I've not been entirely honest with you, I'm afraid. For years, I've been telling you that my annual Pick Of The Year compilations started in 1993, as the result of a drunken conversation with Lou about the state of popular music at the time. But 1993 was, more accurately, the first year that these compilations went public - in fact, I'd been making them for my own personal amusement since 1982.
Which makes You've Done An Awesome Job Kevin number thirty in the series. Ulp.
I had this vague plan at one stage that when the POTY compilations hit a nice round number, I'd assemble all of these analysis pieces into another one of my massively unpopular books. We can discuss that further at the end of this page, when I'll also be offering you the chance to win a copy of this CD for yourselves (closing date February 29th 2012). But for now, here are my eighteen favourite songs of this year just gone, and why they're better than yours.
Amiina first appeared round these parts in 2007: I believe I became aware of them because a song of theirs appeared on one of The Word's excellent monthly cover CDs (of which, more later). They seem to have got themselves some balls in the four years since - or at least got themselves a percussionist, which may count as the same thing. The addition of an audible pulse certainly gives Asiin an interesting tension which lifts it above the band's usual exercises in atmospherics and dynamics. For those of you who know me personally, the second track on Puzzle (Over & Again) has been my phone's ringtone for the past year or so, so please refrain from confusing me by playing it while I'm in the room.
2. BJORK – Crystalline (from Biophilia, One Little Indian) (video)
I'm still buzzing from Bjork's live showcase of the Biophilia album at the Manchester International Festival last summer, almost certainly my gig highlight of 2011. At the time, I commented that the just-released single version of Crystalline didn't quite match up to the power of the live rendition, particularly when it came to that thunderous final minute or so. Well, maybe it's down to the way that they compress digital singles, or maybe it's down to the last-minute remix which delayed Biophilia's release for a couple of weeks - either way, this album version manages to surpass both of its predecessors. Just try putting on the first few seconds of Crystalline as high as you can bear, and then leave the volume at that level for the duration of the song. Go on. Dare you.
3. LAMB – Wise Enough (from 5, Strata) (video)
That Bjork gig was in July of 2011, and ended up being part of a ludicrously crammed month full of gigs, as I subsequently reported in August. Another highlight of that month was the return of Lamb after several years away, playing in the delightful environment of Somerset House. Their comeback album 5 only really made sense to me after hearing it performed live, where the uneasy relationship between the two band members lifted the songs way above the level of Lou Rhodes' solo work, fine as it is. Her versatile voice really benefits from the contrast with Andy Barlow's non-intuitive choices in arrangements, including some terrifically seventies farty synth at the climax of this one.
4. HALF MAN HALF BISCUIT – Joy In Leeuwarden (We Are Ready) (from 90 Bisodol (Crimond), Probe Plus) (video)
One of the joys of being a Half Man Half Biscuit fan is seeing those rare occasions where the targets of their comedy find out they've had a song about them, and the utter bemusement that causes. To a list that includes Bob Wilson and the town of Chatteris, we can now add Dutch songwriters Henny Wassenaar and Corien Steenstra, who are falsely credited on 90 Bisodol's sleeve with composing this ode to the 2010 European Korfball Championships. The good people at The Half Man Half Biscuit Lyrics Project decided to investigate this claim, with deeply amusing results. Nevertheless, even without their detailed (over-)analysis, the song's still one of HMHB's best in a long while - "there's often more intrigue in the pool games" is a classic Nigel Blackwell line.
5. PETER GABRIEL – Darkness (from New Blood, Real World) (video)
You could be uncharitable and say that Peter Gabriel's orchestral experiments of the past few years - firstly covering other people's songs, then revisiting his own - are merely an exercise in treading water, trying to distract us from how he hasn't released an album of new songs for almost a decade. But these reworkings find plenty of new angles in otherwise familiar material, thanks to John Metcalfe's inventive arrangements and the only-slightly-diminished splendour of Gabriel's voice. And in the case of Darkness, they've given a completely new life to a song that completely passed me by when it first appeared on Up in 2002.
6. ELBOW – Open Arms (from Build A Rocket Boys!, Fiction) (video)
My Mostly Film colleague, Jim Eaton-Terry, has written an eloquent article for Europe's Best Website about how Elbow's Lippy Kids is his favourite song of the year, and I can totally see how that works. At the same time, he acknowledges that there are "half a dozen really lovely songs" on the album, and I've chosen one of the other ones. It's possibly the northerner in me that relates best to those Elbow songs that reach for a tone of hesitant triumphalism, such as One Day Like This and Open Arms. The latter is also a favourite of The Belated Birthday Girl, although she keeps turning the chorus into "open hearts for broken arms", like it's a bad episode of ER.
