Tag Archives: Music

Music Monday: Debut by Björk

List item: Listen to the 250 greatest albums
Progress: 54/250Bjork,_Debut_album_cover,_1993Title: Debut
Artist: Björk
Year: 1993
Position: #139

Björk is my favorite singer of all time. There is no ifs, ands or buts about it, Björk is my top singer. I mean, have you heard Vulnicura? It is probably the most devastating break-up album I’ve ever heard. Ended up buying it the very moment I got home from work because I just had to listen to it straight away. Only Sufjan Stevens comes close to her.

I mention this because, since this is a place of honesty, I would not rank Debut as the Bjork album that should be the highest in the list. Still, a Bjork album that I would place 4th or 5th in her back catalogue is still better than the best album released by most people.

So, Debut. A bit of a misnomer since it is actually her second solo album… but that original debut was back when she was 11 and the proceeds went to her buying a piano. So I am not sure whether that should be counted in the canon. Debut marked the beginning of modern Bjork which, in this case, meant her cosying up to the world of house and trip hop. It also marked one of the few instances of a track of an acclaimed album being recorded in the bathroom of a nightclub. As much as I like the song ‘There’s More To Life Than This’ it’s hard not to imagine her singing in front of a bunch of toilets with the seat up.

In terms of obvious highlights you can look at the singles. ‘Venus as a Boy’ is delightfully naughty, ‘Violently Happy’ perfectly captures the feeling of pure elation and then there is ‘Human Behaviour’ which has a fantastic video where Bjork is eaten by a bear. My favourite track, ‘Play Dead’, did not feature on the original cut of the album, but it featured on a reissued version released within a year of the original… so I count it. The strings, the screaming chorus, everything is just epic. It provides a satisfying conclusion to the album.

Music Monday: Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots by The Flaming Lips

List item: Listen to the 250 greatest albums
Progress: 53/250TheFlamingLips-YoshimiBattlesThePinkRobotsTitle: Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots
Artist: The Flaming Lips
Year: 2002
Position: #196

By making this the next album on here I am breaking my own rule since an earlier album by The Flaming Lips  (the 1999 release The Soft Bulletin), but I found myself with a real craving for it during a flight to visit my partner’s family. Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots is one of those albums I periodically find myself coming back to ever since my best friend at school introduced it to me.

It was probably the bizarre title that really convinced me to give this a proper go back when I was 12/13 and, when I think about it, this album was a huge deal to me. At this age I think the main people I was listening to was Steps, Alizeé, Lene Marlin and Sophie Ellis-Bextor. So needless to say, an album described as neo-psychedelia, space rock and dream pop capturing my imagination probably explains some of my later music choices.

The titular Yoshimi only appears in the opening four tracks of this album, the rest being more like a ‘regular’ album. This opening batch of tracks was the best concept set of songs I had come across for a very long time (with only Janelle Monae’s music now eclipsing it… which is curiously also about robots).

The first track (‘Fight Test’) would easily place within my own Top 100 favourite songs of all time, it even placed itself on the first mix tape I ever made my partner. Yes, I know there was the slight controversy about the resemblance with ‘Father and Son’ by Yusuf Islam, but this is one of those strangely uplifting songs that just makes you want to want to strike some sort of poses.

Talking of strangely uplifting, I have to point out ‘Do You Realize’. It plays as this really happy pop song but it has lyrics such as “do you realize/that  everyone you know/someday will die.” I mean, so much of this album is basically about love, loss and how to deal with these emotions. Even the titular track (‘Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots Part 1″) has a melancholy edge despite being about kicking serious robot ass.

It’s a strange album, but one of those since of the turn of the millennium that feels oddly essential. I am glad that on last year’s update of Acclaimed Albums that this shot up as many places as it did so it could enter the Top 250. I hope the climb continues.

Music Monday: Trout Mask Replica by Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band

List item: Listen to the 250 greatest albums
Progress: 32/250Trout_Mask_ReplicaTitle: Trout Mask Replica
Artist: Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band
Year: 1969
Position: #59

What did I just listen to? Seriously, this is a weird hour and a bit of music.

To be fair, considering the name of the band and the album as well as the album cover itself you know that when you stick on Trout Mask Replica for the first time it is going to be… different. The fact that it is such a melange of genres including jazz, avant-garde, folk rock and spoken word just speaks to how different this album is.

If you delve a little bit into the history of how this album was made over eight months of writing and rehearsals (the recording taking only six hours) in rather cult-like circumstances involving starvation, physical violence and emotional torture… it’s mindblowing and rather scary. But then, as you listen to this album it makes sense since it is messed up. Really messed up.

It is something that requires multiple listens to even attempt to get it. In fact when you first listen to it a lot of the tracks just made me laugh out loud since they just sounded awful. In many ways it is a record of pure id and experimentation. Despite sounding slapdash a lot of rehearsal, care and attention has been paid to making it sound this way. The number of testimonials on the internet about how Trout Mask Replica is one of their favourite records but it took 6-7 listens to get it is immense but my favourite write-up is by Robert Christgau who said it is “great played at high volume when you’re feeling shitty, because you’ll never feel as shitty as this record.” I think, in many ways, he summed it up perfectly.

To “be fair” to Trout Mask Replica I have only listened to it 3 times which is not considered enough to be able to unlock why this album is an all-time classic. However, I can’t sit chortling on the train or at my desk because it makes me look like a simpleton.

One thing I can say is that, despite not getting it personally, I do see how this album has been influential to many musicians. The sheer experimental nature means that different people will be able to glean different aspects from it. Whether you think they were being pioneers or just trolling the music world is, in the end, your own interpretation. As for me, I stand agog that an album that appears to be so polarizing in terms of how long it takes to ‘get it’ has near unanimous praise whereever you choose to look it up.

I guess I should go in for listen four soon.

Music Monday: Hunky Dory by David Bowie

List item: Listen to the 250 greatest albums
Progress: 31/250Title: Hunky Dory
Artist: David Bowie
Year: 1971
Position: #63

Another week, another chance to showcase to the world that, when it comes to some of the more acclaimed musicians in the world, I have a lot to learn… because, like last week with Led Zeppelin, this post marks the first time I am listening to a David Bowie album.

I think that it is impossible to indulge in any popular culture and not to have come across David Bowie. He is a recurring feature of the BBC shows Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes, he did guest vocals on the title track of Reflektor by Arcade Fire, he contributed to the soundtrack of Moulin Rouge! and, of course, was a bit near the knuckle as the Goblin King in Labyrinth.

The thing is, on the first of four albums in the Top 250 (that may change next year since the lowest place is precariously perched on the barrier) I have already heard a number of the songs just from use in television and film; I had a similar feeling when I first gave London Calling a spin. I mean, there can not be many people over the age of ten that have not heard either ‘Life on Mars?’ or ‘Changes’.

What I was able to appreciate the most about this album is that Bowie never seems to rest on one type of music for too long. ‘Oh! You Pretty Things’  even changes halfway through from just Bowie and a piano to a something a bit larger. ‘Queen Bitch’, a tribute to Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground, delves more into the sort of music I would expect from The Clash and is especially glam compared to the remainder of the album. Then there is ‘Andy Warhol’, my least liked track on the album. As a track on the album it’s not that it feels out of place with the repeating melody of the guitar but it just feels like a dip in quality. This is especially after ‘Kooks’ which, now knowing it was written for his newly-born son,  is especially sweet and poignant.

The fact of the matter is that aside from ‘Kooks’ (which I do really like), the stand-out tracks are the two most known ones; ‘Changes’ and ‘Life on Mars?’. ‘Life on Mars?’ is especially so because my love of the TV show of the same name. It builds to a big finish and I have no clue what the lyrics actually mean; it’s great.

Will I listen to Hunky Dory in my own time? I probably will do if I am feeling in the mood during a work day. It has enough to keep my listening to it alongside my more regular pop music.

