Saturday, January 02, 2010 

An alternative to the usual weekend links. Sort of.

The tradition is that on a Saturday I generally do a weekend links post. Frankly, there's so little worth linking to today, with probably this and this as honourable exceptions, that there isn't much point.

The other intention I had was that as part of the usual end of year, or in this case end of decade baloney, I was going to name the person of the decade as Katie Price, aka Jordan, for reasons you can probably guess. Then I noticed that Joan Collins in the Daily Mail did almost precisely that, calling her the non-entity of the decade. That is ever so slightly rich on two levels: Joan Collins is only notable these days for marrying numerous times, and secondly that she made her point in a newspaper which currently has the latest antics of said Katie Price as its top story on the Femail pages. If the very newspapers that perpetuate the likes of Katie Price suddenly stopped giving them attention, they'd soon fall from view. True, by the same yardstick an insignificant little nothing like me can be accused of hypocrisy for calling someone else the epitome of almost everything that was wrong with the last decade in cultural terms when I've hardly contributed to the wealth of the nation, but I like to think I don't contribute the same level of poison into the national spirit as the Daily Mail does every day.

I've spent some of the last week or so watching a load of old Have I Got News For Yous on YouTube, and it is instructive just how quickly we forget. Peter Oborne in the Mail today for example, and he's usually quite good, bemoans the "moral decline". I was only 13 in 1997 and even I can remember back then the usual suspects saying exactly the same thing, just as I remember the "Back to Basics" desperation which Major had come out with a couple of years previous. This naturally drove the gutter press on to expose as many adulterous MPs as they could, and there sure were a lot; we also now know that the prime minister himself, even if his affair with Edwina Currie had finished some time previously, had given in to the temptations of the flesh. Oborne goes on to complain:

For Cameron it is more complex. New Labour brilliantly used the capture of political power in 1997 to establish the dominance of the liberal Left across vast swathes of public life.

It now has key placemen and women in the civil service, the voluntary sector, the legal profession, the arts world, the intelligence services, the BBC and the quango state which has passed outside democratic control and yet controls so much of our public life.

These quangos are run, almost without exception, by New Labour placemen.

And were things any different back under Major? No, the quangos then, even if there were fewer, were also almost uniquely ran by Tory placemen, often the wives of Tory MPs. Will Cameron actually cut them as he promises, or will he just install his own placemen? You can bet it's more likely to be the latter. Already we've seen Boris Johnson trying to put in place Veronica Wadley, ex-editor of the Evening Standard and whom cheered him to his ascension as London mayor as chair of the London Arts Council.

As usual though, Oborne is nothing as compared to Amanda Platell, who's finally decided after years of criticising immigration to actually become a British citizen herself (complete with low-cut Union Jack dress, something she has previously criticised others for wearing). Her vision of British society and how as a selfless gesture she's becoming a citizen mainly so she can save the nation from itself is so different from mine that it's clear that we may as well live in completely separate countries. This is her summary of the best of what we have to offer:

The only areas where Britain excels - indeed, we're top in Europe - are drunkenness, drug addiction and teenage pregnancy.

Yet the nation which the Mail and the others are always encouraging us to look towards - America - is about the only other place that has a worse record on certainly the latter and more than likely on the other two as well. And she complains:

Today, too often, crude vulgarity prevails on our TV screens and on the street.

Nothing, naturally about when "crude vulgarity" appears in our national newspapers. Such as when a certain Amanda Platell blamed "equality" when a young woman tragically fell into a river while on a skiing holiday and died, for which the Mail eventually had to print a "clarification" letter from one of her friends about. And could this Amanda Platell that is always banging on about how essential marriage is possibly be the one that admits in the opening of today's piece that her husband departed long ago? No, of course not.

