Friday, July 10, 2009

July 2009

Welcome music lovers.

Well, it had to happen but this month I write to you in a slightly desultory state of mind. Despite some diligent research (hours spent in record stores, online and listening to music), I regret to advise that I have been unable to find a decent album to profile as the Album of the Month. I simply dont really love any of the new albums Ive bought in the last couple of months.

Therefore, rather than lower the quality of the Nevstar Music Guide, I shall exercise my artists prerogative to NOT profile an unrewarding album thereby preserving the quality and integrity of this stately offering. However, please feel free to suggest anything that has been released recently that is worthy of inordinate praise. Over to you dear readers.

But, dont feel short-changed my faithful followers as I have not one, but TWO Top Ten lists for you this month. One as a result of a recent media event and a second as a response to last months Top Ten.

So with that off my chest, its straight into the classic album of the month (no shortage of material on this list!).

Essential Classic Album

Johnny Cash : Live at Folsom Prison (1968)

"Hello, Im Johnny Cash."

These are the opening words of Johnny Cash - Live at Folsom Prison, an album which at the time represented a huge gamble, but ending up relaunching a disintergrating career and becoming his most beloved album of all time.

Johnny Cash is widely remembered and categorised as a country singer, but this really mis-states his importance and influence. With his deep, distinctive baritone voice, Cash sat astride the symbiotic relationship between country and the emergent sound of rock and roll. Starting his career at the famous Sun Records, he developed into one of the labels biggest stars in the late 50s with his distinctive rockabilly tracks. However, he didnt handle the success that came his way, descending into a destructive downward career spin fuelled by alcohol and drug dependencies.

With the help of June Carter, he emerged clean and Christian but realised his fan base was mainly the downtrodden and depressed. He thus decided to record a live album at Folsom Prison. Columbia Records were dead set against it. 'No one buys live albums', they steadfastedly maintained. Just like James Brown about the same time (with Live at The Apollo), Cash insisted and was ultimately proven correct as it became a massive critical and commercial success.

The album can trace its roots to 1953 when Cash saw a film called Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison. It prompted him to write a song about what he perceived prison life might be like. The story goes that he thus received lots of letters from prison inmates requesting him to come and play the song live at the prison.

Live at Folsom Prison is a cracking album and its the selection of tracks which makes it. His hit singles (Ring of Fire, Cry Cry Cry et al) are mostly missing. Instead he plays songs filled with stories directed towards the prison audience, some sympathetic, others not. He starts with the title track, which is an absolutely stonking song, particularly the classic lyric "I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die". Its followed by three more prison tinged songs, Busted, Dark as a Dungeon and I Still Miss Someone. The fifth track though is the best. Cocaine Blues is probably his greatest of all Cash songs. Check out the first two lines:

"Early one morning, while making the rounds;
I took a shot of cocaine and I shot my woman down

These are not the words of a pin-up teen idol. The Man in Black, even with God in his corner, definitely had a dark side and the audience knows it and loves him all the more for it. The album continues on including a section consisting of quiet ballad numbers and then a trio of songs with his wife June Carter. There are moments of levity (25 Min To Go) and solemnity (Joe Bean), and interspersed between the songs are sections of dialogue emphasising the affinity that Cash has with his audience.

In his long and notable career, this is arguably the pinnacle. A man playing his heart out in front of thousands of adoring if not law-abiding fans.

Best Track : Cocaine Blues

Listen to or buy here.

If you like this try :

Johnny Cash : Live at San Quentin
Johnny Cash : American Recordings III - Solitary Man
BB King : Live at San Quentin

Top Ten List

One regular reader really enjoyed the Top Ten list last month featuring the best of 1969 but claimed that 1989 was also a stellar year which is worthy of attention. Finding such a prompting irresistible, I did a little checking of my own collection. Sure enough, while I think its possibly a tad shy of the quality of 1969, there is no denying that the list is inordinately strong. So lets check out:

The Top Ten Albums from 1989

10. Midnight Oil : Blue Sky Mining
This album has a special place in my memory as it was my first ever CD. 1500 odd later is still gets played a lot more than most of those that followed onto my shelves. Probably their peak artistically with a magnificent set of tracks. Some quiet, some loud, all interesting.
Best track : Bedlam Bridge
Hidden Gem : One Country

9. XTC : Oranges and Lemons
XTC are not widely known but ask most pop artists from the 90s who were their major influences, and most would recite XTC somewhere near the top. An inordinately talented British institution, Oranges and Lemons was the best album from a catalog of nearly a dozen records. Immaculate lush production amplifies and reasonates amidst some near perfect pop songs.
Best Track : Mayor Of Simpleton
Hidden Gem : King For A Day

