Bruce Springsteen – Darkness on the Edge of Town (Columbia – 1978)

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The impetuosity of youth led to a pseudo-rebellion which dismissed Springsteen, nay ‘The Boss’, as some kind of relic of eighties excess and saccharine stadium rock and as a covert representative of The Man, jeans manufacturers and a gauche shiny commercialism. That could never sit well with first my teenage allegiance to Britpop’s fey heroes and later the post-rock cult champions which would define my attempts at defining a casual outsider chic in place of a personality. How could it not? The arrogance of the cover of ‘Born in the USA’; the gasping, seemingly outmoded saxophone which sounded nothing like anything that would possibly reach into a musical era enamoured with the whimsy of The Kinks or reimagining The Beatles through Noddy Holder’s nonsensical lense of communal stomp. There was also sense that this may well be a man who your mother found deeply sexually attractive. It said nothing to me about my life as The Smiths nearly sang, yet Springsteen’s career peak could just about be one the most quintessential albums that would connect with a young man growing up in a crumbling post-industrial town and a faltering desire to explore a romanticism he could barely articulate.

While ‘Born to Run’ was of course my way in, for not loving the title track is probably akin to saying you dislike the laughter of children or the concept of joy, replete with a groove the jet propulsion of a fifties B-movie soundtracked by Phil Spector, it’s the innate questioning of what comes after the first rush of romance that runs central to ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town’, for as sure as that first teenage love is the greatest rush of your life, the sickening come down and facing up to reality of life in a chokingly small town is just as necessary to growing up. ‘Born to Run’ may have adrenaline rush of ‘She’s The One’, but the melancholic sob for the barely realised expectations of a youth filled with a desire to escape in ‘Racing in the Street’ spoke far more of life’s realities. Yet irrespective of the lyrical concerns, it seems implausible that an album which glistens in reverb and irrepressible energy could have not moved a teenage heart so intent on discovering the new, had it only been given a chance.

One of the album’s most striking qualities is the sense of yearning which shoots through its heart, be that for an escape from small town blues or sheer sexual energy. Opener ‘Badlands’ plays like a fanfare but reads like call to arms against forces of greed and self-interest, while ‘Adam Raised a Cain’ is a furious portrait of working class life, with violence bred from desperation and an inability to articulate fury at the world. The title track and album closer explores this same theme with an inescapable melancholy of a town falling apart and the working man of ‘Factory’ losing his identity at the hands of an ever changing economic landscape. It’s of course a theme which seems a relevant now as it ever did then but the North East of England has been in decline from my earliest memory, so why couldn’t that have had a resonance with my instinctually and indoctrinated teenage socialist self?

Of course what that version of myself could not have possibly come to terms with is the fact that this album, for all it has a dark heart, has a sexual energy to it that I’ll perhaps never be able to articulate. The adrenaline rush as the drums kick in on ‘Candy’s Room’, the way that Bruce croons ‘I’m a liar’ on ‘Streets on Fire’ like he’s just invented seduction and that he can get away with singing ‘Prove It All Night’ without resorting to leather trousers, yet still we believe him as we suspend our disbelief and listen on slack-jawed and incredulous. Generational issues aside, could this have been a barrier? When growing up faced with notions of a Britpop England I recognised but barely felt a part of, that was often laddishly confrontational or meekly apologetic, could I really have taken a now middle aged man tell me he’d ‘prove it all night’? I suspect not but then I was almost certainly afraid of Prince too.

However, at its core, this is an album for whom the reoccurring motifs of ‘darkness’, ‘work’ and ‘dreams’ hint at the insecurity at the heart of us all. His much derided populism is of course his greatest strength, as even now at the age of 63 he and the E Street Band remain one of the most thrilling live bands whose music actually makes sense at the stadium of your local underperforming sports team. But nearly 35 years on and as he, just like some of his illustrious near peers he undergoes a relative creative revival, it seems unlikely that the first person narratives of this album, both brittle yet cocksure will ever speak a greater truth about what it’s like to be a confronted with the reality of accepting the tribulations of an uncertain future. No great philosophical introspection, just ‘the working life.

