Reviews Roundup: Beyoncé

ON iTUNES/TIDAL

Lemonade – Beyoncé

beyonce-lemonade-album-cover.jpgThe shock in Lemonade is not in its sudden release: there had been warning signs, plus we’ve now become jaded to such obvious promotional stunts. The real shock is in the
cynical force of the lyrics, which address an adulterous liaison of her husband’s that nevertheless had long been suspected by the press and online gossip forums. I’ve never had an ounce of interest in celebrity gossip – but I’ve long had an interest in Beyoncé, due to her music’s unique blend of toughness and vulnerability. On her last album, which appeared a distant three years ago when she was still ‘Drunk in Love’, she really did make me care and believe in her sexually and romantically fulfilling marriage with the equally talented Mr. Shawn Carter. So it was with some despair that I discovered this album’s blunt opening line: ‘You can taste the dishonesty, it’s all over your breath/As you pass it off so cavalier’.

Yes, it’s true, this is Beyoncé’s heartbreak album, her withering response to being cheated on – but where an artist like Adele would wallow in despondent self-pity, Beyoncé launches into a vicious offensive against her wrongdoer: ‘Who the fuck do you think I is? I smell that fragrance on your Louis V boy… Tonight I’m fucking up all your shit, boy!’ she roars on ‘Don’t Hurt Yourself’, sure as hell making you believe it. She’s drawn the line in the sand for Jay-Z multiple times: ‘I’ll be damned if I see another chick on your arm’ she bellowed at him earlier on in her career (‘Ring the Alarm’). Now it seems that he’s crossed the line, so it is hardly surprising (yet still invigorating) to see her unleash a torrent of rage upon him.

What might surprise some instead is the direction in which the album is subsequently taken. Beyoncé finds peace of mind not through leaving her husband, but through reconfirming her love for him: ‘They say true love’s the greatest weapon/To win the war caused by pain’ she sings, sure as hell making you believe it (again). Some might say that beyonce-lemonade-trailer.pngthis is a betrayal of her feminist ideology, having been wronged by a man yet choosing to remain with him. But Beyoncé is too smart, too honest, too humane to allow such trite generalisations to dictate her life or her art. She realises that it is her love that rescues a
marriage worth saving, her willingness to forgive that prevents the sandcastle of their union from tragically being ‘washed away’ via their bitter feuds. As such, she uncovers a curious power in a scenario where most would find despair and self-loathing. That’s not just inspiring, it’s a mature and intelligent response to the situation, especially given the overtly meaningful love and support these two human beings obviously provide for each other – not to mention their daughter.

Of course, this album’s message should not be read as universal: not all relationships are worth saving, and perhaps Beyoncé could do more to make it clear that in some cases the abuse cannot be undone. But her lyrics have usually been personal first and foremost, and except for when she explicitly deals with mass injustice, such as on the rousing ‘Formation’, they should only be read as such.

In the music, however, Beyoncé finds an empowerment that most certainly can be generalised. Just as the lyrics journey from tragedy to redemption, the mood of this album shifts from the spare, echo-laden, wintry environment of the early tracks to the loud, full-blooded, forward-thinking grandeur of ‘Freedom’ and ‘Formation’. It might not be perfect: the experimental atmosphere occasionally throws out a dud moment, such as the limp electronics on the suitably dry ‘Love Drought’. But, overall, it is an impressive sonic adventure, encompassing R&B, pop, rap, even country (see the infectious hoedown ‘Daddy Lessons’) and rock (where Jack White joins the party).

The cynical might sneer that these genre variations are a mere result of the number of writers involved in the album’s creation, but when it sounds this catchy, fun and downright inventive from start to finish, I don’t give two hoots about how many collaborators are employed and neither should you. The vision, the personality, the humour and the drive are all still Beyoncé’s, no matter what the credits list looks like. She may not be a songwriter, but that doesn’t matter a jot when she knows exactly who to involve to bring her creative vision to life.

And that vision was for an album, one which transformed the lemons thrown at her by life, and most especially her husband, into the bittersweet concoction of the title. She fulfils her ambitions through sheer talent and a movingly empathic voice: ‘Show me your scars and I won’t walk away’ she tenderly intones to Jay-Z after an album’s-worth of recrimination.

He would be a fool to throw such an offer away.

