Everything's Different Now
Oddly, as Aimee Mann's songs have got gloomier and duller over the 1990s, her following has grown bigger. Perhaps that says something about the times we live in. Who knows. Anyhow, in the distant past she used to front Boston AOR combo 'Til Tuesday, who produced three quality power-pop albums during the late 1980s. Arguably the best of these was Everything's Different Now, a set of bittersweet songs dissecting the collapse of Mann's relationship with songwriter Jules Shear.
If Mann were writing these songs now, she'd employ thudding, funereal arrangements, fill them with arch, embittered lyrics and sing them in the mannered, don't-call-me-sweet style that has become her trademark. Instead, she chose the far more effective route of producing ten upbeat pop tunes whose musical chirpiness highlights rather than detracts from the lyrics' regretful poignancy. And her voice has never sounded lovelier.
All that said, it's undoubtedly true that you have to be something of a romantic to enjoy this kind of music. If you think navel-gazing is for pansies, stay well clear.
This was the last album of new material by the Swedish "power pop combo", but it's also one of their best. The two former couples were by the time of this album long since parted, and the pervading tone is one of melancholy and of looking back (although according to the insert notes, it was not necessarily intended as a swansong).
As if in confirmation that something good was at an end, the album's singles did relatively badly in the UK, even the number 3 hit One of Us rarely listed among fans' favourites (although it's one of mine). Two singles followed the original album, both included on the CD reissue: The Day Before You Came and Under Attack. Again, these barely dented the UK charts, although the latter in particular shows Benny and Bjorn's songwriting at its finest, with its sure sense of dynamic emphasis, long-term melody and effective key juxtaposition.
Yet for me the best moment on the reissued CD is Should I Laugh or Cry, the B side to Under Attack that, despite its clumsy lyrics, movingly sums up a parent's experience of watching a child drift away from her. Again, it's both the sinuous melody and the wonderful key modulations that work the familiar ABBA magic.
Low points are the dreary I Let the Music Speak and the verses of Two for the Price of One - the latter sung (would they never learn?) by the lads and therefore ruining what, on the strength of its excellent harmonised chorus, could have been one of the album's successes.
Above all, besides the musical qualities, it's the emotional depth of this album that makes it come out particularly well under the scrutiny of repeat listenings.
Back in Black
AC/DC's golden years were those before and just after the (allegedly vomit-related) death of their original singer Bon Scott. His replacement, mad Geordie Brian Johnson, had the better voice, but lacked the rebellious charisma of his predecessor. Consequently, during the 80s the group lost something of its edge - but not before it produced the best hard rock album of all time in Back in Black. Scott's spirit very much lives on in the album, and perhaps the emotional charge effected by his death brought the energy levels up a notch even further. Most importantly, there's not a dud song on the album - Hell's Bells and the title track may stand above the rest, but that's only because they're almost impossibly brilliant. And the band had perfected its dynamic technique - keeping tempos restrained and never drowning out the innumerable classic riffs with cheesy walls of noise. It may seem an odd thing to say about a hard rock outfit with a dementedly screaming singer, but the group's watchword is taste.
No leathers; no ostentatiously long hair: this is the sound of a band that knew it had nothing to prove, and is the heavy metal album every human being on the planet should possess!
Afternoons in Utopia
In case you're wondering, Alphaville were a German New Romantic band who had a UK hit in 1984 with a song called Big in Japan and were never heard of again on these shores.
Thank God, many would say. But I'm not having that. Afternoons in Utopia, released in 1986, was their second album and superior to the first, Forever Young, in introducing a lusher production to the overwrought Teutonic mix (courtesy of Peter Walsh, of New Gold Dream fame). It seems to be a concept album of some sort, but what the concept is, is very difficult to say unless you know what Aquarian Warriors, Eris Princess of the Isles, Magnet-Mages, the Channels of A'Daar and the Mighty Maomoondog are meant to be. The CD booklet is unforthcoming on these matters.
All you can do, then, is sit back and enjoy the music. And it's great: ten superlatively naff but catchy pop tunes in the best Eurotrash tradition, with a touch of New Romantic melodrama thrown in for good measure. My top tracks are Universal Daddy, which I remain convinced would have been a worldwide hit if any radio station had ever played it, the mellow title song and the full-on NewRo stomp of Dance with Me. But thinking about it, there's not really a duff track here, provided you have the stomach for this sort of thing in the first place.
