For latecomers: I've been making Pick Of The Year compilations on and off for the last, ooh, quarter of a frickin' century or so. After a hiatus of a few years in the early nineties, I was talked back into the process by Lou, which resulted in the 1993 compilation tape Younger Than The Stones. Maybe one of these days I'll document the Cassette Years of 1993-7: but as far as you lot are concerned, the next important date is 1998, when Damn Your Black Heart, Barbra Streisand was the first of these jobbies to make it onto a CD. And I've been writing about them annually since. Some People Are Just Nice is the tenth one, hence the lazy sleeve featuring the previous nine.
So, now you're up to speed, here are my choices of the best songs of 2007, along with a competition if you fancy winning a copy of the CD for yourself. (Closing date February 29th 2008. Terms and conditions apply. See below.)
1. RINGO SHIINA X NEKO SAITO - Gamble (from Heisei Fuzoku, Toshiba EMI TOCT-26211) (video)
The first of three Japanese tracks on this year's CD, making them the second most heavily represented nation after the UK. Ringo Shiina is no stranger to these compilations, as regulars will know, despite (or maybe because of) her style changing wildly from one album to the next. This time round, she's working with orchestral arranger Neko Saito - that X in the artist name is apparently the Japanese equivalent of the 'versus' used in Western musical collaborations. Heisei Fuzoku is technically the soundtrack album for the film Sakuran, a Memoirs Of A Geisha-style story about oiran (basically, they're Geishas That Do It). Soundtracking an Edo period piece with contemporary rock songs may seem a little berserk, but somehow it works in context - although I like The Belated Birthday Girl's suggestion that Gamble's huge orchestral climaxes could just as easily work as a Bond theme.
2. CORNELIUS - Gum (from Sensuous, Warner Music Japan WPCL-10367) (video)
Despite all my best efforts, Ringo Shiina is pretty much unknown outside of her home country: but Cornelius has managed to become one of the few Japanese artists with a worldwide following, because he mainly produces instrumental dance tracks. Sensuous was actually released in Japan in 2006, but a 2007 European release gives me an excuse to include its most raucous bit of fun here. Interesting fact courtesy of The BBG: what sounds on the record like a numerical progression of random syllables is in fact a rather complex lyric, one which you could actually read for yourselves if the original promo video - a riot of dancing computer-generated kanji - hadn't been taken off YouTube. If anyone finds it out there, please let me know. Ta.
3. DIZZEE RASCAL - Wanna Be (from Maths + English, XL XLCD273) (video)
Dizzee's first album was much loved round these parts, but his follow-up Showtime was a little too navel-gazey for my tastes: "ooh look, I'm famous, it's all a bit weird" has been used as a theme for second albums far too many times. Thankfully, Maths + English is just the sort of thing we were all waiting for: Raskit is back out there talking about anything and everything that comes to mind. And if that includes fun tracks that take the mick out of gangsta culture to a Lily Allen chorus nicked from Bugsy Malone, all the better. As proposals for reducing black-on-black crime go, "stay at home, have a cup of tea, watch Corrie" is as good as any I've heard this year.
4. RICHARD HAWLEY - Valentine (from Lady's Bridge, Mute LCDSTUMM278) (video)
Amusingly, the first reference to Richard Hawley in the Spank web empire comes in a review of Fleadh 2001, where I sniffily accuse him of looking like a 'coont'. To be fair, he's got a lot better since. I came to his breakthrough album Coles Corner a little late, which is why he hasn't been mentioned in these compilations till now: but the hugely romantic songs on Lady's Bridge mean he's guaranteed a place this year. Besides, anyone who can persuade the legendary Shane Meadows to direct his videos (for both this and the earlier single Serious) is okay in my book.
5. KATE NASH - Foundations (from Made Of Bricks, Fiction 1743143) (video)
Kate Nash does seem to provoke extreme reactions, doesn't she? Either people love her to bits, or they want to see her lying dead in a ditch with crows pecking out her eyes: there's no middle ground. I think she's all right, meself. I'd have to admit that nothing else on Made Of Bricks really lives up to the promise of this single, the one that finally made her name after months of MySpace hype. Taking the inevitable comparisons that people make with Lily Allen, I think that in this specific case Nash comes off best. Both Allen's Smile and Nash's Foundations have similar my-bloke's-a-dick themes, but only Nash allows herself that moment in the final verse when the mask drops - "oh God, I hope I'm not stuck with this one..." I may just have included the song here for that line, you know.
