Saturday, December 31, 2016

December 31st 1960 Paul Westerberg

The Heart of Rock and Soul # 743 Tammy Wynette

'For over a year, I walked around with an idea on a little piece of paper in my pocket,' said Billy Sherrill in a 1975 book about country songwriters. 'After being barraged by Woman's Lib and ERA, I wanted it to be a song for all the women out there who didn't agree; a song for the truly liberated woman, one who is secure enough in her identity to enjoy it. Even though to some skeptics it may hint of chauvinism, as far as I'm concerned, they can like it or lump it. Because 'Stand By Your Man' is just another way of saying 'I love you' - without reservations.'

Song of the Day # 1,077 Debbie Reynolds

One of the last losses of this year of great loss. Pure sentiment of course but then New Year's Eve is a time for pure sentiment!

Friday, December 30, 2016

Songs About People # 263 Egon Schiele

Patti Smith was famously drawn to Tom Verlaine in the early days of punk because she wanted his 'Egon Schiele look'. Schiele himself is very much a Rock and Roll painter. The song here that pays him tribute is a nice, evocative piece by a Melbourne artist called Martin Martini from an album from 2013 called Vienna 1913. The whole thing is well worth checking out.

December 30th 1946 Patti Smith

Songs About People # 262 Thomas A Becket

'Out there' mid-sixties Freakbeat merchants John's Children, (Marc Bolan's original outfit, though I'm not sure whether he features here), ask us to remember Thomas A Becket for some reason.

Vinyl Purchases # 25 Crazy Horse

£15.00 Vinylstore Jr. 29th December 2016.

And to celebrate the arrival of this shop in my life I bought this quite magnificent record!

Vinylstore.Jr Canterbury

A new independent record store has opened in Canterbury, where my parents live and where I am at the moment, visiting for Christmas. The arrival of such a shop is a source of joy for the likes of me. It's probably the first of its type for almost twenty years. It comes complete with its own record shop owner, the kind you feel who has set out on this enterprise partially and perhaps largely for the music related conversations it will allow him to have with customers and the records it will allow him to play during his time at 'work'. This is just as it should be. During my couple of visits over the holiday period we managed to have conversations about Sunflower Bean, Beth Orton, Bevis Frond and more. I wish him well! He's plugging a gap in Canterbury's cultural scene. I'll make a point of going back every time I'm down. Another record related ritual to observe.

Here's the shop's list of albums of the year:
  1. Radiohead - A Moon Shaped Pool
  2. David Bowie - Blackstar
  3. Heron Oblivion - Heron Oblivion
  4. Syd Arthur - Apricity
  5. Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds - Skeleton Tree
  6. Car Seat Headrest - Teens of Denial
  7. Dinosaur. Jr - Get a glimpse of what yer not
  8. Let's Eat Grandma - I Gemini
  9. Dungen - Haxan
  10. Hinds - Leave Me Alone
  11. Wolf People - Ruins
  12. Goat - Requiem
  13. Sunflower Bean - Human Ceremony
  14. Lapis Lazuli - Wrong Meeting
  15. Causa Sui - Return To Sky

The Heart of Rock and Soul # # 744 Loretta Lynn

Song of the Day # 1,076 Froth

The Jesus & Mary Chain legacy, particularly that of Just Like Honey, still casts its spell all these years later. Here are Froth, mixing up the same medicine from 2015's Bleak.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Beautiful Freaks

The latest blog that I've come across, and this one's a keeper. Written by people who are either in their teens or have just left them, it will give you a clear and immediate reminder of what those years felt like. The writing is unashamedly open, raw and heartfelt and they focus on music that evokes and expresses that sensibility which is refreshing. Here's their Top 10 for 2016, which highlighted another batch of records that were new to me and which I'll foreground myself over the coming weeks.

  1. Porridge Radio - Rice, Pasta & Other Fillers
  2. Car Seat Headrest - Teens of Denial
  3. The Tuts - Update Your Brain
  4. Flowers - Everybody's Dying To Meet You
  5. Deerful - Staying Still EP
  6. Skating Polly - The Big Fit
  7. The Goon Sax - Up To Anything
  8. Jenny Hval - Blood Bitch
  9. Okkervil River - Away
  10. Frankie Cosmos - Next Thing 

The writer then states, 'And you'll notice I've 'forgotten' about all the old-timers: Radiohead, Bowie, Cohen, Cave, Yes those were good too, but it's not their time.' Sweet! Youth has its say.

