Music Albums of the year 2012

Regular readers know I like a music post from time to time. This one is my end of year look at this years best albums. For me, this year had plenty of good albums, but not one I think that stood out as something really special, or ground breaking. Mojo magazine went with Jack White’s album, as their number one which shows what I mean. Good, but a bit retro. I like this album, but I haven’t played it in a few months. So for my number one, I went with something different.

Fiona Apple - The idler wheel. Best of the year?

Fiona Apple – The idler wheel. Best of the year?

Album of the year

Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw, and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do

For the second year running, I’m selecting an album by a female artist (last year it was PJ Harvey’s “Let England Shake”). This one a more unusual choice for me in the respect that I had never bought anything from Fiona Apple before, prior to this year. This means to me she was pretty much a new artist, albeit one with a back catalogue to explore. However with running this blog this year, I took more of an interest in poetry, short story, song lyrics and that whole area. Fiona’s album has a clever mix of intelligent lyrics. and phrasing, and the way she delivers or sings them, with subtle adjustments in her voice, mean there is lots to continually find. It made a good balance for me against the aforementioned interests. Musically it is also pretty subtle, a little low key, a lot of percussion, but it lends a touch of freedom which shows through in the album as a “whole” (speech marks intended). Try “Werewolf” or “Regret” as examples.

Runners up, were Bat for Lashes (another female artist), which I like a lot but as a fairly recent release, I’ve not lived with it long enough. Tame Impala with its neat way of live band dance music, and rolling drum beats, is also pretty cool, and a good soundtrack to various things going on in my life.

Further close calls include Bob Mould’s “Silver Age” (regular readers will know I’m a big fan and only recently saw him live for the first time). Bruce Springsteen also had a good, accessible record in “Wrecking Ball” which seemed to fit in with this election year (in the US). See also honorary mentions which I think are all good albums work checking out.

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The point when you realise it is better than you thought

It’s a bit like parts of my college and university years in a box.

I’m still thinking about “The blog post trail”, so I will pick this one up at a later point. Today something else. It is a bit music orientated so some of you may wish to press like and move along. Or perhaps you are interested in what I have to say today…

With many things in life, there comes a point when you realise something has changed without you being aware of it. Perhaps you are too familiar and find it difficult to step back and evaluate with fresh eyes. Maybe the change has been subtle to your eyes, like the way you don’t see your child grow day to day. Whatever the reason, it happens, then one day you get a fresh reference point, and realise things have changed. It is like listening to a music album again that you previously disregarded, and realising that it actually, is very, very, good.

Recently I purchased the box set “21” by the English band Blur. If you are from the UK, you will almost certainly have heard of them. They are held in such high regard these days, that they played a concert as part of the Olympic closing celebrations, in Hyde park, just across the city from where the Olympic closing ceremony was taking place. It was available the next day on itunes (and on special CD editions coming soon). If you live in the US, you may well be familiar with “Song 2” (Whoooo Hoo). If you’re a music fan in the US, you likely know of Gorillaz, that Damon Albarn was the main musical whizz behind the music, and had discovered how good Blur actually were by checking out his back catalogue. You may even be familliar with some of the solo work from guitarist, Graham Coxon.

Myself I was a fan from quite early on, although maybe not right at the very beginning. I knew of a few songs including “Theres no other way” but not taken much notice. Then at some point, as I was getting into Indie music about this time, I got with the single “For Tomorrow”. It really struck a chord and I was with them from that point on. The second album “Modern Life is Rubbish”, contained that track, and listening to it now, the version in the box set is excellent, it might be my favourite Blur album. This album was a reaction to music coming out of the US, e.g. Nirvana, Pearl Jam, et al, and a poor US tour they had experienced. They were in many ways still trying to find their voice as a band, and responded with this, the first in a Trilogy of “British life” albums. The second album of the trilogy, pretty much a perfect pop album “Parklife” propelled them into the British mainstream and was actually a key album in “Indie” music becoming the more mainstream thing it is in the UK today. The feud with the other big Brit band Oasis (more on that later) also provided an interesting focal point. That album is arguably their best.

