Friday, 21 December 2007

THE BLUE IN THE AIR 2007 TOP 50 ALBUMS: THE TOP TEN



10. ELVIS PERKINS: Ash Wednesday
The sanest and saddest musical response to 9/11 we are likely ever to hear; Perkins faces his dual loss squarely, can hardly bear doing it at times and it’s not a record for rabidly repeated listening. Still it hovers hymnal as a reminder that something can often come from the loss of everything – and on the deeply spiritual closure of the aptly named “Good Friday,” acknowledgement and resolution are serenely achieved.

9. THE KEITH TIPPETT TAPESTRY ORCHESTRA: First Weaving – Live At Le Mans
Recorded back in 1998 but purposely not released until now, and inevitably carrying extra poignancy following the losses of Elton Dean and Paul Rutherford, Tippett’s third large ensemble record is happily his happiest and widest-ranging, from Stimmung clicks and sighs through “Lili Marlene,” “Let’s Face The Music And Dance” and Beat Boom backing vocals through to post-bop, freeform scrums and contemporary classical ruminations. All the more reason (even more so given the loss of another of my childhood heroes, Mike Osborne, this year) to be grateful for the new wave, as delineated by the Fulborn Teversham, Led Bib and Fraud tips of the hopeful iceberg, which proves that another generation has seized the baton and fucked the airplay.

8. KYLIE MINOGUE: X
X for love and kisses, X for the beginning of her tenth life, XX for coming back from where she was sent and deciding to dance and be happy in ways Madonna could never plan, XXX for “The One,” XXXX for adventure and mischief making X the first great non-compilation Kylie album, XXXXX for “love me, love me, love me,” XXXXXX for big red futures of us.

7. BROKEN SOCIAL SCENE PRESENTS KEVIN DREW: Spirit If…
“Farewell To The Pressure Kids” indeed; the most florid, damn you first two minutes of any album this year signified immediately rediscovered freedom. Happily the “solo” project concept seem to have rekindled Broken Social Scene’s slightly frayed sense of community; although Spirit If… is nominally a Kevin Drew album and the songs are his, pretty well all of BSS turn up throughout and sound thoroughly revitalised, as do the cunningly placed cameos, most remarkably the rebirth of J Mascis on “Backed Out On The…” And Ms Feist gives a career best (thus far) vocal performance on “Aging Faces/Losing Places”; a Reminder to those who discovered her the other way of where she came from and how true ties remain strong, even at a geographical distance.

6. AMERIE: Because I Love It
No other pop star this year sounded as though they loved doing it more fervently; the best pop/R&B album in ages found Amerie coming of age and daring to be adventurous; no one did the Human League better this year than she did on “Crush,” “Gotta Work” remained a supreme anthem and the sentiments of the gorgeously fluttering “Somebody Up There” proved to be true.

5. LULLABYE ARKESTRA: Ampgrave
Not only the year’s highest placed Canadian release, but also the highest placed entry to have been released in 2006; it has yet to see an official UK release but hearing and feeling it in Chippy’s proved a revelation. Comprised of a nucleus of Do Make Say Think drummer Justin Small and bassist Katie Taylor, they roared out genuinely soulful, passionate and honest entreaties like a bulldozer raucously razing the slums of indifference; indeed one of the key songs is entitled “Bulldozer Of Love.” Assisted by horns which alternated between minimalist charts and free honks and squeals, the righteous whole came across like a cross between Rocket From The Crypt and Coltrane’s Ascension. One of two consecutive entries in this list which you should cross oceans to obtain if necessary.

4. SALLY SHAPIRO: Disco Romance
Likewise, this beautiful pop album only really exists as a full-blown album in its Stateside form, including as it does indispensable songs like “He Keeps Me Alive” and “Skating In The Moonshine” unavailable on the European edition. Hesitant Nordic indie voice meets a new Pet Shop Boys world ready for rebuilding; swimworthy beats, gorgeous chord changes, and yes, he was in her way at the supermarket and they end up suspending time with their new found love. How does Sally Shapiro, with her relatively minimal sales, count as pop and the multimillion selling Katie Melua not? It helps to think of “pop” as synonymous with “protect other people.”

3. BRITNEY SPEARS: Blackout
This, however, is the best pop album of the decade thus far; however far she wandered off other paths, Britney was uncannily on target for raising the pop bar. In addition, her sundry vocal twists, deprecations and distortions worked in her favour since even at her angriest she was happy to remain in the electric red playroom. Where “Sexy No No No” descends into something I could easily imagine Tom Jones singing, the likes of “Ooh Ooh Baby” and “Radar” are truly worthy of Elvis, “Heaven On Earth” is seamlessly perfect, and even the closing ballad zigzags in ways which are simultaneously poignant and pungent. Most pop operatives worth their salt and pepa will spend most of 2008 trying to better Blackout.

2. THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE QUEEN: The Good, The Bad And The Queen
1. RACHEL UNTHANK AND THE WINTERSET: The Bairns

Land too poor to be taxable, or they cannae get any money out of this place? The original Saxon meaning of the word “unthank” and Alastair Gray’s interpretation of same; in Lanark, he renames his fluctuant fiction of Glasgow as Unthank. And Lanark in turn is about someone who cannot come to terms with the world as it is, as opposed to the world as he would like to see it; he drowns himself (out of boredom!) but the spirit survives and somehow he finds himself resurfaced in a future.