I don't have a rose-tinted view of the country as it stands. Certainly, things could be a whole lot better; we have after all probably just came through possibly one of the worst decades, if not in living standards but in general unpleasantness and misery for quite some considerable time. To read the Mail and some other people though you'd think that the country was about to completely fall apart, or already had, that society had also broken down entirely and that the only good, decent people left, the middle class naturally, are too scared and threatened by what's going on around them that they daren't leave their houses. The police are politically correct loonies, except of course when they're shooting dead Brazilians who look like Asians and beating the shit out of peaceful protesters; the entire country, despite being ruled by decidedly conservative with both small-c and capital C individuals for the last 30 years is a liberalocracy where you can't say anything for fear of being branded either a racist or a homophobe or a bigot or a sexist, and to cap it all, the economy's gone up the spout, even though the obvious thing to happen after the longest boom in at least a hundred years was a lengthy bust. We can rejoice though: here comes Cameron's Conservatives, ready to mend our fractured land, as demonstrated by him mouthing cliché after cliché in an especially fatuous Sun article.

Here then is my highly controversial prediction for what the next decade holds: much, much more of the same old shit. Regardless of who wins the next election, by the time it's their turn to be ousted from power, everyone regardless of political affiliation, including Oborne and Platell will be saying exactly the same things about how rotten the country is. And yet again, they'll be wrong.

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Thursday, December 31, 2009 

Best music of 2009 part 2 / 10 best albums.

10. Lynx and Kemo - The Raw Truth

A couple of years on from when Lynx first came to mass attention within the drum and bass scene with the sounding like nothing else did at the time Disco Dodo, the d&b producer teamed up with vocalist Kemo for an album that attempted to cover all boundaries. While Lynx provides the beats alongside a whole range of fellow producers, including Alix Perez, whose own album 1984 only narrowly missed this list, it's Kemo's effortless rhymes and compelling voice that rewards repeat listens, providing the context and texture to urban British music at very close to its finest.

Lynx and Kemo ft. Henree - Deez Breakz

9. VA - Fabriclive 44 - Mixed by Commix

If it was dBridge and Instra:mental that created the real crossover and acclaimed smashes that fused dubstep's pallete with d&b's 170 bpm tempo, it was Commix that provided the mix that properly showcased the movement's sound in 65 blissful minutes. Featuring almost all the stalwarts that have kept d&b interesting, especially Calibre, Breakage and SpectraSoul, the biggest tune we didn't know yet here was undoubtedly Instra:mental's No Future, one of the future classics of the year, and since remixed into a complete smasher by Skream.

Commix - Bear Music

8. Wild Beasts - Two Dancers

Wild Beasts are always going to be one of those bands that splits opinion, purely because of the vocals provided by Hayden Thorpe, whose falsetto will either be adored or pilloried. Perhaps to counteract that, or just for further experimentation, Tom Fleming added his voice to the mix, and the result was a sleeper hit from a band that deserve far more attention than they have so far been accorded.

Wild Beasts - The Fun Powder Plot

7. Yeah Yeah Yeahs - It's Blitz!

When Fever to Tell came out back in 2003, all angular riffing and screeching from Karen O, you wouldn't have exactly put money on them returning with their 3rd album in 2009 having largely abandoned the guitars which they made their name with with synths instead. The result however was astonishing, although having created one of the downtempo songs of the decade in Maps it perhaps wasn't all that unexpected. While all the attention will be on the singles Zero and Heads Will Roll, it's the album as a whole that demands listening to in full, as the giddiness of the openers gives way to the tenderness contained in Runaway. Whether they continue to exist in their current form or not, YYYs will still be one of the decade's rightfully acclaimed bands.

Yeah Yeah Yeahs - Skeletons

6. Fuck Buttons - Tarot Sport

After the brilliance of last year's scream and noise heavy Street Horrsing, the Buttons had a similar sort of epiphany to the YYYs and recruited veteran house producer Andrew Weatherall to somewhat redefine their sound. The result, while losing some of the sharper points of their debut, was to create an album that toed the line between post-rock and outright electronica which few have dared to breach. It's the beauty that is however as compelling as ever, as well as the ability to get lost within the layers of sound that permeate everything the band does.

