Dance Albums

I’m really the wrong person to write about dance albums. My exposure to them began and pretty much ended when I was in my nightclubbing phase, in my late teens-early 20s. There was then a big amorphous group of us (as happens when you’re drawn together by hedonism, rather than similarity in outlook or experiences) and most of that crowd were substantially more danceheads than me, in their music taste I mean. We all liked going to jungle, drum n’ bass and pounding techno nights, but for music at home, my chums favoured electronica more than I would have. So although I had some background here, through Kraftwerk mostly, dance albums were new to me and it was all interesting and new, etc. No doubt my choices will appear ridiculously mainstream and pedestrian to those in the know. Well, fine. Your taste in 80s thrash might seem banal to my ears 🙂

All that self-justification having been said, it does seem to me that there was something of a rich seam of dance/electronica albums around the turn of the millennium, with a convergence of “dance” and the indie/lo-fi aesthetic. Dance no longer meant just nightclub preening or disco frivolity, expanding its emotional and textural palette to something more recognisable to rock fans. Fusion, as Miles Davis might have said.

Daft Punk Homework

The mid-late 90s seemed to blossom some outstanding French electronica, with Air’s Moon Safari and the brilliant Super Discount compilations, not to mention the wonderful Stardust single “Music Sounds Better With You”. Daft Punk’s Homework was the best of them, a thumping concoction of abrasive textures over slyly melodic riffs. Probably the most famous is “Da Funk“, with that memorable “NAAAOOOWWW DA-DA-NAAAOOOWWW” hook and the weird, memorable and affecting story of the dog new to the big city, and “Around The World”, with its circular, almost undulating elements coalescing into one of the smartest dance tracks I’ve ever heard. (The video is also brilliantly enjoyable).

But the album is strong throughout, from lead-in track “Daftendirekt” to “Revolution 909” (a Beatles tribute there?) to the brutal stomper “Rollin’ And Scratchin‘” to the very fine “Alive“.

After Homework, Daft Punk went off the lo-fi techno approach and went all house music, shimmery and glossy. The tension and gritty textures of Homework disappeared entirely, and I’ve never thought much of Discovery or subsequent work – not even the recent much-hyped single “Get Lucky”. Never mind – Homework is a fantastic work of imagination, skill, style and flair.

Leftfield Leftism

Hands down, the best dance album ever, in my opinion. All killer, no filler. (Well, maybe “Storm 3000” isn’t all that, but it does provide a welcome lull midway through the second side before the John Lydon-sung stomper “Open Up“). The sense of rhythm and texture are endlessly superb: the bouncy toy piano of opener “Release The Pressure“, the tribal rhythms of “Afro-Left” (a style later refined to the ferocious rhythmic assault of “Phat Planet“), the cool liquid textures of “Melt” which leads gracefully to the slow-build of “Song Of Life“, with its glorious beats opening up halfway through. Similarly, the tender ballad “Original” leads to the sinister dark charge of “Black Flute” which then yields to the glorious adrenaline-rush of “Space Shanty“.

With dance music based on rhythm, tracks can just go on based on their 4/4 beat. What’s terrific about Leftism is that while the songs have definite propulsive beats, this is never for the sake of it: you feel the intelligent craft of what the song is about and what it’s doing all the time, and the sense of narrative works well not just within each song but on the broader structure of the entire album. Leftism remains the single best example of a dance album.

The Prodigy Music For The Jilted Generation

The Prodigy were a cartoonish rave band to start with, breaking through with “Charly Says” (did you know Kenny Everett voiced the cat?). Their second album was a much darker and more aggressive affair, with substantial grit added to the texture, while retaining the breakbeats and high tempo energy. This is best seen on “Their Law” (with guitars by Pop Will Eat Itself), which is a furious snarling punk song within the structure of a dance track. Vital, adrenalizing, life-affirming stuff. Some of the tracks are more traditional dance, like “No Good (Start The Dance)” (how cool is the video?!)

and “Voodoo People” (taking its riff from Nirvana’s “Very Ape”) but even then there a rockier, guitar tinge to the music.

Various Essential Skint

This was really the first dance-oriented electronica album I listened to a lot. The CD was a freebie from the defunct but much-missed Select magazine, being a sampler from Skint Records, a hot-house for bigbeat and non-cheesy electronica. It starts with the sublime “Santa Cruz” by Fatboy Slim: rather than his cheesy, pop-friendly bigbeat aspect, it’s an almost dreamy but insistently rhythmic prog-dance track. Ideal for spliffing to 🙂 It’s followed by two class tracks, Bentley Rhythm Ace’s “Why Is A Frog Too?”, which is upbeat without being (as BRA sometimes verged into) silly or losing the point, and Lo-Fidelity Allstars’ “Many Tentacles Pimping On The Keys”, which is a terrifically colourful and imaginative bass-led beat masterpiece. (I can’t describe these tracks well at all, can I?!).

