Begin again – revisiting the beginner’s guides

In all, between 2014 and 2015, this blog posted 66 beginner’s guides. The idea was to present six things:

  • Key moments – why you might have heard of these people before
  • Where to start – my thoughts on which of their albums to buy or listen to first
  • What to buy – the three items you should track down next
  • Don’t bother with – an item that is probably best avoided, or definitely should wait until you graduate to the level of completist
  • Hidden treasure – one song that’s hidden away somewhere and should be located at all costs
  • For stowaways – some collected highlights from their posts on this blog

They were very popular – in fact, for a long time, Depeche Mode‘s was the most popular post on this blog, and while that does suggest to me that it reached the wrong audience slightly, it’s still a good thing. They were also divisive – inevitably, people disagreed with a lot of what I wrote and told me so in angry or passive-aggressive ways. This is the internet, after all.

So what’s happened since they were written? Here are some highlights:

  • Air released a vinyl-only box set called Music for Museum, which you can probably skip for now
  • Conjure One released Holoscenic, which is nearly as good as their debut album, so is probably worth tracking down
  • Crystal Castles came back with a new lineup – I haven’t heard it yet, but the feedback seemed positive
  • Depeche Mode returned with the fantastic Spirit. You wouldn’t want to start with it, but it should be high on the list
  • Erasure keep churning albums out every couple of years, and finally seem to have returned to the consistent quality of the late 1980s and early 1990s
  • Goldfrapp have a new album, but it’s not quite as good as the previous one
  • The Human League have a new best of to consider, A Very British Synthesizer Group
  • Hot Chip keep throwing out great albums every time you turn your back for a moment
  • Jean Michel Jarre has managed three fantastic new albums: the two Electronica volumes and Oxygène 3
  • Kraftwerk now have a diverting live collection to consider
  • New Order now have the fantastic Music Complete to add to the list, which wouldn’t be a bad thing to add to the “what to buy” list either
  • Pet Shop Boys brought us the lovely Super
  • Röyksopp reappeared with two albums, Do It Again and The Inevitable End, before taking what looked at the time like an early retirement
  • Saint Etienne reissued their reissue series and just came back with Home Counties

You can find the index to all the beginner’s guides here.

Tracey Thorn – Out of the Woods

After a gap of twenty-five years, filled only by an entire musical career with Everything But The GirlTracey Thorn returned ten years ago this week with her second solo album Out of the Woods.

It opens with the sweet, nursery rhyme-like Here it Comes Again. I haven’t heard her 1982 debut A Distant Shore, but I think it’s probably safe to say that it sounded a lot less polished than this. It’s laid back though, and lacks some of the electronic sound of her work with Everything But The Girl, so the opening riff of A-Z will be very welcome if that’s the kind of thing you’re looking for. It’s a great synth song, very different but every bit as good as anything Thorn had done in the preceding couple of decades.

The lead single was It’s All True, a collaboration with Ewan Pearson and another great synthpop song. It’s a lot more playful than you might be used to, but it’s still extremely good. And the collaboration obviously worked out – Pearson produced the entirety of Thorn’s subsequent album Love and Its Opposite (2010).

Get Around to It is a cover of a song by Arthur Russell, which is a little harder to fathom than some of the other things on here, and then Hands Up to the Ceiling is a wonderfully ironic, largely acoustic piece about partying.

Thorn worked with a wide range of different collaborators on this album, and it shows, both for better and worse – it’s a deliciously varied collection, but it can be a little hit or miss at times too. Easy is one of the better pieces on here, full of atmosphere and melancholy, and Falling Off a Log may not be the catchiest ever, but it has an enormous bass part and some clever production too.

Nowhere Near passes you by fairly anonymously, but Grand Canyon, which rightly appeared as the album’s third single with a whole pile of remixes, is probably as close as this album gets to the likes of Missing – it has a catchy but sad melody, with an enormous house riff in the background, and frankly it’s fantastic.

The production on the more folk-flavoured tracks is fun too, and it’s probably fair to say this would be less of an album without them, but on the other hand By Piccadilly Station I Sat Down and Wept is definitely a lot less memorable than Raise the Roof, which follows, and also appeared as the second single.

Amazingly though, this is such a varied album that you probably didn’t notice this was the last track already. Digital editions added a beautifully broken down cover of Pet Shop Boys‘ King’s Cross, which later appeared as a single in its own right with a fantastic remix by Hot Chip, but you don’t get that on the CD unfortunately.

Apart from that notable omission, Out of the Woods is a great second album, and an extremely promising way for Thorn to revitalise her career.

