Monday, 20 December 2010

Oh Captain, My Captain: Captain Beefheart 1941-2010

I was saddened to open up the Pitchfork web page on Saturday afternoon and see the headline at the top: "R.I.P. Captain Beefheart". It was accompanied by a sad photo of the Captain from his (now) final 1982 album Ice cream for crow.

I first stumbled upon the music of the eccentric Don Van Vliet (the Captain's real name) after reading an interview with Simpsons creator Matt Groening, who named the 1969 album Trout Mask Replica as his favourite record of all time. Being a long time Simpsons fan, I respected the opinion of Matt Groening, so I sampled a few songs like Ella Guru and Dachau Blues from Trout Mask Replica. It was a little while later that I purchased the album, and to this day it remains one of the strangest and most enigmatic 78 minutes of music in my extensive collection.

I have since picked up many more of his albums: Safe as Milk, Strictly Personal, The Spotlight Kid and Clear Spot. While they are all much more "normal sounding" than Trout Mask Replica, this term is used very relatively. They are all avant-garde blues-rock creations that helped pave the way for much musical experimention and boundary-pushing in the decades to follow. If it weren't for the work of Van Vliet, Tom Waits may not have made the dramatic (and much needed) stylistic u-turn in 1983 when he released Swordfishtrombones.

Rest in peace, Captain Beefheart. May the dust blow forward, 'n the dust blow back.

"Moonlight on Vermont" (from Trout mask replica)

"Big Eyed Beans From Venus" (from Clear spot)

"Yellow Brick Road" (from Safe as milk)

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Manic Street Preachers gig [20th November 2010 @ The Forum]

James Dean Bradfield in the heat of the moment

I last saw Welsh alternative rockers Manic Street Preachers back in 1999 at the Prince of Wales in St. Kilda, for their This is my truth tell me yours tour. At the time I only had two of their albums -- the highly underrated This is my truth (1998) and anthemic post-Richey classic Everything must go (1996). This made that a gig of two halves for me; the recent songs that I knew and loved, and the older songs which the die-hard fans were screaming over, but I hadn't heard.

This time I had all of their albums bar their latest, Postcards from a young man, which I have listened to but have yet to purchase. It was also at The Forum in Flinders Street, my favourite gig venue as I have stated many times on this blog.

I met up with my mate Pete, his brothers and work-mate at the venue after leaving early from a bucks night which I was attending. I had consumed a few ales at the bucks night, so this was the first gig in what seemed like a long time that I attended in a less-than-sober state.

We missed the support act, and shortly after 9pm the Manics took to the stage. Opening with one of their Richey-era anthems, You love us, they covered a very diverse section of songs from most of their 10 albums released over a 19-year span. There were old-skool fan favourites like Motorcycle emptiness, Faster and Motown junk, some now mid-career classics like If you tolerate this and The everlasting and a few surprises like Suicide is painless (a.k.a. the theme song from MASH, albeit with lyrics).

Vocalist/guitarist James Dean Bradfield chatted a little with the audience between songs, but it was the flamboyant bassist Nicky Wire who stole the show, returning to the stage part-way through the gig wearing what appeared to be a pink skirt, sailor hat and a shite-load of make-up. He clearly deserves the title of the most camp heterosexual musician in the world.

The biggest disappointment for me was that they didn't play a single song from their superb 2009 album Journal for plague lovers. Easily their most impressive album of the 2000s, it would have been great to hear a bit of Jackie Collins existential question time or Virginia state epileptic colony, but alas it was not to be. They didn't play any songs from their more synth-heavy 2004 album Lifeblood, but that didn't bother me so much.

Closing the set with their sing-along 1996 anthem A design for life, Bradfield and co. farewelled the Melbourne audience. Like fellow Welsh statesmen Super Furry Animals, and legendary English metalheads Spinal Tap, the Manics don't believe in encores. Which suited me quite well; my prior over-consumption of beer wasn't sitting very well, and the fresh air outside the Forum was just was the doctor ordered.

Bootleg media

Nicky Wire before his costume change

All aboard...Nicky Wire after his costume change

Performance of one of their early 90s classics, "Motorcycle emptiness"

Friday, 16 July 2010

RIP: Pete Quaife 1943-2010

[Hardly breaking news]: Pete Quaife, the original bassist for British invasion band The Kinks, passed away last month at the age of 66. This makes him the first of the original four band members (including Ray Davies, Dave Davies and Mick Avory) to no longer be with us.

The Kinks formed in 1964 and first hit the charts with their classic rock song You really got me. Over the remainder of the decade they demonstrated tremendous musical evolution not unlike their contemporaries, a little known Liverpool act known as The Beatles.

They released several fine conceptual albums in the late 60s and early 70s -- Face to face, Something else, Village green preservation society, Arthur and Lola. Their 1971 album Muswell hillbillies is my personal favourite, an underrated and lost classic which you should definitely pick up if you get a chance.

At the core The Kinks were a very singles-dominated band and picking up one of their many singles compilations is the best way to get into them. From the power chords of All day and all of the night, the wry character portraits of Well respected man and Dedicated follower of fashion, the gorgeous story-telling of Sunny afternoon and the perfect pop of Dead end street and Lola, they left a remarkable legacy on the British musical landscape.

Their work influenced countless bands in subsequent decades, and they were in many ways the Godfathers of Britpop.

Rest in peace, Pete.

Saturday, 8 May 2010

Wilco gig [5th May 2010 @ The Forum]

Jeff Tweedy in action
[Photo courtesy of MarkP]

American alternative rock band Wilco last played in Australia a few years back, touring for their Sky blue sky album. At the time I had decided to give the gig a miss, a decision which I regretted when some of my other gig mates went along and subsequently raved about their live performance. When I heard recently that not only were Wilco returning to Melbourne, but they were playing at The Forum (easily my favourite musical venue) it was an opportunity too good to pass up.

A few days before the gig my mate Mark informed fellow gig mate Matt and myself that there was going to be even better "bang for the buck" because Liam Finn was supporting Wilco. Regularly observant readers may remember that I named his 2007 debut album I'll be lightning as one of my favourite albums of the 2000s. Needless to say, I was very pleased when I heard that he would be playing support.

While Liam had quite a reputation for rocking out in his live performances, I don't think anyone was expecting the utterly surreal performance of his act that night. While I usually gloss over the support act in my gig reviews, his set almost overshadowed the night for me.

It deserves a review of its own.

Liam Finn

Liam's set opened with a couple of songs from I'll be lightning -- the beautiful ballad Fire in your belly and Better to be. While the former was played in a fairly conventional acoustic fashion, for the latter he used a device which I hadn't seen before. He basically played the rhythm guitar part and then activated a machine to loop the same part continuously. This gave him the rhythmic foundation of the song (necessary since he was playing alone), allowing him to overlay the sound with lead guitar noodling and improvisation.

