Sunday, October 28, 2007

Pump up the 00s

1. Arctic Monkeys - Whatever people say..../Favourite Worst Nightmare
(2006 & 2007)

It's always tough to pick a favourite, and especially tough when the obvious choice for best band of the decade has released two records which are equally deserving of the accolade. So let's just make this simpler for ourselves and share the prize between the two - I love both of these albums just as much and most people I've spoken to about the Arctic Monkeys feel the same way. Delivered onto a market that was more than accustomed to their style of music amidst a storm of media hype over their Myspace fan page, the Monkeys have still managed to carve their own niche simply by providing a fuller, more attractive package of the same ingredients that countless others have used in the past - their dramatic arrival on the scene would have been slightly shocking were it not for the simple fact that it all made perfect sense : these guys were just loads better than their contemporaries and deserved to sell more records.

I'll admit to having a personal preference for their Yorkshire wit (it's always comforting to hear a singer use the phrase 'berserk as fuck' in a pop song) but I don't think you need any connection with their homeground to appreciate the Monkeys - their line in dry humour can appeal to anybody, and their music references the sort of everyday occurrences in British life that provide an added dose of realism without the whole thing slipping into grey-tinged Ken Loach melodrama. The lads are just singing about normal life, complete with all the sarcasm and one-liners that lighten up everyday conversation. As for the music, the band prove that their punk rock chops are sharp as ever but refrain from pushing too hard on the pedal to lose some of the finesse from the rest of their musicianship - their records hang together on the sort of rapid fire yet impossibly tight song structures which belie the fact that they're such a young band. They may trade in dour Northern stage presence as part of their act but you can still tell that they're having a great time doing what they do, and the fun shines across in the music despite the dismissive attitude of the bandmembers.

There's no socio-cultural backdrop I can weave around the Arctic Monkeys and their immense success to explain why it all came about when it did - maybe it's too soon to say, but in any case I don't think we really need a fuller explanation to help us understand why they're such a great band. The only thing that matters is that they simply haven't released a weak track yet, and their recorded output brings together the edginess of punk and the lyrical wittiness of classic indie to provide us with a potent cocktail of modern rock music. Not rocket science, not reinventing the musical wheel and not even doing anything that wasn't already being done before they arrived, the Arctic Monkeys just have the kind of songbook that disarms any potential critics - the only band that have come close to their kind of watertight hit rate were Oasis in the mid-90s, but even then they were more focused on commercial domination rather than doing anything that clever. The Monkeys by contrast just seem naturally brainy, whilst the commercial potency of their material seems to concern them about as much as the price of peanuts in their local - young, aloof and ridiculously talented, there's no reason why they won't be able to keep on churning out records as good as these for years to come. The current musical and social climate might make their output particularly relevant now, but I very much doubt that their charm will fade with the passing of time - these are records that we'll be listening to for quite some time.

Also :

The View - Hats off to the buskers (2007)

Melodic, quirky and totally infectious, these lads sound like they'd been plucked from their local pub playing indie rock infused with in-jokes and obscure references and thrust straight onto the stage at Glastonbury. Which is pretty much what happened, come to think of it.

The Fratellis - Costello Music (2006)

Hardly the most intellectual release of recent years, the debut from these Weegie rascals is still the ideal soundtrack to a night of alehouse goonery with your indie chums. Bonus points for having a drummer called Mince.

2. Eva Cassidy - Songbird (2000)

If you think about it, millennial art was dominated by one over-arching theme that infiltrated every aspect of popular culture as we moved into the new era : death. Whilst music and cinema endeavoured to capitalise on a forward-looking branch of optimism and hope for the future, the public's imagination was entrenched elsewhere, in the realisation that existence itself was only a temporary state and that we would all at some point have to confront the end of the game. The atmosphere of unease led to various artists preaching Revelations-style apocalyptic visions but they were missing the point - what the public were looking for wasn't a reflection of their panic or paranoia but rather a soundtrack to the winding down of life, the final broadcast before the lights went off for good. 'Songbird' wasn't the record anyone would have picked out as the ideal musical backdrop for the passage into the new era, but once it had begun to rise from mail-order obscurity thanks to a brief TV plug, the sheer potency of it as a recording became impossible to ignore.

I love this record precisely because the fucking record industry didn't see it coming - a compilation of cover versions released posthumously after Cassidy's death from cancer in the 1990s, it came on the market via indie label Didgeridoo in 1998 but lay dormant until 2000 when Steve Wright selected the closing version of 'Over the Rainbow' for an edition of Top of the Pops 2. Watching the performance, myself and countless other viewers experienced one of those extremely rare moments where music transcends the boundaries of mere entertainment and turns into a force capable of draining the air from your lungs and making your heart stop beating. She may have been singing a cornball Judy Garland standard, but Cassidy's haunting version of the track went deeper in, infusing every note with an emotional sincerity that only a handful of vocalists ever truly master. It was utterly, totally stop-in-your-tracks beautiful. I went out and bought the album straight away.

'Songbird' was initially a success on the indie charts on the back of that one transmission, but repeated viewer requests to see the performance again brought the record business onto the scent and the compilation soon hit high street shelves, eventually rising to the top of the UK album charts in early 2001. I chose to include it in the new decade's list despite the original release date because the public recognition of the album came later, and it belongs in the period where a copy could be found in every home rather than back in Cassidy's days of open-mic obscurity. The original TOTP2 crowd may boast about picking up on it before everyone else but the power of 'Songbird' as a record is that everyone could find something to connect with - and they did, leaving the album as the 3rd best-seller of the year in 2001 and propelling two subsequent Cassidy anthologies to #1 in the UK charts.

The saddest thing about Eva Cassidy's untimely exit was that it probably could have been avoided - she was diagnosed late with cancer and couldn't fight back before it was too late. But despite the melancholy surrounding 'Songbird', it defies categorisation alongside Joy Division and company due to the sheer life you can hear on the record. Its release may be inevitably associated with the theme of dying young, but for many it became more of a soundtrack to the process of coping with death and loss, less of a tragedy and more of a comforting influence faced with such an issue. Despite her undeniable talent for performance and the obvious loss to the music industry in her passing, Eva Cassidy seems nevertheless best-suited to singing from beyond the grave - her haunting voice is imbued with a kind of heartbreaking sadness that only seems fitting to hear in such circumstances.

The success of 'Songbird' may have inadvertently kick-started the trend for easy listening female artists in the post-millennial charts - with typical cynicism, the music industry recognised the target market that lay across a countersection of the record buying public and proceeded to plug the likes of Norah Jones, Dido, Katie Melua and numerous other artists tailor-made for the music section in Tesco in an attempt to replicate the album's crossover success. None came close to matching the sheer potency of Cassidy's posthumous output, but this is hardly surprising - the success of 'Songbird' wasn't the product of marketing consultant brainstorming, it came about because the record buying public found themselves slowly but surely drawn to the closest musical depiction of the post-millennial mindset. Make no mistake, the public made this record the success it became and Cassidy's memory lives on through everyone who felt something when they listened to her voice - keep that in mind the next time you're confronted with the industry's self-nominated 'Next Big Thing' and remember that the truly exceptional performances often take place a long way from the public eye. Rest in peace Eva.

Also :

Johnny Cash - American 3/4 (2000 & 2002)

Cash could have shelved his career for the final years of his life but instead he chose to revisit classics of the younger generation to make sure everybody had something to remember him with. Several artists found themselves unable to fully reclaim their own songs once he'd finished with them.

PJ Harvey - Stories from the city, stories from the sea (2000)

Polly Jean undergoes her 19th image change and sees in the new decade with arguably her darkest set ever - weirdly enough, it was also her most accessible with some of her best singles ever ('Good Fortune', 'This mess we're in').

3. The Streets - Original Pirate Material (2002)

As of 2007, we practically expect every new British band to weave tales of existential angst about their life as a frustrated poet working in Burger King over recycled Jam riffs or retro-rave bleep samples, hoping that the NME will brand them as 'groundbreaking'. The thing that most of these scenester muppets will never grasp is that true innovation rarely involves anything truly new, rather a personal twist on an already established formula - attempting to re-invent the musical wheel whilst attempting to analyse the cultural zeitgeist will more often than not leave you looking like a complete tool. Mike Skinner's strength lies in the fact that 'Original Pirate Material' was less of a musical visionary's call to arms for disenfranchised youth and more of a brutally honest, funny, eloquent account of his daily life over the sort of UK garage production that was soundtracking 'Top of the Pops' at the time. Amidst all the posing, he was someone we could actually all relate to.

'Original Pirate Material' follows on from the emergent UK garage trend of the millennial charts and can probably be traced back to the club culture of the 90s - the thing is, Mike wasn't trying to be the next trend himself, he was more interested in describing his observations on previous periods in his own music. Hence 'Let's push things forward' rips on the commercial garage hitlist of the era whilst 'Weak become heroes' harks back to the halycon days of 90s clubland where Skinner first encountered the sounds he grew up on. This was stuff we could all relate to rather than the sort of pseudo-philosophical waffle that circulates round rehearsal rooms full of stoned musicians, told by someone who'd actually been there as a spectator and could touch a nerve with his public. Skinner's style is all the more engaging because he talks with the same reference points as your mates, never turning pretentious when he risks alienating his audience and maintaining the dose of humour that is indispensable if you want to have a conversation about serious stuff with a group of blokes. Indeed, his status as gentleman raconteur is cemented by his ability to transform standard lad leisure activities into the lifestyle of a discerning connoisseur - drinking, raving, pulling girls and taking pills become the very essence of existence rather than something to be patronised by the media. In this sense, Skinner goes some way to redefining post-millennial masculinity - he talks about this things because they are important, never condescending to his audience and successfully evaluating the everyday tribulations of young British males without turning the whole thing into amateur sociology.

