Monday, 12 November 2012
A (Not That_ Short Guide To 15 Of The Best Non-AAA Bands (Nedws, Views and Music Issue 170 Top Fifteen)
This week’s top five/ten/whatever is going to be a little bit different. Originally when I conceived this site I wanted to tell you about some of the best non-AAA albums around and I did indeed cover a handful (Abba’s ‘The Visitors’, Badfinger’s ‘Straight Up’, Jethro Tull’s ‘Warchild’ and Johnny Cash’s Christmas album) before realising that the idea wasn’t really paying off. There are lots of artists I collect and enjoy, but as a sort of ‘sceond tier’ to my main batch of 30 or so artists I can’t live without who make up the AAA list. Writing about artists I don’t know inside out also means I struggle to convey context and knowledge to you, dear readers, and that I end up sounding like another interested fan rather than a knowledgeable one (not that I know everything, of course, but you tell me who else could write 8000 words on a pre-fame 10cc record nobody else has ever heard of?!) I still want to offer up some ideas, however, to interested readers who’ve got this far through the site, either already own or have built up a collection of all the records I’ve mentioned thus far and want a bit of variation. Hence this week’s handy and – comparatively – brief guide to 14 chosen special artists that are worth a look and made one or two indispensible albums everyone should own, even if their canon as a whole is either too poor or too unwieldy to add to the tally of AAA artists. Frankly there’s a few bands here I wish I’d added to my core 101 list, either because their records have really grown on me or because I discovered them too late, long after the site was up and running. Anyway, here’s my guide to what else you might fancy listening to and where to start and my reasons for leaving them out of the ‘site’ as a whole...
Johnny Cash (1955-2003):
I only discovered The Man In Black about a year or so before starting this site and Cash made so many albums in his career (60, including live albums but not compilations) that I’d be hard pressed to cover them all on this site anyway (not to mention the fact that I’ve still got 25 albums to go...) What impresses me most about Cash’s work is his ecleclticism and his bravery in trying new genres and embracing concepts so fully he frequently falls flat on his face. Not every album Cash released is a gem (his 1980s work ‘One Piece At A Time’ is horrid, as are his Christmas album and all but one duet with wife June Carter) but even at his worst Cash’s gruff vocals and earnest ideals shine through, with Cash never less than honest and open about his darker side. I’ve listed my two favourite albums below but really, like Neil Young, you need to hear a little bit of everything he ever made to understand Cash well – the boom-chikka-boom 1950s years, the Americana travelogues of the 1960s, the gospel albums, the ‘drug’ albums and, best of all, the wizened battle-scarred final years with producer Rick Rubin when Cash was poorly but was brave enough to let it show in his music with dignity and grace. Above all I love Cash’s bravery – his ability to empathise with convicts and bring them as close to revolt against unfair social systems as he dares, to sing about his darker side with drink and drugs and to record songs so out of step with everyone else and so controversial most artists would have given up long ago. It seems odd saying that a man ‘died too soon’ at 71, but Cash’s last years were among his finest and we were robbed too soon from the lessons of how to stay dignified and relevant to the end. Album Highlight – ‘Bitter Tears’ (1963) is the bravest album I own, a white American’s attempt to come to terms with the warfare of his ancestors against the native American Indians. It could have gone very wrong, turned either preachy or patronising, but Cash means every word he sings and the backing is as bleak and bare and dignified as the subject matter. Every song is a gem, but the lovely ‘Drums’ and the hilarious ‘Custer’ (with the giggled refrain ‘the General don’t ride well anymore!’ after coming out worst against a bunch of Indians) are particularly superb. Your next best bet: any of the ‘American’ recordings made towards the end of Johnny’s life, especially ‘IV: The Man Comes Around’ (2003), the last album released in the great man’s lifetime.
