Wednesday, May 25, 2011


325: Eric Clapton Slowhand. I blame drugs for much of the decline of great musicians during this general period. The Stones, for example, were never as good after Keith discovered smack. By this point Clapton had kicked heroin, but had been wracked by the drink that had filled the void it left. Although the solid attack of "Cocaine" feels reassuringly rock and roll and “The Core” has some primo guitar, by in large EC has abandoned the sort of power (both musical and by way of cultural migration) he used to muster at will. It isn't so much that he's headed for the middle of the road: Fleetwood Mac would triumph aiming for the same target. It is that he's become bland. At times this is as soft as you could imagine a major rock star ever getting; in fact I could imagine hearing “Peaches and Diesel” down my phone while I'm on hold at my bank. 11

324: Linda Ronstadt The Very Best of Linda Ronstadt. The CD age brings many blessings, but also its share of curses. Twenty three tracks cannot disguise Ronstadt's decline, which calls into question the value for money of this purchase. In fact they stack her horrible duets with Aaron Neville and James Ingram fourth and fifth on the track listing, as if daring you to go on. You do get back to good stuff, like “When Will I Be Loved” and her knack with Buddy Holly songs endures. This shows that she was a top-shelf pop artist in her prime. But the journey is patchy. 11

323: David Bowie Station to Station. Three of these six (only six?) songs are great Bowie: the hallucinogenic New Orleans future-funk “TVC15”, the opening and title mini-suite which introduces his new character and enduring nickname, and the guitar rave-up “Stay”. “Golden Years” is a good single, with its “Superstition” riff providing a way into an otherwise un-commercial album. The remaining two songs, one a cover, are both dubious, evoking Elvis's decadent period and tempting Bowie to over-sing as he strives for normal patterns of meaning. 13

322: The Police Ghost in the Machine. They've lost their way. “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic” is no “De Do Do Do De Da Da Da” or even “Don't Stand So Close to Me”. “Spirits in the Material World” is politically asinine, a piece of dubious wisdom that will net people nothing but a shitty status quo unless they happen to have real money, like the Police at this stage. Much of the remainder pits Sting's voice, which works quite well with energetic punk and even well-played MoR, against some fairly gimmicky eighties production that never fits the band's strengths. Plus only a few of the songs are among their best, many of them seemingly grappling with dehumanisation or some such. 11

321: Randy Newman Sail Away. “You all gonna be an American...” The devastating title track is about America's original sin, about its relationship to race and to its myths. It carries more weight than anyone could possibly expect a pop song to carry, and more than possibly any pop song ever has. Nothing else here can possibly match it, and indeed the other satirical songs, entertaining as they are, are either obvious (“Political Science” and “Burn On”), or too mean-spirited (the twinned songs about religion that present the same idea from two points of view). The character songs take us into more familiar Newman territory, two of them covered memorably (by Joe Cocker, and the Muppets, believe it or not). But by writing “Lonely at the Top” for Sinatra, albeit two years earlier, he gifts this apparent stop gap album a second immortal moment, one of the great pranks of the age. 13

Wednesday, May 4, 2011


330: James Brown In the Jungle Groove. By not pretending to be anything but a beat extravaganza, this coheres far better than 20 Greatest Hits. Brown approached his funk like a jazz band-leader, demanding the highest levels of discipline and chops of his players, and a selection of results from 1969-1971, perhaps messed with just a bit, are presented in their conceptual glory here. It rocks and funks from beginning to end, an almost perfect world unto itself. Rhythm beds coloured by hard horn charts, some choice and sometimes rocking guitar, and Brown's singing, usually focussing his songs around simple phrases so as not to distract from the rhythmic drive underneath. Flung at a rap-besotted street in 1986, by the end of the 80s these beats were everywhere, and the world was once again a rhythm nation. 15

329: Sonic Youth Daydream Nation. Whereupon the prior haunters of deepest underground New York perfect their post-indie guitar attack and their William Gibson themes simultaneously. Let them take you down to a place where nothing is real, where sinister things come in at you from the right as you breathe in the information flows, where you wander around in a dazed wonder, to where the teens riot and total trash rules. Their music now suits the mood they are in – they can now play fast and furious, which means that they only strike terror and doom into the heart when they intend to. And while they do occasionally intend doom, more often they intend bliss and escape. The world they are in holds promise for those daydreaming in the deep underground even though like everything it can be co-opted by the powerful. 15

