Wednesday, 21 November 2007


The clear lesson that the Grauniad needs to learn from this exercise is that it’s all about presentation and substantial content; the sundry blog comments seem to confirm my initial suspicion of half an hour of passing the hat on an idle Wednesday afternoon, and the staff themselves seem to have no clear idea of what exactly they were trying to achieve other than temporarily boost flagging circulation figures. The real tragedy is that there are a lot of genuinely brave choices amongst this thousand but so much deadwood of cliché to trudge through before unearthing them and so much crucial stuff being lost. The act of leafing through the daily supplements is in itself tiring and enough to put the unwary stranger off investigating any music at all, and the writing itself scarcely rises above banality upon placatory banality. As an experience it’s pretty sexless.

However, it looks as though I won’t even be able to cover the “C”s before I leave, due to urgent, life-altering business to attend to today, so with the “B”s I’ll have to suspend blog activity until I return, no longer a single man and living in a different place in all senses of the term. And with the “B”s I have had to be even more ruthlessly excluding than the “A”s so there will be many seemingly inexplicable omissions (or acts omitted because the Guardian got it right-ish); otherwise I’d have to reel off a list plus ardent analysis of every “B” album in my collection and that, I’m sure you’d agree, would be in some grey realm beyond tedious…

If you’re going to include Bikini Kill then you have to have Kat Bjelland as well – but then I couldn’t find any room for the Bangles so what do I know? – and her electrifying screams on the opening “He’s My Thing” is enough to make you want to give birth to a medium-sized planet of red.

BADFINGER: The Best Of Badfinger
So much more than the missing link between the Beatles and Big Star, even though they suffered a similar premature mortality rate; all the hits and key album tracks, and the kernel of power pop.

BADLY DRAWN BOY: The Year Of Bewilderbeast
More inspired Mancunian wandering about, experimenting and finessing beautifully mischievous post-indiepop, even towards the end raising the spectre of Carla Bley and finally providing one of the most moving endings to any record – especially now.

DEREK BAILEY: Domestic And Public Pieces
“I suppose I’d better explain what’s going on here” – Ballads is the DB record you could bring home to mother (well, to a degree) and Aida might be the deepest, but this collection is the best and fullest introduction to his sublime world; solo bits and pieces recorded at home or live at the ICA, largely on a snappy acoustic, with the key addition of the guitarist’s own deadpan Sheffield voice, musing on inter alia the fire which destroyed the Unity Theatre and Simone de Beauvoir’s observations on ageing. Whither come another?

CHET BAKER: Chet Baker Sings
The key record in the evolution of “not singing”; Baker breathes in and out of his flugelhorn, barely raising his voice but conveying a world of heartbreak and hapless betrayal. Without this, no Herb Alpert and “This Guy’s In Love With You.”

BALLBOY: Club Classics 2001
Grumpy but not really Scottish answer to Damon Gough, this is a remarkably fresh collection of his first three EPs and other odds and sods; the pick is the deliciously growled “I Hate Scotland.”

BANANARAMA: The Greatest Hits Collection
Whether with Swain & Jolley or the Fun Boy Three or SAW, the girls drew the leyline which eventually led to the Spices and Saints and Babes and Girls and everyone else; brilliant and unarguably opinionated pop.

THE BAND: The Band
Admit it chaps, you forgot, didn’t you? I mean, Music For Big Pink was only the beginning of 1968 time for everybody from the Beatles on down, but as with their spiritual forebears (see Broken Social Scene below) they opened up a third way, a music centred on community rather than “stars,” a music of discovery both of self and world, a music which gladly opened its arms out to everybody and everything. But the eponymous second album has the edge on song power; “King Harvest,” “Unfaithful Servant,” “Rag Mama Rag” and the imperious “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” where past and future frighteningly coalesce…this is where Arcade Fire start. Then again, perhaps it’s no wonder that the Guardian prefer to concentrate on “stars,” on wheelers and dealers, on both make and take; it would mean their having to admit the notion of “socialism” again.

Patricia BARBER: Mythologies
The Krall and Norah who should be, infinitely more creative and daring and sensual than either, a brilliant pianist who gives her guitarist most of the solo space, exacting, patient observations on figures of mythology and wondering where all of this is now leading us.

Still sounding like the first record to emerge following the apocalypse, darkened tangles of guitar, voice and processed electronica stretch out the concept of The Song until it nearly but not quite snaps; meditations close, cold and yet comforting – the leas and marshes of the East End before they were gentrified.

JOHN BARRY: Themeology – The Best Of John Barry
An anthology which traces a route for Britpop from Juke Box Jury to Dances With Wolves, taking in all the Bond themes and key TV/film scores, so that we may witness how Duane Eddy fifties snaps and growls evolved via Milhaud and York Minster into approaches to harmony and orchestration which continue to insist on an infinite influence on pop. In his Persuaders theme, cymbalom meets Moog, history faces the future.

THE BEASTIE BOYS: Paul’s Boutique
Licensed To Ill was uproarious fun in its day but now sounds very firmly of its day; the real innovations came with the follow-up which no one bought, produced by some obscure chancers called the Dust Brothers, and yet; seventies samples used non-ironically, discontinuity of flow, random interjections, slowly flowing grooves, improvised and painstakingly constructed – everyone from Saint Etienne to the Neptunes owes it a particularly huge bundle.

BEAT HAPPENING: Beat Happening
The culmination of a creed which C86 alone didn’t quite achieve; Calvin Johnson unveiling a new, delicate but stinging and distinctly feminine approach to what was left of indiepop, and Kurt wasn’t the only one listening.

