to this album. Getting past that song, I look at this as just another facet in Bob Dylan's fascinating musical output.

19. The Lemonheads - Car Button Cloth

Let me get this straight first -- if you don't have a copy of the Lemonheads' 1992 album It's a shame about Ray, go and get it now. It's a flawless album of pure, hummable, lyrical, toe-tapping alternative pop/rock which is looked upon now as one of the absolute gems of the 90s. Their follow-up album, Come on feel the Lemonheads, had its moments but it was overly long and lost a bit of steam by the end.

Car button cloth was released in 1996 and it was their last album before they broke up in 1997, before reforming in 2005. I was already familiar with If I could talk I'd tell you as it got a bit of airplay back in the day and I had listened to it on one of those Triple J compilation CDs. I bought this album with some hesitation but was pleasantly surprised.

Like much of the Lemonheads' work, there is a dark undercurrent to a lot of the lyrics here (Break me, Hospital) which is understandable considering frontman Evan Dando's history with substance abuse. The outdoor type is another killer cut, a humorous alt-country ballad about hating the outdoors and wanting to spend all of your time inside. C'mon daddy is another great song, apparently about Liv Tyler discovered who her real Dad was.

18. Nirvana - Unplugged In New York

I'm not usually a big fan of live albums, but this is an interesting piece of work. It's an intimate recording of acoustic songs recorded by a band who were known for turning the volume up, recorded only a few months before the frontman committed suicide.

What is most fascinating about it is that almost half of the album is made up of cover versions, including a 10-minute mini-set of songs by cult Arizona band Meat Puppets (a big influence on Cobain). Another thing to note is the exclusion of their biggest hit, Smells like teen spirit. Maybe they felt that an unplugged version wouldn't do it justice.

I wasn't a big Nirvana fan at the time, so wasn't affected by Cobain's death. But I could imagine what this album must have been like to fans when it was released in November 1994, 7 months after Cobain's suicide. An emotionally charged album which shows Cobain's songs in all of their stripped-back glory.

17. Bright Eyes - I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning

My friend Pete lent this to me back in 2005 with strong recommendations. I wasn't particularly blown away at the time, but maybe I hadn't given it the chance it needed. I had subsequently picked up his 2002 album Lifted and was very impressed, and I eventually picked this one up too.

Bright Eyes is a bit of a polarising musican, and the new-Dylan tag which the musical press attached to him probably didn't help a lot. Looking past the image and his unfortunate (and unfair) connection to the emo musical genre/lifestyle, this is a great indie-folk album full of clever lyrics and toe-tapping melodies.

At 45-minutes, consider it a compressed version of the long (but still incredible) Lifted. Don't let the spoken-word introduction to the opening track put you off; there is music here to be enjoyed!

16. Sparklehorse - It's A Wonderful Life

It's saying a lot (especially coming from me) when the worst track on an album is a collaboration with musical genius Tom Waits. Dog door, also included on the Tom Waits compilation Orphans, is a decent (but not brilliant) Tom Waits song, but it stands out on this album like a sort thumb and completely destroys the flow of it.

With the exception of that song, this is a very lo-fi recording of the late Mark Linkous' fragile vocals, dark lyrics and spare intrumentation. Various special guests (including PJ Harvey) show up on a few tracks in more subtle roles than Waits', but this is Linkous' show. It's heartbreaking stuff in light of what happened to Linkous 9 years after its release.

I have a few Sparklehorse albums -- their debut Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot, the Danger Mouse/special guest collaboration Dark night of the soul -- but this one is their most stunning piece of work and the one I would recommend to newcomers.

Friday, 12 August 2011

Pulp gig [29th July 2011 @ Festival Hall]

Sheffield indie pop/rock outfit Pulp formed in 1978, then had a fairly underground following for most of the 80s before they started to hit the big time in the mid-90s in the heart of the Britpop movement. Their 1995 album Different class is one the best albums of all time, one of the few records from the Britpop era which still sounds just as great now as it did then. It's a top-to-bottom classic of intelligently catchy songs oozing with sleaze and debauchery.

