Wednesday, 23 September 2020

NOT The Greatest Hits

If there is one song that defines Lynyrd Skynyrd, it must surely be "Free Bird".  If it wasn't for that song, I doubt they'd ever get played on Radio 2.

So surely any Essential Collection, Greatest Hits, or Best Of compilation must include it?

Take this one - 2001s The Collection.

  • "Sweet Home Alabama" - check
  • "Gimme Back My Bullets" - check
  • "That Smell" - check
  • "Whiskey Rock-A-Roller" - check
  • "Free Bird" - che ... oh

I'm imagining one of three conversations in the Spectrum Records offices at the time of preparation and release:

  1. "Shall we leave "Free Bird" off and see if anyone notices?"
  2. "Are you sure you've covered their whole career, and this album is definitive?".  "Yes, I think so.  Can't see anything missing"
    (3 months later: "Whoops!")
  3. "Do you know, I've heard that song so often I'm fed up with hearing it and refuse to put it on the album"
Now if it was Number 3, then all I can say is "Fool!"

You may think you've heard the song enough times, know every phrase, movement and guitar accent.  But the moment that organ starts, the acoustic strummed chords kick in, and that shrill guitar intro leads into the song, one cannot help but reach for the volume knob and revel in the next 9 minutes (or longer if you plump for one of the many fine fine live versions out there).

Free Bird

Wednesday, 9 September 2020

Covers Album

There was a time, many years ago, before Pop Music was out of nappies, that every album was effectively a Covers album.  The guys and gals singing were singing someone else's song.  Tin Pan Alley and Denmark Street were awash with people writing songs to order, or flogging songs to Music Publishers who would place the tune with an artist, or a manager for use by one of his stable (minnions?).

And then, specifically in the early 60s, bands started to wrote their own songs and slowly began to wrestle power away from the record companies, music publishers, and producers.  This wasn't an overnight thing, as Session Musicians enjoys healthy employment as producers continued to call in their favourite players to get a track done quickly and out to market.  In the US, session musicians (examples include: Booker T & The MGs, The Funk Brothers, The Wrecking Crew, and The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section) were in constant demand until the early to mid 70s.
Big names of 60s/70s stareted out as session musicains picking up a straight fee wherever they could before their dreams of fame and fortune arived - Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones, Ritchie Blackmore, Herbie Flowers, Nicky Hopkins, Rick Wakeman, Elton John (and in the words of Jimmy Cricket, there's more).
The session musician did not disappear in the late 60s/early 70s - some of the most fruitful employment was the slew of Budget albums like Hot Hits and Top Of The Pops where facsimile versions of chart hits were created and flogged in Woolworths at a quarter of the price of the original versions.

So, there's always been a healthy trade in Covers Albums, but they didn't usually form part of a bands catalogue.
It was not uncommon for B Sides or Album tracks to be carefully selected cover versions of their own influence and desire.  Indeed it was an easy way for bands to fill up a spare 3 minutes - knock out a cover version from their early days.

Now, I'm not professing to give a definitive history of who produced the first Covers Album, but I've got a sneaky suspicion the oeuvre may have been invented by David Bowie in 1973 when he released 'Pin Ups'.  'Pin Ups' came after 'Aladdin Sane' and marked the point where Ziggy Stardust left the building.
It was a worthy concept - Dave paying tribute to the bands and songs that influenced him when starting out in the mid 60s.  Only problem I have with it is that some of the songs sound thrown together and played by a Pub Band.
Second place goes to Bryan Ferry with 'These Foolish Things' - a collection of 60s songs and standards that obviously influenced him, and rendered in his best Lounge Lizard drawl.  Actually released a week before 'Pin Ups', but Bowie wins because his star was somewhat higher than Bryan's.

John Lennon did a similar thing during his Lost Weekend in 1973 (which went on until 1975, when his 'Rock & Roll' album saw the light of day.  And then marked the start of his 5 year retirement until 1980).
However, this was not an artistic decision.  More  a penance for nicking a bit too much of Chuck Berry's "You Can't Catch Me" for The Beatles "Come Together".
Part of the settlement with Maurice Levy was for Lennon to record 3 songs and all royalties would be funneled to Levy (It's also believed Allen Klein was involved somewhere securing "double bubble " from Lennon, similar to the court case for George Harrison's "My Sweet Lord").

In the world of covers albums, the next major stopping point is UB40s multi selling 'Labour Of Love' - an album that probably did as much (if not more) than Bob Marley in bringing Reggae to the mass British public.  Knowing they were on to a good thing, 2 more 'Labour Of Love' collections rolled out over the next 15 years.

