Travis – Tied to the 90s

I literally can’t believe he’s going to finish his third 90s playlist with not one but two Travis tracks. Two! Count “em. I mean, really? Travis? Those nice but nonthreatening lads who brought you now irritating earworms like ‘Why Does it Always Rain on Me?”, and who dared to make stupid people believe they were having a lyrical dig at Oasis?

Still, that’s just like him. To end three months of 90s tracks with a track about being stuck in the 90s that manages to make you feel harmlessly nostalgic for that time, while at the same time making you hate yourself for it.

God I hope this means we won’t have another 90s month ever again.

Travis – Writing to Reach You

Nigel Godrich sprinkled his magic dust all over The Man Who, and helped turn a band that had briefly flirted with the top 10 (1997’s Good Feeling was well enough received, and hit number nine, but faded fast) into a chart-topping act.

Radiohead – No Surprises

One of the best sounding albums of the 90s, expanding on the sound of The Bends, and taking Radiohead into galaxies new, leaving Pablo Honey all but a distant memory; an album by another band altogether. It’s produced was Nigel Godrich, whose distinctive layered sound gave OK Computer its incredible scale, and which did much the same for a breakthrough album by a little known Scottish band two years hence…

Crowded House – Distant Sun

This is roughly the point at which Aus/NZ group Crowded House started to move into “hey, even if you can’t necessarily immediately recall all their hits, there’s a chance that you’ve hummed a few of them at one time, and you have to admit they were kind of catchy and you sort of liked them, even though you sometimes worried they were a bit lamestream and verging on the cheesy” territory. Or as the adverts for their greatest hits package would have it:

You know more Crowded House songs than you think you do

Although I’m pretty sure I know exactly the number of Crowded House songs that I do, in fact, know, I couldn’t enumerate that set with any certainty (“Private Universe”!). But strangely, the advertising logic (“Chocolate Cake”!) kind of holds. Despite having a chart history (“Don’t Dream it’s Over”!) that reads like Mark Ramprakash’s England (“Weather With You”!) batting record, Crowded House really do have songs (“Fall at your Feet”!) that somehow seep into the musical landscape.

“Four Seasons In One Day”! Now that’s a really annoying earworm.

“Pineapple Head”!

A bunch of other non-singles that you’ve probably heard on someone else’s stereo, because we’re all probably only a few degrees of separation away from a Crowded House album, a number that tends towards zero the more polite but not necessarily aspirational dinner parties you attended ten to fifteen years ago.

And “Distant Sun”! How could I forget?

The Flaming Lips – Feeling Yourself Disintegrate

Falling perfectly into that sweet spot between experimentation and plain straight up song-writing panache, The Soft Bulletin was a creative and critical peak for The Flaming Lips, their work both before and since veering too far off course for enduring greatness. “Feeling Yourself Disintegrate” is a sumptuous space-walk meditation; a zero-gravity waltz. If I was drifting through the cosmos, this is the soundtrack I’d insist on.

Love in our life is just too valuable
Oh, to feel for even a second without it
But life without death is just impossible
Oh, to realize something is ending within us

Theaudience – A Pessimist is Never Disappointed

Another year, another musician takes their bow on reality TV. Last year it was Limahl taking on Nadine Dorries in the jungle faux-liage, this year it’s the turn of Sophie Ellis-Bextor, dancing off against the likes of Vanessa Feltz and Dave Myers on Strictly Come Dancing.

In the late 1990s, at the tail-end of the britpop days, when interest was rapidly waning, a young Sophie fronted Theaudience, a gentle indie-pop group who managed one album and a handful of singles before being dumped by their label. Ellis-Bextor, of course, went on to sing the chart-topping “Groovejet (If This Ain’t Love)”, but it wasn’t her first major success: before splitting, her band managed to win the prestigious (yet mostly unheard of) “Alternative Eurovision” contest with “A Pessimist is Never Disappointed”.

Ash – Goldfinger

It’s Tim Wheeler’s favourite Ash song, lyrically and musically, and who am I to disagree? “Goldfinger” is classic quiet/LOUD, driven by some furious pounding and heavy chords.

