By Stuart McPhee Apr.12.2010
In: Album Reviews, Commentary, Opinion
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Searching For Fun: Almost Alice & New Young Pony Club

Because ultimately that is what we all want out of music – some fun. Sure, I like a little dourness every now and then but not when the aim is to cut loose. With this in mind, I can not begin to explain how wide of the mark the faux-soundtrack Almost Alice actually is.

Perhaps it is best to question the album’s actual existence before sinking the slipper into its content.

Music that is inspired by a film (in this case Tim Burton’s take on Alice In Wonderland) has never really sat well with me. Usually these sorts of soundtracks are vessels for off-cuts from a record company’s roster where ninety-five percent of the songs never appear in the film (save for the end credits) and almost never have any lyrical link to the movie in question.

Whilst the songs that make up Almost Alice certainly reference Lewis Carroll’s classic tale (at times too bluntly) only one of them can actually be heard in the film – during the end credits of course.

That honour belongs to the shrill-gorged tones of Avril Lavigne with ‘Alice’. With that as an indicator, the rest of Almost Alice is your stock standard American commercial pap (All Time Low, The All-American Rejects, Metro Station) cheekily throwing in Wonderland-esque lines into their oh so earnest lyrics: “If you cut me I suppose I would bleed the colors of the evening stars.”

If I never hear from Owl City again it will be too soon.

The only surprise amongst this lot is the inclusion of heavyweights like Franz Ferdinand and Wolfmother whose appearance seem as out of place as Obama at a Klan rally. And of course nothing says fun times like the inclusion of Mr Happy himself Robert Smith.

Speaking of the British, a group who actually know about fun is New Young Pony Club. While admittedly nothing on their new album The Optimist is as overtly playful as early single ‘Ice Cream’,  NYPC deliver a more mature sound without sacrificing their sense of having a good time. ‘Chaos’ begs to be played on the dance floors on a Saturday night whilst ‘Dolls’ evokes the spirit of 90s outfit Luscious Jackson.

Though The Optimist plateaus about three quarters of the way in (a sequencing problem more than anything), there is much to like from this band. You get the sense that their defining album is not too far off.

By Stuart McPhee Mar.8.2010
In: Commentary, Opinion, Other, Recommended
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The Defamation of Ben Drew

Back in the early days of The Music Blogs I wrote about the brave choices artists often make, in particular when they leave one band to start another. Ben Drew aka Plan B, though a solo artist, has effectively just done the same thing.

Anyone who picked up his startling debut, the 2006 grime-fest Who Need Actions When You’ve Got Words, may well ponder what has happened in these ensuing three years. For you see, the forthcoming The Defamation of Strickland Banks has Drew performing the old switcheroo and my guess is that some of the bruvvas ain’t going to like it. Where the first album was wall to wall rap with some tasty vocal hooks thrown in every few songs (Drew’s own secret weapon), on Defamation you will mostly find a Smokey Robinson album with rap taking a quite noticeable back seat.

I kid you not.

But I am not surprised at this and neither should you. His voice is too good to have played second fiddle for much longer and above all, Drew is a talented artist smart enough not to be pigeon-holed.

Back in 2006 I had the privilege of interviewing Plan B for a magazine I was working for at the time. In that interview he said:

“I tell stories in hip-hop because I’m not gangster and I am not anyone special, I’m just a regular guy. The only way I know how to rap and make it interesting is talking about other people’s stories and other people’s lives.”

Just as he used the genre of hip-hop to convey his stories back then, now he uses R&B to tell his tales. R&B is where Drew first started out before becoming disillusioned with it. I’d like to think all he needed was the right songs to make it happen. From what I have heard so far – he has them.

For those that are new to his work and want a comparison, here is a little something from his first album, the great ‘Mama’ and new tune ‘Writing’s On The Wall’.

The Defamation Of Strickland Banks is released on April 12.

By Stuart McPhee Nov.17.2009
In: Commentary, Opinion
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We can work it out? Apparently not.

apple-rottenIf we want to be truthful we can blame The Bubblies. If it wasn’t for this obscure French Pop band we may not have this current insult to the music world. I am talking of course about Apple Corps bizarre decision to release The Beatles collection on an Apple shaped USB Stick.

Limited to 30,000 copies and going for around $350 (AUD) this is, according to the L.A. Times,  the Fab Four embracing new models of distribution.

Well if by embracing new models of distribution you mean selling the same thing on yet another physical product then I guess you are right.

Anyone who wasn’t sick the day they taught marketing at marketing school could tell you the following:

The target audience for a new model of distribution is an audience you haven’t yet reached.

Imagine for a moment I am a teenage kid who wants to get into The Beatles.  Like most teenagers these days I have an MP3 device and an account with a digital music outlet. What I don’t have is $350 and an attention span to take in 14 albums all at once, especially on a band I am not really sure about. I want to choose the tracks that I want by previewing them so that I don’t end up with ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da’ or something equally as excruciating.I also do not want to open a Read Me Document to tell me how to transfer the music to my portable player. Isn’t that what my digital music outlet is supposed to do for me at a click of a button?

So how exactly does this odd looking plastic Apple reach a new audience? It doesn’t.

The ONLY audience this USB stick will reach are the hardcore collectors who insist on acquiring every format available. With a production run of only 30,000 these monstrosities won’t last long. The sad thing is most of them will remain in their original packaging collecting nothing but dust and value (value only to other hardcore collectors).

