Keeping Music free (in every sense of the word)

I’ve been following the shift from the traditional form of music retail to something a little more random access with great interest over the last couple of years. I’m an enthusiast of anything that’s not the HMV style music shed, where a depressingly small range of new release and back cat stock is kept at the front of the store at loss leader prices, while the interesting stuff is racked at the back, extortionatly priced.

With the disappearance of my favourite music chain Fopp last year (although I’m glad to see the brand’s reemerged in a form truer to it’s independent roots, with 7 shops in key locations. Not Reading though, darnit) I’ve found that my shopping for music is all online these days. I will frequently impulse buy using my iPhone, and snag interesting stuff from links and recommendations using my RSS feeds through favourite sites like WFMU’s Beware Of The Blog, Boing Boing and The Word (all on the blogroll to your right, Readership. Have a nose). Making the decision to dump all our CDs onto hard drive has had an impact on the way I purchase and listen to music too. I’m much more likely to listen to random, off-the-wall things (take for example, my 2008 song of the year, a sweet slice of poppy Georgian jazz) and am much happier listening to my library on shuffle than to discrete albums. I grab and listen as and when the mood takes me.

The exception to this rule is, of course, vinyl, which remains a pleasure bordering on the ritualistic and fetishistic, and the one truly joyful way to spend a rainy Sunday afternoon. Rekkids and booze. Ohhhh yeeeah. That little habit is neither cheap nor easy, but I will happily contradict my earlier argument in this case.

I should offer a couple of links to recent discoveries. First up, The Damnwells are offering up their new album One Last Century for free. It’s fine and classy pop and well worth a listen. The main man of the band, Alex Dezen also gives a great argument for why he’s chosen to share his music.

I have never worked so hard or put so much of myself into a collection of recorded songs. It is for just this reason that I want to give it away. To me it makes perfect sense. I just want people to hear this music, and I don’t want them to have to enter into some kind of contractual agreement with a third party to do so. Download the record, copy it and give it to your friends, lovers, and enemies. Whatever. It’s so hard these days just to get the actual music into people’s houses and cars, let alone their ears. Besides, I know everyone’s broke, maybe I can supply the soundtrack. So, I just want to give this music away because I want people to hear it.

You can’t say fairer than that, can you?

The other model to nod at is “Pay What You Like”, which I like for the way it instantly gives the music a sense of perceived value. It’s an experiment that can work very well, as people will frequently pay more for product than you’d think if you give them the choice. Look what that method did for Radiohead, to take the high-profile example. Or, to expand the argument, what it’s starting to do for innovative restauranteurs.

With that in mind, I present Sophie Madeleine’s album Love. Life. Ukulele. One of the sweetest things I’ve heard all year, with solid tunesmithery and a sharp sense of humour. Yours for a minimum donation of three and a half quid. At the very least, check out the single, The Stars.

Finally, for those of you enjoying the pure random thrills of Spotify (and if not, why not?) here’s my first playlist. Arty Gallic electronikie. I’ve made it collaborative, so feel free to add anything you think would suit.
Merci, mon Lectorat, et appréciez la musique!

(Postscript, as it’s not out of closed beta yet, but I should point out that WFMU’s Free Music Archive is going to be positively head-expanding when it finally breaks. It won’t be for everyone, but if you have an eclectic ear, there’s enough here to keep you up for DAYS. More news on this later, and if I get any invites you’ll be the first to know. Meanwhile, the site has a couple of taster compos for your downloading pleasure, to give you an idea of whet to expect.)


Sounds of the year

Hey ho let’s go. Here, in no order of preference or alphabetical…ness… are the songs that most moved, inspired or cheered me during the last tumultuous twelvemonth. Complete with commentary, so I apologise for the length of this post. Just listen to the songs if you’d rather.

The Hold Steady: “Lord I’m Discouraged.”

“Stay Positive” is the most recent Hold Steady album, and an instant favourite. It was conspicuous by it’s absence on a lot of critics best of years lists – a criminal omission in my view. It’s an epic song cycle of Catholic mysticism, rock and roll hedonism and dirt poor street tribalism. A triumph, and on pretty constant replay here at X&HTowers. There are better tracks on the album (although the guitar solo is a thing of majestic beauty), but this is the one that gave this website it’s name, and it gets the nod for that.