Between The Bars – an Elliott Smith primer

Monday saw the tenth anniversary of the death of the songwriter Elliott Smith. A remarkable, fragile talent, like so many others of his profession. So many great melodies, bittersweet lyrics, and equally at home in the lo-fi of his early recordings as the lush major label albums he followed them with.

If I had to pick one of his songs that stands out above all others, I would have to pick “Stupidity Tries” from Figure 8. I don’t know that it’s ever really been my favourite Elliott Smith song, and it doesn’t contain my favourite lyric, but it is without a doubt the one that gives me the most severe earworm: something about the way it circles and rises, rises and circles, just keeps it replaying over and over in my head, and there seems to be little if anything at all that can be done to prevent it.

Here’s Smith performing it on Letterman:

As for the playlist: three tracks from each of Elliott Smith’s 7 albums – the five released during his lifetime and two posthumous collections. Ask any two Elliott Smith fans to compile a playlist and you’re certain to get two different answers; these songs are just ones that have made an impression on me, from “Roman Candle”, via “Between The Bars” (my first Elliott Smith song) to “Miss Misery”, the Oscar-winning song that somehow never was.

I Break Horses – Faith

The second track from the forthcoming second album by Sweden’s I Break Horses continues the progress from their debut album Hearts that was apparent on “Denial”, with the hazy shoegazing once more playing second fiddle to the electronica. Sounds like they’ve invited themselves along to the big synth party as well: it’s starting to get crowded in there. Expect to see Chiaroscuro released sometime in 2014.

The best albums ever, maybe. Then again …

It’s the best ever, it’s the critics favourite, it’s the GOAT[1], it’s The Queen Is Dead, the 1986 album by The Smiths that was kept off the top spot in its week of release by Genesis. By and large its been up and up since then, the album regularly garlanded by critics and lauded by fans.

And now, 27 years after it was released, it’s finally reached the coveted number one spot, The Beatles providing weaker competition than Phil Collins et al, Revolver beaten into second place.

After the list, inevitably, comes the fallout.The spluttering. But how? How can it be the best album in the world? It’s not even the best album by The Smiths! It wasn’t even the best album released in 1986! It wasn’t voted best album last time! (when the NME ran a poll in 2003 The Stone Roses’ debut album ruled them all, and in 2006 another NME list of the best 100 British albums of all time the same album lead the way, with The Queen is Dead in second)! It’s not my favourite! It’s just the opinion of some NME hacks, and what do they know!

And so on.

It’s surely been a long enough established truth that arguing over lists on the internet is pointless. Arguing over music on the internet is surely just as futile. Arguing over music lists then must be the very pointless end of the pointless stick.

So accept that it’s just arbitrary. Accept that some people were asked, and some weren’t. Accept that not everyone responded. Accept that all those who did had been NME writers at some point during their life, and accept that their lists will be coloured by that, and their age and individual cultural preferences. Accept that an album can be everyone’s second favourite and still finish as the collective winner, while an album that starkly divides opinion can suffer accordingly. Accept that the scoring system is not objectively perfect and under a different system you might be arguing over a different champion (three points for a win instead of 2, etc).

Accept that if everyone had been asked to give their favourite 51 albums, or 52 albums, or 100 albums, the overall list would be different. Accept that if they’d been asked a week later, or a week before, the list would be different.

Accept that if your favourite albums are well placed you may be inclined to treat the list more favourably.

Acknowledge that if The Queen is Dead is your own favourite, you haven’t won a beauty contest, but understand that your views may agree with the views of the NME down the years.

Above all, remember that if you don’t like this list you shouldn’t worry: another one will be along soon.

Links, provided for the curious

[1] Greatest of all time

R.E.M – E-Bow the Letter

Recorded initially during their 1995 tour, as members of the band were falling apart in very real and physical ways (only Peter Buck made it through unscathed), New Adventures in Hi-Fi marked a pretty extraordinary moment in commercial rock history, as the album REM released shortly after signing a reported $80 million deal with Warner Bros. Whatever the veracity of the amount, we’re talking about a lot of money, and (you might think) a lot of leaning-on by suits. You might also think that someone, somewhere, would have been thinking along the lines of “but hang on, surely in Out of Time and Automatic they’ve already hit their commercial and artistic peak?”. Perhaps, but never underestimate the power and value of the back-catalogue.

