No round numbers, no meaningless anniversaries to celebrate: it's just another standard one of those Pick Of The Year compilations I've been making since 1982, cramming my favourite tunes from the preceding twelve months into an arbitrary 120/180/90/80 minute framework depending on the storage medium used. (It's 80 minutes this year, as it has been since 1998. Although for the first couple of those years I was using a crappy CD burner that gave up after somewhere in the low 70s.)
Once again, there's going to be a competition (closing date 11.59pm GMT on January 31st 2015) for anyone who wants to win a CD copy of this compilation: and to give you a bit of a heads-up, passing familiarity with the previous 32 may be helpful to you this year. But we'll get to that eventually: for now, here are my 17 favourite songs of the year, with videos for the 16 of them whose rights aren't being administered by over-zealous Japanese record companies. For example, this first track coming up below.
Every so often, a thought hits you and makes you suddenly aware of the passage of time. I've just had one of those. I remember sitting in a hotel room in Hiroshima, seeing Soil&"Pimp"Sessions for the very first time, tearing it up on Space Shower TV. And it's just struck me that that was ten years ago. You could argue that the 2004 track that introduced me to the concept of Death Jazz isn't very different to the one I'm highlighting in 2014, but that would be a dangerous conclusion to jump to: over the decade or more of their existence, Shacho and co. have explored many unexpected musical areas. It just happens that this is what they do best: frantic variations on a solid riff, played with just the right balance between enthusiasm and tunefulness.
2. KATE TEMPEST – Marshall Law (from Everybody Down, Big Dada) [video]
My first experience of Kate Tempest, on the other hand, was in the live arena, when I saw her band Sound Of Rum supporting Billy Bragg a couple of years ago. She's been building a reputation over the years as a bit of a Renaissance woman, to the extent that it's hard to pin down what her main job is: singer, writer, spoken word artist, playwright, rapper. Everybody Down is pretty special in the way that it balances most of the aspects of her creativity within a single record. The thing that strikes you most about the album is the rock-solid narrative throughline: this is first and foremost storytelling, but in the medium of hip-hop. And Marshall Law does everything you want the first chapter of a good story to do: grabs your attention with one hell of an opening line, quickly sets up the two main characters, bounces them off each other unsuccessfully, and leaves enough loose ends dangling to reassure us this won't be their last encounter with each other. Tempest is apparently in the process of reworking this story for her first novel, which is all just fine and dandy, but I bet you won't be able to dance to it.
3. YLVIS – I Will Never Be A Star (from Volume 1, Urheim Records) [video]
Downbeat comedy records, #1 of 2. I won't deny it, The Fox was fun, but we were all a little fed up with it by the time it hit total world domination. Still, it opened up our eyes temporarily to the comic delights of Vegard and Bård Ylvisåker, and I said at the time that it would be a shame if we only remembered them because of one novelty hit. A year later, they finally get around to releasing an album, which quite aggressively doesn't include the hit. But it includes a sequel to it - or at least a song that couldn't exist if The Fox hadn't happened first. I Will Never Be A Star features lead vocals by Bjarte Ylvisåker, the Zeppo of the family, and cheerfully buggers with your expectations from one verse to the next: starting out angrily ('I was never asked to join them'), but moving into understated pathos as his own attempts at small-scale stardom are revealed. There's something rather touching about the way Bjarte feels the need to share his secret with others in the final verse.
4. THE UNTHANKS – Mount The Air (single, RabbleRouser Music) [video]
This was the last track to make it onto the compilation - partly down to it being the last one to be released (it hit the stores on December 8th), but there's another reason too. It's a single, the title track from an album due to be released in 2015. It once again shows the Unthanks playing with arrangements way outside what most people would consider as folk: but there's a curiously frustrating final sequence, which appears to be building to some sort of head and then stops abruptly. Then you discover that the version of Mount The Air that will appear on the album runs six minutes longer, and you start imagining the heights that the song could be reaching at its climax, and wondering if you should hold it back for the 2015 CD. But then - if you're me - you realise that you can just squeeze this version onto the 2014 CD if you take off the full-length Bowie track and replace it with its slightly more exciting radio edit, a move which puts the whole edited-versus-unedited argument in a new and awkwardly circular light. Anyway, for now, this is lovely. There may be an even lovelier version out next year. Let's wait and see.
