Monthly Archives: January 2012

My Christmas albums (again), and Lex’s failing hard drive

Normal service resumes with yet more navel-gazing solipsism about music.

Just over a year ago I wrote about how each year I buy a “last album of the year” just before Christmas. There are two simple rules: it must be by an artist I have never bought music by before, and I must be able to buy it in person in a record shop in Exeter. (Actually there’s an implicit third rule; it must have been released for the first time that calendar year.)

I had intended to blog about 2011’s Christmas album back, well, at Christmas time, but I have a confession to make: I didn’t buy a 2011 Christmas album. Not one, anyway, and not in person from a record shop in Exeter.

This is partly because there aren’t really any record shops left in Exeter anymore. I could have ventured to the independent shop that seems to sell only second hand vinyl and has a miniscule and dull selection of new music. I could have gone further down the hill and into the arcade to buy some dance vinyl. But neither of those shops would actually have sold me anything I’d have really wanted. I wanted D by White Denim. Or the Cults album. Or Toro Y Moi. Or Braids.

But I was left with HMV. Which, to be fair, did have Toro Y Moi and Braids. For £14 each. So I bought both online for a combined sum of £16. And I bought the White Denim album too. And Em bought the Cults album. And the Wild Flag album. Because she’d enjoyed them both at ATP. (Which is why I wanted the Toro Y Moi album too.) And I also bought Burst Apart by Antlers after Rob played it at record club. So, in a way, between us we bought half a dozen ‘Christmas albums’.

So I feel like a bit of a fraud, or like I’ve broken a tradition, or a new year’s resolution, or some kind of weird family voodoo thing, or something. Which is obviously ridiculous, because the whole purpose of this idea is a; to expose me to some new music I’d otherwise not hear, and b; as a side effect to help prop-up the ever-ailing music industry just a little bit more, and I’ve done both of those things in spades by buying more albums than usual.

And my favourite of the new records we picked up? The Braids is special, delicate, somewhere between Luke Sutherand’s sensual Bows project and Feels-era Animal Collective. The Toro Y Moi I wish we’d had for summer, to stick on in the car and drive along winding coastal roads to. But it’s Antlers that have made the biggest impact; I’ve played Burst Apart over and over again, and I’m not tiring of it; it’s pitched and paced perfectly, just enough “song”, just enough “sound”, to tempt you in but never leave you feeling bored or over-exposed (as some “song” songs do; hello Coldplay, et al, with your melodies so forthright and oft repeated that they become headaches). I’ve been back and bought Hospice, which I like, but need to explore more.

As an aside, the Lex has suffered a disastrous hard drive failure which has robbed him of a huge chunk of his collection of music. I’m hoping he’ll write something about it; watching him tweet about it has been a mixture of sympathy and schadenfreude; there’s a long-running thread on ILM about maintaining a digital music collection which I occasional drop into, and always come away from feeling that iTunes and the like, whilst great for running an iPod or iPhone as an adjunct to a physical music collection, would be like the world’s worst data-entry temping job to keep your entire collection on. I’ve often fantasised about what I’d do where fire, theft, flood, or act of god rob me of our stacks of CDs, once concluding that I’d take up a completely different hobby, like fishing. I can’t see Lex doing that. Or, in reality, me either.

Exeter Shorts Film Festival

About 18 months ago I managed to convince the manager of our local multiplex cinema that she ought to screen the film Splice, because Mark Kermode had made it sound intriguing and nowhere else in Exeter (not the other multiplex, the arts centre, nor the chain arthouse cinema) had it scheduled. Amazingly, for someone who works for a corporate behemoth, she agreed, on the condition that I convince 12 other people to come along so that she could break even (and on the understanding that it would be screened at 11pm). Me being me, I went to Twitter and Facebook and emailed some contacts from when I ran the film department of the university library, and managed to gather 20 odd people for a Friday (late) night at the cinema to watch some schlock sci-fi horror. At least half a dozen people I didn’t know also turned up, and I gather that at least someone went to watch it each night it was on that week. Everyone’s a winner.

About a year later that same multiplex manager, Ros, announced that she was going to run a short film competition for local young filmmakers, and asked me, on the grounds that I’m gobby and not shy of giving an opinion, if I’d be on the judges panel. Of course I said yes; having judged battles of the bands, and both assistant directed and acted in short films by excellent local film makers, it seemed both a pretty logical step and a nice way to return the favour she’d paid me with Splice.

