Originally posted on The Unpleasant Lair Of Spank The Monkey 08/01/2004
No introductions necessary by now, I think. Every Christmas for the last few years, I've lashed together a CD compilation of my favourite songs of the year. This is the one for 2003. If the song titles listed below look like links, then you can click on them to hear Real Audio samples: if they don't, that means I've taken those samples off the site to save space. Got that? Good. Here we go, then.
1. MOLOKO - Familiar Feeling (from Statues, Echo ECHCD44)
Moloko's fourth album was always going to be... interesting. Not only for the usual reasons of musical development, but also because the band's lead duo of Roisin Murphy and Mark Brydon split up as a couple shortly after its predecessor, Things To Make And Do. Their decision to stay together as a working unit makes for a fascinating, if somewhat voyeuristic, document of a relationship in freefall. If nothing else, Statues is the most straightforward record of Moloko's career. Previous albums were littered with short experimental interludes that were admittedly quirky and brave, but invariably left you thanking Mr Sony for the invention of the Track Skip button. Here, we have an admirably direct collection of songs without the frills, all of which translated splendidly into a live context during their subsequent tour. Familiar Feeling makes the cut here primarily for the balls-out bravado of its opening two and a half minutes: perhaps in the future, all records will start with their climax.
2. ELECTRIC SIX - Gay Bar (from Fire, XL XLCD 169)
There's something cynical yet heartwarming about bands who release their debut single in the first week of January - marking the start of a new year with a new sound, or summat. Danger! High Voltage by Electric Six was a perfect example of this sort of thing, though its relentless novelty did lead the casual listener to suspect they might just be one-hit wonders. Which of course isn't the case: they're two-hit wonders. Gay Bar was helped enormously by two unofficial videos that used it as a soundtrack. First, Joel Veitch and his animated kittens did their by-now-slightly-predictable thing to it: then we got a brilliantly edited Bush 'n' Blair love-in that played on the song's dual themes of manly love and nuclear holocaust. By the time the song's real video was released, its vision of a troupe of gay Abe Lincolns seemed somewhat tame (particularly when those nuclear war references had to be cut for radio play). The album Fire pretty much confirmed Electric Six to be a one-joke band: but it's a slightly more subtle joke than The Darkness' one, so I'm prepared to let them get away with it.
3. JOE JACKSON - Love At First Light (from Volume 4, Rykodisc RCD 10638)
Joe Jackson's place on this 2003 compilation has been assured since his 2002 gig at the Marquee in Islington - a gloriously doomed attempt to move a legendary rock venue to a suburban shopping centre, nowadays struggling to re-establish itself as the Carling Academy Islington. Jackson played a blinder of a set despite the venue, which will need a good few years of puke spilled down the walls before it attains anything resembling an atmosphere. He'd got together with the band from his first three albums, and they were off and running again like they'd only spent a few months apart, rather than 22 years. Jackson's songwriting had simplified to match, eschewing the jazz and orchestral experiments of old to return to straight-down-the-line pop directness: some of the songs on Volume 4 could be outtakes from I'm The Man if it wasn't for the references to Snoop Dogg and email. Chrome was the song that instantly blew me away at that 2002 gig, but this examination of the aftermath of a one-night stand has grown on me. Though since reading speculations about Jackson's sexual orientation on Popbitch, I may have different pictures from you in my head when I listen to this.
4. JUNIOR SENIOR - Move Your Feet (Live Version) (from D-D-Don't Don't Stop The Beat, Mercury 067 920-2)
It's an important distinction. The studio version of Move Your Feet was the most irresistibly catchy single of 2003, and was an authentic taster for the Danish delights of the album D-D-Don't Don't Stop The Beat - goodtime idiot pop fun at its finest. And yet, I'd choose the live version of the song - a filler track tossed away as a bonus at the end of the album - as the best thing that Junior and Senior have done. Which is unusual, because it's generally accepted that dance music simply doesn't work when performed live. But this does: the addition of live instruments gives the programmed riff a crunchiness that's missing from the studio version, and that's before you factor in the highly vocal delight that the duo obviously take in their work. Of all the people on this list, these are the ones I most regret not seeing perform live yet. (They were in London just before Christmas supporting Electric Six, but, er, see above...)
