I used to believe this, but it’s really not true. Yes there’s utter dreck out there and 90% of post rock is shit, but the same is true of all genres. It’s only writing my blog I noticed how much really great stuff is being produced.
My mate Tom is my oldest gig buddy. We’ve been going to shows and festivals together for thirty years. By and large, it’s always been me that does the legwork, and finds bands and gigs to go to, and he’s happy to come along on my recommendation (with good reason as well, seeing as I have impeccable musical taste, just in case the preceding sixty entries haven’t made that abundantly clear). But this is the one album I can think of that he introduced me to, certainly the only one I still listen to. Flicking through records in his flat one afternoon, going got it got it got it like we were swapping football stickers, this one popped up. I’d never heard it, so we had a listen….
It’s great, innit? Tangled Up In Blue is an all timer, that marvellous wandering narrative delivered in a cadence that almost fights against the forward propulsion of the music, the sound of the narrator swimming against the tide of society. One of the greatest opening tracks ever. Idiot Wind and its brilliant in media res opening is one of the great vituperative break up songs, almost as good as All Too Well (the ten minute version, natch). Elsewhere, Simple Twist Of Fate is another time shifting mystery, Liliy Rosemary And The Jack of Hearts is a rambunctious epic, and Shelter From The Storm is an allusive and mysterious journey into Dylan’s dying marriage. The whole thing is world weary and battered, but enduring. It’s a survivor of a record.
It’s not my usual kind of music at all, but it seems that every five years or so there’s a female singer/songwriter kind of album that I really flip for. A couple of years ago, it was Cassandra Jenkins, before that it was Phoebe Bridgers’ debut, and before that, back in 2011, it was this. It’s a record born out of grief, written in the wake of her father’s sudden death, and it charts the course of that anguish, from the opener ‘The Wound And The Bow’’s reference to the classical myth of Philoctetes and his wound that never healed, through to the acceptance of the exquisite final title track. It’s a raw and painful record, incredibly personal, but also finding the universal in the specific, articulating emotions and experiences we all share. Musically, it’s what you might expect from a singer-songwriter record, largely acoustic guitar, soft drums and piano, with some extra touches to lift it, subtle electronic flourishes here and there, as well as the occasional break into full-on Crazy Horse style electric guitar crunch. But it’s Tucek’s words and luminous voice that dominate. Her vocals range from hushed pleading to crystalline keening to warm low murmurs. It’s a captivating performance that’s emotional and cathartic, and the album as a whole is similar, showing us that something resonant, beautiful and life-affirming can grow out of tragedy.
The apotheosis of a genre, the greatest thrash metal album of all time. Twenty eight minutes long, and not one second of slack. It’s brutal and relentless with not a chink of sunlight on offer, just hyper fast aggression propelled by some frankly insane drumming and guitars that sound like they’re being disembowelled before your ears. It’s an exhilarating noise that feels like it should fall apart at any moment, but somehow Slayer have enough control to keep it from crashing and burning. It allies the energy and attack of punk to the weight and technical chops of metal and in doing so redefines a genre. It’s also deeply deeply silly of course, the sound of a million teenage boys refusing to tidy their bedroom, but that’s all part of the fun.
Also responsible for the best Xmas lights display ever
Hiphop isn’t a genre that’s always been served especially well by the album format and you could argue that the 90s was the nadir of that. It seems that almost every artist felt they had to fill the 74 minutes of space available regardless of quality control, stuffing those little silver discs full of guest appearances and witless skits.
Illmatic turns it’s back on all that. Coming in at just nine full tracks, and running a hair under forty minutes long, it’s sharp and tightly focussed. No skits, just the one guest verse, this is pure Nas. He’s an incredible wordsmith, his storytelling skill painting vivid pictures of a life none of us reading this will experience. The six blocks of Queensbridge are the landscape of the entire album, and they become as much a character on the record as Ill Will or Jerome’s niece. He sidesteps gangsta rap’s empty celebrations of violence and bling to offer an introspective and existential take on the street life - incredibly, he was still in his teens when he wrote most of these words, drenched in a fatalism you might expect from someone two or three times that age. There’s only something like twentyone verses on the whole record (that focus again) but almost any of them could be picked out as examples of his lyrical deftness. Writing them down only reduces them, hides the cadences and the flow, but have just one anyway, from One Love:
I rose, wiping the blunt’s ash from my clothes/Then froze, only to blow the herb’s smoke through my nose
Under it all, the music fits the words perfectly, hard hitting boom bap beats garnished with simple loops sampled off old soul and jazz records, giving Nas a base and the space to deliver those brilliant lyrics.
