Saturday, December 18, 2010

Best of 2010

Welcome back Music Lovers.

As alluded to last month, I had been working on a longer than usual Top Ten list and it is time to publish it now. My period of writers block last year coincided with my annual list of the best albums each year and so have posted/published no such list for 2010 as yet. While its absence at the time may not have been noted, it does offer a great excuse to revisit a lot of the great music that was released in 2010.

In retrospect, a delay to anointing the best albums in any particular year is not necessarily a bad idea. Most album releases from UK/US bands are still frustratingly released in New Zealand several weeks, if not months, after coming out in their home markets. As such, albums released late in the year often have no chance of making the Top Ten list. By the time they have reached my CD stacker, I have already published my Top Ten and moved onto the new year. I can think of several releases from previous years which I ended up loving but were not considered for the annual list. As we will see, 2010 turned out to be a pretty good year for music helped in part by the inclusion for consideration of several quality releases which I have only come to love in 2011.
So now, with the full candidate list published and available to all, it is time to find out what were the Nevstar's....

Top Ten Albums From 2010

10. Bruce Springsteen - The Promise

It was in the mid 1970s that Bruce Springsteen finally produced the classic album his undeniable talent suggested he was capable of producing. Born To Run ranks up there amongst the finest rock albums of all time. His road to stadium filling super-stardom was assured. However, while there was a lot of touring in support of Born to Run, a follow-up album did not quickly eventuate. There was indeed a four year interlude between the multi-platinum smash released in 1975 and Darkness At The Edge of Town which followed in 1979. The reasons for the delay are not known but it certainly wasn't due to writer's block as this release testifies. Springsteen wrote and recorded over 40 songs during this period and a number of them found their way onto Darkness At The Edge of Town. But many did not and a great number were left on the cutting room floor seemingly never to be released.

But now, in 2010, they have been released for the first time as the double sided album, aptly entitled The Promise. And what an absolute treat it is. Hearing it for the first time is a revelation as you immediately realise you are listening to NEW material from an artist during his most creative song writing period. The tracks are undeniably 1970s Springsteen, not 2010 Springsteen. It is a lost album in the truest sense. It demonstrates all the traits of his earliest albums; cracking stories full of equal measures of wit and remorse sung to a soundtrack of unadorned musical simplicity. A few of the tracks are recognisable from those familiar with his live albums, but overall this is a great lost album which we have finally found. Essential for any Springsteen fan (and aren't we all?).

The only dilemma - for recordophiles like myself - is whether to place it in our collections under 1977 or 2010. Maybe best solution is to simply buy two copies and place one in each slot for completeness!

Best Track : Because Of The Night

9. Best Coast – Crazy For You

Best Coast
is effectively Bethany Consentino, a child actor turned musical prodigy. She released a number of near perfect pop-tunes in her teens which soon garnered quite a following on MySpace. The major labels soon came knocking and more professionally produced efforts soon followed. Combining with instrumentalist Bobb Bruno under the moniker Best Coast, this is her first full length release.

The album is beguiling in many respects. It is full of sugary sweet pop music with gorgeous vocals lathered over perfect melodies and inoffensive background instrumentation. But dig further and you find the songs have dirty and dark undertones as she sings about not only whimsical love, but revenge and heartbreak following on from the passion. It is an album about falling in love but forewarning the angst from a break-up which may follow. As such, the album flies past in a blur of boyfriends and bitches all sung in such innocuous dulcet tones that you would swear it is a girl band from the 50s singing not a child of the 90s. It is the perfect album for the soon to come summer and then you can also delve deeper into it during the long dark winter months. Remarkably, you will find it matches both seasons. Highly recommended.

Best Track : I Want To

8. Mumford & Sons – Sigh No More

Music companies are not our friends. They are the enemy; content to try and deliver to us the same music that we have already bought before. There is no room for originality or even a slightly different approach. Mumford & Sons are thus the quintessential band of the new century. A record company would never green light an album such as Sigh No More because it is not like other acts that have succeeded before. But Mumford & Sons quickly found a following online mainly because they are genuine, have great songs and can really really play.

Their sound, if it can be categorised, is an conglomeration of indie/alternative/country/folk. Being described as 'folk' music is near instant death in the music business these days, but Mumford & Sons make it cool by simply being who they are. You can easily chose not to listen. But it would be a mistake. The entire album is replete with irresistibly catchy folk tunes sung by a band clearly enjoying themselves. It possibly has a few too many slow songs, but the heights which are reached on tracks like Winter Winds makes up for such lapses. It is an album that bears a lot of repeat listens mainly because it is so damn interesting.

