Originally posted on The Unpleasant Lair Of Spank The Monkey 06/01/2002
In the fine tradition of 1998's Damn Your Black Heart Barbra Streisand, 1999's Dance A Dickless Jig, 2000's Cheap Sex & Sad Films, and half a dozen or so cassette compilations that only myself and Lou know about... here's my selection of the best songs of 2001, compiled as usual onto a CD-R and handed out as a cheap Christmas present.
Lou, Carole, Smudge, The Sarge and The Belated Birthday Girl have already received their copies, and if you get your entry in in time for the competition below you can join their hallowed ranks. Alternatively, burn one yourself using the fifteen albums and two singles listed here. (If you're doing this through Adaptec's Easy CD Creator, choose the Disk At Once option: these songs come to exactly seventy-four minutes in total, and there's no room for the two-second inter-track gaps that Track At Once gives you.)
Pausing only to point out that Real Audio samples used to be available of all the songs, but aren't any more to save space, here we go.
1. MANCHILD - Nothing Without Me (cd single, One Little Indian 183TP7CD1)
As ever, these compilation CDs are primarily for Lou's benefit, and he insists that there's always at least one of them permanently lodged in the autochanger of his in-car stereo. If he ever complains about them, it's usually because he's taken offence at some cheesy disco track on there. And here's Manchild with this year's one. I can hear Lou complaining now - there's no tune, no lyrics worth speaking of, no arrangement beyond a series of filters applied in arithmetic progression... Actually, no, I can't hear him complaining now, because I've got this turned up full blast and I'm leaping around the room like an epileptic at a strobe light manufacturers' convention. This record cheered me up on a night when I was stuck in a West Country hotel room, with nothing to do apart from wait for morning so I could go back to work again, and I've been grateful for it ever since.
2. TANPOPO - Koi Wo Shichaimashita (from Together!, Zetima 74321-86330-2)
I bought this one by mistake. As documented elsewhere, within three hours of arriving in Hong Kong I was in HMV Causeway Bay buying up all the Japanese pop I'd been listening to on the in-flight radio. Trouble was, I knew one of the songs I wanted was on the latest Morning Musume album, and they appeared to have two in the charts: so I ended up buying both. I found out when I got home that the song I was looking for - the mighty Love Revolution 21 - was indeed on the album Best!, so the strategy worked. But it took me a few months to work out that the second album Together! wasn't really by Morning Musume at all. In fact, the band is so huge that they have a whole series of sub-bands and solo projects going on at the same time - Tanpopo, Petitmoni, Mini Moni and Yuko Nakazawa - and this record is a compilation of their non-Musume work. I've no idea who writes Tanpopo's songs, but they're obviously evil pop geniuses: this is as insanely hook-crammed as all the other Musume stuff I've heard, only more so. Just when you think you've heard every classic pop cliche crammed into this song apart from a harpsichord break, they throw in one of those too. All this and some charmingly down-to-earth lyrics about a WAP-enabled romance: check out the full translation and the singalong Romaji lyrics at the site of J-Pop webmeisteress Megchan.
3. ED HARCOURT - Something In My Eye (from Here Be Monsters, Heavenly HVNLP 31 CD)
She knows the real reason why this is on here: and we ain't telling. Suffice to say that I'm rather chuffed to have seen Harcourt playing London's tiny Borderline club last summer, just before minor stardom and a Mercury Prize nomination made him too big for the place. Sod all this New Acoustic Movement nonsense: these are just great songs, sensitively performed. Maybe next time I'll see him doing the instrument smashing that Time Out promised in their gig writeup (now that he can afford some instruments).
4. CERYS MATTHEWS & THE BLOCKHEADS - If I Was With A Woman (from Brand New Boots And Panties, East Central One NEWBOOTS 2CD)
So farewell, then, Catatonia. "What are those blokes standing behind Cerys called?" That was your catchphrase. I never really liked Catatonia as much as Spank's Pal Jon (he's Welsh, it's in his contract), but it was always obvious that Matthews was a perfectly splendid pop star in her own right. The band split up this year, but I'm sure she'll be back out there again once she's all dried out and everything. As evidence, there's this track from the Ian Dury tribute album, featuring current artists covering all the songs from Durex's legendary New Boots And Panties. The covers work with varying degrees of success: Cerys, at least, has the gumption to keep the still-funky Blockheads doing the backing, and the gender twist provided by her singing the role of a misogynist bloke is the icing on the cake.
