"if there's nothing missing in my life then, why do these tears come at night".
- Britney Spears
Last week I was discussing a question with some friends. It wasn’t the first time we have had it and it certainly won’t be the last. The question: what has been our favourite album of 2015 so far?
Now the group of friends mulling this over have accompanied me to annual music festivals and countless gigs over the past decade. We all sport a healthily voracious appetite for rock n roll, metal and punk music and none of us are short of opinions on these genres. However, in answering the above question we were curiously ill-equipped and strangely apathetic. Only one of the group seemed to have listened to more than half a dozen releases this year while another peddled his favourite line; that he doesn’t like modern music. For a group of friends so passionate for music I found it quite troubling. Are our treasured genres getting worse? Is our music taste now nothing but a nostalgic indulgence? Are we becoming old buggers…despite still being in our twenties???
This situation coincided with a long car-drive to a job, giving me the perfect opportunity to listen to some old favourite CDs while nostalgically reliving the journey my music taste took to get to this point…
I was a little late getting into music of any kind. Before secondary school I had amassed a comically camp cassette tape collection, consisting of Dolly Parton’s greatest hits, Mona by former Neighbours actor Craig McLachlan, the Spice Girls album and a strange assortment of film soundtracks and novelty releases (Remember You’re a Womble and the Lost in Space soundtrack being particular favourites). Occasionally I would give my parents CD player a spin, air-guitaring along with Status Quo’s greatest hits. I was vaguely aware of chart music and knew the choruses to the biggest songs, but for the most part the 90s music scene passed me by.
The turn of the millennium and my first year in secondary school saw the arrival of my very own CD player. My music collection slowly began to grow and included the usual compilations (Huge Hits 99 was fantastic) as well as the assorted James Bond Soundtracks. As I was gradually exposed to more music my taste evolved into something – in hindsight – even more worrying. I don’t want to dwell on this for too long, but it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say I had both of Britney Spears’ first two albums, a room covered in her posters and received tickets to see her perform live as a Christmas present. In fact it would be entirely accurate.
Fortunately my early-pubescent fascination with scantily clad popstars and cheesy novelty records would soon change thanks to one fantastic stroke of luck. An event with repercussions so far reaching that I doubt my life would be the same without it; my beloved Britney Spears fell ill and cancelled her British summer tour.
As upsetting as this news was there was light at the end of the tunnel; she promised to return later in the year as soon as she was well enough. Ticketholders had the opportunity to claim a refund or exchange their tickets for the new dates, which were scheduled for the winter of that year. While I was mulling over whether to cash in my Christmas present for a more immediate alternative or to hold out and see my idol, a group of five men came along and opportunistically took advantage of my indecision. Like a nation suffering from a power vacuum there was an opening for a musical Head of State and luckily these men took it with aplomb and showed me what had been missing in my life. Their names? Sam Rivers, John Otto, DJ Lethal, Wes Borland and Fred Durst. Otherwise known as Limp Bizkit.
The release of their Mission Impossible II soundtrack Take a Look Around could not have been more perfectly timed, or more perfectly themed. Filling the void left by my sickly favourite Britney and perfectly capitalising on my well-established love of cheesy film soundtracks, the song smashed its way into my bedroom and fixed itself on repeat all summer. That the single was accompanied by the expletive-laden N2 Gether Now made it even more perfect, and opened my eyes to music quite unlike anything I had ever heard before.
Needless to say I turned down the opportunity to see Britney that Winter, instead opting to get a Limp Bizkit hoodie and a copy of their new album; Chocolate Starfish and the Hot-Dog Flavoured Water. For a naïve well behaved 13 year old it was the edgiest, most daring sound in the world and whet my appetite for similar angsty records.
Very soon after this release another angry young man came into my life; Marshall Mathers. Eagerly jumping on Eminem’s bandwagon I purchased the Marshall Mathers LP and sat in my bedroom listening to it, earnestly pretending to myself that my church-going, drama-loving, Scouting life related to the stories told in his songs.
