Saturday, 31 December 2011

12 Songs for Xmas - Seventh Day

I had heard about Ron Sexsmith long before I actually heard his music. A night down at my Dad's with minimal access to my usual music channels lead me to a BBC Four programme about songwriters that included Ron. This lead me to download his 2011 album "Long Player Late Bloomer" which really hit the mark. "Believe it when I see It" is one of my favourite tracks off that album.


Friday, 30 December 2011

12 Songs for Xmas - Sixth Day

A concept album about British Wrestling Of The 1970's And Early 1980's? In 2011? Never gonna work is it? Well Luke Haines demented genius ensured that it could and 9 1/2 Psychedelic Meditations On British Wrestling Of The 1970's And Early 1980's has been one of my favourite albums of the year.

This here track is the impossibly catchy Big Daddy Got A Casio VL - Tone.


Thursday, 29 December 2011

12 Songs for Xmas - Fifth Day

Slow Club are a band with a history of tweeness. The first time I saw them live they played a number of unusual instruments including a chair. This was endearing on its own but their debut album was full of corking tunes too. Paradise, released this year was quite a change from those quirky routes. A much bigger sound. The songwriting remains though and this track Two Cousins is one of the highlights.


Wednesday, 28 December 2011

12 Songs for Xmas - Fourth Day

Time to wake things up a bit with the irrepressibly chirpy Go! Team. Their new album, Rolling Blackouts, was a huge return to form after their relatively disappointing second album. T.O.R.N.A.D.O. kicks off both the new album and their current live show and is a shot of 100% positive vibe.

It's a T. O. R. N. A. D. O!


Tuesday, 27 December 2011

12 Songs for Xmas - Third Day

Day three and I'm guessing we're all feeling a little bit tired of rich food and drink. We're off out again later today assuming the country is not in the midst of a massive winter storm (I wrote all these posts before Christmas).

Something mellow then to soothe your thumping head and hopefully make you feel good about the world. This is Low, who I think are a very underrated band, and "Especially Me". I went with the album version, which has a lovely string section in the middle, if you feel the need for moving pictures there should be a link to the official video from the same page.


Monday, 26 December 2011

12 Songs for Xmas - Second Day

Sweet Baboo is Stephen Black, sometime collaborator with First Day artist Gruff Rhys. Don't expect the rest of the days to be as joined up as this. I don't actually have a plan this was a fluke. Anyway, I saw Stephen as part of Slow Club's backing band at the Shepherd's Bush Empire in October. That was a great show, though annoyingly I missed the actual Sweet Baboo set he'd played earlier the same evening. It did at least encourage me to go and find some of his music hence this track "Bounce" from his Girl Under A Tree mini album.


Sunday, 25 December 2011

12 Songs for Xmas - First Day

Something a bit different to celebrate the festive season. A song a day for each of the 12 days of Christmas. I had to check Wikipedia to see when the twelve days actually start and it seems to be open to debate. I do know that Mrs Top Five always makes me take the decorations down on the 5th of January, so I'm going with today as the first day.

First song out of the bag is the lead track from Gruff Rhys' secular Christmas E.P. "Post Apocalypse Christmas".

Hope you're having a very happy Christmas Day.


Friday, 23 December 2011

Top 5 Anti-Christmas Songs

Despite the fact that, as Half Man Half Biscuit told us, "It's Cliched to by Cynical At Christmas", it's also quite therapeutic to let your "Bah! Humbug" side out once in a while. Also I'm running out of ideas for Christmas related top fives. Thanks to the ever fascinating Guardian Readers Recommend series who came up with the topic and provided me with some excellent choices to select from. Oddly, in spite of the general theme of Christmas not being the greatest time of the year, these songs have a rather uplifting effect on me. I think underlying the misery there's a sense of positive thought but perhaps that's just me.

1. "That Was the Worst Christmas Ever" Sufjan Stevens - A heart wrenching song coupled with a wonderfully animated D.I.Y video. It's not the sort of thing I'd normally champion but thoroughly deserves a wider audience.

2. "We're All Going To Die" Malcolm Middleton - Previously with the always acerbic Arab Strap, this is Malcolm Middleton's first attempt at a Christmas song. Despite the obviously grim subject it has an impossibly catchy refrain that I've been humming ever since.

3. "A Christmas Carol" Tom Leher - An Evening Wasted With Tom Lehrer was one of those albums my Dad owned that came to mean a great deal to me growing up. To be honest, this is the only album by Tom Leher I've ever heard but it remains a milestone in my comedy education.

