Release year: Rating: Key tracks:
2001 7 "My Culture", "The Way You Dream", "Ma' Africa"

1) Dunya Salam (feat. Baaba Maal); 2) My Culture (feat. Robbie Williams & Maxi Jazz); 3) The Way You Dream (feat. Michael Stipe & Asha Bhosle); 4) Ma' Africa (feat. The Mahotella Queens & Ulali); 5) Braided Hair (feat. Speech & Neneh Cherry); 6) Ta Moko (feat. Whirimako Black); 7) Bushes (feat. Baaba Maal); 8) Passion (feat. Michael Franti); 9) Daphne (feat. Eddi Reader, The Mahotella Queens & Revetti Sakalar); 10) All Alone (On Eilean Shona); 11) Racing Away (feat. Grant Lee Phillips & Horace Andy); 12) Ghosts (feat. Eddi Reader)

Western electronica goes on a round-the-world influence trip, and it's actually more than just souvenir sounds galore.

1 Giant Leap is first and foremost a concept. It's the result of two British DJs/producers wanting to travel around the world in a quest to bring people from several continents and various backgrounds together through the shared language of music. It's an idealistic celebration of human culture and art all over the world, almost to an embarrassingly naive degree, and on both how despite all our differences we are the same and yet life can still be something completely different in another part of our very same shared planet. This sort of wide-eyed sentimental love for humanity isn't exactly new as a concept, but the thing here is that Duncan Bridgeman and Jamie Catto actually did the trip around the world.

Sort of. 1 Giant Leap only really stops in London, India, New Zealand, parts of Africa, and a couple of states in the USA so it's hardly the globetrotting adventure it makes itself out to be. Where the dynamic duo do land though, they blend their influences and guests wildly. Nearly every track is a mini-condensation of the duo's journeys, with musicians from entirely different parts of the world "collaborating" within the frames of the same songs, their sounds mixing together into a multicultural feast guided by modern electronic production. The guest list ranges from global superstars to local expert talent and if there's one thing that Catto and Bridgeman have done expertly, it's making sure that everyone fits together – no one hogs the spotlight or dominates regardless of how famous they are, nor do the duo themselves ever make it out to feel like they should be the stars for making it all happen. The concept is what matters and it's the concept that has brought everyone together. The one time where this is slightly blurred is "My Culture", the starting point of the album's journey (after the intro). Its sound is the least global of the album and both Maxi Jazz and Robbie Williams are (were) such household names that the song could just as well have come from either of their own albums. But with both of them genuinely engaged in the music and the message and the tune itself being such a banger, it's one of the album's most obvious highlights. It also thematically feels like the square one, the launching point at the producer duo's own home before moving into the world at large.

A lot of blood, sweat, tears and time were clearly spent on creating all this and making sure that it all works together, and as a result 1 Giant Leap does feel like a grand musical adventure. There's an epic scale to things as the twists and turns take you from urban London to hypnotic Indian dreams, African dancefloors and uncategorisably multicultural soundscapes. It's impressive, it's quite exciting and the album as a whole feels like something worth mentioning just because of it. Hearing Asha Bhosle and Michael Stipe duet within trippy ambient patterns before launching into a rave in "The Way You Dream" never stops being as majestic as it was the first listen, and the infectious, foot-stomping energy of "Ma' Africa" is a perfect representation of the album's main mission statement. If the idea behind creating the album is celebrating the world's diversity, it's exactly what the album establishes itself as in its starting run of tracks.

It's funny then that Catto and Bridgeman have decided to be their own buzzkills. All the extroverted, hook-laden tracks have been chucked right into the beginning and after the RnB-tinged "Braided Hair", the album moves onto a path of world-weary, half-ambient moodiness and only returns from there for brief sections every now and then. The excitement of trekking all over the world is replaced with late-night introspection and coping with the exhaustion of the journey, and as a result both the concept and the excitement start to wobble. What started out as a celebration across all nations turns into something completely different in a strikingly abrupt fashion, the bright cheers and colourful music replaced by downbeat notes and almost melancholy atmosphere. The swooping beauty of "Daphne" lifts up the atmosphere a little and "All Alone" (the one moment where the vocals belong to the people behind the project rather than the guest stars) is clearly the best of the moody lot, and the duo acts as a brief little oasis before the very end, where "Ghosts" awaits with its nigh-funereal tone. The end of album is so far removed from what came before that it's odd to think it's still part of the same project and for all the undoubtable musical qualities the latter half professes, it's a strange whiplash to go through.

As a musical journey though, it's still well worth the time and recommendation. The whole "Westerners go around taking influences from elsewhere" thing has undoubtedly been done several times but 1 Giant Leap feels genuinely passionate and in spirit with its ideals. Unlike a lot of its sonical predecessors it never feels like a "Western album": the spotlight and voice have been given to every single person who participates and the resulting collection of songs truly does feel global. It does it so well in fact that you kind of want to believe and invest in all the romantic, conceptual notions the album carries. But even beyond that, it's still a good collection of songs. An occasionally overlong collection that could have done with a better running order, granted, but its high points are worth it alone.

Physically: Jewel case with a reasonably detailed booklet featuring photos from the journey, some diary excerpts, a bit of new age mumbojumbo (fitting in line with the interlude voice clips running throughout the album) and some extremely turn-of-millennium graphical effects. My favourite part is the back of the booklet with photos of every guest vocalist on the album, giving faces to the plethora of names.


Release year: Rating: Key tracks:
2001 8 "Kaksi sisarta", "Mikan faijan BMW", "Nummela"

1) Kaksi sisarta; 2) Mikan faijan BMW; 3) Esko Riihelän painajainen; 4) Puistossa (feat. Alexandra); 5) Kaunotar ja basisti; 6) Rva Ruusunen; 7) Harhaa (feat. Anna Kuoppamäki); 8) Kissanpäivät; 9) Nummela

Under the incredibly of-its-time production there's a classic singer/songwriter storyteller's album, by a man who needed to get the songs out of his system. And then he took over the world around him with them.

