Friday, 31 December 2010

Make yourself a resolution...

Are you one of those people who used to be into their music but now you just don’t have the time? Perhaps you had kids, or you just find yourself watching TV instead or maybe music these days just sounds a bit crap?

Many people I know fit into this category. They had taste but now find the rare occasion that they do listen to music recycling Massive Attack, De La Soul and Radiohead – the albums they listened to when they were younger.

Undoubtedly, each of these acts produced great music but I’ve got something to tell you – great music is still being made. Like Massive Attack? You’ll probably like the New Gil Scott Heron album. De La Soul? Try Jay Electronica. Radiohead? You’ll probably love These New Puritans.

In a world where real happiness is increasingly unobtainable, music is a way of really lifting the spirits. Taking a little time to sit and listen and seek out something new can be really satisfying as well as being a little bit of ‘me’ time. In the last year or two I’ve played music to friends who have then gone on to buy a CD or two and subsequently report back that they’ve enjoyed getting back into their music again.

In anticipation of the new year I've gone onto Itunes and deleted all the music from my Iphone - a spring clean if you like. The idea being that I'll fill it with new music as I discover it and by the end of December 2011 I'll have a diary of all the wonderful sounds I've discovered in 2011. Life's too short to be listening to all the stuff I've already heard. I've just downloaded my first new album - the Gorillaz album The Fall which was released on Christmas day.

This is the time of year when we make new year’s resolutions. Rather than making the usual broken promises why not make it your pledge to listen to more new music? It will lift your spirits, make you feel young and give us something to talk about. If you don’t know where to start take a comb through this site for ideas starting with my list of the albums of 2010. Who knows, at the end of 2011 you might have your own list!

Friday, 24 December 2010

The very best records of 2010

Its been a great year for music whether it be electronic, hip hop, guitar or singer songwriter. Here are my favourites below complete with videos for you to have a look and listen - I've also linked to my original full reviews where appropriate. Disagree with my choices? Leave yours at the end of the article!

The top 10 albums
10. Skit I Allt – Dungen

Anyone for some Swedish prog folk? What I love about this record is its complete disregard for the mainstream. Like the early krautrock releases they want to take the listener on a sonic journey but they also achieve great subtlety and beauty. This is a record that most obviously (to these ears) recalls Super Furry Animals but also has hints of early Kraftwerk, Thin Lizzy and psychedelic folk.

9. There is Love in You – Four Tet

This isn’t a great album – it’s patchy and it also has a bizarre final track where Mr Hebdon sings to us over acoustic guitar (stick to the day job!). Having said that, it contains three tracks which stand up against anything else released this year. The first two tracks on first listen created an expectation that this would be the record of the year but only Plastic People matched these dizzy heights. Four Tet is still one of (if not) the most relevant musician in Britain today.

8. Queen of Denmark – John Grant
A genre I don’t particularly go for is gay torch songs – Rufus Wainwright leaves me cold. This really caught my ear though – the darkness and bitterness of the lyrics draw you in even though the songs themselves are often candy coated. Midlake guest and their ability to recall American album rock (Chicago, Supertramp, Heart) situates this record in a place that makes it a real guilty pleasure. I was a bit disappointed when Mojo made this their album of the year as I thought this was my discovery (although to be fair to them I got it off the back of their original review!).

7. I’m new here – Gil Scott Heron

Who would have expected a sixty plus year old drug addled soul singer would make one of the most forward thinking and emotional albums of the year? Making use of modern beats to underpin Heron’s tales of childhood abandonment was a masterstroke. He is a true one off...
6. Crooks and Lovers – Mount Kimbie