Best Track : Winter Winds

7. The National – High Violet

Regular readers of the Nevstar Music Guide will already know of my undoubted affection for The National. They are one of my favourite bands and their concert at the Powerstation towards the end of 2010 was perhaps the best of the year for this scribe.

I have written about this album previously. Check out my full review here.
Suffice to say that it is very close to the stratospheric standards set by their immediately prior albums, Alligator and Boxer. As noted earlier, their songs are "quietish, moody poems set to instrumentation dominated by intricate percussion or subtle basslines. The songs are smouldering classics, working their way into your subconsciousness and residing there long after the speakers have gone silent."

Best Track: Afraid of Everyone

6. Julia Deans – Modern Fables

New Zealand, it seems, is blessed with song-writing talent the equal of anywhere on the planet. Although undoubtedly we are biased in the assessment of it, every year there is an album released from a New Zealand artist which just floors me for the quality of song-writing on display. This year, that album was Modern Fables by former Fur Patrol lead vocalist Julia Deans. This is her first solo album, and judging by the quality, it wont be her last.

Modern Fables is chock full of highly original, catchy, tuneful compositions which sound instantly familiar. Overall, it is less rockier than her Fur Patrol output, but is probably a little more intelligent. The tunes are more thoughtful, but they are all quite distinct as well. Upon purchasing it, I listened to it solidly for about a month and never tired of it. Putting it on again six months later for this review and was instantly reminded of how good it is. Not just one song but the whole album. It is one reason I like albums over singles as it is a bigger sample of the artist's talent. Julia Deans certainly has talent. Seek this album out the first chance you get.
And if you do, make sure you listen to the very end. The best two tracks might just be the two that close the album, Run and Ice Cream. The latter is a Pink Floyd influenced mind-addled space flight!

Best Track : Run

5. Underworld – Barking

As regular readers know, I'm not a huge fan of electronica/dance music with my core music taste leaning in the rock/blues direction. However I tend to purchase a couple of electronica albums a year on the recommendations of those who follow the area closely. It is a rewarding way to find music (in the same way that hopefully the Nevstar Music Guide is for you dear reader!) in that you don't have to trudge through mountains of releases to find the quality albums that will endure.

This year's top electronica album, in this reviewers ever so humble opinion, is the latest effort by Underworld entitled Barking. Underworld are almost elder statesmen of the dance music scene now having been around since 1988. But, along with Chemical Brothers, that doesn't mean they aren't worth listening to. This is mainly due to their songwriting prowess which continues to experiment with dance music rhythms without forgetting the appeal of simple pop pleasures. Barking is an absolute treat with an entire album of high quality tracks each deserving of its own adulation and recommendation. Rarely do you come across albums where you like every single track but I can, unhesistantly, say that in this case here. I even randomized the track list on occasion just to check that my high opinions of some tracks weren't unduly influencing my adoration of the others. If anything, it only highlighted my appreciation of the entire album. Simply put, this is a great piece of dance music and would highly recommend to any music follower whether you like dance music or not.

Best Track: Grace

4. Deerhunter – Halcyon Digest

Next come two bands who I only started following once the artist list for Laneways was announced and I have come to love them both. Deerhunter is up first and they can probably best be described as an experimental indie rock band. The songs are epic quests charting previously unknown waters in the vast 'Sargasso Sea' of the noise spectrum. The songs are challenging and rewarding yet satisfying and comforting. While each track is quite distinct the link between them all is a complex wall-of-sound accompaniment supported by sparse yet sharp lyrical content.

Listening to the album is a bit like climbing a mountain; it starts slowly before ascending more rapidly and climaxes at the peak with the absolutely epic track Desire Lines sitting right in the middle of the album. Then, as the euphoria from attaining the summit wears off, the climb down is rewarding as the adrenalin drops away. A great album from some seriously talented musicians.

If you like this, be sure to check out their 2008 release Microcastle / Weird Era. This is an astonishing double album. As I understand, they were all set to release Microcastle when a copy of it was accidentally leaked online. Rather than short-change those who actually paid money for the CD, they promptly recorded a second album (Weird Era) and included it on the same release. Incredibly, the second release, written and recorded in less than a month, is possibly better than the first release. A seriously talented band.

Best Track : Desire Lines

3. Holy Fuck – Latin

Next up come the band Holy Fuck who operate in a similar spectrum to Deerhunter except they do it without any lyrics at all. I first noticed the band in a record store. Whatever you think about the name, it is inarguably eye-catching. Then, when they were also named to play Laneways, I had to check them out and so I purchased Latin before hearing a note.

