Category Archives: social media

Since 2006


A lot of stuff has happened over the last eight years. On a personal level, we bought a flat, lived in it for five years, sold it, and bought a house (which we’ve lived in for more than a year). We got married. My brother and his fiancé had a baby. Four of my best friends and their wives had babies. More colleagues than I can count have had babies. Another friend got married twice and divorced twice. I took up cycling, bought three different bicycles, and pedalled more than 7,500 miles. I got three new jobs, and start a fourth new job in April.

Les personally, some significant cultural figures died: Osama Bin Laden, Saddam Hussain, Michael Jackson, Jimmy Saville, Nelson Mandela, and Margaret Thatcher, amongst others. And the News of the World. And Oasis. And Woolworth’s. And smoking in public buildings.

Globally, culturally, technologically, and politically the world has changed beyond measure: we’ve endured a global recession inspired by dodgy banking and insane housing markets; the Arab Spring; the rise of social networking, mobile internet, smartphones, high-speed broadband, and on-demand TV – in 2006 YouTube and Facebook were tiny start-ups and Twitter didn’t exist – have changed the way we communicate with each other and consume media in absolutely unimaginable ways; 3D films made a comeback; Man City won the premier league; Arsenal didn’t; we didn’t elect a coalition government but got one anyway; America elected a black president who prefers assassinating people to starting wars…

I could go on.

The point is that things are different. I’m not the same; neither is the world. Nothing is. Existence is a process, not a static state.

On vinyl vs CD (again)

People say some bloody silly things about vinyl.

Take this guy, who taught his 13-year-old son the “sheer joy of listening to vinyl” via the medium of Cameron Crowe’s bullshit rose-tinted rock-mythology nostalgia-fest, Almost Famous.

The particular scene Nostalgia Dad bangs on about – “when the young aspiring music journalist has his mind set free by his older sister, who leaves him her LP collection under his bed when she leaves home” – isn’t actually about vinyl; it’s about music, and adolescence, and family, and missing someone, and a million other things. The fact that the music is on vinyl is a chronological accident because the film is set in the 70s, and is about as important to the emotional impact as the fact that the bedspread is made of polyester.

I could get angry and swear at Nostalgia Dad – for describing Miles Davis and Art Blakey as “cats”; for teaching his son that his father’s adolescent experiences are more valid than going out and forming his own; for making his son listen to Dire Straits and Dark Side Of The Moon; for confusing mythology and nonsense with significance and lived reality – but I’ve already written a ranty, opinion-spouting thinkpiece about the whole mythology side of the vinyl-vs-CD debate, so instead I’m going to gather some actual evidence and make a reasoned argument with supporting quotes from people who know far more about vinyl and CD as formats than I do. Because you can quote Henry Rollins waxing nonsense about “the sublime state of solitude”, or you can quote the guy from Pere Ubu stating that vinyl distortion is “NOT what we wanted” and link to him explaining exactly why.

Because, frankly, there have been a raft of blog posts, puff pieces and shitty listicles this year telling me how great vinyl is, and none of them have contained any evidence whatsoever beyond borderline solipsistic pontification. “Vinyl’s great! It’s really warm! You can hold it! The artwork’s really big! You can skin up on it!” This is post-blog writing at it’s worst, the kind of navel-gazing that we’re in increasing danger of mistaking for journalism (and increasingly replacing journalism with), where all you need is an opinion and a feeling and a few people to click ‘like’ or ‘share’ to give that opinion instant validation, even if it’s based on nothing at all.

Take that Buzzfeed piece (sorry Matt; I know it’s your job and fully understand why pieces like this have to live alongside the proper stuff); half the things it posits as being great about vinyl are dreadful things that I hate (surface noise; crate-digging; super-specific genre names in independent record shops that act as obfuscating gatekeepers rather than navigation aids), and the other half are completely incidental and can be ‘enjoyed’ with CDs (amazing set of speakers; sorting things alphabetically; supporting local independent shops; meeting someone cute while browsing). Neither Nostalgia Dad nor Fetish Hipster substantiates any of their proclamations with evidence, research, or fact; they just make vague claims and allusions and presuppose that the weight of rock mythology will carry them aloft. Well I hate rock mythology and I pretty much always have.

Some context.

