The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Friday, December 15, 2006

10. SLOAN: Never Hear The End Of It

“My name defined uncool
I didn’t belong
I didn’t belong.”

Sloan were my major musical discovery of 2006, and perhaps if they’d been enough people’s musical discovery of 1994, when their masterpiece Twice Removed was released, things might have been different. McGee was at one stage reportedly on the verge of signing them to Creation, but for whatever reasons that never happened; so outside Canada they remain a semi-closeted cult, whereas within Canada they are as feted and respected as Teenage Fanclub or Matthew Sweet or the Posies or any of those other briefly fashionable powerpop artists of the early ‘90s. Then again, even within Canada they’ve sometimes had to struggle; 1996’s venomous One Chord To Another they had to release themselves after being let go by BMG. Outside of remote specialist outposts such as Minus Zero, they do not register in Britain at all.

And that needs to change. If you want an album far more securely in the Beatles lineage, then forget Love (as most people already seem to have done) and seek out this seamlessly segued 30-track, 76-minute epic. Looking at them on the pastel pink cover, the four members of Sloan are clearly getting older and greyer – more than one of them is now a father – but if this is a comeback, or a reclaiming of their awesome strength, then it is a massive and generous gauntlet. Imagine if the Beatles had recorded the White Album directly after Rubber Soul, before the laughter stopped and the cynicism commenced, with all four having their say but patently playing together as a band, and you’ll get a pretty good notion of what Never Hear The End Of It sounds like; a non-stop procession of tremendous tunes (“And by December/reluctantly living the past”) which punch and bop and experiment with ideas and emotions. From the opening WE’RE BACK gambit of “Flying High Again” through the fabulous “Love Is All Around” – so much better than that other one – and on up past the wonderful “Someone I Can Be True With” with its appeal for “Someone to hear Hüsker Dü with/Someone to hate all things new with” (it’s OK; Chris Murphy is being ironic with that latter line) and soaring straight through the proto-post-psych jangling mirrors of “I Understand,” finally coming down with the slow and thoughtful likes of “I Know You” and “Last Time In Love” before coming up for Rickenbacker air one final time with the euphoric “Another Way I Could Do It” (“Yeah – better YET!”), it is a bloody brilliant pop record, The Pink Parade by Our Organic Romance, and if necessary you should purchase a ticket and fly to Toronto just to get a copy.

Indeed there is room in this top ten for three visionary albums by female artists, and here is the first of them; this year’s Antony and the Johnsons, to the extent of having Antony himself guest on the slinky “I Defy” (“Promiscuous”? Really…). Free violin passages link gorgeously sumptuous ballads like “Feed The Light” and “We Don’t Own It” as Joan Wasser crouches down in awe before new-found lands of love. Breath of the year: the way she builds up to and holds that “Jonathan” down to an elongated whisper on the title track. I am in possession of signed postcard number 225.

Clocking in at just over half an hour, this was the year’s most extraordinary improv record, principally because it works so astoundingly well as a record; they are a predominantly female Connecticut trio (though others drift in and out through these four tracks) and their music is revelatory. The opening “Blind White Alligators” begins like a Shangri-Las B-side before guitars and noise steadily shift the track out of tonality and into explosive, aleatoric noise with a purpose which makes the ears reel. “Infinite Regress” (is that title a manifesto?) is purer improvisation, demonstrating just how well the group’s empathy fuses in raging practice.

But the two other tracks go even further, and into somewhere else entirely. “Dance Upon The Steam” features glimpses of a melancholy, battered ballad – the Cowboy Junkies laid particularly low – over the thumping disco beat and jazz-funk muzak emanating from elsewhere in the bar. And “Shabbetai Tzevi/1666” goes beyond any attested category of known music; an unutterably gorgeous, mournful lament sung very softly over unanchored bass, guitar and organ, like Gillian Welch meeting AMM at the dawn of mourning, before it is abruptly and brutally cut off. This could be one of the greatest of all bands.

7. PATRICIA BARBER: Mythologies
There but for the gracelessness of Diana Krall goes Patricia Barber, the pianist and singer/songwriter who is the missing link between Bill Evans and kd lang – that same rich tangerine of a voice, the same patience – and how one can luxuriate and shiver in her exploration of Pygmalion, Orpheus, Persephone and Narcissus, none of her portraits obvious, all culminating in the final, graceful and quietly terrifying drowning of the world in “The Hours” with its whole tone doowop motif and dread-filled gospel choir. Radical in approach and execution, but it doesn’t need to brag about it; it just is.

6. BURIAL: Burial
And what would the world become after it had been drowned? The Burial album – and why do I hope that there might only be the one? – asks us to imagine a south London engulfed by waters, where nought rises from its shrivelled beds save delayed, transformed remnants of what was not an age of gold and idyll, but a blackened map of the paths which helped lead to apocalypse. Survey those titles – “U Hurt Me,” “Gutted,” “Forgive,” “Broken Home,” “Prayer” – and absorb the distant tinkles of breaking glass, the glinting click of knife or revolver, emptied bus stops (“Night Bus” is as gracefully immense as a Whistler nocturne), the decayed whines of obsolete synths, the haunted dancehalls, the dark, the thirty-nine dubbed steps into an ocean of eternal grey. The spent nightmare of Gerontius.

5. FUN-DA-MENTAL: All Is War
Society confronted by unsavoury challenges has long since learned that the surest way of stifling such voices is not to get outraged by them or outlaw them, but simply to ignore them, quietly and discreetly, until the message is allowed to dwindle into welcomed irrelevance. So it is scarcely surprising that the most sustained and articulate outburst of targeted anger on any British record since the first Sex Pistols album was left to wither in the racks, unrewarded (with one brave exception) by extended five-star broadsheet reviews, determinedly ignored by exponentially envelope-pushing music websites who at the same time berate their readers for socialist envy at failing to empathise with the banked wraith that is Paris Hilton.

You didn’t have to agree with everything said on All Is War, but by God – or by Allah – you were swept along by the lucidity of its passion and attack; and then, having sped through the triumphant estampie of “Bark Like A Dog” to arrive at the devastating lament of forced bereavement and decimation that is “Screbinicia Massacre,” via the balancing quotes from bin Laden and Guevara, you understand that this is the cry, and maybe the last warning, from the dispossessed, the excluded, and the consequences of what might come to pass (away) if we cannot find any way to accommodate them in the world. Listen, learn, understand and then do something about improving it.

4. EMILY HAINES & THE SOFT SKELETON: Knives Don’t Have Your Back
The escalator comes back down from the hill to raise me up once more…the cover was an indicator, the Robert Wyatt sleevenote and Carla Bley thank-you all the confirmation I needed to know that this was the best record released by a female artist in 2006. No big-budget string sections or sub-Holbein sleeve design was needed; just Emily, her piano and Wurlitzer, and some of her friends and colleagues, playing because they want and need to. “Crowd Surf Off A Cliff” is about as lonely as popular music can get this side of Roy Orbison, and yet she works her way back, back to us, reaching for and grabbing that windowsill…

…and then you look at me and ask “When you talk, can I tape you?” and tell me “We’ve got time…all the time” and the humblest and kindest “mmm-mmm”s you ever heard, and everything is made better and tolerable and that’s what the greatest music does to a human being – “She’s drawn in breath and drawn you in, too” Wyatt says. I say – “It’s again.”

We’ve almost been here so many times before, it’s not true. The Softs, Hatfield and the North, Centipede in one age; Rip Rig and Pigbag in another; the nearly bypassed likes of Pinski Zoo and Xero Slingsby as the eighties unforgivably bleeded into the nineties…but this time, I think they may just have got it…

So many have tried that improv/pop crossover, and invariably failed at the last hurdle – and more often than not it wasn’t their fault. Yet Acoustic Ladyland, with their mind-turning fission of speed metal, punk jazz and…whisper it…Britpop Mks I and II…are developing into something potentially world-changing.

The soft/loud jumpcut dynamics of “Road Of Bones” are learned from Albini and Cobain. On “Your Shame” saxophonist Pete Wareham burns with an incandescent fire which links George Khan to Alan Wilkinson, the John Surman of 1969/70 with the John Zorn of tomorrow, and Seb Rochford once again proves himself the best improvising drummer to come out of Britain since Steve Noble veered out of Oxford and into the last days of Rip Rig & Panic a generation ago.

But I can find no real musical precedent for things like “Red Sky” or “Cuts & Lies” which start out as jagged shards of shouted song before mutating into plaintive Cocteaus/Dif Juz caverns of echoed, epic melodies, like Coldplay if they’d had a nerve. And in the record’s latter third, the group change tack yet again for a set of moodily acerbic pop songs, Wareham now on vocals, sounding for all this world like Blur with Coxon in greater charge, though even Blur have never done anything as stark as the genuinely disturbing “Hitting Home” (the verb is transitive; it’s about domestic violence).