For all that I love dubstep there are few albums from the genre that I would actually want to listen to from start to finish. Mount Kimbie, like James Blake and Darkstar, recognise the limitations of the genre and so fuse it with other more abstract electronic sounds to create a sloppy-slippy sound that moves things forward again (Slopstep?) Hints of two-step, techno and broken beat keep things interesting while the use of human sounds (vocals, handclaps) creates a connection that few electronic acts achieve. The sound of young London. Love the artwork as well.
5. Archandriod – Janelle Monae
I was expecting neo soul. Instead I got one of the most inventive female fronted albums of recent years. Janelle brought to mind the afro-exentricity of Parliament, Prince and Outkast but also Karen Carpenter and Debbie Harry. This was a proper album starting with a classical suite and packed with highlights throughout - wildly ambitious for a debut. Expect her to be huge.
4. Hidden – These New Puritans

I spent most of the year bemoaning the lack of decent guitar music and then heard this via Paul Morley and a friend. To call it a guitar album is a bit unfair as there is little guitar on it but its undoubtedly an ‘indie’ album bringing to mind Radiohead in particular. Like Radiohead though they realise the limitations of the guitar and focus as much on samurai drums, brass bands, children’s choirs and synths while never forgetting the value of a good hook. Best post modern, art-rock, concept album of the year.

3. A Sufi and a Killer – Gonjasufi

Like Flying Lotus, a true one off. Gonjasufi takes acid rock as his template rather than futuristic beats (although they are there in the mix on some songs) and somehow manages to tell the whole story of modern music over his debut album without ever sounding retro. This record calls to mind the Stooges, Turkish psych, Issac Hayes and Monster Magnet and many many more. An excellent remix package (The Caliph’s Tea Party) was released off the back of it. For those who just want to hear something, well, different.
2. Swim - Caribou

The most blatantly enjoyable album of the year (the record I actually enjoy listening to most often comes second in these polls while I reserve first place for the one I consider the most ‘important’!). This record sounded good whenever I played it – on the train on Ipod, on a barge radio travelling through Holland, eating dinner in an Italian villa, live in Rough Trade records in East London... At least three euphoric singles (Odyssey, Sun, Bowls) but dig beneath and there is great experimentation here – Arthur Russell is an obvious reference point as is Four tet but Dan Snaith is continuing to plough his own furrow.
1. Cosmogramma – Flying Lotus

I suspect I might get some flak for picking this as my album of the year. It’s a muso’s album – deliberately difficult and ‘clever’ and it barely contains anything you might regard as a song. This though is a record that is all about texture and mood. Closer to 70’s free jazz than the post dubstep sound it is often associated with, Ellison is able to create a connection with his listener through snatches of harp, piano and vocal. The beats are sparse and harsh but from within them comes great beauty. It’s a record that is quite unique and I can envisage listening to it in ten years time by which time the rest of the pretenders might just have caught up (by which time Fly Lo will have moved on!).. I fully accept that this choice says more about where I am on my own musical journey than what might be regarded as the popular choice of a defining record but I was amazed at how little this was picked upon in the end of year magazine and web polls which shows that I’m not entirely in thrall to the critics!
The top 3 singles
3. Katie’s on a mission – Katie B

This category should contain at least one out and out pop single. This really caught my ear when I saw Katie supporting Magnetic Men. A great hook but rooted in credibility – like a modern Nenah Cherry singing along to Benga perhaps (he did produce it after all). Simple fun.

2. CMYK – James Blake

A sound of where British music goes next. Using cut up R&B vocals over modern electronic sounds from the London underground – rolling back and forth with shifting tempos to create a slightly disorientating experience. Expecting a great debut from this man in 2011.

1. Exhibit A/C – Jay Electronica
As one gets older it becomes so much harder for music to really blow you away – think about the first time you heard Public Enemy, Guns N Roses or the Arctic Monkeys...I had the same feeling when I heard Exhibit A which namechecks Barack Obama, Etta James and Kurt Voneggut (this was actually released in 2009 so I've chosen Exhibit C which is a little more soulful and equally as good). So far ahead of the rest of the hip hop field it’s scary. Calling to mind J Dilla, Wu and Nas with futuristic production and a voice to kill for – hip hop is back big style with Jay Electronica. All together now 'As we proceed....with what you need.....'