A few months ago I pitched a feature idea to NME about the relative merits of vinyl and CD, with specific focus on the negative side-effects that the current resurgence in vinyl sales is having. Dan Stubbs, NME’s news editor, said yes, and commissioned 600 words from me on the subject, which got published a couple of months ago. Sadly, Dan and NME have style and deadlines and readership and publishers to think of, and 600 words weren’t really sufficient to explore this massive, divisive, and hearsay-riddled topic, and I had many, many thoughts, quotes, and pieces of evidence left over, so I’m going to use them here.

One of the main thrusts of my NME piece was essentially that demand for vinyl is outstripping supply, vinyl pressing plants being unable to press vinyl as quickly as they used to in the past, because no new vinyl pressing machines have been manufactured since 1981; so the industry is relying on old machines. Poor technology + increased demand = falling quality. Vinyl gets used as a marketing hook, and has become a signifier of a premium product, promising you more than CD; the elusive experience that so few people seem to be able to qualify or quantify properly. It’s priced, packaged, and sold correspondingly, but it’s often not actually fit for the purpose it’s meant to be for; at least not as fit as it ought to be for the premium. Remember that the redemptive obverse of a record is to play music, not to look good on a shelf.

So here’s Steve Albini on the merits and demerits of clear, black, and coloured vinyl at The Quietus; scroll down to the penultimate answer, which starts with: “There’s a theoretical point there, which is that polyvinyl chloride is colourless, so if you’re adding something to it to colour it, then you’re changing the chemistry of it slightly, and that has potential to make it sound not as good by having inclusions.” The conclusion? New coloured vinyl probably sounds like crap most of the time, and is a gimmick, a piece of ‘added value’ designed to make you buy a record on one format rather than another (i.e. to buy it at all, rather than download it for free). Records for looking at, rather than listening to.

But Albini’s got no beef with vinyl as a format if it’s done properly, and that’s fair enough. Some people do, though. This is what David Thomas of Pere Ubu has to say about some technical myths regarding vinyl on his website:“The putative ‘warmth’ of vinyl is another one of those mass-hysteria hoaxes that the human race is prone to. ‘Vinyl warmth’ is not some semi-mystical, undefinable phenomenon. There is actually a technical term that audio engineers have for what you are hearing – it is called distortion. The bottom end is distorting. Now, distortion is a valuable audio tool, and an Ubu favorite, but only when the distortion is distortion we choose. You may like the phenomenon but it is NOT what we wanted and it is NOT what we heard in the studio.”

Which seems to contradict what some people claim regarding vinyl being closer in sound to the master tape than CD is. David Thomas isn’t the only person to think so; here’s what David Brewis from Field Music said to me via Twitter the other day: “When we’re putting records together, I have to steel myself for the deficiencies inherent to the vinyl pressings, even though I enjoy those same deficiencies in other people’s records – especially when combined with the ‘sit and listen’ element.” So vinyl is deficient, isn’t the sound people hear in the recording studio, and isn’t necessarily how they want you to hear their records, even if it can be enjoyable.

Michael Jones, much-loved ILX poster who works in digital media somewhere, and who co-engineered The Clientele’s lovely debut album, The Violet Hour, and mastered a bunch of Matinee comps for CD, dropped some serious science on ILX a decade ago, regarding the myths and misunderstandings about what CD and vinyl each bring to the table, from relative resolution and sample rates to analogue waveform reproduction and the happy euphonic accidents that David Brewis alluded to. Highlights and key points include (questions Jonesy’s responding to in italics; his answers in quotation marks; my emphasis in bold):

are you saying that 24/96k can rival the resolution in the grain of good vinyl? (I realise it’s not really comparable and that there are many other factors involved)
“Well, what is the resolution of good vinyl? In information theory terms (resolution = dynamic range x bandwidth), vinyl is miles behind – not even very close to 16/44.1k. It’s a mistake to think that an analogue system is inherently more ‘natural’, or has more detail. Every recording and replay system has its limitations.”