Towards the end of the 90s, the covers album seemed to become more commonplace.  Some were released to fulfill a contract (Ramones 'Acid Eaters'), some to plug a gap between albums (Guns n Roses 'Spaghetti Incident') or just to ease yourself back into the world of recording (Madness 'Dangermen Sessions').
Let us not forget those other contractual obligations where previously recorded cover versions were collected together and issued as a "New" album - Motorhead 'Under The Covers' and Manic Street Preachers 'Lipstick Traces' are 2 worthy efforts worth seeking out.
There are obviously many others out there, but most fall into the "listen once" category - an interesting exercise, but no real "come back-ability" to them (others like Duran Duran's 'Thank You' you will probably listen to twice just to confirm you did hear what you thought you heard - is there a worse choice of cover version for Duran Duran than Grandmaster Flash's "White Lines"?).

Another route with covers albums is to take songs from one genre and re-interpret them in another - fancy some Classic Rock performed in bluegrass style?  Hayseed Dixie will deliver on that whim.
Your favourite punk and new wave tracks given a lounge bossa nova makeover?  Nouvelle Vague is the answer.  Classic albums given rendered as Dub Reggae?  The Easy All Stars are the band for you.

One of the better covers efforts of recent years was Matthew Sweet & Susannah Hoffs - Under The Covers project (now collected together in 3 disc package).
It's the combination of song choices, the playing, and the sheer enjoyment that come across in the performance that makes these albums more than just a collection of covers.

Which brings me nicely to the point of this post
(oh, you have got one then?)

If you are going to do a covers album, you don't necessarily need to re-invent arrangements, lyrics, or the feeling of the song - just place your own stamp on it (which is what Sweet and Hoffs did above).
And is exactly what Kate Rusby is doing with 'Hand Me Down'.  One of her own personal stamps is her strong Barnsley accent, which renders the tracks both recognisable, and sufficiently different on each hearing.

Kate Rusby - The Barnsley Nightingale - has been re-interpreting old songs for many years, and wowing folk audiences in the process.  But who says Folk Singers should only do Trad Arr tunes, or songs from a long way past.  Why not stuff from the last 30 or so years?  Why not, it's all musical history, and is just another way of preserving history for a mass audience in future generations.

She's produced a dozen albums across the last 20 or so years, and each one contains something (many things) of interest.  OK, her Christmas albums are a bit twee, but 'Awkward Annie' (from 2007) is worth seeking out - if only for the cover of "Village Green Preservation Society".

Versions of 'True Colours' and 'Carolina On My Mind' add a certain raw emotion to proceedings, as do  'Manic Monday' and 'Friday I'm In Love'.
OK, her version of "Days" doesn't quite match Kirsty MacColl's (how could it?), but there is little to disappoint.
And the award for "Most Unlikely Cover Version Choice" must surely go to "Maybe Tomorrow (The Theme From The Littlest Hobo".

Oh, and you know that mangling of genres I mentioned above?  The album finishes off with a folk rendition of Bob Marley's "Three Little Birds"

Don't worry about a thing - just put this album on and enjoy the feeling of comfort in the songs, but the renewed interest of some different versions.

Manic Monday

Maybe Tomorrow

Three Little Birds

Monday, 31 August 2020

50 Albums For 50 Years - 2010 to 2019

PART 5 - 2010 to 2019

As I started to prepare this list, I thought it looked a bit familiar, and then I realised I'd already done it at the start of this year.

Link to original post or copy and paste?


Link to A Decadal Roundup

2010: John Grant - Queen Of Denmark
John Grant's debut is one of those unimpeachable debut albums - see also The Ramones, The Undertones, Stiff Little Fingers, Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Damned, Joy Division and a fair few others (but maybe not Paul Young?).
A collection of songs mixing confessional, anger, wit and dark humour.  Sadly - although later songs have hinted at it - this is a peak he has not yet re-climbed.
Track: "Queen Of Denmark"

Other contenders:
Iron Maiden - 'The Final Frontier'
Len Price 3 - 'Pictures'
Manic Street Preachers - 'Postcards From A Young Man'
P J Harvey - 'Let England Shake'

2011: Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds - Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds
When Oasis imploded in 2009, it was another 2 years before the Gallagher name returned.  Liam's attempt was (in fairness) sub-Oasis, whilst Noel took his Oasis past, add a little more to it and threw out a confident and assured solo debut.  He's continued to push on from here - always sounding much the same, but with enough tweaks to the sound to remain interesting.
Track: "Stop The Clocks"

2012: Paul Weller - Sonik Kicks
Paul Weller has been around for a fair few years and the albums are always rewarding.  Always pushing forward and never one to rest on his laurels, 'Sonik Kicks' found him going down the Motorik drumbeats route with even a touch of Chemical Brotheres and Hawkwind for good measure.
'Sonik Kicks' remains (for me) the best of the Weller solo outings (above 'Stanley Road' and 'As Is Now')

Track: "That Dangerous Age"

2013: Steve Mason - Monkey Minds in the Devil's Time
A concept album (or at least a continuing musical arc) that sustains interest from moment one, despite containing some relatively downbeat and melancholic moments.  The musical "journey" is just right lifting to joyousness when required, and mixing a whole raft of musical styles together.

