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Album of the Month

This section focuses on great music, providing:

A selection of ESSENTIAL TRACKS chosen to give your system a workout, some of which are seminal recorded performances.
DOWNLOADS of superlative quality recordings in a range of high resolution formats.
Our ALBUM OF THE MONTH and some words on why we chose it.
Invited COMMENT from dCS and leading members of the hi-fi world – although in most cases we offer these anonymously!





Blur – Parklife

Pop music is here today and gone tomorrow – which is why it so powerfully embodies its time. Twenty five years after Parklife was released, Blur’s third album does precisely this – it’s a musical time capsule that whisks the listener back to British cultural life, circa 1994. Although not quite a top tier album in the great scheme of musical things, it’s still an interesting and enjoyable fifty minutes that shows this fine Britpop band at its creative height.

Blur’s lead singer and songwriter Damon Albarn was a fan of the The Kinks, and there’s more than just a hint of them running through Parklife yet there is more to it than that. Blur started life in London in 1988 as a rather fey student band, with guitarist/singer Graham Coxon, bassist Alex James and drummer Dave Rowntree joining lead singer Albarn. Leisure (1991) was their first album, a weak thing helped along by uptempo ‘indie dance’ numbers like Theres No Other Way. Modern Life Is Rubbish (1993) saw Blur really finding their feet, with a classic pop sensibility reminiscent of The Beatles, T Rex and XTC. By the time Parklife appeared a year later, the band was on top form – running through British popular music history for inspiration and adding a good deal of their own.

The first single wasn’t particularly representative of the album as a whole; the disco-infused Girls & Boys reached number 5 but was the most throwaway song on the album. The tender ballad To the End showed a more mature and contemplative band, while the plaintive End of a Century was something Ray Davies could have penned himself. However, it was the album’s title track – released in May of that year – that really put Blur on the map. The decision to invite Phil Daniels – star of mod movie Quadrophenia – to guest on vocals was genius. It was a hugely catchy pop tune that went on to epitomise the whole Britpop genre.

Recorded between August 1993 and January 1994 at Maison Rouge Studio, Fulham and RAK Studios, St. John’s Wood, Parklife has aged well. The production by Stephen Street – most famous for his work with The Smiths in the nineteen eighties – is clean and crisp. Although a little compressed, it uses no instruments that were fashionable at that time, so doesn’t sound dated today. The strong melodies, soaring choruses and mixture of late sixties pop sensibility and punky, thrashy guitar could be from any period. Albarn’s lyrics are funny, quirky and sometimes quite profound, without trying too hard. The Japanese CD release [EMI PCD-0476] is the one to have for the best sound quality and packaging.

Parklife was in the right place at the right time, and saw young British musicians begin to pay homage to their cultural past. Perhaps unwittingly, Blur became the scion for the so-called Cool Britannia movement that included everyone from the Spice Girls to Michael Caine. Parklife went on to sell over five million copies worldwide, as Damon Albarn had predicted. Back in 1990 he presciently told some music journalists that, “when our third album comes out, our place as the quintessential English band of the nineties will be assured. I intend to write it in 1994.”

Listen to Blur, Parklife on our TIDAL dCS 2019 Album of The Month Collection



dCS Classical Choices December 2018 – Curated by Charlotte Gardner

Christmas has to be the most exciting time of the year for music, what with all the wonderful repertoire you’re technically only allowed to listen to during December. In fact don’t expect to hear very much music in the Gardner household that isn’t Christmassy once the first of the month has dropped, and for my older recording this month I’ve chosen the musical work most attached to my own family’s Advent traditions: Handel’s Messiah, which we listen to every year as we bring in and decorate the tree (whilst determinedly ignoring the fact that the Messiah is in fact only one-third Christmas, and two-thirds Easter!). As for what I’m personally looking for in a Messiah recording, the answer is something warm and nimble on period instruments, its orchestral textures zinging and lucid, with clean-toned vocalists who sound as though they truly mean what they’re singing. For me that means Rene Jacobs’ 2006 recording with Clare College Choir and Freiburg Baroque for Harmonia Mundi, from which I’ve given you the chorus, “And the glory of the Lord”. Then, because I can’t not give you some actual carols too, I’ve slipped in Voces8 singing “Once in Royal David’s City” and “In Dulci Jubilo” on their 2011 Christmas album, which equally gets a lot of December airtime in my house.

On to the new releases,  an album that actually hit the shelves a few months back, but is too good to not champion before the year draws to a close: the second installment of Lorenzo Gatto and Julien Libeer’s Beethoven Violin Sonatas cycle on alpha. Then finally some more Handel, in the form of Italian cantatas from the Concert d’Astr ee under Emanuelle Haim, with two of France’s most sought-after sopranos as Haim’s soloists: Sabine Devieilhe and Lea Desandre.


