Albums of 2014

Playlist here.

Again, no particular order though Jenny Lewis would definitely be my album of the year and the Manics would probably be second. I ‘discovered’ the Rosanne Cash album due to her being interviewed on Radio 2 whilst I was having my haircut. Great times. Special shout-out for the King Creosote album, a project tied into the Commonwealth Games which I think does a better job of capturing the Scottish psyche than a million indy ref thinkpieces.

The Voyager – Jenny Lewis
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Soundtrack – Various
Futurology – Manic Street Preachers
Take Me When You Go – Betty Who
Me. I Am Mariah…The Elusive Chanteuse – Mariah Carey
Xscape – Michael Jackson
No-One Is Lost – Stars
Popular Problems – Leonard Cohen
Stay Gold – First Aid Kit
Ghost Stories – Coldplay
High Hopes – Bruce Springsteen
The Take Off and Landing of Everything – Elbow
The Cautionary Tales of Mark Oliver Everett – Eels
Do It Again – Royksopp & Robyn
Are We There – Sharon Van Etten
Ruins – Grouper
PLECTRUMELECTRUM – Prince & 3RDEYEGIRL
From Scotland With Love – King Creosote
Live In Dublin – Leonard Cohen
Unrepentant Geraldines – Tori Amos
Tough Love – Jessie Ware
The River & the Thread – Rosanne Cash
Food – Kelis
Kiasmos – Kiasmos
Xen – Arca

And not on Spotify but definitely in my top 5 albums of the year:

I don’t think 1989 is as good as Red – it properly goes off the boil in its second half – but its high points are high enough for it to be included here. Particularly the bonus track New Romantics which, had it been released, would’ve been my single of the year.  But Swift hates the internet so go illegally download it.

Singles of 2014

Playlist here.

No particular order here though Ghost is easily my most played single released this year. My most played song is the demo of Rebel Heart by Madonna, which will shock precisely no-one. The Kira Isabella song was a great discovery – definitely an artist to get excited about. And it’s amazing to have a properly brilliant Smashing Pumpkins song again. If it was on Spotify I’d have had Morrissey’s Istanbul too.

Ghost – Ella Henderson
Take Me To Church – Hozier
Ghosttown – Madonna
Crying for No Reason – Katy B
Wrong Or Right – Kwabs
Seasons (Waiting On You) – Future Islands
Quarterback – Kira Isabella
Say Something – A Great Big World & Christina Aguilera
Dark Sunglasses – Chrissie Hynde
Uptown Funk – Mark Ronson feat. Bruno Mars
Love Never Felt So Good – Michael Jackson
High Society – Betty Who (from Worlds Apart EP)
Solo Dancing – Indiana
Yellow Flicker Beat – Lorde
Walk Me to the Bridge – Manic Street Preachers
Going Out – Dinner
If It Wasn’t True – Shamir
A Sky Full of Stars – Coldplay
Living – Adna
Being Beige – Smashing Pumpkins
Falling Short – Lapsley
B a noBody – SOAK
Queen – Perfume Genius
Disclosed – Call Me
Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime) – David Bowie

And not on Spotify, the first EP from Alphabetical Order Orchestra:

Let’s Go To War

When the Manics released Futurology earlier in the year I wrote that:

The aesthetic and publicity of Futurology seems to have blinded many to the fact that it’s a continuation of (obsession with the past, with nostalgia) – and one which draws far more heavily on the Manics’ musical past. In its way, then, it also understands and plays with this post-nostalgia age. It offers a frictionless return to previous highs, mixing nods to a more aggressive and radical past with a distancing from (and sometimes apologising for) it (this distancing has been crucial to the Manics’ success with a particular kind of critic, who could never have stomached their early belligerence without that gap). It offers nostalgia under the guise of modernity, drawing on the past to present a comforting, easily-digestible image of a future. “We’ll come back one day… we never really went away. ” This is Futurology.