James Tiernan

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Talk Talk – The Spirit of Eden (Parlophone – 1988)

It is my firm belief that to adequately describe this album we would require a language as innovative, nuanced and rich as the music contained on the polycarbonate disc on to which it was subsequently released. Prior to this all introspection has been superficial. All instrumentation has been misused, all emotion falsified; forever too loud.  From the head of The Rainbow strings meld trumpets with trumpets and the wind before a reverbed Fender and driven harmonica come in with a beat that would set Chicago post-rock off on a route from which now seems so obvious it is hard to believe that previously it did not exist. It is impossible to consider this record’s creation, no instrument seems to provide a foundation for which a song could ever be built, like a mountain scene, it begins with the grass of the flat lands, with the plates of the Earth, with the edge of the sky, with the carve of a river through stone and with the history of glaciers. It is competition with nothing, it is still and towering, a new representation of British nature and industry.

Most terminology that would normally be appropriate for describing this work have been rendered redundant through lazy over use and misapplication. Jazzy, orchestral, sprawling, ambient, intense, ethereal, accomplished, enveloping are no longer strong enough descriptors. Hollis sings on The Rainbow “Lenient, The song the lawyer sang, Our nation’s wrong” over a bewildering babbling brook of instrumentation, its point of origin is obscure, fluttering past in harmonious confusion and this is where the chorus should be. This album was apparently recorded in such circumstances that make Loveless look haphazard and was largely improvised before being fashioned together into song using a process that was more Bitches Brew than It’s My Life. The assembled cast of musicians who replaced the first three albums’ synthesisers ensured that this album would never be recreated live, the strong jazz and classical heritage also pushed it out of time, a fresh day as old as the hills. The sense of quiet amplified affords a level of build normally ignored in modern pop/rock means size is afforded, because sections of Eden are so quiet it can be fragile and noticeable in its loudness.

The album recalls the myth of ‘The Green Man’, it is nature itself, Pan-like, a pre-Christian figure that features heavily in religious imagery, occult but not devillish, Spring’s chill from Winter’s cold, omnipresent like an unconscious collective memory, Britain pastures more violent than Elgar dared portray. ‘Nature’s son, Don’t you know where life has gone, Burying progress in the clouds’, this is the Spirit of Eden, green and lush, barren and harsh, occurring and unending, a paradise lost, pre-fall and fallen. Even normally laboured lyrical vagaries around religion or drug imagery retain potency. Hollis was supposedly obsessed with becoming Nature’s Son during the making of this album, this is helped in no small part by the rich mix of acoustic instrumentation used, Danny Thompson’s rich upright bass is high in the mix with the cello and brass section, sparked up up against organs and electric guitars and the ‘accidental’ (nothing was accidental on this album) noises left in to retain the feeling that this was created by humans capable of temptation.

The most striking facet of this record though is Hollis’ voice itself, operating a register all of its own, as brittle and corrupt as it is forlorn, pure and whispered, nothing if not singular, it is the record’s tender heart. The feeling is akin to that of standing too close to a fire, the burning goes right through you but you dare not move as you now know that the rest of the world is a colder place by comparison.  By the time of the record’s penultimate track I Believe In You the way he delivers the single word ‘spirit’ has become vital, one of the most heartfelt things I have ever heard, his grasp of melody amidst the floating music prevents this from becoming meandering neo-prog and reinforces it with an authenticity and passion that matches the classical dynamism of the music to a degree which may not have been seen in modern music since.

To overstate this album’s influence would be difficult, without it Spiritualized, Sigur Ros, Elbow, Radiohead, Doves, Tortoise to name but a few big hitters, would all sound radically different if they should exist at all (Spiritualized’s Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space in particular sounds ‘danger close’ in parts to sections of this album).  While making notes about this record I’d written that “I can’t describe the magnificence of the sun as I am too close to look at directly while I cannot describe the glory in the stars as there are too many and they are too far away, I can only write from where I stand,” while I’m unsure exactly what I meant with this it seems to sum up this endeavour, to my mind this is one of the greatest records ever made, describing exactly why has proven elusive as capturing Nature itself.