Latin has one of the slowest starts of any album I can recall. I found myself checking to see if I had actually pressed "Play" or not. But, one minute in, the sounds start emanating from the stereo. And what enchanting sounds they are. HF operate primarily by building tension through the agglomeration of various sounds, chords and loops. It is electronic rock music in some respects featuring intensely catchy loops surrounded by sharp pincer movements of staccato drums and guitar. It is like listening to a soundtrack of rumbling thunder whilst lightning periodically lights up the sky. The overall sound is incredibly menacing and ominous featuring energetic playing and tenacious song-writing.

I'm struggling here. The music is awfully hard to describe. Do yourself a favour and purchase it to see for yourself. Would be very surprised if you didn't find something you like.

Best Track : 1MD

2. Broken Bells – Broken Bells

I've already talked about The National and a similar band who I also enjoy are The Shins. However they did not release an album in 2010. Fortunately lead singer James Mercer teamed up with legendary producer Danger Mouse and released an album under the moniker Broken Bells. I almost missed it actually only being alerted to its presence by a record store employee (and in a side note, what are we going to do without this valuable source of musical knowledge in the digital future?)

Upon playing it for the first time, I was intrigued. Replaying again instantly, I was captivated. Playing it immediately a third time, I was stunned. It is exceptionally good and rivals anything that the Shins have produced. The songs resemble delicate pieces of silk, spun with care and precision, touching and titillating with a softly-spoken charm. There is an innate confidence in the quality of their work. The best comedians are funny because they know they are funny and thus don't appear to be trying hard to be funny. Broken Bells are the same. They are so confident and assured that the output is relaxed and immediately accessible. The songs are mainly low-fi indie pop with the vocal registers never stretched. It is the perfect album to play on a Sunday morning as you let the waves of dreamy pop wash over your tired soul.

Best Track : The Ghost Inside

1. Robert Plant – Band of Joy

Listening to Broken Bells early in the year, I thought it would take a stunning album to top it for Album of the Year. So it proved. Robert Plant's latest solo release is one of my favourite albums of the last five years. On purchasing it, I played it virtually non-stop for about two months and am still yet to tire of it.

Plant has had a bit of a career resurrection of late in part because he has not allowed himself to be typecast. Much as we all love his Zeppelin catalog of work, it would ultimately be a little dull if he simply tried to re-produce this sort of material each time. Instead, he has experimented with a number of genres making full use of his formidable musical knowledge. We had the album Mighty Rearranger in 2005 which was terrific and closed with a (gasp) dance funk effort. Then he combined with Alison Krauss in 2007 on the highly acclaimed Raising Sand which was more of a country effort. Now, in 2010, he returned with Band of Joy which is the name of his original band back in the 1960s before joining up with the New Yardbirds and becoming Led Zep.

Band of Joy is simply amazing. It is a roots album in a number of respects, paying homage to his own musical roots, but also to the music that inspired and shaped his musical pedigree. Thus we have a rather obscure collection of reworked songs, some old, some new; some traditional, some contemporary but all interesting. They were written by a diverse and eclectic number of artists ranging from 60s folk hero Richard Thompson to the indomitable Low. The latter is a fabulous cover of their track Monkey off their terrific album The Great Destroyer. In Plant's hands it acquires a seriously disturbing disguise equal measures delightful and terrifying. Other tracks contain re-interpretations of traditional songs for a new century.

It sounds like a mess, but Plant's genius is to make it sound like a unified whole. His voice is in fine form and it is put to good use across an incredibly wide variety of material. Each song is a story in itself and the joy in listening to the album is digging deeper into both the history of each track and Plant's interpretation of it.

Anyway, enough of me rambling about it, go out and acquire it now. Without hesitation, I would recommend it to absolutely anyone who has even the remotest interest in music. It is that good and as such a worthy winner of the Nevstar's vote for Best Album of 2010.

Best Tracks (way too hard to pick one!) : Monkey, Silver Rider, The Only Sound That Matters

So there you go, there are my top ten albums for 2010. The quality of the candidates meant a lot of very good albums didn't quite make the final cut. Here then is a list of the next best.

Best of the Rest (in alphabetical order)

!!! (Chk Chk Chk) : Strange Weather Isn't It?
Arcade Fire : Suburbs
Black Keys : Brothers
The Drums : The Drums
Gaslight Anthem : American Slang
Gorillaz : Plastic Beach
Grinderman : Grinderman 2
Passion Pit : Manners
Paul Weller : Wake Up The Nation
We Have Band : WHB

What do we think of that? Any absolutely egregious omissions? What were your Top Ten of Twenty Ten? Send me a list and be happy to publish it in the next guide. And if I have missed your favourite release of last year, send me an impassioned dissertation on why it should have been considered.