Fuck Buttons - Phantom Limb

5. VA - 5 Years of Hyperdub

Inaugurated just a year after the term "dubstep" was first coined to describe the bass-heavy sound which the likes of Hatcha, Youngsta and the Digital Mystikz crew were just beginning to push, very few retrospectives come even close to the aural pleasure provided by Hyperdub's look back at last half decade. With 2 discs, the first providing new material and the second a sort of best of, it's almost impossible to pick the best the compilation has to offer, but Mala's Level Nine and the 8-bit step of Quarta330's Bleeps from Outer Space, alongside the 2000f's You Don't Know What Love Is and Joker's Digidesign will prove very difficult for the label to top.

Quarta330 - Bleeps from Outer Space

4. Manic Street Preachers - Journal for Plague Lovers

After returning to commercial success with Send Away the Tigers, it might have seemed something of an odd move for the Manics to return to the introspection and even desolation of the lyrics left behind by the now legally dead Richey Edwards, but without exaggeration almost never has there been such a worthy musical tribute to a fallen friend as that provided by the Manics' Journal. It's also surely a musical exorcism: the ghost that has accompanied the band since Edwards vanished has finally been laid to rest, and even said goodbye to the in the form of the album's final song, William's Last Words. The anger of Peeled Apples, the humour even of Me and Stephen Hawking and the strange but honest eye which Edwards had for female annihilation on She Bathed Herself in a Bath of Bleach, also seen on the Holy Bible's 4st 7lbs, all add up to easily the best Manics album since Everything Must Go.

Manic Street Preachers - Me and Stephen Hawking

3. Bat for Lashes - Two Suns

There has to be something special about someone for their records to be equally at home being lauded on the likes of Pitchfork while also simultaneously played on Radio 2, and Natasha Khan fits the bill perfectly: few other nursery school teachers go on to write concept albums with the authenticity of Two Suns. A soundscape which is just as ethereal and convincing as that on her debut, it was combined with the brilliance of the singles Daniel and Pearl's Dream, the sort of album which you discover something new in every time you listen.

Bat for Lashes - Sleep Alone

2. Silkie - City Limits Vol. 1

For every jump-up mid-range tune that debauches the name of dubstep, there's the almost classical brilliance which not just Silkie but the entire Anti-Social Entertainment crew to which he belongs infuse nearly every track they create with. Silkie, as the Anti-Social Show on Rinse on Monday nights shows, has so many tunes that many of them remain unnamed, hence almost certainly this being just the first volume in many to come from the deep/melodic master. Almost every track here can stand up on its own, but it's the final two that continue to make waves: The Horizon, as described by the genre's scribe Martin "Blackdown" Clark as "
an explosive burst of emotion that combined Joker-like synth touches with euphoric percussion" and Beauty, which to quote an advert, does exactly what it says on the tin.

Silkie - Planet X

1. The XX - XX

There's a simple reason why the XX's debut has topped so many end of year lists: it's simply something which no one else in the indie camp has tried for quite some considerable time. The open minimalism of the music, combined with the warmth of the vocals, the almost openly sexual but uncertain nature of them, created its own environment in which to exist. Indie hasn't been this heartfelt, personal and solitary in a very long time, and with the band sure to move on, it might well never be again.

The XX - Basic Space

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Wednesday, December 30, 2009 

Best music of 2009 part 1.

Best Song / Track:
dBridge - Wonder Where

Like with last year, it hasn't been an exactly stellar 12 months for the individual song, although the fact that I've become somewhat distanced from the indie scene and increasingly fascinated with dubstep and the liquid/deep/minimal side of drum and bass might somewhat account for it. Accordingly then, my choice is probably one which many normal readers (all two of you) of this blog probably haven't heard. Wonder Where by dBridge is though one of the most musical and soulful tunes to have emerged from what is ostensibly drum and bass for quite some time; originally a part of Bad Company UK, who cornered the jump up section of the genre at the turn of the decade, he became increasingly frustrated by the constraints which many within it feel they have to operate in. Alongside Instra:mental, with whom he's set up the Autonomic club night and podcast, as well as an upcoming Fabriclive mix, the break out was finally cemented totally this year, and Wonder Where is easily the finest moment which the blending of dubstep aesthetics with a drum and bass tempo has so far delivered. Other highlights in a similar mould have been from Instra:mental naturally, with their almost equally gorgeous Watching You, and from SpectraSoul, with the aptly named Melodies.