5. PADDY McALOON - I'm 49 (from I Trawl The Megahertz, Liberty 583 9102)
Back in 2001 when I put Prefab Sprout's Farmyard Cat on In Relation To Me Getting Out Of Bed, I had no idea exactly what had been happening to the band's resident genius Paddy McAloon. The story finally emerged this year: in 1999, he'd suffered a period of illness that made him temporarily blind. Confined to his home with only a radio for company, he started experimenting with music composed around the snatches of radio voices that were his only link to the outside world. Very little of that experimentation exists in its original form on the final record - for the most part it's the orchestrated novella of the title track, the Steve-Reich-in-the-afternoon light minimalism of the instrumentals, and one rather lovely actual song (Sleeping Rough). So I'm 49 is the sole remaining evidence of the album this could have been: a Radio 4 version of My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts. Which is a shame, because on this evidence that could have been an extraordinary thing to hear. McAloon digitally distorts the voices until they're on the verge of nervous breakdown (just listen to the question "are you falling apart?", and the strangulated "yes" that's heard in reply), and gets an emotional effect that's unlike anything else I can think of. It's tempting to think of this as very distinctively English music: but that would imply that there's more than one person in this country capable of making music like this, and I don't think that's true.
6. AMIEL - Lovesong (from Audio Out, FMR 336352)
Twelve months ago, I warned my Melbourne correspondent Chris that this compilation could end up full of Australian power ballads: and in accordance with the prophecies, here's the first of four Australian tunes picked up during my visit last April. My legal advisor Max Fischer recently cast his eye over this track listing, and his only comment was "no Dido this year, Spank?" Bastard. When I put Here With Me on 1999's compilation, I had no idea how annoyingly ubiquitous the woman would become four years later. Given the similarity between the careers of Dido and Amiel, there's a real risk that the latter might turn out the same way. Both of them started as vocalists for dance acts: Dido with her brother's band Faithless, Amiel with Josh Abrahams and his Puretone project (most famously on the hit Addicted To Bass). Both of them released debut solo albums that initially didn't have any British distribution: hard to say if that situation will change for Amiel, but her songs are certainly sharp enough to work in the UK market, even if you discount the ferocious swearing that lifts Lovesong above the norm. There's a probability that Amiel may end up being the 2006 equivalent of Dido, and I apologise in advance if it turns out that way.
7. I MONSTER - Who Is She? (from Neveroddoreven, Dharma DHARMACD2)
It must be a piece of piss being I Monster. You find an obscure piece of old musical cheese, throw a few farty electronic noises over the top of it, and everyone loves you. It certainly worked on 2001's Daydream In Blue, which filthed up a Gunter Kallmann Choir track to splendid effect. Unfortunately, it took them two years to come up with a follow-up, and virtually everyone had forgotten about them by then: if it hadn't been for my accidentally catching a TV commercial for Neveroddoreven, I wouldn't have even known it was out. Their 2003 single repeated Daydream's trick, this time using Harry Field's vocal performance of the main theme from the film The Vengeance Of She. And once again, with some hefty studio abuse they've given the song a tension and drama that the original never had. It's only fair to point out that Neveroddoreven has a whole array of original compositions by Jarrod Gosling and Dean Honer, and they're all very enjoyable: but they know as well as we do that this is the stuff that works.
8. FRENZAL RHOMB - I Went Out With A Hippy And Now I Love Everyone Except For Her (from Sans Souci, Shock/Epitaph E86676-2DVD)
As I mentioned in my Australian roundup, a defining moment of my holiday was waking up one morning to find the radio playing 60, Beautiful And Mine, a high-speed punk thrashalong about sexual exploration with both old and dead people. Once I'd managed to establish who was responsible for this atrocity (I spent several days looking in record shops for Friends Of Ron), subsequent investigation showed that this wasn't entirely typical of their output. As well as the sweary, dirty, funny songs, there's also a carefully thought-out, anti-authoritarian, political side to their work. This, however, is more of the sweary, dirty, funny stuff, with plenty of great lines and some local references to make it all the more exotic to us Northern Hemisphere types. "I took my clothes off, you didn't like that / And neither did the checkout chick from Coles / I tried to pash the store security." They're playing in London in March, apparently. Hmmm. Hmmm. Hmmm.
