Friday 30 December 2016

My Top Ten New Year Songs (Volume 1)

Well, this was the year we just had...

It's got to get better next year. Right?


I always hated New Year's Eve when I was younger. It seemed one of those nights of the year expressly designed to highlight your loneliness and make you realise how all your dreams were still unaccomplished. I spent all of my teenage New Year's Eves alone in my bedroom, and most of my twenties alone in a radio studio, having volunteered to work the night no one else wanted to. Now that I'm a father, I'll be celebrating New Year's Eve as I have for the last three years... in bed by 10, hoping not to get woken up by the fireworks. 

Still, if you are going out singing Auld Lang Syne on New Year's Eve, here's ten songs to take with you. I called it Volume 1 because there's plenty more where these came from. If we're all still here next year, maybe I'll throw together a Volume 2...

10. Spearmint - New Year Song

Another song from the recently mentioned Oklahoma! Particularly apt...
It's been such a bad year
Put it behind us now
It's a New Year
This year will be a better year
It seems we just get over one thing
And then get knocked down by another
Round and round my head they fly
And what are the chances
Of us both getting through this...?
9. Camera Obscura - New Year''s Resolution

Traceyanne Campbell has a resolution for music bloggers everywhere...
New year's resolution - to write something of value
New year's resolution - to write something would be fine
I guess most of us will settle for the second one while occasionally aiming for the first.

See also Happy New Year - Camera Obscura obviously have a thing about this time of year.

8. Otis Redding & Carla Thomas - New Year's Resolution

Otis and Carla have a different kind of resolution though... who can apologise the most?

7. First Aid Kit - New Year's Eve

Tell me, First Aid Kit... did it hurt when you fell out of heaven?
Now I have a lot to learn and I'm starting tonight,
Got to stop looking at things like they're black and they're white.
Got to write more songs of a little more, treat my friends better.
Got to stop worrying about everything to the letter.
A few resolutions the world could take heed of there...

6. Kid Rock - Happy New Year

Most people though, celebrate New Year like Kid Rock.
I’ll quit smokin’, I’ll quit eatin’
I’m not jokin’, I’ll quit cheatin’
I’ll quit cursin’, I’ll quit drinkin’
I’ll be a better person, but tonight I’m thinkin’

Let’s get shit faced, let’s get shit faced
Let’s get into trouble, let’s get outta this place
And I’ll have faith in the coast that you clear
Say you love me, Happy New Year...
If I ever did throw a New Year's party, this is the band I'd book to perform.

5. Tom Waits - New Year's Eve

I can't think of any other song that captures the ramshackle chaos of a New Year's party where everyone's had too much to drink and anything could happen.
Nick and Socorro broke up
And Candice wouldn't shut up
Fin he recorded the whole thing
Ray he said damn you
And someone broke my camera
And it was New Years
And we all started to sing

Should auld acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind
And Tom's voice is perfect here: he always sounds like he's had a skinful.

4. Motion City Soundtrack - Together We'll Ring In The New Year

On the other hand, Motion City Soundtrack describe perfectly every New Year's party I've ever been to...
Why did I come
Oh why did I come here?

These humans all suck
I'd rather be home feeling violent and lonely
I'm not trying to sound so insincere
But the postcard that's taped to the freezer reads "wish you were here"

How I wish I could disappear
Sad to read that MCSt called it a day earlier this year after almost 20 years as a band. Still, maybe they saw the writing on the wall for us all...

3. Deacon Blue - Queen of the New Year

Deacon Blue were a great pop band. Not open to debate. Gotta feel sorry for Ricky though - on top of everything else this year, it sounds like he's had trouble with the mother-in-law...
Now I'm telling you this
In a difficult year
Oh, your mother
She gave me problems!
2. Abba - Happy New Year

And here's another great pop band... hell, one of the greatest. If you don't believe that, I have three things to say to you:

1) Agnetha's voice is up there with Kate Bush's;

2) Elvis Costello's biggest hit was inspired by Dancing Queen;

3) Blue eyeshadow rocks.

1. Frank Turner & John Snodgrass - Happy New Year

Over on Amazon, someone described the album this comes from thus:

"It's not a real album, it's two blokes and a recorder and lots of alcohol."

Well, I take issue with that statement for a couple of reasons. Firstly... you just described the songwriting process of probably 75% of recorded popular music over the last 50 years. Secondly...  Frank & Jon never promoted this as a real album (certainly not in the way that Frank promotes his normal records), it was always supposed to be a couple of buddies jamming and having fun. And it doesn't get more fun than Happy New Year, a song that never fails to make me smile... especially the bit where Frank has to explain to his American pal what Boxing Day is...
Call up your buddies
Get them to bring the beer
Thin Lizzy on the stereo
No fights, no tears
If I could be anywhere
I'd wanna be here
Have a Happy New Year!

Whether you're out partying till dawn... or in bed by ten... have a great New Year's Eve. Here's hoping 2017 is a whole lot better for all of us...

Thursday 29 December 2016

My Top Ten Carrie Fisher Songs

I don't really want to turn this blog into an obit list: the world is forcing that upon me. I've had no time to catch my breath after my tributes to Rick Parfitt and George Michael, but I still wanted to write something for Carrie Fisher, because she was my first real heroine. I was six when I saw Star Wars for the first time and Carrie taught me from a very young age that girls can be just as tough and heroic as boys (arguably more so, because they have to fight against centuries of patriarchal oppression while they're doing it... and when your dad's Darth Vader, they don't get much more patriarchal or oppressive). But Princess Leia was never Dale Arden. She never screamed for the chistle-jawed hero to come save her. She stood up to Vader, acted tougher than Luke from the outset, and took none of Han's bullshit. Of course, Carrie was much more than Leia: but she'll always be Leia to me.

Here's ten songs in tribute...

10. Carrie Fisher - Princess Leia Life Day Song

George has tried his best to bury the ill-advised Star Wars holiday special, and having sat through it once on a dodgy pirate copy many years ago, I can understand why. It's still arguably a better piece of entertainment than Chapters I, II or III... and Carrie does her very best to keep a straight face while singing the awful lyrics that have been scored over John Williams' classic theme.

9. Jimmy Buffett - I Love The Now

Who knew Carrie was a parrothead? Turns out she co-wrote the lyrics for this lesser-known Jimmy Buffet tune...

8. Harper Simon - The Shine

...and also contributed lyrics to Harper Simon's The Shine. (I understand her ex, Harper's Dad, might have had a hand in this one too. But more of him later.)

7. Debbie Reynolds - Tammy

Sadly, we must also take a moment to remember Carrie's mum, who died just a day after her daughter. Although mostly known as an actress, she started out as a nightclub singer and had a number of hit records from the musicals she appeared in during the 50s.

6. Eddie Fisher - On The Street Where You Live

And a nod to her dad, who died a few years back, but was a huge teen idol in the 50s and sold more pre-rock 'n' roll pop singles in the first half of that decade than just about anyone else.

5. blink-182 - A New Hope
Princess Leia, where are you tonight?
And who's laying there by your side?
Every night I fall asleep with you
And I wake up alone
And even though I'm not as cool as Han
I still want to be your man
You're exactly the kind of
Alderranian that I need
'Nuff said.

4. Neon Neon - I Told Her On Alderaan

 Super Furry Star Wars fans pay tribute to Princess Leia's home planet.