Track: "Oh My Lord"

2014: Stiff Little Fingers - No Going Back
11 years since their last album and the return of original bass player Ali McMordie saw Stiff Little Fingers release an album as strong as anything they've done before and as valid to current times as any other band around them.
Funded through (the now defunct) PledgeMusic, this album hits it funding target within 24 hours.  They may not be the most well known band in the world, but they've probably got the strongest and most loyal fan base.

Track: "Since Yesterday Was Here"

2015: Public Service Broadcasting - The Race For Space
The first PSB album took Public Information Films and mixed the narrative with purpose-written tunes to create an insight to a pat world of progress and triumph.
A Similar conceit was employed here against a backdrop of the US/Russia Space Programmes and the eventual triumph (As promised in the opening dialogue from JFK) of the Moon Landings.

Track: "Go!"

2016: Madness - Can't Touch Us Now
Another act from the late 70s showing others how it canshould and will be done.  National Treasures In Waiting returned with an album that properly followed 'Norton Folgate'.  Prime, accessible songwriting, top notch tunes and performances to match.  Live they remain a fantastic event.

Track: "Don't Leave The Past Behind You"

2017: Conor Oberst - Salutations
World weary tales delivered in rich melodies matched with emotion and brittleness.  It can sometimes be a tough, but ultimately rewarding listen.  Warmth shines through the delivery, and the songs soar and never tire.  Generally received middling reviews, but this is the standout release of the year for me, and still (in 2019) makes regular re-appearances in the CD player

Track: "Gossamer Thin"

2018: Wreckless Eric - Construction Time & Demolition
Not getting sucked into the media circus after his big moment (1978's "Whole Wide World") has given Wreckless Eric the freedom to persue his craft, and then come up with a lo-fi classic like this one.  Chock full of tunes and delivered by a voice of experience.

Track: "Gateway To Europe"

2019: Richard Dawson - 2020
Folk troubadour meets Indie meets Captain Beefheart meets Ken Loach, complete with tales of modern life (and often an anguished modern life).  Every track tells a story - some make you think (for at least a second), others just make you marvel at turn of phrase, a seemingly humdrum or non-sequitor type lyric.  Most songs mange to do both.
Is this an album of songs or a sociology lecture from the future?

Track: "Game Of Two Halves"

Another 10 years gone - and will the next 10 (or even next 50?) be studded with music I want to rave about?  Well, even though 2020 has been somewhat unusual so far, there have been more than a couple of very fine things pummeling my ears.
In no particular order, and using only the names to protect the end of year round-up:

  • Paul Heaton & Jacqui Abbott - Manchester Calling
  • Block 33 - 6:36 To Liverpool Street
  • Duncan Reid & The Big Heads - Don't Blame Yourself
  • Paul Weller - On Sunset
  • Sparks - A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip
  • Massive Wagons - House Of Noise
  • Sports Team - Deep Down Happy
  • Fontaines DC - A Heroes Death

And it's only the end of August - 3 more months of new stuff to come.  Bring it on
(oh my heaving shelves ... time for another trip to Ikea perhaps)

Tuesday, 25 August 2020

50 Albums For 50 Years - 2000 to 2009

PART 4 - 2000 to 2009

A new Decade.  A new Millennium.  Will aeroplanes fall from the sky?  Will the Banks implode (yes, but not because of the change in the Calendar).  Will other electronic control systems get confused by the change from 19## to 20##?  Will they bollards, and not because of the daft amount of investment in Millennium Bug software fixes.
Frankly as the clock ticked from as the clock ticked from 11:59 to 0:00 it was (in the words of Johnny Logan) just another year.
The hover board, flying cars, food in pill form, and living in space had not really been delivered - if anything it was a bit of a let down.  The books of my childhood promised so much.

But there are 10 more years of musical things to consider, so let's start (logically) at the first year of the 21st Century.

2000 Iron Maiden – Brave New World
There were many albums released in 2000, yet when I review what I bought and listened to that year, this is the only one that really still makes it to the CD Player on a semi-regular basis.
This album marked the return of Bruce Dickinson and Adrian Smith to the fold (and Smith's replacement - Janick Gers - was kept on the payroll too.
The Blaze Bayley years almost relegated the band to also-rans, but the return of Dickinson and Smith lifted them back to the top of the pile, and this album showcases their capabilities from straight galloping dandruff-moulting metal to more considered prog inflected tunesmithery.  Dumb Metal band?  Not a bit of it.

