Monday, 10 December 2007

Stepping Into Christmas #3

Allison Crowe is a singer whom I first stumbled across around late 2004, early 2005. It was a time when I was falling in love more and more with Keane and Coldplay, and other piano-based indie. Allison was, and remains, a perfect accent to their music - bold, piano-based music supported by a frankly beautiful voice. Over the past three years she's proven herself again and again, and fantastically offers a huge amount of free downloads from her website. What's more, Allison would probably fall into that category of artists who have changed the way I think about music. Billy Joel started my love for music, Stereophonics turned it to the modern day, and are responsible for most of the bands I listen to today, and Allison Crowe developed my love for the female voice. Look down the previous posts here and you'll see just how much I write about female singers who have fantastic voices - Natasha Bedingfield, Emmy the Great, Goldfrapp, Joanna Newsom, Mandy Moore, St. Vincent and Sia of Zero 7. More recently I've written about Adele, who is essentially a weaker Allison Crowe with stronger record company execs behind her.

And this is what is fantastic about Allison Crowe. She isn't in the music for the money, she's in it for the music. Her website quotes her at the top of each page with 'Why music? Why breathing?' This here is a woman on a mission. With that in mind, listen to her version of 'O Holy Night' from Christmas album 'Tidings'. It isn't her best track by far (try her definitive version of Cohen's 'Hallelujah'), but still remains stunning vocally.

mp3: 'O Holy Night' by Allison Crowe

Sunday, 9 December 2007

Top Twenty Cover Versions: 2007

It's New Year's Eve, not the 9th, and with my only real offer involving whiling away the night in someone's shed, I am left here watching Jools Holland with my dad and a couple of cats, none of whom really care about the changing of the calendars tonight. Of course, I'm not too fussed either, except for a particular enjoyment in making end of year lists, of which the pick of the crop come tonight. So, to kick things off, my top twenty covers of 2007. I hope they do all originate in their covered forms from this year, but if they don't, well, screw it.

20. Getting Better - Kaiser Chiefs (The Beatles)
19. Valerie - Mark Ronson feat. Amy Winehouse (The Zutons)
18. God Put A Smile Upon Your Face - Mark Ronson (Coldplay)
17. The Power Of Love - The Pigeon Detectives (Huey Lewis and the News)
16. Oh My God - Mark Ronson feat. Lily Allen (Kaiser Chiefs)
15. Love Is The Drug - Kylie Minogue (Roxy Music)
14. Umbrella - Mandy Moore (Rihanna)
13. Waterfall - Stoney (The Stone Roses)
12. Under Pressure - Keane (David Bowie and Queen)
11. How Deep Is Your Love? - The Bird and the Bee (Bee Gees)
10. Band On The Run - Foo Fighters (Wings)
9. You Sexy Thing - Stereophonics (Hot Chocolate)
8. Number 1 - Jont (Goldfrapp)
7. Getting Better - Fionn Regan (The Beatles)
6. The Flesh Failures (Let The Sunshine In) - Lightspeed Champion (The Cast of 'Hair')

5. Super Trouper - Camera Obscura (Abba)
Britain's new found love for cover-themed compilation albums dominate the top five for this year, and this superb Abba cover by Scottish band Camera Obscura is the first of these. The song is so twee you could squeeze it like a sponge and fill a jar with kittens in flatcaps. Rather lovely news for such a lovely band, it was this single track that led to my purchasing their most recent album on eMusic. It's equally lovely. Lovely.

4. Love Will Tear Us Apart - Nerina Pallot (Joy Division)
Take a heartbreaking song, that many would consider blasphemy to cover and throw caution to the wind. Nerina Pallot is an artist I originally brushed away dismissively as a cheap Regina Spektor for people who didn't like Regina Spektor. No more.

3. Breathe (In The Air) - The Shins (Pink Floyd)
Funnily enough, I don't like Pink Floyd (I know, I know, shut up.), and this song doesn't sound all that much like The Shins, but that somehow doesn't matter. It's deep, and dark, and terrifically breathy, like Darth Vader. Wait. No. Regardless, The Shins don't seem to be making many smart moves right now. First they release an album that is almost impossible to top, and then they boost it further with ridiculously good covers such as this. Frankly, their only option right now is to crash and burn briefly, allowing their fourth LP to be more of a relief that they're still together than a follow-up to Wincing the Night Away. Just my opinion, of course.

