Sunday, June 28, 2009

Gone too soon...

First of all, let me say that I do not usually post this soon after such a lengthy and difficult to compose entry as the previous one regarding a half-year assessment of the music of 2009. Only the death of somebody as big as Michael Jackson could force me to share some of my thoughts on the subject, and this is the first typed statement I have regarding it. I would like to add that one of my favorite bloggers at
has already said some wonderful things rather eloquently, and celebrities as John Taylor of Duran Duran did a very good job putting it all into context. The following is a purely personal statement.

Michael Jackson was never my favorite artist, my favorite singer, or my favorite performer. He was not my favorite songwriter either. However, Michael Jackson was a cultural phenomenon who blossomed during my teenage years, and his music was inescapeable. While it may sound that I was somewhat trapped by his presence, his music and image did do a great deal to pave the way for other artists such as Prince and Madonna to break into the pop mainstream, and even though his music was generally appealing to me, I was not a devotee. As millions of others, I owned Off the Wall and Thriller, only to be shocked at how he permanently transformed his appearance for Bad, and continued on that path until his demise. Only Pete Burns and Cher have come as close as musicians in physically altering who they once were. But I will try to stick to the music...

Growing up as a teenager in the center of the US in the early 80's, I was very saturated with the late-70's corporate rock and singer-songwriters who were faceless voices on the radio. While some of this music had its merits, much of it was produced and promoted by a system of suits running ever-growing corporate conglomerates. Disco was declared dead--a genre which produced some great music but few great artists with lasting success (Donna Summer comes to mind, while the Bee Gees managed to come from 60's pop and push past into MOR pop to a much smaller degree). Michael was still riding a bit of disco with Off the Wall, but Thriller was something really different, and the music videos from that album, along with early cinematic masterpieces by David Bowie and Duran Duran, helped make MTV a driving force for promoting new pop music to a young population and wake music sales from the doldrums (of course, Cyndi Lauper, Madonna, Eurythmics, Prince, and many others would feed the frenzy). Suddenly, you could not have a hit record unless your videos were being played on MTV. Without Michael Jackson and his music mini-movies, MTV might never have happened, and popular music would not have developed such a visual aspect.

I remember the night the Thriller video premiered on MTV, and they played it over and over in case you missed anything and wanted to catch it again. I must have watched it at least four times that night, entranced by the makeup and the dialog. The presence of Vincent Price's voice on a pop record only added to the drama. Then there was the dancing. Amazing. I remember trying to figure out what he was doing with the choreography, and it would have an enormous impact on my later love for his sister Janet's music, videos, and dancing as well. As far as dancing in music videos, nobody else came close until the 90's and Madonna's Vogue (Prince had some great moves, but seemed more moved by the music and less choreographed). Even a song like Bad, one that I did not like, had a video with great dance moves.

My first job in a music shop came when Dangerous was released. I remember it sitting on the shelves a bit, with backstocked copies wanting to find homes (actually, U2's Achtung Baby had a similar gestation). Over the course of a year, Dangerous did well, but was no Thriller or even Bad. A song like Jam seemed oddly aggressive for a guy who appeared ever more delicate.

A few years later in 1995, History seemed an even tougher sell. My wife and I went to a promotional laser-Michael Jackson show at the planetarium in center city Philadelphia, and while Michael was nowhere to be found (after all, who ever REALLY got close to him?), the music was better than expected. History remains, for me, his oddly forgotten masterpiece, as his record company, Epic, did the odd thing of bundling it as a 2cd set with a disc of greatest hits. This may have been shrewd at the time as a ploy to get people to buy the new album (after all, there had not been any Michael Jackson hits collection released up to that point). It is my belief that Epic knew they had a tough sell on their hands, especially after one allegation of pedophaelia had already been dismissed by the courts, but the songs had also become more obscure and isolationist. It seemed as though while Michael continued reaching out for other production talents like Dallas Austin and David Foster, his music became increasingly arch.

