My Spin on Masterworks: 25 of 25
On the surface, that’s a relatively obvious question to ask of somebody, but (in my experience, at least) it’s not one heard particularly often. We’ve generally become used to asking one another what music we’re currently listening to, focusing on what contemporary albums are worth seeking out, and keeping our eyes and ears on the horizon for hotly-tipped new releases. It’s a natural compulsion to engage with modern culture, but finding out what albums your friends first started their collections with years (or decades) ago can lead to some pretty entertaining discoveries and discussions.
Tracing the histories of our record collections can be a source of great pleasure. Taking the time to pore through our own shelves, we can pick out albums that have soundtracked different stages of life, many of which have likely come to resemble close companions down the years. Your first album may not have set a precedent for the musical voyages you’ve embarked on since, but whether you still enjoy that album or if it serves as an embarrassing reminder of bygone listening habits, it allows you to consider your own first steps into music, and to measure the evolution of your tastes from then to now.
Personally, I remember getting Demon Days on CD for my fifteenth birthday, having asked for it after noticing the healthy number of ubiquitous singles it housed: ‘Dare’, ‘Feel Good Inc.’, ‘Dirty Harry’. I suppose by modern (and possibly general) standards, that’s a pretty late age at which to start getting into music. Fifteen seems practically ancient when you imagine the iTunes collection of a pre-teen in this decade, and it was longer still before my casual enjoyment of music had grown into a full-on compulsion to listen, to discover, and eventually to write about it. Of course, before owning Demon Days, I’d been listening to works by other bands and artists, mostly on CDs sponged from my parents and older sister. These were mostly artists of the 80s and 90s, while my friends in school and college prompted me to try songs from more modern groups. I genuinely enjoyed many of these suggestions, while there were others that I probably wanted to like more than I genuinely did. In both cases, these songs and artists helped cement my sense of belonging in a social capacity. I was this kind of person, so I listened to this kind of music. Reductive as it sounds now, it was one of the ways in which I identified myself during some very overwhelming years.
Since then, things have become more varied. Over the past decade, passing interests have become obsessions, fandom has churned into devotion, and some sounds I once adored have completely disappeared from my listening life. I’ve disowned some of my earliest physical purchases (goodbye, The Kooks) and found renewed appreciation for others (hello, Queens of the Stone Age). I’m the first to admit that my tastes are hardly unusual or broad even now, but since those demon days of the mid-noughties, I’d like to think that my music collection has become more well-rounded. Throughout it all, however, Gorillaz’ second album has remained a staunch favourite. I might not dust it down for a revisit every month, but it’s a work which I’ve never viewed with anything less than fondness. Not just for the twangs of nostalgia, either: I’ve got a lot of time for the album’s colourful aesthetic, its playful genre-blending, and its window into the progression of the band itself.
Gorillaz have become constant allies throughout my past decade of album-hopping. Their singles provided the soundtrack to numerous teenage episodes, as well as some of my ill-advised steps into adulthood. They’ve made music that I’ve bonded over with friends and family alike: my sister and I were sucked in by the terrific video (and even more terrific hooks) of ‘19-2000’, and more recently I’ve watched my friend smuggle the rap verses to ‘Clint Eastwood’ into open-mic covers of Damien Rice songs. As I mentioned in my Slave to the Rhythm post, I share of lot of music with my dad, and we both grew to adore 2010’s Plastic Beach separately. To this day, he confidently ranks it in his personal top five, which is a pretty spectacular claim. It’s also my favourite Gorillaz LP to date (stay tuned for a hopeful update in 2017): it’s more adventurous than Demon Days in style and concept, and contains a bounteous showcase of collaborative gold. By 2010, Gorillaz were less of a virtual band and more like a roving band of musical swashbucklers, whose real faces eclipsed the two-dimensional characters and transformed Gorillaz into an even bolder presence.