Attending the mens' room before the gig, I overheard a seemingly tipsy fellow say to his friend at the urinal that he was excited to be seeing Pulp and that he had a bit of a "man crush" on frontman Jarvis Cocker. Lanky, nerdy and middle-aged, Cocker is an unlikely mainstream sex-symbol, but perhaps not too far-fetched for those who spent their free time at school studying in the library.

The gig started in a very interesting fashion, with a light-show where words were projected above the stage enticing the crowd and revving them up for the show that was about to unfold. Just when you thought that the words would come to an end, they kept on going. It was the ultimate gig-tease, and a perfect opener for a band as deliciously sleazy as Pulp. The stage was set up with the PULP logo in big neon letters, and you could be forgiven for thinking that you'd stumbled upon the flux capacitor and had been beamed back to the mid-90s during their heyday.

Opening with the His 'n hers anthem Do you remember the first time?, Jarvis and company entertained the crowd with a blistering 2-hour set which focused mainly on their peak late-90s output. Jarvis was easily the most entertaining and charismatic front-man I have ever seen, his anecdotes and chatter between songs being as much part of the entertainment as the music itself.

Upbeat anthems Disco 2000 and Babies got the crowd into party mode, while the more provocative numbers like Pencil-skirt, I spy and This is hardcore reminded us of all those times we disobeyed the band and read along with the lyrics while listening to the CD (most Pulp albums have fine-print in them asking the listener to not read-along while listening to the music).

The first set closed with their most famous song, Common people, an anthem for the hundreds of fans who were crammed into the poorly-ventilated "Festy hall". Returning for a short encore (including the lesser-known B-side Like a friend and glammy Hardcore single Party hard), they concluded the show the same way I first heard Pulp on CD -- by playing Mis-shapes, the rocking call-to-arms opener of Different class.

Sometimes when bands reform in their middle-age, it tarnishes their legacy. Pulp have aged very gracefully, and this gig was an excellent trip down memory lane.

[For the first gig in a while, I went-easy on the bootleg multimedia and tried to enjoy the moment more, which turned out to be a good move. There's only so much grainy footage we need on YouTube.]

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

2010: A Year In Music [Part 5 of 5]

We now come to the epic finale of the list of albums which made my 2010, at least from a musical point of view. Enjoy!

Soundgarden -

I've recently had a bit of an early-90s revival, as is probably evident from the presence of other albums on this list. Of course, no 90s revival would be complete without delving into the grunge genre, which reached mainstream popularity in Seattle in the early-90s. I have been expanding my collection of grunge albums over the past year or so, picking up Pearl Jam's Ten (which I covered in the 2009 end-of-year series), Alice In Chain's Dirt, Faith No More's Angel dust and in 2010 these two albums by Seattle's Soundgarden.

The first album I picked up, Superunknown, was their commercial and critical peak. I knew a few songs before I bought it: the superbly melodic Black hole sun, the mellower Fell on black days and the fun rocker Spoonman. I went into the album expecting these songs (in particular Black hole sun) to be the clear standouts. Like Blood sugar sex magik, I was pleasantly surprised at the quality of all of the songs on this 73 minute album.

Chris Cornell is an amazingly versatile rock vocalist, and the rhythm section (in particular the drumming of Matt Cameron) is up there with the best. Some standout tracks on this album (other than those mentioned previously) include the swampy rocker Mailman, the eerie and atmospheric Head down, the anthemic The day I tried to live and the catchy single My wave. Despite the "grunge" tag, there's a lot of diverse sounds on the album exemplified by the powerful production; get a load of the middle-eastern elements of the instrumental Half.

I enjoyed Superunknown enough to pick up their previous album Badmotorfinger, which some friends had suggested was a better album; at 57 minutes it is certainly more concise. While it falls a fraction short of Superunknown for me, it's still an excellent record. Opener Rusty cage (later covered by Johnny Cash) kicks off with one of the finest guitar riffs of the 90s, before Chris Cornell enters the stage with a fine vocal performance, singing lyrics of torment and oppression ("I'm gonna break my rust cage and run", "I'm burning diesel burning dinosaur bones", "It's raining icepicks").