5. RINGO SHIINA – Private (from Reimport – Ports And Harbors Bureau, EMI R) [video]
Ringo Shiina started celebrating her tenth anniversary as a performer in 2009: she appears to have only just stopped. There's been plenty of activity in the last five years - retrospectives, re-recordings, the final releases from her Tokyo Jihen side project - but this year's album Hi Izuru Tokoro was her first one of entirely new solo material since Sanmon Gossip. This track, however, doesn't come from there, because she released an even better record earlier in the year, made up of self-recorded cover versions of songs she wrote for other artists. The decision to farm each track out to a different production team is a bold stroke of genius: she's a perfectly magnificent producer in her own right, but uses this as an opportunity to do the musical equivalent of running amok through the dressing-up box. Private is a song she wrote for teen star Ryōko Hirosue back in the 90s, and Ringo turns it into a ridiculously bouncy bit of plinky-plonky pop with the invaluable collaboration of Kenichi Maeyamada.
6. LAMB – What Makes Us Human (from Backspace Unwind, Strata) [video]
I admit it: all the Lamb songs I like the best sound roughly the same. They start off quietly, focussing on the fragile beauty of Lou Rhodes' voice, and then Andy Barlow shifts everything up several gears musically as they head towards the climax. Here, he's already got your attention with the slippery string riff that runs through the chorus: but as the skittering percussion loop surges to the forefront in the final minute, the whole thing turns into something special. It's an obvious trick, but I can't think of anyone else who does it as well as they do.
7. HARP AND A MONKEY – Walking In The Footsteps Of Giants (from All Life Is Here, Harp And A Monkey) [video]
A little over two years ago, I became unnecessarily fascinated with The Mike Harding Folk Show. I'd been a huge fan of his comedy work in the 70s and 80s, but was aware that he'd quietly moved away from performing, and was instead happily sharing his love of traditional music with a Radio 2 audience. Until they sacked him. Miffed, Harding announced that he was going to set up shop on the internet instead, which seemed a potentially dangerous move - spoken word podcasts are easy enough to run, but the rights issues involved in a music-based podcast can be nightmarish. Nevertheless, the number of podcast episodes is now comfortably in three figures with no sign of any such problems: and the convenience of download means I hear a lot more of Harding's excellent selections now than I ever did when he was on the wireless. Like this one from Harp And A Monkey, which seamlessly moves from one classic English folk tradition to another in the gap between its first and second verse.
8. DAVID BOWIE – Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime) (single, ISO Records) [video]
As I mentioned earlier, I'm going for the single edit rather than the full-length one from Bowie's new best-of collection, Nothing Has Changed. I like the idea of the full version, like we all like the idea of Communism (I steal that line from Shane Danielsen roughly once every two years), but all the stuff you really need is distilled into those four minutes. And if we need a new guise from Bowie this late in his career, then Scott Walker Tribute Act From Around The Time Of Climate Of Hunter seems as good to me as any.
9. LYKKE LI – Love Me Like I’m Not Made Of Stone (from I Never Learn, LL Recordings) [video]
I'm not saying breakup albums are a healthy thing, you understand. Emotional torment is horrible to go through. But by gum, some great records have come about as a result of it, and Lykke Li's latest is a case in point - particularly when you hit this centrepiece, where the Phil Spector production trappings used elsewhere are stripped away and there's nowhere for her voice to hide. Incidentally, the video's directed by Tarik Saleh, who was also responsible for Tommy, Li's first feature as an actress and the subject of one of those things I do for Europe's Best Website every so often.
10. RUBBERBANDITS – Dads Best Friend (single, Rubberbandits) [video]
Downbeat comedy records, #2 of 2. This one seems to have divided fans of the Rubberbandits down the middle, if YouTube comments are anything to go by - and given their apparent reluctance to release anything in physical form, that may be all we have to go by. Myself, I think it's a hoot, albeit a very uneasy one. Just the tiniest shift of emphasis (in either the record or the accompanying video) could tip it over from comedy into sheer existential terror, thanks to the huge gaps in the narrative that you end up filling with the worst things you can imagine. Fun fact: this compilation could so easily have been called That Thing At The Holiday Inn if I could have worked out some way of smuggling bacon into my Dubai hotel last summer. The cover photo could have been awesome, albeit punishable by death.
11. ELBOW – My Sad Captains (from The Take Off And Landing Of Everything, Polydor) [video]
As with Lamb, there aren't really any surprises here: Elbow have got what they do down to a fine art, and this is another one of those melancholic swayalong anthems that they do so damn well. There are certain times in life that call for a melancholic anthem, which is why I boldly predicted on Twitter earlier this year that "when England go out of [the World Cup], the slo-mo highlights montage will be accompanied by Elbow's My Sad Captains." Unfortunately, what I forgot to take account of was that the song was six minutes long, and on the day it would be impossible to find six minutes of watchable footage from England's entire tournament.
