Monday, December 11, 2006

2006: The Year In Popular Song

My albums of the year list will follow shortly, but for starters, here are some thoughts on the tracks that shaped my year, for better or for worse. All my own opinions, not work related etc etc....

Two tracks proved completely inescapable this year - the big, heavily hyped download-only number one from Gnarls Barkley and 'Over and Over', the superb party anthem from Hot Chip. The latter has now been released three times, and plays virtually every time I go to a club or music venue. It was one of those tracks that, largely by virtue of being simple, insistent but also knowingly clever, captured a wave of energy and enthusiasm. Much as I love it, it's not my favourite track on 'The Warning' - that would have to go to the sly, soulful nod to 'Walk On By' that is 'Look After Me', one of the very finest things Alexis has written to date.

Morrissey's 'Ringleader Of The Tormentors' proved a somewhat flawed and frustrating album, but contained a handful of superb tracks, not least the wonderful collaboration with Ennio Morricone on 'Dear God Please Help Me'. Unfortunately, Moz elected not to even attempt to recreate this grandiose melodrama in live concerts, instead preferring to focus on the album's more generic, plodding moments. It's one of his very best studio performances though - a vocal rich in nuance and emotion. Whether or not it's about some hot Roman gay sex is another matter....

Talking of which, everyone's favourite gay Canadians The Hidden Cameras managed to set out their agenda in a more inclusive and compelling way on 'Hump From Bending', one of the most thoroughly joyful tracks of the year. Combining playful innuendo with some righteous liberalism (if such a thing is possible), this felt like a genuine outsider anthem. Some people seemed to find the album, and the recent shows promoting it, disappointing - who were these fools?!

A number of artists provided food for thought in 2006 by mixing pop and politics. The Roots found a sublime streak of social consciousness hip hop with 'Don't Feel Right', one of the best singles of their career so far - punchy, hard-hitting and aware. By delving back into the American folk canon, Bruce Springsteen sounded more invigorated and powerful than he had in years. Not included on the initial pressings of the Seeger Sessions album, his reinterpretation of Blind Alfred Reed's 'How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?' addressed the political failings of the Bush administration over Hurricane Katrina with righteous clarity. Less successful were some other attempts to deal with the same issue from Jay Z and U2 and Green Day, the former unaccountably lame, the latter grotesquely pompous. Many were keen to praise Neil Young's 'Living With War' album for its directness and passion - but place it next to Steve Earle and it just sounds unforgivably clunky and ill-judged. It might not be reasonable to expect daring political statements from the Pet Shop Boys, but with 'Integral' and 'Indefinite Leave To Remain', the two most successful tracks on their inconsistent 'Fundamental' album, they delivered some persuasive arguments against much-parroted political maxims. The former used neat satire to undermine the popular notion that 'if you've got nothing to hide, you've got nothing to fear', accurately and convincingly attacking the petty Stalinism of New Labour. Of all this year's political statements, however, the most significant may well be Scott Walker's 'The Drift', an album of such uncompromising vision and insight that it is utterly terrifying. It doesn't make sense to isolate specific tracks, but 'Clara' was itself as complex and ambitious as an entire opera, dramatic and intense, brilliantly capturing the modern world's inexorable drift to the extremes of tyranny and violence. It's entirely a matter of interpretation, but I liked to picture the Mr. Tough of Yo La Tengo's magnificently infectious song as George W himself, being enticed onto the dancefloor to distract him from misguided policies at home and abroad. It's also been a matter of some interpretive debate as to whether Bob Dylan's 'Workingman's Blues No. 2' marks a return to the leftist concerns of his protest days. The whole argument over this is probably pointless - the song is more about comradeship and solidarity in work than it is about any political ideology. Along with the superb 'Nettie Moore', it's his best work so far this decade.

In the mainstream pop world, Girls Aloud triumphed once again with the outrageously camp, loveably lightweight 'Something Kinda Oooh', but then it all went tits-up with that terrible version of 'I Think We're Alone Now'. I still admire McFly's winning way with a pop melody, whether they actually write and play their songs or not. 'Please Please' really was a slice of postmodern pop genius, neatly throwing those tabloid rumours about Harry and Lindsay Lohan back in everyone's faces. OutKast returned with an overlong, laborious and mostly boring soundtrack album, but 'Morris Brown' and 'Idlewild Blue' were superb singles, demonstrating their intuitive musical wit and invention. The major surprise of the year was Amy Winehouse, about whom I must now admit that I was completely and utterly wrong - 'Rehab' is everything a pop single should be and more. Madonna continued to pull singles from the ludicrously overrated Confessions On A Dancefloor album, with increasingly diminishing returns, 'Jump' being one of the least compelling records of her entire career. Initially, I thought Justin Timberlake's 'SexyBack' was a tuneless dirge, but forced to listen to it repeatedly, I now appreciate it as more of a minimal masterpiece, adding a whole new dimension to Timbaland's multi-faceted production. With 'Maneater' and 'Promiscuous', Nelly Furtado finally admitted that she's no great singer, stopped pretending, and made two brilliant dancefloor stompers. Even better than all of these was 'Black Sweat', which saw Prince veer towards crunk, although nobody seemed to notice, perhaps because the rest of the album was a bit shit.

