Wednesday, December 01, 2004

MC MC'S ALBUMS OF THE YEAR

Part 1: Top 50 reissues and compilations - nos 50-41

An average year, some say; another 1973 or 1985 or 1993, say others; the best year for music ever, say plenty of 17-22 year olds. The second half of the year was a distinct improvement on the first, with the shiny yellow of the unexpected and spectacular resurrection of New Pop Mark II balancing out the dark pastels of 2004's introverted first half. Grime became eski and seems to have returned to being grime again; as with British folk and British free improvisation, the genre now seems set as a continual underground conduit, happy in its self-sufficient sense of community, to feed the mainstream subtly rather than become the mainstream in itself (for those ready to bemoan the absence of the Run The Roads compilation, its release has now been delayed until January, so shall appear in next year's lists). Hypes were hyped and made as little impression on me as they usually do, to the extent that my Top 50 new releases list shares only six albums in common with Q Magazine's Top 50.

Nonetheless, as is always helpful to point out, the following lists are not edicts cast in tablets of stone. They do not represent The 100 Best Albums Of 2004, but rather the 100 albums I liked best, complete with my own unapologetic biases.

This year I have elected to run my two lists in daily (or as daily as I can manage in the next hectic couple of weeks) bunches of ten, in reverse order, so will start with what I consider to be the 50 best reissues and compilations of the year. To alert me to what I have doubtless left out, inadvertently or otherwise, feel free to use the comments box.

50. NICK NICELY Psychotropia
Why wasn't "Hilly Fields (1892)" a number one in its mirror year of release, 1982? I'm not sure about claims of its being the best British psychedelic record since the '60s - some of those unhinged Teardrop Explodes B-sides from the same period certainly run it close - but it's a gorgeously tangled meditation on cessation and spiritual banishment (Harold Biffen meets Reggie Perrin via Picnic At Hanging Rock), and Blur would have a number one with it tomorrow. Finally we now get to hear some of the other songs which Mr Nicely has been quietly manufacturing - presumably on time off from his day job - in the intervening two decades. Although nothing quite matches the opaque otherness of "Hilly Fields," plaintively demented electro-psych tracks such as "On The Beach (The Ladder Descends)," "DCT Dreams" and the extraordinary "48 Cigars" suggest that here is yet another Howard Jones that should have been (other contenders: Thomas Leer, Karl Biscuit, Troy Tate…).

49. THE FALL Slates
Their masterpiece Hex Enduction Hour is due for a 2CD redux reissue early next year - and it cannot be missed, but more about that when it actually comes out - but in the systematic album reissue programme currently being undertaken by Sanctuary, the fiery Slates continues to stand out as something of an anomalous masterpiece, even more disconcerting than it was in buttoned-up 1981. The rampaging "Prole Art Threat" and the antsy "An Older Lover Etc." continue to stun, but this reissue is made doubly indispensable by the inclusion of the contemporaneous "Lie Dream Of A Casino Soul"/"Fantastic Life" single and a 1981 Peel session which may be the most intense thing they ever did, including a demolition/preview of "Hip Priest" which climaxes in the cry of "Arthur Askey got shot!"

48. DEATH COMET CREW This Is Riphop
A generation before Antipop - and noticeably sharper and harder - came this curious bunch of post-punkers slowly scratching and thrashing their way into avant-hip hop. Mostly recorded live at NYC's Pyramid Club in 1983/4, the incendiary opening "America" - which fans of Roeg's Insignificance will recognise - sets a climactic template which they then manage to sustain. Rammellzee also lends his inimitably disassociated rappers' art to the three-track At The Marble Bar 12" included here - originally released on Situation 2, Cult fans.

47. CEDRIC IM BROOKS AND THE LIGHT OF SABA Cedric Im Brooks And The Light Of Saba
A gloriously resonant compilation of stoner jazz-reggae recorded by this '70s outfit, and the first of two entries on the Honest Jon's label. Tracks like "Satta Massa Gane" and "Lambs Bread Collie" suggest a gentler, kinder (though certainly not blander) route which dub could have taken at one time, whereas livelier tracks like "Sabebe" and "Outcry" suggest that the influence of Chris McGregor's Brotherhood of Breath stretches further than hitherto suspected.

