Monday, 26 December 2016

The AAA Review Of The Year 2016




That was a weird year. I think it's a generally accepted point of view across the board with everyone I knew that 2016 sucked. Whether you were mourning the death of legendary musicians like Prince, David Bowie and Leonard Cohen (or George Martin or Jefferson Airplane's Paul Kantner and Signe Andersen who died the very same day and whose sad deaths sadly got rather overshadowed in the rush), whether you're mourning the apparent end of CSNY, the end of Mike Nesmith's active role in The Monkees and the further delays in a half-promised reconciliation of bands like The Kinks and Oasis, whether you hate music and you're really here by accident and your heart was torn by the loss of Muhammad Ali instead or whether your heart is still breaking over the rise of Donald Trump and the fall and collapse of Britain as a part of Europe or whether you're mourning a loved one lost in a year that had more terrorist attacks (in the Western world at least) than any other, this year has been a difficult one on all sides, even for a 'Year Of The Monkey' (can't we move the year of the American elections so we only hold it in decent honest  law-abiding years like Oxes, Tigers, Rabbits, Sheep and Pigs?!?) I'm not sure if I've ever cried as much or as hard in any other year, for a whole variety of reasons, good and painful. But we survived it. And the next one will be better. The darkest hour is always just before the dawn. After all, musically 2016 left us a pretty decent (if expensive) soundtrack which bodes very well for next year and with the likes of David Crosby and Neil promising us new albums at the very start it looks like a good one already. Though something tells me 2016 will be remembered for more than just the music, we had more of it and at a higher standard than we've been getting from our AAA stars as of late and on that score it's been a vintage year, heavy on new music compared to recent years rather than simply re-issues. Here are the best - and the occasional worst - bits!

Albums Of The Year: 

1) Graham Nash "This Path Tonight"
(Reviewed in full at http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2016/05/graham-nash-this-path-tonight-2016.html )
Graham Nash has had a weirder year than most. He left his wife of thirty-six years this year for a younger photographer, worried that he'd been coasting and stagnating after years of living in the same house and working on the same old CSNY box sets. The sudden change in his life caused a tsunami across the CSN universe - especially the Crosby half, with the biggest row in the camp for decades (over the split and comments in Nash's memoir 'Wild Tales' published a couple of years ago) leaving Nash (in a mirror of what happened in 1968) walking away from not just his marriage and his home but his band as well. Can such a colossal life-destroying moment possibly be worth it? Well that's for Nash and only Nash to call, but certainly musically the sudden changes have inspired his best music in years - since 'After The Storm' in 1994 perhaps. Nash wrote twenty songs with Crosby-sound-alike Shane Fontayne in the back of his tour bus as he picked his way across America in a sudden creative burst and the ten we've heard so far have been beautiful, complex, honest and revealing. Graham knows he's taken one of the biggest gambles of his life and his path is dark and scary, but he's still reaching for the light. Though not every song is a triumph ('Target' is rather silly), this is still his most consistent work in years with almost every song close to a career highlight - especially the CSN nautical but nice farewell 'Beneath The Waves' (in which Nash tires of holding up the band 'mast' as his crewmates go mad and try to scuttle the ship!) and 'Encore' in which Nash bids us farewell and embraces old age and possible death, his dad's early demise still playing on his mind. This is an album where the clock is ticking and there is too much to say to waste a second of it, honestly written beautifully played and movingly performed in an acoustic style that really brings out the best in Nash. Songs for survivors - and for the courageous as well.

2) Grateful Dead "Dave's Picks Nineteen"
By my reckoning this is Dead archive release nos 138! Any other band would have run out of new exciting things to say well over a hundred live sets ago, but not as fans know every Dead concert is different and all of them are special - if, admittedly, some are more special than others. This relatively un-bootlegged show from Honolulu in January 1970 may well be the best in the entire series however (or at least my candidate for the top three) capturing the Dead in transition between two of their greatest live eras. The 1969 Dead is well catered for: spacey telepathic lengthy jams on songs like a mercurial, restless nineteen minute 'Dark Star', a percussion heavy twenty-two minute 'That's It For The Other One', a sprightly 'China Rider' medley and a thrilling ten minute 'Dancing In The Streets' which beats every single other Dead version out there by actually dancing instead of tripping over itself! Then so is the 1970 Dead: a stunning tearful version of 'Black Peter' sung in a painful Garcia whisper not once but twice, a slow and thoughtful 'Dire Wolf' back in the days when Jerry not Bobby sang lead and a spirited take on 'Mason's Children' with a fierce final jamming session, one of the band's finest outtakes at its finest. Then there's one of Pigpen's last hurrahs to enjoy with two separate energetic takes on 'Good Lovin' and a tour de force thirty-eight minute version of 'Turn On Your Lovelight' in which Pig charms, coaxes and bullies the crowd and plays the greatest cat and mouse game with them you've ever heard, slowing the song down and building up a head of steam again. The Dead played as many bad shows as good ones over the years (particularly towards the end) but this is a great 'un!

3) David Crosby "Lighthouse"
While Nash was enjoying a year of self-discovery and breaking new ground, his former colleague has been enjoying by far the most stable period of his life. The Crosby story has been much told and for good reason - prison sentences, motorbike car crashes, failed livers, new-born sons, returning sons given up for adoption in the 1960s, you name it Croz has been through it. But now, here he is in his mid-70s, on a creative roll like never before with one album out in 2012, this record and another set to follow in 2017. 'Lighthouse' is a record about the joys of family life, of appreciating the calm and making sure Croz lives in the moment. Though it's the first all-acoustic record Croz has ever given us (and as such sounds spooky similar to Nash's at times - especially with Snarky Puppy's Michael league providing Nash-like harmonies throughout) it's not a groundbreaking, rule-breaking, genre-defying experiment. Instead it's a solid album full of pure beautiful songs (with opener 'The Things We Do For Love' standing particularly tall) that are recognisably Crosby and couldn't have been written by anybody else, while even at 75 Crosby still sings like a bird - or should that be a Byrd?!

