Sunday, December 24, 2006

"You are what you love, and not what loves you back..."

I'd completely forgotten, until just now, that my favourite album of 2006 was actually released in 2006. If you know what I mean. That is, it came out back in the dim, distant days of last January, yet seemed to have been a constant pleasure in life for so much longer.

Ah, January, usually the dog-days of quality record-releasing, as music companies hunker down and save their finer releases until the post-Christmas purse-tightening (or, indeed, New Year discounting frenzies) have eased a little. But this was the month that brought my personal favourite, not to be topped again in the following (almost) 11 months - and, no, it wasn't by the Arctic bleedin' Monkeys. "I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor", yes, has a thrilling riff and momentum, and the rest of the album is vaguely refreshing after a fashion. But it all gets a little samey after a while (the sound, and the furious hype...), and the lyrics a little too easily, er, pastichable after a while ("There's a bird by the bar, she's looking well nice, got a Burberry jacket, and a Smirnoff Ice..." Or something...)

But, anyway, no, my vote, for what miniscule shred it's worth, goes for the gorgeous Rabbit Furcoat by the, well, gorgeous Jenny Lewis and the Watson Twins: more reflective and country-soul-some than her day-job with the indie-tastic (and rather good, too) Rilo Kiley, and all the more affecting. Bonus points for a wonderfully offbeat choice of song to cover, "Handle With Care" by The Travelling Wilburies. But perhaps the highlight is the stirring "Rise Up With Fists", a slow-burning anthem of downbeat yet still-defiant belief in... something, someone, oneself, just about strong enough.

A lot later in the year came a bit of an unexpected pleasure. Not that The Beatles can usually ever be anything but reliable pleasure, but with all the early-year talk of Love in the context of its accompanying cirque-du-soleil-style light-the-lights spectacular, a teasing four-track taster this autumn indicated plenty of tender love and care had gone into mischievously, yet thoughtfully, mixing and remixing many of the polished versions and unpolished demos, often jarringly and not-so-jarryingly together, creating new sounds of surprise and wonder from such familiar old favourites. The new "Octopus' Garden" was a revelation, a lot richer and not nearly so hokey as the Abbey Road chunter-along, while "Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite" sounded even more compellingly nightmarish with its deranged fairground organ interlaced with those doom-laden guitar chimes of "I Want You (She's So Heavy)". Stand-out track, though? "Get Back", played fairly straight - oh, but for the "A Hard Day's Night" ker-chang that introduces it, swiftly followed by Sir Ringo's drum solo from "The End". From then on 'til the end of the track, it's pretty much as you were. And what's wrong with that anyway?

Oh, but for more really, really new recent Beatle-ing (and even more of a pleasant shock), Sean Lennon's Friendly Fire would probably have taken the not-at-all prestigious prize as my album of the year, a toppermost-of-the-powerpoppermost ten-track confection, showing a much lighter touch than his earlier, grungier and then experimental efforts - and yet seeming a lot more substantial at the same time. His voice is reedier and more fragile than his father's (who he?), and the instrumentation at times gossamer-thin - and suiting such delicate melodies ideally. Stand-out track: a tie between "Parachute", the sweetest little suicide pact song since "There Is A Light That Never Goes Out", and the Marc-Bolan-curiosity-resurrecting "Would I Be The One".

Was it really ten whole years since we first heard from "Em in the place who likes it in your face, we got G like MC who likes it on a...?, Easy V doesn't come for free, she's a real lady - and as for me? Hah, you'll see..."? Ber-limey, so it appears to be. Whatever happened to them, anyway? Well, this time a decade ago the lovely Emma Bunton seemed to take a starring role in Christmas number one "2 Become 1", and while she may not have celebrated the anniversary with the Strictly Come Dancing prize, my fellow Woodside Park-er produced another underrated beauty of a swoonsome Sixties-ish album, Life In Mono - extra credits for the title track, a lovely cover of my favourite song by horrifically under-rated and under-remembered late-Nineties indie-electronica act Mono. The stand-out track, though, is surely "Mischievous", this year's winner of the Natasha Bedingfield "Hyperbowl" Award For Embarrassing Mispronunciation Utterly Redeemed By An Irresistibly Poptastic Tune.

Another female artist straight outta Finchley (though she seems to insist, these days, upon being straight outta Camden), couldn't be more different otherwise from delectable Emma, though Amy Winehouse may well be much spicier than Spice. Having been underwhelmed by what I'd heard of her first album, and frankly a little frightened by some of her recent appearances on TV and in the papers, Back To Black a stunning - if stern - corrective. What. A. Voice. And songs of aching quality, too. The divine Dusty never demanded "What kind of fuckery is this?" Well, not in song, anyway. Stand-out track, though, has to be the gutbuster "Rehab". "They tried to make me go to rehab, I said no, no, no..." And anyone who dared to try again deserves to be sectioned themselves...

Back to the sweetness and light, I think - and a pair who pass now for elder statesman and woman of a just-about-off-mainstream movement for whom jangle is massive: Matthew Sweet and ex-Bangle Susanna Hoffs, who followed the triumph (well, I love it, anyway) of her band's 2003 comeback Doll Revolution with Under The Covers: Volume One. Okay, so a set of Sixties standards may not seem the most ambitious project, and you can't really go wrong with such solid-gold good'uns as "And Your Bird Can Sing" and "Who Knows Where The Time Goes"? But, this is just a joy, all the way through, with a little more light, shade and quirkiness than a similarly-principled effort by Dolly Parton this year (not that that's not also very, very... well, nice. Hm, the NME, here I come...) Stand-out track? Well, "And Your Bird Can Sing" is always exhilirating, even The Beatles' Anthology 2-featured fiasco that dissolves into hysterical giggles, and The Jam's slightly ham-fisted effort. But the hypnotic ringing guitar of "Different Drum", plus The Hoffs' creamy-butter-dripping-over-hot-toast vocal, just about does it best for me.

