KANYE WEST – Late Registration
This is it. I’m about to make a massively sweeping statement that’s not only ludicrously presumptuous but also incredibly subjective : this is the best album of the year, bar none.
Kanye West has been around for so long as an artist, producer, writer and all round general ego that it’s amazing to think that this is only his second album, coming two years on from the modestly successful College Drop-Out. While that set doffed its baseball cap to the soul of The Fugees and the tongue-in-cheekiness of De La Soul, this time round he’s gone all Moby on us. This is THE single most overtly commercial hiphop album I’ve ever heard … and that’s a load of rap, I’m telling you. There’s so many samples that you’ll recognize instantly, it’s almost like Name That Tune at times. Recently included in Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People In The World list, you can see why on first listen. It’s like a lot of things you’ve heard before (because of the samples) but unlike anything you’ve heard in a while at the same time. Its grand, sweeping, poppy but hard-edged all at once. It hits you in the face like a wet halibut, but certainly doesn’t smell like some old fish. This is a true masterpiece and a whole lot more organic than the rhyme-by-numbers “product” on offer from the likes of Eminem and 50 Cent. Also, not only is it impeccably catchy, but it’s intelligent enough to go over the heads of most chav rap fans. Attacking just about any subject under the sun, West packs a great lyrical punch, all the while being backed up by an amazing soundtrack that will have you tapping your feet all day long. Two singles have been released already, but I fully expect there to be three or four more, such is the quality and variety of the material here.
Love him or hate him, Kanye West really is carrying all before him, not only just in hiphop but in popular music, period.
For the past 15 years or so, Eric Clapton has mainly made two kinds of albums: sentimental studio discs like Pilgrim and Reptile that tend to be overly produced, clumsily personal and eminently forgettable; and blues tributes and live sets that revisit his past and presumably pay the bills.
The latest example of the latter is the new Cream reunion due out shortly. The worst example of the former is this very release, Back Home, the fourteenth studio disc of new songs in his durable career. Proving for the umpteenthth time that domestic bliss is seldom beneficial to great art, Slowhand turns in a sappy, sugary and spineless set of slick soul, reggae and ’80s-style AOR.
Much of it sings the praises of his latest wife and kids (whose pictures also decorate the album). One song even samples what we presume is his crying baby. Sheesh.
Now don’t get me wrong; honestly, I’m happy that the 60-year-old Clapton has finally found his soul mate, started a new family and created a home for himself. After everything he’s been through, he’s earned it, but if this is what we can expect from now on, I’ll be sticking to the live discs and blues tributes, thanks.
ROLLING STONES – A Bigger Bang
If you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it as often as Satisfaction … the buzz surrounding any new Stones album is that it’s “Their Best Album Since the ’70s”.
A Bigger Bang is their first studio release since 1997’s Bridges To Babylon and
of course, if you recall, they said that in 1997 too. And when Voodoo Lounge came out before it too. And pretty much every other album they’ve made since the ’70s.
But this time, there may be a little something to it. True, A Bigger Bang is not going to make you chuck your copies of Some Girls, Black and Blue and Exile on Main Street but it invites comparison with those classics a little more easily than anything the World’s Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Band has done in years.
Maybe it’s because Mick Jagger and Keith Richards finally buried the hatchet and started writing songs together again. Maybe it’s that Jagger’s expletive-laced lyrics make them seem younger. Maybe it’s the no-frills, live-sounding production of Don Was and The Glimmer Twins. Or maybe it’s just because after putting out so many clunkers over the years, they were due for a break. However you look at it, this is a decent set of new songs from the boys and if that’s a reason for you to catch them when they go on tour again, who cares anyway ?? I reckon there’s a big chance they’ll be the first band to play the new Wembley stadium next summer so be ready with that credit card!
