#6 Derek Bailey, To Play
It's now been a little over a year and I still can't get used to the idea that Derek Bailey is dead: and this being one of the most vital releases of the last year doesn't help much in reinforcing the finality of his passing. To be honest (and I appreciate this is close to blasphemy) there are other improvising guitarists I find give me, on the whole, more listening pleasure: Roger Smith, for example, or the underhailed John Bisset. But compared to those guys, and indeed to most musicians on the planet, Bailey was, and in a sense remains, incredibly prolific -- and his recorded output is remarkably consistent in quality given the diversity of the man's collaborations and the restlessness of his inquiry. I first heard Bailey as a teenager (me, not him) on the extraordinary Company record Epiphany and initially found it hard to get along with him; in fact it wasn't until his Tzadik album with The Ruins, and not long after that the Guitar, Drums and Bass collaboration with DJ Ninj, that I really started to pay close attention -- or as close as one could get in trying to keep up. I still find some of his earlier recordings difficult to warm to (and a particularly sort of seething regret at the crappy sound quality of Music and Dance, the record of one of his improvising encounters with the great Min Tanaka); but a great deal of his late work has been of real importance to me: not least the remarkable Limescale disc, and the widely acclaimed Ballads set a little while back. This, at any rate, is the last new album we shall have from Bailey, though I dare say other older bits and bobs will continue to surface for a while yet; To Play is a collection of the recordings he put down for David Sylvian's use on the latter's excellent (if mildly disorienting) Blemish. Much has been said about how poignant these last recordings are, but if I find them so it's only with particular regard to Bailey's occasional spoken interjections at the ends of tracks ("I'll carry on a bit, OK?"). The music itself is so involved and involving, and so frequently counterintuitive (even after all this time!), that I find it very odd to imagine listening through or past the music to the man himself: and this despite the excellent quality of Sylvian's recording, which mics Bailey acutely enough that a real sense of his own physicality is educed. One surprise for me is that I like the electric playing at the end of the album even more than the acoustic stuff earlier on -- normally with solo Bailey it's, for me, the other way about. But of course it's all surprises. To my very great regret I never heard him live -- there were a couple of conversations about getting him in to CPT while I was there, but by that time he was mostly in Barcelona and it wasn't possible. The immediacy of this recording, however, means that, more than ever with Bailey, there's no shortage of liveness here. This is, I think, one of the best of the recordings I know (I've probably heard less than five per cent of his records); it's every bit as likeable, as difficult, as unique as he evidently was. The limitlessly irritating but sporadically necessary Ben Watson hit the nail on the head when he wrote: "Capitalism embalms successful artists in cliches which betray their real intent. Bailey never allowed that to happen. For this alone, his work is worth exploring."
#7 Lil' Chris, Lil' Chris
Let me just deposit this nano-cavil first: I'm really not sure about the placing of that apostrophe. It seems to be after the model of Lil' Kim; but I would tend to favour the preferred rendering of such luminaries as Li'l Abner and the tantalising but ultimately tedious Li'l Broccoli, on the basis that it's obviously correct. Never mind: Lil' Chris will turn seventeen this summer and presumably won't want to hang on to the diminutive appellation much longer -- though perhaps it refers as much to his short stature (he's barely over five foot) as his tender years. At any rate, I don't suppose it's occurred to anybody involved, with the possible exception of the anklebiter himself, that Lil' Chris will have a long enough ride in the charts to have to worry too much about what happens when he grows out of his current brand. And, talented though he is, perhaps they're right. His pop longevity doesn't matter. This, right now, is a glorious album, better by far than anything ever committed to vinyl by, let's see, Mike & the Mechanics, or King Crimson, or even (let's push the boat out) Beyonce. If you don't know the story -- and I didn't -- Lil' Chris was the communally affirmed stand-out presence on last year's series of Rock School: which means he has been tutored in stagecraft and advanced rockingness by Gene Simmons, co-creator of the greatest rock song