Listening to these two portraits of Britain in 2007 it is hard not to think about floods and rebirths and indeed never-ending murals being painted in the interiors of derelict churches; a ship is metaphorically sinking somewhere, and here are two modest proposals for refloating; one from the formerly beautiful South, the other from the to be beautiful North. Together they tell their year’s most compelling musical story; all the more captivating because not too many people took great notice of either at the time of their release…their spirit has seeped steadily and patiently throughout the intervening months and they are justified in turning around at the threshold of 2008 and saying they told us so. Theirs is a story of historical decay and prospects for renewal; their apparently calm surfaces conceal blades of violence, pillows of tears (in both senses) – but both resolve to continue, to rebuild, to live once more.

Few could listen to The Good, The Bad And The Queen and not have it confirmed in their minds that Damon Albarn has turned out the most creative and vital of all musicians shovelled together under the name of Britpop; not quite a 1967 child, he has nevertheless maintained and developed that same fleeting, feathery spirit of adventure into a permanent fixture. Some chuckled at what looked on paper like an updated Ronnie Wood jam session; Paul Simonon, Simon Tong and Tony Allen did not appear a personnel listing to set hearts pacing in triplicate…but they forgot improvisation in these people, and although the album is recognisably the work of the same man who slowly crumbled throughout Parklife and The Great Escape (not to mention the under-visited dungeons of Think Tank) and then slowly found a new, yellower solution in Demon Days, its songs sound constructed from the bottom up; both rhythms and melodies seem to stem from Simonon’s bass in the first instance – and how good it was to hear that “Guns Of Brixton” rumble in full flight again – while Allen’s subtly present and never predictable drums encourage fluidity, avoid group stasis. Both leave Albarn’s keyboards and Tong’s guitars to decorate, embellish, flourish and sink as required.

The record wasn’t really a requiem, even though Albarn’s voice sounded throatier and more beaten than ever before; it acknowledged the damage of the war, the sundering apart of London, but Albarn examined the debris both pathologically and emotionally – and this is where he exceeds Burial in that he is able to fit the distant whispers and semi-submerged whiplashes into a context which bolsters their significance rather than using them as easy signifiers. Whereas Burial observes from a hilltop, Albarn seems ready to dive in at any given moment to start salvaging. So we receive reminders of a slightly shinier path; the shattering and shattered reappearance of Emperor’s Gate from “For Tomorrow” a third of the way through “Nature Springs,” the exhausted retreat into swearing on “Behind The Sun,” the terrifyingly calm hysteria of “Herculean,” the latest of Albarn’s great elegiac epics. But the climax of liberation comes with the astonishing titular closing track, with its increasing intensity, volume and concentration where the group sound as though they are manfully winding up the biggest of levers to kickstart music back into life; finally the sun materialises through the grey slate as they rock as though they are the first and last people to do so. It is a moment of true awe; restoration and reincarnation.

Meanwhile, in the northeast, there is quiet; four young women who resemble the Brontës so much that their front room appears to be the real ghost box. Unlike the cynical and lazy recycling of sampled clichés which constitutes most of the output of the capitalised Ghostbox, everything on The Bairns was unavoidably human generated; piano stools creak, percussion when needed is provided by the steady stamp of a high-heeled foot on boards of wood; and although The Bairns is the Winterset’s second album it sounds to me like the reopening of the old to begin something new. It confirms Newsom’s Ys. to be the collegiate busman’s holiday it really is; almost alone in British music this year, it did not shout to make itself heard. It just sat there, patiently, not especially drawing attention to itself, waiting for ears and hearts to find it.

Further, given their Geordie origins, The Bairns is the album which I secretly hoped Girls Aloud would make; acoustic, dreamy and nightmarish in roughly equal proportions, taking its time, seductive but rationalist. Few tracks have had as much impact on my ears this year as the opening seven minute plus “Felton Lonnin,” an adaptation of an old Tyneside nursery rhyme with disturbing undercurrents of implied violence, which sways back and forth with its sad refrain, its unearthily beautiful chord sequence and the strings which ellipse into its second half; its implications going far beyond music itself.

There are location solo vocal fragments (including a startling, if brief, take on Will Oldham’s “A Minor Place”), utterly hypnotic setpieces like the encroaching minimalism of “Fareweel Regality” which turns into a circular but intense assertion of the vitality of community and togetherness or the astounding drone of “I Wish” with Belinda O’Hooley’s deliberately discontinuous piano solo which makes the track something which could have come straight from Keith Tippett’s Ark, and even kind lunges at something approaching pop in the remarkable “Blackbird,” the best song about the joys of the mechanics of writing and performing music since Natasha Bedingfield’s “These Words.” The final resolution of “Newcastle Lullaby” finds voices and instruments winding with happy ethereality around each other in a systems roundelay, gradually dissolving into electronic signals and bleeps – you see, there is a future! – before coming to rest on a solitary, satisfied “sister sleep.”

But the deciding factor which convinced me that this was 2007’s best album was their reading of Robert Wyatt’s “Sea Song.” As regular readers will know, “Sea Song” is to me virtual holy writ, and musicians mess with it at their peril (Tears For Fears, go and stand in the corner). But Rachel Unthank and the Winterset take six glorious minutes to make the song matter in their old world, with a piano which sounds as old as the trees which helped make it, and instead of Wyatt’s small battery and wineglass Rachel uses her foot to mark the beat. June Tabor springs to instant mind, inevitably, as do Shirley and Dolly Collins not far behind, but their voice is their own, and their reading is both truthful and personal – the little cue from O’Hooley’s piano for Becky Unthank’s vocal to return for the final verse is priceless, the new middle section inspired, and it is revealed as the diatonic folk song it always was and yet as something I had not heard before. Any musician capable of doing that has to be in a rarefied world of greatness, and in The Bairns I hear promises of genuine greatness. The sky outside is grey and unstable, but the sun persists in our hearts nevertheless, and all the more.

