Monday, January 05, 2009

The best of 2008 (part five): LPs and mixtapes

The Alwyne, the Famous Cock, the Hen & Chickens, the Compton Arms, the Florence, the King's Head... yes, the votes have been counted from each constituency ward, and when you add them up they reveal a beezer year for albums. One of our top 50 appeared in both the Guardian and Observer lists of the year, too: scroll on if you want to find out whether it's Fleet Foxes or Bon Iver (or, just possibly, neither).

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1. Boyracer "Sunlight Is The Best Antiseptic" (555 Recordings)



"The last 5 years of my life / Have, honestly, been the best..."

"Yes, it seems that this fantastic, prolific, ever-exciting, lyrically sublime band has run its course. The record, "Sunlight Is The Best Antiseptic", is a suitably golden farewell. In contrast to pretty much all that has gone before, "Sunlight" has a mere dozen songs, making it maybe Boyracer's most succinct as well as most succulent record: and being a vinyl-only run of 100, surely even for them one of their rarest. Indeed, probably scarce enough that the novella-length review we want to give it would surely be redundant. So we'll try to restrict ourselves to a mere smattering of words.

"Sunlight" bounds into life with "The Heartbreaker", which ranks as one of their greatest songs, as spiky and catchy and scratchy as they've ever sounded. Hot on its heels come "Claire Likes Girls" and "80s Nottingham Grindcore Scene", two more powerpop bullets (and songs originally recorded and released on the mighty compilations "Your Cassette Pet" and "Honey, The Dog's Home" respectively). As you'd expect from the recent split 7"s on which Boyracer have appeared, the muse hasn't dried up one iota, even if there are plenty of themes which will be familiar: "North Yorkshire Coastline" a sweet evocation of the handful of things that Stewart Anderson still misses about the country of his birth, "Amateur Traumatics" - co-written by longtime Racer mainstay Ara Hacopian - blisteringly mixing bittersweet personal observation with untamed guitars. Arguably the only song that slightly jars - good as it is - is the versh of Urban Slake's "So Fucking Swedish" which ends the first side: for while spirited covers have increasingly been a crucial part of the Racer repertoire, their own songs on this release are so focussed, so plaintive, so radioactive with fuzzy emotion, that any deviation can't help but disrupt the atmos a little.

We've already said most of the things we wanted to say about Boyracer, which will kind of explain why we'll miss them so, but it's hard to believe they could have gone out any better than this. And the closing song "The Last Word" is at once, as Mr A's alter-ego Steward once had it, a kind of "goodbye to everything you love" and a letter to his loyal band of listeners. Building on the barenaked honesty of the last album's dewy-eyed "In My Previous Life", it's one of the most elegant, eloquent songs he has ever written. The perfect full stop."


Apparently one of the 100 copies of this has already been up for sale on E-bay, which is a travesty. Let's get one thing crystal clear, right now: our copy of "Sunlight" is #33, and we will not be parting with it. Ever. If you ever see it on E-bay, you have full permission to take us down.

should have been singles: The Heartbreaker, Amateur Traumatics, The Last Word

2. P Brothers "The Gas" (Heavy Bronx)



"Drug dealing, some say I should talk to a reverend / I tell them you should talk to my landlord 'bout my rent, then"

"If the Notts duo ring a bell with you, it's probably thanks either to their "Live Hardcore Worldwide" CDs (one of which, of course, featured an intro from Peel himself), their sterling work on Cappo's increasingly seminal "Spaz The World" LP... and for some of their block-destroying 12"s since, which they'd started to use as vehicles for introducing us to top Stateside MCs (yes, they exist) like DITC affiliate Milano, Queensbridge's Imam T.H.U.G., and Bronx old-stager Smiley da Ghetto Child (y'know, him that did "Wordz From..." with the great Gang Starr)... if anything, the standard of the whole album is even higher than that 12" promised, as if they've demanded only songs that would justify single release in their own right.

The four Boss Money tracks are outstanding - "Cold World" and "Blam Blam for Nottingham" especially maxing on a lowdown rustle of beats and supersparse, laidback rhyming - but there are also contributions from Milano (including the satisfyingly old-skool "In A Zone", erstwhile single "Got It On Me" and the faintly Numanesque "Digital B-Boy"), Long Island's highly rated Roc Marciano (a past Busta Rhymes collaborator, we think), and a lone, rather laconic cut from $amhill (of BDP's own South Bronx), which all seam into a coherent whole. Coherent because the P Brothers still insist at all times on (a) the beats being rough, ready and hewn purely from granite; (b) the samples being tried and tested old soul gold; and (c) plenty of space in their productions to allow the MCs to relax and get on with expounding their largely bleakish, street-corner visions, unhindered by climactic choruses or distracting musical gimmickry. "The Gas" does for the New York now what "Live Hardcore Worldwide" did for early-century Notts, and as you'll have guessed, that makes it just what we've been looking for."


There seems to be some debate in cyberspace as to whether Smiley's Heavy Bronx 12", "Scriptures", is on "The Gas" or not. It's certainly not on our version!

should have been singles: Cold World, In A Zone, Blam Blam for Nottingham (actually, that might have been one, a couple of years ago), Got It On Me (and yeah, that was one too...)

3. Extreme Noise Terror "Law Of Retaliation" (Osmose)



"If you're one of the unloved, the hated and the hunted / Don't let them bring you to your knees / Stand up and fight"

Look, before you skip this, hear us out.

Much of the legend of Extreme Noise Terror, the fact that so many people have heard of them but never really heard them, probably flows from their legendary (and easily YouTube-able) Brit Awards appearance, when in what increasingly looks like a fictional scene from an updated version of the Rock N' Roll Swindle, Dean Jones and co. join the KLF to perform an extremely haphazard version of their "3 A.M. Eternal" 7" to an audience of hoorays in ballgowns and dinner jackets who then unaccountably provide warm, no doubt confused, applause at its closure.

The mere happening of that classic TV moment, and the fact you have to pinch yourself sometimes to believe that it really happened, should not, however, detract from their musical achievements, from any number of seminal Peel Sessions early on through to a host of fine, if increasingly sporadic albums - "Phonophobia", on that fabulous tweepop / crust / hardcore / rockabilly label Vinyl Japan, the "Retro-bution" re-recordings set, the still-more 'mature' "Damage 381", recorded when Napalm Death's Barney Greenway joined them so briefly on loan in the 90s (that surreal temporary swap with Terror mainstay Phil Vane), the more metallic sheen of "Being and Nothing" at the start of this century. Because ENT are - still - positive, political and almost too good to be true.

As we remarked when French label Osmose Productions released ENT's split LP with Driller Killer last year, ENT have now gone back to their roots, which remains frankly, *TEH EXCITE*. And for those who ignored our advice and didn't snap up the split, four of the five ENT songs from it reappear here, inamongst over a dozen pure newies. The themes of the songs are not original - organised religion gets an extended kicking, along with politicians, rat-race somnambulists and white pride eejits - but the lyrics veritably snap: "Your society of greed you've created / Will always pick on the ones who never get a fair chance / Of a start in life" (words as dispiritingly pertinent in 2008 as 1988) and the music is piledriving, thoroughly visceral. Only on "Death Message" is the full Vane / Jones onslaught instead replaced by spoken (well, shouted) word over a discordant aria of fog-bound feedback: otherwise, it's action all the way. There's even a redux of sorts of "Carry On Screaming", gently renamed "Screaming Fucking Mayhem".

