I can’t decide whether I love or hate Devlin’s cover version of The Jam’s classic track Town Called Malice. As anyone who knows me, or has ever seen my last.fm profile will know, I think Paul Weller is an absolute genius, and one of the best British musicians of the last 30 years. In fact just one of the best musicians of the last 30 years from anywhere. I’m therefore a bit nervous of cover versions of his work, and one by a young British rapper, such as Devlin, isn’t one that I would imagine liking.
It’s not even really a cover version, as he changed the lyrics (which were originally about Weller’s home-town Woking, which was also the nearest town to where I grew-up and is, as the song suggested, what one might politely describe as a bit of a shit-hole. Devlin keeps the spirit of those lyrics, but moves them to modern-day Dagenham, another place that is unlikely to win the award of the prettiest place in England. He raps these new verses in a typically English shouty style, but has quite a pleasant voice when he signs a few bars towards the end.
So, what’s the final verdict on Devlin’s cover of Town Called Malice? I think it’s a positive one – it’s nice to see it being given a fresh sound, and good to know that Weller is still inspiring new music over 30 years since he was a young musician himself. And the great man obviously likes it as he asked Devlin to remix his recent track Fast Car, Slow Traffic. Which is crap. So let’s finish with the original version of Town Called Malice, still an amazing track, even now.
Woking station by Mark Hilary on flickr
In its ongoing bid to have more sub-brands than any other media owner, Absolute Radio recently launched a new niche-station, this time one tailor-made for those of us currently experiencing the dizzying pangs that come with realising nostalgia isn’t just something that happens to your parents: Absolute 90s. And, as part of the ongoing celebrations of the launch, they’re compiling a list of the Essential 90s Albums.
Now, anyone who has ever read this blog before (Hi Mum!) will know that I love a good list and so, taking Absolute 90s compilation of such a list as a challenge, I thought I’d have a go myself. And here, after much thought, is my 20 essential albums of the 90s. It was hard enough keeping it to 20 (and they’re likely to change) so they’re in no-order other than chronological. I’ll happily admit that it tends to skew towards British music & hip-hop, but it’s not my fault that most grunge was shite.
Anyway, for anyone that cares (Hi Mum!), here’s my 20 essential albums of the 90s.
- Public Enemy – Fear Of A Black Planet (1990): Proving that rap & politics made perfect bed-fellows, the decade got off to a storming start with Public Enemy’s magnum opus.
- Happy Mondays - Pills ‘n’ Thrills And Bellyaches (1990): Whilst baggy seems like an 80s phenomenon, it’s crowning glory was released in the 1st year of the decade. A sprawling epic, the likes of which they’d never make again.
- The Sundays – Reading, Writing & Arithmetic (1990): Whilst the 90s was the decade that indie conquered (in the form of Britpop), the fey, jangling type that had ruled the 80s alternative scene was lost along the way. Which is a shame when it’s as beautiful as the début by the laziest band in rock.
- Massive Attack – Blue Lines (1991): Era defining. Genre defining. Proof that the UK could do its own blend of hip-hop as well, if not better than the US. You need to own this.
- Primal Scream – Screamadelica (1991): Indie never-weres discover house music, and drugs, and get remixed to the hilt. Genius ensues and a generation of white boys learn to dance. Almost.
- Dr. Dre – The Chronic (1992): Ex-member of NWA drops his anti-drugs message and starts dropping caps, blunts & bitches. Utterly un-PC, utterly amazing and owning a sense of humour that so much of the crap that came in its wake would lack.
- blur – Modern Life Is Rubbish (1993): Having proved that indie could top the charts, blur decided to try to kill grunge. They failed (at this attempt) but shaped a very-British type of pop that would soon sweep the nation.
- Paul Weller – Wild Wood (1993): The greatest British musical chameleon since Bowie went home, realised that growing old in Surrey wasn’t so bad, and released one of the most beautiful albums of the decade.
- Wu-Tang Clan – Enter The Wu-Tang Clan (36 Chambers) (1993): Brought rap back to its spiritual home in New York, and stripped it down to its basics. Wu-Tang Clan aint nutting ta f*ck wit’! Remember that.
- Oasis – Definitely Maybe (1994): Gave the British a band to believe in, even if the dream was to prove short-lived. Life-changing.
- Tricky – Maxinquaye (1995): Responsible for some of Massive Attack’s greatest rhymes, Tricky went solo, discovered Martina Topley-Bird, and created an album of paranoid beauty.
- Coldcut – Journeys By DJ: 70 Minutes Of Madness (1995): The greatest mix album of all time, this took eclectic to a new level. House, dub, jungle, hip-hop, Dr. Who. Impossible to explain.
- DJ Shadow – Endtroducing… (1996): Trip-hop was always dead before it was really alive, but DJ Shadow managed to make its obituary an amazing piece of work.
- Manic Street Preachers – Everything Must Go (1996): Despite originally claiming they’d split after one album, even the loss of their muse couldn’t stop them. Showed that 90s rock didn’t have to be brain-dead to sell millions.
- Radiohead – OK Computer (1997): The best album ever according to every music magazine under the sun. Not sure I agree with that, but it really is breath-taking in its ambition & execution. Made most other bands look like they minnows they were.
- Roni Size/Reprazent – New Forms (1997): Despite being doubly cursed, as a Mercury winner and that year’s choice of coffee table album, this was & is a fine catalogue of the only truly British music genre to emerge since the 1960s.
- Daft Punk – Homework (1997): French house. Never before or since would those words make so much sense together.
- Lauryn Hill – Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill (1998): Left the biggest hip-hop band in the world to release an album showing that R&B could be intelligent, and that soul still meant something.
- Presence – All Systems Gone (1999): Probably the least well-known album on this list, but also one of the best. Imagine that Massive Attack had grown up listening to house instead of hip-hop; this is what Blue Lines would have sounded like.
