Archive for December, 2012

My Albums of 2012 – No. 1: Field Music ‘Plumb’

December 31, 2012

Field-Music-Plumb

How many of you reading this haven’t heard of Field Music, or if you have heard of them, haven’t listened to them? Possibly fewer people than this time last year, after their Mercury Prize nomination, but definitely still too many for what this band deserve. They are the national treasures you haven’t heard of yet and ‘Plumb’ is their masterpiece.

‘Start The Day Right’ kicks the album off with the twinkling sound of wind-chimes, before strings and piano build up to the start of the song proper – and what a song. The vocals drop in: “I’m sure I was dreaming, or was I just tired? A chance to start the day right”. It perfectly mirrors that feeling of waking up and wanting to make good use of the day. This lyric is swiftly followed up with the sort of guitar riff that will lodge itself in your brain for months, before the dreamy, vocals of the verse drop back in. Then, at 1:33, the time-signature changes and in comes a glorious piano-led middle-eight (I think?!), before the riff kicks back in. Then the song ends – after 2 minutes and 18 seconds. It’s a perfect introduction to the album: complex arrangements, changes of time-signature, beautiful melodies, great lyrics and, above all, pithy.

This album doesn’t waste a single second. The fifteen songs clock in at just over 35 minutes. The use of time and the melody is reminiscent of Abbey Road – I genuinely believe that this album stands up to that lofty comparison. There is so much to discover in this album that it rewards repeated listens, as the worn grooves on my copy of the LP prove. Picking out specific songs seems fruitless, given the quality over the course of the album, but the peculiar funk of ‘A New Town’ is particularly wonderful, with another of those brain-melding riffs and, above-all, the gorgeous melodies and harmonies. Even if you don’t care about the time-signatures, or the riffs, the melodies will keep you listening over and over again.

‘Choosing Sides’ looks at the complacencies and frustrations of modern life, of people opting out of choosing sides and of wanting something better than consumerism: “I want a better idea of what ‘better’ can be that doesn’t necessitate having more useless shit“. This is an album that is political, but without being preachy or reciting slogans. Instead, it looks at the minutiae of modern life, but with a focus on wanting to improve somehow, even if they (and we) don’t know how to set about improving just yet – it suggests the need for change, but doesn’t force this down your throat.

There is something very English about this record, but not in any jingoistic, patriotic sense, nor is it London-centric – not from this (very much) Sunderland-based band. This is the England of Larkin and Betjeman, with all its quiet desperation, made more acute by the distractions of consumerist life. This is best summed up in the final song, a song about obfuscation and the difficulty of trying to sum up complicated political notions for a mass audience, ‘(I Keep Thinking About) A New Thing’. It’s astonishingly intelligent and it’s as catchy as the common cold. It’s everything indie music, pop music, whatever you want to call it, should be.

Field Music aren’t a fashionable band; they are never going to move down to London to pursue money and fame, but quietly, subtly, they are becoming one of the great British bands. Plumb is a masterpiece and, for me, by far and away the best record of 2012.

 

 

My Top 20 Songs of 2012 #1: Hot Chip – ‘Flutes’

December 31, 2012

hotchip

Before the release of Hot Chip’s latest album, Joe Goddard of the band (who had just released the first album of his rave-influenced side project 2 Bears), mentioned in an interview the influence of 80s 12-inch singles on the band. This influence was nowhere more evident than on Flutes, the track’s gradually unfurling house clocking in at just under 8 minutes, with Alexis Taylor’s glorious mournful-sounding vocals running over the top of everything.

The vocals culminate in the enigmatic mantra “one day you might realise, that you might need to open your eyes”, but only after some fantastically cheesy 80s inspired dance instructions: “Work that inside outside, work that more. Work that right side left side, more and more”. The juxtaposition of these two lyrics is just one reason why this is such a glorious record. It’s a dancefloor-smash that you can nonetheless listen to alone in your room, with your headphones on. It reminds me of the best New Order singles from the 80s, which is just about as a high a compliment as I could give a single, given my love for that band. It’s also, in my opinion, Hot Chip’s best song ‘Over and Over’. So, go and get some rug, stick this record on and give that rug a good cut. Yes, please!

