Vinyl love: Various artists “Help: The album”

(Vinyl Love is a series of posts that quite simply lists, describes, and displays the pieces in my growing vinyl collection. You can bet that each record was given a spin during the drafting of each corresponding post.)

Artist: Various artists
Album Title: Help: The album
Year released: 1995
Year reissued: 2020
Details: 2 x LP, 25th anniversary reissue

The skinny: On September 4th, 1995, many of the biggest names in British rock went into studios across England and Ireland to record a brand new song to contribute to a charity compilation album in support of War Child. These recordings were all handed over to Brian Eno for mixing the next day and on September 9th, the resulting compilation album was released and went straight to number one on the UK album charts (for compilations). Late in August of this year, it was announced by War Child (and many of the contributing artists) that the album would be reissued on vinyl on September 9th, 2020, to celebrate its 25th anniversary and I was one of thousands that frantically went online to pre-order it. Yeah, the first run of 2020 copies completely sold out on the first day and they’ve since had to press a second run. The excitement was palpable the day I found it in my mailbox and walked home with it. In my humble opinion, this is the best the compilation album ever recorded. I distinctly remember when I purchased my first copy of it on CD from the now long defunct Penguin Music in Toronto and there was sticker providing the track listing affixed to the jewel case, so done because the artwork (done by The Stone Roses’ John Squire and Massive Attack’s 3D) was printed concurrently with album’s recording and couldn’t possibly include the finalized track list. My eyes must’ve bulged out of my head upon reading the wealth of my (at the time) favourite artists who appeared on the compilation: Blur, Oasis, Suede, Radiohead, The Boo Radleys, The Charlatans, Levellers, The Stone Roses, and more. The quick timeline on the album’s release meant that many of the songs were either original works in progress or covers of already established tracks. Indeed, two of the songs on this album have already appeared my 100 best covers list (at #100 and #74) and I feel like we might see at least one or two more make an appearance on that list. I still have that CD, though I played the hell out of it over the years, and now I have it my vinyl collection. And that makes me smile.

Standout track: “Come together” by The Smokin’ Mojo Filters (Paul McCartney, Noel Gallagher, and Paul Weller)


Best albums of 1997: #3 Radiohead “OK computer”

I’m sure for many others out there, Radiohead’s “OK computer” would be the clear cut number one album on their lists for 1997 and in any other year, it would’ve been for me too. And it was super close, my top three albums for 1997 are amongst my favourite ever, the distance separating them is minute. I knew immediately when I started putting together this list (for the rest so far, scroll to the bottom of this post) that these were easily the top three but ordering was not so much as simple. In the end, I went with the amount of time I figured each spent in my CD player over the years and how often each still gets put on my turntable platter these days.

I saw Radiohead live for the first and only time in 1998 for the tour in support of “OK computer” and it also happened to be the first and only time I saw a concert at Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens. It was my friend Terry that convinced me to go. He was a huge fan of the band. He was convincing in his praises of their live show but there was another reason that helped my decision along that I will get to later on. Anyway, I was very glad that I had procured a ticket for that Easter Sunday because Ed O’Brien, Philip Selway, Colin and Jonny Greenwood, and Thom Yorke did indeed put on a magnificent show. Their huge sound filled the famed hockey arena, a worry I had, given that it was likely the largest show I had seen to date. The energy and euphoria carried on afterwards and infused every time I listened to the album thereafter and I remember that night.

For me, “OK computer” is Radiohead at their pinnacle. Many others may argue this point but I feel like the band lost a little something after this album. I definitely wouldn’t have wanted them to go into the studio for the next album and record another one just like this but “Kid A” and the albums that followed took them further and further from the band I loved. I still enjoy them but by comparison, I still get wistful when listening to their newer material.

“OK computer” might have been the band’s reaction to 1995’s “The bends” but it still carried along in a similar vein. It was guitar rock that flirted with experimental sounds to just the right degree and effect. The songs had structure still, though they were loose and sprawling. And despite the band not calling it a concept album, it all feels cohesive, a complete unit, rather than singles to be taken separately. So I’d love to present all twelve songs below for your enjoyment but if I’m to stick to my own rules, I have to limit myself to picking the three below.

“No surprises”: “A heart that’s full up like a landfill. A job that slowly kills you. Bruises that won’t heal. You look so tired, unhappy.” Cheery thoughts, no? It’s funny that when Radiohead set out to record the follow up to “The bends”, they did so with the determination that it would be a more upbeat sounding record than its predecessor. I suppose this mission was accomplished but it did nothing for the bleakness of the lyrical content. “No surprises” is not a prime of example of the upbeat sound, instead it’s slow, plodding, and dreamlike. This sound was created by the band playing the acoustic and chiming electric guitars and glockenspiel at a higher speed and then dubbed at a slower speed with the vocals. I love how it sounds like a lullaby at the beginning and it seems to build as Yorke seems to get more and more menacing.

