Overrated Albums

Knobheads

I can’t be bothered reading the music press any more. Partly this is an age thing: the new music magazines tend to cleave either to the kids, who are looking for something to call their own, or hipsters who seek out the obscure, while the “classicists”, like Q and Mojo etc, endlessly venerate the middle of the rock, the tried and true. This is all very well when it comes to the Classic Rock Canon. The trouble is when they prattle on about tepid shite like David Grey or Springsteen or Coldplay or the endless would-be Joni Mitchells: derivative nothingness that ekes out a living in the slipstream of really creative musicians. How I utterly loathe and detest lack of imagination in music! And how common it is. So easy to follow whatever trend, whatever genre, whatever production formulas and fads.

Both types of writing, more specifically, endlessly irritate with their attempts to hitch whatever releases to the zeitgeist. It must be every music journalists’ dream to the next Geoff Barton, he of Sounds who popularised the “New Wave of British Heavy Metal” (aka the NWOBHM, which so inspired Metallica). This leads to absurd drivel trying to read more into music than is there. I remember some ridiculous twat saying how Bloc Party were “scarily prescient” with an album or single called Tsunami, just before the 2004 disaster. I mean, that is low. Or how The Strokes apparently inaugurated a CBGBs/lower-East Side revival, when they really were nothing like punk forebears like Television or The Ramones or Blondie etc, and were actually embarrassed by such comparisons.

This is the trouble: at times, media and fashion trends will dictate the “need” for a certain type of band, and if there isn’t one to hand, well, they’ll try to shoehorn one in. Thus, Suede “inaugurated” Britpop, despite Brett Anderson’s contempt for its parochiality and jingoism. The Almighty, older metalheads may remember, were to be the Great British Metal Hope of the early 1990s, were it not for the fact that they sucked ass, and were really a punk band in it for the money. Iron Maiden, going even further back, originally had a distinctly punky edge and had to turn down record label request to cut their hair to fit in with the by-then goonish punk style. (Their first album, with its street-level aggression, budding ambition (see “Phantom of The Opera” – check this video of Paul Dianno-era Maiden live at the Rainbow – thought its telling that the best part is the instrumental section) raw charm, and lack of filler (always a Maiden problem) remains my favourite). This kind of fashion-led music journalism is a joke, never conveying the merits of an album nor contextualising what the artist(s) are doing musically. It leads to albums which might be flavour of the month but which is actually vastly overpraised. Here’s some I think never lived up to the hype.

Blur – Parklife

It is a clever album, sure. At a time when British music was looking westwards to grunge, dance or hip-hop, this was a bold proclamation of British cultural tropes and memes. The trouble was, it was so fucking arch, so sneeringly ironic, that a good half of the album comes over as callow posturing. Case in point: “Parklife”, a song I have always detested. Song for song, it starts very well – “Girls And Boys”, “Tracy Jacks” and “End Of Century” are a fine 1-2-3 (though not as good as “Tender”, “Bugman” and “Coffee and TV” from 13), but gor blimely guvnor, if the second half ain’t filled with oh-so-satirical portraits of working class life and Londonisms and all that guff.

Kraftwerk – Trans Europe Express

OK, this will be controversial. Trans Europe Express is a mighty fucking fine album, and songs like “Europe Endless”, “Metal On Metal” and the title track are indisputable classics. Trouble is… “Hall Of Mirrors” and “Show Room Dummies” both leave me cold. When you compare that to their other great albums, that’s an unusually high dud ratio (The Man Machine: no duds; Computer World: no duds; Radio Activity: no duds). I just find it a bit weird that TEE is always cited as the Kraftwerk album to listen to, the one that makes all the Best Of polls. I’d put The Man Machine first as their best, most consistent, most Kraftwerkian – and then Computer World.

Beastie Boys – Paul’s Boutique

I don’t quite get why this one is so critically lauded. It seems to me like a bunch of samples of good songs thrown together. Might have been a relatively new idea at the time, but hey, if you sample a lot of good songs, you can’t really go wrong. The range is nice, but… unless you’re really doing something new and imaginative with them, not just rapping over them, it’s not much of a stretch. I FAR prefer the subsequent Check Your Head, which is an even denser stew of samples and excellent rootsy live instrumentation. I love that warm fuzzy bass sound they have, and the richness and range of the styles of music. In comparison Paul’s Boutique is a series of clever backdrops to the Beasties’ rhyming – alright, but not, I’d say, what they do best. (The Check Your Head follow-up and partner-piece Ill Communication is perhaps even better, if less original).

