Thursday 23 December 2010

Albums of the Year, 2010

It's that time of year when I feel compelled to add to the mass of end-of-year lists that you can't help bumping into. I'll keep it brief then, and only list ten. These are the albums that I got most from in 2010. Not the "best" as that makes it sound like my best has to be your best, and of course it doesn't. They're my favourites, the ones I'm likely to return to during 2011 and beyond, but I'd be keen to hear if you think I missed something truly great. There's a Spotify playlist containing one track from most (not all) of the albums.

(Links are to BBC artist pages and Metacritic album review pages)

Arcade FireThe Suburbs
To anyone who says that albums are dead and now it's all about single tracks, this is the best response. A sprawling, 16 track affair which took multiple listens to start to make sense. Strange the way that AF songs have a habit of sounding, well, disappointing, until something clicks and they become your favourite songs ever. I wasn't sure how they'd come back after Neon Bible, but they did, with something even stronger. I can honestly say I think I'm in love with this record.

MidlakeThe Courage of Others
Strange, this one seems to have missed out on many end of year lists. I think I can see why: it's dark, serious and retro-sounding. To be honest it doesn't really fit into 2010 in any obvious way. But those songs! Beautiful melodies, and incomprehensible lyrics. It's an album for cold winter nights.

GorillazPlastic Beach
Another long 16 track sprawling album (is this a theme to my musical proclivities?) which took quite a while to really appreciate. Ambitious and eclectic, Damon delivered another masterpiece, mixing styles and guest vocalists, but always keeping great tunes at the heart of it. This is one of those albums that I can play where the children don't complain.

Broken Social SceneForgiveness Rock Record
I have to be honest, until this album came out I didn't know much about BSS. But if there was one album I listened to most this year it would probably be this. It didn't get rave reviews, but I don't know why. There isn't a mediocre song on the record, it's all good. Most under-rated band of the year for me.

US singer songwriter's 7th album. I missed the first six, but when Guy Garvey played a track from July Flame I knew this was something special. She really does have a great voice, and these songs are in the main outstanding. Perhaps a little long, but lovely nonetheless. And named after a variety of peach, which has to be good.

The NationalHigh Violet
I was already a big fan of The National, but this is my No.1 album by the Ohio art-rockers. The combination of baritone vocals and tuneful guitar does it for me, but the songs really hold their own on High Violet.  

Jonsi Go
Sigur Ros make the most beautiful and atmospheric music you could imagine, so it's not a surprise that their lead singer - Jonsi - made a superb solo album. It contains what is probably my favourite track of the year - Go Do - a truly mesmerising mix of sounds with vocal melodies that seem to come from outer-space.

Sufjan StevensThe Age of Adz
I'm still getting to know this album in truth, but it's clear to me that it'll be one of the records released this year that I'm still listening to in say 5 years time. Quite a break from his first two much loved "states of America" albums, it's complex, broad and not an easy first listen. But worth it.

Laura Marling I Speak Because I Can
How can someone this young (still only 20) write such mature songs? Not as "poppy" or obvious as her first stunning album, but after many listens it comes to life - there are some beautiful sad songs here.

Flying Lotus - Cosmogramma
Flying Lotus, AKA Steven Ellison, released a hugely ambitious mash up of musical styles in 2010. A distant relative of John and Alice Coltrane, the jazz influences are there, but so are many other genres. The most future looking album of 2010 for me.

If I'd allowed myself more than ten albums I'd have no doubt mentioned Bombay Bicycle ClubThe Tallest Man On Earth and Beach House, but I haven't so I won't.

Lists for 2009 and 2008.

Friday 3 December 2010

BBC Music Showcase

This has been a big week at work, at BBC Audio & Music interactive, where we released to live our first version of the BBC music showcase. I have to say I'm very proud to have been involved in this project for some time, and extremely pleased that it is finally out in the wild. It's been quite a journey, politically, technically and strategically.

Some background. The idea of a pan-BBC aggregation of music content is not a new one. In fact, the roots of this thinking go back the best part of ten years - I remember talking about the concept with Simon Nelson, Simon Hopkins and Dan Hill amongst others back in the early days of the journey to take the BBC's radio and music content online. The idea has developed loads since then, but the influence of Simon Hopkins and later Matthew Shorter and Tom Scott can't be underestimated.