8. New Order : Technique
Few bands survive the death of their lead singer. Except New Order. Not many gave the survivors of Joy Division much hope of success following the untimely death of lead singer Ian Curtis. But not only did they survive, they re-emerged with a completely new and mesmerising sound showcased most spectacularly on Technique. The popularity of robotic synthesised dance beats known throughout House music can be traced directly to this album.
Best Track : Fine Time
Hidden Gem : Run

7. Depeche Mode : Violator
Depeche Mode were one of the most innovative and original bands of the mid 80s developing a sound based exclusively around the synthesiser. In 1989 they released Violator which consists of a terrific set of songs. Easily their most accomplished record.
Best Track : World In My Eyes
Hidden Gem : Personal Jesus

6. Lou Reed : New York
Probably the finest recording of his solo career, New York features Lou Reed in a somewhat cynical wry mood authoring a number of fascinating vignettes about the famous metropolis and its citizens. A witty and charming effort.
Best Track : Romeo Had Juliette
Hidden Gem : Endless Cycle

5. N.W.A. : Straight Outta Compton
Along with Public Enemy, N.W.A were the forefront of the popularisation of rap and Straight Outta Compton is possibly the most influential and important gangsta rap album of all time. Not much of a fan myself, but any music fan can appreciate its importance.
Best Track : Straight Outta Compton
Hidden Gem : Express Yourself

4. John Lee Hooker : The Healer
One of the undoubted giants of the blues, John Lee Hooker returned in 1989 with a collaborative effort featuring duos with a number of contemporary artists such as Santana, Bonnie Raitt, and Los Lobos. An excellent introduction for those looking to sample the undoubted charms of this emotionally resonant music.

3. The Pixies : Doolittle
It is certainly notable in compiling this list that several important bands recorded their best work in 1989 and The Pixies are no exception. A ground breaking indie-alternative band, The Pixies were never better than in this ferocious 1989 effort. An out and out classic and definitely the best place to start if you are unfamiliar with them.
Best Track : Here Comes Your Man
Hidden Gem : Gouge Away

2. The Cure : Distintegration
Again, the pinnacle of the bands career, Disintegration was the best album of The Cure's distinguished recording career. Not quite as morbid as some other releases, Disintegration sees them in almost a playful mood with some charming pop songs accompanying the soaring epics they became famous for. Outstanding.
Best Track : Pictures of You
Hidden Gem : Lullaby

1. Stone Roses : Stone Roses
It cant be a bad year when one of your all time favourite albums is released. I have written at length about the Stone Roses debut album before but its worth repeating and once again reflecting on its charms. A faultless, near perfect pop record featuring a synthesis of dance and rock. Immaculate. Simply immaculate.
Best Track : Waterfall
Hidden Gem : Made of Stone

And once again, the list of those albums left out testifies to the strength of the Top Ten. Other albums recorded in 1989 included such fine records as :

Madonna : Like A Prayer
Tom Petty : Full Moon Fever
Neil Young : Freedom
Aerosmith : Pump
Black Crowes : Shake Your Money Maker
The The : Mind Bomb
Beastie Boys : Pauls Boutique
Don Henley : End of Innocence
Travelling Wilburys : Vol I

Top Ten List Numero Deux

Like many, the news of Michael Jacksons death came as a surprise. Not a big surprise certainly but a surprise nonetheless. What followed was the standard reaction to a rock stars death; tributes from any and everyone, non-stop around the clock programmes, legal wrangles about his estate, and as always, a rush to buy anything ever recorded by the former artist. The latter always astonishes me. There were reports the next day of people LINING up at Real Groovy to lay their hands on Michael Jackson albums. Perhaps there is a explanation, but I find this completely irrational behaviour. If you are such a huge fan of Michael Jackson that you would take time off work to queue up at a record store, wouldnt you already own his recorded output? Im not a huge fan, but as with most self-respecting music fans, I own copies of Off The Wall, Thriller and Bad. The first two are absolute classics, the latter competent and everything since is one step above unlistenable. I thought about profiling one of his albums but everyone is probably sick of Michael Jackson material, so how about a minor tribute listing the Top Ten Michael Jackson songs to remind us that despite his sometimes bewildering personal life, musically at least, he was, at times, a visionary genuis.

The Top Ten Michael Jackson songs (with video evidence of course) are :

10) Rock With You (from Off The Wall)
The second single from Off The Wall, Rock With You sold two million copies so Im probably not along in liking it. A slower more languid track than others from the album, Rock With You is eminently likeable and showcases Jackson's improving vocals. It definitely has sufficient staying power to make this Top Ten list.
See video here.

