Sunday, August 26, 2012

New : Alt-J - 'An Awesome Wave'

I had initially been holding this one back for my annual list of the year's most overrated albums but eventually put aside my industry cynicism and bagged a copy this week. I'm still yet to be fully convinced that Alt-J are the sound of 2012 rather than just another wanky art school project but 'An Awesome Wave' has enough on it to merit repeated listens and there's at least half a really killer album here. There seems to be a section of the music press that panics every time it dawns on them that there's not going to be a new Radiohead album for a while and suddenly starts looking for a younger substitute to cream themselves over - Alt-J seem to have swept up the critical plaudits in this bracket alongside Breton and Django Django (about whom the boy Sykes has yet to fully make up his mind) but that's no reason to write them off entirely. The softly-stated vibe and multi-layered instrumental sound of late period 'head is present here and those of you who play 'In Rainbows' on a regular basis will surely find much to like on 'An Awesome Wave' so it's probably a shoe-in for a prominent placing on the end of year 'best album' polls. If that's enough praise to get you interested then great, although I for one still feel a little short-changed - I can take or leave Radiohead's music but even as a casual fan I can respect the route they've taken to get where they are today from their earlier incarnations, nailing the alternative rock formula but knowing when to change their game to avoid getting stale. Deep down you know that they could still bust out the visceral 'KER-CHUMPF!' guitar sound on 'Creep' if they wanted to - Alt-J may have nailed the 'music that won't wake the baby' bracket but do they have a back-up plan? Still, cynicism aside this is still a pretty enthralling listen - the band avoid churning out any obvious radio hits but there are plenty of highlights on show here. Singles 'Breezeblocks' and 'Tessellate' provide early high points, the former allowing a chunky keyboard riff into the mix without letting it dominate and the latter providing the closest thing they have to a seductive moment (expect the chat-up line 'Let's tessellate' to be followed by audible face slaps across the nation's dancefloors before too long). It gets better too, the mid-album twinstrike of 'Something Good' and 'Dissolve Me' seeing them take off and actually start to rock, albeit very gently - you'll be hearing at least one of those tracks in a BBC montage fairly soon, if indeed it hasn't happened already. Unfortunately the wave of relative awesomeness abates soon afterwards and you're left with an extended comedown incorporating the Keane-esque 'Matilda' and a series of attempted album-closers, none of them truly committed to drawing a line under proceedings. It kinda reminds me of the way Bloc Party's first album sorta trailed off because they'd run through all their singles and not really bothered to pen a proper showcloser - if that comparison stands then Alt-J might be onto something, although if the singles on show here are 2012's equivalent of 'Banquet' and 'Helicopter' then the UK's musical tastes really have gotten too gentle for my liking. They could liven things up by trimming off the three totally redundant Interludes and the 'Intro' for starters - what do you think this is, a fucking 2pac album??? Festival dads, riff-phobic Guardian readers and latter-day Radiohead fanatics will probably love this album and the current vogue for nice, well brought up young men in British culture will see Alt-J rake it in over coming months with TV tie-ins, slavering media coverage and some serious placated festival performances. And good for them. I'll gonna dip into this the same way I did with The XX, Bon Iver and the rest of the current crop of understated art school indie - it'll get an airing in the wee small hours from time to time and I might crop a track or two for my indie playlists but you're not gonna hear me wack this shit on when I'm getting ready to go out or anything. 2012 will yield many more thrilling listens but 'An Awesome Wave' still has enough to warrant the detour if you've got the time.

Check out : 'Dissolve Me', the most understated hands-in-a-de-air moment you'll hear all year.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

New : Crocodiles - 'Endless Flowers'

I've been out soaking up the sunshine instead of posting stuff on here over recent weeks so it's time to play a bit of catch up. First up are Crocodiles, California's contribution to the nu-gaze phenomenon - 'Endless Flowers' is there third LP and I had some pretty high hopes for this bad boy based on their previous effort 'Sleep Forever' which was amongst my favourites from 2010. Sadly it doesn't quite live up to expectations - there is maybe only so long you can carry on cranking out fuzz pedal sugar pop before running out of ideas (see Vivian Girls, School of Seven Bells, Place to Bury Strangers etc) and these guys are starting to tread water a little. It starts well mind you, the title track rides in on a wave of gorgeous scuzzed up surf rock and is swiftly followed by bombastic lead single 'Sunday' which will blow your fucking head off - a moment's hesitation passes before they count into three minutes of rampaging distortion, massive organ blasts and thunderous percussion. It's pretty simple stuff but extremely effective and is tailor made to rock the balls off even the most casual listener, almost justifying the album's purchase on its own merits. Sadly things tail off a little after that - 'No Black Clouds for Dee Dee' is sweet enough but only serves to remind us that the singer Brandon Welchez is boffing the Dum Dum Girls' frontwoman (yeah thanks for that you smug bastard) and the band slip into cliché all too easy with production line sugar fuzz like 'Bubblegum Trash', 'Surfing Lucifer' and 'Electric Death Song' (you could make these fucking song titles up on your own really). The Crocs' first album 'Summer of Hate' was full of this kind of derivative indie dishwater before they developed the anthemic songwriting chops that made 'Sleep Forever' such a well-crafted record, varying the pace nicely and only leaving the blasts of fuzz rock for when they needed an extra boost to really take off. 'Endless Flowers' reverts to type all too often, aiming for anthemic fuzz bombs with the sinister sex appeal of early Mary Chain but generally ending up with charmless indie kookyness à la The Raveonettes or any other band of chancers simply trotting out garage rock clichés with too much feedback. There's a fine art to doing this sort of thing properly and Crocodiles have proven that they can master it so it's frustrating to see them slip back into generic sludge so quickly - swap all the references to surfing and Jesus for big tits and fast cars and you've basically got the modern indie equivalent of what Warrant and Poison were churning out twenty years ago. Don't get me wrong, trash culture rock 'n' roll sometimes works great - the Mary Chain made a whole career from it and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club knocked out a few decent albums in the same vein but they both varied the menu somewhere down the line to keep it fresh. Crocodiles are gonna end up as nu-gaze's Faster Pussycat if they're not careful - that shit was pretty good fun for one record but it started to suck REALLY quickly. Brandon you need to get your mojo back pretty soon or you're gonna be roadying for your missus this time next year - 'Endless Flowers' just about makes the grade but you can manage a lot better.

Check out : 'Sunday', reassuring proof that they've still got an ace up their sleeve.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Britpop Anthems for Hyde Park

Seeing as my baggy anthems piece seems to have gone down well, here's another selection of  90s period gems in celebration of Blur's Hyde Park show this weekend as part of the Olympics closing festivities. Apparently the official end ceremony is going to wheel the Spice Girls out of retirement which sounds like quite an ordeal so let's count our blessings that some of the nation's true talent is on show to set the balance right. 

The Britpop years coincided with my own adolescence and looking back it was a pretty great era for music in the UK where you could go out any time and see a cracking new band pretty much anywhere in the country in a climate where British bands were suddenly seen as a serious investment by record companies and the charts were duly flooded with new releases by bands who would have passed under the commercial radar only a couple of years earlier. It wouldn't last forever of course and the movement collapsed towards the end of the decade into a pompous, decadent mess leaving us with several years of tedious nice guy indie before the Strokes came to the rescue in the early noughties. That shouldn't undermine the power and influence of what was nevertheless a great period of British music in the mid 1990s and the anthems from the era still sound great today. Here's ten to get you going. 