THE BEATLES: The Beatles 1962-1966
Nobody ever mentions the Red or Blue compilations in best-of lists, and the Red in general gets mentioned hardly at all in any context – OK, the first disc of the Blue album constitutes maybe the greatest sequence of pop music ever but the second is decidedly patchy, whereas with the Red (despite its pronounced avoidance of delving deep into Revolver) it’s one smashing, punctum slice of pop after another, played with such reckless good nature and insolent innocence at a time and in an age when they didn’t particularly feel that they had to prove anything.

A very close call between this and brother Daniel’s debut album but Tash gets it because of her fantastic voice, her unaffectedly surreal and intelligent approach to music and life and her genuine capacity for invention. If Lily or Amy ever put out anything as generously crazy as “I Wanna Have Your Babies” then maybe we could start taking them seriously.

BIG AUDIO DYNAMITE: No 10 Upping Street
Practically the disguised last Clash album, as it was nearly all co-written by Strummer and Jones, and the group’s best blend of samples, rock, punk and funk; pick is the tumultuous closer “Sightsee MC” which explodes in dissolute night bus fireworks, gunfire and Captain Scarlet samples.

BIOSPHERE: Patashnik
A Norwegian called Geir comes up with some danceable melodies in his bedroom – sound familiar? But Mr Janssen goes much further in pursuit of the broken beat; a thrilling journey through perpetual half-dawn and even, thanks to Levi’s, a minor hit single in “Novelty Waves.”

For me Luke Haines at his best and blackest; actress Sarah Nixey sings, or more accurately recites, the progressively gentler and bloodier songs, including an unexpected Top 20 hit single with the title track; “Never Ever” as rewritten by Virginia Woolf.

BLACK GRAPE: It’s Great When You’re Straight…Yeah!
One of many British records which made 1995 especially blue and yellow, and arguably the great Britpop party record; Shaun Ryder, Bez, Kermit and co. don’t give a fuck, slam it together almost before they’ve played or sung or burped it, and it still sounds like life itself. And a number one album too; that wouldn’t happen now.

Where Riot Grrl went next, only nobody was looking; from the guitars to the laptops, enveloping improv noise disguising or enhancing fulsome girl pop songs. You’ll believe a PC can scream.

BARRY BLUE: Dancing On A Saturday Night…Best Of
The glam rocker whom everyone forgot, and possibly the weirdest; the singles didn’t even tell you half the story as Lynsey de Paul’s favoured songwriting partner veers from genre to genre as madly as any Van Dyke or Todd and along the way also manages to become the midwife to Britfunk – while writing cheesy Eurohits for the Brotherhood of Man.

THE BLUE ORCHIDS: The Greatest Hit
The more seldom visited quarters of 1982; Martin Bramah temporarily breaks free of the Fall to invent the concept of absenting oneself from one’s own music, of flying off to another underground; guitar post-punk music of such unaffected grace that it continues to inhabit its own citadel of nobility. “The only way is UP!” indeed.

MARY J. BLIGE: What’s The 411?
THE record which pronounced that it didn’t have to be all Whitney or Mariah, melisma without meaning; back came rawness, back came brutal truth, delivered in a voice whose power was comparable to Aretha’s – just inhabiting a different world. Missy, Beyoncé and the rest all start from here.

BLINKER THE STAR: August Everywhere
One of the great lost American rock-pop albums of the last decade; the expansive production and arrangements suggest a big budget gamble but it never quite happened – a shame, since the songs and harmonies are dazzlingly sublime throughout. If you love unexpected chord changes then this is the record to have – and its musings are truthful.

THE BLOSSOM TOES: We Are Ever So Clean
Yet another 1967 to discover; in some ways a typical Mod-goes-psych document of its age but its spirits are on the verge of wild – guitarist Brian Godding went on to become an important voice in the music of Keith and Julie Tippett and also Mike Westbrook - its mischief evident, its tunes marvellous. It climaxes with a scratch mix of all the tracks you’ve heard thus far. In 1967, remember.

One Year is rightly lauded but Journey, from 1974, has yet to resurface on CD even though it’s an equally powerful (and delicate) collection of songs; pride of place must go to the opening triptych of “Wonderful”/”Beginnings”/”Let’s Keep The Curtains Closed Today” – about a man landing at an airport, about to be reunited with his beloved after far too long apart…oh yes…

BLUR: Modern Life Is Rubbish
The London trilogy should really be considered as a whole, but I still think the first chapter is the best and most underrated – put together before the band had a completely clear idea of the trajectory they wanted to take, and also recorded when they were virtually broke and struggling to find reasons to stay together; Albarn sweeps off the Westway and down into Emperor’s Gate, doesn’t yet quite trust America but leaves the door open, retains some of the Leisure-era post-shoegazing otherness that we conveniently keep forgetting.

BOMB 20: Field Manual
Unsettlingly prescient with its illustrated CD booklet of how to assemble a bomb, this 1999 Digital Hardcore offering was so extreme it made Atari Teenage Riot sound like Atomic Kitten; yet its beats and sourly sad melodies cannot help but seep through the cracks.

BONGWATER: The Power Of Pussy
Ann Magnusson and Mark Kramer fulminate about life, rejection, Berli Alexanderplatz, folk songs, sex and more sex, and do “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine” and “Bedazzled” as Carla Bley might once have done them; one of the hidden pleasures of the summer of 1991.

Give them a point for cheek for that album title; give them nine more for almost living up to it – dub, psychedelia, white noise, trumpets and community singing; the true Merseybeat of its time.

GLENN BRANCA: The Ascension
An exceptional record even by 1982’s standards; classical maximalist technique applied to a neon wall of guitars (among them the nucleus of what would become Sonic Youth), thrilling, eviscerating and powerful enough to justify post-punk on its own (see also Hope Against Hope by Branca alumni The Band Of Susans for evidence of how easily this could be transmutated into pop). Give him a point for cheek for that album title, too – is Coltrane at the root of everything?