Do circuits exist that can provide a smooth (actually analogue) interpolation between the x levels available in a digital recording? Do good digital players do this?
“*All* digital equipment does this. There are no gaps or stair-steps in the sound – a continuous analogue waveform is reconstructed from the sampled info. The Nyquist theorem states that we only need sample a waveform at at least twice the highest frequency within that waveform to gather a complete record of the data. Now, bandwidth-limiting a musical signal to just above the upper limit of adult human hearing may produce its own set of problems, but we can be sure that the subsequent sampling doesn’t chuck anything *else* away.

“The fixed number of amplitude levels associated with digital means a limit to how small successive changes in the amplitude can be – but with analogue and its greater associated self-noise, the limits are even more restrictive. The noise obscures anything smaller than itself. So there’s *less* resolution in the amplitude domain with analogue despite it being a continuous system.

Is this one reason that LPs can sound better?
“There are lots of artefacts associated with vinyl replay which don’t completely go away with even the most exotic turntables or pristine pressings. Happily, many of these artefacts are euphonic – phase anomalies magically expanding the stereo image, tonearm resonance warming up the mid-range, HF roll-off giving that silky tone. It’s more of a case of what vinyl adds to reproduction, than what CD omits. Beyond that it’s a matter of preference.”

Why not watch him say some of this stuff in person on Youtube? The ‘closer to the master tape’ fallacy gets mentioned here, too.

You can also read the Hydrogen Audio FAQ he linked me to when I asked him for a quote for the NME piece.

Graham Sutton is my usual go-to record producer and technical guy when I need a quote about dynamic range compression or distortion. Sadly he was out of the country working when I wrote the NME piece, but here’s a quote from an interview I did with him a few months ago which has some serious relevance here: “As an aesthetic, for the sort of music I’m involved in making, I also find I don’t like the sound of tape. I don’t want the medium to sonically alter what I’m hearing, I want a linear response and I don’t like hiss. I think part of why digital gets a bad rap is because engineers early on tried to apply the same tape-based tricks to digital without really using their ears, and things came out excessively bright and hard as a result. There’s also a sentimental attachment in the ‘rock’ world, bordering on elitism, to analogue – the smell of tape and the love of big old dusty machines – that just isn’t there in many other areas of music, for example classical, jazz, EDM, broadcasting, film, where this debate ended a long time ago.”

So love of analogue warmth seems like it might be a rockist hangover, a comfort-blanket for an industry, which, 40 years ago, was forward thinking, and cutting edge, but which is now retrogressive and paranoid and faltering. Looking through the records I’ve bought and enjoyed in 2013, and there’s notably less and less ‘rock’ (and pop and associated genres or whatever) and more and more electronica, jazz, avant-garde, whatever-you-want-to-call it. This has been an increasing trend in my tastes for quite a while now.

If you really wanted, you could visit the Steve Hoffman forums and get involved in some of the ranty exchanges that the vinyl-vs-CD debate regularly inspires over there. Neither side comes out looking particularly good though, and it’s very easy to descend down the audiophilia wormhole, which I’ve got no interest in.

A few years ago I got really into headphones and spent far too long (and far too much money) on Head-Fi, where I noticed that people would describe Sennheiser headphones as being ‘veiled’ in terms of sound; i.e. that the sound signature was dark, obscuring detail a little via a thin layer of distortion or lack of focus. This description is how I hear vinyl, pretty much; as if someone is holding a layer of net curtain between the speakers and my ears, which takes away clarity and space, stops me fully getting a hold on individual sonic details. For me a lot of the magic of recorded sound is how psychedelic and otherworldly and magical it can be, and clarity is a big part of that. Mythology isn’t, and though I like the fact that we have shelves full of CDs and I have to pull them out and put them on one at a time in a CD player, that’s less about ritual and mythology than it is about convenience and concentration and not feeling like a data-entry temp.

Here’s another shitty listicle by Matt, except that this one isn’t shitty, and actually talks some sense, in that it admits that a huge amount of vinyl fandom is about aesthetics and lifestyle and not about sound quality.

So I guess I am saying that CD is better than vinyl, in terms of cold, hard, technical, objectively measurable factors like dynamic range, frequency response, and resolution, but that’s not really the key point here: the main thing is that I prefer it; it suits how and why I listen much better than anything else. Vinyl sounds different, and if you prefer it, that’s fine, just don’t tell me, sans evidence, that it’s “better”. Because it isn’t.

