Monday, 13 December 2004

Top 10 Years For Album Releases - #4

And so the countdown continues...I'm not sure how many people are actually reading this blog, but if you are out there reading this and I don't know you, please drop me a line. I know I am opening myself up to a world of spiced ham by linking to my email address on a webpage. That's why I gave my Hotmail address...the abused email address. Anyway, the reason why I ask you to email me is because without a counter or statistics on my page (which I should probably put in), I have no idea who is reading it. It would be good to know that I am reaching a wider audience, but why would anyone go to my blog? Just a humble blog discussing music and other meaningless crap. I need to entice more people in. Maybe I'll start spamming a wider audience about it?

Anyway on to the fourth best year for album releases...

#4: 2001

I'm sure that future generations will look back on this year as a very important year. The 911 attacks on the United States cast a shadow over the entire year, of course. 2002 saw the obligatory "musical responses" to this tragedy. But associating 2001 with the September 11 attacks is wrong, because there were at least 8 months of the year that had gone by before they even happened. So we can't pretend that world felt that way the the whole year, when it was really only after September 11 when fear really started to set in.

Just like many baby boomers know where they were when they found out Kennedy was assassinated, I still remember where I was when I found out about the September 11 attacks. I had actually gone out to a pub in Hawthorn with a few friends, and I came home close to 11:00pm. I remember my parents were watching TV in their room and I went in to say hi to them, and there was an image of the burning WTC tower on the news. I can't remember if it was the first or second plane, but I remember going to bed without really thinking about it much more. It was only when I woke up in the morning that it really hit me what had happened. It was obviously all over the news, people at work were discussing it...very scary times indeed. A few years later, obviously things have calmed down a bit, but the world definitely feels like it's changed.

Anyway, I didn't mean to bring the mood of this blog down, but it was an important world incident that needed to be mentioned. Now on to happier topics -- like the music from 2001! Here's a little bit of trivia that nobody except for me would be interested in -- 2001 is the year that I have the most CDs from. At the time of writing, 35 of my CDs are from the year 2001. So this may be a long post :-) But does having 35 CDs from that year make it the best year for music? Obviously not. What a stupid question. It's #4. You see, quality is more important that quantity.

And of course there were many quality releases in 2001. Let's start with the creme of the crop:

