Technically, this is the twelfth time I've had to do this in 2013. Sit down with one of my compilations of favourite songs of the year, listen to it from start to finish, make detailed notes while it's playing, and convert them into some sort of readable analysis.
Regular readers will know that this year, out of a misguided desire for completeness or something like that, I've been revisiting my earliest ever annual compilations, from 1982 to 1992. Along the way, I've had quite a few surprises: some records that I'd completely forgotten in the intervening decades, others where I have no idea nowadays what I ever liked about them. It's been fascinating, but it's time to get back to the present day and remind myself what grabbed my attention from 2013's releases.
The usual rules apply - I've burned an entire CD's worth of tracks from the year in question, and will attempt to justify their selection below. If you fancy listening to them for yourselves, there's a YouTube playlist at the bottom of the page. If you'd rather get your hands on a physical copy, then look out for the PRIZE COMPETITION towards the end of this article (closing date Feb 28th 2014). So with all that out of the way, onto the songs...
There's a sense of unease as you approach the first proper (ish) Prefab Sprout album in ages. Can it live up to your impossibly high expectations? The sheer joy that bursts out of the opening seconds of the album quickly reassures you, even as it's battling it out with the sirens of the police in pursuit. And then Paddy McAloon pulls off a small miracle - the first time this century that the word 'swag' has been credibly used in a song by a white man - and you know everything's going to be just fine.
2. YOUNGBLOOD BRASS BAND – 20 Questions (from Pax Volumi, Tru Thoughts) [video]
Hard to believe that the previous Youngblood Brass Band album - the one where I first found out about them - was released seven years ago. For the first couple of those years they tore up London with a series of blistering live gigs, but they've been more quiet recently, presumably putting this album together. Seeing them in concert again last November, it struck me that they should be the sort of band where you say 'yeah, the records are fine, but you really need to see them live.' Instead, their recorded work manages to capture the raw energy of their gigs in a studio environment, and I still don't quite understand how they do that.
3. PETULA CLARK – Cut Copy Me (from Lost In You, Sony) [video]
I'm finding it hard to decide if I would still love this song so much if it was by anybody else. It's possible that I'm reacting more to the fact that an 80-year-old woman, whose previously best-known work was recorded five decades ago, has made an utterly modern-sounding record that isn't in the least bit embarrassing. (Not so modern that her record company could bring themselves to include her in her own video, but that's another battle.)
4. DIZZEE RASCAL – Bassline Junkie (from The Fifth, Dirtee Stank) [video]
I'm slightly worried about The Fifth. Its title is a neat bit of wordplay, but hides a suspicion that Dizzee never expected to get as far as releasing five albums. More worrying is the huge reliance on guest stars (did that have any connection to the last-minute three month delay in its release?). All too often, the hooks and choruses are so extended that Dizzee feels like a guest on his own album. Which is why the after-the-fact inclusion of this single as a bonus track is incredibly welcome, as it's basically just him. As I said when it came out, the sociopolitical content of Dizzee's lyrics may have been reduced to 'loud music is better than drugs,' but at least it's something. And there's something reassuringly British about a rapper whose hypeman spends part of the record trying to calm him down. "Easy!"
5. THE DUCKWORTH LEWIS METHOD – Third Man (from Sticky Wickets, Divine Comedy) [video]
'That doesn't sound like them at all,' said The Belated Birthday Girl as she heard the opening title track to Sticky Wickets. But what do The Duckworth Lewis Method sound like? 'Like The Divine Comedy with more cricketing references' would certainly work as a description of their first album. This one, however, is a lot more reliant on pastiche for its musical variety: so the song Sticky Wickets uses its cheesy title pun as an excuse to channel the Rolling Stones, and Third Man is more or less ELO. But there are much worse things to be.
6. KATE MILLER-HEIDKE – Humiliation (from Heavenly Sounds Live, Pledge Music download) [video]
Adventures In Crowdfunding #1. After a few records working for The Man (that man being Mr Sony), Kate Miller-Heidke has decided to go it alone for her 2014 album O Vertigo. She launched a crowdfunding initative via Pledge Music in autumn 2013 (or as they call it round her way, spring), and I bought The BBG a small interest in the record for her birthday. Heavenly Sounds Live is a free digital giveaway offered to anyone who makes a pledge, so the only way you'll get to hear it is by paying for the production of O Vertigo. It's a fine reminder of her stunning gig this year at the Islington, where one of the highlights was Keir Nuttall magicking up the entire accompaniment from just one guitar and a loop box. The song barely registered for me when it appeared on last year's Nightflight, but live it's something else entirely.