4. "Cancel Xmas" Rocket from The Crypt - I was never a massive RFTC fan but this is a tune that hits all the right buttons.

5. "Christmas Is Going To The Dogs" Eels - Here as much for the title as the tune I've long been a fan of Eels morose take on life and this pretty much nails the Christmas conundrum.

If you're really in the mood then check through that Guardian article for some more gems including "Ain't No Chimneys In The Projects" by Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings, "The Christmas Tree's On Fire" by Holly Golightly, "Black Christmas" by Poly Styrene and "Don't Believe In Father Christmas" by the Sonics.

Thanks to everyone who has read and enjoyed the blog this year, especially those of you who have contributed your own top fives (and in the process made this a much better place). I hope you all have a very happy festive period and I'll see you in the New Year (or perhaps slightly sooner).

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Film 2012 at dotmund - In praise of "The Big Bus"

Something to tide you over until Friday. I wrote a short dissertation in praise of the 1976 film "The Big Bus" over at dotmund's excellent blog.

You can read it here. There's a top five at the end.

If you like film then it's worth reading the other posts in dotmund's Film 2012 series.

Is that enough links for you?

Back Friday with a Xmas top five.


Friday, 16 December 2011

Top 5 British Punk Singles

I wouldn't say I had a sheltered upbringing but growing up in a small village in the heart of the Surrey commuter belt was never going to make me into a street wise trend setter. The only knowledge I had of popular culture came from the TV and in particular Top Of The Pops. This is why I spent several months believing Pink Floyd were one of those Punk Rock bands I kept hearing about. By the time I knew what Punk was about it was all over.

1. Sex Pistols "Anarchy in the UK" (1976) - The Sex Pistols were almost certainly the first punk band I ever heard and have defined my idea of what punk should sound like. I remember someone bringing a single into school and playing it on a small portable record player over lunch. It might not have had an instant affect on my musical tastes (which up to that point were rooted in The Beatles & The Carpenters) but there was a definite frisson of excitement in hearing a "banned" song played. "Anarchy" is the band's debut single and one of a handful of cracking tunes the Pistols managed to release before imploding in a style completely appropriate for the genre. I spent a good 20 years mishearing the lyric "I want to destroy the passer-by" as "I want to destroy, possibly" which puts an entirely different perspective on John Lydon's rage.

2. The Damned "New Rose" (1976) - I have only recently got into The Damned having previously been more aware of their mid-eighties Goth period. Their first few albums were proper punk though and "New Rose" became the first punk single released in the UK beating the Sex Pistols "Anarchy in the UK" by a month and a few days.

3. Stiff Little Fingers "Suspect Device" (1978) - One of my favourite bands. Whilst they've never veered too far from their original style, they have written some brilliant tunes. Jake Burns lyrics, born out of living in Belfast during the height of the Troubles, set them apart from other bands of the time. I discovered them thanks to a 1981 episode of the BBC's Play For Today series. Jake Burns made his acting debut as Ducksey in "Iris In The Traffic, Ruby In The Rain" which also saw the rest of the band playing themselves and a SLF heavy soundtrack.

4. Buzzcocks "Orgasm Addict" (1977) - I spent far too long only knowing Buzzcocks for the (admittedly excellent) "Ever Fallen in Love". "Orgasm Addict" was released as a 7" shortly after Howard Devoto had left the band to form Magazine and filled the gap between the seminal "Spiral Scratch EP" and their debut full length album "Another Music in a Different Kitchen".

5. Alternative TV "Action Time Vision" (1978) - Alternative TV were formed by Mark Perry, the founding editor of the influential punk fanzine Sniffin' Glue. I think the best Punk records blur the distinction between trashy D.I.Y. rock and perfect Pop and this gets that combination spot on.


Sunday, 11 December 2011

Top 5 British Wrestlers of the '70s and '80s

I didn't have enough time to sort out a proper top five this week but having been inspired by, former Autuers and Black Box Recorder main man, Luke Haines' new album "9 1/2 Psychedelic Meditations On British Wrestling Of The 1970s And Early '80s" I give you this mini-top five.

Back in the days of three channels, on a wet Saturday afternoon with a choice between this, Rugby League or a black & white Doris Day film, I think everyone my age watched the wrestling on "World of Sport".