Every now and then an album arrives that takes over the entire world or the country you live in. For some time, it's the biggest thing there is - it dominates the airwaves and the charts, it breaks records and it's heard by absolutely everyone and they all have an opinion on it. The Marshall Matters LPs, the 21s, the Neverminds. In the early 00s, singer/songwriter Anssi Kela's debut Nummela became the biggest thing in Finland. You couldn't escape from its songs on radio or TV, it sold insane amounts and broke several sales records, and everyone knew it - everyone, from young kids to your grandma. Kela's music broke barriers and was loved by everyone regardless of age or music taste, and those who didn't enjoy its omnipresence made sure they were ready to mention it whenever required, with the requisite defenses and reasons for their contrary opinion.

The secret to Kela's success wasn't a mysterious one: he simply made his music incredibly approachable to everyone. The basis of his sound was in the great, classic singer/songwriter tradition. He's a storyteller by nature, filling his lyrics with relatable or otherwise understandable stories of everyday people and their joys and tragedies (a direct quote from someone older than me at the time, it was "lovely to hear someone sing about actual things"). The core of the music itself was in your traditional man-and-guitar vein, but decorated with a slick, modern production and appropriate fashionable (at the time) touch in its sounds: a combination of both new and old in exactly the right amounts. Kela had a seemingly divine gift for a really great hook and it was impossible to get his songs out of your head once they made their way there, and all those hooks and melodies were so perfectly hummable and singable and repeatable. Kela himself was a charmer as well. A softly husky, pleasant voice, reasonably charismatic looks and a background that was equally humble and legendary, tragic and inspirational: he was a small town kid (this album itself is titled after the said town) who came from a line of town-famous musicians who all died before their age, leaving the rest of his close family in a rather chaotic state, but who overcame the hardships and climbed to the top. Considering that pictures of his dead father and grandfather are included in the album booklet, it's not like any of this was being kept particularly quiet either.

In short, Kela was a humongous success because he wasdestined to be so. Everything in his music or character almost seemed to be designed to win everyone's hearts, but genuine charm and realness radiated from him to the extent that you could never have been cynical over him. He was a lovely guy who wrote fantastically catchy songs, and then proceeded to dominate the whole country through that simple formula.

But there's still something special within Nummela itself. Kela has been steadily releasing albums throughout the past decade but nothing has come even close to the eyesight of his mega-selling debut; actual hit singles beyond the ones taken from Nummela number in exactly two (until a sudden career resurrection no one expected over a decade after), and they're the ones that directly followed Nummela (one of them so closely that it was included in the deluxe re-release of the album). Nummela, then, clearly carries a special magic that continues to make it a rewarding listen in a way his other albums do not.

It all somewhat boils down to his personal history. The photos of his lost family members weren't in the booklet because the record label wanted to build a mythology and a backstory: they're there because Kela's legacy and personal history fueled the album itself. The title track outright says it so - located at the end of the album, it's the only song where Kela stops telling stories about other people and sits down to talk about his own story. The song feels like a confessional, bittersweet excerpts of life's ups and downs that eventually cause Kela to follow his family bloodline and commit his feelings on tape. The song is the album's masterpiece and while it's the only one that's outright about the writer himself, that personal touch flows through the other eight songs. While the character names and situations in each song are different to Kela's own, each one feels like it stems from a real place and from personal experiences. Naming the album after his hometown and paying tribute to his family tree both signify that the music in Nummela comes from the heart, that it's been fueled by the artist's blood, sweat and tears as he's worked on the songs day and night as if he was possessed by the need to let them out. Often it manifests in a notable emotional load on the shoulders of the songs, like with the genuine happiness found when your life hits that one perfect moment in "Kaunotar ja basisti" and the painful nostalgia for the innocent days of youth that looms over "Kissanpäivät". The whole of Nummela has that incredibly precious feeling of genuine emotional presence that we often associate with artists' most personal records, only this time the lyrics mostly avoid anything directly personal and the music is in the guise of somewhat slickly-produced pop/rock rather than lo-fi acoustic escapism or dark atmospherics.

Which is fine - it's clearly the place where Kela feels most comfortable to be in and it results in a group of excellent songs that allow his knack for a great melody and hook to shine, sometimes literally as the production really lets each note play out clearly. On the other hand, at times the album's rather dare-I-say commercial sheen and modern production result in a somewhat more dated sound. You couldn't get much more 2001 than the record scratches, drum samples and effects on "Mikan faijan BMW" and "Puistossa" (perhaps unsurprisingly the album's two biggest hits), but if you were there at the time it's less like unearthing ancient artifacts and has a far more pleasant, nostalgically warm feel to it. The songs themselves are great though, and in particular "Mikan faijan BMW" has stood time incredibly: its wistfulness and pathos can get a bit heavy-handed, but Kela manages to make it scarily relatable and the highly sing-alongy chorus sounds like a classic already canonised in pop culture songbooks from the very first time it hits your ears and likely lodges into your head forever. "Puistossa" is like the little brother to "Mikan faijan BMW" in tone, style and tragedy, and its folk-meets-hip-hop stylings are the most dated in the album, but Kela manages to whip up hooks so strong it's really hard not to get captivated by it.

Huge debut albums are almost always a curse for their artists and Kela couldn't escape that either. He's continued to write catchy choruses and tell bittersweet stories of everyday people, but none of the subsequent albums have carried the same spark as Nummela. It's clearly an album that took a great deal of personal motivation to come out and once he had found a release for that emotional energy, his music took a turn towards your standard sort of singer/songwriter rocker material. Nummela is his apex point as a songwriter, a collection of nine incredibly catchy pop songs filtered through a greater desire that became such a strong concoction it took an entire country by storm.

Physically: Jewel case with a lyrics booklet, which as per the above review dedicates its centerfold to photos of Kela's father and grandfather as a tribute.


