FEATURE: Female Icons: Part Eighteen: Tori Amos

FEATURE:

 

Female Icons

Part Eighteen: Tori Amos

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WITH only two more features after this…

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 PHOTO CREDIT: Miller Mobley

it has been interesting and revealing featuring iconic female artists. I have learned a lot and got to dig deeper into their lives; what drives them and what makes them stand out. Many people debate whether certain artists should be seen as icons. The definition is subjective but, if you look at the seventeen artists I have already featured, there is no denying their importance and legacy. Before arriving at the final two instalments, I want to include an artist who has inspired a lot of modern artists; whether in terms of being bolder with their lyrics or more experimental – everyone from Lady Gaga and Joanna Newsom, in some form, owe a small nod of thanks to Tori Amos. There are some out there who would also note how Tori Amos herself owes a little debt to another female icon, Kate Bush. For sure, there are similarities but one icon can inspire another. I think there are a lot of differences between Kate Bush and Tori Amos. I think Amos’ lyrics are definitely her own: there is no way one can easily compare the confessional and emotional offerings from Amos to Kate Bush. Like all the other Female Icons features, I will end with a career-spanning playlist but, to start, it is worth going back to the beginning. I often wonder why artists like Tori Amos are not played more on radio. In fact, there are a lot of inspiring female artists who do not get their music aired enough; a slight that needs to be corrected by radio stations.

 PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

I digress but, to be fair, maybe Tori Amos’ music is a little raw and challenging for a lot of the more commercial and conventional stations. When one does hear a Tori Amos tune on the radio, more often than not, it is Cornflake Girl – sometimes Crucify gets a play but there are many other tracks that deserve some respect. I think artists like Amos have had a definite influence on modern-day songwriters who stray away from cliché subjects of love and are much braver with their lyrical content. We shall come to that. Tori Amos was born on 22nd August, 1963 and, from an early age, it was clear music was her passion. There is no doubt Amos was born for music and that was her path. She bonded with the piano as a child and began composing her own pieces very young; she won a scholarship to the Peabody Institute at the age of five – making her the youngest person ever to be admitted. There is debate as to why she was expelled at the age of eleven but, apparently, there was some ‘musical insubordination’ – perhaps Amos was too confined and frustrated by the rigidity. Although Amos is a solo artist, she did spend a brief time as the lead of the 1980s band, Y Kant Tori Read. Despite the cool name and the fact the band covered topics like feminism and politics in their music, the band shone briefly but brightly.

It was a definite bridge from Amos’ childhood teaching and her debut solo album. With her father’s help, Tori Amos’ demo tapes accrued as a teenager were sent to record labels. Atlantic Records took a shine to Amos and signed her. Even though there was a deal on the table, Amos knew she needed to move to L.A. to pursue her dreams and get the recognition she desired. The opportunities of the city called and Amos responded. Amos moved to L.A. by 1984 and there was a period of transition where Amos was finding her feet and readying for her debut. She signed a six-album deal with Atlantic Records. There was disappointing regarding Y Kant Tori Read (the band’s eponymous album) and there was a bit of a hurdle regarding the recordings that followed. The label was itching for a new record by 1990 and the early recordings sent to the label were met with rejection. With the help of the likes of Steve Canton and Dan Nebenzal (among others), Little Earthquakes took shape. Maybe Little Earthquakes’ cover did suggest some illusion to Kate Bush – a similar pose and look – but the subject matter on the debut was deeply personal and moving. Personal struggles, sexual alienation and sexual assault were the subject of songs. It is a record that has darkness but there is undeniable beauty and transcendence. One cannot listen to Little Earthquakes without being affected and moved.

From the stark and brutal Me and a Gun to the gorgeous Winter, there are few debut albums as compelling and moving as Little Earthquakes. The album was a commercial breakthrough and performed well in the U.K. charts. The progress of Little Earthquakes was a bit slower in the U.S. – a nation that were not used to artists as unique and unconventional as Tori Amos -, but songs like Silent All These Years helped her progress. It is a remarkable album and one that was acclaimed and praised on its debut. I have selected a couple of reviews that illuminate the depths and diversity of Tori Amos’ debut. In this review, AllMusic made some excellent observations:

But Little Earthquakes is no mere style-setter or feminine stereotype -- its intimacy is uncompromising, intense, and often far from comforting. Amos' musings on major personal issues -- religion, relationships, gender, childhood -- were just as likely to encompass rage, sarcasm, and defiant independence as pain or tenderness; sometimes, it all happened in the same song. The apex of that intimacy is the harrowing "Me and a Gun," where Amos strips away all the music, save for her own voice, and confronts the listener with the story of her own real-life rape; the free-associative lyrics come off as a heart-wrenching attempt to block out the ordeal. Little Earthquakes isn't always so stomach-churning, but it never seems less than deeply cathartic; it's the sound of a young woman (like the protagonist of "Silent All These Years") finally learning to use her own voice -- sort of the musical equivalent of Mary Pipher's Reviving Ophelia.

That's why Amos draws strength from her relentless vulnerability, and that's why the constantly shifting emotions of the material never seem illogical -- Amos simply delights in the frankness of her own responses, whatever they might be. Though her subsequent albums were often very strong, Amos would never bare her soul quite so directly (or comprehensibly) as she did here, nor with such consistently focused results. Little Earthquakes is the most accessible work in Amos' catalog, and it's also the most influential and rewarding”.

Pitchfork covered Little Earthquakes in 2015:

Amos’ solo debut, though it was rarely talked about this way, was similarly radical—an alternately flirty and harrowing work that juxtaposed barbed truths against symphonic flights of fancy. It was lyrically nuanced and harmonically sophisticated exactly when grunge moved rock in a raw and brutish direction, which made her achievement even more striking. Amos was early Queen, early Elton John, and early Kate Bush with Rachmaninoff chops. Decades after prog-rock’s peak, her technical perfection was particularly shocking in the virtuoso-renouncing '90s: Not even Elton could tear into a song both vocally and instrumentally while staring down attendees with a Cheshire Cat grin.

For the outsider women and gay men who initially propelled Amos’ success, this hard-won message served as a clarion call, and they embraced her as if uncovering the challenging and most vulnerable parts of themselves. Tracy Chapman, Melissa Etheridge, Sarah McLachlan, k.d. lang, Sinéad O'Connor, and the Indigo Girls had already begun to reach the same flock, but Amos—by virtue of her sexual intensity and subject matter—instantly commanded a bond only rivaled by Madonna, whose eroticism peaked just as Amos arrived”.

I will not cover all of her albums but I wanted to highlight a few more that warrant examination. Little Earthquakes arrived at a time when Nirvana were ruling music; it would have been strange going up against them for chart glory. By 1994, the landscape had changed and Amos’ career was about to rise. There were some who were unkind about Under the Pink but, for those listening hard enough, the differences were noted. Amos sounded more confident and her music was bolder; the production was different and there was more in the way of accessibility. Cornflake Girl is the big hit from the album and a breezier, more hummable song than we were used to – even if the subject matter talked about female genital mutilation. Pretty Good Year and God are as fine as anything on her debut but, on her second outing, there is more diversity and range. Amos was bringing in new influences and sounds – there is a touch of Reggae on Cornflake Girl – and the lyrics, to me, are more nuanced and powerful. In this review, Pop Matters noted the changes:

Far from Little Earthquakes II, Under the Pink sounds fresher and fuller than its predecessor these days: more artful in its arrangements, more assured in production, hinting at Amos’s wilder experiments to come. And yet for all its modernist flourishes -- the twitchy electric guitar-work in “God”, the jazz and reggae-influenced gait of the immortal “Cornflake Girl”, the thrilling grungy bridge that erupts in “Pretty Good Year” -- Amos’s second album feels like her most classical work, pre-Night of Hunters, at least. Now delicate, now playful, now thunderous and dramatic, her superb piano-playing perfectly matches the abstract narrative fragments and startling lyrical images of her writing.

Thematically, issues of female oppression and betrayal are to the fore, viewed from both a historical and a contemporary vantage. Delving “under the pink”, Amos emerges with haunting tales such as the mysterious murder narrative “Past the Mission” (complete with Trent Reznor backing vocals), “Icicle’s" paean to masturbation, and the femicide-fantasy “The Waitress", the refrain of which “I believe in peace, bitch” sums up the album’s riveting ambivalences. The most extraordinary track, though, remains the closing “Yes, Anastasia", a sweeping piano-and-strings epic that brilliantly mixes tempos and moods before arriving at a coda that chills the blood. “We’ll see how brave you are,” Amos sneers: a challenge to herself and to the listener”.

1996’s Boys for Pele found Amos producing solo for the first time. The album contains expanded instrumentation and the lyrics are denser and more poetic. That did divide some critics but showed Amos was unwilling to settle and was finding fresh inspiration. The lyrics, as you’d expect, were extremely personal but the album is not as heavy as you’d expect. Amos did receive some flak regarding the lyrics and her taking production control. She responded by claiming the music had so much subtext and critics were being unfair. You can see her point. Maybe Boys for Pele was a little different to what was happening in music in 1996, but you listen to Boys for Pele now and it really stands up. It is actually one of her most rewarding and challenging works that, it seems, critics did not give enough time and attention to. I want to bring in a review from AllMusic; written in 2015, it seems time has allowed the album to breathe and resonate:

Boys for Pele is the harshest and most challenging work in Tori Amos' catalog. However, it also stands as the most cathartic, nourishing, and artistically thrilling of her career. Birthed in the wake of a devastating breakup, Pele is a sprawling ode to the feminine, conjured in a whirlwind of pain that forced Amos to embark on a quest into the dark unknown to find the fire within that had been snuffed out by the men in her life.

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images 

After her breakthrough confessional Little Earthquakes and the delicate impressions of Under the Pink, Amos struck out on her own for the first time, unfettered and uncompromised. Pele would be her debut at the helm as sole producer, a control she would maintain for the rest of her career. With that power, Amos was free to exorcize the demons as she saw fit. She did so with new additions to her arsenal: a harpsichord, brass flourishes, a choir, labyrinthine lyrics, and a pantheon of spirits summoned in the Louisiana bayou and the Irish countryside. It was a jarring shift”.

I love Boys for Pele because it contains the exceptional Professional Widow. The eponymous heroine, many say, refers to Courtney Love (Kurt Cobain took his own life in 1994) and the song was given extra punch when it received remixes from Armand van Helden and MK. If one or two of Tori Amos’ 1990s albums divided critics, one listens to those records and marvels. 2001’s Strange Little Girls saw Amos covering songs written by men; given them a female perspective. 2017’s Native Invaders is her most recent album and one that received positive reviews. I wonder whether there is another album coming from Tori Amos soon because, over twenty-five years since her debut album, Amos remains essential and utterly engrossing.

Not only is her music inspiring and original but Amos is someone who provides wonderful interviews. I will bring in a couple before rounding things off. Amos spoke with Stereogum when promoting Native Invaders in 2017. Timely now as it was then, Amos was asked about the environmental themes on the album:

 “STEREOGUM: I know this record has an environmental theme. It’s a very important topic. But it can be a dry topic. How do you turn that into songs that people will actually enjoy listening to, and will resonate with them, and not just, “The icebergs are falling, people, pay attention!”

AMOS: Well, exactly. Nobody wants to be preached at. I’m a preacher’s daughter and the granddaughter of a missionary teacher, my father’s mother. Nobody wants to be preached at. I think that’s always the struggle. Sometimes there are songs that are written for every album that you think are, to steal your line, “dry.” Or it doesn’t have the right story.

STEREOGUM: So you have to figure out how to make it work?

AMOS: It sounds simple. It is that basic: trying to track it down and make it work. Hunting for those things can lead you down many dead ends.

STEREOGUM: There was a story in New York Magazine a couple months ago that said, “We are very close to Earth being uninhabitable if we don’t change our ways.” As a person studying the environment, do you get overcome with despair or do you feel any hope, at all, for humanity still? Big question.

AMOS: Really big question. I have a lot of faith in Mother Earth. I don’t know if we’re going to make it. I think she will make it. I don’t know. Dinosaurs. They did pretty well.

STEREOGUM: Yeah, they had a good run”.

The second interview I want to source from is with Vulture. Amos talked about her relationship with the audience and the artists who inspire her:

How has your relationship with your audience changed over time? You have famously obsessive fans.

I know that right now, in a cultural moment of great trauma, people are ready for songs that talk about in-depth emotions and issues. Let’s put it this way: There’s always going to be pop music, but in times of tragedy people turn to certain songwriters who have layers to their work.

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PHOTO CREDIT: Paulina Otylie 

Who have those songwriters been for you?

Leonard Cohen — a big one. Peter Gabriel. Kate Bush. Joni Mitchell.

Do you draw different things from the men and women who’ve influenced you?

The fact is, like I said, that there are not a lot of women singer-songwriters having the level of success that the men are. The guys are endless. The women are not. I know that’s not a direct answer to your question, but it’s a subject I really started wrapping my head around four years ago when I was making Unrepentant Geraldines.After making three classical-influenced, experimental albums between 2009 and 2012, on 2014’s Unrepentant Geraldines, Amos returned to her ’90s style of more-stripped-down instrumentation — primarily vocals and piano. That’s when I was underwater in the depths of menopause. I realized that I had to pull on some serious energy from deep within my being and also from the earth itself; by sheer will I had to become a force of nature.

Tina Turner was a force of nature in her early 50s. So was Nina Simone. Our industry, though, doesn’t value women songwriters that are 50 and over. There’s ageism, and certainly men aren’t going to write the stories my generation needs to hear. Bette Midler and Barbra Streisand and Cher — they’re not a parallel with alternative-pop singer-songwriters. They’re amazingly talented entertainers and actresses, but they’re different than what I’m talking about. Country music seems to be open to having mature women tell their stories. You’ve got Emmylou Harris and Reba McEntire and others. But in the alternative-music field where I came from, there aren’t many of us. Patti Smith is out there. We’ve got Stevie Nicks. There are some, but not many, and it’s not a coincidence.

For anyone who doubts Amos’ importance and influence, there are articles that discuss her magic. She is a phenomenal artist and one who I hope will create music for many years to come. It is artists like Amos who have paved a way for women and have pushed music forward. In terms of songwriting, you can feel artists who have taken her to heart but there is still nobody as striking as Amos when it comes to subject matter. Her voice intoxicates and her compositions envelop you and bring you into the music. Who knows what lies ahead for Amos but one thing is clear: the music she has already given the world is among the most personal, spectacular and memorable of all time. Many might dismiss that notion but have a listen back through her albums and you will be stirred and affected. Tori Amos is an icon for sure and an artist who deserves a lot more radioplay than she gets. She came into the music world with Little Earthquakes and, before long, this beguiling songwriter was creating…

MASSIVE tremors.

FEATURE: 21st Century Breakdown: My Favourite Album of the Century (So Far)

FEATURE:

 

21st Century Breakdown

My Favourite Album of the Century (So Far)

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I have seen a lot of buzz on social media…

 PHOTO CREDIT: @sethdoylee/Unsplash

because The Guardian have run a feature that unites their one-hundred favourite albums; those records that highlight the brilliance of this century (so far). Although we are not even a fifth of the way through this century, we are ending a decade and looking ahead to 2020. For that reason, many will be reflecting on their favourite album from this decade, at the very least. Maybe Beyoncé’s Lemonade (2011) would scoop that honour…or Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly (2015). In terms of considering the finest albums of the century to date, that is pretty tough! I love Kate Bush’s Aerial (2005) and, in fact, I could put together a list of one-hundred and the order would change all the time! I agree with most of the albums included in The Guardian’s feature and, aside from the order needing a bit of a rejig, there are plenty of belters in there! Maybe Kate Bush’s Aerial would scoop the honour when it comes to the best album of this century. It is definitely high up there and, when thinking about the record I would crown as the best, one stood out because of its emotional importance and meaning. Before getting there, The Guardian explained why Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black is at the top of their list:   

 “Certainly, it could not prepare the listener for Back to Black: nothing about Frank suggested that its creator was going to make a genuinely epochal masterpiece. Something had happened to Amy Winehouse in the three years that separated her second album from her debut: skinny, covered in tattoos, dressed like a cartoon of a 60s girl-group member – complete with a vertiginous beehive modelled on that of the Ronettes’ Ronnie Spector – she was almost unrecognisable. The lyrics of its lead single suggested that whatever had happened wasn’t good – no one pleads with you to go to rehab if your life is in perfect shape – but the music was so ebullient you could easily overlook that.

Back to Black is an exceptionally forlorn 35 minutes: the closest its mood of self-loathing and hopelessness comes to a resolution is Addicted’s bitter line about how marijuana “does more than any dick did”. But it says something about the skill of her songwriting and the arrangements that it is so easy to listen to. What Winehouse had to say was despondent and troubling, but when her voice soars on the chorus of Tears Dry on Their Own, or the intro to You Know I’m No Good sashays out of the speakers, it doesn’t feel like hard work. Even its bleakest moment, when the title track collapses into a funereal thud and Winehouse keeps disconsolately repeating the word “black”, comes wrapped in gorgeous vocal harmonies and strings.

A rare instance of critical acclaim chiming with public taste, it sold millions. It may well be the most influential album of the last 20 years. The immediate effect of its success was a wave of artists obviously working in her image. Female vocalists made retro soul-influenced music, replacing Winehouse’s troubled unpredictability with something less volatile and more marketable: earthy everyman good humour or cute kookiness. Adele was by far the most successful, but at one point there seemed to be dozens of them, all filling the void created by the fact that Winehouse was increasingly unable to play live, let alone complete another record (as the posthumous Lioness compilation revealed, she recorded virtually nothing in the final years of her life, taping only two songs for a projected follow-up). Winehouse’s vocal style became a kind of all-purpose pop template, its idiosyncrasies reduced to a series of slurred, prematurely aged tics intended to signify emotional authenticity. Nearly 15 years on, you still can’t move for twentysomething men who sound like ravaged blues shouters and twentysomething women trying their best to channel Billie Holiday”.

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 IN THIS PHOTO: The White Stripes in June 2001/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

I can appreciate what is being said and, in my view, that 2006 album is phenomenal. I would spend ages debating my top-hundred list but, in terms of importance and place – if not necessarily my favourite as such – I would put The White Stripes’ White Blood Cells at the top of the list. I can think of albums by Dizzee Rascal and Kendrick Lamar that hold a lot of power but, personally, it is White Blood Cells that sticks in my mind the longest. I discovered the duo when I was at university in Cambridge back in 2002. I was unfamiliar with them until them (I had heard bits but not a whole deal) and was introduced to them by the Membership Secretary at the Cambridge Footlights, Tom Tilley. We have not seen each other for years, but he was an important part of my time at university. I was actually at Anglia Ruskin University but had always wanted to be part of the Cambridge Footlights. It was a hard transition because I was not from the same world and background as a lot of the people I was around. It was great being part of an institution and club that has seen everyone from John Cleese and Stephen Fry pass through. It was pretty exciting but, for a long time, I wondered how to fit in and whether I would succeed – I performed a few times and went to various social events.

Tom was a useful guide and friend and, before long, he was bringing the music of The White Stripes to my attention. I think the first he played me was their eponymous debut of 1999 but, soon enough, I was being made aware of White Blood Cells. That album arrived in July 2001 and I was not that aware of the Garage music of Detroit (where the duo were from) at the time. It was only a year until Elephant came around in 2003; considered the best album from The White Stripes. I was not used to music like that and, up until that point, it was a lot of Rock and Alternative stuff. The White Stripes provided something a bit gritty, lo-fi and captivating. I was raised around Grunge but The White Stripes managed to mix melody and tunefulness with rawness and scintillation. White Blood Cells came out in a year where everyone from Radiohead and The Strokes were releasing sensational albums. It was a heady and creative time for music and, in a broad landscape during a heady year, The White Stripes were doing their own thing. The sixteen-track third album from Jack and Meg White is a step up from 2000’s De Stijl and is so varied! Songs switch from the very short to longer; there is so much going on and such confidence and chemistry from the duo. From the brilliant and compelling opener, Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground, to intriguing and unusual This Protector, White Blood Cells hits me. It is one of those albums where there are no weak tracks.

The energy and wonder barely lets up. The first four tracks off of White Blood CellsDead Leaves and the Dirty Ground, Hotel Yorba; I’m Finding It Harder to Be a Gentleman and Fell in Love with a Girl – are brilliant. Hotel Yorba has a charming skip and catchiness whereas I’m Finding It Harder to Be a Gentleman makes you smile with its images of Jack White trying to keep his cool. Fell in Love with a Girl is a sub-two-minute blast that one can recall every word to – and it has that great video from Michel Gondry (who would work with the band a lot through their career). Expecting and Little Room are transition songs to the mid-way point. The former is snarling and chugging whereas Little Room lasts under a minute and has Meg providing her most fervent drumming whilst Jack yodels as he discusses this mysterious room in a song that makes you wonder what is being said; what we are imagining and where it derives. The rest of the album mixes gorgeous songs such as The Same Boy You’ve Always Known and I Can Learn with rippers like I Think I Smell a Rat and The Union Forever. There are many standouts. Aluminium is a gargling, robot-like song that is from another planet; We’re Going to Be Friends sounds like it could have come from Sesame Street whilst Now Many has a sway and hook that belies lyrics that have darkness to them.

I remember setting time aside away from studies to listen to the album. I popped the C.D. in and let the tracks cascade and affect. I was instantly startled by how memorable the tracks were. The diversity and sheer scope was staggering but there was no big production layers and a load of musicians: it was Jack and Meg tackling everything, laying it all down in Memphis over a few days. That is another that amazed me: just how quickly the album came together! The duo never took more than a few days for most of their albums – the earliest ones at least – and you can feel that urgency and energy in every moment. Bands today would take months to record an album as bold and brilliant as White Blood Cells. The fact that these two musicians (formerly married; Jack White claimed they were siblings to avoid any press intrusion) produced such an amazing album in a few days is mind-blowing. Although there is not such a thriving Garage scene now – compared to the late-1990s and early-2000s at least -, The White Stripes’ third albums not only inspired them (to produce something even bigger) but is has resonated with artists through the years. It is not surprising to see White Blood Cells has gained a lot of huge reviews and plaudits. Here is AllMusic’s assessment:     

 “Despite the seemingly instant attention surrounding them -- glowing write-ups in glossy magazines like Rolling Stone and Mojo, guest lists boasting names like Kate Hudson and Chris Robinson, and appearances on national TV -- the White Stripes have stayed true to the approach that brought them this success in the first place. White Blood Cells, Jack and Meg White's third effort for Sympathy for the Record Industry, wraps their powerful, deceptively simple style around meditations on fame, love, and betrayal.

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IN THIS PHOTO: The White Stripes playing at John Peel's home in 2001/PHOTO CREDIT: Sheila Ravenscroft 

 As produced by Doug Easley, it sounds exactly how an underground sensation's breakthrough album should: bigger and tighter than their earlier material, but not so polished that it will scare away longtime fans. Admittedly, White Blood Cells lacks some of the White Stripes' blues influence and urgency, but it perfects the pop skills the duo honed on De Stijl and expands on them. The country-tinged "Hotel Yorba" and immediate, crazed garage pop of "Fell in Love With a Girl" define the album's immediacy, along with the folky, McCartney-esque "We're Going to Be Friends," a charming, school-days love song that's among Jack White's finest work. However, White's growth as a songwriter shines through on virtually every track, from the cocky opener "Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground" to vicious indictments like "The Union Forever" and "I Think I Smell a Rat." "Same Boy You've Always Known" and "Offend in Every Way" are two more quintessential tracks, offering up more of the group's stomping riffs and rhythms and us-against-the-world attitude. Few garage rock groups would name one of their most driving numbers "I'm Finding It Harder to Be a Gentleman," and fewer still would pen lyrics like "I'm so tired of acting tough/I'm gonna do what I please/Let's get married," but it's precisely this mix of strength and sweetness, among other contrasts, that makes the White Stripes so intriguing. Likewise, White Blood Cells' ability to surprise old fans and win over new ones makes it the Stripes' finest work to date”.

