The song or album that represents the time that is…

Image courtesy of Microsoft Clip Art

Image courtesy of Microsoft Clip Art

Posts at the moment seem to have either a common theme, or somewhat refer back to an earlier post. Recently, I was having some discussion with a friend about music lists. I have my 10 favourite on an early post somewhere, and a post on an idea called “the music map of me”. But in discussing we also referred to that old BBC radio favourite desert Island discs, and a feature in Mojo magazine called “All back to my place”, (where numerous questions are asked around your soundtrack for different circumstances, e.g. sunday mornings). So we came up with a new list. The idea is that you choose a song or album that represents you, or has a lot of relevance to you in a certain circumstance. I guess really they are about memories. So here is some of the list that we came up with. Some categories were easier to answer than others:

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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 music map of me, and you

(Image courtesy of Microsoft Clipart)

In most cultures around the world, in some way, our lives are linked to music. It might be through traditional songs that tell stories of our culture, it might be from songs in the music charts, it might be songs you hear on a tv show, or it might be songs used to stir emotions which on the surface might seem more primitive, but have a deep underlying resonance. Underlying this might be how we universally have an innate capability to understand music, and to distinguish different musical notes and tones, even if we understand none of it. “This is your brain on music” by Daniel Levitin is an excellent book on this subject, but that is a different blog piece. I’m interested on a different take, and in particular how it works in Western cultures.

Any excuse to mention this album again huh?

Much as songs are used in some cultures to document historical events, and passed on from generation to generation, Western cultures experience this in a different way. There is so much music around these days, and we get exposed to a lot of it. We might have similar interests in music, and have experienced different events with the same music, but all our experience will be different. If you were able to draw a map highlighting how music has impacted your life, you will see that certain songs or pieces of music link to certain events. It could be that you like a song a lot and use it at a significant life event such as a wedding, or it might just be that something was playing as something happened. I’m not talking about your favourite tracks necessarily, it might not be something you chose, or even like, but nevertheless, in some way it is linked. If you were able to somehow extract all these different songs and pieces of music, you would have a music map of you. It would need some translation, but I would hazard a guess that everyones map would be quite different, even if some destinations are shared. I wrote a short piece of fiction called “the unusual map” that began to explore this idea, which I published on the blog last week, however let me examine that idea further with some examples from my life.

In the early days of January 1994, I was in a branch of the long since departed UK music chain “Our Price”, actually one of the earliest casualties of music downloads, and approached a listening post. They had on several not big selling, but critical hits from the year before to listen to. One of these was “Giant Steps” from a band called The Boo Radleys. I had heard of the album, it being Select magazine, and the NME’s album of the year. I had not hear anything from it. I listened to first track “I hang suspended” and immediately knew it was for me. I bought the album. It subsequently soundtracked a significant part of college, and my first year of university, and is still one of my all time favourite albums. This one event however, had a big influence on where my music tastes went, and as regular readers know, I’m a big fan of music.

Sometime in the early 2000’s I was in a fast car with a good friend of mine. He was driving down country lanes at night far too fast. Don’t worry he said, I know these roads well. He has pretty much terrible taste in music. The track playing at the time was “Money for nothing” by Dire Straits, not a favourite of mine it has to be said. I was convinced as a music snob of varying degrees, that I was going to die an ironic death soundtracked to this. Thankfully we got home safe although every time I hear that track now it still reminds me of that drive.

I have an album I like a lot but by someone not really cool, which I call my guilty pleasure. I won’t tell you what that is, because I have a post about it soon.

Bunsen burner” a fun track by musics biggest failure (his words), John Ottway, was a nice live moment which myself and my then girlfriend, now wife, experienced at the half moon pub in Putney back in 2007. It was unexpected fun as we thought the gig would be crap, and still reminds us of those early days together and what seems quite a different time back in England.

“Changes” a track by Sugar I originally got in 1992 on a cassette from long dead UK music magazine “Vox”was incredibly significant in where my music tastes went, even more so than the Boo Radleys. The album the track came from “Copper Blue” was the first CD I ever bought, and one of my favourite all time albums. I heard this album played live by Bob Mould last week in its entirety which I loved. This cassette moment reminds me of my old walkman, some lazy times hiding in my bedroom at my parents house, a fun time in buying / reading the music press, as I discovered a lot of new things, and evenings this summer blasting the remastered version of the album through great headphones. That track and album lives with me.

Elbow’s beautiful track “One day like this” which has become a wedding favourite, was used as the money dance for my wedding. It obviously reminds me of that, actually one of my favourite parts of the wedding, but also of the times around it, and of leaving most of my family to move to the US. If you don’t know the track, take five minutes to check it out below. I’ll be surprised if you don’t like it.

