Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Tracks of the Year 2007

No, I’m not doing another top 100. If you’ll forgive me, it’s simply too draining. I’d certainly at least like to draw attention to some of my favourite tracks of the year though, particularly those that featured on albums that narrowly missed the cut.

Many have already written at length about LCD Soundsystem’s exquisite ‘All My Friends’, but no overview of 2007 would be complete without it. Expanding on the notion of wanting ‘to see all my friends at once’ that Arthur Russell introduced on the Dinosaur L dancefloor classic ‘Go Bang!’, the song deftly captured the poignancy that accompanies growing older, and not being able to party quite as hard as you once could. ‘We set controls for the heart of the sun’ said James Murphy, not merely dropping the Pink Floyd reference for cachet ‘…one of the ways we show our age.’ With its insistent one chord attack sounding like Steve Reich appropriated for the dancefloor, it managed to be both propulsive and touching.

I felt less inclined to follow the mainstream pop charts this year than ever before, but a couple of records were simply unavoidable through sheer ubiquity. Rihanna’s ‘Umbrella’ seemed to be at numero uno for ever and ever during a particularly drizzly mid-summer and it proved difficult to resist its infectious charms, even if its follow-ups proved disappointingly clunky. Girls Aloud continued their mission to squeeze as many ideas into one song as humanly possible with the deranged ‘Sexy Sexy No No No’, one of my favourite pop records of the year. Elsewhere in the pop world, I loved Robyn for being a most unconventional pop star, and one keen to take control of her own affairs. ‘Be Mine’ and ‘With Every Heartbeat’ provided insistent thrills. I rather lost touch with the world of mainstream R&B this year, but Amerie made two storming singles with ‘Take Control’ and ‘Gotta Work’ – she has a wonderful voice and resists the urge to show off beloved of many of the genre’s weaker artists.

Dance music didn’t exactly produce many wonders this year (with the notable exception of The Field and ‘Over The Ice’ in particular) – in fact, I was more likely to turn to LCD Soundsystem for toe-tapping thrills. The Chemical Brothers and Underworld continued to repeat themselves ad infinitum, but can I confess getting a guilty pleasure from singles from David Guetta and Fedde Le Grand? Not my usual cup of tea for sure. Maybe Bjork’s embrace of dance music on ‘Declare Independence’ resulted in my favourite four-to-the-floor club track of the year.

I remain undecided about ‘Shake A Fist’, the taster for Hot Chip’s upcoming third album (well, fourth or fifth if you count the albums of unreleased material I have at home). This one might just have edged them too far into gimmicky territory for my tastes with its Todd Rundgren sample and intentionally tacky Casio sounds. I preferred the house-inspired ‘My Piano’ from their DJ Kicks set and I’m coming to adore the camptastic Erasure-soundalike ‘Ready For The Floor’, even though it’s a million miles from their early aesthetic. But that’s one for 2008.

For zany playful fun, there was synth and drums duo Shy Child. Their schtik became a little tiresome over the course of an entire album, but ‘Drop The Phone’ was an hilarious and zesty introduction to their brand of analogue electro (although not quite as wonderful as their obscene ode to auto-fellatio ‘Down On Yourself’ from last year). I also loved the delightfully titled ‘F*cking Boyfriend’ from The Bird and The Bee, a duo featuring the late great Lowell George’s daughter on vocal duties. It’s a marvellously sheened piece of alternative pop desperation.

Last night’s outstanding Club Fandango gig reminded me that Misty’s Big Adventure made one of the singles of the year with ‘Fashion Parade’ – a track that pulls off the very rare trick of being both satirically pointed and musically exciting. It’s a very accurate parody of the Franz Ferdinand British rock sound, emphasising the industry’s cynical, financially motivated interest in manipulating a post-punk revival. The group are also perceptive enough to note the rapid downfall of many a hyped band. Whilst they themselves may not be commercial gold, they may well outlive a number of their targets here, no doubt helped along nicely by their wit, originality and quirky charm. There wasn’t much else to get excited about in the British indie scene (I’m happy enough to ignore The Pigeon Detectives, The Wombats, The Twang et al), but Amy May and Paris Motel made a lush and enthralling album, with one beautifully romantic standout track, the beguiling ‘Catherine By The Sea’. The Broken Family Band have of course long been regulars on these pages, but ‘Hello Love’ featured some of their very best songs – I would particularly highlight the sex song ‘Leaps’ and the deliciously ironic ‘Dancing on the 4th Floor’. Bloc Party made a somewhat politically schematic and self-conscious second album, but its more personal moments dealing with loss and burgeoning sexuality respectively (‘Kreuzberg’ and ‘I Still Remember’) are brave and beautiful songs.