December 29th 1961 Jim Reid

The Heart of Rock and Soul # 745 Loretta Lynn

Song of the Day 1,075 Los Dug Dugs

It seems that every country in Central and South America had, if not their Beatles or Rolling Stones, at least their own pioneering Garage band. Los Dug Dugs have a good claim to be Mexico's. Here is Smog, from their 1973 record of the same name.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Songs Heard on the Radio # 174 The Nice

The Nice's second single. From 1968.


Favourite Series

With the ending of Twee today, (there will be another one to take its place), I thought I'd list a few other favourite series that I've had on here in It Starts With a Birthstone's three and a half year run. I was accused by someone who had a look at the blog of being a bit anal. Who me Norman? Then again the secret of establishing some sort of longevity is probably habit.

  1. Song of the Day - January 2014 - Now
  2. Songs About People - May 2014 - Now
  3. Things Found on My Local's Jukebox - April 2014 - Now 
  4. Album Reviews - June 2013 - Now
  5. Songs Heard on the Radio - July 2014 - Now
  6. The Heart of Rock & Soul - April 2016 - Now
  7. It Would be in the Hit Parade in an Imaginary Universe - January 2014
  8. The Real Eurovision Song Contest - February 2014
  9. Towns & Cities - March - April 2014
  10. The Last Song on the Album - April - June 2014
  11. Best Garage Songs - December 2015 - January 2016
  12. Songs That Steal the 'Be My Baby' Drum Sound - May - June 2015
  13. Death - May 2015 - Now
  14. B Sides - June 2015 - Now
  15. Thirty Days of Fifty - September 2015
  16. Songs About Trains - October - November 2015
  17. 100 Power Pop Songs - December 2015
  18. The Perfect Collection - 99 Essential Pop Singles - December 2015 - March 2016
  19. 100 Mavericks - June - August 2016
  20. Albums of the Year 2016 - November - December 2016

Songs About People # 261 Simon Bolivar

Venezuelan military and political leader who played a major role in the establishment of independence from colonial rule of much of South and Central America.

December 28th 1915 Roebuck 'Pop' Staples

Twee # 132 Julie Andrews

An oddball choice but one which nevertheless encapsulates the idea of Twee. Appropriately, also the last of this particular series as its the final selection on the playlist at the back of the book. I'm sorry to see it go! 

The Heart of Rock and Soul # 746 Madonna

Song(s) of the Day # 1,074 Billy Paul

Another of those who passed this year. Best known of course for Me & Mrs. Jones the adulterer's anthem. But I chose these two; Ivery much like his version of the much covered song above and the song below for good measure.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

The Who in Helsinki 1967

Songs About People # 260 Ingrid Bergman

You get two photos of Ingrid Bergman here. Quite right. After all, she was very pretty.

December 27th 1943 Pete Quaife

The Heart of Rock and Soul # 747 Van Morrison

Twee # 131 The Monochrome Set

Song of the Day # 1,073 The New Lines

'Everything's ringing. I'm on the chime of a bell...'

When I had just turned twenty I had some kind of daydream about being singer in a guitar based Rock and Roll band. It was never likely to be realised but I did have a few half baked lyrics and ideas of melodies and an idea of who was going to be my accomplice on guitar, the Buck to my Stipe, Marr to my Morrissey. Most of the lyrics I came up with which I can still remember make me cringe now with their gaucheness but I liked and still liked the line above. It seemed to encapsulate a kind of youthful intensity, the idea of being lost in sound.

Brooklyn's The New Lines sound as if they're lost in sound or even on the chime of a bell on their most recent album Love & Cannibalism. The Byrds ringing guitar signatures are the clear and obvious reference point but it's an updated Byrds, filtered through fifty years of collective experience, Stereolab, Elephant 6, Clientele, Crystal Stilts, soundtracks, books and dream to the point where it sounds authentically and distinctly 2016. The record has some of the best titles going this year; In Which  a Child Consults the Occult to Revive his Dead Cat; Weatherman's Apology; Mass Observation; Ventriloquism. That's just the first four tracks. The music more than matches up. Hipsters clearly. But inspired hipsters. Another album for that list I completed yesterday.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Farmer Swaps Pigs For Vinyl Records

Blog of the Year # 2016 A Pessimist is Never Disappointed

On the right hand side of this page are a list of blogs of a similar nature in some respect to my own. One of my favourites and one that has sourced quite a bit of the music I've liked and posted this year is this particular one. Focusing, largely but not wholly on the indie melodic guitar thing, here are its twenty favourite records of 2016, a number of which I'll be posting up on here over the coming weeks:

