Wednesday, December 15, 2004

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

Nos 30-21

30. (THE REAL) TUESDAY WELD I, Lucifer
While everyone wondered what happened to Badly Drawn Boy, the new one sneaked in while they were napping. With this musical adaptation of Glen Duncan’s novel, Stephen Coates – who is (the real) Tuesday Weld – recaptured some of that roughshod spirit which endeared us to BDB in the first place. "Bathtime In Clerkenwell" is a cut-up which could prove this decade’s "Doop," while "The Ugly And The Beautiful" is amongst the most sweetly terrifying of this year’s songs. Kudos also for enlisting the help of Earl Okin, who narrowly missed being included in this list in his own right for his stunning, Chet Baker-esque live performance of Coldplay’s "Yellow." At the start the audience are sniggering, convinced it’s a joke; by song’s end they are silent apart from one voice which states, unironically, "that was beautiful."

29. ELLIOTT SMITH From A Basement On The Hill
Clearly not a record to which I would wish to listen every day of my life, but equally clearly that was not an option open to Elliott Smith. Throughout songs like "King’s Crossing" and "Strung Out Again" he spells it out to us, over and over; he’s fucked up and can’t carry on. And he didn’t. How can you argue with that? Amid the dense layers of grunge lurks that gorgeous George Harrison voice and those divine chord changes, and you end up wanting to kick his corpse for being such an idiot and depriving us of more of his art, and that in itself contributes to the reasons why he ended up killing himself. "You disappoint me/You take the world the way that it is." And it’s him when he looks in the mirror.

28. MICHAEL MAYER Touch
This year’s best soundtrack to wandering around desolate areas of south-west London with the aid of Golden Tellings buses. At first, the title track might sound like Paul Van Dyk without all the twinkling synths, excitable female vocal samples and propulsion, but Mayer is a subtler architect; listen to how the layers of the piece gradually build up and fuse into something quite grand, yet the immense breathing space remains. Although this is squarely in the tradition of House as opposed to that of 2-step, there is something in Mayer’s sense of space which is very compatible with, say, Horsepower Productions (yet that space can become problematic if inadequately peopled; thus Last Exit by the Junior Boys does not make this list because, while the blend of skeletal 2-step with worrisome, yearningly vulnerable vocals is an appealing one, the vocals themselves are more anaemic and disinterested-sounding than actively vulnerable. In other words, Last Exit proposes a unification of Horsepower Productions and Michael Franks, but I wish they had hired Franks, or Colin Blunstone, to do the vocals). "Privet" wriggles around on the epileptic jump-start provided by the ghost of Nile Rodgers’ rhythm guitar. Meanwhile, darker waters are dredged in "Lovefood" whose Godfather mandolin motif is stalked by a female voice demanding: "I want love so that I can kill. She’s not real." "Neue Luthersche Fraktur" is Deep Dish’s "Sushi" blown up to A3 size, or a more civilised take on "It’s Grim Up North." The closing "Amabile" is eventually taken over by twinkling synths, but that secondary fuzz bassline reminds us that this ride is not meant to be exactly smooth.

27. BRITTEN/LONDON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA/SIR COLIN DAVIS Peter Grimes
Compiled from live performances at the Barbican at the beginning of this year – I was in the audience for the 12 January performance – this must be the definitive recording of an opera whose subject matter is sadly extremely relevant in a world of paedophilia-inspired mob rule. The multiple balances between the forlorn non-romance between Grimes and the widower Ellen Orford and the violence, whether implicit or explicit, of the community in which Grimes is compelled to dwell, is beautifully enacted by Glenn Winslade and Janice Watson, while key setpieces such as the closing scene of Act I ("Who can turn skies back and begin again?") contain some of the bitterest and most savage scenes to occur in English music of the mid-20th century and are attacked with apposite gusto by the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. A milestone which must be heard, or better still witnessed, should they ever restage it.

26. PETER HAMMILL Incoherence
41 minutes of meditation on the subject: "what are words worth?" Musically largely restrained, although occasionally breaking out into rockist violence ("Cretans Always Lie"), Hammill kneads the thoughts of words, meanings, conversations and truths into intricate patterns of logic crisscrossed by emotion. Partly inspired by his own recent stroke, songs like "Gone Ahead" are almost unbearable for me to hear, emotionally ("Absurd ineloquence, my own words on which I choke…/So much I’m losing now, so many things left unsaid/And the voice I’ve been using is gone ahead"), though the conclusion, as attained on "If Language Explodes," seems to be that the truest emotions will always exceed the capacities of language in order to be expressed fully. A wise and very moving work from one of the most important voices in English music of the last half-century.

25. JODY WILDGOOSE Lovely White Teeth
The new wave of British free folk, as personified by Scotland’s Fence Collective, continues to grow in potential importance. Amongst many fine records this year by operatives like the Memory Band and Half Cousin, Lovely White Teeth stood out for its improvisatory spirit – Syd Barrett recovered, so to speak – with Wildgoose stopping and starting songs, changing track mid-song, but capable of great architectural beauties such as "Feathery Ones" or modest sonic adventurism ("Hello I Love You Jimi Hendrix"). "Jolene" isn’t the Dolly Parton song but miles better than the White Stripes’ version of the latter. If "Slowing Down" had been done by U2, nobody would have been surprised. Don’t let this little masterpiece – or, indeed, Mr Wildgoose - recede into obscurity.

