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Music I now like as a (semi) grown-up

In Culture on April 23, 2014 at 12:09 PM

I have a confession to make: I have got to that stage where I look at my parents’ record collection and I think you know what, they’ve actually got some taste. The (now occasional) family car journey no longer throws up so many bitter musical conflicts, usually resolved which clever negotiations trade-offs, dad fuming that me and my brother need some ‘musical education’, and the inevitable compromise of Coldplay, or something similarly mediocre. And I can buy well-chosen albums at birthdays and Christmases for my family now, even if I don’t always fully approve. I feel I am not alone in this. But I will leave it up to you, dear reader, to decide, and to judge whether my taste is developing like a fine wine or becoming as stale as old cheese…

Fleetwood Mac When I was younger, Fleetwood Mac were the IKEA, the Tesco ready meal, the Wigan Athletic of music – safe, bland and, most importantly, listened to by my mum. Gradually, though, I came to the love the Mac’s perfectly crafted drivetime pop/rock. And I came to think this was acceptable, due the rock ‘n’ roll way in which their music was made (shitloads of drugs, nearly as many in-house break-ups), and the fact The Chain, which includes one of the greatest riffs ever, soundtracks the resolutely un-mummish F1. A good few friends agree too, along with a girl I know who carries off a Fleetwood Mac t-shirt with the sense of style normally associated with a Ramones t-shirt.

Beach Boys When I was younger I had only really heard Beach Boys classics Surfin’ USA and I Get Around – well-written pop songs, but a bit naff and annoying to mind (still are now). But – if you will permit me a bit of pretensiousness – I was first introduced to Pet Sounds on a road trip on my Gap Yah in South Africa (South Afrikaaahhh) and loved it instantly – its lush summer vibes perfectly soundtracking the trip. I bought it as soon as I was back and I still haven’t heard anything quite like its blend of symphony and pop sensibility. I now count it as probably my favourite album, and I mark the start of British summer as the day when Pet Sounds can be played without it seeming ironic considering the weather and setting.

Jeff Buckley At first it’s just another name in your folks’ record collection (it’s an old person-sounding name). Then you hear Hallelujah on Shrek – albeit John Cale’s version, which inspired Buckley’s – and think it’s a good song. Then you fall in and out of love for the first time and properly listen to this album after seeing some muso eulogising about the late Jeff Buckley (sadly he drowned during an evening swim aged just 30), and it all suddenly hits a chord, and Grace is one of your all-time favourite albums. Well, that was pretty much the case for me anyway.

The National In a not dissimilar manner, a bunch of bookish Americans droning on about love and loss didn’t really appeal to my teenage self, who was far more interested in 50 Cent, Limp Bizkit, Craig David, Shaggy, and Blink 182. But now that I’ve experienced a bit of life and read a few (a few) books and done a humanities degree, I’ve got a bit of time for these earnest indie rockers. In small doses, mind.

Joanna Newsom I’m still pretty divided on Joanna Newsom – she of the harp and the voice which sounds, variously, like a teething infant, a screechy cat and a weird Monty Python character (I couldn’t think how to describe it so I resorted to Google). Part of me thinks it’s beautifully emotive, inventive music, but part of me think it’s just a mess – often within individuals songs, as they are so long and complex. What I can be sure of, though, is that my 15-year-old self would have heard Newsom’s….’unique’ music and said: “daaaafuq is THIS?!”

Plan B As hinted at, I used to like any old rap, the popular stuff and even the stuff which soon seen languishing in the bargain bins (Chingy, anyone?). And most of my friends were too. Ironic really, as I’m white, from Oxford, and have Guardian-reading parents. Over time, I’ve got tired of this, and grown to like more intelligent rap like Plan B, who has the anger and lyricism of American chart rappers, but more introspection, social conscience and pleasingly Anglo-centric reference points like Arsenal, giros, and the Isle of Wight.

Sigur Ros I remember my mum played me these when I was about 14 and thinking what ‘dull rubbish’ it was, and that them singing in their own language was weird. I still find some of their songs are very navel-gazing, but some songs, including Gobbledigook, Saeglopur and the infamous Hoppipola, I absolutely love. It helped that that, at a time, Hoppipola seemed to soundtrack every other sports montage going. I don’t really care what people think about my musical taste now, but then seeing it soundtracking some England win, kind of made it alright to like that ‘poncy Icelandic’ band (a bit like Harry and Paul’s reluctant philosopher sketch)

Hercules and the Love Affair These are, with the possible exception of the Scissor Sisters, probably the gayest band in the world, comprising as they do a transsexual, a lesbian DJ and a gay man who started his career at a leather bar run by someone called Chocolate Thuder Pussy. There was when pettiness would have turned me off their brand of high-camp disco-house, as a bloke who likes football, Top Gear, beer and women. But, again, now I don’t care – I’ve come out about my affair with the band. And, to be honest, I don’t know why I was in the closet for so long.

Rolling Stones As I said, I didn’t have much taste when I was 15. That said, I’m still a ‘Beatles man’, as the music world basically insists on people choosing.

Damien Rice My reaction to Damien Rice – and people of his ilk – used to resolutely be ‘oh folk off’. But now I think there’s a time and place for this earnest, heart-on-his-sleeve Irishman. Not for a good mood or a sunny day, though. Originally published on Come In To Land

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Top 30 albums of 2012

In Culture on December 27, 2012 at 9:17 PM

30. Of Monsters and Men – My Head is an Animal
Following closely in the footsteps of Mumford & Sons (and their checkered-shirted, straw-in-mouthed imitators), came this Icelandic collective, banjoing and harmonising their way into charts and hearts. The whole scene has grown old quickly for some (including me a little, hence why Mumford & Sons’ second, similar to this, didn’t make the cut). But these guys kept it just fresh enough with a lot of energy and some memorable hooks.

29. Cat Power – Sun 
‘That woman you’ve always heard of but never really got into’, Cat Power, real name Chan Marshall, returned this with a career high of no. 10 (on the Billboard chart). And it’s easy to see why, as it keeps her unique voice and personality but allies it to a more toe-tapping blend of vaguely electronic indie-folk.

28. The Maccabees – Given to the Wild
The quintessential indie boys from South London this returned with what was hailed as their career-defining album, it was certainly a step up from their previous two albums which largely seemed to pride themselves on their twee indie sensibility. The change works for the most part, as the usual tremulous vocals and fuller ‘stadium’ sound – and a dalliance, albeit slight, with some electronic touches – seemed to please fans and critics (it charted at number four and got a Mercury nod). Just don’t expect the ‘stadium’ tag to mean Foo Fighters.

27. The Staves – Dead & Born & Grown
These three sisters, the Staveley-Taylors, started off by playing open mics in between pints at their Watford local. But you wouldn’t guess it from their sound; sophisticated folk/country, lifted above the crowd by some superb voices and clever harmonies, that sounds, lyrically and sonically, like it hails from Houston, Texas. Pleasant but not revolutionary; one for mum for Christmas, in other words.

26. Lupe Fiasco – Food & Liquor II – The Great American Rap Album Pt. 1
While by pretty much all but his own estimations, this is not the great American rap album, it is certainly a solid one – ‘backpack hiphop’ that deals smartly with important issues of modern urban America, albeit with a slight tendency to paint Mr Fiasco as a kind of ghetto prophet – a kind of self-righteousness that may grate or alienate.

25. Jack White – Blunderbuss
Say what you like about marital break-up, it can certainly make for some great music. As here, as Mr White dissects the remains of his marriage to model Karen Elson. But this is no mopey break-up album (the two threw a joint, celebratory divorce party, and Elson appears here). It’s more an introspective but a fun post-marriage analysis, if you will, from a Gary Neville-like figure (a compliment, honest…) – potentially biased but not so, and scathingly honest.

24. Lana Del Rey – Born To Die
She came from nowhere, everyone loved her, people found on she was a bit fake, and then people didn’t know what to think. To some, the fact that a boarding school-educated daughter of an dot.com investor called Elizabeth Woolridge Grant from upstate New York was so self-consciously recalling the seedy underbelly of California showed a fundamental lack of authenticity, rendering her schtick shallow melodrama. To others, it was a masterclass in stage persona, pop culture theatre; in the same vein as greats such as Madonna and Bowie. I was somewhere in between, but more inclined to the latter, enjoying the visuals and the catchy, yearning Americana (lite) balladry.

23. Norah Jones – Broken Little Hearts
With this new album and a surprisingly funny turn in TED, in which she joked of fucking a toy bear, the purveyor of quieter-than-thou pop-country went a little bit more edgy this year. OK, given her previous reputation, this may sound like infinitesimally faint praise to be damned with – but the reinvention this album transformed Ms Jones’ music from that which had an apparent sole purpose of being talked over at dinner parties, to smoky, noirish tales of love and loss one can imagine soundtracking the angst of a criminal in a Coen Brothers movie in a down-at-heel motel bar. Far more interesting than smoked salmon in Guildford, I’m sure you’ll agree.

22. Bruce Springsteen – Wrecking Ball
At the ripe old age of 63, Bruce Springsteen returned (if indeed he ever left) for his seventeenth album this year, a massive Hyde Park show, and a lot of campaigning for Obama’s re-election. For a man who almost self-parodically sings of the hard-working heart and soul of America, he could certainly never be accused of not practising what he preaches. This album, released in March, is a typically classy offering of ‘dad rock’, lifted above the perfunctory with some soulful brass and piano flourishes, and one which, on repeat listening, has gained extra poignancy for how Romney and Obama so tirelessly campaigned for the swing vote in the type of everyman, hardscrabble smalltown America Bruce sings of (albeit on almost every song he’s ever written).

21. Jake Bugg – Jake Bugg
Being hailed as ‘the next Dylan’ is enough to set anyone up for a fall. So it’s to this 18-year-old Nottingham lad’s credit that he has almost universally lived up to this billing with this self-titled debut, which manages to both sound authentically bluesy and rootsy and paint a vivid picture lyrically of the drab Clifton council estate of his childhood.

20. Calvin Harris – 18 Months
OK, so it’s hardly going to win any prizes for originality or depth, but Mr Harris has an almost unparalleled consistency for creating – as they say (or at least said) in the trade – bangers, and a seemingly endless contacts book, put very liberally to use here (it’s telling how mediocre the tracks with no featured artists are). 18 Months has dominated dancefloors, gym playlists and dancefloors alike for…well, around 18 months, and surely that’s got to be worth something. And can any other artist regularly create beats so big they are basically the chorus in themselves?

19. Chromatics – Kill For Love
After Ryan Gosling cruised and raced his way around Los Angeles to a soundtrack of moody, electronic-pop ballads in Drive last year, eighties music is officially cool again. Chromatics, with this their fourth album, profited (Tick of the Clock featured on the soundtrack), with probably their most acclaimed album to date – a bumper collection (16 track, 77 minutes) of brilliantly atmospheric, shoegazey synths and washed out vocals. And now you can pretend you’re an uber-cool stunt driver-cum-getaway driver-cum-hearthrob when listening to it, rather than navel-gazing bore.

18. Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs – Trouble

Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs – TEED for short – is one of those acts you probably unknowingly know. Their song Garden soundtracked the advertising campaign for the Nokia Lumia phone – and seemingly managed the feat of still sounding cool and uncompromised by the association. But Orlando Higginbottom is more than a one-hit-wonder, as shown by this collection of electronica that has appealed to many a raver and rocker (Damon Albarn is a big fan). Plus, he has some great hats.

17. Django Django – Django Django 
How to describe the sound of this album?! This Mercury-nominated album seems to have had nearly all the tags under the sun thrown at it – electronic, indie, psychadelica and all manner nu-s, alt-s and proto-s. Unsurprisingly given the kitchen sink approach, it doesn’t all work – but it’s joyously anarchic when it does. And surely, in a world where Adele, Coldplay and co. are proclaimed the death of music, this should be applauded. But perhaps the best description of their sound is offered by VaporizerBrothers as the top comment on Storm: ‘Gonna come back to this when I’m high’.

16. Alabama Shakes – Boys & Girls 
Geography teachers, as one critic claimed the lead singer of this unsurprisingly Alabaman band looks like, do not usually make the best rock stars. But she and the rest of Alabama Shakes have a sound right out of the classic stable of blues rock. It might not break the wheel, but it sounds like one of those albums the whole family could listen to and not be ashamed of – not an easy feat by any means, and one I think there’s something to be said for.