(the below video comes with a warning: do not watch if you suffer from motion sickness… seriously)

My Albums of 2012 – No. 2: Saint Etienne ‘Words and Music’

December 30, 2012

St

You will have already seen my review of Saint Etienne’s ‘Tonight’, which was one of my songs of the year. If the award was for best album cover of the year Saint Etienne would walk away with the prize. It looks great and you could spend hours working out all of the pop references. It’s an apt cover as well, because this is an album that revels in the love of, well, words and music. It’s a soundtrack to the lives of music-lovers, although it’s probably better suited to those over 25. However, this doesn’t stop it being a great album, in fact it’s a paean to the continued power of music in people’s lives – music is actually a better experience for those with a little bit of experience.

If this sounds like the boring ramblings of a man approaching 30, then, well, it might just be, however, this is not a boring rambling record – it’s a joyous, brilliant pop record. It’s an album that ponders the question of whether music can still have the same effect on you when you’re older, and answers that question with an emphatic “yes it bloody well can!”.

The opening track, Over The Border starts with a recollection of a group of older kids going around to Peter Gabriel’s house, goes on to remember watching Top of the Pops (“I used Top of the Pops as my world atlas” is such a glorious lyric) and taping the charts, discusses the fetishisation of music writers and record labels; basically it plots out the life of a music lover, with warmth – and a cracking chorus. ‘I’ve Got Your Music’ is a giddy celebration of headphones, looking at the act of listening to music alone with a misty-eyed wonder at having music “everywhere you go”. ‘Record Doctor’ is an a cappella hymnal to that friend who can always pick the right record at any given moment. There might not any song quite as funny as the Red Hot Chili Pepper dissing on 2005’s ‘Teenage Winter’ (the kicking off point for this record), but that doesn’t seem to matter when the lyrics and references are this absorbing.

Musically, it’s probably the band’s most commercial record in a decade – mixing Xenomania pop productions, balearic dance, the dreamy pop of the Carpenters, the stately pop of Blondie and Pulp into a heady, effervescent rush.

It may be that this is a record that cannot be loved by a casual music lover, in the same way that a Taylor Swift or Hot Chip record might, but for a music lover like me, this record is nigh-on perfect fodder. As a testament to the redemptive power of music, I cannot think of a better album.

My Top 20 Songs of 2012 #2: Solange – ‘Losing You’

December 30, 2012

solange

Solange Knowles, or as she’s better known, Jay-Z’s sister-in-law (arf!), signed to Interscope around 5 years ago, released an album that was admired, but didn’t sell much, split with Interscope and popped up watching Grizzly Bear with her sister, covering Dirty Projectors ‘Stillness Is The Move’ and then releasing this Dev Hynes (of Testicicles and Alexa Chung accessory fame) penned single on Chris Taylor’s (of Grizzly Bear) Terrible record label (Terrible is the name of the record label – in a move reminiscent of Jez and Super Hans calling their band ‘Various Artists’ to “fuck with iTunes”). Cynics suggested that she was just embracing indie chic to relaunch her career, however the video and the flipping brilliant nature of the single itself surely go someone to dispelling this accusation. Both video and single are such a joy – the video for her fantastically suave and simplistic dancing style and the song for its Prince-when-he-was-good glorioius effervescence.

The single is that perfect pop beast – melancholy lyrics set to a (mostly) upbeat tune, which is almost guaranteed to both pull at your heart strings and get your Elvis-leg swinging. Dev Hynes has come along way from the tuneless hipster posing of Testicicles (more memorable for his pink guitar than for their racket). In a just world this would have been a huge summer smash hit. Unfortunately, this summer was damp, then subsumed by Olympic fever and then damper – it left no room for pop smashes for anything but Korean novelty songs and established artists, like the monolithic, dystopian R’n’B robot, Rihanna. It’s beautiful, simple and deserved a lot better.