The quality declines as it goes on (no surprise, this was a freebie), but that 1-2-3 opener was vastly influential to me. It showed that dance music can be as articulate and imaginative as rock music. Dance music need not be callisthenics, mindlessly pumping beat after beat, like the absurd hard house stuff I’d heard a few years earlier. While Kraftwerk obviously broke the ground here (for me I mean), their rhythms were never aggressive, their tone usually wry and ironic. Essential Skint showed that big beats could be big fun.

Chemical Brothers Surrender

This is something of a left-turn from their first two albums (Exit Planet Dust and Dig Your Own Hole). Rather than the bigbeat extravaganzas of their first pair, the Chems (to coin a phrase) turn psychedelic, reducing the rhythmic emphasis in favour of increased textural and timbre experimentation. This is best seen in tracks like “Sunshine Overground“, with its acid-sensitized opener and slowburn increase in tempo, building to a cathartic (though not orgasmic) peak at 6.24. “Let Forever Be”, with its Noel Gallagher vocal and Beatley bassline, is delightfully colourful:

less of a pounding bigbeat stomper than the previous Gallagher collaboration “Setting Sun” (with rhythm stolen directly from The Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows“), and more of a psychedelic groove, man. There’s also the hit single “Hey Girl Hey Boy“, which was the soundtrack to one of those brilliant nightclub moments where everything just clicked and you feel you can touch nirvana (damn, drugs can be good). On the other hand, “Out Of Control” sung by Bernard Sumner does go on a bit.

Thee Madkatt Courtship I Know Electrikboy

Although I’ve extolled indie/bigbeat dance albums thus far, let me flip that on its head with the most sleekly house album I own. Thing is, as with every art form, it’s not the form you choose, it’s what you do with it. Thee Madkatt Courtship (better known as Felix Da Housecat, Chicago house DJ extraordinaire) thus have used the tools of house music to create an album that’s a love letter to dance music and nightclubbing, a concept album of a glorious night out. It opens with the opening statement of intent, “My Life Muzik” and gathers pace, getting into a good deep groove by “Zone 2 Nite” and “My Fellow Boppers“, and it builds to an immense glorious peak at “Cosmic Pop“, perhaps the most authentic recreation of an ecstasy rush I’ve ever heard. “Strobe” and “Kitty Lounge” continue the dancefloor mania, before the album settles into a mellower, post-club come-down with “Open Air” and the confusion and longing of “Soulmate #1”. Though I say this is house music, there is considerable variety, from the acid house of “Zone” to the breakbeats of “Jetsetta” and the discordant trance (could almost be a Daft Punk track) of “Strobe”.

For the longest time I had no idea what this album was called or who it was by, having copied it from a friend without noting the name. But whenever I wanted to show off some proper dance music to anyone, I’d slip this on, quietly, smirkingly confident they’d be blown away. It always worked 🙂

Albums And What They Mean To Me #6

As might be obvious from my list of favourite bands through time, I have quite an eclectic taste. More than this, as I made my way through adolescence  and young-adulthood, my entire self-conception shifted a few times. This is awkward and annoying, especially when people still regard you as you were, but never mind: the main thing is to grow. For example, at school I was a nerdy good-boy (in Scouts, going to the chess club, having rapt discussions about A Brief History of Time); but I had a few years after graduating where I ran a bit wild. Underground nightclubs, techno, drum n’ bass, jungle, drinking like a bloody fish, smoking pot like it was going out of fashion, ecstasy, LSD, mushrooms, all that. Fun, though very very easy to burn yourself out on it.

I did. Big time. Towards the end of 2000 I had an almost catastrophic event – nothing life-threatening, but totally head-frying. It fucked me up so bad that for a few months afterwards I felt like I was always mildly tripping, and the general after-effects of  defamiliarisation (everything appeared strange and unfamiliar), depersonalisation (like I was watching myself from within) and what I later found was called “Hallucinogen persisting perception disorder” (half-seeing things out of the corner of my eye, and visual snow) lasted about a year. Longer, in fact, in times of stress or hangover-dom. Obviously this was a enormous kick up the arse, and I haven’t really touched drugs since.