Elsewhere, Outshined astounds with its stunning harmonies, Room a thousand years wide is a kick-ass rocker with a stunning rhythm section and Holy water has a chorus that grabs you from the first listen and doesn't let go. Badmotorfinger is overall a much heavier and less diverse album than Superunknown, but it's a solid slab of early 90s rock music.

Van Halen - Van Halen

One of my first musical memories was choreographing a dance routine to Van Halen's hit Jump with my next door neighbour in the mid-80s. That, and We built this city. But I digress. This was Van Halen's debut album released in 1978. It was a groundbreaking album at the time, with guitarist Eddie Van Halen influencing a new decade of guitarists with his innovative playing style (in particular his tapping technique where he used his right hand as well as his left hand to fret notes).

Despite the fact that many of the songs from this album are regularly played on the radio, I must have been living under a rock for the past 30 years because I wasn't overly familiar with a lot of them. The exception to this was the stunning instrumental Eruption, an absolute highlight of the album and an aspiring guitarist's wet dream.

Elsewhere, Runnin' with the devil and Ain't talkin' about love are great rock songs which have aged remarkably well, combining the passionate vocals of David Lee Roth, guitar prowess of Eddie Van Halen, and the solid rhythmic foundation of bassist Michael Anthony and drummer Alex Van Halen (Eddie's brother).

Jamie's cryin' influenced many an 80s power ballad, while Little dreamer slows things down a little bit and allows us to appreciate David Lee Roth's fine vocals. There's a few magic moments throughout, like the doo-wop breakdown of I'm the one and the acoustic intro to the blues standard Ice cream man (one of the two covers on the record alongside the Kinks' You really got me).

All this, and it was their debut album! A highly recommended listen.

Various Artists - "The Blues Brothers"

The Blues Brothers is a cult classic and a movie which I consider endlessly watchable. It has comedy, memorable quotes, action and a helluva lot of destruction. But the icing in the cake is the music, and it is compiled here on one of the greatest soundtracks ever released.

Many of the musicians on this CD make cameos in the movie. James Brown plays a priest whose rendition of The old landmark convinces Jake to get the band back together. Aretha Franklin plays a waitress/diner owner who sings Think to her husband (guitarist Matt Murphy) when he decides to ditch the apron and join the Blues Brothers band on the road. And who can forget Ray Charles, the owner of the music store, who sings Shake a tail feather to prove that the keyboard still has life in it?

This is simply a perfect soundtrack -- the performances are flawless, the tunes are hummable (Theme from Rawhide, Minnie the Moocher) and bluesy (She caught the Katy, Sweet home Chicago) in equal measure. They remind you of the best parts of the movie, but it also works perfectly as a standalone album.

Tom Waits - The Black Rider

I have an interesting history with this album, which is technically a soundtrack to the theatre play of the same same; it is one of the few albums that I bought twice. Allow me to elaborate. When I first started getting into Tom Waits, I decided pretty quickly that I had to buy everything the man had ever released. I stumbled upon this album on sale in 2003 and decided to pick it up.

I gave it a few listens and just couldn't get into it. There didn't appear to be anything to grab on to, and I found it too impenetrable. So I decided to return it for something a little more accessible (Jack Johnson's On and on, an album which couldn't be more different if it tried).

Shortly after this I picked up Bone machine, arguably one of his most "difficult" albums. That was an album which took a lot of time for me to get into, but is now in my top 5 Tom Waits albums of all time. In 2010 I picked up The black rider again. It's amazing what a difference 7 years make. Where before it was a mess of disjointed rhythms, cookie monster vocals and no sense of cohesion, now it was a beautiful piece of work.

How did I miss the beauty of songs like November, The briar and the rose and I'll shoot the moon before? Then there's the epic "film noir" atmosphere of songs like Just the right bullets and Crossroads which would sit happily alongside Black wings (from Bone machine) on a western film soundtrack.