Beethoven’s violin sonatas 1, 10 and 5 “Spring” – Lorenzo Gatto and Julien Libeer

As previously mentioned, this one was released earlier in the year, but it’s been on my stereo so many times in the intervening months that it thoroughly deserves its place here. The second installment of this Belgian duo’s Beethoven cycle, this is one of those core repertoire recordings that leaps out of the stereo and makes you listen as if for the first time, and to make that point I’ve given you the most famous sonata here, i.e. “Spring”. So enjoy the energy, the brightness and sweetness, the air in their textures, the equal weighting of piano to violin, and an interestingly straighter reading than many of that jokey third movement race.


Handel Italian Cantatas – Haim, Desandre etc

It’s funny to think that only a few years ago I hadn’t even heard of soprano Sabine Devieilhe, and that it wasn’t until earlier this year that mezzo Lea Desandre entered my radar. Their respective career trajectories have been nothing sort of supersonic, and to understand why you need only listen to this new collaboration between them and the superlative Le Concert d’Astree under Emmanuelle Haim, which presents Handel’s recently-rediscovered, early-career cantatas (effectively mini-operas written for just one of two characters, which would have been performed in the homes of wealthy patrons). From Devieilhe and Desandre think purity of tone and crisply elegant virtuosity, with the texts themselves imbued with bucketloads of life and drama. Then from Haim and Le Concert d’Astree, an equal story of interpretational sparkle and high virtuosity. For you here we first have Desandre singing “Fiamma bella ch’al ciel s’invia” from Aminta e Fillide (a love story between a shepherd and a shepherdess), then Devieilhe singing “Ah crudele! E pur ten’ vai” from Armida abbandonata (about a sorceress who ends up falling in love with a Christian warrior).







Chic – C’est Chic

The disco era is rightly derided for its outlandish kitsch, yet it delivered a rich seam of pop music throughout the nineteen seventies. It took the classic Motown soul tradition, mixed in funk and added solid, four-on-the-floor rock rhythms to create a sound that transformed the latter half of that decade. Although much of it was of little artistic merit, some great albums came from that era – and Chic’s Cest Chic was surely the genre’s finest moment. Formed in 1976 by guitarist Nile Rodgers and bassist Bernard Edwards, the band delivered a torrent of soaring dance floor anthems that captured the spirit of the age.

Rogers and Edwards were virtuoso musicians at the very top of their game, crafting a highly sophisticated sound that was as close to technical perfection as it was possible to get, back in the days before sequencers and drum machines took hold. Hits like Dance, Dance, Dance (Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah) (1977), Everybody Dance (1977), Le Freak (1978), I Want Your Love (1978), Good Times (1979) and My Forbidden Lover (1979), showed their breathtaking technical prowess. The music sounded so tight, yet there was a synergy between the two men that made it more than the sum of the parts. Indeed, Rodgers and Edwards became prolific session musicians and producers too, writing and playing for everyone from Sister Sledge, Diana Ross and David Bowie to Duran Duran, Madonna and latterly Daft Punk.

Steeped in the nineteen seventies New York club scene, they moved from session work with Walter Murphy to being the greatest disco band in the world in the space of just eighteen months. The band borrowed its concept from British avant-gardists Roxy Music; like them they would be immaculately dressed and their artwork would denote an escapist, luxurious world. Chic’s eponymous debut album released in 1977 won many friends, but it wasn’t until 1978’s C’est Chic that the band got into top gear. Le Freak was its smash hit single, and became an anthem for the disco era, selling an amazing six million copies. Released on August 11, 1978, it featured a welter of musicians including Tony Thompson, who contributed the superlative drum work, Robert Sabino for clavinet, acoustic piano and electric piano and Raymond Jones on Fender Rhodes. Marianne Carroll, Cheryl Hong and Karen Milne provided the soaring strings, and there was a superb brass section too.

Aside from Freak Out and I Want Your Love, the album has no other hits but is still a work of beauty from start to finish. The lyrics are sometimes plaintive yet never attempt to be deep and meaningful; instead the lushly orchestrated melodies do the talking. The result is uplifting to listen to from start to finish, with a uniquely rich and vintage sound. Recorded to a very high standard at the Power Station, N.Y., with Bob Clearmountain engineering, Cest Chic is treat for any self-respecting high end hi-fi system. The standard CD pressing sounds good, the Japanese HDCD [Atlantic AMCY-2725] even more so, but the widescreen hi-res FLAC version of 2014 is best of all.

