There used to be a tradition here on Christmas Day. I'd post up a video of a newish Christmas song - this year, for example, it probably would have been this not-safe-for-work-or-family-gatherings romp - wish you season's greetings from myself and The Belated Birthday Girl, and we'd be all done in time for lunch.
Some of you will remember that I didn't do that last year. And I rather enjoyed what I did instead, to be honest. So, in what the young people today will not be calling a 'surprise drop', here's a CD-R's worth of my favourite songs of 2019, along with the usual competition to win a copy of the CD for yourself. Assuming your name's Dave, obviously. Merry Christmas!
1. JOE JACKSON - Fool (from Fool) [video]
In the first of several appearances from artists with ridiculously long-running careers, here's Joe Jackson breaking the record for Earliest F-Bomb Dropped On A POTY Compilation, managing to go blue before we've even hit the 30 second mark. Over the forty-odd years that Jackson's been going, he tends to hit gold for me roughly once a decade, so I'm going to consider Fool as his great tenties album. If there's a flaw to the record, it's the way that most of its tracks end in a somewhat rambly coda: this title track benefits from its rambly bit coming in the middle, with its gratuitous Latin interlude breaking things up rather nicely.
2. RINGO SHIINA - God, Nor Buddha (from triviṣa-itihāsa aka Sandokushi) [video]
As I said, Jackson is the first of a few - how can I put this politely? - veteran acts that turn up on this year's POTY. Though she's less familiar in the UK, the same could be said of Ringo Shiina, who's celebrating twenty years of making records this year. 2019 sees her off doing her own thing, as ever: flitting between genres without ever settling on one, and always managing to surprise you whatever she takes on. This song touches on the Buddhist themes that reoccur through the album (hence it having both Hindi and Japanese titles), but with a classic pop lightness and a big swinging dick of a brassy finale.
3. THE CINEMATIC ORCHESTRA FT. ROOTS MANUVA - A Caged Bird / Imitations Of Life (from To Believe) [video]
Roots Manuva has always had one of the great British hip-hop voices, and it's surprising that he's never appeared on one of these compilations before. The closest he might have come in the past was with his previous collaboration with The Cinematic Orchestra, the unspeakably lush All Things To All Men: it would have been a shoo-in for POTY 2002 when it was released, except I didn't get to hear the song until it turned up on a Ninja Tune best-of in 2004. After a few months of living with the new song, I think it's as lovely as their earlier one: for me, it's the contrast between the metronomic pulse of the verses and the sweep of the chorus, and Roots completely delivers on both.
4. THE SPECIALS - The Life And Times (Of A Man Called Depression) (from Encore) [video]
There was a report in the press earlier this year - which it's possible I might have dreamed, because I'm buggered if I can find it now - which suggested that the comeback album by The Specials made it to number one in the charts because its target audience was the clump of fiftysomething men who are the only people who buy physical media nowadays. Guilty as charged, your honour. Still, it's great to see that the band isn't playing it safe by just falling back on their old material, although it's sad to observe that the world doesn't appear to have become any better a place since Ghost Town. This particular track could have come from any time in their career, except in the old days Terry Hall would have made its theme subtext, rather than the full-on text it is here.
5. KOJEY RADICAL - Can't Go Back (from Cashmere Tears) [video]
Carelessly, Stormzy released his latest album Heavy Is The Head late in December, a couple of days after I locked down the track listing for this CD. He might have made it onto here otherwise: he's working in an interesting space right now, able to make sweet pop songs and caustic rants work in proximity to each other. Inevitably, this is all leading up to my annual insistence that Stormzy is having the career that Kojey Radical should be having right now. He's going to be huge, people. Just you wait.
6. THE DIVINE COMEDY - Norman And Norma (from Office Politics) [video]
Once again, the age-old dilemma - do I include a wistful song from the new Divine Comedy album, or a silly one? Happily, this year Neil Hannon's made it easy by making the best song on Office Politics both. For two verses Norman And Norma is a charming tale of a long-standing couple's married life, broken only by the suspicion that Hannon is rhyming 'Naimh' and 'leave' for a bet. The left turn in the third verse is a typical bit of Divine Comedy whimsy, but somehow works perfectly in the arc of the love story. Plus, as ever, it's a ridiculously nice tune - I occasionally get accused by people of not caring about melodies any more, and I suspect Hannon is my main defence against that.
