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.August 29th, 2013
I’ve been thinking for the last week or so that I should write something to follow on from my post about how bureaucracy finds it difficult to engage with people and other organisations. I was thinking about writing something about social networks. I was wary because even mentioning the words social network usually elicits three responses, either:-
- Yay, he mean Twitter
- Boo, he’s going to talk to about Twitter again
- Obviously social networks are substantially more than Twitter
I think the third response is the only really legitimate one but having used the words social network you inevitably lose some people or disappoint others. I mean social network in the broadest sense of how society forms a network to facilitate social interaction. So, no more exclusively Twitter than the Church of England, both mediums for facilitating social interaction.
In thinking about how organisations can best use an understanding of how social networks function in order to engage with people and each other I came across an article that pretty well explains everything an organisation needs to understand. This article from Foreign Policy is the story of how Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal took control of Special Forces Operations in both Afghanistan and Iraq. An unlikely source for inspiration in public engagement and the conclusions I drew from it were entirely unexpected. A word of warning about the article, it’s long, all of it is interesting but not all of it is relevant and Foreign Policy want you to pay for articles so you don’t get very many attempts at reading it.
I’d like to pick out some of the points that I found most relevant to how organisations get to understand social networks. When Gen McChrystal began operations in Iraq his instinct was to map the insurgency in order to better understand what they were trying to fight. This proved difficult because the insurgents in Iraq didn’t organise themselves along any formally recognised military doctrine. Instead they were a loose alliance based about family and where people lived; there appeared to be no formal system of promotion, people achieved notoriety through self selection, either through perpetrated activity or claimed activity. It was an exceptionally flexible system that could use existing lines of communication (and social media) to spread information throughout the entire organisation.
Well if you were looking for a military organisation then this might have come as a surprise but for many people that have worked in communities you begin to recognise this is just the way that social networks inherently self organise. Society always self organises in order to coalesce around an idea, be this around shared social action or even to build a military insurgency. The techniques that are used are very common, as a re the results.
One of the most interesting parts of this article is the response that was made to this new understanding. I think this is the point where we can really begin to learn, the US response was necessary because they had a very tangible consequence if the response was inadequate; when we fail to understand how our social networks work the consequence tends to be less explicit.
The first recognition is that the network is organic and changes form to suit situations. This renders the desire to constantly map structure pointless. We need to have a greater recognition of this, although our social networks are likely to be more stable, the desire to map means we are taking a snap shot in time. The resource implication of mapping means we tend to only recognise those established organisations that fit into a formalised service delivery model. We instinctively rail against the self selecting people (frequently discounting single issue topics) whilst not recognising the influence they can have in the network. Thus our mapping is always out of date and lacks the sensitivity to truly appreciate what makes the network function.
There is a fantastic analogy in the article that it easy to understand an enemy when it marches towards you in good order and in plain sight. In many ways this matches our experience of engaging with people and organisations. We like them when they meet our preconceived idea of what a community should look like. They should have a formal structure, ideally being a traditional voluntary and community organisation that fits into the structures that surround that sector. It would be nice if this was the case but the reality for most communities is that their day to day lives don’t fit this neatly.
Gen McChrystal took a very interesting decision based on this understanding. Recognising the lack of influence he had over the way the insurgency organised itself, he decided to organise his resources in a similar loose network. I can’t imagine this ever being the response of a public sector organisation in the UK, merely because I think there will always be a residual belief that there is a possibility that we can force communities to organise themselves in a tidy fashion.
The network developed in Iraq had some very interesting properties that I feel are basically a blueprint for how we should organise ourselves to work with communities. Thus a network should have:-
- Shared purpose
- Facilitates the free flow of information to parent organisations
- Is based on competency rather than rank
- Re-evaluates its form and purpose constantly
- Works in very short cycles
A shared purpose being the most obviously but I’d say the single point that is most frequently overlooked. A free flow of information, I think implicitly means a flow in both directions, all too often we forget that engagement is about building relationships and that only happens if communication contains some content that has value to both sides.
All too often when we try to get organisations to work together we instantly gravitate towards the mantra that representation should be by “decision makers”. I like the tacit recognition that although an employer might confer the ability to make a decision, this only actually happens if it is matched by the competency to make a decision, this isn’t always the case.
