Category Archives: music

My year of needless data

About five years ago I asked my friend Charley a question: If it were available to buy, how much would you pay for all of the quantifiable data about your life up to this point?

The data would (presumably) include such numerical data as number of hours spent on the toilet, number of times spoken the word ‘shoe’ out loud, but also magically-derived but still quantifiable data like number of minutes spent thinking about sex, and so on.

At the time we both agreed that a Microsoft Excel document containing this information would be worth around £10,000. While I don’t have this sort of money, nowadays I think that £20,000 sounds more like it. Sometimes I think that if only I had access to more data about myself, I’d be able to understand myself, second-guess myself, and become the person I’d like to be. Writing a diary, blogging, logging books read and listing films watched are all ways of building up some kind of data picture about myself.

Anyway, on to more readily available data…

Books

In 2010 I kept a log of all the books I read. I like to think that I read bits and bobs from different eras and styles, but on closer inspection I’m far more conservative than I’d expected.

I’ve always thought that it’s crazy to assume that the best literature (or music, or whatever) is that produced in the last few years – but still, exactly half of the books I read this year were from the 2000s (17 of a total of 34). Similarly, 18 of the books I read were from the USA and 14 were from the UK.

I’m more comfortable with my selection of book genres. In 2010, I made a conscious decision to read more science fiction / speculative fiction, as it’s a genre that I love but have unconsciously pooh-poohed since I was a teen.

Like the near-obsessive that I am, I’ve been rating books in 2010, too. The books I enjoyed most were Middlesex (Jeffrey Eugenides), Never Let Me Go (Kazuo Ishiguro), The Chrysalids (John Wyndham) and The Bridge of San Luis Rey (Thornton Wilder). The four books started but failed to finish were all non-fiction works.

Films

Most films that I’ve seen in the cinema this year (12) would have been made in 2009 or 2010 – but still, 48 of the 79 films I watched in 2010 were made in either the 2000s or this year.

As for films genre, it’s been drama almost all the way. Perhaps my genre tags are a bit lacking here. But still, a pleasing lack of action blockbusters last year.

This next one, I’m less proud of. I barely watched any non-English-language films in 2010.

As for ratings, there were nine films I watched in 2010 that I adored. Five of these were films that I’d seen before (The Conversation, Aguirre, There Will Be Blood, Adventureland, City of God), so the four films new to me that I loved were Adam Curtis’ documentary It Felt Like a Kiss, Kubrick’s 1956 noir The Killing, Tomas Alfredson’s Swedish vampire horror Let The Right One In, and the 2010 critics’ darling, David Fincher’s The Social Network.

I went to ATP and all I got was this lousy tinnitus

Photo by Andrew Bowman / The Liminal

All Tomorrow’s Parties’ Nightmare Before Christmas event (3-5 Dec 2010) was a terrific monster of a festival. Staying in Soviet Lynchian chalets and braving the December sleet made it all the more memorable. Growing, The Ex, Scout Niblett and Deerhoof were outstanding. Listening to the white-noise-and-wolf-howls of Keiji Haino (above), Rose and I played a game where we stood near the speakers with our eyes closed, and imagined that we had no bodies, which was surprisingly easy to achieve. Without the aid of any narcotics, I managed to convince myself that I was no more than the moisture on the end of one of my fingers. After the end of the Deerhoof gig (2am on the Sunday night), my ears rang more than usual – and the next morning then I woke up with no improvement.

The feeling was a little like postural hypertension – that is, standing up too quickly, resulting in a rush of blood to the head. I felt constantly as though I was on the brink of passing out, as though the high-pitched whine was a precursor to tunnel vision and then unconsciousness. This ringing noise lasted for exactly two weeks after the festival had ended, accompanied all this time, of course, by a thundering migraine. I’d started to become resigned to the fact that the effect may be permanent, and, while bearable, it would certainly have affected my life – not least because my patience was rather thinner than previously.

After two weeks, though, the whining subsided so that it could only be heard in silent moments, such as just before going to sleep and after waking up. The effect, lying in bed at night, is as though I’m caught in a beam of noise – as if rolling over might allow me to escape. In a way, it’s been quite a boon: for a few weeks I couldn’t sleep in past 8.30am, so have been up and about at far more productive hours than normal.

I’m still wearing my ATP wristband. I’ll cut it off when I can’t hear the music any more.

Favourite tracks of 2010

Near-constant Spotify usage has meant that 2010 has, for me, been more about songs than albums. Or perhaps it’s not been much of a year for LPs? Either way: here’s the unordered list (although, for the record, my favourites are Run Overdrive, Late and Mandrill).

Oh, and here’s a Spotify playlist for almost all of these tracks.

