Sunday, January 31, 2010

The best singles of 2009



As you know, we were hoping that 2009 was going to prove a terrible year for music and making it less demanding on our time and purse, but unfortunately it was once again a *brilliant* year. Especially for singles, as the forest of verbiage below might just testify. (You can compare with our top hundreds from '08 and '07, if bloodyminded enough: and our albums of 2009 are still skulking around here.)

In his earnest, histroy-suffused, occasionally maddeningly technical but fabulous book "The Rest Is Noise", Alex Ross quotes Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, no less, as saying: "I can't listen to music too often. It affects your nerves, makes you want to say stupid nice things, and stroke the heads of people who could create such beauty while living in this vile hell."

We can't help feeling there's a truth in there, reflected in part by the name of our fanzine and the thrall to music, new and old, we just can't shake. It's why, whether we're writing about it or not, whether consuming it or not, we'll always be listening to it.

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1. The Wild Swans "English Electric Lightning" (Occultation, 10")

Swans' triumphant return shows quality of Mersey

"After a 20 year exodus these Swans have returned and with this wonderful, wonderful single, lovingly packaged on deluxe 10" ... Swan-in-chief Paul Simpson is hardly the first singer from the last couple of generations to put together a song about England at once wistful and defiant, nostalgic and modern, plaintive and sad, but this one ticks all the boxes, helped immensely by the way it builds, the deft piano and touches like the unexpected backing vocals, all topped off by Simpson's elegant yet distinctly vulnerable voice. Flip it over and you get the remarkable poem "The Coldest Winter In A Hundred Years", where Simpson, backed by swells and trills of guitar, piano and brush, fills in the uninitiated (us) on some of the prehistory to the Wild Swans' beginnings. An unexpected, but complete, treat."

And, y'know, I don't want to drag the Swans into our personal politicking, but another reason this song is king of our year is the way that it captures the same essential feeling of Englishness that many of us have: not proud, not ashamed, just *aware* of the good, the bad, the new, the old, the changing. "English Electric Lightning"'s beauty, evenhandedness and intelligence is - to us - a riposte to those clowns who insist on defining Englishness (or indeed Britishness) only as a sense of unruly entitlement, as something in yer face, aggressive, superior, backwards-looking, a one-way street leading inexorably into the gutter. We all know who they are.

PS: Like our buses, it seems that two quintessential and brutally honest observations of this "Englishness" thing have come at once: please do take time to get hold of Hulaboy's "The English Mindset" (from their "Scottish Gentlemen of Speed" EP, on split 12" vinyl with Tunabunny on 555) which comes at the subject from a different angle and on a lower budget, but with nearly as much veritas and grace.

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2. Rakim "Holy Are You" (SMC Recordings, download)

He came back to bless the mic

In common with "English Electric Lightning", a near-perfect comeback single.

"*gorgeous*, honestly. We wait a full 45 seconds of looped sample scene-setting before Rakim starts to flow, but when we do it's as mellifluous, as *captivating* as ever. And although the beats nod slightly, unavoidably, towards hip-hop's 21st century, there's no Autotune, no Akon chipmunking, no godforsaken backing wail, no bolt-on chorus to screw up the serenity of his thoughts: only brief, crackling sampled piano and the sung words (yep, sampled from the Electric Prunes) of the record's title. Indeed, the track is sufficiently, satisfyingly old-school that even Mr Farrakhan gets a mention. But the key, as ever, is the flow, some of which made us double-take: "Walk on water ? / No, neither did Jesus / It's a parable to make followers and readers believers". Or this: "we were children of the most high, so we fell / from paradise to holy hell / probably descendants of the Holy Grail / another part of history they won't reveal..." before it ends, with the inevitable sign-off: "Rakim Allah. Peace". And it's hard not to feel, every time you listen to the R, that you haven't, in some small way, been blessed."

And if only Eric B had been, um, "on the cut", this would have probably sneaked up that one place further. "The Seventh Seal", while delayed nearly as long as "How To Look Imploring", is not nearly as bad an album as many would have you believe - any LP that gets slated by Pitchfork and Popmatters must have something to commend it, and Rakim's cuss-free flow (isn't it refreshing to buy a hip-hop CD without a parental advisory sticker ?) still shines way above the rather less inspired backing - but it's fair to day that "Holy" proved to be its peak. *Do not* let the lukewarm reception to "The Seventh Seal" stop you copping this single.