4) The Monkees "Good Times!"
(Reviewed in full at http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.com/2016/06/the-monkees-good-times-2016-or-are-they.html )
I must admit feeling a little underwhelmed by the AAA album that won the most attention this year - certainly the strongest sales, with The Monkees getting their biggest hit album since 1967 and even a #1 position on Amazon! On the plus side the record has terrific production (without the 1980s and 1990s excesses of their last reunion albums), Micky and Mike still share a most beautiful blend that's getting better with age and they brought in some expert songwriters (and secret Monkees fans!) to help them out including Paul Weller and Noel Gallagher. The rummage through the 'archive' box that unearthed unfinished songs featuring Davy Jones, Harry Nilsson, Neil Diamond and Boyce and Hart is also a clever touch, allowing old friends who would most surely have joined the party if they could to come along all the same. 'Love To Love', always one of the finest Monkee outtakes, now sports Micky and Peter harmonies alongside one of Davy's greatest ever lead vocals while 'Birth Of An Accidental Hipster' is a psychedelic magnum opus and 'Me and Magdalena' just a sweet, sweet song performed with note-perfect precision. However this is only half a 'good time' - too often this record sounds like a Micky Dolenz solo LP that wasn't finished with the drummer dominating the album with pop covers not up to standard, while Mike was only ever a 'special guest' rather than a full participant and poor Peter, underused as ever, doesn't even get to play on that much with one song and one cover to his name. Admittedly it's a big improvement on the garage band 'JustUs' and a far happier place for the Monkees catalogue to finish (if indeed it does - Mike has pretty much announced his retirement from the band for now), but even though I wasn't there in the 1960s the old records still provided more of a good time than this.

5) Paul Simon "Stranger To Stranger"
Reviewed in full at http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.com/2016/06/paul-simon-stranger-to-stranger-2016.html )
Paul's album won more critical plaudits than sales, but there too I felt a little underwhelmed. 'Stranger To Stranger' is Paul's shortest album for a long long time and feels a little unsubstantial on even the best songs, as if we're hearing a set of demos rather than a finished LP. It's certainly a backwards step compared to the surprisingly consistent 'Surprise' and the not-that-consistent-but-it-still-contained-it's-share-of-materpieces 'So Beautiful Or So What?', with less memorable songs than normal. There were still a few near-classics though, from the opening tale of murder 'Werewolf' to the witty ego-demolishing 'Wristband' in which Paul gets turned from a hip club and goes on to talk about the 'have' vs 'have nots' of the world making trouble (which is as good a summary of our modern day society as anyone has made in music, politics or commentary in the whole of 2016) and 'The Riverbank', an impressively low-key tribute to the victims of the Sandy Hook school massacre. It's no classic and the songs rather blend into one another and sound suspiciously like Paul Simon songs from the past, but 'Stranger To Stranger' has enough moments to make it worth owning and is, against all odds, Paul's funniest album with a strong collection of witty one-liners.

6) Pentangle "Finale"
One new album that sadly got lost in the crush was this much-delayed live album featuring the best of Pentangle's 'farewell' gigs from 2008, recorded at London's Albert Hall forty years to the week since the famous conquering live show featured on half of second album 'Sweet Child'  . The band knew that they were getting frailer and wanted to go out 'properly 'for themselves and their fans, tying up loose ends and featuring the original line-up for the first time since 1973. The plan was that Bert Jansch was going to mix the audio for release after he'd caught up on his projects, but his death from lung cancer in 2011 happened when he was only partway through (he'd got as far as picking the tracks from each show and the running order). The baton then passed to John Renbourn who carried on by supervising the mixing until his death from a heart attack in March last year. Somehow, against all odds, the album has still somehow made it out - a little late perhaps, but then Pentangle fare used to being patient! The result is a brave, poignant set as we say goodbye to old friends who know they won't ever sit on a stage together again. Yes the band sound older and slower (Jacqui especially) and you can tell that songs that used to roar at an impressive rate of knots now dawdle. However Pentangle were never really about the flashy guitar moves and perfect harmonies (though they could do both, on occasion, as well as anybody) and this is still the finale many fans would have wanted, with no attempt to hide the 'truth' or any false attempts to 'modernise' the songs. There were some real fan favourites in the mix not often played live too, with a raggedy 'People On The Highway' (a Bert song about the split) and the edgy 'Cruel Sister' both welcome surprises, while it's an apt and rousing singalong final finale of 'Will The Circle Be Unbroken?' that leads to a moving ending.

Worst AAA Albums Of The Year:


1) Neil Young "Earth"
Meanwhile we got two new albums out of Neil this year - I'm afraid I'll have to leave 'Peace Trail' (out a couple of weeks back) for another time as a) I can't afford it and b) I'm still recovering from this one! 'Earth' is a live album featuring Neil's promising latest band 'The Promise Of The Real' - and I can hear you yawning already. Including the 'Archive' releases out so far I think this is live record number thirteen and unlike a certain Neil Young compilation (containing even more live recordings) it's not a 'lucky' thirteen. For this isn't just a concert but an ecological protest, made up of songs from Neil's back catalogue that relate to how we treat 'Mother Earth' - unfortunately, though, not the good ones with no 'Here We Are In The Years' or 'Natural Beauty' but lots of underwhelming songs from latest album 'The Monsanto Years' and songs I wasn't that keen on the first time round like 'Country Home' 'Human Highway' and 'Vampire Blues'. Even weirder than that is the way this album is presented - this record actually sounds 'less' live than the studio records, with an irritating overdubbed choir and a group of cows, insects, chickens, monkeys and birds who add their own squawks, moos and cheeps in along the way. Oh and one new track 'Seed Justice', which doesn't add a lot already said on 'Monsanto Years' anyway. Though not a career horror to match other recent mistakes like 'Road Rocks' (a woeful live album featuring all the other worst songs of Neil's catalogue) 'Americana' (jam versions of traditional folk songs stretched way past breaking point) or 'A Letter Home' (a collection of cover songs recorded in a lo-fi audio 'voice-o-graph machine' that might be nice in part if we could actually hear them!) 'Earth' isn't exactly a must-buy album somehow. The American Indian album just out bodes better though, judging by the single.

