Favourite Music

Readers of my previous MSN Space may remember that a few years ago I wrote a blog about my favourite music. In my first post on this blog, I suggested I might do the same again.

When I started writing this entry, I only intended to list my favourite bands, with little or no explanation. However, a random, coincidental conversation at work changed all that. This time, instead of picking my ten favourite albums, I’m going to list all the albums I love. These may be albums where all of the tracks are brilliant, or they may be ones which are flawed but still ones I listen to frequently. For the sake of completeness, there will be some overlap with the previous list.

Foals – ‘Antidotes’

This is first on the list not because it is my all-time favourite (though it’s not too far away) but because it was the first to spring into my mind, which is telling in itself. The fact that it still sounds fresh and new every time I listen is a measure of its quality.

Muse – ‘Origin Of Symmetry’

Muse have yet to release a bad album in my opinion (though I think their latest, ‘The Resistance’ is the weakest so far), but this is the best because it doesn’t have a ropey song on it.

Radiohead – ‘OK Computer’ and ‘In Rainbows’

OK Computer‘s quality goes without saying – it’s no surprise it regularly features on ‘Best Album Ever’ lists – but In Rainbows is my second favourite, even ahead of The Bends.

My Morning Jacket – ‘Z’

Much like the Foals album, this sounds crisp and new every time I listen to it. The final track is a great way to finish off, building to a crescendo from a quiet and mellow start.

Neutral Milk Hotel – ‘In The Aeroplane Over The Sea’

A genuine classic, which I think I wrote about in my previous blog (linked above). It demonstrates one of the key qualities of a brilliant album (as far as I’m concerned) – if I start listening to it, I want to hear it all the way through.

Explosions In The Sky – ‘The Earth Is Not A Cold Dead Place’

Beautiful from start to finish; another I am loathe to even pause.

Mono – ‘You Are There’

I could very easily apply the description of The Earth Is Not A Cold Dead Place to You Are There. There isn’t much else to say, other than Mono’s use of strings as an accompaniment throughout the album gives it a more refined and accomplished feel than their previous albums.

Messiah J & The Expert – ‘Now This I Have To Hear’

I don’t really like hip-hop. However, Messiah J & The Expert are so good that I can’t help but love them. This album is the one  out of the four they have released that I felt deserved a mention because I like each and every track. The other three albums contain some brilliant songs, but each one contains a weak track or two, which excludes them from this list.

Interpol – ‘Antics’

Antics is just a great indie/rock album. There is a great coherence throughout the album, and no shortage of quality songs. As I said in my previous list, it isn’t as original or adventurous as many of the other albums described here, but it’s just as good.

Iron & Wine – ‘The Shepherd’s Dog’

Iron & Wine’s previous albums aren’t bad by any stretch of the imagination, but on The Shepherd’s Dog, Sam Beam brings more instruments into the mix, giving the songs a greater range of highs and lows, and this takes the album to dizzy new heights of brilliance.

The Strokes – ‘Is This It’

At only just over half an hour, this is the shortest album on the list. What it lacks in quantity it makes up in quality.

The Decemberists – ‘Picaresque’, ‘The Crane Wife’ and ‘The Hazards Of Love’

The Decemberists are the only band in here with three albums. Each of them contains some brilliant songs, not least ‘The Mariner’s Revenge Song’ from Picaresque.

Godspeed You! Black Emperor – ‘F#A# ∞’

Not the easiest listen, but bursting with ideas and glimpses of genuine genius. Despite only having three tracks, it still manages a running time of nearly 70 minutes, and yet doesn’t feel long at all.

Pulp – ‘Different Class’

The best Britpop album in my collection. Better than Definitely Maybe, Urban Hymns or anything I’ve heard from Blur.

Belle & Sebastian – ‘Dear Catastrophe Waitress’

This album is just indie-pop gem after indie-pop gem, many of them written and sung with tongue firmly in cheek (figuratively speaking!) and a wink in the eye.

The Arcade Fire – ‘Funeral’

The Arcade Fire’s debut album is their best so far in my opinion, mostly due to the great consistency in the quality of the songs.

