They don’t make it like they used to…

For 20 odd years now I’ve been keeping annual lists of my favourite things – music, books, films. If you remember High Fidelity (which made my lists for best book and best movie btw) at all then you know exactly how blokes love to make such lists. For the most part it’s been pretty casual. I don’t have a book I religiously record these things in, though I should. Most of the lists have been lost thereabouts over the years. Occasionally I’ll come across a scrap of paper with, say, my favourite songs of 1983 scrawled on it. I’ll sit back, read the list, nod my head, likely thinking yeah, not bad, and, shoot, I remember that.

When it comes to music I’ve found an informal way of keeping tabs on these things. I have an iTunes playlist called Best Years. Supposedly it’s the best songs of every year starting way back when. Originally, just as it was when I did my hand written lists, I went for the top 10, which is the classic. After a while I realised that was pretty arbitrary, and sort of unfair. Some years, great years, rare years, might have 12 great songs for example. Who am I to leave off two because they don’t fit? More often the problem is the opposite – I can’t find 10 songs that meet that stringent requirement. If there’s only 5 then that’s all I’ll select. If it’s less than that, then so be it.

Maybe because I’m getting older, or maybe my tastes aren’t moving with the times, but I find there has been a drastic fall in the number of songs that can be called ‘best’ over the last decade. I don’t know if more than one or two make it from 2012. Go back 20 years and there were plethora.

So here I am about to list out my favourite songs from 2012, but it’s important to know that most of these don’t make the best years cut. I’m picking them as the best of a relatively ordinary bunch, based on the ratings I’ve given them. So here it is, my best songs of 2012:

My favourite song of the year was clearly Cherokee, by Cat Power (though, worth noting, just 3 1/2 stars, when most years my best songs are 4+ stars plus). I’ve like Cat Power for years, but this is her best work I think. It’s a hypnotic tune that swirls around you and draws you in.

Clare de lune by Flight Facilities (w. Christine Hoberg), is another very good song, and not one you could imagine 20 years ago. It’s a beautiful, seductive piece of music that has something of the orchestral feel the name would suggest. It’s another tune that has you floating on top of it, a pretty voice, a hypnotic electronic melody reverberating beneath, then tinkling sweetly as if leading you to a happy place.

The next is a piece of music I’ve found to be quite divisive of opinions: Same Love, by Macklemore, Ryan Lewis, and Mary Lambert. Not surprising really. Basically it’s about gay love, about it being just the ‘same love’ as anyone else. It’s well done, clever, but the highlight is when Mary Lambert sings her refrain: “….I can’t change even if I tried, even if I wanted to, my love, my love, my love, she keeps me warm…” It deserves to be one of the songs of the year, and it’s a message worth hearing again and again until it gets through. Given the current high rotation we’re likely to hear it again and again. For the record their other big song – Thrift Shop – gives me the shits.

There’s probably a bunch of songs that round the year of the best: Providence, by Lisa Mitchell (love her voice, she’s a mini-fave of mine); Boy, by Emma Louise; Gold On The Ceiling, by the Black Keys; Sweet Nothing, by Calvin Harris (w. Florence Walsh); Lost, by Frank Ocean; and I’m Into You, by Chet Faker. Not sure if this is strictly 2012 (or 2011), but really like Civilian, by Wye Oak, more than most of these.

The highest rated of any of these songs is 3 1/2, most are 3 stars, but I’ve squeezed in some less highly rated than that. That would be unheard of even 10 years ago.

As a point of comparison, here’s a selection of songs from 1992 as good as, and mostly better than, the selection above:

Smells Like Teen Spirit – Nirvana

Creep – Stone Temple Pilots

One – U2

Remedy – The Black Crowes

Winter – Tori Amos

Finally – Ce Ce Peniston

Tears in Heaven – Eric Clapton (great album all round)

Sounds of Then (This is Australia) – GANGgajang

I Could Be Wrong – PIL

Everybody Hurts – REM

Under the Bridge – Red Hot Chilli Peppers

Fucking good year 1992, and for the record not all of these made my Best Years list, though there are some all time favourite songs here. I’m a tough marker. 2 1/2 is an average good song, these range between 3 1/2 stars and 5. Then there’s other great music from 1992 I haven’t listed here just as good as last years list, and more of them – from Hunters & Collectors, Died Pretty, Bruce Springsteen, The Lemonheads… It was an era of great bands – not listed here but featuring in the years around are bands like Pearl Jam, Rage Against The Machine, Crowded House, Massive Attack, Metallica, the Cruel Sea, Soundgarden, and sundry others. Gee, I really rocked out then, and loved it.