The only issue we have with "Law of Retaliation" is the odd decision to intersperse it with unimaginative excerpts of dialogue, so that most tracks are bookended with intrusive snatches of speech that they really don't need. Lesser bands might need to resort to that, but on this otherwise pristine record it really jars.

Oh yeah, and there's something else tucked away in the sleeve notes: "This album is dedicated to the memory of John Peel". You're probably getting bored with that sort of thing by now, but we're not.

should have been singles: Parasites, Skin Deep, Believe What I Say, Against The Grain, Rotten to the Core

4. SSS "The Dividing Line" (Earache)



Somehow fresher and feistier than their s/t debut not long back, the Scousers' newie is 20 tracks of uncommonly addictive, utterly irrepressible metallic skatecore that has its roots in Stupids / Intense Degree-ish melodic bludgeoning, but brings it right up to date, arguably via the likes of thrashy labelmates Municipal Waste, to produce an exhilarating half-hour of Boyracer-fast hardcore, with lyrics ranging from serious and angry to comedic and throwaway (bad moustaches in hardcore probably covering all bases). It simply never flags. We'd been a bit sniffy recently about whether modern Earache bands had quite the calibre of their early rosters, but this is simply one of the best albums on the label for years. And still no ballads. Go get it.

should have been singles: Oil and Water, Can't Burst the Bubble, Skate And Destroy

5. Life? "Outside Looking In" (Zebra Traffic)



"Double-yay with bells on for this one. Life is the UK's king of the simile, a hero of the old school and, no question, an all-round general favourite of ours. He might be 35 now, but he's still angry, aware, conscious, considerate and, quite properly, a hater of all those rappers who, to coin a rather fetching phrase, are "wacker than Younis". So if you thought the Phi-Life Cypher man's second solo album, "Realities Of Life", was pretty great then you (a) were right, and (b) will enjoy this third one, "Outside Looking In", fresh out on Zebra Traffic. If, on the other hand, you were never lucky enough to hear "What Our Estates Have Become" et al, then we honestly think you should investigate: Life (now without the question mark) packs comment, observation, extended metaphors - it's all words, beautiful words - into every song: it's about the message, and thanks to DJ Nappa it's one that's delivered over easy-to-love loops and beats. Only albums like "Original Gangsta" or "From Enslavement To Obliteration" can match it in terms of the sheer *volume* of common sense talked: from his pride in his kids, through how he listened to John Peel as a teenager in prison, to the impassioned "What's Going On", a closer that thankfully deals sanely with Islamophobia, "Outside Looking In" is not only tough enough, but also not a little inspirational."

should have been singles: Intro, What's Going On ?, Fire The Facts, It's Official, Right In Your Face

6. Beatnik Filmstars "The Purple Fez 72 Club Social" (Satisfaction Recording Company)



"A distant cry from the fractured lo-fi brilliance of reams of the Filmstars' output right up to last yr's sporadically marvellous "Shenaniganism" set, not only is it Jarrett's most measured, shimmering work since the Bluebear's "Food Fight At the Last Chance Saloon", but for the wider populace it displays those popsong writing skills more vividly than ever before. "Fez '72" is a fifteen-song weave of twang, Americana, indie-guitar and alt-country, a melange of lyrical sadness and inherited loss, a mingling of mournful guitars and aching keyboards.

From the moment that thoughtful opener "Animal Crackers" ambles louchely from the speakers, it's clear there's a real warmth to proceedings: the arrangements and instrumentation are understated, rather than lush, but seem so well suited to the album's reflective style. So the occasional backing vocals work, the harmonica works (we don't often say that), hell, even the whistling works. And while it's certainly a very different record from most preceding albums - a sea-change akin to Sportique's jump from "Black Is A Popular Colour" to "Modern Museums", except maybe this time the leap is in the opposite direction - there are still echoes, for example in the jets of skyrocketing guitar interspersed through "Scrabbling", of the powered-up glories of past work like "Laid Back And English".

Jarrett describes himself on this record as both "cynical pioneer" and "pessimistic optimist", and each phrase rings true: he can always temper the downbeat turns of phrase with a swoonsome tune or hook, which makes for a winning combination. There are very few writers in circulation who could pen songs as strong as "Grim Cosmic Joke", "Kittens and Cats" or the stunning "Hospital Ward", but the Filmstars even manage to tailor an epic album centrepiece, pulsing with yearning, from the distinctly unpromising title "Nurse My Head (As The Actress Said To The Bishop)". They bring the curtain down in style too with "Home", a ballad that carries echoes of some of Kyoko's smartest moments. The only possible mis-step is "You Never Hear A Good Song Coming From A Car Window", which takes us little further than its title (the premise of which is incorrect anyway, not least because when we used to roll in our 1.6, we forced the British pedestrian within earshot to listen to "New Boyfriend And Black Suit" and "Bigot Sponger Haircut Policy" at maximum blast).

As you can tell, we've replayed and enjoyed pretty much every Beatniks outing to date, and lapped up every last dollop of their rickety, fuzzing short-burst lo-fi brilliance over the years (culminating with last year's careering "Curious Role Model" single). But, of all their albums, it's quite possible that "Fez 72" will turn out to be the most complete."


should have been singles: Hospital Ward, Kittens & Cats, Animal Crackers, Scrabbling

7. Jazz-T "All City Kings" (Boot)



Jazz-T speaks with his hands. And the turntable doyen and former UK DJ champion is the latest member of the inestimable Diversion Tactics crew to have a solo showcase album, following Zygote's rather dapper "Beats To Make You Frown" set two years back. Zygote features on a couple of tracks here, as do DT rhymers Chubby Alcoholic and Squeaky da Rixter, but there are tracks too for the likes of longtime collaborator Hug, on the excellent "Bullshit Charge" ("I'm in a cell full of 70% intelligent men / Caught up in a system specially designed for them"), plus Tim Dog, J-Zone (whose remix of the fine "BX to the UK" appears here, alongside the original), Percee P and Freestyle to provide transantlantic flavour. There's also a couple of flows from the UK's ever-ebullient Kashmere, a guest on past DT / Boot Records outings.

The heart of the album, however, is probably the title track, where the live vocals are given a rest and a host of turntablists give a demonstration of the fine arts of hip-hop which works on both "spot the sample" and "admire the technique" levels: the real beauty of the album is that T's beats are that well-constructed throughout, making all the guest vocal talents simply the icing on the cake. As the man himself told ILWTTISOTT: "it's all about the true school for me".

should have been singles: BX to the UK, Bullshit Charge, Back to London (Chubby's track, but of course), Percekusion - Boot Remix (original version was a single a while back)

8. Would-be-Goods "Eventyr" (Matinee Recordings)



The Would-be-Goods remain, fundamentally, a class act. And so "Eventyr" = deftly-delivered stories, well written, never overlong pop songs, sweetened with regency flourishes, adding another under-feted album to a pretty shimmering catalogue of them, this being their fifth (and third on the mighty Matinee Recordings).

When we think of quality lyricism now, it's invariably from acts who operate in the wordier media of rap or grime, the ones who can be both dextrous and thought-provoking: Taskforce, of course, but also the Chubby Alcoholic, Cappo, even Ghetto on his day ("Commandments", for example, was a good day).