But Demon Days still possesses magic in spades. ‘Feel Good Inc.’ may have oversaturated the airwaves back in its heyday, but its punchy production still blossoms when heard now: the terrific De La Soul verses and that bass riff give the song a sparkle that continues to glimmer brightly. MF Doom’s appearance on ‘November Has Come’ is slick, menacing, and a perfect fit to the woozy instrumentals, while there’s a nagging ache to centrepieces ‘El Manana’ and the funk weariness of ‘Every Planet We Reach is Dead’. Across this diverse and smudgy range of tunes, things occasionally tip into nuttier territory: the likes of fuzzy interlude ‘White Light’, warped hymn ‘O Green World’, and the love/hate Dennis Hopper parable ‘Fire Coming Out of the Monkey’s Head’ have wrinkled noses of some would-be fans. But in my eyes, the album’s imperfections and goofy missteps clarify that Demon Days is first and foremost a joyous work. The fun factor continiually takes precedent over solemn notions of artistry, and the result is a vibrant, dramatic and humorous collection that’s refreshing and thrilling to dive into. Start-to-finish, I think it’s a treat.
So, what was the first album you ever owned? Do you still stand by it, or has it become too redolent of a cringeworthy time in which you owned dubious T-shirts and an even more dubious haircut? Maybe you bought it because you were trying to fit in. Maybe it was a gift from someone, possibly eager to hear your own thoughts. Maybe it was one that you spent a while saving up for, and you still treasure it now as you did back when you were giving it its first few spins. In a few years, the notion of what constitutes the first album you “owned” could be very different. What will be the average age at which people own their first records – if at all? I’m not going to try and prophecise anything, but with the advent of Spotify, Tidal et al, will it be possible to definitively mark the first album you ever “owned”, when a subscription to a streaming service makes that definition much more nebulous?
I suppose I can only speak for myself on this topic. The future trajectory of my album collection – and my relationship with music in general – will hopefully be a sprawling one, studded with more than a few questionable choices but also a handful of gems. There may be records in which I find an emotional bond to match that of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, or Endtroducing…, or Blue, or In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, or Immunity. But whatever my collection grows into from here, I can trace its history back to a definite start-point: Demon Days. And it’s an album I’m happy to call the first I ever owned. I may not turn to it in the same way as I’ll turn to another of the albums in this list, but I love it regardless. Not only is it a fun, catchy, varied pop album, it will always be my original touchstone in the form, and I still think it’s a great one. A masterwork, if you like.
At first glance, I flippantly thought 2015 seemed a little weaker than the past few years in music, with fewer albums leaping out at me and taking my attention by force. However, on sifting back through some of my favourites of the year for reappraisal, I’ve noticed that many of these albums only really blossom when the details hidden within them are held up to the light. As Hayden Thorpe sang on last year’s fantastic Wild Beasts record, “in detail you are even more beautiful than from afar”: it’s a sentiment true to many of the albums I’ve listed below. It’s easier to glance past and oversimplify the multifaceted beauty of a fifty-minute record than it is to truly lose oneself in the grace-notes sprinkled within. As such, it was only in spending the past few weeks poring over each album once again that I fully noticed the magic many of them hold. The list as it now stands has undergone a serious reshuffle from its November incarnation, and the 25 albums I’ve settled on are all worthy of (re)discovery.
Without any further waffling, here are my favourite offerings from the assorted delights of 2015. Please bring further listening suggestions, gripes, general feedback, and headphones, and enjoy discovering some of these gems anew; I sure did.
Sun Coming Down (Constellation)
There’s a palpable aggression to Ought’s second album which jostles angrily with the more playful tendencies exhibited on last year’s More Than Any Other Day. Recorded live to tape, these eight songs bottle the same fidgety, scrappy tension that Tim Darcy wails of in his patchwork lyrics, manifest in the walls of relentlessly scrappy guitars that bear down on the listener. Propelled by the white-hot bass runs of Ben Stidworthy and Tim Keen’s clattering drum fills, the band’s high-strung brand of post-punk congeals into a mess simultaneously sludgy and electrifying. It’s the sound of a band’s anxieties, excitements, and “fuck it” impulses pushing them to sonically thicker and more bitingly bleak terrain, always teetering on the precipice of chaos.
“This is the high watermark of civilisation.”
