Tuesday, July 31, 2012

New : Jesca Hoop - 'The house that Jack built'

I'm not normally big on the whole singer/songwriter thing - bands over solo artists is how I roll most of the time, keeping it collective tends to prevent things from getting too self-absorbed and ensuring maximum rockitutde at all times. There are a few notable exceptions though especially when chicks are concerned, preferably of the slightly bonkers variety and capable of getting though a record without moaning about their ex-boyfriends all the time. Jesca Hoop fits into the Kate Bush/Björk/Tori Amos bracket, a lady with a vivid imagination and enough musical  knowhow to translate her weirder ideas into pop songs. I wasn't aware of Miss Hoop prior to this record but her blurb states that she ran away from a Mormon upbringing to float around the US countryside for years before she starting making records and hanging around with the likes of Tom Waits and Peter Gabriel, all of which sounds like pretty good preparation for becoming a cool singer (it certainly makes her more interesting than the next fucking Sylvia Young graduate to bag a five-album deal). 'The house that Jack built' keeps it upbeat for the most part, kicking off with the anthemic one-two of 'Born to' and 'Pack Animal' which lean further towards folk than punk yet somehow sound even more immediate and lively without the guitar crunch. Elsewhere she veers more into Suzanne Vega territory (specifically her early 90s '99.9°F' stuff) with added electronic twinges on 'Peacemaker' and even takes in the more upbeat side of PJ Harvey à la '50ft Queenie' on 'Dig this record', each time falling short of outright imitation and keeping her own take on proceedings. Jesca's biggest strength on here is that she's not afraid to write accessible material and doesn't let her forays into folk rock, electronic bam-thwok and acoustic musing take her too far away from four-minute pop songs that are as instantly memorable as they are inherently fascinating. Her ideas roam free on here without ever falling into the 'Wooo look how kooky and crazy I am' bracket, channelling the same vibe that you got the first time you heard 'Hyperballad', 'Wuthering Heights' or that Tori Amos song about God needing a woman to look after him. The best example of this is the unfeasibly great 'Hospital (to win your love' which extols the virtues of accidental injury in securing some much-needed sympathy booty - this is the sort of stuff that will have you bouncing off the walls with sheer delight and deserves to be number one in every country in the world without further ado. When she does take it down a notch and gets acoustic on us for the title track (apparently about the death of her dad) it's devastatingly effective and really quite touching, managing to avoid over-sentimentalising a decidedly sensitive theme ('It's not enough/to know you through them'). Her other revelatory moment is 'Ode to Banksy', what sounds like a homage to a similar mindset of mischief and creativity and suggests that she's got her cultural radar pointed firmly in the right direction. This is apparently her third record and if the other two are anywhere near this good then it's surely only a matter of time before she goes stratospheric - this shit is way to good to stay secret. File 'The house that Jack Built' alongside 'The Kick Inside', 'Début' and 'Little Earthquakes' in your 'breakthrough records by fascinating vixens' playlist and feast on the wealth of intriguing pop gems on display here. This is one to come out of the genuine leftfield and win new converts on every listen, a really pleasant surprise and a window into the world of someone we'll surely be hearing more from in the not too distant future. 

Check out : 'Hospital (to win your love)', just the best song in the fucking world right now.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Retroactive : 1979

The year in music : 1979

I missed the first half of 1979 as I was busy gestating but by all accounts it was a pretty good year for tunes, packing in some quality New Wave, Ska, the tail end of disco and 70s rock and the various by-products of the first wave of punk a couple of years earlier. Blondie's 'Sunday Girl' sat atop the UK charts as I entered the world in June, shortly after a certain Mrs Thatcher came to power where (the less said about that the better) - politics' loss was music's gain though and the likes of Buggles, The Police, Village People and Ian Dury also topped the charts in a flurry of quality. No wonder I turned out to be such a music nerd, what with top tunes in abundance from day one. The look of the year was arguably the androgynous cool of New Wave embodied by The Pretenders, The Cars, Blondie and The B-52s as punk gave way to a more colourful spectrum of influence. Whilst a fair bit of this made my list below, there's also a few records in there representing the close of a chapter that was the end of the 70s and the consignment of certain sounds to the musical scrapheap until nostalgia would eventually bring them back into fashion years later. Must have been a pretty interesting time to be alive, and although I was for the last six months of it, most of that was spent shitting nappies and crawling around on the floor of my folks' place in Leeds. Here are the tunes that I would have put on had I been tall enough to reach the record player, hope you enjoy this first glimpse into the past.

Albums of the year

1. Frank Zappa - Sheik Yerbouti
No doubt to the general surprise and awe of anyone who knows me, Zappa wins for this year. I could probably pick a Zappa LP for every year in this series (at least until 1993 when he bit the big one from prostate cancer, at which point the release schedule slowed down a bit). But that would be boring and repetitive wouldn't it? No - this is the only time I'll include him, at least the way things stand for the moment. Gotta give a little credit where it's due to my favourite artist of all time after all.