Now, the observant amongst you will have noticed that the list above only has 19 entries.So, I want you to make suggestions as to which album should fill that space and I’ll choose one of the suggestions and add it to the final list of the 20 Essential Albums Of The 90s.
I should probably warn you now that it’s very unlikely that I’ll add any album that had a picture of a baby chasing a dollar bill on the cover. Just thought I’d mention it.
On Friday Absolute Radio announced the result of its song of the decade vote: shockingly the top 10 doesn’t include the Arctic Monkeys, Strokes or White Stripes but does include two songs each by The Killers & Snow Patrol, a sign that whilst the station may be excellent, the average Absolute Radio listener gets most of their musical taste from the latest copy of Now That’s What I Call Indie. Oh well.
Anyway, in order to prove that this decade should be remembered for more than some sell-out Scottish Coldplay wannabes and a half-decent American 80s British indie tribute band, I thought I’d note down the albums that have made the last ten years such a musical treasure trove. As always, these are in no particular order.
- Paul Weller – 22 Dreams: Whilst, like most double albums, it would have benefited from a bit of judicious editing, this was still one of the finest albums Weller has produced in years. In fact, with its wide-ranging eclecticism & its towering sense of a man ageing yet still having an unparalleled love for music, 22 Dreams is simply one of the best records Weller has ever made.
- Common – Be: Kanye West may have been, along with his mentor Jay-Z, the man who stole all the spotlight in terms of noughties hip-hop, but his best work was often as a producer. Like a 21st Century Gil Scott Heron, on Be Common blended soul, funk and a stridently political view of the world to amazing effect.
- José James – The Dreamer: Anyone who says that jazz is dead clearly doesn’t know what they’re talking about, but if you’re determined to prove them wrong then give them anything by Soil & “Pimp” Sessions or their Brownswood label-mate José James. He brought a hip-hop swagger to his take on classically cool piano-led jazz. With the voice of an angel, James may well be one of the most exciting discoveries of the noughties.
- The Arctic Monkeys – Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not: Talking of exciting discoveries, the Arctics burst onto the music scene like a fresh Yorkshire breeze. From the dead-pan intro to the video for their début, I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor (“We’re t’Arctic Monkeys, this is I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor. Don’t believe the hype.”), to their scathing take on British bands thinking they were Californian (whatever happened to The Thrills?), they showed that they were more interested in making amazing rock music than matching any passing fads.
- Tuomo – My Thing: Sounds like stone-cold perfect 60s/70s era-American soul. Actually written & performed by a ginger guy from Finland in 2007. So perfect it probably shouldn’t be allowed.
- Marc Mac Presents Visioneers – Dirty Old Hip Hop: Better known for his role as part of hardcore & drum & bass pioneers 4hero, Dirty Old Hip Hop could well end up being Marc Mac’s best ever work. It basically takes classic hip hop tracks, and tracks famously sampled for hip hop records, and recreates them with a lush live soul band. The cover of Pharcyde’s Runnin’ is just one track that now sounds better to me than the original.
- Ohmega Watts – The Find: Like a mix of Visioneers & Common, Ohmega Watts, on splendid independent US label Ubiquity, used soul samples that wouldn’t sound out of place on an early-90s golden-era track with ryhmes that avoided all the nasty rap cliches. Good old-fashioned, pure party music, this deserved to be huge. Obviously it wasn’t.
- Radiohead – In Rainbows: Whilst Kid A may be getting most of the end of the decade plaudits, personally I prefer Radiohead when their biggest experiments are saved for their retail mechanism and they remember that there’s nothing wrong with a tune. Blended the avant garde spirit of OK Computer with the stone-cold tunes of The Bends.
- Amy Winehouse – Back To Black: Her 1st album was a lovely blend of old-time jazz vocals and hip-hop sass & beats. Her 2nd, produced by soon-to-be über-producer Mark Ronson, jumped forward, providing a 21st Century slant on the Motown girl-groups of the 60s. And, as with her first, Winehouse’s amazing voice was used to catalogue her ‘interesting’ private life. Unfortunately it was soon anything but to be private and I think we all wish she had gone to rehab. Whether she’s release anything as good as this in the next ten years, or even releases anything at all, we” always have this amazing record of being a young woman in the noughties.
- The Strokes – Is This It: If the title of this album was a question, the answer looking back from 2010 would probably have to be yes. Whilst they seemed poised to take over the world they never really equalled the brilliance of their début, but what a début it was: drenched with New York cool, it married the stripped down sound of The Velvet Underground with a glamour that was very un-indie. Did for the US what the Arctics did for the UK.
- Kings Of Leon – Only By The Night: They started the decade being written off as a southern Strokes, but ended it as, arguably, the biggest and best rock band in the world. As with so many American acts they first found an audience in Europe, and especially the UK. And the years of touring their first three albums were apparent in the perfectly pitched and incredibly tight tunes on Only By The Night.
- Omar – Sing (If You Want It): Briefly famous in the acid jazz days of the 90s, Omar resurfaced in the noughties with a beautiful album of modern British soul. The album reeks of London, blending as it does sounds & styles from around the world, a fitting tribute to the most multicultural of cities. It’s also one of the few albums to feature a Stevie Wonder duet that doesn’t sound like it’s been phoned in.
- Elbow – The Seldom Seen Kid: The band everyone wanted to succeed finally did. Their rendition of One Day Like This became the defining song of Glastonbury 2008, the album won the Mercury and now we all await their next record with bated breath. An achingly lovely record which could only have been born in Britain, and with a lead-singer who wouldn’t have made it past the auditions on the bland production line that is the X Factor.