Brave New World

2001 Elton John – Songs From The West Coast
For nigh on 5 years in the 70s, Reg Dwight was responsible for up to 10% (or more) of all albums sold worldwide.  Then his career sememd to crash (cocaine, self loathing and tantrums may have played a part?) but he remained one of the stately homos of Britain.
But it wasn't until now that he really produced an album to rank alongside his heyday.
There's just something more relaxed, more accepting, like he (and Bernie Taupin) are not trying to do anything more than please themselves with this set of songs.  There is also a certain self-realisation and admittance of past failings in the songs and delivery.  Reg Is Back?  He is here.

I Want Love

2002 The Coral – The Coral
There is a long tradition of bands from Liverpool.  There was one in the 60s called The Beatles, you may have heard of them.  Add in The Searchers, Gerry & The Pacemakers, Echo & The Bunnymen, The Las, Cast, Lightning Seeds, Atomic Kitten ... the list goes on.
And this lot hail from up there too - this debut is pretty accomplished, and ranks with some of the best efforts to emerge from that city.
Post Britpop Indie guitars embellished with bit of 60s psychedelia, a little bit of Folk,a dash of reggae in there too.  Full of energy, full of tunes, and pulls that rare trick of being both recognisable, yet also totally new and original

Dreaming Of You 

2003 White Stripes – Elephant
The White Stripes stripped back everything to just voice, guitar and drums.  They'd had minor(ish) recognition and success with their 3 previous albums, including a Later with Jools Holland appearance in 2001, which is where I first came across them.  But it probably wasn't until this fourth album that they were fully formed and managed to maintain quality standards across a record.
It's got Punk notes colliding with delta blues and Led Zeppelin. It looks back to the past (apparently no studio equipment was manufactured before 1965), yet is absolutely current, and even sets a template for what is to come in the future.
Always a joy to hear, and never outstays it's welcome

Seven Nation Army

2004 Green Day – American Idiot
A concept album/Rock Opera by a bunch of snotty minor league Bay Area Punks?  Surely not.
But the moment you hear the urgency and belief spouted in first single "Letter Bomb", you get the idea it does actually make sense.
Telling the story of a disillusioned youth growing up in a political inept nation controlled by Government whims and big Corporations (and a fairly apt title for the state of the American Presidency now (oo - little bit of politics there)).  But ... the politics is reined back and the songs focus on telling the story, not passing comment (I suppose leaving that up to the listener to decide).
Nothing else in their catalogue compares - this is a real one-off moment, and for a time placed Green Day as probably the biggest band on the planet.


2005  Kaiser Chiefs - Employment
In my mind I can see a parallel to Blur's first re-invention on this album.  And not just because they share a producer in Stephen Street.
The Kaiser Chiefs are singing in their own accent, and talking about the close world around them - and (by the sound of it) a having a massive amount of fun in doing so.
The whole album is delivered in a cloud of joy and sheer abandon.  There is an urgency about it, but also knowing references to the past and obvious influences like The Beach Boys, 70s/80s New Wave (Jam, XTC etc) and Britpop (are three of the prime ones I can identify).  It does what all great pop music should do - entertain and create and maintain a smile.

Everyday I Love You Less and Less

2006 The Fratellis - Costello Music
Another record full of joy and abandon.  The urgency of the songs matches the breakneck speed of The Fratellis - from formation to Number 1 album inside 15 months.  Half of the tracks made it out as singles, and the plaudits, reviews and awards they received were worthy.
Feeling down?  Whack this on your stereo, turn the volume up and let the world's problems disappear for 40 minutes.
Subsequent albums never quite got my attention in the way this debut outing did, they were good, but this is really something special.


2007 Manic Street Preachers - Send Away The Tigers
The Manics debut in 1992 was released in a wave of hype and expectation.  Unfortunately, they couldn't deliver - it was a good album, but just lacked "something".  The next couple were good, but again weren't as cohesive or defined as they perhaps could've been.
And then Richey Edwards goes missing, and the Manics go through a sort of re-invention.  'Everything Must Go' placed them in stadiums rather than the club tours, and their music fitted better in that environment.
By 2007, there was a danger that the band were treading water.  That is until James Dean Bradfield strapped his Gibson Les Paul on, turned the volume up, and delivered a set of songs that traded on the energy of their early career, and the wide-screen crowd pleasing of the recent past.
Manic purists hate me for saying this, but I believe this to be one of their very finest albums.