“Paranoid android”:  “Ambition makes you look pretty ugly, kicking, squealing Gucci little piggy.” It was a weird choice for a lead single, another example of a decision that shouldn’t have worked for Radiohead but did. At six and a half minutes, it’s one of the longest, if not the longest, of Radiohead’s studio recordings. It was influenced by The Beatles, The Pixies, and Queen in that it has four distinct movements, a result of it being multiple unfinished song fragments fused together. The band originally saw it as this funny joke, which it why it was named after a character from “Hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy”, but nobody’s laughing now. This here is the imprint for what the band would become. It’s risky and convoluted but really, quite the masterpiece.

“Karma police”:  “Karma police, arrest this man. He talks in maths. He buzzes like a fridge. He’s like a detuned radio.” Here’s another song that started off as an in-joke within the band, constantly ribbing each about calling the “karma police” on each other while on tour. It’s also another song that doesn’t end the way it starts. Halfway through, the pace and energy change completely, from a haunting, threatening dirge to outright rocking mania. For me, this is Radiohead at their best. A band at the crossroads between rock and roll and art house experimentation, taking a step in each direction while walking in place. The effects are beautiful and frightening. It’s a song worth exploring over and over again for hearing something new and at the same time, one that you can shut off your mind to and just close your eyes to everything. Not bad at all for a hit song that received oh so much airplay everywhere.

Check back next Thursday for album #2. In the meantime, here are the previous albums in this list:

10. Cornershop “When I was born for the 7th time”
9. The Dandy Warhols “The Dandy Warhols come down”
8. Teenage Fanclub “Songs from Northern Britain”
7. The Mighty Mighty Bosstones “Let’s face it”
6. Ocean Colour Scene “Marchin’ already”
5. Blur “Blur”
4. James “Whiplash”

You can check out my Best Albums page here if you’re interested in my other favourite albums lists.


Best tunes of 2000: #12 Radiohead “Optimistic”

<< #13    |    #11 >>

April 12, 1998. A date I will always remember for two reasons. First, it was the first and last time I ever worked on an Easter Sunday and second, it was the first and only time I ever saw Radiohead perform live. I remember it being a very quiet shift at the tool rental store at which I worked at the time, serving only a few customers, receiving more calls from other, busier store locations than actual customers, which all made for a very long wait before the show. It’s funny now remembering how much I was looking forward to it that day, considering the only reason I was going was that I loved the opening act and my friend Terry had an extra ticket. Björk was originally supposed to co-headline the show with Radiohead at the stop at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto but she had to cancel just prior to tickets going on sale and the vacant opening slot was filled by Spiritualized, who already had this job for the other stops along the tour.

It’s a point of fact that I had already seen Spiritualized at a small club called Guvernment the previous fall on their own headline tour in support of “Ladies and gentlemen, we are floating in space”, a show that I loved and will always remember for many reasons (but that’s a story for another time). And so, I jumped at the chance at seeing them again; Radiohead, for me, was just a bonus. As it would turn out, Spiritualized were phenomenal, doing an admirable job of filling a half-empty arena with their space rock noise, but Radiohead was the revelation. I don’t know what their live show is like these days but in 1998, it was electric and made me an even bigger fan of their music than I already was.

I mention this concert in connection to “Optimistic”, a track that appears on “Kid A”, an album that would come out two years later, because of a (likely unfounded) theory I later developed that it was this tour with Spiritualized that changed everything for Radiohead. When “Kid A” came out, I think a lot of people didn’t know what to think of it. Prior to this album, Radiohead was an excellent guitar rock band and though “OK computer” really pushed the proverbial envelope, it could be considered almost pedestrian when set beside “Kid A”. To me, it sounded like Thom Yorke had spent a load of time with Spiritualized’s evil genius, Jason Pierce, adopted his love of droning rock, free jazz, and experimental noise and leapt off the high diving board without a life jacket. The funny thing is that though I love Spiritualized and everything they produce, “Kid A” and pretty much every Radiohead album that came afterward have never really done anything for me.

Until recently, that is.

(And before I go further, I just want to say that I am not one of those people that slammed “Kid A”, only to much later proclaim it the album of the year. I’ve never hated Radiohead’s later works. I’ve just always preferred albums two and three.)

This week, while listening to “Kid A” in preparation for writing this post, I feel like I heard something there that I hadn’t heard before. “Optimistic”, in particular, got me going with its thrumming and aggressive guitars and pounding drums. These two forces create a palpable tension while Thom Yorke pleads and wrangles with his listeners come along with him for the ride. I listened to it over and over again, each time turning it up louder, the increasing volume making things even more clear. And while I’m not sure I’m sure I’m quite ready to retroactively crown “Kid A” album of the decade or move “Optimistic” further up this list, I think I might be ready to give post-“OK computer” Radiohead another chance.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 2000 list, click here.