Category Archives: Music

ūü鼂ôę‚ô™ – The Nutcracker by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

List Item: Listen to half of the 1001 Classical Works You Must Hear Before You Die
Progress:
 32/501Title: The Nutcracker
Composer: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Nationality: Russian
Year:
 1892

There are times where the only thing that helps me concentrate at work is some classical music (or ambient music like¬†Digital Rain¬†by Johnny Jewel). I have pretty much done Chopin’s¬†Etudes¬†and Beethoven’s¬†Kreutzer¬†to death by this point so, for whatever reason, I decided to pop on¬†The Nutcracker.

Despite only writing three ballets, it is hard to deny that Tchaikovsky didn’t write three classics. With¬†The Nutcracker, Swan Lake¬†and¬†Sleeping Beauty (which I’m actually seeing in a few months) to his name, it makes me wonder why he didn’t write more of them. He obviously has an incredible talent for them and having listened to¬†The Nutcracker¬†on Spotify… well I just want to see it live now.

Having read up on the story that the music is written for, I do wonder whether knowing this even matters. In the end, for a ballet like The Nutcracker, it really is a bunch of beautifully composed and choreographed set pieces loosely stuck together with a narrative thread.

I mean, it is easy enough to deduce from the music alone that the second act of the ballet is the more fanciful and far more interesting than the first one. I’m likely not alone in saying that my favourite section of music in this ballet is the¬†Divertissement in the second act – where the different residents of the Kingdom of Sweets dance for the heroine (the Chinese and the Russian dances being my favourites).

Now, I swear that I’ll be done with the¬†Fantasia¬†music soon. It might make sense for me to prioritise it over the rest of the list; just so that I am able to listen to more music with fresh ears and fresh images in my brain. Don’t get me wrong, it was great to have the dancing thistles in my head for the ‘Russian Dance’, but I like to be able to think of my own interpretations rather than remember someone else’s.

At least when I see Sleeping Beauty live I will be able to associate that music with the live ballet more than the animated film. Well, live in hope.

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Acclaimed Albums – The Soft Bulletin by The Flaming Lips

List item: Listen to the 250 greatest albums
Progress: 153/250Title: The Soft Bulletin
Artist: The Flaming Lips
Year: 1999
Position: #111

In all the years that I have been listening to¬†Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots¬†it never really¬† occurred to me to listen to their previous album. Sure, I tried listening to the excellent follow up (At War With the Mystics), but it wasn’t until a week ago that I turned on¬†The Soft Bulletin¬†at work whilst typing up some handover notes. It actually worked rather well.

Having not listened to Zaireeka, or any other of their older records, I cannot exactly comment on how The Soft Bulletin was a sharp change in direction that ended up being the making of The Flaming Lips. I mean, how a group can go from being mostly guitar-led alternative rock group to something neo-psychedelic and incredibly beautiful is beyond me. Speaks to the creativity of the band.

As a listen, it is hard find another overarching word to describe this album than ‘beautiful’. The arrangements are intricate, the vocals are heartfelt and everything about it just feels lush. I love the lilt in his voice as he sings as well, it’s somewhat unusual and helps to really sell the lyrics.

However, I cannot tell you what any of the songs are about – I just get so swept up in the sounds of the music and vocals that I find it hard to focus on what is being sun. In no way is that a criticism of the lyric writing ability, just my own inability to concentrate.

With¬†The Soft Bulletin¬†I really do have the agency to go back and get better acquainted with¬†The Flaming Lips’ discography. I mean, this is the third album of theirs that I think is absolutely fantastic and there are eleven other albums of theirs for me to give a go to. At least now, thanks to Spotify, I won’t have to source 4 CD players in order to give¬†Zaireeka¬†a go.

ūü鼂ôę‚ô™ – Music for the Royal Fireworks by George Frideric Handel (Post #1000!)

