Listen to this track by laptop-totin’ Oxfordian rock quintet and era-defining post-rock flirters Radiohead. It’s “The National Anthem”, a deep cut off of their 2000 album that confounded many a music reviewer, Kid A.
That album was the follow up to their 1997 album OK Computer, a work that stirred up the stagnant waters of the rock scene in Britain as Brit-Pop was beginning to become somewhat bent with age. But as it turned out, Radiohead had not arrived with that record in terms of their ambition as a musical unit. They were on their way upward and inward to the degree that when this new album Kid A emerged, it was not just in the public eye because it was so long-awaited. It was a bona fide news story.
Before its release, it was rumoured that there were no guitars to be found on the new record! It was an electronic record full of bleeps and blips instead! Judas! Even today, 15 years (!) later, there continues to be a misconception that Radiohead abandoned six-stringed noisemakers completely on this record. They hadn’t. There’s plenty of guitar on this album. There just aren’t any solos or prominent riffs. There are other textures that simply took precedence on some tracks. With this one, it was beats and synthesized washes of sound, plus brass, of all things. Radiohead had changed their gameplan.
But, what they hadn’t changed was their interest in the direction culture was headed, especially on a newly dawning century. If we listeners were all distracted by how different the sound of the album was compared to what they’d come up with before, then on first listen, we may have missed what had stayed the same, coded into the music; a mistrust and fear of where the future was taking us, and the tenuous threads on which civilization itself hangs. Read more
Listen to this track by emotive pop song chart bothering duo from Bath England, Tears For Fears. It’s “The Working Hour”, a deep cut off of the otherwise hit single-laden 1985 album Songs From The Big Chair. That album was the much-awaited follow-up to their modestly successful debut record The Hurting from two years previous, with this new record being their breakthrough into the mainstream and outside of their alternative fanbase.
The songs on the album showed some of the same lyrical and musical DNA from their début. But, with this follow-up their sound seemed to be on a larger scale. If The Hurting was a precisely realized and eloquent little indie film, then Songs From The Big Chair had the sheen of a major studio, still dealing in similar themes of inner turmoil and alienation, but doing so with a bit more gloss. Hit singles “Shout”, “Head Over Heels”, and particularly “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” were ready for the red carpet, contrasted to their previous singles that were too emotionally insular to fit that kind of overt mainstream fanfare.
This had more to do with the tone of each release than it did with quality. As a major fan of The Hurting, even I noticed that, and was OK with it. Maybe that’s in part because of this song, “The Working Hour” that is one of the songs on the record that best bridges the gap between the moody and contemplative pop outfit they’d been, and the anthemic stadia-ready band they were seeking to become. Read more
Listen to this track by London-born, Deepcut Surrey raised singer-songwriter and original angry young man Graham Parker, along with his crack team of pub rock compatriots, The Rumour. It’s a hot should-have-been-huge single “Local Girls”, featured on Rolling Stone’s retroactively appreciative top 500 albums of all time record Squeezing Out Sparks, produced by none other than Jack Nitzsche, arranger and one-time co-orchestrator to Phil Spectre in the 1960s.
Before his career as a musician with an unbeatable backing band on the pub rock scene in London, Graham Parker was a wanderer, travelling to various places, and working different jobs while his ambitions as a full-time songwriter and touring musician were percolating.
That’s why I think “Local Girls” is less about a disdain for women at bus stops, and more about finding a personal sense of location for a songwriter from a small town.
Listen to this track by Brit-pop rear guard band and early to mid-nineties music industry case-study Sleeper. It’s “Sale Of The Century”, a top ten hit from 1996’s The It Girl. Even if they never made a record as big or as era-defining as Parklife, let’s say, this album is looked upon as their definitive statement during the height of the Brit-pop period, a bona fide platinum-selling record. This one is my favourite of their singles, of which they had eight in the top twenty during their tenure together before the end of the decade.
Sleeper formed at just the right time, and were active on the local scenes in London just as one era was ticking over into another. A record deal seemed to materialize before their eyes. But, by the time “Sale Of The Century” came around, they’d been on the scene playing the parts of jaded pop stars for a year and a half, touring with Blur, REM, and later with Elvis Costello & The Attractions. “Sale Of The Century” can be viewed in a different way when one considers their trajectory, and the mindset of lead singer Louise Wener as the writer and central figure in the eye of their particular storm. Read more
Listen to this track by Leeds-born new new wave quintet Kaiser Chiefs. It’s “Falling Awake” the newest single as taken from their upcoming and currently untitled sixth record.
After four albums in their original incarnation, and with their 2005 debut in Employment that made a splash big enough to provoke Brit Awards and Mercury Prize nominations, Kaiser Chiefs underwent something of a personnel change. After twelve years in the drum seat, co-founding member Nick Hodgson departed in 2012. The band were able to bounce back with a new drummer in Vijay Mistry, and with a new record last year, Education, Education, Education & War. That year, they also played for crowds at the London Olympics, playing “Pinball Wizard” subbing in for none other than The Who.
