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I Am My Own Demographic: Pick Of The Year 2012

Click to embiggen, for a change. (You have NO IDEA how much time I have to spend turning off the 'click to embiggen' function whenever I post a picture on here.)I have two C60 cassettes in front of me right now. Recorded between December 14th and 16th 1982, together they form the first end-of-year compilation I ever made, and they're now thirty years old. If you're very unlucky, one of these days I may get around to telling you what's on them.

For the cover design of my 30th anniversary CD, I Am My Own Demographic, I created a Wordle from the track listing of every compilation I've made between 1982 and 2012. It gives you a fair idea of the artists and themes that turn up regularly, and also suggests that at heart I'm a great big soppy bastard.

How do those keywords relate to this collection of my favourite songs of 2012? Well, you're about to find out. And if you're very lucky, you may get to win a copy of the CD for yourself. (But if you're reading this after March 1st 2013, you've missed your chance. Sorry.)

1. RICHARD HAWLEY - She Brings The Sunlight (from Standing At The Sky's Edge, Parlophone) (video)
Considering that I effectively called Richard Hawley a cunt after the first time I saw him, we do seem to get along better nowadays. Obviously, the big news this time round is his dramatic change in style: after a few albums worth of Radio 2-friendly crooning, he's moved in a more psychedelic direction. It's as if Hawley is determined to stay a fixed 45 years behind everyone else in music, like a more aged and less molesty version of BBC4's Top Of The Pops reruns. I approve, anyway: if nothing else, the two solos on this track have given me the first opportunity to break out the air guitar in years.

2. VANILLA BEANS - Skane No Hana Ga Saiteru (from Vanilla Beans III, T-Palette) (video)
After my delight at discovering the Beans on our 2010 Japan trip, it came as a bit of a disappointment that their second album was so second albumy. It turns out that they felt the same way - or, at least, whichever mysterious pop overlord that controls them felt the same way - because one simple tweak has made their third album a joy to listen to. With every other J-Pop vocal act out there chained to a pre-programmed backing track, the Beans - or whichever mysterious pop overlord yadda yadda yadda - have taken the retro step of performing with an actual band, and the energy levels of all concerned have shot through the roof as a result. If they were to replicate this live while I was in Japan, there would be no stopping me: shame I'm not planning to be back there till 2014.

3. JACK WHITE - Hip (Eponymous) Poor Boy (from Blunderbuss, Third Man) (video)
I go through alternating phases of liking Jack White for his tunes, and liking him for the sheer bloody racket that he can make. His solo debut seems to me to be the most consistent mix of those two approaches since I first encountered him as half of The White Stripes. As you can tell, this time around I've gone for a tune rather than a racket, and a rather lovely tune at that. Unfortunately, in my head I keep mishearing the lyrics so that they're about a New Orleans submarine sandwich made out of hippopotamus meat, but that's just my problem.

4. BJORK - Crystalline (Omar Souleyman Remix) (from Bastards, One Little Indian) (video)
One of my favourite Bjork albums has the fantastically Ronseal title the best mixes from the album-debut for all the people who don't buy white-labels. By comparison, Bastards is a bit pithier, but its intent is the same: she's described this collection as being “for people who are perhaps not too sassy downloaders or don't have the time or energy to partake in the hunter-gathering rituals of the internet”. She's never been afraid to let her collaborators remix a track to destruction, which is why Crystalline becomes the first ever song to make it onto two consecutive compilations (see also: 2011). Omar Souleyman's reworking is a more sensitive showcase for Bjork's lyrics than the drum'n'bass apocalypse of the original, while still possessing enough funk to have you celebrating "a little bit more like the Arab" (to quote 2012's most racistly charming comedy sketch).

5. THE TING TINGS - Guggenheim (from Sounds From Nowheresville, Columbia) (video)
Nobody cares about these two any more, do they? Of course not. We all knew they were one-hit wonders from the word go. I bought the Ting Tings' second album purely out of habit, left it unplayed for several months, and then finally got around to listening to it with low expectations. And those expectations were achieved, until this song: a prime bit of girly primal screaming trying initially to fool you into thinking it's a cautionary tale from the sixties. "I discovered there's something about me / that everybody wants some more..." Well, I wouldn't go that far, but this works just fine for me.