- Ty – Closer: Prior to Dizzee Rascal’s take-over of the charts, Roots Manuva was probably the highest profile British rapper. But whilst his music was often dense and claustrophobic that of his protege Ty was soulful & full of melody. That’s not to say that he was any less serious, his rhymes covered every topic imaginable, but did so with an infectious joie de vivre. How this album wasn’t massive, superior as it is to any number of huge selling American hip hop albums, I really don’t know.
- Fleet Foxes – Fleet Foxes: A stunning record that brought to mind everything from Gregorian chants to Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s classic Deja Vu, this is the perfect winter record and manes expectations are very high indeed for their follow-up next year.
- Jazzanova – Of All The Things: Jazzanova are best known as producers of high quality electronic dance music, but on the showing of this record, they’re even better at producing organic 21st Century soul. With a stellar line-up of contributors from the world of contemporary music, every song on this record sounds like a single and is a pleasure from start to finish.
- Zero 7 – Simple Things: dismissed as mere Air copycats, they’re so much better than that. Obviously huge fans of soul producer Charles Stepney, this oh-so laid back album positively drips with strings, which act as a perfect backdrop for the lush vocals of the various contributors. Just because the swathe of ‘chill-out’ albums that came in the wake of Simple Things were mostly shit, doesn’t mean that we should discard this great record along with them.
- Norah Jones – Come Away With Me: Another record that has suffered because of the pale imitations that have followed it, Jones’ début was a delightful blend of jazz & country, and her stunning voice became a staple on Radio 2. But that doesn’t mean the record isn’t amazing.
- The Streets – Everything Is Borrowed: His first album perfectly caught a moment in time and defined a genre just as it outgrew it, his second was hailed as a modern equivalent to Shakespeare and, in Dry Your Eyes, spawned a Wonderwall-size hit, his third was shit but his fourth, with its move to a more organic sound, and intensely personal lyrics, was his finest. Apparently his fifth will be his last, I really hope it’s not.
- Kanye West – Late Registration: After nearly losing his life in a car crash (as he never bores of telling us) Kanye’s debut was a miracle of some sorts. Not just because it actually got made, but also because it saw a mainstream black rapper admitting to being human, rather than spitting out the same old boring ‘guns & hos’ rhymes. Jesus Walks is massive, Through The Wire touching and All Falls Down just plain brilliant.
- Gomez – How We Operate: Most people probably think the one-time Mercury winners have long-since disbanded. In fact they’ve gone from strength to strength, quietly ploughing their own furrow of intelligent, eclectic rock. This album is the perfect demonstration of this, packed as it is with sunny melodies and wistful vocals. Unsung heroes.
- Jamie Lidell – Jim: Lidell was probably signed by Warp because he was a geek creator of weird electronica. They can’t have expected him to turn into the best producer of blue-eyed soul the decade has seen. He sings like he went to church with Otis Redding but looks like he went to Reading Polytechnic.
- Nitin Sawhiney – London Undersound: Apparently this record was Sawhiney’s musical response to the London bombings of July 2005 and the events that followed them. If so, it’s the perfect response to the religious fanatics who try to rule us with fear, being as it is an example & celebration of the beauty that secular multiculturalism has to offer.
- J.A.M. – Just A Maestro: In their ‘day-job’ they make up half of experimental Japanese ‘death jazz’ band Soil & “Pimp” Sessions. But with their splinter group J.A.M., they’ve produced a record more consistent, and more listenable, than anything by the Pimps. It might be slightly more mainstream, but it’s still modern jazz of immaculate quality and would be enough to get a corpse dancing.
- Estelle – Shine: After being unfairly ignored by the, border-line racist, British music industry, Estelle went to the US to be produced & mentored by John Legend. She had a worldwide smash with American Boy but also produced an album that should be compulsory listening for the likes of Beyonce, Leona Lewis & Simon Cowell, who generally seem to think that R&B has to be bland. Catchy but still intelligent, this is a great modern pop record.
Well, there you go. I’m sure that I’ll think of some more, and there are probably a load you think I’ve missed. But
2010 image by Doug8888 on flickr
So, when Absolute Radio announced their quest to find the best songs of the decade, I said that I found it hard to pick any. Well, I’ve changed my mind, thanks to some inter-office discussions (ending in this playlist) and listening to a lot of stuff from the last ten years. Like this.http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x6rk52
And so, without further ado, here are my Best Songs Of The Decade – I should add that these are simply my favourite songs – I don’t claim that they’ve necessarily defined the Zeitgeist or anything like that, I just really like them. Oh, and they’re not in any particular order.
- Amy Winehouse – Rehab: Not my favourite song off of Back To Black, but this song, and the singer, have certainly defined the last few years. And, along with Lily Allen’s début album, is the reason that Mark Ronson has the career he does now. And on that note…
- Lily Allen – LDN: Maybe it’s because I moved there in 2000, and find myself moving back there in 2009, but London has (again) loomed over this decade, just as it did in the 60s & 90s. And Lily Allen blended genres just as London mixes cultures, and came up with an absolute belter, with a little help from that man Ronson.
- Mark Ronson – Just: Valerie is the one that really got him the fame (and royalties) but his cover of Radiohead’s 90s indie classic, for an album of Radiohead covers, is simply wonderful. The ‘indie tune with brass’ thing still seemed fresh then, and the video was rather wicked too.
- The Strokes – Someday: Making rock cool again, The Strokes channelled The Stooges & The Velvet Underground whilst looking like they’d been spawned by specially reared supermodels (most of them probably had): they’ve not lived up to expectations since then, but by clearing the path for the likes of Kings of Leon, they’ve earned their spot here.
- Kings Of Leon – Use Somebody: It may not be cool anymore in these days of firework bands, who explode onto the scene and then disappear from sight (see above), but the Kings Of Leon spent the decade tirelessly touring the globe, building a devoted European following, whilst slowly improving their music. It led to them owning the last couple of years with Sex On Fire and this, Sex’s more pared down, moody brother.