3. Paul Simon - She Moves On

The first of three from Carrie's former / only husband. They were apparently together (on and off) for many years but only stayed married for 11 months. I guess this one was written when it was finally over.
I know the reason I
Feel so blessed
My heart still splashes
Inside my chest, but she
She is like a top
She cannot stop
She moves on
2. Paul Simon - Renee & Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After The War

I used to work with a DJ who always said "stupid name for a dog" when he played his song.

Recorded while Paul & Carrie were together: she appears in the video, though it's pretty hard to tell because it's appropriately surreal.

1. Paul Simon - Hearts & Bones

The big one that Paul wrote about his relationship with Carrie. A classic.
One and one-half wandering Jews
Returned to their natural coasts
To resume old acquaintances
Step out occasionally
And speculate who had been damaged the most
Easy time will determine if these consolations
Will be their reward
The arc of a love affair
Waiting to be restored
You take two bodies and you twirl them into one
Their hearts and their bones
And they won't come undone

Let's hope this is the last one of these I have to write in 2016...

Wednesday 28 December 2016

My Top Ten George Michael Songs

When I posted the Status Quo Top Ten and promised George would be next, an old friend with a much better memory than mine reminded me of something I'd long since forgotten.

Back in the early 90s, I wrote and self-published a small press comic called The Jock. Based on my experiences in the radio industry, the story told of a dystopian society ruled by a corporation called Yourent which controlled the population through mind-numbing muzak played out through its radio and TV channels. The Jock and his band of helpers were rebel DJs who fought against Yourent with their own pirate radio station that played only "real music" from the past. If you got to hear that old, banned music again, it could break you free from state control and allow you to feel and think for yourself again. This was my early 20s: I was big on metaphor.

Every issue of The Jock would contain a playlist of the sort of songs the Jock might play to break you free - lots of old rock and soul, indie (which I was finally getting into in a big way in my 20s after having managed to avoid it for most of my teens), punk, grunge... you can imagine the sort of stuff. (Maybe I'll dig out some of those old Jock playlists sometime and post them here.)

Anyway, the thing my old friend (and Jock reader) reminded me of was the furore that ensued among the book's largely alternative-minded readership when I included some George Michael in one of those playlists. But I grew up on 80s pop and although it did become rather flashy and soulless in places (from Duran Duran to the late 80s horrorshow of SAW), I always considered George Michael smarter and truer than that. He produced pop music with heart and warmth and humour. He knew when to make fun of himself and had a voice that would put most of today's chart-toppers to shame. So while many of my former bloggers are playing the "I respected him but never really dug his music" card right now, I am happy to admit that I loved George, from the perfect sunshine pop of Wham! to his underrated masterpiece, Listen Without Prejudice Volume 1. After that, I dove headlong into my indie years and didn't really pay as much attention to him as I had before, but choosing just ten favourites was still a hard task...

10. One More Try

A proper soul song, this owes more than a little to Try A Little Tenderness, though it doesn't change tempo halfway through like Otis did.I used to play this a lot on a Late Night Love show I drove back in the early 90s. Weird scenario: the DJ would record generic links, I'd feed them in between my own choice of love songs... as long as they were appropriate choices for the show, everybody left me alone to get on with it.

9. Wake Me Up Before You Go Go

The jitterbug!

Choose life. Choose pop. Choose happiness. Choose fun.
You make the sun shine brighter than Doris Day...
8. Outside

To be fair, I'd pretty much left George behind by the time the late 90s rolled round. I was a full-on indie kid and had put away childish things like the pop music of my teenage years. Ah, the folly of your 20s! That said, it was hard to resist this classic comeback single, the hypocrisy-puncturing response to his arrest for "engaging in a lewd act". One of the best videos of the 90s: with a serious point to make beyond the funny stuff.

7. I Want Your Sex

They won't play this on the radio!

And they didn't.

Which was enough to make hundreds of sexually naïve (and desperate) teenagers like me run out to buy the single (or the album) to hear what all the fuss was about.

I Want Your Sex is not the sort of pop song I generally like. Unlike most of the songs in this list, it has no guitars, no brass section, hardly even a keyboard! It's got a drum machine and handclaps (which, I just bet, aren't real hands). It's a dance record: and I HATE dance music. Well, not all dance music, it turns out...
Sex is natural, sex is good
Not everybody does it
But everybody should!
This song became my surrogate sex life for the next three or four years. It probably built up my expectations a little too much, to be honest. And yes, I much prefer it to Relax...

6. Praying For Time

When pop stars try to become serious musicians, they often fall flat on their faces. George wasn't 100% successful in terms of his career goals (he ended up suing CBS for not promoting Listen Without Prejudice Volume 1 the right way... Volume 2 never happened), but in terms of his artistic goals, many felt they'd been realised. Much has been written over the last few days about George's politics - from the punk spirit of Wham Rap! to the anti-establishment stance he took later in his career. Let's face it, Simon Le Bon he was not. And as is often the case with the best socially aware pop commentators, the lyrics to Praying For Time are just as timely today as they were in 1990...
These are the days of the empty hand
Oh, you hold on to what you can
And charity, charity is a coat you wear twice a year

This is the year of the guilty man
Your television takes a stand
And you find that what was over there is over here

So you scream from behind your door
Say what's mine is mine and not yours
I may have too much but I'll take my chances
'Cos God's stopped keeping score
5. The Edge of Heaven

The last Wham! single has some pretty raunchy words, but George was confident he'd get away with them since he knew "nobody listens to a Wham! lyric". I love the big Wham! singles because they all remind me of school discos. The good ones, when everyone got on the dancefloor and went for it. Not the bad ones where I sat in a different corner and pined after a girl who wouldn't ever hear my careless whispering... 
I would lock you up
But I could not bear to hear you
Screaming to be set free
I would chain you up
If I'd thought you'd swear
The only one that mattered was me, me, me
I would strap you up
But don't worry baby
You know I wouldn't hurt you 'less you wanted me to
It's too late to stop
Won't the heavens save me?
My daddy said the devil looks a lot like you
4. Freedom '90

Not the biggest hit from Listen Without Prejudice, but the one that had the biggest impact on me. I loved the way George took the title of Wham!'s mightiest pop song and turned it into a commentary on the way he'd been treated by the music industry...
Heaven knows we sure had some fun, boy.
What a kick, just a buddy and me.
We had every big shot, good-time, band on the run, boy.
We were living in a fantasy.
We won the race.
Got out of the place.
I went back home, got a brand new face
For the boys on MTV,
But today the way I play the game has got to change.
Oh, yeah.
Now I'm gonna get myself happy.
3. Faith

As previously revealed, I bought my first 7" in March 1987, sometime around my 15th birthday. Seven months later, I added this single to my rapidly-growing collection. It was the first George Michael record I bought: the album came a little later (see below). Written with a Bo Diddley beat as "a rock 'n' roll pastiche", apparently... but damn, this shows George knew his stuff.

2. Freedom

It depends entirely on the age you come to pop music. I have a friend in his late 20s with very alternative, punky tastes who won't hear a word said against Gary Barlow. I was 12 in 1984. I'd just started high school. It'd be three years till I bought my first single. But if this came on the radio, I'd have sung it at the top of my voice. I was a long way away from worrying about what was cool. I just appreciated a good pop tune. Listen to that brass section!