The next four albums finished up the “British” trilogy with a mish-mash of styles (The Great escape), sounded a bit more american indie rock (Blur), a bit more loose, experimental, a more jamming style (13), ending with an album mostly recorded without founding member and guitarist Graham (Think Tank). All four albums sound completely different to each other.

The box set, doubles up each album (if buying the CD version) to contain a second disk of B-sides, fan singles, one off singles, and pretty much everything else released at the time. It also contains four extra disks of unreleased tracks, demos, and rehearsals. I’m still to get to those four. What it did give me chance to do was to play everything again, including the second disks as I had many of the singles, in order. The progression through seven albums is amazing. There are the odd duff tracks (obviously more amongst the b-sides etc), but generally speaking, no drop in quality, if anything, an increase. What amazed me more was that I had always been a fan, but now I was looking at them again virtually with fresh eyes. Blur had a progression similar to that experienced by the Beatles (and I’m not directly comparing the two), albeit with slightly different types of music and influences, and not the “one of the originals” position in pop / rock history. You can clearly see the music change, and the wealth of ideas. I realised that there catalogue stacks up against many of the best bands. To illustrate, try to choose the best 15 or even best 20 tracks. There is so much choice, it is not an easy job. After I had came to this realisation, I spotted this article on Stereogum, which had the same problem trying to find the best 10. It also was an admission that yes, Blur had not been big in the US, being late to the party in that respect, but their catalogue sure did need revisiting to see what you were missing. And it sure has some highlights.

Back in the mid nineties, as Blur released “Parklife”, new rivals Oasis released their debut “Definitely Maybe”, a critically acclaimed album and at the time the biggest selling British debut of all time. Both albums were very good and something to be proud of at the time with the rise of Britpop. Then with the imminent release of albums “The Great escape” and from Oasis “What’s the story, morning glory”, they went head to head with single releases on the same day. Both relatively poor singles I might add, “Country house” and “Roll with it”. It made the national news. Blur got to number one. However Oasis had “Wonderwall” and “Don’t look back in anger” on this album, and achieved greater sales. As it was put, Oasis lost a battle with the first singles, but won the war. But in retrospect, Oasis followed this up with a cocaine fuelled, poor follow up, then a worse one after that. They did better than those two albums, but never achieved the heights of the first two. Whilst Blur changed their sound album to album, going from strength to strength. Which is not to say Oasis don’t have some brilliant tracks, e,g singles like “Live Forever”, or album tracks e.g. “Cast no shadow”. But in retrospect, who really won that war?

Blur have become, through talent and hard work, one of the UK’s most loved bands, particularly for people of my generation. It is interesting that many music fans in the US are starting to realise what they have missed. Lot’s of great songs, lots of great sounds, and lots of fun. At some point I went from being a fan, to being a fan who realised that Blur long since became a key band in British history, like e.g. The kinks, The Small Faces, The Smiths, Roxy music, or many more.

On an individual album basis, I recently had a similar realisation about David Bowie’s album “Low”, and how good that is. But I wanted to write about Blur.

Lexicon word of the day: Paseo.

Haiku – wouldn’t it be nice

Same structure as before, three more Haiku poems also reading as a larger one. Inspiration, using a word prompt from a song same as on this post. This one takes a line from The Beach Boys track “Wouldn’t it be nice” (from their album often rated as one of the best albums of all time e.g. number two in the Rolling Stone list, “Pet Sounds”). Check out the original video for the song, below. The line I used is the title, wouldn’t it be nice.

I never see you
work our fingers to the bone
tired and hungry

Where did we go to?
people we were when we met
when our dreams were young

get away from here
hold me in your arms and fly
wouldn’t it be nice?

Lexicon word of the day: accoutre.

Haiku – who to drive them with

Same structure as before, three more Haiku poems also reading as a larger one. Inspiration, using a word prompt from a song same as on this post. This one takes a line from Blur’s track “He thought of Cars” (from their album “the great escape”). Check out the live version of the song performed on the Jools Holland show back in 1995, below. The line I used is, who to drive them with.