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Reviews Roundup: Miles Ahead, Miles Remembered

IN CINEMAS

Miles Ahead

Miles Davis was one of the undisputed geniuses of 20th century music, restlessly spanning genres throughout his career and never stopping to look back. Except once: in the late 70s he took an extended hiatus, quitting the spotlight and refusing to record any music for large_large_k2lVWTsJ1s3e28qAoAwynGLWoKN.jpgseveral years; it is in this period that Miles Ahead is set. Washed up and bummed out, addicted to drugs and creatively impotent, this was clearly a low point for the great man, which might seem a strange focal point for a film concerning his extraordinary life. But after several gun battles, car chases and punch-ups, it quickly becomes clear that this is no ordinary biopic: the narrative is at times closer to blaxploitation classics like Super Fly than Miles’ real life. Instead of offering a straightforward factual analysis of Miles’ character, it riffs on elements of his personality, including his infamous short-fused temper and emotional repressiveness, in a largely fictional setting. This is in a manner akin to the improvisational nature of jazz, taking a theme (the biopic genre) and distorting it beyond recognition, as Miles frequently did with his trumpet solos. Hence, it is intended as a structural tribute to his creative genius rather than as a direct homage or representation of his life.

That’s a pretty neat idea, and Don Cheadle certainly deserves credit for it, but his handling of the concept is unfortunately pedestrian. As director, he fails to soar in the way Miles so often did, keeping both his filmmaking and his characterisations simple, with no great imaginative leaps. As actor, he excels at portraying the prickly side of Miles’ personality (which was indeed considerable), but offers little insight into his creative powers (which were very considerable indeed). The great music, which formed the core of Miles’ being, is disappointingly reduced to the point where it is literally a MacGuffin, in the form of stolen home recordings which instigate much of the action. Furthermore, the relationship with his wife is fatuously portrayed, never realising the full horror of his physically and mentally abusive regime against her.

So overall, it’s original in form but unoriginal in content: at least it comes half way to replicating the man’s genius.

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As the film chooses not to celebrate Miles’ considerable musical contributions to our culture, I’ve decided to do so myself by listing my own Top 5 Miles Davis albums. The man recorded more worthwhile records than just about anyone else (by my count at least 30), so this is not such an easy task, but these are the ones I have cherished and returned to most often throughout my life.

 

1) In a Silent Way (1969)

Leading the way, ever so quietly, for the fusion of jazz and rock, this is a quite miraculous album. All who appeared on it, including Miles himself, would ride the fusion wave to greater glory and album sales throughout the 70s, however I have always had a soft spot for this earlier attempt. Obnoxious jazz purists at the time, fearing their beloved genre’s descent into the mainstream, criticised it for its electric instrumentation and producer Teo Macero’s method of splicing the tracks together, as opposed to recording the compositions live and in completion. But those are two of the reasons why people now love it.in_a_silen_Way-Miles_Davis.jpg

Miles delighted throughout his career in breaking convention, a fact which can be felt in full force on this album. In a decidedly abstract move, the beginning and endings of each of the two tracks are exactly the same – copy and pasted, if you will. This sounds like mere laziness, but in fact it suits the tone of the album beautifully: the repetition is in keeping with the recurring motifs, played on ghostly trumpet and saxophone, which continuously appear and disappear into the low haze of the general mix. This repetitive structure, and of course the electric keyboards and guitar, signifies rock music – but only in a distant, dreamy sort of way, distorted by the jazzy presence of the double bass and Miles’ defiant insistence on keeping the proceedings oh so quiet. It lets loose in a vaguely rock n’ roll manner just once, towards the end of ‘It’s About Time’ where the bouncy, snaking riff suddenly erupts in volume and tempo, driven on by the insistent rhythm of Tony Williams, arguably the greatest drummer in recorded history. John McLaughlin, however, plays the electric guitar throughout not with the fury of rock but with a subtle grace, which not only sends shivers down the spine but eerily sounds like shivers going down the spine. This is still most definitely a jazz album: it swings rather than thrashes. But leading the way, ever so quietly, for the fusion of jazz and rock, this is a quite miraculous album.

 

2) Kind of Blue (1959)

An obvious choice for inclusion, perhaps. But so what? This is not a ‘historically important’ relic you dread to revisit, like Captain Beefheart or The Battleship Potemkin. This is an album which comes across as warm and inviting, like an old friend, which easily 51UVX5HKIiL.jpgexplains how it became the best-selling jazz album of all time. Not only best-selling, but most revered; it has a daunting reputation, due to the serious academic study that has been invested in it. Of course Kind of Blue stands up on a technical level to serious scrutiny, but this distracts from the true purpose for Miles’ experimental approach on the album: basing the improvisations of his group on scales rather than the restrictive chord progressions that dictated jazz solos at the time, his intention was simply to provide ‘a return to melody’, away from the prescriptive measures of hard bop. In this he succeeded admirably. What has inspired so many millions of listeners over the years, I would imagine, is this sense of melodic freedom, the way in which beauty is prioritised over the rigidity of structure. The stellar line-up consists of John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Bill Evans, Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb, a veritable who’s-who of late 1950s jazz, and all of them rejoicing along with their captain in some of the most liberated live sessions in musical history. In a Silent Way is my Miles of choice, but I still love this very famous album to death.

