Tuesday, 3 August 2021

Mary/ Mary J. Blige (1999): Albums of my Life: an A-Z


 spending hours of my time, in my room listening to albums like this one. At age 15, I was on an R n B/ soul train, browsing the comparatively small, devoted section in HMV like my life depended on it. It's not like we had Google, so I would get to see some music videos on MTV Base and then I would go from there just following artists through artists. If someone collaborated on a track of a singer or band I liked, I'd hunt that artist out. Or if I heard a snippet of something somewhere that caught my ear, I'd try and investigate, often taking a gamble on an album just based on hearing part of a song or the reputation of a singer or group. Some R n B and soul was brought to me through the mainstream charts-- but,  more than many of my friends-- I sought out music of black origin in a big way. There was nothing that came close for me in terms of the romance, the sweetness of the harmonies and the sexiness! 

From a young age, I listened to Michael Jackson's back catalogue with an affinity for the way it dove in and out of pop, soul, disco and funk. Of course, as a pre-teen, I'd never have given my passion for music a second thought, in fact, it's only as an adult that I realised that music obsession (listening to albums from start to finish, lying on your back on your bed, eyes closed; skipping back to a certain riff over and over to mentally assimilate the beautiful vocal acrobatism of it) is not something everyone does. But this is what music of black origin does for me. I say 'music of black origin' deliberately because as I've got older, I realise the importance of that. The far-reaching influences of R n B (from jazz, gospel, swing and blues) tell part of the history of its foundings; however, the context of racial segregation and discrimination can never be overlooked. From oppression comes solidarity within communities, creative power and a powerful sense of ownership.

Whilst Mary J. Blige's 'Mary' was part of a soundtrack to my own youth, it is my understanding that Mary J. Blige and other black female artists like her are not only iconic, but imperative role models within the African-American communities and beyond. 

Thursday, 29 July 2021

Love is Here/ Starsailor (2001): Albums of my Life: an A-Z


  being 16 or 17 and this album just becoming part of my world. I owned it on CD and was starting to branch out a little from my beloved R n B/ Soul music interests into an indie direction. This album was suitably moody for my young sensibilities and James Walsh's voice stood out to me-- it still does, in fact.

The single 'Alcoholic' immediately drew me in with its piano accompaniment and dismal lyrics (fodder for inward-looking folk); the harmonies and arrangements spoke to me too and made Starsailor stand out from other groups of a similar ilk. As the years passed, I loved their others earlier albums such as 'Silence is Easy' and 'On the Outside', possibly enjoying some of the tracks on them even more than their debut. Despite that, 'Love is Here' is where it started and there's a vibe about it that takes me right back to 2001 and all of the mixed emotions of that time for me.

Sunday, 4 July 2021

Kill the Wolf/ Matt Berry (2013): Albums of my Life: an A-Z



   having a family barbecue back home one Summer. It must have been 2008, a truly significant year for me. I was due to start my new job, beginning the career I had trained for; a few months before I had experienced a tough break up; I was living alone back in Hampshire and getting to grips with it all. At the barbecue, my brother put on this unusual prog album complete with a rich-voiced narrator overlaying some of the tracks. That voice belonged to comic actor, Matt Berry, and the album was 'Opium'.

I had loved the IT Crowd and it really tickled me that the hilarious 'Reynholm' would suddenly manifest himself onto an experimental prog album in our garden in Kent! The music was oddly infectious and I found myself wanting to hear more when I was back in Hampshire, so I hastily bought a copy of the album on CD. As my interest and love of this album grew, my fascination with Matt did too. I sought out more of his more obscure comedy work, from 'Garth Marenghi's Darkplace' (a parody 80s style hospital drama/ horror series) to 'AD/BC: A Rock Opera' (a comedy musical written by Berry and Richard Ayoade). In addition, I was charmed by his real life, low key and humble persona in interviews-- a far cry from his larger than life characters. 

Sunday, 20 June 2021

Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants/ Stevie Wonder (1979): Albums of my Life: an A-Z



  hearing this album for the first time and finding it very different to the Stevie Wonder music I had previously been listening to. I found Stevie as an older teen and purchased a CD of some of his love songs. Interestingly, that gateway into Stevie's music had me hear slightly more obscure tracks than his chart hits, with 'Golden Lady', 'Ribbon in the Sky' and 'You and I' featuring as some of my faves. With this album, years ago I may have skipped through my CD copy to mine the tracks with Stevie's wonderful vocals (as opposed to the instrumentals which punctuate this album), but with hindsight, I needed to hear it as a whole piece of work. The joy of vinyl is that we do just that.

