Originally posted on The Unpleasant Lair Of Spank The Monkey
"When Canada is dead and gone / There'll be no more Celine Dion!"
- dedicated to Mary Kay Bergman, 1961 - 1999
Those of you who were here for Damn Your Black Heart Barbra Streisand this time last year can skip a paragraph. The rest of you need to be informed that every Christmas since 1993, I've been putting together a compilation of the best tunes from the previous 12 months for Spank's Pal Lou. Last year's compilation, the aforementioned Streisand, was special for two reasons. Firstly, it was delivered as a 74 minute CD rather than the usual 90 minute cassette: and secondly, a full justification of the chosen songs was published on this very website.
The same rules apply for this year's compilation, Dance A Dickless Jig. Full details of catalogue numbers and so on are provided if you want to recreate this on your own CD writer. Be warned that the total running time of the tracks given here is actually 8 seconds over the 74 minute limit of a CD-R, but careful trimming of the odd second or two of silence from the end of a couple of songs should get it down to the right length.
But hey, enough of my yakkin'. Whaddaya say? Let's boogie!
1. THE CLASH - Complete Control (live) (from From Here To Eternity, Columbia 4961832)
I'm well aware of the irony in choosing to open a compilation of the best music of 1999 with this, a live recording of a long-defunct band that's been sat on a shelf for the last 18 years. But of all the records released this year, it was the long-awaited Clash live album which had the most attention-grabbingly brilliant opening, so it seemed like a good idea to start with it myself. By 1981, the Clash had the musical expertise to go with the passion and the sloganeering: on this track they're tighter than a dog's arse on Bob Martin's Extra Strong Arse Tightening Tablets, at least for the first couple of minutes. (By the time they hit those bum notes halfway through, you're too excited to notice.) The Eternity album and accompanying documentary Westway To The World brought up all kinds of speculation as to whether the Clash would, could or should reform. I think it'd be a terrible idea. We now have video and audio documents of The Last Gang In Town at their absolute peak: as another leader of the gang said once, remember them this way.
2. DIDO - Here With Me (from No Angel, Arista 07822-19025-2)
Also known as Dido Armstrong, sister of Rollo Armstrong. The latter is leader of top dance combo Faithless, and the former contributed vocals to a couple of their songs before making her solo debut with this record. Curiously, it only appears to be available in America: when I visited the States back in May this song was all over the radio like a bad suit, but neither it nor the album appears to have had a British release. Hard to see why: I'd have thought that the diverse range of styles showcased on the album would appeal more to a Brit audience. Here With Me has a pleasantly folky touch to the harmonies reminiscent of Beth Orton, and they mix beautifully with the dance beats of the legendary Pascal Gabriel. Recently the song's been used as the opening theme to aliens-in-high-school TV show Roswell, so maybe Dido might make her name outside of America soon. (Note to UK readers: Roswell is currently showing on Sky One under the title Roswell High. Maybe there's a British cat food called Roswell, or something.)
3. PET SHOP BOYS - New York City Boy (from Nightlife, Parlophone 5218572)
Next time I visit New York, it'll be so much different. No more skulking around in shop doorways and hotel foyers waiting for the rain to stop. I want to charge up the steps of the subway into Times Square at dusk while there's still a thin film of rain on the pavement reflecting the neon madness above. I want the camera to do a full 360 round me at high speed as I take in the sights and sounds of a city running at full tilt. And I want it all to be soundtracked by the first twenty seconds of this record. Described by Q magazine as "the gayest song ever recorded" (not that there's anything wrong with that), New York City Boy is obviously the Shoppies' tribute to two decades worth of gay disco classics. Happily, Tennant and Lowe take great care to not camp things up overly much, and the result is a gay disco classic of their very own. It's good to have them back.
