Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Top Records - May/June 2011

Well, my resolution to post at least 2 blog posts a week on here has unfortunately fallen to pieces in the last couple of months, which has saddened me greatly. There are various reasons behind that, a main one being my A-Level Exams, which are now over and done with. However, since they've been finished, the traditional summer holiday conundrum of having just TOO MUCH free time has hit me hard in the productivity balls.

Also, putting this list together was a bit of a sad experience seeing as I've been especially skint over the past few months and so my ability to buy new albums has been significantly impeded. Still, there are a few who have made it through, bringing me a lot of delight over the past couple of months. Here's what's been delighting my ear drums!

Cults by Cults
Cults popped tweely onto everybody's radar last year, yet another indie pop band citing "60s girl group vocals" as one of their main influences. It felt as if it was only a matter of time until The Shangrilas and Martha and The Vandellas lost their patience and merged together into some kind of giant Power Rangers zoid to exact some copyright vengeance on the indie pop scene, but, despite the overload of such music, Cults' self titled debut album really is delightful. Signature tracks "Oh My God" and "Go Outside" are still present (a good thing, as they're still two of the band's best songs), but there's plenty more to go round. Opener "Abducted" is arguably the best thing on there (my dad likes it!) - a rhythm that's just begging you to clap your hands, lashings of hot xylophone and one of the most kick-ass band entries I've ever heard. The constant interplay of male and female lead vocals from Brian Oblivion and Madeline Folin never ceases to be exciting. If you like your pop music catchy, sweet and edgy, this is a must this year.

The Forsaken Elm by Ghosthorse
Ghosthorse began their inevitable career as cult heroes in 2010 with the very limited release of their long gestating debut album The Shoal. The Chessington based duo proved to be the most exciting arrival to the noise music scene in quite some time, utilising an entire multimedia campaign orchestrated by member Michael Bateman, spanning across YouTube and Twitter, as well as allegations of an eventually unsuccessful endorsement of UK cereal "Nougat Pillows". However, their second album is undoubtedly a vastly more mature work, and will perhaps be the band's masterpiece. It's an album which, unlike most noise music (let's be honest) is actually highly enjoyable in many places, adding a whole array of new textures to the band's sound ("The Raft", "Butterfly House", the latter sounding a bit like the music that plays when you're in the tower in Lavender Town in Pokemon Red/Blue/Yellow) The duo are comfortably astride both the philosophical side of things in "Five Point Calvinism", as well as the comical side in "Fake Dad/Fraudulent Father", the latter probably the album's highlight. It sees Ashley Watkinson (traditionally the man who stays behind the synths) taking on spoken word duties, almost eclipsing the primal howls of Michael Bateman. A cult essential.

Demolished Thoughts by Thurston Moore
I have major love for Sonic Youth, and so I was exceptionally excited when I heard that frontman Thurston Moore was releasing another solo album, produced by no less than Beck! It really was call for a bit of an indiegasm. When the first track "Benediction" was made available, I fell in love instantly. Thurston ditched the discordance and harsh screeching and garbled lyrics about anything from consumerism to serial killers, and picked up an acoustic guitar to write lush, beautiful love songs. Thurston is one of the most influential guitarists of all time, and his sheer skill is displayed in the outstanding, melodic finger picking on this album (even though Thurston himself has been critical of his skill with an acoustic) The lush "Illuminine" is a highlight, and showcases Beck's production skills in the divine string section, which fades away into ambience. There are moments like "Circulation" when Thurston returns to thumping, rock and roll mode, with slightly atonal riffing, but it works perfectly somehow, backed up by sparse but strong strings. This album is a light, airy beauty, and will be perfect for long summer evenings.

Bon Iver by Bon Iver
This really is an album where I wonder what I can possibly say. I fell in love with Bon Iver the moment I saw Justin Vernon perform "Skinny Love" on Jools Holland a few years ago. Heck, the whole musical world fell in love with him upon the release of For Emma, Forever Ago. His debut was indescribably poignant, and could still go down as a modern classic. People liked to play up the whole "he recorded it alone in the woods with nothing but a Swiss Army Knife and a mandolin made from bear skulls and the strung flesh of an Elk" aspect of the album's recording, but it was, I think, perfect. So the pressure was on for his follow-up. Bon Iver is different in a huge number of ways from Justin Vernon's debut - but good grief is it still brilliant! There has been a huge departure from the lonely, solo aspect of the first album and Bon Iver has no expanded to a full band who have a near unparalleled mastery of musical texture. Opener "Perth" swells majestically, every new instrument becoming another essential layer of the track - crashing drums, ebullient brass, impassioned vocals. Texture, rather than song structure, is the focus of the album, but it never feels aimless or noodly. It's just jaw droppingly beautiful, one of those albums that takes you to a whole other place. The lyrics are a sparse, cryptic affair ("And all at once I knew I was no magnificent, strayed above the highway aisle. Jagged vacancy, think with ice, but I could see for miles, miles, miles, miles"), but gradually you decipher them and crack the melancholy and heartbreak which is the centre of the album. Stunning.