List Item: Listen to half of the 1001 Classical Works You Must Hear Before You Die
Progress:
 31/501Title: Music for the Royal Fireworks
Composer: George Frideric Handel
Nationality: German/British
Year:
 1749

Yet another piece of music that, once it started playing, I easily recognised. It really speaks to the power of music that memories of primary school came flooding back to me once the Overture got into full swing. You see, whenever we had school assembly there would be classical music playing on a portable stereo at the front of the room. I bet that I’ll be getting a few more flashes from the past as I go through this list – it’ll be interesting to see what the next piece will be.

The name¬†Music for the Royal Fireworks¬†doesn’t leave much up to interpretation as to the purpose of Handel’s composition. Similarly, the title immediately flags up who send forth the commission. So, when listening to this piece, I tried to imagine how this would pair with fireworks – which means that this would have been more a good piece of background music than something that emulated the fireworks. This makes sense as that would have been a nightmare to sync up.

What makes this very different from the other pieces I have done so far is the amount of brass and woodwind. The version I listened to was the orchestral one that Handel created after the original stringless piece had served its purpose. It doesn’t take away from the strength of the blown instruments by having some of them replaced with strings; the brass and woodwind are still very much the centrepiece.

I know that I’m probably going to have to do a longer piece again soon… maybe an opera? That could be fun if I found a way to listen to one with a crib sheet.


This was a complete coincidence, but music for fireworks does feel rather apt for this landmark. When starting this blog back in March 2014 I, to be completely honest, did not fully expect to have kept it up for a whole year Рlet alone reach the 1000th post as I have done today.

Compared to the original idea of the blog, where I would be going through a more specific list of things, the scope really has exploded into a huge number of lists that I can only hope will be completable in my life. Still that’s kinda the fun isn’t it.

Thinking back on my headspace when I started this blog, things were incredibly different. It was a few months after my depression diagnosis and I was looking for some sort of meaning (having been in effective life hibernation for 3 years). Boy, am I in a better place now. Sure, I could still afford to physically healthier – but I have a a great marriage, a mortgage, a job I adore and money to follow my travel passion. For the moment life is good, and I’m going to make the best of it that I can.

Acclaimed Albums – The Velvet Underground by The Velvet Underground

List item: Listen to the 250 greatest albums
Progress: 152/250Title: The Velvet Underground
Artist: The Velvet Underground
Year: 1969
Position: #186

It feels like a weird milestone to be at the last album by¬†The Velvet Underground. I know there are many other bands on here that I have completed (like The Beatles) or are yet complete (like The Rolling Stones), but¬†The Velvet Underground did something that the others didn’t – completely subvert my expectations.

I’ve spoken previously about how growing up helped me like¬†The Velvet Underground & Nico¬†and I can say that, with a re-listen, I came to like¬†White Light/White Heat.¬†It actually feels like everything has come full circle with¬†The Velvet Underground¬†as it is the first of their albums where I have enjoyed it on the first listen.

Then again,¬†The Velvet Underground¬†is very different from their other albums on this list. For one thing it is more ballad-driven, which was a welcome development seeing how I started listening to this at 11 o’clock at night. This doesn’t make this album any less interesting – the penultimate track ‘The Murder Mystery’ attests to that – it just means that this feels like an album where the band had started to become comfortable.

I would pick out some favourite tracks but, being the unoriginal person that I am, I actually liked the singles (plus ‘The Murder Mystery’) most. One of them that particularly struck me was the closing song, which just did not feel like a Velvet Underground song. Maybe it’s because of the clean female lead vocals of Maureen Tucker instead of it being another Lou Reed song, but I liked that they chose to end on a song that had a different feel to the rest of the album.

In two albums time I will be done with the 1960s.¬†Cheap Thrills¬†is in a precarious position at the bottom of the list, but it’ll still be worth hearing. Right?

