Friday, December 17, 2004

MC MC'S TOP 50 NEW ALBUMS OF 2004: THE TOP TEN, WITH THE SEASON ACKNOWLEDGED

ON A HOLIDAY
That’s all from Koons for this year; I’m flying off to the furthest nearby place for the festive season, and normal business will resume in January. Deepest thanks as ever go to the usual suspects, and thankfully to a few new ones as well; not to mention (because shamefully I rarely do) the thousands of readers around the world who take the trouble to read these words on a regular basis. Special thanks, however, go to my mum, who celebrated her 72nd birthday last week and is infinitely fitter and healthier than me; she has never used a computer and therefore doesn’t read my blogs, but she’s deeply happy that I do them, and that, in a lot of extremely important ways, is the reason and the point.

Anyway, enough wittering, and on with the (all-important?) top ten:

10. SUFJAN STEVENS Greetings From Michigan The Great Lake State
Again, strictly a 2003 release, and one which seems to have been superseded in other end-of-year polls by his subsequent and still good but lesser Seven Swans. If we are talking about building a comprehensive musical portrait of America, then Stevens is planning to make 50 records, one about each state. The first, naturally, is about his home state, and it’s a long, sad and muted affair, tracing a journey of desperation from redundancy and consequent homeless ("Flint") through manifestos for changing the world ("Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head!") to final acknowledgement and death ("Oh God, Where Are You Now?") and thence to reincarnation and renewed hope ("Vito’s Ordination Song"). It remains a profoundly moving work of art.

9. THE STREETS A Grand Don’t Come For Free
We must be careful not to become cynical after commercial success has been achieved. At least, not all of the time. For this is one of the finest concept albums in all of pop – a story humorously, terrifyingly and sadly told, sometimes all at once; but anyone whose eyes are indeed left dry when Steve fishes the £1000 from the back of Skinner’s TV at the album’s end have little understanding of pop, and maybe less of life. You remember that U2 song "Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own"? These 47 minutes explain how and why that is the case.

8. TELEFON TEL AVIV Map Of What Is Effortless
If I seem to have been unduly hard on people like the Junior Boys, or even Air, it’s because this is the album I wish either had made. Telefon Tel Aviv are a New Orleans-based electronic duo (Joshua Eustis and Charles Cooper) and Map Of What Is Effortless is their second album. It is full of exquisitely tender melodies which are gradually compressed and reordered, as though a miniature camera suddenly zoomed in on an Impressionist painting, so close that the individual brush strokes become abstract designs in themselves. Listening to the evolving/mutating structure of the title track, for instance, one is reminded of the structure of Ornette Coleman’s Skies Of America, where stately and mournful melodies are then harmolodically taken apart and atomised, all their constituent notes and chords exploding in slow motion, randomly into the aura. But kudos are especially due to singers Lindsay Anderson (steady on Sinker, no relation!) and the wonderful Damon Aaron. The closing "At The Edge Of The World You Will Still Float" is the most sheerly beautiful song of the year, sung gorgeously by Aaron (very reminiscent of the sort of music David McAlmont should be singing); the orchestra and guitars enter and then everything is abandoned to an ecstatic blip rush. Note that Billy MacKenzie overlap in the title of the song; would that the great Dundonian had lived long enough to witness, or even be part of, Telefon Tel Aviv.

7. DJ DANGERMOUSE The Grey Album
There’s no need to triple underscore the irony that the record which will most likely be immortalised as the epitome of the hopefully futuristic art of the bootleg mix was the one which did most to demonstrate the continuing validity of the music of a generation ago, as well as speak the unspeakable by intimating that, however much Jay-Z claims to be of now, about nowness, it took some 36-year-old Beatles songs to make him matter again; but conversely, it also reinforced the matter and relevance of the Beatles – once again, hear how they, even inadvertently, make "99 Problems" sound a million times more urgent and propulsive than the combined forces of Mountain and Billy Squier. Were they actually that great after all? Should we all just give up believing in any kind of progress? Or is it just a sad indictment of our nowness that the two highest-rated hip hop records in this list are based on 12-month-old joints soundtracked by 30-year-old rock?