2008 Henry Priestman – The Chronicles Of Modern Life
Henry Priestman's first recorded output came with Yachts in 1977.  Along with Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe they were the first artists signed to Andrew Lauder's new Radar label.  More singles, a couple of albums, and a tour with The Who followed.  The breakthrough didn't happen, and the band split.  Henry Preiestman returned to the studio picking up session work and forming It's Immaterial with Yachts band-mate Martin Dempsey.  He was then a member of The Christians (writing all the songs for their debut album) before returning to sessions and production work.
So it's no real surprise it took 21 years for his debut to arrive.
It has been described as "songs for grumpy old men" - I'm not sure that's true, there is more an aire of frustration, resignation, but a real desire to keep going, running through the songs.  And no little amount of realism within the gentle, understated, folk-ish type music.
The album occupies that middle ground between triumphantly punching the air, railing against "the man", and reminding you of the realities of the world.
In fact, I like this album so much, Henry is getting 2 tracks in my selections

2009 Madness – Liberty of Norton Folgate
30 years since their debut single and subsequent elevation to everybody's favourite band in the 80s, came this.  The album that pretty much sealed Madness as a National Treasure.  After 30 years, was anyone expecting the Nutty Boys to produce an album of such ambition and freshness.  At 30 years vintage, and with a back catalogue like they have it would've been easy to rest on their laurels and recycle the past on the 80s Cabaret circuit.  The songs are among the very best of their careers, arranged, played and sung as only Madness can - crowd pleasing and entertainment is their raison d'etre.
It's part history lesson, part autobiography, part narrative story arc, part tales of working class struggle in the Capital city, and completely brilliant.


And there endeth another decade.  Maybe not the most classic or eclectic with no real movements, moments or genre re-inventions going on in this business we call show.  But plenty grabbed the attention, even if (for me) it involved going backwards and listening to things I'd previously ignored or had no desire to listen to in my younger years (did I just write that!)

Saturday, 15 August 2020

50 Albums For 50 Years - 1990 to 1999

 PART 3 - 1990 to 1999

The 90s marked some big shifts in life - Apprenticeship finished, I was now earning good money and no responsibilities,  Records and Gigs (and Beer) were the main expenses in the early part of the decade.
This spendthriftness ground to halt when (in relatively quick succession) I bought my first house, got married, and had my first child.
A second house and a second daughter soon followed.  Unfortunately, so did a second girlfriend, and a divorce.
Was it a golden decade?
I have carefree memories of the early years, most of the later years I was up to my eyeballs in debt and dirty nappies, and the latter part spent living back at my parents.
I maybe didn't get the same depth of music in the 90s as perhaps I would've done in normal circumstances. I never really "got" grunge for example, but with loud guitars and anguished lyrics, I probably should've done.  And I sort of watched Britpop happen (certainly at the beginning), making do with those 'Shine' or 'Best Albums ... Ever' compilations.

1990 They Might Be Giants – Flood
They Might Be Giants mixed Indie with American Vaudeville, a dose of college intellect, and an element of the absurd,  and arrived at a pop formula so infectious they're hard to ignore.
This album arrived off the back of their first hit single - 'Birdhouse In Your Soul', and almost makes music produced on an accordion cool.
The album has no distinct style or genre - oompah, 70s power pop, Country and Western, a story of life  death from the perspective of a vegetable on a Supermarket shelf, even samples of a self-improvement tape - rather throwing all the elements at it.  Every track is different in approach, yet all part of the bizarre whole that is "They Might Be Giants brand new album ... Flood" (as the intro track tells us)

1991 Carter USM – 30 Something
When an album opens with a sample from Red Dwarf, there is no way the following 40 minutes can be bad.  OK, the stories unfolded on this album are from the down on their luck grimy side of South London, but all delivered with great gusto and a dash of humour in the lyrics and wordplay.
Sometimes derided at the time for "every song sounds the same" and "it's just two blokes and a drum machine", but I don't recall much doubt being thrown at Echo & The Bunnymen of The Sisters Of Mercy and their electronic percussionist.
Their moment at the top may have been brief, but they were instrumental in popularising the Long Sleeve T-Shirt and baggy shorts look.

1992 Levellers – Levelling The Land
After the Grebo came the New Age Hippy.  A band of unkempt looking hordes with an eye on the environment, Vegan diets and living in Volkswagen Camper Vans.  The acoustic guitar was brought to the fore, primarily because it was easier to bring to the Twyford Down campfire than a Grand Piano or a Tuba.  Mixing the energy of Punk, New Wave and Indie with the acoustic-ness of Folk, The Levellers brought a slightly cerebral, slightly historic tone to this collection mixing anger, protest, and wistfulness.  Great album, but I can't help wondering what a low point 1992 must've been.  There weer many other albums that year, but not many with a British accent.

1993 Blur – Modern Life Is Rubbish
"Music without a British accent" - here comes Blur to rectify that.
By all accounts Blur were at something of a low in 1992 - their debut album had sold relatively well, but their stock was low, the debts were high, and the US tour had failed.
Back to the drawing board then, and produce a collection of songs to invoke a home land forgotten, and a style with a cleaner edge than the collection of Grebos, Hippies, and Grungers doing the rounds.
Where did Britpop start? this album is very likely to be the early rumblings, followed soon enough by Suede, Blur's own "Popscene" and a rabid press draping everything in Union Jacks.
The baggy sound of their debut album never really suited Blur, this was closer to the band, and a formula they stuck to and refined for the next album (a little thing called 'Parklife')

