Saturday, 31 December 2011

Top 10 (alternative) Albums of 2011

After what was a very disappointing 2010 alternative music seems to have hit back with a vengeance in 2011, in particular September, which saw 3 of my favourite 7 bands release albums, the lead singer of another release a solo album and my favourite release a documentary celebrating 20 years of them being together - here's hoping for 20 more years from Pearl Jam!  Overall it's difficult for me to chose between them as there are so many quality offerings, but here goes (in reverse order this time):

10. Sylosis - Edge of Earth
Not a band I've listened a lot to in the past, however I saw them live a while back I was very impressed.  Probably the heaviest band on this list and not what I'd normally listen to in my free time, there aren't exactly many breakdowns with clean sung chorus's but as far as their genre goes it's really bloody good!  A total of 14 tracks and 72 minutes means it's definitely value for money and really doesn't let up, it's strong all the way through - although not good for your neck with the amount of headbanging that you end up doing!  Although I wouldn't recommend it for anyone wanting a bit of easy listening!

 9. Alkaline Trio - Damnesia
Complete contrast to Sylosis - much easier to listen to.  I would normally scoff at putting a best of on this sort of list but Damnesia isn't your usual best of, 12 tracks have been reworked into semi acoustic format with the addition of 3 new songs.  With a back catalogue of 7 studio albums it's fair enough to be releasing such a thing but massive respect to them for not just lazily lumping a few together and hoping it sells.  Particularly love "Every Thug Needs A Lady" and ""Clavicle" - two of their classics beautifully reworked.

8. Skindred - Union Black
Skindred are really unique, I don't think there is anyone around like them.  The review linked to above says "You’ll read a lot about this album not living up to the Skindred live show, which is a fair point to make, but only true simply because Skindred are one of THE best live acts you’ll ever see", this is so true.  Benji's rastafarian rock vocals are just so unique and honestly I can't wait for their gig with Therapy? Next year.  For me this album is up with their Babylon album for quality.  

7. Bright Eyes - People's Key
Conor Oberst has one of those voices where when I hear it I just want to stop and listen.  As far as The People's Key goes it doesn't quite catch me as much as "I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning" or "Fevers & Mirrors" and it doesn't quite reach the heights of the critically acclaimed "Lifted or The Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground" but that's just because these albums all set the bar so high.  His song writing is just as good really, if not better, he also manages not to be pigeon-holed whilst being everything at once.  It really is quite a gift.

6. Staind - Staind
Staind are my fourth favourite band of all time, so it would have been a massive surprise if they didn't make this list with an album - especially when it goes right back to what they do best and produced a really great album in the theme of their first two Tormented and Dysfunction.  There is only one reason why it isn't higher on my list and that is track 4: "Wannabe" (featuring Snoop Dog).  I really dislike this song.  However if you take that away it is a really awesome album that reminds me just why I like them so much 10/11 years on from when I purchased Break the Cycle.  

5. DevilDriver - Beast
It's as if they realised that their 2009 offering Pray For Villains wasn't their greatest album so they had to come back fairly quickly with a better offering and that they certainly did.  This album is just typical DevilDriver fair with their opening song "Dead To Rights" setting the pace from the word go.  Although I have to say Johnathan Boecklin on drums is the lynchpin of the band and Dez Fafara's lyrics are often lacking, however he makes up for this with pure anger!