Its most magnificent track, however, is “Salt Water,” which not only features guest altoist James Chance, howling in tandem with Wareham’s tenor like Trevor and Evan in the good ol’ SME days, but is also mixed by Scott Walker, who typically deploys abrupt and violent changes of perspective and overpowering echoes and loops of gurgle. I can honestly say that I have heard nothing like it in any British jazz, or any British music for that matter – and yes, I want to see Top Of The Pops brought back so that Acoustic Ladyland can appear on it and get in the charts. Let’s hope they can develop and mutate this fantastic music even further; if their third album turns out to sound like Spyro Gyra jamming with Keane, I doubt I shall ever forgive them. This time, let’s get it right.

2. SCOTT WALKER: The Drift
If I’d heard anything like The Drift before, it would only have been in the form of Scott Walker’s previous work, each chapter of which leads methodically onto the next. And there’s an important lesson to be learned here. We keep wondering what the Beatles or Hendrix would have sounded like if they’d kept going; and yet this is the point every sixties revivalist misses…the vital voices which rose in that generous decade and managed to persist and survive never, if they could help it, looked back. No matter where you cast your eye – to Cale, or to Cohen, or to Dylan, or to Young, to the Lee Hazlewood so serenely accepting of his own imminent end on Cake Or Death?, to the Derek Bailey who kept right on to the end of his road – the great innovators of the sixties simply kept going, kept pushing their allotted envelopes, and therefore always have a new story to tell, more pages to add to and strengthen the existing book. That’s how they were brought up; not to recreate the Woody Guthrie and Charlie Christian records they loved, but to take them as a starting point before striking out into new pastures. It was expected of you. Even the protracted silences of Lee, Barrett and Erickson provide their own reproach – we invented it, now you take it over.

It may seem to be asking too much to suggest that in order to appreciate The Drift fully you need to have prior knowledge of Walker’s previous work in full, since it stands so firmly and monumentally on its own as a record; however, it is the logical cumulation of those strands of thought and expression commenced in those far-off (or are they?) sixties records, Scott hearing Brel and Hardin, then interpreting them his own way, then finding new angles to develop and nurture his own themes, or obsessions – and the haunted bedrooms of 1966’s “Orpheus” lead very directly to those of 2006’s “Clara.”

There isn’t much point in describing The Drift further here, since I used enough words to do so at the time of its release. It is perhaps the fullest-formed musical statement by any artist thus far this century; meticulously choreographed yet spontaneous, it commits the supreme virtue of ruthlessly discarding sentimentality in favour of looking 2006 hard and square in the face, and the bones and blood beneath that face, of recognising that in extremis the worst has to be faced down before life can be resumed.

And that whisper right at the end of “A Lover Loves” – I thought he was whispering “Scared?” but on closer listening he is actually saying “It’s OK.” Rescued at the last second.

And when you are rescued from the irreversible finality of death, you have to embrace life…


1. BROKEN SOCIAL SCENE: Broken Social Scene

In truth, it led the pack from the beginning (Emily Haines again: “What’s a wolf without a pack?”) and in the end it has to come above The Drift because it is so clearly a record about, and in favour of, life. Acoustic Ladyland may be approaching a startling and unexpected new musical fusion, but Broken Social Scene play as though that fusion has long since been accomplished; in You Forgot It In People you could sense something, as yet impalpable, waiting to burst, and in Broken Social Scene, the album, they have achieved it. Yes, to a degree it is the Toronto All-Stars, from K-Os through Feist to the aforementioned Ms Haines, but the phenomenal creativity to arise out of contemporary Canadian music here finds its peak.

“Major Label Debut,” “Bandwitch” and “It’s All Gonna Break” are all songs, as such, but not in weary set patterns; they bring back the spirit of those groups and artists where, if you listened to the beginning of their songs, you were never certain about how, or where, the songs would end (thrillingly, the artists appeared to be in a similar position) – the artists thus learn in tandem with the listener. So Broken Social Scene’s songs float and detour and sometimes atomise into nothing, or everything, but there is such fluidity and intuition that it not only unites the individual components of what was great and thrilling about 2006’s finest music, sums them up, but also takes them and moulds them to create a truly new music; one which relies on process, reflex and human interaction in the here and now. To listen to everyone shoehorning their contributions into “Windsurfing Nation” but never jostling for position, rather working together to create a genuine greater good, is a defiance of music as a predetermined commercially-driven artefact, argues eloquently against standardisation, celebrates the mess of humanity, enables deeper and finer art. That is their achievement – the fulfilment of a musical environment as socialist paradigm; music reclaimed as art to be shared between human beings. Canada led the way, and therefore Broken Social Scene lead this list, as a tribute, not only to their revolutionary greatness, but even more so to the woman who led me back to music, to the world, to me, to us, for us.

Our hearts, in the end, have mastered the incinerators.

posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
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Thursday, December 14, 2006

20. SUFJAN STEVENS: The Avalanche
Does he ever get tired? Does he ever run out of ideas, or things to say? One would sometimes be suspicious of such prolix activity, but with Stevens it’s clear that his stories need to be told with as much length as patience allows. Only two states into his fifty-state project, and while he has claimed that each record may have a different format – he has, for instance, threatened to make California a seven-inch single – the fact that we already have a 75-minute album of outtakes from the second album proper makes one wonder whether he’ll live long enough to get it all in. And if that weren’t enough, he has lately released a five-EP box set, Songs For Christmas, which spans four of the last five winters and lasts for a combined total of over two hours.

Yet it is all necessary. I include The Avalanche as partial penitence for amnesically omitting Illinois(e) from last year’s count, but also because I think it marginally the better record. His blend of Phil Ochs, Rundgren, Free Design and Steve Reich remains intact, and while there’s nothing quite as deliciously decaying as “Jacksonville,” which is like “Lay Lady Lay” slowly being laid to rest, there are many sparky and powerful moments; although I cannot quite concur with the exasperated sigh of “Dear Mr Supercomputer” (especially since musically it is so bountiful) since without computers I would not be here, in any sense, but I identify with his weary compassion, and – when it comes, in the devastating “Pittsfield” – his palpable rage as he buries his family demons for good (with Songs For Christmas it’s worth mentioning that Stevens recorded these as a means of persuading himself to like, or believe in, Christmas again, after early familial traumas which he describes unambiguously in his accompanying sleevenote), and its passion grabs and stings; eventually, the soul overspills and the album blasts to its end with a completely unexpected Sonny Sharrockian free guitar explosion – one of the best FUCK YOU endings to any recent album.

There are also three marvellous alternate takes of “Chicago,” Illinois(e)’s emotional and structural centrepiece, the best of which is the “Adult Contemporary Easy Listening Version” which with a little tweaking could provide him with a major dance hit. Still, the emotion and purpose remain – “All things go, all things go,” “If I was crying in the van with my friend/It was for freedom from myself/And from the land.” Now – remembering that the stunning “Springfield” commemorates the home of Barack Obama – numerous mistakes can be rectified.

19. FIONA APPLE: Extraordinary Machine
You could make it up. The Jon Brion album scored for orchestra and doorbell which her record company didn’t want, the reluctant re-recording by Mike Elizondo which ended up far more avant-garde than the original, an extended online campaign – all combined to make one of the year’s funniest, most spiteful and profound records wherein Apple bangs her head against numerous walls (and, on “Window,” through a café window, or nearly) in search of love, or throwing it away, or rediscovering it. “Get Him Back” and “O, Sailor” are Victoria Wood remixed by Eno; the tormented torrent of “Please Please Please” and “Red Red Red” flattens even the most flexible of endurances, and, with the final, tired acceptance of “Waltz (Better Than Fine),” a compromise of happy sorts.

18. ARCTIC MONKEYS: Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not
They have already become fatally resentful where they should have settled for documenting their city with candour and irregular originality, but this takes nothing away from their frequently smashing album, smouldering in reflection in the midst of a riot (“Red Light Indicates Doors Are Secured”), a sprightly insolence which wasn’t that far removed from Girls Aloud (the latter would have located the essence of “I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor” far more speedily than the Sugababes) and true poignancy in “Mardy Bum” with its “cuddles in the kitchen”…oh yes…and the touching “A Certain Romance” which may yet prove their premature farewell.

I don’t really know why I can’t get a handle on the Jarvis Cocker album; once again, the elements are all there – the “Crimson And Clover” quote in the chorus of “Black Magic” doesn’t sound gratuitous, the sentiments of “Baby’s Coming Back To Me” melt me from reading the lyrics alone, “Tonite” is as lovely as anything on Coles Corner (the good Mr Hawley is on lead guitar duties throughout), Philip Sheppard’s string charts for “Disney Time” and “Big Julie” are as audacious as those which he provided for The Drift, and it is impossible to argue with the logic or truth of “Cunts Are Still Running The World” – even though the juxtaposition of “I Will Kill Again” and “From Auschwitz To Ipswich” has lately become unfortunate.

I think there may be a problem with Jarvis himself; his voice sounds a little too portentous, and on the slapstick murder rave-up “Fat Children” he comes perilously close to sounding like some absurd, prematurely middle-aged Daily Mail columnist. And anthems like “Don’t Let Him Waste Your Time” tread a little too near to late-period Boomtown Rats (“Never In A Million Years,” anyone?) for comfort.