He had some strange mannerisms while playing guitar, sometimes closing his eyes like he was in pain or having a seizure. There was something a bit David Helfgott about it all.

After playing a couple more songs (On your side and Remember when), the set all got much weirder. He told the audience a story about a man (Connan Hosford) who he has met in New Zealand as a "wandering spirit". Connan had lived with Liam for a while, sleeping in his bed because "it was the only place he could" (although the impression was that their relationship was platonic). Then Liam invited Connan to come on the stage to perform in a few songs, and we were introduced to him as a sleight, youthful and fairly shy man with wavy blonde hair and an almost child-like demeanour.

Liam Finn and Connan Hosford
[Photo courtesy of MarkP]

Liam told the audience about how Connan and himself had co-written a song in tribute to actor Leonardo DiCaprio called Leo, and they performed this on stage. Liam sung the bizarre song with his normal voice, with Connan singing in a high falsetto, performing some strange vocal tricks by using his finger to vibrate his larynx. It was a bizarre display, with many audience members including me finding it all very amusing. When Connan finally did speak, he appeared to have a fairly normal voice.

Connan stayed on stage for the remainder of the set, providing the high backing vocals for the title track from I'll be lightning. Apparently Connan co-wrote the song with Liam and performed backing vocals on the studio version. It was interesting making the connection between the vocals on the studio version and this man on stage.

When he wasn't singing, Connan was dancing really awkwardly to the music. He appeared to be very nervous, but overall he came across as a bit of a Bez (of Happy Mondays fame). The set list ended with a cover of Devo's song Gut feeling, where Liam Finn went off with the help of a mini joystick-shaped theremin.

It was one of the most memorable supports acts I have ever seen; I wish all support acts were this interesting live. I would definitely see him live again if I had the chance.


Now who was I here to see again? That's right -- Wilco! Shortly after Liam left the stage, an announcement in a semi-computerised voice came over the PA system instructing fans not to take photos or video. Then Wilco took to the stage to the cheers of the already hyped-up crowd.

Wilco (the band) opened with Wilco (The song) from their most recent studio release Wilco (The album). Could there be an any more appropriate opening song? While the song is a bit of a throwaway, they managed to turn it into the perfect signature song to introduce all of the members of the band. They shone a spotlight on each band member in turn, stating their name; at the end it was all capped off with a single word: Wilco. It was an incredibly effective way to open the gig, showing that the band had a great sense of humour and showmanship.

The first half of the gig consisted mostly of songs from their last 4 studio albums, the albums where they moved away from their alt-country roots to embrace more alternative influences (although admittedly their last 2 albums were a return to a more conventional sound). Highlights of this part of the set included the beautiful Muzzle of bees, the dynamic At least that's what you said and the epic Handshake drugs (which worked much better in a live setting for me).

But the climax of the first half was undoubtedly the awesome Impossible Germany, where lead guitar virtuoso Nels Cline, Jeff Tweedy and the youthful looking Pat Sansone jammed like it was going out of fashion. It was an incredible display of interplay and duelling guitar, and it rawked the house down.

Jeff Tweedy and Pat Sansone trading guitar licks during "Impossible Germany"
[Photo courtesy of MarkP]

The second half of the gig began when bassist John Stirratt took to the microphone to sing the beautiful country song It's just that simple from their debut A.M. While this is (as far as I know) the only song on any of their studio albums not sung by Jeff Tweedy, I wasn't aware that the singer of that song was still in the band. It was a surprise inclusion in the set list.

The majority of the second half of the gig consisted of material from their albums prior to their breakthrough Yankee hotel foxtrot, and music from this era had a much more of a country feel to it. Their performance of Via chicago from Summerteeth was nothing short of amazing, where the mellow verses suddenly disappeared in blasts of dissonance and feedback while Jeff Tweedy and the backing vocalists continued singing as if it was business as usual. It was a sight (and sound) to behold.

The beautiful ballad Jesus etc. provided a chance for the audience to participate, where Jeff Tweedy encouraged everyone to sing along. The crowd definitely did the song proud, singing most of lyrics correctly and rarely missing a beat. I was actually a little disappointed that I didn't get to hear Jeff sing more of the song; he only came in with his vocals in the last verse.

They finished their set with a duo of rockers from their 2nd (double) album Being there -- Monday and Outtasite (outta mind). When they returned to stage for an encore, they played a duo from their 2004 album A ghost is born -- The late greats and the live favourite rocker I'm a wheel, which concluded the gig on a very positive note.

They played for about 2 1/2 hours, and my overall impression of the band can be summed up by two words: class act. They are such consummate professionals who are masters at what they do, and they do nothing short of rocking your socks off when they play live. It was such a pleasure to see such professional musicians performing; they are true entertainers.

Jeff Tweedy is an incredibly charismatic frontman, coming across as a guy you would like to have a beer and a chat with. He engaged the audience throughout the gig, taking requests for songs, telling stories and joking around; but never forgetting that you were there to rock and/or roll.

There are so many pretenders out there, but Wilco perform like a classic 70s rock act, and are (together with My Morning Jacket) one of the best examples of bands I have seen who are able to capture the spirit of that bygone era.

Bootleg media

I made a mistake of taking my camera out too early, during the Liam Finn set. A security guard tapped me on the shoulder and kindly told me that photography was not permitted. After that, I was too scared to bring the camera out again (figuring that since he had given me a warning, he had a valid reason to kick me out or confiscate my camera if he caught me again).

Since my friend Mark hadn't been warned, he was courageously able to take photos during the remainder of the gig (when the crowds were bigger and there was less chance of being caught). Thank you to Mark for all of the photos throughout the blog post. Here's a few more.

Is that you on the left Nigel Tufnel? No it's just Nels Cline.
[Photo courtesy of MarkP]

Drummer Glenn Kotche going off
[Photo courtesy of MarkP]

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Spoon gig [30th April 2010 @ Billboard]

Indie band Spoon (who hail from Austin, Texas) are one of my favourite bands from the last decade. Despite getting into them quite late (when I bought their 5th album Gimme fiction in late 2005), I have since purchased most of their albums. It didn't take long for their unique breed of minimal piano-driven rock/pop to get under my skin. With a back catalogue of 7 albums and several EPS, they had a plethora of excellent material to populate a solid set list, and I eagerly awaited the gig.

Taking to the stage with very little fanfare, they opened with the slow burner Before destruction, the opening track from their latest album Transference. Their set covered a vast spectrum of their back catalogue, with bias towards their last album and its predecessor Ga ga ga ga ga (their commercial and arguably artistic peak).

Highlights throughout the set included a groovy rendition of Me and the bean (a cover of a song by Austin band The Sidehackers, included on their Girls can tell album), beautiful ballad I summon you and the Motown pastiche of You got yr. cherry bomb. The crowd seemed to respond best to the Ga ga ga ga ga material; a great cross-section of that album was included, from the anthemic Don't make me a target, atmospheric The ghost of you lingers and groovy numbers Rhthm & soul [sic] and The underdog.

