Two albums that might've made the Rigidly Digital 2020 Selection, but didn't arrive in time, were:
Paul McCartney 'III' - Release delayed to 18th December
AC/DC 'Power Up' - The gentle advice I was given was "DO NOT BUY IT!" (and yes, there it was wrapped in shiny paper)
And now I can reveal that, I will place them at Numbers 16 and 17. Of the two, I'm preferring AC/DC to Paul McCartney's Lockdown recordings.
'Power Up': AC/DC always deliver what you expect of AC/DC, and this album is no different, although it does fell more committed than the last two outing ('Black Ice' and 'Rock Or Bust') which felt more like an exercise in keeping the name out there than creating new music. This one has echoes of early 80s efforts 'For Those About To Rock' and 'Flick Of The Switch'. Solid drums, root bass notes, pounding relentless rhythm guitar, Brain's wailing vocals. and Angus's fills and solos. Nothing new really (except a slight Led Zep-ism on "Demon Fire"), but you don't want it or expect it. No they won't ever top 'Back In Black' and long ago gave up trying to. What you do get is everything you want of an AC/DC album, and it's always good to press play and just know what is going to happen.
'III': Like McCartneys I & II, all here is preformed by Paul - although it sounds like he has a full band in tow at times - all hail to recording technology. There can be little doubt that Paul McCartney knows how to write a tune, and this album proves he hasn't lost the knack. OK, some of the songs sound a little sketchy and brittle, but he sounds in good voice and playability. This album may not rank amongst his best work, but is not a true duffer. What I find most pleasing about it is that it is an album of songs, and not a collection of outlines, musings, and experiments, and has been polished up and not just thrown out as an exercise in "look what I've been doing during lockdown". Perfectly listenable (as Macca's work always is) but one does wonder how much these songs would've grown in a bigger studio with other players to bounce off.
2020 will be both long remembered, and hopefully quickly forgotten about. Who knew what was coming as we all made brave resolutions for the coming 12 months, and (me personally) filled some holes in my 2019 purchases, and started building the 2020 entries. And by the second week, the first new purchase of the year - The Professionals "Kingdom Come"(number 1 of 3 EPs over the next 3 months - was blowing holes in my speakers. A few more shiny silver discs were added, but the rumblings of this "thing" from China were getting, louder - Italy succumbed, Spain got hit, and then everywhere (including the UK) shut down. "You must stay at home" was the message, and I did. My dining table was converted to a temporary office and I discovered the "joys" of Microsoft Teams, failed VPN connections, unstable internet, and conversations with 2D images of people I used to spend 8 hours a day with generally nattering tosh and taking the p*ss out of people. But - I count my blessings. The lockdown emptied Pubs, Restaurants and Live Music Venues. Bands had to stop touring (for many their main source of income), theatres closed, and a whole host of backroom supply chains (sound, lighting, catering, roadies, merchandise sellers etc) found themselves out of work with no visible means of support or recognition.
Yet through all this, there has been some very fine musical product thrown to the world. As "classic" as previous years? Destined to trouble the All Time Lists in future years? Their best work to date? Who knows - but one cannot deny there have been some very special albums this year, and my carefully curated Top 15 will (I'm sure) confirm this for anyone who can get past the meandering introduction ...
1. Sparks - A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip After nigh on 50 years releasing albums, Sparks have perfected the formula (in truth they long ago perfected it, and each release has just been a new addition). This ranks alongside their very best from the opening acoustic guitar strum of "All That" to the choral closing of "Please Don't Fuck Up My World" there is not a duff moment. 50 minutes of pure entertainment, enjoyment, baroque surrealism and madness (with a few rude words and exasperations thrown in).
2. Duncan Reid & The Big Heads - Don't Blame Yourself He's been a member of the London SS, been on tour with The Ramones, and written one of the finest Punkpop tunes (The Boys "The First Time"). Now on his fourth album with his own band, Duncan continues to fly under the radar and (when allowed) never delivering less than 100% commitment in his live shows. Unfortunately, not all the songs here have had their on-stage baptism and without that comparison this album is a true triumph in his back catalogue
3. Block 33 - 6:36 To Liverpool Street 2020 probably wasn't the best year to release your debut album and hope to recoup costs by performing a keynote show at the 100 Club. But how would they know that it was all going to turn to rats when they planned it. Block 33 are rooted in their own mini Mod Revival and drawing on not just original (1960s) and revival (1980s) Mod, they also pull in Britpop Mod to the mix. Amos turned up, singing in their own accent, and making a glorious noise to boot. Deserves attention, and did not deserve their plans to be put on hold for a year or more.