Eighteen years after it was unleashed into the world, White Blood Cells sounds so fresh and keeps bearing rewards. We were still getting used to the new century and there was a lot of change happening in music from 2001-2003. Look at movements and artists who came and went; the terrific albums that were released during this period and the sheer quality! When I found The White Stripes’ White Blood Cells in 2002, I fell in love with the album and was compelled to listen back to their previous two albums. The duo would become bigger in the U.K. but it was D.J.s like John Peel who helped give their music a bigger voice here. In the press, they were often portrayed as being quite elusive or odd. I remember a few of the photoshoots around 2001/2002 and these pale-faced artists who, as I said, pretended to be brother and sister. None of that really mattered but it was interesting to see these guys in their black-white-and-red clothing, playing this brilliant music without the flash, celebrity and crutches so many other artists possessed. They were a breath of a fresh air and I was suitably ready when Elephant arrived in 2003 – recorded at Toe Rag Studious in London and, to many, it is their finest hour. The Guardian’s feature has got many people thinking about their favourite albums of this century.

I admire the fact The Guardian selected Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black as their top choice. It was her thirty-sixth birthday yesterday – Winehouse died in 2011 aged twenty-seven – and Winehouse’s masterpiece sounds utterly heartbreaking. Whilst we wish she was still around, we can take heart in the fact she was with us long enough to release such a timeless album. For me, there are a lot of great albums that would be in my top-hundred of this century but, for personal reasons, White Blood Cells tops the list. It still gives me shivers now and makes me think of a time in life when I was embarking on new challenges and trying to find my feet. This album alone did not make life easier but I developed this passion for The White Stripes and they gave me such strength and comfort. I listen to White Blood Cells now and the songs still sound so gripping and exciting. I get transported and lifted when listening but there are so many emotions at work; one needs some serious time to really get to grips with the album. I know we are less than a fifth of the way through this century but it is interesting to think which albums of the past twenty years have made the biggest impact on you. A fair few other albums were near the top of my list – including Kate Bush’s Aerial and Dizzee Rascal’s Boy in da Corner -, but there is the one that, for me, has that…

SPECIAL edge.

FEATURE: Symphony in Blue: Why Radio Stations Need to Look Past Kate Bush’s Hits and Dig Deeper

FEATURE:

 

Symphony in Blue

IN THIS PHOTO: Kate Bush/PHOTO CREDIT: Gerard Mankowitz 

Why Radio Stations Need to Look Past Kate Bush’s Hits and Dig Deeper

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THIS feature applies to other artists…

 PHOTO CREDIT: Chris Walter - WireImage/Getty Images

but it is especially true of Kate Bush! One does her music on the radio from time to time and, whilst it is really nice when a song of hers is played, you do tend to find the same ones feature. I listen to BBC Radio 6 Music most of the time and, when they play a Kate Bush track, it is usually from Hounds of Love. There is no problem with that! The album turns thirty-four on 16th September and it is the critical darling. The songs the station play tend to be the bigger hits from the first side – Hounds of Love, Cloudbusting and Running Up That Hill (A Deal with God). They are well-known songs, and all defined by a certain energy. They are successful and recognisable, but I wonder why tracks such as The Big Sky (on the first side) and tracks from The Ninth Wave (the conceptual, second side of the album) are not played more. Maybe getting away from the album altogether is a better idea because, like many stations, there is a reliance on it. Stations are pretty broad regarding legends such as David Bowie, The Beatles and Joni Mitchell but, when it comes to Kate Bush, there is a certain fear. Sure, Wuthering Heights and The Man with the Child in His Eyes (The Kick Inside); you’ll hear Wow (Lionheart) now and then; maybe Babooshka and Army Dreamers (Never for Ever); perhaps This Woman’s Work (The Sensual World) will come up. Bush has released ten studio albums – her last/most-recent, 50 Words for Snow, in 2011 – and there is plenty of great material on each record!

I do think every iconic and inspirational artist deserves having as many of their songs played on radio as possible. Whilst it not possible to play every single track from Kate Bush – not all her tracks will go down a storm -, I do wonder why radio stations tend to focus their energies on particular albums/songs. Even from The Kick Inside (her 1978 debut), there are songs that do not get aired often – including Moving and Room for the Life. Lionheart opens with the majestic Symphony in Blue and contains the stunning Kashka from Baghdad. Delius (Song of Summer), The Wedding List and The Infant Kiss from Never for Ever do not get a showing. The Dreaming is a divisive album but, unlike most artists, the tracks are at least interesting and original! It seems radio gravitates towards hits and so, in the case of The Dreaming, we never hear Leave It Open, Night of the Swallow or Houdini played – a song, I contest, that is one of her very best! Though Hounds of Love is well represented – a little too much so in the case of some stations! -, the second side does not get the same love as the hits-packed first half. Life post-Hounds of Love is not exactly fruitful in terms of airplay! The Sensual World turns thirty on 16th October and it seems like the perfect excuse for stations to dust off the record and play some of its tracks - one doubts whether that will happen!

Even though albums like The Sensual World and 1993’s The Red Shoes divide people, both contain some incredible songs – I especially think The Sensual World is underrated and gets some unfair stick. Moments of Pleasure and Rubberband Girl are great tracks we should hear more of and, when you cast forward to 2005’s Aerial and 2011’s 50 Words for Snow, between them, there are tracks that have not been played on the radio…but they definitely have legs! Kate Bush is that classic albums artist that, like The Beatles and other acts who cannot be reduced to singles, sees only a selection of her songs played. She will not be too bothered herself. She has said in interviews how she does not listen to her old stuff and rarely hears her music on the radio. So many of us consume music through streaming and that creates its own issues. Those unfamiliar with Kate Bush’s catalogue will play the most-played tracks from Spotify – including Hounds of Love and Wuthering Heights – and might not necessarily delve any further. So many of us are guided by radio and, if they only play a small selection of her tracks, how many of us are going to spend some time with her albums as a whole?! There are articles like this that rank her songs and order her singles but, again, there are notable omissions when it comes to radio playlists!

I am not the only one who has noticed a ‘preference’ when it comes to Kate Bush’s songs: when I post (online) why stations focus heavily on certain tracks, it does garner reaction. Bush’s albums are so rich with variation, emotion and story; so many tracks that buckle the knees are, sadly, reserved for those who know where to look or have her albums. Any Kate Bush airtime is wonderful – one must not grumble! – but, by playing the same tracks, it suggests they are the only ones worth hearing. It is something I have noticed across the big BBC stations and so many of the big players. Maybe independent stations are more adventurous and wide-ranging, but they are an exception. In fact, even when we think of huge artists like The Beatles and Bob Dylan, are their albums opened up and played? I understand radio stations are in a hard position: they need to play what is popular (i.e., a hit) and they might not necessary be au fait with an artist to make suggestions that deviate from the well-trodden path. Maybe there is a wider issue where stations are a little skeptical about playing album tracks, in case people turn their noses. Sure, if we hear a song like Running Up That Hill (A Deal with God), it resonates and makes us feel happier, but there is something a little depressing hearing the same songs played over and over.   

As the world awaits an eleventh studio album from Bush – there are no plans; but let’s hope something comes next year, perhaps -, it would be a welcomed treat hearing more of Bush’s music featured on the radio (in terms of variation and breaking from the norm). I was hooked on Bush’s music very young and explored her albums from then on but, as I said, as so many of us are using streaming services rather than buying music; do we just skim through albums or play songs we are more familiar with? Kate Bush’s lyrics are so revered and extraordinary; her voice and music are unique…so many great songs are not seeing the light of day. I keep saying how something is better than nothing; it would be worse if no Kate Bush music was played (rather than just singles and bigger hits) and, in fact, stations like BBC Radio 6 plays Kate Bush pretty regularly. Every year, we celebrate her album anniversaries and laud a songwriting genius. Only a small percentage of her tracks get played on the radio, and I do hope that changes soon. There is no real expert knowledge needed: Bush is a surprisingly engaging artist and there are few of her songs that lack appeal – maybe some of the longer numbers from 50 Words for Snow would be naturally excluded. I will end things here but, going forward, I would make a plea to radio stations to be bolder when it comes to Kate Bush. Sure, play the hits but also consider tracks such as Houdini, Symphony in Blue and Mrs. Bartolozzi (from Aerial); maybe a blast of The Big Sky or Get Out of My House (The Dreaming). When you do immerse yourself into Kate Bush’s vivid and eclectic world, you’ll find that waiting for you are some truly…

FANTASTIC revelations.

FEATURE: Behind the Screen: Social Media Trolls and the Impact on Musicians

FEATURE:

 

Behind the Screen

IN THIS PHOTO: Little Mix’s Jesy Nelson was subjected to trolling, online abuse and body shaming, pushing her to attempt suicide/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images 

Social Media Trolls and the Impact on Musicians

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I may have addressed this before…

but I do feel like social media is a bit of a mixed blessing. On the one hand, one can share their music and thoughts and, largely, receive positive feedback and connection. One can only imagine what modern life would be like if we had to return to the pre-Twitter/Facebook days. Maybe this is a more common issue with Twitter and Instagram but, more and more, we are having to read about musicians – and people in every field and walk of life – subjected to trolling and cruel insult. This subject is always relevant but, following the broadcast of Little Mix star, Jesy Nelson’s documentary, Odd One Out, it shows how online abuse and trolling can affect someone like her. One would look at her life and success and think that, actually, here is someone who looks happy and enjoys a comfortable life. That is the perception we have of the famous. As her documentary explores, she had to face some very troubling abuse and the toll it had on her was life-changing. The Guardian explain more in their review:

She was barely 20 years old. She talks candidly about how this onslaught chipped away at not only her self-esteem, but her sense of who she was. She can barely watch footage of herself from that time, or look at pictures. She had been happy. As Jesy from Little Mix, she was miserable, constantly questioning herself and struggling with what sounds like an eating disorder. Eventually, she attempted suicide.

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

This is a personal story and Nelson is clearly still dealing with the suffering she endured as the target of such horrible online abuse. She has a cushion over her lap as she is interviewed. She worries how she looks.

There is a sense that this documentary is part of the therapeutic process; she is not on the other side of the bullying yet and, at times, that makes it difficult to watch. Her mother talks movingly about how much she wishes she could have her pre-fame daughter back. Her bandmates are frank about how her insecurities, amplified beyond common sense or rationality, can make her “a bit of a nightmare”. Her boyfriend Chris Hughes, himself a product of the fame factory (in his case, Love Island), wishes she could be more comfortable in her skin. Even in the present day, glammed up for a video shoot, she refers to herself as “a fat, ugly rat”.

It is troubling reading these words and wondering what it must have been like for Nelson! There is no justification for such slurs and comments and, in an industry where we put so much pressure on artists, life is hard enough without having to endure such disgusting remarks. Not only will the documentary help bring about awareness, but it will resonate with other artists. Before asking whether we need to do more, Nelson spoke about her plight and how, yeas later, she is in a better place:

“…At about 1am, a member of The X Factor team found Nelson crying alone and asked why she was so upset. A couple of days later, she was asked to explain again – on camera. She didn’t want to do it. “They told me it wasn’t recorded, and it was.”

A few weeks later, the clip of Nelson in tears over “a few nasty comments” was broadcast before Little Mix’s performance, the reality TV playbook of “sad piano” switching to upbeat pop music when Thirlwall comforts her: an uplifting moment of girl power. From then on, that was Nelson’s public narrative.

After the clip presented her as Little Mix’s weakest link, the abuse snowballed. “It was like as soon as people knew that it was really affecting me, they wanted to do it more.” Nelson had been bullied at school, to the point of stress-induced alopecia – “but this wasn’t playground stuff”.

She was shocked by the cruelty from adults – some clearly parents. “Obviously everyone sits in their living room and will see someone on TV and make a comment. But to actually pick up your phone and go: ‘I’m going to make sure this girl sees it’ – even if they didn’t think I was going to see it – you have no idea the effect that one comment will have.”

Nelson became “obsessed” with reading criticism. The praise didn’t register. “It only got worse when I got Twitter. And that led to the Daily Mail, and reading the [below the line] comments – the worst you can read about yourself. It was like I purposely wanted to hurt myself.”

“I had a routine of waking up, going on Twitter, searching for the worst things I could about myself. I’d type in the search bar: ‘Jesy fat’, or ‘Jesy ugly’, and see what would come up. Sometimes I didn’t even need to do that, I’d just write ‘Jesy’ and then I’d see all the horrible things. Everyone told me to ignore it – but it was like an addiction.”

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PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images 

Talking to other young people who have experienced online abuse made her feel less alone. “A lot of people think ‘stop moaning’, but until you’ve experienced it, it’s hard to understand – and it doesn’t just happen to people in the limelight. There’s so many people struggling with social media and online trolling. People need to know about the effects it has.”

The turnaround in five years, she agrees, is remarkable: now, as Little Mix work on their sixth album, Nelson is less conscious of her weight, her appearance, what she’s eating – even what is being said about her. To shoot the documentary, she returned to Twitter, and discovered some new slurs. “I didn’t even know some people said that about me, but it’s because I don’t look for it – and also, I. Don’t. Care,” she says, leaning forward in her chair”.

I do sincerely hope Nelson is in a better head-space now and that she is being guarded. I do wonder how many other musicians around the world are having to face such abuse. Music is so much about image, especially for women, and there are corners of the Internet where trolls fester and there is nothing but hatred. Big artists will always receive more kindness and positive words than negative – it is always the cruelty and abuse that cuts deeper than anything else. The fact we have social media, in many ways, is good. We can express ourselves and share fantastic music with the click of the mouse. The worst aspect of social media is the fact anyone can have their say and do what they like.

 PHOTO CREDIT: @mxsh/Unsplash

I know how hard it would be to detect trolls and make sure they are banned but, with artists pushing themselves to the point of suicide (and beyond), does more need to be done?! I think anyone caught attacking artists need to be banned and, when we do see someone struggling, labels need to do more. It seems like, in the case of Jesy Nelson, she had to keep a lot of her hurt to herself; maybe fearing her career would be compromised if she was open. I do think there is too much pressure on artists to look a certain way and, if they are natural and like you and me, they are pushed down. It is odd to see real and natural people like Nelson attacked; people we can relate to and are closer to us than anyone in music. Is it a case of people forging their own self-loathing and insecurities onto artists? Maybe trolls want their artists to be plastic and super-skinny and, when we see deviation and something separate, they create hostility. The anonymity social media provides means there is no real down-side when it comes to abuse. I think platforms like Twitter need to be tougher. Charities like the Samaritans do sterling work; maybe messaging trolls and making them aware of the impact of their words would help them change their ways, perhaps? A lot of work is being done by social media companies to reduce trolling and abuse but only it only takes a few comments to make a huge impact.

 PHOTO CREDIT: @priscilladupreez/Unsplash

I do not think we understand the damage abuse can cause. Most of us do not face it but, even if you do and are thick-skinned, it still takes its toll. Artists are being trolled about their looks, weight and music and this should not go unchallenged. There have been articles published that ask how we can reduce trolling and protect people – from musicians to children – and ensure social media and the Internet is a safer and nicer space. Maybe, as I said, it is hard to police and enforce laws where anyone caught trolling is banned. Some might say that is severe and, as we are entitled to free speech, where do we draw the line – is it okay to attack people like Donald Trump and Piers Morgan (yes!) and not musicians. In a lot of cases, you get celebrities and politician stirring things and stepping out of line, but I guess we need to apply rules to those who abuse them. I think there is a big difference between attacking artists without provocation and the reaction controversial figures receive when they say something divisive or foolish. There are so many artists who do not come forward or speak out because of the pain or a feeling that, if they do, they might be judged. Trolls are, in essence, bullies - and it is not something that should be tolerated. I think we need to draw guidelines up when it comes to trolling because there is a gap between innocuous or misconstrued comments and plain offence. Let’s hope we will see fewer cases of trolling and abuse against musicians because, even if one is not aware, those words typed from the protection of a computer…  

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PHOTO CREDIT: @stefanspassov/Unsplash

CAN cut deep!

FEATURE: The Beatles’ Abbey Road at Fifty: Is This Album Their Finest Hour?

FEATURE:

 

The Beatles’ Abbey Road at Fifty

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IN THIS PHOTO: The Beatles in an outtake from the Abbey Road cover shot/PHOTO CREDIT: Iain Macmillan

Is This Album Their Finest Hour?

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BEFORE the fiftieth anniversary of Abbey Road

 PHOTO CREDIT: Iain Macmillan

I will put out a couple more features – this one included. On the actual day, I will try and get something online that sort of says it all; a feature that wraps everything together. I have already explored The Beatles’ final album (recorded not released) from various angles and, before I write a feature on the iconic cover, I want to be more general and ask whether Abbey Road is their finest moment. The pecking order does seem to change over time - and it is interesting to see which albums rise and fall depending on time. There was a time when Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was considered king. In fact, that album will always be in the top-three spaces but, if we look at the overall quality and memorability, can we say that 1967 release is their best? Certainly, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is important, iconic and hugely influential. I will talk about a few other Beatles albums (that could be seen as their best) but, according to reports, Abbey Road was not intended to be the last thing they recorded:

"And, in the end, the love you make is equal to the love you take," the Beatles harmonized on the penultimate song of their last album, Abbey Road. But a new tape shows the band wanted to add to the equation. The story of the band is well-known even to the most casual Beatlemaniac and the common mythology maintains the group went into the studio fully intending to record a proper farewell. But the tape, found by Mark Lewisohn, captures the band planning further output, according to The Guardian.

The tape was made Sept. 8, 1969, two weeks before Abbey Road was released. It captures a band meeting between John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison at Apple headquarters in London’s Savile Row. It was recorded for Ringo Starr, who was in the hospital getting checked for intestinal issues. The subject was the band's next album and a possible single for they could get ready in time for Christmas”.

It would have been fascinating to see a follow-up to Abbey Road; them stepping firmly into the 1970s. Maybe it was just idle chat and speculation on their part - but it is good to know the band were not broken and resigned to calling it quits after they finished Abbey Road. I digress. There are three other albums I could consider Beatles’ best – as could most fans, for that matter. I have argued how Abbey Road is their most important album, but I do think it is one of their very best. Definitely, when we look at the rankings, Abbey Road has always been very near the top; that album that rarely fluctuates and falls out of favour. I think that is down to the importance of the record and the fact it is such a complete, rich listen. The other albums that challenge for supremacy are Rubber Soul (1965), Revolver (1967) and The Beatles (‘The White Album’, 1968). I think, when it comes to quality and completeness, Revolver is the closest challenger to Abbey Road. The psychedelia and experimentation; the genius of the material and the fact The Beatles had hit this new vein.

Maybe the band were reacting to the times or were particularly in-sync…one cannot argue against the notion that Revolver is one of the greatest albums ever. From the breezy-yet-angered George Harrison salvo, Taxman, to the mind-blowing Tomorrow Never Knows, Revolver is masterful. Like Rubber Soul, there is such variety on offer. There are the jauntier efforts from McCartney (Got to Get You into My Life and Good Day Sunshine) but he always makes the heart stop with Eleanor Rigby and Here, There and Everywhere. Lennon is not to be outdone with I’m Only Sleeping, And Your Bird Can Sing and Tomorrow Never Knows. Ringo Starr’s drumming is phenomenal throughout and he provides a great vocal turn on Yellow Submarine – a song that effortlessly fits alongside Here, There and Everywhere shows The Beatles were not messing around! I cannot fault Revolver but, to me, Abbey Road, as of now, is higher in my mind; it seems more powerful and stronger. Maybe that is because we are preparing for its anniversary, but I find myself returning to Abbey Road for several reasons – I shall come to that soon. The Beatles’ eponymous double album of 1968 is another that, whilst strong and hugely impressive, does not fascinate me as much as Abbey Road. I love the fact The Beatles released this scattershot, sprawling album that has everything on it! The Beatles is an astonishing work that, again, contains so many moods and stories. I think there are too many weaker tracks and I need to be in a particular mood for the album.

I think the battles for the best Beatles album comes down to Revolver and Abbey Road. There are so many reasons why Abbey Road remains so intriguing and popular. In this feature, some great points are raised:

What is it that makes Abbey Road a masterpiece? Well, the breadth of the musical vision, the sheer scale of the band’s collective musical imagination, and the audacity of it all, at a time when The Beatles were coming to the end of their time together.

And then there are the two George Harrison masterpieces, ‘Here Comes the Sun’ and ‘Something’; both rank alongside the best songs the band ever recorded. Of the former, uDiscover’s Martin Chilton, writing in the Daily Telegraph, says “it’s almost impossible not to sing along to” – and he’s right.

‘Something’ is sublime, the perfect love song and John Lennon’s favourite track on the album. Often prior to performing it in concert, Frank Sinatra would describe it as “the greatest love song ever written” (while also erroneously saying it was his favourite “Lennon and McCartney composition”).

Abbey Road is far greater than the sum of its parts, a record that, more than any other Beatles album, stands the test of time when played as a whole. It is not an album to cherry-pick tracks on random play – this is one to put on, to luxuriate in ‘Come Together’, and to finish with a smile on your face as Paul sings about Her Majesty being “a pretty nice girl” on the closing, “hidden” track”.

Fans have their own reasons why Abbey Road is their favourite…but I think there are so many layers to the album. The songs on the first side – Come Together/Something/Maxwell’s Silver Hammer/Octopus’s Garden/I Want You (She’s So Heavy) – are so varied and you have the epic Something against the sillier Maxwell’s Silver Hammer; ending with the intense and hypnotic, I Want You (She’s So Heavy). If the first side is pretty special – and it is! – then the second tops it! Opening with Here Comes the Sun, you are beckoned in; Because takes you into a dreamy otherworld, whilst You Never Give Me Your Money starts the medley – or ‘The Long One’ as I have seen it called. This medley alone is a reason why Abbey Road remains so cherished and popular. Listen to how it flows from You Never Give Me Your Money to the completely different Sun King; it then changes gears for Mean Mr. Mustard before continuing with another Lennon composition, Polythene Pam. It is amazing how the band switch from the personal to ethereal; to the Lennon-written character songs and then back to McCartney’s personal/true song, She Came in Through the Bathroom Window – about a fan who actually tried to get into his home.  Macca took most of the credit for the side two medley and, to be fair, his fingerprints are more over Abbey Road than Lennon’s – who was involved in a crash around the time. 

