Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Top 20 Britpop Albums of the 1990's

This list is either something I have compiled before, or perhaps a post I have been avoiding since it is probably a bad idea. Britpop gets thrown around a bit loosely for my liking, and probably always did, but then I am a Canadian who probably should have loosened his grasp and moved on from this genre or period of music long ago. If someone was to ask about my favourite periods or styles of music, there would be few buckets of sound that I continue to adore quite like the music coming from England between 1993 and 1997.

So some ground rules. The La's and Stone Roses, in my opinion, in and around 1989 set the stage for what would become the more clearly defined Britpop sound. Welsh bands like Super Furry Animals and Manic Street Preachers were in the mix, but stretched beyond strict pop songs (their exclusion has nothing to do with the sheep thing I swear). Same with The Verve and Radiohead, who were toying with psychedelic and anthemic sounds respectively during that four year stretch. I almost threw in Pablo Honey since it feels like a Britpop record in tone and spirit, but as much as I love them, Radiohead just weren't really a Britpop band.

The Britpop I love was represented by bands who in the face of American grunge hype and arena rock style production, made a conscious choice to be quintessentially British. The influence and mixture that made it palatable to listeners keen on melody was representative of 60's Beatles and Kinks hooks, 70's Bowie glam and The Jam mod stylings, and plenty of 80's jangle right out of The Smiths playbook. There was fuzz, but it wasn't overpowering or forced in order to cater to mosh pits. There was a tremendous sense of putting the song first, with competent musicianship, but few guitar solos and even fewer stories that took longer than  four minutes to tell. Led Zeppelin continue to pass easily as an American band. None of the 90's Britpop bands could be mistaken for anything other than being British.

This period often gets reduced, not so unfairly, to Blur and Oasis. I submit, as with many genres which blow up a bit, that the bands from this period could likely be ranked in A, B, and C type tiers. Britpop was not exempt from an eventual over signing and watering down effect, but on the other hand there were some solid albums that get forgotten or overlooked in favour of some of the heavier hitters and usual suspects.

Here are my Top 20, with some thoughts jotted down for the top 5.

20. Ocean Colour Scene - Moseley Shoals

19. Sleeper - The It Girl

18. Marion - This World and Body

17. Ash - 1977

16. The Boo Radleys - Wake Up!

15. The Auteurs - After Murder Park

14. The Bluetones - Expecting To Fly

13. Supergrass - I Should Coco

12. Cast - All Change

11. The Charlatans - The Charlatans

10. Oasis - (What's The Story) Morning Glory?

9. Blur - Parklife

8. Elastica - Elastica

7. Suede - Coming Up

6. The Charlatans - Up To Our Hips

5. Gene - Olympian

This choice comes with the benefit of time and hindsight. Much has been made of The Smiths influence on this record. Sure, you can tell Gene liked The Smiths. Given my own bias, maybe that's why I love this record so much. Regardless, there is a romance and vulnerability here that feels far less guarded than many of the best recordings from these years. Fuzzy guitar sections are far more selected and slipped into songs that commence with much more perceived melancholy. Gene, on Olympian have an ability maybe only matched by The Bluetones, to build songs to crescendo, without compromising the pop core leanings. I actually wish I had listened to this album more when it came out. It is an absolute gem.

4. Blur - Modern Life is Rubbish

This would (and maybe will) be considered a very obscurist aging hipster choice for number three, but this was Blur's way of settling into the skin they would wear. Their debut has some cool tracks, but it  is mostly flat and broadly uninspired. Here they seem to shed the pressure of catering to American audiences with a take this or leave it statement up front and centre. There was a common honest pop music thread that ran through all Britpop, but this was Blur declaring where they would fit in the grand scheme and laying the foundation for their run at the crown. Modern Life feels like Blur taking elements of Pulp's sophistication and blurring (cough..ahem) it with Suede's swagger, but with a playful brattiness.