328: Liz Phair Exile in Guyville. One thing critics are perhaps too polite to mention about this singer-songwriter record in disguise is how basic it is musically. Many of its songs are arranged with a simple electric guitar droning along, perhaps some drums tapping away, and Phair's every-woman vocals. Others sound like rock, when she wants the setting to be jauntier or perhaps just wants her singing to have more presence. But Guyville doesn't often encourage her out of her psychological rut. She's not PJ Harvey and has no ambitions to take possession of a moaning long-snake. She's nonetheless beholden to her own sexuality, and vulnerable to the foibles that communication with the opposite sex often involves. Phair's songwriting paints a deep portrait of conflicted, all too human women who know they want something but can't work out exactly what or how to get it. Sometimes these women get fleeting moments of pleasure or happiness; more often they feel gun shy or hate the object of their affection. 14

327: Alanis Morissette Jagged Little Pill. With no street cred at all (a former teenage pop star must be all showbiz, no authenticity) it was inevitable that Morissette's debut would fail to attract the rock hierarchy. Why should her core audience of thoughtful teenage females care about that though? She won them over because she's both a confessionalist and far from boring, her lyrics shamelessly guileless prose. If the market was willing to make Jewell a big star, why not someone that actually leads a band, creating a credible sound to express jealousy through petty sexual competitiveness? That sounds like a real person to me. Sure, the results are mixed, and for every "You Outta Know" and "What I Really Want" are platitudes like "You Live, You Learn". But her guilelessness is charming in itself: I'm a fan of the much-derided "Ironic", which captures a perspective many share and understands that language does change, a fact that snooty pedants ought to take more seriously. 12

326: The Cure Disintegration. I admit to being baffled by this one. While I enjoy the texture of Robert Smith's and Porl Thompson's guitars, I find it fatally undermined by their noodling, where they stretch some tracks (which hold little enough interest in the first place) to seven, eight and nine minutes. The result is pure kitsch. In addition, Robert Smith's overwrought vocals make him a very unconvincing romantic sort, even when a relationship is coming undone. The only song here I am likely to ever play again is the genuinely creepy (and comparatively brief) “Lullaby”. The rest sounds like Broadway goth. 9

Sunday, April 10, 2011


Five more albums from Rolling Stone's list of the 500 greatest albums.

335: Graham Parker Squeezing Out Sparks. “You Can't Be Too Strong”, a pained ballad about an abortion, sounds like it is sung by an asshole attempting to be tender but instead coming off as patronising. Because of this it manages to avoid wider political baggage, baggage that wouldn't suit these terse rock songs, each of which come back to personal relationships and dissatisfaction of one sort or another. Parker's anger is not the basis of good politics; in fact it is likely to be reactionary at heart, although he's good enough not to make this explicit. Instead, his sneer sparks off the songs and gives the music focus, energy that powers a great and nasty record. 14

334: X Wild Gift. It is a dangerous world for young punks to fall in love in, a world ruled by singles looking for fresh blood and endless rope with which to hang themselves. Even though nightmares and wars aren't going to stop Exene and John from looking into each other's sweet eyes, these things occupy their thoughts, and, worse, so does the possibility that one's partner might kiss any child that passes through. So they are conflicted and immature, facts that lend complexity to their simple and effective rock 'n' noise. John's and Exene's voices are the voices of normal people, but however untutored, they are still the equal of Billy Zoom's wondrous punk-rockabilly guitar attack. These aren't just fine songs once you get to know them, they are punk poetry, poetry that includes punkily poetic music. 14

333: Richard and Linda Thompson Shoot Out the Lights. The no-nonsense, muscular, often slow-burning guitar-based arrangements the Thompsons use for their final album together make it a difficult record to get to know initially and ensure the depth of your commitment to it over the long term. Give it enough spins and all eight songs stay with you, a few more and they are forever in your head. Although Shoot Out the Lights is a famous divorce album, its power does not solely depend on the disintegration that colours its songs. They are durable in their own right and collectively tell a tale that is wider than any specific relationship. Perhaps the Thompsons' performances are deeply committed, however, because the singers identify so profoundly with their material. This is singer-songwriter craft both as catharsis and as literature. 14