 

3) Workin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet (1959)

The music on this album was exactly what Miles was rebelling against in Kind of Blue: the improvisations are restricted within the parameters of pre-ordained chord changes, in the style known as hard bop. But when the chords are as beautiful as on ‘It Never Entered My Mind’, this is easy to forget. A heartbreakingly gorgeous track, it gains its majestic Workin-With-The-Miles-Davis-Quintet-cover.jpgpoignancy from the gently descending chord sequence at its core, one which powerfully implies an emotional deterioration following the end of a great love affair. It’s a bold choice for opening the album, because after that it’s all fun and games: the jokey fake jingle ‘The Theme’ and the rushed celebration of ‘Half Nelson’ help to dictate the decidedly jubilant mood. Amidst this lively environment, the true appeal of Workin’ is hearing two of the undisputed geniuses of jazz playing off against each other. Miles is careful, considered, melodic, romantic and shy, avoiding grand gestures of virtuosity not because he can’t pull them off, but because he instinctively favours tonal variation over technical bravado. Coltrane, on the other hand, is all about the technique: his presence challenges Miles to up the tempo on several tracks, flurrying his notes and thrillingly pushing the boundaries of what the remarkable rhythm section can handle. It’s this contrast, and the way both of their solos seek to challenge and restrain the other, that provides much of the fascination of listening to this work. The group would later be dubbed Miles’ First Great Quintet, and this was their first great album.

 

4) Bitches Brew (1970)

The sequel to In a Silent Way is far more challenging and nearly as rewarding. The most remarkable thing about it is its density: two bassists and three drummers form a quintet of rhythmic propulsion, on top of which two electric pianos, an ominous bass clarinet played miles-davis-bitches-brew-album-cover.jpgby Bennie Maupin, a jubilant soprano saxophone played by Wayne Shorter, and of course Miles’ own trumpet perform solos that are extended to an almost unnatural length. It’s an alarming orchestral collision of the electric and the acoustic, creating a cacophony of noise that a lazy listener could pass off as chaotic. Yet despite this density and also the epic track lengths (the title cut alone runs for 27 minutes), the music is actually incredibly focussed, far more so than later explorations into jazz fusion from bands such as the Mahavishnu Orchestra, where aimless electronic noodling became the norm. Just listen to the catchy bass line on ‘Miles Runs the Voodoo Down’ holding the piece together, the clarity with which every performer responds to each other’s modulations on the central theme in ‘Pharaoh’s Dance’, and Miles’ husky voice entering the mix on occasion reminding them all to ‘Keep it tight’. It’s a team effort, but with a gripping creative clarity emanating from its auteur. Clearly inspired by the spirit of funk (James Brown) and rock (Jimi Hendrix), Miles takes his instrument to new heights and rips it up in a style that is without precedent in his career, squalling his way through ‘Bitches Brew’ and practically spitting out the aggressive notes in the thrilling climax to ‘Miles Runs the Voodoo Down’. Taking the extended grooves of funk to new extremities, the end result is one of the master’s most compelling albums.

 

5) Miles Smiles (1967)

Yes, the famously moody maestro Miles Davis, normally seen scowling at the camera, really is smiling on this album’s cover. Unfortunately, he doesn’t look to be the epitome of cool, his expression seems forced and unnatural. The music contained within, cover_85865122010.jpghowever, is neither of these things. The album earns its title because Miles sounds like he was having a huge amount of fun; even the obligatory ballad, ‘Circle’, is done with a light touch and a profound sense of joy. The reason for Miles’ high spirits is clearly due to the sterling contributions of his collaborators. Saxophonist Wayne Shorter not only excels in his responsiveness to Miles’ cues, but also pens three of the album’s best tracks. Bassist Ron Carter and drummer Tony Williams form a rhythm section of such indomitable strength that pianist Herbie Hancock even dispenses with using his left hand altogether in order to focus on the speed and technical proficiency of his right hand improvisations. The youthful energy of the group (Hancock was 26 at the time of recording and, amazingly, Williams was only 21) clearly rubs off on Miles, whose solos contain more clarity and inventiveness than any of his previous 60s output, even daring to explore the free jazz terrain of Miles’ great rival and fellow genius Ornette Coleman in the explosive ‘Gingerbread Boy’. Overall, the anarchic sense of fun on this album is infectious and enormously endearing. The group would later be dubbed Miles’ Second Great Quintet, and this was their second great album (the first was E.S.P., also highly worth seeking out).

 

Runners-up: A Tribute to Jack Johnson (1971), Nefertiti (1968), Black Beauty: Miles Davis at Fillmore West (1973), Birth of the Cool (1957), Miles Ahead (1957).