So it's wonderful, when listening to this little stunner, to be as bowled over by the words as by the music. We can't help but simply repeat the words we used when we wrote about their Matinee debut, "Brief Lives" six years ago: "the elegance of jessica griffin's writing... romantic with a capital R, and tender to a T... pretty impressive stuff. the sound of serendipity at work."

should have been singles: Sad Stories, Temporary Best Friend, Enemies of Promise, The Girl At Number 7

9. No.Lay "No Comparisons" (No.Lay's World / GGI Enterprises)



A terrific mixtape, probably the one this year which has most easily withstood repeated plays. (Also, the highest-placed album here to feature a "Hair by:" credit). She's probably best known in some circles for appearing on the Adulthood soundtrack, or before that for sizzling spots on the two Run The Road comps, but "No Comparisons" is the first time we've heard a full set of her full-on, angry and impatient rhymes (having missed an apparent earlier tape). It's always a good sign when the guest spots by other artists are the weak spot, rather than the high point, of any solo artist's album - so we're confident that we can lose the usual qualifiers ("British", "female", "grime") and just say that No.Lay is one of the brightest MCs in business in '08.

should have been singles: Know Yourself Out Here, What A Pity, Bars Of Truth

10. Zipper "11" (Embajada de Liliput)



In a just world the mere existence of Zipper would be enough to make a thousand of those lowest common denominator indiepop bands redundant, or at the very least shame them into giving up on playing their weak-assed scenester tweepop rip-offs, and contributing something more valuable to society. As is probably all-too palpable simply from the fact that "11"'s tracklisting includes tunes like "Former Friends" and "Saturday" from past blue riband Cloudberry releases, Zipper are in danger of establishing themselves as this decade's Tiger Trap, and that if that isn't meaningful praise we're frankly flummoxed as to what might be.

should have been singles: Saturday, Goodbye, Cosa de Artistas, Former Friends, A Good Man (which, of course, was)

* * * * *

11. Craig G & Marley Marl "Operation Take Back Hip-Hop" (Good Hands Records)

"Marley Marl (did we mention how we missed the New York old school ?) is back with his ex-Juice Crew collaborator Craig G to bring us "Operation Take Back Hip-Hop", a no-frills retro set aimed squarely at grumpy old men and women like us who will never tire of tiring of the appropriation of hip-hop culture by junk capitalist anti-culture. And the album is more than just a nostalgia t(r)ip: it's actually very nearly just as good as the title suggests.

Yeah, it probably is a sweeping indictment of all sorts of things that one of our favourite albums right now is by a couple of guys who were most stellar back in the 80s, going on about how brilliant hip-hop used to be, how rubbish it is now and how much better things were in their day, but given that they're 100% on the money, Marley's beats are a dream throughout, the first seven tracks - including both sides of the "Made A Change" preview single - are pretty much flawless and even the much-maligned Craig G arguably delivers his most consistent performance ever over a full-length album, we think it's well worth celebrating the record rather than carping about its context (as well as admiring the fact the sleeve design isn't photos of artists in their own-brand leisurewear, or posing with a Benz: it's a montage of cassette tapes and inlays, labelled with *love*). How indie is that ?"


should have been singles: "Made A Change" (and it was), "Reintroduction", "Quality Work", "We Gets It In", "War Going On"

12. Sarandon "Kill Twee Pop!" (Slumberland)

"And we should also mention here Sarandon's "Kill Twee Pop!" album, also on Slumberland, even if it's been out long enough for many of you to have grabbed already. For Sarandon are simply one of the best British bands out there at the moment, both live and on record, and this their debut album proper (after the 28-track "Completist's Library" whetted appetites) merely proves it, both including and building on the finery of last year's "Joe's Record" 45 as they move towards (marginally) longer, but still infinitely spiky and sprightly, numbers. It's hard to describe their sound without (a) confirming that it ain't twee pop, and (b) reeling off a list of names of our favourite 80s awkward squad bands plus perhaps 90s' outsiders like the Yummy Fur and second-phase Beatnik Filmstars, so we'll restrict ourselves to saying that if you liked any one or more of the bands on the superb "Commercially Unfriendly" compilation, this will probably be one of the most exciting records you trip across this year."

should have been singles: Kill Twee Pop!, Massive Haircut, Lippy, Welcome

13. The Great Leap Forward "Finished Unfinished Business" (Communications Unique)

"We've put our cards in the table before about how Mr. Brown inspired us in day, but he's also been busy in the more recent past... As the title suggests, "Finished Unfinished Business" represents the completion of a number of long-dormant GLF numbers, meaning that despite the gap in time, it still operates quite nicely as a formal follow-up album to 1989's landmark "Don't Be Afraid Of Change". Indeed, it starts almost literally where GLF left off, the title of opener "Tolerance and Respect" (which might have been a shelved single) harking back to the sample that ran through the powerful, even chilling "Weddings, Parties, Anything..." like a stick of rock. GLF are certainly still "indie", and still have a grasp of, even a flair for, the "pop" dynamic, but "Finished Unfinished Business" is nowhere near being 'indie pop': instead, like the previous solo outings, the songs are polished, spattered with samples, keenly political and not infrequently funky. This is all nothing less than you'd expect from the man who authored "Who Works The Weather" and the still-delicious "May God Forgive Us For We Are But Women"...

If, like us, you still hold a fLAME for Great Leap Forward's "Don't Be Afraid Of Change" (we'd have it in our all-time albums top twenty), then you shouldn't hesitate to get hold of this one."


should have been singles: Tolerance And Respect, The Freedom of the Street, The Happiest People Under The Sun (Part 1)

14. Venomous Concept "Poisoned Apple" (Century Media)

"Venomous Concept's line-up is two Napalm (Shane and Danny) plus two Brutal Truth, and "Poisoned Apple" is their follow-up to the dismembered metal of the marvellously brief, bitty, lo-fi "Retroactive Abortion" LP. Whereas Shane Embury's Lock-Up side project (also with a fellow Napalmer - or should that be Napalmist ? - the late Jesse Pintado), showcased effective, almost clinical grindcore moshery, on this one it's a much rawer, more scabrous soundclash between grindcore and punk: track titles like "Drop Dead", "Think!" and "Chaos", and the fact that its 17 tracks go by in a blur of 33 minutes, probably tell you enough.

Throughout, it's gratifyingly great, keeping all the (barely) controlled chaos of their debut - including a constant amp hum and guitar buzz that lasts during and between tracks - and takes you to such rarefied reference points as the last Extreme Noise Terror record, Flyblown's "Genocide-Genocide", Scalplock's rather smashing "Spread The Germs (Over The Human Worms)...", "Retroactive Abortion" itself and perhaps even one of the few truly great punk albums, Discharge's "Hear Nothing See Nothing Say Nothing", even if it lacks the sheer bloodyminded focus of HNSNSN. And you can hum Anti-Cimex's "Victim Of A Bomb Raid" along with most songs here, which must be a good sign.

If we had to pick favourite moments, they'd probably be the brilliant blur of the opening three tunes (the second of which, "Toxic Kiss", features vocals from ENT mainstay Phil Vane) and the mid-album, Discharge-influenced "Workers Unite" (since we were at Marx's graveside not too long ago, natch)... but really, you won't go far wrong with anything here."


should have been singles: Life, Drop Dead, Toxic Kiss, Another Case of the Mondays, Workers Unite

15. Riko "The Truth" (Roll Deep)

"Were we not such dyed-in-the-wool Londinistas that we rep for public transport at every turn, we'd almost be tempted to go out and nab a cabriolet with Koni air-shocks, just so we could boom Riko's "The Truth" opus at max volume as we cruised around the manor. Riko, as "Big Time Veteran" (also on this double-CD) acknowledged, is fairly ancient - early 30s - in a game where the best established producer right now is still in his teens: but this is the first Riko product we've managed to get hold of since "Chosen One" with Target on the first Run the Road, and his phoned-in verse from HMP Brixton to Lady Sovereign's "Random" remix before she too joined the queue of faller-offers..

