As we approach Christmas, music nerds everywhere feel the urge to compile their lists of the best albums, tracks, events and so on. The magazines and papers lead the way. I love it. I like to check whether I’m in with the zeitgeist or whether there’s anything good that I’ve missed. There usually is, but no harm in catching up.
The benchmark, still, is the NME top 50 albums. As I’ve said before, they do tend to get it right. In the past I’ve usually had seven or eight of the top ten, twenty or so of the top thirty already. Not surprising when the NME is my guide throughout the year. But this year it’s different. I seem to have lost touch. I have only bought three of the top ten: “Let England Shake” by PJ Harvey, “Skying” by the Horrors and “Suck It And See” by the Arctic Monkeys”. Numbers 1, 3 and 6, respectively.
Why is this? The main reason, I think, is that I’ve been preoccupied with my book about my musical journey. As I write I listen to the bands and singers I am writing about. I’ve been on a voyage of rediscovery. Eurythmics, Tom Waits, John Martyn, Van Morrison, Prince, are just a few of the artists that I’ve really delved back into, as part of my writing. And Bob Dylan reasserted himself as the poet, the master. That didn’t leave too much room for new sounds or new artists, who were always going to pale by comparison.
And yeah, I do think, indie – the NME staple – is going through a lean patch. It’s all a bit indistinct, a bit wimpy, veering towards pop. Nothing wrong with pop. Love it. But indie needs to rock a bit more. The Vaccines did a decent Strokes impression (better than the Strokes in fact) but that was about as good as it got for me. The Arctic Monkeys I haven’t really listened to properly yet, but it didn’t demand that I did. Likewise Kasabian with “Velociraptor”. And I really wanted to like Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds album, but I just found it pleasant. There wasn’t a track that leapt out and hit me on the head. Reports suggest he does a great live show, and I’m sure that’s true. But the album was Oasis-lite.
I’m left with two albums that I really did love. The first is the PJ Harvey album. When it came out I bought it, liked it, admired the concept. A kind of striving for the essence of England. Who are we, who were we, how do we resolve our inner conflicts? I didn’t linger initially. But seeing the NME put it number one made me listen again. And I started to get the intensity of the music, the shards of melody, the sense of an English folk history interspersed with sounds from around the world. And Polly’s voice, distinctive, frail and assertive all at once. I feel her sound is rooted in the West Country – there’s a spirituality about it which isn’t London or urban. (And yes, it is where she is from). I’ve spent a bit of time in Dorset and Glastonbury and I can feel the essence of those places in the music. The essence of England. Old England. These days we jump more than ever at individual songs. “Let England Shake” needs to be appreciated as a whole piece. Dare I say it… a concept album?
The second album, and my album of the year, is “The King Of Limbs” by Radiohead. In some ways it’s a slight piece. Eight songs, no big riffs or stadium choruses. Similar, on first listening, to Thom Yorke’s solo album, “The Eraser”. Much keyboard noodling and warps. Low key, downbeat. Yes, all those things, but beautiful, intriguing, uplifting too. Like PJ Harvey’s album, it’s one that works really well as a whole. The sounds drift and swirl, seep into your consciousness, like the fog in T.S.Eliot’s “The Love Song Of Alfred J Prufrock”, that licked its tongue into the corners of the evening.
The two songs which for me make a good album great are towards the end: “Codex” and “Give Up The Ghost”. Both just sound incredibly sad. Thom Yorke’s voice is so fragile, yearning. The music simple and haunting. I play those two songs again and again. Here’s a video of “Give Up The Ghost”. Fast forward one minute to skip the chat, if you want to get straight to the music.
But it’s all about tracks now. Well, it always was – it’s just easier to pick them out now. A Steve Jobs legacy: you don’t have to buy an album to get a favourite track.
There are five tracks that really stand out for me this year. Four mark an important development for me – songs where I find myself liking the same thing as my children, who got there first. Whether they are so pleased is another matter!
The outstanding example is “The A Team” by Ed Sheeran. Yeah, I knew who he was. Friends told me he was really good at Latitude. But it was only when my son asked me if knew how to play the song that my interest awoke. I went on the internet and found the chords and discovered it was a lovely song to play. A similar chord progression to that used a lot by the likes of Oasis and Coldplay – and Robbie Williams. But subtle and wistful in its delivery. I played it again and again on guitar and the iPod. It’s a sad song – a teenage breakdown basically. Sad but beautiful – a classic pop combination. It is my song of 2011.
The next is a dance track, the best I’ve heard for ages. It may have come out in 2010, but for me it’s 2011. “Beautiful People” by Chris Brown. A multitude of mixes, but one of the most rousing House tunes I’ve heard for a very long time. That’s it. Nothing profound, just a air punching anthem. And you can reduce it to a rather lovely minor key acoustic piece on guitar as well. It has melody as well as rhythm.
When I take the girls in the car these days, it has to be Capital Radio. My ancient cassettes (in our ancient car) are firmly rejected. It was on one such journey that I first heard what seemed like a radical electro tune by Capital’s bland soul-pop day time standards. The song seemed to be about the G6. I thought, it can’t be the G6, the economic superpowers. It wasn’t. I’m still not sure what it was about, but “Like a G6” by Far East Movement had a great warped electro beat and some silly lyrics about drinking. It was the beat that did it for me.
Tinie Tempah’s “Pass Out” came out in 2010, but Capital keeps playing the top songs for months and I caught up with it this year. What I love about this song is its fusion of sounds: dance to the fore with some rapid BPMs, but also some serious dub reggae interventions. It is the dub echoes aligned to the dubstep and TT’s humorous lyrics – I’ve been to Southampton but I’ve never been to Scunthorpe – that makes the song special for me.
And that leaves Cornershop with “United Provinces Of India”. It has the perfect combination of Indian song and dance with a funky Western electro beat. It is truly infectious. Cornershop have been making great, inventive, eclectic music for years. This is one of their best.
That reminds me of one of my best musical experiences of the year, which was a visit to the “Mela” music festival in Gunnersbury Park, West London, in August. Sponsored by O2 and the BBC, it was a huge festival of Indian music, focusing on the modern fusion between Bhangra and the club sounds of London. It was brilliant. The main stage peaked with Jay Sean returning from his success in the US; but for me the best thing was watching the heavy dance sounds being belted out in some of the smaller tents. The music a fascinating fusion of East and West, all being played by blokes with computers. And the young lads from Southall and elsewhere in their gangsta gear going wild. Moving effortlessly between traditional and modern beats. Security guards looking on suspiciously. Dare I say it, the girls watching from the fringes. Very little dancing together. This for me was an insight into a London culture I just wouldn’t normally see. I felt privileged to be there. Excited by the music – fascinated by the action. The heartbeat of West London. Brilliant.
So, 2011, was heavy on nostalgia for me because of the book; but Capital and the Mela experience sorted me out. Musically, the youth always know best.