The last two point feed into themselves and really are the basis for most of this post. In order to react to situations raised by the public then all organisations must become more adept at working much faster. Harvesting views quicker and in a less formalised way, understanding the intelligence, formulating a response, implementing a response and beginning the cycle immediately.
The examples in the article can give you a real sense of how an organisational network can function efficiently; all parties engaging properly with the purpose of the network mean its cycle can replicate itself many times in a single night with planning being entirely informed by the previous cycle. Can anyone else that has worked in a public facing role say they’re used to working with that level of freedom to plan and implement with only a loose purpose to guide them? I doubt it.
This method of working is likely to be uncomfortable and needs good levels of safeguards but it is important to better respond to the challenge that complex social networks pose to us. Changing our understanding of the people we work for and the way we work for them will inevitably have massive implications for parent organisations but in a sense that’s the world we live in so we better respond to it.
The military comparison is inevitably difficult but I think the messages and the lessons are eminently translatable in the way that we work with people.
July 11th, 2013
I really liked the Harkive idea of trying to catalogue how people listen to music these days. You can, of course, click on the link but for the lazy; they asked people all over the world to submit a whole days worth of music listening stories. It looks like people have contributed in many different ways. I decided to write it all down here.
This is less about what I’ve been listening to and more about how I listen to things and, more importantly, how I seem to be able to keep a really accurate record of what I listen to with no effort.
One of the things I noticed on thinking about the 9th was trying to make a really conscious effort to not listen to things I wouldn’t ordinarily listen to, that turned out to be quite hard.
I also noticed that other people have made an effort to keep a record of extraneous music they listened to; I haven’t done that, I’ve kept to stuff that I sort of chose to listen to.
So starting the day I ended up listening to Sean Keaveny on 6 Music whilst I was having a shower. We’ve got a little Pure Oneflow radio in the bathroom which I bought fairly recently. I bought it because it has a DAB radio but it also accesses our network via wifi so I can stream all music off of our server. As it turns out it’s a bit rubbish and it only just about functions as a DAB radio, I bought two of these before I noticed that they’re a bit rubbish.
Sean played me Dirty Water by the Standells and Dark and Stormy by Hot Chip. Neither really left a lasting impression, I’ve never heard of The Standells and I actively dislike Hot Chip. You can claim to have invented an indie rock/dance music hybrid all you like but if you can’t do either particularly well then just try and concentrate on one of them and practice. The only point of note here is how I know I listened to both of these.
Fortunately I managed to find a web site (http://nowplaying.jameswragg.com/) that’s keeping a track of everything that’s playing on 6 Music. I used to use the what’s playing on 6 Music twitter account but that seemed to stop on the 15th April.
I would like people to note that Sean talked a fair bit so I did have a fairly reasonable length shower.
I was made redundant recently so have had a fair amount of time to listen to music and that will also explain why I wasn’t at work on a Tuesday. I’ve also been trying to work my way through 1001 Albums to Listen to Before You Die. As of Tuesday I was utterly in the middle of 1975 (actually as I write this I’m still utterly in the middle of 1975) so much of what I listened to was fairly dictated to me. The whole album listening thing was going to be a series of blog posts but I haven’t got round to it yet.
Just about everything I listen to sits on our Synology Server, every device in the house can access the server and every device records everything I listen to on my Last FM profile. It does mean it’s a fairly easy to go back and look at what I listened to, and when I listened to it.
Much of my music listening these days seems to be through the stereo in our conservatory, it’s stupidly hot and it’s just like sitting in the garden. We moved quite recently and I found an old Cambridge Audio amp and some Eltax speakers in the loft of our old house. They still seem to work and I’ve added a Denon Media Streamer to be able to access the network and Last FM.
Part of listening to albums from a book is you get a bit of a surprise when something you weren’t expecting (and something you know very well) turns up. My first album of the day was Led Zeppelin’s – Physical Graffiti, a true giant of an album and one I’m sure I haven’t listened to in years.
After getting that out of the way I went over to Harborne to meet someone I used to work with. That meant getting in my nuclear heated car.