This album has a warm and watery feel to it. Imagine swimming in the sea on a craggy, deserted bit of coast a hot summer's day, then spending the evening drinking cool beer with friends. That's a bit like what Afternoons in Utopia sounds like.
Every few months I go through a phase of listening to this 80s rock classic several times a week. In some ways, it is very much of its time, employing recently-developed technology to produce unusual sounds: not synthesisers in this case, but guitar processing widgets. The album, therefore, is awash with guitars that sound like bagpipes, and the haunting, wailing sound of the E-Bow (a kind of electromagnetic plectrum that strokes rather than plucks the strings).
I've never got much of a handle on whether Big Country were hip or not. They were always at the "pop" end of the rock spectrum, with their catchy, folk-derived tunes, and guitar hooks that, thanks to the aforementioned processing, had some appeal to gimmick-loving synth geeks like myself. But infused into their sound is a distilled raw energy, an inheritance from singer Stuart Adamson's days in punk band The Skids, that raises what could have been a cartoon album with a silly "Scottish" theme to the status of an all-time rock classic.
Big Country were all over Radio 1 in 1983 and 1984 with the singles from this album: Fields of Fire, In A Big Country, and the classic ballad Chance. Rest assured that most tracks on The Crossing are of the same standard; my personal top tunes are the exuberant Harvest Home and Lost Patrol, but there is nothing here that disappoints, except perhaps the less-than-memorable 1000 Stars (and admittedly, The Storm and Porrohman, though atmospheric, go on a bit).
The subject matter of many of the songs, from what I can tell, is proud episodes from Scottish history, often involving a fair bit of fighting I would imagine. But the overriding emotion conveyed by the band on this album is simple exhilaration. Stuart Adamson - the founder of the band and always its driving spirit - was an intense, passionate individual, whose exuberance sadly ceded, as record sales declined over the years, to alcholic despair. He committed suicide in 2001, an incident that affected many not just because they were fans of Big Country's early music, but also because he was, by all accounts, a modest, unpretentious and generally nice bloke. In that respect he was, needless to say, a rare phenomenon among rock singers.
The Best of Neil Diamond
"But I've got an emptiness deep inside / That I've tried, but it won't let me go": what a grammatical pile-up - and yet you know where Diamond is coming from. Well, maybe you have to him him singing it to appreciate that fully; for he does that with all the throaty passion that only smoking 40 Woodbines a day to quell otherwise unbearable existential angst can impart.
Diamond's good looks, heart-on-sleeve romanticism and sell-out Vegas shows helped make him into a stalwart of Radio 2 from the late 1970s, his name often uttered in the same breath as shallow crooners like Barry Manilow. And yet, while Diamond may have settled gladly into the lucrative "housewives' favourite" niche, there was never anything bland or comfortable about his music. In his melodies, his voice and - clumsy though they often are - his lyrics, there is always a yearning melancholy that transcends whatever is ridiculous in his image. Even in more upbeat tunes like "Cracklin' Rosie" and "Sweet Caroline" there's a subtly haunting quality that makes me think of John Keats' lines: "Ay, in the very temple of Delight / Veil'd Melancholy has her sovran shrine".
I think of Diamond's melancholy as having a rather "Californian" quality: it's the melancholy of having reached earthly paradise, but being unable to quell the need to believe in something still further "beyond".
Is that far-fetched? Even if it is, I think Diamond's sensibility is unique, as are his evocative voice and his talent for conveying emotion so well in melody. In addition, his arrangements are admirably restrained, with the extensive use of strings never sounding maudlin.
This compilation covers the relatively short period during which Diamond recorded on MCA in the early 1970s, but it includes many of his finest moments including "I am... I Said", "Brooklyn Roads" and quality live versions of "Girl You'll be a Woman Soon" and "Solitary Man". It really is chock full of classics - although perhaps best avoided during times of severe mental distress.
