Writing by James

Articles and opinions on technology, social media and innovation


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Book Review: I Have a Strategy (No, You Don’t) by Howell J. Malham Jr.

I Have a Strategy - Book CoverStrategy…

It’s a word that is so overused in the business world that it has almost lost its meaning. Everyone has a strategy… for everything. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear of the existence of a ‘Visiting the Bathroom strategy’ or  a ‘Having my lunch strategy’, such is its ubiquity. Look at my personal portfolio, even I’m at it! A digital technology strategist of all things!

It’s time to reclaim the word, to give it some real meaning, to rescue it from the mire into which it has descended. If not for its own sake, then certainly for mine; I’ll never be taken seriously otherwise.

Luckily, that’s exactly what Howard J. Malham Jr. – or simply Malham from this point on – is aiming to do in his book: I Have a Strategy (No, You Don’t) – The Illustrated Guide To Strategy. It sounds like a lofty subject and you might expect a rather dry examination of the subject, given the length of the title, but it’s anything but that. Short, simple, fun (yes, fun) and easily digested, Malham’s book is surprisingly effective.

Malham – just who is he?

Howard J. Malham Jr. is a Co-founder and Director of Insight Labs, a Chicago-based consultancy that works on some of the world’s (read United States) biggest challenges and issues, from the state of schooling to the future of healthcare. It’s this experience, born out of trying to make sense of seemingly impenetrable challenges, that is distilled down into the book.

So this tells me what a strategy is? Right?

Absolutely.

For Malham, a strategy is simple defined as:

A planned, doable sequence of actions designed to achieve a distinct, measurable goal.

That’s it. Simple and easy.

Malham’s book comes to life through a few carefully selected examples and the ongoing commentary from Gary and Larry – two cartoon characters that explore the serious page content a little less seriously. They’re not always funny, but it’s a nice change of pace and certainly isn’t an unwelcome addition, keeping the writing light and away from the self-satisfied navel-gazing that some ‘business’ books descend into.

The examples he uses are, by and large, good ones, including Boeing versus Airbus, and even US foreign policy. If I had one criticism, there are some smaller examples, such as REDF and AGC (academy for Global Citizenship), that although being worthy, are not recognisable. It’s a small criticism, but some readers might want to see Malham’s obviously incisive mind to throw light on some more well-known brands (Nike versus Reebok, Apple versus the computer industry, Apple versus the music industry… you get the idea).

Within each example, the elements of the strategy are broken down, supporting his initial definition:

  • Purpose
  • Plan
  • Series of actions
  • Measureable goal

It’s clear and precise, which is exactly…

Why you should read it

Malham applies a light touch to the misconceptions around strategy. In a world full of weighty tomes on all matter of subjects, it’s a pleasure to pick up something that is as simple and concise as ‘I have a Strategy’. And the best thing about it is, because of its brevity, you really remember what you have read. It makes the book actionable.

And isn’t that the point?

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If you’re interested in finding out more about the book you can visit http://ihaveastrategy.com/, or alternatively you can follow Malham on Twitter or find out more about his work at Insight Labs.

Have you read the book? What did you think? Have you changed your behaviour or your approach to business strategy as a result? Let me know your thoughts in the comments.

Disclaimer: This is an independent review based on a copy of the book supplied to me. I have no business relationship with Howell J. Malham Jr., InsightLabs, or Wiley (the publishers). I have not received any monetary incentives or payments, but they did let me keep the book, which was nice. I don’t need to write this bit, but I think it’s always good to be completely transparent.


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Writing by James – The Top 5 Most Popular Posts of 2012

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It’s the end of the year, so alongside the rest of the blogosphere, that means it is time for a retrospective look at my most popular posts of the year. For those of you who have taken the time to read my articles this year, guest posts or otherwise, a heartfelt thanks. I hope you found them useful and informative; I’ll do my best to make 2013 just as productive.

Now, without further ado, the Top 5!

#1 – RE: The Walking Dead – A call to Frank Darabont

When I first wrote this post, it was only intended to vent my own frustrations with the first season of the Walking Dead, but it seems that there are a lot of people who feel the same way. Luckily, my main issue with the series – not enough zombies! – has been answered.