Manic_Street_Preachers_-_Holy_Bible_shows_1411453935_crop_550x725

The since-announced tour reviving The Holy Bible (to mark its 20th anniversary) fits in perfectly with this. Lest we forget, THB is an aggressive, uncompromising album which acts as a chilling testament to humanity’s brutality in the 20th century. It features song about the holocaust, the violence of the British Empire, serial killers, eating disorders, suicide, racism. More than that, it deliberately baits the liberal sensibility to distance onself from this bleakness and believe that it’s the fault of people ‘over there’ – who’s responsible, you fucking are (it also more directly baits liberals with its pro-gun, pro-death penalty lyrics and its ambivalence towards violence in general). While it’s inevitable that its unsettling power has dimmed with familiarity, we should be under no illusions that this album would be met with a chilly and/or bewildered response from many critics today. We live, after all, in an age where ‘music critic’ is viewed as an aspect of your broadsheet-friendly brand which easily lends itself to writing about fashion or Disney or yourself – all done with the same ironic wink at the audience. THB deliberately tries to shut down this distance, directly addressing the listener and implicating them in its litany of horrors. The band’s performance of Faster on Top of the Pops famously garnered the most complaints in BBC history – there was to be no easy escape and no backing down.

It’s been widely noted that THB came out on the same day as Oasis’ Definitely Maybe with the comparison invariably contrasting the former’s desolation with the swaggering optimism of the latter. Yet both had their roots in almost two decades of a largely-successful war against the working-class. The 1984 miners’ strike has become emblematic of this and it’s notable that (what remained of) the mining industry was fully-privatised at the end of 1994. In retrospect we can easily see this act as cementing the defeat of the working-class, yet at the time it was subsumed beneath the 20-point plus leads which Labour were enjoying over the Tories. There was a real sense of optimism that real change was coming – the first Labour government in almost 20 years. Definitely Maybe captured this zeitgeist but we can now see that THB was a more accurate harbinger of what was the come. Blair’s New Labour may have become almost comically demonised in recent years but, if it did some good, it certainly confirmed that the powerful forces represented by Thatcherism had won.

The left still hasn’t come to terms with this comprehensive defeat – one which stretches around the world and largely ensures that any government attempting to pursue radical left-wing policies is swiftly and aggressively punished (as Labour were in the late-70s). 20 years later we have another Tory government (let’s ignore the Lib Dems) which is widely viewed as being more Thatcherite than Thatcher and a left which is not in good shape. Fragmented, directionless and defeatist, much of the left prefers to dwell on the so-called glory days of the Spirit of ’45 (ignoring the unpleasant aspects of the context in which this happened, not least Empire) and pin its hopes on a Labour Party (or SNP for many in Scotland) which it hopes will be left-wing…just because. An analysis of power, the pressures which position political parties and the need to organise are frequently replaced by a blind optimism.

It’s into this context which THB is being re-born. The many pieces marking its anniversary may have paid lip service to its radicalism but they are steeped in nostalgia – a force which creates the crucial distance necessary for listening to the album without personal discomfort. There is often a sigh at the fact no band in 2014 could be envisaged releasing such a work, an attitude which bears comparison with the Spirit of ’45 nostalgia (we could draw a line from the complaints about the latter’s lack of acknowledgement of race and Empire, for example, to the notion that because no British white men with guitars are singing about politics it is currently absent). The fact that THB gigs were the fastest-selling ones the Manics have done in many years is testament to the power which the album holds over many people around my age and also an uncomfortable reminder of how easily we seek solace in sentimental reminiscing. In 1994, a BBC performance of Revol would have felt dangerous – now it feels like a crowd-pleasing offering to an audience who’ve just put the kids to bed and are relaxing with a drink. That’s what happens – we age and in doing so we hark back to when we weren’t sure who we were, when everything seemed more vivid and when life exploded with possibility (real or imagined). Yet we aren’t defeated until we stop trying and nostalgia is ultimately the enemy of progress. The Manics’ current playing with the past, both in straightforward reliving and in Rewind The Film/Futurology’s more experimental playing, risk obscuring the really important message here:

Working class skeletons
Lie scattered in museums
And all the false economies
Speak falsely of your dreams

Let’s go to war
To feel some pureness and pain
Let’s go to war
We need to go to war again

Nostalgia and Futurology

pride

Modern pop music came to prominence at the same time as the invention and rise of the teenager, a concept (and grouping) with which it has had a long, sweaty symbiosis. While pop may be at least 70 years old, it still carries associations with, and connotations of, youth and modernity. Yet while the dawn of the teenager is inextricably linked to guitar-based rock and roll music, the past 20-odd years has seen the rise of poptimism, which seeks to paint guitar-based ‘rock’ as conservative and backwards against the futuristic-leanings of a self-consciously ‘artificial’ dance-oriented chart pop. I’ve always found this attempted delineation to be weak and messy, a position which I feel has been vindicated the more dominant poptimism has become in the media. Shows like The Big Reunion and acts like One Direction (one of whose biggest hits was widely viewed as being an…homage…to The Who) have shown that conservatism and nostalgia are by no means solely confined to rock music.

