2017 has been a funny old beast, musically. A mostly disappointing funny old beast, but here, Peter Muscutt attempts to sift through the good, the bad and the downright ugly...
In March, Belgian dance-rockers Soulwax emerged in their proper band guise for the first time since 2005's Nite Versions with their new studio album FROM DEEWEE. In the meantime, the DeWaele brothers Stephen and David had thrown themselves into their 2 Many DJs alter-ego, releasing a compilation of remixes, hosting their own radio shows, travelling the world as one of the most impressive DJ duos around, and recording a soundtrack to the movie 'Belgica' (recording all the tracks as numerous fictional bands). For From Deewee, the band recorded it live and in just one take at their home studio, using three drummers for a pounding, percussive sound that permeates the album noticeably. After touring a live show entitled 'Transient Programs for Drums and Machinery' (which went back out on the road this year, including a raucous, incendiary show at Manchester's 02 Ritz), this inspired the idea of recording "live", and the album progresses through the tracks seamlessly as one "set", similar to their Nite Versions collection of extensively re-worked studio compositions. From the burbling, synthesiser led genius of 'Masterplanned', to the sleepy, mellow 'Goodnight Transmission', the LP was less electronic and dance-oriented than previous efforts, but still a distant galaxy away from their mid-1990s indie-rock beginnings. A true sleeper of an album, it was not picked up by many, but remains one of the best things to be released this year.
The reclusive German electro-pioneers Kraftwerk released another career-spanning box set in May, this time a live, 3D rendition of their THE CATALOGUE album series. Taking in performances of each album from 1974's Autobahn through to 2003's Tour De France Soundtracks, this box set was to be a defining document of the group's 3D tour. Released as a 4-disc Blu-ray set, an 8-CD box set and a 9-LP vinyl set, it was a hefty item in terms of content and size. At least, it seemed on the surface. It's no secret I am a big fan of Kraftwerk, and have been since the late nineties, but this release left me cold. After plumping for the 4-disc Bluray set, I was shocked to find the "album performances" are in fact truncated versions, with LPs such as Trans Europe Express given just 25 mins. To make matters worse, the group include their 1991 re-recordings collection The Mix as an original album, which means you hear/see the tracks duplicated from the albums they originally appeared on. While four Blu-rays of content sounds impressive, its worth noting that, in effect, there are only two Blu-rays of concert performances (Discs 1 & 2); Discs 3 & 4 include the same audio, but with 'projection-only' visuals. This wouldn't be so much of an issue, if there were more than fleeting glimpses of the group themselves on discs 1 & 2. So for over £100, you're getting two practically duplicated concert-footage discs, a hefty hardback book (which, although well produced, features AN AWFUL LOT of the live visual projections (which you've already seen on the Blu-rays) and hardly any live shots you're going to want to look through more than once) and - this is a First World Problem, admittedly - horrible, cheap-feeling plastic clips that snap as soon as you try to retrieve the discs from the box. While a complete live document of Kraftwerk's career sounds tempting, they dropped the ball at every junction on this one, and as such, it was a crushing disappointment.
The disappointment of May continued with Devonshire rockers Muse releasing what would be the first taster from their eighth studio album. 'DIG DOWN' is...well, I'm not completely sure. At first I thought they were taking the piss with the title, then I realised it was a serious song. I honestly thought it was a demo of their track 'Madness' (released in 2012) when I first listened to it. Speaking about the song, frontman Matt Bellamy said: "I was looking to counteract the current negativity in the world and give inspiration, optimism and hope to people to fight for the causes they believe in" - a bold statement, but one that just made him sound like a pompous, wannabe world-saving twat. Even the video feels slightly awkward, focusing on a woman with a prosthetic limb fighting off all manner of shadowy minions. Kudos for using a disabled person in a music video, just...does it have to be so forced? Musically, the song eventually remembers that its not actually an inferior version of a five-year-old Muse song, and halfway through somehow becomes a cack-handed, slowed-down cover of George Michael's 'Freedom! '90', which makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. Listening to this made me recall the anger I felt when Muse unveiled their track 'Survival' around the time of the 2012 Olympics - I thought that was shit, and still think its shit in 2017. And just as 'Dig Down' sounds shit in 2017, so it shall continue to be in another five years. Muse are better than this, but I have to say that this dreck is seriously making me reconsider investing in their new album if this is the best on show.