Suck It And See by Arctic Monkeys
I'll call it now, this will likely end up my top album of the year. I can't conceive of a situation which would place it outside of the Top 3. You might remember my distress and heartbreak when the crass "Brick By Brick" was the Arctic's first preview of this album, but my worries have been shown to have a foundation more insubstantial than Casper the Friendly Ghost's left nut. Suck It And See is a total dream, the most mature Arctic Monkeys record to the date. It still has "Brick By Brick" on it, but in the context of the rest of the album's articulate, evocative brilliance, I can understand its place as just a bit of fun. Alex Turner's songwriting has reached a new level of love-steeped insight and maturity, showcased perfectly in "Love Is A Laserquest" and "That's Where You're Wrong". His voice has beocme the seductive, airy croon which we've always sensed he had in him since Favourite Worst Nightmare. Lyrically, he's reached something of a perfect medium between the cryptic imagery on Humbug and his more accessible writing on the first two albums - and he's probably written some of his best lines here - "that's not a skirt girl, that's a sawn-off shotgun, and I can only hope you've got it aimed at me". That line comes from the album's title track, which is possibly the best song on here, and proves (as do many other tracks) that the Arctics are the master of THE BIG CHORUS. Also, the instrumental performances really are stunning here. Matt Helders' drumming brilliance has been evident for a very long time, but Jamie Cook's guitar playing reaches a new level here, and Andy Nicholson's nimble bass lines are incredibly important in holding the 60s influenced tracks together. I will admit, I love the Arctics with a passion. They're the band of my generation. I loved Humbug, even though many fell away upon its release. I watched with a fully acknowledged self-satisfaction as they did. The same is happening with Suck It And See, though to a lesser degree. It's sad that the world is still full of people who want an impossible repeat of the first album. But with every album, the Arctics have only ever sounded more like themselves. Suck It And See just takes them to the next, brilliant stage.

Honourable Mentions:
- Goblin by Tyler, The Creator
- Black Up by Shabazz Palaces. Still getting to grips with this.
- All Eternals Deck by The Mountain Goats. (Released in March, but took me a while to get round to. Love it all over, will be in my top albums of 2011 no doubt)
- Burst Apart by The Antlers. I don't see what all the critical adulation is for, but it's not bad.

In terms of older stuff I've been revisiting:
- The entire catalogue of The Smiths, again and again and again and again...
- Regular doses of Los Campesinos! Driving fast in a friend's car with Romance Is Boring blaring out was a beautiful moment.
- Frank Sinatra. Although Frank and his big band/jazz cohorts don't get too many mentions on my blog, they were my first love, and Ol' Blue Eyes would still give The Smiths a run for their money as my favourite artists of all time

For the future, the most anticipated release of 2011 for me now is Laura Marling's third album due out September 13th. Let's hope perfection strikes three times!

Monday, 13 June 2011


Today I had one of those peculiar experiences where something you've known and accepted for a very long time suddenly strikes you or dawns on you in a new way. I think we all have those moments where, it's not like you realise something new, but something that's already a firm part of your life or your mind suddenly becomes highlighted; something which comes into your life frequently, even something important or integral to how you spend your time.

I was suddenly struck by the sheer speed at which music travels on the internet. Now, I'm a music blogger, so flash in the pan, half-baked, over-hyped pretentious twaddle is something I come into daily contact with. I've regularly written posts sharing or ruminating on new songs or videos or artist announcements which have come out that self same day. It's part of my daily ritual to scour the internet to see if Damon Albarn has rush-released a multi-media opera about ninjas, or to see what ignorant, self-involved drivel of Liam Gallagher's the universe is going to be indifferent to on that particular day. It's just standard fare to focus on the latest daily developments in the music industry, and to try and prise some gems from the swirling storm of human detritus that most if it is. When you spend your time writing about new music in the 21st century, and want to make a career out of it, that's your sweet smelling bread and butter.

And yet today it just suddenly struck me that it takes mere minutes for some new release to set the online community of journalists, bloggers and Twitterers abuzz with excitement. A new track or EP or mixtape can be released in the morning and, by dinner time, have everyone straining their keyboards with excitement.

Today, for example, James Blake (English electro/post-dubstep songwriter) and Drake (mellow Canadian rap artist) were the subjects of a new mixtape entitled, surprise surprise, James Drake, crafted by DJs Bombe and Mr Caribbean. Due to some highly unfortunate quirks of online fate, I have yet to hear it. However, I am a bit desperate to, and the pursuit to find a site which will currently stream it to my computer is monopolising my evening. This mixtape has been the subject of blog posts, tweets and news updates all across the music press throughout today, and it's, for this evening, the hottest record around. Just like that, in a matter of hours, its become the thing that everyone in the independent music business is interested in. And that is just mind bogglingly absurd!

The fact that that is possible is reflective of so many things. It's reflective of the spreading power of social networks, which we're all painfully aware of. It's reflective of the hyping nature of the blogosphere, with every electro blogger and his mum flagging the thing up before you can say "chillwave". Also, it's reflective of the opportunities afforded to young musicians these days. True, James Blake and Drake have had plenty of big names and institutions backing them up, but they're only 21 and 24 respectively. Their music's their own, and Drake is signed to Young Money, one of the best and most forward thinking hip-hop labels around. I'll be the first to spit at the trashy, vacuous, Major Label orchestrated, self-prostrating "pop music" that claws its way into our eardrums like some crazy reverse image of the stomach splatter scene from Alien, but that climate has created a fantastic reactionary spirit in independent pop music.

It may also reflect the fact that the internet affords us the ability to create our own channels to access the information relevant to us ASAP. Through the people I choose to dominate my Twitter feed, through the websites I favourite, through the mailing lists I sing up for, I create my own little world. For someone else (most of my friends - hi if you're reading this!), this kind of stuff doesn't travel to them quickly, if at all. Stuff travels super fast on the internet, but there's so much of it that it often only goes to the people who are looking for it. Sure, the internet's this massive universal thing which does - often through Facebook - create an environment where EVERYONE becomes aware of something, but often things actually happen in niches, or separate cultures which have their own place in the online world. And that's, I suppose, why I notice stuff travelling so fast. I'm part of a community which is now built on the rapid spread and acquisition of art and information.