4. Steven Wilson - Grace For Drowning
I may have been a little influenced here because I met him when he launched the album in Bristol (which means I own a lovely signed copy) but Steven Wilson is amazing at making beautiful music.  I have become a big fan of Porcupine Tree over the last couple of years and really like Blackfield too, so was a little disappointed by his first offering Insurgentes which, whilst good didn't capture me - it felt like the build up to something else.  Grace For Drowning however I had on repeat for about a month.  The album is all about loss, after being dedicated to his late father and you can feel it throughout the double disc edition.  My particular favourite is "Postcard" but the album is just so full of awesome tracks that you could argue for any.  There has been a lot of talk about Storm Corrosion releasing something in April next year, and I for one can't wait as this album from Steven and the latest offering from Mikael Åkerfeldt's Opeth have both blown me away... which leads me nicely into:

3. Opeth - Heritage
As embarrassing as this is to admit - this was the first Opeth album I have purchased.  After one listen through I knew it wouldn't be the last!  There is an awesome melodic structure to all of their riffs whilst Åkerfeldt's vocals are hauntingly good.  From the sounds of things this is not a typical Opeth fan's favourite album - too prog, however I am a prog fan so maybe this is why I love it!

2. Dream Theater - A Dramatic Turn Of Events
If you've heard one Dream Theater album you've pretty much heard them all.  You know exactly what you're getting as soon as you select play, exactly the same as their other albums.  But when their other albums are so good what's the problem?  There was the obvious worry that Mike Mangini wouldn't have settled in behind the drums and there would have been a gaping hole left behind by Mike Portnoy's surprising exit, however this is not the case.  The album is none stop awesome songs performed brilliantly.  "Build Me up, Break Me Down" is almost industrial in places and a refreshing change to have another Dream Theater song that I'd happily play at an Industrial/Metal night.  The stand out song though is the ballad at the very end "Beneath The Surface", when I heard this first I swear a tear formed.  This has become one of my favourite albums already, along with their previous offering of Black Clouds and Silver Linings.  It had to be something good to pip it for me...

How do you follow possibly the greatest metal album of all time in the form of The Blackening? Well if you're Machine Head you do this by making sure your next album blows any other album released that year out of the water.  The first 30 minutes or so are just pure blistering metal, there is hardly room to pause for breath.  Fortunately the chance to pause comes as the 5th song - "Darkness Within" starts.  On first listening this is not a Machine Head song, it doesn't seem to fit, however the more you listen the more you realise just how epic it is.  Their performance of it at Wembley Arena at the start of this month is something I'll remember for a long time. The song itself really resonates with me about how music can be there for you when you need it most.  The only disappointment for me is the use of the children's vocals in "Who We Are", however, as they are the band member's children I shall let them off this minor misdemeanor and thank them for what was a brilliant album. 

In short it has been an awesome year from my perspective for music, I hope it has from everyone else's point of view.  The only sadness for me was the passing of Amy Winehouse.  I know she was often criticised for her private life and often the butt of jokes but I thought she was wonderfully talented.  In addition to this the memory that will stay with me most from 2011 was the tribute to Slipknot bassist Paul Grey, RIP both.  Here's hoping 2012 will be just as good but without the need for any sadness.  

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Monday, 19 December 2011

A woman's place is in the kitchen...

...according to the Metro at least:

I wonder what percentage of men manage to cook a festive meal without a mishap, how many of them make decent gravy, remember to defrost the turkey and know how long it should be cooked for.  How much of the pressure is also applied by men doing it?

I find it interesting that an article like this is published at the same time as a discussion in the letters page regarding a previous article and the attitude lad's mags have to women.  I feel that stereotypes like the one above are just as bad at demeaning women.  

That said, I think I'll try and be a little more helpful this year when I get back from having a drink with the men whilst the women are in the kitchen... just because it's tradition doesn't make it fair.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Stoke should complain...

Last week Stoke City had the great achievement of reaching the knock out stages of the Europa League (unfortunately they have received a very tough draw).  Lots of people mock the competition, however I think it's great - not for the big clubs like the Manchester sides and Spurs (therefore I wouldn't give Champions League drop outs this "second prize") who could probably do without it, but for teams like Stoke.  It wasn't too long ago that Middlesbrough reached the final and being from the North East I thoroughly enjoyed watching their entertaining journey.  Fulham fans also seemed to revel in their achievement also reaching the final two seasons ago.  The competition is great for giving the smaller clubs a moment in the spotlight.  I genuinely hope that Stoke outlast City and United in this year's tournament (I do normally support the underdog but always support UK clubs in Europe).  I'm sure all Middlesbrough fans remember them knocking our Roma, it would be equally as impressive for Stoke to trouble Valencia.