Inevitably, the Canadians were out in force yet again. The most incisive writing of the year came from Leslie Feist – a woman who seems to have all the wisdom and experience anyone could wish for in a songwriter. I particularly loved the silky smooth ‘Brandy Alexander’, as good an analysis of temptation and infatuation as I’ve heard, and the majestic ‘Intuition’, a song brave enough to ask counterfactual questions of the relationships that never were. Both are singularly brilliant, emotionally attuned songs of the highest order. Similarly brave was Rufus Wainwright’s ‘Not Ready To Love’, a rare tender ballad amidst more ornate surroundings, and a song with the courage to admit to insecurity and uncertainty. Whilst The New Pornographers disappointed with their ‘Challengers’ album, veering into orchestrated mush and plodding tempos, the opening track ‘My Rights Versus Yours’ still captured the jaunty, dexterous and intricate power pop they do best.

US songwriters and groups also produced some magic too. Will Sheff, with his revolving cast in Okkervil River, wrote a clever but affecting little gem in ‘Plus Ones’, dissecting relationship break-ups by adding one to famous songs with numbers in their titles – ‘the 51st Way to Leave Your Lover’ etc. Sam Beam continues to write some of the most elegant, literate and engrossing songs in the modern American canon – there were two major works on ‘The Shepherd’s Dog’ – ‘Resurrection Fern’ and ‘Flightless Bird, American Mouth’. Ben Bridwell’s Band of Horses are improving rapidly – ‘No One’s Gonna Love You’ was a moment of pure spine-tingling beauty. Rilo Kiley’s album was full of polished pop gems, but I particularly liked the cautionary ‘15’ and the slinky disco number ‘Breakin’ Up’.

I often prefer Radiohead for their musical intuition than their songwriting – but ‘In Rainbows’ did much to broaden my view of the band. Especially impressive were the jazz-tinged, spiteful ‘Reckoner’ and the beautiful adultery song ‘House of Cards’. Needless to say, both songs approached subject matter some distance from Thom Yorke’s usual technophobic, paranoid vision of urban alienation, and benefited greatly from the change in approach. Equally brilliant was ‘4 Minute Warning’ from the bonus disc, a song of spine-tingling directness and simplicity.

I’ve not yet had a change to digest the entirety of the Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy covers album that has only recently slipped out with little or no fanfare, but his version of R Kelly’s ‘The World’s Greatest’ is one of the best things I’ve heard all year. Will Oldham is one of the world’s great contrarians, but I sense this interpretation is one hundred per cent sincere. Oldham has already expressed admiration for Kelly’s saccharine chart-topper ‘I Believe I Can Fly’ (a sentiment shared by Hot Chip’s Alexis Taylor, who used to cover that song at gigs). I find R Kelly a most preposterous figure occasionally tinged with genius, as anyone who has seen all 500,000 parts of ‘Trapped In The Closet’ will surely attest, but Oldham finds a vulnerable majesty at the heart of Kelly’s song of steely conviction.

Maybe even I heard a little too much from Bruce Springsteen in 2008, with the live album jostling with the E Street Band comeback for my attention. There’s little denying that ‘Girls In Their Summer Clothes’ is one of his very best songs though – harking back to that Phil Spector-infused sound that dominated ‘Born To Run’, and featuring a careful balancing act between euphoria and poignancy. It’s absolutely tremendous, and one of a handful of moments on ‘Magic’ where the sheer quality of the man’s writing cuts through Brendan O’ Brien’s muddy and undeveloped production.

Springsteen wasn’t the only elder statesperson to come up trumps in 2007. I could pick almost any track from the Robert Wyatt album, but ‘A Beautiful War’ and ‘AWOL’ are probably my personal favourites. Nick Lowe also made another relaxed and refined record, included a deliciously spiteful piece of casual misogyny on ‘I Trained Her To Love Me’. 2007 also proved another great year for valiant soul survivors – particularly notable were Mavis Staples’ powerful reworking of ‘We Shall Not Be Moved’ and Bettye LaVette’s extraordinary version of Elton John’s ‘Talking Toy Soldiers’, injecting more passion and conviction into that one song than Elton himself has managed in the whole of the last 20 years.

The more progressive, adventurous end of the rock spectrum enjoyed a very encouraging year, with Yeasayer’s wonderfully harmonised, Tears For Fears- referencing ‘2080’, The Besnard Lakes’ espionage tale ‘Disaster’ and the extraordinary ‘Atlas’ from Battles being essential inclusions in any overview of the year’s best tracks.

Far too much great jazz to mention in detail here – but I particularly admired the driving energy of Michael Brecker’s ‘Tumbleweed’, the wonderful ‘Aftermath’ from the Curios album, John Surman’s beautiful ‘Winter Wish’, David Torn’s terrifying and intimidating ‘Structural Functions of Prezens’, ‘Giant’ from those mirthful troublemakers The Bad Plus, Led Bib’s storming deconstruction of David Bowie’s ‘Heroes’, Gwilym Simock’s polyrhythmic rendering of ‘The Way You Look Tonight’ and the outrageous piano trio take on Britney Spears’ ‘Toxic’ from Yaron Hermon. That rather flippant bombshell of a track seems a good note on which to conclude!

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