Reviews Roundup: The Jungle Book, Dheepan; Kanye West, PJ Harvey

IN CINEMAS

The Jungle Book

This is the latest in a proposed series of live-action remakes of Disney classics, following the success of the fresh and enjoyable Cinderella. Many people have asked, what is the point? Seriously, what is the point of remaking films which are so cherished and live on fondly in the imaginations of so many? Well, I would argue that a new cast and crew can offer new perspectives on a classic in much the same way as great plays can be continually reinterpreted in the theatre. Contemporary issues can tease out new meanings in revered texts, as is the case with this interpretation of The Jungle Book, which begins ominously with the driest season the animals can remember in a clear reference to global warming. This puts a new spin on a tale which shows humans and the natural world living for the most part in harmony, suggesting that instead of exploiting nature for our own means,the-jungle-book-character-poster-3.jpg which will damage the whole environment, we should embrace it, just as Mowgli embraces Baloo the bear and the wolves that raise him. So it has a reason for existing and a new spin on a classic tale, but is it any good? There is certainly a lot to enjoy, including the jazzed up remakes of two of the best Disney songs and some ingenious casting: Bill Murray just simply is Baloo, Idris Elba is the perfect obligatory British villain as the snarling Shere Khan, and in a particularly devious Freudian twist Scarlett Johannson plays the snake Kaa, which wraps itself around and ends up hypnotising poor Mowgli. But there is only one moment in which the film truly delights, when Mowgli and Baloo are riding down the river and singing ‘The Bare Necessities’ whilst playfully waving at all the animals they pass by. The camera soaks up their joy, depicting the exhilaration of their interaction with the natural world in a charming antidote to the pessimism of a certain other bear scene which came out earlier this year in The Revenant. The rest of the film fails to live up to this magical moment, being merely a string of relatively decent action scenes without much of interest to linger on in the memory. Still, kids will love it, the animation is mesmerising, and it has just about enough originality to merit its existence.

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Dheepan 

Winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes, this is perhaps the first prestigious film to confront our current refugee crisis. It follows a makeshift family consisting of a husband, wife and daughter – makeshift because in fact they are not related or even acquainted with each other, having been grouped together in Sri Lanka to adopt a dead family’s set of passports. This allows them to escape from their war-torn country to France, where they must act out their familial roles convincingly or risk being deported. Beginning with this fascinating premise, the film is at its best when exploring the notion of assumed identity and the Dheepan-Poster.jpgimplications this can have on human relations; Dheepan starts to harbour real feelings of love towards his imaginary wife. Or at least he appears to – is it love he is feeling or just an intense interest in playing the role of husband, which gives the chaos of his life some much needed stability? The film is quick to depict its protagonist as deeply unsettled, a former Tamil Tiger soldier in the Sri Lankan civil war, and in desperate need of finding the peace and security which can allow him to erase the violence of his past. Acting the part of husband and father briefly provides him with this respite. However, the temptation to play the role of violent avenger, as he did in his home country, is always intruding on his mind in much the same way as ambiguous shots of elephants intrude on the film. So in a bizarre and bloody denouement, he transforms into a refugee Travis Bickle, tackling the racist and aggressive drug gangs who roam the streets of Paris with gunfire and machismo. It’s a clumsily filmed conclusion, with none of the menace or irony of Taxi Driver, and its presence somewhat undermines what has gone before. However, what has gone before contains more than enough beauty and insight into the refugee experience to make it worthy of the cost of a mere cinema ticket.

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ON SPOTIFY

The Life of Pablo – Kanye West 

Or not on Spotify, as the case may be, because as anyone who followed the chaotic and frankly ludicrous release of this album will know it is only currently available on Tidal, a streaming service of which Kanye is a shareholder. Part of the reasoning behind this was apparently to have The Life of Pablo become the first evolving album, with tracks having been altered post-release and open to further change in the future. This is emblematic of the confusion of the album itself, which is indecisive both sonically and lyrically in a way that suggests Kanye was uncertain about the direction he was taking. The grand feat of almost every other Kanye album was that their grasp consistently matched their extended reach, successfully challenging the educational system in The College Dropout, examining the kanye-west-the-life-of-pablo.jpgperceived betrayal of his African-American roots in Late Registration and exploring the strengths and limitations of his own power in My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. In The Life of Pablo there is no clear purpose, no drive except to demonstrate that he is the most important artist in the world right now, the contemporary Pablo Picasso. He is talented enough to convince me of this occasionally throughout the album: on ‘Ultralight Beam’ where he stirringly fuses R&B and gospel in a shout-out to the victims of the Paris massacre and to a God he’s still trying desperately to believe in, on the beautiful ‘Waves’ which is nearly flawless despite the objectionable choice of having Chris Brown croon ‘I don’t need to own you’ to a woman, and most of all in the a cappella ‘I Love Kanye’ where he satirizes his critics, his fans and (a common occurrence, but not one commonly acknowledged) his own ego, all in less than a minute. There is too much waste on the album, too many tracks which aim for Art but fall flat on their face, entangled in their own self-worth (I’m looking at you, ‘Wolves’). But hey, I just love the old Kanye more than the new Kanye, which would probably make the new Kanye laugh in my face.