Other contenders, especially those from outside the above, were Bulletproof by La Roux, Remedy by Little Boots, Shelter by the XX, Hyph Mngo by Joy Orbison, almost anything from the Manics' Journal for Plague Lovers but Jackie Collins Existential Question Time if you had to pick one, Purple City by Joker and Ginz (and almost anything from Joker really), Technique by Kromestar, Cornerstone by Arctic Monkeys and Pearl's Dream by Bat for Lashes.

Best Remix
La Roux - In for the Kill (Skream's Lets Get Ravey Remix)

Almost certainly the most remixed artist of the year, none of the later ones came even close to equalling one of the very first, by probably the most popular and well-known dubstep artist and DJ of them all (excluding Burial). The thing about Skream's immense remix is just how deceptively simple it is: dispensing almost entirely with original's beats, using only a small part of the melody and the vocal, to which more than adequate amounts of echo are added, it's the overwhelming sub-bass that kills it, all leading up to final breakdown and drop, finishing off with that mainstay of underground music for now almost twenty years: the Amen break. While still certainly dubstep, it's so far removed from the wobble and use of mid-range which has come to wrongly define the genre that it completely crossed over, resulting in the genre's very first gold disc. The very best from Skream though is almost certainly yet to come: his second artist album promises to include Listening to the Records on My Wall, a tune so massive and euphoric, again half-way between drum and bass and dubstep (it is after all a sort of follow up to his jungle tribute tune, Burning Up) that it promises to become one of the absolute classics of the genre.

Other contenders include again almost anything remixed by Joker, but especially Cruel Intentions by Simian Mobile Disco and Trouble Is by Turboweekend, Skream's remixes of Night by Night by Chromeo and Pearl's Dream by Bat for Lashes, Brackles' Remix of Crystal Castles' I Love London, Nero's Remix of The Streets' Blinded by the Lights, James Blake's Remix of Untold's Stop What You're Doing, and although more than a little cheesy, High Contrast's remix of Calvin Harris's Ready for the Weekend.

Best Reissue
The Stone Roses - The Stone Roses (I Wanna Be Adored)

Wasn't much competition on the reissue front this year, with only the entire Beatles catalogue being remastered and rereleased (not to mention Kraftwerk's, which received similar treatment), but what is probably the greatest debut album of all time still managed to triumph, with the Stone Roses' eponymous release enjoying it's 20th anniversary with the now customary special reissue. Remastered by the producer John Leckie and Ian Brown themselves, even if it wasn't in exactly unlistenable form before, it now sounds even more thrilling than before, making it a truly essential purchase.

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Tuesday, December 29, 2009 

Most overrated and worst music of 2009.

2009 was the year in which the music industry's chickens came home to roost. Convinced that it's impossible to make money from "new" music, only the surest bets and most blatant copycats of already successful discoveries have been given even the slightest chance to shine. The result has been one of the worst years for mainstream music in quite some time, and hardly a stellar one for the "indie" scene either. It's no coincidence that the round-up of best of polls featured only two debut records, one of which shouldn't have even came close to being in the list in any case.

