Birmingham is obsessed with shiny things. It doesn’t just like them, it’s utterly obsessed with them. When it comes to civic planning it appears that cost and utilitarian value are absolutely the last consideration behind how shiny something looks. I mean that literally, all civic developments have their quality assessed by how much reflective metal they have.
I decided to write this after seeing Midlands Today’s story about the Birmingham Library service not buying books anymore. It seems that this might not be quite the stark dystopian policy that it appears; more a call out from a community library for donations rather than municipal book begging.
Since the library opened it has been dogged by being an obvious vanity project that we can’t afford. I think that much of the furore about opening hours is a political administration trying to score points about central Government funding but I think it also highlights that this thing should never have been built.
So here is my potted history of why it was a stupid idea.
At the turn of the millennium there was a plan. A plan to build a library to replace the brutalist central library. This library, designed by Richard Rogers, was intended to be the catalyst for redevelopment for the Eastside of central Birmingham, creating a learning and technology zone, or hub, or something. There is a fair question about whether this was ever affordable, Birmingham knew it was bankrupt due to systemic gender discrimination, but in those days we didn’t talk about that.
It seemed a good idea. Build something and try and prompt some sort follow on development in an area that needed it. Many people dispute the theory that these big investments do create further development, but it was better than what we ended up with.
In 2004 a new political administration swept to power on the back of promising to build an underground railway in Birmingham. Well it was dissatisfaction with the Labour Party dropping bombs on Muslims more than the underground but we should never forget this was a very real and very crazy plan.
The new administration took a principled decision to rip up any plans that the previous administration had thought up. It didn’t matter what they were or how reasonable they were, they were ripped up. That meant no library in an area ripe for development.
Instead our political leaders decided we would have a new library but it would be squeezed into an area that was already over developed. We would also not use the library designed for us (which wouldn’t have fitted on the tiny bit of land anyway) but we’d buy one off the shelf. The library we now have had been touted around the great cities of Europe for ages but nobody really wanted it. Maybe they thought it was boxy.
Which means we ended up with a library that would have no regenerative effect, that was not designed for our purposes and had been aesthetically rejected by many before us. This cost us £189 million.
And we love it.
The lack of having a 21st Century use other than housing books is ignored. The lack of having enough money to run it is ignored. The puff pieces in The Times make it all worth it.
We also decided to knock down the previous library which had direct cultural relevance to Birmingham. Because we need some more offices.
We’re about to do it again.
In September the national media will descend on Birmingham and we’ll be filled with righteous pride as people see the shiny new New Street Station.
Here are some questions you will not see asked:-
1) Haven’t you just glued some bits of metal to a car park?
2) How much train capacity has this £153m development added to the station?
3) Is white the best colour for a station with diesel trains?
4) Isn’t that quite a lot of money for a really big sushi concession?
No, we’ll love it and everything will be fine again. We’ll forget about the perilous state of the Council because we’ll have more shops and they will be very shiny shops.
Every year there is a giant real estate conference in Cannes (The MIPM). Every year Birmingham goes on mass and every year Birmingham is a little bit surprised how pleased everyone is to see us. Many say this is because this is one of the most sought after cities to develop in, many won’t acknowledge that it’s because we will buy literally anything if it is made out of metal.
In Birmingham we use The Simpsons Monorail episode as a blueprint for urban planning.
I won’t even start on the plan for a skyscraper with a built in theme park.August 6th, 2015
Watching the Labour Party tear itself apart is weird. Not because it’s unexpected, after the sort of election defeat that follows on from one of the most incompetent Governments we’ve had it was expected. It’s weird because the analysis of why they lost and the battle for a new leader has come out of nowhere as one of the most engaging things I’ve ever seen. Those of us that have a bit of a soft spot for politics looked at the Scottish referendum with a bit of envy. People coming out on the streets and being passionate about politics is something that we’ve had drummed into us doesn’t happen any more.
It’s weird that the Labour leadership election, albeit on a smaller scale, seems to be having a similar effect. And the Labour Party look terrified.
Possibly it’s the first time in a while that people see politics as something they can influence rather than something that is done to them, who knows? I hold my hand up and admit that I’ve not been much of a Labour supporter for many years but have registered to take part in the leadership election. Not because I have an affinity for the candidates but because it looks like there might be a slim chance that a party develops that speaks on my behalf. I think it was a reckless decision to let anyone take part, but it could be one of the greatest things that has happened to this country in years.
Leaving aside whether the Labour Party stands more chance of being elected with one person or another it does need to take it’s responsibility as an opposition party seriously. It needs to present opposite arguments to the Government rather than try and appear as similar as possible.
