Archives for the month of: December, 2012
Single of the Year.

Single of the Year.

In a brief interlude in the Xmas visits of mother and in-laws, I will try to finish what I started when I published my 50 albums of the year. First up, it’s time for the best singles. This has become rather a dull category in many blogs and magazines as they tend to mostly be outstanding from outstanding albums thus producing a shuffle of the already existing list. To this end, I will only be discussing singles and EPs that do not come from albums and stand alone as releases in their own right. I also think a list is a bit of a waste of space as there are sadly only a few candidates for this new criteria.

Well, sorry to be a populist but Burial is definitely near the top of the heap again. 2011’s best EP was ‘Street Halo’ and this year it’s ‘Kindred’. The extended tracks really seem to suit this format rather than getting buried in an overly long double CD album as many electronic artists would no doubt prefer. Instead, Burial takes the difficult and makes it accessible thus displaying a certain pop savvy that his music rarely suggests. The dark urban soundscapes summoned up seem a cliché in this day and age but if something is close to perfect then it becomes very hard to criticise even if no new ground seems to be broken despite what some may say about ‘Ashtray Wasps’. To these ears it sounds wonderfully familiar but not predictable or maybe music this good implants itself in the brain with such assurance that, after 10 months, it feels like it’s always been there. Another ‘EP’ of 2 extended tracks has emerged in December but is hard to listen to much when your mother is just dying to ask you to turn the music off. Initial impressions suggest something more abstract but ask me again in 10 months. Not many other electronica EPs gripped me though I did quite like Theo Parrish’s ‘HandMade’ EP which is some kind of deep house so I’m told but I really don’t pretend to be au fait with the terms of these things preferring instead the ‘if I like it, I’ll play it’ approach of John Peel.

A few indie singles have raised their impressive heads above the bland parapets set for them in the United Kingdom. Savages are unsurprisingly lauded over for being cool but in reality ‘Husbands’ sounds like that post-punk band you could never quite find when you rediscovered the music about 10 years ago thanks to that Rough Trade compilation. Palma Violets have also been hyped because they sound like the next nostalgically laddish thing. ‘My Best Friend’ is okay but sounds like it needs a bit of work. ‘Last of the Summer Wine’ on the flip sounds a little more interesting but could herald in a whole new generation of nostalgic bands making references to 70s/80s confectionary and sitcoms a la Lawrence’s Denim 20 years ago. Just wait for ‘Ever Decreasing Circles’ by either ‘Spangles’ or ‘Pacers’. Much better was Charlie Boyer and the Voyeurs’ ‘I Watch You/ Be Nice’ which just went to prove that more bands should sound a bit like Jonathan Richman and The Modern Lovers, including Jonathan Richman and The Modern Lovers.

King Creosote had a busy year for EPS releasing 3 12″ singles that were also available for download and that seemed to help cement his reputation post-Diamond Mine without quite hitting the same heights. Obviously Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy featured ona  few singles with a cover of Leon Russell’s ‘Hummingbird’ the pick of the bunch. However, the essential Will Oldham purchase of the year had to be the extended interview published by Faber & Faber that stretched to over 300 pages covering every release of his career thus guaranteeing that it immediately went out of date. Daniel Rossen’s EP merits a mention for being better than the Grizzly Bear album itself to my ears if no-one else’s.

Compilation albums have become a rarer beast as anyone can make one for nowt these days. Still, the Four Tet singles collection ‘Pink’ suggests he hasn’t lost his mojo even if his mojo has become a tad predictable. ‘Country Funk’ did exactly what it says on the sleeve as did a couple of Northern Soul compilations: ‘For Northern Soul Lovers Vol. 1’ represented the better value at a fiver on Amazon UK, but ‘Up All Night’ on Charly hit the right spot with more tunes even if many were familiar and it was really just a partial reissue of an old compilation. Basically, everyone needs a few Northern Soul compilations in their collection and either or both of these would suit fine.