Adam Hiles

Kindness – World, You Need a Change of Mind (Polydor 2012)

“Abed! Stop being meta, why do you always have to take whatever happens to us and shove it up its own ass?” is one of the more self aware lines in hit (or is it?) sitcom ‘Community’. Abed is capable of communication only through pop culture references which isolate and confuse other characters but wink so frequently at the viewer you begin to think there’s a coded message in there. This meta tendency, this sense of fun, this sense of earnestness runs deep through Adam ‘Kindness’ Bainbridge’s debut. All of Bowie’s babies’ tricks are here, Prince licks and Vangelis synths kiss in what’s a mesh and mess of Lethal Weapon and Midnight Caller soundtracks with all the cool of a well intentioned cyber-punk Miami Vice. It’s immature enough to read Vice but thinks better of spending $90 to import what is ultimately a white tee shirt, it once laughed at a fire bucket ashtray in Urban Outfitters but didn’t need to spend the £15 to prove how bad at consumption it was. This is a smart, knowing music, it is disposable pop yet knowingly steeped like a cliff in a library.

I’m often infuriated by artists who are Byronic and serious up until the water touches their arm bands and then ‘it’s just pop music, it’s meant to be fun’, the ultimate get out, the ‘but I’m on den’ excuse. World, You Need a Change of Mind came into my life via this preposterously good video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BI73NFINsyo A child which like the album that produced it is funny, biting, high concept, roughly refined, but sounds great, is enjoyable, has something to offer. It is an album which has it both ways, it is light and disposable yet faithful and generous in praise of what inspired it. Even the aching cool front portrait seems to be a simultaneous comment on fashion while also a homage to Songs from the Big Chair by Tears for Fears.

As an album it is patchy, with four or so tracks of such strength that the good grace that’s built up is carried over through. Cyan, Gee Up, That’s Alright and the blondest highlight, Swinging Party satisfy in such a way that you don’t mind that Gee Whiz is a pointless pre-amble and Bombastic is in the main, fucking awful (a sung/spoken list of influences is like an audio version of the liner notes from Endtroducing, and is as much fun as that sounds). When it works it is like Spaced, crafted so that if you got the reference you laughed but contained such humour that if you didn’t get the reference, you laughed, that’s how this album succeeds. I didn’t find out that Swinging Party was a cover until weeks after hearing this, the original is awful containing none of the forlorn cool of the Kindness version. Anyone Can Fall in Love is a cover of that Eastenders lady song, and you know what? It’s good, again you laugh but as the chorus of ‘Anyone can fall in love, that’s the easy part, you must keep in going’ drifts by you forgot who originally sang it and the tune and the hair and who she’s married to and the lyrics are carved with a vital, cutting freshness. It has it all ways.

This referential nature brings us to the sampling, there’s been much in the way of contradiction over whether this album is entirely sampled or not, it was produced by half of Cassius and Bainbridge is often described as a bed-room producer so it is certainly a possibility, but even then the samples seem cheeky, the bass in the beautiful reaching Cyan always reminds me of the bass from ABBA’s Gimme, Gimme, Gimme in an is it/isn’t it way. While the use of sampling not being mentioned in the press release infuriated one reviewer from a site, let’s call it ‘Srownedindound’ (I hope they never find out about rap/hip hop) it seems central to the point of this record and what Kindness are trying to do. If it hadn’t sampled Trouble Funk and interpolated a vocal hook from The Escorts (which Srownedindound couldn’t hear/hadn’t heard from their high horse so had no issue with that) then it wouldn’t make sense, it would be a misguided attempt at making popping slap bass and orchestra hit keys sound good again. Instead it is clever context, clever expression, all ‘tune’.

And that’s why I started with Community, Abed is oh so meta but is often the shows heart, the one showing so little emotion on the surface but requiring it deeper down, the one that needs to be independent but fit, the one who recontextualises and decontextualises the situation and the subject, the tongue in the cheek and the tear in the eye. You should watch Community and you should buy World, You Need a Change of Heart, neither of them are the best in their field, neither is perfect but both have seen me revisit some of the most fun I’ve had all year.