This feeling is accentuated by the precise brilliance of Cocker’s lyrical contributions to 5:55 – but Air provide the music, Nigel Godrich produces (maybe Cocker should have hired him for his own record) and Charlotte Gainsbourg sings the words with a tenderness and mischief which Jarvis seems to have lost. Indeed I had not forgotten that a decade ago she was Jane Eyre – even if William Hurt isn’t my idea of a Rochester – and that openness and determination persist into 5:55. It is worth listening to both records in tandem since there occur direct links from time to time; the saddening contemptuous pity of “Little Monsters” balances out “Fat Children,” “Tel Que Tu Es” is the calming response to “Heavy Weather,” the dream Cocker inhabits in “Quantum Universe” is the same dream from which Charlotte awakens in “Morning Song” – so who, if either, is doing the dreaming? However, 5:55 is so clearly the better record; both lighter and deeper.

16. BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: We Shall Overcome – The Seeger Sessions
Can multimillionaire rock icons still touch the humblest soul? Perhaps Bruce had to find his own again, and treat it with kindness; following nearly two decades of gloomy, unbending solemnity from Tunnel Of Love to Devils And Dust, he suddenly sounds happy again with his floating pool of scratch players – and I’m wondering whether he’s checked Sufjan out of the far corner of his left eye; there is that same sense of community which, whatever else this world of now might tell you, is still needed; venerable warhorses like “John Henry” and “Pay Me My Money Down” are played as if for the first time, with lusty singing and gusto-filled playing. Meanwhile the title track is intoned gospel-style (“I’ll Take You There,” as good as) in a bloodied-but-not-beated tone of dignity.

But the most profound thing here is “Shenandoah” which conveys the illusion of stretched and suspended time; as the protagonist and river flow ever steadily westward, there is a near-transcendence of identity and location – you feel as though this song could play forever, and somewhere out there in undefined space it is still resonating, like conscience made light, or the Titanic refloated. After this year’s Congressional elections it also feels like the starting point of the turnaround.

15. CAT POWER: The Greatest
Dusted down in Memphis – Chan finds some of Al Green’s old sidemen and decides to iron out her owned soul. “Love And Communication” is the triumphant cathartic release, “Lived In Bars” and “Islands” part of the slower-than-visible burn; “Where Is My Love?” its magnificent and radiant centre. From “I hate myself and I want to die” to “You called me and you were not hunting me” – there’s another journey I recognise.

14. NEIL DIAMOND: 12 Songs
The best of the Rubin rehab records, and on paper it could so easily have been the worst; Diamond verges on the glittery rim of the glitzy self-glorifying epic on “Hell Yeah” but pulls back without needing to be told, and then it becomes a deeply relevant song of personal redemption. The gargantuan build-up of “Evermore” you anticipate from the “let Neil start it all by himself” intro, but you actually want it and savour it; Diamond needs the big gesture even in a smaller world. But the songs are among his finest; “Delirious Love” and “Save Me A Saturday Night” stand equal to any of his ‘60s classics, “What’s It Gonna Be?” is confidential but bluff, and the drunken romp of “We” does what Modern Times doesn’t quite.

13. PLAN B: Who Needs Actions When You Got Words
The intelligence and brutally ambiguous rationality of “Sick 2 Def” made it 2005’s best single, and Ben Drew wastes no time here expanding his substantial palette. No Streets-style whingeing about unnamed celebrities here; just a candid and callously considerate overview of life trying and failing to rise above a status of shit. The paternal rejection of “I Don’t Hate You” and “Tough Love” make Sufjan’s resentment explicit; the violence experienced in “No More Eatin’” or described by “Couldn’t Get Along” engender real rage that life still has to be nothing save perilous existence. However, the emotional axis here is “Everyday,” in which Drew wakes up to a pallid parody of life but realises that he has to take the first step towards changing his view. Lily Allen views all of this from her expensive limited edition pushbike, but Ben Drew lives it. Folk music for this degraded century which Seeger would understand in a second.

12. ORNETTE COLEMAN: Sound Grammar
This is not the first time Ornette has worked with a line-up of sax, two basses and drums; a shortlived 1968 quartet featuring Charlie Haden, David Izenzon and Ed Blackwell appeared with Yoko Ono at the Royal Festival Hall in 1968 (and a fragment of their rehearsal tape can be found on the Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band album). But I witnessed the present group at the Barbican two years ago, as part of the same tour from which this German live recording is taken. The unpromising sonic recipe was – as though I could be naïve enough to doubt! – provocative, swirling and danceable in vibrant practice.

Denardo is on drums, as ever, while of the two bassists Tony Falanga generally anchors the rhythm, leaving Greg Cohen (a name well-known to Tom Waits fans) to concentrate on bowed work, turning his bass effectively into a second horn, this group’s Don Cherry or Dewey Redman. And the music is as fantastic as I recall it being here in London; “Jordan” swings like a newly-oiled grandfather clock, Ornette’s alto as sharp and fresh as ever; “Sleep Talking” is a beauteous ballad, but the punctum really comes with the climactic reinterpretation of “Song X” which unleashes a million hitherto undreamed rhythmic crosscurrents – as Ornette switches to violin, scribbling away in unison with Cohen’s bass, the music turns into an insane new form of country and western; a harmolodic hoedown which affords a suitably euphoric reaction from the audience. Ornette at 76, sounding like the second coming of ’76.

11. TIGA: Sexor
Canada meets Belgium and I’m in the middle; I prematurely spoke of the year’s best New Pop album some seventeen places ago, but this transcends any eighties entrapment by virtue of reliving and recasting it with such poignant grandeur; “You Gonna Want Me” IS Human League Purple. “Louder Than A Bomb” induces the Nation Of Millions to Follow The Leader – how unknowingly did we cross each other’s paths in those Hampstead streets of 1988; how joyfully do we light each other’s path in these Hampstead streets of 2006! – and “Brothers” updates New Order to connect with the floating John Foxx rig of “Sir Sir Sir.” Electro? Shiny red Newer Pop? Danceable, tender and echoing such perfect mirrors of our unified souls – it is an undying, undiminishable jewel of pop punctum.

posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
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Wednesday, December 13, 2006

30. J DILLA (JAY DEE): Donuts
Dictionary definitions are one thing, but for these necessarily selfish purposes I will take “hauntology” as using elements of the past to signify memories of a future that never was, could never have hoped to have passed. In the case of Donuts this assumes the form of a bright, summery absence – tell me about it – with its thirty-one brief instrumental cuts and loops. All we know is that had J Dilla not succumbed to cancer he would have done something different from what has been left us here. Never intended as anything more than potential breaks for rappers, some of the tracks were used on Ghostface Killah’s Fishscale, a record likely to loom large in end-of-year polls, and not unreasonably so, since it may be the Wu’s Blood On The Tracks, their final autumnal glint of stark brilliance. Yet I prefer the lush, unpopulated spaces of “Time: Donut Of The Heart” or “One For Ghost,” if only because their welcoming deserts revive the unrepeatable summers of 1975 or 1995, all Bonnard splendour and Rothko rueful shade, but also because anyone who uses 10cc’s unacknowledged greatest single (“The Worst Band In The World”) as the basis of a break (“Workinonit”) has – or had – to be someone of rare discernment and vision.

Some of 2006’s sweetest music underpinning some of 2006’s most savage words; Rilo Kiley never really floated out to my boat, but Lewis alone (to a degree; her numerous collaborators here include Conor Oberst and M Ward, the latter giving a far more convincing account of himself on his own rather flat Post-War) is exceptional; she gives Bush and The War a double blow with “The Big Guns” and “Rise Up With Fists!!,” decries fake love on “Melt Your Heart” and “Happy,” is sometimes so naked you have to retreat for several emotional miles (“Born Secular,” “It Wasn’t Me”), does the year’s best neu-folk ballad in the form of the title track, and also wins my award for the year’s best cover version with her calamitously calming reclaiming of the Traveling Wilbury’s “Handle With Care,” an object lesson in capturing and describing the perhaps unintended emotion within certain songs, as well as being one further example of Dylan’s songs (even in part) being better sung by others.

28. ELLEN ALLIEN AND APPARAT: Orchestra Of Bubbles
Arguably the year’s best New Pop album, if such a thing can still be recognised; beats propel, twist, fade, reside and arise in numerous subtle combinations amid great damaged pop songs like “Way Out” and the New Order-outdoing “Floating Points”; Ms Allien whispers rather than announces, while the magnificent “Turbo Dreams” may be the real missing link between Thomas Leer and Boards Of Canada. If ever an album deserved to be entitled Confessions On A Dancefloor, it is this one.