Run Overdrive – Civil Civic

At a bit of a stretch, I can imagine this instrumental track as the theme to a parallel-world Top of the Pops. It’s infectious, uplifting and, for those inclined, presumably quite danceable – but it’s also a little twisted, in particular the rocket-propulsion synths that remind me of Xinlisupreme’s speaker-shredding tracks.

It’s also refreshing to hear a band comfortable without a vocalist (I really hope they don’t succumb). Come to think of it, I still haven’t had the opportunity to play this track at really high volume… I bet it’s a riot live. One of my very favourite tracks of the year, for sure.

New York is Killing Me – Gil Scott Heron

Did anyone else see this coming? ‘I’m New Here’ came from nowhere for me – Gil Scott Heron sounds bruised and weary – and good grief, his voice is incredible these days. The clicking, clapping backdrop to ‘New York is Killing Me’ leaves space for Heron’s mournful complaints. The remix featuring Nas works well, but for me Nas’ contributions dilute a terrifically sparse track.

Microlite – Trophy Wife

I’m predisposed to like Microlite as they’re an Oxford-based band, and put on a good night at the newly gig-centred Modern Art Oxford. While it’s early days and they struggled to find enough material to fill their set (a limp Joanna Newsom cover almost spoiling the fun), this track, their first single, stands head and shoulders above the rest.

Late – Ergo Phizmiz
I’d previously only heard Ergo Phizmiz tracks in collaboration with People Like Us or via Ubuweb or Free Music Archive – but here it is, a genuine Phizmiz album, available in the shops. While on most of the album Ergo does a spot-on Viv Stanshall tribute, this track summons the spirit of Syd Barrett – all late-night meaderings and childish rhymes about Boris the florist.

Bright Lit Blue Skies – Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti

While ‘Before Today’ doesn’t contain a perfect track like ‘Every Night I Die at Miyagi’s’ (from ‘House Arrest’), this hits all the right notes for me. Much of 2010 has felt like the past, musically speaking, and when I hear ‘Bright Lit Blue Skies’, I’m transported to family camping holidays in France, circa 1988. Although the definition of hauntology seems to shift, I understand it as music that evokes false memories – and even on first listen I could have sworn that this had been a hit in my childhood.

On top of all of that, it’s a terrific pop song.

Ancestors – Gonjasufi

I don’t know who Gonjasufi is, but I know that his voice is ace. Over a backing similar to some recent Doom tracks, Sumach Ecks’ whispers his hesitant rhymes in a style unlike any rapper I’ve heard before. Intriguingly, Wikipedia lists his occupation as ‘rapper, singer, disc jockey and yoga teacher’.

Uncertain Memory – Grass Widow

Nothing on ‘Past Time’ quite reaches the heights of Grass Widow’s self-titled debut album. But this track, with its surf guitars and Electrelane chorus, is a winner. What on earth is the time signature here? Like Deerhoof’s ‘My Heart’ remix, ‘Uncertain Memory’ is reluctant to let the vocals die away, cutting away bars in order to preserve the flow. Add in the grandeur of the strings parts in the second half, and this is a track that keeps on giving.

Peppermint – Spectrals

Another track influenced by Phil Spector, ‘Peppermint’ filters sunny 60s pop through a grimy filter (see The Drums’ ‘Summertime!’ EP).

It’s an effortlessly hummable pop tune, just brilliant.

Bellringer Blues – Grinderman

The first Grinderman album was a mixed bag, and it was hard to shake the sense of midlife crisis from Nick Cave and co. ‘Grinderman 2’ is another story. I’ve enjoyed this album more than anything from Nick Cave since ‘No More Shall We Part’ – partly due to Cave’s ballsy confidence, but largely down to the instrumental backing. The guitars crunch and stutter and, on ‘Bellringer Blues’, reverse and slow down, creating a drunken structure that the song can only just contain.

Cave described the album as “like stoner rock meets Sly Stone via Amon Düül”, and on this album returns to his fallen prophet persona. ‘Bellringer Blues’ features Gabriel and deals swiftly with the Bible: I read that book every page / And then I put it away / Said I don’t think so / It makes slaves of all of womenkind / And corpses of the men

But it’s the looping weirdness that does it for me. Welcome back, sort-of-Bad Seeds.

Hand Covers Bruise – Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross

‘The Social Network’ was one of my favourite films of the year, and the classy production values were exemplified in Reznor and Ross’ soundtrack. ‘Hand Covers Bruise’ plays over the opening sequence, immediately dispelling any notion that a film about Facebook might be in any way whimsical. Sparse and haunted, ‘Hand Covers Bruise’ is a statement of intent. Surely Trent Reznor will now be the soundtrack composer of choice?

All Packed Up – Idiot Glee

Kentucky’s Idiot Glee is my pick of bands to watch. James Friley dodges Animal Collective copyism by referring directly back to Pet Sounds, but with Four Tet-like folktronica backings. Short and sweet, I’ve had ‘All Packed Up’ on more or less constant rotation for months.

