Monthly Archives: December 2010

Ten singles for 2010

OK – here are ten singles that rocked my world this year. In reverse order and hopefully including the odd surprise.

10. ‘Surrender’ – Olof Arnalds (featuring Bjork). The Icelandic chanteuses teamed up for a mystical ballad, like two dark angels. Men would succumb to their power.

9. ‘The Recluse’ – Plan B. My favourite track off the mighty The Defamation Of Strickland Banks and a corking, spinning piece of old school soul. I love the horn section, I love the scales and I even loved the Pointless Rap© bit.

8. ‘What’s In It For’ – Avi Buffalo. A sun-drenched stoner singalong. Like a Neil Young After The Goldrush-era track rewritten by kids who like Vans and Pepsi Max. Bloody Glorious.

7. ‘Wonderful Life’ – Hurts. Yep, it’s a cheesy pop song and a derivative slice of 80’s electronica. And yes, Hurts are contrived and affected. But, when Theo first sings “Don’t let go / Never give up / It’s such a wonderful life” you know that a slice of pop heaven has arrived. Tell me you don’t like it.

6. ‘My Ways’ – MAY68. Manchester’s newest dancefloor terrorists released this as their first single. It’s a huge juggernaut of HI-NRG call-and-response tuneage. Love it, love it, love it.

And to the Top 5….

5. ‘Liar, My Dear’ – The Heartbreaks. Morecambe’s finest fuse the romance of The Smiths to the balls of the Mary Chain – that is quite some sonic libido. This their first single, was a riot. Much, much more to come from these lads.

4. ‘Worm Tamer’ – Grinderman. “My baby calls me the Loch Ness monster / Two great big humps and then I’m gone.” How we chuckled at Nick Cave’s wit on the this seething, writhing harpy of song. “Comedic?” he said to me when I interviewed him. “It’s not comedic, it’s fucking tragic.”

 3. ‘Mr Peterson’ – Perfume Genius. “He made me a tape of Joy Division / He told there was a part of him missing / When I was sixteen / He jumped off a building.” Mike Hadreas’ true story of his childhood seduction by a desperate teacher was beautiful. Really, really beautiful.

2. ‘Tightrope’ – Janelle Monae. Watch the video, find her Letterman performance of the song on YouTube. The new star of 2010 gave us a shit-hot slab of cosmic funk in the form of ‘Tightrope’, and then proceeded to break the song down James Brown-style. Breathtaking.

1. ‘Fuck You’ – Cee Lo Green. It is very rare that a song arrives so perfectly formed that it has ‘worldwide number 1’ written all over it. Rihanna’s ‘Umbrella’ and Beyonce’s ‘Crazy In Love’ are a couple of examples. So, when the video of Cee Lo Green’s new track began to go viral on YouTube, it was easy to see why. It’s a perfect song; great melody, great sentiment and a pristine production. When it is done this well, pop music takes some beating.


Get some of Lykke Li

The Swedish singer-songwriter will always have a special place in my heart. Unbeknown to her, she was the subject for the first mini-feature I was ever commissioned to write. This represented a step up from album reviews and was a chance for me to prove that I could write more for AU magazine. 

Thankfully, Lykke Li provided me with an easy story. Her 2008 album Youth Novels was a delicious blend of indie-pop and subtle dance rhythms. Songs like ‘I’m Good, I’m Gone’ and ‘Little Bit’ proved that it wasn’t just Robyn who was creating intelligent pop in Sweden.

So, I was particularly excited to get my hands on a copy of Lykke Li’s new album Wounded Rhymes. I really liked the lead single – the sexed up ‘Get Some’ (“I’m your prostitute / Get some”). However, the single is not indicative of the rest of the Wounded Rhymes – and that is not a complaint. The new record sounds grown up; it’s more downbeat, more down-hearted and displays Li’s growing confidence as a songwriter. Tracks like ‘Sadness Is A Blessing’ and ‘I Know Places’ are both spectral ballads and her finest work to date.

Now signed to a major label, 2011 could well be the year that Lykke Li becomes a star. Wounded Rhymes is out on January 28th and you can hear the single ‘Get Some’ here: http://www.lykkeli.com/music.htm


My highlights of 2010

I have had a wonderful time writing about music during 2010. I’ve had about 60,000 words published in three different magazines and websites, including over 60 album reviews, 14 feature articles and two cover features (Wilco and Klaxons for AU magazine). But, perhaps, more importantly, I’ve been given some amazing opportunities to meet some hugely talented people and have
some brilliant memories. A few of the highlights include:

