This is the first is an occasional series of roundups, musings, reflections and late night gibbering, covering subjects that you may of missed when they first came out.
Uncut’s 300 Greatest Albums
Uncut is one of my go to magazines for album reviews. This month they published their 300th edition. That’s 25 years of magazines, a milestone indeed given the changes in how we consume music information over that period.
To commemorate this they asked a panel of 55 contributors to come up with the 300 greatest albums of Uncut’s lifetime.
Here’s the Top 10.
Blackstar - David Bowie
Time Out Of Mind - Bob Dylan
Time (The Revelator) - Gillian Welch
Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space - Spiritualized
In Rainbows - Radiohead
Sound Of Silver - LCD Soundsystem
Is This It - The Strokes
Back To Black - Amy Winehouse
Aerial - Kate Bush
To Pimp A Butterfly - Kendrick Lemar
Hmm. I’m not sure that would be my Top 10, but's that the beauty of charts like this. It encourages game playing, list making and pleasurable time wasting.
By way of comparison, and considering only records that made the 300, I’ve extracted my Top 10. Their position in the Uncut 300 is given in brackets.
Is This It - Strokes (7)
Moon Safari - Air (12)
Songs From Northern Britain - Teenage Fanclub (75)
Vampire Weekend - Vampire Weekend (97)
HMS Fable - Shack (149)
Queen Of Denmark - John Grant (155)
Life Is People - Bill Fay (187)
Figure 8 - Elliott Smith (192)
Felt Mountain - Goldfrapp (241)
One Day I’m Going To Soar - Dexys (256)
Suggestions for your top album of the last 25 years will be warmly received and shared.
Penderyn Music Book Prize
Congratulations to Darryl W Bullock for being announced the winner of the 2022 Penderyn Music Book prize recently.
The Penderyn Music Book Prize or, as it was dubbed by the NME, ‘The Mercury Prize of Books’, has been running for eight years. In that time it has recognised a wealth of excellent writing on music.
Of the winners 5 out of 8 draw their inspiration, at least in part, from the 60s, but that’s by no means representative of the shortlists for each year. They cover all genres - blues, soul, punk, pop, rock, electro, grime, jazz and others. They’re also a prize with a social conscience shortlisting books covering LGBT, racism, domestic abuse, civil rights, feminism and many more social themes. And finally they’re adept at recognising something a bit niche, whether it’s technology or relatively unknown performers ,as well as something more expansive such as a complete history of popular music.
Below are the winners from each year together with some personal thoughts on that year’s competition.
2022 Winner The Velvet Mafia : Darryl W Bullock
Of the 2022 nominees, I’d read just the one, Lenny Kaye’s ‘Lightning Striking’. It took a little while to get into his rambling written style which is full of coined words and phrases. Once I tuned in though it was a very good read.
The hook is to focus each chapter on a different location and talk about how it flourished musically and influenced others before fading away. It’s not written through rose tinted spectacles and that clear sightedness is a boon. Kaye has been a member of Patti Smith’s backing band since they began and that gives him an authority as a writer who understands musicians. The chapter on punk was excellent; the chapter on Copenhagen’s death metal scene was grimly disturbing.
2021 Winner Broken Greek : Pete Paphides
Pete Paphides' book was an obvious winner, being one of the best books about growing up with music I’ve ever read. Anyone who can write credibly about the impact of ABBA on a young life, invest genuine effort in his pursuit of the Barron Knights and give as much credit to Top 30 one hit wonders as to more street credible acts can be enjoyed by everyone, including those that don’t like music.
It’s about more than that though. It’s a nostalgic, occasionally moving picture of growing up including the issues that come from being an immigrant family. It’s very funny too.
2020 Winner Up Jumped The Devil : Bruce Conforth & Gayle Dean Wardlow
I’d read a few of the books nominated for the 2020 prize. Tracy Thorn and David Hepworth are always highly readable, their writing honed by day jobs that include journalism. Richard King’s ‘Lark Ascending’ was a surprisingly mindful book looking at the relationship between landscape and music. I have two or three of the others still stocked up to read.
For sentimental reasons, because Nick Lowe is one of my all time favourites, I’d have loved Will Birch’s biography of him to have won. It’s a worthy nominee because it’s an entertaining, sympathetic and informed study of a very likeable but private man.