Again assembled over a period of years - this time more than just the last two - "The Truth" is shrill with the kind of lairy, eager, buzzing gun-clap that sounded so exciting when "Run The Road" first rolled round, as Riko peppers pleasingly raw passages of ragga-style toasting with more conventional rhyming. Also, more than many mixtapes, and probably because it hasn't been thrown together in a matter of months, this one manages to stay in high gear, hardly ever derailing into the stock mixtape filler territory of R&B shlock tributes to mum, girlfriend, fallen soldierz etc.

It starts by exhuming "So Amazing", last seen on Eskiboy's "Da 2nd Phaze", and then delivers a stream of should-be singles. As well as the imperious, Bless Beats-anchored "Big Time Veteran", there's "No Boad Test This Corner" which bounces with nervous energy and irresistible, rippling beats (guess who it's produced by); "It's War", all busy rapping over "My Mistakes"-style backing; "Grand Theft Auto", a series of digs at Lethal Bizzle and no doubt those boasts of Punto-nicking on his last album; and the very neat, dancehall and reggae-tinged "Informer Dead" and "Retaliate". The second disc is bookended by six minutes in the sassy company of "Dumplin Riddim" (sirens, skank, sublow = swell) and an 18-minute 1Xtra soundclash with Flowdan. Plus, when let loose on Skepta's Stage Show riddim, Riko proves nearly as hyper as Jammer is on the excerpt that appeared on Skream's Rinse comp...

Unlike Eskiboy and Trim's tapes, Riko does rather concentrate on banging out these foursquare crowdpleasers and club tunes one after another - only on "My Style" and "I'm Still Here" does he really give us more of a glimpse of his story, his personality - but the package is generally imperturbably great, falling off (there we go again) only with the likes of "Selfish Lies" (see comments above re wishy-washy songs about relationships) and the nadir, the predictably un-liberating "Women's Liberation". But in the end, if you can make a few quid go further than this double CD, we'd be extremely surprised."


should have been singles: Dead That, Grand Theft Auto, No Boad Test This Corner

16. The Airfields "Up All Night" (Humblebee Recordings)

"the first great album of the year comes from the Airfields, with "Up All Night"... The first minute or so of "Up All Night" is dazzling enough, "Prisoners of Love" chimingly resonating with midperiod Wake-isms before it opens out and the first of many fab little guitar runs is delivered, but as the album skips by, topped off with harder, fuzz-filled passages echoing just-signed to Creation-MBV, and as ghosts of Sarah and Factory past flit in and out, the Airfields manage to touch every er, touchpost you could sensibly want them to (we thought of the Field Mice, early Smiths, and even Gentle Despite in some of the vocals).

We also reckon that our past Airfields-14 Iced Bears analogy is sustainable (so there), simply because of the blend of fey-melodic indieness and unrepentant fuzz noise that gives "Up All Night" its distinctive pattern. There are fine versions of all three songs from the bravura Cloudberry EP - the title track of that, "Yr So Wonderful" being a foggy, blissful Secret Shine, while we all know that "The Long Way Home" is just a stunning indie-pop song with, yes, probably the best of all those many fab little guitar runs. And there's the thumping "Never See You Smile" and the sumptuous "Happy & Safe". But it's "Love Tariffs" where everything really comes together - seductive guitar distortion caressing a lonely vocal and shining melodies. It comes from the same place as AR Kane's "When You're Sad", and as you might appreciate, that's a gorgeous place."


should have been singles: Love Tariffs, Yr So Wonderful (which was - thanks to Cloudberry), Prisoners Of Love, Happy & Safe

17. Hulaboy "Olympic Krush on (the) Hulaboy" (555)

It's fair to say that if every track on "Olympic Krush" was as good as opener "When Owls Cry", then the established celebrity pairing of Eric Off Of Hula Hoop and Stewart Off Of Boyracer would be in danger of having put the 'Racer themselves off the top spot this year. If you're a fan of indie-pop in any of its (increasingly fetishised) forms, "When Owls" will knock your spots off - tender observation, lyrical originality and churning guitar melodies up there with Hula Hoop's highest highs ("Stairway To Elizabeth", etc).

Over the whole album though, Hulaboy draw their aim rather more widely, meaning that it's a collection of quirkiness and bitterness that doesn't always hit the centre of the target. But we would have no hesitation in saying that "Olympic Krush" is worth buying simply for tracks like "Owls", "Eric Stoess Is Dead" and the more Boyracer-esque, particularly lyrically, "It's What Expected Of You" and "Quirk Pop Sloganeer": the latter starts out sounding like a dis but fetches up as a rather self-aware and regret-filled piece of pop music, one that tugs ever-so subtly at the heartstrings at the same time as mocking the dead ends with which the indie-pop "industry" still teems.

If uneven in places, the record is always thoughtful, always diverting, and occasionally on the button: and when Stewart sings "I remember when the world was ours to change / In the good old days before / Everyone wanted to sound like Belle & Sebastian", there's rather more truth in it than many of us might try to make out.

should have been singles: start with the 4 we mentioned!

18. The Bright Lights "Drunker Than You Since '002" (555)

More than any other band on this list, or indeed on this earth, the Bright Lights really are a force of nature. It's funny, you know: we'd half-forgotten about them, despite their great self-titled LP on 555 Recordings a little while back, until Cloudberry released that spectacular Faintest Ideas CD-R last year, a record that buzzed with a similar manic excitement. And the superb Faintest Ideas track on 555's "Your Cassette Pet" early in 2008 also brought the 'Lights instantly to mind. Happily, there's now this too, a clutch of tracks from a tape a few years ago, and a number of newer ones, all thrown together on a vinyl LP on 555, and from the opening lo-fi ablutions of "Wake Up Call" it's clear this could only be one band.

On the one hand there are plucked ballads, with acoustic guitars rising in the mix: on the other, the often older, scree-packed tunes where instruments set off at lightning pace, usually colliding early on, tracks eventually imploding around two minutes in. On both hands, atop the musical unpredictability is Frank's voice - desperate, painfully excitable - throwing out in the main some incredibly *romantic* lyrics as he details a car-crash love life without any self-consciousness. We love it, we think, for much the same reason as so many of those early Mary Chain outings, that feedback and out-of-control guitars speak the language of love - well, the pain, joy and confusion of true romance - better than a thousand Whitney Houstons or Mariah Careys. Muchly recommended.

should have been singles: GGP, There Are Some Things I Shouldn't Say, Stand For Something Or You Fall For Anything, Our Love Is Tragic

19. Secret Shine "All Of The Stars" (Clairecords)

"For Bristol swoongazers Secret Shine, the gap between Sarah eight-tracker "Untouched" and Clairecords newie "All Of The Stars" is a cool sixteen years - so would this prove to be the same kind of gentle disappointment ? Well, on first listening, the jury was out: after so long, it can be quite hard to reconnect with what you love about any given band, and the Shine had inadvertently handicapped themselves by putting out such an immediate, strong comeback single ("Elemental") in the cold of early 2006. They'd also reminded us of how durable some of the older tunes turned out to be when they brought some into their set at the Water Rats an autumn or two ago. But on re-spinning "All Of The Stars", we soon found ourselves locking back into their groove, as those sweeping hi-altitude boy/girl vocal harmonies made their mark over the trademark quiet-loud passages and sweetly distorted guitar oscillations. In particular, we remembered that you always had to accept the stucco swirls of the slower, quieter passages as a prelude to the the sublime rushes of noise they bookended, the moments when the guitars began to crackle with energy and the hairs on the nape of your neck stood to attention.