So it's been odd just considering the speed with which music, and pretty much everything really, travels online. You just take it for granted in the world we live in, a world geared towards instant gratification, populated by a generation of perennial Veruca Salts. If people want something, they expect to get it in seconds. Sports results, release dates, new stories, videos, anything. Anyway, I'm sure this observation will become mundane again soon.

Now, let's find that James Drake mixtape.

P.S. I managed to get hold of the tape whilst I was doing the spellcheck on this. Can't be bothered to rewrite the post. Hope I don't undermine my entire stance on the rapid, self gratifying, internet based accelerated culture we live in or anything.

Thursday, 2 June 2011

Britain's Got Talent - Hate To Say I Told You So...

Well I've had a highly eventful couple of weeks and so keeping to my resolution to write 2 blog posts a week has been something of a struggle, but here I am once again. It's sad though that I'm writing on such a sour topic today, but it's something I really feel the need to write about.

Towards the end of last year, I wrote a pretty vitriolic post about how Simon Cowell thinks every member of the great British public is a blithering idiot. He sits in his huge, supervillain palace, shaped like a giant X, strokes his fluffy white cat named Louis and cackles maniacally as he sucks money out of our pockets year after year. Anyone with half a brain cell has been able to tell from day one that his "talent shows" - beginning with Pop Idol and now stretching to Britain's Got Talent and its American counterpart - have been nothing but manipulative business moves. But recently I read something which added a whole new, sickening dimension onto the devious git's empire.

Simon Cowell may not be a judge on BGT any more, but the show is still part of his media empire, SYCO. So he's still top dog. I recently read an e-mail, published here anonymously, from an executive of Sony Music UK, who's worked closely with SYCO in relation to BGT.

In it, he reveals how current contestant and hot favourite Ronan Parke, a 12 year old singer, was fist discovered and SIGNED by SYCO two years ago at the age of 10. Over the past two years, he's been groomed to a terrifying degree, trained and controlled in every area in order to get him ready to win BGT 2011. And, as far as the writer of the e-mail is concerned, he WILL win. Simon Cowell has made sure he's been groomed and given a sexualised image to impact on the public and, at the end of the day, to rival Justin Bieber in the pre-teen market. The vote is already rigged apparently, which isn't something that doesn't surprise me and shouldn't surprise you either.

The thing that really gets me here is that, in the 21st century, a company run by a man who has for years been the face of Saturday night FAMILY entertainment, has groomed and sexualised a 12 year old boy. Apparently, young Ronan's always been a bit fey and effeminate, but some kids are at that age. The marketing appears to have been "we can't man him up, so let's start firing G-A-Y on all cylinders". I mean, watch his "audition". What 12 year old kis dresses themselves like that? Children - and yes he is a CHILD - should never be settled on their appearance at that age, and they certainly shouldn't be shoe horned in to a sexuality they're not comfortable with. They've twisted this poor kid's entire life and personality into an image that they want to sell. Regardless of what your views on sexuality are, it is never right, in any circumstance, to take a 12 year old boy who is nowhere near coming to terms with his sexuality, and to purposefully groom his personality, mannerisms and image. It's wrong do that in ANY fashion, not just a sexual one. And it's all made fine and dandy by the fact the Michael Macintyre is a few feet away, bumbling around with his fat, yellow grin like Mr Blobby on a good day at the races.

It was conditioning like this that turned Michael Jackson into a frekish, lonely, highly disturbed man-child. Pressure like this that hooked Judy Garland on pills when she was barely out of her nappies. The 21st century music business is a devious, unscrupulous place, but I really thought that THIS would be below even the scuzziest lizard in a suit these days. But it appears not.

Glamorous child abuse will be pumped into your living room each night this week, surrounded by flashing lights, crocodile tears and two bumbling Geordie idiots who have Simon Cowell's feelers so far up their anuses that he could pull out bush tucker they ate four years ago.

So happy viewing folks.

Friday, 20 May 2011

My Love Affair With The Smiths

This is a post I've been meaning to write for some time. I've thought often about writing it, but always felt as if I should leave things longer so that there would be more for me to say.

Over the past 6 months, The Smiths have come to totally monopolise my entire listening schedule. They're one of those bands who are cherished and despised in equal measure and, ever since they first arrived on my radar a few years ago, I didn't feel very inclined either way. I certainly didn't hate them, but kamikaze like devotion given by their fans and the Godlike status that music journalist and publications afforded them totally baffled me. I just didn't get it.

They broke in up in 1987 and, whilst I love older music, they just didn't seem to be relevant to me. I'd see people commenting on the internet that they were "the only band who ever mattered" and my response would just be "...really?" The only way they ever seemed to push themselves into reality nowadays seemed to be, for me, Morrissey's sarcastic jibes directed at whatever he took a dislike to in that particular interview. Whenever I discussed the bloke with anyone else who had a passing knowledge the consensus seemed to be "what a bell end". Indeed, one of my friend likes to joke that his autobiography will be called The Horrible Things I Say. When Morrissey announced his autobiography was complete, I joked to my friend that he'd have to rethink his title. "No" he replied, "mine's not gonna be titled Moaning Vegan C**t".

So, if you'd asked me just under a year ago, I'd have said that it was highly unlikely that I'd ever become even a passing fan of The Smiths or their maverick frontman, the Pope of Mope, the sullen, carrot eating, Mancunian twazzock.

But then one day, roundabout December I guess, I just got it. Something just clicked. I scrolled across The Very Best of The Smiths in my iTunes, which I'd swiped a couple of years ago from my dad. I just thought "hmm, let's have another listen shall we. You never know". I started listening to "Ask", mainly because its title stood out amongst the otherwise verbose song titles.