15. Santigold – Masters of My Make-Believe
While the Biebers and Rae Jepsens of this world continue to dominate the charts, a lot more interesting pop is being made at pop’s fringes; brilliant weird electronic stuff from Scandinavia courtesy of Lykke Li and Niki and the Dove, newcomers Haim with their sunny Californian Fleetwood Maccy pop; and Ms Santigold. It’s hard to describe exactly what she does, but it’s some sort of scratchy, frenetic blend of R&B, electronic and pop. That the American has here worked with everyone from Mrs Indie, Karen O (of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs fame), to DJ and R&B super-producer Diplo, shows the breadth of this album. Maybe it’s actually for this reason – it’s determined resistance to be pigeonholed – that it’s had relatively little success, peaking at just 33 in the UK chart. Whatever it is, and whatever the reasons for its relative anonymity, it deserves a bigger audience.

14. Plan B – ill Manors 
Say what you like about Mr Ben Drew, and much has been, but he’s certainly a smart cookie. After a no-holds-barred debut which was well-received critically but only mildly so commercially, he went away for four years and decided to make an album that would appeal to Radio 1, even Radio 2, listeners – which it duly did, going to number one and three times platinum and gaining good reviews -all so he had the platform that people would hear this, his unrelenting state-of-the-nation film and album. Some of those newer fans with gentler musical tastes may be turned off by this unrelenting return to his roots, but for those who persist it’s a good marriage of the two.

13. Alt-J – An Awesome Wave 
The year’s customary critics’ darlings were these Mercury Prize winners. The former Leeds Uni students introduced the UK to an esoteric brand of indie being touted as ‘folk-wave’ or ‘folk-tronica’, for their mix of Foals-esque intricate guitar riffs and ‘quiet bits’ with Joe Newman’s haunting/annoying falsetto, a little reminiscent of Wild Beasts’ frontman. It’s sometimes easier to appreciate than love – music for the head rather than the heart – but this listener’s warmed to it.

12. Frank Ocean – Channel Orange
Surprisingly, given the massive hype and the impressive mixtape Nostalgia/Ultra, this is actually Mr Ocean’s debut album. Helped by his controversial (in the rap world at least) declaration of a previous homosexuality relationship, which forms much of this album, Channel Orange garnered huge fanfare (though not to say the move was purely a PR stunt). It debuted at number two both sides of the Atlantic and earned rave reviews (an average of 92 on Metacritic). It’s certainly an accomplished album; a quintessentially modern soul record, with clever touches on all from funk to jazz, even to electronica on the outstanding Pyramids. Also, the album starts with the noise of the old Playstations firing up, which makes any male of my generation very happy (or me at least). Basically, it sounds like the record Marvin Gaye might make if born a few decades later and allowed to indulge his carefree hedonism. Yet for all its considerable merits, some of the tracks, to me at least, do feel a bit average – easier to admire than adore.

11. Lucy Rose – Like I Used To
Ok, so a new demure female twenty-somethings from the Home Counties (Camberley, Surrey) with a nice voice and a guitar is hardly, on paper at least, the most exciting thing in music at the moment. Indeed, Ms Rose is basically a carbon copy of Lucy Marling. Or Alas I Cannot Swim-era Laura Marling, anyway, before she got all mature and grown up (and, frankly, a little over-earnest and dull). Apart from the odd electronic flourish here, and slightly drummy bit there, Lucy Rose seems pretty ordinary – but she’s got a great way with a melody and a voice so lovely and beguiling even Abu Nasir or Voldemort might be won over. Or maybe that’s just this observer, who frankly is just a little besotted with Lucy (creepily so?) – and wants to join her in, just like she does in Scar,skimming stones, driving in an open-top vintage car, climbing in a treehouse and wondering around non-descript parts of London looking all indie ‘n’ that. And indulge in some of her home-made jam and tea she offers at gigs. The soppy twat that he is.

10. Cold Specks – I Predict a Graceful Expulsion
Al Spx actually hails from suburban Toronto – but you would never guess it from her sublime, yearning voice, right out of the heart of the Midwest in the civil rights-era America. In the hands of most others, the songs here could be mediocre indie-folk fare, but thanks to her voice, and some lovely orchestral touches, they never are here.

9. Polica – Give You the Ghost
You know you’ve done well when you can count among your biggest fans both bedwetters’ fave, Mr Justin Vernon (aka Bon Iver) – “the best band I’ve ever heard” – and Mr Hip Hop, Jay-Z. But this seems strangely appropriate for this Minneapolis band, who create a cool, fittingly spectral sound out of auto-tune – like Bon Iver on much of his last album, reclaiming the studio trick from the likes of T-Pain and Cher – and who ally it to some unstoppably foot-tapping electronic/indie grooves which it’s not too outlandish to imagine Mister Zed might lay out a verse or two on.

8. Miguel – Kaleidoscope Dream 
Since Prince, or whatever the hell he calls himself now, has been reduced to anaemic pastiches of his former genius in Mail on Sunday freebies, the mantle of recreating the pint-sized singer’s innovative brilliance has been taken up by Miguel (real name Miguel Pimentel). And this is what the Californian does on Kaleidoscope Dream – a fitting name for an album full of colour and fantasy – with Miguel’s soulful falsetto playing over a mix of piano, funky drum beats, and reverbed guitar. May not be everyone’s cup of tea, but, in short, smoother than Bond in a freshly pressed suited with a Martini in hand.

7. The xx – Coexist
Everyone’s favourite miserablists were back this year – fittingly, in September; heralding the post-Olympics malaise, the rain and the shorter nights. But the silver lining is that this is a fine soundtrack to ennui, successfully negotiating the ever-tricky path between heartbreak and warmth; introspection and connection. Some were slightly disappointed that it was not more of a departure, lyrically or sonically, from their sleeper-hit, self-titled first album, but there was some interesting electronic touches courtesy of uber-producer Jamie XX.

6. The Weeknd – Trilogy
It’s quite an achievement if you can unite self-styled hipsters and musos with the type of people who still buy Chris Brown records and for whom ‘YOLO’ is a regular (and unironic) part of their lexicon. But this is what the enigmatic Canadian Abel Tesfaye has done under his nom de Guerre, The Weeknd. This, as the name suggests, is a bumper collection of three albums, all released as free downloads over the last two years – The Weeknd being of a new brand of musicians confident/generous enough to give music away for free online. Perhaps because of this, though, the album in this physical form didn’t gain much fanfare here, debuting at only 37 in the UK chart, then quickly exiting it. Which is a shame, because for the price of a tenner it’s a very generous – and handsomely-presented – collection of Noir&B, as some have dubbed The Weeknd’s unique style; intoxicating nocturnal tales of love and lust set to a backdrop of atmospheric electronica mixed with R&B. Like Prince on the comedown from a wild, psychadelic night in some underground German techno club, as one observer put it – and if that doesn’t sell it to you, you either need to listen to vintage Prince or you’re never gonna be convinced…

5. Niki & the Dove – Instinct
Sweden has excelled itself of late in a distinctive brand of left-field indie-tronica, if you will, with the likes of Lykke Li, The Knife, Fever Ray, and this year, the latest on the sterling production line, Niki & The Dove. But – beneath all the weird strained vocals, visuals the Mighty Boost may turn down as too ridiculous and talk of being animals or musical instruments – this is, at its heart, just a great pop album, with echoes of everything from Fleetwood Mac to Prince.

4. Hot Chip – In Our Heads
Apparently, Hot Chip are trying to break America. Part of me hopes they make it because they are obviously nice blokes and they sure as hell deserve the success, but part of me hopes they don’t so we can claim the Putney lads as purely our own, free from the clutches of West Coast hipsters and young girls who have just discovered Deadmaus and David Guetta. Because they really are a national treasure, up there with the NHS, stamps, pints, Cornish pasties and John Motson with their quintessentially British warm eccentricity. Their fifth studio album, a tribute to staying young while growing up and getting married, has a few dull syrupy moments, but mostly shows the band at their best; making dance music for the hearts as well as the feet.

3. Bat For Lashes – The Haunted Man
Natasha Khan appeared on the cover of this album, probably the most ambitious cover art of the year, naked, except for an unaware man draped artistically over her shoulder and modesty. The image signalled an album stripped a little of the mystical production and sometimes bizarre lyrical creations of her previous two albums, to reveal some truly great songwriting to orchestral and electronic instrumentation, like a great, modern-day Kate Bush.

2. Jessie Ware – Devotion
Making the strange move from journalism to singing (rather than the other way round), this North Londoner earnt her chops touring with electronic producer, SBTRKT. And it shows, as Ware mixes the best of modern production – synths, piano, guitar riffs and multi-layered vocals – with classic female soul singing, to create something sophisticated, sexy and catchy, and distinctly her own.

1. Bobby Womack – The Bravest Man In The Universe
The age-old adage ‘good things come to those who wait’ certainly holds true here. This is the soul artist’s first original material since 1994, and he’s certainly amassed some stories to tell in that time, with his diabetes and pneumonia, and subsequently getting colon cancer (thankfully since free from), in addition to controversially marrying Sam Cooke’s widow, a son committing suicide, frequent drug abuse and even more. This tells his many tales via is a superb blend of soul and electronic, which manages to combine the heart of the former with the innovation of the latter, produced with the magic touch of a certain Mr Albarn. So, not dissimilar from Jamie XX’s clever reworking of Gil Scott Heron (who features here too) on last year’s We’re New Here. With others such as James Blake and The Weeknd mixing classic soul with innovative modern production, let’s hope the trend doesn’t get old.

Mercury Prize 2012 – Runners & Riders

In Culture on September 12, 2012 at 6:47 PM

So, it’s that time of year again which brings out the inner muso in all of us – the announcement of the Mercury Prize shortlist. And as much as it may be decried it as worthless when the choices are ‘crap’, it’s rarely so when the choices are ‘right’. Never one to miss out throwing around my two cents’ worth on music, despite having nowhere near the requisite talent to make it, here’s my take on this year’s cast of nominees and the likely successes…

 First in the list alphabetically, and in the bookies’ books, is Alt-J (∆), with their album An Awesome Wave. The recently-graduated Leeds Uni students created a storm in critics’ circles in May with this debut – an idiosyncratic mix of indie by way of psychadelica and electronica described by some as “folk-wave” – and have been quickly gaining commercial awareness since. It’s certainly a very accomplished, and gently foot-tapping, but there’s something about it that prevents me loving it; from completely warming to it. Maybe it’s just a little too clever, too abstruse and studenty, as shown by the strange triangle in their name. And Joe Newman’s twee vocals can grate. But nonetheless, it’s an impressive album, which I’d tip for the big gong.

The consensus (judging from unscientific canvassing on Twitter and NME) seems to be that fellow bookish indie stars, The Maccabees, are the other frontrunners. And one can see why, as Given To The Wild is a bold leap from their nice but fairly unremarkable and twee indie to a bigger ‘stadium’ sound, while retaining some of their more personal appeal.

Ben Howard is another strong contender with his debut, Every Kingdom – a brilliant collection of indie folk that’s managed to sound distinct in the hardly sparse genre of sensitive-bloke-with-a-guitar, and succeeded in the even trickier task of sounding both intimate and universal. Poppy enough for Radio 1, yet (evidently) folky enough for the type of person who pays heed to the Mercury. Probably my favourite of the bunch, though not necessarily the one I think should win.

Jessie Ware’s Devotion is another debut gracing the shortlist. Making the strange move from journalism to singing (rather than the other way round, settling for merely writing about one’s passion), she earnt her chops touring with electronic producer, SBTRKT, whose influence is evident on this collection of nu-soul, along with echoes of Adele and Sade (intended as a compliment).

Plan B is an altogether angrier presence on the shortlist, having, since his soul-boy Strickland Banks crooning, been soured by the riots, recession and (supposedly) regressive Coalition politics. But no less worthy of being there for this fine, sign-of-the-times, snapshot of so-called ‘Broken Britain’ (just don’t say that to him). In fact, amidst all the anger, there is also a lot of soul too, just not in the frankly awful lead single and title track, which seems confused as to whether the ‘yobs on a council estate’ is a unfair stereotype or a rightful truth.

Michael Kiwanuka’s and Lianne La Havas’ respective oeuvres are somewhat less state-of-the-nation, despite the former being the son of Ugandan parents who came to London after escaping the brutal Idi Amin regime. No, Michael seems far more at home with his geographical surroundings than Ben Drew; it’s his emotional ones that cause more soul-searching. Similarly, Greek/Jamaican/British Lianne La Havas – the latest in the seemingly endless line of Adele-a-likes, though with more soul, even in places funk, and better songs than many of her peers. While they both possess great voices – La Havas’ a proper belter in the classic soul mould and Kiwanuka’s a rich sound that (to the generous observer) recalls the likes of Bill Withers, Randy Newman and Otis Redding – they should be a tad beige, too coffee table to win the Mercury outright.

