Tag Archives: alternative

2010, Q1 – Album Update

Have I missed you? Greatly. Have I abandoned you depuis longtemps? Too right. Have I been selling my wares on Twitter and Tumblr like a woman of the night? Sadly, yes. Am I back here for good? Let’s hope so.

Enough of the rhetoric. I’ve cherry-picked seven fine albums from the first quarter of this year, and given them a brief bit of spiel extolling my love for them. Oh, and they’re kind of in an order of preference, which, I can assure you, was a challenge.

1. Transference – Spoon. In which the masters of concision pretended to loosen up a little, making a work of carefully considered ragged beauty. From the hesitant organ drone pulsing through opener “Before Destruction”, to the distant, measured funk of “Nobody Gets Me But You”, Transference makes every hyped lo-fi band seem overly amateur in their efforts – Jim Eno and Britt Daniel have laboured night and day to give their latest baby the kind of off-the-cuff aesthetic that only painstaking production can really pull off. Songs end abruptly, mid-phrase; Britt Daniel’s vocals are warped and garbled to heighten our disorientation. It’s an exercise in melancholy as art form.

2. Contra – Vampire Weekend. Gone are the campus tales of fun and frolicking that was the backdrop to my first year at university. In their stead are a range of musically ambitious, lyrically sophisticated compositions that are undoubtedly a bit less fun, but substantially more far-reaching. This, as I wrote previously, is about Ivy League graduates going out into the real world and discovering how out-of-touch they are. It’s there in the wistful, nostalgic tone of “Taxi Cab” and “Diplomat’s Son”; at the same time, Contra also has its fair share of zany pop moments, in the riotous early Police ska-punk of “Cousins” and the typeface-referencing “Holiday”. Contra is probably a superior creation to Vampire Weekend, even if it’s a bit less immediate and catchy.

3. Sisterworld – Liars. Not since their début have Liars made an album so song-focused as this, their self-confessed L.A. record. Sisterworld is sinister and twisted, and boasts the kind of gothic creepiness even Nick Cave shies away from nowadays. It’s scary stuff, especially when frontman Angus Andrew screams “AND THEN KILL THEM ALL!” in the middle of “Scarecrows On A Killer Slant”. Elsewhere, the three-piece explore tight, muscular grooves (which go all motorik on “Proud Evolution”), and then suddenly veer into hazy near-instrumentals like “Drip”. Sisterworld reminds me of a more focused cousin of Deerhunter’s excellent Microcastle, albeit with the shoegazey moments being interspersed more evenly through the record, as opposed to being clumped together in the middle. Throughout, Liars display their usual dark humour that can make the listener wince, and then grin with wild, untamed delight.

4. Plastic Beach – Gorillaz. Possibly the finest Gorillaz album yet – though Demon Days set the bar very high last time round. The tenuous narrative arc is now quite removed from the music (preferring instead to manifest itself through the packaging, the online experience, and every other marketing avenue Albarn/Hewlett/EMI can explore), and the songs are probably all the better for it. Albarn hasn’t made such a startling variety of great pop music for a very long time – at least, not in one single artistic endeavour – and the breadth and depth of Plastic Beach is startling. On “White Flag”, he crosses extremely authentic Arabic orchestral arrangements with 8-bit grime; standout track “Sweepstakes” pits a multi-tracked Mos Def against polyrhythmic vibes and brass. You couldn’t make this stuff up. The only real mis-step is on 80s-synth-pop-by-numbers “On Melancholy Hill”, but even this has its charms, I suppose. The jury’s out on whether Plastic Beach does better when Albarn sings, or when he gets his Rolodex out. For me, I think the two sides of Gorillaz’ craft are now so utterly complete that it doesn’t really matter. This is the kind of intelligent pop music that reassures the chequebooks of EMI bigwigs, and also appeases music critics who were a bit suspicious of Albarn’s doubtless artistic largesse. I’ve said this a lot, but he’s a true polymath, and the proof is plain to see on Plastic Beach.