Adam Hiles

Rage Against The Machine – Evil Empire (Epic – 1996)

Their eponymous debut may have may have made triple-platinum them counter-cultural must haves, something any teenager could adopt and where as a badge of non-conformity no matter how much of the subject matter was appreciated, but it was a deeply flawed work. While strong tracks were exceptional they were not the rule. By the time of the arrival of the album’s second half the going had become leaden and unrelenting, in this reviewer’s mind for one reason; production. Debates (dull ones) abound about who first or best or absolutely fucking whatever about the fusion of rap and metal but RATM: The Album arrived in the context of Metallica’s ‘black album’ the year before, a sound both typifying and defining the sound of metal in that period.

Everything was thick and compressed so that all sustained notes were of the same volume as the initial strike, the ‘studio sound’ was all, drums resonate for a clinically uncomfortable amount of time with any trace of live playing squashed. All this was during choruses and verses, metal, when looking to be authentic (thanks guys) would replicate the ‘live’ sound by not having a guitar double the bass during solos, Pantera records and RATM’s first are prime examples of the ‘solo shitifier’, a technique by which all inertia and weight could disappear from a track as soon as soon as the guitarist wanted to ‘flash his blade’.  This was a particular gripe of mine on RATM’s debut given that all the sound collapsed at the same time a rock guitarist was about to do something interesting for the first time in about a decade. It was claustrophobic in a negative way, it wasn’t making a point it was just what it sounded like, and it sounded like 1992. If your early 90s metal album didn’t sound like your voice the interior of a waste paper bin when worn as a knight’s helmet then something had gone amiss. While RATM’s innovative nature can be argued (see ‘absolutely fucking whatever’ from earlier) it would seem that in this instance they had gone with convention.

When Evil Empire emerged four years later it was clear from the first note that this heavy woolly sound had been banished.  It sounded like the guitar was being played in the same room as the drums at the same time, the tone was lively, it sounded like a thing that was actually happened and was captured, it was exciting, it was fresh, it was vital and yet paradoxically it was all of these things because finally someone had gotten the whole ‘just sound loads like Zeppelin’ thing immaculately right. Metal had in the late 80s/early 90s become obsessed with mid range and distortion, this had been seen as the quickest route to the heaviest sound (along with palm muting), Zeppelin were never that heavy in tone, their heavy secret, was to operate as unit. In doing this RATM allowed groove to become a tool as available to them just as it was to the mighty Zeppelin. In the main metal had gone route one distortion and straight-laced fast tight drumming, this gave RATM’s sound of defiance another dimension with which to separate itself before the vocals have even been factored.

Trying to sound like Zeppelin isn’t a new idea so comparing RATM to Aerosmith and Soundgarden is unnecessary (well maybe Soundgarden, maybe) as the vocals completely eschew them. While De La Rocha was not calm on the first album this time he’s Howard Beale in Network, not only because he’s mad as hell and his isn’t going to take it any more is convenient and so hackneyed I have to include it, but his spirit of possession, possibly unhinged, saying dangerous things, lifting the lid on the backstage processes of the modern world, the power and conviction, all the weary last ditch flailing which Peter Finch brought to the role are in the voice this time, the sense that anger can bring about change, that it was believable, that it was well portrayed. The vocals could not have worked if they were not a) well written and b) well delivered. This might seem trite but mainstream music is normally as conservative as RATM aren’t so getting a record featuring songs about the Christian Right’s influence on mainstream media output, social inequality, the US military-industrial complex or the Zapatista revolution then it needs to be both good and cool when you do it.  You need conviction, authority and talent, De La Rocha was always this and fiercely so, more Chuck D or KRS-One (yeah, lazy and I’ve already cited Network, but in my defence if I named some other similar rappers you’d just have to Google them) than James Hetfield or Axl Rose of conventional rock, he was able to say more, more angrily and more substantive than rock’s norms of comforting ambiguity.

The Battle for Los Angles (to date their last album proper) would see the band build on this groove and tone it would never be as simple as it was here as Morello moved yet further towards utilising the guitar as technological interface rather than an instrument of pure riff, a device to be used in conjunction Wilk and Commerford. But thankfully the road map marked ‘production’ used on Evil Empire was used again. Maybe it’s just an unnecessary complaint on my part that I feel my favourite album by a particular band is often the one that seems to be either omitted from their collection or the one bought last. Sixteen years on Evil Empire is not only still lyrically relevant but a lively and vital sounding record that perhaps should be held up as a benchmark in the place of its predecessor.

