Monday, December 13, 2004

MC MC'S TOP 50 NEW ALBUMS OF 2004: PART I

And now to the list proper, or at least the list as proper as it can be; beware that I have freely adopted and utilised the Thriller/69 Love Songs/Since I Left You policy, viz. if it comes out at the end of one year but too late for me to hear it until next year, then it gets included in next year’s list, said option being preferable to not being included in any list.

Yet again The Big Movement With Which We Can All Agree failed to materialise, artistically or commercially; but is that such a bad thing? Remember that New Pop, in both its 1981-2 and 2001-2 incarnations, never caught on as a movement in the way that Britpop – The Last Big Thing With Which We Could All Agree (with qualifications) – did. Your mum wouldn’t know what you were talking about if you talked about New Pop. But Britpop? Liam ‘n’ Noel ‘n’ Damian ‘n’ Tony ‘n’ everything down to the lowest, most comprehensible denominator. Big movements have an unfortunate trend of squashing smaller movements under their dinosaur feet, when really they should be scooping them up and helping them along the road to penetration – yes, Oasis and Blur "scrapping" for the number one slot was preferable to Will and Gareth doing so, but some of us wanted Mobb Deep and Omni Trio and LaBradford to get into the charts as a by-product. Or perhaps it was a better thing that they didn’t. Look at what happened to those – Tricky, Rocket From The Crypt – who did.

As usual there was more good music this year than any sane non-full-time music writer could handle – the 50 albums listed below were drawn from a shortlist of over 350 – but nothing to reassure us that there was a community behind or beside us, all moving gleefully in the same leftwards direction. There was also an awful lot of bad music (can there be a good lot of bad music?) which with equal predictability has filled most of the other end-of-year lists. Nonetheless, here are the 50 records which did most to help me get through what on a personal level was among the most demonic and demanding of years.

Nos 50-41

50. BEBEL GILBERTO Bebel Gilberto
I have this year been famously described as a cross between Barthes and Gambaccini, but the latter has annoyed me quite a lot of late. I recently caught a snippet of one of those periodic Is British Music Going To The Wall debates on Radio 2, where Stuart Maconie manfully tries to negotiate the difficulty presented in the problem that most of the arguments against this motion are rooted in music which demographically gets played on Radio 1, and the "Great" Gambo spent every opportunity trying to get in a plug for the New MoR – Jamie Cullum, Katie Melua, Norah Jones, Michael Buble, Diana Krall; you know the routine, even if you don’t know the dirty old men behind every single one of these artists. Of course it would be unthinkable for a writer and commentator as hallowed as Paul Gambaccini to attempt to plug a certain genre of music, and it is scandalous to imagine that his role as presenter of Jazz 102.2 FM’s weekly Jazz 40 chart show would have any professional bearing on his words. However, there remains no room in my heart or mind for any of these eager-to-please young bucks. Even someone like Nellie McKay only seems to have been willed into existence as the anti-Norah Jones; although her debut album visits some interesting backwaters with a view to renewed irrigation – think Lynsey de Paul on Situation Two records – any sympathy is rapidly and roughly dispelled by that godawful cover, the epitome of the I’m-Mad-Me ethic which the late John Peel correctly traduced with the words "Anyone who tells you they’re mad, isn’t."

But then there is Bebel Gilberto. Like Norah Jones, she has a famous father; unlike Norah Jones, she spellbinds the listener as opposed to making the listener want to slap her or at least compel her to listen to the complete works of Peter Brötzmann; her muse is intelligent, and assisted by the electro-manipulations of Marius de Vries and others her music is utterly compelling in its languorous liquidity. Key track: "Simplesmente" – you’ll believe that Brian Wilson and Gal Costa once got married.