7. TOKYO JIHEN – Sora Ga Natteiru (from Dai Hakken, Toshiba EMI) (video)
Ringo Shiina has released four solo albums in her career: the hobby band she started in 2004, Tokyo Jihen, has now released five. Which one counts as the side project? Either way, she's done everything possible to ensure we have to consider Tokyo Jihen as a band rather than a famous singer and some mates, scrupulously sharing out the songwriting credits between all the members. This song is a collaboration between Shiina and bass player Seiji Kameda, and is another one of those intricate rockers they do so well. It's enhanced by an artfully edited video, which looks like it's always on the verge of exploding into something without ever quite doing that.
8. BILLY BRAGG – Never Buy The Sun (from Fight Songs, Billy Bragg) (video)
This is rapid-response songwriting at its finest. Bragg came up with the idea for Never Buy The Sun just after the start of the hearings into News International's unscrupulous dealings. By Friday of that week, he'd performed the song live for the first time: a few days later, there was an official video on YouTube and a free download on his website. The sleeve notes of Fight Songs - a self-published CD of various similar downloads from the last decade, also available from that website - reveal that Bragg loves the freedom of being able to get a song out into the world within a few days, but misses the tactile pleasure of having a physical object in your hand. Fight Songs turns out to be a rather nice compromise between the two approaches, and means I can finally get hold of a copy of Old Clash Fan Fight Song, whose unavailability I was whining about as far back as 2008.
9. ANDREW RANNELLS & JOSH GAD – You And Me (But Mostly Me) (from The Book Of Mormon, Ghostlight) (video)
Over on Mostly Film, Europe's Best Website, you can find a lengthy article by me telling everyone how The Book Of Mormon was one of my favourite cultural events of the year: I'll try not to duplicate that too much here. When it comes to comedy songs, one of the worst things you can do is spunk away your only joke in the title, and make every other line in your song effectively filler. Parker, Stone and Lopez have been doing this stuff long enough to not make that mistake. Although the title of You And Me (But Mostly Me) is an obvious signpost to the lopsided nature of its duet, there are enough variations on the gag - and enough energy in the performances - to keep it funny even after multiple listens.
10. KATE BUSH – Snowflakes (from 50 Words For Snow, Noble & Brite) (video)
This was always going to be a difficult song to sequence on this CD: so I'm just leaving this ten minute ambient piano ballad in the middle of the disc in the hope that all the other songs will somehow settle around it. I'm always a little reluctant to dedicate so much space on an 80 minute compilation to a single track, but this one positively cries out to be included. It's a beautifully crafted minimalist story, which needs every single minute to encompass the scope of its microscopically epic narrative. Bush performs it as a duet with her teenage son Bertie (who, creepily, sounds exactly like a slowed-down version of his mum), and their relationship adds another emotional level on top of the song. When she made her comeback earlier in the year with Director's Cut, a series of reworked old songs, I suspected that Bush was hitting the same creative block as Peter Gabriel: it's nice to be proved so catastrophically wrong.
11. PJ HARVEY – The Glorious Land (from Let England Shake, Universal/Island) (video)
Regular readers will know that I'm always partial to a bit of PJ Harvey. And once a decade or so, the rest of the world comes around to my way of thinking. Let England Shake is an album full of brave choices - a vaguely folky direction, an anti-war theme, a track like The Glorious Land which feels like a frightfully English version of a Chinese workers' propaganda song. But it's all performed with such unswerving conviction that audiences couldn't help but be swept along with her.
12. THE GO! TEAM – T.O.R.N.A.D.O. (from Rolling Blackouts, Memphis Industries) (video)
I'm with pretty much everyone else when it comes to The Go! Team: first album terrific, second album meh, this one back on form again. That second record, whose name escapes me temporarily, which shows you how much of an impact it made - felt like it was an attempt to add some maturity to their sound. And who needs that from a Go! Team record? No, we want bangs, crashes, and vocals struggling to be heard over gigantic discordant brass stabs that sound like they've been pulled out of the bottom of Trevor Horn's recycle bin. T.O.R.N.A.D.O. gives us all that at once for a little over two minutes and then stops dead. Now that's a pop record.
