Damn Your Black Heart, Barbra Streisand
If you're going to blame anyone, blame Louis. One-time work colleague, long-time drinking buddy and occasional contributor to the letters page, Lou started it all during a pub argument about five years ago when he claimed there was no decent pop music out there any more.
Bearing in mind that this was 1993, he may well have had a point: nevertheless, I insisted that the good stuff was still being made, it just took a little more effort to track down than it used to.
"Prove it," he said.
That's a dangerous challenge to issue to a compulsive compilator like myself, who's been inflicting compilation tapes of his own musical tastes upon friends for the best part of 20 years now. From the Manchester South series I did for Smudge the Cat (so called because the first one was packaged inside a hollowed-out Manchester South telephone directory), to the party tape which brought Alastair's going-away-to-Singapore party to a spectacular finale, there's nothing I like more than cobbling together unlikely sequences of music just to see how people react.
So in 1993, Lou's Christmas card was accompanied by a C90 tape entitled Younger Than The Stones, a compilation of my favourite tunes of the year. It was a little unbalanced by the thirty minute excerpt from the Gavin Bryars/Tom Waits collaboration Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet (Lou's a big Waits fan), but on the whole I think the compilation worked, and he seemed to enjoy it.
Every year since then, Lou's been getting a C90 tape at Christmas time featuring my favourite songs of the preceding twelve months. But not for Christmas 1998. This time it was a 74 minute CD. I bought a CD-R drive for the PC a few months ago to help with large backups, and the facility to cut your own audio CDs with it turned out to be a very useful bonus indeed. (DVDs? Piss on 'em. Come back in a few years as soon as more than ten people are using them, and we'll talk then.)
The compilation's called Damn Your Black Heart, Barbra Streisand this year, for reasons I'll explain later on. It's a few seconds under the maximum length of 74 minutes, it's 14 tracks long, and if you feel like making a copy for yourself, here's what's on it and why.
1. PULP - The Fear (from This Is Hardcore, Island CID 0866)
I'm afraid that I'm going to have to follow the standard press line on Pulp's progress in 1998. To whit: This Is Hardcore and its associated singles haven't done nearly as well as the material from Different Class did three years ago, and this is because people are STUPID and don't recognise a great album when they hear it. Hardcore's a much darker record, certainly: just a listen to the paranoia running through the opening track The Fear should get that across. But Pulp's way with tunes and Jarvis' ear for a sharp line still shine through, and I suspect history will prove them right in a few years time.
2. CRAIG ARMSTRONG - This Love (from The Space Between Us, Virgin/Melankolic CDSAD3)
See these balls? See that line? Watch me put one on the other. Most of these Best Of 1998 lists include Massive Attack's Mezzanine quite high up there, but this one won't. You see, Massive's former orchestral collaborator Craig Armstrong released his own record in 1998, and it's better. There, I've said it. Actually, the main reason I bought this was of because of Armstrong's splendid work on the soundtrack of Romeo & Juliet. Turns out he's worked on a lot of other familiar stuff as well, having done orchestral arrangements for Madonna, Suede and the Blue Nile: Paul Buchanan from the latter returns the favour on this album by singing on a gorgeous version of the Nile's own Let's Go Out Tonight. The high spot of The Space Between Us - This Love - involves a glorious lead vocal from Liz Fraser of the Cocteau Twins: coincidentally, the same can be said of Mezzanine's standout track Teardrop, but This Love comes closer to recreating the spiralling delirium of the Cocteaus' finest hours.
3. CORNERSHOP - Brimful Of Asha (Norman Cook Remix Extended Version) (single, Wiiija WIJ 81CD)
Well, at least I know you've heard this one already. Although to be honest, it's more of a triumph for Norman Cook than for Cornershop. The Artist Occasionally Known As Fatboy Slim took a reasonably pleasant song, speeded it up a bit, added all sorts of gubbins on top and turned it into a raucous dance track that'll be haunting office parties for the rest of its natural life. As an added bonus, for those of us who aren't familiar with the Indian playback singers who are the subject of the song, the lyrics are well nigh incomprehensible: a key requirement for the very best pop music. If you're anything like my young nephews, you can sing any old nonsense you like over the top of it, as long as you yell "FORTY-FIVE!" at the end of each line. And it still works.
