It's an irony that won't scoop me many gongs at the Originality Awards for pointing out, but possibly the least 'express' means of discovering new music is through the New Musical Express. Granted, as a weekly print publication they're always going to be fighting a losing battle against the all-seeing, all-knowing Internet in terms of delivering content at speed to their readership, but a quick browse through the magazine's recent cover stars demonstrates that it's not exactly living up to the first two thirds of its name, either.
So far in 2013, Liam Gallagher (twice), Johnny Marr (twice), David Bowie (thrice), Nirvana, The Who, The Stone Roses, Nine Inch Nails and Paul McCartney have all taken their turns to leer out from the shelves of your local newsagent's music section. While admittedly some of these had new records / gigs / haircuts to promote, none of the hat-trick of front-pages featuring the Artist Formerly Known as Ziggy Stardust succeeded in featuring any actual interview content once you've handed over your £2.40 and peered inside, and with a Gallagher brother having appeared on a total of ten covers since the start of 2011 (note: Oasis disbanded in 2009; Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds have released just one album since; Beady Eye are shit) the NME seems to be running dry on inspiration. But is it the magazine's fault?
As is always the case when bloggers pose questions to themselves during an article, the answer is both yes and no. The problem for the NME is that the browsers of the WH Smiths magazine aisle who would have any interest in parting with their disposable income are those who would stare blankly at a picture of Disclosure before plumping for the reliably nostalgic coziness of MOJO instead. The audience that will be interested in the latest exploits of the brotherly dance duo, or of the sisterly trio of American new arrivals Haim, will be the kids that have grown up comfortably enough with the Internet to be able to access all their music fixes from their laptops, speedily and for free, and what's more it's unlikely that they'll be doing so from NME's messy eye-sore of a website.
I feel I'm hating a little on NME here so far. Perhaps with a touch of rejuvenation and rebranding, they could be back dominating the world of music journalism, with lines of school-kids waiting impatiently outside their local retailers every Wednesday morning to pick up a copy of the latest edition to rifle through keenly in double Geography a few hours later. Well hey now, whaddya know? The NME has just relaunched itself, along with a promise to expand the magazine's Radar section, which focuses on new and up-and-coming acts. So, who's on the first cover in this new dawn for cutting-edge music exploration? Oh, it's David Bowie again. Never mind though, the following week saw a celebration of 'Young Britannia', an ensemble cover featuring new British artists as commendably diverse as Erol Alkan-affiliated producer Daniel Avery, scuzzball Welsh rockers Joanna Gruesome and electro-pop babe Charli XCX, alongside more established UK names as Jake Bugg and Katy B. Things, then, definitely seem to be looking up.
However, just as any makeshift team of footballing nuns who can't afford a proper ball will tell you, old habits are hard to kick. This week's issue sees the NME flaunt its restraining order and make a bee-line straight back to Memory Lane (electronic tag around ankle still in tact - it just seemed to work well with the vintage Doc Martens), as they counted down the 500 greatest albums of all time. Spoiler: The Smiths' 'The Queen Is Dead' won. A more than fair choice, in this commentator's personal opinion, and entirely befitting of the publication's aesthetic.
A rather more unsavoury fall-out from the list is the accompanying 'staff lists' on the NME website blog. I'll quickly hold my hands up and say that the use of "unsavoury" in that past sentence is rather strong and unjustified - it's not as if the NME have daubed a big willy on their local mosque, or pissed on someone's kids on Christmas morning. Probably more accurately, the staff lists are just down-right wearisome. Each is a Top Ten from various staff members, and each reads like a blindfolded individual has put ten pins in a generic 'Greatest Albums of All Time' list, removed their visual impairment and thought, "oh yeah, that'll do". The majority of entries are mind-numbingly conservative - you've got to wonder whether anyone who lists 'Dark Side of the Moon', 'Revolver' (AND 'Rubber Soul'), 'The Velvet Underground & Nico' and 'Blood on the Tracks' in their favourite albums of all time has either never listened to a record that hasn't featured in a late-night Channel 4 countdown, or misunderstood the task and thought they had to predict the most likely final rankings. Honestly, is 'Dark Side of the Moon' actually anyone's 'favourite' album? No, no it's not. David Gilmour's, perhaps, but even then only at a stretch.
Several lists (without showing too much dedication to the cause by researching each release date, I'd guess at least two or three out of eleven lists) contain no albums that were released in the past twenty years, and there are only a small number of albums over the course of the page that were released in the past decade (this ratio is boosted by Laura Snapes, who decides to populate five out of her ten slots with albums by The National). Does this matter? Well, no, obviously on the worldwide scale of 'Things That Matter' it ranks just behind, "hmm, this milk's expiry date was yesterday, but it smells alright, I guess". What it demonstrates, though, is that NME might need to look a bit deeper than the design of their logo to discover why they're not quite as on the pulse as they once were - which, unfortunately, was when most of the albums on their list were released.
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What's that dear reader? You want me to demonstrate how much cooler than the NME I am by listing my own Top Ten favourite albums of all time and pointing out the difference in how less mainstream and obvious they are in a thoroughly narcissistic and self-congratulatory manner? Ohhh, you guysss...
Having studied the NME staff lists, I did begin to wonder what would populate my own Top Ten. There were some more immediately obvious candidates, but as I was trawling through the recesses of my mind I realised that perhaps the classics are considered the classics for a reason, and that I'd judged the NME staffers a bit too harshly. Then I remembered: DARK SIDE OF THE FUCKING MOON.
The list I've ultimately come up with is, of course, very subject to change, and will probably do so in the very near future. It's certainly not the list I would've conjured up ten, five, or probably even a couple of years ago. As the magazine's writers did with theirs, I've arranged it in to a rough descending order, kicking off with some untouchably brilliant Icelandic introspection and rounding off with a bonafide classic that our friends at NME would be proud of, taking in socio-politically aware East Coast rap, socio-politically aware expansive deep house, and socio-politically aware tongue-in-cheek UK garage along the way. I've linked to a key track from each as well, so get stuck in.
Just one quick final note - as always, I'm fully aware that I'm just writing this blog post to pretty much myself, but in the unlikely scenario that anyone else happens to a) stumble upon this article and b) bothers to read all the way through to here and fancies popping their own Top Ten list in the comments, then they'll be warmly welcomed.
My Own Top Ten Favourite Albums
1. Björk - Vespertine
Listen: It's Not Up To You
2. Nas - Illmatic
Listen: N.Y. State of Mind
3. DJ Sprinkles - Midtown 120 Blues
Listen: The Occasional Feel-Good
4. Cocteau Twins - Heaven or Las Vegas
Listen: Heaven or Las Vegas
5. The Streets - Original Pirate Material
Listen: Weak Become Heroes
6. The Smiths - Meat Is Murder
Listen: Rusholme Ruffians
7. Björk - Debut
Listen: Big Time Sensuality (<< from where this blog derives its name!)
8. Burial - Untrue
9. Grouper - Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill
10. Fleetwood Mac - Rumours