1. Kissing A Fool

The first time I actually plucked up the courage to ask a girl out on a date... and incredibly have her say yes, I must have been 18. I'd recently passed my driving test, but I didn't yet have my own car, so I borrowed my dad's old Ford Sierra. This momentous occasion in my life must have coincided with the acquisition of my first CD player, and I remember that one of the first CDs I bought was George Michael's Faith. Time gets a little fuzzy here since Faith was released in '87 but I couldn't afford a CD player till '90 when I started my first (paid) job at the radio station in the gap years I took between my A Levels and university. I guess I came late to the album, if not the single. Or maybe it was on offer when I bought the CD player? If only I'd known to keep a diary of my musical purchases when I was a teenager, this blog would be much more accurate.

The point is, I had a disposable income for the first time in my life. I had my dad's car, I had George Michael in the cassette deck, and I had a girl who said 'yes' when I finally plucked up the courage to mumble a blushing "would you like to...?" And so I took her out. To the cinema. (Crazy People starring Dudley Moore & Daryl Hannah. Hardy a classic.) I still remember how grown-up I felt when we walked into the pre-cinema pub and I ordered her a drink. I still remember my excitement when I dropped her off at her house and she asked me in for coffee... only to be followed by the confusion of discovering that she actually meant coffee (and, frankly, her coffee was horrible). I still remember my heartbreak when she got her friend to tell me a day or so later that she'd had a very nice time but she'd since got back together with her old boyfriend and she hoped we could still be friends.

The album Faith always reminds me of all this, particularly the most apt song on there... the smoky, jazz bar classic, Kissing A Fool. The fool never did get that kiss...

I could easily have done another ten. Rest in peace, George. Thanks for the memories...

Monday 26 December 2016

My Top Ten Status Quo Songs

2016. Another one bites the dust. But before I'd even had chance to finish my Rick Parfitt tribute, the news came through about George Michael. What a terrible, terrible year for the heroes of our youth. I'll write more about George soon: I want to take my time on that particular Top Ten because it touches on some important moments in my young life. But I guess Quo do to. I wouldn't ever have put them in my list of all time favourites, but I loved a lot of what they did... particularly when I was a teenager. I imagine Jez over at A History of Dubious Taste will have much more to say on this matter (and I look forward to reading his tribute) but I never considered Quo a joke. They were a solid rock band who knew how to have fun. Which is all-important to me and makes me value their 5+ decades of rock far more than a lot of more serious artists who didn't last half as long.

Putting their songs in order led to a curious list that probably would be laughed at by more serious Quo fans, but this blog is personal to me and so is this list...

10. Rocking All Over The World

The song that opened Live Aid. What other songs could have done that? Only its sheer ubiquity places it at the bottom of this countdown. A John Fogerty cover - saying the Quo improved on the original is a great accolade as I'm a huge Creedence fan.

9.  Caroline

Well, it's not Neil Diamond, but it'll do. Quo's tribute (and not the only one) to the radio station that made them famous. I like the way they go quiet quiet LOUD towards the end, about 30 years before Nirvana.

8. Ain't Complaining

An intro you need stereo speakers for. It's weird what can turn you on to a song. It is a bit Chas 'n' Dave, this one, but the bridge "when the chips are down..." is great and there's a top guitar solo.

7. Pictures of Matchstick Men

The oldest song on this list, proper phasing psychedelia. Francis Rossi wrote it "on the bog". Can't decide whether this is the best Lowry song or if that honour goes to Brian & Michael. Still. Bloody brilliant.

6. Whatever You Want

Another one that loses a point for over-familiarity... but the first 60 seconds are genius. We used to play Beat The Intro on one of the radio shows I worked on in my youth and I can actually remember choosing this as one of the intros. I can't remember if the caller guessed the song before the vocal came in, but frankly, if he didn't, he was an idiot.

5. Down Down

Now listen to that intro! If that was Pete Townsend, everyone would be throwing garlands. The rest of the song is pretty standard Quo (nothing wrong with that), but the first 30-odd seconds are sublime.

4. Marguerita Time

Another great intro. Say what you like about the Quo, but you can't deny they gave great intro. I obviously have a thing about Marguerita songs: Jimmy Buffet's Margueritaville is another favourite. Confession: I have never even tasted a Marguerita, I don't even know what goes into one.

3. Rock 'n' Roll

A slower Quo-er, but proof that they didn't have to rock out to succeed. I guess it's a song about wanting to be rock stars, wondering if the dream will ever come true. Nice bit of whistling too.

2. Burning Bridges

This one at #2 will surely irk even the Quo purists!

Remember my shocking Jason Donovan confession of a few months back? Well, that same ultra-cool mate of mine who was into the Pet Shop Boys so much that he bled the lyrics to Paninaro, would also join me in a chorus of Burning Bridges from time to time. This is a great one to do the Status Quo dance to and really swing your imaginary guitar in time with the music. I'm not sure the rest of the school bus appreciated our rendition, but I was just happy to have been transferred from bus 6 where, for a couple of months, I'd been bullied to the point I seriously considered ending it. This song reminds me of the relief I felt at getting away from that awful situation. (Read the book in my side-bar if you want to know more about that.) Yes, it has an aggravating nursery rhyme hook. but so did a number of Beatles songs...

1. In The Army Now

You can probably tell by now that I'm an 80s Quo boy, and this is probably the pinnacle of that era. I had it on a double compilation album of 80s rock tunes - John Waite, Europe, all the usual suspects - I still remember the cover: it was red with a big pair of headphones on. No idea what it was called. This was one of the best tracks on there. I was shocked when Jez revealed a couple of months back that it was a cover of a Dutch band called Bolland-Bolland. Who knew?

The sergeant calls:
"Stand up and fight!"

RIP Rick.

As I say, my tribute to George will follow soon... meanwhile, 2016 can kiss all our arses.

Friday 23 December 2016

My Top Ten Albums Of 2016 - Number 1

1. The Divine Comedy - Foreverland

And so to my favourite record of the year. There's really nothing special about it. It's just another new album from the consistently excellent Neil Hannon. But it's that consistency that makes it Number One though. Since their breakthrough album, Casanova, 20 years ago (and arguably, even before that, though Hannon's first three records were all about an artist refining his craft), The Divine Comedy have never faltered. It's been six years since the last one though: I was beginning to wonder if Hannon had packed up his cravat and smoking jacket and sailed off to retire in sunnier climes.

But no, he's back: and better than ever. With sweeping orchestrations, male voice choirs, huge production numbers worthy of Broadway musicals, a tuba, a donkey, and droll lyrics that arch a Noel Cowardesque eyebrow towards modern relationships... with a few historical figures thrown in along the way.

The tongue-in-cheek opener Napoleon Complex starts with Hannon making fun of so-called Short Man Syndrome (which he's entitled to given his own lack of stature)...
Who pulls the strings, who makes the deals?
Stands five foot three in Cuban heels?

Who gets all the girls, then wakes up again?
Who will rule the world?
Who will make them scream his name…?
Soon after he declares his undying admiration for Catherine The Great, a razor sharp history lesson which includes the year's best rhymes...
There were few brainier
Just ask the King of Lithuania
She could dictate what went on anywhere
She had great hair, and a powerful gait
Catherine the Great
Then there's a quirky, screwball duet with his other half, Cathy Davey, which is as Funny Peculiar as its title. But Hannon doesn't just do the funny stuff. My Happy Place is pure escapist fantasy, just what we need this year, and it's bettered only by the glorious title track, Foreverland, which brings hope to a hopeless world... well, if you can escape it. As a lyricist, Hannon is surely the modern day equivalent of Cole Porter, finding room for Voltaire, Zsa Zsa Gabor, La Legion Etranger and entente cordials in his songs without ever sounding pretentious. He can even deliver the big hit singles like he used to... well, How Can You Leave Me On My Own? was a big hit single in my house this year, even if nobody else bothered with it.