Music Monday: Led Zeppelin by Led Zeppelin

List item: Listen to the 250 greatest albums
Progress: 30/250Title: Led Zeppelin
Artist: Led Zeppelin
Year: 1969
Position: #116

I’m sticking around in 1969 for a while since it is, apparently, the year that holds the most albums within the Top 250. In face the time between 1967-1971 holds just over 27% of the entries on this list so I will eventually become very well acquainted with this era.

The choice of doing Led Zeppelin’s eponymous debut album actually comes from the fact I found on Dusty Springfield playing a large role on the band getting a record deal with Atlantic Records. It also helps that I have never really listened to any Led Zeppelin because of their association with metal and hard rock. Still, with four albums on this list it made sense to get the first one over and done with now.

I say over and done with since I didn’t expect that I would enjoy it, surprisingly I did. The reason being that despite this album being an important landmark when it comes to heavy metal… it is as much metal as The White Stripes were. Yes, there are a number of guitar solos (I mean the album opener ‘Good Times Bad Times’ has some epic guitar playing, so they really did start as they meant to carry on) and it was a lot louder and more in your face than other albums that were popular at the time. In this way whilst it is a precursor to heavy metal it is far closer to blues rock, something that I tend to like anyway.

As with other albums of this era there is a change in the music upon the disc flip. For this album I have to say that it was the second half that really struck me more immediately. It opens with ‘Your Time Is Gonna Come’ which is heavy on the Hammond organ and features a very upbeat chorus for a song hoping for the downfall of an unfaithful girlfriend. This then leads into a very faux-Indian sounding track (The Beatles would be happy) which, again, is not what I expected to hear. This pattern of defying my expectations just kept on repeating throughout the album.

I guess why Led Zeppelin was able to surprise me was that it was light on the guitar solos that I know they are famous for. Whilst many are able to appreciate these I can not help but see them as showboating and not much else. We’ll see how I feel when I get to their later albums.

Music Monday: Dusty in Memphis by Dusty Springfield

List item: Listen to the 250 greatest albums
Progress: 29/250DustyInMemphisTitle: Dusty in Memphis
Artist: Dusty Springfield
Year: 1969
Position: #101

If it was not for the re-ranking of the acclaimed albums list Dusty in Memphis would count as the second album that I looked at with the ‘Memphis sound’ (the first being From Elvis in Memphis). However, that album has now dropped off of the list making Dusty’s Memphis output all the more special.

Like many of the great albums there are many stories behind the making of Dusty in Memphis. Somewhat unique amongst  well known female singers back in the 1960s, Dusty Springfield was also a producer (a fact that was not widespread at the time). Therefore when she stepped into the American Sound Studios in Memphis (in an attempt to undergo an image transformation to keep up with the trends) she suddenly found herself without a lot of the control she was used to. This resulted in many heated arguments, accusations of unrealistic perfectionism and the re-recording of most of the tracks in New York after the initially booked studio time.

When you listen to Dusty Springfield’s earlier work (such as her impressive debut A Girl Called Dusty) you realise how much of an amazing talent she was. In fact, she was one of very few internationally successful white solo female singers. She gained notice with songs like ‘I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself’ and  ‘Wishin’ and Hopin’ which were, in early-to-mid 60s pop music. The fact is that Dusty never sounded better than she does rich the rich backings found on Dusty in Memphis (although her duet with the Pet Shop Boys comes mighty close).

The jewel in this album is, undoubtedly, ‘Son of a Preacher Man’. Whether you first heard it on the radio or in Pulp Fiction it is arguably the best song ever recorded with the Memphis sound. The fact that this was initially turned down by Aretha Franklin and then, having heard Dusty’s version, found it’s way onto an Aretha Franklin album only a year later speaks to the power of this recording. Whilst there are many other great songs on here such as ‘Breakfast in Bed’, ‘Just A Little Lovin” and ‘No Easy Way Down’ it is ‘Son of a Preacher Man’ that stands tall above them all.