When listening to music in the car I stream it straight off my phone. I’m probably alone in this but I think the A2DP Bluetoooth profile is one of the pinnacles of human ingenuity. For me it means that whenever I get in the car, my stereo detects my phone is close and automatically resumes playing music off of it. At the beginning of the week I tend to set up a really lengthy queue of music and just work my way through it as I travel about.
I use Poweramp to listen to music on my phone. It’s the only App I’ve found that works with A2DP properly and it has a really good pre-amp built into it.
Going over to Harborne I got to listen to the end of Vampire Weekend’s new album, I bought it based on recommendation and seeing a bit of the gig they did at Glastonbury. They’re a band that I’ve never really understood and on listening to this album I’d say I still don’t. That was followed by Frank Turner’s Tape Deck Heart. I bought this months ago and just never got round to listening to it before. I wish I had, it’s great. I’m still not quite sure why I own it, I imagine it was an Amazon £4.00 deal on the day it was released and I just took a chance on it. To be honest I’m not sure I even know who Frank Turner is either.
A trip to Harborne and back doesn’t quite cover two albums but I got through a fair bit of Frank Turner.
Having devoted a fair amount of time to listening to 1001 Albums I’ve realised that it is really rare that you get to listen to something truly amazing that you’ve never heard before. Surprisingly I got home to get just that. I don’t think I’ve ever heard Keith Jarrett before (on reading about him I realise I must have heard him many times on Miles Davis records) and I’d certainly not listened to the 1975 Koln Concert before. An hour of improvised jazz that, in parts is astounding.
At the beginning of the 1001 Albums chronology it was almost all jazz (it starts in the ’50s) but as I’ve hit the ’70s there has been less and less, it was nice to get some back.
Over the next week Moseley will be hosting its annual festival (one of three festivals, we really like festivals) and I had agreed to post programmes through doors. This was a really stupid thing to volunteer for as the temperature and my level of fitness are not conducive to carrying and walking.
It did give me an opportunity to listen to more stuff that’s queued on my phone. I have a pair of Sennheiser headphones that also use A2DP, so when I turn them on they instantly find my phone and resuming playing where the car left off. I love these headphones and can’t stress to you enough that you should get some.
Whilst walking about I listened to the end of Frank Turner and Snarky Puppy album GroundUP that I bought at the weekend. I’d never heard of them until Sunday, but they played at the Mostly Jazz festival and were one of my highlights of the weekend. An almost perfect blend of jazz and funk, GroundUP is a great example and you should buy that as well.
Another band I’d heard of, but wasn’t that familiar with was the The Haggis Horns but I got their Keep On Movin’s album and listened to it. Again, really good.
My trip delivering stuff was slightly more jazz funk than I was expecting but that’s not dangerous, is it?
Getting back to 1001 Albums was another album I hadn’t listened to in years, Aerosmith’s Toys in the Attic. They’re not a band I’d really consider listening to these days but Toy in the Attic is about their best. Walk This Way and Sweet Emotion are why they still get away with it. It doesn’t seem right that it came out 38 years ago.
My last musical contribution of the day was David Bowie’s Young Americans, a much underrated album with a truly horrendous cover of Across the Universe on it.
There you go, my day. It was more interesting listening to all that than it probably was reading about me listening to itJune 21st, 2013
It’s been a while since I’ve been able to write anything more interesting than the CDs I like, but I’ve recently managed to extricate myself from the turmoil of NHS reorganisation via the medium of redundancy. It also means I’ve got a fair amount of time on my hands to write things.
The recent widespread news coverage of the latest horror story to hit the Care Quality Commission (CQC) focussed me to try and sum up what I’ve learnt from the last few years of NHS reform, and even further back over ten years working in patient engagement. The problems being experienced by the CQC are not surprising, in many ways they are illustrative of problems that the entire health and social care system has being storing up for many years. I don’t believe it is a failing of individuals, I can see that those directly affected by the decisions of the CQC have a right to expect some justice but the wider problems are more endemic.
It is obvious that the system of regulation we have created does not have the capacity to do the job that is needed. I say obvious because it seems to be publically failing on a fairly regular basis. Having said that, sizeable sums of public money are supporting this system of regulation and the public have a realistic expectation of a return on that money.
I believe the system of regulation is failing in the UK because it has been designed to fail, it is a system that has been created by a bureaucracy to police itself. The failure of design and delivery stems from one common point, a lack of appreciation of what quality actually means.
