Popfession

If you haven't been following Popfessions, the Tumblr that collects tales of unfortunate musical crushes, then you should immediately go and read them. I wrote one I couple of weeks ago, which I'll preserve here in full:

I fell in with a bad crowd at school. It was a way to survive the new and scary reality of secondary school, where the teachers were constantly telling us how grown up we were. I didn’t feel grown up at all.

My new friends got me into all kinds of trouble by sharing their taste in music. One of them played me Phil Collins albums. He was a dumpy, bald man who said hilarious things like “Hello, I must be going”. Phil Collins, that is, not my friend.

Another one introduced me to The Christians and The Pasadenas. Even so, we are still friends.

Then there was Debbie Gibson. My friends told me about the songs but the infatuation began when I saw her on a magazine cover. I was 13 and at an all-boys school. Teenage girls were mysterious and intimidating but Debbie didn’t seem so threatening.

She looked cool, stylish and pretty but normal too. I wanted to know more about her but the magazine was called Just Seventeen and I really had no idea whether I would have to prove my age if I wanted to buy a copy.

I got her debut album, Out Of The Blue, on vinyl and listened to it over and over. Debbie brought despatches from the front line. Girls wanted to fall in love. They got heartbroken. They liked hats. This stuff was gold.

And she was talented. She wrote her own songs and she could sing and play piano at the same time. Not like Debbie’s big rival, Tiffany. Bloody Tiffany, prancing around shopping centres with her cover of ‘I Think We’re Alone Now’.

Like the teenage affairs that Debbie chronicled so faithfully, my crush was brief. The second album came out when I was 14. It was called Electric Youth, which sounded like a try-hard social club for young Christians.

The songs didn’t speak to me anymore. There was ‘Lost In Your Eyes’, in which Debbie channelled Yoda, asking: “Is this love that I am in?” And there was ‘We Could Be Together’, which saw Debbie trashing decades of feminism to declare: “If you said jump I’d say how high/ If you said run, I’d run and fly.”

Forget female empowerment – I wasn’t sure I was ready for that kind of responsibility.

Albums of the Year, 2011

This year I decided to do something different with my albums of the year list. I asked a few of my friends to pick their top five - and I added my own. To avoid everyone picking the same few records, nobody was allowed to pick an album that had already been chosen. Because lots of people contributed, I can't rank the 40 albums here so I've put them in alphabetical order. At the bottom of the list is a Spotify playlist, which has 31 of the 40 albums on it. The links go to iTunes.

1. The Advisory Circle, As the Crow Flies
2. Africa Hitech, 93 Million Miles
3. Bjork, Biophilia
4. James Blake, James Blake
5. Bon Iver, Bon Iver
6. Cashier No9, To the Death of Fun
7. The Decemberists, The King is Dead
8. Lana Del Ray, Video Games (EP)
9. Demdike Stare, Triptych
10. EMA, Past Life Martyred Saints
11. The Field, Looping State of Mind
12. Eleanor Friedberger, Last Summer
13. Friendly Fires, Pala
14. Fruit Bats, Tripper
15. Fucked Up, David Comes to Life
16. Gang Gang Dance, Eye Contact
17. PJ Harvey, Let England Shake
18. Tim Hecker, Ravedeath 1972
19. Julie Holter, Tragedy
20. Holy Other, With U (EP)
21. The Horrors, Skying
22. King Creosote and Jon Hopkins, Diamond Mine
23. Leyland Kirby, Intrigue and Stuff (Limited edition 12" series)
24. Metronomy, The English Riviera
25. Thurston Moore, Demolished Thoughts
26. My Morning Jacket, Circuital
27. Okkervil River, I Am Very Far
28. Oneohtrix Point Never, Replica
29. Plaid, Scintilli
30. Roly Porter, Aftertime
31. Radiohead, King of Limbs
32. SBTRKT, SBTRKT
33. Shabazz Palaces, Black Up
34. Tune Yards, Who Kill
35. Tom Waits, Bad As Me
36. Walls, Coracle
37. Gillian Welch, The Harrow and the Harvest
38. Bill Wells and Aidan Moffat, Everything's Getting Older
39. Wild Beasts, Smother
40. Wild Flag, Wild Flag

Spotify playlist: Best of 2011

Thanks to everyone who helped with the list, including Adam Webb, Chris Deerin, Chris Williams, Lucy Jones and Mark Birchall.

Prince and the element of surprise

When Prince wrote the words "tonight we're gonna party like it's 1999" he was thinking about the end of the world. Last night, when he kicked off the song, the lyrics just meant 'let's party like we did in the old days'. Gone is the Prince who looked forward, who experimented with electronica, who was such a classic-spewing genius that he could record Sign O The Times using the pre-programmed sounds on the Fairlight synth and still make it sound like nothing anyone had ever head. Now we have a Prince who looks back and reminds us at every interval that "this is real music, with real musicians".

