You Would Die For Flintlock: Pick Of The Year 1991
Here's an embarrassing thing. You'll recall that in my earlier discussion of POTY 1990 - the first in a sequence of three CDs, compiled two decades after the years in question - I spent most of the intro oversharing about how much shagging I was doing. (Let's just say that one of the tracks on POTY 1991 is effectively a breakup song, and leave it at that.)
But I completely forgot to mention the other big change in my life that year - after spending all my life either in the family home or in flatshares, 1990 was the year I finally put the money down on a place of my own. (And, of course, have continued putting my money down ever since.) Looking through my diary, I'm wondering if becoming a homeowner made me keener to stay in than go out - I probably went to no more than half a dozen or so gigs in 1991, most of which were headlined by people on this very compilation.
As with the previous one, this CD was thrown together over the space of one evening in 2011, just going for gut reactions on what was floating my boat twenty years ago. (I subsequently went back and made one change, to include a track that I'd initially forgotten about.) I can't guarantee that this is a completely accurate depiction of my favourite songs of 1991, but it's the best you're going to get here.
If you make enough of these compilations over the years, then you start to develop a sense of what's a good way to start off an album. This always struck me as one of the best - a huge loop of atonal noise, layering more and more elements onto it as it goes, grinding away for an astonishing two and a half minutes before anything approaching a verse kicks in. The actual song feels more like an afterthought in the wake of that intro, but you don't really care at that point.
2. KIRSTY MACCOLL – Walking Down Madison (from Electric Landlady, Virgin) [video]
Kirsty's always been so beloved as a vocalist that her songwriting tends to get ignored as a result. Her songs tended to fall into two categories: either the fluffy comic ones that got her a regular gig as the musical guest on French and Saunders, or the social commentary that showed her as being very much her father's daughter. To be honest, this isn't her best example of the latter - it's more of an outsider's snapshot of American life than an attempt to engage with it - but MacColl's choice of collaborator is crucial here. Johnny Marr's melodic sense escalates an okay song to a great record, as we eventually discovered he'd been doing for Morrissey for all those years.
3. THE WEDDING PRESENT – Dare (from Seamonsters, RCA) [video]
The Weddoes were one of those bands whose albums definitely followed the law of diminishing returns as their career, for want of a better word, progressed. This isn't anything like as good as some of their earlier work, and I suspect it only makes it onto here because of the joyous noise of the buzzsaw guitar that dominates its finale. It looks like noise was something I was getting back into in 1991.
4. MASSIVE ATTACK – Unfinished Sympathy (from Blue Lines, Circa) [video]
Well, we all know this one. I think this was a bit of a revelation for me: I'd always had an affinity for the more melancholic end of guitar rock, but it took Massive Attack to make me realise you could get that effect in dance music as well.
5. REM – Belong (from Out Of Time, Warner Bros) [video]
I have a very definite memory of the first time I heard this one. I know it looks like I spend most of my time working in foreign countries these days, but back in 1991 it only tended to happen on an average of once a year if I was lucky. So I was spending the week in a small town in the Netherlands called Zwolle, where I turned on the telly to see what was happening, and saw REM's Unplugged show on MTV. The album version of Belong isn't that different from what they did acoustically on TV, and that may be why it's still my favourite track on the record.
6. ELECTRONIC – The Patience Of A Saint (from Electronic, Factory) [video]
Johnny Marr again, back collaborating with Barney off of New Order, and with Pet Shop Boys throwing in a few bits along the way, much as they did for hit single Getting Away With It the year before. This one feels more like a PSB song than the earlier one, and not just because Tennant bagsies the first verse to himself. The Sumner influence comes through in some of the more terrible touches in the lyrics - "why should I care, I'd rather watch drying paint..." It sounds okay these days, but (as with pretty much everything Electronic did) it's much less than the sum of its constituent parts.
7. VOICE OF THE BEEHIVE – Little Gods (from Honey Lingers, London) [video]
Another utterly precise memory of the first time I heard this. It's something that rarely happens: you go to a live gig where a song's performed for the first time, and it ends up permanently lodged in your head until the artist finally gets around to putting it on a record. The Beehives' genius with a pure pop tune is largely forgotten these days, which is criminal given how great this one is.
8. CARTER THE UNSTOPPABLE SEX MACHINE – Falling On A Bruise (from 30 Something, Rough Trade) [video]
I came to Carter a little bit late for an NME-reading indie kid: I picked up on a couple of their singles thanks to the Indie Top 20 compilations, but the first album of theirs I ever bought was this sophomore effort. At the various live gigs of theirs I attended, it was all the playing-fast-and-yelling-bollocks stuff that worked best, but on record I always had a soft spot for their more sentimental tunes like this one.
9. NIRVANA – Territorial Pissings (from Nevermind, Geffen) [video]
It's short, it's made up entirely of distorted guitars and screaming, and it's got a sweary title. Yes, in 1991 I was still putting inappropriate songs on pub jukeboxes purely for my own amusement, since you ask.
