Monday, September 25, 2006

The best albums in the world... ever.

I can't remember how I ended up considering this the other day, but I found myself trying to decide what, in my opinion, was the best album released this decade. Then I found myself posing the same question with regard to the 90s, the 80s, the 70s and the 60s. I don't really have or listen to much music from the 50s or before, so I didn't go there.

So what albums would you pick?

Here are my (current) choices, my opinions will probably be different next week:

The best 60s album:
  • Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton
    It was a tricky decision. Going for the Beatles would be the obvious choice for most folk, and I do like most of their later albums, but for sheer excellence I think you have to turn to the British blues boom of the mid-60s. In the end it came down to this or some of the early Fleetwood Mac recordings. Although EC had already made a name for himself in the Yardbirds by this time and greater things (in terms of fame and success) were yet to come with Cream, Derek & the Dominos and the solo career, this is possibly Claton's finest hour (only 35 minutes actually). Sheer brilliance. All John Mayall albums from this period are great, but the combination of Mayall and Clapton produced the finest British blues album ever, and (in my opinion) the best album of the 60s.
The best 70s album:
  • Queen II
    All the good music in the pre-punk 70s was predominantly blues-rock, prog-rock, glam-rock and early heavy metal. All of these come together brilliantly for Queen's second album. As a (literally) lifelong Queen fan (I can remember liking 'Killer Queen' when I was four!), I had to pick a Queen album for best of the 70s, and the obvious one is 'A night at the opera'. But although most critics rate that album as Queen's finest hour, I have always preferred 'A day at the races' (pretty much the same style and type of content as ANATO, but reaching a slightly higher level and consistently good; I feel ANATO is let down slightly by 'death on two legs', 'seaside rendezvous' and 'sweet lady') and 'Queen II' which is just perfect from beginning to end. Queen's first album was merely a collection of songs, but Queen II is an album which is so much greater than the sum of its parts. If I had a time machine, I'd go back to 1974 and catch Queen live while touring this album - that's how good it is.
The best 80s album:
  • Queen: The Works
    There were so many albums in the 80s which were great at the time, but haven't aged well. Almost all the pop-rock stuff that I loved at the time now seems really dated. But Queen's 'comeback' album still sounds fantastic. Sure, it has filler songs in there ('Man on the prowl' and 'Keep passing the open windows') and 'Machines' hasn't aged well, but everything else is brilliant: Radio ga-ga (one of the world's greatest stadium-rock anthems), Tear it up (pure Brian May), Its a hard life (pure Freddie), I want to break free (everyone in the world loves this, right?), Hammer to fall (the most rifftastic rock song of the 80s) and Is this the world we created? (acoustic perfection).
The best 90s album:
  • Spacehog: The Chinese Album
    This is the first of my choices which is possibly not generally considered a 'classic'. Certainly, I'm the only person I know who rates this album so highly. Rock music lost its direction and generally fell apart in the early 90s. Freddie died, Slash and Axl parted company, Curt Cobain killed metal and then himself and everyone (in the UK at least) abandonned rock and turned to guitar pop. The few rock bands who survived did so by reinventing themselves (see 'Brave' by Marillion, 'III sides to every story' by Extreme, the black Metallica album, etc.) but nothing new came along. OK, there was grunge which was great for a few years, and Garbage came up with something reasonably new and exciting for their debut album, but that was about it. Rock seemed dead. Then, just when I'd almost given up hope of new bands producing excellent rock albums, along came Spacehog. Their first album was great, but the second is a masterpiece. Like the best 70s Queen albums this album contains some great songs, but is so much greater than simply the sum of its parts. It takes the influences of Queen, Bowie, etc. and brings them up to date. Sheer musical excellence.
The best 00s album (so far):
  • Heart: Jupiter's Darling
    If you haven't heard this album, please abandon your anti-Heart prejudice now. Heart had a string of hits in the power-ballad, big-hair-rock days of the late 80s. Some of them were actually quite good, although its utterly uncool to admit as much today. Unfortunately they jumped on the power-ballad bandwagon and sold their souls to R.J. 'Mutt' Lange in 1990, resulting in 'All I wanna do is make love to you' and 'Will you be there in the morning'. Urgh. As far as most folk know (in the UK at least), that was Heart. But look a bit deeper and you find some really quality rock albums back in the 70s: 'Dreamboat Annie', 'Little Queen' and 'Dog and Butterfly' being the best three - these albums combined heavy rock and acoustic folk in a way only really matched by Led Zep, who were their primary influence. Now imagine that the band that produced those albums managed to skip the big-hair 80s entirely, landing back in Seattle during the grunge years - and produced an album full of 70s acoustic folk, 70s heavy metal and 90s grunge influences, updated for the new millenium. That album is Jupiter's Darling. 17 songs of brilliance. Nancy Wilson is possibly the best acoustic-rock guitarist out there and her sister Anne has the best set of lungs in rock, bar none. Listen without prejudice. And rock!
So what about you? What would you pick?