Kristin Hersh dedicating her album to Fin – yep, the album Crooked is dedicated to my son “the mighty Finlay Freeman”. The fact that she made this dedication alongside one to her great friend Vic Chesnutt, who died early this year, somehow made the gesture all the more special. We all met up again in June in Liverpool – Fin was a bit shy. I have no more words on how amazing I think Kristin is.
Double-kissing Black Francis – one of my all-time heroes, the Pixies frontman grabbed me in a bear hug and planted two
smackers on me when we were introduced before an interview. I didn’t wash my face for weeks. He was lovely and charming and we talked about vaginas (in hushed tones) amongst other things.
Ice Cube phoning me – twenty minutes before the allotted time for our interview, I noticed a missed call from an unknown number. Surely rap superstars aren’t ever early? Ten minutes later, and still ahead of schedule, the phone rings. I
answer to hear a languorous Californian drawl; “Hey John, this is Cube.” It’s the coolest thing I’ve ever heard.

Not smelling Nick Cave’s burp – I interviewed Grinderman in September. It was perfect: a fabulous setting in a beautiful London recording studio and the interview (with the notoriously difficult Cave) went really well. At the end I asked for a photo, and as Nick Cave pulled me next to him he burped but them moved my head away from him, so as I wouldn’t smell it. I’m assuming that’s why he did it.
Iceland with Hjaltalin – my first ‘press trip’ and my first time in the jaw-droppingly beautiful Iceland. The band Hjaltalin were our hosts and showed us volcanoes, waterfalls and dead sharks before playing the most fabulous gig with the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra. An unforgettable day. 

Standing in the freezing cold with Plan B while he had a fag – I interviewed Mr B before The Defamation Of Strickland Banks took off and he was still a plain ol’ rapper. I’m guessing I wouldn’t get as much of his time now. He should stop smoking as well; it’s bad for him, especially
in winter.

The Chew Lips double act – forgetting I was actually doing an interview and just giggling along as James and Tigs went into ‘comedy duo’ mode. Example:

“I don’t think I’ve met any of my heroes,” James says, rather forlornly.

“I bet you have, didn’t you meet Brian Wilson at a festival?” Tigs asks.

“No, and he wouldn’t be one of my heroes.”

“God, you are so without life.”

Laughing at James from the Klaxons when he predicted his beloved Tottenham would get to the Champions League semi-finals – what a deluded fool – oh, no, wait…. they just might.


Ten albums for 2010: #1

1. The ArchAndroid by Janelle Monáe (Atlantic/Bad Boy)

‘Move over Gaga, the future has just arrived.’

I wrote this after reviewing Janelle Monáe’s debut album The ArchAndroid and I still believe it.

Every once in a while an album arrives which is so huge in scope, so visionary in its ability to fuse genres, and so pristinely executed, that the listener is almost rendered in a state of shock. When such an album is a debut it should come with a dose of smelling salts. If The ArchAndroid doesn’t make a global star of Janelle Monáe, then more fool the human race. We need her – such is her prodigious talent. So, OK, the album has a dreaded concept – some tosh about an android saving the planet – but ignore it and lose yourself in the music. The single ‘Tightrope’, featuring ‘project champion’ Big Boi, is shit-hot cosmic funk, the wonderful ‘Locked Inside’ a soaring Cuban salsa and the dreamy ‘Wondaland’ is honeysweet soul.

And so it goes on; Monáe’s chameleonic vocal range nailing every genre that’s thrown her way – be it rock, folk or even Broadway-inspired show tunes. The ArchAndroid ends on the epic ‘BaBopBye Ya’; nine minutes of schizophrenic opulence that sounds like every Bond theme you’ve ever heard, with our heroine bouncing between Bassey and Beyoncé. In 2010, space cadet Janelle Monáe has not just reset the bar; she’s moved it out above the ozone layer.

Indeed the 25-year-old Atlantan seems to possess it all; the voice, the image, the poise, the outrageously funky live show and the slightly bonkers worldview. When I interviewed her on the phone, she moved between illuminating self-awareness (“I’ve always been into big ideas and I never tried to be deliberately different, but I’d never shy away from being an individual”) to bizarre PR-speak (“I like to think of The ArchAndroid as an ‘emotion picture’”) and onto slightly disconcerting weirdness (“There is a mission that has to be accomplished, a message that has to be delivered, and lives that have to be changed.”) Yikes.

A mad, magnificent masterpiece and my album of 2010.


Ten albums for 2010: #2

2. Grinderman 2 by Grinderman (Mute)

In 2010 Grinderman became as vital as the Bad Seeds. If their debut was a leery old geezer, Grinderman 2 arrived as a raging Titan. It was more expansive musically and lyrically more diverse – even if the trademark talk of wolfmen and bogeymen still prowled around inside your head. Songs like ‘Worm Tamer’ and ‘Heathen Child’ roared with visceral energy, as Nick Cave’s offshoot band grew into a viciously sexy proposition. But, while testosterone and aggression were still in evidence, the wonderful psycho pop of ‘Palaces Of Montezuma’ and the Lou Reed-inspired ballad ‘When My Baby Comes’ both displayed a softer, feminine side to the band.