  1. Emma Pollock - In Search of Harperfield
  2. Pete Astor - Spilt Milk
  3. Bent Shapes - Wolves of Want
  4. Dot Dash - Searchlights
  5. Tone - Antares
  6. Lake Ruth - Actual Entity
  7. The Moles - Tonight's Music
  8. Sansyou - The Glistening One
  9. Teenage Fanclub - Here
  10. King Congo Powers & the Monkey Birds - La Arana Es La Vida
  11. Ablebody - Adult Contemporaries
  12. Real Numbers - Wordless Wonder
  13. Terry Malts - Lost At The Party
  14. I Have a Tribe - Beneath The Yellow Moon
  15. St. Lenox - Ten Hymns From My American Gothic
  16. Split Singles - Metal Frame
  17. Cory Hansen - The Unborn Capitalist From Limbo
  18. A Tribe Called Quest - We Got It From Here .... Thank You 4 Your Service
  19. Young Romance - Another's Blood
  20. The New Lines - Love & Cannibalism

December 26th 1935 Abdul 'Duke' Fakir

Twee # 130 The Zombies

The Heart of Rock and Soul # 748 First Choice

Song of the Day # 1,072 Wham!

Last thing at night yesterday evening on Christmas Day I heard that George Michael had died at fifty three. It would be disingenuous of me to claim that his music meant very much to me because it didn't but of course it did to any number of people, who will be spinning back through time towards personal moments and experiences that his music provided signposts for and stamped indelibly on their memory patterns and experiencing the resultant anguish.

For the record, this is the only one of his songs I've ever bought. The first Wham! single. Which I got for my sister. It's probably not a track that will be top of the list as the tributes and eulogies are made but it's where he started a particular journey of his own from. It seems to come from quite another place and time. I suppose the past is like that.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

My Albums of the Year

By no means definitive. It was just records from 2016 I like and I made the order up as I was counting down to Bowie. Plenty of good and some great stuff missing. It was a dreadful year for music deaths; a wonderful one for new music; a bewildering one for the world!

50. DIIV - Is The Is Are
49. Beth Orton - Kidsticks
48. Steve Gunn - Eyes On The Line
47. Cate Le Bon - Crab Day
46. Ulrika Spacek - The Album Paranoia
45. Holy Wave - Freaks Of Nature
44. Angel Olsen - My Woman
43. Alex Cameron - Jumping The Shark
42. Eleanor Friedberger - New View
41. Cool Ghouls - Animal Races
40. Papooz - Green Juice
39. Beyond the Wizard's Sleeve - The Soft Bounce
38. Teleman - Brilliant Sanity
37. The Coathangers - Nosebleed Weekend
36. Public Access TV - Never Enough
35. Fumaca Preta - Impuros Fanaticos
34. Lawrenca Arabia - Absolute Truth
33. De La Soul - And The Anonymous Nobody
32. Goat - Requiem
31. Exploded View - Exploded View
30. Chris Cohen - As If Apart
29. Omni - Deluxe
28. Wilco - Schmilco
27. TOY - Clear Shot
26. Allah-Las - Calico Review
25. Xenia Rubinos - Black Terry Cat
24. Nothing - Tired Of Tomorrow
23. Black Marble - It's Immaterial
22. Big Thief - Masterpiece
21. Margo Price - Midwest Farmer's Daughter
20. Esperanza Spalding - Emily's D+Evolution
19. Kikagaku Moyo - House In The Tall Grass
18. Childish Gambino - "Awaken My Love!"
17. Eerie Wanda - Hum
16. Helado Negro - Private Energy
15. Parquet Courts - Human Performance
14. Warehouse - super low
13. Fantastic Negrito - The Last Days of Oakland
12. Agnes Obel - Citizen Of Glass
11. The Moles - Tonight's Music
10. Lambchop - FLOTUS
9. Nap Eyes - Though Rock Fish Scale
8. Sunflower Bean - Human Ceremony
7. Kevin Morby - Singing Saw
6. Kacy & Clayton - Strange Country
5. Leonard Cohen - You Want It Darker
4. The Avalanches - Wildflower
3. Regina Spektor - Remember Us To Life
2. Radiohead - A Moon Shaped Pool
1. David Bowie - Blackstar

December 25th 1957 Shane MacGowan

The Heart of Rock and Soul # 749 Clive McPhatter

Twee # 129 The Hollies

Albums of the Year # 1 David Bowie

On Friday 8th January this year I attended an event at the Tyneside Cinema in Newcastle where the new David Bowie album Blackstar was played in full on the day of its release. I was surrounded by friends who'd attended these events called The Record Player with me previously over a number of years. It was hosted by a man, who's a lifelong Bowie fanatic.It was universally accepted by the audience and the host himself at the end of its playing that it was an all round magnificent object. How little we knew!