2) The Rolling Stones "Blue and Lonesome"
Equally there've been worse Stones-related albums recently (last year's Keith Richards covers album 'Cross-Eyed Heart' was truly awful), but The Stones' return to blues songs isn't exactly inspired. Even though it's been eleven years since the last Stones record, the band haven't written any new songs for this one so all we get is twelve fairly ordinary versions of over-familiar blues standards. None match 'Little Red Rooster' and the blue-tinged tongue logo on the cover is everything the blues ain't and would surely see Brian Jones dusting his broom in his grave. However Mick Jagger remains a stronger singer than anyone ever gives him credit for, while Charlie Watts and Ronnie Wood both sounds far more at home in these surroundings than they do playing rock and roll these days, with some particularly nice slide guitar while Eric Clapton slots in well too. More interesting and passionate than 'Stripped' (a similar acoustic re-tread that used old Stones songs instead of old blues songs) and infinitely preferable to yet another live album then, but in truth these performances aren't even up to the 'blues quarter' heard on 'Love You Live' in 1977.

3) Bob Weir "Blue Mountain"
I feel a bit mean putting Bob's first solo album in twenty odd years (and over fifty years since he first appeared as a teen with the Grateful Dead!) in the lower half of this list but, well, it's traditional to have three in this column and this record belongs here more than it does with the 'highlights' set. 'Blue' is clearly the in-phrase for disappointing albums at the moment, although Bob's record is pure country - a style he's never really had much success with in the past. Weir was clearly going for the same feel as the 'American' records Johnny Cash released at the end of his life - dark and brooding country songs, performed with effort through frail aging vocals and an underlying sense of menace. But the style doesn't suit Bob that well; even with all the 'cowboy' songs he used to sing with the Dead (from the superb 'Jack Straw' to the clueless 'Me and My Uncle') he fails to connect with the mood the songs need and his voice ends up sounding more like a bad Willie Nelson parody. The co-written songs are better, full of dark foreboding and a theme of decay and worry and death and they reflect well against Jerry Garcia's similar songs near the end of his life in the early 1990s. Ballads 'Darkest Hour' and the closing 'One More River To Cross' are particularly strong and sound as if they are standards that have been around for centuries so this album is not a great mistake (and indeed won lots of positive reviews from Deadheads, reviewers and the general public alike). It's the performances that don't quite add up though and leave you waiting in vain for Bob to sing from the heart instead of trying to act or for a full electric band to match the words about still finding the strength to carry on - or indeed anything that might inject a bit of life into the record. It's pretty, sure and well written most of the time and occasionally moving but hearing the whole lot in one go across fifty torturous minutes makes me think I'm a-dying here too!

Best AAA Re-Issues and Compilations Of The Year:


1) Oasis "Be Here Now" (Deluxe Edition)
I was worried that the recent Oasis deluxe re-issue series (with CDs released on the 20th anniversary of each of their first three records so far) would end with the 'popular' pair of 'Definitely Maybe' and 'Morning Glory' despite the fact that the later, more poorly received albums are both more interesting and have more interesting outtakes attached in the vaults. Though not quite on a level with the first two release 'Be Here Now' is a fascinating album, caught right in the middle between Oasis' rise as a working class band writing optimistic songs about the future and their fall as millionaire superstars writing depressing songs about how fame is' what it's cracked up to be. That goes for the 'extras' too which features a terrific collection of second tier B-sides that got overlooked first time round on the second disc, not quite up to earlier years but still pretty stellar (the sarcastic 'The Fame' which veers from 'haha I made it' and 'help get me out of here', the world-weary 'Flashbax', the beautiful 'Goin' Nowhere' - the last to be released of Noel's pre-fame how-am-I-going-to-spend-my-money-when-I'm-famous? songs and one of the best). Little-heard rarities this time round includes a poignant acoustic Noel solo cover of 'Help!' turned from exuberant pop song into low-key folk lament, a mournful untitled acoustic demo that's a bit too wordy but still rather worthy, a radio broadcast of early demo tape track 'Setting Sun' and the thoughtful 'If We Shadows'. An entire third disc is dedicated to demos of the 'Be Here Now' songs. I don't agree with the press release that says the songs sound better this way - personally I rather like the elongated OTT style of the album and the performances on acoustic guitar just show up how weak this batch of songs are with a particularly clunky demo of 'D'Yer KNow What I Mean?' minus helicopters and Liam but with lots of annoying 1980s synths and a six minute 'All Around The World' that drags even more than the finished product. However, as with the other two sets, it's fascinating to hear an 'alternate universe' where Noel was the band's lead singer not his younger brother and he sounds good across the whole set once again singing each song in his own unique style rather than merely giving Liam the basics. 'Fade-In Out', the album's triumph, sounds particularly great with Noel singing it as an innocent to the slaughter instead of the knowing howl of Liam's version while songs like 'Be Here Now' itself and 'Stay Young' rock far better than the album versions. Best of all though is a re-imagining of 'D'Yer Know What I Mean?' that's punchier and less pompous than the released version and far closer to most other Oasis recordings even if I miss the two minute opening and three minute burst of feedback at the end! Noel has meddled just enough to make the song different but not so much he loses the essence of the original or dilutes the pain of one of the greatest middle eights in music ('I met my maker - and made him cry!') Though still Oasis' strongest seller (by virtue of first week and pre-release sales alone), 'Be Here Now' never had the time in the spotlight it deserved thanks to Oasis tripping over themselves in the studio and in the press and a national mod change after the death of Princess Di a week after release. 'Be Here Now' may not be the best thing Oasis ever did but it deserves it's time in the sun and it's never sounded better than it does here with a full two and a half hours' worth of extras. Roll on the deluxe 'Standing On The Shoulders Of Giants', an even more criminally overlooked album with perhaps the best run of B-sides in  Oasis' career!