(While we’re at it, let’s not conflate and confuse the terms ‘vinyl’ and ‘record’ anymore: ‘vinyl’ is the format, the medium; ‘record’ is short for ‘recording’, and is the content delivered by the format. My ‘record collection’ is mostly on CD, which is how I like it.)

Post-script
A few people have asked me why I don’t just listen to MP3s (or any other digital file type). The answer is quite simple: I’d rather browse shelves than databases when choosing what record to listen to. Accessing and maintaining a digital music collection mostly makes me feel like a data entry temp. I used to look after library databases for a living. I’d rather not do it for my hobby.

It’s also been suggested that I’m the only person banging on about this debate and that no one else cares. That may be so, but I get sent a lot of links to articles, lists, and opinion pieces about how great and magical vinyl is (and occasionally about its actual merits as a format). In addition to the pieces linked in the original piece, here are some more things that people have written about vinyl over the last few years, some of them stupid, some of them sensible.

“Vinyl, they say, just sounds better, warmer, more immediate than digital.”

A whole radio show devoted to vinyl mythologizing.

A sensible piece by Graham Jones.

Over-pricing for packaging and ‘feel’, rather than sonic benefits.

“Vinyl-only” New Year’s Day; on a digital-only radio station.

Mark Richardson talking sense at Pitchfork.

Another Steve Hoffman debate.

Do records really sound warmer than CDs?

“We tried an A and B test with some vinyl freaks and found that they could not really tell the difference but they still genuinely swore that vinyl was the king.”

Top ten reasons why vinyl sounds better than digital. Particularly check out point 6, which is so unbelieveably wrong-headed and loaded that it makes me actually angry. “The quality [of vinyl] is incomparable as each groove contains every intended detail captured holistically, every frequency shift perceived.” Just nonsense. Never mind points 5 and 4.

Sense from a mastering engineer. Even if he does like Dark Side Of The Moon.

At least this guy knows he’s semi-coherent.

“I am sure I know absolutely nothing about how it all works and why, but the one thing I know for certain though is that music sounds better on vinyl.”

Reddit gets in on it.

£2,500 vinyl records. Insanity.

Here’s another quote from Graham Sutton, which he posted on Facebook yesterday in a conversation about the original piece: “I hope you guys realise that almost all vinyl cuts (with a couple of notable exceptions) for the last few decades have passed through a digital delay via A-D-A converters, as a last safety stage before hitting the cutting lathe head, regardless of the analogyness or otherwise of the Master medium, or indeed whether the sequencing had been assembled on Sadie or whatever.

“If you like your music with added distortion that you find pleasing then great, but for anything else this argument is bunk. Vinyl has so many technical limitations it ain’t true.”

And that’s enough for now.

On the long demise of HMV

On Sunday I went in HMV Exeter desperate to spend £20 (that I don’t really have, because it’s January) on season 4 of Breaking Bad on DVD. I vaguely hoped it might be in the fire blue cross sale. It wasn’t, because, they didn’t have any copies of it. I asked at the counter. They didn’t offer to order it in or tell me if they were expecting restock of it. For what are now obvious reasons. (They were pretty obvious then, too.)

I’ve written about my family affection for and recent frustration with HMV before, of course, because this has been a long time coming. If HMV goes, there will literally be nowhere in Exeter to buy a DVD on the high street, apart from Sainsbury’s.

I’m pretty sure I ordered a copy of Ege Bamyasi in my Local HMV, at age 16 or 17, and picked it up from the shop the next week. That’s how things worked then. Not long after that they got a copy of Tago Mago in, possibly inspired by the fact that some enthusiastic kid had ordered in another CAN album, and I bought that, too. I bought the remasters from that bloody rainforest though.

I had a little Twitter spat last September when Grizzly Bear’s album was released and Exeter HMV didn’t have a copy for me to buy until the afternoon, because stock hadn’t come in yet. I’ve been into HMV with a vague wishlist of things I’d like to buy; acclaimed (if sometimes esoteric) new releases, back catalogue stuff. They never had anything. We spend somewhere in the region of £750 a year on new music, on average (at a quick calculation for the last three years or so); my tastes aren’t that weird or leftfield.