Lightning Fossil – Prince Rama

This could almost be a lost Incredible String Band track. The banshee wail becomes less of an accompaniment and begins to lead the rhythm, until the point that the song threatens to become operatic prog folk. That this all happens in less than four minutes is astounding. Also, it gives me a mental image of Kate Bush singing with those head-throwing muppets from Labyrinth.

FM Tan Sexy – El Guincho

A bit of a surprise turnaround, ‘Pop Negro’ all but ditches the calypso plundering of 2008’s ‘Alegranza!’ in favour of a curious mixture of retro disco styles. I can almost imagine ‘FM Tan Sexy’ as an academic study of synthy 80s pop – as with Ariel Pink, it feels familiar on the first listen. Halting and bombastic, ‘FM Tan Sexy’ didn’t necessarily match my expectations of the return of El Guincho, but is terrific in its own right.

None an Island – Lorn

Another act that I know little to nothing about.

I can totally picture Doom rapping over this track, but there’s a certain glory in its sparse grind, carried by the tweeting high-pitched organ riff.

Tightrope – Janelle Monae feat. Big Boi

Outkast only really work for me in the context of Singstar. This track has all the same bolshy fun, but Janelle Monae’s vocals act as a convincing ‘fuck off’ to Duffy and the like. This track also features Big Boi’s Jemaine Clement-esque rhyming of ‘NASDAQ’ and ‘asscrack’.

Four – STLS

Apparently Lisa Schonberg and sts perform live facing each other, each playing a full drum kit. I have to see that. Four is buried at the end of the ‘Drumcore’ EP, but is the pick of the lot: the two drum kits intially compete, then phase together momentarily, forming one huge beat. Alternately shambolic and tight, ‘Four’ fills me with unbridled enthusiasm every time I hear it.

Hotel – Ergo Phizmiz
Another track from ‘Things to Do and Make’. Sitting somewhere between the Bonzo Dog Band and Madness, this is a track that’ll always put a smile on my face. A simple song of complaint about a seedy hotel (‘There’s spiders on the floor here’) with a refrain played on a detuned guitar, it contains some Flight of the Conchord-worthy endearing lyrics, including: And the manager is manic / And he may well be Hispanic / He’s obsessed with the Titanic / And his morals are appalling.

Midnight Boycow – The Sexual Objects

Davy Henderson has cited the Modern Lovers as a template for The Sexual Objects’ album, ‘Cucumber’, although I’d say there’s a Kinks influence in the mix too. There’s something really endearing about these slightly filthy and ramshackle pop songs, and ‘Midnight Boycow’ (closely followed by ‘Merrie England’) is my pick of the bunch.

The Young People – Belbury Poly

My favourite of Ghost Box’s ‘Study Series’ EPs, this features crude synths and that ‘Look Around You’ sense of 1980s wonder.

It really feels that Ghost Box have lived up to expectations this year. And that cover artwork – just superb.

Hey Boy – The Magic Kids

Hopelessly naive indie whimsy, with a severe Brian Wilson hangup and none of Suburban Kids With Biblical Names’ self-deprecation.

It shouldn’t work so well, but it’s just lovely.

Go Do – Jónsi

Only slightly tarnished by featuring on a Dulux advert, this is a storming track from Sigur Ros vocalist, Jón Þór Birgisson.

It’s a track that somehow, in spite of all cynicism, feels genuinely other-worldly.

Marathon – Tennis

Tennis are super-cool, is that right? I fell a bit oblivious to any hype – but this track is just beautiful, a Spector girl group turning to Jackson 5 falsetto, filtered through wobbly FM. Also, just short enough to leave you wanting, immediately ready for repeat.

The Merry Barracks – Deerhoof

I’m allowed this one, because although it’ll be on next year’s album, Deerhoof Vs Evil, the band released it as a free download this year. And on the strength of this, I’m more excited about the new album than any album for an awfully long time. The loping electronic rhythms, Satomi Matsuzaki’s absentminded childish vocals… just magic.

Let’s Go Surfing – The Drums

A borderline choice given that this first appeared on the ‘Summertime!’ EP in 2009, but given that it also appeared on The Drums’ debut album this year, I’m going to allow myself this one. I’ve written about this song before, but I still love it, not least because Rose insists that the chorus is ‘Obama, I just wanna go surfing’.

Parrot in the Pie – Ergo Phizmiz

Am I labouring the point? Ergo Phizmiz’s album ‘Things to Do and Make’ is my album of the year, and picking only four highlights from it is still doing it a disservice.

Roadtrips would be drastically improved if only I could memorise the chorus to this track.

