Tuesday, 19 December 2006

The moon is right, the spirit's up...

Ah, Christmas music.... I'm sure I'm not the only one with an utter hatred for the inescapable 'classics'. Everyone knows my hatred for Slade, right? Good to see that this year there are some new genuine alternatives, whether they be fresh takes on old chestnuts or wildly inventive contemporary offerings. However, there needs to be a serious sea-change if we're ever to be freed from the kind of nonsense that keeps Jona Lewie or that guy out of Wizzard in royalties cheques.

Ol' sourpuss Tom McRae has his own way of dealing with the chirpyness of one such heinous musical crime, as his gorgeous re-telling of Paul McCartney's Wonderful Christmastime shows. Knowingly or not, McCartney's horrific original evoked nauseating scenes of the happy-clappy Christmas from hell; McRae's version sounds like it's sung by someone whose idea of a wonderful Christmastime is sitting alone by a fireside with nothing but a glass of brandy for company. Chuck out Macca's terrible synths, bring in a mournful piano, and here's a version of the song that can rightly be regarded as a genuine festive classic.

MP3: Tom McRae - Wonderful Christmastime

Tim Finn, on the other hand, plays his festive cover - the equally loathsome Lennon/Ono standard Happy Xmas (War Is Over) - with reverence to the original, and it's a great success largely due to... well, largely because it's Tim Finn.

MP3: Tim Finn - Happy Xmas (War Is Over)

Does anyone actually know anything about Freiheit other than their classic late 80s Christmas hit? I have a vague feeling they represented Germany in an early 90s Eurovision Song Contest - not that I used to watch it or anything... ahem, but aside from that....? Join with me in keeping the dream alive for those wonderful one-hit wonders!

MP3: Freiheit - Keeping The Dream Alive

And finally for this festive selection, possibly my favourite Christmas tune. Mike Viola, of Candy Butchers fame, is no stranger to my stereo generally, with what can only be described as a seriously above-average back catalogue of amazing guitar pop, most notably 2004's Hang On Mike. A few years ago the Candy Butchers released a Christmas EP, from which Give Me A Second Chance For Christmas is taken. Long since deleted, copies are occasionally available from his website. If the lead track isn't enough for you, the EP also contains covers of Mariah Carey's All I Want For Christmas Is You and the Backstreet Boys' I Want It That Way. Yes, really.

MP3: Candy Butchers - Give Me A Second Chance For Christmas

And finally, to continue with my recent musings on learning piano, a quick update - I've conquered the arrangement of Good King Wenceslas we looked at in the last lesson of this term. Thus, Christmas will be spent going over the stuff so far, along with the previously mentioned extra-curricular Sufjan and Regina tunes. I'm even going to have a crack at trying to figure this out - a gorgeous (and manageably short) instrumental from Neil Finn's soundtrack to the 2001 NZ movie Rain:

MP3: Neil Finn - Shower

Friday, 15 December 2006

Top 20 Albums Of 2006

1 Charlotte Gainsbourg - 5:55

So then.... take Serge Gainsbourg's daughter and stick her in a studio with Air, Jarvis Cocker, Neil Hannon and Nigel Godrich, and what do you get? Well, I wouldn't have expected anything as great as the record that tops my list of the year's best albums. To try and figure out why it's so good, it's worth taking the constituent elements apart.

While in no way a fan of ambient dance music, I'd be the first to admit that Air have proved themselves capable in the past of knocking out an occasional pretty melody - see Cherry Blossom Girl or All I Need for examples. I was never a massive Pulp fan either, but respect Mr Cocker's way with words. So putting Jarvis's words to Air's music was always going to be an intriguing prospect. Getting Neil Hannon in to wrote additional lyrics was merely an added bonus.