There weren't too many surprises in the song line-up, but front-man Britt Daniel introduced one song as "a Wolf Parade song" before launching into an admirable cover of Modern world from their Apologies to Queen Mary album. Stay don't go (from Kill the moonlight) was also nice to hear, sans the beat-boxing which is integral to the rhythm of the studio version.

Unfortunately Britt Daniel appeared to have a few voice issues, apologising on several occasions and asking the audience if he sounded a bit hoarse. Many of the songs were punctuated with bursts of feedback during the peaks and fade-outs; initially I thought that these were accidents, but my gig mate Matt believed that maybe they were done on purpose to hide his limited vocal range. I certainly didn't think they added anything to the music, so hopefully he was just having an off-night. The sound quality wasn't great in general, but that's probably a criticism directed more at the venue (and possibly sound engineer) than the band.

No songs were played from A series of sneaks (Metal detektor and Metal school would have gone down particular well), and the selection from Girls can tell was also quite lean (the poppy Everything hits at once and down-tempo 1020 AM would have added a bit more variety to the set list). But the biggest disappointment of the night was not getting to hear The way we get by live; not only is it my favourite Spoon song, but it's one of my favourite songs of all time.

Britt Daniel's stage presence at times reminded me of the late Ian Curtis, front-man for the influential post-punk band Joy Division. I'm not sure if it was the almost-robotic way in which he carried himself, but it was especially apparent when he ended the gig after epic finale Written in reverse; he said goodbye to the audience and just dropped the microphone from the height at which he was holding it. It just seemed like something Ian Curtis would have done.

Overall it was a respectable gig, but one marred by technical issues and a (slightly) disappointing set list. Maybe I've just been spoilt by other excellent gigs from recent memory.

Bootleg media

Britt doing his best "Joe Strummer" impersonation.

Britt strumming away.

Performance of I summon you from their Gimme fiction album.

Friday, 2 April 2010

My 50 favourite albums of the 2000s [1]

1. Augie March - Sunset Studies (2000)

Augie March formed in 1996 in Shepparton, a country town almost 200km north of Melbourne. They released a few EPs in the late 90s, the patchy Thanks for the memes (1998) and the excellent Waltz (1999) which included their early hit Asleep in perfection. Waltz was a very accomplished EP which has held up very well over 10 years later, with several of the songs (Rich girl and The mothball) still part of their live setlist.

Waltz was a delicious appetiser, but I wonder how many were expecting the sumptuous banquet that Augie March unleashed on their full-length debut album Sunset studies. You don't even have to hear a note of the album to realise that you are dealing with something very special here; just look at the elegant cover art and a flick through the tasteful booklet. It is a labour of love.

Epic opener The hole in your roof takes its time with a very long, droning fade-in before vocalist Glenn Richards enters the scene: "What do the men say / To the women when they lay down at night / All naked of arms from the old imagined flight?". This was the first Augie March album I bought, and the combination of Richards' ethereal vocals, deeply enigmatic lyrics and the slow-burning intro piqued my interest on the first listen. The song is an exercise in tension and release, building to a stunning climax near the end of its 7 minutes.

Follow up Maroondah reservoir opens with more Glenn Richards poetry "To be / A bee, a moth / Four wings spread for the soft last touch of glory sun" before latching on to an amazing melody that sounds unlike anything you have ever heard before, but will have you humming it after only one listen. It is one of the few songs on the album that loosely fits within the constaints of the tradition verse/chorus structure which most popular music feels the need to be bound to. Most of the songs are quite happy to meander and wander, dancing around the ebb and flow of Richards' remarkable poetry and streams of consciousness.

While most of the music here is progressive and boundary-pushing, there are a few accessible anchors to keep the listener grounded on those all too important initial listens. There's the heart-breaking piano ballad There's no such place, featuring the late Rob Dawson on backing vocals and piano. There is the lyrically dense The offer, which despite breaking the fourth wall on a few occasions ("This is a song, not like the other ones") turns out to be one of the catchiest songs they have ever released. Asleep in perfection is also included despite its presence on the Waltz EP, but it fits in perfectly amongst its peers.

Then there's the slow burners which didn't blow me away on the first listen, but after a few listens they became some of my favourite moments. The stunning ballad Tulip and the pastoral folk of The good gardener (on how he fell) both start off as fairly subdued affairs before reaching transcendent climaxes. The cinematic title track, with its aristocratic imagery ("You are the queen of the dustbowl / Ex to a crier in a town of ashes") will hit you on the 4th listen, I promise you. The inner voice in your head will say "I'm not worthy!" while you try to keep those goose-bumps under control.

Sunset studies is a very long album at 76 minutes, and I think the best way to manage it is to abstract it into an album of 3 parts:

Part 1 (The hole in the roof - Tasman awakens) introduces the various facets of their sound -- slow burning epics, melody, groove, beauty and finally the folk of Tasman awakens.

Part 2 (Believe me - Heartbeat and sails) sees them branching out in odd directions, from the sample-driven interlude of Believe me, the old school folk of Men who follow spring the planet 'round, and the odd and haunting drone of Angels of the bowling green (which seemed like 5 minutes of filler until I realised how lyrically macabre it was).

Part 3 (The offer - Owen's lament) ends the album on a more accessible note with four very melodic songs, before the stupendous closer Owen's lament shoots the album into the stratosphere. This is one of my favourite songs of all time, and after more than 20 listens I am still blown away by it every time I hear it. It is musical perfection, and mirrors the epic opening track in how aptly it bookends the album.

Their follow-up Strange bird (2002) was a perfect sequel, fully deserving of its high placement in this list. Trying to choose between the two albums was incredibly difficult, as they both mean a lot to me. Sunset studies just edged its way to the top because it was the album which introduced me to their music (thanks for the recommendation Pete); for that reason it will always hold a special place in my heart.

I bought this album during a time of my life when I was getting into a lot of new, exciting music, and it helped to create a life-long obsession for me. It is one of the albums which made me realise that music didn't have to be immediate or formulaic to be engaging. It made me realise that looks can be deceiving and the rewards are there to be reaped if you put in the time and effort to let a work of art reveal itself to you. It is the antithesis to what I dislike so much about a lot of modern music.

It is my favourite album of the 2000s.

Here's a statistical breakdown of my top 50:

Country# albums
United States23
New Zealand1

Year# albums

My biggest surprise here was that the majority of albums were by American musicians. I have always considered myself a fan of primarily British music, but even when I total the United Kingdom (England, Scotland, Wales) and Ireland counts it still falls short of the American total.

I am not surprised that 2002 was the best year of the decade -- I once gave it the coveted title of the best year for album releases many moons ago. However, I was surprised that 2005 and 2007 (both great years for music) didn't appear higher in the list. I'm definitely not surprised that the last couple of years didn't appear much in the list, as I definitely curbed my purchasing of new releases over the past few years.

