Wednesday, January 07, 2009

New Year Fun

My good friend and musical associate Oscar Lomas today sent me a personal list of the best albums ever. Actually, rather than being some phoney selection of the greatest albums ever made - his list aimed at describing himself and his mindset in ten albums. He challenged me and some others to do the same. I've come up with 20 which, as of today, present a pretty interesting cross-section of me at various stages in my life. Bob Dylan and The Byrds are two of my favourite artists but I now tend to approach them more through the songs that I love rather than through specific albums. Perhaps The Velvet Underground and Nico should be in there, particularly as there was a key time when I listened to 'I'll Be Your Mirror' more than any other song - but it's just too obvious. I’ll follow the same lines as Oscar in picking albums with significant personal impact and influence. They are by no means necessarily THE BEST ALBUMS IN THE WORLD EVER. It's just some subjective fun!

Me in 10 albums, as of today:

THE O’JAYS – SHIP AHOY (Philadelphia International, 1973)
THE DRAMATICS – A DRAMATIC EXPERIENCE (Stax, 1973)
STEELY DAN – Can’t Buy A Thrill (MCA, 1973)

Was 1973 really the best year for music before my birth? Probably not in most people’s eyes (who would opt for it over ’56, ’66, ’67 or ’76?), but somehow these three albums had a massive impact on my childhood.

I’ve always had a love of the great soul vocal groups and I can remember The O’Jays and Dramatics albums from my Dad’s extensive vinyl collection. Both are over-conceptual and a bit clunky, at least thematically. ‘Ship Ahoy’ deals with a number of issues – from financial greed (‘For The Love Of Money’) to air pollution (‘This Air I Breathe’) via slavery (the title track). ‘A Dramatic Experience’ was an album centred around the issue of drug dependence. It has a genuinely terrifying image of The Devil on its cover and presents drug dealers as the devil’s agents. The message was clear – get hooked and you are essentially being dragged to eternity in hell. It put me off crack for ever but there’s probably something embarrassing about its righteousness and simplicity. If you want to stop your future progeny taking drugs though, believe me, you only have to play them this album.

The music on both, however, is something else entirely. Listening to these albums now, with a greater sense of history and context, gives the lie to the notion that the best popular music comes from creative auteurs and is in sense ‘manufactured’ or ‘produced’. Of course, part of the reason that I love these albums is the character, quality and depth of the vocal performances. The main reason, though, comes with the ambition and richness of the arrangements and the production. The Stax label’s move away from singles to concept albums with lavish orchestration basically caused its downfall – but this music is so stirring and rewarding it seems criminal that it has been so overlooked in favour of the shorter, sweeter classic singles. It’s also a shame that the whole Philadelphia scene is better remembered for its more banal disco nuggets (great though many of those records are) than for the more extended constructs on the ‘Ship Ahoy’ album. Perhaps the social consciousness movement in soul is better represented on albums like ‘What’s Going On’ and ‘Innervisions’ but I still return to these relative obscurities.

My first drum teacher introduced me to Steely Dan (probably when I was about 8). I was smitten instantly – but I appreciate them on an entirely different level now. Now I ‘get’ Donald Fagen’s wry, ironic wit and his quirky lyrics. I love their knowing hipster stance and I’ve even come to appreciate their ludicrous perfectionism, although I ultimately think it’s futile. Later on, they stopped being a band, used session musicians and high profile guests, became jazzier and later, very precise and metronomic. The earliest albums (‘Can’t Buy A Thrill’ is the debut) work best for me because they manage to combine hints of most of the music I love – jazz, soul, blues, the slide and steel guitar playing hinting at country too. It’s wonderful stuff played by some unbelievably gifted musicians.

IAN CARR’S NUCLEUS – OUT OF THE LONG DARK (Capitol, 1979, Reissued on CD in a twofer with ‘Old Heartland’ by BGO in 1998)

‘In A Silent Way’ is comfortably my favourite Miles Davis album and maybe should be included here. Yet I have to concede that I approached Miles through the medium of Ian Carr’s inspiring teaching (he taught me much of what I know about collective music-making and how to approach it) and through reading his excellent biography of Miles. Few people recognise that Ian was exploring jazz-rock fusions contemporaneously with Miles – he wasn’t simply ripping him off. ‘Out of the Long Dark’ contains some of Ian’s best compositions (and he was a superb composer) – performing ‘Lady Bountiful’ and ‘Gone With The Weed’ prove some of the most enduring memories of my teenage years, and this music continues to inform my thinking.