Release year: Rating: Key tracks:
2001 7 "A Friendly Dog in an Unfriendly World", "Everything Comes Back", "Walnut Kitten"

1) A Life in a Day; 2) A Friendly Dog in an Unfriendly World; 3) Let Your Money Work for You; 4) The Plot; 5) Under the Plasticsink; 6) Celebrity Bones; 7) Girl with Attitude; 8) I Like to Be Somebody Else; 9) The Nightbus; 10) Poor Living; 11) Under Bad Influence; 12) Guess My Name; 13) Flu; 14) Man Who Brought Light into Darkness; 15) Everything Comes Back; 16) The Shop Detective; 17) Das Feuilleton Groovt Mit; 18) The Unfriendly World; 19) Are You Happy; 20) The Happy Hour; 21) The Blind Passenger; 22) Daydream; 23) 2 Sides of a Coin; 24) Trouble Couple; 25) Hall of Fame of Selfexploitation; 26) San Antonio; 27) Playing on the Piano of New Media; 28) Don't Take Money from Anyone; 29) All Fucked Up; 30) The Long Goodbye; 31) Give Me a Platform; 32) Walnut Kitten; 33) Another Day in Another Life

A cartoon potpourri of quirky melodies and kitschy grooves, that could have perhaps benefited from a bit more of a focus.

I ended up with a copy of this album largely by happenstance when a friend of mine was doing some collection spring cleaning by way of shoving me a ton of their CDs they didn't have room for anymore, and in lieu of actual knowledge a quick Internet search tells me that Jim Avignon - aka Neoangin - is a German do-it-all artisté (with the signature hat to match the accent on the stress, based on various photos) who mashes up cartoons, painting, music and performance art into a concoction that seems to have given him some degree of fame in Germany. Which makes perfect sense, because A Friendly Dog in an Unfriendly World is precisely the kind of music you'd expect from that kind of an artist. >

The channel-hopping 33 songs and fifty minutes of A Friendly Dog in an Unfriendly World is a potpourri of kitschy sounds, MIDI production jobs and happy-go-lucky sing-along melodies, with a dash of lamentations on the weight of the modern world thrown in for good measure, sung with a heavy German accent. Avignon's world is a realm of bright colours, cardboard backdrops and cartoon animals, and Neoangin is his interpretation of pop music: the songs average on 1:30 to 2 minutes, most of them gleefully blur the borders between what's an interlude and what isn't, with blink-and-you-miss-it segues scattered liberally throughout. Avignon doesn't leave any room for subtlety or development - songs smack the listener right out of the gate with their most obvious, catchiest hooks and then either repeat it until they stick or until the next song suddenly appears. The lyrics try to aim for something deeper, with a prominent use of the traditional twist of introspective lyrics on top of deceptively upbeat music, but Avignon's bone-dry, barely-singing delivery makes them just as oddbeat as the musical backdrop; it's urban environment adulthood anxiety, if you happen to live in Toontown instead of New York. It's all very ridiculous, but also often genuinely charming or lovable.<

My problem with A Friendly Dog in an Unfriendly World is perhaps more to do with me than the album itself, and it's that as a music listener I have issues keeping my attention span focused with quickfire snippet albums such as this. It's too much information in too small of a span of time and while I do appreciate that the manic nature of the record does fit with its music, in practice the album becomes a singular formless blob of music that moves from one thing to another so quickly I can't fully register the songs as they breeze past. Which, perhaps arguably, may as well be the point but while the melodies ring familiar to me when they play, it's another thing for them to actually stick. The primary exceptions for this are near the start and the end, and to some extent that's simply because they're the first and last things you hear when the record is on, but there's an argument that the bookends of the record are its most developed songs. The title track in particular is the most perfect pop song Avignon presents across the entire extended medley of a record and it's a genuinely great little ditty that, even if only two minutes in length, sounds more fleshed out and finished than anything else on the record. "Walnut Kitten" on the other end sticks out because of its calmer and more graceful touch. There are a few moments throughout the album where its facade as a goofy cartoon jumble cracks and Avignon almost sheepishly creates something more serious (the central third in particular is rich in this vein), and the three-minute "Walnut Kitten" takes that to its logical conclusion right at the end and acts as the comedown for the fifty-odd minutes preceding it: the friendly dog kicking off his shoes and slumping in his lazy chair after another long day in the unfriendly world. It's a lovely instrumental which allows Avignon to showcase that he is actually a really good composer and arranger in a way that the rest of the album's quick flashes necessarily doesn't do justice to, and tonally it feels like the right way to end the record.

That isn't to say that the rest of the album lacks memorability - "Everything Comes Back" with its chill frolic vibe in particular comes to mind - just that it's harder to to grab onto the great parts in the chaotic jumble of interludes, segues and speedrunning melodies. As said before that's an "it's not you, it's me" situation, and the manic colourful rush through the album's running length does befit Avignon's aesthetic and the tone of the songs: at the same time, the handful of songs that sound like their own thing instead of just a segment of a wider whole make a convincing argument that Avignon could have made a stellar 30-40 minute album just by focusing on those (and maybe he has and I'm unaware of it). The rambliness of A Friendly Dog in an Unfriendly World is what ultimately makes it a thoroughly charming curio rather than an actually great record for me - an album that I appreciate in its aesthetic and vibe more than I actually adore musically. But that said, I don't often get to say this about albums with such cartoony cover art, but A Friendly Dog in an Unfriendly World sounds exactly like it looks - and that alone is something worth cherishing.

Physically: A jewel case within a cardboard slipcase, comes with a thick booklet featuring lyrics and tons of surreal artwork similar to the cover. It's a delight.


Release year: Rating: Key tracks:
2002 8 "Fight Test", "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, pt. 1", "Do You Realize??"

1) Fight Test; 2) One More Robot/Sympathy 3000-21; 3) Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, pt. 1; 4) Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, pt. 2; 5) In the Morning of the Magicians; 6) Ego Tripping at the Gates of Hell; 7) Are You a Hypnotist??; 8) It’s Summertime; 9) Do You Realize??; 10) All We Have Is Now; 11) Approaching Pavonis Mons by Balloon (Utopia Planitia)

Big ol' maximalist technicolour party about the frailty of life. Definitely among the 'safer' Flaming Lips albums, but it's honestly only good for the music involved.

As interesting as it is to observe their strange adventures, The Flaming Lips haven’t won me over. The stoned-out indie rock shenanigans of their early albums were rich in personality but listening to them comes with the same feeling that you get when a group of people in your company are laughing at an inside joke you don't know. Meanwhile, in their later years they seem to have take it upon themselves to be as weird as possible in a most self-consciously try-hard way possible. Their songs became 24 hours long and their release formats went from USB sticks inside gummi skulls to real skulls, but does anyone actually remember any of the music that was stored inside the gimmicks? In both cases, the music seems to play second fiddle to the aesthetics and not in a way strong enough to hit me.