Former Pink Floyd bassist and song-writer Roger Waters made a triumphant return in June with his first solo album since 1992 with IS THIS THE LIFE WE REALLY WANT? Recorded with Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich, the album was instantly recognisable as the work of the loveably curmudgeonly and politically outspoken Waters, with numerous jibes against US President Donald Trump ("picture a leader with no fucking brains" anyone? Although one could argue that was about any number of politicians!). With some querying whether Waters would release new music again, the album was a pleasant surprise, and showed that rather than being a miserable old bugger, Waters still had something to add to the melting pot - whether you like him or not. Very similar to Morrissey in that respect, Waters is someone you can't ignore, regardless of whether you sided with him during the whole Pink Floyd dispute back in the 80s.
Las Vegas natives The Killers bounded back onto the music scene in September with their fifth album WONDERFUL WONDERFUL. Well...I say "bounded", it was more the limp of a mortally wounded animal, if truth be told. A staggering five years have passed since 2012's rather lacklustre Battle Born long player, and in the intervening half-decade, one might think this would have given the band some much needed time off to recharge their creative batteries and really come at us with something to match the swagger, verve and vigour of their debut back in 2004. Unfortunately, it was not to be. The first warning signs come with the front cover - an arm, with the hand holding a shell. What does this mean? Does it mean anything? Should we give a toss? Or was it just the first image the designers pushed under the group's noses, which they nodded at and went: "cool!" It looks like it should be iconic, representative of something, but the fact is, it's just shapes and colours, with no rhyme or reason. The Killers seem to be one of those bands whose successive releases get progressively worse the longer they've been on the music scene. 2009's Day & Age seemed alright on the surface, but was it really as good as the neon-and-eyeliner soaked debut Hot Fuss? Was it better than the Springsteen-esque stadium rock aspirations of Sam's Town? Was it buggery. Sadly, things have gone from bad to worse with this album. Despite front man Brandon Flowers' assurances that they wanted to make an "actual record" and not just "slap a bunch of songs together", this album has a decidedly cobbled-together feel. Nothing really fits - its like a box full of odd shoes and sandals. There's ideas here, yes, but quite often they run out of puff long before the songs themselves end. Every detail about the album appears rushed, ineffective or just incredibly badly thought out (seriously, what the bloody hell is the title track all about?). Apparently the album title came from being out in the desert and seeing a storm approaching; Flowers should have taken the storm as an omen and gone home - he certainly shouldn't have phoned the lads up and asked them to record a new album, not if this is the best they can do. The end result sounds tired, the band sound bored and a pervasive "will this do?" attitude appears evident throughout - from the phoned-in band performances, to the God-forsaken lyrics that permeate the album. 'Have All the Songs Been Written', for instance, is a song about writer's block (oh, the irony!) which allegedly came about when Flowers emailed Bono from U2, moaning that he couldn't write anything decent. It seems then, that we have Bono to blame for encouraging this nonsense, after he told Flowers to use the phrase (the subject line of the email) as the title of a song. Way to go, Bono. We can only hope he was trying to sabotage the writing process, and not offering sage wisdom, because the song is as pathetic an end to the album as you could hope for. The only highlights are offered, tellingly, by the singles. 'The Man' is a pleasant enough, slinky, 1980s-tinged number, and while 'Run for Cover' sounds like a band working through a "How to Sound Like The Killers" instruction manual, it is the only other song honestly worth bothering with. On this showing, its hard to tell whether the band need to just pack it in, or to man the fuck up and admit the album is a failure and get right back to the drawing board. Rather than Wonderful Wonderful, this remains a case of all filler, no killer!