ūü鼂ôę‚ô™ – The Carnival of the Animals by Camille Saint-Sa√ęns

List Item: Listen to half of the 1001 Classical Works You Must Hear Before You Die
Progress:
 30/501Title: The Carnival of the Animals
Composer: Camille Saint-Sa√ęns
Nationality: French
Year:
 1886

I needed this album. All the music that I have listened to for this classical list is so serious or pious that it is easy to forget that there were composers out there who were having a bit of fun with the art form. This is why I was so keen on listening to¬†The Carnival of the Animals –¬†a series of short pieces that take cues from different animals. Seriously, this is the antidote to yet another choral piece.

When listening to¬†The Carnival of the Animals¬†it helps to have the track list to hand to find out which animal you are meant to be listening to. Some of the pieces, such as the ‘Kangaroos’ and the ‘Aviary’, are pretty obvious whilst others, like the ‘Elephant’ and the ‘Fossils’, need a bit of helpful clarification.

Speaking of ‘Fossils’, it’s criminal that Saint-Sa√ęns’¬†Danse Macabre¬†doesn’t feature on the list. Therefore the small rendition of this piece within ‘Fossils’, which happens just before a short rendition of¬†Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,¬†is as close as I’ll get to that on this list.

Getting slightly back on track, it always makes me happy when, for this list, I am able to find a context to classical pieces I know from osmosis. Within¬†The Carnival of the Animals¬†there are two of these which now have homes in my internal Rolodex. The first is ‘Swan’, which I am not sure how I know it but there was a glimmer of recognition when I heard it; the other is ‘Aquarium’ whose beautiful cascades have brought me joy on many occasions and I am thrilled to know its origins.

I know that I am going to have to go back to something a bit more serious for the next classical piece (and probably all the others to follow), but it was nice to take a bit of a sojourn amongst the animals of the carnival.

 

ūü鼂ôę‚ô™ – Lamentations of Jeremiah by Thomas Tallis

List Item: Listen to half of the 1001 Classical Works You Must Hear Before You Die
Progress:
 29/501Title: Lamentations of Jeremiah
Composer: Thomas Tallis
Nationality: English
Year:
 1565

It’s been a while since the last classical piece. With the exception of the songs list, this may be the list with the longest gaps between posts. Most of this is because the sheer breadth of classical music in the book (and my lack of accompanying knowledge) makes choosing the next piece incredibly hard. The other part is because the default position of going chronologically which, for the moment, means more choral music.

With Lamentations of Jeremiah I think that I have finally found something a bit different in this early choral music. Linguistically this is a very interesting piece as the lines come from the original Hebrew, which makes for a nice change from the Latin pieces that I have heard so hard.

Also, the tone of the piece is completely different. Where the other early choral pieces pretty much had their tonal dial set to ‘praise God’, Tallis’¬†Lamentations of Jeremiah¬†is religious music that’s actually melancholic. Similarly, this piece is done with a single singer taking on the line while the others act as back up – this works remarkably well with the melancholic tone as it helps to give that degree of isolation.

This was one of the shorter pieces that I have so far done for the classical list, which probably helped with my actually enjoying this. After all how¬†Lamentations of Jeremiah¬†outstay its welcome when it’s over in less than 15 minutes?

Acclaimed Albums – Imagine by John Lennon

List item: Listen to the 250 greatest albums
Progress: 151/250Title: Imagine
Artist: John Lennon
Year: 1971
Position: #95

This is very much a ‘whilst we’re here I might as well listen to the whole album’ kind of deal after expressing my dislike over John Lennon’s classic track. Because of this I probably didn’t go into¬†Imagine¬†with a completely open mind, but I did like his earlier album¬†John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band. What I guess I’m trying to say is that this is complicated.

So this album gets it’s title track over and done with right at the beginning, which I am thankful for because I cannot even begin to count just how many times I have heard it. Especially at Christmas, which makes no sense as ‘Imagine’ asks you to imagine no religion… I guess people just get caught up in the ethereal vaguery to properly notice the lyrics.