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Updated 05/12/16 (prev. 3 stars): What a different the right piece of music criticism can make! Reading Will Toledo (of Car Seat Headrest)’s fantastic appraisal of this album makes a nonsense of my claim that ‘there is no clear purpose, no clear drive’. Everything he described were elements that had attracted me to previous Kanye albums but I had been blind enough to miss them this time round. Many tracks are up there with his best, there is continuity and thoughtfulness in the sequencing, it deals with the theme of redemption in a completely unique way. I can’t say that I enjoy all of it, which I guess was my primary grievance first time round. I expected more from Ye. But the mess does contain, as Toledo contends, an overall beauty. Even a redemptive beauty.

 

The Hope Six Demolition Project – PJ Harvey 

PJ Harvey has been out of action in the music industry ever since 2011’s critically acclaimed Let England Shake. Yet she has not been idle, having travelled to Kosovo, Afghanistan and Washington D.C. in an effort to investigate and report on the extent of poverty affecting these areas in her next album. This is therefore a collection of songs which should have a vitally important reason for existing, for after all Harvey’s main audience is a middle class intelligentsia who can always do with having their faces shoved in the dire conditions that a great many people live in and which they would normally choose to ignore. Unfortunately, the album comes across as a series of anecdotes which demonstrate the artist’s sympathetic nature but offer no serious attempt to galvanize its listeners into action on any of the social issues it depicts. In ‘Dollar, Dollar’ pj-harvey-The-Hope-Six-Demolition-Project.jpgHarvey watches in anguish from a car window as an Afghan child begs for money; she is decent enough to be concerned for the child’s welfare, but is ultimately passive and unable to help as the car pulls away. The song is not really about the child at all, it shows no interest in the reasons for his poverty or what short or long-term strategies can be implemented to save him, but instead is about the writer and her inability to help. This passivity is astonishing in an artist who once threatened to fuck Casanova with her 20 inch penis and demanded that Robert de Niro sit on her face; earlier in her career she displayed such bravery in challenging sexual politics that it is disappointing to now see her fail to address politics at all. Even more disappointingly, the music is distracted and shows no major signs of evolution from the folky chants of Let England Shake. It delves interestingly into jazz at certain points, with the saxophone entering to signify chaos as it so often does in rock music, but not as consistently or hauntingly as Bowie managed earlier this year on his final album. Overall, it’s a huge let down from the great PJ Harvey, the second most important artist to emerge from the alt-rock wave of the early 90s (after Kurt Cobain), who now peddles despair on an album which at least fulfils its promise to demolish hope: ‘Broken glass/A white jawbone… This is how the world will end’.

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Reviews Roundup: Eddie the Eagle, Midnight Special; Rihanna, Parquet Courts

IN CINEMAS

Eddie the Eagle

MPW-113520.jpgEveryone knows and loves Eddie the Eagle, the plucky Brit who took to ski-jumping in his quest for Olympic glory, cheerfully acknowledging his lack of talent and piercing the pomposity of professional athleticism along the way. This film was fairly inevitable then, but it cheered me up no end to see it done so well, with a semi-professionalism worthy of the man himself. The CGI is often woeful, guest stars turn up for no particular reason, and the soundtrack is so painfully obvious it’s laughable (‘Jump’ by Van Halen plays over the finale); but in the context of the plot about a plucky amateur, these issues in fact become rather endearing. The commitment and humour brought to the title role by a fresh-faced Taron Egerton helps matters enormously, and if Hugh Jackman’s role as an alcoholic coulda-been-a-contender type coach is a painful cliché (critics have been quick to point out that his character is a complete fiction), he sure makes you forget about it. So Eddie the Eagle is British to the core, right down to its suspicion for sex and foreigners (these naturally provide much of the humour). It wants you to leave the cinema grinning so badly, at one point it even has a montage of people grinning. If you don’t find that endearing and loveable, perhaps you’re just not British enough for this; maybe it’s just not your cup of tea.

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Midnight Special

midnight-special-poster1.jpgA sci-fi film about a child with telekinetic abilities, aliens watching us from above, and a government conspiracy to cover it all up. These might sound like familiar tropes, and that’s because they are; Midnight Special is intended as a pastiche compendium of Spielberg films, particularly Close Encounters and E.T. Those films had a rare magic, a sense of wonder at the infinite possibilities of the universe, and touchingly realised that looking up into the stars makes children of all of us. Midnight Special never reaches those giddy heights, primarily because its visual sense is not half as awe-inspiring. Furthermore, the characters are shamefully undeveloped; we never really get a sense of the child, named Alton, as a child. We don’t see the world through his eyes and sense his vulnerability as we would in a Spielberg film, which leaves the finale feeling rather cold when it should be inspiring and filled with wonder. This is a shame, because Jeff Nichols is one of the most promising young directors in America, with his earlier film Take Shelter in particular combining fantasy and drama in a uniquely foreboding manner. Here he unfortunately wastes good actors and an interesting premise. Nichols has another film, Loving, coming out later this year, about a civil rights court case; let’s hope he doesn’t squander this next opportunity to showcase his talents.