I think Tony Pulis is doing an really good job there, yes they are a physical team with a habit of scoring goals from long throws and set pieces but I think their style of play has improved each year in the league and in the three and a half seasons in the Premier League they haven't looked like being relegated (having achieved 45, 47 and 46 points respectively and 24 from this season's 16 games despite the distraction of Europe).  

They are however wrong to rule out a complaint following the appalling treatment their players received in their final Europa league game away in Besiktas.  I understand that Pulis, like many managers, like to forge almost a siege mentality where the rest of the world seem to want them to fail but that is no reason not to follow the proper procedures when another club/their fans have broken the rules.  Nobody would find it acceptable to turn up to work and have objects thrown at you whilst you sit at your desk from people trying to injure you/cause your performance to suffer, so this shouldn't be acceptable on a football pitch when footballers are doing their jobs.  UEFA really should crack down on this irrespective of a Stoke complaint.  Obviously the benefits of playing at home include the familiar conditions and the home support, however there is a thin line between supporting your team and abusing the opposition.  If it was up to me I'd throw them out, take a zero tolerance and if it happens next time ban the club from European competition for a number of years - the fans would then soon learn not to do that.

I am pleased to see UEFA have taken action against Celtic for their "illicit chanting" and also that Celtic chose not to appeal.  There should be no room for this in society irrespective of it being at a sporting venue.  I don't feel that the punishment was harsh enough, playing behind closed doors or throwing them out would have sent a stronger message - especially as their fan's don't seem to have gotten the message.  I know this punishes the whole for a minority of fan's actions but this sort of thing should not be tolerated.  

At it's best sport brings people from different cultures and societies together.  This should not be threatened by a small minority who do their best to destabilise this/the opposition.  

NUS needs to stop scaring students...

I was appalled to read a story in the Metro this morning (well last week now) claiming that students are turning to work in the sex industry to meet the cost of their tuition fees.  There is an extended version of the story on BBC news which is a little more insightful.  Obviously it is terrible when people feel that their situation leaves them with no choice but to turn to prostitution, there needs to be clear advise and support to any student who finds themselves in such a situation - but no-one will be in that situation because of the level of fees as repayments are income contingent.

I got angry with this as it took what is a worrying story and politicised it by the inclusion of tuition fees when they should not be a relevant factor.  By perpetuating the myth and including it in such stories all that they are doing is putting more potential students off applying for University as they think they wont be able to afford it.  An good piece in the Lib Dem Voice a little while back highlighted how Scotland's free Tuition actually makes it harder on the students as in order to save money on fees they reduce the grants and loans (i.e. the support) that students receive whilst doing their studies.  Since no student pays fees up front and the level of support is higher the fees system actually is less reason for students to be "forced" to turn to the sex industry.

"The NUS also told BBC 5 live Breakfast it estimated about 20% of women working in lap dancing clubs were students."

This statistic doesn't surprise me at all.  I would have thought that a large proportion of women working in this (legal) profession are of typical student age, the hours would probably fit in well with their courses and it would be an opportunity for them to make really good money.  (I'd wager that the salaries/tips would be a lot better than working in a supermarket or just behind a bar).  As long as no woman is forced into the situation and sees it as a genuine choice I fail to see where the problem lies here and of course more people work in the industry as it's become more socially acceptable.  

The key issue is to make sure no woman (or man) ever feels that their only option is to go into a potentially exploitative industry (legal or illegal).  There is support available to them, the NUS would be better served advising their students of this support rather than trying to scare future students.  

Monday, 5 December 2011

For the Greater Good...