It’s one of the most assured debut albums in history, and it hit the Earth like a comet - invasion!
Fantastic album. I still remember the day, probably in 95, hanging out with friends in the suburban Houston McDonald’s parking lot after a shift, when a new hire—a small white kid from Brooklyn—put this album on for us. We were all like, WOAH. Love at first listen. At the time, our exposure to hip-hop was mostly West Coast stuff like Snoop, Dre, Cube, Cypress Hill, etc. and of course Brooklyn’s Beastie Boys. Hadn’t yet heard any Wu-Tang or much else from the East Coast yet, to my recollection.
“So! Much! Joy!” shouts Craig Finn towards the end of every Hold Steady performance. He’s probably been listening to this.
Lyrically, it’s sombre, mostly tales of lost kids looking for cheap thrills and cheaper booze and drugs, wasted youth in every sense. Musically, however, it’s nothing short of euphoric. A song about the suicidal poet John Berryman sounds like the sort of thing that might be set to careful acoustic misery by an Elliot Smith or a Sufjan Stevens. Here it’s a triumphant crash of power chords and ringing E Street piano, an anthemic call to arms that saw my pint last around 0.7 seconds before getting knocked into the air when they opened with it at their recent London show. That song, Stuck Between Stations, is a hallmark for the Hold Steady sound, and one of its best couplets could even be a mission statement for all of rock n roll:
She was a really cool kisser and she wasn’t all that strict of a Christian. She was a damn good dancer but she wasn’t all that great of a girlfriend.
Finn’s words are exceptional throughout the record, the gritty street verite of Lou Reed applied to kids from small towns with nothing to do except walk around and drink some more. One of my favourite tracks is Chillout Tent, where two kids attend a music festival, get messed up on mushrooms and pills (started recreational, ended kinda medical, as another song here has it) and finally start making out in the medical area:
They started kissing when the nurses took off their IVs It was kind of of sexy, but it was kind of creepy Their mouths were fizzy with the cherry cola They had the privacy of bedsheets And all the other kids were mostly in comas
Boys and girls in America have such a sad time together indeed. This sort of big dumb rawk music with clever and literate lyrics could be the worst kind of 2000s Pitchfork hell, a record with one archly raised eyebrow smugly letting you know how ironic its use of classic rock riffs and licks is, but the Hold Steady play it 100% straight, unabashedly revelling in a love of Thin Lizzy and the Replacements. It’s soaring throw your fist in the air and hug your best mate stuff, Richard Linklater’s Dazed And Confused reborn as an indie rock record.
Mike Skinner’s debut took an almost punk approach to its creation, produced in his bedroom on an old Amiga, vocals recorded in a blanket lined wardrobe. Musically it’s a cocktail of hip hop and garage, approached with a scrappy DIY attitude. Although the foundational sound of the record is the skippy two step beat, OPM rejects the aspiration of UK garage - there’s no champagne here - in favour of day in the life stories of young underemployed men far from the bright lights. It’s not gritty oh isn’t this awful social realism though. Skinner’s sharp eye catches the everyday nuggets of joy found in such a life, smoking weed, getting a pizza delivered, playing video games. No one here is having a miserable time, just maybe an aimless and undefined one. It’s excellent observational songwriting, in the lineage of Ray Davies or Jarvis Cocker, supported by some standouts turn of phrase: “I’m 45th generation Roman”, “In 500 years they’ll play this song in museums”, “we first met through a shared view/ she loved me and I did too” and dozens of others. It’s a really funny record, which is a rarer thing than it should be, but also unafraid of dark subjects, like the tale of overcoming addiction in the downbeat closer “Stay Positive”. That such a tough listen should be just an interlude away from the euphoric rave nostalgia of “Weak Become Heroes” only highlights Skinner’s range. And it’d be criminal not to highlight “Turn The Page”, one of the all time great opening tracks, setting the scene with references to Gladiator and the Birmingham Bullring over a bed of swelling rising strings and a cocksure confident set of lyrics (stand by me, my apprentice) that tell you how good the next forty minutes are going to be.