There's so much to take in on this record that you could pretty much launch a debate over each track - urban violence, drug use, romantic power struggles and even depression all get a word in, but the whole affair never gets too dramatic for its own good. If Skinner had been lamenting all this over an acoustic guitar, he would have doubtless been proclaimed the next Kurt Cobain but as he came across as a mouthy young townie recounting tales of Ecstasy and kebabs, the media reaction was predictably dismissive. That said, it probably did him the world of good in the long run and 'Original Pirate Material' proved to be merely the first chapter in the soundtrack to Mike Skinner's passage into adulthood. Subsequent episodes have been equally engaging and more than a few records have been sold in the process - the more Mike carries on living the life, the more material we have for future Streets releases. In the modern reality TV age, we can be thankful that there's one accurate depiction of life as it really is in the realms of entertainment - and as a poet, storyteller, musical maverick and all-round bloody nice bloke, Mike Skinner is a valued addition to post millennial music.

Also :

Gorillaz - S/T (2002)

Why release an album of supergroup indie-electronica under the guise of four cartoon monkeys? Well, why the fuck not? Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett put their creative necks on the line and come out on top. Good move guys.

OutKast - Speakerboxxx/The Love Below (2003)

Some way short of the double-barrelled masterpiece it set out to be, this twin-set is nevertheless a pretty impressive feat. Takes the personality stamp of each member to such an extreme that they couldn't even record the same album together!

4. Radiohead - Kid A (2000)

Before we rounded the corner of the new millennium, there was much media speculation over what the soundtrack of the passage into a new era would be - the dawn of previous decades had jump-started trends based on the belief that moving one calendar year forward should somehow instigate a major shift in the musical landscape, replacing old with new and passing the baton onto a new generation of visionaries. With this in mind, plenty of clueless media types were certain that faced with the encroaching Y2K landmark we were going to be in for something REALLY special. They just weren't sure what.

In reality of course, the crossover brought no radical shake-up in music other than numerous mediocre artists using the event as the basis for some ill-thought out foray into zeitgeist definition : in cinema we had various apocalyptic action productions and in music every dork like Will Smith and Robbie Williams was peppering his material with pseudo-profound references to the event like it were any more important than the start of the new football season. The real shift came in a widespread reluctance to celebrate the event publicly - if anything it triggered a retraction from the limelight for many major players, who preferred to sidestep the fireworks and empty rhetoric about a new era and mull the event over in peace and quiet. Whilst the 90s had started with a wave of explosive creativity and forward-looking optimism, the decade had given way to Blairite cynicism, crass exploitation and sinister personality cults fuelled by the general media. In addition to that, the fame machine was taking fewer and fewer prisoners - new recruits such as Britney Spears were thrust into the showbiz meat market before they'd barely finished puberty, whilst yesterday's heroes found themselves subject to public ridicule (Michael Jackson) or total disintegration (Kurt Cobain, Richey Edwards). With the vultures circling for their next victim, it wasn't surprising that many acts wanted out from the spotlight before they became the next course.

Radiohead weren't the only act to ditch commercial paydirt to plough their own musical furrow - Pearl Jam and Prince had both opted out of the system before them and would continue to exist on their own terms for years to come, but neither were going into the new millennium on the back of their biggest commercial success. The Head, by contrast, had gone from strength to strength over the course of the 90s and had soundtracked the passage into Blairite Britain with 'OK Computer', a jarring, insecure study on alienation but nevertheless equipped with enough footholds in modern rock for most radio listeners to find a way in. It sold an absolute fuckload and propelled the album into the realms of 'timeless classics' determined by Q readers and Observer music critics, but for Thom Yorke and co that still wasn't enough - the rock landscape of the late 90s was over-run by bloated post-Britpop Match of the Day rock like Embrace, Travis and Stereophonics. Faced with such an audience, Radiohead decided to make things even more difficult for themselves and ditch rock altogether.

'Kid A', seven years down the line, should be seen in this context - it sounds positively mainstream these days, but back in 2000 most of the rock press had no idea how to handle it. Some treated it as a passing phase, a momentary flight of fancy before they got back to radio-friendly rock, whilst others saw it as an outright betrayal of their 'Bends' era fanbase and stopped listening altogether. Thing is, there's nothing reactionary or hostile about this record, it just sounds like Radiohead bypassing the mainstream because they just didn't need it anymore to make interesting music. 'Kid A' was never meant to be played in nightclubs or cranked up on car stereos as the ultimate act of defiance, it just sums up how faced with all the pomp and circumstance of millennial British music, it made sense to most people to retreat into their own personal headspace and try to work it out for themselves. Complex and innovative without being deliberately futuristic, 'Kid A' dispensed with hit singles, verse-chorus-verse structure and riff-centric songwriting in favour of a more freeform, almost jazz-like approach to music - it could so easily have turned out total pretentious bollocks, but Radiohead knew that their hardcore following would stick with it long enough to let it grow on them. Which it did, and subsequent releases have only strengthened their position as the only band really willing to chance their arm for artistic freedom and still produce hugely popular results.

'The Bends' and 'OK Computer' will doubtless continue to top best album polls, and to be fair neither of them are bad records but their praises have been sung to the point where there's really little left to discover. 'Kid A' by contrast was thrust upon an unsuspecting public and left for them to pore over at leisure - those who stuck with it long enough came to see it as progression rather than a panicky change of direction, whilst many fans put off by the band's radio rock staples came back round to listening to them again. It's aged remarkably well, perhaps due to the band's reluctance to actively soundtrack the era upon its release, and they have only continued to enlarge their musical universe over subsequent recordings. They're currently giving away their latest offering for nowt over the internet - who knows where Radiohead will go next? The only sure thing is that plenty of people will be willing to follow them in order to find out.

Also :

Aphex Twin - Druxqs (2000)

An acknowledged influence on the Head's millennial masterpiece, Richard D James celebrated in his own unique way by throwing out a double album of clattering electronic gobbledegook. Reassuringly perplexing.

Primal Scream - Exterminator (2000)

I nearly stuck this one in here on its own merits but decided against it on account of the band's alarming tendency to switch styles every few years. Nevertheless, 'Exterminator' catches them on a pissed-off creative high.

5. The Strokes - This is it (2001)

Indie guitar music went through somewhat of a fallow period once Britpop had breathed its last in the late 90s - the initial phase of creative fertility had given way to bloated, self important pomp and circumstance and by the time 'Be Here Now' decimated the market in 1997, a lot of fans were looking for their kicks elsewhere. Blur and Pulp set out to deliberately distance themselves from the mainstream whilst Oasis ploughed on regardless of growing disdain from the media, leaving the indie heartland of NME and Steve Lamacq to search for the next step in guitar music. They came up with various candidates for the next indie success story but none achieved any real dominance, the assembled suitors either plumping for intentional bedroom obscurity (Mercury Rev, Flaming Lips) or moving into Britpop's slipstream to coin it in as the new soundtrack to 'Match of the Day' (Embrace, Stereophonics). Many former indie kids cast off the genre completely and drifted towards the more polarised movements of Drum & Bass or Nu-Metal, others just stopped listening to the radio altogether. Once Y2K was upon us, it was fairly obvious that the throne of indie rock was there for the taking and it came as little surprise when five well turned out youngsters from NYC came along in 2001 to claim it.

Indie is always heavily tied in with fashion - truly original product is pretty rare, and trends are generally set in motion by bands recycling elements of past glory in a newer, more relevant setting. The Strokes drew on late 70s US indie for their music and styled themselves as extras from a Martin Scorcese film of the same period - like the illegitimate offspring of Mean Streets' Johnny Boy clad in brown leather and skinny jeans, they brought back the posterboy appeal that mainstream indie had all but abandoned since the heady days of Britpop (let's face it, no schoolgirls were lying awake at night drooling over the bassist from Embrace at the time). The music was equally appealing, snappy pop songs that flew by quickly enough to retain their immediacy but still left the listener with a tune they could hum on the bus to work. The appeal of indie as a pop package had been undermined over previous years, with a music press sick to death of production line Britpop and increasingly hostile to anything too commercial - however, by 2001 there was a whole new generation of indie kids who needed a band to soundtrack their adolescence, and when five good-looking lads dropped an ultra-catchy indie rock album on the back of a considerable press campaign, it was obvious 'Is This It' was going to coin it in.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about this record is was such a simple affair - the run of taut quickfire indie anthems reminded us that there was nothing wrong with writing an album full of potential singles and the band's snappy, straightforward sound was positively refreshing compared with their contempories who saw indie as the realm of orchestral bombast rather than simple pop songs focussed on guitar, bass and drums. Ever since The Verve had become the first post-Britpop success in the late 90s, everyone had been building up their recordings with horns, strings and ludicrous 'Hey Jude' end sections - it was a relief just to hear five lads bash their way through a set of catchy songs without trying to rope in the fucking BBC Philharmonic for their eight minute set closer. Several of the tracks duly emerged as singles and remain the staple diet of indie club DJs to this day, whilst everybody from John Peel listeners to mainstream pop journalists welcomed the band with open arms. Once the full-length album hit the shelves, it was the first debut to excite genuine interest from music industry for years (as opposed to bankable risk-free indie staples like Travis) and the band's reputation as scene leaders was only cemented when legions of imitators cropped up over the following months.