- Radiohead – Weird Fishes: They spent the early part of the decade experimenting with electronica, but then decided to shake up the recording industry by giving away In Rainbows, which also happened to be their best album in years. And this was the best song from a very strong set.
- Arctic Monkeys – I Bet That You Look Good On The Dancefloor: To show how quickly times have moved on since this stormed to the top of the charts, but just think about the fact that the Arctics were lauded for their use of MySpace (something the band always denied). Whatever the case, they were like a British Strokes, making rock cool again. Except that, if anything, their second album was even better that their début.
- Sebastien Tellier – La Ritournelle: This track can only be described as a French Unfinished Sympathy, with the (several minute long) piano intro alone being worthy of inclusion on this list. The word epic is one that is over-used in music reviews, but is just about the only word that truly does justice to this track.
- LCD Soundsystem – All My Friends: As if being the mentor for the early 90s New York punk-funk scene, James Murphy also found the time to create amazing music as LCD Soundsystem. He’ll probably be best remembered for Daft Punk Is Playing At My House but for cataloguing the terror of ageing for music loving hipsters, All My Friends has no peer. And it reminds me of Marquee Moon by Television.
- Amerie – 1 Thing: Beyoncé may have had her boyfriend rapping on Crazy In Love, causing many people to laud it as the greatest R&B record of the decade but, for me at least, this takes that title. Like Crazy In Love it’s a product of Rich Harrison. With that awesome Meters sample it’s still a song that could be used to test whether people are medically dead, because if this doesn’t make you want to dance, there’s something seriously wrong with you.
- Coldplay – Everything’s Not Lost: Though they were famously derided as making ‘bedwetters’ music‘ (no Alan, they just made music for people not overwhelmed by admiration for one trick pony Beatles wannabes) and have followed an Oasis like trajectory where quality of output is directly inverse to their popularity, there’s no doubt that Coldplay’s debut Parachutes was bloody good or that this, it’s epic closing track, is pretty hard to beat. They’d never have had a career without Travis though.
- Travis – Driftwood: It may seem hard to believe now, but in the early years of this decade Travis were poised for greatness. Their album, The Man Who, had swept the UK and they were poised to do the same to the rest of the world. Then their drummer broke his back and the career had to be put on hold. In the meantime Coldplay took their formula of gentle indie music and sold it to the world. Driftwood is a nice reminder of exactly why Travis were the men who nearly did.
- Common – Go!: Kanye West is probably one of the biggest musical phenomenons to come out of the last ten years, but much of his best work has been his productions for other people. This, a track from Common’s amazing Be, is a brilliantly up-tempo paean to what can only be described as an interesting love-life. But, being Common, it lacks any of the lazy misogyny that blights so much other hip hop.
- Aqualung – Strange & Beautiful: Plucked from obscurity thanks to this beautifully understated track being used as the soundtrack to a lovely VW ad, Aqualung is viewed in the UK as a 1-hit wonder. Apparently he’s done pretty well in the US, thanks to his tracks being used in popular dramas, but this is the one that whisks me back to a time when I couldn’t imagine being 30, let alone approaching my mid-30s. Ho hum.
- Paul Weller – Have You Made Up Your Mind: 22 Dreams is Weller’s best album for years (in fact it’s just one of the best albums for years) and this is one of the many amazing tracks on it. For a man who will never see his forties again he sounds fresher & more full of life than artists half his age. A national treasure, this goes to show why he’s one of the best British artists of the last few decades.
- Gorillaz – Feels Good Inc: Talking of the best British artists of the last 30 years, Damon Albarn’s reinvention of himself since 2000 has been amazing. His ability to invent the ultimate rock-band and then use this vehicle to produce cutting edge 21st Century pop with collaborators such as De La Soul has even seen his nemesis Noel Gallagher expressing admiration. The début was made with uber-producer of the time, Dan The Automator but the the follow-up, including this track, was a collaboration with the even more ubiquitous Danger Mouse.
- Gnarls Barkley – Crazy: Fresh from conquering the world with Gorillaz, Danger Mouse created another ‘virtual band’ (of a sort) when he teamed up with Cee-Lo (the man who, by writing Don’t Cha, gave us The Pussycat Dolls – I’m not sure if he should be shot or sainted). This was their biggest hit and, despite being a look at mental illness set to a thundering beat, is an absolute belter.
- Zero 7 – Destiny: Chill-out, and the dreadful coffee-table CDs it gave us, has thankfully fallen out of fashion. But, as with most fads, it produced some amazing music. Zero 7′s début Simple Things was one such record; for me it was the soundtrack to countless summer holidays and never fails to make me think of Mediterranean sunsets and chilled white wine, which is no bad thing at all.
- Jamie Cullum – Frontin’: Another fad that swept the decade was jazz-lite, as exemplified by the likes of Amy Winehouse, Madeleine Peyroux & Jamie Cullum. It was an unfair tag as they all had their moments and for Cullum his greatest moment was this inspired cover of Pharrell’s stripped down hip-hop classic.
- N*E*R*D – Provider: As with Kanye, Pharrell Williams nearly always saved his best work for other people. Having said that, Provider is a truly fantastic track: raw 21st Century soul which lacks much of the bombast that spoils so much of N*E*R*D’s other work. A true classic and one which Zero 7 did a rather lovely remix of.
- Snoop Dogg – Beautiful: If you needed proof that Pharrell was always very generous with his genius (for a hefty fee, of course) then I give you Beautiful. It more or less reignited Snoop’s career as well as featuring a fantastic Brazilian drumming break-down. Oh, and it also demonstrates Pharrell’s other stroke of genius – insisting he feature in the video for just about every track he produces, thereby getting paid by others to build his profile ready to launch his solo career & clothing range (which he wore in most videos) – pity he didn’t keep some of the best tracks for himself.