The Everly Brothers (1957-1973)
As regular readers of this site will know, I love my harmonies. From The Beach Boys to CSNY to lesser known but equally lovely sounds recorded by The Who and 10cc, hearing very different voices combine into one amazing whole moves me far more than flashy guitar solos or strinbg sections ever will. I’d love to say ‘my guys’ invented harmonies, but in truth they simply worked on what was already there from the 1950s – and what was there were two brothers with perfect pitch. The Everlys didn’t write many songs (not till the late 60s anyway), they rarely played instruments and all too often their work got stuck in one place (usually Boudleaux Bryant pop singles). But when they got things ‘right’ – as they did on about half a dozen classic singles and a handful of album tracks – you can almost hear the gears of the 1960s moving into place. Frankly none of their 15 or so albums, even the one they made with The Hollies, work as a whole – hence their absence from the list – but it would be churlish to overlook their handful of claims to fame. As a Hollies fan I owe this duo big time too – it was seeing the Everlys perform (and their grace in giving autographs) that made Allan Clarke and Graham Nash turn to music as a career and Phil Everly’s solo career that gave the world classic Hollies single ‘The Air That I Breathe’. The band split, badly, in the 1970s as all bands with brothers seem to do eventually, but were last seen as the ‘warm-up act’ on the last Simon and Garfunkel tour in 2006. Album Highlight – ‘Temptation’ is simply the greatest song of the pre-rock and roll era. In fact it sounds as if it should belong to the rock and roll era and I’ve waited patiently many years to hear a rock and roll band singing it. The Everly’s version didn’t disappoint when I finally heard it either– it’s tighter than the UK economy in a budget deficit, more raucous than the Spice Girls played backwards through a megaphone and more thrilling than all the rollercoasters in the world laid end to end. In short, its the record the Everlys were born to record and everything else they made is slightly disappointing as a result. This single-only appears on most Everlys compilations which are very much your best bet as a single purchase, although a close second is 1966’s ‘Two Yanks In England’ album. Realising they needed the help of some ‘youngsters’ to seem hip again the Everlys travelled to the UK and phoned up the Beatles for help. They refused, but second choice The Hollies were only too keen to help, backing the band on all of their 12 songs and offering them nine of their own songs (an intriguing mix of the known, obscure and yet-to-be released original compositions). The Everlys turn the sweet ‘Fifi The Flea’ into a melodrama and suck all the life out of one of The Hollies’ greatest moments ‘Have You Ever Loved Somebody’ but cope with the beatier, earlier songs like the gorgeous ‘So Lonely’, ‘I’ve Been Wrong’ and ‘Don’t Run and Hide’ really well.
Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Titch (1964-72):
The modern view of the 1960s seems really topsy turvy to me. Bands like ‘The Hollies’ and ‘The Searchers’ are dismissed as being ‘too poop’ despite recording some of the heaviest, most intellectual songs of the decade – while bands like ‘The Grateful Dead’ and ‘Jefferson Airplane’ are dismissed for being ‘too stuck in one time’ despite changing style more often than modern bands change their socks. ‘Dave Dee Dozy’ et al are another band who had a great run of classic singles (especially the later, lesser known stuff) but never made the big time because, as a pop band, they were seen as being too ‘lightweight’. Let me tell you, there’s nothing ‘lightweight’ about the last batch of singles, which condemn Richard Nixon long before most people realised he was up to no good and generally wave a fond psychedelic farewell to the hippie dream before most people realised there had even been one. Again, the band never made the list because it took them a while to get going on albums (their first wasn’t till late 1967, when most of the hits had already dried up) and they’re all patchy, but heck three classic singles alone gets them into this ‘extra’ list. Album Highlight – The best of five albums the band released is the first (‘DDDBM&T’, 1967) simply by virtue of including the classic mid-60s single ‘Hold Tight!’ However, you might be best set with a compilation album – that way you also get the band’s two other (comparatively) lost gems, the beautiful ‘The Wreck Of The Antoinette’ and the quintet’s final chart entry, the damning ‘Mr President’.
The Animals (1965-68):
I adore The Animals, who brought a Newcastle gruffness and bluesier, tougher, working class sound to the psychedelic 60s party, and who released one of the best ever run of singles between late 1965 and early 67, right up there with the best of them. However this is another group who can’t make a decent album to save their lives, who used the longplayer to ‘experiment’ and get so far away from their own sound that they alternate between a bad pub covers band and a psychedelic garage band. Eric Burdon is too much of a talent to lose his way entirely and even in his much mocked ‘New Aninals’ era there is muvch to love, thankfully – had the band put ‘San Francisco Nights’ their tribute to the festival ‘Monterey’, their haw-dropping fiddle-led cover of the Stones’ ‘Paint It Black’ (that even surpasses the original) and the classy, bluesy, class protest ‘Hey Gyp’ on one LP it would be one of the most played ibn my collection. Sadly they didn’t – these four songs are strung across three different LPs, two of them doubles, filled up with ‘atmospheric’ bits of nothing and jam sessions dragged out to 20 minutes. Let’s not forget, though, that in 1966 The Animals are at least a shout-in for the world’s greatest bands, relevant, tough and every bit as adventurous as better respected bands – but with a strong melodic touch too. Highly under-rated. Album highlight - The best of the Animals’ work tends to appear on singles (and B sides) so the ‘Complete Singles’ is probably my tip as single albums go, especially the mid period stuff that doesn’t get heard that often nowadays (highlights: the stormy ‘We Gotta Get Out Of This Place’, the rebellious ‘It’s My Life’, the moody ‘Inside Looking Out’ and the best non-AAA psychedelic track ever written ‘When I Was Young’ are all classics of the pop-rock genre).Your next best bet: ‘Winds of Change’ (1967) is the best of the ‘New’ animals containing the band’s psychedelic cover of the Stones’ ‘Paint It Black’ with a violin replacing the sitar and the lovely hippie ballad ‘San Franciscan Nights’. The best Animals track of all, however, is a cover of 60s blues classic ‘Hey Gyp’ which appears on ‘Animalism’.
The Bee Gees (1966-2000):
The Bee Gees were a great band in the late 60s and early 70s, before they sold their soul to the great God of disco and became the punch line for every joke in the 80s and 90s. I was so sad to see the loss of first Maurice and then Robin Gibb before the band had become ‘rehabilitated’ back to the first or second tier of British Bands (or first tier if you count them as Australians). The band’s early teenage years are patchy but impressively good for newbies, the string of three or four albums from the late 60s to the ‘split’ are impressively good and the band were just finding their form again in the 1990s/00s with their last two albums among the best they ever made. I wanted to add this band to our list of greats, if only to get a ‘new’ perspective on Lulu’s marriage from the other angle, but reviewing the two or three great albums would have meant reviewing about half a dozen shocking pieces of falsetto shrieks and dance tunes and I wouldn’t sit through that even for you, dear readers. Take my advice, though, and give the albums below a go, especially the early ones which have a really unique sound even for the eclectic 60s, all orchestras mood swings and lyrics about furniture (chairs and fridges a speciality!)Album Highlight – Definitely ‘First’ (1967, although it’s actually the band’s second, third or fourth depending what Australian releases you count...) with the winning quartet of the atmospheric ‘Holiday’, the deliciously bonkers ‘Every Christian Lionhearted Man Will Show You’, the psychedelic ‘Red Chair Fadeaway’ and the classy ballad ‘To Love Somebody’, rightly covered by lots of AAA musicians and recognised as one of the best songs of the 1960s. Your next best bet: ‘Size Isn’t Everything’ (1993) – the band’s penultimate album - is a strong return to form, a true three-way exploration of the band’s singing and writing talents and highlighted by the gorgeous Rwanda protest ballad ‘Blue Island’.
