Tuesday, December 29, 2015

My Ten Best Albums of 2015 - 5 through 1

As we approach the year’s end, I’m offering you my picks for the Top Ten albums of the last twelve months. As I stated at the outset, this list is as subjective as they come; I've abandoned any pretense at critical “objectivity”! You can read Part One Here. Covered albums ten through six in the first half. Now, Part Two - my totally subjective list of the five best albums for 2015!

Commuting 45 minutes each way to work and back, I listen to a lot of music in the car. As the perfect album length is about 45 minutes,* that usually works out to an album each way. Album number five got into heavy car rotation this late summer and fall.

It is known.

5.  FOALS - What Went Down

FOALS make great driving tunes. I wasn’t familiar with the UK’s Foals, though they’ve been around for a few years. First I heard from them was “Mountain At My Gates” from their latest What Went Down. While that single got my attention, when I listened to the rest of the album I was drawn in. Deeper. Repeated listens as I drove along. “Night Swimmers” is my favorite, with its big, thick meaty, bouncing guitar riffs. “A Knife in the Ocean” is kind of epic. There's a lot here to sink your teeth into.

4. Ryley Walker - Primrose Green

Ryley Walker is a force of nature, finger-picking his way through improvised arrangements and jazz flavored progressions that somehow coalesce into songs on his latest, Primrose Green. Listened to this one repeatedly for at least a month before it’s release at the end of March. The title cut made it into rotation on The Point.

Some tunes veer into true folk territory, like “On the Banks of the Old Kishwaukee” or “The High Road”. Others dabble in the jazz world like “Summer Dress” and “Sweet Satisfaction”. Love discovering a new artist, finding a brand new source for music. Although live... Walker is an undisciplined jammer, and a bit overly self-indulgent.

All the albums in my Top Ten have been solid entertainment for me this year – but my Top Three are somehow more than that. These next three albums are new all-time favorites – I’ll be listening to these three for years to come!

3. Darlingside - Birds Say

Darlingside are a revelation! Had heard the band’s name, as they’ve been playing around New England for a few years, but this is a sort of newer incarnation of the band. With Birds Say, Darlingside became a solid four-piece folk rock band, with solid harmonies stronger than any heard in the genre since the heyday of CSN. “Go Back” was promoted to us at radio, and we’re playing it in rotation at The Point.

The band stopped by the studio and played live back in September. To prepare for the interview I took the album home for a listen. WOW! It blew me away! I was astounded by the tight harmonies, the clever lyrics, the interesting arrangements. It’s hard not to go a little overboard – it really broke through and won over my soul. Live in the studio, the harmonies were jaw-dropping. Give a listen as they perform “God of Loss” and “Go Back

Great albums weave their way into your life. I was listening to and getting to know the album as my girlfriend and I got to know each other. The songs on Birds Say wove themselves into our shared experience in beautiful ways – I sang “Good For You” to her, she loved “Volcano Sky”, “Do you Ever Live” sounded like my heart singing to my head… for many reasons, Birds Say rose into my Top Three.

2. Blur - The Magic Whip

I've gone into great detail elsewhere on this blog about how - personally - this has been quite a year for Blur. The Magic Whip is a big part of why. In true Blur fashion, the album has been bigger in the UK and the rest of the world than it was here in the USA, though it has scored well on some end-of-year lists. Even besides this one. The album's first track "There Are Too Many Of Us" arrived in late March. Had me on the first listen - had no idea Blur sounded like that!

"Lonesome Street" was Whip's actual first single. The song grew on me, though it wasn't an immediate favorite. I'm still not the biggest fan of the second "teaser" track, either, "Go Out". But I'm not complaining. Sandwiched between those two on the album is "New World Towers", a moody piece that sets the other two livelier tunes off nicely.

As you get deeper in, the album truly soars. "Thought I Was A Spaceman" throws off a post-apocalyptic chill vibe that kicks up and intensifies as the song stretches out. Sounded great when they band performed it live at Madison Square Garden in October! See that other article for more on that. "I Broadcast" - the next tune - had an instant appeal for some reason. Might be that, well... I broadcast (http://pointfm.com).