Scream featured sister Janet on vocals, and produced the most expensive video ever made, and while it was a great song and clip, all these excesses only added to the eccentricity of their creator. Songs like Childhood, Little Susie, Stranger in Moscow, and Earth Song showed a vulnerability and depth we hadn't really experienced since Human Nature from 1983's Thriller (possibly excepting Dangerous' Gone Too Soon--Man in the Mirror always seemed a bit phony to me coming from him). Other than Scream and You Are Not Alone--songs more propelled by radio play than sales--Michael struggled to have hits and remain relevant. Earth Song may have been a sign for the future, but it was rather out of step in 1995, and They Don't Care About Us got him criticism for using racial slurs about Jews to illustrate his points on hatred and racial intolerance, eventually caving to self-censorship to get it on the radio, which didn't really happen anyway. Songs like Money and Tabloid Junkie seemed increasingly self-referential (almost like Morrissey on You Are the Quarry!), and a creepy element colored Childhood's seemingly innocent tone. Blood on the Dancefloor, a remix album that was issued in 1997, seemed like a desperate attempt to get more sales out of a project that was relatively dismissed by the public (History), and failed. Invisible did even worse, with a been there-done that video for You Rock My World, featuring a near-catatonic Marlon Brando in one of his final roles, and a rather nice song, Butterflies, which tellingly had no video and no real backing from the record label.

Michael's last televised interview was with Billy Bush of Access Hollywood in October of 2006(!), and featured Michael in the studio in Ireland with working on his latest masterpiece. Hopefully that will now come sooner than later. This seems to have been the problem with Michael's music for me. It always seemed so micromanaged to the point that all the life began being sucked away from it. His music has always had a rather rigid and brittle nature to it, containing very little of the spontaneous nature of Prince's music or joyous abandon of Madonna's. Here is where Michael never really succeeded, as he was such a perfectionist. His music started to seem dated before it even got released due to the length of time spent perfecting certain sounds, and it became more about judging his music for what it did not contain than what it did.

Setting the persona and personal dramas aside, Michael Jackson was a great entertainer and a cultural icon whose music seemed to have lost much of its relevance. In effect, he did this to himself. He knew he was incapable of playing and producing everything like Prince, and in that sense, he did do himself a great service by allowing other producers a crack at helping create more modern material for him, even if it was dated by the time it was released. (Maybe Prince could take note and open his palette a bit). That being said, eveything Michael did left one with a feeling that the persona was bigger than the music, and no matter how much you liked a song of his, there was no separating the song from the singer.

For as many years as I have been listening to Michael, I feel like I don't know him any better than the first day I heard him. His music does very little to open the doors to the real him, or maybe that IS the real him, all cold and brittle beats with a bit of schmaltz thrown in once in a while to melt our hearts. Infuriatingly, we may never know more about the real man than we do now through the songs which obviously mean so much to millions (don't get me started on how his records sold out across the world on the announcement of his death--if you ever liked Michael, you would have had those records all along. It seems like a very disingenous thing to do.) If his songs really do represent the man he was, he was rarely happy, frequently sad, lonely, angry, scared, pathetic, and misunderstood. It makes for a compelling story, but not a life anybody would aspire to lead. Michael has become nostalgia for me, and while I will always respect what he created, it is not a place I wish to inhabit for very long.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Mid-Year already? Where does the time go...

As I come to the end of another June, I realize the time has come to cast a glance backward and briefly analyze the best pop albums released so far this year (2009). Of course, I had planned many blog posts, like a continuation of the Saint Etienne theme when they began to rerelease their catalog in the deluxe versions of Foxbase Alpha and Continental. There was also something regarding my passion for Little Boots, a Pet Shop Boys dedication (which may still come later), and further music business analysis. All of these were scuppered due to an insane schedule and too much time spent enjoying the information others were providing me with. I like to absorb lots of stuff and regurgitate my thoughts at the end, hence the post here. The blog acts as a way to collate ideas into a concise and (somewhat) entertaining point of reference, and as I am not in the business of acquiring readers for the sole purpose of pushing up the number of hits to interest advertisers and the like, thank you for taking the time to read ahead. Now on with the show...