Gold – Darkstar

I’ve had Darkstar’s ‘North’ on rotation since it was released, and while debut track ‘Aidy’s Girl is a Computer’ may still be the standout track after much reworking of the rest of the album, this cover of The Human League’s ‘You Remind Me of Gold’ is a real grower. I think I may have latched onto the album more because of the lack of new material from The Notwist: Darkstar’s skittery, spidery rhythms and two-note piano melodies scratch a similar itch – but I’m really glad that I’ve given ‘North’ the time to sink in.

Take Me Back – Aloe Blacc

Without even googling for reference, I imagine that Aloe Blacc’s similarity to Bill Withers and Al Green has been much discussed. But tracks like this are a reminder that there’s no technical reason why few artists are creating this kind of raw soul.

Too Much, Too Fast – Solex vs. Cristina Martinez & Jon Spencer

This really shouldn’t have worked. The appeal of Elisabeth Esselink’s tunes have always been the charity-shop ramshackleness, and having Jon Spencer widdling all over them ought to have been dreadful. But the album, ‘Amsterdam Throwdown, King Street Showdown!’ is just fantastic – and this track in particular is excellent fun.

Female Guitar Players Are The New Black – Marnie Stern

Marnie Stern’s awfully good at playing the guitar, isn’t she? Having said that, I’ve just looked up the lyrics to this song online, and while the track sounds like an orgiastic wrestling match, it appears to be about foxes and some wind near a bridge. So, perhaps a little disappointing, but Marnie’s ten-finger tapping and the frenetic drums still win me over, foxes or no foxes.

Sing – Four Tet

Other than his wonderful collaboration with Burial (‘Wolf Cub’ – one of my most-played tracks from last year) and the live performances with drummer Steve Reid, this is my favourite Four Tet song since ‘She Moves She’ way back in 2003. The bleeping melody gives Hebden plenty to monkey around with, and over the course of nearly seven minutes becomes hypnotic. To be frank, it could be twice as long and I it probably wouldn’t outstay its welcome.

Vietnam – Crystal Castles

Crystal Castles do not need Alice Glass, and were far better before they had a vocalist. I’m not sure if this is against the common consensus. Or do people hate Crystal Castles after the hype train for the debut album? Either way, this track reduces Glass’ contribution to a series of sampled pitches, over a ‘Downward Spiral’ synth thump. I’m a total sucker for this kind of quasi-chiptune treatment of voices.

Mount Hood – Hauschka

We saw Hauschka play in St Michael’s Church in Oxford, freezing cold sitting on the pews, even wearing our winter coats. While much of his work is composed for a 12-piece orchestra, he played solo with a grand piano prepared with card, duct tape, leather, tambourines and ping-pong balls resting on the strings. With eyes closed it was almost impossible to imagine one man making so many rattling, clattering noises all at once, with the soft piano lines interspered. The most inspiring music I’ve heard live this year.

1977 – Ana Tijoux

This track makes me question what I actually get out of hiphop – I can only understand 10% of the words, but I still get a real kick out of this.

Does anyone else out there find great pleasure listening to rap in a language you don’t understand?

My Heart (Deerhoof remix) – Wildbirds and Peacedrums

Forget my earlier comment. I’m allowing myself this one anyway.

Last.fm tells me that this is the track I’ve listened to most this year, which sounds about right as there were a few days when I listened to little else.

Silver Sands – Stereolab

Stereolab’s career distilled into just over 10 minutes.

A track of two halves, this begins with sugar-tinged Krautrock before making an about-turn into Heatwave noodling territory.

Ambre – Nils Frahm
Uncomplicated and beautiful, this track buried into my brain a long while ago.

Music like this does rather make other, fussier productions seems a bit ridiculous. ‘Props’ to Thom Yorke for recommending this via Spotify.

Mandrill – Ergo Phizmiz

This is the tune that’s been stuck in my head more than any other this year. And it features easily the best collection of words from any song this year: This mandrill / he was mauvish in the chops / and delicious / I met him down the shops one day / And he said ‘How d’you do?

When the third verse begins, Ergo’s pals pull together to make the most joyous sound I’ve heard for such a long time. Seriously, this is going to sound over-the-top, but this ‘novelty’ song makes me well up with happiness.

Listen to the Spotify playlist containing most of these tracks.

My Heart – Deerhoof remix (Wildbirds & Peacedrums, 2009)

This track was sitting high in my list of favourite songs of 2010 (to be written up over the next month), until I realised that it was actually released late last year. I’d first heard the original Wildbirds & Peacedrums song as the soundtrack to a video at Oxford’s Modern Art Museum, in which a group of dancers formed a spontaneous dance routine in a warehouse and innercity areas. Unusually for me, I’d enjoyed the installation video so much I watched it all the way through twice.