4. Bob Mould - Blue Hearts After slightly wrong footing his listeners with the often positive and relatively bright 'Sunshine Rock', Bob returns as angry as ever with plenty to get of his chest. From a generally restrained opening trck, the whole thing just flies out of the speakers with the tracks colliding with each other. And if you can't be passionately aggressive and angry in this of all years, then when can you be.
5. Sensible Gray Cells - Get Back Into The World Captain Sensible and Paul Gray reconvene their side Project to duties in The Damned for the second SGC outing. This album is stuff full of tunes, garage rock, hammond organs, melodies, and tracks that wouldn’t go amiss at a Damned show. You do wonder if Captain Sensible filters his songs and keeps all the “grumpy old man with a point” songs and the most melodic-garage stuff for his own albums.
6. Paul Weller - On Sunset Here's Paul Weller, and as ever he's doing exactly what he bleedin well wants to, A bit of soul here, a dance beat there, an ambient-esque bit tacked on for good measure. Yup he's still exploring and still producing the goods. An object lesson in "why rest on your laurels" when you can achieve results like this
7. Humdrum Express - Ultrcrepidarian Soup Ahh .. blessed light relief set to a ska-esque backbeat with stabs of John Cooper-Clarke, Half Man Half Biscuit (and possibly Mike Harding - that's probably the first time that comparator has been used in a contemporary review). If you want comment on modern life with a winsome chuckle and some belly laughs, the Humdrum Express will fit the bill.
8. Massive Wagons - House Of Noise They say it themselves in the chorus of track 1 - We'll give em some big time rock and roll, big riffs big licks big moves - and yup, that is what you got. Big dumb riffs from the AC/DC, Van Halen songbook mixed with The Darkness and even a a touch of The Cult. And complete with the obligatory shrill guitar solo on each song. Under the big riffs is an honesty, commitment and sheer belief in what they do. And not without humour - The Curry Song veers almost in Macc Lads territory.
9. Sports Team - Deep Down Happy As I've said about 874 times before, this year wasn't perhaps the best to release your debut album. But fear not, this debut would grace any year. The latest in the line of great hopes for Indie - and they deserve the plaudits. The sound is a hybrid of Post-Punk, joyous Britpop, a smattering of Home Counties Sultans Of Ping FC, and a dose of early Franz Ferdinand (or that's how it is to these daft ears). Swaggering and sure, they get in, deliver, and get out in around 35 minutes. And no filler in between.
10. Fontaines DC - A Heroes Death Taking it's lead from last years debut, the atmospheric Joy Division-isms remain as does the big Irish heart. Not maybe as immediate as the first, but just as worthy after a few listens (patience is the key). What I originally though of as 50% filler reduced to less than 25% - it's not perfect, but it's better than some others I've heard this year.
11. Green Day - Father of All Motherfuckers Following up a multi-million selling album is not an easy task.. Green Day have tried, it it has taken 16 years to come somewhere close. But they did it and this album is filled with the kind of joyous snarly punk that get them noticed in the first place. Maybe the songs aren't destined for the inevitable 'The Very Best Of Green Day', but they certainly make a compelling case for consideration.
12. Paul Heaton & Jacqui Abbott - Manchester Calling My first impression here was "this goes on a bit" and "has Paul Heaton lost his knack?", but like Fontaines DC above it just needs a bit of patience. Yes it goes on a bit (it is a double) but is every bit as key as their previous outings. My only criticism is does it need t obe a double, I think there is a seriously strong single album crying to get out. And to answer the last question - no, he hasn't lost the knack, Paul and Jacqui Abbot continue they're singing-sparring as strong as they always have done.