Unfortunately I must have been pretending too loudly because my Mum caught wind of my new CD and, completely swept-up in the frenzied tabloid reaction to Eminem’s chainsaw-wielding tour and his dark Christmas release, Stan, she snatched the album out of my grubby mitts and returned it to our local Woolworths. A little embarrassed and confused I trotted down to Virgin Megastore with the money and instead purchased a CD by another interesting young man with an alliterative name; Marilyn Manson’s Mechanical Animals.
Now I have always loved big, bold theatrics, whether in live performance, cinema or TV. Suddenly I found a beautiful pairing between the aggressive, defiant attitude I had experienced with Limp Bizkit and the vivid, colourful showmanship I enjoyed in all manner of media. Marilyn Manson’s larger-than-life persona and evocative lyrics sparked my imagination in ways I hadn’t yet experienced before.
What followed was a period of three years of angst, anger and much-enjoyed misery as I lapped up albums by my new favourites System of a Down, Spineshank, Slipknot and other bands beginning with S (seriously, if you wanted to be a nu-metal band it was like a pre-requisite). To begin with I shrewdly put my measly pocket money to clever use, buying packets of blank cassette tapes and getting my friends to record their latest purchases for me, instead of buying my own. Once I started my first paper round (as a 13 year old illegally pretending I was 14, that’s the sort of fiery rebelliousness this music had awoken in me) I ceased my Fagin-like ways, ignored my parents’ wisdom to save my earnings and instead upped the ante of my record collection, buying whoever was being heavily featured in Kerrang! or Metal Hammer.
By the end of this three year period I found I was exhausting the nu-metal reserves as quickly as the genre was exhausting its originality. As Wes Borland departed Limp Bizkit, Jonny Santos departed Spineshank and Fred Durst’s ego departed planet Earth I found myself itching to try more diverse genres. At this point three key events inspired me to branch out my tastes.
The first was my Dad. As a biker he was always a classic rock fan and one year asked for AC/DC’s recent release Stiff Upper Lip for his birthday. He had it for a couple of years before I stopped assuming anybody that old must be terrible and gave it a listen. I remember the exact moment; he was driving a friend and I to our church Youth Group while playing the track Damned. It’s not their best song by any means, it’s not even the best song on the album, but something in it caught my interest and related to the rhythm and sound of what I was listening to each night as I attempted to lead my ISS Pro Evolution 2 Master League team to successive league titles.
Not long after this I eagerly tuned into Top of the Pops one evening to see a bunch of hairy old blokes blow the audience away. Sporting five – that’s right FIVE – guitars and galloping riffs more gallop-y than anything I’d ever heard before Iron Maiden’s re-release of Run to the Hills immediately told me it was absolutely imperative that I go and buy anything they had ever released.
Around the same time our music teacher in school stopped getting us to play birdsongs on our Casios and instead started to introduce us to more modern music. One lesson, while enjoying the hilarity of a keyboard switched to its drumkit setting, I was interrupted by the opening bars of The Beatles Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. I had heard The Beatles many times before, but always associated them with playing musical chairs to Yellow Submarine at children's birthday parties or old relatives crooning at family gatherings. I was shocked to hear an aggressive and sexy distorted guitar sound that matched my own tastes from such an old-fashioned band.
AC/DC, Iron Maiden, The Beatles…was it possible that these old blokes had uncovered something special way before the bands of my adolescence?
The next five years were the most musically exciting of my life, where every new purchase seemed to be a stone-cold classic...probably because albums like Guns n’ Roses Appetite For Destruction, Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon or Metallica’s Black Album were stone-cold classics. Paying close attention to the “best ever albums” lists published in my favourite music magazines I discovered the joys of these bands along with The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Led Zeppelin, Motorhead, Queen, Aerosmith, Kiss, Motley Crue, Bon Jovi, Van Halen and many others. I would eagerly jump from period to period, hungrily seeking out the highlights, whether the psychedelic 60s, the glam 70s, or the New Wave of British Heavy Metal and Hair Metal of the 80s, It. Was. All. Good. While Freddie Mercury taught me that music could be playful, Roger Waters taught me that music could be cerebral and Bruce Dickinson taught me music could be mythical. Put simply, there was no limit in sight, rock n roll could do anything.