So what is it and why is it important? What we've released so far, which is just the start, is an aggregation of all BBC music content that is not full length programmes. Our radio station sites and iPlayer cover that angle fairly well, but what we haven't cracked until now is getting those nuggets of great content out of their full length programme home to expose them in new ways. That content could be a live music session, or an artist interview, or a single artist feature, a DJ mix or a live concert. The BBC creates this kind of content in droves, but it's almost impossible to find what you are really interested in unless you know exactly what was broadcast and at what time. Now we can pull all those special moments out of their original context and offer them via genre, via a curated collection, via artist search, via most popular, latest in, and about to expire. In other words, these unique pieces of content are now accessible, findable and aggregatable.

That's just the start. The next stage is a development of the idea of curated collections mentioned above: we want to tap into the world class talent that the BBC employs to generate human powered recommendations, then use a service like Echonest to deliver onward journeys through music both on and off This is where the BBC has a fairly unique place to play in the increasingly busy music discovery space.

This is good news for traditional radio, because at last we are doing something which takes the fantastic content that is generated every single day via linear broadcasts, and offering it in an appropriate manner for the medium. This is truly a mash up of traditional broadcast media with digital media. I believe that it's projects like this that will help traditional media brands move successfully into the fully digital world.

Huge props must go to the technical and editorial teams who conceived and delivered it, especially Matt Coulson, Andy Puleston, Ant Smith, Nick Humphreys, Sacha Sedriks, Richard Berry, Andrew Hilton, Chris Lowis, Nigel Smith, Pete Marsh and Yasser Rashid.

Have a play with the Music Showcase and let me know what you think. Remember it's still in Alpha mode so expect to see lots of small updates over the coming weeks and months.

See more blog posts on this:
Andy Puleston
Matt Coulson

Tuesday 30 November 2010

A note to eMusic

Ok eMusic, I've been with you for over 3 years now, and I feel our relationship is beginning to lose some of the specialness that I've enjoyed so far. I fell for you because I liked your attitude, I liked what you recommended to me, and I certainly discovered lots of great new music by sampling it before downloading from you. You put musical choices in front of me that I simply wasn't getting from elsewhere in such a concentrated fashion. I admit, I felt a bit special because I was part of the eMusic club. You made me feel, well, just that bit more in the know about upcoming musical genius. Of course you never pretended to be comprehensive, you weren't competing with iTunes or Napster or Spotify, but that didn't matter to me because of what you did offer. And I admit, call me old fashioned, but I like the fact that I get downloads to keep from you, not just streams.

But recently I've been having my doubts again. Why? Well, principally because I'm finding it increasingly difficult to find enough new music each month that I really want to download and keep. I understand that up to now you haven't had music from the major labels, but I'm finding now that many of the artists on small indie labels are not available either. I frequently hear something cool on the radio, check the tracklist for artist and label details, then come to eMusic to explore more. That worked for me many times, but recently I've not found what I'm looking for. The recent loss of 3 more big indies - Merge, Domino and Beggars group -  really hasn't helped either.

Now you've changed the proposition too, in that instead of eMusic credits each track now has a monetary value. I'm fine with that, especially as I get as many tracks as I did before at your expense. But the promise seems to be that I'm soon going to be offered a much wider range of music, with majors such as Universal and Sony signing up. Well here's the deal: I'm not seeing this coming through, and my patience is wearing just a little thin now. And if you're offering this in the States but not here in the UK, well I might just get cross.

So, I'm giving you a couple, maybe three, more months to prove yourself. That means a much more comprehensive offer from more labels. If it doesn't happen, I'm afraid to say I'm off. Yes, I'll walk away and start again somewhere else. So, please, sort it out, and quickly. Because in truth I'm really quite fond of you and I'd rather not go through a break up right now.

Wednesday 15 September 2010

Listen again, and again

This is not a radically new thought, but it's one that really struck home whilst on holiday this summer, with no net access. It's about how unlimited music availability might have an unusual downside.

Given that we can access pretty much any music we want, free, immediately, the temptation is to keep trying new music rather than revisiting something we've already heard before. Ten years ago, before Spotify and iPods etc, there was less possibility to keep moving on which means you were more likely to find an album or artist you found interesting, then keep listening to it. Going way back, say 20 years, I would always listen to any new CD I bought at least 5 or 6 times in full within a couple of weeks of purchase.

Think about it... when was the last time you listened to a new album in full 5 or 6 times within two weeks of it's release?

So, back to my holiday. I filled my iPod with all the latest albums I'd downloaded, then being away from home and the normal broadband connection, found myself coming back time and time again to three of them. Worth saying that on first listen I hadn't been particuarly keen on any of them. They were too dense to enjoy initially. They sounded samey. I didn't hear the melodies or understand the lyrics. Normally, that might be as far as I'd get, because I'd move on to something else new. This time I didn't, I stuck with them, and I was reminded of how great it is to really fall in love with an album after repeated listens.