6. GIRLS ALOUD What Will The Neighbours Say?
I wonder if that title’s a subtle pop at Kylie? (Still, give the Scissor Sisters some credit; the song they wrote and produced this year for Kylie, "I Believe In You," is a fabulously fragile mirrored room of petals of a pop song, worthy of Horn’s Dollar) There are many things I love about this album, principally the fact that most of its songs appear to be about not getting any, or avoiding getting any, or even never having got any (what else is "The Show" about? They’re saving themselves!), all the while asserting their independence of thought, even if they’re being steered by Brian Higgins and Xenomania, whose brightest hour this album is; it’s where they have taken (sur)real(ist) steps towards proving themselves as the best Britpop production team since Art of Noise.

More than anything, What Will The Neighbours Say? seems to me to have solved many of the problems and dead ends which temporarily sank the New Wave of New Pop last year. Fair enough, we could have done without those rubbish cover versions (and it’s not their fault – artist’s materials, and all that), but my goodness, even the ballads, always the Achilles’ heel of recent pop operatives, work here: "Hear Me Out" proves that Xenomania are more than capable of producing a potential "Moments In Love" in years to come, complete with misery worthy of Morrissey ("Though I drown, I leave mascara on my pillow"), while "Deadlines & Diets" is a very smart advance on the template of All Saints’ immortal "Never Ever," and smarter still for managing to rhyme "gorgeous" with "nauseous."

I must admit I was rather worried about the subtext of "Big Brother" (chorus: "Big Brother’s watching me/And I don’t really mind") and was briefly ready to ignite into a fury in the mode of "never in my bleakest nightmares did I ever imagine I would hear a pop song praising totalitarian surveillance" until I listened a lot more closely and realised that it’s actually a song about masturbation – "When I’m alone at night/And Mr Lonely bites/I want to know you’re there." In any case, the song, as with most of its companions, manages to revive the long-neglected pop soundscapes of peak-form Kim Wilde and Bananarama (for those sniggering at the back at the latter comparison, may I remind you at the very least of the existence of "I Heard A Rumour," not to mention their top three portrait of a rape victim, "Robert De Niro’s Waiting"). On "Here We Go," which is strictly speaking a cover version, Xenomania having premiered the song – with a seemingly identical backing track – on ex-Aqua singer Lene’s Play With Me album (still, absurdly, awaiting a UK release), the effect is one of Rosemary Clooney on Strictly Come Dancing suddenly bursting into "Chequered Love." I love both Lene and GA’s versions, though the nanosecond of vulnerability glimpsed in the latter’s shaky chorus of "The bassline cuts deeper than the sharpest stiletto" perhaps gives GA the edge.

I can’t think of any other current British pop group – or American one, for that matter – capable of carrying off the extraordinary skiffle-meets-Big-Beat of "Love Machine" (whose tune is an exact cross between "Rusholme Ruffians" and "Put A Little Love In Your Heart"), though lines such as "We’re gift-wrapped kitty kats/We only turn into tigers when we’ve gotta fight back" provide me with a better comparison point; What Will The Neighbours Say? is surely the kind of record Andy McCluskey actually wanted to make when he originally put together Atomic Kitten; if only they’d been patient and listened! And then there’s the ebulliently deadly "Wake Me Up," whose beats are worthy of early Basement Jaxx, and whose lyrics are a masterclass in decoding the disjointed ("It feels so good to lose." "It feels like I’m back at school." "I think you’re off your head"). Above all there is the extraordinary "Graffiti My Soul," which is exactly what I wanted that wretched new Destiny’s Child album to sound like; a hungrier and harder Prodigy, with overtones of Killing Joke, hammering the nails of pop into gravity-free space, and what may well be the best use of the humble stutter in the entire history of pop, making Paul Hardcastle’s "19" sound even more silly. "I’ve got a fistful of love that’s coming your way." "Your kisses are like cyanide." But it’s still about not getting any! Bless Girls Aloud and bless Xenomania – as things stand at the close of 2004, the keys to pop are theirs for the taking.

5. KANYE WEST The College Dropout
No need to add extraneous words to the 5,393 which I have already written about this record, which is not only the most adventurous and wise hip hop record of recent years, but one of those rare albums – exactly like The Lexicon Of Love or Since I Left You – with the innate capacity to rise above the morass of routine music and stand revealed as superb, questioning pop. Not a particularly great rapper in himself, Kanye is nonetheless a superb organiser and administrator of diverse talents; from John Legend to Ludacris, he knows exactly how, where and why to deploy all of the elements in his grasp, to tell a story which ranges from the panoramic – a polite cry against a society which makes black people with degrees end up homeless or working in Gap or as "the secretary’s secretary" – to the painfully personal; his near-fatal car crash and his joyful return to his family, however you interpret that term. The closing ecstatic eleven minutes of "Last Call" provide the missing link between Damon Dash and Molly Bloom.