It was only a few months ago that I heard ‘My Heart’ again, and it took me a while to place it. The original track is measured, bluesy and raw – although on further listening it seemed to take rather more time to cut to the chase than I’d remembered, and the second half seemed to lose itself a little. Enter Deerhoof’s remix, which leaves the vocal relatively untreated, emphasises guitar lines, but removes the coda and, in a pretty audacious move, actually removes whole bars in order to keep the vocal flowing with few instrumental gaps. This results in a far more poppy tune, despite the loping, woozy effect of the flexible time signatures. It’s by far the most accessible remix I’ve heard from Deerhoof, and turns a solid tune into something oddly hypnotic.

Listen to My Heart – Deerhoof remix on Soundcloud.

GetGlue is a foisting machine

In the last week or so I’ve been playing around with GetGlue, a new recommendation and social networking site that covers all media (i.e. film, TV, books, music, general topics). After my abortive research into film recommendation sites – and I really should update my earlier post, as I ended up leaving Jinni in favour of Criticker, which still has plenty of failings – this feels like it could become the site for me.

There are several main draws to GetGlue. The first seems trivial but is central – you gain virtual stickers for various activities – for example, rating 50 TV shows. These stickers show up on user profiles, working as boasts similar to Xbox achievements. There are also mentions of becoming applicable to receive ‘hard-copy’ stickers for free, but this doesn’t seem to be the big sell.

The other USP is that GetGlue distinguishes between recommendations and ‘checking in’ – i.e. letting users know what you’re currently watching, reading, listening to or thinking about. This feature’s obviously inspired heavily by Facebook updates, and indeed you can publish each comment directly on Facebook (or Twitter) – you could actually use GetGlue as a portal for social-media updates related to your likes or dislikes.

Finally, and the feature that’s got me hooked, is the ability for users to become ‘gurus’ of particular subjects, achieved through posting reviews and users voting. Guru status bestows the user with page-editing privileges and also the ability to hardwire particular recommendations to that page. The temptation to foist obscure but related books, films and music onto casual browsers is huge, I’m discovering. I’m disproportionately proud to be guru of 10 things, currently: The Last Man on Earth, The Drums’ Summertime!, Dungen, Viktor Vaughn’s Vaudeville Villain, Lonnie Donegan, The Research, Casiotone for the Painfully Alone, Electrelane’s The Power Out, The Hired Sportsmen and 13 & God.

As with my earlier comparison post, here are my thoughts about GetGlue, distilled:

Pros:

  • Impressively wide catalogue due to links with specialist websites e.g. Last.fm and imdb
  • Ability to add to index from selected sites
  • Covers music, film, books, topics
  • Clean, clear interface
  • Guru status offers Wikipedia-like editing rights, plus ability to make recommendations
  • Stickers encourage exploration and are strangely compelling
  • Distinction between ‘checking in’ and liking things
  • There’s a linked iphone app
  • Links to Facebook and Twitter

Wishlist:

  • User profiles by default show a Facebook-like ‘stream’ rather than a definitive overview of that person (favourites are more enlightening but are buried away)
  • Favourites can’t be split into media type, so can become messy and unrepresentative
  • Can’t reorder favourites or lists
  • ‘Saved’ items could be made into more useful ‘to read’/’to watch’ lists, so could become a reminder tool
  • The iphone app only allows you to ‘check in’ rather than rate favourite items
  • Recommended items are literal-minded and uninspired (e.g. if you like an album by an artist, you’ll like other albums by the same artist), and only relate to a single item rather than a combination of items
  • Inability to add extra comments to a page once you’ve reviewed – even if you’re the guru
  • ‘Check in’ seems different to ‘currently reading’ etc – it’d be nice if user profiles could show media that the user is currently immersed in…
  • Only three tiers of rating: ‘favourite’, ‘like’ and ‘don’t like’ (perhaps, though, this is a ‘pro’, as it’s much lessy fussy than, say, Cricticker)
  • Can’t embed stream or favourites in non-Javascript blog (like this one)
  • Can’t easily browse recommendations – quite limited categories (e.g. 1970s)
  • This is entirely trivial, but I’d love to see the stickers feed into a meta-game or measureable tally of ‘progress’ – probably irrelevant for most people though!

You can see my GetGlue profile here.

Grass Widow (Grass Widow, 2009)

For the last couple of months Grass Widow has been on my list of great bands that I failed to discover during 2009, and only came across during a trawl of Top 100 lists at the end of December. After an awful lot of repeated listens I’ve promoted the album ‘Grass Widow’ to one of my absolute favourites of 2009. Like The Drums’ ‘Summertime’, every track feels like the centre of the album. Grass Widow songs have the raw feel of first-attempt rehearsals, and evoke the naive joy of the much-missed Brighton trio Electrelane and the discordant mishmash of early Deerhoof.