  • Art Of Fighting released their brilliant debut album Wires. Now if you haven't heard of these guys, and you like beautifully written mellow indie folk music, then I highly recommend this album. But don't see them live! For me, they don't work in a live setting. Their music is best heard in a relaxed mood, lying down and letting the beauty of the music envelope your soul (Doesn't that sound like a wank? Yeah it does). Anyway, it's one of the best albums of 2001.
  • Bob Dylan released his most joyous and upbeat album since The Basement Tapes in 1975 -- Love and theft. This guy released his first album in 1962, and he's still going strong. Sure he's had his ups and downs, but you gotta respect a guy who is still keepin' it real after 40 years.
  • The Soundtrack of our Lives released their excellent album Behind the music. This Swedish 7 piece band are relatively unknown downunder, and many can argue that their music is derivative (they is definitely a huge Pink Floyd influence here) -- but there are some amazing tunes on this album. My favourites are Nevermore and Sister surround.
  • Ben Folds released his brilliant solo album Rockin' the suburbs. If the only song you've heard from this is the title track, and you don't like it, don't let that track put you off this album. In my opinion this is better than anything Ben Folds Five released. A superb collection of piano-driven indie pop tracks. And I even quite enjoy the title track now -- there's nothing like taking the piss out of bands like Limp Bizkit.
  • Machine Translations released their breakthrough album Bad shapes. Pete gave me this for my birthday. Initially I'll admit that it didn't do a lot for me, but over time it has grown on me a heap. Many beautiful tracks on this album, and every time you listen to it a new track stands out. They would continue to evolve on their next 2 albums Happy and Venus traps fly.
  • Muse released their best album Origin of symmetry. Yes, they are pretentious. Yes, the lead singer has an incredibly whiny voice. This is an excellent album and a huge improvement over their patchy debut Showbiz. Their newest album Absolution doesn't hit the heights of this album either. Give a listen to Micro-cuts, a crazy song and one of my favourites.
  • Ed Harcourt released his debut Here be monsters. His first album, and the only one of his 3 which is not copy-controlled. It's a great album, similar in style to the late Jeff Buckley but not a complete ripoff. Ed sounds so much like Glenn Richards (the lead singer of Augie March) at the end of Wind through the trees that it's spooky! My personal favourite on this album is God protect your soul.
  • Rock dinosaurs REM released Reveal to mixed reviews. Q magazine gave it 5 stars (!). Many other critics raved about it. Many panned it. Many old-skool REM fans disowned the band at this stage. Personally, while I prefer early REM, I quite enjoy this album. It's easily the most "beautiful" album they released. Just remember that they changed significantly after drummer Bill Berry left -- this was REM Mach II. Still a worthwhile band -- just a different one.
  • Super Furry Animals released the excellent Rings around the world. SFA never disappoint and this album is no exception. They couldn't write an uninteresting song if they tried. And I believe this was the first album ever to be released simultaneously on DVD in Dolby 5.1 -- together will filmclips. Which makes it quite a milestone.
  • Something For Kate released their best album Echolalia. Previous album Beautiful sharks was a giant leap from their debut Elsewhere for 8 minutes. This was another leap, albeit not as big as the last one. The production quality improved a lot on this album -- if there was going to be any album to make them huge this would have been it. Of course it didn't. But do they want to be huge? Probably not.
  • Neil Finn released his excellent sophomore solo album One nil. While I don't seem to love this album as much as some of the readers of this blog, I'll have to admit it's an excellent album. It's just not something I find myself spinning that often. Or playing for that matter. But I'm sure the sheer volume of CDs that I own has something to do with that.
  • You Am I released their 5th album Dress me slowly. This is a unique You Am I album in that it is the only one which Brett likes! For anyone who knows Brett well, this is an amazing achievement by Tim and the boys, because Brett isn't the biggest fan of Tim Rogers. Anyway, it's a very solid album with lots of great tunes -- but it still doesn't quite reach the peaks of their masterpiece Hourly, daily in my opinion.
And of course 2001 was also the year where the overhyped bands starting coming out in droves. I don't mean coming out in a Freddie Mercury way either.
  • White Stripes released their 3rd (and breakthrough) album White blood cells. Many consider Elephant to be their best album. In my opinion White blood cells shits all over it. Sure, the style of music is very similar (in fact Elephant is probably more developed) -- but White blood cells has the better tunes. Hotel yorba, Fell in love with a girl, lots of superb tracks on this album. I do enjoy this album, but I still think they are incredibly overrated.
  • The Strokes released their incredibly hyped debut album Is this it?. The press almost killed this band by overhype, but this is all in all a fantastic debut album. Sure, there's nothing particularly innovative here. But this is simply a fun album, nothing more, nothing less. There's an amazing array of tunes here - the classic anthem Last nite, the complex (by Strokes' standards anyway ;-) Hard to explain and the powerful New York City Cops, which was cut from the US release of the album after the 9/11 attacks in the US.
There were several albums released by established bands in 2001 which the critics (and many fans) panned:
  • Manic Street Preachers released their sprawling 6th album Know your enemy. To this date I still don't know why this album was received so badly. I agree that a few songs could have been trimmed from this album (I could easily do without the Spinal Tap-esque Intravenous agnostic and the grating Wattsville blues sung by Nicky Wire) but there's an amazing array of great, heartfelt tunes on this album. Ocean spray is a beautiful song written by James Dean Bradfield for his dying mother. So why so sad is a Phil Spector wall of sound that would make Brian Wilson proud. Epicentre is an epic piano-driven ballad. There are many more great songs on this album.
  • Air released their "difficult 2nd album" 10,000 Hz legend. Their debut album Moon safari had set the benchmark for chillout music. Rather than releasing Moon Safari Part II, this French duo released a much more experimental follow-up. While the single How does it make you feel really resembled their debut, elsewhere they toyed with everything from cheesy pop (Radio #1) to heavier techno tracks (Don't be light). Personally I don't mind this album, but I agree it isn't anywhere near as good as their debut.