Still possessing the view that The Smiths were, essentially, a bunch of miserable knobheads, the shimmering, joyous, bouncy riff of "Ask" took me totally by surprise. For 3 minutes, 10 seconds, I sat there utterly entranced. The song was one of the most euphoric, cleverly written, unabashedly free pieces I'd ever heard. My tiny little 18 year old mind was totally unravelled by this romantic, detailed, lush explosion of song writing.

After falling in love with "Ask", I dove head first into the rest of it. I don't know where to begin because all of it just began to open itself up to me. "Panic", "The Boy With The Thorn In His Side", "William, It Was Really Nothing" were the ones that stood out fastest, but it all began to make sense. I got a hold of their studio albums and immersed myself in each of them, especially The Queen is Dead and The Smiths.

I'm in love with them now. Like I've never been with a band before. So what is it? What does it for me, when for so many others they're a repellent band of miserabilists?

The main thing for me is that Morrissey, lyrically, hits it on the head every time. He's not a self pitying, arrogant twat lyrically - certainly not in The Smiths. For me, almost every word that drips off his tongue in The Smiths lyrical catalogue, perfectly captures whatever emotion he's talking about, because he sings about things that I can identify with. There are plenty of songs which I love because I can apply the lyrics to my life, and indeed some artists who, mostly, I embrace lyrically. But so often I've found myself listening to people describing how there's one artist above all others who is just THE ARTIST for them. The life changer. And I'd never really felt like that about anyone. No one quite got it. Until The Smiths. A band from 25 years ago, still as relevant now as when they changed the world back then.

Take, for a example, "There Is A Light That Never Goes Out", regarded by many as the best Smiths song, and not without reason. I could go into detail about the whole song, but the chorus is just one of the best moments in the history of music. For me, it's the perfect description of friendship:

"And if a double decker bus,
Crashes into us,
To die by your side,
Is such a heavenly way to die.
And if a ten tonne truck,
Killed the both of us,
To die by your side,
Well the pleasure, the privilege is mine".

I mean, what more could you ever want to say to someone that you love dearly? People might say that this is a fairly morbid declaration to make, but he pulls it off so elegantly. It's in his vocal delivery, but also in the choices of phrase - "the pleasure, the privilege is mine". He makes it sound like dying alongside the person you hold dearest is like taking one last, grinning bow before the curtain whips you out of sight.

I see nothing but truth here, and elsewhere in Morrissey's lyrics. He said once in an interview with Miracle Maker that The Smiths were formed because it was "...time that the ordinary folk of the world showed their faces". In an age where pop music is full of brainless morons who produce the most banal, emotionally bankrupt dross imaginable, dumbing their audience down and treating them like idiots, and even "indie music" has been bastardized and simplified by years of scroungers like Razorlight, Kaiser Chiefs and The Wombats, The Smiths speak to me and articulate things in a way that I can't imagine any other group could. I'm not a massive social outcast, but as someone whose tastes vary a lot from most people I know, hearing The Smiths is such a comforting thing. Plenty of music is MADE for musical outsiders, but not a lot of it really talks about what it's like to BE a musical outsider. Their song "Panic" sums it up best, and I feature some lyrics from that later.

Something you begin to realise with The Smiths as soon as you give them the attention they deserve is that they are not the miserable gits that some people take them for. When you understand The Smiths, even singing their most tragic sounding songs is a euphoric kind of experience, because they're so true. Morrissey sums it up perfectly in this interview, the date and source of which I can't locate:

Why is it that you never write a song that could be described as happy?
"Do you really think that I don't? Not even with a massive stretch of the imagination? Isn't there a happiness, a certain release in actually saying things? It's like when you turn around to your best friend, and say - 'Well, actually I despise you, and I've despised you since we were in third year' - I mean, that's really a massive relief, don't you find? Turning around to your parents and saying, 'I'm not living in this dump anymore'... come on, connect the two ... get your knitting needle out!"

I wouldn't call that happiness. Smug, maybe.
"But it is! It is! It's like shedding skin! It is a form of happiness. We shouldn't think of happiness as one thing! Happiness is eating an ice cream, happiness can be Bernard Manning... it can be... an old woman falling off a donkey! I don't know, for heaven's sake, I don't know."

The very act of just SAYING something, even if it's expressing sadness or dislike, lifts a weight of your shoulders that equates to happiness - if you're willing to expand your definition of happiness.

More than that however, The Smiths are bloody hilarious. John Peel once said they're the only band who can make him laugh out loud. Too bloody right! Try this from "William, It Was Really Nothing":

"How can you stay with a fat girl who says
'Ohhhh, would you like to marry me?
And if you like you can buy the ring!"

Or "Frankly, Mr Shankly":

"Frankly, Mr. Shankly, this position I've held
It pays my way and it corrodes my soul
Oh, I didn't realise that you wrote poetry
I didn't realise you wrote such bloody awful poetry, Mr. Shankly"

Or "Panic":

"Burn down the disco,
Hang the blessed DJ,
Because the music that they constantly play...
Hang the blessed DJ"

Or this rather unsettling image of Prince Charles from "The Queen is Dead":

"I said Charles, don't you ever crave
To appear on the front of the Daily Mail
Dressed in your Mother's bridal veil ?"

Morrissey's wit is one of the most captivating things about him, and it's got him into a lot of trouble, but it's one of the best things about his lyrics. Also, his vocal delivery can give lyrics which aren't immediately hilarious a strangely comical air, like "Bigmouth Strikes Again".