As a rule I am usually against data being kept on an individual for anything other than the purpose with which it was given.  Data sharing etc usually falls against this for me.  However I find the BBC's reporting of the NHS - Life Sciences partnership to be pretty poor as, unless I'm missing something, I don't see the proposed reforms to be "opening up to private companies".

As far as I am concerned, surely opening up anonymised patient data to private companies would be an excellent way for them to ensure that research is targeted where it is needed the most.  So their own investments can be put to their most efficient use and used to help treat as many people as possible.

A key part of this though is that it must be anonymous.  Patients don't want private health companies to have detailed history of their past ailments as this is open for massive exploitation.  As long as all unnecessary data is removed (leaving behind perhaps just that which may be pertinent to the problem) then there should be no worry about breach of privacy.  

I think many people are just concerned with other people making money out of their records.  I can also see how private companies suddenly getting a huge amount of data, potentially for free could seem exploitative, especially given the high cost that exists for companies to conduct similar research themselves.  However charging them for it would create barriers to entry which could limit some research.  Perhaps the best bet would be for the information to act as effectively a part payment against future drugs, reducing future costs to the NHS.

At the end of the day, as far as medicine is concerned, all I think people should care about is that as many people are treated as effectively as possible without prejudice.  If this helps increase the effectiveness then I'd be for it.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Unison calling for a summarily sacking? #Clarkson

I really worry about people at times.  Unions do some great things protecting their workers and ensuring their rights are upheld, yet here they are coming out and demanding that a man is sacked for making a joke.  This isn't just a man making an inappropriate joke in the work place, this is someone who's paid to make jokes.  He was introduced as someone who makes controversial statements so surely if that is what the BBC are employing him for then if Jeremy Clarkson makes a controversial statement then they can't complain.  

I'd like to put the whole thing into context.  When asked his opinion on the strikes he initially said it was "fantastic" as it made getting around so much easier.  

"Everybody's stayed at home, you could wiz about, restaurants are empty..airports, people streaming through."

Then to follow this up he indicated that as this is the BBC he needed to be balanced and give the counter view (mocking the BBC's editorial guidelines here was probably his aim) and that is when he said: 

"I'd have them all shot.  I'd take them outside and execute them in front of their families."

The clip can be seen here:

Now I don't think anyone can say that these were sensible comments, personally I didn't find them particularly funny, but at the end of the day this was a joke that you can tell he was saying for effect.  In my mind there is a clear pause where he is sensing how the first part of the joke ("I'd have them all shot") went down with the studio audience (there was some laughter) before he decided it was good enough to expand on.

You can't go around summarily sacking people for doing exactly what you pay them to do just because one of their attempts to fulfil their job description isn't well received - even if it warranted it there is due process to be followed, something that Unions have spent years campaigning for.

David Allen Green has written an excellent post on his blog analysing the press release by Unison.  The key question he raises for me is that is it a good use of Unison's finite resources to be trying to get someone sacked - is this really in the best interests of their members?  

The other excellent post I've read on this issue was by Dave Gorman - "Jeremy Clarkson should be lined up and shot*" (Not really).  He is highlighting the hypocrisy of people, who would possibly have been defending the twitter joke trial where Paul Chambers was arrested for the following tweet:

 "Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You've got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I'm blowing the airport sky high!!"

Getting the police involved (as has been suggested as a possibility by Unison) would be as ridiculous as the twitter joke case.  I don't think it should be a universal right to not be offended.  If it were then we'd still be living in a Puritan society as almost everything is going to cause offence to someone.  He was not encouraging people to go out and shoot any striker he was just trying to make a controversial joke, and oh look it worked - As David Allen Green said, he's turned the whole story (and Unison have facilitated it) to be about him rather than the aims of those who went on strike.  It would have served them better to treat him  as an irrelevance and perhaps made a complaint to the PCC.  

At the end of the day, Clarkson has the right to say what he likes, that's the great thing about freedom of speech.  I for one would hate to see that right watered down further.