Album of 2016: Here – Alicia Keys

Album of 2016: Here – Alicia Keys

Choosing the album of the year wasn’t an easy task. Based purely on performance and production, the accolade would have gone to Radiohead for A Moon Shaped Pool. But music is about more than the aesthetic culmination of a sound. Alicia Key’s Here the proves this rule. It isn’t the product of years of evolution and refinement, it’s a new world that serves as an introduction to the real Alicia.

Before things slow down on the sixth track, “She Don’t Really Care_1 Luv”, there is a sense of stepping into Alicia’s authentic world, perhaps for the first time. The opening words demand attention (“I’m the dramatic static before the song begins / I’m the erratic energy that gets in your skin”) to “The Gospel”, a song that rolls along with an urban message and a street sound. It acts as a precursor to the entire album. The sweet piano, radio-friendly vibes are gone.

That’s not to say she has downplayed her natural talent on the keys, it’s now a tool used to give drama in the right places and emphasis like no other instrument can muster. Her vocal style has duly been adapted. In parts, like the album, it is raw. The openness, the imperfection, hearing the breath as she pushes messages into the microphone, or it break as she sings “Hallelujah”, surpass a polished mainstream offering.

With this record, she has finally given voice to her opinions, her character. “Blended Love” clearly comes from experience, talking about stepchildren and family. “Holy War” is a semi-political statement, reflecting these uncertain times. “Girl Can’t Be Herself” is the record that soundtracks her online push for women to go without make-up, be natural.

Cynics will point out it’s easy for one of the world’s most beautiful women to adopt the natural look, but they’d be missing the point and highlighting why Alicia has been championing the idea.

It should be noted there was nothing wrong with her previous offerings. The majority of Alicia Keys albums will stand the test of time. This one just redefines her while capturing the world now. “Kill Your Mama” isn’t a song that could have worked on a softer, commercial album.

Periodically the album cuts away to interludes, these add to the personalised structure. Without making this the whitest review ever of Here, it also makes one think back to The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. That debut album perfectly got the idea of the artist and her sound over. It changed a genre in the process.

Here incorporates R&B, hip-hop, and soul traits into a wrapper of Alicia’s design. It’s an album that transcends her previous works and acts as a reboot for what’s to follow.

The clue was on the album cover. Quite regularly she is seen in a headwrap on social media, on the cover her natural curly locks spring to life unhindered. She’s Here. No longer the young piano playing virtuoso that’s falling or a girl on fire, but a woman with a strong voice and opinions to deliver.

The next time she provides them can’t come soon enough.

Made of Stone

Made of Stone

The Stone Roses are once again back in Manchester. After the 2012 Heaton Park reunion the unknown has been replaced with a new question: Will they fill four nights of gigs with unheard material?

Leading up to the Heaton Park performances the fear was the band would no longer have the magic. That history had made The Stone Roses the thing of legend. That a reunited band, most likely driven purely by money, would desecrate the memory of something that was fleeting yet special.

The causes of a collapse were made before any evidence surfaced. Ian Brown was a prime target. Bootleg copies of old gigs revealed a voice that was left wanting. Even the most ardent fans braced themselves for a disappointment.

They needn’t have worried. The Stone Roses moved into the modern day effortlessly. The fears over performance immediately subsided. Even if Ian Brown had struggled to sing in 2012, it wouldn’t have mattered – the crowd did it for him. So timeless are the tracks from their two albums, age hadn’t harmed them at all.

Without the concerns they could no longer do it, one can rightly ask what makes this new Manchester experience a must see. Why did extra nights need to be put on? New track “All for One” indicated it was perhaps an old fashioned tour to promote new material. That reasonable assumption would be incorrect.

If the 2012 events were a heavy nostalgia trip, this one buckles under a weight of reminiscence surpassed only by a demand for tickets.

Out of twenty songs performed on the night, only two were new. The aforementioned “All for One” clearly designed for a quick feel-good stadium sing-a-long, that unlike the back catalogue, won’t survive the test of time.

This isn’t to say it was a bad night – far from it. But it was another live performance of their greatest hits album which is really just an album and a half worth of music. That’s all they have ever produced. And there lies the initial fear from four years previous: what if they have nothing left in the creative tank?

Perhaps they don’t? But it doesn’t matter when what remains is so enduring.

Other bands can go under the radar with greatest hits tours, they pull their material from sources spanning decades. The Stone Roses lack that luxury, thus, are bound to face criticism.

Like a stone, they are hard to reshape now. Creatively they have become rigid, captured in time like a fossil. Pure nostalgia rather than pioneering or fresh. However, the audience seems to connect with this condition.

There were more bucket hats on the night than particles of confetti Chris Martin had spread on the Etihad weeks earlier. The fans no longer blown away by a return to form, just soothed into rose-tinted memories of an earlier time.

The Stone Roses have always been a snapshot of a band in their prime, a music scene at its peak. Maybe it is with careful plotting they have decided not to tarnish that with a modern take, allowing their followers to immerse themselves into a myopic musical memory.

Rock not Bust: Axl/DC Manchester

Rock not Bust: Axl/DC Manchester

Photo by Sakura – rockphotographer.net

With something more like trepidation than excitement, more intrigue than expectation, fans waited for Axl Rose to fill the void left by Brian Johnson’s departure from AC/DC. Many fans had been rumoured to have returned their tickets when news the Guns N’ Roses frontman would be part of the tour. This was confirmed by notable gaps around the Etihad Stadium in what was originally a sell-out.

In the article Hire Your Guns, even this writer poured cold water on the idea of an Axl led AC/DC tour. Thankfully those fears were ill-founded and every doubter in attendance will happily eat humble pie. That’s if there’s any left after Axl Rose himself has finished filling himself up.

The key to the Rock or Bust Tour‘s success appears to be how humbled the singer is. The self-serving aura, once as familiar as his bandana and screechy voice, has been replaced with focus and composure. This isn’t to say he’s lost his edge, he just isn’t over it anymore.

The show begins with the large video screens blasting us from outer space down to Earth. The first song is “Rock or Bust.” Axl walks into it (quite literally now, even with a leg brace) with a natural demeanour and perfect voice. But it’s the classics people are waiting to hear, worried they are minutes away from watching a band destroy its legacy.

It never happens.

“Shoot to Thrill” follows and then “Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be.” The latter providing a glimpse that would be later confirmed – Axl is more at home with the Bon Scott songs. That doesn’t stop the band diving straight into “Back in Black.”

Their bestselling song and most iconic Johnson number could have been an awkward moment but it passes as a thing of beauty. Again, Axl appears aware of the delicate position he is in. Rather than mimic the guy he replaced or try and reinvent the sound, he does what he was hired to do: give it the justice it deserves on the main stage.

Once the show starts, neither the band or audience look back. This is AC/DC at their best. Renditions of “Sin City” and “Riff Raff” breathe life into classics that have been underserved in modern times. This doesn’t feel like a substitute line-up anymore, rather a refreshed one with the ability to continue after this loan period. This isn’t elaborate karaoke but a viable alternative for an aging band.

Even with all the plaudits going to Axl Rose, some should be saved for Angus Young. For a guy in his sixties he shows no sign of age, in both his physical exertions or playing ability. He has always been the focus of live shows, now more than ever he is the face and force of the band. The unit only has the chance to shine because of his abilities.

Where the future lies for AC/DC only Angus truly knows. Axl has spoken of a desire to carry on, even record with the band, while Johnson believes he has found a hearing cure.

If the Australian rocker decides to stick with the Guns N’ Roses frontman, he won’t be short-changing the fans but breathing life into the line-up.