The way that The Smiths music combines with the lyrics is stunning as well. There are plenty of Smiths songs which are downbeat and tragic sounding, but there are an equal number which musically are stunningly exuberant and euphoric or thumping and danceable - "The Headmaster Ritual", "The Boy With The Thorn In His Side", "Panic", "Vicar in a Tutu", "Girlfriend in a Coma", "Jeane", the list is endless.

I've gone on far too long here, but whilst we're on the subject of music, Johnny Marr's guitar work, combined with the hugely underrated bass and drum work of Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce, basically formed the template for all indie music ever. The more I listen, the more I appreciate that all of the indie music I love owes nearly everything to The Smiths.

Like I said near the start, I never, ever thought I'd become an ardent lover of The Smiths. But I'm captivated. My love for other bands hasn't diminished, but my perception of what makes a band MATTER is being strongly altered. I mentioned at the start that I once saw on a Smiths fan page, before I started liking them, that one user has simply written "the only band that ever mattered". Part of me hesitates to say it but, for me, that's starting to be more than a little bit true.

Monday, 16 May 2011

My 10 Favourite Indie/Alternative Guitarists

I'm a huge fan of lists. Reading them, writing them, passing comment on them, theorising about them. It surprises me then that it's been some time since I last posted a list on my favourite of anything. So I thought it was high time I picked one of the many lists that floats aimlessly around my head on a regular basis and put it to paper. Or the internet.

Based on my current listening habits, and discussions I often have with myself, I thought I'd share my 10 favourite indie/alternative guitarists. I don't want to get too theoretical about that title by the way. Let's waste no time defining indie and alternative - any of us with any musical sense know in our heart of hearts what we're on about. One key stipulation though is this: there is a difference between what I hold as my FAVOURITE of something and what I regard as the BEST of something. I hold strongly to the truth that, in music at least, there are objective bests. Music that is factualyl, for various reasons, better than other music. But that's a very long discussion for another day. For now, these are my favourites. The ones that tickle my current fancy. Care to share yours after?

10. Alex Turner

As frontman of Arctic Monkeys, Alex Turner is most often hailed for his songwriting abilities, lyrical genius and eternally stunning vocal delivery - all of which deserve the prasie they receive of course. But behind that, people forget that that, despite the fact that band mate Jamie Cook is officially on lead guitar, Alex is the man behind all of the most beloved moments of Arcitc fretwork. The intros of "A Certain Romance" and "I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor", the riffs of "Teddy Picker", "Fake Tales of San Francisco" and so many more, the epic shreddery of "Brianstorm". The Arctics were rightly hailed as the best of a new generation of British guitar groups, and the Alex Turner was the one with his fingers changing history on the fretboard.

9. Nick Drake

Now, this is a bit of a cheat. Nick's one of the most famous folk musicians of all time, hardly an indie kid, but I feel he falls firmly enough in an "alternative" kind of taste, and plus, he never gets recognition for his brilliant guitar playing. Like Alex Turner, the focus with Nick is always on his song writing and lyricism, but people overlook the fact he was a stunningly gifted, nimble fingered guitarist. The sound he created with just an acoustic guitar in his hands was mindblowingly beautiful. It was so full, so rounded and always flowed with a seamless grace that, in my mind, is unrivalled amongst folk musicians. "From The Morning", "Cello Song", "Introduction" and "Time Has Told Me" are all gorgeous examples of what this man could do with a guitar. His death at 26 is one of the most tragic musical deaths in my mind, but his legacy has grown steadily over the years, and you can hear his indelible influence in the music of the new generation of folk artists like Laura Marling.

8. Albert Hammond Jr.

If you were creating a list of the 10 BEST indie guitarists, Albert would be a heavyweight contender for a top spot. Back in 2001, The Strokes' exuberant, fuzzy, fresh faced indie rock hammered life into a music scene which was rolling in its own commercialised filth, still hungover from Britpop and grunge. The garage rock simplicity of "Last Nite" set the indie world on fire and the saviours had arrived. With their debut Is This It?, an album based on the insistent riffs and solos of dear old Albert, they changed the face of any guitar rock which has emerged since. The success of any bunch of white kids with guitar in their hands since 2001 is attributable entirely to The Strokes and how, with Albert at the guitar helm, they changed the sound of indie rock. "Take It Or Leave It", "New York City Cops" and "Someday" all sound as fresh as they did 10 years ago, even if their new material doesn't quite measure up. Rarely has someone called Albert ever been this badass.

7. Stevie Jackson

This is probably a name that will illicit a few "huh?"s from a lot of people, even fans of indie music. Jackson is the lead guitarist of Belle & Sebastian, probably the only band who could ever be called "twee-pop giants". Belle & Sebastian have a love-it-or-hate-it kind of sound, but Jackson's squeaky clean, lushly reverberating guitar lines are an instrumental part. People who are familiar with Belle & Sebastian can find it easy to perceive the group as simply "the Stuart Murdoch project", just an outlet for the creative juices of their frontman. Indeed, the first few albums were just that. He is still the drivign creative force, but the band have been growing ever stronger as a unit since 1998's The Boy With The Arab Strap. Whether through his own compositions or the embellishments laid on top of Murdoch's songs, Jackson's guitar work is one of the most defining features of the band's sound. Melancholy, romantic and gorgeously retro, it just hits a sweet spot in me every time - the sublime riff of "I'm A Cuckoo" and the huge sound of the guitar on "Another Sunny Day" are my personal favourites, but his embellishments are so nuanced and integral to the sound of a classic band that picking his best moments is a difficult, difficult task. The sound he's carved for himself has been an inspiration to countless bookish, hopelessly romantic teenagers craving something sweet and clean in the world.