But it's Ms Gainsbourg herself who's the real surprise here. I'd not encountered any of her previous work, and so had no preconceptions when I first heard a couple of these songs during the summer. The melodies are astoundingly pretty, and Gainsbourg's breathy vocals, coupled with the sumptuously polished production (take a bow Nigel Godrich) all end up making something classy yet wonderfully accessible. You do get the impression on a few occasions - not least the dramatic AF607105 - that she's taken Jarvis's demos and sung them exactly as he did, so similar is her phrasing and whispering. But then, blaming an actress for taking on someone else's persona is a bit rich, right? Especially when she does it so well. In The Songs That We Sing, we have a genuine pop classic about, er, pop music - "and the songs that we sing / do they mean anything / to the people we're singing them to?" A lot of the songs are built around spiralling piano motifs, and while some of the backing tracks are recognisably Air, they've restrained themselves enough to let the song be the focus rather than bleepy synths. Neil Hannon only gets a co-writing credit on a couple of songs, The Songs That We Sing being one, the drop-dead gorgeous Beauty Mark being the other, but both can rank highly on his song CV. All in all, an essential addition to any CD collection; an astounding record full of tunes to die for.

Key tracks: 5:55, The Songs That We Sing, Beauty Mark

MP3: Beauty Mark

Buy 5:55 from amazon.co.uk

2 The Research - Breaking Up

Here's a pleasant surprise - a pop trio from Wakefield who prove themselves not only capable of knocking out a string of fantastic singles, but also of turning in one of the best albums of the year. Constantly in danger of stumbling over the line marked 'twee' they remain just on the right side. This keyboard-bass-drums outfit's musical outlook resides in a world wholly of their own making, and there's no tricks, nothing fancy, just brilliantly catchy songs played with real heart. Frontman Russell (The Disaster) comes across as an utter loser (and I mean that in the nicest possible way) - all his songs see him as unlucky in love or losing out on life's riches, and whether it's inspired by real life or purely fiction, it's all great material. Also an amazing live band, and well worth checking out should they play nearby.

Key tracks: The Way You Used To Smile, When You Get Home, Splitting Hairs

MP3: When You Get Home

Buy Breaking Up from amazon.co.uk

3 Don McGlashan - Warm Hand

Anyone who knows me will know that along with his fellow elder statesmen of NZ pop/rock such as the Finn Brothers and Dave Dobbyn, the music of Don McGlashan has played a significant part in soundtracking my life over the last ten years or so. The Mutton Birds were a truly fantastic band, combining Crowded House-esque tunes with lyrics that play out like the best short story collection that's never made it to the bookshop. 1997's 'Envy Of Angels' still stands as the highest of watermarks in my music collection - the very definition of what literate yet monumentally melodic guitar pop should sound like. Since the Mutton Birds ceased to be at the turn of the century, the hardcore following have been waiting with baited breath to see what Don would do next. He's certainly taken his time, but 7 years after the last Mutton Birds album - the excellent Rain, Steam & Speed - this year he unleashed his solo debut, Warm Hand. Interviews he gave in the lead-up to the album suggested he was no longer chasing the '3-minute pop hit' that he'd so beautifully mastered previously. And while that's true to an extent, the gorgeous chiming melodies of This Is London or Harbour Bridge wouldn't be out of place on the playlist of any sane pop radio station. The album's first single, Miracle Sun, wasn't exactly a slouch in the singalong department either. Longer narrative songs such as Toy Factory Fire and Passenger 26 recall earlier material like A Thing Well Made and White Valiant, but funnily enough the beating heart of the album is a song Don didn't even write. I Will Not Let You Down, written by his bassist (and solo artist in his own right) Sean Donnelly, is the kind of song the James Blunts of this world can only dream of writing. Emotional, poignant, and performed and produced in a typically understated fashion, this is a track that could melt the hardest of hearts. They've even made a perfectly judged video for it that genuinely does bring a lump to the throat.

Key tracks: This Is London, I Will Not Let You Down, Miracle Sun

MP3: Queen Of The Night

Buy Warm Hand from Arch Hill Records

4 Josh Rouse - Subtitulo

Off the top of my head, I can't think of a more prolific character than Mr Rouse. Not just in terms of actually putting out records at regularly short intervals, but in the fact that those records are always uniformly brilliant. His sublime 1972 album from 2003 was followed last year not only by the equally brilliant Nashville, then at the end of the year with his self-released Bedroom Classics Vol.2 EP. Straight away at the start of 2006 he released Subtitulo, a more stripped-down record than the last couple of full-length releases, but nevertheless full of his usual songcraft genius. So here we have the shuffling acoustic pop of Quiet Town, the swoonsome string-laden Wonderful, and the pop-py Givin' It Up. Another astounding collection of masterful songs, heading down more of folk-pop route than his recent alt.country efforts, but losing none of their charm and style. And now he's releasing stuff on his own label, he might end up releasing stuff even more regularly - if that's possible - which is a win-win situation however you look at it.