Some may cry foul at this predictable choice, but there are other "predictable" choices that you may find noticeably absent from this list. Why the Pet Shop Boys again you may ask? How about because they have created one of the best pop albums of the year, and possibly their best pop album, or at least one to rival their best. If I had to name my three favorite Pet Shop albums, this would probably sit there comfortably along with Very and Behaviour. However, I only believe there is one semi-weak album of theirs (I'll leave you to guess which one), so this is high praise indeed. "Love Etc." seems like a strange song to open with at first, with the loping 6/8 beat and the chanting vocals, but it gets under the skin in the most insidious way, opening with an odd half verse, followed by a chorus straight out of left field. The song continues to build as it develops, sliding perfectly into a wallop of a song, "All Over the World", with its Tchaikovsky sampling riff--listen to this track on a good stereo, and you will be a believer. The breezy "Beautiful People" continues the optimism of the previous track (and there is a lot of optimism on this record, much more than on Fundamental), and seems stylistically different than the rest on offer here, but the Pets do like variety once in a while (see Bilingual and Nightlife). "Did You See Me Coming" is absolutely ebuillent, and "Vulnerable" is the type of melancholy ballad they do so well without being morose. Side one finishes (I also own the vinyl) with the upbeat Obama-waving "More Than a Dream", a great song which would be any other band's first single from their album--who knows if it will see a single release here.

Side two begins with the provocative "Building a Wall", with its funny spoken word passages (I found it amazing that people got bothered by this--does anyone remember "West End Girls" where Neil spoke ALL the verses?). "King of Rome" is a ballad worthy of being included on the classic Behaviour, while "Pandemonium" and "The Way it Used to Be" are simply two of the best songs you'll hear all year. "Legacy" is a bit of a red herring, as it is far from the template created by the Xenomania production team throughout the rest of the album, but it is the epic type of closing piece the Pets embrace with open arms. Then there is the bonus track, "This Used to Be the Future", featuring the vocals of Neil and Chris as well as Phil Oakey from Human League. This song is simply too amazing to have been left off the album, with its themes of an arms race and energy consumption set to a percolating beat--I like to program this between the last two tracks of the album proper, as it really needs a firm home, just as "Fugitive" did with Fundamental a couple years ago. Its omission is a small flaw which does not lessen the impact of the album, but adding it would not dilute the impact of Yes either.

Song for song, Yes ranks at the top for me. That being said, I have followed Pet Shop Boys career pretty closely for 25 years now, and although their writing is consistently strong, criticisms have been laid at their feet of late, calling them too old or too gay, and while there may be some truth in this regarding their ability to attract new or young fans, there is talent there that cannot be denied. It saddens me that, an album such as this which I play in my store daily has only sold 10 copies since its release in late April (in the US). What will it take to make the world wake from its economically-induced coma? That is the big story that looms over all of the following quality albums of 2009. Is anybody listening, and if they are, are they paying to make sure the artists continue to make quality music? That rant is for another post...

2) ROYKSOPP--Junior

While we anxiously await the release of the companion piece, Senior, due this fall, Royksopp served up some long awaited sounds with Junior back in the spring. Featuring the vocals of Robyn, Karin Dreijer Andersson, Lykke Li, Anneli Drecker, and Royksopp themselves, Junior is a pop masterpiece that shows the duo at the peak of their composition and production powers. Purists may balk at the fact that nearly every track is a somewhat structured song, but face it, songs (and good ones) are more difficult to write than moody instrumentals, as they require a certain amount of structure which is easier to dismiss when the vocal is not present. Tracks like "The Girl and the Robot" and "This Must Be It" find their feet firmly planted on the dancefloor with Robyn and Andersson in control, while the sweeter tones of Li and Drecker provide "Miss It So Much" with its Norwegian lilt and "You Don't Have a Clue" with a gently-skipping sparkle. A great effort from a couple of Norwegians, who finally surpassed their French counterpart, Air, in creating a superior electronic pop album.

3) CICADA--Roulette

Electropop is having one of its best years with albums from bands like this. Cicada have been knocking around for a while as DJs and remixers, doing the odd job for bands like Depeche Mode, and this is their second song-based album since 2006's Cicada. Vocal duties are handled by the wonderful Heidrun Bjornsdottir, formerly of the Icelandic band GusGus, although a couple other guests lend a hand on their own songs--Bjorn from Pacific! and Tom from the Editors. While Cicada doesn't really need the celebrity guests, their song additions only add to the wonderful thing they have going with Heidrun. In GusGus, she always seemed to be a great singer fronting a somewhat chaotic group after Daniel Agust left. Here, Heidrun's feet are firmly planted in the textures of Cicada, as they do her justice with their music and she does their music justice with her voice. "Love Don't Come Easy", "Don't Stare at the Sun", and "Metropolis" are easily three of the best songs of the year, and rival anything from the previously mentioned albums on this list. Welcome Cicada, your time has arrived. Now about getting people to hear your music...

(thanks to blogger Phil of Worrapolava for introducing me to Cicada's music!)


