You'll be pleased to hear that despite last year's move to Spank 2.0 (as nobody appears to be calling it), some of the traditions of the old version 1.0 site steadfastly remain. Including this one: that even though my Pick Of The Year compilation CD is invariably ready before Christmas so that I can hand it out as a cheapskate present, it still takes me till late January of the following year to write it up for this site. And so, one month into 2007, when everyone's forgotten what the hell 2006 was like, here are my favourite 18 songs of the old year gathered for your listening pleasure.
As a concession to modernity, this year I'm replacing the traditional crappily encoded Real Player samples with crappily encoded MP3 samples. The embedded player links that used to be here seemed to be causing grief in some browsers (yes, Internet Explorer, I'm looking at you), so I've replaced them with ordinary links which will open up in a new window. Three other ways are available to sample the songs for yourselves. 1: visit Spank's Audio Lair and wait for them to come around in the 100 song rotation. 2: watch the video album, available here now. 3: enter the competition at the end of this page before March 14th, and you could win a copy of the CD for yourself.
Are you sitting comfortably? Then we'll continue.
1. YOUNGBLOOD BRASS BAND - March (from Is That A Riot?, All City LR015-2) (MP3 sample)
I'm reminded of the words of Phonogram writer Kieron Gillen. His exquisite turn of phrase enlivened a recent discussion on The Engine about TV opening title sequences, when he summed up the thread like this: "Christ, the 'best' of these just scream FUCKING HELL! NOW WE ARE GOING TO WATCH SOME FUCKING TELEVISION!" In the same way, the opening track of the latest Youngblood Brass Band album - also the opening number of their current live set - just screams "FUCKING HELL! NOW WE ARE GOING TO LISTEN TO SOME FUCKING MUSIC!" (And, of course, I'm hoping it has the same effect in its role as the opening track on this CD.) YBBB at Cargo was my joint favourite gig of 2006 - the other one was Soil&'Pimp'Sessions at the Jazz Cafe. Both shows were high-speed, high-volume hornfests, and both bands should be experienced live if either of them makes it to your town.
2. BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN - O Mary Don't You Weep (from We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, SonyBMG 88697009162) (MP3 sample)
I don't have many records by The Boss. Possibly a 12" single of War from the mid-eighties live box set, and that was mainly for the cutesy Christmas b-side. But I was persuaded to get this one because songs from The Seeger Sessions started turning up all over the place - most surprisingly, this one made it onto the end titles of the Deadwood season finale. I can take or leave Bruce's songwriting, but his commitment and passion have never been in question - and his love for these classics of American song shines through on this album. Despite that, I was still rather amused by the way the title was hideously mangled by the record shop I bought it from.
3. THE DIVINE COMEDY - A Lady Of A Certain Age (from Victory For The Common Muse, Parlophone 3677962) (MP3 sample)
We live in turbulent cultural times, and even the most astute commentators have to sometimes admit defeat and ask why certain people get all the attention and others don't. But not me, because I realised long ago that those sort of dilemmas can be resolved with a simple three word explanation: Blow Job Coach. Whenever someone undeserving suddenly pops up all over the media to universal acclaim, you can be sure that three months earlier, they were being made to practice their fellatio technique on a variety of root vegetables, until the day when they could be presented for the enjoyment of journalists everywhere. And that's why Muse sold more records than The Divine Comedy in 2006. Simple, really.
4. ED HARCOURT - Revolution In The Heart (from The Beautiful Lie, Heavenly HVNLP55CD) (MP3 sample)
As I said earlier, Youngblood Brass Band and Soil&'Pimp'Sessions were responsible for my favourite gigs of 2006. Surprisingly, Ed Harcourt was responsible for my least favourite, though I'm prepared to accept it wasn't entirely his fault. Originally, he was planning to play at the Union Chapel, but objections to noise levels caused the show to be relocated to Cecil Sharp House, traditionally the home of English folk music. It was a bad move: the room was laid out so you could barely see the stage beyond the first four rows, the sound was atrocious, and - unforgivably for a folk venue - the bar was on a different floor from the auditorium, and was only selling lager by the end of the night. In these circumstances, as you'd imagine, it was hard for Mr H to make any sort of impact: and yet this song managed to cut through the PA's fluff and wake up the crowd just by its sheer yellalongability. (A word which, surprisingly, Google claims is not used anywhere else on the internet. I'll get on to the patent office in the morning.)