5. One Life Stand – Hot Chip. One criticism levelled at this fourth album from the south London electro-geeks is that it’s too saccharine; too lovestruck. To me, that’s a strength, not a failing. Yes, the in-jokes were dead funny on their previous three albums (“I’m sick of motherfuckers tryna tell me that they’re down with Prince” was one particularly witty lyric), but this time round, Hot Chip have finally realised that they are the true inheritors of our long heritage of great songwriters – to the list that includes Paul McCartney and Robert Wyatt, we can now append the names Joe Goddard and Alexis Taylor. One Life Stand is built around a middle triplet of songs that are, yes, slushy, but that shouldn’t take away from their undoubted beauty and heartfelt emotion. They write great love songs, and they just so happen to perform them with predominantly electronic instruments. Why should that be so irreconcilable? And why don’t more bands use steel drums to such great effect?!

6. There Is Love In You – Four Tet. Not an album of dance music per se, but certainly an album of music you can tap your feet to, and swivel about in your office chair. The last album I said that about was Battles’ Mirrored, and indeed, Kieran Hebden’s long-awaited fifth LP shares with that album a sense of playfulness and joy at the primal essence of being alive, and connected to technology in a totally organic way. There Is Love In You practically bounces through your headphones, so enraptured is it with the thrill of existence.

7. Field Music (Measure) – Field Music. If you go on hiatus because you feel your music probably has too limited an audience, it’s generally considered surprising to return with a 70-minute double album that decants late period Fleetwood Mac, Led Zeppelin and Steely Dan into a heady cocktail. Nonetheless, this is what the brothers Brewis have chosen to do, and, happily Measure just about pulls it off, bearing testament to their vaulting ambition and artistic integrity. There are definitely weaker bits (the final quarter is overly bucolic and pastoral, if I’m being picky), but when Field Music shift into the correct gear on Measure, they really are at the top of their (admittedly niche) game. Songs like “All You’d Ever Need To Say” and “The Wheels Are In Place” are taut and structurally complex, and yet still fit into miraculously brief passages of time. The musicianship is unparalleled, the vocal harmonies are typically glistening, and it’s wonderful to have them back.

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Spoon – Got Nuffin

For me, the appeal of Spoon lies in their economy and their minimalism. On an album like Kill The Moonlight, Britt Daniel and co. showed off a range of styles and structures, but never let any element get ahead of the others – consequently, nothing runs further than it needs to, and no song is extended beyond the bare minimum required to convey a lyrical theme. My only hesitation with it was that some songs felt slightly sketchy and underdeveloped. Pleasingly, on 2007’s Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, an album about which I have enthused much, Spoon showed a mastery of their art: the style is still almost goadingly economical, but certain songs are fleshed out with greater maturity. “The Underdog”, for instance has a glossy horn section that I simply could not have imagined them using on a previous album.

The prospect of new music, then, is an exciting one, and the latest EP, entitled Got Nuffin, will offer a tantalising snapshot of the band’s current fascinations. The title track, “Got Nuffin”, is right up there at the top of their game. The drums are crisp and urgent; Daniel’s vocal tics and yelps are still very much a fixture, adding emotional detail to an already foreboding air. On a couple of occasions, guitars de-tune ominously, and after about a minute, an insistent piano part pings away in the left channel. Some people have compared it to Deerhunter’s excellent “Nothing Ever Happened”, and it’s true to say that both songs share a motorik beat, and a similar use of feedback and stabs of guitar. But they’re really very different beasts, and Got Nuffin is an exceptionally well-crafted four-minute slice of magic, where the tension continually mounts, without any release. The end sees the piano build to a more substantial role, and the guitar threaten to envelop the whole song, before a teasing fade-out leaves us gagging for more. Any ideas when we’ll be hearing a new album from the band?

“I guess we’re the official Fred Perry sponsors.”

Last November, when Damon Albarn announced that he and Graham Coxon had patched up their differences and were re-forming Blur in its classic arrangement, I was filled with apprehension. The last few years have been packed with members of the old guard re-forming for one final hurrah, and with mixed results. Led Zeppelin’s one-off benefit concert at the O2 suggested that while there was still more than enough vigour in the band, the practicalities of a real, lasting reunion were beyond them. When Richard Ashcroft welcomed Nick McCabe back into The Verve, I expected thrilling sonic fireworks on a par with their best work – instead, I was left sorely disappointed by the meandering, fleeting Forth.

