2016 in Music

Uncategorized

2016 has been an appalling year. I mean really, really appalling, to the point where it will eternally be the answer to pretty much any quiz question beginning: “in which year…”. Political turmoil, terrorism, tension, extremism, Brexit, Donald fucking Trump, and, of course, the deaths of an extraordinary amount of influential, important figures. The first, less than a fortnight into the year, was of course the legendary David Bowie.

 

https://goandgettheguitar.wordpress.com/2016/01/11/david-bowie-i-love-you-since-i-was-11/

 

2 days before his death, Bowie released his final album, ‘Blackstar’. In doing so, ahead of his imminent death, he kicked off an interesting year in music. From my perspective (and it is, of course, one limited by time constraints, my own tastes and the like), there have been a few notable themes in 2016, with Bowie acting as a representation of one: the brilliance of, shall we say, a few ‘veteran’ names in rock. To clarify, genres are fluid – they are bleeding into one another more and more all of the time, they are rather indefinable, and do these artists a disservice, but I will stick with “rock” for ease. Bowie, Radiohead, Nick Cave, Swans, and Leonard Cohen all delivered wonderful albums, able to stand proudly with the best of these great artists’ works.

 

https://goandgettheguitar.wordpress.com/2016/11/11/leaving-the-table/

 

Bowie displayed his extensive repertoire until the end, with a Kendrick Lamar, LCD Soundsystem, jazz influenced record. Some have said that it has not been judged objectively due to his death, and it is indeed hard to ignore the context, but the more pertinent question may be whether we should avoid the context when it has so clearly, and painfully, informed the music itself. An old platitude when it comes to new Bowie albums has been to deem it “his best since ‘Scary Monsters’”, but I actually think ‘Blackstar’ is the superior work, and is probably his best since the masterful Berlin Trilogy. Nick Cave, similarly to Bowie, delivered one of the most achingly beautiful albums of his long career in the face of tragedy (Cave had to cope with the heart-breaking loss of his son during recording), and Swans completed their brutal late-career trilogy with the exhausting, yet captivating, ‘The Glowing Man’. Leonard Cohen’s record shared ideas with those of Bowie and Cave, an elegiac, stunning rumination on old age and death. Cohen’s death hit me harder than any other I have experienced, his work has been a constant source of inspiration and comfort through my life, and like Bowie he ended with one of his greatest ever albums. Instead of pained and scared, both Bowie and Cohen sounded at ease with their situation, with Cohen continuing the idea expressed in interviews preceding his death, at 82, that he was ready to accept death with no sadness. With his goodbye album, he gave us some of the best work of his illustrious career. I have written about Radiohead’s ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’, so won’t go into detail again, other than to say it is truly mesmeric. My initial review of the album can be found here:

 

https://goandgettheguitar.wordpress.com/2016/05/11/a-moon-shaped-pool-a-triumph/

 

Formed in 1985, with their first full-length release in 1993, Radiohead act as the babies of this group, with Bowie, Cave, Swans and Cohen releasing their debut albums in 1967, 1979, 1983 and 1967 respectively. With almost 200 years between them in the industry, they have remained musical titans, and though Bowie and Cohen have passed, they all continued/continue to lead the way into their later careers. It is difficult to assess whether it is a change in my own taste, an impact of the aforementioned bleeding into one another of genres, or a difficult period for rock music, but there seems to be a dearth in great guitar music at the moment, as indeed there has for a while. From the 4 artists that I have mentioned, it is only really Swans that still focus almost exclusively on guitars. Nick Cave’s last 2 albums have returned more to his piano-led work of the mid to late-90s, ‘Blackstar’ was often driven by percussion, strings and brass, and Radiohead have famously moved away from guitars in the past 20 years. Though they are still present in the work, it would be very tough to consider them a “guitar band” any more.

 

Parquet Courts, Drive-By Truckers and King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard made three of the better albums in the genre (though marks may be docked for the latter’s ridiculous name), Exploding View’s eponymous album is a heady mixture of Sonic Youth, Shoegazing and Krautrock, and there was a promising debut from D. D. Dumbo, but none are the shot in the arm that rock music may need. There is a history of ground-breaking, influential albums that cause a shift in what can be achieved with the instrument and format: The Velvet Underground’s and The Modern Lovers’ pivotal debuts, Television’s ‘Marquee Moon’, The Jesus & Mary Chain’s ‘Psychocandy’, Pixies’ ‘Surfer Rosa’, My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless, Radiohead’s ‘OK Computer’ – it feels like the instrument may need another.

 

One guitar-led album that has become a favourite of mine through the year is Car Seat Headrest’s ‘Teens of Denial’. Songwriter Will Toledo wears his influences on his sleeve (The Strokes, The Cars, Pavement) almost to the point of plagiarism at times, but he does so with dexterity. Indeed, the song ‘Not What I Needed’ originally contained a sample of The Cars’ track ‘Just What I Needed’, before a debacle in which Cars leader Ric Ocasek withdrew his approval prior to the album’s release. He treads the line skilfully, and what could have been a throwaway derivative album ends up being one of the most charming, addictive LPs of the year. It was one of the best singer/songwriter works of 2016, a year in which Jeff Rosenstock refined his sound and enhanced his reputation as one of his generation’s best songwriters with ‘WORRY.’, Kevin Morby impressed with the heavily Bob Dylan indebted ‘Singing Saw’, and Conor Oberst produced his best albums in years, the exceptionally beautiful ‘Ruminations’.

 

In recent years, while rock has stagnated, the most interesting music has been coming out of other genres and areas of music. The seismic albums of the decade so far have often come from hip-hop and R&B – Kanye’s ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’, Kendrick’s ‘Good Kid Maad City’ and ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’, Frank Ocean’s ‘Channel Orange’ – and this has continued into 2016. It is often the case that we find the greatest art in times of hardship and oppression, and this may be part of the reason that black America has again been the source of a lot of the year’s best music, as racial tensions increase in the US. The best record of 2015 was Kendrick Lamar’s politically charged, complex masterwork ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’, and there have again been some fantastic hip-hop/R&B releases. Danny Brown and Frank Ocean made triumphant returns with the glorious ‘Atrocity Exhibition’ and ‘Blond’ respectively, Anderson. Paak impressed early in the year with ‘Malibu’, Solange built on works such as ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’ and D’Angelo’s ‘Black Messiah’ with her documentation of personal history and black culture in ‘A Seat at the Table’, Chance the Rapper channelled gospel and soul influences on ‘Coloring Book’, Death Grips’ furious onslaught continued with ‘Bottomless Pit, clipping. delivered another interesting, experimental piece with ‘Splendor & Misery’, YG delivered some great West Coast G-Funk on ‘Still Brazy’, and Brooklyn rapper Ka expanded his Wu-Tang influenced sound in ‘Honor Killed the Samurai’. While not his best record, ‘The Life of Pablo’ added to Kanye West’s imposing discography, EPs by the sublime Kendrick Lamar and Vince Staples whetted the appetite for future full-length works, and A Tribe Called Quest returned, in tragic circumstances after the death of member Phife Dawg, with the excellent ‘We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service’. Outside of the US, here in Britain Dev Hynes, aka Blood Orange, showed great progress with ‘Freetown Sound’, while Grime pioneers Kano and Skepta pushed the genre forward once more, and Michael Kiwanuka evoked Curtis Mayfield, Parliament-Funkadelic (particularly the guitar work of Eddie Hazel), and even at times Pink Floyd (notably the opening track) and latter-day Radiohead, in his genre-spanning ‘Love and Hate’.

