My favourite records of 2011

Though of course, my favourite records aren’t records. They’re bits, 1s and 0s. They’re not even being read from my hard disk – they’re on a NAS box downstairs, so they float to my laptop through the air, weightless as a shadow. Funny then, that my favourite record of last year is the one with the most weight –

1) Yuck. It’s not original in the slightest; on first, second, and third lesson, it sounds far too familiar. You think it’s something light and silly, a pastiche of the 90s, of Dinosaur Jr and Nirvana’s blearier moments. But the more it spins, the heavier it and heavier it gets, and the more there’s a pull to the songs, and they begin to generate a real gravity of their own. They have the most beautiful momentum to them. Inside the feedback and verse-chorus-verse, there’s a tender core of something familiar delivered in such a precise way that it feels completely new and totally fresh. It’s £4 at the moment on Amazon, an absolute steal.

2) The Antlers – Burst Apart. The problem is that the opening song is so incredible that it’s all downhill from there. I Don’t Want Love is a tremendous performance, slow and confident, a damaged, inverted Feeling Good where the sound is a shimmer against a great voice. The rest of the album is still good though; soft songs that manage to be delicate but not insubstantial.

3) EMA – Past Life Martyred Saints. For one reason and another, I ended up listening to a lot of Hole this year. There’s some of Courtney’s bile to EMA’s album, but less bombast. Like Yuck, another album with great cocoons of feedback hiding pretty, sticky melodies that really fly. It started getting into my head from the first listen of the first track.

4) Let England Shake – PJ Harvey. It’s as good as everyone says. And it’s only £4. Weird and witchy, but emotional too.

5) Drake – Take Care. Not often I really get into hip-hop/r n’ b, but this is really something different. Well, it is if you skip the dreadful, one dimensional opening track, which features a joke about Asian girls that wouldn’t even pass muster on an ITV sitcom. After that though, the core of the album is bleak, sparse and unsettled. It twists and turns, doubting and believing, wrapped up in a nocturnal bleariness and creating a very specific mood and place.

And a few more that I enjoyed: Bombay Bicycle Club (and not just because I like bikes), though aside from Shuffle it all slips by a bit too easily. The War on Drugs – crap war, great band, Sbtrkt for late night working (not sure I want to remember that) and the Vaccines were tremendous fun.

Best reissue? The Smashing Pumpkins Gish and Siamese Dream. Before these, I thought Billy Corgan was determined to destroy any sense of affection his fans might have had for him (a wrestling league?!), but these reissues are sensitively done, nicely packaged and Corgan’s commentary was great.



Desert Island Discs podcast

Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs is now available as a podcast1. The show is shorter than the radio version as it only includes samples of the chosen songs. Still, it’s often the case that the interview is as interesting as the music so this isn’t too much of a hardship. In fact, in the case of the inaugural podcast, the interview is actually much more interesting than the music.

The guest is Morrissey, who’s introduced by host KirstyYoung as “the outsider’s outsider”, beloved because of his “harsh romanticism.” It’s not a tough set of questions, but all the better for it – relaxed, a little indulgent, but an excellent back-and-forth. I particularly liked Morrissey’s description of his younger self as “constantly waiting for a bus that never came.” Musically, it’s less engaging, being a bunch of 70s art-punk stuff with doomy gothicky overtones:

1) New York Dolls – (There’s Gonna Be Be A) Showdown
2) Marianne Faithful – Come and Stay with Me
3) Ramones – Loudmouth
4) Velvet Underground – The Black Angel’s Death Song
5) Klaus Nomi – Der Nussbaum
6) Nico – I’m Not Saying
7) Iggy and the Stooges – Your Pretty Face is Going to Hell
8 ) Mott the Hoople – Sea Diver

I’ve made a Spotify playlist of Morrissey’s picks; it’s missing numbers 5 and 6.

1 The page design is excellent, making it obvious you can subscribe to the program using a wide variety of software. The BBC even includes a link to a Zune subscription, despite the fact it’s only on sale in the USA.

