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.

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