12. ROBERT PLANT – Little Maggie (from lullaby and… The Ceaseless Roar, Trolcharm) [video]
It's getting a little bit folky around these parts this year, isn't it? Or at least what passes for folk in Robert Plant's neck of the woods, which for ages now has involved cross-fertilisation with roots music from all over the world. (See two decades ago for Page and Plant's Middle Eastern adventures, as documented on the No Quarter album.) Of the three tracks from the genre on this year's compilation, I'd imagine this would be the one least likely to make it onto the Mike Harding Folk Show, although I'm sure he'd appreciate the experimentation going on under the surface, and the fact that it's an old geezer like himself responsible for it.
13. THE ROOTS – The Dark (Trinity) (from …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin, Def Jam) [video]
I always feel there should be more hip-hop on these compilations than there actually is, but truth be told the genre's so fragmented now that I'm not entirely sure what's out there any more. (I believe my nephews are the people to talk to about that, or so their dad grumpily tells me.) Anyway, it's not the first time The Roots have been on here: The Seed 2.0 was almost the unofficial anthem of our 2003 Australian holiday, as Triple J were playing it almost constantly. The Dark (Trinity) is a much, well, darker affair by comparison, and marks one of the rare occasions this year when I heard a record in a shop and instantly had to own it. (Thank you, Sister Ray. Hope the new premises are working out for you.) There's a terrific sense of unease generated by the simple combination of four distorted piano chords, some wobbly strings and ?uestlove's rock-solid drumming, climaxing in the most ridiculously satisfying final chord of the year.
14. JIMI GOODWIN – Panic Tree (from Odludek, Heavenly Recordings) [video]
Another callback to an early noughties compilation: one of the best songs of 2002 was Doves' There Goes The Fear, a joyous thing which insisted that depression and panic were things you could shake off with a bit of help. Twelve years later, Doves' frontman has released his first solo album, and the same theme colours its closing track, but slightly more aggressively. Not so much 'let it go', more 'cut the fucker down'. It's the sort of song that's great for getting you through a rough patch in life, and it takes less than three minutes to do it.
15. KYARY PAMYU PAMYU – do do pi do (from Pika Pika Fantajin, Warner Music Japan) [video]
Three appearances in three consecutive years from Kyary on these CDs, and I don't think any current artist can match that hit rate. I've already gone on at some length here about the album in general, and this song in particular. Still, it's interesting to note that this time round it's an album track that's stuck with me, rather than one of the singles. I was always worried that it was the videos I was enjoying rather than the music, but this one seems to hold up quite nicely without any visual aids.
16. ED HARCOURT - The Way That I Live (single, BMG Chrysalis) [video]
Curse you, Harcourt, for making a song from an advert one of my favourites of the year! Having said that, The Belated Birthday Girl claims she finds it impossible to divorce the track from the visual image of Romeo Beckham titting about in a raincoat. I'm not sure if other people feel the same way, or if that explains why an ad that's racked up over eight million hits can't even make the top 100 when released as a single. All of which is an awkward distraction from the fact that this is one of Harcourt's best songs ever, and bodes well for his next full album when it happens some time next year.
17. ENO*HYDE – Lilac (from High Life, Opal) [video]
I may be misinterpreting the situation, but here's how I see it. Earlier this year, Brian Eno and Underworld's Karl Hyde collaborated on an album called Someday World. It was fine: a collection of songs that had obvious traces of both men's musical past running through them. But mere weeks later, they released a second album. High Life was a baggier, looser beast, full of instrumental noodling and tracks that went on longer than you'd expect. It felt like a collection of leftovers, or the sort of tracks you put on the Deluxe Edition of your original album when you release it again in time for Christmas. Except for this one detail: High Life was better than Someday World. Because let's face it, both Eno and Hyde have worked at their best when they've had room to stretch out. Lilac shows the duo at their stretchiest, with a lyric that's effectively a haiku (count the syllables!), and a middle section where a single chord is thrashed to within an inch of its life. Thanks to the mysterious alchemy we associate with their best work elsewhere, it all bubbles up into pure joy by the end.
So that was 2014. A management summary of this piece will appear on Mostly Film towards the end of this week, along with an additional multimedia experiment that you can take or leave. But for now, inevitably, here comes the competition to win a copy of the CD for yourself. Here's the deal. As I mentioned earlier, there have now been 33 of these compilations, and each one takes its title from a line in one of the collected songs. (You know, it's possible I've never said that out loud before: some of you may not have noticed that.) Anyway, here's the question, and I've made it multiple choice to help you out. Whose records have provided the largest number of my compilation titles over the last 33 years? Is it
A) Half Man Half Biscuit,
B) Trey Parker, or
C) Pet Shop Boys?
Answers by email to firstname.lastname@example.org before 11.59pm GMT on January 31st 2015. The first correct entry received will win the CD, so don't hang about. But will it be Dave again? I'm not sure if I'd want to lay money on the result of that. Being a monkey, and all.