'Is this it' still sounds cool several years down the line, and its mark can be clearly heard in modern indie production whilst the band's line of fashion is still firmly visible in indie discos all over the world. They followed it with two solid successors but the Strokes' debut still stands alone as the record that set the mould for post-millennial indie bands from both the US and further afield - true to form, the British would try to steal the limelight with a shoddy London-based remake the following year (The Libertines, please stand up) but nobody can deny the longstanding impact of 'Is this it' on indie as a genre for the rest of the decade. They may have been five punchable examples of rich kid trendiness, but the Strokes had the tunes to silence their detractors and their faultless debut contains eleven examples of what they do best.

Also :

The Vines - Highly Evolved (2002)

Half wide-mouthed garage bluster, half sublime 60s-style psychedelia and fronted by one of rock's most unpredictable frontmen, these Aussie nutjobs stole numerous front covers but their debut had the tunes to back them up.

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club - BRMC (2002)

Owing less to the 70s CBGB crowd and more to fuzzed-up British indie like Ride and the Mary Chain, these guys suddenly made it much harder for blond guys to get record deals. Dark, loud and irresistibly powerful.

6. The Darkness - Permission to land (2003)

Four years down the line, The Darkness' ludicrous debut seems like a passing fad from the distant past, although I'd be willing to bet that more people have a copy of this record than would admit it in public. It's difficult to pinpoint exactly why their goofy revisit of classic rock became so enormously popular upon the release of their debut album, or indeed why they were chased from the limelight so ferociously two years later despite dropping a great follow-up, so let's just put it down to the fickle tastes of the British music buyer - no other country in the world would have allowed a band as ridiculous as The Darkness to dominate the airwaves the way they did for about 18 months in Britain, and nobody else would have grown so tired of them as quickly either. The moment may have passed, but the brief reign of tigerskin bodysuits and ludicrous falsetto nevertheless brought us some memorable performances and one cast-iron stonker of a debut in the shape of 'Permission to land'.

Ever since the demise of Bruce Dickinson's original run with Iron Maiden in the early 1990s, rock fans had been pining for the return of what can only be described as 'widdling' to mainstream music - the thrills and spills of old school rock had been largely discarded in the post-grunge landscape of the previous decade in favour of a more stripped-down, visceral brand of rock music. However, many forgot that aside from the breakneck aggression and composite musicianship that characterised heavy rock, one of the most important elements was a good dose of humour - especially in Britain where every major rock troupe from Queen to Maiden has remained keenly aware of the inherent silliness of stadium-sized performance rock. Faced with droves of po-faced heavy metal groups and nu-metal whiteboy rappers increasingly unaware of how fucking stupid they looked, Kerrang journalists welcomed The Darkness with open arms when they burst onto the scene in 2003 - what had previously been a guilty pleasure suddenly became the latest brand of rock to go global, surpassing even the reformed Iron Maiden in terms of chart success and cranking up the comedy factor to the max via some truly horrendous stage outfits and lyrics that sounded like they'd been written by Viz's Finbarr Saunders.

The weirdest thing was that The Darkness weren't doing any of this for comedy value - reared on hideously unfashionable British rock like Thunder and Foreigner during their adolescence in the provincial outpost of Lowestoft, the band members had been plying their shtick for several years before the press picked up on it and maintained throughout their spell at the top of the charts that the whole thing wasn't a joke, it was totally serious. And they weren't lying either - despite the media campaign that surrounded their trip to the top, there was nothing post-modern or clever about The Darkness, they were simply four blokes who enjoyed playing big, dumb rock 'n' roll and were coincidentally pretty good at it too. Frontman Justin Hawkins looked like the sort of bedraggled gonk that you'd come across at a small town kareoke contest, which is exactly what he would have been had his band's debut not come along at the same time as the British mullet revival of the early 2000s, where everything garish and embarrassing from the 1980s suddenly became frightfully cool to like again. The Darkness didn't orchestrate their rise to fame more than any other touring rock band, they simply turned up at the right place and at the right time to capitalise on the reigning mood in British fashion.

Not that 'Permission to land' doesn't feature enough tunes to justify its success mind you - Hawkins was well-schooled in the art of anthemic rock songwriting, and the album racks up ten immensely catchy rock workouts which are only made more loveable by the liberal injections of shrieking falsetto, widdletastic soloing and pun-infested lyrics. Indeed, you'd only get halfway to taking stuff like 'Growing on me' seriously before realising that it was about pubic lice. The band notched up three major hits from the album and narrowly missed out on 2003's Xmas #1 with the comedy festive bombast of 'Don't let the bells end', and they ended the year as press darlings in the British media. Which is a pretty precarious position at the best of times, something that became apparent all too quickly as their charm faded prior to the 2005 release of sophmore album 'One way ticket to hell....and back' which missed the top ten and was mercilessly panned by large sections of the press (Kerrang, as ever, stood by them but everyone else had been sharpening their knives for a while before the record hit the shelves). Justin Hawkins duly cracked up and hit rehab whilst the others returned to the obscurity they'd never fully stepped out of during the band's success.

Fashions may come and go but good tunes remain, and since The Darkness' dramatic fall from grace it's fairly likely that a lot of their fanbase has since revised its opinion on whether they were ever that good in the first place. But on the other hand there are plenty of bedroom rockstars who were waiting for a record like 'Permission to land' to hit mainstream radio and who still stick it on for regular bouts of air guitar and shower kareoke - I make no secret of falling into the latter category, and challenge anyone to name a better example of good time rock 'n' roll in post-millennial music.

Also :

Andrew WK - I get wet (2001)

Trimming off the most immediate, simplistic elements of his own favourite rock records and cobbling them together with about 56 guitar tracks and the drummer from Obituary, Andrew WK's debut sounded like a glam metal heart attack piped through military speaker equipment. Stonking!!

Dragonforce - Sonic Firestorm (2004)

The inevitable return of freeform widdling to heavy metal - these guys could appreciate cheese with the best of 'em but still knew well enough to keep their music heavy as fuck before laying on a generous helping on ludicrous guitar noodling, bringing younger fans to the genre for the first time in years.

7. Eminem - Marshall Mathers LP (2000)

Hip hop has always exists on the fringes of rock music, and any coverage in the mainstream press has generally been due to accessible qualities that rock fans can latch onto rather than being lost in a sea of alien reference points and misplaced aggression. Acts that have succeeded in crossing over have done so thanks to their connections with rock (Public Enemy, Cypress Hill) or sheer notoriety in the media (Snoop Doggy Dogg, 50 Cent) but despite their claims to equality with rock acts, they've never really been classed in the same league. In more recent years, artists like Kanye West and Jay-Z have managed to build themselves fanbases within guitar music without losing their hip hop credentials, but neither of them can claim the sheer market domination that came about with Eminem at the turn of the millennium. Whilst rock fans might have previously bought a rap record on a bit of a whim, acting either on curiosity or the urge to retain some kind of urban kudos, Eminem's music became instantly accessible to a wide range of music fans regardless of their previous affection for hip hop in a way that nobody has managed to the same extent - his cartoonish debut provided a way in, but it was his eponymous follow-up that really brought the point home.

Conceived as the second part of what would turn out to be four different takes on the rapper's personality, his sophmore release picks up from where 1999's 'Slim Shady LP' had started the ball rolling with a colourful, knockabout take on reality strapped with some memorable singles. Dr Dre's custom production ensured chart success and Eminem's lively and inventive lyrical style made for an entertaining listen, but beneath the goonish references to drugs, violence and general cheekiness there was already a visible dark side to his act that would fully surface on the follow-up. Titled to reflect the greater personal dimension to the work included, 'Marshall Mathers' managed to retain the subversive charm of his debut whilst journeying into some fairly unusual areas for mainstream hip hop - the effect of fame on society, the myriad hypocrisies of middle America and a variety of personal tangents into sexual politics, homosexuality and marital tensions. Not all of it was easy on the ear, but Mathers prided himself on being entirely candid in his presentation of things - where he borders on sounding reactionary, he's saved by his lyrical dexterity and you end up admiring his willingness to tackle nearly ANY subject on vinyl, no matter how complex the issue may be.

'Marshall Mathers' was hardly the first time hip hop had confronted tricky issues, nor was it the first example of a rapper examining different sides of his/her character over a series of releases. What it did represent was the beginning of thorough self-examination in rap, the willingness to evaluate the urges and frustrations of the vocalist and to label it as such without coating it in layers of metaphor or grandiose sentiment. Eminem was being brutally honest, and he was doing it knowing that the platform he was speaking from would provide him with the largest audience possible - everyone within distance of a radio would get a glimpse into his psyche in much the same way that his psychologist would. It was a ballsy move, not least of all because he knew that criticism would be on its way from all corners : the purist hip hop press, the moralist rock press and the standard reactionary blue rinse brigade of Christian America. His racial extraction was cited as a principal reason for his enormous success, and whilst the two are probably linked we should look a bit further in to see the real effect this had - up against a parade of potential press critics who he knew would never dare criticise the Wu Tang Clan for the same sins, Eminem saw that the knives were going to be out for him when he stepped into the ring. His reaction was therefore to come out fighting and prove that he could withstand their attacks, and 'Marshall Mathers' effortlessly disarms the nay-sayers whilst simultaneously predicting their next move in order to out-manoeuvre them once again.