This has been my favourite Zappa album for a while for various reasons : firstly, it includes his best song ('Bobby Brown goes down') which pretty much sums up why I like him - it's catchy, funny and extremely fucking rude. Other highlights include 'City of Tiny Lights' which me and my boys from Leeds used to put on loop during our bliffy sessions back in the day (I love the way he wrote songs about people taking drugs despite never taking them himself) along with the Peter Frampton pastiche 'I have been in you' and the hilariously offensive 'Jewish Princess' (that boy really knew how to piss people off!). Secondly, it catches Zappa at a point where he was churning out great albums in his sleep - the 70s had seen him move from avant garde jazzy stuff like 'Hot Rats' to more rock-oriented records like 'Zoot Allures' and the ace 'Live in New York' set. 'Sheik Yerbouti' landed in '79, the same year as the madcap rock opera 'Joe's Garage' which I nearly included here too as it's totally ace - both are decent examples of Zappa basically turning his hand to writing pop tunes, although he was never going to get anywhere near the charts with song titles like 'Why does it hurt when I pee?'. Most of his 80s stuff continues in the same sort of vein, so for me this catches him when he was at his peak between experimental and accessible. Guitar nerds love the solos on closing track 'Yo Mama', Zappa fanatics like the verbal skits midway through the record, your casual listener will enjoy the Dylan spoof 'Flakes' and the Saturday Night Fever rip 'Dancin' Fool', and budding instrumentalists will love the rollicking likes of 'Tryin' to grow a chin' and 'Wild Love'. Something here for everybody then - 'Sheik Yerbouti' is probably the only Zappa album I'd force you to listen to if you've never heard him before. Great title too!

Check out : 'Bobby Brown goes down'. My favourite song of all time.

2. Pink Floyd - The Wall
It took me a while to get into 'The Wall', having discovered Floyd via my dad's record collection back in my mid-teens and learning to appreciate the delights of 'Meddle' and 'Saucerful of Secrets' whilst slumped in a cloud of pot smoke in my bedroom. And as much as their space rock moments are probably still my favourite bits of their back catalogue, they were playing it safe most of the time - wanking around in the studio, playing live in Pompei and releasing bonged-out self indulgence like 'Ummagumma' which would have been way too easy for cynics to dismiss as dope-addled bollocks made by a bunch of hairy wimps. 'The Wall' was different - the band (or Roger Waters at least) became introspective to a previously unseen level and laid bare parts of their psyche that, for good reason, they had kept under wraps until then. I only really began to fully appreciate this album when I saw the film - just goes to show how little attention I pay to the lyrics half the time, the core content of 'The Wall' had passed me by completely. It's easy to depict this record as some kind of dystopian nightmare (or at the very least, a bitter revisit of Water's schooldays getting his head flushed down the toilet) but the best thing about it is that it's a very personal tale - one of Waters' growing so disillusioned with the whole rock star myth that he ended up gobbing on some Floydhead who tried to climb onstage during the 'Animals' tour. He came to the conclusion that he'd built a barrier between himself and others and set about looking at what had caused it - the results are fairly unsettling, he points the finger at his over-protective mother, his mean-spirited teachers and a series of manipulative lovers. But most of all, he puts himself through the kind of ruthless self-analysis that most of us reserve for a bumper session on the psychiatrist's couch. All this on a fucking double album as part of a massive rock group? That take BALLS.

I can connect with this record in a way that makes other Floyd stuff seem kind of adolescent in comparison - instead of nodding along to 'One of these days....' or 'Shine on you crazy diamond', there's a level of emotional fragility to 'The Wall' that makes it sound like a totally different band. In a way it means even more for a band who built their career on sounding completely different to come out with something like this, they had much more to lose if it fell short but in the end it took them to a different level entirely. Even Noel Gallagher raves about 'The Wall', and it also provided the final #1 of the 70s with 'Another brick in the wall part two' which conquered the Xmas charts in '79, another place you'd least expect to find a band like that. Having ruled the 1970s with a string of great records, 'The Wall' and the subsequent tour proved the end of an era for Pink Floyd - Rogers and David Gilmour were getting on each others' tits to an increasingly obvious degree and after rehashing the album three years later on 'The Final Cut' they decided to go their seperate ways. Which only cements the reputation of 'The Wall' as the best sort of album - one you can't follow. Their best work? Get the record, watch the film, decide for yourself.

Check out : 'Hey You', maybe Waters' most fragile moment of all.

3. The Clash - London Calling
Another standard choice from the best of polls - Rolling Stone named this as their best album of the 1980s but it came out in late '79 in Britain so I'm sticking it in here. It's hard to think of anything new to say about 'London Calling' as music journalists the world over have already spent way too long bigging it up, which ironically is the best way to put you off listening to the fucking thing and making your own mind up. Personally I didn't warm to it on first listen but when I came back to it a couple of years later I finally gave in and embraced it. This is the one that's hardest to dislike of all their records - if their earlier stuff was too gobby for you, their later stuff too poppy or if you just thought 'Sandinista' was a load of old bollocks, 'London Calling' strikes the balance perfectly to gain mass commercial and critical appeal and maintains the quality over 18 tracks (19 if you count 'Train in vain', the bitchin' bonus track on my copy).

You're looking at the mark of a great band when it seemed they couldn't fling out albums fast enough to keep up with their output, and 'London Calling' catches the boys at a creative peak where everything they turned their hand to became a long-standing classic. The number of tracks on here that have been covered, sampled or stolen wholesale is unbelievable ('Jimmy Jazz', 'Guns of Brixton', 'Spanish Bombs', 'Death or Glory', the title track etc) and the spread of styles pulls off the rare feat of providing something for everyone without blunting the delivery. In a way The Clash were more of a pernicious influence than a positive one - letting everyone think they could cram together such a smorgasbord of styles and come out with anything nearly this coherent was giving them false hope and many a lesser band has come away from trying to emulate this rich pallette of colours looking like a massive pile of twonks. Let's perceive them as the perfect sponge for the myriad styles floating around the UK at the end of the 1970s - reggae, ska, old school rock'n'roll, first wave punk, new wave and classic rock, everything soaked into 'London Calling' to make it a cocktail to match the richly diverse musical climate in which it was formed. Myself and many of my friends were brought into this world in what would come to be seen as a golden age for pop music (roughly 1978-1982) where you had a fairly good chance of looking up what was #1 the day you were born and finding out it was something ace (Blondie's 'Sunday Girl' in my case, although you had Madness, The Police, Human League, Specials, Pretenders etc to choose from). Consider 'London Calling' the zenith of this era if you like - stick a pin into it anywhere and you're guaranteed to come away with a classic.