2. Ray Of Light - Natasha Bedingfield (Madonna)
My favourite covers are often better versions of songs I previously disliked, or ones originally sung by people I dislike. Ray Of Light falls under both categories. The song was just annoying, and Madonna, in my humble opinion, is the most overrated artist ever to get a number one single. And in that count I include Mr. Blobby. Why is the cover so great? One word: vocals. Natasha Bedingfield sings better than any diva I've yet heard. Perhaps not as bold, but better placed notes, better chosen. Simply delicious.

1. Don't Get Me Wrong - Lily Allen (The Pretenders)
Just listen.

mp3: 'Don't Get Me Wrong' - Lily Allen

Happy New Year!
(more lists to come)

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Thursday, 6 December 2007

Top Ten Films: 2007

And so we reach the point of the year at which I sum up 2007's cultural form in numbered lists. Hoorah! As I work slowly through my top 100 tracks of the year, and my top ten album lists, I'll tide you over with a less musically-themed one. This last year has been a sterling one for cinematic bewilderment on my end of things, and though some where let-downs (Saw IV, Spiderman 3) and others were simply appalling (Pirates Of The Caribbean 3), overall my trips have been a testament to my good judgement, and I've enjoyed most all of them. There are, as always, a few films I'm devastated to have missed in the cinema (Shoot Em' Up, and most saddeningly, Once), and some I am yet to see (The Darjeeling Limited, over the weekend, I'd imagine), I caught the ones most important to me, and occasionally by accident the ones I caught then became most important to me. So, I'll offer my annotated countdown, with a couple of soundtrack-based treats trailing at the bottom...

10. The Simpsons Movie
It was a close call for The Simpsons Movie, and I fear that once I've seen The Darjeeling Limited I will have to drop this out completely. But for now let us bask in it's better-than-expectedness. The jokes were, on average, better than those of late, and the 'cinematic animation', though only barely distinguishable, did give it a more 'this is a movie!' feel. The plot was, well, average in places, but well done in others. That the kids at the daycare I volunteered at were singing 'Spider Pig' before they'd even seen the film is a testament to the juvenile gags. But then I like juvenile gags. A firm 7 out of 10.

9. Blades of Glory
All credit to The Simpsons Movie, which was pushed back to ten by this comedic gem. After twenty years The Simpsons have, in all honesty, lost a lot of their freshness. Though they went some way to regaining it in the feature-length version, Blades of Glory was simply minty-fresh by comparison. I was wary with this film - Will Ferrell is a hit and miss man, and other leading man Jon Heder was the titular character in Napolean Dynamite, one of the most annoying films I've ever (half) endured. What saved it then? Both actors were, well, not annoying, true, but the key came in the stellar supporting cast that included Will Arnett (of Arrested Development fame) and The (US) Office's Jenna Fischer. Whilst not perfect, it gained a lovely 7 out of 10 from me.

8. Ratatouille
Though a low entry by Pixar's standards, that can only be because they have set their standards so ruddy high. It'll be hard for any film to beat the three-in-a-row delights of Monsters Inc., Finding Nemo and The Incredibles, and though Ratatouille is at least as strong, if not strong than Monsters Inc., after the disappointment of Cars it only represents the first in a new trio of quality films. Next year's Wall-E, fortuantely, looks to be their best yet, though. Still, what made Ratatouille was not just the fantastic voice acting (and it is here again that Will Arnett takes a bow), not simply the story, but the simply fantastic animation - the chase between rat and moped-riding human setting another high for the lot over at Dreamworks. Another sturdy 7 out of 10 for me.

7. August Rush
A late, but great, entry comes in the form of sentimentalist's dream 'August Rush'. Though panned by some (okay, many) critics for it's overly sacchrine feel and heavy resemblance to the story of Oliver Twist, August Rush does everything right for me that Oliver! couldn't. The cliches, as common as a rat in Paris (sorry, Remy), are used so sweetly you just don't care, and the August's mum is hot. The music is fun, kind of like a twelve year-old Roderigo e Gabriela, but with Charlie of the Chocolate Factory. And his mum is hot. That's not vital, but it really helped get August an 8 out of 10.

6. Die Hard 4.0
Is it a shame for me that the third sequel to my favourite film ever, and the fourth in my second favourite series, only reaches 6th place? Not really, because I know it was up against some fantastic competition, and that despite all the stupidity and over-the-topness Die Hard 4.0 remains a truly fantastic film that thoroughly deserves to join the first three films. It helps that the film doesn't take itself too seriously, cos hey, even the first film, that had at it's centre an intelligent action film, even the first film didn't do that. Is it a shame that Bonnie Bedelia, Brucie's wife in one and two, alluded to in three, is now long gone? No, cos they replaced her with a kick ass hot daughter. Which, as August Rush tells us, is a very good thing. Also - though muted, that yippee-ki-ay is the most badass moment of all three films. I almost screamed at the awesomeness. Got an 8 out of 10 from me.