Ian probably paid me the greatest compliment I have ever received (‘Daniel you were so deep down in the swamp on that groove I thought that you’d changed colour!’) and what I remember most about those years was the great joy he took in playing and performing with his students. I remember him saying to Tom Hancock (a great guitarist – a prize to anyone who can locate him for me…) - ‘I’m sorry Tom, I stole your solo, but it was so damn groovy I just had to play on it’! It’s great that Ian now gets the recognition for his pioneering work as a musician as much as his work as a jazz writer, broadcaster and educator - what a shame that his health has left him unable to play to these new audiences.

TEENAGE FANCLUB – GRAND PRIX (Creation, 1995)

Perhaps the two most important bands of the 90s for me were The Lemonheads and Teenage Fanclub. The former initiated one of my longest standing friendships and got me into my first proper rock band (you can hear Hyperfuzz on the Abuse Your Friends Vol 1 compilation but it ain’t a pleasant sound). The latter have stayed with me. I still firmly believe that Teenage Fanclub are the best writers of basic guitar pop music the UK has produced since The Beatles. They are not sophisticated musicians (in fact, they’ve been through a whole string of rather unimaginative drummers). But their words are honest, heartfelt and often uplifting and their mastery of chiming guitars and vocal harmonies cannot fail to lift my mood. Even their melancholy moments are chirpy – ‘Mellow Doubt’ is among my favourite songs about unrequited love (something I was very familiar with back in the mid-to-late 90s, ho hum) but it actually features a whistling solo! They’re also one of the few bands to make real democracy work – three songwriters, each with their own character and charm, who now contribute equal numbers of songs to each of their albums.

APHEX TWIN – RICHARD D JAMES ALBUM (Warp, 1996)
An album that reminds me of gatherings where all my friends were on ecstasy or pills and I was merely under the influence of alcohol – events which were always very surreal and slightly awkward occasions. As synaesthetic an album as this is, I was always able to appreciate it without the added stimulation, simply because it’s so playful and musically inventive. As complicated as the music sometimes is, it’s purely and uniquely enjoyable. It’s one of the greatest achievements in electronic music so far and still Richard D James’ best work. In fact, he’s really struggled to produce anything coherent since.

BT EXPRESS – DO IT ‘TIL YOU’RE SATISFIED (Pye, 1974)
This album is etched on my memory because at the innocent and na├»ve age of about four, I left my Dad’s vinyl copy in the sun and warped it (I had played the record many, many times before I destroyed it). CDs were only just becoming commonplace at that time, and the reissue industry had yet to swing into full gear. Thus began a twelve year quest to find a replacement. I eventually succeeded when a particularly adventurous geography teacher at my school ran a course on Afro-American music (I can still remember the hapless Jonny Holliday’s question: ‘is that like Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland’ sir?’) and included a track from BT Express in his playlist one week. I explained I’d been looking for a copy of this album for many years, and he ran me off a cassette copied from his own vinyl edition, but not without passing moral judgement. “Your Dad played you this album when you were four?! But it’s all FILTHY!’. Indeed it is – it’s repetitive, groovy, dirty funk that is all about sex. I didn’t know that when I was four of course – it just sounded like fun to me. Funnily It still does.

REM – Up (Warner Bros, 1998)

I seem to be in a select group of about three people who think this is REM’s best work by a country mile. I am so far away from the critical grain here (why on earth I would listen to ‘Automatic For The People’ over this is beyond me, and I massively prefer it to the apparent return to form ‘Accelerate’) but I know why I love it. I love it first and foremost because many of the songs affect me personally in very powerful ways and have assumed new significance with different experiences over the years since its release. Lyrically, it’s a very confessional album, and I’ve been very much in the mood for that over the past couple of years. It is, mainly, languidly paced and lush, but there’s also something overwhelmingly positive about it – ‘Walk Unafraid’ seems like a statement of defiance – other songs seem to be about accepting one’s flaws and moving on.

I also love it because it’s fascinating to hear a band reconfigure themselves so dramatically and fascinatingly after losing a key member. So, they used more keyboards and drum machines. So what? Does a band have to play four square rock with jangly guitars for its entire existence? Many people find ‘Up’ clinical and cold – I find it deeply humane and compassionate.