I gather HMV moved to central stock ordering sometime in the late 90s, which would have thrown local knowledge and product specialism out of the window as far as staff go, and turn them into little more than cash-register operators and shelf-stackers. Ludicrous. For the last two, three, five years, HMV Exeter piled Kings of Leon albums and Lord of the Rings DVD sets higher than you could reach to pick up the top copy. Doesn’t everyone who could possibly ever want to own Lord of the Rings on DVD already own it? Do people who go into HMV really want JLS badges and One Direction mugs and jelly sweets?

Phil Beeching had HMV’s advertising account for 25 years, and wrote an eye-opening piece last August about how clearly he’d pointed out to them, 11 years ago, what the threats to their business were (online retailers, downloading, and supermarkets, of course), only to be angrily dismissed by the then MD, told that downloading was “a fad”. Three quarters of UK music and movie sales are still physical media, but come on. Consider that HMV decided to try and sell consumer electronics at the same time as the high street retail of consumer electronics collapsed.

We’ve been quietly boycotting Amazon for a few months now, partly because of them remotely deleting customers’ Kindles, partly because of distaste with general e-book DRM and proprietary format issues, partly because their ‘next-day’ service is nothing of the sort, partly because of their massive tax-avoidance, and partly because, these days, they seem like a baddie, and boycotting baddies seems like what responsible people ought to do. I fear that, increasingly, we can justify anything in this country, this culture, by either making or saving money. Tax avoidance? But CDs are a couple of quid cheaper, so who cares. Abusing kids in a hospice? He raises lots of money for us by running marathons, so who cares. Yes, I just compared Amazon to this country’s most evil serial child molester. Like I said, they seem like a baddie.

Before Christmas, on the Monday after ATP weekend, we went to Bristol to see Patrick Wolf, and I nipped into Rise Records and happily, quickly, spent £40 on Fugazi, The National, Liars, and Local Natives records that I’d been vaguely hoping of coming across in our local HMV (or Fopp in Bristol, which I’d checked futilely a few weeks before) for ages, but never seen. The week before Christmas we went to Totnes’ The Drift and spent another £30 on Perfume Genius, Fiona Apple, and Julia Holter albums. HMV Exeter doesn’t have a marker for Fugazi anymore. They didn’t even have the new Fiona Apple album in. Acclaimed, loyal-fanbase, major-label Fiona Apple, appearing high in end-of-year lists all over the shop, and I couldn’t buy her CD in Exeter in December. (To be fair, I could, and did, buy the Deerhoof album.)

We’ve decided that we’re going to make monthly music-buying pilgrimages this year, alternately to Rise in Bristol and The Drift in Totnes; keep a wishlist of what we’re after, and buy a bunch of albums all at once. Chat to the staff. Have a browse. Make an impulse purchase. We might also buy some stuff direct form record label websites, where they’re transactional and I haven’t seen stuff in either Rise or The Drift; we’ll try and support the shops first and foremost. Because they seem like goodies. I’d like to be able to walk into Exeter and buy the records I want, but I can’t.

Because these independent shops have embraced online retailing, have taken to social media, are run by and staffed with people who care about music, who can describe the Perfume Genius album cover to the new girl at the drop of a hat so she can see if she can see if it’s behind the counter because they’ve not put the new stock out yet. They understand that music can (should?) be about community and communication just as much as it can be about anonymous online transactions and listening in commuter silence via headphones. The Drift send a monthly newsletter to email subscribers recommending their favourite records of the past four weeks. Before Christmas they published a list of their favourite 100 records of 2012 online and in printed, fanzine-esque form that you could pick up in the shop. They sell turntables. Their stock is curated like a gallery rather than lumped together like a warehouse or piled high and cheap like a supermarket. They run a listening club (possibly inspired by ours!). They recommend music to you in any number of ways. As NickB asked on ILX, “Can you even listen to sound samples on the HMV website?” No, you can’t. They’d rather sell you some coasters than some records, or so it feels. Has felt for too long.

Michael Hann wrote in The Guardian today about visiting the Oxford Street branch today, and reminisced that he had probably realised the game was up for them a few years ago when Fleetwood Mac were touring and he popped in to pick up Tusk. “The biggest record shop in Britain did not have a copy of a legendary album by one of the world’s biggest bands even as they were on tour in the UK.” I’ve repeated his experience dozens of times in microcosm, the last time being the Fiona Apple failure.