2019 Winner All In The Downs : Shirley Collins
By comparison to 2020, the 2019 shortlist was short indeed. I like that. It suggests that it’s the quality of the books and writing that’s important, not the prestige of any sponsors or any pressure from publishers. Big and long does not mean good.
Of the runners up, only Garth Cartwright’s ‘Going For A Song’ made it onto my radar. It’s another that I’ve yet to read but its combination of social history and record shop reference guide persuades me to pick it up sooner rather than later.
2018 Winner Memphis 68 : Stuart Cosgrove
Stuart Cosgrove won in 2018 with his study of Memphis Soul. It’s at the centre of a trilogy taking in Detroit 67 and Harlem 69. I’ve read the Detroit book and it is excellent, full of detail and creative in the themes it follows through the year.
Also on the short list was David Hepworth considering the 'rock star' and Billy Bragg on the history of skiffle. That’s one of the things I like about the Penderyn prize. It selects books that give you a different way of looking at music, or lift a veil on a lesser known part of it.
I read Chris Difford’s book as soon as it came out. It’s a good example of a warts and all autobiography full of interesting insights and easy to read. It left me with a greater understanding of Difford, for good and ill, and an increased respect for him as a songwriter.
2017 Winner Walls Come Tumbling Down : Daniel Rachel
David Hepworth made the first of three appearances on the shortlist with his advocacy of 1971 as the greatest year for rock in history, excluding the Jurassic era. It’s an entertaining argument if one that I completely disagree with. When compiling a 60th Birthday playlist, 1971 was the year that caused me most difficulty in finding a song to include.
The brilliant, deserving winner is a book about politics and music - Rock Against Racism etc. It’s a book I can recommend without reservation.
2016 Winner 1966 - Jon Savage
2016 had a very strong shortlist. The Detroit 67 book I mentioned above featured as did Tracey Thorn’s informative and touching study of singing based around her own experiences of stage fright.
I’d anticipated Elvis Costello’s ‘Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink’ keenly. It turned out to be a bit of a disappointment, lacking the wit and bite of his lyrics and trying to be a little too self serving. (Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born To Run’, although never nominated - perhaps it was ineligible - is a much better example of this kind of autobiography.)
2015 Winner : The Beatles Tune In - Mark Lewisohn
I haven’t read Lewisohn’s book but I’m convinced it must be good. It has to be to beat Bob Stanley’s ‘Yeah, Yeah, Yeah’ to the prize. Stanley’s book is one of the best I’ve read from any genre, ever. Its detail is astonishing and the obvious love of its subject shines through on every page.
I have a soft spot too for Tracey Thorn’s ‘Bedsit Queen’, the Isles of Noise compendium of interviews with singer songwriters and Ray Davies’ ‘Americana’ for which he accompanied with a couple of original albums.
If you’re interested in dipping a toe in a little further, their website has all the winners, all the shortlists, all the commentary. It’s https://www.penderynprize.com/2015.html
This romp through the Penderyn prize has taught me one thing. I need to set aside more time for reading about music.
Leaving aside the novelty songs about sausage rolls, star trekking, high speed milkmen or ones that are for charity and there aren't many good comedy songs that come to mind.
It’s well known that if you try to define or analyse comedy you kill it. There’s also a lot more to comedy than jokes and belly laughs - Shakespeare’s Comedies are testament to that!
I’ve compiled a short playlist of songs that have seemed to me to contain comedy, humour, wit or just made me smile and laugh at various points. There should be something here for all the family but I suspect that all the family will have trouble liking all the playlist. That’s because humour is often cruel.
Let me know of any others that should be on the list.
Sister Josephine : Jake Thackray
No longer will her snores ring through the chapel during prayers,
The most stylised song on the list, and also one that appeals to an older generation raised on Ealing comedies and Benny Hill. It's a short story in verse with great comic timing.
Ballad of the Budgie : Boothby Graffoe
I’m not a bloody nutter!
Beautifully structured, this macabre tale of the object of Boothby’s passion builds the dramatic and musical tension before puncturing it with a great pay off.
Silver Platter Club : John Grant
I wish I had the brain of a tyrannosaurus rex
So that I wouldn't have to deal with all this crap
Being a beta male is a recurring source of desperate humour in songs. Here’s the American version, set to a kind of show tune.
Love Song of the Beta Male : Stornoway
Don't ask me to buy you fancy lingerie
Well it's an awful lot of money and I wouldn't know your size
And here’s the British version, complete with glorious birdsong
Maxwell’s Silver Hammer : The Beatles
P. C. Thirty-One
Said "We caught a dirty one"
It’s a kind of Roald Dahl take on pop, for children but nasty children.