Added to the wishlist: The Cello Suites

[Book] Via the indomitable Tyler Cowen’s short but sweet Books of the Year post:

“A very good gift book is Eric Siblin’s new The Cello Suites: J.S. Bach, Pablo Casals, and the Search for a Baroque Masterpiece.  It signals the sophistication of both the giver and receiver and yet it is short and entertaining enough to actually read. Package it with the recent Queyras recording of the Suites, if need be.”

Now that is how you write a book recommendation. I would like to know more about classical music. And of course, one is not averse to signalling one’s own sophistication.

The Rolling Stones and The Brussels Affair

The Rolling Stones have released several live albums, and the recording from their peak period, 1970’s Get Yer Ya-Yas Out!, has recently undergone a deluxe re-release. In the original review for Rolling Stone, Lester Bangs said that “I have no doubt that it’s the best rock concert ever put on record.” He might have been right at the time, but just a few years later, the Stones went one better with the release now known as The Brussels Affair. For some reason, it’s only available as a bootleg, but it’s absolutely worth downloading.

It was recorded in 1973, following Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main St, so the setlist is terrific. You get Brown Sugar, Angie, Honky Tonk Woman, Jumpin’ Jack Flash, Street Fighting Man and Tumbling Dice. It’s the version of You Can’t Always Get What You Want which stands out though; it’s 10 minutes long, so, yes, it’s indulgent, but then melancholy is. It features guitar-work that puts the studio version in the shade, backing the verses with sad-but-bright descending notes. If you’re a guitarist, or just a fan of rock guitar playing, the whole gig is packed with highlights, and listening to it, I can almost convince myself that that evening Keith Richards and Mick Taylor played practically every sound you’d ever want to hear an electric guitar make.

The Brussels Affair is convincingly involving and completely silly. It’s all summed up in the second track, Happy, which Jagger introduces with a ludicrous lawks-a-lummee cocker-nee accent:

Mick: Keith’s gonna sing a song for yer called ‘Appy…

Keith then proceeds to start singing with a voice that sounds like the Cookie Monster singing the blues having gargled TCP, while the music rolls along brilliantly; despite seeming to contain a hundred guitar solos and campfire chorsuses, the song is over in at just over three minutes.

Afterwards Jagger says, sounding camp and drunk:

“Merci Keef, that was a good one. Woo hoo. Shake-amonay. God a mama.”

It’s rock n’ roll.

Pet Sounds, a capella

It’s a beautiful sunny morning in London, so this seems like just the right thing to listen to: Pet Sounds, a capella. Despite the fact that it’s a YouTube link, sound quality is terrific. This is probably the first time I’ve really understood just how spine-tingling what music writers refer to as a singer’s ‘phrasing’ can be – check out God Only Knows. Particularly stunning is when the harmonies simply ends, and one of the group says in a very normal voice, ‘how was that?’

Apparently, the original source is a box set called The Pet Sounds Sessions.

Wikipedia’s entry on a capella singing is interesting, relating “a cappella music originally was, and still often is, used in religious music” and that the use of instruments was a matter of debate in the early Christian church.

Virtual reality, then and now

In the 1980s and 1990s, the term ‘virtual reality’ was understood to mean the creation of reality inside the computer – and thus we would need to experience it using complex imaging and interaction systems (3D googles, cursors mapped to the movement of a glove etc.) The implication behind this was the reality itself would be untouched. The real world would simply be a home for the VR equipment: Star Trek imagines it holodeck as a big empty room, for instance. Moreover, since VR ran inside the computer, it only worked when you turned it on – and in movies such as The Lawnmower Man, the nightmare scenario was not being able to get out.

Few people imaginged that when VR came to pass, it would actually involve computers altering the way we acted in reality. The video below shows 100 dancers in central London recreating the dance from Beyonce’s music video for her song ‘Single Ladies’ (which Peter Sagal called ‘a wonderful, brilliantly performed dance number set to an irresistably catchy pop tune’). As a piece of PR in reality, it holds very little value – few people would have the chance to actually see it, as it the dancers and organisers take pains for it to appear to happen spontaneously on the street. It’s over in three minutes, and few of the people who happened to be walking by would actually be able to make sense of it because it only works if you’ve seen the original music video. Indeed, the behaviour of the dancers only really works if it’s watched as a video, passed around virally on the web. It is, essentially, VR: actions in reality that are targeted at, and only make sense when experienced virtually.