5. BJORK - Pagan Poetry (from Vespertine, One Little Indian TPLP101CD)
Bjork is regularly to be heard on these compilations, of course: but the Vespertine album is astonishing even by her standards. Truth be told, four months after its release I'm still getting different things out of it: Pagan Poetry is probably only on here because it's the one that leaps out and grabs you by the balls on the first listen. The backing is an incredibly subtle blend of harp and electronics, which heart-stoppingly cuts out for a final section that shows Bjork's voice more emotionally naked than it's ever been on record before. And given her back catalogue, that's saying something.
6. I MONSTER - Daydream In Blue (cd single, Instant Karma KARMA 7CD)
Just an incredibly lovely single, really. Though like the other single only release on this collection (Manchild) it didn't trouble the charts to any great degree. Daydream In Blue was more notable for the fuss caused by its central sample, Daydream by the Gunter Kallmann Choir: the Beta Band had to postpone the release of their song Squares because it used the same sample. For my money, I Monster make better use of it, juxtaposing its sweet summery feel with the filthy vocodered raunch of their new verses.
7. EWAN McGREGOR & ALESSANDRO SAFINA - Your Song (from Music From Baz Luhrmann's Film Moulin Rouge, Interscope 06949 3035 2)
I didn't get the chance to point this out in the VidBinge article, so let's do it here: Moulin Rouge was the best film of 2001. And bollocks to its begrudgers, who've obviously forgotten what cinema is supposed to look like. (Interesting to note that the two most visually ambitious films of the year - Moulin Rouge and Lord Of The Rings - were made by Antipodean directors. Discuss.) Baz Luhrmann obviously keeps as tight a hand on the soundtrack as he does on the visuals, and his delight in excess is apparent here, notably in the bombastic arrangements of his regular collaborator Craig Armstrong. Can Ewan McGregor sing? With this kind of backing, who gives a toss?
8. ASH - Pacific Palisades (from Free All Angels, Infectious INFEC100CDX)
Terrific this year to see Ash cocking a snook at the traditional Difficult Third Album Syndrome with Free All Angels. Admittedly, part of that's down to their second album Nu-Clear Sounds being such a disappointment: but the follow-up is one of the most consistently glorious records of the year, sporting a huge array of hit singles backed by a host of equally great songs. Like the 70s new wave acts they obviously worship, Tim Wheeler and co know the value of brevity in a pop song, and us ageing punks can only sit back and marvel as they cram three verses, four choruses, a middle eight and a guitar solo into just under two minutes. The perfect record for your inner teen to play when he's refusing to tidy his bedroom.
9. GARBAGE - Nobody Loves You (from beautifulgarbage, Mushroom MUSH95CD)
Meanwhile, Garbage's third album turned out to be a little more traditionally difficult: or at least unexpected, as they ditched some of the darker elements of their sound and cranked up the poppier bits. I was convinced that the first single Androgny was some sort of weird Destiny's Child/Alanis Morrisette hybrid when I first heard it: I'm still trying to work out whether or not this is a good thing. Still, for now my favourite track on beautifulgarbage is this more traditionally downbeat tale of misery and rejection. It's enlivened by a lovely guitar riff that reminds me of 60s British crime thrillers more than anything else, and a climax that rivals the Beatles' I Want You (She's So Heavy) for the ritual slaughter of that riff under endless grungey guitar overdubs.