Check out : 'Death or Glory' - remember, he who fucks nuns will later join the church!

4. UFO - Strangers in the Night
1979 saw plenty of innovation and forward-looking music, but as with any year falling at the end of a decade there was a lot of looking back and taking stock. A lot of people were reluctant to let go of the 70s, fearing the digital age lurking round the corner and keen to hang on to their flares, tie-dye and 15-minute guitar solos. Nowhere was this more true than Stateside where punk had hardly registered on the music charts and the sweaty conservatism of AOR still reigned supreme. However, in amongst all the crap like Journey, Boston et al there was a diamond in the rough in the shape of Britain's own UFO. Relatively unknown in their home country, they'd evolved from prog also-rans to a finely-honed hard rock act and had put in the time touring the shitholes of the Midwest to bump themselves up the ranks so that by the late 1970s they were one of the biggest live attractions on the American touring circuit. It was against this background that 'Strangers in the Night' landed in early 1979, documenting their last major tour with visionary guitarist Michael Schenker who they'd poached from touring partners The Scorpions a few years earlier whilst still in his teens. Schenker is the band's secret weapon, peeling off epic solos and punchy riffs like he's not even trying that hard - the rest of the band hardly slack off either, bassist Pete Way and drummer Andy Parker battering the crowd into submission and frontman Phil Mogg's voice a match for their smoother, slower material as well as the fist in the air stadium rock anthems (plus, this being the 70s, they've got some bloke playing keyboards).

I think the reason I like this record so much is that it conjures up a bygone era that I never knew, late 70s America buoyant on sweaty stadium rock, brown leather and 'Disco Sucks' T-shirts (check out the film 'Dazed and Confused' for a better idea of what I mean). The Sex Pistols never troubled this elysium and bands like UFO were playing badass rock 'n' roll on huge arena tours fuelled by coke-addled groupie carnage. Who cares if they didn't get to play Top of the fucking Pops? Flanked by bullish Yank luminaries of the time like Kiss and Van Halen, UFO came across as dapper gentlemen in comparison (you can hear Phil Mogg playing up to the stereotype in his between-song banter) and their rise coincided with the decline of the countrymen Led Zeppelin to leave them as Britain's brightest hope Stateside in the late 70s. It wouldn't last of course - a new decade of musical innovation was on the way and UFO couldn't keep up with the times. Bereft of their star guitarist and unable to modernise their sound to keep pace with the hordes of NWOBHM groups swamping the charts, they sank without a trace. 'Strangers' therefore stands as a monument to their past achievements but also as their swansong - ironically, once Schenker had left they scored their biggest hit with 'Doctor Doctor' and enjoyed a brief stint in the UK singles charts for the first time in their career. They're often overlooked but UFO's influence stretches far and wide - Slash cites this as his favourite live record, Pearl Jam have ex-UFO tribute band members in their ranks and Iron Maiden's Steve Harris is a massive fan (indeed, Maiden still come on stage to 'Doctor Doctor' and you can hear Pete Way's galloping bass in most of Harris' own compositions). Put this on your headphones and pretend you're an American teenager with blond sideburns and flared jeans indulging in your first illict beer buzz in a stadium car park and preparing to see these guys live - nostalgia for times you never knew, there's nothing quite like it.

Check out : 'Doctor Doctor' in all its splendour - there's also a pretty good Channel 4 documentary on the band here if you're interested.

5= Tubeway Army - Replicas
5= Gary Numan - The Pleasure Principle
Gary Numan's mark on 1979 is undeniable so I'm making a case for including both of these (plus I can't actually make up my mind which I prefer). In the space of six months Numan popped out of nowhere and churned out not one but TWO corking long players, both of which topped the UK charts buoyed by the massive success of their lead-off singles which also hit #1. The fact that they're actually quite different is also impressive in itself, both synth-laden slabs of reclusive self-analysis and forays into dystopian sci-fi and futuristic fantasy. Gary was a million miles away from your typical pop star, introverted and sexually frigid but possessed of an accidental stage presence that made him the ideal poster boy for the emergent trend of new wave and synthesizer pop. These two albums and 1980's 'Telekon' represent what Numan came to call his 'Machine' trilogy and function as the musical blueprint for much of the electronic chart music of the early 80s - Kraftwerk had laid down the patent but they hadn't fully commercialised it by this point, leaving the Brits to re-appropriate and re-package the music as per bloody usual.

'Replicas' owes more to standard pop songwriting and is arguably the more accessible of the two - Gary was still part of a band at this point and although much of the subject matter revolves around him observing everyday life from a safe distance, the catchy hooks and dancefloor-friendly rhythm makes this sound like it was made for mass consumption. 'You are in my vision' packs a nippy little punk riff and 'The Machman' sounds more like his new wave contempories Blondie and Buggles than the socially dysfunctional dork on the album cover. Even 'Are Friends Electric?' aims to keep things cold and electronic but just ends up sounding like a massive, venue-filling anthem - it was the first synth-centric pop record to top the UK charts in the summer of '79 and he'd better it before the year was out. The closing instrumentals 'When the machines rock' and the is-he-joking-or-not coda of 'I nearly married a human' wrap up what is perhaps the most perfect pop record of 1979, steeped in hit-writing pop nous but undeniably forward-looking and scene-setting on the cusp of a new decade.