Some other notable releases from 2001:
  • Perth band Eskimo Joe released their debut album Girl. Claiming to boast "12 songs about girls", this is an enjoyable indie-pop album. There are many great songs on this album -- my personal favourite is Planet earth.
  • British veterans Pulp released their 7th album We love life. This album was originally destined to be their self-titled one until the 9/11 attacks, after which it was quickly renamed. It's a solid album which finds a happy medium between the Britpop of Different class and the darkness of This is hardcore. Jarvis Cocker is as sleazy as always.
  • The Shins released their debut album Oh, inverted world. Many prefer this album over its successor Chutes too narrow but not me. There's much more of a late 60's vibe on this album, with a lot of reverb and sound effects in contrast to the directless of Chutes. Unfortunately this detracts from the power of a lot of the songs for me.
  • Zero 7 released their debut album Simple things. Mark and Matt (regular readers of this blog) are big fans of this album. Like most of my other chillout albums (Moon safari, Lost horizons) I enjoy it when I listen to it, but don't get the urge to listen to it a lot. There's something about chillout music that I still find incredibly redundant -- it's easy listening but my attitude is, why have 4 chillout albums when 1 will do the job? Controversial, but that's how I feel.
  • Bjork released her 4th album Vespertine. This is probably her most beautiful sounding album, moving away from the dance beats of Debut, the industrial sound of Post and the techno aspects of Homogenic. I still haven't fully gotten into any Bjork album -- they are slow burners but they grow on me each time I listen to them.
  • Britpop veterans The Charlatans released their "soul" album Wonderland. While not one of my all-time favourites, you have to respect a band who tries something different. Better than releasing the same album over and over again. And there are many great cuts on this album, including Judas and And if I fall.
  • Aussie legend Paul Kelly released ...Nothing but a dream. Together with Eskimo Joe's Girl, this was another album I got for free for filling out the EMI music survey. It feels so good to know I got heaps of freebies from EMI prior to them destroying the CD format with the copy control disc.
Wow, I told you I have a lot of albums from 2001 in my collection. Now to some of the more obscure albums from 2001:
  • I am Kloot (who????) released their debut album Natural history. The lead singer from this band kinda sounds like Tim Freedman from The Whitlams. The music was part of the "new acoustic" movement, coming out around the same time as the debut album by Kings of Convenience from Norway. While I can't remember the last time I listened to this album, it is a decent if forgettable effort. But I picked it up for $5.99 so can't really complain :-)
  • Life without buildings released their debut (and only) album Any other city. They guys are pretty unique -- it's pretty intense music with a young cockney woman almost rapping over the top of it. Apparently she's a bit of a hottie as well. It's a decent album but nothing groundbreaking.
  • Ex-Pavement lead singer Stephen Malkmus released his eponymous solo debut. Quite a quirky album with lots of great songs, but falls quite short of being brilliant. Still, this was another bargain at $5.99.
  • Guided By Voices released their critically acclaimed Isolation drills. Even though I've only gotten into GBV recently, I much prefer their earlier lo-fi albums over their polished studio efforts like this one. Still, this album has more than its fair share of great tracks -- but they are simple indie power-pop songs while their early stuff had a lot more quirky charm.
  • Ben Harper released his double live album Live from Mars. This double album contains a lot of his hits but it more notable for the brilliant cover versions including Sexual healing, Whole lotta love and The drugs don't work.
And finally, the disappointments for me in 2001:
  • Travis released their follow-up to the brilliant The man who with The invisible band. There is nothing really wrong with this album other than the fact that they didn't evolve from their previous album and they didn't push themselves out of their comfort zone. Oh yeah, and the quality of the songwriting did drop a little from the previous album. So I guess there are things wrong with this album.
  • Radiohead released Amnesiac. Many fans love this album. There are some wonderful tracks on this album -- Pyramid song, You and whose army, I might be wrong and the brilliant Knives out rank up there with some of Radiohead's best songs. Then there are the songs like Pulk/pull revolving doors (mainly electronic blips without much melody), Morning bell/Amnesiac (a completely redundant slower version of Morning bell from Kid A), Dollars and cents (just not very interesting) and Hunting bears (a pointless instrumental) which just feel like offcuts from Kid A. Disappointing.
  • Ash released their 3rd album Free all angels to a set of brilliant reviews. Yes, there are some great songs on this album. Shining light, Burn baby burn and There's a star are all brilliant. But many of the songs just don't work -- I can sleep very well knowing I will never have to hear Nicole, World domination or Submission again.
  • Elbow released their debut Asleep in the back. While there are some exquisite songs on this album (Red, Powder blue) -- it loses a lot of momentum by the end of the album. Their second album Cast of thousands improved upon this one.
  • David Mead released his 2nd album Mine and yours. Many well-written songs let down by his voice which is way too polished. He needs to smoke and drink a bit to roughen it up a bit ;-)
  • Spiritualized released their 4th album Let it come down. This album has heaps of potential, and there are some superb tracks on this album -- but unfortunately it is let down by overproduction. I'm not sure why Jason Pierce felt the need to drench every single song in huge string arrangements. Sometimes less is more.
  • Semisonic released their album All about chemistry. I remember reading a review of this in Q magazine, and it was given 5 stars (!). I saw it at JB Hi Fi for $3.99 and decided it was worth the risk ;-) Very commercial album which does kinda tarnish the CD collection. Some decent songs, but generally not my cup of Dilmah. Can be found in bargain bins at most JB Hi-Fi stores now :-)
That's 2001 for you. Now you'll have to excuse me -- I'm tired and I need sleep!