The next five songs make this album incredible and awesome. "My Terracotta Heart" sounds like it could be a song about the band, the Albarn/Coxon songwriting partnership/friendship - or it may be a love song. Maybe both - it sort of shifts in subject. Coxon's guitar licks are very tasty, the individual notes picked out in a lilting, almost classical fashion.

"There Are Too Many Of Us" - praised above - comes next, another change in gears. Find myself singing along with "Ghost Ship", which follows. "I'm on a ghost ship driving my heart... to Hong Kong" - think that's what he's singing. "Pyongyang" is next, based on a visit of Albarn's to North Korea. It has the sort of mini-epic feel "This Is A Low" radiates. Coxon's guitar leads the way with a vaguely menacing, eastern-sounding riff that also manages to smack of spaghetti western soundtracks.

And then we hit "Ong Ong" - pure, beautiful, universal pop rock! "La la la la la la la la la la... I wanna be with you... " The video is charming.

"Mirrorball" closes the album. The last five high-impact tunes set this one up to fail, but instead it rises to the occasion, a perfect album closer, synth strings toward the end lending again a sort of eastern sound to the music. The "surprise" album came together in Hong Kong and the city throws a broad shadow across the work, from the cover art to the many musical echoes from beginning to end.

Blur's Parklife has been called a survey of English pop rock*. The Magic Whip is sort of a survey of Blur. A now mature, reunited band rekindles earlier magics - earlier than Think Tank, certainly. And yet, while looking backwards, they update those sounds, moving forward, simultaneously.

* ("...a summation of British pop music up to that point in all its occasionally contradictory, throwaway glory." http://time.com/75615/parklife-blur-britpop-20th-anniversary/)

They are the ice cream men, dishing out some new favorites with familiar flavors from the Blur freezer: "Magic Whip?"

Try some for yourself...

And then there's #1...

1. Blitzen Trapper “All Across This Land”

I've always loved rock; grew up on rock music. Before I "got my MTV" I used to stay up late on Saturday nights watching Don Kirschner's Rock Concert. Though the sixties and more than half of the seventies were gone before I clued in, still got to wait for the record store to open to get the new Led Zeppelin album when In Through the Out Door arrived. Later still, working in radio, got to meet some amazing talents, like Stevie Ray Vaughan.

Even got to watch as a local band I supported and got to know blew up huge, as Phish went from the stage at Nectar's here in Burlington on to worldwide fame and fortune. Pretty damn cool. Yet Phish aren't known primarily for their albums, but rather for their live performances. Though they've conquered the live world several times over, they have yet to record a Great Rock Album. They have some good ones (Hoist and Farmhouse are my favorites. Your results may vary), but not a singular Great one.

Not bringing this up to dis Phish but instead to praise Blitzen Trapper, because All Across This Land IS a Great Rock Album!

Can't stop listening to it. I've been rather effusive with my praise for the work on social media... and on this blog: "...a real trick to release an album that's timeless enough to sound like it could have come out in the 1970's yet doesn't sound dated today. Blitzen Trapper have managed that with All Across This Land..."

This is quality stuff, "Solid Rock," as Mark Knopfler once sang on that Great Rock Album Making Movies by Dire Straits. Its timelessness allows it to sit comfortably in the Great Rock Album pantheon alongside other American Rock Greats like Tom Petty's Damn The Torpedoes, Bruce Springsteen's Born To Run or John Mellencamp's Scarecrow.

Eric Earley's songwriting here evokes the American experience the way those albums and music from The Band or Neil Young do (yeah, even though those two acts are mostly Canadian). Music that comes from here. That American experience now includes growing up listening to those albums. They're part of the fabric woven anew by Earley's rock and roll songcraft into tunes like "Rock and Roll (Was Made For You)" with its universality and timelessness.

There are, perhaps, echoes of those musicians mentioned above throughout All Across This Land, but they do not dominate. This is not slavish imitation but new creation along the same continuum. A new Great Rock Album! Did a detailed review when it was released here on the blog, and I'll refer you to that for a multi-track run-through. But it's simple, really. If you love rock like I do, you should pick up All Across This Land by Blitzen Trapper. My number one for 2015!