332: The Beatles Help! Help! presents a Beatles who are absolutely accomplished and on top of their craft, apparently reinvigorated even if they aren't always happy. There's a ghost of their early formula – they give Ringo a country track to belt out, they finish by getting John to cover a rock and roll touchstone. But here the well known classics are titanic: “Help!”, “Yesterday”, “Ticket to Ride”. Many of the other songs are gems: “You've Got To Hide Your Love Away”, “The Night Before”, “You're Going to Lose That Girl”, “I've Just Seen a Face”. “Act Naturally” is perfect for Ringo, and “Dizzy Miss Lizzy” for John. And if the rest of the songs only fill the gaps, they do the job divertingly. 15

331: Neil Young Tonight's the Night. Young is one of the greatest melodists of the rock era: his ballads have an unsurpassed delicacy and sweetness, which he flavours by recording them rough. His rockers are basic, tattered, powerful when he wants them to be. Here his approach is even more ragged than normal because that's they way life seems to him – the drugs that come with the rock lifestyle have taken too great a toll, and he feels guilty about the losses he's endured. Sometimes he feels paralysed by it: “I'm singing this borrowed tune/ I took from the Rolling Stones/ Alone in this empty room/ Too wasted to write my own”. 14

Wednesday, March 23, 2011


Another 5 Rolling Stone top 500 albums as I try to get to know the established classics.

340: Black Flag Damaged. Even by the standards of punk, Black Flag's sound is a raw, loud and intense blur. Their themes of suburban alienation and aimlessness are not especially original, but they bring to them a sense of comedy. The genial-sounding dolts that are so disappointed when their TV breaks down, give a sense of humanity that more programmatic social critiques fail to engage with, and they come across truer as a result. And the intense blur, like the aimless lives the protagonists lead, has its harsh pleasures: the way the roar behind “Six Pack” ramps up gets me jumping every time. But the underlying message is that the kids aren't alright. They have nowhere to go and they are in pain or purgatory as a consequence. 14

339: Tom Waits The Heart of Saturday Night. Much as he might want to deny it, the young Waits was far from a weirdo, more like a talented poseur. He is in love with some nior-movie version of Los Angeles in which everyone drinks neat spirits at sailor-frequented joints, and beat poetry and jazz are the language of bloodshot neon purgatory angels. Literary pretensions (something Waits became far better at once he found his own voice) aside, his gifts of melody and tenderness shine through. But I don't particularly identify with either the world he depicts or the out-of-its-time music he colours it with, and I find his art at this stage of his career to be nascent at best. 11

338: Big Brother and the Holding Company Cheap Thrills. Janis Joplin's approach to blues singing isn't completely unprecedented for a white singer, but she takes it over the top. An outgrowth of the increasing influence of black and folk vocal antecedents in 1960s rock, her apparently improvisational (although actually highly planned) approach to expressing strong emotions became all the rage: this album (Big Brother's second), Joe Cocker's drunken interpretations of pop standards, and Robert Plant's massive bowdlerisations of the blues were all on the charts within a few months of each other. Big Brother's long, rambling songs, spacey blues featuring lots of fuzzy guitar sounds and a rhythm section that occasionally loses track of itself, are both “over-soul” themselves and modernise traditional form. They now sound like period pieces of course, but also sound great: Joplin's such an intense presence (as she had to be as a woman outdoing men) that she turns shtick into triumph. Songs of despair and submission are transformed into songs of pure pain, impossible openness and protest at the price she is forced to pay to exist in a rocker's world. 13

337: Jethro Tull Aqualung. This heavy landmark begins with several story-songs featuring a common cast of losers. These include the sleazy old man of the title, someone called Mother Goose and the prostitute Cross-eyed Mary, none of whom are portrayed particularly sympathetically. They are grotesques, bearded ladies and chicken fanciers, scarecrows and snowmen. Augmenting these are attacks on organised religion in the title track and “My God”, which reinforce what appears to be Ian Anderson's rather dim view of people and society. This impression is offset a little by acoustic tracks of surprising delicacy and warmth. These are stronger than the heavy tracks, which occasionally make me respond physically, but not often enough. 12

