Ten Best Albums & Songs
"I don't buy an expensive wine book to learn about the content of an author's tapedeck" - Stephen Brook's review of my book, "Pomerol".
When Wine-Journal debuted in 2003, music would rarely co-exist alongside fermented grape juice in a sentence. If it was, then the unwritten rule was that it must be associated or analogised with highbrow culture, after all, connoisseurs sipping Chateau Margaux or Petrus would never debase themselves with something as common as popular music. Nevertheless, I started recommending one CD each month to assuage my unrequited desire to become an NME hack, my first offering Radiohead's somewhat under-appreciated "Hail To The Thief" back in September 2003.
I must confess that incorporating contemporary, leftfield, sometimes provocative music within the rarefied atmosphere of fine wine was a deliberate ploy to prick the pomposity of connoirseurship. I thought it was just funny. I assumed it would be a peripheral, perhaps ridiculed part of my ouevre, and yet I was serious about suggesting new releases that were esoteric, underground or just bloody good. To my genuine surprise this monthly feature revealed a vast swathe, a predominantly younger demographic, that appreciating music whose composer had not been buried in a paupers' grave back in 1802. They liked Four Tet, The White Stripes and J Dilla as much as Figeac, Denis Bachelet and Egon Muller.
The amount of traffic that used to come through the music section of Wine-Journal was quite astonishing. I assume that some never realised that the review was actually part of a website devoted to wine. Perhaps they paused and wondered why a bottle of Stag's Leap Cask 23 1990 was being recommended with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' "Fever to Tell" or Montrose 1990 with Slayer's "Christ Illusion"? It was all tongue in cheek of course. Others have adopted the idea seem to take it more seriously than I ever intended - the notion of a particular song being partnered with a particular wine is total bollocks. But there is a deep link between wine and music. Over the years I have met numerous wine experts have a deep passion for music and likewise many musicians have fallen in love with grape juice.
What I find interesting is that some misguided wine writers still bristle at the thought of fine wine dallying around with lowbrow culture, like young girls mixing with boys from the wrong side of town. That is why I quoted Stephen Brook who took umbrage at my briefest of mentions of musicians in my Pomerol tome. Had I substituted the likes of Motorhead with Mozart or Goldfrapp with Gershwin or the Smiths with Shostakovich, I suspect that he would not have raised an eyebrow. Does anyone complain about classical references in the "World of Fine Wine"?
So here below is a list of the ten best albums and songs that were released during Wine-Journal's lifetime. During that period, the concept of music as a coherent piece of work consisting of several songs has been almost made extinct by downloading. We now cherry-pick what we listen to. To this end, I had considered retiring "Album of the Month" in June after ten year's service. The reason I did not is simple...2013 has been one of best years for music so far. The means by which we consume music has changed (and all hail the resurgence of vinyl.) Regretfully the Internet deprives us the tribes and movements that made music the soundtrack of our lives and a crucial part of our growing up. Yet the quality of new music and artists has rarely been better.
Ten Best Albums
Arcade Fire - Funeral (2004)
Nowadays, few bands mean anything. Where is today's The Clash, Smiths or even early U2? When Arcade Fire released their debut album it was clear that this Canadian collective wanted to do more than string a few minor chords together and stare down at their shoes. They wanted to create anthems, rallying cries, heartfelt ballads and uplifting songs that you sent shivers down your spine. Starting off with the rousing Neighbourhood (Tunnels), Funeral has not only stood the test of time, but remains one of greatest albums of the decade.
Janelle Monae - The Archandroid (2010)
I never thought I would hear an album that would rank alongside those of Prince from his Purple reign during the 1980s, but this stone cold classic is a work of genius yet to be fully recognised by the rest of the world. A concept album that effortlessly flits from one genre to the other, The Archandroid is breathtaking in its scope. By rights Janelle Monae should be twice as big as Rihanna or Beyonce. Neither will ever produce and album as original and as eclectic as this magnum opus.
