To go through the story one more time. In late 1982, inspired by my purchase a few months earlier of a twin deck cassette recorder, I put together a 120 minute compilation of my favourite songs of the year, and called it Pick Of The Year 1982. I did something similar the following year, and kept going.
Merry Christmas and welcome to Pick Of The Year 2021, which is therefore the fortieth one of these that I’ve done. It’s an 80 minute CD rather than two C60s, but the aim is still the same – an end-of-year snapshot of the music that’s most taken my fancy over the last twelve months.
Did I imagine back in 1982 that four decades later, they would still be releasing new music that would take my fancy? Not sure. It probably wouldn’t have surprised me to have been told that: like most people I knew of my generation at the time, music defined me in a way that I suspect isn’t quite as comprehensive for a teenager these days. They’ve got other things going on, and fair play to them for that. Looking at the track listing below, I can’t help noticing how many old acts are on there – and how many cover versions, too. Plus there’s all the jazz, the modern classical, whatever the thing is with Estonian bagpipes on it...
...and, of course, the way that the list is limited by the capacity of a physical medium that very few people care about any more. (Trying to get hold of old-style jewel cases and CD labels this year has turned out to be an absolute bugger to do.) Still, if you’re one of those people, you’ll be delighted to learn that once again the bottom of this page contains a competition to win a CD copy of Hashtag #BurnItAll: Pick Of The Year 2021 for yourself. I still haven’t gone down the obvious route of making the competition question ‘Is your name Dave?’, so maybe we’ll save that one for the fiftieth compilation. But for now, here’s the fortieth.
1. SPARKS – So May We Start (from Annette: Cannes Edition – Selections From The Motion Picture Soundtrack) [video]
After a couple of months of pondering, I think I've worked out why Annette doesn’t work as a film, aside from the obvious problem of it being directed by Leos Carax. We love the songs of Sparks for their wit, both musical and verbal, and the material they wrote for this film doesn’t have any: too many of the numbers are just people describing what they’re doing to a musical backing. (Which is probably a decent working definition of opera, when you think about it.) There’s one exception to this, though, and it’s the opening title sequence, a glorious single-take wonder with a wryly self-referential lyric. It’s attention grabbing as hell – ‘ladies and gents, please, shut up and sit’ – and it’s a shame that the rest of the film squanders that attention. Given the news this week, though, I suspect this may not be the last you've heard of this song.
2. THE CHEMICAL BROTHERS – The Darkness That You Fear (single) [video]
The Chemicals have been doing what they do for a quarter of a century now, and don’t really need to be explaining themselves to anyone any more. Nevertheless, I liked Tom Rowlands’ reasoning behind this song: “[it’s] a hopeful piece of music... when we found the combination of the different voices worked set to the flow of the music, it made us feel optimistic — like it was something we wanted to share.” One of my fondest memories after our first period of lockdown last year was the Design Museum’s Electronic exhibition, and the Chemical-soundtracked mini indoor rave at its finale, and this has a similar degree of much-needed uplift to it.
3. BILLY BRAGG – Mid-Century Modern (from The Million Things That Never Happened) [video]
It would have been nice to have had some Elvis Costello on here this year – an artist from my first POTY appearing on the fortieth as well – but to be honest, his Spanish language reworking of This Year’s Model didn’t quite do it for me. But we can have Billy Bragg, who appeared on the second POTY with a track from his 1983 debut, and has been popping up on a regular basis ever since. One thing I like about Bragg is his willingness to accept that things change over time: this song, where he accepts that trying to be a decent bloke is a continuous work in progress requiring constant course correction, feels like a manifesto in the middle of his latest album. But at least it’s one with a decent tune, as ever.
4. KYARY PAMYU PAMYU – Gentenkaihi (from Candy Racer) [video]
Kyary Pamyu Pamyu’s a lot like Billy Bragg, isn’t she? And yes, I’ve been looking forward to typing that sentence all day. But this song has some common ground with Mid-Century Modern, in the way that its singer is trying to break away from their past and move on – though I don’t know what Bragg’s equivalent would be of the Kyary video where she’s on a treadmill running away from a gigantic hair ribbon. Candy Racer certainly has several tracks that deviate wildly from her usual bubblegum pop, though The BBG has noted that I’ve ironically picked one that’s more in her expected style (albeit a cracking example of it).