ANTHONY BRAXTON: The Montreux/Berlin Concerts
Speaking of which, the AACM’s least scrutable graduate presented with this double album his most complete picture of his compositional group approach – two burning quartets powered by Dave Holland and Barry Altschul, recorded at Montreux in 1975 with Kenny Wheeler on trumpet, and at Berlin in 1976 with the young George Lewis on trombone coming in to earn his improv stripes. Thrilling music (despite or because of the diagrammatic theoreticals – see also Aphex Twin’s SAWII) which takes Webern, Konitz, Hindemith and Sousa as equals.

“Cannonball” was the women’s answer to “Smells Like Teen Spirit”; “S.O.S.” helped invent “Firestarter”; witty, pulsating arsequaking pop – it was Kim Deal’s time and the sweetness was triumphant (and let’s not forget Tanya either and mention Star by Belly before the furious emails come in).

JACQUES BREL: Infinitement
You can’t just slot in Brel “laterally” - sideways like an inconvenient uncle whom the kids won’t understand – since his songs have ideally to be heard in their original French, and ideally to be sung by him (and even more ideally to be seen sung by him, complete with his furious and expansive acting); free of the partial sentimentality which has befallen several subsequent popular translations, the originals are more ambiguous, less secure.

BROKEN SOCIAL SCENE: Broken Social Scene
Here’s the chief music writer of the Guardian surveying the pop sounds of 1967: “The Velvet Underground? I like some of the stuff I’ve heard from them, but there seems to be an awful lot of hype and I don’t think there’s much behind it. At least Anita Harris addresses issues relevant to 1967 Britain…” And he would have kept his job as well. Yes, I made that up but in a depressing way I’m not making it up at all. But I maintain that BSS, from You Forgot It In People onwards, but emerging in full flower on their most recent eponymous album, represent a new future for music as comprehensive and inviting as that which Robbie Robertson and the rest invented (or reinvented) four decades previously) where the concept of “stars” simply does not matter – even when one of their number suddenly starts to have top ten hits – and, more radically, where the fixed notion of the “group” is in perpetual and inspiring flux; like 1967 and 1971 and possibly 1979, everyone is happy to play with each other and others besides, each individual’s own music grows and benefits as a direct result and the notion of the “song” rebounds into the infinite clouds of discovery which it deserves to inhabit. I repeat: this is the New Thing and in twenty years’ time everyone will continue to be referring to them and learning from them as avatars and pioneers – long after Lily Allen and her ilk have been banished to the bargain baskets in Sainsbury’s, or to a footnote to a footnote to a footnote to the lengthy entry on Broken Social Scene which will appear in the histories which matter.

I have the shivering feeling that Machine Gun will become Brötzmann’s Kind Of Blue; the token “noisy improv” album. Some twenty-five years later, this quartet’s fiery but considered homage to Ayler is just as adventurous, and through the use of trumpeter Kondo’s electronics, arguably more so; and both hornmen fully interact with perhaps the greatest rhythm section in contemporary free jazz. Compelling and bewitching.

BUBONIQUE: Trance Arse Vol 3
Despite the title, Bubonique, the satirical spinoff from Cathal Coughlan’s Fatima Mansions (with the aid of various friends, most notably Sean Hughes), only released two albums; 1993’s 20 Golden Showers is a remarkable and hilariously pointed affair, but Trance Arse just shades it with its brilliant Chas and Dave do Michael Nyman pastiche of “The Pianner,” spot-on send-ups of Jamiroquai (“Talkin’ About Talkin’ About”) and Parklife-era Blur (“Oi! Copper!”) and its devastating “Q Magazine – Why Kurt Cobain Had To Die Again And Again” which nails incipient Hornbyism with deadly accuracy (“Pretzel Logic – what a masterpiece!”). Not too sure whether either record is still in print, but they ought to be; humour so frank and black to be worthy of Stanshall in his prime.

TIM BUCKLEY: Starsailor
Probably the most cited and least heard “masterpiece” in “rock,” apart from the occasional appearance of the original “Song To The Siren” on compilations. If it seems perverse that a particularly watery British rock group could take the name (and the typography) of this record and become so successful with music which is essentially its polar opposite, then that may be because Starsailor is not easy to get hold of – long-term legal disputes between Herb Cohen and the Zappa estate mean that the Straight Records catalogue (which also includes such things as An Evening With Wild Man Fischer and Beefheart’s Lick My Decals Off, Baby) has been unavailable for a generation; the rare sighting of an unsatisfactory late eighties CD pressing of Starsailor can command ludicrous prices (in the summer, I saw a water-damaged copy retailing in Camden MVE for £40!). Yet it remains an unrepeatable masterpiece; Buckley taking his voice into post-Coltrane free space, improvising, yodelling and howling over fiery accompaniment from his trusted band (Lee Underwood on guitar, Buzz and Bunk Gardner on horns, etc.), even, on the title track, relying on his own multitracked vocal explorations and helping to invent Diamanda Galas in the process. Let’s hope the bureaucracy gets sorted out in sufficient time for a proper CD reissue to be made available before I qualify for my pension. I mean, if Allen Klein can sort out the Cameo-Parkway dilemma…

Because it makes a change from Hounds Of Love, in both senses of the term. What else is there to say? It’s all been said!

THE BUTTHOLE SURFERS: Locust Abortion Technician
Despite not having had much to do with Mr Reynolds for some time, I must admit that “arsequake” as a terminology always appealed to me more than the rather literal “grunge” and the Buttholes were absolutely in the soiled mid-eighties vanguard; while side one of Hairway To Steven (1967 reappears when you least expected it) is something of a miracle, LAT is their most consistent, outrageous and troubling work – samples, growls, whines and creepy ‘phone-ins (“22 Going On 23”) combine to create something you hadn’t really heard in rock music before.