Hip hop has always been a huge industry in the States as well as further afield, so we shouldn't blow up the success of 'Marshall Mathers' too much - other artists such as Nelly, Jay-Z and 50 Cent have come to dominate both the rap scene and the mainstream charts to the same extent as Eminem since he went global at the turn of the decade, but none of them succeeded in raising quite the same cult of personality that he managed at the height of his fame. The mark of a true rap maverick is to prove that you have already mastered the basics of the trade before consciously moving beyond them to leave a real mark on the genre - Eminem's cutting analysis of the showbiz industry and the perils of fame became his trademark and also chimed in with the then current trend for looking past the stage and into the personal life of entertainers. Fans were no longer prepared to stay on the surface with entertainment, they wanted access to the most intimate details of their pop stars' lives and were willing to pry if necessary - rather than resisting their demands, Eminem simply gave them what they wanted. There was little point interviewing him afterwards, his record summed everything up perfectly. Nowadays we assume that rappers are going to be examining their feelings and their place in the industry as a genre standard, but we shouldn't forget the new ground covered by Eminem on this release - neither before or since the release of 'Marshall Mathers' has any rapper bared his soul so candidly and coherently whilst keeping it commercially streamlined and accessible to all. Now that his routine has apparently reached its conclusion, it's high time we gave him the credit he truly deserves as an innovator as well as an entertainer.

Also :

Eve - Scorpion (2001)

Tapping into the same volatile energy channelled by her macho peers but still retaining her own ladylike take on affairs, Eve's explosive second album brought her to the world's attention with a sharp tongue capable of disarming any opponent.

Missy Elliot - addictive (2001)

With the title referring indiscreetly to the rise of ecstasy use within hip hop, Missy's third record was suitably tailored to the dancefloor with the likes of 'Get Ur Freak On' alongside numerous other infectious dance gems.

8. Franz Ferdinand - S/T (2004)

Indie's post-millennial renaissance with the success of The Strokes' first album in 2001 had left many expecting guitar music to fully reconquer the airwaves in the same way that it did in the mid-90s with the rise of Britpop, but the reality of the situation was slightly less straightforward. The Strokes worked well as a fashion concept and brought back sartorial elegance to a genre that had spent too long in its bedroom, but the global movement in guitar music still lacked any real identity. The garage revival of the early 2000s had thrown up various NME approved acts (The Vines, Jet, The Hives, The Datsuns) who dominated festivals and dancefloors for a couple of years with some great singles, but the lack of solid album material and the geographically dispersed nature of the movement (with bands hailing from places as far flung as Sweden and New Zealand) made it difficult to see it as anything more than a passing fad. Britain's contribution had been even less noteworthy, focussing more on drivetime indie like Coldplay, Travis and a host of other bands that people 'quite liked' but were hardly going inspire poster shrines in teenage bedrooms across the country. What we lacked, quite simply, was a decent bunch of homegrown pop stars.

The next turn in the story can be read in one of two ways - either you subscribe to the NME-sponsored belief that The Libertines redefined modern rock and paved the way for the success of numerous British indie bands in their wake, or you regard them as a hideously over-rated fashion disaster thrust into the public eye by the London-based music media who are convinced that the most interesting musicians in the world always spring from the capital's local gig scene. Whilst Pete Doherty and co were the first band in a while to reappropriate feisty guitar rock for a British audience, they rapidly ceased to matter once you got outside the M25 and were hardly the catalyst for an international reappraisal of British rock - that would happen, but not for a couple of years.

When Franz Ferdinand dropped their self-titled debut in early 2004, it wasn't so much that their music was radically innovative or violently confrontational compared to the mainstream, it was just that both bands and fans across British indie were ready to reclaim the genre as their own. Their arrival on the scene prompted a return to art school indie, less focused on sweaty rifferama and more geared towards producing a complete pop package - their suave image, eye catching sleeve design and witty interview style made them a thoroughly appealing proposition, a band clever enough to inspire lyrical scrutiny and convert indie cynics yet commercial enough to fill dancefloors. And let's not beat around the bush, their debut is 100% geared towards crossover success - defining their sound as 'music for girls to dance to', Franz Ferdinand were never going to be content with underground notoriety, they were aiming for the upper reaches of the charts and when 'Take me out' breached the top three in January 2004, the wheels were already in motion for indie to take over once again. Whilst the London music media fell over itself scrabbling for the next big thing, the real actions was taking place further afield - a host of bands had formed in various outlying regional scenes, tapping on their collective indie heritage rather than the musical climate of the time and preparing their gameplan for a full-on chart assault. Ten years had passed since the birth of Britpop and commercial-geared indie suddenly seemed a less unpleasant idea than it did in 1997 - image became key once again, clever lyrics made a resounding comeback and the over-arching notion that any regional scene could yield future chart-toppers was capitalised upon to create some irresistible pop troupes.

Franz were perhaps simply in the right place at the right time to become the first British band to hit chart paydirt, but that shouldn't detract from the strength of their material - their debut racks up a faultless stack of potential singles, and perhaps more significantly they were able to turn out storming gigs on the back of one album without making it look like they were running out of decent material. Their debut hangs together so well because their sound is instantly distinctive - from the moment the first chord drops, everything is tightly-tuned and effortlessly memorable, each track retaining enough of their signature sound to be easily recognised as their own work yet still remaining adventurous enough to prevent eleven takes on the same theme from becoming repetitive. The lyrics were sexually ambiguous to chime in with their rakish image and contained enough of the classic British wit to make them a much more palatable option than four sweaty teenagers banging out ear-splitting rock 'n' roll, reaching further back through Britpop and back into 80s indie to connect with the shared belief that British pop could remain accessible enough to top the charts without dumbing itself down and losing its intellectual edge.

Once Franz had broken the seal on chart success in early 2004, British guitar music was suddenly omnipresent on radio playlists, propelled by music labels who communally woke up to the fact that bands from local scenes all over the country were making potential hit singles. Razorlight, Futureheads, Bloc Party and countless others made it to the top ten without it seeming like a fluke, and the current domination of homegrown indie had truly begun. We might be starting to get sick of some of these bands by now but it's worth considering that even the oldest of them are still only on their second album - the scene is far from going stale, and the music biz investment in local talent that followed Franz' success meant that we got to hear some stonking debut albums without their creators having to spend years in commercial obscurity before they got a record deal. British indie has never been more immediate, more prepared to take risks on the latest bunch of teenagers with guitars - there might be the odd misfire, but overall the national scene has never been so healthy. Franz Ferdinand might not deserve credit for setting the current trend in motion (and I very much doubt they would claim it), but their debut stands as the clear beginning on the new era in British guitar music. Crafty wee buggers.

Also :

The Futureheads - S/T (2004)

Retaining your own accent when singing might be less of a risk when you're from somewhere with an established scene like Glasgow, but Sunderland??? These Mackem lads defied the odds and produced a cracking debut infused with their own distinctive personality. Canny mint!

Razorlight - Up all night (2004)

Johnny Borrell might have given up any pretence that he was more concerned with art than success a long time ago, but Razorlight's debut is still a faultless set of tightly-tuned indie rock. His ego becomes inescapable on some tracks, but the guy's songwriting chops remain unbeatable.

9. 2 many DJs - As heard on radio Soulwax (2003)

Let's be honest, nobody listens to nothing but dance music - even the trendiest clubbers out there have at least some grounding in rock, and the inevitable merge between the two came about in the early 2000s with the emergence of 'mash ups'. Enabling the less club-savvy music fans to dance to tunes they would otherwise feel too unfashionable for whilst simultaneously retaining the creative element of a DJ mix set to please dance music purists, the new trend provided a comfortable crossover between mainstream radio pop rock and the more selective areas of clubland - many tracks did the rounds over the early years of the new millennium, but the definitive setlist remains 2 many DJs' supersonic compilation mix from 2003.

True zeitgeist definition rarely comes from a press campaign, and many would argue that Dangermouse's 'Grey Album' (a mix of The Beatles' 'White Album' and Jay-Z's 'Black Album') was the more important release as far as mash-up culture goes, but personally I prefer to pick the CD that was on at practically EVERY party I went to for a few months solid. The creators hardly had the credentials to support them - a Belgian duo better known for indistinct indie rock, they swapped guitars for turntables on a whim and managed to perfect the formula without even trying that hard. Dancefloor staples like Peaches and Royksopp merge seamlessly with classic cuts from Dolly Parton and Iggy Pop, never failing to raise a wry smile from the listener yet still falling short of the point where it all gets a bit too clever for its own good. Remarkably, the could reproduce it all live without losing any of the potency - I saw them headline a Belgian festival two years in a row, improvising with tracks from the other acts on the bill without disrupting the flow of their set and maintaining the party atmosphere that runs through their mixes from beginning to end. I personally would attribute this to the fact that Belgians (and to some extent the Dutch) live and breathe dance music and have a part of their brain permanently tuned to the party frequency - whilst a rather humourless lot outside the dancefloor, they excel when placed in control of the music and 2 many DJs' success seems all the more significant due to the fact that they pretty much fell into it rather than constructing some elaborate plan to achieve widespread acclaim.

