Thursday, December 24, 2009

Music of 2009...

Most of the music I liked featured guitar in some way. Quelle surprise.

I don't know about you lot, but I fucking hate lists. Lists of banal things which you'd not previously thought about in the year. I really don't even like making lists at work - usually there's one or two things which are actually important to do, and the rest just sorts itself out.

Anyway. With that said, i'm going to turn on my heel and announce the albums which've been doing it for me in 2009. And, y'know, they'll be in reverse order, pop pickers. I've also made a Spotify playlist of some of the tracks I've liked a lot from these albums. Go 'ere to find it (along with some other tracks from the past year which haven't quite made the list).

10) The Leisure Society - The Sleeper

Sleeper/A Product of the Ego Drain

The Leisure Society are one of those bands I'd have never, ever listened to without a friend encouraging me. Garnering critical praise from the likes of Guy Garvey, Chris Martin and others who inch towards bed wetting music, I was a wee bit worried when a mate gave me his copy to listen to.

I needn't have been worried. This is brilliant stuff. A debut album, but you'd never ever know it. Upon hearing Mumford & Sons (who are also a good band, but not in the same class with their album, in my opinion), I had a little smile; if the Leisure Society had half of the commercial backing, they'd be all over the airwaves.

The music itself is sugary sweet, but in a good way, not in a 'I need to abuse several household pets' vein. Ahem. I've not heard better harmonies this year. A sweet folksy indie album. We've had a good year for them, but these guys have been amongst the best.

A note on the album - I bought the original version of the album, which isn't what's linked to - the new (and cheap!) version has a fucking amazing cover of Gary Numan's cars (a live version's also on Youtube). Check it out.

9) Decemberists - The Hazards Of Love

The Hazards of Love

The Leisure Society don't have the monopoly on folksy indie music though. These guys probably have as much of a claim to it as anyone. I was introduced to them by an old girlfriend, and dismissed them as oh-so much folk meandering, designed for people who still loved their very first compass. This was back in 2005, with the release of Picaresque. I liked some of it, but most of it wasn't for me.

Now, I rather liked the album they did before this, The Crane Wife. About half of the songs were tip top, and all told rather bizarre stories about gun fights and mythical cranes (the bird, not the equipment, though that would be brilliant).

Come 2009, and they released The Hazards of Love. It's kind of an odd fusion between folk, prog and indie. The pretentious lyrics are still there, but somehow i've grown to like them. Colin (the lead singer) Meloy's voice is an acquired taste (someone from Oregon singing in what sounds like an affected mid 60's English folk singer), but I think it's gotten better, and sounds less affected. It helps he's singing duets or harmonising a lot of the time.

Anyway, it's easily the best folk/prog/concept album of the year. And, it's worth mentioning - they are fantastic live. I saw them live at the Coronet with Anjali (I believe Neil was in the crowd too, somewhere), and they were cracking. Check them out.

8) Them Crooked Vultures - Them Crooked Vultures

Them Crooked Vultures

Now, this is probably a pretty easy selection. But, in my mind, it's not the best rock album of 2009. Early pretenders to the throne included Jack White's new side project, The Dead Weather. They were cracking at Glastonbury...but the album was slightly disappointing.

Now, Josh Homme, Dave Grohl and John-Paul Jones are the Crooked Vultures. I was desperate to listen to this album, ever since I listened to the 15 second leak during the summer. I'm pleased to report that the Amazon reviews on this album (and in various music mags) are spot on; it's a great record. That said, some tracks are obviously better than others - Elephant and Nobody Likes Me (and Neither do I) are the ones to listen to. It's an album to crank up and run with, or to play when everyone else's out of the house.

It's very derivative of Led Zep, but I don't care about that. I like Homme as a vocalist/lead guitarist, love JPJs's basslines and Grohl's powerhouse drumming.

I was gutted I couldn't see them live, but it'll hopefully happen next year. I hope.

7) A Place To Bury Strangers - Exploding Head

Exploding Head

These guys came out of leftfield entirely. I heard reports about a band which were the loudest band in New York City. Bearing in mind the Yeah Yeah Yeahs come from there, it was a bold claim. Then someone on twitter (I forget who - probably Mr Kendrick) linked me to a track from their new album, Exploding Head, telling me to listen to it turned up. That track was Ego Death, and it was LOUD.

To describe their sound, it'd be like combining the Jesus & Mary Chain with shoe gazing bits and pieces. I really like that sound, even though I think I got a bit fed up with over-listening to Glasvegas last year.