ever, Kiss's transcendentally futile "Crazy Crazy Nights". (This is not perhaps what they had in mind when the YTS was devised but, hey, times change.) So far so X Factor: but three things conspire to lift this record out of the bottomlessly cynical reality show murk in which it was conceived. First, Chris clearly does have the moves and the chutzpah -- not being a Rock School viewer, the first I knew about him was this Guardian review of a live set at the Barfly, which made him sound like a cross between Johnny Rotten and Mickey Rooney: and that seems to be about right. Secondly, he's been cleverly teamed up with the genius songwriter and producer Ray Hedges (who, among many other things, was one of the creative team behind the late and largely forgotten B*witched, the best-produced girl-band since The Ronettes). Thirdly, they've made Chris's obvious ambition and receptivity the signature of his adolescent rock 'n' roll persona: oh, Lord, the sheer terrifying appetite of this record, the out-and-out hunger for sex and excitement and recognition that blares out of pretty much every track. (With the exception of "I Never Noticed", which just sounds, improbably, like a lost Yazoo song.) The smart thing about this is that rock postures may be learned, or faked, but the hunger behind them belongs freshly and, in their own mind, almost uniquely to every teenager. So you believe Chris in the same way you believe Feargal Sharkey on "Teenage Kicks", even though we've learned to believe that that record is the authentic voice of adolescent lust while reality-show upstarts like Chris are supposedly effigies mechanically peddling lame and ersatz simulacra. The web discussion boards are full of people (presumably mostly jealous 16 year old boys) criticizing this album because, for example, "Gettin' Enough" sounds exactly like the Buzzcocks' "Ever Fallen In Love", or because Chris can turn on that new wave vibrato you associate with the Slits or will drop in a Lene Lovich yelp every so often: in other words, it all sounds copycat. Well, yes, of course it does. What makes Chris awesome is his reckless determination to live out his bedroom mirror / hairbrush-microphone phase for real, on stage, in boundless dedication to the "ladies and all the pretty boys" he shouts out to. I think he means business every bit as much as the Arctic Monkeys do, probably more; he wants it more, he deserves it more. I'm getting a bit emotional. But this is, I think, the only album to come out this year that's made me take the long route home for fear of arriving at my door before it's finished playing on my iPod. Li'l Chris puts a bubblegum punk spin on O.J. Berman's assessment of Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany's: he's a phony, but a real phony -- and no other album this year has captured more of my heart. ...OK, I'm ready for my restraining order, Mr de Mille.
#8 Tape, Rideau
(Another Top 10 disc from Hapna.) Now there's a moral to this story. I absolutely loved Tape's first two studio albums, Opera and Milieu, and I'd been looking forward to Rideau for ages -- I'm not sure if it was delayed or if it was officially out but just hadn't actually showed up anywhere, or what, but there seemed to be an odd hiatus before the new album became available for download. (Not my preferred method in this case, as Tape have always designed beautiful sleeves for their CDs: in fact, I gave Liam both those previous covers as reference points when we were designing the sketchbook aesthetic for the projections in my show Nine Days Crazy; we then used quite a bit of their music in the piece too.) But by the time I actually came to download Rideau, my impatience had become somewhat thickened with urgency, as I was working on a video piece at the time and couldn't find quite the right thing to soundtrack it. Surely the new Tape album would have the perfect track on it, just in time to save the day? Well, no, as it turned out. Rideau was therefore filed under 'disappointing' and though I listened to it a couple more times I never quite rehabilitated it in my mind. And then last month when I was starting to shortlist albums for this process, Tape were obviously worthy of consideration, and I listened some more. So I think in the first draft of this 50, Rideau was somewhere in the mid-30s: but more than any other album, it's gone up and up in my estimation, and now it's here in the top 10. Another couple of weeks, who knows, it might have crawled its way to the very top, like "You Spin Me Round (Like A Record)" did back in the day. Oddly, I found Rideau less immediately attractive than its predecessors -- this is odd only because all the reviews said the opposite, that this was a more appealing and easygoing record with more upfront