The Good Life – ‘The Album Of The Year’

Joining The Hazards Of Love and The Crane Wife to make a hat-trick of concept albums, The Album Of The Year is a great record of the life of a relationship over the span of twelve months.

Mumford & Sons – ‘Sigh No More’

This is only a recent addition to my music library, but one I’m very glad I made. The album contains a lot of catchy songs (not always an indicator of quality, I’ll admit) and bundles along at a decent pace.

Thirteen Senses – ‘The Invitation’ and ‘Contact’

As I wrote this, I was scanning through my iPod library for inspiration – and to make sure I didn’t miss any obvious albums out – and I was moved to include both Thirteen Senses albums. This came as quite a surprise to me in some ways. I like both albums, but if you had asked me straight out about this band in particular, I wouldn’t have said they were among my favourites. However, in recent weeks I have listened to one or the other on several occasions, and both have a few things in common: neither contains a bad track; all the songs are of a similar standard (there’s no mediocre/good/mediocre/good alternation going on); and finally, they’re really easy to listen to. There’s no other way of describing it. They aren’t particularly original (ploughing a similar furrow to the likes of Keane, Coldplay, Snow Patrol et al), and they have yet to come up with a song of outstanding brilliance, but they are good at what they do and have made two very listenable albums.

Albums of the Year 2008

I get the feeling I haven’t listened to much new music this year, and I
don’t know why. By my reckoning, the only albums I’ve listened to that
have been released this year are the following: 

Okkervil River – ‘The Stand-Ins’
Shearwater – ‘Rook’
Elbow – ‘The Seldom Seen Kid’
Wolf Parade – ‘At Mount Zoomer’
Youthmovies – ‘Good Nature’
Foals – ‘Antidotes’
Death Vessel – ‘Nothing is Precious Enough For Us’
Coldplay – ‘Viva La Vida, or Death And All His Friends’

Of these albums, the two that REALLY stand out for me are ‘The Seldom
Seen Kid’ and ‘Antidotes’. I was a fan of Elbow from their debut album,
but drifted away after their second album, but the new one has hooked
me and reeled me back in. I know it sounds a little pretentious in many
ways to look too deeply into the lyrics, but I think Elbow write some
of the best lyrics around at the moment, certainly in terms making
sense rather than simply going for two consecutive lines which rhyme
(I’m looking at you here, Brandon Flowers). I don’t know if you’ve
heard much of Foals before, but to me they sound the way Franz
Ferdinand want to sound when they grow up. Lyrically, they aren’t
great, but there’s something about the music that more than makes up
for that.

I’ve enjoyed both Okkervil River’s album, and Shearwater’s too.
However, the bands sound very similar (a quick
browse of Wikipedia will show you the origins of the two groups and
explain the similarities) and this stops either album really standing
out.

I wasn’t particularly impressed by the new Coldplay album. I don’t
think Chris Martin is a particularly brilliant lyricist, and he seems
to have discovered a new songwriting trick which involves writing what
sound like two different songs, and then making them segue into each
other, and then he declares it is only one song. I feel he employed
this ‘trick’ too often on the new album, and it detracts from the
overall picture of the record, and in the end I felt like I was missing
a handful of tracks. The songs all seemed to be album tracks which
would have been better employed linking between obvious singles than
constituting the vast majority of the album.

The other two I mention, Death Vessel’s “Nothing Is Precious Enough For
Us” and Youthmovies’ “Good Nature” are both a bit hit-and-miss. “Good
Nature” suffers from poor lyrics (they often seem to be meaningless
jibberish which is chosen because the syllables fit the music rather
than because they mean anything in particular), and the music itself is
a bit of an acquired taste, so I haven’t listened a great deal. Death
Vessel are completely different, a folk/indie guy along the lines of
Sufjan Stevens and Iron & Wine, and he writes decent songs.
However, his style wears a little thin fairly quickly, and so I end up
a bit bored before the album has finished.

The Travels of Phil #10: A Silver Mount Zion

Decent bands rarely come to Colchester. My explanation for this is that the bands think Essex is only just outside London, and therefore there is no need for them to play anywhere between London and Norwich (UEA seems to get a hell of a lot of what I would describe as ‘decent bands’). After all, anyone in Essex who wants to go and see them just has to hop on a train into London, and that’s that.

