Category Archives: Music

The Black Album - Jay-Z

Jay-Z – The Black Album – Perfect Album #4

Now my journey through ten perfect albums continues with something completely different…

Discovery

I came to Hip Hop pretty late really, despite the first record I ever bought being Vanilla Ice – Ice Ice Baby. Actually, maybe that was why…

I had a few friends in high school who were into Snoop, Dre and the like, but I didn’t hear enough of it to get into it. I did like the Beastie Boys but I was only really exposed to them via MTV2. I guess they were just ‘alternative’ enough for that playlist.

After I left school and started a part time job building computers in a local indie PC shop, the majority of the staff there listened predominately to hip hop. I think I tried to resist it for a while, but eventually it started to stick.

Initially I only really enjoyed ‘club hip hop’, finding the way in was via artists like Ice Cube, DMX, and ODB. I enjoyed some of the singles from Jay-Z’s Blueprint album, but it was The Black Album that I fell in love with, and solidified Jay-Z as my favourite rapper.

Standout songs

Encore

Very much a favourite, Encore carries the implied weight of the album. The Black Album was presented as Jay-Z’s retirement from hip-hop. I remember at the time being mildly disappointed that I’d discovered Jay-Z just in time for him to retire. Repeated listens to the album though made it clear retirement wasn’t going to stick though. “When I come back like Jordan” indeed.

What the hell are you waiting for?

99 Problems

Probably the most distinctive single from the album, 99 Problems is almost the definition of catchy hip hop. This song was everywhere when it came out.

I heard “Son, do you know why I’m stopping you for?”
Cause I’m young and I’m black and my hat’s real low
Or do I look like a mind reader, sir? I don’t know

December 4th

I love this, so much of rap is biographical, but December 4th is a very literal telling of Jay-Z’s life story. Including memories delivered, by his mother.

And it’s nobody’s fault, I made the decisions I made
This is the life I chose, or rather, the life that chose me

Relationship with the album

When this album came out in November 2003, I think I pretty much grabbed it on day one. In December I was given my first solid state portable mp3 player as a Christmas gift from work. It only had a meagre 64 mb of storage, and The Black Album was the first and only album I put on it. I basically listened to this one album every day for the next 4 months.

It still sounds fresh to me now, and remains my favourite Jay-Z album.

Jay-Z

My relationship with hip hop involves some pretty heavy cognitive dissonance. Jay-Z is my favourite rapper, but I also unashamedly love 50 Cent. I think Jay-Z is probably the ‘best’ rapper, while 50 is much more of a ‘performer’. Both artists, along with many, many, others are problematic. However, their upbringing and background is so dramatically different from my own that it feels impossible to judge.

I do like to see areas where hip hop takes positive strides though, and while it’s easy to find examples of misogyny etc in Jay-Z’s lyrics, he has also used his platform to champion areas of Social Justice.

Other albums and songs

There are far too many great albums from Jay-Z to cover here, I’ll just touch on a few, but there are many more I could easily have included.

Collision Course

While Linkin Park’s – Hybrid Theory was a strong contender for my list, it didn’t quite make the cut. However this EP collaboration from Linkin Park & Jay-Z deserves a shout out here. Numb/Encore was the single, but all 6 tracks are great fun.

The Blueprint 3

Another favourite album, the Blueprint 3 is one of those albums that just “sounds like summer”. A real go to whenever the sun is shining.

Unplugged

Already acknowledged in my Mighty Mighty Bosstones post, Jay-Z – Unplugged is an outstanding live album, with Jay-Z collaborating with The Roots.

Conclusion

I’m sure people who have been listening for hip hop much longer than me, with arguably much better taste, would point to any number of Jay-Z’s albums as being better than The Black Album. Not me though, I adore this whole album and it’ll forever be a favourite. It is perfect.

Mighty Mighty Bosstones - Live from the Middle East

Mighty Mighty BossTones – Live from the Middle East – Perfect Album #3

Now for something a bit more cheerful, and the only live album that made my top ten. As always, if you missed my original post, please check out “ten perfect albums” first.

