Sparks – This Album’s Big Enough… The Best Of

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A near-definitive Sparks compilation at last, with the early glam-opera hits (like the truly thrilling “Amateur Hour”) striding hand-in-hand with the Giorgio Moroder techno try-outs (the boiling “Beat The Clock”). Still madder than a helicopter full of marmalade (witness berserk new album Li’l Beethoven), Ron and Russ Mael were striking ’70s subversives (“Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth”) and effervescent ’80s visionaries (“Dance Godammit”). “Dada art-pop noir”, in fact, as Paul Lester’s sleevenotes surmise. Ahead of their time, then as now.

David Bowie – Best Of Bowie

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Well, it doesn’t get much better. When Judgement Day comes, most of you will rescue a Beatles album from the flames, but a healthy percentage of us will shove this in our pockets. Worn out that Changesbowie and The Singles Collection? This double gathers 39 steps to greatness: all the kinky glam (“Drive-In Saturday”: perfection? Discuss) and Berlin angst hits, plus the ’80s floor-fillers. It rushes through recent times, ignoring Hours… but perversely finding room for “Hallo Spaceboy”.

You don’t need me to spell genius for you, though you may need me to spout on about how sharply inventive “Blue Jean” is. Overall, not too shabby.

Carpenters – The Essential Collection 1965-97

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Richard Carpenter is one of the few composers/arrangers to understand properly, and develop, the innovations of Brian Wilson, and in his sister Karen he had the perfect voice to articulate his concept. The first two of these four CDs (covering 1965-73) are divine, faultless; Karen’s voice is apostolic in its compassion (“Superstar”) and stark in its vulnerability (“Goodbye To Love”). Sadly, from 1974 onwards their work was largely by-the-book MOR; but the real revelation here is the astonishing invention and sophistication of their early work: songs like “All I Can Do” and “Eve” are utopian and ethereal in their arrangements.

David Thomas – Monster

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As deadpan existential clowns in American post-punk go, Pere Ubu’s David Thomas was always more difficult, more abstract, but in many ways more rewarding than his skinnier counterpart David Byrne.

His ’80s albums, recorded with Richard Thompson and former members of Henry Cow as well as analogue synth genius Allen Ravenstine, skirt the edges of rock and performance art, a disorienting mosaic of old rhymes, shanties, traditional forms and avant garde which excite a nameless, quivering sense of fascination and dread.

His recent work with Two Pale Boys, included here, is among his very best.

Dreams Never End

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Conceived in the shadow of tragedy 22 years ago, New Order forged a new kind of soul music from the ashes of Joy Division. Working-class and irony-free, their savage humour straining to contain a burst dam of raw emotion, they burned with elemental passion without ever appearing to give a fuck. They were irreverent. They were inconsolable.

New Order annexed a new branch on pop’s family tree, defiantly shunning both American blues-based rock’n’roll ‘authenticity’ and the folk-tinged, music-hall heritage of post-Beatles Britain.

Avant-garde, progressive, they carried post-punk alienation to the top of the charts and chemical euphoria to the football terraces. They applied heroic punk amateurism to pristine disco dynamics, finding new melodic uses for Peter Hook’s highwire basslines, and deep wells of emotion in Stephen Morris’ and Gillian Gilbert’s primitive electronics. They also rocked like bastards.

Compiled by journalist and author Miranda Sawyer, the introductory disc in the Retro quartet, “Pop”, is essentially a greatest hits, sketching New Order’s drivetime surface story from “Ceremony” and “Confusion” to “Crystal” and “Brutal”. Nobody would argue with ’80s peaks like the devotional disco of “Bizarre Love Triangle” and “Perfect Kiss”, nor the sublime desolation of “Regret”, scientifically provable as the finest British single ever recorded.

The inclusion of such epochal 45s as “Blue Monday” and “True Faith” can hardly be faulted, either. Even though some of us New Order bores would have lobbied for the more underrated “Run”, “World”, and the achingly lovely original of “1963”, the one on the B-side of “True Faith”, over Arthur Baker’s muted 1995 remix.

More engaging for diehards and converts alike is the second disc, “Fan”. Compiled by former Face reporter and DJ John McCready, it cherry-picks album tracks, B-sides and rarities from New Order’s back pages. Here is a shattered quartet feeling its way from despair to disco, absorbing and abusing technology with fertile recklessness, and road-testing a decade’s worth of designer drugs along the way.