Radiohead - In Rainbows (2007)
I was walking back through Waterloo Station when I caught wind that Oxford's finest were to release an album that evening. The news came out of the blue. Apparently it would be free to download, allowing fans to pay what they wanted, prefiguring the common practice of allowing listeners to stream albums before purchasing. I was not having any of that and shelled out forty quid for the vinyl and CD box set. I was uncomfortable with the idea of a successful band with wads of cash in the bank advocating that music should be free and I recently read that in hindsight they might have done things differently. Whatever the moral principles of paying for music, what cannot be questioned is that this was Radiohead's finest album since the peerless "OK Computer" that blended their experimentalism with melody to perfection.
Suede - Bloodsports (2013)
If you had told me ten years ago that Brett Anderson & Co. would create a masterpiece that would rank alongside their first two albums, then I would have just laughed. But with all the hoopla surrounding the comeback of David Bowie, it is de facto "Bloodsports" that set the bar when it comes to reforming and recapturing the old magic. The newly invigorated Suede sound as vital and as passionate as ever. If Bloodsports had been half as good as it actually is, then I would have still been amazed.
The Horrors - Skying (2011)
I would also never have anticipated that a group from my hometown of Southend-on-Sea would make my top ten. "Primary Colours" was a great album, but their third long-player "Skying" was far more accomplished and mature, matching the praise that had been heaped upon their debut EP back in 1996. There is something sepulchral about "Skying", they have not betrayed their gothic roots. But the melodies and the newfound grandeur lifted The Horrors onto a completely new level.
Scissor Sisters - Scissor Sisters (2004)
There are three great pop albums under consideration. Girls Aloud's exceptional "Out of Control" and Outkast's tour de force that is "Speakerboxxx/The Love Below" were two that I considered, especially the latter. But re-listening to the Scissor Sisters' debut I was reminded how bold and inventive Jake Shears and friends sounded when this was released. Kicking off with the ebullient and deliciously catty "Laura" and the euphoric "Take Your Mama Out", it is easy to forget the pathos in songs like "Mary" and "It Can't Come Sooner Enough".
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds - Abattoir Blues/Lyre of Orpheus (2004)
I must confess that I was never a massive fan of Nick Cave until this double album came out in 2005. Brilliant song-writing, astonishing lyrics and like Janelle Monae, just the sheer scope ensured that this would be compelling listening, if exhausting when consumed in its entirety. I am still waiting to bump into him on Brighton beach whenever I am down the seaside.
Gillian Welch - The Harrow and the Harvest
I first caught Gillian Welch, like many other artists, performing live on Jools Holland on BBC2. Hers was such a deep soulful voice, the lyrics intense and unflinching from their often grave subject matter, and the finger picking from her partner David Rawlings exquisite. In fact, the live version here actually surpass those on the actual album, but still this is a modern day classic country album.
PJ Harvey - Let England Shake (2011)
Polly Harvey taps into the English soul and finds it rotten. Having already overseen four of five genuinely classic albums, Let England Shake might be her finest achievement and fully deserved its Mercury Award. She is rapidly becoming our modern day Kate Bush.
The Pipettes - We Are The Pipettes (2005)
I am probably the only person to include this no defunct group in their list of the best albums of the last ten years. Call it a guilty pleasure if you will. I guess girls groups inspired by the early 1960s were not in fashion back in the noughties. And let's face it, the cover sleeve is terrible. However, whenever I slip this on, I am reminded how many great melodies are packed into their sugar-coated debut that had playful air belying the songwriting of the top order. One day it will be revered as a classic born out of time. Maybe.
Ten Best Songs
St. Vincent - Marrow (2009)
A quite arresting slice of surreal pop from Annie Clark's debut album driven by a thundering bass saxophone riff that was later utilised for her superb collaboration with David Byrne, there are few songs that sound quite like Marrow. Youtube her wigged-out rendition on David Letterman.
