Welcome to the first entry in our brand new series, Treasure Island Tunes. Throughout the coming year, our editors and writers will share with you 8 songs or recordings (and 2 luxury items) that would accompany them should they ever find themselves stranded alone on a treasure island. Sound familiar? That’s because it’s Desert Island Discs, but without infringing on any Radio 4 copyrights. Not only that, but each writer will be providing us with a triptych of life in the form of three photos of themselves that chronicle their journey from younger years to present day. It’s all really rather personal. Our first castaway is music writer extraordinaire Elliot Burr, who guides us on a voyage through the choppy waters of G-Funk, Hip-Hop and Hardcore.
Never Too Much – Luther Vandross (1981)
In the days when minidiscs were an unthinkably viable piece of musical technology, I was merely a young lad jamming to my parents’ pre-made car journey mixtapes. In the mid-to-late 90s, soul and disco didn’t even need a resurgence it seemed (with disco in particular being revitalised by many pioneering DJs nowadays; here’s angrily looking at you two Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars), as the classics are, indeed, always the best. A world without Luther Vandross almost seems void of happiness. I’m sure that the glitzy excess of the 80s were a one-way chart-topping ticket to vibe town that no longer exists, with only chart hits from the likes of snake master Swift coveting our current airwaves, to our annoyance. That’s the bloody state that we’ve found ourselves drowning in.
Thank goodness the forever outstanding and almost unrivalled voice of Luther was plugged into my ear sockets from the get-go and, should I be stranded on an island, provide the inner warmth that may even dwarf the third degree burns I’ll receive on said island without the luxury item of sun-cream (which will not be my luxury item anyway – you’ll see). From that slide and bopping bass line from a then 21-year-old and self-confessed “smart Alec” Marcus Miller to the half-whispered backing counter melodies of “never too much never too much never too muuuch”, Luther’s magnum opus (a prized stalwart of wedding dancefloors the world over) is a formidable trend setter for soulful love songs that has thankfully followed me wherever I have roamed and will roam.
Life’s A Bitch – Nas (feat. AZ) (1996)
Not particularly in a bid to be pretentious, this track’s lyrical content ranks it at the very top of my esteemed hip hop hit list. Illmatic is single handedly the greatest rap album to have been written in the 90s, even when pitted against the likes of Biggie Smalls, Tupac (over-rated, right?) and Dre’s The Chronic and 2001 (more on that later). So much so, in fact, that it’s Shakespearean street slang depicting Nas’ upbringing in the Queensbridge projects of New York City has become a source of academic study, a musical relic akin to literature’s big hitters.
What the hell should that mean to me? Not only a lover of 90s boom bap, G-Funk and the like (thanks, Pops), studying English Literature allows automatic snobbishness to arise in relation to hip hop; I screw my face up at the sound of lyrical sour lemons as if it really were T S Eliot spitting The Wasteland over some sample-laden drum loops. Providing not only source material for the supposed crowning glory of my academic career (it was “ok” at best), one phrase from Life’s A Bitch even seeped its way into the title. And d’ya know what? I should fucking hate the song because of that, but it’s impossible to. The sample of The Gap Band’s wonderful Yearning For Your Love and a sumptuous cornet solo from Nas’ father (jazz legend Olu Dara) are only the basis for – hands down – the most perfect verses put to paper and to mic. Whilst Nas’ Illmatic flow stills remains a pinnacle, it is AZ’s opener which still baffles in its use of gritty and realistic imagery, rhyme scheme, flow, enjambment, assonance, and other such poetic techniques. If anything can somehow draw a wonderful feeling from a bloody essay, it is this. A rap experience, and education, that remains undaunted.
Ascension (Don’t Ever Wonder) – Maxwell (1996)
There’s a trend in this list (so far) of my parent’s musical influence me; it has proved to be the ultimate. Another genre bringing blatant nostalgic joy is a bit of neo-soul. From D’Angelo to Angie Stone, via Erykah Badu, it’s a road of sultry music built on 90s silk. This track is actually one which, enjoyed by my 6-year old self as much as Craig David’s Born To Do It album (also part of my father’s record collection), was a unnamed enigma, a track that was “aaaaah the Don’t Ev-ER WON-derrrr one!” for at least 10 years before it reappeared on the Spotify playlist of a certain coffee-based institution in Sutton which became an A-Level revision hotspot. What a place, and what a voice: it’s Maxwell. His debut Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite is but one of the decade’s most critically and commercially praised albums: a tenuous concept album dictating lothario protagonist Maxwell’s up-and-up relationship(s) with one (or perhaps more?) ladies.