Here they are again:

1. Blitzen Trapper - All Across This Land
2. Blur - The Magic Whip
3. Darlingside - Birds Say
4. Ryley Walker - Primrose Green
5. FOALS - What Went Down
6. The Amazing - Picture You
7. Madaila - The Dance
8. My Morning Jacket - The Waterfall
9. JEFF The Brotherhood - Wasted On the Dream
10. The Mountain Says No - JV

Read About 6 to 10 here.

Check out a couple of free playlists I've made of the year's best music over at 8Tracks.com:

Monday, December 21, 2015

My Ten Best Albums of 2015 - 10 through 6

As we approach the end of 2015, I give you my “Ten Best” albums of the year - ta da! I'm a music director at a "Triple-A" - Adult Album Alternative - radio network, The Point (http://pointfm.com), in Vermont, but this list isn't a professional sort of list - it's as subjective as they come. Music is a subjective experience, after all – the ultimate critique is simply “I Like This” – so I'm abandoning any pretense at critical “objectivity” and just going for it!

I hear a LOT of music over the course of the year. These ten had an impact on me personally, had songs I loved and played repeatedly, driving in my car, at home – not necessarily things you would have heard me play on the radio, though some I did. Here they come in reverse order. And who knows? Maybe I can turn you on to something you haven’t yet heard – introduce you to one of your new favorite albums.

10. The Mountain Says No - JV

One of two Vermont bands whose albums make the list. Ben Madox and Jedd Kettler, veteran Vermont musicians whose former bands include  farm, power The Mountain Says No. The tunes move from plaintive folk delicacy to hammering hard rock, sometimes in the same song. They're also amazing live, incredibly tight and powerful.

Both Madox and Kettler are good vocalists, but together shine even brighter, their two voices combining into a harmonious third, put to use to great effect on "The Mountain" among other tunes. "The Bomb" is another stand-out, with a wry sense of fun and whip-smart lyrics. Available at bandcamphttps://themountainsaysno.bandcamp.com/

9.  Jeff the Brotherhood - Wasted On the Dream

Back in the spring my friend Matt asked if I'd heard Ian Anderson from Jethro Tull on the new JEFF The Brotherhood song. What? He played me "Black Cherry Pie". Hot damn, there was a little blustery flute from Ian on the tune! The rest of the album rocks, great Friday afternoon driving home music with loud, aggressive guitar and propulsive drums. There's a Weezer influence here, but they make the sound their own. Brothers Jake and Jamin Orrall bring the goods. And Ian Anderson.

Didn't really know the band before this, and it kind of blew my mind to discover they were the sons of Robert Ellis Orrall. Evidently, he's kind of a big shot songwriter and producer these days, and was a country star for a bit, but I used to be a fan back in the early 80s when he was an up-and-coming local rock musician in Massachusetts. He had a hit back then with Carlene Carter - "I Couldn't Say No". Cue bad video:

But I digress...

8. My Morning Jacket - The Waterfall

Was not sure I liked this album at first. Evil Urges is still an all-time favorite album, but Circuital felt uneven to me. I wasn't sure what to make of this newest My Morning Jacket effort, either, at the start. Gave it a few listens, at home, in the car. Heard it out socially. Liked "Compound Fracture" and first single "Big Decisions" but the rest of it wasn't connecting with me for some reason.

And then, one day? It just kind of clicked. The opening track "Believe (Nobody Knows)" wedged itself into my consciousness and wouldn't let go, opening me up to the rest of the album as a whole. And that's it, too - The Waterfall is best experienced in it's entirety - the rush of the waterfall, perhaps. It's not a concept album, unless the concept is life in general, which would make most albums concept albums, so no... but it does feel like a unified whole.

7. Madaila - The Dance

Out of the ashes of a band called Chamberlin rose Madaila! Well, Plato Ears, DALY, then Madaila. Saw them live first as DALY and they were tight, fun and funky with occasional flashes of Prince, EDM and other stuff. It's essentially the creation of Mark Daly, the lead singer and songwriter, with an assist from Eric Maier, also a former member of Chamberlin, and Jer Coons. Live these days they're joined by Willoughby Morse and Dan Ryan.