My Top 20 Songs of 2012 #3: Saint Etienne – ‘Tonight’

December 28, 2012

saint-etienne

I’m not sure there’s a better band in the world at both simultaneously celebrating pop music and making great pop music as Saint Etienne. ‘Tonight’ comes courtesy of some assistance from Xenomania and Richard X, both of whom have been behind some of the best British pop of the last decade (Rachel Stevens’ ‘Some Girls’, Girls Aloud’s best songs) and it sounds glorious.

It’s about that anticipation that you feel as a teenager just before going to see a gig from your favourite bands. Anyone who loves music knows that feeling, that giddy anticipation wondering whether they’ll start with “an album track, or a top 5 hit, no turning back” and there is no better band to capture this feeling than Saint Etienne. However, the song is about more than just that feeling; it also conveys looking back upon that feeling as an adult, which is a richer experience than the original quickening of pulse you felt at the time. There is something wonderful about looking back on that rush you felt before the gig and knowing in retrospect that the gig lived up to your anticipations (or exceeded them). Saint Etienne put this feeling to a fantastic pop song, leaving you wondering if there is a place in pop music for the oldies. I hope so.

 

My Top 20 Songs of 2012 #4: Taylor Swift – ‘We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together’

December 28, 2012

taylor

I’ll admit that the first time I heard about this song was a few weeks ago, from my brother, who insisted on its brilliance.

Before this, Taylor Swift’s records were, for me, things to be ignored. They were the sort of records that boring people would earnestly describe as “soulful” and “resonant”, which they weren’t; they were “boring” and “trite”. It was earnest “MOR country rock” music (see also bore-merchants Lonestar, Faith Hill and Rascal Flatts) whose poor record sales in the UK made even this Bernard-Shaw fan feel a patriotic glow. It was music that made The Eagles sound like Steve Reich. In short, I was more than a little sceptical of my brother’s recommendation.

Then I looked the song up on Wikipedia and I found out that Max Martin was involved: the man behind undeniably brilliant smash hits like Backstreet Boys’ “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)”, Britney Spears’ “…Baby One More Time” and Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone” (although even Martin couldn’t make the execrable faux-rebellion of Pink tolerable).

On Wikipedia the song’s critical reception is summed up as follows: “The song received mixed reviews from music critics; some praised the catchy, radio-friendly hook while others felt the song lacked the thoughtfulness of Swift’s previous, more guitar-based work.” Guitars laid to one side? Radio-friendly hook? Lack of thoughtfulness? YES, PLEASE!

The general reaction to this record seemed to lay out, in microcosm, the current fight for the heart of pop music. It is a fight that is also being waged on our TV screens via the X-Factor. The fight is supposed to be “credible pop music” (boring) vs “silly pop music” (fun). Not to get all Pseud’s Corner on your arses, but it’s a false dichotomy.

First, just as it’s possible to make great dumb pop music (Girls Aloud, Backstreet Boys, The Saturdays), it’s also possible to make interesting, clever pop music to which you can dance like a loon (Pet Shop Boys, Madonna, Prince). Secondly, it’s quite possible to make “credible” pop music that’s a steaming pile of dog-jizz, trite, earnest and unconscionably dull (James Blunt, Snow Patrol and Ed Bloody Sheeran). Thirdly, just because you’ve banged on about how much “fun” and “danceable” your pop song is, it doesn’t stop it occasionally being the musical equivalent of that person in your office who will, without any irony, describe themselves as “wacky” or “zany” (i.e. irritating) and state that they “just tell it like it is” (i.e. they are plain rude). This type of pop will relentlessly bang on about how much fun is, use “party” as a verb and generally irritate the fuck out of anyone with more brain cells than an Alsatian with a head injury. In reality, it’s the Louis Walsh of pop: it’s so inane and stupid that it somehow goes full-circle back to unconscionably dull (Pink, Black Eyed Peas and über-clown Olly Murs). However, it was the “credible” crowd who were the most insidious.