Kate Miller-Heidke channels her inner Pom, playing the British Dancing Girl in ENO's 2012 production of The Death Of Klinghoffer. (There's a review on the site here somewhere if you search for it.)6. KATE MILLER-HEIDKE - Nightflight (from Nightflight, Sony Music Entertainment Australia) (video)
Kate Miller-Heidke's songwriting partner, musical collaborator and bloke (Keir Nuttall) started following me on Twitter a few weeks ago, for no obvious reason. I hope this isn't going to get weird now. Kate last appeared on the 2009 compilation, where her sweary Facebook song fitted in with all the effing and jeffing of that year's selections. But there's more to her than that, and this song proves it. In a year when I was bundled off to the likes of São Paulo and Abu Dhabi for work, this feels like a perfect depiction of the dislocation you encounter on the long-haul journey back home. For me, it's given a slightly surreal edge by being sung by an Aussie quoting half-heard London Underground catchphrases.

7. KYARY PAMYU PAMYU - Candy Candy (from Pamyu Pamyu Revolution, Warner Music Japan) (video)
I've already analysed the album at great length on Mostly Film, so I won't repeat myself here: but I feel I should mention that shortly after the publication of that piece, the tickets for Kyary's first ever London show went on sale while I was on holiday, and none of you sods told me about it. Thanks. Still, I've already admitted that I'm ambivalent about the prospect of her as a live performer, so I'm happy to stick with the album, which is genuinely one that I keep coming back to time after time. And this is its pinnacle. The incomprehensible English chorus, the complex keyboard arrangement, the video's perfectly timed flying leap out of the first verse and into the hook: it's all gold.

8. THE UNTHANKS WITH BRIGHOUSE & RASTRICK BRASS BAND - The King Of Rome (from Diversions Vol. 2, Rabble Rouser) (video)
Last year, I noted that the Unthanks were in a peculiar "so what do we do now?" phase. What I hadn't realised at the time was what a carefully planned phase it was. Over the space of twelve months, they've released three very different albums in the Diversions series - a collection of covers from Robert Wyatt and Antony & The Johnsons, a suite of songs to accompany a short film about the Tyneside shipyards, and this collaboration with one of the most famous brass ensembles in the UK. With Brighouse & Rastrick involved, the proportion of mining disaster songs is even higher than you'd normally expect on an Unthanks record: but I'm happy to bypass the tragedy and go for this lovely thing instead, where the soaring arrangement cancels out any potential sentimentality in the lyrics. If this is what the Unthanks sound like when they're being indecisive, they can take their time deciding.

9. PET SHOP BOYS - Ego Music (from Elysium, Parlophone) (video)
I've always been fond of the PSB's comedy songs, and Elysium has a few of them: from the Stardust Memories homage of Your Early Stuff, to this vicious skewering of popstar pretension. Apparently, many of the most cringeworthy lines in here are quotes from actual people: the worst one - you'll know it when you hear it - is apparently Dido's fault. And I like the irony of how the only video of the song available on YouTube is marred by the lead vocals of the person who uploaded it. (Alternatively, you can see it performed as part of a full PSB set recorded live in Berlin.)

10. MADNESS - Never Knew Your Name (from Oui Oui Si Si Ja Ja Da Da, Lucky 7) (video)
I keep thinking of this as a natural partner to the previous track. The paths of Madness and the Pet Shop Boys have crossed before, when they collaborated on a stomping live version of My Girl a few years ago. They may not seem like bands with a lot in common, but there's always been a peculiarly English undercurrent of melancholy in all their best work. And with just a small tweak to the arrangement, Never Knew Your Name could actually be a PSB song itself. Like Neil Tennant, Suggs doesn't need to milk the sadness of a song: he relies on us to spot the subtle difference between the first verse and the last one, and lets his deceptively conversational style do the rest.

11. THE NORTH SEA SCROLLS - Scroll 7 / I Am Falconetti (from The North Sea Scrolls, Fantastic Plastic) (video1/video2)
A really layered work of art such as, for example, Mel Brooks' Blazing Saddles - SHUT UP I'M TALKING - is always notable for the way it differs each time you encounter it: you see changes in your own character reflected in your changed reactions to it. For example, it wasn't until my third viewing of Blazing Saddles that I was old enough to understand the historical context of Cleavon Little's punchline to the KKK scene. Similarly, the first time I saw The North Sea Scrolls I enjoyed the amusing song about Chris Evans' incineration, but didn't understand the title. But at another performance in London around the time of the album's release, I finally got the gag, thanks to the song being accompanied by an image I'd recently seen in an article by Fiona Pleasance about The Passion Of Joan Of Arc, which starred Renée Jeanne Falconetti in the title role. So there you have it: conclusive proof that Mostly Film really is Europe's Best Website, and anyone who says otherwise was a paedophile in the 1970s. (You can use that in the ads if you like, guys.)