Beach House - Myth (2012)
Recalling the glacial sound of prime Cocteau Twins, this is one of Beach Houses' greatest achievements to date.
Simian Mobile Disco - I Believe (2007)
Although I have been a huge fan of Daft Punk since "Da Funk" back in the nineties, the French duo have not achieved the emotional impact equal to "I Believe" that brilliantly fuses a blistering raw techno backdrop with magnificent soulful vocal and meaningful lyrics. Worth checking out the fantastic video for. And they're British.
Amy Winehouse - Love Is a Losing Game (2007)
I suppose this is a somewhat obvious choice, but you cannot deny that "Love Is A Losing Game" is a modern day classic. Before being addled by alcohol and drugs, Amy Winehouse delivered a vocal performance without compare, welling up raw emotions that leave the listener devastated by the end of three minutes. Her untimely but sadly predictable passing has only laden this with even more poignancy.
Yeah Yeah Yeahs - Maps (2003)
Following from "Love Is A Losing Game", "Maps" is cut from the same cloth and likewise, there is rawness to Karen O's lament of missing her lover that sets it apart from everything else. The clear high point from their debut album, there is something fragile about her vocals, a singer on the verge tears and not pulling back from its emotional impact. Her vocals contrast beautifully with Nick Zinner's discordant guitar and Brian Chase's almost jazz-style of drumming - a song that perfectly coalesces everything great about the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
The Knife - Pass This On (2007)
I was driving through Tulse Hill in South London (not the most salubrious part of the capital) late at night when I first heard "Pass This On" just before their debut was released. It sounded so weird and rather disturbing, which probably defined all Karin Andersson and Olof Dreijer's subsequent work. There is not enough mystery left in music. Thank God for this strange and wonderful Swedish duo. (Also worth checking out Karin's contribution to Royskopp's outstanding: "What Else Is There".)
Joanna Newsom - Crab, Clam, Cockle, Cowrie (2007)
I am unsure whether there is a huge market for harp music, but Joanna Newsom is a unique artist whose triple album "Have One On Me" probably ought to be in this list. This song actually came out on an EP entitled "Joanna Newsom and the Ys Street Band" and originally appeared on 2004s the Milk Eyed Mender album. It draws you in to a strange parallel world that Newsom creates. No, I don't have a clue what it's about.
Bloc Party - Banquet (2004)
A perfectly formed slice of indie, Bloc Party's major label debut single barely scraped the charts, but with its jagged, guitar riff and strong vocals from Kele, it builds fantastically to its skyscraping chorus that has been filling indie discos ever since. You kind of knew that they would never be able to repeat something as perfect at "Banquet", but that does not matter.
Frank Ocean - Pyramids (2012)
The genre bending centrepiece of Ocean's long-awaited debut "Channel Zero", Pyramids is a complex piece of R&B/soul/blues with some of the cleverest wordplay you will find in modern pop. In 2012, nothing came close to matching the ambition of Pyramids.
Gorillaz - Empire Ants (2009)
I am cheating here because Empire Ants was not released as a single from the album "Plastic Beach", but this is Damon Albarn at his very best. It is a deceptive song, the first half slow and dreamy with Damon's plaintive, affecting vocals that sound so sad. Then that bubbling riff kicks in and Little Dragon take "Empire Ants" in a different direction. In an odd way, as moving as "Love Is A Losing Game" but whereas Amy is the girl next door, this sounds as if it is being performed on one of those planets in the universe mentioned by Rutger Hauer in his soliloquy at the end of Bladerunner.
Worst Group Of The Last 10 Years
I used to nominate the artist that had really annoyed me during the year for releasing horrible music on the public. Every year it was won by Irish boyband "Westlife". The fact that they almost notched up as many number ones as The Beatles demonstrates what bad taste many people have. For the record, I never attended their farewell tour. I would have been prosecuted for my actions.