Various acts have tried to reunite guitar music and dancefloors over the last few years with varying degrees of success - some have attempted to carve out entirely new genres in the shape of Electroclash (Fischerspooner) or New Rave (Klaxons) whilst others such as Kasabian and The Music have gone back to past scene leaders such as Primal Scream and Stone Roses for inspiration. There have been some great moments along the way and we've surely not seen the end of the current trend towards mixing guitars and beats, but for my money the synchronicity between the two genres has never been balanced more effectively than on 2 many DJs landmark mix project. Perhaps not one for the traditional 'best album' polls, this set is nevertheless a solid example of the soundtrack to countless soirées across the musical spectrum - it might not be rated as the best of its era, but chances are that if you were there at the time, you'd have had a copy of it somewhere. How you choose to define classic is up to you - as far as I'm concerned, this one deserves its place on the list just as much as any of the more reputed selections for the decade's finest.

Also :

Kasabian - S/T (2004)

Looking like the sort of blokes who'd come up to you on ecstasy at a Primal Scream gig and blether on about how they were experiencing some life changing moment, it was actually quite surprising when Kasabian's debut turned out to be such a strong set of lagered-up baggy revival anthems.

The Music - S/T (2002)

Had they broken into the mainstream a couple of years later, these Leeds lads might have been even bigger - regardless, their debut merges manic Reni-inspired beats with echoic guitar loops and frenzied vocals to create one highly danceable stew of sound.

10. Scissor Sisters - S/T (2004)

Pop, as a genre, had been pretty much reappropriated by the producers by the beginning of the decade - Max Martin had colonised teeny pop and returned it to the faceless state that Pete Waterman had left it in at the end of the 1980s, whilst Simon Cowell's global talent show franchise had violated the upper reaches of the charts with a succession of bland kareoke pishwank. Even the slightly more respectable hip hop producers such as Timbaland had prompted a market trend towards bankable security rather than creative risk-taking - every record executive knew that their performers were guaranteed success with the right person twiddling the knobs on their new record, regardless of how much the artist's personality actually corresponded to the material. The idea of actually getting a 'band' together as a touring pop ensemble seemed so outdated as to be really rather quaint - it might have worked with a Saturday night TV special backing it or as a lapdance cabaret act with a top name producer on the controls, but no record company was going to shell out for a genuine autonomous collective of musicians to take on the pop market.

Scissor Sisters crashlanded the market around the same time as Franz Ferdinand, breaching the UK top ten in January 2004 with their disco cover of Pink Floyd's 'Comfortably Numb'. Like Franz's own 'Take me out', it was the sort of record that took you by surprise before you realised how catchy it was - the idea of a Bee Gees style rehash of Floyd's established anthem provoked many a disdainful snort from cynics before they'd sat down and listened to the record long enough to realise that it actually worked really well. Public interest piqued, the band proceeded to construct their chart campaign via a series of
media-savvy public appearances and some truly brilliant singles ('Take your mama', 'Laura', 'Mary', 'Filthy Gorgeous'). Vocal duo Jake Shears and Ana Matronic were provocative enough to attract press interest and yet articulate enough to draw in fans from outside the pop/cluband market - the Sisters' broad appeal was down to the fact that rock fans weren't put off by their disco kitsch factor, it actually worked in their favour rather than restricting them to G.A.Y. tours and kiddie pop cameos. NME duly latched onto the band alongside the mainstream pop media, with both sides perfectly happy to share the group rather than squabbling over who their 'real' fans were.

By the end of 2004 they'd achieved the sort of comprehensive market domination that record producers across the country would have killed for, but in contrast to the ruthless press campaigning of Cowell, Louis Walsh and company the Sisters had managed to top the charts via the somewhat old fashioned technique of building a fanbase over the course of several months of touring and releasing decent records. Despite the absence of a 'straight in at #1' release to rival the Pop Idol puppets, Scissor Sisters nevertheless outsold their contempories to notch up the year's best-selling album (edging out the considerably less flamboyant Keane at the last minute) which was no mean feat for an unashamedly gay pop group named after a lesbian sexual position. The fact that their album outshone Will Young and Robbie Williams was a statement about the British record buying market in itself - often decried as closed-minded and conservative, British music fans were still prepared to champion a provocative group that would have been restricted to niche market status in places such as the USA (can you imagine Tipper Gore buying an album with a track called 'Tits on the radio' for her kids???).

'Scissor Sisters' by no means revolutionised pop music - indeed, the band would soon become a mainstream staple and lose much of their subversive appeal but the success of their debut stands as a good example of personality and provocation winning out over industry-sponsored production line pop. The massive success of pop acts a diverse as Gnarls Barkley, Lily Allen and The Killers would have been less likely before the Sisters' debut woke everyone up to the commercial potential of pop as a creative force, and over the last couple of years we've seen a resurgence of pop acts ploughing their own very individual furrow to both critical acclaim and commercial success. You may or may not regard this as a good thing, but faced with an otherwise bland radio playlist of identikit R'n'B and reality TV pop, I for one am glad that Scissor Sisters came along when they did.

Also :

Lily Allen - Alright still (2006)

After years of fuck-tedious female artists like Katie Melua and Dido examining their lovelives over Lighthouse Family-style acoustics, we desperately needed a girl you could go for a pint with to level things out a bit. Lily's debut brought a vital dose of wit, sarcasm and partytime energy to the charts.

The Killers - Hot Fuss (2004)

More in synch with the rock press than with pure pop, these Vegas boys nevertheless managed to romp home on the charts with the sort of stadium sized anthems that had 'Smash Hit' practically written all over them. Grandiose and slightly pretentious but infinitely better for it.

Pump up the 70s

1. Frank Zappa - Sheik Yerbouti (79)

Think of 70s music and what comes to mind? Preposterous concept albums? Riff-heavy classic rock? Glitter-encrusted disco gurning? Partridge Family MOR cheez-o-rama? Freestyle tangents into cosmic hobbit metal? If one thing characterised the 70s, it was the sheer ludicrousness of much of the recorded output - whilst the music released was undeniably charming, there was plenty of scope for some fairly liberal piss-taking from the more cynical observer. Enter the sultan of satire, Mr Frank Zappa.

Zappa's records aren't mere rehashes of mainstream music biz successes with a few jokes added on, here was a bloke who was as well-versed in popular music as anyone else but instead of subscribing to any one fashion movement, he chose to remain in his own artistic space and re-process every emergent trend into his own unique package. Humour played a big part of course, and he was never afraid to poke fun at the pompous and preposterous excesses in chart music whilst reproducing the signature styles with his own brand of wit and wordplay. His 70s output covered every conceivable area in popular music over the course of the decade, retaining the most appealing elements and channeling them through his own particular take on the world - the ever-present social commentary and ridicule of public figures inside and outside the world of music provies an outlook on the decade that few other artists could give as they were way too caught up in their own pretentiousness. Zappa, on the other hand, was watching them all make fools of themselves and taking notes.

'Sheik Yerbouti' isn't significantly better than any other FZ release, but it ranks as probably my favourite album of his due to the sheer range of music territory covered. The record begins with the savage soft-rock parody 'I have been in you' and proceeds to rip on Dylan, romance rock and teeny pop within the first four tracks. The mid-section indulges his band's improvisational comptences and we are treated to some wacked-out live tracks which provide a more organic, visceral quality to the middle of the album - and at the heart of it all we find perhaps the classic Zappa piss-take track in the shape of 'Bobby Brown', a tale of an all-American fratboy tragically emasculated and reduced to life as a bondage cripple (seriously, you have to hear this tune!). The remainder of the disc picks up the pace nicely and races through manic rock'n'roll freakouts ('Wild Love', 'Tryin' to grow a chin'), sycthing disco piss-takes ('Dancin' Fool') and none-too-PC skit pop ('Jewish Princess'). Best of all are the spaced-out live setpieces 'City of Tiny Lites' (a favourite of mine from the days of all-night Mariokart spliff sessions) and the closing 'Yo Mama' which ends things on the back of a mind-boggling set of solos. As a perfomer, Zappa's strength was perhaps that he mastered so many styles whilst maintaining enough distance to see their fallacies and flaws, but 'Sheik Yerbouti' has to be the only record where he succeeds in cramming everything in his repertoire into one coherent album. Cool title too!

Zappa's music went largely unnoticed in the 70s and continued to evade the mainstream (intentionally, most of the time) for the rest of his career. Nevertheless, his recordings remain a good chronicle of the decade's excesses and hypocrisies without losing sight of what made it all great in the first place. History often blinds us to the complexity of different periods in the past and presents movements in popular culture with liberal doses of simplicity in order to make it fit into some pre-assigned box. If you want a running commentary on how the whole thing looked from the cynic's vantage point - along with a stonking soundtrack and some laugh-out-loud comic relief - there's no better place to start than right here.