There's a few oddities scattered about, from the beatnik William S. Burroughs' vocal performance on T'aint no sin to the chaos of Oily night. And there's also some gorgeous instrumentals like Russian dance which help to break up the album and ironically also provide a sense of cohesion.

Endlessly imaginative, experimental and quirky; file this next to Bone machine in your Tom Waits collection.

And thus we reach the end of my musical discoveries of 2010. Until next time, compadres.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

2010: A Year In Music [Part 4 of 5]

Here are five more choice albums that I discovered in 2010.

Red Hot Chili Peppers - Blood Sugar Sex Magik

It was pretty commonplace in the late 80s and early 90s (when compact discs became more prevalent) for albums to be over-stuffed with filler just because they could. While early CDs could hold 74 minutes of music, some musicians didn't adhere to the "less is more" philosophy and this often resulted in disjointed listens that you would be less inclined to revisit.

This album's running length of 73:49 was one of the reasons why I hesitated to pick it up earlier. Sure it had a lot of critical acclaim, but I honestly expected to get an album of classics like the beautiful ballad Under the bridge and funk masterclass Give it away surrounded by lots of carbon copies. It turns out that I was wrong; this is a brilliant album that deserves all of the praise that is thrown at it.

This album is a never-ending party, from the moment opener The power of equality hits top gear, through to the fun throwaway cover of Robert Johnson's They're red hot that closes the record. Most of the songs fit the upbeat funk template that RHCP have made their own, but there are a few quieter moments (Breaking the girl, I could have lied and of course Under the bridge) which give the listener a chance to catch their breath.

Every song is different enough to warrant inclusion -- some of the lesser-known classics are Funky monks, Mellowship slinky in B major, Apache rose peacock and the epic (almost) finale Sir psycho sexy (get a load of that melodic coda).

The star of the show is Flea, whose melodic bass lines take centre stage in every song. As great as the musical performances are, they wouldn't be worth anything if they were lost in a sludgy compressed mix. Luckily, this 1991 album is pre loudness war; Rick Rubin's production is air tight but incredibly dynamic, allowing you to pick out individual elements in the mix. It's a pity he didn't maintain the same standard of production on subsequent compressed abominations Californication and Stadium arcadium.

Casual RHCP listeners will probably only need one of their albums; make sure it is this one.

Archie Roach - Charcoal Lane

There was a poll in 2010 where people were able to vote for their favourite Australian album of all time (you can see the results here). What I found more interesting than the actual list (which didn't have too many surprises) was the discussion on various message boards where Aussie music fans nominated albums that they felt missed the cut. This 1990 debut album by indigenous singer-songwriter Archie Roach was an album which was mentioned a few times, so I decided to pick it up. I can now say without hesitation that it is one of the great Australian albums.

The most well-known song on the album is the haunting ballad Take the children away, about the Stolen Generation. This is a topic which is very close to Roach's heart, as he and his sisters were taken from his family by the Australian government and placed in an orphanage. It's a sad
and powerful song about a very sad part of Australia's history, and rightfully considered an Australian classic.

Elsewhere, the album doesn't miss a beat. Most of the songs are sparse folk numbers which allows Roach's powerful voice and poignant lyrics to take centre stage; there are also a few upbeat numbers (Down city streets, No no no) which give the album some much needed diversity. The title track talks about the restaurant of the same name in the Melbourne suburb of Fitzroy, where Aboriginal and disadvantaged people were given a chance to work in apprenticeship positions.

Elsewhere, closer Summer of my life is an incredibly heartbreaking story of an old lady reminiscing about an old man (who had presumably passed away) looking back on his life from his hospital bed. It's moments like this that elevate Archie Roach to the upper echelon of Australian singer/songwriters.

Bob Seger - Stranger In Town

Not exactly the hippest album in my collection (check out that cover), but what a great record of American heartland rock. Night moves is commonly considered to be his masterpiece, and it's a fine record; I think I may prefer this one even more.

There's quite a few popular songs scattered around, from the driving opener Hollywood nights, the beautiful (albeit a little schmaltzy) ballad We've got tonight, the overplayed cover Old time rock and roll and the wistfully nostalgic Still the same.