Adam Hiles

 

 

 

 

 

Burial – Untrue (Hyperdub – 2007)

Dubstep, don’t be scared, it is for you, you’re fine to like it, you don’t have to be ashamed when you say it as a word out loud.  It might be new but as with any music, it can’t be that new, its obvious roots are in dub reggae and 2-step garage, the collapsing of the immense low end dub bass with a 2-step garage beat, in which the bass drum predominantly hits twice in the bar, giving it the ‘two steps’. This jerky beat may be familiar, along with the bass sounds and general atmosphere which owe as much to hip-hop, trip-hop, jungle, house as either dub or 2-step, as with all electronic music, it is first and foremost electronic music. My point is that it is something which you are already familiar with, conditioned too, just in a slightly different form. Like a pie with the gravy and meat on the outside, this is just a new ordering of presentation.

Dubstep also seems to keep company in post-punk, the last great public exploration of dub before trip-hop (I know, ‘trip-hop, what was that about?’), more than a style it was seen as a movement of the times, complimentary themes and  sounds emerging unforced from separate pockets throughout the country, looking like it might finally break the mainstream consciousness. Burial’s nomination with Untrue for the Mercury Prize seemed as if were to be the moment. Aside from his music Burial had piqued interest as his/her/their (at the time, I can now freely refer to him as him) identity had not been revealed to the public. While this had previously been little more than an interesting aside to most, taking at face value any statements that were made by or on behalf of Burial, basically that he made tunes and couldn’t be bothered playing live or doing interviews, photo-shoots or even telling people what he did in his spare time.  This combination secret identity and success seemed annoy then The Sun Showbiz editor Dominic Mohan who was determined to unmask Burial prior to 2007’s Mercury announcement because it was something to do. He seemed to be pressing the question that everybody was not asking. This tabloid incursion mustn’t have sat well, in a bid to quash rumours that he was either Richard D. James or Norman Cook, Burial broke cover like Batman was going to do in the last Batman film before Harvey Dent confessed instead. It turned out he was a real person you’d never heard of in real life who wore a hat for the photo they released.

Burial’s fine (in the way the word used to mean) recent EP Kindred sparked something of a coo-fest from ever online publication with a ‘new releases’ section and rightly so, but Untrue was my first introduction to this sound. I heard one friend brag to another that they’d gotten it a whole three days early from a record shop in Germany, talking with an expressiveness more befitting Paul Gambaccini or some big city lawyer type. I listened to person two’s copy when it arrived in the post the following Monday. Untrue is immersive from the off,  sliding bass frequencies tilt past you as the two step beats spin like the internal mechanisms of an analogue pocket watch.  Vocals samples are pitch shifted and twisted beyond sense, the sense of the city after dark, the night bus home and fragments of conversations have become cliché when talking about Burial, but perhaps it is a cliché born of truth, it is hard not to envisage dim street lights, imposing compact housing and the mechanical monotony of a city transport system when listening to this record. Everything is filtered like it is heard beyond the headphones from the world outside.

The analogue watch workings metaphor seems apt (thanks), the parts seem to spin independently in their own foggy bubble and chime together at points across each track to achieve melody, wheels upon wheels of them, cogs turning round to urge the music forward, seconds tick by with the hi-hat as minutes pass with comforting synthetic bass swoops. The unnerving bustle and stop of the beat is misted by reverb and deep low end, the signature vocal loops have the fragility of gas dissipating in air, it is the heaviness and levity of modern life, the things you choose to take in, the things you choose to ignore and the things that still get through. Untrue has all of the excitement of early RZA productions, conventions abandoned at the expense of sound, in its own way as shocking and brutal as the Wu first were the first time you heard them.

Burial has received the type of praise normally reserved for The Wire, whether demanding to or not it seems to be taken seriously but again like artists in hip-hop and punk/post-punk it is not clear whether this perceived musical intelligence is deliberate innovation or a happy accident of taste, is this an attempt to change the sonic landscape or the after effect of a bedroom producer trying to make what they want to hear?  Is this the work of a student of music, steeped in theory and history or pure untrained genius, a natural talent? Natural talent are the best kind aren’t they?  They are the true ones.  If you’ve ever learned anything ever and been successful you’ve cheated.  All this seems like little more than a ([ever so] slightly) more high-brow distraction than Bizarre’s secret identity search but Burial can’t be talked about enough, you can’t be encouraged to listen to Burial enough, if you would prefer a more familiar form of introduction (and by proxy, recommendation) try and find his releases with Four Tet and Four Tet & Thom Yorke.