Which is why 'The Pleasure Principle' is such a brilliant follow-up - colder and more precise than its predecessor, Gary dumps the notion of making music for anyone other than himself and brings the frosty, impersonal synth element to the fore. His lyrics veer further off into sci-fi fantasy and stark paranoia, retreating further away from human relationships to the point where he starts to embody his robotic stage persona. 'The Pleasure Principle' has less to do with pop and more to do with the cold, calculated stomp of industrial music - both Nine Inch Nails and Fear Factory have covered tracks on here ('Metal' and 'Cars' respectively) to great acclaim, providing Gary with a much-needed new audience in the late 90s. Not that he was short of fans mind you - like the early 80s goth club staples that sprang up in his wake (The Cure, Siouxsie, Depeche Mode etc), Gary was followed around by a veritable swarm of bad black-dye jobs and sun-fearing computer types during his fallow years who carried on buying his records and turning out for the tour dates regardless of current trends. And as for 'Cars' itself, has there ever been a better synth tune? Remixed as a hit in two further decades, Numan's influence on electronica needs no further explanation.

Goth icon, electronics pioneer, industrial guru and new wave aesthete....you wouldn't have thought it from a spotty teetotaller who voted Tory and lived with his mum at the height of his fame. But that's Numan for you - he doesn't do convention. Bag these both and start your discovery.

Check out : this, which you probably know, and this, which you definitely know. But for something new try 'Down in the Park' from 'Replicas' and 'Metal' from 'Pleasure'.

6. The B-52s - s/t
Music, at its very inception, should come into the world born of pleasure. This is a tenet that many bands seem to forget, barging into the public mindset hellbent on changing the universe only to bore and distract. If you're going to form a band, fer Chrissakes do it for fun at least in the first instance - if you don't sound like you're enjoying making music, chances are the rest of us sorry lot aren't going to enjoy listening to the end product. Anyway, to illustrate the above point I would like to present the B52s corking debut, a reassuringly bonkers platter of new wave pop from everyone's favourite party band. Art school slackers from the same fertile birthground that would produce REM a few years later, the B52s solidified out of nothing more than a few mates who enjoyed performing together - they've never sounded like they were even trying that hard, it's all about the idiosyncratic charm and retro pop classicism. Surf music, B-movie soundtracks, goofy comic book chic and every other aspect of loveable Yank pop culture gets mixed together in a bucket with a liberal dash of new wave fashion and oddball college humour to produce the blueprint for what would become their signature style for decades to come. Space travel dominates, with opener 'Planet Claire' evoking Plan 9-style alien landscapes where 'no-one has a heeeeeeeeead' and 'There's a moon in the sky (called the moon)' sounds like The Jetsons embarking on a family LSD picnic across the galaxy. Their nutjob cover of Petula Clark's 'Downtown' is another highlight but it's perennial Fab Café classic 'Rock Lobster' that steals the show, an infectious new wave beach party classic that gets nerds jiving like nothing else. They wouldn't better it until 10 years later with 'Love Shack' and the equally awesome Nile Rodgers-produced 'Cosmic Thing' album, but their stellar debut shows you how they won people over back in the skinny tie hinterland. I have to hand it to frontman Fred Schneider too - whilst the girls can hold a note, he's gotten through thirty years in the biz by impersonating a 'Twilight Zone' extra and playing the cowbell. Not a bad way to make a living.

Check out : 'Rock Lobster' in its full glory. Now jive cowboy, jive!

7. Ramones - End of the Century
Everyone loves the Ramones these days, although they've been out of the limelight for such a long time that people forget how they were viewed whilst they were still around. Purists still maintain that anything after their first four albums - hastily flung out in a rush of creativity between 76-78 - is merely second rate imitation of their original peak. Well fuck the purists. I personally think the Ramones got more interesting and appealing when they diversified their sound and started taking in broader pop influences - after all, some of their major influences were classic pop music and the straight-up punk thing would've started to wear thin after much more rotation. Their rise to mainstream prominence afforded them the chance to work one of Joey Ramone's idols, eccentric genius producer Phil Spector, and 'End of the Century' is the result. It wasn't a particularly easy collaborative process apparently - Spector locked them in his mansion, forcing them to over-rehearse their material to saturation point and threatened to shoot Johnny Ramone when he attempted to walk out. Mind you, more recent media events have proven that Spector was probably going to be a hard one to argue with most of the time. 'End of...' shakes off the undeniably charming primitive punk of their inaugaral quartet of releases and channels their energy through more established pop channels - Spector's 60s style production takes centre stage on 'Do you remember rock 'n' roll radio?' and the slightly cheesy 'Baby I love you' but there's still plenty of spit and gristle left in them across cuts like 'Chinese Rocks' and 'This ain't Havana'. A couple of cuts from their fuck awful cinema venture 'Rock 'n' Roll High School' also make the grade and the variety on offer here showcases them in a wider sphere than the black & white NYC street poses of their beginnings. They'd go on to take in wider pop influences across the 1980s, producing some of their best material along the way - face it, Joey always wanted to make pop records all along - and 'End of the Century' plants the flag for their transformation from a cult act appreciated by the punk's restrictive inner circles to a global phenomenon consistently adored for the ensuing fifteen years in all corners of the world. This is the Ramones going populist, and it suits them fine. Stick your punk mythology up your arse, this is as good as any of their early stuff. End of.

Check out : 'Chinese Rocks', about heroin. Or possibly oriental testicles.