Really, what can I say about Victoria Hesketh that has not already been said in the blogsphere? She was talked up, then ripped down, and now resides somewhere firmly in the middle between godlike and irrelevant. Seriously though, Hands is a damn good album, one which any other artists would be hard pressed to come up with as a debut. Yes, there are some differences between production on the newer and older tracks, but we are only talking the space of about a year, so any difference in tone or texture is all relative. Let's face it, "Remedy" will be one of the biggest Gaga-sized hits on the planet this year, whether intentional or not, and it was needed to balance out some of the headier fare here. That being said, it isn't like Hands is some art project by John Zorn or even Sonic Youth--this is pure electropop at its finest, and I cannot wait to hear what Boots comes up with in the future. From the glossy opener "New in Town" to the disconnected "Stuck on Repeat", to the sensuous "No Brakes", Hands is chock full of pop hooks and buzzy synths, with some inspired vocals from Victoria. Her duet with Phil Oakey (he's popping up everywhere!), the glorious "Symmetry", will remain one of my favorite pop songs this year. Your move La Roux...(she will most likely be featured in the second half of the year)

5) PATRICK WOLF--The Bachelor

This is an album that seems to have had a rather difficult gestation involving record companies and a wealth of material, yet there is no denying the talent and emotion that went into making this album, and while not as immediate as its predecessor, The Magic Position, Patrick has made his most challenging and wildly head-spinning album (and he isn't even 30 yet). One feels the general sense that this was the result of a difficult process due to the divergent styles featured throughout the album (the tracks done in collaboration with Alec Empire in particular stick out), and that becomes the album's attraction and its albatross. Some of Patrick's most awe-inspiring work is here in "Damaris" and "Theseus", while "Hard Times" is the best pop single in recent memory to feature a string section and a choir. While Patrick has a love for industrial music ("Vulture"), one finds that the style sits rather uncomfortably with his superior musical pursuits, leading one to wonder what would have happened had these albums been presented separately as a double album (as originally intended). Let's just call it Patrick's very own Wild Mood Swings.

6) LILY ALLEN--It's Not Me It's You

A strong contender for best all-around pop album of the year has to go to Lily. This record, which was supposed to come out in 2008, approximately six months earlier, was delayed without Lily's consent. In turn, she kept leaking track after track in demo or unmixed forms through her myspace page until the album was released, leaving us to live with the promise of these songs for several months. Some have complained about the general pop sheen provided by producer Greg Kurstin (Kylie, Little Boots, Bird & the Bee...everybody really), and while some of the ska-lite may be gone, Lily's voice and writing have improved, and these songs go deeper into the heart of this young girl than before. With a snarky charm and throw-caution-to-the-wind attitude, Lily has stepped forward with songs like "The Fear" and "Back to the Start", which contain much more mature themes than some of her previous work. And "F**k You" is the funniest song I've heard in a long time.


On Natasha Khan's first album a couple years ago as Bat For Lashes, entitled Fur and Gold, we got a small taste of what she was on about--witches & warlocks, forest creatures, and general kookiness. On Two Suns, some parts of that are restrained while other parts are enhanced, making for a more focused, straightforward effort. That isn't to say that she has jettisoned all the kookiness--even 60's crooner Scott Walker makes a cameo on the closing track, "The Big Sleep", stalking around in the shadows like a phantom. "Daniel" and "Pearl's Dream" are two of the more conventional songs on offer, while "Moon and Moon" is a favorite of mine, with its waltz-y piano and creepy underwater backing vocals. "Two Planets" has a tribal Bjork-ish quality, while "Peace of Mind" sounds like it was recorded in the 30's with a southern gospel choir in attendance. With Two Suns, you never know what you are going to get, but you know that it's going to be good.

8) FILTHY DUKES--Nonsense in the Dark

Filthy Dukes create a winner with this storming electronic album which grew out of years as DJs and club owners. Developing organically, the album features many vocal turns by artists who either became friends or frequented their club, something which bands like the Chemical Brothers have really gotten too big to have happen to them anymore. If only for "Messages" alone, one of the catchiest singles of the year featuring Tommy Sparks on vocals, this album demands attention. The first half of the album is one of the strongest collection of dance tracks in recent memory, while the second half waxes more subtle and melancholic. A collaboration with Brandon Curtis from Secret Machines proves fruitful with "Don't Fall Softly", as well as writing lyrics for "Light Skips Cross Heart", sung by Tim Lawson of the band. If you like dance music with substance, do not miss this album!