Key tracks: Quiet Town, Wonderful, Givin' It Up

MP3: Quiet Town

Buy Subtitulo from amazon.co.uk

5 Tim Finn -Imaginary Kingdom

Seemingly on a creative high following the success of the fantastic Finn Brothers record from 2004, Everyone Is Here, Tim returned this year with his first major label solo album in over a decade. And while he's lost the experimentation of 1999's Say It Is So and the urgency of 2001's brilliant Feeding The Gods, Imaginary Kingdom might just be his strongest set of songs since his self-titled album from 1989. The biggest joy to behold is the return of 'the voice', which I'd feared had been frittered away by the drink and the cigs during the 90s. Heaven knows what he's done to get it back, but it's worked - Astounding Moon soars away to its titular destination, while Midnight Coma and Still The Song are sung with all the bravado of his heyday. It's an absolute treat from start to finish - those of us (the minority I'm guessing, even for hardcore Tim fans) who love his mid-80s output will adore Horizon and Dead Flowers, while fans of his ultra-poppy early work such as Fraction Too Much Friction will be bopping around the kitchen to Couldn't Be Done. Show Yourself even gives us a glimpse of the soul-tinged material he's occasionally put out (see early 90s b-side You've Changed). A remarkable return to form, and with a world tour reaching the UK in March, this may just be a welcome renaissance for his solo career.

Key tracks: Still The Song, Astounding Moon, Horizon

MP3: Astounding Moon

Buy Imaginary Kingdom from amazon.co.uk

6 L.E.O. - Alpacas Orgling

At some point around the start of the year, I succumbed to the genius of Jeff Lynne and E.L.O, after hearing some songs over the PA in Borders. I bought their All Over The World best of compilation, and soon realised they're one of those bands whose songs you know from the radio without always knowing who the artist is. Anyway, that CD has since abandoned its long-term residency in my stereo, which I'm guessing isn't the case for L.E.O mainman Bleu. L.E.O is a loose collective of power-pop maestros - including ex-Jellyfish-er Andy Sturmer, the always brilliant Mike Viola, and, er, the guys from Hanson - who've come together in their love of E.L.O, and ended up with the glorious collection Alpacas Orgling. On first listen, it's easy to see it as a tongue-in-cheek pastiche, the production quirks that Jeff Lynne dressed his own songs up in recreated in vivid retro-modern colours. And if it was purely a case of style over substance, this collection would be dead in the water. As it is though, the songs, all originals - mostly written by Bleu, with occasional co-writes from Sturmer, Viola et al - are a melodic tour de force from start to finish. Each seemingly takes an E.L.O tune as a starting point, but then throws in some new tricks so that familiar melodic phrases come across as something completely fresh.

Key tracks: Distracted, Goodbye Innocence, Ya Had Me Goin'

MP3: Distracted

Buy Alpacas Orgling from amazon.co.uk

7 Guster - Keep It Together

Okay, so I have a feeling this may be as much as 3 years old, but in my defence the UK release was only last year and I only got hold of it a few months ago. Since then, it's rapidly become a big favourite. On the surface, Guster come across like any average middle-of-the-road indie-rock band knocking out no-frills pop-rock records every couple of years. As a reference point, they come across perhaps like a less sardonic Fountains Of Wayne, but with an equal talent for memorable melodies. Amazingly the extra tracks on the UK release are on a par (if not better) than some of the standard album tracks, which is something of a bonus.