The Creation (1966-1968):
I wanted to write a ‘top five’ about classic AAA debut singles a few issues back, but frankly no band – not even my beloved 30 – ever made a debut single as great and thrilling as ‘Making Time’, with the world’s greatest guitar riff and a solo played on a guitar with a violin bow and squeals of feedback. Frankly, I’ve never quite been able to think straight again since hearing the power and pizzazz in that one track. So why aren’t The Creation on our album review list? Erm, because they never technically released an album and even their small handful of singles become progressively worse as they go on, making the moniker ‘Creation’ rather an unfortunate one. I’d love to know what this band might have gone on to become – and I’m not the only one, Oasis manager Alan McGee loved this band so much he named his record label ‘Creation’ after them. But fans who’ve heard this band’s first two or three singles almost always cite them as their favourites and I urge you to look out for their greatest moments, particularly the ‘Nuggets’ box set out on ‘Rhino’ of other, similar one or two hit wonders if you have a spare bit of money (or, in my case, a good library). Album Highlight: The band never lasted long enough to give us a full album, but any decent compilation will give you what you need as long as it includes debut single and biggest hit ‘Making Time’, a classy pop song with what I would nominate as the best riff ever written.
Fans claim Arthur Lee’s band are the greatest in the world, regularly voting ‘Pet Sounds With Strings’ album ‘Forever Changes’ into the top of ‘best album’ polls. Most general, casual music fans can’t bear them and think they’re clichéd hippies with a reputation for stealing melodies from past greats. AS ever, I sit in between. I’m probably the one Beach Boys fan who thinks ‘Pet Sounds’ is a bit of a weak link in their catalogue so can’t say I respect ‘Forever Changes’ that much (although the eerie ‘Red Telephone’ is as good a precise of the hippie dream as any Moody Blues or Jefferson Airplane song). In fact none of the band’s four original LPs (I haven’t bought the ‘reunions’ yet) really excel all the way through, but stick the best songs all together and you do have a pretty nifty hour or so set, with some entertaining lyrics and some lovely melodies, when they aren’t being nicked from someone else. Full kudos to Love, too, for being – as far as I can tell – the world’s first mixed-race pop group (beating the Jimi Hendrix Experience by a matter of months). Album Highlight – The much acclaimed ‘Forever Changes’ has its moments, but I would promote either the folk-rock debut album (‘Love’ 1966) with its mixture of lovely harmonies (‘You I’ll Be Following’) and topical social commentary (‘Mushroom Clouds’) although whole great sections appear to have been ‘lifted’ from other songs (‘Signed DC’ is ‘Nights In White Satin’ without the flute). Your next best bet: the esoteric half-great, half-ghastly follow-up (‘Da Capo’ 1967) which features the lovely ‘Orange Skies’, the risqué ‘She Comes In Colours’ and the punk-rock of the band’s greatest moment ‘Seven and Seven Is’. I’d give the side-long jam ‘Revelation’ a miss, though.
Jethro Tull (1967-2001):
Jethro Tull only missed our great long list of artists because, simply, I hadn’t discovered them yet at the time of writing the first draft of the site. I’m still not sure as to whether that was a good thing or not – there’s a great review in there somewhere on witty, indulgent, breathtakingly original albums like ‘This Was’ ‘Benefit’ ‘Stand Up’ ‘Aqualung’ and ‘Thick As A Brick’ – bit I’d hate to have to find something interesting to say about the 1980s harder rock Tull albums which, to be honest, I’ve barely played. I’d also have to spend every review listing whose changed and why in the mercurial Tull line-up, although then again contradictory tramp-come businessman, the controlled yet wildly nihilistic mainstay Ian Anderson alone would keep me going for several million words. Like many fans I love the sound of the early Tull albums – the folkier side of the Moody Blues, but with more of a blues leaning – more than I love many of the actual records, which either go too far or not far enough. But even the weakest albums have ‘something’ about them that makes me go back for more and the characters sketched on these songs are always well crafted and drawn with a lot of love, impressively dark without being judging or ever less than empathetic. Album Highlight: ‘Thick As A Brick’ (1972) is one of my favourite albums; daring, funny and politically charged, packed with wonderful moments especially lyrically. On paper it shouldn’t work at all – one track split over two sides of vinyl lasting 42 minutes, with no gaps (even the ‘break’ between the two sides fades in and out), a sketchy concept about a prodigal school-child’s work getting thrown out of a competition by corrupt, hypocritical adults and so many lurches from scene to scene the listener frequently gets sea-sick. But there’s a great heart beating throughout this track and the final surge, with ‘Gerald’ futilely calling on his childhood heroes to save him from the adult world, is as poignant as they come. Had I owned this record when I started this site it would have been in our ‘core’ top 101 albums for sure. Your next best bet: ‘Stand Up’ (1969), the band’s second record, is a patchy affair but includes two absolute masterpieces in ‘Back To The Family’ (where the narrator flees his busy touring life for home, only to find his family are even more annoying than his bandmates) and the beautiful ‘Reasons For Waiting’.