Thursday, 20 December 2007

THE BLUE IN THE AIR 2007 TOP 50 ALBUMS: PART FOUR


20. M.I.A.: Kala
Larkin’s Law dilemma in miniature: can you disagree with an artist about certain fundamentals and still be entranced by their art? Or maybe I should just shut up until I’ve learned more. Compelling, warily entertaining, far more diverting than Arular, and, with the “Straight To Hell” sample on “Paper Planes,” a belated but welcome displacing of 1979’s urgent (Crass?) spirit into the overly sober contritions of now.

19. THE MOST SERENE REPUBLIC: Population
Not available in the UK until next month but a giant jog forward from the excellent Underwater Cinematographer; another typically New Canada wander through different fields of music which through natural collective effort and love (and not in that order) manages to thread everything together without the listener ever feeling that they’re simply cherry picking the most arcane reaches of their mp3 playlists. From unexpected Bob James MoR jazz-funk recollections (“Mix Of Sun And Cloud” – but watch those footsteps at the end) to anxiously proud and forthright post-everything pop singalongs like the astounding “Solipsism Millionaires” the record is never less than original and its heart is well placed. Who will say the same for the Klaxons in six months’ time?

18. RIHANNA: Good Girl Gone Bad
As we discovered, the only way to enter the heart of Rihanna’s third and best album is in the manner of the film Memento; start at the end, work backwards through the heartbreak until betrayal is bypassed, true love recaptured and, in “Umbrella,” the year’s outstanding pop single; a hymn of togetherness and support under which we can huddle as the world torments and burns around us.

17. ROISIN MURPHY: Overpowered
She never quite sounds tormented, but burns steadily and readily; tentatively re-entering what used to be called the pop mainstream, Roisin managed what Madonna couldn’t (could Madonna get away with sitting in a chippy’s wearing full court jester costume?) with icily reassuring post-New Pop meditations on dance, and loss, and recovery, and so much else; the sleeve design was worthy of ZTT in its Morley prime.

16. LCD SOUNDSYSTEM: Sound Of Silver
I have some explaining to do. I couldn’t find my way through this album for most of this year; something not quite tangible seemed to bar my path and I wondered whether it was not connected to what we might call the Let Them Snort Coke coterie of newly-moneyed musicians pretending to be down with the Primark ghetto kids; LCD and Mark Ronson being merely the extreme West Wing of the cloisters which nurtured Allen and Melua and Nash and Penates (with the Kaiser Chiefs and Kooks somewhere to the right), which as a totality might represent the best argument for societal overthrow this side of 1976, except that the credit crunch may do for their audience more smartly than bullets; this was the soundtrack to a slow sunset of a decline.

On the other hand, if we excluded all middle class musicians pretending to have arisen from The Street, then there would hardly be any pop worth writing about; in such cases the question is whether good acting aids or impedes access to the artist’s heart. Thus Sound Of Silver initially sounded smug, and self-satisfied, a bit Ikea flatpack; like its cover, too damned white for comfort.

But I revisited it recently to try to get a firmer grasp on it since I was suspicious of excluding it from my list for reasons unreasonable, and quite to my surprise I discovered a record of hitherto hidden seamless architecture, something which for once (or the second time, if you count the early singles) amounted to more than the sum total of James Murphy’s record collection. Critical beams have quite rightly focused on the twin towers of “Someone Great” and “All My Friends”; the latter’s worth perhaps more greatly underlined by the reappearance of Dinosaur L’s 24-24 Music on CD, with its “I want to see all my friends at once!” but an overwhelming pair of songs about slowly coming to terms with personal loss and then gaming oneself up to re-enter the world; the celebration which comes out of “Friends” is slow to come and hard won, but when it finally emerges, almost humbly, it is hard to fault.

Their centre position works because the joint axis balances out the lightness of touch and approach we find elsewhere; thus the self-aware “North American Scum” with its priceless aside of “Don’t blame the Canadians!” (how could I have missed that?) and the superb bookends of “Get Innocuous!” and the Rufus-lost-in-Studio-54 finale of “New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down.” Yes, !!! were harder on the downbeat and closer to the ground, but perhaps more so than any other 2007 release, Sound Of Silver divulged its real worth only very slowly. But it’s here because of its pretty immaculate hole rather than for its unanswerable centre alone.
15. ARCADE FIRE: Neon Bible
They've gone soft, they've gone electric, they've gone Springsteen, as though there were something wrong with any of these given the right hearts. No, Neon Bible was never going to be Funeral II (by titular definition alone), but its anger was radiant, its hope undimmed, its power subtler but no less valid. "Intervention" and "No Cars Go" were holy parables of deliverance, "(Antichrist Television Blues)" contained the most frightening last 60 seconds of any piece of 2007 music, "My Body Is A Cage" blasphemed the blues (and were therefore truer to the blues)...no, we're safe with them. For now. Who else could have performed "Guns Of Brixton" as a 19th-century rebel song in the foyer of Brixton Academy and make it acutely, painfully relevant?

14. BATTLES: Mirrored
The 20-11 section of my list has traditionally been a haven for the popular critical choices which frequent most of the other end of year round-ups. This is not out of an inverse perversity but because ten other records spoke to me more directly and personally, and as such it would be remarkable if they tended to make prolific appearances elsewhere. Still, Mirrored holds a special place in my 2007 heart, and not just because of Battles having Anthony Braxton’s son at their helm (though the mathematics of father and son compute); this was the soundtrack to my recent house move, playing in the car as we travelled down through the back of sunny Battersea and across Wandsworth Bridge en route to the Golden West, and it felt like the beginning of everything; prog rock without the pomp, lean and decisive, and as for “Atlas,” the hugest of 2007 dance anthems – the Chipmunks do Suzi Quatro and take it both out there and back in seven or so minutes – it stood alone, unapologetic and looking the future squarely, if not rectangularly, in the eye.