A couple of days later on the Monday morning I woke up, checked the internet as I customarily do, to discover that Bowie had died. It seemed like an absolutely massive, almost unprecedented event  in music but also in history. For those of us who cared, Bowie is such a deeply important figure and his music so centrally significant to so many of us in terms of memory, experience and the way we've come to understand the world, that his death led to a strange global ritual of both grief and celebration.

And of course the true messages of his last record slotted into place on repeated listening. Such an artfully timed and premeditated statement. Of course it's Number 1 on the chart here! There was no other contender really although the Radiohead album is pretty damned good. But then they'll go on to make other records. I haven't listened to Blackstar much, because as much as it's a record about life it's also about a particular artistic embrace of death which is not something I want on my turntable generally at the end of a day at work but I'm listening to it now at the end of the most turbulent year historically and politically that I can remember in my lifetime and who better than Bowie to act as its musical curator and provide its ultimate soundtrack.

Song(s) of the Day # 1,071 Johnnie Ray

'Poor old Johnnie Ray sounded sad upon the radio. He killed a million hearts in mono.'

Listen to a song or two from Johnnie Ray and it's perfectly clear why that was. Tearjerkers one and all. Ray inhabited the early fifties and his career was pretty much done when the sixties turned up. He gets Christmas Day this year because the man who's coming up next declared him as an influence.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Books of the Year 2016

It's made fairly obvious by the fact that I post on here daily that I have at least a passing interest in popular music culture. Here, in no particular order, are the three books, published this year, which I read and really rated.

1. Bruce Springsteen - Born to Run

No surprise at all of course that the man can write. But this is astonishing from start to finish. As a man notorious for his ability to structure and sustain long sets he's had plenty of practice but this was an incredibly accomplished book. Honest, open, courageous and understanding the contradictions at every turn, he lays himself bare here and you end up respecting him more than when you started.

2. Bob Mehr - Trouble Boys (The True Story of The Replacements) 

More deeply flawed and pained subject matter. The band who threw it away at every turn. Mehr is unflinching in his documentation of The Replacements damaged journey. I ended up disliking most of the individuals concerned but sensing that they deserved the book as it's the story of so many, though this lot had guitars.

3. Jon Savage - 1966

As with all really great books I felt a sense of sadness reaching the final line of 1966 and slapping the thing shut. It's a true monolith. One of the greatest treaties written about Pop Culture and its impact on the world around it. Savage of course has form in this respect, having already produced the still-definitive historical document on Punk, England's Dreaming in 1991.

That's a very, very fine book but I'd say 1966 is even better. Eschewing nostalgia or foresight of  any sort, Savage grounds himself in the year itself, a remarkable one for Pop Music of course but also for the world it inhabited and soundtracked. Dividing his book into twelve chapters, one for each calendar month, he focuses his writing on singles, as it was the last year that they took true precedence before albums overtook them as the serious format for expression from '67 onward, and things became serious and introverted, Pop became Rock, shifting inevitably towards self-conscious art.

It's an intense yet objective treatment of the year and what happened during it. Savage prose maintains a masterful balance between embodying the sheer excitement of the records he documents while placing them within their context and detailing the larger picture of the astonishing turbulence of the year in politics, society and the true birth of the counter-culture.

You get Beatles,Stones,Yardbirds, Dylan, Who, Kinks, James Brown, Motown, Love, Byrds, Stax, Beach Boys, Dusty Springfield, Velvets, Small Faces, Pink Floyd, Buffalo Springfield, Hendrix, Cream and Monkees. You also get the smaller players, and Savage knits them all in within a fabric of generational foment, Vietnam, social protest, racial strife, sexual revolution and the shock of violent, intense and tragic news events.

Savage excels himself. It's a lesson in how to write about these things. Capture the thrill of the times but more importantly, be true to them. Setting himself against the prevalent but regrettable trend of looking back at our recent history and its music as an exercise in dewy eyed nostalgia. In his own words.