27. METRIC: Live It Out
Another one which really belongs in 2005, but then again it didn’t get a full British release until this year, and as the only Canadian entry in NME’s otherwise lamentable Top 50, I can hardly overlook it, particularly as it demonstrates in Emily Haines a female talent who I think has already crossed the threshold into greatness (and that before I realised who her father was). In a year when so much tiresome posturing masequerading as strength of character ended up with the plaudits and the sales, how refreshing it was to turn to Haines’ immense talent and her superlative voice, caressing, tempting yet disturbed and compassionate. Terrific (and sometimes terrifying) songs like “Poster Of A Girl,” “Monster Hospital” and the brilliant “Ending/Start” display rock music of attainable elasticity, moving very naturally between the dynamics of guitars and electronics. And it would have placed higher in this list were it not for the even more remarkable record which Haines made on her own, of which latter, more anon.

26. GRIZZLY BEAR: Yellow House
So much candied drivel has flowed under the wrong bridge under the pretext of paying homage to the Beach Boys that we forget that sometimes the real advances on their pioneering work can come from wholly unanticipated corners. This New York quartet are largely acoustic, with apposite dabs of electronica where needed, but on such selections as “Little Brother” and the enormous “On A Neck, On A Spit” (where the repetition really is with them), I think of the temporarily stranded Beach Boys of Sunflower, or the remoter areas of Holland, slowly nudging forward as a statue might lurch to walk. At times, as on “Marla,” I am put in mind of a patient elephant dragging along a wagoned community of prematurely disaffected refugees – there is such a hugeness to such seemingly finite musical resources (“you can’t possibly go without that”) and their control of dynamics is so instinctively understood and wonderfully realised that one thinks this to be one fertile place where “rock” could roll once it’s passed the final recognisable post.

25. SKREAM!: Skream!
He is more resuscitation than revival. More than anything, Skream!’s work reminds me of the seldom-cited ‘90s garage outfit 187 Lockdown – down to the album’s yellow cover – whose “Kung Fu” might just be my favourite single of that decade in a “Mouldy Old Dough” way. Listening to “Midnight Request Line” or the staggering “Stagger,” those oddly familiar slashing synth strings, Bernard Herrmann chord changes and beats more implied than pronounced conjure up shades of reluctantly leafy Camberwell streets at dubious dusk, supermarkets precariously balanced halfway up Dog Kennel Hill. “Check-It” with its brilliant Warrior Queen vocal punches and zigzags like I wish Lady Sovereign had done.

But “Summer Dreams” might be 2006’s single most moving piece of music; garage beats like they used to be – before guns and forces and misguided money and pointless death came into the equation – over which Martin Shaw’s miraculous trumpet improvises a hurting, articulate lament for a scene, a belief, which may no longer exist; I think of Laura and me in the coach, late summer 2000, on the way back home, listening to “21 Seconds” through our shared Discman headphones over and over, working out who was who, marvelling and celebrating…well, more than enough said. When Shaw’s solo, and the track, end, we hear a modest but enthusiastic round of applause as the landscape gradually atomises into ashes. It is 2-step’s “Being Boring” and it is eternal.

With its talk of “Mammal Beats” and “Get on the beast with the four-legged meat” there is a reminder of Bow Wow Wow’s return to nature; with its amazingly fleet sense of improv freedom, Montreal’s Les Georges Leningrad may be the true successors to Rip, Rig and Panic; from the tentacles of “Skulls In The Closet” to the macrobiotic fidgets and smears of “The Future For Less,” they retrieve the swamps and go primitive in the Rousseau/Spencer sense – No Wave goes shamanic as no one has done since the second Slits album, which latter incidentally Sangue Puro gobbles up for breakfast.

23. LUSHLIFE: West Sounds
Markedly less praised or publicised than The Grey Album, but this Beach Boys/Kanye bootleg conference works just as well, and perhaps a little more profoundly (the “You Still Believe In Me” input into “Jesus Walks” makes it doubly apocalyptic, like Brian Wilson-as-God laughing at Kanye-as-humanity’s hapless lot) and sometimes a lot more humorously (the fabulous juxtaposition of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice?” with “The New Workout Plan”). In the unlikely event of a Beach Boys Love equivalent (For The Love Of Mike?) this would still be the superior work of art.

22. THE MELIGROVE BAND: Planets Conspire
While it’s obvious that Rough Trade has a special distribution deal with the Meligrove’s people, it still struck me as a significant sign, returning to London after Easter, to see it in their shop, two months ahead of its official UK release date, seeing as how Lena had sung its praises to me before the holiday, and at a time when I felt (and still do feel) that being away from a computer (and therefore, to all practical intents and purposes, away from her) was akin to having my arm pulled off. So its heartfelt, brilliantly arranged songs of love and faith regained (“Isle Of Yew,” “Grasshoppers In Honey”) hold a special value for me. There is a greater sadness throughout its second half, but this in itself is not discouraging. I found the record uplifting when I was at my lowest, and supremely reassuring when at my highest. There are still twenty-one records to go in this account – and I have concentrated long and hard on their order – but all fifty records here are more than worthy of your money and attention. For now, the Meligrove Band are yet another Toronto triumph, in a year where Canada triumphed, for music and for me, so many times…and this Canadian delegation is still far from complete.

21. OUTKAST: Idlewild
As immense as and arguably more encyclopaedic in style and ambition than its dual predecessor, but there was no “Hey Ya” equivalent and so it seems to have subsided into quiet ignorance, which is extremely unjust. Those of us who thought that Andre was running off with OutKast’s creative baton are summarily corrected here, since Big Boi seems on this occasion just to have the edge of adventure; the luxuriously avant-garde balladry of “Peaches” and “Morris Brown” is largely Antwan’s work; his “Call The Law” is the Prince of 1986 stuck in the middle of an On The Corner traffic jam, while “Mutron Angel” makes all other attempts at “futurism” in 2006 appear as quaint as Guy Mitchell. But none of this means that Andre is left lapped; the extraordinary hip hop/swing fusion of “Idlewild Blue,” “Chromomentrophobia” (song title of the year) and the outrageously supine “Life Is Like A Musical” reveals Dr Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band rescued for our newer age (as Aguilera so conspicuously failed to do with her own similar attempts). His Macy Gray collaboration “Greatest Show On Earth” is exquisitely aqueous and unmoored in tonal or rhythmic waters, while the startlingly bleak eight-minute-plus closer “A Bad Note” features Andre’s ghost moaning at 16 rpm midnight (cf. the Associates’ “An Even Whiter Car”) while David Whild’s guitar duly weeps.

My favourite of all the 25 tracks, though, is the Andre/Antwan collaboration “Hollywood Divorce” which with its Aphex poignancy and Snoop/Li’l Wayne running commentaries, made that Saturday night in August even more magical, as Westwood played it, let it fade, paused for a few seconds, then let out a contented sigh, or purr: “I really am feeling that at the moment.” So were we. Though I have no desire to see the parent film (cf. Under The Cherry Moon), Idlewild truly is the sort of record Prince used to be capable of making as a matter of routine; it’s that great and it must not be overlooked.

posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
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Tuesday, December 12, 2006

40. I’M FROM BARCELONA: Let Me Introduce My Friends

Senior CoM readers may recall the Polyphonic Spree – lots of them, all singing in and about ecstatic redemption – and have long since resigned themselves to wondering what they might have been like had they remembered to write whole songs and not just middle eights. Although I’m From Barcelona are in fact from Sweden, they present a far less intimidating picture of how such a group might have sounded. There are by my count 29 musicians in the line-up on this record, and though I suspect that the vast majority of these sing and beat sundry percussion instruments, the communal feeling is convincing and the songs quite marvellous. In balancing huge, optimistic tunes, in various styles ranging from indie to schaffel and even, on the sublime closer “The Saddest Lullaby,” gospel, with lyrical sentiments which are warm and welcoming but also betray reserves of fear and insecurity (“They’re all trying so hard to make a man out of me/But there’s always gonna be this little boy inside of me”) they reach the heartstrings perhaps no longer within the orbit of the Flaming Lips, whose At War With The Mystics simply tried (my patience) too hard – in particular the opening three or four tracks are so naturally euphoric as the Guillemots’ euphoria is painted on with yellow-coated turpentine; after hearing “We’re From Barcelona” with its lively, catchy chant of “Love is a feeling that we don’t understand/But we’re gonna give it to ya” you want to rush out and hug trees (and indeed the next track is entitled “Treehouse”) in a C86 Go! Team sort of way. Whether you can tolerate half an hour of the same thing may be an open question, and they will have to paint some fresh colours for the next album, but into this 2006 I’m From Barcelona fit with magnificent aptness.

39. KID KOALA: Your Mom’s Favorite DJ
His Carpal Tunnel Syndrome debut I will always associate with the late spring Monday morning in Abingdon when I bought it – it made me laugh as so much earnest post-Shadow DJ cybernetics were singularly failing to yield any humour (has there ever been a deader end in music than UNKLE’s Psyence Fiction?). However, the Montreal maestro’s bona fide debut, the Scratchcratchratchatch mixtape which he only ever intended as a demo, is reportedly his masterpiece – two fifteen-minute long sides of scratching and sampling antics which have never been given a formal release. Your Mom’s Favorite DJ is an attempt to recapture and update that record’s jouissance, deploying the same format, and it’s fantastic; an aural slippage of fragments, beats and, in the various “Slew Test” takes, startlingly avant-garde, like the Red Krayola smooching the Antipop Consortium (and better than either). However, the general mood is one of zippy, nippy playfulness; and I note from the CD booklet that Kid Koala is willing to provide mixtapes for weddings free of charge. I wonder if he would be interested in doing a mix for ours…?