The prospect of Blur re-uniting was a beguiling prospect. In the intervening years since their disbandment, Albarn had circumnavigated the globe with open ears and busy hands, documenting his travels and learnings through multiple musical projects, from the paranoid cartoon hip-hop of Gorillaz, to the lilting, mystical and beautiful Chinese-opera-cum-musical of Monkey: Journey To The West. Coxon, meanwhile, had become increasingly basic and spartan in his musical exploits, releasing a series of good, but not staggeringly so, solo albums, taking in a breadth of influences, but never really showing off the accidental beauty of his guitar-work that previous Blur albums had featured. Alex James, he of champagne bottle, mirror and razor blade, had fled to the countryside, there to busy himself running a farm and making cheese, and writing all about it in a variety of publications. Finally, there was Dave Rowntree: always the quiet one, now the budding politician. It was only in the wave of press interviews given in the weeks leading up to Hyde Park that we were to discover just how busy he had been, with the astute drummer revealing a law degree, solicitor’s training, social work, political activism.

Somehow, from this myriad divergent post-Blur activities, these four pop icons of the nineties were supposed to roll back the years and wind up as a rock band, putting aside their respective priorities for a few months of historic gigs, and the appetising prospect of something more. I was slightly troubled, I must confess, all the more so because in my lengthy study of Blur’s œuvre, nothing had once suggested to me that their varied sonic palette would actually translate to a particularly energetic live performance. Still, I was among the first to commit to their cause, dutifully buying a ticket to their Friday night show in Hyde Park, London.

Hyde Park, Friday lunchtime. The parched field is already filling up; the wafting odours of burger meat, vinegar and hot dogs are already permeating the air; the stage, clumsily bathed in a tangle of lights, electrical cabling and amplifiers. On one side of the central pavilion is draped a map of Greater London; on the other, one of Great Britain. In the latter stages of their career, Blur may have embraced all manner of American and African influences (as borne out in today’s choice of support acts), but here, today, it is clear that the mood is very British, very suburban, very much rooted in the music-hall stomp of Modern Life Is Rubbish and Parklife. Gangs of the Colchester massif quaff plastic bottles of beer; young people are few and far between.

Before Blur make their long-awaited entrance, we are treated to four hours of wondrous, diverse music, beginning with the cheeky racket of Deerhoof, perennial cult concerns over in the States. Initially, the crowd react ambivalently, unsure of what to make of a sound that is part math rock, part raucous indie, and certainly not fleshed out by discernible lyrics. It is only when frontwoman Satomi Matsuzaki begins her wild flailing and dancing, and revels in interacting with other band-members, props and instruments, that the crowd respond with good-natured applause and cheers.

Next up is current chart-merchant Florence And The Machine. Florence Welch looks undeniably stunning in rather floaty, ethnic garb, and her voice is suitably melodramatic and moody, like a more affected, less precious Natasha Khan. The music too bears some resemblance to that of Bat For Lashes, though more sparkly and poppy. Most of the crowd identify her key singles and enact a mass sing-along; I, through my rejection of mainstream radio, remain reasonably unconvinced and oblivious of her fame and hype.

Then, real excitement greets the entrance of Amadou & Mariam, their live reputation cemented by numerous festival appearances. They are predictably charming, and their music creates quite a stir, combining elements of traditional Malian music with circular blasts of funk and the tense friction of the blues. In the crowd, a party is brewing. We love Amadou’s sonorous voice and his inimitable stage persona; we can’t help but be won over by Mariam’s effortless cool; and the couple’s backing band is pretty talented too. Songs new and old sound fresh and immediate, and the guitar solos are pretty spectacular.

Finally, Vampire Weekend, touching down in the UK solely for this performance, deliver a well-paced set, interspersing most of their debut album with a couple of new songs (one of which is really too high-pitched to be the sing-along that Ezra Koenig desires; the other is slightly marred by an over-zealous, bottle-throwing crowd) and old favourite Boston. Musically, they’re inch-perfect; personality-wise, there’s something amiss – but when the frantic riff of A-Punk kicks in, nobody really cares.