 

The third trend this year has been the quantity, and quality, of brilliant female artists coming to the fore in a historically male dominated field. As I have mentioned, while Beyoncé’s Lemonade garnered huge critical acclaim*, her sister Solange released the best work of her career, with the political minded, gorgeous ‘A Seat at the Table’. Japanese born New Yorker Mitski blended deeply revealing lyrics with punk sensibilities and pop hooks on ‘Puberty 2’ (incidentally, it feels like if anyone is to shake up rock music, Mitski could be a good bet), Marissa Nadler produced possibly the most haunting, evocative album of the year with ‘Strangers’, which brought to mind one of the best records of last year – Julia Holter’s ‘Have You In My Wilderness – with its lush arrangements and frail, striking vocals, jazz bassist Esperanza Spalding came into her own with the energetic, charismatic ‘Emily’s D+Evolution’, and we were treated to the dazzling ‘My Woman’ by Angel Olsen. This is before even mentioning the efforts of Bat for Lashes, Eleanor Friedberger, Jenny Hval, PJ Harvey (certainly not one of her best but still worth a listen), Elysia Crampton, and the debut album of Manchester-born artist Shura – the latter two part of another strong year for electronic music that included impressive and fascinating work by Ital Tek, Ian William Craig, Mark Pritchard, Nicolas Jaar, Tim Hecker, The Avalanches and others. As is common in recent years, electronic elements were prevalent in some of the most popular works by traditionally non-electronic artists, notably in Bon Iver’s lauded  ’22, a Million’, which saw his sound progress in a manner reminiscent of Sufjan Stevens’ shift with ‘The Age of Adz’.

 

One of the most infuriating clichés is that “music nowadays is rubbish”, the kind of trite nonsense that has been trotted out from time immemorial (and one that always reminds me of Principal Skinner’s musings in The Simpsons: “Am I so out of touch? No, it is the children who are wrong”). If one had the time or inclination to look for it, there was a wealth of brilliant music in 2016, as there is every year. It will be exciting to see any developments and shifts in 2017.

 

*Caveat: I have not yet listened to ‘Lemonade’.

 

A wider apology for my neglect of certain genres such as jazz, metal, and various strains of world music. Despite my best efforts (a 2 hour round trip to work every day helps), I can’t listen to everything. I’m just a man goddammit! I expect that the following list may change over the coming years, when I discover what else 2016 had to offer, as my own tastes develop, and as albums on this list either do not stand up to repeated listens, or reveal more and more brilliance as time goes on.

 

My favourite 40 albums of 2016:

 

40) Parquet Courts – Human Performance

39) YG – Still Brazy

38) Nicolas Jaar – Sirens

37) King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard – Nonagon Infinity

36) Michael Kiwanuka – Love and Hate

35) PJ Harvey – The Hope Six Demolition Project

34) Xiu Xiu – Plays the Music of Twin Peaks

33) Shura – Nothing’s Real

32) The Avalanches – Wildflower

31) Tim Hecker – Love Streams

30) Deakin – Sleep Cycle

29) Kaytranada – 99.9%

28) Exploding View – Exploding View

27) Ian William Craig – Centres

26) A Tribe Called Quest – We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service

25) Bat for Lashes – The Bride

24) Chance the Rapper – Coloring Book

23) Ital Tek – Hollowed

22) Eleanor Friedberger – New View

21) Car Seat Headrest – Teens of Denial

20) Ka – Honor Killed the Samurai

19) Anna Meredith – Varmints

18) Swans – The Glowing Man

17) Jenny Hval – Blood Bitch

16) Sturgill Simpson – A Sailor’s Guide to Earth

15) Blood Orange – Freetown Sound

14) Conor Oberst – Ruminations

13) Anderson. Paak – Malibu

12) Esperanza Spalding – Emily’s D+Evolution

11) Bon Iver – 22, a Million

10) Nick Cave – Skeleton Tree

9) Mitski – Puberty 2

8) Leonard Cohen – You Want It Darker

7) Solange – A Seat at the Table

6) Frank Ocean – Blond

5) Angel Olsen – My Woman

4) Marissa Nadler – Strangers

3) Danny Brown – Atrocity Exhibition

2) David Bowie – Blackstar

1) Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool

Leaving the Table

Leonard Cohen, Uncategorized

When David Bowie passed at the start of this year, one crumb of comfort was that I should not feel as despairing about the death of a famous person for a long time. It was as if another light could not be extinguished so soon after, there must be a way that these things balance out, we can’t lose greatness on a frequent basis. That was until this morning, when we learned of the death of Leonard Cohen. This has been a year so rotten it is difficult to know where to begin. The loss of someone as eloquent, intelligent, and brilliant as Leonard Cohen almost feels like a microcosm of recent events. He died on Monday, the day before the US election. His timing, as ever, was impeccable.

 

This is a difficult feeling to describe. This is not a man being cut down before his time, it is not a man who feared death. Cohen spoke with an extraordinary clarity about the topic earlier this year, when his muse Marianne Ihlen was on her deathbed. In a letter than now takes on extra poignancy, Cohen wrote:

 

Well Marianne it’s come to this time when we are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon. Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine.

And you know that I’ve always loved you for your beauty and your wisdom, but I don’t need to say anything more about that because you know all about that. But now, I just want to wish you a very good journey. Goodbye old friend. Endless love, see you down the road.

 

It is extremely rare that someone can face their own mortality with such lucidity, yet it is just what we should have expected of a man who has affected so many with his wisdom, wit and character. On a personal level, Cohen’s music and poetry (he was a brilliant poet before he ever became a musician) has had a profound impact on my life. As a young teenager, Cohen’s music had an immediacy and beauty I could not easily find. While great novels unfurled over extensive periods, Cohen was able to condense remarkable tales and splendour into a few minutes. His voice, so effortlessly cool and wonderful (“I was born with this, I had no choice, I was born with the gift of a golden voice” as he sang, tongue firmly in cheek on ‘Tower of Song’), was a conduit for the most incredible poetry. While Dylan had a major influence on me when I was young, Cohen was unparalleled in his mastery of language, and his marrying of poetry with music. The great exponent of the couplet, his work made me realise the beauty of language, it was a huge inspiration in my choice to study English, and to write.