The songs weave together sublimely - and they are all pretty short. There is more consistency for the second half of the medley (Macca’s songs taking prominence) and Golden Slumbers goes into Carry That Weight. The End is that brilliant (sort of) finale that has the immortal line: “And in the end/the love you take/is equal to the love/you make”. The End, ironically, gives us the first Ringo Starr drum solo - just as the band were spending the final days in a studio together. Her Majesty is a lovely hidden track and, at the time, hidden tracks were rare – Abbey Road has a lot of firsts and talking points. A brilliant album with two different sides, Abbey Road remains as compelling now as it did in 1969. I have read comments from people who feel the album sounds dated now and has lost its magic – I can never agree with that assertion! There is that ages-old debate as to which Beatles album is the best. I think Abbey Road edges Revolver, perhaps, as there is the quality of the music...AND the iconic cover! The fact there is a medley, a hidden track and, yes, the odd wobble (most of us skip past Maxwell’s Silver Hammer!) that makes it such an essential and interesting album. The fact of the matter is Abbey Road was the final time The Beatles played in the studio. It is the last big anniversary when we will have surviving Beatles in the world – their debut, Please Please Me, is seventy-five in 2038 and it would be optimistic to think Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr will be around then! – and Abbey Road keeps surprising you and offering new sides…fifty years after it was released into the world! Many will argue against Abbey Road being the best Beatles album but, as we prepare to celebrate its fiftieth anniversary on 26th September, we can all agree Abbey Road is a…  

 IN THIS PHOTO: The Beatles in an outtake from the Abbey Road cover shot/PHOTO CREDIT: Iain Macmillan

MAJESTIC swansong.

FEATURE: Sisters in Arms: An All-Female, Summer-Ready Playlist (Vol. XIII)

FEATURE:

 

 

Sisters in Arms

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IN THIS PHOTO: Sampa the Great/PHOTO CREDIT: Andy Hughes/NME 

An All-Female, Summer-Ready Playlist (Vol. XIII)

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IT is just over a wee until autumn starts…

 PHOTO CREDIT: Lilla Vargen

so this will be the penultimate summer playlist of 2019. The sun is out this weekend and it is a great opportunity to enjoy some great songs. I have collected together the best female-led tracks of the week – one or two are a little older than the last week – and I hope you enjoy. There is so much variation on show and exceptional quality; a real spread of music that gets into the head and lifts the spirits. This is another great week for music and one where you will be engrossed and hooked. Have a listen and I am sure you will agree there is much here to enjoy. As we bid farewell (almost) to summer, we are going out with…

A bang and a spark.

ALL PHOTOS (unless credited otherwise): Getty Images/Artists

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SIIGHTSShoulda Been

After Eden (ft. Yoga Girl)She’s a Church

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PHOTO CREDIT: Deb Fazin

Death Valley GirlsDream Cleaver

PHOTO CREDIT: Mats Bakken Photography

Ora the MoleculeWhen Earth Took a Breath

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Bianca BazinPerishing Heart

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Angel OlsenLark

PHOTO CREDIT: Jessica Challis

Lucy DacusDancing in the Dark

PHOTO CREDIT: Natalia Mantini

Kim GordonAir BnB

PHOTO CREDIT: @tomoneillphoto

Lilla VargenWhy Wait

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Au/RaStay Happy

Emily BurnsMy Town

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PHOTO CREDIT: Ying Ang

Sampa the GreatGrass Is Greener

Annie Taylor17 Days

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Gabrielle Aplin - Kintsugi

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Ella Henderson Glorious

Karen Harding, Wh0I Don’t Need Love

Claire ErnstEasy on You

Hailey WhittersDream, Girl

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Julia MichaelsIf You Need Me

Your SmithWild Wild Woman

PHOTO CREDIT: Andrew Benge

STRAIGHT GIRLUgly

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FKA twigs, Futureholy terrain

HalseyGraveyard

GRACEYEasy for You

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PHOTO CREDIT: @grace_pickering

RobinsonDon’t Say

Grace Ackerman - Blood Draw

Nina NesbittBlack & Blue

FEATURE: The September Playlist: Vol. 2: Fathers, Angels and an Air BnB

FEATURE:

 

The September Playlist

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IN THIS PHOTO: Green Day/PHOTO CREDIT: Press

Vol. 2: Fathers, Angels and an Air BnB

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THIS week is one where…

IN THIS PHOTO: Kim Gordon/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

some massive artists are mixing alongside some pretty cool contemporaries. In terms of the big-hitters, Kim Gordon, Green Day and Sam Fender are shouting proud; there is a collaboration from Ariana Grande, Miley Cyrus and Lana Del Rey; Angel Olsen, Hayden Thorpe and Charli XCX have released new material. It is a busy week and, as I say, there are some pretty cool artists who have brought some awesome material to the fore. To get the week kicking and lit, make sure you have a listen to the great assortment of songs! It is a top-quality mix and one that you need to have in your ears. The weather might not be reliable but, with some pretty epic tracks out this week, it will be…

IN THIS PHOTO: Sam Fender/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

THE least of your worries!  

ALL PHOTOS/IMAGES (unless credited otherwise): Getty Images/Artists

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Green Day Father of All…

 IN THIS PHOTO: Miley Cyrus/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Ariana Grande, Miley Cyrus, Lana Del Rey - Don’t Call Me Angel (Charlie’s Angels)

PHOTO CREDIT: Olivia Bee

Kim Gordon Air BnB

Sam Fender You’re Not the Only One

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Lucy Dacus Dancing in the Dark

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PHOTO CREDIT: Yvan Fabing

Camila Cabello Liar

Angel Olsen Lark

Charli XCX White Mercedes 

PHOTO CREDIT: Olivia Rose

Michael Kiwanuka - You Ain't the Problem

Hayden Thorpe Full Beam

PHOTO CREDIT: Vanessa Heins

Leif Vollebekk - Transatlantic Flight

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FKA twigs, Future holy terrain 

The Snuts - Maybe California

IN THIS PHOTO: Mahalia 

Mahalia (ft. Ella Mai) - What You Did

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PHOTO CREDIT: Howard Wise

Moon Duo Eternal Shore

Metronomy Sex Emoji

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Wallows - Trust Fall

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Belle & Sebastian Safety Valve

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Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds - A Dream Is All I Need to Get By

IN THIS PHOTO: slowthai

Denzel Curry, slowthai Psycho

PHOTO CREDIT: Lauren Maccabee

Sports Team Fishing

Dave Professor X

PHOTO CREDIT: Andy Hughes/NME

Sampa the Great Leading Us Home

PHOTO CREDIT: Alex Lake/The Observer

Kate Tempest People’s Faces (Streatham Version)

Pumarosa Heaven

PHOTO CREDIT: Michal Czerwonka for The New York Times

Weezer The End of the Game

Au/Ra Stay Happy

PHOTO CREDIT: Eric Ray Davidson

Halsey Graveyard

Des’ree Don’t Be Afraid

PHOTO CREDIT: Chris Almeida

AJ Tracey Elastic

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PHOTO CREDIT: Ejiro Dafé

Kojey Radical Cashmere Tears

Wildwood Kin All on Me

FEATURE: That De La Soul Acronym: Could the Daisy Age Grow Again?

FEATURE:

 

That De La Soul Acronym

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PHOTO CREDIT: Janette Beckman

Could the Daisy Age Grow Again?

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I think there are periods in music that do not…

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IN THIS PHOTO: De La Soul, circa 1990/PHOTO CREDIT: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

get the credit they deserve. Some movements come and go; others sort of stumble on for years but, when it comes to the Daisy Age (the term was coined by De La Soul: it stands for ‘DA Inner Sound Y’all’), I think we need to re-examine; people do not understand how influential the Daisy Age was. There are those who says, in the late-1980s, it distilled Hip-Hop and provided a too flowery, soft and jokey version. At a time when we had bands such as Public Enemy and N.W.A. penning these fired-up, political and vastly important songs, there was a movement emerging that took a more peace-and-love, pacifist approach; the need for us all to come together and create some love. My mind is on the Daisy Age because there is an excellent compilation available that brings together some of the finest tracks from the time. It is a fascinating period of music but, as Bob Stanley writes, the Daisy Age bloomed for a brief time:

It wasn’t really a movement, barely even a moment, but the Daisy Age was an ethos that briefly permeated pop, R&B and hip hop. The name was coined by Long Island trio De La Soul; they claimed D.A.I.S.Y. stood for “da inner sound, y’all”, but then De La Soul said a lot of things. Playfulness and good humour were central to their 1989 debut album, which cast a long, multi-coloured shadow. The 90s, it promised, would be a lot easier going than the 80s.

In Britain, the timing for De La Soul’s “3 Feet High And Rising” couldn’t have been better. The acid house explosion of 1988 would lead to a radical breaking down of musical barriers in 1989. Just 18 months earlier, snobbery had been so rife that Bomb The Bass’ ‘Beat Dis’ was faked as a US import (pressed in the States, then imported back) to get club play; by the summer of ’89, however, something as previously unhip as Chris Rea’s ‘Josephine’ could become a dancefloor hit and indie veterans Primal Scream would be reborn as space-seeking Sun Ra initiates and still taken seriously. Ecstasy was largely responsible, of course, and its associated look – loose clothing, dayglo colours, smiley faces – chimed with the positivity of rising New York rap acts the Jungle Brothers and De La Soul, both at the heart of a growing collective called Native Tongues.

What was so new about De La Soul’s sound? Previously, sample material for hip hop had been almost exclusively taken from 60s and 70s soul and funk, especially from James Brown and his extended family – Bobby Byrd, Maceo Parker, Lyn Collins, the stuff of purists. The freewheeling collage of “3 Feet High And Rising” gleefully raided the non-U catalogues of Billy Joel and Hall & Oates; soul heroes Wilson Pickett and the Mad Lads were now abutting such unlikely material as the Turtles’ ‘You Showed Me’ and French Linguaphone lessons. The Invitations’ sweet, Drifters-like ‘Written On The Wall’ provided the hook for De La Soul’s first single ‘Plug Tunin’’ which, along with follow-up ‘Potholes In My Lawn’, referenced “the daisy age”. With the album including a cover of Bob Dorough’s ‘Three Is The Magic Number’ from Schoolhouse Rock – a song every American kid knew from Sunday morning TV – the essence of Sesame Street was everywhere.

By 1989 hip hop had made major inroads in Britain with rock fans (via Run DMC) and pubescent teens (the Beastie Boys), while NME writers had voted Public Enemy’s “It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back” the best album of 1988. Still, it had an air of exclusivity, with Tim Westwood its mirthless UK gatekeeper. De La Soul were also fans of Public Enemy, the Beastie Boys and Run DMC; they were fans in general, and threw their love of music into the blender, giving more time to melodies and mind-expanding samples while most contemporary rap records still revolved around the biggest sounding beats.

Above all, De La Soul were welcoming. They had grown up with their parents’ eclectic musical taste, a TV culture grab bag, and black radio stations that played Hall & Oates and Steely Dan alongside the Spinners and Brass Construction. They had also attended the same high school as producer and Stetsasonic member Prince Paul who, intimidatingly, was two years above them. He knew their faces but it wasn’t until he heard a demo of ‘Plug Tunin’’ that he realised they were all on the same wavelength; working with their rough sketch, Paul added a sample from Billy Joel’s ‘Stiletto’ into the mix.

As hip hop rapidly became a bigger commercial concern, rights owners smelt money and – for the rest of the 90s – made sample clearance unfeasibly expensive. Robbed of their pick-and-mix approach, some Daisy Age-era acts moved towards consciousness and a jazz-leaning live feel, which down the line would lead to the rise of Arrested Development, and beyond them the Fugees and the Roots; meanwhile, on the West Coast, the gut-churning violence and misogyny of Dr Dre’s “The Chronic” took rap to a whole new commercial level. Neither direction, sadly, would involve much use of Sesame Street, Turtles samples, or magic numbers”.

There are some interesting points Stanley raises. Although the literal Daisy Age movement faded relatively quickly, you can feel its influence and importance. It mutated into other genres and inspired a whole wave of artists. Maybe the Daisy Age couldn’t last through the 1990s as it was not as explosive and charged as traditional Hip-Hop; maybe the modern version of the Summer of Love, in Hip-Hop form, was viewed with cynicism.

 IN THIS PHOTO: Brand Nubian/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Certainly, as genres like Grunge took off, Daisy Age music seemed to be out of step. I have a lot of love for that time and pioneers such as De La Soul. Just compare their debut, 3 Feet High and Rising in 1989 with albums such as Pixies’ Doolittle. There were fun and uplifting records in 1989 from the likes of Beastie Boys (Paul’s Boutique), Madonna (Like a Prayer) and The Stone Roses (The Stone Roses) …but nothing like 3 Feet High and Rising! I love the fact artists could offer a colourful, sample-rich alternative to the beat-heavy music of the time. Now, when we are more divided and tense than ever, is there anything in modern music that provides much relief and lift? There is some great Hip-Hop and Rap around right now – nothing as potent and exceptional as we saw in the late-1980s -, but there is little to contract the heaviness and truth. That might sound weird, but we do not a lot more joy and togetherness. Again, will the modern age sniff at a scene that promotes harmony and humour?! Maybe so. One reason why a new Daisy Age might struggle to blossom is because of one of the bedrocks of the original movement: samples. Look at some of the artists on the Daisy Age compilation – A Tribe Called Quest, Brand Nubian and Queen Latifah -, and there is such richness and layers! One of the problems, even back then, was getting clearance to use samples.

Could a Daisy Age exist now; a time when it is so difficult to afford samples and get that legal clearance? This article from 2013 in The Atlantic posits a link between a decline in Hip-Hop’s standard and the diminishing role of samples:

It’s notable, for instance, that at the same time sampling was curbed by new copyright enforcement, we also witnessed the sunset of rap’s “golden age,” a time when dropping socially or politically engaged lyrics didn’t automatically relegate artists to “the underground.”  As someone who studies and teaches about hip hop (and who’s been listening to the music for 25 years), I'm not sure that’s a coincidence.  After all, sampling provided an important engagement with musical and political history, a connection that was interrupted by Grand Upright and the cases after it, coinciding with a growing disconnect between rap music and a sense of social responsibility.

That’s not to say sampling always resulted in the lyrics that educated, even during the “golden age.”  The Beastie Boys’ 1989 album Paul’s Boutique, a sampling classic, wasn’t exactly concerned with social edification.  But as Hank Shocklee, pioneering member of Public Enemy’s production team The Bomb Squad, told me, having open access to samples often did significantly impact artists’ lyrical content:  “A lot of the records that were being sampled were socially conscious, socially relevant records, and that has a way of shaping the lyrics that you’re going to write in conjunction with them.”  When you take sampling out of the equation, Shocklee said, much of the social consciousness disappears because, as he put it, “artists’ lyrical reference point only lies within themselves”.

Whilst it might be difficult to have quite the same sound as back then, I do feel there is a chance for revival. Rather than go through estates and artists to get clearance for samples, we have technology now to create so many different, disparate sounds. I think there is a general lack of positivity in modern music and, in my view, the Daisy Age’s greatest impact was promoting a more affirmative, enriching style of music. I think it will be gradual, but there is a definite window right now; maybe a combination of the Daisy Age and the second Summer of Love, both taking shape around the same sort of time (roughly) – even if the scenes in which they were representing were very different. I listen back to the music of the Daisy Age (dates vary to exactly how long the movement lasted) and there is not this hopeless nostalgia: rather, there is this real feeling that, in 2019, a modified replication could survive. Whilst we might have to compromise in terms of samples used, the spirit and infectiousness of Daisy Age songs remains to this day. I do not think there is anything like this happening in Hip-Hop today – the genre is weaker because of that. Whilst there are definite benefits of re-purposing the Daisy Age for a today that is need of sunshine, there are pitfalls and obstacles.

Its founders, De La Soul, soon had to distance themselves from the Daisy Age and this image of them trying to reviewing the 1960s’ vibe – their second album, De La Soul Is Dead, of 1991 continues its skits and samples, but extinguish notions of the Daisy Age and mainstream Hip-Hop. In this feature/interview, we learn why De La Soul quickly moved away from their debut album’s sound:

 “De La Soul’s dreams came at a price. Aiming to be more thoughtful than gangsta, the trio had coined the term Daisy Age, short for ‘DA Inner Sound Y’all’. With the Daisy Age name and the debut album’s dayglo floral sleeve, it was quickly commonly accepted that Posdnuos, Trugoy The Dove and Maseo were all about flower power. “Daisy Age was about opening everything up,” says Maseo. “But it overshadowed our music, because we were interpreted as wanting to copy a certain time in the 60s. That whole Woodstock thing, it was everything we knew nothing about. I appreciate how and why it happened, but it wasn’t the correct interpretation of our music’s soul. De La has always been about hip-hop. It’s not about daisies or the hippy era. We were doing hip-hop our way”.

I can understand, perhaps, why De La Soul wanted to move on from their debut, but one cannot deny the impact and effect it had. Artists like them played with sound and textures; they filtered into the 1990s and undoubtedly had an impact on so many other artists. I think music is weaker for lacking anything as captivating as the Daisy Age. I think it would be possible to rekindle some of the flame. Listening to the new Daisy Age collection and one is still hooked by the songs. They bring something out of us, make us feel better and resonate deep. It would be great to return, however briefly, to…

A better time.

FEATURE: Sitting Up Straight: Past Glories and Future Promise: The Return of Supergrass

FEATURE:

 

Sitting Up Straight

IN THIS PHOTO: Supergrass are in no mood to slow down this year/PHOTO CREDIT: Tim Oxley

Past Glories and Future Promise: The Return of Supergrass

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I don’t know about you…

but I always get a bit tense when a band announces they are reforming after a time apart. For years and years we have seen popular bands return, and there are few reunions that actually get you pumped. One always wonders why they do it and, when it doesn’t work, you are left disappointed. The Spice Girls recently reformed and are playing gigs together and it seems like new material is a long way off. Even if they do get into the studio, the work they produce now will be miles away from their early, Girl Power stuff – and one wonders whether anyone would want a more mature and less exciting band. The same could be said of Supergrass. I will talk about their debut, I Should Coco, in a bit but, when thinking about this epic band, this sense of fun and energy defines their best work. They are a band who I could see recapturing (to a degree) their classic sound if they stepped back into the studio. They played in London on 9th September and, in 2020, they will perform some more dates. There is also a career-spanning box-set on the cards and it is an exciting time. In this article, we learn more about Supergrass’ plans:

After reuniting for a surprise show this past Friday (September 6), Supergrass have announced an official reunion tour and a new greatest hits collection. The Gaz Coombes-fronted group will release Supergrass: The Strange Ones 1994 - 2008 on January 24, 2020, via BMG. The deluxe box set, which arrives nearly 25 years after the band’s debut I Should Coco, includes the band’s six albums, as well as bonus CDs with unreleased live material, B-sides, remixes, rarities, demos, and more. The Strange Ones also features unreleased tracks, including the band’s cover of the Police’s “Next to You,” which you can hear below.

In an interview with Andrew Trendell for NME, Gaz Coombes said, “We’ve been talking about it for a while. I remember talking to Danny about on the phone maybe a year ago. We knew that 2020 was coming up and that would make it 25 years since the beginning and 10 years since the split.” He added, “We just wanted to play and see what happens. It felt great

I can understand why Gaz Coombes, Danny Goffey; Mick Quinn and Rob Coombes want to play again: they sort of vowed not to after their ‘last’ gig in 2010 but, as time has passed, perhaps some issues have been laid to rest. In this interview with The Times, the band talked about their early gigs and, indeed, whether there were tensions that led to their hiatus:

Back to eating one’s words, though. Gaz says he was “half right, half wrong” when he gave those quotes. “The cashing-in thing isn’t important — it’s not necessarily about that,” he explains. “This just feels like the right time, whereas three, four years ago, it didn’t. Eight years ago, it didn’t. However, if we didn’t reform for 2020, I wasn’t sure it would ever happen.”

“It’s going to be really fun to play all the songs again,” Goffey says, beaming, summing up the band’s return. “We have such good memories of playing them in different countries. Also, we’ve had 10 years off, so we remember all the good times, when crowds were going mad, rather than bits that were a pain in the arse.”

“Those early American tours shaped me in a powerful way,” Gaz says when I ask for his fondest memories. “They certainly shaped your clothes sense,” Goffey interrupts. Gaz laughs. “My wife came to visit in San Francisco after two and a half weeks of me being away,” he says. “I’d put weight on and was dressed like a stoned golfer. She was, like, ‘Who are you?’ But those tours were incredible — bombing it around the country... I remember songs soaring across a big field…

Goffey sighs. “Maybe we were a bit burnt out and needed a break.”

Were there blazing rows? “Brooding rows,” Goffey says quietly. Gaz adds: “I just remember not enjoying going into the studio, which is heartbreaking.” His brother takes it up a notch: “I drove two hours to the sessions. By the time I got to the studio, I was spent.” Goffey frowns. “I lay in bed drawing dark pictures in my notepad,” he says, and it doesn’t feel like a joke. “Really strange, violent pictures.” Gaz looks at him. “You should’ve called”.

I hope the band can remain together for a long time and, who knows, they might be back in the studio! They are saying, at the moment, they are touring and there are no immediate plans to record. I do hope we see more than reunion gigs because, looking back, Supergrass have soundtrack many of our lives. My first exposure to them, like many, was their incredible 1995 debut, I Should Coco.

Whilst I am a bigger fan of their 1997 follow-up, In It for the Money, I Should Coco is an extraordinary work. The sheer infectiousness of the band added gold and unique edge to the Britpop scene of 1995. Maybe they see themselves as being outside that circle - but one cannot deny the care-free attitude of the album; the quality of the tunes and the chemistry in the band. One is blown away by the vitality, energy and catchiness of I Should Coco. In this review from AllMusic, they talk about the energy of the album:

Tearing by at a breakneck speed, I Should Coco is a spectacularly eclectic debut by Supergrass, a trio barely out of their teens. Sure, the unbridled energy of the album illustrates that the band is young, yet what really illustrates how young the bandmembers are is how they borrow from their predecessors. Supergrass treat the Buzzcocksthe BeatlesElton JohnDavid BowieBlur, and Madness as if they were all the same thing -- they don't make any distinction between what is cool and what isn't, they just throw everything together. Consequently, the jittery "Caught by the Fuzz" slams next to the music hall rave-up "Mansize Rooster," the trippy psychedelia of "Sofa (Of My Lethargy)," the heavy stomp of "Lenny," and the bona fide teen anthem "Alright." I Should Coco is the sound of adolescence, but performed with a surprising musical versatility that makes the record's exuberant energy all the more infectious”.

That album turns twenty-five next year, and it will be great to see it celebrated. Two Supergrass albums stand out to me: In it for the Money and 1999’s Supergrass. The former was a confident follow-up to their amazing debut. There was a lot of pressure and expectation on the band in 1997 and, although Britpop was dying away, Supergrass responded with an album that is as mature and layered as it is free and alive. I prefer In It for the Money because the songs remain longer and hit harder. Richard III has that great build-up and release; a raucous chorus and an afterglow that lasts for ages. Tonight is insatiable and swaggering whereas Going Out nods eschewing nightlife and not submitting to the party lifestyle. That track is my favourite of theirs and, with its Beatles touches and incredible sound, it shows what a varied album In It for the Money is! I was in high-school when that album came out and, like so many classic albums of the day, it was shared among friends; we dissected them and bonded over these diamond tunes. Late in the Day and It’s Not Me showed new angles to the band. This was a young and popular group, but they were not relying on a single tone or emotion. They were deep and reflective, too. I cannot get enough of In It for the Money and, as the bands return to the stage after so long, the chance to hear songs from that album…I will have to get myself along in 2020!

