Ranking favorite Mekons albums

My affection for The Mekons peaked in the early 2000s on discovering Greil Marcus — my first review for the fondly remembered Stylus Magazine was a review of Jon Langford’s All the Fame of Lofty Deeds. I would return to them three years later. I still want to hear what they’re doing, I just care less than I did when I dug connecting Walter Benjamin, Rosa Luxembourg, and Hank Williams in 2002. Continue reading

Ranking five best Saint Etienne albums

Devotees might insist on 1993’s You Need a Mess of Help to Stand Alone, collecting their early nineties singles and B-sides, including essentials like “Paper” and “Some Place Else”; they’ll also get infuriated by the exclusion of Tiger Bay, to my ears a botch in its American edition, and of debut Foxbase Alpha, home of “People Get Real,” in which Stanley-Wiggs discover their muse.

1. Travel Edition: 1990-2005

Treating Neil Young as an excuse for tracking shufflebeat, a stiff house keyboard, and a spacey contribution by Moira Lambert (and scoring a #1 American dance hit, their biggest on any chart in this country), Saint Etienne showed listeners that they would treat their record collections as opportunities, to quote a later song, to stop and think it over. Then Cracknell joined Stanley and Wiggs, and they were off, releasing albums replete with samples from the British TV and film industry over the airiest of beats. This is the place to get Tiger Bay‘s “Like a Motorway” and “Hug My Soul.” Delighted with ephemera, the trio realize the single is their natural medium. Over the course of eighteen tracks with not a misstep Saint Etienne made Oasis look like buffoons; their winking anonymity served as an antidote to a laddish time. Knocked down a notch for omitting “Who Do You Think You Are,” a cover of a Candlewick Green number that is the trio’s most fetching performance, ever. Discography, Chronicle, Timeless: The Singles Collection, The Whole StoryTravel Edition: 1990-2005 belongs among them.

2. So Tough (1991)

Jump the morgue. Kiss the future. You know crew cuts and trainers are out again. Like the angel of history of Walter Benjamin’s devising, Saint Etienne’s characters move forward while looking fixedly at the past. “Conchita Martinez” puts the theory to the test: every time the track starts as a fairly standard early nineties pop house track it stops for a sample of Rush’s “Spirit of Radio.” The freshness of the boys’ keyboard arrangements keep the axes of “Mario’s Cafe” and “Calico” spinning and spinning (I named an early short story “Mario’s Cafe”). The atmosphere on “Hobart Paving,” Cracknell’s best ballad performance to date, is palpably grey. The peak is the protean soundscape “Avenue,” dub in its step, classical in its allusions.

3. Words and Music by Saint Etienne (2012)

Suddenly, during an American election year, they mattered again. Simultaneity is their mode: a nostalgia for the rush that referents from pop culture past undergirds a commitment to the latest technology. Rediscovery as a way of looking ahead. With “DJ and “Tonight,” a diptych as ruminative and beatwise as anything by Tennant-Lowe, and lesser ones like “Last Days of Disco” and “I Threw It Away,” they make, as I wrote that year, a persuasive case for the exploitation of myth and memory. Why wallow? The creamy wanness with which their post-1998 albums are suffused dissolves.

4. Good Humour (1998)

For their fourth album, Saint Etienne hired Cardigans producer Tore Johansson to crunch up their arrangements with a full band; his mix helps Cracknell, who brings a warmth and presence. The soft rock vibe is of its time: think Ivy, Air, and the lounge act revival. “Lose That Girl” boasts one of the trios more fetching keyboard parts, while the bongos and wah-wah guitar on “Erica America” conjure the candy-colored fantasy land dreamed by the title character.

5. Finisterre (2002)

“Dream about the notion of the perfect city/Imagine the 19th century never happenedJ/ust a straight run from Beau Brummell to Bauhaus,” Cracknell coos over the gentlest of drum loops on the title track, as close to a manifesto as Saint Etienne deigned to record. Another gentle thing could have served the same purpose: “Stop and Think It Over,” which is like Drake recording a track called “Shut Up and Here’s Why You’re Wrong.” No longer top fifteen singles chart mainstays, Saint Etienne kept an eye on Ladytron, Fischerspooner, and their ilk; synths were cool again in pop music. The response? The stomping “New Thing.” For Cracknell, Stanley, and Wiggs, time present and time past are forever present in time future.

Ranking favorite John Prine albums

In April he released The Tree of Forgiveness, an album as serenely weird as his best. Dylan might still live, but after Merle Haggard’s death I’m prepared to say John Prine is the best living male American songwriter. Uniquely American because wryness is a mode of living like using butter instead of margarine on toast, Prine has a rock-ribbed catalog that deserves more performers as smart as Miranda Lambert discovering it every year. Will the Spotify era allow it?

Here’s a tracks list from 2016.

Continue reading

Ranking Psychedelic Furs albums

Until “Heartbreak Beat” skirted the edges of the American top thirty, Psychedelic Furs thrived in the limbo state between just beyond college radio cult status and the wider mainstream embrace of The Cure, New Order, Depeche Mode, etc. “I never understood why Psychedelic Furs didn’t sell more records,” AllMusic quotes Paul Weller saying once. The heaps of mousse and Macy’s leather drag of their High Reagan Era may have had their share of responsibility.  Continue reading

Ranking New Pornographers albums

I wonder if A.C. Newman does any ghost writing for acts in need: a middle eight here, a place for a harmony there. Certainly he’d make an ace producer for hire. The band for which he writes most of its songs has recorded more than their share of good albums, but I won’t listen to them anymore for reasons explained below. At best, the New Pornographers’ early records created the impression that these songs could go anywhere, even past their own opacity.

Continue reading

Ranking Eurythmics albums

The most popular of the eighties synth pop duos — a global operation at their 1985-1986 peak — Eurythmics get condescending press in England, which hasn’t forgiven them for the Tourists and David A. Stewart’s gauche American crossover moves. Yet it’s impossible to weave a narrative about that decade without accounting for the degree to which Stewart and singer-keyboardist Annie Lennox anticipated or submitted to its stylistic currents. Below I’ve linked to Tom Ewing’s educational as always Freaky Trigger piece on their only UK #1; it explains the British dilemma. I’m taken with the idea of Lennox as an artist for whom, in Ewing’s phrase, “the idea of delirium as something essentially decorative, flirtatious and playful” infected her 1985-era singing.  Continue reading