1. Big Daddy

2. Kendo Nagasaki

3. Giant Haystacks

4. "Gentleman" Chris Adams

5. Young David/Davey Boy Smith


Friday, 2 December 2011

Top 5 Ideas I might try to keep this blog going next year

I've not been exceptionally busy these last few weeks but for one reason or another I've not found much time to get ahead with my top fives. It might have something to do with our new TiVo box. The arrival of this box of wonders has reminded me of when we got our first VCR. I seem to be recording hours of TV on the off chance I might want to watch it. Every time I take a look at my available shows there's so much choice it takes me 5 minutes to decide what to view. I've also found myself, possibly not entirely unrelated to the TiVo, falling asleep on the sofa quite regularly and then having to drag myself up to bed in the small hours.

This is a long winded way of saying I've not got a decent top five this week. It has, however, started me thinking about how I can keep the blog going next year. I like writing top fives and I like my current weekly schedule but I'm pretty sure I'll struggle even more next year to meet it. With that in mind, and knowing I have a few things planned for the new year, here are my "top" five ideas for keeping the blog alive. I'll still do regular top fives as often as I can (and I'll be all the keener for guest submissions) but one or two of these might help me fill the gaps when I've not had time to do one justice.

1. Anyone Can Play Guitar - I cannot play guitar. I've owned a guitar of some sort for most of the last 30 years of my life. I have been completely incapable of getting beyond strumming three chords, with painfully slow and awkward moments as I change between each one. I keep promising myself that one day I'm going to sit down and learn properly. I am now 43 and my chances of becoming a global rock star are getting slimmer every year. On a recent train journey with my pal Mark, we got into a discussion about how I'd be happy if I could just play five fairly simple tunes and sing along. Mark reckons I could do it if I really wanted and challenged me to do so by June 2013. It's clearly an achievable target and I thought I could blog about my progress, or lack of it, as I go.

2. 100 Great Films - I love films but I haven't seen enough of them. Whenever I get into a discussion about films it quickly becomes apparent how many pretty significant movies I've not seen. I've been inspired recently by @dotmund's brilliant Film 2012 series and of course @5olly's always amusing attempts to watch Channel 4s Top 100 War Movies. I'd like to fill in some of the gaps in my knowledge, I just need to find a suitable list of great movies to tick off.

3. Chop's Book Club - My recent choice of reading material has been largely dictated by price or what's available in the library. A large part of my wardrobe is devoted to books I've bought from charity shops or because they've been particularly cheap from Amazon. This has actually worked out surprisingly well but I think next year I'd like to read a few more contemporary novels. I'm reading one of this year's Booker Prize shortlisted books right now and I've half an eye on reading the rest and picking out some more, well received, recent publications. Maybe if I pick a book a month you could read along with me and, if you feel like it, contribute to a discussion post about the book?

4. Gig Reviews - I track all my gigs through Songkick but I'd quite like to keep my own online record of all the bands I've seen. I may not go to quite as many gigs next year (major recession and all that) but if I do I may blog about each show I attend. This might expand into a separate blog to provide archive posts of all the shows I've ever seen ... then again maybe I should just make do with the Songkick record and stop making work for myself.

5. Interactive Top Fives - This would be awesome if I thought there were enough people interested. I'd pick a topic, everyone would send me their top fives and I could produce a combined post from the results. I used to contribute to a PRS run "focus" group that selected a top five on a different musical subject every week. It was brilliant - if a little distracting - and undoubtedly sowed the seeds for this blog. It's hard to maintain enough participants on a weekly basis but, like the book club idea, this could work on a monthly basis if enough of you are interested.

Feedback welcome. Let me know if you think any of these are good ideas. I'll take silence as being approval to do all five.

Friday, 25 November 2011

Guest Top 5 - Children's Books with Maps by Alicestronaut

This is a bit of a first in that I have shamelessly stolen it from someone else's blog. I'd been struggling to find enough time to write a new top five when my Twitter friend Alicestronaut popped up with a link to this wonderful entry on her blog. My job has changed dramatically since I started work but I'm still, officially, a cartographer and maps have always held a certain magic for me. Reading this I wondered whether the appearance of maps in some of my favourite childhood books may actually have influenced my choice of career.

After I stopped kicking myself for not having thought of it too, I began to consider my options for getting this topic into my blog. I pondered doing my own top 5 but really Alice has got this spot on. Alice has been very kind in letting me reproduce it here but you should also take a look at Alice's "Stuff & Things" blog or follow her on Twitter here. I think this could be my favourite top five of the year, over to Alice.

I spent a lot of time drawing maps, floorplans of houses and designing the layouts of new libraries when I was younger (I'm not fibbing, I spent hours and hours over a layout for my ideal library and sent it in to the one I used to go to. They never wrote back. I'm beginning to suspect my Mum never sent the letter). I'm not going to subject you to my top five favourite house layouts (yet) but how about some maps?

Here you are then.

Lord of the Rings - Obviously. Although you can argue over whether this is a children's book, I read the first one when I was that age so it is to me. I've still never read the other two all the way through but I'm sure I will one day.

Miss Jaster's Garden - Plot the route of a garden stealing hedgehog. Miss Jaster could benefit from a bit of laser eye surgery.

Winnie the Pooh - The first book that had me flipping back to the endpapers every five minutes. [aside - who is the best poet of all?]

Milly Molly Mandy - Another endpaper flipper. If you read these when you were small, you'll know how I feel about these books. If you didn't then buy a set for your kids right now - don't let them miss out too!

Treasure Island - The inventor of 'x marks the spot' and another of my favourite books, although more recently discovered.

Any more I should be including?


Friday, 18 November 2011

Top 5 Herbie Movies

The Herbie movies were simple but fun and were amongst the earliest films I can remember seeing in a cinema. I totally believed in the sentience of inanimate objects (I should perhaps point out here that I was only 6 when I saw the first film) and Herbie was proof positive that cars could do incredible things. Original director, Robert Stevenson, had made some of Disney's best kids movies (The Absent Minded Professor, Mary Poppins & One Of Our Dinosaurs Is Missing) but with Herbie found the perfect formula for boys under 10.  

1. Herbie Rides Again (1974) - Directed by Robert Stevenson
This first sequel to The Love Bug is, in my view, the best of the series. Herbie's original mechanic Tennessee Steinmetz leaves Herbie with his great aunt Mrs. Steinmetz (played perfectly by the wonderful Helen Hayes) and the plot revolves around the attempts of, evil real-estate mogul, Alonzo Hawk's attempts to evict them from their Firehouse home. This is the first Herbie film I saw in the cinema and the mixture of the surreal and the madcap made it a winner. My highlight is the finale which sees lots of other V.W. Beetles come to life to help ward of the demolition crew and defeat the villains once and for all.  

2. The Love Bug (1968) - Directed by Robert Stevenson
The original movie sees down-on-his-luck race car driver Jim Douglas (Dean Jones) acquire Herbie after defending the car from humilaitation by car salesman Peter Thorndyke (David Tomlinson). Thorndyke is also a race driver and becomes their bitter foe after Herbie beats him in a race having been tuned by Jim's mechanic friend Tennesse Steinmetz (Buddy Hackett). The Love Bug sets up the Boy-Car-Girl template that persists throughout the series, at heart these are quite simple love storys but in every one it's Herbie who remains the biggest star.

3. Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo (1977) - Directed by Vincent McEveety
Dean Jones returns as Jim Douglas and Herbie is back in the racing business though this time a cross continent chase from Paris to Monte Carlo. Don Knotts is entertaining as Herbie's new mechanic and the European backdrop provides some new scenary for the usual Herbie related mayhem. The much missed Roy Kinnear also makes an appearance as one of two thieves who hide a large diamond in Herbies fuel tank and then have to chase him around Europe in an attempt to reclaim it. There's a noticeable drop in quality with the loss of Stevenson as director but this film retains enough of the original movies charm to pull it off.

4. Herbie: Fully Loaded (2005) - Directed by Angela Robinson
A slight return some 25 years after the disaster that was Herbie Goes Bananas. This time Herbie finds a female owner in Maggie Peyton (played by a pre-rehab Lindsay Lohan), the youngest member of a racing family.The film recreates many of the scenarios we've seen before; Herbie helps owner beat race driver in posh big car, Driver accepts that Herbie is sentient, Driver bet's something important on winning a race, Herbie then delibately loses. Girl meets Boy, Boy falls for girl, car brings them together & they all live happily ever after. It's simple and a little cheesy but there are times when I think that's all we need. Fully Loaded restores a bit of pride to the series and gave me a little thrill in taking my eldest to see it when he was abount the same age I'd have been for Herbie Rides Again.

5. Herbie Goes Bananas (1980) - Directed by Vincent McEveety
Oh dear. This one is a shocker, poorly written and struggling to raise the gentlest of titters. Herbie is shipped to Brazil to take part in a Grand Prix but after causing havoc on the ship is dumped in the sea. He eventually surfaces, covered in rust and somehow finds his way to Mexico. The only scene that is even vaguely memorable sees Herbie as a matador in a Mexican bullring. Otherwise this was just a desperate attempt to prolong the series.


Friday, 11 November 2011

Top 5 Reasons I didn't write a Top 5 last week (and haven't written a proper one this week)

I think last week might be the first Friday I've not supplied a top five all year. Not that it really matters to anyone else but me, but it has provided me with something to write about this week. Perhaps more a diary entry than a top five but hey, it's better than nothing, right?

1. Work, Work, Work - It only happens once or twice a year but I've had a couple of weeks of long days and weekend working. This has mainly consisted of a team of contractors arriving to wreck havoc on my previously working system while I try and keep track of everything they do. In the past I have enjoyed the extra pressure, but this time I've felt a bit useless. Uninvolved, frustrated and under appreciated. These are all signs I've been in this job too long. Typically for me I'm finally considering a change of direction when I'm over 40 and there's a massive recession on. Great timing.

2. George's 8th Birthday - After nine consecutive crappy days at work my youngest celebrated his 8th birthday on Tuesday. This came as something of a relief and I left work early for a change. A family outing to see "Johnny English Reborn" with a meal after-wards at Pizza Hut. We don't do this enough and it was great fun. The film was just about perfect for my frame of mind amusing but untaxing. Pizza Hut may only be a small step up from McD's but the boys enjoyed the food (especially the ice-cream factory) and Mrs Top 5 and I enjoyed the chance to sit and talk for the first time in ages.

3. Beer - Back to work the next day, then straight out for a few beers after with the install team. We'd hoped to go to the Twickenham Beer Festival on Saturday night but had abandoned this as that day went slowly pear-shaped. This was an opportunity to show the install team a bit of British culture and we visited a few of my favourite pubs in the world, followed by a very nice meal at a Thai restaurant up the hill (my waist line dramatically increasing as the week wore on).

4. Football - I was really struggling by Thursday evening. Candle burnt at both ends. Wislaw Krakow were in town for the 4th of Fulham's Europa League group matches. A pub meal and a visit to another of my favourite pubs livened me up a little and we headed down towards the Cottage fashionably late. The accents we heard as we strolled through Bishop's Park suggested that there were a lot of resident Poles taking the opportunity to see their team in London, but we were still surprised by the large numbers of riot police dotted around the stadium. More police than I think I can ever remember. The reason for this became clear when we entered the ground and could see that Krakow fans had not only filled the small official section of the Johnny Haynes stand but also most of the Putney End. They made a lot of noise all game, several hundred were in home areas and these were eventually relocated to the far end. The official section let a smoke bomb off halfway through the first half. For a minute we thought the stand was on fire. It was, at times, a bit intimidating but it definitely sparked the game into life. The players and home fans responded and an entertaining 4-1 win for Fulham didn't feel comfortable until the 4th goal went in with 10 minutes to go.

Photo © Andy Hooper

5. Music - Finally Friday arrived and I literally had to drag myself out to a gig that I'd booked long before I knew what sort of a week this was going to be. Had it been any other band I may well have stayed home, but this was to be Dananananaykroyd's last ever gig in London. They've been just about the best live band I've seen in the last five years and I needed to say goodbye. They didn't disappoint, I didn't get as involved as I might have done, but a last opportunity to join in with the mass hug that is the "wall of cuddles" saw me collect two unsuspecting punters and dive into the middle of the throng. Fun times.

Photo © Darran Armstrong


Friday, 28 October 2011

Top 5 Non-Fiction Books

For most of my life I have read very little non-fiction. I enjoy the thrill, that fiction provides, of being transported somewhere else, and until recently, had rarely felt the desire to read about "real life". All of the choices in this top five, have affected me in a very similar way to my favourite novels. They tell great stories but ones born from real life experience.

1. "Down and Out In Paris and London" George Orwell - Orwell's first full length work and a captivating depiction of poverty in two great cities. The first half, set in Paris, sees Orwell having to take work as a kitchen hand and is by far the more convincing half of the book. A genuine feeling of the author living on the bread line and having to scratch together whatever money he could. If nothing else it will make you seriously consider the journey your food has taken, at even the poshest of restaurants, before arriving at your table. The second half has Orwell return to London, where he chooses to live as a tramp for a few weeks before the start of a job he'd been promised by a family friend. Whilst this is still a fascinating account of the time, and wonderfully written, I felt less sympathy for the author's predicament knowing that he choose to be there. (NB: To any Orwell fans out there, I have not yet read Homage to Catatonia or The Road To Wigan Pier)

2. "Bound For Glory" Woody Guthrie - One of the things I have discovered since I started writing a blog is how apalling my memory is. Even recent events can be a little vague but anything that stretches back to my pre-teenage years forms little more than random snapshots in my head. Guthrie's autobiography is full of wonderful detail about his early life rural Oklahoma, the impact of the Great Depression and his subsequent travels around America. There are elements of the book that benefit greatly from his songwriting skills. The boundary between fiction and non-fiction seems blurred but it stands as a thoroughly engaging tale about the founder of modern American folk music. 

3. "My Family and Other Animals" Gerald Durrell - Another book that I first read at school. I'm not entirely sure when as I'm sure this wasn't O-Level material but it's a story that has stayed with me ever since. Durrell writes with great humour about his family, an eccentric bunch to say the least, their exploits in Corfu and his burgeoning interest in the natural world.

4. "Kicked Into Touch" Fred Eyre - The story of the original journeyman footballer (in the days when players didn't change clubs every six months). From being top kid in the local kick-about it took several years before he represented Manchester Schoolboys. This led to him being becoming Manchester City's first ever apprentice and attending a close season training camp at Lilleshall alongside; Neil Young, Tommy Smith, George Graham & Eamon Dunphy. Injury cut his Maine Road career short, having never made a first team appearance, and began his downwards spiral from Lincoln City to Crewe Alexandra, from Stalybridge Celtic to Rossendale United. In all he played for some 25 clubs (most of them non-league), briefly managed Wigan Athletic and was assitant manager at Sheffield United. He also found time to set-up his own office supply company and became a popular after dinner speaker. Fred's character shines through and he shows no sense of bitterness at his lack of success. A role model for all of us not just professional footballers.

5. "Hell Bent For Leather - Confessions of a Heavy Metal Addict"  Seb Hunter - Hilarious account of the author's personal Heavy Metal odyssey. Flying Vs, Spandex, extended drum solos and desperately needing a wee in the middle of a muddy field in Donnington. It particularly strikes a chord with me as I did so many of the same things myself. To be fair, Seb did at least manage to graduate from playing air guitar in his bedroom to being in a real band. They just weren't particularly good.


Friday, 21 October 2011

Top 5 Novels

I left school with a disappointing number of O-Levels which somewhat limited my A-Level choices. I picked the only three subjects I could (English, Maths & Physics) and failed miserably at all three. It's OK, things worked out for the best in the long run. During my very first A-Level English lesson our teacher asked us to put together a list of our favourite books and explain why we liked them. Excellent I thought, I love lists, I have loads of books that I love, this will be easy. My list included novels by Douglas Adams, Hammond Innes and Alastair Maclean with a Dickens and a Shakespeare thrown in for good measure. When we received this work back I was told that these were the wrong sort of books.

At the time I was annoyed by this response. A disgruntled feeling that was not helped by us spending the next three months reading Thomas Hardy's "Tess of the D'Urbervilles". I now see that in many respects my teacher was right. The breadth of my reading was poor, I really needed to expand the style, quality and subject of literature I read. What I really needed was someone to point me in the right direction. What I got was someone telling me I was wrong and then making me read the worst book I ever read in my life. I didn't finish A-Level English. In the last ten years I have expanded my reading considerably. I have no regrets about not having A-Level English but I do wish I'd spent more of the intervening years reading great fiction.

I still hold readability very high in the attributes required to make a great novel. There has been quite a debate recently surrounding the choice of short-listed novels for the Man Booker Prize. Readability versus literary ability is at it's core and the truth is the greatest novels ought to have both.

1. "To Kill A Mockingbird" Harper Lee - A book I first read at secondary school which opened my mind to the power of literature. It's a captivating and moving story about growing up and learning truths about the adult world. It initially focuses on the lives of Scout & Jem finch, the two young leads, and how they fill in the endless days of summer. Then there's the parallel story of their lawyer father, Atticus Finch, and his defence of a black man accused of raping a white woman. Narrated by the six year old Scout, it's a wonderfully observed discourse on racial inequality and human nature.

2. "Hitch-Hikers Guide To The Galaxy" Douglas Adams - Despite what my old English teacher said this book is still on my list. It's a novel I've read more times than any other. Since first discovering it after enjoying the BBC T.V. adaption, I read it at least once a year for a good 10 years. Initially a radio comedy it's a bit on the short side and really should have been combined with the follow up The Restaurant At The End Of The Universe as they are two halves of the same story arc. It's the humour in Hitch-Hikers that really wins through. Obviously I was a 14 year old boy when I first read it but it still has the power to make me laugh out loud some 30 years later.

3. "Nineteen Eighty-Four" George Orwell - Almost certainly my favourite author, I first read this in, appropriately enough, 1984. Spurred into action by the release of the Michael Radford film adaption I found it a bleak but utterly absorbing read.

4. "The Man In The High Castle" Philip K Dick - Not PKD's most famous book but I think this is his best. Set in an alternative reality where the Axis Powers won the Second World War and the world has been divided between Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Imperial Japan. The novel follows several initially unconnected characters as they conduct their daily lives against the background of a totalitarian society. I picked it up second hand from my Doctor's surgery having been intrigued by the cover. I generally find that "judging a book by its cover" is actually a pretty effective method of picking a good read.

5. "Pop. 1280" Jim Thompson - Picador's Jim Thompson Omnibus collects four of the best crime novels I have ever read into one handy compendium. Having read them all in one go I now struggle to pick out the highlight but for now let's go with "Pop. 1280" which is told from the point of view of an apparently genial and laconic Sheriff who turns out to be anything but. Thompson writes genuine hard-boiled noir like no other author.


Friday, 14 October 2011

Top 5 Albums of the 1990s

I was recently inspired by @Alex_Berwick on Twitter to re-listen to my favourite albums of the nineties. Alex published his top ten and I thought I'd do the same. Alex also writes a rather brilliant blog called The Kids Are Coming which you should definitely check out.

For continuity purposes this is still a top five, but for completeness sake the rest of my top ten is included as well.

1. Radiohead "O.K. Computer" (1997) - This is the album that rekindled my interest in new music after several years in the wilderness. A huge step forward for the band but the album that, for me, found the perfect balance between tune and experimental. There are the big "name" songs (Karma Police, No Surprises and the epic Paranoid Android) but it's the little bridging songs such as Fitter Happier & Exit Music (For A Film) that help tie it together and give the album contrast.

2. Nirvana "Nevermind" (1991) - Nevermind has so far made both attempts at my all time top 5 albums which I probably need to revist now seeing as O.K Computer didn't. It's an album I love as much for what it meant to me in 1991 as for what I think of it now. Like Radiohead's magnum opus it changed my view of music. Now I struggle to decide if I like it more than In Utero (also a nineties contender) or Bleach but history keeps it high in my list.

3. R.E.M. "Out Of Time" (1991) - As I mentioned a few weeks back, Out Of Time soundtracked my summer that year. Like Nevermind, it is an album rooted in a time and place. This was the same year I started to see Mrs Top 5. A happy year. A turning point. The start of something great.

4. Fugazi "Repeater" (1990) - I have only recently properly got into Fugazi. This was their debut full length release and it's a corker. Joe Lally & Brendan Canty are the rhythm section from heaven. Producer Ted Nicely manages to get a drum sound as crisp as Steve Albini (the highest accolade I can give). The album bludgeons you into submission but never feels overbearing. How I wish I'd discovered them sooner.

5. The Flaming Lips "The Soft Bulletin" (1999) - My first contact with the lips came in 1997 when I read about their previous album Zaireeka. That album consisted of four seperate CDs that needed to be played simultaneously on four different machines. The process meant you'd never quite hear the same music twice. They followed this with a tour in which members of the audience were given boom boxes to play music on different tapes conducted by the band. It's those sort of ideas that make a band appeal to me. Soft Bulletin was a more conventional release but took the style the band had developed during the Zaireeka period and turned it into a more accessible format.

... and the rest ...

6. Godspeed You! Black Emperor "F♯ A♯ ∞" (1997) - Post-rock year zero. Godspeed brought the mystery back into rock, though as Efrim recently explained "It's not hard – all you need is four chords and a really long runway".

7. Jeff Buckley "Grace" (1994) - The mid-nineties are poorly represented here but Buckley's only proper full length album was an early sign that great music was still there if you looked hard enough. Achingly beautiful vocals.

8. Cornershop "When I Was Born For The 7th Time" (1997) - An really eclectic mix from Pop - Brimful of Asha, to hip-hop - Butter The Soul, to Country - Good to Be on the Road Back Home all tied together by an Indian influence and rounded off by a cover of Norwegian Wood in Punjabi.

9. Mogwai "Come On Die Young" (1999) - More post-rock but with a Glaswegian flavour and a passionate rant from Iggy Pop about Punk Rock. Genius.

10. Detroit Cobras "Mink, Rat or Rabbit" (1998) - Detroit garage-rock band with album of obscure R&B covers that could soundtrack the wildest of parties. You need to see this band live.


Friday, 7 October 2011

Top 5 Songs by R.E.M.

A happy by-product of doing my top 5 R.E.M. albums was the chance to pick out my favourite songs at the same time. This proved to be harder to thin down with most albums providing at least one song I really love. Despite that my final five have come from only three albums. I thought about restricting myself to one song from each album, but try as I might I didn't feel happy with any alternative selections. Short on words this week, as I've been tied up with other things, so I'll just have to let the music do the talking.

1. It's The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine) (1987, Document) -

2. So. Central Rain (I'm Sorry) (1984, Reckoning) -

3. Finest Worksong (1987, Document) -

4. Nightswimming (1992, Automatic For The People) -

5. Pretty Persuasion (1984, Reckoning) -


Friday, 30 September 2011

Top 5 Albums by R.E.M.

Last week saw the sad, though slightly overdue, news that R.E.M. have called it a day. They certainly seemed to lose something when Bill Berry left the group, though by that point they had already surpassed most other groups with the quantity of very fine albums they'd released. My first thought on hearing the news was how long would it be before they get back together for the re-union tour. Inevitabilities of the music industry aside, R.E.M. have contributed massively to indie-rock over the last 25 years and deserve huge respect for their consistency and longevity.

1. Document (1987) - The band's final independently released album and the tipping point between their early "college rock" success and the subsequent multi-million selling stadium filling era. Some of their best songs are included ("Finest Worksong", "It's the End of the World as We Know It" & "The One I love") mixed with a few quirky numbers and a great cover of Wire's "Strange".

2. Out Of Time (1991) - This was my R.E.M. point of entry and sound-tracked my summer that year, I played it a lot and it's one of those albums I will always have a soft spot for. My musical interests had previously been more heavy rock based, so whilst I was aware of the band I hadn't really shown much interest. However, by the early nineties I was broadening my musical horizons and this caught the mood of the time perfectly. An uncharacteristically chirpy album that saw the band having fun with additional musicians and guest vocalists.

3. Murmur (1983) - The first album and one that created their reputation for introverted tunes and difficult to decipher lyrics. The vocals are indeed quite low in the mix but this is still a fine album with many of the bands best songs. "Radio Free Europe" is a jaunty opener and the bands debut release. "Perfect Circle" was not a single but remains one of the bands very best songs and one of my favourites.

4. Automatic For The People (1992) - There's something about the unrelenting greyness of the cover that has always depressed me and, unlike "Out Of Time", it's huge popularity has probably contributed to lowering my love for it. I think it's the band's biggest selling album, providing them with six singles that will be familiar to anyone with even a passing interest in the band. Some of those songs have suffered (to my ears) from being overplayed. I'm not sure I ever need to hear "Everybody Hurts" again. But, replaying the album in preparation for this top five I realised how good it is. "Drive", "Find The River", "Ignoreland" and "Man on the Moon" are all wonderful tunes whilst "Nightswimming" is a beautifully delicate song that only features Stipe's vocals and Mills' piano motif.

5. Reckoning (1984) - A surprise final entry but when I played it again I realised how many of my favourite R.E.M. songs are on this album. I never felt quite the same attachment to "Fables Of The Reconstruction" or "Lifes Rich Pageant" and though I like "Green" and "Monster" this album edges them all out. "Reckoning" was their second full length release and has a brighter/crisper sound than "Murmur". The singles "So. Central Rain" and "(Don't go back to) Rockville" are both great songs and "Pretty Persuasion" is a more upbeat rocking number that may well feature highly in next weeks Top Five Singles by R.E.M.