Of the other contenders, Richard Hawley is a strong contender to win with his rocky, atmospheric (though arguably ponderous) Standing at the Sky’s Edge; Sam Lee’s some folkie who seems quite interesting; Django Django’s self-titled debut is a typically ‘Mercury’, left-field indie offering that’s easy to like, hard to love; Roller Trio are the obligatory jazz entry; and Field Music are nominated because they’ve made a hummable, pretty creative album (or because they’re, it seems, nice lads, who only earn about £5,000 a year so could do with the sales boost).

The sign of a decent Mercury selection is one that avoids people staring in disbelief at the NME website and thinking ‘how is [certain piece/s of supposed shit] in above [certain supposed musical god/s]?!’ The main offenders in the former category in last year’s selection being Katy B (deservingly, I think) and Tinie Tempah and Adele (undeservingly, I think). Of course, there are still notable absentees this year, notably the xx’s Coexist (a sublime collection of electro-soul), Bombay Bicycle Club’s A Different Kind of Fix (soulful, feel-good indie), and I’d add to the list of unlucky losers Florence & The Machine’s Ceremonials (no need for description) and Hot Chip’s In Our Heads (a glorious electronic/pop ode to staying young while growing up).

Maybe this is due to a tendency of the Mercury Prize to favour breakthrough albums, typically debuts from up-and-coming artists (eight of this year’s shortlist) but often ones that have maybe just taken a significant new direction (Plan B) or could do with a commercial leg-up (Field Music). Broadly speaking, this is a noble aim, as I’m sure the Florence Welchs and Romy Madley-Crofts (of the xx) of this world are happy enough basking in their relatively large sales and love from the fans/critics. But it can have the side effect of leaving out some very good albums, as I feel has happened here.

But this is a minor quibble, for this is a strong line-up in an often much-maligned prize. In a world, where pop music is often said to have lost in soul, with many music collections containing next to nothing actually physical, the Mercury is to be praised for honouring the form of the album and artists who put the effort into creating them, as opposed to mere collections of songs.

Joel Durston

Check out War Child’s site for details of forthcoming charity gigs from the nominees.

The Real Notting Hill Carnival?

In Satire on August 27, 2012 at 12:52 PM

Notting Hill residents angered by the “debauched revelry” happening on their doorsteps are planning a “comeback festival” in Hackney, TAY can exclusively reveal.

The Notting Hill Carnival saw 299 arrests this year – a figure up on last year – amongst loud music, traffic and public transport disruption, along with a range of other behaviour that many residents of the largely upmarket, upper middle class area disapproved of.

So, during these festivities, hundreds of Notting Hill-ers were secretly planning a “comeback festival”, which our sources suggest could happen this weekend.

Jamie Smith, a 45-year-old going under a pseudonym, said: “some are us are well and truly sick of the riff raff that annually comes into our treasured community, causing public disorder, disrupting public transport and besmirching its good name with hellish, soulless music, gaudy dancing and god knows what else.

“Quite why this happens in our community is beyond us when it is so uncharacteristic of Notting Hill’s normal character.

“So we have resolved not to take this erosion of cultural values lightly, and will stage our own festival in what I believe to be many of these revellers’ backyard, Hackney.”

Mr Smith was unwilling to go into specifics of the festival but TAY has learnt from other sources what events are likely to be involved.

It is believed the likes of Adele, Coldplay, Moby and Norah Jones will play from loud speakers on the streets, causing awkward semi-dancing from festival-goers; long tables with Habitat cutlery will recreate a dinner party feel; organic potato salad, tofu kebabs and cous-cous with pesto or humus will be sold at every corner; and many stalls will promote new business ventures, private schools and morally dubious tax avoidance schemes.

There may also be several cases of people, at the smallest invitation, whipping out business cards from pockets – a practice which will no doubt raise some eyebrows.

Several Hackney residents TAY spoke to about the possibility of the festival suspected that, if it did go ahead, it may exclude the local community.

But Jamie Smith rebuffed the claims, stating “the event will be for everyone … provided of course they earn over £30,000 and vote Tory”.

Joel Durston

Why Should Pleasures Be ‘Guilty’?

In Culture, Opinion on August 19, 2012 at 1:38 AM

I like Coldplay, Kylie Minogue, Adele, Harry Potter, Jason Statham movies, R & B music and The Sun (or many examples of their work at least). The typical thing is to qualify declaration such typical yardsticks of ‘bad taste’ with an ‘…and proud!’ (‘I am a Potterer…and proud!) or by describing them as guilty pleasures. I don’t – because why should I feel guilty about any of my tastes if they bring me enjoyment and don’t hurt anyone else?! I’m neither particularly proud nor guilty of reading Harry Potter. It’s just something I like, or at least liked (and in the relationship of creator and consumer, I think it’s fair to say most of the effort was JK Rowling’s). Of course, ‘guilty pleasure’ is just a harmless little phrase, and I recognise I’m reading a lot into this, arguably too much, but the phrase does raise some interesting issues about our appreciation and consumption of art (in the broader sense – music, art, film, photography, theatre etc etc.). Principally, it follows if a pleasure is ‘guilty’, there’s something or things to whom or which people should feel guilty. I don’t know; some kind of existentially depressed cultural muso like High Fidelity’s protagonist up in the sky perhaps? An omnipotent cultural entity which peers down on us disapprovingly every time he sees us reaching for a Scouting for Girls album or a Michael Bay DVD? I jest of course. I understand there’s a set of nebulous understandable binding principles for what critics (with a small ‘c’) consider ‘good art’ – invention, technical skill, wit, lyricism, emotion, intelligence, sincerity, moral/political message, resonance with the audience etc etc. Most, but by no means all, will largely agree on these. But everyone’s view of these is different, as shown by the massive disparity in people’s music tastes, even among critics working for similar media outlets. People need to remember there are a lot of (subjectively) boring arthouse films and a lot of (subjectively) shallow and annoying experimental bands. The inevitable response is: so Girls Aloud are just as good as The Rolling Stones? The Wanted as relevant as Hendrix? Well, in a way, I think yes. Pop – in the narrower, One-Direction-and-Saturdays sense – is not meant to change the world, just be something catchy to brighten the walk to work or dance to. And if does that, then to a large degree it can be called, in a kind of Aristotelian way, successful. Relativism is a philosophically tricky position in any field, not least one which arouses such strong convictions in people. But given the massive difference in tastes and the intrinsically abstract nature of art (it can’t be so easily measured by profit or yield as in business, or scores such as sport), I think a largely relativist, subjective perspective of art is the only plausible one to take. As Roy Sutherland explains in this brilliant speech, reputation and perception are vitally important, often obscuring the true worth or efficiency of things, or the fact that there is no intrinsic value: (of English upper-middle-class people “rebranding” unemployment) “having a son who’s unemployed in Manchester is really quite embarrassing, but having a son who’s unemployed in Thailand is really viewed as quite an accomplishment.” Also, with ‘guilty pleasures’, we have sort of ‘obligated pleasures’. I don’t know if this is necessarily so, but it’s certainly so. The idea, held to different degrees, that we should like certain things – Bob Dylan, world music and Mike Leigh films. Some will even say, to varying extents of sincerity, that it’s blashphemy to criticise, homage or satirise these kind of things. Well, to these – I hate Bob Dylan. Deal with it. I find his music grating, nasally and pretty much devoid of anything so apparently base as a good hook. I also don’t like him as a person, from my albeit limited personal knowledge of him. (Yes, I gather he’s a great lyricist, an acute observer of the human condition – but one can get this from literature…without the nagging voice.) This is not to suggest he shouldn’t be regarded as a legend, because he’s obviously moved and provoked millions with his music, just that I shouldn’t feel obliged to like him. The kind of appreciation and almost universal devotion may not seem a real problem. This trait of Dylan fandom (or lack of it) isn’t really a huge issue, at least on the face of it. No one’s going to really have their world’s changed for me not liking him (not least him as it seems he’s doing pretty well for himself). What is concerning, though, is when all this grand importance we imbue in art makes people close-minded, restrictive and censorious. In music, the trait often comes to fruition when a ‘shit’ artist covers a ‘better one’ (with the former often more successful, commercially at least, than the latter), and all the musos admittedly somewhat in jest decry ‘blashphemy’ against something so ‘sancrosanct’. And even call for the death of the ‘offending artist’, as Mark Ronson found, with numerous death threats from sanctimonious and no doubt crying-because-they-stepped-on-a-slug Smiths fans for having the supposed temerity to, god forbid, produce a cover of one of their songs (which were never real threats and, to his credit, he took in good humour, but it doesn’t change the mindset of these morons). Harmless, you may think, but the same trait of oppressive censorship for critique of art has led to the actual deaths of millions, even in our modern, supposedly advanced world. Salman Rushdie was subject to a fatwa calling for his death merely for writing a novel (and a rather good one according to the Booker Prize), and riots all over the Islamic world caused around 100 deaths on the basis of a fucking cartoon. (Of course, there are similar cases across many belief systems – including a similarly-themed case last week of New York rabbis branding “evil” plans to make them get parental consent for sucking a baby’s bleeding cock – and there are arguably relevant, complex geo-political issues at play, but the most egregious examples do seem to surround Islam). Just last week, a Christian girl of just 14 with Down’s Syndrome has made UK news for being arrested for burning a Koran. Would people get so up in arms if the book had been Harry Potter? I daresay they wouldn’t. Superficially, a ridiculous analogy, yes – but hear me out if you will. All holy books definitively are is art – literature which moves people to great things, awful things; criticism, indifference. But ultimately just art, as evidenced by the fact millions, if not billions, do not consider the truths contained within literal (and increasingly so). Some people choose to think it’s divinely inspired (and it may be), but that’s their interpretation, not brute fact like 2+2=4. In principle, one could just as easily consider the described world and characters in the Harry Potter books to be true, and then take offence and call for restriction of (unharming) freedoms when others ‘disrespect’ their sincerely held view. So, people have no logical reason not to criticise the Bible, Torah or Quran – unless you somehow think, you shouldn’t also critique Harry Potter for the same reason. (There can be a lot of fear of criticising religion for fear of being branded ‘racist’, but this is illogical. To discriminate on the basis of what colour skin one has is nonsensical because they have no choice in the matter and it doesn’t necessarily make them anything, but criticising actions or beliefs is fine as these are chosen so should be stood by.) But wouldn’t it be preferable to engage in the debate? Consider if the actions or words really are so ‘immoral’ or ‘untrue’. And then if it is, spread that message; and if it’s not, have the humility to admit faults and change actions or taste accordingly. Not indulge in this culture of identifying onself vicariously through people in the media, most evident in a load of humourless whingers complaining about new BBC sitcom, Citizen Khan, the Muslim (or ‘Muslim’) protagonists of which have the nerve to (shock horror!) not to read the Quran and to laugh at themselves. To not be offended is not a democratic right, far from it. It’s only a right, in this respect,  not to be physically harmed. The trait is even more nonsensical when applied to real people, such as in the uproar at Rihanna (seemingly) choosing to take Chris Brown back after his domestic abuse. For one, the moral issues are debatable; she wasn’t exactly the person who did the Bad Thing in the first place, and for all we know they could find each other genuinely repentant and forgiving (respectively). If that ‘s the case what’s wrong with that?! But that’s not the point. The point is that it’s a personal, moral (i.e. not legal) choice. She has no fucking duty to do what you want her to do, because she’s a musician, not a member of the clergy, nor a social worker. She makes music – if people like it, they support her and she continues; if they don’t, they don’t and she doesn’t. Simple. Besides, Rock ‘n’ Roll history is filled with many who have actually perpetrated crimes and/or ‘immorality’ and been venerated despite, or probably because, of it. And, I don’t know if you’ve watched any of her videos, but Rihanna hardly markets herself as a paragon of (traditionally held) virtue, to be held up as a moral examplar. We can only be ourselves so let’s just live our own lives, and let others get one with theirs if it doesn’t do us any actual harm, by just changing the channel instead of imposing our own cultural tastes on others to the point of character assassination of strangers, death threats or calls to essentially shut up. Surely, they’re things to feel more guilty about than listening to the odd Katy Perry song?! Joel Durston

Record Doctor – The Punk, The Hipster & The Baldy

In Culture on February 3, 2012 at 12:16 PM

Me, Gary and Edd have lived together since September, and by all accounts, very harmoniously (unless they have hidden pictures of my face on dartboards which they ritually throw darts at, cackling demonically, but I’d like to think not). Anyway, this harmony often ends at musical taste, with all of us typically very staunch in our liking of our often very disparate tastes. Edd came up with the genius idea – on the can, naturally – to turn this into a challenge to regularly provide the other two with albums ‘they need to hear’, for them to review – no holds barred. The results follow the pre-fight introductions, written by the other two…

Edd’s taste:

How to describe Edd’s music taste? Well, you’ve got to the start with the Clash. Edd fucking loves The Clash. His love for them is so great that he styles himself upon them and that it’s become a running (endearing) joke. He practically worships at their altar. It’s not just the music itself, but their essence – disillusioned youthful rebellion.