- The Streets – Weak Become Heroes: Mike Skinner managed to encapsulate UK garage just as he was outgrowing it (much like Dizzee & grime). There are a bunch of his tracks that could figure on any Best Of The Noughties list, but this one, with its craving for the more innocent early days of the UK house scene is one that will always be close to my heart, and not just because it was the focus of one of my first ever posts.
- Ben Westbeech – So Good Today: One of the best aspects of the noughties as far as I’ve been concerned has been the return of Gilles Peterson to the position of record label owner. This was the 1st single released on Brownswood and remains one of its best releases to date. I really don’t think I could ever get bored of its fantastic simplicity, though I’m still disappointed that his album, though great, didn’t live up to So Good Today’s promise. Not something that can be said of all the artists on Brownswood Recordings though…
- José James – The Dreamer: Another début single from Brownswood, this featured on the first Brownswood Bubblers compilation and is, like much of James’ work, simply stunning. Classic jazz delivered with a hip-hop attitude the single and the album of the same name it came from should be must-haves for any discerning music lover. Here’s hoping the next ten years sees him develop a career of sustained quality.
As I write this I keep thinking of more I could add but I’ve decided that, like all good things, this post needs to come to an end. I think I’ve shown what a good few years it’s been for music, even if nothing has really had the over-whelming cultural significance of house, punk, hip-hop or even the New Romantics. But maybe that’s just a sign of these splintered, multi-media times that we’ve lived through. Whatever the case, I’d love to hear which tracks you think I’ve missed – maybe this one?
Over to you, and I’ll see you in 2010 (if not before) when we can start working out what the hell we’re going to call the next decade.
I was going to call this post the best singles of 2008 but living as we do in the age of iTunes, I’m just not sure how relevant singles are these days. That said, I’ve tried to restrict my choices for the Best Songs of 2008 to tracks that weren’t only released on albums. However, seeing as I haven’t listened to the charts for about 10 years, with some of them I’m just assuming that they were single releases.
Anyway, here they are (in no particular order – I keep regretting the order I put the top albums of 2008 in):
- Estelle feat. Kanye West – American Boy: Estelle moved to America to record with John Legend and became friends with Kanye West. They made a hip-hop/house record to try to teach John about dance music. It rocks and is probably the best track of 2008.
- The Streets – The Escapist: Mike Skinner decided not to bother with a proper video to The Escapist, the first single from Everything Is Borrowed. Instead he walked to the South of France and created the perfect visual accompaniment for his beautiful Brockney* gospel.
- Elbow – One Day Like This: Just like when Travis played Why Does It Always Rain On Me at Glastonbury in 1999 only for it to start raining, Elbow’s performance of One Day Like this saw the sun come out from behind the clouds to make for a truly amazing performance. Already an iconic song.
- Wiley – Wearing My Rolex: After me, “normally drink, normally dance, normally bubble…Next thing I know she’s wearing my Rolex”. One of those tracks that start entire trends, Wearing My Rolex was what I believe the kids refer to as a monster choon, with Wylie finally cracking the big-time with a blend of grime and dirty house.
- Dizzee Rascal feat. Calvin Harris – Dance Wiv Me: As with Wylie, Dizzee moved into the big league in 2008 when he hooked himself up with some serious dance backing. One of the catchiest tracks of the year and hopefully one that won’t prove to me Dizzee’s biggest ever hit.
- Funkagenda & Mark Knight – Man With The Red Face: A week in Ibiza was too long and it really was ridiculously expensive but there were several excellent things I brought back with me. One was the memory of being at Bora Bora when the horns kicked in on this cover of Laurent Garnier’s Man With The Red Face, seeing the whole place going nuts, and looking out to the beach & realising that it was only late afternoon & on a normal Friday I still would have been at work. Priceless.
- Baby Charles – I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor: One of the other great things about Ibiza was sitting by the pool of the impossibly cool Hotel Es Vive and listening to the great daytime DJs. One of them played this amazing funk cover of the Arctic Monkeys’ debut singleand my day was made.
- Public Enemy vs DJ Zinc – 138 Noise (Wicked Devil Bootleg): This hasn’t even been released yet and so will probably end up being one of the biggest tunes of 2009. That doesn’t change the fact that Wicked Devil’s awesome techno/rap mashup is one of my favourite tracks of the last few months.
- Kings Of Leon – Sex On Fire: I hated this single at first but, just like the album it comes from, Sex On Fire has ended up being one of the records of 2008. Nuff said.
- Jamie Lidell – Another Day: Jamie Liddel’s album is an amazing blend of soul, techno, jazz & hip hop beats. And this track gets it off to a barn-storming start.
- Adele – Chasing Pavements: She definitely isn’t the new Amy Winehouse (something she never claimed to be) but my God has the girl got a voice. The album can get a bit one-dimensional, but Chasing Pavements is pretty special.
- The Courteneers – Not Nineteen Forever: Basically just another indie band, but with Not Nineteen Forever The Courteneers made something very special indeed: powerful & wistful all at the same time.
- N*E*R*D – Everyone Nose: “All the girls standing in the line for the bathroom, all the girls standing in the line for the bathroom, all the girls standing in the line for the bathroom.”
- Erykah Badu – Soldier: Ms Badu blends a sharp beat, lovely woodwind backing and her amazing vocals to great effect. I just wish she’d allow the (amazing) video on YouTube.
- J.A.M. feat José James – Jazzy Joint: Possibly the best thing that José James or Soil & “Pimp” Sessions (the band that the members of J.A.M. normally play with), Jazzy Joint is exactly what it says on the tin. Impossibly jazzy I hear this and find it very difficult to keep my feet still: quite embarrassing on the 7.52 to Waterloo as I’m sure you can imagine.