Daft Punk – Discovery

As much as I loved Homework, I loathed Discovery. “One More Time” – what an appalling song! When I briefly worked in Edinburgh, it was on high-rotation on Radio 1 – must have been something like once an hour. No wonder songs no longer rise on the charts when they get flogged to death like that. This is not to say I dislike house-style electronica – I like the stuff the DP duo did in between Homework and Discovery, especially “Music Sounds Better With You” (lovely video) but also (even!) “Gym Tonic“. It’s just that the housey/R&B stylee of Discovery discards everything I’d liked about Daft Punk – the abrasive rhythms, the abandon, the intensity – in exchange for pretty mediocre pop/disco tunes. Meh.

Others:

Definitely Maybe is infinitely superior to What’s The Story Morning Glory?, even considering Wonderwall.

Music For the Jilted Generation is faaaar better than The Fat Of The Land.

Animals is better than both Wish You Were Here and Dark Side of The Moon.

Ride The Lightning, Master Of Puppets and …And Justice For All are ALL greatly superior to the Black Album.

Miles Smiles, In A Silent Way and Jack Johnson are all better than Bitches Brew.

Advertisements

Mike’s Theory of Musical Progression

"Let's not do anything orginal in 30 years." "Okay, Keith."

(Another from my old blog, but I think it still stands up as a theory).

I would like to postulate my theory on how music acts progress and develop, and why, in general, later albums nearly always suck in comparison with early ones.

If we look at album groups (who manage to stay together for more than three albums, let’s say), there are three types of act:

1. Groups who make the same basic album over and over again. AC/DC, for example. Iron Maiden have two basic styles: heavy metal which is kinda punky or kinda proggy. Morrissey has been a solo artist for three times as long as he was in The Smiths, and although he sounds more inspired at some times than others, Moz’s songs remains the same. Portishead are Portishead are Portishead. The Ramones have never been anything other than The Ramones. Boards of Canada spend years refining their albums, but it’s still essentially the same kind of album. The Rolling Stones haven’t done anything new since Mick Taylor left.

Groups like this work within the basic framework outlined in their early albums. Sometimes a later album is really good, if they are challenged or emotionally adrenalised, but mostly it’s their early work that gets people going, when it was freshest.

Such (successful) acts are quite rare – it’s hard to do the same thing over and over with great conviction.

2. Groups who use music to articulate. These groups are the rarest. They’re the real artists – who use music to express a vision, or some specific content. I’m thinking of The Beatles, the Velvet Underground, Kraftwerk, Radiohead, Pink Floyd, Miles Davis. Take Pink Floyd for example – the increasing bitterness of post-Dark Side of the Moon is perfectly reflected in the aggressive guitars, in Water’s dark cynical lyrics, and the sharpened song-structures. Kraftwerk, of course, constructed sound pictures on aspects of modern life, whether computers, travel, or machines. The Beatles combined form and content in astonishingly articulate, imaginative, immediate pieces that rightly make them acclaimed as the best rock group ever. (Who else could do “I Am The Walrus”, “Revolution” and “Martha My Dear” in just over one year?)

These groups develop organically during their career. Often their later albums are better than their earlier ones, but not always. They know what they want to say and how to say it. They are rightly lauded as the best in their field.

3. Groups who have an idea… and that’s it. This is the vast majority of groups, in my opinion. Acts who have an initial burst of inspiration, have a collection vision, who articulate something new and urgent and expressive. Maybe it’s a new form altogether (c.f. Roni Size’s groundbreaking drum and bass album called, ahem, New Forms), maybe it’s a synthesis of two or more inspirations, maybe it’s just making it faster or slower or harder or more complex or darker or whatever.

They’ve got an angle of some kind, some new sound – so they get popular. They can release more albums. But… whatever inspiration they had dries up. No fault of theirs – such inspiration is a rare thing, and comes and goes with whimsical abruptness. Maybe they can refine their previous vision, but they, like most human beings, want to progress and develop. So what do they end up doing? They end up with craft – with pop. Whatever was raw, edgy, new and exciting becomes more refined, mature, professional… and dead. Rock music is by nature transgressive – it pushes at and goes beyond the boundaries (which is why the dirty sound of the electric guitar defines rock music). Rock music which stays within known boundaries is dead as dodo shit.

Take as an example Belle and Sebastian, perhaps the best Scottish group of the last twenty years. Their first albums did indeed articulate something new, something unique – poetic, literate, understated yet rich tales of failure, loss and childhood. Great stuff; some remarkable albums. But once this seam had been mined, they turned to Trevor Horn, who gave them a professional sheen, a more confident sound… and lost what had been so special about them in the first place. The group playing “The Boys Are Back In Town” (!!!) from their Live At The BBC album is a confident, professional rock band, with nothing unique about them at all. All the rough edges has been smoothed out, and all their character.