3. Oasis - Definitely Maybe

The lads. Some British friends who were in university in Manchester in the 90's recently described to me the impact of Oasis on music fans, and it was strangely similar to how I viewed things from a Canadian vantage. Oasis, with this record, made everyday regular dudes, regardless of income bracket or background, feel like they could be in a band. They stole some riffs here and there, none of which they played with particular prowess. They had (and continued hereafter to have) some laughable lyrics, but they mostly had a knack for writing songs that still managed to sound like no one else. There were imperfections littered throughout this record, and not in a sloppy American indie way, but in an honest and endearingly forthcoming way. This was the first time in a while when a band declared themselves rock stars, and I am not convinced anyone has had the audacity to make the claim since. 

2. Pulp - Different Class

Given Pulp's earlier releases were, with due respect, largely hit and miss, it's hard to know if Different Class was a product of its musical environment, or if it was inevitable timing for a band about to hit stride. I believe it was the latter. They were just too good. This to me was always the "clever" Britpop album. Less gritty than some of the fuzzier albums happening, and less bratty than others. In its cleverness it also matches tremendous melody and slightly more complex song structures to the lyrical superiority of Cocker. This record feels to Britpop what wardrobe is to The Great Gatsby.

1. Suede - Suede

I fall in the camp that believe this album kickstarted Britpop in 1993. It literally set the tone for the type of soft and warm distortion that would run through so many songs to follow over the next four years. Suede announced itself with a swagger and snottiness that set the bar. These are eleven flawless songs executed flawlessly, with a cros section of just about everything that defines the purest and most sincere British music of the last fifty years. For the record, I have also not factored in the hand claps at the end of "Metal Mickey" into this decision. 

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Is It Overplay or Am I Just A Dick?

I was driving home tonight and "On Your Own" by The Verve shuffled into the speakers. It is a song from their second record, A Northern Soul, which came out ahead of their near perfect career highlight album Urban Hymns. Soul was a tremendous project that understandably became over shadowed by its follow-up. Hymns had a number of high profile singles like "Bittersweet Symphony", "The Drugs Don't Work", "Lucky Man", and "Sonnet". The thought I had tonight was that I far prefer "On Your Own" to any of those songs. As always, personal taste leads the way, but then why wasn't it as big a song as those from Hymns? Countless reasons, none of which reflect on the calibre of "On Your Own" as a song at the end of the day.

So then...

as I am prone to do, I got thinking about another northern UK band from the 90's, in the lads from Oasis. Similarly, many point to Definitely Maybe as a crucial staple that must reside in the collection of any self respecting BritPop fan, yet through the matter of time it will largely be seen as in the shadow of its respective follow-up, What's The Story Morning Glory? Not unfair, but to keep the song comparative going, I still prefer "Live Forever" from Definitely Maybe to the chart shattering bit of awesome that is "Wonderwall".

So then...

with maturity, hopefully comes reflection. When we are young, we often choose things we like such as music to either seperate ourselves from masses or challenge an authority. At 40ish one would hopefully be past needing to push any listening agenda and one should be able to slide into a comfortable position of "I like what I like, and I don't care what anyone thinks." Yet these two examples of preferring the less popular song got me questioning my own motivations, maturity notwithstanding.

So then...

the natural jump in thinking here is to the idea of overplay. Do you really prefer the less popular song, or are you just worn out on the super popular? For me it's probably a bit of both. I fall into the category of music fan who listens very actively versus music as pleasant background sound. This would hopefully mean that I consider songs completely on their own merit, rather than discounting the quality of a song because I'm tired of hearing it. Everyone loves finding something first. It's why early band adopters always feel a bit slighted when people flock en mass later on. It's the feeling the band isn't yours anymore. Not unreasonable, but also not where I am with things these days.

So then...

the progression of this foolishness leads me away from The Verve or Oasis, where I am prepared to just accept I simply like a couple less popular tracks by two cool bands. I stick on the idea of overplay. Why after over 30 years can I still listen "Love Will Tear Us Apart" by Joy Division every day, yet I never ever fucking ever want to hear "Stairway to Heaven" ever again. Part of it is the default foolishness that continues to perpetuate itself where Stairway still gets mentioned in circles prone to taking short cuts to clear thinking as the greatest song of all time. Never mind that it's not that great a song (they're my ears - I can't hate it if I want), why do I not want to hear it again? Classic overplay.