First to live on Mars
Building a house, buy a car
all belongs to him

First to be alone
when the novelty is gone
left with just himself

explore with car rides
who to drive them with
listen to star man

last to live on mars
too far to travel back home
and no internet

Lexicon word of the day: Conspectus.

Blur – The alternative take

What do you need to know about them?

Blur are (or were) a British pop / rock band consisting of four band members; Damon Albarn (mainly vocals and keyboards), Graham Coxon (Guitar), Alex James (Bass), and Dave Rowntree (Drums). They appeared in 1991, before stopping around 2003 after Damon and Graham had a falling out. They made friends again and re-appeared for some emotional gigs in 2009, including a triumphant headline slot at Glastonbury, and a Hyde park gig recorded and later released . They won the Brit award for “outstanding contribution to music” at the 2012 Brits. If you are British I don’t see how you cannot know who they are. They are pretty much a British institution, most people have a soft spot for them. If you are American, you may know them, might know them for “Song 2”, or won’t have a clue.

Where did I first become acquainted?

Quite probably from fairly early on. In the summer of 1993 I was working in the warehouse of a crappy retail chain. A least it afforded me the opportunity to have the radio on all day, at a time when I was really getting into music again. I loved “For Tomorrow” and was excited about the follow up singles. This being a time when single releases could still be a little exciting. That sounds a bit daft these days. Anyhoo, I got the album “Modern life is rubbish” and never looked back.

Parklife was an even better follow up and took them on to huge success in the UK. In 1995 when they had the singles war with Oasis for number one “Country house” Vs “Roll with it”. I bought both editions of the Blur single. And the Oasis single. Sadly both these efforts were pretty weak for both bands at the time. Still it was fun at the time.

The single Beetlebum actually got me into the band Pavement which in turn gave me one of my favourite albums of all time, Pavement’s “Brighten the corners”.

What to buy:

Depends what mood I’m in. I have everything including the album of remixes, and a live bootleg. However this is my post, so I’m choosing:

  • Blur – The one influenced by American bands after getting a bit fed up of Britpop. Has song 2 (everyones heard of that).
  • Parklife – The 2nd album, the big britpop one, chic full of good tracks and singles.
  • Modern life is rubbish – The second album containing lots of pop, but a bit less melodic than Parklife. Still a fab album, one that reminds me a lot of College.
  • 13 – The broken hearted Damon one, a bit more “art rock” whatever that means, more Graham guitar brilliance, more introspective lyrics.

Some key tracks to listen to:

There is a really good singles compilation (yep I have that too, even though I already have all the tracks), so that is a good place to start. With that in mind, heres some alternative good tracks which might not have been singles (or are just favourites of mine).

  • Sing
  • Theres no other way
  • For Tomorrow (full version not single edit)
  • Tracey Jacks
  • This is a low
  • He thought of cars
  • Yuko and Hiro
  • Beetlebum
  • On your own
  • Moving on
  • coffee and tv
  • battle
  • trimm trabb
  • on the way to the club
  • Black book (b-side to the music is my radar single, really ought to have been on an album)
Blah, blah, so many good tracks. Listen to some tracks here. Check out the video to “The Univeral” below:

Anything to avoid?

The first album “Leisure” is a bit patchy but does have a few very good tracks. “The Great Escape” is a bit overcooked but still decent, so really it should not be in this section.

Anything else?

They have their own website here and a Facebook page if you want to look that up. There is also fabulous film “No distance left to run” which tells the story of Blur and is available in an edition containing one of the hyde park gigs. There is also an old tour film from the Modern life is rubbish era called “Star shaped” (Yep, I have that as well).

Damon Albarn has had a busy music career. You can check out more of his work in the following:

  • Gorillaz
  • The Good, the bad, and the Queen
  • Mali Music
  • Rocket Juice and the moon
  • Dr Dee
Graham also has had a solo career releasing eight albums. Check out:
  • Happiness in magazines
  • The Spinning top
  • A & E
Plenty of books are available but I would recommend “Blur 3862 days, the story of blur” by Stuart Maconie, and band member Alex James book “A bit of Blur“. A large box set “21” containing all the albums (remastered) and plenty of unreleased tracks, is to be released on July 31st 2012 (pictured at the top of the post).

