Tuesday, 26 December 2006

2006: The Year That Was

The festive season might be to good music what John Prescott is to diplomacy, but it serves as the perfect time to look back on all the grand achievements of the past twelve months. 2006 had its low points; we lost Arthur Lee, Syd Barrett, J Dilla and James Brown. It was also the year the world's biggest boy band reformed. Cliff and Tony Bennett grew older disgracefully with Christmas cash-in albums. 2006 may well be remembered as the year of the comeback; it's not every year we see Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Prince, Van Morrison and countless others all supplying new material. After a fairly slow start, it also became a great year for the quality of albums released. Below are this writer's choice of twenty of the very best, in descending order:

20. Ghostface Killah - Fishscale

Streets ahead of his once-mighty Wu-Tang cohorts, Ghostface displayed cinematic vision and gripping narratives on his latest solo album. Excursions into straightforward battle rap and wittily candid childhood reminiscences only served to highlight the breadth and intelligence lacking in a relatively poor year for hip-hop.

19. Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly - Chronicles Of A Bohemian Teenager

Southend-reared Sam Duckworth’s debut was an endearing blend of earnest lyrics, acoustic guitar and playful, laptop-spawned electronica. Stand-out 'Call Me Ishmael' came complete with cornet solo and an inspired change of pace, revealing pop nous which will stand Duckworth in good stead for the tricky second album.

18. Gnarls Barkley - St. Elsewhere

Buoyed by 'Crazy's summer ubiquity, 'St. Elsewhere' was a meeting of (off-kilter) minds between producer de-rigeur Dangermouse and former Goodie Mob rapper and general voice-for-hire Cee-Lo Green. Exploring a loose theme of mental instability, the album mixed dusty psychedelia, stuttering beats and Cee-Lo’s incomparable gospel-reared voice to great effect.

17. Ed Harcourt - The Beautiful Lie

With 'The Beautiful Lie', the prolific and prodigiously gifted Ed Harcourt finally shook off the albatross of his Mercury-nominated debut 'Here Be Monsters'. Resolutely romantic and free of fads, Harcourt’s torch songs were a flashlight through the crowded, darkened tunnels of the modern singer-songwriter.

16. Graham Coxon - Love Travels At Illegal Speeds

While Damon Albarn spent the year resurrecting the supergroup with Gorillaz and The Good, The Bad & The Queen, former Blur band-mate Graham Coxon simply continued crafting his own inimitable brand of lovelorn punk-pop. Packed full of punchy gems such as 'I Can’t Look At Your Skin', 'Love Travels…' was an assured and excellent performance from an indie institution.

15. Acoustic Ladyland - Skinny Grin

Not so much a melting pot, rather a face-melting combination of sludgey metal riffs and cacophonous virtuoso jazz. Traces of Coltrane resonate through Peter Wareham's sax, but the most potent weapon AL possess is Polar Bear's Seb Rochford on drums. Opener 'Road Of Bones' and Scott Walker's nightmarish mix of 'Salt Water' are the best examples of the band's drastic new vision for British jazz.

14. Kasabian - Empire

Building on the template of 2004’s self-titled debut, Leicester lads Kasabian beefed up their swaggering dance-rock hybrid with a notable nod to ’70s glam, particularly in stomping single 'Shoot The Runner'. Despite the continuing presence of forefathers Primal Scream and Oasis, Empire stood out as the year’s most irresistible hook-led guitar album (by a band formed outside of Sheffield).

13. Cat Power - The Greatest

Chan ‘Cat Power’ Marshall recruited a host of Memphis musicians to flesh out her damaged, lo-fi songwriting for 'The Greatest'. The result was a heady soul brew, the wistful confessionals of 'Where Is My Love' and 'Lived In Bars' made all the more poignant by Marshall’s recent battles with depression and alcoholism.

12. The Beatles - Love

Created for Cirque Du Soleil, this trawl through The Beatles’ back catalogue allowed George and Giles Martin to re-imagine some of the Fab Four’s finest moments. The mash-up style popularised by Soulwax’s '2 Many DJ’s album is used to stunning effect as 'Tomorrow Never Knows' is juxtaposed with 'Within You Without You', a highlight of a project handled lovingly and with no little flair by its curators.

11. The Roots - Game Theory

Taking a step back from previous album 'The Tipping Point's overt commerciality, 'Game Theory' was a dark and claustrophobic affair, the Philadelphia hip-hop veterans preoccupied with war zones at home and abroad. Dynamic, unhinged contributions from former members Dice Raw and Malik B offered a counterpoint to lead emcee Black Thought’s technical flow, while ringleader ?uestlove’s musical vision remained undimmed fifteen years since the band’s formation.

10. Rodrigo Y Gabriela - Rodrigo Y Gabriela

Renowned for their astounding live performances, Mexican duo Rodrigo Y Gabriela translated their on-stage energy onto record with a little help from production maestro John Leckie. Indebted to flamenco masters such as Paco De Lucia, but equally the fervent, devotional energy of hard rock, it was telling that they chose to cover Led Zeppelin and Metallica on this outstanding set.

