The Top 10 Albums and Songs of 2016

Best Albums of 2016

Music is a vital part of my life. I listen to new albums on a daily basis, whenever I have an hour or two of spare time. Which might seem strange to some in the era of Spotify and Youtube, but I can affirm that there is a rush of excitement from hearing a well-sequenced album that simply can’t be replicated on a DIY playlist.

The album format is not just surviving in the age of streaming, it’s thriving. Last year’s To Pimp a Butterfly and my number one choice from this year generated as much discussion and fevered analysis around the world as any film or TV series to have graced our screens.

That’s enormously encouraging to folks such as me who like to hear album-length stories and/or collages of musical ideas. Albums may only create the illusion of narrative consistency, but when top-level artists are aware of the power of this illusion and utilise it, the results can be staggering.

Here’s a list then of the albums that I found not only artistically invigorating but also great entertainment, for a variety of reasons. Looking down the list I’m encouraged by a few things: the emerging dominance of female pop stars, a critical consensus forming around the quality of contemporary hip-hop/R&B that I am delighted to share, a number of rock albums that cracked my scepticism regarding the genre’s future, and a preponderance of new artists who bode well for all of the future innovations we can scarcely imagine.

The feeblest argument in the world, and an irritatingly common one, is that music, and culture in general, is getting worse. It’s a fallacy, always has been a fallacy and always will be. It says more about the individual arguing it than the culture at large. Music isn’t getting worse: it’s diversifying, mutating, constantly evolving. You can choose not to keep up with those changes and be scared by them, but that’s your loss, and you should keep it to yourself. If rock music was the only musical genre of worth then this would undoubtedly have been a shit year for music. But it isn’t and it wasn’t.

I believe in diversity not just as a core political ideology, a fuck you to those who think Trump’s culture of homogeneity is winning, but also as a key to having a hell of a lot more fun. Listen to any of the albums from any of the genres below, make sure you listen carefully, and I can almost guarantee that you’ll have yourself a good time. Which is what music is all about.

 

1: Beyoncé: Lemonadebeyonce-lemonade-album-cover-1481312441.jpg

Nothing has cheered me up more in 2016 than the World’s Biggest Pop Star releasing the year’s only indisputably great album. The ease with which Lemonade transitions from the personal to the political, and from the wintry spiritual of the first cut to the heated funk of the last, takes my breath away every time. It hangs together conceptually, sure. But like any great album it’s the music that keeps you coming back. Fresh and innovative, roving across American genres from bluegrass to hip-hop, it’s glued together by Beyoncé’s vocal nuance and authority. When she sings of her complicated victory over Jay-Z’s cheating ways (fact or fiction – does it really matter?), I can’t help but hear it as a battle cry against the misogyny that Trump’s victory represents: ‘My love was stronger than your pride.’ Fingers crossed we can say the same to Trump and his ilk in four year’s time. Cross them tight.

 

drive-by-truckers-american-band-album-cover-art.jpg2: Drive-By Truckers: American Band 

One of the reasons that rock music has been dying recently is that it lacks a certain fighting spirit which, in many ways, has been its lifeblood from the very start. That makes this release, from Alabama’s finest country-rockers, all the more essential. They soldier on against waves of injustice on all sides with a simple, driving boogie and impassioned songwriting, neither of which they have ever made sound so urgent.

 

3: Car Seat Headrest: Teens of DenialCar-Seat-Headrest-Teens-Of-Denial-compressed.jpeg

Did I just say something about rock music dying? Hold on to your guitar straps for a minute because here comes Will Toledo, up-and-coming genius and frontman of Car Seat Headrest. Toledo knows that displaying your influences is unavoidable, so it’s easy to trace this one back to Sonic Youth, Pavement, Nirvana, and – yes, really – Dido. He knows too well the truth about drugs: ‘Last Friday I took acid and mushrooms/I did not transcend, I felt like a walking piece of shit.’ And he knows that real transcendence can come from music, with huge riffs and singalong choruses helping us to see past human tragedy to a damn good joke.

 

Elza-Soares-The-Woman-at-the-End-of-the-World-Cover.jpg4: Elza Soares: The Woman at the End of the World

79 year old Brazilian samba queen who has faced a life of devastating tragedy and is coming to the end of her world, yet still likes to fuck (‘Pra Fuder!’) and belt out compact tunes like a young ’un. Her kaleidoscopic clash of world music styles can be abrasive, until you notice that she loves a killer melody all the same.

 

5: Rihanna: ANTI2016-rihanna.jpg

My most-played album of the year, probably because it’s less challenging than any of the above. It’s just an old-fashioned great pop record, consistently fun and surprising in ways that Rihanna has never fully achieved before. It only stumbles when taking on Tame Impala, but returns with a vengeance on the final three tracks. They go from modern doo-wop to vocal powerhouse to expertly-judged ballad in my favourite sequence of music of the year.