Reissues were aplenty but seem increasingly uninspired in many cases. This criticism cannot be levelled at Can’s ‘Lost Tapes’ which serves as a more stimulating piece than a number of their proper albums. The My Bloody Valentine flawed remasters finally appeared along with a compilation of single tracks which was more essential. ‘Loveless’ came as a double CD featuring two different versions which are almost identical. In fact, I cannot think of any reason to listen to both. What is missing is a reissue of everything from the pre-Creation days as the world needs to hear ‘Strawberry Wine’ again as well as ‘Lovely Sweet Darlene’. Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy reissued his early work with the only alteration being a cardboard sleeve and the removal of all Palace references from them. Anyone forking out for these who already owns the originals will be most annoyed but they would have made it easier for new fans to follow the interview book mentioned above.

The Weeknd’s ‘Trilogy’ qualified as a reissue of last year’s 3 free to download albums, ‘House of Balloons’, ‘Thursday’ and ‘Echoes of Silence’. All are excellent and serve as a moody counterpoint to the more glamorous face of modern RnB. Abel Tesfaye is a truly talented artist who clearly has a lot more to give but may now need to develop more light and shade to surpass Frank Ocean’s critical appeal.

Is that it? Nicolas Jaar’s Essential Mix is still downloadable for nothing despite being one of the few mixes I would happily listen to more than twice. Soundtracks didn’t really do it for me as always though ‘The Man with the Iron Fists’ was the best Wu release of the year but that was because the expected new album has been put back until 2013 for the 20th anniversary. Also, a few remix albums appeared but none sounded interesting enough for me to bother with though I need to listen to The Twilight Sad one as it seems less perfunctory than the others in the few comments on it that I’ve read.

Right, I feel I’ve done more than enough listing and may swear off altogether next year as music journalism should be about so much more than just comparing lists. So who was the winner in these categories? The Weeknd was cooler as a free download but oozes class, Burial is essential in everything he does and Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy remains prolific in all areas. However, the few of us who downloaded a little-heralded single by Moons (not The Moons) in the shape of ‘The Bloody Mouth (Watchtower Version)/Waves At Night’ which also came out as a 7″ in May. Pitchfork compared it with Phoenix but it sounded so much better to my ears. Proof that warmth can be wrought from synthpop or another singer songwriter who simply bans acoustic instruments in pursuit of an original sound. Either way, or others for that matter, both songs are wonderfully atmospheric and beautiful. The single was also a stab in the dark on a dull afternoon and that is usually how the best music hits you: right between the eyes when you least expect it. You can find it here:

The author is now sworn off lists for the time being and refuses to make predictions for 2013 except that he will enjoy it more than 2012.

I have been looking forward to completing this less and less and have put it off as whenever I sit to type, another end of year list with another new album at number one appears from somewhere. There really do seem to be more than enough of these things now and so its time to wrap mine up as it increases in chronic insignificance by the minute. I’ve done a top 50 albums for a few years now, here’s this year’s lot:

Dexys - One Day I'm Going to Soar. My favourite album of the year.

Dexys – One Day I’m Going to Soar. My favourite album of the year.

1.  Dexys – One Day I’m Going To Soar
2.  First Aid Kit – The Lion’s Roar
3.  Sharon Van Etten – Tramp
4   Forward Strategy Group – Labour Division
5.  The Sea and Cake – Runner
6.  The Walkmen – Heaven
7.  Kendrick Lamar – good kid, m.A.A.d. City
8.  Killer Mike – R.A.P. Music
9.  Six Organs of Admittance – Ascent
10. The Chromatics – Kill For Love
11. Giant Giant Sand – Tucson
12. Cody Chesnutt – Landing on a Hundred
13. EL-P – Cancer for Cure
14. The Chris Robinson Brotherhood – Big Moon Ritual
15. The Cloud Nothings – Attack on Memory
16. Bob Dylan – Tempest
17. Actress – RIP
18. The Men – Open Your Heart
19. Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!
20. Leonard Cohen – Old Ideas
21. Lee Ranaldo – Between the Times and the Tides
22. Japandroids – Celebration Rock
23. Dr. John – Locked Down
24. Mark Lanegan Band – Blues Funeral
25. John Talabot – Fin
26. Bruce Springsteen – Wrecking Ball
27. Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti – Mature Themes
28. Frank Ocean – Channel Orange
29. The Twilight Sad – No One Can Ever Know
30. The Mountain Goats – Transcendental Youth
31. Goat – World Music
32. Django Django – Django Django
33. Death Grips – The Money Store
34. Grimes – Visions
35. Toy – Toy
36. Screaming Females – Ugly
37. Errors – Have Some Faith in Magic
38. Andrew Bird – Break It Yourself
39. The Allah-Las – The Allah-Las
40. The Dirty Three – Toward the Low Sun
41.  Woods – Bend Beyond
42. Liars – WIXIW
43. Tame Impala – Lonerism
44. Billy Hart – All Our Reasons
45. ‘Allo Darlin – Europe
46. Holy Other – Held
47. Nas – Life is Good
48. Dinosaur Jr. – I Bet On Sky
49. Laurel Halo – Quarantine
50. Beak – >>