5. EMMA-JEAN THACKRAY – Spectre (from Yellow) [video]
So how do I pick up on new artists after forty years of doing this? Perhaps the trick is for the artist to creep up on me from two different directions. Example one: I’d heard Emma-Jean Thackray’s jazz-inflected single on the radio a few times, and its pretty coda stuck on my mind without making me curious enough to investigate further. And then I saw the restored version of Jazz On A Summer’s Day at the pictures, where it was accompanied by a short film in which modern young jazzers talked about how the film played some sixty years on. EJT – can I call her EJT? – was one of them, and that finally prompted me to check out her album and discover she’s got plenty of tunes like that in the bag. This single is still my favourite, though.
6. MELT YOURSELF DOWN – Pray For Me I Don’t Fit In (single) [video]
Example two: in November The BBG and I went to a gig by jazz – that word again – percussionist Sarathy Korwar, who was joined on stage by a whole football team’s worth of collaborators (all wearing parody Arsenal shirts with the slogan Fly Immigrants). We did some research into those collaborators after the gig, and noted that vocalist Kushal Gaya was the singer with Melt Yourself Down: so when this honking bit of brilliance started turning up on the radio shortly after, we were primed for it.
7. KOJEY RADICAL – War Outside (single) [video]
Look, how many times do I have to keep telling you? Hopefully not too much longer now, because after a run of several ace singles and decent multi-track records, Kojey Radical recently announced that in 2022 he’s going to release Reason To Smile, the first piece of work that he’s prepared to call an album. At the very least, it’ll be the first thing of his that I’ll be able to own on physical media after several years of downloads, and I for one cannot wait. In the meantime, singles as good as this one will tide us over nicely. It’s got a similar structure to Water from a couple of years ago – two verses by Kojey, then he drags a woman (in this case, Lex Amor) out of bed in the middle of the night to record a third verse before she’s woken up properly – but those whistling and kazoo hooks are what sets him apart from everyone else right now.
8. IDLES – Damaged Goods (from The Problem Of Leisure: A Celebration Of Andy Gill And Gang Of Four) [video]
Idles still aren’t really much cop, are they? Sure, I’ve had periods over the last forty years where people shouting at me over guitars about how bad everything is would have worked just fine for me, but these days it’s not quite enough. They just don’t have the songs, frankly. Gang Of Four had songs: and one of the delights of this tribute album is that those songs prove themselves capable of surviving a whole variety of different treatments. Idles have gone for the route one, flat out punk rock approach, and it works beautifully here.
9. KRISTJAN JARVI – Midnight Sun (single) [video]
At the start of this month Spotify sent me my 2021 Unwrapped, where among other things I was alarmed to find that this track is the one I played more than any other this year. To be fair, I wouldn’t even know about it if it wasn’t for Spotify’s algorithm, which noticed I’d played Max Richter’s new album Exiles a couple of times, and so thought I might be interested in a single by Richter’s collaborators on that album: conductor/composer Kristjan Jarvi, and his Baltic Sea Philharmonic orchestra. With the help of Estonian bagpiper Mari Meentalo (told you), they’ve come up with this gloriously epic tune which, at some point in the next couple of years, is doomed to be edited down to 100 seconds and used as the opening title theme for some streaming TV show about dragons and shit.
10. SONS OF KEMET – Field Negus (from Black To The Future) [video]
Considering that last year’s compilation ended with a song that crammed 72 Big Swears into a mere 80 seconds, the amount of bad language this year is surprisingly small. Aside from some PG-level cussing by Little Simz (coming later), the main thing to watch out for is a couple of uses of the N word in Kojey Radical’s tune – happily, used in what the BBFC delightfully refers to as 'a peer-to-peer context'. Kojey, coincidentally, makes a guest appearance on the Sons Of Kemet album, whose opening track drops the same word in carefully encoded form. A terrific blend of Joshua Idehen’s evocative poetry and the slow musical build of Shabaka Hutchings and co, it crams so many ideas and images into its Black history lecture that it’s hard to believe it only lasts three minutes.
11. THE SPECIALS – Everybody Knows (from Protest Songs 1924-2012) [video]
I said there’d be no more Leonard Cohen on here after 2019, what with him being dead and everything. Looks like I was wrong, mainly because one of the consequences of the ongoing pandemic appears to be that lots of people are covering old songs rather than writing new ones. Covers albums aren’t necessarily a bad thing, though, particularly if they’ve got a solid idea underpinning them, like the one in the title of the new Specials album. Their definition of ‘protest song’ is an enjoyably broad one, capable of encompassing Laughing Len complaining that everything’s fucked in six beautifully turned verses.