But then there’s that curious phase in-between. The one where the band out of the blue reinvented themselves as a bizarre reimagining of a pop band, looking at the world in a whole different way than the rest of us yet who were capable to reach the heart of every single living soul - including my critical heart. The appearance of the now iconic animal costumes, zorb balls, confetti and space crafts. The music is both world-weary and out of this world, a celebration of life in all its uniqueness and expressing it through keyboard-heavy singalong melodies.

Despite its whimsical title and bright pink visuals, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots is a very melancholy album. It’s riddled with existential questions, often makes a note about how insignificant we are in this universe and it’s downright obsessed with mortality. Even something as innocuous as the (almost) title track about a girl fighting robots has layers of this if you go along with the story that it was inspired by a fan’s battle with cancer, with the robots representing the cancer cells the protagonist fights against and takes vitamins for; this is, in fact, further supported by the stage musical inspired by the album, which takes this angle and goes with it completely. Or take the inarguable centrepiece of the album, “Do You Realize??” - an anthem the size of a small galaxy about how you will one day pass away and the rest of the world will move on.

But it doesn’t sound like that, and that’s what makes the album special. When the song bursts in angelic choirs, it becomes the most beautiful thing in the world and makes a point to note that while you will depart eventually, the rest of this beautiful life won’t be going anywhere. It’s like the light at the end of the tunnel envelops everything and makes you realise just how precious it is. It’s both melancholy yet incredibly uplifting, soothing and awestruck. It’s a whopper of a song - one of the all-time greats, even - but it’s not the only one of its like on Yoshimi and that’s what really makes the album a little special. The magic of the music on Yoshimi lies in its sense of the fantastic, a never-dimming wonder of everything around. The big ambient waves, space-age synthesizer melodies, Wayne Coyne’s otherworldly yet soft singing and the constant harmonising behind his lead vocals come together to create a sounder larger than life, totally amazed by everything yet so concerned about how it will all end. To call the album melancholy, or even bittersweet, sells it short - it’s a beautiful, soothing album of wide-eyed wonder and bliss. And while “Do You Realize??” exemplifies that the best, that bliss and magic also extends over to the other songs – “Fight Test”, “In the Morning of the Magicians” and “Are You a Hypnotist” in particular immerse themselves in that same enchantment to often breath-taking results.

It’s a shame about the two instrumentals because without them, this would be a near-perfect record. “Approaching Pavonis Mons by Balloon” is fairly boring and closes the album with an ill-fittingly dull thud of an ending while “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots pt. 2” is a pointless mess of cacophonic screaming and crashing cymbals with no real value, which is generally ill-fitting to the album as a whole and sounds especially lacklustre compared to the excitingly quirky first part. Both of them commit the error of pulling the listener away from the surreal and lovely world the album weaves around itself, and when the album sells itself with the charm of that world any disturbances fall even more flat than they possibly should.

But that shouldn’t let you condemn the album too much. It is still a gorgeous listen, and a curious one at the same time: it’s one where the often tricky Flaming Lips abandoned their almost gimmick-like experimental/surrealist (call it however you like) tones and suddenly gained a sense of clarity. It’s almost like a religious awakening, suddenly finding yourself asking the big “why?” after years of wilderness and crazy benders. Only in The Flaming Lips’ case that clarity came in form of a bold pop album: existentialist for sure, but universal in its reach and intergalactic in its scope.

Physically: Standard jewel case with a small fold-out booklet, lyrics squeezed on one page and credits on another.


Release year: Rating: Key tracks:
2002 8 "First It Giveth", "Gonna Leave You", "God Is in the Radio"

1) You Think I Ain't Worth a Dollar, But I Feel Like a Millionaire; 2) No One Knows; 3) First It Giveth; 4) Song for the Dead; 5) The Sky Is Fallin'; 6) Six Shooter; 7) Hangin' Tree; 8) Go with the Flow; 9) Gonna Leave You; 10) Do It Again; 11) God Is in the Radio; 12) Another Love Song; 13) Song for the Deaf; 14) Mosquito Song; Bonus track: 15) Everybody's Gonna Be Happy

Brutish, muscular and with a wicked sense of fun. It may be the only QOTSA album I really like but they sure hit the nail on the head with it.

Bands with revolving memberships can be like slot machines: sometimes the line-up changes result in jackpots, and Songs for the Deaf is the 777 for Josh Homme's band of merry musicians. No other Queens of the Stone Age album has managed to hold my attention, yet here everything locks into place. Homme as the reliable core constant; Nick Oliveri as the chaos that lends the album a manic energy; Mark Lanegan’s gravely murmurs are the perfect fit for the record's desert-dry road trip; and perhaps most importantly, Dave Grohl presents the best case for why he belongs behind the drums rather than in front of Foo Fighters. I like the songs on Songs for the Deaf too, but remove or replace any of the core set of performers that bring those songs to life, and I don’t think they would work anywhere near as well. There’s a magical chemistry between the four main QOTSA squad members on this album, which makes Songs of the Deaf the muscular, brutish and entertainingly thrilling record that it is.

It's fun, too, and perhaps most of all. Songs for the Deaf sounds angry and aggressive with its heavy riffs and Grohl's thunder god drums - in my teen years this was one of my go-to grr mrr teen angst albums - but it's as playful with that harder edge as it is genuinely inclined to make a lot of noise. Songs for the Deaf presents itself as a very archetypical Guitar Rock Album by an archetypical Guitar Rock Band and there are parts of the record that are practically overwrought with generic bad-ass masculinity (the constant car thematics, the over the top capital-R Rock radio DJs, the edgelord sperm logo in the liner notes), and while it would be wrong to say that the album subverts any of that, it has fun with it. "No One Knows", "Gonna Leave You", "Another Love Song", heck even "Go With the Flow" could all have been whimsical pop songs in another life, such is their breeziness and jovial nature - which the band then push cover in their grit and muscle and splice them with a hint of something more sinister to spice things up. The edition I have features a cover of The Kinks' "Everybody's Gonna Be Happy" as a bonus track at the end, where the flower power rock-along gets the same sonical treatment as everything else on the record; that mixture is honestly much more indicative of the whole album than you'd think from a random bonus cover, and to some extent it makes it obvious what gear the band were actually operating on when coming up with the album.

