Sunday, April 29, 2012

Top 10 Manchester Albums of All Time

On the eve of my first trip to Manchester (aka the Motherland - thanks Q-Tip), it felt appropriate to tackle the impossible task of trying to rank the best recorded sound from the greatest musical city in the world. Hyperbolic musical ravings and list curation is essentially what serves as a good time for me these days, but this time there was a natural recognition that there is just no getting this one right. So no qualifiers, caveats or over thinking. Here goes.

10. The Chemical Brothers - Dig Your Own Hole

For my money there is a lot of over hyped high profile DJ and turntableism happening out there right now, but to be fair it is not a new phenomenon. I was a fan of the 90's big beat sound, but in retrospect there were a lot of hacks and pretenders. I think the Chems were the real deal during their limelight and this album shows a variance in beats and soundscape that few to none of its counterparts could muster, while still somehow being quintessentially Mancunian in vibe and core.

9. The Charlantans - Up To Our Hips

I always felt initially like the Charlies (yes we will make full use of fanboy hipster abbreviations throughout this whole exercise) were making the records the Stone Roses might have made if they had managed more output and longevity. Somewhere along the way though, they remained rooted in Madchester scene stuff, while nestling perfectly alongside the fuzzier BritPop stuff. This album epitomizes these guys coming into their own and elevating from tier B to A.

8. Doves - Lost Souls

This album was released the same year as Coldplay's Parachutes. I can't help but thinking Doves were one "Yellow" away from being just as huge. The reality of Lost Souls being a far superior recording (and Doves a far superior band) should be obvious, but the endearing imperfections and dumbed down lustre is what makes it a Manc album and at the end of the day probably why it is fitting and even better that they don't have shitty artists like Rhianna doing cameos on their albums.

7. Oasis - Definitely Maybe

Some might say (haha) that Morning Glory is the better album. They might also suggest this one should rate higher. The raw immediacy of Definitely Maybe was that almost impossible thing bands rarely capture, and if they do, it happens on their debut and almost as a product of being too naive to know what an honest record you just made. There are riffs being lifted from classics all over this thing. No one plays or sings very well. The lyrics are silly in an adorable way, but more than anything, it felt like the first time since The Smiths when regular guys who aspired to be in bands, had a sense that they could in fact all be Rock & Roll Stars.

6. James - Laid

James were around long before this album and longer than most people realized in general, if they had even heard of them. My sense is the piss poor cover of the title track for the movie American Pie likely brought some new listeners, but no damage done thankfully. The Manchester influence seems much more subtle on James records, and it feels even a bit more masked with Eno's magic touch production on Laid. Very capable musicians. Booth has a wonderful voice. Clever lyrics and bits of haunting melody. There is not one soft spot on this album.

5. Badly Drawn Boy - The Hour Of Bewilderbeast

This cat was never really able to ever recapture the magic of this album. It was seemingly a classic case of stars aligning. I don't believe he ever stopped being a great songwriter, it just felt like no one could never ever write this many perfect songs all at once again. Perhaps also why it felt like he slipped into a prolific cycle of constant output. Regardless, the range of sound for what is really a singer songwriter recording is astounding. There are classic pretty and dirgey accoustic tracks and others that groove with a flow that would have Prince shaking his narrow little ass. I would not want to have to follow this album with any new music.

4. Joy Division - Closer

I have been known to flip flop occasionally with respect to which full JD studio is better - Closer or Unknown Pleasures. I also used to think this one was tougher to listen to. Thematically it's always seemed darker than Pleasures, although you could see that as a hair splitting exercise in many regards. Sonically however, there is a consistency here that is stronger and houses many of the songs that would come to form the sound that so many bands have attempted to replicate admirably, but ineffectively. Joy Division reside at the opposite end of the Manchester fun spectrum to the likes of Stone Roses, Happy Mondays, or Inspiral Carpets, yet the deliberate lack of polish would, to me, define in many ways the uncanny sincerity of the music that would continue to flow from the city well after they became New Order.

3. New Order - Power Corruption & Lies

Speak of the devils. Setting out with this project, I knew that New Order would rank high, but I had not settled on which album almost until I started typing this placing. For years this was my favourite New Order record. I wasn't movable on the idea either. Within the last couple of years though, I have landed on Technique for reasons that do not fit with the overarching theme of this blog entry. That said, PC & L is still the album that somehow best represents New Order's contribution to Manchester's musical soundscape, as well as defining their early evolution from Joy Division into the band they would become. What I have always loved most about this record is the balance between lo-fi bits of half hearted dreariness and the full bodied adaption of electronic elements, the latter of which would form the basis of sound for what would become well put together clever club dance type music.

2. The Smiths - The Queen Is Dead

Many would likely expect this (or another Smiths record) would rank number one. However, just because you are the greatest band of all time does not necessarily mean you get to have the best recording from Manchester. I have been promised by a friend and colleague that I will be shown the actual cemetery gates at some point during my stay. Case in point, The Queen has some of Morrissey's most clever lyrics juxtaposed against some of his strongest vitriol and well meaning mean-ness. Marr's signature jingle jangle is perhaps most prevalent and poignant with these songs, and much more meaningful given the synthesized backdrop these lads were largely competing against at this point in the eighties. This was an incredibly important record for all smart music, regardless of the city from it was born.

1. The Stone Roses - The Stone Roses

Sound inspiring? Check. Scene defining? Check. Timeless and well aged? Check and check. Given the spectrum of years Manchester musical brilliance has spanned, for whatever reason, this record in its place as the headstone for the classic "Madchester" sound seemed to make it a fitting choice for the record most people would think of when asked about music from this city. The tone is set with the Mani's opening bass line on "I Wanna Be Adored". It actually also set the tone for a whole lot of music nerds saying things like "best bass line ever", "best debut album ever", or "best use of citrus on an album cover ever." 

This record pre-dates the core years of BritPop, yet basically defined its equivalent text book sound. It catered to the clubby druggy fun kids, while still managing to draw from the Mersey jangled guitar fills. Every song has its own unique perspective, but there is a common thread that runs through every track in a way no young band should be able to get away with on their first album. Every song makes you want to dance and not care of you can dance. The dirty hippy undercurrent brings a level of almost optimism that was much harder to find in early Manchester post punk artists like The Chameleons, The Fall, Magazine. or of course Joy Division. Although a much different band, like The Smiths, each member brings the type of playing required for the strength and integrity of the song. No grand standing or virtuosity, just four lads all on the same page for what good songs should sound like. 

As a closing thought, I will quote singer Ian Brown, with what should be a ridiculous statement if in 1989 it were not so absolutely true. Sadly they were never able to realize on the full potential of this statement or this brilliant album.

"We're the most important group in the world, because we've got the best songs and we haven't even begun to show our potential yet"

Ian Brown - NME - December 1989

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

10 Best Albums of 2012 (so far)

10. Tanlines - Mixed Emotions

9. Shearwater - Animal Joy

8. White Rabbits - Milk Famous

7. John K. Sampson - Provincial

6. Imperial Teen - Feel The Sound

5. Frankie Rose - Interstellar

4. Bear In Heaven - I Love You, It's Cool

3. Lotus Plaza - Spooky Action At A Distance

2. Django Django - Django Django

1. School Of Seven Bells - Ghostory