Key tracks: Careful, Amsterdam, Ramona

MP3: Ramona

Buy Keep It Together from amazon.co.uk

8 David Mead - Tangerine

Years of being messed around by the likes of RCA and Nettwerk led Mead to forge his own way ahead with the self-released Tangerine. The latest in a stellar catalogue, it follows on from the polished pop of 2005's Wherever You Are EP and the gorgeous americana of 2004's career best Indiana. If anything, Tangerine is most reminiscent of his debut, 1998's The Luxury Of Time, what with the playful pop soundscapes and quirky edges of songs like Hard To Remember and The Trouble With Henry. Mead's voice is, as ever, a thing of absolute beauty, swooning and soaring away to higher stratospheres. On Tangerine he applies it to a set of pop songs that recall McCartney circa Wings, with a touch of Beach Boys thrown in for good measure. Whether his budget stretches to an international release and wider exposure is anyone's guess - for now it looks like he's destined to stay under the radar for most people, which is a huge shame.

Key tracks: The Trouble With Henry, Chatterbox, Hallelujah I Was Wrong

MP3: The Trouble With Henry

Buy Tangerine from amazon.co.uk

9 The Decemberists - The Crane Wife

So we can all relax - signing to a major (in the US at least) hasn't smoothed over the quirks and turned The Decemberists into Snow Patrol: The Crane Wife still sounds like a proper Decemberists record, full of Colin Meloy's usual wit and wisdom wrapped around their patented twisted folk-pop. In fact, stylistically it's a natural follow-up to 2005's glorious Picaresque, Yankee Bayonet (I will Be Home Then) possibly even surpassing that last record's We Both Go Down Together as the numero uno Decemberists pop tune. And given that it's one of three genuine classic pop hits-in-waiting on here (see also O Valencia and Summersong), that's really not bad going. Even the less instant ones reveal their charms after a few plays; When The War Came takes things in a distinctly darker direction than the band's usual fare, while the 11+ minutes of The Island sees the return of the prog-folk last seen on The Tain.

Key tracks: Yankee Bayonet (I Will Be Home Then), Summersong, Shankill Butchers

MP3: Yankee Bayonet (I Will Be Home Then)

Buy The Crane Wife from amazon.co.uk

10 The Feeling - Twelve Stops And Home

Unashamedly commercial, yup, but if you're going to listen to one chart-bothering guitar outfit, it may as well be the one with the best tunes. Finding myself increasingly drawn to records that evoke the sound of 70s soft-rock (hey, it's the only guilty pleasure I'm owning up to at this point!) - Josh Rouse's 1972, Candy Butchers' Hang On Mike - and my recent 'discovery' of ELO, this record ticks all the boxes, and then adds another layer of polish until it comes up positively gleaming. It's feel-good music, which maybe isn't usually my forte, but when the songs are as strong as this, resistance is futile. It didn't grab me initially, despite the singles having set up camp in my head, but after a few spins, the magic of the record as a whole kicked in. It feels like they've released about half of the tracks as singles now, but there are still some gems that radio hasn't got its hands on yet - the straightforward rocker Anyone and more restrained Kettle's On and Strange are the ones to seek out.

Key tracks: Sewn, Anyone, Strange

MP3: Kettle's On

Buy Twelve Stops And Home from amazon.co.uk

And the rest...

11 Calexico - Garden Ruin

A much more straightforward set than 2003's equally excellent Feast Of Wire, Garden Ruin saw Calexico turn in a consistently brilliant set of americana-tinged rock. Not much evidence of their trademark widescreen desert music and mariachi brass, but in their place are melodies galore and a Wilco-esque vibe.

Buy Garden Ruin from amazon.co.uk

12 Roger Joseph Manning Jr - Land Of Pure Imagination

Power-pop, for whatever reason, is possibly the least cool genre imaginable, a fact lost on this ex-Jellyfish songwriter whose love of a good hook and a chorus that slaps you round the face is in evidence here. Too Late For Us Now is a hit looking for a radio, while Sandman and Dragonfly are soundtracks to Disney films that'll probably never exist. Like the poppiest Beatles moments with a dash of Elliott Smith and Ben Folds, blended with prime Jellyfish, it's a record for pure pop lovers.

Buy Land of Pure Imagination from amazon.co.uk

13 Duels - The Bright Lights And What I Should've Learned

Following on where the Kaiser Chiefs left off, this should've been the next Leeds band to make the big break-out. The fact it didn't is a little baffling, as in many ways it's superior to the Chiefs' Employment album. Certainly more thoughtful in its approach, and a bit more arty, which may explain why it didn't quite catch on. Maybe another marketing push in the new year will get it to more receptive stereos.