Yesterday Jon Cruddas released his review of why Labour failed so badly in the last election. One of his principle conclusions being that the public endorses the economic policy of austerity and feared the Labour Party’s response to the deficit. I’ve seen much comment that the question in research relating to austerity was loaded. I agree it was loaded but don’t think that undermines the finding. The whole discussion about deficit management and austerity has been loaded and that points to the Labour Party’s biggest failing.
The failure of the opposition to make a case against austerity has failed to broaden the discussion and conditioned people into believing in a largely discredited policy. Nobody is making the case that the majority of economists reject austerity as a failed experiment, nobody is acknowledging that most countries reject it as a policy and nobody is pointing out that it was only when the last Government significantly reduced cuts that the economy grew. If this case isn’t being made by the opposition then it is no wonder that this is not becoming an issue accepted by the media nor where the middle ground of public opinion lies.
Most people don’t know anything about economics, most people don’t want to know anything about economics, most people are quite happy to accept simplistic household income analogies as fact. It’s fine that most people don’t want to know about economics but it is not fine to then base economic policy on their refusal to understand how an economy works.
Which comes back to the Labour Leadership election. The arrival of Jeremy Corbyn as a candidate has allowed people to begin the debate that this country needs. Proposing that deficit management isn’t the be all and end all of politics is not controversial. At least it isn’t controversial outside of the UK. We need to be able to have a public debate so that the much sort after “middle ground” of the electorate begin to understand there are other views and that evidence and practical experience doesn’t support current policies.
Without this debate we will be doomed to follow public opinion on whatever crazy ride we collectively decide to go on next.
So, as an outsider, I will support Jeremy Corbyn, not because it will make the Labour Party more or less electable (I dispute that it will have a material impact one way or the other), but because it is in the national interest to challenge policies that are ripping the economy to pieces. Obviously the counter argument to that is the primary purpose of the party is to get elected and then to attempt to redress the damage done by the current Government. I reject that, if a so called “electable” Labour Party must stand on the failed policy of austerity to conform with public opinion then it would be duplicitous to then reject that when elected.
I hope the Labour Party will see the groundswell of public support that they are getting at the moment and realise that there is small constituency of people who think differently to the received economic wisdom. It is their job to encourage that through their role as the opposition.July 22nd, 2015
Excellent, it’s Harkive day, or at least it was yesterday. For those that don’t know (how could you have missed last year’s thrilling update?), Harkive is a day where people are asked to make a record of the music they listen to and how they listen to it. Everyone’s listening habits are collated and create a picture of music across the world.
Now there are loads of different ways to submit your listening but I’ve stuck with an old school blog post. Mainly as it gives me something to write but also this is turning into the only place to find a comprehensive record of car stereos I have owned.
Yesterday started off with a meeting in town so I was listening to Six Music in the car at 9:30. I was pleased to find out Shaun Keaveny was on holiday. I’ve no idea what they were playing as I was utterly shocked to find out Craig Charles was not only out of bed but on the radio at that time on the morning. I think he played something by the Wedding Present.
After my meeting I was back in the car listening to Lauren Laverne, also on Six Music, playing Sympathy for the Devil. It seems that if schools aren’t open you can easily get from the centre of Birmingham to Moseley in just over a full version of Sympathy for the Devil. I used to be completely incapable of listening to Lauren Laverne but I’ve noticed recently I seem to have changed. I even buy albums she tells me to.
Back at home I needed to send some emails so listened to Wilco’s Star Wars album through Media Monkey. Media Monkey reads everything that we’ve got on our server and as Wilco were kind enough to give me this album last week I needed to make sure I’d put it in the right place. I hadn’t got round to listening to it before but it’s alright, not a classic but still worth a listen. Go and give it a go, it’s free.
Whilst I was doing that I decided to buy an Unknown Mortal Orchestra album (Multi Love) because Emma had told me that she’d heard them on the radio and they sounded like Prince. Surprisingly that isn’t the most spurious reason I’ve ever had for buying an album. I bought it through the Amazon PC app. This is one of the worst bits of software ever written. Every button you click has a 30 second lag to it and if you buy an album you need to shut the whole thing down and restart before you can download it. I miss just downloading things from a website. I miss the days when we didn’t need apps.
One of the benefits of self employment is being able to work in the conservatory, so after buying Multi Love I sat in our conservatory and listened to it through Spotify. Yep, I bought an album then went downstairs and listened to it on Spotify. There is no reason or sense in doing this.
Just about everything I listen to is through Spotify these days. This is entirely down to Spotify Connect. Connect allows you to open an album in the Spotify app and then send it to any device on the same network that is Connect enabled. We now have Connect enabled devices in just about every room so you can just move about the house listening to the same thing.