So Ros pretty much single-handedly went about setting up a website for people to upload films to, organising a judging panel (also including the director of Animated Exeter, a young filmmaker on Ros’ staff at the cinema, someone who works for a local film & TV production company and who teaches at Plymouth University, and a local arts education specialist), and soliciting entries from young people across the region in two categories; under 16s, and 16 to 24.

Many months, many emails, many films, and several meetings in person followed, culminating in last night, when the finalist’s films were shown on the big screen in front of a sizeable audience (replete with popcorn) at Ros’ cinema. Each finalist got a certificate and a splice of celluloid from an actual film (frames of Twilight and Sherlock proving unsurprisingly popular – the cinema is replacing all its film projectors with digital over the coming months), with the winners and highly commended choice in each category getting another certificate (we’d have loved to have given something more substantial as a prize, but had literally no budget; website et al was entirely due to people’s generosity) and a day’s work experience at the TV & film production company.

Judging was made difficult by the surprisingly high standard of the entries; every film had something to commend it, and there was significant bartering and opinion-swaying amongst the judges. We had stop-motion animations, experimental black + white mysteries, action films, zombie films, and more – and that was just in the under 16s category. A tight visual joke, an unexpectedly stylish camera move, a sophisticated use of sound – the pleasures of the under 16s films were many and varied, and I can see several of the entrants going on to do even better things in the coming years. In fact, if they don’t, I’ll be having words.

Joe, the u16 winner, submitted several stop-motion animations, all characterised by being very tight, funny, and sophisticated, often fulcrumming on a simple visual joke (often very clever and metatextual in nature, like the punchline of Cat Golf, which revolved around the cat’s golfball not going down the hole because, obviously, the hole isn’t a hole at all, but a black plasticene circle – Magritte-esque) and containing absolutely no narrative or visual fat. He’s 11, and you could see definite progression in the films chronologically as he tried new ideas (lip-synching to audio! Human intervention in his plasticene characters’ worlds!). I suspect that a future at Aardman beckons. This is the winning entry, which we thought combined humour, pathos, and ambition in spades. And all portrayed by a lump of plasticene.

The u16 highly commended entry was another stop-motion animation, an ambitious project from a local village primary school which included almost all the pupils from 7 years old upwards, whether they were scripting, animating, voicing, or filming. The aspiration behind such a large venture, getting a whole primary school involved, and giving kids in a tiny, sleepy, but beatific (I ride through it semi-regularly) Devon village the chance to engage with the kind of creative arts normally reserved for city kids was wonderful. Plus, again, it was pretty funny!

Unsurprisingly there was a quality leap from the under 16s to the 16-24 category in some ways; many of the 16-24 entrants were doing A levels or degree courses in media-related areas, with access to equipment and expertise that younger kids just wouldn’t have. Projects were longer, generally live-action, and ambitious in scope, if often more than a little adolescent in subject matter – there was a raft of horror films (mainly from female directors; it was heartening to have so many female entrants in this category, actually), and some were predictably much better than others. Again, though, there were pleasures to be had from every film; a surreal and effective performance by an actor, a breathtakingly well-composed bit of framing, tight storytelling that managed to convey a narrative without any dialogue, or a genuinely multi-layered grasp of humour.

The winning film didn’t come from someone with the support of a media studies department at school though; the director is from a grammar school which eschews that kind of subject, and this was the first time he’d ever tried to make a film, shooting the entire thing on a DSLR with a 50mm lens, experimenting with lighting and capturing sound as best he could. Talking to him last night confirmed that narrative was almost an afterthought, which we suspected, but nonetheless we felt that Platform One was exquisitely shot and well edited, and felt like the most “high quality” submission we received. As a film competition, we felt we had to reward the best film qua film. That he could so effectively tell a slight story suggests great things in future; give the man a proper narrative and slightly improved pacing, and he’ll make something even more impressive.

It was a close call over which film won, though, and in fact the ‘highly commended’ award was suggested by me as a way of distinguishing between the top two films in this category. Because the runner-up would have won on any other day, I suspect, and only some slightly loose editing and pacing (which, to be fair, was tightened up quite a bit for the screening) cost this spoof music documentary, or rockumentary if you will, the top prize. A film most definitely of the YouTube generation, with its to-camera asides, editing that somehow recalls the humorous use of html strikethrough tags, and gags about inappropriate search-engine-optimisation in song titles, it’s layered with laugh-out-loud moments which come from an array of places; gentle mocking of its principal characters’ pretensions, an irreverent attitude towards both music makers and fans, visual gags, and tiny references and subtleties you simply don’t notice first time around (the hapless documenter being named after Holden Caulfield, for instance). If you’ve ever played gooseberry between a “rockstar” and a female admirer or felt that the depth of your fandom deserved attention from the object of that fandom, you’ll cringe just as much as laugh. Give these guys a budget and a camera crew, and let them concentrate fully on scripting and acting, and they’ll be amazing.