7. LAMB - Deep Delirium (from The Secret Of Letting Go) [video]
Another set of old favourites here: Lamb have been consistently represented in these compilations since their debut back in 1996. Usually, I'd say it was the contrast between Lou Rhodes' fragile voice and Andy Barlow's robust backing tracks that makes the band work for me: but once in a while, Barlow gets to cut loose with an instrumental, and the sheer joy implied by this one's title is justified by the track itself.
8. LLOYD COLE - When I Came Down From The Mountain (from Guesswork) [video]
I've been following Lloyd Cole on Twitter for some time now: I'm not entirely sure why. Presumably because he was a comfortingly familiar name from my twenties, and I was interested to hear what he had to say. It took a while for my curiosity to extend to finding out what his music sounded like now. The answer: the songs sound much like they did back in the days of the Commotions, but with a keyboard-driven edge that recalls nothing so much as Thomas Dolby-era Prefab Sprout. No part of that is, obviously, a bad thing.
9. KATE TEMPEST - People's Faces (from The Book Of Traps And Lessons) [video]
All things considered, at this point in a best of 2019 collection we're long overdue a This Country Is So Fucked Right Now song. But leave it to Kate Tempest to actually write one that has a solid core of hopefulness running through it. I like the way that Traps And Lessons is an album of poetry that happens to have a backing track, rather than the music being rigorously tied to the rhythm of the poems, as was the case with her earlier records. It suits the darker nature of these verses down to the ground.
10. KATE MILLER-HEIDKE - Zero Gravity (single) [video]
This is the point where The BBG usually points and laughs at me. "Ha ha, you've put a Eurovision song on there this year," she says. Yeah, so what? It should have won, too. Kate Miller-Heidke is the only Eurovision entrant I've ever seen performing live in the back room of a North London pub, and it makes sense to me that her entry was unlike anyone else's: built on a solid four-on-the-floor rhythm, but skittering about in all sorts of random directions, right up to that moment which no other singer I know could pull off. I doubt if she could get away with that balancing-on-top-of-a-gigantic-pole schtick in the back of The Islington, though.
11. JUNIOR BROTHER - Coping (from Pull The Right Rope) [video]
This one's all the fault of The Blindboy Podcast, which continues to be the finest bit of downloadable audio you can stuff into your ears on a weekly basis. One of Blindboy's common themes is celebrating bits of Irish culture from beyond the mainstream, and Kerryman Junior Brother definitely counts as one of those. My introduction to his work was the early single Hungover At Mass, which has certain overlaps with Blindboy's own work - mainly in terms of accent and potential blasphemy - while taking on an intricately-constructed folky character all of its own. And that goes multiple times over for his debut album, which sounds completely thrown-together on first listen but gradually reveals itself to be infinitely smarter than that.
12. SHE DREW THE GUN - Trouble Every Day (from Trouble Every Day EP) [video]
A cover version, surprisingly: to me, anyway, as I didn't realise it was a cover when I first heard it. Louisa Roach of She Drew The Gun took Frank Zappa's 1960s state-of-the-world treatise, added some new lines to make it more contemporary, and checked with the Zappa estate to make sure they were okay with the changes. To their credit, they were: and to a first-time listener like myself, the transition between old and new is pretty seamless.
13. HARP AND A MONKEY - Victorians (from The Victorians) [video]
Lancashire's finest electrofolk storytellers Harp And A Monkey released a concept album this year, a series of songs celebrating the attitudes and achievements of the Victorian era. This puts them in the unusual position of effectively becoming The Men That Will Not Be Blamed For Nothing, only without the electric guitars and swearing. The offhand references to 'Charlie' Darwin, in particular, bring this particular TMTWNBBFN number to mind. Less explicitly than the earlier Kate Tempest song, there's a subtext here about the positive aspects of the Victorian mindset, and how concentrating on those rather than the negative aspects might be a useful way forward.