2) The Beatles "Live At The Hollywood Bowl"
In 1977 the first 'new' Beatles release since 'Let It Be' a full seven years earlier was released into a scornful market place filled with punk that decided The Beatles were old hat and could never play anyway. A poor seller (by fab four standards - it still made #2 in the US charts and #1 in the UK!), this ugly looking and unloved album with scathing sleevenotes from George Martin was always the runt of the discography, cobbled together from concerts at the American venue in 1964 and 1965 and never given an official CD release until now. While I'm not sure the hype in 2016 is quite justified either, with reviewers calling it a neglected masterpiece and proof of The Beatles as superb musicians (they were, but in the studio or back in Hamburg or The Cavern in years gone past or even up on the Apple roof in 1970 - not here after two years of not being able to hear each other onstage!) and I'm perturbed that effectively this CD has been released purely as a trailer for a film with sleevenotes that will date horribly once the 'Eight Days A Week' documentary is old news and not the next 'big thing'. However the sound is so much better, with George's son Giles going back to the master-tapes and turning the screams down so you can actually hear the band (though thankfully they haven't gone entirely), while the set is given a far nicer cover and some bonus tracks (including the classic moment when Lennon introduces 'Baby's In Black' as a 'waltz for all of you over the age of eleven!') The Beatles do sound more like a 'band' than they do on any other official live release, including the Anthology sets, so this is highly welcome and it's great to see the most adrenalin-fuelled energetic moment in the fabs' discography get its due. Then again we haven't had an official release of the 'Star Club' set from 1962 yet (where the band play even better, even if they're even harder to hear) or a full 'rooftop' show yet. I was hoping Apple would add a lot more bonus tracks too - four entire shows at the Hollywood Bowl exist and some of the performances vary a lot from night to night and especially the stage banter - dividing the 1964 and 1965 shows up also seems like a more sensible approach to take instead of sticking the new songs at the end. Even if reduced to yet another holding ground between bigger projects, though, 'Hollywood Bowl' proves that The Beatles were a great band not just in the studio and at the BBC but on the stage, here there and everywhere.

3) Belle and Sebastian "The Jeepster Singles"
If you own the fine if weirdly named set 'Push Barman To Heal Old Wounds' set from 2005 then you don't really need this one - there's nothing new except a rather dull re-mix of the weakest song 'Judy Is A Dickslap', the videos already featured in the 'For Fans Only' DVD and a bit of fancy packaging. Certainly the £95 price-tag seems a bit high for stuff fans have already got, although as it is a limited edition rather than a mainstream money-grabber I'll let the band off. If you don't own any of these seven charming EPs from 1995-2001, though, you're in for a treat as Belle and Sebastian have rarely sounded better. Starting right back at the beginning with the first ever recording (a tentative demo of the superb 'The State I Am In' and the rather hopeful 'Belle and Sebastian On The Radio' back when the band were still students) and on to the end (with Stuart Murdoch's scathing farewell to singer Isobel Campbel he's been courting all this time - 'we're a disaster!') this reflects the first and most interesting portion of B and S as talented indie wannabes doing what they want even if it turns out a mess and a far cry from the slightly less soulful commercial band of the 21st century. No one can write a lyric like Murdoch or set it to music that pulls at your heart-strings quite so movingly and there are some of the best songs ever written here, from the pregnant teen having a nervous breakdown on the back of a bus on 'Lazy Line Painter Jane' to the spot-on observation of the '20th Century Of Fakers' to the band's most convincing and breathless rocker 'Le Pastie De La Bourgeoisie' to the most gorgeous-sounding evil song ever written 'You Made Me Forget My Dreams' and the indescribable monologue 'A Century Of Elvis'. Superb even at the high price.

4) Nils Lofgren and Grin "Grin/1+1/All Out"
Nils' first band's first three records for the label Spindizzy (they did a fourth for Warner Brothers that always gets overlooked) have been released lots of times down the years - individually, as a 'highlights' set and the first two records as a two-fer-one single disc. This is the cheapest and best way to hear them yet though, with the career highlight '1+1' a must-hear album divided into 'rockin' and 'dreamy' sides both equally fine and made with help from Graham Nash making up for the rather patchy albums that bookend it. Tracks like 'Moontears' 'Soft Fun' and 'End Unkind' are still amongst the greatest songs in the Lofgren catalogue though so this budget set on two discs is well worth tracking down for these reasons alone. Nils shoulda been a star, while his talented backing band shoulda been right behind him too.

5) Justin Hayward "All The Way"
To be honest a 'real' best of Justin's catalogue would just feature superb debut album 'Songwriter' (1977), War Of The Worlds hit 'Forever Autumn' and not a lot else to be honest. While Autumn is here only two songs from 'Songwriter' are actually here, but kudos for digging out the 'Blue Guitar' single (credited to the Blue Jays but actually Justin backed by a pre-fame 10cc!) and some of the better ballads from the past few years like 'The Best Is Yet To Come' and the gorgeous 'Broken Dream', while the live acoustic rendition of 'Nights In White Satin' is pure class. To be honest you still probably won't play much of this first ever Hayward best-of and you certainly won't play it as often as those classic Moody Blues albums but there's good stuff here along with the bad and this set deserves an extra plug from us.

The Most Disappointing AAA Re-Issues and Compilations Of The Year:


1) Paul McCartney "Pure McCartney"
What a waste this set was! Unlike many of his peers and despite the deeply prolific workload down the years there haven't been all that many McCartney compilations to date - 'All The Best' and 'Wingspan', more or less covering the same ground between them, barely scratched the surface. If you're a true blue McCartney you'll know the sinking feeling when a radio DJ says they're going to play a 'famous' Macca song and you just know that it will be one of 'Mull Of Kintryre' 'Ebony and Ivory' 'We All Stand Together' or dear God no 'Wonderful Xmas Time'. Paul should be regarded as the greatest hero musician-writer we've got because (Beatles, Wings and solo combined) he might have the greatest back catalogues of them all, stuffed full of so many great songs there wasn't even time to release them as singles. Again true McCartneyholics will know what I'm talking about here: songs like 'Long Haired Lady' 'Love In Song' 'Don't Let It Bring You Down' 'Somebody Who Cares' 'Through Our Love' 'However Absurd' 'My Brave Face' and 'Lonely Road' - to be honest the list of great songs is endless. There's easily a quadruple CD best-of from a McCartney catalogue that's bursting in the seems that the world deserves to hear - but this most certainly isn't it. Instead we get all the ghastly hits again, spread out with yet more ghastly songs like 'Uncle Albert' 'Jenny Wren' 'My Valentine' 'Dance Tonight' and way too many from 'Flaming Pie' and 'Chaos and Creation' for my liking. There are very few McCartney songs I hate and rather a large pile I love, with a few I'm indifferent to. On the original, double disc version of this album I actively like 12 of the 39 tracks and I can't stand fourteen of them. This is a travesty of a set that isn't 'pure' anything except pure garbage, gathering together all of Paul's twee-est songs into one place and giving critics even more reason to ignore the true genius that hides behind the 'thumbs aloft' personality Macca hides behind these days. Even the sequencing is awful, so random and jarring even a monkey could have done it better (apparently Paul liked making his own playlists at random and these choices are his, which backs up what I keep arguing in my reviews - his biggest fault, perhaps his only musical fault, is that he's a terrible judge of his own material; no wonder all his worst songs appeared as singles in his solo years). Given that we probably won't have another McCartney best-of for another decade or so, this is a travesty. I am shocked I tell you that the single worst Beatles-released product since flipping 'Ringo's Rotogravure' is out on the shelves and everyone seems to blooming love it. What's wrong with you people? I could do better myself with half the space and pulling songs out of a hat and I wouldn't charge blinking £50 for the chance to own previously released works with the most hideous packaging I've seen on a McCartney release to date. Please do better next time EMI, I beg of you!