24. THE SOFT PINK TRUTH Do You Want New Wave Or Do You Want The Soft Pink Truth?
In which Drew Daniel revisits sundry punk and post-punk manifestos and re-skewers them into electro-patterns. Indeed, the sleeve, with its detailed flowchart of commentaries and standpoints, helpfully removes the need for the writer to add anything of consequence. Suffice to say, then, that Vicki Bennett’s sardonic re-reading of Crass’ "Do They Owe Us A Living?" is sorely but surely on the sociopolitical aesthetic money, and there are similarly inspired re-readings of L Voag’s "Kitchen," Minor Threat’s "Out Of Step" (with a carefully patrolling vocal by Dani Siciliano) and others, though as it all concludes with a straight reading of Carol Channing’s "Looking Back," we are reminded that this music continues to matter now, and it is our responsibility to make it matter.

23. SHITMAT Full English Breakfest
One of two fine albums this year from the good DJ, the other being Killababylonkutz, this unashamedly takes us back to cherished memories of Digital Hardcore and Ambush – lots of 900 bpm old skool d&b mash-ups over crazy but logical cut-ups. Highlight: "There’s No Business Like Propa’ Rungleclotted Mashup Bizznizz" wherein Ethel Merman gets lost in a cul-de-sac at the wrong end of Lewisham. Best title: "UK Swampcore Sucks In Comparison To Techstep New Wave Psy-Jungle." Tell that to The Wire.

22. EMMA BUNTON Free Me
This year the mild-mannered Baby Spice makes the best Spice album ever, solo or otherwise. While the other Spices hyped themselves into oblivion, Bunton quietly went on to make an album of smart, affecting pop. The album is an unashamed exercise in ‘60s retro pop from the cover to the music, but songs like "Maybe" and the title track work brilliantly within their modest ambition. She knows her Gilberto Gil ("Crickets Sing For Anamaria") and her psychedelia ("Who The Hell Are You"), but it’s the air of uncertainty throughout which makes her pop great – note lyrics like "Let the last thing that I breathe be you" ("Breathing") and "Can’t breathe without you" ("No Sign Of Life"), not to mention the heartbreaking pause after the first chorus of "I’ll Be There." This is what some of us really, really wanted; but alas, judging by its sales figures, there weren’t enough of us left.

21. BRIAN WILSON Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE
A critical quandary awaits me here. For if truth be told I have listened to and enjoyed the new SMiLE more often than nearly any other CD this year. Or have I enjoyed more the auditory hallucinations of how the Beach Boys would have handled – and in many cases did handle – this music?

I am uneasy about this record. I was made even less easy by the puff piece which masqueraded as an arts documentary on BBC1 a couple of Wednesdays ago. One actually starts to understand why Mike Love continues to give the whole business a major body swerve. I recall trombonist Jimmy Knepper dropping into the studio in the late ‘80s to observe Gunther Schuller rehearsing his band through Mingus’ Epitaph, a similar grab-bag of reassembled fragments. Knepper diplomatically declined to participate and made his excuses, commenting with a grin, "I see you’re still having problems with it." Indeed there was a faint air of Brian Wilson being shanghaied into revisiting and completing the work which drove him towards mental and physical collapse. "Finish it Brian, it’s for your own good!" No wonder one saw him slumped in a chair, unwilling to join in with rehearsals. Did he really want to do this? Witnessing the premiere of SMiLE at the Royal Festival Hall I felt as bothered as both of us had been by David Helfgott’s performance at the same venue six winters earlier.

And there are inescapable flaws in the new SMiLE. No matter how many excuses about "the voice of experience" are made, the fact is that Brian doesn’t have the chops he did two generations ago, and to hear him struggling through the "I’ve been in this town so long" section of "Heroes And Villains" is rather painful. I am also suspicious that most of the work’s avant-garde edges have been purposely stripped off; true, "Mrs O’Leary’s Cow" survives intact, though softened by the intrusion of the vocal chorus from "Fall Breaks And Back To Winter," but the Woody Woodpecker bitonal horn figures on "Surf’s Up" appear to have been eroded or mixed back, and furthermore the second half of the latter song is marred by an entirely spurious and saccharine string section whereas the "a broken man too tough to cry" confessional must really be delivered, naked, by voice and piano, rather than cushioned. And the Sun Ra multiphonics of "George Fell Into His French Horn" are nowhere to be seen. The original Tony Asher lyrics for "Good Vibrations" tend to make the song un-pop – compare with Mike Love’s "She goes with me to a blossom world" which magically vanishes halfway through the bar and provides a more genuinely psychedelic point of transit back to the chorus.

And yet this flawed record is one I am proposing to be the twenty-first best record of 2004. Because, despite all of these flaws, SMiLE as an auditory and aesthetic experience remains a stunning piece of work; predating John Zorn by 20 years in its use of sudden jumpcuts, even perhaps pre-empting Steve Reich ("Wind Chimes" anyone?) and, at its most unabashedly lyrical – "Wonderful," "Surf’s Up" and "Cabinessence" – still painful in its innate beauty. It betrays an ambition which, in days when we are invited to look at the Libertines and Razorlight as keepers of the faith, holding up the light of truth when in reality they are barely capable of holding up each other, in days when the dreary thrice-recycled camp of the Scissor Sisters is considered avant garde, this fusion of Bley and Ives, of Mercer and Ginsberg, remains so far ahead of the rest of the fucking camp that it’s embarrassing. If only the Beach Boys had had their own George Martin in ’67, or even a Phil Spector, to knock everyone and everything into shape, then this would have been number one in my list of 37 years ago. As it stands, the remaining 20 records under consideration here pushed things a little bit further, in every sense of the word. That in itself doesn’t go anywhere towards diminishing the value and impact of SMiLE.