And that’s all for now. Back in December with the “C”s onwards, by which time I will not be quite the same person I was, and yet more truly the same person I have always been. After six years, this Church is open for business again; the past has been honoured, the future is now embraced. As was always the intention behind its building.

Monday, 19 November 2007


Well, they threw down the gauntlet, so why not pick it up and run like blazes? Yes, I know, the Guardian music section is such a dreary and easy strawman these days, on a par with the McCanns really, but we have to remember that we’re talking about a straw poll involving about twenty people, probably taken on a listless Wednesday afternoon in the office, to bolster circulation and demographic awareness a bit. Despite its avowed proclamation that this isn’t just another list of the bleeding obvious it is largely that – Rubber Soul instead of Revolver, now that’s radical! – and indeed in Saturday’s chapter alone we find A Love Supreme and Hounds Of Love, as we surely knew we must. Nice to see that it passed my personal Escalator Over The Hill/Machine Gun test, even though the subeditors couldn’t be bothered to spell Linda Ronstadt or Peter Brötzmann’s names correctly, and by the look of things elsewhere it seems pretty clear that someone has had a peek at one I made earlier. Good grief! What would the Guardian do without me to give them their ideas, eh?

Before I turn into LBC’s Steve Allen I thought I had better come up with some alternative suggestions of my own, and a quick scan of my heaving shelves revealed so many potentially missing items that the only way to do it is one letter at a time. Fittingly I am unlikely to progress beyond the letter “C” since I have one or two little tasks that I have to go off and do over the next couple of weeks – you know, fly to Canada, get married, come back here, move to new home, say goodbye to six years of grief and sadness, wave hello to a new second life which won’t be virtual – so by the time all that’s done I reckon I should get to the letter “Z” by around Christmas. I can’t promise which Christmas that will be, mind.

Let’s get it straight (from the middle); this is not a stiffening canon to be forcefed at electrified bayonet point (though there are certain writers I can think of who would benefit from such treatment – behave MC!), simply a long(ish) list of records I like which I feel would enhance any reader’s collection to the point that people will gaze at you with bulging eyes all the way down, ooh, Camberwell New Road. There is a fair amount of recent/current stuff present but it’s there because I feel that their importance will prove themselves a thousandfold in years to come (now come on, chaps, get rid of those Lily Allen and Bloc Party entries; you’re just going to look even sillier to potential 2017 readers – it’s like an equivalent 1992 survey which includes the Inspiral Carpets and Silverfish). Or in some cases they’re there simply because I dig ‘em. Harold Bloom must be shaking in his Shakin’ Stevens shoes at the prospect…and if Abba or ABC or Adam or All Saints or Aphex Twin or Aphrodite’s Child or AR Kane or Ayler or (*insert name here*) don’t appear it’s because they’re already in their rightful place in the original list…

ACID MOTHERS TEMPLE: New Geocentric World
1967 lives! The Japanese already sound as though they’ve reached 2967! A million Acid Mothers Temple albums there may be to sort through but this 2001 epic still stands as their cornerstone; freakbeat meets crunch metal meets balladry meets ambient feedback. A monster which will never be over the hill.

DAVID ACKLES: David Ackles
Gruffing somewhere between Neil Diamond and Buckley senior, but with a view as black as anything Cave or Cale could conjure up – “The Road To Cairo” and “His Name Is Andrew” tell the realer story of 1968.

THE ACTION: The Ultimate Action
The great lost British Mod band, worshipped by Phil Collins and Paul Weller alike, with all their singles and everything else they did that was interesting; few white Brits have done Motown better than their “I’ll Keep On Holding On” or their “Since I Lost My Baby.”

ADAM AND THE ANTS: Dirk Wears White Sox
No arguments with Kings Of The Wild Frontier, the unavoidable public starting pistol for New Pop, being in anybody’s list but don’t forget his 1979 either; with the band who would eventually become Bow Wow Wow and putting the sex into post-punk. Franz Ferdinand in comparison sound like Freddie Starr against Adam’s Johnny Kidd.

ADAMSKI: Liveandirect
The symbol of a time when the nineties had just been born and rave was about to seep overground; heartbreakingly optimistic uptempo beats segued into a gloriously tinny whole. Who could resist an album, even a mini-album, with a track entitled “M25”?

Recorded at “The Club” but actually scammed up by producer David Axelrod as a gig in front of the watered-up assembled employees of Capitol Records; the title track came within a hair’s breath of the Billboard top ten, with its patient and oddly dissolute electric piano meditations by writer Joe Zawinul which helped give birth to another time.

ADD N TO X: Avant Hard
Art of Noise meets White Noise; post-New Pop studio boffins meet up, send drums crashing, set up bucolic bleeps later to be adopted by telephone commercials, give Goldfrapp her toughest musical environment.

THE AEROVONS: Resurrection
Some kids from St Louis think they’re the next Beatles; Apple is momentarily ready to believe them, “World Of You” in itself is enough to make you understand why. Then it all fell apart rapidly and this album takes over three decades to appear, but it’s worth it.

AGE OF CHANCE: One Thousand Years Of Trouble
Disgracefully out of print – or was that the only fitting fate for a band so avidly locked in notions of nowness? – this indie/hip hop/Tackhead car crash has actually weathered rather well, especially on the closing “Learn To Pray” which sounds like Kate Bush intercepting “Buffalo Gals.”

THE ALBION DANCE BAND: The Prospect Before Us
In seventies Britain as radical in folk terms as Westbrook or Tippett were to jazz, sundry ex-Fairports and kindred spirits (including the rare sight of a happy Shirley Collins) team up with live Morris dancers in the studio and make the old music breathe and thrash again (the ending of “Hopping Down In Kent” is nothing if not punk – recorded in 1976!); the best use of two drummers on a British record in the space between Westbrook’s Metropolis and the Fall’s Hex Enduction Hour.