Until next month.

The Nevstar

Monday, June 7, 2010

June 2010

Album of the Month

The National : High Violet

I was passing by the Top Ten sellers of music retailer JB Hi Fi last week when I noted that the number one album was High Violet by The National, a band I have loved in supposed isolation for a couple of years. I stopped in my tracks, astonished that a hard working, talented indie alternative band had managed to top all the soporific photo-shopped mealy mass-produced music that passes for pop these days. I even rationalised that perhaps its No 1 status was that only crusty veterans with eclectic taste actually bother to buy physical CDs anymore. Could it be that taste is coming back into fashion?

The National are a band that recognise that life aint easy and nothing is handed to you on a plate. They have become rock stars the old fashioned way. By writing songs you can identify with, scoring them to moody melancholy music, releasing albums chock full of these quality songs and then touring the hell out of them. Recognition was slow to come, but by this, their fifth album, they seem to have finally passed through the guarded gateway of global exposure to rest comfortably on the shelf of popular acclaim. I almost bought myself a second copy to cement their place.

High Violet contains elements common to all of their albums. Their stock trade are songs which are like a collaboration between Nick Cave and Nick Drake. Quietish, moody poems set to instrumentation dominated by intricate percussion or subtle basslines. The songs are smouldering classics, working their way into your subconsciousness and residing there long after the speakers have gone silent. Its not music to shout out loud, but to internally digest and consider.

High Violet takes a while to get into its stride but the double combination on tracks five and six of Afraid Of Everyone and Bloodbuzz Ohio are an accurate depiction of their strength. Afraid of Everyone is a slow burning introspective evaluation leading up to the track defining line "I dont have the drugs to sort it out". In contrast, Bloodbuzz Ohio is a more uptempo rocker albeit with Matt Berninger's baritone vocals which lend it a touch of gravitas and immediacy.

Admittedly, High Violet is probably not the bands high point, but its still an effort most other bands would look up to and its an excellent place to start your future love affair given that its now available for about $20 at some record stores. Those interested in delving deeper into their back catalog should consider Alligator from 2005 and Boxer from 2007 both of which are minor masterpieces. The latter in particular probably gets played more on the Nevstar's stereo than any other album from 2007.

Passing through JB Hi Fi yesterday, I noted that The National had fallen from their top shelf spot to number four. The new number one was now the new release from the king of meaningless soporific elevator music; Jack Johnson. I didnt know whether to laugh or cry.

Listen to or purchase here.

Best Track : Afraid Of Everyone

Listen to this if you like :
Nick Cave, Nick Drake, Wilco

If you like this try:
Film School : Film School
American Music Club : Golden Age

Essential Classic Album

Those who know me well, or even those who dont, may have been subject to my lengthy diatribe on the pervasive and destructive presence of the "Greatest Hits" effect. Look at most people's music collections and they are dominated by Greatest Hits collections. The reasons may differ depending on who you talk to. Some people only want to buy one album per artist, others are aghast at the amount of filler on modern albums and some simply dont have the time to seek out the best from prolific artists.

If I could influence everyone's music buying tastes in one direction it would be to recommend certain studio albums in order to experience the aural thrill of hearing fantastic songs which havent been played on the radio a hundred thousand times. There are quite a few notable albums which are hugely rewarding but are often bypassed because of the absence of any recognisable singles. Van Morrison albums come to mind where arguably two of his greatest albums (Astral Weeks and Veerdon Fleece) contain nary one single between them. I have done it myself on numerous occasions. You see an album from a band you like in a record store and automatically check the track listing on the back. When you dont recognise any of the songs, you are more likely than not to put it back.

Well, for our Essential Classic album this month, the Nevstar will now make a spirited defence of an all time great album which has eighteen tracks and yet only one vaguely recognisable single. It sounds like an album of filler but this album is by one of rock's greatest bands and is perhaps their crowning achievement. As it has just been remastered and re-released, I thought it was opportune to check out The Rolling Stones and their wonderful album, Exile On Main Street.

Exile on Main Street (1972)

Exile on Main Street contains only one track on an entire double album that most people are likely to know; the rather funky Tumbling Dice which would probably rank in the mid twenties in terms of essential Stones singles. But this misses the point completely. Exile On Main Street is an album (well two really) chocker block full of rapacious, raucous, ripping rock and roll. Its the Stones at their dirtiest; sneering and leering, strutting and preening, equal measures delightful and disturbing.