8. Michael Jackson - Off the wall
Once the initial clamour had died down, MJ's untimely passing a couple of years ago prompted a reflection amongst many on his lengthy career and the impressive legacy he had managed to almost totally destroy via the series of divorces, lawsuits and ill-advised interviews that characterised his final years in showbiz. Even though he departed to a backdrop of paedo jokes and ludicrously OTT tribute shows, we all have to admit that Jacko touched us in some way or another (MUSICALLY I mean). Though I was never a rabid fan I've always made time for some MJ in my life and time has been kindest to his first solo outing back in 1979 following several years fronting the Jacksons and a tumultuous childhood growing up in showbiz. Having bumped into Quincy Jones during one of his ill-fated cinematic turns in a musical version of 'The Wizard of Oz', Jacko set up a creative partnership for his first release as an independent adult - the sleeve showing him dolled up for a night out on the tiles almost screams 'YEEEOWWW! Michael's ready to party!!' and it felt like he'd finally shaken off the shackles of his domineering father (who, by all accounts, was a bit of a c*nt) to make his own mark artistically. Laid down during the halycon days of disco, 'Off the Wall' stacks up hit after hit in the same way that the Bee Gees did on their part of the 'Saturday Night Fever' soundtrack - the difference being that MJ was carrying the whole thing on his own and had the star quality to take it to the stage all over the world. The combination of high energy dance tunes ('Rock with You', 'Working Day and Night', 'Don't stop 'til you get enough' etc) and Hollywood schmaltz ('She's out of my life', the questionable Wings cover 'Girlfriend') set the template that he'd follow across future releases to gargantuan success and also became widely copied as the album format for post-boyband solo artists right through to the present day ranging from R'n'B starlets of the 1980s (Bobby Brown) through to snake-hipped pin-ups of the 00s (Justin Timberlake), each time to huge international success and some measure of mainstream recognition. The fact that 'Off the Wall' and its various imitators spawned such a string of hit singles, world tours and soft drinks commercials shouldn't detract from the talent of their creators but it seems somehow inevitable that hyper-potent superstar/superproducer unions like Jackson & Jones always get overlooked in 'best album' polls in favour of more traditional singer/songwriter outfits like Simon & Garfunkel - no disrespect to those guys because they rule too but you have to say 'Off the Wall' reached just as many as 'Bridge over Troubled Water' and moved plenty of butts in the process. You can't listen to this shit whilst sitting still, it's impossible - I've got in on in the background while I type and am having a bit of a shimmy in the armchair right now. Drop 'Don't stop 'til you get enough' on any dancefloor from here to Hong Kong and you'll hear screams of delight as onlookers rush to get their boogie on, proof that the album's charms are as potent now as they were when 'Off the Wall' first dropped back in disco's heyday. Rumour has it that MJ broke his nose whilst executing a particularly challenging dance routine during promotion duties for the album, leading to the numerous nose job problems he blamed for his skin turning white as the 80s wore on. Set against the increasingly mercenary commercial gravy train he embarked on over the course of the next decade, 'Off the Wall' feels like Jacko before the business chewed him up and spat him out again, the sound of a starry-eyed 21-year old who just wanted to make people happy. Like Elvis before him (who only died two years before the album came out), Jacko stands as one of the only performers of the 20th century who was truly unique - 'Off the Wall' isn't quite his 'Sun Sessions' but it packs the same sunshine that Presley did in the late 50s before ten years of shitty films drained the life from him. As much as we've come to mock these guys for their shortcomings, we should still celebrate their lives for the music they left behind and 'Off the Wall' has plenty more life in it yet for generations to come. 

Check out : 'Working Day and Night', and SHAKE YO BOOTY. 

9. Specials - s/t
If I hadn't spent most of 1979 as either a foetus or a drooling newborn then I'd definitely been getting my gig on in a big way, what with the veritable landslide of new British bands popping across new wave, post-punk, NWOBHM and the emergent UK ska movement spearheaded by The Specials. Though Madness are better remembered from the period (in part due to their tireless touring schedule), Specials had a less goonish take on ska which was more overtly political and confrontational that the chart-friendly party anthems of the Nutty Boys and the fact that their music has not been subject to such over-exposure in the intervening years has meant that it has retained much of its original potency. These dudes came out of Coventry in the middle of the punk era (which is a shithole even these days so fuck knows what it was like in the late 70s) and could have channelled their energy into spit-coated gutter punk but instead used the city's cosmopolitan backdrop as inspiration for a more diverse cocktail of Jamaican ska and rocksteady music, rudeboy fashion and the in-your-face delivery of roughneck punk à la Sham 69. Whilst they rubbed shoulders with punk's most aggressive elements, their music contained a message of anti-violence that distanced them from the emergent right wing elements of the skinhead movement and their politically aware lyrics set them apart from the dumbed-down Sid Vicious strain of drunken punk rock. It was a pretty powerful mix and one that saw them crashland the British charts with the single 'Gangsters' in the summer of 1979 followed by their eponymous début album in October which acted as a snapshot of the culture that spawned them - like the similarly stonking début releases from the Pogues and Motörhead, two other groups who fed off punk's attitude whilst maintaining their own very distinct style and image, the disc is split between revamped covers of songs from their main influences and originals chronicling the chaotic environment around them at the time. The likes of 'Concrete Jungle' and 'Nite Klub' paint an unforgiving picture of their urban surroundings with a twist of black humour, the latter featuring the brilliant Alex Turner-esque couplet 'I can't dance in a club like this/the girls are slags and the beer tastes like piss'. Elswhere the anti-teen pregnancy anthem 'Too much too young' gave an all-too-common subject its first signature tune and the band its first UK #1 the following year (they'd also top the charts with 'Ghost Town' during the summer of riots and royal weddings in 1981. To put that into perspective, 2011 had LMFAO's 'Party Rock Anthem' to soundtrack the same events....). Their cover versions of Jamaican standards like Toots and the Maytals' 'Monkey Man', Prince Buster's 'Too Hot' and Dandy Livingstone's 'A message to you Rudy' were respectful tributes to their influences unlike the slew of shitty reggae covers by the likes of Boy George and Paul Young that flooded the UK charts in the early 80s and gave the band the chance to bring the tunes to new audiences as part of their devastating live show. The scope of the British ska phenomenon shouldn't be underestimated - these guys were absolutely massive in their day and the foundations laid by their début saw them make up the podium for the most successful singles acts of 1980 alongside fellow skankers Bad Manners and Madness. The Specials knew the value of keeping it fresh though and after one more album and the success of 'Ghost Town' they called it quits in 1981 after just two years in the business - they've reformed and toured several times since of course but the choice to call time on their classic era before it got stale has preserved their music as the perfect soundtrack to multicultural Britain in the volatile landscape of the late 1970s. With that in mind maybe it's not such a bad thing that I missed them first time round, and in any case I got to see them bust out the classics at Benicassim a couple of years back and they've still got the capacity to bring together every different type of music fan without any of them feeling like they're compromising their style. Alongside the wealth of talent that surrounded them back in '79 it's easy to dismiss The Specials as, well, not that special after all but set against any other backdrop it's impossible to deny their impact and significance as one of the country' most vital contributions to modern music. 