In the indie world, everyone went crazy over those Arctic Monkeys - I remain completely indifferent. As for The Kooks, 'She Moves In Her Own Way', with its mock-scouse vocals, is one of the most incompetent and annoying strummy guitar records in ages. How can such manifest lack of ambition reap such huge rewards? I also couldn't get away from The Automatic's one-trick-pony shouty nonsense pop (not something I ever wanted), or Snow Patrol's dreary earnestness on 'Chasing Cars', a record that just refuses to go away. Oh, and Primal Scream completely embarrassed themselves, amplifying all the shamelessly derivative, ugly dimensions of their music for 'Country Girl' and 'Dolls'. For those that looked a little further afield there were rich pickings, with some sharp social and political commentary from the ever endearing MJ Hibbett on 'The Gay Train' and 'The Fight For History', a brilliant apropriation of northern soul stylings from Camera Obscura on 'Lloyd, I'm Ready To Be Heartbroken' and 'Let's Get Out Of This Country' and perhaps the best reversion of that ubiquitous rhythm from 'You Can't Hurry Love' on 'Once and Never Again' by The Long Blondes. I wanted to despise the latter because of the hype, but their sharply observed songs actually have real merit. The Gossip were the unlikely crossover stars of the year, and it's gratifying that they did it all on their own terms, with two superb singles in 'Listen Up' and 'Standing In The Way Of Control'. The Pipettes had their detractors, but they are beginning to look more and more like killjoys as their girl pop continues to warm my heart. 'Pull Shapes' was a particular triumph. Meanwhile, the award for most inventive song titles surely went to Flipron, for gems like 'Mingers In Paradise' and 'The Flatpack Bride Of Possibilities'. Splendid!

Further into the outer limits, there were some genuine slices of avant-garde pop genius. 'The Mercury Craze' from Subtle, another configuration of the Anticon rappers, is unbelivably brilliant, completely audacious and enervating. Junior Boys produced an album that was roughly 60% outstanding and 40% soporific, but 'In The Morning' may be the electronic track of the year, brilliantly produced, brimming with invention and topped off with a sweetly handled melody. Matthew Herbert's 'Scale' was a more streamlined and accessible proposition than his more maverick work on 'Plat du Jour' and 'Goodbye Swingtime', but it at least had 'Moving Like A Train', an irresistably groovy confection. Psapp perfected their 'toytronica' sound on the thrilling 'Hi'.

There were some beautifully literate songs in 2006, from some of the most dependable artists of recent times. Lambchop's Kurt Wagner continues to drift towards more elusive territory, but his lyrics retain a uniquely poetic wisdom that simply can't be found anywhere else. 'Paperback Bible told of a swap shop style radio show with quiet grace and dignity. Will Oldham was yet again a ubiquitous songwriting figure, with perhaps his greatest triumph to date being 'His Hands', a truly masterful song written for soul legend Candi Staton, and probably the single best track I heard this year. Whilst this was an intense and serious track, Sparks again proved themselves masters of playful irony with 'Baby Can I Invade Your Country?'

2006 also served to remind us of the real value in interpretation. Cover versions remain unfairly derided, and the collaboration between Bonnie 'Prince' Billy and Tortoise, particularly on their stunning refashioning of Springsteen's 'Thunder Road' as an uncertain lament, demonstrated that there can be real artistry in cover songs. Even better perhaps, Susanna and The Magical Orchestra completely reinvented the mood of Kiss' 'Crazy Crazy Nights' to the extent that it became hard to see how it could ever have been a cock rock anthem. Susanna's subtle, tender reading turned it into something incomporably serious and moving, a celebration of the party spirit, but with the lingering knowledge that these great days of youth are slipping away from us.

2006 was also memorable for the return of some iconic figures. Scritti Politti's Green Gartside should have been a real pop star, but his stagefright always caused him problems. Back with a new album that shows him at the absolute peak of his songwriting abilities, and at last performing live again, he was surely a more deserving winner of the Mercury than the Arctic Monkeys (the real contest was between Scritti and Hot Chip). 'The Boom Boom Bap' is that rare beast - a song about music that actually works brilliantly. In fact, the sound of the final verse, where Green simply reads the tracklist to the first Public Enemy album, is one of the most strangely moving sounds of the year. Another artsist to make a serious bid for a comeback was Jarvis, and whilst I still feel his album is slightly underwhelming, his download only single 'C*nts Are Still Running The World' is the sound of a very wise, if noticeably bitter man. Line of the year may well be 'They say the cream always floats to the top - well, I say, shit floats!'. Spot on sir!

Still, whilst this is by no means a damning indictment of music in 2006, the song that touched me most this year was actually recorded back in 1986 - 'Estuary Bed' from the still woefully underrated Australian band The Triffids. This melancholy song, with a tragic romantic sweep, is harmonically very simple and understated, yet all the elements combine to staggering effect, and Evil Graham Lee's steel guitar adds a sense of grandeur. Domino's repackaging of The Triffids' back catalogue should continue apace in 2007, with the outstanding 'Calenture' album scheduled as the next release.

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