In the spring of 1971, the band had become hugely successful. So successful in fact, that they owed the taxman more than they could afford. And so they decamped to the south of France with a blank song book and an empty recording studio. Having already achieved considerable fame and success, they were also 'exiled' in a sense from public pressure. Like the Beatles before them with Revolver, the Stones could head off in different directions musically without the pressure of having to make sure the next song they wrote was a surefire No. 1 single. Of course, this was extraordinarily liberating and led to an explosion of creativity as they sampled the best elements from rock, soul, blues, gospel, rockabilly, rhythm & blues and more besides. Within a few months, they had a double album's worth of material and promptly released them as the album titled Exile on Main Street. The four sides of the double album are packed with more musical ideas than most bands have in a lifetime. Its an embarrassment of riches which record companies today would insist should be spread over 4 - 5 albums to maximise sales. Three songs aptly demonstrate the varied charms of this extraordinary album:

Rocks Off - the opening track is so important on any album, and Rocks Off perfectly sets the table for the meal to be served. An unadulterated, unrefined, unflinching rocker, complete with messy vocals, mashed up guitars and trashed drums. If you dont find this exciting, check to see if you are still fogging up the mirror.

Let It Loose - in stark contrast, this mid album stunner is a gospel-tinged glimpse past the preening rock god that Jagger had so artfully created and stage managed. Its a soulful, mournful taste of life on the other side of the unending adulation of rock stars.

Shine A Light - ok, there might be two songs people know. The title track from the recent Martin Scorcese Rolling Stones biopic, Shine A Light is a piano led romp straight from the gin joints of Memphis to your record player via five young guys from London, England. Amazing.

The album itself did not meet with immediate success. Reviews were mixed with only a few recognising its greatness. But the more people listened to it, the more they liked it and its prestige and reputation has grown through the decades. In fact it was recently named #6 in Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's Definitive 200 CDs that every music lover should own. Personally, Id have it higher.

But lets leave the last word about the album to the normally taciturn Keith Richards.

"What I want to do is good shit - if it's good they'll get it sometime down the road".

Yes Keith, it is good and I get it. So should you.

Listen to it and purchase here.

Best tracks: Let it Loose, Shake Your Hips, Ventilator Blues, Shine A Light, Tumbling Dice (and many more!)

Top Ten

As I have hopefully made the case above for seeking out some of the original Rolling Stones albums, I thought it might be helpful to provide some guidance on which ones to buy. The Stones have recorded no less than 32 studio albums and some should certainly be given a wide berth. However, if you are looking to expand your collection of some classic rock and roll, here is an introduction to some of the better ones.

Top Ten Rolling Stones Albums

10. Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out! (1970)

While Im not generally a huge fan of live albums, the Stones were (and perhaps arguably still are) a great live band which means at least one of their live albums merits inclusion. Their best live album is the terrific Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out from their 1970 American tour. Mainly showcasing material from their parade of outstanding late 60's albums, this is one live album worth having. The standout is a slow-burning edition of the slightly disturbing Midnight Rambler.

Listen to or purchase here.

Best Track : Midnight Rambler
Hidden Gem : Stray Cat Blues

9. December's Children (And Everybody's)

The Stones early catalog divides neatly into two distinct eras. The first five albums featured minimal original compositions relying predominately on rhythm & blues covers. December's Children is the last of these albums and the Stones fifth album in under two years. It contains the monster Jagger/Richards penned hit As Tears Go By, alongside some other excellent covers, notably the cracking Chuck Berry authored Talkin About You. Not essential, but very enjoyable.

Listen to or buy here.

Best Track : Get Off Of My Cloud
Hidden Gem : Talkin About You

8. Aftermath (1966)

The second Stones era starts here with the first Rolling Stones album containing exclusively "Jagger / Richards" original compositions. It marks a great leap forward, with the band experimenting with a number of influences and establishing for the first time that distinctive 'Stones' sound for which they became justly famous. Paint It Black, Stupid Girl, Lady Jane and Under My Thumb in particular get the album off to a cracking start and is arguably the best four opening tracks of any Stones album.

Note: In a trap for the unwary, there are two different versions of this album floating around. The Stones (unlike the Beatles) have never homogenised the track listings of their early studio albums. Several of the US releases contain singles which the UK albums unfortunately omit. The one to get here is the US version (as pictured above) which opens with the magnificent Paint It Black and finishes with the extended 11 min blues jam of Going Home.

Listen to or purchase here.