 

Cohen was able to tackle such disparate themes and styles with such dexterity. His lyrical prowess could express ideas in a unique way; he has been seen by many as a doom-monger, but there is so much that is wonderful about his work. He was able to convey love and passion with such creative, stunning language: “Hungry as an archway through which the troops have passed, I stand in ruins behind you with your winter clothes, your broken sandal straps. I love to see you naked over there especially from the back”; “thanks for the trouble you took from her eyes, I thought it was there for good so I never tried”; “lift me like an olive branch and be my homeward dove, dance me to the end of love”; “We met when we were almost young deep in the green lilac park. You held on to me like I was a crucifix, as we went kneeling through the dark”.

 

Yes, his work was tinged with poignancy and often sadness, but there was tremendous wit in his lyrics. I saw him live in 2009, a 3 and a half hour gig that stands among the best I have ever seen, and what was clear was the humility and warmth of the man. In all interviews, you can see how genuinely nice and funny he was, and this comes across in his work. “If you want a lover I’ll do anything you ask me to, and if you want another kind of love I’ll wear a mask for you”; “Give me crack and anal sex, take the only tree that’s left, and stuff it up the hole in your culture”; “Everybody knows that you love me baby, everybody knows that you really do. Everybody knows that you’ve been faithful, give or take a night or two. Everybody knows that you’ve been discreet, but there were so many people you just had to meet without your clothes, and everybody knows”. Cohen paired his acerbic wit with the aforementioned eloquence about romance in the wonderful Chelsea Hotel No. 2, a song about a liaison he had with Janis Joplin. No one else could write lyrics like: “You told me again you preferred handsome men, but for me you would make an exception. And clenching your fist for the ones like us who are oppressed by the figures of beauty, you fixed yourself, you said “well never mind, we are ugly but we have the music”.”

 

It is tempting to just list every lyric that Cohen ever wrote, and indeed it would be infinitely better than anything I can add, but I will just pick one more favourite. Cohen’s brilliance came from his inimitable style, the unmatched poetic nature of his lyrics, their slight obtuseness married with a strong sense of understanding and relatability. In Last Year’s Man, one of the great man’s greatest songs, we find the bizarrely evocative:

 

I came upon a wedding that old families had contrived;
Bethlehem the bridegroom,
Babylon the bride.
Great Babylon was naked, oh she stood there trembling for me,
And Bethlehem inflamed us both
Like the shy one at some orgy.
And when we fell together all our flesh was like a veil
That I had to draw aside to see
The serpent eat its tail.

 

While he was undoubtedly a great, much overlooked, melodicist, it was this turn of phrase, this unique command of the intricacies of language, this detail, that separated Cohen from all others. This death hurts, this death really hurts the world, but what he has left behind is a body of work that will stand the test of time, and a body of work that has had a remarkable effect on so many people. Many focus on the depressive elements of his music, but far more important is the impact they have had in saving many depressive people.

 

The man was a genius, and he will be remembered as such. I spent the morning crying about what we have lost, but like Bowie, Cohen went out on his own terms. In his fantastic new album, he sings “I don’t need a reason for what I became, I’ve got these excuses, they’re tired and lame. I don’t need a pardon, there’s no one left to blame, I’m leaving the table, I’m out of the game”. In trying to remain positive in the midst of despair, we should remember what the man himself sang: “there is a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in”.

 

Now, someone wrap Brian Wilson, Joni Mitchell and others in cotton wool please.

A Moon Shaped Pool – a triumph

A Moon Shaped Pool, Radiohead, Uncategorized

5 years ago, Radiohead surprised everyone with the release of their 8th studio album, ‘The King of Limbs’. Once the initial excitement had subsided, the album came to be viewed as a disappointment, a slight blotch on an almost flawless career. The album was short for one thing, clocking in at only 8 songs and 37 minutes, and some felt short-changed, having waited 4 years since the previous outing. Knowing that Radiohead albums have not arrived thick and fast in recent years (this was only the second since 2003), fans gradually struggled with the notion that this was all they had to tide them over. Many thought that the album strayed too far into glitchy, Thom Yorke solo work, territory, and on an 8 track album, there is really nowhere to hide. To clarify, ‘The King of Limbs’ is a fantastic album by any other standard, but Radiohead are not judged by any other standard, they are judged against their previous output. When this output consists of some of the greatest records ever created, any minor dip will be noticeable. The opener Bloom, and the second half of the album – particularly the gorgeous Codex – hit the levels that the band have set for themselves, but elsewhere the record was lacking.

 

This dichotomy of the normal standard vs the Radiohead standard is a tricky one; it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to hear the albums in a vacuum, to judge them on their own merits and not comparatively to the best work of the past 20-25 years. Every Radiohead album is greeted with a mix of excitement and trepidation, as a fear swells that the anticipation may result in a damp squib, such a rarity in the band’s oeuvre. Thankfully, these fears are entirely unfounded on Radiohead’s latest masterpiece, ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’. I have tried to give myself a few days, and a number of listens, before writing this piece. Opinions will still vary as time goes on: due to their complexity, Radiohead albums develop with every listen, they are dense and require a long time to fully appreciate. From personal experience, ‘Kid A’ did not become my favourite Radiohead album (and favourite album of all time) until around 3 years ago, almost a decade after I first heard it.

 

However, after 10-15 listens, ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’ is able to go toe to toe with any of the band’s other work. It is difficult to articulate just what makes it so spellbinding; it is a work that evokes and draws on numerous influences, yet sounds like nothing else. Throughout the album there are snippets of other artists, particularly Scott Walker, who has been an influence on Radiohead (and hundreds of others) through their career. ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’ draws both on his lush, beguiling late-60s period (Scott 4 in particular), and on his more recent work; the sensational Ful Stop begins like a song from Tilt or Bisch Bosch (particularly Yorke’s delivery of “that’s a foul tasting medicine”), before metamorphosing into a classic Radiohead song, redolent of Weird Fishes or The National Anthem. One also hears elements of Serge Gainsbourg’s ‘Histoire de Melody Nelson’, of Talk Talk’s later work, of Neil Young, of Can, of Nick Drake (the opening of Desert Island Disk could easily be a lost Nick Drake track), even of Air’s Moon Safari, yet Radiohead transcend these comparisons to yet again create a piece that is singular, that is impossible to pin down, that genuinely coalesces to sound like nothing else.