Public Service Broadcasting
The Race for Space (Test Card Recordings)
If 2013’s Inform-Educate-Entertain was an inviting smorgasbord, serving as an assorted taster for Public Service Broadcasting’s brand of inventive sampling and squeaky-clean pop nous, then The Race for Space is their first fully cohesive offering. By plunging determinedly into a single (though deliciously broad) concept, the sample-happy alchemists have emerged with a listen comparable to a Hollywood drama, chronicling the history of space travel in all its peaks and troughs from the 1950s to the present day. From the Chic-channelling funk of ‘Gagarin’ and doomy washes of ‘Fire in the Cockpit’, through to the spine-tingling triumphs of ‘Go!’ and ‘The Other Side’, The Race for Space blends its sci-fi smarts with gleaming instrumentation, in a mellifluous display which is even more potent when caught in a live setting. Taken as a whole, it’s an honest-to-goodness delight, and one which allows listeners to engage their heads as wilfully as they surrender their ears to the plentiful melodies.
“They’re travelling over the back side of the Moon now.”
Sound & Color (Rough Trade)
If Alabama Shakes’ début felt a little too in thrall to well-entrenched blues conventions at times, their ferocious follow-up flips its burning gaze forwards, abandoning the more rigid confines of yesteryear in favour of sojourns into howling soul, guttural funk, and supercharged riff-rock, with an earworm sensibility engaged more or less constantly. Those who feel that The Black Keys’ past few LPs have lacked the stomping weight of their earlier material will be utterly enamoured by the powerful blasts emanating from the likes of ‘Don’t Wanna Fight’ and ‘Gimme All Your Love’. Delivered in the lung-dredging wails of one-woman-hurricane Brittany Howard (surely one of the most magnetic and charismatic figureheads in contemporary rock and roll), the peaks and troughs of Sound & Color are a vibrant addition to the guitar-wielding class of 2015.
“Come people / You got to give a little, get a little.”
“Moments of clarity are so rare, I’d better document this,” Björk mumbles shakily at the opening of her ninth full-length, singing from the eye of a slow-motion whirlpool of strings and off-kilter rhythms. Over the nine skeletal compositions which follow, the Icelandic polymath does her best to wrestle with the all-encompassing distress that submerged her during her painful split from Matthew Barney, her partner of more than a decade. The album’s sleeve notes subtitle each song in sequence, fixing each one to a particular point of the narrative: from nine months before the relationship’s disintegration through to a year or so after the events. While at first these indicators seem a little too OTT to succeed authentically, they in fact give a glacial, icy apprehension to the songs as they pass, Björk shifting to new scenes and emotional coils as the break-up looms and recedes. Drifting eerily between wrenching pain (the oppressive, hammering ‘Black Lake’) and ghostly detachment (“I wish to synchronise our feelings,” she proffers like a non-computing robot), the singer imbues her record with not only grief, but with an inexorable dread, the disquieting instrumentals articulating the great peaks of overwrought turbulence and the valleys of emptiness. Once again, Björk reminds listeners of her unique position as an avant-garde artist with significant crossover appeal, distilling her pain into forms both impressive and (arguably) accessible.
“As I enter the atmosphere / I burn off layer by layer.”
The Magic Whip (Parlophone)
Graham Coxon and Stephen Street resuscitated a clutch of Blur’s mid-tour recordings laid down in Hong Kong in 2013, and this series of curios eventually crystallised into the beloved band’s first album since 2003’s wonky Think Tank. Fans hoping for a more fitting conclusion to Blur’s turbulent saga may well be satiated by this rather harmonious collection, but The Magic Whip actually found the band sounding as confident and invigorated as they ever had on record, with the end result far from one final victory lap. Comfortable with their musical prowess and interpersonal chemistry, this wasn’t the bolshy Blur of their mid-90s heyday, but instead the more considered, textured group responsible for past classics Blur and 13. Synthesising elements from the solo endeavours of Coxon and Damon Albarn, and with a full-bodied chemistry courtesy of Alex James and Dave Rowntree, The Magic Whip is an occasionally skewed but ultimately sparkling addition to the great band’s canon.
“I broadcast / Buzzing on another day now / All for a high score / Something out of nothing.”
