And I can't argue that it's not a surprise. Christmas Day works to a fairly standard formula round these parts: I find a song related to the season, post up the video with a short message of festive cheer, and that's me done in plenty of time for lunch. But I decided that the twentieth anniversary year of this website deserved a little more effort - particularly since it's also the twentieth anniversary year of the CD versions of these annual compilations of my favourite tunes. (Not to mention the 37th compilation overall, but let's not get into that. Hey, try not to make any more Pick Of The Year compilations on the way to the parking lot!)
So, Merry Christmas to you all from myself and The Belated Birthday Girl: and as a present, here's eighty minutes of vintage 2018 sounds, available as both YouTube and Spotify playlists. And if you're reading this before January 31st 2019, you may even be in with a chance to WIN A COPY OF THE CD in yet another one of those competitions that Dave tends to end up winning. Will his luck change this year? We'll come back to that at the end of the page. But for now...
HMV have just announced that they're about to close down all their shops in Hong Kong, and have been quoted as saying they were 'unable to escape from the crushing force of the wheel of history'. Part of that was probably my fault, as 2018 was the first year that I paid for a full Spotify subscription, which changed the way I consumed music quite a bit. I decided from the word go that a rental-only model was not for me: one of my key aims with streaming was to try out records before I bought them. Kamasi Washington's double-album-with-a-third-hidden-disc-you-can-only-remove-from-the-packaging-using-a-sharp-knife appears to be one that needed a few listens before I could commit to it, hence Fists Of Fury coming top of my most streamed tracks of the year. Given that it's effectively a quintuple vinyl album, you can't deny it has stretches of self-indulgence, but when he brings the funk to an old Bruce Lee theme that certainly isn't one of them. (Strictly speaking the live version in the video is a rather different beast from the one on the album, but HOLY MOTHER OF JACO PASTORIUS LISTEN TO THAT BASS SOLO.)
2. THE GO! TEAM - Mayday (from Semicircle, Memphis Industries) [video]
The Go! Team operate in precisely the opposite way to the classic Star Trek movies. With Trek, the even-numbered films were the best, and the odd-numbered ones were varying degrees of ropey. The Team's see-saw goes the other way: their debut album set up their signature blend of enormous beats and cheerleader vocals, the second saw them move away from that and experiment, the third saw them ditch the experiments and go back to what they did best. Four: see two. Five: see three. This is five, by the way, and although Mayday sounds like it could have come from any period in their fifteen-year career, I'm choosing to not see that as a problem.
3. THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS - By The Time You Get This (from I Like Fun, Lojinx) [video]
A quick hello to Ricky and Laura, who are just about to embark on a holiday so spectacularly ambitious that it makes our own foreign excursions look like a stroll down to the corner shop for some bog roll. We met up with them last month to catch Ricky's beloved They Might Be Giants live at the Barbican, and they were as reliably fine as ever. Both Ricky and I were surprised at the end to realise that this breezily apocalyptic little tune never made it onto the set list, despite it being easily the best thing on the album. So here it is. Bon voyage, you crazy kids.
4. ENKEL - Tipitii (from We Are Enkel, Nordic Notes) [video]
We had two of our own corner-shop-bog-roll excursions this year, as regular readers will know. The Portugal run was better for live music - that John Zorn gig is probably one I'll be telling my sister's grandchildren about - but this next trio of tracks all hark back in some way or other to Nordic Expedition II. Enkel, admittedly, were the big musical discovery of Nordic Expedition I, enlivening our Helsinki midsummer with their irreverent take on Finnish folk. This album came out a couple of weeks after we'd returned to Helsinki, but I'm assuming that nowadays a CD in Finland costs about the same as a house over here, so three cheers for digital distribution no matter what the people at HMV Hong Kong say.
5. NOEP - New Heights (from Head In The Clouds, Noep Music) [video]
I guess Noep was the equivalent musical discovery of Nordic Expedition II: we wandered into his gig purely because it was something to do on Easter Sunday night in Tallinn, and were astonished to find we'd accidentally encountered one of the biggest pop stars in Estonia. I still have to admit, though, that this recorded version doesn't have quite the same oomph as it did when he performed it live. He's a terrific pop songwriter, but there's a nagging doubt that the novelty of him being Estonian is helping us ignore the fact that he's kind of Ed Sheeran with extra accents over the letters. And if you wanted proof of that, notice how this track...
6. YLVIS - Normal Boy (from Stories From Norway: Superstar In Norway, Universal Music AS) [video]
...could segue seamlessly into this parody of the genre, if I could be arsed spending the couple of minutes it'd take in Audacity. This, actually, is another way Spotify has been useful this year - drawing my attention to new releases by artists I've liked in the past. Without their notifications, I wouldn't have been aware that a) Ylvis were putting out new music, and b) it was the soundtrack to a quite astonishing TV show. I've raved about Stories From Norway subsequently on these pages, and lamented the absence of a legitimately available English subtitled version. (Though there are illegitimately available English versions out there too.) But the Superstar In Norway episode - a documentary account of Justin Beiber's hastily aborted gigs there - actually works just fine on its own, with enough English dialogue and songs to allow you to get by. It's touching how, like the song, the episode's rather sympathetic to Beiber, seeing him as a kid watching his life spin profitably out of control. The series overall is sympathetic to all its subjects, with one hilarious exception I won't spoil in case it ever does get shown over here.