Other bands are almost judged in their musical proximity to The Clash. So Oasis and Blur are also much liked for their rock ‘n’ roll swagger (often ironic in Blur’s case), which also captured the generation’s zeitgeist. Similarly, Kasabian and The Black Keys are the only ones really holding up the rock’s flag at the moment. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the vacuous, ‘floaty’ statements of Snow Patrol and their bed-wetting ilk are given short shrift, as is pop music with a capital P, even if the talent is recognised as with Adele. He doesn’t go towards too much stuff with bleeps, presumably in the belief that production means things are almost by definition not raw or genuine. And, except for a slightly ill-fitting love of reggae, the greatness of much music of black origin hasn’t really been investigated. Hopefully, I can show that there is invention and heart and soul is much more than guitar music, starting this week with the electro-soul of new critics’ fave Frank Ocean…  (Joel)

The Clash, The Clash, The Clash, The Clash, The Clash, The Clash, The Clash, The Clash, The Clash, The Clash, The Clash, The Clash, The Clash, The Clash, The Clash, The Clash, The Clash, The Clash, The Clash, The Clash, The Clash, The Clash, The Clash, The Clash, The Clash, The Clash, The Clash, The Clash, The Clash, The Clash, The Clash, The Clash, The Stones, Reggae.

The Clash
                                                                The Clash

Edd likes The Clash.

No, he like some good tunes as well (Ha! see what I did there? I took all your expectations about my stating Edd liking The Clash as a neutral observation, then I completely subverted them, and turned your narrow-minded, middle-class world upside-down by deftly turning it into a statement of judgement). No, he does like some good tunes: anyone who likes Gimme Shelter or Jumping Jack Flash knows what good music sounds like. (Gary)

 

Gary’s taste:

Despite being a bald man, Gary likes music. He loves anything from the Wu-Tang Clan to the Stones, from Bo Diddley to Gaslight Anthem. It is impossible to say he has a bad taste in music because he has such a BIG taste – every shitty band he likes will almost always be cancelled out by two brilliant bands that appear on his iTunes. I’ve even walked past his room late at night to hear him humming along to well-known social recluse J’im Le Fáébbeoú, one of the great pioneers of the Gospel-Funk movement. Fucking mental. While not being partial to some of his winter-y folk stuff, I admire his wide taste and open-minded approach to music. I’m just hoping he doesn’t force me to listen to Chippy D’Arabaley, the man who fused mime and hip-hop together. He really pisses me off. While he’s got a great knowledge of the old and the weird, he’s not so up with much…well of this millennium, really, through some combination of lack of time and wanting to cultivate a dad-ish ‘things were better in my day’ attitude. Just this week, he walked into the living room to me playing the new Bombay Bicycle Club album and, not entirely unjustifiably, commented: “Who are these bunch of gays, then?!”. Hopefully, we can somewhat break down this chronological and taxi-driverish musical wall. (Edd and Joel)

 

Joel’s taste:

Despite being a ‘haddock basket’, Joel does like some good tunes. Then again, he likes some shit ones. So, if I was to draw a graph, I think an average cross-over of taste versus match correlation would result with most people. Looking at the whole pie, we find blues/rock, plinky-plonky indie (gay shit), standards, anthems, and a recent flirtation with R ‘n’ B ‘sensation’ (I’m told) Frank Ocean, who is black, so doesn’t quite fit with the aforementioned textbook suburban white-boy genres. So he’s open-minded and definitely NOT a racist (at least when it comes to music). (Gary)

I regularly walk into the living room to hear him nodding his head along to some jangly indie music, hip-hop, or the latest sounds of Jkandwe Smythe-Ubanoodlebaratabonky, King of African bee-bop jazz*. Some of it, in my opinion, is utter shite. Some of it makes me want to cut my balls off and feed them to a passing bumblebee. But I am looking forward to gaining a little insight into the musical brain of Durst. From the outside his main musical preference is floaty indie stuff like the Foals, but I have heard him Marvin Gaye-ing it up. He’s also a keen Florence & the Machine fan. Dubstep is up his street too, as well as some of Drake’s ‘fat beatz’. Whether I’ll like those obese riddims is the intriguing question – but not nearly as intriguing as Joel’s almost library-like musical taste.

*JD also dips into Seamus O’Trunkandeer, a glam-folk acoustic act with a penchant for a dazzling funk oboe solo. (Edd)

 

Now on to the selections

Edd chose The Clash’s self-titled debut for being “the album that changed music“.

Mmm… Not bad. What’s that? You want me to elaborate? OK. Well first of all I think I’d say that I thought all the tunes sounded more or less the same. By the end I had Clash fatigue as the anaesthetic of familiarity (Dawkins’ phrase, not mine) took hold. There were highlights however. ‘White Riot’ being one, another being.. er, forgot now. But I’m  sure it was there.

I think this album illustrates the flaw in the concept of the album. Why is it lionised as the unit that best parcels an artist’s work? Alan Partridge is made to look a fool when he replies to the question ‘what’s your favourite Beatles album’ with ‘I’d have to say the Best of the Beatles’. He is completely demolished in his attempt to appear as one of the musical cognoscenti by lumping all of the Beatles’ best works together. In a sense, he can’t therefore be wrong; everyone’s favourite Beatles album is trivially ‘the best of the Beatles’. So his reasoning is flawed, but the thrust of the gag is in his ignorance of these units, knowledge of which makes one cool. Why? I can appreciate the commercial need to put out between seven and fifteen songs on a regular basis, and albums can reflect the musical style of a band at a certain time; linking them creates an arc of creativity, and we can usefully discuss ‘early’, ‘middle’ and ‘late’ periods. But an album is itself composed of discrete units (I believe they are called ‘songs’, or ‘tracks’) and there’s nothing stopping us, especially now, in the cyber space-world of the 21st century, chopping these up and putting the best ones together into temporal continuity.

I actually don’t like any album, because that would imply that I liked the majority of tracks. But every time I try to listen to one I find myself thinking the weak tracks drag down the good ones, spoiling my enjoyment. The case was slightly different, but definitely akin, in the case of The Clash. I just couldn’t distinguish one from the other. I’m sure Clash fans can discern the nuances, but until I train my ears to tune into these, I will be lost in homogeneity.

One last point about the Clash, then I’ll shut up: To their fans they kill two birds with one stone: they are paladins of rebellion, expressing anti-establishment sentiment through equally intense anti-bland music… and that. The natural audience for displays of vexation is the teenager, and it’s easy to mock and parody as half-baked political philosophy immaturely expressed. It gets easier to mock as one has to earn a living and, with all probability, get trapped in a vapid, sterile bubble. However, I think their sentiments deserve to be taken seriously, at least as far as its honesty of passion and simple sense that things can be improved, somehow.

Joe Strummer at Glastonbury once addressed the crowd, quite soon before he died I think, drawing attention to the festival’s significance. The phrase he repeated a couple of times was ‘this is not meaningless’ (a clip I still can’t find on YouTube). In other words, the gathering and the music go beyond just mass hedonism.

Now that can cynically be interpreted as self-aggrandising; Glastonbury does not seem to have any direct causal power to change the world politically, probably contains as many opinions as there are attendees, from crypto-fascist to Marxist pseudo-intellectual, and only increases the eudaemonia of those attending for three days, usually by way of drink and drugs. But I do like the fact that it, and the Clash, exist as an ‘up yours’ to ‘the system’, even if they have contrived this for themselves, and they don’t quite know what ‘the system’ exactly is. If only to contrast with the brushed-steel and glass environs one has to spend most of one’s life surrounded by, as one accumulates tokens of effort called money, I like that there is a kernel of portable rebellion, however misplaced, and however impotent.

Verdict: OK (Gary)

 

Listening to a whole Clash album in 2012 – 35 years on from its release – as an almost blank canvas is an odd experience. Of course, I’ve heard (and liked or loved) the classics such as London’s calling, Rock the Casbah and Should I Stay or Should I Go?, but never properly listened to them. And, I must admit, the first impression is that of ‘meh; they just sound like any old generic punky indie band’. Now, I realise the criticism of their musical style is somewhat unfair, because The Clash predated and influenced the modern bands I have listened to which make me see them this way (to name but a few: The Libertines, Babyshambles, Dirty Pretty Things, The Arctic Monkeys, Bloc Party).  But I can’t change the year of my birth from 1988 to 1968, nor know if that incidence would make me think that The Clash’s general output is, blashphemous as it may seem, anything more than mediocre.

It’s certainly got energy, attitude and a distinct identity – far more than many modern imitators (…’to the crown’ as Edd would say) – but often at the expense of a decent tune, as Joe Strummer snarls and shouts his various demands and condemnations of anything establishment. Maybe I’m just a bit… Mark Corrigan, as Edd has said before, or establishment, like Stewie Griffin at Woodstock. But I don’t think that’s quite true – I’m a Guardian reader and hate The Daily Mail – nor is it the reason for my general ambivalence to The Clash. Allow me to try to explain…

Listening to it properly, I have come to the conclusion that I don’t really care too much for mere attitude and identity in music; only in so much as it complements the music itself – not intrinsically. For, in a similar vein, I don’t like The Sex Pistols, nor Dylan, but my taste does range from libidinous latter day nutjob Prince; to swaggering Oasis; to self-consciously cutesy teenage girls Pipettes; to psychopathically angry, first-album Plan B; to crestfallen, second-album Plan B. Strip The Sex Pistols of all their political influence and it just becomes that borderline alcoholic from the local making guttural noises over some basic power chords. For some, this statement will be as nonsensical as saying: if you take wheels of  cars they’re just small covered benches, and I completely understand the arguments that music should not be heard in a cultural and political vacuum, but music is also first and foremost art; not political or intellectual statement. Often people get so caught up in a band’s image – and wanting to align themselves with it – they don’t really care about what the music itself sounds like.

Certainly, Edd, who gave me this album, is guilty of it, if in reverse. He admits that new indie darlings, Two Door Cinema Club, who NME describe as: ‘a band that would steal your library books rather than your girlfriend’, can play and thinks they have some good songs, but self-consciously stops himself from saying he ‘likes’ them because they do their top button up, play their guitars up fucking here (*air-guitars at chest height*), and are basically ‘too’ twee, straight laced, and resolutely not Rock nor indeed Roll. Now I am not professing that Two Door Cinema Club are a great band, but I don’t see the logic in, in a sense, fighting against one’s instincts to not like music which one instinctively does (or vice versa). At the risk of sounding insufferably pretentious, music is/should be an abstract, visceral and emotional interaction between song and listener; not an exercise in head dictating over heart (or tapping feet) to say I should/n’t like this. At least Edd’s more honest and reasoned  than many of those in the ‘cooler-than thou camp’, whose self-conscious contempt of a generation that, shock horror, buys their music in Tesco – and consequent need to differentiate themselves from those masses – seems to mean they hate the likes of Adele and Coldplay before even them listening to much of their stuff.

This, for me, accounts for some of the Clash’s deification, and why I’m, still, relatively unmoved by them.  (Joel)

 

Gary chose Squarepusher’s Ultravisitor because “while it might be for everyone, it should have something for everyone”.

Now onto Gary’s choice, which essentially, for some parts of the record, sounds like R2-D2 and C3-PO hosting a wild robot sex orgy. The bleeps and bloops fly about with the wild ferocity of a tactically-engineered moose with the ability to fly like a jet engine. See, that metaphor makes no sense, a bit like this album.

Robot sex orgy

Robot sex orgy

Squarepusher – a brilliant name, it makes me think of Tetris, which is fucking brilliant, fuck off if you don’t like it – is curious. Sometimes on this record his stuff’s good; sometimes it’s not really music at all. I’ll tell you what I liked before I hit you with the shitstorm of dislike. I liked Every Day I Love. But I get the feeling that’s only because the rest of the album is so annoyingly awful that it stands out like a penguin among midgets. I can’t remember which track but there seems to be some kind of crazy jazz shit going on later on the record. Fucking dire.