The album just pretty much goes from there. What I liked about his previous album was that there was a real hint of who he was as a person and like it had some form of an edge. With¬†Imagine¬†we have a lot of the same messages as in his previous album, but it’s a lot more twee. Even Lennon himself acknowledged the sugar-coated nature of many of these tracks.

I guess that this would make¬†Imagine¬†John Lennon’s attempt to make a commercial album that still adheres to his political views. It’s just that, sonically, this album does not appeal to me as much as his previous album. By the time I got to ‘Oh Yoko’, I was pretty okay with this being the end of the album and, more importantly, that I wouldn’t need to listen to this again.

1001 Songs – 1971: Part Two

Imagine – John Lennon

Starting off this post with, arguably, the most beloved song to come from 1971… as well as one that I actively cannot stand. Whilst I appreciate the idealism here of a multi-millionaire playing a song about having no possessions whilst he is sitting in a mansion, it still comes across to me as being something vague that a high school student might write and think that they’re being very deep.

I can also appreciate what Phil Spector was trying to do with the production here, but it just comes across as overwhelmingly sentimental when it could have stood to be a little subtler.

Laughing – David Crosby

Usually when I listen to a song for this list I tend to write some notes as I go along and then fluff them a bit out later. With ‘Laughing’ I found myself a bit bewitched at trying to work out all the individual parts of the song that I didn’t manage to get a single word written down.

It’s what tends to happen when I am presented with a song with this many layers and sections. My brain tries to work out everything rather than trying to feel. A second listen really helped. This song is beautifully layered and complex to the point that I still find myself swept up in it rather than finding a way to actually talk about it… so let’s move on.

When The Levee Breaks – Led Zeppelin

Well, this is a real flashback to about two years ago where I last heard this track as part of its parent album. Back then I wasn’t too impressed with the album, to the point that I barely wrote anything about it and instead focused more on Led Zeppelin.

As with ‘Eleanor Rigby’, this is a song that I was better able to appreciate in isolation. I am still not the biggest fan of this type of heavy blues rock, but at least I can better appreciate the number of different things going on here. The weird sounding harmonica, for example, makes this track unique.

It’s just that, as with most things Zeppelin, I would not have minded a few minutes being shaven off.

Surf’s Up РThe Beach Boys

Feels like forever since I last heard something by The Beach Boys. It’s been even longer since I listened to the Brian Wilson’s Smile, where this song finally found it’s proper home.

Songs like this are why I will always prefer the Beach Boys to the Beatles. The level of complexity present puts it on par with a lot of what prog rock was starting to do and continues to do so to this day. However, this is still very much planted in the chamber pop landscape. It’s a lovely song and it makes me want to listen to the album again.

Theme from Shaft – Isaac Hayes

This must be one of the most quoted and pastiched themes of all time. The Simpsons, Father Ted, Scrubs and even the video game LEGO City Undercover have all borrowed from it. Yet this is actually the first time I have heard the whole song.

How is it that such a famous film theme contains no lyrics until over halfway through? Well, maybe because Issac Hayes’ vocals are mixed right down to the point of being nearly completely drowned.

Interesting to see another song where funk and soul are beginning to morph into disco. I wonder how long it will be before that onslaught truly begins.

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised – Gil Scott-Heron

In the context of this list, ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’ feels a lot like a sequel to ‘When The Revolution Comes’ by the Last Poets. Both songs are spoken word poems referencing ‘the Revolution’ and are set to some sort of funk music.

The key difference is Gil Scott-Heron is able to better articulate his message. His choice of words is more careful, the music better supports his voice and he, at no point, has a random backing singer come onto the track.

Seeing how this sort of spoken-word funk has developed between these two songs, it’s only a matter of time before rap starts.

It’s Too Late РCarole King

Tapestry is an excellent album. It would have been easy to choose a large section of songs to be prospective entries on the list – so they went for one of the two that managed to snag a Grammy.