Friday, 16 April 2021

I'm Not Your Man/ Marika Hackman: Albums of my Life: an A-Z



 ...finding Marika Hackman on Google Music (as it was then) on my phone and apathetically browsing through the new releases thinking: 'I wonder what the kids today are listening to at the moment...' I'm not even that old, but that's the way it had gotten! I saw the cover of Any Human Friend, her latest release at the time (so Summer, 2019), and that album cover grabbed my attention immediately. There was something uncanny about it. Then later I realised that it had been inspired by a photographer called Rineke Dijkstra whose work has always fascinated me. Subconsciously, I must have sensed that this would be something cerebrally worthwhile listening to, something off the beaten track perhaps. It took me a year before I was hooked. A month or so of liking and then loving one song, 'Come Undone'; then more months of walking and digesting and finding that Marika was speaking to me in a way that no female artist had done for some time (and certainly not quite in the same way!) Any Human Friend is an album, for me, about coming to terms with yourself and allowing yourself to accept taboos about the human condition, specifically those attached to being a woman.

The album before this, 'I'm Not Your Man', also explores issues to do with gender and sexuality. I can remember falling in love (again piece by piece, deliciously drip-fed) with this wonderful creation. The track that got me addicted was 'My Lover Cindy' which deserves some focus later in this post.

Saturday, 10 April 2021

Hedonism/ Bellowhead (2010): Albums of my Life: an A-Z

 ...happier times before this pandemic. Times when we weren't faced with restrictions and would think nothing of travelling across the country or being part of a crowd of people. Some of the most joyous pre-Covid moments were seeing live music, something I never did enough of as a youngster and sought to rectify some years ago. I guess part of why I didn't see as much live music in my 20s was due to my taste being more R n B based and not having the means to see the artists I loved live. As my interests broadened, my desire to seek out live music grew.

Seeing Bellowhead at Wickham Festival in 2014 and then in Poole in 2015 gives me a yearning to return to life where these sorts of opportunities were taken for granted. Wickham, where they headlined, was marvellous-- there's something about being in amongst a crowd of middle-aged folkies that feels like home! There's a real connection with the music and a lack of inhibition that emanates from such crowds. In contrast, the gig at Poole's Lighthouse was a sit down affair, but despite the enforced seating, the crowd were up on their feet before long, leaping and frolicking, shaking the living daylights out of the rather flimsy auditorium seating.

Saturday, 27 March 2021

Good at Falling/ The Japanese House (2019): Albums of my Life: An A-Z


...a time, maybe a year or two ago when I had more or less given up on finding new artists that I could get on board with. I'm from an era where there was Top of the Pops on TV and you'd go into Woolworths or Our Price to browse the chart music on a big wall and maybe pick up a single on cassette tape, or later a CD. That's not the world today, technology has changed the music industry inevitably and indefinitely. For years, I sourly declared myself out of the loop when it came to modern music because it was 'too generic', 'too auto-tuned', 'boring'. And in a sense, some of the mainstream chart music is that, but the very technology I berated for ruining the fun has over this last year or so opened my eyes to some incredible artists, those that sit on the periphery due to the lack of diversity in the charts. But then, within their genres, they are making massive waves and have huge fan bases.

I found Marika Hackman through Google Play after a fascination with the cover of Any Human Friend and like most long-lasting relationships, it took a while to fall in love. Once in, I was in. I was aware that that album was influenced by her split with Amber Bain from The Japanese House, and I dabbled in listening to a few songs, but, if I'm honest, my aversion to vocal effects (due to a saturation of them in chart music) made me less inclined to give my time to really listen.

Of course, it was an error of judgement on my part because The Japanese House, whilst having voice alteration as a trademark in her production, is far, far more than that. In fact, I would say that after much listening, Amber Bain is a trailblazer.

Saturday, 20 March 2021

Fly or Die/ N.E.R.D. (2004): Albums of my Life: An A-Z


...listening to this album for the first time with a boyfriend at university in his tiny room in the halls of residence. I liked what I heard immediately and then bought this a year or two later after we had broke up. You know a person's made a mark on your life in some way if they brought you music.