I had a great time being a judge for Exeter Shorts, unsurprisingly, and we’re hopeful, given the success and attention this start-up venture has had (plenty of coverage in local media; a full cinema screen – that picture up top is from the screening; and some amazingly promising work by young filmmakers), that Vue Cinemas will continue to support it, and, with luck, make it a national thing; as far as I’m concerned, it’s exactly the sort of venture that big cinema companies should be undertaking in order to encourage the development of the talent that needs to feed the industry if its to continue to be successful; not everyone who takes part will go on to become Terence Malick (or even Michael Bay), but there are countless editors, producers, cinematographers and so on and so forth who make film & television what it is, and who need to cut their teeth.

There was much applause, as there should have been, for the filmmakers last night, but I need to make a word of thanks to Ros; not only is she the kind of person who’ll challenge her management for the sake of a good idea (be it screening some obscure, atypical-for-the-chain film at the behest of a mouthy customer, or something actually worthwhile!), she’s also the kind of person who gets things done through force of will and energy. She’s given dozens of kids a platform through which they can gain experience and exposure, which is invaluable. Good work.

On the internet only people just like you can hear you scream

One of the things that scares me a little about our record club is the idea that, because we’ve got broadly analogous backgrounds and tastes, we’re just reinforcing our own already-entrenched perceptions and opinions about what makes “good” music (or about what makes music good) rather than expanding the horizons, expanding the parameters, and expanding the rhymes of sucker MC amateurs.

I’ve vaguely wanted to write an article about this for months now, but every time I witness another little bit of self-reinforcement at one of the myriad record club variants I pay attention to via Twitter or Facebook or a blog, even if my first instinct is “step away from the canon! challenge yourselves!”, I remember that a big part of the reason why we meet at our club is the camaraderie, the friendship, the community; the sense of warmth that comes from finding people you have something in common with and spending time with them engaged in that common thing. Plus, we get to listen to music like Big Black and Aphex Twin and Rita Lee and The Feelies and Sunn o))) and Pere Ubu and Gravediggaz and Melt Banana and Kate Bush and Caribou and so on and so forth.

Anyway, I had an interesting Twitter exchange with John Mulvey and Laura Snapes yesterday about Chuck Klosterman’s confession of professional incompetence / negligence re: tUnE-yArDs. There’s a great take-down of his inherent sexism, mansplaining, and misreading of the record from Charlotte Richardson Andrews, but though that gets to the core of his ignorance, it doesn’t deal with his attention-seeking, or with the flurries of comments, tweets, status updates, tumblrs, blog posts and so on and so forth either agreeing with him or disagreeing with him. It was onyla brief exchange, but John wrote that he genuinely does blame Twitter for people being more interested in writing about themselves when they ought to be writing about music. (As an aside, for reference, Nitsuh is still the best, most reasoned, most human music writer on the planet.)

I blame Twitter as well, for further reinforcing already entrenched perceptions by casting us each into a delirious bubble of likeminded chatter and engagement and online cultural gatekeeping that can very easily make it seem like everyone in the world is just like you. The internet has always done this, of course, through mailing lists and forums and Facebook and all other types of communities, so Twitter’s not alone.

But there is something about the way it works in particular which makes it feel as if the 500 or so people I follow, and all the people they follow, and retweet, and all the people who write the articles and blogposts that they send out links to, somehow encompasses the entire world, and that this means the world is a much finer and better and nicer place than it actually is, because everyone is a nice, progressive liberal, interested in culture and science and humanity and equality, and thus, when you see something bad, all you need to do is Tweet about it and receive some affirmation via a retweet or a new follower, which makes you forget the bad thing itself, and carry on down your own little path, rather than fix that bad thing, which is still bad, and is (and this is the crux) doubtless being Tweeted and retweeted and thought of as good and wonderful and affirming entrenched beliefs just as much if not even more for a whole host of people you can’t even comprehend exist. Which is to say that Twitter takes the Venn diagram of beliefs and opinions and values and cultures and makes the circles furthest away from each other practically invisible except in the most abstract way, by inflating the perspective you have of the bits that actually do crossover with other groups.

