Best albums of 1997: #5 Blur “Blur”

Blur practically invented Britpop.

It was the media that invented the term, of course, but the impetus lay in albums like Blur’s sophomore album, 1993’s “Modern life is rubbish”. Written in part as a reaction the Grunge scene and the alternative explosion in North America, frontman and principal songwriter Damon Albarn wrote a poppier rock record influenced by British artists with songs satirizing British life. These British-centric themes and ideas carried forward into 1994’s “Parklife” and then, released during the height of Britpop mania in 1995, “The great escape” saw Blur almost parodying themselves in technicolour cartoons.

When it came time to record album number five, the four members of Blur had become disenchanted with the scene and really, with themselves. Albarn finally bought into the lo-fi influenced rock (think Pavement) that guitarist Graham Coxon was becoming more and more enamoured with. Coxon convinced Damon that it was time to write ‘music that scared people again’. The band convened to Reykjavik, Iceland and “Blur” was born.

Many of you who read these pages frequently will know by now that I have been a fan from the beginning so it may not surprise you to see this album in my top five for 1997. However, when I first heard the lead off single “Beetlebum” and then the rest of “Blur” later on, I didn’t recognize it as the band I loved and was initially unsure of the change. It was so jarring, so different from the zaniness of “The great escape”. Of course, it didn’t take super long for me to buy in, maybe a few go rounds in my CD player, and I didn’t look back. “Blur” is crunchy, noisy, and aggressive and it’s not surprising that it finally gave the band their first hit single in the US.

I imagine most of you already know “Song 2” (often misnamed “The Woo hoo song”) so I didn’t include it as part of my three picks for you below.

”M.O.R.”: David Bowie and Brian Eno get songwriting credits since Damon and company lifted the chord progression from two songs on “Lodger”, which themselves shared the same progression as an experiment of sorts. “M.O.R.” is a song that builds through each verse structure to the explosive chorus. The call and response vocals are fun, each taking turns under distortion effects. The drums are punchy and the guitars wailing. It’s most certainly constructed for pogoing and shouting along with and just having a blast.

”Beetlebum”: As mentioned above, this was my first exposure to the new album, being the first single released and also the opening number on the playlist. Writers have called it a tribute to The Beatles and you certainly can hear their influence buried deep within all the crunchy guitars and feedback but it could just be laziness on the writers’ parts, making assumptions based on the name. Damon Albarn has admitted that it was influenced by his own experiences with heroin and other drugs and that definitely sounds spot on. It is droning and flailing and free falling. It would have easily fit on the “Trainspotting” soundtrack had it been recorded a year or so sooner.

”On your own”: Yes! This is actually my favourite song on the album. It’s a singalong, for sure, but not in the traditional sense. It becomes one in the way the thumping drums and Coxon’s wailing guitars frame the vocals so wonderfully. And Albarn’s singing is so personal and lazy, like he doesn’t care who’s listening but knows we all are. The backing vocals join in midway through the verse and the chorus becomes a defiant shout. You just want to pump your fist in support. This is the new Blur. They don’t give a fig if you don’t like it but somehow know you will. Wicked.

Check back next Thursday for album #4 on this list. In the meantime, you can check out albums #10 through #6 here and you can also check out my Best Albums page here if you’re interested in my other favourite albums lists.

Best albums of 1997: The honourable mentions (aka #10 through #6)

Happy Thursday! And welcome to the second installment of my Throwback Thursday (#tbt) best albums of the year series. For this one, we time travel back twenty years to 1997. Back to a time where I was one year removed from graduating with BA Honours from York University on a five year (yes, I took it slow) program. I was working part time at a tool rental store, spending plenty of quality time talking pretentious in the pubs, and I had just started into a relationship with Victoria, whom I’m still with and I’ve since married. So happy times indeed.

It also happens to be another great year for music and can easily be argued to be the best year ever for British Alternative Rock. Just think about it for a moment and you’ll realize I’m right, probably guess which are my top three albums, but perhaps not in the correct order. Britpop mania had reached its apex the year before and was already on the wane, more artists were trying to disassociate themselves with the term rather than buy in. So yeah, in 1997, it was more rock and less pop. However, North America’s (and likely the rest of the world’s) ears were still tuned in to Cool Britannia so British rock was all the rage on the radio and music video stations. I was in music heaven with all the great albums being released and as you’ll soon see, the majority of my faves were from – you guessed it – the British Isles.

So without further ado, below are the first five albums from my top ten and if you don’t know the trick by now, I will be featuring the top five, an album each Thursday, over the next five weeks. Enjoy the nostalgia ride with me.

#10 Cornershop “When I was born for the 7th time”

Third time was a charm for Tjinder Singh and his Cornershop. The band’s blend of Indian traditional, British rock, funk, and psychedelia hit home with the Britpop crowds at the time and has since influenced more than a few bands that I can think of (Hello, Elephant Stone). Then, Norman Cook remixed the song below and they exploded, the song in question waxing ubiquitous in the summer of 1997. As for the album, it’s quite eclectic and fun. You can certainly tell they were smoking quite a bit of something funny during its recording.

Gateway tune: Brimful of asha

#9 The Dandy Warhols “The Dandy Warhols come down”

I saw The Dandy Warhols open for The Charlatans in the fall of 1997 but I didn’t appreciate this, the album they were flogging at the time, until much, much later. Still, their live show was so good that I immediately picked up their next album, 2000’s “Thirteen tales of urban bohemia”, on release, which I loved and pushed me to continue to follow them and to re-examine their back catalogue. If you’ve seen the film “Dig”, you know that the band had its troubles at the time and despite the below song’s modicum of success, it would be their only flirtation with the mainstream. “Come down” is a noisy beast and a rollicking ride.

