A Giller Award winner from 2000, Mercy Among the Children is David Adams Richards’ story of an impoverished family living in small town New Brunswick is very well told but equally as bleak. The family endures ridicule and abuse from neighbours while they have barely two nickels to rub together. Sydney, the father, is stoic throughout but frustratingly so. It feels like if he lashed out a few times at his distractors, the family fortunes would have been a lot different.
In 1998 The Modern Library ranked Nobel Prize winner William Faulkner’s novel, The Sound and the Fury as the sixth best English language novel of all time. The novel is broken up into different narratives with each relating to the Compson family of Jefferson Mississippi. The book jumps back and forth in time and often in a stream of conciseness that makes it hard to follow. My favourite part of the book was brother Quentin wandering the streets and trying to find the home of a young Italian girl he befriends on his walk. The reviews on Goodreads vacillate between rating The Sound and the Fury was one of the greatest books of all time to being completely incomprehensible. I fall into the latter, I had no idea what was happening and enjoyed very little this novel.
David Mitchell’s third novel, 2004’s Cloud Atlas was later adapted into a movie starring Tom Hanks. Winning the British Book Awards Literary Fiction and nominated for several other awards, the novel is actually six connected stories that are split into halves. The first story takes place in the mid nineteenth century and each book then takes place at a different point in time including well into the future. Some readers will like other stories more. Letters from Zedelghem follows the tale of a British musicians working with a Belgian composer who then becomes involved with the composer’s wife. Luisa Rey is a murder mystery while Timothy Cavendish is an entertaining look at a British book publisher.
I wasn’t quite as interested in the more futuristic stories that took up a large portion of the middle of the book and turned into a hard slog of reading. The problem was that by the time I returned to the other stories, I had forgotten parts of what was happening so took several pages to get into it again. An interesting concept but one that does have its share of flaws.
Another novel listed on the Modern Library List mentioned above, Kurt Vonnegut’s 1969 book Slaughterhouse Five came in at number 18. The satirical look at war and life, it tells the tale of Billy Pilgrim who fought in WWII then came back to the US to be an optometrist, gets married and is eventually abducted by aliens. It’s a humourous book that also veers between space and time, which seems to be a theme in recent book choices, but is far easier to follow. No matter where he is, Pilgrim seems to be one step out of sync with the rest of society as the world twists around him. “So it goes”, a true classic.
A little over a year after her successful self titled debut album, Madonna followed it up with one of the best-selling albums of the 80s, Like a Virgin. Fresh off producing, David Bowie’s Let’s Dance album, Nile Rodgers was brought in as producer. The match up worked as Like a Virgin has sold over 22 million copies worldwide since its release.
The first two singles taken from the album also brought to life two of the most iconic videos of all time. Written by songwriting duo Tom Kelly and Billy Steinberg (Whitney Houston, Cyndi Lauper, etc), the title track sees Madonna cavorting on a gondola down a Venice canal. The cool synths and crisp drum beat of Chic’s Tony Thompson provided a track that was everywhere in late 1984. In early 1985, the Marilyn Monroe styled video of “Material Girl” is one of Madonna’s most memorable visuals and singles, hitting #2 in the US charts. The lyrics of loving the material world in relationships gave Madonna one of her famous nicknames as the Material Girl.
In between those two classic pop songs is third single “Angel”. A Madonna co-wrote with then boyfriend Stephen Bray, it is a simple but catchy synth track that went top 5. The second track on the album co-written by that duo is “Over and Over” where Madonna sings that “I get up again/over and over”. Reminiscent of the plucky songs off her debut, it is the best album track here. Madonna has never been known for her voice but on the cover of “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore”, she turns in a fine vocal performance in front of a live orchestra that gets stronger as the song goes on.
The final single from the album, “Dress You Up” brings sex and fashion together. A good but not great single, it was left off the Immaculate Collection a few years later. Madonna gets a sole songwriting credit for “Shoo-bee-doo”, a Motown homage that is a nice change of pace from the rest of the album. Much like the debut album, the excitement starts to fade towards the end of the album as “The Pretender” and “Stay” do not move the needle much.
Like a Virgin is where Madonna the icon started. The memorable videos played well across the world to wide eyed teenagers who started to replicate her style and dance moves. But more than that, the songs backed it up. While the album is greatly overshadowed by the first two singles, it is a more than decent pop album albeit with a bit of filler at the end.
Bjork first caught the ears of alternative music fans in the late 80s as a member of Icelandic band The Sugarcubes who’s 1988 single “Birthday” became a hit with DJ John Peel listeners. Upon that band’s break up in 1992, Bjork moved to London and began working on her solo debut studio album also called Debut. Many of the songs were already around in some form at that time but were transformed when she started working with producer Nelle Hooper (Soul II Soul, Sinead O’Connor).
The eclectic album starts off with the powerful tribal drums of first single “Human Behaviour” where listeners are introduced to Bjork’s impressive vocal gymnastics. The dark clouds of that track are blown away by the bright percussion of “Crying” before the clattering beat and luxurious strings of “Venus As A Boy” appear. The track floats with Bjork singing “he believes in beauty”.
The original version of “Big Time Sensuality” comes in half way through the album. It would take the Fluke remix to really set this off as one of the best singles of the 90s but the slinky beat of the original helps push the track before Bjork exclaims that “it takes courage to enjoy it” in the chorus. More powerfully is when Bjork sings that she “doesn’t know my future after this weekend, and I don’t want to”, words that virtually every 20-year-old can relate to as they dance the weekend away.
While many of the bolder tracks are reserved for the first half, the second half of Debut takes on a dreamier side with the chill beats of both “One Day” and “Come To Me”. Forty-five seconds into the last single “Violently Happy’ an irresistible club beat is introduced before the jazz horn stabs of “The Anchor Song” close out the original version of the album.
Depending on where you live, the reviews of the album went from ecstatic in the UK to a laughable review from Rolling Stone. The album is a wonder of musical styles that hold together exceptionally well. From here, Nellee Hooper went on to work with such superstars as Madonna and U2. Bjork would spend the next 25 years releasing critically acclaimed albums to a devoted fan base. Debut is an remarkable release by an adventurous and consistently groundbreaking artist.
On a recent episode of The Watch podcast, Tom and Fran of Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever appeared to talk about the new album, Sideways To New Italy, and lament that the COVID pandemic has not let them tour. Nevertheless, the band released their newest album among all the bedlam happening in the world. First single “Cars In Space” is punctuated by horns and a euphoric chorus outro. First track “The Second Of The First” is a punchy opener with terrific harmonies in the chorus before second single “She’s There” comes in with harmonies that appear out of nowhere.
“Sunglasses At The Wedding” has a laid back vibe with a guitar strum here and there with an incessant hi-hat. “Cameo” is a talk/sung track with fine chorus and drums that feel a bit like The Arcade Fire. And that’s where the rub lies with the album, it never really takes off like The Arcade Fire would. Sideways To New Italy has lots of decent songs but there is no true euphoric moment and the all the rough edges have been sanded off.