(As an aside, I completely empathise with Michael’s fondness for the big chain in the face of sometimes snooty and elitist indies – it echoes some of my teenage experiences.)

Bob Stanley wrote brilliantly a year ago, and republished today, a piece about the things HMV could have done to stave off what many are talking about as being inevitable. None of these things are outrageous – they’re happening under HMV’s nose, practically next door.

I won’t miss HMV, because I’ve barely bought anything in there for years. But I will miss the act of going in a record shop every Saturday in the hope that something would catch my attention and fire my imagination and make me fall in love. Because that used to happen; didn’t it?

(I know, of course, that the entertainment industry wont let HMV just die, that branches, that the brand, will live on somehow, but allow me this moment of drama and mourning. Even as I write, Canada might be coming to the rescue. Whatever the salvation, though, things will have to change.)

(I ended up buying season 4 of Breaking Bad from eBay. I literally didn’t know where else to get it from.)

(When I say ‘records’, obviously I mean CDs, because they’re just better than vinyl, aren’t they? But there you go. The fact that vinyl sales have been on the up for years, and HMV in Exeter, as well as other branches I gather, failed to stock any vinyl at all, is yet another reason we’re nailing their coffin shut, metaphorically. Let’s hope we bury them with a claw hammer so they can fight their way out.)

On end-of-year lists…

End-of-year lists seem to be coming earlier and earlier each year – the last couple seem to have hit even before December has started, presumably in a joint effort to a) attract attention by getting yours published (and ergo talked about) first, and b) inspire increased sales of the year’s anointed releases in the lucrative Christmas period (judging by the state of HMV on Saturday, December is the only month that a lot of people physically go into record shops – it was bedlam).

Having been involved with and run various polls over the years, I know how long it takes to logistically organise one – by my reckoning, contributors are going to have been totting up their individual lists in October, with 8-12 weeks of potential album releases yet to come. If you go through the Metacritic recent releases there are dozens of records getting high scores that would have come out after voting deadline. (The general amount of high scores given out by record reviewers compared to film reviewers is another issue, which I’ve written about before. Apparently it’s worse in games reviews, though.)

After individual lists are done, votes need to be matriculated, final placings argued over (even if the matriculation is taken as law and not gerrymandered to reflect politics and commerce and editorial whim taste, there’ll still be arguments), blurbs commissioned, written, edited, and formatted for publishing, whether that’s online or in print (though obviously the print ones pretty much all get published online before the paper versions hits magazine racks). For lists to be published even before December begins suggests that only three quarters of the year gets considered. But record companies know this. Reviewers know this.

Hell, every music fan on the internet knows this: I was moaning about people talking about records as being “potential albums of the year” back in March, if not before. Amongst a certain subset of music fans it seems as though the narrative of what gets in your personal end-of-year-list, and the minute politics of the ordering thereof, is the most important part of being a music fan. I doubt anyone actually feels this way, but the urgency and importance and eagerness with which phrases like “my album of the year” and “it’ll definitely be in my end-of-year-list” get bandied about feels that way. Listen to it once. Assess its import. Allocate it a space in your list. Never ponder it or listen to it again.

Again, I doubt people actually consume music quite like that. But I’ve done the whole “my album of the year!” thing myself, and I don’t think it’s a good way of thinking about or categorising music. It feels too much like listening in order to form an opinion rather than listening for pleasure. One of the reasons I’ve pretty much stopped writing record reviews is that this kind of listening – which is not necessarily critical (and critical listening is not necessarily a bad thing, either) – doesn’t seem to lend itself to enjoying music; it seems like listening to have listened.

I worked in a library for a few years, and catalogued films: I felt like I knew an awful lot about a huge amount of films – who directed them, who was in them, their historical significance, even an idea of their aesthetic from cover design and stills on the reverse – but I barely watched any of the films I knew about. I barely appreciated any of them. And I certainly didn’t love any of these films that I catalogued but did not watch. It can take so long, so many listens, to unravel a record, that forming an opinion after one or two exposures seems like great folly.