10. MARC ALMOND – The Days Of Pearly Spencer (from Tenement Symphony, Some Bizarre) [video]
Trevor Horn wasn't as huge a fixture in my musical landscape now as he was in the mid-80s - or anybody's musical landscape, for that matter. So it actually meant a bit more when he'd suddenly appear and sprinkle some of his fairy dust on the odd record. As a Horn production, Pearly Spencer is light on the obvious tinkering we used to associate with him, apart from the clues offered by the microdetailed precision of the arrangement. Everything else is down to Marc, of course: with an established cover like this, all you need to do is wind him up and steer him away from those occasional bum notes he can be prone to.
11. 808 STATE – Cubik (from ex:el, ZTT) [video]
Meanwhile, Trevor Horn's record label was getting a wee bit of a second wind several years after its heyday. This was thanks to the tail end of the rave scene, and in particular 808 State's run of epic dance singles, most of them drawn from this album. Cubik is just a five-note bassline dragged out for the length of a single, but they're the right five notes.
12. BILLY BRAGG – Tank Park Salute (from Don’t Try This At Home, Go! Discs) [video]
I've come to recognise this a few times during this run of compilations - a cult artist who's pottered along happily with a smallish audience for a couple of albums, suddenly having huge amounts of cash thrown at them by the record company in an attempt to accelerate them into the big time. It never really works, and it didn't work for Bragg, despite the expansive double-album length and the expensive guests like half of REM. All the best things about Don't Try This At Home - which, for all my cynical carping, just might be Bragg's most consistently excellent collection of songs - are things that were always there in his records, and this lovely piano-driven ballad is a great example of that.
13. CURVE – Ten Little Girls (from Indie Top CD Vol XII, Beechwood) [video]
Back then, we would buy any old half-decent rock/dance hybrid if it had a hot girl standing in front of it. This particular one's made up of a curious mixture of elements - Toni Halliday's snarl, Dean Garcia's mashup of instrumentation, JC001's rapping. But it all comes together on Ten Little Girls in a way that Curve never managed on any track of their subsequent album, which had the added disadvantage of not having this song on it.
14. CROWDED HOUSE – Four Seasons In One Day (from Woodface, Capitol) [video]
There are some bands whose output may be large, but deep down everyone knows that there's only one album you really need. For Crowded House, that album is Woodface, the one with all the singles we know and a surprisingly low amount of filler between them. And this was the best single.
15. HALF MAN HALF BISCUIT – Everything’s AOR (from McIntyre, Treadmore And Davitt, Probe Plus) [video]
Nowadays, we've all learned to expect a gap of several years between one Half Man Half Biscuit album and the next. But by 1991, we'd assumed we'd seen the last of them, after their 1985 debut was followed by a posthumous-looking collection of old Peel sessions. So the appearance of McIntyre was a delightful surprise, especially when it transpired that the band had used the intervening years to tighten up their musical skills enormously. And Nigel Blackwell remains as sharp a social satirist as ever: just the opening snarl of 'bubble perm' alerts you to the song's anti-yuppie stance, long before you get to the raucous joy of the wrestler-referencing chorus.
16. ELVIS COSTELLO – Couldn’t Call It Unexpected No. 4 (from Mighty Like A Rose, Warner Bros) [video]
Not just the closing track of Elvis' second album for Warners, but also (in instrumental form) the end title theme for Alan Bleasdale's rather fine series GBH, another fond memory of the time. I've got it on DVD, but haven't dared rewatch it for years: wonder if it still holds up? The song seems to, anyway.
17. THE JUSTIFIED ANCIENTS OF MU MU – It’s Grim Up North (radio edit) (single, KLF Communications) [video]
This was the song I forgot about on the first pass of compiling POTY 1991: it wasn't until I was partway through assembling the 1992 edition that I picked up a KLF record and suddenly thought "hang on a minute..." So please accept my apologies, De La Soul, but that track of yours that was my outgoing answerphone message for a year or so had to go. Really, if I had the room, I'd put the full ten minute mix of It's Grim Up North on here, as the radio edit is a little ham-fisted in places in terms of how the cuts work. If I was still doing these on cassettes, this absolutely would be the ten minute version.
18. THE BALANESCU QUARTET – String Quartet No. 1 (finale) (from Michael Nyman String Quartets 1-3, Argo) [video]
Best gig of 1991? Easy: Pet Shop Boys at Wembley Arena, with their hugely overblown Performance show. It's easily obtainable on DVD nowadays, and has to be seen to be believed: it marked the point where their visual ambition matched the grandeur of the records. Their previous attempt at an arena sized show in 1989 didn't work half as well: my main memory of it was watching the bemusement of a PSB audience discovering that the support act was the string quartet at the core of the Michael Nyman Band, playing what sounded at the time like distinctly Nymanesque tunes. I'm reasonably sure that they were playing at least one of Nyman's quartets - the beautiful string of variations on a simple 16 bar phrase at the climax of this one definitely feels familiar.
18 tracks in 80 minutes! That's a surprising lack of self-indulgent waffle, and no mistake. Be warned: things will be a bit different in 1992.