Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Review Of The Year 2008

January 2008

I went into 2008 with renewed enthusiasm for my new blog and the current music scene. 2007 had been an interesting year for music with new material from Arcade Fire, Coheed & Cambria, LCD Soundsystem, Maps, Rilo Kiley and The White Stripes. All these bands did not feature in 2008 and it was Radiohead who dominated the early headlines. The In Rainbows album, available for free on the internet, proved to be a radical and inspired move. In reality you could pay whatever you wanted so this meant nothing to most people. It was later revealed that the members of the band had downloaded their own album and also paid nothing. Anyway, off the back of this media driven publicity, the band played a ‘surprise’ gig which had to be moved from a record store to a proper venue for health and safety reasons. Radiohead played the whole of In Rainbows from start to finish. It was a triumph. The album is not that bad; not a patch on the early work of course but an interesting new direction.

On the blog I talked about the BBC Sound of 2008 - new and emerging bands and artists likely to find success in 2008. It looked like a strong line-up. Duffy had already appeared on Later…with Jools Holland and I was hearing great things from Adele (who topped the list), Glasvegas, Foals and The Ting Tings. The second half of the list was pretty inconsistent but MGMT and Vampire Weekend have since topped many people’s favourite bands lists of the year and the albums were a huge success. Being an avid listener to BBC 6music, I was introduced to many new bands, including most on the Sound of 2008 list. But there were a few omissions. The Duke Spirit were making great noises and quickly became a good prospect for 2008. A solid debut album was followed by a support slot for REM at The Royal Albert Hall later in the year. But plenty of gigging and radio slots fizzled out as the year rolled on.

I was not reviewing albums for other websites until June (was it really that late?) so I filled January with some content from previous years. This was something I hoped to continue in future months but as the new albums started to emerge there was far too much to write about. The first big album of the year was from British Sea Power with Do You Like Rock Music? It proved to be a good benchmark for the year. Another new band Sons & Daughters caught my eye (and ear) and the debut album This Gift had real promise. Sadly the early hype faded fast.

I wanted the new blog to have some regular posts - previewing new artists and albums, talking about what was new and interesting etc. I tried a MySpace feature. This was inspired by the Tom Robinson ‘Introducing’ show (again on 6music) and started as a great idea. But I quickly realised that there is far too much new music on the internet and lots to trawl through. As with all these things, it was a great idea and I had a lot of fun going through the pages but I failed to follow most of it up. The play list idea was quickly dismantled due to the introduction of (songs and artists listed straight from my music library). But I continued the usual feature of updating the ‘albums of the year’ chart at the end of each month.

February 2008

The start of February brought us another new series of Later…with Jools Holland. Music television is in a horrible state with very few shows dedicated to ‘live’ performances. This may have something to do with the influx of music television channels churning out videos 24 hours a day and saturating the market. So Jools is keeping the formula alive and continues to attract the stars - both old and new. The first show of series 31 (yes, really!) had Radiohead (still dominating the news) as headliners and a rejuvenated Mary J. Blige. Off the back of this, I looked into other music television and found BBC Sound - a kind of Radio One on television with bands like The Feeling and Hoosiers. The only band to capture my interest was Paramore. I continued to keep an ear on who was on each week but quickly lost interest.

The Duke Spirit debut album was released in February. It was one of a few new albums to really start shaping the year. Laura Marling released Alas, I Cannot Swim and new band I Was A Cub Scout quickly topped my ‘best of’ list with I Want You To Know That There Is Always Hope. It is still one of my favourite albums of the year, in spite of what was to happen later in the year to end such a great career. In the news there was new album information from Death Cab For Cutie, and new singles from Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds and Goldfrapp back with a new folk sound.

Three more editions of Later…with Jools Holland gave us great performances from British Sea Power, Ida Maria, Morrissey, The Imagined Village (lead by Eliza Carthy), Jacob Golden, Duffy, We Are Scientists, The Kills, Devon Sproule and Supergrass. Disappointments were lead by Sheryl Crow, Hot Chip, Martina Topley Bird and MGMT.