38. ISLANDS: Return To The Sea
37. THE MOST SERENE REPUBLIC: Underwater Cinematographer
More relishable goodness from Montreal; Islands are primarily Nick Diamonds, who organises his various friends, including Arcade Fire’s Regine Chassagne, into moulding some wonderfully light pop which isn’t too light to exclude shifts of perspective and improvisational tropes. “Don’t Call Me Whitney, Bobby” is a contender for song title of the year, but my favourite is “Jogging Gorgeous Summer” featuring Regine clanging away on her steel drum, and in a perfect world one of the happiest, most hopeful number ones you’ve ever heard.

The Most Serene Republic are from Toronto, and their mainman appears to be one Adrian Jewett, but this is a quite spellbinding display of articulate, low-budget post-surf pop whose remit ranges from joyful singalongs (“Where Cedar Nouns And Adverbs Walk” with its refrain of “I think we know all the words by now!”) to extraordinary post-psychedelia brainscapes (the closing “Epilogue”). As with the Islands record, you never feel that this is being scientifically assembled on a Hoxton-approved conveyor belt – this eclecticism is instinctive and attractive. I also like the human(e) touch of the individually numbered (in ink, handwritten) copies – I own copy number 1650, though am sure Cromwell would never have approved…

36. NOBLESSE OBLIGE: Privilege Entails Responsibility
They are initially a rather savage, sour and arch male/female electropop duo (anyone else remember Eddie Maelov and Sunshine Patterson?) bent on (or over) assaulting everything and everyone within their reach (“Offensive Nonsense”) and who even, on “Fashion Fascism,” sample Goebbels. Yet tunes like “Bitch” and “Daddy (Don’t Touch Me There)” are compellingly danceable, and the record’s real key to potential greatness lies in the unlisted extra tracks of low-lit, bluesy acoustic readings of these songs which reveal a painfully personal grief and shows them to be the most vulnerable parties of all.

35. THE BICYCLES: The Good The Bad And The Cuddly
Can’t he get enough of Canadian indiepop? Er, no…especially when this partial Meligrove Band spinoff (Canadian musicians, you see, have no problem whatsoever with playing in different bands in different combinations for different purposes) furnished a better Beatles/Monkees marriage (they even cover “Cuddly Toy”) than the bloated echt-Beatles of Love managed; it sounds as adventurous yet approachable as powerpop has always threatened to be, and songs like “I Will Appear For You,” “I Know We Have To Be Apart” and the quite startling “Australia” are timely rejoinders to the where-did-all-the-tunes-go lobby (2006 model). “Ghost Town” isn’t the Specials classic, but in its individual way is extremely special.

34. SUNSET RUBDOWN: Shut Up I Am Dreaming
33. WOLF PARADE: Apologies To The Queen Mary

And apologies to Feist, K-Os and the Constantines (among many others) for not getting into this list on a semi-strict “released in 2005” basis – and no apologies whatsoever for the dominant Canadian presence in this list; Britain, you just didn’t try hard enough, or alternatively far too hard. The Wolf Parade album properly belongs to the end of last year as well, but didn’t permeate British record shops in earnest until early January; and anyway, it would be unjust to exclude this harsher downside of Arcade Fire light – once again, bold advances meet up with irresistible songs, most mightily of all “Shine A Light” (not the Constantines number, but its blood brother) which melts and stings like rapturous honey newly extracted from the hive with a rogue drone still attached.

As the cover of Shut Up I Am Dreaming attests, “Spencer Krug is in Wolf Parade. This is his other band.” If anything, the Sunset Rubdown disc is even more adventurous, especially with mindblowing long winders like the seemingly unending “The Men Are Called Horsemen There.” But there is also a defiance which rises above mere petulance, such that the record does seem like the kind of album a 2006 Bowie should be making.

Bearing very much in mind the notorious 1985 NME albums list which included in its top ten albums of ‘60s archive recordings by the Velvet Underground and Sam Cooke, I gave considerable thought to whether I should include this thirty-one-year-old recording in my own list for this year. Is this defeatism, a white flag surrendering to the “truth” that 2006 wasn’t a great year for music? My reply is: normally, yes it would be – but music this vital and alive has to be recognised, particularly as it has never been previously released commercially and is thus strictly speaking a new record, unlike, say, the Sibylle Baier album which I have regrettably excluded since vinyl copies were circulated and sold, albeit in miniscule quantities, back in 1973 (otherwise it would have been a shoo-in for the top twenty).

Those familiar with my Maja piece on the
Ogun label will recall that Isipingo only released one album in their, or Miller’s, lifetime, 1977’s astonishing Family Affair. This Radio Bremen live recording stems from 14 months previously; Osborne, Tippett and Moholo are all present and correct, but Nick Evans assumes trombone duties and Mongezi Feza, Wyatt’s conscience on Rock Bottom, with less than a month to live, is on trumpet – and such an eloquent and insolent trumpet it still is.

There are four very long tracks, and although the Tippett/Miller/Moholo rhythm axis hasn’t yet burst quite as freely as it would do throughout ‘77/8, the horns look out fervently forward; Evans’ solo on “Children At Play,” burningly articulate and passionate, is his finest on record, Feza fuses Booker Little lyricism and Don Cherry puck throughout without any apparent effort. Meanwhile, Osborne’s alto is initially mild mannered, but then he suddenly catches fire midway through “Eli’s Song” and, as he always did, cuts right to (and through) the listener’s core. Furiously powerful music, and one of two arguments in this list for burying the parlous myth that British jazz is incapable of embracing greatness.

31. FINAL FANTASY: He Poos Clouds
Back to Montreal (via Toronto) for today’s final entry, and all those who still imagine Ys. to be the beginning of everything to follow are gently pointed in the direction of this frequently breathtaking – and genuine – fusion of orchestral manoeuvres and lyrical intensity. It does help that Owen Pallett’s voice is far more palatable to the tender ear than Newsom’s; an appealingly vulnerable light tenor (almost Todd-like) which floats and darts amidst and around his orchestrations. Often very funny (“This Lamb Sells Condos”), Pallett’s music swiftly dovetails into corners far more challenging – the vaporous cloisters which arise out of “I’m Afraid Of Japan,” and the hard-won tenderness (“The scars of self-abuse with a couple of hours in a private clinic”) underlying “Do You Love?” As droll and moving as Randy Newman at his (12 Songs) finest; and note how the strings rise, fall and breathe with the voice in perfect symbiosis. Oh yes, Canada ruled in 2006 – and there is yet more to come.

posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
. . .
Monday, December 11, 2006

50. BONNIE ‘PRINCE’ BILLY: The Letting Go
i am loving always holding while she sleeps her song unfolding epic song it tells of how she and i are living now

Here is how this particular epic begins to unfold. Recorded in Iceland, there are two voices here, a man and a woman. The music is ghost-folk and is taken so slowly and patiently that it sometimes approaches Fennesz stasis. Oldham and Dawn Adamson sing so quietly as if snuggling up

i thought you had took all you had to take but you snuggled to me on the ground in the winter and your breath smelled like honey in the frosty air wake

beneath an avalanche aftermath, using the snow as their blanket, keeping as quiet and still as possible so as not to disturb the crush. With “Then The Letting Go” the tempo and tonality work themselves loose and we enter a world whose options are afterlife

and from the branches dangle i

or new life.

we kiss we find ourselves in love again the older that we get we know that nothing else for us is possible when i was quiet i heard your voice in everything

The next album must be a record of drinking songs, recorded in Kentish Town during a Saturday happy hour in early March.

49. CAMERA OBSCURA: Let’s Get Out Of This Place
48. ALEX SMOKE: Paradolia
The only two Scottish entries in this list, both strongly redolent of 1986. The second Camera Obscura album is more “produced” and less successful than its predecessor, but still has plenty of lovely moments – “Dory Previn,” the title track (“We’ll find a cathedral city you can be handsome I’ll be pretty”) and the disintegrating, echoing closures of “Razzle Dazzle Rose.”

Meanwhile, Alex Smoke ushers in a fruitful year for minimal house, in a world where Larry Heard rather than Duran Duran turned out to be the major influence (and therefore a substantially more pleasing world). His spaces (“Persona”) are thoughtful, his flourishes (“Prima Materia” – Victory At Sea recast in Detroit) generous and his shadows compelling; the stumbling, eternally descending anthill of a bassline of “Never Want To See You Again” finds honest reflection in Smoke’s morose Glaswegian lead vocal.

