NICEST OF THE NOUGHTIES III
Jay-Z, The Blueprint (2001)
Safe to say this is the most power-poppin', hooky, and conspicuously BIG-sounding record this side of The College Dropout or Funeral. It's faultless, which is not quite to say it's perfect (The Doors can't get me interested in his spat with Nas, and his schtick is indulgent by definition). But Kanye West, Timbaland, David Ruffin, Bobby Blue Bland and the Jacksons are all his equals and together they don't let up over 64 minutes.
Joker, "Digidesign" (2009)
Those who think dubstep hovers too much in the gloaming, sepia-tinged half-light may reconsider upon hearing this for the first time. Joker's multi-coloured music is dazzling - it unguardedly promises something brighter, and this utopianism comes from the fact that it doesn't sound like anything that's gone before. The promised land that Joker shows us may seem out of reach, like the seemingly impossible higher levels of a computer game we've only just begun playing (fellow Bristolian DJ Pinch describes Joker's sound as "somewhere between Roll Deep's productions, Low Deep, the Neptunes, and Super Mario Cart"), but the surreal, serene things we see and hear there make the journey all the more seductive.
Joni Mitchell, Both Sides Now (2000)
Strange concept: waspish, self-important former genius stops re-writing Yeats and hectoring about loose morals for a minute and decides instead to go back to her singer-songwriter roots and do a Blood on the Tracks, a song-cycle about a doomed relationship. Only, 30 years on she can hardly sing anymore and would prefer not to write any more songs. So she recycles two of her own, dusts down ten golden oldies, and revs them all up with orchestras and big bands. And waddya know, you can't tell Joni's from Billie's or Etta's or Ella's - "When love congeals, it soon reveals the faint aroma of performing seals" ; "You're in my blood like holy wine, you taste so bitter and so sweet, oh I could drink a case of you." See what I mean?
Kanye West, The College Dropout (2004)
Sounds oddly prophetic now, Kanye as overachieving underachiever, neurotic, backing himself up all the way, getting drunk and goofing around and telling us that Dubya don't care about black people, and that Taylor Swift shouldn't've won Best Video LIKE IT'S HIS PLACE TO TELL US THESE THINGS (least, that's the inference I'm picking up here...). Highlights: "Jesus walks," "Through the wire," "Slow jamz," and the 12-minute closer "Last call," which tells the story of Kanye's rise to the top via this neat metaphor: "My money was thinner than Sean Paul's goatee hair / Now Jean Paul Gaultier cologne fill the air".
Kate Bush, Aerial (2005)
Split into two distinct discs (“Sea of Honey” and “Sky of Honey”), Aerial is a deeply Romantic elegy to the claustrophobia of the British interior and the expansive panorama of the British landscape. The songs on the first disc have no immediate theme linking them – one is about Elvis and Orson Welles, another about a gentle man who finds solace in the irrationality of pi, a third a woman’s distressed recollection of a disturbance in her home.
But even if “Sea of Honey” does not operate as a cycle, we are certainly confined to an anxious, phobic world of the home, the place which tricks and traps us into seeing the outside world as a dangerous, delimited place. It is, in the words of the prologue to an MR James ghost story, “a story of solitude and terror ... and shows how a man’s reason can be overthrown when he fails to acknowledge those forces inside himself which he simply cannot understand.”
“Sky of Honey” immediately opens the door to reveal the iridescence of outside. It begins with washes of synthesized strings, the cooing of winter nesting birds, the chatter of birdsong, and the voice of Bush’s son Bertie, who incarnates the sweeping, creative, illuminating power of the Sun.
As he rises, breathes life into the earth, causes blues and reds and yellows to course into one other, and sets into the sea, you realise that this is the sound of a mother who has found a divine communion with her son. She is bewitched and romanced by him, in awe of the hectic, shimmering thing she has created, and at the inadvertence of it all (“That bit there, it was an accident, But he's so pleased, It's the best mistake he could make, And it's my favourite piece, It's just great”).