This has been a good year for good albums as far as I can tell. I have quite liked a hell of a lot of music and have at times thought that some of it was very good. Excellence has come in small amounts, brief flashes on otherwise less essential sounding albums. There’s about a minute on the Toy album which sounds like the best thing ever but it is a pinnacle they fail to maintain. Plenty of hyped or supposedly big, important albums left me feeling nonplussed. At least the XX album was short in its dullness, Toy dragged, Grizzly Bear sounded promising at first but nothing much new has emerged after the first few listens and I think I actually prefer Daniel Rossen’s EP, Dirty Projectors did quite well when I thought they might have soared and I preferred the first Tame Impala album’s raw quality which seems a little airbrushed out of ‘Lonerism’. Hot Chip seem to have become the electro 1oCC, Calexico sounded dull and I won’t touch that half-baked idea of an album that Flaming Lips farted out with a bargepole (hmm…seems there are 2 ways to read that sentence and one sounds painful). I keep listening to the excellent-sounding Spiritualized album hoping to remember something about it afterwards, but I can’t and so it must be dull to my ears even if I do like the sound. Was Frank Ocean THAT good? It strikes me as being filled with promise but not as fully realised as The Weeknd trilogy. How good can a song that uses Forrest Gump as a metaphor actually be? Even the strong albums released by the elderly didn’t quite excel for me, except for Dexys which was a surprise. Dylan’s ‘Tempest’ was almost great but that Titanic song followed to a tribute to John Lennon which really does suggest that Bob has only just found out he’s dead kind of ruin it. Leonard Cohen’s album has some powerful songs but lacks a little colour and shade for me. I have no idea what Neil Young though he was up to this year but I find it baffling that he actually gave up smoking weed this year as his book and two albums with Crazy Horse suggest the opposite. Dr John’s album was excellent, sounding like Captain Beefheart singing soul with Tinariwen in places –  a wonderful combination of desert and delta. The only real, consensus I can find on lists and including my own opinion, would be Sharon Van Etten and the fact that had that Burial EP been an actual album, it would have won album of the decade by now.

Everything But The Young Marble Giants?

Everything But The Young Marble Giants?

Well, that’s the moaning out of the way so what about positives? The Dexys album is a fine, fine thing. A Celtic soul concept album of the highest order. Sure, his singing voice leaves a little to be desired and isn’t really acting his age but the world needs that these days. The songs stand out and stick in the mind as well as being blended with familiar riffs and melodies too. An album about never settling down from the mind of a man in his 50s seems appropriate for this year as so many of the better albums of the year have been made by performers over 50, even 70 – Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Dr. John, Bruce Springsteen, Lee Ranaldo, Giant Giant Sand as well as Billy Hart’s album on ECM (this year’s token jazz effort?)  but perhaps not the two Neil Young efforts though two in a year seems pretty unsettled too. Even the 40 somethings seem to be doing good things especially as I never thought I’d become a fan of Chris Robinson back in his Black Crowes days.