We're sure we remember someone telling us once that Secret Shine's lyrics were inspired by Keats, but you'll be used to us recycling pub talk as musical lore, so we can't swear to the truth of that (or, indeed, speculate as to what either the band, or Keats himself, would make of the allegation). What is true is that the words - for a band that deploy the vocals, especially Kathryn's, almost as instruments in themselves - seem to fit in just fine with the swathes of fuzzy melody on offer. And so by the time we revisited "Oblivion" (track eight) it was as if they'd never been away, the chorus delivering a doughty reminder of the cobweb-blowing away cascades of past faves from "Untouched", like "Towards The Sky" or "Underworld". Indeed, in some ways "All Of The Stars" is more consistent than "Untouched", which at times ("Spellbound", maybe ?) hadn't itself quite built on the feral brilliance of "Loveblind" (you - know we love it - always will do - etc etc). So "All Of The Stars" gives us longer, brooding numbers like "Voice Of The Sea" and "Cafe Crash" as well as the slightly rockier "Hate To See You Smile" (a nice companion piece to the Airfields' "Never See You Smile"). And the bouncier verse of the closing, bristling "The Sound Of Light" sees them meeting Stereolab halfway, before they amp things up for the refrain."


should have been singles: Cafe Crash, Voice Of The Sea, Oblivion, The Sound Of Light

20. Cee-Rock "The Fury" "Bringin' Da Yowzah!!!" (Abstract Urban)

"About a million years ago, a 12" from the Wolftown label fell into our hands: a 4-track taster EP by some New York bloke called Cee-Rock 'The Fury', for an album to be called, a little improbably, "Bringin' Da' Yowzah!!!" Said 12", which featured collaborations with some of the usual West Midlands suspects (Late, Juttla), was brill, but although the final Cee-Rock long-player apparently did get a limited release at some point, we certainly never managed to track it down. Anyway, no matter as finally in 2008 a CD of the same name has been (re)issued, on Abstract Urban; it appears to be on general release (coming with a knowing "No Parental Advisory Necessary" peel-off sticker); and it features a number of corkers including the standout, lead song from that Wolftown EP, "Anderson Iz Nice". A reminder that there is much in American hip-hop to enjoy, even if it's a hell of a task to find it inamongst all that rampantly commercialised gangsta posery. And the ebullient "Kill Da Killin'", which neatly encapsulates The Fury's own defiantly anti-thug msg, is not only on "Yowzah!!!" redux, but seems to be getting a separate release as a single, too. Hurrah."

should have been singles: Kill Da Killin' (it was), Time To Detonate

* * * * *

21. The Fall "Imperial Wax Solvent" (Sanctuary)

All reviews are ultimately redundant, of course, and Fall reviews more than most, but it's worth noting that quite a few peeps agreed this year that this was one of those "return to form" Fall albums. In practice, in this century at least, that's been the majority of them.

should have been singles: 50 Year Old Man, It's The New Thing, Senior Twilight Stock Replacer, Wolf Kidult Man

22. Phobia "22 Random Acts of Violence" (Candlelight / Willowtip)

New-school grind tends to be too mathematical, too clinical, too produced, but at least the fact there's so much pseudo-grindcore out there is pushing some of the veterans to keep raising their game - being true to the genre is actually becoming a bit of a USP. Phobia's newie is evidence of this - they may have been around for a while, but this is pretty focussed stuff, varying in places from HC-inspired tunes with choruses to straight blast-beat blood and thunder, but overall catching a single mood. We'll call it anger.

should have been singles: Rise Up, Continue Insane, Ultimate Suffering, Abuse The Truth

23. Half Man Half Biscuit "CSI: Ambleside" (Probe Plus)

"Every 2 or 3 years we write pretty much the same thing about HMHB (here's last time round). Our schtick basically boils down to recording that (a) they're social commentators par excellence, (b) their two decades or so of unfailing post-C86 aceness have been brazenly, unfeelingly overlooked, and (c) as befits this pattern the kids are gonna ignore their latest album... we could witter on for England about how HMHB are also one of the best singles bands in world history, despite only intermittently releasing any: their discography on 45 includes the likes of "Eno Collaboration", "Dickie Davies' Eyes", "Look Dad No Tunes", "Jarg Armani", "Trumpton Riots"... many of indiedom's very finest songs. But there comes a point where you've heard it all (though we've tried a thousand times, a thousand times to change your mind). If you don't like HMHB now, you never will: if you somehow still think they're a novelty band, you always will.... So we'll dispense with even the pretence of reviewing "CSI: Ambleside". Suffice to say that if you're a fan, and you don't already have it, it won't disappoint."

should have been singles: Bad Losers On Yahoo Chess, King Of Hi-Vis, National Shite Day

24. Tinchy Stryder vs Maniac (TvM)

Maniac is the man with the Midas touch. OK, his productions are kind of similar at root, but no-one recently has come up with stuff that so suits such a wide range of MCs. And so the instrumental half of this record is better than you'd expect, as we get instrumentals of Ruff Sqwad's "Man Dem", Little Dee's "Star In The Making", Wiley's "Grime Kid" etc. It's no wonder that even younger producers than Maniac (T-Don, iLi Man ) are coming up on the rails now trading in instrumental grime: it can often sound so much fresher than the more leaden / pedestrian vocal grime efforts (hello Giggs, we're afraid).

The first half-dozen tracks are proper Maniac / Tinchy collabos. More on Tinchy when we get round to the singles, but again the tunes here are pretty tight, largely far removed from the "Stryderman" / "Breathe" / "Thump" schlock we've railed about in past. The thing about Maniac's productions is that they tend to invite faster-paced rhyming, forcing MCs to raise their game a little. So here, Tinchy begins with a l'il "Warm Up" before progressing to the breezy confidence of "Rollin'" or "No Cape". There are actually a couple of bonus tracks, too: God's Gift plays up to the caricature of him in Wiley's GG War Dub with the musically compelling, but thematically moribund "E3 Shank Shank", and then there's a remix of "Rollin'" which features the first spot we've heard from the (now freed) Roachie for a while.

should have been singles: most of the instrumentals were, and we'll throw in "Warm Up" and "No Cape" too...

25. Eskiboy "Umbrella Vol. 1" (Eskibeat Recordings)

"Yep, all that is good and holy rather compels us to mention Eskiboy's latest treasure trove. We'd been waiting a few months for a new Wiley mix CD, an unusual sensation (no doubt he's been partly preoccupied by Rolex sweep shenanigans): but the outcome is neither the heavily-trailed "£10 an Hour" volume one, the not-unhyped "Tunnel Vision" volume seven that was allegedly on the blocks months ago, the apparently on-way Roll Deep opus nor even "Grime Wave", which we understand is imminent-ish. Instead, it's something called "Umbrella" (volume one, naturellement). Oddly, while it's a rush-release job (the tracklisting on the back of the CD is markedly different from the one on the insert, meaning you can work out what tracks were dropped or moved), most of them are actually of less-than-instant vintage - part of that 2006 revival we've been banging on about, no doubt.