I never really kept up with his later albums, but this speaks to what it was like to be a young man in Britain at the turn of the century like nothing else I know. I was probably a good ten years older than the characters in these songs, but still close enough to feel the recognition and accuracy. In many ways it’s a modern take on 2-Tone in its combination of black musical idioms and focus on young provincial working class life. It’s a record that could only have come from one time and place, and it captures them both brilliantly.
Love this paragraph. I was 18 when this came out, and it’s probably the most important album to me still. And yes, I was too young for 2-tone ‘live’, but always felt that connection. In Birmingham he feels of a lineage with UB40 too, there’s definitely common ground there. Bridged so many worlds (garage and rap too, a sort of immediate precursor to grime). Means the world to me this record.
This is on my (never to be published) list. Was obsessed with this album when it came out - genuinely couldn’t understand why it wasn’t massive.
It took a long time, but Tim Simenon did release a follow up in the late 00s (Future Chaos) and toured it. I caught them as a full band experience at The Astoria (RIP). Totally different sound but still fun…
A band mostly known for dressing as cowboys and covering themselves in flour producing a sprawling epic that is also a concept album about ancient Sumerian ideas of the afterlife? Sign me up!
One of my favourite things is when a band develops their sound with each new release and tries to reach for something new.The Nephilim’s previous record was itself a big step on from the warmed over goth cliches of their debut, but still very much a traditional song based record. This is is something else again. It says eight tracks on the back, but really there’s only half that here. The first four songs are movements in one long piece, and the only border between the closing duo of Wail Of Sumer / And There Will Your Heart Be Also is a tiny drum fill that you can easily miss. These epic lengths, chat about ‘movements’, and those song titles (I haven’t even mentioned At The Gates Of Silent Memory yet), may lead you to worry that the dreaded P-word is about to hove into view. Then you discover that the album is produced by Andy Jackson, who had previously worked with Pink Floyd, and the fear is complete. We’re dealing with goth prog here, and it really is marvellous stuff. The music is dreamy, hazy and hypnotic, not afraid to take its time and build towering quasi ambient soundscapes, fuelled by prog and dub, occasionally interrupted by wailing guitars (you can hear a whammy bar break at the end of one outburst). It rises and falls through the album, ending with a long and beautifully gloomy drift into eternity.
Look at the cover, a gloomy smeared impressionistic painting of…something. A kneeling figure, surrounded by unknown, unknowable, smeared objects. Is is some sort of ritual? What’s going on there? I’ve been looking at it for thirty years (not continuously) and I still have no idea, fitting for this mystical, beautiful, murky and elusive record. Shine on you crazy black diamond.
someone’s home made video, because the official ones insist on splitting these two tracks. Here’s the cover I referenced above
Jane’s were the missing link between sleazy 80s Sunset Strip glam rock and artier underground songs, Motley Crue meets the Cocteau Twins. This was their third album, and the last before they collapsed in mess of bad drugs and arguments about money. It’s also their masterpiece, although you might not think that a few songs into the record. The first five tracks are all variations on taut, muscular funk metal. They’re good solid tracks, including the minor hit Been Caught Stealing, but a whole album of them wouldn’t have placed this high in my list.
On side two (in old money) though they unfurl their wings and stretch out. This is where the mysterious promise of that infamous cover is delivered upon. Four long songs that see the band move into something transcendental and magical. The centrepiece is the eleven minutes of metallic psychedelia that is Three Days. From whispered hazy beginnings it builds into an avalanche of thumping tribal percussion and wild guitars, with Perry Farrell shrieking gibberish about “erotic Jesus”, but absolutely selling that gibberish. After that, The She Did is a string laden piece that recalls Kashmir, delicate and powerful at the same time. Of Course is an otherworldly beauty, with a klezmer inspired (and how many ostensibly metal bands do you get to write that about?) violin line snaking through it’s head trip of childhood fears, and then the cool cloth of Classic Girl on your fevered brow brings you out of it at the end. One of my favourite sides on a record of all time. For a single album it has the richness and depth of a double, with all the range, ambition, creativity and achievement of a Screamadelica or an Exile.
I never saw them. They played at Rock City when Ritual was out, but in those days I was not confident about going to gigs on my own (do it all the time now), and none of my friends were interested so I skipped it. Then in lectures the next day, one of my classmates was wearing a new JA t-shirt and was telling me about how good it was and how I should have gone with her. Still annoyed about it to this day.