This is money for jam but it is only $10.5 million (minus retail’s cut).

Now imagine if Apple Corps and Apple Inc finally brokered a deal and The Beatles catalogue was finally made available on iTunes. Working on the basis that a single song costs $2.00 (AUD) on iTunes then The Beatles would have to have their songs downloaded 5,250,000 times to reach the same amount. Considering over 8 Billion songs have been downloaded from iTunes (since inception) and The Beatles are the most popular band in history then that 5.25 million target would be reached and passed fairly quickly. All done without any production costs or limiting your sales to only  30,000 people.

Apple’s bottom line aside, tell me this isn’t the way to reach a new audience?

To think, this is the same company that released the innovative The Beatles: Rock Band only a few months ago.

How can they get it so right one minute and so wrong the next?

By Stuart McPhee Sep.27.2009
In: Commentary, Opinion, Other
5 comments

Call It A Lesson Learned #3

A Lesson Learned

The third in a series of essays on what I may (or may not) have learned from music. The previous essay can be found here.

Excuse Me While I Break My Own Heart Tonight

A few nights (and a fair few drinks) ago a few of us from the office pondered the inevitable hypothetical question: If you could only listen to one genre of music, what would it be?

I say hypothetical because any self respecting lover of music has more than one field of interest. Those who like hip-hop are probably partial to a bit of R&B (not racist at all), whilst I am convinced that there are people out there who own both James Blunt and Kings Of Leon albums (housewives from middle England is my guess).

The responses around the table were interesting, some specific (Alternate Rock 1991-1994) others wide ranging (World Music) and one from a bloke who was obviously taking the piss (Jungle). I chose Soul, a selection that did not surprise anyone at all. My love of soul music knows no bounds (There ain’t no mountain high enough you could say) but I wondered about the flipside to the discussion: What if there was no such thing as soul music? What would I choose instead?

That was a dill of a pickle.

A few nights (and a fair few drinks) later, the answer hit me: alt.country.

I realise that in hindsight selecting it as my backup was a bold move as I know almost nothing about alt.country. What was it? Does such a thing still exist (if in fact it ever did) and if so, what is out there to listen to?

Why didn’t I just say College Rock 1992 – 1997? That way I could prattle on about the genius of the first Gin Blossoms album.

So before I ventured into the deep unknown I decided it was best to take stock of what I already owned in this mysterious genre. That wasn’t a great deal either.

Are you sure you don’t want to hear about my correlation between New Miserable Experience and my teenage years? Perhaps another time then.

Due to my age and location in the world, the term alt.country first hit me in the Summer of 2000 when Heartbreaker by Ryan Adams was released. I promptly ignored that album for a variety of reasons, a few of which were:

- anyone who has a name like that is asking for trouble
- any album that starts with an in studio argument about a Morrissey song receives an automatic disqualification.

Soon after, the final release by Ryan’s former band Whiskeytown finally saw the light of day. So on a miserable Sunday afternoon as I flew solo in the record store, I threw on Pneumonia. My sole motivation was that James Iha was a guest on the record and anything tenuously linked to the Pumpkins couldn’t be all bad.

By half way through ‘Don’t Wanna Know Why‘ I was hooked.

It was country music that I could finally understand. Sure it had its pop moments (the Iha co-write ‘Don’t Be Sad’ is simply angelic) but overall it was country for those that couldn’t care less about Shania Twain and her bastardisation of the genre. To boot, the press I had read about Adams alluded to the fact he wasn’t exactly a poster boy in Nashville. That made it even better.

I humbly went back to Heartbreaker, fell in love with ‘Come Pick Me Up’ and have consumed everything he has released since (rightly or wrongly) including his weekly singles from his new digital record label PAX AM.

These days, Ryan’s music barely resembles alt.country. The same could be said for Whiskeytown. They only released 3 albums but with each one they sounded less and less like a country band. Compare ‘Too Drunk To Dream’ from their debut Faithless Street to something like the Herman’s Hermits pastiche of ‘Mirror Mirror’ off Pneumonia and you begin to wonder if it is the same band. Considering the majority of Whiskeytown’s original members had quit or were fired has a lot to do with it but perhaps it is an inherent trait with a lot of alt.country acts?

Over the course of their tenure, Minnesota band The Jayhawks drifted away from their alt.country roots (1992s Hollywood Town Hall is a must) to a more pop feel (see 2000s Smile) before returning to their classic sound on Rainy Day Music. Wilco on the other hand were a band that came from alt.country legends Uncle Tupelo and from an early stage frontman Jeff Tweedy began to distance his new band from the genre.

So it seems that on the surface of things I hitched my cart to the wrong horse. Any band who had any say in the history of alt.country didn’t stick around for very long. Heck even the Godfather of the genre, Gram Parsons, only put out two solo albums (the 2nd posthumously) before overdosing in 1973.

A few words on Gram Parsons, those two albums are pretty indispensable. Without them then Ryan would’ve stuck to punk music, a swathe of bands would never have been and more importantly, the wonderfully talented Emmylou Harris may not have made it to the big time. Her vocal contributions to those records should not be underestimated and her standing set the scene for her first ‘proper’ album Pieces Of The Sky a year later.