13. Kate Rusby - Hand Me Down Recorded during lockdown at her home studio, Kate Rusby provides a relaxing backdrop with a set of covers delivered in a broad Yorkshire twang. One cannot help but enjoy the songs - I think the choice of The Littlest Hobo theme is inspired. OK, Manic Monday veers on the side of Radio 2-twee, but hey no-one wants to try too hard after months of staring at the same wall.. We all need some comfort, and this one delivered it.
14. The Damned - The Rockfield Files There are many who say that The Damned's best album is 'The Black Album', and I wholheartedly concur. During the middle months of this year, the band returned to the scene of the crime (Rockfield Studios) and wrote and recorded this 4 Track EP. The sound is as you'd expect from The Damned, slightly schlock-y, a dash of Scott Walker, and underpinned by plenty of garage-psych. Tony Visconti's production on the otherewise great album from last year - 'Evil Spirits' - this EP restores The Damned to their finest sound.
15. The Professionals - 123 EPs The Professional's were hoping for a big year - they'd reconvened and re-established themselves with 'What In The World' a couple of years ago, the line-up had settled, and they would be touring with Stiff Little Fingers at the start of the year before getting on with writing and recording. These 3 EPs were a taster of what was to come, and it tasted fine. There is a certain irony that the third EP was titled "2020 Vision"
(OK, I admit it – I padded this out to 15 using a couple of EPs, although The Professionals 3 EPs have 12 tracks, which is tantamount to an album innit)
But it's not over yet - I'm still waiting on 'McCartney III' (delayed to 18th December) and AC/DC - 'Power Up' (which I've been told not to buy, so expect to see it in wrapping paper in about 3 weeks time). I haven't bought Bruce Springsteen's 'Letter To You' either (which I should really be rectifying soon)
2020 - a sh*t year for live music, sport, mobility, and damn near anything else. But a rare old year for recorded music. I've already started scanning the lists of pre-orders for 2021 (Alice Cooper and Bruce Foxton & Russel Hastings in the bag so far) so will doubtless return with more meandering balderdash - both old and new, borrowed and blue - very soon.
One of the good things of this lockdown state is that for the last month my ears have not been battered by the same 12 songs from every shop doorway. But if you are missing them, here is a slight revision to the Sladest of all Chrimbo songs. One where every line is changed to "Are you hanging up your stocking on your wall"
There are a number of bands who are superb live, but never seem to be able to capture the power on record. One disappointment for me was The Quireboys - I'd seen them a few times live and it was always a full on powerful show, but one the album arrived it was somewhat sanitised, over-produced, and all tghe edges cleaned up. Old stagers The Who and The Stones fall firmly into that category now where their live shows exceed the impact of studio performances. Thin Lizzy's best album is 'Live And Dangerous', The Foo Fighters live act trumps their records (they're very good records, but they are a prime live act), and Bruce Springsteen live is the consumate performer putting in shows of up to 4 hours (is he the Ken Dodd of Rock?). Prince too - I've never loved his records, but watching and hearing him live is a pure spectacle (especially when he goes just a little bit wild on the guitar). So why does this happen? Surely all you have to do is rock up to the studio, plug in, and place your live set on tape. But what's missing when you do this is the response from the audience, the chance to do something spontaneous, the missed beats, duff notes or wrong words are addressed and banished, recording is a "job" not a fly by the seat of your pants adrenalin rush.
Pub Rock started in North London in the early 70s when American Band Eggs Over Easy convinced the landlord of The Tally Ho in Kenitish Town to let them play in the back-room. Word got out and audiences increased adn soon a circuit of pubs opened up their doors selling beer, pickled eggs and sweaty rock n roll and r&b. On of the finest purveyours was Duck's Deluxe, who along with Brinsley Schwarz, the aforementioned Eggs Over Easy, and Bees Make Honey, were there right from the start.
Such was their reputation on the circuit, they landed a deal with RCA and went into the studio to transfer their live shows onto record. Little footage exists of the band playing live, but the small amount that does shows a working band high on commitment, playing ability and presence. But their debut for RCA sounded a bit flat by comparison - it's not a bad record at all, it just feels too clean and a bit lacking of drive. Songs like "Coast To Coast", "Nervous Breakdown" and "Fireball" have all the potential just something is missing between leaving the players and transferring to tape. Undeterred, the band and record company tried again with follow-up album 'Taxi To The Terminal Zone', but still no dice. Again, it's a fine album but is sounding flat again. One last single was released - a great version of "I Fought The Law" - before the Ducks called it a day in 1975.
