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.

Chart for stowaways – 24 June 2017

Here are the albums this week:

  1. Kraftwerk – 3-D Der Katalog
  2. Saint Etienne – Home Counties
  3. Erasure – World Be Gone
  4. Depeche Mode – Spirit
  5. Jean-Michel Jarre – Oxygène 3
  6. New Order – Music Complete
  7. Goldfrapp – Silver Eye
  8. New Order – Lost Sirens
  9. Pink Floyd – The Dark Side of the Moon
  10. Gorillaz – Humanz

Chart for stowaways – 17 June 2017

Here are the week’s top singles:

  1. Erasure – Love You To The Sky
  2. Saint Etienne – Sweet Arcadia
  3. Jean-Michel Jarre – Oxygène (Part 17)
  4. Depeche Mode – Where’s the Revolution
  5. Saint Etienne – Magpie Eyes
  6. Kraftwerk – Trans Europa Express
  7. Pet Shop Boys – Undertow
  8. Erasure – Be Careful What You Wish For!
  9. New Order – Restless
  10. Jean-Michel Jarre & Pet Shop Boys – Brick England

Five years of stowaways – Part 3

Well, this might be the blogging equivalent of eating an entire chocolate cake, but it is our fifth birthday this week, and a bit of gluttony now and then is no bad thing.

When I was a teenager, tuning into the charts every Sunday on BBC Radio 1 (or “1FM”, as it was known in those days) was one of the most exciting parts of the week. I would memorise and write down the charts, and get excited about what was number one, and what the highest climber was.

So it should come as no surprise that when this blog started, the Charts for stowaways quickly became one of the key features. It’s really just a personal chart merged with the real charts, to let you into a bit of a secret – it’s a combination of my own listens and a bit of input from the official UK charts. Which still exist, by the way. Just about, anyway…

For now though, here’s a song about how great the charts used to be – from their glorious last album Words and Music by Saint Etienne, here are Saint Etienne with Over the Border:

Chart for stowaways – 10 June 2017

Here are the latest albums:

  1. Kraftwerk – 3-D Der Katalog
  2. Erasure – World Be Gone
  3. Depeche Mode – Spirit
  4. Saint Etienne – Home Counties
  5. Jean-Michel Jarre – Oxygène 3
  6. Goldfrapp – Silver Eye
  7. New Order – Music Complete
  8. David Bowie – Hunky Dory
  9. New Order – Lost Sirens
  10. Gorillaz – Humanz

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.