This happened when I was working in some tedious and temporary office job in Edinburgh. There’s a nice bit in the “A Smart Cunt” novella in Irvine Welsh’s collection The Acid House, where the protagonist Euan talks about his girlfriend’s friends – they were always talking about what they wanted to be (painters, writers, actors, etc), obscuring the fact that they were office workers, local government officials, sales staff, etc. That was us, alright: everybody used to talk about the postgrads they were going to study, the bands they were in, the books they were wanting to write (though were never writing), the hip Edinburgh bars they were going to go to (though never did), the goals for the future. There is something awesomely depressing about being a new graduate, especially if you’ve studied the Arts or Humanities. Your knowledge of 19th century socialist parties or French existentialist novels isn’t worth donkey shit. The entire merit system to which you are accustomed and in which you have succeeded is replaced by the imperatives of business. No wonder so many wanted to go to graduate school. I, of course, was totally into getting a Masters in English. Then a PhD! I was so worth it! No matter that I was earning 5 quid an hour and barely had enough money to buy food.

Anyways. Naturally this was all rather depressing. I felt cheated out of the grand future I had so blithely imagined for myself. This fuelled my self-destruction, and I had a bit of a mad weekend etc: cut to the chase, head got fried and I was all fucked up. Worse thing was, the temporary job which we’d been told would last until March turned out to be coming to an end in December. The job agency which had recruited us all pretended that they’d “place” us all in new posts: I got offered two not-even-full weeks either side of Xmas. I conceded defeat at this point and moved back to the parental home.

You can imagine my mood. “Bleak” just don’t capture it. Monsters seemed to lurk under the stairs, ready to pounce. Day-to-day functioning was difficult: I kept thinking I was seeing things, and people looking into my eyes gave me the fear. I was as always listening to music, as I had no job and playing Championship Manager was the only other thing occupying my time. The key album (if you’ll forgive so much back story) was Death In Vegas’ Contino Sessions.

The second album by the Glaswegian electronica band, Contino Sessions was a considerable leap from their first, Dead Elvis. It combined the abrasive guitar and drones of Banana Album-era Velvet Underground with the rumbling beats of Rhythm and Stealth-era Leftfield. Which is to say that it was rocky, had dark rhythms, prominent bass, and this crippling sense of foreboding. The best song, “Death Threat”, encapsulates this: an enormous grinding of vast black thunder clouds producing bolts of sheet lightning, it is brooding, portentous and magnificently atmospheric. The electricity is so rich, you can almost smell the ozone.

The Velvet Underground inspiration is obvious in their recurrent use of drones and repetition. (This obviously is a recurrent technique in electronica, too). This often works well – as with “Dirge”, which creates a powerful tension between the repeated vocal line (and, only ever saying “La, la, la”, its implied dispassion), and the surging, powerful, alternative rock.

Sometimes, though, it just gets dreary and monotonous. “Broken Little Sister” is unrelieved by varieties in texture and tone: and the dirgey, grim atmosphere gets tedious without the creativity to illuminate it (this is why Radiohead’s “The National Anthem“, which is even more bleak, is a fucking masterpiece).

It’s not all bleakness, fortunately. There are some nice changes of atmosphere (if not pace – it’s nearly all mid-paced, gradual-accumulation-of-tension frameworks), such as the instrumental tour-de-force “Flying”. Inspired by The Beatles’ instrumental of the same name? Dunno, but both are atmospheric, visual instrumentals.

The Stooges-y “Aisha”, snarled by The Ig himself, is a setpiece in malevolence, though it always seems like a genre exercise. The postmodern video makes this obvious. It’s pretty juvenile, really.

This was obviously a low point for me, and Contino Sessions fit my mood perfectly. It is a great album, one I really believe is one of the best of the 1990s. But it isn’t something I return to often, now. The atmospheres are too evocative.

BANGIN’

I may have given the impression in the blog that I take music waaaay too seriously, that I sit and pore over every last bar and nuance like a lepidopterist gingerly analysing the skeletal remains of a rare and exotic butterfly. Well, maybe so, but at the same time I really love a slamming track, the kind that gets the dance floor bouncing with manic FUCK IT LET’S GO CRAZY energy. With a raw punk edge or pounding four-to-the-floor beats (or ideally both!), there’s nothing like the mad rush and adrenaline thrill of a killer tune. Music in its ability to unite people emotionally and spiritually is an incredibly powerful force, able to generate immense resevoirs of emotion or energy. Here are some that get me out my seat and leaping about like a goon.

1. Leftfield – “Phat Planet”

AKA “the song from that Guinness advert”. Simple, and brutally effective. The image of vast banks of tribal drums being beaten by some immense jungle-dwelling African demigod is hard to resist. What’s great is that there’s no melody at all, just crushing rhythm, occasionally augmented by minor details (the mosquito buzz that starts at 2.36, for example). Similarly, the structure is bone-headedly simple. But hey, it takes great intelligence to create music this basic, this focused. I saw Leftfield do this at a festival and it was to my mind an absolutely epochal event, like seeing Hendrix at Woodstock.