6. DAN LE SAC VS SCROOBIUS PIP - Thou Shalt Always Kill (paid download via Lex Records) (video)
Speaking of internet successes, Dan Le Sac vs Scroobius Pip managed to make a bit of a name for themselves in 2007, almost entirely off the back of a smart YouTube video for this song. Although when I say 'song', I guess I mean 'intense bit of performance poetry set to a slamming electro track'. And an excellent bit of poetry it is too, although I'd advise you not to read the comments to the video on YouTube unless you're looking for some sort of masterclass in Missing The Fucking Point. Le Sac and Pip sound like they could be an interesting proposition live, and in March they're going to be supporting Billy Bragg at the Roundhouse: now that's what I call a 'versus'...
7. AMIINA - Glamur (from Kurr, Ever EVER11CD) (video)
I don't think I've ever said this out loud before. Even though I've been doing these compilations on CD since 1998, I still think of them as if they were going on a C90 tape, with a side 1 and a side 2. So in my head at least, this year's compilation consists of two sets of eight songs apiece: and the penultimate track of each set is more of a repetitive mood piece than an actual song. Which is why The BBG keeps hitting the Track Skip button at 7 and 15 whenever she plays this CD. She's missing out, because this piece by Amiina - better known till now as a female string quartet that frequently collaborates with Sigur Ros - is a lovely thing. The video linked to above is particularly impressive, as they flawlessly recreate the layered sound of the track live, with a lot of instrument swapping.
8. GOGOL BORDELLO - Ultimate (from Super Taranta!, Side One Dummy SD1334-2) (video)
High on my list of Things I Should Write About Soon is a career retrospective of The Pogues, inspired by an extraordinarily lacklustre concert of theirs that I saw just before Christmas. Pogues gigs used to be glorious affairs, where the drunkenness of all concerned was merely the garnish to the music, rather than the other way round. The closest I've got to that level of intensity at a show in recent years was seeing Gogol Bordello back in 2006, which is the point where I realised I'm too old to be hanging around moshpits. But I'd like to see them again one of these days: and in the meantime records like this one, with their wholly impossible tempo changes halfway though, make a pretty good substitute.
9. KID CARPET - Make It Look Good (from The Kid's Back, Tired & Lonesome TLONE7009) (video)
The big topic of musical conversation in 2007 was the move from a record-based industry to a gig-based one: more and more artists are starting to realise that having your music nicked by webfelchers isn't that big a deal if it persuades them to come out to see your shows afterwards. I'm still going to gigs on a regular basis, so I think there's genuinely something in that. In 2007, we even went all the way to Bristol for the weekend solely to see Kid Carpet launch this EP in front of an audience of his mates. The BBG got chatting to him (as she frequently tends to at his gigs), and reports that having a slightly popular album hasn't affected his relationship with the fans. All we're waiting for now is the next one. (And a few shows in London to back it up, of course.)
10. FEIST - The Water (from The Reminder, Polydor 9848785) (video)
Kid Carpet initially came to our attention as a live act, opening for entertaining one-trick ponies The Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players. Similarly, my first experience of Feist was when she played a support set for our old chum Ed Harcourt. She charmed the audience with just a single guitar and a loop unit: and it seemed a shame that when I subsequently bought her album Let It Die, it was a lot more conventional than her live set had led me to believe. That was three years ago: since then her confidence in her material has increased greatly, making The Reminder a much more interesting proposition than her earlier work. Yes, of course, the ubiquity of That Bloody Song may well be working against her these days, but there's a lot more to Feist than iPod adverts: as her official site suggests, listen.
11. HALFBY - Star Track (from Side Farmers, Toy's Factory TFCC-86230) (video)
I've already discussed Halfby and the wonderfulness of Side Farmers elsewhere on this site, and there's not much more to be said. So I won't.
12. LOU RHODES - They Say (from Bloom, A&G CDAG6) (video)
I had a picture of Lou Rhodes in the writeup last year as well, didn't I? Sorry about that, it's all entirely driven by her position in the track listing. Rhodes' 2006 solo debut Beloved One was an extremely pretty thing, as I mentioned at the time: perhaps just that little bit too pretty, lacking the intensity of her best work with Lamb. Well, no complaints on that score here. I dread to think what trauma Rhodes suffered between the first and the second album (Wikipedia suggests the death of her sister), but there are sections of Bloom - and this song in particular - where the sheer naked emotion of her vocals brings to mind some of Bjork's most spine-tingling moments. At the same time, the music is allowed to rise dramatically above the folky strumming of her debut, attaining real power at this song's climax. I didn't realise what Rhodes was holding back till now, and now I want more of it.
