Random jukebox – Dubstar

Dubstar‘s sadly brief mid-late 1990s reign on the charts included some better and some less good moments – I’d probably argue that I Will Be Your Girlfriend is in the latter bunch, but it’s good to see them again anyway.

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Saint Etienne – Continental

Continental isn’t a real album. Not in the sense that anyone thought of it as a studio album when it came out, anyway. Initially released two decades ago this week, but only in Japan, this follow-up to Tiger Bay (1994) compiles highlights from the singles, compilations, and other bits and bobs that appeared during the group’s first wilderness period. But then in 2009, it got a surprise inclusion in Saint Etienne‘s series of deluxe edition albums, so now we get to enjoy it as a real album after all.

It opens with the lovely Shad Thames, a bright and chirpy synth instrumental which hadn’t appeared anywhere prior to this point. If you only know them for their pure pop songs, it might come as a surprise to know that Saint Etienne have a great line in quirky instrumental, sample-based, and also long tracks. It’s a perfect opening track.

Burnt Out Car is next, a fantastic song, and in common with the timeless nature of this album, it did eventually appear as a single, but not until the end of 2009, when it heralded the London Conversations compilation. Here, it’s in its original form which first appeared in 1996 on the Casino Classics collection, mixed by Balearico.

Sometimes in Winter follows, another track that appeared in remixed form on Casino Classics, although this time we get Saint Etienne‘s original take. It’s a sweet slice of 1960s-style pop – the kind of thing the group have a justifiable reputation for being very good at. Then comes Winter Melody, kind of a continuation of the previous track, as it takes elements of Psychonauts‘ remix from the earlier release and stretches them a bit. A slightly odd inclusion, but also very much in line with the rest of this release.

One slightly trippy oddity leads into another, the short drum and bass-inspired Public Information Film, and then comes The Process, which was one of the b-sides of He’s on the Phone, presumably the track that necessitated this compilation in the first place. It’s also the track that comes next, and it’s a difficult one not to love. It’s a Motiv8 production, and his mixes do have a tendency to sound pretty much exactly the same as one another, but this one is pretty much as good as they ever got. You’ll find it very difficult not to sing along.

Side B opens with Stormtrooper in Drag, the cover version which originally appeared a few months earlier on the Gary Numan tribute compilation Random. It takes a lot of inspiration from He’s on the Phone too, with a pulsating mid-1990s synth line in the background and occasional rippling piano, and honestly once you accept that it’s a little bit dated now, it’s pretty great too.

Then things go unexpectedly glam with Star, the first of two tracks here on which singer Sarah Cracknell shares a writing credit with Ian Catt, so it’s probably safe to assume that this grew out of her solo album sessions and then maybe gained a bit of Saint Etienne production along the way. Good, but not really up to the standard of most of the other things on here.

The next pair of tracks consists on Down by the Sea and The Sea, which are pretty much two parts of the same song again. The latter appeared on Casino Classics with a lovely spacious, maritime-flavoured drum and bass remix from PFM, whereas the former is a full, although slightly avant garde, song. Together, they make up around ten minutes of music, a fifth of the entire release.

After several minutes of frantic drumming, we’re left with Lonesome, the second Ian Catt collaboration, and closing track Angel. It’s a slightly alarming change of pace, as Lonesome is largely acoustic pop, but it’s rather pleasant. Then Angel is the Broadcast remix which had appeared already on Casino Classics, which is nice, and very ethereal, but definitely not quite as good as Way Out West‘s version which appeared on the same release.

So Continental may or may not be a real album, and it’s definitely a slightly odd mix of tracks, but it’s also rather good, and is definitely worthy of its insertion into Saint Etienne‘s back catalogue.

The double-disc version of Continental gets a reissue of its own in just a few days, and comes with a bonus disc of early and alternative versions from the period. It will be available here.

Chart for stowaways – 20 May 2017

Here’s the latest singles chart:

  1. Depeche Mode – Where’s the Revolution
  2. Pet Shop Boys – Undertow
  3. Goldfrapp – Anymore
  4. Jean-Michel Jarre – Oxygène (Part 17)
  5. Depeche Mode – You Move
  6. Depeche Mode – Cover Me
  7. Robert Miles – Children
  8. New Order feat. Brandon Flowers – Superheated
  9. Depeche Mode – Going Backwards
  10. C Duncan – Wanted to Want It Too

Sales Analysis – 2016

At some point a few months into each year, I try to go through and look at the headlines of the previous year’s music sales. This is, of course, becoming increasingly inaccurate, as the music business shifts away from an ownership-orientated model to one of streaming, so this piece might need a new name in years to come, but let’s go with it anyway for now…

Industry officially alive again

The recovery period is definitely over – music is officially doing well again. Page 11 of IFPI’s global report shows a global increase in revenues from $14.8 to $15.7 billion. The low point was 2014, when it dipped to $14.3 billion. Which is still a significant drop from 1999’s $23.8 billion, but there are finally some green shoots.

The same table shows that whereas all of 1999’s revenue was from physical sales, just 34% of last year’s came from the same source, with 50% from digital sales (including streaming), and the rest from performances in public spaces and advertising.

In the US, revenues overall climbed by 11%, and globally they climbed by 3.2%. The UK’s growth was more modest, at just 1.5%, apparently more due to the 53rd week in the year than the state of British politics.