Suede - Animal Nitrate (February 1993)

Not strictly speaking a Britpop single (or even a Britpop band), Suede's 'Animal Nitrate' nevertheless broke new ground as the first big release from a British band since Baggy's heyday at the start of the 1990s. Not since the Roses' 'One Love' had the record buying indie public been hankering after new material so keenly and the record didn't disappoint, crashing into the charts at #7 in early 1993 to fulfil Brett Anderson's dream of getting a record about sex and drugs into the British top ten. The fact that it charted higher than Nirvana's first new material since 'Nevermind' (in the shape of limited edition split 'Oh the Guilt' which fell short at #12) felt mildly symbolic at the time but in hindsight it wasn't the handing over of the torch moment that would signal the end of grunge and the ascent of Britpop. We'd have to wait another year for that before 'Parklife' and 'Definitely Maybe' would top the charts and make Stateside MTV rock distinctly uncool again. Suede had conquered the indie underground in 1992/93 but would ultimately remain a second string band in 1994/95 whilst the likes of Blur, Pulp and Supergrass cleaned up commercially, only returning to the fore in 1996 with their relentlessly commercial 'Coming Up' record that spawned five top ten hits but swapped Bernard Butler's sleazy guitar riffs for some pretty boy on keyboards and ultimately failed to recreate the swagger of their early material. They pre-dated the Britpop era and are often overlooked in retrospective studies of the 1990s but Suede have their place in any breakdown of the period's British music - doors were opened during their early days that would be blasted off their hinges soon afterwards by the more successful bands but they still laid the groundwork for much of what came later.

Blur - Girls and Boys (March 1994)

Fast forward a year from 'Animal Nitrate' and things change dramatically. Though Suede dominated the indie media of 1993, the big hits of the year still came from student union underachievers like Senser, Credit to the Nation and the Auteurs, worthy artists no doubt but not ones you could ever see troubling the top ten. Blur were the band to change all that - they'd been there already in 1991 with baggy pastiche 'There's no other way' but floundered with 1992's thrashy 'Popscene' and 1993's massively influential yet commercially understated 'Modern Life is Rubbish', still their only album to not yield them a top ten hit. The potential of that release would be fully realised on 1994's 'Parklife', honing their songwriting chops and tweaking their image to become the recognisable face of Britpop fashion. The promo clip for 'Girls and Boys' sets the template for mid 90s chic - tracksuit tops, skinny T-shirts, bright colours and Damon's pogo-pout dance style that would soon be widely imitated on indie dancefloors. The band's performance was projected over a series of lurid video clips of 18-30 holiday goers having it large and became the blueprint for their own subject matter over subsequent releases, the everyday side of British culture set to a soundtrack of widely accessible pop music. It crash into the charts at #5 in early 1994 and remains of one the era's most memorable hits, still capable of igniting dancefloors to this day and representing the point where Blur would enter the nation's consciousness on a permanent basis. Their art school take on UK popular culture may have alienated listeners more attuned to Oasis' celebratory terrace anthems but Blur's artistic imprint on the Britpop era is arguably the strongest of all.

Shed Seven - Dolphin (June 1994)

'If we're the Beatles then who's the Rolling Stones? Shed Seven? I don't fucking think so!'. Thus spake Noel Gallagher in 1994, cruelly summing up the second string status that Rick Witter and co would carry around with them throughout the Britpop era. They're less fondly remembered than many of their peers and remain more closely associated with the sweaty neanderthal image of late period Weller/Cast/OCS lad rock than the sprightly class of 1994 but let's not gloss over Shed Seven's contribution to Britpop as a whole. Noel's quote acts as a reminder that prior to his band's media sanctioned feud with Blur during the chart wars of 1995, Shed Seven were the closest thing Oasis had to a rival group. 'Dolphin' and equally catchy follow-up 'Speakeasy' charted alongside 'Supersonic' and 'Shakermaker' in the summer of 1994 and whilst Oasis went on to much greater success, Shed Seven matched their tally of hit singles albeit at lower positions and remain one of the 90s biggest chart successes. They timed their run perfectly, catching the wave of upward momentum in British indie with their first record in 1994 and firing out regular releases to keep them in the charts and on the radio without a break until the Britpop movement died down a few years later. 'Dolphin' was their breakthrough success and the video shows them clad in the period finery of ringer T-shirts and nouveau mod chic, although on the downside you also have to deal with the unsettling sight of Rick Witter's nipples. Oasis' emergence from the established musical stronghold on Manchester was billed as provincial England's riposte to the capital's industry domination but Shed Seven's ascent from the distinctly non rock 'n' roll backwater of York was a better example of how Britpop allowed bands to pop up from anywhere in the country and become overnight sensations on the back of one decent record. They may never have had the scope to go global but many a good night out was soundtracked by their music in the 1990s and Shed Seven have their place on any list of the Britpop era's biggest stars, both in sales terms and period significance.

Elastica - Connection (October 1994)

We all know no music trend is complete until the girls get involved. Elastica were mainstays on the London indie circuit in the mid 90s and blew up alongside Blur, Suede and Menswear as the capital's biggest success stories. Their erratic yet brilliant début single 'Stutter' landed in late 1993 and kickstarted a brief yet brilliant run of releases that saw their three subsequent singles all go top 20 before their self-titled début album hit #1 in March 1995. Then, brilliantly, there was absolutely nothing. They managed to cram everything into a particularly fertile period encompassing most of 1994 which they spent touring, partying and dominating the music press, providing Britpop with some much needed female pin-ups along the way. My favourite was always the bassist Annie, who I later learnt was a raging smackhead at the time. 'Connection' landed between 'Line Up' and 'Waking Up' as their third release and is arguably their poppiest moment, a two-minute burst of nonchalant indie tailor-made for dancefloors across the country and accompanied by a cartoonish video where each band member gets to pose off for the camera (I love the bit at the end where Donna stares out the camera whilst knocking out the closing riff, it just oozes cool). The girls (and guy) were just as visible in as Blur and Oasis back in '94 and their celebratory status was only enforced by lead singer Justine Frischmann's relationship with Damon Albarn, giving the media a positive British celebrity couple to rival the self destructive union of Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love across the pond. Elastica's fame was brief but intense - like the Stone Roses before them, they crammed everything into an 18-month stint at the top before disappearing completely to preserve their charm, eventually resurfacing with a forgettable follow-up at the end of the decade by which time Britpop seemed like a distant memory. Their legacy should serve as a reminder to hopefuls that music isn't a career choice, it's a chance to mark the moment and their music remains the perfect soundtrack to the mid 90s as much as the Stone Roses and Nirvana were to the start of the decade.

