My year in music…

Michael Hicks looks back at 2011 – those we lost, the best releases…

The rioting that started in London – and then spread elsewhere around Britain ”“ was a low-point in music. You’re probably thinking I’m talking about the burning down of the Sony distribution centre in Enfield. No, I’m talking about having to endure – I Predict A Riot ”“ played every time a disillusioned youth/thieving little bastard was caught on camera – that song spoiled the entertainment.

For just over a week, it was the beginning of the world’s end (Daily Mail). Where was Mr. PM? He was on his holidays – listening to The Queen Is Dead, and, The Eton Rifles. Yeah, right! Your favourite music should shape you as a human being. The only thing David Cameron is shaped by ”“ is wealth. He decided to join us after rioters broke into a gastro pub in Ladbroke Grove.

So, if the Sony bonfire was a physical loss of music ”“ what was the human loss to music?

I came to Bert Jansch through a Nick Drake bootleg ”“ Drake would cover Jansch ”“ before he found his own voice. I started fingerpicking because of Nick Drake. Although Drake’s style is completely original and piano influenced; much in the same way as every electric guitarist that came after Hendrix was influenced by him ”“ whether they knew it or not – acoustic picker’s were influenced by Jansch.

A guitarist blessed with an incredible right hand, for a folk guitarist ”“ he swung. As well as being a ”˜guitarist’s guitar player’, he was one hell of a songwriter: This set him apart from Davy Graham. His first record ”“ recorded in a kitchen ”“ one microphone. Listen too it: Running From Home, and the chilling Needle Of Death: A song Jansch wrote about a friend who chased the dragon one too many times. The song brings us to another casualty – Amy Winehouse.

We all saw it coming, but when it happened ”“ it still shocked. There is no romance in drugs ”“ fucking none – it destroys people. Let’s just remember her for the music. OK, she was not reinventing the wheel, but she sung from the heart, you could feel every note.

Death has frozen Amy Winehouse in time; she’ll forever be 27 years old. “The 27 club!” ”“ give me a break. “The idiot club” as Kurt Cobain’s mother put it. Fame and the music industry wasn’t solely to blame, but it played its part in her tragic death, and that’s what it is ”“ tragic – there’s no iconology attached too it. I’m sure Amy Winehouse’s parents would want a loving daughter still alive and not a dead icon. Springsteen said: “I want to be old as hell.” I subscribe to that anti-rock ”˜n’ roll ethic.

Bruce Springsteen’s right hand man and the soul of The E Street Band, Clarence Clemons, died suddenly. It came as a shock. Clemons looked like a man that would scare death away. He brought a jazz/soul instrument into rock ”˜n’ roll. His saxophone playing would make a grown man cry (Meeting Across The River.) His saxophone playing would make you punch the air (Born To Run).

Watching Springsteen live would be like watching your favourite football team when the star player gets the ball ”“ it’s this massive explosion. The E Street’s massive explosion would take place when Clemons stepped-up for a roaring solo.

One of the smartest, most intelligent social commentators also left the building. Gil Scott Heron: Poet, singer, songwriter, truth-teller – a huge influence on intelligent rap. If you want an idea of Thatcher’s Britain through music ”“ you have Billy Bragg, Elvis Costello, and Paul Weller etc. A historical study of Reagan’s America is not complete without Heron’s lyrical assassination. Every home should have a copy of Pieces Of A Man.

Ian, John, Mani and Reni put their differences behind them, or rather – embraced the love they share for one another, and announced that they were reforming. The Heaton Park gigs sold out quicker than E’s at Spike Island. Some sniggered and said they are only doing it for the money. So what! This is a band, which signed one of the worst contracts in musical history. They didn’t make a penny off Silvertone CD sales. Two of the best gigs I saw this year – were from reformed bands: Public Enemy, and The Specials. My favourite releases, were:

Laura Marling: A female singer songwriter who doesn’t need to dress like a hooker from planet ”˜nut-job.’ Her art – is not: A risqué quote, or, a skirt revealing what she has had for lunch. Her art is music – she’s a musician. There are wonderful songs on A Creature I Don’t Know (Sophia is stunning). All the obvious influences can be heard: Joni Mitchell, Sandy Denny etc. Marling will make better albums, write better songs. I look forward to being along for the ride.