September was rescued somewhat by the release of two soundtracks to the long-awaited third season of cult seminal drama 'Twin Peaks'. The first, TWIN PEAKS: MUSIC FROM THE LIMITED EVENT SERIES, compiled the guest acts who appeared in the show itself, as the turns at Twin Peaks Roadhouse bar, often providing the music for the end credits of each episode. Along with a shortened edit of the 'Twin Peaks Theme' from original composer Angelo Badalamenti, this album is an absolute delight, featuring the dreamy synth-pop of Chromatics' 'Shadow', the deranged psycho-billy of 'Snake Eyes' by Trouble (a band including director David Lynch's son, Riley), the superbly disturbed, nightmarish 'She's Gone Away' by Nine Inch Nails (which featured in Episode 8, widely regarded by fans and critics to be one of the most experimental and challenging slices of TV ever conceived) and, in direct contrast but from the same episode, the 1950s Platters' song 'My Prayer', which was used to such unsettling effect in the show. Harking back to the original 1990s series are 'Just You' - the plaintive, falsetto ballad sung by James Hurley (here performed by the actor portraying him, James Marshall) and Julee Cruise's 'The World Spins' which will both evoke fond memories of seasons one and two. Also included on the compilation are tracks used as incidental music - Booker T & The MG's 'Green Onion' (used to soundtrack a typically Lynchian scene of someone sweeping up for nearly three minutes) and ZZ Top's 'Sharp Dressed Man' (which I never thought I'd ever hear in 'Twin Peaks'!!). A live version of Otis Redding's 'I've Been Loving You Too Long', which was used wonderfully to accompany the ongoing will they-won't they romance of Ed Hurley and Norma Jennings, provides some light relief from the surrealism. Released simultaneously was TWIN PEAKS: LIMITED EVENT SERIES SOUNDTRACK (also released on green vinyl!) which is a more conventional album focusing on Angelo Badalamenti's instrumental work such as the full-length 'Twin Peaks Theme' and 'Laura Palmer's Theme', as well as new compositions such as 'The Chair', 'The Fireman' and 'Heartbreaking'. Also included is Witold Rowicki's 'Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima' - nearly ten minutes of hysterical, nerve-shredding discordant strings (used, again, in the divisive Episode 8 as the soundtrack to a nuclear detonation, of all things). David Lynch and Dean Hurley's 'Slow 30s Room' is perhaps the strangest, most frightening yet utterly captivating two minutes of music you will hear this year; distorted, slowed-down brass and gramophone scratches that would be perfect for a horror movie. Thought Gang, Johnny Jewel and a David Lynch remix of Muddy Magnolias are other artists on this part of the soundtrack. The 'Music from the Limited Event Series' album is perhaps the more immediate of the two, however fans of TV and film scores should plump for the 'Limited Event Series Soundtrack' first. Alternatively, just get both and revel in the entire soundtrack for what was consistently the best season of American drama on TV this year: funny, frustrating, surreal, atmospheric, chilling, confusing...basically everything we could have hoped for from 'Twin Peaks's third season, and well worth the quarter-of-a-century wait!