12. TOM JONES – Talking Reality Television Blues (from Surrounded By Time) [video]
Although if this particular covers album has an idea underpinning it, it’s as basic as ‘he’s eighty years old now, give him a break’. Tom Jones doesn’t really need your sympathy, though: here, he takes on a wide range of songs covering the entire timespan of his performing career, peaking with this version of a Todd Snyder acoustic ramble performed in the style of Radiohead. It’s delightful to hear that in his most recent concerts, Jones has just been performing songs from this record and completely ignoring all of his hits from the six decades prior to that. Fair play to him, he’s earned that.
13. BLACK COUNTRY, NEW ROAD – Bread Song (single) [video]
I came to Black Country, New Road relatively late, and by that I mean around the time their debut album was released. They’ve subsequently felt like a band making up for lost time: a second album scheduled for early 2022, and three singles already released from it. As good as much of For The First Time is – for my money, in vinyl terms side 2 is solidly terrific – this single surpasses it, eschewing the complex structures of their earlier songs by going for the approach of doing it slow, then doing it again a bit faster.
14. LITTLE SIMZ – I Love You, I Hate You (from Sometimes I Might Be Introvert) [video]
Obviously, the thing with Pick Of The Year is that it’s a collection of favourite individual tracks, that doesn’t really indicate what my favourite album of the year might be. A useful metric is identifying the records where picking a single track for the compilation is more difficult. On that score, I’d have to agree with 6 Music, because Little Simz’ album had several potential contenders, in a variety of styles. Admittedly, the spoken word interludes are low down on my list: but the combination of high speed rapping and bombastic production always plays well with me, and this is probably the best example. (Or is it Introvert? No, stop it, I can’t change it now!)
15. FIRST AID KIT – Bird On The Wire (from Who By Fire: Live Tribute To Leonard Cohen) [video]
It’s all cover versions from now to the end, starting with confirmation that I was really wrong about Leonard Cohen back in 2019. This is an odd one – a live album of a concert by First Aid Kit and friends held a few months after Cohen’s death, theatrically structured to showcase the best of his poetry and songs. The songs that are completely stripped back are the ones that work best: whether it’s song lyrics performed as poetry, or the two sisters doing one of his classics acapella. Apologies to the half dozen people on this year’s CD mailing list – Lou, Carole, Smudge, Patch, Our Kid and Competition Winner TBC – for calling it Bird On A Wire on the sleeve and not being arsed to change it.
16. JARVIS COCKER – Aline (from Chansons d’Ennui Tip-Top) [video]
If we’re talking about concepts for cover version albums, here’s the most ridiculous one of the year. In Wes Anderson’s film The French Dispatch, there’s a passing reference to a sixties French pop star called Tip-Top, accompanied by a few seconds of one of his songs heard on a jukebox. Jarvis Cocker – the man responsible for the voice of Tip-Top – has expanded that few seconds into an entire album of period French pop, covering songs by the likes of Serge Gainsbourg as well as less familiar names. It’s all lovingly done and performed with a huge amount of style, but that original jukebox song – Aline, originally performed by Christopher – is probably the best of the bunch, accompanied as it is by one of my favourite videos of the year.
17. THE POLYPHONIC SPREE – The Porpoise Song (from Afflatus) [video]
As The Belated Birthday Girl held a lighted match over forty years worth of compilations for the cover photo, she asked me "so is this going to be the last one, then?" It’s a fun idea to play with, sure: 40 would be a nice round number to go out on. Plus, I appear to have finished off this compilation with a song (The Polyphonic Spree covering The Monkees with a characteristic and highly welcome lack of restraint) that features the word ‘goodbye’ several dozen times. I think ultimately, the test is going to be this: has it become a chore trying to find 80 minutes of new music that I enjoy each year? When we hit a year when that’s the case, then I guess I’ll stop. But it hasn’t happened yet.
Still, The BBG’s presence in the previous paragraph leads us neatly into this year’s competition, in which one CD copy of Hashtag #BurnItAll – complete with typo on the back cover – will go to the first person to answer this question correctly. Hashtag #BurnItAll is the second Pick Of The Year compilation to feature The Belated Birthday Girl as its cover star. Name the first one. Send your answers to email@example.com no later than 23:59 GMT on January 31st 2022. First correct answer received wins the prize: if no correct answers are received by the closing date, then the first incorrect entry received will win. And if you do win the CD, I take no responsibility for what happens to you if you try to recreate the cover shot. Being a monkey, and all.