It took a long time for this to register as one of my all-time favourite albums. Country rock was hardly my scene when I bought it, after reading a glowing review in Q Magazine: and there's little that grab's the listener's attention immediately (apart from the exhiliarating "Tennessee Plates" and "Ride Along"), if they aren't already committed to the genre. But repeated exposure brings the acknowledgement that Hiatt is something special.
Alongside the much later Crossing Muddy Waters, I think this is Hiatt's best album. I have to diverge from the critical consensus that holds Bring the Family to be his masterpiece: its songs don't match Slow Turning, and I actually prefer the musicianship of Hiatt's backing group the Goners here to the star-studded assemblage (Ry Cooder, Nick Lowe etc.) of the earlier album.
Musically, it's all fairly straightforward, and Hiatt's gravelly but soulful voice is an acquired taste. But his infectious joy in music-making, and that of the band (particularly guitarist Sonny Landreth) come through at every turn. Lyrically, meanwhile, Hiatt is up there with the best: never wordy but never banal either, always with something to say and always saying it with such joie de vivre.
The Impossible Bird
I'd been dimly aware of Nick Lowe as an "elder statesman of pop" throughout my youth, whose distinctive grinning face would burst forth from every third issue of "Q" Magazine. The descriptions of his music ("pub rock" etc.) failed to arouse my curiosity, but then a few years ago I caught him performing live on BBC4, and discovered a singer who seemed to have everything: catchy tunes, witty lyrics, an emotive voice, a superb backing band.
As it happens, this overarching quality was a relatively new development. Lowe's older records include some good lyrics, but with the exception of the early hits "I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass" and "Cruel to be Kind", little really sticks in the mind, least of all his competent but bland voice.
So what happened? By Lowe's account, in his early 40s he had his heart broken for the first time - and what a transformation this made to his music. The Impossible Bird was the first album he recorded after his crisis, and it seemed to reveal his true musical voice. His vocals found new melodiousness and depth, his lyrics added poignancy to their wit, and he seemed to tap into a new seam of inspiration when it came to tunes.
Stylistically, there was also a change: Lowe was now looking back to early, Buddy Holly-era rock'n'roll for his cues, and the energy and simplicity of the musical template evidently freed something up for him creatively.
The Impossible Bird is broadly divided between upbeat foot-tappers ("Soulful Wind", "12-Step Programme", "I'll Be There") and heartrending laments for lost love ("Lover Don't Go", "Withered on the Vine"). The instrumentation and production are perfectly judged throughout, and the balance of styles works exceedingly well, varied yet cohesive.
Above all, this record is about two things: the voice and the tunes. Great songs, flawlessly performed, with no self-concious attempts to be original or contemporary: this music comes straight from the heart and the spirit. A classic record that hardly anyone seems to have heard of.
Manic Street Preachers
Know Your Enemy
The Manics have produced some patchy albums and this is one of the patchiest. However, on account of three blistering discharges of high-octane guitarwork - Found That Soul, My Guernica and Freedom of Speech Won't Feed My Children - it's a worthy contender for the single rock album I'd rescue from my burning flat.
There are other fine moments, including the Phil Spector-like single So Why So Sad and the epicly melancholy Epicentre. But it's the three tracks I mentioned first that really send the blood to your head: soaked in guitar feedback like deep-fried Mars Bars in boiling oil, they partake of the 24-year-old spirit of punk, with the added benefits of musicanly know-how and depth. They're every bit as ferocious as early Manics classics like Slash 'n' Burn or You Love Us.
OK, so the depth is more down to delivery than to meaning, lyricist Nicky Wire continuing to perceive the world through the eyes of a surly teenager who's skim-read TS Eliot and whose big brother sells Socialist Worker. But to bemoan that would be to throw the baby out with the bathwater: not many bands in their 30s continue to show such passion, manifest here in buzz-saw guitar motifs and James Dean Bradfield's raging vocals.
The Manics have always been a frustrating band, able to produce albums either of low-key consistency (This is My Truth Tell Me Yours) or of intermittent brilliance (Generation Terrorists and this one), but never of consistent brilliance. Still, I can live with that since when they're brilliant they're nigh-on blummin' perfect.