It's a pity that Prince has such a negative view of technology and such an obsession with what he sees as authenticity. An electric guitar is, after all, a machine. But really it is Prince the artist who has the problem here and, honestly, that guy's creative peak was the extraordinary period between 1982 and 1987. In that short period Prince accomplished more than most artists do in a lifetime. His output has been estimated by scientists to be roughly equal to 1,348 BRIT schools.

The decline of Prince the artist did not affect Prince the performer, who remains a startling and awesome force on stage - James Brown, Michael Jackson and Jimmy Page packed into one little body. His charisma is such that he can pull of things that from another performer would be cheesy or sleazy and still seem like the coolest man on the planet. He's also the only Jehovah's Witness you'd be happy to open the door to.

His set at Hop Farm last night contained several of his greatest songs but left many more unplayed. There was no room for When Doves Cry, Seven, I Would Die 4 U, Pop life, Alphabet St, Diamonds and Pearls, My Name Is Prince, Thieves in the Temple, Gett Off, Sometimes it Snows in April or The Most Beautiful Girl in the World. Who else could leave that many great songs off the setlist and still deliver a show as good as last night's?

There were brilliant versions of Little Red Corvette, Kiss and Controversy as well as a take on Purple Rain that seemed to last for half the set but there were also lots of covers. I agree with my Telegraph colleague Lucy Jones that more Prince classics and fewer covers and funk workouts would have been more satisfying but I think it's the covers that drive Prince's enthusiasm. And more importantly the covers add an excitement and unpredictability that is missing from other nostalgia acts.

At the same time as Prince was playing at Hop Farm, a reformed Pulp were playing in Hyde Park. Much as I like Pulp, I'm not disappointed to have missed them. I saw them several times back in the days when Disco 2000 was a song about the future. Their setlist last night was basically the same as the ones I saw then. Of course they'll play Common People and Do You Remember the First Time? and Babies. How could they not?

One of the things I value most in a gig is the unpredictable - as you can probably guess from things I've written before. There can be no element of surprise in watching the reformed Pulp, just as their wasn't when Blur reformed two years ago. That's not to say that there is anything wrong with watching either but it's a comforting experience - like re-watching a favourite movie - rather than a thrilling one.

I could happily have watched another hour last night. Prince's genius as a performer is that he has managed to maintain an electrifying unpredictability in what is still in essence a nostalgia act.

Kate Bush interviewed in 1979, on the brink of her only tour

This documentary about Kate Bush's only tour to date, from 1979, is fascinating. The documentary shows her rehearsing her band and gives a sense of how fully-fledged she was as an artist, even at 20 years old. If that isn't reason enough to watch it, there's also some spectacular facial hair on show, both from the presenter and Bush's brothers, as well as Kate's surprisingly strong south London accent:

When you're too lazy to write a setlist

"Playing a character named Napoleon Dynamite, Mr. Costello sent an assistant into the audience to pick volunteers who took turns spinning a giant roulette wheel marked off with 40 song titles. Once having chosen a song with a random spin of the wheel, each spectator was ushered to a go-go dancer's cage and encouraged to dance along with the music."
Stephen Holden, The New York Times, October 28, 1986

Primavera Sound 2011 takes place in Barcelona at the end of May. The line-up is excellent but I couldn't help noticing one detail: three of the acts are playing albums in full. Echo & The Bunnymen will perform Heaven Up Here and Crocodiles, John Cale will perform Paris 1919 and Mercury Rev will perform Deserter's Songs.

Everyone's been at it in recent years. Belle & Sebastian played If You're Feeling Sinister in full, The Pixies have done the same with Doolittle and even A-Ha, A-sodding-Ha, have performed their debut album in its entirety, raising the alarming prospect that somebody actually wants to hear A-Ha's debut album again.

I don't know where this trend started. The earliest example I can think of is Brian Wilson playing Pet Sounds live more than a decade ago but I doubt that he was the first.

To me it feels like part of the trend for remaking classic TV shows and films. It's a way of reassuring the audience that they'll be seeing something familiar, that there's no need to worry about taking a risk because they'll merely get a more modern version of something they already know they like. Hearing a band play one of their classic albums in full removes any doubt that they'll confuse you with an obscure b-side you never heard or a song they haven't released yet.

It is, in other words, depressingly safe.

On the bright side, you'll probably get to hear some songs that are seldom, if ever played live. I'd go and hear Radiohead play OK Computer, for example, just to hear them play Let Down, which I've never heard live Still, the idea of knowing not only what songs are going to be played but also the exact order in which you'll hear them is hardly exciting.

If only all bands would follow Elvis Costello's example and decide their setlist on the spin of a giant roulette wheel. I've always wished I could have seen one of those 1986 shows. Now I'm pleased to discover that - 25 years on - Costello is doing it again. I just hope he rolls his wheel over to Britain.