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ON SPOTIFY

ANTI – Rihanna

Rihanna’s appeal has only ever struck me intermittently before; I just can’t get enough of such aural treats as ‘Disturbia’, ‘Take a Bow,’ ‘Rude Boy’ and especially the magnificent ‘Umbrella’, but her albums have never moved me in the same way. Great album cuts are few and far between, making her oeuvre rather difficult to work through. This has all changed with ANTI, in which she considerably ups the ante. From the bouncy opener to the heartfelt ‘Kiss it Better’ to the fragmented ‘Woo’, this is easily her most consistent and rihanna-569x555.jpgmelodically inventive collection of tunes. Her stern voice has always commanded attention, but rarely has she shown the humour displayed in the nonsensical vocalisations of ‘Work’, much less the emotional resonance of the unrestrained doo wop outburst ‘Love on the Brain’, which I thought was her finest performance to date until ‘Higher’ took it much, much higher. Overall it’s a commanding and complex performance, her first album worth hearing start to finish; but it’s not perfect, with a lame Tame Impala cover chiefly to blame for sapping some of the energy out of its overall drive. Still, the beautiful piano-driven closer just about makes up for it.

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Updated 05/12/16 (prev. 4 stars): The album I’ve listened to the most this year.

  

Human Performance – Parquet Courts

Ostensibly a punk band, Parquet Courts have frequently proven themselves anything but. It’s not that they play around with longform jams or dip into various musical genres from Parquet-Courts-human-performance-album-cover-art.jpgcountry to blues to even rap (check out their greatest track so far, ‘He’s Seeing Paths’), as punk is a type of music which has always welcomed the inclusion of multiple genres. It’s that their aesthetic is essentially removed from punk: like their clear forebears and key influence The Velvet Underground, they like to switch it up between the hard and the soft stuff, revelling in the low-key melancholy of ‘Steady on my Mind’ and the sweet mellotrons of the title track as much as they do the hoarse, blistering guitar attack of ‘Two Dead Cops’. Certainly their music contains distinct echos of American hardcore bands (long) past, such as Pavement, Minutemen and Hüsker Dü, but like any decent group these comparisons don’t quite do justice to a sound which is distinctly their own. And lyrically they certainly stand out, turning the mundane into the surreal and somewhat amusing: ‘Dust is everyhere/Sweep!’ they repeat gleefully throughout the opener. Fractured and inconsistent this record may be; but it’s still their most humane performance to date.

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Top 6 Albums of the Decade So Far…

1: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy – Kanye West

A funny one this: it would be a controversial choice for album of the decade amongst the general public, but a totally uncontroversial one amongst the musical establishment and
critics. That’s because anyone who has listened seriously to this album knows that it is kanye-album-cover-2.jpgindeed a great one, whereas too many people feel qualified to comment on Kanye’s artistic success based on their limited knowledge of his media presence and clownish persona.
So I advise you to sit down and listen to this one start to finish. Not as a chore to complete, but because it’s one of the most exhilarating cultural experiences of the last few years, and because you will probably enjoy it immensely. Allow the dense musical arrangements to wash over you, succumb to its haunted beauty and twisted power, marvel at Kanye’s wordplay, and debate where the fantasy ends and reality begins within the convoluted lyrics. ‘Power’ questions the hypocrisy of his own wealth and success, ‘Runaway’ questions his flawed conduct with women, and ‘Lost in the World’ even questions his place in the world at large. It is a soul-searching and deeply personal album, in which contradictorily some of the highlights come from its many guest vocalists (Nicki Minaj lays down one of the greatest raps in history on ‘Monster’). This fact alone demonstrates his insecurities, which he examines in great detail throughout the album.

I’m sure this will go down as one of the great artistic achievements of the decade, and Kanye as one of the supreme artists of our time. It does what all great music should: it probes and questions and pushes the boundaries of what we are to expect from both the artist and the culture at large, whilst simultaneously seducing us into having a damn good time.

 

2: The Truth About Love – Pink

The certainty of the determiner at the beginning of this album title is intriguing – does Pink really believe that she holds the truth about love, after thousands of years of debate on the subject? I don’t think so, especially when you listen to the title track itself: ‘The P!nk - The Truth About Love.jpgtruth about love comes at 3am/You wake up fucked up and you grab a pen… No one has the answer/So I guess it’s up to me’. This is not mere boastfulness, this is a correct assertion that love is unique to each and every individual on the planet: you can’t rely on what others have said about it, you just have to write it down and figure the truth out for yourself. Even if it comes at three in the fucking morning. What’s more, Pink realises that the truth about love is variable not only between people and relationships but also within one; it can be about ‘bedroom eyes on a smiling face’ one minute and ‘the smelling of armpits’ the next. So this is a concept album about love which searches for a definitive truth without ever hoping to find one – Pink is thankfully too free of bullshit to pretend she holds all the answers. But it’s the quest that counts, and what makes this one of the great albums of the decade.