In the early days of owning this CD, I would dance around the flat that I lived in alone to 'She Wants to Move' and 'The Way She Dances' with reckless abandon.

I think what struck me initially about the album was the fusion of sounds, the contrast of high production value and effects and the unpolished, raw feel of the vocals and guitar at times. I'm no expert, but I know what I sounded like as a teen on my electric guitar and tiny amp; this is obviously way better, but there's a quality to it that sounds humble and young. I saw that Chad Hugo had only been playing the guitar for a year before recording this album as they wanted to play instruments live (including Pharrell on drums), so I felt quite smug with my instincts that this was the case.

Saturday, 13 March 2021

Enter the Dru/ Dru Hill (1998): Albums of my Life: An A-Z

...getting into Dru Hill at about 14 or 15. I sadly can't remember the moment I first listened to them, but once I got my hands on a CD copy of 'Enter the Dru', I was invested. As a teenager you like what you like. You don't overthink it and if you really like music, you won't let anyone tell you which bands or singers to follow. The chart singles were merely a starting point for me which meant that albums like this were played on repeat, inhabited and treasured.

Dru Hill were an American four piece R n B group who were at their peak with this album. The lead singer, Sisqo, is the most well-known member who had solo success with the likes of 'Thong Song'. There is potentially (due to the popularity of this song and the gimmicky nature of it), the tendency to view Sisqo as a rather amusing persona. He always seemed to love the limelight and this was no more evident to me than when he appeared on Celebrity Big Brother in the UK and went into the house only after performing one of his solo hits to the crowd (not standard CBB etiquette, but clearly part of his management's deal with the production company!), who lapped it up. Then there was his bleached white hair, statement chains and bold (yet highly accomplished) dance skills! He is such a showman and I love him for it!

Dru Hill, the group, begin, but don't end with Sisqo. Jazz, Woody and Nokio are the aliases of the other members from the original lineup and the vocal talent of these men is incredible. Not only that, but they have all written tracks on the album and take their time to step forward with solos. The name 'Dru Hill' comes from Druid Hill Park in Baltimore-- a place near where they all lived growing up. Together, the Dru Hill sound is harmonic, rich and highly emotive at times. There seems to be a bond between the members, who went to high school and also worked together in a fudgery in Baltimore in which they would sing the music of their gospel, soul roots.

Sadly, relations crumbled soon after the release of this album with James "Woody Rock" Green leaving. There has been re-incarnations of the group with some other members, but the first two albums, 'Dru Hill' and 'Enter the Dru' were their heyday in terms of commercial success.

Saturday, 20 February 2021

Dancing Machine/ The Jackson 5 (1974): Albums of my Life: An A-Z



...watching 'Moonwalker' as a kid. I was a Michael Jackson fan from a young age and soon got to liking the Jackson 5 too. The first CD I ever owned was Michael Jackson's 'Ben' at 9 years of age. I had cassettes of some Michael Jackson albums and some Jackson 5 ones too from Boot fairs that we would visit on a Sunday as a family. My dad would always like to find bargains and any time we would see a Michael Jackson tape he would get it for me because he knew I loved his music. I realise that not only do kids today miss out on the thrill of physically owning an album and playing it over and over because what they own is the limit of what they can listen to; but also that not every parent is as nurturing of their child's interests as mine were.

Back to 'Moonwalker'-- there was a brief part of a montage of Michael's earlier music which featured him dancing with a robot. The small clip featured a section of 'Dancing Machine' and it always stayed in my mind, but I didn't recognise the song. Later in life I heard the song and, of course, loved it. 

'Dancing Machine, the album, came to my consciousness most probably in one of my returns to Jackson's earlier music after one of my many hiatuses. I found him at 7 or 8 years old when 'Dangerous' was out. I then returned to him in my late teens and early 20s, finding a few new Jackson 5/ Jacksons tracks due to the internet opening up a few more avenues for music exploration. A friend from Primary school who had complimented my MJ T Shirt at a school disco became a good buddy to me at this age. He was probably the only person who I've been able to muse with about about my devotion to Michael Jackson's back catalogue and feel like there was a shared degree of enthusiasm. I re-kindled a love of  MJ materiaI at this point; I'd love to reconnect on our shared love of music one day.