2. Armand van Helden – “Koochy”

Obviously this just pinches the riff from Gary Numan’s “Cars”, with some stratching and a thumping beat. Got quite a kick, though, huh? I have a particularly fond memory of this song: I had gone to a party to celebrate my friend’s final undergraduate exam, and come 5am or so, we had ran out of music and were watching MTV’s late night selection, in a this-is-crap-but-can’t-be-bothered-changing-it kinda way. The video for “Koochy” came on, and I was blown away by its relentless simplicity, and the  genius of the video – all bad 70s style, explosions, car crashes and the “plot” sections from porn (so wooden and yet so ripe with tension, though not of the dramatic variety). “THAT’S IT!” I wanted to scream. That amazing stupidity, like The Ramones for the ’00s. But everyone else was falling alseep and nobody seemed to get it. Still, cracking song.

3. Nirvana – “Smells Like Teen Sprit”

Sorry if this song seems like a dead-dodo cliche to you, but I was 12 years old when it came out. Like so many people, it shifted me from being a full-on hair metaller (with all the gormless intolerance endemic in the caveman metalhead mentality) towards something a bit more open and less prejudiced (musically and otherwise). Nirvana’s role in freeing a generation from sexism and homophobia doesn’t get enough praise, it seems to me. But this is only to discuss the ideology (though it is important). “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was the first song powerful enough to get me to MOSH. I’d always wanted to go batshit to songs like it, but was always too shy. (I was quite the wallflower when at school). But eventually I discovered a nightclub where likeminded people went who liked the same music and did the same things and had the same frame of references. (It was here I developed my test for a good nightclub – “To what extent are people milling about outside talking after it closes?” – which I maintain is the key indicator). I’m sure I don’t need to explain the song. It remains a song of immense power and abandon – maybe the only time Kurt Cobain ever equalled John Lennon’s vocal in “Twist And Shout”.

4. The Prodigy – “Voodoo People”

Can I please correct a common misconception? The Fat Of The Land is not (by a fucking country mile!) The Prodigy’s best album. That title belongs, as any Prodigy fan will tell you, to Music For The Jilted Generation (though, okay, you might get some old school ravers going for Experience). It endlessly irritates me how FOTL gets cited as the key Prodigy album. It may have their three most famous singles, sure, but the rest of the album is mindless filler at best. (I don’t even think “Breathe” is all that). MFTJG on the other hand is crammed with killer tune after killer tune – “Their Law”, “Poison”, “Voodoo People”, “Break And Enter”, the genius gear-change that is “Three Kilos”, “No Good (Start The Dance)”… brillant, all. Combining punk attitude, techno beats, a fairly crusty philosophy and outlaw badass imagery, MFTJG is the only album I know where indie kids, technoheads, oldskool ravers, crusty hippies and rockers will all get up to dance. The one that endlessly does it for me is “Voodoo People”, with its opening riff taken from Nirvana’s “Very Ape“, its surging momentum and gleeful breakbeats. Everything you could ever want in a messy dancefloor moment.

5. Madness – “Baggy Trousers”

I could be cool and list a punch of brilliant raw punk obscurities like “Hong Kong Garden” or “I Found That Essence Rare” or “I Feel Alright” or “Dead Cities“. But fuck it – how brilliantly fun, how joyful, how utterly danceable, is “Baggy Trousers”?! ‘Nuff said, huh?

How about you – what gets your motor running?

Favourite Bands Through Time

The Beatles

Sorry about that inordinately long break – the new job has been taking up so much of my time, and I was also on holiday in Scotland for two weeks, celebrating my daughter’s first birthday. But things feel a bit more settled now, and I’ve passed my probation at work :-), so hopefully I can get back to prattling on about my musical and cultural hobbyhorses (hey, that’s what you folks seem to like!).

I’ve previously written about books which were “life changers“, which altered the shape and colour of my mind. In a similar vein, I thought I would go through my favourite bands as time has gone by, and look at how they comment on what  was doing at the time.

1. Queen – 1986-1988

Like many British people born between 1960 and 1990, I became aware of chart music through Top of the Pops, my family regularly watching the show. (I still have a fondness for songs from 1986-7, as those were some of the first which permeated my consciousness: songs like “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now”, “Caravan Of Love” and “Pump Up The Jam”). But the first group that really connected with me were Queen, as a result of us having the Queen: Greatest Flix video, which went from “Killer Queen” to “Flash”. There is something so timeless about Queen, about how many of their songs have become not just standards but embedded into the very soul of the British population. Just start singing “Bohemian Rhapsody” in a bar and see how everybody joins in! Also, it was my first real introduction to the power of the electric guitar, and also to the rather more subtle pleasures of fine bass playing – I esteem John Deacon very highly.