I will wrap things up but, before doing so, I want to bring in the band’s third album. If some artists have a ‘difficult second album’, Supergrass had this problem with their third. The feel is calmer than their first two and, after touring so much and with the music scene changed vastly in the four years since their debut, Supergrass is a more complex and settled affair. There are some filler tracks – Born Again, Mama & Papa – but I actually like the fact they embraced something darker here. Your Love and Mary are intense and sounds very different to stuff on I Should Coco. Moving talks about the turbulence and constant stop-start of touring, whereas Shotover Hill and Eon allowed the band to expand, elongate and create something more elegant and expansive. Jesus Came from Outta Space and Pumping on Your Stereo retain that cheekiness and raw spirit but, on the whole, Supergrass is a more challenging album. Reviews were a little less positive than on previous outings. I think the negativity is unfair because, as Select write, Supergrass has many brilliant moments:

But the alternating stomping and strings of opener 'Moving' have already signalled amplified ambitions which are then fulfilled by 'Shotover Hill' and the less familiar searching moods of 'Eon'. With drums booming regally and guitars spiralling vacantly like early-'70s Pink Floyd (an influence reprised on the dreamscape ballad 'Born Again' and the Syd Barret-esque 'Far Away'), this is Supergrass in full widescreen effect.

The embracing of orchestras and prog might be the stuff of Proper Rock cliche, but there's no sign of leaden hoariness here. Indeed, their revelling in freaky new sounds as ends in themselves puts Supergrass close to dance music's more edgy innovators.

Despite its relaxed, reefer-led moments, 'Supergrass' never strays far from being irresistibly alive, like the growling psyche-pop of 'Mary' and the Baby Bowie silliness of 'Jesus Came From Outer Space' (its 'The Pope Smokes Dope'- levels of wit counteracted by a staggeringly bullish bridge).

Blissfully oblivious to post-rock phased clavinet solos and coverage in Wire magazine, this is the sound of a band simply picking up their gear and getting on with making music that's a bit sexy, a bit retro, a bit preposterous and a bit cool. About as complex as a mousetrap, 'Supergrass' works like a dream. And, on those terms it must surely count as something of a masterpiece”.

I had followed the band since the start of my high-school days, and I was entering sixth form college when they released their eponymous third – it was a nervous time for me where I was saying goodbye to old friends. Whereas I Should Coco and In It for the Money were scoring my high-school moments and more celebratory times, Supergrass helped give me clarity and comfort at a period of my life where I was not sure what would happen next. Somehow, the music gave me strength, and the album remains so important because of that. Supergrass would win a lot of critics back with their exceptional 2002 album, Life on Other Planets, but Supergrass remains a tricky album for some. If the band had repeated themselves for their third, I don’t think I would have been so invested. For people like me, the reunification of this life-affirming band allows us to get excited but, in a good way, reminiscence and give thanks to a band who gave so many people strength and happiness. We have missed them so much and it is wonderful having them back in our midst. Let’s hope that they remained gelled and focused because it would be sad to see them go away again!

Not only do we look to the future and get to see them back on the stage - but there is that great retrospective collection to enjoy. It is a wonderful time for Supergrass fans right now. In this interview with NME, Gaz Coombes talked about the forthcoming set:

It’s pretty definitive, man. We’ve worked on it a lot. It’s a really band-driven piece as opposed to a retrospective record company release without the band’s knowledge. All of the rarities and uncovered stuff has been found by us rooting through cardboard boxes in our basements and finding mini discs and cassettes. It’s been cool to have a few months to just explore all of that stuff. God knows how we got anything done because there’s insane amounts of nonsense on all of these tapes of us just making weird little songs and jokey things. The box set is going to be pretty comprehensive, man – it’s got everything. I’ve just seen it all laid out and it looks brilliant”.

You can pre-order a copy of the career-spanning opus and, if it has been a while since you’ve dipped your toes into Supergrass’ water, make sure you do! I have mentioned a few of their albums but, in reality, all of their albums are wonderful! They made a big impact on their arrival; at a time when Britpop was raging and, up until their last studio album in 2008 (Diamond Hoo Ha), they have lit up the music world. Having Supergrass back on stage after so many years allows us to, once more, enjoy timeless songs from a…

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 IMAGE CREDIT: Supergrass

TRULY sensational group.

FEATURE: "Can You Tell Me How to Get?/How to Get to Sesame Street" Sesame Street at Fifty: The Vital Role of Music on This Iconic Show

FEATURE:

 

“Can You Tell Me How to Get?/How to Get to Sesame Street”

IN THIS PHOTO: Patti Labelle appeared in Season 30 of Sesame Street/PHOTO CREDIT: Richard Termine

Sesame Street at Fifty: The Vital Role of Music on This Iconic Show

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ALTHOUGH I am not old enough to remember…

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IN THIS PHOTO: Itzhak Perlman playing alongside Telly on the show’s twelfth season/PHOTO CREDIT: Sesame Workshop

the day Sesame Street first aired, I did watch it as a child (even though it has always been more popular in the U.S. compared to the U.K.). On 10th November, 1969, this new, fascinating educational show arrived. The show mixes sketches, live action and puppetry and was created by Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Morrissett. The effectiveness of Sesame Street is the way it delivers its education and instruction. Rather than have a dry and clinical show that looks like those awful documentaries we had to watch at school, Sesame Street utilises humour, fun and a sense of accessibility – all topped off by Jim Henson’s Muppets. The show aired to high praise and viewing figures back in 1969. It has aired on the U.S.’s national public television producer PBS since its inception and HBO started broadcasting Sesame Street from 16th January, 2016 (they broadcast first-run and the same episode comes to PBS months later). Just look at the shows we have on British T.V. that are aimed at children. I am not sure what there was prior to 1969 but it is clear Sesame Street has had a massive affect.

IN THIS PHOTO: Stevie Wonder appeared on Sesame Street with Grover to perform Superstitious and a Sesame Street Jam in 1973/PHOTO CREDIT: Echoes/Redferns

The show proved you could hold the attention of children and did not need to lie or pander. Through colour, song and engaging characters, Sesame Street was an instant hit! The fact that it remains to this day - although it feels and looks quite a bit different – is deeply impressive; it has not become digital and, importantly, not lost its heart and soul. I will talk about the musical aspect of the show but, before then, I want to bring in some information regarding the show’s rise and how it responded to controversy:

According to writer Michael Davis, by the mid-1970s Sesame Street the show had become "an American institution". The cast and crew expanded during this time, with emphasis on the hiring of women crew members and the addition of minorities to the cast.  

The show's success continued into the 1980s. In 1981, when the federal government withdrew its funding, CTW turned to, and expanded, other revenue sources, including its magazine division, book royalties, product licensing, and foreign broadcast income. Sesame Street's curriculum has expanded to include more affective topics such as relationships, ethics, and emotions. Many of the show's storylines were taken from the experiences of its writing staff, cast, and crew, most notably, the 1982 death of Will Lee—who played Mr. Hooper—and the marriage of Luis and Maria in 1988.

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IN THIS PHOTO: R.E.M. (Peter Buck, Michael Stipe and Mike Mills) stuck around the set after their Sesame Street taping, one of the show’s songwriters has said/PHOTO CREDIT: Richard Termine/Sesame Workshop

By the end of the 1990s, Sesame Street faced societal and economic challenges, including changes in viewing habits of young children, competition from other shows, the development of cable television, and a drop in ratings. After the turn of the 21st century, Sesame Street made major structural changes. For example, starting in 2002, its format became more narrative and included ongoing storylines. After its thirtieth anniversary in 1999, due to the popularity of the Muppet Elmo the show also incorporated a popular segment known as "Elmo's World". Upon its fortieth anniversary in 2009, the show received a Lifetime Achievement Emmy at the 36th Daytime Emmy Awards.

In late 2015, in response to "sweeping changes in the media business", and as part of a five-year programming and development deal, premium television service HBO began airing first-run episodes of Sesame Street. Episodes became available on PBS stations and websites nine months after they aired on HBO. The deal allowed Sesame Workshop to produce more episodes, about 35 new episodes per season, compared to the 18 episodes per season it aired previously, and provided the opportunity to create a spinoff series with the Sesame Street Muppets and a new educational series.

Sesame Street was not without its detractors, however. The state commission in Mississippi, where Henson was from, operated the state's PBS member station; in May 1970 it voted to not air Sesame Street because of its "highly [racially] integrated cast of children" which "the commission members felt ... Mississippi was not yet ready for".[128] According to Children and Television, Lesser's account of the development and early years of Sesame Street, there was little criticism of the show in the months following its premiere, but it increased at the end of its first season and beginning of the second season.[129][note 9] Historian Robert W. Morrow speculated that much of the early criticism, which he called "surprisingly intense",[1] stemmed from cultural and historical reasons in regards to, as he put it, "the place of children in American society and the controversies about television's effects on them".[1]

According to Morrow, the "most important" studies finding negative effects of Sesame Street were conducted by educator Herbert A. Sprigle and psychologist Thomas D. Cook during its first two seasons.[130] Social scientist and Head Start founder Urie Bronfenbrenner criticized the show for being too wholesome.[131] Psychologist Leon Eisenberg saw Sesame Street's urban setting as "superficial" and having little to do with the problems confronted by the inner-city child.[132] Head Start director Edward Zigler was probably Sesame Street's most vocal critic in the show's early years.[133]

In spite of their commitment to multiculturalism, the CTW experienced conflicts with the leadership of minority groups, especially Latino groups and feminists, who objected to Sesame Street's depiction of Latinos and women.[134] The CTW took steps to address their objections. By 1971, the CTW hired Hispanic actors, production staff, and researchers, and by the mid-1970s, Morrow reported that "the show included Chicano and Puerto Rican cast members, films about Mexican holidays and foods, and cartoons that taught Spanish words".[135] As The New York Times has stated, creating strong female characters "that make kids laugh, but not...as female stereotypes" has been a challenge for the producers of Sesame Street.[136] According to Morrow, change regarding how women and girls were depicted on Sesame Street occurred slowly.[137] As more female Muppet performers like Camille BonoraFran BrillPam ArcieroCarmen OsbahrStephanie D'AbruzzoJennifer Barnhart, and Leslie Carrara-Rudolph were hired and trained, stronger female characters like Rosita and Abby Cadabby were created.[138][139]”.

Music is why I am here and, forming a big part of its appeal, songs and music are key. Not only does the show have its characters performing tracks but, through the years, Sesame Street has seen some famous musicians drop by to lend a hand. I will include as many as I can hear but from Destiny’s Child through to Paul Simon, there have been numerous memorable musical moments!

Not only do the songs delight children and show that their world can interact with this make-believe street, but adults are given the chance to see artists we know and love step into this wonderful, warm environment. I can imagine the thrill of performing on the show and how much it means to artists. Whether the artist is singing one of their own songs or something instructional, the fun and joy they express is infectious.  I will bring in article from The New York Times from last month that talked about the music on the show and how it comes together. It is not a case of these big artists turning up and singing songs and that is it. There are composers, many different layers and lots of people behind the scenes that create the background music, tracks and feel of the show. I think the musical element of Sesame Street is one of the most powerful as it brings alive numbers, letters and lessons for children.

It also shows that these well-known artists can step into a different environment and still look pretty cool. It is that credibility and sense of cool that means Sesame Street has lasted for fifty years and drawn in generations of children and adults alike. The article from The New York Times is fascinating; I have just brought in a few sections that explores the musical aspect of the show:

Since its inception in 1969, the public television show has redefined what it means to teach children through TV, with music as its resounding voice. Before “Sesame Street,” it wasn’t even clear that you could do that; once the series began, as a radical experiment that joined educational research and social idealism with the lunacy of puppets and the buoyancy of advertising jingles, it proved that kids are very receptive to a grammar lesson wrapped in a song.

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IN THIS PHOTO: Chance the Rapper in T Is for Theater with Cookie Monster in 2019/PHOTO CREDIT: Sesame Workshop

Big-name stars lined up to make guest appearances that have become the stuff of legend (Stevie Wonder and Grover; Loretta Lynn and the Count; Smokey Robinson and a marauding letter U). And long before inclusion was a curriculum goal, “Sesame Street” made a point to showcase Afro-Caribbean rhythms, operatic powerhouses, Latin beats, Broadway showstoppers and bebop alongside its notably diverse cast.

Music on “Sesame” functioned in three ways: as backing tracks for animation and film clips (a lonely orangutan looking for a zoo playmate, say); as live performances by well-known guest artists; and as songs for the human actors and Muppets to sing. Raposo, who loved Jelly Roll Morton and Chopin, fado and klezmer, wrote “C is for Cookie” — Henson originally developed Cookie Monster for snack commercials — and “Bein’ Green,” which took on extra poignancy when it was performed by Lena Horne and later Ray Charles, who told puppeteers that he identified with the song’s message about getting comfortable in your own skin, whatever the shade.

And as the “Sesame” universe expanded, it pulled more and more major musical talent into its orbit. The jazz musician Toots Thielemans, who performed with Benny Goodman, Ella Fitzgerald and Charlie Parker, played harmonica on the theme song. Grace Slick provided vocals for animated counting sequences. The guitarist in the first “Sesame” traveling band was Carlos Alomar, who toured with James Brown and then wrote the riff for David Bowie’s “Fame.” Alomar’s replacement, who was 19 or so and showed up at his audition with a Muppet-esque green-tinged Afro, was Nile Rodgers. It was his first real paying gig as an artist.

Bursting into tears is also common. Tracy Chapman needed a break to compose herself during her 1998 performance; Gloria Estefan, who connected with Sonia, Luis and Maria, the show’s trailblazing Latino characters, “cried when she walked in, because she said she was able to see herself and identify with somebody on TV,” said Carmen Osbahr, who performed alongside her as the Spanish-speaking Muppet Rosita.

After a song has lyrics, Sherman and his team score it. Brevity and repetition are key; “Sesame” songs are mostly just verse and chorus, but they’re tuned for catchiness. “You try to make the verse a hook, and then the chorus even more earwormy, if possible,” Sherman said. Demos go to producers and artists for approval and production suggestions, but they must also pass the ultimate litmus test: his two daughters, now 6 and 8.

“They’re very honest, and if they aren’t humming it or singing it, I will usually throw it away and write it again,” he said.

I will not be able to cram every big artist into this feature, but we have seen everyone from Jason Mraz and Elvis Costello step into Sesame Street and provide some musical nourishment. I love the fact that the artists included cover Jazz, Pop; Soul, Rock and pretty much everything between the cracks. If it was all mainstream Pop artists or one particular sound, I do not think the show would reach as far and resonate the way it does. Multiculturalism and diversity is key to Sesame Street and it is wonderful the show embraces characters and performers of all races and backgrounds. Look at other long-running shows like The Simpsons and how they employ music and musicians. Popular culture has ways been at the forefront of Sesame Street’s success and endurance. This feature from NPR goes into more detail:

 “From 1969 to 2019, the music of Sesame Street has aimed to educate young audiences. Sesame Street's central educational goal has held steady over the years, but its sound has not. What Sherman describes as a vaudeville-esque sound in the earliest seasons of the 1960s and '70s shifted into genres more contemporary to the decades that followed. In recent seasons, guest stars like Nick Jonas and will.i.am have performed Sesame Street originals on the show.

"I think that's what Sesame Street has done successfully, is sort of, at least sonically, change with the times," Sherman says of the show's continuously evolving musical style. To keep educating viewers, the music of the show has to adapt to their changing taste of the audience. "I think Rosemarie would tell you that our biggest thing is about making sure, at least from a song standpoint, that the kids can remember what we're trying to teach," he says.

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PHOTO CREDIT: Sesame Workshop

Truglio does, indeed, echo this point. When she hears a proposed song for the show, she listens carefully for potential auditory appeal to children. "It's got to be appealing and engaging, because without appeal and engagement, we can't teach," she says. "So we are going to be listening for that, and making sure that it's relevant.

Sherman and Truglio take such measures of the show's ability to connect with young viewers through music very seriously. If the basic sound of the music appeals to children watching the program, then the lyrics are much more likely to impart the valuable lessons they carry.

"Our mission on Sesame Street is to create content to help kids grow smarter, stronger and kinder," Truglio says. "It's a huge responsibility because we want to make sure that we assess later and we see learning impact".

As a music journalist and someone who grew up around so many terrific artists, I think Sesame Street is just as informative and important as any streaming service and current form of marketing; so in tune with modern culture as it is! That may sound extreme, but the face of music is changing and how we digest it now is very different to how children would have experienced music back when Sesame Street started. I think the show will always be essential because it brings music to life in a way other shows and formats cannot. I wanted to bring in this article from Billboard that collected together some very important people; they discussed their role and connection with Sesame Street:

Christopher Cerf, editor-in-chief of books, records, and toys division, Children’s Television Workshop; (1970-1979); composer-songwriter (1973-1999) 
Joe Raposo, the first musical director, decided very early there would not be one music style. We wanted kids to hear all different music: R&B, opera, show tunes, folk, world music.

Dr. Rosemarie Truglio, senior vp, curriculum and content for Sesame Workshop
From the beginning, Sesame was innovative for using music to teach curriculum goals. “C Is for Cookie"? That's a literacy moment.

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IN THIS PHOTO: NSYNC on Season 31 of Sesame Street/PHOTO CREDIT: Jen Lombardo

Caroll Spinney, Big Bird; Oscar The Grouch

I got the job when I was 35. I didn’t think of myself as a singer, but Jim Henson expected I would sing, so I didn’t get all fussy about it. I can carry a tune.

Sonia Manzano, Maria (1971-2015) 

Everybody had to sing on the show.

Bob McGrath, Bob

As soon as I started singing on Sesame Street, I got calls from symphonies to do family pops concerts. It's a great gig when they say, “Please welcome Big Bird's best buddy, Bob!” and you get a standing ovation from the introduction.

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IN THIS PHOTO: Michael Jackson on the Sesame Street Christmas special with Oscar the Grouch on 24th October, 1978/PHOTO CREDIT: Louis Myrie/Contour by Getty Image

Manzano

When I first heard “Rubber Duckie” [written by head writer Jeff Moss], I could see a nightclub singer doing that song. It had double-entendres. It wasn’t treacly.

John Carter CashProducer; Son of Johnny Cash

When I was a boy in the '70s, I watched Sesame Street every day, twice a day. The first time my dad was on Sesame Street [in 1973], I was 3 and very confused on set when Big Bird took off his head. Then I looked up and saw Mr. Snuffleupagus hanging from the ceiling. It was shocking.

Ruth Pointer, The Pointer Sisters

When we got to the studio and they presented us with “Pinball Number Count” [the theme to a recurring counting segment], we looked at each other: “Are you kidding?” That song was really difficult! Gospel, jazz — we had to sing it in parts. I don’t know if we would have been prepared if we hadn’t grown up singing in the church.

Manzano

When Lena Horne was on [in 1976], she sang "Bein’ Green" with Kermit. I remember being taken aback: Jim Henson played Kermit so dramatically — so sadly — that a puppet really complimented her profundity.

Norman Stiles, Writer, head writer, lyricist (1970-1999)

In 1978 we did Sesame Street Fever, a disco LP in response to Saturday Night Fever. The cover is Grover in a white John Travolta suit”.

There are numerous great features that rank the musical guests and show that, through the years, there have been so many memorable turns! I want to bring in a couple more before wrapping things up but, as Sesame Street prepares for its fiftieth anniversary in November, I think a lot of media sources should pay tribute. There is no telling just how far the show has reached in terms of education the generations and bringing some fantastic music to smiling faces. From the amazing guests who have joined the cast to the incredible background music, so many great people have helped score this truly amazing show. Jack White has lent his chops and we have seen Pentatonix drop by to count and sing with the gang! I want to return to the feature from The New York Times and underline one important thing: how one cannot escape the fun and pleasure of being on the Sesame Street set! Guests feel that infectiousness:

When R.E.M. came on to do “Happy Furry Monsters,” a takeoff on their hit “Shiny Happy People,” they hung around the set all day, adding jokes to their number and watching other segments being produced, said Cerf. “That happened all the time,” the songwriter said. “I was there when Melissa Etheridge came, and she wanted to sit in Big Bird’s nest before she left.

Harry Styles, the One Direction star, also “had to meet Big Bird,” said Bill Sherman, the show’s music director. “And Will.i.am needed to talk to Grover.”

Like Lin-Manuel Miranda, Chance the Rapper is an Oscar guy. “I always just felt like he was misunderstood,” he said. When he came on to do a theatrical scene with Cookie and Elmo, he also invented a bit for himself and Oscar”.

What is the future of the show? Well, this year is a very special one for Sesame Street. It is clear Sesame Street’s magic and importance cannot be understated:

“(NEW YORK, NY, February 4, 2019): It all began in 1969 on a street where colorful Muppets and humans lived—and learned—side by side.  Today, 50 years later, Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit educational organization behind Sesame Street, announced a yearlong anniversary celebration to mark the occasion. Throughout 2019, Sesame Workshop will bring people together around the timeless lessons that Sesame Street has always taught:  everyone, no matter who they are or where they are from, is equally deserving of respect, opportunity—and joy.

Set against the backdrop of the civil rights movement and the war on poverty, Sesame Street was created to answer a simple question: could television be used to level the playing field and help prepare less advantaged children for school? The founders tapped educational advisors and researchers, entertainers and television producers, and other visionaries to create what became the longest-running children’s show in American television history.  Ever since, Sesame Street has helped children around the world to learn, feel included and respect others. With a curriculum that evolves to meet the needs of every new generation, it is now a force for good in over 70 languages and 150 countries.

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IN THIS PHOTO: The Sesame Street cast around the iconic street sign in 1969/PHOTO CREDIT: Sesame Workshop

“This is a remarkable milestone for kids, for education and for television. Sesame Street has now brought the life-changing benefits of early learning to children around the globe for 50 years,” said Jeffrey D. Dunn, Sesame Workshop’s Chief Executive Officer. “Our mission to help kids everywhere grow smarter, stronger, and kinder knows no geographic boundaries. We’re everywhere families are and we never stop innovating and growing. That’s what keeps us timeless.”

The anniversary will bring people together through social impact initiatives, digital campaigns, and community events that reflect Sesame Street’s unifying messages. Throughout 2019, fans and families around the world can join their favorite furry friends in celebrating Sesame Street’s past, present, and future, with:

“We’re often asked what Sesame Street’s legacy will be,” said Joan Ganz Cooney, Co-Founder. “To me, a legacy is when something’s over…and this isn’t over.”

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IN THIS PHOTO: Sesame Street's Season 1 cast/PHOTO CREDIT: Sesame Workshop

“Sesame Street had a profound impact on children’s media, setting a template that the industry has followed for generations,” said Lloyd Morrisett, Co-founder. “Fifty years later, Sesame Workshop continues to deliver on its mission every day, across multiple platforms, on six continents. We started as an experiment - and it worked”.

It seems that there are many more years (maybe decades) left in Sesame Street. There is no real reason it would need to be cancelled: it is a hugely effective show that succeeds because of its formula and does not need to alter in these days of streaming and impatient T.V. studios. I wonder which musicians will be the next to take a trip to that very special place. I guess we all have a list of people we’d like to see on it – St. Vincent seems like she’d fit in easily! –, but there is plenty of time to satisfy our curiosity. Until then, let’s mark the fiftieth anniversary of Sesame Street (the official birthday is on 10th November) and provide our thanks. There are many reasons the show endures, seduces and will never go away – the musical diversity and memorability is a big reason. As I prepare to depart and spend some time on YouTube watching Sesame Street videos, it is amazing to think how many people around the world have…

MADE Sesame Street their home.