Check out : 'Monkey Man' live in Japan. Even the Japs lose their shit to this!

10. Squeeze - Cool for Cats
If you think about it, punk broke the mould in the 1970s but in many ways it was simply the catalyst for a number of new genres to step forward into the limelight over the years that followed the Sex Pistols' emphatic rise to national prominence, many of whom have been forgotten over the years whilst new generations of fans cling onto 'God save the Queen' as their own anthem to subversion. The spit-drizzled London punk scene soon gave way to bands trading in with a more composed strain of metropolitan cool, namely Paul Weller's ascension to mod Messiah but for my money the nation's saving grace back then were the boys from Squeeze, a brainy bunch of nerds with a wicked sense of humour and an eye for urban melodrama that could go toe to toe with The Jam. Their secret weapon was their talent for cheeky humour and casual one-liners to match their chart-friendly British New Wave pop, relying more on lithe bass and rhythm and cabaret synth touches than the riffs and rattling drum rolls employed by their peers. 'Cool for Cats' was their second album and saw them graduate into the mainstream thanks to a flawless run of hit singles, ranging from the cheeky likes of opener 'Slap and Tickle' and the ubiquitous title track to ballad 'Goodbye Girl' and the jaw-dropping narrative of urban decay anthem 'Up the Junction'. The band keep it upbeat for the most part, trading in tales of Friday night mischief on the marvellous 'It's not Cricket' and serenades to the fine art of masturbation on 'Touching me, touching you' with a dose of wit and sharp observational humour that the likes of Cocker and Albarn could only aspire to years later, and they keep the musical pace distinctly choppy to make sure the skinny tied crowds had plenty to shake those hips to back in '79. But whilst their eye for the miscellany of modern life made for no end of humorous potential, the album's highlight remains the ode to the vicious circles of inner city living that is 'Up the Junction', where their talent for rhyming couplets and crafty wordplay is employed to devastating effect as they rack up verse after verse of wrong turns and poor decisions to leave the listener drawn into an irresistible downward spiral culminating in the title's damning assessment of how bad things have become. Getting there without slipping into emotional grandstanding is one neat trick and not one many have pulled off since then, though countless suitors from Travis to Lily Allen have given the song a reworking (my personal favourite version remains The View's ska-tinged tribute from their live set). The title track has also been rehashed on countless occasions for advertising campaigns and such like, proving the lads knew their way around a hit single pretty well. Indeed, it's Squeeze's longstanding ability to write chart worthy material that has seen them stick around long since their wiry New Wave early days which led to younger audiences (including yours truly) remembering them more as tubby blokes approaching middle age rather than the dynamic purveyors of social critique and brainy guitar pop from back in the day. If you're stuck in that bracket then it's high time to give these dudes a reappraisal - grab your sorry ass a copy of 'Cool for Cats' and give in to their not inconsiderable charms, you'll be glad you did.

Check out : 'That's not Cricket', an exercise in almost taking liberties (but not quite).

Tune of the Year

The Knack - 'My Sharona'

New wave you say? Never were skinny ties and retro R'n'R translated into audio format as succinctly as this, the undisputed anthem of the era. The Knack didn't really amount to much outside of this one smash hit but the track became an instantly recognisable global anthem and finished 1979 as the year's best selling single in the States. Elsewhere it's been sampled or otherwise imitated to within an inch of its life over the years but has lost none of its appeal, standing as a milestone in pop culture and a key influence on how the charts would shape up over the course of the ensuing decade.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

A new project!

Hi folks,

(Trumpet flourish)

Here's a brief introduction to my latest project of musical appreciation which will be gracing this blog over the next few weeks. Over the last few months I've been writing about the new records that have piqued my interest but jabbering about them almost inevitably leads me back to older shit that I bring back out by way of comparison, which in turn often leads me to revisit said older shit for a spot of modern day appreciation.

All this has given me the urge to write about old stuff but in the absence of any discernible reason for doing so I've simply kept my writing archived.....until now. My interest in musical history (as well as my propensity towards list-based dorkery) prompted me to organise my writing on older albums in some easily accessible style and so I've done this by picking ten records per year for every year of my life, starting from my birth and going right through to the present day. A daunting task you might think but it's actually been a good way of taking stock of the tunes that have soundtracked my existence whilst also revisiting past eras and discovering some stuff I never heard first time round. I've packaged my writing up for each year in question and will begin posting soon, starting with my first year on this planet back in 1979 and moving on from there. I'm probably going to post each year every couple of weeks so keep your eye on the blog for new additions - rest assured normal service will be maintained throughout and you'll still get to read my missives on the new musical thrills and spills surfacing in the here and now.