Supergrass - Mansize Rooster (February 1995)

Critical praise is generally heaped on 'Modern Life is Rubbish', 'His 'n' Hers' and 'Definitely Maybe' as Britpop strongest albums but for my money Supergrass' bratty début 'I Should Coco' is the era's best LP. The lads were a younger, fresher take on Britpop when they emerged in mid 1994 with 'Caught by the Fuzz', a tale of teenage mischief gone awry that featured prominently in many 'best single of the year' lists, laying the foundations for a run of increasingly successful chart releases that saw them narrowly miss out on #1 on two occasions ('Alright' and 'Richard III' if you're interested). 'Mansize Rooster' was their first hit and remains one of their most sprightly numbers, showcasing their knack for matching pop elements (high-pitched vocals and a thumping piano riff) with their relentless power trio rock delivery - unlike many of their peers, these guys could really play. Their distinctive shaggy appearance and signature sound made them one of the era's most recognisable bands and they were perhaps the first example of Britpop bands getting famous straight out of high school, laying the foundations for the likes of Ash, Bis and Northern Uproar in the process. Everything about their early material is effervescent and deliriously catchy, taking in retro influences but re-processing them into a sound that came to characterise the mid 1990s. 'Alright' came to rank alongside 'Common People' and the 'Country House' / 'Roll with it' face-off as the soundtrack to Britpop's biggest summer in 1995 and they managed to maintain their profile as the era drew to a close on the late 90s with a string of memorable releases, only noticeably slowing down after the turn of the millennium. They carried on regardless though and remained a formidable live act until they eventually decided to call it quits a couple of years back but their rise coincided with Britpop's biggest sales period in 1995 and remains the perfect soundtrack to the golden era of 90s indie.

Pulp - Common People (June 1995)

If 1994 was Britpop's breakthrough year then 1995 was the year the mainstream had to take it seriously - bagging a couple of top ten hits and notching a Mercury nomination were enough to get you an industry pat on the back but it wasn't until 'Parklife' and 'Definitely Maybe' had finished amongst the year's top sellers that the likes of Simply Red and U2 started to feel threatened. Oasis illustrated the genre's commercial potential when 'Some Might Say', arguably one of their weaker singles, gave them their first UK #1 in April 1995 and set the tone for what would become the summer of Britpop, characterised by the August face-off between 'Roll with it' and 'Country House' as the genre dominated the national media. Both Blur and Oasis will readily admit that they've written better material than either of their singles that duked it out for chart supremacy and ultimately the song of the summer was nailed to the mast before their records even hit the shelves. 'Common People' had been knocking around as a Pulp live staple for a year or so and was finally released in June 1995 on the back of a large scale promotional campaign that saw it stall at #2 behind Robson and Jerome's insipid cover of 'Unchained Melody', a graceful defeat seeing as the latter track finished the year as 1995's biggest selling single. The track achieved what neither Blur, Oasis nor any of their rivals could manage in summing up the Britpop movement in one all-conquering anthem, an end of the night classic that became the genre's 'Stairway to Heaven' and stands head and shoulder above any other track from the era as its one universally adored classic. Jarvis Cocker's tale of class divisions and kitchen sink realism struck a chord with everyone and gave Britpop a new celebrity who was brighter and ballsier than the rest - unlike the gobby upstarts fleshing out the genre, Pulp had been ploughing away since the early 1980s and their eventual rise to fame was all the more satisfying as it came on the back of years of thankless labouring in the hinterland of British indie. Jarvis had been around the block enough to know that his turn in the spotlight had finally arrived and dealt with it with considerable aplomb, winning friends everywhere with his wit, poise and deft fashion sense and only picking fights when he had a genuine point to prove (Michael Jackson at the Brit awards for example). 'Common People' is brilliant in every way and remains the one track that encompasses Britpop's conquering of the national psyche. You can hear the crowd singing back every single word on this live version from Glastonbury '95 which only goes to prove how massive the track was at the time (I saw them bust it out in the less prestigious confines of the Leeds Heineken festival the same year to an equally enthusiastic crowd). Best single of the 90s? Probably.

Northern Uproar - From a Window (February 1996)

By the end of 1995, Britpop had entered the national psyche and broken through in commercial terms enough to rival the music industry's biggest sellers. A year previously the masses were still in the process of embracing Oasis as their band of choice but they finished the year with three massive hits and the ubiquitous 'Morning Glory' album under their belts as the country's biggest band. Whilst Blur and Pulp had broken through to daytime radio with their art school take on British popular culture, Oasis were the band that truly brought Britpop to the masses and converted numerous working class blokes who'd never bought a record before into die hard fans. Their legacy was the oft-derided second wave of Britpop generally referred to as 'lad rock', a more rough-edged take on the genre fabricated by blokes in checked shirts and trainers with less focus on androgynous pop and more on serious guitar music and Beatle-based plagiarism. Bands like Cast, Ocean Colour Scene and a resurgent Paul Weller embodied the genre's return to traditional roots, keeping the music simple and catchy with a heavy dose of blokey mod culture mixed in with plenty of lager and football, perhaps best characterised by the inescapable mega-hit 'Three Lions' that soundtracked England's chest-beating patriotism in the new 'Cool Britannia' era. The music was pretty awful on the whole but there were a few gems in there, one of which were Manchester's Northern Uproar who began 1996 as industry favourite for the next big thing. Adolescent, aggressive and anti-intellectual, they were a sure-fire sign that fashion had swung towards the populist and predictable rather than the innovative and intelligent but nevertheless came strapped with some great tunes. 'From a Window' was their first and biggest hit, crashing into the top 20 in early 1996 with a tale of dole mole misery and youthful exhuberance that matches the energy of early punk with the Beatles-indebted melody of the Britpop movement to dazzling effect. They looked like the sort of people that would have beaten up Jarvis Cocker on 'Mis-shapes' and gave Liam Gallagher a run in the stupidity stakes but were indisputable proof that Britpop was a nationwide phenomenon by '96 and one that excluded no-one. You didn't need to be a student or a music nerd to appreciate this stuff and though it perhaps signalled the beginning of the end for the Britpop era the advent of lad rock was a necessary step in the genre's global takeover.

Kenickie - Come out 2 nite (March 1996)

The success of lad rock alongside Loaded magazine, TFI Friday and the media interest surrounding Euro '96 had created a new target market for music, fashion and popular culture which was generally a step backwards rather than forwards, reverting to pre-PC macho attitudes and inarticulate bluster at the expense of thought-provoking social comment and art school chic. Not to be outdone by the guys, female celebrities attached themselves to the 'ladette' culture of the Girlie Show and the vapid press comments of the Spice Girls which merely re-appropriated the worst aspects of laddish culture without adding anything new from a female perspective. Kenickie were a diamond in the rough in that respect, the sole girl band to emerge from Britpop's second wave and pretty much the only group brainy enough to turn the kitchen sink realism of the era into something positive. 'Come out 2 nite' was their début single and it detailed a night out in their native Sunderland in lurid detail whilst remaining reassuringly witty ('She drank all that we had/and she threw up and I was glad'), making something really quite special out of tales of drinking cider in the park and copping off with blokes at the bus stop. Kenickie emerged alongside Bis, Tiger and Baby Bird in 1996 as part of what was more a backlash against Britpop than an integral part of the movement, a return to DIY Peel Session indie in contrast to the stadium anthems being pedalled by Oasis and co at the time and their underground success was perhaps an indication that indie's heartland was already getting turned off by Britpop's runaway success. The track failed to chart but was voted #1 in John Peel's Festive Fifty for 1996 (the previous year's winner was 'Common People' by way of context) and Kenickie did eventually enjoy moderate chart success the following year but ultimately they were never cut out for crossover appeal and they split after the release of their second album in 1998. Lead singer Lauren Laverne went on to become a successful broadcaster and her band are fondly remembered by many (myself included) as a breath of fresh air amongst the Britpop bands, perhaps too clever to succeed in a period dominated by New Labour and ruthless commercialism and ultimately incompatible with any of the musical pidgeonholes that existed at the time. Britpop's loss was everyone else's gain though and 'Come out 2 nite' remains one of the finest singles of the late 90s.

