Archive for the ‘music’ Category

Rewind: Picks of the year

Posted: January 1, 2015 in music, Uncategorized

Tis the season for list-making  so here’s my annual look back at the albums I enjoyed listening to most in 2014. You can  listen to whole albums via the Spotify links provided (where available) or sample 50 of my favourite tracks on this special Spotify playlist.


1lewis. The Voyager – Jenny Lewis

“Where you come from gets the best of you,” sings Jenny Lewis on the title track of her third solo album. After a challenging period dealing with the breakup of her band, the wonderful Rilo Kiley, the death of her father and years of insomnia, Lewis channeled all that into arguably her most polished album to date. Her talent of combining acerbic, bittersweet lyrics with gloriously catchy melodies has never sounded better.

>> Listen to the album on Spotify


Robert-Plant-lullaby-and-The-Ceaseless-Roar_6382. lullaby and … the Ceaseless Roar – Robert Plant

While former bandmate Jimmy Page noodles endlessly with Led Zeppelin master tapes, Robert Plant continues to widen his musical horizons, exploring the far corners of Americana, folk and world music. Backed by the Sensational Space Shifters, Lullaby was another eclectic triumph. Rainbow was one of my favourite tracks of the year.


atkins3. Slow Phaser – Nicole Atkins

I fell in love with Nicole Atkins’ extraordinary contralto voice – somewhere between Roy Orbison and Lana Del Ray – and brilliant songwriting a couple of years ago and this, her self-released third album, did not disappoint, ricocheting from country rock to faux disco via music hall with ease. She deserves to be so much bigger.

>> Listen to the album on Spotify


now-porongs4. Brill Bruisers – New Pornographers

The New Pornographers rarely fail to deliver and their latest was exuberant power pop at its best with Neko Case’s Marching Orders the standout track of a very fine set.

>> Listen to the album on Spotify 


sonic_Highways5. Sonic Highways – Foo Fighters

Had I not seen Dave Grohl’s accompanying HBO series, this would have probably passed me by like every other Foo Fighters album. But their journey across America, writing and recording a track in each of eight cities, absorbing the musical culture and history along the way, was fascinating. Watching the songs take shape made the album much more rewarding.

>> Listen to the album on Spotify


Sonic journey

Posted: November 24, 2014 in music
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On a sonic journey: Dave Grohl

For no good reason I can think of, I’ve never been a big fan of Nirvana or the Foo Fighters, which is odd given the impact that punk rock had on me in my late teens, as indeed it did on them. However I do have a lot of time for Dave Grohl, the former Nirvana drummer and the driving force behind the Foo Fighters, the hugely successful band he formed in 1994.

What I admire in Grohl is his musical authenticity and curiosity. By that I mean his connection and appreciation of the culture and history that has shaped and influenced popular music since the latter part of the 20th century.

In recent years he has turned filmmaker and delved a bit deeper into this. In 2012 he made a documentary about Sound City, the legendary studio in Van Nuys, California where Nirvana recorded the Nevermind album and which Grohl later bought and restored. It’s a fascinating film featuring some of the great bands that recorded there (such as Fleetwood Mac, Tom Petty, Neil Young and the Red Hot Chilli Peppers to name a few) and well worth seeing for any music fan.

He has just completed an equally compelling film, a nine-part series called Sonic Highways, currently showing on HBO, to accompany the new Foo Fighters album of the same name.

The project follows a musical journey Grohl and the band made, travelling to nine American cities, spending a week in each place, absorbing their musical culture, and writing and recording a track based on their experience. Grohl’s lyrics for each song are based on the interviews he made with musicians from each place.

The result is what Grohl has called “unravelling of our musical influences” and is an intriguing take on both American music history and the regional nuances that have shaped – and continue to shape – the sounds we hear today.

Some, like New Orleans jazz, are more obvious than others – although I didn’t appreciate how much the region’s humidity contributed to its unique sound because of how it affected the instruments. And I’m sure I’m not the only one to have never heard of go-go music, a wonderful funk sub culture of 1970s Washington DC.  You can hear Grohl talk more about the making of the film in a recent episode of NPR’s All Songs Considered.

Those of you that share the same 50s vintage as Grohl and myself, or are into music history, will get a kick out of this film but I hope it provides a connection for younger listeners too. Knowing where music comes from and how it influenced your favourite artists opens up a whole new world of music to explore and widens your horizons. When I was growing up, for example, it was through artists like the Rolling Stones and Rod Stewart that I learnt to appreciate blues legends like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Jimmy Reed, the soul of Sam Cooke and Otis Redding, and the genius of Bob Dylan.

As for the Sonic Highways album itself? It’s obviously interesting as a companion to the film but I’ll have to give it a few more plays before I am converted!

A very good year

Posted: December 31, 2013 in music

I don’t know about you, but I thought 2013 was one of the best years in music for a long time. Not least because so many of my favourite bands not only released albums after long hiatuses but burnished their legacy with work of real worth. Add to that a bunch of promising newcomers and more established artists hitting their creative stride, there was so much to enjoy that I chickened out of choosing my annual top ten and went for 15 instead (plus a couple of honourable mentions).

