Review // The Album Years podcast – A New Pair of Ears

The Album Years, a new music podcast by No-Man colleagues Steven Wilson and Tim Bowness, went off to a roaring start, with fans applauding the first two episodes. The new series even hit the top 3 on Apple Podcasts in various countries. 

My opinion? The enthusiasm and insights of Wilson and Bowness make you want to pick up a pencil and take extensive notes. I’m afraid this series is going to cost me a small fortune in record stores. If a music podcast can achieve that, it’s a success in my book.

Each episode zooms in on a particular ‘album year’, a year from an era where albums existed as a unified art form, not just a random collection of hits. For Wilson and Bowness, who grew up in the 70’s and 80’s, the era started in the mid-60’s–which is true, as long as you don’t take jazz albums into account–and ‘ended’ around the year 2000, which seems to be a more arbitrary choice, especially since the album era never really ended. But you need to draw the line somewhere. I get that.

Beyond Bowie and Pink Floyd

The first two episodes, focussing on 1980 and 1973, where lots of fun already. Without spoiling anything, I can say that while ‘Closer’ by Joy Division, Bowie’s ’Scary Monsters’ and Pink Floyd’s ’The Dark Side of the Moon’ are briefly mentioned they don’t feature in the official selection. As Wilson rightfully comments, these albums have been dissected and reconstructed over and over already: “There’s nothing more to say.”

Instead, Wilson and Bowness pick favorite, significant and strangely-under-the-radar records of a particular year and reflect on it, placing the albums in their historical context, commenting on sonic innovations, adding personal recollections and funny ad-libs (like only friends can), talking about the influence and nachleben of certain albums, often connecting the dots between them. It’s history, debate and annotated playlist rolled into one.

Real discussion

They don’t always agree, which is the kind of dynamic you need to make a podcast like this interesting. Even more so as the podcast isn’t allowed to use any sound clips, so both hosts have to work extra hard to ‘dance about architecture’ and they’re magnificent at it.

Wilson talks quite quickly and in a confident voice (almost as if his knowledge and opinions are fighting to get out), at times cutting off the soft-spoken Tim Bowness mid-sentence.

The Album Years Podcast - Steven Wilson & Tim Bowness - No-Man

The latter chooses his words with great care and manages to keep his composure when Wilson questions his choices or statements. It really makes you want to be a fly on the wall during No-Man recording sessions, which have consistently spawned great albums. Maybe that’s their magic.

But both offer remarkable insights and analysis. Even when they talk about records you already know, you’ll be inclined to dig up that LP and listen to it with a new pair of ears.

Just to give you one example: in the 1973 episode, Wilson talks about the horrific drum sound on Todd Rundgren’s ‘A Wizard, A True Star’. So I went back to the Zen Archer, and lo and behold, he’s right. Though one could argue it’s part of the DIY aesthetic of the album.

Insightful and exciting

There’s really no point in judging the selection of albums. Wilson and Bowness have been sharing their playlists online for years. Together they turned me on to dozens of albums. They set out the boundaries of the podcast clearly and within that framework I’m confident they’ll keep balancing every episode between the familiar and the obscure, the accessible and the bizarre. The Album Years has been both insightful and exciting so far.

Enjoy ’The Album Years’ now on all major podcast platforms.

Four Die-Cut Sleeves To Die For

The die-cut sleeve is very much alive. To prove it, I handpicked four jaw-dropping pieces of evidence from my record cabinet.

Scissor seventies: early die-cut sleeves

First off, some … background. One of the most famous die-cut sleeve examples – and one of the most ambitious record sleeves altogether – is surely Led Zeppelin’s double album ‘Physical Graffiti’ (1975).
Led Zeppelin - Physical Graffiti - Die-cut sleeve
Designer Peter Corriston cut the windows out of two New York tenement buildings, exposing well-known faces like Lee Harvey Oswald and Laurel & Hardy on the inner sleeves as well as (printed on the insert) the letters that form the album title. Read all about it on Dangerous Minds.
Led Zeppelin - Physical Graffiti - Die-cut sleeve
Also check out the amazing die-cut sleeve of ‘In a Glass House’ by Gentle Giant (1973) on Discogs: “Album comes in a gimmix cover with the center part of the jacket front side being transparent foil with black print on it; there is a printed cardboard insert that provides the remainder of the cover image.”
More recent examples show a more minimal approach to die-cut sleeve design. Let’s cut to the chase.