6. Bill Ryder Jones

Now, our Bill inhabits a similar realm to Stevie Jackson in that his guitar work in The Coral sits side by side the stunning songwriting of frontman James Skelly, being just as integral in crafting the sound of one of Britain's must under appreciated bands of the past 10 years. The band first exploded onto the scene in 2002 with the timeless "Dreaming of You", with Ryder-Jones' scratchy jangles and nifty little solo helping to truly cement the song's magic, to such an extent that his guitar work on the rest of their self titled debut gets overlooked. The sweeping clang of opener "Spanish Main" was a pretty decisive statment about how prevalent he was going to be on the album, and indeed he was. As the band came into their own psychadelic way of doing things on subsequent albums, Ryder-Jones only flourished in crafting a distinctively decorative, warm, jangly sound. Some of the places that his sound shines brightest might be "Put The Sun Back" and "Bill McCai" but, again, his guitarwork doesn't showcase itself in specific moments but in its stunning role in The Coral's overall sound. Shame he left before the band's last album, Butterfly House. I hope he's got more up his sleeve.

5. Jonny Greenwood

Jonny Greenwood is one of those guitarist who you come to describe and you just think "what words are there?" Radiohead are a band who have become so revered that it's hip on the nth level to dislike them, and to class them as one of your favourite bands is often to be regarded as someone with a fairly unadventurous taste in indie music. They're one of the few genuinely huge indie bands of the last few decades, and, whether you think that's a cause for celebration as it demonstrates some mild remnants of taste clinging on for dear life in the vacuous, post-Armageddon corridors of the general public, or a cause for woe indicating how people think all you need is some weirdo dancing like an electrocuted halibut and making strange wailing noises to be artistic, there's no denying that Jonny Greenwood and his revolutionary guitar work have been part of the beating heart of the band. The bleak screeches of "Paranoid Android" still send electric shocks up spines the world over. The scorching wails of "Just" just kick arse every time. Even though there's been an auspicious decline in the amount of obvious guitar work on Radiohead records in recent years, 2007's In Rainbows showed that Jonny hadn't lost any of his guitar finesse whilst he'd been arsing about with that ondes martinot. Even the few splashings of guitar present of most recent release The Kings of Limbs were inspired, and proved, to me at least, that one of the best things about Radiohead has always been the guitars.

4.Tom Campesinos!

Not his real name of course, Tom Campesinos! joins with the rest of his bandmates from Los Campesinos! in keeping his full name a secret, opting instead to mark himself out with a Ramones style mark of loyalty to the band. Los Campesinos! are one of my favourite bands of all time and, for a band who only released their first LP in 2008, the intense love that their fanbase feels for them is terrifying. I think they have the destiny of becoming a true cult classic band and, like many bands in that bracket, their sound is a love-it-or-hate-it affair. It's overwhelming, cacophonous and lyrically as blunt and (sometimes) uncomfortable as being beaten to death by a large, metal-alloy statue of one of your ex-lovers. Tom's guitar lines are at the heart of the band's punchy, abrasively euphoric sound, and they consistently have the kind of earworming quality which causes them to be chanted back to the band at gigs - see "Death to Los Campesinos!", "You! Me! Dancing!", "Straight In At 101" and plenty more for evidence. The band have released 3 albums in 3 years, an astonishing feat in itself, but made all the more impressive by the maturation of their sound on all fronts, including Tom's guitar work. Last year's Romance Is Boring had a stunningly unified sound, with the guitar work underpinning the albums most emotionally intense moments, notably fan favourite "The Sea is A Good Place To Think Of The Future".

3. Lee Ranaldo/Thurston Moore

It doesn't get much more alternative than this does it? I've cheated a bit here and put the two Sonic Youth heavyweights as one entry, but that's because the interplay between their guitars is so awesome and integral to Sonic Youth's sound that the pair's work is inseparable in my mind. Sonic Youth formed out of the largely pretentious no-wave/noise scene in 1980s New York, and, after trying a few other guitarists, Thurston and his girlfriend Kim Gordon met Ranaldo and were buzzing about the work he'd done with avant-rock afficionado Glenn Branca. Sonic Youth, with Ranaldo in particular, were obsessed with exploring the possibilities of SOUND, rather than just the standard notes a guitar was expected to produce. This meant that they employed heavy use of alternate tunings, which, when the band began to gain prominence as a popular rock group, was fairly off the wall. The band have always been and will continue to be explorers of the sonic world, but their music has always been grounded firmly in song writing, stemming from a love artists ranging from Bob Dylan to Thurston's fetish faves, The Carpenters. This marriage of noise and experimentation with structured and pop influenced song writing essentially birthed altnerative rock as we know it. The ripples caused by albums like Daydream Nation is untold. Whilst their have been more than a few moments where they've disappeared up their own arse, it's all been done in the name of taking guitar music to a new level. There are plenty of great guitarists in the world, but it's very rare that someone comes along and turns the guitar into something new entirely, reinventing it for a new generation. But that's exactly what Thurston and Lee did. The ultimate guitar anti-heroes.

2. Graham Coxon

Choosing between Graham and my number one was a heck of a challenge. There's just nothing I do not love about this man and what he does with the guitar. Again, as the axe man of Blur, he's one of those guitarists who can sometimes get lost in the shadow of the band's front man, Damon Albarn. Graham is, from my knowledge of guitarists, the most underrated of them all. Nearly everything that fell of his fretboard in Blur, and in most of his solo output as well, is just gold. "Beetlebum", "No Distance Left To Run", "Coffee & TV", "Tender". "SONG 2!" Genius. Sheer, unabashed, irresistible genius. Even album cuts like "Bank Holiday" or "Badhead" have this subtly magical charm about them. He never blasted out with neanderthal like solos like Noel Gallagher. He preferred the wryest, most cleverly placed bits of fretwork, which Damon Albarn described as "more like anti-solos". His solo material however has proved that he can wail with the best of them - "Spectacular", "You & I" and "Freakin' Out" all being beloved, punk influenced gems. He's even demonstrated his terrifying dexterity with an acoustic guitar on 2009 album The Spinning Top. Graham's sound has had such an influence on British indie bands in the past 10 years and, even if it hadn't, it's never anything less than a joy to listen to.

