Wednesday, 21 November 2007

SOME MORE ALBUMS: THE LETTER "B"


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…

BABES IN TOYLAND: Fontanelle
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.

BARK PSYCHOSIS: Hex
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.

NATASHA BEDINGFIELD: N.B.
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.”

BLACK BOX RECORDER: The Facts Of Life
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.

BLECTUM FROM BLECHDOM: Haus De Snaus
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.

COLIN BLUNSTONE: Journey
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.

THE BOO RADLEYS: Giant Steps
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.

THE BREEDERS: Last Splash
“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.

PETER BRÖTZMANN/TOSHINORI KONDO/HAMID DRAKE/WILLIAM PARKER: Die Like A Dog
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…

KATE BUSH: Aerial
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.