- Charlie Dark & Roger Robinson – Prayer For Angry Young Men: Charlie Dark is a genius (as well as a true gent) and this track, which I found via Gilles Peterson’s Brownswood Bubblers 3, only goes to prove that fact. It’s little more than a repeated horn section, a clattering beat and a spoken word rap on the various lost youths of 21st Century Britain. And it’s one of the most powerful tracks to have been released for years.
- Chase & Status feat. Kano – Against All Odds: Blaring horns, raging beats and Kano spitting his lyrics over the top: another tune to prove that grime stars seem to shine more when paired with up-tempo tracks.
- Vampire Weekend – A Punk: I may have written about a different Vampire Weekend track but that was because the video was so perfect. A Punk however is the perfect example of Vampire Weekend’s blend of preppy rock & African rhythms. Impossibly catchy.
- Jeff Buckley – Halleljuah: I know it originally came out years ago but it was the Christmas number 2, and should have been the Christmas number 1. Beautiful.
- Friendly Fires – Paris: I keep describing this band as being like a younger, British LCD Soundsystem. And if that’s the case, then this is their All My Friends.
- Paul Weller – Have You Made Up Your Mind: I could have picked about half of the tracks from 22 Dreams to feature in this list but I think this is probably my favourite: it’s tender, beautiful and full of confidence, truly 2008 was Paul Weller’s year.
*Brockney = my new made-up word for a Brummie with a slight Cockney accent.
Image of an American boy by bobster1985 on flickr
Not that long ago I put out a call for help to find more new music so that I could write a Best Of post for 2008.
I felt like I hadn’t really listened to, or bought, that much new stuff. Quite a few people came up with suggestions and after downloading and listening to quite a few of these I realised that 2008 had actually been a pretty good year in terms of its musical crop. And the most ridiculous thing? Many of the best albums & singles of 2008 were ones that I already had before I asked for suggestions. Anyway, let’s start at the top.
- Paul Weller – 22 Dreams: The Modfather released his best album since Wild Wood, if not his best solo album ever, and found himself firmly back in the critics’ good books. Ranging from soul to folk, rock to jazz, with excursions verging on beat poetry & German lift music, 22 Dreams was truly an opus which proved why Paul Weller is one of the best artists of the last 30 years.
- The Streets – Everything Is Borrowed: After a foray into moaning about being a celebrity Mike Skinner finds his peace and returns with an amazing album. More organic in feel than his previous works it sees him looking inside himself for inspiration, rather than penning tunes about characters from modern Britain.
- José James – The Dreamer: Another amazing discovery from the 21st Century’s John Peel, Gilles Peterson, José James showed that jazz can always be made relevant. At times utterly beautiful, at others perfectly soulful and blending classically traditional jazz with elements of hip hop, The Dreamer is surely the opening salvo from an artist destined to come up with much more in the years to come.
- Erykah Badu – New Amerykah Part One: I’ve never really got Badu, fearing that she was simpler a slightly cooler Alicia Keys. This album, with tinges of everyone from George Clinton to J Dilla, shows that she is much more than that. Truly epic in its ambitions, and searing in its anger, I really can’t wait for New Amerykah Part Two.
- Fleet Foxes – Fleet Foxes: The first album from those recommended to me to make the list, I still have trouble classifying this. Imagine Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s Déjà Vu crossed with Gregorian chanting, and you still probably won’t have a clue what I’m talking about. Fleet Foxes’ eponymous debut is utterly beautiful though and demands repeated listening.
- Vampire Weekend – Vampire Weekend: Closely following Fleet Foxes is another album from those recommended to me. As with the Foxes at first I couldn’t really get Vampire Weekend: I found their blend of preppy alternative rock (think Talking Heads) with African rhythms (think Paul Simon’s Graceland) a bit self-consciously wacky. And then I listened to it. A lot. And realised that it’s brilliant.
- Jamie Lidell – Jim: When I discovered Jamie Lidell it was like I’d suddenly found the artist I’d hoped Ben Westbeech would become (which Westbeech may well still do). Sounding like a life-weary black American soul singer, Lidell is actually an eccentric beat-boxing techno producer from the Home Counties. The album is a joy and you should buy it immediately.
- Nitin Sawhney – London Uundersound: The multi-faceted Sawhney probably should have won the Mercury Prize in 2000 (though Badly Drawn Boy’s debut is pretty good too) and London Undersound is as good, if not better, than Beyond Skin. Charting the changes in London over the last few years, and particularly since the 2005 bombings, the album features stand-out collaborations with the likes of Natty, Imogen Heap & even Paul McCartney and blends genres ranging from soul to dub to bhangra. A true musical representation of our capital city.
- Q-Tip – The Renaissance: After what seems like a lifetime since his creative peak in the late 80s/early 90s, Q-Tip’s comeback was a real statement of intent. Eschewing the “which producer is cool this month” trend common amongst hip hop artists these days, Q-Tip stuck to what he does best: smooth beats, soulful samples and great rhymes devoid of guns & bitches. Pure class.
- Estelle – Shine: In a shocking inditement of the British music industry Estelle had to move to the US under the patronage of John Legend for people to realise how ace she is. American Boy was the killer track but the rest of the album proved, a la Erykah Badu, that making intelligent 21st Century soul is very definitely possible.
- Elbow – The Seldom Seen Kid: Before this year Elbow were the band that everyone loved but whose records no-one seemed to buy, but performing One Day Like This at Glastonbury (and having it used by the BBC for their Euro 2008 coverage) & winning the Mercury Music Prize soon fixed that. The songs on The Seldom Seen Kid are both intelligent & tender and prove that sometimes the good guys do win.