To listen to all of our 2018 Album Of the Month picks visit our TIDAL playlist


dCS Classical Choices November 2018 – Curated by Charlotte Gardner
The end of the year is fast approaching, and we can’t let that happen without Only the Music having celebrated 2018’s major centenary figure, Leonard Bernstein. However, how to do justice to one of the twentieth century’s greatest musical figures via one single recording? It’s been an impossible conundrum, when we’re talking about a conductor, pianist and all-round educator who composed both musicals and serious music. So I’ve actually just gone with my heart, and picked Some Other Time, my favourite song from his 1944 Broadway musical, On the Town. You’re hearing it here in the original cast recording conducted by Bernstein himself, and whilst this choice has been entirely non-strategic, it does still showcase many of the things which made Bernstein so great, most especially the feeling that he’s truly living each bar of music and inspiring everyone else to do likewise.
As for the new releases, it’s an especially strong trio this month. First, Bach’s Violin Concertos BWVs 1041, 1042, 1043 and 1056 from some of the world’s finest Baroque performers, Concerto Köln concertmaster Shunske Sato and Il Pomo d’Oro. Next, the tremendous first installment of a Rachmaninov piano concerto project from Daniil Trifonov with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Then finally the Calidore String Quartet, who have begun a new relationship with Signum Records with a multi-faceted programme designed to speak into the world’s current atmosphere of conflict.



Bach Violin Concertos BWV 1041, 1042, 1043, 1056

Shunske Sato(佐藤俊介), Zefira Valova, Il “Pomo d’Oro” orchestra (Warner Classics & Erato)

The recordings back catalogue may be bursting with interpretations of these violin concertos, but this one has just whooshed to the top of my personal favourites, and I can’t see it being budged off any time soon. Think speeds which are unhurried yet dancing and full of flow, subtle but personality-rich rubato used both to tease and to make love, beautiful and perfectly judged ornamentations, exceptional balancing and blending between parts, and a wonderful overall glow to the sound. The concerto on this playlist is the famous D minor concerto for two violins, for which Sato is joined by Il Pomo d’Oro’s concertmaster Zefira Valova, and all the above accolades ring true for it. Also worth saying, though, is that its central Largo is a stunner: clean, poised, measured, but also highly romantic.

Destination Rachmaninov: Departure

Daniil Trifonov, The Philadelphia Orchestra, Yannick Nezet-Seguin

I have a feeling that this one may go down as one of 2018’s most important releases. Trifonov has been described as the kind of talent that only crops up two or three times in a generation, if that. Furthermore, Rachmaninov is in his blood, as he’s already shown in the recording studio with his 2015 album which paired the Rachmaninov Variations with a romantic, Rachmaninov-inspired suite of his own, titled Rachmaniana. As for Departure, this is the first of a two-part “Journey with Rachmaninov” that presents the composer’s four piano concertos through the prism of his fleeing Russia, traveling around Europe as a concert pianist, and then settling in the United States. Departure features the second and fourth concertos, separated by Rachmaninov’s piano transcription of Bach’s Partita for Solo Violin No 3, and the musicians joining Trifonov couldn’t be a more appropriate bunch, because it’s Yannick Nezet-Seguin conducting the Philadelphia, i.e. the orchestra most closely associated with Rachmaninov, and with whom Rachmaninov recorded the four concerti himself, over eighty years ago. The resultant performances are spectacularly good too, as you’ll hear across the Second Piano Concerto chosen for this playlist: spacious, smoothly rippling and Romantic; textures ranging from thick, brooding Russian darkness to more lucid, softly-rendered chamber ones; and poetry every second of the way. It’s properly emotive, immersive stuff.

Calidore String Quartet– Resilience – Signum Records

Recent graduates of the BBC New Generation Artist Scheme, the Calidore String Quartet are going places fast. Not only have they already got a growing presence in their home country of America and in the UK (where notably this past year they’ve premiered at Wigmore Hall and the BBC Proms a breathtakingly beautiful new quartet written for them by Pulitzer Prize winning composer Caroline Shaw), but the continental European bookings are now coming in too. Besides their clean sound, their technical polish, the genuine bond of friendship between them, and their clear immersion in their music, they stand out for the immense degree of thought underpinning their every project; and Resilience fits that mould perfectly. Its programme is designed to speak into the atmosphere of conflict around the world right now, with three works written by three composers who themselves were dealing with conflict of some form as they wrote, whether inner or outer. So that’s Mendelssohn’s String Quartet No 6, Janacek’s Kreutzer Quartet, and the work plucked for this playlist, Osvaldo Golijov’s Tenebrae, of 2002. Golijov wrote this latter work under the dual influences of being in Israel at the start of the new wave of violence, and then taking his son to New York’s Planetarium the following week, where the world suddenly appeared as simply a tiny blue dot within an enormous galaxy. The result is an Eastern-flecked work in which celestial serenity is juxtaposed with violence and conflict. Powerful at the best of times, but all the more so with these musicians.
Listen to the full playlist on TIDAL

