Playlist: Be my valentine

Okay. So here’s something that’s never been done before, at least not on this blog, or really, during any of my years of blogging. It’s true. I have never done a post observing this somewhat suspect ‘holiday’, a day that has been over-commercialized and become more about selling chocolates and flowers and overpriced dinners than spending time with the one you love. Still, as I’ve alluded to in previous posts, I do have a sappy side, a side that gets totally wrapped up in rom-coms and even the odd Hallmark Christmas film. And yeah, my wife and I typically do observe February 14th, usually in our own quiet way, but the odd time we have gone out for a nice dinner and paid exorbitant prices for roses.

It just so happened a few weeks ago that I realized I was due for a new playlist and the idea occurred to me to create one of ‘love songs’. Then, I quelled the idea, remembering the struggle Victoria and I had looking for appropriate songs in my collection that we could dance to on our wedding day. “Do none of your bands write songs about love?” she asked, frustrated and tired at one point during our search. Apparently not, was the answer, at least not in the conventional sense, the sense in which hair bands managed it in the 80s and out of which some R&B singers have made a career. Often the alternative and indie bands to whom I listen wrote beautiful lyrics that touched on love but did so looking at it not as a pure thing but one to be feared and revered, a bringer of both pain and joy. In short, not your typical love songs.

In the end, we found a handful to use, of which a few of them can be found in the playlist below. Of course, I had Victoria in mind while putting this one together, though I know she wouldn’t appreciate many of the tracks, still, there’s a little something for everyone. I’ve got some iconic tunes by influential alt-rock bands like The Cure and The Smiths, lesser known acts from the 90s like The Lowest of the Low and My Drug Hell, and of course, highlights from the indie kids of this new century, like Bloc Party and The Decemberists. I’ve got the whole list below, in case the Spotify doesn’t work for you, and included a lyrical gem from each song, just to give a glimpse of what you can be listening for as you peruse the list.

1. The Cure “Lovesong”
“Whenever I’m alone with you, you make me feel like I am home again. Whenever I’m alone with you, you make me feel like I am whole again.”

2. Elbow “An audience with the pope”
“I have an audience with the Pope, and I’m saving the world at eight, but if she says she needs me, she says she needs me, everybody’s gonna have to wait.”

3. Blur “To the end”
“You and I collapsed in love. And it looks like we might have made it.”

4. The Rural Alberta Advantage “In the summertime”
“Once in a while, I know our hearts beat out of time. And once in a while, I know they’ll fall back in line.”

5. Teenage Fanclub “What you do to me”
“There’s something about you, got me down on my knees.”

6. The Cranberries “Dreams”
“Now I tell you openly, you have my heart so don’t hurt me. You’re what I couldn’t find, totally amazing mind, so understanding and so kind, you’re everything to me.”

7. The Postal Service “Such great heights”
“I am thinking it’s a sign that the freckles in our eyes are mirror images, and when we kiss they’re perfectly aligned.”

8. Coldplay “Yellow”
“Look at the stars, look how they shine for you.”

9. Depeche Mode “One caress”
“Just one caress from you and I’m blessed.”

10. James “Just like Fred Astaire”
“Meteors may strike the earth. Nations live and die. I’m the boy who got the girl who showed me how to fly.”

11. The Beautiful South “Song for whoever”
“I love you from the bottom of my pencil case. I love you in the songs I write and sing.”

12. Death Cab For Cutie “I will follow you into the dark”
“Love of mine, someday you will die, but I’ll be close behind, and I’ll follow you into the dark. No blinding light or tunnels to gates of white, just our hands clasped so tight, waiting for the hint of a spark.”

13. Oasis “Wonderwall”
“I don’t believe that anybody feels the way I do about you now.”

14. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds “Do you love me?”
“I knew from that moment on that I’d love her till the day that I died.”

15. The Lowest of the Low “Subversives”
“There’s something subversive about you and me, ’cause there’s a market-value on love and we’re getting something for free.”

16. The Smiths “There is a light that never goes out”
“And if a double-decker bus crashes into us, to die by your side is such a heavenly way to die.”