Fashioned from the last lyrics of Joy Division vocalist Ian Curtis, “In A Lonely Place” is funereal and monumental, a snow-covered Soviet war grave produced by the legendary Factory producer Martin Hannett (it was originally the B-side to New Order’s debut single, “Ceremony”). The glacial symphonic glide of “Your Silent Face” was initially christened “KW1”, in homage to Kraftwerk, although Dusseldorf’s techno godfathers bury their emotions in music whereas Bernard Sumner seems to expose every raw nerve.

From “Let’s Go” (an instrumental from the soundtrack to 1988’s Salvation, given words and extra propulsion back in 1995) to “Cries And Whispers” (taken off 1981’s “Everything’s Gone Green” 12-inch), the singer plays the eternally bruised victim of a million betrayals. Which is all very well, but where’s “Thieves Like Us”? (Bizarrely, its B-side, “Lonesome Tonight”, IS on “Fan”).

The rhythms got sleeker and tougher, although even as early as the Hooky-sung “Dreams Never End” (from their debut album Movement) New Order were using traditional instruments to approximate the sequenced throb of primitive electro (even if Curtis had lived, Joy Division might have ‘gone dance’ anyway?he was getting into Giorgio Moroder before his death). Unsung second single “Procession” relocated Studio 54 to east Berlin, while “Sooner Than You Think” yanked a magnificent hi-NRG hangover from a drunken bust-up with roadies in Ramsgate. Who says romance is dead? Meanwhile, New Order built Britain’s first superclub years ahead of schedule, and almost went bankrupt waiting for acid house to catch up with them.

Of course, rave culture finally repaid New Order with elder statesman kudos and chart-topping singles. And yet, ironically, they have rarely been well served by remixers. The diluted purity has generally proved their first instincts to be right, reversing the alchemy of their studio blueprints. That said, Mike Pickering’s remix anthology, “Club”, the third CD here, is ripe with parallel pop narratives, although tellingly it includes the faultless original versions of Valhalla-bound disco-metal projectile “Touched By The Hand Of God” and the psychedelic electro of “Everything’s Gone Green”. They should be on “Pop”, of course, but who’s complaining?

Some mixes feel stranded in time, like Shep Pettibone’s extended “Bizarre Love Triangle” and John Robie’s cluttered “Shellshock”, all rigid ’80s superstructure and boxy bonus beats. Chicago house godfather Steve “Silk” Hurley fashions a safe but palatable disco-party-megamix of “Fine Time”, but it is often the radical digressions which complement New Order’s inherent sense of fuck-off irreverence: Jam & Spoon’s ticklish happy-hardcore trance-lation of “Blue Monday”, for example, or Sabres Of Paradise’s plaintive dubtronic reconstruction of “Regret”.

Primal Scream’s Bobby Gillespie initially culled the live disc, the fourth and final part of Retro?titled, with dour Mancunian logic, “Live”?from ancient history, necessitating a last-minute intervention by the band themselves. Perhaps Gillespie believes true soul and magic lurk only in runic relics, but New Order disprove such glib mythologising. Having personally witnessed many of the later shows extracted here, it is clear that their electric anti-charisma remains erratic but undimmed. “In A Lonely Place” is the earliest recording, snatched from New Order’s notorious Glastonbury debut in 1981, where Sumner drank himself horizontal. The clenched-teeth versions of “Regret” and “As It Is When It Was” from their poignant Reading Festival set in 1993, when the band despised each other and seemed unlikely ever to share a stage again, are full-bodied and charged with drama.

Purists and trend-surfers will tell you New Order are a spent force in 2002 after last year’s commercially successful but musically conservative return to guitar rock, Get Ready. But the tracks on Retro from their 1986 album Brotherhood, which married acoustic textures to sequencers, show a clear continuity at work. And Billy Corgan’s exquisitely woozy duet with Bernard on “Turn My Way” from last year’s Liverpool comeback, the first New Order show in 20 years without Gilbert, now sounds less like the end of an era than the start of a fresh chapter.

Indeed, everything on this four-disc retrospective sounds fresher and more innovative than the current crop of transient twentysomething guitar-torchers with their piffling pastiches of older men’s glory. They might not acknowledge it, but their musical legacy is beyond reach: untouchable, unimpeachable, immortal.