First Aid Kit are probably the best Swedish country duo of sisters I’ll ever hear. Wonderful harmonies Especially on the sublime ‘Emmylou’. Sharon Van Etten seems to harmonise with herself at times. Either of these albums could have been the best of the year or possibly a little lower. Essentially it was hard to separate whether I was impressed or genuinely into these albums at times, though ‘Emmylou’ does tip the balance in First Aid Kit’s favour. It’s all been very nice so far despite the messy break up documented on Dexys’ album. However, things change with Forward Strategy Group. Industrial influences creep into their classic techno sound to create something both unsettling yet surprisingly infectious and not anonymous at all. Then rounding out the top 5 is a very under-rated album from The Sea and Cake, ‘Runner’, which seems like a career high by a large margin. Songs seem important rather than the lush sounds that have dominated recent albums although the mini-album, ‘The Moonlight Butterfly’ did point the way to this achievement. Now regret not going to see them live in Mexico City last March.

'Runner' - a return to form for The Sea and Cake.

‘Runner’ – a return to form for The Sea and Cake.

I could run through the whole 50 like this but sense that would get a little wearing as so many little summaries of this year’s albums have been produced in the past month that googling them or even just checking in with should pretty much cover every possible opinion there is to express. Better to focus on mentioning less popular selections like the already mentioned Forward Strategy Group and The Sea and Cake. For example, no round-up I’ve seen seems to have mentioned that Giant Giant Sand’s album is one of Howe Gelb’s best, that the Chris Robinson Brotherhood really can cook up a groove or that Lee Ranaldo has politely laid down a gauntlet for Thurston and Kim to try to improve upon. Screaming Females, Woods and The Cloud Nothings all weighed in with impressive albums this year and my belated discovery of Errors has opened up a world of electro-Mogwai tunes. This morning, I have been blown away a little more by the Dr. John album and it strikes me that this is the problem with the list that I have above. Maybe by June next year I’ll be able to look back on the best albums of 2012 but for now they are still finding their mark even 6 months or more after buying them. Writing this paragraph has made me realise that I haven’t heard the Errors album for a while and need to do so again. This could keep happening for a long time and suggests that 2012 might end up being a rich year for music once compared with what is to come.

Enough! Apologies for any repetition, but its hard to spot mine from what I’ve already read in countless other lists. I should have known that writing a piece about the pointlessness of end of year lists ( would immediately lead me into doing exactly that. As a result, I have deliberated over a messy list on a piece of paper for weeks rather than actually thinking about something with a little more substance to it. Ultimately, that’s why lists should be avoided but also why they are so enjoyable. I should write in more depth about some of these albums in the future, but for now you can expect singles and compilations/reissues etc. lists to follow but feel quietly pleased that I’ve overcome a problem if they don’t.

rotten apple

Once again an Apple update seems to be billed as more important than life itself and once again it leaves regular customers who were relatively happy with the previous version disappointed. This is going to be a bit moany and, if you’re an Apple obsessive, you’re not going to like it. However, it’s just a company not your God or football team so why not act that way rather than supporting a product?

Essentially the problems seem to all be focused on Microsoft users and people with large collections. Could this be accidental or are Apple going to war on this? Will I need to buy an Apple computer to continue with the service I have enjoyed so far? Some argue that it’s free and so there should be no complaint, I would argue that the service has encouraged me to pay for iTunes downloads and as long as I use them I am still a customer who requires service as well as access to what they have bought. It’s as if when CD players were invented, customers were forced to throw away all their old records, forced not chose! Then there’s large collections. What harm could I possibly be doing to their income by simply owning a lot of music that I have already paid for? Well, that’s simple – with a lot of my own music, I am less likely to pay them a monthly subscription fee for any iCloud service. Block my access to my music that I have paid for and you can then charge me to listen instead.
It does seem as if Apple want to go to war with people’s collections. The fact is that cloud subscriptions could easily take over the existing market but subscribing to Spotify should allow customers to not feel like they are renouncing their existing collections in order to join a new cult. I would urge people to choose Spotify for this reason although you can expect Apple to make it problematic for you in the future if you use an Apple computer.
I had 2 problems with an album that I paid good money for over iTunes this week.

I will NOT write a caption that says 'Dude! Where's my sidebar?'

I will NOT write a caption that says ‘Dude! Where’s my sidebar?’