17. The Lemonheads “Alison’s starting to happen”
“I never looked at her this way before, but now she’s all I see.”

18. Bloc Party “This modern love”
“Do you want to come over and kill some time? Throw your arms around me.”

19. The Verve “Sonnet”
“Yes, there’s love if you want it, don’t sound like no sonnet, my lord.”

20. Chairlift “Bruises”
“I tried to do handstands for you, but every time I fell for you. I’m permanently black and blue, permanently blue for you.”

21. The Decemberists “We both go down together”
“And my parents will never consent to this love. But I hold your hand.”

22. Black Box Recorder “Andrew Ridgley”
“I came alive to the smouldering fire in your eyes. I love you now and I will ’til the day that I die.”

23. The Stone Roses “Ten storey love song”
“When your heart is black and broken and you need a helping hand. When you’re so much in love, you don’t know just how much you can stand.”

24. First Aid Kit “Emmylou”
“I’ll be your Emmylou and I’ll be your June, if you’ll be my Gram and my Johnny too. No, I’m not asking much of you, just sing little darling, sing with me.”

25. Björk “Violently happy”
“Since I met you, this small town hasn’t got room for my big feelings. Violently happy, ’cause I love you.”

26. Longpigs “On and on”
“All the songs that I’ve sung you, more often than you know. You’re the love that I’ve clung to more often than I’ve let it show.”

27. Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros “Home”
“Ah, home, let me come home, home is wherever I’m with you.”

28. My Drug Hell “Girl at the bus stop”
“Girl at the bus stop, I wished for once that the bus would never come. She sat downstairs, I sat behind I couldn’t get her off my mind.”

29. Pulp “Babies”
“Oh I want to take you home. I want to give you children. You might be my girlfriend, yeah.”

30. Nine Inch Nails “Closer”
“I want to f*ck you. I want to taste you. I want to feel you.”

Enjoy. Happy (Saint) Valentine’s Day.

And of course, I’d be up for hearing what your own favourite ‘love’ songs are from the alternative and indie rock realms.

If you’re interested in checking out any of the other playlists I’ve created and shared on these pages, you can peruse them here.

Top five tunes: Blur

Who? Blur

Years active: 1989-2003 and 2008-present

Band members:
Damon Albarn (vocals, keyboards)
Graham Coxon (guitars, vocals)
Alex James (bass)
Dave Rowntree (drums)

Discography:
Leisure (1991)
Modern Life Is Rubbish (1993)
Parklife (1994)
The Great Escape (1995)
Blur (1997)
13 (1999)
Think Tank (2003)
The Magic Whip (2015)

Context:
Today marks 25 years to the date exactly that I got to see one of my favourite bands (back then and to this day) live. Yes, on September 28th, 1994, I saw Blur perform at a relatively small club called The Phoenix in Toronto (with Pulp supporting them) for their Parklife tour. The following summer they headlined a show at the newly completed Molson Amphitheatre (in the same city), a stacked lineup that included Elastica and Ned’s Atomic Dustbin (also Our Lady Mother Earth, or whatever their name is). I remember wondering in the days leading up to that second show how Blur would follow such a high energy act like Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, but they truly did blow all the other bands away. Indeed, those who have never seen Blur live or haven’t seen them in so long (like myself) that they may have forgotten how good they are in the flesh would do well to watch the documentary, “No distance left to run”, especially the bonus footage.

Blur had its beginnings in a band called Circus in the late eighties. There was a little bit of roster shuffling in their early days but they quickly settled into their final lineup of Damon Albarn, Graham Coxon, Alex James, and Dave Rowntree, and once they did, they re-branded themselves as Seymour. The name Blur came about a year later, in 1989, because the label (Food) that was signing them really hated Seymour as a band name.

Blur’s debut album, “Leisure” came out in 1991 and was a mish-mash of the shoegaze and madchester sounds, as if they couldn’t quite decide on what kind of band they wanted to be. Frontman Damon Albarn has since gone on record as hating the album, calling it a mess, but it did generate a number of hit singles and some really quality tracks. Their sophomore release, 1993’s “Modern life is rubbish”, was borne out of their frustrations with touring North America and their inability to crack that market. It was an album that both chided and celebrated British culture and became part of the blueprint of the musical movement known as Britpop. Consequently, their third and fourth albums, released in 1994 and 1995 respectively, enjoyed immense success in England by riding the tidal wave of this movement that they helped create.