Also :

Weasels ripped my flesh (70)

From back in the Mothers of Invention era, 'Weasels' features some organic woodwind versions of classics like 'Let's make the water turn black' (My favourite Zappa tune ever!) as well as some flat out weird shit like the acerbic title track. Great cover art too!

Overnight Sensation (73) / Apostrophe (74)

Frequently packaged together and featuring the same musicians, these two showcase Zappa's knack for wacky storytelling ('Don't eat the yellow snow') alongside some of his most stonking rock cuts ('Cosmic Debris', 'Dirty Love').

Zoot Allures (76)

The most riff-heavy release from his 70s period, Zappa enlists one of his tightest rock line-ups for a muscular romp through tales of rubber sex dolls ('Miss Pinky') and lame chat-up routines ('Disco Boy'), capping it all with one of his most complex performance pieces ('The torture never stops').

Zappa in New York (78)

A stonking double live album from the fertile late 70s era, showcasing elaborate orchestral pieces alongside bad ass versions of concert staples like 'I'm the Slime' and 'Honey don't you want a man like me?'. Also features narrative led classics 'Titties and Beer' and 'The Illinois Enema Bandit'.

2. Fleetwood Mac - Rumours (77)

A lot of people remember the 70s for the rise of 'heavy metal', whether you define it as the blues-influenced lunge of Sabbath & Zeppelin at the start of the decade, the proto-NWOBHM rumbles of Motorhead and Judas Priest at the end or any of the labyrinthine Deep Purple style proggery in between. I'm not denying that there was plenty of great head-banging material back then, but for me the decade is better defined by the radio-tailored pop rock that dominated airwaves whilst the hardcore rivetheads were playing air guitar in their basements. The early 70s saw the rise of a new genre labelled 'soft rock' due to its laidback soundscapes and general lack of references to Satan, motorcycles or hordes of rampaging vikings. Numerous acts targeted the radio dollar with mellow FM rock with the focus more on organic, natural instrumentation and warm vocal lines rather than the stadium bombast traded in by many of their peers - and at the top of the pile, we find 'Rumours'.

The Mac had begun life as a wacked-out 60s psychedelic rock outfit best appreciated whilst tripping yer nuts off but once Peter Green fried his brain beyond all recognition and jumped ship, the remainder of the band found themselves constantly reshuffling their line-up in an attempt to regain some sort of coherence. The click came when vocal duo and real life couple Lindsay Buckingham and Stevie Nicks entered the fold in the mid-70s, allowing the band the chance to trade off male/female vocal lines and fully diversify their material (it also probably didn't hurt to have some genuine sexual undercurrent between singers, rather than another run of romance clichés and fake vocal orgasms). The coupling didn't end their either - Christine and John McVie (keys/vocals and bass respectively) completed the two-on-two configuration, leaving Mick Fleetwood towering awkwardly in the background and fiddling with his drumsticks. Let's face it, given the social context of the album's release in mid-70s America, we can pretty much label this the ultimate wife-swapping record.

Not that the tunes are insignificant mind you - the revolving door vocal policy and liberal space accorded to all five members to leave their mark on the music makes 'Rumours' sound like a truly complete record. Everyone has their own favourite track on here depending on their own personal taste : the anthemic radio rock of 'Go your own way', the drifting melodies of 'Dreams' or 'You make loving fun', the drivetime groove of 'The Chain', the jangly fraggle folk of 'I don't wanna know' or the plaintive balladry of 'Songbird'. Seriously, there's a song for every mood on here and you don't have to be a hardcore Carpenters freak to connect with what's going on - 'Rumours' is just one of those perfectly put together records where everything is in its right place and there is no weak track to pick out. It all sounds irretrievably 70s and the kitsch factor is impossible to ignore, but taken as a record on its own merits you can't find much to criticise - even the band's transformation into bloated Hollywood musos since its release shouldn't detract from its potency as a recording.

I bagged this LP for a quid back at one of the Lawnswood car boot sales back home years back and rarely have I invested money so wisely - the tracks on this album have been recycled ad nauseum to allow other artists to flex their musical muscles, which is surely a testament to the strength of the original songwriting. Beautifully crafted, complete in every way and laid down by a band in their absolute prime, this album is pure soft rock perfection.

Plus, Stevie Nicks has a cracking pair of paps on the back cover photo.

Also :

America - Live (77)

Best known for their radio hits 'Horse with no name' and 'I need you', these guys cut a mean line in warm, organic soft rock - this concert piece captures the whole brown leather FM experience nicely.

Peter Frampton - Frampton comes alive! (76)

Wanna know where Johnny Borrell got his dress sense from? Peter Frampton baby!! Framps shows how to soft it with the best of 'em on this live set which decimated the US charts in the mid 70s and made him every schoolgirl's fantasy rockstar shagpiece. Eat yer heart out Johnny!

3. The Clash - London Calling (79)

The probably with picking classic choces for your own best of lists is that every wingnut journalist for Q, Rolling Stone etc has already reeled off pages and pages of toadying nonsense about how the record in question saved them from certain death or whatever. Let's keep things in perspective though - 'London Calling' didn't change my life, make me discover politics or inspire me to start a's just a fucking great album!

Speaking of Rolling Stone, their best of the 80s list featured 'London Calling' at #1, which is coherent enough seeing as the US release was January 1980 - however, it arrived on UK shelves in late 79 and so I'm leaving it in the previous decade's selection. This makes more sense to me in any case as the claustrophobic, nervous atmosphere of 70s Britain comes across much more on the record than the larger-than-life showbiz hoopla of the following decade. If the Clash's debut had been a brash, gobby shock to the system and follow-up 'Give 'em enough rope' had showcased their talents for writing finely crafted pop songs, 'London Calling' was the first time where their considerable ambition and imagination were granted free reign over a double album to show us what they were truly capable of. Musical diversity was always the band's trademark, and the consummate mish-mash of styles of this record has already been the subject of much music press adulation - don't worry, I'm not going to go there, let's just say that the record's strength lies in the fact that you can click on at any point over the course of 19 songs and find someting accessible, original and crafted to stand alone as a single track or as part of a larger set. We all know the staple songs here ('Guns of Brixton', 'Jimmy Jazz', 'Death or Glory', the immortal title track) but it's the lesser known tracks that pull you in for repeated listenings : the melancholy keyboard-pop of 'Lost in the Supermarket', the cabaret pomp of 'The Card Cheat' or the infectious disco strut of 'Train in Vain'. The topics covered are no less adventurous too - aside from the standard 'down with authority' banter there's a more complex look at politics, alienation and the choices faced in the inflammable atmosphere of Britain facing a new decade under the watchful eye of a newly elected Margaret Thatcher.

'London Calling' is that much of a complete snapshot of the times surronding its release that you half want them to start teaching it in schools along with George Orwell and Wilfred Owen - the only downside of course would be that thousands of kids would be instantly put off its merits by their teachers rabbiting on about how great it is. I came to the same conclusion a while back after listening to nostalgic 40-somethings who bought it when it came out witter on about how everyting released when THEY were 18 is somehow better than the stuff around today - while they're not totally justified in their nostalgia, there was still an over-arching trend towards innovation and pop music as serious artistic fare around at the time and 'London Calling' is perhaps the best example of this. Don't believe the hype until you're ready to give this record the time it takes, but mark my words - you will get it in the end. Adventurous, complex but never anything less than totally immediate, 'London Calling' is, alas, every bit as good as the tossers say it is.

Also :

Ramones - End of the century (79)

Everyone bangs on about the early Ramones records like they're the only ones worth listening to, but I personally like their forays into pop just as much. 'End of the Centuty' is the musical result of Johnny Ramone and Phil Spector trying to kill each other - fortunately, neither succeeded and we got a cool album to boot!

Sex Pistols - Never mind the bollocks (77)

Over-rated, sure, but 'Bollocks' still stands up to repeated listens even though it's now older than the group were when they recorded it. Punks worldwide have drawn inspiration from this, something we should never forget.

4. Pink Floyd - Meddle (71)

Sure, everyone loves 'Dark Side of the Moon' and 'The Wall', but as per usual I am tempted to play the contrary bastard and pick this one as the finest of the Floyd. Before the total globe conquest that came later in their career, Pink Floyd had been trading in some of the finest eccentric pop rock at the tail end of the 1960s - by the end of the decade however, they had evolved into what certain critics termed 'Space Rock'; an amalgam of their previous pop influences and pastoral pomp along with a hearty dose of planet-sized prog rock.

Earlier releases such as 'Ummagumma' and 'Atom Heart Mother' were pretty well-suited to all-night bong sessions with your mates, but 'Meddle' is perhaps the first point where Pink Floyd started to resemble the global rock titans that they would later fully evolve into over the rest of the decade. Whilst 'Dark Side' is undoubtedly a better-formed, more complete rock record, 'Meddle' leaves more space for the band's unbridled eccentricities (after all, we are talking about four posh blokes from Cambridge), meaning that they get to run the gamut from pocket-sized pop ditties ('San Tropez') to 25 minutes of wanking around ('Echoes') without it seeming in any way disjointed. More to the point, the bass-heavy rumble of opening shot 'One of these days' is perhaps the best example of music that makes you want to turn your stereo up so loud that the entire planet can hear it. Stratospheric stuff!