336: Soundgarden Superunknown. One of the two major hits from Superunknown is about depression, the other about a guy playing the spoons, which is just the sort of thing Led Zeppelin would do. Not that these guys are Zep: they are quintessentially 1990s. In other words they are two further steps from the blues, less virtuostic, less corny, and less entertaining. Even the light songs feel slightly weighed down. Despite this, the record has many virtues, skill and passion perhaps foremost among them, and their fast ones are good chunky rock. However, it also fails my length test: unwilling to commit to 70 minutes I often choose another record to play. I'm happy to admit that I'm old, that the gravitas Soundgarden pursues gives the kids a sense of meaning, and that Soundgarden's audience is cool with CD-defined lengths and 16 song albums. The fact that I feel it drag is a data point and no more. But it is also a fact. 12

Saturday, March 5, 2011


345: Talking Heads Stop Making Sense. I'd recommend the movie to anyone. Not only that, these versions of “Once in a Lifetime” and “Life During Wartime” are magnificent things, and everything else here is fine. But this is still only my second favourite Talking Heads live album, and I recommend 1982's The Name of This Band is Talking Heads (not to mention three or four of their studio albums) over it. 13

344: Lou Reed Berlin. Lou's rock opera seems sad. Its protagonists are persecuted just for being outside society's norms, a state with which Lou strongly identifies. It is a pity he doesn't communicate rage (just sadness, as in the climactic “Sad Song”, and the quietly lovely “The Bed”, about a suicide), and therefore can't make effective politics out of it. He even struggles to make art out of it. Although the seeds of Reed's conversational mature style are in place (particularly his approach to singing and lyrics) the big-shot session players he hires generally muddle the music, and Reed's lead guitar is missed. The story isn't too difficult to follow, but the album's lack of musical focus means I don't identify with Reed's characters to anywhere near the extent he does. 11

343: Meat Loaf Bat Out of Hell. I know it is possible to enjoy this as so-bad-it-is-good and it may even have been meant that way, but fuck that, life's too short. The fifties were long gone even as they were making this, the point of Phil Spector was teen innocence coupled with an awesome sound, not operatic drama or some other sort of contemptuous parodic bullshit, and while the two most famous ballads are both enjoyable cheese all those nine minute rock and roll piss-takes are downright provocations, not least because I resent it when I start to enjoy myself. Plus the non-singles are utter crud - “Heaven Can Wait” anyone? “For Crying Out Loud?” 7

342: Depeche Mode Violator. This album is some sort of mid-point between Another Green World and the soundscapes of the 1990s, with sonic signatures recalling New Order and British new-pop thrown in, although the sounds on Violator are cheesier. For example, you can dig the random sounds buzzing across the headphones on the tranquil “Waiting for the Night”, and bits of “Blue Dress”. It has some good lyrics (“World in My Eyes”, “Personal Jesus, “Waiting for the Night” again) but does not rock as convincingly as most New Order (or even Duran Duran). All-synthesizers or no, Depeche Mode appear uninterested in anarchy or explosions; in fact there is a hint of politeness about them that reminds me strangely of some folk singers. Their sound-palate isn't as juicy as those 90s soundscapes (or Eno for that matter) as a consequence. Personally I mildly enjoy it, but rarely find a reason to play it. 11

341: Moby Play. This is perfect, beginning with the marriage of an ancient blues voice to a fast, modern (and yet old) beat, pulling the trick several times more without its effect diminishing, and then fading into lyrical club pastoral. Moby's fascination with betrothing old and new is thorough – field hollers hold hands with modern soul backup vocalese, traditional melodies with explicit hot beats and electric guitar solos. But the whole album is anchored by an intangible that is neither old nor new. Whatever soul is, it pours out, not just of the old vocals but out of every glorious, organic-sounding groove. 15

Sunday, February 27, 2011


350: Neil Young and Crazy Horse – Rust Never Sleeps. With its slow build up and incendiary finale, its eccentric preoccupations and master-class in melodicism, I think this edges out Exile on Main Street and/ or Who's Next as the best rock album of the 1970s. 15