 

‘A Moon Shaped Pool’ showcases one of Radiohead’s greatest strengths: their ability to build a song, layer by layer, subtly until all of the members come together to reach a transcendent moment. Think of the aforementioned Weird Fishes and The National Anthem, as well as Let Down, How to Disappear Completely, Reckoner, Fake Plastic Trees, There There, Pyramid Song – the list goes on. They surreptitiously sneak up until they hit an ecstatic moment towards the end, and ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’ contains plenty of these moments. Identikit, a song (like many on the album) that has existed in various forms for a number of years, builds slowly to a glorious crescendo, making use of the strings and choirs that permeate the album. It is like the song that Alt-J have being trying to write for the past 5 years. Unusually for a track that has been around for a while, it acts as an example of Radiohead refusing to stagnate, of never resting on their laurels, as the song is one of a number that display the real key to the album: Jonny Greenwood’s orchestral arrangements. Having written film soundtracks, including There Will be Blood and The Master, to great acclaim, Greenwood’s stamp is all over the album, providing it with a magnificent cinematic quality. Indeed, it at times feels like a soundtrack to Radiohead’s career itself, tying in with a theory doing the rounds that this will be Radiohead’s farewell (I’m not going to discuss this here as I will cry).

 

This is one reason that the album, while containing some of the jumpy, fragmented sounds that have become hallmarks of Radiohead’s recent work, is actually extremely warm and welcoming. It is not a difficult listen. Yes, it is intricate and multifaceted, different sounds seem to appear from nowhere with every listen, but at its core it is at times a somnolent (in the best possible sense) piece that one can allow to simply wash over oneself. The core of the band’s work for over 20 years has been beauty. We fans love Radiohead for a multitude of reasons, but the thing that has always set them apart has been the delicate wonderment of their songs. I do not return to Kid A, Amnesiac or OK Computer because they are boundary-pushing, seminal albums; I return to them because of their staggering splendour. ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’ contains some of the most exquisite songs Radiohead have made; Glass Eyes, Present Tense, Daydreaming and, the jewel at the end of the album, True Love Waits. The first incarnation of True Love Waits dates back to 1995, and it has been one of my personal favourite songs for over a decade. This version is very different: the guitar has been replaced by a piano, and Yorke’s delivery is slower than it was in the past. It is impossible to ignore the context: Yorke split from his partner of 23 years in 2015, and his choice to now, after 21 years, put True Love Waits on an album is heartbreakingly poignant. Whereas the song used to have a slightly hopeful sound, a plea from a young man to his young love, it now appears as a forlorn, desolate sigh from a middle-aged man who has lost the woman with whom he spent half of his life. I have always thought of True Love Waits as a kind of companion piece to Jacques Brel’s masterful Ne Me Quitte Pas, as both desperately beg someone not to leave them; while Brel pleads “let me be the shadow of your shadow, the shadow of your hand, the shadow of your dog, don’t leave me”, Yorke sings “I’ll drown my beliefs to have your babies, I’ll dress like your niece and wash your swollen feet, just don’t leave”. It is achingly beautiful, and as my first listen of the album came to a close, I was stood in a queue at Madrid airport trying not to burst into tears. Yorke said that he moved beyond personal writing after ‘The Bends’, but this album feels different; cynicism often takes a back-seat, and a whole multitude of emotions come to the fore.

 

While this may sound to non-fans like “depressing old Radiohead”, ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’ actually contains great swagger and rhythm. All members are at the top of their game, and the lynchpin is Colin Greenwood, who delivers some of the best bass lines since Airbag and A Punchup at a Wedding. At times staccato and disjointed, Greenwood’s bass rolls the songs along, and Burn the Witch, Decks Dark, Ful Stop and The Numbers are held together by his wonderful playing. The entire album sounds like a band that has realised that they are light-years ahead of any of their counterparts. Thom Yorke once said that ‘Kid A’ was like looking at a fire from afar, while ‘Amnesiac’ was like being inside that fire. ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’ sounds like the fire has passed, and the band are now at peace with themselves. It is an astounding achievement, and while it is impossible to say this soon after release, I believe it will go down alongside Radiohead’s greatest ever works.

 

We must cherish Radiohead while they are here, because no band has been this consistently phenomenal for 20 years. 9 albums in, they are still setting trends, they are still the defining, pivotal artists in music, and they are still making work of astounding beauty. ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’ is a triumph, a masterpiece, and it is hopefully not their last.

(David Bowie I Love You) Since I Was 11

Uncategorized

It is rare that the death of someone that you did not know, someone you had never spoken to or met, genuinely causes any grief. Certainly, all deaths are sad, but to actually feel like a part of the world, a part of you, has gone? To feel that you have lost something on a level that cannot really be explained? That is how I feel today. David Bowie – pioneer, visionary, genius – has died, 2 days after his 69th birthday.

 

Very, very few artists, in any field, have influenced society as much as Bowie. There will be hundreds of tributes to the man, thousands of words written about the impact that he had not only on music, but on fashion, art, expression, even matters as great as LGBT rights and freedom. All I can do is try to express what David Bowie meant to me.

 

I remember the day I discovered Bowie. Of course, I had heard snippets as a very young child, but I had never really paid much attention. I existed, from an extremely young age, on a diet of The Beatles and The Beach Boys, and never really gave any time to anything else. I have mentioned this previously on my blog about The Bends, and the impact that Radiohead had on me, but prior to this, the Beatles/Beach Boys obsession was broken by another. Forever Changes by Love, and Highway 61 Revisited by Bob Dylan, were seminal moments for me, but they were not the albums that really alerted me to music outside of my narrow obsession. I remember my Dad telling me that there was a wealth of music I had yet to discover and, when I was around the age of 11, he gave me a copy of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.

 

I distinctly recall putting it on my CD player, sat next to my Dad in my bedroom, and hearing the rhythmic drum beat fade in. From nothing, slowly, almost insidiously, the beat crept up on me. A crash of piano, and Bowie’s voice almost whispering into the song, struggling to be heard above the noise around. I sat, enraptured, instantly exposed to something that I had never before heard. Five Years remains one of my favourite opening songs to any album, Bowie’s apocalyptic story tinged with a modicum of hope. It is an arresting song even now, and to the 11 year old me, it was so greatly different to that which I had known. It sounds rather disingenuous when people deem hundreds of artists “life-changing”, but the experience of discovering David Bowie was a genuine defining moment for me. Music has been the cornerstone of my entire life, and Ziggy Stardust represents the moment that I realised that I could not be restricted to the confines of my initial loves, that there was a world of music in just the 60s and 70s, let alone the time since. It was a catalyst for me to expand my horizons, and in the 5 years (fittingly) after hearing Ziggy Stardust, my album collection expanded from around 10-15 (all Beatles and Beach Boys) to nearer 300. I began to consume new music voraciously, and immediately after Bowie came Dylan, Love, Television, Joni Mitchell, Nirvana, Talking Heads, and many more.