13. BJÖRK: Volta
Sounding her most alive for a decade, Björk here was grand, tender and patient (“I See Who You Are”) and punkily/free jazzily explosive (“Declare Independence,” which may yet join “Atlas” as the foundation of a new, harder, more sensuous school of dance music) where required, with the most inventive use of brass on a pop record since Roy Harper’s HQ.

12. FULBORN TEVERSHAM: Count Herbert II
Speaking of which, Seb Rochford’s latest variation on the Polar Bear/Acoustic Ladyland template could have come out on Virgin in 1974 and no one would have blinked in surprise; yet its disconsolate electronica, its frustrated post-punk vocals and sizzling decamping of boundaries could only have belonged to now, featuring a thus far career best round of playing by saxman Pete Wareham. The lineage continues, and it did my heart a cosmos of good to know that people in 2007 were still making music as insolently powerful as this.

11. FEIST: The Reminder
Sometimes the public, when discreetly aided, do get it right; Feist’s “1-2-3-4” was a deserved slow burner of a top ten hit and it speaks libraries that I’ve yet to tire of it; elsewhere the songs and her singer are mournful, sometimes satirical, sometimes lost in limbo, and even joyous, but that Broken Social Scene ethic pervades everything; you know she is not doing this to fulfil a Brits School quota, and you love her for it all the more. An important milestone on the highway which that other overlooked Canadian number eight hit single, “Steal My Sunshine” helped open.

Wednesday, 19 December 2007

THE BLUE IN THE AIR 2007 TOP 50 ALBUMS: PART THREE


30. APOSTLE OF HUSTLE: National Anthem Of Nowhere
The second album by Broken Social Scene guitarist Andrew Whiteman’s day job band was a far more remarkable example of world music fusion than many other more loudly trumpeted records; percussion-heavy but inclining towards the kind of stealthy, thoughtful pre-post-rock typical of mid-eighties SST and therefore re-opening some musical doors long since sealed off.

29. NATASHA BEDINGFIELD: N.B.
Provided that she gives a major body swerve to the glutinous Diane Warren ballads, Natasha has the potential to become perhaps the furthest out there of all British female pop singers this side of Julie Driscoll; songs like “I Wanna Have Your Babies,” “How Do You Do?” and the brilliantly baffling “Pirate Bones” were quite unlike anything produced by the more feted (because more immediately comprehensible/because better connected in the industry) likes of Amy, Lily and sundry Kates. New Pop with a curl of a wink and a soupcon of genuine lunacy; fearlessly adventurous but always approachable.

28. ROBYN: Robyn
Making a return appearance from its original appearance in the same section of this list in 2005, largely because things like “With Every Heartbeat” – one of the great number ones – weren’t on the original downloaded CD, but it still sounds bold and shiveringly contemporary and points towards the tape of pop winding forward forever.

27. DIZZEE RASCAL: Maths And English
How was he going to cope with no longer being “grime”? He simply went about his enhanced manor as boundlessly as ever; often furiously (“You Can’t Tell Me Nuffin’”), sometimes guiltily (facing up to his own grim past in “Sirens”), but more often than not hilariously, particularly on “Wanna Be,” a.k.a. The Bugsy Malone One, where “Diamond Lil” Allen finally finds her niche and which contained the year’s best lyrical couplet: “Why don’t you just kick back, be jolly?/Stay at home with a cup of tea and watch Corrie?”

26. JUSTICE: †
Extracting the relay baton from Daft Punk, Justice took French disco smartly forward with this encouragingly noisy and resilient album, taking in everything from disorganised children’s choirs (“D.A.N.C.E.”) to one of the finest examples of hypnosis-inspiring-awe which constitutes the first and second parts of “Waters Of Nazareth,” a CN Tower of a dance tune if ever there were one.

25. HOLYFUCK: LP
They’re from Toronto, have been likened to a crash between the Chemical Brothers and Lightning Bolt, though if Joe Meek had lived to work in the post-rock field he might have come up with something like “Lovely Allen”; squalling synths meet ramshackle rhythms to equal a record which squirted life back into the hardening arteries of Gimme Indie Rock – largely instrumental, but speaking volumes, and the year’s biggest seller in Rough Trade’s shops. The miracle is that it sounds like the first post-rock record ever made.

24. ROBERT WYATT: Comicopera
Wyatt will have an indirect input into another album higher up this list, but it remains depressing how our enfeebled mainstream critical community (although in Monday's Guardian its Film and Music Editor urged its readers to abandon any notion of a “community” in a particularly nauseating and smug tone) saw fit to bury this record in the “three stars equal ageing arty weirdo” category, which as we all know is nowhere near as profitable or attractive as the “five stars equal bad Dusty Springfield impersonator” field. But the album’s tripartite structure served Wyatt well; at first he sounds and feels utterly lost, seceding his grasp on a fading age, then he wanders out into a world which turns into a tumult of war, and finally, frustrated, he finds (not for the first time) salvation and deliverance in the words and sentiments of other languages. As the man himself ruefully noted back in 1985: “We get so out of touch/Words take the place of meaning.”

23. PJ HARVEY: White Chalk
Such a seemingly unassuming record, coming in a sleeve so slim it could easily be lost on one’s shelves; but Harvey has always been at her best when no one is watching her; ancient keyboards and a purposely strained upper register – did somebody say Scott Walker? – are used as tools to express immense outpourings of grief; a quiet passage of thought until “The Mountain” when the unwary are quickly snapped by her most trenchant bark of rage. A stunning half hour.