Then, at exactly quarter past eight, the crowd goes relatively ape-shit as the pomp and circumstance of The Debt Collector blares over the sound system, and on stroll all four members of Blur, re-united at last. Albarn and Rowntree favour the Andy Murray-baiting Fred Perry polo shirt look; James appears to have walked out of the gutter; as ever, Coxon exudes an understated geeky cool. Almost immediately, with only a few words of introduction, the band breaks into a soaring rendition of debut single She’s So High. From there on, there is very little let-up, as the band deliver spirited and impassioned hit after hit. Alex James’ bass benefits from a good mix on the PA, showing off just how fluid and quick-witted his playing has always been, especially on tracks like Tracy Jacks and Badhead. Coxon’s guitar-work, meanwhile, is blistering, and makes all 55,000 adoring fans realise at once what has been missing from British music during the last ten years. On Girls And Boys, he unleashes a torrent of flange; on There’s No Other Way, he alternates between the bluesy melody and a crazed wash of feedback and distortion.

By the time the seventh song, Beetlebum, stammers in on a jerky rhythm of guitar stabs, it is clear that, far from sounding flat, tied down to backing tracks, or trying to educate the crowd with a selection of arty album tracks, Blur seem newly re-invigorated, more energetic and meaningful than before, and perfectly content to roll out the hits, be they emotionally leering (as in the case of Country House, still as ridiculous as ever) or reflective (like Coxon’s still-charming Coffee & TV). Each song is delivered with real feeling and maximum crowd reaction: in the case of Tender, the gospel-tinged and emotionally raw anthem is transformed into a slightly ironic terrace-chant, as 55,000 people celebrate the tragedy of lyrics like “Oh my baby, oh my baby; Oh why, oh why?” and “Come on, come on, come on; get through it!” So many of Blur’s greatest songs are nostalgic and heartfelt in a rather doomed and miserable way, but tonight, it would appear that we are just as happy to revel in unbearable sadness as we are to sing for hedonistic youths on holiday in Greece.

There are a few surprise inclusions too – Trimm Trabb is as squalling and experimental as ever, and collapses in extraordinary style amidst a trademark Coxon guitar meltdown; Oily Water starts out as a slightly baggy-influenced pop song but builds into a wall of shoegaze, all shimmering guitars and wailing backing vocals. After the main set concludes with the breathtaking, heart-wrenching This Is A Low (still my favourite song of the Britpop époque), the band kickstart the first encore with the dual assault of Popscene and Advert, both coming off successfully as breakneck punk numbers. Perhaps thankfully, the crowd having already battered each other to oblivion during Parklife and Sunday Sunday, Song 2 is appreciated mainly aurally, despite the band’s most famous two minutes and two seconds of alt-rock swagger being played in characteristically violent, cock-sure style.

A final encore showcases all three sides of the band: first, underground fan favourite Death Of A Party chugs along in chilling, carnival-esque art rock fashion. Then, basking in the warm summer night of London, an extended version of For Tomorrow is supplemented by a brass trio and a gospel quartet (both groups flit on and off the stage throughout the evening, adding texture and emotion to many of the band’s songs) that depicts perfectly the way in which so much of the band’s raison d’être is rooted in a Kinks-ian vision of British idyll. Finally, the stately and suitably tragic The Universal finishes off a wonderful and emotional evening on a cascade of strings, brass, fretboard fireworks and those dread-future lyrics, hinting at a doomed utopia.

Throughout the gig, Albarn’s banter with the crowd sums up perfectly the mood of the band and their music. By turns witty, emotional and anecdotal, I’m sure his words are lost on at least half of the crowd. But in those gem-like nuggets of conversation, he reveals his love of the city, his fears about the future, and his essential attachment to this brilliant band who, among many things, provided the template of the perfect pop song throughout much of my youth. There is no doubt that there are live bands who employ more trickery; who create more of a visual spectacle; or who engage the audience in an enveloping fug of sonic experimentation – indeed, I have witnessed many such gigs. However, for a truly historic gig that released the inner punk spirit in thousands of thirty-somethings, and touched the hearts of many thousands more, Blur did not need all these gimmicks of their contemporaries. Throughout their career they have written an arsenal of great songs, and at many times these have been fashioned into extraordinary albums, but here, on stage, it is the ubiquity of them – in a similar way to the hits of Michael Jackson – that wins us over. Here are the songs that have documented life in the nineties, brought to life before our eyes, in another decade, but still just as relevant, and just as fantastic. To echo the sentiments of Damon Albarn, I thank every music industry mind who hassled and cajoled and teased Albarn and Coxon into giving into their better interests, and re-forming one of the great songwriting partnerships in British history. It was a blast.