Thanks for reading my top 50 albums of the 2000s.

You can read the previous posts in the series here.

Thursday, 1 April 2010

My 50 favourite albums of the 2000s [1]

1. Australian Idol - The Final 13 (2005)1

I realised when I started to pre-compile my list of the top 50 albums of the 2000s that it was an incredibly difficult task. "Albums of the decade" lists are a dime-a-dozen, and I really wanted my list to stand out amongst the crowd. Then it hit me: most lists like this are incredibly subjective, the opinions of mere music reviewers. Maybe I could stand out from the crowd by applying some sort of science to it. I knew there must be a more objective way to choose the best album of the 2000s.

Then I had a revelation -- the reality show franchise Australian Idol had already done the hard yards for me. Host James Mathison (and former co-host Andrew G) said in almost every episode "It's time to vote Australia" or "Australia has voted". Australia's population (which currently stands at about 22 million) is a pretty large sample size. Could the population of Australia help me choose the album of the decade?

At the end of each season of Australian Idol, the winner releases an album in time for the Christmas buying season. They also release a compilation of songs recorded by all of the contestants who made it to the finals. By definition, each year includes 10-13 finalists who are the best musicians in the country. That means all I had to do was pick the best season in Australian Idol history, and the album (or compilation) of the decade falls right into my lap. Take that, Pitchfork!

Picking my favourite year for Australian Idol was a tough decision. Should I go for season 1, which introduced both Guy "Like a virgin" Sebastian and Shannon "Nollsy" Noll to the world? It was a very tempting choice, as the compilation also included the legendary Rob "Millsy" Mills singing a version of Dirty girl, which one can only assume was dedicated to his flame at the time Paris Hilton (who broke his heart when she stopped returning his phone calls).

Season 2 was also a contender; not only did it introduce the pint-sized Anthony Callea and the prolific winner Casey Donovan to the world, but in a strange self-propagating twist, it also found a future co-host for the show in Ricki-Lee Coulter when James Mathison decided to quit the show recently. Take that, space-time continuum!

In the end, I had to go with season 3 from 2005. Just like the classic animated sitcom The Simpsons, the Australian Idol franchise reached its inevitable peak in this season. While you could argue that the young Bendigo lass Kate DeAraugo was the major contributor to this (whose take on bogan chic was as patriotic as you could get), we must not discount the talents of the über-polished Daniel Spillane, who managed to suck all of the testosterone out the classic AC/DC rocker T.N.T. to allow him to grow that little tuft of hair on his chin. And who can forget the young rocker Lola Forsip, whose rendition of The Who's Won't get fooled again scored a touchdown from judge Mark Holden?

Season 3 was also the first season that resident bad-boy Kyle Sandilands appeared as a judge, replacing Ian "Dicko" Dickson, who decided that food interested him more than music when he became the host of My restaurant rules. While Dicko was a music mogul from way back, Kyle Sandilands was dating Tamara Jaber from reality show band Scandal'us (formerly known as Bardot), which immediately gave him the credentials to judge and criticise music.

Anyone who made it to the top 13 (and hence this CD) had to pass through the Kyle filter, and while it was an incredibly gruelling task, he ensured that any of the girls who were carrying a bit too much "baggage" were quickly dismissed from the show. After all, we didn't want those "tuck shop lady arms" getting in the way of the musical performances.

But what really elevates season 3 all of the other seasons is the talent of one very special person.

Lee Harding

Come on people, this is a guy who wore a T-shirt of the US punk band The Misfits without having any idea who they were. He also wore a pair of Mötley Crüe shoes despite the fact that he could hardly name any of their songs. Step aside Iggy, the real Godfather of punk is right here.

Unfortunately some of his detractors have accused him of being a sellout bubblegum punk, a try-hard emo kid who wants to take the quickest possible road to fame. But isn't his behaviour as punk as it really gets? The original punk philosophy was about distancing yourself from the mainstream and the bombastic excesses of stadium rock. So what better way to show your punk credentials than appearing on a reality show? Surely 10,000 screaming and texting 12 year old girls cannot be wrong. Stick it to the man!

While many Australian musicians are taking the slow road to fame by playing the pub circuit, writing their own songs and actually dedicating their lives to music, the top 13 performers represented on this CD provide the real heartbeat of the Australian music scene.

It's my patriotic choice for the best album of the 2000s.

1In case you're wondering why I have created a new post with a new number 1 album, you may want to take note of the date of this post.

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

My 50 favourite albums of the 2000s [2]

2. Badly Drawn Boy - The Hour Of Bewilderbeast (2000)

While compiling this top 50, I noticed that there were quite a few debut albums on the list which the respective artist or band was never able to top. This album is a prime example; while Badly Drawn Boy (a.k.a. Manchester singer-songwriter Damon Gough) has released some respectable music since his debut, nothing has even been in the same league as this experimental and multi-faceted masterpiece.

I first read about this album in the UK music magazine Q. They had one of those full-page advertorials about this album, with a picture of the cover and several quotes from rave reviews. I remember initially being really impressed with the album cover, an eye-catching homage to Leonardo da Vinci's Vitruvian man.

Since I had never heard any of his music before, I listened to a sample from Amazon -- Once around the block -- which I thought was pretty catchy and oddly reminded me of Jamiroquai (I guess there's a vague resemblance in its white-boy funk melody).

I decided to pick the album up, and while I don't remember it blowing me away immediately, I knew that there was a lot of promise beneath its restless diversity that it wore so proudly. Some songs were immediate (Once around the block, Disillusion, Pissing in the wind), but most of the songs revealed their charms slowly over repeated listens. Eventually, hidden gems like the subtle jazzy melody of Stone on the water got underneath my skin. Further listens revealed other favourites.

As great as most of the songs are on an individual level, it probably wouldn't be the masterpiece that it is without the conceptual unity that ties all of the songs together into an oddly cohesive long-player. There's the "water trilogy" of Fall in a river, Camping next to water and Stone on the water. There's the gorgeous instrumental interludes (Bewilder, Bewilderbeast, Blistered heart) which act as a form of delectable musical glue that binds the album together.

Then there's those little surprises in the deep crevices of the album: the hidden song at the end of Cause a rockslide, the splash at the end of Fall in a river (boom tish) and the trippy stereophonic panning of This song (which I love despite the subtle feeling of nausea it gives me). Not all of the experiments work (I could have lived without the 45 second interlude that is Body rap), but you have to take your hat off to the sheer audacity on display here.

There's also a conceptual lyrical arc that runs over the course of the hour-long album, beginning with the infatuation of The shining ("I'm put a bit of sunshine in your life") and concluding with the regretful melancholy of Epitaph ("Please...don't leave me"). A lot of the other songs hint at feelings which are felt during an intense love affair, from the lust of Everybody's stalking, the romanticism of Magic in the air and the giddy confusion of Disillusion.

