Pop Obituary: David Bowie

David Bowie was born David Jones on 8th January 1947 in Brixton, South London.  The son of a Kentish mother and a Yorkshireman father, he reportedly adopted his stage name in the mid-1960s to avoid confusion with Davy Jones, lead singer of the emerging Monkees.  He took the name Bowie from the iconic American frontiersman and his eponymous knife.

He formed his first band, The Konrads, aged just 15, playing at local weddings and youth events.  Upon leaving school he announced his intention to become a pop star and managed to find a manager, but his first single, “Liza Jane”, made no real impact.  After a few more unsuccessful releases with a variety of bands, his eponymous debut album in 1967 had a similar reception.

Later that year, however, he began to take an interest in developing alternative personae and ventured into the folk/psychedelic rock scene.  1969’s Space Oddity (originally also eponymous but re-released under the name of the lead single to reduce confusion).  The single itself reached the UK top 5 and Bowie’s first taste of success spurred him on to greater things.  The Man Who Sold the World, more heavily psychedelic, and Hunky Dory in 1970 and ’71 respectively met with increasing acclaim and triumph.  His breakthrough was established with Ziggy Stardust…the following year and the Bowie we know and love was to remain in the charts through the ‘70s and ‘80s with highlights including “Heroes” and Scary Monsters and Super Creeps.  After releasing a couple of albums with his new hard rock band Tin Machine (1989 & 1999) Bowie experimented with electronic music through the ‘90s before increasing health problems (including a 2004 heart attack) led to something of a withdrawal from public life.  In addition to his music, Bowie was also known for acting roles such as the lead in 1976’s The Man Who Fell to Earth and famously a creepy Goblin King in Labyrinth (1986).

David Bowie died of cancer on the 11th of January just two days after the release of Blackstar, his 25th studio album.  He had been diagnosed 18 months earlier.  He is survived by his second wife, Somali-American model Iman and his two children, film director Duncan “Zowie” Jones (born 1971 to his first wife Angie) and Alexandria Zahra Jones (2000).

I’m not going to claim super-fandom or anything of the like, nor do I believe that his passing leaves a huge hole in the industry today (Blackstar was just his second release since 2003).  Bowie’s legacy has been his greatest contribution to music for the last couple of decades at least and today’s sad news does nothing to change that.  He single-handedly brought about an industry-wide shift in the early-to-mid-‘70s with the likes of Ziggy Stardust… and Diamond Dogs and continued to alter his style, genre and even persona both ahead of and in response to the changing times.  On a personal level I will mostly remember the Bowie of the ‘70s – “Changes” and “Oh! You Pretty Things” from Hunky Dory and “Ziggy Stardust” are among my favourite tracks.  But David Bowie was many things to many, many people.  He was an extremely talented man and he will be missed.

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RIP David Bowie 1947-2016

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Music Pop: Hot Fuss

Artist:  The Killers
Year:  2004
Example Song:  All These Things That I’ve Done

I’ve listened to a number of albums over the last few days and been mostly unable to decide which of them to review, but in the end since I don’t have the time to really scrutinise something new I’ve settled on the one I probably know best:  Hot Fuss, the debut album from Las Vegas natives the Killers.  I quite like the band, having been relatively familiar with them for a good while, and it’s safe to say this album is one I’ve listened to a number of times over the last five or so years.  It had been a while, and so it was an LP I was glad to revisit.