'Dark Side of the Moon' followed two years later and proceeded to eclipse its predecessor with its long-standing influence and Herculean chart success - nothing surprising about that I guess, but I probably like 'Meddle' more due to its slightly less accessible nature and wanton trips into the lands of sonic self indulgence. You have to be paying full attention to even get a handle on what's going on here but once you've hooked into the not inconsiderable gravitational pull on the end of 'Meddle', the effects are truly planet-sized. An enduring reminder of the first time Floyd went truly MASSIVE - the rest of the world is still catching up.

Also :

Mike Oldfield - Tubular Bells (73)

NOBODY would get away with this sort of shit these days, but back in the bonged-out halycon days of the early 70s everyone had a copy of Oldfield's triptastic tour de force.

Yes - Tales from the Topographic Oceans (73)

Pompous, overblown, self-indulgent prog wank-o-rama - yet somehow this is so up its own arse that it becomes cool after all. The bonkers fold-out cover art reminds us why 70s rock freaks love their vinyl too.

5. Led Zeppelin - Houses of the Holy (73)

Rock fully blossomed as an art form in the 60s and you probably need to go back that far to find the real risky, ground-breaking advances that formed the genre as we know it today. The 70s were less about innovation and more about expansion - rock undeniably got better over the course of the decade, but even when it didn't it certainly got BIGGER. The thrill of grooving along to LP recordings of the earliest Sabbath 'n' Zeppelin tracks in your bedroom as the decade began soon gave way to the unspeakably enormous arena tours organised as the aforementioned acts embarked on their conquest across middle America a couple of years later - heavy rock was no longer a niche market phenomenon, it was an unstoppable force capable of attracting tens of thousands of sunburnt meatheads from miles around to planet-sized open air shows across the big country. 'Houses of the Holy' came out just as the Zep phenomenon was entering its biggest phase of commercial success, and it is for that reason that it gets my vote as the finest example of true 70s rock humungousness.

Zep's first four records are all equally brill of course and a full evaluation of their respective merits would be better suited to a late-doors alehouse session with some of my like minded peers so we'll skip that for now. I will say in defence of my choice however that the 'Stairway to Heaven' phenomenon didn't necessarily kick off as soon as 'Four Symbols' hit the stores - like every other trend set in motion by middle American sensibilities, it took a couple of years to filter through before becoming a true anthem to a generation of rockers, by which time 'Houses' was already in the stores to pick up the trail. Led Zeppelin's strength was perhaps that they didn't retrace their steps each time they released a record, and so instead of backwards glances to their previous triumphs 'Houses' manages move into new territory with some tricks of its own. This record doesn't have a user-friendly lay out to highlight the epic track, the stadium ballad, the radio rock anthem etc - there are shades of all that in each song, meaning that you end up listening to the whole thing as a set instead of simply picking out whichever song you feel like on any given day. Hardcore Jimmy Page addicts can freak out over the feasts of riffery in 'Over the hills and far away' and 'The Ocean' but the tunes are just as effective as pastoral soundtracks to another sunshine bong session, and the mellower numbers such as 'Rain Song' and 'No Quarter' can similarly be enjoyed in full stadium tilt as well as in chill-out mode. The slightly less orthodox cuts like 'The Crunge' and 'D'yer Maker' tend to split audiences more visibly - you're either OK with Zep's slightly erratic ventures into new territory or somewhat uneasy with Robert Plant jabbering 'Where's that confounded bridge???'. I personally like to think that 'Houses' captures the band at the pinnacle of their power and influence, with Robert in his 'Golden God' phase and Jimmy totally unfazed about spending half an hour wanking around over 'Dazed and Confused' in concert - Zep without any restrictions on what they wanted to do, however ludicrous.

Picking one Led Zep record (at least from the first half dozen or so) is always going to be an impossible task, so all I can say is that if you haven't dipped your toes into their musical universe yet then I envy you the experience - poring over those albums in a cloud of pot smoke is one of those things you really have to do at some stage in your appreciation of modern music. Other rock acts of the 70s have doubtless refined the various elements on R'n'R to become experts in their chosen field, but Led Zep were far and away the best combination of the ingredients present in rock music - nobody could even come close to matching these four guys when they were at full tilt. 'Houses of the Holy' showcases exactly why Led Zep were so astronomically huge at the time of its release and its power has scarcely diminished nearly 35 years down the line - if you're looking for a way into their captivating universe, there are worse places to start.

Also :

Aerosmith - Toys in the attic (75)

Stateside, Aerosmith were the finest homegrown rock act of the 70s and 'Toys' provides the perfect soundtrack to cruisin' round your local suburban town trying to pick up high school cuties (see Richard Linklater's 'Dazed and Confused' for correct cinematic context).

Black Sabbath - Paranoid (70)

Probably Slabbath's most solid collection of riff-mongering, aside from its immortal title track 'Paranoid' features some of the band's best cuts such as 'War Pigs' and the elephantine 'Fairies wear boots'. Heavy shit man!

6. Elvis - Aloha from Hawaii (73)

The thing with Elvis is that, whilst he produced some undeniably great material, a fair chunk of his commercial output was pretty fucking ropey. Once the thrill of his randy farmboy stageshow had faded in the late 50s, the next decade or so of the king's career was devoted to making increasingly shitty movies and pumping out accompanying soundtracks to line Colonel Parker's coffers with little regard for the music that made him famous in the first place. The '68 special changed all that and showed the world that he could still cut it as a performer, but the musical landscape had changed irretrievably since his arrival on the scene. It was perhaps inevitable that he would end up back on the cabaret circuit like every other faded star, but even so the King's Vegas years produced some impressive performances and 'Aloha from Hawaii' captures him on a latter period high before the wheels came off for good.

In keeping with Colonel Parker's 'Elvis as a market brand' exercise, 'Aloha' was syndicated live across the world as part of a record-breaking TV broadcast, something altogether new at the time. The commercial venture paid off and the show has since passed into folklore, but the performance serves best as a snapshot of the King teetering on the brink between immortal pop icon and risible lardball decked out like a sequined circus donkey (ever wondered why nearly all Elvis impersonaters pick this particular incarnation to imitate? You'd have to try hard to look less of a dork than Elvis did first time round). That said, it's actually quite sad to watch the whole spectacle with the hindsight granted from modern viewings - this is the last time Elvis appears as even vaguely cool, and he would retreat from the media spotlight over the following years as he piled on the pounds and became increasingly reliant on chemical stimulae to perform. The Hawaii special brings him back to the scene of some of his more watchable film ventures a decade earlier, although it's a bittersweet comparison when you pitch the young, handsome Elvis of 'Blue Hawaii' against the slightly sheepish looking post-divorce figure strutting the stage in '73. Elvis always had his roots in American country music as much as black R'n'B, and the live show brings out shades of deep blue melancholy ('I'm so lonesome I could cry') to accompany the revamped rock hits from his 50s heyday ('Hound Dog', 'Blue Suede Shoes' etc). Then there's the latter period gems in the shape of his frantic live version of 'Suspicious Minds' and the gut-busting croonerama of 'American Trilogy', with his 70s showband re-working of 'Can't help falling in love' closing proceedings on a high note.

'Aloha from Hawaii' may appeal more to Elvis historians like myself than regular fans, but its strength as a live document should not be under-estimated - the King's voice has never sounded so powerful yet there's a fragility in there that reminds us that Elvis was on the way out and he knew it well. Less than five years later he would be found dead on the toilet, estranged from his loved ones and cast aside by a showbusiness industry that had no further use for him. Ironically, his legacy has only grown stronger since his demise and 'Aloha' stands as one of the cornerstone moments of the King's illustrious career. Lay your cynicsm aside and give this one a shot, you'll thank me for it later.

Also :

Johnny Cash - Live at San Quentin (69)

I'm blurring the boundaries a little to let this one in, just because I think it taps into the same melancholy energy as the Hawaii set - having said that, Elvis would have probably sounded different if he was performing in front of a bunch of tattoed 25-to-lifers.

Various - 'Nashville' soundtrack (74)

Robert Altman's mid-70s exposé on the US country scene brings to light the freakish, unstable reality behind the sequins and apple-pie purity - the soundtrack provides some equally fascinating slabs of schizoid Americana.

7. Michael Jackson - Off the wall (79)

Like Elvis before him, MJ's career has seen him develop less as an individual artist and more as a catalyst for the showbiz developments going on around him - take either out of their period context and they quickly lose much of their relevance, but when left in the frame of their own entertainment eras they remain completely untouchable. Whilst the King has long since left us, Michael remains a living embodiment of the highs and lows of life-long showbiz notoriety, although only time will tell whether or not he can hack it in the realms of tangible reality.

In pop music terms, 'Off the wall' is the point where the 18-year old Michael first cast off the shackles of his taskmaster father and became a perfomer in his own right. He had already been singled out for solo spots whilst in the Jackson Five which remain kitsch classics in their own right, although the puppet strings were still clearly visible - his solo career took its baby steps with the weeny-pop classic 'Ben' in the mid-70s, but few are those who will honestly admit to liking it these days. No, 'Off the wall' showed us MJ as a young adult for the first time, one that had done his time selling toddler-pop dressed like something off 'Sesame Street' and was now ready to hit the dancefloor without a chaperon. Of course, it's likely that Michael was granted no more freedom than before in his personal life when it was released, but by this point his producers were keen to market him as a more credible, adult product - just check out the front cover : 'Yeeeeah baby! Michael's ready to hit the town!!'.