The King’s Singers (1968-date):
The quieter, mellower side of my record collection is full of harmony group records like these, although the 70-odd King’s Singers records are by far and away the best of the genre. Sung a capella (barring one album with ‘rock’ instruments and one with an orchestra) the King’s Singers have tackled everything since the dawn of time (well, nearly – I’m sure there’s a ‘caveman sounds’ record on the way anyday now). Naturally my list of favourites are full of AAA songs (the band did a so-so Beatles covers album too), but I do love the others as well – especially the madrigal period, where the six-piece really get to show off their mental telepathy and abilities. Like many fans I feel the band were at their peak in the early days, with the likes of Brian Kay in the band, and its their first 10 or so records that are truly groundbreaking and original (George Martin’s production helps the first three). However nearly all their records have something to recommend and, indeed, my two chosen selections seem to have come from the end of their run... Album Highlight – ‘Simple Gifts’ (2008) features ‘Black Is The Colour’, a traditional Appalachian mountain song that’s as beautiful as music ever gets, as well as the best AAA cover the sextet ever did, CSN’s gorgeous ‘Helplessly Hoping’. The rest aren’t as good, but what the heck – this album is worth buying for these two tracks alone. Your next best bet: ‘Good Vibrations’ (1993) is – despite the title – actually near enough a Paul Simon covers album, featuring lovely interpretations of ‘The Boxer’ and lesser known works like ‘Some Folks Lives Roll Easy’, plus a noisy cover of The Beach Boys’ classic as the title track.
Badfinger must be the unluckiest band in rock and pop circles. Everyone knows them now, thanks to re-releases, film soundtracks and their big ‘hit’ ‘Without You’ (which seems to have been a hit for every band and singer around in the 70s except for the superior original). But at the time Badfinger weren’t selling and they were trapped on their heroes, The Beatles’, Apple label at a time when money for all artists but the fab four was being re-drawn and comparisons between the two became unfavourable. Business matters followed the band to Warner Brothers, which proved too much for band genius Pete Ham who hanged himself in 1973 (his writing partner Tom Evans, cheated out of royalties he believed were his, hanged himself in 1983; drummer Mike Gibbons died young from cancer in the 1990s leaving just guitarist Joey Molland left). It could – and should – have been very different, as after two patchy LPs Badfinger recorded a magnificent third, ‘Straight Up’, one which sits proudly near the top of my all time favourite albums. Even that album’s warmth and beauty, however, is coupled with lyrics about the darker side of life and money troubles, with Pete Ham better able than most to translate his doubts and fears into music. The band fall apart again after this, upset at having their masterpiece dismissed so casually, but even then there are plenty of highpoints on every Badfinger record to come (not that there are that many). The irony of this band is that everyone dismissed them at the time for being safe Beatles wannabes – the truth is they were as dark and edgy as the fab four were at their best and they went their separate ways as early as the second LP. AAA fansd might be interested to learn that Paul McCartney produced their first album, George Harrison their third and the much missed Mal Evans – similarly doomed Beatles roadie, shot by police by ‘mistake’ in 1973 – worshipped the band so much he produced their fourth record when the Beatles split left him without a job. Album Highlight: Third album ‘Straight Up’ (1971) is another record I wish I’d known when starting this site as it, too, would have made up our core ‘101’. The much missed Pete Ham is on top form, with the defiant shrug of the shoulders ‘Name Of The Game’ one of my all time favourite songs. The guilt-ridden popfest ‘Baby Blue’ (covered by Hollie Allan Clarke), philosophical ‘Perfection’ and the dark and edgy singalong ‘Day After Day’ happen to be the next best three songs Badfinger ever made too, on a marvellously consistent album with no poor songs on it at all. Your next best bet: Every other Badfinger album is a pale shadow of this one, but the next best is probably ‘Ass’ (1974) – many of the songs here are awful but the classy farewell to Apple on ‘Apple Of My Eye’ and the epic self-questioning ‘Timeless’ (which should really come with a question mark) are the two ‘other’ Badfinger songs you need to own.
