It's that time of year again, by which I mean 'later than it should be.' But you're used to that by now, I guess. So for the 17th year running, here comes my selection of the best tracks of the preceding twelve months, which will just fit onto a standard CD with three seconds to spare. (Always nice when it works out like that.)
Opening observations: yes, it does appear to be a little bit heavy on the mucky language this year, a fact reflected in the overall compilation title. (I came up with it in a fit of bitterness, following the single most unsatisfying day of my working year.) If you're planning to play it in the presence of kiddiwinks, you may want to program your CD player to skip tracks 1, 5, 10, 11 and 14. And if that hasn't put you off, at the end of this page you'll find the usual competition to win your own copy (closing date February 28th 2010).
Track by track, it looks like this.
1. MUMFORD AND SONS – Little Lion Man (from Sigh No More, Island) (video)
And the first big swear comes in at the 1'02" mark, courtesy of Mumford And Sons. I’ve always had a wee bit of a folky bent, as you’ll see in about seven tracks' time: so the gloomy enthusiasm of Little Lion Man (not to be confused with Andrew Collings' Lion Man) has a definite appeal to me. But it’s exasperating to look through online discussions on the band and see them full of twats who insist that they’re somehow more “authentic” because they’re not manufactured, or don’t have drum machines, or aren’t black, or whatever. Is it possible to like the band but hate their fans? I hope so.
2. THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS – Meet The Elements (from Here Comes Science, Disney Sound) (video)
Here in the UK, we have people like Richard Dawkins raucously proclaiming that Science Is Interesting. In the US, however, when They Might Be Giants recorded an album for kids on the subject, they had to preface it with the insistence that Science Is Real, because apparently that's somehow up for debate. Still, the resulting album has a winning combination of information and tunes, with this particular song getting praise for having the balls to rhyme ‘elements’ with ‘elephants’.
3. REGINA SPEKTOR – Eet (from Far, Warner Bros) (video)
Her first appearance since Us turned up on my 2006 CD. Sadly, in the interim Regina Spektor’s name hasn’t become so well-known for Viz to turn her into the inevitable cartoon character Regina Spektor, Vagina Inspector. She hasn’t even become famous enough for people to realize that you don’t pronounce her first name like that. Us has subsequently been used in so many places (most recently, the opening credits of (500) Days Of Summer), you could be forgiven for thinking that Spektor’s just a one-hit wonder. With songs as good as Eet – and there are plenty nearly as good as that on Far – hopefully that won’t remain the case for much longer.
4. PREFAB SPROUT – Ride (from Let’s Change The World With Music, Sony BMG) (video)
Prefab Sprout’s 2009 comeback may well have been the one we were least expecting, although in the end it was just Paddy McAloon dusting off a shelved set of demos from 1992. Even in this one-man-band form, the songs fit beautifully into the chronology of post-Jordan Sprouts, the sort of danceable melancholy that I used to lap up like crazy and still sometimes do. McAloon gets overly defensive in the sleevenotes about the religious bent of a lot of this record’s lyrics: “You wouldn’t have been so literal minded as to be alienated by that kind of language, would you? You would have seen what I was up to. That’s right. I was talking about transcendence. I was looking for transcendence. Transcendence through music. Yep.” He shouldn't worry so much: we all appreciate that religion has the best set of metaphors available for popular music, and he uses them well here. (Interesting to note that a couple of the songs, including Ride, haven’t lain completely dormant since 1992…)
5. JAY-Z – Empire State Of Mind (from The Blueprint 3, ROC Nation) (video)
I can take or leave Jay-Z, to be honest. The last record of his I had any interest in was The Grey Album, which of course he didn’t have much say in. But he’s been in the hip-hop game long enough to know that a killer hook is what you need to draw in the floating punters like me, and Alicia Keys’ ripsnorter of a chorus elevates Empire State Of Mind from a simple bit of New-York-against-the-world braggadocio to one of the all-time great songs about the city. Although it surprises me that given Jay-Z's previous collaboration with Coldplay, nobody else seems to have noticed that hook sounds curiously familiar... (Oh, sorry, they have.)
6. FLORENCE & THE MACHINE – Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up) (from Lungs, Island) (video)
It irks me to have anything to do with those industry-sanctioned New Acts You Must Like This Year lists we always get in January. Still, it’s interesting to see that of the acts who made it onto the 2009 BBC list, nobody really gives a flying one about top act Little Boots, while third-placed Florence & The Machine are currently a hairs-breadth away from playing stadia. (So maybe go for Delphic from the 2010 list, then?) To be honest, I like Florence because she’s an old-fashioned pop madwoman, willing to throw anything into a song just to see if it works or not. It’s educational listening to the album version of Rabbit Heart and spotting the final chorus vocals, pitched at dog-whistle level, that were left off the single for safety’s sake. Better something that aims too high and sometimes fails, than anything Simon Cowell has ever filed the edges off.
