I know the end of the year is a good week and a half away, but I can't help myself. This weekend I've yet again been experiencing the unpleasant aspects of my psychology and its accompanying anxiety and discomfort, so I'm feeling the need to consciously reflect on what has also brought pleasure into my life in 2008. One of them, as always, has been music. I've had to limit myself to stuff that's actually been released this year, there have also been plenty of re-discoveries and catching up. So here are my top five favorite tracks, in alphabetic, and therefore no particular order in terms of rating.
DUFFY - Mercy
This is just a pure piece of addictive pop, finger snapping catchy. Sixties Motown styling, retro whilst remaining contemporary. Inheriting the legacy and space that Amy Winehouse has presently vacated, will hamper Duffy's future career if she's not careful. Amy is never anything other than herself - flaws and all. Duffy needs to somehow stamp out what her own territory is. This acoustic version of 'Mercy,' performed on the Culture Show shows more what she is fully capable of when she's not caught too perfectly in Amy's shadow. The album - Rockferry, was undoubtedly a bit of a let down after 'Mercy' got everyone hyper-ventilating. Most of it was average, soul tinged MOR, only occasionally rising out of vacuous. But then ,doing the big production number, has bedevilled more than one of this years best crop. Duffy has a big voice should always be out there, up front, belting it out - it shouldn't have to compete for your attention. Frequently on 'Rockferry' her voice is too buried or blended (or do I mean blanded?) in the mix, as if they were afraid her voice couldn't hold up a song if left alone. One only has to hear her on this version of 'Mercy,' and on 'Syrup & Honey' to glimpse her very real potential, a raw, honest voice,with its own integrity and strength, set sparsely against a simple guitar accompaniment. Keep it simple and all will be well.
ELBOW - Starlings
Yes, The Mercury Prize winners, and deservedly so, 'The Seldom Seen Kid' has so many gems it seems almost a sacrilege to just single one out. 'Starlings' is a stunning way to open any album. The burbling stream of electronic sound, the sudden unexpected blare of trumpets that startles, alerting you to the arrival of something glorious and angelic, but what is it? Its Guy Garvey's voice, with his characteristically confessional and lyrical tone, you're drawn into the fumbling descriptions of a man who is besotted -'find a man who needs you more than I' he sings. The songs intensity rises until the passion bursts through in a squall of sound, evoking a feeling of caged starlings being released, then silence, and he sings 'Darling, is this love' followed by the jarring blast of celestial trumpets. A magic moment.
PORTISHEAD - We Carry On.
The return in triumph of Portishead after a ten year hiatus, has been a real delight. They come back, harder, less trippy hip-hoppy, the songs are more folk tinged dances and laments surrounded by an unyielding bleak electronic underpinning. 'Dummy' their first album, ended up defining the musical sound scape for the mid-nineties. It became like an albatross around their neck, that was almost impossible for them to escape from. Whilst the second album cranked up the millennial angst, musically there was a sense of them self-consciously trying to compete with themselves, and retreading musical ground. With 'Third' they've finally laid that ghost and put a great cold concrete slab on top of it. This is a vital new music, brash, invigorating, challenging and almost pagan in its electro-driven relentlessness.
THE TING TINGS - That's Not My Name.
I've waxed lyrical about this track elsewhere, and I still think its THE stand out piece of a pop from 08, with a steadily building climax, that's timed to perfection. They'll never live it down now. They'd barely become No 1 before the backlash had begun against them. Again, the album tended to over embellish where it wasn't needed. Listen to them performing live on Jonathan Ross, and you can hear a much rawer,edgy, almost trashy aesthetic escape the constrictions of a tight studio production, one that effectively took the band off on an entirely different musical direction. There was another path this band could have taken, but global success got their before they'd had time to really decide.
VAMPIRE WEEKEND - A -Punk
At last a sparse and unfussy production style. But then these are almost the archetypal clean living uncomplicated ex-college kids from the US of A. The sense of a well defined musical aesthetic and fresh direction is what makes this track, and the entire album, a pure gem. It may be preppy, but its still a delight to the ear, brim full with musical wit, its 'new wave' propulsion stripped down to the barest of essentials, and cross bred with the spirited upbeat of world music. The result is so positive you'd have to be terminally depressed not to be uplifted by it. It's as if Paul Simon's Graceland album has fertilised with the entire oeuvre of Jonathan Richman - obviously losing his self-deprecating sense of humour, wryness and irony, that would be too knowing for VW. All they want to do is communicate their enthusiasm. So what you're left with is just clean,unadulterated fun, offending no one, but pleasing many, it brings a brimming joyful smile to your face. This is going to be a hard one for them to follow.