Best tunes of 2001: #21 Embrace “Wonder”

I remember West Yorkshire-based five-piece, Embrace (not to be confused with the hardcore punk band of the same name) breaking on to the scene just as Britpop was on the wane. Their debut album, “The good will out”, blended the stadium ready trad rock of Oasis with the grandiose, orchestra compatible sound of The Verve’s “Urban hymns”. So, yes, it was big. And their sound, combined with their honest, almost to the point of trite sounding songwriting, created just as much animosity towards them as it did fans. For my own part, I had drunk the Britpop kool-aid years before so, of course, I loved it.

“Drawn from memory”, the second album by the band, was a lot more toned down and stripped back and I’m not sure if it was that or the continuing Britpop backlash but it did nowhere as well as the debut. For their third album, the brothers McNamara and company tried to mix the best of what worked for the first two albums and it resulted in what I think is their least successful work. However, “If you’ve never been” is not without its bright spots. In my opinion, “Wonder” is definitely one of these.

If you’ve never listened to the group before, you might listen to the song and think: “Man, these guys are riding the coattails of Travis or Keane or early Coldplay”. In actuality, it was the other way around. Much like other songs that could be tersely termed ‘adult alternative’, “Wonder” is inoffensive music that cannot quite be slid into pop territory. It’s big but not too big, espousing a singalong feel and foot tapping beat. And its got this guitar effect that sounds like its moving back and forth between your earphones, almost willing you to sway your head back and forth and mouth the “la la la”s on the bus commute to work.

Yeah. It’s that kind of song. Perfect for a hump day like today.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 2001 list, click here.

Best tunes of 1991: #29 Pixies “Alec Eiffel”

In the last post in this series, I described how I discovered a ton of music while video taping videos off MuchMusic’s “City Limits”. Pixies’ “Alec Eiffel” is another such song, though it had help. My friend Tim told me about the band as well, which is why when I heard the video was coming up, I was able to beat Elliott to the VCR to plug in my tape and press the Record button. I loved the video and how the band playing in a wind tunnel added to the rage of the song. I didn’t know this then, but them simply opening their mouths and letting the wind do the work was part of their refusal to bow down to MTV and lip sync during the filming of their videos.

Yes, I came to the Pixies late, almost too late. This track was the third single off “Trompe Le Monde”, the Boston-based quartet’s final record before dissolving in 1993. My friend Tim would later include the song a mixed tape for me and later, made me a copy of their now classic album “Doolittle”. My love for them grew, the more material by them that I heard. Meanwhile, lead vocalist Frank Black started off a mildly successful solo career, bassist Kim Deal focused on her side project, The Breeders, lead guitarist Joey Santiago did some film and television score work, and drummer Dave Lovering became a magician. The band would later reform in 2004 with the whole lineup and I finally got to see them perform live a couple of times. They’re still a going concern today but Kim Deal has since left the band again to focus on the reunion of The Breeders.

“Alec Eiffel”, of course, refers to the French engineer who designed the Eiffel Tower and the Statue of Liberty. Brief, like much of the Pixies’ work, the song is a mere two and a half minutes but it packs a wallop. Fierce right from the start with a burst of guitars and Lovering so frantic on drums. There’s a hint of the surf rock left over from “Bossanova” but only just a hint, and the synths almost give the normal Pixies clatter a bit of structure.

Really, “Alex Eiffel” is a straight ahead pop song. Well, as pop as Frank Black can write anyway.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 1991 list, click here.

Best tunes of 2010: #6 The New Pornographers “Crash years”

Here we are at number six on this Best tunes of 2010 list and we have the second appearance by The New Pornographers, who we saw months ago at the number twenty-eight spot with “Sweet talk, sweet talk”. Both that song and this one, “Crash years”, appeared on the New Pornos fifth studio album, “Together”, which was dedicated to Kathryn Calder’s mother, who had recently died and was, incidentally, Carl Newman’s sister. It’s an interesting story involving adoption and discovering family they didn’t know they had and if you’re curious, it’s easy enough to google. But back to the song.

“Crash years” was the second single released off the album and it’s a real humdinger. The words were written by Newman as are the majority of the songs on their albums but he leaves the lead vocals here to the unflappable Neko Case. The peppy rhythm section is kept honest by just there guitars and breezy staccato keys. And there’s the awesome use of whistling after every chorus that doesn’t sound at all out of place. This is all gorgeous, of course, but what really makes this song for me is the driving and thumping cello, smooth like a well oiled villain’s moustache, and if you’ve turned the volume on your stereo up just so, you can feel it deep within your soul.

“Crash years” could be a nod to the financial woes and economic slowdown at the time, a topic that could hardly be ignored. It’s hinting at the evils of stock markets and clocks and banks… oh my. But Newman doesn’t really point fingers. He just shrugs. The upbeat feel of the song suggests we’re all in the same sinking boat, all ruined, so why get down. Just hum along with the cello and everything will be alright.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 2010 list, click here.