1. Bowie – The No Inner Sleeve Die-Cut Sleeve

Bowie - Blackstar - Die-cut sleeve

Artist: David Bowie
Title: ‘Blackstar’
Label: ISO Records, Columbia, Sony Music
Year of release: 2016
Designer: Barnbrook
Bowie - Blackstar - Die-cut sleeve
Die-cut sleeve design: in the wake of Bowie’s death, much has been written about every detail of his life and artistry, including the meaning behind the die-cut sleeve design of ‘Blackstar’. But let’s keep it simple. London agency Barnbrook designed a pitch black gatefold sleeve, with shiny pieces of stars at the bottom of the front sleeve, and above that, a big cut-out star.
Bowie - Blackstar - Die-cut sleeve
There is no printed inner sleeve, only a thick transparant plastic sleeve that holds the actual record. Prices for this limited edition clear vinyl edition skyrocketed after the Starman left Planet Earth. It has already been sold on Discogs for 409.10 euro! Insane, but it’s a magical thing!

2. The Durutti Column – The Sandpapery Die-Cut Sleeve

Durutti Column - Die-cut sleeve

Artist: The Durutti Column
Title: ‘The Return of the Durutti Column’
Version: FBN 114, UK
Label: Factory Benelux
Year of release: 2013 (originally 1980)
Designer: James Nice / Peter Saville

Durutti Column - Die-cut sleeve

Die-cut sleeve design: the first pressing of this 1980 album was distributed in an iconoclastic sandpaper sleeve, famously assembled by the members of Joy Division. This 2013 reissue pays tribute to that version, albeit with bigger respect for neighbouring record sleeves in your collection.

Durutti Column - Die-cut sleeve

The outside sleeve is off-white. An old Factory Records logo by Peter Saville was cut out and accentuated by the orangy grinding paper that’s paisted on a white inner sleeve. The inner sleeve provides additional information on its remarkable design.

One word of advice: always keep the actual record at a safe distance from its sandpaper sleeve. You might scrape of some great guitar bits!

3. Goat – The Triangular Space Tunnel Die-Cut Sleeve

Goat - Die-cut sleeve

Artist: Goat
Title: ‘Commune’
Label: Rocket Recordings
Released: 2014
Designer: Chris Reeder
Goat - Die-cut sleeve
Die-cut sleeve design: Swedish band Goat pushes things to a psychedelic level. Inside the cut-out triangle of the golden outer sleeve, a mind-altering space storm of red and blue seems to be raging, going in circles or coming straight at you, depending on how you insert the inner sleeve. Goat - Die-cut sleeve
As a bonus, this Rocket Recording edition – nomen est omen! – contains eye-catching ‘red with blue splatter’ vinyl.

4. Steven Wilson – The Girls Behind Bars Die-Cut Sleeve

Steven Wilson - Die-cut sleeve
Artist: Steven Wilson
Title: ‘4 1/2’
Label: Kscope
Released: 2016
Designer: Carl Glover
Photographer: Lasse Hoile
Steven Wilson - Die-cut sleeve
Die-cut sleeve design: this release features a sober grey outside sleeve. Four and a half strips of cardboard are cut out, which nicely references the album title.
Steven Wilson - Die-cut sleeve
The two women that peep through the ‘bars’ are on the inner sleeve, captured in a magnificently coloured photograph, that brings to mind the even more intense, heavily filtered pictures of war-torn Congo by Richard Mosse.
Amazing, isn’t it? Which records would you add? Tell me!
Steven Wilson on Discovering Music

Steven Wilson on discovering music

A few days ago, Steven Wilson played the Montréal Jazz Festival in Canada. During a public interview he shared some passionate words about discovering music. As well as the treasure he most recently dug up.

I’ve been on the road now for four months with this band. And the last thing you want to to do when you get home is going to a show. It’s like going to the office. But I do still – voraciously – devour music.
[…] The thing about the history of music is: just when you think you’ve heard everything, something else will come along and surprise you. And I think also your musical taste changes as you get older. Things that didn’t make sense to you as a teenager suddenly click.
[…] I’m always amazed by how much fantastic music is available and still there to be discovered. Even at my age. So i’m still very curious and passionate about discovering music I’m not familiar with.

Steven Wilson is notorious for listening to everything from the most delicate pop to the most brutal noise. You can tell by browsing through his playlist archive, an virtually inexhaustible source for great music. Where did Wilson pick up this wide-ranging musical taste? Like so many people, he listened to his parents’ records:

You know, my parents were very electic in their musical taste. I grew in up in a house where we’d be listening to quite serious intellectual rock music, but then also to Abba and The Carpenters and The Bee Gees. And I still … to this day I love pure pop. When it’s done beautifully …

On his latest discovery:

I was listening to an old jazz album by a guy called Les McCann, ‘Invitation to Openness’. Early seventies Atlantic jazz record, very inspired by Miles. Kind of ‘In a Silent Way’. And again, that was just a record I was introduced to only the last few weeks. And I’ve completely fallen in love with it.

Thanks a lot for the tip, Steven. I safely transferred the album to my Discogs wantlist!