So I listened to:-
Unknown Moral Orchestra – Multi Love
Trembling Bells – The Sovereign Self
Tame Impala – Currents
Tame Impala – Live Versions
That was July the 21st. Other than that I played quite a bit of Destiny on the PS4 but that’s probably more relevant to a completely different archiving project.June 6th, 2015
I’m writing this because I’ve got a Fritz!Box 7390, it’s a great modem but it’s a painful process to set it up. Every time I come to do it I end up spending ages searching forums and cobbling together a solution. It occurred to me that if I write it down here then I’ll know where it is and it might help some one else.
I’ve recently moved from Sky Broadband to Plusnet, although Sky had been charging me a fortune I was dubious about moving as it had never failed and getting my Fritz!Box to work had been a long and drawn out process. Eventually I was talked into reducing my bills and moving to a slightly less morally dodgy company.
When the bloke turned up to install my Plusnet fibre he ended up screwing a modem to our wall and giving us the flimsiest Plusnet router. I was told that my Fritz!Box 7390 wouldn’t work with Plusnet so I’d have to put up with their router. Their router is terrible. It couldn’t handle the number of devices in our house (there are usually about 15 devices connected to the network).
Today I decided to get my old 7390 back as my router and did eventually get it working.
The first thing I hadn’t realised is that the 7390 will work very happily as the modem connected to Plusnet Fibre. Just connect the cable coming from the wall into the 7390 DSL socket.
The IP address to open the control panel is, 169.254.1.1
In the control panel make sure you are in the advanced view and select Internet and then Account Information.
Under Connection select – Connecting to a DSL line
Under Account Information select – Yes, enter email@example.com (with the xxx’s replaced by the email address Plusnet allocated you) as your username and your broadband password.
Select change connection settings and select the following:-
Maintain permanently should be set to yes.
VLAN ID should be 101
DSL ATM settings should be selected manually with VPI = 1 and VCI = 32
Finally encapsulation should be selected as PPPoE.
Select apply settings and that should work. Hopefully this will still be here next time I have to do it.
March 30th, 2015
This is a cautionary tale wrapped up in a rant with a little bit of a lesson on how not to design public services. Really a significant part of this just highlights my inability to follow basic instructions but, you know, there might be some wider relevance in here somewhere.
In Birmingham we’ve just had wheelie bins handed out. As a pre-election give away they’re not great, mainly because they seem to really annoy a significant section of the population. I was quite pleased when the Council announced their delivery as I thought it would make my life just a little bit easier. I had underestimated the Council’s ability to implement a mess.
One part of a new recycling system is a mixed use bin. This is handy as it means we don’t have to keep two recycling boxes around. It’s also handy as when we put our recycling out it doesn’t get caught in the wind vortex outside our house and redistribute it across everyone’s garden. I suppose it must be quite common but our bins work by having the larger bin and a smaller pod that hangs just inside the lid. According to the instructions the pod is for paper and cardboard and the rest of the bin for bottles….. and other stuff.
In our house just about everything we buy comes via the Internet which means in a fortnight we can generate a lot of cardboard. Looking at our new bin it was really obvious that the pod thing was never going to hold the cardboard we need to get rid of. Equally we only recycle enough bottles to cover the bottom of the bin. So I decided to adapt the system. Nothing controversial, I just reversed the process to put my bottles in the pod and cardboard in the bin. As a result of this it seems I’m breaking the law.
I got this letter last week pointing out that because I’m not presenting my waste “correctly” I could get an £80 fine.
I don’t really have a problem with there being a “correct” way to present waste but there is surely a better way of encouraging compliance. Possibly explaining why their way is “correct”.
I’ve been told that it is permissible for me to load up my bin in the way the Council advise and then just dump excess cardboard in the street next to it. Which seems a ludicrous suggestion as it just makes the problem these bins were designed to solve much worse than the previous system.
There is an important lesson that when you design a service you need to sit down and look at how people use it; then you build in flexibility because it is a public service. That means you engage with people and encourage compliance rather than demand it. If people are doing it wrong you don’t just threaten to fine them.
I’m not going to make some sort of symbolic stand on this as I don’t really care that much (yes, just hit 500 words on this thing I don’t care about) but I do think it’s a good example of how public services completely misunderstand what their relationship with the public is.December 11th, 2014
The one thing that is certain with this blog is that I will knock out a list of albums at the end of the year. This year I decided to mix up the format a bit and go for 12 albums. You might think that would mean one album for each month, you’d be wrong. I just couldn’t get my list down to ten, and let’s face it ten is entirely arbitrary.
It’s traditional that I start this off saying what a great year for albums it’s been. I think I’m beginning to notice that every year is a great year for albums so let’s take that as a given. I’ve actually been able to put a bit more time into new music this year so you be reassured this is all quality stuff. After completing listening to 1001 Albums to Listen to Before You Die I really appreciated the opportunity to finally get back to things I wanted to listen to.