It is the X-Factor’s continuing insistence on finding “credible” artists that has led, in part, to the success of Christopher Maloney. Yes, he appeals to the granny market, but it is that combined with his novelty “cumbersome karaoke nincompoop” shtick that has kept him in the competition to the end, ahead of supposedly “credible” singers. Even having watched a mere smattering of this year’s show, I would certainly vote for Christopher Maloney if it meant I never had to hear from James Arthur ever again, a man who seems to be labouring under the illusion that the only thing you need to be a serious artist is an acoustic guitar and a collection of rubbish hats. And if you think that the bosses of the X-Factor are actually happy about the success of Maloney, or that it’s all some nefarious scheme to keep viewers hooked, then take a look at the series of negative stories about him that have been “leaked” to the tabloids by “insiders” in recent weeks. Perhaps, finally, the public are tiring of the show’s judges constantly harping on about “real music” or “credible artists”.

There isn’t “credible” pop music and “silly” pop music, there’s just pop music. It’s all “credible” until it’s shit, or unless you’re hanging around with the sort of blokes who call each other “lad”, engage in “banter” or, worse, “bants” and claim to have actually enjoyed the Beady Eye album.

Anyway, back to the actual song. Well, it’s just a mega pop smash isn’t it? It’s massive. It’s catchier than a superbug in an hospital ward for the elderly and it also has one of my favourite lyrics this year: “You will hide away and find your piece of mind with some indie record that’s much cooler than mine.” In short, it’s a three minute “fuck you” to the false notion of credible pop.

My Albums of 2012 – No. 3: Liars ‘WIXIW’

December 27, 2012

liars

Liars are one of the most consistently interesting bands around. They are also one of the most consistently underrated. Their latest album, WIXIW (pronounced ‘wish you’), has appeared in barely any ‘Best of 2012’ lists, which I find utterly baffling. I can only assume that this is because this is an album that takes a few listens before you can really appreciate its nuances. Or maybe it’s just because of the difficult-to-pronounce title. More probably, it’s because this is a perverse record that is the band’s most accessible yet – so accessible that it was likely to alienate their usual fans. However, the album begins with ‘The Exact Colour Of Doubt’, which is a beautiful mix of washed-out soundscapes and skittish beats, yet experimental enough to turn-off the casual listener, as well as atypical enough to turn-off diehard fans.

Liars are a band obsessed with the sonics and rhythms of music. They are similar in that regard to Radiohead, as well as the fact that their first foray into electronic music (like Radiohead’s) is no mere fashion exercise. It tells you how serious they were about the endeavour, that they made the album with Daniel Miller – the producer (and head of their record label, Mute) behind Depeche Mode and Yazoo, and a man with a deep knowledge of electronic music. This also highlights the difference with Radiohead – in making their first true electronic record, Liars weren’t looking to go it alone. They were also looking toward the Mute, as opposed to the Warp back catalogue.

This is a warm and rich-sounding record, with deep layers in every track. It’s an album of emotional depth and tenderness, yet it doesn’t lose any of the band’s usual boisterousness. ‘Brats’ is their most typical track and is a glorious romp, which you can imagine becoming a mainstay of their live set. Even better was the joyous clatter of ‘A Ring On Every Finger’ and the beautiful washed soundscape of ‘No. 1 Against The Rush’. All of these tracks make sense of the skewed romanticism of the album’s title – a beautiful phrase, made to look ugly, which neatly sums up this incredible album from a genuinely brilliant group.

My Top 20 Songs of 2012 #5: Chairlift – ‘I Belong In Your Arms’

December 26, 2012

Chairlift-I-Belong-In-Your-Arms-Japanese-Video

The best song on Chairlift’s ‘Something’, this is an unashamedly lovely song. It celebrates the rush of being head-over-heels in love, in all its irrationality. The lyrics of the verses don’t really make sense, but they don’t have to, the chorus is so great that the song sounds brilliant even when the verses are sung in Japanese.