2. Guns N’ Roses – 1988-1992

Yes, I was a greasy little metaller. A smalltown boy with a bad ginger mullet, some truly epic metal tshirts, an electric guitar I couldn’t begin to get the hang of (dexterity is not my strong point), and a detestation of anything pink and fluffy. Oh me! All the same, Appetite For Destruction is an absolute monster of an album, and one whose power and authority have if anything increased as time has gone by; and the guitar playing on the second half of GN’R Lies is remarkable, worthy of the Rolling Stones circa Sticky Fingers. I just wish I hadn’t looked like such an absolute tool in those days. Ah well.

3. Sex Pistols – 1992-1993

While a metaller, I didn’t really know much about punk except through its hardcore subvariant (I still have a vinyl copy of the peerless Hear Nothing, See Nothing, Say Nothing by Discharge). Then one day I on TV an advert for the Sex Pistols compilation Kiss This, and the rawness of the guitar shocked and delighted me. I got a copy of Never Mind The Bollocks, and was blown away! Holy fuck! The sheer raw exuberance, the thrilling noise, the outraged sneer of Lydon and the thick power of Jones’ guitar… an intoxicating mix. fortunately, in those days you could pick up punk compilation CDs for buttons, and so I spent many happy hours discovering great songs like the Undertones “Teenage Kicks”, Ian Dury’s “Sex And Drugs And Rock N’ Roll”, Sham 69’s “If The Kids Are United”, and the brilliant “Two Pints Of Lager And A Packet Of Crisps Please” by Splodgenessabounds. Punk/post-punk is probably still my favourite genre of music. Teenage kicks, indeed.

4. The Beatles – 1993-1995

Guess I’ve said all I need to say about The Beatles. But, oh boy, what a discovery! What colour, wit, variety and grace! They remain my No. 1 All Time Favourite Best Band In The World Ever (man), but of course other groups have periodically taken their place.

5. The Smiths – 1995-1997

It’s sometimes ridiculous how apt music can be – or maybe it just finds you at the right time. Anyway, in those days Britpop was jst getting going, and I used to read the magazine Select. In the small ads section at the back, there was an entire category called “Stuff About Morrissey”, such was the devotion of his fans. I knew he’d been in the band The Smiths, so one day I borrowed their Best Of Vol. 1 from the library, and… ZANG! Often dismissed as miserablists or because of Morrissey’s patent narcissism, The Smiths considered just for their music are a band of high lyricism, from the gloomy foot-stomper “How Soon Is Now?” to the fierce indictment “The Queen Is Dead” to the outrageously pert “This Charming Man” (still a dancefloor filler) to the achingly selfpitying “I Know It’s Over”. This was just as I was becoming a literary-obsessed love-bereft aesthete; in other words, a real prat. Still, I can’t deny the force of The Smiths’ impact, nor how incredibly pertinent it all seemed.

6. Tricky – 1997-1999

During my time as a student, I developed an inordinate pot-smoking habit. (There was about a three-month period when I was never not stoned). Tricky’s remarkable Maxinequaye was an ideal accompaniment, being sensuous, slinky, and itself obviously a devotee of the herb. His subsequent albums Pre-Millenium Tension and Angels With Dirty Faces were ever more dark, brooding, disjointed and dismissive of simple pleasures like melody and structure, and his entire career has been a continual downward trajectory (how galling to have so many “special guests” on his comeback album Blowback, and how badly they were used!), but there was a time when Tricky seemed like a genius. How swiftly times change. (I haven’t smoked pot in almost 12 years now.)

7. Belle and Sebastian – 1999-2000

Like many people, I suspect, I bought this album by mistake. Intending to buy an album by Arab Strap, I instead bought The Boy With The Arab Strap, Belle and Sebastian’s third. But even on its first play, I found it to be a striking listen – quiet and underplayed, to be sure, but poetic, folky yet rich with orchestral colour, and with lyrics to die for. Apart from The Beatles and Kraftwerk, 99% of my music was dark, gloomy, or angry – I had also been going through a Joy Division phase earlier (great band, but not one which illuminates your life). But Belle and Sebastian’s ironic gentleness, their soft lilting melodies set to hushed, biting portraits and evocations came at a completely different angle, and set the pace for what was a hazy, crazy, lazy summer, the likes of which you can only have as a student.