Wednesday, September 13, 2006

An excellent day in London

I had a highly enjoyable and very sucessful day in London on Monday. Over the past 4 months I have been working on a big piece of work (something related to fires in tunnels although I can't give the details here) and Monday was the day of the final presentation to the client and the celebratory lunch for the six of us who'd been working on the project.

I'd flown down to London with a colleague on Sunday night, picked up a hire car and had a good sleep in a reasonably nice hotel. At 8am on Monday I picked up the rest of the team from London City airport and drove to the meeting venue with plenty of time to set up before the meeting started at 9.30am.

We had prepared a presentation, based on all the work we had done, which was to be presented to the clients and various representatives of other organisations. The job of making the presentation was mine. My audience consisted of about 15 people, mostly engineers of some sort or another.

I have given many presenations over the years, but this turned out to be the longest I have ever delivered. Including a few pauses to answer questions from the audience, my presentation lasted about 2 and a half hours! The prospect of standing in front of an audience, talking, for that length of time is not one that many people would relish, but I actually quite enjoyed the experience. What I said was reasonably well received and none of the questions thrown at me were unable to be answered - either by me or one of my colleagues.

We left the meeting just before 12.30 and had a mad dash in the car to get to Ubon at Canary Wharf, where we had booked lunch for 1pm.

I had never heard of Ubon before, but it is one of a chain of very good (and very expensive) Japanese restaurants, the rest of which are all called Nobu (why the letters are reversed in this case is a mystery to me). Apparently it is the sort of restaurant frequented by celebrities as documented in magazines like Heat or Now. Not having read these magazines, I hadn't previously heard of it.

The first thing that is different about the Ubon experience is that your car is valet parked. Then you walk to the restaurant through a private and surprisingly tranquil garden. The restaurant itself is on the top (4th) floor of a small (by comparison with everything around it) cuboid building on the bank of the Thames. The weather on Monday was fabulous and the view was stunning - the table we were at was situated right in the corner of the restaurant at the window, so we had a panoramic view encompasing everything from Canary Wharf, across the south bank of the river, right the way around central London, tower bridge, etc.

My boss took the brave step of ordering the 'chef's choice' for us all, so over the next 90 minutes we were brought a range of Japanese dishes, some which I liked very much and others that I wasn't so keen on. The waiting staff always said what each dish was when they brought it, but that didn't always help me to know what I was actually eating.

Perhaps I should have mentioned that I generally like my food cooked... so, some of the dishes were not what I would have picked. But there was some great stuff in there (across about 6 courses, or so).