Overplay in my mind is when you're subjected to music repeatedly you might not otherwise source on your own, to the point where you become incredibly familiar with everything about a song despite, in many cases, never really asking to hear it that much. Because I'm old, I have all of Zeppelin's records on mostly original vinyl pressings I picked up as a kid. I used to enjoy them, but now I don't. Sonically and artistically I find them juvenile, primitive and largely a relic of a musical era well since surpassed by more interesting, innovative and evolved artists. That's a taste thing, which is discussable, but really no more disputable than me trying to get one of their diehard fans to change their stripes.

So then...

here's the rub. I heard Zeppelin everywhere growing up, even when it wasn't me putting on my own records. Alternatively, it was pretty hard to hear the Talking Heads, Simple Minds or XTC anywhere without completely sourcing those sounds yourself. This isn't even about mainstream vs. underground. It's the idea that the music I tend to love most (especially from over ten years ago) holds up much better to my ears not just because of taste, but because I have largely discarded stuff that was played a lot when I didn't ask for it. The phenomenon declined over the years for me once I stopped listening to traditional radio (especially in a town over-run by classic rock radio), but the damage was done.

So then...

in this whole logical chain of thinking the answer is I likely am a dick when it comes to music, but I am also likely a harmless victim of tremendous overplay. An innocent bystander caught in a virtual sonic drive-by of shitty 70's rock bands. Regardless, if there was a gun to my head and I had to hear Zeppelin, I would far rather hear "Custard Pie" than that terrible "Immigrant Song". This much I know is true. Oh yeah, I would also choose Spandau Ballet over Zep in a heartbeat.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Over Thinking The First Three Months of 2013 Music

At the start of each new year, we know mostly which artists have committed or are due to release new music. More and more I feel like we start each year by saying "this is going to be a huge year of new releases." It's almost to the point though, where one year really does not deserve more hype than the previous. If you're plugged into the right places, there is fantastic new music all around all the time.

Regardless of how it actually stacks up out of the gate or once the dust settles, there are a number of high profile releases on deck for 2013, some of which have already landed over the first three months. Here are ten that I would mostly rank as my favourites so far in '13.

Foals - Holy Fire

I cannot remember when I did not prefer British music to pretty much all music being produced everywhere else by everyone. Foals, after two solid records, represent the text book type of intelligent and interesting modern Brit music that will make them huge in the UK and sadly and potentially on the outside looking into most of North America. Holy Fire carries on where Total Life Forever leaves off and builds their sound out with a bit more chunkiness without compromising melody and quirky little licks and grooves. 

Certainly not surprising, but better than one might have anticipated, even with a clear growth trajectory across their catalogue. In some ways it feels like these guys have evolved among three records the way most of us hoped Bloc Party would have, although the Foals debut isn't their strongest, so growing into your genius might actually represent a better game plan.

Hilotrons - At Least There's Commotion

Ottawa is a cool city, but respectfully not widely known for producing large volumes of highly successful bands. I would suggest the bands like Wooden Stars and Hilotrons that do catch attention, get grossly overlooked compared to bands from other scenes. This is the third album by Hilotrons and even with some questions around full and official personnel involvement, it sounds every bit as quirky and engaging as their first two. There is a franticness that always struck me as reminiscent of Talking Heads or The Feelies, but with an obviousness nowness. A track like "My Number" sounds like the group is flexing a bit on Mowtown, with more than reasonable success. More people need to hear about this band. Not sure this blog will catapult them into millionaire status, but needless to say I have been listening to this one a whole lot.

Suede - Bloodsports

There are a number of seasoned British veteran acts releasing either comeback type albums, or follow-on records solidifying their positions as remaining relevant this year. This was the album I was most interested to hear, and weeks later, the album I continue to be most excited about. If one was to create a 90's BritPop bucket of the "big four", many would include Pulp, Blur, Oasis, and Suede. For my part in obsessing over the genre, Suede were always my favourite. They hit the scene like so many Brit bands, completely hyped beyond fairness by scenesters and were able to gain cred instantly for writing really strong songs. 