It's easily the loudest album in the list, but it's really cracking. Heartily recommended, especially if you like your music loud and raw. I want to see them live in 2010.

6) Gomez - A New Tide

A New Tide

Gomez's debut album in 1998, Bring It On, is one of my favourite albums ever. In the top 5 debut albums ever, in my mind. Now, I love Gomez. Love them to bits. They've always, like the SFA, been able to do slightly odd things with music (though it always trended towards the bluesy side of things, given Ben Ottewell's voice) and make it sound fantastic.

I'd bought every Gomez album up to Split The Difference, which was just...ok. I thought they'd lost it in truth. Not enough long tracks (which the band are famed for), not enough just sounded like a band devoid of ideas. So, I didn't buy the album after. And again, wasn't sure about buying another one...until a friend of mine told me their new album was a cracker. And he was right.

Tracks like 'Mix', 'Airstream Driver' and 'Little Pieces' would all sit very nicely on a Gomez best of. Pop, but not...all with enough quirks to keep me entertained. If you don't know Gomez at all, this is actually quite a good introduction. Then buy Bring It On.

5) Joe Gideon & The Shark - Harum Scarum

Harum Scarum

I first heard these guys live in the basement of a pub in 2008. There was something captivating about a tall, swaying preacherman whose bluesy voice barked tunes over a jangling electric guitar, whilst the drummer and ex-model (his sister) was in command of the sticks. A bit White Stripesy in lineup, but they sounded nothing like them. Actually, I was reminded of Nick Cave tracks (always a good thing) like John Finn's wife or even earlier. A lot of storytelling, which always makes me happy.

So when they released Harum Scarum in 2009, I was dead chuffed. 'Johan Was a Painter & An Arsonist' was better on record, 'Kathy Ray' finally made sense, and 'Civilization' was just as bonkers as I remembered it.

They're starting to get a little bit more mainstream attention these days, but I for one think they wholly deserve it. Have a listen. It won't be to everyone's taste, but if you like bluesy storytelling (some of which is very peculiar), you'll love 'em.

4) Fanfarlo - Reservoir


Another band I saw a year or so earlier - Fanfarlo are an indie band who did the small venue circuit (rather like Florence & The Machine) in London for a year or so. Having heard a few of their tracks - including this one, which for some unknown reason, didn't make the final album - I was hooked. That they had a massive band with a lot of drums and a brass section made me very happy indeed.

So, when they decided to launch their album by effectively giving it away for a pound, I downloaded it and had a listen. By this time, Coldplay (urgh) had decided to give them a support slot with them, and they were beginning to be widely listened to. Tracks like 'Harold T.Wilkins', 'The Walls Are Coming Down' and 'Fire Escape' were absolute corkers.

The sound is...i'll be honest, quite like Arcade Fire. And yet, I didn't really understand what all the fuss was about with Arcade Fire. I really like some of their tracks, but they were a bit..glacial. There's much to admire, but little to enjoy. Whereas these guys are all about crafting really great indie pop songs, and it shows. Go and see them live - the last time I did, they came into the audience with a few instruments during the encore, and did an excellent version of Neutral Milk Hotel's 'In An Aeroplane Over The Sea'.

The album's well measured, has some excellent strings...if I had to criticise, I'd have to say some of their best tracks weren't included on the album. Seek them out, they're on Youtube. Still, a cracking album.

3) The Pains of Being Pure At Heart - Pains of Being Pure At Heart
Pains Of Being Pure At Heart

I have a friend called Ben, who writes some excellent music reviews here. Not a man to get overly enthusiastic about bands for no reason, he trumpeted a band called 'The Pains of Being Pure At Heart' as one of the best he'd heard all year.

And, having downloaded the album over the Summer, I had to agree, he was damn right. There's something about this album which is all about being young, loving the sunshine and just believing there's something vital about a band with guitars and a sense of euphoria which can only be understood when you listen to the tracks for the first time.

'Come Saturday', 'Contender'...they're all quality tracks. It's an album lovingly devoted to the three minute indie pop song. There've been criticisms online that they sound like C86, a band I don't know, but to hell with it - this is music at its most vital. And for the half an hour or so the album rattles through, I bet you'll agree. They are also cracking live - I saw them with a mate at the Scala this month, and was delighted they could pull it off.

2) Biffy Clyro - Only Revolutions

Only Revolutions

I've had a bit of a strange relationship with Biffy. Part of me, when I heard their first few albums, was determined (despite the obvious musicianship) to write them off as another My Chemical Romance, full of pretension and screaming. Yes, screaming. I didn't much like it then, and I don't really like it now.