Everyone knows the story of Abba, from ‘Waterloo’ on Eurovision to not one but two marriage splits within the same band, so I won’t repeat it. Let’s just say that the idea that a band from Sweden breaking the British/American stronghold on the European charts was unheard of before 1972 and has been since. Abba, a cheap joke for much of the 80s and 90s, are now big because of ‘Abba Gold’ (all their worst moments together on one handy disc) and ‘Mama Mia’, a candidate for the world’s worst film and certainly the worst stage musical after the Spice Girls one. Most Abba singles are terrible, dated sounding slices of empty pop, with nonsensical lyrics and featuring some of the most questionable pop videos made which don’t feature Michael Jackson. So why are they on this list? Because Abba used their final few moments, a time when they couldn’t have been more out of fashion, to do absolutely the right thing and record a mature, politically aware, musically adventurous and deeply honest record about their troubled relationships. ‘The Visitors’ might well be the worst selling Abba album, with only one semi-hit that everyone’s forgotten, but it remains their towering achievement by some miles, just as ‘Goodbye’ is the only decent song The Spice Girls ever made, in their dying embers too, sitting far above everything they did. This would have made the core 101 reviews, no question, had I not been faced with the prospect of reviewing such lesser Abba songs as ‘Sitting In The Palmtree’ (throwing coconuts at strangers) and ‘What About Livingstone?’ (what about him?!?) Album Highlight: Again there’s only one Abba album that’s a masterpiece and that’s final album ‘The Visitors’, a brave album about growing older and wiser that offers so much awful than the band’s occasionally godawful singles (shame on you, world, for promoting the tuneless spineless ‘Dancing Queen’ and ‘Waterloo’ over gems like this album’s single ‘One Of Us’. Better still is the alien-invasion title track which out-Kraftwerks Kraftwerk, the best family song ever written ‘Slipping Through My Fingers’, the heartfelt war protest song ‘Soldiers’ and the brave and bare ‘goodbye’ ‘Like An Angel Passing Through My Room’. Your next best bet: Hmmm....You’re better off with silence, to be honest, although ‘Super Trouper’ at least contains the moving title track and classy ballad ‘The Winner Takes It All’ as well as the production-fests ‘Lay All Your Love On Me’ and ‘On and On and On’ in between the schlock (‘Andante Andante’ ‘Happy New Year’ ‘The Piper’ and ‘The Way Old Friends Do’ are all hideous, terrible songs).
Ocean Colour Scene (1989-date):
If Oasis were the 1990s Beatles (and Pulp The Kinks and Blur the Herman’s Hermits) then Ocean Colour Scene were the Hollies – reliable singles artists whose albums didn’t sell as well but were every bit as enjoyable. Britpop brought the band sudden fame with their second record, after one of the longest apprenticeships on this list, but to my ears OCS gre better with age and each album – until the 21st century anyway (I still haven’t bought their last couple of records). Sneering critics claimed the band were simply revisiting the 60s on their songs – but what’s wrong with that? The updated twin guitar sound and especially the drum fills re-create the ‘old; sound for a modern audience far better than any other group I’ve known and, though patchy, the best of their songs is closer to the 60s spirit of peace, harmony and toughness (something most people forget) than even Oasis’. Although none of their albums stays in the first-class carriage throughout, I’ve stuck the best songs from the first four albums onto one handy CD length compilation and I play it a lot. Certainly OCS are one heck of a lot more colourful and adventurous than any other reviewer I’ve read has ever acknowledged and I look forward greatly to completing my collection (I don’t have all that many albums to go now, sadly – just 25 Johnny Cashes!) Album Highlight – Fourth album ‘One From The Modern’ (1999) wins by a nose, thanks to a slightly battier, more psychedelic sound (always a winner with me) the CSNY-style anti-war singalong ‘Profit In Peace’, the slow moody but surprisingly uplifting ‘So Low’, the sweet acoustic interlude ‘Step By Step’ and the heartbreaking re-write of ‘Nowhere Man’ on ‘No One At All’. Your next bet: the famous second Lp ‘Moseley Shoals’ which features the best single of the 1990s Oasis didn’t write as well as three album highlights, the stomping ‘You Git It Bad’, the psychedelic ‘Policeman and Pirates’ and the moving ‘One For The Road’ written for one of the band’s schoolfriends who died in the gulf war. Third album ‘Marchin’ Already’ is the ‘other’ OCS album worth owning in a very close finish for bronze.