Discovery

Finding my way to the Mighty Mighty BossTones was quite the journey. In 97 / 98 I would occasionally hear “The Impression That I Get” on the radio, sometimes when waking up, or perhaps in the car with my parents. We were sometime away from services like “Shazam” however, and although I had the internet, I never quite managed to find out what the song was. It didn’t help that when I was asking other people, 15 year old me was referring to it as ‘Knock on Wood’.

No one else ever seemed to know what it was though, and it may have been a whole year later, when I’d all but given up on finding out what the song was called or even who it was by. When watching the film “Clueless”, I saw, and more importantly heard, the scene where the Mighty Mighty BossTones perform “Where’d you go?”, I recognised Dicky Barrett’s distinctive vocals as being from that song I already loved. While I obviously didn’t have the foresight to just wait for the credits, a week or so later I was in HMV in Hanley and it occurred to me to look for the Clueless soundtrack. I didn’t buy it, but a glance at the back of the box told me that “Where’d you go?” was performed by the Mighty Mighty BossTones. HMV didn’t have any of their albums in, but I wandered down to Mike Lloyd Music to try my luck.

Mike Lloyd Music storefront, Hanley, Stoke-on-trent.
Sadly no longer with us, the iconic Mike Lloyd Music

Mike Lloyd Music had three Mighty Mighty BossTones CDs, result! Given my financial status (pretty sure I was still at school, or just left) I could only afford one CD. They had an EP “Ska-Core, The Devil and More”, a studio album “Question the Answers” and the subject of this post, the live album “Live From the Middle East”.

I used a schoolboy’s approach to value for money shopping, and went for the live album, as it had 22 songs on. Also from the track listing it had “Where’d You Go?”, so even if the other song I was looking for wasn’t on there, I at least know I liked that. Took that CD home and fell in love.

I think there was a good chance I was the only Mighty Mighty BossTones fan in Stoke, over the next couple of months I saved my money and bought those other two CDs from Mike Lloyd, no sign of anyone else buying any.

Standout songs

Where’d You Go?

Going to start with “Where’d You Go?”, it’s a great single and received its own EP. As above, this should be recognisable to fans of the movie Clueless, and I still have it to thank for helping me connect with the band.

Any minute you will show and I’m wondering where did ya go?

The Impression That I Get

While it’s very uncool to say you like a band’s most successful single, I don’t care. The Impression That I Get remains my favourite song of all time. I adore everything about it. Introduced on the album with the less than subtle “I think we know this f*cking song…”, damn straight it’s a highlight.

I’m not a coward, I’ve just never been tested.
I’d like to think that if I was I would pass.

Hell of a Hat

As a live album, it’s by default also something of a ‘best of’. I’m going to resist linking them all though, and just point to one more. “Hell of a Hat” is another great track, a song about being nervous around someone carrying a gun. I can only imagine the extra poignancy the lyrics have in America.

The gear you wear seems complete
Why you gotta pack the heat

Relationship with the album

Live albums are funny things. Some of the MTV Unplugged albums are really good, and those offerings from Placebo, Nirvana and Jay-Z are personal favourites. They could have conceivably made this list. Broadly though, I usually prefer a studio recording.

Live from the Middle East managed to convey the energy and personality of the Mighty Mighty BossTones, to a teenage me in the UK. It was still a long time before YouTube was established, so it wasn’t easy to see much of the band here, despite their evident popularity in the USA. While I have picked up the rest of their albums in the years since, this remains my favourite. It is timeless.

Mighty Mighty BossTones

If you were paying attention during the Placebo post, Mighty Mighty BossTones are the answer to the question raised there; “Who is your other favourite band?” Every other band or artist in this list I can point to a person who either influenced my discovery, or at least discovered them at the same time as me. The Mighty Mighty BossTones is the only one where not only did I get into them off my own back, but no one else has ever really shown much interest at all.

Generally (not always) if I mention the Mighty Mighty BossTones being my favourite band to people, I usually have to include a short explanation of who they are. The one major exception to this was on a visit to Charlottesville, Virginia to see a friend. Discussing music with some of his local friends in the bar, I mentioned my love for the BossTones, and they were also passionate fans. I think at least one of them was from Boston though, which goes someway towards explanation.