 

Chance_3.jpg6: Chance the Rapper: Coloring Book

If there’s a God, I want it to be Chance’s God. A higher power of forgiveness and optimism, He doesn’t frown upon collaborating with Muslims or see much of a difference between party and gospel music. Chance is now a confirmed major talent: thoughtful, goofy when he feels like it, and a superlative rapper. What’s more, you can download his music for free.

 

7: Miranda Lambert: The Weight of These WingsLambert_wings.jpg

94 minutes over 2 discs still leave me hungry for more. Admittedly, 5 or 6 of the tracks fail to hit home, mostly on the second disc. That leaves a success rate of about 75%, which is still better than The White Album. And that fraction peaks so high that you don’t much care anyway.

 

005802177_300.jpg8: Kate Tempest: Let Them Eat Chaos

British rappers haven’t achieved much success globally, and deservedly so. Yet every once in a while there’s an exception who deserves much more, and here Tempest proves herself to be the heir apparent of The Streets. Sharp and attuned to political reality, her beats are also more finely crafted than the over-lauded Skepta. Go forth and take the world by storm.

 

9: Leonard Cohen: You Want it DarkerLeonard-Cohen-You-Want-It-Darker.jpg

Bowie’s vanishing act was the more memorable for being so carefully orchestrated, but I’ll always prefer this elder statesman’s final album. Direct where Bowie was evasive, the lyrics here face up squarely to mortality and his maker: ‘If you are the dealer, I’m out of the game.’ I’d swap that one line for everything on the irritatingly opaque Blackstar. Meanwhile, the chamber music that Cohen turns into his epitaph never stops accumulating depth and beauty. A fittingly humble farewell.

 

macy-gray-stripped.jpg10: Macy Gray: Stripped

‘I Try’ is one of my all-time favourite singles, although I’ve failed to connect with much else of note from this jazz-pop vocalist. This live acoustic set, recorded in a church, is a revelation: the jazz quartet aid and abet Gray’s unmistakeable gravel-toned voice, lulling the singer bassline by sinuous trumpet solo into a playfulness that is truly becoming.

 

Runners-up… 

11: The Julie Ruin: Hit Reset

12: The Avalanches: Wildflower

13: Britney Spears: Glory

14: Paul Simon: Stranger to Stranger

15: Young Thug: Jeffery

16: Margo Price: Midwest Farmer’s Daughter

17: Houston Person & Ron Carter: Chemistry

18: Kanye West: The Life of Pablo

19: Conor Oberst: Ruminations

20: Aesop Rock: The Impossible Kid

21: Parquet Courts: Human Performance

22: Danny Brown: Atrocity Exhibition

23: Macklemore & Ryan Lewis: This Unruly Mess I’ve Made

24: A Tribe Called Quest: We Got it From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service

25: Pussy Riot: xxx

26: Kendrick Lamar: untitled unmastered.

27: Bon Iver: 22, A Million

28: Against Me!: Shape Shift With Me

29: Anderson .Paak: Malibu

30: Blood Orange: Freetown Sound

31: Aesop Rock & Homeboy Sandman: Lice Two: Still Buggin’

32: The Hamilton Mixtape

33: Randy Newman: The Randy Newman Songbook, Vol. 3

34: American Honey Soundtrack

35: Chance the Rapper & Jeremih: Merry Christmas Lil’ Mama

36: Wussy: Forever Sounds

37: The Coathangers: Nosebleed Weekend

38: Lady Gaga: Joanne

 

  

Best Songs of 2016

This list was a little easier to compile: I simply checked my most-played tracks on iTunes for 2016, and with a few alterations lo and behold I had my favourite songs of 2016! I like this method because it’s honest – I’m not about to bullshit you about tracks I think I should like. Here are some tracks that I actually do like, nay love, and play on a regular basis. Which doesn’t mean the pleasures I receive from them are just instinctual, so I’ve tried to lay out the reasons for my fascination with each one below, to explain why I keep on returning for more. And because 2016’s been such a stinking pile of horse manure, I thought it might be a nice idea to chuck in an inspirational line from each one to cheer everyone up a bit:

 

1: Kanye West: ‘Waves’

The man’s had a balls-up of a year by any standards, and released an atypically muddled album. Anyone predisposed to be pissed off by him, which is a lot of people, will be immediately turned off by the ‘bitch’-centred trilogy of opening lines on this track, and his misguided decision to collaborate with Chris Brown. Still, listen closely and you will discover not just redemption but a beauty that is overwhelming. The gospel vocals, brilliantly clipped to sound very much like ‘Waves’, are the entry point to soothe your anger. And then you catch the lyrics, which are all about love and respect – even after sex, which Kanye’s decent enough to believe should never involve degrading women. ‘Bitch’ turns out to be a term of endearment in this song, which you and Taylor Swift and I might not agree with, but the messy intention is all Kanye’s and there all the same. He loves women, he loves sex, and he loves Love. And for the space of this song at least, he doesn’t see much difference between them: they are all waves that never die.

Inspirational Line: ‘Waves don’t die, baby/Let me crash here for a moment/Baby I don’t, I don’t need to own you.’