7. DAN LE SAC - Closer (from 63 Days, Dumb Drum Records) [video]
We've had Le Sac on here a couple of times in the past, as a result of his collaborations with Scroobius Pip. Since their amicable uncoupling five years ago, Pip has gone from strength to strength - solo records, poetry, acting, podcasts - while Dan's been quietly out of the limelight running his record label and releasing the odd bit of music. But 63 Days is the first thing he's released that (for me, anyway) matches the glory days of the double act. Closer - paradoxically, the album's opener - is a particularly smart piece of work, foxing you repeatedly with its lop-sided phrasing: if you're like me, it's about the time that the numbers 2-5-4-5 hit you when Le Sac brilliantly drops in the aural equivalent of a starburst filter.
8. MARIANNE FAITHFULL - The Gypsy Faerie Queen (from Negative Capability, BMG) [video]
I've been waiting for this one for well over a year, dating back to the LFF's 2017 screening of Sandrine Bonnaire's documentary Faithfull: a fairly frank portrayal of Marianne Faithfull's eventful life, intercut with sequences showing where she is now. And where she was at the time was assembling a band to perform some new songs, featuring Ed Harcourt on piano and Warren 'Not That One' Ellis on violin. The stuff they were playing sounded astonishing, which begged the question: where's the record? And here it is - and since the list of people on it already wasn't enough to tempt me, its best track features Faithfull collaborating with Nick Cave, whose brooding presence stops this collapsing into a whole heap of fey pixie nonsense.
9. YOUNGBLOOD BRASS BAND - Umbrella (from Covers 1, Layered Music) [video]
Lazy, lazy Youngblood Brass Band. ("Lazy, lazy [insert name of sporadically active artist]" has become a catchphrase in this household, generally whined in an imitation of the voice of Robin Ince, who we think said it first.) We first discovered them in 2006, when their Is That A Riot? album was all over 6 Music. In the twelve years since then, they've released one more album (in 2013), and now this - a teeny weeny EP of cover versions (which they still charged me a tenner for when I bought it at their gig). Still, when they're covers done with so much swing, verve and utter joy as this one, I can't really complain. But I think I'd like some new tunes soon, and not just Covers 2.
10. KOJEY RADICAL - Water (single, Kojey Radical) [video]
Ah, let's face it, I'm an old man. Back in my young days I prided myself on keeping up to date with musical trends, and managing to spot interesting bands and artists before they got famous. These days, I'm that grumpy old bloke complaining that it doesn't all just go thump thump thump any more, and why is it that you can always hear the words? So it makes me rather proud that two years after I first said it, I can say it again even louder: Kojey Radical is going to be huge soon, you guys. I suspected it in 2016 when I accidentally caught him supporting Saul Williams: this year, his storming headline show at Koko made it even clearer. And records like this utterly beautiful summer-smash-that-never-was (along with its ambitious video) show that he's constantly looking for new ways to surprise us. He's got an album due in 2019 called Five Years, No Genre: that's a mission statement if ever there was one.
11. HALF MAN HALF BISCUIT - Terminus (from No One Cares About Your Creative Hub So Get Your Fuckin' Hedge Cut, Probe Plus) [video]
Half Man Half Biscuit have been going almost as long as these compilations: over the years, they've turned up on them with songs about wrestling stars, obnoxious neighbours, market towns of the Fens and the joy of korfball. This, however, is the first time Nigel Blackwell has come up with a song that I'd consider having played at my funeral. The get-off-my-lawn attitude of the year's best album title is a little misleading: sure, it's partly a collection of songs about how we're all getting older, and some of them are hilarious with it. But there's a vein of melancholy in there as well, which is most evident in Terminus. Blackwell's images of ageing and loss are extraordinarily poetic, centred around the idea of how the imminent end of life forces us "back to the front of the bus," returning us to the priority seats we occupied at the very start. But there are also lines in here that only he could write, notably a description of his battered shins as being "like Inter end on derby day". Nigel Blackwell: still evading capture, still at large.
12. GOGO PENGUIN - Transient State (from A Humdrum Star, Decca Records France) [video]
And so to the third thing Spotify has done for me this year: occasionally - very occasionally - introducing me to music I've never heard before, based on my listening history. A lot of times, its algorithms strike me as a bit of a blunt instrument: recently, for example, it recommended that I should try Bauhaus' Bela Lugosi's Dead 'because you listened to Pete Shelley,' callously not considering that I'd been listening to a lot of Shelley because he was dead. But when the Spotify robots told me 'hey, you like white boy fake jazz and Mancunians, you might like GoGo Penguin,' it turns out they were right. It's a simple formula - classic bass/drums/piano trio plays stuff that's not quite jazz, not quite math rock - but when it's got the rollicking momentum of something like this track, it is indeed very much my bag.