But what the genre lacks in terms of output is more than made up for in quality artists. Those listed above are a mere starting point and as such there are many fine musicians not mentioned including Drive-By Truckers, Patty Griffin, Gillian Welch and Australia’s own The Gin Club to name a few.

However at this moment in time I can only take alt.country in small doses. There are more songs about hurt than there are about love. And whilst heartbreak is also a recurring theme for soul music, there is hope running through a lot of it. Alt.country doesn’t have one of these and without such will always remain in second place.

And there is no shame in that.

By Stuart McPhee Jun.8.2009
In: Commentary, Opinion
2 comments

Statement Of Intent: A Key Ingredient To Making It In This World

rock-star-babyLike the great musician Joey ‘The Lips’ Fagan, I believe in starts. Once you have the start the rest is inevitable.

The first song on a debut album is critical. It is the opening gambit that should sum up your dreams and aspirations and place your contemporaries on notice: This world is mine and I dare you to stop me.

Now there are some mighty fine debut albums that feature great opening tracks but the best ones are those that personify the ambitions of the artist.

Here are a few of my favourites:

Bruce Springsteen – Blinded By The Light (from the album Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J)

Certainly not the biggest song in his career (throw a blanket over a dozen classics) or the most well known version (that goes to Manfred Mann’s Earth Band), ‘Blinded By The Light’ is Springsteen kicking off Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. with a Dylanesque stream of rhyme. The key line is right at the end:

“Mama always told me not to look into the sights of the sun
Oh but mama that’s where the fun is”

Any teenager wanting to be a musician can relate to that.

U2 – I Will Follow (from the album Boy)

29 years after its debut, ‘I Will Follow’ still sounds fresh, thanks primarily to The Edge’s guitar work. The song itself is pure youth bursting out of the speakers. The best statements of intent need a little earnestness and who better to deliver that than the most earnest band of the 1980s?

R.E.M – Radio Free Europe (from the album Murmur)

Released as a single two years prior, ‘Radio Free Europe’ was re-recorded for their debut album in 1983. Much like ‘I Will Follow’ it is more about the raw sound than the lyrical prowess. The driving beat is a strong reminder that when drummer Bill Berry left, R.E.M. would never be the same.

Hoodoo Gurus – I Want You Back (from the album Stoneage Romeos)

I have always seen the Gurus as a great singles band  but upon reflection their albums are just as strong, none more so than their debut. ‘I Want You Back’ is vintage garage rock that saw the Aussie quartet break through to college radio in America.

Oasis – Rock ‘n’ Roll Star (from the album Definitely Maybe)

Opening salvos don’t get any more direct than ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Star’. The song is as much about the band’s wish to get out of their own shit hole of an existence as it was Britain’s. Love them or loathe them, the Gallagher brothers have embodied the words of this tune ever since.

What is your favourite statement of intent? Let us know.

By Stuart McPhee Apr.15.2009
In: Commentary, Opinion, Other, Recommended
2 comments

Your Search Is Over

rsday

“But what we will miss, when our entire culture is sold through one big chain-store shopping mall called Borderstones, is the stuff that floats to the surface on a bubble of personal enthusiasm.” – Nick Hornby

Sometime in the late 90s my good friend Bill had this crazy notion about wanting to open a record store. I say crazy for a few reasons. By the end of the century, the music retail landscape (in Australia) was dominated by HMV, Sanity and JB Hi-Fi, big companies with more buying power than some Pacific Nations. Also, a pesky little thing called Napster was just about to hit the Internet, forever changing the way we would consume music. To top it off, Bill was a Deputy Principal of a High School and in his mid-forties. His entire retail experience consisted of a part time job as a supermarket cashier before he went to teacher’s college.

Despite all this, his notion (nay his dream) became a reality and on the 1st of March 1999, Atlantis Music opened. I know this because before I became a corporate fat cat I worked in the store with Bill. The two of us along with my flatmate and great friend Chad (to complete the triumvirate) worked tirelessly for weeks on end in those first months of 1999 to get the store ready for opening day. To say we winged a lot of it is understating the gravity of the situation.

The aim of the store was simple: give the customer more than what any other music retail business could offer – outstanding customer service. No I know that is part and parcel of anyone trying to sell you something but we could never compete on the same playing field financially. Money can buy you as many CDs to stock the shelves as you desire, it could not buy you the personalised service we were offering. Any album in the world? We were prepared to track the ends of the earth to find it. Our slogan was simple: Your search is over…You’ve found Atlantis Music.

Sure, we stocked the pop princesses, but we aimed to cover much more ground than the current play lists of the Austereo Network. A decent range of back catalogue? Yes. Second hand? We had it. Vinyl? 7, 12, even 10 inch? Sure thing. 78′s? We had so many we could have sold them by the pound. Old sheet music? Enough to wallpaper a studio apartment.

And that was just the tip of the iceberg. We haven’t even discussed memorabilia, original movie posters or our specially made record cleaner (otherwise known as the blue goo).

The range of stock was one thing but to establish a long lasting relationship was the key. We wanted a regular customer to enter the store, be greeted by their first name and engage in robust discussion about the affairs of the world. When they enquired about the new one by ‘so and so’ we wanted to have it on the new release shelf or, better still, to produce a copy from behind the counter and say, “we ordered one specifically for you”. Did this always occur? Of course not, but you bet your ass we kept aiming for that perfect customer experience.