4. SUPERGRASS - Moving (from Supergrass, Parlophone 5220562)
From Supergrass' "difficult" third album, as the cliche has it. Although for me, it couldn't be as difficult as their second album In It For The Money, which was reminiscent at times of the sound of a band trying just that bit too hard. In the long gap since then Gaz and the boys seem to have relaxed a bit, and it's made their eponymous album much more enjoyable. Their knack for song construction is newly refreshed, as shown on this cracking single. They've freely admitted that it consists of the verse of one song and the chorus of another, butt-jambed together because they couldn't find anything else to do with them. A genius move, as it's the enormous contrast between the lyrical verse and the stomping chorus that makes it work so well. And of course it's the end title theme from East Is East, which you've all seen by now, haven't you?
5. SCRITTI POLITTI - Mystic Handyman (from Anomie And Bonhomie, Virgin CDV2884)
There's obviously a lot of eighties pop stars out there who were contracted to deliver a set number of records by the end of the century - judging by the number of long-vanished names who suddenly popped up again in 1999. Aside from Tom Waits and Madness (both coming up later) and the Art Of Noise (who just missed the final cut), we also have lovely old Green Gartside, who hasn't released an album since 1988. Anomie And Bonhomie is a cunning synthesis of the best bits of everything he's done before as Scritti Politti, combining the songwriting craft of his early years with the flawless production sheen of his later work. It's good enough to even make you overlook that Green is too much of a smartarse ironist to write a simple love song called Mr Candyman, and has to resort to the frickin' awful pun of the title.
6. AIR - Le Soleil Est Pres Du Moi (from Premiers Symptomes, Source 7243 8472450 4)
Sure, the French may be trying to poison our children with their faeces-encrusted beef, but at least they've finally worked out how to do pop music properly. A slight cheat, including this one in a Best Of '99 collection, as the album in question was actually released in France prior to Air's world-conquering Moon Safari: it's basically a collection of early singles, brought together for the convenience of the French consumer as long ago as 1997. However, it's now finally available in the UK, and with a tasteful Quicktime video of this very song tacked onto the end to boot. Although I'm as much of a fan of their danceable stuff as anyone, this is a truly lovely piece, Bacharach-style trumpet and all: the ultimate chill-out room soundtrack of the year.
7. LAMB - Fly (from Fear Of Fours, Fontana 5588212)
After Portishead hit the big time, there were a couple of bands who followed in their wake with a similar approach: a faceless bloke assembling dance tracks, while a strange girl sang quirky jazzy vocals over the top of them. Moloko have been doing this for a while, and their persistence finally paid off in 1999 when Sing It Back became a big-ass Ibiza hit. Meanwhile, Lamb plough ahead in comparative obscurity, unheard of by all except for a small committed fanbase of people like myself, who are convinced that their 1997 almost-hit Gorecki is The Single Most Bloody Gorgeous Song Of The Nineties. There's nothing so heart-rendingly beautiful on Fear Of Fours, but there's a lot of smartly constructed dance music that's as careful to avoid the standard four-on-the-floor beat as the title implies. Fly is a transcendent example of this approach, with a buildup to the final chorus that's the closest thing to an orgasm I've heard on a record all year. I'm not overselling this, am I?
8. THE CHEMICAL BROTHERS - The Sunshine Underground (from Surrender, Freestyle Dust XDUSTCD4)
I'm still not sure about the Surrender album as a whole (and Rob D agrees with me), but this is tremendous. Taking the same form as the similarly epic Private Psychedelic Reel from their previous album, it starts off slow, builds up to ramming speed, goes nuts about three-quarters of the way through and careers to its big finish: never let it be said that the Chems don't know anything about song structure. Carelessly, however, The Sunshine Underground is thrown away in the middle of Surrender, and none of the following tracks can live up to it. Hang on a minute, how many more minutes have I got left on this CD? D'oh!