Dancing In The Dark

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Fate decided it should be the sound of The Eagles which travelled around the world and defined the popular clich

Various Artists – Elec-Trax

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With hindsight, the synthesizer has sins aplenty to atone for, but as the ’80s dawned it was embraced as the future of all things shiny and cool. Young men with shocking haircuts stood behind it, swearing allegiance to Aryan aesthetics and red leather blousons. Among these: Spandau cutting long stories short, Gary Numan and Ultravox. Soft Cell’s “Torch” remembered to incorporate emotion; Japan’s “Quiet Life” raised the bar, nudged the sublime. Cred-again (who’d have thought?) Tears For Fears warned us it was a mad world. From the mouths of knob-twiddlers…

Isaac Hayes – Groove-A-Thon

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Told often enough that his sex-tastic rhythms and lavish strings had inspired this new-fangled “disco” thang, a confused Hayes hurled his gleaming frame into that movement with this overlooked ’76 opus, which is nothing if not accurately titled. Written and recorded in eight sleepless days (in tandem with instrumental LP Disco Connection), a financially-motivated Hayes doesn’t scale his own peaks here, but his so-so funk shudders are mightier than the meatiest of most. And the ballads?”Wish You Were Here”, “Make A Little Love”?burn.

Lonnie Donegan – Rock Island Line: The Singles Anthology

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Lonnie Donegan was Britain’s first home-grown, guitar-wielding, charismatic pop star. Exploding out of our toothless jazz scene, he fused blues, country, gospel and nascent US rock’n’roll to create skiffle, the first uniquely English rock style. This three-CD set pulls together all of his A-and B-sides from ’55 to ’67, and includes over 30 hits. Scheduled long before his death in November 2002, this collection should serve to establish Donegan as one of the cornerstones of early English rock.

10cc

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SHEET MUSIC

Rating Star
REPERTOIRE

Satirical humour in music often dates, but not in the case of 10cc. The secret lies in the care with which their surreal squibs were assembled. Although the individual elements of their songs were often derivative (frequently deliberately), the way they were designed and performed displayed a classic pop sensibility allied to a continuous inventiveness.

10cc, their debut album from 1973, had modest ambitions but remains a winner, while its follow-up, Sheet Music (1974), shows the beginnings of their mature style: witty, quickfire, literate music-making.

Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band – Live—1975-85

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With Springsteen currently enjoying a dramatic reinvention, it’s not a bad time to reassess this iron-pumping 1986 live set. Released in the aftermath of Born In The USA, it drew disproportionately from Springsteen’s then-recent stadium concerts, while offering exasperating glimpses of what a great historical document it could have been.

Disc One opens with a gorgeous version of “Thunder Road”?just voice, piano and glockenspiel?recorded at The Roxy in 1975. But that’s the only track from those shows, and though there’s a chunk of material from ’78-’81, the collection is slanted too much towards Rambo Bruce to be a convincing reflection of the shape of his career. Plenty of good stuff, even so.

Chairmen Of The Board – Finder’s Keepers: The Invictus Anthology

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Thankfully shorn of all cabaret cover versions, herein is everything interesting Chairmen Of The Board ever did. Delve beyond the superior post-Motown pop of their early hits and you’ll find unexpected adventures like their 1972 Bittersweet album (here represented practically in full) which ranges from swamp rock via tormented gospel to psychedelic soul meets Broadway.

Better still, and in its entirety, there’s 1974’s proto-P Funk avant-masterpiece Skin I’m In (with several of Clinton’s men on board), with its demented climactic suite built around Sly’s “Life And Death”. Stylistically chaotic but brilliant.

Fleetwood Mac – The Very Best Of…

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This differs from previous post-’75 Fleetwood Mac compilations in that it pays only lip service to the Peter Green era (just three tracks). But the barely suppressed grief evident in “Man Of The World” demonstrably belongs to a different band than the one which produced the exquisite neurosis of “Rhiannon” and “Go Your Own Way.”

Again we are reminded of Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks’ domination of latterday Mac; Nicks losing herself in her own aqueous fantasies (“Sara”, “Gypsy”), Buckingham becoming ever more subtly adventurous in his production, such as the bizarre “Tusk” and the post-ZTT touches on the tracks from 1987’s Tango In The Night.

Pop Will Eat Itself – Pwei Product: Pop Will Eat Itself Anthology 86-94

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Erstwhile ‘greboes’ Pop Will Eat Itself grasped the burgeoning hegemony of hip hop quicker than most guitar bands. Initially a scratchy C-86-type outfit, with the John Peel-banned “Beaver Patrol” in 1987 they remodelled themselves as a Black Country Beastie Boys. But for all their endearing self-deprecation and energy, PWEI’s sample-rock more often lacked conviction and finesse. “Def.Con.One” was a lasting indiedisco hit, but now their cyber gimmickry and wonky raps have dated enormously.

