Or: a self indulgent list of some songs I liked last year, helping me to avoid writing about the albums. But I always loved making mixtapes, and latterly mix cds (What music lover doesn't?), and this is about as close as I get these days. It starts poppy and goes folky then briefly rocky.
Monkey - I Love Buddha
You should always start off, I think, with either a short instrumental - an overture of sorts - or with a balls out rocker. This is a short, synth-driven instrumental not unlike the waltzes Albarn used to sneak onto Blur albums between the pop singles. Only a little weirder and with an eerie quality I love. It just pulses along hypnotically in its sugar-manic way. The album it originates from is a little impenetrable, utterly nuts, but rewarding - he can still write a melody. I haven't seen the show.
Neon Neon - Raquel
"Oh Raquel, you fill me with inertia" may just be my favourite line in any song this year. And its the chorus. And the concept is great - an album made up of songs on John DeLorean's life, making this a love song to Raquel Welch. And that line may in fact be a reference to "Bedazzled". And its a sweet pop song with a great 80s-synth feel. And 80s synths were big this year. And Gruff Rhys can do no wrong.
Kanye West - Love Lockdown
What did I say about 80s synths? Kanye West goes for a vocoder, too, and a thunderous rhythm track throughout. Great song, unlike anything else he's ever produced, either for himself or anyone else.
Hercules & the Love Affair - Blind
Disco. The hook is that wimpy parpy little horn, and damn, what a hook. Hegarty has an immortal voice, and you might think it wouldn't work in this context, but it works beautifully. Singing mournful, cosmic lyrics ("As a child I knew that the stars would get brighter and we would get closer, leaving this darkness behind") over a dancefloor symphony of pumping bass and handclaps and what sound like bongos and - you guessed it - synths. Pitchfork voted it single of the year, and I couldn't disagree.
The Streets - On the Edge of a Cliff
Nobody likes the Streets anymore, it seems. Mike Skinner stopped writing songs about drugs and chav culture and started writing about being a pop star, and nobody wants to hear about that. But the most recent album is warmer and more universal, full of songs about life and human nature. Its also relaxed and mellow and possibly his best musically - some great beats and tunes. This song should be a cringeworthy embarrassment, but his gift is to make tricky subjects work, somehow, and he does it again here in a lyric about chance and life and death.
Los Mirlos - Sonido Amazonico
The albums I've listened to most this year have been compilations of vintage rock music from Nigeria (more of which below) and Peru. This comes from an album called "The Roots of Chicha"; Chicha being a sub-genre of Peruvian rock which brings together psychedelic and even hard rock aesthetics with Peruvian folk song traditions. Sounds well dry, I know, but in practice its amazing - some of it sounds a little like Mexican Mariachi music, some like Afrobeat, some like salsa, some like rockabilly, but most sounds like nothing else you've ever heard. This song sounds a bit Morricone to me, or maybe like Surf rock, with that twanging guitar. Its got mucho mojo. If you only follow one link from this post, follow this one. Go on, follow the link. Trust me.
Vampire Weekend - Mansford Roof
So punchy, so simple and evocative, such a tight groove, and yet such a lovely abundance of space in the sound. Plus the instrumental break where the chorus should be reminds me of the theme from CHiPs.
The Hygrades - In the Jungle
I bought four Nigerian rock compilations this year, and it seems silly to choose one from the nearly 70 tracks spread across them. But this one was easy to find on YouTube, and it is a funky-as-all-hell jam, and it gets across what makes these records so amazing - dozens of quality songs from 20 and 30 years ago, recorded in Nigeria, influenced by British and American rock but with a distinctively African ingredient added. I could really have chosen literally any song from any of the 4 albums, such is the depth of quality. The albums are : "Nigeria Special: 1970-76", "Nigeria 70 - Lagos Jump", "Nigeria Disco Funk special" and "Nigeria Rock Special".
El Guincho - Kalise
This Spanish dude, he likes afrobeat and tropicalia but also Animal Collective and sampling. Which means he makes music like this. Would be horrible, only he can write a song. Like this one. Which is just a stomping joyous, ridiculous beast.
Republic of Loose - I Like Music
Their latest album is too diffuse and eclectic for its own good, but it still has about 10 great songs on it, including this poptastic piece of blue-eyed psych-soul which boasts about 5 different hooks and lyrics like this: "Girl I had a goggle of girls eating my sweat while you were watching Ugly Betty last night." It also represents the first small step towards the rockier end of this particular playlist...
My Morning Jacket - Touch Me I'm Going to Scream Pt. 2
TV on the Radio get all the plaudits and the end-of-year best lists while My Morning Jacket, well, don't. Which is just plain wrong. Incorporating more influences and elements with each record while still remaining a Southern rock jam-band at heart, they release one bewilderingly different album after another. Their last, "Z", was full of r&b and hip hop production touches, obviously inspired by the likes of Prince and Outkast, and here Jim James brings that even further, employing a full-on falsetto on some synth-driven songs whilst leaving some others as relatively traditional MMJ rockers or ballads. Only this record is even more soulful than usual. This eight minute epic segues from a hushed beginning of quiet, carnivalesque synth over howling winds into a funk-pop dancefloor groover which sounds a little like Phoenix or LCD Soundsystem, all bubbling bass and echoing guitars. A power chord from nowhere on five minutes ushers in a long coda of harmony vocals and big guitars over that fading disco backing. Its great.