Merry Christmas and happy new year everyone - see you in 2011!

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Hidden gem: The Exciting Sounds of Tomorrow - Pete Moore Orchestra (Fontana)

Many reading this blog will, I'm sure, have got behind the 'Cage against the machine' campaign to get John Cage's silent suite 4.33 to Christmas number one. As well as sticking it to the (white teethed) man this exercise has given the opportunity to reflect on the joy of space in sound. In a world where we are all increasingly busy, music which enables us to take time out and relax can be a treat indeed.

In the 1960's and early 1970's the desire for a non-challenging sound providing lifestyle accompliment manifested itself in the genre known as easy listening. Bacharach and David led the way and many others soon followed. Small orchestras (often linked to TV or film theme work) would produce whole albums of covers of the day and their own original material. Many sound very twee nowadays and fully justify ending up in charity shops but one are two are gems indeed. Alan Tew produced a number of excellent recordings (most notably covers of the Pink Panther and Pentangle's Night Flight) and Daley Wilson, Geoff Love and James Last also made some recordings of note. Another record worth hunting down is the Exciting Sounds of Tomorrow by the Pete Moore Orchestra.

Moore was a British arranger who worked with Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and Ted Heath among others and wrote string arrangements for London Weekend Television. He will be forever remembered for writing Asteroid, known to millions as the Pearl and Dean music ('Papah papah papa pa papapapah...')

If you are looking for hi-tempo then this album isn't the place. This is simply a record of smooth sounds of the day played really well. Jimmy Webb's all time classic Witicha Lineman kicks things off, its synthesized horns creating a sense of haunting nostalgia. The Beatle's Fool on the Hill soon follows - almost unrecognisable at first before a flute picks out the melody. A couple of Henry Mancini covers feature before Sinatra's It was a very good year. The real highlight of side one though is Windmills of my Mind. This track breaks out of mid pace and is played out as an up tempo bossa nova. Somehow this works and a song which I've generally always passed over is re-invented as a dancefloor monster.

Side two kicks off with Green Onions, less funky than the original and slowed down to give it a slightly regal feel,it's a good version. The funky vibe is maintained with Catwalk and Take 8 (both Moore original compositions) before the album signs off with a cover of You've made me so very happy. Unlike most albums of this type, this is an album you can happily sit and listen to from star to finish without it beginning to grate. Its also not impossible to track down so if you see it, snap it up!

Friday, 10 December 2010

Hidden gem: Away with Melancholy - The Natural Yoghurt Band (2007)

When one thinks of the rock and roll capitals of the world its fair to say that Nottingham isn’t exactly top of the list. OK, so it has infamous heavy metal venue Rock City but it’s fair to say that in terms of bands it’s not exactly threatening Manchester, Detroit and Berlin.

It is however the original home of one of the more interesting bands of recent years. The Natural Yoghurt Band combine a love of jazz, funk, prog and beats to create something that sounds retro but new, human yet electronic and for the head as well as the feet.

Made up of ex-Little Barrie drummer Wayne Fullwood and producer/musician Miles Newbold, The Natural Yoghurt Band have just released their second album Tuck in With. It was their first album Away with Melancholy which first caught my ear though. Released on double 10 inch vinyl (itself a statement of intent) on Jazzman records, they didn’t bother press releasing the album, preferring to let the music do the talking and I'm pleased to say it does.

The first thing that is apparent is that these guys have very good taste. Their debut brings to mind British library records, Australian jazz and legendary Californian producer David Axlerod for starters. The track Chit Chat in particular has the feel of one of Axlerod's productions with its funky drum beats and psychedelic harmonies (the only track that features human voice). Other parts of the album are reminiscent of classic jazz and easy listening but this isn't pure nostalgia, the production is sharp and clearly informed by hip hop. It is little surprise that Stone's Throw picked up on it and released it in the US.