I've stuck to a couple of guiding principles as I was writing these pieces to keep things tied into a central theme, namely :

1. No recycling the same bands year after year - although some bands feature in more than one year's listing, every effort has been made to keep their repeated presence to a relative minimum in order to keep it varied. I'd have loved to include every Slayer album in here but, like so many things in life, a man has to mix it up a little to keep things interesting.

2. No senseless deference to established 'classic album' staples - if you've read these sort of listings before then you're probably accustomed to flicking through pages and pages of relentless hagiography on the likes of Dylan, Radiohead, Joy Division and other stock favourites of the lazy white boy rock press. Those acts may still feature but I've made an effort to vary things up by including plenty of pop, heavy metal, electronic music and off-kilter choices that may surprise a few but will hopefully keep things interesting instead of just rehashing the whole Pitchfork/Q/Rolling Stone classic album crap that we've all seen a zillion times already.

3. In addition to the ten albums per year I've picked a fashion image to illustrate what was in vogue at the time and also included a 'Tune of the Year', typically a dance tune that would otherwise be overlooked in the album listings and manages to capture the spirit of the times more succinctly than any of the long players I've listed. 

That's pretty much it. This has been a bit of a labour of love but it's been worth it and I've discovered loads of killer stuff whilst researching these articles so I hope it provides you all with a few new treats and gives you a similar urge to delve into the archives of musical history. 1979 will be up shortly and the rest will follow as soon as I've finished them. Hope you enjoy the journey as much as I did :)

John 28/07/12

ps - I've changed the blog layout a bit too. Hope you all like it. 

Thursday, July 26, 2012

New : DIIV - 'Oshin'

Dunno about you lot but this spell of hot weather is making me REALLY fucking lazy. Can't seem to summon up the energy to do anything other than lay back and soak up those rays. If you're similarly inclined and are looking for the soundtrack to chillax season then you could certainly do a lot worse than checking out DIIV's woozy début 'Oshin' which is about as sun-soaked as it gets. These dudes are from Brooklyn which must be pretty much centre of the universe for hip indie bands right now - if you've ever been to Rusholme in Manchester then imagine if all the curry houses were recording studios, that's probably what it's like over there. I can't decide whether or not this lot have a cool name - apparently they're named after the Nirvana song 'Dive', one of their finer moments I must say, plus they've totally made their name run into the album title to make a proper word and everything. That's just ripshit clever if you ask me. Anyway, despite the clever bugger title and community service art class record cover seemingly setting their sights on indie obscurity, this lot have actually knocked together a pretty killer record with plenty of quality that should see them soak up some of the dreamwave goodwill currently being meted out to the likes of Crocodiles, War on Drugs and pretty much every other band on this blog. Truth be told they don't sound a million miles away from most of their peers and there's nothing on here that's devastatingly original but total innovation is not always what you're looking for with blissed out guitar music, you just have to strike a balance between catchy and trippy that suits your purpose and run with it. DIIV's closest sonic relative to my ears are fellow Yank tripsters Wild Nothing whose bitchin' 2010 début 'Gemini' floats along similar waters to 'Oshin', albeit in a slightly more freeform mix - DIIV keep to a more recognisable song structure and let their shimmering guitar sound take stage front for a track list that, whilst hanging together as one gorgeous continuum, boasts several highpoints that work in their own right. Bass-heavy opener 'Past Lives' will get toes tapping whilst single 'How long have you known?' will worm its way into your head after just one listen - closer investigation of the record will lead you to the mellower headspace of 'Earthboy' and 'Sometime' along with a clutch of instrumental tracks showcasing the band's more off-piste sonic experiments. 'Oshin' is loveably accessible without ever being invasive, mellow without being inoffensive and familiar without being generic - there's no real reason that you need another blissed out guitar record in your life right now with so many others to choose from but having said that I still can't stop coming back to this one for another gorgeous bite of the cherry. Maybe that's the summertime lethargy seeping in. Even if you're saturated from the year's dream pop output so far (Bear in Heaven, Beach House, Frankie Rose to name but a few), this is still way too good to miss. Stick 'Oshin' on your headphones, go outside to let the sun bleach your hair and let this triptabulous dream wave wash all over you for maximum summertime healing.

Check out : 'Sometime', complete with an old-skool shoegaze promo clip to boot!

Saturday, July 21, 2012

New : Beach House - 'Bloom' / Best Coast - 'The Only Place'

A bit of a summer double-header here - I bought both of these a month or two ago but have been holding back on writing on them as I wanted to let them swirl around in my head a little bit before I tackled the widely held perception in the music media that the new Beach House one rules and the new Best Coast one sucks. Both bands dropped woozy female-fronted indie gems back in 2010 in the middle of what certain people were dubbing 'chillwave' (for me it was just thrilling to have babes playing shoegaze again, call it what you like) and these are the long awaited follow-up albums which, depending on current tastes and trends, could see them graduate to mainstream success or stiff turkey-style on the indie rapids. 