Video not available.

 

2: Rihanna: ‘Higher’

If you question Rihanna’s talents as a singer (as I foolishly used to) then give this a spin. Her delivery pushes on higher until you can really believe, more than any performer in years, that she really is in love. Or is that just a blunt she’s singing to?

Inspirational Line: ‘I know I could be more creative/And come up with poetic lines/But I’m turned up upstairs and I love you/Is the only thing that’s in my mind.’

 

3: Rihanna: ‘Love on the Brain’ 

Exhibit B in the case for Rihanna’s vocal prowess. Smart and funny, just like on the rest of ANTI, she handles doo-wop with a solid sense of control that we’ve come to expect since ‘Bitch Better Have My Money’, and an incredibly astute sense of timing that we now will too. Bitch better give her credit.

Inspirational Line: ‘It beats me black and blue but it fucks me so good/And I can’t get enough/Must be love on the brain.’

 

4: Car Seat Headrest: ‘Fill in the Blank’

Songs about depression shouldn’t fill you with joy. But somehow I’ve been bopping around to this for months now. A crescendo of guitars, layered vocals, and pain turns out to be life-affirming once again – a trick that only Nirvana and a select few others have managed to peg down. That’s the sort of level Car Seat Headrest are pitching at.

Inpirational Line: ‘I’ve got a right to be depressed/I’ve given every inch I had to fight it.’

 

5: Kanye West: ‘Ultralight Beam’

One of the many signs of a genius is the effect that they have upon their collaborators – they know exactly when and how to tease the best out of them. So we have career-best spots from first Kelly Price, soaring in gospel anguish, and then, even more impressively, the irrepressibly upbeat Chance the Rapper. Their mentor knows exactly what he’s doing.

Inspirational Line: ‘I’m tryna keep my faith/But I’m looking for more/Somewhere I can feel safe/And end my holy war.’

Video not available.

 

6: Miranda Lambert: ‘Vice’

It took at least three plays for this country ballad to stop sounding corny and worm its way into my consciousness. But I’m glad I stuck it out, in the end taking it for more rides than Lambert’s had post-divorce flings, notches on the bedpost that she used to wear with pride but here has grown troubled and weary of.

Inspirational Line: ‘I wear a town like a leather jacket/When the new wears off, I don’t even pack it/If you need me/I’ll be where my reputation don’t precede me.’

 

7: Britney Spears: ‘Invitation’

Britney’s back, and packing more conceptual weight than ever before. If you enjoy S&M this may well turn you on. If not then you can just revel in the kindness of Britney’s desire to set you free and the power released by her self-realisation of complex, loving desires.

Inspirational Line: ‘Here’s my invitation, baby/Hope it sets us free/To know each other better/Put your love all over me.’

 

8: Drive-By Truckers: ‘What it Means’

This band admit they don’t know what it all means by the song’s end. But they make a damn good hack of keeping the spirit of 60s protest music alive, starting with a graphic depiction of Trayvon Martin’s shooting and sliding further into hell from there, if that’s possible. It’s so refreshing to hear a white Alabaman sing ‘If you say it wasn’t racial… It means you ain’t black’, and the spirit-of-rock handclaps at the end never fails to raise a tear.

Inspirational Line: ‘We want our truths all fair and balanced/As long as our notions lie within it/There’s no sunlight in our ass/And our heads are stuck up in it.’

 

9: Aesop Rock: ‘Rings’ 

The wordiest of rappers delivers plenty of them here, although the theme is about the pictures he used to draw. Now he paints pictures with music, and his funk-electronica mix paints them beautifully.

Inspirational Line: ‘You can’t imagine the rush that ensue/When you get three dimensions stuffed into two.’

 

10: Drake: ‘One Dance’

I can’t stomach Drake, but it would take a real buzzkill to deny the fun of this mega-hit summer anthem, in which his African roots pick up the flow and run with it.

Inspirational Line: ‘I need a one dance.’ Of course.

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Reviews Roundup: The Girl on the Train; Kate Tempest

IN CINEMAS

The Girl on the Train

The-Girl-on-the-Train-movie-Poster-2016.jpgI passed on the book, turned off by comparisons to Gone Girl (as puerile a depiction of marriage as fiction has produced). I’m glad I did, because this film has done nothing to endear me to its cult. The title would’ve caught Hitchock’s eye, it’s true. Trains? One of his favourite motifs. Girls? Even more so, particularly if they were blonde. And the opening proved promising, with Rachel (Emily Blunt) gazing out of the train’s window at a couple – Scott (Luke Evans) and Megan (Haley Bennett) – whom she considers ‘perfect’. It displays a Hitchockian recognition that the window itself is like a cinema screen, upon which the Girl projects her innermost desires of domesticated life, like James Stewart in Rear Window. But that film, and years of cinematic experience, have taught us to treat the idea of ‘perfection’, particularly in marriage, with scepticism. So the woman on the (window) screen disappears – has she eloped, is she pregnant, was she murdered? We’re shown that the marriage had been a turbulent one, as we might have guessed. Yet the plot is set in motion, with both Rachel and ourselves acting as detectives…