4. REM - At My Most Beautiful (from Up, Warner Bros 9362-47112-2)
See comments for Pulp, basically: except REM have suffered from Not As Good As Out Of Time Syndrome for several years now. With the exception of the rockist monster that was, er, Monster, all their albums since then have shone with varying degrees of brilliance, only to be ignored by ever-increasing numbers of people. I'm still finding my way around Up, but At My Most Beautiful is one of those slabs of pure gorgeousness that grabs you from the very first listen. I suspect my favourite song from this record will have changed in a few months time, but this is what it is now.
5. STARDUST - Music Sounds Better With You (Radio Edit) (single, Virgin DINSD 175)
The single of the summer. There was no getting away from it: even completely avoiding contact with dancefloors couldn't save you. I have fond memories of bashing out one of Spank's Edinburgh Diaries in the Web 13 cybercafe while this was blasting away in the background. It's such a simple dance record, it's difficult to put your finger on what makes it so compulsive. My own theory is that it has something to do with a magnificently crappy engineering job that makes every element of the mix sound distorted, so that even at minimum volume it sounds like it's got enough energy to blow your speakers out.
6. THE DIVINE COMEDY - Eric The Gardener (from Fin De Siècle, Setanta SETCDL057)
I've talked at length elsewhere (here, in fact) about why Fin De Siècle is probably the best album of the year, so I won't repeat myself other than to emphasise: this is the best song ever written about the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. And you can dance to it (if you have two and a half feet).
7. VIC REEVES - Don't Put Your Daughter On The Stage Mrs Worthington (from Twentieth Century Blues: The Songs Of Noel Coward, EMI 7243 49463127)
It's always been a tradition of these compilations to throw in a song that's totally unexpected, and until I get up the nerve to include a Sacha Distel track or something like that, a cover version of a Noel Coward original will have to be as unexpected as it gets. Although thanks to Twentieth Century Blues, I was actually spoilt for choice as to which of the Master's classics to include here. An all-star benefit album in aid of Aids research, this record does for Coward what Red Hot And Blue did for Cole Porter, letting contemporary artists loose on his old songs with surprising results. But none so surprising as Vic Reeves' interpretation here. Realising he can't hope to replicate Coward's own high-speed clipped delivery of the song, Vic chucks away the tune, adds a slow orchestral backing (arranged by David Arnold), and does it as a rap. And he gets Roddy Frame to throw in a screaming guitar solo over the climax. And he pulls it off. Uvavu!
8. PROPELLERHEADS - Bang On! (from Decksandrumsandrockandroll, Wall Of Sound WALL CD015)
The Propellerheads' magnificent version of On Her Majesty's Secret Service was one of the highlights of 1997, and the album that followed was crammed with all manner of similar Big Beat delights: and yet for all the clever programming and scratching, the most frenetically danceable song on the whole record involves nothing more technologically complex than electric guitars and real drums being thrashed to within an inch of their lives. There's always been a rock element to their dance music, as the cliche nearly went all those years ago.
9. GARBAGE - The Trick Is To Keep Breathing (from Version 2.0, Mushroom MUSH29CD)
A little like the REM album, this is the track that grabbed me from Version 2.0 on first hearing, and Garbage's failure to release it as a single has been a source of exasperation for some time. Except that whenever they release another single, I hear it a few times and actually realise that songs like I Think I'm Paranoid and Special are just as good. Nevertheless, I still have a soft spot for this song, partly because it doesn't quite fit the quiet verse NOISY CHORUS quiet verse template of most Garbage songs, and partly because unlike the other singles, no part of it has been stolen from any other record made by anyone else. Except Kate Bush's Cloudbusting, at a pinch.
10. THE MIGHTY MIGHTY BOSSTONES - The Impression That I Get (single, Big Rig/Mercury 574 843-2)
Those of you with cable and satellite telly may be aware of The Box, the video jukebox channel that invites you to phone in and pick videos from a list of about 500 that scrolls across the screen continuously. "Music Television You Control" is the slogan, although "Music Television Record Company Employees With An Unlimited Telephone Budget Control" is probably closer to the mark. Anyway, thanks to someone at Mercury Records with a big phonecard, I saw the video for this several times during the weekend before its release and fell in love with it. I've never been convinced by the idea that No Doubt are at the forefront of some sort of American ska revival, but these guys seem to have sussed out how the music works perfectly, combining it with a US rock sound to come up with a classic three-and-a-bit minute single.