So for what it’s worth, here are my personal favourites. Enjoy – and let me know what your picks were. You might also want to check out my friend Mark Nash’s top FIFTY (!) list – he clearly listens to way more music than me!


Past lists:  2012 | 201120102009 |  2008

As the curtain comes down on 2012, it’s time once again to take a look back at my favourite albums of the year.

Old was definitely new this year. A lot of my favourite music of 2012 drew heavily on the past yet managed to sound refreshingly new. In a world dominated by over-polished production and formulaic beats, artists like Alabama Shakes, Mumford and Sons and Jake Bugg sounded authentically analogue in a digital world.

This year also marked a significant shift in how I listened to music. I bought far fewer albums – I only actually own three of this year’s top ten – as Spotify became my primary source for new music, providing me with an almost limitless library of music that I can listen to anywhere, anytime for just $9.99 a month. It is a world away from the racks of LPs and CDs of my youth but somehow the need to possess or own physical music (as well as movies and books) seems less important with each passing year.

What hasn’t changed, though, is that great music keeps being produced and for what it’s worth, these are my top ten albums of the year.


1. Boys and Girls (Alabama Shakes)

Their debut single “Hold On” was one of the songs of the year with a performance from lead singer Brittany Howard that Janis Joplin would have been proud of. The album didn’t disappoint as its bluesy-rock sashayed confidently from start to finish. Still makes the hairs on my neck prickle.

2. Jake Bugg (Jake Bugg)

He sounds like the bastard child of Dylan and Hendrix with the worldliness of a Johnny Cash. And he’s only 18. Arguably the most exciting new male talent to emerge from the UK in years, the Nottingham singer-songwriter’s chart-topping debut album was a breath of fresh air amidst so much manufactured pop. Two Fingers was an outstanding kitchen sink drama of a single and diversely different songs like Lightning Bolt, Broken and Country Song hint at a major star in the making.

3. The Heist (Macklemore & Lewis)

“Same Love” was probably my favourite track of the year, not least because a poignant and moving hip hop song attacking homophobia was so unexpected from a genre not exactly known for its tolerance. Macklemore aka Ben Haggerty, an Irish-American rapper from Seattle, and his partner Ryan Lewis, also question youthful materialism amongst other things and The Heist was a triumphant and exciting debut.

4. Babel (Mumford and Sons) 

No idea why it’s taken me so long to get on the Mumford bandwagon but the infectious Babel convinced me at last. Few bands are playing folk rock with as much passion and commitment as the British group, as their terrific live performances in this year’s excellent documentary Big Easy Express demonstrated.

5. Some Nights (Fun)

We Are Young (featuring the wonderful Janelle Monae) was a ubiquitous radio hits this year, topping both the UK and US charts. The New York indie pop-rock band were in great form on their second album, one of the most joyous collections of the year and deservedly nabbed them six Grammy nominations.


Stone age blues

Posted: November 30, 2012 in music
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After 50 years, the Rolling Stones are still at it and by all accounts, ripping up London’s O2 in their first gigs for 5 years.  They are now in old bluesman territory agewise, so here’s a great clip of an impromptu performance with Muddy Waters when Jagger and the boys visited Buddy Guy’s Checkerboard Lounge Club in Chicago 1981. Particularly like the shots of Keef swigging straight from a bottle of Jack and the hairdo on the waitress!

The footage has recently been restored and you can watch the whole film on BBC iPlayer.

I love the tangents the internet sends you off at sometimes. I was skimming through Flipboard on my iPad the other day and come across a piece on Mental Floss,  5 Candidates for the First Rock ‘n’ Roll Song, which makes a good case for the likes of bluesman’s Arthur (Big Boy) Crudup’s 1946 song ‘That’s All Right Mama’ (later a hit for some skinny white kid .. Presley or someone) and Jimmy Preston’s ‘Rock This Joint’ (1949).

Before I knew I was off on a Google hunt and came across a review in The Guardian of ‘The First Rock And Roll Record’, a 3-CD box set that traces rock’s roots back even further to the 1930s and 1920s and includes a ton of stuff I’d never heard of, let alone listened to.

Check out the Guardian piece which includes links to many of the set’s tracks and YouTube clips. There’s also an excellent page on Wikipedia, the Origins of rock and roll, with links aplenty to send you off on numerous paths of discovery.

Now, where’s that “Buy” button ….

The Boss on fire

Posted: March 16, 2012 in music
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If you love music, you should invest 50 minutes or so and watch Bruce Springsteen’s keynote at SXSW in Austin, Texas yesterday.

Even if you’re not a big Bruce fan, this is a poignant and funny crash course in the evolution of pop music, the creative process, and the many influences that have informed Springsteen and many other artists through the decades, from Elvis, the Animals, James Brown, Dylan, Woody Guthrie and the Sex Pistols.

Springsteen urges young musicians to “stay alive and stay hungry”, stating: “The purity of human expression and experience is not confined to guitars, to tubes, to turntables, to microchips.  There is no right way, no pure way, of doing. There is just doing.”

If you just want the audio, listen here. Great stuff.

[Warning: Some explicit language.]