An album isn’t just for Christmas…

22 Dec
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My favourite Christmas album. Try it, it’ll get you right in the mood.

Christmas is coming, so I hope you’re all prepared and making merry in whatever way you most like, whatever your beliefs or proclivities. It’s been a fraught month of hard work and hard luck over here, but the tinsel covered juggernaut that is Christmas is thundering my way, so best to cheer up and get on with it I think. What better activity then, than debating some choice music? No festive tunes though, I have to say.

So, I’ve just read NME’s top albums of the year and as usual decided that either I’m slightly out of touch or the NME just like promoting bands that most of us wouldn’t have heard of otherwise. To be honest though, there’s some good stuff in there (The Arctic Monkey’s AM was their top choice, incidentally, although that’s more my nephew’s sort of thing these days). I’m personally hoping for Daft Punk and Laura Marling for Christmas (their albums, not a personal appearance).

But, still thinking of the NME, I recall their top 100 albums of all time (always a bit of a claim), from a few years back. I was quite pleased to have quite a lot of the records included. The Beatles and The Rolling Stones rub sleeves with newer comers like The Strokes and The White Stripes. Not sure what the oldest album on the list was, but I’d say around mid’ 60s which is important I think. And I’ll come back to that later. I’ve seen top 100 polls many times though, and perhaps with the march of time, there can’t be a definitive list.

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So, what makes a good album? Am I annoyed that Belinda Carlisle’s Heaven on Earth, that I used to play constantly in 1988, isn’t included on these sort of lists? Or do I accept that what sounded good to my 15 year old ears isn’t so great now? Well, grudgingly… I still love Belinda’s album. Oh, come on, don’t look at me like that, I really like it! It’s no Queen is Dead, but who wants to be listening to the Smiths all the time at that pivotal age? You need a bit of cheering up. But, while we’re on the subject, as a creative statement I do believe that it can’t hold its own against the albums at the bottom of the NME list. It’s not a work of Art is it? Or is it??

Does musical snobbery come into this then?  Why are The Beatles supposedly better than Take That? After all, Take That preformed in Beatles outfits at the Brits once didn’t they? How post-modern. What was the difference again? Incidentally, I’d say that anyone comparing The Beatles to a modern manufactured boy band is rather missing the point and showing huge laziness. The Beatles were culturally seismic; the likes of One Direction have barely caused a ripple in a glass of water in comparison. And they don’t even write their songs or play instruments.

The difference is probably soul. Or Rubber Soul in the Beatles’ case. And I don’t mean the music genre of Soul either. But I certainly think one thing does unite The Stone Roses, Nevermind, Revolver, Exile on main street, Parallel lines, Blood on the tracks, What’s Going On?, The Velvet underground and Nico, Station to Station,  Elephant, Parklife, Different class, Powerslave, Back in Black, A day at the opera, Led Zeppellin IV, London Calling, Never mind the bollocks, It takes a nation of millions to hold us back, Screamadelica, Ladies and Gentlemen we are floating in space, Songs for swingin’ lovers, A kind of blue, Dark side of the Moon, Black Sabbath, The Queen is dead, Pet Sounds, The Doors….and that’s off the top of my head. Some are in that poll, others aren’t, but they’re all well known and popular albums. And one thing combines them. What is it?

The fact some of you might not know some of the records listed above (and trust me, they are albums that have changed people’s lives- at least two were instrumental- no pun intended- in me making life affirming decisions). It may illustrate why it’s important to embrace it all and then decide. How can Ramones fans not try out Blondie, for example? And if you don’t think Sinatra had a good voice, what the hell are you still doing reading this thread?? Did you know that Alice Cooper’s favourite band were The Doors and Jim Morrison was his idol? It all fits together; one influence bleeds into another. It’s therefore good to withhold judgement until one is educated in another’s creative output. In doing so one may end up slating their favourite artists biggest influence. But I digress….What combines them? What trait in common do they have?

I believe it is a love of music and a belief that what they were doing made a difference. An artist may be tortured or sane, they may be happy or sad, or they may have an important message or a trivial one. Either way, unless there is soul in their success there is never going to be a great album from an artist who’s only in it for the fame and money.  Contrary to popular opinion, you can’t make a long musical career bombed out of your heads on drugs, although you might make a couple of interesting albums. Look at Elastica’a disappointing second effort. Look at Syd Barrett. At least Captain Beefheart stuck around for more than one LP, but I don’t think he was still on whatever was encouraging Trout Mask Replica.

Also, one important thing to remember is that not all great artists can create great albums. T-rex and Abba created great singles- some of the best of their decade- and The Slider and Arrival may be their masterpieces, but they look laughably amateur in the company of most albums listed above. But variety is spicy, whatever we’re discussing.

Albums do generally sell more than singles now, and are as relevant as ever, even if the download era prevents them from having the total impact they had in the 1970s (less of us listen to a full album as a story from beginning to end, instead individual tracks are downloaded). But the album can still be a musical art form, a collection of music to soundtrack our lives. They are also a source of contemporary ambiance. I feel I know what it was like to sit in a coffee house listening to Miles Davis in ’59. I feel the optimism and enthusiasm of the Beatles circa ’65, and the raw energy of The Pistols in ‘77. And so it goes. They are slowly becoming as much historical documents as musical ones.

The album came of age in the mid sixties I think. Before then they were more a gimmicky promotion tool (rather like a single is today) or for people too lazy to change over singles. The Beatles were a big influence. As money making a machine as ever constructed since, but fueled by creativity and not greed. Even their album covers were Art. Pop Art of course  The musical stove was cooking!

It’s a precious thing, an art form, as the older it gets the more often it becomes in danger. The album has adapted and evolved its format, but can it survive the technological changes of the 21st century? Can the album as a collected format- a portable folio of music- still survive? Do we care? But like Joni Mitchell sang on “Big Yellow taxi” (Ladies of the canyon, 1970)- “You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone…”

From the black shiny lure of vinyl to the jewel cases of CDs, or even the coverless convenience of a download, they are one of my favourite obsessions. Because, get beyond the cover art (which is a world of obsessions all to itself. You could get into albums just from the covers alone) and you enter the musical minds of the last 60 years or so and they’ve saved my bacon on several occasions.

And that includes Belinda.

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