Imagine my surprise then, when in mid/late-February, an email appeared in my inbox – a newsletter from a gig ticket site that I have signed up to for reason or reasons unknown – telling me that A Silver Mount Zion (or whatever it is they’re calling themselves this week) are playing in Colchester. Not just that, but while I’m there too! So I bought myself a ticket, and waited. Obviously, I did some other things in between then and now, but I was looking forward to it, and so the last eight weeks or so have been spent in anticipation, and therefore in waiting.

For those of you who aren’t aware (and I’m guessing that’s most of you), A Silver Mount Zion are a little bit on the odd side. Their music is, typically, verging on the orchestral, but with the odd vocal thrown in when you least expect it (and sometimes when you least want it – their music, while interesting, is by no means perfect). At times, their music is a little slow and ponderous, and their albums, along with those of sister band Godspeed You! Black Emperor* are very much ones which I need to be in the right mood to listen to. As a result, I was well aware that the gig could be one that I loved, or one that I endured only because I had paid to get in but spent the time counting the minutes till I would be able to leave again. (Obviously, I am free to walk out at any time, but I always feel really guilty even considering this as I think it is rude to do so). In the end, I rather enjoyed it, even though it was a little pretentious and arty for me. However, I am getting ahead of myself here. I shall go back to the beginning, and start there.

The day of the gig (today) arrived, and I was in the right mood for ASMZ (as I shall refer to them from now on). The day went pretty well, and come evening, I was ready to set off and enjoy myself. At just after 7pm, I wandered down to the bus stop at the end of my ‘road’ (it’s not really a road, it’s a path since I live on a ‘Walk’ – this is becoming worryingly similar to a Graph Theory lecture, so I’ll move on without further ado) intending to catch the bus that left just before quarter past. Or at least, it did virtually every other hour of the day. Of course, it changes after 6.30pm, and the next bus wasn’t until after 7.30. As it was a nice evening, I decided to walk into town, and in the end it was quite a nice stroll. Unfortunately, since Colchester is built on a small hill, most of it was uphill.

I got to Colchester Arts Centre just after 7.30pm (and in so doing, beating the bus!), and wandered in. Colchester Arts Centre is in a converted church, and along with the moody lighting, this gave the venue a mildly eerie feel. It seemed slightly wrong that there was now a bar in the corner, and that I was hanging around in a church to see a bunch of anarchists** perform.

Before ASMZ took the stage, they were preceded by a couple of guys with a drum, a laptop and a violin. They weren’t bad, but seemed a little out of time or our of tune every now and again. During their brief set, the venue filled up a little, and by the end there were a couple of hundred people in there. ASMZ took the stage shortly after 8.00pm, for reasons which didn’t become clear until later. There is a curfew on how late performances can go on, which the band seemed to attribute to the fact that it was a church in a previous life. As a result, they started early in order to finish early too. Their set seemed to consist mostly of new material, and I only recognized one song – my personal favourite ‘Take These Hands and Throw Them In the River’ – though the rest weren’t bad by any means. Whether it was a natural consequence of them playing live, or whether they have taken a new direction musically, I don’t know, but the songs seemed to be more uptempo, and to have a bit more of a conventional structure to them which made them easier to listen to than some of the older songs. The main man, Efrim (though I believe he dislikes being referred to as a main member – something to do with the other members of the band being unjustly ignored), came across as witty and likeable, and took the time to chat with the audience between songs, whilst the other members were changing instruments, or retuning.

After a brief encore, the gig ended, and I wandered out into the night air, lurked at the bus stop like a bad smell for ten minutes and then caught the bus home. It was a little too chilly to walk back, and my legs were aching from standing up for two and a half hours. I’m beginning to feel my advancing years.

All in all, it was well worth my time and effort to go and see them, and an encouraging sign that Colchester may well be getting some good bands visiting. Just as I’m about to leave. Typical!

*A Silver Mount Zion are an offshoot of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, formed when one of the members of Godspeed decided he wanted to write more orchestral and/or structured pieces, but couldn’t do so within the context of Godspeed. Or something like that.

