Sunday, December 30, 2007

Top 6 Telly 2007

Yes! You read that right, just to throw a spanner in the works, this year I'm compiling a Top 6 list. And it was tricky this year, as due to the strike stopping all recent telly I'm having trouble remembering what was last year and what was new. But we'll go with it and see what happens...

6: Chuck (NBC)

What started out as a very average but entertaining show quickly found it's feet and became some of the most solid, engaging and consistently funny telly I've seen in years. The story sees twenty-something loser geek Chuck Bartowski accidentally getting all the government's secrets stored in his memory, therefore putting him in constant threat from anyone who wants to get their hands on them. Sent to babysit him are two federal agents; Gorgeous Sarah posing as his girlfriend, and mean-spirited Casey who pretends to be an employee at Chuck's work, all trying to hide the situation from Chuck's family and friends. The casting is perfection, the action well-staged, and it never forgets it's meant to be a fun show.

5: Weeds (Showtime)

The third season of this telly was incredible, if a little oddball. The continuing tale of suburban widower Nancy Botwin, trying to make ends meet for her kids by secretly selling marijuana really pushed the envelope this year, with gang wars, inter-family feuds, and Nancy's 9-toed brother Andy becoming an unlikely porn star. Being a cable show, the writers can get away with a great deal, but it's the sharpness of the writing, and the fantastic ensemble cast (headed by a terrific Mary-Louise Parker) that really make this shine.

4: Mad Men (AMC)

This was a complete telly surprise. I first checked it out as it featured to actors I knew and liked well from previous telly; Christina Hendricks (Firely) and Vincent Kartheiser (Angel), but was shocked to find myself absolutely hooked. Set in the world of a Madison Avenue advertising agency, circa 1960 New York, this character piece shows the dealing of these "mad men" (a phrase they coined for themselves) and all the office politics and backstabbing that goes with it. Completely convincing set design and character arcs to die for (I wish I could say but it'll ruin it), this has thankfully been commissioned for a 2nd season, so get on board now!

3: Damages (FX)

Another fantastic new telly, with a stellar cast of Glenn Close, Rose Byrne and Donovan Tate, this is a slow-burning saga with not one twist that fails to shock. It starts at the end, as a young woman runs half-naked and covered in blood through the streets of New York, then shifts back in time to when that same woman, Ellen Parsons, starts working at renowned lawyer Patty Hewes (played with great ambiguity by Glenn Close) and week by week we're given further clues as to what happened. Think Alias meets Murder One or 24 and you're nearly there. Thankfully, despite poor ratings, FX has order two more seasons.

2: The Office (NBC)

This telly is well and truly it's own beast now, with the fourth season seeing it become it's own entity and far escaping the shadow of the BBC version. Sharper than ever, with scripts and performances much more rounded and edgy than you have a right to expect from mainstream American television, and most astoundingly it simply refuses to become stale. When a show reaches it's fourth season (and by the way, this was an extended season where the first 4 episodes were an hour long), there's a tendency for it to seem stuck in a groove. This telly is smart enough to know how much to change to keep things fresh and what to keep familiar. The best sitcom on telly!

1: Pushing Daisies (ABC)

Another new show, another shock, and hands down the best telly on telly this year. It's a very hard premise to describe without making it sound crap, but the short answer (after consulting The Furlong Collective) is Amelie meets Tim Burton meets Roald Dahl. A kitsch and overblown world of primary colours, literal narration, deadpan spitfire delivery and absurd situations, Pushing Daisies was the pilot that won everyone over, and yet had them thinking the same thing; Amazing pilot, but how will this be able to keep this quality up on a weekly basis?

Simple answer; by making each episode a chapter in some luminous, macabre fairy tale, while furthering the (forced) unrequited love of our hero and heroine. Gorgeously filmed, beautifully designed, wonderfully cast and never less than intriguing and hysterical (sometimes, simultaneously), this is the find of the year and the best thing I've seen in ages!

Monday, December 24, 2007

Albums Of The Year: Numero Uno!!!

ROGUE WAVE - 'Asleep At Heaven's Gate'

It's been quite a roller coaster for Rogue Wave these last few years. Starting out as low-key label mates with The Shins, their blend of mellow guitar-pop found a small and devoted following. Then after their acoustic B-Side 'Eyes was used about 3 times during the global phenomenon that was the first season of 'Heroes' they suddenly leaped into the stratosphere. This is how I found them, and consequently ordered everything I could find from their back catalogue (including vinyls and singles). And then, in a cruel twist of fate, just as the band were embracing their new-found fame, they were forced to take a 3-year sabbatical as drummer Pat Spurgeon was hospitalised and put on a waiting list for a kidney transplant.