22. DIRTY PROJECTORS: Rise Above
The tactic doesn't always work but here it did; Yale man David Longstreth and his band decided to tackle Black Flag’s Damaged, a 1981 beginning of time for many, song by song and from memory alone. The result was one of the most unassumingly inventive albums of 2007 to come out of any arena of “rock”; girl group harmonies, Nigerian hi-life and various other improbable post-MBV stratagems are put to creative ends, all gloriously climaxing in the subtly immense onset of the title track – “We are tired of your abuse/Try to stop us but it’s no use.” Perhaps as radical and influential as Greg and Henry’s original, if the world will let it.

21. LADY SOVEREIGN: Public Warning
Rescued from 2006 because I hummed and hawed about including it in last year’s list, but provided you’re not looking for the Great Grime Album (I suspect that any search for the Great Bassline Album in 2008 will prove equally fruitless) this is Neneh Cherry sassiness writ anew; the lovely sliding sarcasms of “Those Were The Days” were the hook which caught me, and “My England,” “Hoodie” and “Blah Blah” are much more than alright, still.

Tuesday, 18 December 2007

THE BLUE IN THE AIR 2007 TOP 50 ALBUMS: PART TWO


40. NORTHERN STATE: Can I Keep This Pen?
Fearlessly maintaining the tradition set by Luscious Jackson – and you have no idea how old typing that made me feel – their raps are sharp, their hooks deadly and delicious, and “Sucka Mofo” is a modern masterpiece. If only Tangled Up had sounded like this.

39. THE GOSSIP: Standing In The Way Of Control
Yes I KNOW it’s technically a 2005 album but two 2007 tracks – or at least mixes – have been added and this was the year when Beth Ditto really came forward as an articulate spokeswoman for a systematically replenishing political Left in America; she impressed me wherever I saw or heard or read her and this is a terrific modern R&B-gone-punk explosion of a record, whereas, say, Icky Thump by the White Stripes packed a somewhat less cumulative punch than “Wild Thing” as performed by the Goodies.

38. TUNNG: Good Arrows
Took me three albums to get Tunng’s point but it was worth trying; British folk music escorted into the modern world denuded of unnecessary inverted commas and bolstered by real musical adventure; remarkable songs like “Arms” and “Bullets” suggest that the 1967 experiment is still being conducted.

37. RUFUS WAINWRIGHT: Release The Stars
Splenetic, tender, ranting, caressing, hardening and worrying; the umbilical cord stretches all the way to Paris and back but Rufus is going to say his piece anyway and does so with spectacular, spot-on venom through this carousing post-Pet Shop Boys concept of a pop record.

36. LED BIB: Sizewell Tea
The real rebirth of British jazz, part two: drummer Mark Holub leads decisively, altoists Pete Grogan and Chris Williams do their best to blow each other’s brains out and electronica flutters underneath, all culminating in a brilliant deconstruction of Bowie’s “Heroes” as John Stevens’ Away might once have interpreted it. Mercy be blessed for the return of BLOOD to this music!

35. THE BIRD AND THE BEE: The Bird And The Bee
In which Greg Kurstin proves himself to be the year’s least sung backroom pop saviour – he is also an important contributor to Natasha and Kylie’s records – in tandem with the unlikely figure of Lowell George’s daughter to produce something which sounds as though it should have come out on Warp Records in 1995; the spectre (or Spector?) of the Beach Boys is never far away, but they are never overawed or subdued by prospects of ghosts; compare and contrast with Panda Bear’s Person Pitch, the year’s winner of the So Uncontrived That It’s Contrived award, and just the record for you if you fancy seven inferior remixes of “Zabadak!” by Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich but don’t actually like pop music (and no one, but no one, samples from “Always Coming Back To You” uncredited on my watch and gets away with it).

34. RICHARD HAWLEY: Lady’s Bridge
Less easy to palpate than Coles Corner, but its rewards were profound; in the subtlest of ways, so subtle that most people missed it, Hawley learns from the Everlys and Big O records that he loves but applies it to the wracking indecision of modern-era Sheffield in an attempt to make the whole place live and breathe again, and he did it with a lot more wisdom than the Arctic Monkeys, who this year delivered their rapid-fire second album, and qualitatively it was easily comparable with This Is The Modern World.

33. CARIBOU: Andorra
When he was known as Manitoba I’m not sure he’d worked out quite what to do with his notion of 1967 – the early records were a bit all over the Four Tet place – but now he grasps those Strawberry Alarm Clocks and Misunderstoods, he is more able to feed them through his own bubblegum telescope and makes soft but sinuous and deceptively hard-hitting music.

32. LAVENDER DIAMOND: Imagine Our Love
LA burnout leads to beyond passionate post-folk songs of hope and unambiguous wonder; “When will I love again?” sings Becky Sharp as though leaning into a thresher one nanoinch short of impalement with every beat, and yes, there are answers to follow and they are all to do with letting go of the bad and holding onto and nurturing love, love and, as Smokey Robinson once said in LA in 1967, more love.

31. SUBURBAN KIDS WITH BIBLICAL NAMES: #3
Ah, the golden summer that was this Easter, and warm late nights hearing these two lads from Sweden who fancied trying it and came up with songs which happily wandered off to all kinds of unexpected harmonic and genre corners, largely and fortunately because they hadn’t yet worked out how to do it, and therefore did it better.

Monday, 17 December 2007

THE BLUE IN THE AIR 2007 TOP 50 ALBUMS: PART ONE



50. DRAGONETTE: Galore
In a year where so much pop tried just too hard, it was a relief to see New Pop revisited and updated in ways creative and humorous without ever descending into pastiche or guiltily pleased blocks of cheese. Some dramatic quantum leaps were in fact achieved, but the elegance of Toronto duo Dragonette is a fine place to start; perk-filled electropop drawn in vivid and vibrating shapes with words anxious and low down. Conservative experimentation, perhaps, but there was little arguing with the tenderly thrusting likes of songs like “Take It Like A Man” or the anti-rust raunch of “Jesus Doesn’t Love Me.”