They rounded of things with a live performance at the 100 Club which was recorded and bootlegs appeared a couple of years later under the title 'The Last Night Of A Pub Rock Band'. This was the Ducks at full chat and a better representation of the band on record, as is reformation album 'Rockin At The Moon' (widely available on Spotify unlike 'Last Night ...' which can only be found with a bit of searching (and then not necessarily "freely" available).
Which begs the question: why didn't they put out their live set as an official album? Dr Feelgood did (granted it was their third album) and secured a Number 1 seller. Ducks Deluxe, along with many other Pub Rockers, will be filed in the "oh so nearly" file.
But they weren't completely defeated: Brinsley Schwarz and Martin Belmont joined Graham Parker's backing band The Rumour, while Nick Garvey and Andy McMaster formed The Motors and managed a couple of Top Of The Pops appearances. Sean Tyla though - the guitarist, singer, songwriter, and general driving force of the band stayed on the club circuit - achieving acclaim in Scandinavia and Germany, until health induced retirement in the early 80s.
They had the songs, they had the chops, they had the following, all that was missing was a decent bit of studio engineering to get the crackling sound they made onto a slab of vinyl.
Minor quibble though - the 2 albums are worthy of anyone's time and hint at just what could've been
Alexei Sayle was the first compere at The Comedy Store in 1979 showcasing his own brand of politically aware, surreal flights, and often highly controversial and audience baiting Comedy. Looking at early footage, it is a surprise that he was never physically attacked (only heckled, which he could bat away without a moments thought). One of his early political jokes is proof that political comedy doesn't always age, bring as relevant now as it was 40 years ago:
"If you travel to the States ... they have a lot of different words than like what we use. For instance: they say 'elevator', we say 'lift'; they say 'drapes', we say 'curtains'; they say 'President', we say 'seriously deranged git!'"
The other big Alternative Comedy venue in London was The Comic Strip, and Alexei switched sides becoming a core member fot 2 distinct TV outings - Channel 4s The Comic Strip Presents ... and BBC2s The Young Ones. In The Young Ones, he was ostensibly the landlord Jerzei Balowski but also many members of the Balowski family, a deranged criminal madman called Brian Damage, Benito Mussolini, a Vampire, and the lead singer of a band whose only song is about the joys of Doctor Martens Boots. He may have only had 5 minutes solo per show, but he made it count by breaking character, breaking the fourth wall, and generally coming up with some particularly daft monologues.
Alongside the Scouse Communist shtick (where he stated his full name was: Alexei Yuri Gagarin Siege of Stalingrad Glorious Five Year Plan Sputnik Tractor Moscow Dynamo Back Four Sayle) he also wrote and performed a Detective Mystery Radio Play (set in Milton Springsteen Newtown) called The Fish People.
And it was from The Fish People (although largely unrelated) that came his Pop Star moment. He took his base stage character - short fat bloke, tonic suit, and pork pie hat - gave the character a South London accent, and after fronting a BBC documentary about the Ford Cortina, he wrote, recorded and unleashed "Ullo John Gotta New Motor" - part funk, part rap, part surreal nonsense. The base track was extended over 4 parts, each the same but different enough, and culminating in Part 4 which is basically a revisit of an earlier character - Mr Sweary. The final part doesn't really have lyrics, just a litany of profanity. It's not big, it's not clever, but it is strangely funny (think Derek and Clive set to a dinstinctly 80s Studio beat).
And that was it - he'd had his moment on Top Of The Pops, and "Ullo John" will remain a mainstay on cheap Novelty music compilations, he chose to return to Comedy and made his first appearance with The Comic Strip Presents ... in the film film Supergrass (playing a rather deranged ballet dancing motorcycle cop). But it was not all comedy as he also landed some small parts in straight films (he's even in Indiana Jones & The Last Crusade (briefly)).
