2006: PARADISE REGAINEDThe 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.
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