1. Johnny Marr

Well, here we are. I said at the start that I resolutely distinguish between the BEST of something and my personal FAVOURITE of something but, in this case, my favourite is also the best. There is not another man who can ever be said to have more of influence on indie guitar music. Ever. Being part of The Smiths, our Johnny is probably top of the class when it comes to putting up with the reputation of your frontman, but that never seemed to stop the two of them creating indie music as we know it. Inspired by the likes of The Byrds and Buffalo Springfield, Jonny engineered a trademark "jangly" sound which could soundtrack every area of The Smiths' emotionally panoramic catalogue. I very rarely agree with Noel Gallagher, but one of the few times I have was about Johnny Marr: "There's nothing he can't do with a guitar". The Smiths (well, Morrissey) possess that strange aura of being both at once romantically understated - the backbone of the indie aesthetic - and subtly flamboyant. That's as evident in Marr's guitar work as it is in Morrissey's lyrics and personality. The dexterity of the guitar parts on songs like "The Boy With The Thorn In His Side", "Ask" or "This Charming Man" is just sensational, yet never exhibitionist. "How Soon Is Now?" has one of the most cataclysmically bleak and massive riffs ever, and yet somehow, through Johnny's magic, heavenly touch, it never becomes overbearing. His sound is just so engrossing and enveloping, whilst still being technically unrivalled in modern music. Morrissey's introspective and terrifyingly clever lyrics were the beating heart of The Smiths, but Johnny Marr's guitar work was the flesh and bone that wrapped it up and gave the band form. Without The Smiths and without Johnny Marr, no-oe on this list (apart from predecessor Nick Drake and contemporaries Sonic Youth) would have ever started making the music they do. The Smiths are, like many acts on this list, a love-or-hate kind of band. I'm firmly in love but, even if you're not, there is no arguing, in any sphere of existence, theoretical or otherwise, that Johnny Marr is the greatest indie guitarist of all time. As well as my favourite.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

"They Don't Make 'Em Like That Any More!"

I'm someone who invests a a vast amount of my time and effort into discovering and sharing new music. If you're a regular reader or just know me very well, that's probably something you're very familiar with. I write here and for Tympanogram about new music every week, and my ambition is still to become a music journalist. I care a lot about new music and like to think I'm pretty informed about what's going on - what's up, what's down, what the NME is being inconsistent and childish about, that sort of thing.

This isn't me trying to big myself or flaunt my pretentious indie credentials. It's to give a little context for the fact that, despite that love for and obsession with new music, I sometimes find myself in periods where I'm just not interested in anything new.

It happens seemingly without warning or prior cause. One day I'll be dashing gleefully through a playlist of new, obscure debut singles that I've scrounged from a dozen different blogs, and then suddenyl at the drop of a hat, nothing new excites me, and all I want to listen to is old stuff. These phases can last for a short time - a few days - or sometimes weeks.

I've found myself (largely) in a similar position over the fortnight or so. Sure, there's new stuff I've discovered that I have liked in that time, but it's a lot less than usual. The new stuff that I've been listening to recently even reflects the older stuff I'm listening to.

I'm listening to the new Fleet Foxes album, but probably because it reminds me of Crosby, Still & Nash, who I've been listening to gratuitously (not that the new Fleet Foxes album isn't brilliant in its own right) Or I'm listening to a new Carl BarĂ¢t song a lot, partly I imagine because I've been listening to lots of The Libertines. There are a few other similar examples. Again, I'm sure I'll love that stuff for some time to come, totally on its own terms. It's just that this is a weird place to be in.

So my listening habits recently have been pretty dominated by Simon & Garfunkel, Paul Simon, Johnny Cash, The Libertines, The Carpenters, The Smiths, John Lee Hooker, Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, Frank Sinatra and a few others. They're all artists I'd love on any day of any week, but I just find it really strange that, all of a sudden, they're the only thing that really satisfies me.

I'm far from one of those moany gits who sits around vegetating all day in an outgrown Led Zep t-shirt, getting high and mumbling "they don't make 'em like this any more" - though that statement is true in certain ways.

I think sometimes, keeping up with new music just gets really tiring. It's a surprisingly strenuous task just to KNOW what's going on, let alone keep up with buying albums, pre-ordering albums, writing blog posts, getting mp3s. Sometimes I think my mind just gets frazzled, and I just need to sit back and rest on stuff that's tried and tested, proven and trustworthy. It really does prove that a record can be like an old friend. Whilst old music is a goldmine in and of itself that I'll be delving into for the rest of my life, the classics who have cemented themselves in my life thus far allow me to just sit back and listen, without having to offer up the analysis and evaluation that I do with new stuff - not even just when I write blog posts, I do it in my head all the time!

I wrote this post just to get that thought out of my head, and partly to convince to myself that I'm not "losing my edge". It will pass sure enough. It's just quite interesting to note the unpredictably whims of taste. I'm sure I'm not the only one who gets like this. I hope...

Thursday, 28 April 2011

Top Records - March/April 2011

I said the same at the start of my last review of my listening habits for 2011, but I'm utterly terrified by how fast the year is moving. It's a matter of weeks until my school life is finished, mere months until I fly the nest and head off to university. Yikes. But let's not think about that just yet!