We left Ubon well after 3pm and tried to get my boss to Tottenham Court Road in time for a 3.30 meeting. No chance. After a bit of frantic driving on unfamiliar roads we got him there at about 4.10, and then had some time to kill before we picked him up again at 6pm. We decided to go to the British Museum, which is nearby. What an amazing place. Of course, you could spend all day there, but a quick hour long jaunt through the galleries is very interesting. The galleries are split up according to geographical location (although Egypt is not part of Africa and Greece is not part of Europe, which is odd), so I wandered through China, India, Mexico (very interesting), North America, Africa, Egypt, Mesopotamia and Rome before my time was up. I had expected to like Egypt the best, but actually I found myself being most interested in Mexico, Mesopotamia and some of the far-eastern countries. I like the stone carvings the best, and these galleries had some outstanding examples of ancient carvings.

On the way round the museum, I managed to lose most of my colleagues, but I got most of them back before leaving. Then we had to locate my boss, which took a while, and then headed back to the airport and back home.

All in all a truly excellent and rather packed day!

Saturday, September 02, 2006

This is just brilliant!

Click here for a fab video.

Friday, September 01, 2006

eBay annoyance...

This is a long story. Please bear with me while I air my frustrations...

My elder daughter loves 'My Little Pony' things. So we rented a MLP DVD from ages ago. After we'd had the disc for about a fortnight and it hadn't been watched for about a week, I went to send it back to the rental company, but couldn't find the disc anywhere. It wasn't in the player, it wasn't in any DVD or CD box in the living room (it took me 2 hours to establish that!), or indeed in or under anything in our house. It had gone.

I expected that would charge me significantly for the loss of a disc, so I wondered if I could buy the DVD cheaply somewhere and replace the missing copy... I looked and found several on eBay for around the £5 mark (inc postage). Bingo!

So I bought one advertised as "New" for £3 + £2 postage. Seller had a feedback rating somewhere in the high 90s, so I didn't worry. Paid by PayPal and waited.

Four days later a copied DVDR with an inkjet-printed cover and disc sticker arrived in the post. It didn't even feature the MLP stories that it was supposed to. This was no use at all for my purposes. So I politely e-mailed the seller asking for either a refund or an original disc.

No reply.

Three days later I tried another polite e-mail and got the following in reply:
"send disc back once recieved will send refund ta craig"

So I sent the disc back, first class, in its original jiffy bag at a cost of 65p.

Yesterday I got an e-mail from PayPal telling me that I had received a "Partial refund" of £3. The message from the seller with this said:
"hi heres your refund as requested. thanks. please can you leave positive feedback. thanks again craig."

Huh? He want's positive feedback for robbing me of £2.65 and leaving me with nothing at all to show for it except annoyance...

So I sent another, still reasonably polite, e-mail to him saying that if he refunded me the remaining £2, I'd leave neutral feedback for him, whereas if he didn't I'd leave neagative feedback and report him to eBay for breach of their regulations. I got this response:
"i am not willing to be out of pocket because you did not ask seller question"

So he thinks that because I took his advert, stating that the disc was 'New', at face value, it is my fault? Unbelievable.

So I sent another, impolite, e-mail saying that I am not willing to be out of pocket because he is a liar. I have left negative feedback on eBay and have started an "item not as described" dispute on PayPal.

Of course, none of this is worth doing for £2.00, but its the principal of the thing...

But I'm still really annoyed about the whole experience. Out of my 140 transactions on eBay over the years, this is only the third time that I've had to leave negative feedback (I have twice left neutral feedback). Most of the time it is fab, but this is just really annoying.

The final thing that got to me was the number of folk who had left positive feedback for the guy, yet were clearly surprised that they had received copied DVDs. Why would anyone leave positive feedback for someone who had posted a fraudulent advert on eBay and only partially refunded them when they complained? Yet several people have clearly done this. Positive feedback on eBay doesn't mean what it should.

And, of course, I had to find another copy of the DVD... Got it (really) new on Amazon for about the same money. I guess I'll know better next time.


Update: 12-9-06

The seller has now been booted off eBay. I am still £2 down, but can live with that.

Update: 29-9-06

PayPal reclaimed the £2 for me too. He's out of pocket now and not me! Success.