Originally posted on The Unpleasant Lair Of Spank The Monkey 20/01/2005
My favourite songs of 2004, in handy compilation CD format. Ready? 'Ere we go, two three four -
1. THE KLEPTONES - See (from A Night At The Hip Hopera, download only)
I said back in 2002 that the mashup was dead, and that's probably still true - at least, in the case of one-off combinations of songs to make new music. But there were two examples this year of what could almost be thought of as concept mashup albums, in which a single idea is stretched across multiple tracks. The Kleptones - and by the way, Best. Band Name. Ever. - took a collection of Queen backing tracks, and layered all manner of vocals on top; mainly acapella raps, but also movie dialogue, random bits of speech and even interviews with Freddie and the boys. Aside from the technical skill involved in crushing together Hip-Hop Vs. Rap, The Message and One Vision like this, there's also the undeniable fact that it works like gangbusters: tapping straight into the part of your brain that thought Queen was the best band in the world when you were fourteen. (It's there. Trust me.) Unfortunately, the rights to Queen songs in the US are administered by the mousefuckers at Disney: so your chances of getting hold of this are diminishing by the day as their lawyers trawl the web on a search and destroy mission. The whole album's well worth tracking down while you still can, though.
2. TOM WAITS - Hoist That Rag (from Real Gone, Epitaph 66782)
Fifty-five quid for a bloody ticket! And that was at the back of the old Hammersmith Odeon, too! Fifteen minutes after emerging victorious from a bloody internet scrum for places at Waits' first British gig in seventeen years, I was already wondering if I'd made a mistake. Two minutes into the gig itself, I was pretty sure that there was no mistake at all. It's hard to see why people keep going on about how unlistenable the Real Gone album is, because it's steeped in fabulous melodies - okay, in some cases you have to strain past Waits' human beatboxing and random clanking to hear them, but they're quite definitely there. And for my money, in this particular case the way Tom appears to be singing through two entire throatfuls of phlegm just makes it all the more irresistible - and that's before we get to the terrific swing of Marc Ribot's lyrical guitarwork.
3. TOKYO JIHEN - Ringo No Uta (from Kyoiku, Toshiba EMI TOCT-2552)
The adventures of J-Pop siren Ringo Shiina continue, in the first of three Japanese pop tunes on this year's compilation - though surprisingly, none of them actually date from our visit to the country. 2003 was a busy year for Ringo, and was climaxed by her releasing a single (Ringo No Uta) whose title translates to "Ringo's song", with a self-reflexive video that drew on images from everything else she'd released to date. It felt like the end of something, and it was: because in 2004 she announced she was retiring as a solo artist, and starting musical life anew as the lead singer of a band. We've seen this sort of thing before, of course, and the inevitable fear is that Tokyo Jihen will turn out to be the Japanese for Tin Machine. In fact, Ringo is too smart to allow that to happen: the arrangements are less ornate than the ones on her solo albums, but instead we get to hear the unmistakeable joy of a band happily bouncing ideas off each other. And given Ringo's love of a good conceptual gag, it only seems right that the first song on the band's debut album is a cover of her last solo single. The earlier version's quaint bossa nova feel is replaced by the sort of rocking out that allows her to yell "geetar!" in unmistakable English just before the solo, and it's possible to fall in love with this song just because of that one word.
4. THE STREETS - Blinded By The Lights (from A Grand Don't Come For Free, 679 Records 2564615342)
The inevitability of Dry Your Eyes becoming the soundtrack to England's exit from Euro 2004: the groundbreaking use of text messaging mechanics as a plot device: the unexpected way in which the narrative steals the ending structure from The French Lieutenant's Woman - Mike Skinner's chav concept album has been done to death as far as highbrow analyses go, and there's little point in rehashing those ideas here. Though personally, given the appearance of Weak Become Heroes on the 2002 compilation, it's interesting to note that his tales of nights out on low quality drugs seem to have the most impact on me. Not from personal experience or anything like that, you understand. But I'm a sucker for a well-told story in a song - a point I'll return to a little later - and the first time you hear the album, it's very easy to miss a crucial bit of story information that's tucked in behind Skinner's E-ed up blathering, which will come back to bite him on the arse some five or six songs later. He's a clever sod, and no mistake.
5. ED HARCOURT - Let Love Not Weigh Me Down (from Strangers, Heavenly HVNLP49CD)
I skirted around this point when he last appeared on one of these compilations back in 2001, but now I feel I should shout it from the rooftops - the first date that The Belated Birthday Girl and I went on was an Ed Harcourt gig. So hopefully you can understand that he's got a special place in our hearts. We've seen him about once every eighteen months since then, and he's always been very good value, even on the nights when he doesn't go nuts and smash guitars up on stage. This is another typically lovely song from the man, and there's not much else can be said about it.