HERE WE GO!12. THE CHEMICAL BROTHERS - Theme For Velodrome (single, UMC) (video)
I hate Sebastian Coe. Now we've got that out of the way, it's interesting to observe how the cliched viewpoint of June 2012 (the London Olympics is going to be a disaster) has been superceded by the equally cliched viewpoint of December 2012 (you know, it wasn't as bad as I thought it would be). This was probably the best original piece of music to come out of the whole Olympic event, although I never actually heard it used in context during the cycling. It's not really the best thing the Chemical Brothers did in 2012 - that would be the revelation in their Don't Think concert film that a live performance of Hey Boy, Hey Girl involves the pressing of a button labelled HBHG. But as ever, it's the slow build at the start which really makes this track for me, so apologies for linking to a video of the radio edit that misses most of that out.

13. DAVID BYRNE & ST. VINCENT - Optimist (from Love This Giant, 4AD) (video)
David Byrne turns up on these things a lot, doesn't he? Although the more eagle-eyed among you may have noticed that his collaboration with Fatboy Slim, Here Lies Love, didn't make it to 2010's Pick Of The Year. Too cluttered for my liking, unfortunately. Compared to a song cycle about the life of Imelda Marcos, the aims of Love This Giant are much more straightforward - Byrne writes some songs with St. Vincent, and they perform them with a collection of brass players. And those aims are achieved quite perfectly. This particular song leans much more in the direction of St. Vincent, with Byrne only really detectable in some detuned guitar at the end, and the general sense of New York positivity that's the song's theme.

14. LIMITED EXPRESS (HAS GONE?) - We Love This Country Like Banana (free download, Ototoy) (video)
There have been many artistic reactions to the nightmarish combination of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown that hit Japan on March 11th, 2011. I think it's safe to say that this one is the most fun. If you thought David Byrne's New York optimism was unlikely, then God knows what you'll make of a Japanese punk band listing all of their country's failings with tongue in cheek, only to marvel at the way people pick themselves up afterwards and carry on regardless. The fact that the song's performed in English makes me suspect that this is just as much aimed at an overseas market as one of those cheesy DTV movies featuring ninjas with large tits. Or maybe they just thought the still-topical reference to "our revolving door prime ministers" wouldn't go down as well back home. Either way, this song's a total one-off, and it's nice that they let us have it for nothing. Thank you.

15. SUFJAN STEVENS - Christmas Unicorn (from Silver And Gold, Asthmatic Kitty) (video)
It's the climax of a 5 CD collection of Christmas songs, it's got a quizzical attitude to matters of faith, and ultimately it turns out to be two and a half minutes of actual song followed by ten minutes of coda. That's Sufjan Stevens for you! But I do like his attitude to Christmas music, expressed at length in the sleeve notes for Silver And Gold: after decades of commercial cash-in releases, he's bravely made all his own compositions on this album public domain, effectively as a Christmas present to the world. That doesn't apply to Christmas Unicorn, because it's not all his own composition: and the way that the coda builds, reveals itself to be a medley, and keeps building anyway, fully justifies this track hogging over 15% of the disc.

So, that's the 2012 compilation done and dusted: which means that once again, it's time for a competition where you can win a copy of it for yourself. There were complaints that last year's was a little too open-ended for some regular entrants, so this year we'll do something along the lines of one of those village fete contests where you have to guess the number of pickled onions in a jar. Except this one is guessing the number of fucks in a CD. How many times does the f-bomb, or one of its variants, occur in the compilation CD I Am My Own Demographic? Email your answer to demographic@spank-the-monkey.co.uk before 11.59pm GMT on February 28th 2013: the closest estimate will win a copy of the CD. In the event of a tie, the first of the tied entries received will win the prize. Contest not open to the people it's normally not open to, you know who you are. And you don't really need me to tell you. Being a monkey, and all.



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