5. Atonement
That Atonement only finds itself here is once again a sign of the pure quality of this year's releases. This film set a new benchmark for not only for British dramas, but for dramatic films fullstop. Beautifully captured visually, perfectly acted by the entire cast (I'm voting for both Knightley and McAvoy if the Academy put me on the awards board this year), Atonement was a rare treat that was superbly soundtracked by Jean-Yves Thibaudet. A classy 9 out of 10.

4. Knocked Up
Talking of classy, here's a film about a grubby stoner getting an unfeasibly attractive blonde pregnant! FANTASTIC! After 40 Year-Old Virgin, a film that on paper sounds unfunny, stupid, and generally offensive, but in practice was one of the great comedies of the last five years, comes Knocked Up, a film that on paper sounds unfunny, stupid and generally offensive, but in practice turns out to be one of the great comedies of the last ten years! It is, indeed, a fantastic film, and a hilarious film, and an honest film, and if Superbad hadn't been released just a month or so later, it would remain to this day my favourite American comedy film. Ever. A firm, and hilarious, 9 out of 10.

3. 28 Weeks Later
The only other sequel to make it into my top ten this year, 28 Weeks Later was a real treat to watch. The first film was one of the great British films, one I often cite as second only to Shaun of the Dead, and whilst once again the sequel is not as good as the year's Pegg and Wright film, it at least lives up to its predecessor. The tension is there, the Britishness is there, and the Amercanisation of the film is twisted fantastically and to the credit of all involved. It also has the most striking single track on it's score of any film, ever. Though admittedly from the first film, John Murphy's 'In A House-In A Heartbeat' is used to it's full potential here, and is a vital part of the film's 9 out of 10 score.

2. Hot Fuzz
The first time I saw Hot Fuzz, back in the cinema, I was underwhelmed. It was still remarkably funny, but it didn't even come near to Shaun of the Dead. Still, when it came out on DVD (and had fallen to a beyond reasonable £6.99) I bought it, and watched it again a couple of times. Let me tell you now, this one is a grower. There is so much to appreciate here that you just don't pick up first time round. Many of my friends now refer to Hot Fuzz as superior to Shaun, abd though I'm still inclined to disagree, I can certainly appreciate where they are coming from. Class jokes, and fantastic over-the-topness make this not only the best homage to action films ever, but also a respectable action film in its own right. It's now my 6th favourite action film, and an explosive 9 out of 10!

1. Superbad
Never, and I mean never, has America given us any film as consistently funny, as consistently quotable and as consistently and genuinely sweet as Superbad. As 'Spider Pig' had me wary of The Simpsons Movie before I even saw it, 'I am McLovin' had me wary of this film. I correctly predicted it as a t-shirt slogan over a month before I saw one. I also love that if I type 'Superbad' into IMDB, the second choice is a porn film called 'Superbad XXX Triple Bill'. Hahaha! Awesome. Once again an Arrested Development alumni helps to make the film, this time in the form of Michael Cera, who is a perfect best friend to Knocked Up's Jonah Hill. The tale of one drink-quest gone bad is a simple one, but one perfectly formed, and flawless in it's humour. A very high 9/10 for me, and the film of the year.

mp3: 'Trapped Like Carrots' by Hans Zimmer (from 'The Simpsons Movie')
mp3: 'Fortunate Son' by Creedence Clearwater Revival (from 'Die Hard 4.0')
mp3: 'Briony' by Jean-Yves Thibaudet (from 'Atonement')
mp3: 'Caught By The Fuzz' by Supergrass (from 'Hot Fuzz')

Wednesday, 5 December 2007

Stepping Into Christmas #2

I will not be disclosing my own personal beliefs on the matter above at this moment in time. Needless to say, though, that if Santa is a real and personal present-bringer, he is clearly a lovely bloke and deserves all the milk and mince pies left out for him every Christmas Eve. That said, I've seen some press photos and he looks like he could stand to lose a few pounds, so maybe less with the mince pies and more with the Holland & Barretts discount vouchers, no? Either way, to the music:

Emerson, Lake and Palmer are a band I (and, one must suppose, everyone else) know thanks to my father. They're such a 'dad band', even to my father, who doesn't like Pink Floyd and doesn't even own a Fleetwood Mac album. He was a Blondie man, was my dad. And I respect him for that.