TALK TALK – SPIRIT OF EDEN (EMI, 1988)

So cruelly ignored at the time, ‘Spirit of Eden’ is now rightly considered a modern classic, and one that demonstrates just how adventurous contemporary rock music can be when it dares to look beyond its own confines. It’s extraordinary to think that Talk Talk began life as new romantics, touring with Duran Duran. Whilst that period resulted in some splendid pop songs (‘It’s My Life’ particularly), even as early as ‘The Colour of Spring’, it was clear that Mark Hollis had loftier ambitions. He earned himself a reputation for being grumpy and miserable, but I’m not sure that there has been a British musician since to be so completely and thoroughly consumed by his passion for music. So much so that he strained his professional and personal relationships to breaking point and now hasn’t made a record for some ten years. Although there’s an argument that the next Talk Talk album, 1991’s ‘Laughing Stock’, is even better, this is the standard classic, and as close to art as rock music gets. Recorded in a Cathedral with carefully judged microphone placings and a whole range of instruments rarely incorporated in rock music, it’s a beautiful, spacious, haunting work. In the short term, it was commercial suicide but in the long term, it’s led to Hollis becoming some sort of elusive musical saint. This is such absorbing music – I feel like I could live inside it – every play brings out some new nuance or subtlety and it always sounds so visionary and strange.

BJORK – VESPERTINE (One Little Indian, 2001)

I don’t have much time for certain aspects of feminism, but I wonder why contemporary music of almost all kinds is still so inherently sexist. Bjork has unlocked a whole world of distinctively female artistry for me – and how perceptive, intelligent and exotic she is. Some people deride ‘Vespertine’ because of its intimacy but, for me, this is its greatest triumph. Her lyrics are unusually candid, and she writes about sex with a mature honesty and open-mindedness that I’ve yet to find in any other artist (‘Cocoon’ is just wonderful – and far, far better than anything on Kid A, which attempts a similar sound without the sensuality or human warmth). The Icelandic choir makes a beautiful sound, and there is a sense here that Bjork understands better than anyone that life can be full of mystery, awe, excitement and wonder.

The next 10….

THE MAGNETIC FIELDS – 69 LOVE SONGS (Merge, 1999)

What is not to love about this album – from its cheeky, absurd concept to the playful brilliance of its execution? I love the smarmy irony, the effortless pastiche of multiple genres (‘pastiche’ needn’t be pejorative) and the prickly wit that Stephin Merritt brings to every song. Yet, accept them on another level – and they are songs full of real insight. The use of guest vocalists and experimentation with gender and sexuality adds extra layers of fun. It does what it says on the tin – but it does a whole lot more besides and it soundtracked much of my time at Cambridge. I’ve been reminded of its greatness by the gig I did with Jeremy Warmsley a few weeks back covering a selection of its 69 songs. Expect some ten year anniversary deluxe edition this year no doubt.

CHARLES MINGUS – THE BLACK SAINT AND THE SINNER LADY (Impulse, 1963)

I remember my Dad highly recommending this album to me for some time, but that his own copy had been stolen. A few months later, I found a cassette copy at my next door neighbour’s house whilst looking after their kids for an evening. I’m not sure this was my first experience with Mingus – I’d certainly been playing ‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat’ and ‘Nostalgia In Times Square’ in various jazz ensembles – but this was my first taste of his more elaborate constructions. This suite of music harks back to Mingus’ love of Ellington but there’s also something daring and audacious about the orchestrations that still sounds radical, fresh and, most importantly, highly emotional.

LEONARD COHEN – I’M YOUR MAN (Columbia, 1988)

Last year, Leonard Cohen’s critical reputation was enshrined by his wonderful comeback concerts – which demonstrated his humour and dignity more than his famed glumness and pessimism. ‘I’m Your Man’ is actually an album full of humour, and I fell in love with the English language as much through enjoying these songs as through reading great literature. I’m beginning to think that Cohen is the best of all lyricists – and this might be his best collection of songs, in spite of (or perhaps even because of) the cheesy synth backings. Plus how good is the cover shot of him eating a banana? Just perfect.

ARTHUR RUSSELL – ANOTHER THOUGHT (Point, 1994)

I’m not sure if this qualifies as an album, given that it’s essentially a posthumously issued compilation – but Russell made relatively few complete albums during his lifetime (just ‘World of Echo’ and Dinosaur L’s ’24-24 Music’). Compiling his vast amount of music has since become an industry in itself, and his great contribution to contemporary music is finally now being recognised. This collection of Russell’s songs, his vulnerable, sensitive voice mostly accompanied solely by his electronically treated Cello, is probably the warmest of his collections. The way his voice and the Cello intertwine, sometimes playfully, sometimes elegantly, is rapturous. That he composed under the inspiration and guidance of the avant garde (Philip Glass helped get this particular album released), produced energising club music and wrote country-tinged pop songs is testament to his considerable charm, open-mindedness and spirit of adventure. He simply went wherever he wanted to go. I also admire the concise, monosyllabic directness of his lyrics – they are some kind of affecting anti-poetry. At the moment, he’s probably the single biggest influence on my writing and my way of thinking about music, hence his inclusion here.