** They’re anarchists. No, really.

‘The Rescue’ free download

I just thought I should bring to your attention the fact that Explosions In The Sky have made an entire EP available for download (for free as well) on their website, www.explosionsinthesky.com in the albums section. The EP is called ‘The Rescue’, and is very, very limited edition (well, a physical copy of it is, the actual music obviously isn’t all that limited edition anymore).
 
There’s a short story behind the EP, which makes things a little clearer.
 
The EP itself isn’t exactly typical of their music, with the songs being shorter, and more improvised than their usual stuff. However, it is a good example of their albums, and as such gets a hearty thumbs up from yours truly.
 
If you want to try out some of their other music, there are selected tracks from each of their albums available in the same section as the EP.
 
Enjoy!

My favourite music

Since I can’t seem to get the "lists" section of this space to work in the way that I want it to (though I suspect that the way I want it to work, and the way it is intended to work are two very different things), I am forced to put this list in here. However, this does have two advantages: (1) I’m not limited to a list and a brief description, I can wax lyrical if the mood should take me, and (2) you can add your own list (using the comments bit at the bottom)!
I suppose I should just clarify what exactly this list is. This is a list of my favourite albums, along with an explanation of why I love them so much. It is in a very rough order, though some of the entries as you go further down the list are interchangeable. The albums at the top, though, are meant to be at the top and in the order they appear. The blurring of the lines between one place and another occurs after about five or six albums.
 
1. Explosions In The Sky – "The Earth Is Not A Cold, Dead Place"
 
I love this album, and I mean love it. I sometimes question how I managed without it. Before I discovered "The Earth…", whenever I listened to music, I would often think ‘I like this, but there is something out there that I know I would like more, I’ve just got to find it’. This album is it. I no longer feel this when I listen to any music because I am safe in the knowledge that my idea of a perfect album is there, waiting for me to listen to it again.
 
Musically, this is 46 minutes of the most beautiful instrumental music in existence. At no point does it seem forced, or contrived. The quality never dips, and listening is never difficult. I am never tempted to skip a track, or stop the album. If anything, I would rather drop everything until the album finishes. The lack of words is not a problem, if anything it makes the music more expressive, not less.
 
2. Neutral Milk Hotel – "In The Aeroplane Over The Sea"
 
It took me much longer to like this album than many others in this list. Initially, I liked the title track, and thought the rest of the album was reasonable, but not up to the same standard. However, the more I listen to it, the more I like it.
 
It’s not everyone’s cup of tea. Singer Jeff Magnum’s vocals and guitar playing sounds rough and ‘raw’ to the extent of making the White Stripes seem polished and over-produced, with the overriding impression that he is making it up as he goes along. He could well have been for all I know, but if he was then he struck lucky that day.
 
The lyrics on this album are odd in the extreme. Very rarely do they make much sense, and often it would appear that, like the tunes themselves as I mentioned before, he is singing the first thing that comes into his head. It is more like a weird dream than a waking mental image, but a good weird dream. A very good weird dream in fact.
 
3. Godspeed You Black Emperor! – "F#A#∞"
 
This is, without doubt, the most inspiring of all the albums. Whenever I listen to this (and recently, that has been very often – it was the soundtrack to my Christmas holidays), I feel the urge to pick up a pen and write "War and Peace" for the 21st century, or draw something that would make the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel look like tacky wallpaper. Obviously I don’t, or I’d be far too famous and busy to be writing this, but the urge is there, if only for a split second.
 
Again, this isn’t for everyone. In fact, it is probably the most difficult to get into for the average music fan of the whole list. It lasts for more than an hour, and has only three tracks. Each of these track is in about four ‘movements’, and these flick back and forth between samples of people speaking or excerpts from films (at a guess), and instrumental pieces. This is probably their hardest album to like instantly, but one of the most rewarding in the end. It just takes a little time.
 
4. Sigur Ros – "Agaetis Byrjun"
 
Another ‘odd’ album, and another that takes time to get to like. One of the difficulties lies in the fact that it is all sung in Icelandic, and so the words are meaningless (unless you get a set of lyrics translated into English to read while you listen), and the singer’s voice becomes just another instrument.
 