Super Furry Animals - Something 4 the weekend (July 1996)

Britpop's expansion to nationwide phenomenon meant that bands could spring up from all over the British Isles and have a decent stab at stardom on the strength of one record, some would say flooding the market with soundalike drones but ultimately granting exposure to groups that would otherwise have remained niche market successes at best. Welsh weirdos the Super Furry Animals were one such band, the sort of guys your Welsh mates would previously have kept as a homegrown secret but whom Britpop allowed to rise to national prominence without having to dilute their oddball charm. Wales had been routinely patronised for much of the 1990s with the rare breakthrough groups like the Manic Street Preachers making only veiled references to their homeland but by the mid 90s the British indie boom had expanded to include underground success for the likes of Gorkys Zygotic Mynci, Catatonia and the Super Furries who all bagged indie chart hits over the course of 1995. SFA dropped their début on Creation records the following year to immediate chart success, notching several mid-table hit singles whilst never threatening the mainstream domination of the more commercial offerings from Oasis, The Charlatans and Kula Shaker. By that time Britpop was a dirty word, particularly for the non-English bands and SFA famously declared that they'd feel more comfortable playing a festival bill with bands from totally different genres rather than being mixed in with the standard indie line-up. 'Something 4 the weekend' is probably their most memorable track of the era, a hymn to experimenting with sex and drugs backed with a devilishly catchy chorus and a wacked-out video of the band in a chemistry lab. SFA were perhaps the best indie band of the latter half of the 1990s and the ones to set the trend of not belonging to any trend, ploughing their own idiosyncratic furrow instead of merely plodding along with the commercial sound of the time like every other band. Their survival way into the following decade proves that this was a wise choice and although their early material can easily fit into the same bracket as the classic Britpop bands, their output clearly went far beyond any limits imposed by the genre and they were soon out in a field of their own whilst others floundered around them in the late 90s. Perhaps the last great band to emerge from the mid 90s indie boom, they nevertheless proved a valuable addition to the roster and one that has aged remarkably well since Britpop's heyday.

Oasis - D'you know what I mean? (July 1997)

And to think I nearly got through here without including any Oasis.....I could have included any of their early singles in here but ultimately I decided to plump for their last truly great release to mark the end of their creative peak as well as curtain call on Britpop's period in the sun. Aside from the undeniable charm of 'Definitely Maybe' and the runaway success of 'Morning Glory', Oasis had also thrown out an unstoppable string of hit singles which typically matched the lead track's potency with some equally memorable B-sides and maintained a stranglehold on the British charts from 'Supersonic' in April 1994 through to 'Don't look back in Anger' in February 1996, asserting their authority like no other band could at the time. Every Oasis single became an event in itself with the promo clip, B-sides and record cover subjected to intense media speculation weeks before each new release. Their run of enormous hits was capped with a series of record-breaking concerts at Knebworth in the summer of 1996 as they confirmed their status as the biggest band of their generation, lording over the British cultural landscape in a way that no band had managed for years. Observers watching them stand aloft as kings of rock 'n' roll must have all come to the same conclusion - having soared so high they could only go downhill from there. It didn't happen immediately but their overblown third album was their first material to underwhelm, boasting a handful of great tracks but ultimately victim to its own coke-fuelled ambition and pompous self-indulgence. Whilst they'd previously been able to crank out three and a half minute indie anthems whilst waiting for the kettle to boil, 'D'you know what I mean?' clocks in at over seven minutes with backwards vocal loops, instrumental codas and layers of expectant twittering. It was their most epic moment in single format and was equal to the expectation surrounding their third album but ultimately the rest of the record wasn't up to scratch - follow-up 'Stand by Me' stalled at #2 and was the first time they sounded like they were going through the motions and perhaps more significantly the third single 'All Around the World' saw them revert to formulaic gear-shift mode, hopelessly flinging layer upon layer of bombast and decadence at the song to the point where things just became ridiculous. Oasis had become the equivalent of the gakked-up socialite refusing to admit that the party was over, that it was in fact 11am the following day and perhaps time to take a break. Ditto for the Britpop movement - the moment had passed and the genre's own self indulgence along with various other shifts in UK culture (New Labour, Lady Di) saw Britpop become synonymous with the past rather than the present. Oasis would live to see another day but from then on would be a band clinging to past glories rather than leading the field for new music. 'D'you know what I mean?' was their last truly majestic moment and deserves celebration but it was ultimately one last blow out before the book closed on Britpop for good. 

(If you want more in the same vein then check out John Harris' 'The Last Party', an all-encompassing analysis of the Britpop years with plenty of other pointers and some juicy industry secrets. It's a top read.)

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Retroactive : 1980

The year in music : 1980

The inaugural year of the new decade saw the continual influence of ska, new wave and reggae on the pop charts but there was a filthier brew fermenting in clubs of the UK underground : that of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal or NWOBHM for short (commonly pronounced 'Nwobbem' by historically-minded scribes like myself). Termed 'new' to distinguish itself from the first wave of British heavyweights such as Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and Deep Purple who'd emerged some ten years previously, the new wave of bands put a rougher, faster spin on the genre and rallied support from a provincial Britain that had grown weary of punk's urban elitism and the stadium-sized rock scene of the 1970s. Out went theatrical costumes, pantomime mysticism and mid-Atlantic stage banter, in came sweaty denim and leather, pub rock everyman appeal and shit-thick regional accents - metal had returned to the masses and the scene would launch numerous future superstars as well as giving a shot in the arm to established acts like AC/DC and Judas Priest whilst its rivets and testosterone take on the genre would in turn influence the subsequent trends of the decade in heavy music (thrash, death metal, black metal, crossover). It wasn't all brown ale and sideburns though, the Yanks weighed in with their own forces in punk and hardcore whilst the suicide of Joy Division's Ian Curtis would call time on one of England's most influential bands whilst simultaneously spawning another. A pivotal year for the tunes then - here's my selection of the best 1980 had to offer. 

Albums of the year

1. AC/DC - Back in Black
The 'classic album' tag can do more harm than good sometimes, denoting either elitist music critic praise or bland everyman appeal forging superficial connections with all listeners but igniting genuine passion in none. It certainly doesn't fit the bracket for the rude, sweaty journey through rock 'n' roll redemption that made 'Back in Black' a jukebox staple, a critics' favourite and, believe it or not, the third best selling album of all time (behind 'Thriller' and 'Dark Side of the Moon' if you're curious). And the best thing about it is that besides the tragic background to the record's inception, this is pretty much just like every other AC/DC record - crammed full of songs about drinking, shagging and rocking out. Proof if you want it that being too clever isn't always the best option - there's nothing wrong with big dumb fun done the right way.