(Another shout out to blogger Worrapolava for this!)

9) YEAH YEAH YEAHS--It's Blitz!

What can I say? I've never liked the Yeah Yeah Yeah's that much before, although I always thought Karen O had great style, and "Maps" was a nice little tune. Wow, when I heard this album, my entire perspective changed. Like Goldfrapp going hard electro, a similar thing happened here, only YYY's came from a place of indie alterna-rock instead of John Barry soundtracks. "Zero" establishes the mood immediately, with its guitars that sound like synths and synths that sound like guitars. It rocks hard, but it's catchy, it's also danceable, and is one of the best singles this year. "Heads Will Roll" follows suit nicely, turning up the beats even higher. The real killers of this album though are the ballads, which meld the electronic touches to Karen's punky purr. "Soft Shock", "Runaway", and "Hysteric" are all songs more direct and sincere than anything the YYY's have come up with before, all to great and tender effect. I guess what I'll have to say is, "more, please..."

10) CAMERA OBSCURA--My Maudlin Career

...or the album where we surpass Belle & Sebastian at their own game. 2005's Let's Get Out of This Country was pleasant enough--a little bit of Northern Soul and a lot of melancholy strings wedded to Traceyanne Campbell's wistful croon did the job with some sparkly highlights. Now fully formed, My Maudlin Career is a leap forward, albeit a consistent one, and from "French Navy" to "Honey in the Sun", this is a winner of an album. The addition of more horns to the mix helps liven things up a bit more, and Traceyanne's singing has never been better. This is one of those albums that DO sell when I play it in my store, and I think it's down to how beautiful the vocals are, mixed with that rustic feel of yesteryear. "The Sweetest Thing" and "Swans" are also two really great, upbeat songs, while "Careless Love" is Camera Obscura at their achingly beautiful best.

The rest:

THE HORRORS--Primary Colours
EMPIRE OF THE SUN--Walking on a Dream
I AM X--Kingdom of Welcome Addiction
WENDY & LISA--White Flags of Winter Chimneys
FEVER RAY--Fever Ray
GLASVEGAS--Glasvegas (US release)
THE VEILS--Sun Gangs
FRANZ FERDINAND--Tonight: Franz Ferdinand
GOD HELP THE GIRL (Belle & Sebastian)--God Help the Girl
DEPECHE MODE--Sounds of the Universe

Depeche Mode squeaks into this list with their latest album, which I find to be an album that is easy to admire but maybe less so to love. That being said, the vocals on the Antony and Fever Ray albums may be an acquired taste to many, while others may find Franz Ferdinand a bit of a letdown for all the time spent making it, but these are the eleven albums I enjoyed the most that followed the first ten. I would also add that I have enjoyed albums by School of Seven Bells, Kleerup, and Airborne Toxic Event which escaped my radar in 2008. Other fine albums were released by White Lies, Phoenix, Passion Pit, and Grizzly Bear. Albums missing from these lists would be U2 and Morrissey, both of which I felt to be possibly treading new ground in directions I don't really want them to be treading--not bad but not their best. Fischerspooner's album was good, but was it good enough? And BWO is always BWO for me--good cheesy fun without much depth--a guilty pleasure not really necessary on this list.

What am I most looking forward to for the remainder of 2009? Imogen Heap for one, and her soul sister Kate Havnevik for another. Since I will not be hearing La Roux until after it's June 29 release date, I'm sure it will be part of the year end lists. Noisettes released a very good album which I have heard, but am not sure yet where to place it. The Gossip and Muse also have my attention--we'll just have to see where they go. On the oh-so-Brit front, Florence & the Machine will undoubtedly rank very high at year's end (i.e. it sounds amazing), and hopefully that Lucky Soul record makes an appearance. Will the Pipettes? Sugababes (really)? A-Ha? Who knows?

In retrospect, 2009 has delievered some VERY GOOD MUSIC--I hesitate to say it is even better than 2008, being in a recession and all, but I think that fact may be making musicians work harder to release good product--at least for the new artists trying to break through. Pet Shop Boys may be an exception to the rule here, as they made a very good album, as did Wendy & Lisa (who were gone so long they may as well be new artists--Grace Jones anyone?), but the old guard may be finally turning. Watch this space...