The main question you have to ask yourself when bands drop the follow-up to a record you really liked is 'do I really want to shell out for more of this stuff or can I live without it?'. Obviously it's a wager with yourself that's worth taking in most cases and I was more than happy to bust out some hard earned E-music credits for both of these but there's always the concern in the back of your mind that the thrill will have faded after a week or two and they'll end up stuck in the MP3 dustbowl until you next have to clean out your hard drive. Thankfully that's not the case and both of these slabs of chick fuzzball indie are well worthy bagging even if you weren't familiar with their previous releases and should be a valid entry point to the late noughties babe rock canon, whatever tag you want to apply to it. Beach House's release is probably the one with more commercial potential and has already seen them breach the US top ten although that's not to say that they've gone straight for radio-friendly production to clear the fuzzcloud of their previous releases. 'Bloom' mainlines gorgeous from the outset, lining up a blissed-out sequence of mellow indie euphoria, tunes to hold your drink aloft to in the late afternoon sunshine and gaze upwards with your mouth hanging open (soon to become an internet meme known as 'Blooming'). There's no weak point here to bitch about, they've probably bettered 2010's 'Teen Dream' and are justifiably in line from some proper mainstream paydirt having bubbled under for years in the same way as The Black Keys. Expect high profile festival slots, endorsements from mainstream actors and a front row seat on the soundtrack for the next Sofia Coppola flick sometime soon. Best Coast haven't underachieved in comparison but they've made no move to evolve drastically from the kooky sun-splash of their début 'Crazy for You' two years ago, which was basically a twelve-track celebration of boys, cats, beer and California sunshine. 'The Only Place' ploughs exactly the same furrow, sticking a polite two fingers up to NYC (which needs doing from time to time) and revelling in sun, sea, sand and total independence from pressure of any kind. Singer Bethany Cosentino, having spent most of their début pining after the perfect boyfriend, seems to have had her heart broken a couple of times since then ('Why I cry', 'Do you still love me like you used to?') but it hasn't taken the warmth out of her music and her dedication to being her own girl is still as strong as ever ('How they want me to be'). The production is clearer this time round but instead of blunting the edge it actually brings out the sweeter elements of their music (à la The Dum Dum Girls' second record from last year) and there's touches of glockenspiel in there to make this a fluffier pillow than their fuzzed up début (if you're nostalgic for that sound then bag the deluxe edition which features two killer bonus tracks that sound much more like their older stuff). 'The Only Place' might not see them play the MTV music awards any time soon but it's still a faultless soundtrack to those summer evening beer buzz sessions down by the water with the lingering possibility of copping off with some tattooed cutie in a floral dress. 

So in conclusion, as is so often the case in these time-saving double header reviews, I say bag both of these for maximum aural pleasure and boost your summer listening. If you have to choose then consider this late 80s Yank indie parallel : Beach House lush it up like the vastly underrated Galaxie 500 and are likely to appeal to those looking for a deeper well of sound whilst Best Coast bring the sunshine fuzz like the similarly consistent Dinosaur Jr, revelling in themes and sounds they known and love. Either way you're in for a fucking treat. 

Check out : Best Coast's 'Dreaming my life away' for a touch of Henry Mancini and Beach House's 'Wild' for horizon-melting love rush. Mmmmmmm.

New : The View - 'Cheeky for a Reason'

2007 suddenly seems like a LONG time ago. Looking back though it was a pretty good time in my life - I'd met a whole bunch of new friends, left one job and started another that pretty much sealed my long term commitment to Paris and widened my horizons in more ways than one. The soundtrack to that particular period was The View's brilliant début 'Hats Off to the Buskers' which has to rival 'Original Pirate Material' as my favourite record of the noughties - it also represented the final wave of commercial success for chart-friendly British indie, crashing in at the top of the album charts early in the year after 'Same Jeans' gave them a #3 hit and set them up for a period of commercial paydirt in the wake of other mid-decade success stories like Kaiser Chiefs, Arctic Monkeys and Bloc Party. It wasn't to be though - their singles abruptly ceased to chart and although their stonking follow-up 'Which Bitch?' went top five in 2009, they seemed to go from scene leaders to the back burner in a matter of months. The intervening period has seen Crystal Castles, Animal Collective, The Horrors, Mumford and Sons and The Vaccines (in that order) redefine the musical landscape with clever bugger electro and public school indie guitar music, producing some great records but making it almost inconceivable that a band like The View could ever make it in such a climate. 'Cheeky for a Reason' won't return them to their glory days of chart success but that's only because there isn't much of a market this stuff these days - had they dropped this back in the days of radio-friendly guitar music for festival crowds six pints deep and hungry for singalong indie anthems, it would almost certainly have been a stonewall hit. After last year's underwhelming 'Bread and Circuses' (which I even included in last year's 'worst of' list, such was the sense of disappointment that it wasn't much cop), they've regrouped and hit back with a much more focussed and fiery collection of indie guitar pop anthems which plays to their strengths without getting bogged down with too much rock star baggage (they are, after all, still only in their early 20s so there are no divorces or rehab stints to moan about). They've certainly played up the 'Cheeky' angle in the title too - the first five tracks race by in a blitz of yowled vocals, rumbling drum tracks and taut guitar riffs in the same vein as their début, only relenting towards the middle of the record for some mellower material. Melodic gems like 'Anfield Row' and 'Sour Little Sweetie' have their place on indie dancefloors alongside the new Cribs material whilst off the wall tracks like the Kieran Webster fronted 'Hole in the Bed' and acoustic set-closer 'Tacky Tattoo' recall the more imaginative tangents of their second record. Lyrics wise there's perhaps a tacit acknowledgement of the passing of time since their heyday - mellow head-nodder 'The Clock' sees the band admit that time won't wait for them but storming lead single 'How Long' turns the question back on the listener : 'How long has it been/Since you fell in love with a boy like me?'. The View know full well that their cheeky charms are needed now more than ever, and if public opinion turns back to them amidst the decidedly less cheeky likes of Noah and the Whale and Ed Sheeran then this new album could provide the soundtrack to at least one more summer. As they said back on 'Same Jeans', 'You'll be amazed at what you can achieve in a year' - having seemed dead and buried twelve months ago, The View sound full of life in 2012 and ready to brighten your life up just like they did when they first appeared five years ago. The world is undoubtedly a better place with them in it.

Check out : 'Anfield Row', arguably the sweetest cut on offer here.