49. BURIAL: Untrue
Down here because it verges on being Fennesz filleted for crunching coffee tables, but still in here because it avoids the leaking of information about and by its creator which has been a little too frequent and eager over the last couple of months and retains all the important secrets; anyone who can make an interlude entitled “In McDonald’s” sound like the stellar baying of archangels isn’t quite ready to soundtrack Ikea assemblages yet.

48. KEVIN AYERS: The Unfairground
His first bona fide album of new songs for some fifteen years and the magic was refined but still present; old friends like Bridget St John and Phil Manzanera joined sundry newer types from Teenage Fanclub, Gorky’s etc. to create an auburn set of croons, sometimes barely oozing desperation, at others content to ride the roughage like a winking Canterbury Leonard Cohen.

47. GIRLS ALOUD: Tangled Up
In an equivocal position because this was one of 2007’s most problematic records. Although Tangled Up is a highly listenable and even danceable album, it is clearly the work of a unit who don’t quite realise that time and circumstance have overtaken them; next to Britney or Kylie’s jumps it sounded unnaturally cautious. The crux of the situation comes with “Sexy No No No…” whose startling intro suggested an entire new direction for both group and Xenomania to take, and it is difficult not to be frustrated by its rapid and tired descent into what can fairly be described as rockism. The ska update, the Basement Jaxx nod, even the stuttering “d”s have all seen better and more original days. An unwelcome development was the predominance of post-Banararama monotone group singing; in such an environment, where few solo spaces are given, it’s easy to lose sight of who Girls Aloud are, or are supposed to be, and they have to careful not to end up sounding like anybody else (e.g. Frank). I do revisit the album frequently, which is why I finally opted to include it – and I wonder what sort of album it would have become had Xenomania decided to give the songs to the reconstituted Spice Girls - but this is pretty much the last time that Xenomania can get away with it without decisively moving forward, or at least sideways.

46. FRAUD: Fraud
45. BILLY JENKINS: Songs Of Praise – Live!
The restoration of adventure, mischief and meaningful pluralism to contemporary British jazz and improv continued unabashed throughout 2007 – one of the few welcome developments in the comparatively fallow field of 2007 British music per se. The quintet Fraud were an early indicator that others were champing at and running off with the lead which Polar Bear and Acoustic Ladyland had concocted, and they did a fine job of it; saxophonist/leader James Allsopp is a hugely impressive player, blasting out righteous Aylerish melodies before twisting into extremely welcome George Khan/Gary Windo snarls and honks, while otherplanetary soundscapes are wrenched into being by drummer/electronicist Tim Giles. Meanwhile, the venerable Billy Jenkins, recorded live in Leeds with an abundantly smoking group, reminds us that some people have been working at this coalface for some considerable time; everything here, from the elegiac, stark “Bhopal” to breakneck ska-punk runs through “Sunny,” suggests that he should replace Jools Holland on BBC2 quicksnap. Aside from Howard Johnson on the reissued and indispensable Mingus At UCLA ’65, Oren Marshall demonstrated the best use of tuba as bass on any record released this year.

44. SIOUXSIE: Mantaray
Undaunted, largely uncompromising, sneakily smiling, Siouxsie sneaked back via the semi-derelict fields of trip hop and pre-Goldfrapp glittershatter to deliver a hugely confident and daring solo debut; ageist/demographic-friendly radio worked against its becoming a big seller, but she sounded the lightest and happiest – and boldest – she had sounded since A Kiss In The Dreamhouse.

43. GIRL TALK: Night Ripper
One of several albums in this list which strictly belong to 2006 but which I couldn’t allow to slip away unheralded. Come to think of it, any end of year survey is by necessity awkward and incomplete, so this list should not be treated as “authoritative”; In Rainbows, for instance, is absent since I want to evaluate it properly as a discrete record when it gets its “terrestrial” release on Hogmanay. Other more than worthy contenders such as In Our Bedroom After The War by Stars, or Fur And Gold by Bat For Lashes, or Tinariwen’s Aman Iman: Water Is Life do not appear for the simple reason that I’ve yet to catch up with them and/or give them a proper listen but I’m sure I’ll be able to reserve places for all of them in the 2008 list. Since what I usually do in such cases is listen to them in depth over the Christmas/New Year holiday itself, it would logically make more sense to post this list upon my return in January, but for private (premature fatigue) reasons it’s easier for me to get it all done before I go off on holiday.

Anyway, Night Ripper is a cut-and-paste sample/bootleg/mash-up job – it appears on the Illegal Art label, so don’t expect to stumble across a copy in your local pocket-sized megastore – but a very pop-friendly one; Soulwax-style mixes of elements from contemporary R&B, rap and pulverisingly plastic pop, and mostly sounding concise and thoroughly good-natured. Elsewhere it’s been termed “pop Plunderphonics” which seems fair enough (and if you’re looking for something similar but of more political import, try Plagiarhythm Nation by the Evolution Control Committee from 2003, if you can find it).

42. THE NEW PORNOGRAPHERS: Challengers
It met with a mixed reaction, as though musicians are not allowed to grow or change; but songs like “All The Things That Go To Make Heaven And Earth” are as powerfully playful as anything they’ve ever done, and the two big setpieces of “My Rights Versus Yours” and “Unguided” were two of 2007’s quietly twinkling highlights; the latter in particular literally makes you want to kiss all skies, particularly the one which lives above the red/gold and blue/green of the CN Tower.