Voodoo is a highlight - it phases in and has very little percussion but is quite lovely. It is quite electronic in atmosphere even though its clearly played on real instruments. Broken Rose meanwhile is more abstract and spacey. Organ and xylophone combine to create something that wouldn't be out of place on a library recording. Space echo is one of the funkiest tracks on display with sound effects layered onto the bass and drums and a moog solo to bring you home. This is the sort of space you would encounter if you watched the Clangers back to back for 72 hours first.

Away with Melancholy isn't necessarily a record full of innovation, high excitement or even variety but it carries a really nice vibe throughout. If you are the sort of person who likes to sit and appreciate the quality of the musicianship (the playing is exceptionally tight) with or without a jazz cigarette then you are likely to enjoy Nottingham's finest funksters.

Friday, 3 December 2010

The 20 greatest disco records

Disco was for many years dismissed as vacuous music. People missed the point, not realising that this was exactly what made it so good - a chance to forget the stresses and strains of the working week and lose yourself in the music for a few hours at least. In recent years (largely due to an increasing number of heavyweight books about the movement) it has been rehabilitated but due to the fact that many hits were one track wonders it is still difficult to identify the defining tracks. Having done considerable research in this space (I've listened heavily to disco for well over a decade now) I give you my definitive take on my favourites - some are established classics, some aren't well known but all have set dance floors alight. I've left out Go Bang by Dinosaur L and All over my Face by Loose Joints - both of which will upset the purists. If you disagree with my choices, why not leave yours (plus Youtube clips) at the end of the article? PS: If you're looking for Abba or the Village People you might be in the wrong place....

20. Class Action – Weekend

Legendary Paradise Garage DJ Larry Levan recorded this with Christine Wiltshire. 11 minutes of anticipatory bliss. This was actually a cover of a previous disco tune by Phreek. Levan would often play this track several times in the same evening even though it hadn't been formally released - inevitably it became a Garage classic.

19. Saturday night - David Morris

A personal favourite this one. I picked it up for less than $5 on my last trip to New York. A track that captures the excitement of an impending night out on the town with a beautiful lady - youza!

18. Staying Alive -The Bee Gees

Falsetto alert! One of three number one hits from the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack but that shouldn't detract from what a great track it is. Effortlessly funky - it just makes you want to strut...The movie was key in communicating the ethos of the disco movement to the mainstream.

17. Do what you wanna do – T-Connection

A favourite for everyone from Nicky Siano to Norman Jay. T-Connection were actually from the Bahamas but were based in Miami. They recorded four albums in all but this was by far their defining moment.

16. Love is the Message – MFSB

For many people the national anthem of disco and effectively David Mancuso’s theme tune. MFSB were Philly record’s house band. Rather than taking a standard song structure this instrumental piece took the listener on an atmospheric jazzy journey - an approach which would be repeated on numerous releases right through to the advent of  house music. This is arguably where the deep disco template was set.

15. The Love I Lost - Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes

The definitive philly soul track and a huge hit in the clubs (most notably the Gallery) and on radio, reaching number 7 in the US charts. The track was originally recorded as a ballad but the musicians upped the tempo, with the drums in particular given more prominence and a disco classic was born. 

14. BRA - Cymande

This is a great example of the fact that disco doesn't always need to be an upbeat 4/4 beat (in fact some might argue it isn't disco at all). A British band, Cymande produced a number of classic tracks and albums but this is their defining movement. Jazzy horns give way to a deep funk groove and an irresistible dance floor filler. Famously sampled by De La Soul on 3 Feet High and Rising highlighting its impact on the hip hop community as well as the disco movement. Cymande have become increasingly influential in recent years and anyone who appreciates good music could do worse than seek out some of their classic seventies recordings.

13. Eminence front - The Who

Yes, the Who! This track was actually produced after disco peaked (in 1983) but is unbelievably funky. Roger Daltrey later claimed that this was the only track worth releasing of the It's Hard album. Thanks to Jake who tipped me off about this one.

12. I love you more - Renee and Angela

Danny Krivit's re-edit is the version to look out for. The atmospheric piano riff creates the framework for the guitar that follows. A classic example of less is more. Sampled by Notorious BIG on I love the Dough. Renee and Angela were lovers initially before realising that they were more effective as songwriting partners!