But he returned to stand-up comedy - although in a slightly lighter vain - with three series of Alexei Sayle's Stuff and The All New Alexei Sayle Show on BBC2. The series mixed character comedy (Bobby Chariot - "Ow ya diddling? Bloody sod ya then!", the Feminists who own a bike shop called Menstrual Cycles) with Alexei's exasperation and rumination on life as he sees it all delivered in a high-brow yet anarchically subversive tone - he steered clear of "deep" politics, but couldn't resist chucking the odd jibe in.
And then came another career change - now he's a novelist, a newspaper columnist, and a general know it all who might get the call for a Talking Heads TV slot if Stephen Fry is unavailable.
But as the theme song to Stuff asked: "Who is that fat bastard?" He's the bloke who's on the lookout for a new set of wheels whilst wondering is there is life in Peckham?
The world is just about at peak-Led Zeppelin, peak-Black Sabbath, Marc Bolan has invented and personified Glam Rock, David Bowie becomes the first of his many characters, The Who and The Stones continue to it out for the title of The Worlds Greatest Rock and Roll Band, and Deep Purple release a live album that they felt wasn't necessary, and only did so to keep their record company off their backs.
That live album was 'Made In Japan', and as the name suggests was recorded (apocryphally using sub-standard equipment) in Osaka and Tokyo on their August 1972 tour of Japan.
A double album containing just 7 tracks - the shortest here is opener "Highway Star" which falls just short of the 7 minute mark. At the other end of the scale, closing track "Space Truckin" is nigh on 20 minutes long and occupies it's own side of the original vinyl release.
If the story of not wanting to do alive album is to be believed, then it is somewhat let down by the sheer energy of the songs on show here. Every track is a showcase for the bands prowess, musicality and proficiency - each getting their own little show-off moment. These versions have enough to differentiate them from the studio versions (ie they're not just played straight) and the whole band sounds like one solid unit relying on each others feed lines, second guessing where the song goes, and then adding their own touches.
The Drum Solo? That's normally a cue to sprint to the bar or toilets and leave the tub thumper showing off a bit by bashing things. "The Mule" though is a key part of this set. Helped in part by the fact it starts out like a Greek Folk Song. The vocal track is done and dusted in under 2 minutes, and then Ian Paice takes over for another 7 and a half minutes. As drum solos go, this is one I actually enjoy listening to. He is a darn fine drummer (and often absent from the "Greatest Drummers Of All Time" lists that seem to fill up Mojo, Uncut, and many corners of the interweb.
Spare a thought though - he's up there sweating cobs under stage lights, the band wander back on stage to provide a slight coda towards the end, the final cymbal crashes, the bass drum thuds, and the moment the cheering dies down they fly into the next song.without pause. No rest for the tubthumpers.
The 25th Anniversary edition included the Encores on a second disc. Not sure I need 3 versions of "Black Night" and 2 of "Speed King", but the Purple-ised wig-out 9 minute version of "Lucille" is a welcome addition to proceedings.
Mark II Purple is my patch of choice - and this one for me really is peak-Purple (1972 was a pretty good year for peaking). There was only to be one further album in that configuration though before Ian Gillan and Roger Glover departed (replaced by David Coverdale and Glen Hughes). The opening track of 'Who Do We Think We Are' was "My Woman From Tokyo" a nice back link to where this album was recorded.
Later albums were good (if a bit stodgy in places) and even the reformation of the "classic" line-up for 1984s 'Perfect Strangers' does not come close to the power evident on 'Made In Japan'
The'Illumination' album of 2002 was not as illuminating as the title suggests. Paul Weller was stuck in Dad Rock territory, seemingly with no way out. A year before he had embraced his past and gone out with just an acoustic guitar playing quieter more contemplative versions of Jam, Style Council and early solo songs. This was released under the title 'Days Of Speed' and outsold his previous release, and his next release. There appeared to be some revitalisation in the air, but 'Illumination' did not provide this.
But give it a couple of years, and those first steps were happening again - this time with the release of (seemingly obligatory once artists reach a certain point in their career) Covers album.