The best art, the greatest literature, and the finest music ”“ it’s all about a person. Get Well Soon by Sarabeth Tucek has her father running right through it. The album is about loss, the remnants of past ”“ unavoidable. The album maintains a theme and tempo throughout ”“ some sort of therapy. The standout may be The Fireman, but the record works as a whole ”“ a moving whole piece.

Great music is sometimes about the mundane, it’s great because it is relatable. Then there is Fleet Foxes. Their music takes you away: All pastoral, folky, and drop-dead-gorgeous harmonies. Helplessness Blues doesn’t have the same impact as their self-titled debut. How could it? Robin Pecknold had probably been writing that his whole life leading up to it.

Blue Spotted Tail could have come straight out of the Paul Simon songbook. The album closer ”“ Grown Ocean: It’s what The Lovin’ Spoonful would have sounded like if Phil Spector had gotten his wish. The centrepiece is the title track ”“ it’s magnificent. Fleet Foxes suffocate all rivals with pastoral wonderment.

Remastered and with an extra disc: Durutti Column’s ”“ Vini Reilly, originally released in 1989. It’s a stunning record: Debussy playing a Stratocaster through a Roland Space Echo. Pol In G just gives me goose bumps. An instrumental piece really has to be something to stop the listener from hitting the skip button; this song has you reaching for repeat. It’s one of the greatest guitar records ever made ”“ there – I’ve said it. Vini Reilly plays the guitar beautifully ”“ there is no other word for it! It is the finest album I’ve heard this year. It is magical, wonderful, and all those other words used to articulate something special.

Michael Kiwanuka’s Tell Me A Tale. That felt like a breath of fresh air: All flutes, strings, brass, acoustic guitars and soul/folk. Such a positive song. Mazzy Star’s Common Burn: Their first release in 15 years. It is as if they have never been away. Reverbed guitars, vibes, and Hope Sandoval’s vulnerable delivery. It sounded fantastic.

Lana Del Ray. Spellbinding looks ”“ lips sent from the heavens. But of course, that wouldn’t amount to nothing if she couldn’t offer anything musically. She did. Video Games sounded like a David Lynch wet dream. There was a song from a compilation ”“ which the band Midlake put together: Bob Carpenter ”“ Silent Passage. That one did it for me. Another one of those hidden singer songwriter gems from the ”˜70s, with the added bonus of having Emmylou Harris on backing vocals.

There were also, anniversary editions of two landmark records this year. The 40th Anniversary Edition of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, and the 20th Anniversary Edition of Nirvana’s Nevermind.

What’s Going On: A record that isn’t perfect ”“ it’s better than that. The record takes you in, for 35 minutes you don’t listen too it ”“ you live in it. It’ll change your outlook on life, it’ll educate you, it’ll free your mind, it’ll free your feet, it’ll make you cry, it’ll make you smile. And, finally, it will be the record, which everything else you hear will be judged against. The themes addressed still resonate 40 years on. You move on from people, but you never move on from What’s Going On.

I’ve not listened to Nevermind in some time ”“ I wanted to know if it still moved me? It did! There is an incredible songwriter at work throughout ”“ passion and intensity that couldn’t be manufactured. Nevermind went on to become the most influential rock album of the ”˜90s. To quote Kurt Cobain: “A good song is the most important thing, it’s the only way to really touch someone.” His songs did in 1991 ”“ his songs do in 2011.

Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness On The Edge Of Town got a makeover too – and what a makeover. It’s long been one of my favourite records – raw, passionate and urgent. It maybe the most ”˜live’ studio record, Springsteen has ever made. I’ve always thought it wiped the floor with Born To Run.

The lost sessions, included on the super deluxe version, reveal The Boss to be one of the great pop music writers (Someday-We’ll Be Together). The material is so vast ”“ he must have been composing in his sleep. And the overall packaging? It has to be seen to be believed!

5 COMMENTS

  1. Sorry but if those we the best releases this year it is clearly far worse than before Punk. Laura Marling in particular is awful, the kind of drippy singer songwriting than needs to be stopped not praised.

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