In the end, I think the comparisons to Gone Girl are more apt than to Hitchcock, because the film is so absorbed in its own structure, in its escalation towards a climactic twist, that it ignores the basic tenets of storytelling. The big twist refocuses our impression of where the protagonists lie on the good-evil spectrum, which is fine, but the spectrum is presented in binary terms so that the shifts are like pantomime rather than real life. Human relationships aren’t explored in much detail, simply because their confusion is necessary in order for the twist to surprise and make you gasp. The filmmaking too is ordered around the big reveal: the distanced camera angles, the blurred focussing, the obstructed shot placements, are of a singular purpose: to keep you guessing at the final twist, which marketing should’ve made you aware of. It’s a gimmicky move, and I suspect the film would grow quickly wearisome on repeat.

You see, the key to making a thriller is not just a twist, although it can’t hurt when it’s pulled off – Psycho, anyone? Hitchcock’s best films lodge inside your brain, disturb you, provoke fascinating insight into cinema and the sadism of the human soul. The Girl on the Train has only its twist, which is not enough. Upped a star for Emily Blunt’s performance, a great actress and very touching here in portraying the self-deluding, self-denying effects of alcoholism. Far too good for this daft confection.

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ON SPOTIFY

Let Them Eat Chaos – Kate Tempest

Let_Them_Eat_Chaos_Kate_Tempest_Album_Cover_Final_grande.jpgAn extraordinary talent, Kate Tempest shatters the illusive belief that performance art is a stuffy, elitist form of entertainment for the bourgeoisie. She grew up in the squats of South East London, born to a labourer father and one of five children. Her spoken poetry aspires to reflect the shitty reality of working-class life that she knows too well, albeit with an eye for detail, dope beats and a wacky sense of humour that remove it from the realms of poverty tourism. Both literary and anti-literary, two of her favourite artists are James Joyce and the Wu-Tang Clan, which should give you some idea as to her eclecticism and ambition.

Her debut Everybody Down was sublime; Let Them Eat Chaos is even more so. It is that elusive, exciting event: a concept album which actually does cohere thematically. The album cover should give you some idea as to Tempest’s pessimistic stance, with human industry tearing the planet asunder. She imagines seven inhabitants of a block of flats in London, all of them awake at 4:18am – sleep being a luxury they can’t afford, as they count not sheep but ‘sheepish mistakes’. There’s Esther, a carer working double time who worries that ‘Europe is Lost’ but oh well, never mind, there’s 2 for 1 at the local club and ‘no one likes a party pooping spoil sport’. There’s Bradley, who’s got a good job in PR and is ‘living the dream’ but can’t seem to shake the feeling that ‘life hasn’t started’. There’s Pious, a lesbian in a one-night fling with Rose but who is lovesick for her ‘thorn’. All of these people are self-absorbed, yet understandably so, because their lives are hollow and without meaning.

But a storm is coming. In one of the most alarming moments of lyrical empathy, Tempest takes the perspective of the apocalyptic, thunderous clouds rolling in, straight out of ‘Gimme Shelter’ and ‘Bad Moon Rising’: ‘We are the raw waters/That caused the four horsemen’. I don’t think I need to spell out that this is an allusion to the effects of climate change. Yet instead of tearing these seven lonely people further apart, the storm acts as a unifying presence: they simultaneously open their doors and go outside to gaze up at the sky in wonder. The Tempest is coming, Kate Tempest realises, and she is hopeful that it will bring us together: ‘The myth of the individual has left us disconnected, lost and pitiful/I’m out in the rain, it’s a cold night in London/And I’m screaming at my loved ones to wake up and love more/I’m pleading with my loved ones to wake up and love more.’

Hats off to Kate, her poetry is both meaningful and direct, she raps with drama and an assured sense of the characters she portrays, and for someone whose background is far from musical she delivers enough dramatic hooks and intricate synthesised drum patterns to keep one aurally engaged. I salivate at the thought of her collaborating with more adventurous hip-hop producers, who could push her to even more transcendent heights (Birdman? West? Rubin?) – but she touches the exposed nerve of our country and planet with such dexterity that this will more than do for the moment.

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Updated 05/12/16 (prev. 4.5 stars): It’s too easy to get overexcited when reviewing a new album. The rush of the new or the perfect encapsulation of a moment (in this case the post-Brexit shitstorm) can thrill beyond any legitimate claims to mastery. A few months on I now feel the lack of musical accomplishment hampers some of the verbal dexterity. But only some.

