Format wars

Hands up who owned a Betamax video recorder!

If you did, you probably realised a very long time ago that you wasted your money. If you went with VHS, you made the right move! Congratulations on having spend a couple of decades watching snowy and blurry recordings of last night’s television highlights.

Betamax vs. VHS isn’t the only format war ever to have graced consumers’ shelves, but it is the most famous. It also seems to have been largely Sony’s fault – they could easily have backed down in the mid-1970s and gone with VHS instead, but they elected to support their own format instead.

For the best part of a decade, the format war raged, and it’s difficult to say now who was ever going to benefit from it. It’s not even the only time Sony have done it – they were one of the main proponents of the MiniDisc format, and also tried to push their own Atrac3 technology to replace mp3s. It’s difficult to understand now what they ever hoped to achieve with this – perhaps they just thought the strength of their Walkman brand was enough to kill the competitors.

Apart from the brief incursion of 8-track cartridges in the 1970s, the first real incursion of format wars on the audio world was when MiniDiscs and Digital Compact Cassettes (DCCs) launched in 1992. Neither really had much to offer – both used heavy digital compression, although DCCs were slightly better quality. DCCs also offered artist and track information via their data tracks from initial launch, whereas MiniDiscs only gained that capability later. Oh, and you could play normal cassette tapes in your DCC player. Just in case you were missing the tape hiss or something.

For a while, it looked as though DCCs might actually be a hit – a number of commercial record companies started releasing albums in the format – and then MiniDiscs started to take over in the late 1990s.

Ultimately, they turned out to be pretty pointless too, although the brief era of digital recording which was made possible by the MiniDisc was welcome, but in the long run you wasted your money if you invested in either format.

This is the recurring story of format wars – one of consumers wasting money. If you were unfortunate enough to choose HD-DVDs rather than BluRays, you wasted your money. SACDs might sound amazing, but are they really better than DVD Audio? And in the scheme of things, since most people can’t play either, who cares?

Even the manufacturers can’t have made a lot of money out of flogging these dead horses. The only winners of the format wars have really been the record (and movie) companies, who had an entirely valid excuse to sell us the same product multiple times. They didn’t even need to invent excuses like remasters or special editions – we did the work for them by buying into the wrong format in the first place.

There are many things to be grateful for in this digital age, and being spared the pain of the format wars is definitely one of them. Ultimately, consumers had relatively little control over what was going to win, and so every format war was just a waste of time and money all round.

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Zero 7 – When it Falls

A decade ago this week saw the release of Zero 7‘s second album When it Falls, following three years after their exceptional debut Simple Things.

I must confess, it took me an embarrassingly long time to “get” Zero 7 – it wasn’t until several years after Simple Things that I started to get the hang of what they were trying to do, and particularly the fact that they were really just a less bonkers and French, and more loungey version of Air. But having understood this, Simple Things is an easy album to enjoy. When it Falls is altogether less straightforward.

The difficult second album kicks off with the appropriately warm vinyl crackle of Warm Sound, with a lovely vocal turning up a minute or so in. Certainly it would be difficult to dislike this, or the second track – also the first single – the lovely Home. Both tracks are every bit as strong as anything on the first album, blending gentle vocals and electronics with a bit of inventiveness and creativity every now and then.

The rest of the album is rather less exciting. Follow-up single Somersault is pleasant, with an extremely good vocal covering up a rather dull track on the whole. Over Our Heads is duller still, and this trend continues for much of the rest of the album.

There’s a brief moment of interest with the instrumental centrepiece, the title track When it Falls, but the latter parts of the album are sadly very dull indeed. Of the later tracks – The Space Between, Look Up, In Time, and Speed Dial No. 2 – many have their moments, but none is really up to the standard of the debut album.

From such an auspicious beginning with Warm Sound and Home, it’s easy to be disappointed by When it Falls. If the “it” of the title was meant to refer to “quality,” it would be easy to agree with the sentiment.

Closing track Morning Song bucks the trend of the tail end of the album, and is one of the better tracks overall, but by this stage the die has long since been cast. When it Falls really isn’t a very convincing follow-up.

Subsequent albums The Garden (2006) and Yeah Ghost (2009) remained patchy – both had some exceptional moments and a lot of very dull ones. Seemingly nothing would ever be quite as straightforward for Zero 7 as they had been when they started out.

You can find When it Falls at all major retailers, such as this one.

Retro chart for stowaways – 3 March 2007

Early March 2007 saw us in the middle of a Client invasion, while they were still just about good. The top five singles:

  1. Client – Zerox Machine
  2. Client – Drive
  3. Faithless – Bombs
  4. Eric Prydz – Proper Education
  5. Client – Lights Go Out

… and the albums:

  1. Sarah Nixey – Sing, Memory
  2. Marsheaux – Peeka Boo
  3. Darkel – Darkel
  4. Faithless – To All New Arrivals
  5. Moby – Go: The Very Best of Moby

Delerium – Music Box Opera

At the end of 2012, Delerium returned with what is, if you believe Wikipedia, their fourteenth album, the delightfully named Music Box Opera. For an act which once released three albums within one year (Spheres, Spheres 2, and Semantic Spaces in 1994), the six year gap between Nuages du Monde (2006) and their latest release were long and agonising. But they had promised something new and different, and so it was.

The soft reverberating piano chords of Consciousness of Love open the album, followed by a brilliantly gritty vocal from Stef Lang. Not only is it a great opening track, but also a welcome new sound for Delerium, mixing darker, more contemporary sounds with beautiful vocals and the familiar pads of previous albums.