FEATURE: Spotlight: Rapsody

FEATURE:

 

Spotlight

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ALL PHOTOS/IMAGES: Rapsody/Getty Images

Rapsody

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THIS year has seen two incredible albums come out…

that puts important black figures under the microscope. I have talked a lot about Jamila Woods and her album, LEGACY! LEGACY!, and its phenomenal sound – Woods focused on a different pioneering figure in each song. On Eve, Rapsody celebrated and remembers powerful and inspiring black women. I will look back at Rapsody’s career and her incredible albums but, to start, it is worth looking back at the start. Her career started at North Carolina State University where she was a part of the H20 collective and Kooley High group. In spite of the fact she had never rapped before, she showed natural flair and gift. By 2008, she launched her career and signed with 9th Wonder’s It’s a Wonderful World Music Group. She put out The Summer Sessions EP with Kooley High in 2008, but it was not until 2010 that she got her first real breakthrough – the Return of the B-Girl mixtape was Rapsody’s moment in the spotlight. Her celebrated mixtapes - Thank H.E.R. Now (2011) and For Everything (2011) – gained her some traction but it was her debut album, The Idea of Beautiful, that took her up another level. Featuring guests such as Big Rube, Raheem DeVaughn; Ab-Soul, Childish Gambino; GQ and Nomsa Mazwai, The Idea of Beautiful is a busy and sensational work that everyone needs to hear! It gathered some positive reviews and, as Rap Reviews discussed, Rapsody instantly stepped into a league of her own:

Rapsody's success on "The Idea of Beautiful" is the fact she's an inspired writer who can convey the thoughts of her beautiful mind while not leaving the listener feeling left behind. Some songs are melancholy like the Eric G laced "Precious Wings," but she doesn't stay in sadness or drown you with sorrow.

Some songs are intense overwhelming odes to love's addiction like "Come Home" featuring Rocki Evans, but she's not spinning an album of romance novels. She's a storyteller, but she can team with 9th, Raheem DeVaugn and Ab-Soul to spit some "Non-Fiction." Her guests are like her from the new and now generation, like Mac Miller & The Cool Kids on "Roundtable Discussion." To sum it up she covers all bases.

Given the disproportionate ratio of male to female rappers in the field of hip-hop, Rapsody is automatically going to be compared to artists like Jean Grae and Rah Digga. That's understandable but it's also inherently unfair, as she only sounds the tiniest iota like either one lyrically (if either of them it would be Jean) and is completely her own woman in terms of her vocab and rhyme flow. I'm guilty as charged though by comparing her to 1990's L-Boogie myself, but since she draws the comparison of her own accord on the album perhaps I can be forgiven. The bottom line though is that she's going to be known by generations to come as the master of her own style, one that men and women alike will wish they could do as well as she does on this debut.

To think this is a rapper who was a novice back in high-school; the fact that she developed so quickly and sounded so confident on her debut album was amazing. She put out mixtapes and honed her skills but few have developed as quickly as Rapsody!

By mixing metaphors, clever wordplay and powerful images, you can tell Rapsody is in this for the music – fame, money and all the other trappings of music do not appeal to her. There are few out there who sound so commanding yet accessible. One can hear a bit of Lauryn Hill in Rapsody’s work but, to be honest, the hints are minor. I will talk about Rapsody’s (Marlanna Evans) latest album, Eve, in a second but you look back at her discography and progress and realise she has not missed a step! The quality and brilliance was there from the start; the mixtapes are incredible and I have seen few artists who are so complete out of the traps. Her second studio album, Laila’s Wisdom, pulled together huge stars such as Kendrick Lamar (Rapsody appeared on Lamar’s album, To Pimp a Butterfly) and Busta Rhymes. Laila’s Wisdom was released in 2017 – a year after Rapsody signed to Roc Nation. With every work, Rapsody seems to grow in confidence and scope. Laila’s Wisdom was another critical and commercial success. In this review, AllMusic were keen to praise Rapsody:

Titled in tribute to her grandmother, Laila's Wisdom is Evans' lyrically broadest and musically richest work, yet it doesn't have the sprawling quality of the first album. There's a finer, detail-filled shape to it, from the "Young, Gifted, and Black" (Aretha)-sampling title track to "Jesus Coming," an astonishing finale in which Evans relates the aftermath of a playground tragedy from multiple perspectives. The material is elevated by the heightened levels of authority and nuance in Evans' voice.

 Realistic fictional narratives, biographical reflections, affirmations of excellence, and sharing of knowledge are all strong suits for her. What's most impressive is a latter half-section that covers a wide scope of relationship issues. It deftly moves from the beat-switching dreamlike gem "A Rollercoaster Jam Named Love" (featuring Gwen Bunn and Musiq Soulchild) to the downcast vocoder funk of "U Used 2 Leave Me" (with Terrace Martin) to the lovestruck yet grounded "Knock on My Door" (featuring BJ the Chicago Kid). There are no weak aspects of Evans' game. In "Power," just before she hands the mike to favor-returning Kendrick Lamar, she boasts "I ain't Five-Percent, 'less we talkin' the top MCs." There's no evidence to the contrary”.

This year has been a fantastic one for music and one that is being defined for women. Across the musical map, women are striking hard and laying down some incredible albums! Missy Elliott just released an E.P., ICONOGRAPHY. Sampa the Great is gearing up and we have already been treated to huge albums from Little Simz, Lizzo and Solange. In Rap and Hip-Hop we are seeing some hugely powerful women come through but I wonder, in 2019, are the genres as open and accepting as they should be?! Rapsody is a leader and voice that is calling for change and recognition. She proves she is as potent and fierce as any male artist out there and, in terms of talent and passion, there are few that can match her. I will end by bringing in a couple of reviews for Eve but, to me, it is one of the most important and astonishing albums of the year.

Featuring D'Angelo and GZA, Ibtihaj is one of the best songs of 2019. I love the combination of voices and, of course, Rapsody leading from the front. It seems that Eve has arrived at an important moment; at a time when women are still being overlooked. When speaking with Billboard, Rapsody was asked about her latest creation and women in Hip-Hop:

“Sonically, this album is a complete departure from Laila's Wisdom. It's a different color of sound. Was that the goal where you wanted something that sounded completely different from your previous album?

Yeah, completely. I didn't want to make projects where people always know what to expect. Like, "OK, we already know what Rap's going to give us." I wanted to show that I was versatile and just do something totally different -- and [producer] Eric G helped a big deal with that just because the sound that he brings. I told the team that I want this to sound completely different from Laila’s Wisdom. Everybody was down just to challenge ourselves, have fun and create.

When it comes to women in hip-hop, what is your role in 2019?

My role is to bring balance, and to have another lane as a woman in hip-hop that happens to rhyme as well as any man. I want to remind people that being a woman is a beautiful thing, and it's a part of you, but it's not all you are. You can just be dope without having to just be about your gender. No matter where you're from, no matter what gender you are, religion you are, you can be dope. I want to inspire people to find themselves and to love themselves and never let nobody box you in.

We’ve also seemed to move past a time where only one woman could be on top. In fact, women in hip-hop have been supporting you. How refreshing is it that the women are showing unity in 2019?

It's dope. It's something that I've always wanted to see in this day and age of hip-hop. I didn't get to see [that] when I was growing up, and I know it's possible. And it's needed, and we as artists -- we can't continue to fall into the false narrative of there can only be one. And that we can't work together and we can't support each other and still make dope music and compete with each other in a healthy way. That's a false narrative and the media are often trying to pit us against each other. We ain't falling for the banana in the tailpipe”.

Eve is a powerful album and the peak of Rapsody’s career so far. In a year that has seen so many great albums from Hip-Hop and Rap artists, Eve is a step ahead of the rest. When speaking with DJBooth recently, Rapsody discussed Eve and how she is giving voice to issues that need to be raised right now:

DJBooth: The first thing I noticed on Eve was the sheer amount of passion you brought to your delivery. I’ve never heard you so fired up. Where did that come from?

Rapsody: Two places. One, for me, as an artist, figuring out who I am and being comfortable with who I am. Understanding my place in the culture and not having to chase anything or fit [into] anything. I’m just super confident in who I am, and I’m walking my walk fearlessly. Two, I believe the stories that I’m telling and the love and respect I have for Black women. I want to display that urgency in the music. When they listen to it, I want people to hear that it’s honest. It’s not a gimmick or following a trend. We’re working on this album, and it just so happens to drop in a time where Black women are at the forefront of a lot of conversations. That’s not why this album was made, for this time. This album was made for the truth in it.

There’s also a handful of bars rightfully calling out the industry dynamics and how they hurt women. How does it feel to have the platform to call attention to these issues?

I’m thankful for it. I’m thankful to be able to use my voice to shed light on things that need to be talked about in a truthful, unapologetic way. In an urgent way. We shouldn’t allow anyone else outside of this culture to define us. The power we have as a people to take that control back, this is our culture, so we should be the ones running it and putting out the images of what we look like as women. How we want to be portrayed and how we want to be respected. It’s just a reminder not to forget who we are, our lineage, our history, and the power that we have. Hopefully, [I] add some spark to a spark that’s already there”.

I know I have quoted from a number of different sources but, to be honest, there is so much love out there for Rapsody! Her work is incredible and she is one of the most important voices in modern music. I would suggest people read as many interviews by her as possible as Rapsody is illuminating, honest and passionate. It is that passion that drives her work and inspires other. She has been influenced by the likes of Missy Elliott and Lauryn Hill: in years to come, there will be a new breed of rappers who take their cue from Rapsody. My favourite album of the year is Jamila Woods’ LEGACY! LEGACY! but I have been listening to Eve and there might be a challenger in the ring! The reviews for Eve have certainly been positive. This is The Guardian’s take:

Densely referential and carefully wrought, Rapsody’s lyrics contain many more head-nods to successful black women than are in the track titles (she mentions ballerina Misty Copeland on Tyra, and Angela Bassett on Whoopi Goldberg).

With a delivery cut from the same cloth as Jay-Z or Lauryn Hill, she’s a storyteller, and counterbalances her wisdom with a dry, playful wit. Plus, she’s the queen of the dismissive one-liner (“I ain’t feeling you like I ain’t feeling new Kanye,” she announces on Whoopi).

Rapsody’s playful flow is mirrored by the shape-shifting production, which balances nostalgia with future-facing flourishes, as with the angelic backing vocals on Aaliyah. There are solid guest turns from newcomers such as New York rapper Leikeli47 as well as legends D’Angelo and GZA. But Rapsody herself is the undisputed star, offering up empowerment in droves on the catwalk-worthy Tyra (“damn I’m stunning”) and Serena, an ode to grafting hard for your fortune”. 

In another review, Pitchfork highlights why Eve is such an important and powerful record:

Rapsody wields the namesakes on Eve not as reference materials but as stepping off points for considerations on colorist beauty standards, black capitalism, activism, and drive. She raps about being counted out, singled out, and fed up. “This ain’t E.T. news, I done went sci-fi/I’m closer to God, I done went sky high/Been alienated so much that I must be fly,” she gloats on “Aaliyah.” She’s locked in, he wordplay as clever as ever, but she also doesn’t feel beholden to past versions of herself. The updated model is multifaceted with catchier hooks, nimbler rhyme schemes, and a willingness to ad-lib.

She is as comfortable trading bars with Leikeli47 on “Oprah” as she is Queen Latifah on “Hatshepsut,” both of whom make formidable sparring partners. But the message is one of inclusivity, of banding together to receive the respect that is long overdue. And it isn’t just about being acknowledged; it’s about taking a rightful place in the hierarchy. For Rapsody, specifically, that means being as respected as her male peers often spoken of as successors”.

I am not sure whether Rapsody is coming to the U.K. to tour but, if you are in the U.S., you can catch her on the road. One might find it odd for me to put an acclaimed artist in my Spotlight feature – this is not a ‘ones to watch’ piece: instead, I am highlighting artists you need to check out. The next edition features a newer act that are starting out but, now, I was keen to laud a truly remarkable artist. You might be unfamiliar with her work now but you need to become acquainted as, without doubt, Eve is…

AMONG the finest albums of 2019.

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Follow Rapsody

FEATURE: Vinyl Corner: Spiritualized - Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space

FEATURE:

 

Vinyl Corner

Spiritualized - Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space

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WHILST it is not celebrating an anniversary…

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 IN THIS PHOTO: Spiritualized’s Kate Radley and Jason Pierce/PHOTO CREDIT: NME

I wanted to put Spiritualized’s Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space into Vinyl Corner because it is one of those important records I discovered in high-school. You can buy a vinyl copy here…and, whilst it is hard to find a new copy for sale, if you can get a used copy then I suggest you do! I understand the origin of Spiritualized’s third album stems from the philosophical novel, Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder. The band felt that philosophers are the only people – apart from writers, perhaps – who explore the limits and boundaries of existence and language. In a sense, the album is an investigation of sound’s possibilities and where you can take music. Maybe the title is reference to the fact that, whilst the group float in space and explore, people down on Earth do not care. It is an interesting thought and one that you carry with you when you listen to the record. It is not to say Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space is solely about exploration and discovery: Jason Pierce and Kate Radley of the band split up shortly before the album was recorded. That might suggest a lot of heartache but, in fact, a lot of the songs were recorded before the break-up. Spiritualized crafted success and great feedback from their first two albums but Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space was their big breakthrough.

Jason Pierce and Sean Cook started work on demo recordings during 1995. The band started recording the album in full a few weeks later but it took a little while for everything to come together and gel. There was a bit of movement between studios but, eventually, the band had this terrific record that sounded like nothing else. Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space is viewed as one of the best albums of the 1990s and gained enormous reviews when it was released on 16th June, 1997. Just considered the way the musical landscape had changed in the years leading up to the record coming out. Cast your mind back to 1994 and 1995 and there was a lot of Britpop in the air. Sure, artists like Alanis Morissette and Björk were around then but a lot of British pop was dominating. By 1997, acts like The Prodigy, Radiohead and Sleater-Kinney were starting to take over. I think the scene was more open and diverse and it allowed albums such as Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space to gain more focus. That is not to say Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space would have been lost if it was released in 1994; one feels it would have struggled to slot into a time when music was very different. The reviews were, as I said, immense and universally positive.

I want to bring in a couple of post-1997 reviews that highlight the merits of this masterpiece. Here, in this AllMusic review, they are full of praise:

Spiritualized's third collection of hypnotic headphone symphonies is their most brilliant and accessible to date. Largely forsaking the drones and minimalistic, repetitive riffs which have characterized his work since the halcyon days of Spacemen 3, Jason Pierce re-focuses here and spins off into myriad new directions; in a sense, Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space, with its majestic, Spector-like glow, is his classic rock album. "Come Together" and the blistering "Electricity" are his most edgy, straightforward rockers in eons, while the stunning "I Think I'm in Love" settles into a divided-psyche call-and-response R&B groove, and the closing "Cop Shoot Cop" (with guest Dr. John) locks into a voodoo blues trance. Lyrically, Pierce is at his most open and honest: The record is a heartfelt confessional of love and loss, with redemption found only in the form of drugs -- designed, no less, to look like a prescription pharmaceutical package, Ladies and Gentlemen is pointedly explicit in its description of drug use as a means of killing the pain on track after track. Conversely, never before have the literal implications of the name "Spiritualized" been explored in such earnest detail -- the London Community Gospel Choir appears prominently on a number of songs, while another bears the title "No God, Only Religion," pushing the music even further toward the kind of cosmic gospel transcendence it craves. A masterpiece”.

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 IN THIS PHOTO: Kate Radley, Jason Pierce and Terry Tolkin of Spirtualized/PHOTO CREDIT: ht

Pitchfork provided a thorough investigation when the Collectors’ Edition came out in 2010:

After all, it's an album mostly without a clear hit single, a massive production better enjoyed as a whole than in bits and pieces. Though Spiritualized eventually released edits, remixes, or reworkings of "I Think I'm in Love", "Come Together", and "Electricity", those songs thrive best in the context of the album-- in their original, much more grand iterations. "I Think I'm in Love", for instance, flows brilliantly from "Come Together" and, eight minutes later, its dénouement shapes the perfect non-introduction to the casual piano of "All of My Thoughts". In the interim, Pierce reveals the breadth of the band's ideas and influence. The first half combines Spacemen 3's LaMonte Young-like 20th century composition (with its growling synthesizer drone), dub, soul (with its thick, stunted bass line), American blues (with its twisted harmonica howls), and folk (Pierce's subtle autoharp strums). The back half is a sassy, baritone saxophone-backed dialogue between Pierce's self-confidence and his self-doubt: "I think that I can rock'n'roll," he sings. "Probably just twisting," he answers. And on "Come Together", one of only a few Ladies and Gentlemen tunes you're likely to still hear live, Pierce fancies himself a young man that's sad and fucked (a word he manages to use five times in as many minutes here) amid references to suicide, heroin, and busted dreams”.

One does not need to be a fan of Space-Rock and Spiritualized’s sound to be a fan of Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space

You listen to Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space now and it still sounds breathtaking and sublime. It is not a product of its time like a lot of albums from the 1990s. Instead, you can listen to this album at any time and in any mood and feel transported and floored. It is so immersive and transforming; one learns something about themselves and finds emotions they didn’t know they had. It is hard to put into words just how affecting and stunning the album is – one needs to listen to and see what I mean. Although vinyl is the best format for it, it is fairly tricky finding it at your local record shop. Stream the album if you cannot find it but I urge people to seek out the album on vinyl if they can. With every passing anniversary, Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space seems to get stronger and more fascinating. In this feature to mark the album’s twentieth anniversary, Stereogum were right on the money:

“Ladies And Gentlemen doesn’t keep a single mood throughout. Its snarl-stomping blues-rock numbers like “Come Together” and “Electricity” had as much coked-up swagger as anything Pierce’s Britpop peers were doing, and they also had screaming walls of guitar and wailing gospel choirs blowing them out into something bigger. Its gooily blaring instrumental interludes are as far-out as anything Pierce had done with Spacemen 3, his old band. And it ends with “Cop Shoot Cop,” a 17-minute skronk-blues epic about the numbing repetition of smack addiction that never becomes numbing repetition itself. (As someone with very little patience for long songs, I can’t remember ever skipping “Cop Shoot Cop,” even though it came at the end of the album. Even in his staring-into-the-void moments, Pierce was enough of a songwriter to keep things interesting).

Still, the bottomless despair comes across. Pierce was putting all these oceans of gorgeosity behind sad-sack sentiments so eloquent but unspecific that they could’ve been about Radley or heroin or both or neither. And even with all that vagueness, they’re still heartfelt enough to kick you in the gut: “I just don’t know what to do on my own / All of my thoughts are of you,” “I don’t even miss you, but that’s cuz I’m fucked up / I’m sure when it wears off, then I will be hurting,” “Sometimes have my breakfast right off of a mirror / And sometimes I have it right out of a bottle, come on.” Lyrically, my favorite song on the album might be “I Think I’m In Love,” a devastating one-two punch of bravado and self-doubt, with the latter always shadowing the former: “I think you’re my dream girl / Probably just dreaming / I think I’m the best, babe / Probably like all the rest.”

Ladies And Gentlemen is a deeply personal album, a transmission from an auteurist mind, and that’s probably why its revved-up rockers and its head-blown instrumentals mesh so beautifully with its twinkly lullabies. (Back when lovelorn dipshits like me made mixtapes for crushes, it was almost impossible to pick a Ladies And Gentlemen song for a mixtape. Almost any of them other than “Cop Shoot Cop” would’ve worked, but the whole thing demanded to be heard as a single piece.) And it’s a sad reality of the present-day music industry that labels can’t write blank checks to genius auteurs anymore. Most of them wouldn’t know what to do with the money anyway. The era that gave us Ladies And Gentlemen is lost, and it’s not ever coming back. That’s too bad. But at least we still have the album, which still sounds like some kind of miracle”.

I am playing the album now and it is simply beguiling! If you have not discovered Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space then do so now. It sounded sensational in 1997 but, somehow, the album takes on a new life in 2019. Maybe it is the album we need right now but, at thirty-six, I am more moved by the album now than I was aged fourteen when it was released. I am going to spend some more time with it and fall in love with an iconic album that is…

OUT of this world.

FEATURE: Vertical Insanity: Is Mabel’s Unique Performance Platform a Sign of the Future?

FEATURE:

 

Vertical Insanity

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IN THIS PHOTO: Mabel is the first performer to use a vertical stage for a gig/PHOTO CREDIT: NME

Is Mabel’s Unique Performance Platform a Sign of the Future?

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GIGS are accommodating more and more…

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 PHOTO CREDIT: Dave Benett

to different tastes and demands. One could forgive venues and artists for pushing things forward and shaking things up. The existing stage set-up and design is flexible as it allows for invention and difference. By that, depending on the size of the stage, artists are free to indulge their imaginations and ambitions. Huge arenas provide lots of space for bands and artists to put together big sets and light displays. A lot of artists tend to prefer a more stripped-back venue/set whereas others like to push things to the maximum. The notion of the horizontal stage has been around for centuries and, as we push to the future and the current generation, is the idea of a vertical stage a good one? Here, as this article explains, singer Mabel has definitely opened up a debate:

From the serial snapper who fills the camera roll on their phone (or their tablet, you know who you are) to the "watch the band, not your phone" traditionalists, there's a blurry spectrum of where fans and musicians stand on the best gig etiquette.

The debate went up a notch this week when Mabel performed what's been dubbed the world's first "vertical gig" on a three-tiered stage.

Its designers called it "a gift for a fans' Snap and Insta Stories" which "should stimulate some debate around live music staging conventions for a Generation Z audience".

We already have stages of different sizes and, as time goes on, I can see artists taking live performances to new levels (no pun intended). Are we getting too bored of the traditional gig? I can appreciate how artists would want to stimulate other senses but, at a times when many venues are struggling to accommodate and acknowledge disabled gig-goers and those with mental-health issues, should we not be more focused on galvanising and improving venues? Whilst a vertical stage looks pretty cool and original, there are clear problems. For a start, there is less space and movement for the performers on stage. There are risks of falling from the stage (a big danger for those on the top tier) and how does a singer like Mabel bond and connect with her bands when she cannot easily see them? Also, the vertical stage would be good if it was designed to save space but, in my view, it makes for a confusing experience. Some would say a vertical stage allows for better access in terms of viewing. People do not have to strain their eyes so much and can actually see people playing. I think the opposite is true: you are looking at performers on several different levels and you have to keep scanning your eyes up and down. Whereas a normal gig would put all the performers on the one level – and there you could focus on the same spot -, a multi-tier/vertical stage seems a bit baffling and unnecessary.

 PHOTO CREDIT: Dave Benett

I am all for improving the live experience and not just standing still. Artists are revolutionising technology and changing the way we digest music. From the huge sets of Muse to the natural worlds Björk puts into her shows, things have definitely changed through the years. The idea of vertical stages is designed to please Instagram fans. I do not see the idea being rolled out too much and, to be fair, this is probably limited to Pop artists. Maybe it will take a while for me to come around to something as unusual and impersonal as a vertical stage. If this idea helped improve sound or the visual aspect of a gig then I would be a bit more open-minded and embracing. The fact that we have to discuss phones at gigs sort of worries me. I know a lot of Mabel’s fans take photos and video her gigs and, really, do we need a vertical stage that helps make Instagraming more accessible and cool? Rather than relish a gig and be in the moment, people are going to be trying to get the best shot and put this cool-looking stage onto their feeds – how many will remember the actual gig and talk about the music they made? We come back to this debate as to whether we should be encouraging people to actually be present at gigs or film they for prosperity.