'I'm very tired of the way a lot of music writing now is about personal experience and generational nostalgia. I'm not interested in talking about whether I ate Crunchies or Orange Aeros on my way back from school. That's by the by.'

Nevertheless, or possibly contrarily directly because of this way of going about things, it's all actually very moving. Because Savage obviously loves the music he writes about and determines to do it justice. In this respect it's an unqualified success:

'Because you know it doesn't matter if a right wing historian slags off John Lennon. It just doesn't matter. Those records will last.'

Nick Cave - One More Time With Feeling

As we come to Christmas, it may be time for personal full stops for more of my own favourite musical things from this year. This was my favourite film and here's the review I wrote about it when it came out a few months ago:

Nick Cave - One More Time With Feeling

          ' Last night I was at one the national premieres of Nick Cave's One More Time With Feeling, (taking place across the UK and doubtless elsewhere too)a documentary directed by fellow Australian Andrew Dominik. The film as a spectacle would probably be pretty meaningless to anybody who doesn't have at least a passing interest in Cave's life and music and it seems almost obsolete to give it context before going on to write about what it made me feel but I'll do so anyway.

In July of last year, Cave's son Arthur, one of a pair of male twins, and just fifteen years old at the time, died, in the most tragic circumstances imaginable from a fall from the clifftops above Brighton where the Caves lived. The resultant level of media focus, speculation, base title tattle and intrusion was immense and escalated during the course of the inquest to the death, at a time of intense personal grief for Cave's family, friends and musical colleagues and also, it's fair to add, though obviously at an emotional remove, for those for whom his work has a central personal importance.

Given that Cave is an artist who has always focused throughout his musical career on the darkest themes imaginable - death, violence, dread and angst, (albeit generally accompanied by the blackest strains of humour), it seemed reasonable to wonder exactly what his next work would be like, given that it was almost inevitable that his son's death and the resulting grief and anguish experienced by those closest to him would be the subject matter that would inevitably inform it. Well now we know.

So this is what the film and its accompanying album Skeleton Tree, which is also available now, focus on, to an almost unbearably, intense and courageous degree. It's by no means an easy experience to watch nor is the music particularly easy to listen to, given its unavoidable, emotional subtext. Anybody who has experienced any significant personal trauma in their lives, (and this is the term of description Cave returns to again and again), will recognise the cocktail of conflicting and contradictory emotions which its main players express and which emerge at various points in the film. For this is a meditation, not only on death, but on every aspect of life too, the creative instinct, love, grief, pain, anger, humour, friendship, support. the urge to maintain control and ultimately perhaps, and we certainly hope so, the cleansing and consoling force of art itself, (though I suspect that Cave himself, as a deeply intelligent cynic, might contest that last suggestion).

I'd stick with it nevertheless, simply due to the sheer force and resonance of the musical pieces which punctuate  the film of Cave and his band the Bad Seeds, working through and recording tracks for Skeleton Tree in the round in the studio (though of course they're surely simulated for the purposes of shooting the film). I should probably confess at this point that I haven't always been greatly taken by the records Cave has produced over the years. During the eighties for example, when he first emerged, originally with The Birthday Party and then solo or with The Bad Seeds, I much preferred the records of his contemporaries and compatriots The Go Betweens and The Triffids who were among my most important personal musical discoveries at that crucial formative time in my life when the music I fell in love with played a part in my construction of personal identity and sense of self. In terms of the immediate milieu that Cave was working in, which could broadly be defined as Gothic, (which both of the bands mentioned above touched on sometimes but certainly never fully operated within), The Gun Club and The Cramps also both meant a lot more to me.

By comparison at the time, Cave simply didn't appeal. I thought his darkness was a persona and a not desperately convincing one. I found the brushstrokes he traded in too crude and one dimensionally confrontational and really that perception of him as an artist has remained with me until comparatively recently, only really shifting in the last couple of years with exposure to his most recent work. Perhaps he's changed. Perhaps I have. Who's to know? Something certainly has.

That process of re-evaluation for me began with Cave's last excursion into music documentary, 20,000 Days on Earth which came out in 2014 and which I thought was a wonderfully crafted piece of work. It was nevertheless still cleverly guarded, presented through a carefully constructed artistic persona and maintained a creative distance and privacy that is obviously something Cave guards jealously.