14. OCEAN WISDOM FT. DIZZEE RASCAL - Blessed (single) [video]
It feels a bit cheeky billing the artists in that order: at first glance it appears that Dizzee is doing all the heavy lifting in Blessed, delivering the whole first verse and both choruses solo. Which makes it all the more hilarious when it becomes apparent that Raskit has been brought in to supply the single's slow bit. Ocean Wisdom avoids the clumsiness we associate with his grandfather Norman, and delivers a second verse that crams in increasing numbers of syllables into every bar until that bit where The BBG usually sighs and says "he's just percussion now." He's not, astonishingly.
15. LEONARD COHEN - It's Torn (from Thanks For The Dance) [video]
Surprisingly, it's Laughing Len's first ever appearance on one of these compilations: given the nature of Thanks For The Dance, a posthumous collection of sweepings from his cutting-room floor, it'll probably be his last too. This is where I have to confess that any one of several tracks from the album could have made it onto here, and the main reason for plumping for It's Torn is because it's short, and stops the album going over my self-imposed 80 minute limit. That's not necessarily a bad thing: Cohen's son Adam has filled out his father's demos and turned them into a single coherent work, rather than the collection of odds 'n' sods this could so easily have been.
16. THE CHEMICAL BROTHERS - Free Yourself (from No Geography) [video]
I was at an Adam Buxton BUG show recently, one of his regular music video showcases at BFI Southbank, which focussed on the video work of the Brothers. It's impossible to host such a retrospective without noting that they've been making music for about a quarter of a century, and when Buxton did that you could hear the audience of fiftysomethings recoil in sheer terror. Guilty as charged, again. These days they're probably making dance music for people who could quite easily do themselves a mischief if they attempted to dance to it, but that's fine by me.
17. HANAWA - Saitama-ken No Uta (single) [video]
This one's turned out even better than I could have hoped for. It's the end title theme for a film we saw in Okayama earlier this year, which unexpectedly became one of the highest grossing films of 2019 in Japan. As that article explains, Tonde Saitama takes the relationship between Japanese neighbours Tokyo and Saitama (equivalent to that between New York and New Jersey), and sends the latter up mercilessly for an hour and a half: then it does it all over again with a four-minute music video under the credits. Even without knowing what the lyrics meant, I enjoyed Hanawa's enthusiasm, as well as his way with a yell-along chorus. And then, as I was assembling the video playlist for this piece, I found that someone had uploaded Tonde Saitama's end titles to YouTube, and subtitled them in English. It turns out I was right to enjoy the song as much as I did. This is the sort of video that Japanese IP lawyers love to tear down from the internet, so if you only watch one clip out of the eighteen linked to here, make it this one while you still can.
18. THE WATERBOYS - The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn (from Where The Action Is) [video]
We end as we began, with another band with forty years or so of back catalogue behind them. Mike Scott has always kept The Waterboys fluid in terms of genre, moving between whimsical folk and balls-out rock 'n' roll without any warning. Where The Action Is is largely a rock album, and a fine one at that: but it ends beautifully, with Scott's delicate accompaniment for his reading of the bit in The Wind In The Willows where Mole and Rat nip out of the main narrative for a few pages to go off and worship Pan, as you do. There's possibly a thesis to be written about how much of this year's compilation is dedicated to non-rhythmic spoken word performance, but someone else will have to write that instead of me.
So all that remains now is the Xmas competition, open to all readers (no matter how it looks), to win a CD copy of Fearless. Ruthless. Cheerless. Clueless. for yourself, irritating punctuation included. We've enlisted the help of Mr Terry Hall of The Specials, who actually gets to say the title out loud on his song. In the 38 years that these compilations have been going, this is the first time that The Specials have appeared on one. This is not the case for Terry, however. So here's your competition question: with the aid of this page here, list all of the Pick Of The Year compilations that feature a vocal appearance by Terry Hall. (Be careful, the question's a little more tricky than it seems.) Email your answer to firstname.lastname@example.org before 23:59 GMT on January 31st 2020. 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 if the inclusion of the above email address means I get a year's worth of spam emails starting 'Dear Clueless, I have videos of you masturbating!!!', then that's just a bonus result for me. Being a monkey, and all.