7. BILLY BRAGG – Handyman Blues (from Tooth And Nail, Cooking Vinyl) [video]
Oh, I'm not sure about Bragg these days, what with his Lib Dem leanings and his recent campaign to have all the South Bank skateboarders burned in ovens. But his records still work despite any political differences, which is a sentence that it would have physically impossible to write a decade or two ago. This one nails down the dilemma of the physically incapable middle-class man with delightful style. The star-studded Johnny Vegas video is a happy bonus, too.
8. DAVID BYRNE & ST VINCENT – Marrow (from Brass Tactics, free download) [video]
Global megastars giving their music away for free: what's up with that? My possession of this track traces back to Byrne's 2008 Eno collaboration, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, which I bought directly from his website simply because that was the only way you could get it at first. As a result I ended up on his mailing list, getting regular updates on his latest adventures just before they happen. To announce his 2013 tour with St Vincent, the pair of them let loose a free five-track download EP of offcuts from last year's Love This Giant. This brass-charged live version of St Vincent's Marrow is something I would have willingly paid money to own if I'd been given the chance.
9. JAGA JAZZIST & BRITTEN SINFONIA – Oslo Skyline (from Live With Britten Sinfonia, Ninja Tune) [video]
Yes, I know the video says Brussels Skyline. They change the title of the piece whenever they perform it: at the Barbican gig where this live album was partly recorded, I'm pretty sure it was announced as London Skyline. Whichever skyline it is, this piece has been the highlight of Jaga's recent orchestral collaborations. Its final three minutes is utterly thrilling, even as you realise that it's made up of exactly the sort of prog rock chord progressions that we fought the punk wars against in '77.
10. PET SHOP BOYS – Love Is A Bourgeois Construct (from Electric, X2) [video]
"Searching for the soul of England..." Well, if anyone's going to find it, it's Tennant and Lowe, who manage to drag Henry Purcell, Michael Nyman and Tony Benn into a love song that's probably used up all the world's irony resources for 2013. The arrival of Stuart Price as producer has given them such a visible boot up the jacksie since last year's Elysium, it's almost hysterical. He's given the dance beats a harder edge, and it's driven the Boys to produce some of their most engaged work ever, if 'engaged' is the right word for the bemused detachment we've come to know and love from them.
11. LOVE PSYCHEDELICO – Beautiful World (from In This Beautiful World, Victor) [video]
I've written several times before about Last Smile, Love Psychedelico's breakout single from 2001, and how a chance encounter with it dragged me into a hellish spiral of spending far too much money on J-pop records. Now, imagine that an advertising agency came up with an advert that needed to have Last Smile on its soundtrack, but they couldn't get the rights to the song. So instead, they'd hire some session musicians to make as close a copy as they could legally get away with - same feel, same instrumentation, same structure, most (but not all) of the same notes. To me, that's what Beautiful World feels like, dangerously close to the sound of a band that's running out of new ideas. But they've picked a brilliant old idea to recycle, and it's still more memorable than anything that was on their previous album, so that's why it's here.
12. KYARY PAMYU PAMYU – Furisodeshon (from Nanda Collection, Warner Music Japan) [video]
Here's a fascinating linguistic fact for you: the titles of Kyary's second album and its best single are both compounds of Japanese and English words wittily smashed together. So with the album, 'nanda kore' means 'what is this?', but the second word becomes the first half of 'collection' once you take into account the usual L/R confusion. Similarly, Furisodeshon is probably more accurately transcribed as Furisodation, using the suffix '-ation' to create an abstract noun out of the Japanese 'furisode', the traditional costume worn by Japanese women when they reach official adulthood at 20. It's a landmark that Kyary herself hit in the month that this was released as a single, hence the video's OTT depiction of barely-legal behaviour like smoking and drinking. This culminates in the cutest vomiting scene ever, probably the most 'nanda kore?' moment in Kyary's videography until the recent Mottai Night Land (another portmanteau!), in which it's revealed that her turds are bright pink and as big as her head. Good to see that adulthood hasn't calmed her down, anyway.
13. DAVID BOWIE – Where Are We Now? (from The Next Day, ISO/Sony) [video]
He's a clever bugger, innee, Dave? Think back to that morning when you woke up and heard the news that he'd released his first single in nearly a decade without anyone realising it was about to happen. After the initial shock, everyone started poring over the video. It's a bit low-budget, isn't it? Doesn't he look poorly? He'll probably be dead by the time the album drops, won't he? Somehow in all this analysis of Bowie's apparent fragility, nobody considered the obvious possibility, based on his previous history: maybe he was playing a role specifically for the song? And so it proved, with an album that maybe didn't have the sheer passion for innovation of his old work, but knew which were the best bits of his back catalogue to revisit to keep us all happy. It's a largely uptempo record, and in that context Where Are We Now? is an unexpectedly melancholic interlude. But now we know it's no longer his last will and testament, we can relax and just enjoy its loveliness.