Nonetheless, the best thing that Homme and his companions do across Songs for the Deaf is rock out loud and hard. “No One Knows” is the hit everyone knows but I can't say I've ever been too enamoured by it and I’d easily rank it as among the album’s weaker cuts, with that bare-bones stomp beat it mostly operates on largely cruising past what actually makes the album great. Compare it to e.g. its counterpart singles, the full-adrenaline highway cruising “Go With the Flow” and the twisting and swirling stadium anthem “First It Giveth” and you can tell what their more famous sibling lacks as they abundantly conjure a storm of energy and noise, in particular how Homme (and the countless guest guitarists across the album) makes his guitar scream and growl while Grohl operates on some unholy zeal behind the drum kit. The extended showmanship pieces - “Song for the Dead”, “Song for the Deaf” and “God Is in the Radio” - primarily exist to serve that musicianship, dedicating large sections of their running length to the jam-like interplay between musicians who have tuned onto the same mental channel and really tap into that mythical rock and roll magic that wimpy indie dweebs like me most of the time just don’t get to indulge in.

But above all, this is the album of immensely rewarding deep cuts where the album’s love for solid hooks gets to run the most unrestrained. “The Sky Is Fallin’” and “Hangin’ Tree” swirl with the darker undercurrents of the most isolate parts of the desert the driver of the album’s thematic cycle drives through, and they marry that aesthetic with some of hte album's most understated yet bewitching chorus hooks. The whole final stretch from “Go with the Flow” to “Another Love Song” is fierce pogoing fun, where big guitar textures meet bigger hooks and the impish smirk of the first half of the album moves to a wide open grin: for a rock album, this is incredibly backloaded and many of its best parts lie in its deepest areas. Though, it's not like the first half has anything to be embarrassed about and in particular “You Think I Ain’t Worth a Dollar…” is the perfect opener for what Songs for the Deaf turns out to be, as it literally sucker punches the album into the groove it stays on for its duration.

Following Songs for the Deaf Grohl returned to his own projects and Oliveri was kicked out of the band due to abuse allegations, and the Queens subsequently lost their spark. Or at least, that's what it felt like: the follow-up album Lullabies to Paralyze was an altogether murkier affair and while it gained critical favour from the fans, the casually interested me lost track. Songs for the Deaf became a curio in a record shelf, a one-off moment of attraction from a band who transforms with each release to the delight and disgruntlement of their fans. But even for the general consensus, Songs for the Deaf has found its place as an album clearly indicative of that imperial moment when a group of musicians go all-in with the intention of creating their magnum opus, and that ambition is rewarded as soon as the gas pedal goes down in the album's intro. It'd be easy to call this dumb rock fun - it's sort of how I treat it as these days whenever I'm in the mood for it - but it's so much smarter than it lets on in how it builds its songs and lays its hooks, and those brains guiding the guitar-heavy brawn of the record is what makes it work so well. Turn the volume up, kick back and enjoy the ride.

True story: I went to a religious summer camp when I was a teenager as kids my age in my country back in the day did out of habit/peer pressure from our parents. One of the girls in my school class who I had spoken about music before also attended, and she borrowed me this album for a listen during the camp. It does amuse me how the most tangible memory I hold from that camp is that exchange and how this Christian excursion lead me to discover this album of all things.

Physically: Jewel case with a fold-out poster, with credits and a close up photo of a car front seat view - just to underline how the record is meant to sound like listening to the radio during a road trip through a vast desert. No lyrics.


Release year: Rating: Key tracks:
2003 8 "Quicksand", "Love Will Come Through", "Mid-Life Krysis"

1) Quicksand; 2) The Beautiful Occupation; 3) Re-Offender; 4) Peace the Fuck Out; 5) How Many Hearts; 6) Paperclips; 7) Somewhere Else; 8) Love Will Come Through; 9) Mid-Life Krysis; 10) Happy to Hang Around; 11) Walking Down the Hill; 12) Some Sad Song [hidden track]

Happy-go-lucky troubadours run out of luck, get less happy. The most inwards-looking Travis ever got, and they got my full attention at last.

Travis - the harmlessly inconspicuous, squeaky clean, la-de-da sing-along guys mostly known for earworm fluff like “Why Does It Always Rain on Me” - aren’t the sort of act you’d ever expect to be moody, but the borderline self-consciously dour, gray-tone cover of 12 Memories speaks for itself. This should have been a victory lap for Travis, given the worldwide success of the preceding album The Invisible Band, but then everything hit. The post-9/11 years were a mess of global anxiety, the UK was dragged into a war no one wanted to partake in and on a more personal level, Travis themselves almost reached their end when drummer Neil Primrose nearly died in an accident, suffering significant injuries instead. 12 Memories was born out of a tumultuous period where things started getting a little too heavy to handle and no one really wanted to make another upbeat pop album. Instead, the sessions started producing catchy tunes about civilian war casualties, violence and general downbeat introspection.

Travis can’t escape themselves - there’s still plenty of hummable melodies and catchy choruses - but they couldn’t be any different from their usual selves. It’s most clearly audible in the album’s tone, dominated by a constant sense melancholy and frequent moments of quietly bubbling frustration breaking through. When the results are more familiarly Travis-like, there’s still a twist there: “Quicksand” and “Somewhere Else” are punctuated by their pessimism and ache respectively, “Re-Offender” could have probably slotted neatly within the past albums if it wasn’t for its depiction of domestic abuse and “Love Will Come Through” is a Travis love song as sung by someone who knows they’re lying through their teeth just to keep a semblance of hope around. “Paperclips” - a simple acoustic-based song - is a bleak dark night of the soul and completely devoid of any light, and it’s actually effective. It also makes it clear that Fran Healy’s voice can in fact be a very effective thing - his soft-spokenly frail tone finds its natural habitat in a moodier context.