This year, the band are on the road again, with this single to serve as something of a preview for the awaited sixth full-length record. I got a chance to chat with Nick “Peanut” Baines, resident keyboardist and guitarist for the Kaiser Chiefs about the new single, their current tour, and about how the band is evolving from their mid-2000s original incarnation. Read more
Listen to this track by Woking Surrey all mod cons power trio The Jam. It’s “Town Called Malice”, a smash single taken from 1982’s The Gift, their last record together. The song would be their third number one in Britain, and their first charting single in the United States. It would go on to grace soundtracks of movies for many years, including Billy Elliot, a story that is partly about life in a British town beset by economic woes.
The song is indeed a slice of life story of a town. In this case, it’s the hometown of the band, which is about forty minutes on the train outside of London. This is the suburbs, the same place in which another song, 1980’s “That’s Entertainment”, is set. But, instead of the youthful restlessness we saw in that tune, “Town Called Malice” reveals something more sinister underneath its similar scenes of suburban life, with something more at stake than youthful boredom and the need to break away.
Listen to this track by British funk soul collective and acid jazz scenesters Jamiroquai. It’s “Too Young To Die”, the second single as taken from their 1993 debut Emergency On Planet Earth. This version is the album version. A shorter radio version was released, scoring a top ten showing on the British charts.
The song combines the feel for early to mid-seventies grooves, complete with brass and string arrangements, with some unique ingredients of their own (a full-time didgeridoo player!). To the forefront is singer and principle Jason “Jay” Kay, who’s vocal stylings evoke a classic Stevie Wonder sound for which he was sometimes unfavourably compared. Stevie is a tough act to match. Yet Jamiroquai hit at just the right time, as British acid-jazz was gaining steam in the early nineties, also including acts like The Brand New Heavies, The James Taylor Quartet, and Ronny Jordan. After that scene petered out, Jamiroquai were still enjoying healthy chart action.
This song remains a highlight in the string of chart hits Jamiroquai put out during the nineties. Its retro feel is certainly musical in nature, full of jazzy chord progressions, funky bass, soul brass, and disco strings. But, the subject matter and the way that it is presented is pretty retro, too. It’s a political song that you can dance to. And it represented a shift from the paradigm of eighties and into a new decade, too.
Listen to this track by tremendously gifted and seemingly cursed British R&B singer Amy Winehouse. It’s “Back To Black”, the title track to her 2007 sophomore album, Back To Black. The song comes off an album produced by Mark Ronson, who also co-wrote this tune with Winehouse, a tale of a lost relationship, and the mourning period that often follows.
This was the third single off of a record that made her name on the international stage, with “Rehab” and “You Know I’m No Good” being the other two. One of the reasons that these songs, and this record was a success was Winehouse’s voice which connected to a rich seam of R&B singing tradition laid down by Etta James, Erma Franklin, Betty Wright, and others. By the 2000s, these influences were new all over again. Yet, Winehouse was a new voice beyond her influences, with a seemingly effortless capacity for the blues and soulful phrasing all of her own.
But, I think another reason why this song works so well is because it establishes the persona of its author. Of course it would be this that would secure her place in the pop pantheon (not to mention the tabloids), and be her downfall, too. Read more
Listen to this track by Mancunian post-punk trendsetters Joy Division. It’s “Transmission”, a single released in October of 1979 between their two sole albums as a seven inch on the Factory label. By the next year in December, it would be re-released as a twelve inch single, later to be celebrated in cover versions by bands from Low to Smashing Pumpkins, to Hot Chip.
By this time, the band had morphed from what they would describe themselves as an “undistinguished punk band” called Warsaw into one that would write a template for bands up until the present day. This would be a highlight in a small but vital body of work, cut short by the death of lead singer and lyricist Ian Curtis, himself something of an iconic figure for post-punk influenced acts, and certainly for frontmen looking beyond the standard shrill-voiced golden god variety.
Actually, this band would provide an example to succeeding ones in many ways beyond even that. They broke the rules of being a rock band. But more importantly, they wrote their own. Read more
Listen to this track by London-based trip-hopping downtempo trio with a feel for the blues Morcheeba. It’s “Part Of The Process”, a 1998 single from their second album Big Calm. The album was a breakthrough hit, scoring platinum sales in the UK, and respectable ones abroad as well.
The sound of the band is taken from various sources, emanating from each member of the group; singer Skye Edwards’ soul background, guitarist Ross Godfrey’s interest in the blues and psychedelia, and producer and lyricist Paul Godfrey, Ross’ brother, bringing in electronic and hip hop texture to the whole.
This song is a solid example of a more pop-oriented mainstream direction, designed to set them apart from a scene they felt would eventually be stuck in the era. Of course, then they were labeled “post-trip hop” by the press. But, they were making interesting music, with some unexpected ingredients and contrasts that are indispensable to each other. Read more