A diverse mosaic of sounds, textures and moods, The hour of bewilderbeast is an anarchic labour of love from the incredibly fertile and imaginative mind of Damon Gough. Like a Jackson Pollock painting, he threw all of his musical ideas at a blank canvas and ended up with a work of art. A decade on, one can look at it as a creative master-stroke from a very talented musician who probably reached his creative peak way too soon.

Friday, 26 March 2010

My 50 favourite albums of the 2000s [3]

3. Augie March - Strange Bird (2002)

The transition that Melbourne band Augie March made between their debut album Sunset studies and this one was akin to Dorothy's entrance into the land of Oz. The same characters were there -- lead singer Glenn Richard's poetic lyrics, his unique vocal delivery, and the stunning musical chops of the other band members -- it was just a little bit more colourful.

While Sunset studies was an organically mellow affair, Strange bird doesn't mind straying beyond those stylistic boundaries, following their muse to see where they end up. From the baroque pop of lead single The vineyard, the raucous hoe-down of This train will be taking no passengers (which wouldn't sound out of place on a Pogues album), the brass-inflected Little wonder and the lo-fi folk of Sunstroke house -- there isn't a wasted moment to be found on this hour-long album. It is a tour de force of musical styles and sounds that fit together seamlessly into a cohesive whole.

Strange bird also includes some darkness and shade with rockier moments (Song in the key of chance), brief but beautiful musical interludes (O mi sol li lon, Up the hill and down), avant-garde experiments (O song) and wide-screen epics (the perfection of Brundisium which may just be their finest moment). There's also a thematic thread throughout the record, with a few songs referencing "strange birds" or bird-related imagery in the lyrics.

While the whole band demonstrate their talent on every track, there's no doubt that front man Glenn Richards is the star of the show; his deeply enigmatic lyrics and versatile vocal style (ranging from a mournful croon in This night is a blackbird to the scream of "Train!" at the end of This train will be taking no passengers) always steal the show.

The attention to detail in the packaging is immaculate, from the vintage feel of the album cover, to the booklet accompanying the album which is more like a poetry anthology (even including an index of the first lines of each song). The care and elegance on display here prove to me that owning a digital version of an album will never be able to replace the real thing when there are still bands out there who care as much as these guys do.

Augie March confirmed on this album that they are one of the greatest bands of this generation. While their follow-ups have been relative disappointments, I am hopeful they they will be able to re-ignite the spark and deliver another great album like this in the near future.

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

My 50 favourite albums of the 2000s [4]

4. Antony and the Johnsons - I Am A Bird Now (2005)

Antony and the Johnsons is primarily a vehicle for the work of Antony Hegarty, an androgynous singer-songwriter originally from England but now based in New York City. I am a bird now was their second album of delightfully twisted baroque chamber music, following their self-titled album from 2000.

I am a bird now is an idiosyncratic masterpiece, and one of the few albums which I have heard that deserves to be treated as a contemporary work of art. It's an album to be torn apart, analysed and re-constructed again; I am hopeful that one day art scholars will be studying it as part of their curriculum.

Like many pieces of contemporary art, this album is not for everyone. You will probably decide within the first few seconds of the opening track whether it is for you. Antony's unique vibrato vocals are not for everyone, and if you are able to develop an appreciation for them then you are already halfway there to developing a taste for this remarkable record. If you are familiar with any of the work of jazz legend Nina Simone, you will definitely hear parallels between her vocals and Antony's.

The music is very understated, piano-based cabaret music; as wonderfully lush and produced as it is, Antony's lyrics and delivery are the real star of the show. Lyrically heartbreaking, the album covers a gamut of emotions from fear of death (Hope there's someone), being trapped in the wrong body (For today I'm a boy) and emotional companionship (You are my sister).

There are a plethora of guest stars: Boy George (You are my sister), Rufus Wainwright (What can I do?), Lou Reed (Fistful of love) and Devendra Banhart (Spiralling). While one can cynically look at guest spots as cross-over opportunities, here their performances fit in seamlessly with the vision and lyrical themes of the album (in particular Boy George).

Whilst the first half of the album spans many intertwining and depressing lyrical themes, the second half (beginning with the Rufus Wainwright vocal performance What can I do?) is more hopeful. The punchy Fistful of love (the most upbeat and optimistic song on the album) is punctuated by saxophone and an upbeat rhythm section, adding some much needed relief to compensate for the darkness of the other songs.

By the time the album concludes with the brief interlude Free at last and euphoric Bird gerhl, you know that Antony has reached a content state of redemption and enlightenment. We don't know whether he has become completely comfortable in his own skin, or whether it's just a façade. We are just glad that he exposed his soul to us and allowed us to accompany him on this emotional journey.

Monday, 22 March 2010

My 50 favourite albums of the 2000s [5]

We are now, as Matt kindly pointed out in the comments section of this post, at the "pointy end" of the countdown. To prolong the inevitable, I will be only doing a single album per post for the top 5.

I hope you enjoy the rest of the countdown!

5. Wilco - Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002)

This album ticks many boxes in the as-yet-unwritten "classic albums" criterion.

It was a pretty radical reinvention
If this was the first Wilco album you had heard, you would find it pretty hard to believe that they started out as an alt-country band.

Wilco formed in 1994 from the ashes of Uncle Tupelo. They had subtle progression over the course of their first 3 albums: AM (1995) was as alt-country as you could get, Being there (1996) was an ambitious and genre-hopping double album, and Summerteeth (1999) added a lot of studio polish and overdubs to their sound (there were also a few collaborations with Billy Bragg on the excellent Mermaid avenue albums).

From the moment the surreal opener I am trying to break your heart hits your speakers or earphones, you know that your ears are in for a treat. Where previous albums were at their core collections of well-written and performed "pop songs", Yankee hotel foxtrot is a multi-faceted and complex masterpiece. Each listen reveals new sounds deep in the mix, yet it is still melodic enough and remains a pleasure to go back to again and again.

It was the band's best to date
Where each of their previous albums had their share of filler material, the quality level rarely dips here. There are catchy and accessible numbers (War on war, Heavy metal drummer, Pot kettle black), mellow laments (Radio cure, Reservations) and even some songs which hint at their country past (Ashes of American flags and the superb Jesus, etc).

There are also elements deep in the mix which constantly surprise the listener, from the titular CB radio transmission at the end of Poor places, the quirky instrumentation in I am trying to break your heart and the way some of the songs end abruptly in a sea of static. On the first few listens I actually thought something was wrong with my CD when this happened; I soon realised that it was intentional.

It's the intersection of accessibility and innovation which made this album so impressive when it came out, and it still remains a compelling listen today.

Later albums couldn't match this one
I've talked briefly about their earlier albums, but this album still stands head-and-shoulders above anything they have since released. A ghost is born (2004) came pretty close but sometimes got caught up in its own pretension, and some songs were clearly big mistakes. Sky blue sky (2007) was too MOR for my liking. I have only heard their latest Wilco (The album) (2009) a few times and I'm not convinced it is going to give this album a run for its money.