- J.A.M. – Just A Maestro: Another album from the Gilles Peterson Brownswood stable, J.A.M. make jazz music which is nowhere near as experimental as Soil & “Pimp” Sessions (who the members of J.A.M. also play with) but are a good example of when keeping things simple can be the best bet. There’s not a tune on here that won’t make you want to dance, the use of soul & funk influences is perfectly done, whilst the collaboration with José James is simply amazing.
- Ladyhawke – Ladyhawke: Take the 80s. Distill all that was great about the over-the-top electro-pop of that decade. Give it an off-kilter arty feel. Hey presto, Ladyhawke. An album I really expected to hate ended up being one of my most played of the year.
- Kings Of Leon – Only By The Night: The band many derided for being the Southern Strokes or the commercial White Stripes ended the year on top of the world (with The Strokes nowhere to be seen and Jack White duetting with Alicia Keys for a Coke ad, sorry Bond theme). It took me a while to get into this album but, like killer single Sex On Fire, it rewards closer attention.
- Friendly Fires – Friendly Fires: If you can imagine a younger, hipper version of LCD Soundsystem then you can probably summon up a pretty good picture of Friendly Fires. You probably wouldn’t guess that they’re from Hertfordshire though. Like James Murphy Friendly Fires manage to make modern, danceable rock that still manages to sound rather sad and wistful.
- Various Artists – Brownswood Bubblers 3: Compilation of the year without a doubt. Gilles Peterson’s role as arbiter in matters of music is safe as far as I’m concerned. The third in the unfailingly great Bubblers series sees Gilles jumping genres like there’s no tomorrow but always picking winners.
OK, so I know that there are more than the 10 albums you’re meant to include on these lists, but as I was writing this I kept remembering other albums that deserved a mention. And I’ve still probably managed to forget a few that I’ll want to add in a couple of days (in fact I’ve just added Nitin Sawhney’s London Undersound: too good to omit). And I’d probably change the order of most of the albums outside of the top 3 tomorrow and again the day after. And I didn’t even include Radiohead’s In Rainbows which I only got hold of this year and which should therefore get the Ohmega Watts/Visioneers award for the album I got into a year after everyone else.
Anyway, that’s what I think – what do you reckon?
Image (entitled Paul Weller Sea Spray) by visualpanic on flickr
I know that I go on about Paul Weller a lot but I really can’t seem to get enough of the guy. There’s also the fact that we both grew up in Surrey – him in Woking, me about ten minutes down the road – and whilst both of us were desperate to escape the places where we grew up, ended up back in Surrey. This, the video to one of his best ballads, You Do Something To Me, is (I’m pretty sure) all filmed in and around the Surrey Downs and makes it pretty easy to see why one might fall (back) in love with the place.
The video has a shot of Woking train station near the start (the album this was taken off of, Stanley Road, was more or less a love letter to Woking) and I can remember spending summer’s days walking round the area with friends back when this came out. As I sit here on a cold December night, the idea of lying in a field, with friends & loved ones, on a hot July afternoon, is just about the nicest thing I could possibly imagine. But until the long weekend we call the English summer rolls around again, I guess that watching the video to You Do Something To Me will just have to suffice.
Every so often I get very strange cravings for music – I’ll suddenly feel the need to download tracks by artists I haven’t listened to for years, or groups that most people would never admit to liking. Like the time I suddenly decided that I needed more 80s blue-eyed soul in my life and went on a download spree that took in Hue & Cry, Deacon Blue & Curiosity Killed The Cat. More recently I suddenly got an urge to listen to soft, accoustic rock and ended up buying tracks by Travis, the band that should have been bigger than Coldplay, and 70s cheese-meisters Bread.
Because I was listening to both of these bands at the same time I noticed something that had occurred to me years ago but which I’d forgotten: namely that if Travis weren’t listening to Bread’s Look What You’ve Done To Me when they wrote Flowers In The Window, then my name’s Chris Martin. You can see the Travis video above whilst the Bread song is below.
They both have the same gentle guitar refrain, and you could pretty easily sing the lyrics to Flowers In The Window over the music of Look What You’ve Done To Me and vice versa. Admittedly Bread’s tracks is slightly slower, at least until it goes (by Bread’s standards) a bit rocky towards the end, but other than that the resemblance is amazing. I don’t blame Travis for taking this ‘inspiration’ (which may well have been unwitting) – it certainly puts them in good company.
Noel Gallagher has made a career out of recycling other people’s music, only being caught out when Stevie Wonder demanded a credit on Step Out due to the blatant pilfering of his song Uptight (the legal wranglings that accomapnied this demand were the reasons that the track wasn’t included on Morning Glory, instead being released as the b-side of Don’t Look Back In Anger). Noel probably took his inspiration for creative borrowing from Paul Weller who liked The Beatles so much he lifted the riff from Taxman for The Jam’s early single Start.
And whatever you think of the way that these artists use other’s work as a basis for their own (personally I don’t have a problem with it as long as they add something to it: it’s like sampling) at least they never stooped as low as walking cliche Bobby Gillespie who has raped the Rolling Stones’ back-catalogue so thoroughly that he’s been forced to nicking tunes from The Bluebells.
I’ve spent the weekend listening to the music of just two British artists, each of whom I think have every right to be thought of as the best of the last 30 years and even to be considered with the greatest British musicians of the 20th Century, such as Lennon & McCartney, Bowie & Ray Davies. Rather than just review one of their tracks, I thought I’d give these giants of British rock a more thorough overview.
The first of these is, of course, Paul Weller. It may be that I’m slightly biased, seeing as Weller hails from Woking (the subject of his classic A Town Called Malice), the nearest town to the area I call home, but I’m reasonably confident that geography isn’t clouding my judgement all that much. Rather it all comes down to the fact that not only has Paul Weller consistently produced music of the highest quality for over 30 years, but also that he has done so in a variety of styles that most musicians would struggle to name, let alone excel in.