10. THE AVALANCHES - Since I Left You / Stay Another Season (from Since I Left You, XL Recordings XLCD 138)
They're a bunch of dicks at XL Recordings. A couple of years ago, they had a perfectly lovely summertime record - Badly Drawn Boy's Disillusion - and hurled it out into the shops in September, far too late for it to get any sort of mileage out of the weather. They did the same thing with Since I Left You, but in reverse, releasing it in the early spring. By the time that the warm weather had come around, though, this was rarely off my CD deck. The album's title track is merely the first of eighteen continuously segued dollops of similar sample-mangling loveliness: hence my decision to also include its Madonna-filching neighbour, Stay Another Season, for the sake of a more satisfying ending. This music is so densely constructed that you really can't tell how the Avalanches made these sounds, which reminds me of the good old days of The Art Of Noise: and as regular readers will know, that's fine by me.
11. LAMB - Gabriel (from What Sound, Mercury 586 538-2)
Another third album: there's a lot of them about this year. Andy Barlow and Louise Rhodes continue to dabble within their self-imposed boundaries, never straying far from their original trip-hop roots but remaining very nice to listen to. There's nothing on What Sound that reaches the orgasmic heights of 1996's Gorecki, but the fabulous mismatch between the delicacy of Rhodes' voice and the distant ferocity of the John Bonham-style drum loop on Gabriel comes pretty close.
12. THE DIVINE COMEDY - Bad Ambassador (from Regeneration, Parlophone 531 7612)
An early live highlight of 2001 was seeing Neil Hannon and the boys doing a pre-release showcase of the Regeneration album in the intimate confines of the Riverside Studios. In retrospect, it would have been nice if they could have warned me somehow that I'd never see them live again. Regeneration was obviously a make-or-break record for the band: their first for a major label, with a big name producer in tow (Nigel Godrich of Radiohead fame) and shedloads of promotional money hurled at them. Sadly, people didn't buy it in particularly large quantities, which was presumably behind Hannon's decision to split up the group and rethink his strategy. He'll be back, obviously: but in the meantime we have this rather fine collection of songs the band left behind. For all their protests about the band's scruffing down, this one is still as classy and literate a song as they've ever done. Here's hoping Mr Bad Ambassador will continue to spoil us with his future projects.
13. LOVE PSYCHEDELICO - Last Smile (extension mix) (from The Greatest Hits, JVC JMCD-1040)
The second Japanese pop song of this compilation. Pretentious? Watashi? Actually, I also wrote about this band at length in my Hong Kong report, and time has borne out my suspicions from back then: this lovely slab of acoustic rock with loopy Japlish lyrics may well be my favourite song of the year. A second album is due in early January 2002 - Love Psychedelico Orchestra - and it's definitely on my shopping list for when I visit Japan later this year. But you'll be hearing more about that in the future, obviously.
14. PREFAB SPROUT - Farmyard Cat (from The Gunman And Other Stories, EMI 532 6132)
Jonathan Ross, presenter of the best show on British wireless right now, summed it up best when he interviewed [dead link] Prefab Sprout mainman Paddy McAloon. Back in the old days of British rock, most bands would think nothing of having a silly little whimsical track on their albums. Think of Pink Floyd getting a dog to sing the blues on Seamus, or any number of Beatles songs with Ringo on lead vocals. Nowadays artists are expected to be wholly Radiohead-serious or S Club 7-braindead, and there's no room for crossing those boundaries. Until McAloon climaxed his first album in four years with a song featuring the lines "I've got nine lives and I rhyme with mat / I'm a farmyard cat" - which requires either balls of steel or lobes of butter to be able to pull off successfully. McAloon being one of this country's Certified Songwriting Gods, it's safest to assume the former. This song makes me grin like a twat whenever I hear it, and that's the only justification I need for including it here.
15. SPIRITUALIZED - Out Of Sight (from Let It Come Down, BMG OPM001)
It's Big Music time: and in the absence of any new material from the Waterboys (that album of recycled outtakes from Fisherman's Blues doesn't count), we've got Jason Pierce and his colossal delusions of grandeur. But as I said in connection with Moulin Rouge, too much has always been my favourite quantity of anything. And as Out Of Sight surges towards a climax during which all the knobs on the mixing desk are cranked up to the Big Fuckoff Racket setting, I suspect that Pierce feels the same way too.