Political Science : Randy Newman
And South America stole our name
Randy Newman’s scathing take on American politics has entertained millions for many years. His take on politically incorrect science is a laugh a line.
The Comedians : Roy Orbison
It’s always something cruel that laughter drowns
We all know that Orbison specialised in heartbreaking songs but in this version of an Elvis Costello song, the screw is tightened by being set against a practical joke. It’s almost too bitterly wrenching to be classed as humour.
What A Waste : Ian Dury and the Blockheads
First night nerves every one night stand
Ian Dury is the poet laureate of songwriting. Well, one of them anyway. His imagination and random connections are unbeatable.
Hurt Feelings : Flight of the Conchords
The day after my birthday is not my birthday Mum
OK, they have an advantage in that they were already TV comedians, but this litany of whines and grievances will always raise a smile.
A Boy Named Sue : Johnny Cash
I tell you, life ain't easy for a boy named Sue
The moral of the song isn’t comic, but there’s something about the over the top attempt to toughen up his son that raises a smile every time.
No Pussy Blues : Grinderman
I patted her revolting little chihuahua
But still she just didn't want to
This one’s definitely not for children! Nick Cave’s frustrated litany of his attempts to get laid grows and grows to the point of explosion. It’s echoed in the music too.
Man That I’ve Become : Nick Lowe
The sweet singing of the choir
Is nothing but a row.
I saw him perform this song live recently, and there was laughter around the room at this couplet. His later work is riddled with funny / sad observations on life as you age.
Missing : Terry Hall
Divorce, is like the final straw
Do we need another Kramer versus Kramer?
He wasn’t the first singer to beg his lover to return in comic song - Bill Wyman did so in ‘Come Back Suzanne’ a few years before - but no one has wrapped it up in such sugar sweet music.
Norman and Norma : The Divine Comedy
So they went to Cromer, got double pneumonia
No one observes the traumas of little, ordinary people quite as well, while making them likeable. He loves people and that shows. It's Alan Bennett in song form.
Crazy ABCs - Barenaked Ladies
P for pneumonia, pterodactyl and psychosis
This may be the funniest song I know. It’s a witty conceit but what makes it so good is the image I have in my head of this being amiably delivered to a class of primary school pupils. It’s cruelty wrapped up in well meaning care and a mischievous nudge in the ribs to the supporters of phonetics.
Montana : Frank Zappa
Moving to Montana soon. Gonna be a dental floss tycoon (Yes I am.)
If, as Rowan Atkinson has demonstrated, it's possible to reduce an audience to helpless laughter by the repetition of a single word, Frank Zappa's single minded obsession with dental floss can do same. There are a number of good vocal and musical jokes in this gently absurd song too.
The Intro and the Outro : Bonzo Dog Band
Nice to see Incredible Shrinking Man on euphonium
If deadpan humour is your thing, it doesn't come much better than this litany of performers. It's the best example of Month Python humour that Monty Python didn't write
Twat : John Cooper Clark
Like a death at a birthday party, you spoil all the fun
There's something almost joyous in this scathing rant of a poem which produces almost a laugh a line. The slight pause before the final pay off is one of the best moments in music.
Jazz v Pop
When I began Pop In The Real World, as a hobby for retirement with, supposedly, more time on my hands to listen to music, I set myself a challenge to try to understand, appreciate and even like jazz a little more.
I’m glad I did. It’s given me some unexpectedly magical moments. Listening to Maridalen’s self-titled debut album last Summer while watching the sun come up over Whitby Harbour was very special.
Jazz is different. It’s helped me to understand what it is that I like about music generally. I’ve realised that it’s order and recurring patterns (or verses and choruses as pop would have it.) That’s not to say that there’s nothing that appeals in the onslaught of free jazz, or the energy of the performance. Of course there is, but it’s the order and recurring patterns that lodge the music in my brain and heart. And the melody too. And the regular arithmetic on a yelled “1-2-3-4”!
There’s a couplet in ‘Wichita Lineman’ Jimmy Webb’s song for Glen Campbell, that goes
“And I need you more than want you
And I want you for all time”
I want to listen to jazz but, in its broadest sense, I need to listen to pop. Or to put it in amore down to earth way, I've concluded that jazz is an entertaining and enjoyable dinner date but pop is a life partner.