Each of the songs on Foreverland is its own mini-movie, from the Hitchcockian romp of A Desperate Man to the waltzing romance of The Pact which turns every political cliche you can think of into a romantic metaphor. And then there's Other People, recorded into a dictaphone in a late night motel room (he added the strings later), which really is the best song Stephin Merrit of the Magnetic Fields never wrote (but should have). It also has the best end to any love song I've ever heard... I know, call me a hopeless romantic. Go on, it's only a minute and a half, treat yourself...

And, erm, blah blah blah seems a perfect way to end this Top Ten. Thanks for ploughing your way through it, for leaving comments, for being there. I'm taking the typical blogger's Christmas break now, though I do have a couple of posts in the can to finish December off. I've been blogging now for over ten years (both here and, before that, on Sunset Over Slawit) and I can honestly say I've enjoyed it more this year than I have in a long time... maybe ever. And that's down to you, those of you reading this now, anyone who's taken the time to get to the bottom of the page. Have a Happy Christmas, a far better 2017, and... erm, blah blah blah...

Thursday 22 December 2016

My Top Ten Albums of 2016 - Number 2

2. Weezer - Weezer (The White Album)

Weezer are a band who have long existed on the outskirts of my collection but never really stepped centre stage. I enjoyed their 1994 debut album, particularly their big hit Buddy Holly and slacker anthems like Undone - The Sweater Song and In The Garage. Since then I've dipped my toe into their pool occasionally but not given them as much time as I have their contemporaries like Fountains of Wayne or even The Dandy Warhols. Then, just over a year ago I picked up their 2014 "second comeback" album Everything Will Be Alright In The End and found myself hooked. I started filling in the holes in my collection and became extremely stoked for their next record (not literally called The White Album; it's actually eponymous, like the Blue, Red & Green albums before it, and only differentiated from its predecessors by the colour of its sleeve) especially when I heard the hilarious pre-release gem Thank God For Girls... surely one of the best power pop singles of the 21st Century.

I'm so glad I got a girl to think of even though she isn't mine
I think about her all the day and all the night it's enough to know that she's alive
She says I give her sweaty palms she almost had a heart attack
The truth is that I’m just as scared I don’t know how to act
I wish that I could get to know her better
But meeting up in real life would cause the illusion to shatter
I carved her name into all the trees
Sang a song down on one knee
Looking at the underwear page of the Sears catalog like when I was 14
I’m levitating like a magnet turned the wrong way around
I’m like an Indian Fakir tryna’ meditate on a bed of nails with my pants pulled down

Thank God for girls
Holla Jesu Christe
From Tennessee to LA
The rest of the album was going to have to go some to match that, but they just about pulled it off. Described as both a "beach" album and a concept album about a geek finding love and then having his heart ripped to shreds... well, despite that, it's still the most upbeat, positive, sing-along-till-your-heart-bursts record of the year.Which, given everything else that's happened this year, might go some way towards explaining why I place it at #2.

Next: my favourite album of the year. A prize to anyone who can guess what it might be.

Tuesday 20 December 2016

My Top Ten Albums of 2016 - Number 3

3. Meat Loaf & Jim Steinman - Braver Than We Are

Again, I've already written about this one quite extensively, just over a month ago. A not-so-quick recap...

First up, if you don't like Meat Loaf, you can skip along to the next blog right now. You've made up your mind about that a long time ago and neither this record - nor anything I write about it - will change that opinion. But if you've ever given Meat the time of day, stick around with open ears... and an open mind. 

To say I've been looking forward to this record, the reunion between Meat Loaf and Jim Steinman, is something of an understatement. It's been 23 years since they last did a full album together, and that was 12 years since the previous one and 16 since their first. At risk of irking the musos even more than I usually do, this is as big as Morrissey and Marr recording together again (not as The Smiths, obviously)... or Billy Joel releasing a new album. (Hahahaha: I'm equally serious about both those comparisons, and somewhere a muso just stabbed my voodoo doll with a rusty stylus.)  

But you can build something like this up way too much, and let's face it, the Moz-Marr reunion would probably be as damp a squib as the Stone Roses comeback (though I'd grin and bear it and play it to death all the same) while Billy would struggle to match We Didn't Start The Fire these days, let alone his classic 70s output. So I've been fully prepared for Braver Than We Are to be a disappointment, ever since it was announced as "Coming Spring 2015"...

When it finally "dropped"*, 18 months later, I followed the link to the first single,  and was predictably bummed. At 11 1/2 minutes of full-on bombast, this operatic "Song in 6 Movements" felt like Steinman finally falling victim to self-parody. I sat back and waited for the album with a heavy feeling in my gut, and the first reviews did little to offer any relief. "Meat's voice is a wreck," they whinged. "It's not a new album of Steinman material at all," they carped, "just cobbled together leftovers with the occasional 'new song' thrown in!" One reviewer even swore he was the biggest Bat Out of Hell fan ever before calling Braver Than We Are the worst album he'd ever heard, saying he'd had to force himself to listen to it again just to write the review. Wow, First World Problems of Irked Musos... doesn't your heart just bleed?

On finally encountering the beast then, I was prepared for the worst, and the first few times I listened to it, I did wonder if my lack of outrage was just a brave face forced upon me by decades of hero worship (for Steinman primarily, Meat to a lesser degree). And then something weird happened. I fell in love with the freak... and that love affair began with the very song I'd rejected at the start.

Going All The Way Is Just The Start may well be the ultimate Jim Steinman song. No, it's not better than Bat, Paradise, Dead Ringer, Total Eclipse, More Than You Deserve or Objects In The Rearview Mirror. It's not up there with the classics. But it does do everything you want from a Jim Steinman song, and then some. It's 12 minutes of roaring guitars, Roy Bittan-esque piano, ridiculous, overblown imagery, layer upon layer upon layer of melodramatic tosh like the very best rock 'n' roll has to offer. It grows and builds and crescendos like it's the very last song at the end of the world, like if it just keeps on going, maybe we won't have to turn out the lights after all. If this is, as widely assumed and reported, the very last Meat Loaf record and the last will and testament of Jim Steinman, then it does the job just fine.

Yes, there are problems. Meat's voice, first and foremost. There's no denying it's long past its best. I saw an interview with him where he claimed Steinman had insisted he sang every song in the lower register, and that was probably Jim just being kind. He even struggles a bit with that. There are hundreds of vocalists who could have done a better job on this album, but none would have made the same emotional connection to Steinman's last full batch of songs. This had to be a Meat Loaf album, even if he sang it with his dying croak. Steinman describes Meat's performance as "heroic", and I honestly believe there's a truth to that: it's more than just the usual JS-BS. Plus, Jim has a back-up plan to help out the biggest song, dragging both Ellen Foley AND Karla De Vito back from Hell to pitch in: what should have been a duet becomes a grand ménage à trois. Together again for the very first time, these three really are Crusaders of the Heart.