Buy the digital version of Out of the Woods here, or buy the CD but then make sure you add King’s Cross on for yourself – it’s a key part of this album.

Grammy Awards 2017

Around this time of year, I usually like to put together a quick post summarising the Grammy Awards. Honestly, it’s a total nightmare – there are way too many awards in a myriad different categories, and I don’t really care all that much, but let’s see what we can see anyway…

First up, skipping straight to category #10, Best Dance/Electronic Album, where Jean-Michel Jarre was definitely robbed for Electronica 1: The Time Machine, and not even Underworld could grab it with Barbara Barbara, We Face a Shining Future. Instead, it was taken by someone called Flume, with Skin.

Another veteran who didn’t make it this year was Vangelis, whose latest album Rosetta lost in the Best New Age Album category to White Sun‘s White Sun II.

There were some vague highlights in the Best Remixed Recording category, where Timo Maas turned up as a nominee, reworking Wings, but failed to win. Among the competition was Joe Goddard of Hot Chip, with a version of The Chemical Brothers‘ Wide Open, but that also failed to win.

There were some well-deserved wins for David Bowie in the Best Rock Performance and Best Rock Song and Best Alternative Music Album and Best Recording Package and Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical (whatever the heck that means) categories, all for Blackstar.

An honourable mention is surely due to Ladysmith Black Mambazo, whose latest album Walking in the Footsteps of Our Fathers didn’t quite grab the Best World Music Album, and finally, hats off to Dolly Parton, who with the help of Pentatonix won the Best Country Duo/Group Performance award for Jolene.

There’s a painfully long list here, if you want to find some highlights for yourself.

Hot Chip – Why Make Sense?

One of the fundamental rules of modern music seems to be that every so often, when you’re definitely not expecting it, Hot Chip will reappear with another album that turns out to be quite fantastic. So it was with One Life Stand (2010), In Our Heads (2012), and their most recent album Why Make Sense? (2015).

It opens with the cryptically (and unpronounceably) titled Huarache Lights. Everything it lacks in melody – and that’s a lot, it’s basically a chanted refrain with lots of beats – it makes up for in charming nod-your-head-to-the-beats catchiness. We might have forgotten about them a bit over the preceding three years, but Hot Chip were definitely back.

Next is Love is the Future, apparently a collaboration with one of De La Soul, although I’m not sure you would know this if you didn’t read the credits. He turns up half way through to deliver a bit of rapping. Mainly, though, for long-time fans of Hot Chip, it’s comforting to hear them return to their very earliest days with the sound of this track.

For the most part, though, this just seems to be another Hot Chip album. Cry for You and Started Right are nice, of course, but there isn’t a lot here that grabs you by the throat in the way Ready for the Floor did all those years ago.

They do, though, still comfortably have a talent for the dafter song. White Wine and Fried Chicken is an unexpectedly fun down-tempo piece. Then Dark Night is probably the closest we’ve come yet to Hot Chip‘s real trademark sound, although even this seems to be being downplayed here. They used to love trying to shock us, but perhaps that’s a thing of the past now.

None of this is really a criticism, though. They still have an inventive spirit, perhaps most obviously illustrated by the album’s artwork, which changes slightly from one copy to the next to end up with over 130,000 different combinations. I wonder how many copies the reall fans ended up having to buy to satisfy their collector-urge.

But while the shocking moments might be lacking, there’s still plenty on here to enjoy. Easy to Get is understated and very sweet. Then Need You Now, the first “proper” single from this album, which is deep and soulful and again, much quieter than anything Hot Chip have presented us with in recent years.

That seems to be the general theme with the latter moments of this album. So Much Further to Go is nice, but you’re hardly going to write home about it. Final track Why Make Sense? is what you’ve been waiting for all along – it’s probably the closest you’re going to get to the slightly daft hit singles from a decade or so ago. It’s great, but maybe it’s just a little late for the party.

In the end, Why Make Sense? is a good sixth album, but the lack of catchy singles maybe renders it a bit less good than the fifth, fourth, or third. But either way, it’s good to hear from Hot Chip again.

If you can find the version with the extra disc, that’s the one to go for. Otherwise, the standard edition is still widely available.

Hot Chip – The Warning

Every once in a while, an artist’s first album will be completely ignored by the public at large, and it’s only their second that gets any attention. So it is with Hot Chip, whose wonderfully mellow debut Coming on Strong appeared in 2004, but was instantly forgotten.

So in 2006, they reappeared, satisfactorily reinvented, with The Warning, which, for the most part, is an extremely good album. In fact, its main problem is that it opens with the dreadful Careful. If they were trying to alienate the people who had bought their first album, or perhaps to scare anyone who thought this might be an album worth purchasing, this would have been an unabashed success. But it wasn’t then, and it still isn’t now – it’s just plain bad.