A seemingly close-knit outfit, singer/songwriter Zach Rogue insisted the band would not continue until their friend and fellow musician was 100% better and back with them. Luckily, the fans stayed loyal and, after Spurgeon recovered from a successful transplant last year, eagerly awaited the results of the new recording sessions that had begun.

And the results are breathtaking, a simply sublime and joyous album, and clearly the sound of a band relieved of an ocean of stress and over the moon to be making music again. It's also, and this is the key thing, the sound of a band freeing themselves for any formula they may have had before. The whole thing feels looser and more fun this time around, and you can almost feel the enjoyment they had in making this record coming from the speakers. Hell, even Zach Rogue, a sometimes sombre and melancholy singer, just sounds likes he's smiling the whole time.

'Harmonium' opens the album with a sound quite unlike previous Rogue Wave songs. Whereas before they had opted for specifically stripped-down or simple arrangements, 'Harmonium' takes the kitchen sink approach, building from an almost disco-style beat and throwing every instrument they can find in the mix. Hell, they even play wrong chords deliberately in certain places because it's, well.... fun! 'Like I Needed' is glorious if only for using the lyric "These aren't the droids you're looking for" in the chorus (fellow geeks will get that reference).

First single 'Lake Michigan' is an absolute belter of a pop song, and easily the most upbeat thing Rogue Wave have ever recorded, yet still keeping their trademark style of throwing the unexpected at you when you're not looking. And, again, it feels playful as Zach sings "Get off my style!" over and over, as if they threw the rule book out this time. Even the hints at political lyrics have a none-too-serious feel to them, such as "Now we wear some kind of yellow uniform, Sky is burning but at least we know we're warm".

'Own Your Own Home' starts with 20 fans in the studio playing a single note on various instruments, ranging from piano to cazoo, with drummer Spurgeon clapping them in time. It's gonzo music making at it's best, and really captures the spirit of the album. Closing track 'Cheaper Than Therapy' is the closest thing to previous Rogue Wave songs, and yet still avoids becoming downbeat and is easily the most uplifting song of the year. Clinging to the delicate piano riffs, it seems to be a mission statement for the band and their approach to music, especially for this album and all they've been through. When Zach sings "Music is cheaper than therapy" over the chorus it's hard not to smile, as it's almost like he's finally voicing what we've felt for years.

Rogue Wave now feel like they can do anything, and god willing it won't be another 3 years before they come back to stun us with whatever they've got up their sleeve next.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Albums Of The Year: No. 2

MATTHEW GOOD - 'Hospital Music'

Yes, it's a depressing name for an album, but given the circumstances behind how it came to be, it's perfectly apt. And actually quite beautiful. Matthew Good was the singer, guitarist and songwriter in the Matthew Good Band, an extremely successful band in Canada and America in the late 90's/early 2000's. After the band split, Matt Good started a solo career, splitting his time between recording, being a very outspoken political writer, and spending time with his wife. Matt is possibly the most open and honest 'rock star' out there; he often says things that are uncomfortable to hear, or that you don't agree with, but it's never less than 100% honest. In an industry of instant reality show stars and a world of spin, that alone should be appreciated, if not applauded.

Last year Matthew Good went through a divorce, an event which seemed to be understandably hard for him to get through. After a period of depression he was diagnosed with Bipolarity. During a trip to Europe he unknowingly overdosed on his medication, and woke up in hospital. While there, he spent his time dealing with the events that had recently happened to him, and the result is this album. Hospital Music was born out of reflection, regret, anger and having his family around him to get through the ordeal. This is why I consider it a beautiful, if uncomfortably honest album.

'Champions Of Nothing' opens the album, a 10-minute epic that starts with a voicemail message of a woman telling someone "I hate you", and proceeds to grow into an epic monster. 'A Single Explosion' is an almost delirious, dream-like tale of hospital recovery, and maybe lyrically the most brutal song on the album. As he sings "I dreamt last night I saw you, The single spark explosion negotiating with the dead, By the bright lights of some ICU on my chest you put your head, And said there you are - there you are - there's my heart". It's as heartbreaking as it sounds.