The sway of poptimism is such, however, that the latter examples aren’t seen as retrospective. The Big Reunion may explictly involve reforming pop acts who were briefly popular in the 90s but, when placed against the mythical bogeyman of conservative rock, it’s viewed as an open-minded celebration. One Direction may make derivative music but their talent show origins, their youth and their appeal to young girls conspire to present them as exciting and modern. Nostalgia, then, is elided to the point where it becomes meaningless: little more than a tool to bash already-disliked acts with rather than any considered and/or sincere aversion to conservatism. It is enough to be heard as loudly opposed to conservatism, no matter how incoherent this may be upon examination. What matters is perception.

This warping of ‘nostalgia’ from meaning a sentimental yearning for ‘the good old days’ to a largely-empty signifier to be deployed against acceptable targets has permeated music criticism. You can view it in how acts like Prince and David Bowie were warmly welcomed when they stopped messing about (trying new things) and instead delivered albums which played to their archetypal images. Again, this was very clearly playing to nostalgia but in aligning themselves with audience expectations they opened a space for fluid, unforced perceptions. We don’t want to be seen to be conservative but we also don’t like it when acts make things hard for us by not being what we want them to  be; so, when they oblige us in the latter, we tell ourselves that they have ‘returned to form’ rather than ‘allowed us to love our own idea of them again’. It’s noticeable that this rationalisation is very rarely wheeled out for acts who haven’t deviated from who we want them to be – acts who conversely can end up as whipping posts for faux anti-conservatism because there has been no disruption there, nothing for them to return to us from.

The genius of Bowie’s The Next Day, one I still don’t think is widely appreciated, is how it completely understood this state of affairs and made it integral to the album and its campaign. The actual music wasn’t particularly different from Bowie’s previous few albums and I’ve no doubt that had it been released a decade previous, it would have quickly faded from view. Yet there was the ten year disruption and it was this Bowie made use of. It wasn’t just nostalgia presented as modernity – it artfully used the listener’s expectations to make it the first post-nostalgic album.

Manics_Futurology_Art_600This brings me to Futurology, the new Manic Street Preachers album which is providing them with the best reviews they’ve had in almost 20 years. It’s a very good album but I find it curious that most of these reviews have been focusing on the band’s ‘reinvention’, their ability to take the ostentatious trappings of Krautrock, Berlin-era Bowie and early-Simple Minds and craft their own ‘masterpiece‘ from the ruins. I find it curious because despite all the advance word, Futurology isn’t a musical reinvention at all – there’s almost nothing on there that a Manics fan won’t have heard from them before. In fact, from the moment the melodic opening title track riff recalls the band’s commercial peak through the post-punk blast of Sex, Power, Love and Money, the Know Your Enemy-jangle of The Next Jet to Leave Moscow and the energised Lifeblood-sheen of Walk Me To The Bridge, it’s a record which feels steeped in the Manics’ history. The same is true lyrically – the latter song’s clear references to Richey (despite the band’s denials) have already been noted while TNJTLM finds them renouncing their Know Your Enemy jaunt to Cuba (everything must go, indeed!). Let’s Go To War, meanwhile, is presented as the final part of a newly-formulated trilogy and its line ‘don’t forget we love you still’ harks back to both previous instalments (You Love Us/Masses Against the Classes). There are also, as noted in The Quietus review, several nods to particular aspects of working-class Welsh history threaded throughout the album.

It’s been noted that Futurology is the sister album of last year’s Rewind The Film. Less noted is the clear contrast in the album titles – the past and the future, or rather an idea of the future. The title track of RTW was an ode to the comfort of nostalgia: “rewind the film once more/turn back the pages of my post/rewind the film once more/I want the world to see it all.” The video for this and that album’s other two singles formed a short film about working-class Wales and the impact of the Miners’ Strike. The mood of Rewind The Film meant that critics easily identified its obsession with the past, with nostalgia. It also had a sense of anxiety for an unknown future which seemed certain to be warped and alien, irrevocably broken from the comforting myths of the past.

The aesthetic and publicity of Futurology seems to have blinded many to the fact that it’s a continuation of these themes – and one which draws far more heavily on the Manics’ musical past. In its way, then, it also understands and plays with this post-nostalgia age. It offers a frictionless return to previous highs, mixing nods to a more aggressive and radical past with a distancing from (and sometimes apologising for) it (this distancing has been crucial to the Manics’ success with a particular kind of critic, who could never have stomached their early belligerence without that gap). It offers nostalgia under the guise of modernity, drawing on the past to present a comforting, easily-digestible image of a future. “We’ll come back one day… we never really went away. ” This is Futurology.