The Magic Whip (Parlophone)
For one of the most keenly-anticipated returns of the decade (let alone this year), there’s little about The Magic Whip that gives away its status as a comeback for one of the most beloved British bands of the past two decades. Aside from a handful of propulsive moments, Blur’s eighth album skirts ceremony and cuts straight to projecting the murky vision of its authors, all pomp and circumstance dispelled in a swirl of spaced-out melancholy. It’s an album of textures and moods rather than a sure-footed collection of fizzing pop, and it takes several listens to get a handle on its character.
Given its stop-start gestation, it’s pretty amazing that The Magic Whip exists at all. Recorded on the fly in Hong Kong, and eventually moulded into shape by Graham Coxon and producer Stephen Street, The Magic Whip lacks an unambiguous stamp of identity, Blur’s style now infused with shades of the 2000s output of Coxon and Damon Albarn. Heard alongside its fellows, the contours of The Magic Whip sound much more malleable, less the work of a single group, and more the pooled offering of a team of artists. Consequently, it doesn’t hang together perfectly, but when all four members lock into a tight composition, the excitement surrounding its release is wholly justified.
Albarn recently put forward a complaint regarding what he terms “the selfie generation”: the current glut of self-absorbed singers projecting their personalities outwards, instead of reflecting wider topics. Tracing back his own lineage, one can appreciate Albarn’s point. Parklife was arguably the definitive reaction to Cool Britannia; a response equally intoxicated and overwhelmed by the rocketing excesses of the period. 13 and Think Tank picked through the ensuing hangover, bound up in a state of millennial tension and rueful disillusion. Twelve years on from the latter, The Magic Whip is hardly a manifesto, but it often dives headfirst into the confusion, jargon, and urban alienation that has come to dominate the 2010s. ‘There Are Too Many Of Us’ and ‘New World Towers’ peer through the sea of smartphones and skyscrapers at suffocating grey skies and overpopulated streets teeming with unbalanced lives. Both are among the album’s best moments, cutting out melodrama in favour of deadpan, weary reportage. Albarn’s grave delivery of the former’s title refrain is stark and plain-spoken, its lack of overt humanity both unsettling and appealing.
Even in their catchiest moments, these songs are underpinned by the sense that modern life is still rubbish. Album opener ‘Lonesome Street’ is chock-full of charisma, driven by the thumping, twanging charm of their mid-90s vintage and completely saturated with hooks, but Albarn’s words temper the mood from jubilance. Sonically, it’s a red herring, but it’s thematically in key with The Magic Whip’s preoccupation with dislocation. ‘Go Out’ is a brilliantly groaning mess, a cousin of 13’s ‘Bugman’, but with that song’s psychotic exhilaration reduced to a polluted cough of exhausted vocals and lurching bass notes. Coxon wreaks merry havoc with his distortion pedals, and the sticky chorus is largely composed of tired moans; naturally a prime fit for lead single. The “cold sore / high score” punchline of the tremendous ‘I Broadcast’ could allude to the warped view of Facebook Likes as digital currency, and though the sweet singalong of ‘Ong Ong’ is more hopeful, it still hints at a yearning for retreat: “I wanna be with you.”
The remainder of the album wears its fatigue on its sleeve, and this may be where those hoping for a return to brash form are left cold. Even the ballads take a few plays to sink in; ‘My Terracotta Heart’ requires patience for its full weight to unspool, and ‘Pyongyang’ rests resolutely bleak and ghostly at the album’s close. While it sounds hugely ungrateful to say so given the album’s context, The Magic Whip sounds as though it would benefit from the snipping of one or two cuts. Pleasant though it is, the twinkling ‘Ghost Ship’ sounds particularly jarring, more suited to the sun-kissed haze of a Gorillaz record.