Luke Haines - he of The Servants, The Auteurs, Black Box Recorder, Baader Meinhof and The North Sea Scrolls - issued the first anthology of his solo work this September. The wordy, yet typically Haines-ian ...IS ALIVE AND WELL AND LIVING IN BUENOS AIRES (HEAVY, FRENZ - THE SOLO ANTHOLOGY 2001-2017) is a four-disc set, comprising three CDs of material from his solo albums and soundtracks and a bonus disc of B-sides and rarities. It begins with his first forays into what would be a productive solo career, with the 2001 soundtrack to the film 'Christie Malry's Own Double Entry'. His first solo album proper ('The Oliver Twist Manifesto', from the same year) is also representated, as is 'Das Capital', his album of orchestral reworkings and re-recordings of The Auteurs back catalogue. The 2006 era 'Off My Rocker at the Art School Bop' takes up the bulk of the first disc, with album tracks and B-sides from this time covering both the LPs best moments and some deeper cuts from the period. 2009's excellent '21st Century Man' gets five tracks, with 'Fag Break' the only inclusion from it's companion/bonus mini-album 'Achtung Mutha'. Regrettably, the 'Get Carter Theme' sampling spoken-word short story 'The Great Brain Robbery' is not here, but is well worth seeking out! The bizarre yet compelling '9 1/2 Psychedelic Meditations on British Wrestling of the 1970s and Early 80s' sees another five tracks featured, and while its probably not correct to call this a concept album, the themes of childhood memories, Saturday afternoons and 'World of Sport' are, in a way, quite poignant. The collaborative project 'The North Sea Scrolls' perhaps doesn't come off as effectively as listening to the full album, given its narrative of an alternate history of the UK, but as a taster of the album, it's a damn fine place to start. With Haines' enviable work-rate of issuing an album roughly every year, the standard does drop slightly from this point in - albums like 'New York in the 70s', 'Rock 'n' Roll Animals' and the simply downright weird 'Adventures in Dementia' not showcasing Haines at his full potential. The anthology is brought up to date with tracks from 2015's 'British Nuclear Bunkers' - recorded only using vintage and analogue synthesisers, and as such it offers something different from the rest of the material included here, and 'Smash the System' from 2016. The final disc of rarities, features rare and unreleased songs, B-sides and BBC sessions, and is perhaps the main draw for the more serious fans who may have a lot of these tracks already. As mentioned before, this is pretty comprehenseive stuff, and a fantastic way to immerse yourself in the ascerbic, dry and always fascinating musical world of Mr. Haines.
October saw the re-release of George Michael's LISTEN WITHOUT PREJUDICE VOL. I. After his shock death on Christmas Day 2016, this re-issued version of his classic second solo LP was long awaited. Including the powerful opening number 'Praying for Time' and the middle-finger to the recording industry that was 'Freedom! '90', the album also featured a number of slower-tempo, emotive tracks such as the jazzy, love-triangle drama 'Cowboys and Angels', the poignant 'Mother's Pride' and a plaintive cover of Stevie Wonder's 'They Won't Go When I Go'. Having been exposed to the album from a young age when my mum would forever have the CD on, this re-issue was a chance for me to reacquaint myself with the music of an artist who, to echo the cliche, we didn't know what we had until he was gone. Promoted with a funky, guitar-driven remix of 'Fantasy' (included on the 2-CD edition, and as a download on the expanded box set), the deluxe edition featured an unreleased (on CD) 'MTV Unplugged' concert, as well as an extra CD of remixes, bonus tracks and alternate versions and a DVD including a 1990 documentary, music videos and Michael's appearance at the MTV 10th Anniversary show. While some criticised the inclusion of the 'MTV Unplugged' disc - more for the fact it "belongs" in the 'Older' album era (c. 1996) due to the inclusion of tracks from that album - its a full and comprehensive-feeling document of the album, with a nice package including lyrics and liner notes. In all, a worthy item to remember a great singer by, and one that holds promise for further album re-issues in the future.
A more positive release came in November, with ever-green singer-songwriter-producer Jeff Lynne bringing the concert film of his show at Wembley Stadium to the speaker AND the screen in the form of Wembley or Bust - a Bluray/CD combo featuring all the Electric Light Orchestra hits that have been staples of British culture since the early 1970s. The show certainly had a celebratory atmosphere for all in attendance, and the gig felt like one huge party - something that comes across both in the concert film and the accompanying 2-CD concert, which runs as a greatest hits compilation performed live. It's touching that Lynne initially felt that he'd perhaps had his time, and it took a BBC Radio event to bring him out of his shell and realise that he was still loved by the British public, who never lost interest or enthusiasm for songs like 'Mr. Blue Sky', 'Sweet Talkin' Woman' and 'Evil Woman'.