 

Britpop and Robson and Jerome

This was the biggest selling single in the UK in 1994:

And this was the biggest selling single in the UK in 1995:

We could continue. The biggest selling singles and albums of the period were made up of acts like Meat Loaf, Celine Dion, Simply Red, Take That, Bon Jovi, The Beautiful South. Now, whatever the musical merits of these acts (I attended a Celine Dion night at an East London pub last year and it was incredible) no-one could possibly claim that they were diverse or radical, in any sense. It was one big gloopy mass of MOR. It’s been quite hilarious, then, to see pieces likethis appearing to mark the ‘anniversary’ of Britpop. It was a “cultural abomination that set music back”, apparently, leading to “unrelentingly pedestrian bands (which) ditched everything that once made British pop music interesting”. Woah! That’s quite the claim isn’t it? There’s a lot of it about too: attacks on how‘rubbish’ it all was, confused musings about its ‘conservatism’ (except for the bands/albums which the writer liked). These pieces tilt at the windmill of Britpop ‘celebration’, of which there’s been very little (an incredibly half-hearted BBC season being the only effort of note in that regard). Instead, Britpop has in the past 20 years become an embarrassing and much-maligned period far more likely to inspire ire and ridicule than misty-eyed nostalgia. This interpretation has evidently taken hold to the extent that critics can completely rewrite history, removing Britpop from its chronological context and blaming it for anything and everything they didn’t like about the 1990s.

It’s important, then, to remember the climate in which Oasis and co first came to prominence. It was ridiculously conservative and derivative, all power ballads and shit cover versions and semi-ironic one-hit wonders. Robson and Jerome sold millions of records entirely on the back of World War II nostalgia, at a time when John Major’s Back to Basics campaign was reeling from scandal after scandal. Were Oasis really more damaging than this comforting retreat or, just maybe, have they become the whipping-boys for a mainstream conservatism which everyone seems to have forgotten existed before them? I instinctively dismissed Definitely Maybe at the time – I was a 14 year old starting to realise I was gay and my brother played Oasis constantly – yet even then I could see that it had an energetic swagger which had largely been missing from the British mainstream. It felt exciting and it came from a recognisably, assertively working-class place. The opening lines of Oasis’ debut single are ‘I need to be myself/I can be no-one else/I’m feeling supersonic/give me gin and tonic’, for God’s sake. ‘You and I are gonna live forever’. “Is it worth the aggravation to find a job when there’s nothing worth working for?’ This was a band upending the defeatism of a class pummelled by almost two decades of Tory government and capturing the sense of dynamism and hope which was leading to a Labour government.

That government, of course, would turn out to be a shattering disappointment. This plays into contemporary responses to Britpop, as of course does Oasis’ decline into cocaine excess and disconnect. Yet the class dynamics which made Oasis seem revolutionary at the time still instruct responses to Britpop today. It’s notable, for example, that critics almost uniformly pick out Pulp and Common People as worthy of praise amongst the detritus. Yet the irony of praising a band singing about patronising responses to the working-class while slating the gobby working-class kids who took it too far (ie didn’t know their place) is completely lost. Michael Hann writes that Britpop “resulted in a generation of bands and fans who resembled nothing so much as a parody of the football hooligans of a generation before.” Just read that sentence again. It drips with a class hatred which Guardianistas would be quick to leap on if aimed at a less acceptable target. ‘We don’t talk about love, we only want to get drunk’, indeed. It’s easy to toss up a few signifiers of what ‘Britpop’ was and appeal to caricatures of violent working-class excess. It’s also lazy and utterly meaningless, failing to understand the musical period as a lived experience involving pride, self-discovery and a healthy lack of deference.