Maybe it is a matter of opinion, but I think artists who ask fans not to film gigs should be commended. There is no logical reason for filming gigs. People say it is so they can remember it years and now but, for most of us, memories alone are good enough. One is not actually enjoying or concentrating on a gig if they are filming and taking pictures and, to be fair, how many Instagram followers are going to be engrossed by grainy footage and insignificant photos? I do not go online to look at gig photos and streams because, also, you are seeing this for free – why is that fair when people actually there paid to see the artist?! There are a lot of reasons why phones should be outlawed from gigs. It is down to the artist whether they allow them, but the idea of turning gigs into a fashion accessory is baffling. Research shows most Smartphone users are engaging with their devices vertically whilst the majority find vertical videos the most interesting. I can see why vertical videos would be interesting for, say, a music video but a live gig should not be about filming and posting videos to the Internet. I am all for heightening the viewing experience but I cannot get my head around the benefits of a vertical stage. It seems rather cold and distant because, as I said, it is harder for performers to engage with one another. I think a gig is much more immersive when there is a wider stage: a vertical platform seems constricting and almost like performers are trapped like animals!

 PHOTO CREDIT: @samuelzeller/Unsplash

Everyone has to accept the fact venues and artists are adapting to the needs of a new generation. There is this conversational clash when it comes to technology and whether venues are turning into something robotic and money-making. By that, I mean venues are working in the pockets of technology companies and trend-setting Instagram stars rather than thinking about the quality of performance and the listening experience. I can foresee sound challenges when you work on a vertical stage and can one say a performer like Mabel thrives with a more narrow stage? I cannot imagine bands taking to the vertical stage because of the compartmentalised nature. The best gigs, when we see bands, involve interaction and the ability to see your fellow musicians working. If you go and see a Mabel concert then, no offence to the others on stage, but you go and see her. If you are filming a video where there are three levels and you have this vertical shot, it seems much less impressive than having a horizontal stage where you get more movement and a more ambitious set. In terms of lightning and sets, there is less room. It seems like there are lots of safety risks and problems that leads to a less exciting, natural and human performance. I come back to my point regarding performers looking like animals.

 PHOTO CREDIT: @bukowski/Unsplash

I am looking at photos of Mabel performing with her crew and, whilst it looks pretty neat, tight and cool, is she able to give her very best delivery? Do people in the front rows get the same view they would normally and what about people at the side of the stage? The vertical stage relies on height benefits rather than width so I think you are creating new issues. I applaud artists who want to push beyond the norm and improve live performances…but is a vertical stage a step too far?! I shouldn’t get annoyed about this story because, in truth, if an artist is thinking more about an Instagramer and making their lives easier, then they are more concerned with being fashionable and popular than the actual music itself. My worry is that this notion rolls out to other genres and artists. I am a keen advocate of keeping phones in pockets and going to gigs to connect with a performer – if you have your phone out then you are more concerned with your social media feed than you are with music. Those who say they are capturing a unique moment they can look back on seem flawed to me. You can keep gigs in mind and would you realistically show videos of a gig to your grandchildren and friends years from now? I don’t see much of a point and there are few gigs that warrant that sort of excitement and preservation. Gigs should be able the relationship between fans and artists: making stages more amendable and slightly to those who want to frame videos vertically…I don’t really get why anyone would want to do that! When I go to gigs, my phone never leaves my pocket and I prefer my performers in…

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 PHOTO CREDIT: @noralidcv/Unsplash

LANDSCAPE rather than portrait!

FEATURE: Female Icons: Part Seventeen: Nina Simone

FEATURE:

 

Female Icons

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PHOTO CREDIT: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Part Seventeen: Nina Simone

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I have been focusing on some less obvious icons…

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 IN THIS PHOTO: Nina Simone in 1964/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

over the past few weeks. That sounds dismissive but, when we think of those artists who are iconic, maybe we get a certain impression. In terms of women who have changed music and inspired generations, one has to tip their cap to Nina Simone. I will talk about a few of her albums in a bit but, before then, I want to explain when Nina Simone came into my life. Even though Simone covered the Jazz standard, My Baby Just Cares for Me, back in 1957, it was released as a single in 1987 after the song was used in a perfume advert – it created a bit of resurgence and new respect for Nina Simone’s work. Maybe it was the amazing sound that affected my impressionable mind and the fact that, as a young child, I had seen nothing like it before. The song captivated me then and, so many years later, it still sounds completely terrific. When assessing and examining Nina Simone, there are various sides to explore. She is this iconic and legendary artist who has inspired so many other musicians – I shall get to that near the end of this feature – but there is a more complex and troubled side. Simone did have a reputation for her short temper and, in 1985, she actually fired a gun at a record company executive, who she felt was stealing royalties. This anger and passion contrasts Simone’s civil rights activation and the fact she called for change in her music.

The 1985 incident was not an isolated one: in 1995, Simone shot her neighbour’s son with an air rifle. Simon has a fragility and volatility that you would not guess from her music. So powerful and moving are her songs, one would not know about some of the demons Simone possessed. She was diagnosed with bipolar affective disorder in the late-1980s. It is a shame that died relatively young – she was seventy when the world lost her in 2003. By 1993, she was settled in Southern France. The final years of her life were fairly quiet and, in 1998, she announced to a crowd in Newark that she was staying in France – she would never return to the U.S. and perform. Simone died from breast cancer in 2003 and left a huge hole. There has been nobody like Nina Simone since her death and, in many ways, we will never see anyone like her again. Along with icons such as Aretha Franklin, she was part of a generation that is slowly disappearing. It is sad to reflect but, rather than mourn the loss of a great voice, we need to celebrate the music. Since her death in 2003, there have been a few attempts to bring Simone’s life to the screen. Perhaps the best, most-recent attempt was the 2015 documentary, What Happened, Miss Simone? The documentary was released with the blessing of Simone’s estate and gained some good reviews.

Some were a bit more reluctant to expend too much praise because, when it comes to someone as layered and complex as Simone, it is hard to strike the right balance. In their review, The Guardian explained more:

As the conflagration of the late 1960s grew more intense, Simone became more radicalised, at one point asking a black audience if they were ready to kill for black liberation. This, as I’m sure you can imagine, restricted her career’s growth. She also became addicted to pills, had bipolar episodes, and was a general mess. Talking-head interviews with her daughter give specific insight.

But there was always the music, and this movie has plenty of it. And let’s not forget that film is a visual medium. As such, What Happened, Miss Simone? is a wall-to-wall fantasia of fabulous outfits, from African print frocks to outsized hats that would look absurd on anyone other than a centre of gravity like Nina Simone.

Clearly there is entertainment value in this documentary, but it’s very much of a “behind the music” calibre. A clip, commentary from an associate or a critic like Stanley Crouch, another clip, rinse, repeat. A post-festival distribution deal is already in place with Netflix and, frankly, that’s the perfect format for Garbus’s by-the-numbers storytelling. What Happened, Miss Simone? is another example of Wikipedia-entry-as-cinema, but with a life this remarkable, it’s still worth a look”.

2016’s Nina was an attempt to bring Simone’s life to Hollywood. Starring Zoe Saldana, the film received a lot of negative reviews. Maybe it is the case that one cannot do full justice to the importance and stature of Nina Simone – it is always tricky when it comes to music biopics and striking the perfect balance of honesty and accessibility.  

 IN THIS PHOTO: Nina Simone photographed in 1969/PHOTO CREDIT: Jack Robinson/Getty Images

Anyway…perhaps there will be another attempt to bring Nina Simone’s life to the big screen. Simone was born the sixth of eight children to an impoverished family from North Carolina. As a child in that part of the U.S. in the 1930s (Simone was born in 1933), life must have been strange and hard. She was six when the Second World War broke out and one can only envisage what a strain that put on her already-fractured upbringing. Even though she was born into a landscape where aspirations were more about survival than success, the young Simone dreamed of becoming a concert pianist. I am not sure whether Simone was attracted to the beauty of the piano or whether it was a particular artist who lit that fuse. Simone was determined to become a success but, at a time when there was racial discrimination and divisions, she was rejected by the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. One can understand why Simone fought (quite literally) for success and was regarded as a bit unpredictable at times given the fact she had very little support in the early days. Not only was she rejected by music schools but Nina Simone, born Eunice Kathleen Waymon, changed her name so that her family would not find out about her dreams. Simone’s family considered Jazz as unsuitable and felt that Jazz music was not the direction she should head in. At nightclubs, when Simone played piano, she had no vocal accompaniment so had to take care of every aspect.

It was hard for Simone to even launch a career, let alone succeed. Her handyman father suffered ill health and she had to rely on a local fund and scholarship money to ensure she could get an education. One suspects that the rejection she received early in life – whether it was racially-motivated or not – caused a sense of defeat and deflation that she struggled to get over. Eventually, Simone released her solo album, Little Girl Blue, in 1958 and started her career. Her output from the late-1950s to the mid-1960s was impressive but, to me, her first big released occurred after 1964: a year when she changed record distributors from Colpix to Philips Records (a Dutch company). 1964 marked a year when Simone addressed the racial divisions in the U.S. On Nina in Concert, she released Mississippi Goddam – a reaction to the murder of Medgar Evers in 1963 and the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Motivated by the hatred and injustice around her, Mississippi Goddam was fuelled by upset and outrage. It is a song that sounds moving and startling today. My favourite Simone album of the 1960s was 1965’s I Put a Spell on You. Although it is more Pop-flavoured than her earlier albums, it is her most solid release to that point. Songs such as I Put a Spell on You and Feeling Good are classics in her cannon.

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 PHOTO CREDIT: Carol Friedman

Through the 1960s, Simone performed at civil rights meetings and was a supporter of violent revolution. Rather than follow Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s non-violet approach, she was an advocate of Black Nationalism. 1967’s High Priestess of Soul was the last great album from Simone in the decade and contained a mix of Pop (Don’t You Pay Them No Mind); African-American Gospel tracks and songs written by Simone herself. In spite of the success she enjoyed in the 1960s, there was backlash to Mississippi Goddam. Perhaps it was too raw and angry for the record label but there was a feeling Simone was being rejected. Simone left the U.S. in 1970 and, upon her return, there was a warrant for her arrest for unpaid taxes. The 1970s was quite a turbulent period for Simone. She abandoned her daughter Lisa in Mount Vernon and, according to Lisa, Simone was quite abusive towards her. There were signs Simone was struggling and showing some cracks. She did perform gigs during the 1980s and, unlike some of her earlier performances, there was more engagement and warmth aimed at the audiences. She could be regularly found at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club and it seemed like she was back on a more even keel. Albums such as 1982’s Fodder on My Wings were more introspective than some of her albums of the 1960s and 1970s; 1993’s A Single Woman was the final album from an iconic singer who enjoyed a busy and successful career.

Simone is one of the most influential artists of the 20th century and a key figure in the civil rights movement. Her voice is a thing of wonder. She could show tenderness and passion when the mood called but, on her civil rights numbers, there is an aggression and passion that is more powerful than anything else in the world. Simone was an incredibly eclectic vocalist and her delivery, both vocally and on the piano, was truly stunning. There are countless artists who have name-checked Nina Simone as an influence. From Madonna and David Bowie to Janis Joplin to Alicia Keys and Jeff Buckley…so many truly giant artists owe a debt to Nina Simone! There are websites where you can learn more about Nina Simone but, to end, I have collected some of her best performances together. Although the 2015 documentary, What Happened, Miss Simone? had its detractors, it did bring Simone’s work and life to a new generation. This article from The Guardian talks about the highs and lows of one of the most inspiring artists ever:

What Happened, Miss Simone? makes the case that Simone was not only one of the most talented musicians of the 20th century but one of the most troubled and unlucky. It shows how she always felt she had been denied her true calling; how she never achieved the success that prettier, more biddable singers enjoyed; how she invested so much of herself in the civil rights movement that she was shattered when it faltered; how she suffered physical abuse from her husband and manager Andrew Stroud and inflicted it on her daughter Lisa; how her bipolar condition was only diagnosed in the 1980s, long after her volatility had inflicted irreparable damage. She was an outcast who only briefly found safe harbour — first as a wife and mother, then as an activist – before it was snatched away. Not fitting in made her great, but it also made her angry and very lonely.

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PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images 

Simone was now less a musician who cared about politics than an activist who sang. Her music was by, about and for black people. She would scan the crowd for black faces and tell them, “I’m singing only to you. I don’t care about the others.” White fans, she said, were “accidental and incidental”. She could not ignore the fact “that I was a black-skinned woman in a country where you could be killed because of that one fact.” No wonder there has been controversy over the casting of beautiful, light-skinned Zoe Saldana in the long-delayed biopic Nina.

In the 25 years before her death in 2003, at the age of 70, Simone was relatively stable and prolific. She didn’t experience the triumphant comeback that she deserved, but this was as happy an ending as could be expected from someone who had once appeared to be waging a one-woman war against everything.

As she left the stage after a disastrous show at the Royal Albert Hall in 1978, Simone declared: “I am not of this planet. I do not come from you. I am not like you.” She was in a terrible state, but on that point she was absolutely right. For good and for ill, Nina Simone stood alone”.

I return to my earlier point regarding Nina Simone and whether Hollywood will ever truly capture her essence. One cannot argue that Simone lacks relevance and importance today. In 2018, Simone’s childhood home was named a national treasure by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Listen to music today and you can hear the essence and spirit of Simone living on. Although Simone grew weary of the division and racism that flourished in America in the late-1960s, she made an enormous impact and, without knowing it, she was influenced the next generation. I have named a few artists who have been inspired by Simone but, in terms of average civilians, there is no telling how meaningful and instrumental her music was to those struggle; those who were isolated and affected by the hatred and violence around them. In 2019, her music is still so relevant and I think it holds as much power as it did in the 1960s. That might sound extreme but think about the world today and the fact we are so fractured and divided. I listen to Simone a lot and it provokes so many emotions. From the fire of Mississippi Goddam to my first taste, My Baby Just Cares for Me, she is an artist who still plays a role in my life. Of course, she is an icon: Simone has helped change Jazz and music itself. She opened Jazz to new audiences and created some of the most powerful and moving songs of her generation. Simone is this complicated and hugely important artist who, as we have seen, has been portrayed several times on the screen. There have been some valiant attempts but I think that definitive version is yet to come. I wonder whether anyone can capture the magic, soul and…

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 PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

THE majesty of Miss Simone?

FEATURE: Dusty Crates and Golden Streams: The Joys of Pushing Beyond the Comfort Zone

FEATURE:

 

Dusty Crates and Golden Streams

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PHOTO CREDIT: @moco1384/Unsplash 

The Joys of Pushing Beyond the Comfort Zone

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MAYBE this is another case of nostalgia…

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 PHOTO CREDIT: @luana_dmc/Unsplash

or me reminiscing about when music came into my life. In fact, I want to also combine a couple of disparate subjects: preserving memories and guilty pleasures. I shall come to the second in a bit but, recently, I have been getting a bit worried. One of the reasons I am so passionate about music is my childhood: so many happy times when, in some form or the other, music played a pivotal role. Whether it was my earliest musical memories when I was in primary school or new discoveries as I progressed through to high-school. One thing is for sure: these recollections and experiences are among the most important and cherished. Some of these memories are getting blurry and I wonder, very soon, whether a lot of them will be gone. Of course, so much of my childhood has disappeared from mind but there is something hugely important and relevant about music-related ones – I feel they are starting to slip away. I bring up this subject because it was the music I was exposed to growing up that has led to my current desire to drink in as much as possible. Back then, I was collecting albums, singles and trying to digest as much music as possible. Growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, everything from Pop, Britpop; Grunge Hip-Hop and Folk was in my life. I was lucky enough to have music play a massive role from a very early age – my parents’ records definitely lit a spark and kindled a desire.

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 PHOTO CREDIT: @rosssneddon/Unsplash

I know the happy memories of music will die out and it is not really the loss of childhood that worries me most: more than the visions and people in my mind, it is the songs and sounds that I will miss the most. Thinking about this inevitable state of affairs has made me look at the music I listen to now and wonder whether I am being as broad and explorative as I could be. A while ago, I asked whether there is such thing as a guilty pleasure. We often use those words in inverted commas because, I guess, it is subjective as to what constitutes a guilty pleasure. Sure, there is bad music – I don’t think that is subjective: most of us can agree on stuff that is pretty awful – but I do not feel anyone should be judged and condemned for liking certain artists. As I am typing this, I am listening to The Look by Roxette. I am not sure what led me to them but I fell down a bit of a Swedish Pop hole and went from Ace of Base to The Cardigans – ending up at the feet of Roxette. Some people might call bands like that uncool and a bit of a guilty pleasure. I also have a fond spot for some of the 1980s/1990s Pop that might be considered a bit naff (including Belinda Carlisle) but I think so many of us get caught in a loop.

I think streaming services are great when it comes to giving us access to all kinds of music. That is perhaps the biggest revolution of modern music: the opening of doors and channels not only exposes so much great music from the past, for a low cost, but allows new artists to have their voice heard. That is not to say that we are only listening to digital music. It has been announced vinyl sales are outstripping that of C.D.s for the first time since 1986. So much of my eclectic upbringing when it came to music can be linked to physical formats. I had this tangible and tactile relationship with music and I wonder, with so much music in streaming rather than in record shops, are we all as curious and boundary-pushing as we should be?! One of the issues with sites like Spotify and YouTube are the recommendations. They will give us playlists and suggestions based on our listening figures but, often, these songs are too close to the ones we are listening to and, inevitably, it means our palettes are not as broad as they should be. Record shops are still there – although a lot are closing down – to satisfy those who love vinyl but I have this continued worry streaming services are struggling to give people a balance of sounds and possibilities.

 IN THIS PHOTO: Ella Mai/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

I am lucky I listen to a station like BBC Radio 6 Music but, even then, they are confined in terms of songs and genres – one will not find a lot of modern Pop/Country, for instance or classic tracks that might be covered by BBC Radio 1 and 2 respectively. It is a great surprise stumbling on a song you have not heard for years, but I think that is actually a problem with the modern age. There are some terrific podcasts and radio broadcasts that help guide us to uncovered gems and classic cuts. I think a lot of our tastes revolve around what we have heard before and slight extensions on that. It sort of gets me thinking back to my point about so-called ‘guilty pleasures’. Do we turn our noses up at entire genres and radio stations, assuming they will have nothing that floats our boast?! I am not a huge fan of mainstream Pop but I have found myself surprised and fulfilled by artists like Ella Mai and Carly Rae Jepsen. I have not listened to a lot of Country music for a while bit, again, I have stumbled upon podcasts and shows that have opened my eyes. It is strangely pleasing getting into our grooves and listening to music that makes us feel comfortable and happy. I get that. I do feel we struggle to keep on top of everything and, as such, tend to keep our focus quite narrow. I know a lot of people who are very ambitious and will scour record shops and playlists for the best new music and those older albums that we should be listening to more.

One cannot embrace everything – not all music is equal and valid – but I do think we all get sort of comfortable and cosy with what we know and that is that. Maybe it is just me. It is difficult to drink in every drop of great new music and nodding to the best and coolest from the past. I was listening to BBC Radio 6 Music’s Shola Aleje present a two-hour slot on Totally Wired Radio last night (from 8-10 p.m.) and was blown away. Not only is she younger than me – and has a deeper passion that I for music – but her taste and knowledge was extraordinary. Listening to the show and I was reconnecting with artists and songs that I had neglected and allowed to collect dust. I am now resolved to be a lot less stubborn and more adventurous. I am broader and hungrier than most because, as a music lover and journalist, I am always listening to new music from all over the sonic map and keep my dial locked to the best radio station around. I guess even radio stations are limited and can get caught in traps…playing the same songs from the same artists or overlooking certain genres. How often do we hear album tracks from legendary artists rather than singles? Are stations too bound by figures and demographics that means, a lot of the time, we need to retune and skip through stations to get a wider education? I think radio is invaluable – and I am indebted to and adoring of BBC Radio 6 Music – but I think we all need to resolve to expand our collections and be a bit braver.

 PHOTO CREDIT: @iampatrickpilz/Unsplash

Maybe some hip, young thing scratches their Hoxton facial hair with imperious disregard when people like me listen to some of the artists we grew up on – how would they take to folk like Traveling Wilburys and Steely Dan?! A lot of older listeners tend to be dismissive of younger artists and we can get into this tribal mind-state. The most rewarding musical experiences come from stepping beyond my boundaries and opening my arms to something new; listening to modern Pop or trying an artist from the past that I have been relatively distant from until now. This all circles back to my opening concern regarding memory and its fragility. What I would pay someone to invent a device that bottled all of my memories; ones I could arrange to ensure that I never forget when music came into my life and those times when various artists scored some truly wonderful and transcendent times. I still fondly recall a school chum getting on a year when I was in Mr. Bailey’s class and he blasted The Shamen’s Eberneezer Goode out to the class (this was the early-1990s and state schools were pretty relaxed!). I cherish after-school hang-outs with friends and times when we put on a cassette or C.D. and just submitted to the power of music. I hold dear moments when I used to take the bus to my local town and buy the latest single from whomever was expected to ride the charts – I recall buying stuff from The Divine Comedy (National Express) and Mr Oizo (Flat Beat) and being giddy with satisfaction!

How about when I received my GCSE results in 1999 and Lou Bega’s Mambo No. 5 (A Little Bit of…) soundtracked that?! How about, too, when my sister bought me The Beatles’ number-ones collection in 2000 or when I first discovered Madonna back in the late-1980s?! All of these memories are dear and part of my life…it scares the crap out of me that they are starting to fall away. The reason they are still in my mind is because of the sheer breadth of my tastes. I was brought up around so much different music and would not be a journalist if it were not for my parents and my appetite as a child. Rather than dread the ticking of time and the erosion of precious memories, I feel, oddly, engaging in as much different music now as possible can help strengthen fading memories and actually help preserve recollections from childhood – some might say that is faulty and ambitious but I think it is possible! If people like me learn from our past and forge barriers then I think we will all be a lot richer and wiser. There are natural limits and, you understand, such is the tidal wave of new music that it is impossible to even absorb a small percentage of it. As much as I adore certain radio stations and artists, I will be bolder; I will take the time to re-explore the legends of the past and spend a few hours a week getting on top of all of the best new music around.

It sounds exhausting but I feel it is beneficial to me, not just as a journalist, but as someone who tends to retreat to those songs/artists that lift me up and have permanent residence in my limbic system. There is nothing wrong with nostalgia and remembering childhood – it makes us happy and connected to the past – but I think so many of put up walls and define ourselves too rigidly. If you once ignored a certain time period or genre then give it a try! I am, as I said, finding myself struck my tracks I thought I wouldn’t enjoy and realising that, when you let this music in, the effects are immense and immediate. Whilst rounding this feature up, I am thinking of some artists I am going to attack very soon – some more Traveling Wilburys and some classic House music – but I am also resolved to have a peek at some cool underground sounds of now. I get caught in ruts and I think shaking that habit is a good thing. I think we all could do with widened our scope and taking some bold steps now and then. My revelation and new resolution comes from my (genuine) worry that my childhood is getting lost in the fog and, with it, so many of the musical memories that make me smile will be lost. There is not much I can do about that. It seems strange to say this but, in order to be a more rounded and enriched music lover now, I have to embrace the future as much as possible and…

 PHOTO CREDIT: @jamakassi/Unsplash

LET the past go.