A few things to say about this list. There are very few new bands on there, possibly four. I’m not sure if this is because I’m just missing new bands, I’m sure that isn’t the case as I’ve got a lot more albums this year. As always, tell me about the albums I’ve missed.
In a bit of a reverse order (I haven’t really thought that through properly) including Spotify links where available or you can listen to them all in one go here.
Temples – Sun Structures – At the end of 2013 everyone was going on about Temples but I didn’t really know who they were. I missed a chance to see them at the Hare and Hounds mainly because I didn’t really understand what I was being asked. I did get to see them earlier this year at the Institute. That was an odd gig. A 50/50 split of painfully young kids and uncomfortable middle aged men with beards (I was in the latter). There’s a lot of Marc Bolan in this with a bit of the Byrds thrown in and you might be forgiven if you thought someone had resurrected Kula Shaker. That isn’t to say it’s derivative, it is original. The world might not have asked for psychedelic pop to come back, but it has, so we better make the best of it.
Royal Blood – Royal Blood – This is an album I’d been waiting for ever since seeing Royal Blood on the Glastonbury coverage. The drums and bass combo thing is more than adequately covered by Lightning Bolt but Royal Blood seem to carry it off equally well. I’m never sure whether being limited to just drums and bass is a statement of some sort or just because that’s all they’ve got. Either way it works. I have to say that this does get a bit samey, which at 32 minutes long is a bit worrying.
Moodoid – Le Monde Moo – Do you remember when we all got excited about Air because they were French and Moon Safari wasn’t shit? Moodoid are very French as well and this album has got some fantastically weird bits to it which also aren’t shit. I’ve no idea where I came across this but over the year I’ve gone back to it loads of times. I don’t speak French but I’d love to think this is a cow based concept album.
Motorpsycho – Behind the Sun – It seems absolutely ridiculous that Motorpsycho have been knocking out albums for over 25 years now. I will have to take Wikipedia’s word for that as I’d never heard of them until a couple of years ago. But in the last couple of years I’ve spent a lot of time listening to both them and the amazing collaborations they’ve done. This is all about Scandinavian progressive rock and I don’t think that is anything to be embarrassed about. Yeah, there are some weak songs in there but they’re more than compensated for glorious epicness.
tUnE-yArDs – nikki nack – Just an awesome album. Whokills was one of my albums of 2011 and this is as good. There aren’t many bands that just ooze originality and there aren’t many (any) that sound like tUnE-yArDs. There also aren’t many bands that make it such a pain in the arse to type their name.
Metronomy – Love Letters – I had a real problem with Metronomy’s first album, The English Riviera. It came out at about the same time as Menomena’s Mines. I developed this weird mental block where I couldn’t tell the difference between the two, even though they sound nothing like each other. Love Letters has solved this problem for me because I can now remember that Metronomy sound a bit like Steely Dan. Sounding like Steely Dan is a good thing. If I was going to have a guitar solo of the year it would be the one from The Upsetter.
St Vincent – St Vincent – An excellent follow up to Strange Mercy (I choose to ignore the album she did with David Byrne). Also one of those albums that on first listen I had no interest in whatsoever (just like Strange Mercy) but over the year it easily made it onto this list as one of the best albums of the year.
Ariel Pink – Pom Pom – I’ll never be able to comprehend how Ariel Pink goes about writing songs. If you were in his band and he explained the basic concept you’d obviously think it was ridiculous and leave the room. If you did leave the room you’d miss out on songs that just work. There is a lot of Zappa in here, but more tuneful.
Ty Segall – Manipulator (No Spotify link) – I’ve bought a few Ty Segall ablums over the years and none of them quite worked for me until Manipulator came out. I’ve seen it described as Glam Rock but can’t really see it myself. It has a lot of Hawkwind about it.
Arc Iris – Arc Iris – I came across this on the radio whilst driving home from a bluegrass rehearsal. There was something a little bit weird about it, so I bought it and I’d say this is probably my most listened to album of the year. I liked the Low Anthem (Jocie Adam’s other/former band) but they were always a little bit too conventional for me to make much effort to listen to. I got to see Arc Iris at this year’s Moseley Folk Festival and they were an easy highlight of a weekend with a lot of highlights.
GoGo Penguin – v2.0 – At last some jazz. I quite liked Fanfares but there wasn’t a great deal to differentiate it from a number of piano based trios (that’s actually quite harsh). v2.0 is just a massive step up in originality. Parts of it are up there with the best of the Esbjorn Svensson Trio but with elements of electronica in there as well. They fully deserved to win the Mercury Prize this year and in some way demonstrate that jazz will never win it.