PAUL McCARTNEY – Chaos And Creation In The Back Yard
Continuing the thread of old heroes making new music in this issue, Macca’s back and he’s also being backed by his record company this time round. With a massive marketing campaign (he was even on the back cover of the NME!) the signs – and you can call me cynical here – are that either this is the best thing he’s done since Band On The Run or it’s a load of old twaddle …
Sadly, I have to report it’s the latter. The first few songs aren’t bad, and I would even say that “Jenny Wren” is very good, but after that it all goes wrong. This album was so utterly yawn-inducing, I had to check again to see if it was actually made by Paul McCartney and producer Nigel Godrich. There is nothing exciting or fresh about the songs (which is surprising from a man like Godrich, with his track record with Radiohead and Beck). The songs themselves (besides Jenny Wren) are poorly written with such obvious rhyming schemes that I found myself almost able to sing along with the words on my first listen. If an unknown singer came to a record company with these songs, they would laugh at him. It is simply shocking to see a man who has written so many unbelievable songs to actually release an album such as this. Why anyone would even consider recording songs like these is beyond me. It’s heartbreaking to see such an amazing songwriter completely lose his touch.
Sheffield’s finest guitarist and hopeless romantic Richard Hawley has given us an album of gorgeous, lush songs that draw on a bygone era for inspiration. At first listen, you’d be forgiven for wondering if it’s Roy Orbison in about 1959… If the sound is very retro with lots of Hawaiian guitar, the emotions are timeless with title track Coles Corner a perfect example of the way he sets unmistakably English lyrics to music more normally associated with the freedom and innocence of a 1950s American road movie. Coles Corner was where everyone in Sheffield met, including those looking for romance. Hawley’s narrator walks the city at night hoping to meet the right person, or perhaps any person, to relieve his loneliness. The minor key strings of the intro mean there isn’t going to be a happy ending, but that doesn’t stop the wonderful rhythms and Hawley’s velvet voice from making us hope against hope that it will turn out differently this time… The songs are all in the same vein, but some are slower and more reflective (Darlin’ Wait For Me, Tonight), others more upbeat (Just Like The Rain, I Sleep Alone). Hotel Room is a classic track – dead simple piano chords keeping the rhythm, and the slide guitar kicking in with the biggest echo you can imagine : nostalgia at it’s best as someone no longer in their first flush of youth accepts that life could be worse. The Ocean – the first single – provides the lushest orchestration, the album version gradually adding layer after layer as it approaches a huge climax. Wading Through The Waters Of My Time is such a perfect country song it’s hard to believe it’s only just been written. And then there’s the quiet perfection of the lullaby Who’s Going To Shoe Your Pretty Little Feet – just voice and the simplest of guitar – leading to the instrumental Last Orders. This is so laid back it’s like the cool-down after a brisk workout. Though the same musical template is used throughout, if you listen carefully to the heartfelt lyrics there’s enough variation between numbers to make this a contender if you’re into something a bit out of the ordinary.
QUEEN + PAUL RODGERS – Return Of The Champions
I’m not sure this should really be billed as Queen at all as bassist John Deacon refused to tag along, but that didn’t stop guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor from hiring a stand in, or from recruiting as their vocalist the very un-Mercury-like Paul Rodgers of Free and Bad Company fame. All the classics are here – along with All Right Now and Can’t Get Enough Of Your Love – though they frequently get a very different reading from the rather macho Rodgers. Still, if like me you’re a fan of both bands, this should win the Oddity Of The Year award by a country mile …
POPA CHUBBY – Ten Years With … The Best Of
Popa Chubby is the biggest man in blues right now and I’m not just talking about his considerable girth. Having been on the road for a decade, playing nigh on 200 gigs a year, this double disc two and a half hour set features one disc of studio stuff and another of live recordings and includes all his best original songs plus a number of covers that he’s lovingly made into his own. Looking like the villain from a Charlie Chaplin movie, the man is truly electrifying in concert, with his 25 stone frame supporting a massive bald head, heavily-blackened eyes bulging out like he’s about to explode, I’ve literally seen steam come off his bonce when he’s singing!
If you like Stevie Ray Vaughan or Jimi Hendrix but don’t know the Chubbster, do yourself a favour and check him out : you will NOT be disappointed because the man is a genius!
Originally published in 2005