"Studio 150" is something of a curio - the choice of songs is interesting, if somewhat unexpected. The man who wrote "In The City" covering a Sister Sledge track, The Modfather sings Bob Dylan. The biggest surprise (for me) was the choice of "Close To You" - a track forever linked with The Carpenters (or maybe Alan Partridge?). In fairness though it is one of Bacharach and David's finest. It may not be an essential purchase, but it does mark the start of a decade or so of confounding critics and the public expectation with little (or big) twists and turns of each album.
Not that you'd believe it upon the release of 'As Is Now' - He's back, and back in that 'Wild Wood'/'Stanley Road' groove, with added Funk and a little anger thrown into the mix. He's embraced his past, and is no longer embarrassed by the adulation. And now delivers a set of songs that are effortless. "Come On / Let's Go" may not be the most original tile, but it is a superb track, as is "From The Floorboards Up". And "Bring Back The Funk" does just that, whilst echoing late period Jam and Style Council moments. This album (although poor commercially) is one of his very best.
If 'As Is Now' was a "this is me, and I can still do it" statement, then what followed was a "this is me, and now I'm doing what I want" statement.
The next album came some 18 months later after another live album and a 4CD retrospective of his career ('Hit Parade') - proof that he was finally comfortable with all of his past.
'22 Dreams' was released to lauded critical appreciation - still recognisably PW but just different enough to set him apart from accusations of stagnation and trading on past glories. The album is also something of a departure as 50% of the tracks were co-writes. It may be the presence of another pen that pushes the songs on this album into unexpected areas - one minute folk, the next soul, add a bit of funk, there's even a bit of Led Zeppelin III and Fairport Convention chucked into the mix. Eclectic? Yes, that about covers it.
'Wake Up The Nation' pretty much does what it says on the tin. The album is more direct, not as eclectic as the last outing, but is not without moments of experimentation. And listen carefully - there are a couple of tracks when you can hear the Bass Guitar of Bruce Foxton. Yes, the same Bruce Foxton that went to court with Paul Weller for a fairer share of Jam royalties, lost, and then declared he would never stand on stage with Paul Weller again. Well, as they both said "Life's too short" and their appearance together proved Paul Weller is not quire as grumpy as his public persona suggests.
Edit: Like 'Wild Wood' before, I've re-listened to this one - it is better/stronger than I remember.
Another album, another soundscape - 2012s 'Sonik Kicks' added Krautrock drumming, a bit of Hawkwind, and moments which sound like the bastard son of David Bowie performing Blur performing Gift-era Jam/early Style Council. It also contains some exceedingly strong songs and one sure-fire PW Classic in the shape of "That Dangerous Age". If pushed, I will defend this album to the hilt, and rank it alongside 'Stanley Road' and 'As Is Now' as his best work.
John Peel once said about The Fall: "Always different, always the same - and always interesting". And this quote fits for Weller's next 4 albums - a little left turn here, a little bit of electronic insertion there, a discovery (or re-discovery) of an unexplored genre. And always sounding like Paul Weller, and never really losing the interest of the listener.
'Saturns Pattern' was the first of those "different but the same". There's still an urgency about the album, but also heavy studio production techniques - almost using the studio as a new musical tool. If I was being unfair, I'd suggest a kinship with Blur's 1994 eponymous album. But this is no copy,and 100% where Paul Weller's head is at at that time - including the almost prophetic "I'm Where I Should Be". Maybe not the most immediate listening success, but give it time and it worms it's way in.
'A Kind Revolution' was another slight shift - the soul quotient is jacked up on this one. And it also features further unlikely collaborators in the shape of Robert Wyatt on “She Moves with the Fayre" and Boy George on "One Tear". This was another slow burn where on first listening the album doesn't seem to hang together, but repeated listening bares fruit.
'True Meanings' is an acoustic outing, and contains some very good songs - "Mayfly", "Glide", "Bowie" being the pick for me. It sounds like he's taking it easy here, and he deserves to - this one ranks alongside his very best work, if yet another departure from expected template.
And here we are 43 years since his first recorded outing, and rather than taking it easy resting on past glories, and knocking off another batch of songs, he's still pushing into new territory with 'On Sunset'. It's almost like he's taken his last 5 years work, mixed it all up, adding some extra seasoning and flavours, and said "I'm still trying to please myself (and hopefully you)". And with the opening 3 tracks here - "More", "Village" and "Earth Beat" - you still pleasing at least one listener.