They’re brilliant. And while I’m happy to have found them now, the question for me remains: how does one find out about new music these days? I sign up to plenty of blog RSS feeds, (over)use Spotify and read Boomkat newsletters – but in the absence of a trusted print music magazine or the Peel show, I still feel at a loss how to avoid missing a new band like Grass Widow.

Listen to Grass Widow on Spotify.

And while I’m ranting… I’m inordinately happy that Spotify have developed an update to their Spotify iphone app, currently with Apple for approval. The update will add Last.fm scrobbling functionality to the mobile app, meaning that my Last.fm profile should soon be a far better reflection of what I’m actually listening to. That I’m so pleased by this is, I realise, troublingly sad.

Lost John (Lonnie Donegan, 1956)

Lonnie Donegan’s 1956 recording of the traditional song ‘Lost John’ contains more wonderful moments than most artists manage in a whole career. Donegan was a lovably inclusive singer, treating his band and his listeners as part of the gang, as this intro to the song shows: ‘Now this here’s the story about an escaped convict called Long Gone Lost John / It’s got a nice chorus so if anybody wanna join in, here’s the way it goes…’ His band rattle and yelp through the tune and Donegan morphs from a jovial variety performer into a frenzied rock and roller, the recording equipment struggling to capture his rasping shouts.

The song is doubly significant to me. I was introduced to Donegan’s music when I avidly listened to, and recorded, Peel’s Radio 1 show around the millennium. Peel could hardly contain his glee when he contrived to play a Lonnie Donegan recording such as (my own favourite) ‘Ham ‘n’ Eggs’. When the singer was admitted to hospital in 2002 with heart problems, Peel visited him at his bedside, which I suspect was a pilgrimage of sorts for the DJ – Peel once remarked that in his opinion of rock and roll history, ‘Lonnie Donegan pushed the button that started it all’. When Donegan passed away in November of that year, Peel tearfully recounted the visit during one of his shows. He had sat at Donegan’s side and chatted, and together they had sung Peel’s favourite lyrics from ‘Lost John’:

Now Lost John made a pair of shoes of his own
Finest shoes that ever were born
Heels on the front, heels behind
So nobody know which way Lost John g’wine

…which, in fairness, are some of the finest lyrics I can think of too.

In the radio shows immediately following Donegan’s death, Peel could barely hold himself together. During the first show, he didn’t manage to speak in between songs and choked on his words each time he tried to talk about the singer. Even by the following week, Peel only stopped playing Donegan songs because his wife Sheila warned him not to.

When John Peel died in October 2004, the song ‘Lost John’ obviously took on an extra significance, not just because of the titular character, but because of the attachment that Peel himself had to the song and his favourite singer. To me, the song has become a celebration of both Donegan and Peel – two of my musical heroes.

You really must listen to ‘Lost John’ – click here to listen to it on Spotify. In fact, work your way through at least the first CD of Castle Music’s ‘Rock Island Line: The Singles Anthology 1955-1967’.

As the man said: ‘If anybody asks you who sung the song / Tell ‘em Lonnie Donegan been here and gone’.

Spotify playlist: 30 Year Old Man (March 2010)

I’m terribly self-indulgent. This summer I’ll turn 30, and as I’m currently feeling more positive about my life than I ever have before, this playlist celebrates all the things that I’m not.

1. 30 century man – Scott Walker
2. Mr suit – Wire
3. You’re getting old on your job – Lonnie Johnson with Clara Smith
4. I’m a worried man – Johnny Cash
5. Look back in anger – Television Personalities
6. Shadows of tomorrow – Madvillian / Lord Quas
7. 50 year old man – The Fall
8. Getting old blues – Johnnie Temple
9. Working for the man – Roy Orbison
10. Dull life – Yeah Yeah Yeahs
11. Headache – Frank Black
12. Funny how time slips away – Elvis Presley & The Jordanaires & The Imperials Quartet
13. Sleepy man blues – Bukka White
14. Jack o’ diamonds – Lonnie Donegan
15. Getting old and gray – Howlin’ Wolf
16. Timothy – Henry Mancini
17. Tomorrow never knows – Jad Fair

And curse you Spotify for the lack of ‘Dignified and Old’ by The Modern Lovers.

Click here to listen to 30 Year Old Man on Spotify.

This too shall pass – RGM version (OK Go, 2010)

This music video is really rather wonderful. Various advertisers and filmmakers have created these Heath Robinson-esque contraptions before now (and I’m a total sucker for all of them), but this one’s especially inventive. I imagine that some people will be upset about what looks like a cut at about the 2:30 mark, but I don’t think it makes a bit of difference to the overall effect.

On top of that, the fact that this video is embeddable in this blog is important. See here for an discussion of OK Go’s struggles against record company EMI to allow them to create and share their own music videos.

Every Plan B magazine ever, for free

In an admirable attempt to secure its status in the history of music journalism, the team behind the now-defunct Plan B magazine are offering every single back issue in pdf format, for free. You can download it here – you’ll first need to get hold of a torrent client though.