So all hail R.E.M, for choosing “E-Bow the Letter” as the lead single for New Adventures in Hi-Fi, with its magnificent dirge of an intro, spoken lyric, and the duelling of Patti Smith and Buck’s guitar in the chorus, competing to make the most mournful noise.

Tindersticks – Across Six Leap Years

The idea behind Tindersticks’ new album Across Six Leap Years was to recapture songs that had somehow got lost along the way, or that hadn’t been recorded quite the way the band envisaged. Listening to the album, then, it’s interesting that many of the tracks don’t sound altogether different from their original album versions. The result is a satisfying collection of subtly reworked old and not-so-old tracks; better than a cheap best-of, but not as radical as it could have been.

I’ve loved Tindersticks since the day I wandered into a Manchester music store and, spying their self-titled second album on a listening post, dropped the headphones on and let the opening bars of “El diablo en el ojo” feed into me. It wasn’t love at first listen: I’d known tracks like “Marbles” and “Snowy in F# minor” before this day, but it was a transformative moment. Then, seeing them live for the first time was a spellbinding experience that only live music can provide.

After nearly two decades of love and adulation – I’ve seen them play home and abroad, in halls, theatres and institutes, stripped back and bare or with full orchestral accompaniment; I’ve bought albums, singles, soundtracks, live collections and official bootlegs; I’ve been here, there and bought the t-shirt – that before 2012’s The Something Rain it had been quite a while since I’d really listened to Tindersticks. The Hungry Saw (2008), and Falling Down a Mountain (2010) saw the band struggling to wrench itself from the past and formulate a new self. Both, as a result, lacked memorable moments. In the years since Waiting For The Moon (2003), lead singer Stuart Staples had also been off recording two solo albums; for many, the end was nigh.

With an end, a beginning; on The Something Rain, Tindersticks found their new groove, more comfortably soulful than they’d sounded in years, at the same time forceful, while still finding space for old methods that had served well: “Chocolate”, the album’s opening track, is delivered spoken-word, harking back to the story-telling of a song like “My Sister”, while “Show Me Something” is driven by a strong, angry guitar riff.

Across Six Leap Years is the sound of the new Tindersticks transposed over the score of the old Tindersticks. There’s nothing here (assuming you aren’t hearing the songs for the first time) to make you stop and wonder, but while no individual song leaps out as remarkable, the effect of the whole is seamless: the old (“Sleepy Song”, “A Night In”, “She’s Gone” – all from the second album) mingles with the new (“Friday Night” and “Marseilles Sunshine” from Staples’s first solo album, and “What Are You Fighting For”, rescued from non-album track obscurity and given new beauty and clarity), mindless of the age gap.

A common approach to this sort of release might take a number of directions: the luscious string reworking, or perhaps the stripped bare, raw and emotional reworking. For a band that made a living combining luscious strings with dirty emotional wreckage, these were never going to be options. Instead Across Six Leap Years showcases emotional maturity in Stuart Staples’ vocals, powerful backing vocals where powerful backing vocals are needed, and harsh guitars where soft strings once played. Where once the violins cushioned Staples harsh baritone, his newer, softer, delivery, acts a damper to punctuating brass and harsh guitar tones. They avoid the temptation to blow songs up out of all proportion, but then an understanding of quiet, of the spaces in between, has long been a Tindersticks hallmark.

If there’s one thing missing from Across Six Leap Years it’s the version of Tindersticks that as provided mostly instrumental scores for a suite of Claire Denis films, from Nénette et Boni in 1996 to this year’s Les Salauds. The last of these includes eerie, isolating electronica, which could have been the basis of some remarkable and interesting reworkings if the band had chosen to take that route. If, as Staples says, the album is about “the power of now”, then maybe that would have been as “now” as they could go. Instead, we’re given a beautiful collection that advances where these ten songs are in the mind of their creators, but which seems to play a little safe: a readjustment more than a re-imagining.