For something slightly more bizarre - well, utterly bonkers - Brazilian band CSS and their international debut album Cansei de Ser Sexy, have rarely been off my iPod in recent weeks, especially the manic single "Let's Make Love And Listen To Death From Above" - that line alone, as mumbled then barked out by singer Lovefoxxx, enough to stop anyone in their tracks then send them careering off in a dizzy-making dance to top anything Mark Ramprakash could come up with. The weirdly-inflected English lyrics are so startling, they make fellow South American Shakira sound as mundane as the Stereophonics by comparison... Stand-out track: of the album, maybe of the year - as above...

Phew. A bit of straight-up English indie guitar music may be what's needed next, and while Larrikin Love (especially "Six Queens"), The Young Knives (ditto "Loughborough Suicide"), The Holloways ("Generator") and even some band called Babyshambles (okay, "The Blinding" was just an EP, but poor old Pete hasn't sounded so coherent since The Libertines) had their charms, my choice might just have to be Boy Kill Boy and Civilian, an energetic outfit ("outfit"? oof) of whom I know little but approve a lot, especially the, er, stand-out track "Back Again", which lurches lustily between little-monster riffs and impassioned melody.

Similar could be said for The Long Blondes, a Sheffield female-fronted band whose album Someone To Drive You Home is a little more direct and swiftly-palatable than that by the same city's more (in)famous Jarvis Cocker (or just Jarvis, as he seems to be termed these days - either way, his album's still slowly growing on me). The Long Blondes, spiky stabs of guitar cutting under Kate Jackson's desperate yelps, sound a little warmer to me than the sort-of-similar, also-but-not-as-good US band The Gossip. Perhaps explaining why the American band's frontwoman recently topped the NME's annual, er, "Cool List". Though maybe not. Anyway, stand-out track? "Only Lovers Left Alive", probably. I just like it best.

Moving on... and further north, this time to Glasgow, The Fratellis, with debut album Costello Music, come on a little like a Scottish Supergrass, all pogo-worthy big choruses and happy little vignettes of eye-(or-ear-)catching characters, and bigger verses, and even bigger-er choruses again... and while they're not all actually called Fratelli (nice for a bassist, in this case Barry, to claim a little glory for a charge and give a band a name), they are all alarmingly young and yet, when the tunes are quite so terribly, terribly catchy, even precocious youth can be forgiven. Bah humbug. Stand-out track: "Chelsea Dagger" should be the dazzling-est, even if already-forlorn efforts to sing the chorus as "Martin Jol, Martin Jol, Martin Jo-o-o-o-ol" seem deservedly doomed to failure at the Lane (the song's title doesn't really help). But "Vince The Loveable Stoner", while not so far a single, certainly should be. But what do I know...?

After all, I thought Australian band Jet were ludicrously over-wraught, dangerously Darkness-esque pomp-rockers based on their debut album, and showcase single "Are You Gonna Be My Girl?" Yet follow-up Shine On even outdoes The Feeling for guilty-pleasure-worthy Seventies powerpop-plundering, and it sounds superb. Plenty of reviews have compared the album to Oasis (good Oasis, that is), but it puts me more in mind of Wings-era Macca - and, as we all know, Wings are only the band The Beatles could have been...

Hang on, though. Actually, I've just realised that was the 11th album I've nominated for my top ten (maths never was my strong point - nor was keeping things concise), so I'm sorry, Jet, I'm going to have to relegate you to my "Ooh, So Close" band of, well, bands that deserve credit but just failed to make the cut: please help yourself to some nibbles in this hospitality room alongside the ever-reliable Ron Sexsmith (Time Being being as deft and adept as ever), James Dean Bradfield (The Great Western whetted the appetite wonderfully for the next Manics album), Cat Power (The Greatest, maybe not actually the greatest, but a sumptuous, bittersweet treat all the same)...

Oh, and as more fleeting delights, I was delightedly drawn to "LDN" by Lily Allen, "Over And Over" and "Boy From School" by Hot Chip, "Hips Don't Lie" by Shakira (the video to which seemed to be on German TV non-stop while I was over there last summer, and very mesmerising it consistently proved too), the lusciously sorrowful "My Mirror" by Tina Dico, "Young Folks" by Peter Bjorn and John, "Backstabber" by The Dresden Dolls, "Cheated Hearts" by The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the intriguingly noodle-some "Herculean" by The Good The Bad And The Queen, the startling "Promiscuous" by Nelly Furtado, "Get Yourself Into It" by The Rapture, and "The Needle Has Landed" by Neko Case.

Actually, I adored the whole swooping beauty of the Neko Case album, Fox Confessor Brings The Flood. That should really have been in the top eleven, I mean, ten.

Hmm... can I start again?

Oh, and the long-long-long-delayed new Luke Haines album is apparently out now, too. Ah, sod it - that'll have to go into the running for the 2007 award, 12 months from now.

You read it here first. Just don't let me forget, okay...?

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