6. THE DIVINE COMEDY - Our Mutual Friend (from Absent Friends, Parlophone 5962802)
I hope The BBG doesn't mind me revealing to the world that she blubs whenever she hears this one. And again, it's down to the quality of the storytelling. Neil Hannon has always been very self-consciously a craftsman in his songwriting, and that can piss people off, I admit. But the sheer skill with which he builds this up as a short story is a wonder to behold: like The Streets, there's a tiny detail thrown away at the end of the first verse that turns out to be the key to the whole thing. And it's always nice to hear a song where the title doesn't appear until the very last line, as a well timed punchline. Squeeze's Up The Junction is probably the prime example, though Our Mutual Friend comes very close, and possibly even overtakes it in terms of using it as a final twist in the narrative.
7. LOVE PSYCHEDELICO - Mind Across The Universe (from Love Psychedelico III, Victor Entertainment VICL-61290)
More J-Pop, and the third appearance to date for Love Psychedelico via their third album. The formula is still the same - sixties-flavoured melodies, quirkily-accented Japlish vocals - but with a slightly more high-tech edge than before. I don't hear as much Japanese pop as I'd like, and when we last visited the country I tried watching Space Shower TV for an hour or two to get a feel for what's considered on the verges of hip these days (SSTV being roughly equivalent to the west's MTV2, I think). The same few genres we're familiar with crop up to the same degree over there - pouty girl bands, shouty boy bands, and so on - but I think the three Japanese acts represented on this year's compilation are ploughing fairly unique furrows around the mainstream. Love Psychedelico have been doing this long enough now to be planning a greatest hits album in 2005 - a bit tricky given that their first album was actually titled The Greatest Hits, but I'm sure they'll sort something out.
8. DJ DANGER MOUSE - Justify My Thug (from The Grey Album, download only)
Compare and contrast with The Kleptones, who treat their musical source material with the greatest respect, in the vast majority of cases not editing the Queen backing tracks at all. DJ Danger Mouse, meanwhile, does astonishing things with Beatles songs, reducing them to individual riffs, chords, notes and beats before reassembling them into wildly different new shapes. The concept in this case is a tad whimsical - taking music from the Beatles' White Album, combining it with acapella raps from Jay-Z's Black Album, and collecting the results as The Grey Album. But as in all the best mashups, the result in each case is a third track wholly different from the original two. In particular, this one, where it's astonishing to see the way Danger Mouse converts the folksy frivolity of Rocky Raccoon into the prowling threat of Justify My Thug. Inevitably, funsucking lawyers are determined to destroy all evidence of this music ever existing - the resulting Grey Tuesday campaign may have taken justification for acts of copyright abuse into new heights of pretentiousness, but they did at least open up the debate a bit further about how we identify the people 'responsible' for a work of art. And, also inevitably, zeitgeist-huggers like Damon Albarn are now beating down Danger Mouse's door to use him as a producer, which can only be a good thing.
9. JON BRION - Knock Yourself Out (from I Heart Huckabees, Rhino 5913017075)
As I mentioned before, the three Japanese songs on this year's compilation all date from either before or after our holiday in November - none of them could be considered as the soundtrack to the trip. If any song fits that description, it's this one, primarily because The BBG and I saw Brion perform it live on the two nights before our departure - once during David O Russell's London Film Festival interview, and once before the Closing Gala performance of I Heart Huckabees. By the time the song actually appeared in the closing credits of the film, it was pretty much nailed into our joint subconscious for the next fortnight. There are worse songs that could happen to.
10. NOUVELLE VAGUE - Too Drunk To Fuck (from Nouvelle Vague, Peacefrog PFG051CD)
Look on the discussion boards on the Lemon Jelly site, and you can see it didn't just happen to me. (Or at least you could, if the site wasn't completely bollocksed at the time of writing.) On the night of their Somerset House concert in July, a large part of the pre-concert entertainment consisted of a pre-release copy of this album on a continuous loop. The following morning, all the Jelly fans were asking the same question: "what the hell was that?" Answer: it's a pair of French guys, working in collaboration with a series of breathy chanteuses, making easy listening versions of a dozen or so punk and new wave classics. Hayseed Dixie did the same thing with their country reinterpretations of heavy metal songs; in both cases, the best results come when the band simply reveals an old-fashioned chord structure that was always there. Which is what makes this work, along with the inevitable benefits of all that sexy swearing.