The delivery of health and social care in the UK has historically been delivered via a bureaucracy, patients do not choose to take their health needs elsewhere thus the subjective element of quality analysis has been consistently removed from planning processes. This post isn’t advocating an imposition of market dynamics on health care, it merely points out that, sometimes, the way markets are constructed gives an added level of feedback that is crucial in understanding quality.
The subjective element of quality is the part that all of our systems of regulation fail to appreciate. The resource constraints on the CQC forces it to focus on inspection through objective analysis of data without testing it against real patient experience. This is understandable, there is a beautiful binary aspect to the delivery of healthcare (people lived or died) that makes a lot of this quite easy to do on a large scale with limited resources, but it doesn’t draw a very good picture of quality.
It’s simplistic philosophy but Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance gives a good overview of the competing elements of quality, though Pirsig’s fascination with calling them “romantic” and “classical” probably won’t find a comfortable home in NHS redesign. I prefer objective quality and subjective quality.
To fully understand the quality of services delivered, in the absence of people withdrawing their custom, there needs to be a wholesale change in the culture of how health and social care services are delivered.
I’m not advocating a change in structures, structures are easy to change (though the last two years might not substantiate that). Our bureaucracy needs to fully understand that it will only truly appreciate quality if it can better develop transparency and engagement.
Engagement has been a consistent mantra in public services for many years but has never been properly developed. There are a number of reasons for this, here are a few of them:-
- It’s expensive
- You don’t get an immediate return on developing relationships
- It’s often uncomfortable
- Nobody understood where it sits. Engagement being lumped in communications fundamentally misunderstands what it is about
- A bureaucracy always seeks to institutionalise the people it engages with
- A belief that you can only engage with the individual rather than communities and populations
Engaging with people is a slow process, you need to build trust for relationships to work, quite often that makes it look like staff that are very good at engaging are actually just sitting about chatting. The public sector has never been comfortable with staff that can’t maintain the illusion of frenetic (if useless) activity. Because it is slow it is expensive, because it is slow and expensive we often look for short cuts. Those short cuts lead organisations to institutionalise the very people we need to engage with. Simplistically this means organising meetings that reflect the bureaucratic nature of the organisation itself.
This means we create forums that reduce the potential for staff to be uncomfortable, it reduces the public willingness to challenge and completely removes any notion of obvious transparency.
One of the worst examples of the institutionalisation of engagement can be seen in the adoption of the notion of the critical friend. This assumes that people in a position to challenge public sector delivery should adopt a position sympathetic to the organisation whilst providing constructive criticism. This notion fails on two levels, it fails to understand the nature of the power relationship between the individual and organisations and it fails to appreciate what we all think about critical friends, we find them annoying.
This theory seems to stem from the idea that organisations will not listen to robust challenge but need to know that the issues being raised come from a foundation of sympathy. This is ridiculous, it indicates that public sector management needs to grow up and talk to people like adults. This is a disparity in power between the individual and the organisation, often that disparity will manifest itself in anger and frustration, the organisation needs to both appreciate and accommodate this.
Public services need to open themselves up to challenge in all its forms, this won’t be pleasant but is the only way that they can begin to appreciate the subjective element of quality. They need to do this by meeting people where they meet in the community structures that already exist.
Those with responsibility for regulation, should understand that everything they need to know about how services are delivered is in the communities that they are being delivered to. They have to find a way to get into those communities without subcontracting engagement out.
We are at a point where the new organisations that have responsibility for health and social care have an opportunity to do things differently. Unfortunately the time to do this is running out and all the signs are that the new is merely replicating the old.December 20th, 2012
My consistent obsession with imposing a decimal format on my annual music buying is, as it turns out, a good opportunity to gauge my commitment to keeping this blog updated. A quick glance at the dashboard shows that, since my Albums of the Year 2011 post I’ve only managed to write seven updates, and none since July.
That obviously has nothing to do with what I’ve been listening to.
I always say this, but 2012 has once again been a great a year for music. It’s also been the year that I’ve moved to almost exclusively digital purchases. I must have bought about 6 or 7 CDs this year and I think my shelves thank me for the restraint.
I seem to have adopted a format for this now so here are my top 10 albums of the year, counting down to number one. It’s exciting isn’t it?
