Friday, December 31, 2010

Annual Round-up 2010

And so, with no fanfare whatsoever, the 5th annual ItP end-of-year shindig. Well, if all the newspapers are doing it, why can't we?

Most low-key comeback
The Human League released their first single in 9 years a few weeks ago. On the venerable Wall of Sound label, no less. And no one noticed. Can someone please get them a new PR company?

See ya later, alligators
Bobby Farrell, Alexander McQueen, Arthur Penn, Corey Haim, Dennis Hopper, Dino de Laurentis, Norman Wisdom, Gary Coleman, J.D. Salinger, Lena Horne, Lionel Jeffries, Lynn Redgrave, Ronnie James Dio, Solomon Burke, Tony Curtis, Tom Bosley, Teddy Pendergrass, Teena Marie, James Pickles (above), Captain Beefheart, Malcolm McLaren, Blake Edwards, Leslie Nielsen, Joan Sutherland

Best album
Last Christmas, I treated my family (read: myself) to a premium subscription to Spotify. I justified this £10 a month outlay on the basis that it would be a good way of introducing us to new music, allowing us to listen to new artists before we plunked down our cash for the CDs. Well, on that score it was an unqualified failure, as our CD purchase rate has plummeted spectacularly. There are various reasons for this, and I'll return to them at greater length in future posts, but one of them is that Spotify is just so damn good, and I'm willing to trade the degraded sound quality for the convenience of being able to listen to pretty much whatever the hell I want, whenever I want, whether at home or on the move. One downside of having this smorgasmord of digital music at my fingertips is that I can now rarely listen to a whole track before cueing up the next. And as for sitting through whole albums, well, you can pretty much forget that, so short has my attention span become.

The above notwithstanding, I have heard some brilliant albums this year, though not necessarily all at one sitting, and all of them on Spotify. The fact that many of these were on smaller labels, and might have otherwise gone unheard, just shows the reach and breadth of the service. Among those I've enjoyed, some of which I've already pointed out on this blog, are Oriol 's Night & Day on Mike Paradinas' Planet Mu label (it's amazing how cutting edge glitchtronica can sound like Shakatak), New Chain by Small Black on Jagjaguwar, OMD's History of Modern, Sleigh Bells' Treats, The Archandroid by Janelle Monae, Gorillaz' Plastic Beach and The Waves by Tamaryn. However, the most consistently brilliant, the one where every note seems considered and where there is absolutely no superfluous filler, has to be Vampire Weekend's sophomore effort, Contra. Released very nearly one year ago at the start of 2010, it's remained a firm favourite in the Irk household in no small part due to its sheer stylistic audacity, essaying the highlife-inflected throwdowns of their debut long player, creating minimal electronic noodlings backed by plainitive, keening vocals, and going for full-on guitar wigouts (notably on Cousins- good video too, courtesy of Hammer & Tongs). Bravo. More please.

Best single
Really? Is there really such a thing any more? The continued existence of Reggie Yates' Chart Show on Sundays between 5 and 7 may give the illusion that this is so. But who's kidding who here? All we have now are songs. They may exist as ones and zeroes, they may find physical form in plastic (the above mentioned Vampire Weekend have a track from Contra [entitled Run] on constant radio rotation at the moment, but as far as I can tell, there's no accompanying CD or vinyl release- who at the radio station decides to suddenly play this? And why?), they may or may not have a specific promotional push behind them (Let It Be certainly didn't when it scraped into the top 40 in November), everything is up for grabs. Any track recorded at any time since Edison is pretty much eligible for chart entry, and every track is only a Facebook campaign away from hitting the no. 1 spot. So what makes a single in 2010? Search me, guv.

At this point you're probably expecting me to say that the best single this year is thus The Ink Spots' Whispering Grass or some such. No, I'm not going to be that cute. I will stick to 2010. And there have been some genuinely good singles that really were released on CD, vinyl, etc. including Tinie Tempah's Pass Out, OK Go's White Knuckles, Infinity Guitars by Sleigh Bells and Magnetic Man's I Need Air. But the track I've listened to most this year, and by some measure the best, is Small Black's Panthers. Like New Order produced by Kevin Shields (ah, if only...), it feels like a warm bath full of codeine, shimmering, malevolent and beautiful.

"Hang on," you're saying. "This was an album track. How did you come to the conclusion that this was a single?" Well, pace Max in Pinter's The Homecoming, "I decided it was".

Most unedifying spectacle
Probably this.

Best gig
Slim pickings this year, but I have to say that Grandmaster Flash at Glasgow's Sub Club in November far exceeded my expectations. He held a small but fervent crowd in the palm of his hand for over 90 minutes, cajoling, haranguing, teasing... While there were one or two longeurs, and while he showed an unexpected penchant for playing the thuggish 90s hip-hop (M.O.P., Wu-Tang Clan) I'd have expected him to despise, this was a (grand)masterly performance, and a poke in the eye to those who claim that DJing is merely playing other people's records. One highlight was a 10 minute section where David Bowie's Let's Dance segued into Smells Like Teen Spirit and then Blur's Song 2. The assembled hordes (80% male, it must be said) went absolutely mental, Adidas trainers aloft as they crowd-dived and pogoed. The other highlight was when the music stopped after 85 minutes and Flash promised the crowd "one more tune" as an encore. Without missing a beat, one wag shouted "Whigfield!" Gotta love those Glaswegian audiences.

Worst article in the history of mankind
Despite a late surge by this Daily Mail classic, the category was swept by an article in Grazia (20th Dec 2010, p. 75) that made me want to throw my Louboutins at the wall. I have a love/hate relationship with Grazia. I love to hate it, despite my reading it every week to see exactly how high boots should be next season (a subject in which I have a deep and genuine interest).