DEVO – Q: ARE WE NOT MEN? A: WE ARE DEVO (Virgin, 1978)

One of my more errant childminders gave me a cassette once. It started with a song I could identify – ‘Blue Jean’, one of David Bowie’s less inspired moments. It continued with what I for a long time assumed was more Bowie. It was only much later – when a teenager – that I discovered it was in fact about 70% of Devo’s debut album. This jerky, angular music sounded so much more weird and interesting than the punk music that the media focussed on. It sounded like a version of punk for the geeky outsider rather than the snotty rebel. Naturally, I remained hooked on it. Plus there was a concept behind it: that mankind was de-volving rather than evolving. The version of The Rolling Stones’ ‘Satisfaction’ remains one of my favourite covers of all time. You might think that song, and its killer riff, were untouchable. You’d be wrong….

SPIRITUALIZED – LADIES AND GENTLEMEN WE ARE FLOATING IN SPACE (Dedicated, 1997)

Anyone who has read my somewhat scathing review of ‘Songs in A&E’ will know that my tastes have changed and that my views on Spiritualized have cooled somewhat in recent years. Back in 1997 though, they were probably the most important band for me – inspiring a band I was writing for at the time, and acting as a gateway to so much other music. Perhaps that’s how I view even their best work now – as a collection of intriguing influences to identify and investigate. Yet ‘Ladies and Gentlemen’ had more than that combination of acidic ambience, skronky mess and raw garage rock and roll – it had real emotional depth too, and the obvious weight of human experience. It’s more moving than anything else they’ve done, particularly when it veered away from the obsession with pharmaceuticals.

WAYNE SHORTER – ALEGRIA (Verve, 2003)

Perhaps the greatest living jazz musician (OK there’s Sonny Rollins and Cecil Taylor as heavy competition – but it’s not too outlandish a statement), with ‘Alegria’ adding weight to this judgement. Shorter is one of those people who has seemingly been everywhere and done everything, from being a crucial part of one of Miles Davis’ best groups, to spearheading the fusion era with Weather Report. His own series of albums for Blue Note are crucial to the jazz canon – but in many ways this latest reinvention is more important because of how late it has come. To be approaching 70 (as he was when ‘Alegria’ was recorded) and still be this imaginative and free thinking is a massive achievement. His reworkings of old compositions change them radically, whilst his exploration of English folk music is a bold new step which yields transcendent results. An absolute inspiration.

PARLIAMENT – MOTHERSHIP CONNECTION (Casablance, 1975)

Spaceships, spacesuits, the funk, the groove, and what Alexis Taylor rightly recognised as ‘the joy of repetition’. Enough said, surely? Reminds me why I briefly wanted to be an astronaut. I wouldn’t have been cut out for it though.

CHAIRMEN OF THE BOARD – SKIN I’M IN (Invictus, 1974)

The most schizophrenic album here – veering as it does between a side of colossal, attacking funk and a side of mostly low key keening falsetto soul ballads. Like The Dramatics and O’Jays records I highlighted in the first ten, this took a soul band far beyond their expected comfort zone. In fact, for large stretches of the ‘Life and Death’ suite, the group themselves do absolutely nothing. Brilliantly, though, they are backed by the original line up of Funkadelic, and the music sounds incredible. Jeffrey Bowen didn’t hit the big league of modern soul producers in the manner of Gamble and Huff or Norman Whitfield, but his creations here are every bit as bold and ambitious. ‘Life and Death’ is one of the best hedonistic clarion calls I know – ‘if it feels good it’s alright!’

OLIVER NELSON – BLUES AND THE ABSTRACT TRUTH (Impulse, 1961)

This band – featuring Eric Dolphy, Bill Evans, Paul Chambers and Roy Haynes – take the blues and make it speak vibrantly and clearly, without recourse to language. It’s one of the key albums from the 1960s, but rarely mentioned where it should be – perhaps because it’s simple and direct rather than revolutionary or wild. It helped me get into what can often seem like a closed, elite world - accessible as it is without being in any way compromised, uninteresting or smooth.