Erykah Badu - Soldier
Just how soulful My Morning Jacket are can be measured with the information that Erykah Badu has duetted with them live on a version of her song "Tyrone" (there are a couple of clips on Youtube). Badu has one of the greatest voices in modern popular music, and her infrequent records are always deep, funky and feature a couple of lovely songs. Of which this is a great example. A great bassline - her songs always have great basslines - and great lyrics, too. She just doesn't play the game, and you have to love her for that.
The Walkmen - Red Moon
Off their best, most mature album, this beautiful, elegiac sigh of a lovesong has mariachi horns behind slowly strummed acoustic guitars and an enigmatic, melancholy lyric. It may just be the loveliest thing on this list. It makes Bon Iver sound like James Blunt.
Fleet Foxes - White Winter Hymnal
Their songs sound like they could have been written and recorded at any point over the last 50 years. Which is a way of saying they just sound intrinsically American - a little Beach Boys, a little folk, a smidgen of blues, the Band...its another album where I had trouble picking just one song. But this moves me every time. I think its that rising cooed harmony vocal.
Shearwater - Rooks
Not many bands are obviously influenced by the late work of the mighty Talk Talk. Thats probably because what Talk Talk did was complex and demanding, and most bands simply don't have the chops. Shearwater do. "Rook", their latest record, recalls Talk Talk in its arrangements, in its mood, in its sombre seriousness. This song, however, seems a bit more like early Talk Talk in that its got a catchy pop song at its heart. A crystalline stroll of a guitar lick flows throughout, horns kick in, the lyrics flirt with apocalyptic imagery, theres a harmony chant over the otherwise instrumental middle eight - its an epic in three and a half minutes. Theres something transcendent about it, about them, about the album as a whole, too.
Sun Kil Moon - Moorestown
Ah, Mark Kozelek. You kill me every time. Perfection.
Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds - More News from Nowhere
The greatest lyricist of his generation and his painfully tight band made possibly their greatest album ever this year, the epic "Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!", which revealed them as masters of just about every tone and mood rock music is capable of. Its corners and crevices mean that I hear something new on every listen. This mid-tempo stroll is decadent and loungey and red-eyed and hilarious and crucially, totally addictive.
Voluntary Butler Scheme - Trading Things In
"If you were broccoli I'd turn vegetarian for you." That lyric makes the song sound more twee and irritating than it is, so maybe I shouldn't have begun with it. But it has that sort of low-key, shy charm, with its casio keyboard twinkle running under an almost glam rock stomp and some relaxed guitar. He's a one-man band, literally, and this is a minor pop miracle.
Jape - Phil Lynott
No chorus, really, just the rambling story of the song and that circular guitar figure dragging us along with it. The video is an acoustic version, and the album version is slightly less spartan and much much better.
Portishead - Machine Gun
If it sounds at all like anything else, it sounds a little like the Terminator soundtrack, that unstoppable thundering mechanical stomp driving it on. Beth Gibbons voice is dwarfed by it. She sounds hopeless, defeated. Its a grim song from a grim, if magnificent, album. An album that, in the earliest days of 2009, seems eerily prescient. I love the moment when the synth (80s!) cuts in, in its strangely uplifting and beautiful pomp.
The Raconteurs - The Switch & the Spur
I haven't really liked all that much, you know, Rock music this year. Which hurts. And means that this playlist is light on riffs and guitar wigouts, unfortunately. The Raconteurs second album has riffs and wigouts aplenty, but this number is a Western mini-epic, with mariachi horns (again, hurrah) and some old testament lyrics. More Brendan Benson than Jack Black, I think, but awesome either way.
Mogwai - The Sun Smells too Loud
Mogwai do subtle, with a hint of MBV. This is the "Auto Rock" equivalent from "The Hawk is Howling", circling endlessly before drifting away.
Daemien Frost - Slut Style
Daemian Frost are a defunct dublin Post rock band who only (barely) released 2 records in their lifetime before bowing out with a virtual anthology, "Spirito Di Daemo", this year. They rocked. This has a manic energy and swagger most bands of their ilk never manage.
Elbow - One Day Like This
Stunningly obvious, I know. The opening string melody is sort of ubiquitous, now. But still majestic. Elbow have shed some of the musical complexity that made their first two records so interesting and in the process become infinitely more soulful and emotive. They never would have been capable of a song this moving and beautiful a few years ago. Now they're a little bit the thinking man's Snow Patrol, and thats a good place to be when it means Guy Garvey can get away with a refrain like "Coz holy cow I love you, lass" without it seeming mawkish or affected. The way it segues into the singalong climax is incredibly predictable and predictably incredible. The link above is to the live Glastonbury version, because watching it gave me goosebumps.