When LP’s rocked

Was in the car the other day listening to the radio when an old Radiohead song comes on. I listen hard, enjoying the sheer clever musicality of it amid the general musical pap we get served up these days. As I’m listening I’m thinking how they had some great albums – The Bends, Ok Computer – and how the concept of albums, or LP’s, has fallen by the wayside. It seemed sad, on so many levels.

I’m old enough to remember going to the local record shop, as it was then, and spending my pocket money on some LP or another for $6.99. I spent hours flipping through the records week after week plotting my next purchase in between watching Countdown on the weekend. Every chance I had I did myself the favour Molly urged on me, and got the latest hit album. It felt special to be carrying home in a Brashs bag the umistakable shape of an LP: there goes that kid with a record. Home I would pull it out of it’s sleeve, the inner plastic sticking to the black vinyl with static, the vinyl dark like Darth Vader’s helmet, and beautifully pristine. You flip it between your fingers, searching for side one, before putting it on the turntable. In our case it was a JVC Quadraphonic, big stuff then. A few crackly notes as the needle rotates through the grooves before the first crisp notes emerge from the speakers. And you listen, track after track, lying on the floor, reading the back of the LP cover, checking out the words if you have them, as the album emerges into your world.

See, back then an album unfolded. One track led to another, before at some point you had to change sides and recommence the journey. I know artists spent a lot of time plotting the order of songs on the LP. There was meant to be a progression, lost today in readily downloadable electronic files that exist in isolation, disconnected from any concept of album.

And then there’s ‘concept’ albums, now almost a thing of the past. You’d have artists like The Alan Parsons Project, Jethro Tull, David Bowie (in different guises), and so on, who would put out albums built around a central theme or character. The album as a whole told a story, through different chapters and voices. That hardly happens now. Instead society digests music as singles, ignorant of the ceremony associated with buying an album, or even a CD, used to the convenience of consuming the latest hit with a few clicks of a mouse button. All of those other things I write of seem lost, like so many things of past eras that become outmoded with time.

You understand why, to a large degree. Over the last few decades technology and society have merged, spiralling away into a stratosphere never imagined when I was a 10 year old kid. It’s simple to download a song, and necessary really if you want to listen on your iPod. I do it myself. But things get lost. The grand, very human idea of an album. The humble pleasure of going out to make that purchase. And, of course, the audio quality. Over the years we have sacrificed these things, almost without thought, for the sake of convenience. To me that sums up a lot of things about society today: convenience rules.

And yes, I’m thinking some variation of this as I’m driving along when an old Elvis Costello song comes up (Pump It Up), and not only does it just confirm what I’ve been thinking, but then I think again, for the umpteenth time, they just don’t make music like that anymore…

Old romantics

Cover of The Bride Stripped Bare (1978)

Cover of The Bride Stripped Bare (1978) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was never a New Romantic; I struggle these days to be an older romantic. I grew up in the midst of that era in the mid-eighties watching on Countdown the latest artists – usually English – hit the big time. I remember looking upon A Flock of Seagulls and thinking what a queer bunch of gits – and what a stupid haircut. I was not a big fan of their single great hit – I Ran – but more than anything I was bemused considering how the likes of them had diverged from the likes of me. I wasn’t much into Spandau Ballet either, or Boy George, or Marilyn, and it’s only in recent years I can appreciate Human League as I never did then. I hated Duran Duran, was sceptical of Wham!, but sorta liked Depeche Mode and Tears for Fears, which I considered to be at the respectable end of the New Romantic spectrum. In years to come I became a fan of The Cure, notwithstanding the fact that Robert Smith and I are almost opposites, and I liked the attitude and wit of The Pet Shop Boys.