From the initial heart-stopping first meeting and frisky intimacy in the early dating days, through relationship strains and culminating in Suitelady, duly subtitled The Proposal Jam, this album chronicles a passion-chasing escapade matched by sexy slap-bass, acoustic ballads and Maxwell’s emotional vocal range bleating out steamy R&B love-making lyricism without the smut of his contemporaries (R Kelly springs to mind, but then again 12 Play and R. both deserve praise). Being reminded of Ascension, one of Hang Suite’s singles, reignited my adoration for the track itself but also the neo-soul genre as a whole whence hoardes of distorted guitars and blast-beats became my vibe of choice. Plus, Maxwell became some sort of theme which has continued to underline and cement a friendship, out of which has also spawned a hit student Maxwell-inspired radio show. Rekindling my very young admiration for R&B (when I didn’t truly understand the lyrics, I must say), as well as acting as a decisive aspect in my decision to follow the path of the arts, Ascension’s heart-on-sleeve openness has proceeded to open up many possibilities for me along the years. It’s all love. That sounds quite weird in hindsight, but I promise it’s as innocent a statement as the crooner himself.
Bulls On Parade – Rage Against The Machine (1996)
Not only was Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock amongst the best three video games ever made – Timesplitters II and Crash Bandicoot being the other two; these being the only three I was ever good at, mind you – it introduced every innocent, wide eyed tween that embraced it to the pantheon of rock and metal that was a world hidden from view. And within this gargantuan and delicious playlist was one of RATM’s signature buzz-worthy crushers that ultimately changed this instrumentalist’s dream. Gone were the days of learning the ivory tinkling of Vivaldi; step in Tom Morello’s signature style to take musical scales, beat them into simplistic and repetitive riff submission before riding them into an oblivion of endlessly experimental sound-altering pedals.
Even after going back to the band’s iconic self-titled debut, Evil Empire is the band at their revolutionary best. Bulls On Parade features the one-octave-switch main riff which, to this day, makes even my fucking ankles get goosebumps, as did happen upon first listen, and when it went off as some daft kid’s ringtone during a school assembly. Axeman guru Morello himself justified the effect of “leaning on F#” as a way to make ever listener’s head bop, and nothing is quite as satisfying as the build up and return to this initial riff in the track’s outro, alongside its extensive use of flange effects, Tim Commerford’s pulsing bass and drum and vocal attacks from Brad Wilk and Zach de la Rocha respectively. This song made me want to learn guitar and experiment more with music; it’s as simple, but ironically as life changing, as that.
Xxplosive – Dr Dre (feat. Hittman, Nate Dogg and Six-Two) (1999)
I said I’d return. Dr Dre is but one of the many influential MCs (does he have a ghost writer? Who cares?) and producers of all time, and whilst The Chronic was his first solo effort and further example of his musical prowess after the days of NWA, his 1999 follow-up 2001 (irony?) is, at least for my generational peers, a paramount record. Featuring a wide array of the era’s biggest rappers (which remains a beautiful time for mainstream hip-hop) including Dre-discovered Eminem, Snoop Dogg expanding his tenure from Dre’s debut, future ‘Pimp My Ride’ host XZibit etc., tracks such as Still D.R.E, Forgot About Dre and The Next Episode should be globally recognised by those of a certain age.
That said, this record’s major hit (to me at least) is Xxplosive. Dre’s propensity for beat-making is absurdly masterful; this track’s welding of a drum track, descending bass line and continually repeated high-fret guitar lick is mesmerising, thickly smothered by vocals from Hittman, Kurupt and Six-Two dictating possibly the most disgustingly misogynistic lines you’ll ever hear. They really are problematically graphic, and pretty atrocious, but these lyrics are made up for (in a way) by the delectable crooning of G-Funk Sinatra Nate Dogg, who interpolates his own vocals from Snoop’s similarly questionable classic Ain’t No Fun (If The Homies Can’t Have None) to enjoyable effect. It is the inclusion of Nate Dee Oh Double Gee who exemplifies my high favour of this rager; as a standout moment in the unreal Nate Dogg Mix (shout out to DJ 1der for constructing such a nostalgic marvel), this song became not only a recurring soundtrack to some of the best times of my university life (being blasted at full volume to awake the council-calling neighbours and our tenuously housetrained pet guinea pigs), but it also somehow spilled into my professional career as a fitting soundtrack to working success. So if that doesn’t signify a song for life, what does?
Accidents – Alexisonfire (2004)
Much like a science buff’s beliefs in the creation of the Universe from a single micro-point, or the naming of the world’s animals by a naked man, there is a single band that I can hyperbolically trace my passion for heavy music to. 12-year-old me’s musical epiphany was certainly jostled between influential thrash masters Metallica, masked 9-piece madmen Slipknot and the then-unknown UK trance/metalcore hybrid Enter Shikari, with the latter two introduced by none other than my good musical pal and trend-setter Cadgers Icily. Yet it was Canada’s Alexisonfire – a band we also both happen to cherish as a teenage love, and the first heavy gig we both attended – which dictated the rage-fuelled future of my musical tastes. When my brother first showed This Could Be Anywhere In The World to me at a tender age, I was scared, I was thrilled, and I didn’t like it. For a few listens. A further exploration into the post-hardcore pioneers’ discography led to the discovery of (still to this day) my favourite album ever made: Watch Out!.