349: The Yardbirds Roger the Engineer (a.k.a. Over Under Sideways Down). Titled (perhaps more accurately) Over Under Sideways Down outside of the UK (and officially just called The Yardbirds) this raves up more consistently than Having a Rave Up did. At times it even approaches the energy of The Who Sings My Generation or The Rolling Stones Now! The Yardbirds lack a singer with the authority of Roger Daltry or Mick Jagger, but they are legendary for their succession of guitarists. Here Jeff Beck's early feedback exercises (nothing too radical) generate plenty of heat. The songs, meanwhile, all originals, are club barn-burners. 14

348: Muddy Waters At Newport 1960. Muddy and his band are in fine form for the benefit of the Newport Jazz Festival-goers, rocking up the joint with songs that would keep reappearing throughout the 1960s - “Baby Please Don't Go” “I'm Your Hoochie Coochie Man”, “I've Got My Mojo Working”. He appeared at Newport as jazz's core audience was gathering increasing numbers of middle-class whites, and Muddy does not spare them the carnal side of his blues. “I'm gonna mess with you” indeed. 13

347: Pink Floyd The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. Like a number of forward-looking major British (and even a couple of American) rock albums from this general period, Pink Floyd's debut is half-immersed in a world that had almost disappeared by the time I was born. Sgt. Pepper's looks back at show-tunes and farmyards and meter maids and Victorian circuses; The Who Sell Out aims its marketing at very traditional family arrangements, Happy Jack likes its marching band, Pet Sounds its bicycle bells and animal noises and sailors, and here we have kings and unicorns and bicycles and scarecrows and mice called Gerald. It is as if the gateway to the new somehow holds the ghost of the past, as if experimental excursions such as "Interstellar Overdrive" and the electronic geese that gently see this album off have to surround themselves with the guilt of changing the world. This nostalgia sure makes Piper an interesting record, the nostalgia is almost more interesting than the experiments. Piper also has passages of solid hard rock and lazy beauty. But the nostalgia and feyness also dates it, perhaps not fatally, but noticeably. 13

346: De La Soul 3 Feet High and Rising. Cartoon innovators create a classic with one foot still in reality, which explains the pain underlying the day-glo. These are cartoons with uncommon musical depth, particularly in their grooves, which are funky and knowledgeable, and their samples, which are encyclopaedic, unprecedented and now pretty improbable. 14

Wednesday, February 16, 2011


I'm back with some more reviews from my listening journey of acclaimed pop, making my way through Rolling Stone's list of their 500 greatest albums.

355: The Rolling Stones Between the Buttons. Clearly a transitional album, but in some ways a throwback too. For example, the Stones' song-craft is more consistent here than on Aftermath, but the nastiness of that record anticipates later developments more clearly. They have still to find the sound they would go forward with on “Jumping Jack Flash” and Beggars Banquet. Jagger's drawled American affectation has not fully settled in either, and this is one of the last times they would sound identifiably British (although to hear him say of an acquaintance “she's so affected” while taking on a posh accent is to giggle). So, rather than having its own firm identity, Between the Buttons is a grab-bag of gems. The path from the raunchy “Let's Spend The Night Together”, to the nasty “Yesterday's Papers”, the somewhat more accepting classic “Ruby Tuesday” and the naif-like characterisation “Something Happened to Me Yesterday” is a walk without a single mis-step. 15

354: Randy Newman 12 Songs. The key to Newman's masterpiece is the paring at its centre. The probably not-ill-meaning but undeniably racist old vaudeville hit “Underneath the Harlem Moon” is sung as sincerely as the similarly racist original “Yellow Man”. The only reasons to think that Newman is making social comment are the fact that the alternative is too painful to contemplate, and our own knowledge that society moved on in the intervening 50 years. Newman's saying that it hasn't moved on as much as we like to think. The stalkers, pyromaniacs, simpletons, paranoids and other misfits that populate the rest of these ironic miniatures are presented with sympathy because Newman sings from the first person. But they are still simpletons and misfits, still damage other people such as the women that they objectify, and racist language can still persuade the unwary, including when it isn't ill-intended. 15

353: The Yardbirds Having a Rave Up With the Yardbirds. The rave up is on side two, which has four live tracks (with Eric Clapton on lead guitar), the last three of which climax the album with a great deal of energy. The first song, though is a shapeless cover of “Smokestack Lightening”, which is more like what preceded it. Side one is less raucous and includes the first and weediest of of two versions of “I'm a Man”, but also has some good mid-sixties style British R&B playing (with Jeff Beck on lead guitar) and a classic single in “Heart Full of Soul”. 12