THE ALL SEEING I: Pickled Eggs And Sherbet
Another picture of Sheffield, beaten but not out; its stalwart spirits, from Tony Christie via Phil Oakey to BabyBird, come to life and prove that New Pop can survive all that is thrown at it, at whatever speed.

THE ALPHA BAND: The Arista Albums
Handily compiled on 2 CDs, young T-Bone Burnett and associates create a new American music whose implications were not properly picked up until, of all people, the Pixies turned up. Another 1977 it would be unwise to overlook.

Clare “grows up,” Mike Chapman joins several important dots and their jouissance matures into instinctive and natural elegance. Is there really a pop single better than “Bring Me Closer”?

ALTERN-8: Full-On Mask Hysteria
Stafford’s finest make one of the key hardcore/pop rave albums complete with “Stafford Park” and General Election scams. Fourteen years later, we could still do with its Vick’s Vapour Rub 1993 “now.”

ALTERNATIVE TV: The Image Has Cracked
The original propagandist in Sniffin’ Glue and the only one with the nerve to act on what he said, Mark Perry (together with Alex Ferguson) made 1978’s most incendiary record, bravely beginning with Eno-esque synth howls (provided by Jools Holland!) being squashed by a ten-minute-plus argument with their audience before going into Zappa (“Why Don’t’cha Do Me Right?”) and the astonishing “Still Life” which on two guitar strings invents Sonic Youth nearly a decade ahead of schedule.

AMERIE: Because I Love It
Both R&B and New Pop live as Amerie injects her programme with dynamic tension, unflappable ebullience and a penetrating musical intelligence. As radical in its yellow, smiley way as Britney’s Blackout.

Three young members of Mike Westbrook’s band want to go even further out, and not necessarily via jazz; they meet up with an equally impatient drummer and a curious but charismatic Marxist theorist of a classical composer, start to improvise, wrench peculiar new sounds out of their standard instruments, play white noise over cut-ups of pop records, at other times so quiet they dare each other to drop one atom of a pin; Joe Boyd produced their 1966 debut, stuck it out on Elektra, McCartney heard it and an impatient blues guitarist from Cambridge with arthouse tendencies named Syd absorbed it to extents seismic.

The other end of the Acid Mothers Temple bookcase; surprisingly light and even poppy in places, but 1971 through to its silver-lined boots of post-Stockhausen totality.

THE ANIMALS: The Best Of The Animals
Newcastle hard men who belt out the blues and pound the organ because they HAVE to (“We’ve Gotta Get Out Of This Place” after all) and help invent the Doors, only better; many compilations available but this mid-nineties one also collects their two crucial singles for Decca; hear their visceral take (even by early 1966 standards) on “Inside – Looking Out” and wonder why Grand Funk Railroad ever bothered wasting ten minutes trying to surpass it.

ANNIE: Anniemal
Perfect pop which neither its creator nor her record label seemed especially keen to push as pop but it remains a marvel – life and colour out of bleak hopelessness; 1982 helps to make 2007 live. Sally Shapiro’s record company, please take note.

The Ferry to Rufus’ Bolan (when both were still hungry believers); is even the Guardian that quick and ready to forget the difference to pop this has already made?

APOSTLE OF HUSTLE: National Anthem Of Nowhere
Such lists are also going to have to pass my Broken Social Scene test in future, I think; one of many fertile spinoffs from that ensemble, led by guitarist Andrew Whiteman, a blend of world music rhythmic schemata, post-Gen X gay torpor and the kind of thoughtful improv-post-rock that SST sometimes put out in the eighties, and a road to everywhere if anyone wishes to follow it.

FIONA APPLE: Extraordinary Machine
Bitching, sorrow, rage and liberation – plus a broken restaurant window or two – Jon Brion started it, Mike Elizondo polished it up and in the process made it sound even more radical; dear Kate Nash, this is what you have to beat.

AQUA: Aquarium
Cartoon characters as pop; a dangerous exercise at times, a marvellous, knowledgeable revelling at others. Where ABC’s third album might have gone had they been Swedish.

ARAB STRAP: Mad For Sadness
Falkirk’s nobly ruined storytellers; even if they only had the one story to tell (get drunk, fail to pull girl, get drunk again) they had a thousand ways of relating it, best captured at this Queen Elizabeth Hall concert from 1998. Their inflammatory reading of “The Girls Of Summer” is one of the key recorded performances of the last decade.

THE ARCHIES: Sugar Sugar
Cartoon characters as pop; a sentimental choice perhaps (especially in its very literal if luridly coloured British sleeve) but one of the great bubblegum albums with quality tunes (“Bicycles, Rollerskates And You,” “Scooby-Doo”) worthy of the actual Monkees; with Andy Kim, Jeff Barry and Toni Wine among others involved, this is hardly surprising.

Now coming across as a more sober, studied Gogol Bordello, this album – absurdly already out of print – is one of the finest and least expected World Music triumphs of recent years; improvisatory, delicate, forthright and terribly poignant, Arto Tunçboyaciyan is something of a visionary organiser worthy of ranking alongside Zorn and maybe even Ellington.

Useful French 2-in-1 reissue of the group at their arguable 1969-70 peak; the soundtrack to Les Stances Á Sophie featuring Fontella Bass taking soul to its sonic and carnal extremes on “Theme De Yoyo” coupled with 1969’s gruelling but fantastic People In Sorrow. Free jazz’s equivalent to the Band; when all else seemed to be collapsing, they quietly revealed a third way.

Collating the Into Battle EP, all of the (Who’s Afraid Of The?) Art Of Noise album and other remixes, and therefore perhaps the most important album of the last quarter century in terms of sheer influence; Trevor Horn’s team mess around with samples left over from Duck Rock, Morley gives it a structural/theoretical frame, NY B-Boys refuse to believe they are breakdancing to the music produced by well-heeled thirtysomething suit-sporting English citizens, the world explodes.

