Top 10: Funkungfusion

Recently I was tagged on Facebook for one of those things where you post favourite albums

The Ninja Tune record label has given inspiration for around two decades.

Music like Coldcut, who started the label, music from the periphery of bigbeat, triphop, downtempo and jazzier corners of turntablism.

Music like their Solid Steel radio show tagline (“the broadest beats”) a collage of soundtracks, soundbites and surprising breaks.

Funkungfusion must be someone’s idea of a term to encompass their variety of music.

Many of the producers on this sampler have great albums, but this one brings together a couple of rare gems.

Up, Bustle and Out’s version of ‘Emerald Alley’ is one of my favourites from a group exploring a world of music.

Likewise the live version of Coldcut’s ‘More Beats + Pieces’ has an energy that’s distinct.

One time a friend asked why the version of this song on their album doesn’t sound like the one she remembered.

I have many memories from taking over hi-fis at parties and playing these beats and pieces and seeing everyone moving with it.

Amon Tobin’s ‘Sordid’ is one of his snappiest tracks built from Gene Krupa samples, and he has a few of those.

That’s a good song when you’re mixing tracks because it can go around ten beats per minute faster or slower as required.

The jazz influence was big in the Ninja Tune roster and, while Cinematic Orchestra would define a serious-minded corner, Clifford Gilberto and Mr Scruff both found cartoonish interpretations.

There’s often a playful character to the music, like the latter’s song about singing fish baits an earworm.

DJ Food’s ‘The Crow’ has a sombre orchestral tone that seems like a coming of age for the moniker that was once an alternate for Coldcut to release breaks, but has been redefined by Kevin Foakes.

Likewise the “DJ Food Re-Bake” of The Herbaliser’s ‘Mrs Chombee Takes The Plunge’ steers that track back into jazzier territory.

The music on Funkungfusion carried me from making mixtapes to making mix CDs, then the wonderful Ninja Tune Forum community led me into remixing and having a hands-on experience with music again.

It’s great we’re still making Shinobi Cuts and the “Let Us Play!” ethos of Coldcut has been an influence throughout the last 20 years.

Top 10: Medulla

Recently I was tagged on Facebook for one of those things where you post favourite albums

There’s a lot to admire about Bjork and I’ve chosen her and this album to represent a number of influences.

When I first saw Bjork she was squeezed between The Smashing Pumpkins and The Ramones at the 1994 Big Day Out.

It still seems like a weird spot for her and I wandered in and out of that set but it was clear something new was coming to the surface.

Her album Debut had some airplay on Triple J and it was my first introduction to Nellee Hooper’s influence, since it’d be a couple more years before I listened to Massive Attack and Sinead O’Connor but also the trip-hop of Portishead.

Bjork worked with a number of interesting producers and managed to get a cohesive result, just look at how ‘Army Of Me’ and ‘It’s Oh So Quiet’ both sit on the first side of the album Post.

These collaborations between artists and producers are a dialectic central to popular music and, in many ways, it’s a formula I enjoy hearing in singers like Madonna and Kylie Minogue too.

Many popular singers get dismissed as record label products but those that build a career seem to be able to maintain a firm grasp on their image and material.

Madonna has a reputation for being present throughout the recording process and it seems clear that Bjork occupies a role overseeing the realisation of her albums.

I’ve picked Medulla because it seems Bjork’s album where she enforced a strict artistic vision with both her collaborators and her audience.

The album is almost entirely a cappella and manages to fuse both her taste in Warp Records-style electronica (particularly Mark Bell) and composers like Arvo Part, who’d she introduced me to musically.

The track ‘Where is the Line’ demonstrates those influences, for example.

Her voice sounds incredible on this album, particularly intimate and the recording is faultless.

I also love this album for ‘Triumph of a Heart’ and there are other themes which seem connected and optimistic.

Bjork has often been marginalised as “weird” but I adore her varied influences and abilities at realising challenging ideas in music.