So ignore the musos. If you ever loved Meat 'n' Jim, give this album a try. Be brave: persevere with it as it I did and you will come to love it.  

Anything else to add? Beyond those detailed above, there are other flaws with this record, most notably the way it starts strong and then peters out at the end. Metaphor, anyone? But there's still much to love before that. The opening track, Who Needs The Young? is the most bizarre song on the album, an off-kilter mishmash of German cabaret kitsch. Turns out it's the first song Steinman ever wrote so there's huge irony to Meat finally recording it now. However, it fits his 69 year old voice and persona well... in many ways it reminds me of that final Leonard Cohen album. (That'll irk someone, somewhere.) Beyond that (and the big single) we get Speaking In Tongues, a song which delights in collosally awful innuendo such as "You got the fire - I got wood" before building to a line about "an erection of the heart", which is utterly, utterly preposterous and would be laughed out of town if it came from any other artist... but Meat can get away with it when he's singing Steinman. Honestly.

After this, Meat teams up with newcomer Stacey Michelle to tackle one of the few Steinman classics he's never recorded before: Loving You's A Dirty Job (But Somebody's Got To Do It). He has a decent enough crack at it, but doesn't quite match the original by Bonnie Tyler & Todd Rundgren. More successful is another very early Steinman composition, Souvenirs, which shows where Two Out Of Three Ain't Bad's classic "I'm crying icicles instead of tears" line originated from. The album's weakest recording is Only When I Feel, not because of the lyrics (pure Steinman hyperbole: "It only hurts when I feel") but because it's the one that stretches Meat's weary voice way beyond its present limits. He's far more suited to More, originally by the Sisters of Mercy (from back when Steinman was collaborating with Andrew Eldritch): here, the Slipknot-esque growl he can still pull off fits perfectly.

The remainder of the album draws from songs written for early Steinman musicals, elements of which have, over the years, been reworked into other hits, most notably the "turn around" refrain from Total Eclipse of the Heart - but that sounds weird at first without the rest of Bonnie Tyler's breakdown. What the record lacks is a big showstopping finale suitable for the last ever Meat Loaf album: an epic, 300 minute Wagnerian beast befitting Steinman's reputation. Fading away just doesn't seem right when everything else in your career was about burning out.

So given all that criticism, why do I still rate this album so highly? Why do I place it above so many far worthier, muso-pleasing discs this year? I fully accept that out of all the albums I have chosen in this Top Ten, this is the one that most relies on my appreciation of what's gone before. On its own merits, it probably shouldn't be here, and certainly not this high. But this record still means a HELL of a lot to me. Because it's Meat and Jim, back together again for one last go, like I always dreamed they would. They were never about perfection. They were about emotion. And if nothing else, this record's got that in spades.

Next, at Number 2... the feelgood record of the summer. It's about time!

Monday 19 December 2016

My Top Ten Albums of 2016 - Number 4

4. Leonard Cohen - You Want It Darker

Leonard Cohen's death came as less of a surprise than many of the other showbusiness fatalities of 2016: he was old, his health was known to be failing, and frankly, by the time November rolled round, and Trump was elected, very little shocked us anymore. But Cohen's death was still a very sad day in the history of popular music, brightened only by his parting shot, the superb You Want It Darker, which arrived in my collection on the day he said goodbye.

Unlike Bowie's final album which was all about maintaining the mystique and armour-plating the legend, You Want It Darker was a very personal affair, as most of Cohen's records are, staring mortality in the face like Johnny Cash did on his final records... then giving it a wry, sardonic wink. On the one hand it's a sad, rather pessimistic record about aging, fear and regret, yet it's bouyed by gallows humour and an uplifting spirit. Cohen's voice is apocalyptic, yet he's chosen his backing well, from male voice choirs to string quartets and crawling drumbeats that recall The Future. You Want It Darker is the title, but the darker it gets, the more cracks appear... and that's how the light gets in.

At only 9 tracks, the album is yet another of the year's successfully short discs, but Cohen packs a lot in, from standing face to face with his maker for a reckoning on the title track ("Hineni, I'm ready my lord...") to further religious allegory, coupled with political matchmaking on the sumptuous Treaty...
And I wish there was a treaty we could sign
I do not care who takes this bloody hill
I’m angry and I’m tired all the time
I wish there was a treaty
I wish there was a treaty
Between your love and mine
Then there's On The Level, which sounds very much like The Last Temptation of Leonard, followed by the gloriously resigned Leaving The Table, in which the infamous Ladies Man truly calls it a day...
I don’t need a lover, no, no, no
The wretched beast is tame
A beautiful soul to the very end, Leonard Cohen's life was summed up in a quote from a 1993 interview he gave in the Daily Telegraph...
“I don’t consider myself a pessimist at all. I think of a pessimist as someone who is waiting for it to rain. And I feel completely soaked to the skin.”
He found dry wit in even the darkest places, especially this final record. I doubt anyone will ever find a better way to say goodbye.

Next, at Number, yet another final album...although the two men responsible are both still with us... even if one of them ain't quite the man he used to be. Two out of three ain't bad.


Sunday 18 December 2016

My Top Ten Albums of 2016 - Number 5

5. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - Skeleton Tree

I've already written about my initial reaction to Nick Cave's latest album. What I didn't tell you in that post was that I listened to it first very late at night (as I often do with music these days) before going to sleep. It was a disturbed night's sleep, to say the least, and I woke up thinking about the opening track in particular at about 3am, and couldn't get back to sleep. I'd thought that the whole album had been written in reaction to Cave's recent tragedy, but soon after Steve told me much of it had been written before that, which is in some ways even more frightening.

I haven't seen the documentary One More Time With Feeling, perhaps that will give me the full story, but for now it's safe to say that my initial reaction proved correct in one way at least: this is definitely one of the best albums of the year and it's up there with Cave's best too (although its bleakness prevents me from loving it in the same way I do Murder Ballads or The Boatman's Call).

Jesus Alone is still one of the scariest songs I've ever heard, and that's down to the music just as much as the stark, horrifying lyrics. Elsewhere, however, there's real beauty to be found, despite Cave's apocalyptic imagery. He finds it in the strangest places: take Rings Of Saturn, which mixes Stephen King-esque imagery...
Upside down and inside out and on all eights
You're like a funnel-web
Like a black fly on the ceiling
Skinny, white haunches high in the sky
And a black oily gash crawling backwards across the carpet to smash all over everything
Wet, black fur against the sun going down
Over the shops and the cars and the crowds in the town
...with a hauntingly lovely chorus...
And this is the moment, this is exactly where she is born to be
Now this is what she does and this is what she is
Things gets darker still on tracks like Magneto and Anthrocene, and then there's I Need You, which is about as far from Leo Sayer as you can get and still be a love song. Forget Murder Ballads, this is an out-and-out funeral ballad. Heartbreak never sounded so mournful and desperate, yet somehow, like much of this album, touched with a strange kind of hope.

All of which leads us to the final track (at 8 tracks, it's a mercifully short album... as are many of this year's best), the... I keep looking for synonyms for beautiful, because that's the word I think best sums up this album, despite its subject matter. In that alone, it's the best album I've heard all year... but it's not my Number One. Because this year, more than any other, I needed a little more romance, nostalgia, wit, and escapist fun from my record collection. And I did find that... as we'll discuss very soon.