Buy The Bright Lights and What I Should Have Learned from amazon.co.uk

14 Darren Hanlon - Fingertips And Mountaintops

A real slow-burner of a collection, this is a side of Hanlon that he hasn't really shown before. Previous records have been full of instantly hummable melodies and wry lyrics that stick in the head after the first listen. This one has been approached completely differently: first single Happiness Is A Chemical is one of the least catchy songs he's released, let alone the oddest choice of single. There are some fine songs here, but they take time to make themselves known. Elbows is a tale of brushing elbows with a famous film star on the dance floor, and has the usual Hanlon observations - "we only touched elbows, and I still haven't showered" - while the title track ups the momentum a touch. The major highlights are the piano ballads - Manilla NSW is a touching elegy, while closer Old Dream is one of his finest songs to date. A good album then, but not his best - newcomers should head for 2004's Little Chills instead.

Buy Fingertips And Mountaintops from Candle Records)

15 Mike Viola - Just Before Dark

Okay, so strictly a 2005 release, but as it only saw the light of day in the last couple of weeks in December, we'll count it as this year. How was Mr Viola going to top the 2004 Candy Butchers record Hang On Mike? By going back to basics of course. Thus he recorded his first proper solo album live and acoustic. It does have a feel of being a bit half-finished, and the fact there's only nine songs doesn't help; a couple more would've rounded it off nicely. There are some stunning songs on here though - Rowing Song and Hair Of The Dog rate among his best, but best of all is piano ballad Number Crunch, with its gorgeous melodic twists and turns.

Buy Just Before Dark from mikeviola.com

16 The Pipettes - We Are The Pipettes

Sadly looking like remaining a cult act even despite a couple of chart hits, The Pipettes were one of the brighter pop hopes of the year. And while the kitsch nature of a modern interpretation of the 60s girl group sound could've been completely throwaway, at least half of the album was sublime. Your Kisses Are Wasted On Me and Tell Me What You Want, for example, are perfect pop songs.

Buy We Are The Pipettes from amazon.co.uk

17 Regina Spektor - Begin To Hope

Without a doubt one of the greatest gigs of the year was Regina Spector at the City Varieties in Leeds, where with just the aid of a piano (and an occasional stick hitting a chair) she held the audience absolutely spellbound with her own very unique brand of quirky pop. The first half of Begin To Hope is fantastic, and the likes of Fidelity and Samson have been doing the rounds on MP3 blogs pretty much all year. The second half drags somewhat though, which is a shame. Also this year I've just got round to picking up Mary Ann Meets The Gravediggers, home to Us and the jaw-dropping Chemo Limo, among other gems. Pick and mix from the two albums (yes, I realise that Gravediggers is itself a compilation anyway) and you'd have a belter.

Buy Begin to Hope from amazon.co.uk

18 Roddy Frame - Western Skies

Solid record from Roddy with some utter gems nestled away among some more average selections. Stylistically a mid-point between The North Star (1998) and Surf (2002) but on the whole not really reaching the heights of either.

Buy Western Skies from amazon.co.uk

19 Nik Kershaw - You've Got To Laugh

The butt of music papers' jokes since the beginning of time, it seems to have escaped most peoples' notice that Nik Kershaw is an uncommonly good singer/songwriter, and the fact that it's a minority who now know about and enjoy his work is a massive shame. This new record follows on where his 2001 effort To Be Frank left off, and while it's not as good as that (or his career high - 1999's stunning 15 Minutes), You've Got To Laugh has its highlights: All About You is one of his finest tunes to date.

Buy You've Got To Laugh from nikkershaw.net

20 Scott Walker - The Drift

I don't tend to buy albums that I know will terrify the living daylights out of me, but having heard Clara before purchasing The Drift, I had an inkling of what I was letting myself in for. The very antithesis of 'easy listening', ol' Scott can't get further away from his glorious 60s catalogue if he tried. There are no melodies, no choruses, no real structures, but somehow it all adds up to something truly special. Listen to it in a darkened room, and you'll be checking for monsters in the wardrobe for the rest of the week. Or heading off to Galway to slap some donkeys.