1994 Oasis – Definitely Maybe
Three things (apparently) popular in the early 90s: Football, drinking and swearing - Oasis were connected with all 3 (certainly the last 2) - they may have had the image, but they also had the songs.
Big, brash, anthemic, an almost perfect mix of new and old in each chord change.
OK, there may have been nothing new or particularly clever about Oasis's music, but it doesn't need to be.  It just is.  It's not trying to pass a message, propose a philosophy, or even invent a genre.
The press managed that, Oasis just got on with doing what they do best - grinding out the tunes and placing relatable lyrics over the top.  Granted there was a lessening in Quality Control as time went on, but when you play Side 1, Track 1 and hear "Tonight, I'm a Rock n Roll Star" - Yes you are, and do you know what.  You're just an ordinary looking bloke, so I could be too.

1995 Paul Weller - Stanley Road
After The Style Council's demise in 1989, Paul Weller fell out of public view, until the relatively low key return as the Paul Weller Movement in 1991.  And then came his first solo album proper ('Paul Weller') in 1992 - a mix of soulful jazz combining with Traffic and bits of 60s psychadelia, and a little bit of bite in places.  He followed this with the pastoral 'Wild Wood' in 1993.
With renewed confidence, and many citations as an influence, this 1995 outing sat seamlessly in the Britpop oeuvre (right down to the Peter Blake designed cover).  This album cemented his place in history, and allowed him to explore whichever avenue he fancied for the next 15 years (and hopefully more to come).  The Changingman indeed

1996 Ocean Colour Scene – Moseley Shoals
Britpop gave rise to a mini-Mod Revival, as can be seen by Blur's 'Modern Life Is Rubbish', the sharp look of Oasis (at least in the early days) and the scooters in the inner cover of 'Definitely Maybe'.  Paul Weller became recognised as the leading influence, and hence christened The Modfather.
And this lot had the look and the sound, and support from Weller and Noel Gallagher added to the equation.
They floundered in their early days - their first album being a sort of sub-Madchester affair with little redeeming features.  This one though was an entirely different affair.  Their profile raised a couple of notches by having "The Riverboat Song" used in TFI Friday, but unlike many of Chris Evans' enthusiasms, this band had some deeper substance.

1997 Stereophonics – Word Gets Around
Rasping vocals and guitar and drum at full attack - it's a fine debut.  But it's not all full pelt, The Stereophonics were also capable of lighter moments as the slower paced "Traffic" proves.
In truth, this album's tone is primarily the view of an insider stuck in a small town looking for an escape route. "More Life in a Tramps Vest" and "Local Boy in the Photograph" capture this frustration.  And there are moments when they sound ready to explode on a larger stage.  They would do soon, but personally I think they ran out of real inspiration (save for the odd song) halfway through their second album.  This one though is a stormer from 0:00 to 42:02

1998 David Gray - White Ladder
I've done the Heavy Metal "Turn it up to 11" bit,  I've gone backwards and discovered the Beatles and a wealth of Classic Rock.  Bit of Mod?  The Who and The Jam will cover that.  And I lived through (albeit on the edges) of New Laddism and Britpop.  So why is this near-MOR album my choice?
Because it's a bloody good album, that's why.  It's not challenging, it's not demanding, it's just 40 odd minutes of soothing and relaxing.  It really is an exercise in synergy - the whole of this album is greater than the sum of it's parts suggests.
And it convinced me to buy a copy of Van Morrison's 'Astral Weeks'.  Is that a good thing?

1999 Blur – 13
From Baggy also rans to Britpop leaders, Blur's rise was probably unexpected.  What was also unexpected was the way they confounded expectations by not merely following the formula with 1995s 'Great Escape', but effectively leaving Britpop behind.
1997s 'Blur' was another re-invention - even with the single "Beetlebum" going to Number 1 and the album doing the same, it looked like Blur's star was fading.
2 years later. '13' marked another change in sound, but this time not an easy one to pigeon-hole.  This was Blur sounding like Blur.  The songs here are some of the strongest - and most personal in the case of 'Tender' and certainly 'No Distance Left To Run'.  They really sound closer and tighter as a band, even if personal relationships and tensions in the band were at their height (culminating in Graham Coxon's eventual departure)

And that's my summary of the 90s  - as Blur suggest in that last track:"Come on, Come on.  Get through it"
And I did ...

Thursday, 6 August 2020

50 Albums For 50 Years - 1980 to 1989

PART 2 - 1980 to 1989

The 80s?  All big shoulder pads, yuppies, and bashing Mrs Thatch.
Not necessarily for someone who entered the decade in their last year of junior school, and ended it with long hair, a leather jacket, and 2 years of a 4 year Apprenticeship behind them.
Key interests at the start was Football (West Ham winning the FA Cup in 1980, and completing my Espana 82 Panini Sticker Book being two highlights), but by 1982/83, Music was rapidly becoming an obsession - first record player, first album, first Guinness Book Of British Hit Singles, regular visits to the second hand record shop - I was building quite a collection.
So was the 80s all about shoulder pads and money to burn?  No, mostly it was about acne, dandruff, and accumulating "stuff".