My conclusion? Instant access to a massive library of music is truly great, but it might be changing the way we listen - from deep to broad. And that isn't necessarily a good thing for music that requires more than a cursory listen.

Oh, the albums? Nothing exotic or particularly difficult. But all really brilliant:

Broken Social Scene - Forgiveness Rock Record
The National - High Violet
Arcade Fire - The Suburbs

Naturally, I recommend them all.

Saturday 24 July 2010

About this blog

So it's about time I started using my other blog - LondonN16 - to blog about local issues in Stoke Newington. Which means from now on all posts about radio, music and things digital will be on this blog. It goes without saying that these are my own personal views, and nothing to do with my employer, the BBC. That's not to say the subjects of posts won't be based sometimes on things I'm doing at work, like this or this or this, but this isn't the place for official comms on BBC related issues. Obviously.

Wednesday 26 May 2010

iPlayer v3 radio console

So after a fairly long wait, iPlayer v3 beta is now public. There's been lots written on it, but mainly from a TV point of view, so here's a brief run down of what's new for radio fans who use the iPlayer console to listen live or on-demand.

Firstly, the pop-out console is a new size and shape. It now most resembles a smartphone... which is clearly not a coincidence!

The main new features are:

1. Favourites: ability to add programme brands as "favourites", which then are available under the Favourites tab. It'll remember them with a cookie, but if you register and log in you it'll work across different machines. This is a major step forward and will make using the console a whole lot better for regular users who know what they like.

2. Recommend: ability to recommend programmes, and for those recommendations to be seen by your friends on Facebook and Twitter, if you've linked your accounts, and in the main iPlayer site. Great if you like telling your friends what you like listening to. Don't we all?

3. Station presets. You can now edit which radio stations you want under the Stations tab, including adding local stations. A pretty basic but essential addition.

The other really significant change is that there are no longer full "item" or "episode" pages for each radio programme in the iPlayer site. From now on, to get more programme information, there's one definitive place to go to get it - the radio station site, which should have all the basic programme information and any other rich content produced. This means there is no longer duplication between iPlayer and station site, which is a good thing for users (less confusion about where to go) and for SEO (no more splitting incoming links).

The other features are based in the main iPlayer site, so I won't go into detail about those, but read what Anthony Rose has to say for more.

Overall, this represents a fairly big move forward for BBC radio in iPlayer, mainly because the previous console was feature-lite, to say the least. There are lots more exciting develpments coming later this year with the next major iteration of the console, known as "Radioplayer". I'll blog about that nearer the time.

Check the beta iPlayer here

Music listening, April 2010

2010 is turning out to be a good musical year already, in my book. Still can't get the Laura Veirs "July Flame" album out of my head - this will be one of the albums of the year for sure. Jonsi - Sigur Ros frontman - makes what sounds like, well, a Sigur Ros album, which is not to be sniffed at. Laura Marling comes back with her second album. We loved her first one to bits - really - and whilst the second is taking longer to really get under my skin it's getting there. She's still only 20, which when you listen to the album is slightly scary.

New for me in April were the very acoustic Belgian band Isbells, and I came late to two bands that have been around for a while: The Decemberists (lots of folk think their "Hazards of Love" album was one of the best of 2009) and Danish band Efterklang, whose name had always put me off before.

From the US came Beach House with their album "Teen Dream", and Local Natives' "Gorilla Manor". Both excellent.


1. Go Do - Jonsi
2. Norway - Beach House
3. As long as it takes - Isbells
4. Goodbye England - Laura Marling
5. Wide Eyes - Local Natives
6. The Hazards of Love - The Decemberists
7. Alike - Efterklang
8. Where are you driving? - Laura Veirs

Sunday 16 May 2010

Is Steve Lamacq the UK Bob Boilen?

Been thinking about why we don't have an equivalent to National Public Radio's wonderful "All Songs Considered", which is a weekly radio programme, podcast and blog that has been made for NPR since 2000. The show aims to introduce the listener to new music from a wide variety of genres that is generally not heard on other radio stations. It works for me principally because of its presenter, Bob Boilen, who manages to be informative, enthusiastic, knowledgeable and opinionated all at the same time - quite a feat. It's a very personal listen, which plays to radio's strength.

Now of course we have plenty of radio shows in the UK aimed at playing new music, such as Zane Lowe, Huw Stephens, John Kennedy (XFM) and many others (please suggest your recommendation below). But somehow they are not the same as All Songs Considered: perhaps because they focus mainly on up and coming artists who you pretty much won't have heard of, but also because of their pace. What I like about All Songs is the relaxed tone which means that rather than simply fitting in as many songs as possible, Bob Boilen gives time to give some context, some history, some musical comparisons and some opinion beyond "this is great". So, rather than a playlist of songs you haven't heard, it becomes a journey you are willing to go on because you value what is being said. I often find myself listening to music I wouldn't normally give ear-time to simply because of Bob's introduction.