I clocked out after 8 and a half years (Chad not long after), ready for new challenges that would lay ahead. Yet I can honestly say I enjoyed waking up every day and going to work in the store. Who wouldn’t enjoy listening and discussing music for 8 hours a day? My time there is full of so many great stories and larks but the one I always remember, which occurred in the first few months there, was when a middle aged man got a bit shouty at me over the song “Cat’s In The Cradle”. He swore black and blue it was on the album Tea For The Tillerman by Cat Stevens and was a little more than agitated that a 20 year old kid was telling him that Cat Stevens never sang it and if the man was so sure then to prove it.

I even offered him a copy of Verities & Balderdash by Harry Chapin (which contains the song he was after) to purchase.

I guess there was no pleasing some people.

I am proud to say that last month, Atlantis Music celebrated a decade in the business. Pretty phenomenal you must admit in this current state of not only music retail but global economic misery as well. It is a testament to Bill’s vision that the store is still a success whilst many of his contemporaries are sadly shutting their doors for good.

In a few days time we celebrate Record Store Day, a recent creation designed to highlight the unique culture of the independently owned record store. Whilst I understand the push for a lot of the music business to go digital, I hope deep down that there is always a place for the record store in our lives.

Now that I am the customer and no longer the retailer, a customer continually searching for new music, I mean that more than ever.

By Stuart McPhee Feb.21.2009
In: Other
1 comment

Call It A Lesson Learned #2

The second in a series of essays on what I may (or may not) have learned from music. The first essay can be found here.

There Is A Light That Never Goes Out

The most common criticism of my music collection (apart from the fact that I own, and still champion, little known Mancunian outfit Haven to no success) is that I don’t own any albums by The Beatles.

I think the thing that perturbs said critics even more is my assertion that I have little desire to own any of their music. As someone who possesses Oasis and Crowded House albums (for whom neither would be around without the Fab Four), I must qualify my remarks.

Pound for pound they are the best singles band ever. Irrefutably. However I don’t need to own any of their music because their legacy is so ingrained in popular culture. Being in possession of Rubber Soul isn’t going to change my outlook on a damn thing. I know that concept is difficult for a lot of people to grasp, especially for those that are aware I have Standing On The Shoulder Of Giants in my collection, but there it is. The point being I get The Beatles, I just don’t need to get The Beatles.

Now that we have identified the Scouse elephant in the room let’s move on to the real reason we are here: You must be open to any band being able to charm the pants off you. In fact you don’t have a choice for that is their aim. Sure, you can have negative preconceptions about an act but be prepared to succumb at a moments notice.

Case in point for me: The Smiths

For years I ignored them. I cared not for the sulky music they peddled and even less about Steven Patrick Morrissey. As far as I was concerned, the pasty faced sooks that adored their music could have The Smiths all to themselves. I’ll stick to something a little more upbeat and a little less pretentious thank you very much.

I can’t recall exactly when I changed my tune but it was late in the piece. I am 28 now, so it must have been in my teens when I first heard of The Smiths (and subsequently hating them in one fell swoop). When I came around the entry point was definitely Johnny Marr and the three bands I have already mentioned (that aren’t The Beatles) are the ones to thank for that.

Oasis had always spoken highly of Johnny Marr in interviews (he eventually played on the Heathen Chemistry album), he formed part of Neil Finn’s all-star ’7 Worlds Collide’ project and is it turned out, he was the one that discovered Haven (proving that even if the rest of the world didn’t catch on to Haven that at least myself and Johnny have the same taste in music).

With that many coincidences it made sense to re-appraise my view on The Smiths. Second time around, with a wisened head on my shoulders, I began to appreciate the droll humour in Morrissey’s lyrics and how that contrasted with Marr’s brilliant jangly guitar sound. Tunes like ‘The Boy With The Thorn In His Side’ and ‘Panic’ represented everything I loved about pop music. Suddenly I could hear their sound coming out of my Pete Yorn and Ryan Adams records and I realised that I had always liked them, I just didn’t know it.

I still think Moz is a bit of a twat but I am willing to concede that I was wrong about The Smiths and whilst I haven’t invested fully in their back catalogue (and may never do) I have broken through the invisible barrier from cynic to listener.

There are many bands that are still to win me over. The Cure definitely fit the bill and I have never understood the attraction to The Doors either. But I am at least open to the possibility of it all making sense one day. The same can be said for acts that I love but others may despise. I can understand not wanting to be seduced by Jeff Buckley or Led Zeppelin or Al Green (actually I can’t understand anyone not loving Al Green).

In the end you can have all the negative opinions you want but somewhere there will be a band (or the legacy of a band) trying valiantly to win you over. Be prepared because they may well succeed.

By Stuart McPhee Jan.20.2009
In: Commentary, Opinion, Recommended
0 comments

...Or rock some mink boots in the summertime like Will.I.Am

u2-no-line-on-the-horizonLove them or hate them, U2 are the only band to have lasted so long and with the same lineup while still managing to release big selling albums and hit singles.