2) Pink Floyd "The Early Years 1967-1972" (Box Set)
Nothing like as bad but still a giant rip-off, Pink Floyd continue to try to make their fans buy all their old material up again via pricey box sets with the 'tease' of the odd lurking rarity to catch your interest. As it happens the very best of the unheard stuff is pretty good: I still can't believe the legendary Syd Barratt outtakes we've all been talking about since 1967 are finally out after 49 years of waiting and that 'Vegetable Man' and 'Scream Thy Last Scream' appear in better sound than any bootleg, eerie cries for help from a man who already knows he's drowning. Almost as good in a much-bootlegged show from Stockholm that was one of David Gilmour's first and which features Roger Waters on particularly bone-chilling screams. Pretty darn great are the BBC sessions that feature Pink Floyd stripped down to the basics but still thinking in characteristically lengthy and unwieldy terms with full performances of their stage-suites 'The Man' and 'The Journey' (mainly made up of songs scattered across their back catalogue) which are such an integral part of the Floyd story they deserve their own release. Well done too to the compiler and editor who were patient enough to string a load of incidental music snippets from various TV soundtracks together so that they (almost) sound listenable. However paying £400 for the privilege along with owning so many songs from the albums and singles proper yet again (this is the seventh time on CD now for many of these songs!) is just man-spirited, especially given that some of us are still trying to pay off the 2011 box sets we were promised would be the 'last word' in Floyd greatness. Don't get me wrong: there's a lot of great stuff drizzled across these twenty-six discs (plus vinyl-single reproductions) and the music is almost uniformly superb, particularly 'Piper At The Gates Of Dawn' (rock's greatest ever debut? The first CSN album is the only AAA album that comes close) and 'Meddle' (Echoes sounds stunning in any form, but particular so here as the original 'demo' tape 'Nothing Parts 1-24' from which the sonic pings were lifted from). But have a heart EMI: I know you need the money, but this set would have been just as important at half the size and half the price, not to mention taking up half the space on our bursting Floyd CD shelves. Is this the end now for the Floyd box set series? Hmm, pigs will fly I suspect - there's probably an epic ten-disc version of 'Dark Side Of The Moon' and 'The Wall' in the works while I write...

3) The Who "Sings My Generation"
Ok, so this set only runs for five discs and as such is on sale for a (slightly) more reasonable (but still way too high) price tag of £85, while the three previously unheard songs are unexpectedly lovely, with 'The Girls I Could Have Had' a major breakthrough in Pete Townshend's natural writing voice (even if there's no way the Roger Daltrey of 1965 would ever have agreed to sing it!) But this is the third time this album has appeared on CD and, frankly, all the rarities here were known about last time so why have we been tricked out into forking out our hard-earned money yet again for a set that spends two precious discs featuring the same mono and stereo mixes of a rather short album we already love and own multiple times over? This is a great album - in fact it's probably third in 'rock's great debuts' list - and if you're a Who fan and haven't heard the yee-ha escape of 'A Legal Matter', the world's loudest instrumental 'The Ox' and the world's most depressing love-lost song 'The Good's Gone' then you need to and quickly. But not at this price and not with so many 'alternate mixes' that turn out to be so close to the real thing that a good two hours' worth of this set is redundant at a stroke. And doing it to this of all albums! 'Tommy' seems like a bright kid ripe for re-picking in such a mass-market way (even if nine different versions on CD is clearly at least seven too many) but to do this to The Who's youngest, most cynical and least artsy album seems like a betrayal of trust somehow - just look at Pete's scowling eyes on the cover as his future self milks his youthful shenanigans recorded within a fortnight at a very low budget all over again! If I had a guitar I'd smash it I'm that cross! Why does their or any generation have to be millionaires to afford the chance of hearing these sets these days?!?

AAA Songs Of The Year:


1) Encore (Graham Nash, This Path Tonight)
'This Path Tonight' is one of those albums where every song in the second half feels like a natural 'ending' - the song about CSN coming to an end, the 'Golden Days' that won't fall anymore or the eerie journey into death of 'Back Home' which nearly made this list too. That's always the sign of a great album - every song sounds big and a fitting end. However 'Encore' is the best of all, the perfect ending as Nash compares his life to a concert and knows that he must be going soon, to the great unknown, watching his audience walk away and the applause dying. After 55 years of adventures in musical sound he still doesn't know who he is anymore and he wants to know before he goes. So he takes in the dying applause, enjoys the moment and vows to be strong and find out. Though Nash-detractors (of which there are many, particularly at the moment and especially on my twitter timeline) may laugh at the sheer ego of Nash asking us to applaud his life and everything he achieved, but it's still remarkably moving and prescient as Nash bids us all a fond and very heartfelt goodbye just in case - fingers crossed it isn't - that this ends up being his very last encore in a career fit to busting with magical moments like this one.

2) The Things We Do For Love (David Crosby, Lighthouse)
While Nash is waiting to die, his old partner is prepared to live and enjoy being alive like never before. The first track premiered from the new album, this beautiful sumptuous acoustic song is full of typical Croz touches as his lovely voice, an acoustic guitar and a beautiful melody combine with lyrics about slowly building up trust in a relationship over years and decades. This track doesn't pounce, it glides and shimmers, with a haunting chorus, beautiful harmonies and a lead vocal that's haunting in its purity and emotion. If the rest of the album had been as good as the opening track, this would have been top of our album list too for sure!