352: Billy Joel 52nd Street. Joel's nothing if not a skilled professional; perhaps that was always his ambition. So on this pop-album-for-everyone we have a couple of intended standards, one of which is a ballad so skilfully executed even I listen to it with mild pleasure, the other of which is a kiss-off. Neither became standards though, because to write those you need inspiration, and that's in relatively short supply. The main character of “Zanzibar” is an unlikeable failed muso like a younger Joel, and the song's exoticism doesn't go over the top into “Rio” territory. The other major ballad, “Until the Night” is a clich├ęd horror. But then fuck me if “Stiletto” doesn't have the piano part upon which DJ Polo would later base one of the greatest singles of the 1980s. Joel uses it sparingly, the rest of the song penny-ante masochism providing no particular insight. But those half-minute bursts of piano are inspired, and easily the most memorable moments here. 11

351: Dire Straits Brothers in Arms. The notorious hit “Money for Nothing” is about a bunch of working class guys talking about how good life must be on the MTV circuit compared to their jobs. Although the stereotype of the workers is offensive, as are the slurs they utter, there is actually some truth to the scene (despite Dire Straits' failure to develop it far). Moreover, it is easily the most convincing piece of music on the album. The rest tends dreary. Why does the slow and doleful “Your Latest Trick”, with its dated 80s sax, have to plod on for 6:34? Why is the prettily banal and terminally slow “Why Worry?”, the very next track, stretched to 8:31? After this something called “Ride Across the River” and the title track, which both plod, last just on 7 minutes. Each. Mark Knopfler's a lovely guitarist. But he's no sultan of swing. 11

Monday, December 27, 2010


Merry Christmas! Here is the next five records on my "get to know the rock canon" marathon, by way of Rolling Stone magazine's top 500 albums of all time special.

360: The Smashing Pumpkins Siamese Dream. In my humble opinion, this is where Billy Corgan's vision most truly encounters the Zeitgeist. He hadn't yet shaved his head, or (despite the fact that he plays almost every guitar on the record) otherwise succumbed to messianic tendencies. He hadn't yet conceived an arcane or long-winded art-rock juggernaut either, at least not publicly. He just led an excellent alt-rock band in an era of good alt-rock bands, making a huge, warm guitar-led sound, and performing a bunch of well-wrought, slightly angsty, slightly ironic songs very much in keeping with the 1990s' slightly angsty, slightly ironic character. It is easily their most pleasurable record. It's a wonder of nature that humans should see fit to create a sound that might compete with a rocket fighting its way slowly into the heavens. 13

359: Outkast Stankonia. With their street-background authenticity, verbal dexterity and determination to get noticed, Outkast were always stars in the making. With Stankonia, their musical force rarely falters and their grooves are all play. Between the politically charged opener and “Xplosion” with its Cypress Hill guest spot, their flow of juice only slows with the atonal “Snappin' & Trappin'”. Like a lot of long hip hop albums, this one doesn't quite make it to the end, and I'm sure I could live happily without many of the interludes. But there are plenty of moments to remember in the album's latter-half as well, empathy, outreach and vision. 14

358: Buzzcocks Singles Going Steady. This is cannily entitled: except for the opening shot at the sexually obsessed, all of these eight pop singles are in some way about love and its complications. They have tunes that you can hum and a guitar sound with physical presence, mass played at velocity, a punk component that was still steadily producing exciting records for people thirty years later. The B-sides are more varied and in some cases more internally focussed. They take in such bits of life as bad days, frustrated desire, the need to exasperate your parents. Together both the singles and the structure of the album act like someone's public and private faces. 14

357: Elton John Honky Chateau. Elton's hit-to-miss ratio was pretty unpredictable, even during this his peak period (although sadly it has been easy to pick for years now). Here, unpredictably, he nails a bunch of good ones, his commitment, melodic sense, and feel for accessible dynamics even making something of a trifle addressing the weighty topic of Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters. On the way he negotiates the complexity of tone required to sing pop songs about mock suicide and slavery, and his music tends to have agreeable go-ahead whether meant ironically or not. 13