The absolute peak of musical ecstasy

I see your eyes light up at the interesting title of this blog posting. Well allow me to elaborate.

It's pretty obvious that the level of enjoyment one experiences when listening to music depends on a wide variety of factors:

  • The music :-)
  • Your mood
  • Where you are when listening to it
  • State of mind (drunk, stoned, [insert state here])
  • Lots of other factors

Over my many years of musical appreciation (and obsession), I have discovered that one of the best places and times to listen to music is driving alone late at night, when I am in a happy mood (i.e. not thinking about work or anything else which may put me in a lesser mood). Some albums which normally sound average when listened to in other circumstances take on a whole new meaning when listened to under these conditions. There's something incredibly peaceful about listening to some brilliantly composed music when driving alone at night.

Why not driving during the day? Well it's definitely not as peaceful. There's more other cars to deal with on the roads. More stopping at traffic lights. Avoiding the brightness and glare of the sun. Why not driving with someone else in the car? Well a lot of my music is an acquired taste, and I love to listen to my music LOUD. And if there's someone in the car with me, it would be very rude if I cranked the music up loud and didn't talk to the person with me :-)

Anyway, some of my most memorable "peaks of musical ecstasy" have been while listening to great music while driving late at night. I remember listening to Stevie Wonder's Innervisions, driving down the Eastern Freeway on the way back to Lorin's from the city. I remember hearing the brilliant songs -- there was Jesus children of
America, All in love is fair, Don't you worry 'bout a thing, He's Misstra Know-It-All. All brilliant songs -- and all after each other. I knew from that listen, in the car, late at night, played loud -- that this was a brilliant album. Yet when I listen to it nowadays, while I still enjoy it immensely, I never reach the same peak of musical ecstasy.