7. ARCTIC MONKEYS – Cornerstone (from Humbug, Domino) (video)
Careful observers will have noted that despite my enthusiasm for the Arctic Monkeys’ debut in 2006, their followup didn’t trouble these lists at all. Didn’t quite do it for me, I’m afraid. But Humbug is a record I’m still finding my way into: there’s enough depth in the new songs to suggest that multiple listens will make them even stronger. At the same time, they can still turn out an instantly accessible hit single like this lovely thing. The Belated Birthday Girl asks: how many other pop songs out there contain references to Letraset?
8. THE UNTHANKS – The Testimony Of Patience Kershaw (from Here’s The Tender Coming, Rabble Rouser) (video)
No longer Rachel Unthank And The Winterset: hey, hey, they’re The Unthanks, acknowledging that sister Becky is as important as Rachel to their sound. And they’ve broadened out even further musically with this album, blowing up to a nine-piece band if you include the string quartet. Frank Higgins’ song is a wee gem, adapted from a statement given by a 17-year-old female coal miner to Lord Ashley’s 1882 Mines Commission: the sly flash-forward to the present day in the final verse gives it an edge that the Unthanks pick up on with obvious delight.
9. MADNESS – NW5 (from The Liberty Of Norton Folgate, Lucky 7) (video)
Unlike Prefab Sprout, the Madness comeback was one we’d been expecting and eagerly awaiting. The Liberty Of Norton Folgate was tantalizingly previewed live at the Hackney Empire in 2008 – while I was in Japan, the bastards! NW5 actually turns out to be even older than that: if we’d watched the comedy movie Neues Vom Wixxer while we were in Hamburg in 2007, we could have seen the Nutty Boys perform it there. (Hence the peculiar video linked to above.) Still, after many delays the album’s finally out, and it’s literally like they’ve never been away.
10. KATE MILLER-HEIDKE – Are You F*cking Kidding Me (from Live At The Hi-Fi, Sony Australia) (video)
You won’t catch The BBG just strolling into a gig five minutes before the headline act: she’s made some fine musical discoveries from watching the support bands first. Australia’s Kate Miller-Heidke counts as one of those, bringing the house down (if you can call the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park a house) before the arrival of Alabama 3 in August of 2009. A bit of post-gig research showed that this particular song was all over YouTube in a plethora of badly bootlegged versions, and it wasn’t until the subsequent release of this live album that you could hear it recorded properly. It probably works best when you come to it cold in the middle of a gig, and don’t have its title spoiled in advance (it’s been called The Facebook Song elsewhere, which I think suits it better). Still, the last time one of my compilations had this much swearing in it was 2003, and that was mostly down to Australians too.
11. THE BPA – Toe Jam (from I Think We’re Gonna Need A Bigger Boat, Southern Fried) (video)
Back in the day, Norman ‘Fatboy Slim’ Cook used to release records on an almost monthly basis under a variety of pseudonyms, and The Brighton Port Authority feels like an attempt at getting back to that level of spontaneity. It doesn’t really work, to be honest – the record’s too much in debt to its various guest performers, and when the guests don’t work (as is frequently the case) the song doesn’t work. Toe Jam has the once-in-a-lifetime combination of David Byrne and Dizzee Rascal: it works, and has a cheekily brilliant video to boot. And speaking of Mr Rascal…
12. DIZZEE RASCAL – Can’t Tek No More (from Tongue N Cheek, Dirtee Stank) (video)
I rewatched the 1980 film Babylon recently, for the first time since its original release. It’s turned into a bit of a time capsule of 80s Britain, but it still holds up, particularly in its starkly powerful climax. Brinsley Forde, at the end of one of the worst days of his life, goes to a sound system battle and pours all his anger into his toasting, aware that outside the venue things are about to get even worse. His chorus of Can’t Tek No More has stayed with me for nearly 30 years, a testimony to the ongoing struggle of black youth in England. Which makes it a little off for me that Dizzee Rascal has swiped this chorus to complain, among other things, about the congestion charge. Still, he’s aware of the power of the sample, and apart from that iffiness he uses it well.
13. DOVES – Kingdom Of Rust (from Kingdom Of Rust, EMI) (video)
For a large part of early 2009, it seemed to be the law that you couldn’t mention the new Doves record without throwing in a reference to Elbow. Guy Garvey and co had spent years in mid-table obscurity before The Seldom Seen Kid projected them to megastardom: it was assumed, therefore, that Kingdom Of Rust would do the same for Doves. It didn’t, really. Instead, they carried on with that - yeah, I'll use it again, why not - danceable melancholy thing they’ve always done (even when they were Sub Sub, as I noted earlier in the year), and those of us who like it continued to like it.