13. YOUNG FATHERS - In My View (from Cocoa Sugar, Ninja Tune) [video]
My discovery of Kojey Radical is a good example of the benefits of turning up early to a gig to see the support act: Young Fathers are another. The best part of a decade elapsed between my first encounter with them (supporting Dizzee Rascal at the Edinburgh Fringe) and my second (headlining their own show in the Edinburgh International Festival), but they'd progressed enormously in that time. And yet I always felt there was something unsatisfying about their records, with their unpolished sound feeling a little bit sloppy at times. Until now. Cocoa Sugar doesn't go to the other extreme, and that's a good thing - this isn't an overly glossy album, it still goes into musical areas that you don't expect, but you know that the band are in complete control of the sound now. The same goes for the video, which initially looks like pure distilled money, but beautifully deconstructs itself in its final minute.
14. JANELLE MONAE - Make Me Feel (from Dirty Computer, WEA International) [video]
In live terms, the first time I saw Janelle Monae was also as a support act, opening for Vampire Weekend around the time of her Archandroid album: the difference there was, The BBG and I were both well aware of her work and were as much there for her as for the headliners. (Who were a bit meh, to be honest.) By 2018, Monae was playing venues the size of London's Roundhouse: in 2019, she'll be playing Wembley Arena, and we're feeling very smug about how we managed to catch her just before she moved into uncomfortably large venues. As for this song - the best single of the year, from the best album of the year, don't @ me - yes, you could argue that it's got so much Prince DNA in it that he could have basically boned it personally. And again, I could argue that there are worse things.
15. ED HARCOURT - El Magnifico (from Church Of No Religion, One Media) [video]
It's been a good year for Ed Harcourt, and I'm not even including the album he released this year. (Beyond The End is an okay collection of instrumental pieces, but I'd be more interested in seeing the film in his head that they're obviously the soundtrack to.) Aside from his major contribution to the Marianne Faithfull album, there's also this live EP about which I have no information whatsoever (one of the downsides of digital music releasing is no longer being able to assume that a bit of paper will come with the record telling you about it). El Magnifico hasn't appeared on a previous Harcourt album, but it's a long-time live favourite: I wasn't entirely sure I'd heard it before until I saw this footage from a gig I know for a fact I was present at (The BBG and I were somewhere behind the camera position). Anyway, it's pretty, isn't it?
16. BURL MOSELEY - Don't Be A Lawyer (from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend Original Soundtrack Season 4: I'm On My Own Path, CBS/Warner Bros) [video]
For those of you tired of this sort of thing [waves at The BBG], Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is partway through its fourth and final season, so at worst you have one more POTY to come featuring a song from its soundtrack. But come on, who could resist an anti-lawyer rant set to a New Jack Swing beat? (Shoutout to Indy, Anne and Susan, who are the three main people I can think of right now who may have some sort of objection to that statement.)
17. MAX RICHTER & DINAH WASHINGTON - This Bitter Earth / On The Nature Of Daylight (from The Blue Notebooks: 15 Years, Deutsche Grammophon) [video]
This one's cheating, I'm afraid. The original release of this mashup dates back to 2010, when it appeared over the end titles of Martin Scorsese's film Shutter Island. Since then, the Max Richter part of the pairing - On The Nature Of Daylight, from his 2003 album The Blue Notebooks - has become even more ubiquitous as the go-to piece of Generic Sad Soundtrack Music, largely down to its appearance at the beginning and end of Arrival. In the meantime, the Shutter Island soundtrack dropped out of release, meaning that the extraordinarily emotional combination with Dinah Washington's 1960 ballad vanished along with it. Happily, the 15th anniversary re-release of The Blue Notebooks comes with a bonus disc of related material, of which this is the unquestionable highlight. Combining two heart-stopping melodies into something even greater, it's hard to imagine how a compilation album could find something capable of following it. But I'll try.
18. "WEIRD AL" YANKOVIC - The Hamilton Polka (single, WEA International) [video]
There's an account on Twitter called @artdecider whose purpose is very simple: it replies to individual tweets with a simple statement as to whether the content of that tweet is Art or Not Art. In the case of this "Weird Al" Yankovic single, the answer is pretty obvious: Art.
And that's us done for 2018, apart from one obvious bit of business: the contest to WIN A COPY OF THE PICK OF THE YEAR 2018 CD. The question is simple: name the star on this year's CD cover who died in 2018. (He actually died a couple of days after I came up with the cover concept, which is a little bit freaky.) Email your answer to email@example.com before 23:59 GMT on January 31st 2019. First correct answer will win the CD, or first reply received if nobody answers it correctly. As ever, this competition is not open to anyone who's on the current mailing list for the CD. And technically, I guess it's not open to anyone under the age of fifty or so, who won't have the faintest idea where the cover image comes from. Not that you'll catch me caring too much about that. Being a monkey, and all.