The folklore surrounding 'Back in Black' is universally familiar - original vocalist Bon Scott bit the big one after one party too many in early 1980 and the remaining members, after toying with the idea of breaking up, decided instead to close ranks and hire a new vocalist in the shape of high-pitched dockyard screecher Brian Johnson. They then set about honouring Scott's memory by laying down their strongest material yet as a tribute - not, it should be highlighted, as a po-faced morality play on the perils of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll but instead picking right up where they'd left off and coming back louder, harder and stronger. Before the year was out 'Back in Black' was topping the charts and you know the rest although having said that it's worth taking a moment to think about how long bands would take to get their shit together these days if they were faced with anything similar. The AC/DC juggernaut kept on rumbling through the 1980s as they got bigger and if not necessarily better then at least reliably consistent. No ballads, no fashion overhauls, no rehab or religious conversions, just balls out rock 'n' roll all the way. As for the songs, you know them already : 'Hell's Bells', 'You shook me all night long', 'Rock 'n' Roll ain't noise pollution', 'Shoot to thrill', the mightly title track, 'Let me put my love in you'....I could go on. Every place licensed to serve alcohol around the world should be forced to keep a copy of this album on the premises at all times and anyone caught complaining to the police that it's being played too loud should be thrown in jail for crimes against music. Many have tried to copy the format of simple, hard-edged and catchy R'n'R on show here but nobody's even come close to these guys - sweaty denim, spilt lager and tinnitus have never been translated into music as effectively as on 'Back in Black' and probably never will. Proof that there is indeed life after death and it's fucking great!

Check out : 'Let me put my love into you'. Whoever said romance was dead?

2. Motörhead - Ace of Spades
Trends come and go, and the rush of young British guitar bands peaking around 1980 for the NWOBHM phenomenon provided the backdrop for a lot of good bands that had been around for a while to ply their trade to a new audience. Having gotten off the blocks in the mid 70s following Lemmy's acrimonious exit from Hawkwind, Motörhead were one of those bands but their sound is one that transcends period precision, tapping into the same vein of rock 'n' roll swagger that dates back to the 50s. Indeed you'd imagine that if Lemmy and Robert Johnson had crossed paths back in the day that they'd have been able to communicate telepathically, recognising the aura of the whisky-swilling, slut-banging, live-fast-die-young rock 'n' roll lifer that only those that devote their existence to the art can project without even trying. Motörhead tapped into the reserve of dark R'n'R treacle that's been around forever in the same way that Black Sabbath, Blue Cheer, Hendrix and Iron Butterfly drank from, but the landscape in which they emerged with the nascent rumblings of punk and the later NWOBHM explosion made their faster, grizzlier take on the sound even more potent and seductive. Lemmy embodies the kind of rocker that you run into in every small town around the world - hirsute, macho and lacking in general hygiene, emanating a fug of sweat, tobacco and 40% proof body odour that no amount of Lynx or shampoo can smother. His signature quote when 'Spades' came out was that if the band moved in next door to you then 'your lawn would die' and given the state of the band back then it's hard to disagree - with ruthlessly precise guitarist Fast Eddie Clarke and utterly unhinged drummer 'Philty Animal' Taylor completing the trio they boys locked into an utterly devastating drive on 'Ace of Spades' and ploughed through everything in their path. Lemmy's tang-slaying anthems such as 'Jailbait' and 'The chase is better than the catch' may offend modern PC sensibilities but there's no denying their charm, while their heartfelt tribute to the sweaty neanderthals that load their amps and score them speed in the shape of 'We are the road crew' reinforces the stance that this was a band of the people rather than the elite. As for the title track, has there ever been a more universally acclaimed three minutes of guitar mayhem? 'Ace of Spades' is more than just a rock anthem, it's practically a definition of what rock music should be - fast, rude and relentlessly aggressive. Whilst the entire world recognises the Beatles, 'Ace of Spades' will nevertheless elicit wider grins of approval amongst rock fans from all corners of the globe - this is England's real gift to global culture. Scrap 'God save the Queen' and stick 'Spades' on before our sports matches, we'll see a difference pretty sharpish. This album rules but the best thing about it is that it's not noticeably better than any other Motörhead record - these dudes are still pumping out albums every other year over three decades later and there's no sign of them stopping either. Their sales peak may have come with 'Spades' along with 'No Sleep til Hammersmith', the live record taped on the accompanying European tour (which provided them with their only UK #1 the following year) but Motörhead have been on it ever since without so much as a pause for breath. Like their peers AC/DC and the Ramones, the boys have made their trade in keeping it simple and straightforward but unlike the aforementioned scene-leaders, the 'Head have stayed on the road and in the studio (not to mention the bar) without ever fading from the limelight. They'll be playing clubs and wrecking eardrums until they drop dead on stage, and that deserves a certain amount of respect. As I write this, Whitney Houston's funeral is round the corner and the music world is in mourning - considering she was a drug-free virgin by the time Lemmy and co laid this one down on wax and they're still touring today and sounding GREAT, I'd see that as cause for celebration.

Check out : 'Love me like a reptile' - fast and sleazy, the way only they can do it.

3. Dead Kennedys - Fresh fruit for rotting vegetables
We Brits have always argued with the Yanks over who started punk, who had the best bands, who copied who etc etc. It's a boring and pointless debate of course - whenever it broke anywhere in the world, punk served as a knee-jerk reaction against the musical and political establishment which in Britain meant rubbish mid-70s chart music and public school prog rock whilst the Yanks had disco decadence, Country & Western and the likes of Journey to contend with. Picking apart who was first to the three-chord riffs and safety pins is unnecessarily divisive, the music should just be universally enjoyed regardless of where you're from - in fact the same probably goes for most of the aforementioned music that punk rebelled against which the passing of time has revealed wasn't actually that bad after all.

But I disgress. Whilst the UK had Crass, the Damned, Sham 69 and the brawn & brains front couple of the Pistols and the Clash, the Yanks brought irresistible gonzoid fun in the shape of the Stooges and the Ramones along with a host of punkoid piglets suckling on a new beast that would come to be known as hardcore. Black Flag, Minor Threat, Bad Brains and many others played their own role but the first to crossover to wider audiences were the Dead Kennedys and 'Fresh Fruit' is probably the strongest showcase of their particular brand of chaos. Frontman Jello Biafra forgoes straight-up aggro and political grandstanding and tackles it with a solid dose of humour, never afraid to point out the hypocrisies within his own scene as well as outside it. 'Holiday in Cambodia' mercilessly pokes fun at the early 80s equivalent of the Gap Yah brigade tromping off to indulge in voyeuristic thrid world tourism, 'I kill children' and 'Stealing people's mail' celebreate mindless anti-social behaviour in such jubilant manner that the more po-faced listener would be tempted to seek reassurance that Biafra wasn't being serious (which he probably loved). Concerts staples like 'California Über Alles' and joyous faux-fascist opener 'Kill the poor' keep a smile on your face throughout and their policy on keeping it short, simple and direct means that not a second is wasted as the Kennedys romp through 14 snappy doses of demented hardcore hysteria, signing off with a bonkers rehash of Elvis staple 'Viva Las Vegas' for good measure. Mixed in the all the NWOBHM meat and potatoes on this list, 'Fresh Fruit' is exactly that - an exilerating rush of quick-fix aggression laced with a dose of black humour and audience-friendly fun punk. With the Reagan years looming, this was the perfect antidote.

Check out : 'Kill the poor', social cleansing at its merriest.