Sun Kil Moon – Benji – So this is my album of the year. The first time you listen to this album you will wonder if it has been released by mistake. Every song on it is deeply deeply personal and reveals things about Mark Kozelek’s life that you wonder whether or not you’re supposed to know. To the point of the prospect of seeing any of this live would just be awkward. Starting with the horrible story of his second cousin who burned to death in a rubbish fire and then going through revelations that make you realise that rubbish fire deaths seem to be a bit of a thing in the Kozelek family. It sounds grim, and some of it is, but it’s a great album.
There you go. 2014.September 29th, 2014
Since the conclusion of the Scottish referendum I’ve noticed a strange enthusiasm for using the result to provide tenuous validation of every conceivable world view. I didn’t want to be left out, this is my interpretation of what a sudden explosion of interest in democracy means for wider devolution.
The most surreal reaction to a significant proportion of Scotland’s population wanting to leave the UK and an even greater proportion wishing to remain in the Union, is the Conservative view that this legitimises a rush to further marginalise Scottish decision making through the creation of an English parliament. The abject lesson of the Scottish referendum is that you do not rush constitutional change. The rush to force the referendum through meant a stark yes or no choice that very nearly split the Union and only served to emphasise the contempt that all political parties are held in.
One of the enduring recent political narratives has been how we re-engage with people to encourage them to vote with a particular emphasis on how we engage young people. This referendum has hopefully demonstrated that a failure to engage with political process is not, as was assumed, apathy on the part of the electorate. When the right question, with probably more importantly, the right range of possible answers, was asked people came out and made their views clear.
There is an appetite to engage with decision making but clearly not if the only available answers are based on an increasingly homogenous political elite. People are less enthusiastic in engaging with a process that cedes decision making to remote individuals who are presented merely because they were willing to compromise their beliefs to extraordinarily similar political parties.
I think this means that we have to relegate existing political parties to participants in a discussion on constitutional change and devolution instead of letting them define it. Without a clear mandate they will instinctively tinker with constitutional change in order to reinforce their own dominance. This is clearly demonstrated in the half baked notion of an English parliament and the constant moving of electoral boundaries.
The instinct for self interest is not peculiar to Westminster. The recent claim from the English core cities (basically the large cities in the UK that aren’t London) that the rush to constitutional change should confer to them greater decision making, and theoretically more money, is equally flawed. I live in one of the core cities and recent years have seen that characterised by a complete failure in governance. An inability to provide basic child protection, rubbish collection and endemic gender discrimination in its pay structure has left Birmingham floundering. Many of these issues have been compounded by a significant drop in funding but fundamentally this has been caused by political failure by all parties.
So I would suggest that if we are to explore greater devolved decision making then we need to start that with building up units of decision making from the very bottom upwards. This begins with communities and communities of interest. The most basic unit of decision making should come from communities that share an identity. In the main this is likely to be geographical but need not be exclusively.
People with a shared understanding of an area who are provided with real opportunities to influence that area will take part with decision making. In Birmingham we’ve tried to follow a process of devolving local decision making by creating “constituency” structures. The principle reason this has failed has been the bizarre decision that whilst decision making should be devolved it should be devolved to Councillors in a central building overseen by Council officers. This is devolution in the model used by the Soviet Union with its satellite states.
Also through using parliamentary constituency boundaries decision making didn’t automatically relate to the way that communities identify themselves. This is a principle problem in creating devolved decision making structures; they must not be created merely to enable easy management.
This has been a consistent problem with the plethora of changes we’ve seen in recent years to public services. Be it health organisations (Clinical Commissioning Groups) that are shaped by who plays golf with who, or police structures that are based on lines hastily drawn on maps that “sort of look equal”. This is devolution that is intended to confuse and alienate people.
This can also be seen in our regional structures. The drivers behind Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEP) were Local Authorities that liked each other. Not communities that shared culture, history and aspiration. To use Birmingham as an example, the Greater Birmingham LEP exists because many of the bordering Authorities didn’t like our previous Council Leader. This is ludicrous.
We need to build units of local decision making that are consistent across organisations, which the people who live in them understand and that recognise culture and history.
This is a long process that requires people to talk to communities and not simply make central decisions (looking at a map) or rely on the “local” knowledge of politicians. This is true be it small community units or even regional units. These all need to be reshaped to include the voices of the people that live in them and to give people a sense that they can influence change beyond the irrelevant political pageantry.
Across every community there are groups and individuals that are shaping and influencing their local environment and they’re doing it whilst bypassing political structures and simply not understanding the range of quasi legal public services that pay lip service to engaging with them.