But while 12 Memories is largely characterised by its mood, what makes it at times downright exciting is the band’s decision to move somewhere different sonically while they’re at it hacking away their past reputation: it is - by Travis’ standards - an adventurous album. Who would have thought you’d hear something as abruptly violent as the guitar breaks on “How Many Hearts” on a Travis album? Later on “Mid-Life Krysis” backs its verses with a constant drone that gives it an unsettling tension, “Happy to Hang Around” is freezing cold much thanks to its sharply mixed drums and other sudden production tweaks that make it sound ever so disjointed, and at the very end the band move their instruments to the background and layer the restlessly dreamy “Walking Down the Hill” with a near-electronic soundscape that takes it into a world of its own. Travis explore new sounds and elements throughout the album’s length and not only does it keep the listener on his toes, but through doing so they manage to beat away one of my personal complaints of Travis’ catalogue, i.e. that they’ve rarely offered anything new to the table.

So when a band who is perfectly able to knockout a dang good tune but suffers from frequent stagnation ends up making an album where they very decidedly avoid repeating themselves, you get to the juicy center part of the Venn diagram. Besides a couple of slightly lesser tunes (”Peace the Fuck Out” wastes a great bridge to an otherwise passable ditty where the most embarrassingly memorable thing is the awkward swearing, and “How Many Hearts” only ever comes alive when the guitar walls come crashing), 12 Memories combines Travis’ best melodic elements with really neat arrangements and a tangible emotional weight that does its own great job carrying the album. It’s especially apparent after the halfway point, because starting from “Somewhere Else” the album really transforms from a nice excursion to actually great. “Love Will Come Through” and “Mid-Life Krysis” are the album’s absolute highlights, “Walking Down the Hill” never stops being mesmerising in its passive brooding and even the hidden track “Some Sad Song” is a secret success - its solo piano melancholy is a perfect full stop at the end of the tracklist. The awkward notion that a serious tone indicates good music is obviously hanging about, but whether it was because the context drove the band this way or they were heading towards a change anyway after reaching one apex point, it’s undeniable how inspired 12 Memories sounds at its best. If Travis’ main issue always was how intangible they could be with their happy-go-lucky dittiness (to the point that titling one of their albums The Invisible Band is almost ironic) then here’s both the emotional resonance and the consistently good songs that break through that.

This seems to be the album that tends to get brushed off when Travis fans discuss the band, but for the same reasons it’s the record that those who’ve never been that bothered by the Scottish quartet might find worth their time. To compare this with another Britpop group: what 13 was to Blur, this is to Travis.

Physically: Jewel case with a lyrics booklet.


Release year: Rating: Key tracks:
2004 9 "Laura", "Comfortably Numb", "It Can't Come Quickly Enough"

1) Laura; 2) Take Your Mama; 3) Comfortably Numb; 4) Mary; 5) Lovers in the Backseat; 6) Tits on the Radio; 7) Filthy/Gorgeous; 8) Music Is the Victim; 9) Better Luck; 10) It Can’t Come Quickly Enough; 11) Return to Oz

Bold, outrageous and cunningly catchy - a whole lot of expert songwriting beneath the colourful exterior fuels one of the decade's most outstanding debuts.

The debut albums that tend to become cherished classics tend to have one or two things in common: they either break genre boundaries in a revolutionary fashion and/or they’re fueled by an almost arrogant ambition and passion. Scissor Sisters’ self-titled album belongs to the latter category. Like many great debuts it sounds like it’s on a mission to prove the world that there is a great hole in the music map and this band is there to fill it - that they’re needed to exist. Then they go out their way to prove this with youthful energy, a confident attitude and a certain level of audacity, sporting a belief that they can do no wrong. It’s no wonder that Scissor Sisters’ first album became huge - it sounds like that was the only choice that could ever possibly exist.

Talking about the Scissor Sisters in the present day tends to be a bit of a disappointing affair. Ignoring the fact that they’re effectively a pop act and one from an era before it suddenly became cool for hip music geeks to like pop music, they’re one of those acts who bear the downside of releasing a brilliant debut album: the feeling that all their inspiration was spent on that one initial explosion and ever since they’ve been left wondering what to do. The band’s career since has become a series of diminishing returns, difficult recording sessions, long periods of absence, underwhelming singles and lead singles that feel like they’re pandering towards the charts and which bear no similarity whatsoever to their parent albums. When the group announced in late 2012 that they were going on an undetermined hiatus, it was hardly a shock surprise announcement. They’re likely going to be delegated to footnote mentions in the greater annals of music history eventually - unfortunately - but there was a reason why for a while they did feel like a genuine event. And that’s the first album.

During the time their flame burned the brightest, the Scissor Sisters managed to create the perfect combination of songwriting and attitude, a package of incredible hooks fueled by world-conquering audacity. The audacity is arguably the most prominently visible: nevermind the salacious lyrics all over the record, the album’s most (in)famous moment is the cover of “Comfortably Numb”, a prog rock sacred cow ballad turned into a throbbing disco stomper seemingly aimed more to outrage classic rock fans than to pay tribute. But it also showcases the brilliance and the reason why the self-titled is so great: that this isn’t just a dull thump-thump take on a song done (solely) for the sake of attention. The production is cold and gloomy and despite the disco falsetto, the vocals are detached and melancholy. Its guise may be that of dancefloor filler, but the sound of the song and the way it has been realised bring it closer to melancholy original: the warm introspection has simply been switched into emotionless void of uncertainty. Our feet may tell that it’s something to dance to but it’s hard to really imagine the highlight of the party would be something this paranoid. And yet, it sounds playful - despite its gloomy underlinings, the Sisters know perfectly that they’re treading on sacred grounds and they find their fun from it, delivering the discotheque melancholia with their tongues firmly in their cheeks.

This delicate balance between fun and serious is the heart of the album. There is constant interplay of light and dark on the album, with both often making their presence know immediately after one-another. Make no mistake, it is a very extroverted album, filled with loud sounds and raucous energy, but time and time again it flips the coin on its other side and presents a different take on the band - one that goes into more personal depths and bares its soul on display. This fleshes out the band themselves, not only by offering variety but by underlining that underneath all the silly names (Ana Matronic, Babydaddy, etc) and fierce attitude there’s a group of people pouring their everything, their heart and soul, into this music.Tributes to lost and dead friends are scattered next to life-affirming optimism, the spectrum of life distilled into pop songs.