This is British progressive rock music, reminiscent of Pink Floyd and Harvest Records (it even features Gary Brooker and Lol Creme), with its roots in the pre-Enlightenment folk tradition of untamed nature and birdsong. But as Mark Fisher wrote in his review of Aerial in 2005, it is also Deleuzian rock – it bears out Deleuze and Guattari’s assertion in A Thousand Plateaus that birds create song by taking the rhythms and sounds of everyday activity (eating, sleeping, mating) and lacing them together into something purely aesthetic. In From the Canyons to the Stars, Olivier Messaien made music out of the flight of birds, the formations of canyons and the pulses of the heavens. Kate Bush does something similar, taking the rays of the afternoon sun, the somewhere-in-between of twilight and the infinity of the sea at night out of the cosmos and into the studio.
Aerial’s timelessness (a horribly overused word, but appropriate here) comes from its disavowal of any effort to order the cosmos. Soft piano chords bubble into washes of radiant, shimmering keyboards, over drum-rolls which spill and crash like waves on a beach. “Sky of Honey” is the most sublime music produced this decade; as a critic once wrote of Vaughan Williams’ “A Lark Ascending,” “it dreams itself along”.
Kleerup + Robyn, "With every heartbeat" (2007)
In 2007, three brilliant, sumptuously romantic pop songs in a row got to number 1 in the singles charts. This was the last of the three, a comeback for a musician who had last troubled the UK top 10 in 1997. Avoiding the sub-zero ironies of some Scandinavian electropop and dispensing with anything as hackneyed as a chorus, "With every heartbeat" generates tension via its slow build-up from wafting synths and cooed vocals to a middle-8 of full-blown strings and staccatoid vocals. The video is a triumph too: a tribute to Oskar Fischinger's Komposition in Blau, it pans out halfway through to reveal Robyn as a plaything of an obsessive puppeteer who crushes her under a building made of coloured bricks.
kode9 + Spaceape, "Backward" (2006)
A righteous skank through the Romance melody from Prokofiev's "Lieutenant Kije" - or is that just me?? Over an open cymbal and a marching bassline, the prophet Spaceape peels back layers of deceit and wickedness to reveal an incorruptible message: "The truth lies somewhere between a lie and a fiction."
Lady Sovereign, "Ch-ching (Cheque 1 2)" (2004)
I feared this would be as good as she'd get - it's got one-hit wonder stamped all over it. An instrumental as stark and Arctic as anything dreamt up by Wiley, but what's she singing over the top? "My dad had slept on an old mattress, good job I don't smell like cat's piss, cuz I don't have a cat, it died, understandably I just cried." I mean, how do you top that? The answer, in her case, was Jigsaw, an inconclusive sophomore whose tales of class warfare in the student union bar and foreplay with quarter-pounders with cheese bewilder the listener as to where she'll go next.
Lil Mama, "Lip gloss" (2007)
A bass drum that sounds like the side of an articulated lorry being beaten; some handclaps; a double-tracked playground rap ... and that's it - barely a song at all. "Lip gloss" makes Cabaret Voltaire sounds maximalist and Kelis sound just tame; it recalls the days of Roxanne Shante and MC Lyte, except that where the latter was hardcore-yet-tender, "Lip gloss" is pop-but-alienated. Lil Mama has no use for any ruffnecks - how could they possibly compare to the cherry and vanilla of Mac and L'Oreal? Or maybe - and this is just a hunch - the song isn't about lip gloss at all...
M.I.A., Kala (2008)
Allmusic.com is rarely terribly enlightening but, hitting a brick wall in trying to describe this exhausting record, I looked up MIA, and there on AMG I found the perfect comparison: MIA is the 21st century Lizzy Mercier Descloux! And then I listened again to Kala and realised how superficial the comparison is. Whereas Descloux was part of the Fourth World movement, Kala is defiantly One World, where the usually ignored take centre stage - it's like the soundtrack to Mike Davis's Planet of Slums. Sampling punk, Tamil, Bollywood, New Wave, hip-hop, and incorporating dancehall, Aboriginal rap, grime and Afrobeat, it risks fetishising the world - and maybe it is all a bit much (there is so much to listen here - so many stories, themes, beats, scrapes, rattles, guns, cash registers). But it's impossible to be cynical about this record - it sounds like it was recorded in the middle of the Great Victoria Desert, in the wardrobes of steamy hotel rooms, in the streets of Port of Spain - and some of it was. Whatever your misgivings, it's compulsive listening, and whatever you think you know about music will get turned upside down.