We should harness these people and groups and work with them to formulate devolution. It’s unlikely we’ll get this done by May.
I should make clear that nothing about this advocates on any level that there are any number of albums you should hear before you die. The numerical consumption of popular culture in no way signifies a successfully completed life.
Last year I had a bit of time on my hands and in February I noticed someone I knew had started to work through Robert Dimmery’s book 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die. My first thought was that my record collection is epic in range and size so it would be odds on that I’d be more than familiar with every album on the list. A quick scan of the list and I was convinced that I knew virtually all of them. Still I like a good list and sort of enjoyed working through Empire Magazines List of 500 Films. Looking more closely at the list it became obvious that there was a certain amount of confirmation bias in my first reading. It turned out that I owned, or knew well, somewhere between 300 and 400 albums. That persuaded me that I should give it a go and work my own way through them.
Did you know 1001 is really big number? I didn’t. 19 months later I’m very aware that 1001 is a very big number.
I decided to listen to each album in order and didn’t really bother writing down what I thought of each one. Some days I listened to four or five in a day and it didn’t seem fair to inflict abstract reviews on people. I should explain the title of this post. It seems that over the years as new additions of the book have come out, taking the final year from 2006 to 2012, some albums have been removed to make room for new ones. Over the years 44 albums have been removed. I decided to listen to them as well.
As I’ve banged on endlessly about doing this for over a year the one question people have asked me is “what’s been your favourite album?”. That’s really difficult to answer, I know hundreds of the albums on this list really well, I’ve not come across any new ones that have become my new favourite and many of my favourite albums aren’t included. But if one stood out then I’d have to say Arctic Monkeys – Whatever People Say, That’s What I’m Not. This really surprised me, I’ve liked this album a lot since it came out but I didn’t realise how much I liked it.
Many people have asked me how good the list is and whether it really is or ever can be definitive. I’d say, no it isn’t and no, nobody could create a definitive one. It’s subjective and both suffers and benefits from that. There is a very broad range of stuff in there (I was particularly pleased to see African Jazz so well represented) including obviously populist and deliberately obscure. It does a good job and has given me access to loads of music that I’d never heard of or wilfully refused to listen to (who knew I liked Christina Aguilera? I didn’t). It’s also helped validate my smugness. I knew Travis and Coldplay were terrible, now I’ve sat down and listened to them I know I was right.
More importantly have I learnt anything? The most important thing I’ve learn’t is a proper chronology of music. Seeing how individual bands evolved over time and how bands influenced each other has been really good. Recognising how each year influenced the following year has given me a sense of how much music has just got better. Leaving aside the 50s where popular music was essentially jazz and just brilliant in its own right, every decade has been better than the preceding one. People tend to fixate on their safe decade and mythologise it as a perfect period of music. This isn’t true, the 60s weren’t as good as the 70s. The 70s weren’t as good as the 80s…… you get the idea. Equally the period since 2000 has by far the best selection of albums but is horribly under represented. The people who make the book seem to have got a bit bored at the turn of the century so, for example, 2003 has six albums whereas 1973 has twenty eight. 1973 was an awful year for music. Whenever a new update of the book has come out they seem to have instinctively removed post 2000 albums and replaced them with slightly later post 2000 albums. This has just slanted the whole thing further to older decades. Overall this was the most disappointing thing about putting this much time in.
Other areas where the list seems ridiculously biased is a seeming obsession with Morrissey and the Wu-Tang Clan. Both need to be in there but not everything linked to them. Most of Morrissey’s solo albums sound the same and every spin off solo Wu-Tang album is excessive.
Some other things I learned:-
1) If you’re making an album and don’t get Brian Eno to produce it you’re an idiot. Everything he touches turns to gold.
2) Kanye West has had a surprisingly musical influence on hip hop. You can tell anything he’s produced because it is musically more challenging
3) Some of the best albums have been removed from the book
4) There isn’t any real relationship between how good something is and how many people bought it.
My lasting lesson has been that it probably isn’t worth putting in 19 months just to find out that the music that is coming out today is better than the majority of the music from the past. It was fun but an ultimately draining experience.
I have a feeling that my two annual updates to this blog are likely to be my contribution to Harkive and my yearly list of music I like. That’s probably enough for most people to take in. If you’ve not heard of Harkive it’s an annual day where people record what they’ve listened to and how they’ve listened to it.
Last year I took part and posted this little snapshot of my listening habits, I had thought about just using the hash tag (#harkive) on Twitter but thought people might not be enthralled with a stream of my listening habits so here’s to long form narrative. This year is set to be wholly more exciting (actually surprisingly similar) to last year.