March 2008

Quickly into March and there was some Nine Inch Nails news. I had been following details of a new experimental project from Trent Reznor and now it was actually going to happen. Ghosts was not so much an experiment as a masterpiece. Following on from Radiohead’s In Rainbows ‘free’ download, NIN decided to try a similar concept (also this month The Charlatans did the same thing with You Cross My Path). Ghosts is a four part instrumental album and Ghosts I was (and possibly still is) available free. My initial thoughts on the album were not great - I was expected too much but also I understood that this was just the start. After a technical glitch on the NIN website I finally got the whole album. It was well worth the wait. Ghosts is astonishing - a modern classical work beautifully conceived and crafted.

There were several more great albums in March. Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds released Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!! Goldfrapp’s Seventh Tree is excellent and Counting Crows were back with the spirited Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings. The Kills released Midnight Boom this month to mixed reviews.

I listened to and then reported on the REM concert at The RAH. REM were great - full of energy as they previewed new songs from the Accelerate album.

April 2008

April was marked by the sad passing of Humphrey Lyttelton. He was best known to me (and many) as the chairman of the BBC radio series I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue. But he was also a very good musician and radio host.

After a month break, Later… was back with a brand new format. The idea was to have a ‘live’ Tuesday show for half an hour and then back it up with a full hour long show on Friday (as normal). The Tuesday preview worked well and gave a lot more to talk about. The first show saw Adele out shining American counterpart Estelle. The was followed by Goldfrapp and Yeasayer, then The Last Shadow Puppets and the mighty Portishead. The Charlatans showcased the new ‘free’ album on the same show as Eartha Kitt. This was one of her last TV performances as she sadly died on Christmas Day this year. It was another interesting show with Was (Not Was) and The Pigeon Detectives. Where else can you get this much diversity?

In the reviews, REM and The Last Shadow Puppets outshone The Raconteurs and The Gutter Twins. As a huge Mark Lanegan fan I was very excited about The Gutter Twins. The album is disappointing and it was made worse by a bad performance on JH in May.

May 2008

I found it more difficult to find time for posting in May due to holidays and other commitments. I kept up the Jools Holland reviews and continued to enjoy the shows, in spite of inconsistencies and a few duff performances. James made a great comeback and Melody Gardot was great but The Gutter Twins were terrible. It was also the debut performance from Operator Please, another band I knew from BBC 6music. Moving through May, Robert Plant and Alison Krauss and Spiritualized were great but Santogold proved why they shouldn’t be in the Sound Of 2008 list. Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds put in the performance of the series in Show 7 against The Raconteurs and Glasvegas. All three were excellent live. In contrast the last show was a let down. Paul Weller was trying something different with 22 Dreams with mixed results and both Martha Wainwright and Tricky are acquired tastes.

May was sparse for reviews. The first Portishead album in ages was well worth the wait and any year with a new Death Cab For Cutie album is always a good thing. Narrow Stairs is full of great moments but ultimately not as good as Plans. In the news Trent Reznor announced another NIN album. The Slip would be more like a conventional NIN release - but again it would be free on digital download. Two NIN albums in one year! Result.

Into June, everything was about to change…

June 2008

At the start of June I got in touch with Scott Goodacre, the editor of The Music Magazine - an online music review site. The set-up was simple. Get sent free music in exchange for a review. My first attempt was an EP (Neon City by The Exits) and a single (Boys by The Maybes?). I had just completed a review of We Started Nothing by The Ting Tings and was eagerly anticipating the new Sigur Rós album Með Suð í Eyrum Við Spilum Endalaust. I had heard the first single Gobbledigook and could not wait to hear the rest. So when The Music Magazine sent my the album I was amazed. It was my first album review and quite punchy compared to later efforts. I don’t write ‘short’ pieces and I like to comment on every track, which makes it difficult to keep to the word limit. But most editors I have spoken to use this only as a minimum guide and prefer people to put in more effort and write more. Of course more is not always better and I do profess to quality over quantity.