There was an elegant swagger Suede had that translates on this record far better than it did on their last couple of albums prior to break-up. What I love most is Bloodsports wins at the unenviable task of being respectful to the genre and era fans remember so fondly and want to hear, without being at all retroish or contrived. This is the best possible Suede anyone could have hoped for in 2013. Fresh, strutting, full of vigour and reminding anyone who cares to remember that they were easily one of the best 10 bands to come from the UK in the 90's. Also, I don't care about whatever silly global trademark issues exist, I refuse to call them The London fucking Suede. They are just Suede, and they are still amazing.

Woodkid - The Golden Age

A friend introduced me to Woodkid (music video director Yoann Lemoine from France) a few months ago, so I knew this record was coming. I am still not sure the heads up prepared me for such a vast and wonderful combination of sounds and orchestration. Heavy use of strings and brass can end a number of ways on pop albums, and not always favourably. The Golden Age realizes on its own ambition in a way that leaves one wanting to listen again to hear something not heard the last time around. These are pop songs. Nothing clocks in over five minutes. There is also nothing unlistenable about anything here. It is a challenging listen without being the least bit contrived or forced. I am not entirely sure how you write songs like this, but there will not be another album in 2013 that sounds quite like this one, I know that much. Solid collection of ambition and art.

Girls Names - The New Life

I am a sucker for anything that sounds like late 70's / early 80's post punk. It's a sound that to my ears continues to be fresh and relevant, probably because it sounded so odd and ahead of its time to many ears at the time. Bands like Interpol and others have done a great job at borrowing from that sound and era, while being very much an 00's bands. There has been a risk in recent years of this space getting a bit cluttered and watered down as a result, but certain acts continue to find new ways to put a new spin on the melancholic dreariness of this sound. Ten songs with clean vibrato type guitar mixing, spacey vocals, head bobbing grooves and above all a real focus on the songs rather than the influence. Fans of Magazine, The Cure, Echo & The Bunnymen, and The Chameleons will likely really enjoy this record like I do. Pleasant and surprising find.

BOAT - Pretend To Be Brave

Continuing in the category of bands who are unabashedly great at showcasing their influences in fresh ways, Pretend To Be Brave is the fifth record (I know - crazy!) from this fun bunch of Seattle kids. In many ways if Time Life released one of those compilation sets with six discs of 90's lo-fi indie classics, complete with cheesy tv ad spots ("Hey who could forget this classic") it would look and sound a lot like what these guys do super well. A bit of an unfair categorization perhaps, but even their last record, Dress Like Your Idols, continued the tone and album cover visual of not being afraid to wear your 90's influences on your sleeve. 

This record is interesting in that their really are not as many bands writing songs that sound like this as one might assume. Twelve songs, none over four minutes, and only two above three minutes. Regardless of whether you like really fun songs that sound like Pavement and Built To Spill, it's refreshing to hear bands that have figured out that sometimes less is more (bad cliche) and that just because you wrote 25 songs, not every fucking one of them is good enough to be on your album.

David Bowie - The Next Day

This album was destined to receive a lot of attention, not just because Bowie has not made new music in a while, but because it came out of nowhere and no one saw it coming. One day there was a new video on the internets for "Where Are We Now?" and an announcement that a new record would follow in March. Nice trick Ziggy. As a result of who this is, there is a risk in giving The Next Day top marks regardless of merit. Almost like when they miss some awesome old dude for an Oscar and end up having to right that wrong with a best actor nod for some shitty movie late in his/her career.

I actually think this is a very good album. I was hoping it might push the envelope a bit more, but it feels like even a fairly straight forward record from Bowie is well beyond what many of his 66 year old counterparts are capable of in 2013, or quite frankly what kids a third of his age can muster either. I fall into the camp of Bowie fans who like much of his output since Let's Dance, but also admit his career is littered with misses. A Bowie miss though, comes from giving something a shot and not being afraid to fall down. 