2011, however fast it's gone for you, has continued to rack up some brilliant releases. There are some releases I've been excited about for months, others I knew nothing about when I first came to them. Here's what's been tickling my musical fancy so far this spring!

Build a Rocket Boys! by Elbow
Ever since discovering them through their last album, The Seldom Seen Kid, my heart has been fluttering in rib breaking anticipation at the thought of this album. I wrote a review of it back in March and my glowing opinion hasn't changed. It's bettered if anything. The whole album just keeps on giving. Words like "beautiful", "startling" and "gorgeous" just really don't seem to do it justice. The whole thing just aches with emotion. It feels so REAL. I think it ultimately comes down to Guy Garvey's heartbreakingly colloquial turns of phrase that make songs like "Dear Friends", "With Love", "Lippy Kids" and "Jesus is a Rochdale Girl" feel so sublimely real that it's as if he's sat across the table from you, sharing a reminiscent, teary eyed pint.

What Did You Expect From The Vaccines? by The Vaccines
The Vaccines were always going to find a mixed reception with the album. Discovered and hyped up to the nth degree by the NME, that's always enough to turn a vast amount of the music loving community against a band. However, at the end of the day, all the pretentious twits who want to occupy themselves with over analysing the relevance of guitar bands in 2011, or get hung up on their middle class backgrounds can carry on doing so. I'll be over in the corner singing along to an album where every single song is, quite simply, a cracker. I can't remember the last time I heard an album where every song was as gloriously captivating and singalongable as this. The already popular "Wreckin' Bar (Ra Ra Ra)" and anthemic "Post Break-Up Sex" speak for themselves, but even the album cuts soar, especially my personal favourites "A Lack of Understanding" and "Norgaard". Best of all, they manage to perfectly nail catchy guitar pop without ever sounding stoopid or convoluted. Just fun and free. Death to the haters.

Belong by The Pains of Being Pure At Heart
I never really got round to The Pains of Being Pure At Heart when they first emerged in 2009. However, the level of excite surrounding the announcement of this, their second album, made me determined to give it a go. My oh my! It's a strong departure from the sound of their debut, anyone could tell you that (and for some, that's enough to put them off of it) but, as far as I can see, this record is, for lack of a better word, majestic. Gleaming walls of keyboards, pounding and and drums, cataclysmic buzzing guitars - this record is huge. It really reminds me of The Cure, circa Disintegration, except with a heck of a lot less self loathing. The breakneck, euphoric energy of tracks like "Heart in Your Hearbtreak" or "Terrible Friend" make this an album to play with the windows down and the speedometer up. It's a relief really that a band can make music in 2011 that's showered in sentiment, distortion and breathy vocals but still sound as if they have some substance.

Wounded Rhymes by Lykke Li
Lykke Li was another act I never really got the first time round. She always seemed like a bit of an also-ran to me, though I don't know why. Therefore, when the excitement around the release of her second album reached mouth-foaming levels, I was pretty intrigued and thought I'd give her a second chance. Well folks, it's albums like this that make me think giving acts a second chance is still worthwhile. This album is full of stunningly penned songs, primarily exploring the darker side of love. The first track I heard was the pounding "Get Some", which storms along over fat, swung drum beats which instantly reminded me of big band classic "Sing Sing Sing". In fact, a lot of this album sounds pretty retro, and I can just imagine it flowing out of a crackly wireless somewhere in the 50s - especially my personal favourite track, the ballad "Unrequited Love". Despite the sadness and melancholy that hangs over the album, Lykke Li always manages to sound effortlessly alluring and sultry - "I Follow Rivers", "Jerome" and the aforementioned "Get Some" being cases in point. This album could become a classic my friends.

Submarine by Alex Turner
Now this isn't exactly an album, but it's still featured extensively in my listening over recent weeks. Arctic Monkeys front man Alex Turner penned the soundtrack for the recent film Submarine (which I saw - brilliant!), directed by Richard Ayoade, who's directed several Arctic music videos in the past. I posted about my reaction the first track made available from the soundtrack a while ago, and it suffices to say that the rest of the songs didn't disappoint. The breathy and sensual "Stuck on the Puzzle" is a perfect showcase for Turner's ability to highlight the tiny little details in life which are loaded with potency, possibility and personality. The whole song is wrapped up in carefully placed layers of details and metaphor which you can pick away at and think about for hours on end. The other tracks leave Turner alone with just an acoustic guitar, and that's always been a treat over the years. His storytelling knack is as strong as ever on the enchanting "It's Hard to Get Around The Wind" and the gorgeously romantic "Hiding Tonight" perfectly captures the mood of impetuous, impossible promises made in a teenage romance. Not bad for background music eh?

Honourable Mentions
Daydreams & Nightmares by Those Dancing Days
Blue Suicide by Coma Cinema
Smoke Ring for My Halo by Kurt Vile
Tomboy by Panda Bear

There's been plenty of older stuff that's I've had on repeat as well:
- Talk Talk Talk by The Psychedelic Furs
- Bridge Over Troubled Water by Simon & Garfunkel
- Paul Simon by Paul Simon
- The first 3 Kings of Leon albums. Those were the days.
- Prolific returns to the Arctic Monkeys back catalogue!
- Blonde on Blonde era Bob Dylan. Perfect for these new sunny days.
- The Carpenters. So much Carpenters. One of the best bands ever, so I was reminded!

There's plenty more stuff to come this year - the new Arctic Monkeys album springs to mind first of all. But there's plenty of unheard of stuff to be discovered. And hey, time may be moving fast in 2011, but we're not even half way yet!