1) Initially, the new screen format for iTunes seems to have made it impossible to manually drag albums onto an ipod. This isn’t a problem if you sync but is a problem when you have more music than hard drive space and run two ipods. The solution is to click on the View option and opt to ‘show sidebar’ exactly like you did before and then, once the ipod is visible in your sidebar, dragging can be accomplished.
2) I have had a couple of problems with faulty downloads before. They claim to be 4 minutes long but cut out after a few seconds and go straight to the next track despite mysteriously registering the song as having been played (if you skip a song manually, it doesn’t!). Previously iTunes did give me a refund but that seems to reveal that they didn’t quite understand the problem. After a few days waiting for service that never came, I decided to just go ahead and buy the song in question for a 2nd time. Previously, I have been careful to avoid doing this and so did not realise that if a song is already bought, then iTunes will actually mention this and then offers it to be downloaded again. This worked. I then went back and downloaded the previous song that had caused me problems too, thus discovering that while customer service had helped me get my money back, they definitely did not deal with the problem. I also obviously missed something but that’s where customer support is supposed to step in and facilitate my understanding of the product.

I write this with very limited IT knowledge and merely to offer help for other people suffering at the hands of iTunes and in the hope that others suffering may not feel alone. That Apple get criticised merely comes out of describing the way this has panned out. I imagine that iTunes 12 will finally do away with convenient access to music already bought and will instead make paying to rent a cloud compulsory. Classic capitalism, take away something that people already own and then force them to pay for it. It’s not just the record companies who will suffer and artists will also receive less royalties too, but the customer has also been squeezed with this new scheme. Money which previously funded artists and record label executives will not be removed and the product given away for free, instead everyone will suffer except those who control the means of production, the product and access to the product. I won’t shed many tears for the executives and many of the artists, but people must realise that Apple is simply mugging people for their music.

Prophet for profit.

Prophet for profit.

If Apple are not being unreasonable about this, they might perhaps include explanations of the potential problems of downloading new versions of software or even, heaven forbid, try to solve them despite there being no money in it. After all, my iTunes downloads make me a valuable customer on some level, don’t they?

bonnie 1

I find artists that deal with spirituality in an exploratory way refreshing and am therefore drawn to Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy. I find it altogether too dismissive to simply view religion as foolish and atheism as the only choice for everybody. Also Gods and religion are familiar metaphors and symbols that can be understood fairly universally and, coming from a literary background, I can’t believe simply dismissing that rich seam of material is the best way forward. Even if that makes sense to me, it worries me that it is supposed to be so blindly followed and I also suspect that some religious people may be pretty darned intelligent. I guess I have the same problem with atheism as I do with religion, there both just clubs that people have to exclude others while embracing some. This little piece will look at a couple of paragraphs from Oldham on the subject of religion in interviews for the book edited by Alan Licht which came out earlier this year as well as the lyrics to the perhaps deceptively titled ‘There is No God’, a single released by BPB last year and a few other words too.  Anyway, over to Will Oldham a.k.a. Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy (persona and identity will become part of the issue) on language, religion, bricks and mortar:

‘Our brains are so powerful and so is language, but language is like the bricks, and religion and philosophy end up becoming like the mortar that holds those bricks together. There are so many gaps in the logic of this language and how it can explain our plight, our existence, our successes, and that’s where religion seems to fit in. Language is too incomplete and religion fills in. Why do I feel bad when this happens? Well, religion comes in and says you don’t have to think about it. You can go to work the next day or do whatever, you don’t have to think about it. It fills in the cracks of what we can’t speak about, what we can’t say.

What is normally called religion is what I would tend to call music – participating in music, listening to music, making records and singing. I think records and music are more appropriate and more respectful of the human soul than the churches are. And more respectful of the needs of humans to communicate with the aspects of themselves that are neglected by language. I don’t think people think about God so much as they think about themselves and how they’re going to get through life.’

From Will Oldham on Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy ed. Alan Licht (Faber & Faber, London 2012) p. 46-7

The first paragraph quoted above essentially accepts that we cannot fill in all the gaps in our knowledge as some of them may be beyond language itself and thus inexpressible. This argument is close to one used by religious people as irrefutable proof of God and yet it also works the opposite way for me and BPB too I suspect. Essentially, this paragraph also says that when things are too difficult to deal with because of the sheer effort that may involve, it’s easier to just cop out with God – out not off. BPB is a man who accepts that belief in God exists and how it is used. He does not appear to be offering religion up as a positive or a negative in the extract, merely identifying it though perhaps a little dismissively in terms of its intellectual value.