5. JARVIS COCKER - Running The World (from Jarvis, Rough Trade RTRADCD340) (MP3 sample)
Jarvis was a bit sneaky with this song (and given that chorus, he probably needed to be): it became one of those tunes that you just encountered by accident over and over again. Initially appearing on his MySpace page as his first public appearance since the demise of Pulp: then popping up unannounced in the end titles of Children Of Men (sadly, the rules prevent him picking up a Best Original Song Oscar): and when the album finally came out, hiding away as a bonus track after twenty minutes or so of silence. The sentiments may be a little coarsely stated, but I'm sure we've all felt the same way over the past few years, and now we have a song about it. Cheers, Jarvis.
6. KEITO BLOW - Bright Eyes (from Sea Loves You, Pacific LDCD-50030) (MP3 sample)
Our 2006 visit to Japan has been pretty exhaustively covered here, but you may have noticed one omission compared with previous years - did I manage to discover any new Japanese music this time? Not really, is the answer. Keito Blow was on my shopping list before I even arrived in Tokyo, mainly on the basis of a Metropolis review that made comparisons to Love Psychedelico. And you can't deny the resemblances are there. Keito has the same sort of mid-Atlantic drawl - sorry, mid-Pacific - that she uses to deliver lyrics that mix up lines in both English and Japanese, and she has a similar love of classic American pop. In the absence of the Delico (whose recording sessions for their next album appear to be dragging on a bit), Keito will do quite nicely - even Suze might be interested in her, given that the two of them obviously have a few records in common.
7. LOU RHODES - Each Moment New (from Beloved One, Fullfill INFB1) (MP3 sample)
Lou Rhodes was responsible for another one of my favourite gigs of the year, and certainly the best one not to involve brass instruments being played at ear-shattering volume. Quite the opposite, in fact. During her previous incarnation as half of Lamb, she experimented wildly with production, instrumentation and time signatures. But this new folk-influenced phase in her career has taken absolutely everything back to basics. This opening track from her debut solo album has the air of a manifesto to it - and it's the prettiest manifesto you'll hear all year.
8. KILLING JOKE - Invocation (from Hosannas From The Basements Of Hell, Cooking Vinyl COOKCD346) (MP3 sample)
Putting Killing Joke on here is inexcusable, I know. Blame Phill Jupitus: he played this track on his 6 Music breakfast show, and something about it just grabbed me. And because I'm an old-fashioned kind of guy, I still make the classic mistake of buying a whole album purely on the basis of one song. Hosannas From The Basements Of Hell is an utterly ridiculous title, the mere concept of the 'basement of Hell' reminding you of nothing so much as Pee-wee Herman's search for the basement of the Alamo. Pretty much every other song on the album is a tedious dirge, and even this one nearly lost me when the small print on the sleeve revealed its full title to be Invocation Of The Whore Bitch Goddess Babylon. But it still works for me despite all that: it's like Led Zeppelin's Kashmir with all the subtlety drained out of it and replaced by SHOUTING. And I mean that in a good way.
9. PANIC! AT THE DISCO - There's A Good Reason These Tables Are Numbered, Honey, You Just Haven't Thought Of It Yet (from A Fever You Can't Sweat Out, Fueled By Ramen 5101123342) (MP3 sample)
And given the waves of hatred that Panic! At The Disco can provoke, I love the idea of having them and Killing Joke back to back on this CD, forming an Axis Of Perceived Suck at its midpoint. Anyway, this is emo, is it? I'd expected it to be more whiny and less traditional smartass rock, to be honest. (In a recent issue of The Word, a contributor complained about his girlfriend listening to "all that emo crap like Justin Timberlake", which leads me to suspect that these days emo no longer has any real meaning as a musical genre, and people just use the word because it's got three fewer letters than 'wanker'.) The subtext of every track on A Fever You Can't Sweat Out is just how damn clever Panic! At The Disco are, and in doses of more than a couple of songs at a time you can see why people desperately want to kill them. But the tune on this one carries it through, along with the random tempo change halfway through which seems to have been set at whatever rhythm the drumkit made when they threw it down a flight of stairs.