I got trimm trabb, like all the flash boys have.

Continuing with the theme of unlikely favourite albums by bands, today I bring you the surprising admission that my favourite Blur album is… not Parklife, Modern Life Is Rubbish, or even the underrated eponymous Blur, but 1999’s moody and introspective 13. Recorded in a pre-millennial, post-Britpop world, 13 is an emotionally raw and musically exhilarating account of broken relationships and a dissatisfaction with the prevalent chart trends.

It is worth noting that, in his excellent account of the Britpop era, The Last Party, journalist John Harris locates the creative high watermark of the time as being “This Is A Low” – the totally un-music-hall-stomp closer to Parklife, which channelled a very English sense of nostalgia (a relationship, described through the metaphor of the shipping forecast, of all things) through a musical style that hovers halfway between The Kinks, Neil Young, and early Pink Floyd. With this in mind, it is perhaps not surprising that Blur would go on to make, in my opinion, their finest work when they intentionally severed all ties with the parodic soap opera that was Britpop, and ventured further into the songwriting toolbox that they undoubtedly possessed.

13 is undoubtedly a difficult listen, and yet it begins on a false promise, with the strangely uplifting gospel-backed “Tender”, which grows slowly and serenely from a wistful and lonely music box, through a processional guitar figure, into an achingly weepy epic. It is little wonder that, years later, Damon Albarn would get all emotional when performing the song in the absence of Graham Coxon. The various twists and turns the song takes in its backing instrumentation seem to depict an external fragility and precariousness of the band, which peels away to reveal a rock-solid core of a song underneath – the perfect image for the band on this album, as they weave in and out of ambient soundscapes, scratchy noise rock, meandering krautrock, under the who-knows-how-watchful eye of producer William Orbit.

Where Blur suggested a band in flux, throwing themselves into a genre (lo-fi American alternative) for the sake of being different, without fully believing in the cause, 13 shows the quartet completing their mastery of a range of different styles, each suffused with a typically dark, wry humour that would come to characterise the band far more than any one sonic palette.

The remainder of 13 is unwelcomingly beautiful, in an alien and inhospitable way – again, a true reflection of Albarn’s mental state, pitched as he was into a painful break-up and a getaway to Iceland. Songs like “Bugman”, “Swamp Song” and “B.L.U.R.E.M.I” are rightfully angry and confused and goofy; others, like “Coffee & TV” and “Mellow Song”, betray a love of affectionate melodies and storytelling.

Then, halfway through the album, things shift up a gear in the melancholy stakes, with the sonically dazzling “Battle” heralding a total immersion in sadness through samples and beats. “Trailer Park”, with its jarring, perplexing refrain of “I lost my baby to the Rolling Stones” (because to me, Blur were always much more similar in scope and ambition to the Beatles), takes unexpected diversions through sonar pings and industrial grind. “Caramel” emerges from a fog of organ and intricate guitar, and takes on a new life as a Can-style krautrock journey – feedback and an otherworldly palette of noises ricochet between the channels, held down by the insistent drumming of Dave Rowntree. In the last of these weird-out experiments, “Trimm Trabb” morphs from a mellow, house-piano meandering into a knuckle-grating freak-out, with Albarn’s affected vocals resembling a man gargling with treacle and acid.

The whole beast dissolves into an uneasy, fragmented chorus of seemingly unconnected vocals, which leads beautifully into the traditional Blur-faux-album-closer of “No Distance Left To Run”, which sounds like “This Is A Low”, driven to suicide, not on the “white cliffs of Dover”, but on some distant, alien shore, where the sky is crimson and the water is salty with tears. Whereas Parklife‘s closer was regimented into a 4/4 beat, here, the band favour a looser-limbed waltz, allowing greater space between the sounds. Albarn’s lyrical chops were never in any doubt: here, on 13, the band’s music is allowed to take on freer expressions and more wide-reaching influences, to dazzling effect. As “Optigan 1″‘s lonely carousel-ride music box shuffle winds away into oblivion, we are left with the faint echo of an album that perfectly captures the band’s sentiments: sorrow, emotional turmoil, and the desire to push the boundaries of pop music just as much as The Beatles did several decades previously.