There is no such refuge available for him here. The emotions on display here are raw and plainly apparent. Both whenever Cave, his wife Susie Bick or Arthur's twin Earl are onscreen but also in the intensely committed,  musical performances  of Cave and also from the Bad Seeds, each of whom seem to be stretching every nerve and sinew in support of their frontman in the beautifully shot, (in stark black and white), musical sections. Frankly I've never seen musical performances quite like them, where a whole band seems to be spellbound en mass in grief almost as if engaged in some ritualistic rite of passage against an oncoming blizzard in the hope that they can find a way through all this. Of course Cave, as a deeply self-aware performer, will recognise and is playing on the cultural and literary parallels of this. He knows his Bible and Greek Myth, the influences of which resonate as so often in his work through the songs here. Throughout the film he attempts to maintain a balancing act between enormous creative ambition and modesty about his realisation of his place in the grand scheme of things. As he himself suggests at a point in the film there are times in life where language fails you in terms of describing our emotional journey and perhaps music is ultimately its best expression.

So, if you have any interest in Cave and his work, do see the film. It's something quite special. I won't be watching it again or listening to the music much, good as both are, because to immerse yourself in it too much might feel like dwelling intrusively on others' grief, like the unknown mourner at a family funeral not commented on by the grieving relatives, who didn't actually know the deceased. Nevertheless I think both Skeleton Tree and One More Time With Feeling surely represent career highs, both for Cave, his musical accomplice Warren Ellis and everyone else involved. Also, it doesn't seem exploitative for a moment. Rather an act of true love. Perhaps its greatest achievement. Respect to all concerned.'

Radiohead - Goat Shaped Code

A rare photo of Radiohead smiling. Well they've just been ranked second on my Album of the Year list. Here as a postcript to my short review of A Moon Shaped Pool here's another by a friend of mine who compiles his own end of year list of records of the year on his own blog here. Here's what he says about Radiohead and the conundrum that is Thom Yorke:

'My relationship with (“with,” like I know them and we hang out) Radiohead has become complicated, not to say vexed. I can’t quite explain it, but having loved them, even when others didn’t (for example, I might be the only living defender of King of Limbs), I recently came to kind of loathe them based on no particular reason, and on no particular piece of music. I just decided I was done with them. So when this album first came out, I decided that wasn’t going to listen to it, because fuck that whiny little bastard and his ilk. But then someone posted something positive about it, and I thought, oh ok, maybe I’ll give it a spin. And I did. And I hated it, because fuck that whiny little bastard and his ilk. But then I went back to the well a couple more times, and it started not to grow on me exactly, but to irritate me less, and then it started to grow on me, and then I started to recognize that there were actually parts of the album that are really lovely, and then I had to admit that, ok, dammit, I still like Radiohead, even though fuck that whiny little bastard, still. So I guess I liked this album against my better judgment, and indeed dismissed it out of hand for quite a while, but its charms eventually proved somewhat irresistible, which is a weird thing to say about Radiohead, who seem to do their best to uncharm you. But this has moment of sublime beauty, even if those moments are led by Thom Yorke’s relentlessly nasal well you get the idea because I’ve already gone on about it just in the same whiny little bastard way does, so sorry about that. I just opened myself up to it and it washed over me in some genuinely pleasant ways. Not only that, it actually gets better as it progresses. The stretch from “Glass Eyes” to “Present Tense” is just delightful; I would even venture to say that it’s pretty. I was surprised. I actively tried to hate this album, and I failed. I actively tried and failed to do a lot of things this year. Thanks, Radiohead.'

Albums of the Year # 2 Radiohead

         I'm not an enormous, constant Radiohead fan for someone who has a great number of Radiohead records. I think rather a lot of people might slot into the same category. Despite their massive and important input over the last twenty five years or so of making records and playing concerts, I go towards them and then away and back towards them as my life progresses. It may always be that way. I haven't really been paying attention properly for a few years I confess. But listen through to A Moon Shaped Pool and tell me that it's not an absolutely magnificent record. Containing something of the initial simplicity that attracted me to them in the first place and something of the studied complexity they layered on this over the intervening years.

With this band the obvious sticking point, what makes them a Marmite experience, is lead man, singer and lyricist Thom Yorke. I imagine were he not there pretty much everyone would like them as the rest of the group seem deeply amiable and balanced by comparison and the music they make is almost invariably beautiful in addition to its disquieting qualities . But then without him they wouldn't be Radiohead. It's the fact that Yorke's so introverted and essentially troubled, the way his voice so often sounds somehow like nothing so much as a petulant child's whine that invariably gets peoples goats. What's he got to moan about at this point in time! I sway towards this point of view from time and it's perhaps why I need breathing space from his band from time to time. But then he and Radiohead put out a record like this and I find myself back on their orbit.