I will be pleasantly surprised if Wilco ever manage to top this career peak.

It had an awesome back story
To cut a long story short: their previous record label (Reprise) refused to release this album when they heard it in 2001, considering it too left-field and not commercial enough. Wilco subsequently left the label, acquiring the rights to the record. After a particularly dark period (captured in the awesome documentary I am trying to break your heart) they sold the distribution rights to Nonesuch records.

So why is this so interesting? The whole story is particularly amusing because both the Reprise and Nonesuch record labels are operated through the same parent label of Warner Brothers. Indirectly, Warner Brothers paid for the same album twice.

Jim O'Rourke
This album was co-produced to perfection by the legendary musician/producer Jim O'Rourke, who was once a member of Sonic Youth and has also released a few critically-acclaimed solo albums. I have written before about the nasty industry trend of dynamic range compression, and Jim O'Rourke is one of the few producers out there who is "keeping it real" in his production work.

And you can hear it in the mix of this album; O'Rourke treats the music with utmost respect, allowing the instruments to breathe, maintaining the dynamics of the sound and ensuring that every recorded note remains a pleasure to listen to. O'Rourke set an incredibly high production benchmark for the decade here, which makes the downward spiral of production quality over the remainder of the decade even more difficult to handle.

Just listen to the opening song a few times, and be prepared to notice things on the third listen that you weren't even aware of the first time around. It subtle touches like this that elevate this album from merely great to one of the best of the decade.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

RIP: Alex Chilton 1950-2010

Alex Chilton, former front man for 70s power-pop pioneers Big Star, has died in New Orleans at the age of 59. Chilton was also well known as the vocalist for the 60s blue-eyed soul band The Box Tops, whose biggest hit The letter reached number 1 in the US in 1967 (when Chilton was still in his teens).

I became a fan of Big Star in 2003 when I picked up their classic 2-for-1 album set of #1 Record and Radio City. I later picked up the dark, tortured Third/Sister Lovers which was basically an Alex Chilton solo album in all but name (former member Chris Bell had already left the band by this stage).

Alex Chilton made the news in 2005 when he went missing in New Orleans after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. Thankfully, he was found safe a few days later.

Alex has left behind a wonderful musical legacy which has influenced countless musicians.


Here are a few of my favourite Big Star songs with Chilton on vocals:
  • The Ballad Of El Goodo was included in my top 100 favourite songs of all time.
  • Thirteen is probably their most famous song, and has been covered by Elliott Smith and Wilco, amongst others.
  • Blue Moon is a stunning ballad from Big Star's dark final album Third/Sister Lovers.
MP3: Big Star - The Ballad Of El Goodo [Link removed]
MP3: Big Star - Thirteen [Link removed]
MP3: Big Star - Blue Moon [Link removed]

Update: Song links removed.

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

My 50 favourite albums of the 2000s [10-6]

10. The Notwist - Neon Golden (2002)

Forming in 1989 in Bavaria, German band The Notwist released four albums during the 90s which evolved from a rough punk/hardcore sound into a more electronica based sound by the end of the decade. Neon golden was a cross-over success for them, breaking through to indie music fans (like me) who read rave reviews about it on Pitchfork Media and other influential publications.

The sound that the Notwist achieve on Neon golden is one that I would best describe as a fusion of influential synth-pop pioneers Kraftwerk and Stuart Murdoch, the lead singer of the legendary Glasgow band Belle & Sebastian (who lead singer Markus Acher has an uncanny resemblance to). As accurate as this description is, I also think it's under-selling what they achieved on this remarkable album.

Opener One step inside doesn't mean you understand sets the scene perfectly with what sounds like a banjo strumming at the start, after which Acher's shy subdued vocals enter the scene. It's all very minimal and intimate, and about one minute into the song the sound of what appears to be wooden blocks hitting together come into the mix, providing a very effective rhythm to the song. Organic and worn-in, it's a perfect opener: warm, inviting and innovative.

Pilot is one of the more upbeat and conventional songs on the album, with a consistent electro beat and a fairly traditional verse/chorus structure. It's probably one of the least interesting songs on the album for me, but it's still an excellent song.

The trilogy of Pick up the phone, Trashing days and This room is, to put it simply, twelve minutes of musical bliss. Each song sounds like nothing you've ever heard: all gorgeously melodic, cinematic and multi-layered. This is some of the best electro-pop you are likely to hear.

The second half of the album contains the eastern pastiche of the title track (which George Harrison would be proud of), the very catchy rock of One with the freaks, and the stunning closer Consequence, a breathtaking song with an outstanding vocal melody that makes you just want to play the album all over again. And you will.

9. The Streets - Original Pirate Material (2002)

This debut album from Mike Skinner (aka The Streets) received a lot of attention in the indie rags. I wasn't sure if its amalgamation of hip-hop, electronica and garage was really for me as I wasn't really into these respective sub-genres. But I saw it on sale and decided to give it a go, and it was another one of those risks that I didn't regret.

Say what you want about the music (and it is great); this album all comes down to the charisma of Mike Skinner. Just as Jamie Oliver made it big as a celebrity chef partly due to his personality, this album wouldn't work as well if Mike Skinner didn't let his personality shine through in every song, both in the lyrics and the delivery of them.

You may get confused by all of the UK slang (birds, geezers) but wasn't Clockwork orange still a masterpiece despite its dialogue, in a language that sounded like a cross between English and Russian?

Every song lets us into Mike Skinner's world, from the epic call-to-arms opener Turn the page, the faux-radio transmission of Has it come to this?, the working class anthem Geezers need excitement, the mourning (yet beautiful) break-up song It's too late and the lyrical master-stroke and character study of The irony of it all.

Mike Skinner became even more ambitious on the follow-up, the concept album A grand don't come for free. But in my mind he was never able to top the youthful energy, innovation and genre fusion which he achieved on this stunning piece of work; an artistic triumph which holds a well-deserved place in my top 10 albums of the decade.

8. The Shins - Chutes Too Narrow (2003)

Albuquerque band The Shins had an interesting history prior to the release of this album. They formed in 1997 as Flake (later known as Flake Music), releasing several EPs and a full-length low-fi LP When you land here, it's time to return to very little acclaim. At the turn of the decade they had changed their name to The Shins and signed to the famous Sub Pop label. Their debut album Oh, inverted world was released in 2001, receiving excellent reviews. It was a solid debut album with moments of brilliance (New slang), mixed together with some less inspired moments.

There was lots of anticipation for their follow-up album, and Chutes too narrow was finally released in October 2003. Opinions about the album appeared to be very positive, but some fans thought that it was a relative disappointment after their debut.

2004 was a great year for the band, appearing on the Garden State soundtrack and being named-checked in the same movie by über-babe Natalie Portman ("This band will change your life"). They also had a few of their songs appear in the emo-sitcom Scrubs, joining the ranks of bands like Death Cab For Cutie who had been able to cross-over through similar means.