3 things to note for their upcoming album No Line On The Horizon:

1. ‘Get On Your Boots’ is the lead single. While it is early days for me to form a decent opinion, the best description I have heard is the song is a mix of  Elvis Costello’s ‘Pump It Up’ and The Temptation’s ‘Ball Of Confusion (That’s What The World Is Today)’. I will say that this is the most relaxed and playful they have sounded since ‘Discotheque’ dropped, subsequently confusing all and sundry.

2. It is reported that Will.I.Am is involved in some way with the track ‘I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight’. I am an open minded individual so I will reserve judgement until I hear the tune. Suffice to say I am always weary of people who have a co-writing credit on a song called ‘My Humps’. Grammy or no Grammy.

and 3. Trent Reznor deserves a credit in the liner notes. U2 have clearly pinched his style for the album cover.

For all the guff, including a stream of ‘Get On Your Boots’, go to: http://goyb.u2.com/

By Stuart McPhee Jan.14.2009
In: Production, Recommended
0 comments

Oasis: Taking It To The Streets

oasisPart canny marketing idea and part musical goodwill (surprising considering Liam Gallagher is involved), last September Oasis decided to preview four songs from their then upcoming album ‘Dig Out Your Soul’.

How did they do it? Liam, Andy and Gem went to New York, recruited a wide variety of subway musicians, taught them the songs and had them play the new material in their own unique way to the public.

Chronicled in HD by video makers The Malloys, Dig Out Your Soul In The Streets is a great mini-documentary showing the universal passion for music, radical interpretations of rock tunes and a humbled bunch of lads from Manchester.

Well almost.

Check it out: Oasis – Dig Out Your Soul In The Streets

By Stuart McPhee Dec.22.2008
In: Album Reviews, Commentary, Opinion, Recommended
0 comments

TMB's favourite albums of 2008

switchedonsantaIf we can blow our own trumpet for a second.

The great thing about The Music Blogs is that the staff writers come from different backgrounds and different towns and have varied musical influences. We are not all from the same hipster textbook (or any textbook for that matter) but we definitely share the common love of recorded sound.

It is here, with our 1st annual list of TMB’s favourite albums, that this communal adoration of music is best illustrated. We hope you enjoy reading it as much as we enjoyed putting it together.

Thanks for all your support in our first year. Here’s to a great 2009!

Andrew Stapleton

eaglesofdeathmetal

Eagles of Death Metal :: Heart On

This band is the magically sex injected mo’ sportin’ rock devil, Jesse “Boots Electric” Hughes and the endlessly talented and insanely individual Josh Homme (Queens of the Stone Age, Kyuss) or “Baby Duck” as he’s known here. Heart On is basically an onslaught of catchy as all buggery fuck hooks, buzzy/cool/weird geeeeetars, broken trashbag drums, farty basslines (farty in the best possible sense; as in its your own fart, and you’re watching everyone keel over on the ground having seizures while you stand triumphantly over their quivering bodies with a smug, accomplished look on your face as you take in the wofty aromas of cheese and onion chips with oaky overtones of beer and nachos) and lyrics that are funny, sexy and even sincere and genuine at times.

It’s a great example of Josh’s ability to jam a tonne of character into every single element of a song; from the lead guitar right down to the high-hats and cowbells. He basically plays most of the intruments, plus he produced and mixed the damn thing too. This, mixed with Jesse’s loveable-ness and developed songwriting and unashamedly rock and roll, boogie-woogie stylings makes it the funnest, most danceable and re-listenable album I’ve heard in very very very very very long time.

Buy it!

Key Track: The whole thing is solid gold but I’d say High Voltage

Anique Vered

lykkeli

Lykke Li :: Youth Novels

The thing that I most love about music is how I find myself surrendering to feelings of calm, clarity, peace, heart-throbbing love VS head-banging, hip-swinging, feet-stomping craaazyiness all at the same time.  And so, whilst listening to Swedish 22 year old Lykke Li’s album Youth Novels, I’ve found myself gazing out to the horizon all melancholic-like, and at other times, dancing around like a Tom Cruise-inspired-cleaner with my 80s-punk-and-free jives.

Indeed Lykke Li exudes a freshness that seeps into your skin.  Complimented by producer and co-writer Björn Yttling, from renowned Indie-Pop band Peter Bjorn and John, this album decks up just the right amount of … well, as Lykke describes her genre herself: “Other / Other”.   Every song on “Youth Novels” takes you to another station on the Lykke Li subway – each with their own unique characters, smells, sounds and settings – add to this her radiating honesty and Björn’s beats, and you’ve got yourself the ride of the year.

This is definitely one worth buying to share with the grandkids I say.

Key tracks: Tonight and Dance Dance Dance

Annik Skelton

lauramarling

Laura Marling :: Alas, I Cannot Swim

This eighteen year old British-born indie/folk artist has released a gorgeous debut album of delicate, refreshing tracks to keep you leaning forward and listening carefully. Thought-provoking lyrics, intricate guitar work and soft-yet-powerful vocals pay testament to a maturity far beyond Marling’s years as she takes us on a journey of love, lust, religion, self-loathing, death and a constant quest for truth. Each build-up engages flawlessly as this album proves that less is definitely more.

Key tracks: Night Terror and Tap At My Window

Geoff Kim

thedears

The Dears :: Missiles

It feels a little disjointed, almost awkward, on first listen, but over the course of the year it grew to become my favourite record of 2008. There is a certain sense of tenderness and heart that has not been seen since Arcade Fire’s ‘Funeral’ and you will be thoroughly rewarded if you allow it some time to sink in. Headphones recommended.