It’s a straightforward, totally disarming song. It’s surely enough to make even the greatest misanthrope want to get up on a dancefloor and wheel around with their arms outstretched, like a giddy child.

My Top 20 Songs of 2012 #6: Bat For Lashes – ‘Laura’

December 26, 2012

BatForLashes

When Paul McCartney woke up with the melody for Yesterday in his head, he was convinced that he’d plagiarised it, because it felt so familiar to him. Whilst my personal feelings on that song are that I wished he’d bloody well stayed in bed, it’s a good starting point to discuss Bat For Lashes’ gorgeous ‘Laura’. This I because I found it hard not to imagine that Natasha Khan didn’t have a similar nagging doubt when she had finally finished the track*.

It’s a stunningly simple and subtle arrangement, which foregoes the obligatory orchestral backing so beloved of the modern piano balladeer, in favour of an understated smattering of woodwind and gentle brass. It works perfectly, as with such an irresistible chorus, any sweeping string arrangement would only detract from the power of the song.

Certainly the lyrics (“you’re more than a superstar”) could feel very trite without the sparse nature of the arrangement, which pushes Khan’s tremulous voice to the fore, letting you feel that any sentiments on display are, at best, bittersweet. The narrator of the song is trying to persuade her friend to pull herself out of despair and to “drape your arms around me and softly say: ‘can we dance upon the tables again’”, but it’s clear that she doesn’t truly believe in her own persuasions: “put your glad rags on and let’s sing along… to that lonely song”. It’s a stunning, heartbreaking song.

 

 

*yes, I do realise that it was co-written with the guy who penned Lana Del Rey’s ‘Video Games’

My Books of the Year

December 24, 2012

Deborah Levy – Swimming Home

And-other-stories-Swimming-Home-cover2

This was my pick for this year’s Booker Prize, my favourite from probably the best shortlist in a decade. It reminded me of John Cheever’s short story ‘The Swimmer’, in its sorrowful beauty. It takes a familiar set-up in English novels: middle-class couples of holiday, with the interruption of a young, wild stranger, but Levy weaves these familiar strands into something strange and unsettling. It’s a novel about expectations, about depression, about identity and about what it means to be home. When it’s over, I was baffled and beguiled by how much Levy had managed to fit into such a short page count.

Hilary Mantel – Bring Up The Bodies

Bring-up-Bodies-Hilary-Mantel

Even better than the brilliant Wolf Hall and deserving of every accolade bestowed upon it. Hilary Mantel is one of the best prose writers around. The precision of her prose is a joy. When people bang on about “holiday book”, they usually mean books that require you to leave your brain behind as you turn the front page. Personally, I gather no satisfaction from reading something that is going to leave no lasting impression, except for a disdain for clunky prose and over-reliance on Deus Ex Machina. Jeanette Winterson writes beautifully on the power of great literature in her collection of essays, Art Objects, as well as the fact that so many people can read, but don’t know how to read. What she means by this, is that there are so many people out there who choose the “easy option”, when in fact reading proper literature shouldn’t be the harder option, but is in fact just as easy, if not easier than reading a Dan Brown or James Patterson. There is so much more depth with which to hook in the casual reader, and Bring Up The Bodies is a perfect example of this. When there are brilliantly written novels like this that are so easy to read and – with its richness and emotional depth – can give so much more pleasure than a bog-standard thriller, I am baffled that anyone would choose to take “beach books” on holiday. If there is to be such a thing, then this should surely be it. A glorious novel, fully deserving of the Booker Prize.

Keith Ridgway – Hawthorn & Child

hawthorn

A brilliant book, weaving interconnected stories that surround two policemen in North London. The stories are ostensibly detective stories, but they never reach a resolution, in a manner that is reminiscent of Paul Auster’s ‘New York Trilogy’. The invention on display is mind-blowing, drawing you into Ridgway’s strange world of crying policemen, ghost cars, Japansese gangsters and paranoid schizophrenics.