Enjoy!

Lexicon word of the day: eristic. 

The Brit Awards & Some Priorities

This morning two unrelated topics to talk about.

Last night in the UK it was the Brit Awards. To the American readers, it is pretty much the British equivalent of the Grammys. You know, a bunch of mostly daft music categories with plenty of mainstream acts crowbarred in there. Here is a list of winners that I cut and pasted from the Guardian online:

 

2012 British Male Solo Artist Ed Sheeran
2012 British Female Solo Artist Adele
2012 British Breakthrough Act Ed Sheeran
2012 British Group Coldplay
2012 British Single One Direction/What Makes You Beautiful
2012 British producer Ethan Johns
2012 Mastercard British Album Of The Year Adele/21
2012 International Male Solo Artist Bruno Mars
2012 International Female Solo Artist Rihanna
2012 International Group Foo Fighters
2012 International Breakthrough Act Lana Del Rey
2012 Outstanding Contribution To Music Award Blur
2012 Critics’ Choice Emeli Sande

Now I’ve been living in California for the past two years and I haven’t been keeping notes on who is doing what in the UK charts, but a quick glance shows few surprises. Coldplay, Foo Fighters, Rihanna, Adele and so on. Lana Del Ray is kind of taking the spot Bon Iver took at the Grammys. The “Hey, look at us we’ve spotted an indie act that you have, just to show we care” spot. That one kind of looks like an old fella asked his teenage grandson “What’s the sound you kids are listening to?”, getting a bit confused and thinking, oh well, that one will do. It shows how bland the show was as a whole that there is little commentary about the winners in the news, more about how Adele got cut off with her acceptance speech. Yes, ITV, the broadcasting TV network decided that it didn’t want to run over time. It had to fit in a live set by Blur before finishing on time. That meant, the winning speech from Adele was promptly cut off as the producers shove the host out to cut her off. Adele responded in kind by giving them the finger. Ooo… controversy. Or not. Who cares? Personally I like Blur, they were a big favourite of mine through the end of my teenage years and through my twenties. I like the fact they won the outstanding contribution to music award and I wanted to see their live set. Or at least I would have, had I been in the UK. Instead I had to make do with watching it on Youtube. I think there was some songs after the TV broadcast ended which are also on Youtube. I was never a big fan of the Brits when living in the UK. Being away has done nothing to change that.

So priorities huh? I’m thinking about writing priorities here. The blog is doing quite well so far. I’m keeping up a posting each day, which is also good. If anything the problem is I’m writing for much more than the 15 minutes, which is both good and bad. Of course the practice is good, the fact that I am putting the commitment is good, and the blog is getting an identity, also good. The downside is that I’m not doing much work on my other projects. I probably spend a little too much time checking stats and so on. That is ok for now whilst I build up the blog and it’s community, but in the long run I probably need to cut a lot of it out. I need to spend time on my other projects. But I don’t want to stop the blog. It is fun for me, I am getting something from it. I don’t want to stop. So priorities really, I should try keep some of the posts down to a 15 to 30 minute writing, with one or two longer posts a week. A little less time on here, a little more time on other projects. Let me see how that works out.

Lexicon word of the day: Adroit.

 

The 10 favourite music albums ever

Todays post is not so much about writing and again, more about music. I like music lists. I like music polls. I don’t necessarily believe them, or agree with them, but I like to look. Sometimes I find they remind me of good or great albums I already have, or albums that have been over looked, and they make me want to play them again. They can validate your own choices, if you need that sort of thing, which I rarely do these days, or they can give you the opposite, and something to argue against. I love the year end “album of the year” polls. I love the “greatest albums of the …” type polls.