So "Umbrella Volume 1" is a mish-mash of family favourites (the ace "Taliban", the saccharine "Daddy's Little Girl" - later spun into "Playtime Is Over's" "Baby Girl" - and the tonking, Scorcher-produced "Class of '07", extracted from the "Thunder Power" mixtape), worthy curios (the shining "Big Time Veteran" collab with fellow Roll Deeper Riko, "God's Gift War Dub", a typical double-header of street menace and blitz humour as it's the turn of Riko's mate GG to be mocked by the Eskiboy, and an anthemic sino-grime thing called "Spirit of Da Beat", also on Bless Beats' new Eskibeat CD, that begs to be a single if it hasn't been already), and Wiley productions for other MCs, the most impressively tight being Mega Montana's "Whoa". So "Umbrella" isn't really new, but regardless of the filler, it's still worth getting for what's killer: if you can listen to "Bazooka Freestyle" or "Class of '07" and not be inspired either to smile or to dance, there may be no hope for you."


should have been singles: Umbrella Intro, Music Money,Class of '07, Bazooka Freestyle

26. The Wedding Present "El Rey" (Scopitones)

""El Rey", their new album on Vibrant Records, is better, we think, and certainly more consistent, than "Take Fountain", only the first two singles from which really shone. It's a record which manages somehow to sound both shambling and widescreen - the press are probably right to attribute this to the fact that the once heavily-flagellated TWP are now seen almost as a lovable curio, the cliche of gritty Yorkshire indie transplanted to L.A...

The lyrics are still the usual blend of love triangle narratives and execrable chat-up lines, but especially where the guitars still shamble a little sweetly - like "Spider-Man on Hollywood", the longer, languid "Boo Boo" or indeed "Don't Take Me Home..." which we now remember they previewed at ULU last year - you can still easily identify that wily old sea dog David Lewis Gedge as the same man who's been toying with jangle-headed listeners' heart-strings since the mid-80s. The taster single, "The Thing I Like Best About Him Is His Girlfriend", if disappointingly non-ska, is amongst the lighter and frothier tunes here, yet just as darling as "I'm From Further North Than You", say. Plus, there are many more-than-mildly satisfying tranches of noise (ah, Mr Albini, we presume!) inamongst the various earnest strumathons."


Yeah, what we said. Watching TWP do their annual greatest hits thang at the Forum, we were struck again by how underrated a lyricist David Gedge sometimes is: while you'd never guess it from the lager-fuelled moshpit of ageing baldies jumping up and down to relive their ever-more distant student union nights, there is a simple brilliance in his best lyrics, the sheer normality of the words to "Come Play With Me", "Crawl" or "Blue Eyes", that is still pretty much unmatched in getting across - in terms we can all recognise - the poetic agonies of the starts and ends of relationships. And that's one of the reasons we're still prepared to stick up for this band, however far they might have moved from the frantic, angsty strumming of "George Best".

should have been singles: I Lost The Monkey, Boo Boo, Don't Take Me Home Until I'm Drunk. And the one that was.

27. The Lucksmiths "First Frost" (Fortuna Pop! / Matinee Recordings)

Surely the only band of this vintage still never to have released a sub-par album, the Lucksmiths are happily unafraid to keep risking this reputation (and occasionally, to push the envelope: our favourite tracks here, the misty, swept-with-longing "How We Met" and the shambling, Weddoes-like "Up With The Sun", both see subtle - but rewarding - variations to their template sound).

28. Robert Forster "The Evangelist" (Tag 5)

"We won't purport to say anything other than that new album "The Evangelist" is, for us, a tender treat. And reiterate that we would rather die tomorrow still loving the Go-Betweens, than live forever liking Royworld."

Yes. A beautiful tribute to Grant McLennan that holds up in its own right too.

should have been singles: Pandanus, It Ain't Easy, If It Rains, Demon Days

29. Cripple Bastards "Variante Alla Morte" (FETO)

New album on Shane Embury and Mick Kenney's FETO label that shows how far CBs have come since those caustic, nr-unlistenable demos featured on "Grind Your Mind". An interesting blend of er, to-the point numbers (seven songs are less than 10 seconds long) and rather more intricate ones, culminating in the five minutes of "Auto-Azzeramento": in truth, the longer songs tend towards over-indulgence, and high points come from the title track and "Allergie di Contratto", which best balance the old-style screaming and brevity with more advanced breakdowns and rhythmic passages. The bleak lyrics often work best with the blink-and-you'll miss them tracks: "Inverno Nel Ghetto" (Ghetto Winter) is typical, its entire - translated! - lyric being: "Hound them if they suggest / Simplicity is a quality". Overall though, worth a listen (even though a clasp of these tracks also appear on Relapse's recent "Slimewave" goregrind comp). You won't get bored.

should have been singles: Variante Alla Morte, Allergie di Contratto, Sorriso Decubitale, L'Uomo Dietro Al Vetro Opaco, Implacabile Verso Il Suo Biuo

30. Burning Spear "Jah Is Real" (Burning Music)

"Burning Spear comes correct with "Jah Is Real"... If you'd been wondering what on earth happened to roots reggae, then Burning Spear has obviously been thinking the same thing, as is amply demonstrated by tracks like "Run For Your Life" ("the music business is not like before / distribution get so desperate"), "Wickedness" ("our publishing running their business / our royalties feeding their family") and "Stick To The Plan" ("no worry yourself about big radio"). Still, happily enough "Jah Is Real" represents, however fleetingly, the reappearance of a genre we really rather miss.

Across the album as a whole, the sparing use of brass is just right, there are no tinny keyboards (the bane of many a reggae album) and there are numerous high points: the aforementioned "Run For Your Life", which segues beautifully into a dub version; the uplifting, spry tones of the title track; the world music-tinged paean to "One Africa", the harrowing return to "Slavery Days" in "Grandfather", ("Mr Garvey / break the cycle of fear") and the bare statement of intent, "No Compromise", a theme reflected prominently in his sleeve notes. ...even if "Jah Is Real" offers nothing that's truly new, the man still has an aura of righteousness - as opposed to self-righteousness - which demands you treat him seriously... Ultimately, as he sings on "No Compromise", "my music - everything be all right music". Exactly right."


should have been singles: Wickedness, Run For Your Life, Jah Is Real

* * * * *

31. Blak Twang "Speaking From Xperience" (Abstract Urban)

Although last year's "Help Dem Lord" was a special single, and his spot on Dap-C's "Music Game" moves mountains, we were a bit concerned to see that Twang's new set was one of those 20+ trackers, rather than a Matinee-style half-hour of pop-perfection, because there's not been an album yet that has profited from this insidious, album-enervating "let's fill up the whole running time of the disc" approach. And so it proved, because much of the album is thunderously worthwhile - "Help Dem", the blokey retro of "'96", the excellent "Raplife", the initially rather obvious lead single "Champagne Lifestyle", which actually grows after a few listens, too - but the rest is well, not as good, notwithstanding a spot from Estelle on the clever "Nu N'uh".

32. Benediction "Killing Music" (Nuclear Blast)

Bit harsh on Midlands metallers Benediction that they're best known for being Barney Greenway's former band, but even now they sound pretty much as you'd expect from that i.e. not unlike Napalm at the time Barney made his transfer. Actually, while like most LPs "Killing Music" suffers from a bit of Side Two-itis, there are some cracking songs on it, especially early on ("The Grey Man", "Controlopolis", "Dripping With Disgust" and the title track) and our only real criticism is that the vocals seem to be trying a little too hard in places (either that, or they're just too high in the mix). What there is no doubting - especially if you watch the bonus DVD - is that Benediction are one of the most down-to-earth, unpretentious bands around, and that, if nothing else, is a novelty these days that is well worth saluting. Some entertaining bonus tracks too, as the boys' love of crust is indulged by tearing into hearty Amebix and Broken Bones covers.