3) Me and Magdalena (The Monkees, Good Times)
One of the aspects of The Monkees sound that I love the most is the blend of harmonies between Micky and Mike. The two musicians didn't know each other, grew up in different states, had completely opposed musical tastes and spent most of their four years as fully-fledged Monkees on completely different sides of the creative tensions (though in truth once you're a Monkee, you're always a Monkee) and yet their voices sound as if they were born to go together, alternating in strength and harmony as they support each other with a kind of sixth sense. We hardly ever got to hear that blend in the 1960s though (it's heard best on 'Headquarters') so well done to the pair for deciding to sing Ben Gibbard' unusual and rather un-Monkees song about a beautiful love affair as a pair for much of the song. Another track about simply enjoying the moment and how doing nothing with the most special person in your life is still a breath-taking moment of pure beauty, it's a lovely song performed with real flair by two old friends who should have got together so much more often than they did. Hey hey it's The Monkees alright, but at the same time they sound completely different to anything they've ever done before.

AAA DVDs Of The Year


1) The Beatles "Eight Days A Week"
Alright, I confess - I've been so busy buying all the new CDs out this year that my bank balance couldn't stretch to the DVDs as well so I've only seen this in part. That said, most of it has been rattling round Beatles' collectors' shelves for a long time - footage of Shea Stadium which really needs to be out complete in it's own right (it was the films' 'support movie' in some cinemas and was screened in the UK the night Lennon died), the rooftop concert (from the still unavailable 'Let It Be' film, which also deserves a release in its own right) and the much bootlegged Washington show (which ditto though in this case we've never had an official release before and it's hilarious, with John and Paul on high quip ratio and Ringo stopping every song to turn his drums round so everyone can see him!) I've also seen little bits and pieces - including some terrific silent footage of the final show in Candlestick Park the EMI boffins have set to Mal Evans' own stage-struck 'bootleg' of the show (which he was asked to tape for posterity by Paul) which had been hiding under a fans' bed for the best part of fifty years. I'd much rather have had this footage out separately and in full - especially on the 'deluxe' set which sells for quite a bit extra despite not having that many additional features on it - while the tagline 'the band you know and the story you don't' is nonsense: everybody knows about The Beatles as a live act as the millions of screaming fans in the movie will testify. But short of actually being there this is the closest we can get to Beatlemania and it's been made with love and care by director and fan Ron Howard. It could be better, it could certainly be longer and I wouldn't mind it being cheaper either, but I still ain't got nuffink but love for 'Eight Days A Week'.

2) Oasis "Supersonic"
Yes, erm, the same applies here really - the DVD isn't out for a while yet and I was too ill and too far away from any cinemas showing the documentary film but I've seen a list of the footage used (again, mostly already in the collection of mega fans like us) and viewed a few, umm, illegal clips taken by fans in cinemas (I'll buy the whole thing when it's out ok!) and, well, it captures Oasis' spirit quite successfully I'd say. There's a bit too much emphasis on the 'blokey' and social aspect of Oasis - al that swearing and brotherly love n loathing that we've had far too often already and not enough time spent reflecting on the music, which transcended its surroundings rather than being created directly through them as seems to be the gist here. But blimey the early Oasis were charismatic: no one could talk for hours  about nothing and still have it make perfect profound sense like Noel (except maybe Pete Townshend) and no one could out-stare a camera like Liam (except perhaps Keith Moon), while even today the band are still erudite and clearly older if thankfully not much wiser. Seeing footage of the Knebworth gig is almost worth the fee alone (and that's another show that deserves separate release either as an 'extra' or a whole new DVD) and even though footage of the band rowing is interesting, when they play it's magic. This DVD is gonna live forever!

3) The Rolling Stones "Ole! Ole!"
'We've never played here professionally before - or amateurishly come to that!' I've sat through so many boring homecoming/British/American Stones tour documentary films over the years I wasn't expecting to find much to enjoy in the band's trip through Latin America at all to be honest. But I was quite delightfully wrong. Though this is the wrong place to start your collection if all you want is shots of the band performing (there are only about half a dozen songs in the whole show, only two of them complete) there are some lovely shots of the band backstage, hanging out with friends or each other (there's a busked dressing room version of 'Honky Tonk Women' with Mick and Keith that demonstrates more love in the room than has been caught on tape for about 30 years!) Not to mention Ronnie Wood befriending all the locals, Keith Richard's anti-rain dance (which doesn't work once!) and Mick admitting hiding in back streets so he isn't mobbed at the age of 73 is 'a bit ridiculous'. But this concert is about so much more than that. For the first time in ages the Stones are coming together to play gigs that feel so much more important than just another number. There are places here the Stones have never played to before including many they didn't think they ever would (they nearly don't get to Cuba what with Obama flying in their chosen day and The Pope objecting to another!) While British and American audiences have become somewhat jaded over the counter-culture the Stones used to represent and see the band as something of a joke, you can see how much having them there means to the people in the room (many of whom talk to us with real passion and erudition) who weren't allowed to even acknowledge their music existed for years (one man in Cuba was even arrested for listening to it!) While it's a shame we don't get longer in certain countries (Uruguay and Columbia both deserved longer screen time - Argentina and Cuba get the most air time), this is a truly extraordinary documentary about how music really is the universal language that has no barriers. The Rolling Stones haven't felt this relevant and dangerous in years and haven't had as loved a reception in a long time either.

AAA Documentaries Of The Year:


1) The Mastertapes - with Paul McCartney (Radio Two)
'The Mastertapes' has cropped up a lot on these end of year reviews in recent years with David Crosby, Cat Stevens and Ray Davies all taking turns in the most thoughtful and erudite musical programme currently on UK networks (Jools Holland is the only real competitor though and there's clearly no comparison!) The McCartney show wasn't quite as revealing (is there a question Paul hasn't been asked already?) but interviewer John Wilson clearly knows his stuff and does his research and teases out a few new titbits, especially about his depression post-Beatles. Unlike other entries in this series this interview covered a whole career rather than a single album in-depth (though as Paul was plugging career overview 'Pure McCartney' I guess that made sense), a technique which didn't work quite so well, though at least we were spared hearing all the 'Band On The Run' and 'Sgt Peppers' stories for the umpteenth time! Instead we got Paul's take on songwriting (it's like a 'black hole' where ideas suddenly appear and he's not ashamed or afraid to reveal his real thoughts in songs because he knows other people will have had them too), that hearing 'Coming Up' inspired Lennon to come out of retirement in 1980 ('He's finally done something good, I'm not having that!') and that an early Beatles mantra when things went wrong was 'don't worry, something will happen to put it right!' Not the best entry in this excellent series or the greatest interview Paul's ever done (good to see radio series 'McCartney On McCartney' from 1990 repeated on BBC6 at the start of the year by the way - that's about the best!) but a very interesting and entertaining hour all the same!