14. THE LONELY ISLAND – I’m On A Boat (from Incredibad, Universal) (video)
It’s actually been a good year for comedy songs on telly, particularly if you count South Park’s triple whammy of Gay Fish, Poker Face and Minorities In My Waterpark. But The Lonely Island have been consistently knocking them over the boundary since Lazy Sunday transferred from NBC’s Saturday Night Live to global YouTube success. They’ve subsequently had a string of viral video hits, and Incredibad collects the best of them onto a single album (plus, inevitably, a bonus DVD of the videos). It helps that their parodies are just as strong musically as they are lyrically, meaning they survive multiple listens: compare them with, say, the Tenacious D album, where you can actually hear the laser burning the funny off the CD during the first play. So even though I'm On A Boat is a song that's umbilically tied to its video (because it's about one of the prime visual clichés of hip-hop promos), it still works as a standalone tune.
15. THE DUCKWORTH LEWIS METHOD – The Nightwatchman (from The Duckworth Lewis Method, Divine Comedy) (video)
“No, I don’t know what Neil Hannon’s up to at the moment," I said this time last year. And if you’d told me “he’s making a concept album about cricket with a bloke from Pugwash”, I don’t think I would have believed you. But while we wait for proper new Divine Comedy material, The Duckworth Lewis Method makes for a very agreeable substitute. This sounds like the most fun that Hannon has had making a record for years, with even this ever-so-slightly overwrought ballad perking up at the end thanks to a 70s-style funky coda.
16. SOIL&”PIMP”SESSIONS – Papa’s Got A Brand New Pigbag (from 6, Victor Entertainment) (video)
Soil&"Pimp"Sessions were first namechecked in these pages back in 2004, when The BBG and I accidentally came across them on Space Shower TV while visiting Hiroshima (as documented in my book Monkey Round The World, £12.09 from lulu.com). By the end of the week, she’d bought their first mini-album: between us we’ve bought all the others since, and seen their stonking live show several times. 6, as the name implies, is their sixth record: its cover of the Pigbag classic is a highlight, managing to be simultaneously faster and more melodic than the original. (Something I discovered during my YouTube research: the main riff has been adopted as a terrace chant for any footballer with a four-syllable name, along the lines of “dur dur-dur dur, Spank The Monkey”.)
17. JARVIS COCKER – I Never Said I Was Deep (from Further Complications, Rough Trade) (video)
Lovely, lovely Jarvis. Never said a bad word about him before, not likely to start now. We saw him play live in June 2009 at the Troxy, and the songs from Further Complications held up wonderfully in the face of a small proportion of audience dimmos expecting him to do old Pulp numbers. One amusing detail about the show, though: outside, the people from the Feeling Gloomy club were putting round flyers for their next big event. As a tribute to Jarvis’s infamous appearance at the 1996 Brit Awards, they were organizing a Jarvis/Pulp clubnight to coincide with the first of Michael Jackson’s run of shows at the O2. Funny how that one worked out.
18. RINGO SHIINA – Karisome Otome (DEATH JAZZ Version) (from Sanmon Gossip, Toshiba EMI) (video)
Yep, her again. Lou always complains whenever Japanese vocalists turn up on these CDs, but I’m hoping he realizes that Ringo Shiina is a cut above the manufactured end of the J-Pop spectrum. Karisome Otome (Temporary Virgin, apparently) originally dates back to around 2006: an English language tango version turned up on the soundtrack to the movie Sakuran, while this high-velocity jazz take was a download-only single that’s finally got a full release on this album. The DEATH JAZZ subtitle tells you that the noisy boys from Soil&”Pimp”Sessions are responsible for the filthy racket behind Ringo’s vocals.
19. JOE GIDEON & THE SHARK – Anything You Love That Much, You Will See Again (from Harum Scarum, Bronzerat) (video)
Joe Gideon & The Shark were another support slot discovery, this time from before a Nick Cave gig at the tail end of 2008. (Go back a year and you’ll see I was already raving about them then.) The White Stripes comparisons are inevitable, except that this two-piece outfit really does consist of a brother and sister: Joe Gideon on vocals and guitar, and former Olympic gymnast Viva on drums, keyboards, vocals and loop box. (Sometimes all simultaneously, which makes them one hell of a live act to watch.) AYLTMYWSA was the highlight of their set back then, and it’s the highlight of their debut album too. Not to say that the hellfire and brimstone of their more apocalyptic tunes isn’t welcome, just that this is a devilishly pretty thing in any context.
That was 2009, then: and here’s how you can win a copy of the CD for yourself. Be advised that even though the question may look piss easy, hardly anyone ever enters these things, so you’re in with a good chance of winning if you give it a go. So: name the cover star of this year’s CD, and the TV show he comes from, and send your answer to firstname.lastname@example.org by 23:59 GMT on February 28th, 2010. The first correct entry received before the closing date will win the CD: otherwise, the prize will go to the first non-correct one. One entry per person, contest not open to anyone who got the CD from me for Christmas, judge’s decision is final, yadda yadda yadda. And when you play it, just remember that I'm not to blame for all the fucking swearing. Being a monkey, and all.