Again, I may well have banged on about some of these in the past, but I'm going to do it again anyway.

1980 Dexys Midnight Runners – Searching For The Young Soul Rebels
Off the back of Punk and what followed, youth tribalism was once more in vogue (in truth it had never gone away).  In the midst of a Mod Revival and the Two Tone movement came another tribe with a love of 60s Soul, a gang mentality, and a soundtrack that fitted perfectly with the times.
Dexys didn't place adverts for their new album, they wrote essays explaining the importance of the music and their vision.
Kevin Rowland saw his initial vision through, and then re-invented Dexy's for every subsequent release.  All essential listening, but none more essential than the debut.

1981 Human League - Dare
The Human League started life as an avant-garde-ish Art School Project - all synths, slideshows and asymmetric haircuts.  Lack of commercial success and crumbling relationships within the band led to Martyn Ware and Ian Craig-Marsh jumping ship and leaving Phil Oakey with the bands name and debts, but no actual band.  Two female singers were recruited from a Sheffield night-club and a musician acquaintance added.  Not only did the membership change, the bands sound became more pop-orientated and commercial (no doubt helped by rising debts and Martin Rushent's production guidance).  What came next is the Human League's best album, adding seriously lush pop alongside the darker tones of original League.
It also includes an afterthought song tacked onto the end of the album to please the record company.  That song is now seen as the Human League's most well known 3 minutes, and trotted out by lazy TV producers when they want to evoke the 80s.
There are 9 other better songs on this album though.

1982 Iron Maiden – The Number of the Beast
Iron Maiden were at a bit of a low point in late 81.  After their initial success, their second album didn't do the same business, their vocalist was enjoying the Rock n Roll lifestyle a little too much, and their record company were demanding hit singles.  Cue 3 non-album singles - "Women In Uniform", "Twilight Zone", and "Purgatory".  None of them provided the breakthrough hoped for, and their singer departed and/or was sacked.
With a new singer installed, the band were prolific in writing and recording (mindful of the increasing debt they were building).  The reward was a Top 10 single ("Run To The Hills") and an instant Number 1 album upon release.
This rejuvenated Iron Maiden entered 1982 at the top of their game, and with some minor hiccups along the way, stayed there.

1983 Big Country – The Crossing
It's got Guitars that sound like Bagpipes - what more do you need.
Viewed as peers of U2 in 1983, and sharing a producer (Steve Lillywhite) this debut took the songcraft Stuart Adamson learned in The Skids, and advanced it in a sort of Celtic Bruce Springsteen-ish way - all honest and workmanlike, with added bombast.  A marriage of big riffs, a solid rhythm section, melodious twin guitars ,and air-pinching anthems.  Did I mention the Bagpipe Guitars?
Another one of those accomplished debut albums that was very nearly equalled in future releases, but never felt quite as whole as the first outing.

1984 Metallica – Ride The Lightening
Can't have compilations so Status Quo's '12 Gold Bars Volume I + II' is out (sadly), Frankie Goes To Hollywood were everywhere in 1984, but the album honestly wasn't that great.  The Smiths debut?  I didn't actually properly get The Smiths until 1987, so that's out too.
So 1984s nomination goes to a bunch of longhairs from California at the forefront of the Thrash Metal scene.  Nut wait .. this, their second album, holds back on the thrash in favour of a more refined heavy rock (still played very quickly at times) with a debt to Iron Maiden, Motorhead, and (thanks to drummer Lars Ulrich's passion) various New Wave Of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM) bands including Diamond Head, Blitzkreig, and Sweet Savage.
The sound flying from those grooves is as heavy as anything out there, but done with a touch of musicianship so missing from many of their head rattling peers.

1985 Marillion – Misplaced Childhood
Another one of those perfect moment albums where a band deep in debt hits a seam of gold.
But the question remains: how can a bunch of Prog-Rockers from Aylsebury release a concept album into a world dominated by Dire Straits, Bruce Springsteen, Phil Collins, and Tears For Fears and expect success?
Well they did, helped in no small part to 2 very strong single ("Kayleigh" and "Lavender" which do actually work outside of the concept), a supportive media (for a change), and a ravenous fan base.
Written as one long story (over 2 sides of vinyl) after an acid trip, this album took the tropes of their previous 2 releases and honed the edges.  There was to be one more Fish-era album after this one - another concept album, and a very good one too, but not quite as good as this one.