356: Miles Davis Sketches of Spain. Looking forward and perhaps even initiating the modernist sound-moulding of Terry Riley and Steve Reich, Sketches of Spain bears only a tangential relationship to the blues, jazz or popular music generally, but this most famous of Davis's collaborations with arranger and composer Gil Evans is nonetheless freer and has more bottom than much of the modern highbrow music that it otherwise resembles and in some cases derives from. It is also beautiful, which is a trait a lot of conservatory music shares, but you wonder if it really can be as beautiful as this, whether it is ringing out clarion calls or simple improvisations over an insistent if frequently buried pulse. 14

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The main themes for today were

  • hectic day with lots of interruptions
  • initial planning for the end
  • lovely evening

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The main themes for today were

  • rocks and hard places
  • weird misty rain
  • running out of time before the end of the year

Monday, December 13, 2010

The main themes for today were

  • tripped by the weather
  • defeated by Iggy and Elton
  • hot crowded ride home

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The main themes for today were

  • busy day
  • bills to pay and rubbish to put out
  • Nixon is a fine movie, with a more convincing insight at its heart than JFK had. The character is well rounded no matter the liberties that may have been taken with history, and the scene where Nixon interacts with the protesters at the Lincoln memorial is brilliant.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The main themes for today were

  • another lovely day
  • bonus library blogging!
  • stories of AC/DC's drummer

Wednesday, December 1, 2010


Now deep into the 300s, the next 5 records on Rolling Stone's list find one great record and four very good ones.

365: The Smiths Louder Than Bombs. I was left underwhelmed by The Smiths, and this compilation suggests why: it is far less subtle lyrically and, more crucially, musically than the group's debut. Johnny Marr's guitar is here used to generate excitement as well as interest. Meanwhile, Morrissey's unharmonised vocals work his slight melodic range for all it is worth. And he keeps coming up with good lines, even better because of how ambivalent they make you feel. He may get miserable sometimes, but inside the shy lad lurks enough passion to want to burn down the nightclub. They play the wrong music for a sensitive provincial like him, you know. Etcetera, etcetera. 13

364: Johnny Cash American Recordings. He's got no sort of voice (but how little did we know how croaky it could get), but he's a great singer. This means he's quite capable of carrying an album with only an acoustic guitar and a group of classic country melodies to help him. This first-in-series is easily the lightest and most tentative of his late-career hits: he may already be contemplating his upcoming death, but he's not above frivolity, and the austere authority he would lean on later is deployed sparingly. Cash the legend is a work of art in itself, but Cash the working singer still has some mileage in him. 12

363: Madonna Ray of Light. Despite the hype this came with at the time, religious significance does not dominate Madonna's reaction to half a decade of increasingly subtle club soundscaping: the subtle soundscaping does. Most of Ray of Light's songs are good, although they are slow, slightly damaged sonically, their sound rather blissful as a result, and too subtle no matter how fetching the disintegration. The album's energy is held in reserve, and, except for the title track (and maybe even then), what energy there is is directed inwards as if it had a secret to keep. It is three songs too long as well; I'm usually ready for it to end after “The Power of Goodbye”. It isn't that the remaining tracks are bad, but the are more of the same. 12

362: The Doors L.A. Woman. I've complained in the past about this group's stiffness, but the great bass, drum and guitar playing on this album is a pleasure in itself and I no longer care very much when Jim Morrison's plays the jerk. Because he's also a damn good singer when he just goes with the material, such as in the opening “The Changeling”, the title track, and the closing pair “Texas Radio” and “Rider's On the Storm”. Obsessed about his huge phallus, he can't understand women, he remains unconvincing when he is self-conscious about being an artist he was never interested in overcoming his weaknesses. It is amazing what a difference music can make. 13

361: New Order Substance. What a strange and uplifting journey it was. As if they were going through half a decade's mourning, they began a fragile human psyche in an inhuman landscape, enduring pain and loss and broken spirits, before slowly climbing out to the tune of “True Faith”, which sums up where they had gotten to. You can perceive them change, from-dance-music-to-express-their-isolation to reach-out with pop tropes like “Shell Shock” and “State of the Nation”, and with clean beats rather than murky ones. I do miss the mystery of “Temptation” and “Blue Monday”, but I realise that they needed to heal, needed to normalise. Later they would be so normal they would write one of the great football anthems. 14