11. Space Bass – Slick

Not quite so well known this one as some of the others on this list although it reached number 16 in the UK charts. Slick were the rhythm section of Fat Larry's band and this track has been championed by DJs as diverse as Jeff Mills and Gilles Peterson..
10. Thinking of you – Sister Sledge

You can’t have a disco top 20 without both Sister Sledge and Chic and this track has both. Subtler than We are family and He’s the greatest dancer and better for it. The track carries Rogers and Edward's distinctive guitar and bass sound and somewhat bizarrely was later covered by Paul Wellar.

9. Spanish Hustle – Fatback Band

Not only did they arguably record the first ever rap single with King Tim III but they recorded some of the funkiest tracks ever set to wax - including this which was a UK top ten hit. There is a great steel drum re-edit to look out for too...

8. I feel love - Donna Summer

Perhaps a predictable choice but Georgio Morroder's 15 minute version is a bass driven masterpiece. The rolling , off key bass sound was achieved by altering the key of a Moog synthesizer and created a druggy, trancelike beat, offset by Summer's sexy vocal.

7. Love Hangover - Diana Ross

Ross was one of a number of established stars (Rolling Stones, The Who) who jumped on the disco bandwagon and did it more convincingly than most. Hooking up with Nile Rogers she scored hits with No-one gets the Prize, and eternal gay anthem I'm coming out but it is Love Hangover that is the real classic. Hangover was championed by Nicky Siano amongst others but it was on radio where this really broke through, its slow, sensual intro giving way to an infectious upbeat groove.
6. Say a prayer for two (US remix) - Crown Heights Affair

Crown Heights Affair took their name from a district of Brooklyn. This track is from their 1978 album Dream World. The track's driving bass and gospelly vocals manage to appeal to both funk and disco fans and we are subject to another superb breakdown. Make sure you get the US remix as its by far the best version (and the one played at both the Loft and the Garage).

5. Enjoy your life – Oby Onyioha

Disco spread worldwide with each nation fusing it with their own sounds.I give full credit for this one to legendary crate diggers Kon and Amir who unearthed this Nigerian disco classic on their Off Track volume 3 which came out earlier this year.  This, like the best disco, is effortless and insanely dancey.

4. Let no man put asunder – First Choice

‘It’s not over!’ – for obvious reasons makes a great tune towards the end of the night when the dancers are trying to squeeze just a few more songs in before having to go home. First choice were from Philly and recorded this in 1977, they scored another Loft favourite with Doctor Love.

3. Ain’t no Mountain High Enough – Inner Life.

Written by Ashford and Simpson, produced by Patrick Adams and Greg Carmichael, vocals by Jocelyn Brown, remixed by Levan and released on Salsoul – this track is dripping disco royalty. Eleven minutes long, it has a huge breakdown about two thirds of the way in which, if the atmosphere is right, can take the roof off.

2. Girl you need a change of Mind – Eddie Kendricks

A huge Loft favourite. Ex-Temptation Kendricks recorded a number of classic disco tracks (including Levan favourite A date with the rain) but for me (and many others) the eight minute take of this track is the pinnacle of his work. Like many disco tracks its all about the breakdown – the tune is taken down to virtual silence before the instrumentation is gradually re-introduced and Eddie leads us back with the ‘never gonna change’ refrain.

1. Standing in the rain – Don Ray

What is so great about this song is that it seems to mark the exact point between funk which preceded it and house which followed. The synth waves at the outset send tingles down the back before the euphoric vocal leads us into ecstasy. Don Ray was actually Raymond Donnez and worked with Serge Gainsbourg and played keyboard on producer Cerrone's albums before eventually disappearing to France following his sole album. He was possibly last seen waiting on tables in a Paris restaurant. Some would argue that Got to have loving is his definitive track but for me this is not only his best track but the best of the whole disco era...