2) Pink Floyd - The Early Years (BBC4)
Should the BBC be advertising? Five years after a string of videos put together to promote the 'Dark Side/Wish You Were Here/Wall' box sets of 2011 comes another go, this time concentrating on rare footage from the pre-Dark Side days. Some of this is pretty common (a ripping 'Astronomy Domine' though sadly Roger Waters being equally sarcastic to his sarcastic classical music loving host gets cut!), some of it is pure junk (picture slides of the band making 'Obscured By Clouds' to the soundtrack of 'Wots...Uh The Deal' where the band barely move from photo to photo) and some of it is in such bad sound it's unlistenable (admittedly the title track of 'Atom Heart Mother' sounds pretty unlistenable in any form, but particularly played live at a German outdoor festival where the recording equipment is clearly whole fields away!) However there's some great rarely soon footage in here as well, including Syd's last stand with the band on a mournful 'Jugband Blues' in which he ends by turning his back on the camera and walking out of shot into a private life of obscurity and an embryo of unreleased song 'Embryo' getting its first release which - it may well be the best song here, spooky and brooding and clearly a stepping stone towards later future successes. Sadly there's yet more classic material missing though: where was the delightful scarecrow promo for 'Arnold Layne' and the returned TOTP clip of 'See Emily Play'? Not license difficulties again surely?!

3) Keith Richards - The Origin Of The Species and Theme Night (BBC4)
I'm glad I don't live in Keef's brain. Famed director Julian Temple, who started his career making music videos for The Kinks, follows up his Ray and Dave Davies documentary-interviews with an even more intense discussion of Richards' early life. Unfortunately he can't remember much and the bulk of the documentary is taken up with generic war stories, Keith's biggest interests (nice to see a clip of under-rated Goons film 'Down Among The Z Men' and a burst of Tony Hancock!) and stories that we know already from his autobiography 'Life'. For the most part this is unwatchable nonsense, akin to asking Grandad what he did in the war if your Grandad only happened to be three at the time it ended (how does Keith remember the war at all?!?) and took so many drugs his memory stopped working properly. Some of the additional footage, spoofing war public interest films from Keith's perspective, is good fun though and the story about waiting until he was old enough to 'reach' his real Grandad' guitar and his pride at working out that he didn't have to grow taller but could clamber on his grandparent's furniture for it is still moving even if we know it already. Even weirder than the hour cut was a 75 minute edit which put even more stoned ramblings and cigarette-drenched laughter in there for no apparent reason. And even weirder than that was a whole three nights of Keith and Julian taking over BBC4, showing lots of random shows including the good (even more Hancock and Spike Milligan!), the bad (a whole half hour of silent footage of a motorcyclist driving way too fast round Paris) and the ugly (the Stones promo for 'Undercover', presumably used because it features Keith shooting Mick at the end!) Most of Keith's linking sentences made no sense, others were unrelated to what he was talking about - and yet occasionally the real Keith would peek through, opening up about his rivalry with Mick, love-hate friendship with Brian and his need to keep going, whatever the cost. Cheaper than a therapy session, it sometimes feels as if Keith was using BBC4 as a way of being paid to think out loud about nothing in particular, but the weekend had its moments and if it keeps Keith away from falling out of pineapple trees for another year then all well and good.

The AAA Books Of The Year:


1) Neil Young "The Sugar Mountain Years" (Sharry Wilson)
Technically this book came out at the end of last year but I only got it for Christmas so I've delayed the review till now. If you think the AAA talks a lot about a very specific period in time, dear readers, then that's nothing on this book which spends 300 odd pages not even getting Neil to the age of the Buffalo Springfield yet! At times this book is tough going: way too much detail about Neil's chicken-laying business and the new schoolfriends Neil made almost every year when his family moved house and he moved schools, with crushing regularity (only two of them, Comrie Smith and Ken Koblun, have any real bearing on his musical story). There's precious little music in here, just a few chapters on The Squires' Shadows cover versions towards the back. However Neil is more than 'just' a musician - he's an artist and you can feel his character forming chapter by chapter as he nearly dies from polio in a particularly moving chapter, watches his parents split, becomes a 'latch-key' kid with nobody home and finds music his only outlet for the feelings he's too shy to have in public (there's a great chapter on bargaining with his estranged dad that he's doing so great in lessons he deserves an amplifier for his guitar, covering up the fact that he's doing really really badly - only his dad is wise to it, so he manipulates his mum Rassy to winding Scott up to getting what he wants instead - this is classic Young behaviour!)  Sharry Wilson has spoken to everyone still around from these years from schoolmates to teachers and has even had access to Neil's handwriting on self-drawn family birthday cards and notes and Squires gig takings as well. However the best thing about this book is the photos and that's just as well because there are probably over a hundred of them. You can tell Neil is Neil even when a baby and watching him grow, more or less term by term, is a weird feeling - especially given Neil's love of privacy. However this isn't a biography to be ashamed of at all; Neil is by turns just another regular Canadian kid with a love of cars, trains and music (in that order!) and something special waiting to be hatched when the opportunities present themselves. Hopefully the 'Flying On The Ground Is Wrong' years covering the Springfield era will be out one day.