Unlike the last two artists, I’ve never seen the Mighty Mighty BossTones live. That is due to change this year though, as I have tickets for their gig in London in June. Hurrah!

Other albums and songs

The Magic of Youth – “Like a Shotgun”

The Magic of Youth is the only album I’ve ever been gifted via iTunes.

After chatting about music with a date who had also never heard of the BossTones, they went away and looked them up. This album had been released only a short time before, and I hadn’t even noticed. She gifted it to me, taking a chance I hadn’t got it already. Like a Shotgun was the single released from this album, and classic BossTones.

You were us and I was only me
And you were only waiting patiently

Enter Sandman

As an unashamed fan of Glee,I’m no stranger to an ill-advised cover. I’m no Metallica super-fan, but I recognise the classic status of some of their output. Enter Sandman is one of the biggest of those, and not the sort of song you’d want to cover lightly.

I think the BossTones do a great job though, and Dicky Barrett’s voice is one of few that I think could really do it justice. One of my favourite covers.

Conclusion

As per my initial post, all these albums are ones I return to often. I regularly just ‘throw on some BossTones’. Generally that means either hitting shuffle on the full discography, or it’s replaying Live From The Middle East in its entirety. If you’ll excuse me I’m just off to do the latter. It is perfect.

Glasvegas

Glasvegas – Perfect Album #2

Onto the second album in my list, and it’s Glasvegas’s self-titled debut album. As always, if you missed my original post, please check out “ten perfect albums” first.

Discovery

I’m not entirely sure quite when I discovered Glasvegas. It’s possible it started just with hearing their first chart single, “Geraldine” on the radio. However it really took hold when I found I shared a love for the band with my boss at the time, a man who otherwise has dubious taste in both music and football.

I think for ages I only had a downloaded copy of the album, but later picked up a second hand CD to make me feel better. Glasvegas are more ‘indie’ than I usually get into, but something about their sound stood out to me.

Standout songs

Predictable as you like, but Geraldine remains a firm favourite. I’d never heard anything like it before, and pretty much haven’t since. Hands down the best song I know about a social worker.

When you say that I’m no good and you feel like walking
I need to make sure you know that’s just the Prescription talking

Headline for the album is probably the heart-wrenching “It’s My Own Cheating Heart That Makes Me Cry”. The song climbs as the vocals spiral in despair, sure it’s depressing as hell, but it’s impossible not to sing along.

The end was always coming and now it’s here

As the first track on the album, Flowers & Football Tops sets the scene for the whole thing. The euphoric sound, the distinctive Scottish vocals, it quickly establishes tone. The song is also brutally sad once the lyrics sink in.

It’s perhaps more subtle than The Smiths’ “Girlfriend in a Coma” but I can’t help but draw a parallel. I remember being pretty young when my sister Heather would describe parties in the 80s where everyone would sit around listening to the Smiths, feeling awful. Yet would likely all describe what a great time they’d had when discussing it later. I think I get it.

Flowers and football tops
Don’t mean a thing.

Relationship with the album

This album was instrumental in my finally getting round to putting this list together. As I mentioned in my Placebo post, I’ve been keeping an eye out for gigs from my favourite artists. Last year Glasvegas toured a 10th anniversary of this album, and came to Brighton. I got tickets and dragged my friend Sam along. (He’s not a huge fan, but has sung Daddy’s Gone with me on SingStar numerous times…)

They played the album live in its entirety. It was an amazing set, incredible to hear the whole piece live. Before the gig I outlined my idea for this list to Sam, and we continued the discussion into the night afterwards. I committed then to putting my list down and blogging about it. I’m still interested to also hear his list, although his first draft was Slayer’s “Reign in Blood”, ten times. So we’ll see.

Glasvegas also re-released the album on vinyl to celebrate its tenth anniversary. I couldn’t resist picking it up at the gig.

Glasvegas vinyl
Yes, apparently I now buy vinyl

Glasvegas

In many ways I’m the worst kind of Glasvegas fan. The follow-up albums passed me by, as they sadly did with most people. I do enjoy tracks from “EUPHORIC /// HEARTBREAK \\” but listening to it mostly just sends me back here. They did however release the incredible EP “A Snowflake Fell (And it Felt Like a Kiss) shortly after the album debut. I discovered that late too, but it has become essential festive listening.