49. MORRISSEY Morrissey, You Are The Quarry
"Irish Blood, English Heart" might not have sounded so distinctive a tirade in 1987 or 1991, but its sore thumb status in mainstream 2004 rock/pop perhaps spoke more of the drought affecting the latter than it did of Morrissey; the unambiguous attack of the music with its Mael-out-of-Moroder electrowhooshes and Pixies good cop-bad cop structure, unified with the direct and articulate words, however wrongminded, made us rejoice, despite ourselves, that in the year where the Keanes, Patrols and Ferdinands went out of their way to say nothing at all very expensively, here was Someone who At Least had An Opinion and Wasn’t Afraid To Voice It. Thus does Morrissey end up as rock’s unlikely Michael Moore.

The album itself has proven to be less durable than its initially dynamic impact suggested; too much of its latter half is taken up with boring rants against the Smiths, high court judges and critics – so it’s logical that the closing "You Know I Couldn’t Last" sees him systematically assassinate every target until there’s only himself left to punch, à la Biffa Bacon in Viz. And yet the barely-modified psychedelia (Roger Manning’s keyboards an important factor here) of the album’s first half is surprisingly effective as a backdrop for Morrissey’s finest recorded vocal performances to date. Key track: "Come Back To Camden" – the pause and intra-line pause between the lines "We knew" and "We just knew," the effortless ascension from baritone to falsetto, delivered with a confidence in his own vulnerability that finally makes him worthy of comparison with Billy Fury (see the latter’s "I’m Lost Without You," and then see what I mean), the Phoenix Nights cheapo synth which actually echoes the decayed grandeur of the lyric perfectly ("Drinking tea with a taste of the Thames") and the fact that for "Camden" you could substitute the words "Oxford" or "Clerkenwell" and be singing about me.

48. THE ANIMAL COLLECTIVE Sung Tongs
Another hugely enjoyable record which sounds like a collision between early Caetano Veloso and the Beach Boys of Smiley Smile (which latter record achieves the bizarre feat of actually being weirder than SMiLE ever could have been; listen to the stoned renderings of "Wonderful" and "Wind Chimes," compare them with the original takes and wonder long and hard) via the Incredible String Band on SST circa 1986; here Avey Tare and Panda Bear sing and strum their way through a benign woodland of cut-ups, bossa nova, unearthly harmonies and cat impressions, the latter best evinced on the suspiciously joyous-sounding lament "Leaf House." There was a lot of this kind of faux-naif thing about this year, but unlike CocoRosie, who are too pleased with themselves by half, the Animal Collective seem simply to be eager to continue cantering down their own, fairly inimitable road.

47. EMINEM Encore
What a difference a fortnight makes. "Mosh" is without doubt the best anti-Bush protest song that has yet been written; undeniably angry and passionate, brilliantly produced and performed, down to the thunderclaps and the giggling children marching with the rest of us – and yet what use is its being released when it’s too late? Now it stands as an abandoned outpost of a future which didn’t actually come to pass, the last cry of Those Against Us before We slaughter Them. Now the most curious thing about "Mosh" is how close it comes to sounding like Belgian New Beat – that lascivious 60 bpm throb is straight out of Jade 4 U circa 1990.

Encore is a curious but not unentertaining record, typically full of its own contradictions; the Martika-sampling plea to stop intra-MC dissing and killing "Like Toy Soldiers" works because of the innate strength of its hook, yet 13 tracks later we are confronted with the idiocy of "One Shot 2 Shot" by Marshall’s inexplicably supported charity of indigents D-12. And none of the album quite chimes with the shoot-your-audience-then-yourself ploy of the album’s epilogue – luridly detailed in the pictures which come with the Shady Collector’s Edition – which is straight out of Sid Vicious doing "My Way," though the final gunshot does sound as if it’s just penetrated your skull. Then again, the album arguably works best when it moves away from the dull worthiness of "Yellow Brick Road" and "Mockingbird" towards the gloriously crass locker room comedy of the likes of "Rain Man," "Big Weenie" (has Eminem been listening to Pitman on the quiet?) and the ludicrous "Ass Like That," wherein Mathers sports the least convincing Indian accent this side of It Ain’t Half Hot Mum; in fact he sounds practically Welsh, so at least he’s done you the favour of saving you from having to buy the Goldie Lookin’ Chain album, the latter of which shockingly does not feature in this list.