Or, from another angle, The Stranglers. A savagely aggressive pub rock band gets all mature and produces songs like “La Folie” and “Golden Brown”. Mike Oldfield – a distinct musical vision, as seen in Tubular Bells, is gradually diminished and diluted album by album (even his side-length later pieces like “Crises” are visionless, crafted pieces), leading to pop tunes like “Moonlight Shadow” and “Family Man”. Nice and all, but… Public Image Ltd, meanwhile, show one of the clearest bifurcations between early abrasion and dissonance, and later poppy-hooky tunes:

REM, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Tricky, Roxy Music, Moby, U2, Metallica (who as they can’t go pop instead cannibalise themselves – anyone telling you Death Magnetic is a “return to form” is deluding themselves), Oasis, Gang of Four, Herbie Hancock, Manic Street Preachers (a classic case), Pearl Jam, Madness (who actually did it rather well), Stevie Wonder, Animal Collective, Add N To (X), New Order, Blondie, Genesis, The Buzzcocks – it happened to all of them. Sometimes they may even do it well, as I’ve suggested with Madness; Animal Collective are certainly having more success than ever. But whatever was new, unique and glorious… it’s gone.

*

To continually create (not to produce) is the hardest task in any artform. That we have groups of the calibre of the ones I listed at #2 is a minor miracle in itself. Go listen!

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?

Albums And What They Mean To Me #2

I haven’t really liked too many bands since 2000 or so. I think there’s three reasons for this. In part it’s because I’m happier delving through the past and rooting through the greats, rather than keeping up with what’s new. Another reason is because I’m no longer a youngster and, as wise old E.M. Forster said, there’s a narrowing of the gates necessary after 30 if the mind is to stay creative.  But probably the main reason is that I find a lot of the music unambitious and insipid – suited for these wan unimaginative days. (Let’s face it, we’ll probably never get bands like Throbbing Gristle, MC5, The Stranglers or The Smiths again). I mean, when The Strokes came out with the single “Hard To Explain” I was genuinely excited, but the album contained precisely 1.5 good songs: yet they were absurdly overhyped as somehow restoring the glories of CBGBs and the pre/post-punk New York thing. Anyone who had ever heard The Ramones or Television or Blondie knew what a pale imitation The Strokes were! Same with Interpol – an inferior imitation of Joy Division. Same with stuff like Editors, Spoon, British Seapower, Franz Ferdinand etc: just nothing special. And then there’s music that’s just utterly lacking in testicles, like The xx: weak, pallid, insipid, and utterly lacking in ambition. (I’m not even going to go into bedwetting mortgage rock like Coldplay).

However, one album that really grabbed me was Animal Collective‘s Strawberry Jam. Sometime in 2007, the Guardian did a feature on best albums of the 00s, with commenters adding their own favourites. I downloaded ones which sounded good, with Strawberry Jam swiftly becoming by far my favourite. As often happens when a good album strikes you with some force, it complemented my own mood and circumstances. I had recently arrived in China, teaching English in a small university. For the first time in my life, I felt like I was in control of and directing my life, rather than letting things happen: I had taken things by the scruff of the neck and it was fun. China was fascinating, my students were lovely, and I was really enjoying being there, learning so much every day. I loaded the album onto my MP3 player when I first headed to Shanghai for the weekend and savoured it.

While most electronica albums are based on beats and rhythms which sometimes criss-cross but usually cohere, Strawberry Jam is more joyfully psychedelic, based on the idea that more is more. It starts off relatively conventionally with “Peacebone”, where a propulsive rhythm and shimmering blips keep the numerous seemingly-random samples and effects from becoming shapeless, while a lyric of fantastical images (“A jugular vein of a juggler’s girl”) goes nowhere but is striking. “Unsolved Mystery” starts off with a simple repeating two-chord accoustic riff (sampled, to cut out the decay), but discards this metronome as the song proceeds, overtaken by repeated colourful samples and vocal effects. The apotheosis of this approach is the next song, “Chores”. This is just a wonderful gleeful psychedelic maelstrom that is utterly infectious in its deep sense of wonder and joy. It’s kind of like “Tomorrow Never Knows” but REALLY REALLY HAPPY. I love the looped sample (0.56-1.10) – repeated thirty-three times! (I counted). The latter half of the album (after the remarkable “For Reverend Green”) is less euphoric and almost reflective, but follows the same musical approach, as with “Winter Wonderland”, a song which captures a sense of Yuletide magic.

It’s an album which perfectly complements a period of new experiences and heightened vision. It’s also adventurous, colourful and joyous. A wonderful album.

You might also be interested in: Albums and What They Mean to Me #1