11. PJ HARVEY - It's You (from Uh Huh Her, Island CID8143)
Of course, the Somerset House gigs weren't just notable for the stuff that happened in between the live acts. And for my money, Polly Jean's set was the best of the five I saw, enhanced even more by her recent shock decision to retire from touring. It's a crying shame if she means it, because her stage presence is a wonder to behold. Having said that, the full-throttle performance she gave on that night meant there wasn't room for some of the quieter, more broody numbers like this one, which is a pity. The alternative would have been to include the joyous Who The Fuck? at this point on the CD, but to be honest we're getting a little fuck-heavy already.
12. PLUS-TECH SQUEEZE BOX - Dough-Nuts Town's Map (from Cartooom!, Vroom Sound DAKVMSDP-2)
A Japanese discovery from last year, courtesy of the Adam And Joe Go Tokyo show on BBC3, which I watched open-mouthed as two Japanese men in white coats tore through the sensory overload of Early Riser. Their new album does more of the same, constructing zany pop tunes out of billions of tiny fragments of sound. Dough-Nuts Town's Map may sound cheerful enough on the surface, but the sheer oppressive weight of sonic detail makes it ultimately as terrifying as anything the Aphex Twin ever did. Both PSB albums released to date clock in at just under thirty minutes in length, and there's a reason for that - your brain would simply explode if it had to process this level of information for longer than that. This was the trickiest song to position in the running order, simply because no other song seems to fit either side of it: it's very much out there on its own.
13. SUFJAN STEVENS - For The Widows In Paradise, For the Fatherless In Ypsilanti (from Greetings From Michigan, The Great Lake State, Rough Trade RTRADCD170)
From a distance, it looks like 2004 was a busy year for Sufjan Stevens, with two albums released in the UK - Seven Swans, and this one. Though strictly speaking, Michigan is a belated UK release for a record that first came out in 2003. Which partly explains how I got to hear of the guy in the first place, as Rough Trade picked it up as an import and included this very song on their Counter Culture 2003 compilation. So if we're playing by the rules, I should really be limiting myself to 2004 releases and including a song from Seven Swans - possibly the lovely Biblical rewrite of The Transfiguration. But this particular song brings back memories of a specific bathtub in Brighton, so it stays. Sorry. Anyway, pretty, isn't it?
14. ASH - Evil Eye (from Meltdown, Infectious 5046732462)
Some of the regulars on these compilations are just too damn reliable to be able to write something different about them every time. So, erm, here are Ash again. Theoretically this is their RAWK! album, with a heavier emphasis on guitars and noise than usual: but you could beat Tim Wheeler over the head with as many flying V guitars as you like and he would still bleed tunes, he can't help it. So despite the new approach, Meltdown still turned out to be a relentlessly hummable collection of pop songs, like this one. I suspect simplicity may be part of the Ash magic: compare this with guitarist Charlotte Hatherley's solo album Grey Will Fade, where the songs are that little bit tricksier - each line appears to have one chord change too many for comfort - and thus less immediately satisfying.
15. THE POLYPHONIC SPREE - Hold Me Now (from Together We're Heavy, Universal POLYCD1)
In case you were wondering, yes, The Belated Birthday Girl still hates the Spree. The big promotional push for their first Universal release included an online game, Quest For The Rest, vaguely based on the old classic Lemmings - and she liked the idea of that, until she discovered that it had been programmed in such a way that you couldn't actually lead members of The Polyphonic Spree to their deaths. As for the record itself, it's a mixed bag. Yes, they've been given a big enough budget to make the songs sound as huge as they do on stage, and that's a good thing. But there are too many epic length tracks on here that simply can't sustain that length, even though they're really just made up of four or five other songs jumbled together. They seem to work best with the short sharp shock that a single requires, which is why this song works so well - a brief burst of pure, ecstatic joy, then on to the next one. Hopefully it's a lesson they'll learn for next time.
16. NICK CAVE AND THE BAD SEEDS - There She Goes, My Beautiful World (from Abattoir Blues/The Lyre Of Orpheus, Mute CDSTUMM233)
A song that nearly made it to last year's compilation but didn't was Nick Cave's Babe I'm On Fire: because a fifteen minute, forty verse behemoth unfortunately has no place in an eighty minute summary of the year's music. If you've never heard a forty verse song before, let me tell you from bitter experience that it's the sort of thing that can push a lyricist to the brink, even one of Cave's calibre. By about verse thirty you can tell he's frantically thumbing through a rhyming dictionary until it bleeds. Unfortunately, he doesn't seem to have got this out of his system yet. Both albums on this double set frequently resort to some of the most appalling rhymes known to man, with the "Orpheus/orifice" combo in the second album's title track being some sort of nadir. There She Goes at least manages to avoid that sort of thing until the unfortunate reference to hoeing in the final verse, and has the added bonus of showing Cave at his most uplifting in yonks.