When I first heard 13, I thought I was hearing Blur’s very own Kid A, but released to an uninterested world a year earlier. To this day, I still think that’s an image worth thinking about. Sprung upon the public at a time when we were more interested in the private lives of the Spice Girls than the immersive musical statement that is the album, 13 was destined to fade quickly from the charts and enter only in the conversations of critics. But to continue to ignore it would be to do it a great disservice, for in amidst the unfamiliar experimentation and bizarre sonic assaults, there is an absolute pot of gold full of richly rewarding, emotionally complex songs that anyone can enjoy.

In what way is it a better album than Parklife? Purely for the reason that here, Blur stopped writing about the world outside, and started telling us about themselves. Incredibly, far beyond the witty social commentary of their earlier works, hearing a man confess his bleak state of mind is wonderfully enriching, more so than hearing about a civil servant-cum-golfing fanatic.

What goes around… comes around

First of all, apologies for the lack of updates. I’m afraid not all of us have eight-week terms, and the last few weeks have been criminally hectic.

Now, a lot of my friends have highlighted my lack of knowledge of recent pop music. It’s true that I don’t listen to what’s in the charts, and I’m sometimes surprised when I tune into the radio and hear something I never imagined would have entered the pop universe – M.I.A., for instance. I had no idea she had become so big. Scanning down a list of the current UK Top 40, I have never knowingly heard a song by The Saturdays, Lady GaGa, Taylor Swift, Akon, Alesha Dixon, James Morrison, Tinchy Stryder, Jason Mraz, Leona Lewis or Lemar. It doesn’t bother me, but it does bother others.

What does frustrate me is the terribly low expectations of pop listeners. Why does it require a trailer for a bad stoner comedy to get people listening to M.I.A.? There’s nothing excessively pretentious about her music; it’s hugely entertaining; random sonic effects bounce out of speakers – put simply, there’s no excuse not to go and listen to her songs. I’m incredibly glad that she’s now receiving some mainstream love, but of course there are countless other artists whose music would be perfectly palatable for a pop-loving audience, but who have never received that big break. Music critics often talk of a band writing “great pop songs”, without mentioning that the pop breakthrough has so far eluded the band in question.

Here, then, are some artists who I would sorely love to see gain more exposure in the wider community, because there’s nothing unreasonably difficult about their music, and because they write great pop songs. If you’re reading this blog, you’ve probably heard of most of these bands. But go and tell your pop-loving friends about them, in the hope that they too will come to appreciate better, more intelligent pop music.

My Morning Jacket – prone to lengthy jams in live shows, their studio albums have got progressively more pop, without really sacrificing on the quality. Often, it’s just straight up rock and roll, with a smattering of reverb, and some alt.country flavourings. It never fails to lift my mood. (Download now: Wordless Chorus, Gideon)

Belle & Sebastian – this Scottish troupe have been around for years, never making any great inroads at mainstream success, despite the fact that they write beautifully charming, witty, unpretentious songs that reference everything from folk, to electronica, to Motown and soul. Once again, it’s truly uplifting, engaging music that doesn’t make a great show of its intelligence. (Download now: Step Into My Office Baby, The Blues Are Still Blue)

Calexico – who doesn’t want to hear mariachi-tinged Americana that takes in elements from dub, folk, krautrock and popular indie rock? Over the course of their career, they’ve made some of my favourite, and most consistently enjoyable, albums, which are packed full of diverse ranging songs that evoke a singular image of the deserts of California and Arizona. (Download now: Writer’s Minor Holiday, Dub Latina)

The Decemberists – like MMJ, they can get quite progressive, but when they write sweet, romantic ditties, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t get played on the radio. No one can fail to love “Summersong” on the first listen. (Download now: Summersong, The Perfect Crime #2)