New Adventures in Hi-fi
Many critics felt REM had lost the plot when they released Monster in 1994. After the low-key acoustic perfection of Automatic for the People, they found its full-on, buzz-saw rock tracks a regression to facile pub-rock. Actually, it wasn't, and under the surface Monster was every bit as melancholy as Automatic - just a little bit angrier with it.
New Adventures in Hi-fi, from 1996, continued in the rocky vein established by Monster. It's true that a number of its fourteen tracks don't amount to very much. However, the more powerful ones more than compensate - to make this, in my opinion, one of the classic rock records of the 1990s. Like all the best albums, its quality is not down just to its material, but also to the unique atmosphere of the whole listening experience. New Adventures offers a strange tonal mixture of exhilaration and sadness: the sound, perhaps, of a still-powerful rock band beginning to enter middle age and catching the whiff of mortality.
Stand-out tracks for me are Leave, with its weird, siren-like guitar wail looped all the way through; So Fast, So Numb, which rocks in a most satisfactory manner; and Electrolite, yet another tuneful, wistful REM album-closer. All in all, a thoroughly underrated disc.
The Zoo of Tranquillity
Johannes Schmoelling was a member of Tangerine Dream from 1980 to 1985, and had a big impact on the group's sound, reducing the prominence of otherworldly atmospherics and bringing drum machines and pop tunes to the fore. In the end, his influence was greater than bandmates Edgar Froese and Christophe Franke felt comfortable with, and he left TD after the ultra-commercial "Le Parc", an album which included - the ultimate sell-out, arguably - the Jean-Michel Jarre-esque theme tune for "Streethawk".
It might have been expected that, unrestrained by creative countercurrents, Schmoelling the solo artist would seek a still more mainstream sound. In fact, though, the freedom seemed to expand rather than entrench his style. His first three solo albums - "Wuivend Riet", "The Zoo of Tranquillity" and "White Out" - certainly placed a strong emphasis on melody, but were striking in the originality of their arrangements, beyond anything TD produced. Most notable was the conscious avoidance of high-tempo drum tracks, which would have been the easy route to commercial acceptance, in favour of a far more subtle and imaginative approach to rhythm.
And if anything, tuneful though "The Zoo of Tranquillity" is, it's the rhythms rather than the melodies that set it apart from most instrumental electronica. The tracks were all inspired by the wooden automata made by English carpenter Paul Spooner; and without even seeing these items, one gets a vivid sense of them in action, whether in the cheerfully manic "The Anteater" or in the quiet, slowly building force of the title track.
There is a magic in this music that is not quite as consistently evoked in "Wuivend Riet" and "White Out". One pictures Spooner's beloved automata acquiring a Pinnochio-like life of their own, independent of human observation: scenes sweetly cosy at the same time as being weird and mysterious.
The one track that bucks the trend is the musique concrete "The Wedding Cake" - six minutes of rhythmic scraping leading into orgasmic wails and heavy breathing; the one genuinely disturbing piece on an album that is otherwise overwhelmingly mellow.
A final, significant point: the original, 7-track version of "TZOT" is deleted and very difficult to get hold of for a reasonable price. I was recently lucky, finding it offered from an independent seller on the German Amazon site for 25 euros - I think this (www.amazon.de) is your best bet if you want it, though you may have to keep your eye on the site for a bargain.
Easier to obtain is Schmoelling's 2003 re-recording of the album. It includes 2 so-so new tracks, but is compromised by the artist's decision to radically change the sounds in many of the parts. The single worst misjudgement by far is the use of piano for the melody line of "The Anteater", which totally destroys the piece's mood. About half the new interpretations are as good as the originals, but there are certainly no improvements.
The Essential Paul Simon
I broke my previous Paul Simon compilation (Negotations and Love Songs) and replaced it with this more up-to-date one. The paragraphs that follow are from the old review, and they hold true for The Essential, which is even better, benefitting as it does from a still higher track-count.
Simon's musical versatility strikes me afresh every time I listen to these songs. Sure, he never actually rocks, but everything else he does with utter conviction, from the upbeat pop of Kodachrome and Loves Me Like A Rock to the existential gloom of Slip Slidin' Away.