4. ANNIE Anniemal
One hopes this record is going to explode next year; Anniemal may be this year’s purest and best pop album, but so far its availability has been comparatively restricted. Presumably XL are waiting for "My Heartbeat" to become a massive hit (which it must become – Lynsey de Paul kisses Dollar with the aid of Ben Folds and Heaven 17) before launching it officially, but try and snare a copy before that happens, however expensive, because this is a wonderful, wonderful pop record, full of insolence ("Chewing Gum"), dread (the title track), uncertainty ("No Easy Love" – and indeed she sounds like Richard Hewson’s missus singing with the RAH Band; isn’t "Clouds Across The Moon" the most heartbreaking of songs when you think about it: "This time I badly need a friend/Or it’s…it’s" as though her lifeline/life support machine has been switched off – truly the ancestor of Grandaddy’s "Miner At The Dial-A-View") and mischief revealing itself as compassion ("Me Plus One") and finally concluding with a hymn (the awesome Julee Cruise meets OT Quartet storm of "Come Together") and threnody ("My Best Friend"). The best pop album of 2004 because the gauntlet which it throws lands on the side of life.

3. DIZZEE RASCAL Showtime
Above and beyond considerations of grime or eski or even hip hop, Showtime stands as one of the great London albums. A track like "Graftin’" rubs your face in the smoke and, yes, grime of the East End of 2004 as thoroughly as Iain Sinclair, while the impossible Vorticist angles of the beats which swerve at you from every direction like a Dionysian joyrider on "Everywhere" and "Hype Talk" thrill and compel. But Dizzee realises the inbuilt limitations of any "scene," and the sad patience with which he recites "Imagine" and "Flying" penetrates more profoundly than many of his fellow musical travellers; it balances the fucking-fuck-you forwardness of "Face" or "Respect Me." Considering Boy In Da Corner a year ago, I ventured that Dizzee’s might be the most individual voice in British music since Morrissey; Showtime more than proves this to be the case. It is the most original record to come out of Britain since Maxinquaye.

2. FENNESZ Venice
You can understand why we old folk get vexed about the ultimate failure of the original New Pop. The idea was that pop could be changed radically enough – and this was the subtext running throughout Paul Morley’s Radio 2 documentary on electronic pop this summer – such that "Transit" performed by Christian Fennesz and David Sylvian should have gone to number one, been played on Radio 1, been featured on TOTP. But we opted to stick to the glossy surface (The Look Of Love, indeed) while peeling away whatever inconvenience was stuck underneath. So Duran Duran, the chief chasers of the New Pop ambulance, the Shysters of Shiny Yellow, have ended up being mistaken for, and venerated as, the good guys; while David Sylvian, the only New Pop operative to have remained true to his original brief, is marginalised into the pages of The Wire, onto the bandwidth of Resonance FM.

This record is of course the winter which follows 2001’s Endless Summer; rarely has glitch been deployed to such emotional and powerful effect. Water turns to ice, drowning gondolas to aeroplanes stranded in a blizzard; much more than a nomenclature pun, Fennesz’ Venice is about impermanence, about things and people ending, about trying to resurface through the barren waves, colouring them in as best they can. Profoundly soulful in its centreless flight; a de-peopled community flushed with memories of what might once have been termed "love." Abstraction, but with a pulse. "The Point Of It All" is that you listen to it in the middle of a cemetery on the outskirts of Oxford, on a flawless summer’s afternoon. Suddenly you are protected from the world; somehow you have arrived at what yet may be termed "peace." If only we didn’t have to die in order to achieve it.

MC MC’S ALBUM OF 2004

1. THE BOREDOMS Seadrum/House Of Sun
There is a strong argument that the two most influential albums of 1977 had nothing to do with punk. Well there was that Iggy namecheck on the title track of Trans-Europe Express, but Kraftwerk otherwise pioneered the art of body music without the necessity of there being an actual body, or with a body which was not necessarily that of a human being. Autobahns, Geiger counters, trains, robots, computers: all immobile objects, but all treated by Kraftwerk with the affection, respect and love normally afforded to other humans. T-EE made the screech and clang of metal on metal seem the most elemental part of nature; a single-minded journey, through tunnels, cities, fields, relentless yet somehow poignant, imbued with blossom and hue (where does the Express end up? Franz Schubert!). But T-EE was also the most physical of musics; the listener’s body becomes one with the electronic rail rhythms, somehow taking you inside the rail track, feeling the same vibrations but without running the risk of ever being run over by the train atop you.

