Retro chart for stowaways – 20 May 2006

While I’m still away on my holidays, here are the top 10 albums from eleven years ago:

  1. Massive Attack – Collected
  2. Goldfrapp – Supernature
  3. William Orbit – Hello Waveforms
  4. I Monster – Neveroddoreven
  5. Depeche Mode – Playing the Angel
  6. Madonna – Confessions on a Dance Floor
  7. Röyksopp – The Understanding
  8. Pet Shop Boys – PopArt
  9. Röyksopp – Röyksopp’s Night Out
  10. Sugababes – Taller in More Ways

Artist of the Week – Apollo 440

This is almost the last of our old Artist of the Week reprints. This one dates back to 2005, and as usual, is full or errors, omissions, and hyperbole.

Liverpool has long been known as a hotbed of inventive and eccentric new music. Apollo 440 may not be a widely known name on this scene, but their tracks are considerably better known than their name. They started recording and remixing at the start of the 1990s, shooting to fame with their 1993 single Astral America, which brought them a huge hit single. The brilliant album Millennium Fever followed the subsequent year, but failed to break them into the mainstream.

It was with the second album Electro Glide in Blue that they truly entered the mainstream, with the singles Krupa and Ain’t Talkin’ Bout Dub shooting them into the upper end of the charts. The following year their updated theme for the film Lost in Space brought them another huge hit. ·

One of their greatest strengths, however has always been their haunting soundtrack music. Some of the score to Lost in Space was their work, they also composed the soundtrack for the game Rapid Racer, and following the third album High on Your Own Supply, released in 1999, they scored another huge hit with the theme to the first Charlie’s Angels film.

Further huge hits followed, with Stop the Rock and Heart Go Boom both gracing the upper end of the charts, as well as their duet with Jean Michel Jarre on Rendez-Vous 98.

Their return in 2003 was sadly rather less of a success. After nearly four years working on the fourth album, the double CD epic Dude Descending a Staircase was released, but failed to make any impact on the charts whatsoever. The single of the same name was a minor hit, but in many ways lacked the impact of their earlier works.

Robert Miles

I’ve just got back from my holidays, so I’m sorry that I’m a little late commenting on this. While I was away, I was very sorry to read about the untimely passing of Robert Miles, as it turns out from cancer.

It shouldn’t really surprise anyone that his mega-hit Children and the album that spawned it, Dreamland (which we reviewed here just a few months ago and found to be surprisingly good) have both jumped back onto the charts. His later albums were good too, and we listened to Paths on one of the first the random jukeboxes a while back too.

But my favourite track of his was from his second album 23am, and was this beautiful piece, Maresias. Rest in peace.

Jean-Michel Jarre – Oxygène 7-13

By 1997, nearly three decades into his career, Jean-Michel Jarre had finally achieved legendary status. All he needed to do was find a way to follow up on his debut chart hit Oxygène, and the world would be his oyster. So that’s what he did.

The album opens with Part 7, a bold, eleven minute piece which kicks off with single, bright synth notes, before building gradually into an enormous synth dance piece. Jarre was clearly in his element here – finally, mainstream music had caught up with him, and he was able to play along and show everybody else how it was done. He may no longer have been the cultish outsider, but he was really at his creative peak.

Jarre had already flirted with his past on 1994’s Chronologie, which had yielded a couple of hit singles, and so recording Oxygène (Part 8) must have been pretty straightforward. But this is so good! Somehow this is classic Jean-Michel Jarre, and yet he had never quite released anything like it before.

Part 9 is perhaps the gentlest piece on here, and the only one that strongly reminds the listener of the original album (although the same synthesisers were used, so the general “mood” remains the same across both releases).

Side B opens with Part 10, which was also the second single, albeit in a vastly reworked form. There’s something rather glorious about the melody, although somehow the backing is just a touch too cheesy to have ever performed well on the charts by itself. Then Part 11 is perhaps the least penetrable piece on here, and energetic, heavily arpeggiated piece, which fits perfectly in the album context, but might not have got too far if it had been released by itself.

Part 12 is brilliant though, and probably could have been a hit as well. Powered largely by a very bouncy synth arpeggio, the melody is cleverly hidden amongst the electronic chirps, and it’s an extremely beautiful piece of music. Then, finally, we reach Part 13, an even sweeter closing track than Part 6, which ended the original album. A simple and sweet pad melody with soft harmonies is accompanied by some slightly overwrought percussion, and that might seem like an unfair description, but I don’t think it’s too far off the mark. It’s still a fantastic piece of music.

When the original Oxygène album came out in 1976, he already had a handful of little-known releases under his belt, so it’s far from naïve, but this sequel is still infinitely more confident, and some might suggest therefore that it lacks some of the innocence of its predecessor. I don’t think that’s true – it may not be quite as close to perfection, but it’s still pretty darn close.

This second volume in the Oxygène series is still widely available, either in its original form, or retitled Oxygène 2 as part of the Oxygène Trilogy boxed set.