Does that make sense?

I’m talking about Ian Martin’s adventures in “bad twitter”, trying to show us nice progressive liberals how much rightwing hatred and bigotry and intolerance is out there (thanks to Rob for telling me about this on the way to record club the other night).

I’m talking about the disgusting, abominable racist abuse suffered by Stan Collymore.

Because the fact is that crazed creationist zealots, despicable racist criminals, absurd, small-minded buffoons and nasty, horrible, awful people use Twitter too. (Of course, there is the question of whether anyone is a nasty, awful, horrible person in and of themselves, or whether there are only nasty, awful, horrible acts and contexts, and it’s not their fault really, and so on and so forth.) And my fear is that the semi-closed loops we fall into via these networks are presenting an illusion of being open and all-encompassing and giving a true representation of all of humanity, when they’re not, and we’re just talking to ourselves or people very much like us, not changing anything for the better in the wider world but just, in actuality, making our own cosy, comfortable worlds a little bit smaller and more entrenched. It’s the same thing I was touching on with my mini-rant about 6music the other day.

On the flipside, following and engaging with people who are like ourselves in some ways but not like us in others can and does regularly throw up links to fascinating and awesome and reasoned and compassionate things that we otherwise wouldn’t have known about at all. (Thanks to Kate for that link.) So it’s not all bad. We just have to remember that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance; and watching your own Twitter stream isn’t vigilance. It’s comfort.

To regress for a second to what I wrote about a couple of days ago, here’s a truly excellent blog post by someone who managed to make records, play gigs, work regular jobs, and not spend $109,000 or whine about not getting to hang out with models enough whilst doing so. I’ve seen many other blog posts and messageboard discussions about Abner and Harper Willis, many of them very insightful and reasoned, but this is about the best of them.

Maybe I should feel a little sorry for Abner and Harper for having all this opprobrium unwittingly heaped upon them. After all, they’re only young, and trying to reach their dreams. Then I think about how shitty, avaricious, and shallow their dreams are – models, lavish riders, trashed hotel rooms, the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame – and how shitty their music is, and I think, no, they deserve everything they get. Which is perhaps mean; they’re real, live human beings with feelings, after all.

Anyway, 33 & 1/3 are calling for proposals again. This time the list of demands for a proposal seems daunting, and there’s no advance, but to be fair, given the state of publishing at the moment, any other non-fiction book pitch would need all they’re asking for and more. I pitched a Spirit of Eden book a few years and got through a few rounds of eliminations to about the last 20 or something (they wanted to do half a dozen books or so as I recall). I’ve got an idea for an angle and a meta topic that would happily fill a book this time (something I was very half-heartedly considering trying to turn into a piece of academic research a couple of months ago), but there isn’t a clear, obvious album to gaffertape it to. Oh well, I’ll keep thinking.

On selling out and privilege in music

Nearly 8 years ago I wrote a column for Stylus about the concept of selling out and how it was, by and large, a dangerous, damaging idea in the weird little milieu we call indie or indierock or alternative rock or alternative music or whatever. For the most part, I still stand by what I wrote back then – that the idea of ‘selling out’ as a pejorative concept seems to me like yet another ideological state apparatus designed to keep the people in their place and maintain the status quo. That module of Marxist cultural theory in my first term at university still rings in my ears.

Two brothers, by the name of Abner and Harper Willis, who are a band and go by the name of Two Lights, have written an article themselves about how much money they (or their parents, more accurately) have spent in order to try and become successful musicians. Their outgoings include $25,000 on gear, $18,000 on “living in New York City” (because they couldn’t possibly live in their hometown in Maine and be rock stars there), $1,000 on “a guy to send email blasts to databases of hip music blogs”, and $25,000 on “lost earnings” (Harper turns down writing assignments worth $400 per week because he spends 20 hours a week on ‘band-related work’; I’ve thought about this, and I can only assume he’s writing rich college kids’ essays for them at a rate of about $400 per 2,000 words, rather than pitching features, reviews, or stories at actual newspapers or magazines).

Oh, and there was $30,000 on piano, guitar, and voice lessons, too. Their estimated grand total is $109,000 dollars, and they’re still not famous despite all this hardship.

On one hand, you could see their “treat it all as a business” ethos as not a million miles away from Black Flag or Fugazi’s DIY approach to their careers. In fact, let me just remind you of something Steve Albini wrote ages ago about the evils of major record labels and the deals they offer new bands.