9. JOHNNY CASH - Hurt (from American IV: The Man Comes Around, American 440 077 083-0)
This is cheating, I know. Strictly speaking, American IV was a 2002 release, and I can only get away with including Hurt here because it was released as a single in 2003. What changed in between 2002 and 2003 to make it worthy of inclusion? Exactly the two things you're thinking of. First of all, Mark Romanek's stunning video for the song, cruelly intercutting images of Cash in his prime with contemporary footage of a broken man contemplating the end of his life. But if it was painful enough when the single was released in the Spring, it was positively heartbreaking to watch after Cash's death. And yet, his former piss and vinegar fight their way to the front of the mix during the choruses: and that's what stops the song being a lament and turns it into something strangely uplifting. The American Recordings series was all about Cash taking on existing songs and claiming them for his own. Before, Hurt was a Nine Inch Nails song for glum little Goth girls who cut themselves: Cash, in a magnificent finale to his life, made it universal to anyone who's ever felt anything.
10. TATU - All The Things She Said (from 200 Km/h In The Wrong Lane, Interscope 067 456-2)
What I said earlier about Electric Six applies doubly to Tatu, whose career appears to have taken just six months from explosive launch to high-profile burnout. A huge, worldwide number one hit (even passing through Singapore and Australia I couldn't escape it): an album that didn't quite deliver on the single's promise: representing Russia at the Eurovision Song Contest (which hindsight suggests may have been the ultimate aim of the whole enterprise): an arena tour that had to be cancelled owing to microscopic ticket sales. And that, for the moment, appears to be it, unless you count the extraordinary news that broke over Christmas. But you can't ignore the hit that started it all: and once you look past the schoolgirl snogs of the video, what made it work was Trevor Horn's production. Horn reminded you of the alchemy that he used to perform on a regular basis back in the eighties, adding outrageous shifts in dynamics and orchestration to a half-decent song and lifting it into the realms of high drama. The distorted shriek of "this is not enough" that nearly blows out your speakers in the chorus after the first verse shows that he still remembers how to hook you into a single. Hopefully the girls appreciate what he's done for them, and will make him a court composer or something after they win the election.
11. THE WHITE STRIPES - Ball And Biscuit (from Elephant, XL XLCD 162)
A couple of years ago, you couldn't move in the UK for members of the latest musical genre, Bands From Foreign Countries Called "The" Something. Most of them have disappeared quietly or embarrassed themselves noisily with poor follow-up records, and it looks like The White Stripes may be one of the few to survive beyond the initial hype. Elephant was hailed as the greatest thing since sliced foreskins when it first came out: by the tail end of 2003 there were signs of a backlash brewing, as the more conservative critics hailed it as the year's best records, while the hipsters looked on sniffily with their bought-on-the-day-of-release copies of De Stijl. Speaking for myself, I've come to realise over the last few years that I will no longer automatically worship anyone who plays an electric guitar too damn loud, and that's a change I regret a little. But I like the way that Elephant continually shows you the dirty electric blues band that Jack and Meg always wanted to be. And Ball And Biscuit is the best, dirtiest electric blues track on there: not only can I sometimes be spotted playing air guitar along to the verses, in conditions of extreme inebriation I'll even kick at an air guitar pedal just before the solos start.
12. MACHINE GUN FELLATIO - Unsent Letter (from Paging Mr. Strike (UK Edition), Doublethink CDDOUBLET003)
MGF played London in September 2003. I'm pretty sure that The Belated Birthday Girl and I were the only English people in the room that night, with the possible exception of the bar staff: the Aussies who normally serve the booze in London venues were all down the front of the stage with the rest of their countryfolk. All of us had a terrific time, and it's ironic that my favourite discovery from the Oz trip was a band whose music was completely unknown to me when I bought the record: I just thought the name was funny. Who knew they'd be the most incredibly tight musicians you could imagine, under a larky stage act that frequently encompassed frontal nudity and beer gargling? MGF actually haven't recorded any new music since 2002, so three cheers for their UK record company Doublethink, who released this compilation this year featuring the best tracks from 2000's Bring It On and 2002's Paging Mr Strike. Unsent Letter comes from the earlier album, and is apparently a much-loved classic back home. If only they'd released it as a single over here, they could have cleaned up. But no, they went for Muthafukka On A Motorcycle instead. Anyone would think they didn't want radio play.
13. THE ROOTS - The Seed (2.0) (from Phrenology, MCA 113 158-2)
And while we're on the subject of Australia, this is another song I'll always associate with the holiday, simply because the Triple J breakfast show was hammering it to death every single morning. Which is amusing, given that it would be considered post-watershed material over in the UK: the BBG had to listen to it several times before she picked up on the whole "push my seed in her bush" thing. One thing I've promised myself for 2004 is that I'll check out the work of Cody Chesnutt [dead link], whose album The Headphone Masterpiece contains the original version of The Seed. The Philly hip-hop crew The Roots gave the song the upgrade implied by its title here, but I still need to hear version 1.0 at some stage. (Actually, I've just found a sample of it on Chestnutt's website here [dead link].) The Chin-Stroking community on Film Unlimited - the serious music fans, as opposed to the people on the Music Videos threads who go on about Busted and Justin all the time, although Max still thinks Justin is cool because of the Neptunes connection - well, anyway, they recently came to a vague agreement that this is their favourite song of the year, and I think they may well have a point.