Plan B was a pretty bold publication. It had some really fantastic aspects, and I hope it’s not disrespectful to the journalists to say that I thought the often beautiful illustrations were among its best assets. Everett True’s snarky, self-congratulatory editorials often grated with me, and his indulgence often permeated into the rest of the magazine. Having said that, Plan B was a welcome forum for new music in the years following John Peel’s death, and since the magazine closed shop last year I’ve still not found a single source for music recommendations that feels so much like home.

Two Weeks (Grizzly Bear, 2009)

Up until this point in this blog, I’ve tended to write about music that I unreservedly love – songs that I replay as soon as they’ve ended. ‘Two Weeks’ by Grizzly Bear falls into another category. In 2009 Grizzly Bear escaped the long shadow of Animal Collective; in the indie press there were few songs that were as widely praised as ‘Two Weeks’. I love it too – but I’m not sure it’s a keeper.

I’ll avoid asking whether it’s a good track. The question that interests me is whether we – the music obsessives and list-compilers of 2009 – will like the song in 5 years time.

The track has a swagger unknown to Grizzly Bear up to this point. The piano line and ‘whoa-oh-oh’ backing vocals are infectious. The chorus swoons. But isn’t the production a little too perfect, almost clinical? There’s nothing wrong with a guitar band sounding more like Beyonce than Pavement, but something about this track rings false – there’s an inherent smugness that rankles.

It’s hard to predict how prevailing musical tastes will change – but when I listen to this track I always have the uneasy feeling that when we move on from 2000s-era American psychedelica-tinged indie, it’s tracks like this that we’ll guiltily ridicule. The grandiose follies of Sufjan Stevens, Akron Family’s freak prog – will they in retrospect sound like the last fart of early 21st century US indie before some pared-down music style sweeps them away? At the moment my money’s on Animal Collective’s work standing the test of time, partly because they’ve evolved significantly with each release. But Grizzly Bear? Ask me in 5 years time.

The album Veckatimest isn’t on Spotify, so listen to Two Weeks at Grizzly Bear’s homepage, here.

I’m Chief Kamanawanalea (We’re the Royal Macadamia Nuts) (The Turtles, 1968)

Formed in 1965 as The Crossfires from the Planet Mars, The Turtles were huge by 1967 – their biggest hit ‘Happy Together’ knocked ‘Penny Lane’ from the #1 slot in the USA. Their follow-up album, ‘The Turtles Present the Battle of the Bands’, was a concept album in which the band pretended to be a series of different groups, credited with fantastic names like The Atomic Enchilada and The U.S. Teens featuring Raoul.

While ‘Eleanore’ and ‘You Showed Me’ were the big hits, the track ‘I’m Chief Kamanawanalea (We’re the Royal Macadamia Nuts)’ is a one-and-a-half minute nugget of mad genius. The band adopt what I think is supposed to be a Hawaiian tribal war chant – but the pounding drums, whoops and call-and-response shouts come off more like the Sugarhill Gang. Later sampled by the Beastie Boys (‘Jimmy James’) and De La Soul (‘Say No Go’), it’s amazing how well it measures up against early B-Boy classics like Incredible Bongo Band’s ‘Apache’.

The transition from ‘I’m Chief Kamanawanalea’ to the sublime ‘You Showed Me’ is a vindication of The Turtles daft multi-persona concept and – is it weird to have a favourite transition between songs on an album? Because that’s mine.

Listen to I’m Chief Kamanawanalea (We’re the Royal Macadamia Nuts) on Spotify.

The Turtles Present the Battle of the Bands

The drums from Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours (Stevie Wonder, 1970)

While it’s a fantastic song all in all, for me it’s all about the drum track. It’s so unfussy, so methodical and regular, and then so satisfying when the drums break out into a quick rattle at the close of some of the vocal lines. I’ve not been able to find out for sure who the drummer is, but Motown’s house band The Funk Brothers are usually credited so the likely candidate is Richard ‘Pistol’ Allen.

It’s amazing how much he’s able to achieve in the moments that he allows himself to escape from the standard beat, and I love the way that towards the end of the song he lets the rat-a-tatting take over little by little, threatening to transform the song from Stax-esque funk into a wild marching band.

Click here to listen to Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours on Spotify.

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The lead guitar from So Not What I Wanted (Herman Düne, 2002)

David is my favourite songwriter of the Herman Düne brothers but this song by André is an absolute beauty. There are two guitar solos in this song and both are near-identical – I’ve always assumed that the solos were by David, but I’ve had trouble finding out either way.

At 02:10 André’s and Diane Cluck’s vocals drop out and the guitar solo begins – at first confident and clear, but then fading and rattling into uncertainty. As the next verse continues, the lead guitar shimmers in the background, and then at 4:38 the solo returns, this time accompanied by an insistent regular drum pattern, rising in volume gradually.