But he might save the best until last with the final two songs: the multi-part Brave strangers and the wide-screen epic The famous final scene. Not much else more to say; this is not the most ground breaking or innovative album ever released, but if you're in the mood for classic 70s rock, it doesn't get much better than this.

Paul Simon - There Goes Rhymin' Simon

This album may almost take the record (pun intended) for the longest time on my "to buy" list. For many years, the only Paul Simon albums that I owned were his classic and influential Graceland and his underrated Latin-influenced 1990 album The rhythm of the saints (which I picked up in a 2-for-1 pack in the mid-90s). I also have a handful of Simon & Garfunkel albums.

Quite a few years ago, I decided to expand my Paul Simon collection. Most of the research that I did pointed to this 1973 album (his 2nd solo effort) being one of his best. In the meantime, I had picked up a few more Simon albums: the excellent Hearts and bones (1982), Brian Eno collaboration Surprise (2006) and Grammy award winner Still crazy after all these years (1975). In 2010 I finally picked up There goes rhymin' Simon.

This is possibly Simon's most eclectic album -- there's great pop songs (Kodachrome, the fun sing-along One man's ceiling is another man's floor), poignant ballads (the superb American tune, St. Judy's comet, Something so right), low-key jazz numbers (Tenderness), horn-inflected dixieland (Take me the mardi gras), reggae (Was a sunny day) and even gospel (Loves me like a rock). It all sounds a bit of a mess, but it holds together as a great album.

On a side note, don't you love albums where each song is represented by a picture in the artwork?

Simple Minds - New Gold Dream (81-82-83-84)

Simple Minds will forever be associated with their 1985 #1 hit Don't you (forget about me) from the soundtrack to the John Hughes movie The breakfast club. A hit like this can often me a double-edged sword for a band; it gave them much deserved commercial success, but it also changed their music path towards a more "80s pop" commercial sound.

New gold dream was their 5th studio album, released in September 1982. With the exception of the more radio-friendly hit singles Promised you a miracle and Glittering prize, the album is made up of lush, synth-based new wave numbers. Unlike many albums by their contemporaries, this album still sounds remarkably fresh today; many critics indicate that this is due to their use of real drums rather than electronic drum machines which were so common at the time.

Like mid-late 80s Cure, the songs are densely epic and elicit strong emotional feelings from the listener. Opener Someone, somewhere in summertime lures you into the world of this album. Big sleep starts out with a circular synth riff which is repeated throughout the song. Jim Kerr's emotionally effective vocals take centre stage, and the instrumental repetition and vocal wails in the 2nd half of the song puts the listener in a trance-like state. Most of the other songs are just as effective, and even the more pop-oriented singles fit in well.

This album is a prime example of well aged 80s new wave pop, an album which has stood the test of time in a decade which was not devoid of throwaway pop fluff.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

2010: A Year In Music [Part 3 of 5]

And so we continue...

Foo Fighters - The Colour And The Shape

Foo Fighters are one of those bands that are very easy to take for granted. Their songs have always just been there, and no matter how many times one hears them on the radio, they manage to maintain their freshness. Their music has achieved great cross-over success, satisfying grunge fans who were mourning the death of an era, metal heads, classic rockers, and even being melodic and accessible enough to lure in pop music listeners.

I decided I was well overdue for a Foo Fighters album in my collection, and this seemed to be the (almost) unanimous pick for their best album. First of all, let's count the hits -- Monkey wrench, My hero and Everlong. That's three great radio-friendly rockers right there. Beautiful ballad Walking after you was also included on the X-Files soundtrack, albeit a slightly different version.

Dig a little deeper, and you find several coulda-been hits like Hey, Johnny Park and Up in arms. There's a great eclecticism to the proceedings, with stunning ballads (Doll, Walking after you) interspersed amongst dynamic rockers (New way home, My poor brain). There's even some quirky moments (See you) sitting on the same bus with thrash numbers (Enough space). My personal favourite (February stars) starts out as a ballad before it changes halfway into a feedback drenched and emotionally charged number.