Then last night it occurred to me - maybe we do have an equivalent: Steve Lamacq's Radio 2 show, not his 6Music daily outing, is perhaps the nearest we come to All Songs Considered. It's recently moved from late Wednesday night to late Saturday night (clearly aimed at the on-demand listener!). Lamacq sounds relaxed and happy, he takes the time to introduce new music with context, and doesn't only play brand new bands but also introduces you to music from established but generally under the radar artists who are probably never going to be top ten. Sure, it's not cutting edge like Huw or Zane can be, but it's a good listen, and at just one hour in total, is an easily digestible slice of on-demand audio.

Now if only we could make that available in full as a podcast...

If I've missed other programmes which could be described as the UK's All Songs Considered, let me know here.

Saturday 20 March 2010

What I'll miss if BBC 6 Music disappears

NB these are my own personal views, nothing to do with my employer.

I'm not going to go through the arguments for keeping BBC 6 Music, they have been covered in much detail in many other places, and it probably wouldn't be a good career move to do so here... But I have been thinking about content, and specifically what I'll most miss if 6Music were to disappear completely. My start point is that I see 6Music as an alternative to what's currently of offer - BBC or commercial - so it follows that the programmes that hit home most for me are those that are in very short supply elsewhere.

Firstly, Lauren Laverne. I was one of probably many people who tried to get Lauren onto 6Music for many years through conversations with senior people at the BBC, so was overjoyed when she arrived in late 2009. It's not easy to create a five-day-a-week 3-hours-a-day radio show which still manages to sound genuinely passionate about the music at every turn, and balances the needs of a mid-morning slot with the audience demand for something that doesn't sound too mainstream. But somehow Lauren's show does it. There aren't many daytime shows - in my view - which are of a quality that justify listening to on-demand, but this show is so full of great features, interviews, sessions and Lauren herself that it does. Now that the programme often has chapter points in, you can quickly get to the bits you're most interested in which makes it a whole lot more web-appropriate.

Secondly, Gideon Coe. Gideon has been on 6Music since the start back in 2002. His late night mon-thurs show is terrific. I've often said that Gideon is one of the UK's most skilled interactive presenters; not in a in-your-face "text now" manner, but in a subtle, genuine ability to use audience contributions intelligently. His message board topic - on which he regularly posts - is still one of the best we have. His approach to engaging with the audience is so natural to him that he doesn't need to make a big song and dance about it, which means the show is more two-way than just about any other. But you wouldn't know if you tuned in for 10 minutes - it's too subtle for that. The only downside, imho, is the extended live concert section which is too long for me and should be broken up.

Talking about 6Music programmes you cannot of course not mention Adam and Joe. Saturday morning is a great slot because you have a large potential audience who are not as rushed and busy as they are during the week, but at the same time many stations put on high profile shows at this time so the competition is fierce. But the sheer originality, humour and distinctiveness of Adam Buxton and Joe Cornish, combined with a very personal approach to introducing new and interesting music, means that the show cut through the Saturday morning competition and became the stations' most popular slot.

Then there are a bunch of more specialist weekly shows that, combined, sum up the distinctiveness of 6Music for me. Guy Garvey's Sunday night show is required listening. More thoughts on Guy Garvey here. Craig Charles' Saturday evening Funk and Soul show is one of those perfectly scheduled shows that plays a mix of music that could only be curated on 6Music. Stuart Maconie's Sunday afternoon Freak Zone is perhaps the stations most musically unique offering, and truly alternative to any offered on BBC or commercial radio. It is, perhaps, almost the definition of public service popular music broadcasting. Often a challenging listen, sometimes willfully unusual, but you'll always learn something about a range of music commercial radio wouldn't even recognise as music. The same could probably be said of Jarvis Cocker's new Sunday afternoon show, which is shaping up to be another 6Music hit.

Lastly, my favourite part of Steve Lamacq's weekday show, Roundtable. Being old enough to fondly remember the original Roundtable on Radio 1, this is pure joy.

Those are the programmes that I'll miss most if 6Music ceases to exist in 2012.

What did I miss?

Saturday 13 February 2010

Music listening, Feb 2010

Some excellent new music around right now, from Midlake's deep and wonderful second album to Laura Veirs lovely "July Flame" to young trumpet player Matthew Halsall's first full length album. I saw Matthew Halsall play live at the Vortex in Dalston and it was the most fun I've had at a jazz gig for ages, whilst Midlake at Wilton's Music Hall was truly memorable in the most unusual venue I can remember.