8. Leftfield – 2000-2001

After a few years smoking pot, other drugs began appearing. The most revelatory was ecstasy, which as the cliché goes, gave me a whole new outlook on life. (The most important, ironically enough, was that the joy was within us all, and that we didn’t need drugs or anything to access it. Just knowing it was there was enough). So of course you need a soundtrack, and though their first magnificent album Leftism was already five years old by then, Leftfield fit the bill splendidly. It was unusual to get dance/electronica that worked well across an album, which had such a range of emotions and textures and which was paced so well. Starting with the bouncing toy-piano-y “Release The Pressure”, modulating through the gears in “Melt” and “Song Of Life”, and building to a peak through the sinister charged force of “Black Flute” and the exhilarating dancefloor release of “Space Shanty”, Leftism was a remarkable feat. I also saw Leftfield in summer 2000’s T In The Park festival, and was blown away by the sheer intensity of their attack – it beat any rock band I’d ever seen. (Moby, whose album Play was taking off after being out for a year, also did a really good headlining set).

9. The Velvet Underground – 2001-2003

While I’d been a fan of the Velvets since discovering them in 1995, they were never quite my favourite band; I admired them, but maybe I had to get through some living first. I also wasn’t keen on their third or fourth albums, The Velvet Underground and Loaded, which I considered weak pop sellouts. Anyway, eventually it started to dawn on me just how impressive they were, particularly The Velvet Underground. Ditching the extreme amplification and distortion which made White Light/White Heat such a glorious failure (in recording terms, at least – song-wise, there’s not a thing to complain about), the Velvets instead revealed their vulnerable, open, fragile side; not in a weak way (as perhaps with Nirvana’s Unplugged) but with a sense of strength and nobility. Being able to dig this, and continuing to worship at the altar of the ferociously distorted “Sister Ray”, finally made me fully appreciate the Velvets. I mean, a band with Lou Reed, John Cale and the incredible Sterling Morrison? Whoa!

10. Miles Davis – 2003-2005

As I said before, I got into jazz via the Velvets, and started with Miles Davis and Kind of Blue. I then spend about six months buying a jazz album every week, mostly Miles Davis, but also John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, Archie Shepp, Herbie Hancock and Charlie Parker. (Though I am a big Philip Larkin fan, I seem to disgree with him on every aspect of jazz). What’s so admirable about Miles Davis? At his best, he integrates vision and method with astonishing success, as seen in the out-there horns of “Orbits”, the candlelit dusky dreaminess of “Shhh/Peaceful”, the aching melancholy of “Blues In Green”, the sinister foreboding of “Pharaoh’s Dance”. But more than that, his ever-changing approach is magnificently inspiring. His willingness to constantly challenge himself, to leave his comfort zone and seek new musical territories is an object lesson in how to create. (Somebody once asked him why he didn’t play ballads any more. “Because I like playing them so much,” he replied). Similarly, his work with younger musicians is incredible – this is the man who recognised the talent in musicians of the calibre of John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams (if you don’t know who Tony Williams is, listen to his top-hat work on “Shhh/Peaceful” – he plays it like a lead instrument!), and Joe Zawinul.

Since about 2005, I haven’t really had any new favourites; I seem happier exploring the byways of musical history than seeking out the latest sounds. But how about you?

Musical Pet Hates

Thus far in the blog I’ve tended to talk about my enthusiasms and passions – there’s so much music and books and films etc that I totally admire. However the flip-side is that some aspects of music just drive me up the wall. I’m not referring to bands etc which I hate *cough*Coldplay*cough*, but general aspects of the music listening experience. In some ways this has changed a great deal as music has gone digital: the physical thrill of holding a new album is now over, while music’s scarcity value (and thus the valuation of the music one does have) have also dramatically declined. Until 2006, every album I had I bought or spent time taping (yes, I taped a lot of albums – so sue me); now, frequently, I read about a band who sounds interesting then often download substantial sections of their discography, via a torrent. (Again, yes, I realise this isn’t morally virtuous – so sue me). Getting such a whacking great slab of music all at once is unfortunately also rather a disincentive to listen to it all with the patience and keenness that good music demands. Older readers may remember the overwhelming urge to devour a new album you had saved up for, savouring those first listens, studying the artwork and liner notes, delighting in the overall experience.

It’s a bit different now, but then on the other hand, the essential musical listening experience doesn’t change: speakers produce vibrations that are picked up by the ear. That’s it.

But, ah, anyway: let me, dear reader, take you through some of the aspects of music which bug me, some a constant in music, and some which are particular to your mode of listening.