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These are just a few of the destinations on what would be my music map. An alternative way of looking at your life and how it has been affected in some way by a small part of your culture. I hope you followed what I was getting at, maybe found the journey interesting, and hopefully made you think of some significant links in your life. If you have time, tell me below of a destination on your map, the track and how it relates to you.

On another occasion I think I might revisit the character from the short fiction and use him as part of a different story. But that is a different post.

Lexicon word of the day: distrain.

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.

The Grammys.

It’s not about the Grammys, but a small nod to this blog here (by Aly Hughes) which is in similar spirit to what I’m trying to do with writing lately, and has had to put up with a couple of my comments this past weekend.

I am not American, I am English, and I live in California. I’m not a big fan of the Grammys anymore than I am of the Brit awards, the English equivalent. For me they are an excuse for big mainstream acts, i.e. those which have sold a lot, to back slap each other and tell each other how great they are. It excludes plenty of bands who may do well critically, but for a variety of reasons, have not hit the interest of the public at large, and thus not had the sales. They are mostly flirting with acts I’m not overly thrilled at, with a token indie act pulled in as though to show they’re making an effort. This year see Bon Iver. For a comparison, here is a list of albums I really liked from last year (currently in order but the order may change over time) :

  • 10 Bill Callahan – Apocalypse
  • 09 Tom Waits – Bad As Me
  • 08 Washed Out – Within and Without
  • 07 White Denim – D
  • 06 St. Vincent – Strange Mercy
  • 05 The Horrors – Skying
  • 04 Elbow – Build a rocket
  • 03 Wilco – The Whole Love
  • 02 Laura Marling – A Creature I Don’t Know
  • 01 PJ Harvey – Let England Shake

To add to that, you could say these ones where floating around the surface:

  • — Radiohead: The King Of Limbs
  • — Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds – Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds
  • — Arctic Monkeys – Suck It And See
  • — Girls – Father, Son, Holy Ghost
  • — Drive-By Truckers – Go-Go Boots
  • — My Morning Jacket – Circuital
  • — Bon Iver – Bon Iver, Bon Iver
  • — Kurt Vile – Smoke Rings For My Halo
  • — Kate Bush – 50 Words For Snow
  • — Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues
  • — Lykke Li – Wounded Rhymes
  • — The Decemberists – The King Is Dead

So I say compare this with the Grammys. See what I mean? Now I’ve nothing against Adele, she is very good, but not really for me, so well done to her. The Foo fighters I like but I’ve not listened to that one much so it is not on my list above (yet). The rest, I cannot even remember even though I watched the tv coverage! However that said, the live performances are often decent. The highlights for me:

  • Bruce Springsteen opening.
  • The Beach boys reunion. Brian Wilson kind of looks like an old man let out for the day who is not entirely sure where he is, or what he is doing, but thinks he ought to soldier on anyway. – Still it was great to see.
  • Adele’s live performance. Good return from surgery, knocked that one out.
  • Paul Mccartney’s finale with the “guitar off”. It put me in mind of the “Base off” that Spinal tap did at (I think) Live 8. It was clear that Dave Grohl & Bruce Springsteen were really enjoying themselves, although I think the latter broke a guitar string. That shines through and was fun to watch. I liked the bit where Paul sang at the end but Dave was still in shot over his shoulder and singing along as though it was him on the mike. This for me is a little of what music is about.

I suppose I should mention Whitney Houston. Not a fave of mine it has to be said, although she was an incredible vocalist. I could have done without the prayer at the beginning but no big deal. I suppose they treated the scenario in a dignified way without going too much over the top. However if this had happened a few months back, I cannot help think that she would have been little more than included in the “those lost” section with Amy Winehouse et al, and a song tribute would not have been necessary. It is only as it was the big news item the night before (and likely for the next few days) that it was felt as needed to be dealt with here

So no PJ Harvey even mentioned at the Grammys or no Wilco either. I’m not sure what the cut-off is for inclusion (and quite frankly have no wish to look it up right now). I saw Wilco live a few weeks ago, they are fantastic right now, playing like a band who know each other and are comfortable together.

I was going to write about the album “Copper blue” by Sugar, twenty years old this summer today. I will do that another day. A great album, and Bob Mould is a music legend. He demonstrates my point about the Grammys too, in that in music circles he is a legend for what he has done / written, but as never a big seller, is not part of that club. It is almost like he might not have existed, where to us who are fans, he means a lot more than many of the forgettable acts who have appeared on the Grammys over the years (This year Chris Brown, however much you try, I’m talking about you).

N.B. 2 PM update. I remembered earlier something I forgot to mention about token indie act Bon Iver. He won best new act – for his second album under this monicker. His first album was a critical hit although not a big seller. Why is that best new act? Are they referring to breakthrough, as in sales?

Lexicon word of the day: Mountebank.