46. ASHA BHOSLE The Very Best Of Asha Bhosle: The Queen Of Bollywood
Terrific 2CD compilation of Bollypop by its finest and feistiest female exponent. CD1 ("Traditional") is the better one, full of wonderfully absurd '60s/early '70s Indipop epics like the magisterial "One Two Three Baby" duet with Mahendra Kapoor - think Cliff and the Shadows hijacked by Sun Ra - which make one itch to see the films from which they were drawn.

45. WAYNE McGHIE AND THE SOUNDS OF JOY Wayne McGhie And The Sounds Of Joy
More mutated reggae in a foreign land, this time Canada, where in 1970 singer/guitarist McGhie laid down some grooves with an expatriate JA cast including Alton Ellis and (possibly) Jackie Mittoo. Covers of contemporary standards such as "Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye" are disorientating enough, but originals such as "Living In Circles" and the endlessly-sampled "Dirty Funk" show a new fusion being formulated - one which has never quite come to pass, or to fruition.

44. VARIOUS Saint Etienne Present Songs From Mario's Café
One of two fine compilations from the popist lads this year (the other being the 2CD mix compilation The Trip), this sees Messrs Stanley and Wiggs fingering their way eagerly through the more neglected outposts of Sanctuary's back catalogue to produce a typically wide-ranging selection of distressed beat groups and disturbed '70s pop/soul, the highlights of which are the Crows' 1953 original of "Gee" (as heard after "Our Prayer" on SMiLE) and early Godley and Crème mentalism, as "Doctor Father" in the preposterous "Umbopo" which more or less invents Crowded House. Prepare also, however, for some suicidal girl pop in the killer (literally) segue of 14-year-old Tammy St John's "Dark Shadows and Empty Hallways" ("How can I make tomorrow/When I can't bear to live through today?/…THERE IS NO LIGHT!!!!") and Ruth Copeland's truly disturbing "The Music Box" which breaks up into an untranslatable flood of sobs.

43. THE MIKE TAYLOR TRIO Trio
The highlight from the initial batch of Universal's Impressed series of Britjazz reissues - given that Gilles Peterson in the late '80s was forever ranting on about old British jazzers being squat, ugly prats in striped pullovers blowing for seven people in a pub in Covent Garden, it's nice to see that he's gained some wisdom since then, although it would have been more helpful to have had it at the time - pianist Taylor seems to have posthumously slipped through every archival aesthetic drain. Having killed himself by walking into the sea in 1969, Trio remains his primary musical legacy. Despite the title, many of these tracks feature two basses complementing Taylor's piano - Jack Bruce (Taylor co-wrote several of the songs on Disraeli Gears, also remastered, reduxed and reissued this year) and Ron Rubin - as well as Jon Hiseman at the drums. The two basses are used mostly for a rhythm and drone effect; Eastern influences are evident throughout, especially on "Guru," but also on the strangely dismembered renditions of standards like "All The Things You Are" and "Stella By Starlight" - Taylor's piano has the same evanescence as Bill Evans, but avoids emotional obviousness to disarming effect, much in the mode of Paul Bley. You can't pin his notes down. And the ballad "Abena" is as gorgeous a ballad as has come out of British jazz this side of "Starless And Bible Black." The quietest of these reissues, but in every possible sense also the most radical.

42. DAVID ESSEX David Essex/Out On The Street
One of a triptych of twofers, re-releasing Essex's CBS '70s album oeuvre in its entirety. Really you need them all, but Out On The Street is, as I've mentioned previously, virtually a nervous breakdown set to music - the Sister Lovers of post-glam. Can't think of anyone else who could have made the words "Do the Hokey Cokey!" sound as if they were about to slash their throat.

41. BERGEN WHITE For Women Only
Gorgeous and rightly lauded 1970 soft-avant-MoR album from the future Nashville stalwart arranger who here deploys the songwriting talents of the likes of David Gates ("It's Your Time") and Townes van Zandt ("Second Lover's Song") as well as his own on phenomenally poignant songs (with equally poignant chord changes and crisscrossing string arrangements) like "It's Over Now," "On And On" and "Don't Keep Me Waiting." Of especial note is the still shocking "The Bird Song" - almost a male response to the Shangri-Las ("You can't go back to her/What's done is done") until you realise that in its soft, furry way, it's a murder ballad, and therefore far more cutting than similar exercises by the likes of Nick Cave.

(Tomorrow: reissues and compilations, nos 40-31)