'Metal Airplanes' tells of a man travelling, wallowing in a haze of bottles and cuts that have long since vanished yet continue to bleed. '99% Of Us Is Failure' is perhaps Matt's lowest point during this period, especially when his voice cracks as he sings "Walk outside and look at the sky, Ask it to fall or tell you why", yet still manages to have an amazingly upbeat and catchy chorus. 'Born Losers' is fast-paced pop song that seems to dive under the belly of courtship, specifically the club scene and the falsehood that accompanies it. "That trailer trash pedigree is calling, It beats you down when you're on all fours, Me I like to cast my doubts on yesterday, 'Cause what doesn't kill us now just makes us better whores" is probably the most mean-spirited line I've ever heard in a fun pop tune, and really tells us where he's coming from, theme-wise.

'Black Helicopter' is my favourite song from the album, and sees Matt go back to his political roots with an obvious swipe at the Bush/Blair government and the War on Terror. When I first heard the line "Only killers call killing progress" I literally applauded. It speaks volumes of the current climate, not just the atrocities that have been inflicted on us, but also that we've taken similar steps and justify them with the label of being a defence. Surely, the murder of an innocent is equally damning, regardless of reasons or beliefs.

However, we're soon back to the painfully personal, first with a 1-minute rock-rant that has Matt screaming "I'm not safer than a bank, bitch!", and culminating with the gorgeous and melancholy 'She's In It For The Money'. At this point, it almost seems that he's mocking his own misery as he sings "I'm in love with your pills, I tried to get rid of myself, A little red and a little blue, Climbed a wall - how about you?". It still remains the most affecting song on the album, especially when the chorus chants "She's in it for the money though love don't cost a thing, Build your heart a diamond and it don't need no ring, She's in it for the money - No love don't mean a thing". Absolutely beautiful, and haunting.

And yet it ends on a beat of pure optimism with a cover of Daniel Johnston's 'True Love Will Find You In The End' where we're reminded that "True love is searching too". Hospital Music is an often difficult and challenging album, but one caked in the outpourings of an open soul and bathed in warm and inviting music. I loved it instantly, but it took a few listens before I got it. Essentially, the message of the record is that things can be awful, and you think you won't survive it, but stay the course and you'll come out of it with a smile. This stands as the best work this incredible artist has produced, and it's all the more powerful because it's true.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Albums Of The Year: No. 3

LONEY, DEAR - 'Loney, Noir'

This album also falls under the category of a surprise, as I'd never heard of the band until iTunes offered up single 'I Am John' as their free single of the week. I remember downloading it, but not listening to it for weeks, possibly a couple of months. One night, bored as I'd watched all my telly for that day, I decided to listen to it, just for fun. No word of a lie, after the first listen I had it on repeat for about an hour - and this was a single!

Once I'd bought the album, I promptly told Jonster about them, and he also bought the album at a post-pub gathering. Since then, I've become slightly obsessed with the band. Although, from a recording point of view, it's not technically fair to call Loney, Dear a band. When recording, Loney is simply one man named Emil Svanängen, who writes and plays all the instrumental parts (he even does the girly voice parts as he can do a girly voice like no other!). All this makes a stronger case for the inevitable comparisons between Loney and artists like Sigur Ros and especially Sufjan Stevens. Which are fair, but unwarranted.

Aforementioned track 'I Am John' is a glorious slow-burner that starts with a single vocal and acoustic guitar but soon builds to an amazing crescendo of falsetto vocals, fuzz-bass, multi-harmonies and cazoo! Album opener 'Sinister In A State Of Hope' is the prettiest song to ever have the word 'sinister' in the title. The stand-out track, for me, is 'Saturday Waits', another slow-burner but possibly the greatest pop song the charts are too stupid to take any notice of. And this is what annoys me about today's music. I promise you, if Emil was writing songs for Kylie or Madonna, he'd be getting number 1's every time!

All in all, a fantastic album that has heralded what I hope is the start of a long and distinguished career from one of the best songwriters around. And one that seems to understand how to bridge the gap between muso's and regular punters; there's plenty of complexities in the structure of the songs if you want to look for them, if not it's simply bloody good pop music! Bravo, Emil, you Norse weirdy genius!