41. MALCOLM MIDDLETON: A Brighter Beat
You can always rely on steamroller irony from either Arab Strap alumnus, or just double-edged pleasure as brisk, joyful pop is used to soundtrack gloriously miserabilist words; but as with his previous Into The Woods, there is so much sheer pleasure evident in Middleton’s solo work that it comes across as the most pleasurable of moans this side of Donna Summer.

And naturally I am happy to lobby for “We’re All Going To Die” as The People’s Christmas Number One, as little hope as there is of that happening (prove me wrong!) since back in 1995 even “Wonderwall” at one knowing remove couldn’t compete against the big Sony marketing forces behind “Earth Song.” But at least “Earth Song” had its merits; instead we are being primed to expect a Michael Buble impressionist to offer a born-stolid cover of a winceworthy old Mariah/Whitney duet from nine Christmases ago, Cowell still searching for that international crossover market which all evidence, tangible and intangible, has proven to be receding into the land of nowhere…or perhaps he too has twigged The X-Factor as being a glorified, limited lifespan vanity project. And it is a tragedy; a 1982 Rhydian would have been snapped up by Horn and/or ZTT, magnified into something potentially supernatural; now he is cut down to size with humbling showtunes, effectively forced to do a Lewis Hamilton because we can no longer deal with the prospect of other people not being us (and Cowell’s closing Freudian slip probably indicated that it had been decided anyway; it’s inexpensive marketing to take the last letter off all of those “Leona” products), we have become incapable of worship. For next year, please: Trevor Horn and/or Paul Morley and/or Malcolm McLaren on the judging panel, more mischief, more real risk. In the meantime, cop those 1985 glossy reminders which form the faintly ominous bridge of "We're All Going To Die" but revel in the fact that its music is on the side of life, as all art must finally be.

Friday, 14 December 2007

LIZARD MUSIC: Routine


Chicago, late 1994: Albini is recording a low-key, low-burning post-Gen X quartet. The scarcely circulated album is entitled Fashionably Lame and “Routine” is the even scarcer single extracted from the album, a hushed, solemn cycle of four major-augmented minor Farfisa organ chords which sounds like a hymn to be hummed in the remotest niche of the city. The album credits aren’t vocal specific but it sounds as though bassist Chris Guice is double tracking himself. Confusingly both Guices sound like Chris Difford and thus “Routine” marks out Lizard Music as a belated missing link between Squeeze and Slint. Ancient pop tropes – “Cool teen, I think you’ll hit the town” – mix with internal rumblings (“Even if I’m in cul de sac”) and post-Kurt cinders (“Just to satisfy my junkie style”) rekindle into shapes of Joy Division (“Fall into raincoats once again”) with a life supporting sopranino organ bleep on the bridge (“Wish him luck on the ships ahoy/I tasted tear in my junkie smile”) falling into an unduly animated middle eight (“A time to show Helene there’s no tricks up my sleeve”) before rising back towards the transept of solemnity as the first verse is repeated and fades into mirrored whiteouts of “my vanity.” I thought I dreamt hearing it on the radio and finding a copy in whichever shop I found it; along with other stray American darts from that period (Eels’ Daisies Of The Galaxy at the other extreme/bookend) it still feels like a pop just too tender to materialise.

Thursday, 13 December 2007

VAN MORRISON: Come Here My Love


He has a slightly scared look on his face, even though he looks to be protected in the middle of not quite utterable peace. Is he afraid those Irish wolfhounds might turn on him? Should his distant resemblance to Nick Drake in this picture, taken in late 1974, cause concern? An abandoned cigarette, a groove-worn second side of a blues album from 1958 which doesn't cut like it used to, the glass half-expectant; his voice booms out the title with Cyril Cusack authority but no one is even looking for hardness here: "This feeling has me spellbound/Yet the storyline, in paragraphs, laid down the same." Once again, it is voice and guitar only, sitting in a room different to the one his love is in now. "I'm mystified - OH! - by this mood," (that "OH!" as though he'd had a nanosecond of revelatory vision; piece them all together and would they listen?) "This melancholy feeling that just don't do no good" - the way he always slides into those Skip James elisions when life is at stake (cf. "Slim Slow Slider," the leaves which fall all the way down side one of Hard Nose The Highway) - he is unsure whether to prolong existence but will make the effort: "Come here my love/And I will lift my spirits high for you," he pledges in a less resonant, more intimate baritone, but where flamingos fly so do Gil Evans and Jimmy Knepper and his scarred memories. "I'd like to fly away and spend a day or two/Just contemplating the fields and leaves and talking about nothing," and talks that "nothing" as though it is "everything" which of course it is and then the Joycean global scan of "shades of effervescent, effervescent odours/and shades of time and tide" flowing through towards an innate understanding of and communion with the "intrigue of nature's beauty," a forest, a globe visualised in her shining eyes. Finally he is nearly unable to speak because of wonder: "Come along with me/and take it all in" - he entreats, he pleads - "come here, my love." Rochester melting and becoming himself before Jane, but then you guessed that already. He knows there's no need to be scared.