(Side note: if, as a reviewer, you strongly suspect that you’ll never listen to a record again after you’ve sent off your 150 or 400 or 1,000 words about it, if you think you will have no use or love for it after you’ve slotted it into a critical taxonomy, then say so. Don’t let the instinct towards authority or objectivity make you hedge bets. Don’t give 3/5 for something you’ll never play again. I’ve bought too many records over the years just in case they were really good, when in fact they were inconsequential simulacra. I mean you, Maccabees, Django Django and Alt-J, just this year. But this is a whole other post, let alone a side note.)

(Second side note: another reason why I prefer CDs to digital files is the effort that it seems to take to “maintain a digital music collection” – I’ve seen so many people moan about iTunes 11 over the last few days, conversations about listening to music turning into conversations about data-entry and file-management and folder structures and back-up archives and so on and so forth. This type of conversation bores me to tears at work; I’m not taking it home, too. “Opinion-listening” feels like another symptom of the same disease.)

(Third side note: imagine a long paragraph linking all of this to The Society of the Spectacle by Guy Debord here.)

(Fourth side note: imagine a paragraph about decimal point scores in record reviews here. Or grading records like sixth form essays. Oh god.)

This post was originally going to be called 12 from 12, and be a list (!) of my favourite dozen records of this year, with a little blurb about each, in the chronological order that they were released rather than any order of preference (because how the hell do you even come up with an order; it’s utterly arbitrary), and this “rant” was going to be 100 words at the start about end-of-year lists getting earlier and earlier and how stupid that is. Obviously it’s not gone to plan. I’ll save that list (!) for later, if I do it at all. Swans would feature.

My most played album?

@LPGroup, which I like as a concept but not so much as an actuality (the communal nature of voting and decision making over what records to listen to and tweet about together seems to often result in safe choices – but that’s always the result of democracy, isn’t it? [There’s also a lot of canon-favouring middle-aged white men involved – I know I’m only a handful of techno and pop records and ten years away from that myself, but still.]), was pimping the theme “My Most Played Album” for their session the other week. I looked at the list and thought about voting, but there wasn’t much on there that might qualify as my own most played, I suspect. It was my own fault for not catching nominations in time enough to put something forward. But it got me thinking about what records I have listened to most in my life, about the types of records they’ve been, and how those types of records have changed over the years, and in turn how the way I listen to records has changed over the years, as life has got busier, time shorter, and collections bigger.

17 years ago the answer would have been simple – The Stone Roses’ debut album, which I played incessantly and repeatedly, and convinced myself was perfect and imbued with magical powers. 16 year olds are odd. A year before that, Revolver. A year after, In Sides by Orbital. 4 years ago, after a year living in together in our flat, it was probably The Milk Of Human Kindness by Caribou, which became our default go-to record while just going about our lives – washing up, reading, cooking, pottering, doing those mundane day-to-day admin tasks that adult-life requires. Inoffensive, undemanding (unless you want it to be), but always interesting. In 2004 it was Drive By by The Necks, the seamless groove and ambient nature of which made it the kind of thing that I could literally play anywhere, anytime, whilst doing anything.

This year I’ve probably played Plumb by Field Music the most, although a considerable factor to consider there is that it was released early in the year. Also, it’s quite short; it fits almost four times into the length of The Seer by Swans, and can easily get played twice back-to-back on a short-ish car journey. In fact the title track of The Seer is almost exactly the same length as the whole of Plumb. At other times this year I’ve binged on Silent Shout by The Knife, Red Medicine by Fugazi, Grizzly Bear, Heartland by Owen Pallett, and WIXIW by Liars. But other than Plumb, the two things I’ve played the most are similar records by similar artists – Pink by Four Tet and Orchard by Minotaur Shock, which both, like the Caribou and Necks records mentioned above, lend themselves to being put on whilst doing other things. Pink, which I started off thinking of as a weird dancefloor compendium, has unfurled over the months to reveal itself as a superlative “livingroom” record. Which is where it gets played most often.

There’s a danger that one can make these records sound prosaic and inoffensive, that “most played” = “most utilitarian”, that their value comes in their palatability rather than their art or power. 17 years ago I thought music should be entirely magical and transformative, passionate and wild or exultant and irresistible. I worry suspect that these days I value the beatific over the outright brilliant sometimes, the tasteful over the transcendent (whatever that means). But actually, as always, it’s more complicated than that. There’s a certain degree of compromise in sharing living and listening space with another human being: I can’t blast Tilt by Scott Walker at a whim, but then again I’m not sure I often want to. And actually, Em would be more irritated if I played Embrace than if I cracked out one of Scott’s latterday opuses.

