John Walker's Electronic House

John Walker Music 2008

by on Jan.03, 2009, under The Rest

2008 marked the year I became a genre. Which was odd. The phrase “John Walker Music” has become commonplace amongst my hateful collection of so-called friends to describe a song they consider whiny and not possible to dance to. This idea is explored in disturbing depth in Kieron’s annual Top 40 songs list, posted today. And takes the term to an interesting place: it’s previously been used to dismiss songs, but seems to be becoming an occasionally acceptable alternative.

He’s quite accurate in his descriptions of which songs I’ll like. They’re easy to pick out the list. They’re the ones that don’t sound like stroppy teenagers singing 80s karaoke to a Casio keyboard demo. That sounds so trite a description, too cliché and predictable a way to dismiss it all, but hell, it seems to work.

(So as I write this I’ve put on some ancient Red House Painters, since Mark Kozelek is the patron saint of John Walker Music, and it’s about as opposite to the oh-so-ironic faux-80s annoyance as I could imagine.) Kieron’s taste has a few blips, allowing in some of this year’s best singles, including the epically great Dig, Lazarus, Dig by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, and Matt & Kim’s glorious Daylight. He also includes some Mountain Goats, which has made my day. The best band/singer of them all. It’s a shame there isn’t a decent version of the song online anywhere, as the live version linked to is barely audible. (I might try and fix this in a bit, just in case people who like the shouting stuff click on it – it seems too tragic that he’d not get heard by new ears.) And the Magnetic Fields too, of course. And if they count as John Walker Music, then I think my genre is in damned fine form.

Oh, and the Frightened Rabbit song is fantastic. Kieron’s exactly right about the worry they cause. They’re so damned close to turning into Travis, and no amount of swearing will keep them above this if the banality they occasionally hint at sucks them down. However, while their demise seems sealed in their recent popularity (they’ve had two songs on Chuck’s fantastic soundtrack this season, and are popping up on TV all over the place), their second album survives it, and Keep Yourself Warm defies it. I accidentally saw them live this year, supporting knighted JW Music heroes, Death Cab For Cutie, and they knew to finish with this song in gigantic form. (Nick Cave, Kieron explains to me, only counts as JWM when it’s bad. When it’s good it isn’t. As he says, it’s based on a concept he’s created called “unfairness”. Of course, it’s never bad. It’s just sometimes it isn’t as spoon-fed. Take that.)

Looking at such lists, 2008 seems to have been a disastrous year for music. If the Ting Tings’ vapidity is the best the year can offer, let’s just pretend it didn’t happen. (Kieron links me to a great article about the year’s dodgy output here.) However, there was a decent amount of stuff. Well, nine or so albums. Some that appear in a few lists, some that seem oddly absent. All of them great.

I don’t really pay attention to time, and I find it very hard to know what’s from this year and what’s from five years ago, so I find listing music pretty difficult. I’m also fairly certain the Hold Steady and Portishead albums would have made it 11, but I haven’t heard enough of either yet. But here’s my Top 9 albums of the year. Which should, I suppose, all be John Walker Music by default.

9. Jim’s Big Ego – Free*

JBE have always understood the simplest music equation: record labels = bad, live performance = good. Their latest album is literally free, but you can choose to pay as much as you want for it. If you take it for free, they ask that you “pay” by passing it on to three friends. Of course that has no bearing on the music, which is really rather fantastic. There isn’t the big catchy single that will ride an internet meme this time, like Y2K Hooray!, or Stress, but they were all over a decade ago. Free* is a much more mature album, with some fantastically big songs, like the opening International, and the super-cute Everything Must Go. It gets silly, of course. And is as jazzy and enthusiastic as you could want.

8. Frightened Rabbit – The Midnight Organ Fight

As above. You can’t help but feel nervous, seeing their destiny, but for now it’s hugely enjoyable.

7. Negativland – Thigmotactic

After 2005’s No Business – an album entirely comprised of stolen samples – the copyright-defying group went in completely the opposite direction in 2008. A much more personal project with fewer members of the collective involved, Thigmotactic is an experiment in song writing, rather than song recycling. It’s pleasingly daft, and surprisingly engaging. From a band who made an album by crashing a car into their recording studio, there’s a surprisingly amount of conformity to many of the tracks. It rarely lasts the full length of a song thank goodness, the familiar discordance unravelling tunes brilliantly, as well as many vocal samples throughout. I’m absolutely astonished this album hasn’t been given accolades on end of year lists. While the avant garde nature of most of their releases might put the Vampire Weekend applauders off, you’d think something that apes a traditional album would catch people’s attention.