1986 Metallica – Master Of Puppets
Whilst this could be initially viewed as "more of the same" after 1984s 'Ride The Lightening' (ie full production, focussed playing, dark lyrics, growled vocals, thrashy moments) this is the point where everything came together and over the course of the album pretty much defined Heavy Metal/Heavy Rock for the next 10 years.  The world was opening up before them, only to be snatched from them when bassist Cliff Burton was killed in a coach crash.  Metallica never sounded as musically forceful again, falling back on the more down, sombre, darker style.   But ... re-invention happens and I can report that 2016s 'Hardwired To Self Destruct' is easily the best thing they've done since the early 90s.

1987 Cult – Electric
In truth, probably a tie between this and Guns n Roses - 'Appetite For Destruction', but this one I think just edges it.  It's probably more evocative of the moment than Buns n Toasties who wheedled their way into my lughole affections later.
A relatively successful Goth band, this album marked a re-invention in their sound - of which much can be attributed to producer Rick Rubin (he of DefJam Records, various Hip Hop tunes, The Beastie Boys, and a Metal dabbler with Slayer's 'Reign In Blood').
What came was an almost perfect record to get (and keep) a party going in 1987.  It starts on a high and rarely lets go (except maybe for the perfunctory cover of "Born To Be Wild")

1988 Wonder Stuff – Eight Legged Groove Machine
I wrote many moons ago of my belief that 1987 was something of a nadir in popular music, but the rumblings were there, and by 1988 a new UK indie sound (called invitingly Grebo) was developing in the Midlands, helmed by Pop Will Eat Itself, Ned's Atomic Dustbin, and this lot.  The Wonder Stuff's debut was a real blast of energy, full of humour, directness (the 3 minute barrier is rarely broken), and an almost folky lilt behind it.  Grebo as a thing may not have lasted that long, but was the perfect antidote to Stock Aitken and Waterman.

1989 Stone Roses – Stone Roses
A retrospective choice this one - my most played record that year was probably Last Of The Teenage Idols – 'Satellite Head Gone Soft' or Wolfsbane - 'Live Fast Die Fast'.  I may even have played The Macc Lads - 'From Beer To Eternity' more often.  It's one of those that I bought, listened to, but was obviously not in the right frame of mind for it.  The release of 'Second Coming' brought me back to it - oh what I fool, this is superb.
Madchester rumbled into public conscious in the late 80s - according to legend The Stone Roses and The Happy Mondays were at the front.  Both mixing dance music with indie guitars, the Happy Mondays arrived at a club happy formula, whilst the Stone Roses imbued the music with more 60s psychedelia.  Their debut album was not as hotly received as (false) memory suggests, waiting some 6 months (and the release of the "Fools Gold" single which is not on the album) to become a massive success.
In retrospect, fully deserving of that success - it still sounds remarkably fresh today, and not a bad way to round off a decade (even if it took me 5 years to get round to that opinion)

Thursday, 30 July 2020

Sparks - A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip

Sparks have been releasing albums - 24 of them to date - for nigh on 50 years.
After that amount of time, one would be forgiving and understanding if releases dipped below par, or quality control waned a bit.
Not in the case of Sparks - they don't sound in the slightest bit frustrated with advancing years or bereft of inspiration.
Here's an album every bit as vital to their catalogue as 'Kimono My House' (1974), 'Angst In My Pants' (1982), 'Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins' (1994), or 2017s 'Hippopotamus'.
They hit a seam of quality early on, and have remained consistent to this day.

Opener "All That" lays the foundations nicely - prime baroque-pop with echoes of Abba, The Beatles, and anything else that is simply pleasing to the ear
From there every track demands attention and seems to exist in it's own small world (which at the same time is part of a larger Sparks world).
"Lawnmower" is an almost a repeating mantra about obsession - the constant la-la-la-ing takes root in your brain and stays there.  And there can't be too many songs expressing love for a Lawn Mower, the greatness of a well tended lawn, and a girl from Andover (who drives a Land Rover).
"Pacific Standard Time" casts a retro type 80s dance sound (almost verging Techno?), and the orchestral baroque madness is restored with  "Stravinsky's Only Hit" which re-casts the composer as a slightly bitter washed-up celebrity.  "Onomato Pia" is almost operatic in intent based around a simple pun.
"iPhone" gets almost anthemic and universal in it's desire for the world to "put your fucking iPhone down and listen to me".
There are many moments - perhaps none more so than on "The Existential Threat" - when they sound like they're about to descend into madness, but it is all held together.  And you would expect nothing less.
"Please Don't Fuck Up My World" closes with an almost hymnal eco-anthem to the world they see around them and it's fate.

The album is lushly, thickly produced but never to the detriment of the tunes.  The histrionics of the vocals (which may if that's not your thing, but it is something of a Sparks trademark) are balanced by the sheer warmth, humour and enjoyment of the album.
It is both a product of Sparks and a unique stand-alone artefact.  If you only want to own one Sparks album, you could do a lot worse than this one
(although I'd still make an argument for a score-draw with 'Kimono My House' meaning you'd have to listen to 2 Sparks albums).

"All That"