The visuals that go with some of these songs enhance the sonics, but Bowie's always been a highly visual artist. I like a couple of the pop songs on this record, specifically "Valentine's Day" which feels like what even a completely mainstream sounding Bowie should sound like in 2013. I would have been fine with a record full of songs all in that vein to be honest. If he had made a dubby type album, I think it would have seemed panderish. I do wish it was a bit shorter. Fourteen tracks before bonuses, could easily have been edited back to about 10 tracks for a lovely and more compact recording. Nonetheless, regardless of whether you like these songs or feel like it's piggy backing a bit on legend, there is something that feels fundamentally right about David Bowie sharing new music with the world, in any era.

Suuns - Images du Futur

I saw Suuns two years ago at the Halifax Pop Explosion. Of the 30-40 artists I was able to check out, they were the single biggest pleasant surprise and new find of the festival for me. This record has even more focus than their debut (also a fantastic album). The eclecticism of the debut made it interesting albeit occasionally a bit manic. Images du Futur has that signature feel of a band getting to know themselves really well and every song slides into the next beautifully. 

I think there have been comparisons to Clinic in the past which are fair, but with complete due respect, Clinic weren't nearly as focused or advanced by their second record. What is similar is the potential for Suuns, like Clinic, to become grossly under appreciated in the current musical landscape. This is a listenable record, but probably not for everyone. I love that they are from Montreal, but you could plunk this album in the middle of the best UK indie and alternative deep end and it would swim just fine. The band plays sounds that work for the songs, whether simplistic or involved. You can't lose when a band is thinking about the song above all else. I adore this record.

Dutch Uncles - Out Of Touch In the Wild

When I first listened to this record, I was racking my brain. Finally it felt fair to say it was an almost perfect mix of Field Music chops and Hot Chip vocal treatments. Then I saw someone else write the same thing in another corner of the internet. This means I am really smart, but more importantly, whether it is a deliberate homage or not, it also means Dutch Uncles are really smart. For fans that like a lot of the song structures of modern electro pop, a la Cut Copy, Hot Chip, or Junior Boys, but may not like the synthier realities and prefer something a bit more organically composed and orchestrated, Out Of Touch In the Wild should fit the bill. The production is clean, but not too glossy. The songs are busy, but with an under current of vulnerability juxtaposed with just the right amount of cautious cockiness. Put another way, it sounds like these guys know exactly how great they are without allowing  their songs to get away from them. Ten songs, not one dud. Lovely record.

Local Natives - Hummingbird

This band's debut snuck by me, and admittedly, I have yet to remedy that (soon). The first thing I was struck by on my very first listen of Hummingbird was the gorgeous vocals. The vibe fits nicely alongside Grizzly Bear and even a more stripped down version of Yeasayer. My bias for British music tells me the falsetto and dreamy guitar tunings should be coming from England, but we'll give California full props for these lads. As seems to be the trend with my faves this year, Local Natives sound like a band settling into their skin nicely. Every one of these tracks is a unique rendering while forming part of a really consistent sounding collective of concise yet endearingly loose songs. 

One of the biggest challenges for bands who are not likely to become millionaires is writing heartfelt songs they can assemble together as a sum stronger than the parts. It is a rare skill in today's soundscape for smart music listeners. This record is lovely example of how to create a bunch of songs that sound amazing together. I did not assign rankings with this blog post list, but Hummingbird has mostly occupied the slot for my favourite record of 2013 since it was released. Also, there are fucking handclaps all through this thing which makes it pretty much 10/10 even if it were U2 covers.


Yo La Tengo - Fade
Jamie Lidell - Jamie Lidell
Frightened Rabbit - Pedestrian Verse
Everything Everything - Arc
Xander Harris - The New Dark Age of Love
Atoms for Peace - Amok
Wire - Change Becomes Us
The Grapes of Wrath - High Road

Monday, April 1, 2013

Heavy Fives - Week of April 1, 2013

So I'm working on a review of cool music from the first three months, which has become a monster project with a life of its own it appears. In the meantime, here is another instalment of Heavy Fives and a quick list of five albums my headphones are hearing pretty heavily these days.

Girls Names - The New Life

Suede - Bloodsports

Woodkid - The Golden Age

Hilotrons - At Least There's Commotion

Depeche Mode - Delta Machine