Where Oh, inverted world owed a lot to its influences (mainly late-60s psychedelia and pop, a la The Zombies), Chutes too narrow saw them developing their own unique style. Where Inverted was often distant and obtuse, Chutes was delivered in a much more direct, intimate and personal manner, even if the lyrics were still a bit cryptic at times. Many of the bells and whistles which cluttered the production of its predecessor were also stripped back, allowing James Mercer's amazingly emotive vocals to take centre stage in the mix.

Almost every song on this album fights to be the best track on the album, from the quirky opener Kissing the lipless (which begins with a yelp), the baroque harmonies of Saint Simon, the infectious power-pop of Fighting in a sack, the intimacy of Pink bullets and the country-influenced Gone for good.

My personal favourite song is Young pilgrims, with its juxtaposition of deeply surreal lyrics ("There is this side of me that wants to grab the yoke from the pilot and just fly the whole mess into the sea"), vocal intimacy, and uncluttered instrumentation. It is an elegant composition which strips music back to first principles, and a stunning encapsulation of the "less is more" aesthetic that they achieved on the whole album.

The length is perfect -- at 10 songs and 33 minutes, there isn't a wasted note on the album. It is sequenced like an old LP: 5 songs per side, side A running from Kissing the lipless to the epic closer Saint Simon, and side B beginning with the corker Fighting in a sack and closing with the sparse Those to come. Bands and artists who cram too many mediocre songs on to a CD just because they can could learn a lot from what The Shins achieved on this superb album.

7. Liam Finn - I'll Be Lightning (2007)

[This review is copied almost verbatim from a recent blog post. My opinion about the album hasn't changed since I wrote that review a few months ago.]

I've stated many times on this blog that I have become quite disillusioned with a lot of modern music. Which made the recent discovery of this album an even more pleasant surprise. In hindsight, I probably shouldn't have been surprised. After all, his dad is none other than Neil Finn (of Crowded House and Split Enz fame). With a musical pedigree like that, how can you go wrong?

Released in 2007 (a great year for music), this was the debut album for the (at the time) 24-year-old Finn. It it interesting to note that 2007 was also that year that Crowded House's reunion album Time on earth was released. While I do enjoy that album (it was in my top 5 albums of 2007), it has nothing on the quality of this release. Let's hope that Neil's pride in his son overshadows any jealousy that he may have that his son outdid him in the songwriting department.

Liam wears his influences proudly on his sleeve, but mixes them up in a way which is thoroughly unique, and it never feels like mere pastiche. The influences range from Paul McCartney whimsy (Energy spent), darker alcohol-influenced Elliott Smith (This place is killing me) and Chutes too narrow era Shins (Wise man). He rocks out on occasion (Lead balloon) and there's even a bit of Split Enz art-rock in there (the title track which took me about 5 listens before I realised how amazing it was).

It's all wrapped up in layers of melodic beauty which ensure that it remains grounded; other highlights include Wide awake on the voyage home and Gather to the chapel, the latter of which is apparently an ode to the late Crowded House drummer Paul Hester.

I'll be lightning is a three dimensional album where certain tracks jump out on first listen, while others take several listens to reveal their charms. It's one of those albums which finds a rare balance between immediacy (to lure you in) and musical depth (to keep you going back to it).

I'm glad to say that the genius Finn gene has lived on; let's hope he can maintain this level of quality on his next full-length album.

6. The Sleepy Jackson - Lovers (2003)

Luke Steele is now more well-known as the front-man for synth-pop band Empire of the Sun, but before forming that band in 2007, many knew him better as the main guy behind indie pop outfit The Sleepy Jackson. The Sleepy Jackson (who are still officially together) have released two full-length albums to date -- debut Lovers (2003) and the clumsily-titled follow-up Personality - One was a spider, one was a bird (2006).

Where Personality is a fairly conceptual album in nature, maintaining a consistent "lush" sound throughout, Lovers is more of a hodge-podge of musical styles, pastiches and genre experiments.

Good dancers is heavily influenced by both John Lennon's #9 dream and The Flaming Lips. Fill me with apples, with its computerised vocal, sounds a bit like Fitter happier from Radiohead's OK computer. Rain falls for wind is an 80s influenced pop song with an uplifting chorus that you'll be humming after one listen. Morning bird is a lullaby sung by a young girl (!) but strangely, it works. Tell the girls that I'm not hanging out is an upbeat dance number. Don't you know (my favourite song on the album) is a 70s-influenced duet with a female singer which is simultaneously emotional and life-affirming in its delivery.

I've only mentioned a handful of songs, but the rest of the album is equally diverse. Each song sounds like it could be by a different band, yet it all manages to hold together as an album; a true testament to the quirky genius of Luke Steele. Each song is a microcosm of a particular musical genre, but the passion, melody and song-writing skills on display turn each moment into a definitive song of the genre.

This is not to say that The Sleepy Jackson are merely an accomplished tribute band, as this is doing them a disservice. There are some moments on here (Acid in my heart, This day, Come to this) which are harder to pin-point the influences on, so lets just call them Luke Steele-esque.

If the aliens ever arrive and want you to make them a mix-tape of some good music released in the past decade, just give them a copy of this album. Luke Steele has already done the hard work for you.

Monday, 15 March 2010

My 50 favourite albums of the 2000s [15-11]

15. Broken Social Scene - You Forgot It In People (2002)

The Arcade Fire's Funeral (2004) didn't blow me away as much as it did for others, and I think one of the main reasons for this was that several years earlier, the Toronto collective (with membership numbers edging close to 20, they are more than a mere band) Broken Social Scene released what I consider to be one of the definitive albums of the indie-rock genre.

A magnum opus of interwoven sounds and textures, You forgot it in people mixed together elements of alt-rock, chamber pop, surf music, lounge, post-grunge and electronica. They integrated all the sounds into a musical collage that was weird enough for the hipsters and elitists to enjoy, but accessible enough to cross over to music fans who stumbled across it accidentally in their travels.

The presence of multiple vocalists turn this into an album that you will unlikely tire of, and tracks which previously seemed to be minor efforts will surprise you on subsequent listens. My personal favourite include the dynamic rocker KC accidental, anthemic Almost crimes, mid-album chill-out of Looks just like the sun and Pacific theme and the stunning Lover's spit which sounds like a lost Radiohead B-side (and I mean that in the best possible way).

Mediocre albums released under the banner of indie rock are a dime a dozen nowadays, and I think that the reason why most of them don't impress me is that this album already set the benchmark way too high. This is an album which is worth all of your time, and the rest.

14. Sufjan Stevens - Illinois (2005)

The first Sufjan Stevens album I bought was Michigan, the first release in his 50 states project. Some background information: Sufjan has the ambitious goal of releasing a concept album about every single state in the United States. I don't think he's going to follow through with it, but all I'm hoping is that he releases New York before he throws the towel in.