But even more than his versatility, it's Simon's ability to strike an atmosphere with a combination of melody, arrangement and voice that makes him one of my all-time top singer-songwriters. I can't listen to the mellow strains of Still Crazy After All These Years without going all wistful. And that's without even knowing what it's about.
New Gold Dream (81-82-83-84)
Proof that brilliant pop music doesn't have to make any sense. The lyrics on this album - wisely mixed down to the point of virtual indecipherability - were 'inspired' by Jim Kerr's LSD trips, and a right load of old cobblers they are too.
Still, with their incessant references to luminosity, crashing waves, glittering prizes, blah blah, you get the gist: the world is groovy, and life is great. The music backs this sentiment up, with pulsing synthesisers, distant jangly guitars, gently shuffling rhythms, and Jim Kerr's exceedingly 'mysterious' voice all doing their thing. Although the heavy reliance on synthesisers and the vocal melodrama mark it out clearly as a thing of the early 1980s, New Gold Dream occupies a soundscape of its own, and comes over now every bit as fresh and uplifting as it did twenty years ago.
Whether the songs would stand up on their own merits, divorced from the luxuriant instrumentation and Peter Walsh's 'Soup of Sound' production, is a moot point, and in the last analysis an irrelevant one. What matters is that of these nine very varied tracks, which still manage to form a delicious, coherent whole, not one is a dud, although you might have to listen to them all a few times before their fabness hits you. This is one of the most uplifting albums in existence. Imagine the view from the top of Snowdon on a cloudless, clear, warm July evening. That's what this album sounds like.
Sisters of Mercy
Goth music never floated my boat much, but Floodland stands out from the gloom-shrouded bulk of the genre. The sound is as much synth-rock as standard Goth, most of the album not performed by a band but sequenced on a computer - usually a good sign in 80s music as far as I'm concerned! It's effectively a solo album by Andrew Eldritch: the dominant instrumental presence a drum machine called Doktor Avalanche, pummelling its way through Dominion/Mother Russia, Lucretia My Reflection and This Corrosion, and blasting its way dynamite-like through the slower tracks.
What's it all about then? I have no idea. The imagery invokes empires and apocalypse, and there may be some intricate hidden meaning to it - but I treat it like an Arnold Schwarzenegger action movie: cheesy and nonsensical, but exhilarating and winningly tongue-in-cheek.
It's My Life
Talk Talk entered the UK music scene in 1982 with The Party's Over, an album of earnest, overwrought electro anthems in the vein of Ultravox. It now sounds badly dated, even to an 80s obsessive like me. But the follow-up It's My Life two years later was a different kettle of fish. While incorporating plenty of catchy, up-tempo stompers such as the singles Such a Shame and It's My Life to keep the New Romantics happy, it also bore witness to a new songwriting maturity on the part of singer Mark Hollis - a kind of geeky, mop-topped Brian Ferry - and producer Tim Friese-Greene. Even though the lyrics are impenetrable, the melodies and arrangements evince real flair and imagination. Not to mention anguish. I've no idea what Hollis is wailing about in Tomorrow Started, but I hope I never experience it. Anyway the point is it's typical of this album in having a stupendous tune.
Talk Talk would take their new introspective style even further in their next two albums, The Colour of Spring and Spirit of Eden, by abandoning synthesisers completely and veering into meandering, ambiguous territory that sounded like no one so much as fin-de-siecle French composer Claude Debussy. Those are both great albums too; but being an incorrigible New Romantic, I retain a special place in my affections for It's My Life.
Always more influential than listened-to, this trio of German electro-doodlers made a name for themselves in the mid-1970s with a series of strange, trippily hypnotic albums that rarely contained more than four tracks apiece. Structure is notable only for its absence; melody makes but brief guest appearances; and for the rest, it's mostly loops of endlessly morphing sequenced motifs overlaid with largely improvised keyboard commentary.
If that all sounds ghastly and pretentious, you might change your mind if you listen to an album like Encore. Of course, any number of po-faced nerds have justified producing repetitive, random streams of musical excrescence by playing the 'It's meant to be atmospheric, man' card; but Tangerine Dream really do make music that takes you into totally weird aural territory. The word 'landscape' often crops up in descriptions of their music, and aptly: for its randomness, its atmosphere and its evocation of vast emptinesses suggest that here, technology is offering a route full-circle back to nature.