FEATURE: The Boss at Seventy: Seven Essential Bruce Springsteen Albums

FEATURE:

 

The Boss at Seventy

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IN THIS PHOTO: Bruce Springsteen captured in 1982/PHOTO CREDIT: Frank Stefanko 

Seven Essential Bruce Springsteen Albums

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THERE are two big anniversaries happening…

 IN THIS PHOTO: Bruce Springsteen in 2019 in a promotional shot for Western Stars/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

later this month. On 26th September, it will be fifty years since The Beatles’ Abbey Road was released to the world. I am really looking forward to that because, not only do we get to revel in this wonderful album, but Sirs Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr will be around to share their memories of Abbey Road. Three days before that happens, Bruce Springsteen turns seventy! The Boss’ seventieth should be celebrated and it will provide us an opportunity to look back at his incredible music and see why he is so iconic (also, if you have not seen the Bruce Springsteen-inspired film, Blinded by the Light, make sure you do). I am going to recommend seven albums that need to be added to your collection right away. Before I come to that, here is some biography about Springsteen:

Born on September 23, 1949, in the town of Long Branch, New Jersey, Bruce Springsteen, also known as "The Boss," played the bar circuit while assembling his famous E Street Band. His breakout 1975 record, Born to Run, united arena rock with human-size tales of working-class America. With dozens of awards under his belt, including 20 Grammys, and more than 65 million albums sold in the U.S. alone, Springsteen is one of the most successful musicians of all time. Also known for his left-leaning political causes, the artist was honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama in 2016.

Springsteen first fell in love with rock 'n' roll when he saw Elvis Presley perform on The Ed Sullivan Show. "[Elvis] was as big as the whole country itself," Springsteen later remembered, "as big as the whole dream. He just embodied the essence of it and he was in mortal combat with the thing.

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IN THIS PHOTO: Bruce Springsteen looking reflective in 1975/PHOTO CREDIT: Terry O’Neill 

Nothing will ever take the place of that guy." Springsteen's mother took out a loan to buy him a $60 Kent guitar for his 16th birthday, and he hasn't stopped playing the instrument since then.

An outsider and recluse in school, Springsteen frequently got in trouble at his Catholic elementary school. "In the third grade, a nun stuffed me in a garbage can under her desk because she said that's where I belonged," he said. "I also had the distinction of being the only altar boy knocked down by a priest during mass." Several years later, he skipped his own high school graduation because he felt too uncomfortable to attend.

In 1967 an 18-year-old Springsteen was drafted for military service in the Vietnam War. But, as he later told Rolling Stone magazine, the only thought in his head as he traveled to his induction was "I ain't goin'." Springsteen failed his physical, largely due to his deliberately "crazy" behavior and a concussion previously suffered in a motorcycle accident. Springsteen's 4-F classification — unfit for military service — freed him from having to go to Vietnam and allowed him to pursue music full time”.

IN THIS PHOTO: The Boss performing in 1984/PHOTO CREDIT: Ebet Roberts/Redferns

ALL ALBUM COVERS: Getty Images/Spotify

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Born to Run

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Release Date: 25th August, 1975

Label: Columbia

Producers: Bruce Springsteen/Mike Appel/Jon Landau

Standout Tracks: Thunder Road/Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out/Jungleland

Review:

It is this essential quality that sets him apart from everyone else even after all these years. His fictional characters are easier to relate to than any modern indie song sung in the first person. It has been interesting to watch this particular musical shift. How is it that a song rife with such nameless characters as the Magic Rat and the Barefoot Girl, with imagery of Exxon signs and ambulance lights and death in those lonely corridors of the city seems more homely than any song about the end of a relationship which, presumably, any listener would be able to relate to much more? It is as if the old rules have been transferred from stone tablets to pieces of notebook paper, frequently scratched out and rewritten to fit the latest trends. That storytelling trait has, with a few exceptions, long been absent from music and perhaps that is telling. What makes Springsteen's music so great is that his stories and characters made it all the more affecting when he did write something personal. When he personally wondered if love was real it sounded more genuine because of similar, prior sentiments from the lonesome, wandering denizens of Asbury Park. Story echoed real-life and vice versa, each lending weight to one another.

Springsteen's America seen through today's lens seems more modern than the vision being presented currently. It is a marvelous thing that none of Springsteen's songs seem quaint or outdated but it is not surprising in the least. He was able to both hearken to an earlier time by harnessing the power of music's golden age and to make an audience look to the future, to attempt to keep alive a sense of America's commoner nobility – the notion that there is nothing purer than trying to survive through means universal and familiar, through foot before foot and hand over hand. The notion that we could succeed or fail to walk like heroes but either way America, although perhaps dull-eyed and empty-faced, was nevertheless bound for a greater glory somewhere down the road” – Sputnik Music

Stream: https://open.spotify.com/album/43YIoHKSrEw2GJsWmhZIpu

Key Cut: Born to Run

Darkness on the Edge of Town

Release Date: 2nd June, 1978

Label: Columbia

Producers: Bruce Springsteen/Jon Landau/Steven Van Zandt (assistant)

Standout Tracks: Racing in the Street/Prove It Al Night/Darkness on the Edge of Town

Review:

Coming three years, and one extended court battle, after the commercial breakthrough of Born to Run, Darkness on the Edge of Town was highly anticipated. Some attributed the album's embattled tone to Springsteen's legal troubles, but it carried on from Born to Run, in which Springsteen had first begun to view his colorful cast of characters as "losers." On Darkness, he began to see them as the working class. One song was called "Factory," and in another, "Badlands," "you" work "'neath the wheel / Till you get your facts learned." Those "facts" are that "Poor man wanna be rich / Rich man wanna be king / And a king ain't satisfied / Till he rules everything." But Springsteen's characters, some of whom he inhabited and sang for in the first person, had little and were in danger of losing even that. Their only hope for redemption lay in working harder -- "You gotta live it everyday," he sang in "Badlands," but you also, as another song noted, have to "Prove It All Night." And their only escape lay in driving. Springsteen presented these hard truths in hard rock settings, the tracks paced by powerful drumming and searing guitar solos. Though not as heavily produced as Born to Run, Darkness was given a full-bodied sound, with prominent keyboards and double-tracked vocals.

Springsteen's stories were becoming less heroic, but his musical style remained grand. Yet the sound, and the conviction in his singing, added weight to songs like "Racing in the Street" and the title track, transforming the pathetic into the tragic. But despite the rock & roll fervor, Darkness was no easy listen, and it served notice that Springsteen was already willing to risk his popularity for his principles. Indeed, Darkness was not as big a seller as Born to Run. And it presaged even starker efforts, such as Nebraska and The Ghost of Tom Joad” – AllMusic

Stream: https://open.spotify.com/album/1WEXfps9XGBqGVXb2gCXxA

Key Cut: The Promised Land

The River

Release Date: 17th October, 1980

Label: Columbia

Producers: Bruce Springsteen/Jon Landau/Steven Van Zandt

Standout Tracks: The Ties That Bind/Hungry Heart/Fade Away

Review:

Rock and roll has always been this joy, this certain happiness that is in its way the most beautiful thing in life," Springsteen said. "But rock is also about hardness and coldness and being alone...I finally got to the place where I realized life had paradoxes, a lot of them, and you've got to live with them"

The resulting album is one that might not flow as well as previous Springsteen releases (which flowed impeccably), but a record that spawned some of the strongest single tracks of his career. The strongest single was "Hungry Heart," which is notorious for being originally written by Springsteen for The Ramones. Instead of giving them the song, producer Jon Landau convinced Springsteen to put it on The River. Landau made a good call, as the song became Springsteen's most successful single to date. It reached No. 5 on the U.S. pop singles chart, a catchy and danceable hit that foreshadowed some of the sounds listeners would hear on the immensely popular Born In The U.S.A.

For every upbeat number like "Hungry Heart," "Sherry Darling," "Two Hearts," "Ramrod" or "Out On The Street," Springsteen gives us a slow-tempo ballad like "Independence Day" or the brilliantly orchestrated "Point Blank." Songs like "Stolen Car" (which foreshadowed Tunnel Of Love), "Drive All Night" and closer "Wreck On The Highway" are much slower tracks that must be appreciated for their melodies and special construction. Songs like these are where Springsteen's words cut deepest, with weaving lyricism making an impact when delivered over calmer tides. "Stolen Car" is a vastly underrated song, as Springsteen's personal, slowly delivered lyricism casts an image of a troubled youth: "At first I thought it was just restlessness that would fade as time went by and our love grew deep / In the end it was something more I guess that tore us apart and made us weep / And I'm driving a stolen car down on Eldridge Avenue / Each night I wait to get caught, but I never do” – AbsolutePunk

Stream: https://open.spotify.com/album/6YNIEeDWqC09YIWzhoSVLg

Key Cut: The River

Nebraska

Release Date: 30th September, 1982

Label: Columbia

Producer: Bruce Springsteen

Standout Tracks: Nebraska/Highway Patrolman/Open All Night

Review:

A few songs on the record contain references to transmissions, and these people often find themselves connected to each other in the most distant ways, often by wireless. Roads are littered with radio relay towers, radios in dark cars are choked with talk shows, a cop is called to action by the crackle of the radio. “State Trooper,” a song directly influenced by “Frankie Teardrop” by the synth-punk band Suicide, is Nebraska’s atmosphere reduced to its essence, just an ominous repeating guitar and a voice that sounds like a howling ghost. A Springsteen song like “Darkness on the Edge of Town” shares thematic elements with the songs on Nebraska, but the quiet/loud motif is designed for the stage, where Springsteen and his listeners could share in the energy. “State Trooper” might as well be beamed in from an orbiting satellite—there’s the song and then there is silence.

“State Trooper” also illustrates how the automobile, central to Springsteen’s work throughout his career, functions a bit differently on Nebraska. On Born to Run, the car represented escape, while on Darkness on the Edge of Town and parts of The River it was used to define boundaries, to mark the places where the dramas of life unfold. On Nebraska, the automobile is a kind of isolation chamber, a steel husk that keeps its passengers apart from the world. “Used Cars,” a comparatively gentle song inspired by Springsteen’s own life, finds a child experiencing the shame of class difference. The family is each inhabiting their own world, the father and son unable to connect and share with each other what they might be feeling in the moment. The boy knows only by what he sees, not what his father tells him; the father, consumed with his own shame, has no sense of the boy’s experiences.

Springsteen wrote that he wanted Nebraska to consist of “black bedtime stories,” and the album almost seems to take place during one long night. Those who have jobs are working the night shift. Coming as it does at the end of the album, “Reason to Believe” feels a bit like a sunrise. Suddenly there’s a crack of light, a bit of humor; we can take a breath. The levity comes not from the details of the song, which include two shattered relationships and the death of a dog and a relative, but from the perspective of the person telling the story. Perhaps life, rather than being grim and hopeless, is merely absurd” – Pitchfork 

Stream: https://open.spotify.com/album/6yskFQZNlLYhkchAxELHi6

Key Cut: Atlantic City

Born in the U.S.A.

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Release Date: 4th June, 1984

Label: Columbia

Producers: Jon Landau/Chuck Plotkin/Bruce Springsteen/Steven Van Zandt

Standout Tracks: Cover Me/I’m on Fire/Dancing in the Dark

Review:

East Berlin, 1988. Under a graphite sky, a familiar synthesizer riff echoes out over a vast arena. As a thundercrack snare drum underscores one of the most consistently spine-chilling intros ever, Bruce Springsteen, telecaster in hand, stares out toward half a million East Germans who've all started singing the chorus - before he's even begun the first verse.

500,000 Germans shouting "Born In The USA" in some huge-ass park in the late-eighties is plainly quite weird. But they're not American. They're not singing about being American, are they? Are they??

"Born In The USA", the title track of The Boss' mega-selling 1984 album, was much misunderstood. Accused at the same time of being repulsively nationalistic, and viciously Anti-American, the track was endorsed by conservative US politicians (including Ronald Reagan) as an exemplar of "classic American values" whilst the bitter lyrics actually tell the story of disaffected Vietnam veteran, chewed up and spat out by his own country:

'I had a buddy at Khe Sahn

Fighting off the Viet Cong

They're still there, he's all gone

He had a little girl in Saigon

I got a picture of him in her arms'

Fire up YouTube and watch John Sayles' music video for the track. The killer punch comes near the end where you see the smiling veteran with a hole where his left eye should be.

Despite the poor sync between the video and audio, Springsteen's leather-clad delivery is scarily fierce. Heard alongside the visuals of Bruce spitting the hopeless verses, the song is revealed as far more than a knuckleheaded, jingoistic sing-a-long. It's a ragged-lunged hymn to long gone friends, a treacherous government, a stupid war, having no job, but f*** it, let’s shout the chorus until we cough up our lungs.

Springsteen’s much-discussed genius lies in finding the humanity in the everyday, punching it out with a grizzled kind of grandeur, and managing it dressed as Mad Max. That’s why our German friends, with their cold war blues and bad blow-dries, are singing along in their hundreds of thousands. Despite huge political and national gulfs, there are more similarities than there are differences.

The other songs on the album? Apart from the unsettling, tender "I’m On Fire", it’s familiar fare throughout, reliable rock and soul courtesy of Bruce and his band of E Street musos, with the added bonus of "Glory Days" and the irrepressible "Dancing In The Dark" chucked in too.

But at no point does it become as stupid, or as complex, as track 1” – BBC

Stream: https://open.spotify.com/album/0PMasrHdpaoIRuHuhHp72O

Key Cut: Born in the U.S.A.

The Rising

Release Date: 30th July, 2002

Label: Columbia

Producer: Brendan O'Brien

Standout Tracks: Lonesome Day/Waitin’ on a Sunny Day/My City of Ruins

Review:

The set opens with "Lonesome Day," a midtempo rocker with country-ish roots. Springsteen's protagonist admits to his or her shortcomings in caring for the now-absent beloved. But despite the grief and emptiness, there is a wisdom that emerges in questioning what remains: "Better ask questions before you shoot/Deceit and betrayal's bitter fruit/It's hard to swallow come time to pay/That taste on your tongue don't easily slip away/Let kingdom come/I'm gonna find my way/ Through this lonesome day." Brendan O'Brien's hurdy-gurdy cuts through the mix like a ghost, offering a view of an innocent past that has been forever canceled because it never was anyway; the instrument, like the glockenspiels that trim Bruce Springsteen's songs, offers not only texture, but a kind of formalist hint that possibilities don't always lie in the future. Lest anyone mistakenly perceive this recording as a somber evocation of loss and despair, it should also be stated that this is very much an E Street Band recording. Clarence Clemons is everywhere, and the R&B swing and slip of the days of yore is in the house -- especially on "Waitin' for a Sunny Day," "Countin' on a Miracle," "Mary's Place" (with a full horn section), and the souled-out "Let's Be Friends (Skin to Skin)." These tracks echo the past with their loose good-time feel, but "echo" is the key word. Brendan O'Brien's guitar-accented production offers us an E Street Band coming out of the ether and stepping in to fill a void. The songs themselves are, without exception, rooted in loss, but flower with the possibility of moving into what comes next, with a hard-won swagger and busted-up grace. They offer balance and a shifting perspective, as well as a depth that is often deceptive.

The title track is one of Springsteen's greatest songs. It is an anthem, but not in the sense you usually reference in regard to his work. This anthem is an invitation to share everything, to accept everything, to move through everything individually and together. Power-chorded guitars and pianos entwine in the choruses with a choir, and Clemons wails on a part with a stinging solo. With The Rising, Springsteen has found a way to be inclusive and instructive without giving up his particular vision as a songwriter, nor his considerable strength as a rock & roll artist. In fact, if anything, The Rising is one of the very best examples in recent history of how popular art can evoke a time period and all of its confusing and often contradictory notions, feelings, and impulses. There are tales of great suffering in The Rising to be sure, but there is joy, hope, and possibility, too. Above all, there is a celebration and reverence for everyday life. And if we need anything from rock & roll, it's that. It would be unfair to lay on Bruce Springsteen the responsibility of guiding people through the aftermath of a tragedy and getting on with the business of living, but rock & roll as impure, messy, and edifying as this helps” – AllMusic

Stream: https://open.spotify.com/album/23vzCh5cDn0LzdGmGWrT1d

Key Cut: The Rising

Western Stars

Release Date: 14th June, 2019

Label: Columbia

Producer: Ron Aniello

Standout Tracks: Western Stars/Chasin’ Wild Horses/Hello Sunshine

Review:

Certainly, there’s a real and rather affecting love evident in the way Springsteen channels the sound on Western Stars. There are moments of transcendent loveliness – not least the shivering instrumental coda of Drive Fast – but he’s also unafraid of its occasional tendency towards schmaltz. Quite the opposite. Listening to There Goes My Miracle or Sundown, on which he slathers on the high-camp strings and transforms his voice into a croon, denuded of the usual Springsteen grit, you get the feeling he’s having a whale of a time: an artist always held up as the apotheosis of honest, blue-collar heartland rock revelling in artifice, in much the same way as he audibly delighted in telling audiences at his Broadway residency that the character of Bruce Springsteen was a Ziggy Stardust-ish construct who had never done anything. It helps that the songs are strong enough to withstand the treatment, seldom slipping into pastiche. The only real misfire is Sleepy Joe’s Café, which feels a little round-edged for its own good, not aided by an ingratiatingly perky accordion: the E Street Band could have turned it into something more driving and potent.

It’s the same sad story, going round and round,” Springsteen sings on The Wayfarer and listening to the rest of the album’s lyrics, you take his point. If the sound of Western Stars sets it apart from Springsteen’s earlier solo albums, the words pull it closer. Like Nebraska or The Ghost of Tom Joad, it offers a selection of bleak narratives and lingering pen-portraits, and, like Nebraska and The Ghost of Tom Joad, it seems a product of its era. The former album’s cast of conflicted cops and desperate criminals undercut the gung-ho triumphalism of Reagan’s America, while Tom Joad’s illegal immigrants and drug runners did the same for an era of record highs on the Dow Jones index. Western Stars, meanwhile, is populated by characters past their best – the title track’s fading actor, reduced to hawking Viagra on TV and retelling his stories for anyone who’ll buy him a drink; Drive Fast’s injured stuntman recalling his youthful recklessness, the failed songwriter of Somewhere North of Nashville and the guy glumly surveying the boarded-up site of an old tryst on Moonlight Motel – all of them ruminating on how things have changed, not just for the worse, but in ways none of them anticipated.

It adds up to an album that manages to be both unexpected and of a piece with its author’s back catalogue. Normal service may well be resumed in due course, but Western Stars is powerful enough to make you wish Bruce Springsteen would take more stylistic detours in the future” – The Guardian

Stream: https://open.spotify.com/album/6BhqPpIgY83rqoZ2L78Lte

Key Cut: There Goes My Miracle

FEATURE: Remind Me Today: 2019 and the Dominance of Female Artists

FEATURE:

 

Remind Me Today

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IN THIS PHOTO: Billie Marten/PHOTO CREDIT: Lauren McDermott 

2019 and the Dominance of Female Artists

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ONE can overlook and forgive…

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IN THIS PHOTO: Madonnatron/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

the fact that, at various points this year, I have talked about the prominence and dominance of female artists. Clearly, there is still massive inequality in the music industry: the quality female artists are putting out is not being matched with focus and appreciation by those making decisions. If you look at the best albums of this year, in my view, the majority have been made by women. From Stealing Sheep’s Big Wows to Madonnatron’s Musica Alla Puttanesca, there have been some terrific releases. In fact, those two albums I have just mentioned are superbly underrated and terrific albums that have definite bounce, colour and beauty. They are complex albums but make you feel better and nourished. Throw into the mix the recently-released forevher by the excellent Shura and there are these wonderful albums out there not getting the credit they deserve. Shura’s latest album is free, spirited and ecstatic. On it, Shura details falling in love and the rush from that feeling. It is full of memorable tracks and I love the 1980s-inspired sound. If I had to list all the best albums from women this year then I would be going for a long time! I have mentioned a few albums that you need to get; some that have not got the acclaim and focus they warrant. One of my favourite albums from this year is Remind Me Tomorrow by Sharon Van Etten. This is Van Etten’s fifth studio album and, released in January, it kicked 2019 off supremely!

Singles such as Seventeen and Comeback Kid are among the best I have heard from Van Etten - and she has hit a new peak. When reviewing the album, Pitchfork had this to say:

“…And yet, Remind Me Tomorrow is not unyielding. It is the peak of Van Etten’s songwriting, her most atmospheric and emotionally piercing album to date. Often when it concerns love, it’s about how tentative it feels: “Turning the wheel on my street/My heart still skips a beat,” she sings on “Jupiter 4” (named for the synthesizer behind much of the album), a whirring dirge filled with ghostly cries and thunderclaps. “You’ll run,” she sings on “Memorial Day,” drawing out the words into a narcotic, sparkling haze. The album’s truest love song, “Malibu,” relishes the memory of a carefree romantic holiday, but Van Etten still highlights the transience of driving down the coast in “the little red car that don’t belong to you”.

Unlike a lot of Pop albums, Self Esteem can be relied upon to push musical boundaries and give the listener some genuine range and quality. The moniker of Slow Club’s Rebecca Taylor, Compliments Please is a huge album that, for some reason, was nominated for this year’s Mercury Prize. Maybe it was in the judges’ thoughts, but one cannot deny Compliments Please is one of 2019’s best from a superb artist who is among the most original around.

Taylor is brilliant when it comes to subverting Pop conventions and emotional limitation; songs that are full of character and spirit – I would expect Self Esteem to be a festival fixture next year. Before mentioning a few widely-mentioned albums, I want to discuss one of my favourite artists. Billie Marten staggered me on her 2016 debut, Writing of Blues and Yellows. Her Folk-cum-Indie blend is beautiful, and her voice is one of the most arresting around. If her debut was closer to home (Yorkshire) and her teenage observations, Feeding Seahorses by Hand is a more eclectic, wide-ranging and mature album, perhaps – Marten now resides in London and the album seems to reflect someone tackling city life. Marten is an artist who creates such intelligent and moving songs, and yet you do not hear her on the radio as much as you’d expect. It is a shame, but one needs to check out her music and see what I mean! Jamila Woods’ LEGACY! LEGACY! is an album dedicated to pioneers of colour – each song features a different role model as the focus. It is, perhaps, my favourite album of this year and I adore Woods’ voice. It is hard to ignore the importance of LEGACY! LEGACY! and power. Here is a sample review:    

Almost every predecessor conjured in and in-between Woods’ lyrics balanced their craft alongside an unending fight for total equality, whether they wanted to or not: “All the women in me are tired” becomes a running motif throughout the album. With LEGACY! LEGACY!, Jamila Woods positions herself to join the battle, bridging the gap, once and for all, between our unresolved past and the promise that awaits us all on the horizon”.

