1. My Top Ten Albums of 2011

    Posted December 31, 2011 in music  |  No Comments so far

    Now that I’ve got with the program and started tagging MP3s properly, I can use Last.fm to see what I’ve been listening to. So, in the spirit of the end-of-year retrospectives that are customary around now, here are the ten albums I’ve listened to the most in 2011*.

    * hardly any of these were released in 2011

    Barafundle10. Barafundle by Gorky’s Zygotic Minci (1997)

    Gorky’s were a psychedelic rock band favoured by John Peel and highly prolific in the 1990s. Their outlandish and experimental approach to instrumentation is combined with a knack for haunting and sometimes decidedly catchy melodies. This album is more polished and refined than some of their earlier work and is on this list because Cathy regularly plays it to our baby son.
    Notable track: Patio Song

    Blackout9. Blackout! by Method Man & Redman (1999)

    The first of several hip-hop albums on this list, Blackout! is a collaboration between the Wu-Tang Clan’s Method Man (who also plays Cheese in The Wire, fact fans) and New Jersey-based rapper Redman. It’s a really playful album that’s powered by the interplay and dynamic between two MCs who couldn’t sound more different from one another, yet whose styles are mutually complementary. There’s nothing serious or thoughtful here though. It’s an energetic and cartoony album and sometimes that’s what you want from hip-hop (although not always – of which more later).
    Notable track: Cheka

    Camino Del Sol8. Camino Del Sol by Antena (1982)

    In the early 1980s Antena, a French pop trio headed by singer Isabel Antena, recorded and released a mini-album, Camino Del Sol. The one I’ve been listening to is a more recent reissue with an expanded tracklist. As an electro-pop act Antena weren’t as pioneering as the likes of OMD or the Human League, but their gentle tropically tinged electro-pop is definitely unique to them. It’s just a shame they didn’t make more of it.
    Notable track: Camino Del Sol

    John Maus7. We Must Become The Pitiless Censors Of Ourselves by John Maus (2011)

    One of only two new albums to make my 2011 top ten, We Must Become… is a dazzling piece of work. Although it’s ostensibly a synth-pop album it has none of the irony, nostalgia or kitch overtones that tend to plague deliberately retro music. You’d never think this was old. It’s intensely modern and complex in a way that becomes more obvious with each listen. As a piece of electronic music it’s excellent, but it’s the baffling, revolutionary lyrical material that makes this album endlessly fascinating for me.
    Notable track: Cop Killer

    Head Over Heels6. Head Over Heels by Cocteau Twins (1984)

    In 2009 and 2010 I was obsessed with the Cocteau Twins’ later album, Victorialand, but in early 2011 I picked up a copy of Head Over Heels on vinyl. Today the Cocteau Twins are seen as an early influence on what people now call ‘dreampop’ and while Head Over Heels is less dreamy than Victorialand – it actually has beats, for example – its indie/gothic songs are surrounded by a spacey, drifting atmosphere and Liz Fraser’s voice is otherworldly as always.
    Notable track: Musette And Drums

    Only Built 4 Cuban Linx5. Only Built For Cuban Linx by Raekwon (1995)

    This was Raekwon’s first solo album and was released during east coast hip-hop’s second golden age in the mid-1990s. Raekwon’s like a modern-day Raymond Chandler – a noir storyteller whose prose style is itself a rich backdrop for his crime stories. Cuban Linx is experimental in a way – its cinematic narratives and dense lyrics were definitely unlike anything that came before – but it’s not in the least bit noodly or arch, this is pretty raw stuff. I listened to its 2009 sequel, Cuban Linx II, a lot in 2011 also, but it doesn’t appear in this chart due to some ID3 tag problem that’s too boring to explain.
    Notable track: Criminology

    4. Fishscale by Ghostface Killah (2006)

    Ghostface Killah appeared extensively on the abovementioned Raekwon album so in a way it’s fitting that this comes next in the chart. If Raekwon is modern hip-hop’s Raymond Chandler then Ghostface might be its James Joyce – hyper-lucid and loquacious, wildly associative, more versatile than most, Ghostface can move from street-soaked crime stories to tales of puppy love and heartfelt accounts of an impoverished childhood at the drop of a hat. Fishscale marked a major return to form for him when it came out in 2006, but I only got into it this year after being sucked back into the world of Cuban Linx.
    Notable track: Beauty Jackson

    Fear Of A Black Planet3. Fear Of A Black Planet by Public Enemy (1990)

    This album was a blast from the past for me in 2011. I was obsessed with this when it first came out, but what made me dig it out and start playing it again this year? I’m not sure. Maybe I was infected by the zeitgeist in what TIME magazine eventually labelled “the year of the protestor“. Public Enemy definitely made protest music with a businesslike precision and work ethic which came together to produce a sound that was as industrious and motivated as it was confrontational and revolutionary. Most critics will tell you that Nation Of Millions was their best album, and they’re probably right, but I think Fear Of A Black Planet is more immersive.
    Notable track: Revolutionary Generation

    The Infamous2. The Infamous by Mobb Deep (1995)

    Like Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, this album came out of New York’s resurgent hip-hop scene in the mid-1990s and quickly became a milestone in the genre. But while Cuban Linx is ambitious and panoramic, The Infamous is closer in spirit to hardcore hip-hop albums of the late 1980s. There’s no concept or back-story, just a collection of strong tracks making for a solid album. It concludes with the phenomenal Shook Ones Part II, which plays a key role in the Eminem movie 8 Mile. Indeed, it was an article about the mysterious sample used in this track back in March this year that led to me getting sucked into this album.
    Notable track: Shook Ones Part II

    Let England Shake1. Let England Shake by PJ Harvey (2011)

    So the album I listened to most this year was Let England Shake by PJ Harvey, which also won the Mercury Music Prize for 2011 so it’s not exactly obscure. Its subject matter is the centrality of war and military adventurism to English history, which proved newsworthy enough to get the attention of broadsheets, Andrew Marr, and so on. So I was expecting to find a series of worthy polemical songs set to grandiose or dirge-like music, but within the first few seconds of the first track I found myself gripped by the sound and the melodies which jump right to the forefront. You almost have to go back to rediscover the lyrical material after the first couple of listens, as the music itself is so arresting.
    Notable track: Written On The Forehead

    So that’s that! The 10 albums I’ve listened to most in 2011. I’ll try to remember to do this again at the end of 2012. Happy new year everyone!

  2. How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The ID3 Tag

    Posted October 2, 2011 in music  |  4 Comments so far

    You know what ID3 tags are, don’t you? When your MP3 player shows you artists, album names, song titles and stuff like that – well, that’s ID3 tags doing their thing. So if you’ve ever listened to MP3s you’ll have come across them, even though their name makes them sound a bit nerdy and obscure.

    These days I can’t get enough of ID3 tags. If I find an MP3 on my hard drive that doesn’t have ID3 tags it’s like an itch that needs to be scratched. I can’t relax until it’s corrected. Slowly, inexorably, over many years, structure and organisation is coming to my digital music collection. It’s all thanks to ID3 tags.

    Logitech Squeezebox

    Just another day's work for ID3 tags

    It wasn’t always this way though. I used to be opposed to ID3 tags, an ID3 tag sceptic. When did my attitude change? There was no Damascene conversion, no eureka moment, no high-level defection to the ID3-tagging community. Instead it was more like boiling the frog – with me as the frog.

    In the early days of digital music – before Napster – there wasn’t much of a call for ID3 tags and if I didn’t hate them it was only because I hadn’t heard of them. Here’s why you didn’t really need them back then:

    • You didn’t own many MP3s – Small hard drives, limited bandwidth and few avenues for acquiring digital music meant that most people didn’t have a huge number of MP3s, so it wasn’t difficult to keep them organised using folders and filenames. Digital music collections had yet to grow to a size where information management became a real problem.
    • Music players were pretty primitive – Digital music was very new and the supporting software was at an embryonic stage in its development. Remember MacAMP? We might look back on OS’s from the late 1990s and laugh, but the fact is that many people preferred using their file systems to manage MP3s, making ID3 tags irrelevant.
    • Music was stored on a single device – Data was less portable then than it is now, and you didn’t tote around mobile phones, tablets, and other devices on which you wanted to play your digital music. This also reduced the need to organise and manage music collections.
    • You rarely used other people’s music collections – Admit it, you used Napster, or something like it anyway. When file-sharing came along people started to poke around in one another’s MP3 collections, but before then it didn’t really happen so no-one cared how your files were organised. If it worked for you, that was good enough.

    These factors combined to create a “real ale” approach to MP3 files. We thought up ways to organise files into usefully named directories – by year, by genre, by album, by provenance. We had conventions for filenames – artist, track number, title, all separated by hyphens. ID3-managed music collections felt messy and random, with no thought given to curation and structure. Our solution worked for us. It was good enough.

    But then the 1990s turned into the 2000s, and then the 2000s got out of nappies and learned to talk and started forming opinions and views and making demands of its own. A brave new world came about, in which we had to reappraise our relationship with ID3s.

    The tipping point probably came when our MP3 collections grew to a point that to adjust all their filenames, or reorganise them into a new folder structure, was an unspeakably time-consuming task that we couldn’t contemplate doing. Then we started to think, how can this stuff be automated? How can I do it in bulk? And that’s when ID3 tags started to appeal.

    When I started using ID3 tags, it was like a benign drug addiction. You do it for a laugh at first, for a quick thrill, to save a bit of time through automation, but suddenly they’re in your life and there’s no looking back. The benefits of using them become clear.

    You copy your MP3s to an unfamiliar device with an unfamiliar UI – but the informational structure is consistent, so your collection is just as usable. You do futuristic things like “scrobbling” your music to Last.fm – but, rather than submitting junk data to these services, ID3 tags make it actually work. And as your digital music collection grows and grows, you no longer have to worry about stupid things like which directory to stick a file, or how to handle compilations, because the decisions you make are easy to change later on.

    For someone who came to digital music any time after the advent of iTunes, a world without ID3 tags would be an unfamiliar and awkward place. It’s strange to look back and remember how scornful I was about them, how much I preferred the “real ale” solution of folders and filenames which was never going to successfully scale.

    ID3 tags are the unsung heroes of the digital music age. I like them now, and you probably do too – even if you’ve never actually heard of them.