Adam Hiles

1981

Kraftwerk – Computer World (Kling Klang)

Even by 1981 Kraftwerk’s influence was assured but Computer World saw them further embedded into consciousness of virtually everything that would follow it.  The themes of technological advancement, supremacy and isolation are prominent throughout, which begs the question as to whether Hutter et al where psychic or whether nothing has changed in the intervening 30 years.  Away from lyrical concerns their compact approach to electronic music has become a filter that all music is now heard through, every keyboard, drum machine or sequencer that is ever used evolved from their work, whether it is stylistically or technological, all dance, synth-pop and electronic is here but it is this album’s influence on hip-hop that makes it singular. Effortless, innovative, profound and fun, it is not only a part of the canon but a work that impacted on all its subsequent members.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mN5UfJA2evY

Brian Eno & David Byrne – My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (Sire)

Perhaps Kraftwerk’s only ommission was not to fully predict, pre-empt and define sampling culture, thankfully Eno & Byrne decided to take time out after ‘Remain in Light’ and record future music.  Rhythm tracks and layered improvisation was then topped with found vocal sounds in lieu of ‘actual’ singing, while Byrne’s vocals had recently been taking Talking Heads to new heights here his voice is silent, instead the altered voices of politicians handling criticism or loops of an exorcism take the centre ground.  The result is an intense eerie space of cold funk, as rhythmic as it is ambient, still as fresh and unparalleled today as it must have been 30 years ago.  I once read that this was Terminator X’s favourite album and to be honest if the words ‘David Byrne’, ‘Brian Eno’ and ‘Terminator X’ in that context don’t get you excited then you should go and use Google to find something else to read as this blog may not be of use to you.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8NWtm3LE-x4

ABBA – The Visitors (Polar)

To dislike ABBA is to wilfully dislike joy, their ability to fuse the radical and familiar in a hummable form and be HUGE may not have been seen since, and they also seem to have been the first to do so, since The Beatles.  While their last album may only feature one track that made an appearance on the omnipresent uber-work that is ABBA Gold this has no shortage of genuine hooks found in surprising places.  While The Beatles saw out their time under that trading name in increasingly separate spaces ABBA stayed ABBA.  Recording on ‘The Visitors’ started only weeks after Benny and Frida’s divorce in a mist of synths, an air of introspection and melancholy which has none of the euphoric disco of their earlier works, instead the weave of arpeggiated keys and singing in the round instil a sense of loss and longing that cannot help but draw attention to the circumstances that went into its creation.  Evidently as emotionally as they are musically mature, this is a dignified and precise detailing of heartbreak.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ec2dCvoext0

Duran Duran – Duran Duran (EMI)

Some years ago another writer from this blog had drag me away from a young man who had dared to suggest that fashion was more important than politics. I stand by that (although I may have made a better job of expressing myself at the time) however it is sad that today’s pop music has nothing that can even hold a candle to DD. Aside from the Scissor Sisters, think of a modern pop act that has gained any modicum of success off its own back without being manufactured in some way? You can’t can you. Positive, well made, middle class popular music is dead.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gudEttJlw3s

Altered Images – Happy Birthday (Portrait Records)

Claire Grogan. Mmmm.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=40K2S0-5Xo0

Soft Cell – Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret (Some Bizzare)

From the opening rhythm of the syth that builds like a toy steam engine revving up, Soft Cell’s cover of Tainted Love remains a pure joy and as with Duran Duran’s overtly middle class preening it’s hard to see any modern pop band getting away with releasing an album with such overtly homo-erotic content (Scissor Sisters excepted). The final track Say Hello Wave Goodbye proves that electronic music can be both humorous and heartbreaking at the same time; Marc Almond’s half spoken vocals somehow managing to simultaneously convey feelings of hope and remorse.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AbEOgfq3CNc

The Clash – Sandinista! (Epic)