The big singles are still great, definitely - “Take Your Mama” and in particular “Filthy/Gorgeous” sound even better than ever now that they no longer play everywhere in the most inappropriate contexts, allowing the listener to re-evaluate them once more as the genuinely great tunes that they are (and in particular the brilliantly chaotic and busy production of “Filthy/Gorgeous” was completely lost in the background of whatever TV show that used it on any given moment years ago). But it’s the oft-unspoken album tracks that really show just how brilliant Scissor Sisters were at crafting songs in the mid-00s and why the debut is so great. In particular “It Can’t Come Quickly Enough”, hidden right near the end of the album, is the criminally unrecognised masterpiece moment of the album and arguably its grandest hour overall: a dramatic and dark half-ballad half-anthem that feels incredibly desolate and lonely as a complete opposite to how grand and stadium-filling it sounds, hitting those sweet evocative spots with killer accuracy. “Better Luck”, “Lovers in the Backseat” and the oft-forgotten debut single “Laura” are model examples of how to craft a perfect pop melody and if there’s one ‘outrageous’ moment I would have wanted the world adopt from this album, it’s the sexily bass-driven and deliciously attitude-sweating “Tits on the Radio”. The frequent nods towards popular music of yore brought to modern day add to the magic (the 80s-isms of “Better Luck”, the 70s singer/songwriter vibe of “Take Your Mama”, “Mary” being a loving tribute to every classic power ballad written, etc). The band’s stellar performance brings forth the final special touch. In particular Jake Shears’ performance here, both vocally and sometimes even lyrically, really brings to mind how he’s probably one of the best frontmen of his generation, even if just for one album.

When the S/T got big back in its day, it felt like one of those moments where the mainstream market got it, that a band who deserved success actually reached it: even back then I was positively surprised when something I really loved suddenly became big everywhere (insert your favourite token “I liked it before it was cool” phrase here). A decade+ later when the band’s public presence is at its minimum, listening to the debut now just confirms that it wasn’t your usual kind of trend-following pedestal-raising that happens time to time in public media to fairly unexciting acts. The material holds up excellently and in fact sounds completely fresh, and the album still feels like a gem that should be mentioned alongside the usual subjects in any sort of 00s retrospectives. It’s a brilliantly realised pop album that sounds like people poured their hard-worked sweat, tears and blood over it to make it the best damn thing they’d ever do. Sadly it turned out that’s just what they did but focusing on the downsides takes away from enjoying the positives and ultimately dampens the mood during the celebration. And despite its serious heart, that’s exactly what the Scissor Sisters debut feels like - a celebration of a band in their prime, their creative vein and their desire to be on top of the world.

Physically: Jewel case, a glossy fold-out booklet with lyrics etc.


Release year: Rating: Key tracks:
2004 8 "It Hasn't Happened Yet", "That's Me Trying", "Real"

1) Common People; 2) It Hasn’t Happened Yet; 3) You’ll Have Time; 4) That’s Me Trying; 5) What Have You Done; 6) Together; 7) Familiar Love; 8) Ideal Woman; 9) Has Been; 10) I Can’t Get Behind That; 11) Real

With the help of Ben Folds and friends, the former space captain returns down to earth and shows a warm and genuine side usually buried behind his act. A more meaningful record than you’d think.

A real William Shatner historian could help to fill in the gaps on the man, the myth and the legend and how we got from Star Trek to recording an album with Ben Folds in the mid-aughts, but here's what we common men know. One, whilst not a musician Shatner has been able to add "iconic music star" into his CV thanks to his cult-favourite late-sixties spoken word album and later quirks like the famous "Rocket Man" performance. Two, Shatner had struck a friendship with Folds in the late 90s following Folds securing a guest feature from him for his Fear of Pop project. Three, by the 2000s Shatner had started to openly embrace William Shatner the Character: the hammy, perpetually scenery-chewing Hollywood weirdo whose real fame was in the past and who was now mostly known for increasingly strange guest spots, each building up the reputation of the act. And finally, four - when Folds and Shatner seized the opportunity to write an album together, both men had too much respect for one another to devote an album for that character.

That's what catches people by surprise when others mention Has Been as a genuine recommendation. It's not a comedy album starring a cheesy, hammy actor making fun of his own status; Shatner does ham it up and there is some cheese to it, but only to the extent that naturally occurs with Shatner anyway, he never goes out of his way to emphasise either area here. All but three of the lyrics are written by Shatner himself and take form of various spoken word and poetry pieces ruminating on life, legacy, loved ones and age - just as often funny as it can be surprisingly somber and thoughtful. Has Been has heart, and it feels like Shatner took the rare opportunity to genuinely be himself for once.

A lot of the strength of Has Been is down to Shatner, who’s genuinely a great performer even if it gets hidden away by his act, and in particular he knows how to deliver a line - to absorb the meaning of a lyric or a verse and then read it out in the most pitch-perfectly effective way to push that meaning through. Has Been isn’t a serious album but it’s grounded enough into reality that Shatner gets the room to take his craft seriously, whether it’s a punch-line filled rant about modern day pet peeves, enthusiastically declaring his love for those close to him or solemnly narrating his experience of discovering his wife drowned in a pool. Shatner and Folds mention in the liner notes that the idea was to give Shatner a way to say things he had rarely been able to speak out loud, and Shatner takes the opportunity to be frank about his experiences, and to approach making an album seriously rather as an extension of his past dabbling in the art form. Sometimes he wants to make you reflect on his words, other times to raise a smile on your face, but the one constant is that Shatner narrates it in the absolutely best way: from the way he stresses syllables to how he runs past some lines and spends a long while in another, he’s a tried and true storyteller. Now he’s telling stories that star him, rather than a character he plays.

