Top 12 Albums of 2014 (yes 12)

December 11th, 2014

Sun-Kil-Moon-Benji-608x540The 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.


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Devolution Number 9

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.

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1045 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die

August 12th, 2014

1001_AlbumsI 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.

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#Harkive: My day in music 15th July 2014

July 16th, 2014

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.

It was my first day back at work yesterday so that meant emails. I work from home these days so there is no limit to what I can listen to nor how loud it can be. spotify

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.

car_stereo_2I 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.

I found a post on Facebook that Table Scraps had made their new single available on Soundcloud, I gave it a listen on my phone, you should too, it only takes ninety seconds.

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).


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2013- It’s All About Albums

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.

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Social Network

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:-

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:-

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.


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Harkive: My day in music 9th July 2013

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.

pureSo 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 ( 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.

conservatoryMuch 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.

powerampI 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 it

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An Engaging Bureaucracy

June 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:-

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.

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2012 – My Year in Albums

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.

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My Adventure in Film

July 18th, 2012

I’ve been meaning to write this for a while but through the pressures of reviewing cats and entertaining people with the ukulele (entertaining in its loosest sense) I didn’t get round to it.

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.

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