The Willies 2009- Review Of The Year

"I Only Wish I Could Give All The Winners One Of These"

Hello, and welcome to my (admittedly belated) musical review of 2009.

2009 seems to be best summed up as a year of nostalgia. More than any other year in the Noughties, 2009 seemed to be heavily harking back to the 1980s. Synths were making a comeback in all forms of music. 80s stars were hitting the limelight once again, for a variety of reasons from comebacks to deaths. In general, people seemed to wish they were still wearing leg warmers and listening to New Wave in a club somewhere. Maybe we just wanted to be happy in the economic downturn, and with the proliferation of songs telling us to dance appearing in the charts, I think this is a definite possibility.

2009 was the year artists such as Florence and The Machine, Lady Gaga and Susan Boyle came to prominence, showing the power of both originality and the industry’s influence. It was a year of comebacks too, with Blink 182 and Blur reforming, and The Beatles getting a new lease of life through remastered albums and their own video game. As with ever year, the music industry also lost some key bands and musicians to both break-ups and deaths. Oasis finally snapped, as did Chas and Dave. The world also lost the legendary Michael Jackson, and fan favourite drummer ‘The Rev’ of Avenged Sevenfold.

Despite these sad moments, 2009 was a year I think we should all look back on fondly, and so I present to you my awards for the year. Awards which I have dubbed “The Willies”. So without further ado, here are the categories for the First Annual Willy Music Awards:

New Artist of the Year

Live Artist of the Year

Free Download of the Year

Music Video of the Year

Album of the Year

Single of the Year

Overall Artist of the Year

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Orchestras and Rock- Will It Blend?

"Not Exactly What I Mean, But Appropriate Nonetheless"

Usually, I am a proponent of the idea of adding an orchestra into a rock song when the time is right. It can make a song sound very filmic in a good way, it adds atmosphere and a great feel of the epic. Metal and orchestras always go well together, but then, I’ve always had the theory that metal is the closest popular genre to classical (but that’s a whole other article). Take Dimmu Borgir for example.

Sounds just like something out of Lord Of The Rings in the background doesn’t it? Imagine that song without the orchestra, it would sound a lot blander. To change direction slightly, bands such as Aerosmith can use orchestras brilliantly too. Though, with them, rather than sounding like film sountracks, their songs end up getting chosen as theme songs when they use orchestras (I’m looking at you “I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing”), but that may be just because they are a bigger and more radio friendly band than Dimmu Borgir.

I’m giving the impression that you need a really thickly produced song already to make an orchestra fit in, but you really don’t. Many a heartfelt acoustic song has moved its way into the category of heartwrenching with the addition of a swelling string section over the top. The classic example of this would be Green Day’s classic “Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life)”, but here’s a unique version of The Beatles “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” from the Love show too, just to show you how strings can be used brilliantly.

A little note on The Beatles here; they are the only popular band I can think of who have made popular rock songs with only an orchestra for backing. I think that’s an achievement not as much for the band, but for the arrangements of George Martin, in his ability to get hit songs for The Beatles without them using their own instruments for a single note. This loops round nicely to the beginning actually, as I had always thought that “Eleanor Rigby” would make a great metal song, but I am yet to hear someone pull it off successfully. Oh well, here’s “She’s Leaving Home” just for argument’s sake too.

Considering all I have just said, how the hell did Ben Folds manage to ruin the single version of his song “Landed” by adding an orchestra? By all rights, this should have made it even more heartfelt and powerful but no, the strings feel tacked on and in the way. The original is bordering on a perfect piano led pop song, why did he feel he had to add strings to the single, the version most people are going to hear, if it ends up sounding like that and turning from heartfelt and charming to overwrought and sappy. Just listen for yourself and form your own opinions on it, I’m going to go back and compare two different versions of The Beatles’ “Across the Universe” to see whether my theories work there.

Me, Music Snobbery and The Beatles

"If they can get along, why can't music snobs?"