Like Joel, I’ve also picked up on the 9-minute, slap-bass song. Seriously, Squarepusher, fuck off. Stop wanking off over a bass then trying to pass it off as a song.

This album is the musical equivalent of Noel Fielding’s Luxury Comedy. You get the sense it’s trying to be ‘OFF THE FUCKING WALL’ for the sake of being different and weird. This, as Noel Fielding and many other Boosh fans found out, is not necessarily a good thing. Again, like Frank Ocean, I appreciate Squarepusher’s musicianship but I don’t think half of this album could even be defined as music.

A good point about Squarepusher is the fact that he is obviously adept and musically talented, more so than Ocean. I’d rather him resort to making random sounds than completely sample (steal) a Coldplay backing track to make the album bearable. Take note, Ocean, you production-line, R’n’B twat.

The fucking End. Not particularly impressed boys. I’ve sent a letter home to your parents. You’re suspended for a week. Otter carcus. (Edd)

 

Before being recommended it, I hadn’t listened to Squarepusher. He was one of those artists I’d heard about, but never properly investigated, to use the pretentious muso speak. The first thing to say is Tom Jenkinson is certainly a talented fella. Where most of his contemporaries – if there can be any to this vast, bewildering array of sounds – rely on protocols and artificial bleeps, Squarepusher is primarily a slap bass artist but performs live on piano, laptop and more.

His style has been variously described as acid techno, acid jazz, drum and bass, musique concrete. Acid is the operative word, for even the mellow songs have the hyperactive restless energy of a man on that drug throwing the kitchen sink at his songs (indeed, one of the few things not employed is vocals). Tetra-Sync, in particular, is a nine-and-a-half minute electronic wig-out of frantic slap bass, spooky synths and mellow guitar plucking. Coldplay, it is not. If critics’ darling, James Blake, represents electronic music as afflicted with chronic lethargy, then Squarepusher is electronic music as diagnosed with ADHD.

The musicianship is rarely less than staggering, but often it doesn’t translate to any more than collections of awkward, disconnected, dissonant sounds devoid of any emotion, melody or even apparent purpose. Sessions; not fully formed songs. As in An Arched Pathway, which begins with the chalk-on-a-blackboard sounds of dial-up internet connecting, accompanied by frankly horrible sounds of stabbing piano, which gives way to bizarre, hyperactive free-form jazz. It’s songs like these which make you think he is being deliberately abstruse, like a modern artist who has cynically worked out if he can remove from the art any discernible thing to hold on to hipsters will tautologically disregard their own intelligence and label it as brilliantly visionary. Maybe I’m just a cynic. But, occassionally, it’s brilliant, like blessed-out melancholy of Iambic 9 Poetry and the lovely acoustic self-indulgence of Every Day I love.

Still, call me a traditionalist, but I do like melody, harmony and lyrics, so I think I’ll stick to the more computerised, but more coherent electronic wig-outs of DJ Shadow’s Entroducing for my muso thrills. (Joel)

 

Joel chose Frank Ocean’s mixtape Nostalgia/Ultra because it is “an R’n’B album which has enough innovation and depth that it can be justifiably – and enjoyably – listened to by white, middle-class kids from Oxford”.

I tried to like it, I really did. I wanted to, in fact, so I could say I’d broadened my taste in music. But when it comes down to what really matters the best thing about this thing were the samples. That’s bad for you, Ocean, you sample-mad, tomato casket.

The one song I found I could listen to without wanting to wrench my eyes out with a lobster tail was Strawberry Swing, with basically all the music provided by Coldplay.

Love them or loathe them, the original track is brilliant. So kudos to Ocean for recognising its quality and combining it with his stuff. The problem is the only good part about the track is the original Coldplay instrumental, none of Ocean’s stuff over the top. I didn’t really care for Ocean’s mumblings at all to be honest.

And that applies to the whole mixtape, I guess. This is what I feel is wrong with music nowadays. Ocean had the chance here to rap/sing about something that really has value and that young people can connect to. But he has used the well-documented stereotype that has engulfed R‘n’B recently instead – singing about shagging and money basically.

He has been given a spotlight, a chance to connect and write something meaningful, but he’s wasted it on the same drivel I could hear in a club. There’s no doubting the lad has talent, by all means he’s got a cracking voice, but he’s wielding it in completely the wrong way. I’m not saying he should write about “saving the trees, man” or “fight the system, bro”, I’m just saying write about something your fans can identify with. Luckily for him most of his fans will be the musical retards who accept the Black Eyed Peas as good music. Sorry, Durston, not sold on this guy. (Edd)

Mmm… how can I say that this is a pile of shit in a more sophisticated way? Well here goes: Ocean’s album is supposed to be the saviour of modern slick RnB (pure surmise). Perhaps it is. It’s more chilled out than the interchangeable club / pop dirge that rots the soul. But it does, just about, fall into the genre I’d Christen ‘Average Cool Pablum’ (ACP).

It makes you think it’s innovative, because it samples all sorts of different kinds of musician (everything, honest, Radiohead, MGMT, Coldplay. It’s mad!), adds some ethereal keyboard riffs in places (not sure if these are original), and some chilled out deep-voice rapping. I think an artist called Drake, who came out (in terms of music) a couple of years ago, sounds similar.

But the overall sound is just boring. It reminds me of those vacuous characters in Miami Vice, perhaps driving around in a cool car, looking cool in a slightly outdated way, but actually being boring cunts who have nothing to say. They just exist. On the Miami theme, I’ve never been there, but for some subliminal reason I’ve built it up as the physical manifestation of everything that is bland, tacky, monotonous, vapid. I’d apply the same adjectives to this album. (My association of Miami with the spirit-crushing was of course  tacitly gathered through TV and films, but I think it was reinforced irrecoverably by  Stephen Fry, who on his tour around the States a couple of years ago said it was the only place he didn’t like. It was the opposite of the wholesome, open, characterful USA that you rarely see – if you’re interested).

Miami ViceMiami Vice

Being Miami-boring is bad enough, but coupling it to dirty lyrics about shagging makes it sleazy. I can smell the insipid provincial clubs that dominated that depressing hiatus between university and real (though interesting) life. Some imagery: blokes with fake tans and crap all-the-haircuts-in-one haircuts to which hair-straighteners had been applied (did  young British men really fight in two world wars?); dry ice suggesting aspiration, until it insidiously hits your nose, when you realise OH FUCK, WHAT IF THIS IS ALL THERE IS??; fat slags with no personalities, who work during the week in insurance administration, literally having the time of their short lives dancing while silhouetted against a cloying green light. Nostalgia, Ultra is their soundtrack, and their elegy.

Oh yeah, back to those lyrics…

In one song he describes doing a girl ‘under the cherry leaves’ largely by way of innuendo. I was reminded of some of the ludicrous R Kelly’s lyrics:

‘I’ll take a rocket to Uranus [your anus – geddit?!]’;

‘Girl I got you so wet, it’s like a rain forest’;

‘Like Jurassic Park except I’m your sex-a-saurus baby’,

No, it’s up there with Marvel’s To His Coy Mistress. I’m not going to make Ocean guilty by association, and his words are marginally less Primary School. Also, I’m not going to take the lazy option and say that the lyrics/songs are bad because they’re ‘misogynist’, a criticism which doesn’t even properly belong to criticism.

Howard Jacobson:

I’m always very wary of the misogyny charge it seems to me misogyny is not a literary critical term. If I want to write a misogynistic book, I can write a misogynistic book I can write a brilliant misogynistic book or I can write a poor misogynistic book. But what would make it brilliant and what would make it poor would have nothing to do with misogyny. A person could write an anti-semitic book, a person could write a homophobic book. These are things which are taken from outside of the book. So they are charges which I think almost never hold and they’re mainly irrelevant.

But as I say, in combination with this plastic-palm tree aesthetic, I just felt a bit bilious. Maybe it’s not aimed at me. Perhaps I’d find it alluring if I was one of those dim-headed bints in the clubs, and getting done under cherry leaves was all I could hope for.

Critics’ choice? CUNTS’ choice more like! (Gary)

Edd Paul, Gary Napier and Joel Durston

2011 in Music

In Culture on December 30, 2011 at 3:21 PM

Inevitably, as time marches inexorably on, people proclaim music’s death. What with that pint-sized buffoon, Bieber, ruling the charts (and, somehow, hearts), female equivalent in the axis of evil, Ms Black, racking up more than 17 million Youtube views, anodyne X factor winners butchering more perfectly decent songs (this year, Cannonball), saccharine sack of shit Buble crooning his way to the top of the charts with Christmas schmaltz. And, just generally, music being consumed in the distinctly unromantic form of bits of data, often seemingly subservient to advertisers’ needs or those of making some of the next automatons off the factory line look sexy and cool.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. However, ‘evil’ the aforementioned may be, some of it’s undeniably catchy. Plus there’s a plethora of great lesser-known music in many of the end-of-year music lists, including this one. I don’t claim for this to be by any means a definitive list since music is a notoriously subjective thing. Nonetheless, it’s a list of 25 or so albums and singles I like/love, arranged into (very vague) order of quality. Feel free to praise/berate my selections as you see fit…

Albums of the year

Bon Iver – Bon Iver

After the lonely – but lovely – log-cabin mourning of the loss of titular Emma on his first album, Justin Vernon seems to have stepped out into human civilisation with this sophomore effort, and it’s all the better for it. It’s still distinctively Bon Iver – cryptic lyrics and soulful voice are still present – but now allied to far more expansive arrangements of percussions, drums and brass and even Vernon’s voice auto-tuned (inspired by a certain Mr West), which oddly works…brilliantly.

Frank Ocean – Nostalgia/Ultra

This is actually a mixtape, but such is the popularity and quality of this prodigious Californian offering, it warrants inclusion here. His is one of those voices currently in vogue in R&B, notably Drake; half-sung, half-rapped, as adept at either. But what sets Frank Ocean apart is the production and the lyrics; tales of suicide, drugs, love, childhood, marriage and more over a variety of synths, drum machines and Spanish guitar. Even the standard R&B fare of sex is given a certain frankness: “I’ve been meaning to fuck you in the garden” (on Nature Feels – one of the several brilliantly reworked covers; this, of MGMT’s Electric Feel). As an uber-cool reflection of both the grit and glamour of California Life, developers of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, with its revolutionary soundtrack, are no doubt thinking Mr Ocean came about seven years too late.

Sbtrkt – Sbtrkt

With the unsubtle Wob-Wobbing of Dubstep growing, Sbtrkt – alias of enigmatic Londoner, Aaron Jerome – created an album of rare beauty for the genre. Though this pigeonholing doesn’t do justice to the scope of this album, which takes in two-step, soul, funk, Chicago house and RnB, and is lifted by the soulful voices of Roses Gabor and frequent collaborator, Sampha.

Wild Beasts – Smother

The Kendal four-piece released their third album this year to relatively poor sales (it reached a peak of 17 in the UK), but great critical acclaim for its intricate, sparse marriage of funk, indie, electronic and Hayden Thorpe’s distinctive falsetto. Though executed with more style than many poppier contemporaries, the four lads’ salacious intentions are quite clear. On this evidence, it’s a good bet they’re now reaping the rewards.

Ben Howard – Every Kingdom

Given a helpful ride by Danny MacAskill in his viral bicycle video, this Devonian is gradually earning long-overdue attention for his heartfelt, expertly crafted indie-folk, which betrays his relatively tenders years (23). Evocative of cold winter nights, in traditional country pubs of his native county, with the log fire burning. Or maybe that’s just me.

Jamie Woon – Mirrorwriting

After a good five years touring, Mr Woon finally broke through to the mainstream with this fine album. His is a unique blend of acoustic backing, blessed-out electronica and a voice smooth enough to sell prophylactics to the pope.  Only reaching number a high of 15 in the charts, it deserves to be heard by a much bigger audience. He’s got far more soul than Rihanna, anyway.

Friendly Fires – Pala

Friendly Fires’ second album came strutting, clad in dayglow, into the charts in May, ushering in the summer with their melodic, funky indie-dance hybrid. Some of the ballads are a bit wet, but their technicolour blasts of dance-pop could have even the most earnest musos putting on their dancing shoes.

Lykke Li – Wounded Rhymes

Feisty indie-pop songstress returned this year with this long-awaited successor to 2008’s hipster’s album of choice, Youth Novels. Thankfully, her sophomore effort is every bit as good, even better than her debut – ranging as it does from tender ballads to the kind of quirky, claustrophobic indie-electronica (indietronica?) that Sweden currently specialises in (see The Knife, Niki & The Dove, Fever Ray, Robyn and others). Imagine a Scandinavian Lady Gaga with some sophistication and restraint and you’re in the right ballpark.