Monday, December 17, 2007

Albums Of The Year: No. 4

RILO KILEY - 'Under The Blacklight'

Oh, Jenny Lewis, you cocktease! After two albums of getting familiar with Rilo's alternative country-pop sound, and Lewis popping off to do a folky solo album and collaborating with various indie stars of the new-country scene, the music industry's second-best Kiley throw everyone a complete curve ball by making one of the most diverse, downright sexy pop albums in years! In fact, it's not just sexy, it's bloody exciting, as EVERY track on this album is a different genre.

'Silver Lining' is sultry country-pop. 'Close Call' sounds like Sundays-esque 80's guitar pop. 'The Moneymaker' is an absolutely filthy song, with the music sounding like a porn backing-track while dirty Jenny harps on about showing you her arse and occasionally yelping "ahhhh" with either pleasure or pain... maybe both. If we're not bemused enough by now, 'Breakin' Up' is what Dolly Parton would've sounded like if she'd found a Casio keyboard.

Title track 'Under The Blacklight' starts as hip-hop before going all ballad on us, then 'Dreamworld' comes straight from a Molly Ringwald teen movie. It's so confusing, you don't know where you are half the time, and it's fantastic! The chorus of 'Dejalo' is Madonna's 'La Isla Bonita' in all but name, but gets all funked-out in the verses, which is such a bonkers yet brilliant combination you wonder why nobody's thought of it before. Then you get '15', a bluesy gospel-style story of a bloke who didn't know he was having sex with an underage girl. It's almost apologetic to it's protagonist, and done with all the seriousness in the world. It also happens to be catchy as hell, so be careful where you find yourself mumbling it in public!

'Smoke Detector' comes straight from 50's teen bubblegum pop, the kind of song you'd expect to find in an Elvis movie, most likely during a scene where 20 girls in sailor outfits dance the dive on a beach. After that we get another country ballad, before ending on the best techno hip-hop love song Martika never made! It's exhausting, and on paper an album that fleets between styles like this so quickly (especially such extremely different styles) should be a train wreck!

But this works beautifully, as each song is a wonderfully crafted little pearl. In fact, Rilo Kiley must be much more clever than me, which isn't hard (PREDICTABLE SELF PISS-TAKING JOKE!!!), as by switching styles constantly you're never given a comfort zone or pattern to lapse into. As it's all moving around you're always paying attention, and just when you start to relax it changes on you again. It's a great idea, and executed perfectly, drawing your attention to the brilliantly written songs.

After thinking I knew Rilo Kiley, this has really got me intrigued as to what they'll do next. Plus, if they hadn't made this album we never would have got Jenny Lewis in a catsuit!!!

Albums Of The Year: No. 5

THE CRIMEA - 'Secrets Of The Witching Hour'

Most of you are probably going "The Crimea? Who?" right about now. So was I a few months ago, until I was listening to my Charlie-appointed lookey-likey Colin Murray and heard a track from this album. Instantly, a wave of "ooh!" swept over me, and I had to know more about this band. It was then that Colin informed me the album was available to download free from their website... Free!!!

Yes, in a Radiohead-like move (although The Crimea technically did it first), after being dropped by their label the band decided to put the whole of their new album for free download on their site, saying they'd upload a new version of the album once 60,000 people downloaded it. At last count, it had 69,000 downloads, and it got them tour slots with Regina Spektor, Ash and a new deal. Along with Radiohead's tomfoolery, this means: Bands - 2, Record Industry - 0. Ha ha!

Anyway, this album blew me away with it's almost inexplicable mix of being hearteningly familiar and also unlike anything I've heard before. Fleeting between jingly-jangly guitar pop, piano loveliness, uplifting anthems and decidedly sinister lyrics faster than Britney Spears gets through husbands (PREDICTABLE POP-CULTURE JOKE ALERT!), and yet somehow it all feels right.

Opening track 'Several Thousand Years Of Nonsense' opens with the singer giving thanks - "for Ben & Jerry's ice cream, for the one woman in a thousand who's got a thing about guys with missing front teeth" - and right away we know we're in loopy land! 'All Conquering' tells of the idea that everyone should try and take over the world at some point in their life, at least once. 'Bombay Sapphire Coma' is the closest thing to a traditional ballad, and it sounds lovely, until you realise that those glorious backing vocals are singing the words "it's a beautiful way to die" over and over.