The Dance was preceded by the video and single "Give Me All Your Love" late last year, which we gave a lot of love to at The Point. Sounded great on the air! And they came in and played it live in the studio in March just before their album release party at Burlington's City Hall:

Pretty amazing performance given this was one of the first times they had recreated the track in a live acoustic setting!

The Dance is a strong piece of work. Closing track "Trying to Be Heard" also went into rotation at the radio station. Nationally known acts don't always get a second track, but Madaila did... and my boss, Zeb Norris, the program director, doesn't play favorites, not with local bands or any band, for that matter. It made it in on its own merits. The entire album went into rotation in my car - great summer driving music!

6.The Amazing - Picture You

The final entry in these lower five albums of my Ten Best comes from a Swedish band I came across for the first time with the release of their newest album near the start of the year. Their atmospheric, breathy vocal washes and slight early-Pink Floyd influence made this album the perfect soundtrack to the early winter months in Vermont. The two parts of title track "Picture You" show off the two sides of the band. the plaintive opening pop tune not only echoing with reverbed vocals and strummed guitars but also the influence of the Church or the Cure, while the second part's hypnotic repeated guitar progressions surge with and release tension in slow, rhythmic waves.

The video is striking for its simplicity and effectiveness.

The Point played the first section as a radio tune, provided to us by the record company as the "Picture You" "Radio Edit". We instead called it "Picture You - Part One" because that's kind of how we are. Of course, I still much prefer the longer version with the second half jam! Other tracks here jam out as well - there's a beautiful, sprawling expansiveness to many of the tunes on Picture You.

This album got me through many miles of driving over the early months of the year. This one, and the album which comes in as my number four. I received pre-release promo copies of both Picture You and number four early. I'd almost listened to both too much before they were even released to the general public!

Come Back for Part Two - with the Top Five of my Ten Best - in my next post.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

"The Best Lack All Conviction, While The Worst..."

The more he resists seems the more authority is handed our former assassin BC, Bernard Campion. He's now Pope of the New catholic Church (NcC) and a CEO on the Universal Trade Zone's ruling council! But is anyone powerful enough to stop the plague now decimating humankind? Find out in Chapter Seventeen of Vatican Ambassador! Join host, writer and narrator Mike Luoma for free audio Science Fiction every week on Glow-in-the-Dark Radio!  New or need to catch up? No worries! Mike sets the scene before the chapter rolls, so you can enjoy the adventure! Free to subscribe on iTunes, too.

Special Thanks to Andrew p. Weston for the great Review of Vatican Ambassador! Check out Andy's work, most recently Hell Bound and The IXhttp://andrewpweston.com 

* Get Alibi Jones FREE when you join the mailing list: http://eepurl.com/0_Z7z 

* Get your copy of Vatican Ambassador, details on the blog: http://glowinthedarkradio.blogspot.com/2015/08/get-your-copy-of-vatican-ambassador.html

* Listen to the "Best of 2015" Mix @ 8Tracks.com: http://8tracks.com/brotherzag/best-of-2015

* Read about Mike's "Blur-y" year on the blog: http://glowinthedarkradio.blogspot.com/2015/12/2015-my-blur-y-year.html 

* Home(s): http://glowinthedarkradio.com  http://mikeluoma.com https://www.facebook.com/glowinthedarkradio  https://www.facebook.com/mikeluoma

Saturday, December 12, 2015

"I'm the F'ing Pope!"

Our former assassin BC - Bernard Campion – has become, as he puts it, the "F'ing Pope"! An odd turn of events has elevated BC to the top spot in the New catholic Church (NcC). Listen in to discover what happens next in Chapters Fifteen and Sixteen of Vatican Ambassador - on Glow-in-the-Dark Radio! Writer Mike Luoma reads his Science Fiction every week - get a quick "story-so-far" to catch up and then enjoy the audio adventure! Subscribe free on iTunes.