Fortunately, Boy from School (or, to give it its full album title, And I Was a Boy from School) comes next, and lifts the mood immediately. Perhaps for the first time in their career – and definitely not for the last time – they had come up with something quite exceptional. Even if there were nothing else on here, this album would be worth buying for the second track alone.

But there is, and third single Colours comes next, harking back a little more to the mood of their first release. It isn’t really traditionally catchy, but you will almost certainly find yourself singing along by the second or third chorus.

With songs as good as these on their breaking release, it isn’t difficult to see how Hot Chip have come to be quickly regarded as both groundbreaking and legendary.

Even their quirkier side is far from absent, as lead single and live favourite Over and Over commences with the words, “laid back? I’ll give you laid back,” which I’ve always imagined (admittedly with absolutely zero justification) must be a reaction to the press reviews of Coming on Strong. And the “K-I-S-S-I-N-G” part is, of course hilarious and brilliant at the same time.

The disco stylings of (Just Like We) Breakdown follow, before the daft but entirely lovely Tchaparian, complete with bendy synth sounds, a heavy Prince influence, and sampled cats (OK, some of that may not be true, but I hope it is).

Aside from the first track, the worst this album gets is when it’s just “nice”. Again, drawing on their experience with the debut release, Look After Me is nice. Actually, it’s very nice – I think my expectations were just a little high after the rest of the songs on here.

For a couple of songs, we find ourselves very much back in the territory of the debut release – very silly songs with extremely “laid back” music. The title track warns us that Hot Chip will break our legs, and then the livelier Arrest Yourself returns to the funkier 1980s influences. So Glad to See You presents us with a vocoder vocal and a slightly too uptempo drum pattern for its own good.

Picking things up again right at the end is the adorable final track No Fit State. This is what you’re looking for from Hot Chip – a catchy, silly, and memorable pop song, with retro synth lines and superficially awkward vocals. What a wonderful way to finish the album.

Except it isn’t – hidden bonus track Won’t Wash appears right at the end, a pleasant piece with wind chimes and gentle strumming, closing things off for good.

Their next release, by far their most successful, Made in the Dark, would see them enjoying worldwide success nearly a decade after their original formation, but was nowhere near as accomplished as this. It may not be their debut, but The Warning is an extremely good album.

You can still find The Warning at all major retailers.

The Stowaway Awards 2016

Here are the winners of this year’s Stowaways:

Best Track

As announced over the New Year, the winner of this year’s Best Track award was New Order feat. Elly Jackson, with Tutti Frutti.

Best Album

These were the nominees:

  • Camouflage – Greyscale
  • Dave Gahan & Soulsavers – Angels & Ghosts
  • Hot Chip – Why Make Sense?
  • Jean-Michel Jarre – Electronica 1: The Time Machine
  • Leftfield – Alternative Light Source
  • Little Boots – Working Girl
  • Marsheaux – A Broken Frame
  • MG – MG
  • Roísín Murphy – Hairless Toys
  • New Order – Music Complete

The winner is New Order!

Best Reissue / Compilation

  • Air – The Virgin Suicides
  • Delerium – Rarities & B-Sides
  • Erasure – Always – The Very Best Of
  • Everything But The Girl – Walking Wounded
  • Faithless – Faithless 2.0

With an exceptional selection of b-sides, mixes, and rarities, the winner is Everything But The Girl, for the special edition of Walking Wounded.

Best Video

  • Étienne de Crécy – Hashtag My Ass
  • Dave Gahan & Soulsavers – All of This and Nothing
  • Hot Chip – Huarache Lights
  • Leftfield & Sleaford Mods – Head and Shoulders
  • Little Boots – Better in the Morning

The winner is Leftfield.

Best Artist

  • Camouflage
  • Sarah Cracknell
  • Hot Chip
  • Jean-Michel Jarre
  • Leftfield
  • Little Boots
  • Marsheaux
  • Roísín Murphy
  • New Order
  • Soulsavers

Winner: Hot Chip.

Best Live Act

Winner: Little Boots.

Best Ambient Track

Winner: Jean-Michel Jarre and Lang Lang, for The Train and the River.

Best Remix

Winner: Röyksopp, for The Presets‘ remix of I Had This Thing.

Best Dance Act / Remixer

Winner: Étienne de Crécy.

Outstanding Contribution

  • Erasure
  • Everything But The Girl
  • Hot Chip
  • Leftfield
  • Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark

Winner: Erasure.