After the demise of Husker Du, Bob Mould released a couple of solo albums in a similar style and, erm, mould.
He then formed Sugar whose debut album - 'Copper Blue' - took Husker Du's melodic moments and added some shine. 'Copper Blue' is, to my ears, a better album than Nirvana's 'Nevermind' yet Sugar remained a peg below their Grunge counterparts in a voracious genre chasing media. Thought For The Day: Is Bob Mould to Grunge what Paul Weller is to Britpop?
Bob Mould's solo career continued releasing a number a critically acclaimed, but largely commercially ignored albums.
Last years 'Sunshine Rock' seemed to be showing Bob in a more optimistic light - there were genuine moments of lightness and happiness there. His current release - and maybe it is a reflection of the times - is as simmering and angry as ever.
The opening track is titled "Heart On My Sleeve" and that is exactly what he does, and he's not the happiest bunny in the hutch. Although don't be fooled by the acoustic Neil Young-esque nature of the track - there is a definite undercurrent going on in the lyric. It sounds like it's about to explode into a full on angry thrash. It doesn't, but track 2 ("Next Generation") does just that from the first second. "American Crisis" and "Fireball" keep the speed up and are not a million miles from his best work with Husker Du and Sugar. And the anger and thrashing keep coming rarely stopping for breath. Bob's just passed 60 but you wouldn't believe it with the energy flying out of your speakers here.
Some of the tracks may be painting a dark picture ("Forecast Of Rain") but amongst the grooves of this record, there just feels a glimmer of hope that things can get better.The closing of final track "The Ocean" is a fading trail of distortion - almost like an unfinished end to the frustration, desperation and disappointment laid out before.
Let the distortion end, give it a minute, and play the whole thing again.
Stand-out track? There are times when I believe that Husker Du's "Sorry Somehow" may be one of the greatest songs ever written. Well, in the shape of "Siberian Butterfly" Bob's created another superb ear-worm
To nick an idea from Mojo - How To Buy Paul Weller Solo
(aka Rigid Digit's indispensable guide to the bloke from Woking)
In late 1982, Paul Weller announced the upcoming Jam shows were to be the last, and at the end of the tour that was the end of the band. This came as news to Bruce Foxton and Rick Buckler, but Weller's mind was made up. He was moving on with the band at their height. The recent change of direction to a more Northern Soul, funk-ish sound, may well have exposed the other two (in fairness, more Rick than Bruce) but I don't think either of them were too comfortable with Paul's direction of travel.
Wasting no time, The Style Council was formed (or convened, in keeping with Weller's socialist manifesto) and by early 1983 were back in the Top 10 with "Speak Like A Child". 5 albums and around 20 singles followed in the next 5 years. Styles may have varied, but popularity was never far from the band. Until 1989 ... Trying to push further onwards into new territory, the album 'Modernism: A New Decade' was recorded - an album influenced by the Chicago and New Jersey House Music, the UK variant of, and imbued with deeper Soul music leanings. A Brave move for a pop band - and something of a Cash Cow for Polydor records. They'd backed Paul Weller since 1977, and now - when presented with this new vision - unceremoniously dump the band.
After a couple of years wound licking, he finally picks up the guitar again, revisits his well known influences - Steve Marriott, Kinks, John Lennon - and adds some new ones which have not previously been spoken of - Neil Young, Steve Winwood, John Coltrane, Dr John.
These initial return steps on the club circuit was followed by his debut single release "Into Tomorrow" in 1991, followed in 1992 by his debut solo album titled simply 'Paul Weller'. All the above influences were in there, along with more recognisable echoes of his past, including the single "Uh Huh Oh Yeh" which brought him back to chart and public recognition.
This amalgam of influences continued with the folky, introspective, but equally cutting 60s R&B influence, running through 1993s 'Wild Wood'. Compare and contrast title track "Wild Wood" with "Sunflower" or "The Weaver" - 2 ends of the same Weller-spectrum. Closing track "Hung Up" manages to combine both these styles. Edit: just re-listened to this for the first time in a few years - it's rougher and tougher than I remember. The noisier moments outweigh the quiet. 'Wild Wood' contains a confidence that was not as apparent on the debut, and elevated Weller to greater recognition.