9. Arctic Monkeys - Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not

While debates still rage about whether they are the greatest band since The Smiths, (or perhaps more realistically, the best band from Sheffield since Pulp) the Arctic Monkeys debut album stands as a timely and timeless continuation of the British art of storytelling. Whether berating ‘Fake Tales Of San Francisco’ or extolling the joys of late night cabs, Alex Turner’s wit and the Monkeys’ winning tunes struck a chord with the nation.

8. Neil Young - Living With War

Initially available as an internet-only download, Neil Young’s rush-recorded 'Living With War' was a timely example of the emotive power music can have in the political arena. Backed by rugged guitars and a 100-strong choir, Young tears into the Bush administration furiously and unreservedly on 'Lookin’ For A Leader' and 'Let’s Impeach The President'. 'Living With War' struck a victory for both its venerable creator and the unabated spirit of protest writing.

7. Old Crow Medicine Show - Big Iron World

Championed by Americana icon Gillian Welch - who appeared here on drum duties - this five piece channelled youthful vigour and age-old songs into a vibrant and remarkably cohesive album. Rollicking fiddle-led standards such as 'Cocaine Habit' rubbed shoulders with the boys’ own accomplished compositions such as 'James River Blues' and 'My Good Girl'. Country album of the year by a country mile.

6. Flaming Lips - At War With The Mystics

Proving the commercial breakthrough of 2002’s 'Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots' was no fluke, Wayne Coyne’s enigmatic Oklahomans resurfaced stronger than ever in 2006. Dalliances with funk ('Free Radicals') and prog-rock ('Pompeii Am Gotterdammerung') broadened the group’s creative palette, while naysayers and warmongers bore the brunt of Coyne’s lyrical broadsides.

5. Bob Dylan - Modern Times

Completing a trio of late-career triumphs, the ironically-titled 'Modern Times' shunned contemporary techniques in favour of old-time blues, ballads and boogie-woogie. Dylan’s unmatchable lyrics provided ammunition for accusers of literary plagiarism, hours of fun for train-spotters and his first US number one since 1976’s 'Desire'.

4. Guillemots - Through The Windowpane

This oddly-named troupe of eccentric popsters provided two of 2006’s most inventive pop singles in 'Trains To Brazil' and 'Made Up Love Song #43'. The accompanying full-length lived up to the promise of these earlier offerings, equally showcasing leader Fyfe Dangerfield’s penchant for tender love songs and kitchen-sink approach to arrangements.

3. Amy Winehouse - Back To Black

Moving even further from the jazzy lounge of Melua and Jones, in 2006 London chanteuse Amy Winehouse created that rarest of artefacts, a top-notch UK soul album. Helped by producers Salaam Remi and Mark Ronson, 'Back To Black's searing songs were honest and heartfelt odes to love, loss, addiction and “fuckery”.

2. Spank Rock - YoYoYoYoYo

Thrillingly futuristic dance floor action abounded on this debut by filthy, electro-informed hip-hoppers Spank Rock. Traces of Timbaland’s sonic invention and swathes of 2 Live Crew’s misogyny perpetuated 'YoYoYoYoYo', but it was na├»ve electronics and mind-boggling lyrical verve which carried the likes of 'Top Billin’ From Far Left' and 'Tell Me What It Look Like' from the Baltimore underground to the critical consciousness.

And finally...

1. TV On The Radio - Return To Cookie Mountain

For all the experimental gusto of Brooklyn art-rockers TV On The Radio’s follow-up to 2004’s 'Desperate Youth Blood-Thirsty Babes', there was a definite pop heart behind the enveloping soundscapes. Opener 'I Was A Lover' mixed looped strings and a stuttering hip-hop beat with inflective lyricism, while the majestic 'A Method' cranked up the barbershop harmonies behind front-man Tunde Adebimpe’s lead. Celebrity support came in the guise of David Bowie’s guest vocals on 'Province', although true to form they were hidden within the foggy midst of the track. While they stopped short of repeating the snowballing success of fellow Bowie faves Arcade Fire’s 'Funeral', this was an equally moving, memorable and masterful set of songs.