Hot-FussThe first song from any band’s debut album is a significant one (as far as I’m concerned), and on Hot Fuss the Killers produce a good impression with “Jenny was a Friend of Mine”. Although not released as a single, the catchy song is one of the band’s most respected.  The album then kicks up to another gear entirely, running through some great songs (all released as singles).  “Mr. Brightside”, a depressing yet optimistic tale of a man who suspects his girlfriend of cheating, “Smile Like You Mean It”, conversely more downbeat, and “Somebody Told Me”, with lyrics that confuse me a little, are all excellent, powerful songs and undoubtedly some of the Killers’ best-known. “All These Things That I’ve Done”, an anthem to self-improvement, is just that little bit even more special, making it my favourite song from the album.  The second half of the album doesn’t hit these heights but is not at all bad nonetheless; “Andy You’re a Star” is an impressive new-wave influenced rock song and “On Top” is a decent if unspectacular track.  Then comes “Change Your Mind”, a relatively short interlude.  “Believe Me Natalie”, next, is another pretty standard effort.  It’s followed by “Midnight Show”, quite a fast, energetic song, While “Everything Will Be Alright” is a much more laid-back tune that draws the album to a relaxing finish.

I like the Killers, although to be honest I probably like this album more than I like the band.  In fact it’s almost too good of a début, as nothing they’ve done since has been able to live up to such an impressive first effort (see Sum 41 for another example of this unfortunate affliction). In addition to this, as good as the album is overall I find it very hard to get past the decision to spunk the album’s four singles and (best-known songs) in the first five tracks – to a casual listener there’s very little reason to continue listening after the end of “All These Things That I’ve Done”.  But still, I’ll forgive them for that because I don’t think the Killers are the kind of band who made an album for the casual listener, and that’s a respectable trait in itself.  Hot Fuss is a great example of the early 2000s’ indie rock revival (along with the likes of the Strokes), and all in all one of my favourite rock albums of the 2000s.

My Rating:  8/10

Music Pop: Push and Shove

Artist: No Doubt
Year: 2012
Example Song:  Settle Down

I was a little too young to appreciate No Doubt when they were first active, but several years ago I became familiar with them (although I had been well aware of Gwen Stefani for a while by then).  Since then, they’ve grown steadily into one of my favourite bands, and so when in 2012, after a recording hiatus of over ten years, they released their long-awaited sixth studio effort I was very keen to hear their new material.  The album had been in the pipeline for a few years before release, after Stefani’s solo albums in 2004 and 2006.  The title, Push and Shove, was announced early in 2012 and the first single of the same name in July before the full record the next month.

Push_and_Shove_-_No_Doubt_album_cover“Settle Down”, the single preceding the album, is in fact the first song on the record.  It’s a powerful song, making it clear that No Doubt are back with a bang.  It’s a very strong start to the album, which I always worry about, but the following song (and second single) “Looking Hot” is almost as good.  Both songs are very upbeat and rocky pop and remind me more of Gwen’s solo work than early No Doubt, but then “One More Summer” is much slower and “Push and Shove”, featuring Busy Signal and Major Lazer, incorporates heavy reggae influences that are characteristic of the group.  “Easy” is laid-back but good, and “Gravity” is a more moving song that sounds full of emotion. “Undercover” and “Undone” are two decent songs although unspectacular, and then “Sparkle” is a poignant, rueful ode to a breakup (not unlike Stefani’s “Cool” from Love.Angel.Music.Baby.). It’s followed by “Heaven”, a much more optimistic track, and the album finishes off with “Dreaming the Same Dream”, which is a good enough song to end the record.  There’s quite a lot of bonus material on the deluxe edition, but I want to give a special mention to the rendition of Adam and the Ants’ “Stand and Deliver” (recorded in 2009), which suits the band perfectly.

Push and Shove is a great album, although it took me a while to get accustomed to it (but everything does), and it unfortunately drops off a little towards the end.  The sound is also quite different from what No Doubt originally released; it almost leans closer to Gwen Stefani’s solo work stylistically.  This might well be deliberate on the band’s part because they’re all significantly older than they were and this seems much more polished and contemplative than their earlier, more youthful and exuberant work.  This shouldn’t be taken as a negative, because I don’t think it would be good to see a bunch of musicians in their forties act like young rebels; it’s good to see that No Doubt are above that.  They didn’t reunite to recreate the old days – they did it because they’re a bunch of great friends who enjoy making music together, and Push and Shove proves that they’ve still got the magic.