Album Review: American Band – Drive-By Truckers

ON SPOTIFY

DRIVE-BY TRUCKERS - American band.jpgDrive-By Truckers aren’t just an American Band, they’re a great American Band. And they constantly question what it is to be American, what it is to be a band: defiantly Southern in attitude, they’re proud of their Alabaman roots, yet ashamed of some of the more unsavoury aspects of the state’s history; defiantly traditional in their musical heritage (you know the joke – they play both types of music, country AND western), they’ve nevertheless moved the idea of a country-rock band into fresh territory with an ever-shifting lineup, one which has seen acts such as Jason Isbell and his ex-wife Shonna Tucker come and go as songwriters and lead guitarists/bassists. But the core of the band has always been Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley, two equally adept singer/songwriters (although Hood is more prolific), who have been concerning themselves with the lives of ordinary Southern folk for many a year now. The lives they have conjured up in their songs are rich, dark, complex, filled with duality – a challenge to simplistic portrayals of the Southern states that have been used to bolster a bitter class prejudice.

So they care about people, but not just their own people – American Band is a haunted cry of despair at the racism and gun crime fatalities plaguing the entire nation, a United States they fear isn’t remotely united. The flag at half mast on the front cover, drooping in dismay, is a tribute to the numerous casualties on the record: the young Hispanic killed by a leader of the NRA who got off scot-free (‘Ramon Casiano’), the student observing a bird before himself flying to heaven in a community college massacre (‘Guns of Umpqua’), and the 17 year old black man robbed of life by a trigger-happy white man – yes, that’s Trayvor Martin (‘What it Means’). Guns, guns, guns: destroying the peace and fabric of American society, as any one of us outside of America can clearly see, and as many decent people inside of it can see too, such as this band from the heartlands of the NRA: ‘killing’s been the bullet’s business/Since back in 1931’, as they explain in fury.

Drive-By-Truckers.jpgTheir political stance is direct, forthright, unobscure. They’re sick and tired of all of this killing, they despise how people can ‘shrug and let it happen/Without asking what it means’, they fear the rise of Trump which they know can only make things worse. Lyrics of such transparency are often sneered at by a generation raised on Radiohead and Wilco, cerebral bands that hide behind opaque metaphors which will please intellectuals but never occasion any real change. I’m not sure Drive-By Truckers will either, they exist too perpetually on the fringes of the mainstream, but in such dark times we need their plain-spoken honesty all the more because it creates a universally understood sense of urgency. If more bands followed suit, speaking directly yet intelligently to their audience about the dangers of Trump and his ilk, maybe we could start to mount a more convincing opposition (I know Trump’s currently losing in the polls, but the scale of his popularity amongst working class voters is still devastating).

What makes American Band all the more powerful a statement is the music, which is some of the best of the band’s career. Still driving and simplistic, much like their lyrics, and centred around typical guitar chord changes and a 4/4 beat, they nevertheless create stirring emotional responses from their sound. And everything signifies: try the low bass rumble of ‘Ever South’ for instance, taking the composition down south and away from the lead guitars in a vindication of their roots. Or the sarcastic boogie-woogie piano lines in ‘Kinky Hypocrite’, a song about those who ‘party harder than they like to admit’. Or the soothing piano lines of ‘Once They Banned Imagine’, which deliberately recall the John Lennon song mentioned in the title. Or, most movingly of all, the handclaps at the end of ‘What it Means’, which represent a togetherness and cautious optimism following a bleak foray into unremitting violence.

If you care about the state of the world, you might just find that you need this album in your life right now. It plumbs the depths of despair, but its very existence, the fact that it offers up support to the (mostly black) victims of gun crime, and does so from the predominantly Republican South, makes it essential. Patterson Hood has revealed in interviews his belief that: ‘there needs to be more middle-aged southern dudes saying that black lives matter.’ Amen to that.

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The Beatles: Are They Really the Greatest Rock Band of All Time?

‘Well of course they are,’ I hear many of you saying, ‘they’re the most successful and they invented the very idea of being a rock band.’ The first claim, in terms of album sales, is certainly true, but means very little: Celine Dion is one of the best-selling artists of all time, after all. The second claim is a fallacy that has been presented as fact by tired publications like Rolling Stone and Classic Rock over the years, to the point where we no jazz-honors-the-beatles.jpglonger question it. But dig a little deeper and you’ll find that Buddy Holly’s The Crickets were an autonomous band who wrote their own songs long before The Beatles did, and whose name, presentation (as four men in suits), and rockabilly style The Beatles consciously aped in their early years. Hundreds of bands were forming in Liverpool and around the UK in the early 60s, modelled on the innovations of The Crickets, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and of course Elvis Presley: The Beatles were just one of them, and they certainly didn’t invent the guitars-bass-drums combo. But as we know they were the first to erupt into a major commercial force. Why?

You could be cynical and argue, as Piero Scaruffi does in this infamous Beatle-bashing article, that it was all just a case of ingenious marketing on the part of Brian Epstein (manager) and George Martin (producer), who constructed the idea of four loveable, cheeky moptops playing black music in a way that was palatable for white audiences and sold it to the masses. This theory holds only amongst academics who like to think that popular music is a capitalist con to dupe gullible people into parting with their cash. It assumes that Beatles fans were, and still are, all thick as pigshit (Scaruffi calls them ‘peasants’), working class morons with no understanding of real music, whatever that might mean, and whose lack of education makes them easy prey to advertising.