47. BOOKA SHADE: Movements
Frosty (even in midsummer) Berlin IDM, with lonesome bass plunks genealogically trailing back to Jet Harris, ideally listened to on a Sunday morning in a semi-detached Kingston, libraries and castle relics jostling with nine-lane roads and pseudo-pastoral bus stations at opposing ends without clear linkage. Highlights: the turnaround in “The Birds And The Beats/At The Window,” the harmonic, and therefore emotional, ambiguity throughout “Darko.”

46. PETER, BJORN AND JOHN: Writer’s Block
Here for “Young Folks” and “Amsterdam” as heard in Brighton in the August rain and as fully discussed
elsewhere, as well as for the other examples of truly intelligent indiepop to be found on the record. Mid-eighties again, but in a good, future-permitting, OMD-not-resorting-to-“Locomotion” way.

45. JUNIOR BOYS: So This Is Goodbye
Canada makes its initial modest entry into this list. A very real improvement on Last Exit; Jeremy Greenspan’s vocals now more confident, even if the music is all about the absence of confidence. The “No One Cares” recasting is bold but doesn’t quite come off. However, “In The Morning” seems a genuine breakthrough with its effortless bonding of Frankie Knuckles bassline, Clifford T Ward anguished yet gracious vocal and Kraftwerk neon flotation tank. Nick, you dumb fuck, you should have lived to hear this.

44. GOTAN PROJECT: Lunatico
It may be approaching winebar decadence, but that’s the fault of winebars, and are you turning into Jools Holland and why aren’t you listing the Kode 09 and Spaceape album instead (answer: Spaceape)? But think of the ghost of Grace Jones’ “Libertango” (did she ever exist?) and the substantial socio-political history behind Domingo Cura’s tango universe, and swim in the scarlet sensuality of “Diferente” – but never forget the pain underneath, as they prove they haven’t done by beating Ry Cooder at his own game (their take on/rediscovery of “Paris, Texas”).

43. FUCKPONY: Children Of Love
42. HOLDEN: The Idiots Are Winning

Fuckpony’s IDM is as spacious as Booka Shade’s but lighter and more egregious, and also a far more directly physical experience, as proven by one-hand-in-the-air tracks like “It’s Only Music” (the Scissor Sisters, with added “if only”). Meanwhile, James Holden’s debut album is really a calling card, or a craftily extended CD single (there are two “Quiet Drumming” interludes, and track eight is appropriately entitled “Intentionally Left Blank”) but principal tracks “Lump,” “Flute” and “Idiot” are all very fine indeed; protracted stretches of forgotten vocal murmurs, ruminations of omitted songs, closing in on the ear as though to have a chat.

41. DANIEL JOHNSTON: Lost And Found
His best since Fun; some blanched at the participation of a full backing band – wasn’t it more fun to witness Johnston trying to fit in all the parts himself? – but remarkably it works; song titles include “Rock This Town,” “The Beatles,” “It’s Impossible” and “Everlasting Love” but there are no cover versions; the songs are alternately, and frequently simultaneously, harrowing and hilarious – “Rock Around The Christmas Tree” is akin to Sufjan hiccuping laughing gas butterflies.

posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
. . .
Tuesday, December 05, 2006

The most important lesson I learned this year is that no writer writes for himself. Even though this weblog started out as a Kobler-Ross (Stage III) therapeutic tool, there would have been no point in writing it since, if no one else reads it, then conclusive proof of one’s own existence is reduced to unhelpful Descartian principles. I can’t forget the spirit in whose memory The Church Of Me was constructed, as demonstrated by the fact that I am publishing this piece on the day when she would have turned 42.

But no one, not even Queen Victoria, could be expected to mourn forever, and therefore I have to reveal that I am not feeling mournful or even especially commemorative. I cannot pretend to an internal emptiness which I no longer feel, even though, in some of this year’s important songs, like Plan B’s “Everyday,” I surely can recognise it and empathise with it.

Just as happened in previous life-altering but musically unremarkable years such as 1985 and 1992, I very strongly feel that I am now writing and listening for two people. It is impossible to underestimate or underplay the effects of Lena coming into my life; she has changed absolutely everything, to such an extent that I find even the person I was twelve months ago hard to recognise, difficult to identify with. Now I think in terms of buying and listening to music for us, as a plural activity, and that can either change or strengthen perspectives. There is still an identifiable “me,” but that “me” is increasingly reserved for “her” and I wouldn’t want it any other way.

So I can truthfully say that I have loved listening to music more ardently than ever in 2006; even though much of what I listened to is ostensibly from another time, listening to things like The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, or Easter Everywhere, or Forever Changes – records I have known nearly all my life – in the company of fresh, new ears actually turns them into brand new records, with new and refreshing perspectives. I felt I was listening to them, as opposed to merely hearing them, for the first time.

In this light, I hope you will pardon my being less than enthralled by hauntology. This is for no reason of aesthetic bias, since I was extolling King of Woolworths and similar back in 2002 when everyone else was still getting over Andrew WK, and as you’ll notice, many of the items high up in this year’s list are records which stare the ghostly desolation of the early 21st-century world squarely in its face (“Look into its eyes…It will look into your eyes”). However, I lived in a ghostbox for five years and have had more than enough of it without needing to be reminded – and hopefully I can say that without coming across as a Nick Hornby manqué. So I shall leave that tolling extolling to others better qualified.

Life, of course, is also about making wholly new discoveries, else it is not worth having. And the astounding treasure trove of Canadian music past and present was my major musical joy of this year; whether the hitherto unheard (by me) archival magic of Lighthouse, or any of the artists featured on the amazing 21 Forgotten Can-Con Faves compilation which Scott Woods very kindly made for me, to the still under-heralded explosion of newness, mischief and grace of Canadian music as it now stands – from K-Os via the many moods of Emily Haines and the exasperated tenderness of Final Fantasy to the dizzying wonders of Broken Social Scene and Wolf Parade, this seems a genuine, organic musical movement entirely free of the doctrinaire careerism which catapults so many promising British embryos into a premature dustbin. When Broken Social Scene improvise, or the Meligrove Band freely change tack halfway through a song, or Sloan make the reborn epic that the Beatles’ Love singularly failed to be, there is no perceivable contrivance, and lashings of a real newness – that is, developing and modifying expectations of what “pop” or “rock” can be on a symbiotic rather than artificial basis – all of which gives rise to a movement of true experimentalism. Listen to Les Georges Leningrad’s swampy electro or the sunny goofiness of Montreal’s Islands and you are hearing ideas being formulated and thrown around in real time with spirit and enthusiasm; whereas our alleged brightest hopes, say Hot Chip or Guillemots, crucify themselves at birth with their infuriatingly correct record collections and Wire back issues – ideas formulated in a sterile laboratory rather than a reciprocal community.

Otherwise 2006 symbolised business as usual, even if that business verged closer to bankruptcy on all levels. If you were thirteen and liked your rock, your albums of the year might have been The Black Parade and Black Holes And Revelations, and from that perspective I’d find those refreshing and welcome choices; some records know their audiences expertly, particularly with regard to noble daftness, just as Queen and Yes did to the thirteen-year-olds of my generation; as a forty-two year old, however, I’ll leave their juvenile joys unsullied by inclusion here, and likewise the Secret Machines with their reading of The Joshua Tree covered by Kitchens Of Distinction.

As the concept of the single continued to recede into an endlessly remixed footnote, there wasn’t much popping in the pop of 2006. There was “Crazy,” one of the great number ones, but then I heard the album and realised that I was dealing with this generation’s Deee-Lite. Take That showed no rush to emulate side two of Carl And The Passions: So Tough, while Robbie Williams’ imagined BEF/Freddie Starr collaboration failed to scintillate. If you couldn’t stand spivs howling in your face on Charing Cross Road of a Friday teatime, then you would find little wonder in the stodgy careerism of Aguilera’s Back To Basics (such mock-eclecticism for so little return, the adventure drowned out by the singer’s banshee bellow) or Timberlake’s Love/Sex/Lawnmower/Embroidery, where the momentarily promising marooning of 1991 Michael Jackson in the middle of Part III of the Human League’s The Dignity Of Labour is obscured by dreary Mickey Mouse pseudo-sexy catcalls. And if you can detect the heart of Paris Hilton in Paris – be it the original or the Danger Mouse semi-salvage job – then you are in possession of the most sensitive stethoscope on the planet.

Meanwhile, British pop proceeded further towards atrophy, where “real” bands (Razorlight, Keane, the Feeling) meant that Girls Aloud could only get a number one album by appearing on the cover as mere silhouettes. And while their reclaiming of “I Predict A Riot” was one of the year’s few pop masterstrokes – the underclass snatching the sneer and luxuriating it, turning sarcasm into celebration (“You’re having me! You’re having me!”) – Xenomania visibly struggled when away from the Girls; the Frank album has its moments, but the feeling of castoffs pervades its shell. Emma Bunton’s Life In Mono was “cute” but hardly even the Nearly New Thing. Careerism, of course, prospered as it must by recycling the least controversial factors of music that record company bosses loved twenty years ago; if you wonder why those Long Blondes and Pipettes records just can’t get you excited, then you’re not wrong – they are very precisely programmed not to offend. Or, in the case of Lily Allen, programmed to “offend” with heavy emphasis on those irremovable inverted commas.