And then there was Dis by Jan Garbarek and Ralph Towner, pretty uniformly decried in the music press of the time as an example of ECM going one step too far with their damned formula. Actually it was the artifice of Manfred Eicher striving to unify itself with nature, and the single most important forerunner of ten thousand bad New Age and chillout imitations; Garbarek standing in the dead of night on the barely palpable edge of the remotest of Norwegian fjords, blowing his rueful tenor and soprano saxes, and beside him an unmanned Aeolian harp, its notes being played randomly depending on the force and direction of the winds surrounding and going through it.

It is typical of the untiring enterprise and ceaseless creativity of the Boredoms that, with their new two-track album (23 and 20 minutes long apiece), they have succeeded in unifying these two parallel strands in music. "Seadrum" in particular is, by a considerable distance, the most stunning single piece of music I have heard this year. Constructed by Yamataka Eye and Yoshimi from a basis of – well, can music steeped in rhythm avoid being based in gravity? Three drumkits were set up right by the edge of the sea, and in some instances drums and gourds were actually played in the sea (a not inconsiderable recording feat; how did the engineers avoid getting electrocuted?), their sonorities dependent upon the impact of each successive front of waves. Following a year of such experiments, the results were edited and processed, and voices, piano, vibes and occasional guitar added on top in the studio.

"Seadrum" begins with a wonderful wordless improvised vocal by Yoshimi, vaguely reminiscent of Linda Sharrock’s acappella introduction to husband Sonny’s "Black Woman" but with considerably more peace of mine. However, after about 80 seconds, the three worlds of drums flood into the speakers like waves (or along with the waves) to cataclysmic effect. Over a dense, interlocked, polyrhythmic design of percussion – which itself processes the tunnels under the sea as though they were Kraftwerk’s train tunnels, forever hurtling forward determinedly with grace outweighing ruthlessness – Yoshimi adds her now ecstatic modal vocals and cascading cycles of major piano chords. The comparison with Alice Coltrane has already been made, but Ovary Lodge is also apposite; the relationship of the high, transmuting vocals and the endless piano ripples is very close to what the Tippetts achieved in that ensemble. There is no atonality or break in rhythm, though there are moments of relative quietude, yet with this single-minded, comparatively narrow template, the Boredoms succeed in hypnotising the listener irrevocably, taking you literally into a different dimension. The intensity keeps increasing and increasing, and as the three drummers break into a two-step garage rhythm under and alongside Yoshimi’s piano and wails it is as if Pharaoh Sanders had been remixed by Wiley. In terms of turning the sea into an alternative, breathing form of life (which is of course what it is anyway), there are also rhythmic and harmonic parallels with the early Beach Boys, so "Seadrum" also calls to mind SMiLE being energised back into life, the melancholy of "Surf’s Up" ("Beyond belief, a broken man too tough to cry") being generously eroded by the sun rising like a glass of wine slowly being drunk, and finally the mended man runs eagerly to embrace the source of his being. By the piece’s end, the drums and waves have receded and we are left with tinkling upper-register piano figures – the jewellery recovered on the beach, drying out to be worn again.

"House of Sun" is an extended raga-type piece featuring electric guitar and sitar. Just as the banjo which begins "Cabinessence" ends up as a sarod, and just as the latter part of side two of Miles’ On The Corner achieves a magical fusion of East and West which hasn’t quite been paralleled anywhere else in music, then the two sets of lines – more than two sets, as again they have been processed and re-edited from various live performances – intertwine more intently, become less easy to differentiate until at last they improvise as one. Although mellow at medium volume, played at high volume you are made giddy by the close-up disorientation, the spikes of punctum which become more apparent and take the piece almost into MBV floating guitar territory. It’s harder than it sounds, in more than one way – like a more decisive John Oswald edit of "Dark Star," its hidden dimensions spring out at you like the first rays heralding a world reborn. This record is the brightest road towards the most desirable of futures, for music as well as for you and me.