I realised something about myself today. By all rights, I should be a total music snob. There are so many things about my musical taste and lifestyle which should mean I go around with the phrase “Your favourite band sucks” emblazoned on a sandwich board hung over my shoulders, screaming profanities at anyone listening to any band I deem to have ‘sold out’ and bemoaning the death of the British music industry because of the influence of the X Factor. Yet, I like to think that I have avoided this fate.

Oh sure, the snobs and I have a lot in common. One of these things is having a strong opinion on The Beatles. If you are a music snob, you either think that The Beatles are either an overrated pop band who only wish they had been born in London so they could have been The Rolling Stones, or that they are greatest thing since someone came up with the idea of bread, let alone slicing it. While I’m not quite at that extreme, I do really like The Beatles and know a hell of a lot of trivia about them. I have lost track of the amount of times I’ve just sat and listened to Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band all the way through. Knowing my fandom, my girlfriend bought me two Beatles posters and the remastered version of Yellow Submarine. I am so much of a Beatles nerd that I could instantly noticed the differences in the remastered versions of the tracks I knew on the album, and could point out that one of the posters was based on the original cover of Abbey Road, rather than the late rereleases where Paul’s cigarette was edited out. Also, I act like I’m on first name basis with the band and write The Beatles with correct capitalisation every time!

Despite all this, I would never tell anyone not to listen to anything else when they could be listening to The Beatles or something along those lines. Especially not The Rolling Stones. The Rolling Stones are a great band, and while I do prefer The Beatles, I wouldn’t want to be without Keith Richards and the rest. Satisfaction, Paint It Black, and my personal favourite, Mother’s Little Helper, I couldn’t imagine not ever listening to these songs again out some weird Beatles fuelled vendetta. Lets put it this way; I refuse to ever say the The Rolling Stones are better than The Beatles. On the other hand, I find it hard to say the opposite either, I just grew up with The Beatles, became obsessed with deconstructing what went into the Love mashup album and got hooked as a big fan during all the hype around the release of the remastered albums, and The Beatles: Rock Band.

Oh sure, there’s more possible music snobbery in me, but when it comes to The Beatles, but I’m not a snob, right? I really hope so, or I’m just lying to myself.

Foo Fighters- Wheels and Word Forward (Singles)

"You can't really imagine Dave would ever drop an F-bomb from this photo"

So, what’s a good way to get people to buy your greatest hits collection? Sure, it’s a good place for new fans to start, but how do you get people who already own all the music your band has put out to rebuy songs they already own? The answer recently has been to put a few new singles on a ‘greatest hits’ CD, more as an attempt to get more buyers than pre-emptive wishful thinking (though they do often end up being hits in their own right in the marketing push of the greatest hits collection). Now, Foo Fighters have done the same, writing 2 brand new songs, Wheels and Word Forward, for their 2009 Greatest Hits collection.

‘Wheels’ was the first new single to see the light of day, and is actually has a slightly different feel than you would normally get from an electric Foo Fighters track. It has a little bit of a southern rock swagger to it, and it dominated by a jangly lead guitar, rather than the distorted rhythm you would usually expect. While it is a little reminiscent of the work of Tom Petty, to reduce it to that wouldn’t do ‘Wheels’ justice. It’s Foo Fighters putting something a little bit new in with all their hits, and it’s a welcome addition to their catalogue. Lyrically, it feels like a bit of a homecoming for Foo Fighters, which suits the greatest hits idea well. It’s almost saying, “Ok, here’s our greatest hits, we know it’s not a new album, but we’ll be getting on to new stuff soon. For now, lets just chill out and look back on everything that’s gone well so far.”

Both these songs seem to hark back to the work of earlier artists, but not in a lazy way. They almost seem like a tribute, be it intentional, or just a coincidental sign of those bands influences. What I mean by this is, if ‘Wheels’ takes cues from Tom Petty, then ‘Word Forward’ is a love letter to The Beatles and their song A Day In The Life, at least in the opening verse. This song feels much more like you would expect from Foo Fighters. The soft verse, loud chorus format, the build to an ecstatic climax, the song along chorus, it’s all here. Again, this seems to scream, “we’re not done yet” and rightly so. If this is an indication of what’s to come, then Dave and the boys can’t stop now.