Last year I mentioned that I was working my way through 1001: Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, a year and a week later and I’m still bloody doing it. I have threatened to write about this experience and have a vague plan to do that when I finish, I have no idea when that might be. This week has been an important point with the end of the 90s and the beginning of 2000 (this means the end is in sight). My first bit of listening was via Spotify and it was Doves – Lost Souls. Although I have all the 1001 Albums sitting on my server for some reason, while I’m working, I just find it easier to listen to Spotify, it doesn’t make much sense but I think I’m just nosey and like to see the stream of things that other people are listening to on the side of the window.
I’ve always liked Doves but never listened to Lost Souls before, it’s good, and will go down on my much smaller list of Albums to Listen to Twice Before I Die.
I had to nip out to buy some Mayonnaise and Brie for lunch (Mmmmm, that sounds healthy) and got to listen to First Aid Kit’s – Stay Gold in the car. Not entirely intentionally, my car plays music off of a USB stick full of albums (64gb of albums) and to be honest can’t deal with it very well. As the car wanted to listen to First Aid Kit I was happy enough to go along with it. It turns out there was going to be a Country theme to the day AND THIS WAS THE FIRST CLUE.
One of the bonuses of working from home is that you don’t have to sit in front of a desk all day so I thought I could just as effectively work from our conservatory, it was sunny and I don’t play by the rules. Much of the afternoon was a stream of different 1001 Albums starting with Air’s The Virgin Suicides. I’ve always thought The Virgin Suicides was a sadly overlooked album. Everyone got excited about Air when Moon Safari came out but excessive listening did make them come across as a weird parody of French music. The Virgin Suicides is an excellent companion to Sofia Coppola’s excellent film often a bit depressing but a really coherent set of different songs.
After Air it was onto Ryan Adams’ Heartbreaker, whenever I’m faced with the prospect of listening to Ryan Adams I’m disappointed it isn’t Bryan Adams. I really don’t like Bryan Adams so that gives you a very real hint on how I feel about Ryan Adams. It turns out Heartbreaker wasn’t as bad as I was expecting but I will never listen to it again.
On a roll now I fired up Bebel Gilberto’s Tanto Tempo, her Dad, João Gilberto had made an appearance some time ago and it was a nice day to pretend to be Brazilian. My only reservation with it was it desperately wanted to slip into the Girl From Ipanema at every opportunity.
MJ Cole’s Sincere turned out to be an album too far. I can’t remember anything about it other than it being late 90s dance music. I managed to avoid it the first time around and will never listen to it again.
Often Tuesday’s mean that our little Blue Grass band gets together to rehearse. This is my once a month opportunity to learn how to play the banjo. Unfortunately I seem to have a developed a reputation for not knowing any of the songs we play nor ever practising. Yesterday I decided to make an effort and practice. I tried listening to Will The Circle Be Unbroken by the Nitty Gritty Dity Band and Bruce Springsteen’s version of Jesse James on Spotify and quickly realised they sound nothing like our versions. I managed to dig out some old practices on Soundcloud and definitely pretended to practice. I also found a YouTube video of a bloke playing Will The Circle Be Unbroken and tried to learn that. It sort of worked.
Before dinner I managed to sneak in a quick Emmy Lou Harris album – Red Dirt Girl, I don’t really know Emmy Lou Harris but I did like this (can you see the Country theme?). Another album that I will make the effort to listen to again.
On the way to our Blue Grass practice my car decided very randomly to play the soundtrack to DJ Hero 2, I think it had got bored of First Aid Kit.
Much Blue Grass was played but I’ve no idea how live music fits within the context of Harkive. Also I think there is more than enough to be going on with here. Until next year (or December if you want to know my favourite albums this year).
January 1st, 2014
It doesn’t seem like THREE blog posts since I last did my annual list of albums, but it is. As many as three completely different people asked me if I was going to do a list this year, I admit I prompted two of them into asking me. With that sort of readership I felt compelled to sit down and think through the many albums I’ve bought this year.
Overall this year has been a bit different as most of my listening hasn’t really been focussed on new music. I’ve been working my way through Robert Dimery’s 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, it’s turned out to be considerably more of a commitment than I thought it would be. It’s also something that deserves some sort of blog post on its own, something that I planned to do at 500 albums but then forgot. I’m at 576 at the moment so there’s probably an imminent milestone in there somewhere.
Back to this year, there have been some great albums in 2013. It’s helped that as I sink into middle age I’ll pretty well listen to anything though that shouldn’t undermine my list, there is some sort of quality threshold. My list this year seems to have less new bands on than previous years, again probably indicative of latent conservatism.