4. Iron Maiden - s/t
My image of 1980 is of a sepia-tinted NWOBHM nirvana, where sweaty guys in patch jackets and bad facial hair line the front rows of concerts with tins of brown ale and yell out 'MAY-DUN! MAY-DUN!' all night in tribute to their homeland heroes who broke through back then with their stonking debut slate. Even though it bears relatively little resemblance to the galloping Dickinson-led material later in their career, their first album is still a fan favourite and many Maidenheads still rate it as their best work. Whilst I've got a bit of time for the prog-tinged later material like 'Seventh Son', it's hard to deny that early Maiden has the edge in terms of visceral impact - rollicking stadium staples like 'Fear of the Dark' and 'The Clairvoyant' may have better suited the huge venues they were playing later in their career but their reassuringly feral début has a muckier, more immediate sound that was destined to win over the hostile pub environments they were playing at the time. Original frontman Paul Di'Anno was the key to their early success in the same way that Bruce Dickinson would be a couple of years later when they embarked on a more epic literary take on the genre, a rough and ready frontman in the vein of the late Bon Scott with a blue collar snarl to his vocals in contrast with Dickinson's operatic wail. The multi-segmented forays into fantasy metal are notably absent and the band concentrate on grabbing your attention with a series of punchy heavy metal gems like opener 'Prowler', début single 'Running Free' and their eponymous signature tune that closes the record. There's also a dose of the East End humour that would remain another recognisable trait of theirs in the shape of the colourful ode to prostitution 'Charlotte the Harlot' and an early glimpse of their more grandstanding material in centrepiece 'Phantom of the Opera'. Round that out with rollicking instrumental 'Transylvania' and a couple of nods to the previous decade with the trippier likes of 'Strange World' and the awesome 'Remember Tomorrow' and you've got what is possibly the perfect heavy metal record. This would be the blueprint for brand Maiden for much of the ensuing decade, covering all bases to keep the fans happy and introducing a new theme every time to make sure they all came back for another round of LPs, concert tickets and Eddie T-shirts. Maiden remain the band to have left the biggest impact on sales techniques within metal in the modern era in their use of imagery (the recurring Eddie persona and cartoonish stage sets), sales techniques (picture discs, multiformat singles) and compositional style (once Bruce was on board they were basically a more chart-friendly Judas Priest with less biker camp) and have duly established themselves as the world's favourite metal band (Metallica are a distant second across large parts of the globe, don't let them tell you otherwise). Band mastermind Steve Harris is seen as a businessman first and foremost by certain people but you can't begrudge him the success he's had with Maiden's vastly appealing take on metal (and unlike his industry-minded Yank counterpart Gene Simmons he hasn't spent the last thirty years bragging about how clever he is to everyone who'd listen). Maiden may have become synonymous with the nerdy, unfashionable elements of metal culture thanks to tributes such as Weezer's 'Teenage Dirtbag' (cheers guys) but trace them back to their origins and you'll find a band with all the power and energy of classic punk and the songwriting chops to churn out a string of hit albums along with a couple of dozen massive hit singles, a feat nobody else in their category has even come close to matching since their inception. The heights they've reached since then might not be entirely to your taste but give their cockney pub rock début a spin and you might well find yourself pleasantly surprised.

Check out : 'Remember Tomorrow', a lost classic with Paul Dianno at his inimitable best.

5. Joy Division - Closer
If ever there was a band that represented pop music as high art it's Joy Division. A seemingly endless string of tribute records, documentaries and exhibitions celebrating their contribution to popular culture has pidgeonholed them as the band to cite as an influence if you want to appear deep as a musician and they remain the ultimate art school reference point and the sole band worth listening to if you don't actually like pop. They are perhaps victims of their own legacy to a certain degree but it's difficult to deny the potency of their material, leaving a legacy of just two albums and a cluster of brilliant singles before Ian Curtis ended his days in the spring of 1980 and the remainder of the band morphed into the similarly indispensable New Order. The more you think about that link, the sadder it seems that he wasn't around to take part in what came afterwards - though the lyrics and funereal atmosphere on 'Closer' suggest a man on the brink to some listeners, I reckon this album actually has a fairly upbeat quality to it that would shape early New Order and should have represented Curtis' ascension from a shitty civil service job in Macclesfield to acclaim as an internationally renowned artist. The demons in his head obviously thought otherwise though and we lost an icon that the world hasn't stopped mourning since. 

Listening to this record with the benefit of hindsight is perhaps a slightly risky endeavour as you're guaranteed to put your own personal spin on the content. For many it represents another classic album to slash your wrists to (alongside 'The Queen is dead', 'In Utero' and 'The Holy Bible') but I hear more of the dynamics of New Order in the songwriting here, an awareness of the beat-directed nature of early dance music, muscular rhythms, catchy synth lines and Curtis' ability to phase his nihilistic lyrics into energised song structures better suited to live gigs and dancefloors that bedroom bleach-drinking. The more recent indie club hit 'Let's dance to Joy Division' makes the very valid point that you can shake a leg to this stuff and doing so doesn't lessen its artistic merit - after all three quarters of the group would bust out 'Temptation' and 'Blue Monday' a couple of years later. Opener 'Atrocity Exhibition' leads you in through the sparse, sinister arrangement that characterised their début the previous year but from there on in you're in potential hit single heaven; 'Heart and Soul' unwittingly lays the blueprint for Batcave floorfillers, 'Colony' and 'Means to an End' let the bass and drums dominate the scratchy guitar lines to devastating effect, 'Passover' packs enough tightly controlled menace to hypnotise stadium audiences, and 'Isolation' could have easily gone top 10 alongside the likes of Soft Cell and Spandau Ballet had they been around to promote it. The band's songwriting chops and hypnotic aura could have seen them emerge as scene leaders ahead of The Cure, Bauhaus, Sisters of Mercy and even The Smiths had they stuck around long enough to capitalise on their legacy and register some serious success but ultimately the surviving members of the band simply continued on the path they had forged, picking up where the synth-led closing drive of 'Decades' left off for their early singles and remaining in the shadows until 'Blue Monday' broke them globally a couple of years later purely on their own terms. In this sense 'Closer' acts as the perfect pop art museum piece, a example of a band creating in total isolation, wrapped up in their own world and several layers away from their musical peers. It was perhaps this sense of disengagement that provided the perfect backdrop for Curtis' suicide (which the rest of the band apparently didn't see coming at all) but this record shouldn't purely be viewed as a glimpse of the troubled headspace of a creative icon and rather as a star left hanging in the night whose light would eventually shine on numerous artists and listeners the world over. From black-clad introverts terrified to leave their bedrooms to lagered-up oiks dancing to 'Love will tear us apart' to every band that has felt the intensity of punk and the transcendent power of electronic music, 'Closer' has touched us all in one way or another whether we know it or not. Curtis would miss the album's release and subsequent critical appraisal (NME named it their #1 of the year for 1980) as well as the longstanding influence of the singles 'Atmosphere' (voted as best track of the century by John Peel's listeners in 2000) and 'Love will tear us apart' (see below), neither of which are included on the album which just goes to show how much solid gold material the band had at their fingertips back then. The biggest tragedy is that their vocalist wasn't around to see how many people he touched and whose lives his music changed forever, but we shouldn't let his passing turn 'Closer' into tragic art - this is a record to be celebrated, one packed with more light than shade and one that should put a smile on your face rather than a tear in your eye. Rest in peace and thanks for the tunes, you've not been forgotten. 

Check out : 'Decades'....the end of something or the beginning of something else, you decide.