1. Best-Of Albums with Crappy Remixes

God, this BUGS THE FUCKING SHIT OUT OF ME. I’m sure it seems like a good idea, in that it provides an incentive to purchase for those who already own most of the albums. But invariably, the remix is crap. This is most often found in electronica artists, where their music is already prone to remixing anyway. (See, for example, Moby: his Collected B-Sides album contains FOURTEEN remixes of “Go”). So, for example, The Prodigy: their best-of Their Law: Singles 1990-2005 contains crappy remixes of both “Poison” and “Voodoo People”: yes, that’s right, the songs from their best album. (It also gormlessly places their most famous singles, “Firestarter” and “Breathe” as tracks 1 and 3, in case anyone is afraid of having to listen to their “other” songs). U2’s compilation The Best Of 1990-2000 offers paltry remixes of their more electronica/experimental tracks (such as “Numb” and “Discotheque”): every single one is significantly WORSE than the original. That’s five songs out of sixteen: you do the math. Leftfield, The Beastie Boys, Fatboy Slim… all have similar tripe in their best-of albums. It’s just senseless.

But what really angers me is when it’s completely unnecessary. The Stone Roses’ Complete Stone Roses (i.e. the best of their stuff at Silvertone: their first album and singles prior to Second Coming) suffers from terrible remixes or remasterings of songs that sounded brilliant, for no purpose whatsoever: it’s not a remix, in the sense of an altering or reimagining, it’s just really bad producing. “I Am Resurrection” for example is completely butchered: the insistent opening drum beat is clunky, Brown’s vocals are clumsily double-tracked and too prominent, and the magnificent instrumental coda is simply deleted. “Waterfall” is subdued rather than letting its divine harmonies resonate. I am sure the Roses had no input on this shoddy work, but whatever bastard at Silvertone is behind this wants their ears cleaned out. Preferably with dynamite.

2. Overly Long Albums

Maybe it’s because I always liked being able to fit albums onto one side of a C90 tape, but I tend to think that albums should be around 45 minutes. Any longer and my attention starts to wonder. I tend to feel centrifugal forces take over beyond 60 minutes and albums no longer hang together, compact and united. Obviously, the impact of the compact disc is an issue here: once tapes and LPs became obsolete, bands started filling up the 72 minutes running time, simply because they could. But few bands can make a gripping, compelling listening experience over 60 minutes. The White Album, Exile On Main Street, Physical Graffiti, …And Justice For All, Blood, Sugar, Sex, Magik, The Wall, Zen Arcade, Music Has The Right To Children, – yes. Oh god, yes! But the 2000s and beyond are littered with many album which are simply TOO FUCKING LONG.

Maybe Guns N’ Roses started this trend with their preposterous Use Your Illusion albums. If you read their interviews prior their release, they intended to release one album and leave the rest for b-sides etc. Sadly, grandiosity inflated their intentions, leaving two records with maybe 3/4 an album of good songs. REM: their albums after the under-rated Monster are generally overlong, overproduced and underwritten. While Play by Moby is praiseworthy in its scope and range (18 songs from the slamming “Honey” to the delicate “Crystal” to the punky “Bodyrock” to the thoughtful “Guitars, Flute and Strings”), his later albums are lengthy without variety. Any album which takes on the ennui of touring and travelling isn’t likely to be good, and Hotel sure ain’t: including its bonus CD, it’s TWO HOURS LONG. Metallica, once so precise, let their albums after the Black Album bloat ridiculously: where was the producer telling them where to cut, huh, Bob Rock? (Death Magnetic might have “only” ten songs, but only one is under 6.25!). Tricky, on the other hand, hasn’t really expanded the running time of his albums: it just feels like it. (How incredible, and how depressing, to have a continual downward trajectory with every album!).

3. Bad Pacing

I’ve gone into this in more detail here, but suffice it to say, I hate hate HATE albums which put all their good songs on the first half. Shoddy endings show the band doesn’t care about the album as a whole, and just hope listeners dig the hits at the start. Even good bands do this sometimes. Although  Radiohead close The Bends with the wonderful “Street Spirit (Fade Out)”, they precede this with the two worst songs on the album, “Black Star” and “Sulk”. OK Computer, on the other hand, doesn’t even bother with a good closer, leaving the dismal “Lucky” and “The Tourist” to close an otherwise excellent album.

4. Lack Of Information

This isn’t an issue these days, now most people get their music digitally, and there’s sources like the inestimable Allmusic.com and Wikipedia where you can get all you might need. But back in the day of LPs, cassettes and CDs, I used to scour album covers for information: lyrics, songwriters, producers, recording details, images, additional musicians (always revealing), etc. It was part of the whole experience of the album, to sit with your headphones on and to read the lyrics and liner notes as the band played on. But some lazy bastards never bothered with this, giving the cover, track listing, and nothing else. Iron Maiden for example always did this; cunts.