 

Not only did he open my mind to an infinite array of music, Bowie was a key part of discovering true difference and individuality. I had experienced this by documenting Brian Wilson’s remarkable transition from writing surfing pop songs to creating some of the great masterpieces of the 21st Century, but Bowie showed even more. I am not just referring to his chameleonic appearance, and flamboyant style (his appearance as Ziggy Stardust was alarming to me, even post-2000). One of Bowie’s greatest attributes was his refusal, possibly even inability, to rest on his laurels. A few years after creating the most perfect, almost pop, albums Hunky Dory and Ziggy Stardust, Bowie produced a phenomenal string of experimental, pioneering records. Station to Station, Low, Heroes and Lodger pushed musical boundaries, as Bowie worked largely with Brian Eno and Tony Visconti to create soundscapes that had never been heard (and have never really been heard since).

 

Aside from the astonishing musical originality (Station to Station was released in January 1976), on a personal level the transition made me realise that music, and artists, were fluid, that they should not stagnate, that innovation was crucial. This has been a vital realisation that instigated my love of Radiohead, and adoration for their move to OK Computer/Kid A instead of sticking in a more comfortable territory, and inspired me to seek out such records as Life in the Bush of Ghosts, Remain in Light, The Idiot (produced and partly written by Bowie himself), and Trout Mask Replica. It made it clear that experimentation was not scary, and was not done “for the sake of it” – it could be beautiful.

 

It is impossible to come close to doing Bowie’s work justice, or articulate the impact that he had on my life. All I can say is that it is a loss of a magnitude rarely felt by the world, and I will miss him greatly. He continued to create new and exciting music right until the end, and I will be listening to his latest release, Blackstar, on the way home tonight. R.I.P Bowie, knowledge comes with death’s release.

My Favourite Album – the Anniversary of Kid A

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I wrote a piece a while ago about Mulholland Drive, in which I stated that the idea of “favourites” is largely ephemeral, that it is difficult to fully decide a favourite book or album because it is dependent on so many circumstances. While that is true, if I absolutely had to choose one Desert Island Disc, one record that I would listen to above all others, it is one that is celebrating its 15 year anniversary this month.

An album that continues to divide opinion, Kid A inspires fevered devotion amongst its advocates, and vehement dislike, even anger, amongst its detractors. Upon release, it was described by Mark Beaumont as “tubby, ostentatious, self-congratulatory, look-ma-I-can-suck-my-own-cock whiny old rubbish”, while in a 10/10 review Pitchfork compared it to the experience of seeing a shooting star, and wrote that “it’s clear that Radiohead must be the greatest band alive, if not the best since you know who.” 15 years on, this dichotomy persists, some seeing the album as unlistenable, a fatal experimental misstep for Radiohead, while others deem it the defining masterpiece of its time, if not all time.

It is no secret that I possess an almost unhealthy love of Radiohead (it is the first thing many learn about me), and in their extraordinary, unparalleled canon of relentless genius, for me Kid A stands above the rest. I have written before about The Bends, and it is testament to Radiohead that one of the greatest albums of all time is arguably only my 3rd, 4th, or even 5th, favourite of theirs. Above The Bends, above the criminally underrated Amnesiac, above In Rainbows, even above OK Computer, stands Kid A.

I first heard the album a few years after its release. The 12-13 year old me, like so many, consigned it to the dustbin. Holding a fanatical love of The Bends and OK Computer, this didn’t make sense to me. The Guardian wrote that “The first time you hear Kid A …you’ll probably scratch your head and think, huh? What are they on about? For starters, why are the guitars only on three songs? What’s with all the muted electronic hums, pulses and tones? And why is Thom Yorke’s voice completely indistinguishable for most of the time?” and this was my experience. What was this? It was unintelligible, and I regretfully put it to one side. It was only 2 or 3 years later that I picked it up again, and suddenly there were elements of it that appealed. Sure, it wasn’t OK Computer, but it wasn’t the travesty that I had labelled it. Then, after 8, 9, 10, 11 listens, it all made sense. My adoration of the album continues to grow, I love it now more than I did even a year ago, every listen elevates its status higher and higher.

What is often overlooked in the talk of its experimentation, its departure from guitars, and its significance to modern music, is that it is a phenomenally beautiful record. It is not beautiful in an instantly noticeable way, it takes patience to appreciate, but when it clicks it is extraordinary. It is not experimentation for the sake of it, nor is it in any way pretentious or pompous. It has been dismissed by many on two differing accounts: certain people say that it is opaque, self-important rubbish, while others actually suggest that it does not go far enough; I have read that it is “art rock for people that don’t like art rock”. This is to wildly miss the point. People do not love Kid A because they think it is weird or “experimental”, people love it because it is astonishingly gorgeous. Its ideas aren’t all ground-breaking; components of it derive from Can, from Kraftwerk, from Aphex Twin, from Talk Talk, from Miles Davis, from Charles Mingus. No music is devoid of influence, and to suggest that Kid A is weaker for it is wholly misguided. But Radiohead, in my humble opinion of course, do it better than anyone. Certainly, Can were experimenting with Tago Mago and Ege Bamyasi 25-30 years before Kid A,  but I don’t believe they ever wrote anything as beautiful as How to Disappear Completely, anything as heart-stopping as Motion Picture Soundtrack. I am a huge fan of Can, indeed a huge fan of all of the artists listed, but I don’t believe that any of them had a moment as perfect as Kid A, an album where all of their ideas coalesced to make a single record of such unending majesty.

Approaching Kid A as a difficult, experimental piece is wrong. That is not where its genius lies, its genius lies in the masterful songwriting that underpins the whole album. Everything in its Right Place, Kid A, The National Anthem, Optimistic, Idioteque, Morning Bell, Motion Picture Soundtrack – each mini-masterpieces. The album’s greatest achievement, however, is How to Disappear Completely. If my desert island was only able to accommodate one song, it would be this. I have never heard anything so beautiful. Inspired by advice given to Thom Yorke by Michael Stipe on how to deal with depression, How to Disappear Completely is 6 minutes of aural paradise. Right from the first second to the last, it is simultaneously striking, heart-breaking, uplifting, joyful, sorrowful – it is just everything that is wonderful about music. The moment that Yorke’s voice soars over the key change is possibly my single favourite moment in any song.

It is impossible to do justice to the album, it needs to be listened to, and listened to, and listened to. As with any great art, it cannot be fully appreciated in one or two attempts. If you listen to Kid A for the first time, you are likely to be perplexed, and deem me an idiot for raving about it. I ask that you listen to it again, and again, and again. If after 10-15 listens your opinion does not change, then fair enough, we all have different tastes after all, but I urge you to try. It is not an album that you will get to grips with if you have it on in the background while talking or doing other things; it requires, and deserves, full attention, from beginning to end. 15 years on, it sounds better than ever.