* Get Alibi Jones FREE when you join the mailing list: http://eepurl.com/0_Z7z

* Get your copy of Vatican Ambassador, details on the blog: http://glowinthedarkradio.blogspot.com/2015/08/get-your-copy-of-vatican-ambassador.html

* Read about Mike's "Blur-y" year on the blog: http://glowinthedarkradio.blogspot.com/2015/12/2015-my-blur-y-year.html
* Check out the "Best of Blur" YouTube Playlist: http://ow.ly/VOfZM
* Listen to the "Brit Pop!" Mix @ 8Tracks.com: http://8tracks.com/brotherzag/brit-pop-flashback 

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Friday, December 11, 2015

2015: My Blur-y Year

Blur Who?

As a long-time radio Music Director you might think I've heard it all, but no. Kind of impossible to hear everything - the sheer amount of new music released each year is staggering. Do try to find and listen to as much new music as possible, but stuff still gets by me. Back in the '90s, the U.K. band Blur got by me, even though I was Music Director at an Album-oriented Rock station at the time. Maybe they were only being promoted to Alternative radio. Not sure. Simply don't remember them from back then.

Before this year, I only really knew the band's "Song 2" and "There's No Other Way" - and those tunes mostly because they were on the playlist at The Point, the Adult Album Alternative station where I'm now Music Director (http://pointfm.com). We did play Blur lead singer Damon Albarn's solo release "Mr. Tembo" on The Point last year - loved the tune as soon as I heard it, a little ditty about an elephant who made himself at home in an African village. I was also vaguely familiar with Gorillaz - Albarn's "other" project that has in some ways brought him greater fame in the States than Blur.

But now? As 2015 draws to a close, Blur have become one of my all-time favorite bands! Own all their albums. Saw them live at Madison Square Garden - and had a very cool encounter after the show - more on that later. I feel compelled to compile playlists and write posts about them (obviously). Yup, 2015 turned into a very Blur-y year. How and why? It all began with their new album, the reunion effort The Magic Whip, and the release of the first "teaser" track.

"There Are Too Many Of Us" - First taste of Whip

March 20th, Blur released the video for "There Are Too Many of Us". A martial beat opens the tune as Albarn sings of overpopulation and the change of generations. About a minute in, things kick up a notch - drummer Dave Rowntree doubles his efforts as bassist Alex James brings on the bottom end, the keyboards intensify, and guitarist Graham Coxon weaves in subtle electric menace - I was instantly hooked. One of the best songs I'd heard in a long time!

Got in touch with Blur's American label Warner Brothers and found it wasn't the lead single, but they still sent me the "teaser" track and we started playing it on the air. The single turned out to be "Lonesome Street". At first, I wasn't into it. In retrospect, it makes perfect sense as the lead single for the UK and the rest of the world - it's nearly quintessential Blur, a distillation of many elements the band was known for through the years. It's also a great tune!

"Go Out" an aggressive, bawdy growler, came out as another "teaser" track, another track that didn't connect with me at first. As I loved "There Are Too Many of Us" - and ignorant as I was of the Blur catalog - the other track choices didn't make sense to me then. They do now.

Because now, I get Blur. It's kind of awesome to discover a new band to love that's really an old band, with a pretty killer catalog of work. Who just so happen to have put out a surprise (and surprisingly great) new album that stands up with their older stuff!

Traveling Backwards Into Brit Pop

The Magic Whip arrived at the end of April. Getting into the new album over the next month, I grew curious about Blur's earlier material, sampling some lesser known (to me) older tunes of theirs as I delved back into Brit Pop music in general.Started checking out Blur's greatest hits alongside music from Pulp, Suede, and other UK Brit Pop purveyors. (Want to listen to a playlist of classic Brit Pop? Made one here at 8Tracks.com).

As I explored Blur's music, an article at AV Club drew my attention - The AV Club boils Blur's entire career down to a one-hour mix - by Marah Eakin. AV Club has a "Power Hour" thing they do, where they feature an hour's worth of music by a band along with a bunch of background information. This one was great. Learned a lot about the band. I also made a mix from the article's suggested tunes, with a couple others added on based on the comments after, hit Play and began to get to know Blur better.

That "Power Hour" did its job! Eakin's list wasn't just made up of big UK hits by the band but also included album cuts, showing off other sides of Blur. The mix revealed to me a complex band capable of mining the entire British songbook that preceded them as they created their own ongoing attempts at self-expression. Some lyrics followed in the wry tradition of Ray Davies' observational sketches, recalling The Kinks, while rhythmically the band occasionally echoed XTC... sometimes simultaneously, as in "Tracy Jacks", for example. I had no idea...