On top of being offensive, this ignores the broadness of The Beatles’ appeal when they first emerged, a cross-cultural phenomenon of a kind that had rarely (if ever) been previously witnessed. Of course marketing played a part in stirring up the frenzy known as Beatlemania, and both their photogenic faces and cheerful, unthreatening demeanours (symbolised by the suits – nobody’s ever done any harm in a suit, have they?) helped to make them popular across the generational divide that is often said to have defined the 60s. But that doesn’t sufficiently explain the scale of what Greil Marcus describes as a ‘pop explosion’, something that affected (or infected, depending on your point of view) every walk of life and directly changed the listening habits of millions of people, and the reverberations of which can still be felt today.

As I’ve mentioned before their music was far more derivative than is often acknowledged, and in the early years it was explicitly so, with half of their albums being comprised of cover versions of rock, pop, and R&B classics. So if it was not simply a case of marketing or innovativeness that made them so successful, what was it?

I think the key to understanding the phenomenon comes, once again, from Greil Marcus:

Back at the radio I caught “I Saw Her Standing There” and was instantly convinced it was the most exciting rock and roll I’d ever heard (with Paul’s one/two/three/fuck! opening—how in the world did they expect to get away with that?). Someone from down the hall appeared with a copy of the actual record—you could just go out and buy this stuff?—and announced with great fake solemnity that it was the first 45 he’d purchased since “All Shook Up.” Someone else—who played a 12-string guitar and as far as I knew listened to nothing but Odetta began to muse that “even as a generation had been brought together by the Five Satins’ ‘In the Still of the Nite,’ it could be that it would be brought together again—by the Beatles.” He really talked like that; what was more amazing, he talked like that when a few hours before he had never heard of the Beatles.

The exhilaration with which The Beatles infused the world was not because they were the first rock n’ roll band, nor the most heavily promoted. It’s simply because they were the best, the catchiest, the ‘most exciting’ as Marcus puts it. Individually, they were not much up to scratch as musicians: George was a mediocre guitarist, a virtual clone of Carl Perkins; Paul was a decent rock vocalist but a dreadful balladeer; John was a much better all-round vocalist but still quite stiff and unconvincing as a guitarist; and Ringo was the cheerful amateur along for the ride. When compared, instrument for instrument, with The Rolling Stones, they come up short. But it was as a complete set, as a band, that The Beatles cohered better than just about anyone before them or since, the Stones included. Their unity – the haircuts, the suits, the accents, but also the harmonies, the trio of frontmen, and the songwriting credits – seemed to signify a surging, optimistic national unity emerging from the sterile austerity of the 50s. So when that fella Marcus describes above envisions their generation being brought together by The Beatles, you can see why, and it only partially sounds like hippie nonsense.

the-beatles-wikipedia-the-free-encyclopedia-55c98138448cc.jpgOvercoming their great limitation (mediocre musicianship) to create the most powerful music of the 60s, The Beatles embodied the spirit of punk well over a decade before it was due to be born. They powered through amateurism with confidence, speed (songs rarely ventured past the 3 minute mark), an enthusiasm for music and life, and most of all a reckless creativity that uncovered boundless possibilities within the 4/4 rock format. Their inspirational message, and the reason that they’re still the touchstone for bands forming to this day, was that suddenly anyone could give it a go, or so the thought went – four working class Liverpool lads with absolutely no musical training had produced some of the best music of all time, so why not me?

Of course, very few bands would be able to duplicate the brilliance of The Beatles, because although they made it look easy, and perhaps it was to them, songwriting talent of their calibre is exceedingly rare to find. What makes them so fresh to listen to even to this day is their attention to detail: the stop-start phrasing of ‘Love Me Do’, the famous sixth chord that ends ‘She Loves You’, the guitar solo that drifts away without a rhythm section on ‘I Feel Fine’, the mocking call-and-response of ‘I’m Down’, the exquisitely reassuring harmonies on ‘If I Fell’, the descending guitar runs that accompany John’s cries for ‘Help!’, the gorgeous acoustic opening that anchors the country-tinged ‘I’ve Just Seen a Face’… The list goes on and on, moments that never fail to surprise and deliver shivers down the spine even after hundreds of listens.

You might notice that these moments all come from early on in the career of The Beatles, and that’s deliberate: I feel that their greatest contribution to musical culture came before the run of albums that started with Rubber Soul and gained them the artistic credibility they so craved. Too often, The Beatles are overpraised for their experimental tendencies, as if the use of sound effects, trumpets, orchestras, and forays into Indian ragas and avant-garde soundscapes are indicative of artistic genius on their own. In fact, the miracle of Revolver and Sgt. Pepper, both excellent albums, is not that they play around with so many different genres, which is a rather superficial kind of achievement. It’s that they never lost sight of the melodicism and sense of fun that always kept them grounded, even when indulging in the most ridiculous of psychedelic excesses, such as the kaleidoscopic circus effects that rise to consume ‘Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite’, still a remarkably great, hummable tune.