14. OUTKAST - Happy Valentine's Day (from Speakerboxxx / The Love Below, Arista 82876 52905 2)
As for favourite album of the year? No contest. Outkast's double set is so far ahead of the rest of the pack, everyone else should feel ashamed. I'm prepared to go along with the general consensus on how this pair of solo albums balances off against each other. Big Boi's Speakerboxxx takes the fusion of rap, rhythm and pure soul that Outkast have made their own, and develops it terrifically: but in the end it's just another hip-hop album, albeit a vastly superior one. And unfortunately for Big Boi, when you play Andre 3000's The Love Below straight after it, it blows the first record completely out of the water. Leaping between genres like a gazelle in golf pants - the pure pop of Hey Ya here, the secret drum 'n' bass rewrite of Rodgers and Hammerstein there - it's the record that Prince fans have been waiting for since the purple guy went a bit shit back in '94, and Andre has taken on his mantle with considerable aplomb. Both CDs are so fabulously consistent that almost any track on them could have been included here: as it is, Happy Valentine's Day is probably the one that all my Prince comparisons apply to most closely.
15. RINGO SHIINA - Ichijiku No Hana (from Baishou Ecstasy, Toshiba EMI TOBF-5275)
For the last couple of years, these compilations have been liberally coated with a sprinkling of Japanese pop. There's only one track this year, simply because I haven't really been keeping in touch with the J-Pop scene: but we're planning another research visit later in 2004, so expect that to change in twelve months time. When we last saw Ringo in 2002, she was marking time with an album of cover versions after dropping a sprog. By comparison, 2003 has seen a flurry of activity. Her long-awaited proper third album, Karuki Zamen Kuri no Hana, showed that motherhood had, if anything, increased her talent for wild musical invention. A short film, Tanpenkinema Hyakuiromegane, showcased some of the album's songs in an exquisitely erotic mystery story. And a webcast concert, Baishou Ecstasy, performed some intricate multimedia tricks between a screening of the short and a live performance of the album. The DVD of Baishou Ecstasy contains a bonus CD-ROM, whose one piece of new music is this song. The Belated Birthday Girl has had a stab at translating the lyrics, and says it's based around imagery of flowers, gardens and decay: but even if you don't know the language, it's obvious just how fabulously pretty this song is.
16. MICHAEL FRANTI AND SPEARHEAD - Bomb The World (from Everyone Deserves Music, Parlophone 900172)
If any good could be said to have come out of that twatty war we had in 2003, it at least reminded us briefly that popular music could occasionally be about things happening in the outside world. In a new twist on the idea of the protest song, artists started bypassing the record company machinery and put out anti-war songs direct to the consumer via their websites. Zach de la Rocha, the Beastie Boys and Brighton's own Mister Bogus all had their say as the war progressed. And so did Michael Franti [dead link], who's had a long history of political involvement through music, going back to his early days with The Beatnigs and The Disposable Heroes Of Hiphoprisy. Spearhead's previous release, Stay Human, was the kind of unfocussed mess that third albums can be. But on Everyone Deserves Music Franti's back on form, rediscovering the soulful edge that made the first two Spearhead albums so indispensible. Bomb The World may be one of the most laid-back anti-war songs ever recorded, but that doesn't make it any less passionate.
17. DIZZEE RASCAL - I Luv U (from Boy In Da Corner, XL XLCD 170)
Mr. Disraeli Rapscallion could almost be a Guardian reader's wet dream: it feels significant that the first time I heard about him, it was from one of Spank's Pals who worked at Dizzee's school. The story of an 18-year-old Bow tearaway, Dylan Mills, who was encouraged by his music teacher when everyone else had given up on him: who put together an album in his bedroom that went on to win the Mercury Music Prize: who gave half the prize money away to his local community to give other kids the chance to make their own music - why, it's the sort of story that makes white middle-class liberals go all gooey over the power of education to change lives. Which makes it all the more fun when you see those same white middle-class liberals recoiling in terror from the SHEER FUCKING RACKET that Dizzee makes. Boy In Da Corner was initially, for me, one of those records you admire rather than love: but it's become love over time, and the scuzzy wit that drives I Luv U helped that enormously. Then again, it could just be the Guardian reader in me reacting favourably to Jeanine Jacques' female vocal. Without it, this would be just another vaguely misogynist hip-hop rant: with it, it's a coolly ironic duet between two people utterly failing to communicate, like a dysfunctional Sonny and Cher. "I need to talk more," says Dizzee at the end of the album: well, I'll be listening.