13. CANDIE PAYNE - I Wish I Could Have Loved You More (from I Wish I Could Have Loved You More, Deltasonic DLTCD062) (video)
It pleases me that even now, I can still catch a single on the wireless (I've just realised that I've been around long enough that I can start calling it 'the wireless' again) and be desperate to know who's responsible for it. And in a peculiarly modern touch, the way I initially found out was by typing this song's title into Google and seeing Candie Payne's name come out. The rest of the album certainly has its moments, but the single is a small slab of pop perfection, managing to achieve a timeless feel through the simple device of being cobbled together from loads of old samples on a computer.
14. THE REAL TUESDAY WELD - The Day Before You Came (from Now Hear This!, July 2007) (video)
It's the age-old question: how do you get to hear new music? Theoretically, the internet should have made things easier (and we'll come back to that in a minute). But ultimately, there's so much stuff out there that you need some sort of filter in place: an authority who can let you know on a regular basis what's worth listening to. Currently one of my filters of choice is Word magazine, whose monthly cover-mounted CDs always have a few fascinating surprises on them. Hence this track from The Real Tuesday Weld: it's commercially available on a Six Degrees Records compilation called Backspin, but I'm happy to make do with the free copy that Word gave me. I've discussed my sneaky regard for Abba's pop genius before now, and at some point in 2008 I'll need to rerun my Mamma Mia! hate piece to scare people off the film. Unlike the musical, Stephen Coates' deadpan reading treats the song with the respect it deserves, and adds another layer to its surprisingly bleak charm (plus a cute bit of self-reference in the namecheck to 'the latest one by Declan Gunn or something in that style').
15. YODA'S HOUSE - Wraith Rite (free download from MySpace) (video)
Getting back to the question of finding new music on the internet: where the hell do you start? Comics writer Warren Ellis appears to have a foolproof system, which he shared with the world on his website. Shortly after that, he started a series of podcasts called The 4am, whose sole purpose was to introduce his readers to unsigned bands with tunes freely available on the net. And that's how Yoda's House, a virtually unknown psychedelic folk outfit from Alberquerque, ended up being the only American act on this year's compilation. (No, Feist is Canadian, try to keep up. And for the purposes of this argument I'm trying not to think too hard about the origins of Gogol Bordello.) Ellis' comment from the inaugural podcast where this appeared - "I personally cannot get enough of this hideous clanging noise" - says it all for me: it's the slow transition from nothing to cymbal-heavy apocalypse and back again that makes this astonishing. If you stop listening after one minute like some people I know, you're not really listening at all.
16. RACHEL UNTHANK & THE WINTERSET - Fareweel Regality (from The Bairns, Rabble Rouser 504 3802) (video)
Nine out of the sixteen tracks on this CD are of British origin: and, as has been noted by several commentators, the major trend in this country at the moment is for people to sing in the accent of their home town rather than go for something more generic or, heaven forfend, American. That applies to tracks 3, 4, 5, 6 and 9 above: and also to Rachel Unthank, although it's not so much news that a folk singer is keeping her native accent. Unthank's loopy Northumbrian vowels are part of the attraction for me, but there's also the lovely piano work of the Winterset's Brenda O'Hooley: she brings a jazz sensibility to traditional music, and never quite arranges two choruses exactly the same way. This was the last song I ever heard anyone play at late lamented London venue The Spitz, and it seems like a fitting finale.
So, at the end of that, you may or may not be wondering, "how can I get a copy of this CD for myself?" Well, here's how. Rather than the space-cluttering MP3 or Real Audio samples I've used in previous years, this time I've included a link to a full video of each song. If you've got eighty minutes or so to spare, here's a YouTube widget which will play all sixteen of the videos back to back. Look at it.
There are some variations in quality, I'll admit. Three of the videos are my own work, an extension of The Felix Project that I started this time last year. At least one of them - Wraith Rite - proclaims itself to be 'possibly the worst concert video ever recorded', and I can't really argue with that. And irritatingly, the Rachel Unthank one cuts off a minute before the end of Fareweel Regality and jumps partway into another song. But for competition purposes, I'm concentrating on the video for Thou Shalt Always Kill by Dan Le Sac vs Scroobius Pip. For reasons of rudeness, that video has three words deleted from the lyric. Can you guess what's coming?
Use your skill and judgement to determine which three swearwords have been blanked out of the video for Thou Shalt Always Kill. Put those three words in the subject line of an email, and send that email to firstname.lastname@example.org before 23:59 GMT on February 29th 2008. First prize is a CD of Some People Are Just Nice: there are no other prizes. In the event of a tie, the first correct answer received will win the CD: in the event of no-one getting it right, the first entry received will win. This competition is not open to anyone who already owns a copy of Some People Are Just Nice, for fairness' sake.
I'm looking forward to opening up my sweariest inbox ever. Being a monkey, and all.