Key track: Crisis 1 & 2

Jye Smith

citycolour

City & Colour :: Live

Without a doubt my favourite album released this year is Dallas Green’s solo operation: City & Colour and in particular their Live release.  It’s a powerful, emotive and most noticeably of all it’s very pure.  His voice carries with it a certain piercing quality that really articulates the tone and message of each track.

The album includes a few unreleased tracks which are very special.  The alternative version of Coming Home is also a great look at the potential of these recordings — each and every song seems to have an endless amount of power behind it and Green’s control of this power is unmatched.

Key track: Day Old Hate

Nathanael Boehm

blissneso

Bliss N Eso :: Flying Colours

One of my favourite Australian hip-hop releases and album this year. A strong, pumping selection of tracks with a fresh variety of sounds across the album.

Key track: The Sea Is Rising

Peta Kiellor

eaglesofdeathmetal

Eagles Of Death Metal :: Heart On

How can you go wrong with a title like Heart On? Seriously. This album is beyond amazing as far as I’m concerned; it was the first I ever heard of these guys and was recommended by a friend who insisted he wouldn’t leave me alone until I listened to it in its entirety. Which I did… something like 7 times in the first day. And it’s still in the CD player in my car.

This album is a perfect mix of sleaze, sex and power-chord driven stoner rock in which most tracks are about girls, the beach, tight pants and parties. It’s nothing for the faint hearted, conservative, or anyone with any moral or intellectual values. Those who love this album will love it for eternity. And will understand why those of us already listening to it already only want to get drunk and party until dawn.

Go buy it. Really.

Key track: High Voltage.

Rob Tilleard

boniver

Bon Iver :: For Emma, Forever Ago

So much has already been written on the drama, sorrow and tragedies that inspired Justin Vernon’s debut as Bon Iver. It is not worth attempting to dissect the heartache and loneliness that inhabits this album. This is a man who is, or was, sad. That he manages to convey such sorrow in such a beautiful way does not make it any happier. Vernon travels to a place we have all been at least once, a dark place. A swirling mix of emotions and deep deep sorrow.

That Vernon’s lyrics themselves are disjointed, forming their own puzzle, draws us into his own isolated world. The words are as disturbed and searching as Vernon plainly was as he wrote the album. On Re:Stacks Vernon rustles up some confusing imagery: there’s a black crow sitting across from me\his wiry legs are crossed\and he’s dangling my keys he even fakes a toss\whatever could it be\that has brought me to this loss?. Shit, I have no idea what that means, seriously, can’t the fucking crow just give the poor man his keys back? Yet his tentative high pitched wail and impassioned yearning delves past that and shoots right for the heart. Easily the album of the year.

Key track: The Wolves (Act I and II) – A journey into the heart of darkness.

Scott Drummond

calexico

Calexico :: Carried To Dust

It’s been hard for me not to like Calexico, even if 2006′s Garden Ruin lacked the cinematic grandeur of some of their previous records. Happily, with Carried to Dust they’re back to their mariachi-loving, Morricone-infused best. The record features accomplished cameos from Tortoise’s Doug McCombs  and Iron and Wine’s Sam Beam, and poppy numbers like Writer’s Minor Holiday help to add light to the beautiful shade of the album’s more expansive core.

Key track: Hard to pick one, but at a push Two Silver Trees is haunting, dense yet seductive – can’t stop listening to it.

Stanley Johnston

neilyoung

Neil Young :: Sugar Mountain (Live At Canterbury House 1968)

This intimate live recording by Neil Young has been buried in the vaults for 40 years. Recorded just a couple of days before Young’s 23rd birthday, it finds him finding his feet as a solo performer following the acrimonious breakup of Buffalo Springfield. The highlight of this album is, believe it or not, the between song banter, with Young having plenty to talk about.

Key track – Many of these songs were yet to be recorded, so Young was beta testing them with a live audience. My personal favourite is the show closer – Broken Arrow.

Stewart Heys

thebug

The Bug :: London Zoo

This was an album I knew was going to be strong as soon as I started listening to it. The opening track ‘Angry’ commands attention with its drum beats alone, and when Tippa Irie gets going, you know things are going to get rough. The assault continues for most of the album, but there are moments where the ragga/ dancehall aspects drift away to leave a more Burial-esque minimalist dubstep flavour. By the time Warrior Queen appears for her second guest appearance on Poison Dart towards the end, I had experienced a distinct beginning, middle and end as if I had just heard a great story.

And that is the point of this album – there is a vast amount of creativity and variation within the tracks, but it all fits together perfectly. The spooky, dystopian tone sits nicely alongside the at times confrontational evolutionary/ revolutionary lyrics and punching, driving basslines. And these contrasts match the very positive, uplifting message I take from listening to this album – sure, things are a mess at the moment, but we can and will sort it out.

Key Track: Poison Dart featuring Warrior Queen

Stuart McPhee

teddythompson

Teddy Thompson :: A Piece Of What You Need

Due to my own strict rules/his crappy release date (circle where appropriate), Lupe Fiasco misses the cut this year. However, Brit Teddy Thompson is certainly no also-ran and his fourth album A Piece Of What You Need had me talking him up to anyone that would sit still for a minute. His sophisticated brand of Pop music blended with Country-ish vocals (think Roy Orbison) help to produce classic tunes like first single ‘In My Arms’ and the sweeping and remorseful ‘Don’t Know What I Was Thinking’.