Preview – New Order

Unfortunately I haven’t yet managed to find a preview video for this post, so you might have to just imagine what this is like, but New Order return this week with a new live album, full of tracks from the outstanding Music CompleteNOMC15 comes out this week, and includes a version of Tutti Frutti, so let’s take a look at the single.

Pet Shop Boys – Release

An album which is often either overlooked or maligned is Pet Shop Boys‘ eighth studio release, Release, which came out fifteen years ago this week. Having seen a steady decrease in success for nearly a decade, and having also sat on the sidelines while indie rock took over the UK charts, they decided to go for a much more raw, rock-inspired sound. The fact that this coincided with a resurgence in electronic pop on the radio is a classic Pet Shop Boys move.

It opens, unusually for Pet Shop Boys, with the lead single Home and Dry, an understated lead track with a delightful synth line. It’s a great synth song – honestly it was never going to be a huge hit, and did pretty well to scrape in at number 14, but in the context of this album, it fits very nicely.

Second (and in many countries final) single I Get Along comes next, famously a song about Tony Blair‘s relationship with spin doctor Alistair Campbell. It’s a rock ballad, and didn’t cut down especially well into its edited single version form, but in full album form, it’s a great song, and could easily have fitted on any number of 1960s LPs.

Birthday Boy is another rock ballad, a fun pop song about Jesus. In retrospect, this surely deserved a place on their Christmas EP a few years later. One of the nicer aspects of this song is hearing Neil Tennant sing in a much lower register than normal – actually slightly lower than he seems comfortable with at times. But it’s always nice to hear male vocalists singing in a more natural range.

Then comes London, the German-only third single, a sweet, guitar-driven song about immigrants from Eastern Europe coming to the UK to look for work, and finding some of the excitement that the city can hold. Where I struggle personally with this song is its use of autotune – it’s already turned up a couple of times on this album, and already it’s starting to sound a bit overused. On London, it does start to jar a little (you can read more of my thoughts on the subject here).

E-Mail is next, and marks a definite end to Side A of this album, an extremely accurate and contemporary song about falling in love via electronic media. Unusually for Pet Shop Boys‘ 1990s releases, but in common with the theme of Release, there are only ten tracks on here, and some of the best tracks of the era (Always is perhaps the most notable) ended up as b-sides or on Disco 3, which appeared the following year.

But there are some more electronic moments here, and Side B opens with The Samurai in Autumn, a semi-instrumental dance track which actually fits nicely here due to its grimy production. It’s about the state of the duo’s career at the time of the preceding album Nightlife (1999), and sees them at their most introspective on this album.

The next two tracks are undoubtedly the best on here, and I’d be hard-pushed to choose between them. Love is a Catastrophe is an exceptional piece, and what it really highlights is that Pet Shop Boys have taken a very different songwriting approach with this album – it’s not just the songwriting that’s different, they have really never recorded anything quite like this anywhere else. Then Here, which really should have been called Home, had it not been for the opening track on the album. In many ways this is a return to their normal style, but done extremely well.

Most of the way through the album, its reputation as one of their poorer efforts is looking extremely unfair, but there are valid criticisms. One for me would be the way it was marketed – I’ve never really seen any good reason why it would have been called Release – it’s a good name, but it doesn’t really fit the music – and while the artwork, a series of embossed flowers, is great, that fits neither the title nor the songs.

But those are minor quibbles, it’s still a great package. Until The Night I Fell in Love, anyway. I do appreciate what they were doing here – someone did need to show Eminem that he can’t go around being mean to everyone else without some degree of comeback. It’s pretty clever too – suggesting someone so publicly homophobic would actually be gay is genius. The best comeback Eminem could manage was suggesting he had run Pet Shop Boys over in his car in Canibitch. Anyway, perhaps this might have been better as a b-side?

You Choose is the final track on here, another example of their having taken a very different songwriting approach. It’s a really strong closing track, which fits the theme of the album very nicely, and it features a typically wise Tennant lyric.

So Release might not be perfect, but it does have a lot to offer, and fifteen years on, it’s definitely worth giving another chance. You might still end up concluding that it’s Pet Shop Boys‘ least good album, but that’s no bad thing either – it’s up against some pretty stiff competition to be their best.

You should still be able to find copies of the original Release of release, but you might want to wait, as the rumour mill suggests a new reissue might be on its way.

Retro chart for stowaways – 15 May 2004

I’m off on my holidays at the moment, so here’s the album chart from twelve years ago this week!

  1. Air – Talkie Walkie
  2. Pet Shop Boys – PopArt
  3. Goldfrapp – Black Cherry
  4. Dido – Life for Rent
  5. Erlend Øye – Erlend Øye – DJ-Kicks
  6. Zero 7 – When It Falls
  7. Sugababes – Three
  8. Dubstar – Stars – The Best of Dubstar
  9. Bent – Programmed to Love
  10. Sparks – Lil’ Beethoven