11. ROBBIE WILLIAMS - No Regrets (from I've Been Expecting You, Chrysalis 7243 4 97837 2 0)
Interesting to note that according to the papers, we're not allowed to like Robbie Williams any more. This is along the lines of the argument as to why we're not allowed to like Lock Stock And Two Smoking Barrels any more either: because they've both become very very popular without too much help from the press. Leaving that aside with a casual thought as to why members of the print media don't choose to work in a profession with more moral integrity (such as sucking off tramps in back alleys for money), it has to be said that part of the key to Robbie's success is that he knows the right people to hang out with. Case in point is his main songwriting collaborator on I've Been Expecting You, former World Party alumnus Guy Chambers. Hence the extremely classy pop songs with which this album bulges, No Regrets being the most bulgeworthy of the lot. Neil Hannon and Neil Tennant's backing vocals don't hurt either, and the bouncy sadness of the song recalls the Pet Shop Boys at their best, symbolised in the video by the marvellous image of Robbie glumly miming in the middle of a troupe of dancing girls.
12. DUBSTAR & SACHA DISTEL - Poupee De Cire Poupee De Son (from A Song For Eurotrash, EMI 7243 4 95062 2 0)
Ignore what I said about Noel Coward! Actually, Sacha Distel seems to be a good sport, judging from his appearance on Fantasy World Cup where he broke off halfway through a demonstration of his jazz guitar skills to launch into a rendition of Three Lions. So when the people from Eurotrash came round to ask him if he'd sing on their album of Eurovision cover versions, it's not surprising he was up for it. Dubstar do just what you'd expect to the song, with the usual combination of sweet female vocals and thrashing electronics, and Distel inserts the odd backing vocal to perfection.
13. NOEL GALLAGHER - Teotihuacan (from The X-Files: The Album, Elektra 7559-62266-2)
Yes, I admit it, I'm one of those people who sits around in cinemas watching all the end credits and not leaving until the curtains finally close. Two bits of end title music made that all worth while in 1998. Totó la Momposina's hypnotic Mohana was the perfect ending to the extraordinary experience that was John Sayles' Men With Guns. And Noel Gallagher's Teotihuacan rounded off the X-Files movie very effectively with an uncharacteristically trip-hoppy blend of one-finger piano and distorted beatbox. If he can bring this level of invention to the next Oasis album, it could be something special indeed.
14. VITRO & SOUTH PARK CAST - Mentally Dull (Think Tank Remix) (from Chef Aid: The South Park Album, American Recordings 491700 2)
As we ended 1998 up to our ankles in squidgy Cartmans, Velcro Kennys and Chocolate Salty Balls, it's sobering to think that just twelve months ago South Park was only known about in the UK by a handful of sad Internet anoraks. (Guilty as charged, Your Honour.) Aside from all the Real Video episodes and sound clips, one thing that kept popping up on South Park web sites was the idea of the South Park Remix: a piece of instrumental music with a handful of random dialogue samples thrown over the top by a fan with access to sound mixing equipment. (The best of the bunch, Block Cartman Beats, combined Eric Cartman's best lines with a Chemical Brothers backing.) Now that South Park's big enough to have its own spin-off album, this is obviously Parker and Stone's attempt to commission an official version of the South Park Remix, and Vitro accomplish the task splendidly. Two points: firstly, if you're trying to make your own copy of this compilation on a recordable CD, you'll have to cut this track at the 3:45 mark to make it fit, thus sadly losing the surprise appearance of Kyle's Mom Is A Stupid Bitch In D Minor. Secondly, if you listen to this song all the way through, you'll understand why the compilation has that title.
So that's my choice of the best music of 1998. All I need to do is get a copy of it to Louis, who's gone very quiet since before Christmas and hasn't been seen for a while at the time of writing. But there's no way I'm going to let him escape hearing this lot. Being a monkey, and all.
Pulp, Craig Armstrong, Cornershop, REM, Daft Punk (who pretended to be Stardust this summer), The Divine Comedy, Propellerheads, Garbage, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Robbie Williams, Oasis (for Noel Gallagher) and Chef Aid all have official sites you can check out.
Vic Reeves and Dubstar don't, but you may find these unofficial sites worth a look.
Hewlett Packard make damn fine CD-Writers, but you mustn't take that as an invitation to make illegal copies of the above songs using them. And don't go getting any ideas about using a CD ripper program to make the job easier, either.
January 11th 1999