33. Wiley "Grime Wave" (Eskibeat Recordings)

Released when "Wearing My Rolex" was riding high in the charts, "Grime Wave" would have seriously disappointed every single arriviste as it instead delivered ("Rolex" and "I'm Going Out" aside) some less club-friendly, if largely semi-commercial, grime outings. Unlike "I See Clear", his later set which unashamedly laid on the crossover mush, "Grime Wave" is therefore still well worth investigating.

34. Elementz "Crushmode" (Occupy Your Mind)

(On "Voyage", w/ Scorzayzee)" "yay. one of notts' many finest is *BACK* and is still the master storyteller, with the ability to deliver reality like no other (e.g. "great britain" w/ the p brothers) and heartfelt, kitchen sink empathy like no other (just like on "want what's yours" with styly cee, all the way back in day). oh, and he's still got a killer flow. actually, the elementz record is pretty tight, especially with skinnyman's "high grade" and with wretch and mates killing it on "at 1 with the elementz", but we're afraid any track with scorz on it is gonna upstage all-comers, and this he duly does. on another level."

35. JME "Famous ?" (Boy Better Know)

""famous ?" is jamie adenuga's first album proper after that series of mixtapes quite a while back, which is probably why tunes like "serious" (a song we must have first heard on 1xtra in about 1812), lp opener "AWOH", "standard" and a "shh hut yuh muh" refix (a maniac assemblage to rival "full effect" or "no boad test this corner" for general addictiveness) can still get a run-out in 2008. there's no doubt it's a bold, accomplished work though: most attention will probably be devoted to "sun, sea and sand", which deserves to be a hooj crossover record, and the plastician-inspired "ghetto superstar", but plenty of our favourites are where jme's own voice comes through, like "standard", the wiley-produced "1 2 3" or this track ("i've had enough of these fake gangsters... i just think they're idiots").

"punch in the face" is a good example of how "famous?" is acksherley a thoughtful, at times surprisingly unsettling record, many of the songs finishing with longer instrumental passages than most grime-mc cuts, and so drilling clipped, clinical, sparse beats like these a little deeper into yr mind."


36. The Short Stories "Short Stories For Long Nights" (The International Lo-Fi Underground)

Debut album from ex-Forest Giant lynchpin and all-round indie ledge Tim Rippington's new (Vic Godard-approved!) duo. The "grower" strums of "Tears Before Bedtime" typify the embedded delights, although the should-have-been (scrapped) single "Cover Star" is a powerful opener in more traditional 3 minute pop song vein. Rather unfairly overlooked in comparison to many others, even on this list.

37. Trimski "Soulfood Vol 3 - Leaf Out Of Their Book" (The Circle)

"Next up is the "Leaf Out of Their Book" tape from Trim (aka Trimbal, Trimothy and now, on this the third volume of the "Soul Food" series, "my name's Trimski for today"). On which Trim, whatever his suffix of choice, is increasingly chatty and engaging, even revealing that like most Londoners, he holds a flame for Manchester United. Aside from that admission, however, all is good and vital in East 14, not least when we're hit with the strong opening brace of "Signal" and "Ask For Trim", which set out his stall nicely.

For many, the highlights will be the reflective "Inside Looking Out" or "The Bits", which suddenly remind us of those tracks on "Boy In Da Corner" where Dizzee found his inner voice, but for us "The Low-Dan" and "It's A Cold World" are even better. The former is the most obvious of several bites at Flowdan (Trim is now seemingly exiled from Roll Deep, and paints accusations that Flowdan was the cause, although there's nothing quite as vicious as Trim's January Flowdan dub, which subtly opened with Trim calling Flowdan a cunt) but is accompanied by a searing battery of quickfire beats which refuse to play second fiddle to Trim's bittersweet narrative. "Cold World" is, it would appear, a sideswipe at Dizzee himself, the most prominent E3-er in exile, but it's a thoughtful, regret-strewn thing, a mature musing on the power of money.

Plus, notably on the couple of tracks where Trim busses in Radioclit for production duties, there are a wider variety of beats, including pronounced Asian stylings, than most mixtapes care to offer. Given the track record of, er, every other half-decent grime artist ever, the likelihood (and our fear) is that within a few years Trim will either have disappeared or, even worse, graduated to a half-baked proper album on a major label subsidiary. But this would be a real shame, because "Soul Food" volume 3 is the best demonstration yet of Trim's versatility, and good evidence that he is capable of shaping his own "Playtime Is Over" one of these days."


38. Ghetto "Freedom Of Speech" (The MOVEMENT)

"2007's "Ghetto Gospel" was not quite all that it could have been - the first 5 tracks were dazzling but, a little like Scorcher or Wretch's tapes from last year, there was a sense of trying a little too hard to touch all the bases, and not enough to truly hit the heights. Now, "Freedom of Speech" sees him more focussed, a mixtape of crunchy, more hip-hop flavoured beats over which his trademark raspy flow sounds more kinda minatory and Sticky Fingaz-ish by the day (the way he exclaims "I don't give a fuck" during an Onyx-like rant on "Buss 1" almost sounds like the real Sticky has dropped into Bow to take over the mic).

In common with Trim, he has the sense to kick off proceedings with a pulsating, dynamic duo, "Commandments" and "The Ghetto", and there's also some commendable picking and choosing of guest spots, so on "Threats" he teams up with Griminal (whose "Dance" on Scorcher's "Thunder Power" compilation last year was a kind of '07 equivalent to Tinchy's seminal "Move") and Brutal for something rather rougher and tougher; the nervous energy of "Ghost Town" is pristinely marshalled by Smasher; and Chipmunk turns up again, part-rescuing a perfunctory remix of "I'm Ghetts". We also get excellent tracks like "Mountain", just out on white label 12", which keeps up the pace and tension without overspilling into unnecessary gangster stereotypes. A tad galling, then, that some of the later tracks suddenly trail off nearly as badly as "Ghetto Gospel" did.

But in all, "Freedom of Speech" works far better than "Ghetto Gospel". In places it may seem more of a competent hip-hop album than a grime landmark, sounding formulaic almost in the same breadth as it excites: similarly, the lyrical edginess jumps awkwardly between sounding forced and genuinely zestful. But these, we guess, are just the contradictions of a genre that even now is skittishly betraying and then rediscovering itself at every turn."


39. The Bug "London Zoo" (Ninja Tune)

This was the one that we actually agreed with our usual nemesis, the Observer Music Monthly, on. And if we hadn't already clocked some of the substantial past singles featured here ("Jah War", "Poison Dart" and "Skeng" were all amongst our selections of '07), it would be substantially further up the list: when you combine those with the Spaceape's uncharacteristically coherent "Fuckaz", Tippa Irie's "Angry" or Flowdan's stock-scary "Warning", you have an album always worth digging out.

40. Bless Beats "Hard Days Graft" (Eskibeat Recordings)

Production showcase for another of E3's finest, mixing slick-ish ballads with skittering electro grime. Suspect we've previously hinted at its finest moments, which include Pres T and Quincy's grime numbers and Lauren Mason's brace of nu-urban warblers.