6. The Clash - Sandinista!
How do you follow a classic? It's a conundrum that has faced many a band over the years, yielding mixed results - either copy the aforementioned success story note for note or alternatively branch out and do something totally oddball. I suppose the Clash went for the latter option here in the wake of 'London Calling', but in truth there's still lots of the same sort of material that made that album such a bitchin' listen. In many ways this is one step further on down the same road - instead of hanging up their guitars after 18 tracks, they crammed TWICE as many onto this bad boy (although admittedly it does sag in places whilst 'LC' was a pretty consistent listen from start to finish). No established hit singles or clear commercial potential, but 'Sandinista!' is still pretty cool. The guys sound like they're enjoying themselves a bit more here - there's deeper forays into dub and disco, strung out trippy numbers and a kiddie version of 'Career Oppurtunities' that's way better than the original. But there's slingin' guitar anthems too : 'Police on my back', 'Somebody got murdered' and 'Lightning Strikes' all pack the same amount of flob 'n' pogo punch that their debut did, plus there's 'One more time' which sits alongside 'Straight to Hell' as my favourite mellow Clash moment. Funkier moments like 'The Magnificent Seven' and the reggae-tinged 'Junco Partner' give you an idea of how many genres they'd absorbed by that point and the gap of less than a year between this album and its similarly diverse predecessor just show you how prolific the boys were back then. It's difficult to think of a band around back in 1980 whose crowds they would have struggled to win over if challenged (apart from the metal groups that make up the bulk of this selection whose fans are not renowned for their open-mindedness). There are of course moments where it becomes obvious that they're veering off into areas they wouldn't have explored on a shorter album but even when you bear that in mind there's still a wealth of great material on here and it's encouraging that they squirrelled so much of it away onto a record that was ultimately never destined to be that much of a commercial venture in the first place. There's no excuse for not owning all the Clash albums (with the exception of 'Cut the crap', which you can cut out cos it's crap) but a lot of people pass this one by as it's way longer than the rest and stacked with less famous tunes. But don't be fooled folks - it took me a while to appreciate 'London Calling' all the way through so if you're stoked on that then take this as the next logical step. Weirdly, their next move was the rampantly commercial yet still quite good 'Combat Rock' before they went crap and then split - factor that into your Clash timeline and this is where they'd got to by 1980.

Check out : 'Police on my back', proof they could write classics in their sleep back then. 

7. Diamond Head - Lightning to the Nations
I like to think of NWOBHM as a latter-day manifestation of the industrial revolution, a smokebelch of innovation emanating from the grey carbuncles of English heavy industry to go on to influence manufacture and progression across the globe. Your Venoms, Maidens and Motörheads set in motion waves that would crash into unsuspecting realms of Scandinavia, Florida, the Bay Area and even South America to set the tone for the next decade of rock music and their legacy remains intact to this day. One band who played a part in all this but somehow evaded stardom were Diamond Head, a roughly-hewn gem from the black country with an ear for rampaging metal rhythm and epic heavy songwriting with solos that widdle off into the night. What's so exceptional about 'Lightning' is how polished it sounds for an album flung out at the very birth of modern metal - Maiden's debut sounds like a pub band by comparison and even the emergent thrash bands who ripped them off a few years later couldn't produce débuts to rival this. Matching a formidable stockpile of meaty riffs with the kind of epic show-closing anthems inherited from the arena bands of the 70s, 'Lightning' strikes the perfect balance between quick fix heavy metal and gilt-edged stadium showboating, unwittingly setting the template for thrash acts like Metallica and Megadeth to base their 8-minute odysseys on when they started filling venues in the mid 80s. Hetfield and co's debt to these guys is well-documented and they've frequently covered 'Helpless' and the unfeasibly great 'Am I evil?' from this record, but the recognisable traces of their sound present on 'So Far, So Good, So What?' and 'Ride the Lightning' act as a more appropriate homage. The fact that these guys never really sold any records came down to a mix of poor distribution, bad luck and cack-handed management (the inexperienced team of the manager of a local cardboard factory and the singer's mum didn't really help them penetrate the mainstream) but their legacy speaks for itself. 'Lightning to the Nations' is seven tracks of heavy metal lore that you should definitely check out if you haven't heard the originals - these guys can argue their case as metal pioneers against pretty much anyone.

Check out : 'Am I evil?'. The 'Born to be wild' of the 1980s.

8. Judas Priest - British Steel
Yeeeeeeeeeeeeah baby! I'm listening to an absolute humpload of Judas Priest at the moment, seems they somehow passed me by until now. They tend to get lumped in with Maiden, Saxon et al as part of the NWOBHM movement (which is understandable given what they sound like), although it's worth bearing in mind that whilst a lot of their peers were just starting out in 1980, Priest were onto their sixth album by the time this came out (seven if you count the rip-snorting live chronicle 'Unleashed in the East' which came out the year before). What's more, 'British Steel' was somewhat of a watershed moment for them, shaking off the bluesy trad-rock style they had started off with in the mid-70s and moving into more chart-friendly territory. In the hands of many other groups this would have been a thoroughly bad move but it turned out that sucking on the corporate hooter of the pop charts resulted in a tip top set of metal choons! Highlights include Beavis and Butthead fave 'Breaking the Law', anthemic cuts 'United' and 'Living after Midnight' and their own signature tune 'Metal Gods' (complete with banging pots and pans to simulate the stomping of deities). 'Steel' remains their sales peak in the UK although they were always more successful Stateside - whilst their 70s phase features some of their coolest material they really came into their own in terms of wide exposure on the stadium circuit of middle America in the 1980s where they went on to bring in huge crowds and notch up massive success in the charts. 'British Steel' became the model for their later successes 'Screaming for Vengeance' and 'Defenders of the Faith' although it retains a layer of British grizzle that was somewhat smoothed off by the laser-corrected MTV sheen of their later material. If you haven't already seen it then check out the documentary 'Heavy Metal Parking Lot' for a snapshot of mid-80s America in which legions of bud-chugging metalheads enthuse about Priest in the car park outside another of their enormous gigs. It's fun watching all the testosterone floating around safe in the knowledge that Rob Halford would later reveal that lines like 'I'm gonna force you at gunpoint to eat me alive' weren't about your traditional boy/girl relationships.....hahahahaha! Oh well, innocent times.....

Check out : 'Breaking the Law' - possibly the best promo clip ever in the history of the world.