Best Track : Paint It Black
Hidden Gem : I Am Waiting

7. Sticky Fingers (1971)

This album is an important fore-runner to the masterpiece Exile On Main Street which followed. It is a bluesy, druggy, hedonistic affair with half the tracks mentioning drugs openly or obliquely. Its most famous track is the incomparable Wild Horses which reportedly got its name from Marianne Faithfull's - Jaggers girl at the time - response when it was suggested she should quit heroin. The Beatles may have wanted to hold your hand, but the Stones wanted to get high and shag your sister. Indeed, the album cover itself outlines their intentions which do not look remotely honourable.

Listen to or purchase here.

Best Track : Wild Horses
Hidden Gem : Sway

6. Some Girls (1978)

This was the first Stones album I ever listened to thanks to a super vinyl copy that my Dad owned (thanks Dad!). It contained a terrific sleeve with a pull-out card allowing you to visualise the band members with various haircuts from famous celebrities. Genius. Unfortunately, most of the celebrities threatened to sue and so we are left with the duller CD version with generic models on the front (yet another reason to own vinyl records). Regardless, this was the biggest selling Stones album ever in the United States with over six millions copies sold to date and its easy to see why. A stonking collection of tracks showing the world that the Stones were still a force to be reckoned with amidst the explosion of disco and punk. It was also the first album to feature Ronnie Wood on guitar and his slide guitar style is notable on a number of the tracks particularly the title track.

Purchase here.

Best track : Some Girls
Hidden Gem : Respectable

5. The Rolling Stones, Now! (1965)

The third album and by now (ho ho) the Stones had firmly established their modus operandi. This really is a cracking album replete with stonking rhythm and blues covers amidst some genuinely classy original compositions (Heart of Stone in particular). Their version of Little Red Rooster stands as one of the greatest covers of all time perhaps eclipsing Howlin Wolf's world-weary original. A great place to start if you want to understand the Stones's early history as a white rhythm and blues band.

Listen to or purchase here.

Best Track : Little Red Rooster
Hidden Gem : Heart of Stone

4. Englands Newest Hit Makers (1964)

This really is the foundation of rock and roll and only their superb later work prevents it from having a podium position. On the basis of importance in rock and roll history, it is probably right up there alongside Elvis Presley - The Sun Sessions. You have five young guys with long hair down their backs singing black American blues music but, unshackled by centuries of servitude, tweaking it with their own youthful flair, exuberance and flamboyance. That sound became known as Rock and Roll. Just listen to tracks 4, 3, 2 and 8 in that order to hear the progression from straight blues to speeded up blues to rhythm and blues to rock and roll. Beyond essential.

Listen to or purchase here.

Best Track: Route 66
Hidden Gem : Tell Me

3. Exile On Main Street (1972)

Could arguably be higher, but certainly no lower. That there is not one but two albums which are possibly better than this masterpiece speaks volumes for the quality of their recorded output.

See review above.

2. Let It Bleed (1969)

In order to be a great band, you need to have recorded a great album. But if you want to proclaim yourself as the "Greatest Rock and Roll Band in the World you are probably going to need two or three (at least). The claim may have pre-dated the album, but by 1969, there could be no dispute that the Stones were amongst rock's royalty. Let It Bleed firmly captures a band operating on a higher artistic plane. There are several magnificent tracks, but what makes the album great is that they are magnificent in different ways. Opener Gimmie Shelter is an anthemic call to arms amidst the societal turmoil of the late 60's, the title track is a slow-burning cigar, dispensing pleasure throughout while the magnus opus of You Cant Always Get What You Want is one of the greatest songs of this or any other band. There is even the light hearted countrified version of Honky Tonk Women in Country Honk. Let It Bleed also pays tribute to the Stones past with one cover song, a magnificent version of Robert Johnson's Love In Vain. And if you dont know who Robert Johnson is, you have a lot of work to do.

Listen to or purchase here.

Best Track: You Cant Always Get What You Want
Hidden Gem: Love In Vain

1. Beggars Banquet (1968)

This was a tough call over Let It Bleed, but my favourite Stones album has been Beggars Banquet since the first time I heard it. Here the Stones return to their roots in some respects, playing their own distinctive brand of blues based rock. The love affair starts with the cover art itself which is pure Stones. Dirty, puerile and offensive. The album is then kicked off by my favourite Stones song of all time, the truly epic Sympathy For The Devil. Lyrically, the Stones had in the past been weaker than some of their contemporaries, but no longer. "Please allow me to introduce myself, Im a man of wealth and fame." Is Mick talking about the devil or himself?