Later releases 'Thriller, 'Bad' and 'Dangerous' would acheive huge commercial success trying to crowbar every style popular at the time of release into one easily accessible MJ album, but the resulting music often lacked any creative coherence - Michael often sounded like he was impersonating several different entertainers on his own version of 'Stars in their Eyes'. Up against all this, 'Off the wall' can perhaps be seen as the most consistent MJ release as it sets its sights squarly on disco-pop and ventures no further, leaving Michael and the producers enough room to fully master their chosen theme. Which they do, leaving us with rollerdisco classics 'Rock with you' and 'Don't stop til you get enough' alongside numerous other floor-fillers to pulp out the record. It may lack a certain amount of balls, but considering that featherweight disco was order of the day back in the late 70s we can hardly call that a valid criticism - consider this above average disco-pop, the last MJ record that didn't sound like a compilation and overall his final outing as a one-man stage act before the advent of MTV in the early 80s saw him swallowed up by video-centric marketing and processed into the plastic freakazoid we see today. The end of innocence, as it were.

Also :

Various - Saturday Night Fever soundtrack (77)

The Bee Gees head a star-studded line-up providing the musical backdrop to this coked-up fashion abortion of a film. Can't fault the tunes though!

Donna Summer - Live and more (78)

Disco's first lady busts out her best ones live : 'I feel love', 'McArthur Park', 'Love to love you baby' etc. Respect!

8. Meatloaf - Bat out of Hell (77)

The 1970s saw the record and film industry grant hitherto unknown freedom to artists, allowing those of a more eccentric disposition the chance to fully realise their own visions - sure, it yielded some pretty wanky results but there were also some mind-bogglingly grandiose ideas that became reality as a result of the industry taking risks they probably wouldn't do today. For instance, Jim Steinman's ludicrously pompous rock-opera 'Bat out of Hell' was laughed out of various record company boardrooms before the could convince anyone to bankroll it, but eventually someone did - the rest, as they say, is mutli-platinum radio rock history on a silver black phantom bike.

It's not like the original formula was a blueprint for success - beef up the Lloyd Webber West End production format with contempory radio rock delivery and homo-erotic Hell's Angels aesthetics, then draft in some fat sweaty bloke in lace cufflinks to do vocals. Let's face it, Simon Cowell wouldn't have given these dudes 10p for their idea, but then again when did he have anything worth saying about music? Once 'Bat' was snapped up by a record company, it took a while to take off but once it did there was no stopping it - rock radio and the emergent heavy metal scene latched onto it and kept it in the charts for so long that it joined the hallowed ranks of 'Dark Side of the Moon' and 'Saturday Night Fever' where presence on the album charts is measured in years rather than weeks. The title track's romping narrative runs through numerous key changes in the same style as 'Bohemian Rhapsody' and 'Stairway to Heaven', both staples of the epic songwriting style than everyone went nuts for in the 70s - the listening experience became more akin to sitting and listening to someone reading you a story rather than just sticking on another rock LP. As for the rest of the LP, the storytelling style remains in place over the course of several more lengthy slabs of rock opera including 'Two out of three ain't bad', 'You took the words right out of my mouth' and the immortal dogging anthem 'Paradise by the dashboard light'.

Not content with decimating the album charts for the best part of a decade, Steinman and the Loaf brought out a follow-up 15 years later - despite the sequel dropping in 1993 when post-grunge hostility to radio rock was at its peak, it still outsold everything else on the shelves and repeated the success of the original. The balls on these guys!!! A third installment came out last year to general public indifference, but overall there's no disputing the series' status as one of rock's crowning acheivements - or indeed, as a reminder that back in the 70s NO idea was considered too daft to be given a shot at success. Those were the days....

Also :

Jeff Wayne - Musical version of 'War of the Worlds' (78)

Created with the same delusions of grandeur as Jim Steinman's motorcycle saga, you expect 'War of the Worlds' to be a load of pompous old bollocks, yet for some reason it totally rocks!! Go figure.

Queen - Jazz (78)

Freddie and co at their most coked up and ludicrous - contains some of their most stonking material ever ('Fat Bottomed Girls', 'Don't stop me now', 'Bicycle Race') alongside some serious nutjob numbers ('Mustapha'). Weirdest of all, there's no jazz on it! Is that a private joke or something???

9. Marvin Gaye - What's going on? (71)

When you think of the musical output of the late 60s, the image that comes to mind is often one of doped-up hippies clad in tie-dye preaching meaningless bollocks about peace, love and spiritual enlightenment - with the passing of time a lot of it has become a total caricature, disjointed from reality and virtually impossible to take seriously. As meaningless entertainment it was OK for a while, but once the cloud of pot smoke lifted it all seemed a wee bit vacuous.

'What's going on' dropped just as the 70s kicked in properly, when flower power had fizzled out and many of the luminaries of the late 60s music scene (Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin) had proved that they weren't immortal after all - as a wake-up call against a backdrop of Nixon, Vietnam and an increasingly unstable American society, it takes the hippy peace ideals out of the bedroom bong session and plants them directly into reality to see how they hold up. Marvin wants a peaceful world and you can hear it in his voice, but he's not lost the anger he feels at the mess he sees all around him - I always like to think that the cover photo depicts him on a Sunday morning stroll in the rain after a mad night out, sobered up and faced with cold reality but still clinging on to the happiness he felt the previous evening and wishing it were more visible in everyday life. It's at that sort of time that you really start to take stock and question things, wondering what is indeed going on in the world around you. Taking that as a starting point, this can be a peaceful, positive record or alternatively a pissed-off plea for justice and equality - taking it one way doesn't necessarily negate the potency of the alternate interpretation, hence its longstanding widespread appeal. You could probably find this album alongside Dido or Rage Against the Machine, depending on whose record collection you're looking at - what more proof of classic status do you need?

Marv would go on to unleash the incendiary 'Trouble Man' and the shagging-as-political-subversion classic 'Let's get it on' over the next few years, cementing his reputation as one of Black music's key figures, but 'What's going on' remains his most faultless set. The numerous half-baked rehashes of his material by the likes of Ben Harper and Fred Durst in recent years only serve to highlight the fact that Marvin Gaye was a one-off deal, and 'What's going on' captures the man at his peak. A soulful experience indeed.

Also :

Sly & the family Stone - There's a riot going on (71)

The 70s would have been considerably less funky without Sly, and 'Riot' sees him showcasing his not inconsiderable talents over a dark snapshot of America at the dawn of a new decade.

Stevie Wonder - Innvervisions (73)

Stevie often seemed just too bloody nice to be taken fully seriously but poke below the surface and there's as much social conscience here as anywhere else, coupled with tunes that remain masterclasses in booty shaking.

10. Slade - Sladest (73)

I'll admit to bending the rules a little bit to allow this in as strictly speaking it's a compilation record (of the band's first eight singles, from 'Get down and get with it' through to 'Skweeze me Please me') but there's no way I was going to compile a 70s list without these guys getting a nod somewhere along the line. Think of the music from the 1970s and many images will come to mind, perhaps 'Ziggy Stardust' era Bowie or classic brown-plaid Stevie Wonder funk workouts - indeed, many of the decade's stars have remained cool against the passing of time and maintained their charm to generations of new listeners. Slade, on the other hand, seem such a ludicrous proposition these days that it is borderline impossible imagining how their ear-splitting trog rock was ever considered cool in the first place.

Thing is, the very fact that Slade aren't a cool music press-approved act is what makes them so appealing - back in the early 70s, they stomped their goonish influence all over Britain and were the first act since the Beatles to effortlessly top the singles charts with nearly every release. It's not hard to work out why when listening to their music - whilst prog rock dominated the album charts, Slade kept things simple and effective : catchy, chunky riffs and choruses, heavyweight rhythm section stomp-o-rama and a set of vocals that sounded like a medieval town crier singing through a set of industrial megaphones. They also provided a much-needed (and quintessentially British) dose of comic relief within their music - if the 'brickies in fancy dress' aesthetic wasn't enough to raise a smile, their lyrics were hardly Joy Division in terms of seriousness and the intentionally mis-spelt titles enforced the idea that this wasn't po-faced art rock, it was big dumb fun.

All this was perhaps more than mere coincidence mind you - Noddy Holder himself admits that the carefree revelry of Slade's music crossed over so well in early 70s Britain precisly because a lot of what was going on in everyday life (poverty, labour strikes, IRA bombing campaigns, football hooliganism etc) was considerably less amusing - hence the need for some quality entertainment. There are many listeners who still consider Slade an embarassing relic of the past along with Benny Hill, platform shoes and 'The Comedians' - fair enough I suppose, but for my money they're pretty hard to beat when it comes to soundtracking loud, unruly sessions of alehouse goonery. Get yer boots on and bag a copy of this!

Also :

The Sweet - Desolation Boulevard (74)

The strongest set from the late great Brian Connelly and co, 'Desolation' also ranks as one of Tommy Lee's favourite albums, cementing its reputation as a truly troggish release.

T-Rex - The Slider (72)

Marc Bolan's biggest hit in the US, 'The Slider' features UK #1 hits 'Metal Guru' & 'Telegram Sam' alongside a host of other classics to boogie along with.