Was it an accident that as Lily Allen was hauled up to temporary stardom, Lady Sovereign suddenly vanished from view? You can still hear a battalion of pins dropping in the unvisited racks wherein the unloved Lady Sovereign album dwells; fatally delayed for a year, and disappointingly if predictably under par, Lallen seems to have sauntered off with Sovereign’s template intact, if diluted. Grime and dubsetp recede back into the secluded nexus which in truth had always been its natural habitat; the Burial album, dubstep’s one long-form masterpiece, sounds like an extended laying of watery wreaths. All else, however, was compromise; Sway’s This Is My Demo worked only with the two genuinely startling tracks which didn’t seek to emulate big-budget American rap (and there are few sorrier forms of music than the latter, as it currently stands – even the most musically promising and avant-garde hip hop record of 2006, Spank Rock’s YoYoYoYo… is nullified by the dreadful sub-2 Live Crew misogyny prevalent throughout). And where Mike Skinner glumly fell into the trap of whining about being rich, it was left to Plan B to deliver a true slap in Cameronite faces with a ceaselessly inventive and defiantly vituperative album; while those venerable warhorses Fun’Da’Mental trumped everyone with their staggering All Is War – whether or not you agree with its sentiments, its finely-aimed gamma rays of fury were the most white hot eruption since the Pistols. For the true epitaph to dubstep, though, you might consider the Skream! album, which commemorated its passing with rueful joy.

The spatial dimensions and deployment of silence in Skream!’s music were also reflected in the year’s best dance music. Of the mix albums, Kiki’s Boogy Bytes and Luciano’s Sci.Fi.Hi.Fi Volume 2 stood proudest; insistent but reflective, propulsive but troubled. The Various Productions anthology came close with its bleak but not defeated meta-freakfolk opacities, while the likes of James Holden, Alex Smoke, Fuckpony and Booka Shade all suggested the gradual, sneaky birth of a new IDM underbelly which may yet challenge the Underworld of 2003; their albums were all eminently listenable and, to two degrees, danceable. And as New Electro abruptly died – if it had all been destined to lead to “I Don’t Feel Like Dancin’” then we are truly doomed – Tiga, spanning Canada, Belgium and my front room, bade it farewell with a remarkable record which unexpectedly pledged that 1988 could live again and be put right. Then again, Ellen Allien and Apparat’s Orchestra Of Bubbles may be the most arresting record of the lot.

The elder statesmen, if such phenomena still exist, had a mixed year. The two most successful strategies were, firstly, to go back to basics and mean it – thus Bruce Springsteen and Neil Diamond sounded more alive than they had done in decades – and secondly, to carry on pushing their own envelopes regardless and continuing to put the rest of the world to shame; witness the 76-year-old Ornette Coleman, still inventing, still out at the front, still finding new ways of singing his song, or the 62-year-old Scott Walker who managed to raise the musical bar so high it could kiss the planet Venus, and also succeeded in making the timid broadsheet and glossy music review editors look unforgivably ashen-faced; the deliberate critical underselling of The Drift will perhaps stand as the final nail in the coffin of forward-thinking music writing in print – or at least would have done had the management of the Village Voice not outdone them at the eleventh hour.

Others, however, found the going more problematic. Dylan’s Modern Times has its cheerleaders, and while I am in partial sympathy with the closing-pages-of-a-life approach (but wait a minute – he’s still only sixty-five!) and in full sympathy with Dylan’s right to be mellow, content and Leon Redbone if he so wishes, it doesn’t (yet) speak to me.

In the meantime, those suddenly stripped of major label backing sometimes betrayed the air of the straitened debtor having to adjust to reduced circumstances. Sparks’ Hello Young Lovers wasted too much time stretching out two-minute songs to six-minute wearisome epics without noticeable aesthetic benefit. Bereft of Pulp, Britpop context and Island Records, Jarvis Cocker’s Jarvis revealed a suddenly old and surprisingly crabby man; despite the involvement of Richard Hawley, the songs are ponderous, heavy-handed and oppressive (and I incidentally note that the Arctic Monkeys have sadly and prematurely already reached that stage with their third single) – and yet compare with the lightness and subtlety of touch Cocker brings with a parallel set of lyrics to Charlotte Gainsbourg’s 5:55. Then again, Air were responsible for the latter album’s music, so Cocker’s future may wait discreetly in the backroom.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment in this field was Scritti Politti’s White Bread, Black Beer, largely because Green’s talent and vision are viable and intact. “The Boom Boom Bap” was the individual song to which I kept coming back more than any other this year, and may even be the best song Green has ever written; and yet, for every moment of modest punctum elsewhere on the record – the abrupt “Hold my fucking hands” in “Cookery,” the beyond-sublime way he sings and plays with the word “sleepy,” as though chewing his lover’s tangerine, in “Petrococadollar” – there is a deflating blast of Radio 2 guitar or a fumbled trailing-off of songs into indecisive nothingness; the ingredients are all there, but the record is, in the most literal of senses, half-baked.

There are two records which may prove the most problematic of 2006. The first is the second Joanna Newsom album, which artefact is possibly the most critically overrated record since the second Pogues album. It is not entirely clear why this should be. Ms Newsom’s individual vocal stylings may be an ungainly bedspring coupling of Blossom Dearie massaging Kristin Hersh, but then so were those of the late Karen Dalton, so why should the latter move me and the former leave me cold, bored and knowingly bemused? On “Sawdust & Diamonds,” where she is left alone with her harp, the systems music/folk fusion, like Bert Jansch playing Terry Riley, is momentarily arresting, if only momentarily. And better a “burro, buck and bray songs of long face” than whatever friable garbage Chamillionaire or Cassie might ejaculate.

But nothing on Ys goes beyond that “momentarily.” Presumably Van Dyke Parks and his strings were drafted in to avoid aural monotony – no Ravi Shankar or Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, she – but they actually make the end result a more bowdlerised spectacle. This is not necessarily Parks’ fault, since you can quickly tell that he has worked long and hard to complement and augment Newsom’s music. The danger of his arrangements overriding, or undermining, the music, however, would not be so urgent if he had stronger base material to work with; about three minutes into “Emily,” it’s clear that Newsom’s monomaniacal minimalism isn’t offering Parks the same level of harmonic or emotional challenge that Brian Wilson, or Parks himself (Song Cycle, Discover America), is able to furnish. Although there is a quite sublime moment towards the end of “Emily” where the strings atomise into intimate knitting needles around Newsom’s microsyllables, we never get the feeling of true interaction that we do from, say, Larry Fallon’s string charts for Astral Weeks; although the latter was most likely dubbed on after the event, it doesn’t feel as such, the strings acting as one improvising instrument, echoing and responding to Morrison’s musing. But then on Astral Weeks, Morrison had the benefit of a skilled improvising group – Richard Davis, Connie Kay, Jay Berliner et al – able to react immediately, both musically and emotionally. Although numerous other musicians wander in and out of Ys, there is not a feeling of a group playing; no one seems capable of stepping out of the set mould, or resetting it.

Furthermore, the music’s unwarranted contentment and indolent (as opposed to mild-altering) repetition can only reflect paucity of content. Stand in front of Patti Smith’s “Land” where the music, from Lenny Kaye’s opening dripping faucet onwards, walks, runs, swims and flies with Patti’s words every single second. You are witnessing a band in the process of creating something. Whereas the songs of Ys seem cast in unarguable concrete. Astral Weeks’ astonishing spirituality arises out of songs about frustrated paedophiles and ageing transvestites. But what do we have in Ys? Bland, yea-saying, non-committal odes to sisters, love found, lost or suspended. She recites “I’ll sleep through the rest of my days” as though reading the side of a cereal packet; compare with the melting, wordless, extended “mm-mm-mmm”s of Emily Haines on “Winning.” The “dance my darling” sequence in “Monkey & Bear” plays with words, whereas the Van Morrison who could stretch the word “eye” out to thirteen syllables inhabits his words.

Throughout Ys there is no sense of meaningful development, discovery or real invention; its sub-Northangerland homilies could theoretically appear in any order; each of the five treatises – they are hardly songs – sounds the same.

We can’t really blame Newsom either; a privileged play-actress, possibly, but precisely the same could be said of Gillian Welch – and it is when Ys is set next to Time (The Revelator), a record which superficially deploys similar minimalist intent, that its pallidity becomes more sorely apparent. Welch stretches out every note and word with such skill and vision that her root material evolves into something completely new and genuinely unprecedented, yet still with its own immaculate structural logic and symmetry. The difference? You end up counting the minutes until “Cosmia” splutters to its uneventful halt, whereas you want “I Dream A Highway” to run forever.