6. High Places – 03/07-09/07

High Places released two albums this year. Their debut self-titled proper album, that I’ve not yet heard. And this collection of previous songs, that is utterly stunning. It swims and swarms throughout, an aquatic atmosphere meeting a strange, fussy insectoid flittering. Many tracks almost sound as if they’re underwater, the vocals muffled in a way reminiscent of Azure Ray, with the percussion up front. If it weren’t so catchy it would be haunting.

5. The Mae Shi – HLLLYH

I don’t understand how HLLLYH didn’t see a song on Kieron’s list. If I tried to guess an album he’d like, it would be this one. It’s got screeching girls, shouty boys and post-punky tunes. It’s also bloody brilliant. 7 x x 7 is a remarkable song, with almost nothing but “shush”ing for the first 30 seconds, as the guitar begins to poke its way through. Then it’s a minute of increasingly frantic, shouted storytelling, before going back to shushing. Then a final 20 seconds of shrieked madness, wrapping everything up in two seconds over two minutes. There’s no gap before the next track, The Melody, bursts in with 80s videogaming bleeping, warbled singing, with backing vocals alternating screamed notes, and itself breaks down into static noise and confusion midway through. Then it’s time for the next change of direction. There’s a Cloud Cult vibe when they’re pretending to be singing songs, and something unique and fascinating when the disguise is dropped.

4. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!

It’s somehow been four years since the last Bad Seeds album. The double CD Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus showed some hints of Cave’s interest in getting noisy again, after his seven years of balladic Christianity exploring and fairytelling. This led to his side project, Grinderman (containing a contender for Best Song Ever with No Pussy Blues). The insane moustache grown for Grinderman’s hairy garage rock remained when the Bad Seeds got back together again, and some of the roughness came with it. But Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! is far more sedate affair, and it’s hard to not want it to just go that little bit further into the noise it threatens. It doesn’t get better than the opening title track, but anything the Bad Seeds offer is well worth listening to again and again.

3. Girl Talk – Feed The Animals

Mashups felt so 2005, until Gregg Gillis came back with proof it was still worth much attention. Feed The Animals is a much more approachable album than his previous two (and even more so thanks to being available at your own chosen price, including free should you be so wretched). The hiphop is invaded by incredibly familiar mainstream tunes, with 20 to 30 songs mashed in each track (the album is also available as one continuous track as there are no real breaks), often with three or four seamlessly appearing at once. It constantly makes you laugh as cheesy-as-hell pop so perfectly punctuates the rap, teasingly introducing itself before the reveal. Sinead O’Connor’s Nothing Compares To You and Procol Harum’s A Whiter Shade Of Pale not only don’t feel out of place as they help things along from NWA and The Cool Kids to Kanye West and YoungbloodZ, but somehow feel relevant again as they do. And how else could you listen to The Band’s The Weight without it using Ben Folds Five’s Battle of Who Could Care Less’s drums to reach Ace of Base’s All That She Wants backing Lil’ Scrappy? Exactly. (There’s a near-exhaustive collection of the songs listed here.)

2. The Mountain Goats – Heretic Pride

What a year when I get to choose between The Mountain Goats and Cloud Cult as my favourite album. Why on Earth Heretic Pride is getting ignored in the year-end accolades is a mystery – perhaps February is too early to put out an record and receive the notice you deserve come December/January. But John Darnielle proves he merits wide attention with songs like Autoclave and How To Embrace A Swamp Creature. Maybe it’s the familiarity of the sound that has put people off, often featuring songs that remind you of tracks on previous albums. However, there’s something special this time – it’s the most delicately instrumented record since his signing to 4AD. Songs like Last Man On Earth and So Desperate are almost as spare as his cassette-recorded solo albums of the 90s. There isn’t a song that matches Woke Up New from 2006’s Get Lonely, but there’s a few that come close.