It starts with the end of the world (“Real Great Britain”) and ends by “Scaling The Heights” – righteous, angry and years ahead of its critical time (now it sounds absolutely 2007), a furious flourish of feedback, shattered beats and insane Bollywood strings from some of John Stevens’ most distinguished workshop alumni. The line continues - and Martin Amis should be made to listen to this record at Bulgarian Army surplus cattleprod point.

ASSOCIATES: Fourth Drawer Down
Sulk of course deserves to be in every list – especially since it contains the song which eventually begat our particular beginning of time and thus the reason why I won’t be able to blog for a week and a half – but a word for Fourth Drawer Down; the fearless Scots boys, living off nicked milk cartons and scammed record company advances, giving them the liberty to experiment every which way, sometimes at the risk of their own lives (or sanity), and their findings come out on singles every two months or so, eventually to be collected on this extraordinary album which seems both to predate and postdate all other pop. Has anyone yet caught up with the implications of “Kitchen Person”?

One of the great pop groups of the last twenty years, and virtually ignored or sidelined into Wire-type ghettos by those who should have known better…and yet, as Alec Empire points out in his sleevenote to this definitive compilation of their finest moments, their songs have survived and mutated into revolutionary anthems all over Europe and beyond. Mixing noise, speed, anger and petulance with a ferocious intent that has scarcely been equalled; imagine if “Sick To Death” had been the new Girls Aloud single, and ATR should have hit equally big.

THE AU PAIRS: Stepping Out Of Line – The Anthology
Collecting both of their studio albums in full plus non-album singles and B-sides, this was uncompromising feminism which seemed exceptional even in the context of 1981; Lesley Woods eventually ran away to only she knows where, but the barely suppressed anger of songs like “Dear John,” “It’s Obvious” and “Armagh” still sound raw in a world of Electrelane politesse.

BRIAN AUGER: Get Auger-Nized! – The Anthology
The devil to Georgie Fame’s bouncing angel, Auger could make the Hammond organ sound the dirtiest thing ever (“Tiger” as subsequently sampled by Bentley Rhythm Ace); with Julie Driscoll he drove blues boom psychedelia to the point of Blow-Up; and then with Oblivion Express he more or less invented Acid Jazz in the seventies. What’s not to like? Listen to his demonic “Indian Rope Man” (with Julie already exceeding herself on vocals) and wonder why the Charlatans ever bothered.

AUTECHRE: Tri Repetae
A dozen or so years ahead of Burial, beats so skeletal and structures so innately alienated that one searches fervently for human involvement, and one of Warp’s masterpieces; an ideal soundtrack, I found, for visiting Safeway’s in Shepherds Bush Green of a cold Monday evening in November.

“Chanson Sans Issue” was very nearly a hit in the UK, but since then the band seem to have been lost to English audiences; a shame, since this excellent album marks them out as the French Saint Etienne – feathery vocals and carefully expansive music, though always retaining a tangible sting.

Begins with Kevin sitting at a café table in Paris attempting to chat up the girl (or boy?) sitting at the next one and then dissolves into a wonderland of discontinuous folk-rock, post-psych and improv interludes involving everyone from Mike Oldfield and Robert Wyatt to Lol Coxhill and Bridget St John. Certainly the most consistent album of his Harvest years, though Whatevershebringswesing runs it a very close second.

ROY AYERS: Destination Motherland
Dreamy but subtly threatening vibes-led jazz-funk from the decade which deserved it; whether the angular blue lines of “We Live In Brooklyn, Baby” (which I’m about to retitle “We Live In Fulham, Baby”) or the deceptive atomic bliss of “Everybody Loves The Sunshine” or the oxymoronic “Running Away” which works because everybody involves knows that they’re glued to the spot, this reminds me of Glasgow in the sunny late seventies; blue skies, abandoned shipyards, bountiful unknowing.

Piaf’s most beloved and belated pupil, Aznavour defied his appearance and his early audiences to carve charisma for himself, singing of subjects previously barely, if ever, touched upon in popular chanson, in some cases ahead of both Brel and Brassens. In English he sounds even more like the poisonous fly in showbiz’s ointment.

And apologies to Annie Anxiety Bandez, Herb Alpert, Aswad, Animal Collective, American Music Club, Muhal Richard Abrams, Alcazar, Anthrax, Antipop Consortium and too many others!

Saturday, 17 November 2007

C.C.S.: Whole Lotta Love

It begins like an interlude from the soundtrack to a subdued, downcast study of Northern Britain starring Albert Finney; Tony Coe's clarinet delineating the melody (or riff) line slowly and lugubriously over John Cameron's piano (and thereby inadvertently raising the issue of the similarity of the "Whole Lotta Love" riff to the main melodic motif of Coltrane's Ascension - it's the same five notes in the same order) before Alan Parker and Colin Green's guitars thrust themselves into the more familiar form of the tune derived from the Willie Dixon number played and taught to Robert Plant when he first came down to London and kipped on the sofa of Alexis Korner. So there is a nice and I am sure deliberate closing of the circle here, since Korner and Cameron were the founders of the band fully known as the Collective Consciousness Society.

Drifting into existence at the partial suggestion of RAK Records boss Mickie Most - Cameron was a regular arranger on his productions, notably on Donovan's sneakily gaudy string of hits - CCS were the user-friendly face of the multifaceted explosion of the large-scale British jazz ensemble of the early seventies, the point of entry to the palace in which Keith Tippett, John Surman, the two Mikes (Gibbs and Westbrook) and others were busy demolishing barriers, getting disparate and seemingly irreconcilable camps of musicians to work and play together. Largely a studio operation, it combined rock (Herbie Flowers and Tony Carr, along with the abovementioned guitarists, provided that element) with innovations and consolidations in Britjazz; its ranks included familiar names like Wheeler, Beckett, Lowther, Don Lusher, Ray Warleigh, Peter King and Ronnie "Walk On The Wild Side" Ross amongst many others.