Buy The Drift from amazon.co.uk

Tuesday, 12 December 2006

The world has changed, it's obvious...

It might have escaped your notice - I haven't seen it mentioned anywhere other than their own website and newsletter - that Australia's fine, fine indie label Candle Records is to close in March 2007. Hopefully there'll be a bit more of a fanfare when the end actually comes, but then doing things quietly has served the label well, building a loyal fanbase for its uniquely Aussie slant on indie-pop.

Such is the magic of Candle that it's managed to maintain the quality control over the decade or so it's been in existence, and that the bands mostly have a unifying je ne sais quoi about them without sounding same-y. Needless to say, if astute lyrics and jangly indie-pop are your bag, Candle will have the goods for you.

I'm a relative latecomer to the label and its charms, having only really got into the likes of Darren Hanlon and the Lucksmiths in the last 3 years or so, but even with my very limited knowledge of what the label and its artists have achieved in Australia and internationally, it's worth shedding a tear at the loss. I've had the pleasure of seeing Darren Hanlon in concert, playing with all the humour and grace you'd think it'd be hard to muster having travelled halfway round the world to play to about 30 people in the tiny upstairs room of a Leeds pub. The Lucksmiths too, playing another local pub with labelmate Anthony Atkinson, to even less of a crowd. Why do they do it? How do they fund it? Who knows, but that quiet determination to slowly spread the word seems as much a part of Candle's modus operandi as much as the reliance on a good tune and a well-told story.

Personal recommendations from the catalogue include The Lucksmiths' Warmer Corners, The Dearhunters' country-tinged Red, Blue And Wine (scroll down), and pretty much the entire Darren Hanlon canon (maybe start with 2004's Little Chills - the perfect blend of his funny-yet-touching lyrics and pop nous). Also do yourself a favour and seek out what is perhaps one of the most heinously overlooked albums in existence, The Guild League's 2004 collection Inner North. The Guild League are a collective who, in Inner North, put together a sumptuous package of acoustic guitars, cellos, and tunes to die for, all set off by Lucksmiths singer Tali White's ever-gorgeous vocals. Can't think of an easy comparison off the top of my head. Let's just call it classic pop music and be done with it.

Even though these great acts will very shortly no longer be gathered under the Candle umbrella, they'll always be united by that unique Candle vibe. We haven't seen the last of any of them.

MP3: Darren Hanlon - Old Dream (from Fingertips And Mountaintops, 2006)

MP3: The Guild League - Scientists (from Inner North, 2004)

MP3: The Dearhunters - Mr Katherine (from Red Wine & Blue, 2002)

Snap up a Candle classic while you can

Tell me now, what more do you need...

2005 saw Michael Penn release his fifth album, Mr Hollywood Jr, 1947, although to make such a comment in Britain would understandably be met with a shrug. A shame, as it contained some of his finest songs to date, opener Walter Reed possibly standing out as his finest pop melody to date. Something about the album - littering it with throwaway instrumentals perhaps - suggests he didn't really have one eye on the kind of success that would return him to the mainstream audience he enjoyed with his classic No Myth single, but the songs are generally pretty damn good. Denton Road, On Automatic and You Know How are truly fine examples of songcraft, in a similar vein to the Neil Finns and Paul McCartneys of the world.

Since his chart-bothering days, he's been in and out of public consciousness due to troubles with many a record label. However, there's still a lot of love there for Penn. It may well be a smaller fanbase than what it was at the end of the 80s, but it's one with a passion for the subject's material that puts many other artists' followings to shame. In the summer of 2006, members of Penn's mailing list recorded a 40-track tribute to the singer, taking his songs into previously unknown territory and generally making a fine job of it. The full collection can be downloaded from here, but special mention should be made of The Breakups' take on Mary Lynn (right-click to download), which transforms the hippyish original into a foot-stomper of the highest order.

MP3: Michael Penn - Walter Reed

Buy Mr. Hollywood, Jr. 1947 from amazon.co.uk