‘Sandinista!’ is a glorious failure, arguably the worst of the first five proper albums The Clash and for all that maybe the most intriguing for it. The grand folly of the double album is something which has plagued the plagued every credible ‘artist’ since The Beatles unleashed the ever so slightly self-indulgent nonsense of ‘The White Album’, but The Clash’s decision to trump their relatively focused ‘London Calling’ with a triple beast showed such scant regard for quality control, that the brainstorm of ideas that swamped its audience deserved attention for its sheer ambition and desire to play with genres about a million miles away from the easily dismissed ‘garage band’ of five years previous. The reggae and dub influences of Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry and Mikey Dread are to the forefront of the album with levels of echo only previously embraced in straight rock songs during the week that Phil Spector had a particularly nasty bout of tinnitus, while the fledgling genre of rap is heard through ‘The Magnificent Seven’ and ‘Lightning Strikes (Not Once But Twice)’, predating Blondie’s ‘Rapture’ by six months and making real claims to be the first white rap record, which considering much of what followed is in itself quite a dubious claim to fame. The album cemented mainstream success in America while drawing disapproving looks at home its self-indulgence and UK critics did of course have a point, but for glorious ambition and a desire to share every grand design with their public, ‘Sandinista!’ must be applauded at least as a catalyst for the experimentation with world music that followed.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ijiazWlawUY

Elvis Costello and the Attractions – Trust (F-Beat)

Like all great artists of a certain age, Elvis Costello has been working hard for many a year to piss away his legacy with sentimental tosh punctuated with a brief glimpses of what made him great in the first place, prompting earnest declarations of that most terrifying phrase, namely the ‘return to form.’ Back in 1981, Costello’s fifth album and one of two that year with the country covers album ‘Almost Blue’ following it, ‘Trust’ was Declan McManus at the peak of his game, with spiky new wave melodies branching out into blue eyed soul and cataloguing tensions within his marriage and band. ‘Clubland’ has all the urgency of earlier works, while ‘You’ll Never Be A Man’ evokes The Pretenders and ‘From a Whisper to a Scream’, a duet with Squeeze’s Chris Difford provides a joyous contrast between Costello’s rasp and Difford’s poppy croon. Ironically, the album was a relative commercial flop in comparison with the covers which followed, but this was Costello at his poetic best and an undervalued gem amongst more revered albums of this Nick Lowe produced period.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kbasuu1gCDs

Adam and the Ants – Prince Charming (Epic)

It’s a fine line between clever and stupid, which is true of most things in life, but absolutely true when it comes to pop music. Adam Ant and Marco Pirroni almost certainly didn’t change the world musically, but they did have enough ludicrous vision to present an utterly grand a ridiculous view of the world which has been ideologically imitated but never bettered with regards to creating a grand, fanciful design. When examined closely, the title track, replete with an aging Diana Dors in the video exclaiming ‘Don’t you ever stop being dandy, showing me you’re handsome’ to a tango seems such improbable number one single material, but there it is as much a triumph of style as anything the Sex Pistols ever managed. Will we ever see a better single about a highwayman than ‘Stand and Deliver’? I think not. Can you refrain from singing and at least partially dancing along? Almost certainly not. ‘Ant Rap’, which was the final single to be taken from the album is, in retrospect, utter tosh, but in the context of rap’s first fledgling steps, it strangely has the album ham-fistedly surfing the zeitgeist. Aside from the singles, ‘Picasso Visita El Planeta De Los Simios’ has quirky new wave charm and even the faintly ludicrous ‘S.E.X’ foresees Damon Albarn’s attempts at capturing a very British sensuality. The album is far from a masterpiece, but it seems nigh on impossible that mainstream pop music could be quite so willingly dandy ever again and the world is poorer for it.

PJ Harvey- Let England Shake

We are legally obliged to include this album in any list.

Richard Thompson – You? Me? Us? (Capitol – 1996)

In the same way The Beatles have never been new to many, Richard Thompson has never been new to me.  My first explicit memory of him being the inner sleeve of Amnesia which showed Thompson holding a chainsaw like a guitar he was about to strike, my father convincing me to pay attention to the music because, “Look, it’s Sooty’s dad!”.  A household love for (and I must qualify this) a certain era Fairport had manifested itself in Thompson albums being picked up as they were released.  As a result his work and style has become a bench mark for much of what I hear, I find myself seeking the same levels of skill deftly delivered, the same emotional commitment, the same ability to build on the familiar, the feeling that this should be a standard by which all others are judged.