Top 10: Ritual de lo Habitual

Recently I was tagged on Facebook for one of those things where you post favourite albums

Jane’s Addiction had come to my attention via ‘Mountain Song’ on Rage and I still regret not accepting an invitation to see them perform at the Hordern Pavilion in 1991.

Ritual de lo Habitual blew my mind in terms of what could be done with a genre like rock, which had become a bit paint-by-numbers in the late ‘80s.

There were other bands successfully pushing boundaries in this area — and this album sits amongst Faith No More’s The Real Thing, Red Hot Chilli Peppers’ Bloodsugarsexmagic and then the watershed of Nirvana’s Nevermind — but I think it deserves more attention.

One critic argues Jane’s Addiction revived interest in Led Zeppelin and I’m not sure that ever went away, but I think this album paved a way for Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger — which is a more obvious heir.

Ritual de lo Habitual has a huge dynamic range and the track ‘Three Days’ is particularly epic.

That track also exemplifies the beautifully understated bass playing of Eric Avery, which carries most of the song.

Both Flea and John Frusciante of the Chilli Peppers have acknowledged his influence.

As someone who’d ’Been Caught Stealing’ it surprised me that a song about shoplifting could be so funky and those dogs happily barking in the opening also spoke to me.

I still get a huge rush of energy when I hear the opening chords.

Top 10: Feed

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Skunkhour were everything I was looking for in a band when they came to my attention in ’93.

They played the funk music that’d started shaking Sydney with hiphop influences and a distinctively Australian delivery.

I think the Larkin brothers, Aya and Del, are criminally overlooked as lyricists, and Del also did beaut illustrations for releases by other bands in their cohort, such as Swoop and Juice.

The self-titled Skunkhour debut showed they were able to sing about admiring arses (‘Bootyfull’) and also to consider gender roles (‘A Cow and a Pig’), as well discuss the heroin epidemic of the early ‘90s (‘Horse’).

Then the follow-up album Feed in 1995 expanded their focus musically and lyrically.

‘McSkunk’ was released as a single well in advance of the album and runs through a critique of capitalism exploiting natural resources. (It’s a theme they would later explore as the ballad ’Tomorrow’s Too Soon’ and that’s one of those songs that I love for making my eyes water.)

The track ‘State’ then slipped out on an EP and, as a first-year Philosophy student, I appreciated the parallels with Plato’s writing for comparing divisions in the soul with those in society.

I’d begun writing for Canberra’s BMA Magazine and spoke with guitarist Warwick Scott for a couple of interviews, as well as having opportunities to quiz the band after their shows.

Ahead of the release of the album Feed I got a promotional three-song cassette, which included ‘Treacherous Head’ and ‘Strange Equation’.

The former addresses our human impulses and their potential to undermine our best intentions, while the latter rhymed the song title with “race assimiliation” to discuss the hollow words that “all men are created equal” in the United States Declaration of Independence.

I’ve picked Feed as my favourite Skunkhour album as it showed the band hitting their stride and broadening their sound, literally with the addition of keyboardist Paul Searles.

‘Green Light’ is a phenomenal track to hear live as the Sutherland brothers lock in their bass and drum parts.

’Sunstone’ speaks of driving Australia’s back roads with wry observations that feel like an aural equivalent of a Russell Drysdale painting.

I’m also a fan of Skunkhour’s album Chin Chin with ‘Weightlessness’ another great dance song and the opening lyrics for ‘Childish Man’ are often quoted by me:

“If reality is ‘sposed to be the safest, why is everyone in some way an escapist?”

Top 10: Master of Puppets

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As a bass-playing teenager I asked my peers about their bass-playing dreams and identified a trend in our lessons with Cliff Burton on the astral plane.

I remember a couple of dreams about Cliff and in one he was sitting on a high stool and showing me how to play arpeggios.

His parts on Master of Puppets are as superlative as Hammet’s guitar harmonies or Ulrich’s dynamic playing — that muted cymbal grabbed mid-riff in the title track, for example.

This was the heaviest album in the world for half of 1986 before Slayer released Reign In Blood, and I can still remember the way it challenged my ears when I heard it in '88 or '89.

These days I have difficulty reconciling that Metallica with the one that found wider fame singing about going to bed in ‘Enter Sandman’ the following decade.

Much has been written about the precision of the playing on this album and the massive sound achieved through layering over a dozen guitar recordings, which is testament to Hetfield’s role as one of the greatest rhythm guitarists.



The anger in his lyrics is palpable and I think I’m right in saying this was the last Metallica album to have a song inspired by HP Lovecraft.

A lot of the difference between Metallica in the ‘80s and the rock band that emerged in the ‘90s comes down to the death of Cliff Burton.

Burton’s basslines are as distinct as Ulrich’s famed drum parts, with their dynamic fills and propulsive rhythms.

Sadly, Master of Puppets is one of the last times bass playing would be a feature of the band.

When Jason Newstead replaced Burton Metallica ruined the sound of bass in heavy metal -- I argue it does as much as the dry cardboard box-like drum sound on the album Justice For All, particularly their first single ‘One’:
“[After] Lars and James heard their initial mixes the first thing they said was, 'Take the bass down so you can just hear it, and then once you've done that take it down a further 3dBs.'”

Cliff Burton accentuated Metallica’s European influence in particularly Bach-inspired parts, including the penultimate ‘Orion’:
Burton arranged the middle section, which features its moody bass line and multipart guitar harmonies. "Damage, Inc." [...] starts with a series of reversed bass chords based on the chorale prelude of Bach's "Come, Sweet Death",

Those chords were otherworldly with their volume swells and added atmosphere.

I remember opening the Master of Puppets tablature and feeling aggrieved that the chords were transcribed for guitar when they were clearly Burton’s bass.

Top 10: Money Jungle

Recently I was tagged on Facebook for one of those things where you post favourite albums

This album brings together a couple of my favourite jazz musicians and captures in their music a fierce inter-generational argument.

Let me set the scene by explaining a bit about the personalities involved.

In 1917 when 'Duke' Ellington was eighteen, he'd wanted to become a painter.

In the decades that followed, Ellington remained a painter although it was in the guise of a prolific jazz composer.

In my mind he is one of the greatest musicians of the 20th Century.

In conducting his orchestra Ellington arranged music as though it were colour on a canvas, with deft movements of his hand (the piano his brush) he would sketch outlines for sonic landscapes and illustrate a path for the other musicians.

Yet Ellington should not be viewed as a maestro in the mould of European composers like Mozart; the Duke's talent was to recognise and arrange melodies that were created through the improvisation of his band.

I’s a model that performers like James Brown and Frank Zappa later used to great effect too, and probably akin to managing racehorses in pairing personalities for performance.

It was with wily leadership skills that Ellington stamped his ideas onto his musicians and, while he developed their talents, this leadership is his claim to authorship of so many jazz standards.

Money Jungle captures a lot of this stamping and more.

Ellington was 63 and, like Hollywood actors who’d fallen out of favour with movie studios or audiences, he was in the wilderness between bookings.

It would be a few years before he was celebrated again near the end of his life and there’s a painful story in Zappa’s book that Ellington would be reduced to visiting his manager and begging for money to survive.

For this album Ellington was paired with a couple of jazz giants from the next generation, 40-year old bassist Charles Mingus and 38-year old drummer Max Roach.

Mingus was so forceful that, despite being a bassist, he became a bandleader.

He had a reputation for being hot-headed and there are accounts from his students of leaving lessons with bruises from being punched.

There are also various stories as to why the recording sessions that became Money Jungle ended abruptly.

It was unusual for Ellington to record a piano-based album and it was Mingus who was signed to the record label, so the power dynamic was clearly tilted against the elder maestro.

And I’m amused to read just now that:
“according to Roach, he and Mingus were given "a lead sheet that just gave the basic melody and harmony", plus a visual image described by the pianist: one example was, "crawling around on the streets are serpents who have their heads up; these are agents and people who have exploited artists. Play that along with the music".”

I’d guess it’s the kind of approach that mightn’t have amused Mingus.

The album contains versions of a couple of Ellington standards.

‘Caravan’ was written by Ellington’s longtime band member Juan Tizol, who Mingus reportedly had fought with during his brief stint in the Duke’s band.



There are some wild versions of ‘Caravan’ that have been recorded since and it’s usually a song performed with a jazz orchestra but on Money Jungle you can hear Mingus playing a number of parts and making his mark with his remarkable bass playing.

Money Jungle isn’t the greatest album but it’s one that provides insights into how turbulent music can be when you mix strong personalities and musicians with different styles.

Top 10: Solaris

Recently I was tagged on Facebook for one of those things where you post favourite albums

Another soundtrack album and another that reminds me of my son Oscar.

When Jo was pregnant we listened to the Solaris soundtrack a lot.

It’s one of those albums that could be described as ambient in the sense that Brian Eno proposed the term, as the music easily slips into the background to mingle unobtrusively with daily noise.

Or with volume it can do a good job of masking noise too.

I also had an idea that it was good music to be heard by unborn Oscar.

Years earlier I’d read a story that babies in a British maternity ward would fall silent to the sound of the Neighbours theme song, as they relaxed like their mothers had done while watching the TV show during pregnancy.

So, after Oscar was born, Jo and I continued to play the album daily.

It’d go on when he lay down for an afternoon nap but I was never convinced it had the Pavlovian effect I’d hoped to see.

However, I feel very relaxed when we hear Cliff Martinez’s Solaris soundtrack.

And Oscar might be old enough now to appreciate the film, which felt like 90 minutes of not-much-happening before a wonderful insight came into focus afterwards.

Top 10: Saturday Night Fever

Recently I was tagged on Facebook for one of those things where you post favourite albums

Saturday Night Fever was the first album I owned.

It was an unlikely birthday present at age eight from my grandfather Jack, who probably had been informed that I’d developed an interest in disco.

That would’ve been around the time I saw The Village People movie because a screening of The Empire Strikes Back was sold out.

‘Staying Alive’ remains a great tune, especially now I know the 100bpm tempo is the perfect pace for CPR chest compressions.

Walter Murphy’s ‘A Fifth of Beethoven’ is another fun track, one of those disco cover versions that can be really memorable at early hours on a dance floor.

I don’t listen to them much now but it’s been interesting for me to see my son Oscar has also gravitated towards these songs.

Top 10: Check Your Head

Recently I was tagged on Facebook for one of those things where you post favourite albums

If pressed for my all-time favourite album, it’s likely to be this one.

I first started listening to the Beastie Boys in 1986, when I bought Licensed To Ill at a Bondi Junction record store after seeing the ‘Fight for your right’ music video.

Check Your Head is my favourite of their albums for the mixture of musical styles, which range from the familiar sample-based hiphop through to punk rock and jazzy funk but particularly for the blending of these.

It’s also the album that brought in key contributors Money Mark and Mario C. and also saw a significant change in their approach to recording.

Where previous albums had developed with the three MCs writing rhymes over beats produced by the likes of Rick Rubin and the Dust Brothers; this album saw them spend a lot of time jamming then sampling their ideas and assembling tracks.

The shift was necessary as copyright had caught up with sampling and, while the Beasties had done well from British Airways, it’s still an issue for contemporaries like De La Soul — whose early albums are unavailable on many online services today.

Check Your Head was also the start of the Boys’ Buddhist influence and I think this redeemed them from some of their earlier sexism.

For me it’s been a cornerstone of my musical education, as I’ve used their ideas like self-sampling and also scaffolding to create my own tracks.