9. X - Los Angeles
Two myths about US punk that need breaking right away - one, that it was all about New York the whole time and two, that it was purely a boys' club fuelled by anger and testosterone. Fuck all that. The west coast didn't have the clubs or the institutionalised androgyny but they still had a culture of cool reaching back to the Beach Boys and the Byrds that could go toe to toe with NYC's best all the way and their punk scene inherited all of that in a more casual way that the arthouse east coast folks could ever emulate. X were the first major punk band to bust out of California and they did it the unorthodox way, bringing in the Doors' Ray Manzarek to produce their début in keeping with California tradition and spreading their focus wider into old school R'n'R, psychedelia and sleazy biker chic, eschewing the Rollins/Ramones full blast frontline approach in favour of a full band of nerds approach that made them more of a people's band than their peers, the success story of the music dorks in the audience to every show that finally put their own band together. Frontline duo of John Doe and Exene Cervenka shared lead duties as part of a wide-target take on their visceral punk blurtings mixed in with classic rock 'n' roll mainlined by pompadour-sporting guitarist Billy Zoom to create a widely accessible cocktail of spit-coated punk and New Wave revivalism. They even toss the organ in there for a couple of tracks without blunting the edge and keep the focus on tunes rather than sheer adrenalin. There's elements of the gender interplay and 50s revivalism that would soundtrack the Pixies' rise to fame a decade later on 'Los Angeles' but it's worth appreciating X on their own terms - their slot in Penelope Spheeris' original 'Decline of Western Civilisation' documentary (years before she did the second installment on the LA poodle metal scene) showcases them as a collective of composed and articulate beings in sharp contrast to the nihilistic volume junkies flanking them in the early 80s LA punk scene and their brainy take on the genre has seen them age much more gracefully than many of their peers. 'Los Angeles' is their début and by title alone is a decidedly Westside take on the punk genre and one not afraid to showcase its influences - old school Gene Vincent gets a reworking on 'Johnny hit and run Paulene' whilst producer Ray Manzarek's old group get their own nod in the amped-up reworking of the Doors' 'Soul Kitchen'. Keyboards save the day towards the end too, injecting a much-needed dose of revivalist psychedelia into the programme to temper the mix in the same way as latter day punks like The Vines and Black Lips have done, keeping the energy levels high but mellowing out the delivery so as not to restrict the audience to pure adrenaline junkies. X made their own imprint of Yank punk and it's one that is oft forgotten in the wake of the hordes of California sunshine punk noobs that have sprung forth over the period since their inception, all day-glo spikes and wraparound shades mixed in with a gacky cocktail of tattoos, skateboarding and spitballs. You kiddies should take a look at the history books and soak up the first punk band to make a mark on the west coast - 'Los Angeles' is a monument to DIY all-inclusive punk chic and deserves to outrank the likes of Bad Religion, Rancid and Offspring in the sunshine coast's contribution to the genre. Miss these peeps out at your punk peril.

Check out : 'Johnny hit and run Paulene' from the 'Decline' segment, all of which is worth a pop.

10. Ozzy Osbourne - Blizzard of Oz
You've got to hand it to Ozzy. His continued survival, both physically and commercially, seems to defy logic - since his early days fronting the band that arguably invented heavy metal as a recognisable package he's managed to career from one stupid decision to another yet somehow always emerged the better for it. Black Sabbath were already treading water by the late 1970s and Ozzy's behaviour as the worst of a bad bunch resulted in him getting booted out of the band and spending months holed up in a hotel room in a cocaine and pizza binge that almost finished him off completely. His manager's daughter (and his future wife) Sharon coaxed him out of reclusion to record 'Blizzard' which sparked a successful solo career that would soon descend into formulaic crap, basically an advert for whatever was wrong with metal at their time of release yet he somehow remained a massive star in the States throughout the 80s and early 90s whilst the Tony Iommi-headed version of Sabbath redux descended into total parody. His decision to finally bury the hatchet and rejoin Sabbath for the Ozzfest franchise coincided with the nu-metal era and a period of renewed enthusiasm for his music from a new generation of listeners giving the band their biggest commercial boost in years. And when the noughties and the reality TV boom finally rolled around his decision to reveal his chaotic family life to the world became one of MTV's biggest hits and introduced him to an audience often totally unfamiliar with his music, leading to him notching further solo success and even a #1 single as a duet with his daughter Kelly (a shitty version of one of 'Changes', itself one of Sabbath's shittier numbers). Add to this the fact that he's managed to outlast both Randy Rhodes (his much-revered guitarist on 'Blizzard') and Ronnie James Dio (his replacement in Sabbath) despite subjecting himself to an almost implausible amount of drink and drug abuse and you have to wonder when his luck is going to run out - even Mötley Crüe claim they met their match when he took them out on tour in the early 1980s. The guy's dodged so many falling pianos that you'd have little trouble believing the idiotic evangelists who've been claiming for years that he's on first name terms with Satan.

'Blizzard of Oz' catches him at the turning point of his career where he basically traded in heavy metal for pop rock, shaking off the brown ale & sideburns trappings of 70s rock and relaunching himself as, for want of a better world, an entertainer. The album's sound catered more towards radio playlists than Sabbath's material and provided several potential singles including the rollicking 'Crazy Train' and the era's end of the night prom special 'Goodbye to Romance' which thrust him straight back into the limelight as a recognisable solo star. Elsewhere on the record he succeeded in feeding the controversy that would follow him around for the ensuing decade, perhaps intentionally on the spooky 'Mr Crowley' which only reinforced the view amongst the religious right that he was in with the man downstairs and more accidentally on 'Suicide Solution' which became the subject of the first of several lawsuits against heavy metal artists when a teenager blew his own head off whilst listening to the track a couple of years later, presumably unaware that the lyrics are in fact a comment on the demise of AC/DC vocalist Bon Scott earlier in 1980. The catchy, radio-friendly nature of his new solo material thrust Ozzy into American homes to an extent that would never have been possible in Sabbath and duly made him public enemy number one for uptight mothers and religious nutjobs as the 80s wore on through MTV censorship, 'Parental Advisory' stickers and numerous Republican attempts to blames society's ills on music. None of this did his career any harm of course and Ozzy himself was happy enough to encourage the ire directed at him most of the time, either via intentionally lurid promo campaigns caricaturing him as a vampire or a werewolf or, perhaps more memorably, via a series of demented antisocial stunts under the influence of drugs and booze (snorting ants, pissing on the Alamo, biting the head of a bat etc) which all became part of metal folklore and reinforced his image as a metal idol. 'Blizzard' succeeded in spawning several of his best known songs and launched his solo career which would soon descend into opportunist cabaret and derivative musical output - it's perhaps not on a par with some of the other period metal releases but it nevertheless delivers a palpable hit of melody and energy along with some cracking riffs from Rhodes and would provide the blueprint for the wave of shock rock (WASP, Twisted Sister) that would engulf the Stateside musical landscape a couple of years later. If you're going to pick up a copy then bag the remastered version which features a souped-up version of Ozzy and Randy's contributions alongside re-recorded bass and drums by Robert Trujillo from Suicidal Tendencies/Metallica and Puffy Bordin from Faith no More and which makes the original version sound like ass in comparison. 'Blizzard' might not quite rank alongside 'Master of Reality' and 'Sabbath Bloody Sabbath' in musical terms but it's got enough pop metal charms to make it a worthwhile listen and its role in kickstarting the career of one of the 80s' most entertaining solo performers makes it a worthy entry on any list of metal's most important releases. 

Check out : 'Steal Away (The Night)', the storming final track with Randy Rhodes in full effect.

Tune of the Year

Joy Division - Love will tear us apart

A bit of a no-brainer really. That's not to detract from the importance of 'Love will tear us apart' though, coming as it did as the decade of electropop and British bedsit indie got started. I've included Joy Division's 'Closer' on here but this isn't on it so both get a worthy mention although it's a fair assumption that most casual listeners are more familiar with the band's biggest hit single than their more arduous album territory. Drop this one anywhere from an indie club full of bedraggled students to a town centre nightspot full of beery twokkers and everyone will go crazy for it, such is the longstanding appeal of the band's merging of their electronic post-punk influences from the previous decade with the style and sound of the emergent indie scene that would produce many of the British Isles' best-loved artists over next few years. Anyway you look at it, 'Love will tear us apart' is about as universal as it gets.