During this new and exciting time I heard some sad news. I Was A Cub Scout announced a split and that the band would no longer be making music. There was an incident a few weeks before during a show but I’m not sure that directly contributed to the split. However, it was a sad day as the album is tremendous. I missed out on reviewing the new Coldplay album Viva La Vida. I didn’t think I would get the review and wasn’t sure if I wanted it. The review that actually appeared was a hugely positive one, contrary to my own feelings about the album. I think it is musically accomplished but lacking ‘songs’. Coldplay are no very good at sounds and texture but Chris Martin cannot be taken seriously as a lyricist. They are now a band who have their own high standard, like Radiohead, REM, etc… You have to hold them to a standard, at all costs. And that is what I did in my review.

I was (again) amazed when I was offered a new Bowling For Soup DVD. Live And Very Attractive captures the band at their manic best - concert footage mixed with before and after show and backstage antics. It is a mixed bag and I would like to have seen a pure unedited gig as an option. The commentary option is just the band sitting in a local bar and messing around. Even though I am a huge fan, I thought my review was thoughtful, mature and honest.

I finished up the month with a few more single reviews. I spent a few days catching up on the Glastonbury footage and trying to sum up the weekend. I can’t say I missed being there. It was marred by the Jay-Z controversy (which lead to him opening with Wonderwall to show Noel Gallagher how it should be done…not) and Amy Winehouse looking and sounding very ill and then punching someone in the crowd who tried to steal her hat…or something. There were some great highlights though - Elbow were excellent.

July 2008

The summer heat brought a busy month and another set of website reviews. I signed up with AltSounds as a reviewer and immediately looked through their huge list of available music. This was a different set up from The Music Magazine. Reviewers pick from a list and are encouraged to take two or three albums and a single. Otherwise you get sent a few random CDs to fill the postage. My first review for AltSounds was The Well by Sarah Perrotta. My review selection process is based on the simple principle of searching for an interesting sounding artist on MySpace and listening to a few tunes. If it sounds great, I add it to my list. And Sarah Perrotta sounds great…she just can’t control her voice enough and has way too many ideas. Anyway my review was fair and it was a 6/10. One thing about these reviews is that I have to give a rating - something I never do. I want people to read what I have to say and not just skip to the end and say ’oh a four star review - I’ll buy that’. If only life was that simple. For me 8/10 is Nevermind or Blood On The Tracks or St. Pepper. That is my benchmark. So when I had an email from the editor of AltSounds saying that the artist was no pleased with my ‘negative’ review, I was more than just a little surprised. It was my first direct feedback and it would not be the last.

July was an incredible month for reviews. I wrote a piece about the new Mogwai single The Sun Smells To Loud, in anticipation of the new album The Hawk Is Howling. I asked The Music Magazine to feature it and they obliged. I was introduced to an old band called The Lines who released two compilation albums this year, the first was Memory Span. In the late 1970s and early 1980s the band churned out singles and EPs and gigged extensively without much recognition. The album shows an interesting transition from guitar-based indie to dub and ska influences. Seth Lakeman released Poor Man’s Heaven (just in time for the Cambridge Folk Festival) and I discovered two new Canadian artists: the wonderful Catherine MacLellan and Elliott Brood. Another review cam my way from The Music Magazine from XX Teens. I had heard a 6music session earlier in the year and was eager to hear the album. It is one of the most original and compelling records of the year, even though it is missing the brilliant, but controversial, How To Reduce The Chances Of Being A Terror Victim. And new band Black Kids were all over the news, for the wrong reasons. After hyping them to the extreme, Pitchfork replaced their original review with a photograph of two pug dogs by means of an apology for a 0/10 review. This was then upgraded to 3/10.