The lead guitar line’s naive simplicity and repetition mirrors André’s cracking voice and sometimes awkward French-Swedish accent. It’s one of the most perfect marriages of vocal and instrumental melodies that I can think of.

Click here to listen to So Not What I Wanted on Spotify.

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Summertime! EP (The Drums, 2009)

Although only released last year, I like to imagine Summertime! by The Drums as the soundtrack to my end-of-sixth-form summer holiday. It’s sunny, hopeful and nostalgic. Like Animal Collective, The Drums have Brian Wilson as an ancestor, but also mix in Factory Records reverb and melodies that you’d swear were hits back in the 80s.

This EPs one of those rare records that make me sure that whichever track I’m currently listening to is my favourite – but I think ‘Don’t Be a Jerk, Johnny’ has to be top, if only for the coda ‘You used to be so pretty / But now you’re just tragic / Believe in something / You’re full of horseshit’.

There’s a huge amount of buzz around for The Drums – Rose and I will be seeing them live on 23rd Feb and I can’t wait to hear a sample of their first full-length album.

Click here to listen to Summertime! on Spotify.

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Spotify playlist: I Keep Losing Heart (Dec 2009)

Here’s a Spotify playlist that I made at the end of last year. It’s a bit of a mishmash of old 78s, distortion and cheap Beatles pastiches (come on Spotify, surely you can talk the boys around by now?).

1. I don’t want to set the world on fire – The Ink Spots
2. Welfare bread – King Khan & the Shrines
3. So bored – Wavves
4. California girls – The Magnetic Fields
5. rr vs. d – Au
6. I keep losing heart – Electrelane
7. Lesley Gore on the T.A.M.I show – Casiotone for the Painfully Alone
8. The cracks are showing – Vivian Stanshall
9. Shake appeal / Tight pants (live) – The Stooges
10. Red shoes by the drugstore – The Wedding Present
11. Bottle opener – Giddy Motors
12. You can’t catch me – Chuck Berry
13. All my loving – Beatles Rumba Band
14. Living in hope – The Rutles
15. Making plans for Nigel – XTC
16. Two sleepy people – Hoagy Carmichael & Ella Logan
17. Say a litle prayer – Santo & Johnny
18. Barbados – Lord Invader
19. Staging the plaguing of the raised platform – Cornershop
20. Are animals – Au
21. You are the generation that bought more shoes and you get what you deserve – Johnny Boy

Click here to listen to I Keep Losing Heart on Spotify

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Girlfriend is Worse (Ex Models, 2001)

I’m a total sucker for songs with modular, separate elements that eventually come together in surprising ways.

‘I lost my place / In your / Line of vision’ begins the song, the vocal line stop-starting, timing at odds with the lone staccato guitar line. Then on the second vocal phrase the rhythm guitar and drums hit, just two beats for a fleeting moment.

Fifteen seconds in, Shahin Motia emits the perfect phrase ‘I hate my body / I love your eyes’ and the drums thwack again and again, battling the guitar riff with bloodyminded steadiness.

And then, suddenly, the whole band are in agreement. Thick guitars mesh together, the off-kilter drums manage to underpin the melody without appearing to relate to it, and Shahin sings ‘You see, you see me, you see me / Hey, you see me, you see me’. It’s mindless but it feels eloquent, somehow.

The song’s modular, bitty. It never allows itself to reach a stable rhythm. The band occasionally drops out leaving just the knifing guitar, only to appear with a shriek moments later. Past the 50 second mark you feel that the band could fray and dissipate at any moment, and then at 1 min 03 secs it’s all over as abruptly as it began.

Click here to listen to Girlfriend is Worse on Spotify.

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The first 30 seconds of Zoo Station (U2, 1991)

Fair enough, U2 are now profoundly uncool. And on relistening, much of Zoo Station isn’t nearly as special as I’d believed in 1991 – a large proportion of Bono’s lyrics are banal (‘I’m ready to duck / I’m ready to dive / I’m ready to say / I’m glad to be alive’). But the first 30 seconds are magnificent.

The track begins with a barely audible ticking, then a huge formless guitar riff lurches in and drops like a stone. The second time round the riff is followed by an industrial clunking that might be distorted drums but is almost felt rather than heard, like the thump of a migraine. Finally, a percussive tapping begins off-beat, perhaps a spanner hitting a pipe in a vast warehouse space. The riff and percussions repeat, slightly out of phase with one another. For the next few seconds the two patterns compete until they eventually mesh into a cohesive rhythm. The undistorted guitars arrive, Bono ruins the party, and the song becomes more and more conventional as the song progresses… but those first 30 seconds were glorious.

Click here to listen to Zoo Station on Spotify.

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