Friday, September 4, 2009

Free sounds

One of the biggest things I fear about getting older is getting too stuck in my ways – listening to the same music over and over again, watching only certain types of movies, reading only a particular brand of books. I'm always trying new comic books, desperate to break the easy pattern of following known creators, even if it's only rarely rewarding.

It's been said that mature tastes are almost fully developed at the age of 19, and that once we've worked out what we like, we're reluctant to go further afield.

This might be biologically correct, with the brain reaching a certain stage at a certain age, but it's also a load of old bollocks. While there are certainly people who only listen to music created 20 years ago because it reminds them of the one time in human history when they were actually a little bit cool, there are many more who are always looking for something new, shiny and interesting.

When it comes to music, it's not hard to find new stuff, but the big problem is sorting out gems from the vast amounts of sawdust. Thousands of new songs are created all over the world every week, many from hopeful amateurs, many from established artists. It can be easy to rely on what you know, to stick with the artists who have proven themselves over and over again, but the need to branch out and try something a bit different is a strong one.

The internet age has made finding new songs, artists and entire genres easier than ever before, as long as you know where to look. There are a number of excellent sites where contributors of discriminating tastes can point you in the right direction, and they are to be applauded.

But personally, over the last decade, I've discovered the best way to discover new music is through the free CDs that come with British music magazines.

The British music press has always been an odd beast, with entire musical careers built on the appearance on the front cover of the NME. Those weekly rags were only too keen to hype up the Next Big Thing, and even keener to run that band or individual back into the ground once the shine has worn off. The weeklies no longer have anywhere near the power they once had, and with the exception of the sturdy NME, are almost non-existent.

But many of these writers have migrated to the monthly magazines and the UK produces a large number of these monthly music-related publications. Some of them are aimed at an incredibly niche market, others go for a more popular route.

Mojo has to be the best when it comes to quality of writing, (even if the articles do sometimes tend to be a bit too interested in their subject's drug use), and looks at subjects that few mainstream publications would even consider. The free CDs started appearing on the cover of every issue about five years ago, and have built up a powerful library of tunes. From complete cover versions of Beatles albums to CDs dedicated to the best soul, garage and punk music, Mojo rarely disappoints. It offers meaty writing for the mind and beautiful tunes for the soul.

(It also featured my personal favourite piece of rock writing in the last decade, with Charles Shaar Murray's painfully moving obituary for the mighty Joe Strummer - “Go straight to heaven, boy. Your name's on the door. Walk right in.”)

On a more popular front, Q magazine only features three or four cover CDs a year, but they're invariably high quality. While they are certainly not as eclectic as Mojo's effort, the ability to offer the occasional random act from some of the best pop-rock bands in the world gives the listener the chance to hear something exciting and new. The magazine itself is nowhere near as good as it really could be, and somebody with a limited interest in the few bands that receive a multi-page profile would find little else to chew on, but it still features a trustworthy review section, the odd sharp feature and the occasionally spectacular cover shoot.

Uncut magazine got on the free-CD bandwagon pretty early and offers a huge amount of variety. Champions for alt-country long before it was cool, and still singing its praises long after everybody had moved on to the next retro-hot movement, there is plenty of that sort of music in the selections it offers, and a whole lot more.

With the mixtape mentality in full force, Uncut brings a more scattershot approach than the CDs offered by the other magazine means that there is a certain amount of unparalleled rubbish, but it's very rare to get a CD that features nothing noteworthy. (Unfortunately, one fairly recent compilation featuring the best of US college rock failed to connect on any level.)

Writing-wise, Uncut magazine is a bit better than Q, but frequently mines familiar territory a few times too often, and really needs to stop putting rock legends on the cover in moody black and white. Dylan, McCartney, and Mick & Keef are just as photogenic as ever, but it all gets a bit too predictable sometimes. And the magazine's move towards a focus on music meant many fine reviews and articles about movies and books largely disappeared from its pages overnight, which was a regrettable loss.

But when you get this much free music, who has really got the right to complain? There is still an overwhelming amount of material, but any fool can put together a playlist, and every single CD has at least one tune that is worth listening to.

I love the CDs. It's the path to something new and it's the rejection of comfortable nostalgia in favour of the weird unknown. But mostly, it's just a fucking good way of listening to some good new tunes.


Zom said...

I’ve long been of the opinion that Mojo is strictly for those with a whole heap of interest in maintaining and servicing a very particular rock canon*, and a very particular view of music history, one that features a lot of white men and a lot of guitars and finds its spiritual home on the late 60s/early 70s. I may be wrong, of course, since I’ve hardly ever dipped between the covers, but the covers seem to be perpetually pushing The Beatles, Hendrix, The Rolling Stones, Dylan, Clapton, Oasis and the like. (Assuming they do) It makes sense that they would have this kind of canonical focus, it’s a good solid way of building a powerful brand, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy much of the music they foreground (with the rather large exception of Oasis, who haven’t done anything for me since I was 19), but as someone who had a rather different set of musical priorities growing up, and someone who thinks that open mindedness and it’s closely related twin scepticism are cardinal virtues, I don’t have a lot of time for rockism in any shape or form.

My favourite music magazine would have to be The Wire. It can go up its own arse from time to time (especially the reviews. Oh God, especially those), and it can be a bit snobby, but the quality of writing is often excellent, the content consistently interesting and unusual and it’s free “Tapper” CDs have introduced me to more good music than any magazine before or since.

Course, I’m really all about the music blogs

*There’s that word again

Zom said...

Sorry, not saying that YOU are a rockist, Bob, just that I'm not sure about Mojo

Bob Temuka said...

Mojo does have those covers, but they really do cover a lot of esoteric stuff, giving me new favourites I'd never heard of before. While it might get more sales with the old fogies on the cover, the articles within cover all sorts of different genres and artists.

For example: I've been on a real Motown music kick for the last couple of months, fueled almost entirely by a number of soul themed CDs from Mojo, and they also do the best old-school punk compilations. (Which suits me, as I'm increasingly convinced that the greatest form of music ever created can be found in punk covers of Motown classics.)

But it does focus on the past, and there is an almost inadvertent snobbery about modern music shining through, which can get a bit much.

Never really tried The Wire, but seen it around. Might give it a go.

And I can't be unhappy about being called a rockist. I did go see ALice Cooper on Friday night and had a thoroughly excellent time.

Zom said...

I didn't mean to call you a rockist, though!

My favourite route into surprising new music in years gone by has always been the Rough Trade compilations although they do of course cost actual money.

Chris from Temuka said...

Great post Bob (Simon tipped me off about the existence of your blog). I agree that both Mojo and Uncut elevate the 60s/70s above the rest and I'm getting to the point where I'm not feeling the need to read much more about The Byrds or Neil Young or even Brian Wilson. Having said that I've seen an awful lot of Smiths on the cover of both Mojo and Uncut and read inexplicably glowing things about Scritti Politti, so the 80s is obviously on its way to becoming 'classic' too.

I share your love of 60s soul, but prefer Stax to Motown (that's a different topic - maybe we'll get to it later). But I must say that Uncut in particular has turned me on to some brilliant new bands in the last few years. Three that I highly recommend if you haven't checked them out yet are The Hold Steady, The National and The Felice Brothers. All different, all brilliant.

I hear life in Auckland is pretty good. Would be nice to keep in touch.

Bob Temuka said...

Hey Chris, good to hear from you, man. Email me at