And, most crucially for their recasting/reclaiming of "Whole Lotta Love," there was the white Jamaican flautist/saxophonist Harold McNair. Cameron himself says that McNair was the only flautist he knew who could carry off the Roland Kirk vocalising trick with conviction and used him on most of his sessions. His early death from lung cancer in 1971, not yet forty, and the consequent scarce discography, have conspired to absent him from critical acknowledgement, but the situation has now been at least partially corrected by the recent augmented CD reissue of his remarkable 1970 album The Fence (with its gorgeously minimalist cover design of small pink rectangle at the top right hand corner of what is otherwise an ocean of ultramarine), muscular yet thoughtful jazz-folk-rock workouts with a typically amazing supporting cast including Danny Thompson and Terry Cox from Pentangle, Steve Winwood and a very young Keith Tippett.

It's McNair's furious overblowing flute melody which marks CCS' "Whole Lotta Love" as a major achievement, ushering in the massed brass section which then descend a sliding scale of semitones until climax is reached and the track stops allow Korner and Peter Thorup's echoing call and response vocals to float out of tempo: "What" they sing...and that is all they need to sing before the surge of guitars, percussion and brass sweep the ship away again. It was used for a decade as the theme to Top Of The Pops, where its twists and turns perfectly soundtracked the mounting dramatic excitement of the countdown of a chart whose conclusions were, in those days, mercifully unknown.

Thursday, 15 November 2007

THE BRAD MEHLDAU TRIO: Everything In Its Right Place

This is what Radiohead’s world might sound like if everything were in the right place, or at least assumed on pain of excommunication to be in the right place. The whole of the Anything Goes album turns standards at right angles to paint a Manhattan picket fence future where everything looks to smile – Meldhau’s “Smile” smiles, so not to speak - but nothing is really allowed to go in the McLuhan or McGoohan sense. Larry Grenadier opens with a sombre post-Garrison drone bass meditation which takes in “Big Noise From Winnetka” and winds up crushed by the spiders at the bottom of Belafonte’s banana boat, allowing Brad’s aerated piano to float disquietingly into the partially hidden picture. Even though the topline is melodically minimal – in a Kid A world it’s all about what’s squealing and fading behind and below it – Meldhau makes the most of the pointed silences in between those 11 x 1 note lemon sucking statements, placing special emphasis on the discordance of the “right” in “right place,” but relenting back towards the ground rather than continue to tapdance the Stan Tracey spikes lurking at the top of the fence. He doesn’t forget “Maiden Voyage” – that sigh, the ineffable child-speaking whisper blowing incidentally, or centrally, through the second verse – nor Vince Guaraldi; as Meldhau slightly discloses himself to improvise we visualise a Peanuts world out of which Charlie B never really managed to grow, but like Bill Evans and Paul Bley he keeps his emotional cards clenched to jaw-secreting invisibility; when Jorge Rossi takes off on his drum solo, reciting his Tony Williams displacements and flutters, Meldhau doesn’t join in and rampage through Walton and Cecil like Keith Tippett would have done; he calmly waits for Rossi to cease blowing his top before signalling the performance’s end, ambiguous and hanging in a semi-purified, not yet detonated air.

Monday, 12 November 2007


There seemed to be two shows trying to wriggle their individual ways out of the body of The Kylie Show, screened on ITV on Saturday. One was a startlingly electric blue shot of retro-futurism – the frozen statue comes to life in front of a 1972 audience, smiling and telling them that she can’t get them out of her head, and was it 1972 or 2047? “Tears On My Pillow” redone for 1944, as her remembrance of someone who sits in the audience, dances with her but is really a ghost. The black on stark white of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the end, extending Doris Lessing’s glaciers into the brightest of limbos – or maybe she just remembered the Pet Shop Boys’ Wembley Arena show from 1991 – with girl dancers pretending to be arm-bearing wooden soldiers (or Stanley Baxter redirected by Philip Glass?). A different face, a new colour, for every song, daring you to aim a pin within 300 miles of her eyeshot.
But this coexisted with, or was regularly intercepted by, the buttery spirit of the Donny And Marie Show; terrible, unfunny comedy skits being the only doors through which the Jasons and Danniis of another world were allowed to pass, in an attempt to convince us that Kylie really is a stroppy cow who bets on the horses, treats her dresser like pond life – or perhaps it’s a double bluff. However, would it matter if it were? This stagey wobbling inevitably fed its way back into the show’s musical matrix, making this viewer questioning even the better parts; the new album tracks sounded promisingly sprightly and suitably affecting, but is this merely, as Peter Robinson has suggested, a counter-irony to match Britney’s bet that we didn’t see her one coming?
As Robinson says, while Kylie is under no obligation to speak or sing about her cancer or her love life, her seemingly solid refusal to address the issues in her new songs places an emotional barrier between artist and listener which is hard to vault. Rather, X suggests the mere continuation of the business of a showbiz trouper; keep on dancing and smiling regardless, don’t break the spell, address the fourth wall only if it is a mirror.
Which brings us to “I Believe In You.” Originally released in 2004, and still the best record to involve the Scissor Sisters (though New Order’s Waiting For The Sirens’ Call is closer behind than you think), Kylie sings with sweet sumptuousness about all the things in which she doesn’t believe – and that too is a double bluff, since she is really singing about what she does believe (ranging from “I don’t believe the faults I have/Are only mine to blame” to “I don’t believe that when you die/Your presence isn’t felt”) before turning herself into a Dollar choir to state angelically “But I-I-I believe in you.” It may still be the closest she has come to addressing herself openly.
But it can also be read as an extended, if slightly apologetic, ode to self; it was performed on The Kylie Show as a weightless, beatless ballad with its singer abandoned in a hall of mirrors. The camera ranges and the editor cuts or fades to such a degree that we eventually lose track of who the real Kylie is in the midst of this forest of Kylies; she doesn’t appear especially elated by her belief or her faith (and it came directly after a song whose chorus repeatedly urged “Love me, love me”). Monochrome turns to queasily lime green colour, and the final “you” is addressed by Kylie to camera or to one of the many mirrors, or perhaps it’s one of the mirrors talking to her. The overwhelming impression is of someone who will do anything to keep actual, messy people from reaching her or herself from having to explain anything useful. Have we been watching a hologram for an hour? Where does the live singing stop and the miming start (the two were blended so seamlessly that extreme aural sensitivity was required to spot the joins)? Does entertainment merely teach us to smile, or do we shiver at such spectres, fearing that the mask, when finally ripped off, will reveal – Joan Collins? What sort of an end, or a beginning, is that? Or will she eventually ski right off that eyebrow?