Deerhunter – Their earlier work was aggressively ambient and shoegazy, but their recent album, Microcastle, is a triumph of pop melodies, inflected with tortuously beautiful guitar fuzz. In Bradford Cox, they have one of the most beautiful, troubling and haunting voices in music, but when he harmonises with the rest of the band, the result is sublime. (Download now: Heatherwood, Agoraphobia)

Field Music – I feel like I’ve extolled this Sunderland three-piece’s virtues way too many times. They no longer make music under that name, but their second album in particular is a masterpiece of indie pop, with strange vibes of Genesis and 80s prog rock, but all contained in three minute songs. (Download now: A House Is Not A Home, She Can Do What She Wants)

The National – framed with beautiful orchestral flourishes, this band’s genre-less music is wonderfully evocative, employing tasteful U2-isms and Springsteen-isms with the dark brooding mood of Interpol. (Download now: Fake Empire, Secret Meeting)

The Shins – darlings of the indie world, but why has nobody else heard their musically diverse, exceptionally well-written pop songs? They even had their music sprinkled through the film Garden State. (Download now: Kissing The Lipless, Phantom Limb, Sea Legs)

Spoon – what more can I write? Their music is beautifully sparse and minimalist; no song ever carries on where it’s not necessary; the lyrics are funny and insightful; even their albums are strangely brief. They’re just the complete band. Their music was featured in The O.C., as I discovered when I played an album to some friends. But why didn’t anyone follow it up? (Download now: Don’t You Evah, The Way We Get By, Stay Don’t Go)

There’s simply no reason not to spread the word of the gospel.

Put the crazies on the street, give them guns and feed them meat

For those of you who still believe, after all the intervening years, that Damon Albarn’s songwriting is rooted in the oom-pah music-hall stomp of Britpop, I cannot recommend enough that you try on both 1997’s Blur and 1999’s 13, both of which are prime examples of Blur giving up on the style that made them such household names, and instead choosing to pursue more experimental and at times difficult music, taking heed of far more wide-ranging influences.

In the aftermath of the Battle of Britpop, which saw Blur win the race to be #1 on the Singles chart – with the cringeworthy “Country House” – but Oasis win the battle of the albums, with (What’s The Story) Morning Glory, Blur soon realised the fickle nature of British music, and how quickly the public – who at the time were enchanted by the elision of music and politics made real by the superb efforts of our dear leader, Tony Blair – could abandon a group who they had previously loved. Rather than continue to pump out album-after-album of derivative, uninteresting music (I’m looking at you, Oasis), Blur instead fled to the country they had previously artistically slaughtered – America – in search of new ideas.

The resulting album, Blur, saw Graham Coxon take on a much more prominent role, influenced as he was by mainstays of American alternative music, such as Pavement and Beck, while Albarn’s lyrics took on a decidely more introspective angle, a theme that was to be extended on their next album. Blur remained reasonably commercially successful in the UK, but, crucially, it was equally a hit in America, whose audiences immediately ‘got’ “Song 2”. Even now, I think the album is a great testament to the breadth of the band’s talents, and the opener, “Beetlebum”, is right up there in my top three Blur songs. The band, freed from the pomp and circumstance of Britpop, produced an album that was bleaker, wilder and harsher, but, importantly, a strong melodic vein flows right through, giving it just enough warmth for the listener to want to come back to it.

Story has it that, during the recording process for Blur, Coxon refused to let anyone, including himself, retune his guitar, believing that the truest artistic statement would be to embrace the lo-fi. Perhaps thankfully, producer Stephen Street, horrified at the prospect of unveiling an album horribly out-of-tune to the record company, would secretly come into the studio in the dead of night to retune it!

One of the spirits that leans heavily on Blur is that of Bowie. Unashamed to join the canon of great British songwriters, Albarn’s compositions share a talent for experimentation, and also something intangibly similar, with those of Bowie – none more so than one of the closing tracks, “Strange News From Another Star”, which feels almost violated in its raw emotion. The combination of harsh electronic feedback and sweet acoustic guitar is painful in its emotional tug. With a typical sense of duty and sincerity, Albarn later performed it for a BBC Radio session honouring John Peel, the video of which is at the top of this post. In this context, it is a haunting and beautiful tribute to another demi-god of British music.