In 1997, they released their self-titled record and it was a dramatic shift in aesthetic. They embraced an American lo-fi indie rock sound, something they had previously derided, but more than that, they were starting to experiment more, speaking the rock lingo rather than that of pop, an ethos that would continue on through albums six and seven. When Blur toured in support of that fifth album, a single from it called “Song 2” had garnered them a whole new legion of fans so they were playing much bigger venues. (I believe it was Smash Mouth that supported them on the North American leg of that tour.) I passed on that particular show due to the lack of funding that is usual with starving students but was primed when their next tour was announced in support of “13”.

Unfortunately for me, but keeping in line with their new musical aesthetic, the band decided to scale things back and play smaller venues on this tour so they switched off Varsity stadium for the very tiny Palais Royal. On the morning the tickets went on sale, I was on the phone to Ticketmaster playing the dialling game (they didn’t have online ticket sales quite yet) but by the time I got through, five minutes after ten, it was all sold out. In fact, the agent told me that tickets were sold out within moments of going on sale due to all those pesky pre-sales. I later heard mixed reviews of the show. Mixed because the band chose to play their new album in full and those who loved “13”, loved the show but those hoping to hear “Song 2” were greatly disappointed. I definitely would have fallen into the former category, had I managed a ticket.

When they split up in 2003, no one was all that surprised. Guitarist Graham Coxon had already left the band during the recording of “Think tank” and Damon Albarn was appearing increasingly more interested in his extracurricular projects apart from Blur. Indeed, it was a far greater surprise when the band reunited five years later, even welcoming Coxon back into the fold. They have never officially split since then, performing live infrequently, including high profile gigs at the closing ceremonies of the London Olympics and a headline spot at Coachella in 2013.

Things were just starting to quiet down again with the band when out of nowhere they announced the release of their eighth album, their first in twelve years. “The magic whip” was released on April 28th, 2015, and blew us all away, providing us with a collection of songs that teased a band with plenty more to share, rather than one just riding the coattails of past successes. Nowadays, though Albarn is still a very busy boy with his multiple bands (Gorillaz, The Good, The Bad, & The Queen) and of course, his solo career, he no longer wishes to entirely close the book on Blur. And the rest of group, Coxon with his own solo career, Rowntree as Labour party councillor, and James as famed cheese maker, all seem content in their own lives and happy to revisit the band whenever the mood takes them. I for one would love to see Blur live one more time. My hopes were raised on this score when they first reunited back in 2013 but I think the closest they’ve gotten to my neighbourhood since has been that Coachella festival a bunch of years ago.

All that verbiage to say Blur is a super important band to me, which made the task of narrowing their top tunes down to just five damned near impossible. Here are the results of my efforts.

The top five:

#5: There’s no other way (from “Leisure”, 1991)

Blur’s second ever released single is also, to my mind anyway, still one of their best but then, I was always such a fan of the “baggy” sound. This style’s prevalence in 1991 was probably what boosted the song so deeply into the UK singles charts, peaking at the number eight spot. It has that wicked breaking beat and tambourine shuffle that gets the toes off tapping and an organ backbone that sounds like it was ripped out of The Charlatans’ playbook. Derivative? Perhaps. But executed to near perfection so that though they didn’t hail from Manchester, they could’ve easily been mistaken as such. And then there’s that awesome family dining room music video that just has to be watched to be believed.


#4: Under the westway (from “Under the westway EP”, 2012)

Do you remember where you were when you first heard this song? I do. I was sitting in my kitchen on July 2, 2012, streaming the live performance on my laptop. It was so sad and emotional and utterly brilliant, that I immediately wanted to watch it again. It’s another great ballad by the band, smacking heavily of David Bowie and The Beatles, a plodding and soft intro turns bombastic and quite epic by the climax. Shortly after the performance mentioned above, it was co-released with “The puritan”, another excellent but very different sounding tune. It was these that stoked my excitement for a new album, only to be quashed later that year by members of the band, claiming that no new material was forthcoming… But we now know better.