My Rating:  8/10

Top Pops: Featuring Kanye West

As well as being a Beatles admirer I’m also a big Kanye West fan.  This one’s a little more controversial because he’s obviously a complete idiot, but that doesn’t stop me enjoying his unique brand of hip-hop.  Most of his albums so far have been superb, but today I’ve decided to go a little outside the box and look at my favourite songs including Kanye as a featured artist (thus also excluding anything from 2011’s Watch the Throne as well as Cruel Summer from the Kanye-led collective GOOD Music.). Kanye is a popular featured performer as he usually adds something different while bringing some much-appreciated star power.  I’m sure there are a few that I don’t know, but these are my favourites of the ones I do:

#7 E.T.  (Katy Perry, Teenage Dream, 2010)

Teenage Dream is an album I like a lot, and although in my opinion E.T. is probably the least remarkable of the five singles I still consider it worthy of inclusion as one of the most successful songs of 2011.

#6 This Ain’t a Scene, It’s an Arms Race (remix) (Fall Out Boy, 2007)

This one is included more out of sentiment and suspicion than merit if truth be told.  I still don’t really know why Fall Out Boy collaborated with an artist of such a different style, but I think it’s an intriguing song that captured my attention a long time ago.

#5 Make Her Say (Kid Cudi, Man on the Moon: The End of Day, 2009)

This song is a lot of fun; originally called “I Poke Her Face” Cudi was coerced into renaming it to make it radio-friendly.  It also features Common and an acoustic sample of Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face”, around which the chorus is based.

#4 Run this Town (Jay-Z, The Blueprint 3, 2009)

Into the more serious contenders comes “Run This Town”.  Kanye and Jay-Z are long-time friends and collaborators, and this song, also featuring Rihanna, was a big success.  Kanye’s verse is good enough that it’s even been criticised for overshadowing the rest of the song.

#3 Supernova (Mr Hudson, Straight No Chaser, 2009)

Far more successful in Europe than the US, Kanye’s collaboration with British artist Mr Hudson is a song I have a lot of time for.  Hudson was signed to Kanye’s GOOD Music label the year before and the two wrote “Supernova” together.

#2 Knock You Down (Keri Hilson, In a Perfect World…, 2009)

This song, from Hilson’s debut album, is very close to being my favourite.  Hilson, West and Ne-Yo come together to create an R&B classic about love and heartbreak that I really enjoy.

#1 American Boy (Estelle, Shine, 2008)

In truth, “American Boy” was always going to be top of my list.  Estelle’s vocals mix perfectly with Kanye’s humorous verses and the song was a big hit across the world, being nominated for the Grammy for Song of the Year and winning Best Rap/Sung Collaboration.

So it appears that for four years from 2007-2010 Kanye West entered a golden age of collaborations while releasing two excellent albums of his own (and one mediocre one – no prizes for guessing).  2009 in particular was a standout year and the songs from that year take me back to a time in my life I enjoyed; a lot of people don’t like the guy, but he was undoubtedly a big part of my teenage years.

52 Weeks, 52 Years, 52 Pops: A Girl Called Dusty (#2)

Artist:  Dusty Springfield
Year:  1964
Example Song:  Wishin’ and Hopin’

For the second in my new Tuesday series of 52 reviews from 52 consecutive years in 52 weeks, (from now on referred to as “52 Pops”), I was obliged to find an album to review from 1964.  I started the search relatively early, as I still don’t feel all that comfortable with album reviews and I wanted to get a few listens in before today;  I’d definitely listened to this album before, but that must be a couple of years ago now.  I had a few possibilities to pick from in my iTunes, but I chose this over the easy options like the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night and the Kinks’ eponymous debut, since the point of this blog is after all to expand my horizons.

Dusty Springfield, who I didn’t know was from London, had been in a girl group called The Lana Sisters from 1958 to 1960 before performing as The Springfields with her brother from 1960-1963.  After three relatively successful albums, Dusty (real name Mary O’Brien) decided to use the opportunity to launch her solo career beginning with A Girl Called Dusty, allowing her to be much more diverse musically than she had felt able to be before.