Even when done so loosely Thompson’s acoustic and electric folk have never been aptly titled.  Fairport were too new and electric to be ‘proper’ folk and his electric work is best categorized loosely as Adult Orientated Rock, mixed with the descriptor singer/song-writer and most should know exactly what to expect and probably avoid e.g. Mark Knofler and Sting, but with RT it is slightly skewered in comparison to his peers.  This is in no small part to his uniquely low vocal timbre and inventive and technical guitar work (Thompson is one of the few ‘players’ of whom a guitar solo is worth listening to and often uses fills of such ingenuity they make me laugh out loud like Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes).  This album seemed to drive any existing schism yet further, spread over two shorts discs titled ‘Voltage Enhanced’ and ‘Nude’, one of electric and one acoustic.  Each disc sees him firmly entrenched in the forms of his albeit not too dissimilar chosen areas, they also stand out as some of his angrier works, as if he’d finally caught up with my house in wondering how he could be this good yet Springsteen is the one playing arenas, he was showing off, “I can do all this and it’s easy”.

‘Voltage Enhanced’ is a warm fuzz of tones, bass is in that nice area where pitch almost becomes obsolete, drums a little fizzed and driven from that compression, the ambience is genuinely of a band in a room, a similar feel that of Rage Against The Machine’s Evil Empire.  Guitars are as expected, by now you trust Thompson is fully at ease with his instruments and their paraphernalia, they are tasteful yet twisted both in sound and style.  This instills his playing with a confidence matched in his vocals.  ‘She Steers By Lightning’ sees his vocals twinned with the heavily fuzzed guitar lead line, large tonal leaps make a ploy previously used by Hendrix all the more radical coming from this 40 something beret wearing singer/song writer folkie, it erupts into the solo that never was before returning to the familiar yet no more comfortable verse. ‘Business on You’ sees him toy with his folk past; imagine Cake with a mandolin player.  ‘No’s Not a Word’ is this disc’s spun out centre point, a twist on the unrequited love song, each one-sided vow of the verses are followed by convulsing guitar lick of dissonant passion, calling to mind ‘Paranoid Android’ era Greenwood.

‘Razor Dance’ and ‘Hide It Away’ share the honour of featuring on both discs.  While the ascending/descending bass line is the focal point of both versions of ‘Razor Dance’ the guitar is swung more in the acoustic version, losing its intense push pull catch up, instead revealing a tender inevitability in post-romantic rumour, ‘After the death of a thousand kisses/ comes the catacomb of tongues’, while the electric version is delivered in such a way that he is intent to correct the account of events while the acoustic version seems to predict them occurring.  ‘Hide It Away’ is simply a good song sang two ways.  Many a b-side has been filled with a straight acoustic version recorded for nowt as a favour to cover a lack of songs this appearing on both sides of this album stands as evidence of either RT’s ability as a songsmith or as a recording artist, or more likely, both.

While his vocal deliver is never anything but the centre of the ‘Voltage Enhanced’ side, ‘Nude’ sees them dressed completely differently.  Lyrically this disc shines, while in the context of his singing Thompson’s choice of words is always nothing less than exactly what was meant to be said, they can sometimes lack the satisfaction in quotation when bereft of music that you do with say, your regular neighbourhood Morrissey, this disc contains its fair share of worthy contenders, ‘She Cut Off Her Long Silken Hair’ draws attention to itself with “By the light of the moon Her dress slipped to the ground Then she knelt like Saint Joan And invisible armies attended her there”.  Obviously a simple guitar and voice based album will see the f-word bandied about with ease, but this obviously is, (‘Woods of Darney’ definitely is, a [seemingly] 31 verse period tale of romance, betrayal, war and ultimately death) but it is folk in the same way as its heavier electric sibling is rock, there’s simply not another title broad enough.  It is folk, he is a singer/songwriter, but it is brilliant for succeeding in the space where every other folk singer/songwriter normally safely curls up with a tale only as hackneyed as their chord progression.