  1. Midlake - "Acts of Man"
  2. Laura Veirs - "July Flame"
  3. Vampire Weekend - "Cousins"
  4. The Unthanks - "Here's the tender coming"
  5. Volcano Choir - "Island,IS"
  6. The Dry Spells - "Too Soon For Flowers"
  7. Laura Gibson - "Spirited"
  8. Fever Ray - "When I Grow Up"
  9. Matthew Halsall - "Colour Yes"


Saturday 23 January 2010

Podcast listening - January 2010

Podcasts were so over-hyped by the media industry 3 or 4 years ago that it seems to me a perfect example of the old cliche: their importance was over emphasized in the short term, but under emphasized in the long term.

Nowadays some people in the industry seemed to have moved on and forgotten all about podcasts - they didn't kill radio/we can't make money from them so we can ignore them. This seems a mistake to me. Think of podcasts as portable, on demand, personalised audio (or radio), and they seem less like a mid-noughties fad and more like the future of personal media consumption. Don't tell the conference organisers though, or we'll end up with more sessions on how podcasting is the death knell of radio. Which it isn't, because live radio has a long life left in it. The biggest problem remaining is that many people still don't know what a podcast is or why they'd want one, which is a challenge we're tackling head on at the BBC this year.

More to the point, it's time for the annual podcast clear out: I've looked at what I'm subscribed to but in reality don't get round to listening to. Like most people I know who listen to podcasts, the temptation is always to subscribe to more, which means it's inevitable that you end up with a whole bunch which never get heard.

Having just been through this process, this is what I'm left with: some new, some old, all good.

Media Talk from the Guardian. Entertaining, informative and infuriating in equal measure, it's a must listen.

All Songs Considered from NPR. This is my favourite music related podcast. NPR presenter Bob Boilen offers his personal take on the most interesting new music of the week. His thoughtful, paced, intelligent presenting style makes this a laid back listen. The context he gives to the tracks he's chosen makes you listen to the music even if you don't initially like the sound of it. He's become one of my most trusted music guides. Really worth listening to his round up of 2009 with his producer and fellow NPR music folk.

Radio Talk from the Radio Academy. Trevor Dann turns out to be really quite a good host of this weekly half hour radio industry show. Trevor has - in my view - been heavily influenced stylistically by some excellent NPR presenters, which is a good thing. If you work in radio, this is a must.

The Word podcast, from The Word magazine. Most weeks, this is pure joy. Frankly, it shouldn't be, given that it's two or three middle aged men sat round an office who all like the sound of their own voice just a little too much, talking loosely about music matters. But it is. David Hepworth, Mark Ellen, Andrew Harrison and Fraser Lewry, with occasional guests such as Danny Baker or Steve Lamacq, have somehow conjured podcast magic. Addictive.

Car Talk from NPR. Two American brothers - Tom and Ray or Click and Clack - take phone calls from listeners about cars and car related issues. Not, I agree, on the face of it, a rivetting listen. But it is. I reckon this gives more of an insight into American life than any amount of US TV imports. Really quite addictive even if you have no interest in cars, which is quite a feat.

Tech Weekly from the Guardian. The audio counterpart to the paper's extensive technology journalism. It's not particularly professional sounding, mainly because the contributors - Charles Arthur, Bobbie Johnson and Jack Schofield and presenter Aleks Krotoski - have good tech knowledge but lack radio presenting skills. But still worth paying attention to.

Zane Lowe's Hottest Records. A music recommendations mini-podcast. Only about 6 minutes long, this weekly edit from his Radio 1 show is perfect for catching up with Zane's take on music. Yes it only has 30" music clips in, but it really doesn't matter in this context.

6 Music daily music news from BBC 6 Music. I like this principally because it's short - usually under 5 minutes - so fits in with those annoying times on public transport when you don't have time to listen to something longer. Also, it doesn't follow the standard press release driven music news agenda.

Simon Mayo and Mark Kermode from BBC Five Live. Now extended to two podcasts per week, due to the schedule change which means they have a weekly two hour show which soley focusses on film matters. Part two is what i listen to as it includes the film reviews; part one tends to be interviews which are more hit and miss for me. Simon and Mark's friendship spills out making this one of the warmest and wittiest pod listens.

Notable mention should also go to Adam & Joe, Desert Island Discs, Jazz Library, On The Media, Stephen Fry, Bending Corners, and The Bitterest Pill.

As you can see, I haven't made a distinction between podcasts that originate from broadcast radio and those created just for online.

Any recommendations for things I should be listening to?