16. RADIOHEAD - Living In A Glasshouse (from Amnesiac, Parlophone 532 7672)
Going back to the Prefab Sprout discussion... maybe this is Radiohead's idea of a whimsical throwaway song. Another Thom Yorke whinge about alienation and depression, but with Humphrey Lyttleton's jazz band throwing jolly Dixieland shapes over the top of it. Whatever, it's a lovely contrast, and a fine finale to Amnesiac, another flawed but fascinating Radiohead album. Now let's see them sing this one to the tune of On Ilkley Moor Baht 'At on I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue, eh, Humph?
17. HALF MAN HALF BISCUIT - Vatican Broadside (from Editor's Recommendation, Probe Plus PP32CD)
What can you say about a song like this, that wouldn't take longer than its running time (31 seconds)? Well, as with all of Nigel Blackwell's best tunes, it's a masterclass in comic writing and timing. It treats the naive cynicism of the whole nu-metal movement with the ridicule it deserves, and yet there's no malice in it: Nigel sounds so gloriously cheerful while he's singing here. Best of all, choosing a representative 30 seconds or so of Vatican Broadside for an audio clip was no trouble whatsoever...
So that's another annual compilation out of the way: and once again, I'm risking total embarrassment by asking you lot to join in a competition to win a copy of In Relation To Me Getting Out Of Bed for yourself. All you have to do is answer this one question: what is Tanpopo the Japanese word for? Send your answers by email to firstname.lastname@example.org to arrive before 23:59 GMT on February 28th, 2002. On that date, the first person to have sent in the correct answer will be awarded the CD as a prize: and if nobody gets it right, it'll go to the first person to write in and at least take a stab at the answer, so you've got no excuse for not trying. (Bearing in mind that the last two CD competitions have had one entrant apiece, what have you got to lose?)
Same terms and conditions as last year: one entry per person, competition not open to anyone who already owns the bloody thing, and in the event of a tie the CD will go to the person who gives the biggest bribe or makes the best offer of no-strings-attached sex... Actually, on the advice of The Belated Birthday Girl, you'd probably better scrub that last one. It's still early in the year, and I'd quite like to hold onto my balls for the rest of it thankyewverymuch. Being a monkey, and all.
Manchild, Tanpopo, Ed Harcourt, BACUP (the cancer charity which benefits from sales of Brand New Boots And Panties), Bjork, Moulin Rouge, Ash, Garbage, The Avalanches, Lamb, The Divine Comedy, Love Psychedelico, Prefab Sprout [dead link], Spiritualized and Radiohead all have official sites for you to look at if you want more information on these records. Half Man Half Biscuit only have an unofficial site, but it's a corker. And I Monster don't have a site at all. Awwwwww.
YesAsia isn't affiliated with the Monkey Mall merchandising setup, but they're much better at supplying the latest audio-visual goodies from Japan and all over Asia. So try them if you want to buy the Musume girls' Together! or Love Psychedelico's The Greatest Hits.
Music City is the place to go to pick up the Morpheus peer-to-peer file transfer software, which seems to have become the favourite of MP3-swappers worldwide since the death of Napster as a free service. Look out for that small print on the home page: "MusicCity Networks does not condone copyright infringement." Got that? Of course you have. Still, you'd just be using Morpheus to download additional songs by these artists in preparation for actually buying the records. I trust you.
John Peel traditionally asks his BBC Radio 1 listeners every Christmas to choose their favourite songs of the year, and the Festive 50 for 2001 is the result. It's nice to note that Vatican Broadside made it as high as number 16: see, it's not just me. Amusingly, they've tried to edit their audio clip of the song to cover up the swearing, and they've failed completely. [NB: clip no longer edited!]
The Onion AV Club similarly asked its journalists to come up with lists of the best and worst albums of 2001. The results are as idiosyncratic and entertaining as you'd expect from a website with The Onion as a parent. (On that subject, The Onion's still as funny as ever, but don't you think they can be unnecessarily cruel sometimes?)