And just at the right time ... just around the corner (musically) Britpop was coming into view - his solo career and success led to him being seen as a figurehead for the burgeoning movement, later to be dubbed The Modfather. And how did he re-pay this visibility and influence? By releasing his most assured set to date 'Stanley Road' which proved he was the equal of many Britpop bands, and also leading the way. The opening track "The Changingman" was, and remains, a Weller classic, and showed many of the Britpop gang how it should be done. "You Do Something To Me" and "Broken Stones" are cur from the same cloth, and show a lighter touch. "Woodcutter's Son" features Steve Winwood and is (for me) the pick of the album. It is both looking back and pushing forwards, stuffed with groove and funk and soul. If 'Wild Wood' made him important again, then 'Stanley Road' made him vital again.
Now widely known as The Modfather, and approaching 40 he was now seen as an elder statesman (an elder statesman with energy, ideas, and passion for what he was doing). 1997s 'Heavy Soul' is not without it's moments, it just sounds a little "by numbers" rather than pushing on, or extending the stance of 'Stanley Road'. A great album, I think it just misses that on killer track ("Friday Street" and "Mermaids" come close, but not quite there).
'Heliocentric' came 3 years later, and initially it felt like treading water mixed with trying to find a new sound, but unfortunately often arriving back at the old one. The songs on the album aren't bad songs, they just feel like they need a bit more polishing.
'Heliocentric' was an attempt to try new stuff and stop the water treading. Unfortunately 'Illumination' found itself in the same pool as before, but with a track like "It's Written In The Stars". you can almost forgive the album (almost, but not quite).
On 'Wild Wood', he asked the question "Has My Fire Really Gone Out?" - well, at this point it was dimming a bit.
So where next? 10 years done, will the next 10 years continue trading on reputation and guest appearances? And are there more patchy albums to come? Never one to stand still, it must be time for The Changingman to change.
Following on from the Cover Album, there are many many fine Cover Versions out there.
And probably the same number (if not more) of bad cover versions too
But ... which is the best (a highly subjective question which I'm sure you'll disagree with my suggestion)
For me, it's a straight fight between John Otway's "House Of The Rising Sun" and William Shatner's " Common People"
Otway's version is a staple of his live show featuring a call and response with the audience - he sings a line, they shout back a question. The audience asks a question, Otway acts like he's never heard the question before, and then gives the answer in an explanatory tone of voice. I've seen John Otway live several times over the past (ahem) years, and this is the one song that is always in the set. If he left it out, I think the audience may lynch him.
William Shatner plays it dead straight, despite the fact that his tone of voice and ennunciation just has more than a touch of comedy about it. Lifted from his fourth (!) album - 'Has Been' - the "playing it straight" card is assisted by the presence of Ben Folds on piano and production duties, lyrics supplied by Nick Hornby for one track, and a guest list including Joe Jackson, Aimee Mann, Henry Rollins, and Adrian Belew.
The comedy/novelty element is kept in check on this album, but it was the next album - 'Seeking Major Tom' - provided 12 cover versions delivered in Bill's indomitable style, which was probably not "played straight".
I think it's fair to say the William Shatner was not the greatest of actors. And by the same token, Airplane II was not the greatest of films. But add the 2 together and you get this:
But which Cover Version is better? I dunno - you be the judge ...
John Otway - House Of The Rising Sun
William Shatner - Common People
These are two of the finest covers versions out there (there are many others, but I've chosen these two).
As said above, there are a plethora of bad ones - the video for this Pulp track contains bad cover versions in the flesh.
I'm imagining one of three conversations in the Spectrum Records offices at the time of preparation and release:
"Shall we leave "Free Bird" off and see if anyone notices?"
"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!")
"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).
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.
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')
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.
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.
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.
2016: Madness - Can't Touch Us Now Another act from the late 70s showing others how it can, should 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.
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
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.
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?
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)
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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!)
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)
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.
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.
"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')
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.
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
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.
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
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?
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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")
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.
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)
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).