17. MACHINE GUN FELLATIO - The Growing (from Machine Gun Fellatio On Ice, Sputnik 338265)
MGF's push to crack the British market last year didn't really come off, did it? Assuming that's what they were doing: maybe they're happy just visiting here every couple of years to cheer up the expat Aussies who run our alcohol service industry. But with slightly better marketing, they could be huge outside Australia: something like a Scissor Sisters that real people can enjoy, not just journalists. But in the meantime, the On Ice album showcases all their known strengths, and The Growing uses them all to maximum effect: queasy subject matter (imprisonment, depression, suicide), offbeat arrangements, and the killer punch of KK Juggy and the Widow Jones sharing lead vocals. You could even get this one on the radio, unlike their previous attempt to break the UK charts with Muthafukka On A Motorcycle.
18. BADLY DRAWN BOY - Holy Grail (from One Plus One Is One, Twisted Nerve TNXLCD179)
Another album that seems to have been the subject of critical grumbling for its perceived lack of tunes. Which seems mental to me, frankly: there are tunes all over the shop on One Plus One Is One, and if Holy Grail has anything going for it, it's one of Damon Gough's strongest melodies in ages. For me, the more radical thing is that this is the last track on that album, and I've always found Badly Drawn Boy albums fall apart really badly in the last quarter - this is the first one that managed to sustain my interest for its whole running time. Okay, you can argue that this actual song falls apart in the last quarter (after that glorious point about halfway through where it goes all Mr Blue Sky), but hey, you can always turn off that final minute of industrial noise and know you're not missing anything.
So that was my pick of the year for 2004, music-wise. Which must mean that this is the paragraph where once again, I go to immense trouble to set up a competition to WIN A COPY OF THIS CD, and somewhere between one and three people enter it. The best responses seem to come when I set a question which could possibly be answered by wild guessing, so here it is. The cover photo for this year's CD stars The Belated Birthday Girl, silhouetted against an event that we attended some time in 2004 - an event which was, in fact, reviewed on this very site. So using your skill and judgment - or using a wild stab in the dark, if you prefer - tell me the date and time when the cover photo for Above The Beat And The Sub-Bass was taken, to the nearest minute. Closest answer received at firstname.lastname@example.org by 11:59pm GMT on February 28th 2005 wins: so even if you can't be arsed ploughing through the site to work out which event this was, you've nothing to lose and everything to gain by having a guess. Note that this competition is not open to this year's CD distribution list (Lou, The BBG, Carole, The Sarge, Smudge), and it's not open to Old Lag because he was at that event too. Hey, I'm only trying to be fair. Being a monkey, and all.
The Kleptones, Tom Waits, Tokyo Jihen, The Streets, Ed Harcourt, The Divine Comedy, Love Psychedelico, DJ Danger Mouse, Jon Brion, Nouvelle Vague, PJ Harvey, Plus-Tech Squeeze Box, Sufjan Stevens, Ash, The Polyphonic Spree, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Machine Gun Fellatio [dead link] and Badly Drawn Boy all have official sites of varying degrees of excellence.
Spank's Audio Lair has been lying dormant for even longer than this site, but was recently updated to include 40 new tracks, including all the songs on Above The Beat And The Sub-Bass. Listen to it courtesy of Live 365.
Twenty other analyses of 2004's best records: All The Rage, Christianity Today, Fimoculous, Indie London, Japan Times [dead link], John Peel (for the last time), Junkmedia, The London News Review [dead link], Metacritic, MTV Europe [dead link], NPR, Observer Music Monthly, The Onion AV Club, Pitchfork [dead link], Prefix, Spin, Stanky Groove [dead link], Triple J, VisitBritain and Yale Daily News [dead link].
The Monkey Mall used to be available in the old days for anyone who wanted to buy the albums these songs came from, thus earning me a tiny commission fee. It was too much effort to maintain, so I closed up the direct links to individual CDs, but left the shop search open. And here's the astonishing thing I only found out last week: someone used the Mall during the fourth quarter of 2004 to buy a copy of every single graphic novel of The Invisibles. So I now have ten dollars worth of commission to spend at Amazon. Thanks, whoever you are! As for the rest of you, feel free to buy things from Amazon via the mall if you like, but don't bother with WHSmith because their commission is shit. You can get the Japanese CDs from YesAsia and the Machine Gun Fellatio one from HMV Australia, if you feel like investigating those further. [Also, obviously, see below.]