Some people complain about iTunes but personally I think it’s terrific. I love how it organises your music, and lets you see the albums with a choice of the information: I go for Name, Time, Album by Artist, Genre, Plays (i.e. number of times you’ve played it), Last Played, and Year (i.e. of release).I don’t know if it’s because I’m just anal retentive about music or if all this data helps organise a large collection, but I really like it.

5. Crap Speakers

I’m partly guilty of this one myself: too often, I just fire up iTunes on my laptop and listen through its speakers, rather than bothering to plug my iPod into the speakers. (I do have a proper sound system “back home” in the UK but haven’t bothered getting one while in China). Music to be properly appreciated needs the full spectrum of frequencies, in particular the bass tones which small tinny speakers (such as from a laptop or  mobile phone)  cannot reproduce. While laptop speakers have been improving (I recall seeing an Acer laptop which had a small subwoofer), they  still produce only a pale shadow of the full audio spectrum. (And that’s before we even get into discussing the advantages of FLAC files over crappy MP3s).

How about you?

Albums and What They Mean To Me #1

Neuroscientists may be able to explain why particular sounds or smells link so strongly to certain memories. I’m sure we all have scents that bring back huge waves of childhood nostalgia: some for me are kippers frying on hotplates at a harbourside fete (an immensely salty tang); ginger beer (I was very fond of this as a wee lad) and Fisherman’s Friends (ditto). Music is obviously immensely powerful in this area, so much so that trashy albums remain popular through the power of association rather than any musical qualities. Why else would I remain fond of Skid Row‘s Slave To The Grind and Motley Crue‘s Girls Girls Girls?

One album with particular memory-associative powers for me is Lazer Guided Melodies by Spiritualized. Perhaps less well-known and under-rated in comparison to their masterpiece, Ladies and Gentlemen, We Are Floating In Space, it’s an album arranged in four suites or movements, each of several separate sections.  Musically, it is exemplary early-Spiritualized, with floaty, dreamy, shimmering textures, droning, repetitious melodies, implied rhythms, soft understated vocals, and a processed and digitised production taking off the rough edges even on the strongest-hitting of sections. The druggy implications are pretty obvious, though there’s nothing overtly psychedelic, no talk of “gnomes” or “witches hat sitting on her head like a paraffin stove”. Rather, it’s dreamy, spacy, blissed out.

You can hear a fine example of all this here:

A sparkling arpeggio intro leading to a repetitive guitar-shard, under which a mobile bass-guitar melody suggests deep, anxious feelings hidden by an unchanging exterior – with releases of tension dramatised by the horns, though the underlying anxiety of the bass and guitar continue on. The build-up and release of tension, of course, are key aspects of sex, music and drugs (especially opiates); though there’s nothing overtly sexual here, there’s a sensuality to some of the music, while the druggy aspects are more pronounced, with some of the music verging on the unsettling. While Ladies and Gentlemen would make the painkilling, soothing aspect of the drug experience explicit, there’s surely an aspect of that here already – a recurring feeling of strife and discomfort soothed over, or an unsuccessful attempt to soothe over pain and anguish.

This all seemed fairly resonant with me at the time. In the summer of 2000, I had just graduated and had to face the fact that I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. Although I had been moderately successful as a student, gaining a 2:1, I hadn’t succeeded in getting what I thought was a “good job” after rebuffs following final interviews with the Big 5 consultancies, the civil service etc. I’d been close, but not good enough: I had vainly imagined that I would swan into a good job and live happily ever after in some nebulous future, in the same way as I’d been successful all the way through my educational career. But it seemed the real world was a rather tougher place, and this unnerved me. Similarly, I’d moved into an apartment with a friend, anticipating finding a job of at least some kind soon enough – again, erroneously, and bills soon began to pile up. I signed on with a mixture of weary resignation and sneering superiority from wounded pride. I was lovelorn and single, but also depressed and poor; numerous romantic rebuffs also took their toll, stripping my confidence and souring my attitude. I had ambitions to write, but had no idea of any way to use this productively; I even, in an attempt to stop being so over-analytical and self-conscious, gave up my habit of keeping a journal. At the time it seemed like a good idea; in retrospect it seems like I was running away from myself, trying to escape from a present around which ominous clouds were gathering.

This all seemed perfectly suited by Lazer Guided Melodies. It soothed, but was foreboding; it was dreamy and captivating; it was intense yet oddly relaxing. There was none of the surface agony of Ladies and Gentlemen, but it was just as emotional. And it seemed to capture my mood perfectly.

(Other key albums of that moment were Rhythm and Stealth by Leftfield and The Contino Sessions by Death In Vegas – both equally dark and foreboding. The road I was on seems pretty clear, in retrospect).