18. DAVID BRIDIE - Stumble Away (from Hotel Radio, Capitol 5804002)
Back Down Under for the final track. I didn't really have much to say about David Bridie when I came back from Oz, and I don't now: other than the same facile Peter Gabriel comparisons that I had back then, and subsequently knowing who he was when his name popped up as composer on the latest Billy Connolly film, The Man Who Sued God. "How nice for him," I thought, as I ran away from the cinema screaming. Still, there are no problems with his quality control on his own records, and this sweet little ballad (with its cunning surface-noise rhythm track) seemed like a good one to finish up with. Regular listeners will know that more often than not, these compilations end not with a bang but a whimper: but the slow wind-down from the final chorus on this one sounds like a damn fine whimper to me.
So, eighteen songs representing the best of 2003. And I'm sure there's one question that you're all asking. Well, I'm not going to answer it here, because it's the subject of our annual highly unpopular COMPETITION to win a copy of this CD. My compilation titles are always drawn from a line in one of the songs: this year, for various reasons, I've used an acronym rather than the full line. So... a copy of T.M.F.Y.T.T.F.T. will go to the first person to write to email@example.com before 23:59 GMT on February 29th, 2004 with the answer to the following: what the hell does T.M.F.Y.T.T.F.T. stand for anyway? Those Real Audio samples I mentioned earlier may come in useful here.
Usual rules apply - first correct answer wins: in the event of nobody getting it right, the first reply received will win: only one entry per person: no entries allowed from people who already have a copy of the CD. One additional rule - if either Simon or Uncle Tony ends up winning this thing for the third damn time, they will go on the Official CD Distribution List for life (it currently consists of me, The Belated Birthday Girl, Carole, Lou, Sergeant Todd and Smudge The Cat), and they will never be allowed to enter the competition again. I'd like to think I've got the best interests of the rest of you lot at heart. Being a monkey, and all.
Moloko, Electric Six, Joe Jackson, Junior Senior, Prefab Sprout/Paddy McAloon [dead link], Amiel, I Monster, Frenzal Rhomb, Johnny Cash, Tatu, The White Stripes, Machine Gun Fellatio [dead link], The Roots, Outkast, Ringo Shiina, Michael Franti & Spearhead, Dizzee Rascal and David Bridie all have official websites. Actually, Dizzee's site is a wee bit content-free at the moment, so the one for his mates at Roll Deep Crew may be more useful to you. Meanwhile, the site for I Monster is even worse (it doesn't even have an email address), and their record company Dharma Records [dead link] isn't much better.
Spank's Audio Lair, as we are now legally obliged to call it, currently has all 18 of these songs randomly shuffled into the playlist of 80. You'll need to register on Live 365 before you can listen, but you get access to a large number of radio stations for your free membership - and even more if you pay the few bucks a month for preferred membership, as endlessly advertised during the broadcasts themselves.
Google! Saviour of lazy writers everywhere. By using it, I can fill up an otherwise fairly short links list with pointers to loads of other people's selections for best albums of the year. So if you don't like my choices, try one of these for size: NME, The Honolulu Advertiser, BBCi Collective, Warwick Boar [dead link], Christianity Today, The Onion AV Club (plus their traditional Least Essential list), The War Against Silence, Pitchfork [dead link], swanktasticdotorg [dead link], PopMatters, Harvard Law School [dead link], The Badger Herald [dead link], IndieLondon, almostcool, Shake n Stir, KNAC, The Wine Journal, neumu, No Ripcord [dead link], liveDaily, and (last but not least) John Peel's Festive 50.
HMV Australia is the best place to go to track down CDs by this year's Australian selections (Amiel, Frenzal Rhomb, Machine Gun Fellatio and David Bridie). As ever, I'll point you in the direction of CD Japan if you're interested in Japanese artists like Ringo Shiina. For anything else, you can get off your fat lazy arse and go to a shop, because I'm not doing it for you any more.