If there was ever a kid's TV show made about drug binges and starring The Tweenies, 'Loop A Loop' would be the theme tune! They just might have to cut out the middle bit where he sings "throw another small child on the fire" while the backing vocals moan behind him like Merlin having a huge shit. But the album stand-out is 'Don't Close Your Eyes On Me'; a gorgeous, dream-like piece of music that sums up the album perfectly by being both inviting and absolutely chilling. I know I've pushed it a little with the hyperbole in this entry, but if snowflakes made noises, it'd be this song.

Of course, before letting things get a little too normal or pretty, the band quickly remind us who we're listening too by getting all weird again on closing track 'Weird'. It starts with the line "pterodactyls chasing down helicopter gunships" and ends with a rousing chant of "to the bastard that made us all". An absolute gem of an album, and welcome surprise of a find.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Albums Of The Year: The Also-Rans

Stone the crows, seems like only a few weeks ago I was writing this post for last year's entries. And this has been a fucking massive year for music. Unlike last year, when most big bands released wank as their follow-ups, this year so many amazing artists released albums of pure quality, it was hard to pick. That's not even counting the new bands and artists that came out of left field and took me by surprise. Overall, an amazing year for albums, and I wish I didin't have to boil it down to 10... but here we go...

KLAXONS - 'Myths Of The Near Future' (10)

Stupidly deemed as "new rave" when it's actually just bloody good, messy, mental pop music. In a year of outstanding, but sometimes sombre, original music, Klaxons gave a welcome shot of adrenaline and fun. Even if it wasn't great, I'd include it simply for stopping Amy Whingeface winning the Mercury Prize!

ELLIOTT SMITH - 'New Moon' (9)
A bittersweet entry, this one. A double album of lost tracks and rarities (such as a 'Miss Misery' demo with completely different lyrics!), on the one hand it warms the heart to hear new material from arguably one of greatest songwriters the world had. On the other, it breaks the heart to be reminded that the great Elliott Smith is no longer with us. Still, it's Elliott Smith, and easily up there with his best work.

BLOC PARTY - 'A Weekend In The City' (8)
Bloc Party once again prove they're nothing like their 'NME Band' peers by releasing an album that's a huge step forward from an already brilliant debut. Slightly more downbeat, but far more musically complex, this is the album that proves Bloc Party have a long shelf-life ahead of them. One of the few albums that retains its freshness months after the first listen. Then they only went and released the most disco-chomping anthem for years with 'Flux'. And that's not even ON this album! That's how good they are!

ARCADE FIRE - 'Neon Bible' (7)
Arcade Fire slightly back themselves into a corner by releasing an amazing first album that was totally unique. How are they going to top it? Apparently by locking themselves in an abandoned church for a year, then releasing their most amazing, unique work since... well, since their last one. Far more haunting than 'Funeral', yet every inch as beautiful and rewarding as shown perfectly in the tracks 'Intervention' and 'No Cars Go'. How are they going to top it???

RADIOHEAD - 'In Rainbows'

I'm going to ramble a bit more on this one, and it was reeeeally hard not putting this in the top 5, so bear with me...

I've always liked Radiohead, but even people who've never been keen (Jonster, for instance) are admitting that the 'Head have been somewhat reinvigorated in the last few years. Having gotten the techno-wankery bug out of their system (which I still liked), they took a few years off, the singer did a mega solo album, they decided not to renew their record contract, then released this beast.

Aside from the album being the best thing they've done in probably a decade (seriously, it's that good), it's how they released it that made this special: No record contract, no singles, just a digital download from their website. And - the best part - pay as much or little as you like for it! Apart from a 45p transaction fee, you could literally enter the amount you wanted to pay for it, what you thought it was worth.

They called it an experiment to see how people felt about music in an age of illegal downloading. If unconfirmed reports are true, the average amount paid was £10, and the album is well into profit (after all, there were no promotion costs). The experiment seems to have been a success, and it's probably fair to say the music industry's a little nervous.

As brilliant as it was, it's almost a shame that the release strategy made more news than the album itself, as the gimmick would be for nothing if the actual product wasn't any good. But thankfully this truly is a case of artists returning to their best form (which, to me, they never really lost) and seeming excited about what their doing again. And don't even get me started on how beautiful the boxset is!

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

The London Diaries

During a recent excursion to Kate Moss' London's London, in order to watch The Shins play, myself and Jonster decided to document the day on our phones and send each installment to our friend, The Floozy. These documnts became the now infamous "london diaries", and I present them here in order of drunkiness...