As such Dusty in Memphis remains a landmark in music, not just because of the album itself but because it also marked the signing of Led Zepplin to their first major record deal on the recommendation of Dusty Springfield herself. Music really is a small world.

Music Monday: The Gilded Palace of Sin by The Flying Burrito Brothers

List item: Listen to the 250 greatest albums
Progress: 28/250Title: The Gilded Palace of Sin
Artist: The Flying Burrito Brothers
Year: 1969
Position: #172

Before I get into talking about the album I just need to say that this is one cracker of a name for a band. If I didn’t know one of the members was Gram Parsons I would have really expected something psychedelic instead of country. It also brings to mind one of my favourite pastiches (just imagine it with a burrito rather than spaghetti and meatballs):

330px-Touched_by_His_Noodly_AppendageOkay, enough of that.

The Gilded Palace of Sin is, when compared to what is currently coming out, the father of alternative country music. I really enjoy a lot of country music that appears on my radar but it is all so infused with pop music (not complaining, pop is my jam after all) that it’s very much diluted. Then again what makes The Gilded Palace of Sin so interesting is that you are getting an early successful hybridisation of country with other genres. ‘The Dark End of the Street’ brings in elements of rock n’ roll whilst the closer ‘Hippie Boy’ takes on parts of gospel music.

There is a large shift here from Tragic Songs of Life by The Louvin Brothers (released some 13 years earlier) which shows just how the increasing presence of television and radio was causing genres to clash and merge. Whilst these are clearly still both albums of the country genre there is movement in how it is undertaken.

Despite the album’s significance in fostering the alternative country genre it has remarkably low visibility. At the time of release The Gilded Palace of Sin barely charted and to this day it has still not sold that many copies. It’s a good album and represents one of a very small number of country albums to make it onto the Top 250 of the acclaimed albums list. All of this is a pity, which makes me glad that I had to listen to this to complete this bucket list item. It’s always good to see where music comes from, makes me appreciate my copy of Ryan Adam’s Gold all the more.

British Summer Time

IMG_0927List item: Attend a music festival
Status: Complete

Of the many advantages that came from switching jobs this year was the ability to do things “on a school night”. Other than going for meals out it meant that I was able to see one of my favourite bands as part of the music festival British Summer Time. Considering how my teaching job meant I had to cancel tickets at the last minute to see St. Vincent live and prevented my from seeing Girls Aloud before they disbanded I am out to right every past wrong, which means I got to see Arcade Fire live. I have already gone into my love of their albums as part of my Music Monday series.

As you can see we managed to get quite close to the stage (by we I mean myself and my mum… I have a cool mum and am not afraid who knows it) and what unfolded was one of the best gigs that I have ever been to. It might even be the best gig that I have ever been to, it really has become a toss-up between them and Sufjan Stevens.

The main difference between the two is that with Arcade Fire I was dancing and screaming along to the lyrics for about two hours and with Sufjan things felt more intimate as he regaled us with the stories behind his albums.

photo 3The picture here is from, for me, the highlight of the show. When Regine performed ‘Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)’, then again I was pretty much transfixed with her throughout the entire gig whether she was in superhero gear (‘Joan of Arc’), on the platform behind us flanked my dancing skeletons (‘It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus)’) or on her accordion (‘No Cars Go’).

Looking back on the afternoon/evening it strikes me just how in a class of their own Arcade Fire were, especially when compared to Jake Bugg who played just before them. The whole 2 hours felt utterly euphoric; a feeling helped by a warm evening and a beautiful London sunset. It also re-awoke my love of the band and resulted in Reflektor receiving a lot of iPod play time. What I would give to relive that evening.

Music Monday: Pet Sounds by The Beach Boys

List item: Listen to the 250 greatest albums
Progress: 27/250pet_soundsTitle: Pet Sounds
Artist: The Beach Boys
Year: 1966
Position: #2

When it comes to music of the 1960s there is a clear divide between music lovers; The Beatles or The Beach Boys? If you look at the make-up of the Top 250 it is fairly easy to see that with The Beatles’ six entries versus this single one from The Beach Boys that there is no point to argue any more since we are now 40 years later and the critics have since spoken. Thing is, and this is personal opinion talking, The Beach Boys at their best blows The Beatles out of the water. Why? Pet Sounds gives you 13 reasons why.