#2 – Scribd – the wrong way to use Facebook personalisation

Unlike my rant at the Walking Dead, this was an article that had some substance beyond the personal. Scribd’s use of Facebook Instant Personalisation hit all the wrong notes and deserved to be pilloried.

#3 – Unfollowing those who don’t follow back? You just don’t get it…

Another rant, this time at the misconception of some Twitter users that you should only follow someone if they follow you back. Poppycock, I say! You should follow people who you think add value, not just for the sake of a followback.

#4 – What is… Groupon

Groupon has had a tough year and is no longer the poster-company for the IPO generation. For those of you who are still unsure of what Groupon is, and what the fuss is about, here’s a starter guide.

#5 – The album that saved my (musical) life

The Pixies truly did save my musical life! They are also a great example of how to use social media channels to reengage an audience, both new and old. Old in my case…

Thanks again, and see you in 2013.

Cheers, James


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Book Review: Content is Currency by Jon Wuebben

Content is Currency by Jon Wuebben - CoverMost book reviews start by telling you about the author and content, and end with telling you whether you should read it. This time I’m going to start by telling you why should you read this book; it’s important.

The reason why you should read this book?

Content Marketing is the hot topic of the moment, and Jon Wuebben’s book is about as comprehensive a guide as you’re going to get currently. Whether you’re a content marketing novice or a have already dabbled, Content is Currency has something for you.

Having said that, we can now get back into the usual swing of things.

Jon Wuebben is CEO of Content Launch and a content strategist. Content is Currency is the follow-up to his 2008 book, Content Rich: Writing Your Way to Wealth on the Web, and in it he takes an in-depth look at the hows and whys of creating content for the web – both desktop and mobile (and about time – things have changed massively since 2008!)

The ability to create engaging content is becoming increasingly important in today’s digital landscape. The prevalence and power of search and the virality of social, means that content is a powerful medium for organisations to spread their messages. Being able to make the most of these channels is good for both your brand and your bottom line.

Content is Currency is set out into three parts:

  1. What is Content Marketing? – in this part Wuebben looks at the basics of content marketing, including analysing your current presence, performing keyword analysis and competitive research, and optimising your content.
  2. Content for the Web – here Wuebben delves into the different sorts of content (from articles to press releases and beyond) and how you can create content that has impact.
  3. Content for Community and Mobile – in this part, which will be the one that I suspect most people will be drawn to initially, Wuebben details best practice around the use of blogging, email, video and audio, including how to make this content work on mobile devices.

Within each part, the subject is broken into a number of chapters, each dealing with a different element of content marketing. The progression through the chapters is logical and they are filled with good examples to help highlight the tips and techniques within, making it easy to absorb. There are also Case Studies at the end of each chapter that reinforce the approach. Although unavoidable, some of these examples and Case Studies will date, especially where screenshots are included, but this is a minor point, and doesn’t significantly detract from the longevity of the book’s use – as I said, it’s impossible not to have this issue where you are using real-life examples

Content is Currency is a book that you could read from cover to cover, if you so wished, but it is equally as useful as a coffee-table style dip-in guide. And although some of the content may date, it is still a comprehensive guide that provides real value to marketers and agencies alike. In a fast moving ever-changing environment like the web, making our content work across multiple channels and devices is so important – the lessons in Content is Currency will help you to make this a reality.

Have you read Content is Currency? What did you think? Have you changed your thinking on content marketing, or implemented changes since reading the book? Let me know your thoughts in the comments.

Disclaimer: This is an independent review based on a proof copy of the book supplied to me. I have no business relationship with Jon Wuebben or Content Launch. I have not received any monetary incentives or payments. I don’t need to write this bit, but I think it’s always good to be completely transparent.


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Book Review: Building a Blog for Readers: How to Blog In A Way That Matters by Nick Thacker

Building a Blog For Readers - Front CoverStarting as blog isn’t easy. You fret about whether you’ll be able to write, whether people will want to read it; after a few posts and only a few hits you start to wonder if it was all worth it. But get through the doubts and before long it all changes. For me, it’s been a really positive experience that has opened up doors to speaking opportunities, made me a little extra cash through freelance work, and even helped me get a new job.

Luckily for those of you who are just starting on this road, you can get a jump start thanks to Nick Thacker’s ‘Building a Blog for Readers: How to Blog In A Way That Matters’. Thacker is the prolific blogger and writer behind LiveHacked, a website aimed at aspiring authors who want to make a living out of writing. I was already familiar with LiveHacked, having used the site’s The Fiction Writer’s Guide to Writing Fiction content to help me with my writing, so when Nick asked me to review the book, I was happy to do so.

Building a Blog for Readers is set out less as book and more as a guide for the new or nascent blogger (Thacker himself terms it a manifesto). Formatted into 101 questions across seven topics, you can read through or dip in as required. It’s clear and accessible, and if you don’t think a section is valid for you, it’s easy to move on. However, Thacker’s goal for the book is that you work your way through each one, answering them as you go, so that you have the confidence to begin writing (or maybe not) when you get to the end. It’s not about giving you advice; it’s about helping you to understand what you want.

The seven topics are:

  1. Vision – these questions are focussed on getting out what you want to achieve through writing, your personal goals for the project.
  2. Purpose – this is about understanding your goals for the blog itself: will it help people, make you famous, what is it that makes you suitable to write about a subject, what makes you hungry?
  3. Strategy – creating a strategy for your blog. Define your readers and their requirements.
  4. Tactical – this are the smaller blocks of activity that put your strategy into action.
  5. Structure – the topics on which you’ll write and the USP of your blog. Also, the platform your blog will run on.
  6. Personal / Lifestyle – creating a writing schedule, outlining your commitment to write and discovering how best to approach writing.
  7. Inspiration – finally, other writers provide inspiration through sharing their experiences

Read in order, the book makes sense and holds your hand through most of the big questions you need to ask when setting up a blog (and looking to make money from it). One thing to note though: this won’t tell you how to write and it won’t make you a better writer. It will focus your mind and help you to structure your approach to writing – but if you’re hungry, passionate and knowledgeable on a subject, hopefully the writing quality will come with time and practice.

Personally I didn’t take as much from the Inspiration section as others have done, but the other questions that Thacker poses are well defined and thought-provoking. If you’re looking to start a blog this is worth reading; you’ll find you start off running – or at least jogging – rather than walking. And for the small price of £2.62, it’s not a massive investment either.

Disclaimer: This is an independent review based on a proof copy of the book supplied to me. I have no business relationship with Nick Thacker or LiveHacked. I have not received any monetary incentives or payments. I don’t need to write this bit, but I think it’s always good to be completely transparent.

Have you read Building a Blog for Readers: How to Blog In A Way That Matters? What did you think? Has it given you the confidence to start writing? I’d be interested in your comments.


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Book Review: The Hidden Agenda

Book cover - The Hidden Agenda by Kevin AllenIt’s not often that I read ‘business’ books, being a fan of fiction, but in this case I’m going to put pen to paper for Kevin Allen’sThe Hidden Agenda’. A book that aims to impart the secrets of a perfect pitch and turn you into a ‘winner’1, based on Allen’s long career at some of the world’s biggest agencies.

Having been in ‘agency world’ for the majority of my career, I was keen to see how his approach matched both my own thoughts and my experiences.

Allen is best known for being behind the Mastercard ‘Priceless’  campaign – a wildly successful and much parodied campaign that is still running worldwide today, despite being fifteen years old – and although he tries to play down his part in the campaign throughout the book, it forms a central theme throughout.  It’s a strong theme though, and it pays dividends as you make your way through the book.

Allen’s approach is broken down into four clear stages that you can absorb into your pitch skills. As methodologies go, Allen’s is a simple one. It’s based on a large helping of common sense, but for the inexperienced his advice is sage. For those of us who have been in pitches – win or lose, and I’ve done plenty of both – there will be plenty to identify with.

From brief to pitch, Allen moves through three main stages, each illustrated with stories and personal insights:

#1 “Who”

In the first section of the book, Allen focuses on understanding who you are pitching to and trying to uncover the hidden agenda that lies behind the black and white requirements of the brief. By showing you how to listen and question effectively, it’s possible to understand the emotional make-up of your audience and align your pitch to their underlying needs.

#2 “What”

In the “What” section, he explores how you can bring your internal strengths to bear on a pitch. Identifying your complementary strengths helps you to align your team and pitch to the hidden agenda.

#3 “How”

Finally, the book looks at the art of the pitch, which is, to all intents and purposes, the art of storytelling. Allen shows how you can identify heroes and villains within the brief, and take the client on an emotional journey with you.

Allen’s methodology does not focus on solutions, this isn’t a book that will make you more creative or give you an in on the latest trends, but it will help you to deliver your creativity in a meaningful and effective way. This is neatly shown in the last pages of the book, where he gathers together a number of examples of real-life pitches and breaks them down, showing the inputs and outputs of each stage. It’s here that the book really comes together.

The methodology is backed with some simple tools and techniques to help you apply it in your own work. These aren’t mandatory, but are a welcome addition to the book, as are the accompanying videos and support materials on the book’s website. These additional materials are clearly marked with an icon as you read through.

“the Hidden Agenda is a book worth reading”

If you’re new to pitching, or even new to agency life, the Hidden Agenda is a book worth reading. It’s simple enough and broad enough to take onboard at first read, and it’s not onerous.  It’s also worth reading if you’re part of a non-agency Sales team; as Allen rightly points out, we all pitch everyday even if we don’t know it – it’s there every time we try to ‘sell’ ourselves. Even if you decide not to take everything on board, you’ll still come away with some valuable learning. It certainly helped me to take a healthily self-critical look at my pitching style and identify the things I did naturally well and those I needed to work on. Since I finished the book, I’ve found myself replaying some of the lessons as I’ve been working, which I think reflects well on it.

You can find out more about the book at its website (http://thehiddenagendabook.com), or purchase it from all major book or e-book sellers. Or if you want to hear about the book from the horses mouth, watch this video.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u1WpMbZyLPU&feature=youtu.be

1 This is one of Allen’s favourite words – you’ll hear it a lot.

Disclaimer: This is an independent review based on a review copy of the book supplied to me. I have no business relationship with Kevin Allen, KevinAllenPartners or Bibliomotion (the publishers). I have not received any monetary incentives or payments. I don’t need to write this bit, but I think it’s always good to be completely transparent. :-)

Have you read the Hidden Agenda? What did you think? What did you take from it? I’d be interested in your comments.


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The Righteous Dead – now available on Kobo and Apple iTunes

The Righeous Dead

Just a really quick update to say that my debut novel – The Righteous Dead – is now available on both the Kobo and Apple iTunes stores. You can download the book from:

Kobo

Apple iTunes

If any of you who have read the book already enjoyed it, please do leave a review or a rating, it would be mightily appreciated.

Thanks,

James


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The Righteous Dead – now available on Amazon

The Righeous Dead

The Righteous Dead - my first novel

“It is 1946. On a dark night in Kent, a plane lands in a field. It contains a single passenger, tasked with delivering a single message. A message that will have a devastating effect on every man, woman and child in the country.”

So, for those who don’t know, I’ve been working on a novel for the last year. I’m really pleased to be able to say that it’s finished and is now available on Amazon. In the next couple of weeks it will also be available on Barnes & Noble, Apple, Diesel and Kobo.

It’s an amazingly exciting moment for me personally, but I’ve had a lot of help from a lot of people. So, if you’re one of them, thank you. Your help and comments have been invaluable.

But enough of that, back to the hard sell! :-)

Go and grab a copy from one the links below and find out what happens when two ordinary people find themselves in a very extraordinary situation.

Thanks, James

Links:

Amazon.com

Amazon.co.uk

Amazon.de

Amazon.fr

Amazon.it

Amazon.es

SmashWords


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Terry Wogan killed the chat show

WARNING: This is a rant

I don’t usually write stuff like this… personal stuff… you know…

But this assertion has been going round my head for a few years now.

You could call this blog post: “From Parkinson to Kyle in a few easy steps”.

So, excuse me for a minute, or if you want to know why Terry Wogan killed the chat show, read on.

In the ’70s

In the ’70s, as far as I can recall, chats shows were populated by interesting people… intelligent people. They used to come on to these shows because they genuinely has something to say. They gave a little of themselves to the viewer, providing an insight into their lives, their beliefs; we understood them as people, not celebrities.

It used to be a little like this.

(Longer version here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JkUyDr97NU4)

For me, that’s a real chat show.

In comes Wogan

Unfortunately, in 1985, Wogan’s chat show was moved from its Saturday night slot to a thrice-weekly weekday evening slot. And that was the beginning of the end. Now, I’ve nothing personal against Terry Wogan, let me make that clear, but there is a reason that he was voted the UK’s most popular and least popular man in 1992.

When the show was on three times a week, apart from boring children like me stupid, it also created a lot of space that needed to be filled. You could no longer select from the finest guests, mixing and matching them for the best result and taking time to prepare thoughtful and illuminating questions; you just had to take whoever you could get to fill the time.

So in came the fillers, the celebrity endorsements, the non-entities with nothing to say, and at worst, the embarrassments. These were people who knew that they had the upper hand. The time needed to be filled and they would fill it, for a price.

Most of these people will be forgotten now, but a few still linger in the memory.

Or

These were embarrassing, but worse was the ones we don’t remember. The guests that should never have been there in the first place.

Out goes Wogan, in comes worse

Eventually Wogan was canned – the show, not the man – but that wasn’t the end of the story. The floodgates had now opened, now anyone could be a guest, regardless of talent or intelligence or a modicum of self-respect. And there was always the endless flow of celebrity endorsements – thinly veiled adverts that purported to be interviews. Most of the time they could have just shown a picture of the book or the trailer for the film.

The worst of these was the cringe-worthy interview with Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger during the opening of the first Planet Hollywood in London, the three of them parading around in endorsed baseball caps and jackets. We learnt nothing about them except for their restaurant and the titles of their next movies. Michael Aspel was the unfortunate ‘interviewer’. Feel the cringe at 4 minutes and 15 seconds, as Don Johnson and Melanie Griffiths get involved.

And further down…

Finally we reach rock bottom. Jeremy Kyle – the UK’s answer to Jerry Springer.

I’m speechless, witness the spectacle that is ‘Mad Dog Deon’ and his ‘talent': a skull face tattoo.

Or, to make you proud to be human, Charlotte and her measured reaction to being accused of cheating on her partner.

It’s mind-boggling. It’s almost unbelievable.

How far we’ve come, and how far we’ve delved into the gunky morass that is the general public. There’s nothing to aspire to here, only a sense of schadenfreude and ill-judged superiority. Maybe there is an argument for the ‘dumbing down’ of TV. If so, it only makes it more important that we strive to save channels like BBC Four that offer an alternative to this guff. Because, in the end, that’s exactly what it is.

Thanks Terry.


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It’s NaNoWriMo time…

…or, “Look! I wrote a novel!”

Every November, from the 1st to the 30th of the month, hundreds of thousands of would-be writers around the globe join virtual hands for NaNoWriMo. NaNoWriMo, or to give it its proper title, National Novel Writing Month, has been running since 1999 and growing in popularity every year. It has a simple premise: write a 50,000 novel by 11:59:59 on the 30th November.

With that goal in mind, there’s no time for the over-critical internal editor to get his or her sweaty hands on your writing; if you want to make it you’ve got to write around 2,500 words per night. It’s this fact that makes it so successful. I’m sure that there are many of us out there who would like to write a novel, but think they aren’t good enough or aren’t capable. It’s rubbish, everyone can do it if they really want to, you just need to stop judging yourself for long enough (approximately 30 days should do it). The results can be amazing and inspiring.

The Righteous Dead - my first novel

The Righteous Dead - my first novel

Last year I took my first dive into the murky waters of story writing – well at least for the first time since high school, which was over 20 years ago. The result was The Righteous Dead, a story about two normal people in a very extraordinary situation. The first draft was 55,000 words and written during November. The second draft was 66,000 and took me another six months. Since receiving my proof copies (a prize for completing NaNoWriMo) I have only allowed them to be read by a few people, who have helped me to refine it further. Holding the printed book in my hands was one of the proudest moments of my life; in some senses I still can’t believe I did it. In the next few months I will either self-publish the book or send it to a literary agent.

Just think, in a few months this could be you. Why don’t you give it a try? There are writers groups all over the country to help you if you need it.

This year I’ll be setting out again on another adventure, this time into sci-fi. I will be accompanied by my friend, and first-time author, Colin Taylor. Keep your fingers crossed for us. Thanks.

Pixies - Bossanova album cover


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The album that saved my (musical) life

Pixies - Bossanova album coverThis is a post about the Pixies.

It’s August 1990 and my life is about to change. I’d like to say that someone had passed me a copy of the seminal album, Doolittle, with its dark, jagged lyrics, but they hadn’t. The album I had heard was the smoother and less predatory Bossanova, and from that day on my musical taste changed irrevocably. A large part of my existing music collection never got played again.

I’m sure we all have an epiphany of a similar nature at some time in our lives, I’m glad mine was musical. That was over 20 years ago, but here I am still listening to the Pixies.

Why are you telling me this?

I’m sure that’s the question you’re asking. Twenty years is a long time, especially in technology. The internet – as we know it – didn’t even exist in 1990. So you might think that a group like the Pixies are no longer relevant.

But it’s not the case, and I, for one, am glad.

The Pixies, or just Pixies (no The) to be exact, have embraced digital media as part of their touring comeback. They’ve grasped the essential nature of the social web to create an online community that is both forward-looking (new fans) and reminiscing happily (old fans like me), successfully spanning the generation gap.

They’ve done this by:

1. Creating a multi-platform web presence

Each platform has its own strength and weaknesses. The Pixies are harnessing this by creating a central hub (pixiesmusic.com) surrounded by a mobile app (iPhone and Android), a Facebook page and a Twitter account. The Twitter account is mainly push messaging, the Facebook page is for discussion, the mobile app pulls the web presence onto mobile devices (including streaming capabilities), and the main site contains all this plus e-commerce functionality. They’re not the greatest designed sites in the world, but they work.

2. Creating a core content pot

The main site is built around one idea, to create a single source of Pixies information online, from the basic discography to an ever-growing gigography – a complete list of all the gigs the band has played. Fans are encouraged to provide their thoughts, memories, pictures and even recordings of these gigs. The same content structure is used in the mobile applications.

3. Giving something for nothing

If you want people to give something to you, you have to give something to them. For signing up to the site you get a free live EP in digital format and access to stream old live concerts and demo’s. It’s an immediate value-add for the consumer. By showcasing their live sound (which is excellent), fans are also encouraged to see the band play live (tour dates and tickets available on the site) or to buy recordings of other shows, spanning from the early ’90s to the present.

4. Keeping content fresh

The web is a bottomless pit of content it seems. By mining its depths, the Pixies are regularly sharing old interviews, live performances and TV appearances. These are mostly from YouTube, but sometimes highlight content from fan-sites. Just a few days ago, I came cross a site that was streaming a recording of an interview with the Pixies on John Peel’s radio show. It had been taken from a tape recording and cleaned up. I have a tape of the very same interview in my loft, and was compelled to comment that it was the case. These constant reminders of the past make great fodder for discussion amongst the faithful and Facebook posts regularly get a lot of comments.

It’s great to see this kind of renaissance. They’ve approached it just the right way, and are reaping the rewards.

For the interested among you…

The music of the Pixies is fantastic, but don’t take my word for it, take a listen:

Bossanova – where it all started for me – listen to Bossanova

Come on Pilgrim – the debut 8 track mini-album from March 1987 – listen to Come On Pilgrim

Surfer Rosa – the first studio album from 1988, a short, but not so sweet, chicano-influenced mix produced by Steve Albinilisten to Surfer Rosa

Doolittle – the iconic Pixies album – listen to Doolittle

Trompe Le Monde – the last studio album, a sci-fi inspired piece of alt-rock that’s so good that it’s over before it’s started – listen to Trompe Le Monde

Or for a single album overview there’s always Death to the Pixies, a collection of album tracks – listen to Death to the Pixies

Enjoy!