Think that's as dark as my Top Ten of 2016 gets? Number 4 begs to differ...

Thursday 15 December 2016

My Top Ten "Bah, Humbug!" Songs (Volume 1)

Before I get to my Top Five albums of the year... I suppose I better do this. Because it's that time of year again. The time when you can't walk into your local Co-Op without hearing Macca wishing you a Wonderful Time, Elton imploring you to Step Into It and Noddy screaming at the size of his royalty cheque. I'm even getting sick of Shane & Kirsty. And I swear if I hear Chris Rea get into his car one more time...

To counteract that... here's ten less-well-played songs "celebrating" the other side of the season...

(Bonus points if you can identify my celebrity Santa. It's not too difficult.)

10. Matthew Thiessen & The Earthquakes - I Hate Christmas Parties

Matthew Thiessen is the lead singer of Canadian Christian alt-rock band Relient K, so you might imagine he'd be more into the festivities than he actually is. Turns out someone left a broken heart under his tree for him this year. Poor sod.

9. Loudon Wainwright III - I'll Be Killing You This Christmas

What better time of year to take a jab at the second amendment? Good old Loudon.

8. Jim White - Christmas Day

I remember quite clearly, a bad Muzak version of James Taylor's big hit, 
Called "Fire and Rain" was playing as you crouched down and tearfully kissed me, 
And I thought, "Damn, what good fiction I will mold from this terrible pain."
Plus: songwriters are bastards. Don't ever date / dump one. Especially at Christmas.

7. John Prine - Christmas In Prison

One of my favourites from JP. I didn't realise it was as old as it is. 1973? That's just a year younger than me!
It was Christmas in prison and the food was real good
We had turkey and pistols carved out of wood
I dream of her always, even when I don't dream
Her name's on my tongue and her blood's in my strings
6. Everclear - I Will Be Hating You For Christmas

I'll never understood why Everclear weren't massive...

5. Frank Kelly - The Christmas Countdown

Father Jack, before joining the clergy, recorded this alternate version of the 12 Days of Christmas back in the 80s and it was a firm favourite of mine growing up because Terry Wogan used to play it every year. I play it here in tribute to both Frank and Terry, since we lost both of them this year.

4. Jesse Malin - Xmas

There was a time I believed Jesse Malin was the future of rock 'n' roll. Around the time this album, The Fine Art of Self-Desturction was released. I'm still waiting...

3. The Killers - Don't Shoot Me, Santa

The Killers release a new Christmas song every year. They've just compiled them into a collection, Don't Waste Your Wishes, for charity. I would buy this. With money. Unfortunately, they've made it exclusively available on iTunes which means I can't buy it. With money. Because iTunes breaks my computer every time I try to use it and I hate it with a passion. Still.

I do love this one, from a few years back.

2. Spearmint - Oklahoma

The title track to one of my favourite Christmas albums. Shirley Lee's ode to a tragic homeless drunk from his local town who spread the Christmas spirit with his rendition of Rogers & Hammerstein songs. They miss him when he's gone...

1. The Handsome Family - Stupid Bells
Christmas is the season where most folks kill themselves
Christmas is the reason for all those stupid bells!
Leave it to the Handsome Family to give the grinch a run for his money...
Repent sinners!
This pagan holiday full of tree worship and fairy lights is an affront to Jehova!
The candy cane is Satan's walking stick!
Merry Christmas from the Handsome Family!

"Happy" Christmas to you all. What's your favourite not-so-festive Christmas song?

Wednesday 14 December 2016

My Top Ten Albums of 2016 - Number 6

6. Paul Simon - Stranger To Stranger

It's not that long since I wrote about this album, so here's a copy & paste of what I said back then because I'm very, very lazy...

A couple of months ago, Paul Simon released a new album. The record company hype proclaimed it his best since Graceland. That album is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, but it certainly marked the zenith of his (solo) career back in 1986 (for all the controversy that surrounded it). Simon has only released 6 albums since, and with the exception of his ill-fated 1997 musical The Capeman, I've enjoyed every one of them. With that in mind, I took the hype with a pinch of salt...
But, you know what? The hype might be true for once. Don't get me wrong: Stranger To Stranger is not in the same league as Graceland, but it is his most coherent set of songs since... well, certainly since Graceland's successor, Rhythm of the Saints. Which is kind of odd, considering it's a relatively short album and two of its 11 tracks are brief instrumentals (I bought the Deluxe Edition, but you're not missing anything if you go with the standard release, except the rather lovely Dion duet). However, musically, it's his most playful and experimental record since Graceland, largely due to the collaboration with Italian electronic maestro Clap! Clap! (Don't worry, Simon's not gone dance). It also hit Number One in the UK album chart (making him, at 74, the oldest male artist to ever do that) and became his best-selling album since Graceland in the US.

Wristband was the first radio single (do they call them Impact Tracks or summat these days?) and on the surface, it's the somewhat smug tale of a rock musician getting locked out of his own gig who's then refused backstage entry by a security guard because he doesn't have a wristband. As with the best of the Graceland songs, its lyrics are witty and clever... but also have a bit more to say about the state of the world as Simon turns the wristband into a metaphor for privilege, the class system and the growing anger of the "have nots" (those without a wristband) in today's society.

I was focusing on one track when I wrote that, but there's plenty more to enjoy here, from the chilling end times metaphor of The Werewolf, which seems a little too prescient for comfort...
You better stock up on water
Canned goods off the shelf
And loot some for the old folks
Can't loot for themselves
The doorbell's ringing
Could be the elves
But it's probably the werewolf
It's quarter to twelve
And when it's midnight
And the wolf bites
It's a full moon
She's really got the appetite!
This theme continues with a curious ongoing narrative about a street poet who ends up in hospital diagnosed with schizophrenia, looking for proof of love to keep him sane. The more you dig into the lyrics, the more you find Simon casting a wry eye over the terrible state of the world... it's no wonder the final track is an Insomniac's Lullaby. You may wonder how he keeps smiling... well, he gives you the answer to that pretty directly in Cool Papa Bell...
It turns out to be
A great thing for me
I don’t worry
And I don’t think
It’s not my job to worry or to think
Not me
I’m more like
Every day I’m here, I’m grateful
And that’s the gist of it
Now you may call that a bogus
Bullshit, New Age point of view
But check out my tattoo!
Says "Wall-to-Wall Fun"!
It's also this song which finds him bundling in an always-welcome tuba and picking apart the meaning and usage of the word 'motherfucker' in hilarious fashion: even more so when you consider this track was played on Radio 2, heavily edited to the point where it made no sense at all. The unedited version is below...

Next, at #5... out of terrible tragedy grows great beauty.

Monday 12 December 2016

My Top Ten Albums of 2016 - Number 7

Great tunes to be had at #7... if you can get past the annoying band name.

7. Dawes - We're All Gonna Die

My introduction to Dawes came via their previous album, 2015's All Your Favourite Bands, which would have been near the top of my year end countdown last year... had I not discovered it in early 2016. (This often happens, and I'm sure it will again this year. By June 2017, I'll have kicked half these albums off this chart - in my head - and replaced them with more worthy discs I haven't yet heard.) AYFB was a fantastic record, channeling the Eagles, Jackson Browne and a bunch of my favourite Laurel Canyon bands of the 70s, and it had the same kind of hazy, nostalgic lyrics that make me long for a youth I never had in a far away land I might never visit. It's worth listening to the title track again now, just to show you what I mean...