I’ve listened to a lot of albums by The Beach Boys in my time (including  Sunflower, Surfin’ USA, The Smile Sessions and Wild Honey) and I see that some of their material is a bit too flippant to be taken seriously. But then, you get the likes of ‘Good Vibrations’ where you just sit up and listen to the production values (hopefully on a decent sound-system). In fact, I really get why Pet Sounds is the only one to make it into the Top 250… and at #2 that’s pretty damned impressive.

Where in most of their albums The Beach Boys would have songs talking about their surf boards, cars or other very California things Pet Sounds resonates so much since it deals with topics that everyone can relate to. Love, self-doubt, failure, self-actualisation. A remarkably deep album which is somehow able to pull off with simple and accessible lyrics.

As an album that has been written about until the cows come home I feel as everything I think or say about this album is a retread of thousands of people who have come before me. With my own wedding coming up next year I am seriously giving serious thought to having ‘God Only Knows’ on as the first dance. It is the most beautiful song about love that has ever been written and in a very short space of time has two very clear ‘goose-bump moments’ for me. The first happens the moment the bass starts right near the beginning of the song and the second around the time the vocal layering comes in. The only thing preventing me from using ‘God Only Knows’ is that thanks to the opening sequence to Big Love I can only imagine this occurring using roller-blades…which is not going to happen so don’t ask.

Then there are other tracks like ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’ where the concept of young teenager running off and getting married at Gretna Green now suddenly makes sense to me. It’s a beautifully hopeful opener which is then immediately lyrically dashed by the next two songs which deal with failure. This pattern repeats with the hopefulness of youth coupled with songs about realizing that, as we grow up, dreams will be unfulfilled, but hey these might have not have been the right dreams to have the first place so oh well.

It’s a complex album, and for one of the best albums ever made it has one of the worst album covers out there. I know it’s a play on the title Pet Sounds but… what’s the deal with all the bloody goats.

Music Monday: Trans-Europe Express by Kraftwerk

List item: Listen to the 250 greatest albums
Progress: 26/250Title: Trans-Europe Express
Artist: Kraftwerk
Year: 1977
Position: #98

“We are showroom dummies”

– ‘Showroom Dummies’  – Kraftwerk

Very few albums on this top 250 albums come from a non-English-speaking nation. In fact one of them is a language other than English. With that odd fact in mind this week’s album comes from the group that perpetuated every stereotype of a German musician in the years to follow; who else but electro-pioneers Kraftwerk.

I won’t spend this post poking fun at their on-stage persona. I have far too much respect for Kraftwerk and what this album (Trans-Europe Express) has done to the musical world. As I heard opening track ‘Europe Endless’ for the first time it really dawned on me just how much music owes to these four German musicians. Acts like Daft Punk, Air, Röyksopp, Lindstrøm and any other number of purely electronic musicians would not be able to exist outright. Others such as Radiohead, Beck, Arcade Fire and the likes of M.I.A. and Robyn would have a far more limited palette to work with.

If it was not for the very recognizable voices that appear throughout the songs (easily recognizable for anyone who has heard their hit single ‘The Model’) you could argue that this was released in the last calendar year by a new act  in reaction to Daft Punk’s hit album Random Access Memories. It is strange to listen to since it sounds like a mixture of retro and contemporary with a little bit of kitsch value thrown in.

The production values are not as lush as we would come to expect from modern charted electronic musicians. There is a stark minimalism to the songs which relishes the use of repetition. Also, a lot of the musical and lyrical themes continue throughout the albums such as vanity, illusion and some of the earliest uses of manipulated (or what we would now call Autotuned) vocals. Strange to think that this is 37 years old, shows how many things have not musically or thematically changed since.