NICEST OF THE NOUGHTIES IV
Micachu, Jewellery (2009)
I don't hear a washboard, or a tea-chest bass, but I do hear a vacuum cleaner and plenty of bottles, which tells me that the long-awaited British skiffle revival has finally arrived! The Shapes play like a jugband doing a rock 'n' roll set on Rinse FM (the riff on "Calculator" is even pinched from "Tequila"). Those who say this is chaotic or unlistenable must live sheltered lives - there are riffs and melodies here which a particular adventurous postman might whistle, and though Jewellery's fourteen songs (some of which last less than two minutes, and most of which contains multiple songs-within-songs) always make you hang on for your life, they never seem in any danger of falling apart.
Mr Lif, I Phantom (2002)
It's so rare to find a hip-hop album that unpeels the spectacular layers of everyday life, and dispenses with the idea that the pugilistic accumulation of wealth is the only heroic mission left to man, that one is almost tempted to describe this album as a revolutionary critique. It's a concept album for sure, with liner notes telling you what each song means, and a storyline that starts with a heist and ends with a holocaust. But in fact, it's just a regular guy who's lost his place in a world of advertising images, the money system and alienated labour ("Ads are dads, sitcoms are moms, Dollars are our legs and arms, and our heart is a bomb. Detonate if you hesitate to slave or matriculate, You'd better participate, survivals your interest rate.") Or put that another way: the guy knows his place - it's at the bottom, right where he belongs, right where his parents belonged, right where his kids will belong ("Daddy had a name tag that said, 'Busy Working', Mommy had a milk carton that said, 'Missing Person'"). Is hip-hop his route of escape, or just another business where he must meet the prerequisite?
Neil Young, Fork in the Road (2009)
Arriving only weeks after the Federal Reserve saved the banks ("there's a bail-out coming but it's not for you"), this hastily banged out journey into a battery-powered future is rusty, clunky and glorious - his best since Ragged Glory, if not earlier. And if you've ever wondered what Lou Reed would sound like with Crazy Horse as his back-up band, listen to the title track and weep.
Rachel Stevens, "I will be there" (2005)
I haven't heard Come and Get It (which, remarkably, made the Guardian's 1000-albums-to-hear-before-you-die list a couple of years back), but by all accounts this shivery, shadowy, blankly-sung track (one of my very favourite pop songs of the decade) is typical. No matter - it bombed at number 28, and Stevens the pop star was never heard of again.
Ricardo Villalobos, "Dexter" (2003)
An undisputed genius of the decade, and virtually a one-man genre. See also his Fabric mix, and "Minimoonstar" with Shackleton.
Rihanna featuring Jay-Z, "Umbrella" (2007)
Her real breakthrough single, "Umbrella" is the flipside to 2006's "Unfaithful" - where the earlier ballad was an anxious but confidently expressed admission of her inability to commit to the man she was with (and her culpability in hurting him), "Umbrella" is an impassioned expression of mutual care and support set to an almost nu-metal background of pounding drums and grinding keyboards. The way she sings "Because" after the middle-eight is electrifying, an unbreakable declaration of fidelity that signalled the greatest single of the year, if not the decade.
Robert Wyatt, Cuckooland (2003)
We have all tried to subvert the pipe-and-slippers complacency of the pub ambience by Wyatting (the act of playing a song of sedition, hidden deep within the untapped bowels of the jukebox, such as Robert Wyatt's cover of the Red Flag) - so what would you pick here? Would those cheeky saxophones that riff at the end of "Old Europe," a vignette about Miles Davis and Juliette Greco in black and white Paris, get the punters moving? Might lovers' eyes well up at the sound of Jobim and Moraes's "Insensatez"? What about "Lullaby for Hamza" and "La Ahada Yalam," two horrifically muted cradlesongs to the dead in Iraq? Would they resurrect the "heroes of today ... making the headlines for a few seconds, only to vanish without a trace in the current of another day's events"? But no, I think I'd plump for "Life is Sheep," an ambient ballad featuring Karen Mantler (daughter of Carla Bley and Michael Mantler), and a companion piece to his 1982 piece "Pigs... (in there)": "If you live on a farm, instead of names, the animals all have numbers so you won't get too attached." Yes, that'll get the gastros sobbing over their lamb shanks...
Rufus Wainwright, "Poses;" "I don't know what it is" (2001; 2003)
Included only because (a) "IDKWII" is my favourite song to holler in the kitchen, and (b) after much practice in the early part of the decade, I learned that singing along to "Poses" requires more control of one's breathing than any other song I know of - and I mastered it. He's an pop-opera man-machine for sure, but there's nobody quite like him, and he's kinda loveable.
Sally Shapiro, "Moonlight dance" (2009)
This track, from My Guilty Pleasure, is nothing like as engaging as the best bits of Disco Romance, but it does take Shapiro and Johan Agebjorn's meticulous MO to its logical extreme. The composition is trite ("We go out tonight in the moonlight so bright" indeed!), the cocktail-style arrangement fastidious, and the singing almost squeamish (ev-er-y syll-a-ble is e-nun-ci-a-ted like a Lesson 1 Anglophone tape). But it reminds me of Scritti's Provision - it's cold and frothy, but something about its maladjusted execution makes you feel all the more human. Speaking of which...
Scritti Politti, White Bread Black Beer (2006)
Casual listeners to the autumnal guitars, 4/4 beats and seemingly confessional lyrics that adorn White Bread, Black Beer misconstrued it as representing an acquiescence to rockist authenticity. Old ears harked back to the honeyed harmonies of the Beatles and the Zombies, heard a new maturity from this most entryist of subversives, and welcomed Green into Club MOJO.
But (of course) WBBB perpetually questions the very notion of authenticity. Indeed, Green's lyrics are riven with questions and doubts of all kinds - the medium, with its painstaking arrangements (as Owen Hatherley said at the time, even the "hold my fucking hand" off "Cooking" is a premeditated attack) and Green's extraordinary, foregrounded voice, is utterly at odds with the indecision of its message. Please let the possible be still, he sings. There'll be something good about me soon. I can't find a stand to take. If you don't have the wherewithal, you don't need the why. I was waiting for the time it takes for someone to forget, I was standing on the corner of the road to no regret... By his own admission, "The Boom Boom Bap," the Run DMC-enthralled opener, is a song about the thin line "between being in love with something and being unhealthily addicted to it".
A wish for time to stop for a moment, to step into reverse, to allow him to rectify mistakes made in the past, is etched all over this record. Even the single reference to continental philosophy - Hegel's celebration of the Owl of Minerva - is instructive, for the owl perceives a situation most sharply precisely at the point that it has faded away. To say that this is Green's most personal, while probably true, is simplistic - but he does seem to have reached a more comfortable synthesis between the radicalism and deconstruction of the past and life as he lives it today.
Whatever - it came out four years ago, and it's still growing on me. I doubt there's a record I've played more all decade.