 

3: Beyoncé – Beyoncé

If Pink’s is the great love album of the decade, this is the great sex album. The beats are slinkier, more seductive than they ever have been before on a Beyoncé album – from thebeyonce_album_cover.jpg fizzling groove interspersed with smooth guitar lines on ‘Blow’ to the thrusting drumbeats of ‘Mine’, the mood is explicitly pornographic. Not to mention the words: ‘Now my mascara running, red lipstick smudged/Oh he so horny, he want to fuck…’ she groans on ‘Partition’. I have read intelligent people arguing that this overt sexualisation of her image is demeaning and contradictory to her apparent feminism. I think this is a gross oversimplification of a complex persona; Beyoncé clearly gets her rocks off from her ability to arouse her husband (‘Take all of me/I just wanna be the girl you like’) and she finds a power and confidence within herself arising from it (‘The kind of girl you like/Is right here with me’). That is the magic of sex, an act which can inspire us to grow in self-belief, absolving the mind of the many insecurities Beyoncé expresses so poignantly in ‘Pretty Hurts’. Her sexual confidence is therefore not just a cheap tactic to sell records, but a vitally important aspect of her personality, and this album is her greatest expression of it. It also doesn’t hurt that she’s so musically gifted, her vocals are so incredibly commanding, that all she has to do is sneeze on the beat and the beat gets sicker.

 

4: Modern Vampires of the City – Vampire Weekend

My favourite rock album from the last few years is the current peak of rock’s most exciting working band. Goths and emos, take note: this is how you create an album about death, not by despairing over the dark chasm that awaits us, but by using an modernvampires.jpgawareness of its inevitability to heighten the considerable pleasures of being alive. ‘The fire can’t last and the winter’s cold’ sings Koenig on ‘Don’t Lie’, but instead of despairing he implores his lover to ‘hold me close my baby’. This is one of many tender moments on the album where the fear of death leads to a heightened physical and emotional response, a passionate urge to connect with people and to hold loved ones all the tighter, because of the knowledge that some day it will all end. ‘Grab the wheel, keep on holding it tight/’Til you’re tottering off into that good night’ he sings on ‘Diane Young’: he’s basically saying enjoy yourself while you still can. Which the band certainly do; the music on this album is joyous, beautiful, triumphant, exultant and most importantly of all alive, raging against the darkness with an infectious joie de vivre. Oh, and also bagpipes.

 

5: The Marshall Mathers LP 2 – Eminem 

In which Eminem, the smartest man in music, follows up his masterpiece with a sequel that is, astonishingly, nearly as good (and criminally underrated by the critics). In his early 40s, Eminem’s flow is amazingly undiminished, in fact it even scales new heights in the jaw-dropping ‘Rap God’. But more importantly, this is his most emotionally diverse0811eminem1.jpg  album, calling for a party one minute (‘Berzerk’) and offering a heartfelt apology to his mum the next (‘Headlights’), dealing both with the monsters inside of his own head (‘The Monster’) and the head of a deranged fan (‘Bad Guy’). The most intriguing thing about Eminem was always the fact that he continually asked of us the question: who is the real Marhsall Mathers? Was it the violent and aggressively antisocial Slim Shady? Was it the modest and compassionate artist depicted towards the end of ‘Stan’? At the end of this album, he finally reveals the truth we were all too afraid to consider: ‘we are the same, bitch’.

 

6: Truant/Rough Sleeper – Burial

I don’t claim to know much about electronica, or dubstep in particular, but I love this double EP from the mysterious, nameless Burial. I find that I keep returning to it, burial_truant_rough_sleeper-6256.pngentranced by the melancholic groove, distorted and haunting vocals, and eternally shifting rhythmic undertow. As restless and changeable as any truant or rough sleeper, this is a musical composition with few lyrics, and what lyrics there are are oblique and hard to discern; however, it still follows a compelling narrative. Most would point to Untrue as an ideal introduction to this great artist, but I would direct the uninitiated here. It’s a work of staggering beauty and clarity.

 

Runners-up: To Pimp a Butterfly – Kendrick Lamar, Platinum ­– Miranda Lambert, Good News – Withered Hand, Art Angels – Grimes, R.A.P. Music – Killer Mike, Heart of a Dog – Laurie Anderson

Top 6 Films of the Decade So Far…

 

1: The Wolf of Wall Streetthe-wolf-of-wall-street-52a70ad96332c.jpg

From the director who gave us some of the best films of the 70s (Taxi Driver), 80s (Raging Bull, The King of Comedy) and 90s (GoodFellas) comes the one to beat for this decade. Scorsese takes the logical next step in his career: Jordan Belfort is akin to the hoodlums of Mean Streets or Casino in that he cares only about quick and easy money and has a sociopathic ability to crush beneath him anyone who stands in his way. Scorsese’s smart enough to know that our fascination with gangsters on film has always been closely related to our fascination with the greed and corruption inherent in the capitalist system: ‘It’s not personal,’ as Michael Corleone observed once, ‘it’s strictly business.’