Whilst The Sex Pistols & The Clash are regularly hailed as the best bands of the 70s, for me The Jam outdid them in almost every respect (especially The Sex Pistols’ one trick pony act.) To be fair The Jam were never really punk, rather they might better be bracketed as new wave: whatever, they crafted pop music of the highest order, in the same way that The Beatles made pop music. In fact so obvious was The Jam’s debt to The Beatles (unlike most punks and their Year Zero attitude) that the rhythm to Start was a blatant tribute (or rip-off) of The Beatles’ Taxman.
As well as these classic rock influences Paul Weller also mixed dollops of Motown soul into The Jam’s mix, signalling the direction his next band, The Style Council would move in. This was most obvious with The Bitterest Pill (I Ever Had To Swallow) which is quite beautiful but aso about as different to songs such as Eton Rifles (the track which, in a moment of unintended irony you couldn’t make up, was named by Old Etonian David Cameron as one of his favourite songs) as you can get whilst still making music with bass, guitar & drums. What Bitterest Pill does share with earlier Jam tracks is Weller’s amazing ability to craft a tune and come up with beautifully insightful lyrics.
On tracks such as the amazing That’s Entertainment Weller’s lyrics really come to the fore as the guitars go acoustic and Paul sings of the million little things that make up modern British life.
Waking up from bad dreams and smoking cigarettes
Cuddling a warm girl and smelling stale perfume
A hot summer’s day and sticky black tarmac
Feeding ducks in the park and wishing you were far away
This way with words was something that didn’t abandon him as he abandoned his bandmates to form The Style Council. Like much of Weller’s work, The Style Council are often mocked. But, whilst his outfits would certainly raise an eyebrow now, even in Hoxton, his courage in ditching the most popular band in Britain at the time and striking off in a radically new direction still deserves applause. Add to that the fact that some of the songs he made in this period are some of his best, and I really don’t understand what the problem is.
Tracks like Shout To The Top & Walls Come Tumbling Down channelled Motown like few other white artists have managed and stand amongst the best blue-eyed soul of the 80s, or any other decade. On a different tip entirely, The Style Council also saw Paul Weller experimenting with a very 80s sound by incuding synths on tracks such as Long Hot Summer & My Ever Changing Moods. On top of that the videos were, often unintentionally, hilarious. And then there were tracks such as You’re The Best Thing which are, quite simply, beautiful.
Not content with drifting from guitar driven power pop to soul & new romantic tinged jazz, Paul Weller’s next move would signal the end for The Style Council. He recorded an album, Modernism, almost entirely influenced by the house sound which was, at the time, still a relatively underground genre. And this is the man many accuse of being boring and afraid to take risks. In fact it turned out that he’d taken a huge risk as only one song from these recording sessions, Promised Land, was released and The Style Council were dropped by their record label.
For many musicians this would have been the signal to sit back and enjoy the royalties of 13 years of hits. Instead Paul Weller went back to his roots, gigging his way round the UK and building up another fanbase and, in keeping with his previous reinventions, perfecting a new sound. And, contrary to much of the criticism that has been levelled at him, his solo career has not simply been album after album of Dad rock.
The eponymous debut solo album featured tinges of soul but, unlike with The Style Council, it was soul of the acid jazz rather than the Motown variety. The tracks also often included samples and were all based round a central acoustic folk-rock sound. Tracks such as Round & Round and Amongst Butterflies are stunningly beautiful and also highlighted what would become more & more apparent in his sol work: a willingness to sing of his personal feelings – perhaps because the lyrics of these and many of the songs on his iconic second solo album, Wild Wood, suggested that Weller was happy and at ease back in Surrey (having been so desparate to leave in his early years.)
I really don’t need to say much about Wild Wood as it’s pretty well known and acknowledged to be a classic, although I actually prefer its predecessor. What I will say is that the mix of acoustic tracks and incredibly tight rock numbers would go on to inspire more acts than just about any of his albums since the glory days of The Jam. And, once again disproving the boring tag, he got Portishead in to do an amazing mix of the title track.
His next album, the much maligned Stanley Road, would give him his biggest success since The Jam but would also prove to be a bit of a burden for him, as it was the album that would often be used against him when critics wished to disparage his work. And, whilst it’s far from my favourite bit of Paul Weller’s work, it’s really not bad at all.
You Do Something To Me is a beautiful love song that can’t be blamed for the ubiquity its since gained, Out Of The Sinking is a peerless piece of 90s rock, the piano-led simplicity of Broken Stones often brings me close to tears & Pink On White Walls is simply lovely (sorry, it’s the only video I could find!) And the opening track of Stanley Road could easily be thought of as Paul Weller’s motto and, though hopefully not for many years, the phrase most likely to be inscribed on his tomb – The Changing Man.
Since then Weller has released a further 6 albums, most recently the amazing 22 Dreams. And of these, I’d argue that only one or two were in danger of becoming clones of Stanley Road (Heavy Soul & Heliocentric in case you’re interested): the others have seen Weller playing with genres and styles, just as he always has done. Here, an album of covers (including the amazing Early Morning Rain), here an album mostly made up of folk-tinged acoustic numbers. Most of this went unnoticed by the majority of critics (but not it seems by the public, as all of these albums made the top 5): it wasn’t till this year’s release of 22 Dreams that Weller once more became fashionable.
However, rather than go on about the injustice of this, or rambling on how about how he looks fitter and more stylish than any 50 year old has a right to, I’ll instead encourage you to go & buy 22 Dreams if you haven’t already as it really is amazing, blending so many of the different genres that Weller has played with over the years. It also failed to make the Mercury shortlist, which is a fucking disgrace, but that’s just par for the course where Paul Weller’s concerned.
Paul Weller image from his official site – please don’t sue me!