The second record is in many ways 2006’s most remarkable – “Fizheuer Zieheuer” by Ricardo Villalobos, ostensibly a twelve-inch single, but one which lasts for thirty-seven minutes and nine seconds. Is it minimalism taken to its logical extremes? Its ingredients are basic indeed – thirteen notes of brass harmony, grouped into three sets of three, three and seven, plus a beat, with an eventual shaky Last Post bugle and numerous percussive variations. And yet with such seemingly sparse resources, the record conveys so much; there is the general air of mourning, of a curtain slowly being hauled down. When the tremulous solo trumpet makes its eventual entry, it is enormously affecting, like the combined ghosts of Eddie Calvert and Don Cherry; meanwhile the beats become fractured, diverse, divulging and subdividing until eventually the centre of the beat is implied rather than underlined, the pulse becoming ambiguous. Is it danceable? I haven’t yet tried. It’s debatable whether the record will find a broader audience, but it should; it is entirely free of scatty sentimentality or big-name cameos, and also free of anything superfluous. At the end of each side the music stops immediately and efficiently. Somewhere it will be mixed and remixed unto itself and too may play forever.

All that remains now is the CoM 2006 Top 50 itself. That will follow in systematic chapters from about this time next week onwards. As ever, it must be pointed out that this is not intended to be a definitive overview of a year in music; more as a map of my heart and soul as they now are, and the music which best reflected this. Given my previously declared reluctance to live in the past, there will no separate chart as such for reissues and compilations (I will deal with those in the New Year). This is the music, then, or at least the fifty records which best tell the story of our year – and how relieved and ecstatic I am to be able to use that plural again.

This year I finally learned whom I was writing for. And Reader, I’m marrying you.

posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
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Monday, December 04, 2006

Yet another not-very-much-of-anything chart – what a contrast to the Top 20 of a month so later, with its rhythm sticks, hearts of glass and one nation under a groove, which I suspect unlikely to be aired. Nonetheless Winton did pay due tribute to Fluff, and next week they’ll be broadcasting an archive Freeman programme (well, from 1998) and, as we all know, he was capable of illuminating the drabbest of charts with stardust of nascent neon.

20. Darts – Don’t Let It Fade Away
19. Barron Knights – A Taste Of Aggro

I really wish they’d expand the programme to include the whole Top 20 instead of being blandly selective of its bottom half. The Darts number I can’t recall at all, other than vaguely as an atypical, elephantine ballad; meanwhile the Barron Knights, Britain’s Weird Al Yankovic (times five), sent up various recent hits, including “Rivers Of Babylon” recast in a dentist’s chart. Neither was aired.

18. Chic – Le Freak
Well at least they had the wit to play this classic – such troubled elegance, sassy like a Studio 54 Cole Porter revue, and Simple Minds clearly paid close attention to Bernard Edwards’ bassline over the instrumental break. Stompin’ at the Savoy – their present to the future. Unlike all other disco hits in this list – and there are surprisingly few – it swings.

17. Patrick Juvet – I Love America (Part 1)
Didn’t play this either, which is a shame – an anonymous, woebegone Frenchman looks west, idolises what he glimpses – but did he ever get there? The dance goes on, but its key is cautious and minor.

16. Elton John – Part-Time Love
Entering his nearly four-year spell of blank international AoR – even “Are You Ready For Love?” couldn’t get past #42 in 1979, at a time when “Death Disco” went Top 20, so you figure out how much we’ve lost – and this really could have been written and performed by anybody.

15. John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John – Summer Nights
On the way down, so not played since Olivia turns up again later, and the Grease soundtrack was the number one album. From the latter Dale spun “Look At Me, I’m Sandra Dee,” which you don’t hear every day.

14. Bee Gees – Too Much Heaven
Reputedly Brian Wilson’s favourite single not produced by Spector; from the astral harmonies you can grasp his point, but the cushions of bland brass are laid on a little too thickly.

13. Queen – Bicycle Race/Fat-Bottomed Girls
He didn’t play either side.

12. Elkie Brooks – Don’t Cry Out Loud
He did play this interminable lump of Two Ronnies musical interlude banality, though.

11. Heatwave – Mind Blowing Decisions/Always And Forever
He didn’t play either side of this either. Sunday afternoons on Radio 2 – don’t you (un)just(ly) love them?

10. Frankie Miller – Darlin’
Glum “One Man Band”-style singalong from the man whose “Caledonia” sold a million in 1992 but no copies south of Carlisle so that’s why you’ve never heard (of) it. Can’t really forgive the rhyming of “lonesome” with “’phone some.”

9. Sarah Brightman and Hot Gossip – I Lost My Heart To A Starship Trooper
Now this really was a shock. This was one of my declared favourite singles of 1978, for reasons which I admit were not entirely to do with its musical content. Having seldom (i.e. never) played it since those days, it now sounds unbelievably tacky and crass with its bargain basement synths, its absurd SPELL IT OUT double entendres of quotes from Star Wars and Close Encounters. There are guilty pleasures, or there are things which are never rehabilitated because they’re crap. I would instead recommend another hit from 1978, Dee D Jackson’s gay crossover smash “Automatic Lover” with its far smarter subtext and a suitably inflated sense of its own importance which actually works in its favour (Tommy quotes included).

8. Dan Hartman – Instant Replay
Far more agreeable proto-hi-NRG disco to which we famously used to do The George Carlton Walk; I say “famously” but unless you were in the fourth year intake at Uddingston Grammar School during the academic year 1978/79 that reference will mean precisely nothing. If I tell you that we also did it to “One Step Beyond” one years later, however, you might get an idea.

7. Boney M – Mary’s Boy Child/Oh My Lord (Medley)
As I say, some things are just irredeemable rubbish. I hated Boney M at the time and detest their uncalled-for restoration in 2006 doubly. “Ra-Ra-Rasputeen/Russia’s greatest love macheen” sounds like a fantastic idea until you hear it. They dressed up in white (fake?) furs to sing/mime this dull retread of a duller song. 1978’s Christmas number one, of inevitable course.

6. Showaddywaddy – Pretty Little Angel Eyes
Their second raid on the Curtis Lee back catalogue, and like “Under The Moon Of Love” they systematically strip it of all sex, danger and interest. Because they could.

5. Blondie – Hanging On The Telephone
Along with “Le Freak,” the only record in this bundle to exhibit any real passion or spunk, and its dynamism and cheek put all of its contemporaneous polite pools of music to shame. The words of Mark Perry from Alternative TV’s The Image Has Cracked – one of 1978’s truly great records – stuck in my mind throughout this programme: “You’re getting DILUTED SHIT!”

4. Cars – My Best Friend’s Girl
Speaking of which, the Cars, whose arrival in the chart at number ten – in such days when no such thing happened unless you were Abba or similar – provoked plaintive cries of “Whit’s that?” and “Ye whit?” among my youthful peers. It was a picture disc, you see – a rare thing in those hype-free days, wink wink, nudge nudge – and without the gimmick this hopelessly lame organ-led attempt at New Wave, Ric Ocasek sounding as ever like Tom Verlaine being attached to the National Grid by his Y-fronts, one suspects that it would have spent three weeks on the listings, peaking at number 54.

3. Olivia Newton-John – Hopelessly Devoted To You
Specially written for the film of Grease – as was “You’re The One That I Want,” by the same writer, John Farrar – and you can tell it’s been grafted onto the musical, since it’s basically another of Olivia’s (admittedly very fine) C&W-lite ballads in the “Have You Ever Been Mellow” lineage. She performs it as beautifully as ever, though “I Honestly Love You” cuts far, far deeper. At our school discos of the period, this was always the third last record played, viz. Your Last Chance…

2. Boomtown Rats – Rat Trap
The ripping up of Travolta’s picture! The candelabra as saxophone meme! The Top Of The Pops lyrical citation! Ah, what rivulets of subversion spluttered through the first “official” New Wave number one in a don’t-mention-“God-Save-The-Queen” kind of a way; and indeed it would be grossly insulting to the Pistols to bracket them in with this lumpen pub-rock retread of Springsteen’s “Jungleland.”

1. Rod Stewart – D’Ya Think I’m Sexy?
The most tolerable of Rod’s six number ones since it doesn’t take itself too seriously, has a half-interesting story to tell – one night stand pick-up on the verge of blossoming into Actual Love – and in addition the numbing string-synth line and dual throbbing basses make me think of “Sound And Vision” and regret that Rod didn’t risk a whole Low-type album of depersonalised disco.

That having been said, Paris Hilton’s version is as blank and numb as any pop I’ve heard, and with her the song has perhaps found its ideal destination; indeed the whole Paris album sounds as if recorded in a shrouded corner of nothingness – no matter how much she attempts to tease (“Turn You On”), boast (“Fightin’ Over Me”) or plead (“Screwed”), she sings – or more properly intones – in a voice drained and prematurely exhausted; the animation of “Not Leaving Without You” is roughly cosmetic, and you will search in vain for a human heart within “Heartbeat.” From this evidence, this star has been blinded; meanwhile, in 1978, the protagonists of “D’Ya Think I’m Sexy?” debate about whether to unleash her on a world looking the other way.

posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
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