I later looked up Eakin on Twitter and thanked her for the article - my entry point into the world of Blur. Two of the songs she included hit me hard - loved the crackling seething fun of "On Your Own" (from Blur - 1997) - much more musically appealing to me than the more famous "Song 2" from that same album.

And "This Is A Low" from 1994's Parklife was simply sublime, the soaring chorus lifting me up, letting my soul fly. The first time I heard Coxon's twin guitar leads on the tune they sent shivers down my spine. These weren't tunes I was simply liking in passing - they were impacting my psyche, my soul. Deep impressions. I was loving this stuff! Ripped a couple of their albums into iTunes and began checking out more Blur.

A Stroll in the Parklife

Decided to get more serious with my Blur explorations and ordered the 2012 deluxe 2 CD UK reissue of their 1994 masterpiece Parklife. Though mostly unknown in the US aside from the infectious dance single "Girls & Boys", the album was "a landmark in British Rock Music" as its Wikipedia entry notes, selling more than 3 million copies worldwide and garnering rather massive critical acclaim, debuting at number one on the British charts. My copy arrived in early June and I dived into what, in some ways, is a survey of British pop music filtered through Blur's own musical sensibilities.

Parklife is a brilliant album. The title track is a thoroughly British piece of work with native narration by guest Phil Daniels - who played Jimmy in the movie version of Quadrophenia. Along with the title cut, "This is a Low" and "Girls & Boys", "End of a Century" and "To the End" made up the album's singles, all strong tracks. The deeper album cuts - already-mentioned "Tracy Jacks",  "Badhead" (still performed live in concert), the punk thrash of "Bank Holiday", psychedelic "Far Out", the wordplay fun of "London Loves", new wavy "Trouble In The Message Center" - all pack a wollop. No filler here - although the two brief instrumentals  - waltz-y "The Debt Collector" and Looney Tunes-ish "Lot 105" - aren't what you'd call substantial, but they do serve as sort of "side enders".

As mentioned above, it was "This Is a Low" from Parklife that really stunned me. One of my all-time favorite songs, now. Can't believe I'd not heard it before this year - it has the sort of timeless quality that makes you feel like it's existed forever. I want to play it for everyone I know...

In mid-June, the band announced U.S. tour dates for late October. Decided I needed to see my new favorite band live and lined up a pair of tickets for their Madison Square Garden show October 23rd! Also decided I needed to step up my exploration of their catalog and ordered the follow-up to Parklife, 1995's The Great Escape - again ordering up a 2 disc deluxe reissue from the UK. Began to think about listening to an older Blur album each month leading up to the concert - The Great Escape would be my July listening.

No Escape-ing Blur

When The Great Escape arrived, I found that I didn't stop listening to Parklife but instead listened to both albums, the twin pinnacles of Blur's Brit Pop years. The Magic Whip was becoming a favorite new album as well - it was my "Summer of Blur"! I'd begun posting about my new musical obsession on facebook and it turned out my friends Rachel and Chris were both huge fans of the band from back in their heyday - so I had some Blur "cheerleaders" cheering on and "Liking" and commenting on these new favorite songs as I posted and wrote about them.

Rachel called The Great Escape, "Parklife on crack" - heh. It is a "shinier" album than Parklife - it's brassier, featuring more horns in its arrangements - more strings, too - and brighter production. The classic British musical aromas are still there, from trace whiffs of The Who and Kinks to Johnny Rotten. But it's weaker than it predecessor in one sense - it feels a little long.

A bit of filler here? Perhaps. The second half of the album kind of loses me - really can't listen to "Ernold Sayne" at all. The strongest tune on the later part of the album - "Entertain Me" - only really came to life in a new, substantially remixed version well after the original came out.

But the front end of the album is loaded with delicious, complex British pop rock. A couple of album cuts have stuck with me in the oddest way - just kind of love "He Thought of Cars" and "Mr Robinson's Quango" - the latter reminds me of Madness when the horns kick in! There's a touch of Madness in the album's big single "Country House" to my ears, too - and I love it!