To make things even busier, the end of June brought a new music TV series: Live From Abbey Road. This was the start of the second series. I had seen some of the first so I knew the format. What intrigued me is that there is very little ‘live’ music going on. It is essentially a glorified recording session and some interview. So completely different from Later… The first of the Live From Abbey Road shows had James Blunt, Mary J. Blige, Sheryl Crow, Diana Krall, Stereophonics, Colbie Caillat, Joan Armatrading, David Gray, Suzanne Vega and The Black Keys among others.

August 2008

Into the autumn and I was busier than ever. A new music site was launched called GobShout and I signed up with an account. I haven’t written any reviews for them, as The Music Magazine and AltSounds have been more than enough for now. I did write an introductory article about The Tragically Hip for the ’They Should Have Been Huge’ section. I still have no idea if it was posted.

It was a month for singles with good new songs from Red Light Company, The Automatic, Does It Offend You Yeah?, Colbie Caillat (I couldn’t resist after seeing her on Live From Abbey Road) and David Holmes. I caused a lot of discussion from my review of the new Queen and Paul Rodgers single C-lebrity. It is a shame as most of the new album is very good and they should not be getting bogged down in all this nonsense. In albums, it was the month for Noah And The Whale and Proceed. The latter got me some great positive feedback from the band! They emailed me directly to thank me for the review. It is definitely an album to preserver with. I began to challenge myself and picked the new Soft Cell remixes album from AltSounds. A huge amount of work with plenty of reward.

Live From Abbey Road rumbled on. Matchbox Twenty made a surprise appearance and Def Leppard were terrible, It was the first of two from Herbie Hancock who I just don’t get at all but Kate Nash was great, The Kills turned up and did a few songs first take and posed a lot and Sara Bareilles was excellent even though no one is talking about her or her great album, The Subways were full of energy but lacking in sound and Gnarls Barkley were a mess. It was all becoming a bit too inconsistent.

September 2008

In September we lost Richard Wright, an influential and core member of Pink Floyd. This was acknowledged in the first show of the new Later…with Jools Holland and followed up on the second show when David Gilmore appeared as a guest. He seemed embarrassed to be there given the tragic circumstances.

New albums continued to astound me. I was given the Mogwai album to review - another great honour, made even better as the album is fantastic. It remains the best record of the year. Metallica were back with Death Magnetic and I reviewed that - also for The Music Magazine. An excellent comeback with some amazing moments. Of the rest, Rosie And The Goldbug released their eponymous debut as did Attic Lights. Another great find was French band Arther.

Music television migrated back to Jools Holland from Abbey Road with a strange final show. Brian Wilson tried his best to recapture the glory days of the Beach Boys with mixed results, and Martha Wainwright and Teddy Thompson finished on a Beatles duet. Metallica opened the new series of Later…with Jools Holland but it all felt like a novelty act. They were sharing the bill with France’s first lady Carli Bruni - who was genuinely good. Fresh from their Mercury Music award, Elbow stole the second show.

October 2008

In contrast, October was terrible month for reviews. I Am Ghost failed to impress and I was sent an album sampler of No Pint Wasting Tears by Ironik. His music is not my taste but I know talent when I see it. And he has very little. The only saving grace for October was the release of a new album from King Blues. Save The World, Get The Girl is wonderful stuff. I was asked to review first single My Boulder by The Music Magazine and then along came the album.

During this time I was contacted by another website, LastBroadcast. While not exclusively music oriented, the site is an excellent mix of popular culture. I signed up for a few reviews including the new singles from Dido (dull) and Razorlight (great), as well as the new Ray LaMontagne album (again massively overlooked) and Ra Ra Riot by The Rhumb Line. I also reviewed the very disappointing Seaside Rock by Peter, Bjorn and John. This introduced me to another side of music review writing: the edit. My Dido review was changed, no massively, but enough to provoke a response. In one case, important tense had been lost, changing the meaning. I’m not going to get all Giles Corren here but that sort of thing really winds me up. We are all amateurs here (at least for the time being) and our copy should not be subjected to changes. If it is rubbish, don’t post it. Simple. Anyway, some of the changes were justified and I can understand why they were made. This is not the reason why I haven’t reviewed more for LastBroadcast. I simply did not have the time for a third website. This was a great experience and I learned more about writing within constraints.