When I interviewed Grinderman (one of the great days of 2010 for me), Nick Cave agreed with my comments, “There is a vulnerability in Grinderman that I think women recognize. They understand intuitively that we are fronting up to issues that most men would rather not face up to. Vulnerability is the wrong word. It’s a neurosis. We’re not ashamed to admit that we are neurotic. We are being driven by neuroses.” (“And as we all know, that’s a real thigh opener,” drummer Jim Sclavunos then deadpanned.) Cave also admitted to me that on hearing the first playback of Grinderman 2, he simply thought “fuck – this is amazing.” Yep, he’s bang on the money.


Ten albums for 2010: #3

3. Learning by Perfume Genius (Organs/Turnstile) 

The haunting beauty of Mike Hadreas’ music reveals itself early on the opening title track of his astonishing debut; “No one will hear your crying / Until you take your last breath,” he whispers. The Seattle-based singer-songwriter is Perfume Genius and Learning is a collection of songs largely based around simple piano melodies which explore death, abuse, addiction and on the final track, ‘Never Did’, redemption and hope. The subject matter seems so personal, so utterly transparent and open, that the record has a heightened tension created by a sense of voyeurism. 

Indeed, when I interviewed him pre-gig in the vestry of a Salford church, Hadreas told me that his songs were written as a means to understand his troubled life, and only intended to be heard by close friends. “Looking back I can see that was happening. I didn’t think anyone else was gonna hear it. I guess it was a way for me to map out things that had happened to me, and the perspective I had on those things. Writing music somehow kinda helped me. It was indulgent.” The album is tracked in chronological order, opening with the nursery rhyme-ballad of the title track – the first song Hadreas ever wrote – and ending with the complex layering of ‘Never Did’. Listening to it is like watching a newborn gazelle tentatively rise to its feet and take a first step. “I was getting more comfortable in what I was doing, a little. The subject matter didn’t really get any more comfortable but I guess I gained confidence in talking about it.”

As for his live show, Hadreas isn’t just nervous: he seems terrified at the prospect of what he has to do that evening, which, of course, fuels the intensity of his spell-bindingly beautiful 40-minute set. The church is apt – there is an almost hymnal quality to Learning; on ‘Gay Angels’ a distant vocal and a gorgeous dirge of muffled keyboards sounds like the requiem of a fallen angel. An overwhelmingly magical album.


Ten albums for 2010: #4

4. Unicorn by Chew Lips (Family) 

 “Like a high-speed chase on your wedding day” sings the magnificent Tigs on the haunting opening track ‘Eight’ – perfectly capturing the breathtaking excitement of the London trio’s debut, Unicorn. After spending much of 2009 honing their edgy “Casiotone drone”, Chew Lips correctly asserted that less is more. Ten tracks (in a shade over 30 minutes) have been pruned of any excess baggage to make up an album that Tigs described to me as “future classic pop’”. She didn’t stop there, “We’ve endeavoured to make a record that sonically is of its time, but also quite classic and will be sampled in 20 years time.” She’s right, Unicorn is electro-pop at its darkest and purest, allowing Tigs the space to excel. Her platinum voice both tantalises and pleads, playing the coquettish kitten one moment and distraught diva the next. Tigs ensures that the pop perfection of ‘Seven’ and the clipped arpeggios of ‘Slick’ are genuinely soulful.

Also, Chew Lips gave me THE best interview of the year. I met James and Tigs in an East End ‘caff’ (read posh, over-priced bistro) and they were hilarious; like a bickering old couple. This is typical of the interview, where I ask them something about how the band members finally decided to form Chew Lips. Tigs dives in to answer. “James would come round the house, and I’d say ‘Do you want to do something musical together?’ and he’d say ‘No’. And then, he came to see me do an acoustic performance and he suddenly said, ‘Do you wanna be in a band?’ At which point she pauses for dramatic effect, and eyes James. “You wanted it,” she giggles.

James seems to have a slightly different memory of the momentous occasion. “You were just like some little witch in the corner, telling everyone to shut up.”

“I fucking wasn’t.”

“Pretty much like now,” James concludes.

“I had the voice of a fucking angel,” protests Tigs, before turning to me, “I haven’t sworn in this interview yet, have I?”

Funny, hugely endearing and the purveyors of one of the albums of the year; you may feel overloaded by synth-led pop bands, but shuffle up and make some room. A brilliant, brilliant debut.