* * * * *

41. The Guild League "Speak Up" (Matinee Recordings)

Very power-pop, tight newie from the best 'League since Anti-Nowhere containing a mini-constellation of sparkling tunes. You could do worse than check out summer hit-style opener "Mouse vs Mountain" for a start.

42. Ice Cube "Raw Footage" (Lench Mob Records)

On which Cube goes on about how brilliant he is, and is largely right: especially on the thoughtful "Why Me ?" the plea for unity, "Stand Tall" and the crunching, more traditionally in-yo face "Gangsta Rap Made Me Do It".

43. Fosca "The Painted Side Of The Rocket" (Yes, But Is It Art ?)

"Talking of million-year waits... they're back, you know, with a new album called "The Painted Side of the Rainbow". What this rather spangly should-be single ["We See The World As Our Stunt Doubles"] is off of. And especially in a world that appears all too ready to tolerate the vacuous chuntering bluster of the Pigeon Detectives et al, we would argue that Fosca are needed more than ever before."

Lovely to have them back: from the girl-sung pop thrills of "Evening Dress at 3 a.m" through a finely reworked "Confused and Proud" to "WSTWAOSD" itself.

44. Coldworker "Rotting Paradise" (Relapse)

"Coldworker are the latest project of ex-Nasum man Anders Jakobson, and their second album, "Rotting Paradise" is more of a melange of grindcore with straight-up death metal: rarely recalling the sheer speed of Nasum, although there's still plenty of aggression. With the brightest tunes like "Reversing The Order", "Scare Tactics", and "I Am The Doorway", a three minute blaze of glory followed by a minute or so of slower moshery a la Napalm's "Silence Is Deafening", Coldworker start to live up to the high expectations we've not unreasonably set for them. And that's probably true of at least half the record, which is more than we were quite able to say of Deicide's recent long player."

Ooh, get us. Our Sea Mills midcore (never assume we rep just London) had their own, inevitably more succinct, take on "Rotting Paradise": "ridiculously fast, very much in the Nasum vein but far less downtuned and better produced".

45. FSK "Freiwillige Selbstkontrolle" (Buback)

Peel um, favourites mixing guitar-led indie tunes with more electronic and experimental numbers (yet without losing their longtime charm). The best tunes are arguably the more repetitive ones: "Coupe", where the bass fastens on a single riff and refuses to let go, reminds us almost of an early Fall / ACR amalgam...

46. Pelle Carlberg "The Lilac Time" (Labrador)

Ex-Edson man who we'd rather lost track of, but this - apparently his third solo album - is funny, clever and melodic throughout. Note: the uptempo pop songs (spesh the winningly instant "Metal to Metal") easily outmuscle the clutch of slower ones.

47. Supar Novar "Wordz From The Frontline" (Wolftown)

"With Skinnyman and latterly Taskforce having been a little quiet of late, it falls to Supar Novar to rep for some of the low N postcodes at the moment. This he does via a Tricksta-assembled mixtape, "Wordz From The Frontline", from Wolverhampton's Wolftown empire, and it's fair to say that even over 75 minutes the quality only rarely slides, Supar Novar supplying the talent to match Tricksta's in a way that puts this mixtape above solo efforts from Wolftown's own roster like Late's US-UK collabo last yr.

The usual Wolftown suspects (Late himself - most winning line: "I'm sick of seeing the world through the eyes of Judith Chalmers"), Jai-Boo, 10Shott appear, along with Novar's latest protege Big Ben, but "Wordz From The Frontline" is designed to be, and works as, a showcase for Supar Novar himself. His gruff, grimy rapping is to the fore, and as such "Wordz...", which includes "Measure My Success" (effectively the single, being the video that they've decided to throw at Channel U) and "New Year Startin'" (almost a rose-tinted UK "It Was A Good Day"), is a worthy accompaniment to '06's album proper, "From The Beginning".

The only gripe we can find, if we try, is that like so much UKHH (and unlike so much grime), we wish it could sound more completely like it was from this side of the Atlantic: image-wise, Wolftown have always seemed slightly taken with the stateside hip-hop cliche thing, which is a mild disappointment, as plenty of their records have actually kind of transcended it."


48. The Mountain Movers "We've Walked In Hell And There Is Life After Death" (Fortuna Pop!)

Butterfly of Love Daniel Greene fronts a surprisingly cheering hellfire-and-damnation centred concept album: while there is nothing (at all) bouncy about the music, the instrumentation on tunes like "What The Devil Wants The Devil Takes", "I Met the Devil On A Bus" and the gorge "This Last Hope", combined with Greene's own dogged weariness, make the whole brim with Dante-esque majesty, somehow making us feel as warm inside as the Devil's own toasting fork. Incidentally, an LP somehow compared by one reviewer to the Wonder Stuff: we'd love some of whatever they're on.

49. Jammer "Are You Dumb ? Volume 3" (Jah Mek The World)

Jammer's mixtape reappearance, and while the furrow is looking increasingly well-ploughed, you can't fault his dedication or devotion to mid-00's grime stylings. A fair raft of guests, too. "Before" (with Skepta amongst others) and the well-helium "Track & Field" would be our selections.

50. Julie Ocean "Long Gone And Nearly There" (Transit of Venus)

"You don't need to be too much of a connoisseur of the album form to recognise that the optimum LP - grindcore perhaps aside - should consist of around ten tracks, averaging 2 1/2 minutes each. And that's exactly what DC's Julie Ocean have done with "Long Gone and Nearly There", a power-pop spectacular on Transit of Venus. Agile, nimble numbers like "10 Lonely Words" and "At The Appointed Hour" (which we mentioned initially here) are as fresh as the best moments of Terry Banks' former band the Saturday People, while others, such as "#1 Song" are slightly more muscular, yet still manage to spill out hooks as they pile merrily along. And it closes with the high-bpm rush of sub-2 minute closer "Looking At Me / Looking At You", which sums the whole album up - no six-minute outros, no extraneous noodling, no self-indulgence, no attempt to hide the swarms of melodies and harmonies. Just grand."

* * * * *

Bubbling under: The Nervous Rex "We're A Garage Band From Modern England" (The International Lo-Fi Underground), Mark Stewart "Edit" (Crippled Dick Hot Wax), Occasional Keepers "True North" (LTM), Darkthrone "Dark Thrones & Black Flags" (Peaceville), Bubblegum Lemonade "Doubleplusgood" (Matinee Recordings), Agathocles "Grind Is Protest" (Displeased Records), Terror Danjah "Hardrive Volume 1" (After Shock), Club 8 "The Boy Who Couldn't Stop Dreaming" (Fortuna Pop!), Rudimentary Peni "No More Pain" (Southern Records), Geejay "I Came To Represent" (NGU), Slix "Down Vol. 2" (Ruff Sqwad / Risky Roadz), Roll Deep's "Return Of The Big Money Sound", Dap-C "Street Karma" (NGU Records), Deicide "Till Death Do Us Part" (Earache), Rockin' Squat "Confessions D'Un Enfant du Siecle" (Livin Astro), Annotations Of An Autopsy "Before The Throne Of Infection" (Siege of Amida Records), Benga "Diary Of An Afro Warrior" (Tempa), Twig "Life After Ridge" (Plastilina) and Jammer's "Are You Dumb ?" volume 4...

And, in the end, we never quite tracked down Soul Food 4, or the Keitzer album. Or EPMD's, which sold out even before our pre-order (fair play to them). But we will.

Um, singles tomorrow. RSI permitting.