The band cover an enormous amount of ground over the course of the eleven songs here; they can do the fast forward Krautrock thing; they can do the earthy early seventies British Folk thing; they can do the much discredited, (except when they do it), prog thing: they can do the orchestrated songs for the stars and infinity thing. And they can do it all pretty much better than anybody else. They're probably the Best Band in the World if such a title means anything at all in 2016. The fact that I'm even invoking the idea is a demonstration of just how good this sounds to me. Hats off to Radiohead! They still exist in their own time and space of ever-shifting disquiet. We should be grateful really. They keep their heads, in a world where more and more people seem to be completely losing theirs.

December 24th 1924 Lee Dorsey

The Heart of Rock and Soul # 750 Elvis Costello & the Attractions

Twee # 128 The Who

Song(s) of the Day # 1,070 Oh Pep!

One of the records that slipped through the cracks during the assembly of my album of the year countdown. Stadium Cake by Oh Pep! is the album in question but the fact that it's not in the list doesn't mean that it wouldn't grace any Top Ten list. It's an excellent record. And like so much that is excellent nowadays in the pop world, it's from Australia. Melbourne, Australia to be precise. Oh Pep! are a female duo with a fistful of great songs who plug the invisible, imaginary space between Shakespears Sister and Courtney Barnett. Well somebody has to!

Friday, December 23, 2016

Albums of the Year # 3 Regina Spektor

An album of hope, solace, consolation and art. In a year that needed as many of them as it could get. Here's a somewhat euphoric tribute that I wrote to that record, Remember Us to Life, a couple of months back.

 I'm a little bit in love with Regina Spektor. A lot, whenever I'm listening to her recent music. This is apropos of nothing in particular but I imagine I'm not the first person to feel this way and I certainly won't be the last. I'm feeling this way particularly today listening on repeat to her new, and heavily orchestrated album Remember Us To Life, released last Friday.

I'd say that mine is only a natural response as listening to the record, track by track I think it touches on small, perfectly realised genius. Why she isn't plastered all over front covers while dullards like Coldplay continually are is beyond me and is a reproach on sorry times. Remember Us To Life is a constant delight, like finding yourself in a dream exploring an enchanted garden or working your way through a new Angela Carter short story collection you never knew existed that's magically been dedicated to you.

Spektor is a special musician indeed. A one off really, though she's been constantly and lazily bracketed throughout her career with other 'oddball' artists. She deserves to be appraised on her own merits and without that utterly meaningless description.. Her personal biography alone is extraordinary. Fleeing religious persecution from their native Russia, the Spektor's, young Regina and her brother, resettled in the Bronx in 1989. Her parents struggled to make ends meet while Regina practiced the skills she'd learned in Moscow on tabletops and empty window sills until they could afford a piano.

 She emerged and proceeded to blossom in the early millennium years, in association with other New York Renaissance artists like The Strokes and Moldy Peaches and the Anti-Folk scene in Downtown Manhattan. Originally a street and outsider artist, she's gradually, over the years, edged her way consciously, or through a natural development, towards the mainstream, and I'd say this is the record that should allow her to fully grasp her place within it it should she wish to. It's to her immense credit  that she's never compromised her incredibly special artistic vision during the lengthy process its taken her to get here.

A uniquely warm, emotional and personal musician in an era where artists increasingly seem to shy away from such direct expression, every word on Remember Us To Life is clearly enunciated, every note comes pure and distinct. If there is anybody who Spektor might fairly and usefully be compared to it's probably Kate Bush, because both work from a premise of immersing the listener in a romantic, fictionalised, but all consuming experience. A night at the opera. Or if you're staying in, a bedtime story.

Spektor's probably getting used to telling bedtime stories herself, having taken time off since her last record, 2012's What We Saw From The Cheap Seats, to give birth to and start to raise her first born. The break seems to have paid dividends as Remember Us To Life is a further step forward from that album, which though it had several wonderful moments was not the complete and utterly coherent statement that this record is. A deeply considered emotional gift to the world at a time when frankly it needs just that.

Spektor, in a recent interview talked about the dark times we're fated to be living through right now and how it's all best countered:
'I do think that human connection and human awareness and education are the key to everything. As long as we keep trying to keep the channels free, and prevent propaganda, prevent iron's very hard to do. It's somewhere between resigning yourself and saying, ' Hey this is just how things go,' and being devastated and paralyzed with fear and anger. I think that changes come from a personal place.'