Sometimes I choose to listen to a record because I love it, and it transports and challenges me, and stretches my brain and soul. And sometimes I choose to listen to a record just because it fills space, beautifully. I probably do the latter more often, and, on average, probably have done so for the last dozen years since leaving the weird cocoon of university. I guess the choice is what you choose to fill that space with, and why: is it a comfort blanket of familiarity, or is it something else?

The Pitchfork People’s List

So Pitchfork have put together a little list thingamajig where you can very easily put together a visual list of your favourite albums of the last 15/16 years (since P4K itself started, essentially). If you submit between 20 and 100 albums, then your list will be thrown into a poll of readers’ favourite albums. Which is fair enough.

I put one together myself just here. The ordering is pretty arbitrary, especially once you get past the first 30 or so, but I think it’s pretty representative of my tastes over the last 15/16 years.

Edit. I’ve been tweaking my entry slightly, using old NME lists and other things to prompt my memory. It’s causing some serious cognitive dissonance having to put late 90s albums alongside stuff from the last 18 months – the world is a very different place, and I am a very different person, and Wild Beasts sit very oddly next to Michael Head & The Strands, at least in my mind.

God bless Danny Boyle: the 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony


I wasn’t planning on watching the Olympic opening ceremony last night; Emma turned it on, which was unexpected as she’s been a vocal Olympic cynic for years now, pretty much since the day after it was announced, when the London bombings smashed the sense of celebration and positivism that should have resulted.

Living the best part of 200 miles from London, in a part of the country not really associated with sports, I’ve not felt the Olympic spirit. Earlier this year we visited the shopping centre that’s sprung up adjacent to the Olympic Park, and it felt like an awful, crass monument to capitalism, a soulless vacuum of a place. We spent a chunk of the evening in a casino, feeling miserable for the people who were throwing away money. I’ve not been expecting to feel impassioned or involved in what’s going on over the next two weeks at all.

Part of me suspects Emma wanted to watch it to be part of a shared spectacle, something which we’re both seemingly increasingly keen on, in our own funny ways, and which social media is aiding massively. On a Friday evening we’d normally stick a film on or watch aimless American comedy, crack open a bottle of wine, and mentally and physically unwind. Last night we sat on the sofa, drank water, watched a celebration of sport and culture, and tweeted with people from around the world who were all, as far as I could tell, feeling the same way we were.

It seems shallow, but I knew the Olympic Opening Ceremony was going to be… different… the moment that I recognised the sound of Surf Solar by Fuck Buttons soundtracking the introductory film. It wasn’t the Tory-friendly, establishment-reinforcing, monarchist approach I’d expected.

I wasn’t expecting much from Danny Boyle’s ceremony, but it blew me away. It wasn’t about corporations or politicians or even, bar one brief, grand, tongue-in-cheek entrance (as much about frolicking corgis as dutiful monarchs), about heads of state: it was about this little cluster of islands and countries, joined but different, and the people who live in them, and the culture we create together, and the sportsmen and sportswomen, who come from all conceivable backgrounds, and compete not for money or fame, but for glory, and for joy, and for each other.

I could write about everything in great detail and at great length, from the soundtrack, which was wonderful, or the historical references, or the cultural nods to TV, film, literature, or the moving tribute to people who should have been there but weren’t, or the celebration of the NHS, which our current government seem to want to do away with but which embodies the spirit and helps the people of this country far more than our political system or our monarchy or even our sports, but I wouldn’t do it justice. I regularly had tears in my eyes. Even this morning, reading last night’s tweets from all and sundry, or the reports in online papers, or seeing footage of our cycling team talking about riding for each other, I’m welling up again.

I don’t, as a rule, identify as a patriot, instead preferring to trot out a line about where you’re born being an accident, about how you should be proud of things you choose, not random things that happen to you. But actually, last night made me realise that being patriotic isn’t about loving the place you’re from. It’s about loving the people, and the crazy, insane, beautiful, compassionate, ludicrous and wonderful things they do.

God bless you, Danny Boyle, for making me feel humble and proud.