Another time was driving to Lorin's house at night, listening to REM's Fables of the reconstruction. Green grow the rushes came on. Without the distraction of other people, without the distraction of other cars, without the distraction of ANYTHING really (ahem...except my concentration on driving), I started to notice things. I listened to Green grow the rushes, and was overtaken by its immense beauty. Right here, right now, in the car on the way to Lorin's -- Green grow the rushes suddenly became one of my favourite songs of all time. What beautiful jangly guitar! What a sensational vocal performance from Michael Stipe! What a melody! Then there was Kohoutek. Under any other circumstance this would probably be considered an ordinary song. But in the car, driving alone late at night -- this was another moment of exquisite musical beauty. What's this song Good advices? What's this crazy lyric about looking at a stranger's shoes when you greet them? In the immortal words of Tony Martin of the late show -- "What is [Michael Stipe] on about?". Who cares?

All these amazing songs were just waiting for me to discover them. They were waiting for that perfect opportunity for to come out and slap me ever-so-gently in the face and tell me "I am an amazing song! Listen to me! Discover me for my brilliance!". They were waiting for the late night drive alone.

Yet, as good as all of this is, if I was to go for another late night drive alone with either Innervisions or Fables of the reconstruction playing on the car stereo, they will never have the same effect on me again. Why? Well, in both of those moments of musical ecstasy, it was only my 3rd or 4th listen of the said album. And, here comes the next point of this blog posting. I'd like to argue that for most albums (note that I italicised most), the 3rd or 4th listen will undoubtedly by one of the most enjoyable listens of the album. For true grower albums, the first listen is a complete waste of time. My attitude is that if I really enjoy an album on the first listen, I'll get sick of it fairly quickly. Then there are the albums which take 10+ listens to really appreciate. A lot of albums by Tom Waits fit into this category as many of his later period albums are very surreal, avant-garde and difficult. But most albums take about 3-4 listens for the pieces to start to fit together. By the 5th or 6th listen, you can start to differentiate between tracks. But on the 3rd and 4th listen, there is still the element of surprise when a hidden gem can come out and bite you on the ass (in a good way) when you least expect it. And the spontaneity of these moments that is true musical ecstasy. So with the aforementioned albums, I may already be on my 20th-30th listen. The moment is unfortunately over for these albums. I'm out of the honeymoon period now. I'd never reach the same level of enjoyment for them again. Unless, of course, I shelve them for many years and pull them out again -- to emulate the feeling of my first love for them.

So next time you are about to give a new album its 3rd or 4th listen, go for a late night drive. Or alternatively, if you can foresee a late night drive, listen to an album that you have already listened to 2 or 3 times. I'd be interested to know about people's experiences with the late night driven phenomenon, so please reply if you have any stories. A final note -- Tom Waits' The heart of Saturday night is my definitive driving-late-at-night album. Even after many listens, this is how I try to listen to it. And it's even better when driving around on a Saturday night.

Saturday, 4 December 2004


Coolest new musical chunk o' software - Audioscrobbler!

So I bet you're asking "OK Matt, so what the hell is it?" Glad you asked! It's a system that monitors all the songs that you listen to.

[Then they send that list to the RIAA and perform a check to ensure that you've bought the music you're listening to. Yeah, that last sentence was baloney - but I hope it sent shivers up your spine because one day it'll happen...]

Anyway, where was I? Oh yeah, so it monitors the songs that you listen to and can recommend other songs that you may like based on what other people, who've listened to songs like yours, have listened to. It's like one big music-fan group hug.

Plugins are available for a whole swagger of applications (Winamp, WMP, iTunes, foobar2000 etc).

On top of recommending songs it displays the most popular artists (currently Radiohead - oh yeah! Masses with music taste!) and songs (U2's newie, Vertigo) and many other "charts" polled from what the entire community is listening to. Speaking of community, there's a number of features that allow you to mark users as friends, publish a list of recommendations, join a group of users and a whole swagger of other features designed to make you feel part of the Audioscrobbler movement.

Anyways, check it out it looks pretty cool.