So, in reverse order:-
White Lies – Big TV – This is White Lies third album, I’ve always quite liked them, usually giving their albums a few listens, but this is the first that I’ve really liked. They are a band that owe a lot to the stream of post 2000 bands that sound a bit like Joy Division, Editors being the best example. Whilst Editors pretty well stagnated after their first album (though are brilliant live), White Lies seem to have gone from strength to strength. There are a few songs that seem to wing it on a shouty chorus but I’ll let them off as it’s their most complete collection of songs so far.
Public Service Broadcasting – Inform, Educate, Entertain – I’m still not sure about including this as it’s an album I only came to late in 2013 after hearing it on 6 Music in their albums of the year list. Though I have heard Spitfire a lot, as it’s become a staple of BBC filler music. They seem to be a band that pull together old film clips and make songs around them, very much of the like Lemon Jelly or The Avalanches, except much less electronic. One of the big selling points for me is they’re not scared to throw a bit of banjo in there, banjo boldness, whether appropriate or not should be rewarded with recognition.
Foals – Holy Fire – Isn’t there supposed to be a thing about difficult third albums? Again, I’ve bought all of Foals’ previous albums and quite liked them but this was the first that made me go straight back and listen to it again. The stand out thing about this album is the best guitar sound I’ve heard in years, in parts just like a steel drum. You’d have to listen to it yourself, that’s rubbish description.
Daft Punk – Random Access Memories – It would be hard to avoid the hype of Random Access Memories, a perfect storm of Niles Rodgers coming to tour the UK and Daft Punk making their catchiest song in years, all coming together to make a pretty well unstoppable media event. It seems to have split the people I know who like Daft Punk, into most of them that don’t like it and a few of us that do. It’s a classic pop album that churns out songs perfectly designed to hook people in. I like that Daft Punk have tried to redesign themselves with each album and I think Random Access Memories will be one of those albums that will still be being played in ten years time.
Janelle Monae – The Electric Lady – I didn’t have any idea who Janelle Monae was, I completely missed ArchAndroid from 2010. But a concept album about lesbian androids featuring Prince? I would be stupid not listen to that. I love this album, again a perfect pop album but with brilliantly well put together songs that at no point take themselves too seriously. I went back and bought ArchAndroid that would have definitely made it onto my 2010 list if I’d known.
David Bowie – The Next Day – And another album that came in on a wave of hype. Hype that I dismissed out of hand expecting a limp attempt to cash in one last time. I’d even go as far as to say when I first heard Where Are We Now I hated it. When the album did get round to to being released it turned out it was a bit of a classic, it is reminiscent of Low but that’s not a bad thing. Well done David, you could have done so much worse.
These New Puritans – Field of Reeds – I listened to this after reading something about how some bands are completely redefining the structure of music, that turned out to be self indulgent nonsense but it is one of the best albums of the year. Hauntingly nice to listen to with quite jarring parts that shouldn’t work, but do. It doesn’t redefine music but it’s one of my favourite albums.
Foxygen – We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic – Unusually, for these lists, this is the first of my favourite albums that I bought based on a Pitchfork Review. I don’t seem to read as many reviews on Pitchfork as I used to, mainly because their website is a nightmare to use these days. I bought this based on their recommendation, listened to it once, hated it, didn’t bother again. Then I found it on my phone a few months later and thought it was worth giving one more go and absolutely loved it. It’s Lo Fi stuff and sounds quite a bit like Bob Dylan in places. Almost every song seems to have two parts to it that incongruously work. It’s also got a great title. They seem to be the sort of band that will collapse in irreconcilable musical difference, but worth listening to before they do.
John Grant – Pale Green Ghosts – I included John Grant’s first album, Queen of Denmark, on my list a few years ago. This album is massively better than that one. Whilst the first owed quite a bit to the folky rock connection with Midlake, this album is much more electronic and cleaner. It’s a funny album, and I like to think, painfully autobiographical. I know nothing about John Grant so can’t say if it is or not. This is a must buy album of 2013.
White Denim – Corsicana Lemonade – There wasn’t really any competition for my album of the year. White Denim’s 6th album is epic. Though I think I’ve reached the point in liking them that almost anything they do would be on the top of some sort of list. I still think of them as being the natural evolution of the Allman Brothers which does them a great disservice as I don’t really like the Allman Brothers. Probably not to everyone’s taste but easily my album of the year.
There were a few albums that deserve a mention, British Sea Power’s From the Land to the Sea Beyond almost made it in, mainly because I’ve unintentionally seen them twice this year and they are really good live.
Also a special mention to The Weeks, unexpectedly my favourite gig of the year, they had been supporting Kings of Leon and did a gig at the Hare and Hounds. There weren’t many people there but it was a stunning gig. They were touring on their new album, Dear Bo Jackson, I was a bit disappointed in the album but as they’re each only 15 I think they’ve got a quite a few albums left in them. If they come back to the UK go and see them.