10. REGINA SPEKTOR - Us (from Mary Ann Meets The Gravediggers And Other Short Stories, Transgressive 9362494782) (MP3 sample)
Actually, thinking about it, Regina Spektor resides in similar territory to Panic! At The Disco. I've always been ashamed of the British tendency to consider 'too clever by half' to be an insult, but there's a limit to how much quirkiness and whimsy you can take, and it's much shorter than the length of your average CD. Particularly a CD like Mary Ann, which has been distilled from the quirkiest and whimsiest bits of Spektor's first three albums. But the sheer speed and attack of her piano playing save this for me.
11. MORRISSEY - You Have Killed Me (from Ringleader Of The Tormentors, Attack ATKCD016) (MP3 sample)
Yay! Mozza's back! Okay, so he was back in 2004 as well, but I never really accepted You Are The Quarry as the return to form that other people did. Bottom line: the tunes were there, but the jokes weren't, and one of the things we all loved Morrissey for back in the days of the Smiths were the laconic one-liners that operated on a humour frequency too high for Southerners to detect, like dog whistles. By comparison with the previous album, the chorus of You Have Killed Me is a veritable laugh riot: from the reversal of 'as I live and breathe, you have killed me' to the classic bored resignation with which he says 'yes, I walk around, somehow, but...' And the same applies for the album as a whole, so this time I'm happy to go with the consensus and say that getting laid has done Morrissey the world of good. Incidentally, this is The Belated Birthday Girl's favourite single of 2006, and she insists this is only partly because the song has a tenuous connection with Buffy The Vampire Slayer.
12. PET SHOP BOYS/RUFUS WAINWRIGHT - Casanova In Hell (from Concrete, Parlophone 3774602) (MP3 sample)
I own loads of Pet Shop Boys live videos, which is a testament to their determination to ensure that no two tours they produce look the same. For their first live CD, they've again tried to make it distinctive. The show in question was recorded for BBC Radio 2 with a full orchestra, and Neil Tennant treats it like a live recital for the Light Programme, crediting the orchestral arranger for each song in his introductions. Their choice of guest vocalists is also inspired: getting a slightly mad person (Robbie Williams) to sing Jealousy gives it an interesting edge, while Rufus Wainwright's fragile vocals on Casanova give it a sweetness that belies the darkness of its lyric. Nobody ever sounded this pretty singing about rape before.
13. ARCTIC MONKEYS - Red Light Indicates Doors Are Secured (from Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not, Domino WIGCD162) (MP3 sample)
I caught on far too late to the Arctic Monkeys, I'm afraid. By the time I'd registered what a great single I Bet That You Look Good On The Dancefloor was, they were already too big to be seen playing live in a sensible sized room, and all I could do was follow along in everyone else's wake. But the reason why they're so great is the songs, and this one is the finest example of what they do best: taking a half-familiar phrase and building a shrewdly observed vignette out of it. Thankfully, the accusations that were dogging them a year ago about Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine writing all their songs appear to have died down now. Let's be honest, if Jim Bob and Fruitbat had written this, they'd have crammed in a dozen or so taxi-based puns and called it Hackneyed In Hackney or Taxi Vasion or something.
14. I'M FROM BARCELONA - We're From Barcelona (from Let Me Introduce My Friends, Interpop IPOP5CD) (MP3 sample)
Weirdest celebrity spot of 2006: seeing all of I'm From Barcelona - i.e. twenty-nine Swedish people - crossing the road outside my house to get to my local tube station, the morning after they played their first gig in London. (A sight so utterly unexpected that I didn't even have time to do anything sensible like get my cameraphone out. Sorry.) The band's sheer weight of numbers and sunny disposition brings to mind the work of The Polyphonic Spree, and as you can imagine The Belated Birthday Girl hates this lot too. Me, I think they're fun: there's always room for pure unfettered joy in music, and it's something they specialise in. Though I can understand how the negative reactions could come about. You could watch the video for We're From Barcelona and decide within, ooh, eighteen seconds whether you loved or hated them, even with the sound turned off. Try it.