It isn’t just the Grammy win for Record of the Year that gave ‘It’s Too Late’ a place on this list. Carole King is one of those great workhorses of this era of American music with her penning hit songs for the likes of Aretha Franklin and The Shirelles.

With this song you see the RnB influence mixed with some soft rock to make a track about a break-up that is mature, honest and mutual.

Dum Maro Dum – Asha Bhosle

Okay, so we’re ending on a drastically different song here. I guess it’s only fair to have a song by Lata Mangeshkar‘s younger sister seeing how they are both Bollywood playback singer royalty.

You start a song from a Bollywood film with a certain preconception and ‘Dum Maro Dum’ walks in a shatters them. Sure, you have the backing singers singing so loud that they end up distorted (which is something I really cannot abide) as well as the almost lilting vocal delivery by the lead, but something is really different.

This is, basically, a Bollywood rock song that takes notes from what was happening in the West at the time. There are electric instruments like synthesisers and guitars that really drive this song. Looking back on the other Bollywood song for this list, ‘Dum Maro Dum’ must have felt like a huge shift in what could make for a successful Bollywood song.

It would be utterly brilliant if it wasn’t for that hideous distortion.

Progress: 337/1021

Acclaimed Albums – For Emma, Forever Ago by Bon Iver

List item: Listen to the 250 greatest albums
Progress: 150/250Title: For Emma, Forever Ago
Artist: Bon Iver
Year: 2007
Position: #246

22, A Million was one of those revelatory albums for me. For year I had heard about how acclaimed Bon Iver was and I had never really thought of listening to him. Thanks to his 2016 album I have since become a huge fan of his Рso I have been listening to all three of his albums a whole lot ever since. I love each one of these albums, although I do feel that he has gotten better and better with each album.

This leads me to the subject of today’s post: his debut album¬†For Emma, Forever Ago.¬†I am under no illusion that this album will probably be knocked out of the list pretty soon and will likely be replaced with Bon Iver, Bon Iver¬†(even if just because of ‘Perth’ and ‘Holocene’), but I’ve spent a lot of hours on this album so it made sense to give it a cursory tick off now.

One thing I like about these earlier albums, when compared to 22, A Million, is Justin Vernon’s singing style. My love of Sufjan Stevens¬†demonstrates my soft spot for a beautiful falsetto, and that’s what is delivered on this album. Especially in ‘re: Stacks’ (my favourite track) and opener ‘Flume’.

For Emma, Forever Ago¬†is a real hint at the art pop that Bon Iver would later go on to produce. Here it’s a beautifully crafted piece of indie folk with a tender soul where you can really feel his pain. Later, he gains complexity without losing his ability to play with nuance.

So yes, it’s been a pleasure to listen to this album for the sake of this list. For now I need to get back to listening to older and safer albums so I am finally able to finish out this Top 250.

Acclaimed Albums – Blackstar by David Bowie

List item: Listen to the 250 greatest albums
Progress: 149/250Title: Blackstar
Artist: David Bowie
Year: 2016
Position: #179

So, I already did a write-up for¬†Blackstar¬†as part of my best of 2016¬†list where it placed at #17. Now that I am over a year removed and have listened to this album again I’d say that I got it about right for me – although some albums (like Margo Price’s debut) will have shuffled around it.

This still remains a powerful album because of the proximity to his death, especially the opening track which feels like the soundtrack to some sort of religious cult. For me the album does peter a bit out towards the end with closer ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’ giving a bit of lift towards the end.

As with a lot of albums that I listen to on for this list,¬†Blackstar¬†is not an album that was able to find it’s way into any sort of regular rotation (which mostly consists of K-Pop at the moment for some reason), but is played a few times a year. Every time I listen to it there appears to be something that I have missed or a new layer that gains a bit more clarity.

Maybe in a few years time I will be in a position to re-appraise this. Maybe this will happen after I have listened to more of the David Bowie back catalogue. Until then, a few times a year works for me.