Weeknd – House of Balloons

One of the oddest album sounding albums of the year in theory, but, or rather because, utterly brilliant, in my eyes and obviously the thousands who freely downloaded it causing the site to crash. The album’s blend of hip-hop, trip-hop, shoegaze, R&B and electronica is, I imagine, what Prince (i.e the Prince of old; not whatever the fuck we’re supposed to call him now) may sound the morning after getting lost, in a weed-induced haze, in an electro club in a German red light district.

PJ Harvey – Let England Shake

This year’s Mercury Music Prize winner, and topper of many end-of-year lists, and with good reason. In a year dominated – commercially at least – by fluff, however enjoyable, such as Katy Perry, Bruno Mars and One Direction, Ms Harvey gave us a strident offering of rough-around-the-edges indie-folk which articulatedthe unease of a nation. But these weren’t glib, change-the-world sentiments from someone who judges inflation by the price of Freddos; Harvey worked for two and a half years on it and cites Harold Pinter, T.S. Eliot, Salvador Dali and Iraq soldiers’ and civilians testimonies as influences. It shows, in a seemingly career-defining album.

Florence + The Machine – Ceremonials.

So, your 4x platinum selling debut album has been a mainstay in the charts since about 1967 and become loved by everyone from critics, to Rihanna fans, to hipsters, to housewives. What do you do for that ‘difficult’ second album? Why, ramp up it up to 11 with this collection of ‘chamber soul’ – grand gothic songs shot through with a great pop sensibility – of course.

Kasabian – Velociraptor!

Kasabian seemed to have mellowed with the birth of Sergio ‘Serg’ Pizzorno’s first child if the evidence of this album (not their interviews) is anything to go by. ForVelociraptor! is a far more mature, coherent and rounded album than its predecessors, incorporating their default classic rock riffage but also tinges of blissed out electronic and Beatles-y pscyhadelica. It’s an art to make an album so indebted the 60s and 70s sound important, but Kasabian have – finally – mastered it.

White Denim – D

While this fifth offering from this Texan four-piece – who have been plugging away at the seams of the indie scene for over five years – may not have troubled the charts, it made a few waves in critics’ circles. And unsurprisingly, given its catchy blend of funk, psychadelica and indie; what one might the Kings of Leon to sound on a Speed and LSD induced bender, and, on a few of the songs, such as the Pink Floyd-esque Street Joy, evocative of the post-bender comedown.

Bombay Bicycle Club – A Different Kind of Fix

Such was their hype for two years while taking GCSEs and A-Levels, Bombay Bicycle Club now feel like veterans of the indie music scene with three albums under their belt just three years after leaving school. This effort manages to combine the best elements of their energetic but often uninspired first and their earnest but often over-earnest solely acoustic second to create an album of real quality.

Adele – 21

What with her now being sold to, god forbid, middle-aged women in Tesco, it’s become very cool to hate Adele. But, to these ears at least, this is largely from a mere contrarian spirit. For this is a sterling collection of modern-day soul, with choruses as huge as big as Ms Adkins’ rich voice, which, somehow, manages to sound both authentically New Orleans and Saaf London.

Tom Vek – Leisure Seizure

One of the (very welcome) surprises this year was the return of the Tom Vek. After a very promising, albeit commercially ignored, first album, We Have Sound, he returned in June with Leisure Seizure without so much as apology note for his mysterious six-year hiatus in the musical wilderness. The story was much the same. The tracks are guitar-inflected, drum-heavy electronica toe-tappers; sonically joyous, but deadpan lyrically and in delivery deadpan (i.e. he can’t sing, but strangely it works). And again, it garnered positive reviews, but largely failed to register with the public, reaching a peak of a mere 79 in the charts. So come on, let’s get behind him, lest he be out in the cold for another half-decade.

Elbow – Build a Rocket Boys

While the (much deserved) post-Mercury success Elbow have garnered has been warmly received by the Bury five-piece, it has left them with a significant problem. For a band whose subject matter is typically subdued, sometimes melancholic, they are now “too happy” to write personal, instrospective lyrics. So Guy Garvey shifted his attention to childhood; his memories of it and, his eyes, the unfairly deemed errant youth on the streets, and came out with an album of distinctively Elbow understated beauty.

Ed Sheeran – +

Perhaps a more tame offering than his prodigious early talent and hype suggested, this was nonetheless a solid album telling of young love, set apart from the legions of lads with acoustic guitars by Sheeran’s homespun humour and wordplay. It does suffer a little, though, from the sanitised treatment it has been given, probably due industry pressure, in comparison to more sharp-edged demos or personally better songs that did not even make the cut. Hopefully, with the chart-topping success of this, he’ll be given more freedom to really pursue his love of folk and hip-hop.

Drake – Take Care

Contrary to how he may come across to the passing observer, Aubrey Drake Graham does actually think about more than his riches and his penis. Or at the very least he’s acutely self-aware about his adherence to the tired old hip-hop cliché, and in that sets himself apart from it, as this surprisingly introspective and sophisticated second album shows. Less sympathetic listeners would be wise to steer clear, for it often comes as a cathartic project set by a therapist in a kind of Priory for those addicted to the intoxicating drug of celebrity, but for everyone else there’s some sincere storytelling over forward-thinking electronic production.

Jamie xx and Gil Scott-Heron – We’re New Here

Jamie Smith of The xx cemented his position as one of the producers du jour with this accomplished reworking of the Gil Scott Heron’s I’m New Here, released the year before. The nuances of what constitutes ‘Dubstep’ will be argued over by its devotees until the apocalypse the genre sonically heralds. But using a broad definition (i.e. basically anything dance-y/electronic which isn’t Calvin Harris), Jamie XX is one of dubstep’s few exponents capable of dub-step reworkings without choking the original into submission as many do, indeed often giving them an interesting reimagining, as here as his electronica perfectly complements Scott-Heron’s soul and spoken word. The album thus proved a spookily prescient and fitting tribute to American’s lesser-known king of the counter-culture when he met his untimely end in late May.

Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues

The Seattle sextet’s second placed the group, sonically, even further back in time and deeper into the forest. For their woozy, folky medieval-sounding psychadelica sounds as if The Beach Boys might if, for some reason, they were playing as part of Oberon’s crew of mysticals in A Midsummer’s Night Dream. Having said that, that pretentious bollocks is more likely to put you off this album. If so, just read that it’s catchy and…well, good.

The Black Keys – El Camino

More rollicking rock & roll from the Ohio duo; like that band you always see in the downtrodden, unpopular mid-west bars in films, just really, really good. It practically demands to be played on a clapped out old Chevvy (indeed, the titular El Camino) on a dusty American highway, with hair blowing in the wind, cigarette in mouth and steering wheel as surrogate drum.

Red Hot Chili Peppers – I’m With You

The Chilis returned with their 583,865th album this year, and while it’s unlikely to reinvent the wheel or go down as a classic, it was a very solid offering of their trademark brand of gibberish, sing-along punk-funk.

Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds – Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds.

Yes, so Noel doesn’t exactly stray far from the Oasis mould (or indeed anywhere from it), except from perhaps AKA…What a Life, but this solid collection of dad-rock proves once and for all that Noel was the Brains behind Oasis. Not to downplay Liam’s essential rock & roll swagger, indeed some of his…Liam-ness could spark this up a little, but Beady Eye’s album this year proved this can be limited without  decent songs to back it up.

Foster the People – Torches

These Californians burst onto the scene with Pumped Up Kicks (yeh that one) – destined to have feet subconsciously tapping and to be played on an advert somewhere in the world from here until eternity. The rest of their debut album features similarly pleasant if pointless pop, tinged with the very smallest amounts of electro and rock. Torches falls somewhere between early MGMT, when they had some bite, and second album MGMT when they crawled up their own respective arses into lifeless pscyhadelica-lite.

Overrated

Katy B – On a Mission. A couple of good, innovative singles and guest spots masking an album of dull, generic dance filler.

Metronomy – The English Riviera. Don’t see how it’s particularly innovative. The singer’s voice grates and, much like the Devon coast it details, it’s nice enough but dull under the surface.

Arctic Monkeys – Neither the thrilling urgency of their early work or sombre poignancy of later work and side projects. Resulting in mediocre, mid-paced indie. It also seems Alex Turner is running out of things to say now he can’t really chronicle, say, stories of the twats queuing up with him to the big new band (now being that big new band and all).

The Vaccines – What Did You Expect from the Vaccines. I thought everyone got bored of this bargain-bucket indie circa 2004?!

Michael Buble – Whatever Christmas (or other) shit he did. Do we really have to listen to this cheese-merchant just because it’s Christmas and he’s handsome. Men don’t actually like Girls Aloud’s or The Saturdays’ music.

Songs of the year

Frank Ocean – Swim Good. Only a song this good could warrant commercial success for such a dark subject matter (suicide).

Beyonce – Schoolin’ Life. Far more fun than any of her singles; an irrestible electro-soul masterpiece, which would probably be the result of putting Whitney, Aretha and Tina Turner in a blender.

Adele – Rolling in the Deep. Bar-room stomps, stabbing piano and some great harmonies made for that rare pop phenomena; a massive hit that critics universally liked too.

Foster the People – Pumped Up Kicks. If you weren’t whistling, humming, head-moving or foot-tapping to this slice of ‘feel-good’ summer brilliance, then chances are you a) were living on Mars, b) are deaf, or c) have no soul. That basically no-one has realised it chronicles a shooting at a school is testament to its infectiousness. Might as well keep dancing now; pop music is just a nebulous vehicle for whatever advertisers need to sell now, anyway.

Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds – AKA…What a Life! Unusually innovative for Gallagher; a rolling piano propels it along, but it’s still got distinct traces of classic Oasis.

Emile Sande – Heaven. A euphoric hybrid of dance and soul, bringing to mind Massive Attack’s Unfinished Sympathy. Hopefully her debut offers similar quality.

Florence + The Machine – What the Water Gave Me. Florence returned with more soulful, baroque indie.  Sounds brilliantly like a gospel choir soundtracking a Daniel Day-Lewis movie.

Bombay Bicycle Club – Shuffle. The bookish London lads clearly know their way around onomatopoeia, for its jaunty piano riff and skittish guitar and general euphoria typical of the new album is meant to be shuffled to. Destined to soundtrack the happy moment in all Sundance-winning films for the next decade.

Wiz Khalifa – Black And Yellow. There seems few redeeming features to this latest flat-capped bechained rapper off the factory line…other than this huge beat and chorus and half-decent flow about shit he likes that is, you’ve guessed it, black and yellow.

Niki & The Dove – The Drummer. Irresistibly pulsating electonica from Sweden’s latest screwballs. Possibly even madder than The Knife. Simon Cowell needs to take some of what they have in Sweden.

Friendly Fires – Blue Cassette. A heady blast of colourful indie-disco, all carnival drums and yearning, nostalgic vocals. Manages the not easy task of making the 80s sound cool, and sounding current.

Sbtrkt – Wildfire. Never has dubstep sounded so tuneful or soulful. This time with the help of Little Dragon.

Drake ft. Rihanna – Take Care. Strangely, although on at least its third reworking, soul and life was still breathed into Gil Scott Heron’s original.

Rihanna ft Calvin Harris – We Found Love. Calvin Harris-produced behemoth so massive even (the fake Twitter account of) Sam Allardyce was referencing it: ‘I found love once in a hopeless place; Scunthorpe. Her name was Sally. Anal sex behind a skip is incredible.’

Wild Beasts – Bed of Nails. Hard to single out any from Smother, but this was even grander than others.

Aloe Blacc – I Need a Dollar. This melodic, barbershop soul telling of Mr Blacc’s financial woes struck a chord with many in today’s world.

DJ Fresh ft Sian Evans – Louder. Calvin Harris-esque dance beats over, some lite dubstep wob-wobs and some woman singer about getting louder. Just like the skateboarding, rollerblading and breakdancing yoof in the video; vacant, but fun.

Bon Iver – Perth. Washed out, acoustic beauty from Justin Vernon, brilliantly evocative of a military marching band with brass and thumping drums. Hard to decipher exactly what he’s saying, but he’s certainly expressing whatever it is with purpose.

Grenade – Bruno Mars. Though a few weeks after its broadcast, it could have a similar effect to waterboarding, you gotta admit, it’s an absolutely cracking hook.