46. GWEN STEFANI Love, Angel, Music, Baby
The first thing is: this record isn’t as clever as it thinks it is. The second thing is: I can’t stop listening to the best of it, even if I have to struggle to forget that it’s Gwen Stefani singing it. The trick with "What You Waiting For?" is to hear it as Sparks doing the best "Being Boiled" extrapolation ever. Yes, she pants (or throws her pants) up to the microphone, sounds mock-scared in a song supposedly about taking risks and getting what you can in your short life, but the entire premise is undermined by the line "You got your million-dollar contract." Exactly – so you’re not really taking any risks, are you? The kind of risk only rich people can afford. And her view of her hoped Japanese consumers ("You Harajuku girls, damn you’ve got some wicked style") is superficial and rather cynical.

Still, there’s no denying that at its best, LAMB (bah!) is the finest record Madonna hasn’t made since 1993, even if one blanches at the sound of a 35-year-old woman making out like a teenager. "Hollaback Girl" proves there’s still some punctum in the Neptunes, forging a link between "We Will Rock You" and "Tusk," while "Bubble Pop Electric" with "Johnny Vulture" (i.e. Andre 3000) is pretty immaculate, deploying the best use of the adjective "antsy" in any media since James Ellroy’s American Tabloid, skilful and inspired in blending an Alphaville bassline, Stereolab’s hermetic bubble, Pixies chord changes and ghostly Cibo Matto backing vocals, and also featuring the best (only?) use of a doorbell ringing in one speaker and the singer rushing down the stairs from the other to meet it since Peter Wyngarde’s "Come In." And don’t overlook the strangely sinister instruction from Gwen to "drive into me" (whereby the music temporarily stops dead) on which she elaborates further in the track "Crash," which is a splendid fission of Man Parrish, Salt ‘n’ Pepa and Yello. The other Andre 3000 collaboration "Long Way To Go" also works as a deconstruction and warping of Vandross’ ‘80s soulboy spiv template, culminating in some Ayler-ish blasts from Andre’s tenor.

There are also dull patches, however – "Cool" is a bogstandard midtempo plod with which any ‘80s assemblage of spent hippies (Starship, Heart) could have topped the charts, and "The Real Thing" only works because of Peter Hook’s bass (thereby emphasising the song’s immense debt to "Thieves Like Us") and Bernard Sumner’s plaintive but heartbreaking "Don’t go away" harmony on the chorus. But, in general, Gwenny Gwengwen just about gets away with her façade here…and that’s more than Madonna has done of late.

45. THE MOUNTAIN GOATS We Shall All Be Healed
Appropriate that Jerry Jeff Walker should be namechecked in the sleeve, as if he had recorded Lou Reed’s Berlin this album is what it might have sounded like – discreet guitar, keyboards and strings decorate quietly smouldering songs about people quietly smouldering away inside themselves, sung with a somewhat ironic exuberance (but partnered by an unironic generosity) by chief Goat John Darnielle, to whom I must apologise for repeatedly failing to link to his website. Key track: "Mole" where John Cougar Mellencamp meets the Blue Nile and a vertiginous keyboard waltz flurry is released to delineate the gap between the reality of the situation described ("They had handcuffed you to your bed") and the idealisation of the situation wanted ("Out in the desert, we can live carefree").

44. DJ/RUPTURE Special Gunpowder
DJ/Rupture’s first non-mix album is a typically methodical pile-up of reggae signifiers filtered through elongated electro-glitch caverns with even a touch of Mo’ Wax-style woozy disorientation. The record’s extremes can best be measured by sampling the rolling "Little More Oil" with fine vocals from Sister Nancy, followed by the abstract, scratched-out cesspit of "The Book That Can’t Be Opened At Either End" featuring the anguished vocal stylings of Eugene Robinson from the long-lost Oxbow.