Interestingly the biggest growth, for seven years running, has been in Latin America – Mexico saw a 23.6% growth in music revenues.

Albums are dead

When I looked at the 2014 sales figures two years ago, I noticed that albums were in decline, but I had pretty much forgotten about it since then. Now it’s really happening.

The US sold the lowest number of albums ever last year, with just a touch over a hundred million copies sold. Hardly a disaster overall, as more than 208 billion tracks were heard on streaming services, but it’s a bit of a shame for the future shape of music generally.

In the UK, streaming accounts for 36% of all music consumption, and one week in December actually clocked over a billion streams. And that’s not even including YouTube, for some reason (although I’m still dubious about the sound quality, but everyone else seems to love it). Meanwhile, digital album sales dropped by 29.6%, and physical sales fell by 9.3%.

But CD sales aren’t entirely unhealthy – Brits still bought 47.3 million albums on CD last year.

From my searching around, nobody even seems to bother reporting singles sales any more.

Yes, vinyl

Back in 2012, I shared a table of LP sales for the preceding decade or so. It might be worth revisiting that – at the time I wasn’t convinced that they were actually going up significantly. I was wrong.

Year Vinyl Albums Sold
2010 236,988
2011 337,000
2012 389,000
2013 781,000
2014 1,289,000
2015 2,115,000
2016 3,200,000

Yes, that’s definitely what a mathematician might call a trend. Apparently that’s the most LPs sold in a year since 1991. Honestly, though, the list of best selling albums (on the same article) shows that most of them were at least two decades old, so it still seems that vinyl is largely sold as collectors’ pieces rather than a means of listening to music.

Of course, there’s an interesting conflict between rising sales of vinyl albums and the fact that most music is consumed through streaming platforms now. There’s more analysis on that here.

Cassettes are the new vinyl. Sort of.

Everybody knows they sound awful, and hardly anyone has anything to play them on any more, but in the US in 2016, cassette sales grew a whopping 74%, although admittedly to only 129,000. The numbers for the UK don’t appear to be available, although sales of “other formats” (including cassettes, MiniDiscs, and DVD Audio) fell from 84,000 to 59,000.

A UK newspaper which I won’t name here because it’s full of Conservative drivel thinks that cassettes are “a hipster trend too far”. Let’s show them who’s boss.

Now everybody loves Drake

I’ve still no idea who he is, and I’m not sure I need to either. Of the top ten global recording artists (see page 8 of this report), two passed away in 2016.

Also, a lot of people still love Adele too, just like they did last year.

By the way, I noticed that for some reason the official Scottish chart still doesn’t include streaming, and for that reason alone, it is great. There’s some interesting discussion on why the UK singles chart has become so universally hated here.

You can read this article’s predecessors here: 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012.

Chicane – Far from the Maddening Crowds

Twenty years ago this week, Chicane released his debut album Far from the Maddening Crowds. It’s a great album, probably still the best of his career to date, so let’s give it a listen as a celebration.

It opens with Early, an ambient piece which sets the scene appropriately. Unlike many of his later works, this album is largely instrumental, and Early is full of gentle pads and swells. It mixes into the lovely Already There, which introduces gentle Spanish guitar sounds, but is otherwise another pleasant, spacious track, which carries us steadily onwards.

This album was the culmination of a couple of years’ worth of work, and so we get two different versions of Chicane‘s early hit single Offshore – first comes the Original Version, a beautiful mixture of beats, guitars, and gentle synth pads, with a plodding rhythmic synth that always sounds distinctly summery. The second version comes later on.

Then comes third single Lost You Somewhere, built around soft vocal samples but otherwise broadly similar to Offshore until it suddenly grows into an enormous trance piece, roughly halfway through. This fascinating mixture of gentle, laid back, banging trance music continues with From Blue to Green.

Then comes the second single, Sunstroke, remixed by Disco Citizens (in case you were wondering, that’s someone called Nick Bracegirdle, who also goes by the name Chicane). Again, this is broadly in a similar vein to Offshore, but it breaks out into a tirade of dance beats roughly halfway through, and it’s entirely catchy.

By the time Leaving Town mixes into the deep dance of Red Skies, you will have your hands in the air, and have long since forgotten about the relaxing opening of the album. But it’s been a gentle, gradual change of pace, and one that is executed exceedingly well.

The original version of Sunstroke turns up next, considerably more laid back than the remix that we heard earlier, and then we get Offshore ’97, a bumped-up version with more beats and a moderately annoying vocal about nothing in particular from Power Circle. It’s difficult to get too annoyed though, as most of the spirit of the original is still there, but it might have been nice if Bracegirdle had taken the time to record something new instead, especially as this reissued single actually performed less well on the charts than the original.

That’s pretty much it for this album – only the gentle-but-beatsy The Drive Home remains. If you pick up the 2007 version, you’ll get another remix of Offshore, which is fine, but you can probably live without it.

So Far from the Maddening Crowd is a great album, with plenty of promise, and like a lot of instrumental releases, it’s difficult to put into words sometimes. But this is definitely one that I’d heartily recommend.

The best version to go for is the 2007 reissue, although that appears to be out of print on physical formats, but you should still be able to find yourself a copy.