Michigan didn't really blow me away. There were some beautiful songs on the album, but there were also some really annoying over-the-top twee songs which sounded like he had to cut down on the caffeine a bit. When its sequel Illinois was released in 2005 (Seven swans being released in between), it received absolutely rave reviews but I still wasn't convinced.

Then the controversy struck. The album cover included an image of Superman, and apparently the record label Asthmatic kitty got into some legal strife with DC comics over the reproduction of this. They briefly recalled the album, releasing an updated version of the album, sans Superman. I noticed at my local record store that they still had a few copies with Superman on the cover. I quickly snapped one up, hoping that even if I didn't like the album, it may still be a collector's item one day.

Well, it was a double bonus, because I love the album. Consisting of 22 tracks running over 74 minutes, this is an epic work which could have quite easily sunk under the weight of its own ambition. Luckily, Sufjan's songwriting and performance had improved exponentially from Michigan, and at no point during this album does it ever feel boring or uninspired.

The album alternates between traditional chamber pop numbers (Come on! Feel the Illinoise!, Chicago, The man of Metropolis), lush instrumentals (The black hawk war), minor-key banjo-led folk numbers (the stunning Casimir Pulaski day) and haunting historical ballads (the masterpiece John Wayne Gacy, Jr). There are a few brief (less than 30 second) interludes on the album which help maintain its conceptual feel, simultaneously annoying those who listen on an MP3 player without gapless playback.

The attention to detail in his lyrics is mind-blowing, with some songs sounding like researched Wikipedia articles put to (stunning) music. Add in some of the most pretentiously-long song titles in music history (surely just to piss off users of, and you quickly realise that Sufjan Stevens deserves to sit up on the pedestal, or indie throne, that his fans have put him up on.

13. Radiohead - In Rainbows (2007)

Radiohead, arguably the most restlessly creative band of their generation, have spent their career re-inventing themselves. After a few left-field excursions into electronica (Kid A and Amnesiac), they partially returned to their guitar driven sound on 2003's Hail to the thief. Where could they go from here? Why not stick up a middle finger to greedy record company executives by re-inventing how music could be distributed?

Of course, you'd have to be a band as big as Radiohead to take on the risk they did -- allowing fans to download the album (prior to its physical release) and pay whatever price they think is fair. Just like Apple had managed to achieve on a mass scale with its iTunes business model (what, make people pay for something that they could previously download illegally?), Radiohead's social experiment was a resounding success. It was also a big "fuck you" to those who failed to realise that markets were shifting and the business models of yesteryear couldn't be followed indefinitely.

It's unfortunate that the discussion of the music on In rainbows often comes as an after-thought, because this album deserves more than that. This is in essence their most accessible album since OK computer; an album of stunning music which is simultaneously cerebral, progressive and (unlike some of their clinical and detached moments on Kid Amnesiac) full of heart.

The rockers (Bodysnatchers and the stunning Jigsaw falling into place) are some of the best of their career: groovy, rhythmic and melodic. There are a few ballads (Nude, Faust arp and House of cards) which remind you that Thom Yorke is still one of the best vocalists of the past decade. And then there's the stunning Reckoner, which sounds unlike anything they have ever released, but ironically couldn't have been recorded by anyone but them.

I think that's the genius of Radiohead -- while so many of their contemporaries are constantly trying to meld their influences into a sound which is distinctly their own, Radiohead are at the forefront of their own musical research & development department. Endlessly evolving, never stagnating: they are the band of our generation.

12. Elliott Smith - Figure 8 (2000)

I first heard about Elliott Smith through a friend Avi whose taste in music I respected very highly. It was around the time of my 21st birthday, and I had received a few music vouchers. Looking around the music store, I noticed that Elliott Smith's latest album Figure 8 was available. I hadn't heard any of his music before, but the album cover intrigued me. Of course, I'm not one to judge an album by its cover, but coupled with the recommendation from a friend I had a fairly convincing case to purchase the album.

I loved the opening song Son of Sam from the first listen. It had a great melody, and I really liked his vocal style which I thought had a lot of similarities with Neil Finn. When I heard the next song, the lilting and catchy Somebody that I used to know, I knew I was on to something very special here.

And as great as those opening two tracks are, the quality rarely drops over the rest of the album. Every song combines the sheer song-craft of a Paul McCartney tune with the intimacy and darkness of Nick Drake's best work. Hooks abound (Stupidity tries, Junk bond trader, Wouldn't Mama be proud?) and there are several moments of introspective beauty like the stunning Beach Boys influenced Everything means nothing to me and the dark Color bars.

This album made me fall in love with the music of Elliott Smith, and I now consider him one of my favourite musicians of all time. I eventually picked up all of his previous albums, working backwards from his major label debut XO (1998) through to Roman candle (1994). I even picked up the last album released by his former band Heatmiser, the very solid Mic city sons.

It all ended in tragedy just over three years after this album was released, when Elliott Smith committed suicide at the age of 34. This makes the closing two tracks on this album all the more poignant. Of course anyone can read into something with the benefit of hindsight, but the dark Can't make a sound (with the opening line "I have become a silent movie") and the minimal closing instrumental Bye seem to be a very appropriate farewell to a life cut way too short.

11. Interpol - Turn On The Bright Lights (2002)

This was another risk which paid high dividends for me. I think it was my friend Pete who said that he had read about Interpol, telling me that they had been compared to Marquee moon era Television. Being a big fan of that cult 70s classic, I decided to pick the album up without hearing a single note (being the long-haired risk-taking lout that I was at the time, sans the long hair).

It took me a long, long time to warm to this album. I think I had given it about three listens and was considering returning it for a refund. None of the tracks (except for the This charming man riff-stealing Say hello to the angels) really jumped out at me as anything special. But I decided to persevere, and it was probably the 5th or 6th listen where the deep layers of this album started to reveal themselves to me.

I wrote a blog post back in 2006 talking about albums that have the "vibe", and this one was included on the list. There's a great late-night, sepia-tinged feeling to most of the songs on this album, from the atmospheric opener Untitled, the slow-building stunner Hands away and angular rockers Obstacle 1 and Say hello to the angels. Little moments reveal themselves after repeated listens, like the brief, spoken-word intro to Stella was a diver, the last few stunning minutes of PDA and the understated melody of closer Leif Erikson (named after the first European to land in North America).

Many comparisons have been made between the vocal styles of Interpol singer Paul Banks and the late Ian Curtis of Joy Division. There's no denying that there are similarities, but the sound that Interpol achieved on the stunning debut still manages to be their own despite their breadth of influences.

The follow-up Antics was a bit of a disappointment for me, and what I have heard from Our love to admire didn't excite me much either. I have a feeling that history will put Interpol in the same league as bands like The Strokes: those who were never able to follow up an excellent debut album with an equally promising career.