The media pieces slating Britpop are further bemusing because, it cannot be stressed enough, the ‘genre’ was almost entirely a media construct (hence why my use of it in this blog is so all over the place). While Britpop as a term may have only become commonly understood in 1994, it very quickly was being applied to preceding acts like Happy Mondays, Stone Roses and even Morrissey (who had been embroiled in a racism storm in 1992 for draping himself in a union jack in front of a backdrop depicting skinheads). Again, the past 20 years has seen a hardening of opinion on what constituted Britpop which simply did not exist at the time. Dance acts like Chemical Brothers and The Prodigy were drawn under the umbrella at the time, as were Portishead, Tricky and Massive Attack (with trip-hop becoming a ‘thing’ in 1994). The intellectual, anti-sexist/homophobic/racist, cross-dressing Manic Street Preachers were included with aforementioned A Design For Life being as much an  ’intelligent Britpop anthem’ as Common People. Then there were the swathes of bands drawn into the fold yet kicking against it: Skunk Anansie’s Skin declared they were ‘clitpop, not Britpop!’ while the Manics-endorsed Asian Dub Foundation complained of the ‘mythical whiteness’ pushed by the Britpop label. These were the bands which spoke to me, an awkward queer teenager at the time, and as far as Britpop means anything I would identify them as part of it. This isn’t to say that I buy into the ‘Oasis fans are awful’ stuff which The Guardian has previous form on – my 18th birthday was spent with my brother and a bunch of his mates, all of whom loved Britpop and called me ‘Jarvis Cocker’ for  the evening. None of them ever gave a shit about my sexuality. But this doesn’t fit into the trite narrative about Britpop being conservative, sexist, racist etc so it’s all completely abandoned. So, in essence, the media reframes its own creation to argue against itself. It wasn’t, after all, Oasis that led to the creation of Loaded magazine, or Suede who wrote the ‘Yanks Go Home!’ cover.

Michael Hann’s hatchet job underlines his complete lack of understanding of the period with this observation:

Indie had ceased to be an alternative. And if it was no longer an alternative, but a hegemonic force of its own, then what was the point of it?

It’s important to note that he completely overstates the case. Even at its peak, Britpop was largely confined to the lower reaches of the charts and was still being outsold by the Celine Dion and Michael Jacksons of the world. Yet as far as Oasis, Blur, Suede etc did become big-hitters, this didn’t close down the opportunities for difference and diversity. Precisely the opposite – they opened the door to acts you previously couldn’t have imagined competing with Meat Load et al. What were Spice Girls if not a part-response to, part-expansion of Britpop? Yet as an unashamedly POP act, free from all the dreary anti-guitar, anti-‘authenticity’ rubbish which currently dominates music criticism, they’re still widely celebrated today. It wasn’t a BAD THING that Oasis again reminded people that some passionate working-class people could become one of the biggest bands in the world. In fact the media seems to accept this when engaging in one of the endless ‘the charts are now dominated by posh people’ tirades – it’s only when you mention ‘Oasis’ or ‘Britpop’ that the Pavlovian responses kick in and thought goes out the window.

None of this is intended as an argument that Britpop shouldn’t be criticised. If anything, it demands criticism as one of the final big musical periods where a substantial audience intersected with massive media hype and eager critics. Acts like Shania Twain and James Blunt would sell heaps in the years after but you’d never find them on the News at Ten, while the rise of Popstars/Pop Idol/X Factor in the early 00s would soon change the game again. If everyone seems to have an opinion on Britpop it’s because everyone of a certain age feels that they lived through it. It’s expected, then, that there will be different voices and criticisms. But let’s not just accept the vapid consensus that Britpop was horrible and ruined everything for everyone. Let’s remember Wet Wet Wet and Robson and Jerome.

Spotify playlist at the link above. Last year I initially didn’t think much of Call Me Maybe, the song that ended up being my favourite single of the year. That’s kind of a theme this year, with at least half the tracks being ones which I either purposefully avoided for a while (hello, Miley) or which took their time to grab me (I hated Mirrors for a while, Full Of Fire was difficult to extricate from the album). It’s difficult to pick one of these songs as my favourite – Roar, Royals, The Next Day and Flatline are probably my most listened to. I only very recently discovered Song for Zula and it instantly blew me away.

Wrecking Ball – Miley Cyrus
Royals – Lorde
Reflektor – Arcade Fire
Roar – Katy Perry
Rewind The Film – Manic Street Preachers
The Next Day – David Bowie
The City – The 1975
Get Lucky – Daft Punk
Everything is Embarrassing – Sky Ferreira
Flatline – Mutya Keisha Siobhan
You’re In Love – Betty Who
#Beautiful – Mariah Carey ft. Miguel
Hold On, We’re Going Home – Drake
Full Of Fire – The Knife
Mirrors – Justin Timberlake
Song for Zula – Phosphorescent
Sweeter Than Fiction – Taylor Swift
Drew – Goldfrapp
Copy of A – Nine Inch Nails
After You – Pulp

My Singles of 2013