Anyway, after uploading approximately 50% of my parent's cd collection onto my computer this year I was surprised to find ELP's superb Christmas song 'I Believe In Father Christmas' pop up in my first Christmas-based music search of the year. I knew from the title which song it was immediately, but I'd never realised ELP were behind it. You live and you learn. It is, needless to say, a fantastic Christmas track, and one that, for me at least, brings back barrels of youthful Christmas memories.

mp3: 'I Believe In Father Christmas' by Emerson, Lake and Palmer

Tuesday, 4 December 2007

Stepping Into Christmas #1

How have I held off so long? How have I a) not written about Sufjan, the most blogged about artist of anyone, ever, already? and b) not posted a Christmas song in the four days since it became Chistmasember? Mostly university-based essays, I'm afraid to say, but that's all behind us - it's Christmas and Santa Sufjan is the best man for the music-based jobs that are sure to pop up everywhere now. After all, it was Stevens who just under a year ago released his 5 EP boxset of Christmas songs, providing independent-folksters up and down the hemisphere to jump for joy at no less than two hours and forty-two songs-worth of unadultered Sufjany Christmas joy!

Indeed, since my self-imposed Christmas Song Ban receeded on the first of December, no other Christmas song has been played as much as his fantastically titled 'Get Behind Me, Santa!' As a theologian I can't help but wonder how many people completely miss or ignore the obvious Jesus reference and think 'Ooh! White Stripes! How culturally relevant!' Try Matt. 16:23 or Mark 8:33. Biblegateway it, bitches!

Still, with or without Passion-style references, the song is fantastic, fun and ever so slightly schizophrenic (the lyrics reveal at least three characters, of which at least two are voiced by Stevens). It's a fun song, and though it's ultimately a bit down on the whole Christmas experience for the protaganist, it works for me, and keeps me shining inside.

Much the same goes for the second track of choice, Sufjan's cover of Christian standard 'Amazing Grace'. When I attempted last year on Christmas morn to soundtrack the opening of presents with all five EPs (thank goodness for 5-cd stereo systems) my mother bluntly described it as akin to listening to a 'hillbilly Christmas'. That hurt, mum, that hurt. It seems a little unfair to put tracks like this down to hillbilly status just because they use the banjo. Indeed, the banjo makes this version of the song, and it's certainly my favourite recorded version. It'd be my favourite of all time, but there's a guy at church who plays it to the tune of 'House of the Rising Sun'. Whatever the case, I'll be making another sneaky attempt to soundtrack Christmas with these songs again this year.

mp3: 'Get Behind Me, Santa!' by Sufjan Stevens
mp3: 'Amazing Grace' by Sufjan Stevens

Monday, 3 December 2007

Excuse me forgetting, but these things I do...

Once in a while I'll have a good day for music. I had one about a month ago, where every new track I downloaded was fantastic, and each flowed so perfectly from one to another that with only minor tweaking I had a lovely new playlist on my hands, that which became my soundtrack to the winter of '07. One of the tracks that became a slow-burner for me, one that started with a 'Huh' in a quietly pleased manner, but now has become more of a 'Mm-hmmmm...', if you get my drift. If you don't, then don't worry. It isn't too important.

But anyhoo, this song that makes me go 'Mm-hmmmm...' is one by a singer-songwriter known as Jaymay. Her name is clearly confusing for some - I found her cd in HMV the other day under the 'dance' section. She ain't dance, HMV. She just ain't. No, rather, in 'Grey and Blue', the song in question, Jaymay just sings simply and sadly about an unreturned love. It turns out that some of my favourite songs are the most simple of them. Lyrically, I don't know, I guess the song kind of reminds me of Bright Eyes. I could see him covering it, albeit in a completely different style, and lyrically it would sound just like him. Judge for yourself, it'd be unlikely you'll regret it.

mp3: 'Grey or Blue' by Jaymay

Saturday, 1 December 2007

Goldfrapp to the left of me, jokers to the right...

Allison Goldfrapp, that enigmatic sextress of musical bewilderment has done it again, folks! But don't get too excited if you were a hardcore addict to the thrusting electro sounds of the Supernature and Black Cherry albums - she's gone all mellow! If, come February 25th, you're hoping for the same old Goldfrapp I hate to say this but: you're only going to be disappointed.

Is this bad news? Heck, no! Because whilst indie dance nights are out, gentle folktronica goodness is in! The new album is, as it happens, fantastic. It's the first great album of 2008, I promise you. From opening track 'Clowns' to stunning closer 'Monster Love' there isn't a moment you won't be wetting yourself with joy and whatnot.

mp3: 'Clowns' - Goldfrapp