What follows is an amalgam of anger (Street Fighting Man), sleaze (Stray Cat Blues) and loneliness (No Expectations). There is even a comedic turn to momentarily lighten the mood in the delightful Dear Doctor. An incredible album which you could play for the rest of your life and not get sick off and fully deserving of its lofty position as the best Rolling Stones album of all time.

Listen to or purchase here.

Best Track: Sympathy For The Devil
Hidden Gem: Stray Cat Blues

And as we are talking about the ones to buy, perhaps we should also note the ones to avoid of which there are, unfortunately, quite a few.

Their Satanic Majesties Request (1967) - puzzling, muddled response to Sgt Pepper era psychedelia.

Goats Head Soup (1973) - the Stones had their own drug-addled excess 23 years before Oasis's "Be Here Now"

Its Only Rock n Roll
(1974) - only its not.

Emotional Rescue
(1980) - the title track is the 'best' song and thats not saying much

Anything released after Tattoo You (1981) with the possible exception of Voodoo Lounge (1995) which is, at times, interesting.

There you go music lovers. What do we think of that? Your favourite Stones album not among those listed or was listed amongst the ones to avoid? Write me a tersely worded email and will be happy to include in future editions. Its the arguing which is the most fun!

Thats all for now.


Monday, February 22, 2010

A Top Ten With A Difference

The Nevstar is once again struggling to find great new albums to listen to. So it was timely that a regular reader suggested a potential Top Ten list which I felt warranted a little more attention.

Our listening tastes are generally dominated by 2 - 3 genres. But if we wish to branch out from that which we know, it can be a bewildering and stultifying experience. What, for example, is the best jazz album to start from the thousands listed on Amazon? Well, the answer for all eternity shall now be to turn the invaluable Nevstar Music Guide with a dozen albums from the major musical genres which are, in my opinion, the best place to start.

Now its important to forestall comments by stating out the outset these are not necessarily the best albums, and in fact, some of the choices may even offend some purists. What we are seeking here instead is a palatable introduction to a new genre in order to kindle interest in learning more. In each case, I have listed one album to start with and then a couple more to expand your collection.

Listed alphabetically by genre here are 12 albums (I told you it was a top ten with a difference!). If you purchase them all, it will ensure that you never hear that all to common lament from a party guest.... "But you dont have any (insert musical genre)!"


Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton : John Mayall

This is certainly likely to be an affront to many a blues fan who consider blues to be synonymous with black faces. But John Mayall was instrumental in popularising the blues to a wider audience, and his collaboration with an 18 year guitar legend by the name of Eric Clapton is an outstanding introduction to this emotionally resonant and powerful musical form.

Listen to or purchase here

If you like this then try:

The Healer : John Lee Hooker
Live at the Regal : BB King


Symphony No 5 in C minor - Ludwig van Beethoven

Perhaps the easiest choice of any genre, Beethoven's Fifth Symphony is a brilliant place to shake any notions that classical music is dull and tedious. It begins with perhaps the most famous four notes in musical history in the unmistakable Da-da-da-DAH! But the rest is equally thrilling and with the four movements taking barely thirty minutes, it's an accessible yet hugely enjoyable introduction to the delights and riches of 19th century pop music.

Available to listen/purchase free here.

If you like this then try:

Piano Concertos 20&21 : Mozart
Nutcracker Suite : Tchaikosvky


Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs - Marty Robbins

Marty Robbins was one of the original country and western singers and his best album is a romp through a suite of songs based on the largely mythical characters that inhabited the Wild West. As such, this brilliant collection of tracks provides a perfect entry point to an enjoyable genre which is unfairly maligned thanks to some egregious 'talents' that hijacked it in the 70s and 80s.

Listen to or purchase here

Next try:
Johnny Cash Live at Folsom Prison - Johnny Cash
Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, Vol. 1 & 2 - Ray Charles

Dance Music

Leftism - Leftfield

The Nevstar freely acclaims that this selection is not his own, but it was this very album that a dance music aficionado recommended to me when I enquired about the best place to start. Dance music has multiple genres, but the chill-out genre such as this effort by Leftfield is a good place for 'rockers' to head first. It allows them to sample the rhythms and melodies replete in dance music without being turned off by some of the aural assault techniques practised by the more energetic sub-genres.

Listen to or buy here.

Next try :
Blue Lines - Massive Attack
Dig Your Own Hole - Chemical Brothers


Blue - Joni Mitchell

Similar to country music, folk is a genre that often carries unwarranted opprobrium. But one of music's foremost purposes is to match your mood, and folk is the perfect companion to moments of solitude and introspection. There is no finer exhibition of this than the perfectly titled Blue by the incomparable Joni Mitchell. A gift from the heavens which no serious music collection should be without.