13. ZOEY VAN GOEY – You Told The Drunks I Knew Karate (from Propeller Versus Wings, Chemikal Underground) (video)
There's usually one band a year that I discover from the cover CDs on The Word magazine (see Amiina above): in 2011, it was this track from Zoey Van Goey that particularly grabbed me. I loved its goofy charm, and the way that the title wasn't the funniest line in the song - just a neat mid-verse indicator of the sort of person it's about. (And we've all known one, haven't we?) Encouraged by this song, I ended up buying the Propeller Versus Wings album, but unfortunately I still haven't got around to actually playing the damn thing. Love the movie reference in the title, though. "I hope it hasn't gone all modern..."
14. THE WATERBOYS – Politics (from An Appointment With Mr Yeats, Proper) (video)
Mike Scott and his band have previous form when it comes to converting the poetry of WB Yeats into songs. One of my all-time favourites of theirs is The Stolen Child from the Fisherman's Blues album: while Scott collaborated with Sharon Shannon on A Song Of The Rosy-Cross, as part of a 1997 collection of Yeats adaptations called Now And In Time To Be. Yeats works well in these contexts, as his poetry tends to use a verse-chorus structure in much the same way as songs do. So it was only a matter of time before Scott did a full album of songs using Yeats for lyrics, with the air of yearning and regret in Politics making it a particular highlight.
15. TOM WAITS – Hell Broke Luce (from Bad As Me, Anti) (video)
Tom really only works in two registers these days - the brawlers and the bawlers, as he put it in the subtitle of his Orphans collection a few years ago. It's interesting to note that when I was first introduced to Waits all those years ago (hi Lou), it was the sentimental bawlers that affected me the most. These days, I guess, I'm a brawler man: the filthier the racket behind him, the better. Like Hoist That Rag on my 2004 collection, Hell Broke Luce is another tale from ground level in the Gulf War, but the world-weariness of the earlier song has been replaced by full-throated RAGE at the waste of lives involved.
16. THE LONELY ISLAND – I Just Had Sex (from Turtleneck And Chain, Universal/Island) (video)
It's informative to look at the YouTube videos at the bottom of this page - no, not yet, I haven't finished talking - and compare the popularity of the various acts involved by looking at their hit counts. At the time of writing, Amiina's live video has a somewhat feeble ten hits to its name: meanwhile, The Lonely Island's I Just Had Sex has 144,162,254 and rising. As ever, though, this song still works like gangbusters even without the video (though the celebrity cameo accompanying the line "having sex can make a nice man out of the meanest" is a doozy). Co-vocalist Akon is having so much fun on this song, you can even hear it through all the layers of processing on his voice. "Still counts!"
17. THE UNTHANKS – Close The Coalhouse Door (from Last, Rabble Rouser) (video)
The Unthanks appear to be going through a very interesting "so what do we do now?" phase. For a while, we thought we had them pegged: Geordie lasses singing old folk tunes, with the odd jazzy twist in their arrangements. But this year they've given us a startling rendition of the songs of Robert Wyatt and Antony & The Johnsons on their Diversions Vol 1 live album: while their studio work has been taking even more experimental turns. Not least on Close The Coalhouse Door, a Alex Glasgow song about the Aberfan disaster that slowly mutates into a lament told over what could almost be a Steve Reich backing.
18. IMAGINARY FLYING MACHINES – Tonari No Totoro (from Princess Ghibli, Coroner) (video)
I'm actually writing the first draft of this on a plane, flying from China back to the UK. (More about that soon, I guess.) And as I'm writing this bit, the onscreen map claims that I'm currently flying over a German town called Cottbus. You either know why that's funny or you don't. And the same applies to this album, I suppose: you either find the juxtaposition of Japanese death metal with the cutesy theme songs from Studio Ghibli cartoons hilarious, or you don't. But if you do, you'll find that miraculously, this one-joke album manages to sustain that joke for its entire running time. Performed by a collective of noisy buggers working under the umbrella title Imaginary Flying Machines, this particular reworking of Ghibli's kawaii-est tune features Disarmonia Mundi and Sophia Aslanidou. I love how, even though it's so aggressively performed in the key of AAAARRRRRGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHH, they still feel the need to go up a semitone for the final chorus.
So, that's my pick of 2011. If you fancy listening to them all for yourselves, you can use the video playist, buy the individual albums, or maybe - just maybe - you can win a copy in my regular competition. This year's going to require creative effort on your part, which is always risky, but here goes. If I decide to write this book, discussing the thirty Pick Of The Year compilations I've made between 1982 and 2011, what title should I give it? Send me your answer to email@example.com before 23:59 GMT on February 29th 2012. The writer of the best answer received, in the opinion of the judges (i.e. me), gets a copy of the CD, and may even see their title used on the book. But given my current workrate, I wouldn't hold your breath waiting for the book to be ready in time for next Christmas. Being a monkey, and all.