The Rolling Stones – Beggars’ Banquet
The nineteen sixties is surely the greatest decade ever for rock music, because there was so much strength in depth. Of course, the seventies runs it a close second, but not even that could match The Beatles, The Beach Boys, The Doors, The Who, Jimi Hendrix and the Rolling Stones sharing the pop charts together. It was a perfect storm of prodigious talent – the like of which we would see never again – with so much variety held within. Whilst upbeat Lennon and McCartney tunes rang around the airwaves on ‘wonderful Radio One’, the Stones were the perfect foil – especially at the time of Beggars’ Banquet in 1968. This album was one of their masterpieces, sounding deeper and darker than what had come before, yet still possessed of exceptional songwriting and musicianship.
The psychedelic pop of their 1967 album, Their Satanic Majesties Request, was a mixed bag, but Beggars’ Banquet silenced the doubters completely. It kicked off a purple period where they would go on to release Let It Bleed in 1969 and Sticky Fingers in 1971, finally stamping their sound upon rock history forever. Oddly, it was also the beginning of the end of the Brian Jones period, who proved less of a presence during recording due to his reported drug and emotional problems. Instead, this album saw Keith Richards become the lynchpin of the band’s new bluesy-rock sound, complete with brilliant production from Jimmy Miller at Olympic Studios, London.
Released on December 6th, 1968, it had much of the attitude of the infectious Jagger/Richards standard Jumpin’ Jack Flash, which had been released as a single a few months earlier but didn’t make it on to the album. Sympathy For the Devil and Street Fighting Man were the two stand-out tracks from Beggars Banquet, whose other high points included Prodigal Son, Stray Cat Blues, Factory Girl and Salt of the Earth. As ever, the line-up was Mick Jagger on lead vocals and acoustic guitar, Keith Richards on guitars and vocals, Brian Jones on guitars, Mellotron, sitar and vocals, Bill Wyman on bass guitar, percussion and vocals – and of course Charlie Watts on drums and vocals.
Described by Rolling Stone magazine’s Jann Wenner on its release as a great return to form, he spoke in terms of it being “a great performance… without pretence… an achievement of significance in both lyrics and music.” What was really interesting about it was the ease with which the album plays; it’s the sound of a band no longer trying to follow fashion or be something they’re not. The result is some wonderfully supple, cohesive and emotive playing that the band has never subsequently lost. Beggars Banquet didn’t quite top the charts on both sides of the pond – but wasn’t far off.
Sonically the album is very much of its time, lacking the bandwidth and sheer insight that modern recording techniques bring. Yet there’s still a pleasing tonal patina that gives it a distinctive feel, and the production is arguably better than Beatles releases of that moment. To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary, a new Compact Disc version is out this month on Abkco, with both the sound and packaging done to a very high standard.
To listen to Beggars’ Banquet and all of our 2018 album choices visit our TIDAL playlist .


Lyricism – Curated by Chris Thomas

There was a time when the  musical description ‘Country’ might bring a collective sigh of horror from Audiophiles – but no longer.  The American Bluegrass scene has expanded beyond recognition and its influences extend far beyond the front porch or The Grand Ole Oprey these days.  Labelling is a thing of the past.  It’s also an area of music where you simply have to be able to play to achieve recognition or a recording contract.  Some of the artists here are at the very peak of achievement and ability.  They are largely acoustic musicians who combine truly formidable playing skills with a sweet harmonic sensibility hence the Lyricism tag.  I hope you enjoy the music and use the artists featured as a springboard into a musical journey of your own.


  1. OUT OF THE WOODS: Nickel Creek come together to make great albums and then drift apart to get involved in solo projects.  Enormously talented musicians in their own right they found a producer in Alison Krauss on this album who bought the music alive.  It’s a very accomplished album all round.  Perhaps their strongest?  They all sing, they all play brilliantly and they all write.  This is the result.
  2. FEEDBACK LOOP: Which brings us to Chris Thile who is a member of Nickel Creek and one of the finest acoustic musicians I have ever heard. His own albums are perhaps more diverse in their roots than NC but his mandolin playing is pure magic and he has a great sense of atmosphere about his music too.
  3. 20 YEARS: On/off, on/off duo The Civil Wars are tight and self-contained musically.  Their harmonies are superb too.  I really like Barton Hollow.  The nature of this new Bluegrass movement finds quality musicians forming new partnerships and projects all the time.  I don’t know if we will hear any more of The Civil Wars in the future but they burned brightly here.
  4. AMERICAN TUNE: You probably know some of the work of Canadian artist Shawn Colvin. Her influences run deep.  Here she gives a lovely rendition of the great Paul Simon song and she keeps it as lyrical and simple as it deserves.
  5. DARK TURN OF MIND: When you listen to Gillian or watch her videos you can’t help but feel that a part of her is locked back in the American dust bowl of the 1930’s.  She is a wonderful artist whose music drips with atmosphere.  This is reinforced with her collaboration with multi-instrumentalist and partner David Rawlings and they both stick to vintage instruments to bring a woody, twangy feel to their music.  Lots of open spaces and acoustic references along the way too
  6. NEVER DIE YOUNG: Perhaps slightly the odd-man-out of this list.  Luciana is a Brazilian poet who most certainly has her own style.  She is married to bassist/producer Larry Klein, the ex-husband of Joni Mitchell and he produced The New Bossa Nova and is largely responsible for its special rather low -key atmosphere and colour.  On this track she collaborates with James Taylor to perform his enigmatic song Never Die Young.  It is a wonderfully textured album tailored to her classic Bossa delivery.  Full of some of the most understated playing you will hear.  She is a very interesting artist with a very wide range of material in her repertoire.
  7. REVELATOR: Another Gillian Welch song from Time, The Revelator.  I can remember hearing this album for the first time many years ago and becoming intrigued with its rather melancholy nature and its curious unfolding of rhythm and the languid tempo.  It’s become a classic since those days.
  8. ALL THIS TIME: Sara Watkins is a third of Nickel Creek alongside Chris Thile and her brother Sean.  She is a remarkable fiddle player and a lovely singer. Another artist who has years of music making ahead of them and the talent to surprise us all.
  9. TAKE ME BACK: Sarah Jarosz burst onto the scene when she was about 17 years old with an album full of songs of maturity and depth.  The New Bluegrass community sat up and took notice of her prodigious talent.  She is almost a classic singer/songwriter of the old tradition yet she is also undeniably totally contemporary.  She is popping up all over the place now and deserves all of her success.  It’s going to be interesting to see where she takes her music.
  10. NEW FAVOURITE: After I saw them I thought Union Station were quite simply the best acoustic band I had ever heard.  Their line-up of talent is stellar and they have Alison Krauss onboard here for a double CD of a live concert.  I could have picked any number of songs but New Favourite is a classic.
  11. OH NO NOT MY BABY: I don’t know anything about this band but I remember this song from decades back. It’s a classic from Carole King and Gerry Goffin from 1964 so it’s written with lots of little hooks and catchy moments.
  12. PE IN EIRINN: Transatlantic Sessions was a great series from BBC 4.  Rarely have so many musicians been brought together for fireside performances that spanned all sorts of country and Gaelic roots.  It truly was epic and this is an atmospheric end to the list.  I would encourage any of you who have the means, to look deeply into what Gerry Douglas (Union Station) and Aly Bain achieve during this wonderful experience.


Japan – Quiet Life

When Japan formed in 1974, the signs were encouraging – although a little too obsessed with the style and sound of glam rockers the New York Dolls, it was clear that David Sylvian (vocals, guitar, keyboards), brother Steve Jansen (drums) plus Richard Barbieri (keyboards) and Mick Karn (bass guitar) were prodigiously talented. The band started at Catford Boys School, South London, as a way of escaping the boredom of their surroundings. The name was a working title, used in lieu of a better one that they never thought of. In love with Roxy Music and David Bowie, they epitomised the British ‘art school pop’ tradition, but when lead guitarist Rob Dean joined in 1977 and they signed to the Hansa-Ariola label, the horizon expanded. Their first two LPs, Adolescent Sex and Obscure Alternatives, were overlooked by the new wave-obsessed British pop market of 1978. Then Japan hooked up with Euro disco producer Giorgio Moroder, who co-wrote and produced the single Life In Tokyo – and things would never be the same again…

The stage was set for the band’s third long-player, Quiet Life. Released worldwide on December 1979, it showed the band morphing into a fully-rounded synth pop combo, just at the right time. It’s possible to argue that Japan was the original New Romantic band – even though David Sylvian repeatedly refuted the claim. The new decade saw an explosion in colourful synthesiser-dominated music and Japan was at the vanguard. Quiet Life is a fascinating work, melding Low-era Bowie, Roxy Music and Lou Reed with disco, funk and even punk. For the first time, we saw David Sylvian dropping his vocals down to baritone, and singing in a stylised way that many British electropop bands copied.

It combines sharp uptempo songs like the title track Quiet Life, with slow, atmospheric, brooding tracks like In Vogue and The Other Side of Life. Musically it is intelligent, sophisticated and more eclectic than any of its contemporary releases – and showcases the superb musicianship that the band had by now achieved. Mick Karn’s fretless bass guitar playing went on to influence a whole generation of eighties bass players, and provides a supple underpinning to the rigid electronic backing. Extensive use was made of sequencing, and the edgy guitar sounds were replaced by smoother synthesised textures. Rob Dean used an ebow on most tracks, and the production was awash with phasers and flangers, with heavy harmonising on the vocals. The result was an introspective and dark sounding album, but full of beguiling melodies and tender, thoughtful lyrics.

The album peaked at No.72 in the British album charts in February 1980, and acquired gold status in 1984 for selling over 100,000 copies. It was the beginning of the band’s harvest years – soon they signed to Virgin and released two more memorable studio LPs, Gentlemen Take Polaroids (1980) and Tin Drum (1981). The title track was re-released as a single, reaching number 19 in October 1981. Domestic squabbles caused the band to split in 1982, their last ever performance being on 16th December 1982 in Nagoya, Japan. Quiet Life still sounds superb today; the Japanese remaster (BVCM-37220) being an essential purchase.

To listen to all of our 2018 AOTM visit our TIDAL playlist here


Pet Shop Boys – Introspective

Being a serious student of pop music back in the nineteen eighties wasn’t easy. Whilst some may look back nostalgically now, there was a huge amount of rubbish in the charts. The cool indie bands of that period – The Smiths, The Cure, The Cocteau Twins, New Order – barely and/or rarely made a dent. Yet the Pet Shop Boys transcended this; purveyors of catchy dance music that was lyrically intelligent and beautifully honed, New Musical Express called them, “The Smiths that you can dance to.” The synthesiser pop duo combined polished uptempo electronica with touchingly personal and reflective lyrics – instead of the usual “baby I love you” cheesiness that was the norm for mass market pop then.

The band’s first two albums brought Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe huge commercial success, yielding some stomping singles that practically defined their age – West End Girls and What Have I Done to Deserve This from Please (1986) and Actually (1987) respectively. By the time that 1988 came around, people were wondering how they would follow them up. Introspective was the answer, a subtle departure that was in some ways the band’s most commercial long player to date. While the first two albums had been mainstream pop, this fused the newly developing house music genre with the Pet Shop Boys’ own distinctive style. It added a more sophisticated production too, and more confessional and intimate lyrics from the duo’s songwriter Neil Tennant. Released at the end of a long hot summer on 11th October 1988, it caught that moment’s happy, optimistic vibe perfectly.

Introspective was the coming together of several fortuitous things. First, Tennant and Lowe teamed up with the producer of the decade, Trevor Horn, and one of the most accomplished studio engineers of his time, Stephen Lipson. It was recorded between 1987 and 1988 at Horn’s famous Sarm West Studio in London, where he had produced Frankie Goes to Hollywood, and made some great records with Propaganda, Art of Noise and Grace Jones. As well as this, it was packed with singles; the band’s epic cover of Elvis Presley’s Always on My Mind had already charted, as had their flamenco guitar-infused Ibiza tribute Domino Dancing. Left to My Own Devices was just about to assail the top ten, along with Its Alright, and it also contained a stomping version of their self-penned Im Not Scared, previously covered by Patsy Kensit’s Eighth Wonder. Small wonder then, that the album went on to be the duo’s second best selling ever, racking up 4.5 million copies, and peaking at number two in the UK album chart.

Lyrically, the album was indeed introspective. It saw songwriter Tennant in a reflective mood, which was in dramatic contrast to the Chris Lowe’s hugely upbeat tunes. Technologically it is a fascinating snapshot of the late eighties, with layers of multitracked analogue synthesisers adorned by Fairlight CMI samples. Each song feels like a perfect three-minute pop single, that’s been elongated to play on a twelve inch vinyl single that you can dance to. Although not an audiophile album per se, it still sounds great on a serious system – especially the original Japanese market CD release [EMI CP25-5670].


Listen all of our AOTM choices for 2018 on our TIDAL playlist



The Stone Roses – The Stone Roses

Although everyone associates the band with ‘Madchester’ – that manic period of Manchester indie dance music that swept Britain in the early nineteen nineties – The Stone Roses started way back in 1983, when The Smiths were at their peak. Lead singer Ian Brown had been in bands for several years by this time, but things took off when John Squire got the lead guitar role and Alan Wren became drummer in May 1984. By the early part of the next year they were in the studio with respected producer Martin Hannett. The band’s first single came out that year, and they debuted I Wanna Be Adored on Piccadilly Radio. By early 1987 they had recorded Elephant Stone and Sally Cinnamon, and bass guitarist Gary Mounfield – Mani – joined. This made a huge difference to the sound. Brown later said, “it almost changed overnight. It became a totally different groove. Straight away, everything just fell into place.” Rough Trade’s Geoff Travis heard them live and promptly signed them up.

Live touring began on a greater scale, and the guys found themselves with an eight-album record deal courtesy of Silvertone – who bought the tapes from Rough Trade. Elephant Stone was released as single in October 1988, and then Made of Stone. Finally The Stone Roses album was released in April 1989, followed by She Bangs the Drums as a single. By the end of the year, the final part of the jigsaw was complete, with the release of Fools Gold/What the World is Waiting For. It’s hard to understate the importance of this double A-side. “We’re the most important group in the world, because we’ve got the best songs and we haven’t even begun to show our potential yet”, said a feisty Ian Brown at the time.