14. DAN LE SAC VS SCROOBIUS PIP – You Will See Me (from Repent Replenish Repeat, Sunday Best) [video]
The career break that Le Sac and Pip have just completed wasn't anything like as long as Bowie's - a mere three years, in fact, during which both of them had moderate success with solo careers. But it's good to see them back together again, and to note how they've developed independently during the break. Pip's time as a solo spoken word artist (reaching its peak in a sensational run at the Edinburgh Fringe) has tightened up his lyrics and made him a supremely confident performer. Le Sac's become willing to wander down less obvious avenues in his backing music: on a number of tracks on Repent Replenish Repeat (including this one), he's more interested in creating a mood than coming up with a rigid four-four dance beat. Put the two of them together again, and you end up with something spectacularly intense. As a bonus, Pip appears to be becoming as canny a video director as a wordsmith these days - the concept behind the clip for You Will See Me is simple enough, but its execution is flawless.
15. DELTRON 3030 FEAT. JAMIE CULLUM – Do You Remember (from Event II, Caroline International) [video]
Every cutting-edge urban artist these days is making a sci-fi concept album about a dystopian future, from Janelle Monae to Kid Carpet. Deltron 3030 were doing it over a decade ago, as Del The Funky Homosapien and Dan The Automator pulled together a huge number of collaborators to build an entire world out of beats and rhymes. Nowadays, the original Deltron 3030 album is only really remembered as the incubator that led to the first incarnation of Gorillaz (or the other way round, the chronology's a bit vague). It's their own fault for taking thirteen years to release a follow-up, frankly. There are a few too many tracks on Event II that either coast on their guest appearances, or are slightly reworked variations on songs from the debut. But Do You Remember rings the changes in an ingenious way - with all these dystopian futures being sung about, it's rare to find a song that uses them as inspiration for nostalgia for the pre-dystopian past. Finally, a worthwhile use for Jamie Cullum!
16. DEVON SPROULE & MIKE O'NEILL – Nobody Tells Me A Thing (from Colours, Tin Angel) [video]
Adventures In Crowdfunding #2. I first saw Devon Sproule as a support act to the Unthanks several years ago: I thought she was okay, but The Belated Birthday Girl fell for her hard. When Sproule announced that she needed help from her fans to pay for her new album, The BBG was running to Kickstarter almost instantly, cash in hand. For her money she got a signed copy of the CD, and several albums worth of MP3s of outtakes, rarities and so on. And the record turned out nicely too, with this bit of semi-parodic country a highlight both on CD and live. So to sum up, Kickstarter = good: Pledge Music = good. To add my own crowdfunding experience into the mix, Sponsume = shite, but that's another story.
17. DAFT PUNK – Contact (from Random Access Memories, Columbia) [video]
The tracks here by Duckworth Lewis Method, Love Psychedelico and Bowie all rely on pastiche in one way or another: artists using their own earlier work, or that of others, as visible inspiration for what they're doing today. Random Access Memories feels a little too much like a similar pastiche of classic dance music, using a gargantuan budget to distract the listener from recognising that. There's a little too much calculation, and not enough cutting loose and going for it: even an obvious highlight like Giorgio By Moroder doesn't have an arrangement as such, more a series of pre-programmed mixing desk settings. But on the few occasions on the record where Daft Punk allow themselves to get into a groove and muck around with it, the results are pretty special. None more so than Contact, the one real reach-for-the-lasers bit on the album: it hits ramming speed about halfway through, and then stays there up to the point where it disintegrates completely.
That's 2013 wrapped up: time for the COMPETITION to win a copy of the CD Hanging Out With Various Riff-Raff. So, go back to the top of the page and look at the sleeve of this year's compilation, chosen to illustrate the lyric "I've been hanging out with various riff-raff, somewhere on the Goldhawk Road." Your task is this: using your skill and judgement, identify the address on Goldhawk Road where the cover photo was taken. Send your entries to email@example.com to arrive no later than 11.59pm on February 28th, 2014. Nearest building number to the actual address will win: in the event of a tie, the first correct entry received will get the prize. Competition not open to people who've already got a copy, yadda yadda yadda. Let's face it, it's not every day you get the chance to own an album with Petula Clark and Jamie Cullum on it. I just hope this isn't some consequence of my turning fifty this year. Being a monkey, and all.