A measure of an artist and an album is the ability to persuade the first time listener to immediately track down the rest of their back catalogue. Mission accomplished Mr Thompson, well played sir.

Key Track: In My Arms

Ty Pendlebury

deerhunter

Deerhunter :: Microcastle

I haven’t been this obsessed with an album since Okkervil River’s Black Sheep Boy. It’s a slow-burner and not as willfully weird as last year’s Cryptograms — though there are some Breeders’ Last Splash-type moments. This is a gorgeously languid shoegaze of an album, and if you thought the second coming of My Bloody Valentine was the most exciting thing to happen this year, then you’re almost right.

Key track: Nothing Ever Happened

By Stuart McPhee Nov.23.2008
In: Album Reviews, Opinion, Recommended
2 comments

Nothing a month? Yeah, I think we can swing that: My 5 favourite free downloads of 2008

As I have stated once before: I am a material guy in a digital world. Buying a full album online still does not wash with me and no amount of exclusive bonus tracks or digital booklets can sway my opinion. I do however purchase a lot of new singles to the point that I need to set up some sort of tab arrangement with iTunes like Norm had with Sam Malone.

Free albums on the other hand I’ll happily download anytime. Of course by ‘free albums’ I don’t mean using a P2P service to grab the latest Metallica album for nix. This year especially there have been some solid free releases by artists and I thought I would share with you my four favourites as well as the best free music related podcast in the world.

The CharlatansYou Cross My Path

Back in March this year, UK stalwarts The Charlatans partnered up with radio station Xfm to drop their 10th album online for nothing. Sounding more like New Order as the years go by, fourth single ‘Mis-Takes’ is one of my favourite songs of 2008. No longer available through Xfm but an album worth seeking out regardless (it was released on CD in May).

Nine Inch NailsThe Slip

With the simple message from Trent Reznor: “thank you for your continued and loyal support over the years – this one’s on me”, The Slip was made available with no prior announcement on May 5th. All of a sudden, NIN has become prolific and we are all better for it.

Girl TalkFeed The Animals

I remember back in 2006 a guy coming into the record store that I worked in and asking for Girl Talk. After politely showing him ‘The Best of Dave Edmunds’ album he shook his head and explained the ‘Night Ripper’ album and its concept.  2008s Feed The Animals is another brilliant collection of samples blending into and on top of one another. The album’s only fault is that it doesn’t contain ‘Girls Talk’ by Dave Edmunds. Perhaps next time.

Mick Boogie & Terry UrbanViva La Hova

Whilst Coldplay purists weep on message boards around the interweb, the rest of us can’t get enough of this brilliant mash up album with Jay-Z and the second biggest band in the world. Inspired by the remix of ‘Lost!’, some great underground producers have put together some fantastic tunes, my favourites being ‘Never Changing’ and ‘Public Speeding’. Both acts have given it the thumbs up as well, that’s praise you can’t buy.

Sound OpionionsWeekly Podcast

A great weekly radio program originating from Chicago, Sound Opinions is the self proclaimed “world’s only Rock N Roll talk show”. While that boast can’t be confirmed, its hosts Jim DeRogatis and Greg Kot are well respected music critics with a wealth of knowledge. You won’t always agree with them but you will enjoy their insights and fantastic guests. Worth an hour of your time each week.

By Stuart McPhee Oct.28.2008
In: Album Reviews, Other, Recommended
6 comments

Flying Under Your Radar: Epicure

Epicure - Postcards From A GhostLast Sunday evening as I sat in a bar in Elwood, a pint of beer in hand, listening to a good friend of mine sing the weekend away I noticed a woman at the table next to me.  Gillespie’s music often has that effect.

Yet it was another band that attracted me to her.

Many years ago (sometime after O.J. got off but before the towers came down) I was a journalism student at Griffith University when I became friends with a girl named Emma. Hello to Emma if she’s watching at home.

Emma, like me, also worked in a Record Store and we both shared a fondness for the music of Jeff Buckley. It was Emma who would put me on to the then unknown Ballarat band Epicure.

I say ‘then unknown’ but, short of one semi-hit single (‘Armies Against Me’ from 2002), Epicure are still not a household act in this country and I am at a loss to know why. I am hoping their latest record changes all that.

Postcards From A Ghost is the band’s fourth long player (not counting the 2001 B-Side collection Airmail - yes I own that as well) and it is certainly their most well rounded release, comprising the various styles they have dabbled in over the years. Whilst they continue to trade in the sort of bluesy piano numbers that typified 2005s Main Street like the gorgeous ‘Landslide’, the lads also show an urgency not heard in their songs for some time.

‘Snakes & Foxes’ is hands down one of the best opening salvos you’ll hear this year and certainly contains one of my favourite first lines: “When we first met you were dancing in some guys lap peering out beneath your cowboy hat going by another name.” Tell me you don’t have the visual in your head.