This film is the sharpest satire released in many years. Its target is not just the bankers and stockbrokers who drove the world towards economic meltdown in 2008, but also the general public who allowed these wolves to perpetuate their fraud. After three hours of laughing along with Belfort and his gang as they destroy the lives of all those
around them, in the masterful final shot Scorsese shows us a mirror version of ourselves: we become an audience watching an audience watching Jordan, entranced by his wealth and charm and wishing, even if just for a moment, that we could be just like him.The-Wolf-of-Wall-Street.jpg

We are all in thrall to the ruthless world of the capitalist elites, who entrance us with their extraordinary wealth and possessions whilst at the same time robbing us blind; Jordan Belfort is the personification of this. Our collective stupidity, relentlessly and remorselessly preyed upon by the wolves, will inevitably lead us to another economic catastrophe. This is a terrifying thought, which has been dealt with in such serious and intelligent films as Margin Call and The Big Short. But nowhere has it been so thoughtfully and entertainingly examined than in The Wolf of Wall Street, the sharpest and the funniest and the most disturbing film of the decade.

 

2: Frozen

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I love everything about this film: I love the exquisite animation, the sensitively detailed characterisations, the expertly judged sense of comic timing; I love the way in which the film subtly shifts its focus from romantic to familial love in the grandiose finale; I love how the difficulty of human connection is conveyed with the most delicate touch; I even love that song, one which fascinatingly implies that maybe human connection isn’t worth the trouble after all. It’s a moving testament to the walls we surround ourselves with, and the ultimate need to tear them down. It’s a film about love which inspires love in others, and as such it deserves every penny it has earned, and will continue to earn, from every one of its devoted fans.

 

3: The Selfish Giant

The most encouraging hope for contemporary British cinema is Clio Barnard, who has made two brilliant and deeply disturbing films in her career thus far, and seems set on the path to becoming one of the truly great directors. This emotionally devastating miniature depicts with brutal honesty how the youth, and particularly the working class youth, of today are being exploited by the cruelty and selfishness of the business giants which dominate our national landscape. It is a tough film, however Barnard is not despairing: the final image is one of hope, in which she envisages the possibility of a future where man can live side by side with nature without feeling the need to exploit it. I hope her hard-won optimism is well-founded.

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4: AmourAmour-Poster.jpg

 The premise of Haneke’s masterpiece can be an intimidating one: it is a film which follows a couple approaching the end of their lives and being forced to confront this fact of mortality which we would all rather choose to ignore. But don’t be intimidated – the real theme of the film is in its title. It is an affirmation of how love is our greatest achievement, and explores the possibility of its persisting through decay, disease and even death. This is achieved through an understated and obliquely metaphysical filmmaking style, which calmly yet emotionally observes love struggling to triumph over physical deterioration. Haneke’s tender touch manages to transform a film about death into an uplifting, even a life-affirming experience.

 

5: A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

The most startling debut of the decade so far, from the Iranian-GIRL_POSTER_V6_flat.jpgAmerican Ana Lily Amirpour, is set in an Iranian-American fantasy town called ‘Bad City’. The surrealism of this film, in which a young female vampire roams the night on a skateboard, is heightened by the black and white cinematography and the Iranian-American soundtrack. Extreme close-up shots of cats abound, and there is a scene which lasts for several minutes where a couple, one dressed as a vampire and the other in actuality a real vampire, simply approach each other in slow motion. That scene is one of the most vivid and memorable in recent years. It’s a film which you can read as much or as little into as you like: it welcomes feminist, Marxist and populist interpretations; but maybe that will spoil the fun of a visually audacious and immensely enjoyable cinematic treat.

 

6: Skyfall

A quantum leap forward from Quantum of Solace, and indeed the rest of the Bond canon. Suddenly there is a Bond film imbued with meaning: one which looks to the future of technological impingement and international terrorism with a sense of horror, whilst also looking back to ask if maybe the old ways are sometimes the best. Mendes strikes just the right balance between updating the franchise for future generations, with its younger Q and Moneypenny, and reflecting on its place in history, including Bond’s personal history which is explored in greater depth than ever before. Yes, it’s often facile and silly as well, but it wouldn’t be a great action film if it wasn’t. Kudos to Roger Deakins, who imbues the action with a greater sense of drama than ever before, and Adele, who belts out the greatest theme tune since that Bassey tour de force. A triumph all round.

 

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Runners-up: The Social Network, The Revenant, A Separation, Boyhood, Anomalisa, Leviathan