A_Girl_Called_Dusty_(Dusty_Springfield_album_-_cover_art)The album opens with “Mama Said”, a cover of a song originally performed by the Shirelles in 1961.  It’s a decent soul-pop tune, signifying immediately Dusty’s new horizons as a singer.  It’s followed by “You Don’t Own Me”, a cover of Lesley Gore from a year previously, which is a good song more immediately recognisable to me as an Eminem sample (Recovery’s “Untitled”).  “Do Re Mi” is little more than generic pop, followed by “When the Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes”, first released by the Supremes. “My Colouring Book” is a much sadder song (first recorded by Barbra Streisand) and “Mockingbird”, written as something of a novelty duet, works nicely as a solo.  “Twenty Four Hours from Tulsa”, a Bacharach/David effort, is melancholy and poignant, and after “Nothing” comes “Anyone Who Had a Heart”, written by the same duo for Dionne Warwick.  “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” is one of Dusty’s best-known early songs, and is definitely catchy (and also a Shirelles original).  “Wishin’ and Hopin’” is the highlight of the album, written by Bacharach and David for Springfield herself, an upbeat call to women to take some action to get a man.  The album is closed by “Don’t You Know”, a Ray Charles-written song that is in truth a bit of an anticlimax following the previous two hits.

Overall the album sends a strong message of female empowerment, urging women to take control of their own lives.  They can get any man they want and won’t be possessed by anyone.  However, there are certainly some more tender songs, dealing with heartbreak and pain, particularly “My Colouring Book”.  I enjoyed the album a lot, and there are undeniably some catchy songs, but it loses some merit with me by being full of covers.  It seems like there were only about 50 songs in the early ‘60s, each popping up on albums by more and more artists.  “Wishin’ and Hopin’”, one of the only original tracks, is unsurprisingly the standout song on the LP, although Dusty deals with the covers more than capably.  It’s a very good debut album, and it’s not surprising that Dusty’s admirably style had the staying power to last another three decades at least.

My Rating:  7.5/10

Music Pop: The Marshall Mathers LP 2

Artist: Eminem
Year: 2013
Example song:  Rap God

As I promised a good while back (in my first post in fact) I’ve finally managed to find the time to give The Marshall Mathers LP 2 enough of a listen to be able to say something about it.  As a big Eminem fan (second in my all-time most played list) I got hold of this album as soon as it came out and played it through within a couple of days.  It impressed me immediately, and it usually takes me a few goes to get into an album (for example Kanye’s Yeezus).  Last night I gave it another go and it’s only growing on me.

The LP opens with “Bad Guy”, a surprisingly long but certainly worthwhile sequel to “Stan”.  Eminem sings from the perspective of Stan’s little brother Matthew, who picks up the stalking baton with added thirst for revenge.  This flows into the album’s only skit before Zombies-sampling “Rhyme or Reason” and my personal favourite “So Much Better”, a hate-filled yet catchy song which reminds me of “Puke” from 2004’s Encore.

Then follows “Survival”, an aggressive, almost rock-y single which might even sound more at home on 2010’s Recovery.  “Legacy” and “Asshole” come next, two decent but unspectacular efforts.  “Berzerk” (the album’s first MMLP2single) is a good fun throwback to the Golden Age of hip-hop, with a couple of Beastie Boys samples, although it is perhaps a little incongruous to the flow of the album which is itself an homage to 2000’s Marshall Mathers LP.

In “Rap God”, Mathers boasts of his rapping prowess while simultaneously proving it with the performance. “Brainless” and “Stronger Than I Was” are good solid tracks, and “The Monster”, featuring Rihanna, is a good song but I’m not sure it deserves all the attention it’s getting.  “So Far…” and “Love Game” are again not bad but neither has apparently stuck in my mind.