The second paragraph looks at a more acceptable approach to religion from his point of view: music. Music here is seen as a form of collective worship which does sound pretty Christian in its thinking. Music is seen as preferable to church but nevertheless becomes the ‘mortar’ of the previous paragraph. Music then comes in and prevents difficult thought, it fills in the cracks of what we can’t speak about. Does this also mean that music is being dismissed as unintellectual? Can the lyrics to ‘There is no God’ be applied to music as well as religion? Does the song act so as to question its own existence? Time to consider the lyric to that song…

Bonnie Prince Billy – There is no God (originally released as a charity record to raise money to Save our Gulf and the Turtle Hospital)

There is no God
But that which surrounds the tongue
That which sees love in the chest
That which puts mouth on cock and vagina
Well,  THAT that is best.

There is no prayer
But that which is sung in laughter
That which is lovingly uttered
Or through gritted teeth
That which is hissed or muttered.

There is no God
There are those who will outlive you
There is a force that is many
There are teachings and taught
There is tons, there is one, there is not any! (‘courtesy’ of Royal Stable Music, I guess)

The first two verses reveal the song’s deception. It is not an atheist anthem as its seemingly bold title is immediately undermined by the ‘But’ of lines 2 and 7. It seems that there is a God in the details, which is where we are supposed to believe that the devil is according to some. He seems to be in our spittle, inside the chest rather than hearts and in the idea for oral sex. It is to be noted that Billy cracks up a little when singling the ‘cock and vagina’ line. This does seem to be a playful introduction to a playful god. Yes, it seems that God came up with the idea for oral sex and THAT God is best. Maybe the message is that there is a God and we should appreciate the ‘naughty’ though not expressly forbidden acts that he must also have created. Another area for consideration is whether the song is stating that God is everywhere or whether God is in all the insignificant things in life and not some towering, omnipotent overlord. Prayer seems to be most sincere in laughter but can also be insincere as when it is a verbal utterance, it seems two-faced. The final verse has no ‘but’, it seems to state that there is no God but our collective society or ‘many’ and yet these numbers are rendered insignificant by the end. Wouldn’t this make a wonderful sermon or ‘Thought for the Day’? Especially the ‘cock and vagina’ bits. This brings to mind the words of Oldham’s earlier Palace Brothers song ‘(I was Drunk) at the Pulpit’ –

“I was drunk at the pulpit, I knew it was wrong
I left in mid-sermon, tempted by a bar-house song
The pews creaked and shifted as they turned to watch me leave
And I pulled a little bottle from the pocket in my sleeve”

This song has a clearer message which suggests that drunken singing in a bar is much better for the soul than singing and praying in church. A sentiment I would heartily agree with though he may mean its good for the ‘chest’ rather than the soul.

'Princely' and 'Bonny' Bonnie 'Prince' Billy?

‘Princely’ and ‘Bonny’ Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy?

Going back to my prior argument, does the god of the song act as a metaphor for music rather than God? Well, not really as then the ‘prayer’ being ‘sung in laughter’ becomes muddled but then again Jesus was supposed to be the son and the father so maybe this is deliberate – music is made to honour music, music can be taught and it teaches, it is a powerful force and perhaps the final line suggests a suddenly wiped hard drive. Also, BPB has sung elsewhere that ‘You call on God and God is dead’ in ‘Love Comes To Me’, not exactly a lot of scope for belief there. However, another issue that needs some consideration is the difference between Will Oldham and Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy as surely the latter acts as a kind of persona for the writer Will Oldham. If all the songs, except the ‘Joya’ album, are coming from a persona, then surely God with or without a capital letter is merely God for the persona Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy and leaves no clues to actual belief. Instead, we need to go back to the interview extracts to look at the real role of religion in Will Oldham’s life and it does seem to be irrelevant unless we are to assume that God is music and music is love, not God. However, that was a particularly stoned sounding Dave Crosby song from the most stoned sounding album title of all time – ‘If I Could Only Remember My Name’ – sure, it might mean what’s left if everything is stripped away except a name, but this is Dave Crosby we’re talking about.