Wheels: 7.5/10

Word Forward: 8/10

Lady Gaga- The Fame Monster

"Does this even need a witty caption?"

Lady Gaga is a confusing artist. I’ll say this right now; her songs are cringe-worthy, and incredibly pretentious at times. However, she creeps up on you, and before you know it you are singing along to every chorus, and trying to join in on the absurd dance moves in her videos. Lady Gaga is the both the worst of pop, and the best of it all at once, and I don’t know if I’ll ever wrap my head around her fully. If her first album wasn’t confusing enough, this special edition bonus tracks-cum-EP-cum-new album that she calls ‘The Fame Monster’ just adds to the Gaga enigma.

Just let me take on the Lady as a whole, first off. She’s incredibly odd, in terms of look, costume, public persona, music, and especially her music videos. By rights, she should have gone the way of Bjork in the public perception, a one hit wonder that drops out of the mainstream but still has hardcore fans who can accept her strange aesthetic and unique musical style. Lady Gaga, on the other hand, endures. I think this is because she isn’t unique. Whether this is pure lack of creativity, or as I like to see her, a big postmodernist comment on the world of pop and celebrity, is still up for debate. What Gaga does well is take on the wide range of what we call pop, smash it all together through massive layers of production and create something decidedly weird, but catchy as hell and so bombastically unoriginal that it comes full circle and feels fresh and new.

I hate to go track by track, but I’m going to party have to for ‘The Fame Monster’ as it is not really a coherent album. Oh sure, it’s being sold as that now, but it was originally planned as a bonus disc for her debut release ‘The Fame’, filled with tracks that were either new or left off that release, depending on which articles you read. The only thing that seems to pull the album together is the repetition of the words “free bitch” in a few of the songs. The reason for highlighting certain tracks will just give you an idea of what to expect, and an idea of how eclectic an album ‘The Fame Monster’ is:

Bad Romance is the closest to what I’ve come to expect of Gaga thus far, with a similar sound to previous songs like Paparazzi, though with a vocal hook that reminds me of Boney M’s Rasputin, and a verse in French for no other reason than it’s a Lady Gaga song. Alejandro opens with a spoken intro in a bad, pan-European accent, and carries on in that vein, sounding like Shakira taken to the Europop extreme. Monster is booming R&B and features the line “he ate my heart and then he ate my brain.” ‘nuff said. Speechless would sound like Abbey Road/Let It Be era Beatles mixed with Christina Aguilera, if it weren’t for the strange accent Lady Gaga puts on to sing it. Try to imagine a country drawl mixed with Dick Van Dyke quality cockney and you’ll be about half way there. Dance In The Dark sounds a little like a darker version of her earlier song ‘Just Dance’, funnily enough. Telephone (feat. Beyonce) opens with a harp, and then breaks out into a thumping club track. If you like random vocal effects and hearing Beyonce for a verse, then you’ll probably enjoy it, there’s not much else to it really. So Happy I Could Die is what Rhianna would sound like if she’d been around in the 90s, pop R&B scene. Finally we have Teeth, which to my ears is the love child of Fanz Ferdinand’s ‘Ulysses’ and everything Scissor Sisters ever released. Though sadly, unlike those bands, Lady Gaga’s tongue is nowhere near her cheek in this one.

So where does that leave us? The Fame Monster is an eclectic mix of songs, which while possibly enjoyable on their own, don’t totally work together. Actually even on their own, just as you start to get into a song something, be it the lyrics, or an odd sound effect Gaga decided to add, will make you cringe. The subject matter is a little more mainstream than her main her first album, with each track seeming more about relationships than celebrity. Here’s the rub. Nothing I or any other reviewer says about this album will matter. This album will sell. It will pump out single after single, and Lady Gaga will make video after absurd video to promote it. I still can’t work out whether Lady Gaga is a genius or just very lucky to hit on some untouched artery of the market, but it doesn’t really matter. She’s cemented in pop culture now, and this album is doing nothing to endanger that.

5/10

Standout Tracks:

Bad Romance

Speechless

Telephone (feat. Beyonce)