production: and that was obviously what Tape were aiming for. Then again, the tracks on Rideau are longer than on the previous albums -- three of the five are in excess of ten minutes -- and I think sometimes my impatience, and the backlog of unlistened goodies always piled up in my mind, means I don't give long-form works the benefit of the extended attention they require. (I'm sure this probably has something to do with my present evaluation of Ys, for example.) Well, I dunno, I liked the minatures of Opera and Milieu and the sense of partial and contingent and incomplete structures and of sketchiness and compactness. But the broader character of Rideau, combined with a clearer focus in the operations of each track, does admittedly work very much to their advantage. Though this is purely instrumental stuff, and there's a fair bit of electronics in the mix, the most obvious comparison is with late period Talk Talk, particularly with the organ that opens out the first track, "Sunrefrain". The percussive tones of "A Spire", meanwhile, seem to recall some bits of Tortoise or Rachel's: except I think that's a hurdy-gurdy back in the mix, which I think would be a bit too pastoral for either of those groups. It bothers me to think that schoolgirls will never scream at Tape and insist that they sign their breasts with a magic marker. Perhaps it bothers them too. But hey, they're Swedes, they're phlegmatic. And anyway, screaming would admittedly be an inappropriate response to music of this extraordinary quality. Though I have once or twice had to suppress a shriek on realizing that, actually, track 3, "Sand Dunes", would have worked a treat for that video.
#9 The Young Knives, Voices and Animals of Men
I'm of an age and disposition where I can't quite keep up with all these guitar bands with short names. It's helped somewhat to find out that The Knife, who are not The Young Knives, aren't a guitar band after all; I sort of know I'm not very bothered about The Vines, who are also not the Young Knives, but I have to try to remember not to confuse them with The Hives, who I think are great (and are of course Swedish, like The Knife) -- but are not a partial anagram of The Young Knives and therefore inadmissible to this vortex. Also the Young Knives are not the Young Gods but I'm not altogether sure the Young Gods are still the Young Gods. Actually, this is mostly fuss about nothing: I don't, on the whole, get mixed up about the Young Knives because the Young Knives are officially my favourite. And they've stayed my favourite even though Time Out really likes them too. To be honest, the reason I particularly like the Young Knives is that they remind me frequently of The Longpigs, the horribly underappreciated 90s guitar band who split after two stunning albums and left nothing else behind other than the curiously overappreciated Richard Hawley. Listen to the chorus of the Young Knives' "The Decision" (btw how did this brilliant single fail to make the top 40 not once but twice?) -- ah, it's one of those songs that's all choruses, really, but that bit about the horses in the New Forest, through to the bit that goes "It's easier, it's easier" -- and tell me you can't hear Crispin Hunt. (Whose name I fear will now become synonymous with the phrase Diddly Squat, thus: "Can't you hear it?" "What?" "That, there, listen, there it was again." "Sorry, mate, I've got a cold, I can't hear Crispin Hunt at the moment.") Except -- and perhaps this is why they never made it big -- the Longpigs would never have had a bit in their songs that went "Bah baah, bah bah baah-dah bah": or if they did, they'd at least have set it to a decent melody rather than exclaiming it languidly as if it were a comment on a next-door neighbour's new sportscar. What I mean is, The Young Knives have clearly, I have no supporting evidnece for this but, they've clearly listened to a bit of Sparks. Which is another gold star for them. I like how they understand that the more preposterous something is, the more urgent the delivery has to be. Consider, for example, the baffling sitcom narrative of "She's Attracted To", or the uncanny strains of "Tailors", which makes Tiny Tim sound like Iggy Pop -- but you can't argue with it because they will clearly brook no discouragement that will make them once relent their first avowed intent. (Whereas I sometimes think a stern look or a single scolding word would rid us of Franz Ferdinand forever.) They will either be huge or disappear abruptly; it is, I should think, very unlikely they will do what the once-promising Athlete did and turn into Snow Patrol at the mildest provocation. (Though the sublime "Another Hollow Line" plainly indicates they could if they wanted to.) Wildest huzzahs, the boys done good.