‘Blood On My Hands’, ‘Loves Me Not’ and first single ‘Cobra Kisses’ also bristle with the same energy and fervour. Vocalist Juan Alban sounds at home on these heavier tracks as he also does on songs like the introspective album closer ‘How This Will End’. I’m sure Juan is sick of the Ed Kowalczyk/Michael Stipe comparisons by now but it is worth noting this: I gave up buying Live and R.E.M. albums a while ago, I still wait in anticipation for Epicure releases.

Finally, an alt.country flourish (see: ‘One Last Chance To Reach You’ and ‘Soft Place To Fall’) courtesy of new guitarist Mick Hubbard (ex Jen Cloher And The Endless Sea – another great act) adds another dimension to the band’s overall sound.

Epicure are primed for the success they so richly deserve with the release of Postcards From A Ghost. I can only hope it comes their way.

Postscript: As it turned out, the woman in the bar looked a lot like Emma but it wasn’t her. I thankfully worked that out for myself without having to embarrassingly ask. Besides, if she had said no what was my reply to be without it sounding like I was trying to pick her up? I guess: “Buy the new Epicure album” would’ve worked.

By Stuart McPhee Oct.5.2008
In: Commentary, Opinion
12 comments

Finally marching to a different tune

The history of music is littered with brave choices: Dylan plugging in at the Newport Folk Festival; Al Green turning his back on secular music; the person responsible for signing Mariah Carey to EMI.

What fascinates me is when the leader of a band decides to pack it all in and start anew. I’m not talking about going solo but forming a completely new band: new members, new name, new style.

It doesn’t often happen but when it does, rarely is it a success. Two men that have made the arduous decision and have lived to tell the tale are Paul Weller and Neil Finn.

Both had completely different reasons for dissolving their respective bands and starting again but I doubt that either made their choice lightly.

Finn’s choice was the easier and most logical of the two. He had inherited Split Enz when his elder brother Tim left so it made sense for Neil to strip it all back and start a smaller combo. The Enz never possessed a stable lineup or sound for that matter (From vaudevillian art rock to new wave) and by the time their last album was released (1984s See Ya ‘Round) they had exhausted their potential fan base. The clown make-up had not been sighted in a while either.

Their last hit song was a cracking pop tune called ‘I Walk Away’ which was loaded with connotations of leaving everything behind and starting something new and exciting.

In less than 18 months, Finn had his new band Crowded House and along with Paul Hester and Nick Seymour they cracked the US (something Split Enz never could) and finally the UK, becoming one of the world’s most loved groups. Interestingly enough, ‘I Walk Away’ was re-recorded for Crowded House’s self titled debut, with the new version taking on a more guitar driven sound that reflects Finn’s move to a three piece line-up.

It was a different kettle of fish for Paul Weller. The Jam were at their peak when Weller decided he had done all he could with the band (something Bruce Foxton, Rick Buckler and millions of Mods would disagree with). Weller’s interests in soul music was growing and slowly the punk in him waned. In hindsight, The Jam’s last single ‘Beat Surrender’ was like a snottier version of a song The Style Council (Weller’s next band) would soon release.

Going from sharp suits to sweaters draped over the shoulders, Paul Weller certainly took a hit in the credibility stakes. Yet for all their faults, The Style Council did produce some great music (‘Shout To The Top’ is a song) and Weller weathered the storm of the 80s to forge an acclaimed solo career.

Even though Weller survived, is such a ballsy move likely to ever happen again? Can one imagine Chris Martin leaving Coldplay to form a new venture with some other musicians? Thom Yorke ditching Radiohead? Such a notion is hard to believe but you tell that to fans of The Jam – they would disagree.

By Stuart McPhee Sep.15.2008
In: Other
4 comments

Call It A Lesson Learned #1

The first in a series of essays on what I may (or may not) have learned from music.

I’m waitin’ for the heartache to come, but it don’t come at all

Being a hardcore fan is a tough gig. It involves a certain level of commitment that would be considered stalking by some district court judges. Frankly I couldn’t be arsed devoting that amount of time and money to one entity but then I’m Gen Y and not a Scientologist so that explains my apathy.

Read the full story

By Stuart McPhee Sep.8.2008
In: Commentary, Opinion
1 comment

All we need is a little patience

Something for the Gunners fans there (and don’t they need it). But while they sit on forums and ruminate as to the epicness of Chinese Democracy, us normal souls are being spoiled by guerrilla tactics from the likes of Radiohead, Nine Inch Nails and now Bloc Party.

The latter’s 3rd album Intimacy dropped online a little over a week ago with very short notice from the band.  The only clue as to its sound were the dancy between album release ‘Flux’ and first single ‘Mercury’. In an era of albums leaking like the entire music industry is run by the Keystone Cops (complete with Suge Knight in the Fatty Arbuckle role) this method of releasing new material will soon become the norm.

The only thing that doesn’t fly with me in the case of Bloc Party is the way they have decided to hold the physical release of the album back about 2 months. I am still a material guy in a digital world so I need to be convinced that what I am getting by clicking on a paid download is exactly what I would receive if I went in to my local record store (sound quality aside). So when it was mentioned that the disc version of Intimacy would contain extra tracks not found on the digital release, I decided to wait it out for late October to purchase the entire box and dice.

Until that time, apart from ‘Mercury’, I will be completely shut off from the album. I do know that it has already divided listeners but after enjoying their first two efforts I will purchase Intimacy on past history alone. It certainly isn’t the first time I have made such a foolish decision and it will not be the last.