Unfortunately the article in question doesn't appear to be online, so you'll have to bear with me. Entitled I Used To Love Christmas- But This Year It's Cancelled, it promised to explain how Bibi Lynch (who hell she?- Ed) was the festive season's biggest fan- until her parents died. Initially I was sympathetic, imagining a horrible Christmas Day inferno in 2008 or 2009, possibly involving some cheap fairy lights, that led to the author's disillusion with Yuletide. A bit like a real-life Gremlins. But no. Bear with. As I read the article, Lynch explained that she lost one parent (no mention of the circumstances) in July 1988. The other died in October 2008. OK, there's possibly an article buried somewhere here (though the author is hardly unique in having both her parents die on her), but this wasn't it. What on earth did any of this have to do with Christmas? I'm still none the wiser, but I know Polly Filler-style journalism when I see it.

Quickest TV turnaround from "Yay" TO "Yawn"
Otherwise known as the Ugly Betty trophy, this hotly-contested category was won this year by Glee. That got pretty old pretty quickly, didn't it? I lapped up the first three or four episodes, and was especially won over by Jane Lynch, who had impressed me as Laurie Bohner in A Mighty Wind. I quickly realised, though, that the show had essentially the same plot week after week. Mad Men may move at a relatively glacial pace, but at least characters progress. All Glee's characters did really, though, was to learn a new routine each week, all hung around the MacGuffin of another character's pregnancy. How many rounds were there before the club managed to reach the fabled "regionals", incidentally? Not even Lynch's character's acid wit was enough to prevent me from changing the channel eventually. And besides, for a show supposedly (and loudly-trumpeted as being) about the triumph of the "losers", these were particularly photogenic losers. Only in the La-la land that is Hollywood can an actress as gorgeous as Lea Michele be cast as "the ugly one".

Best book
A few to pick from, including Just My Type, a history and exploration of typography (no, really, it's a page-turner). However, James Nice's excellent Shadowplayers was my book of the year. Another book I'm reading, John Peel's Olivetti Chronicles (from 2008), claims that "pop music in its very nature... resists scholarship. There have been... many attempts at scholarly pop books but most have been either outrageous hagiographies or absurd displays of pomposity." It's a shame he didn't live long enough to read Shadowplayers. A definitive biography of Factory Records, scholarly but entirely accessible, meticulous but not dry, it showcased Nice's research skills as well as his trademark subtle humour, and it wasn't a fawning hagiography either. Buy it.

New year resolution
I will finish off those unfinished posts from September and October. Sometime before December 2011. Promise.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Arto Noise

I was amazed to hear a brief snatch of (what I thought was) the downtown New York post no-wave supergroup Arto Lindsay and the Ambitious Lovers on BBC TV last week. I was even more astonished that it happened on BBC2 0n the Strictly spin-off It Takes Two. (And, by the by, how lovely is Claudia Winkleman?) Sadly, when I checked back on the iPlayer later, it turned out my ears were deceiving me. The short snatch of what I thought was The Ambitious Lovers' Let's Be Adult was, in fact, Groove Armada's Song 4 Mutya (thanks, Google), a song with which I was previously unfamiliar. It's pretty good, though, if a little more brazen than Let's Be Adult, and, to their credit, Groove Armada do acknowledge sampling The Ambitious Lovers in the single's small print.

No matter. This brief sample was like a musical madeleine, and I was soon transported back to New York circa 1984 (strange, as the closest I'd got to New York in 1984 was Liverpool docks). The Ambitious Lovers were a fantastic group, combining the skronk of Lindsay's first group, DNA, with his native Brazilian guitar tones, and with the clattering DMX and brittle synth noise of NYC loft spaces. Much of their ambition and scope can be ascribed to the Swiss-born composer Peter Scherer, who, like Lindsay, has an enviable address book (between them, they've worked with Laurie Anderson, Melvin Gibbs, John Zorn, Seigen Ono, Anton Fier, Bill Frisell, David Byrne, Caetano Veloso, Hal Wilner, in fact le tout New York).

Through three stellar albums (Lust, Envy and Greed, all on Spotify) and a succession of major labels, the group flirted with mainstream success (see below, for example), but never quite cracked the big time. Instead they now console themselves with providing film soundtracks and undertaking collaborations, it seems. They were probably a bit too brittle and angular for chart stardom, but you have to Admit It, they made a pretty great sound for 6-odd years, and they still sound great today as far as I'm concerned. I've attached a download if you want to investigate further.

Download Let's Be Adult by the Ambitious Lovers (mp3) (deleted Dec 11)

Friday, December 24, 2010


A Christmas 2010 playlist, courtesy of Spotify. Mel Torme, Basement 5, Flaming Lips and Spike Jones, among others.

Our 5th annual round-up and the Ambitious Lovers coming up next week. Excelsior!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

New Waves

Opening up a wormhole right back to 1991, it's Tamaryn. Yes, it's as if shoegazing never went away. But when the sound is this great, who's complaining? Not me.

BBC Review of The Waves

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Jamie Principle

This is great too. Despite them having a Spinal Tap-esque level of misfortune with their drummers, !!! are totally doing it for me.

Billy Liars

A great blog.

Journey Man

I was at a talking shop yesterday-- work-related-- and the word "journey" came up in almost every speech.

It's also spouted by every contestant on the X Factor, The Apprentice, Strictly Come Dancing and I'm a Celebrity. Which begs a lot of questions. One is: how did a word that started in reality-TV culture come to define business practice? And when?

And secondly, and perhaps more importantly: am I the only person left in Britain that isn't on a journey?

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Old Nick

Nick Cave in Hove speed camera crash. Surely that has to be the title of a Half Man Half Biscuit song rather than an earnest news story?