This certainly comes from a personal place, but it's all grounded in musical skill and personal growth. After all she's in her mid-thirties now. One of the things I love most about Spektor is her classical background and how the deeply romantic strains of it resonate throughout her songs. It's a rare quality to her music that continually sets it apart from pretty much all of her contemporaries, except as I've mentioned, perhaps Kate Bush. A gift that allows her to sprinkle small epiphanies for her listener throughout the record, clues that allow us to recognise the infinitely magical qualities both of the world she's portraying and through it the one all around us.

She's also keenly literary, almost an artist from a bygone age, and deeply rooted in the European tradition, even though she's now also recognisably the product of New York, the most Western looking of all American cities. Draped on the front sleeve in a glittering golden sheet, wearing thirties hat and immaculately applied film star make up, she's something of a throwback, appropriate for a Western world that's looking backwards rather than forwards nowadays. 

Beauty of course is in the eye of the beholder. While writing this, I've also been browsing interviews with Spektor, and reading reviews of her work and listening to previous albums of hers. Generally the critical consensus jury, still seems to be out on her. Perhaps it always will be! While early responses seem to delight in plumping for oddball, quirky and eccentric as descriptions for her approach, (as if those words really tells us anything), other reviews of Remember Us To Life, conclude that she's lost a little of her initial spark by playing it straighter and beefing up the orchestration. It seems she can't win. Damned if she does by some critics, damned by others if she doesn't.

Personally, I think she's coming into her own as an artist now. The lack of such urgency, the more considered, thoughtful approach makes Remember Us To Life her first realised symphony from my perspective. It's an altogether beautiful and precious piece of work. She's playing in my home town in a few weeks and although I had initially given up on seeing her, (as I couldn't find anyone to see her with), having heard this I'll now bust a gut to get a ticket.  Another record of the year in a year which has been altogether remarkable for them!

December 23rd 1940 Jorma Kaukonen

The Heart of Rock and Soul # 751 Ruben Blades

Twee # 127 Nirvana

Song(s) of the Day # 1,069 Street Chant

Never too late in the year for breezy guitar pop from New Zealand in that country's great tradition. From Street Chant's 2016 record Hauora another album in this year of wonderful albums worth investigating.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Songs About People # 259 Harry Dean Stanton

To one of those people who have come to embody a certain kind of cool. I'm not sure the Pop Will Eat Itself track embodies the same territory. It has that Indie, white rapping style that sounds quite bizarre and certainly utterly dated twenty five years on. But on balance, the track is fine, and represents an odd period of time where white British males danced in a particular, stooped, primate stance to tracks like these. Trust me, it happened. 

Albums of the Year # 4 The Avalanches

Very much a summer record somehow. I posted this first several months back.

The Avalanches second record Wildflower came out a few weeks back, sixteen years after its predecessor Since I Left You. There's probably never been a greater gap between one lauded and commercially successful debut album and its follow up. The delay it seems was partly down to issues within the band itself, but also due to the painstaking process of putting tracks together, searching for the perfection inside their heads, the logistics of getting guests in on the deal, clearing samples and so forth.

So what have we got? An outstanding record to my ears, and certainly one of the very best albums of a year that's been terrible for Rock deaths but outstandingly good for actual records. This is very near the top of the heap. Initially I didn't listen to it, put off by the single that preceded it Frankie Sinatra, which I found deeply irritating in itself, though its absolutely fine within the context of its parent album. Just got round to Wildflower itself it and it will now be played and replayed for the rest of 2016 and far beyond.

In truth, with reference to Frankie Sinatra, none of the tracks on Wildflower make much sense listened to in isolation because they're all parts of the whole. It needs to be listened to as part of a suite of sound. The record is a neat synthesis of the driving objective of the Beach Boys Pet Sounds, Sly & the Family Stone There's a Riot Goin' On,  De La Soul's 3 Feet High & Rising and the Beastie Boy's Paul Boutique, all transposed twenty five, forty five or fifty years on. An otherworldly and quite brilliant collage of modern living and experience filtered through the prism of Pop Culture and memory. A thing of absolute wonder. Childhood revisited through loving recreation and imagination in the same way as the best Wallace & Gromit moments, something painstaking and tortuously slow in terms of its actual production process but made to seem effortlessly easy and immediate in its finalised form. Quite wonderful!!!