AC/DC: “Rock and Roll Train”

Oh, yes, here’s the good stuff. “Black Ice” marked a return for one of my favourite bands after an eight year absence, and they did it in style by not changing a damn thing. Their irascible refusal to put the album on iTunes hacked me off a bit, but  the album gets plenty of routing into the regular playlist, so they are forgived. And I’ve bought tickets to see them at Wembley this June, which is gonna be a great day out. “Rock And Roll Train” is the chosen track. As solid a statement of intent to head up an album as any I’ve heard in a while.

Bruce Springsteen: “Radio Nowhere

“Magic” is a fantastic album, and seeing Broooce at the Emirates last summer was one of the highlights of the year for me. The three-hour show he pulled was non-stop energy, fire and thrills. I’m a rabid fan, and he lived up to every expectation. Like “Rock And Roll Train” above, “Radio Nowhere” tells you exactly where Bruce is heading from the first 20 seconds of the record. A new album coming this January, and rumours of him headlining Glasto this year are going to make me a very happy fanboy.

Elbow: “Grounds For Divorce.”

About flippin’ time that everyone caught up with me. Winning the Mercury Music Prize was one of those moments when the world made sense, and one of the most genuinely innovative bands on the planet finally got the recognition they deserve. “The Seldom-Seen Kid” is a record in widescreen. Stirring, moving and endlessly rewarding. A true highpoint.

I’ve chosen this track because, let’s face it, why would I not choose a track that starts with the line “I’ve been working on a cocktail called Grounds For Divorce”?

Eddie Vedder: “Rise

This is from the soundtrack to Sean Penn’s Into The Wild, a film of rare restraint and beauty. The same could be said of Eddie Vedder’s accompanying music. Acoustic textures and Eddie’s trademark croon makes this album a late night favourite. “Rise” is the perfect example of the pleasures that the soundtrack offers.

Fleet Foxes: “White Winter Hymnal

I played this album on Christmas Day. After Bruce doing “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town,” of course, which has been a family ritual for as long as I can remember. The Fleet Foxes album, an evocative rendition of crisp, cold winter days could become an addition to that tradition. White Winter Hymnal gets the nod here as the absolute distillation of that “Beach boys fronted by Jim Jones from My Morning Jacket in a church” vibe that permeates the album. Chilling in all the right ways.

Freezepop: “Less Talk More Rokk

A Boing Boing find, and one of those perfect pop moments that just digs under the skin and hides in the hindbrain. I love the balance of cool female vocals and deranged electronic riffage. This track also appears on Guitar Hero 2, and I can imagine it tying your fingers in knots. That intro is harsh.

The Gutter Twins: “Idle Hands

Mark Lanegan and Greg Dulli, both artists I admire greatly, got together this year as The Gutter Twins, and came up with one of the albums of the year. Epic, taut, vicious and oozing a bruised romanticism all at once. “Idle Hands” is the theme to the best horror movie never made.

Martha Wainwright: “Tower Of Song

Time to get meta on your asses. I had the distinct pleasure to see both Leonard Cohen and Martha Wainwright live this year. The Martha gig was especially memorable, as it was an intimate gig at the Borders in Oxford St for winners of an online competition. It was a thirty minute acoustic set, which showcased her brilliant album “I Know You’re Married But I’ve Got Feelings Too” (one of the titles of the year too!) That album contains a track called “Tower Song”. This, though, is a cover of my favourite Cohen track for a Mojo covermount.

The cross-contextuality makes my head spin.

Dig, Lazurus, Dig!!!“: Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds

Three exclamation points in a song is always worthy of comment. A big, fat swagger of a track from a big fat swagger of an album. Nick Cave has never been afraid to deal with issues of faith and filth, and he’s utterly confident on both on this record. I find I drop into a strut whenever this comes up on the playlist. Don’t be afraid to do the same.

5:05“: Paul Westerberg

This track appeared as a free download earlier in the year, as a taster for a new album that PW was going to release under a similar model as Radiohead’s “In Rainbows”. As yet, that album is yet to appear, but the ramshackle charm of “5:05” makes me eager to see if the album can live up to the promise of the single. The title? It’s the duration of the track, of course…

The Rip“: Portishead

Soundtracky noir and I have always got along especially well, so it’s no surprise that I’m a Portishead fan. But 3, their long-awaited third album took all the preconceptions about what they were, gave them a noogie, a spitclean and a long hot kiss and sent them off to do great things. I love the single, Machine Gun, the best use of syndrums since New Order’s Blue Monday, but The Rip is a movie in miniature, a transforming monster of a track that gets better with every listen.