Grizzly Bear – Shields - I liked a Veckatimest a bit when it came out. I think I was always a little bit wary that I’d never be able to say it out loud so I’ve always avoided discussing Grizzly Bear in public. Shields is really easy to say and its been a excellent addition to my ever growing collection slightly glum American Lo-Fi.
Animal Collective – Centipede HZ - I think all Animal Collective albums seem to sound like nothing else but also all the same. This isn’t that different to Merriweather Post Pavilion but I really liked that as well. My nod to electronic music this year.
Band of Horses – Mirage Rock - I’ve always quite liked Band of Horses, I’ve worked my way through all of their albums and thought all of them were “not bad”. Mirage Rock surprised me, it’s rare that a band suddenly produce something very very good after having already made quite a few albums. It’s also odd that it isn’t that different to what they’ve done before, they just seem to have perfected it. It has all the spirit of the 70s Laurel Canyon stuff but doesn’t sound like a dodgy 21st century Eagles.
First Aid Kit – The Lion’s Roar - As I like to make clear every time I do one of these lists, I hate folk music. Every year it is getting more difficult to make this claim. This is obviously folk, or country folk or even just country, though I didn’t notice what it was the first few time I listened to it. I didn’t even notice it was two women either. I didn’t notice much about this other than it has nothing to do with lions.
Jack White – Blunderbuss - Jack White is consistent in making albums that I really like. I preferred his incarnations in the Ractonteurs and the Dead Weather to the White Stripes and I think his solo album is most like the Dead Weather. It’s one of those things that just grew on me over the year and was an easy addition to this list. He also gave me the second best gig I saw this year, an exceptional tour through pretty well everything he’s ever done. It would have been the best gig of the year but I saw Funkadelic in the park over the road from my house and there isn’t really a great deal of competition to that.
Django Django – Django Django - There was much of the year where I was convinced that this would be my album of the year. You see I did start thinking about this months ago rather than scratching my head in December trying to remember what came out. It’s an album that weirdly has got a lot of publicity from the claim that nobody had heard it. As far as I could work everybody had heard it so I’ve no idea where that came from.
Cody Chesnutt – Landed on a Hundred - I loved Cody Chesnutt’s random The Headphone Masterpiece from 2002. It was an exercise in throwing any old nonsense onto a CD, of 36 tracks only about 20 really worked, but that’s still 20. Ten years later I was really looking forward to the sequel and it is great. Much more polished (clearly not made in his bedroom) and a real throwback to traditional soul (can soul be traditional? Who’s tradition?). A real mainstream contribution and hopefully one that makes him the money that I think he needs if he is going to stick to a once a decade release schedule.
Godspeed You Black Emperor - Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! - This is just an exceptional album. It was always going to be a thing of note to see Godspeed You Black Emperor reform but I didn’t think they would be able to make something that is a substantial step better than their previous albums.
Chromatics – Kill For Love - I was intrigued by this album as Pitchfork seemed really enthusiastic about it (not that unusual) and I couldn’t seem to buy it anywhere. I ended up getting it imported and it took weeks to turn up. I listened to it and then didn’t really like it much. I liked the Neil Young cover at the beginning but the rest of it was quite dull. Though I did stick with it and looking back it has just grown on me to the point that I know this is an album that in ten years time I will be listening to just as much as I do now.
Field Music – Plumb - Progressive rock from Sunderland. I’d like to just leave that there but I’m not sure it does justice to my favourite album of the year. I think this does single my acceptance that all those types of music that I grew up with, and tried to run away from are the things I still love most. I suppose that isn’t a great surprise but it is frank personal admission that I’m in my 40s and my musical highlight of the year is progressive rock. I don’t really need to say much about at as between the Mercury Awards and Six Music they have had more coverage than any band deserves in a year.
So there you go, my favourite albums of 2013. Interestingly no jazz this year. I’ve bought a lot of jazz and liked a lot of jazz but none of it quite as much as the stuff above.
Also looking back on the list I can tell my taste is becoming ever more conservative, there are no particular surprises on there and everything is eminently listenable.