But on The White Album and Abbey Road they went too far – although there are terrific songs on both, they are far too erratic in quality to be judged as masterworks. The White Album in particular suffers from being frontloaded with all of its best moments (except ‘Yer Blues’), leaving the final half an hour on the second disc as one of the worst passages to ever exist on the album of a major band. It culminates in the infamous ‘Revolution 9’, which stands as absolute proof that experimentalism on its own is not equivalent to artistic success.

Believe me, I still love – and I mean love – most of The Beatles’ catalogue, from beginning to end. But I still feel that their towering reputation as artistic geniuses often obscures any objective judgments from being made about their works. We are expected to believe that Sgt. Pepper and Abbey Road ushered in the era of the concept album, when they both conceptualise in rather half-assed ways: they are much better viewed as good, in Sgt. Pepper’s case outstanding, collections of songs (see Robert Christgau’s review of Sgt. Pepper, the most accurate assessment that I’ve ever read).

The Beatles’ genius, I would argue, and their greatest conceptual achievement, stems from their much more profound work in the early years, when they were a plain old rock n’ roll band singing silly little love songs. Because although love might seem a little bit silly, that’s actually just one of an infinite number of things that it is, and The Beatles managed to explore it from a vast range of different angles. Take ‘She Loves You’ for instance, which I regard as their masterpiece. It’s easy to dismiss as naff, but take a closer listen: brilliantly, it’s written from a third person perspective, which means that The Beatles are getting all excited about the romantic attention being paid to someone else. The ‘oohs’, the rs-431-the-beatles.jpgjubilant guitars, and the ‘yeah yeah yeahs’ are all triumphant affirmations that love exists in the world, not just somewhere but everywhere – ‘she loves you’ is so generalised it could be sung to just about anybody and everybody. That’s why the chorus appears again in the long fadeout climax of ‘All You Need is Love’, another song that is a paean to the universal nature and importance of romance.

It’s easy to be snide about such innocence, particularly when artists like Bob Dylan and the Stones were making dark, politically engaged music about the sinister side of the 60s at the same time. But as someone who believes passionately in the need for the escapist element of music and culture in general, and who also unashamedly believes that love not only exists but is one of the most variable and fascinating aspects of the human race, I give The Beatles a standing ovation for taking both of these philosophies seriously and embodying them in their art.

So they’re my favourite band, the one I listen to the most frequently and with the most pleasure, but I still believe that they’ve been a little overinflated. The greatest band? That suggests they were the most influential, which is an incredibly difficult argument to make – I would say that more rock bands have followed in the mould of the Stones and Led Zeppelin, for example. Or perhaps ‘greatest band’ means that The Beatles pushed musical boundaries the furthest, which is again questionable – The Velvet Underground are one band from the 60s I would argue more fully explored the boundless possibilities of rock as a medium for experimentation.

The arguments over which is the greatest band will carry on, and The Beatles will most likely continue to triumph, for as long as there is rock n’ roll. But it won’t last forever. Do you really think, in 10,000 years, if by some miracle the human race is still around, that people will still be listening to The Beatles? I hope not. The great achievement of popular culture is that it’s temporary and knows it, suffers no delusions of grandeur and doesn’t pretend that it’s going to last forever. It’s all about enjoying yourself in the moment.

So don’t worry about whether The Beatles are the greatest band or not, it’s a trivial question. Just be incredibly grateful that you happened to be alive at a time when you were able to enjoy their joyous, beautiful, effervescent, and meaningful music. Then let it enrich your life.

 

Why I Love Kanye: A Toast to the Douchebag

Kanye is probably the most misunderstood figure in modern culture. Almost every action he makes is accompanied by a backlash of public vitriol unequalled by almost anybody else outside of politics. Only Bieber and perhaps One Direction face an equivalent level of accusations regarding the degradation of the musical establishment and culture.

rtr_kanye_west_jc_150407_16x9_992.jpgFools who decry the state of modern music often see Kanye as one of their key targets: a narcissistic imbecile who ‘steals’ other people’s music for profit and personal gain. Well, for starters, he doesn’t ‘steal’ any of the music he samples, he pays for the rights to use them, and he uses them in exceptionally creative ways. The best example of this is when he turns Jamie Foxx’s rendition of ‘I Got a Woman’, a song with troubling intimations of male possessiveness, into the centrepiece of ‘Gold Digger’, a song which satirises the way in which all human beings exploit each other. In the context of the song’s twist ending, in which a suddenly rich man ditches his black girlfriend for a white girl, the choice of sample is revealed to be not just a catchy hook but also deeply ironic and, most importantly of all, very funny indeed.

His critics are right about one thing: Kanye most definitely is a narcissist. But he’s in fairly good company there: it’s a trait he shares with, well, everyone who’s ever recorded an album with their name on it. What’s fascinating about Kanye is that he not only acknowledges his own self-obsession, but he makes it one of the central themes of his art. ‘I love you like Kanye loves Kanye’ he jokes in a memorable moment from his latest album, and his ego has even led to claims of his being God, on a track from Yeezus titled, with great subtlety, ‘I Am a God’.