9. CRAIG ARMSTRONG - Hanging & Escape (from Plunkett And Macleane Original Soundtrack, Melankolic CDSAD7)
While we await a successor to 1998's terrific The Space Between Us, Craig Armstrong continues to keep his hand in with several movie soundtracks. He could also have been heard on Orphans and Best Laid Plans in 1999, but this was his highest profile commission, notorious in some quarters for daring to use electronics and drum machines to score a film set in the 18th century. Pausing only to wonder where the rules are drawn up that say you can't do that, it's worth noting that Plunkett And Macleane's soundtrack is actually for the most part a solidly traditional piece of orchestral and choral scoring, saving the anachronisms for the big set pieces such as the ballroom scene or the big climax depicted here. You could complain that the track titles give away the film's ending: but at least this isn't as bad as the Phantom Menace soundtrack, which hordes of fanboys bought a month before the film's release, only to discover a piece titled Qui-Gon's Noble Death near the end.
10. SOUTH PARK CAST - La Resistance (Medley) (from South Park: Bigger Longer And Uncut - Music From And Inspired By The Motion Picture, Atlantic 831992)
1999 was the year of the world premiere of Mamma Mia!, a stage musical with all the entertainment value of bowel cancer. Creating a musical is about much more than just getting a bunch of songs and fitting a story around them, no matter how undoubtedly brilliant those songs are. The relationship between the book and the songs should be much more complex than that, each one serving to push the other forward. Amazingly, it was South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone who understood this better than anyone else this year, maybe even this decade. Written in collaboration with Marc Shaiman, the songs in the South Park movie are excellent comic creations in their own right, but also play a major part in telling the story. Hard to choose just one, so this end-of-act show-stopping medley of the best tunes will serve here. Interesting to note that La Resistance's main theme - a hymn to bravery in the form of a list of unspeakable acts of torture - is very similar to Sir Robin's song from Monty Python And The Holy Grail. ("He was not at all afraid to be killed in nasty ways... his liver removed and his bowels unplugged and his nostrils raped and his bottom burned off...") But where Neil Innes stopped just short of penile mutilation, featured vocalist Howard McGillin tears through that taboo as well, leading to the final verse that gives this compilation its title.
11. MADNESS - Johnny The Horse (from Wonderful, Virgin CDV2889)
They had, of course, been threatening this for quite a while. With Madness reunion gigs becoming a regular biannual feature in London, it was only a matter of time before the Nutty Boys recorded their first new songs in over a decade. The first time I heard this on the radio, I was convinced this would be the song that would turn them back into a chart-topping fighting force once more. There I go, over-estimating the intelligence of the British record-buying public all over again: it didn't even make the top 40. Johnny The Horse is very typical of late period Madness: a tale of wasted lives, drug abuse, insanity and death, but set to the happiest little tune you could imagine, and with that patented Clanger/Winstanley combination of crashing rhythm, piano and strings to back it up. My sister reports (having seen an Xmas gig) that they're still as brilliant as ever live, so let's hope they overlook this setback and come up with more songs as good as this one.
12. MACY GRAY - I Try (from On How Life Is, Epic 4944232)
Traditionally, when people scan the track listings of these compilations, eventually they end up pointing at one song on the list and saying "well, at least I've heard of that one." And this is this year's. Even if you didn't buy into all the standard press comparisons involving Marge Simpson and a cylinder of helium, it has to be admitted that Macy Gray's voice was one of the most peculiar things to be heard emanating from our wirelesses this year. But we've always been prepared to welcome vocal idiosyncrasies with open arms, particularly when they're married to songs as lovely as this one. On How Life Is may have been fawned over by the critics to a somewhat excessive degree, but there's enough great stuff on there to ensure Macy doesn't remain a one-hit wonder.
13. TOM WAITS - Filipino Box Spring Hog (from Mule Variations, Anti/Epitaph 65472)
Bit of a swiz for Lou, the guy for whom this album is primarily assembled, as I know for a fact he's already got this song. But we're both huge Waits fans, and equally glad to see the man back on the scene after an absence of six years with a characteristic mix of bluesy stompers and touching ballads. The 'man-kicking-his-way-out-of-a-wardrobe' sound of Big In Japan is a definite highlight of the album, but this song's even more interesting as it adds a scratch DJ to Waits' normal arsenal of bashed objects and yelled vocals. The result is enthusiastic enough to put anyone off being a vegetarian for life. Now come over here and do some British dates, you scruffy bastard.
