I guess I’m pretty proud of my taste in music, am vain enough to think I’ve got excellent taste. The good side of this is that I’m always keen to pass on discoveries I have made, to share good music I know; the negative obviously is a pride, a quickness to mock the taste of others. There are worse vices, I’m sure, but this isn’t pretty. A good friend of mine (whom I’ll call Stuart, as that’s his name) was always into what you might call soft rock when we were growing up: the kind of stuff you see in adverts for compilations called LEATHER AND LACE or DRIVETIME CLASSICS: stuff like Whitesnake, Meatloaf, Kiss, Heart, and Roxette: power ballads and melodic rock. Well, for ages I ripped the shit out of him for this, though quite rightly he never paid the slightest bit of attention to my bitching. And now I find I, um, kinda like that kind of music after all. It’s mindless fun, maybe, but it’s fun.
So I think it only right to ‘fess up and make a list of the chronically unfashionable albums I like. In the end, of course, it shouldn’t matter in the slightest whether an album is fashionable; but taste is often influenced by your friends and the broader concensus on what’s good and what’s not. So let’s start 2012 with a look at albums which may have a bad reputation or not be cool, but which I think are actually very good.
1. George Michael, Older
Not many artists get out of being a pop starlet when they were younger, so George Michael went for the explicit “maturity” angle with Older. Of course, he’s really a pop and soul guy, and by refining his music to smooth rhythms, he started appealling to housewives, while his outing didn’t really endear him to the gay audience (since it was dragged out of him) or to the straights (cottaging not being very hip). No matter. I think Older is a very good album, smooth perhaps, but heartfelt, and never bland or boring (Michael’s pop hookery never really deserts him). The atmosphere is dusky or downright late-night, as in the title track (with it’s jazz-clubby trumpet) and “Move On”. The atmosphere of the whole album is quite similar to Sade’s Diamond Life, which is high praise.
2. Marillion, Misplaced Childhood
Prog rock nowadays gets a bad press, what with it being ambitious and having (oh lordy!) pretensions. I think this is more down to the insipid unimaginative dross that seems to go for mainstream rock (never mind the pop, which seems to be gormless twats off talent shows who actually ache to be puppets in the machine). Marillion, being second wave prog, don’t even have the excuse of being the first to do it all – no, they were inspired by Genesis, particularly Peter Gabriel (Fish’s voice is very similar, and both are guilty of double-tracking their voice when it sounds better unadorned). No matter. Misplaced Childhood is a lush confection of chiming guitars, overblown keyboards and Fish’s sometimes affecting and sometime absurd poetics. While the famous hits “Kayleigh” and “Lavender” should be well known, the focal point of the album are the suites “Heart of Lothian” and “Blind Curve” which dominate sides 1 and 2 respectively. Colourful, imaginative, technically superb, touching, occasionally a bit much (“drenched with napalm / this is no Vietnam” – oh come now, Fish!), Misplaced Childhood is an album from when bands weren’t afraid to make bold statements.
3. Poison, Flesh And Blood
Hair metal, as I’ve mentioned in a previous post, is a deregatory term for what was then just mainstream L.A. rock. Bands like Ratt, WASP, Motley Crue, Poison, Faster Pussycat, even Guns N’ Roses. While Motley Crue have made a bit of a comeback with a book retelling their anecdotes of depravity and debauchery, most of the rest languish in the bargain basement of nostaligia tours and reality TV. This is perhaps unfair: some of the music remains worth listening to, as with Poison’s third album. While Poison had really broken through with their second album Open Up And Say Aaargh!, for Flesh And Blood they made an attempt for credibility. The guitars are far more muscular than the predocessor , the lyrics less sex-and-party and more “the-trials-of-a-young-man”. “Valley Of Lost Souls” in many ways is their “Welcome To The Jungle”, a reflection of the dark side of LA life, whereas the similar “Fallen Angel” on the previous album had more of a sing-along chorus. CC Deville shows his guitar chops on the excellent (and somewhat bluesy) instrumental “Swampjuice (Soul-O)”, which leads into the hit single, the fun-but-adolescent “Unskinny Bop”.
It’s surprising how much successful rock band’s self-esteem depend on critical esteem. Poison never had any, and ended up chasing their tails in an attempt to seem real or authentic. But here, they combine strong musical talents, a sense of fun, and an awareness that often there’s a price to paid. A good album which has aged far better than others from the 1980s LA rock bubble.
4. Pet Shop Boys, Alternative
The Pet Shop Boys often don’t get the acclaim they deserve, or so it seems to me, being considered a bit of a gay electronica band. (Shane Macgowan, beaten to Xmas #1 with his immortal “Fairytale of New York” by their cover of “Always On My Mind”, called them “two queens and a drum machine”). Their understated irony (Allmusic actually calls “Opportunities”, their scathing indictment of 80s materialism, “crass” – talk about missing the point!), postmodern understanding of performance, packaging and pop itself, and their sharp intelligence and social observations make them a great pop band (In the Warholian sense, you might say). I don’t like all their stuff, but I do really like their B-sides collection, Alternative.
The PSBs always pay close attention to their album titles, and Alternative is an apt descriptor. It’s less a “pop” experience than their singles collection, Discography (note the word “disco” in there). If Discography is them scrubbing well and showing their best face to the world, then Alternative is them as they are, for good or for bad. Thus the lyrics, atmosphere and themes are highly personal. Some are straightforwardly autobiographical, as in “Bet She’s Not Your Girlfriend”, which has a nice send-up of the young Neil Tennant as “shy and dry and verging on ugly”, and “A Man Could Get Arrested”, about a scene of violence they witnessed. There’s a fascination with subcultures (appropriate for a former Smash Hits editor), signalled with “Paninaro” (an Italian equivalent of Mods), and the (gay) clubbing tracks “Music For Boys” and “Euroboy”. Relationships, especially the gay variety, also feature. These often have very dark sinister atmosphere, suited to soundtracking the downside to a hedonistic lifestyle – “Some Speculation” is a masterpiece of paranoia, whereas “Do I Have To?” is yearning and idealistic. The overall weakness of the album is inevitably that the quality is variable. Some tracks are strong enough to be excellent singles, especially “Do I Have To?” and “A Man Could Get Arrested”. But some are decidedly ropy, especially on disk 2 – “What Keeps Mankind Alive?” is dreadful, and I never really like their outre gay moments like “Shameless”. All the same, I find this a fascinating and highly revealing album – the PSBs without their pants on, as it were.
So never mind what anyone else says about what you listen to, just follow your ears! Unless, that is, you like Coldplay. In which case I will viciously bitchslap you.
(N.B. if you by some unlikely miracle experience a certain deja vu in some of these write-ups, let me confess that I have taken some of the text from my reviews of these albums on Amazon. If you can’t get to sleep, you can find the full series of reviews here).