The real soul-destroying thing about the insipid nature and monotony of most of mainstream music over the last 12 months is that it continues to be so willingly lapped up. The road to stardom no longer even seems to involve a contrived start-up on a social networking site: increasingly we're back in the late 90s when anyone and everyone seemed to be creating either an all-boy or all-girl group simply by advertising for auditions. This was how we came to be lumbered with Pixie Lott: just another of 2009's attempts to jump into the by no means over-saturated market which Amy Winehouse "created" and which was filled further in last year by Adele and Duffy. We should be perhaps grateful for small mercies: rather than just one name, Pixie has two, although the stupidity of both doesn't help. Ms Lott, like Adele and Kate Nash before her went to a performing arts school, and is just as manufactured as those unlamented late 90s groups were, yet in an age where Britain's Got Talent and The X Factor now completely dominate music almost as a whole, no one seems to care or even be cynical in the slightest. Her single, Mama Do, has to be the most overplayed and most aggravating song of the year: if the cliched lyrics about her being hurt by the ubiquitous no good boyfriend weren't bad enough, the chanted "WOH OH WOH OH" throughout makes it close to intolerable. It naturally shot straight to number one, and the only hope must be that she goes the way of Joss Stone, who had similar but thankfully short-lived success a few years back and has since sank into oblivion.

Pixie is however musical bliss personified when compared to her contemporary Paloma Faith. Like with Lott, a key to her relative success seems to be the heavy rotation which all of her material has been given on Radio 2: once the station seen as irredeemably naff until Radio 1 got its act together, it now has the blessing of those who once preferred its sister ageing and growing into its supposedly inoffensive nature. Faith's Wikipedia page introduces her as having grown into her career as a "singer" thanks to her efforts at mimicking those she admired, but has now developed her own style. She has, but probably not in the way in which either the writer or Faith herself believes: she still mimics poorly those she admires, but it's her voice which defines her style. The nasal twang with which she squawks can only be compared to that other least-likely to be singer of recent times, the thankfully vanished Macy Gray, who was best herself compared to a being strangled Marge Simpson. Gray at least though didn't sound stupid when she warbled through I Try, something which can't be said when Faith squeals through the title song from her album, which is rendered by her as "Do You Want the Trooth or Something Bootiful?", for which she presumably has to pay royalties to Bernard Matthews.

Faith can at least sing, even if it isn't the most pleasant noise to listen to. Saying that Florence, out of Florence and the Machine can't sing is however it seems one of the great unmentionables of the year. No critic has been brave enough to admit that they were greatly deceived by her Lungs album, which despite being decidedly average still managed to get to 8th place in the poll of critics' polls. The proof of the pudding has emerged, both from her execrable live shows, where she seems determined to attempt to outdo Craig Nicholls of the Vines in being a tit on stage stakes, and he has the excuse of having Asperger's syndrome, and from the truly painful attempt by Florence to cover Halo by Beyonce in the graveyard which is Radio 1's Live Lounge. Halo isn't the greatest song in the first place, it being an obvious attempt to do Umbrella all over again, but only someone with the singing talent of Florence could make it sound like she was killing a cat whilst going through the motions. This, coupled with the dirge which is her truly unnecessary cover of Candi Station's seminal You Got the Love, easily deserves her the prizes of most overrated act of the year and worst cover versions of the year.

The true musical crimes of the year were however those committed by the usual suspects, the Black Eyed Peas. In one of the very few amusing things to happen on Twitter, Perez Hilton made a desperate plea for help after allegedly questioning the musical value of the group's latest album to the face of front man, a critique that resulted in an assault. It's mystifying as to why responded in such a way: to write such awful music you either have to have the knack of it and know what you're doing, or get incredibly lucky. Having spent the last six years having huge success, it's pretty certain that in this case it must be the former and not the latter. In other words, must be an intelligent man and know that his music's shit; why then respond with violence to the truth, unless the truth hurts, especially coming from someone who wouldn't normally know it even if it swam all the way up his posterior?

Shit isn't really an adequate description for the majesty of "Boom Boom Pow", nor does banal adequately describe the refrain of "I Gotta Feeling", the feeling being that tonight's gonna be a good good night. As for the album title, the inspired The E.N.D. is meant to reflect that the idea of the album itself is dead, now that you can pick away at them on iTunes like "scabs". When even you are inadvertently referring to your music as scabs, perhaps you don't need anyone else to be rude about your life's work.

Tomorrow: the best music of 2009.
Thursday (probably): Top 10 albums of the year.

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