Now, over the years they've been active (pretty much my University years onwards), I've softened towards them, culminating in seeing them live in Bristol in 2005. They'd just released Infinity Land, and I thought some of the tracks off that - most notably Glitter & Trauma and My Recovery Injection - were excellent.

An album released in 2007, Puzzle, divided fans. More obviously poppy than the earlier stuff, it won them a whole new legion of fans. I sort of ignored it, to be honest, partly because I was more interested in...uhh, moving to London at that point.

So come to 2009. A mate invites me along to see Biffy at Brixton. I thought i'd better check out their new album, 'Only Revolutions'. And bugger me if it isn't the best thing they've released. Obviously poppier than the early recordings, it retains the musical schizophrenia and melodies of the earlier stuff with more grown up (strings! on a Biffy album!) elements. I then buy Puzzle, and understand the shift. The last album was quite a lot poppier, and more of a straight rock album. This is a move back towards the older stuff, but not losing the more refined elements.

Josh Homme, I'm told, was involved with 'Bubbles', and it shows. Tracks like 'The Captain', and 'Golden Rule' are proper slices of rock though. Here's hoping they've influenced him too. And yes, they are quality live; you'll be amazed so much sound can come from three Scotsmen.

1) Idlewild - Post Electric Blues

Post Electric Blues

Idlewild's 'The Remote Part' is probably my album of the decade. It had everything; hard rock, soft acoustic numbers, and brilliantly clever lyrics. And, i'll be honest, I love all of their albums. From the punky start of the Captain EP through to today, they've evolved as i've grown up, which is cracking.

The album before this, 'Make Another World' was a return to the slightly louder Idlewild and had more obvious riffs than the folkier stuff. Roddy Woomble, the band's front man, had begun to pursue solo projects, which were EXTREMELY folk orientated (but still quality albums). I think it was to try and keep the projects separate.

So when the band decided they'd release their latest album, 'Post Electric Blues' by themselves first of all (before the label release), I decided to order a copy. And it really didn't disappoint me. It took elements from Roddy's latest solo project, 'Before the Ruin' (most notably, the backing vocals of Ms Heidi Talbot, who made my favourite track from 2008; the studio track's here) and mix it with the more guitar based sound from the prior album.

And the result's, in my opinion, the album of the year. Tracks like 'City Hall', 'Younger Than America', 'Dreams Of Nothing' and 'To Be Forgotten' are all utterly brilliant. And, naturally, when I saw them in Camden in November, they knocked it out of the park, with a nice mixture of tracks from their whole career. Quality stuff.

Also Recommended:

The Wave Machines self titled debut album is very promising; if one half of the album was like the first four and final track, it'd be top 5 album for sure. Check out 'Punk Spirit' and 'Dead Houses'. Kasabian suffer from their perennial problem - they only make half an album. While that half an album is probably the best thing they've ever done, it's still not worthy of all of the hype. They are quality live though, if you can get by most of their frankly nuts fans. Bat For Lashes' album 'Two Suns' is worthy of a listen, especially if you turn off half way through. It's great going to bed music (and I mean that in the nicest way), but it's not coherent, though I understand that was kind of the intention.

The XX's debut is sort of worthy of its plaudits. They do sound like no-one else, and it's a great sound. The problem? Every song sounds very, very similar. If you can put up with that, then it's an album you should own. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs album 'It's Blitz' is their best yet. It took me a while to get into (being such a fan of their earlier stuff), but 'Zero' is one of the songs of the year, definitely.

The Raveonettes' new album 'In and Out of Control' is an absolute corker, and only isn't in the top 10 because i've only very recently discovered them. Give it another week, and i'd probably have put it in. The Golden Silvers were brilliant live, and I love a couple of their tracks, but the rest of the album is damned patchy. 2009 was also notable, because it was the year I finally saw the point of the Maccabees when I saw them at Glasto. Their new album is a good 'un. I also was introduced to Andrew Bird, and liked him a lot (especially live), but I don't like all of his album, so it's in the top 20, but not the top 10.

Finally, the SFAs. Their album 'Dark Days/Light Years' deserves plaudits. Like most SFA stuff though, I tend to lose interest halfway through; the songs meander a bit too much. I think it's the best album they've released in years, but 3 or 4 tunes stop it from denting the top 10.


The best live gig was probably Neil Young at Glastonbury. I was instantly converted, and now own a lot of his stuff. The second best was Drever, Woomble, McCusker and Talbot all performing folksy stuff in the Union Chapel in Islington - 'Cathedrals' is my most played track on Last.Fm as a result, and I discovered the joys of Kris Drever. I love the venue too.