The album does bring to mind an icy landscape (such as Iceland, where Sigur Ros come from – although it could be argued that the image is influenced by the knowledge of the band’s origins) with everything done in such a way as to give the impression of vastness and isolation. The indecipherable vocals take on the role of the wind swirling across a wintry expanse of land devoid of all life expect for the band themselves.
 
5. Radiohead – "OK Computer"
 
This album often tops polls of the greatest album ever, and it is easy to see why. Or rather, hear why. The songs on it are so varied, and yet fit together so well, like a puzzle cut during an earthquake, and there is one suitable for almost any mood you could be in.
 
The atmosphere of the album is that of a person living with paranoia or in some kind of police state. There are constant references to being taken away ("I wish that they’d swoop down in a country lane, late at night when I’m driving/Take me away in their beautiful ship" from ‘Subterranean Homesick Alien’) and escape from some terrible fate ("Today we escape" and "Pack and get dressed/before your father hears us/before all hell breaks loose" from ‘Exit Music (For A Film)’). There is also a feeling of loneliness, distrust of any authority figures (linked with the idea of being taken away), and contempt for politics and politicians, though these are all abandoned for the final two tracks which are dominated by a sense of elation and faint hope tempered by a deep sadness. The feeling is that of someone who wants to escape from the monotony and disappointment of their life, but knows they lack the funds, intelligence or freedom to make such an escape possible.
 
6. Pulp – "Different Class"
 
"Different Class" really is different class (please forgive the pun and read on, I’m sorry). This album stands head and shoulders above any other to emerge from the Britpop bands of the mid- to late-nineties. While "Definitely Maybe" is also an excellent album, it has a certain naivety or frivolity in comparison to this album. The only other album to come close, as far as I am concerned, is "Urban Hymns" by The Verve. The quality of the songs on "Different Class" is consistently high throughout, and it has spawned two of the most well-known and well-liked songs from the Britpop era, ‘Disco 2000’ and, of course, ‘Common People’.
 
7. Muse – "Origin Of Symmetry"
 
This is the album which ended the comparisons with Radiohead once and for all, and elevated Muse from an above-average indie band to one of the very biggest rock groups around. Several of the songs take on epic proportions, not just in terms of running time, but sheer scale as well.
 
8. Interpol – "Antics"
 
“Antics” has an addictive quality about it. Without being as original as some of the others, or done on as grand a scale, it keeps me coming back to it. Apart from it being a very good album, I don’t quite know why. If I work it out, I’ll let you know.
 
9. Death From Above 1979 – "You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine"
 
Almost all of “You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine” is played using only drums and a bass guitar, giving each song a deep, meaty sound, and keeping the frills at a minimum. The no-frills approach is apparent in the sleeve as well, which is only four pages long, one of which is the front cover, two are the song details, and the last one contains the lyrics for the entire album. No moody band photos here, simply a cartoon of the two members with elephant trunks instead of noses. The songs have a air of urgency about them which makes them hard to ignore, and while they sometimes blend into each other, this makes the album easier to listen to, as there are no long intros or gaps between the tracks. A great album to listen to if you’re in a bad mood, or just in need of a quick fix of high-tempo songs.
 
10. Sigur Ros – “Takk…”
 
I love this album for the same reasons I love “Agaetis Byrjun”, and I think it is a more consistent album even if the tracks don’t quite hit the same heights of elegance and beauty that some on “Agaetis Byrjun” do.
 
 
While these are probably my ten favourite albums, honourable mentions should go to:
 
Air – "Moon Safari"
The Arcade Fire – “Funeral”
The Beta Band – “Heroes to Zeroes”
Biffy Clyro – “Blackened Sky”
Elbow – “Asleep In The Back”
Explosions In The Sky – “How Strange, Innocence” and “Those Who Tell The Truth Shall Die, Those Who Tell The Truth Shall Live Forever”
Goldfrapp – “Black Cherry”
The Good Life – “Album of the Year”
Modest Mouse – “Good News For People Who Love Bad News”
Radiohead – “The Bends”
Red Hot Chili Peppers – “By The Way”
The Shins – “Chutes Too Narrow”
Sigur Ros – "( )"
The Stone Roses – “The Stone Roses”
The Strokes – “Is This It”
Tool – “Lateralus”
The Verve – “Urban Hymns”