14. SUEDE - Indian Strings (from Head Music, Nude NUDE14CD)
Suede have been mainstays of these collections since the start: the first one, Younger Than The Stones, included Pantomime Horse from their 1993 debut album, and every subsequent release of theirs has been duly represented here. I keep feeling I shouldn't like Suede so much: as a friend said to me once, why waste money on Suede when there are real Bowie records out there? But despite their reference points being so transparently obvious, the songs themselves are so supernaturally strong that all resistance is battered down completely. Another song of self-destructing love, set apart from the rest by the gloriously queasy string riffs of the title.
15. UNDERWORLD - Moaner (from Beaucoup Fish, Junior Boys Own JBO1005438)
My earliest musical disappointment of 1999 - 90 minutes into the year, in fact - was caused by Underworld. Special guests at New Order's Alexandra Palace bash for New Year's Eve 1998, they proceeded to blow it by pumping all their songs through a sound system that reduced everything to one continuous thump. A crying shame, because if there's one thing that Underworld do better than any other dance act on the planet, it's dynamics. You've known it ever since the bass drum on Born Slippy crashed in louder than God at the climax of Trainspotting. Moaner - terrifyingly, first heard on the Batman And Robin soundtrack - is even better, building from a metronomic thud to the end of the world in a little over three minutes, then dropping back and doing all over again with added shouting. Maybe it's just that the first time I listened to this song, I was on an InterCity train that accelerated to full speed precisely as the vocal hit top gear: whatever, I wouldn't dare try to operate heavy machinery under the influence of this track.
16. RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS - Road Trippin' (from Californication, Warner Bros 9362473862)
Still going strong, and still up to their old tricks, it's true that the Chilis only really have two types of songs. Type One is hard, fast, funky and invariably dirty, such as the song on Californication about the delights of having sex during the menstrual cycle (Purple Stain). Type Two is slow, melodic, lyrical, and always surprises you no matter how many times they do it, because you still associate the band with the first type of song. Road Trippin' is definitely a Type Two: a delicate hymn to the joys of heading off surfing with a couple of your buds, topped off with a pretty Chamberlin accompaniment from Patrick Warren. (If there's anyone out there who can satisfactorily explain the difference between a Chamberlin and a Mellotron, I'd be curious to hear it.) A song to fall in love with now, before someone like All Saints makes a complete bollocks of it in five years or so.
And that's yer lot for this century, musically at least. Some songs you'll have heard of, others you may be tempted to try now you know about them, which is kind of the idea. It's highly unlikely that anyone else out there will enjoy all 16 songs on Dance A Dickless Jig as much as I do: but in any case, here's a competition for you. A free copy of the CD will be sent to the first person who writes to me and gives a correct explanation of the bit about cat food at the end of the Dido review. Entries will be judged in order of receipt at my mailbox. Competition not open to relatives or employees of Spank The Monkey, or people I've already made a copy of Dickless for. And the judging panel reserves the right to tear up the rules and just give the prize to the person who bribes him with a sufficiently large quantity of bananas. Being a monkey, and all.
The Clash [dead link], Dido, Pet Shop Boys, Supergrass, Scritti Politti, Air, Lamb, The Chemical Brothers, Craig Armstrong, South Park: Bigger Longer And Uncut [dead link], Madness, Macy Gray, Tom Waits, Suede [dead link], Underworld, Red Hot Chili Peppers. Official sites? We've got 'em!
Amazon.co.uk have just added music to their selection of sale items, so... [original links superceded by Amazon shopping links below].
Mary Kay Bergman's official site used to be a shop window for her huge range of voiceover work: not just virtually every female voice on South Park, she also donated her vocal talents to everyone from Disney downwards. Since her tragic death in November 1999, the site's become a memorial to her work. Pop over there and pay your respects.