Fanfarlo at the ICA were great, along with Biffy Clyro at Brixton, Idlewild at Camden, Massive Attack were good at Brixton (I can't wait for the new album), Pains of Being Pure At Heart were cracking at the Scala, Red Snapper were quality at Glastonbury, Blur were good at Glastonbury, Andrew Bird was very very good at Shepherd's Bush Empire, and the Decemberists at the Coronet were cracking too. I also was finally able to see the Secret Machines at the Carling Academy in Islington, and they didn't disappoint; the drummer has the biggest kick drum i've ever seen.

Finally, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds were good at Glasto. I don't know how any band could've followed that. They're consistently the best live band i've ever seen. See the full line up, and witness the genius of Martyn P Casey, Warren Ellis and Nick Cave himself.

Here's hoping 2010 is a good year for music. I enjoyed 2009. You can hear my favourite tracks from 2009 here and here.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

What's Too Slow?

Yes. This IS too slow. Picture via Al_HikesAZ.

Hello there. I've been a wee bit quiet over the last month and a bit. Sorry about that. Have had some fairly major things to sort out. Moving into a new flat, and oh, getting a new job.

One which makes the title of this blog (already a bit of a lie) seem like a complete nonsense. I'm just about to begin working in PR as a planner, for these guys. I'm not changing my blog's title though. I'll always be WAM. As much for the 1950's style ad man dress as anything else.

And I wanted to write a little bit about why i'm excited to be starting my new gig, and why I think it's interesting from a planning point of view.

First and foremost, it is going to be interesting, seeing the difference between advertising and PR. When I began my career, I was told the best planners were still in ATL agencies, and (based on who i've met since I was told that, think it's right) that PR shops 'didn't understand brands'. That last part was spurious nonsense. The arrogant assumption that a discipline can have an absolute handle on a brand is just madness. If a brand is something that people associate with their own experiences and the experiences of other people, then I can't see how one place can have a monopoly on the thinking. To think anything else is to be unhealthily obsessed with triangles made in PowerPoint.

What really prompted thinking about PR as a discipline was something simple, really. I was thinking about speed. Even the most successful piece of advertising, that nods to/creates culture (at its best) takes a awfully long time to come to market.

Now, I don't necessarily believe that 'Fast Strategy' is the answer. Quality thinking can happen quickly, but the best solutions can't be rushed. But nor do I believe the 'one true insight' thought - that a clever bit of thinking will remain true forever, or that advertising's ability to capture the zeitgeist (or create it) will be able to be bottled for three/six months whilst the campaign is delivered.

In fact, I think it's damned dangerous to think in campaigns. Look at the recent Eurostar furore. All the branding in the world, no matter how APG award winning, won't stop the brand taking a knock in a lot of people's eyes. And while I think 'social media' is a nonsensical term, and that the need for specialist agencies to do it is bloody lazy, I do think crisis management within the clientside and agency side is very important.

But what's perhaps overlooked is the month or three after this. Could a creative solution play on this? I'm not talking about pile it high and sell it cheap 'community management', which social media agencies claim to do - I'm talking about a genuinely thoughtful piece of lateral thinking which acknowledges the crowd, and what's happened in the news. For example, with RATM getting Christmas number 1 - if their record company was wise, it'd produce something a little bit more meaningful than cheaper prices on all of their albums.

Various agencies where I worked would unfairly deride this as 'tactical' or 'promotional' advertising. But it's not, not really. It arguably builds the brand more than those strategies which are incubated for ages and take a long time to come to market. It's only throw away when it's not built upon, and is a one-off thing. But what's to stop a lot of 'tactical' activity being chained together and built upon? I still get drawn to the model of keeping 10% of the marketing budget back to be spent to capitalise on things like this.

It all obviously has some bearing on where research money gets spent both inside and outside of agencies. I'm really not interested in old quant data which purports to tell the future and doesn't seem to be quota-ed properly collected (TGI, i'm looking at you), and would love to try and dissuade clients from spending money on quant like this - which seem to be numbers for the sake of something to cling on to. Map qual/attitudinal data with sales. Don't use a damned crutch. That'll be a big job in my new role, I can already tell. Heh.

Regardless of how the shake down goes in the upcoming years, i'm looking forward to the new challenge and the new discipline. I'm not going to get drawn into a 'PR vs Advertising' debate. Both have their merits. I'll forever be grateful to the people i've worked for in adland - they've taught me a lot. I hope PR can do the same.
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