So until next year when I fully expect I will once again be massively surprised at how good music is.July 18th, 2012
It seems that I’ve developed a new hobby, I didn’t expect to, and it’s only after doing it for about a year that I found out it had a name. Apparently I’m heavily involved in competitive film watching. I like it, now lying about, watching old film seems like it has a real purpose rather than…. lying about, watching old films.
Last year I completed a Facebook list thing called the Empire 500 greatest films. You know the sort of thing, you tick how many films you’ve seen and it compares it with your friends. This is a list that Empire Magazine put together in 2008 and, funnily enough, includes, what they consider to be the 500 greatest films. For the obvious reason this doesn’t include any films after 2008.
I ticked all the films I’d seen and came to 368 (I think, I wish I’d made a note of this now) out of 500 films. I was quite proud of that but was slightly miffed to see I was a bit behind Steve Coxon who’d got 382. It occurred to me that I’d only have to sit down and watch 132 films and I would have seen all of them, so I did.
Having something like Lovefilm certainly made this easier. I sat down and added as many of the films that I hadn’t seen as possible and then waited for them to turn up. I admit that towards the end I had to resort to a combination of expensive Ebay auctions and some piracy to get to see all of them.
One of the first things I’d learned was that the previous 300 odd films were there because I chose to watch them. Watching films based on an arbitrary list, from an arbitrary snapshot in time can be very hard work. In many cases I spent most of the film trying to workout whether it would have still made it onto the list if it had been collated in 2010.
Overall it is fair to say I saw some appalling films. I’ve learnt to hate 1960′s Italian cinema with a passion. I shudder when I think of anything that Ingmar Bergman was involved with. I took small pleasure in finding out my claim that Woody Allen’s career is a simple facade to cover the acts of a sexual predator was actually correct.
I did discover some things that I wasn’t expecting. I like Charlie Chaplin films. I like quite a few silent films as it turns out. The four hour epics, Greed and Napoleon filled me with dread but turned out, in their own way, to be quite entertaining.
One of the things I’ve been frequently asked as I’ve ploughed through the films I hadn’t seen is “which one has been the best?” I’ve found this really hard to answer, mainly because I’m being asked about my favourite film from a subset of a wider list that includes many of my favourite films. The fact that I’d never previously seen those 132 films was entirely random.
Having said that a few did really stick with me, Before Sunset and The Mother and the Whore being surprises as they are largely about French people talking at great length. There were also things like Requiem for a Dream and Almost Famous which were great films I’d just never heard of. If I have to pick one (which I don’t) then my favourite would be High and Low, one of the best police films I’ve ever seen.
Overall working my way through this list did teach me something about film. I think I’ve got more of a sense of what makes a good story and how my preconceptions are not always right. I’ve learnt to watch films without knowing anything about them and actually relish the prospect of being surprised.
It also taught me that you better have a very good reason if you’re going to make your film longer than two hours.
Once I’d finished I was surprised to realise that I still had an appetite for seeing more. Fortunately James Cook pointed me towards Framerater which helps you to lump similar lists together and keep track of what you’ve seen AND has a leader board. This is the most important thing.
So I had a break, watched films with spaceships and Ninjas (separate films) and now I’m trying to complete the IMDB Top 250 of which I have 33 to go. It’s not quite clear why Empire and IMDB have such different lists.
It took me almost a year to work my way through these but more importantly it gave me something to really bore people with.June 27th, 2012
It seems that once a year I have a bit of a go at working out what LinkedIn is for. I joined it years ago and I think it is fair to say that I’ve not mananged to achieve anything through being a member of it.
I can see a great deal of potential in having a social network that has a professional focus, but I’m not convinced LinkedIn is that platform. I have a lot of things to say that probably aren’t appropriate to my personal blog.
This has got to be down to one of two reasons. It is either because I’m doing it wrong or it is because it doesn’t work. Hopefully it is the first one.
I’d really like other people to tell me how they use LinkedIn and how I can try and get something out of it. I think it is telling that I’m asking this here rather than on LinkedIn itself as I’m not convinced of its reach.
I think I’ve got a fairly good handle on how social networks work. I use Twitter as my primary form of communication and have found that professionally it’s a useful tool for joining people together. I even have an attachment to Facebook, at least as a place for quickly storing links and keeping an eye on people that don’t use Twitter.