OK. You know when you love an album so much that all you really want from the band's next release is another version of that record? And inevitably, if you get it... it's not what you wanted at all? A smart band knows that. And a smart band don't give you what you want. They give you something different... even though they know you might not dig it at first. A smart band hopes you'll be smart too, and you'll stick with that different record and come to love it in a different way. Turns out Dawes are a pretty smart band...

I bought We're All Gonna Die the second it came out, not just because of my love for AYFB, but because... hell, how am I not going to buy an album with that title? It deserves to be on my year end Top Ten even if I'd never played it. But from the opening chords, it's a very different record. Musically much beefier, owing more to the 80s than the 70s, throwing out the Eagles in favour of funk, fuzz-guitar, a splash of Jeff Lynne-produced George Harrison, and an occasional nod to Don Henley's solo output. It's a more diverse record than its predecessor and it doesn't fit together quite as well, but when you get past all that, Taylor Goldsmith's lyrics still shine with intricate, oddball details that suggest much bigger stories waiting to be told... as on Five Miles Away, which has disappeared from youtube since I wrote this post...
There's a stranger in the bushes
Looking through the windows of a home
At a woman from the movies
That's been living there alone

She's home at 7 in the evening
He sees the code punched in the gate
This is all happening right now
Less than five miles away
There's another great Divorce Song in Roll With The Punches too. Because we can never have too many of those.

I still think Dawes is a terrible name for a band though.

Next, at Number #6: still rhymin' after all these years...

Saturday 10 December 2016

My Top Ten Albums of 2016 - Number 8

And so we move from the sublime... to the ridiculous.

8. The Humdrum Express - The Day My Career Died

I know what your immediate reaction to this post will be: "Rol: you're seriously telling me this record is better than Bowie?"

No, of course I'm not, and I'm sure Ian Passey, the man behind The Humdrum Express doesn't think he's better than Bowie either. The point is, my Top Tens are never about artistic merit, as subjective as that may be. My Top Tens are just about what I like, and a lot of the time, I like silly, trivial, funny records as much as, if not more than, serious, arty ones. That's why I irk the musos, because musos rarely believe humour has a place in the pantheon of serious rock 'n' roll.

I owe this one to Charity Chic, who introduced me to this band less than a couple of months back. As soon as I heard the track Leopard Print Onesie, I downloaded the full album from emusic. In a year with very little to laugh about, with doom and gloom making a big impact on even my year end list, and in lieu of a new Half Man Half Biscuit album to warm my cockles... The Day My Career Died was the record I needed more than any other.

The HMHB comparison is unavoidable, particularly on the title track and the one Charity Chic highlighted, but there's more to Ian's bag of tricks than pin-sharp observational minutiae. Although he is bloody good at that...
The local kids' swimming club
Packs shopping at a cost
I leave the supermarket
With bread and crisps all squashed
They should be briefed:
Put tins underneath!
Elsewhere on the album, there's a hilarious rap based on crap advertising slogans (End of Part One), and a note perfect Morrissey parody (Catch A Fallen Star) that if you closed your eyes could be the long-awaited sequel to Little Man, What Now?

Look, if we're all in agreement about anything, it's that it's been a truly awful year all round. With that in mind, The Day My Career Died could well be the most welcome album on this list. We need something to make us smile...
I can't help but feel ungrateful
For gestures from the smug
Who take pity on my plight
By sending me a cyber-hug
They all should fear...
My cyber-clip round the ear

Next, at Number #7... it sounds like Jim Morrison's band, but it doesn't sound anything like Jim Morrison's band.

Thursday 8 December 2016

My Top Ten Albums of 2016 - Number 9

9. David Bowie - Blackstar

David Bowie's final album came out on his 69th birthday. Two days later, he was dead. I wasn't one of those mega-fans who'd already bought the record by that point and judged it on its own merits. It was on my wants list, as Bowie albums usually are, but there was no big rush. Despite one of his best singles in 30 years (Where Are We Now?), I hadn't been as bowled over by his previous release (The Next Day) as everybody else. Yes, it was good to have him back, and there were more gems to be found on that album than just the surprise hit, but it hadn't stayed with me the way his earlier work had. Which might explain why I hadn't been in a rush to hear Blackstar, particularly with all the "Bowie-Goes-Jazz" reviews I'd read.

And then he was gone: as much a shock, an original, an enigma as he'd ever been. And the stars looked very different that day...

I knew, then, that it would be impossible to judge Blackstar on its own merits. Had it been just another Bowie album, I know I wouldn't have listened to it as much, or as deeply, as I did. Certainly the lyrics wouldn't have meant half as much... and Bowie's lyrics had often been an equal source of wonder and frustration to me. It was all very cool, that mad poet method of cutting out interesting words from newspapers and gluing them together to make a song... and many times, they did actually mean something to me... but I'm first and foremost a fan of songs that tell stories rather than hint at a million different interpretations... and it was a long time since Space Oddity.

His death gave the lyrics of Blackstar context though: sometimes too much context. Many critics poured over them for a final message about his own mortality. Even the artwork held hidden messages, they claimed. So I wasn't the only one unable to judge the record on its own merits. But I listened to it a lot, and it deserves a place in this Top Ten if only because of Bowie's stature and importance in the ongoing musical narrative that means so much to us aging pop kids.

It's been a year of seismic losses in that particular world, however, and Bowie was not the one that hit me hardest. I listened to Prince's back catalogue almost constantly throughout May, and although ironically I still haven't checked out his final record, his death shook me even more than Bowie's. And there's another final album yet to come in my year end countdown, one that I connected with much more than Blackstar.

But watching this video again now, I still can't believe he's gone. When the grim reapers came knocking, he was supposed to beat them... forever and ever... so we could all be heroes, just for one day.

Next, at Number #8... a "comedy" record to cheer us all up in these dark times. Although I suppose some of you might find it quite... humdrum.

Tuesday 6 December 2016

My Top Ten Albums Of 2016 - Number 10

The job of picking my albums of the year gets harder every December. I swear I've been fretting over this since March: first, worrying I wouldn't have enough for #10, then scared I wouldn't have time to properly listen to all the late releases to judge them properly. I don't know why I let this bother me; I mean, it's not as though anyone gives two hoots what my favourite records were... plus I can pretty much guarantee that by March 2017, I'll already have heard at least five better 2016 albums than the ones I've plumped for here... and I'll be wishing I'd heard them earlier, in time to write about them now.

Such are the First World Problems of the middle-aged music blogger. They seem even more pathetic considering all the really serious things I could be worrying about this December... like whether we'll even live to see next December with the way the world's going... but sometimes, you've just got to sweat the small stuff. It's like Mick said: "Whatever gets you through the night..."

So let's try to get through this as painlessly as possible, shall we?

10. Drive-By Truckers - American Band

I've been a fan of Drive-By Truckers for a good few years now, although their last couple of records did seem to be treading water. American Band is a blistering return to form though, due largely to two significant factors:

1) The band's reaction to the current political scene... with a view to communicating in particularly, though not exclusively, that even though they're from the south, Donald Trump does not speak for them. Sadly, it wasn't enough to convince southern voters to dump Trump, but at least they gave it a shot.

2) The recent success of former member Jason Isbell, whose last album, Something More Than Free, blew the doors off 2015. (And would have been in my Top Ten of 2015... if I'd heard it in time.)