Despite the variation in styles and sounds, it's all very accessible and easy to listen to, without resorting to cheap hooks or lacklustre songwriting. Commercial music doesn't have to be shallow or bland, and Dave Grohl and co. show you how on this excellent album.

Al Green - Greatest Hits

I don't understand why it took me so long to pick up an Al Green album. His stunning ballad Let's stay together (famous for its inclusion on the excellent Pulp fiction soundtrack) is rightly one of my favourite songs of all time. I guess I just considered him just another soul singer (TM), with Marvin Gaye, Sly & The Family Stone et. al. able to satisfy the need for that music in my collection.

For an artist as prolific as Al Green, a compilation seemed to be the way to go, and when an expanded 2CD edition of his Greatest hits was released, it seemed like a perfect opportunity to get more into his music. This purchase contradicts one of my previous blog posts about compilations, where I specifically mentioned avoiding two-disc sets. Let's just say that Al Green has the talent and discography to justify such a sprawling collection.

So what about the music? The majority of the songs on this collection are some of the finest soul/R&B songs ever released. They have groove, funk and passion and they are all topped off with one of the finest vocalists of the past 50 years.

Highlights are everywhere, but I'll reel off a few: Let's stay together (of course!), Tired of being alone, I'm still in love with you, Oh me, oh my (dreams in my arms), Call me, I gotta be more (Take me higher), the ultra-funky Love ritual and the more recent recording Starting all over again. That's only a short list, but the majority of the songs on this collection are as high in quality.

Even the covers (The Box Tops' The letter, The Doors' Light my fire and The Bee Gees' How can you mend a broken heart?) are fantastic re-inventions of songs which (with the exception of The letter) didn't sound like soul songs to begin with.

Al Green is a legendary artist, and this compilation is a great entry point into his vast catalogue.

Kings Of Leon - Youth & Young Manhood

It's a pity that it took a song as bland and generic as Sex on fire to give this band commercial success. Their first two releases were lean, well-produced albums that had instant appeal but more importantly had subtlety and longevity. Sure, their sound owed a lot to their influences (Stones, Creedence, The Allman Brothers) but they had the passion which made it great to listen to and the back-story which made it real.

You can almost picture the record company meeting where one of the big-wigs told them that if they cleaned up their rough edges and polished their sound, they could make it big. It's unfortunate in this day and age that there is often a conflict of interest between making good music and paying the bills, but I'm not a musician so who am I to complain?

Anyway, enough ranting about what they became; this great debut album is what they were and it's a great listen. They mix up the bluesy rockers (Red morning light, Wasted time) with the more catchy upbeat numbers (Happy alone, California waiting, Molly's chambers) and a few scratchy ballads (Trani, Dusty) which give the album a lot of light and shade. Unlike a lot of recent albums, the production by Ethan Johns maintains a wonderful sense of dynamics, allowing the music to breathe without overwhelming the listener.

Even the hidden track at the album (Talihina sky) is a lovely and melodic number. I wasn't expecting this album to be this good, but it was a pleasant surprise.

Mr. Bungle - California

I've become a bit of a broken record lately when talking about the lack of dynamics in modern music. Needless to say, I have had to find creative ways to discover new music, and most of the time this has involved investigating a lot of pre-2000s music that I missed the first time around.

Mr. Bungle was one of the many side projects of Mike Patton (the singer from Faith No More) where he unleashed some of his more experimental music. I remember hearing their 2nd album Disco volante when I was younger, as my brother was a fan and played it quite a bit. I was definitely a lot less open-minded when it came to experimental music back in those days. Then one of the music blogs which I subscribe to gave a retrospective review to California, their 3rd and most-accessible album. The review intrigued me enough to pick it up.

Like any of the Mr. Bungle albums, California is all over the place, encompassing a wide variety of genres from metal, doo-wop, funk, surf-rock, and late Tom Waits era carnival music. Some songs, like opener Sweet charity and Pink cigarette are fairly immediate. Others, like the psychotic closer Goodbye sober day and the stupendous Retrovertigo take a few more listens to reveal their charms.