Paul Weller (1992-date):
Another artist I’d love to have included on the list proper had I discovered him early enough, I love Paul Weller’s sheer range and power despite the fact that – gulp, confession time – his first band The Jam leave me cold (perhaps they just nicked one Beatles riff too many for my liking?) Weller was always on the cocky and arrogant side of confident, but some mildly interesting but poor selling Style Council albums saw his career get cancelled and saw his solo career on the scrapheap. Add in a failing marriage and you get the first three, maybe four solo Weller albums – wonderful mixtures of bravado and guilt-ridden honesty that veer from worry to certainty from track to track. Weller’s later albums get short shrift (well, until his last two, hopelessly noisy works) but they’re ever so nearly as good – the bare bones sound of ‘Heavy Soul’ is way better than it’s reputation, containing some of Weller’ s most interesting lyrics. Even Weller’s covers album features two of my all time favourite songs (Neil Young’s ‘Birds’ – reviewed here a couple of issues back – and traditional song ‘Black Is The Colour’) and his backing musicians – many of them from Ocean Colour Scene – are exemplary, especially drummer Steve White. Album Highlight – I’m loathe to say it, but critic’s darlings ‘Wild Wood’ (1994) and ‘Stanley Road’ (1995) are still the best single CDs of Weller around. The former features pop-rocker ‘Sunflower’, a superb drumming/guitar attack on ‘Has My Fire Really Gone Out?’ and the gloriously folky retro title track, amongst a few songs that don’t quite match this high standard. The latter features the splendid one-two punch of the strutting ‘I Walk On Gilded Splinters’ (way better than the Dr John original) and the confessional ‘Porcelain God’ which, heard together, sums up Weller’s contradictions better than anything else he’s done. Opening song ‘The Changingman’ is a superb, gritty pop single too. However all Weller albums have something worth hearing, especially the much maligned ‘Heavy Soul’ (1996; the catchy ‘Up In Suze’s Room’ and ruminating ‘Science’ in particular) and my favourite Weller song, the pick-yourself-up-after-a-fall ‘Bull Rushes’ from first album ‘Paul Weller’ (1992).
If Oasis were the 1990s Beatles then the Stereophonics were The 90s Who – classy tight three minute pop songs with a hard edge and interesting tension between the often bravado music and often sensitive words. Like The Who, it’s the slower, quieter moments that are often the most interesting, with one particularly lovely album standing out for ikts sheer eclecticism, beauty and intelligence (clue: it’s not the famous one, something regular readers will have guessed by now).Like our other bands from the 1990s these albums are patchy (or an unmitigated disaster in the case of fifth album ‘Language Sex Violence Other?’), but for the most part feature more than their fair share of gems sprinkled throughout, held together by Kelly Jones’ gravelly but impressively expression-filled vocals. I’m still new to this band and still have a couple of albums to go but their work is growing on me – far more than it did in the 1990s actually – and, again, I have a CD compilation of their greatest moments from across six albums that I play a lot. Album Highlight – Most bands are failing fast by the time of their fourth album but the much folkier, less harsh ‘You’ve Gotta Go There To Come Back’ (2003) is the band’s masterpiece, especially the harmony-fest that’s ‘Getaway’, the best Beach Boys song Brian Wilson never wrote and the barebones ‘I Miss You Now’, a world away from the heavy thrash of Stereophonics albums one to three. Your next best bet: It’s hard to pick a winner, but third album ‘Just Enough Education To Perform’ (2001) features the band’s best song, their thoughtful muse on rockstar versus family life ‘Everyday I Think Of Money’ and the joyous gallop of ‘Step On My Old Size Nines’ so I’ll plump for that.