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IN THIS PHOTO: SASAMI/PHOTO CREDIT: Alice Baxley 

Before I mention other year-owning albums, one cannot help but ignore upcoming artists like SASAMI and Liz Lawrence; Tierra Whack, Sampa the Great and girl in red. Throw into the mix names like HALSEY, IDER and Girl Ray and, without digging that deep, you can see what is on offer! I will end with a playlist that collates the artists I have mentioned. Solange’s When I Get Home ranks as one of the year’s best and, whilst it is not as acclaimed as her previous album, A Seat at the Table, it is a fantastic record and one that spills over with brilliance. Here is how AllMusic assessed the album:

Certain tracks offer little more than riffing and moodscapes, yet all 19 are shaped into a concise flowing whole with subtle twists and turns. Smoothest of all is the point where the bewitching and beatless "Jerrod," on which "Come and say the word and you know you gon' hit it" is sung in the most tender way imaginable, shifts into the steady-rocking "Binz," allowing Solange to wind up her waist and get gleefully materialistic with the-Dream in tow. Relatively drastic is the switch from the chugging "all black (and brown) everything" exultation "Almeda," also featuring Dream, into the aching and intimate "Time (Is)." Separation of the two songs is nonetheless unimaginable. Just as skillfully latticed is the large assortment of artists honored through evocation, collaboration, and sampling. The cleverest placement might be the sampled gospel group singing "Please take the wheel forever." In the context of When I Get Home, their devoted appeal takes on a literal meaning while losing none of its redemptive intent”.

I have mentioned the variety and range from female artists but, to me, there is this crop of young songwriters we need to watch out for. Billie Eilish is an artist (rightly) attracting a lot of attention right now. Her album, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, is so confident and compelling one can hardly believe she is a teenager! Her brand of Pop is darker and more experimental than a lot of the mainstream and, at a time when there is so much stagnant Pop around, Eilish is a definite breath of fresh air! I predict great things for her and feel she will be a festival headliner very soon – she went down a storm at Glastonbury and has an enormous fanbase. Lizzo’s third album, Cuz I Love You, is full of sass, energy and bangers. It is an album that has heart and emotion but, if you want to feel good and enriched, put this album on. Like Eilish, Lizzo is an artist storming festivals and getting a lot of love. Not only has Grimes released a new single (Violence) but, when thinking about singles and albums coming up, it enforces my view that women are making the best music around. I shall allude to that but, rounding off the best albums of 2019 so far and one must acknowledge Lana Del Rey’s Normal Fucking Rockwell! It has just been released and, as with any Lana Del Rey album, there was a lot of hype and build.

In the case of Norman Fucking Rockwell!, the attention and praise is right on the money. It is a fantastic album and one that has accrued a lot of big reviews. Here is NME’s assessment:

 “Then, there’s the little utterances that are littered throughout the record that you wouldn’t bat an eyelid to with anyone else but feel odd given how closely linked the person singing them here is with nostalgia and vintage Americana. On ‘The Greatest’ (maybe one of the greatest songs she’s ever written), she sings, “the culture is lit and I’ve had a ball” in a tone that could be incredibly sincere or eye-rolling sarcasm. As the album comes to an end, she throws in a quick nod to modern technology, purring, “Hello, it’s the most famous woman you know on the iPad” on the tender waltz of ‘Hope Is A Dangerous Thing For A Woman Like Me To Have – But I Have It’.

That she veers from the ultra-modern to references to Sylvia Plath and photographer Slim Aarons, and from Laurel Canyon folk to trembling psych solos, on an album named after American author and illustrator Norman Rockwell only seem to prove the point she’s trying to make in her Twitter bio. Lana Del Rey is large – she contains multitudes, and the way she balances and embodies them on her fifth album is nothing short of stunning”.

IN THIS PHOTO: Little Simz/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

I shall wrap up soon but, before nodding to some big albums yet to come, I want to name four more albums that have made a big impression. Little Simz has been Mercury Prize-nominated for her album, GREY Area, and one can see why! It is a huge release and one that is among the absolute finest of this year. It is an album that is personal and real but looks at the outside world. At a time when we are facing crisis and division, Simz beautifully documents the modern world with just the right balance of anger and compassion. This is The Independent’s review of GREY Area:

 “Simz flips between two tones: bristling and unapologetic, and warm and reflective. “Offence” is the former, with tongue-in-cheek bars that have her hailing herself as “Jay-Z on a bad day, Shakespeare on my worst days”. So, too, is “Boss”, with its killer bass hook and distorted punk vocals. Elsewhere, she considers the impact of her own ambition: “Wanting to be legendary and iconic, does that come with darkness?” she asks on closer “Flowers”, reflecting on her idols Jimi Hendrix and Amy Winehouse.

There’s another subtle nod to Winehouse on “Therapy”, which is anchored by her extraordinary bass player, in the way it recalls the late artist’s biggest single “Rehab” on the chorus. Simz has said making this album felt cathartic. “Selfish” assesses her independence, while “Boss” lets rip at the man/men who disrespected her. “Venom”, which opens with a shiver of violins, is so menacing you wonder what kind of fool would dare to get in her bad books. What Simz does here is phenomenal. This is an album – and artist – to cherish”.

I lied when I said I only wanted to mention four more album. Julia Jacklin’s Crushing is a beautiful, personal and revealing collection that will speak to so many people. I urge people to check it out because, in my opinion, Jacklin is one of the most accomplished songwriters in the world. Another artist who can buckle the knees with her gorgeous voice and exquisite songwriting is Lucy Rose. Forgive me, again, if I am repeating myself but I think these incredible artists deserve a lot of praise – not in a mansplaining way: I am highlighting the fact women are creating some of the best music around and, as sexism and inequality remains, we all need to do a lot more. No Words Left is stunning record and I would say it nestles somewhere between Billie Marten and Julia Jacklin when it comes to feel and tone. Sleater-Kinney recently lost their long-term drummer Janet Weiss but, on the last album she released with them, you can witness something immense. Produced by Annie Clark (St. Vincent), it is a slightly different direction for Sleater-Kinney. The Center Won’t Hold is one of my favourite albums from the year and I especially adore the track, Hurry on Home. I wonder where Sleater-Kinney will head and whether we will hear another album – I am sure we will see one. Jenny Lewis is an artist who has been on the scene for a while but, on her latest album, On the Line, she has crafted her finest work.

In this review from The Telegraph, they get to the core:

By the album’s conclusion, Lewis has renounced both love and drugs. “Bad habits will be broken/ Boy, I have kicked a few/ And seven days off the dope and I’ll be good as new,” she sings on the trippy Rabbit Hole.

As break-up albums go, the mood is remarkably positive. Lewis’s mother (a long-term heroin addict) died from cancer during recording and chances are you will never hear such a spirited, upbeat elegy as the groovy Little White Dove (one of three tracks produced by Beck with Jim Keltner on drums). There is nothing ground-breaking here, and Lewis pays not even the faintest lip service to contemporary pop trends. But if you like quality songwriting delivered with panache, On The Line is on the money”.

It has been a really strong year for music and, with a few months remaining, who knows what we can expect. Pitchfork have selected a few albums we need to get involved with and, with released from Kim Gordon (No Home Record – 11th October, Matador), Tegan and Sara (Hey, I’m Just Like You – 27th September, Sire); Angel Olsen (All Mirrors – 4th October, Jagjaguwar), Brittany Howard (Jaime – 20th September, ATO); Sampa the Great (The Return – 13th September, Ninja Tune) and Jenny Hval (The Practice of Love – 13th September, Sacred Bones) to come, we have plenty more to look forward to!

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 IN THIS PHOTO: Sampa the Great/PHOTO CREDIT: Andy Hughes/NME

I would recommend you check out the album and artists I have included as they are among the finest of 2019. I have not even scratched the surface when it comes to the huge singles and newcomers – one can understand I must limit things a bit. How does this all translate into 2020? I do hope there will be improvement regarding women booked for festivals. I keep mentioning how radio playlists are tipped in favour of male artists and, with so many terrific female artists around, I am not sure why there is stubbornness and slow improvement. It is a bit frustrating to see the same problems crop up regarding gender imbalance. In any case, let’s just enjoy the brilliant music that has come through this year. I am really looking forward to seeing what the remainder of 2019 provides because, as I keep saying, this year has been a huge one! I shall end things there, but I feel it is important to revise my feature regarding incredible female artists. From the Folk of Billie Marten to the fire of Lizzo, we have seen so much phenomenal music emerge. At such a difficult time for us all, music provides a form of solace and relief. There is a lot of great music around but, in my view, most is being made by women.  For giving the world such captivating, stunning and fascinating music we must give our…   

THANKS to them all.

FEATURE: Sisters in Arms: An All-Female, Summer-Ready Playlist (Vol. XII)

FEATURE:

 

 

Sisters in Arms

IN THIS PHOTO: Mahalia 

An All-Female, Summer-Ready Playlist (Vol. XII)

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THE weather this week is a bit changeable…

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 IN THIS PHOTO: Skott

but we can rely on wonderful music to give it a lift and a bit of heat! In this week’s female-led playlist, there is a nice array of genres and sounds. From some fiery Pop to something a bit more chilled and cool, there should be something in there for everyone! I am always amazed at the sheer breadth and weight of music this year - and leading the way is women. That might sound controversial but I feel women in music are digging deeper and producing more interesting work. Whatever your viewpoint, have a listen to my playlist and I know you will find much to love. It is another compelling week and one that sports many gems. Get this playlist locked and loaded and give your weekend…

 IN THIS PHOTO: Carmody

A fantastic soundtrack.

ALL PHOTOS (unless credited otherwise): Getty Images/Artists

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GriffDidn’t Break It Enough

PHOTO CREDIT: Rory James

IDER – Slide

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MicraFuzz Captain

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MUNAPink Light

GeowulfLonely

DelaceyActress

King PrincessAin’t Together

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KiiaraBipolar

PHOTO CREDIT: Pose Mag

SkottBloodhound

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Cashmere CatFOR YOUR EYES ONLY

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Kelsea Ballerinihomecoming queen?

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IN THIS PHOTO: Gemini Rising

Gemini Rising, Tensnake, Fiora - After the Rain

Abbie OzardOn a Low

Gia FordGOD, CAMERAS, EVERYONE

Baby TaylahReclaim

PHOTO CREDIT: ELLE Magazine (US)

Camila Cabello - Shameless

Tiwa Savage49-99

MahaliaWhat Am I?

CarmodyCatching Blue

Charlotte Lawrence, KlingandeWhy Do You Love Me

Sienna HamiltonGrey

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IN THIS PHOTO: Amelia Monét

Amelia Monet (ft. Br3nya)Bumper

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Maddie & TaeBathroom Floor

Anna of the NorthDream Girl

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PHOTO CREDIT: Horizons / Gorwelion

I See Rivers Collide

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Orla Gartland - Did It to Myself

Rico NastyFashion Week

FEATURE: The September Playlist: Vol. 1: Violence and Good Girls Going to Hell

FEATURE:

 

The September Playlist

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IN THIS PHOTO: Grimes/PHOTO CREDIT: Eli Russell Linnetz 

Vol. 1: Violence and Good Girls Going to Hell

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EVEN though I keep pointing out…

 IN THIS PHOTO: Billie Eilish

how we get quiet weeks and then big ones…you can’t fail to ignore the fact that there are some pretty mighty tracks out this week! Not only are there releases from Bat for Lashes and Billie Eilish, but there are tracks from Grimes, Sam Fender and Mystery Jets! Sampa the Great has also released a new song and, all combined, it makes for a dizzying and explosive rundown. Have a listen to the terrific tracks and you’ll be hooked by the blends on offer. It is a really fascinating week and, without further ado, it is probably best I let you get into the tracks! Have a good listen and I know these songs will get your weekend off…

 IN THIS PHOTO: Sam Fender/PHOTO CREDIT: Sarah Louise Bennett

TO the perfect start!  

ALL PHOTOS/IMAGES (unless credited otherwise): Getty Images/Artists

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PHOTO CREDIT: Eli Russell Linnetz 

Grimes & i_o Violence

PHOTO CREDIT: Logan White

Bat for Lashes Desert Man

PHOTO CREDIT: Yvan Fabing

Billie Eilish - all the good girls go to hell

Iggy Pop Page 

Mystery Jets - History Has Its Eyes on You 

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Hot Chip - Bath Full of Ecstasy

PHOTO CREDIT: Andrew Whitton

Elbow Empires

Sam Fender The Borders

Bombay Bicycle Club - Eat, Sleep, Wake (Nothing But You)

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PHOTO CREDIT: Chris Almeida

girl in red bad idea!

PHOTO CREDIT: Ying Ang

Sampa the Great (ft. Whosane) - Heaven

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Mahalia (ft. Ella Mai) What You Did 

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Stormzy Sounds of the Skeng

Miles Kane - Blame It on the Summertime

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PHOTO CREDIT: Michael Bailey-Gates

King Princess Ain’t Together

PHOTO CREDIT: Christian Vierig/Getty Images

Camila Cabello Shameless

Belle & Sebastian This Letter

PHOTO CREDIT: David Harrison

Professor Green (ft. Alice Chater) - Got It All  

Bleached Daydream

Greta Van Fleet - Always There

Skott Bloodhound

Mallrat Drive Me Round

Oh Wonder Hallelujah

John Mayer Carry Me Away

Sofi Tukker Purple Hat

grandson Oh No!!!

blink-182 – I Really Wish I Hated You

FEATURE: Boiling Point: The Mercury Prize 2019: The United State of British Music

FEATURE:

 

Boiling Point: The Mercury Prize 2019

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IN THIS PHOTO: Little Simz is nominated for a Mercury Prize for her album, GREY Area/PHOTO CREDIT: Andy Parsons 

The United State of British Music

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ON Tuesday…

 IN THIS PHOTO: Rapper Dave scooped two awards at the AIM Independent Music Awards on 3rd September, 2019 (and is Mercury-nominated for his debut album, PSYCHODRAMA)/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

it was the AIM Independent Music Awards. Presented by Lauren Laverne, it was a chance to celebrate great independent music and some cutting-edge British acts. There were a lot of great artists on the bill but, as this reflection article reports, it was a healthy, diverse and magic night:

South London rapper Dave has scooped the two biggest prizes of the night at the AIM Independent Music Awards.

The grime artist, real name David Orobosa Omoregie, secured Best Independent Album for his debut Psychodrama and Best Independent Track for his number one hit, Funky Friday ft Fredo.

It follows a stand-out year for the 21-year-old, who won over a legion of fans at Glastonbury and is due to star in the third series of gritty crime drama Top Boy.

Political punk rockers Idles were also honoured with the Best (Difficult) Second Album prize for their sophomore record Joy As An Act of Resistance.

The Bristol band’s label, Partisan Records, took home the award for Best Independent Label thanks to the success of its roster, which includes Cigarettes After Sex and John Grant.

West London rapper AJ Tracey also performed during the ceremony.

The chief executive of AIM, Paul Pacifico, said: “The list of winners tonight reflects the boldness of the independent community – artists and labels who are unafraid to push the boundaries and take risks to produce some of the UK’s most cutting-edge cultural output.

“As we celebrate AIM’s twentieth year championing independence, it’s amazing to see that creative spirit celebrated in this way at a venue like the Roundhouse”.

On a great evening for British talent (and international artists such as Debbie Harry), it made me think about the approaching Mercury Prize ceremony and the fact that, over the past year or so, British music has really come to the fore! I know British music has always burned bright but, at a point in history when we are all rather worried and distracted by the machinations in political circles, our very finest have stepped up to provide us power, guidance and relief. The debate about this year’s Mercury Prize, luckily, isn’t about the pedigree of the nominees – past years have been derided for a lack of inclusiveness and poor quality. This year not only has a great range of artists included – although genres like Metal are, once more, missing -, but there is discussion as to who will win. Before I come to that, let’s look at the shortlist. What one notices, at first, is a relative lack of Scottish and Irish inclusions. This has been a problem before but, with Dublin’s Fontaines D.C. nominated for their debut, Dogrel, it is a positive step forward. In fact, there is a rare inclusion for a Welsh artist: Cate Le Bon’s Reward is a much-deserved inclusion. Both are strikingly different albums but it goes to show that the best of British is not exclusively reserved to London – past years have seen a major focus on South London acts.

This year, as you’d expect, reflects the rise and continued growth of Hip-Hop and Rap coming from the capital: Little Simz is nominated for GREY Area and Dave’s exceptional debut, PSYCHODRAMA, is included. Just look at those albums I have included and it shows what a strong field we have. I have always preferred Hip-Hop from the U.S. but, with Little Simz and Dave releasing albums that are as accessible as they are urgent, we are seeing a new breeds of Rap artists emerging that are able to compete with the best of America. Given the fact there are so many problems in Britain right now, I am not shocked we have seen such strong and resonant albums from two immense British talents. Not only is Dave’s explosive debut nominated but another debut is on the list: Slowthai’s Nothing Great About Britain is another political and socially-aware record that picked up huge reviews when it was released back in May. I think he is an outside shot and, whilst it is not one of my favourite albums of the year, it just goes to show British Rap is in rude and healthy state! I think there is a three-way split (regarding possible winners) between the Rap elite and the rest…oh, and IDLES! They have their own category because, not only did they win big at this year’s AIM Independent Music Awards but their album, Joy as an Act of Resistant is being tipped as a favourite.

I will predict my winner but, if you want an example of what British artists are producing right now, IDLES’ incredible sophomore release needs to be in your thoughts. This is how NME assessed the album:

Everything about ‘Joy As An Act Of Resistance’ is just so perfectly realised. The band began to write the album immediately after they finished work on ‘Brutalism’ – and it shows. The songs feel lived in, the record’s overarching message – that of the necessity of unity, positivity and loving yourself – so empowering that it almost amounts to an entire worldview. It’s even more powerful for the fact that Talbot worked on the album in the midst of massive personal trauma. This is a proper classic punk album, one that people will turn to in times of need, one whose authors are unembarrassed about still believing that art can manifest positive change. As Talbot roars on ‘I’m Scum’: “This snowflake’s an avalanche”.

I will end this feature by squaring the two artists I feel are the likeliest to win this year’s Mercury Prize: IDLES and Anna Calvi (for her third album – and third Mercury nod -, Hunter). Just look at the sheer variety of the remaining albums! Black Midi are a divisive band (I am not a fan but I can see why some like them) and Schlagenheim is one of the most indelible and original records I have heard! They are, as I say, divisive but the acclaim they have warranted reflects a desire for a band who not follow the normal; who are not boring and, importantly, have a unique voice.

IN THIS PHOTO: Black Midi/PHOTO CREDIT: Matilda Hill-Jenkins for Loud and Quiet

When speaking with Loud and Quiet recently, the writer highlighted how, even in conversation, the band are a special brand:

“…This, it turns out, is how they set about writing their complex, restless music, as Kelvin explains.

“We’ll record everything, then listen back to that for things we really like and take it from there. Latch onto a single bit at a time, then take other bits, and mash them together.”

“There’s a lot of scaling down,” says Simpson. “We’ll listen to the recordings individually, and different people will like different bits, which makes it kind of cool.”

Simpson expands. “It basically just came from one article. We never set out to be hard to find. I guess the whole mystery thing is the lack of activity on social media, but that’s not a lack of anything – we’re posting what people wanna see, just the information that’s needed.” It’s true: look at their social media presence, and it is fairly sparse, but they do share all their live dates and link to where their music is available online. They’re not hiding anything.

“But yeah, that NME article, saying we’re mysterious, was one of the first things that was written about us, so it set the tone for what followed,” says Simpson. “But it’s just made up.”

Picton laughs wearily. “That article was funny as well, cos they were like, ‘the band have no recorded music whatsoever, you can’t hear them anywhere’, and then at the bottom it linked to the NTS session, which then linked to three other tracks that you could’ve listened to at the time. They were all studio quality too – it was a live recording, but it was in a proper recording studio”.

Even though they are outside punts for the Mercury, one cannot exclude Foals, SEED Ensemble and Nao. Foals’ Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost – Part 1 is one of this year’s biggest Rock albums and, as I mused yesterday, at a time when Rock is not as potent and memorable as it was in the past, Foals are keeping the flame alive. I think they are going to be on the scene for many more years and, at a time when Rock and Alternative music is taking a back seat to other genres, we still have some great bands like Foals flying the flag. Every Mercury year has artists included considered ‘outsiders’ or, more offensively, ‘token’. Nao’s Saturn is a fantastic album and, in any other year, it would be higher up the bookies’ table regarding favourites. The album is a beautiful blend of Soul, R&B and other sounds sprinkled in. It is sweet and soulful; it is driving and raw at times. I think, even though it is unlikely to win, everyone should check it out as it is one of 2018 best albums (Saturn was released last year). SEED Ensemble’s Driftglass is another top album but, again, it is outsider. I have lauded British Rap and Post-Punk but, listen to all the great Jazz swirling around, and it is clear so many different genres are flourishing. I think, compared with the U.S., we are succeeding and innovating across so many different genres. American artist are great but I think we dig deeper, go broader and the results are bigger!

Whilst Pop – mainstream Pop at least – never usually makes the Mercury shortlist (the fact Ed Sheeran was nominated a couple of years back stirred up some controversy!), The 1975 blend Pop into their brew. Their acclaimed album, A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships, was released late last year and the band are preparing to release Notes on a Conditional Form next year. Mixing political and social commentary with accessible choruses and uplifting sounds, The 1975 are one of the hottest groups in the world right now. One cannot overlook them and I would not be shocked if they won the Mercury Prize. I think the race will be between the aforementioned IDLES and Anna Calvi. This is the third time Calvi has been nominated for a Mercury - and the fact she has had every one of her records nominated is pretty impressive! Hunter is a terrific album and is such a powerful listen! Calvi discusses sexism and gender; she is intoxicating and passionate throughout and has, I think, released her most rounded and complete album so far. In this review,The Line of Best Fit had their say:

Although she operates more than comfortably in rock (see "Indies or Paradise" for a brilliantly trashy update of Rid Of Me-era PJ Harvey), it’s in the subtler and more nuanced moments that Hunter really comes into its own. "Swimming Pool"'s mixture of sweeping strings and a rare moment of vulnerability from Calvi provides a captivating nod to The Wicker Man, whereas she strips everything back on "Away" to just guitar and synth, vocals close to the ear and cracking with resignation. It’s a moment of staggering simplicity which proves to be deeply affecting.

IN THIS PHOTO: Anna Calvi is nominated for her album, Hunter/PHOTO CREDIT: Eva Pentel for DIY

Three excellent albums in, Calvi has produced her most complex work to date. As "Chain" attests (“I’ll be the boy you’ll be the girl / I’ll be the girl you’ll be the boy I’ll be the girl”), she exists on the periphery of many things: indie, rock, art rock, cinematic pop, being a boy, being a girl. On Hunter she refuses to clarify anything, proving to be both all of these things, and none of them”.

It is, as I said at the start, a really strong year. One can have few complaints regarding the standard of nominated albums/artists and, despite some genres not being included, the best of British is in the pack. One can quibble there are notable omissions – Self Esteem’s Compliments Please would have been a popular choice - but the dozen selected artists show that British music is not only wonderfully rich and memorable but there are so many different sounds and shades. From the more angular and odder Black Midi to the more commercial The 1975; the frontrunners Anna Calvi and IDLES to the blaze of Dave and Little Simz. I feel Anna Calvi and IDLES will be the ones to beat – although, as past years have shown, one can never predict! -  and many are rooting for Calvi to (finally) scoop the prize. I do go back and forth regarding those two names…but I do think IDLES will win the prize. I think 2018-2019 has been such a fantastic period for British music and, whether it is bands like IDLES tearing it up in venues or artists like Anna Calvi and Dave making us come together and think about modern life/society, it is a golden time! On Thursday, 19th September, we will see who walks away with the 2019 Mercury Prize. Whether it is Foals, Fontaines D.C. or Cate Le Bon, we can agree that the music from Britain over the past year or so has been wonderful. In a sense, everyone who has been shortlisted for a Mercury Prize…

IS a winner!