For a fuller review of the book, I would recommend checking out John Self’s wonderful blog at ‘The Asylum‘ (in my opinion, this is the best book blog around): http://theasylum.wordpress.com/2012/07/05/keith-ridgway-hawthorn-child/

Zadie Smith – NW

NW

Yes, there are faults, but the writing is dazzling. Every page buzzes with an energy, intelligence and wit that papers over any cracks in the plot. In terms of pure prose there are few more exciting writers around than Smith. There’s more pleasure in every sentence of this book than in the whole of whatever dirty novel or vampire romp is being passed around offices this week.

Dana Spiotta – Stone Arabia

stone-arabia

Her last book, Eat The Document, was a favourite of mine a couple of years back. Along with Jennifer Egan, she is one of the writers who should feel aggrieved at the disparity between the approbation heaped upon male writers like Jonathan Franzen and the paucity of coverage for female American writers. Franzen’s The Corrections is one of the best novels of the 21st century, but Freedom is not as good a book and pales in comparison to Egan’s ‘A Visit From The Goon Squad’. Stone Arabia is a wonderful novel about obsessions and memory that I finished in a couple of days. Stone Arabia is another example of a book that, if you want a “readable” novel

Barbara Kingsolver – Flight Behaviour

Flight-Behaviour

This brilliant novel manages to tackle the issue of climate change without ever feeling preachy. In fact, there are some strong criticisms of the (mostly unmeant) condescension that comes from eco-campaigners (in particular in a passage in which a campaigner runs the main character through his pledge – most of which doesn’t apply to a relatively impoverished resident of Tennessee) , as well as sympathy for those who buy into the Fox News line that it’s all a crock. Kingsolver has the advantage of being a former biologist, as well as a fantastic writer. The harrowing, yet majestic final passages of the book are masterly in both their power to shock and the subtlety of the prose.

Favourite classic: Kazuo Ishiguro – The Unconsoled

unconsoled

When it first appeared, this meditative, dream-like 500+ page book drew the ire of many critics. Tony Parsons opined on a television review show that the book was so bad that it should be burned (could there be a higher recommendation than that?!) and the critic James Wood wrote that the book “invented its own category of badness”. However, over time the book has come to be seen as a classic “difficult book”. However, early critics such as Anita Brooker began to reappraise the book, with Brooker declaring that she couldn’t see how Ishiguro “could have got it more right”. When I sat down to read it, I’d been told how difficult the book was (The Observer recently included it in a list of the ‘Top 10 Most Difficult Books’) and I was somewhat trepidatious. However, not only did I enjoy it far more than Ishiguro’s more famous novel ‘Never Let Me Go’, I didn’t find it difficult at all. There have been few books that have stood out so much as this one and I have continued to think about it ever since I put it down. It is almost impossible to concisely explain the peripatetic narrative, which follows a supposedly famous cellist as he prepares for a concert of seemingly paramount importance in a fictional middle-European town. It is a work of extraordinary imagination, which marks out Ishiguro as possibly the finest male writer of his generation.

Other great books I’ve read this year:

Nicola Barker – The Yips (a brilliant comic novel set in and around Luton)

Jeanette Winterson – Art Objects (a wonderful collection of Winterson’s – one of my favourite writers – essays on art and literature)

Thomas Frank – Pity The Billionaire (a very funny (and enraging) look at the rise and rise of neoliberlism and the billionaire)

Edward St. Aubyn – The Patrick Melrose novels: Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, Mother’s Milk and At Last (buy the set, sit down, read within a week – dazzling prose, hilarious, sad, beautiful; these are some of the best English novels of the last 50 years – somewhere between Alan Hollinghurst and Martin Amis)

Tobias Wolff – Old School (if only for his brilliant depiction of Ayn Rand in the final third of the novel)

Flannery O’Connor – The Complete Stories (one of the finest writers of short stories ever to have lived)