Swedish House Mafia – One (Your Name). Yes, that beat. In Ibiza, it’s probably been elevated to equivalent heights as the Muslim call to prayer.

LMFAO ft Lauren Bennett and GoonRock – Party Rock Anthem. With the world economy going to ruin, and rock music supposedly lacking any soul, LMFAO caught the mood of millions by just sticking a big fat middle finger up to that and partying. It even spawned the ‘everyday I’m shuffling’ meme. For this, they deserve admiration.

Chipmunk ft. Chris Brown – Champion. A guilty piece of self-therapy, R&B guff.

Jennifer Lopez – On the Floor. A monstrous dance hit, shamelessly full of ‘la la la’s,  various demands to get on the floor and typically inane Pitbull raps. Works, though.

Ed Sheeran – A Team. Remember before he was all huge and therefore uncool; this was an catchy yet affecting song about the plight of an unfortunate prostitute on London’s unforgiving streets.

Pixie Lott – All About Tonight. An attractive young blonde singing over a dance beat about how she’s going to go to a club, drink, dance and possibly even bag a new fella doesn’t break any musical boundaries, much less solve the banking crisis or shed light on the Amanda Knox trial. But when the chorus is so infectiously huge as to be the work of some omnipotent deity of pop, this does not matter one jot.

Jason Derulo – Don’t Wanna Go Home. Brilliantly cheesy sample of 90s dance classic, Show Me Love.

Joel Durston

The Case Against Morrissey

In Opinion on September 4, 2011 at 11:53 PM

Before anyone accuses me of absolute ‘heresy’ (more later), I do like some of The Smiths’ songs; the breezy ‘Charming Man’, the urgency of ‘How Soon is Now?’ and the romance of ‘There is a Light That Never Goes Out’. As such, most of what I write is directed as Morrissey and his solo output. To me, the vast majority of his music post-Smiths canon is mediocre indie music, vastly overrated due to the almost godly reputation accrued during the Smiths. Admittedly, Morrissey’s music largely bypassed me for much of my life as I have either been too unborn, young or engrossed in chart R&B/dance to hear them at the time. Thus, I perhaps judge it more harshly for ‘coming second’ to music he probably actually influenced. Similarly, I don’t worship at the feet of The Libertines or The Strokes like many do. This hasn’t stopped me loving other much-loved and imitated oldies though (The Beatles, Michael Jackson and Led Zeppelin to name a few).

So, detached from any particular cultural or personal significance (no to mention the technical genius of Johnny Marr), Morrissey’s music just seems drab. It’s asking a lot for fans to put themselves in this position, but do try it. For me, the majority his solo oeuvre is just depressing; the lyrics and their delivery self-important, posturing and fatally narcissistic and the instrumentation plodding, unvaried, mid-tempo fare. His trademark unrhythmic, out-of-kilter singing, as if he’s largely too good to get embroiled in piffling considerations such as melodies and harmonies, also irks. In a word, I think it’s dirge. As hinted at, if he were to make music now devoid of his reputation and influence (hypothethical, I know), I feel he would be far more labelled as ‘mediocre’ and ‘generic’. Even some of his fans claimed that many albums were ‘plagued’ by a Morrissey ‘uni-song’, as fan and critic Douglas Coupland put it.

Many a ‘Mozzaholic’ (‘Mozzie’? ‘Moz’turbator’?) will claim that this is ‘common misinterpretation’ of Mozza’s work (note not a different interpretation, but just plain wrong). Many claim his oeuvre in fact encompasses the whole gamut of human emotion and/or there is actually a lot of hope in his despair, especially in the sharing of this with fans who believe to be or are in similar situations. All I really hear is moaning though. See the song titles: People Are the Same Everywhere, Life is a Pigsty, Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now, Everyday is Like Sunday, We Hate it When our Friends Become Successful, You Have Killed Me and Satan Rejected My Soul. Viewing the lyrics plain, there is some arguable optimism. Though, for me, even this is strangled out by the drab instrumentation, Morrissey’s humourless delivery and his seemingly pathological desire to see dark in any light. Take To Me You Are a Work of Art, in which Mozza sees someone who can “soothe” him in a world that “makes (him) puke”: “To me you are a work of art, And I would give you my heart, But that’s if I had one”. At times, it appears he actively cultivates this ‘moaning’ image and sound (I picture him trying overcome writer’s block with exhortations to “EMOTE!”).

The most striking example of this is How Could Anybody Possibly Know How I Feel.   (if you are short on time, for this paragraph, read: ‘Morrissey needs to lighten up and enjoy his great life’). I suppose he’s technically not wrong with the title as his extreme emotional landscape certainly makes him unique, arguably ‘emotionally incontinent’, but it’s the spiteful, self-importance that gets me. He claims a woman “must be insane” for telling him she loved him and “their judgement is crazy” for saying “they respect him”. He claims to dislike having his “face dragged in fifteen miles of shit”, but his pithy spurning of close one’s love and respect personally leaves little sympathy and even suggests a kind of artistic sell-flagellation. Also, in Panic, he calls for the burning down of the disco and the hanging of the DJ for merely playing music that says nothing about to him about his life. Bit much, no? Morrissey’s music doesn’t speak to me, but I’m not calling for his head. Now I understand artistic licence and know these are just two songs, but I feel they’re symptomatic of his oeuvre of (generally) self-absorbed misery, which personally runs contrary to his moneyed and adored status. I recognise these are not the be all and end all for personal happiness, but I have little sympathy for those who intentionally reject the love/support of others and outcast themselves in personal woes, as I feel Morrissey does.

An argument that a Mozzaholic may advance at this point is that people such as myself must then just prefer asinine, vacuous, ‘untaxing’ music, often by definition of disliking Morrissey. I do like my fair share of music typically fitting this bill, but also much which is commonly labelled ‘depressing’/’taxing’, such as Arcade Fire, Radiohead and Muse. So I don’t think it’s fair to tar to with this brush.

While I think, when read properly, his comments on immigration causing a loss of British identity aren’t ‘racist’ as they are often derided, I do disagree with many of his personal views, or at least the way he expresses them. Most notably his forthright views on animal rights, which are frequently expressed with great insensitivity. There’s his belief in violent activism, his labelling of the Chinese as a ‘subspecies’ for their animal treatment and most recently his comments on the Norway deaths being ‘nothing’ compared to the daily actions of McDonalds and ‘Kentucky Fried Shit’. I don’t really agree with his views, but my main issue with them is the insensitivity. I am not denying his right to say it, but personally it show him in a very unfavourable light that he is willing to essentially hijack a tragedy which still burns very raw to advance his own ethical views.

I’m also not saying that you have to share similar interests or personality traits in order to like someone’s music, because for me that’s the point of music; to figuratively take you to different places, emotional or conceptual. Since you’re kind of inviting the band/artists into your ear, though, I do think they need to be the kind of people you’d happily invite to a party. A bit of a weird analogy, granted, but it works for all the bands/artists I like that I’ve it applied to (from the impression I get of them). I wouldn’t want Morrissey at my party because I feel that he’d just moan about his problems, yet downright scorn any consolatory, empathetic gestures, and then hog the dance floor for a few songs with his trademark swinging arms.

So, it’s fair to say that I don’t care much for Morrissey as a singer, nor much as a person from the impression I get. But this makes him no different from other bands/artists that I hate. What differentiates my disdain for Mozza is his, or probably more accurately many of his fans’, humourless objection to any criticism in what is a particularly free medium in a democratic society. This is what I was angrily met with in the aforementioned argument when I had the…’temerity’, I suppose to criticise Morrissey. With some, it’s not just the disparate views, but the very fact that they are expressed;’ blasphemy’ essentially. The most ridiculous and baffling with me was the assertion that my dislike of Morrissey necessarily meant ‘I did not love music’. This is analogous to telling your mate that he does not really love that girl because she is ‘ugly’ and ‘nasty’. The person saying it may never love that girl or understand why their friend does, but, in an ironically Morrissey-esque way, they’re his emotions so he can’t be wrong. This vicious objection is a trait typical of Morrissey fandom which I find second only to that other ‘muso’ cliché – ‘the Bob Dylan fan’.  It’s not just a personal thing either because, doing some research, I stumbled on a whole academic paper devoted to examining the phenomenon: ‘Morrissey-solo or Morrissey “So Low”? Exploring the Rhetoric of Hate in Defense of the One They Love’. This claims in its synopsis: ‘the suggestion that the admired (Morrissey) might be humanly fallible is met with vitriol’.

This annoys me far more as a general philosophical point. One of the most important principles for prosperous societies is democracy; founded upon oft-quoted (summarised) Voltaire quote: “I may not agree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”. Yes, at least on the surface, slagging off a musician on the internet is far less important than this, but I don’t see why the same principles shouldn’t be applied.

This is especially due to the idea held by myself and many others that music is a very subjective art; nothing like mathematics where 2+2 absolutely equals 4. I think music can’t be viewed in a vacuum whereby it is judged purely on its technical form (quality of the playing, lyrics etc); for me it is so much about the political, emotional context in which it was written and received and the connection it has with the listeners. This means that while I think the majority of Morrissey’s solo output is ‘dull’, I don’t have what I see as the intellectual/cultural arrogance to say those who interpret it differently necessarily have defective ears. There is a huge diversity of musical tastes in the world. Is everyone who interprets a song differently or disagrees with another objectively wrong and not a music lover?! I don’t think so.

This assertion doesn’t solely work for artists I dislike either. I generally like Kanye West, but was irked by his disclaimer on his new video stating ‘it shall not be interpreted as derogatory to any peoples in any way’. My mental reaction to this was: ’well, Kanye, it’s art which you have put out there for public consumption, so I will interpret how I wish, thank you very much’ (for the record, I didn’t actually find it too derogatory). Also, I love Arcade Fire and Radiohead, but can understand the ‘whiny, self-indulgent’ tag; like the Pipettes and much ‘pop’, but understand the ‘shallow’ tag; love The Arctic Monkeys, but understand the ‘generic’ tag etc. etc.  There are problems with this subjectivist/relativist view, but I think it’s generally far more plausible than the opposite, at least when it comes to music.

Essentially, I think Morrissey’s music is dull and the man dislikable, but what I object more to is the idea held by some fans (directly or indirectly) that I have no right to say this. I do and I just have.

Joel Durston

Jamie Woon – Mirrorwriting

In Culture on May 6, 2011 at 8:33 PM

Antithesis to the get rich quick factory-line production line of puppets from Mr. Cowell’s lucrative stable, Jamie Woon’s full-length debut has certainly spent a long time in the ether. Born to a Malaysian Chinese father and Scottish Celtic folk singer mother (Mae Mckenna, for enthusiasts),  “Woonie”, as he is want to refer to himself, grew up in the leafy environs of South-West London. After school he attended the prestigious BRIT school, graduating the year before Amy Winehouse, whereafter he went to University.

This album has been bubbling ever since really, from the covers gigs in Cheltenham restaurant, to the ‘long lonesome journeys’, to sleeping on mate’s floors, to selling his own CDRs after gigs. Interest was first really piqued with his stunning acoustic version of folk classic Wayfaring Stranger (which, testament to its quality didn’t even make the cut for this album, as several other great songs didn’t too). Popularity then developed in a very Arctic Monkeys people-power kinda way. Matters accelerated after he was voted 4th in the BBC’s coveted ‘Sound of (2011)’ poll (behind, respectively, The Vaccines, tragically,James Blake, reasonably and Jessie J, wrongly, but understandably). This was due in no small part to Night Air – his stunning collaboration with Will ‘Burial’ Bevan, who also provided a remix of the song.

Fittingly, this song is the opening track of Jamie’s long-delayed (at least, to these ears) debut – Mirrorwriting. The track opens with a slightly sinister, almost-beatboxed, electro beat, before being met by a beautiful yet haunting synth refrain. In it, Jamie eulogises about his fascination with the beautiful eeriness of the night air; an atmosphere perfectly evoked by the song.  The haunting yet funky’ feel is epitomised by the image of a cricket dancing in the still, stagnant, spooky ‘night air’ of the suitably amazing video.  It was so unlike anything I’d heard before, I had to sit up and take notice…and obviously the Beeb did too.

The next three songs, StreetLady Luck & Shoulda, further demonstrate his unique brand of Electronic production fused with his silky-smooth, rich falsetto, despite which you can still believe he grew up in Wimbledon and didn’t just steal the voice from an ageing New Orleans native. Not that that’s an aspersion on the likes Amy or Adele (a complement if anything); just an observation. In Middle, Woonie effuses about his love of the middleground in a wonderfully funky little ditty, replete with the man even providing his own harmonies.