It’s a period I look back on very fondly. In the caravan I inhabited in my parents' back garden (after being kicked out of my bedroom thanks to the arrival of my younger sister!) I painted the walls to look like the cover of Pink Floyd’s The Wall, affixed a homemade poster of their marching hammers emblem to my wardrobe, and had Beatles posters over my door. I would sit late into the night listening to Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon and Animals albums from start to finish, mulling over their meanings. I would haplessly strum an acoustic guitar, failing to learn the most basic of AC/DC's riffs and hopeless sing along with my records, failing to hit the easiest of Robert Plant’s notes.
Since then my music tastes have took several diversions; ex-girlfriends inspiring my interest in the cooler and infinitely more reserved Indie and Britpop genres, university friends inspiring my interest in Drum n Bass and Trance and my love of movies inspiring me to seek out numerous film scores. While these diversions were fun, there were usually short-lived before I inevitably returned to my natural home of rock n roll. Every now and then I enjoy revisiting these phases (particularly indie and Britpop) but they rarely inspire the same enjoyment as the genre that lit a fire under me as a teenager and encouraged me to buy every album I could find.
Unfortunately such musical gluttony can’t last forever and sets you up for something of a fall; the reserves of rock n roll are not infinite and can be depleted. While I wouldn’t suggest I have heard absolutely everything the genre has to offer, I do think it’s fair to say I have covered all of the mainstream highlights from the classic period of the 60s - 80s. The genre is still the soundtrack to my life, the rich joy it brings is still tangible and rewarding, but I envy any lucky teenager first embarking on their Maiden voyage into an ocean of rock n roll music they have not yet uncovered. At that age you have decades and decades of previous work to enjoy, the best achievements preserved and heralded, making it easy for you to know where to begin and guiding you along the way. Once this exciting journey is finished modern music struggles to live up to what preceded it, due to simple probability; half a century of cherry picked favourites cannot be topped by new releases every single year.
However this isn’t to suggest that journey is over (I’m not sure it ever can be). I find a new joy in finding up-and-coming bands that sound exciting and fresh (Colt-45, Black Spiders, Volbeat, Million $ Reload, The Answer and Logan have all been this to me at some point over recent years) and that prove to me the genre is alive and well, and in safe hands.
A friend of mine once commented that "all songs have been written by now". I agree that repetition of themes, chord progressions and riffs in songs is getting more and more common (and has recently resulted in a few high profile copyright infringement claims, such as Tom Petty successfully proving Sam Smith's Stay With Me copied his own song I Won't Back Down). In Sam Dunn's brilliant documentary Metal: A Headbanger's Journey Rob Zombie explains that Black Sabbath have already written every good riff and that all current bands can do is try their best to tweak the formula they created. However I explained to this friend that I believed the creativity of popular music is more hamstrung by an unadventurous industry of stiff record labels and radio stations unable to broaden horizons and experiment with different sounds than it is by some inherent creative exhaustion. I mentioned the infinitesimally small probability that two packs of cards have ever been shuffled the same way twice, and that when you consider the amount of variables at play in the creation of a song (ranging from the broad elements such as song length, structure and theme to the finer elements of instrumentation, effects and tonality), it is clear that new songs can still be constantly generated, each with their own new focus and emotional centre.
While it is true that I find myself loving less new albums – to the point where I’m lucky if I love one new release per year – I do still have a great joy when I find an album that strikes a chord with me. Since 2010 some of the albums that fall into this category are Slash’s first solo album Slash, Foo Fighters Wasting Light, A Day to Remember’s What Separates Me From You, Black Stone Cherry’s Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea and Weezer’s Everything Will Be Alright in the End. These albums each managed to inspire in me an excitement equal to the classics I unearthed as a teenager, they’re just fewer and further between.
Now, to answer the question of what is my favourite album so far this year…I honestly haven’t got one yet. But I’m looking forward to finding it.