On the other hand, you could be wishing these whinging, privileged, burdened-by-entitlement arseholes would DIE IN A FIRE and take their shitty music with them, because it’s disgusting to moan at how much money you’ve had to spend trying to be famous in the middle of an interminable economic downturn that is losing hundreds of thousands of people their jobs and obliterating the economies of countries all around the world. Not getting to hang out with models as often as you’d imagined, or being given riders as flash as the ones in your dreams, is not a complaint that should be tolerated in any civilized society.

I don’t recall Ian Brown moaning about how he had to apply for a loan (to buy a cooker for his flat) so he could spend the money travelling around Europe on tour, or Orbital whining about how they had to record Chime into their dad’s tape recorder rather than get Pater to pay for it to be done properly at Abbey Road.

As a friend of mine said, “these people have always existed, especially in NYC. I used to make good $$$ playing session bass in their shitty bands.” Occasionally one of them lucks out, and we end up with Beastie Boys or The Strokes or Vampire Weekend, and they squeeze a great album or two or five out. Some kids, whether they’re rich or not, will always see minor hindrances in a relativist way and assume them to be enormous, insurmountable and unfair obstacles placed directly and deliberately in front of their dreams, whether it’s not being as famous as Maroon 5 yet or a lift not working properly so you have to take the library stairs with an armful of books.

If I’ve got no objection to people “selling out” (musicians have to pay mortgages just as much as marketing people or stock brokers or nurses or civil servants, and everyone deserves fair pay for making art for the rest of us), why do I object so viscerally to Two Lights and their ilk’s expenditure? Is it the crassness of their sense of entitlement? The fact that their music is such generic, mediocre piffle? Perhaps if you don’t have everything paid for already you have to work that much harder in order to pay your rent and make a success of it, and as a result of working harder you simply become better at your art.

If there’s anything good about Abner and Harper’s navel-gazing about their own pseudo-plight, it’s that it goes a little way towards explaining to people how musicians like The Beta Band can get into so much debt that they see no alternative but to split up. I know of bands who’ve had strings of hit singles and albums, sold hundreds of thousands of records, and still the backstage areas of the venues they play are hollow, exhaustion-filled wastelands after gigs; still after each album they need to make another as soon as possible because they couldn’t afford not to. I know of yet more musicians who work dayjobs alongside making music all the time, even many records down the line; if they’re lucky it’s music related work, and they can produce other peoples’ records, or arrange music for films or TV. If they’re not, it’s carpet-laying or telesales or teaching or any other job that normal human beings do.

Because musicians aren’t Extraordinary Golden Gods. They’re just human beings who make music.

Why don’t cyclists use cyclepaths?

This hateful piece of sub-Clarkson publicity-by-controversy was published on my local newspaper’s website recently. The newspaper is going rapidly tits-up (like all newspapers), having recently gone weekly, and the author has just launched a new radio station in the area, so is no doubt trying his damndest to get as much attention for himself and his new media business venture as possible by being an odious twat. Anyway, after spitting bile about the piece briefly on Twitter, and having been sworn at and had nasty, mean hand-gestures made at me on a couple of occasions by cockfarmer motorists whilst cycling on the road , I thought I’d quickly outline some points about why I don’t always use a cyclepath, and, more importantly, why I am entirely entitled to cycle on the road if I choose to do so.

Different people cycle for different reasons
In fact, so do I. Sometimes I’m just nipping to the shops. Sometimes I’m going for a gentle summer ride with my wife. Sometimes I’m exploring new parts of the countryside. Sometimes I’m going to work. Sometimes I’m out for exercise. Depending on the reason, I might cycle at different speeds, some of which are wholly inappropriate for narrow, winding, bollard-studded cyclepaths. In fact…

I like to cycle quite fast
Over the course of a 30-mile ride across Devonshire countryside, taking in country lanes, main roads, cyclepaths, hills, flats, etc etc, I will average just over 15mph. On a straight, flat, wide road with a nice surface I will average 18-22mph depending how much I’m going for it. Cyclists are apparently not actually legally allowed to ride on cyclepaths at speeds of over 18mph; therefore we go on the road. There’s a reason skinny, drop-bar bikes are called road bikes.

