Tracks of 2016 – No. 10 – 1

There are a number of artists that almost made this list, including Black Mountain, Rihanna, Warpaint, Pumarosa and Sunflower Bean (to name a few). Ultimately, however, these are my musical highlights of the year…

10. Michael Kiwanuka – Love & Hate

From his brilliant second album, Kiwanuka’s ‘Love & Hate’ is a soulful, emotive and moving piece of music. Its many components, not to mention that great guitar solo, work together beautifully to create a truly stunning track.

9. Shura – What’s It Gonna Be?

2016 has been a great year for Shura as she finally got the attention she deserves with the release of her debut album Nothing’s Real. ‘What’s It Gonna Be?’ is one of her best – upbeat with hugely relatable lyrics, plus it has a brilliant John Hughes inspired music video.

8. The 1975 – Somebody Else

The 1975’s second album I Like It When You Sleep… has some great tracks, but this is definitely a standout. I’m a sucker for synths, especially when they sound like this – perfect late-night, post-breakup state of confusion listening.

7. Leif Erikson – Real Stuff

I stumbled across this track by accident and was instantly hooked. It’s a timeless indie rock song and is hard to believe it’s by a band that only debuted music last year.

6. Formation – Drugs

Formation’s new releases never disappoint, but this one really is something special. Fusing their unique mix of punk and electronic elements, it’s like a drug for your ear drums. Gritty, edgy and cool – I honestly can’t get enough.

5. Metronomy – Old Skool

‘Old Skool’ is a track that manages to simultaneously sound completely funky and delicious, but also slightly disturbing – and I love it. This dichotomy is wonderfully realised in the music video starring a suitably bonkers Sharon Horgan.

4. NZCA Lines – Two Hearts

‘Two Hearts’ is one of the most irresistible songs I’ve heard all year. It’s futuristic disco sound is so energetic and powerful, I feel like I’m in a hypnotic state when I listen to it (in the best possible way).

3. Tegan and Sara – U-Turn

Tegan and Sara’s 8th album Love You to Death is a brilliant pop album, full of ridiculously catchy songs stuffed with 80s nostalgia. ‘U-Turn’ is my personal highlight – a gem of a pop song that I have found myself constantly playing on repeat.

2. David Bowie – Lazarus

On 1st January this year I chose ‘Lazarus’ as my Track of the Week. When I first heard this track I was struck by its lyrics and jazz influences but when Bowie’s death was announced just over a week later, the song took on a whole new meaning. Listening to it now, it is still just as beautiful as the first time I heard it, but even more tragic and poignant.

  1. Christine and the Queens – Tilted

Discovering Christine and the Queens’ music has been one of my highlights of 2016 and it all started with this song. With its unique bilingual lyrics, ‘Tilted’ is an anthem for embracing your true self and is pop music at its best. The music video and choreographed live performances of ‘Tilted’ also add to the sparkle of the song.

 

 

All hail Queen Christine

Héloïse Letissier’s story has almost become part of modern pop mythology now, the tale of a young anxious, broken-hearted outsider travelling to London and being taken in by three drag queens in Soho, who inspired our heroine to embrace her contradictions and thus give birth to Christine and the Queens.

It’s a story that only adds to the full effect of Christine and the Queens as one of the most exciting artists around today. This magical concoction of a fabulous origin story, a purposefully confusing name (inviting the question – who are the queens?) and of course, true musical talent and song-writing capabilities, is utterly unique and captivating. Where Héloïse ends and Christine begins is perhaps unclear but in the end it does not matter. On the one hand, the ambiguity only reiterates the provocation and challenge of societal norms seen in her work, particularly with regard to gender, beauty and being your true self. On the other, she has recently admitted that Christine is really her true self, albeit a freer and less filtered version and I suspect many of us wish we had a Christine.

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Christine and the Queens, photographed by Dustin Condren in New York City for Loud and Quiet magazine, 2016.

Obviously the average listener will probably not go into quite as much analysis or deep thought as I have done into this relationship. Yet this is precisely what makes Christine and the Queens so great, the fact that she works on all levels. She is accessible, firstly because her music is catchy and makes you want to dance. Her music videos and talk show performances also serve as future classics – full of Janet Jackson style choreography and simple but effective lighting and outfits. She is radio friendly and cool. But when you look more closely, you will see that there is so much more under the surface. And this is where it gets really interesting.

Having first watched Christine and the Queens perform on Jools Holland, I then eagerly sought out her other performances and knew I had to see her live and experience it for myself. Here was a woman often singing in lyrics I didn’t understand, in cool androgynous suits, dancing in a slick style that didn’t need stripper moves or a lack of clothing to grab your attention. It was totally refreshing. When you take all this into account – her dance moves, clothing and bilingual lyrics, you realise that everything about her has a deeper level. You don’t need to know this to appreciate her music, but it certainly does add an extra something.

Christine and the Queens’ debut album Chaleur Humaine was released in June 2014 in France and the adapted English version arrived on our shores in February this year. It is without a doubt my favourite album of the year (maybe even the decade so far), a perfectly crafted record showcasing the huge potentials of pop music. It works on various degrees, most simply as a selection of hugely catchy songs infused with a variety of musical influences, but also more deeply as a provocative and emotive commentary on gender and sexual politics.

But when performed live, it’s a whole other ball game. In the 2 years since she released her debut in her native France, Christine and the Queens has proved that she is in a league on her own when it comes to the live circuit. Her crystal-clear vocals, charming interactions with her audience and of course, intense and flawless dance routines are a winning formula, as I experienced on Thursday night. Playing her second sold-out night at Brixton Academy, she performed the most energetic, fun and exciting set I have ever seen in such an intimate venue.

Very few artists can truly achieve magic on stage, especially with just one album under their belt. For god’s sake many supposed legends rarely achieve what she did on Thursday night! From the opening ‘Starshipper’ to the funky choreographed transition songs (including the opening to Serge Gainsbourg’s ‘Mon légionnaire’) and her gorgeously 80s pumped cover of Beyoncé’s ‘Sorry’, it was pure joy from start to finish. It isn’t just her sound that makes her so exciting, it is the combination of her dance routines with her wonderful male dancers, her overall message that you can be whatever you want to be and her whole look that makes her so influential and special. It felt like the most accepting party ever, one in which you don’t wake up with a hangover but wake up feeling inspired to be your best self. And what’s even more exciting is that this is only the beginning.

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Christine and the Queens takes her bow, alongside her dancers and band, after a triumphant performance in Brixton. (03/11/16)

When I was on the train home on Thursday night, still completely buzzing from the gig, I started typing my unfiltered reaction on my phone. This is what I wrote:

‘Wow. She was incredible. Her voice is incredible, her energy, her message, her awkwardness, her fierceness, her vulnerability, her aggression and dance moves, her clothes – everything.

And the way she speaks about openness and experimentation and owning yourself is just awesome. For her it matters that you are a person, first and foremost, rather than what gender. And she embraces the fact that she may want to dance like a ‘boy’ one song and not for the other.’

Christine and the Queens at Brixton Academy was something very special. In his recent autobiography, Bruce Springsteen writes about his firm belief that you can change someone’s life in one live performance, it may only take 3 minutes. Héloïse Letissier certainly is proof of this and in my experience, her performance only comes second to the Boss himself.

 

 

Carole King Live at Hyde Park – ‘a pure delight’

 

On a gorgeous summer’s evening in Hyde Park, Carole King played her first live show in the UK for 27 years and performed her 1971 album Tapestry in full for the very first time. Her humble and charming performance was a pure delight to watch, in fact the whole day (as part of BST Hyde Park) was just gorgeous.

Earlier in the afternoon, Michael Kiwanuka treated us to a stunning set, culminating with the title track from his upcoming second album ‘Love & Hate’. With his smooth, soulful voice and simmering guitar, Kiwanuka was the perfect soundtrack to a very sunny, chilled and happy Hyde Park.

Up next was Don Henley whose Californian sound was perfect for the rare sunshine with Henley joking; “Look, the sun! What’s that doing here?” To be honest, I couldn’t think of a better place to have experienced seeing Henley live for the first time. The atmosphere, the heat, the setting – everything was just perfect. And as I sang along to ‘Sunset Grill’ and ‘Life in the Fast Lane’, I felt so ridiculously content. Though the highlight, of course, was ‘The Boys Of Summer’ live in that gorgeous sun, sunglasses on and hair slicked back.

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Don Henley performs to a sold-out crowd in the London sunshine.

Throughout the years, Carole King’s music has been given new life – whether through the numerous cover versions of her songs, or her reworking of ‘Where You Lead’ for the TV show Gilmore Girls. Of course, the success of the West End musical ‘Beautiful’, has also seen her music enter the hearts of a whole new audience while reinvigorating her original fans. Looking around at the rest of the audience, there were a fair few original fans of King but also plenty of mothers and daughters, families and couples, young and old. Either way, the atmosphere was beautifully chilled and happy.

Carole King’s Tapestry was released 45 years ago and yet, its songs resonate as strongly today as they did back in the 1970s. I’m sure every artist dreams of having their own Tapestry, an album so beautiful, varied and packed with hits that it is sometimes hard to believe they could all have come in one package. From the rousing opener ‘I Feel the Earth Move’ to the stunning ‘You Make Me Feel Like A Natural Woman’ (made famous by Aretha Franklin), it is a timeless reminder of the power of music and song writing.

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Screens showed a young Carole King singing ‘Feel Like A Natural Woman’ before the present day King joined in. 

Seeing this wonderful album being brought to life last night was something very special. King’s voice is now distinctly more raspy, but like the record itself, it has aged very well. It was also lovely to see such a well-known performer seem so genuinely grateful for the crowd’s response. The whole performance was just gorgeous, with highlights including King’s duet with her daughter Louise Goffin for ‘Where You Lead’, as well as the West End cast of the Carole King musical joining her on stage for a reprise of ‘I Feel the Earth Move’.

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Louise Goffin joins her mother for ‘Where You Lead’.

As King performed songs from Tapestry, as well as other hits such as ‘Chains’ and ‘The Loco-Motion’ – it also highlighted her incredible talents as a songwriter. From capturing the sadness of a breakup in ‘It’s Too Late’ to the pure joy of dance in ‘The Loco-Motion’, King has been able to cover an incredible range of emotions and feelings in all of her songs. Last night she made us feel emotional, sad, free and joyful in just under two hours. And as she remarked “this is what 74 looks like”, I had never felt so happy at the thought of growing older.

 

Track of the Week – KT Tunstall

My Track of the Week is from the brand new EP ‘Golden State’ from singer-songwriter KT Tunstall. ‘Evil Eye’ is a fantastic, feisty track that I found myself singing along to by the end of the first listen.

I used to listen to Tunstall’s first 2 albums a lot growing up and absolutely loved them, but as I’ve got older she has gone off my radar a little bit. Listening to this new EP has reminded me how brilliant she is, and how great it is to hear new material from her.

The EP is available now and presumably a fifth album is on its way. Tunstall has also announced UK tour dates for later this year.

 

‘Everything live music should be’ – Bruce Springsteen at Wembley

 

To be perfectly honest, it is really difficult for me to write a review or put into words my experience of seeing Bruce Springsteen live for the first time. I had never been so excited for a gig in my entire life and standing on the pitch at Wembley Stadium last Sunday in the rare English heat, it all felt a little surreal.

From 6pm, the anticipation in the stadium hit fever pitch and then, almost unexpectedly, Springsteen just walked on stage, alone, no fuss. He sat at the piano and played ‘Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street?’ and the crowd were silent. So much so that a minute or so in, Springsteen paused and looked out at the audience, as if to say ‘are you still there?’ and everyone cheered. Everyone was so entranced in the simplicity and sudden intimacy of a 90,000 capacity gig that it even seemed to surprise the main man himself. I felt the tingly sensation in my eyes that I was about to cry and told myself to toughen up. I had to get through another 3.5 hours without mascara running down my face, after all.

The E Street Band then joined Springsteen with the exploding ‘Seeds’ and they did not stop until Springsteen closed with an acoustic version of ‘Thunder Road’ over 3 hours later. I had never seen anything like it before in my life. The amount of pure talent and musicianship on stage blew my mind, let alone the fact that Springsteen is now 66 years old.

This was part of The River Tour, and although Springsteen played only a selection of songs from the album, I thought the setlist was perfect. I was praying that he would play something from the Tunnel of Love era and when he took up a sign request of playing ‘Tougher Than The Rest’ with wife Patti, I was so happy. Another sign request for ‘I’ll Work For Your Love’, rather refreshingly, took Springsteen a few minutes to work out the right pitch and chords. He joked that it would be worth it eventually, and it was beautiful. Other set highlights included ‘Candy’s Room’, ‘Spirit in the Night’ (which featured Springsteen downing a pint) and ‘American Skin’. He also played ‘Jungleland’, which I was delighted about, and again, almost reduced me to tears.

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My favourite shot of the night – Springsteen and The E Street Band take their bow at Wembley Stadium, 5/6/16.

Although I only truly discovered Springsteen’s music in the past few years, and still have a lot left to discover, his music has resonated with me in a way that no other artist or band ever has. I knew seeing him live was going to be a special night, but it was more than that. It was almost therapeutic. Springsteen and the E Street Band showcased everything that live music should be – loud, honest, spontaneous and heartfelt. It was just one man and his incredible band playing and singing their hearts out. There were no fancy costumes, crazy light displays or epic stage design. There didn’t need to be. From the people in the front row of the pitch singing every word, to drummer Max Weinberg sweating over the cymbals, everyone was united in their love of music.

Springsteen seems to have that rare blend of being arguably the best live performer of all time but also being just a relatable guy who you could sit and have a beer with. His songs resonate with me and millions of others because of their honesty and emotion. Whether he is singing about unrequited love or commentating on American gun violence, Springsteen makes you really think about the world and your place in it. Seeing him live was undoubtedly an overwhelming experience, but it was by no means a fleeting moment or a night that you quickly move on from. I woke up the next morning feeling excited about it and I keep thinking back to it and wanting to relive it because, let’s face it, you may forget what people do or say, but you never forget how they make you feel.

Setlist:

  1. Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street?
  2. Seeds
  3. Johnny 99
  4. Wrecking Ball
  5. The Ties That Bind
  6. Sherry Darling
  7. Hungry Heart
  8. No Surrender
  9. Be True
  10. Candy’s Room
  11. She’s The One
  12. My City of Ruins
  13. I’ll Work For Your Love
  14. Spirit in the Night
  15. Out in the Street
  16. You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)
  17. Death to My Hometown
  18. American Skin (41 Shots)
  19. The River
  20. The Promised Land
  21. Darlington County
  22. Waitin’ on a Sunny Day
  23. Tougher Than the Rest
  24. Because The Night
  25. The Rising
  26. Badlands
  27. Jungleland
  28. Born to Run
  29. Dancing in the Dark
  30. Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out
  31. Shout
  32. Bobby Jean
  33. Thunder Road – acoustic

 

Bruce Springsteen – The Highlight Reel (1973-1975)

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A young Bruce Springsteen holds his debut record, Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.

Introduction

Earlier this year, Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band kicked off The River Tour (due to finish in September after 75 dates), in support of the 2015 release of Springsteen’s The Ties That Bind: The River Collection box set, featuring outtakes and video footage to celebrate the 35th anniversary of the album The River. In September, Springsteen will also release his autobiography Born to Run, which he has been privately writing for the past seven years. Amongst this Springsteen fever, it seemed like a perfect opportunity to collate, and share, my personal Springsteen highlight reel.

Over the past few years I have gradually fallen deeper and deeper in love with the music of Bruce Springsteen. First introduced to him via his Born In The USA record, I immediately connected with his 80s releases and decided to delve further into his musical history. As both a History graduate and a huge music fan, I find him absolutely fascinating. In just over a week’s time, I will be seeing Springsteen at London’s Wembley Stadium and when buying my tickets, I came up with the idea of writing a Springsteen series for this blog.

My personal highlight reel will span every single Springsteen album, split up into roughly 2 to 3 albums per post. The tracks I have chosen are my current personal favourites and this project is not intended as an in-depth analysis of Springsteen or a list of his ‘best’ work, but as a personal reflection on his music. I will aim to cover all of his current work by the time his River Tour ends in September (fingers crossed!)

As with any ‘Best Of’ list or countdown I have ever written for this blog, choosing which songs to feature has been incredibly difficult. However, it feels like even more of a challenge with Springsteen as not only is there a lot of music to choose from, but his work is so varied and raw, that it somehow feels personal choosing one song over another.

Highlight Reel 1973-75

In this first highlight reel, I will cover Springsteen’s three albums released between 1973 and 1975 – Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. (1973), The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle (1973) and Born to Run (1975).

Springsteen was only 23 years old when he released his debut record and right from the very start, he showcased his talent with words. One of the main reasons I love Springsteen’s music is because of his beautiful lyrics and ‘The Angel’ perfectly demonstrates his ability to convey a character through music, within a number of minutes. The lyrics feature numerous references to motorcycles and I love the simplicity of the piano playing and how its delicate sound contrasts the typical connotations surrounding the hells angel of the story.

Reading Springsteen’s lyrics is often more like reading a poem than a song, and it is these lyrics that make his songs so special. Also from his debut album, ‘Spirit in the Night’ tells the story of ‘Crazy Janey’ and co’s escapades to the Greasy Lake. It is romantic, freeing but also mysterious and shows how Springsteen is as much a storyteller as he is a songwriter.

Springsteen’s second album, also released in 1973, features a more bluesy and soulful sound with tracks including the gorgeously funky ‘The E Street Shuffle’ and ‘Kitty’s Back’. However, it is the final track, ‘New York City Serenade’ that is my personal favourite from the record. At just under 10 minutes long, it is a truly magical composition. It sweeps over you and transports you to Springsteen’s romantic fantasy of 70s New York. It also proves how skilfully Springsteen has been able to incorporate piano and saxophone into rock music.

In 1975 Bruce Springsteen released his third studio album, Born to Run, which saw him finally break into the mainstream and achieve commercial success. The second song on the album, ‘Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out’ is one of my favourites mostly because it just makes me feel good and because it reminds me of the music featured in The Blues Brothers that I was obsessed with as a child. It tells the story of the formation of the E Street Band, with Springsteen placing himself in the story under the pseudonym ‘Bad Scooter’ and meeting the other band members such as the ‘Big Man’ himself, saxophonist Clarence Clemons. A big, big tune.

It may not be as lyrically sophisticated, but ‘She’s the One’, also from Born to Run, is without a doubt one of my top Springsteen songs. It has a great pace to it and builds so beautifully. Its staccato beat is infectious and when it really kicks in at 1.17 you just feel so alive.

Perfectly placed after the sombre, but stunning, jazz of ‘Meeting Across the River’, is Born to Run‘s big finale – ‘Jungleland’. The song portrays the violent gang lifestyle of the protagonist (the ‘rat’) who tries, and ultimately fails, a ‘stab at romance’. It is tragically beautiful and a fantastic example of Springsteen’s role as a commentator of 20th century America, in particular of the working classes. It also features a breathtaking saxophone solo from Clarence Clemons. ‘Jungleland’ is epic and when you listen to it, you really feel it.

 

 

Track of the Week – Shura

Shura announced yesterday that she was releasing a brand new track entitled ‘What’s it Gonna Be?’ from her upcoming debut album. I immediately went into excitement overdrive (especially as this is the first truly new music from Shura in a while) and during the first listen, was so happy that Shura had once again knocked it out of the park. I’ve been playing it on repeat ever since.

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‘What’s It Gonna Be?’ is more upbeat than Shura’s previous tracks such as ‘Indecision’ or ‘Touch’ and it is an absolute banger. I knew I was going to like it as Shura never disappoints but wow, I bloody love it. I am also a huge fan of indie and synth-pop but this really is the genre at its finest – dreamy, with catchy and relatable lyrics but also a sound that is hugely distinctive to the artist. Shura’s unique The War on Drugs-esque guitars and breathy vocals are in full play here, she has just amped up the pace.

Shura’s debut album Nothing’s Real is released July 8th and is available to preorder now. She is also headlining KOKO next week, and this new track has got me even more excited for both her gig and album release.

You can listen to ‘What’s It Gonna Be?’ below:

 

Happy 50th Birthday Janet!

Today is the one and only Janet Jackson’s 50th birthday. She recently announced that she is expecting her first child with her husband so this is going to be an amazing year for her.

Jackson is one of the true pop icons and really is the whole package – a fantastic artist and songwriter, but also an incredible dancer. I am a huge fan of her work in the 80s in particular and it only seemed right to share one of my favourite Janet Jackson songs for her big day. ‘The Pleasure Principle’ was featured on Jackson’s 1986 album Control and its music video is one of my favourites of all time. Beautifully simple, it features Jackson showcasing her iconic dance moves in an epic solo dance performance.

Track of the Week – Metronomy

The past few weeks have been a treat for new music – with new releases from the likes of Radiohead, James Blake and Red Hot Chili Peppers. However, the music news that got me the most excited this week was Metronomy’s announcement of their new album Summer 08, coming out July 1st, and the simultaneous release of their new single ‘Old Skool’. The album’s 10 song tracklist has also been confirmed and Robyn will feature on one of the tracks, which is very exciting news.

‘Old Skool’ is a funkalicious song that is irresistibly catchy and cool. With its nostalgic sounding DJ-scratching and typical Metronomy quirky hooks – it is quite simply a triumph. It also has one of the most perfectly suited music videos I’ve seen in a long time. Featuring the wonderful Sharon Horgan, the video showcases a suburban 70s house party full of tension and questionable dance moves.

You can watch the video below:

Track of the Week – Leisure ft. GoldLink

This week’s Track of the Week is the new release from New Zealand’s Leisure featuring GoldLink. ‘Nobody’ is a beautifully smooth R&B/electro track that is perfect for lazy sunny days.

Since last year, Leisure have released a selection of laid-back tunes, including the gorgeous ‘Got It Bad’. (Think Tame Impala vibes but with more of an R&B twist.) This new song ‘Nobody’ combines those chilled out sounds with the smooth vocals of GoldLink – resulting in a beautifully mellow gem of a song. I love the sleekness of this track and how it effortlessly blends a range of influences into a modern and fresh sound.

Listen to ‘Nobody’ below: