Sunday, December 18, 2005
BONZOS, BOMBS AND REBIRTHS: THE CHURCH OF ME ALBUMS OF 2005
Who would have thought that the primary inspiration for adventurous new musicians in 2005 would have been the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band? Large in number, multiple in instruments (and multiple in instrumental competencies), always up for something new and amusingly strange but with the debris of a semi-buried past eternally central in their minds, that not-so-strange blend of Walt Whitman and Carla Bley, of Marie Lloyd and the Soft Machine. And then sometimes that past has to be resolved, the pain converted into a celebratory wake so that we might live again. The Arcade Fire know all about that; the question is, how do they decide to live now that their perhaps definitive statement has been made vivid and large alive, on both record and stage? Do they fall for the illusion that they could save the world and end up wagging a stern white flag at our noses like Bono in ’83? That of course remains to be resolved. Certainly, though, the Arcade Fire seem in imminent danger of spawning the greatest number of pallid copyist bands since the Birthday Party; people like Australia’s Architecture in Helsinki, who have the multi-instruments, the goofy grins and the studiously scruffy pullovers, but as yet no real purpose; or Britain’s own Guillemots, whose wearily predictable cocktail of musical saw and rudimentary horn lines on "Train To Brazil" foretell a future as bright and doubtless as Doves and any other British bands who think themselves above the definite article.
And then there came along the extraordinary The Shortwave Set, who came closest to the ineffably comical sadness of Neil Innes’ Bonzos at their most desolate ("Readymades") – those Victorian cartoon contraptions superimposed on that empty, windbeaten beach; the forgotten music which they cannot allow to die – and they made a record likely to last far longer than anything they sampled.
Back from the dead. The motif was inescapable, especially in the second half of 2005 when I reflected on losing two good friends who should have been two much closer friends; and it follows that nearly all of the records which appear in the upper parts of my lists are not only to do with remembrance but also with making people, places, life live again, even if all of it boils down merely to this writer living again. A lot of us have been wandering around the rims of that beach, waiting for the world not to end; and perhaps bringing back The Church Of Me simply postpones that end, even if by a nanosecond. But Kate Bush came back, and that in itself (or herself) was nearly enough; Bill Fay and Vashti Bunyan being brought back was more than we could have possibly hoped for; and even Eno and David Sylvian moved a little nearer to deliver painfully pertinent music. Even New Pop Mark II enjoyed an entirely unanticipated, if deeply troubled, second wind.
Looking through my lists, I would say that if the artists on it have a single quality in common, it is that none of them proceeds as though they were trying to build a career; even if, like Charlotte Church or Rufus Wainwright, you know damn well that they’re building a career, it’s equally obvious that they have something urgent to communicate above and beyond that base motivation. Consequently, the overt empire-builders celebrated in every other music periodical’s 2005 lists get short shrift here; the brief glimpse of genuine madness seen in "This Boy" notwithstanding (like a recidivist rockist Girls Aloud – "Not a boy but a wealthy bachelor!/I want a CAR!"), Franz Ferdinand, always closer to Set The Tone than to Josef K, have resolutely continued to underwhelm me; the LCD Soundsystem record is a near-faultless singles compilation with a dodgily smug album attached; Goldfrapp’s Supernature sounded just the thing of the moment when blasting out into The Lanes of Brighton in August (especially "Lovely 2 C U") but still rather too pleased with itself in the less forgiving moments of early winter; and the inverse popularity of Confessions On A Dancefloor in comparison with that of the Girls Aloud, and even Sugababes, albums summons up painful, if familiar, questions about why people are so happy to settle for so little. And Arular seems to have got short shrift from every quarter, not all that justly; suffice to say that it made it as far as the 51-60 section of my long list, much as Piracy Funds Terrorism did a year ago – entertaining in a zany 1981-reminiscent colour kind of a way, depending on how many blind eyes you have available to turn to you-know-what and how flexible you’re prepared to be when it comes to the application of Larkin’s Law. As for the second wind of Britpop, that will be discussed with almost admirable ambivalence within the context of the lists, to which I shall now proceed without further delay.
THE USUAL NOTES
As ever, I have listed 100 albums (except it’s more than 100, but I’ll get to that, as you knew I might) divided into two lists of 50; one for reissues, compilations and new findings from The Archives; and one for the new stuff. As ever, I will list these in reverse order, Pick Of The Pops-style; but unlike previous years, time and similar annoying factors have precluded me from spinning the countdowns out over several days, so I’m afraid I’m going to run the risk of inducing premature indigestion in my readers and post both lists in full, in one go. But of course you are entirely free to proceed down (or up) the lists at your leisure.
One good side-effect of compiling these lists is that it gives me the chance to republish some of the best stuff from Koons Really Does Think He’s Michelangelo. In response to the clamour of queries: all of the Koons writing does still exist, on my hard drive, and other elements of it will reappear in CoM over the coming months – but I’m more than happy to reintroduce some of the best stuff from Koons in this new context.
TOP 50 REISSUES, COMPILATIONS AND THINGS FROM THE PAST I NEVER KNEW EXISTED, OR DID KNOW THEY EXIST, BUT I’D NEVER HEARD THEM, EXCEPT IN SOME CASES ON DODGY BOOTLEGS, BUT YOU NEVER HEARD ME SAY THAT, RIGHT?
50. ABBA The Complete Studio Recordings
And still it stands – still as in motionless, still as in eternal, eternal as in "The Eternal" – this bloody strange body of work, now encased in an icebox of tainted blue, like the last thing Virginia Woolf might have seen, as bizarrely formidable and insurmountable in its way as Metal Machine Music. It’s all here; all eight albums (only eight? There seemed so many more) plus all the non-album singles and B-sides, alternate mixes, extended mixes, French, Japanese and Esperanto versions of the big ones, plus two DVDs’ worth of all the videos plus a documentary plus some 1981 live footage. They tell you so much, so candidly, about themselves and yet remain entirely and eternally untouchable, so we have to work it out for ourselves, how these Swedish Seekers started off being folky and happy in a silly Paul Nicholas kind of a way and then progressively switched off every light, one by one, over the ensuing decade until they’d vanished and no one had noticed. How they started as the Seekers and ended up as Joy Division with the clock ticking through the accumulated dust, or ashes.
And it is vital to be said that those who can’t, or won’t, work out Abba, not from their system, but won’t or can’t understand why they were so much more than the Brotherhood of Man’s embarrassed stepparents, can’t really hope to reach the centre of writing about music before it collapses. Many people who should know better haven’t forgiven them, blame them for Steps (and anyone blaming a pop group for causing Steps literally does not understand pop music), think of them still as the Nordic Newer Seekers, all flared blandishments, all whiteout but not in a Terminal Cheesecake kind of way. Why "Dancing Queen" is still loved and worshipped 29 years later whereas "Mississippi" or "My Sweet Rosalie" aren’t has nothing to do with kitsch (unless you agree with Barry Ryan that kitsch is a beautiful word) but to do with the process of technological/emotional rapport and advancement which means that "Dancing Queen" will always sound as though it were recorded last week; why "Waterloo" winning ’74 Eurovision was a far bigger death blow to the petrified doxa of rock than EMI’s deletion of "Anarchy In The UK" (but a parallel blow, in force and cunning, to Metal Machine Music coming in from the other and opposite, but not opposing, margin) – no, too complex. Better to blow dreary raspberries at their blue jumpsuits and start using words like "soul" and "authentic" as Paul Weller did in his recent book Words And Music: A History Of The World In The Shape Of Mick Talbot’s Transient Goatee; or to sit in our respective corners and paint ourselves into them, and finally paint ourselves blue, both inside and out, as many doubtless continue to do on internet music message boards which I no longer read (because whichever music message board you visit, however long you stay there, you will by natural law end up having the same six arguments with the same six people) with their defeating arguments about rockism and popism in a Super Furry Animals versus Superman Lovers kind of way; or to ensconce ourselves in cosy apolitical boogaloo bars and chat with 50-year-old company directors about why post-punk failed (the actual reasons for which were: people claiming to inhabit both Metal Machine Music and Abba when they really meant Kiss Alive! and Supertramp; and these are spookily the same reasons for the failure of Bush and Blair, in a Human League and Chrome Hoof when they really meant Duran Duran and Kelly Clarkson kind of way). However, the Complete Studio Recordings of Abba will never die, including the full-length "Summer Night City" with its full orchestral prelude, so that makes a hat-trick of pop masterpieces (Dare, Lexicon Of Love and New Gold Dream) which could only have been created on a background of full, subtle and heartfelt understanding of both Abba and Metal Machine Music.
Oh, and Madonna had to beg Abba to help resurrect her career. Abba and Zoot Woman. How punctum is that?
49. ? AND THE MYSTERIANS The Best Of ? And The Mysterians 1966-67
Miracles can sometimes yet occur; after years of wilful neglect, Allen Klein finally started reissuing the Cameo-Parkway back catalogue on CD this year, which not only means that the original Chubby Checker hit singles are once again obtainable but that "96 Tears," a major canyon of a gap in its absence from canonical CD consideration, is now back in circulation together with the rest of ?’s two albums; and fabulous they are, from the stoopid petulance of The Hit through to proto-MC5 semi-freakouts like "Girl (You Captivate Me)" and "Why Me" (the latter featuring a very confused sounding Tony Orlando on backing vocals).
48. STEVE ELLIS An Everlasting Soul: The Anthology
47. TONY CHRISTIE Definitive Collection
Two Sixties soulboys who didn’t really ask to end up elsewhere, but that was what happened; a bunch of Small Faces wannabes are kept out of the CBS studios bar the lead singer, who accidentally invents both boy bands and Northern Soul with the brilliant artifice of "Everlasting Love" (and also Trevor Horn, with that drum break near the end), then gets pissed off and pisses off to do odd things with Zoot Money and other vaguely out-there people of the era, including porn movie themes ("Loot’s The Root"), Jimmy Webb covers ("Evie"), and fractured where’s-my-pale-ale early ‘70s singer/songwriter angst ("El Doomo," "Jingle Jangle Jasmine") before ending up in heavy metal land. A shame; one twist to the left and Steve Ellis could have become a slightly harsher Terry Reid.
Tony Christie, meanwhile, became a kind of Pastor Jack Glass Sings Tom Jones figure; his songs perpetually expressing high-volume, high-register outrage at the decaying mores of the world – "Las Vegas" ("I’m gonna burn you DOWN!"), "I Did What I Did For Maria," the Biblical cop allegory that is "Avenues And Alleyways" ("Can we ever stop them?/Some of us…are gonna TRY!") – so it’s no surprise that Jarvis found him the ideal voice for "Walk Like A Panther," having learned nought three decades on ("A halfwit in a leotard/Stands on my STAGE!"). Naturally his music is therefore a trillion times more fun than boring old Jones The Groans, but don’t ask me to do the Amarillo Walk at parties, I’m telling you now.
46. VARIOUS Eurovision Song Contest: Kiev 2005
In imminent danger of becoming a routine annual fixture on these lists, Eurovision this year diverged more entertainingly than it ever has done, mainly due to the deliciously ironic spectre of all the Western entries progressively becoming more Eastern (exemplified by the winner, Greece’s "My Number One") and vice versa – Serbia and Montenegro’s high-kicking 1983 Ultravox 12-inch bonus track, and most memorably, the Eastern Bloc Cornershop that was Moldova’s "Boonika Date Doba." Best trad Eurovision song (1973 model) was Malta’s "Angel"; best trad Eurovision song (1955 model) was Austria’s quite spellbinding "Y Asi" with that trombone for a bassline; best rapproachment with Modern Pop modes would fall somewhere between Spain’s demented girl-rap "Let’s Get Loud" and the tetra-turntable approach of Bosnia’s Feminnem; while the most rockist Eurovision entry would be a tie between Norway’s Wig Wam (who made the Darkness sound like the Pipkins they always really were) and the surprisingly effective "Teen Spirit" derivé of Russia’s "Nobody Hurt No One."
45. VARIOUS Hallucinations/Come Into The Sunshine
Excellent pair of Warner Brothers compilations from the late ‘60s when straightforward American harmony pop was starting to refract and radiate from what Brian Wilson had started; Lee Mallory, the Association, Harpers Bizarre and even Dino, Desi and Billy, amongst many others, warp out with benign brilliance. The "weird" stuff is on Hallucinations, the "straight" sunshine pop on Come Into The Sunshine; but often the edges blur.
44. SHAKIN’ STEVENS The Collection
Some months ago I wondered aloud why we didn’t get straightforwardly wonderful pop singles like "Cry Just A Little Bit" any more – if you can call the Human League doing "Rock And Roll Part 2" with Sheena Easton on vocals a straightforward pop single, that is. Shaky was always a cut above the dim MoRevivalists of early ‘80s Not So New Pop; his early covers ("Green Door," "This Ole House") were admirably unpredictable and his enthusiasm for them contagious, and then he subtly went about incorporating elements of cajun ("Oh Julie"), Dixieland ("I’ll Be Satisfied") and even hi-NRG ("A Little Boogie Woogie In The Back Of My Mind," would that the lyrics could be listened to now) in his work. I found this compilation fresh and stimulating listening, as indeed you would have done had the album been called Nick Lowe – The Collection.
43. NOEL HARRISON Life Is A Dream
Now this is how to record classic singles: the son of Rex sang "Windmills Of Your Mind" as live on the Paramount Studios soundstage, with the film of The Thomas Crown Affair playing on the screen behind him, and beneath him, Michel Legrand at the piano, directing (and at the end blowing kisses to) the orchestra. Here "Windmills" is joined by 25 other examples of exquisite desuetude which variously pay tribute to Donovan ("Leitch On The Beach"), introduce backward drumming into pop (1965’s "Sign Of The Queen") and cover Leonard Cohen as perhaps no one else would dare to – check out "Dress Rehearsal Rag," which Harrison sings as though dressing for dinner at high table with Princess Margaret.
42. LES PAUL WITH MARY FORD The Best Of The Capitol Masters: 90th Birthday Edition
So easy to forget, isn’t he, this modest man who amiably started off several million revolutions with his multitracked guitar and his wife’s chorale of voice. As with most forward-looking music recorded in the ‘40s and early ‘50s, Paul’s work now sounds like Ghost Box before the fact; memories of the future, indeed – not quite "solid" but as tangible as a trapeze. So many roads built from this beginning, leading to so many routes, to Meek and Wilson, or to Fripp and Fennesz. And he does it mostly with standard songs – a directional history of post-war popular music could be pinpointed at its origin with both Paul’s and Slim Gaillard’s readings of "How High The Moon" – one leading to the light and reserve, the other to dark brews and radiance.
41. DONOVAN Barabajagal
If we say YES to Kate Bush then we must also say YES to Donovan (and double ditto for Vashti Bunyan, since it was Donovan’s dosh which paid for Vashti’s caravan trip). Unlike Dylan, his oeuvre has been under-lauded, and is therefore fresher and more surprising to jaded ‘00s ears. All four of his EMI albums from the ‘60s were reissued this year (the others being Sunshine Superman, Mellow Yellow and The Hurdy Gurdy Man). Really you need them all, but for a good and not so obvious overview of his approach Barabajagal is a fine starting point, with its sexily demonic title track collaboration with Jeff Beck, the do-you-dare-me-to-be-twee-ness of "I Love My Shirt," the genuine poignancy of "To Susan On The West Coast Waiting," the Bush-inspiring "Lord Of The Reedy River" and the great "Atlantis," a friendlier and smarter "Hey Jude," complete with Beatles backing vocals.
40. THE FIRST CLASS Summer Sound Sensations: A First Class Top 20
Of course, of these 21 (!) songs only "Beach Baby" actually made the Top 20, and to an extent this compilation is "Beach Baby" plus supporting acts – but that’s to belittle one of John Carter’s many projects. This one focused on elegantly cheesed off early ‘70s comedown soft pop – titles like "What Became Of Me," "Long Time Gone" (not the David Crosby song) and "I Was A Star" say it all, as do surprisingly bitter music biz satires like "Bobby Dazzler." Alas it was Carter’s fate to have his heartfelt modernist protest song "Too Many Golden Oldies" released some 18 months after it was recorded – in mid-1977, bang in the middle of punk. However, "Beach Baby" remains one of the most startling and moving of all pop records, and I am pleased to be able to republish the piece I wrote about it at the beginning of this year.
39. AFX Hangable Auto Bulb
A very welcome, if seriously belated, CD debut for this brace of Aphex EPs from 1995 which concentrated on the rubberband-bending drill ‘n’ bass facet of his personality. The second EP just makes it for me over the first, due to the introduction of RD James’ inimitable gift for poignant melodicism mixed with the determinate rhythmic franticity on "Wabby Legs" and "Every Day."
38. THE ALPHA BAND The Arista Albums
Well, you know of the late Beta Band; here are their American ancestors from a generation ago. T-Bone Burnett, David Mansfield and Steven Soles, all members of Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue band, deployed similarly unpredictable mid-song genre-changes and gung-ho musical adventurism which – again, in the middle of punk – perhaps went underacknowledged but whose relevance quickly became apparent following the rise of their ‘80s spiritual heirs the Pixies. Anyway, this 2CD package handily compiles all of their three Arista albums in full, and it remains a lovely blend of Tex-Mex, virtual world music ("East Of East"), bluegrass and burnt-out psychedelia.
37. ALAN BRAXE AND FRIENDS The Upper Cuts
He was partly responsible for "Music Sounds Better With You," of course, which is duly present here, but also, in conjunction with Fred Falke, deathless classics of epic sad dance such as "Intro," "Palladium" and "Rubicon." Tracks like "Love Lost" manage the not inconsiderable feat of being both tearjerking and phallus-motivating.
36. THE ASSOCIATES The Affectionate Punch
Perversely I think I still prefer the ’82 remix job which Alan Rankine did on the album (to "make it more pop") but the skeletal opacity of the 1980 original still peeks through to today, thanks to brilliant songs like "Logan Time" (if we’re talking "I’m In Love With A German Film Star," ahem) and "Even Dogs In The Wild."
35. CURRENT 93 Judas As Black Moth: Hallucinatory Patripassianist Song
There is of course Coil (or was Coil) and their legacy is now, sadly, immortal; but in the complicated internecine world of post-TG avant-industrialism one tends towards one or the other, so this 2CD 32-track collection of David Tibet’s best over the last quarter century or so is a useful catch-up aid. And catch up we should, since elements of what Current 93 started persist in the work of Antony and Six Organs Of Admittance, not to mention kick-starting the revival of interest in the likes of Shirley Collins, Bill Fay and Simon Finn, all of whom pay due homage in this compilation’s sleevenotes, and some of whom also appear on the compilation itself. My own favourite is 1994’s "Lucifer Over London," wherein Tibet exults over imminent destruction as a hopped-up Elias Ashmole would once have done, transporting his priceless junk over Lambeth Bridge so that they could be buried in Oxford.
34. THE GLOBE UNITY ORCHESTRA AND THE CHOIR OF THE NDR-BROADCAST Hamburg ’74
Quite possibly the greatest of Globe Unity line-ups – both Derek and Evan in attendance, Han Bennink and Paul Lovens both on drums – in acridly rampant form, in collision with an unutterably bemused German radio choir trying to sing Tannhauser and repeatedly being distracted and bombarded by Alex von Schlippenbach’s crafty stratagems. There was some theatrical/textual involvement, but as the sleevenote is in German and my German is rustier than the average Thornton Heath scrapyard, I will confine myself to the sole English payoff which is given – "FREE JAZZ (only thing left/conquers the world)." If only.
33. JOHN LYDON The Best Of British £1 Notes
Unique among Lydon-related compilations, this makes you rethink. Buried deep in its bowel is "Sun," a forgotten 1997 single, which, half a decade before going into the jungle, finds Lydon bemoaning "Nature" ("I miss the car park! I miss the concrete!") over an extraordinary backing track which fuses medieval estampie, electronica and doleful kwela accordion. If Robbie Williams had released this as a single in 2005 he would have been lauded, but standing joke Lydon snuck it out in 1997 and no one noticed. And among the handful of Pistols and PiL tracks included here, there are other little revolutions which no one noticed; 1984’s Bambaataa/Laswell collaboration "World Destruction," two clear years before Aerosmith and Run-DMC; the opening quartet of Anarchy, Public Image, Love Song and Open Up, now violently flung together to illustrate the collective story which they told; and 2005’s "The Rabbit Song" which, if the first track of Girls Aloud’s Chemistry is anything to go by, some have already noticed.
32. VARIOUS So Young But So Cold: Underground French Music 1977-1983
Superb and much-needed compilation by Marc Collin and Ivan Smagghe which proves that, between "Pepper Box" and "Da Funk," innovation continued apace in French pop. Examples include the long-overdue CD debut of Mathématiques Modernes’ "Disco Rough" (featuring St Arto of Lindsay), Kas Product’s title track, Moderne’s "Switch On Bach" and, best of all, the astonishing double-headed 1982 single from (The) Hypothetical Prophets: "Person To Person" and "Wallenberg." Can someone re-release Bernard Szajner’s Some Deaths Take Forever please?
31. THE GUN CLUB Mother Juno
One of a rash of Gun Club reissues to come out late this year courtesy of Sympathy For The Record Industry. Mother Juno was always my favourite, not just because Robin Guthrie produced it (and, boy, is he all over "The Breaking Hands") but because the Cocteau perversely seems to draw out even more blood from Jeffrey Lee, Kid Congo & Co. than usual. Note the presence on drums of Nick Sanderson, then ex-of Clock DVA and to be-of World Of Twist, Earl Brutus et al.
30. GIRLS ON TOP Greatest Hits
A vinyl-only issue, and one of dubious provenance ("Compiled by The Watcher. Apologies to Richard" proclaims the sleeve), but then with bootlegging, wasn’t that the point? It does, however, serve a more than useful purpose by compiling all of Richard X’s pre-Sugababes oblique strategy seven-inchers ("I Wanna Dance With Numbers," "Being Scrubbed" and the inevitable "We Don’t Give A Damn About Our Friends") and it all still sounds fresh and insolent. Whereas Osymyso, for instance, is now kind of poignant; the final moments of "Intro:Introspection" (My Way, The End, etc.) I find rather moving.
29. MICHAEL GIBBS Michael Gibbs/Tanglewood ’63
Gibbs has never quite had the credibility that his more febrile Britjazz contemporaries of the period – Westbrook, Tippett, McGregor – had and still have. Maybe his alternative existence as The Bloke Who Does The Music For The Goodies had something to do with it, or more pertinently, that his large ensemble experimentation was of the conservative kind; that is to say, it owed much more to Pete Rugolo and Gil Evans than to Sun Ra or George Russell, and arguably more to Messiaen and Robbie Robertson than either (listen to the slow flute melody and affable folk-rock acoustic guitar on "And On The Third Day" for instance). But at its best, his orchestra could kick arse as swiftly as any other – check out the ecstatic "Family Joy, Oh Boy!" which starts with a brass fanfare straight off side three of The White Album before roaring into action as drummers John Marshall and Tony Oxley breathlessly invent drum ‘n’ bass, while Jack Bruce, Ray Russell and Chris Spedding do a more than adequate job of keeping up with them as Alan Skidmore and Kenny Wheeler do their usual post-bop job on top. And, on side two of the original Tanglewood ’63 album, Gibbs finds something beyond all this – firstly in the astonishing 12-minute drift of "Canticle" which sounds like "In A Silent Way" filtered through Charles Ives’ "The Unanswered Question" – undulating, unresolved orchestral chords through which pointillistic flutes and soprano saxes emerge and retreat, like those waves and little fishes swimming between my feet – and secondly in the amazing "Five For England" (some of which was used as Goodies incidental music) where the pink-suited Chris Spedding erupts with some practically Velvet-esque guitar over Gordon Beck’s never-predictable Fender Rhodes chord choices and Roy Babbington and John Marshall already running into the next continent in the rhythm section.
28. VARIOUS Nick Bourgas Presents…Celebrities At Their Worst!
This may have been around for a little longer than 2005, but that’s when I came across a copy, and in terms of plays it’s received it should probably rank a lot higher in this list. There are four 2CD volumes in all, but Volume One is the pick, with all the classics: the Troggs Tapes in full, the Beach Boys being driven bonkers by Murray Wilson ("Sing from your hearts, boys!"), Orson Welles’ Findus commercials ("I wouldn’t direct any living actor like this in SHAKESPEARE!"), Buddy Rich’s multiple band rages (truly this was the Mark E Smith of jazz – "This is not the goddam House of David, this is the Buddy Rich Band! YOUNG people! With FACES! NO MORE FUCKIN BEARDS! They’re OUT!"), Casey Kasem’s "fucking dead dog," Freddie Hubbard inviting his white audience to "kiss my black ass, motherfuckers" and perhaps best of all, for those tricked into thinking that Paul Anka’s hip again, his epic tirade against his musicians and the world in general – "I don’t care if it’s Jesus Christ. I’m the only important one on that stage" – which he delivers, in terms of timing and the use of pauses, like a Harold Pinter play. "I slice like a fucking hammer. The guys get shirts. Where’s Joe?"
27. JONI MITCHELL Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter
Another little revolution which passed almost unnoticed under punk; cross-dressing and blacked-up on the cover, Joni enlisted the aid of Weather Report to soundtrack her odes to getting pissed and pissing ("a tequila-anaconda/The full length of the parking lot!"), trying to persuade Jaco Pastorius’ bass to talk to her and even causing Mingus to bow at her font on the wonderful, endless "Paprika Plains," an immaculate reflection on nuclear pastoralism ("And at the point of vanishing/Where the sky and the earth meet/A bomb blasts/Deadly mushrooms/White/Gold/Heat") pausing through sober piano interludes and orchestral flourishes (from Mike Gibbs, his second mention in three albums) and finally inventing Gillian Welch ("I’m floating back to you"). Now finally available as a domestic (UK) CD release.
26. DEREK BAILEY AND EVAN PARKER The London Concert
If useless "comedian" Justin Lee Collins wants to justify his existence, he should forget about chasing up weary tropes like the 1986 cast of Grange Hill or the Christmas number one, but set about reuniting Derek and Evan. It will never happen, of course – too many notes have overflowed the pathway, so to spit – but this 1975 performance, finally released in its entirety, highlights what a painfully vital improvising duo they once were – spiky, unsentimental, answering each other back, utterly compulsive and still of the moment three decades hence.
25. THE PREFECTS The Prefects Are Amateur Wankers
Why no Hard-Fi or Kaiser Chiefs in these lists? Perhaps because some of us remember how guitar bands could at one time in the history of evolution manage to be both shit-scary and guffaw-funny. Birmingham’s The Prefects, led by a pre-Nightingales Robert Lloyd and also featuring Joe "Compulsion" Crow, should have had eight number ones, all of which are included on this, their sole album, including the ten-minute "Bristol Road Leads To Dachau" and the ten-second "VD," either of which, had they gone straight in at number one two months ago rather than the Arctic Monkeys remembering Jam choreography like it was Metal Machine Music or something, would still have shattered key windows.
24. JUST-ICE Back To The Old School
Hip hop is the musical genre which more than any other is in danger of turning me into Charlie Gillett as I reminisce fondly about the dayshh where hip hop records were thrown together for two dollars with live, scruffy scratching before digital capitalism drowned spontaneity out, and yet could still sound like a million dollars, as exemplified by Just-Ice’s first and greatest album from 1986, produced by Curtis Mantronik, the Vini Reilly of StreetSounds, and edited by the Evan Parker of chopped beats, Chip Nunez. Classics such as "Cold Gettin’ Dumb" and "Put That Record Back On" sound like Yello abandoned in the Bronx, glistening, abrupt and there’s a bang.
23. THE MIKE WESTBROOK CONCERT BAND Mike Westbrook’s Love Songs
After years of sadly lonely championship of this record, which even its maker didn’t think much of (possibly because most of its lyrics were written by his first wife), I’m extremely pleased that it is now available on an affordable CD format (as opposed to ludicrously-priced hard-to-get Japanese imports) as it’s the nearest Westbrook ever came to pop (Solid Gold Cadillac included). Considerably mellower than its epic predecessor Marching Song, Westbrook’s standard nine-piece line-up is augmented by Chris Spedding’s guitar and the gorgeous vocals of the gorgeous Norma Winstone. In particular, "Love Song #4" is a staggering achievement, if only for its opening duet by Winstone’s voice and Mike Osborne’s alto, which is about as carnal and physical as British jazz has ever got (Keith and Julie Tippetts’ more intimate adventures excepted), and that’s before the track goes on to invent post-rock, Dexy’s Midnight Runners and Saint Etienne ("It wasn’t me who walked away" dying into the echoing distance at the end is pure Sarah Cracknell). There’s also the bonus of both sides of the non-album single, "Magic Garden," a real discovery of psych-folk/freeish jazz which wouldn’t have been out of place on Jon Savage’s Meridian 1970 compilation, and a version of "Original Peter" which manages to be both slicker than the album original, and rougher, with a wonderfully vitriolic tenor solo by George Khan riding roughshod over the electric piano and cooing vocals.
22. RICHARD HELL Spurts: The Richard Hell Story
If you need to understand exactly why punk had to happen, listen no further than "That’s All I Know (Right Now)" by the Neon Boys. Over Tom Verlaine’s howling guitar come the exultant screams of Richard Hell, daring to out-Dylan Dylan and actually sound more vital and electric than anything Dylan had done after the bike crash. The track veers and swoons in and out of gloomy glamour focus – and, incredibly, it was recorded in 1973. Sadly the Neon Boys EP is not represented in full on this compilation – and should have been, in preference to the duff Dim Stars stuff – but the two tracks which are included point us directly to the inversion of rock and roll which was to follow with the Voidoids, with their nearly 40-year-old jazz/skronk guitarist and their ex-Foundations bassist. Everything the casual listener could want is here; best, in the end, to think of Hell as the Georges Braque to the more rationalist Cubism of Verlaine.
21. IAN BROWN The Greatest
Infinitely more fun and more adventurous than the stolid Roses, Brown’s solo career has been accidentally avant-garde; and when assembled together stand his work stands up enormously well in the half-life dreams of "Dolphins Were Monkeys" and "Whispers" as well as the sinister scenarios of "Corpses In Their Mouth" (with the best atonal harmonica solo since Archie Shepp’s "Blasé"), "Golden Gaze" and "Time Is My Everything," like a burnished Burnage sunset which turns your horizons towards a Richard Teitelbaum 1979.
20. JEAN-CLAUDE VANNIER L’Enfant Assassin Des Mouches
In many ways, a literal cross between Escalator Over The Hill and Melody Nelson – in fact the album is something like a Tropic Appetites-type footnote to Melody Nelson’s Escalator, deploying a staggering range of tactics pilfered from free jazz, primitive electronica, choral music and burning psychedelia by M Vannier, the arranger on Melody Nelson who called on Gainsbourg to provide a text/plot to sensibilise his imaginary soundtrack. This Our Serge duly did; the fact that the title translates as "The Child Killer Of Flies" should give some indication about the gruesome paths his plot takes. Originally released in minimal quantities in 1972, now available again, complete with a Vannier full-frontal portrait (striding across an empty beach), and yet another reminder of a delirious dotty path which music took in that supposedly deserted decade between Pepper and punk.
19. THE NIGHTINGALES In The Good Old Country Way
Robert Lloyd’s second appearance in this list; the Nightingales back catalogue reappeared, serially, in earnest over the year, and this, from 1986, is my personal favourite; a politely berserk mixture of country, post-punk and music hall starring the remarkable violin playing of then-teenager Maria Smith which in itself (herself) is the missing link between Vassar Clements and Ornette Coleman.
18. DEFUNKT Defunkt/Thermonuclear Sweat
Strange, or not as the case may be, that even with the residue of post-punk interest this vital Rykodisc 2CD complete works reissue of one of the greatest punk-jazz crossover bands passed by completely unnoticed, even by the owner of the record shop where I purchased it. For a long time the likes of "Strangling Me With Your Love" and "Avoid The Funk" were bizarrely considered too constipated, too het-up, to cut it in the post-House era, but with the inevitable reverse motion of the pendulum we can now see that Joe Bowie and fellow conspirators were right all along and their scratchy, stuttering funk now sounds fresher than ever, especially 1981’s stand alone single "The Razor’s Edge" in its full 12-inch format; one of the big dancefloor hits during my first year at university (at least, when I was DJing).
17. THE YOUNG GODS XXY: XX Years 1985-2005
As the saying doesn’t quite go, you could have had it so much better. An unintentionally poignant reminder of a period in the mid-‘80s when Switzerland briefly led the pack; with Yello and the Young Gods, they seemed to be defying Harry Lime and dictating the future of music. Was it simply because Franz Treichler – one of the great gruff voices in rock – chose to sing in French, thereby relegating the Young Gods to a seldom-consulted footnote to the career of Trent Reznor? Their opening gambit – the 1985 single "Envoyé" – still seems like a gauntlet thrown down to rock (so clipped, so precise, so unplayable yet so transcendental) in terms of a future of rock and roll without guitars, where samplers were still an open door ready to absorb and refract everything from Scriabin to Subotnick. In truth The Best Of The Young Gods could adequately be encapsulated by their first two albums and attendant singles – for one, this compilation omits "Jusqu’au Bout," an anthem so alluring that Melody Maker used it for a radio ad campaign – but the unexpectedly ferocious likes of "Donnez Les Esprits" reminds us that as late as 1995 (with the album Only Heaven) they were still capable of surprising. But instead we were content with James Brown and Led Zep signposts to remind us not to outdo ourselves.
16. COMUS Song To Comus: The Complete Collection
I’ve never quite warmed to the New Wave of Acid Folk. The likes of Banhart and Newsom are too studied, too knowing, as in having gone to an imaginary Berklee School of Acid Folk – insufficiently elemental. And promising as they might be, Chrome Hoof, in their monks’ cowls, Cosmic Circus theatrics and careful randomness, walk in the heavily shadowed footsteps of Comus. Bear in mind that 1971’s First Utterance sounds like John Dowland being blown up by Peter Hammill and Marc Bolan in free dub conference – all those elegies to dead yet to die, to bloodied myths of the past, all screamed out by Roger Wootton, who was Roger Chapman transfixed by a frozen liquid spear of Phil Minton; and all (mostly) performed on acoustic instruments. It continues to sound chilling and uncompromising 34 years on, and even the relative compromise of 1974’s belated follow-up To Keep From Crying comes across as a desperate attempt to be "commercial" for fear of involuntary deposition in the ducking stool. First Utterance is the main event here, however, and if anything it now sounds like a direct aesthetic precursor to the slightly more considered Swans who made 1987’s best album, Children Of God (and not simply because the gorgeous Lindsay Cooper overblows her electric bassoon and other assorted woodwind on both records).
15. BARRY RYAN Singing The Songs Of Paul Ryan 1968-69
In 1986, when the Damned scored an unexpected top three hit with their rather over-prosaic reading of Barry Ryan’s "Eloise," they were universally derided for being reduced to covering what was then still considered a ludicrous piece of ‘60s MoR trash. Some of us were believers from the beginning; I still vividly remember Alan Freeman, on his 1968 ITV pop show All Systems Freeman, introducing Ryan, whereupon the camera immediately swung to a hairy man seemingly in the midst of an epileptic breakdown, alternatively screaming and crooning over a deranged orchestration. The single sped to the top of the charts shortly thereafter, but subsequent singles and albums sold far better in Europe – specifically, in Germany and the Low Countries. Perhaps they were simply too hot-blooded for British reserve.
Nonetheless, both of Ryan’s 1969 albums have now been reissued on CD, together with two extra tracks previously issued in Brazil only (!). The sleevenote gets it about right; "Eloise" stands tall as a shotgun wedding between the studied angst of Scott 4, the resentful adventure of the Bee Gees’ Odessa and Webb’s "Macarthur Park" had the latter been written in a bedsit in Stevenage after a bad day at the sewage works, and the whole was the opening shot in the plan of Paul and Barry Ryan, a hitherto largely (and unjustly) sniggered-at twin boy band duo. Now Paul wrote the songs and Barry sung, or rather bellowed, them – and the results remain amazing, from the opening atonal, FX-laden "Theme To Eutopia" via "My Mama" where Barry pays tribute to his mum much as Norman Bates might have done. Beckett-esque deadly introspection is touched upon in "What’s That Sleeping In My Bed?" while "You Don’t Know What You’re Doing" also indicates, apart from the above, a template for what Jim Steinman would go on to do with Meat Loaf a decade hence – grandiose and whimpering.
That was the Barry Ryan Sings Paul Ryan album, but its speedy follow-up, simply entitled Barry Ryan, went even lefterfield, commencing with "The Hunt" wherein Barry shrieks "Tally-ho!" over George Mitchell Minstrels backing vocals, before detouring into sodden balladry ("Swallow Fly Away"), discoloured Northern Soul ("I See You" with its curious falsetto lead and bemused-sounding backing vocal from Tony Rivers and the Castaways), culminating in the truly demented "Feeling Unwell" which begins as a Lionel Bart show tune and ends up engulfed somewhere in the neighbourhood of Berg’s Wozzeck. As for the Brazil-only tracks, they convey the apposite aura of Caetano Veloso drowning out Long John Baldry backing tracks with feedback. Let us hope that Rev-Ola will eventually bring out the even more bizarre albums which the Ryans continued to release throughout the ‘70s.
14. JULIAN PRIESTER PEPO MTOTO Love, Love
The cover with its marine blue sea stretching out to nowhere is typical ECM, but the accompanying album is, with the exception of certain Derek Bailey titles, the least typical record ECM ever released, and seems more like something which should have come out at the tail-end of Strata-East or Impulse!, residue from the full-blooded free jazz honkouts of the late ‘60s (and may explain its long absence from the catalogue). Priester, previously trombonist with Max Roach’s band and sometime member of Herbie Hancock’s electric ensembles (Fat Albert Rotunda and, more pertinently, Sextant), suddenly exploded in 1973 with this tumultuous and noisy fusion (fission, more like) of synths, percussion and free jazz horns. Dr Patrick Gleeson whirls and shrieks as Priester, Hadley Caliman, Mguanda David Johnson etc. improvise right through and beyond the intermingling structures of tunes like "Images" and "Eternal Worlds," merging into two unbroken vinyl sides of spiritual disunity. Absolutely bloody essential.
13. VARIOUS No New York
As, indeed, is this, which at long, long last got a legitimate CD reissue this year. Where were the rave reviews? Why is it only number thirteen in this list? Perhaps it was simply unlucky; finally allowed back into the public domain at the exact point when interest in post-punk had run out, just when it was clear that The Industry was only bothered about Duran Duran tribute bands. That could also explain why I never really felt Simon’s book; published in 2002, say, it could have acted as a call to arms, an active catalyst for change. However, after three years of systematically dribbling/diminishing of the prospect of a No Wave Mk II, both Rip It Up And Start Again and the reissue of No New York seemed like reluctant afterthoughts, too late to change anyone or anything – though the possible impact on those too young to have experienced the first time cannot and should not be ruled out. Still, No New York officially exists again; four bands, four tracks apiece, yet sufficient to fill up one side of a C90. So why do Lydia and James and Arto and Mark still seem as remote from today’s music – even the best of it - as Al Jolson?
12. VARIOUS It’s So Fine: Pye Girls Are Go!/VARIOUS Hearing Is Believing: The Jack Nitzsche Story 1962-1979
Two different routes taken out of the heart of pop, British and American (sometimes the difference is blurred), as the ‘60s bled into the ‘70s. It’s So Fine offers 50 tracks over 2 CDs of wonderful and ingenious girl pop by people like Tina Tott, Sandra Barry and others you’ve probably never heard of, with some more familiar names such as Petula Clark and Helen Shapiro, on a journey beginning with Petula’s properly ecstatic "Gotta Tell The World" and ending with Billie Davis’ petrified reading of Bacharach and David’s "The Last One To Be Loved," and with only one bona fide hit single among them, "Something Here In My Heart (Keeps A-Tellin’ Me No)" by the Paper Dolls, a sort of failed 1968 Girls Aloud. From this, proceed to all the Where The Girls Are and Dreambabes volumes you can find.
Meanwhile there was also Jack Nitzsche, arranger by choice for Spector, the Stones and Neil Young, whose story is illustrated by 26 tracks over one CD. But what a story: starting with "The Lonely Surfer" and Frankie Laine, and ending with Graham Parker and the Rumour and "One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest," taking in en route pre-Beat Boom idols (Bobby Darin, Lesley Gore, Little Stevie Wonder), berserk mid-‘60s auteurs (Lou Christie, Judy Henske, Garry Bonner’s beyond bizarre "The Heart Of Juliet Jones") to late-‘60s/early-‘70s regretful burnout – the James Gang’s "Ashes, The Rain & I" where Nitzsche’s strings seem to erase the group out of the picture entirely, cause them to take their leave; and Marianne Faithfull’s definitive and still frightening 1969 reading of "Sister Morphine." And again, only one hit single (Doris Day’s "Move Over Darling," if you don’t count Jackie de Shannon’s original "Needles And Pins") between the lot of them. Sometimes we miss so much in our anxiety to be living in nowness.
11. SLOWDIVE Souvlaki
Much as was the case with Reading’s unfortunate Slowdive. Unfortunate because they came along at the "right time" but then the "right time" was rapidly over and they committed the unforgivable crime of continuing to evolve down the same musical path rather than jumping on the next passing stylistic ambulance. Their three albums, together with all their non-album EP tracks and single B-sides, have now been reissued, and all require your urgent attention. Just For A Day (1991) continues to rise above all of the other shoegazing wannabes of the period with a very natural grandeur – severely in debt to the Cocteaus, of course, and no one ever seriously claimed that Rachel Goswell was Elizabeth Frazer when it came to voices, but songs (or events) like "Morningrise" and "Catch The Breeze" capture something of that innocent magic which the Cocteaus at the time were in imminent danger of sacrificing on the altar of self-parody. And indeed they also had to contend with MBV reinventing the guitar and feminising noise on Loveless, not to mention an unlucky, unhappy Melody Maker interview where they talked about not knowing how poor people lived (in an Ian Carmichael, rather than a Marie Antoinette, sense).
But they deserved a better fate and a larger audience. Souvlaki (1993) was their masterpiece and the pick of this bunch. On it they teamed up with Eno (who they were delighted to learn was already a Slowdive fan) and breathtaking songs like "Sing," "When The Sun Hits," and, above all, "Souvlaki Space Station," actually draw a map of much of what we love in contemporary electronica and avant-rock – here’s where Sigur Ros. Ulrich Schnauss and Pluramon, among many others, begin. By the time of Pygmalion (1995) they had largely been sidelined virtually out of existence by The Lads Of Britpop and reduced to their core duo of Neil Halstead and Goswell. It’s an album of quietly disturbed pre-post-rock loops, and if "Miranda" or "Trellisaze" had been credited to LaBradford they would now be venerated. The group then metamorphosed into the equally wonderful Mojave 3 (the missing link between Sigur Ros and Richard Hawley) but their Slowdive oeuvre really should not be ignored again; rather, learned from.
10. VARIOUS Stock/Aitken/Waterman Gold
Along with New Order and the Pet Shop Boys, SAW were virtually alone in keeping the British pop single alive in the mid-late ‘80s. In large part this was caused by their individual manipulations and modifications of the base matter of Hi-NRG (and, later, House) to express what they needed to express. If SAW’s work was comparatively monodimensional, this is no criticism; their narrow focus, derived in the first instance from explicitly gay dance icons like Divine and Hazell Dean, with the bridge being Dead Or Alive’s "You Spin Me Round (Like A Record)" (the latter is sort of ZTT with Leo Baxendale depping for Marinetti), kept their pop confections exquisite but pointed. Thus the still-shocking eruptions of Mel and Kim’s "Showing Out" and "Respectable," as brutalist futurist as anything Tackhead or Test Dept or Jam and Lewis produced in ‘86/7, balanced by the guilty innocence of Rick Astley and early Kylie (the beautiful "Turn It Into Love," which actually does sound like the Pet Shop Boys rewriting "Sub-Culture"), the innocently mature regret of Donna Summer (the continued implied minor key underlying "This Time I Know It’s For Real" suggests that this new dawn could yet end in darkness) and an equally brutalist proto-popism – with the Reynolds Girls’ hysterical (in all senses, and in the best way) "I’d Rather Jack (Than Fleetwood Mac)" (and for the record I should mention that I have since played this song to a member of Fleetwood Mac, who promptly burst into laughter, considered it a work of genius and wished he’d come up with the idea. I wonder if you can guess which member that was?) and, less obviously, with the gorgeously spiteful attack on Real Soul/Real Ale rockism that was SAW’s own "Roadblock" (so much so that they not only removed Jimmy Ruffin’s lead vocal from the mix but steadfastly refused to go on TOTP to promote it, just like the Clash and the Prodigy). This splendid 3CD compilation, which has proved an unexpectedly big seller, principally to thirty- and fortysomething housewives wishing to relive their teenage years of lust and Lurpak, also reminds us of semi-forgotten delights, such as the surprisingly hard house and unexpected multiple chord changes of Samantha Fox’s "Nothing’s Gonna Stop Me Now," or late flowerings like Boy Krazy’s bizarre "That’s What Love Can Do" (a full year before TLC’s "Ain’t 2 Proud 2 Beg"), Lonnie Gordon’s "Happenin’ All Over Again," maybe the best single vocal performance on any SAW record, where Gordon’s passion threatens to unbalance and dislodge the entire PWL juggernaut, and, best of all, from 1987, the full eight 12-inch minutes of Mandy Smith’s "I Just Can’t Wait (Mandy’s Theme)," where, as I said last time, Balearic Beat is invented and Mandy’s voice is a Chartres Cathedral ghost at sea, barely visible or tangible.
9. VARIOUS Run The Road Volume 2
Everyone stopped being interested in grime just as it was becoming interesting again – and, naturally, immediately started to complain that much of the best grime which came out in 2005 wasn’t actually grime at all, but British hip hop, or tarted-up garage, or made by women (the scandal!). With Run The Road Volume 1 a case could in extremis be made for the British hip hop theory (as if everyone’s memory is so short they can’t remember what a monumentally great record something like Blade’s The Lion Goes From Strength To Strength was, and is; a double album which, in 1993, said more about New Cross brutalism than the entire works of Carter USM) but with Volume 2 things were going enjoyably askew – if "enjoyable" is quite the right word to attach to something like Plan B’s "Sick 2 Def," the single most astonishing piece of music to emerge in 2005, a brutally unapologetic rap set to an acoustic guitar seemingly strummed with razor blades which told its story of death, murder, resentment, cause and effect backwards (and then ellipsing) and joined together so many strands – Bert Jansch to Johnny Cash, Nas to Dizzee, Current 93 to Shirley Collins, Derek Raymond to Charles Dickens – with such reproachful wisdom; uncomfortable as only the best art can be. My only regret is that Cash isn’t around to cover it; he would have understood where Plan B was coming from and getting at immediately. Elsewhere Mizz Beats sounded like their own fuzzy ghosts on "Saw it Comin’," Dynasty Crew’s "Bare Face Dynasty" was like the Lea Valley being scythed apart by pterodactyl bulldozers; and Lady Sovereign’s "Little Bit Of Shine (DJ Wonder Remix)" with its multiple stops-and-starts, its direct audience addresses (and winks), its fuck-you bold pile-ups of abstract and concrete noises, is almost indescribable in its Peter Sellers on Ze Records remixed by Steve Beresford wonder.
8. PATTI SMITH Horses/Horses
Already discussed in full; the 30-year-old original paired with this year’s performance at the Royal Festival Hall which managed to snap Patti out of her long-term benign coma and reminded her, and us, that we shouldn’t just feel sorry for loverboy(s).
7. THE TUBBY HAYES QUARTET Mexican Green
As with Mike Gibbs, Hayes’ posthumous reputation as The Great Mainstream British Jazzer may have worked against him. Whereas the avant-breakers who followed him – Surman, Parker, Osborne et al – are now all venerated and remembered, Hayes seems to have fallen into some disrepute, not helped by the continued unavailability of the core of his ‘60s work on record. Now Universal have reissued all six of those Fontana (as were) albums. Some work better than others; in particular the two big band sets, Tubbs’ Tours and 100% Proof, benefit from being more focused. The pick of the bunch, however, is 1967’s Mexican Green, recorded when the tenorman was becoming anxious about the progress of his own work, knowing that straight-down-the-middle hard bop couldn’t continue forever, and acutely aware of the young Surmans and Skidmores nipping at his heels. Thus he assembled a new quartet featuring pianist Mick Pyne, bassist Ron Mathewson and drummer Tony Levin, then all in their early-to-mid twenties, to freshen and free up his music – with miraculous results, for Mexican Green is one of the very greatest of British jazz records, encapsulating Hayes’ art better than any of his other recorded work. Listen to the absolute technical and emotional assurance of his tenor sax on the opening "Dear Johnny B" negotiating the slalom hairpins of the tune and its harmonies with a natural brilliance which threatens momentarily to put Coltrane in the shade, or his more ruminative playing on "Off The Wagon" ("our country and western, rock and roll, avant garde, rhythm and blues, bebop tune" as he was wont to announce it in concert – and funnily enough, it is) or "A Dedication To Joy." Deepest of all, however, is the quarter-hour title track which moves swiftly and easily between frenetic Latin rhythms and unalloyed free improvisation, and sees Hayes setting the stage for the next phase of his musical development – which, due to well-documented health reasons, sadly never really was to be - confidently culminating in Sanders/Ayler honks and squeals as the rhythm maelstrom swirls beneath and alongside him.
A personal note: I was privileged to know and work with Rose Hayes, Tubby’s widow, in the early part of my NHS career. She, too, went too soon – in 1995, aged just 58 – and had more than enough tragedy to cope with in her life, but I know would have been overjoyed to see her husband’s work come out and be appreciated and loved again.
6. MARK STEWART Kiss The Future
A shocking pink manifesto, and a stiff, stern reminder of what Mark Stewart started and what he could yet start. It also acts as a harsh parallel to the John Lydon compilation; listening anew to the Pop Group and Maffia sides reminds us that selling out was exactly what Stewart was not about, and considered observational diatribes like "Liberty City," "Dream Kitchen" and "Hysteria" cut to both Henry Mayhew and Guy Debord – immersing oneself in the shit of consumerist ruination in order to find the pearls which lurk beneath. The 12-inch of "Hypnotised" is a sort of Beckton sewage works equivalent of Arthur Russell’s "Let’s Go Swimming" in that it never quite swims where you expect it to, drifting in and out of focus and tempo. And, of course, the inescapable giant shadow which this work casts over what was to come out of Bristol subsequently, Tricky in particular. This marvellous music must not only be heard, but acted upon.
5. SCRITTI POLITTI Early
And, parallel with Stewart, simultaneously sweeter and more bitter, was the early Scritti. There’s nothing to add to what I originally wrote about this on Koons in January, so here it is again.
4. BUNNYBRAINS Box The Bunny
This may be the most staggering personal discovery I made in 2005 (but many thanks to Paul Brownell for pointing me in its direction in the first place) – four CDs, plus a DVD, of what is virtually the missing link between the ‘80s arsequake of the Butthole Surfers, Big Black and Happy Flowers, and the ‘00s brainquake of Animal Collective, Sunburned Hand Of The Man and Wolf Eyes; the complete recorded works of this not quite scrutable group from the ‘90s – noisy, confrontational, hilarious, sick, moral, atonal, hummable; Box The Bunny really is like discovering a record collection you never knew existed, and will be written about in full on CoM at some stage early next year.
3. JUDEE SILL Judee Sill/Heart Food/Dreams Come True
Yes, I know; we should have loved her more when she was with us. Sometimes I despair; what good will my words do for someone who has been gone these last 26 years? And how could you tell from the music she made? Deceptively simple songs like "Jesus Was A Cross Maker," so strong even the Hollies covered it, or deceptively complex songs like "The Donor," the latter off Heart Food, a masterpiece to rank with Joni’s Blue and Laura’s Tendaberry. You look at the pictures of Judee in these CD booklets; laughing with her dog, bespectacled, unassuming; conducting the orchestra in her denim jacket with manuscript extending over five music stands, and you simultaneously want to weep for her and strangle her for being so fucking stupid and careless with her own life. Could you tell from any of this that she was a drug addict and petty criminal who had done time and still won a scholarship to music college?
And now there’s a third album we never knew about, and it is so effortlessly joyous and life-affirming (sample titles: "That’s The Spirit," "Sunny Side Up") that the heartbreak doubles and triples. How can someone with this much life in them – end so soon, so pointlessly?
To a degree Judee Sill’s cult remains an exclusive one; these records are expensive to buy, but in important ways are priceless – once you’ve heard them, you’ll never want to trade them in. Again, this is an artist whose art demands more space than this small general summary, and Judee Sill will likewise get the full CoM treatment soon.
2. ROBERT WYATT AND FRIENDS Theatre Royal Drury Lane 8th September 1974
My second favourite record of all time – Rock Bottom – performed live and made to sound more expansive and more minimalist, harsher and more gorgeous, together with assorted reminders of what a brilliant and glorious and probably unrepeatable time this was for British music.
1. BILL FAY Bill Fay/Time Of The Last Persecution
THE BILL FAY GROUP Tomorrow, Tomorrow And Tomorrow
I was, almost until the last minute, entirely prepared to put Tomorrow, Tomorrow and Tomorrow at the head of my Top 50 New Releases list and make it my 2005 Album Of The Year, even though it was recorded a quarter of a century ago. I am also aware that there is a great temptation to exult in something I helped cause, and that is something which must be avoided at all costs. I am fully aware that I am named and quoted in Mr Fay’s own sleevenotes to his Deram (via Durtro) reissues – and maybe in a slightly admonitory way, though I like to think that in my original CoM piece I did my best to avoid the pitfalls of Syd Barrett Mk II. So making Bill Fay’s oeuvre my Reissue Of The Year may be interpreted as modest nepotism.
However, others did far more than the slight part which I played in the revival of interest in the man’s music; notably, Jim Irvin, whose Mojo review of the original 1998 See For Miles CD reissue prompted me to listen to it in the first place, and David Tibet who actually went about re-releasing them when See For Miles went bust and the CD started retailing for stupid-high prices on ebay. Nonetheless it is a joy to see this genius’ work finally receive the acclaim it has long been due. Add to that the fact that, 24-27 years on, his third album came out of the cold (twice as long as Kate Bush) seemingly at the point when it was needed, and that "Strange Stairway" set off something in me which may still lead to a (re)new(al of) life, and one ends up with something just beyond music. Here is what I wrote about Tomorrow, Tomorrow And Tomorrow on Koons back in Easter.
TOP 50 NEW RELEASES
50. KANO Home Sweet Home
Not all of it works, but at its best ("P’s & Q’s," "Typical Me") this was a bold but still raw advance on grime-goes-pop. The final orchestral tumult of "Signs In Life" cuts very deeply indeed, but the highlight is still the oldie "Boys Love Girls" which is grime as Liechtenstein might have painted it.
49. ELLEN ALLIEN Thrills
Less careerist (and less obviously present) than Goldfrapp, this German schaffel/you label it then record was a masterclass in cold cauterisation of techno; and yet, like all the best machine music, deeply human ("Washing Machine," "She Is With Me"). Deeply danceable as well.
48. FANNYPACK See You Next Tuesday
The Pussycat Dolls? Well, their untainted version of "Tainted Love/Where Did Our Love Go?" is unknowing genius in the same way as Steps’ "Tragedy" was, and Tori Alamaze really only has herself to blame for letting "Don’t ‘Cha" slip through her careless hands, but otherwise it’s those twelve eyes, they don’t smile. Whereas Fannypack didn’t even pretend to smile and hit a lot harder with hilariously propulsive pop like "Nu Nu (Yeah Yeah)," "Seven One Eight" and the quite brilliant Sousa-meets-DAF-meets-Pulsallama mash-up that is "Twisted."
47. VAN DER GRAAF GENERATOR Present
Forget the Gang of Four’s walk-of-shame reunion; the venerable VDGG regrouped this year after some three decades away, blew everyone apart at the Royal Festival Hall and recorded this superb double album (one half songs, one half improv) which somehow manages to be both the prequel and sequel to Metal Box. Brilliant, unhinged, vivid and what the fuck did the cardiologists put in Peter Hammill’s arteries? Note to Lydon: "Nutter Alert" and "Abandon Ship!" – just like 30 years ago, this is what you’ve got to beat.
46. THE BOY LEAST LIKELY TO The Best Party Ever
To what base ends have we come when James Blunt’s preferred support band make it into the CoM Top 50? But this was a rare display of good taste on the Thatcherite squaddie crumpet’s part; the duo’s take on C86 tropes roams down engagingly unpredictable alleys, and a place in this list is guaranteed to anyone who’ll name a song after a Bill Bryson quote ("Warm Panda Cola").
45. CHARLIE HADEN/LIBERATION MUSIC ORCHESTRA Not In Our Name
Charlie Haden and Carla Bley hold aloft the red and black banner, just as they did on the cover of their 1969 original; but now the faces are grimmer, older and more defiant, and the music infinitely sadder. This is the real sequel to the first album; 1982’s Ballad Of The Fallen had its moments but was squashed by general reticence and that damnable neutralising ECM production aura. Most of the players here are new names, with the Puerto Rican altoist Miguel Zenon proving an exceptional talent, but the real joy is in Haden’s humanity and Bley’s inimitable orchestrations; those brass voicings throughout the extended "America The Beautiful (Medley)" (the album’s only scrape with free jazz) which she and only she can produce, and her genius in making gold out of unpromising raw material; turning "Amazing Grace" into a graceful R&B waltz, or Dvorak’s New World Symphony into an Ellingtonian elegie, the subtly increasing rage throughout Bill Frisell’s composition "Throughout," and the grim, stately finale of Barber’s Adagio, scored for Bley brass, whose final sustained trombone sob (Curtis Fowlkes) acts as a shockingly sober counterpart to the exuberance of Roswell Rudd on the original’s closer "We Shall Overcome." And Charlie will not be the last Haden to appear in this list.
44. NEW ORDER Waiting For The Sirens’ Call
The cover says a big "No" but the music says a bigger "Yes." There was a lovely moment in spring this year, while driving through the Lake District, listening to "Krafty," and that divine chord change which only New Order can manage emerged just as the mountains took on a hue of sunset red, and I knew that yet again the bastards had hit the mark. New Order may very well go on forever, and great songs like "Jetstream" (hey! they can even make the Scissor Sisters listenable!) and "Dracula’s Castle" (who else, eh? I ask you, who else?) prove that they should do so.
43. LANSING-DREIDEN The Incomplete Triangle
A genuinely unexpected take on Ye Olde Rocke; I have no idea who or why Lansing-Dreiden are – this album’s twelve tracks are identified only by Roman numerals and there is no further information apart from their website address – but this seemed to me a fresh and invigorating example of what adventurous guitar-based music can still produce when it’s got a mind (to it). Rather like AR Kane’s "When You’re Sad" if they’d been American and Butch Vig had been their producer.
42. CHARLOTTE CHURCH Tissues And Issues
She reminds me a lot of Lulu, actually – those same mischievous fuck-you (if you’d like) Celtic eyes, the same cheerful disregard for anything other than the joys of living now and for now, the same depth-charged voice (see: "you’d be my favourite thing," "whatever you may do"). And although there was a little too much of the hedge-our-bets R&B balladry on what could fairly be termed the first "Church Of Me" album, the best pop here was uncanny – the handclaps of the first six seconds of "Crazy Chick" are enough to make it one of 2005’s singles of the year, "Casualty Of Love" deals with the opera/pop interface in a non-cringeworthy way, "Call My Name" is wonderfully dirty Welsh Beyoncé. Best of all, however, are the extraordinary Eurodisco in hell of "Let’s Be Alone" (Guy Chambers, we never knew you had it in you!) and the quietly chilling closer "Confessional Song" whose Church-penned lyric of pained daily minutiae wouldn’t have been out of place on the Manics’ The Holy Bible ("Got myself a little dog/She’s eighteen weeks old now/Guess she’s just a substitute/But I don’t know what for"). Not to mention "I need professional help."
41. CAGEDBABY Will See You Now
I was put off listening to this album for six full months because of its cover (though I am assured it is a genuine 1970-vintage festival photograph), which was obviously my loss because this is a rather lovely abstract dance record, like a more in focus Boards Of Canada or a Brit Casino Versus Japan, in direct contrast to its lyrics ("I’ve a story to tell of Scriptures in Hell").
40. GORILLAZ Demon Days
This Damon Albarn, he wanders the world but doesn’t make a big thing out of it. He inspects Syrian Farfisa organs tuned to Arabic scales, or penetrates Chinese mountain range villages to make field recordings of people blowing into leaves or sounding car horns. And all of this seeps back, subtly, into the music he then makes. I suspect that Albarn is shaping up to be a very significant figure in music, but increasingly he seems best able to demonstrate this as a non-present cartoon frontman rather than a flesh-and-blood one. The last Blur record, Think Tank, was a morose and uninspiring thing; whereas on Demon Days, though the emotions are hardly brighter ("Every Planet We Reach Is Dead"), the effect is curiously more uplifting. Strange random figures are picked up along the way – Neneh Cherry, Roots Manuva, De La Soul, Dennis Hopper, Ike Turner – and become mere passengers. But then Gorillaz help to give Shaun Ryder his first number one single after 21 years of trying, and "Dare" is duly great, Ryder both celebrating and undermining the song. Meanwhile, "Feel Good Inc." undemonstrably demonstrates Albarn’s knowledge of what time it is, while the whispering stark car parks of "Kids With Guns" instantly obviate the need for Hard-Fi. I have a feeling that this record should have been placed much higher in this list.
39. THE RESIDENTS Animal Lover
…who have been exploring the same (if parallel) stark car parks as Gorillaz (complete with the absence of faces) for most of my life, and Animal Lover is as reassuringly bleak as any of their work, journeying from the diurnal dismay of "On The Way (to Oklahoma)" and ending with the not-hushed "Burn My Bones" ("And leave the ashes in the snow" – the sort of song the Arcade Fire might produce in 20 years’ time).
38. KID CARPET Ideas And Oh Dears
This year’s Curser Minor geek-savant-makes-great-pop record, full of agreeably warped songs like "Green And Pleasant Land" and "Hip Hip Hooray" interspersed with mentalist cut-ups ("Nelson Street Space Invaders"). A pity that no room could be found for his reading of "Jump" from last year’s excellent Shit Dope EP, for the benefit of those who think Paul Anka is hip, or something.
37. BORIS Boris At Last – Feedbacker
My feeling about much Japanese noise music is that it will eventually turn out like The Wizard Of Oz – drop the cloaks and the fake mystique and you will find a wizened little squirt in the chair, reading Catherine Cookson. Maybe you’d find Paul Anka. But Boris are one of the bands who occasionally justify the hype. Feedbacker is just one track, 43 minutes long, which runs the expected gamut from quiet to FUCK, but it does so with expertise and emotion, thereby making it a curious, if opposite, bedfellow to the album at #23 in this list.
36. ARIEL PINK’S HAUNTED GRAFFITI Worn Copy
I’m still not quite convinced about this lo-fi avant-pop business either, many of which records sound like resumes to be submitted to David Fridmann for consideration of producing (i.e. Substitutes For Actual Real Pop), but the Trepanated Earth man Ariel Pink still seems to be on the right track. Best to treat songs (or fragments of songs) such as "Life In L.A." or "Oblivious Peninsula" as a hungrier, broker Warren Zevon, yet to start smoking.
35. MALCOLM MIDDLETON Into The Woods
One of the best and cheeriest examples of good old post-rock indie like they used to make came from this second solo album by the Arab Strap guitarist, which found him in a (naturally) jauntier mood than is the norm with Aidan Moffat. The opening trio of "Break My Heart," "Devastation" and "Loneliness Shines," despite their titles, might be the most propulsive start to a guitar record since Matthew Sweet’s Altered Beast.
34. PRINCESS SUPERSTAR My Machine
Now if only Madonna had come back with an album like this! "Quitting Smoking Song," "Sex, Drugs & Drugs," "I’m So Out Of Control," "World Council Entertainment Dictatorship" – sexy, provocative, funny, and, in the wondrous title track, profound about disposable (Rachel Stevens, do a cover).
33. BOARDS OF CANADA The Campfire Headphase
32. LAWRENCE The Night Will Last Forever
Boards of Canada are one of those few groups (New Order are another) who I frankly want to make the same record over and over again, in the same way that I want to stay with the same woman forever. There are some guitars on The Campfire Headphase, and perhaps a greater air of ending (the undying long fade of "Farewell Fire"), and the ‘70s American TV/Punchstock images are more sharply defined (in that you can now see some faces) but otherwise their journey continues uninterrupted; I could swim in the placid pining of "Peacock Tail" or "Oscar See Through Red Eye" for an element of eternity.
Germany’s Peter M Kersten, a.k.a. Lawrence, however, takes it a little further. This is more troubled melodic techno from the same mould as Selected Ambient Works Vol 2 and Global Communications, but with a more palpable uncertainty (titles include "Lost Images," "Happy Sometimes," "Leave Me Tomorrow") and a surprisingly sharp and bitonal electric piano commenting throughout. The melodies are for dying in.
31. GOGOL BORDELLO Gypsy Punks: Underdog World Strike
We have been here before, at least those of us who remember Ivo Papasov and/or Les Negresses Vertes. But I saw the Eastern Bloc-via-NYC collective Gogol Bordello live at the ICA last week and they have something of the Lorca duende about them. They do the percussion procession throughout the audience, like the Stones to the Arcade Fire’s Beatles, and their tunes are splendid, as evinced by this Steve Albini-recorded second album of theirs whose highlight occurs with the unbelievably louche "Start Wearing Purple," another of 2005’s finest singles and the Christmas number one which should have been.
30. SING SING Sing Sing And I
Emma Anderson was always responsible for most of the loveliness in the otherwise overrated Lush, and, unhindered, continues to produce wonderful, ethereally rancorous pop (with Lisa O’Neill) in the duo Sing Sing. "Going Out Tonight," as previously noted, is one of the songs of the year; a lament for a disastrous night out which could have fitted into either the Shortwave Set album or the Girls Aloud album equally.
29. EVAN PARKER Evan Parker With Birds
For those curious about the apposite reference in my piece on Aerial, here is yet another Koons reprint to make the story deeper.
28. BROADCAST Tender Buttons
Now down to a duo, Broadcast responded by making some of the most urgent music of their career; less bloodied perhaps than its predecessor, Haha Sound, but songs like "Corporeal" and "Michael A Grammar" show the old strength and subversion undiminished.
27. KING BRITT Presents Sister Gertrude Morgan
It should be a nightmare. Recordings from the veteran preacher made in 1969 at Preservation Hall, New Orleans, remixed and newly soundtracked. Think Moby or Little Axe. But King Britt, as expected, brings dynamism and power (and indeed the album’s highlight, "Power (Voodoo Version)," comes awfully close to the truly demonic) to his music, making it an unanticipated monument to a city which, subsequent to this album’s recording, has become lost; a document of a way of living perilously close to extinction.
26. GO-KART MOZART Tearing Up The Album Chart
The second Lawrence to appear in this list with his second Go-Kart Mozart album, a mere six years after the first one ("I still want to be a star/But I just sold my guitar/And you know the way things are…"), and still gloriously warped Glitterpop with cheery tunes like "Listening To Marmalade," "At The DDU" and "Donna & The Dopefiends." This album is more or less why the Kaiser Chiefs album is, more or less, not here. And the second Birmingham entry in three albums!
25. LADYTRON Witching Hour
Three Top 45 singles and one Top 130 album placing shall not wither Ladytron as they deliver their most brutal dose of Newer Pop yet. Songs like "Destroy Everything You Touch" and "Sugar" are like Xenomania going Neubauten.
24. ANTONY AND THE JOHNSONS I Am A Bird Now
I don’t feel quite as strongly about this as I did when it came out; the guest cameos become wearisome after a while, and as an album it doesn’t hang together as well as the previous eponymous one. But in terms of unconfined emotion and dragging life back from the jaws of death, performances like "Hope There’s Someone" and "Man Is The Boy" are among this year’s most profound. Boy George’s cameo on "You Are My Sister" is touching mainly because his voice is shot to fuck, and Rufus Wainwright’s appearance on "What Can I Do?" is quietly shattering. More about the latter anon.
23. MEW Mew And The Glass Handed Kites
The Good Cop to #37’s Bad; a seamless, hour-long, 14-track melange of preposterously brilliant epic prog-pop which recalls the path A-Ha should have taken – and it all ends with a drum solo and a tacit sobbing voice, alone: "Please don’t leave me." The song and album climax "White Lips Kissed" is a contender for the year’s best ballad.
22. ROBYN Robyn
Apparently the same Robyn S who, in another life, once sang "Show Me Love," this was one of the most remarkable female pop records of recent times, ranging from genuinely tortured ballads ("Crash And Burn Girl," "Should Have Known") to the semi-amused/semi-outraged resignation of "Bum Like You" and the what-the-fuckness of "Konichiwa Bitches" which shows Gwen Stefani what time it really is. Deserves a proper, full-blown, major album release, which you know deep in your hearts it’s never going to get.
21. ROOTS MANUVA Awfully Deep
20. LETHAL BIZZLE Against All Oddz
The old brushes the palms of the new in urban black British music. Roots Manuva returned with his third album in twice as many years and, with wittily stabbing songs such as "Too Cold" and "The Falling," unexpectedly transported us back to the 1995 of Earthling with possibly the best trip hop record of the intervening decade; all vibes and unearthly darkness. Whereas Lethal Bizzle took some of the scarred cheek of the younger Manuva to power his own musings on life, sex and death. "Slow" with Kele La Roc is the most distended, woozy urban ballad for some considerable time, and the fragment of "No!" convinces us that the upcoming second More Fire Crew album is going to be something extraordinary indeed.
19. POLAR BEAR Held On The Tips Of Fingers
Included here in preference to its other half, Acoustic Ladyland’s Last Chance Disco, which latter is a little too cute for its own good, with its "Nico" and "Iggy" as though John Zorn’s Naked City never happened, but this is the first evidence of something genuinely new happening from within the bowels of the f-IRE Collective. Much of this is down to the presence of Leafcutter John on electronica, who performs the same "direct inject anti-jazz ray gun" function which Eno sometimes still provides on Robert Wyatt records; but the record and the group go beyond "jazz" and tap an ancient and long-misused source of pre-prog pastoralism. The closing "Life That Ends Too Soon" could be used to draw the curtains on an old life.
18. SAINT ETIENNE Tales From Turnpike House
A serious underperformer commercially at the time of its release, and the accompanying children’s album intended for autumn release seems to have been indefinitely delayed/junked, despite the involvement of Xenomania, David Essex, Anthony Rivers senior and junior, and an ex-ELO cellist. All more the pity, for TFTH now comes across as a lighter, urban equivalent of Aerial; the same day-in-our-lives scenario, the same unlikely cameos, the same children-orientated second album, "The Birdman Of EC1" if you will, "Milk Bottle Symphony," but the night ends with the death of "Teenage Winter" rather than the ecstasy of "Nocturn." I say "lighter" but after 7/7 it is difficult to listen to this record and not hear it as a requiem for something intangible but deep which was wiped out. The following piece was written a couple of weeks before the bombings, and has appeared on at least two message boards, but I make no apology for republishing it in this, its natural home.
They've done it again.
Wrong-footed me. Dared me to shrug my shoulders at the top of this thread.
And then I listened to the thing, on my Discman, on a 31-degrees-in-the-shade Saturday, walking from Oxford Street to Chalk Farm.
The benign abandonment of these sunny, empty streets in the Bloomsbury/Euston/Regent's Park triangle.
The only shop open in Great Titchfield Street was - you guessed it - a tanning salon (not, alas, the Tropicana Tanning Salon).
In a semi-derelict newsagents just off Wells Street to buy a much-needed bottle of water, the elderly proprietor invites me to admire her nice young terrier.
Round the nexus of the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital. Blocks of flats which look like displaced houses from the road which ran parallel to the Thwaites brewery. A white-haired, tanned, pullovered fiftysomething wanders past me with a watering can. He is probably extremely well-known, but I don't stop to look at him.
Jumping over the end of Cleveland Street, the Tower looking down upon me ruefully, and not quite protectively.
Even the main traffic lights on Euston Road appear to change in super-slow motion on a day as liquid as this.
Down the shadowed side of Osnaburgh Street, across from the former insurance office where Laura briefly worked too many years ago, below the windows of the flat where once Kenneth Williams lived; a smaller and pokier place than you'd expect. Two dusty front windows, only one open. Everything in this street appears to be on the brink of turning into dust - disused factories, Houses which don't seem to House anyone -
"throws a gown over every place I've been
And every little dream"
The long, peopleless procedural that is Albany Street. Almost peopleless, at any rate. A group of backpacking students stop at a pub, and realise dolefully that it's not open yet. "Don't worry," says one, "there's another one just up the road that's definitely open." And indeed there is - the Cafe of Good Hope. Across the street from where Henry Mayhew once lived.
The communality of the poor. Everybody talks about the enclosed individual prisons of London. No one ventures outside their room, talks to anyone else, etc.
"I walk these side streets alone"
But you wouldn't know it from round about Robert Street. There's an estate there, not quite the Regent's Park Estate from whence sprang Flowered Up and where the components of Militant Esthetix continue to dwell. People amble out, smiling, talking to each other, passing cordial greetings, eyeing me with suspicion. Should I be here?
"She knows this has to end"
It's easy to feel out of place. I rest my legs at a bus stop. Two people join me; a crew-cut twentysomething in shorts and iPod, swaying his arms and tapping his feet, enraptured, glancing around to see if anyone else can feel it, but I can't even hear what he's listening to. To my left, a distinguished-looking, grey-haired, bespectacled fiftysomething, possibly an Independent leader writer, looking benign rather than bemused.
The church at Redhill Street whose clock seems to have long stopped. The nearly luminous redbrick which runs in the little side street behind it, but which proves to lead to nothing except the sectioned-off wall of a school playground. I make my way back to the main drag, and a black woman looks at me exceptionally dubiously.
The shops here are standard, but perhaps all that is needed. A Post Office which at 11:45 in the morning is already closed. A dry cleaners. A betting shop. A tanning salon (and no baker). A piano shop. Why the piano shops in out-of-the-way locations? I recall Courtney Pianos in Botley Road, across the street from where once we lived. The idea was that once we got a proper house we'd get in a piano (there wasn't enough room for one in the flat) and I'd teach Laura to play it.
Further down, past more closed-down depots and warehouses, along whose walls I walk directly as the shade does not penetrate more than a couple of inches beyond them, the street becomes distinctly more rural (you could almost be walking down a street in Harrogate, or Blantyre) and delicately more opulent. To my left, the complex of backs-to-the-street Cumberland Terrace pied-a-terres wherein '70s rock stars hang their spurs during the week. To my right, past the TA barracks, I suddenly see Cherry Tree Lane from Mary Poppins, identical in every detail and blossom. Park Village West - what is this elysium doing on the outskirts of Camden? And such transcendence is not limited to those of affluent means; back in the estate, there was a block called Kelso House. Through the entrance portal I can view an unbelievably light and colourful bouquet of garden and enchantment. Also closed off to me.
"We need some space"
"I said I'd miss my mates"
I'm now at the top of Albany Street, at the junction where the outflow from Camden meets the back end of London Zoo.
"Let's build a zoo!...Here they come! Two by two by two by two..."
I opt not to suffocate in the drowning human traffic of Camden proper so make my way down Gloucester Avenue, past the LMC, before emerging at Chalk Farm, en route to one of the most magical days I can remember having for a long, long time.
"Stars above us/Cars below us/Nothing can touch us, baby"
Tales From Turnpike House is about escape. The Stars are regularly referenced in contrast to the "grey" (and recall the grey-on-white-on-grey design of the Finisterre sleeve; what was that about "I love to get lost in the city" and how did that end up as "Slow down at the Castle?").
(in Ryman's 253, remember, the fatal tube crash occurs at the Elephant and Castle - the End of the Line. Beyond that, it's the multiple Congo deltas of Old Kent, Walworth, Camberwell, every man for himself)
It's about a day in a dozen lives; A Grand Don't Come For Free multiplied by side one of 'Til The Band Comes In with a libretto by Georges Perec and scored by - well, scored by the Rivers (the absence of rivers is tangible in the record's story).
There isn't much unalloyed joy in TFTH; the nearest thing to an uplifting song being the hopelessly hopeful "Sun In The Morning," and even the temporary rooftop relief of "Stars Above Us" is tempered by the knowledge that, 14 years after "Nothing Can Stop Us," the reassuring reflex is now "nothing can touch us." The fear of being touched ("Side Streets" is remarkable; music by Tom Jobim, lyrical plot by "Robert De Niro's Waiting." The not-particularly-hidden deathwish of "Maybe I'll get it tomorrow") means that no one can touch you; or, like Gary Stead, you end up drinking yourself into - more drinks. He'll lambast his long-suffering partner or the "Aussie bar staff" playing the Red Hot Chili Peppers, but he invariably ends up buying another round at the Hatton Fan.
The remarkable way in which the rhythm template from "My Heartbeat" is used as a springboard for other diversionary/introductory tactics on "Milk Bottle Symphony." The echoing fade of "away" into non-human static on "Slow Down At The Castle." The perversity of "A Good Thing" being far more Xenomania-sounding than the two Xenomania-assisted songs (but how Xenomania-like was "Shower Scene" from Finisterre?) and piercing something vital with Cracknell's "it's all for nothing" refrain.
The way in which the frustrated vaudeville waltz of "Relocate" suddenly atomises into an abstract Julian Opie landscape straight off the bluer corners of Sound Of Water halfway through, and how apt it is that David Essex now sounds more like Bowie than ever ("Sounds like a load of balls!").
The heartbreaking instrumental fragment of "The Birdman Of EC1" which appears to have flown off somewhere between the Cocteau Twins' "Beatrix" and Plaid's "Eyen."
And "Teenage Winter" - my God, what a song, what a closedown, what a last-bit-of-Escalator Over The Hill gone pop, where all the disparate voices return for their reluctant curtain calls as the stage collapses around them - nothing's what it used to be, that two copies of "Every Loser Wins" don't add up to a winner, that a Subbuteo '81/2 catalogue in the drawer ISN'T A SUBSTITUTE - and we realise horribly what growing up actually means; not so much the halycon grief of Pet Sounds, but "mums with pushchairs outside Sainsbury's with tears in their eyes."
But at least the mums with pushchairs can still connect on even an elementary level; the narrator of "Sun In The Morning" returns for a grief-stricken "Goodnight" as Tony Rivers' "Our Prayer" harmonies seem to indicate that there won't be another morning. Another potentially perfect day lost. No reassurance. Park your bike in the alley.
And yet there is an escape route. Or perhaps it's a dream within a dream in the same way as that central demo section of the third Bill Fay album. I don't know whether I would have reacted to TFTH in as passionate a way as I have if there hadn't been Up The Wooden Hill, a quarter-hour taster for an upcoming "children's record." Because in these 15 or so minutes exists the life and spirit more or less absent from the main album's story. "You Can Count On Me" is Chinn and Chapman reshaping Cornelius' "Count Five Or Six." "Barnyard Brouhaha" dares to be one nanoinch's breath away from "Crazy Frog." "Let's Build A Zoo" and "Excitation" together give us perhaps the sexiest vocal performances of Cracknell's career - here she's happy, mischievous, provocative; Deee-Lite x Mud + Sweet Exorcist (and get that "suffragette" line in "Excitation"! For kids, did they say?).
But then there's something else. The hidden ending to the album proper. David Essex returns in "Bedfordshire" presumably having been convinced to move to the country. With his hitherto unheard son, he ventures to take him on a walk, and there's an immensely poignant acoustic reverie (not that far from Van Morrison's "Coney Island," really) which sounds as though the cynical old geezer has rediscovered life via his child ("It's green 'cos - that's the colour of Thunderbird 2!" "You're right, son! You're absolutely right!"). Here, we are moved away from the easy associatives of old Small Faces album tracks (but here's another reason for my passion - calling songs "Up The Wooden Hill To Bedfordshire" or "Night Owl" means you're inadvertently referencing The Songs Of Our Lives) towards something more affecting. But more real? At the end, Essex turns towards his child, towards us, and informs us that "If you close your eyes, you can see anything you like." So they may well still be in Turnpike House. But they have managed to realise the wonder of what's on their doorstep. Maybe.
But "Night Owl" returns us to the grief of "Goodnight" - Cracknell sitting alone, downstairs, at midnight, paranoid about the creak on the stairs (it's the same protagonist as "Side Streets"), wondering what she could have done to make her life better. A children's album? Only in the same way that side two of Tiger Bay was a children's album. The urge to return to childhood. The fear of now. The fear of death, violent or natural.
On the bus home, some considerable time later, there is a young girl sitting at the front of the top deck of the bus. As the bus crosses Waterloo Bridge she gives an involuntary gasp of shock and wonder. It was obviously the first time she'd seen the view. What Saint Etienne tell us is that we all gave that gasp at some stage in our lives - in my case, when I was no more than five or six - and that the challenge is to recapture that gasp and make it work for you, so that your existence can be (re)turned into (a) life.
17. RACHEL STEVENS Come And Get It
A shiny yellow New Pop Mk II masterpiece which would have ranked considerably higher had its artist, and her record company, believed in it a little more. But then, what can you do, when even a record as assuredly avant-garde as Chemistry can’t get beyond number eleven in the album chart, bonus Christmas album or not?
16. RUFUS WAINWRIGHT Want Two
Whereas there was absolutely no question about Rufus not believing in his music, but once again this is what I said about Want Two some months past, and the intervening time has done nothing to diminish its immense emotional power and artistic adventure.
15. VASHTI BUNYAN Lookaftering
It now occurs to me that, growing up in the Glasgow of the 1970s, Vashti Bunyan must have been living but a few miles away from me, plying whatever trades she was plying to get by. Not that anyone really knew anything about her until Just Another Diamond Day, her 1970 odyssey of leaving London for Scotland in a caravan, was republished in 2000 and people began listening to it. Thus was she gradually persuaded to give music a second try, and thus do we now have Lookaftering, her first album in 35 years, having spent the intervening period raising her children. Sound familiar, except at thrice the length?
There has been talk that Bunyan was unhappy about the Banharts and Newsoms of this world being on the record – in interviews she has diplomatically commented that some of the choices of musicians were those of the record company – but thankfully they keep their mouths shut and provide full service to the music. And what music. Such a fragile voice, such a surely not-approaching-60-years-old voice, such a 25-years-before-Sinead-O’Connor voice. And songs so fragile they could snap on the turn of a whisper. Typically the profoundest moments are aided by the only returnee from the Diamond Day sessions – arranger Robert Kirby, who on the spellbinding "Turning Backs" and "Feet Of Clay" gets to the heart of Vashti, and therefore to our hearts.
"But if your love should cross with mine
I will be here on your side
So long as you want me to be
I’ll not be going far or wide."
14. SUGABABES Taller In More Ways
A very real return to form after 2003’s dull Three, exemplified by the fact that there’s a song entitled "Joy Division" which sounds like a car-crash between 1981 On-U Sound and "I Am The Walrus"; one of 2005’s purest pop songs (and its best video) "Push The Button," a song Alma Cogan could have sung fifty years ago but which sounds like it was recorded next week; "Red Dress" with its gleeful fusion of 23 Skidoo and the Sooty-Braden Show Band; the gasping ballad "Better" with its yodelling "I’m drowning " section recalling Frank Ifield doing Beckett; and the epic closer "Two Hearts," overseen by the Godlike Cameron McVey with its too-close drumming, its steadily escalating emotions and its final string section curlicue. Three places above Rachel because they believed in it, and we can in turn believe in them.
13. FREE BASE The Ins And Outs
The best free jazz rave-up of 2005 with the unbeatable trio of saxophonist Alan Wilkinson, bassist Marcio Mattos and drummer Steve Noble – a collective age not far short of 150, but sounding about twelve years old as they thrash, honk, howl and caress in expert 1969 John Surman fashion. Highlight: the thirteen-minute carve-up that is "Absolute Xero," presumably with the late and much missed Mr Slingsby in mind.
12. VITALIC OK Cowboy
Really this record should have gone in the compilations/reissues list, since Laura was still with us/me when "La Rock 01" was first out, but this is the template for much of the great pop which has passed since; maximalist schaffel which, like all great pop, arose out of an accident; Pascal Arbez-Nicholas wanted to be Giorgio Moroder, didn’t quite manage it and therefore accidentally achieved something else.
11. NINE HORSES Snow Bound Sorrow
David Sylvian’s most "accessible" pop record probably since the days of Secrets Of The Beehive; not a retreat from the icy world of Blemish (which latter, remember, ends with the sun coming out) but a benign reminder that he can come close to us if he so wishes. Nine immaculate musings (or should that be nine immaculate curettings?), therefore, on war, death, sex and love, not in that order, sometimes oscillating between the ominous and reassuring (the title track), more often proceeding through virtuous post-Jon Hassell balladry (trumpeter Arve Henriksen Sylvian’s virtual instrumental alter ego here), but with observations like "The Banality Of Evil," cutting continents deeper than a thousand limp biscuits ever could hope.
10. JOHN HOWARD The Dangerous Hours
Never mind James Blunt; here is the record which should have shifted 360,000 copies this year alone, the best album of learned pop balladry performed by a fifty-something bespectacled gay man. So one could also say, never mind Elton John. Certainly Howard’s vocal power is astonishingly undiminished from the days of Kid In A Big World, and on this collaboration with author and poet Robert Cochrane he relishes the opportunity, not only to sing terrific songs like "And Even Now" and "Maintaining The Anger" with gusto and PROPER passion, but to maximalise his musical resources (all songs are performed by Howard alone, on vocals and multiple keyboards) such that the whole thing sounds like a drumlessTrevor Horn album, with choirs of Fairlights and cascading vibes. Highlight: the gorgeously grievous "Blame The Night" which fittingly ends with hope:
"Come the dawn
That feeling in my heart
Your hand in mine
The future’s in a kiss
Aware of time to share another’s life
Grateful that today
Brings the smile of someone new."
9. RICHARD HAWLEY Coles Corner
Subtract a little sparkle from John Howard, add a little grit, a pinch of Morrissey, and you have the equally astonishing third album by Richard Hawley; a cross between Nick Lowe’s Dig My Mood and Julee Cruise’s Floating Into The Night with his not-quite-confident baritone (lushly desolate in the string-laden title track) – an afterlife rock ‘n’ roll incorporating rewrites of "Sleep Walk" ("Hotel Room," an ode to a bottle of scotch, "’Cos you’re here in my arms…"), stunningly poignant balladry which truly would not have shamed Roy Orbison ("Darling Wait For Me"), "Born Under A Bad Sign," the sort of song Morrissey should be singing more often these days – but all the while the fantasia slips out of his hands, and the cold rationalism of his native Sheffield reasserts itself – in the chilling "Tonight," the devastating penultimate solo acoustic reading of the old traditional folk song "Who’s Gonna Shoe Your Pretty Little Feet" with which the world could be closed down, and finally, with "Last Orders" a drift into Eno ambient territory, amorphous/distorted piano chords, dying forever.
8. BROOKE VALENTINE Chain Letter
Practically the only bright spot in what was otherwise the worst year for nu-R&B ever, Chain Letter is cheeky, fractious ("Blah Blah Blah" far outdoing "Sweet Dreams My LA Ex"), and even the ballads are integrated into the album as a whole and carry the necessary poison; if performance Oscars were to be given out, Brooke’s gradual volte-face from sorrow to rage on "I Want You Dead" would get Best Actress.
7. PETRA HADEN Petra Haden Sings: The Who Sell Out
And she sings it herself, all of it, all its parts, multitracked, like the avant-pop opera Stockhausen has perhaps always been too scared to write. Among its many assets are the fact that Haden’s harmonies bring out the essential Brian Wilson influence prevalent in Townshend’s work of the time (and only at that time), thus the likes of "Tattoo" and "Our Love Was" end up even more poignant than the originals. "Silas Stingy" is now made an object of pity and compassion rather than a laughing stock, and "I Can See For Miles" in a Flying Pickets sing Stimmung kind of way joins so many dots that it flattens me, pleasurably.
Most poignant of all, of course, is that Haden was asked to record this album by producer Mike Watt as a tribute to his fellow Minuteman, D Boon, who loved the original Who album and who was tragically killed in a car crash 20 years ago. So once again there is the remembering, and Haden does it as adventurously and poignantly as her dad (see #45).
6. GIRLS ALOUD Chemistry
It looks as if once again, just like the last time, New Pop had a second wind and the world looked it in the eye and said "No." For Chemistry, the apex, the peak of New Pop Mk II, only entered the album chart at #11 (as Simon Mayo ominously commented on Radio 2 last Monday, "possibly not high enough") in the same week that Will Young’s not-at-all-bad third album plummeted from 2 to 20 in its second week of release. No, they want the "real" again, James Blunt and his striptease, Dido and her please don’t hit me tease, the Kaiser Chiefs ‘cos they’re right about the taxis and the condoms aren’t they and thank God they elected Cameron now we’ve got a chance again. Is Real Ale always destined to win? Then again, at the beginning of the album Girls Aloud do warn us that they’re not going to tell you their names. My feelings are nameless.
5. THE ARCADE FIRE Funeral
But then again, just because everybody says that’s the way it is doesn’t automatically mean that it ain’t that way. Just because everyone has raved about the Arcade Fire and Funeral doesn’t mean they’re not justified in doing so. We have to be so careful, all the time. All I know is that three people to whom I spontaneously played Funeral burst into tears when "In The Backseat" came on; that there is an opportunity here for genuine goodness to go hand in hand with greatness, or that this may be the only opportunity they get. Plus they are Canadian, which in my world as it stands currently counts for everything. Here is the final reprint (for now) from Koons. At the moment they have everything to lose except their lives, and they helped other lives to live again, including mine.
4. BRIAN ENO Another Day On Earth
I have no way of knowing how different this record, Eno’s first record of songs for 28 years, would have sounded, or how differently I would have responded to it, without 7/7; now it sounds like a long ceremony of consolatory hymns, of the kind of soothing which doesn’t nullify, sung largely in that indestructible English voice of his, and I have found listening to it a deeply moving experience, like sitting in York Minster on the first Sunday of December. And why doesn’t Eno nullify? Because in the album’s last track – "Bonebomb" – he escorts us back, shockingly, to the present, cutting up Aylie Cooke’s voice as she prepares to cut up the world, all soundtracked to a guitar which might as well have been Mike Oldfield in 1974. Therein resides genius.
3. THE BOOKS Lost And Safe
Was this the most radical record of 2005? Either this or any of those Ghost Box packages, which I suspect represent the next step in wherever we are going. But, again, so unassuming in its radicalism, its deployment of samples, its subtly distorting voices and acoustic guitars. I listen to "Twelve Fold Chain" as some people might once have listened to Elvis singing "Blue Moon" in the Sun Studios. "This is the birth/That everyone is always talking about/The one assumed but not remembered." As with the subsequent two records, this is genuinely something I have never heard before. This sounds like a future.
2. THE SHORTWAVE SET The Debt Collection
And this sounds like the past being lovingly recycled to justify the future. Top of my list until the very last lap, I was almost disappointed that the Shortwave Set turned out to be three people from Deptford rather than John Carter, Tony Burrowes and Barbara Ruskin, but this album is something very special – Millican and Nesbitt’s piano refrain from a generation ago ("There’s Nothing To Say" indeed) reappearing in ever ghostlier mutations throughout the album like a leitmotif. However, the crucial difference between this and all other charity shop pop is that the songs came first, and then the notion of samples to accompany or underline them. Thus the cautiously exuberant "Is It Any Wonder" is above anything else a great SONG, worthy of the Family Dogg circa 1969; and ditto for "Repeat To Fade," "Head To Fill" and so on. It all reaches resolution with the shattering "In Your Debt" – and look, it starts with birdsong. And they can’t bring themselves to end the song. That orchestral sample refuses to die. So they start playing the melody over it again and then layer the Tomita sample on top and it is so beautiful you want to live, not die, and then it ends in vinyl crackles supplanting the birdsong and then one guitar chord (again, like a scythe) and she tries to sing "Yr Room" straight faced but keeps corpsing and apologises that she can’t see it through, and of course it is a million times more moving than if she had sung it straight and is that scream a cry or a laugh and am I laughing what do you think oh yes yes yes
THE CHURCH OF ME ALBUM OF 2005
1. KATE BUSH Aerial
As if there could be another. She came back, so I came back, but you were there just ahead of her, so I came back for you, yes you see this is all intended for you, written only for you, and someday soon I will whisper these words to you to save you reading them but then one needs to keep a record.
(The Church Of You returns after the New Year)
. . .
One True Thought
The Midnight Bell Radio Free Narnia
Every Topic In The Universe(s?)
Worlds Of Possibility
Said The Gramophone
Eine Kleine Nicht Musik
Saving The World
Close Your Eyes
The Clothed Maja
Subject A Obliterates
The Original Soundtrack
Oh Manchester, So Much To Answer For
The War Against Silence
The Pill Box
The Minor Fall, The Major Lift
The London News Review ACME Music Blog
Notes from the Dovecote
The Tofu Hut
They Acted Like Dogs
Last Plane To Jakarta
Chantelle Fiddy's World Of Grime
Circus Of Fools
Farmer In The City
New Front Ears
Music For Torching
I Feel Love
Talent in a Previous Life
Blackie Lawless Fanclub
It's All In The Mind
Erase The World
The Number One Songs In Heaven
It's A Wonderful Life
Clap Clap Clap
Drip Drop Drap
European Free Improvisation
The Night Owl The Other Ones
British Top 40 Singles
New York London Paris Munich
1000 Number Ones
Stanley Spencer Powell and Pressburger
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