Gateway tune: Not if you were the last junkie on earth

#8 Teenage Fanclub “Songs from Northern Britain”

For years, I’ve called Teenage Fanclub the “Scottish Sloan” or likened Sloan to “the Canadian Teenage Fanclub”, depending on my audience. Both bands have multiple songwriters who sing their own songs but maintain a consistent sound, and that is a classic sounding guitar rock style with plenty of harmonies that somehow manages to sound completely original. The Fanclub’s sixth album was their most commercially successful, its name a joke around the idea that many people at the time considered them part of the Britpop scene. The album itself though was anything but a joke.

Gateway tune: Take the long way around

#7 The Mighty Mighty Bosstones “Let’s face it”

Boston’s own flirted with the mainstream and certainly achieved commercial success with their fifth studio album, “Let’s face it”, the band’s only certified platinum selling album. The eight-piece ‘skacore’ band toned down the ‘core and sweetened the ska and punk sound and found themselves a whole a new swarm of fans. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, you can’t deny that this album cemented their place at the forefront of the 90s wave of ska punk. It’s brash and energetic and a hell of a lot of fun on the dance floor.

Gateway tune: The impression that I get

#6 Ocean Colour Scene “Marchin’ already”

Ocean Colour Scene followed up their breakthrough sophomore album with music cut very much from the same cloth. Often the tunes were those written well before recording but refreshed and brightened with slick studio production. They were rewarded by the buying public with their first number one, famously supplanting Oasis’s bloated third record, “Be here now”, an album that (*spoiler alert*) won’t be on this list. I really like the straightforward and honest trad rock of this and “Moseley shoals”, perhaps preferring “Marchin’ already” slightly over the former. Unfortunately, things steadily went south from here.

Gateway tune: Hundred mile high city

Check back next Thursday for album #5 on this list. In the meantime, you can also check out my Best Albums page here if you’re interested in my other favourite albums lists.

Best albums of 2007: #1 Young Galaxy “Young Galaxy”

On October 13, 2007, I went to see Young Galaxy and The Besnard Lakes (who appeared at number 10 in this list) in a double headliner show at the now defunct Zaphod Beeblebrox. After the incredible first set by Jace Lasek and company and just before being blown away by Young Galaxy, I wandered up to the merch table to get myself a physical copy of this debut, self-titled album. As we exchanged cash for CD, I told vocalist Catherine McCandless, in all honesty, that her band’s was easily my favourite album of the year. And obviously, that hasn’t changed in the decade that has since passed.

The group was formed originally as a duo by ex-Stars touring guitarist Stephen Ramsay and the aforementioned Catherine McCandless. They recorded the debut with friends in Jace Lasek’s studio and filled out the band for touring purposes. If you listen to this one and compare it with the music they release these days, you’d hardly think they were the same band. Their latest material is more electronic with McCandless carrying the bulk of the vocal duties but when they were just starting out, they were still finding their proverbial voice and often McCandless shared the microphone with her partner in crime. “Young Galaxy” plays more with organic sounds but still riffs on the atmospheric, dream pop themes. Think Spiritualized, Luna, Slowdive, or even Pink Floyd, but perhaps more upbeat than all of these, and you’ll realize why I love this album.

I’ve never thought that critics gave this one its due. Sure, you can hear the influences plainly but Young Galaxy comes by it honestly. The music is often quite stunning and the vocals, something that’s not often a focus in dream pop, are quite beautiful throughout. I can’t recommend this album enough to anyone who’s never heard it. Of course, you can start with these, my three picks for you, but anything on the album is worth sampling.

“Come and see”: Some of you Canadian folks might recognize the exuberant chorus as the music used in an Alexander Keiths television commercial in the summer of 2009. “Come and see” is an upbeat number that starts off chugging with a danceable guitar line and urgent rhythm. Ramsay’s soft vocals are just there, just so, a slow dancer to a fast beat, subtle movements marking exclamations. And then, there is an explosion of confetti and stars at the chorus. I would guess it was that celebratory feel that caught the advertisers’ ears but this is a party not meant for this earth. It’s a cacophony that pulls you from your body to dance in the clouds.

“Outside the city”:  One of the few tracks on the album that is solely left to the devices of Catherine McCandless’s vocals, the power hinting at the glory to come on future albums. Her voice here is bold and has muscle, similar to Siouxsie Sioux, and as mentioned before, a quality one might find rare in dream pop. It bears the weight of the song’s frantic beat and rocking guitars well. It is an escape from the humdrum of the Monday to Friday, a call to look beyond the concrete and steel of the city, an invitation to leave work there and find yourself. Let the “city release you” and find yourself “inside-out”. Yes!

“Swing your heartache”:  As much as I love pretty much everything Young Galaxy has produced, this song still remains my absolute favourite of their tunes. Nowhere else will you hear the Spiritualized influence as much as you will here but at the same time, the song is uniquely theirs. It plods along, movement through movement, layers added and removed, an atmosphere created that is at once darkness and light. A lone guitar twists and turns over a plush bed of organ washes. Meanwhile, Ramsay and McCandless’s voices dance a slow romantic dance, each taking turns with the lead and complementing each other with absolute courtesy. They know that this thing called life is not easy but still a gift, and one not to waste. “It’s time for you and I to face the signs and realize that living’s a battle, for all the times we cried and told the lies and realized life’s not a rehearsal.” Pure awesome.

For the rest of the albums in this list, check out my Best Albums page here.