Listen to or purchase here

Then try:
Five Leaves Left - Nick Drake
Shoot Out the Lights - Richard & Linda Thompson

Heavy Metal

Back in Black - AC/DC

Really, could it be anything else? Back in Black is a great, great album featuring everything that is great yet also silly about heavy metal. Monster riffs, showboating guitar heroics, smutty lyrics and a sense of political incorrectness locked perpetually in the 50s. Rock and roll aint noise pollution ladies and gentlemen but it sure is a lot of fun.

Listen to or purchase here

If you like this, then try:
Appetite for Destruction - Guns and Roses
Metallica - Metallica


Kind of Blue - Miles Davis

If you are stuck in a record store looking to make your first purchase of a particular genre (and momentarily without the Nevstar Music Guide as an aid), a rule of thumb may be to simply purchase the albums made by the best musicians. Jazz played by the lesser talented can be trying, to say the least. But Kind of Blue by the incomparable Miles Davis has perhaps the finest array of talent ever collected on one record. If you dont enjoy this album, move along. You will not ever be a fan of jazz. Read here for a fuller review.

Listen or purchase here.

If you like this, then try:
A Love Supreme - John Coltrane
The Köln Concert - Keith Jarrett


Never Mind The Bollocks - The Sex Pistols

Unlike jazz, punk is not about the best musicians. It was more about the attitude than the sound. Punk is a statement; a movement; an attitude. For all of these, head straight to "S" section of your record store and pick out the one and only album by the Pistols. Its got energy, anarchy, passion and vitriol. Indeed, you could make a case that its the only punk album you would ever need.

Click here for a fuller review.

Listen to or purchase here.

If you like this, then try:
London Calling - The Clash
Ramones - The Ramones


It Takes a Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back - Public Enemy

Rap can be a hard genre to like. Some argue persuasively that its not even music. But that misunderstands that one of the primary utilities of music is collegial. It momentarily unites people from their disparate lives in recognition of what they have in common. Look around next time you sing the national anthem and perhaps wonder how much you have in common with the person next to you apart from nationality. Well, rap music is the national anthem of black youth and no album evokes this notion better than this revolutionary album by Public Enemy.

Reviewed in more detail here.

Listen to or purchase here .

If you like this then try :
Licensed to Ill - Beastie Boys
Straight Outta Compton - N.W.A.


Legend - Bob Marley

Those who know me well will be aghast at my selection here. I have raged widely, loudly and often about the destructive force and insidious creep of the "Greatest Hits" phenomenon. But, looking around reggae albums, there is simply no better place to start than Legend, the greatest hits of Bob Marley. Without Marley, reggae would probably not be known globally as a music genre in the first place. He popularised it for a global audience without betraying its working class Carribbean roots. Perhaps the most apt album title of all time.

Listen or purchase here.

If you like this, then try:
Live! - Bob Marley & The Wailers
Labour of Love - UB40


Revolver - The Beatles

I initially didnt include Rock as a genre reasoning that everyone is probably already familiar with the best rock albums. But I then realised that's a very idiosyncratic point of view. There are likely to be thousands of people, perhaps of older or younger generations, who simply dont know or are not familiar with the best rock albums. The easiest and safest introduction to the music form is undoubtedley The Beatles. Not liking them is akin to not liking the sun in the words of a famous rock critic. Revolver is the best place to start for any Rock neophyte as it contains all the elements of what makes rock so exciting and vibrant.

Listen to or purchase here.

If you like this, then try:

The Bends - Radiohead
Born to Run - Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band


Whats Going On - Marvin Gaye

Soul music developed a social conscience in the early 70s as the music moved from the sugary sweet pop music courtesy of the likes of the Supremes to more challenging fare. No album represents this better than the magnificent What's Going On by Marvin Gaye. It was and is a landmark album showcasing more socially aware lyrics set against a kalediescope of musical ideas. You could compare it to moving from comics to novels; Jughead to Jane Eyre. If you are not already familiar with this album, then go out and purchase it now. Dont worry, I will wait.

Reviewed in full here.

Listen to or purchase here.

If you like this then try:
Otis Blue: Otis Redding Sings Soul - Otis Redding
Songs in the Key of Life - Stevie Wonder

Now, this is a Top Ten list that just begs to be argued with. Got a suggestion for a genre that wasnt mentioned or vehemently disagree with one of my selections. Send me an email, or make a comment below. A hat tip to Rob whose idea this was in the first place.

Thats all for this month. Look for another update in May with a review of a new album that has barely been out of my CD player since I purchased it.