Super Furry Animals (1996-date):
If Oasis were the 1990s Beatles then the Super Furries were a (Welsh) Beach Boys. That’s Beach Boys from every era by the way – basic surfing songs give way to deep philospohical insights, ‘Smile’ type weirdness (one track even features carrot-cfrunching in homage to that album’s ‘Veg-Tables’) and moments of Californian-sounding blessed out pop. All these aspects crop up on all Furries albums, seemingly at random, and I applaud the band’s desire to escape fame so steadily (to the extent of breaking up their loveliest pieces with unlistenable bursts of electronic noise). At their best, though, the Furries have shown a glorious evolution across their work and a melodic touch and quirky lyrical originality second to none. When they stop being clever and start being heartfelt their work is up there with the best of my collection – and as that includes their heroes, The Beach Boys, that’s really saying something. Yes, every album is patchy – and again I have a worn out CD compilation to save me going through their lesser moments – but I’m not sure I could take more than one CD of such perfection, I’d have a breakdown and risk turning into a Cliff Richard fan or something. So I’m grateful. I think. Album Highlight – Most fans say the Super Furries delivered their best work at the beginning of their career, but I think the band are really maturing nicely and have reached their peak in the second half of their career. It’s hard to choose between ‘Rings Around The World’ (2001) ‘Phantom Power’ (2003) and ‘Love Kraft’ (2005), as all three albums possess the typical Furries mix of stupendous beauty and first class songwriting (the lop-sided but surprisingly moving gibberish of ‘Run Christian Run’, the Moody Blues-ish ‘Piccalo Snare’ and the CSNY-ish ‘Ohio Heat’ respectively) alongside from really annoying sound effects filled garbage. At their best, though, these albums are as good as music gets. A nod too for the flop single ‘Demons’, one of the greatest 45s ever made, catchy and deep like all singles should be and with a stronger hook than Muhammad Ali. It should have vaulted this band into the limelight, not been left unloved on a singles compilation (‘Songbook’).
Regina Spektor (2001-date):
I’ll start by admitting I only own three Spektor albums – and none of them are up to the experience of seeing Regina in full flow on stage, even if it was only on telly. Too many songwriters – and we’re in the era of female singer-songwriters by the way – pick bland songs which, even if they sing well (as in the case of Adele) they ruin by sticking religiously to one sound that makes all their work sound the same. Not so in Regina’s case, whose as quirky as 10cc on a very quirky day and yet whose best work packs an emotional punch her rivals can’t compete with. Before you think I work for her managerial office, I have to say the riches-to-rags strike rate on her three records is depressingly low – much lower than I expected from her stage shows – and I shall only be buying the rest if I find them cheap (or if I’ve run out of Johnny cash albums to buy!) However, unlike 99% of the artists I collect, Regina has barely started and I feel confident that her best work is in front of her – she certainly deserves more success than anyone else around at the moment and she is at least making slightly bigger splashes with every record, which is an encouraging sign that the record market isn’t all woeful boy bands and empty mindless pop featuring extracts from old, awful records just yet. Album Highlight – I’m still missing quite a bit and Regina has only made five studio albums in title but ‘Far’ (2009) wins by a nose, containing the delicate religious debate of ‘God’ (as even atheists stop laughing at God when faced with their own mortality) and the quirky love song to music ‘Eep’. Your next bet: ‘Begin To Hope’ is as scattershot an album as any in my collection, alternating between brilliance and banality nearly every other line, but the best – songs like ‘Fidelity’ and ‘Samson’ – give me hope that we may yet have an AAA member of the future to add to the pile.