It wouldn’t work as well as it does without a solid musical backing, and for that we have to thank Folds as the executive producer. Has Been is all over the place but brought together by Folds’ guiding hand, so the easy listening mid-tempos, tender ballads, hints of gospel and country, blazing rock ‘n’ roll and others all play along well. Folds brings in a veritable amount of guest stars to the studio (Aimee Mann, Brad Paisley, Matt Chamberlain, Joe Jackson, Lemon Jelly...) but no one is there to hog the spotlight from Shatner. The talent of the backing crew means that Has Been is great as a musical artifact as well. The contemplative mid-tempos suit the more po-faced Shatner the best and they’re frontloaded to the album as if to prove a point (“It Hasn’t Happened Yet”, “That’s Me Trying”) and they’re wonderful, touching pieces. The various little style experiments have a fairly universal success rate, in particular the love-lorn doo wop of "Familiar Love". “Together” is a mild sonically whiplash as it takes Shatner on a tour of mid-00s indietronica, all acoustic guitars and skittering beats, but it provides a meditative background for one of the more blissful lyrics of the album. I also love the sudden cowboy twang towards the end of the album, with the comical and ludicrously catchy title track (with an absolutely perfect intonation in Shatner’s voice on the song’s closing lyric that completely flips the mood), and the Paisley-written torchlight anthem “Real” which ends up being the album’s real theme from a lyrical perspective.

There is also, inexplicably, a cover of Pulp’s “Common People”, which has no relation to the rest of the album, isn’t explained in the liner notes and feels like a bait-and-switch hook, given it has no real connection to the rest of the album’s themes. I don’t know if it’s because Shatner really wanted to cover it, they thought they needed a catchy familiar single, if it was Folds’ whim or what, but if it didn’t cold open the album it’d stick out more than it does now. And I feel like I’m being too harsh on it by questioning its existence because it’s actually a really good cover. The party-thrashing rock-riffing form somewhat undermines the original song’s meaning but by the time it rolls onto the rant section, Shatner’s intonation at least makes it clear he gets the song - and as a sucker for big backing vocals, the inclusion of a recorded concert audience providing an impromptu choir for Shatner and duet partner Joe Jackson gets my points regardless. I’ve seen people pass on the album simply because of the cover, because to them it implies the full album is Shatner riffing on popular hits in his post-ironic fashion, so it does a bad job of selling the album as its most popular cut from it - but I still admit to really rather enjoying it regardless.

If there’s one other thing to account for the actual quality of this, it’s the fact that I don’t actually really care about Shatner in the first place. I enjoy Star Trek to an extent but have no strong feelings about the original run, and as a non-American I feel like I’ve missed out on a lot of the pop culture fascination that follows him simply due to lack of exposure. It doesn’t matter with Has Been because of how well it has been executed from a pure songwriting and production perspective, and to its credit it's done more to help me understand why people hold Shatner to some reputation than so much of other media. It’s Shatner’s gravitas and personality, channeled through his powerful performance, which rises above alll regardless - in a world full of celebrity vanity musical projects, this stands out as something that could only ever have come from him and has a reason to exist. For a man who’s most famous for being the captain of a spaceship, Has Been is one of the most down to earth and human records in my collection.

Physically: Jewel case, lyrics booklet with brief introductions from both Shatner and Folds explaining the record.


Release year: Rating: Key tracks:
2005 6 "Return of the Ninja Droids", "Granny Hunt", "Salsa Kong"

1) Return of the Ninja Droids; 2) Breakout Button (feat. Aleksi Eeben); 3) Granny Hunt (feat. Eläkeläiset); 4) She-Creatures of the Dry Sea (feat. Custom Drummer); 5) Red Dwarf (2005 Remix); 6) Turbo; 7) Hot Rod Garage; 8) Salsa Kong (Monkey Mix); 9) Cherokees (Red Dog Remix); 10) Slurp!; 11) Four Snowmen; 12) Interstellar Agent

Charming and catchy bleep-bloops, even if not completely consistent.

Everything about Mario Built My Hot Rod is wonderful conceptually. Desert Planet are two guys from Finland in budget space suits who create chiptune music, with each song being a theme tune from an imaginary game. How is that not a cool concept? The CD even has multimedia section with a small game built around one of the featured songs! A+ for effort.

The problem I have with chiptune music is that as much as there’s a part of my brain that loves it (which has nothing to do with gaming nostalgia and everything to do with the sounds themselves), it’s a genre that struggles to support itself in large chunks. In capable hands the bleeps and bloops are wonderfully evocative tools for crafting melodies but because the sound library is so limited, those melodies have to be damn strong to find new frontiers. It’s extremely rare to find a musician who can actually support the sound for an extended period of time and the vast majority of chiptune releases consist of a few kickass tunes and a lot of indistinguishable filler. There’s a reason why people mainly remember particular themes from that era of gaming, not full soundtracks.

Mario Built My Hot Rod doesn’t escape this either. When it’s good, it’s really good. “Cherokees” is a triumphant, energy-pumping blast, the brilliant synth horns of “Salsa Kong” are married to an infectious hook and “She-Creatures of the Dry Sea” has an atmospheric vibe that resonates with the evoked ambiance of so many video game desert levels. “Granny Hunt” is a particularly interesting one, not just for being a good song but featuring guest vocals (well, chants) from the irony-oompah group Eläkeläiset and as a result it almost breaks the genre’s conventions, nearly stretching out into the world of general electro-pop that suggests Desert Planet could be capable for a lot more than they let on. You can sort of say the same for “Return of the Ninja Droids” which, thanks to its structure and general flow, sounds like a chiptune remix of a rock song. In-between, everything blends together to a mass of retro sounds that range from plain wallpaper-esque to even slightly irritating. When “Interstellar Agent” abruptly ends and suddenly finishes the whole album, there’s a borderline sense of slight relief – which is awkward considering the runtime of the album is only around 40 minutes.

Like pretty much every chiptune album, this too would have been better as an EP rather than trying to fit it into the album mould - especially so when you consider that half the tracks are remixes or can be found on previous releases, so it’s not like the creative juices were overflowing. At 5-6 tracks this would have been a brief but amazing blast of great retro bops, now it overstays its welcome and rarely invites you to pick it up from the shelf. That said, when Desert Planet are on form they are very good composers.

Physically: Digipak, no booklet. As alluded to in the main review there's a multimedia section on the CD when you insert it in your PC's disc drive, with a tiny little game to accompany one of the songs and it also features a bunch of the duo’s music videos, including the one for “Lost Galaxians”: the best song Desert Planet have released and a key reason why the duo got my attention in the first place.

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