9) We Are The World - USA For Africa
Often forgotten amidst all his solo work was that Jackson found time to co-author this track (with Lionel Richie) which only became the fastest selling single in pop history. The song is perhaps not his best work (I quite like the verses but not the chorus), but no one can begrudge the millions it raised for African famine relief. Worth watching if only for the array of stars who are in fine voice (even Willie Nelson!).
See video here.

8) Wanna Be Startin Something (from Thriller)
The lead song and fourth Top Ten single from Thriller (it would finish with an astonishing seven), Wanna Be Startin Something was an inspired choice as it set the template for what was to come. Following the work from Off The Wall which was catchy but light, Wanna Be Startin Something features a similarly funky danceable track with impressive instrumentation overlaid by some rather sharp, pointed lyrics targeting the Hollywood gossip industry.
See live video here.

7) Dirty Diana (from Bad)
Not sure what it is, but have always liked this song. It starts quietly and builds tension to that sudden outpouring of emotion with that exhalation "Dirty DIANA, aaahh". Brilliant. Sure it wouldve been dynamic live. Off the album Bad which was certainly not Thriller but is well worth owning.
See video here.

6) Dont Stop Till You Get Enough (from Off The Wall)
Not only an eminently catchy song, but the first single from Off The Wall was a very important one blazing the path that would turn him into a global superstar. DSTYGE represented a cross-over disco hit with a funky beat overlaid with immaculate pop vocals.
See video here.

5) Beat It (from Thriller)
The first single from Thriller and a barnstorming track. Jackson expanded his repertoire significantly from Off The Wall fusing dance beats with a noticeably harder rockier sound. Featuring a stellar drum track and guitar solo from none other than Eddie Van Halen, Beat It is certainly one of his more unforgettable songs. The video is worth watching for the dancing alone. My goodness that man could move. He out-dances a whole suite of professional dancers. Outstanding.
See video here.

4) Man In The Mirror (from Bad)
Another number one single (he had an amazing 13 in total), Man In The Mirror also gathered critical acclaim being nominated for a Grammy for Record of the Year in 1987. Demonstrating increased social consciousness, Michael with the help of a gospel choir makes the very concise point that solving some of the worlds large problems all starts with the person referred to by the perpendicular pronoun. The video is a bit overwrought, but the song is very strong.
See video here.

3) Blame It On The Boogie (from The Jacksons album Destiny)
A terrific track which remains to this day an absolute staple of dance DJs worldwide. Michael's vocals are imbued with such energy and enthusiasm that you cant help but start moving your feet. Funnily enough the song was also released by an otherwise anonymous English singer-songwriter Mick Jackson in 1978. But its the Jacksons' version which will endure for a long time to come.
See video here featuring a fantastic afro on Michael.

2) Thriller (from Thriller)
An absolutely ground-breaking song which is overshadowed (just) by one of the most famous if not best videos of all-time. The song is fantastic somehow combining an affecting boogie beat, with an eerie movie score and a catchy singalong chorus. The track also ends memorably with the uniquely chilling monologue from Mr Horror himself, Vincent Price. And then what can you say about the video. A story in its own right, this 14 min production ably demonstrated what could be done with the new artform of music videos. Eminently rewatchable again and again for the story, the dancing, the make-up, or simply to see Michael Jackson stuffing his face with popcorn on a movie date just like any other teenager would. Directed by John Landis of Animal House and Blues Brothers fame it is an integral part of pop culture. Beyond essential.
See video here (go on you really should watch it in its entirety).

and the number one track of Michael Jacksons catalog is............

1) Billie Jean (from Thriller)
It takes a fairly special song to top this list but Billie Jean rightly sits at the summit of Michael Jackson's best works. Billie Jean is simply special. An anguished tale written by Michael himself and produced by the legendary Quincy Jones, Billie Jean is reportedly based on a personal experience where a mentally ill female fan alleged that Michael Jackson had fathered one of her children. Despite the disturbing lyrics, the song was a monster smash sitting atop the US single charts for an astonishing seven weeks. The song is notable also for the hypnotic backing beat which has to be one of the best and most original of all time.
See video here.

So there you have it. What do you think? Have I missed any? Let me know your thoughts on Michael Jacksons best efforts.

Thats it for another month. Perhaps a word from Michael Jackson himself to end this missive:

"There's nothing like being on stage.You cant put it into words. When the light hits you, there's a certain spirit you feel. I dont like coming off."

Probably explains more about the actual guy than one hundred tabloid articles.

Until next month.

The Nevstar!