American Band is a bloody great (Southern) American Rock Record, sounding not unlike mid-period R.E.M. in places, although it does lack the humour of many early Drive-By Truckers albums... I guess they don't feel there's been much to laugh about this year. Maybe they get a little bit too earnest in places, but frontman Patterson Hood will never be Bono, and more often than not they manage the heartfelt integrity of Wrecking Ball or American Skin-era Springsteen. It's an angry record, to be sure, and one that reflects what's happening out there more than anything else I've heard this year, particularly on the savage and excoriating What It Means...
He was running down the street
When they shot him in his tracks
About the only thing agreed upon
Is he ain't coming back
There won't be any trial
So the air it won't be cleared
There's just two sides calling names
Out of anger out of fear
If you say it wasn't racial
When they shot him in his tracks
Well I guess that means that you ain't black
It means that you ain't black
I mean Barack Obama won
And you can choose where to eat
But you don't see too many white kids lying
Bleeding on the street

But after all that sterling political pop, it's the final track, Baggage, which tips this album into my Top Ten of 2016. Written on the night Robin Williams' death was announced, it deals with Patterson Hood's response to how the media deals with the subject of depression (something he knows more than a little about) and it's one of the most raw and honest songs I've heard all year (and that's saying something, considering some of the other records we'll be discussing here shortly). It'll stay with me long after Trump has been impeached and forgotten.

Only a live video on youtube, so you can listen to the album version here...

Drive-By Truckers - Baggage

Next up, at Number #9... the stars shine a little darker this year.

Sunday 4 December 2016

My Top Ten Self-Pity Songs (Volume 2: The Ladies)

Almost as soon as I posted Volume 1, my old friend Sally started protesting on Facebook. I'm sure she won't mind if I share her rant with you all now...

"Rol. Rol. Rol, Rol, Rol, Rol, Rol, Rol, Rol, Rol... Where are all the tear-streaked, self-hating women you introduced me to? What of Not Pretty Enough? Footsteps Fall? Bloody Mother-Fucking Asshole? Maybe that's not strictly self pity, but it sure felt like it to me. If you do this again it should feature the mascara-streaked, the unnoticed despite hours of prep, the gin-soaked, the Laydeez"

Well, who am I to refuse such a heartfelt plea? And yes, Sally was right: I was remiss in making Volume 1 all about miserable fellas. (Although I had forgotten just how much I used to share the misery with anyone and everyone way back when Sally and I worked in the same office.) And so, to redress the balance...

10. Eddi Reader - Footsteps Fall

Thanks to Sally for reminding me of this one, a good few years since I listened to it, but it's gloriously miserable.
I’m in a new place now
They don’t know me next door
Though I can hear their footsteps fall

Every night about this time
Does he take her in his arms?
There’ll be Django playing as they waltz across the floor

And loneliest sound of all
Is the sound of love through a stranger’s wall...
9. Lucinda Williams - Lonely Girls

The thing about mining a rich seam like self-pity is that way down at Number Nine you'll find songs which would have been Number One on any other Top Ten. There's a brutal simplicity to Lucinda Williams' lyrics here, each line repeated over and over to hammer home the point...
Heavy blankets 
Heavy blankets
Heavy blankets
Cover lonely girls
But the kicker comes at the end when Lucinda reveals: she knows of what she writes.

8. Aimee Mann - Save Me
You look like a perfect fit
For a girl in need of a tourniquet
Not a love song, but a desperation song. Not the only one on this list, as it turns out.
C'mon and save me
If you could save me
From the ranks of the freaks
Who suspect they could never love anyone
Ooooh, that last line. Aimee, you're killing me...

7. The Carpenters - Goodbye To Love

Whenever I listen to the Carpenters, I'm reminded of John Cusack's opening monologue to High Fidelity... what came first: the music or the misery? Makes you wonder about poor, tragic Karen...
I'll say goodbye to love
No one ever cared if I should live or die
Time and time again the chance for love has passed me by
And all I know of love
Is how to live without it
I just can't seem to find it
So I've made my mind up
I must live my life alone
And though it's not the easy way
I guess I've always known
I'd say goodbye to love...
6. Martha Wainwright - Bloody Mother-Fucking Asshole

I'll admit, when Sally suggested this one, I wasn't sure it fit the criteria. The titular "hero" is Loudon Wainwright III, and on the surface this is just Martha's semi-tongue-in-cheek attack on her father's longstanding habit of writing extremely autobiographical (if highly amusing) songs about his family... though frankly, Martha got off light compared to Rufus. But when you delve a bit deeper, it is gloriously miserable in its own way, and despite being one of her earliest songs, it might be Martha's finest hour.
And you have no idea
No idea how it feels to be on your own
In your own home
With the fucking phone
And the mother of gloom
In your bedroom
Standing over your head
With her hand in your head
With her hand in your head
I will not pretend
I will not put on a smile
I will not say I'm all right for you
When all I wanted was to be good
To do everything in truth
To do everything in truth
5. Diana Ross & The Supremes - I'm Livin' In Shame

Now here's someone who really has a reason to feel self-pity. The sequel to the equally spectacular Love Child, here we find Ross's self-hating heroine moving away from home to escape the shame of being born in poverty to a "slum mum"... only to drown in guilt when that deserted and disowned mother dies lonely and heartbroken while her daughter parades around university pretending to come from a wealthy family.
Got a telegram
Mama passed away while making home made jam
before she died she cried to see me by her side
She always did her best
Ah cooked and cleaned and always in the same old dress
Working hard, down on her knees
Always trying to please
Mama, mama, mama can you hear me?
Mama, mama, mama can you hear me?
I'm living in shame
Mama, I miss you
I know you've done your best
Mama, I miss you
This song utterly destroys me. In a very good way.

4. Black Box Recorder - Child Psychology

I was going to disqualify this on the basis that it's written by two blokes (John Moore and Luke Haines), but then I realised it's not the only song like that in this list. Besides, it's the performance that matters, and Sarah Nixey makes this her own.
Life is unfair: Kill yourself or get over it!
3. Kasey Chambers - Am I Not Pretty Enough?

There is no creature in the known universe more well-versed in the fine art of self-pity than your average teenager, and our Top Three today demonstrates that perfectly with three slightly-older ladies turning to their teenage selves for devastating inspiration. Here Kasey Chambers turns romantic desperation into an artform, and then wonders...
Why do you see right through me?
That said, she's a novice when compared to the all-time champion of channeling teenage angst into a pop song...

2. Janis Ian - At Seventeen

At Seventeen may well have been written about the horrors of being a teenage girl... but sadly, most of the lyrics recall my own teenage woe with clinical precision...
To those of us who knew the pain
Of valentines that never came
And those whose names were never called
When choosing sides for basketball
It was long ago and far away
The world was younger than today
When dreams were all they gave for free
To ugly duckling girls like me
1. The Shangri-Las - Past, Present And Future

Melodrama on a supremely epic scale was the Shangri-Las' stock in trade, and they certainly turned it up to 11 on this 1966 ode to joylessness. Set to Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata, it sticks a dagger into teenage heartbreak unlike any other record you'll ever hear. Sublime.

No surprise to find both Morrissey & Marr were fans...

That's Volume 2 out of the way. I hope you realise this series could run and run. Especially if you keep encouraging me. Misery does love company...

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