Cyclepaths are full of obstacles
Bollards; chicanes; gutters; leaf-mulch; bins; broken twigs and branches; people on rollerskates; benches; children on those little silver scooters; pedestrians; dogs: these things are all much more common on cyclepaths than they are on roads, and they are all dangerous to cyclists, and cyclists are all dangerous to them. Shared-usage paths are one thing, but I regularly see pedestrians walking on specifically delineated cyclepaths when there are also specially delineated walking paths – if I were to do that as a cyclist I’d expect abuse.

Cyclepaths are often badly designed
Especially where they cross junctions with side roads, roundabouts, traffic lights of any kind, or any other complex road topography. Cyclepaths are almost always added later, as an after-thought, which is why they can stop seemingly arbitrarily or continue without signage, causing confusion and thus danger amongst cyclists and motorists alike. Coming down the hill from Haldon, a cyclists’ paradise, you’re dumped from broad, fast, excellent cyclepaths onto what’s effectively the hard-shoulder of the busiest stretch of dual carriageway in Devon; it’s petrifying, and signed so badly that I’m surprised there aren’t regular deaths.

I pay for the roads too
There is no such thing as road tax. Council tax, which I pay, because I live within a council (several, in fact – Devon County Council and Exeter City Council for a start), pays for roads. The tax disc on your car is Vehicle Excise Duty, and is a tax because cars are dirty disgusting things that pump out rancid minging fumes. I pay Vehicle Excise Duty too because I drive a car. Bicycles don’t have to pay Vehicle Excise Duty because they don’t cause any pollution (whilst being ridden – obviously there’s the embedded pollution of their construction, but that’s paid for in business taxes). It’s quite simple; cyclists pay for the roads as much as motorists (and pedestrians too, for that matter), and thus are allowed to use them as much.

Motorists often ignore cyclepaths
I do not think motorists are idiots. I am one. I am also a cyclist, and a pedestrian. I have witnessed many, many fine, courteous motorists, and many, many awful, idiotic cyclists, sans lights, sans attention, sans care for other road users, sans knowledge of the law. Idiots come in all modes of transport, as do decent people. An idiot, discourteous cyclist, however, isn’t quite as likely to kill someone as an idiot, discourteous motorist. So please, don’t park on cyclepaths; don’t even pull over onto them for a second to drop someone off. Don’t pull up into the green block for cyclists at the head of traffic lights. Don’t regard cyclepaths as extra space for you to swerve into; there might be a cyclist there.

Top 10 musical odds and ends from 2011 (and some vague thoughts on BBC 6music)

A side effect of the death of physical singles in the face of the proliferation of downloads is that, well, there’s loads of music out there that falls through the cracks by not being, well, categorisable: iTunes bonus tracks, vinyl-only tracks, remixes that never got properly released, weird stopgap EPs compiling songs that would otherwise have been b-sides back in the day, Record Store Day releases…

In any given year at least some of these odds and ends songs (or b-sides, as I still think of them) make up some of my favourites; this year the only difference is that I own barely any of them physically (still a bit of a bind, I must confess – but having spent 45 minutes earlier this evening fiddling with the glorified spreadsheet that is iTunes, I definitely still like having music physically; it’s less like being at work).

So, here are my top 10 musical odds and ends from 2011

Tongue Tied – The Antlers
This Elbow-ish slow-burner, built on a mechanised rhythm, is (in the UK at least) an iTunes bonus track with the group’s excellent Burst Apart album; it’s as good as anything on there, to be honest, and well worth hearing.

Hey Boy (Nicolas Jaar Remix) – The Blow
I have no idea as to the provenance of this remix – I heard about it on ILM, and sought it out via Hype Machine – but I love it. Minimal dance-pop built on a kick drum, handclaps, and cut-up, looped, female vocals; it’s more direct than anything on his album proper but just as much of a synaesthetic treat.

Pinnacles – Four Tet
This is from a split 12” with Dan Snaith (AKA Caribou) under his Daphni nomenclature. The Snaith track is good, and eminently danceable, but this elongated jazz-house workout from Four Tet, which I think he played in his solo set at ATP (if it wasn’t this, it was something very like it), is an absolute star, one of the best, grooviest things he’s done thus far. It ties together the early, jazzy part of Kieran Hebden’s career with his more recent dance dalliances almost seamlessly.

You’ll Improve Me (Caribou Remix) – Junior Boys
I’ve no idea what the original sounds like (having not really kept up with Junior Boys after So This Is Goodbye), but I heard this remix on 6music in late November and finally remembered to download it (legally) a couple of weeks ago; I could listen to Caribou remix people forever, and seemingly do, some days.