#3: Chemical world (from “Modern life is rubbish”, 1993)

I remember once calling into CFNY, Toronto’s alternative radio station (now named The Edge), to request this very song for the daily lunchtime show: The all-request nooner. Looking back, I’m not sure why I did such a thing, perhaps it was to hear my own voice on the radio, but these days, I don’t even bother with radio so the idea sounds ludicrous. Nonetheless, “Chemical world” was the only song I ever requested that was actually played on the air during that timeslot. Twenty or so years later, it’s still among my very favourite Blur tracks (though Edge 102 likely wouldn’t play it these days) and a really brilliant pop song. Written specifically to appeal to American audiences, it deals with one of Albarn’s favourite universal themes, that of industrialization, rather than the uniquely British identity tropes prevalent on the rest of the album. Oh yeah, and I love that rippin’ guitar lick.


#2: No distance left to run (from “13”, 1999)

And here at number two we have another ballad. There’s just something about Damon’s voice that lends itself to sad or otherwise emotional numbers and nowhere is it more heart-wrenching than on “No distance left to run”. He has said of the lyrics: “It upsets me, that song. It upset me singing it. Doing that vocal upset me greatly. To sing that lyric I really had to accept that that was the end of something in my life.” Although I don’t think he has ever outright admitted this, many people believe the song is about his split with Elastica vocalist, Justine Frischmann. Whether true or no, it makes for a compelling listen, brutal and brilliant at the same time.


#1: This is a low (from “Parklife”, 1994)

“This is a low” was never released as a single but it is a favourite with both the band and their fans, was picked as a track for their “best of” album, and was frequently part of their set list when they performed live, often using it to close their show with a bang (it was their final song both of the times I saw them live). It is a sad and lonely ode to Britain, with Damon and crew longing for home after weeks and months on the road. Coxon’s guitars come crashing like waves against rocks, Rowntree’s drums tapping and sometimes pounding like hail on the pavement, and you can almost picture James with his bass, hair in his eyes, cigarette dangling from his tightening lips. And Damon, he sounds so forlorn and anguished, magnum of cheap red wine in hand, both his collar and the day undone. Cheers to that!


For other top five lists in this series, click here.

Best tunes of 1991: #6 Blur “There’s no other way”

<< #7    |    #5 >>

I’ve just spent the last few days at a cottage with some of my best friends, old friends, many of whom I’ve known since high school and earlier. We whiled most of the time just hanging out, telling jokes, reliving ancient histories, and listening to tunes. So of course, this particular tune lines right up with feelings and memories drummed up this weekend.

Most of you regular visitors to these pages will know that I am still a huge Blur fan, even after all these years. And well, it all started with their debut album, “Leisure”. When I was in my final year of high school, I had a copy of it on cassette tape, recorded to one side of a C90 and on the other was Chapterhouse’s debut album, “Whirlpool”, both from compact discs borrowed from a friend’s then girlfriend. That I had both albums on one cassette and that this cassette spent plenty of time in my Walkman and bedroom stereo really shines a light on where I was musically in 1991. Yes, I was gobbling up everything that fit into either the shoegaze or madchester pigeonholes.

And while Chapterhouse were decidedly of the shoegaze and dream pop ilk, Blur hadn’t quite declared their mission statement yet, that would come on their sophomore album (tales for another time). So “Leisure” was a bit of a mixed bag, Blur dipping their toes and waggling them in both pools. It says something about the band’s talent and Damon Albarn’s prowess as a songwriter that the album doesn’t feel disjointed at all and that it’s got some amazing tracks that are still considered fan favourites today.

One of these is “There’s no other way”, the second single to be released off “Leisure”. It greets us with a big hello of sliding guitar riff care of Graham Coxon and a big and funky Dave Rowntree beat accoutred with a liberal shake of the tambourine. Alex James shakes his head with his backbone bass, cigarette dangling from his lips and Damon Albarn adds some organs that sound ripped from Rob Collins’ (of The Charlatans) repertoire. All the while, he’s singing about how it sucks to grow up.

“There’s no other way. All that you can do is watch them play.”

It definitely sounds of its time and from a bunch of art school kids in London, it feels like they’ve been visiting the dance halls in Manchester quite a bit. Not that I complained then, and I still don’t.

And oh yeah, if you haven’t seen the video, it’s worth clicking below just to see Damon’s haircut from back then.

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