The main themes for today were

  • mist and drizzle!
  • coming to a view
  • good customer service from Amazon

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The main themes for today were

  • another glorious day
  • discussions of 517/1d and other important matters
  • Natural Born Killers: massively OTT, confused thematically, very much of its Zeitgeist brilliant technically, far funnier than anyone is willing to admit

Thursday, November 25, 2010

The main themes for today were

  • another brilliant day
  • working on numbers
  • ashes

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The main themes for today were

  • Glorious day out
  • Always things to do
  • Sad day though

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The main themes for today were

  • back better today
  • pleasant lunch
  • ringed planets

Monday, November 22, 2010

The main themes for today were

  • stiff back
  • library visit
  • Heaven and Earth is the clearest anti-war movie of Stone's Vietnam trilogy. It is very grim. Very well acted, although Le Ly and Steve's marriage is a series of edited highlights.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The main themes for today were

  • false start
  • lunch on the run
  • the Heart of Midlothian

Tuesday, November 16, 2010


Whoo-haa 5 more albums from Rolling Stone's list. Boo hiss, there is only one genuine great here, and a couple of very goods.

370: Jefferson Airplane – Volunteers. Grace Slick's coyness in pronouncing “motherfuckers” sounds bourgie to these bourgie ears and what is more the timeless verse “free happy crazy people naked in the universe/ we speak Earth talk/ go ride the music”, and “Wooden Ships ... very free” and songs about trees talking, sound ridiculous to these bourgie cringing ears, even in the context of the post-apocalypse. Would it be unfair to think they were exploiting the latest thing going? How in the distant future the remnants of this group were to buy right into the corporate machine and produce airhead AoR rock I really can't imagine. They sure don't sound like they are ready for real guerrilla warfare anyhow, an impression backed up by the slightly limp, dated sound they achieve here, however occasionally pretty and folkie their tunes might be. 11

369: The Police – Reggatta de Blanc. I guess the title might mean “white reggae”, but I count precisely two genuinely memorable songs here, one right at the start of side one and one right at the start of what used to be side two, and only one of them sounds like it has anything to do with Jamaica. The other songs all pass by pleasantly enough, and the band is tight. But this feels badly undercooked, Regretta da draft. 11

368: Rage Against the Machine – Rage Against the Machine. Agit-prop that is more uncompromising than any mere liberal in the political mainstream would dare but not programmatic or in any real sense revolutionary. Just like the music, in which hectoring Zack de la Rocha and guitar genius Tom Morello simulate hip hop for rockers but don't actually break new ground. They do sound damn good, however, and in so doing exploit the machine for everything it is worth. 13

367: The Strokes – Is This It. Actually I rather like this. It's importance might be ridiculously overstated by some (album of the decade, really?), but that is hardly The Strokes' fault. Okay, perhaps a little, depending on how calculated you think their return-to-rock-virtues move is: it is a return home for a certain type of rock critic. Nonetheless, they've written some taut, fast, catchy rock songs and put them onto a plastic disc for us to buy and play, and while I don't think the songs have much significance beyond themselves, that isn't going to stop me trotting this out when I want some rock and roll for the vacuuming. 13

366: Mott the Hoople – Mott. From giving us a figurative history lesson about rock itself, to giving us a history lesson or two (or three) about Mott the Hoople; whether slipping between “violence” and “violins” or essaying a pitch-perfect Dylan impersonation; in fact all the highly capable rock and roll throughout, these songs get you eventually. They are funny, grand, rocking and touching and just plain there, they are great to a man, and Ian Hunter is a lost visionary of the period. 14

The main themes for today were

  • Digging up ancient/recent memories
  • Seeds of Doom - but DVD scratched in the mail :-(
  • JFK isn't a movie so much as an obsessed polemic; so the bits with Garrison's family don't really fit. Man can sure make an argument, although he does over-reach

Monday, November 15, 2010

The main themes for today were

  • stiff back
  • good weather
  • walk home helped my back

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The main themes for today were

  • Distracting
  • Date set for Xmas lunch
  • Chasing different things