This, assuredly, is one of the reasons why he receives such a passionately hostile reaction from the general public: he is more honest than most about his feelings of self-worth, even within the typically boastful world of mainstream rap. There is, however, logic behind his narcissism: for Kanye, as with many great artists, the concept of truth, or at least personal honesty, is of greater importance to him than anything else – and that includes false modesty. He proclaims himself a genius because he damn well believes it, and he’s not going to lie to you about it just to satisfy your bourgeois distaste for arrogance.

What’s more, this arrogance is well-founded: musically, he is the supreme example of a simultaneously experimental and accessible artist since The Beatles; his monumental skills as a producer are denied by no one in the music industry outside of Noel Gallagher (a notorious old fart). His depth of knowledge with regards to musical history is displayed continually throughout his career in an astonishingly diverse use of samples from a variety of genres, rhythm tracks and, when the occasion suits him, even live instrumentation and orchestras to decorate his deeply felt music. But don’t take my word for it, here it is straight from the mouths of some of rock’s greatest musicians:

‘The guy really, really, really is talented. He’s really trying to raise the bar. No one’s near doing what he’s doing, it’s not even on the same planet.’ – Lou Reed

‘I love Kanye… People say he’s eccentric, which you’d have to agree with, but he’s a monster, yeah. He’s a crazy guy that comes up with great stuff. He inspires me.’ – Paul McCartney

‘There are so many musicians who I admire and look up to and get inspired by and just when I think all the good songs have been written already, someone goes and does something [new] – and Kanye has done that many times.’ – Beck

On Kanye’s arena tour: ‘That might have been the greatest show I’ve seen in my life. It was more punk, more in-your-face than anything I’ve seen.’ – Jack White

Lyrically, he also has one of the broadest ranges of anyone in recent years, covering such diverse topics as racial discrimination, the diamond trade in Sierra Leone, the death of his grandmother and the perceived betrayal of his own African-American roots – and that’s all on just one of his albums (the stunning, ambitious Late Registration). And then there is My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy: his musical and lyrical culmination, and quite simply a masterpiece of self-examination from start to finish.

I cannot overstate this enough: Kanye is a brilliant, precociously gifted artist who has done2016-02-08-a4-kanyewest1.2150b.jpg more than enough to earn the right to label himself a genius. You might find his arrogance hard to bear, but if you start to examine his music you will quickly discover a complex human being underneath the surface: conflicted, self-doubting and troubled; desperate to enjoy life on his own terms, yet finding it eternally difficult to chase away his inner demons. ‘The devil is alive, I feel him breathing’ he gasps on the beautiful ‘Heard ‘em Say’ early on in his career, a theme which he would return to often and reiterate.

No other modern superstar has been so explicit about his own flaws and failings; in one particularly revealing moment from the classic ‘Runaway’ he says: ‘I sent this girl a picture of my dick/I don’t know what it is with females/But I’m not too good with that shit’. The macho boastings of Dr. Dre, 50 Cent and the like are noticeably absent from this verse: instead there is insecurity, doubt and feelings of regret at his own sexually provocative behaviour: ‘You been putting up with my shit just way too long’. In the chorus, however, Kanye turns this regret on its head by opting to raise a toast to all the ‘assholes’, ‘scumbags’ and ‘douchebags’ of the world – himself of course included. Therefore he is demonstrating both insecurity and arrogance within the same song, in the space of just a few seconds. This is because, despite displaying frequent feelings of remorse for some of his more questionable actions, he is ultimately unapologetic about himself as a person: he is rich, arrogant, promiscuous and, worst of all to a good many Americans, a ‘Black Skinhead’. A douchebag, a scumbag and an asshole, all wrapped up into one. What’s more, he’s proud of it. This self-awareness, as well as his blessed ability not to give a shit about what anyone else thinks about him, sets Kanye apart from the pack and is the key to his troubled genius.

We are all complex and flawed human beings, therefore it is encouraging when artists are brave enough to convey complex and flawed visions of themselves. Why is it that the general public are so much more in thrall to bland, inoffensive icons like Gary Barlow, who preach about how we should do right by one another and give our precious money to charities, whilst secretly dodging tax on the side? Whatever your thoughts are on Kanye, it’s impossible to conceive of his dodging tax without openly boasting about it on Twitter or via one of his songs. That is because he is deliberately, obstinately open and truthful, actively avoiding hypocrisy and refusing to hide behind a thin, fake veneer of respectability. This makes him endlessly fascinating, as all open and truthful human beings are.

Freely admit your flaws, and then decide to love yourself anyway: that is the way of Kanye and the lifestyle that he endorses to the world. If you can love a few other people along the way, people like God (or Kim) who will accept you just the way you are, well then, that’s just a bonus. If everyone could learn to love themselves like Kanye loves Kanye, the world might not be a better place, but it would certainly be a hell of a lot more interesting.