As snow fell from heavens above
Directionless no more, Emptiness no more

Those of you who have followed me on Twitter for a while will also recognise the photo below. Although I changed it recently, it was my avatar on there for years. Pretty sure I’m still using it in some places, despite the photo being almost 10 years old. I was very pleased to discover the T-Shirt still fit when I dug it out for the gig.

Glasvegas, it me
It me

Conclusion

This isn’t the only indie album to make the top ten, but it is the only one that I’d describe as actively bleak. (Potential spoiler that there won’t be any Radiohead coming up…) Glasvegas are not alone in struggling to follow up an incredibly successful first album. I’m sure many would describe them as a ‘one album wonder’. For me, it wouldn’t matter if they had never released anything else. I consider this album, “Glasvegas”, perfect.

Ten Perfect Albums #1

Placebo – Without You I’m Nothing – Perfect Album #1

First off, the order I’m publishing the posts in does not represent any sort of ranking. Mostly I’ve just organised my list to try and avoid grouping similar artists or sounds together. Thought I’d use photos of my own copy of each album as I go too, so some may be a bit worse for wear. Also, if you missed my original post setting out the context for this list, please read “Ten Perfect Albums“.

Discovery

I imagine a few people discovered Placebo around 1999, thanks to the success of Dangerous Liaison’s remake, Cruel Intentions. Personally, while I was certainly aware of them before that, it was their presence on the Cruel Intentions soundtrack that really got to me.

I had the soundtrack on a dubious CDR of MP3 albums, and it was on the strength of this that I ordered Placebo’s “Without You I’m Nothing” released the previous year. Amusingly, I also bought it in the most 90s way possible, via the Britannia Music Club. Placebo have gone on to become my joint favourite band, and while I love all their music, this is the album I consider (by my own definition) perfect.

Standout Songs

Pure Morning and Every You Every Me are obvious choices as they were such iconic singles and are rightly deserving of praise. However the song that I’d point to as a personal highlight is Allergic (To Thoughts of Mother Earth). The energy to the track is something of a turning point for the album, following the haunting title track, Without You I’m Nothing.

“The light divining, the light defining, the light divining, the light dividing.”

The song, Without You I’m Nothing, is excellent, and I do adore it as part of the album. However, if you’re going to just listen to it in isolation, you’ve got to choose the single release featuring the late, great, David Bowie.

“You’ve never seen the lonely me at all.”

Relationship with the album

The majority of my musical preferences formed before the mid-nineties, can be traced back to/blamed on my older sisters and my brother-in-laws. Some of those influences will crop up in this list, but by 1999 I was finding my own way more and more.

Growing up, I used to fight quite a bit with Helen, the youngest of my sisters. I think because we were closest in age, and my being 4 years younger I was probably just annoying and uncool to have around. These days I aspire to be less annoying, but suspect that I am no cooler. However by the time I finished high school, we did start to become much closer. This was when we discovered we did have some overlap in our musical tastes, and Placebo was one of those we had in common.

“Without You I’m Nothing” not only takes me back to my college years, and the music I was just starting to get into then, but just as much it takes me home. Takes me to a time when our other sisters had moved out and Helen and I had discovered such shared interests as ‘walking to the pub on a Sunday evening’.

Placebo

There are some vocalists that are instantly recognisable, and while Placebo certainly have a distinctive overall sound, it’s Brian Molko’s incredible voice that really sets them apart.

As I mentioned above, Placebo are my joint favourite band, along with another that’ll crop up on a later post in this series. While I’ve historically been terrible at seeing any of the bands or artists that I love live, I managed to finally change that in 2016 when Placebo came to Brighton on their 20 years of Placebo tour. They were superb, and it was everything I’d hoped for.

Before that I’d been to plenty of gigs, but always those suggested by other people. This has involved much more drum & bass and dub-step than is probably good for me. I have now turned this round, and ever since seeing Placebo have been gradually ticking other bands off my bucket list.