The album heads towards a close with “Headlights”, an apology track to Eminem’s mother for all the blame he placed on her throughout his career.  The first time I heard this song I just sat there stunned, unable to believe my ears, but it seems that Marshall and Debbie Mathers have actually patched things up, hopefully for good.  It’s a decent song featuring Nate Ruess of fun., an artist currently popular with the industry as well as with me.  “Evil Twin”, the final track of the album proper (there is a lot of bonus material), is nothing special but not bad.

After the rubbish of Relapse and the more modern sound of Recovery, MMLP2 harks back to a much earlier time in Eminem’s career and feels more traditionally Marshall Mathers (hence the name, I guess).  Eminem refreshes his well-honed writing skills with a burst of fresh energy, reminding everyone why he was so successful in the first place and assuring us that even as he gets older he’s still got a reserve of that trademark enthusiasm to keep him going for another while yet. It’s perhaps a backlash to the criticism of his recent albums that they’ve been a little too “mainstream”.  This rap pioneer brought hip-hop to the mainstream, and he’s not going to let anyone say he’s abandoned it just yet.

My rating:  8.5/10

Music Pop: Odessey & Oracle

Artist: The Zombies

Year: 1968
Example song: Time of the Season

I’ve always pondered over how well-known the Zombies are; almost everyone will recognise their signature song “Time of the Season” from various film and TV appearances, but when I mentioned them to my Dad shortly after I discovered them (a few years ago) he didn’t seem to have heard of them at all, and he was interested in this kind of music while growing up around the time it was released. I’ve since come to realise that he’s surprisingly ignorant at times, but that still answers none of my questions about the popularity of this band from Hertfordshire and their misspelled second LP (by the release of which they had already broken up).

Recorded in one session due to time and budget restraints, Odessey sounds remarkably professional and well put together. This probably (positively) contributed to the fact that the album flows exceptionally well, as the band would have to dive from one song straight into the next as smoothly as possible. Coherence is a trait I value highly in an album; you need to have well-defined tracks, but it’s nice not to be abruptly informed when they change.220px-Odessey_and_Oracle

As such this album is one that always sits nicely with me, and it brings back pleasant memories of a time a few years ago when I was really discovering new music (and devouring it at that). Before today I hadn’t listened to it in too long, and I sometimes feel a little sad that old unassuming favourites like this get left behind somewhat in my neverending quest to discover more and more. It’s nice to sit down every once in a while and listen to an album that means something to me, whatever that may be.

The opening track, “Care of Cell 44”, is hauntingly depressing yet optimistic as it deals with one partner waiting for the other’s release from prison. Haunting is in fact an appropriate appraisal of the rest of the album, coping with melancholic subject matters in a delicate and beautiful fashion. Excellent examples of this are “A Rose for Emily” and “Butcher’s Tale”. You get the general feeling from the album that even though things might be tough right now, with a little bit of faith and a little bit of love you can get through anything.

Overall Odessey & Oracle is an album I rate highly and one I think everyone should experience. It should be a particular hit with fans of ’60s music in general but this isn’t the extent of its appeal. It almost defies genre; I’ve heard it described as psychedelic pop, and I think that’s as apt an interpretation as you’re likely to find. It’s not packed full of hit singles, so if that’s what you’re after then maybe give it a miss. But if you like the sound of a well-written, peaceful yet thought-provoking album then give Odessey a listen, and you might just like what you hear.

My Rating: 8/10

Music Pop: Winning Days

TheVines_WinningDays

Artist: The Vines

Year: 2004

Example song: Ride

So I’ve come to a realisation in the last couple of days:  It’s much easier to review a film than an album.  Much easier.  My thoughts on a film can be easily bashed out on a cheap plastic keyboard, but my reaction to music is much harder to pry out of my brain and into readable words.  I can (and did) watch a film once, and then the next day recall from memory (supplemented by a note or two) exactly what happened in that film.  Music?  Not so simple.  Perhaps it’s because when I’m watching a film I’m giving it my full attention, whereas I listened to the majority of this album on the bus.  Maybe it’s because a film has a coherent plot to fix a memory on, but an album is far more abstract and intangible.  This means that I’m clearly going to have to listen to an album more than once to review it, which seems to directly contradict my aim of experiencing as much as I can by listening to as much as I can.  However, I’m coming to realise that if I want to “experience” a piece of music, one listen ain’t gonna cut it.