Spirits, even more so than the other songs, showcases Jamie and his team superb production skills, comprising as it does a funky drum beat fused with airy synths and his own voice providing the harmonies. Though, as with Lady Luck and reverb-heavy version of the poetic, ballad Gravity on show here, the stripped-down acoustic versions (on YouTube) are probably even better; sounding rawer and, for Gravity, with a fantastic long intro where a guitar-tapping, beat-box builds into the verse. Echoes,  by the album’s own very high standards, is a bit of low point. Jamie’s voice is lovely as ever and the lyrics interesting enough, but the chink of electro beat sounds a little too much like a menu of a Wii game and, with a perfunctory drum beat, is relatively pedestrian. For once, Jamie falls the wrong side of ‘ambient’.

In the woozy, dreamy, piano-inflected soul of Spiral, Jamie sings of his infatuation with some, obviously very lucky, young dame causing him to see ‘spirals (when) moving with you again’. If the XX thought they had the market for soundtracking the make-out sessions of uber-cool, brooding, Twenty-somethings sewn up, then, on the evidence of this track especially, they oughta think again…

TMRW  has a nice little soulful stomp too it and Secondbreath is a pleasant if fleeting short instrumental. Both, though nice, are two of slightly less remarkable points of the album.  Waterfront though is a perfect example of how keeping music simple can pay dividends. The song comprises simply a guitar, a few hand-claps and Jamie’s voice but is beautiful, especially when listened to on a sunny day on Brighton Waterfront – I think, the inspiration for the song.

So, with his self-proclaimed brand of “R&B.. groove-based vocal-led” music, Mr. Woon has moved a step towards reclaiming the phrase ‘R&B’ from the umbrella term for record execs snapping up the next cute, African-American with a decent voice to mime some inane sentiments to thirteen  year girls (generally), to its rightful place as the moniker for heartfelt, progressive (‘real’?) music. And in doing so, he has provided a perfect soundtrack to lazy days in the sun which the current weather is facilitating (nay; necessitating), post-club comedowns and romantic nights in the missus/fella; no mean feat. If this does not win theMercury Music Prize this year, we will either have an absolute belter of an album or a travesty of justice on our hands.  Guinness were obviously right; good things come to those who wait.

Joel Durston

http://thisaffectedyouth.com/2011/04/27/jamie-woon-%E2%80%93-mirrorwriting/

2010 in music

In Culture on December 27, 2010 at 5:24 PM

I decided to, like all the music mags, make a list of my best albums of 2010 (and a few turkeys too), complete with short explanations as to why I chose them. I’m not saying this is by any means a definitive list because, firstly, I obviously haven’t listened to everything and, secondly, music is notoriously hard to judge because it’s emotional, abstract, personal and generally subjective. So, feel free to praise, suggest albums you think I have missed or berate my ‘terrible taste’ or pretension.

1. My beautiful dark twisted fantasy – Kanye West.

Kanye West finally perfects the album he seems to have been trying to make for about 4/5 years, with the help of a who’s who of the ‘urban’ music industry, if not THE music industry. Using a painful break-up and the backlash at his often rude, outlandish behaviour as inspiration, his widescreen hip-hoperas, if you will, are intelligent, thrilling, beautiful and often all at the same time. Arrogant and distasteful that he may well be, it’s hard to dispute his big character makes for great music. The album also works brilliantly with his utterly insane, fantastical feature-length film ‘Runaway’

2. Total live forever – Foals.

Leaving behind their cooler-than-thou, angular Indie; technically brilliant but not always the most accessible to anyone with an IQ less than 150, Foals relax a lot more on this album and they are all the better for it with this funky, psychedelic Indie rock. It can still be hard to decipher what Yannis Phillipakis’ lyrics sometimes, but his newly-found falsetto (as opposed to the previous ‘bark’) carries you with them with the lush sounds that are far more inviting than riffs hitherto hardly played anywhere above the 13th fret.

3. Magnetic man – Magnetic man.

Three of the best Dubstep producers in their own right, combine to find the notoriously hard balance between the very loud and basslines low and heavy enough to cause tremors in surrounding objects (for the dubstep purists) and actually having some discernible tune, melody and even ‘real’ instruments (for everyone else).

4. One night stand  – Hot chip.

In which Hot chip give even more proof to being one of the select few ‘dance’ acts who make songs with more than a great beat, catchy hook and an attractive female guest singer. Intelligent, poppy, soulful and funky.

5. The defamation of Strickland Banks – Plan B.

Ben Drew proves he can do Motown-y soul just as well, if not better than his brand of angry, stripped-down hip-hop with a brilliantly-realised concept album which tells the fictitious story of the titular soul singer’s concerts, fall from fame, trial and (false) imprisonment.

6. B.o.B – B.o.B presents: the adventures of Bobby ray.

Rare is the artist that can rap and sing, let alone float as effortlessly between the two as B.o.B/Bobby ray (or whatever he wants to be called) does on this album and, indeed, many other songs that did not even make the cut. He also manages to avoid the tired old ‘guns ‘n’ hoes’ hip-hop cliches without falling into the cringingly American ‘we can change the world’ anti-cliche..cliche.

7.The suburbs – Arcade fiire.

Win, Regine et. al. take a break from rallying (moaning?) against death (‘Funeral) and the global destruction (‘Neon bible’) to emote about the ennui of their formative years in suburbian Houston, Texas. ‘The suburbs” theme isn’t the only thing that’s changed, harking back as it does to the bands they listened to in the titular suburbs, such as Neil Young, Depeche Mode and Bruce Springsteen. The end result is a big departure in style which, while not always as exhilirating and immediate as their previous two efforts, is just as sophisticated and will win them many new fans for whom their previous work was maybe a little too heavy-going/’Art-student Emo’. Constant doom-mongering on the death of their family and, as they hint, the world, may have got a little tiresome if they had continued to plough that particular thematic furrow, anyway.

8. Immersion – Pendulum.

The Aussie six-piece continue to make ‘banging’ D’n’B with a rock ethic, thus managing the difficult balancing act of pleasing the D’n’B ‘heads’ and boy racers as well as the ‘Indie kids’ and music critics. Detractors will no doubt point to the group ‘selling out’ and leaving ‘their more jungle roots’, but I don’t see what’s wrong with some catchy hooks and aiming for the stadium, which this album does so well. Ambition in itself is no bad thing as this album shows.

9. Contra – Vampire weekend

More of their unique brand of ‘Indie’ (?) seemingly sent from England to sub-Saharan Africa then thrown back with bells on and put together in America by a bookish, whiter-than-white Ivy-league quartet who, to look at them, seem more at home in a niche book-shop or leading freshman philosophy seminars. Yet, somehow, this all works! And not just for similarly ‘bookish’ aesthetes, as the crowds at the festivals attest. I, and no doubt many others too, haven’t a clue what they’re talking about half the time (songs about punctuation, anyone?) but they most assuredly make you believe that THEY do.

10. Come around sundown – Kings of Leon.

Kings of Leon continue on their path to become Tennessee’s own U2 with more wannabe lighters-up, stadium-fillers. So, yes, of course they’re not reinventing the wheel by any means, but whisper it, to these ears at least, the riffs, hooks and Caleb’s charisma render this irrelevant. I would venture that, if they made this album as their third, people would rightfully love it as much as ‘Because of the times’. A perfect case for the age-old adage: ‘if it ain’t broke, why fix it’?

11. Fleshtone – Kelis.

The birth of a musician’s son/daughter, amazing as bringing new life into the world is all lovely ‘n’ that, but usually results in saccharine, even, vom-inducing ballads. Evidently not for Ms Jones’ on the basis of the ultra-modern (see: ’22nd century’) brand of dance by way of soul, on display here.

12. Body talk – Robyn.

Like Kelis above, the Swedish songstress continues to push pop and dance music forward with immaculately produced songs, kookiness and bittersweet lyrics (see: ‘Dancing on my own’).

13. The Lady Killer – Cee Lo Green.

Cee Lo proves to all those unaware of his work pre- Gnarls Barkley going, literally, ‘crazy’ big (myself largely included), that he doesn’t necessarily need the golden touch of a certain Mr. Dangermouse (helpful as it is) to produce funky, foot-tapping, ’60’s soul anthems.

14. Lights/Bright lights – Ellie Goulding.

Compared to this time last year when she was topping all the cooler-than-thou tastemakers’ sound of 2010 lists, Ms Goulding has gone very ‘Radio 2’, but this shouldn’t detract from the quality of this album. Combining folk and electronica, allied with Ellie’s unique voice it’s a winning formula. Folk/electronica ‘lite’ it may well be but there are some good pop songs here.

15. Disconnect from desire – School of seven bells.

More pretty art-rock instrumentalism from the U.S trio. Hardly going to change world, but that’s perhaps the point of their dream-like songs… ‘songs’ being used in the loosest sense of the word.

16. The preview – Chiddy bang.

An EP rather than a full album, but the Philly duo’s distinctly ‘2010’ brand of hip-hop that, if one didn’t know better, may think originated from a drunken “Caal-lidge”‘ joke to reference (in lyrics and actual sound) as many different elements of modern pop culture, paradoxically, seems to find it own niche. Thus warranting its inclusion…just.

17. High Violet – The National.

More pretty, earnest, orchestral-ly stuff from the American quintet that grows on the listener like a stately tree, which, indeed, is a reasonable analogy for the National and their music.

18. Man on the moon II: the legend of Mr. Rager – Kid Cudi.

KiD CuDi’s sophomore offering offers more of his innovative, trippy, soul-searching, hip-hop (‘space-hop’?). While it may not quite reach the heights of his freshman effort, it is definitely a step in the right direction. That direction presumably, being towards mars… from the moon. Or, at the very least, “taking off” to the ‘outer limits’, if you will, of one’s mind, as he sings on ‘Marijuana’.

19. Plastic beach – Gorillaz.

Fascinating concept album from Albarn and co. and a plethora of guests, with the vague theme of global warming. It doesn’t have as many  stand-out, great singles as its predecessor ‘Demon days’ (perhaps, only ‘Stylo’), but it is just as experimental and perhaps much what The Beatles would have sounded like in their more ‘happy’ periods, shall we say, if they had had access to the technology we have today. Indeed, some ‘special cakes’ may be precisely the thing to turn this album from merely ‘good’ to “flippin A…MAY..ZING, MAN!”

20. Wake up! – John Legend and The Roots.

Brilliant collaboration between the crooner and the rappers with a social conscience, urging the youth of America to ‘wake up!’ to their political situation. The Roots help lend Mr. Legend some backbone and he in turn offers them some….well, tunes, which are both occasionally lacking on their lonesomes.

Soundtrack of the year:

1. Inception – Hans Zimmer

Probably the only soundtrack I’ve heard so not much competition but these epic, orchestral soundscapes were the perfect soundtrack to Christopher Nolan’s mind-fuck masterpiece.

Video of the year:

Chemical Brothers – Swoon.

Silhouettes of people dance across the black background revealing amazing moving images within. My words don’t do it justice…just do yourself a favour and watch it for yourself. Good song too.

Turkeys of the year:

1. Progress – Take that.

One of the most ironic album titles in recent memory….

2. Celebrations – MGMT.

…until this, given how spectactularly these New Yorkers have succumbed to ‘that difficult second album syndrome’. Or perhaps, that’s the point; maybe they ‘celebrated’ the success of their soul/funk/electro masterpiece freshman offering so much they were knackered, complacent and so, crawled up their own arses and composed these self-indulgent, dull, muso workouts.

3. My worlds – Justin Bieber

A cheap shot, no doubt, and don’t get me wrong; I love great pop as much as the next pre-pubescent girl, but this is just crap, no other word for it. I think I’ve singled out this particular faecal matter because of how odiously young Justin came across in the trailer for his film…and even, the fact that he is even releasing a… ‘biopic’ I suppose, as a teenager. And, indeed, one with so little of discernible talent to speak of and with so little of interest to say beyond his latest kill/death ratio on CoD. In it, he was being portrayed as some sort of messianic inspiration to his generation when all he does is smile and sing…or, more typically, smile and mime.

4. Endlessly – Duffy.

Must be honest; I have not actually heard any of this but, given that I thought ‘Rockferry’ was decent, perhaps that’s the point.

5. I speak because I can – Laura Marling.

Not a ‘turkey’ by any means, but  an album I consider overrated. Sure, she’s ‘matured’ and is a great talent but I just didn’t hear any of the great, singalong songs of ‘Alas, I cannot swim’.

No.1! Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
Joel Durston