The crown jewel of the album is "The Universal". As great a tune as it is, this is one of those rare occasions where a video makes a song even better - the Clockwork Orange inspired video draws out the underlying menace in the tune, highlights the bitter taste hiding behind the sweetness of the strings and vocal delivery. Both Rachel and Chris said the same thing after I told them I was getting The Great Escape - "You've gotta watch the video for 'The Universal'!" They're right. You really do:

Was still listening to The Great Escape in August when an interesting synchronicity occurred. The 20th anniversary of the Brit Pop "showdown" between Blur and Oasis rolled around. Blur moved the release of their "Country House" single to August 14th, 1995 to go head-to-head with the release of Oasis' "Roll With It"."Country House" sold 274,000 singles to 216,000 of "Roll With It" and Blur won that battle, but as Oasis ultimately outsold them overall, and because Blur didn't impact the US market the way Oasis did, some suggest Blur lost the "war". But - going by last man standing - Blur's triumphant comeback this year has caused some to reconsider that appraisal.

It's All A-Blur...

A funny thing happened on my way to acquiring Blur albums once a month. In July, I was comparing notes with a record promoting friend of mine on recent music purchases. Working in the industry, we can get our hands on many new things promotionally - free. But both he and I indulge musical passions by picking up music that is (presumably) not available through channels. He told me about some picture discs he'd picked up. I related buying my deluxe Blur discs from the UK - had just gotten The Great Escape in a few days earlier.
     "Did you open it?!?" he asked.
     "What?" I said. "Yeah. I mean, I wanted to listen to it. Why?"
     "Dude - we handled those reissues here in the states," he told me. "I still have some here in my office. What do you need?"

So this happened:

Suddenly, I had everything by Blur. Everything. I'd even bought & downloaded their 2012 reunion single "Under the Westway"/"The Puritan" back in May.

It was a little overwhelming!

As August rolled along I began listening to the 1997 self-titled album. Charmed by the Brit Pop albums, this left turn was a little jarring at first. At the time, Blur had absorbed the noisy new rock of Pavement, Dinosaur Jr. and other underground indie bands busting out in the States. It's a different sound for the band.

Though "Song 2" was certainly familiar. And "On Your Own" was already a new favorite thanks to the AV Club mix. "Beetlebum" grew on me quickly. But... I was kind of reaching a saturation point. There was only so much I could take in. I tried Modern Life Is Rubbish next, only listened a couple of times. Then 13, which does have some beautiful music on it in "Tender" and "Coffee and TV". Listened a few times. I do keep going back to those tunes, but not the album as a whole.

The "Coffee and TV" video has become a fan-favorite "classic" - the milk carton ("Milky"?) keeps showing up on merch and in promo art!

My brief foray into 13 was followed by a listen through of the remastered Leisure -  the original U.S. version of which I'd ripped back in May. Oddly, the U.S. release didn't include "Sing" - later made famous in the soundtrack for Trainspotting - and the tracks were in a different order. As you might guess from it's best-known tune "There's No Other Way" it's a very Manchester-Scene ("Madchester") sounding album.

"She's So High" is another fun track, but neither it nor the album gives a true indication of where the band would go as they matured. Albarn said if he had his way, people would forget about the album and Blur would begin with "Popscene" - the next single after the Leisure album (found on disc two of the reissued Modern Life Is Rubbish, conveniently enough. Albarn's comment leads off that reissue's liner notes).

If Albarn is into editing the band's career, he might want to leave off 2003's Think Tank on the other end. There were distractions and change as they made it. Albarn had started Gorillaz. And Graham Coxon, fresh out of rehab and late on the scene to record, was asked to leave the band as they started making Think Tank, turning Blur into a three piece.

I didn't listen to it much - it's an odd-sounding album. The AV Club mix didn't include any songs from the album, though I originally added 2 at the end of my mix based on suggestions in the comments to the article, "Ambulance" and "Out of Time". I don't know many Blur fans who care for the album, though songs from it are well-received live. Overall, never quite got into Think Tank - a few tracks but not the whole thing.