15. TOM WAITS - Lucinda (from Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers And Bastards, Anti 68442) (MP3 sample)
No surprise seeing Tom Waits on one of these compilations, of course. But a 3 CD set? Come on, that's just too much to handle. Even in the old days of dinosaur rock, if anyone attempted a triple album set, at least you'd only have to give up the time you'd spend watching a movie to listen to it. This thing is well over three hours long, making it really difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff, particularly in a collection of offcuts and outtakes like this one. But Waits' dustbin is a lot more rewarding than most people's, and there are nuggets of pure gold scattered throughout this set. I've gone for Lucinda because, like the best of Waits' work, it sounds like a song that's existed from the beginning of time, and its story keeps you gripped even as he appears to be coughing up his lungs in the background to provide a rhythm track.
16. BADLY DRAWN BOY - Born In The UK (from Born In The UK, EMI 3740472) (MP3 sample)
Tunes can be overrated, of course, but in recent years I've found that Badly Drawn Boy writes decent ones more consistently than more or less anyone else out there. Here's another one, with the added bonus of recognising the historical milestones he uses to chart his first few decades on the planet. Besides, I've always been a sucker for songs whose last words are the only use of the title. (Which makes it two of those on this year's compilation.)
17. MICHAEL FRANTI AND SPEARHEAD - Yell Fire (from Yell Fire!, Anti 68072) (MP3 sample)
2006 was one of my triannual Edinburgh-free years, but one of the highlights of the previous year's Festival was Spearhead's gig at the Liquid Room. Even if the politics of Franti's lyrics can get a little simplistic at times, he's been in the business long enough to know that as long as he gets the music right, everything else will follow on naturally. That Edinburgh gig showed me what a master he is at getting a crowd moving, even with a set containing several new songs from Yell Fire!, which wouldn't be released until the following year. It was a surprise listening to the record and realising how familiar most of the tunes were, even though I'd only ever heard him do them at that show. And the title track is a fine example, even when the run-up to its chorus keeps threatening to turn into Surrey With The Fringe On Top from Oklahoma!
18. 65DAYSOFSTATIC - Radio Protector (2006 single from One Time For All Time, Monotreme MONO16CD) (MP3 sample)
A teeny weeny amount of cheating was required to get 65daysofstatic onto this CD. Radio Protector's a track from their 2005 album, released in 2006 as a single, but as a limited edition seven-inch single that hardly anyone bought in that format. Nevertheless, it's crying out to be included here: it's a beautifully constructed instrumental, and the final crescendo always has me cranking up the volume just to get that little bit more of an adrenalin rush out of its climax. The rest of the album is patchy by comparison - as with Jaga Jazzist last year, I feel like I've been conned into buying a prog rock record - but I'm intrigued enough to want to hear what 65daysofstatic do next.
So that's your collection for 2006. And as ever, there's a competition to win your own copy of You Wouldn't Think That I Was 43. As has been the case for the last couple of years, it's based around the CD cover image that you can see at the top of the page. This year, your cover star is yours truly, reading The Beano from the comfort of a London bus. So here's your competition question: using your skill and judgment and wild guesswork, tell me the number of the bus I'm riding. Send your answer to firstname.lastname@example.org before 23:59 GMT on March 14th 2007. Competition not open to those of you who own the CD already (Lou, The BBG, Carole, The Sarge and Smudge). The closest guess to the actual bus number received by the closing date will win the prize: in the fucking unlikely event of a tie, the first of the tied answers received will win.
And if you don't win, you've always got those MP3 samples on the page to play with. Sadly, because I've got rid of the embedded player links, you can no longer try playing all 18 simultaneously to see what they sound like together. But that's not going to be a problem, because I can tell you now that they'll sound like this:
See how much I look after you? Being a monkey, and all.