Solid Gold Easy Action

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Ryan Adams/Jesse Malin

Royal Festival Hall, London

MONDAY NOVEMBER 11 2002

Not since H

Dan Bern – The Borderline, London

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There’s something satisfyingly appropriate in the fact that Dan Bern should choose to live in a town called Truth Or Consequences. Appropriate partly because a small New Mexico town is just where you expect a restless troubadour such as Bern to temporarily station themselves, but mostly because you’d be hard-pressed to come up with a better distillation of Dan Bern’s lyrical preoccupations than to say he is interested in truth or its consequences.

His most recent album?New American Language?is among the year’s finest, and this gig at a sweaty Saturday-night Borderline was his third London appearance of the year. He lopes onto stage in cut-off shirt and combat trousers with his guitar slung low like a six-string Kalashnikov. An almost indecently prolific songwriter, Bern’s songs fall into one of two categories: thought-provoking intelligent ones, and rambling flights of comedic imagination?although sometimes, of course, the most thoughtful songs turn out to be the funniest.

In his deployment of acoustic guitar and harmonica, in his marshalling of intelligence and wit and in his nasal delivery, comparisons with Dylan are inevitable and justified. And yet Bern arguably owes as much to Lenny Bruce as he does to Hibbing’s finest. He has the predatory stage presence of the hungry stand-up searching the audience for the next laugh; when he sings he gnaws at the mic like a dog attacking a hunk of meat. His lyrics, too, seem sometimes to be more comic monologues than actual songs. On “Jerusalem”, he imagines how the world would react if he revealed himself as the Messiah, and on a raucous “Marilyn” he flirts with how different Monroe’s life would have been had she married Henry Miller and not Arthur Miller.

The new LP was well represented; highlights included an incendiary “Black Tornado” and a haunting “God Said No”, where Bern imagines asking God for the power to alter history so that Kurt Cobain doesn’t commit suicide and Hitler dies before he can launch World War II.

The audience seemed familiar not only with songs from the latest LP but older songs such as the movingly personal “Lithuania”. But the biggest reaction came for an as yet unrecorded song. “Talkin’ Al-Kida Blues” updates the ’60s’ protest folk of Dylan’s “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues” with the preoccupations of today; communism then, terrorism now. It was undoubtedly political, but the audience were laughing as well as thinking. Proof that wit can reach places polemics can’t, and a reminder Bern is not only one of the finest songwriters around but one of the few with something useful to say.

Rebels With A Cause

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Neil Young’s Bridge School Benefit

Shoreline Amphitheatre, Mountain View, California

SATURDAY & SUNDAY OCTOBER 26 & 27 2002

“All these great guests come down here to play for us… blows my mind, I can tell you,” Neil cackles beneath the brim of his straw Stetson. “Some people say that happened a long time ago… Heheheh… Just so long as it still blows, that’s OK.”

For 16 years, guests have been gathering at the Bridge School benefits to blow old Neil’s mind. At his behest they perform, as Foo Fighter Dave Grohl puts it, “mostly acoustical” out here at The Shoreline Amphitheatre at Mountain View, near San Jos

Some Kind Of Wonderful

Poor boy chases rich girl in John Hughes’ 1987 teen romance. Essentially, the story’s gender roles are reversed from his previous hit, Pretty In Pink, but without the fresh conviction. Still, the period charm and feelgood manner makes for mindlessly enjoyable viewing, while enough solid performances keep things ticking over.

About A Boy

The Weitz brother’s adaptation of Nick Hornby’s bestseller can’t help falling into the sugary-sweet Notting Hill trap. Hugh Grant’s genuinely impressive as responsibility-free Will, who strikes up an unlikely friendship with weird 12-year-old Marcus and his troubled hippie mum. It’s crucial that the brat isn’t annoying: but boy, he is. Hornby’s jokes and Badly Drawn Boy’s songs add some edge.

Vampires—Los Muertos

John Carpenter’s 1998 Vampires was a triumph of gonzo monster-mashing with James Woods in full kick-ass mode. The sequel replaces Woods with Jon Bon Jovi, which may explain why Carpenter describes his exec-producer role as “me picking up a cheque”. Nevertheless, we get a stake in the mouth, a chest slash, a tongue biting, various beheadings, a punched-off head and two heads bashed together.