But The Magic Whip continued to charm. "Ong Ong" was released mid-summer as a single with a goofy, gaming-inspired video and a sing-along chorus: "La la la la la la la la la la la la - I Wanna Be With You." "Ghost Ship" was another track I hit repeat on a few times. But it was "Pyongyang" I found myself mesmerized by as summer came to an end: "And the pink light that bathed the Great Leaders is fading..." - a lyrical, haunting reminiscence of Albarn's trip to North Korea.

Blur Plays MSG in NYC

September turned into October and the live show approached. Invited my Blur "cheerleader" Rachel to join me for the show - as huge a fan as she was back in the '90s, she'd never seen them live! We made our way into New York City to Madison Square Garden and saw an incredible concert, one of only two shows Blur played here in the States. We had killer seats - as you can see from Rachel's picture.

The concert was almost the culmination of an incredible year of getting to know Blur. Heard so many songs I'd hoped to hear live, including "End of A Century" and "This Is A Low". And though I'm not used to going to shows that get written up and reviewed in NME and Rolling Stone, there it was! The critics seemed to feel it was as much of a triumph as I did. But the night wasn't over yet. As guests of the band and the label, we were invited to the after party at a basement level ping-pong themed club.

Though we had bracelets to get inside the party, we didn't have laminates to get into the "special room" off the main area, though Rachel tried. She was bumming out about that when I tapped her on the shoulder and pointed out who was playing ping-pong next to us - Damon Albarn!

Rachel later threw caution to the wind after Damon finished playing and went up and said hello to him as he mingled. She had to. I later realized I had to as well, and walked up at an opportune time. Introduced myself and talked a little about The Point, and playing their stuff on the radio. Told him I was a late convert to his music, wasn't clued in back in the 90s. When I told him it was "Mr Tembo" that first got me into his music in the year past, he brightened up.

"I played it for him, for Mr. Tembo!" Albarn said, and he told me the story. He'd gone back over to Africa this past summer to Mr. Tembo's village to play for them. The elephant at first ignored him, but Damon said as he played his tune the elephant came over and got its trunk right in Damon's face, sniffing his breath!

We chatted a little more about the elephant, the trip and the song. On a whim, I asked him if he liked Science Fiction. "Some," he said. I got a VATICAN ASSASSIN card out of my wallet and handed it to him. "When I'm not on the radio, I write science fiction - that was my first novel and I give it away for free. I've enjoyed your creativity. Thought I'd share some of mine with you, if you're interested." He took the card.

"That's what it's all about, isn't it?" He grinned. Didn't want to take up more of his time, so I smiled, said thanks and began to turn to walk away. "Good meeting you, Late Convert," he said. I said "you too, Damon," or something like that and went on my way. At least, that's how I remember it now. May have smoothed over the rough spots in my memory.

Would have liked to have met Graham Coxon - I've become a big fan of his guitar work - but he was nowhere to be seen (Rachel was sure he was hiding in the "special room", but we never did find out). Later had a chance to say hello to drummer Dave Rowntree in passing, but it wasn't as cool as meeting and talking to Damon. That was the true culmination of my Blur experience of 2015, from knowing nearly nothing about them to full-immersion fan in less than a year, from knowing a couple tunes to seeing them live at MSG and meeting the lead singer at the after party. Nice.

My Blur-y year!

For those who might like to check out more music from Blur, I've put together a YouTube playlist. Thanks again to Marah Eakin and AV Club for the "Power Hour" on Blur - this playlist is influenced by their introductory mix. Click and enjoy!

Saturday, December 05, 2015

Recalled to the Vatican!

How do you follow up a career as an assassin and ambassador for the Vatican? BC - Bernard Campion – is about to find out! Join BC as he travels to Rome, recalled to the Vatican in Vatican Ambassador Chapter Fourteen on this week's episode of Glow-in-the-Dark Radio! Listen in for free audio adventure every week - host Mike Luoma reads you his Science Fiction, with a quick "story-so-far" to get you caught up so you can enjoy each week's chapter!

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* Get your copy of Vatican Ambassador, details on the blog: http://glowinthedarkradio.blogspot.com/2015/08/get-your-copy-of-vatican-ambassador.html 

* See the "Literary Archaeology" video mentioned on the podcast: https://youtu.be/xjxfLayyxUc 

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