The songwriting and performances are great, but it's the amazing production which pushes it into "brilliant album" territory for me. There are quiet parts which make the loud parts all the more powerful, and there's always subtle elements in the mix which reveal themselves more with each listen.

Frank Zappa may have died in 1993, but his spirit lives on in this great piece of work.

Neon Neon - Stainless Style

Concept albums can be mighty pretentious, can't they? This one is an exception for a few reasons. Firstly, it was written and performed by Gruff Rhys, the quirky genius front-man of Welsh band Super Furry Animals (in collaboration with electronic artist Boom Bip). Secondly, it's a concept album about John DeLorean, the man behind the car used for the time machine in Back to the future. As an 80s kid, the Back to the future trilogy are three of my favourite movies of all time, so anything connected with those movies will get an immediate thumbs-up from me.

The album juxtaposes 80s-style pop with a few hip-hop songs that help expand the story of John DeLorean and his troubled life. Throughout the CD, we hear about his love affairs (Raquel, I lust you), the founding of his company (Dream cars) and some of dark elements of his past (Sweat shop, Luxury pool). As an 80s pastiche it works incredibly well, with great melodies and beats throughout. My only criticism is that the hip-hop songs, while being effective in telling the story, detract significantly from the flow of the album. They stand out a bit too much.

This is a very accomplished album from one of the greatest songwriters and musicians from the past two decades, a man who can seemingly do no wrong.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

2010: A Year In Music [Part 2 of 5]

We now continue my list of musical discoveries of 2010. Enjoy!

Lloyd Cole & The Commotions - Rattlesnakes

I mentioned in the first post that this list wasn't in any sort of order, but if I was to order this list, this would most definitely be my album of the year. I haven't gotten as excited about an album since I first heard Cold fact by Rodriguez.

I first heard about this album when I read in a review that the Camera Obscura song Lloyd, I'm ready to be heartbroken was an answer song to Are you ready to be heartbroken? from this album. I started reading reviews about Rattlesnakes and the acclaim that I read quickly let me to add it to my list of albums to pick up (check out the reviews on Amazon where there isn't a single rating of less than 5 stars).

Released in 1984, this is a definitive "lost classic" album which deserves to be heard by anyone with even a passing interest in good music. I would compare the sound of this album most to 2 bands - The Smiths and The Go-Betweens. The melodies are gorgeous (get a let of that guitar riff on Charlotte street, or the chorus of Down on mission street) and the vocal performances are spot on (Patience, Rattlesnakes).

The lyrics are literary in the same vein as Robert Forster, injected with lots of pop-culture references (She looks like Eva Marie Saint in On the Waterfront / She reads Simone de Beauvoir in her American circumstance) and wit (She's got cheekbones like geometry and eyes like sin / And she's sexually enlightened by Cosmopolitan). It looks pretentious on paper, but like some of Jarvis Cocker's best material, Lloyd Cole has the talents to pull it off to perfection.

A shamelessly flawless album which is recommended to anyone with ears.

Died Pretty - Doughboy Hollow

Australian alternative rock band Died Pretty formed in 1983 in Sydney. Led by the charismatic vocalist Ron Peno, this album from 1991 (the year that grunge broke) is often considered to be their finest effort. I first read about this album in a magazine where various Australian musicians were asked to name their favourite Australian albums, and this album was mentioned a few times.

Equal parts atmospheric ballads (Doused, Turn your head, The love song), anthemic rockers (Sweetheart, Godbless) and melodic pop numbers (D.C., Stop myself) -- this is an eclectic yet cohesive album which isn't too far removed from the music that R.E.M. were making in the late 80s and early 90s (when they transitioned to the Warner Brothers label).

The core of their sound is a combination of the chiming guitar of Brett Myers and powerful vocals of Ron Peno. It's a filler-free and well-sequenced album which deserves a place in the great Australian albums hall of fame.