2) "Conversations With Paul McCartney"  (Paul Du Noyer)
We've never really had a Beatles autobiography - we've had either a flawed joint one (the Anthology book), a weird half-finished one that spent more time talking about guitars and gurus than music (George's 'I Me Mine'), a set of postcards that were fun and oddly revealing but not exactly in-depth (Ringo's) and a half-hate filled, half-love filled stream of consciousness (John's rare 'Skywriting By Word Of Mouth'). Perhaps the best of the lot was Paul McCartney's 'Many Years From Now' in which he spoke at length to counter-cultural 1960s pal Barry Miles about anything and everything with lots of stories we hadn't heard before about what Paul was 'really' up to away from the spotlight (the chapters on living in the Asher family house were particularly riveting). This book is a sort-of sequel, not quite as illuminating and written into chapters based on 'themes' rather than eras, but nonetheless Du Noyer too is keener than most interviewers to dig below the surface and, caught in the glare of the post-Heather Mills years, Paul is keen to talk and get things off his chest. Highlights include Paul admitting, after sixty years of keeping it quiet, that he had to re-schedule his first gig with The Quarrymen because he had a very important boy scout meeting, his boyhood love of nature and his pride at his LIPA school in Liverpool performing his Oratorio in 1991. It's no substitute for 'Many Years From Now' but it's an interesting read.

3) Brian Wilson "I Am Brian - The Genius Behind The Beach Boys"
(but really he's a very lucky boy!) Brian's already written one classic autobiography, 1988's 'Wouldn't It Be Nice?', which he later admitted wasn't really by 'him'. However I much preferred Dr Landy's version of events which was at least entertaining and informative and often honest, even if it was way too kind to the therapist and hard on The Beach Boys (then at war with Landy - poor Carl especially came in for a kicking) and clearly full of a few lies or 'stretched truths' (apparently almost nothing in the chapters from Brian's childhood were true!) Brian's second go is clearly a more accurate picture of events, but somehow it's a more boring one too. Poor Brian is too afraid to speak his mind so this time around everybody is lovely, even the people you know he hates (Brian might have made his peace with Mike, but surely not his 'minder' brothers who used to treat him terribly? While Dr Landy, this time a villain not a hero, is more of an inconvenience than the money-obsessed psychopath who kept Brian prisoner other biographies recall). Sadly even on the music, the one place where this people-pleasing book should take off, is boring and better read elsewhere whilst Brian's writing style is repetitive and manages to make even the most exciting details sound bland and everyday. There are omissions too: poor Al Jardine barely gets a mention whilst Bruce Johnston gets just one while poor Marilyn (his wife of a quarter century) comes out the worst, while Brian is full of praise for second wife Melinda. It's an uncomfortable read to be honest but at least it's better than...

4) Mike Love "Good Vibrations - My Life As A Beach Boy"
His cousins' book, which tries very hard to prove it hasn't got an exe to grind and then grinds away anyway. At least Brian's book does have music in it and a fair overview of most of the Beach Boys albums (or at least the ones Brian remembers). This book is told via every law suit Mike ever had instead and while we hear a lot about Mike's contribution to the Beach Boys there's little evidence here for what that is. Which is a shame because Mike really isn't the monster other fans point him out to be. I believe him when he says that he only ever wanted the best for his cousin and without extrovert Mike pushing introvert Brian into the spotlight The Beach Boys might never have existed at all. Plus Mike's contribution as a lyricist - perhaps the best lyricist - for The Beach Boys gives Love the perfect credentials to talk about at least some of the songs in detail. Instead this book ends up as so much point-scoring, clearly written whilst knowing that Brian's book will be doing the same (though actually Brian's is much kinder to Mike than Mike's is to Brian, despite Love's repeated comments about how much he loves his cousin) and there is a surprising emphasis on the band's later years - principally because that's when Mike had the most power within the band and called the shots. This isn't a dreadful book and I suspect it's a lot more truthful than the Dr Landy-enhanced one of Brian's, but this too is an oddly dull read for one of the most colourful bands in music history. Not enough good vibrations.

AAA Articles Of The Year:


1) The Story Of Pixie Drainpipe (Published April 1st 2016)
http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.com/2016/04/april-fools-day-2016-pixie-drainpipe.html
This is the part of the article where we get to plug the articles we wish our readers had read more! Now these might not be the best work of the past year (that's not up to us to say!) but if you have a few extra hours on hand over the Christmas holidays and even this mega-lengthy column isn't enough for you yet then have a gander at this lot. Never heard of Pixie Drainpipe? You haven't lived! Though come to think of it neither have they yet - it's a super-group comprised of multiple future versions of AAA mascots Bingo and Max The Singing Dog, stuck together in a time-loop and turned into a parallel universe with a rock career and discography that sounds rather familiar somehow. Warning: includes album cover re-creations! Another seven April Fool's Day columns are available on request. Warning: always consult a medical practitioner first!

2) The AAA Crossword #2 (Published July 11th 2016)
http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.com/2016_07_10_archive.html
According to my stats only three of you even bothered to open the second ever patent pending AAA crossword link and as we never heard anything back it's safe to say less of you completed it (so you came closest Cecilia, well done!) It's not too late though: get those brain cells working this boxing day!

3) The Monkees: Head/33 and a Third Revolutions Per Monkee/Episode #761 (Published May 16th 2016)
http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.com/2016/05/the-monkees-head33-and-third.html
This is our pick of our 'serious' reviews this year - an in-depth study of terrific Monkees film 'Head', which seemed to go down well with the Monkees community by and large. There are extra pieces on the similar (if inferior) TV special '33 and a Third Revolutions Per Monkees' and a forgotten 1996 reunion TV special too, each reviewed in the same way as our similar mega columns looking back at every single one of the 58 TV episodes broadcast between 1966 and 1968. Head...now...reviewing...


And that's your lot for another year. Thankyou so much for coming here to see us and making our Boxing Day, whether you're a faithful old regular to the AAA or you've stumbled across us while escaping a family festive row (it's probably safe to go back out again now!) Against all the odds we've reached the last tenth or so of our mammoth monkeynuts project to review all 500-odd mainstream AAA albums in full and having recently finished writing the 'first drafts' of our AAA books we have a whole load of 'extra' articles on TV clips/non album songs/unreleased recordings and live/solo/compilation albums already written for next year which will take us  across The Rolling Stones, The Searchers, Simon and Garfunkel, The Small Faces, 10cc, The Who and Neil Young. So, for the first time in a long time, we can say it again: things really do seem to be taking off here at the AAA! And after that? Well hopefully our thirty books will be published at some stage by somebody, even if we have to do it ourselves and it may be as soon as 2018! Let's see if 2017 is any quieter than 2016 first though! Truly, a great big thankyou to all of you (yes you!) for your support this year and may you have a very merry magical and musical Christmas!

No comments:

Post a Comment