Other albums and songs

I know a number of people who regard Placebo’s self-titled first album as their best. I wouldn’t really contest this, as it is excellent. For the purposes of my own criteria though, it doesn’t quite hit ‘perfect’. Without You I’m Nothing is the album I come back to again and again. One of my lecturers in college was a strong advocate for their first album, and she was keen to lend me her CD so I could be convinced. I think this is the copy I still have at home. Sorry Jo.

I have found something to love on every Placebo album since, with 2013’s Loud Like Love being another favourite. I adore “Too Many Friends” from this album, and hearing it played live was very much a highlight of the gig in Brighton.

“My computer thinks I’m gay.”

Conclusion

From what I’ve read, even the band don’t rate this album as highly as I do. When I decided to make this list, Without You I’m Nothing was one of the first to claim a place. It is perfect.

My long serving iPod. May he live forever.

What are your Ten Perfect Albums?

The Premise

Perfect Albums you say? Well. This is a project I’ve been working on in my head for about 5 years. It started out even longer ago, based on the seemingly innocuous question, “Hey, what are your top ten favourite albums?” The more time I spent thinking about it, the more it bothered me. Could an album really be my favourite if I’m skipping 40% of it, but I really like 5 or 6 songs? Sure I love Bros – Push, but is it really in a top 10? (Hey I said it was a long time ago.)

I have decided to re-frame the question. I’m now asking, “What are your top ten albums that you consider perfect?” Perfect in this sense being those albums:

  • where there are no tracks that I skip,
  • that I often find myself returning to,
  • that I easily put back on again from the beginning after it finishes.

Choosing my Ten

After years of deliberation, I have finally decided on my ten. I’m no music critic and it’s important to stress the importance of “I consider perfect” not being equivalent to “technically great” or “musical genius”. In some cases I may even admit that there are “better” albums by the same artist, if so I’ll try to acknowledge these in the posts.

Many people have written about the links between music and memory. It is widely recognised that songs and albums can transport you to a time and place (sometimes whether you like it or not) and this has been very much in my mind when considering the list. All the albums I have chosen feel connected to my life in some way.

I can promise there is no Bros in the line-up, I can’t promise there isn’t anything you’ll consider a dubious choice. Hopefully though you’ll stick with me (both of you), and at least read the posts where I’ll share my thoughts, perhaps pick out some standout tracks and maybe even talk a bit out the memories the album evokes. We’ll see.

The Plan

I intend to treat each album to an individual blog post. Aiming to cover an album every couple of weeks. When I’m done I may do a couple of honourable mentions, as there are a number on the cutting room floor.

I’d also be very interested to hear other people’s take on this question, although that may require people reading the blog. I shall keep my expectations low.

All-time Top 5 Christmas Songs

Determined to at least get one more post on here before the end of the year, and inspired by both the season and a recent re-watching of the excellent High-Fidelity, I felt compelled to assemble my own Christmas Song Top 5.  In reverse order, for extra drama.

5. Glee – Deck the Rooftop

The only entry from Glee, I promise.  I love this, it’s just a shameless fun mash-up, and makes me happy. 🙂

4. Tim Minchin – White Wine in the Sun

This is beautiful.  Amusing and sentimental, and really hits home how I feel about Christmas, despite Christmas in Stoke not featuring much in the way of sun.

3. The Pogues Featuring Kirsty MacColl – Fairytale Of New York

Pretty sure there is a law that this has to be on every list of great Christmas songs, (it should probably be number one, but what the hell…)   It is great though, and the first time I hear it on the radio is a much better start to the season than celebrating a bloody red truck…

2. Puff Daddy ft RUN DMC, Mase, Salt & Pepa, Onyx and Keith Murray – Santa Baby Remix

Merry Hip Hop Christmas!  This is so great, easily my favourite version of Santa Baby, with so many great rappers.  It’s very 90s, but if we didn’t listen to dated songs at Christmas, we wouldn’t have much left…

1. Mighty Mighty BossTones – This Time of Year

My all-time favourite Christmas song is coincidentally also by my all-time favourite band.  It’s joyous and I love it.  “This time of year gets me and it never lets me act like I don’t care.  This time of year’s my favourite time of year ’cause all of us are here together.”

Sorry about all that, I’ll get back to the games soon…