The Dukes of Stratosphear - Chips From The Chocolate Fireball

Chips from the chocolate fireball is a compilation of the 1985 EP 25 O'clock (pictured above) and 1987 album Psonic psunspot released by The Dukes of Stratosphear in 1987. The Dukes of Stratosphere was a pseudonym for the British post-punk/pastoral-pop band XTC, who were probably best known for their hit singles Senses working overtime and Making plans for Nigel.

When this album was released, it was never revealed who the Dukes of Stratosphear were, and only those with keen detective skills (and a good ear) figured out that it a cheeky little side project of XTC. It was a clever piece of musical marketing; just like the Beatles had done 20 years earlier with Sgt Peppers, XTC had re-invented themselves by pretending to be a completely different band. What was the most pleasant surprise was the exceptional quality of all of the material on this compilation, with many of the songs being better than some of the "real" XTC songs.

It was a detour sonically, allowing Andy Partridge and co. to experiment with the sounds of late 60s psychedelia. Most of the songs wear their influences proudly, from Syd Barrett era Pink Floyd (Bike ride to the moon), Nuggets-esque rockers (25 O'clock), cockney Small Faces-esque pop (Have you seen Jackie?, Albert Brown) and of course post-Revolver Beatles (almost everything).

The absolute highlight is saved until last with the gorgeous Pale and precious, one of their many tributes to the music of Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys circa Pet sounds. It's a stunning piece of work and possibly their finest 5 minutes.

Bob Dylan - The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3 (1961-1991)

This classic compilation has been on my list of box sets to buy for a long time, and it took the Australian dollar reaching a long-term peak for me to finally decide to pick it up on eBay. I'm not sure what I can say about this compilation that hasn't already been said many times ad nauseum, but I'll say it again. If you consider yourself a Bob Dylan fan, and only have his studio albums, you ain't heard nothing yet. There are songs on here which are not only some of Mr Zimmerman's finest, but some of the finest songs released in the past 50 years.

The 58 songs on this 3 CD set include material from a span of just under 30 years, from his youthful folkie days of the early 60s, through to his classic mid-60s Highway 61 revisited and Blonde on blonde era, his mid-70s Blood on the tracks era, and his "born again Christian" era of the late-70s and early 80s. It's a fascinating collection, documenting his growth as a musician and a songwriter, and his unwillingness to sit still or confine himself to a particular genre of music

There are outstanding folk songs (He was a friend of mine, No more auction block, Let me die in my footsteps, Who killed Davey Moore?, Moonshiner), most of which are better than some of the material released on his first 4 albums.

There are interesting experiments like the surreal spoken word poem Last thoughts on Woody Guthrie and funny instrumental Suze (The cough song) where Bob breaks down in a coughing fit at the end of the song.

There are also the original versions of some of the Blood on the tracks songs, before Dylan decided to re-record them with new musicians. And there are some delightfully catchy outtakes like the Blonde on blonde era She's your lover now and live Seven days which will probably edge their way into your top 20 Dylan songs.

I haven't even mentioned Blind Willie McTell, an absolute highlight of this set: a haunting ballad which for some bizarre reason Dylan didn't include on the Infidels album, an album which was not devoid of filler. This compilation is a dusty collection of hidden gems that you find locked away in the attic; I look forward to discovering and re-discovering these songs for many years to come.

Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes

Critics raved about this album when it came out in 2008. I'm getting much more cynical of hype as I get older, and I figured that it would be one of those "flavour of the month" albums that would get old pretty quickly. I finally picked it up when I was in London in late 2009, and it has been an album which has stood the test of time well for me.

Sure, they are not the most original or inventive band around, and in fairness they should probably be donating half of their royalties to Brian Wilson. But what their music lacks in originality it makes up for in passion and talent, and they pull off the baroque pop sound better than most other bands in recent memory.

Highlights include the gloriously epic White winter hymnal, the beautifully understated ballad Tiger mountain peasant song and the gorgeously addictive He doesn't know why. There are little magic moments throughout, like the change halfway through Ragged wood which turns it into a completely different song. A highly recommend album.