Video Games – Lana Del Rey
We saw her on Jonathan Ross’ show last weekend and were both let down by her vocals and lack of presence – I know her whole schtick is sexy insouciance, but she went beyond laconic disinterest into irritating absence. The recorded version, however, remains excellent. I have doubts about her ability to sustain much interest over 45 minutes, but we’ll see in a couple of weeks, I guess.

Flicker and Fail – Laura Marling
Another iTunes bonus track, this time accompanying Marling’s excellent third album; this isn’t up there with The Beast, but it fits right in with her regular quality control.

The Big Guns Called Me Back Again – PJ Harvey
A bona fide b-side, except that, as far as I can tell, the single it accompanies (The Words That Maketh Murder) only exists virtually. Which makes this… what? Spam? A cookie? What else do you call something you download alongside the file you’re actually after? Whatever; writing this off as digital junket is harsh, because it could easily have fitted on Polly’s magnificent Let England Shake, mining that same misty, blood-drained aesthetic and war-poet lyrical seam.

Staircase / The Daily Mail / Supercollider / The Butcher – Radiohead
Radiohead seem to be going out of their way to throw random songs into the ether, starting a couple of years ago with (the really rather excellent) These Are My Twisted Words. People complained that The King Of Limbs was too short, but given the four songs Radiohead put out on vinyl / download this year separately, it was clearly an aesthetic choice to make it concise, as they had plenty of quality material. Staircase might be my pick of these.

Catherine Wheel / Smother / Thankless Thing – Wild Beasts
Three more bona b-sides, released to accompany digital singles and then compiled together on 12” vinyl for the Reach A Bit Further EP. The would-be (were it on the album) eponymous Smother is a minimal, piano and ambience rumination, and Catherine Wheel a spiralling, reserved but still dramatic salutation, both in keeping with the evolving sophistication of Wild Beasts’ latest record. Thankless Thing, though, is a step above – as good as if not better than anything on Smother, establishing an compelling, synthetic rhythm before exploring both emotional sides of… not an argument, but an instance of discord, in an established relationship; the protagonist rails against a partner’s foible, curses their love, leaves, realises he only cares because he cares, and returns. I first listened to it when I was in… similar emotional territory, and it hit me hard.

Bitten / Anthem / Divine Intervention / Mercia / The City (Richard X Remix) / Sing (Acapella) / This Time Of Year / etc etc etc – Patrick Wolf
Patrick’s also pumped out reams of material this year in addition to Lupercalia; the Lemuralia EP accompanied pre-orders of the album, and contained alternate versions of album tracks, and later in the year Brumalia contained a selection of all-new songs. Add to this bona fide vinyl b-sides, remixes of singles, and the obligatory iTunes bonus tracks, and Patrick produced more than enough material for a full second album this year. Choice picks are Bitten, Brumalia’s lead track, which combines the fulsome, confident songwriting of his current phase with something of the strings and evocation of Wind In The Wires; Sing (Acapella), a Lemuralia-version of an iTunes bonus track which features an extraordinary choral arrangement; Richard X’s remix of The City, which strips away the excitable saxophones to show the song’s inner pop strength; and This Time Of Year, his ‘seasonal’ (but not Christmas) song…

Some thoughts on 6music
Since moving into a new office in November I’ve been listening to 6music for approx 3 days out of 5, which is the first time I’ve listened to any serious amount of music radio (rather than 5live) in what seems like an age.

For the most part, this is a good thing – it’s great to hear obscure Beta Band tracks (if Dr Baker counts as obscure), Boards of Canada, aforementioned Caribou remixes, Roots Manuva, 60s classics (be they Eight Miles High or You’re Love Keeps Lifting Me Higher and Higher) – but the sheer amount of arse-end Britpop dross (Kula Shaker, The Bluetones, Marion, The Bluetones, Catatonia, The Bluetones, etc etc) is frustrating when, to all intents and purposes, the DJs have the entire history and breadth of recorded music to pick from.

Even stuff I love (and I’ll admit to having a soft spot for some Bluetones songs, just not Slight Return every single day) like She Bangs The Drums becomes annoying when you hear it often, and seems like lazy, consensus-reinforcing comfort-blanket indie choices; yes, we’ll play you this awesome new boundary-pushing music, but don’t worry! Shed Seven will be along in a minute, like a big plate of mashed potato to wash that foreign muck away. It makes all the fuss about the potential axe hovering over the station seem like little more than conservative-white-male protectionism. Maybe I’m being harsh.