#10 Johann Johannsson, IBM 1401: A User's Manual
To place this disc in the top ten but to anticipate discussing it almost entirely in terms of its disappointments obviously tells a story of fantastically high expectations: and that would be a pretty fair description of my relationship with IBM 1401. The inspiration and set-up for this album are worth mentioning first. Johannsson's father was Iceland's chief maintenance engineer for the IBM 1401, an early (mid-60s) business computer, and, as a music enthusiast himself, managed to find a way of programming it so that it would produce elementary musical sounds; when the computer was subsequently decommissioned, it gave a farewell 'concert' which was recorded on tape: and these tapes, along with instructional cassettes supplied with the machine, form the raw material for the pieces collected here, becoming solo voices set against large orchestral backings. When I first got to hear about it, this seemed like an ideal project for Johannsson, who had already created a profoundly moving track, "Odi et Amo", for computer-synthesized voice and chamber ensemble, on his 2002 album Englaborn. (It's easier to track down, if you're interested, on the soundtrack CD to Screaming Masterpiece, the recent documentary on Icelandic music and musicians.) It also sounded pretty tasty to me, as I have a longstanding interest in synthetic voices and related processes, and also in the musical deployment of obsolete technologies. So it would be true to say that I had perhaps unrealistically high hopes for IBM 1401. The opening track sets everything up pretty characteristically: the computer plays a simple five-note phrase over and over again, while Johannsson builds increasingly thick orchestral textures around it. Perhaps a useful comparison would be with Gavin Bryars's Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet, in terms of the orchestral writing as well as the relation of these massed acoustic forces to a central looping element. (We might also mention John Adams's "Christian Zeal and Activity".) However, where Bryars's fairly sentimental orchestrations are offset by the ambiguities both of his central voice sample and the accumulating pressure of the very long duration of the work, Johannsson doesn't really manage to find a provocative edge anywhere. The string writing throughout the whole album is sub-Part (or occasionally Gorecki) and often porridgey, and forsakes the benefits of both restraint and overload. The track on the album that has drawn most praise and discussion is the closing "The Sun's Gone Dim and the Sky's Turned Black", in which the computer 'sings' a version of Dorothy Parker's still-raw "Two-Volume Novel", which in its entirety reads: "The sun's gone dim, and / The moon's turned black; / For I lived him, and / He didn't love back." The first half of this track, in which the orchestra gathers and swells around the looping song of the computer, is in many ways the best-judged passage on the album; but inexplicably, Johannsson chooses then to let the computer recede into silence while the orchestra alone brings the album to a close in an overblown manner that perhaps betrays the composer's sideline in heavy metal. I suppose this withdrawal of the voice is a dramatization of the decommissioning of the computer but in the absence of its focal point the orchestral writing just sounds like so much unwanted gateaux. It bugs me too that Johannsson needlessly changes the computer's lyric to "For I loved her and she didn't love back", which destroys the desolately beautiful rhyme 'dim'/'him'; you'd have thought we might now be ready to hear a 'male' synthesized voice singing disconsolately about unrequited love for another male, not least as it would have been possible to hear it as an elegy prompted by the betrayal of the computer by its engineer. So, yes, I do have regrets about IBM 1401 and I think the chamber settings of Englaborn are rather stronger. For all that, the emotional weight of this album is unmistakeable and cannot be dismissed. Very many people who hear it will be deeply moved by it -- and not quite know why. It has caught me like that once or twice, I must admit, despite all my reservations. Johannsson is a serious and impressive artist and I can well understand his wish to work with these forces and on this scale to realise a project that obviously has significant resonances for him. (A dance piece has now been created around this music which apparently compounds the effect -- and I can well believe it.) For me, he doesn't pull it off. But I'd still recommend very highly that anyone with a taste for the melancholic, and an ear or two accustomed to the likes of Sigur Ros or Gorecki no.3, seek this out and give it a half share in a rainy afternoon.