Back to Jools Holland and his guests in October were Kaiser Chiefs, The Streets and Seasick Steve, Coldplay and Glen Campbell, Tom Jones, Snow Patrol and Eliza Carthy, Keane and Bloc Party. Everyone was eager to showcase new material and Jools is only too happy to oblige. Only Snow Patrol caught my attention and the new album sounded great. I avoided Keane and Kaiser Chiefs and we know about Coldplay. Glen Campbell was still peddling his horrible covers album and stumbled his way though songs he clearly doesn’t know, reading clumsily from an auto queue and messing up. Shame that such a great musician is reduced to this.

November 2008

November began with another good album from a band who were making a comeback. Snow Patrol released A Hundred Million Suns and I asked The Music Magazine if it was available. Again, and to my surprise, it was! Another scoop.

Later…with Jools continued to keep my attention. Grace Jones, Razorlight, The Killers, Fleet Foxes and Pendulum are all artists I ignored this year. The new material from Razorlight and The Killers failed to impress and I never got Fleet Foxes, despite heavy endorsement from Bob Harris. The final show of the series had Stereophonics doing exactly what every other band had not done - they played their greatest hits rather than weak new stuff. Ok, so they have a ‘best of’ collection out in time for Christmas but still, they were great. It was a very interesting show with good turns from Carolina Chocolate Drops, Dengue Fever and Eli ‘Paperboy’ Reed. I like it more when I don’t know what to expect…

December 2008

December has flown by and I scaled down the reviews. I spent much of my time posting on other sites, talking about Christmas singles, X-Factor and my top 5 singles/albums of the year. One surprise turned up, from AltSounds. The second complication from The Lines was released. Flood Bank is two albums, mixed up and even better than Memory Span. Before this I was given an album by a new band Ribbons. Royals is not a great album and I was constructive in my criticism (as always) but still got some grief. The record company withdrew future mailings and I got very negative feedback from comments, including crap about my writing style and some of my phrasing. Oh well, I guess when you put it out there, this is what you expect.

The BBC Sound of 2009 Longlist was out and I gave it a look. It is less appealing than this years list was and I hardly recognise the artists. I cannot believe that VV Brown is on the list after her woeful showing on Jools Holland earlier in the year.

I ended the year with a review of the new Jacobi Wichita album Bonex Malone. Who?, I hear you ask. That was my first thought. The reviews I wanted from Altsounds had already gone, apart from The Lines, so I was sent this is an extra. I was surprised that the first couple of listens revealed a mess and then real potential and talent start to emerge as the music progresses. It is challenging but rewarding. Just as music should be.

I intended to end the year with a few Christmas reviews. Kate Rusby released an album later in the month called Sweet Bells. Naturally I got it straight away after checking the review sites. It is a well-intentioned and genuinely heart-felt collection of Christmas songs, traditional and new. Excellent. I just wish I had time for a review.

They say everything happens in threes. On Christmas Day Eartha Kitt sadly passed away. She was in such fine form earlier in the year when she performed with Jools Holland and I had no idea she was ill. Many of the newspapers posted obituaries.

And what better place to end the year than the annual Hootenanny (Hootenanny!). I know I have mentioned Jools Holland way too much in my blog and indeed this post but I did see the new year in with Jools and his guests. It was the usual audience of celebrities and start turns, most backed by the Rhythm & Blues Orchestra. The line-up was Duffy, Adele, (a still going strong) Dave Edmunds, Annie Lennox, The Tings Tings, The Hold Steady and (a way past their best) Martha Reeves & The Vandellas. It was all a bit too loose and lacking the polish of the normal shows. Still, it was entertaining. Kelly Jones and Lily Allen put in good performances of old hits to bring us into 2009.

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