The best manner in which to approach Blur’s return is to take note of Albarn and Coxon’s summative statements. Coxon has described this album as an exploration of “sci-fi folk”, whereas Albarn was very taken with producing a work of “dysto-pop-ia”. Viewed under this lens, The Magic Whip seems much more convincing a prospect. It sits uncomfortably, its skewed pacing and general dearth of up-tempo moments resulting in a restless experience, but its sprawling sonics and Albarn’s compelling vignettes somehow render it intoxicating. It nags and itches at the ears, pulling one back into its embrace and shedding its secrets with each listen. Rather than a triumphant, assured return, it’s a fragmented treatise on fragmentary times, and in some sense, that’s exactly what Blur have always excelled at.
“Before you log out / Hold close to me.”
I was first made aware of Blur’s resumed activity in December 2008, courtesy of an issue of NME which had excitedly plastered a black-and-white shot of Damon Albarn and Graham Coxon together on its front cover. “BLUR REUNITED!” screamed the headline, as the five-year gulf since 2003’s itchy Think Tank concluded in an instant, and fans the world over rejoiced at the return of one of Britain’s most-adored bands.
However, things haven’t been quite that straightforward. That particular magazine’s publication date was December 13th, 2008. Flash-forward to the present day, and with minimal prior warning, Blur have unveiled their incoming eighth studio album, The Magic Whip, slated for release on April 27th. To allow for a sharper sense of the heft of that time lapse, as of today’s announcement, it has been six years, two months, and six days since that issue of NME heralded Blur’s reunion.
It’s not like they’ve been inactive in that interim. There have been multiple Hyde Park performances, rapturously-received world tours and headline slots, and a sprinkling of new singles along the way. And of course, the joy spread by the band’s return has been genuinely touching to behold. But personally, proceedings began to grate partway into the 2010s. What had begun as a graceful and joyous resurrection gradually sank into a tiresome, drawn-out tease. There are only so many epic “last-chance” shows a band can play before a once-titanic return begins to whiff of nostalgia value, rather than an electrifying new lease of life. What were originally promising rumours and interviews soon evaporated into silence, and replaced by announcements of new solo records from Albarn and Coxon. No concrete news of a full-blooded return, only another wave of tour dates with little in the way of innovation.
As a result, I’m pretty elated that the band has suddenly publicised the release of The Magic Whip after several months of silence (although I’m a little unsure of that title, especially since the film adaptation of 50 Shades of Grey is currently at the forefront of the public consciousness). It feels as if our patience has finally been rewarded, and because there have been no prior announcements about studio work or prospective releases, the surprise factor of this unveiling has allowed Blur to reclaim the raw sense of excitement which has been lacking during the past few years of activity.
This is perhaps because dramatic announcements are the name of the game this decade. Given that keen music fans are constantly bombasted with infinitesimal updates from a headspinning breadth of artists, it’s miraculously refreshing when an announcement arrives which packs in some genuine surprise value. I’m particularly pleased with how Blur handled the situation, when we could so easily have had a Chinese Democracy situation on our hands given the way things were going. What’s lovely is that – after years of increasingly weighted tour announcements – they’ve approached a proper album launch with stealth and precision.
It’s not quite the same for a band to casually announce the making of a record months before its details are even confirmed. A slow, steady drip-feed of up-to-the-minute news is all well and good, but there’s no matching the seismic clout of a sudden return. Of course, Radiohead began to utilise this tactic years ago, but for some reason it’s only within the past two years that this strategy has escalated to something more widespread. In my book, it was David Bowie’s The Next Day which truly signified the power of this method. We were suddenly blindsided by the re-emergence of a monumental icon, exploding back onto the scene with unparalleled mystique and the unthinkable: a new album of genuine greatness.
It’s these abrupt, blinking-in-disbelief unveilings which have brought a new vitality and spark of excitement to the industry. Naturally, there have been many ‘traditional’ build-ups which have led to magnificent payoffs in the past decade, but it’s only with surprise announcements of this magnitude that one realises just how fresh and giddy the musical world can be at its sharpened best. For better (Beyoncé) or worse (U2), it feels like mainstream artists have started to take note of this stealth tactic, and it’s these sudden deployments which get the heart really racing and the debates raging, much more so than steady snippets of minute details. In an age of information saturation and the desire for instant gratification, we are primed to appreciate genuine surprises again, and when they do arrive out of the blue, the exhilaration is hard to top.Look Further:
- Details of The Magic Whip: