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#3 Nicolas Jaar – Too Many Kids Finding Rain in the Dust

Sounding like a follow on to Nick Cave’s Red Right HandToo Many Kids Finding Rain in the Dust is the 4th track on Jaar’s 2011 album Space is Only Noise. It was an aptly titled release, as the Chilean-American clearly has a profound understanding of sound design, and the importance of space in a mix. Best listened to on a dark winter’s night.

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#2 Sepalcure – Breezin’

Sepalcure are Travis Stewart and Praveen Sharma, both of whom have solo careers of note (Stewart as Machinedrum, Sharma as Braille). Their self-titled album was one of the standout releases of 2011. It’s signature sound was a deft combination of deep bass, house sensibilities, clipped 2-step beats and unintelligible pitched vocal samples. Despite hailing from New York, Sepalcure’s sound bears more resemblance to UK bass music than releases on their native side of the Atlantic.

#1: Clark – Herr Bar
In 2006, Chris Clark (having recently abbreviated his stage name to just Clark) released his seminal album, Body Riddle. Following on from 2003’s claustrophobic Empty the Bones of You, this album displayed more jazz sensibilities than previously heard in his work. Herr Bar, the opening track off Body Riddle starts with stilted drums backing a music box refrain, as so beloved by electronica musicians, before transforming into a swirling psychedelic behemoth of synths and reverb.

“It’s shite being Scottish, we’re the lowest of the low, scum of the fucking earth.”

I’ve always struggled with Renton’s bleak assessment of his and my people. It’s an outburst that challenges the commonly held conception that the Scots are, to a man, proud of their nationality. I suppose though it is shite to be Scottish if you’re a heroin addict living in squalor. But no, then it’s just shite to be alive. If I were a heroin addict, I guess I wouldn’t care if I were in Leith or in Lambeth.

Have things changed since Trainspotting? Perhaps, although drug addicts still have a tough time wherever they’re based. The Scots seem to be in a better position than most during this period of universal doom and gloom. We maintain the illusion of our lot as perennial underdogs, receiving concessions from down south while enjoying ever-increasing political freedom up here. We live in one of the world’s most beautiful countries, abounding with natural resources and huge potential. We have a grand history and a distinct culture (despite Renton’s assertion we, “can’t even find a decent culture to be colonised by.”) We do have a strong national identity and we love it.

A trashy programme I watched last week gave an interesting insight into today’s Scots. “Scotland’s Greatest Album” was one of those shows I couldn’t be bothered not to watch. It was a simple concept: a panel of “experts” (not quite sure how Pat Nevin got on there) selected a shortlist of tracks from the 1970s, 80’s, 90’s and 00’s, then the public phoned in to vote for their favourites – three from each decade.

It wasn’t the quality of the music I was interested by, more so the choices made by the Scottish public who phoned in. I found them rather affirming.

The final 12 songs selected revealed something about the Scottish psyche. They seemed to reflect the voters’ love for their country as much as their musical taste. People voted for what made them feel proud to be Scottish.

One song making the final 12 epitomised this. “Caledonia,” performed by Frankie Miller is a folk tune written by Dougie MacLean, made famous by Miller when it featured in a hugely sentimental and patriotic Tennents Lager advert of the early 1990s.

It wasn’t the tune that had people phoning in to ensure it made the list; it was the words.

When Jessie (wife) and I lived in London we often used to drive back north to visit our family in friends in Scotland. As we approached Gretna, we used to make sure we had Caledonia teed up in the CD player so we could listen to it as we crossed the border. “Let me tell you that I love you and I think about you all the time, Caledonia’s calling me and now I’m going home.” It would put a lump in my throat every time. I don’t particularly like the song, just the sentiment.

Two songs from The Proclaimers made the final cut – 500 miles and Sunshine on Leith. I do like The Proclaimers’ music although, as with “Caldeonia,” not that much. I’d easily name 12 Scottish acts I prefer to The Proclaimers in a purely musical sense. But, if I had to put together Scotland’s Greatest Album on my own, I’d definitely include the twins from Auchtermuchty.

A few years ago I went to a wedding in Los Angeles – an old school friend was marrying a Californian girl. Towards the end of the party, the American DJ threw on “500 miles” and every Scot in the room got up on the dance floor, joined arms and sang along at the top of their voices. The yanks must have thought we were mental. No, not mental, just proud and slightly homesick.

Also making the cut was “Dignity” by Deacon Blue about a rubbish collector who dreams of escaping his life. Does he think of a desert island or tropical paradise? Nope, he wants to sail a wee boat up the west coast of Scotland through the villages and towns.

Then there was Mike Scott and the Waterboys with “Whole of the Moon…” “I saw the rain dirty valley, you saw Brigadoon.” Even Maggie May’s inclusion said something – sung so brilliantly by Rod Stewart who we (and he,) consider Scottish despite the fact he was brought up in North London and lives in Epping. How many people born and brought up north of the border with one Scottish and one English parent hang resolutely to their Englishness…? Not many I reckon.

Jessie and I discussed what a similar programme to find England’s greatest album would produce. I think it would end up being far more about the music than about England. And can you imagine how amazing the album could be in terms of music, way better than the Scots’. Just consider: 1970s – Zeppelin, Clash, Bowie; 1980s – Smiths, Stone Roses, New Order, 90s – Blur, Massive Attack, Radiohead, 00s – Arctic Monkeys, Elbow, Winehouse…

Some of this stuff would obviously invoke thoughts of England, but perhaps not in the sentimentally fond way that Scots popular music tends to. Think of Joe Strummer’s apocalyptic vision in “London Calling,” for instance, or The Smiths strolling around derelict bits of Manchester singing “Heaven knows I’m miserable now.” Both far more powerful and thought provoking than much of the schmaltzy stuff the Scots have produced but hardly enough to bring a longing tear to your eye when you’re away from your homeland.

Yes, it’s great being Scottish and the principal reason is not just because of free tuition fees or prescriptions. It’s also because we as a people are proud of our country, we can talk about it in a boastful way and not fear being challenged. The mountains and lochs, the vast sprawls of nothingness, the salmon and the eagles, the rivers and the islands; every Scot has a little part of all this in them, it’s theirs. And that is why the words, “If I should become a stranger, you know it would make me more than sad, Caledonia’s been everything I’ve ever had,” strike such a chord with the Scottish public.

Now finally, I should point out that if I were looking to make Scotland’s greatest album, purely from a personal musical point of view, my choices would have been a bit different. Here’s what I would choose:

1970s

John Martyn – Over the hill

Gerry Rafferty – Baker Street

The Skids – The saints are coming

1980s

Waterboys – Fisherman’s blues

The Jesus and Mary Chain – Just like honey

Lloyd Cole – Rattlesnakes

1990s

Idlewild – Everyone says you’re so fragile

Travis – Writing to Reach You

Mogwai – Cody

2000s

Boards of Canada – Chromakey Dreamcoat

Mylo – Otto’s Journey

Belle & Sebastian – Piazza, New York Catcher


I listen to music all the time. When I’m at home, I press play on iTunes as soon as I wake up and listen while I’m having a cup of tea in bed. I turn on the stereo downstairs and listen while I’m eating breakfast. I listen to music on my computer while I’m working. I’m listening right now – It’s Bjork tranquilly meandering through Vespertine.

Later I’ll get in my car and listen to whatever cd I have in there as I drive – I think it’s Neil Young. I’ll come back and listen to more while I make my supper, and I can’t get to sleep without music playing quietly in the background. Jessie (wife) is very tolerant, or maybe just good at ignoring it.

I’m conscious as I get older that the music I like to listen to gets older as well. I know this is inevitable and has happened through the generations. That’s why “Sounds of the Sixties” is so popular on Radio 2. But, I’m only 31 and am hanging obstinately to my youth. I try hard to listen to, and like, contemporary music. But it’s a tough job.

When popular music as we know it took off in the 1950s, the sound of acts like Elvis, Johnny Cash and Chuck Berry made people stop in their tracks – these musicians were pioneering demigods – it wasn’t tough to like them. Then through the 60s, bands like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys, The Who etc… broke new ground and had fans screaming at their very appearance, let alone their barnstorming music. Yup I do, and would have, definitely liked them. Then glam rock, punk rock, heavy metal, Factory Records, The Smiths, Nirvana, then… oh wait… that’s pretty much it.

That’s not fair, but since Kurt Cobain fronted Grunge in the early 90s, there hasn’t really been a significant, challenging musical movement – not in my mind anyway. Britpop was a cheesy fad (though it did give Damon Albarn his break,) Garage – not exactly life changing, Emo – still going I guess but it began life in the 1980s so doesn’t count.

My point though is that today’s “popular” music (the music on Radio 1 or MTV) is not the same. It’s not groundbreaking, it’s not the best music around even, it’s just the most marketable and easy to package. It’s formulaic. OK, this does make me sound old, but I really think it’s true. Where in the charts is the next Clash or David Bowie?

What we’ve got in the charts is a combination of: over-produced urban pop, auto-tuned within an inch of its life featuring collaborations between whoever is “in” right now, regardless of whether their styles match; various insipid solo musicians who can just about write and bang out a heartfelt tune that’s wishy-washy enough to be played by Simon Mayo on Radio 2; various talent show graduates clinging desperately to the last moments of their, never quite brief enough, careers; then there’s Lady Gaga – she and everyone around her would have you believe she’s some sort of genius, I’m yet to see or hear anything that would confirm that rumour.

It’s so hard for real musicians these days to make a significant impact on the public’s conscience as the industry chews them up and spits them out quicker than you can say, “five album deal.”

Take for example The Strokes. For me they’re the most innovative and interesting guitar band of this century, (although The Arcade Fire are up there too.) The Strokes broke through in 2001 with their debut album “Is this it?” and quickly became pretty massive – one of the biggest acts on the scene. After their second album “Room on Fire,” I went to see them at the Alexandra Palace and it felt like something memorable, maybe not like seeing The Who at Leeds or Led Zeppelin at Madison Square Garden but, perhaps, I thought it was a significant moment. I remember Joe Strummer of The Clash had just died and they played a cover of Clampdown in tribute – it was pretty cool.

Anyway, The Strokes spawned tens/hundreds of copycat bands, none of who could do that sort of post-punk rock as well as The Strokes. But, because these copycats were new on the scene, they received the publicity.

The Strokes have now released four albums and are writing a fifth. I think they’ve continued to challenge and excite, but the industry seems to have become bored of them. They have a loyal fan base who still appreciate, but I asked my brother, who wasn’t old enough to have heard the band’s first offerings, first time round and he answered, “Oh yeah, I think I’ve heard of them.”

The thing is, there is great music being made and released right now but not enough people get to hear it. I guess it’s always been the case with alternative music that, if you’re interested, you have to go out and find it. But now it seems that “alternative” has just come to mean anything that is produced by proper musicians or that even slightly breaks the mould. So, if you want to hear someone with actual talent you have to scour the internet – myspace, youtube, the more obscure radio channels… to get an inkling.

Most people don’t have the time or inclination to do this so they have to make do with what they’re spoon-fed, perpetuating the problem. People turn on the radio and are content enough with the mediocrity that comes out at them. After they’ve heard James Morrison enough times they even know the words and can hum along. They’ll go and buy the cd as a Christmas present for their other half… aargghhh, god help us.