Wenger – A Riddle Wrapped in a Mystery Wrapped in an Oversized Coat

Arsenal, Arsene Wenger, Football, Premier League, Transfer Window

Here it is then; the football season has begun. Yes, I know it began weeks ago, but it never feels real until the transfer window closes. Teams are still to be decided, big name signings and sales can still destroy the equilibrium. We battle through the opening rounds, hoping for damage limitation from our side before the real big guns are settled. I am sure that is what Arsenal fans were thinking. Benzema, Cavani, Reus, Draxler, Verratti, Rabiot, Ibrahimovic – the names went on. All of the potential incomings swirling around North London, the heady, intoxicating list of superstars. This was it; after the promise created by Ozil and Sanchez, this was the summer that Arsenal went for it. A few signings away from a title winning team; this was where they would fill in the missing pieces and join the elite once more.

You often get the feeling that Arsene Wenger is wilfully becoming a parody of himself, and he pulled his ace card by being the only manager in Europe’s top 5 leagues not to sign a single outfield player. Arsenal desperately need a defensive midfielder and a striker; an injury to Coquelin or Giroud and their whole season will capitulate, yet Wenger continues to be Wenger. He is a fascinating man, an enigma that I admire hugely, and simultaneously want to slap. He seems such a noble, principled figure, a lone ranger sticking to his beliefs in the ugly face of modern football. Other clubs throw obscene money around, the social media age means more than ever clubs and fans are desperate for a quick fix, for instant results. Managers, players and clubs can go from hero to zero, or vice versa, in the space of a few minutes, let alone a few weeks. Yet there he stands, putting in bids £1 above buy out clauses, sticking to his guns about value, refusing to use the money available at one of the world’s richest clubs. He is determined that his beliefs will prevail, that even in the largely reprehensible modern game he can nurture and develop players, and build a winning team without compromising his values.

However, it is equally frustrating, because it seems clear to everyone that his principles will not win him titles any more. The transfer market has evolved, and to get the best you have to pay obscene money. It is sad, but it is true. Certainly, you can develop world class players, and it would be deeply upsetting if Arsenal stopped doing that, but there are clear deficiencies at Arsenal that have been obvious for years, and no one in their ranks can solve them. He is now not even buying young talents, he just isn’t buying.

Gary Neville was right, it is either arrogance or naivety, and I think it is probably the latter. I am continually astonished that, for such a successful, experienced manager, Wenger seems to lack nous in situations. I understand that he doesn’t want to compromise, but he seems to have such little tactical awareness. Last season against Monaco was the prime example, and while he corrected it in the victory against Manchester City, it is still evident. We have seen it already against West Ham this season, when it was so clear that Arsenal needed some width. Wenger’s obstinacy continued, determined to pick holes through the middle of a compact defence. Yet you have to love him for it, his steadfast commitment to aesthetics and enjoyment, knowing that once in a while it will culminate in a glorious, dare I say perfect, moment like this:

He has huge flaws, and even as a non-Arsenal fan he leaves me tearing my hair out, but I know that I will miss him when he’s gone. I hope I am wrong, but he seems like the last bastion of what made football beautiful. There he is, swimming against the tide, trying not to drown in the morass of amorality and greed that permeates the game that he loves. He is an easy figure to ridicule, indeed he often warrants criticism, but try to imagine English football without him. It is not a happy thought. Whether openly or not, I believe we collectively dream of one final hurrah for Wenger, just one signing or moment that will give them the required extra spark. All football fans must hope for a 2003-04 type Wenger side, there has been nothing more joyful in the Premier League era.

Plus, Wenger royally pisses off Piers Morgan, and that can only be a bonus.

Is This Just Fantasy?

Addiction, fantasy football, Football

I wrote an article a few months ago about my addiction to Football Manager. Those of you who read that brave, inspiring piece will know that, after years of struggle, I have largely managed to kick the habit. As heart-warming as that is, I did not tell the full story. For, you see, as one addiction faded into the past, another similar vice took its place. Much like the heroin addict who becomes hooked on methadone, I weaned myself off Football Manager…and onto Fantasy Football.

If the love of Football Manager is a mystery to the uninitiated, then Fantasy Football is an unsolvable conundrum.

“Do you have a hobby?”
“Yes, a very important one”.
“Ooo what does it entail? The reading of a great work of Russian literature, an exercise that expands the mind, revealing numerous philosophical notions and passages of thought? A sport that keeps you healthy and active, where you may compete for awards and meet other like-minded people? A love of travel, visiting far-flung places of the globe, interacting with new cultures and broadening your wealth of experience?”
“Sort of. It primarily consists of statistical analysis of, say, the West Brom or Sunderland defence, or the comparison of Danny Ings and Saido Berahino. I’m currently devising a table to assess Aston Villa’s prowess from corners”.

It’s ridiculous. I know it’s ridiculous. And yet…

I will sit in the pub with my fiancée, or my friends, perhaps basking in a summery beer garden, enjoying the conversation and the drinks. What a glorious Saturday afternoon. Wait – Saturday afternoon. Oh my God. It’s 3:20pm. Have Southampton conceded yet? Gylfi Sigurdsson could have an assist or two. Theo Walcott could have gone ballistic. Oh God, I didn’t captain Aguero. Oh God, oh sweet Jesus.

I will covertly check my phone. “Just checking the football scores”. That is an anti-social act in itself, certain to get a hostile response, but the truth is worse. It must be hidden. A scowl is etched on my face. I say it’s because Everton are losing. A half-truth, but there’s more to it than that. A lot more. The double West Brom defence, that one that was such a good idea because of Tony Pulis? Andre Wisdom has conceded a penalty, and Boaz Myhill hasn’t kept it out. George Boyd has scored for Burnley, but where is he? He’s sat on your bench. How can you ever recover from this?

You see other addicts online; some of them don’t even know they’re junkies yet. You weep for them. You are more realistic, you know that this is not normal behaviour. “It’s fine, it’s perfectly common to be asking a group of strangers whether I should transfer in Hector Bellerin at 3am”. Your heart bleeds; they can’t see the truth. You want them to get out now, to tell them there’s still a chance, but you know it’s too late. They have been bitten, and you are a Fantasy Football zombie watching them transform.

The uninitiated are probably thinking “well, it must enhance your enjoyment of football? Like betting – it matters more when there’s money on it”. I shake my head and chuckle. You do not know what it’s like. I have watched Everton games and seen us take the lead through a Romelu Lukaku penalty. I leap for joy, my team is winning, but in the back of my mind it’s there. It’s niggling. “Real football matters more, real football matters more”. I keep telling myself that, but I know it. I have Leighton Baines in my team. Leighton Baines, the reliable penalty taker. I spent a chunk of my budget on that man for his set pieces, and now? That is 6 points gone. And the bonus points. Think of the bonus points.

A player scores a wonder goal, picking the ball up 40 yards out before beating 6 men and chipping the goalkeeper. The pub erupts. “Get in!” “What a goal!” “YESSSSSSS!!!!!” A lone cry can be heard over the noise. “Did anyone see who got the assist? Was it Dusan Tadic?”

Last season, I witnessed a vintage Arsenal performance, where they put 4 past Liverpool in a display of slick, balletic, technically wonderful football, and what was my main feeling during the game? Overwhelming disappointment. I had decided against bringing Mesut Ozil into my team.

Each season, a year of exciting, rollercoaster football is transformed into a desperate quest to win your mini-league (the one with 6 people and a grand total of £5 for the winner), or to finish in the top 1,000. The reward for that? Nothing. Well, nothing tangible. Just as I took great pride in the renaming of Goodison Park after my multiple Champions League victories on Football Manager, I have seldom been as smug as when informing people that, in 2013, I finished 296th in Fantasy Premier League. Yes, that’s 296th out of 3.5 million. Just email me for an autograph.

It is enjoyable for a while, “I won’t take it seriously, it’s just a game” you say. We’ve all heard it before: “it’s just one drink on my own”, “I’m only a social smoker”. Step away from the computer. In a few years, this will be you. Entering a Fantasy Football tournament based on the U21 Championships, as you frantically try to research 20 year old Swedish players to see who may give you the best hope of an assist. If it was a full-time career, you would be promoted at an alarming rate. The work ethic, attention to detail and investigative prowess you are displaying is remarkable.

I lie here now, surrounded by cigarette butts, scrawling the 2015/16 fixtures and the predicted player prices on receipts and old tissues. The game opens for the new season soon you see. Here I lie, soaked in cheap wine and my own tears. I have been thinking about the week that I took the captaincy off Charlie Austin on the Saturday morning of his hat trick. I am too far gone, but you, you go on without me. You can save yourself, I know you can. Don’t cry for me, I’m already dead.

Fame, Fame, Fatal Fame

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You may have heard, if you have been looking hard enough, some news this week that a member of a boyband is no longer a member of a boyband. Zayn Malik’s departure from One Direction has enveloped the collective conscious of, seemingly, the entire world, making front page news wherever you look, destroying the hearts and minds of people across the globe, apparently having more of an emotional impact than any news in history.

The hysterical reaction of “Directioners” is evidently excessive and, frankly, insane, and the dissolution of One Direction should be of no concern to anyone over the age of 12, but there is a deeper issue that is being overlooked in the frenzy. Zayn’s departure acts as a direct parallel to the genuinely heart-breaking news that Chris Hardman, better known as Lil’ Chris, has died aged 24. Hardman had been suffering with depression, and the trappings of premature fame took hold.  Earlier this month, he posted on Twitter: “Thinking about quitting music forever… There has to come a time eventually when I have to face reality. I’m just not good enough”.

Personal opinion of Hardman’s music is irrelevant; here was a boy that, aged 15, was thrust into the main star role of the reality show ‘Rock School’. One with a few more years may have suspected that a position in Gene Simmons’ high school Channel 4 band might not lead to a fruitful music career, but Hardman had the rock singer ideal thrust upon him. He was, before his 16th birthday, being held up as the future of pop-punk, told by Simmons that he was the real deal, used as a focal point in the show’s desperate attempt to manufacture talent. I wrote on this blog a while ago, aptly in the wake of the One Direction “weed-gate”, that the British press love to build youngsters up to knock them down; well here was Channel 4 building a naïve boy up to gain ratings.

Hardman and Malik act almost as polar opposites of the same problem. Malik got everything that must have initially been hoped for; incredible fame and fortune, success, devoted fans, while Hardman was quickly left on the scrapheap, biting the dust as so many have before. One Direction are an extremely rare case of relatively sustained, and huge, success from reality beginnings, but Malik’s situation shows that it is not necessarily all it seems. Possibly others can take it in their stride, but having that level of fame at such a young age, an unrelenting spotlight on your every move from childhood, would affect the best of us. Malik has gone solo as opposed to shunning the limelight completely, but he has left the ubiquitous behemoth of One Direction.

A glance at the reaction to his departure provides an insight into his reasoning. Some “fans”, a day earlier besotted with Malik, changed their Twitter names to “I hate Zayn Malik”, condemning him for his decision, even going as far as death and suicide threats. Malik is not much older than these fans; if they are so mentally unstable, how is he expected to cope with their incessant attention?

On the flipside, Hardman is a horrendous example of what can happen when, as in 99% of cases, the early promise fails to materialise. After years of hope and minor fame, stretching back to early-teens, it becomes impossible to envisage life without it, life as an unknown. Those that propelled one to celebrity have hastily deserted when the well has run dry, and one is left to face reality alone. Tragically, for Hardman, it proved impossible.

In the mania surrounding One Direction, it can be forgotten that these “stars” are just as human as the rest of us. Hardman’s death will be used to sell papers, maybe held up as an example of the dangers of fame, but like his fame, it will soon be put to one side. If One Direction dissolve, another band will be along to take their place. They are manufactured, then discarded by the creators and consumers like last Christmas’s toys. We have a duty to care for the weak and vulnerable in our society. Sadly, that duty does not appear to extend to the famous.

Go West

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It is no real surprise when there is a backlash against an artist playing a festival. There has always been a trend of people deeming anyone that doesn’t fit their rigid parameters of quality as “garbage” – I have been guilty of this myself, but it now appears that not only are people disappointed by festival selections, they are actively campaigning against them.

There appear to be two lines of thought for the risible recent petitions to prevent Kanye West’s Glastonbury headline slot. The first is that his music is mainstream hip hop, perhaps akin to 50 Cent or Lil Wayne, emblematic of a once countercultural festival now appealing to the lowest common denominator. This idea seems to me to be one of people that have never listened to Kanye West’s music. On a purely artistic level, Kanye is one of the most significant, innovative artists of the 21st Century in any genre. Before his solo work, he produced one of the defining hip hop albums, Jay-Z’s ‘The Blueprint’, stamping his mark all over the album’s sound and on the collective cultural conscience.

He started his own output with ‘The College Dropout’ and ‘Late Registration’, garnering huge acclaim for his amalgamation of socially, racially and politically conscious lyrics with infectious hooks and accessible pop beats. As gangsta rap dominated, Kanye eschewed the genre for a more playful, engaging feel, in a similar way to De La Soul 15 years prior.

He did not rest within his comfort zone, and his subsequent albums, ‘Graduation’ and ‘808s & Heartbreak’, fluttered between genres while maintaining their own identity. Electronic music became a stronger part of Kanye’s repertoire, before he adopted a minimalist style, radically ditching the form that gained popularity for a stripped back, more classic ‘singing’ approach.

Then, in 2010, Kanye West delivered, simply, one of the greatest albums of the last 20 years. ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’ is a masterpiece, pushing the boundaries of both hip hop and pop music, redefining a genre and striking its audience in a way that ‘OK Computer’ did for rock. Five years on, it stands up as a masterpiece. If that was his ‘OK Computer’, then his most recent album, ‘Yeezus’, is his ‘Kid A’, combining hip hop and pop with genuinely hard, challenging music, dirty bass lines, and almost avant-garde, incongruous samples.

There is an idea that music that relies on production and samples is somehow not “real music”. This real music term seems to exclusively mean “white men with guitars”. Kanye West’s music is more challenging, innovative and, dare I say, significant than almost anyone working in “mainstream” music today. Looking at some of Glastonbury’s recent headliners – Mumford & Sons, Muse, Coldplay, U2 – where were the objections for that bland list? Kanye has made a succession of albums that ignore what is to be expected, that challenge him as an artist and us as listeners. The aforementioned bands have done anything but. Yes, Kanye is arrogant, but he backs it up. Kendrick Lamar released an astonishing, creative album this week – one wonders if in 5 years there will be a petition against him playing Glastonbury as he does not make “real music”. The glorious thing about music is that it’s ever changing, not stagnant. It evolves. One can imagine that were Glastonbury around in the 1950s, people would be objecting to Little Richard as this “other” genre is not jazz, or in the 1920s they would be protesting that Duke Ellington was not “real music”.

The other common reason for the petition appears to be that Kanye West’s personality does not fit the “ethos and spirit” of Glastonbury. It is impossible to deny that he is, frankly, a bell end, but let’s look at some recent performers that were welcomed with open arms. On the bell end scale, it would be hard to usurp Bono and the Gallaghers. Of course, Kanye cannot play, but come in tax-evading, narcissistic Bono, come in Noel Gallagher, who said of Blur “I hope they catch AIDS and die”, and your brother Liam (does that even need to be explained?) Yes come in Nate Mendel, Foo Fighters bassist who organised a benefit concert in support of the idea that HIV and AIDS are not linked, and come in Keith Richards, who was arrested for possession of heroin with the intention of trafficking. Wait, who’s that at the back? And what did he do? What?! He was rude to Taylor Swift?! GET OUT!!!

Doesn’t really hold up, does it? Do we really think many people would have objected even if The Rolling Stones line-up had included Bill Wyman, who dated a 13 year old girl at the age of 47? But that’s different, isn’t it? Because The Rolling Stones are “proper music”, and Kanye pissed off Beck fans a bit. Glastonbury goers want “real rock n roll stars”, but you mustn’t mildly offend anyone else at an awards ceremony.

If you really don’t like his music, then don’t go to see him. There are over 2000 acts at Glastonbury; if you are going solely for one headliner, you are kind of missing the point. And if you don’t like him, you can always get some “real music” from the other confirmed headliners, Foo Fighters. Where’s the Nate Mendel petition again? Remember, the HIV/AIDS denier? Oh yes, of course, Foo Fighters are white men with guitars. Nevermind.

On Second Thoughts…

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Earlier today, I posted a blog to commemorate the 20th anniversary of The Bends. While I believe all of what I wrote, I have reflected and, really, the post is largely just a review of a classic album. It is an album that, if you like music, you will have heard. A review is not a bad thing in and of itself, but there are hundreds of them, and I didn’t really need to add another. I addressed the things that make The Bends great; the phenomenal guitars, beautiful vocals, astonishing ambience, but those are the objective qualities. They are what make The Bends great neutrally, but they do not tell the whole story of why I love it. For my blog, I must use what only I can express, and that is what the album means to me personally.

The objective, apparent brilliance of The Bends is, of course, the reason I loved it initially, and without true quality it would not bear repeating today; it would be consigned to the file of “novelty nostalgia”, like Taking Back Sunday, or the haircut that I had in 2008. It is, as I said previously, a remarkable album, but it is one that has had an impact on me that transcends music.

There are cultural touchstones that I can point to in my life that have affected my personality and views in a way that goes beyond their medium. The Office shaped my taste in comedy and continues to define my humour and, in turn, my friendships. Mulholland Drive altered my perception of art as a whole, broadened my mind to possibilities within the medium and transformed my outlook on narrative storytelling. The Bends had an impact every bit as profound as any great work of art or literature. Through my family, I listened to great music practically from birth, but no memory is as vivid as that first day I listened to The Bends. It opened me up to the infinite possibilities of music, to the emotional impact that a 4 minute song can have. I had felt this previously through The Beach Boys, but here was something different.

Other music had been more distant, an art form to be appreciated and admired – the voice of Brian Wilson, the lyrics of Bob Dylan – but this was engulfing me. I still remember the first time I listened to Fake Plastic Trees; when Thom Yorke’s voice changed from a whisper to a cry, and the whole band kicked in, something stirred inside me. It was one of a handful of truly life changing moments that I can point to, my whole preconception around what music could achieve came crashing down. Radiohead were affecting my being at its core, the music was wrapping around my heart, it was destroying the barriers that I had in place.

If you’re reading this, it is likely that you know me, and therefore certain that you will know about my obsession with Radiohead. I distinctly remember it being a topic of much amusement and, frankly, confusion among my friends in secondary school. As 15/16 year olds, we were each discovering new music, and if I was ever asked for a recommendation, I would bring in my copy of The Bends. I vividly recall a couple of my friends, aware of my burgeoning Radiohead mania, stealing and hiding my CD of The Bends. Fear coursed through my veins, panic that I had lost it. I could replace it, but that copy had developed sentimental value, and I couldn’t last a day or two without listening to the album.

The Bends was something of a gateway album for me. It led me onto other great albums, but most importantly it was my first encounter with Radiohead, by far and away still my favourite band of all time. The last decade has been, and probably always will be, the most important, formative one of my life, and if one album has been the soundtrack, it has been The Bends. Every song has a dear place in my heart, each one has been there for all of my highs and low thus far. They all transport me back to times and places, they all evoke feelings in me that no other music does.

The Bends still holds that profound power. I listened to it today on the tube home from work. On first listen, I was a 14 year old celebrating Christmas Day in Liverpool, not yet even studying for my GCSEs, completely unaware of what the world had to offer, yet it resonated with me. Now, I am a 23 year old man living in London with my girlfriend, working in a corporate job in the City, and it resonates as much as ever. My life has been through multiple changes, and The Bends has been there through them all. Sitting on the tube today, travelling back from St Paul’s, I reflected on the blog that I posted. As Thom Yorke’s voice broke, sighing “If I could be who you wanted” at the end of Fake Plastic Trees, I knew that an objective review was insufficient. It will seem alien to most; people may see The Bends as a fine album, or may not be fans at all, but for me, it is more than just an album. It is an ineradicable part of my life.

At 20, The Bends is undoubtedly a classic album, but it is more than that. It is my classic album.