The last two months of 2017, however, managed to cram not just one shit cover version into the annals of history, but two. First came Katie Melua's insipid, pointless cover of Sting's already-hideous FIELDS OF GOLD. This recording is well placed to sit alongside her other work, which is also insipid and pointless (except 'Nine Million Bicycles', which is more a gross violation of all our human rights). The draw here was that the crashingly dull mouse's fart of a song was this year's Children in Need charity single; a fact that, presumably, was meantn't to have us downloading the track in our droves to generate funds for disadvantaged chilblains. Alas, as of 17th November, the track hadn't even dented the UK Top 100. People were reminded of the existence of the track when Melua turned up to perform it live, and it briefly hit No.14 on the iTunes chart. To put this in context, the nightmarish 'The Birdie Song' by The Tweets reached No.2 in October 1981, and even comedian Russ Abbot's 'Atmosphere' from 1984 hit No. 7. Even though people bought more songs back then, the simple fact that frankly awful novelty songs such as these kicked Melua into a cocked hat shows how bad it is. Even Chris Evans, who played it for the first time on his BBC Radio 2 show (praise the Lord) said it would go well with footage of starving and disabled kids, which only added to the cynical and slightly sinister nature of her version. Was it all just one big emotional blackmail campaign? Melua cooed and gushed over how the song was one of Sir Terry Wogan's favourites, and that it was a "huge honour" to record it. Unfortunately, she chose to do so in the offensively bland acoustic style of Eva Cassidy - the perpetual bad smell of the music industry, who it seems will never rest in peace and leave us alone.
The second cover that almost made me want to self-harm on account of how offensively cack it turned out was Elbow's desecration of The Beatles' 'Golden Slumbers'. Now I'm all for companies using music in their adverts, but one has to draw a line somewhere. In this case, the line should have been several thousand light-years before asking Britain's most 'beige', band to cover one of The Beatles' greatest songs. These are two bands at completely opposite ends of the musical spectrum - it would be like asking Jedward to cover Queen, for God's sake. And that'll never happen in a million...what? It has? Oh Christ, in that case we're all doomed. You watch; just after Christmas, a portal to the deepest, darkest circle of hell will open - Elbow covering The Beatles will have been the last element of the millennia-long, trans-dimensional puzzle created by Satan himself to ensure the destruction of our world. The Apocalypse is scheduled for early January 2018. OK...a tad melodramatic. I do concede that Elbow did release one decent song ('Grounds for Divorce') but apart from that, they've been the face of chart-friendly indie-rock stodge for donkey's years. The nadir came for me when my parents went to see them live, and my mum started playing them while she did the ironing. That's literally all Elbow are; meaningless background fodder to take your mind off menial and boring household chores, the sort of chaff that commercial local radio stations play when they're trying to be edgy. But back to using The Beatles for advertising purposes: I let the Tom Odell cover of 'Real Love' go when that came out because:
a) Tom seems a genuinely nice lad, and
b) the advert had a penguin in it, and everyone bloody loves penguins
But Elbow can fuck the fuckety-fuck right off. The only solace one can take from this shit-storm is that Elbow didn't go the whole hog and cover 'Carry That Weight', the song that immediately follows 'Golden Slumbers' on the original LP. Imagine a 'Twilight Zone' style alternate universe where Elbow cover the entire 'Abbey Road' album; Guy Garvey murdering it with his boorish Bury tones until the whole thing was as enticing as a bowl of cold sick. As it is, they do a great job of making 'Golden Slumbers' a mawkish, unnecessary slab of mock-sentimental embarrassment. Oh, and it's on the band's "best of" album as well - released just in time for Christmas! Well bugger me backwards, I never saw that coming. Why not ruin a music lover's day and get the so-called "deluxe" edition, which features an entire second disc of complete shit? Its the ideal gift for those people who you really wish would just piss off and never speak to you ever again.
So there you have it folks, our run down of some the winners and losers of 2017 just in time for the festive season. You'll no doubt be hitting the Christmas parties soon so don't forget to stock up on classics such as "Now That's What I Call a Mundane Christmas Vol 89" to spice up any dance floor that's sagging slightly after too many mince pies and glasses of mulled wine.
In all seriousness, we thought 2017 was surprisingly dull for new music, it had its moments (Brutalism by IDLES being one of my personal faves) but all in all, maybe one to forget and move into 2018 with optimism that the creative forces of bands align with the moon and the stars in order to produce some better material that might keep us from having to be force fed some Simon Cowell manufactured bullshit once again.
We at musicmuso.com would like to wish you all a very merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, here's to 2018!
by Peter Muscutt