Also, the other day Huey from Fun Lovin’ Criminals played one of my absolute favourite piece of music ever – I Believe In You by Talk Talk – and, shorn of context and respect and fidelity and so on, it seemed pointless, and strange, and lacking in all the grace and power it has in situ on Spirit Of Eden. And, at the same time, he had the temerity to say he distrusts critics (Spirit Of Eden being “a critical favourite”) because “those who can, do; and those who can’t, write about it”. Presumably those who can’t even write about it just play records.

Why do I cycle?

So Rob has decided to abstain from the cycling challenges we’ve been doing via Endomondo. As he explains, we set-up these challenges between a (very) loose group of us, connected via friends of friends and the internet, occasionally finding strangers stumbling across our challenges and joining in, people taking part for a couple of months and then vanishing, a core group of three of us – Rob, myself, and my brother-in-law Peter – the most committed and consistent participants, more often than not jostling with each other come the end of the month (or year) to see who can finish first.

My initial, pretty thoughtless reaction was to hold my hand to my forehead in an ‘L’ shape and breathe a sigh of relief that this year I’ll be able to win our mileage challenge (had Rob not done his epic and admirable Land’s End to John O’Groats trip I’d have beaten him by about 100 miles for the year – except that he’d not have let that happen). My second reaction was a twinge of sadness, because it’s been great fun competing against each other for the last 18 months or so, pushing each other onwards to better things; I’ll miss it.

But reading Rob’s post and thinking about why I love riding so much, I can see completely where he’s coming from. There is a danger that tracking your mileage can make the act of riding a past-tense pursuit, about having ridden, about the miles you’ve covered rather than about the things you might see if you head down that road or over that hill. I never went as far as going out for a ride just before midnight on the last day of the month just to pip my competitor at the post, but Endomondo certainly offers a frightening potential for competitiveness when, as I’ve written before, the main thing I get out of riding isn’t a sense of being better at it (or more frequent at it) than anyone else, but, as Rob put it, a rush of endorphins and a sense of discovery. (Saying that, I know from playing board games with Pete that competitiveness doesn’t just need a GPS device in order to manifest itself spectacularly.)

I don’t think I took our monthly challenges quite as seriously as Rob; I never considered the psychology or habits of my fellow challengers (bar Rob himself on a couple of occasions) for instance: the person I was competing most against was almost always myself. As Pete got more and more into running, and Rob’s mileage total leapt into insurmountability via LEJOG, my monthly and annual efforts were less about beating or catching them than they were about pushing myself, setting a target and going for it – like wanting to do over 500 miles in one month (August), ride at least 10 miles each day (and generally quite a few more) over the Christmas holiday, or finally take on the hill at the back of my parents’ house (this morning; and it was wonderful).

I’ll admit that there is occasionally a certain edge or intensity to the motivation behind cycling, beyond discovery and enjoyment and freedom. A hint of masochism and testosterone; almost something a little Fight Club-ish; the desire to keep one’s body from the flabbiness of sedentary comfort, to not die without any scars (or shoulder injuries, or the imprint of a chainring on your calf, or aching thumbs from braking hard on a fierce downhill bend in an effort to avoid eating hedgerow), a wish, in the joyful realisation that we’ll never be movie stars, to at least know that we are alive now, and living, not always tied to screens and phones and electricity. The irony of GPS tracking being, of course, that even in those blissful moments of pedalling free, the iPhone is in the pocket, relaying information back and forth. We’re never free.

The other day I received a transcript of an interview I did about cycling with a researcher a couple of months ago; while talking to him about why and how I cycle, how I feel about it, how it’s changed me, etc, it struck me that writing, cycling, and music, the way I approach them, have something in common; a sense of wanting to discover new routes in order to re-experience emotional phenomena in new dimensions: not mere recreations or facsimiles of former feelings, but extensions, developments, new versions. The 2,000 CDs in our front room are all an attempt to get that magic feeling from as many different sources as possible, lest it wear out and fade from any direction. Riding and writing, both done usually with an end-point or duration in mind but seldom a route, seem like similar undertakings to me, perhaps. It’s not about winning, even if it is about achievement of a sort.

Maybe now we’re not riding against each other, we can (literally) ride together more; not just Rob and me but Pete and anyone else who fancies it (I suspect Steve is going to want some social training for his summer ride to Istanbull [not Constantinople]), and take the social side of riding off the internet and put it onto the tarmac (and cake shops) of Devon. I’d like that.