Truth be told, any of its 11 tracks could have made this list, each a microcosm of everything that makes Alexisonfire such a special band to all those that get exceedingly pissed off whenever some ignorant prick says “Alex Is On Fire” as if that was ever some troll’s idea of a funny joke. George Pettit’s unrefined yells, Chris Steele’s bombastic bass and stage antics, memorable drum intros from past drummer Jesse Ingelevics, and the most complementing rhythm and guitar parts ever committed to emo, courtesy of Wade MacNeil and voice of a generation Dallas Green: Accidents makes the cut here as the album’s opener. Just one of its many perfections is its inception; every time I hear the octave slide merging into the noodling riff, surrounded by ample feedback, my ears become some sort of hive for nostalgic bees to produce some sweet sweet honey rivers of ecstasy. Even this other example of hyperbole isn’t enough. This album starter ignites a feeling of pure happiness every single darn time. A band, an album and a song that I owe a shload to.
Racecar – Periphery (2010)
It may have become apparent that my musical journey has descended from cherubic love-fuelled soul into murky and angsty metal hell, and that’s because it most certainly has. But once well acquainted with the darker side of musical wizardry, there’s an innate desire for more distortion and more crushing ferocity. How would anyone ever get into Meshuggah otherwise? That said, the idea of spindly guitar skills matched with skull-crushing down-tuned bassy riffs somehow became the ultimate dream for the ears as a mid-teen, hence why the unearthing of Misha “Bulb” Mansoor’s pet djent project Periphery became so instrumental (pardon the pun). A band that has since developed into a travelling circus of some of the scene’s most respectable virtuosos producing astronomically jaw-dropping progressive music, still the crowning jewel amongst their nerdy self-titled efforts and ambitious double concept album Juggernaut is one of their earliest.
The fact that Racecar was conceived almost entirely by one axe-wielding soothsayer is ironically inconceivable. Essentially a djent opera – or, djopera – this track’s liquid flow dips in and out of some characteristic bottom-string-chugging whilst ambient leads provide some beautiful respite, as well as the short(ish) passages of syncopated drum shimmies and vocal melodies. Some Wagnerian lyrical and musical leitmotifs crop up throughout its epic (yet never offputting) 15-minute length in various modal forms; tailoring off into bouncy guitar licks and bonkers solos like a newly born djent lamb prancing about in a springlike grassy moshpit, it never meanders too off-piste to remain true to its thematic structure. It’s ultimately the musical equivalent of being in a serene pool, firstly caressed by a gentle wash of foamy riffs and then lashed by a barrage of violent djent waves at regular intervals – the hazardous waterpark of music. Maybe on a desert island, this experience could be put into practice using this song as the fitting soundtrack, and its pure scope forces a listener to hear yet another subtle speck of genius with every listen. I will never tire of this masterpiece, nor the focal guitar solo around the 9 minute mark, which remains the top pick from my Argos catalogue of shredding.
I Am No One – Counterparts (2011)
Whenever I introduce anyone to the beloved genre of hardcore, Counterparts (as well as OGs Converge who, whilst not quite making this difficult-to-construct list, are very worthy of your attention) are my first point of call. There aren’t many bands that successfully build on the heaviest core values of hardcore punk and bring some technically gifted melodic flavour along for the rocky ride. Anyone would think that a track lasting less than two minutes wouldn’t make it onto any Desert Island Discs, but since I’ve already got one choice 15 minutes in length, I’ll allow it, plus I can’t think of another song that sums me up better. Jesse Doreen and Alex Re’s guitar parts and chord patterns shapeshift at break-neck pace, as complex and tight as the playing of forgotten drummer Ryan Juntilla who adds both groove and snare-battering moments in equal measure to this short track, as have all of Counterparts’ kitmen since.
It’s basically a microcosm of exactly why I love heavy music: pounding, sporadic drum patterns; fluid switching between chordal and lead guitar playing; thumping, muddy basslines; and the most cynical, introspective, downtrodden lyrics agonisingly barked by Twitter legend Brendan Murphy. “How can I be expected to help anyone else, when I can’t even help myself?”, “Every fucking day I have to deal with the pressure I put on myself”, “Call me a hypocrite and I’ll be the first one to agree” provide a clear idea, as well as to scarily to-the-point title itself: I Am No One. He’s a masterfully cynical bastard, the Charlie Brooker of music, and I suppose I definitely follow in that line. I’m such a fan of punk and relevant sub-genres due to this band and if modern melodic hardcore continues to follow the same pessimistic path then, so be it, I’ll still be listening and struggling because it’s certainly the most consistently outstanding musical genre since the turn of the century.
Book: Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
Yes, there are three parts to it, but it is definitely one book. Tolkien’s genius as a writer is undaunted, having constructed a whole fantasy world of colourful (and equally dark) characters. This legend will stand the test of time for all humanity, plus a re-reading of it would evoke images from the extended editions of Peter Jackson’s film series which I wouldn’t be able to watch as an annual marathon anymore. They’re bloody wonderful too, of course.
Luxury Item: Fender Telecaster
A Fender Telecaster, the maroon one with the black pick-guard. Dreamy. It’s cliché to bring an acoustic guitar which aren’t as fun to play anyway. Plus I know I’ll look stylish, even if I am alone on an island.