The critical success factor for networks, from my point of view, is whether they are carrying sufficient content and interest for me to invest my time in. My typical experience of LinkedIn content is people that have connected their Twitter account to their status or it is truly speculative employment agencies spamming inappropriate jobs.
This has made me wonder what everyone else expects to get out of it as I can’t see too many examples of conversation (obviously this could be peculiar to the way I use it).
Cynically I can see LinkedIn use falls into one of two categories, a naive hope that someone will be knocked over by your profile and have to bring you into their organisation or a voyeuristic interest in whether people you used to work with have still got jobs.
In their own way both of these are valid but they do not perform the function of a network. In reality this prompts people to treat LinkedIn as not much more than a grown up version of Pokemon.
I’ve always had a few self created rules about how I’ve treated different social networks. On Twitter I follow anyone that is interesting, I’m only Facebook friends with people I’ve met, Google Plus I add anyone but only to specific circles and LinkedIn only people who I have worked with.
I think I’m going to change my approach on Linkedin to include people who seem interesting to see if a similar approach, as I use with Twitter, makes it anymore functional.
There you go, I’m really interested in your tips or experience. I suspect that many responses are just going to be a mutual confusion but hope this isn’t the case.June 20th, 2012
If you’re as old as me then you probably remember when all the music died. Not Don McLean’s rambling nonsense about…. I have no idea what American Pie is actually about. I mean the 80s when home taping killed music. Do you remember when there used to be music, but then it all stopped because everyone just nicked it and it wasn’t worth it any more so people didn’t play guitars, they just worked in shops?
Music didn’t die. Someone invented CDs and we were all forced to buy all the music that we previously owned on a different format thus massively increasing the income of both artists and record labels. It was a close run thing though. I understand at one point it looked like Sting might not be able to afford his tea.
As I do remember this it is with some amusement that I greet the protestations that the music industry is about to suffer a similar fate to that it suffered in the 80s, simply because, once again, all the music is being stolen.
I should probably clarify that I see a fundamental distinction between the music industry and musicians. I hate the way this entire debate is framed from a capitalist point of view, that defines success and quality of music to be entirely correlated against its ability to generate a return in cash.
I do have some sympathy that the free exchange of digital music is undermining some musicians earning potential. Equally the freedom of digital distribution and production has given many more artists the potential to earn an income where they otherwise wouldn’t.
My personal perspective from the 80s and 90s is that the free exchange of music massively increased the range of music I like and consequently increased the range of musicians that now get money off me. I now spend much money on music than at any point in my life. This is because it is so easy to access. If I hear something on the radio I can download it to my phone (and pay for it in seconds).
I have to say that of the 45,ooo (give or take) songs that sit on our home server I didn’t buy all of them. I have bought the vast majority and the shelves of CDs that never leave their case is a testament to that.
So that is a convoluted way of trying to justify my interest in writing this.
This morning I got to read David Lowery’s open letter to Emily White. This letter was in response to a post that Emily posted on the NPR Music Blog. Emily’s post is a quite reasonable explanation of how she believes her generation (which I assume is younger than me) is moving away from traditional, tangible music media such as CDs. David decided to wilfully misunderstand this and launched into a long old letter about how Emily owes musicians about $2000 for all the stuff she nicked.
This seems to me to be completely symbolic of how the music industry wilfully misunderstands the changing environment they now live in. David might have a point about streaming platforms, such as Spotify, undermine artists. To my mind that is a failure of collective bargaining rather than yet another stick to beat the youth of today with.
For a different perspective on being a musician in todays world it is well worth following Steve Lawson on Twitter. I thought it would be useful to add a link to his blog as well as it is often interesting, though just searching for the link I noticed he has already written about this today. As I’ve already got this far I didn’t really have the motivation to delete it all.
I just don’t believe there will ever be a point where young people stop picking up guitars and stop trying and make music. That’s because the rewards that people expect from music are not purely economic. Music is also about confidence, wellbeing and credibility. BitTorrent will never take these from people.
We might live in a time where musicians are no longer able to buy islands but is that so bad? Do we want to continue to perpetuate a world where Bono has influence because his set over ran at Live Aid in 1985?
People aren’t advocating that we live in a world where all culture is free (even Emily, if you read what she actually said), we are living in a world where we are redefining how people will benefit from artistic production and hopefully stop the horrendous commodification of music.