The Great Gig In The Sky“: Pink Floyd

Richard Wright’s death finally ended all speculation of a Pink Floyd reunion. It was a deeply poignant event, as he had been playing live again with Dave Gilmour, and was beginning to be regarded as the quiet still point at the heart of the Floyd. I offer up his greatest moment, the song he wrote that is the highwater mark of their greatest album. I always found it especially moving, and even more so now.

Consoler Of The Lonely“: The Raconteurs

This came out of nowhere. Released within a fortnight of it’s completion, “Consolers Of The Lonely” is a monster of an album, like “Music From Big Pink” as played by Led Zeppelin. Jack White has never been on better high-hollerin’ form. Love it to bits. The first track tells you exactly what to expect. Incidentally, the first verse describes the low points of my mental and physical state over this year pretty accurately. Another reason I relate so strongly to it, I guess…

I’m Gonna DJ“: REM

2008 saw my Georgia boys finally step up and deliver the album they’d promised for the past decade. A tight, sharp, bright shot of sunshine, Accelerate included a live favourite that was part of the mythos to such an extent that lyrics from it had featured on official tour t-shirts. It’s great to see it finally on record, cos it’s a stomping beast. Music will provide the light. You cannot resist.

Please Read The Letter”Alison Krauss and Robert Plant

“Raising Sand” is a spare, intimate and subtle album that feels like an intrusion into a delicate, careful courtship. Planty calms the wailing loverman act, tempering his urgent heat in the face of Alison Krauss’ sweet ice-cream coolness. “Please Read The Letter” is the track that does it for me, a tale of yearning, loss and sacrifice that fills me with emotions that I cannot quite name.

“Inní Mér Syngur Vitleysingur“: Sigur Rós

One of my favourite bands and one that I was lucky enough to see live this year, at the Westminster Methodist Hall. At this point in their career, they have learned that melancholy can only get you so far. They lightened up, and started to sing and dance. With a track as infectious as this, you can only join in. Even if you don’t speak Icelandic.

Oh, and one of the weirdest points of the year – Sigur Ros interviewed on More4 News about the collapse of the Icelandic banking system. A true WTF moment.

I Feel Alright“: Steve Earle

The final season of The Wire was the major TV event of the year for me, and the soundtrack to that show, “… And All The Pieces Matter” is a perfect counterpart. This Steve Earle track, that played over the end of the final episode of season 4, sums up the show for me. Bitter, beaten, yet eternally hopeful in the face of a cruel and arbitrary universe that seems to delight in punishing you for doing the right thing. And it’s said Americans don’t do irony…

That’s Not My Name“: The Ting Tings

I heard this for the first time on Jonathon Ross’ show, and instantly had that spinal zap-chill that told me it would be a phenomenal hit. Feminist anthem, the 21st century’s own Clapping Song (a debt that Katie and Jules acknowledged by having a double dutch crew on stage with them at Reading), an earworm of the highest order. It’s a track that polarises people, but I bloody love it.

Krimanchuli“: Orera

The random one. Not even sure where I heard this first, but this dose of Georgian jazz-pop gets my tag as Song Of The Year. Dating back to the late 60’s, it starts as a choral exercise of rare medieval power, before morphing into a finger-popping bounce groove that just grows and grows. It’s one of the reasons I love random surfing for music, and shuffle remains my playback mode of choice. Quite simply, I love it when music surprises me, and that’s something that every song I’ve featured here has done.

I hope you approve of my choices. Here’s to more of the same this year!

Muxtape out, Blip.Fm in.

Guess it had to happen. Justin of the mighty MP3 streaming service Muxtape has finally called it a day after months of pointless wrangling, negotiations and lobbying with record companies and the RIAA. Such a shame. It was a great service for radio streaming, with a clean, sharp interface and a musically literate community that never ceased to come up with nice surprises. I didn’t tend to build many mixes myself, partially as I don’t have the encyclopaedic music collections of a lot of the good Muxers, and partially cos most of my music tends to be AAC rather than MP3.

I’ve played around with Mixwit for a while (as you can see in one of the earliest posts to X&HT last month) but it can be a bit glitchy. is a favourite now and on the iPhone was an absolute gem up until the 2.1 update broke it. Seriously, it’s a way of carrying the whole of your music collection around with you without needing a big storage device. I’ve just started playing with, which seems like a lot of fun. Kind of like Twitter for music. And in fact, you can hook it into Twitter and your feed, so you can harangue your followers with your suspect musical tastes. Which sounds like a winner to me. Radio Conojito. Coming in your ears.