Wednesday, 7 November 2007

KEVIN AYERS: Brainstorm

With its affably low vocal and crochet pattern of guitars busily knitting into a waltz-time gait, “Brainstorm” seems at first hearing to fit snugly into the general morosely good nature of Ayers’ new album The Unfairground; there is a general air of an expat Brit Leonard Cohen with the same rueful smile at chances missed and lives lost. But he sings of “visiting time in the past” as a refuge from whatever he has to face now, and as he approaches the chorus his dreams are then ruthlessly blown apart: “And then the storm blows a scream/and it crashes your dream/like a fist through a curtain of glass.” Suddenly bereft, Ayers raises his tone only a fragment to allow his request of “And so you shout, scream/Gimme back my dream!/I need one to get through the day.”

The previously placid music, too, is gradually derailed, firstly by distant shards of guitar feedback which will eventually intrude into the foreground and eat up the track like a fist of post-metal, and then splintered piano as well as a moribund-sounding string section and an almost subliminal musical saw. “If it’s lost and it’s gone/I won’t keep hanging on/And the storm can just blow me away…(down to quietude again)/Blow me away.”

It is his first album in fifteen years; there are reasons for this to do with others no longer here but it seems as though “Brainstorm” is the closest Ayers has come to looking anger and grief in the eye since “Song From The Bottom Of A Well” even though musically the former superficially seems the exact opposite of the latter; throughout the record he is assisted by various contemporary indie types (assembled by his producer rather than himself; he confines his listening to World Music these days) as well as some old friends. I note that the icy fire of the guitar freakout on “Brainstorm” is performed by Phil Manzanera; only those who have lived and dwelled for long enough can truly know.

Tuesday, 6 November 2007

VASHTI BUNYAN: I'd Like To Walk Around In Your Mind

Some things bother me about Some Things Just Stick In Your Mind, the recently released 2CD compilation whose mission seems to be to prove that Vashti had a life before those diamond days. In her sleevenote she speaks of her songs centring around the impossibility and futility of trying to pin someone or something down, and yet her guarded comments about her record label insisting that her 1964 demos be included as a second CD suggest a degree of revisionism with which she may not be in full accordance. She also points out that Loog Oldham did not press gang her into switching from folk to pop, and the Stones-penned title track – a single in 1965 – suggests the truth of this; there are huge orchestral resources but they seem to eddy into their own whirlpool as her confidently trembling voice is pushed to the forefront of the mix.

The cover shot features Vashti standing in Lots Road, a few minutes’ walk from where I currently work, circa 1964; both it and she look as though they belong to 1934. The samizdat crackles and bubbles from the battered vinyl and acetates which have been used as masters imply a long buried message from another world and not just another century. Yet some artists cannot be easily explained, and perhaps she belongs in that category and innocently befuddles anyone who tries to comprehend what subtexts, if there be any, lurking beneath her art. The T-Mobile/”Diamond Day” tie-in might betray a continuing interest in her wanting her music to be pop, and there is no reason why it shouldn’t be.

The nearest this compilation gets to “explaining” Vashti is 1967’s “I’d Like To Walk Around In Your Mind,” barely two-and-a-quarter minutes long, arranged discreetly (for acoustic guitar, double bass, nearly inaudible percussion and ‘cello) and produced by Mike Hurst, intended for single release on Immediate but never issued. In front of its equine campfire gait she sings as “sweetly” and “vulnerably” as ever but the message she conveys is more baited. “I’d like to walk all over the things you say to me,” she sighs, “I’d like to run and jump on your solitude/I’d like to rearrange your attitude to me.”

Already it is as if she foresees the reckless foresight of failed dreams: “You say you just want peace and to never hurt anyone/You see the end before the beginning has ever begun.” In her graceful smock lies a bomb. “I would disturb your easy tranquility/I’ll turn away the sad impossibility of your smile.”

But rather than, or as well as, the weekend radical or the betraying lover, she may be addressing her would-be listeners: “I’d sing my songs and find out just what they mean to you,” before the key emphatically moves up an octave and she provides an unexpected link between the Barry Gibb of “Words” (another song directed at the listener) and the Momus of “Closer To You” as she comments on the inherent dispensability of the two-minute pop song (but does it have to be dispensable?): “But most of all I’d like you to be unaware/Then I’d just wander away/Trailing palm leaves behind me/So you don’t even know that I’ve ever been there.” Quiet and calm, but with a stern, unbending mind behind the benign semi-smile; a threat as subtly sinister as anything in sixties music. As with her unlikely Denmark Street pop doppelganger Barbara Ruskin, did she simply look aghast at “Boom-Bang-A-Bang” and “Monsieur Dupont” and see that for a British female artist there was no talking to her time and that a different life had to be attained? And do “2 Hearts” and “Gimme More” prove or refute her wisdom in facing that world again?