1. Cloud Cult – Feel Good Ghosts (Tea-Partying Through Tornadoes)

Any band whose members include artists who paint on stage during gigs deserves attention. A band who does this while consistently producing albums to the stunning quality of Feel Good Ghosts deserves trumpeting from the roof. Craig Minowa’s project has become something incredible. 2007’s The Meaning of 8 was completely wonderful, meandering through moving and bemusing songs, changing shape and speed in a breathtaking way. Feel Good Ghosts is a much tighter album, notably shorter at only 13 tracks (Minowa was reported to have said he thought people’s attention spans weren’t coping with previous albums), but just as powerful.

This might also be the last Cloud Cult record, with Minowa announcing the band intends to spend at least the first part of 2009 with families, and in one interview saying he doesn’t know if they’ll reform after. If it is, then they’ve gone out in tremendous style. When Water Comes To Life (below) and Journey of the Featherless sound so uplifting you’re tempted to believe they could teach you to fly. But for me the most glorious moment of this or any of their albums is Story of the Grandson of Jesus (also below, without a video). It’s a gorgeous nonsense parable, with guitars and drums slamming together underneath the magical tale.

I cannot count how many times this album has looped through 2008, scoring the entire awkward year for me. If Love You All is to be the last song on their last album, then what better way to finish.

When Water Comes To Life:

Story of Grandson of Jesus:

Love You All:

11 Comments for this entry

  • The Poisoned Sponge

    I think I can relate to your list far more than I can to Kieron’s, and the choice of Cloud Cult at the top is wonderful. I recently discovered them and have been on and off listening to them consistently since then. They just don’t seem to get old, much like Bon Iver.

    I also saw Frightened Rabbit supporting Death Cab, but their levels were all wrong, and I never really got a good feel for the music. It seems unfortunate, as lots of people seem to be saying they’re really rather good. I’ll investigate further.

  • Little Green Man

    Your taste in music is so awesome, I may just have to buy these CD’s with my Christmas money not even hearing some of the Band’s tracks. Thank you for this great list Sir.

  • Kieron Gillen

    John misunderstands. The phrase “John Walker Music” isn’t dismissive to his music. It’s dismissive to John Walker. That’s how being mean works.


  • botherer

    While clearly it’s all about the insult, I have heard music dismissed with the phrase, “That’s John Walker music,” a few times of late.

  • Little Green Man

    How could music be dismissed as John Walker Music! John Walker is AWESOME.

    Also, I am not him, no matter how much it may look like I am just him in disguise.

  • Gassalasca

    Sir, let me tell you something. Kieron Gillen’s music taste sucks arse. Yours doesn’t

  • Bobsy

    I’m entirely unqualified to talk about pop music, but if there’s one thing I hate about people who listen to pop music it’s the binary genre idiocy that so many people latch onto. So many times I’ve heard people describe a song as “depressing” when it’s anything but. Moving? Yes. Depressing? No.

    To this type of thought music falls into two categories:

    1) PARTY!!!!!
    2) Despressing

    With no in-between. So thankyou Mr John Walker for recognising that the spectrum may be somewhat more padded than that. It’s reassuring, y’know? Sometimes I can be happy and still not want to dance (most of the time actually). Music deserves to exist for this state.

  • Little Green Man

    Kieron’s taste doesn’t suck arse, neccesarily, it’s just… varied.

    I do like some of the stuff he’s posted, but I can appreciate a much larger majority of John Walker’s list than KG’s. Also, has anyone else seen the top two websites above this page when you search “John Walker Music” on Google. Maybe when someone said “That’s John Walker Music” they actually meant one of those guys…

  • J-Man

    My love of you has just grown, Mr. Walker. Oh, and I’m trying to find out exactly why I won a copy of city of heroes from PCG. Was it because I used the name Dexter? Mr. Francis said Graham chose the winners, but I just wanna make sure.

    When water comes to life nearly brought me to tears. I’m not sure why.

  • richmcc

    I saw the Mae Shi a good few years ago with Rapider Than Horsepower. They were suitably energetic. For that, read weird. Though I think they were out-weirded by Rapider, who are just weird.

    Those two have a split 12″ (Do Not Ignore The Potential) that has some corkers on it, think it should still be available somewhere!

  • Miles

    What an excellent and thoroughly well written list.

    For the record I love both John Walker Music and Kieron Gillen Music equally