Monday, 10 December 2007

DANA GILLESPIE: Dead


In common with most British female pop albums, then and now, Dana Gillespie’s 1968 debut Foolish Seasons is something of a jumble rather than a coherent statement; a trying on of differing pop hats. Its dozen songs were largely produced by the young Wayne Bickerton and arranged by Mike Vickers and run the expected gamut of slop (Les Reed’s execrable MoR dribble of “Souvenirs Of Stefan”) via energetic but unfocused pop (“Tears In My Eyes,” “Can’t You See I’m Dreaming”) and through to the credibility Customs gate – two Billy Nicholls songs, “Life Is Short” and “London Social Degree” (alliteration alert ahem), both of which the teenage Gillespie handles with just the right balance of frailty and nascent venom. Jimmy Page produced and played lead guitar on the lead single, a reading of Donovan’s “You Just Gotta Know My Name” which bounces around with equal expectant buoyancy to Vashti’s “Some Things Just Stick In Your Mind.” Despite the recent rave review as part of the Guardian Music thousand – which, not for the first time, raises the question of whether the reviewer was listening to the same record as me – nothing cuts the pop mustard as extravagantly as “Nothin’ But A Heartache” or “Sugar Baby Love” (to name Bickerton’s two most famous productions). Indeed, in her notes to the CD edition Gillespie is markedly reluctant to endorse several of the tracks (she refers to her own “He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not” as “pretentious twaddle” and terms “Can’t You See I’m Dreaming” as “pretty pedestrian”).

But she is better known now as a blues singer, and “Dead” is easily the album’s most startling track as well as the most accurate pointer to where she was heading (though her knowing reading of Richard Farina’s “Hard Lovin’ Loser” which closes the record runs it a not too distant second). With a breakbeat so tough that you could walk the Brontë Way and back thrice on it – all minimalist organ, scratchy guitar from Page and some mournfully sprightly trumpet improvising from what sounds like a young Mark Charig – Gillespie proclaims her boredom with life in a Cadogan Square vowelly manner somewhere between the Viv Stanshall of “I’m Bored” and the Deborah Strickland-Evans of the Flying Lizards per se: “Leave me alone,” she sighs, “I don’t care no more” in perfect finishing school Estuary English. “I ain’t got nothing to live for,” she yawns, and yet this air of detachment works in the record’s favour as she launches into unsteady but heartfelt pleas to let herself end it all with the razor in her hand because her man is not coming back; partly Julie Driscoll in its yearning and with definite ambitions beyond the fan mags. As she herself admits in the sleevenote, however, you have to live and learn before you can truly sing the blues; her next album dropped the orchestra and went back to basics, cut as it was with Brit blues stalwarts Savoy Brown; although in the dripping semi-despair of “Dead” we also hear predications of her brief early seventies adventures under Bowie’s wing, even if Annette Peacock took it out further. It is to be hoped that the likes of Duffy and Adele can be allowed to do similar; why do I already suspect that they are doomed?

Thursday, 6 December 2007

PAVEMENT: No More Kings


Hauntology schmauntology! Talk about all the old Oliver Postgate soundtrack acetates to your heart's content, but for real unimaginable childhood memories at one remove (from a British perspective) I find it hard to beat Schoolhouse Rock, the American children's education series which seems to have run on ABC in the early seventies; brief cartoon sequences with songs contributed by pros like Dave Frishberg, Lynn Ahrens and (mainly) Bob Dorough - so that's where "3 Is The Magic Number" originally came from!

Given that, according to the CD booklet of the 1996 compilation Schoolhouse Rock Rocks!, the entire 41-episode run of the series could be accommodated on four half-hour video cassettes, one must assume that these ran (and probably still run) in syndication for perpetuity, Teletubbies-style; I only saw a few examples while over in Toronto and it quickly became clear why the show, unlike Sesame Street, never made it to these shores; stirring songs like "No More Kings" and "The Shot Heard 'Round The World" describing and unapologetically applauding the 1776 Revolution (cue open-mouthed/slack-jawed Brit viewer) mingle with more straightforward info setpieces like "I'm Just A Bill" or "Verb: That's What's Happening."

Objectively, however, these are marvellous pieces of work; the songs are catchy and ingeniously not straightforward and both audio and visuals do the job of communicating history, procedures and semantics as simply and directly to their audience as possible. So it was no surprise that a generation of indie types who grew up on the show would contribute to the abovementioned compilation, issued to raise money for the Children's Defense Fund, to aid poor/disabled/disadvantaged children who would otherwise have no voice to raise.

Lena has the album on cassette, but while exploring the second-hand shops of our new surroundings a couple of evenings ago I randomly came across it on CD amid all the usual charity shop pabulum. Well, I couldn't just leave it there, could I? And it's a fine compilation indeed; Lou Barlow and his Deluxx Folk Implosion make a splendid job of bringing out the songwriting qualities of "I'm Just A Bill," Ween do "The Shot Heard 'Round The World" in apposite indie Monkees style, Moby enjoys himself resculpting "Verb: That's What's Happening," and "My Hero's Zero" is oddly fitting for the Lemonheads to tackle.

But Pavement's assault on "No More Kings" is the highlight; the original song describes the evolution of America from the arrival of the Pilgrims to the War of Independence via the Boston Tea Party. Malkmus and Co. initially handle it with a yellow crayon playfulness ("do it to me one time" indeed!) at the delight of the New; note the rapping of the guitar over the "they finally knocked on Plymouth Rock" line and Malkmus' woozy slo-mo delivery of "Oh they were missing Mother England," although by the end of the latter verse he is already changing the lyric to read "We've all just got to get together/Talk to call each other on the telephone."

Thereafter the song begins to dissolve into flaccid howls of the song's title, odd interjections of 1983 MTV synths, random slowdowns and speedups; at one point the band even stops to turn over their pages (history books or score manuscripts?) before catching their breath and starting up again, gurgling over the remnants of the tea chests and resolving everything into a chant of "Gonna run things our own way! Gonna run it into the ground!" thereby quietly underlining the irony of how America would go on to develop. It is anarchy and sounds exactly like a bunch of nine-year-olds in the music class attempting to play the song they've just seen on Schoolhouse Rock; childish in the best of ways, and they couldn't be truer to the song's essential emotional core. Now if any American readers need to learn about the peculiar magic of Play School or Rainbow...