With that in mind, considering my own favourites, my own lists, whilst not something I do a lot, is an occasional fun, if not somewhat trivial exercise. Still, so what? It is occasionally fun. Whilst ranting about the Grammys the other day, I mused on my favourite albums of last year. Today I shall consider my favourite albums of all time. To clarify, this is my favourite albums of all time, not necessarily the albums I consider to be the greatest of all time, which may be both similar and different. So here goes, in order (album title – artist – year):

  1. Beaster – Sugar (1993)
  2. OK Computer – Radiohead (1997)
  3. Giant Steps – The Boo Radleys (1993)
  4. The Soft Bulletin – The Flaming Lips (1999)
  5. Radiator – Super Furry Animals (1997)
  6. Brighten the Corners – Pavement (1997)
  7. The Queen is dead – The Smiths (1986)
  8. The Holy Bible – The Manic Street Preachers (1994)
  9. Copper Blue – Sugar (1992)
  10. Parklife – Blur (1994)
With the following close calls:
  • In Utero – Nirvana (1993)
  • Hatful of Hollow – The Smiths (1984)
  • Back in Black – AC/DC (1980)
  • Star – Belly (1993)
  • Teenager of the Year – Frank Black (1994)
  • The Seldom Seen Kid – Elbow (2008)
  • Dark Side of The Moon – Pink Floyd (1973)
  • In Sides – Orbital (1996)
I realise you could debate what is counted as an album here given that my arguable all time favourite is essentially a mini-album or EP, plus just outside the top 10, “Hatful of Hollow” is a compilation of singles, b-sides, and BBC sessions (and is better than the actual debut album), but for me they are included. I would exclude compilations that either contain more than one artist (not including the main artist plus guest), or compilations of hits, singles or similar. But that is just me. You or I can include what we want.
Also interesting to note is the years when the albums came out. Nine of the top ten came out in the nineties. These were my late teens to mid twenties, a time when generally speaking life was more fun. Actually I should rephrase that, over the last few years, my life is as much fun or mores than it was then. Back then it was a time of less responsibility, and of experiences that shaped the person that I am now. It is when I discovered much of the things I liked, and a time that is now, somewhat viewed through the mists of time, and the hazy glaze of nostalgia. This is not to say that there are not loads of albums I have gotten hold of in the last say, ten years, that are also fantastic, for there are plenty. The above list is just my favourites. A component of the criteria I suppose, is that they pass being a mere fashion, or album of the time, and continue to be there and “great” over a longer period of time, i.e. time shows the album to be just as good. That is why I have no choices from the last few years, they’re quite simply not old enough to be included yet. I’m not sure when that cut-off is exactly, it just needs to feel right. That is also demonstrated by the list not changing too much over time. About 5 to 10 years ago, the list was like this:
  1. Beaster – Sugar
  2. OK Computer – Radiohead
  3. Giant Steps – The Boo Radleys
  4. The Soft Bulletin – The Flaming Lips
  5. Radiator – Super Furry Animals
  6. Brighten the Corners – Pavement
  7. The Queen is dead – The Smiths
  8. The Holy Bible – The Manic Street Preachers
  9. Star – Belly
  10. Teenager of the Year – Frank Black

It is the last two which have changed. So I have some constant favourites. I could, I suppose, build a list of fifty or more although the order would get a little more disagreeable. It is a tough call in the top ten. The point with a longer list might be as much that something is included in it, more so than it’s rank in the list. I wish I hadn’t typed this idea now, I’m probably going to end up doing it. I am now kind of intrigued what might be included, how much of one artist and so on. On my iPod I have 35 days of music and this isn’t everything I own. Yes, I said iPod, there is too much space taken for my iPhone, – and that is kind of scary that iPod is starting to sound slightly out of date already. Although I prefer CD (I have a half decent stereo), and that sounds even more out of date, but i digress.

You can see my choices favour rock and pop more than dance music, only Orbital is near the top. That reflects my music collection at large. There is dance music (e.g. LCD Soundsystem as a recent favourite), and some hip hop, in there, but more of it is rock, pop, folk, alt-country, and things around the edges of that. I may post more on why I like some of the choices, in a later post. You may begin to see here why I like lists. It is the alternative viewpoint of looking at what I own, and they can give me some perspective on it. I like when they make me pick up something I haven’t played in a while and it is good all over again. I think you can tell I like music, a lot more than lists. What would your choices be?

Lexicon word of the day: mendacious.