R.I.P. James Brown
Happy birthday Shane MacGowan (for yesterday)

Wednesday, 13 December 2006

Flaming Lips live review

Flaming Lips live, Hammersmith Apollo, 14 November

You have to hand it to the Flaming Lips, they sure know how to throw a party. No specific occasion this one - they bypassed the twentieth anniversary of their formation some three years ago - but for the most relentlessly joyous band around, every day is one to celebrate. The buzz of pre-performance anticipation is discernible, those who’ve previously witnessed a gig by the Oklahoma trio (along with live drummer Kliph Scurlock tonight) have clearly built up the expectation levels of the Lips virgins present. They’ve all come expecting dancing Santas and aliens, confetti explosions and the most uplifting live experience around. They are not to be disappointed.
The 5,000 green and yellow balloons handed out quickly begin to soar around the converted theatre, adding to the childlike qualities of chief Super Furry Animal Gruff Rhys’ warm-up show. Performing an array of solo songs in English and Welsh, he sits at a table surrounded by a multitude of toys, instruments and combinations of the two. Some of these he plays, others such as a large red crash helmet similar to the one worn by Jack Nicholson in 'Easy Rider', appear to be there for feng shui purposes. Rhys’ quirky acid-folk and good-natured buffoonery prove a winning combination, it’s telling of the headliners’ approach that they selected such a genial character to open.
Famously debuted at the Grammies and unveiled in the UK via the Lips’ performances at the Leeds and London Wireless festival this summer, Wayne Coyne’s giant hamster ball has become the stuff of legend. To the delight of the crowd, he emerges from backstage climbing into the transparent sphere and launches himself onto the swathes of arms waiting. Following a full lap of the Apollo’s standing area, he is joined by his fellow band-mates and they launch into ‘Race For The Prize’, taken from astonishing breakthrough album 'The Soft Bulletin'.
Yet more balloons, on-stage explosions and a dancing cast of superheroes form the backdrop for one of the most intensely euphoric live experiences imaginable. The crowd are ecstatic, bouncing throughout and beaming back at Coyne as he stands, palm stretched out, ushering in the pounding drums of the chorus with the refrain, “They’re just humans with wives and children!”.
He ends the song dancing like a snappily-dressed, excitable Pied Piper, twirling a dazzling cord of light around until the mania dies down. It’s an unbelievable opening, and while the rest of the show cannot possibly live up to the bottled essence of those amazing four minutes, there are plentiful highlights to come.
'Free Radicals' and recent single 'The W.A.N.D.' trade funk-rock riffs, while crowd favourite 'Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots Pt.1' ends in a massive communal sing-a-long - one of many tonight. Once again expressing his disgust for George Bush’s administration, Coyne subverts any negative energy into a gloriously confrontational and exhilarating ‘Yeah Yeah Yeah Song’. While there are none of the Lips’ famously eclectic cover versions tonight, they do trawl into their back catalogue to play the zany psych-pop of 1994’s 'She Don’t Use Jelly', although die-hards in the crowd shouting for 1989’s 'Unconsciously Screamin' are sadly out of luck.
Steven Drozd and Michael Ivins are quiet and professional throughout, content to let Coyne run the show, but aware of their huge contribution. As Gibby Haynes of the Butthole Surfers once retorted, “Wayne’s biggest asset? Steven!” The skeleton outfit-wearing Ivins cannot be underestimated either, his presence since the outset of the band shows how integral he has been to their success. The set is rounded off by 'Do You Realise', its ubiquity matters little, it is clearly a special song that inspires open sobbing, air-punching delight and embraces all round.
Frequently when introducing the songs, Coyne explains at some length the intentions behind them in passionate, humble terms. If music can’t change the world he concludes, then joy, positivity and love might - feelings the Flaming Lips and their wonderful music inspire in all tonight.


Friday, 1 December 2006

The Rapture - Pieces Of The People We Love

One of the hyped pace-setters in the early ’80s revivalist movement of the past few years, The Rapture have perhaps wisely bided their time before following up 2003’s stellar debut ‘Echoes‘. In the three years leading up to ‘Pieces Of The People We Love‘, the four New Yorkers have seen their thunder stolen by a new wave of new-wavers, headed up by the likes of Bloc Party and Franz Ferdinand.
While they have clearly employed subtle changes in their sound, there is no attempt made to cast off the dance-punk/indie-disco/punk-funk (delete as appropriate) framework within which they operate.
Replacing the DFA with Paul Epworth and Ewan Pearson behind the boards, the result is a punchier sound, with the disco percussion to the fore and warring bass and lead guitars reduced to a supporting role. Lead single ‘Get Myself Into It’, in particular, suggests their well-worn copies of ‘Entertainment’ have been replaced by a healthy fascination with ‘Remain In Light’-era Talking Heads.
Klaxons fans will be blown away by the stunning new-raver ‘The Sound’, while super producer Dangermouse (of Gnarls Barkley and Gorillaz fame) pops up on two tracks; adding jittery lo-fi beats to ‘Calling Me’ and the skippable title track.
The foursome come into their own in the album’s middle section, where the grooves are truly irresistible. ‘The Devil’ and ‘Whoo! Alright - Yeah… Uh Huh’ show the band at their best; the tight, propulsive bass and resolute disco drums serving as the grounding for explosions of Afro-funk guitar and proclamations such as “I say the lineage runs Morrison, Patti Smith then me”. It’s clear The Rapture aren’t taking anything too seriously besides the music - while they may have initiated a stylistic revolution three years ago, they now seem content to let the pretenders wear their crown while they strut off to the next party.