I have a friend – Cheeseboy – who has photos of himself in that era, dark haired and good looking and with eye shadow on. We’re the best of friends now (now he’s ditched the make-up), but it’s fair to say back then I don’t know if we’d have had much in common. I wore the best suits I could afford through the week, matched with a swish tie; and jeans on the weekend. I was a wannabe jock, a heterosexual hedonist who lived for Friday night drinks, girls, and the footy – and my musical tastes fell into line. I was passionate about music, but looking back it seems my tastes were pretty catholic. I liked Bruce Springsteen. Later I cottoned onto U2 and REM in their early outings. Then there was Elvis Costello, Peter Gabriel, Talking Heads, the Smiths. I liked Hunters & Collectors here in Oz, and Crowded House, Midnight Oil, the Hoodoos, and throw in INXS circa The Swing. (Lest you think I was a white bread suburban yobbo wearing flannelette I was also big into Marvin Gaye and Sam Cooke, and loved jazz, soul and even classical music, and my tastes remain as eclectic as that). The rest were odds and sods, tunes that took my fancy along the way while the musicians fell from my memory. I was a different sort of fish.

One I did like was Bryan Ferry. I liked him (and Roxy Music) in the seventies, followed him into the eighties, and beyond. He was, and remains a timeless performer, seemingly independent of trends and eras and the fashions that come and go. He’s always himself, a cool dude, tall, good looking with floppy black hair and an insouciant style. You don’t think of his music as being seventies or eighties or particularly being attached to any label. He’s been himself all throughout, and his music has reflected his individual aesthetic.

I reckon I have about 8-10 Bryan Ferry/Roxy Music songs in my iTunes, some of which are classic favourites like Let’s Stick Together, This Is Tomorrow, and Slave to Love, which has one of my favourite all time song lyrics:

“To need a woman, you’ve got to know, how the strong get weak, and the rich get poor…”

What a true lyric that was, and something in my romantic past I clung to, believing, understanding the push and pull of such strong feelings, a willing slave to it when I wasn’t remembering it when it was gone, anticipating it, fantasising how it might come, tell her I’ll be waiting in the usual place…

His music was different because he was different. Stylish to start with. He saw the world differently, elegantly, and with an artistic flair. While rock stars through the ages posture and prance he never had to. Compared to the likes of Adam Ant and the androgynous look-alikes that dominated eighties music he seems the urbane sophisticate against try-hard wannabes making more sound than music. He was sophisticated and grown-up and all that, but you figured he was somebody who had as much fun off stage as he did on it. As a bloke who liked style and girls there was a lot for me to admire in Bryan Ferry. I thought then, as I do now, that any man who can get Jerri Hall yelping on camera (and elsewhere for all I knew), had a lot going for him. Shoot, I was an arrogant kid looking to take big bites out of everything I could get my jaw around, but Bryan Ferry was one of those characters who would make me pause and for a few moments consider how much fun it might be to have his life for a while.

A few weeks back I saw an interview with Bryan Ferry on TV. He seems unchanged in so many ways. I tried to figure out how old he was as I watched. Over 60? You’re kidding me? But yes, over 60 and still tall and elegant and somehow unchanged, and still performing. He doesn’t have models for girlfriends anymore, and in fact has three grown sons. It was a good interview, in which he was affable and engaging, delighted it seemed to remember his roots as an art student starting out back in the sixties when everything seemed to be happening. Sitting there he seemed elegantly rumpled, and not quite the pristine hipster of yesteryear. He joked of how he was dressed in his “travelling clothes“, rather than one of his trademark (usually white) suits. He was polite and gracious, attentive to the questions which he answered thoughtfully, a smile often coming to his lips as he recalled something forgotten. I liked him, and in a different way from ever before. He struck me as being like an old-school English aristocrat like they probably don’t make anymore, a gentleman in every way, self-effacing, generous and engagingly reserved. Hope I age so well.