Following Encore, stalwart Peter Baumann left Tangerine Dream. Edgar Froese and Chris Franke stayed on to produce a couple of albums in a similar vein; then in 1980 they were joined by Johannes Schmoelling, who dramatically altered their direction, bringing some overdue attention to bear on the issues of melody, structure and rhythm. TD's music therefore gained a poppy twist and lost some of its intoxicating other-worldliness in the process, although the albums from 1980 to 1985 are still rewarding listening on their own terms.
Anyway that's all irrelevant. I've selected Encore for this page because it's the longest-playing album from TD's trippy 70s period, and therefore the best value for money. It was recorded live at various locations in the USA in 1977, and you get a sense in the music of those eerie, empty American desert landscapes. Fantastic for listening to just before going to sleep on a summer night, with the window open.
Rage in Eden
It would be easy to put my teenage self's liking for Ultravox's music down to the dual follies of youth and the 1980s. Sadly, that's not the case. I still love this stuff. Anyone under 30 probably won't understand how the words "They shuffle with a bovine grace and glide in syncopation" sung by a Scottish man with pointy sideburns over a galloping sequenced bassline accompanied by outrageous screeching guitars played by men resembling geography teachers can be an exciting musical experience. All I can say is, "You weren't there!"
Gillian Welch hit the big time after contributing to the soundtrack of the movie "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" Curiously, that marked the point at which she started to alter her style, moving away from the sweet roots- and bluegrass-influenced sound that made her famous, and towards a more downbeat and ironic tone.
Revival was Welch's first album, and as its title implies, its main influences lie deep in the past. Although the instrumentation - predominated by just two acoustic guitars - makes it difficult to classify it as bluegrass, and although the fact that all ten songs are original deflects the label of "folk", this record could almost have been recorded in the 1930s.
The music might so easily have sounded phoney. Neither Welch nor her musical partner David Rawlings hail from anywhere near the Appalachians, and it's anybody's guess whether the songs' many religious references reflect the duo's real sentiments or are homage to the styles they pastiche. Yet the only thing that's self-conscious about this album is the title. Welch sings with such sweetness and intensity, the close harmonies that Rawlings supplies sound so spontaneous and pure, and the guitarwork is so wonderfully intricate, that the listener is simply absorbed in the joyful melancholy of the performances.
It's that ambiguous juxtaposition of joy and melancholy that makes this album so intriguing. I could barely stop listening to it for several weeks after buying it: there is an emotional depth that draws one in time and again. That's in addition to the superlative quality of the songs themselves. Orphan Girl and One More Dollar may be the most piecingly poignant tracks here, but there is not a single duffer; and within the framework of the basic style there is also a lot of variety.
Note that Welch and Rawlings are very much a duo, the chemistry between them no doubt accounting for much of their music's intensity. Welch's employment of a full band on her most recent album Soul Journey makes for an altogether less involving sound, and I hope the pair go back to basics for their future work.
Back in the High Life
Steve Winwood's comeback album from 1986 is a shameless exercise in commercial 80s yuppie-pop - and a masterpiece of the genre too. Back in the High Life is a shrine to the glories of the keyboard, Winwood's own instrument, and he proves an expert in exploiting this much-maligned piece of equipment to the full.
In objective terms, this isn't Winwood's most consistent solo album. Half its eight tracks (yes, eight - this was the tight-arsed 80s) are on the pedestrian side, even if they are never less than tastefully executed. However, the highlights compensate enough to earn BITHL its status as a top-notch album in my book. These tracks are the timelessly uplifting singles Higher Love, The Finer Things and Back in the High Life Again; and the incongruously mellow crooner My Love's Leavin'.
Anybody with less taste than Winwood would have made a disaster of this album. The lyrics - courtesy of overpaid rent-a-rhymer Will Jennings - are abysmal; the tunes are catchy but hardly of Beatles-esque stature; and the very idea of keyboard solos sends shivers down the spine.
So how come it works? One word: soul. Winwood warbles with such feeling and commitment that you can actually listen to him singing 'We're all skating on the thinnest of ice / In a world that isn't so very nice' without kicking the CD player. And that takes talent.