By this long and exhaustive series of record releases and gigs, The Stone Roses went from cult band to fully-fledged chart toppers. Fools Gold bridged their jangly, melodious eighties guitar pop – done so well by late period Smiths and early Primal Scream – to the indie dance craze that the band found itself at the height of. Its slack, shuffling rhythms spawned an entire generation of imitators, with everyone from The Charlatans to Happy Mondays later taking up the baton. The group’s most famous song, it brought the first top-ten hit and helped sell the album in droves – even if ironically the vinyl version didn’t actually feature either of the new songs at all. The Stone Roses became the launchpad for the band, selling strongly off the success of this seminal indie single.

Celebrated by many as one of the great British rock records of the decade, it is full of great tunes, catchy guitar riffs and a sense of purpose that’s rare in any young band. Brimming with attitude and assuredness, it’s clear that the people involved really believe in themselves and what they’re doing. Recorded at Battery Studios, London, the John Leckie-produced The Stone Roses is by no stretch of the imagination an audiophile record, yet still sounds great through a serious hi-fi system. The original British silver disc [Silvertone Records ORE CD502] is the one to have.

Listen to the Stone Roses and all of our 2018 Album choices on TIDAL


Queen – A Night at the Opera

Despite massive chart success in later years, with a string of pop and disco-infused singles, Queen always thought of themselves as an authentic rock band, and a heavy one at that. Freddie Mercury (lead vocals, piano), Brian May (lead guitar, vocals), Roger Taylor (drums, vocals), and John Deacon (bass guitar) were all closer to Hawkwind than 10cc in the great pantheon of music. Yet A Night at the Opera showed that the band had the ingenuity and imagination to move well beyond the genre.

Best known for the smash-hit single Bohemian Rhapsody, the band’s fourth studio album saw Queen as a fast-maturing combo that had just headlined US tour venues, wearing striking Zandra Rhodes-created costumes, with Elton John’s manager John Reid now aboard. The most expensive album ever recorded at the time, it was meant to be the band’s magnum opus – its Sergeant Pepper – and certainly delivered. It was released on 21st November 1975 to widespread critical acclaim. It’s a whimsical mixture of pop, heavy rock and even music hall – with the band unwilling to be pigeonholed musically. Tellingly however, buried deep in the sleeve notes is the phrase, “No Synthesisers!”, suggesting Queen still saw themselves as real, old school rockers.

A Night at the Opera has great strength in depth. It ranges from Mercury’s almost maniacal Death on Two Legs a noisy and coruscating attack on the band’s former manager – to his jaunty, breezy Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon which has touches of George Gershwin. Taylor’s I’m in Love with My Car is a powerful, hard rocking number that is dedicated to roadie Johnathan Harris’s obsession with his Triumph sportscar, while You’re My Best Friend is a touching John Deacon composition, and ode to his wife. Sweet Lady is a high tempo, distortion soaked hard rock number from May, then we go back to whimsy with Mercury’s Seaside Rendezvous. May’s The Prophet’s Song is Queen’s longest studio song and sports interesting effects, while Love of My Life went on to be a popular singalong at Queen concerts. May’s Good Company channels Dixieland and sees him playing a ukelele and singing. Mercury composition Bohemian Rhapsody needs no introduction; amusingly its working title was “Fred’s thing” until the final recording session.

Critics were divided about the album. Some believed it was Queen’s finest hour, and put them in the premier league of the world’s great rock bands, others saw it as grandiose and overblown. What is not disputed is that it put the foursome on course to become a great stadium rock band, just at that genre’s height. A decade later they went on to play the 1985 Live Aid benefit and made themselves megastars, with record sales now estimated at 300 million. A Night at the Opera – which itself sold over six million copies – was the start of all this, a powerful yet quirky concept album packed with infectious tunes and brilliant musicianship.

By modern standards recording quality is not great, but a serious front end certainly lifts it. The Japanese 2011 SHM-SACD release [Island Records UIGY-9513] is surely the finest, although the CD reissue of the same year is most enjoyable too.

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Herbie Hancock – Speak Like a Child

More than any other musician of his generation, Herbert Jeffrey Hancock moved jazz music forward. He was an important artist for Blue Note – a great label that defined the post-bop era of the nineteen sixties and seventies. Born in Chicago in 1940, the son of a government meat inspector, Herbie started playing classical piano from an early age, and was regarded as something of a child prodigy. However, his heart was in jazz, where he soon developed a style of his own. The Hi-Lo’s were an important influence, as he later explained: “That’s when I really learned some much farther-out voicings – like the harmonies I used on Speak Like a Child… I really got that from Clare Fischer’s arrangements for the Hi-Lo’s. Clare was a major influence on my harmonic concept.”

At the tender age of twenty, he moved to Chicago and began working with Donald Byrd and Coleman Hawkins, where his reputation grew. Off the back of this, Blue Note offered him a contract, and Takin’ Off (1962) was the result. Watermelon Man caught the ear of Miles Davis, who signed him up for his band; he got to work with a stellar cast of young jazzers, including bassist Ron Carter, drummer Tony Williams and saxophonist Wayne Shorter. During this era, he recorded some excellent solo albums such as Empyrean Isles (1964) and Maiden Voyage (1965), which came to be seen as a template for the new jazz style. The two albums that followed – Speak Like a Child (1968) and The Prisoner (1969) are less celebrated, but no less beautiful…

1968 was a year of turmoil across the western world, and inspired some great rock protest songs. Hancock’s sixth album however, was a riposte to this. He wanted, “a forward look into what could be a bright future”, and Speak Like a Child was an attempt to restore some lost innocence, purity and spontaneity. He described the idea behind it as thinking and feeling, “in terms of hope, and the possibilities of making our future less impure.” He said he was thinking about a type of music between jazz and rock. “This album is an extension of Maiden Voyage in terms of use of simple, singable melodies. I’ve been trying for a long time to work on swinging, and of all the albums I have done, this to me swings the most.”

The result was a beautiful, innovative sounding modern jazz record. Recorded in March 1968 at Van Gelder Studio, New Jersey, Hancock delivered some of his sweetest, most tender piano work, with brilliant accompaniment from Ron Carter on bass and Mickey Roker on drums. The alto flute of Jerry Dodgion, bass trombone of Peter Philips and flugelhorn of Thad Jones make for an unusual front line. The result is a rich but floaty sound with wonderfully lyrical playing. The harmonies give vibrancy and colour, the texture of the music is delicious, and the melodies are simple and catchy. “Of all the albums I’ve done, this to me swings the most”, said Hancock. For the best sound on silver disc, seek out the 1999 Japanese Compact Disc reissue (Blue Note BNST-84279).

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Al Jarreau – Tenderness

In the late nineteen eighties, Al Jarreau had one of the most famous voices in the world. As the singer of the theme to Moonlighting – the smash-hit US romantic TV comedy – his dulcet tones conjured up images of modern sophistication. It was the first time that many had heard him – despite being having been a jazz vocalist of repute for nearly twenty years by then. Smooth and creamy yet tonally rich and wonderfully expressive, Jarreau’s vocal style perfectly soundtracked the chemistry between the glamorous Cybil Shepherd and a raffish looking young Bruce Willis.

Born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Jarreau was forty eight years old when he recorded Moonlighting in 1988, effectively mid-way through his career. He sang in church as a child, educated himself up to Masters Degree level and then started singing in a nightclub in Marin County, California. In 1968 he went professional and quickly found himself on TV shows such as Johnny Carson and David Frost, soon beginning to write his own song lyrics to reflect his Christian spirituality. His first album, 1976’s We Got By, gave him fame and 1981’s Breakin’ Away brought critical respect. After his smash hit Moonlighting at the end of the decade, Jarreau focused on touring – and it’s this period that Tenderness showcases…

He collaborated with a veritable constellation of jazz and soul greats during this time, including David Sanborn on alto sax, Michael Brecker on tenor sax, Marcus Miller on bass guitar and Joe Sample on keyboards. Released in 1994, Tenderness sees these musicians right at the top of their game. The song selection is unadventurous and clearly aimed at commercial appeal, but the quality of the musicianship is spectacular. Anyone with any interest in jazz, funk or soul will instantly be hit by the virtuosity of Jarreau’s band, which is breathtakingly tight despite recording in front of a live studio audience. The music conjures up a magical mood that’s louche yet beguiling; the worst criticism that can be levelled is that it’s rather ‘cocktail jazzy’, which is not to everyone’s taste.

Everything from Jorge Ben’s Mas Que Nada and Oscar Hammerstein’s My Favourite Things, to Lennon and McCartney’s She’s Leaving Home and George Gershwin’s Summertime gets the treatment. Jarreau’s vocal style is distinctive, expressive and gymnastic in the way it runs around the melody. Each song is rendered in a refreshingly different way to the original, and there’s no sense that he’s trying to recreate someone else’s idea of it. The really impressive thing is how Tenderness plays as an entire album – it sounds ‘all of a piece’, whisking the listener away to a special time and place.

Even those who are not natural fans of this beautifully nuanced, butter-smooth music will be astounded by the way the album sounds. Mastered by Doug Sax at The Mastering Lab in LA, it is one of the finest sounding modern jazz albums ever made. There are no hi-res versions commercially available, but even the cooking Compact Disc (WEA 4509 93778-2) on a dCS front end sounds staggering, with an amazing sense of space and insight that most hi-res recordings would kill for.

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