Lead single Monarch follows, actually one of the weaker tracks on the album. Nadina brings a competent – if not entirely intelligible – vocal performance, and many of the ingredients of classic Delerium tracks are there, but somehow it doesn’t quite seem to work as well as it should.

Delerium spend so much of their time collaborating with female vocalists that in many ways it is the songs with male vocals that are the most interesting, and so it is with the second single Days Turn into Nights, featuring Michael Logen. Besides the slightly deeper than normal vocal, this isn’t the most drastic departure from the Delerium of old, but it is one of the strongest songs on the album nonetheless.

The third single Chrysalis Heart follows, again familiar but with some cleverly concealed contemporary influences. This may lack the ingenious “world music” sampling which made some of their early albums so unique, but it does contain much more accessible and enjoyable songs. Chrysalis Heart is definitely one of their best.

Light Your Light is another very sweet song (as I said in a previous review, members of the old Front Line Assembly forum would probably go with “cheesy”). At their best, they do have a good line in big, catchy, synth-based songs. Perhaps that’s a formula, but it is a good one.

The instrumental Raindown brings us to the halfway point of the album in pleasant form. It’s not as overwhelming as some of its predecessors, but it’s a nice piece nonetheless. Sky (Tears from Heaven), on the other hand, is another moment of total perfection. A return to their formula, perhaps, but when that formula involves great vocals and an adorably catchy melody, who’s complaining?

Hammer doesn’t quite work as far as I’m concerned – there’s an ear-piercingly high chime sound all the way through it which is a little offputting, and its chorus tries really hard to be annoying. It doesn’t stop being pleasant, but neither does it ever really become more than that. And while Awakening is far from being annoying, it somehow seems to lack the passion that Delerium have when they’re on full form.

Sadly Frostbite doesn’t entirely work for me either, but Keyless Door does, and is another beautiful song, drawing the album gradually towards its closing point with the title track Music Box Opera.

This may not be Delerium‘s finest hour, but it’s generally a strong album. Although the later tracks in particular may not quite live up to the legendary status that they have built up over the last couple of decades, it’s still got some great moments.

Seemingly ready to help kill off physical media, they were kind enough to include three bonus tracks on the download edition of Music Box Opera, the best of which is the brief foray into dubstep with Stargazing, perhaps a little too radical to include on the album itself.

The best version of Music Box Opera to buy is the download edition, available widely.

Preview – Erasure

Bit late for Christmas, isn’t it?

No! It isn’t! At least, that’s what Erasure are saying. Their second Christmas single of 2013/2014 is the sweet Make it Wonderful, which comes out this week, from the album Snow Globe:

The Top Twenty BRIT Award Artists (by nominations)

We covered the top artists (by number of awards) last year. I’ve loaded in a whole load more information now, but inevitably it doesn’t look awfully different. So for a bit of variety, here are the most nominated artists:

  1. Robbie Williams – 25 nominations, 13 awards
  2. Coldplay – 22 nominations, 7 awards
  3. George Michael – 19 nominations, 3 awards
  4. Oasis – 18 nominations, 6 awards
  5. Elton John – 17 nominations, 4 awards
  6. Take That – 16 nominations, 9 awards
  7. Blur – 16 nominations, 5 awards
  8. Radiohead – 15 nominations, no awards
  9. Jamiroquai – 14 nominations, no awards
  10. Annie Lennox – 13 nominations, 8 awards
  11. Simply Red – 13 nominations, 3 awards
  12. Kylie Minogue – 13 nominations, 3 awards
  13. Kate Bush – 13 nominations, 1 award
  14. Craig David – 13 nominations, no awards
  15. U2 – 12 nominations, 7 awards
  16. Lisa Stansfield – 12 nominations, 2 awards
  17. Phil Collins – 11 nominations, 5 awards
  18. Prince – 11 nominations, 5 awards
  19. Pet Shop Boys – 11 nominations, 3 awards
  20. Muse – 11 nominations, 2 awards

The Stowaway Awards 2014

Around this time of year, most people go off and enjoy themselves with a nice little awards ceremony. And since everyone else is enjoying it, why can’t we? Here are The Stowaway Awards 2014.

Best Track

  • Little Boots – All for You

I’m sure you caught the countdown over Christmas.

Best Album

  • Pet Shop Boys – Electric

By far the best album of the last year from a legendary electronic duo. The full list of nominees is here.

Best Reissue / Compilation

  • Röyksopp / Various Artists – Late Night Tales

Congratulations to another of the best albums of 2013! The full list of nominees is here.

Best Remix

  • Depeche Mode – Should Be Higher (MAPS Remix)

Depeche Mode have a good track record in this category, having won previously for Enjoy the Silence in 2005 and Personal Jesus in 2012. The full list of nominees is here.

Best Video

  • Pet Shop Boys feat. Example – Thursday

Filmed in Shanghai, the excellent video to Thursday brings Pet Shop Boys their first award for Best Video since Numb in 2007. The full list of nominees is here.

Best Newcomer

  • Phildel

After Gotye‘s win last year, Phildel grab this year’s award. The full list of nominees is here.

Best Artist

  • Pet Shop Boys

Previous winners in 1988, 1989, and 1994. The Presets walked away with the award last year, joining other recent winners The Human League, William Orbit, and I Monster.

Best Live Act

  • Kraftwerk

You can read my review of their show here.

Best Dance Act / Remixer

  • Maps

Recent winners include VCMG, Ladytron, Röyksopp, and Tiga.

Outstanding Contribution

  • Goldfrapp

There was a lot of competition for this award this year, but the judging panel felt that after a decade and a half of albums, it was time to reward Goldfrapp for their services to electronic music.