Whatever the problem, (18 hours) after my first listen to this album I could only remember one song.  That is unsurprisingly Ride, the song in the video above, which I knew before listening to the album and is easily one of the Vines’ most popular tunes.  It’s an excellent song at that, very energetic and catchy, and serves as a good opening track to invite further exploration of the album.  I often worry about the decision to stick the hit song at the beginning of an album, but the band do a good job of living up to the high standard they’ve shown themselves to be able to hit.

So after another listen, I can give some more critical analysis (wow, I’ve got a high opinion of myself) on the rest of the songs, and the album as a whole.  It’s lively and yet it feels a little depressing in a way that reminds me a lot of the Manic Street Preachers; TV Pro is a good example of this.  The remainder of the album is upbeat yet peaceful before perking back up with Fuck the World to close. This is (perhaps unsurprisingly) more raucous, although it feels more ironic than seriously angry and finishes off the record on a pleasing note.

Overall, I thought that this was a very good album, and I feel inspired to investigate some more of the band’s work (one album prior, three since).  I’m a sucker for a song I recognise from a movie, the TV or the radio, and I sense that I won’t come across too many of those.  But I can certainly see the Vines becoming a solid addition to my library and, when I reach that stage somewhere on the other side of the horizon, my ultimate alternative/indie-rock playlist.

 

My rating:  7.5/10

Music Pop: For Those About to Rock

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Artist: AC/DC

Year: 1981

Example song: For Those About to Rock (We Salute You)

This may seem an odd album to open a blog on, but bear with me.

I’m currently in the middle (hah) of an epic quest to rate every song in my iTunes library, as part of my broader mission to experience as much (different) entertainment as possible.  Gone are the days of thousands of songs sitting in my iTunes, never to be played and discovered.  This, I have found out, is easier said than done.  As I type my library consists of 14916 songs, of which 4141 are yet to be rated.  Considering the latest Eminem album was released yesterday (The Marshall Mathers LP 2 – watch this space), this is likely to go up within the hour, and the only reason the number is so low (hah) is that I now only allow myself to add songs (albums) to my library as I rate (my current policy is to rate 2,000 songs before I allow myself to add another 1000).  This quest will theoretically end when my iPod is full, but then comes the new task of trimming the fat in order to create the perfect iPod.  Anyway, I’ll crawl across that bridge when I get to it.

So the point I guess I’m trying to make here is that more often than not, when I review an album it’s probably the first time I’m hearing it myself.  Most of the time I feel unfortunately guilty listening to an album I’ve already rated, like I’m wasting valuable discovery time.  So the albums I rate (for now) might seem a bizarre choice, but I do have a system.  Kinda.  Movies, books and the like follow a similar pattern, although maybe not to such an extreme.  Again, I’ll cross that bridge when I reach it.  Seems like the Yellow Brick Road goes over a lot of bridges on the way to the Emerald City of popular culture.  Or something.  Regardless; on with the show.

For Those About To Rock can be largely described as “an AC/DC album”.  This isn’t necessarily praise or criticism, just a simple truth.  AC/DC are a band I enjoy, and I found the album enjoyable.  The lyrics can be clever, but every song sounds sorta the same.  This is a general problem with the works of AC/DC.  The fact that I can’t actually tell if that was the first time I heard the album or not is hardly surprising.  Take out Back in BlackHighway to Hell and TNT and I challenge anyone to tell the difference between the rest of the band’s back catalogue.  Again, this isn’t a criticism.  If you like AC/DC, then you’ll probably like this album.  It is, after all, an AC/DC album.

My Rating: 6.5/10