43. ED LAWES 14 Tracks/Pieces
Imagine the Aphex Twin stretching out beyond even the most abstract frontiers of SAW2 and meeting up with AMM in unreal time, and you might get an idea of where Planet Mu recording artist Lawes is heading. A multi-instrumentalist, he processes improvisations and filters, modifies, re-edits and sequences them to build structures whose point is the fascination with sound in itself – facile comparisons might be made with Jon Hassell or Stephan Micus, but the soundworld inhabited here owes more to George Crumb or Jonathan Harvey. Key track: "Bowed/Caused," but note how on "Oohs Pastiche" the ghost of SMiLE raises its head yet again.

42. TEENA MARIE La Doña
Raved over by me at length in the September 2004 issue of Uncut, this was Teena’s first album in a decade and her best in nearly two decades. Her voice is miraculously undiminished in power, persuasiveness and sensuality, and divine songs like "Hit Me Where I Live" show her to have a far more astute grasp of contemporary R&B (which she only helped invent) than the sad likes of Destiny’s "Cater 2 U" Child – as far as the latter are concerned, stick to the Boys-Brigade-in-front-of-a-firing-squad brittle brilliance of "Lose My Breath" as opposed to their musical Mogadon of an album, presumably recorded at daddy’s gunpoint so that they can broaden their appeal to pimps missing a wisdom tooth or three.

41. U2 How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb
Surprised? So was I. This might be the first U2 album worth spending your money on since Zooropa, maybe since The Unforgettable Fire. Following the complacent plodding which comprised much of Pop and All That You Can’t Leave Behind, Lipton Village’s most famous inhabitants seem to have shaken (or been shaken) out of their torpor and realised that they had to start sounding as though they mattered again – otherwise, what’s the point of being the biggest rock band in somebody’s world? "Vertigo" seems to be as much of a deliberate new starting point as "Taxman" was on Revolver (that Portuguese count-in) and the track’s spiralling propulsion actually goes a considerable way to reminding us why we all fell in love with Boy in the first place, because of all the 1980 clichés it wasn’t, as does Bono’s impassioned Believe Me! howls of "feel" and "yeah yeah yeah yeah." Similarly, a track like "All Because Of You" cascades with the same insouciant naivety as "Out Of Control," though the intervening quarter century has sharpened their sense of architectural dynamics (check the mood shifts signalled by the Edge’s guitar at 2:33 and 2:48).

But the fact is that, being the world’s biggest rock band for better or worse – and Bono knows that over the last decade and a half there have been enough good reasons to hit Bono over the head with an aluminium tea tray – no one except U2 could bring the right blend of authority and vulnerability to a song such as "Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own," a song which has proved very significant to me over the last few weeks, a song which tells us that "you don’t have to be right all the time," that when faced with bereavement (for the song is about the death of Bono’s father – and there is another mirror with Boy, an album partly inspired by the premature death of Bono’s mother) one has to acknowledge the importance of letting others into your life, and continuing to do so even when the grieving has stopped. For the song is an argument with himself – "And it’s you when I look in the mirror/And it’s you when I don’t pick up the ‘phone" – and, by extension, with us, the world ("Don’t leave me here alone…"). Hear how the Edge’s guitar, with its subtle nod at Johnny Marr, opens the song up palpably at 3:01 – it’s as if your friends have broken down the door to rescue you and let the light back in – and how the song as a whole winds its way effortlessly from its quiet beginning to its ecstatic climax, a climax which no other band could get away with without sounding pompous or out of their depth (U2 reaching the places where Oasis can’t), before it winds back down, with equal gentleness, towards a weeping two-note "bye bye" from the guitar, as though you’ve been tucked up in bed and there are people watching over you and with you and beside you always, always, except for that blindness which only now you acknowledge.