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3. The Declining Winter "Haunt The Upper Hallways" (Home Assembly Music, 7")

Pastoral symphony oozes Adams family values

"This is indeed haunting, luxurious, kind of softly spellbinding, its opening flickers of feedback building into a sweep of fluttering drums, polite guitar and languid violins suggesting falling leaves and early dusks, eventually joined by vocals from richard adams... that suck the moisture from the air one syllable at a time ("the / rain / came / down") and send the most exquisite shivers down your spine... the latest chapter in the history of hood and post-hood classic singles... this record is wonderfully *easy* to fall for: yes it soothes, it intrigues, yet it's far from an ambient haze, propelled along as it is by the kind of footsteps-on-forest-floor rhythms that have decorated hood tunes for the best part of one score years."

Cleverly came as a 7" packaged with a ten-track CD, allowing this stunning song to make its mark as a single in the Hood tradition, but also allowing you the luxury of delving into the CD's many instrumental fragments for a more measured taste of the Winter's honeyed healing powers.

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4. Looking For An Answer "La Caceria" (Relapse, 7")

Thrill of "The Chase"

Yes, yes, YES, as Peelie used to say while a closing chord faded into flitting, fleeting feedback. We've had the back of Madrid veg-core fiends LFAA for a while now, so couldn't be happier that Relapse have now put their hands across the Atlantic to ensnare them for a 7" and album deal. This 4-track EP @ 45 rpm shows they've lost none of the 89/90-Napalm vigour of past outings (two of which, incidentally, the brilliant "Rupture" and "Humans Are Also Meat", recently resurfaced on a Spain Kills comp) with four tracks of burningly danceable, almost Terrorizer-like, grind. "Estandarte De Huesos" and "Supremacia Etica" on the A side and "La Peste Roja" on the B mix up blastbeats, breakdowns and moshery with uncommon vigour: the final song is a cover, no less, of Repulsion's "Driven To Insanity", presumably to give LFAA an 'in' to their new potential non-European fanbase, but it's the three originals which stoke our fire, float our boat, run the ensign up our flagpole etc etc. You can tell it's a good year for singles when this is only #4, and it's about time animal liberation got a soundtrack this vital: tbh, "La Caceria" may be the best grindcore 7" since "Mentally Murdered" / "Cause And Effect" all those moons ago.

PS it's limited to about 600, which is insane.

5. Endemic and Cappo "The Needle Drop EP" (No Cure Records, 12")

Notts so manic now

Just as in 2008, Cappo turns up on a 12" banger towards the year-end and raps his way straight into contention: this time, it's another Nottingham producer - Endemic, rather than Styly Cee - who's made it all happen. This record came out on 15th December, escaping every year-end list that wasn't made by dilettantes like us, and unaccountably being squeezed out of the race to the UK number one spot for Christmas. As Xmas pressies go, though, it rules.

Ultimately "Needle Drop" is Endemic's record, and he delivers swooning, heavily string-laden beats in the style of an English RZA that ebb and flow to match the virtuosity of Caps and his guests. As Endemic's partner in crime on this occasion, Cappo provides all the vocals for the intro, the jump-off title track and side B cut "Crumbs", but is also joined by Londoners Cyrus Malachi and Iron Braydz (on "Hacksaw") and Cyrus & Iron plus his fellow Notts rhymers Lee Ramsay and Scorzayzee*, no less, on "Eagles", where Endemic switches mood dramatically to provide some piano-backed, more furiously discombob beats, daring each MC to raise his game to compete. (The seven-tracker is rounded off by the contrasting instrumentals of "Eagles" and "Needle Drop"). Not unlike a certain Rakim, Cappo's style now is very much *rise above*, and without ever losing his trademark hunger and aggression he shows off once more the expanded vocabulary, mystical leanings and scientific metaphors that keep him heads, shoulders, knees and toes above pretty much anyone left repping the UK right now. Fantastic stuff.

*You may have come across Scorz more recently via his featuring in Shane Meadows' latest movie, but don't be fooled: the man is no joke (and the Arctic Monkeys should be supporting him). Listen to hall of fame cuts like "Voyage", "Want What's Yours" or "Why I'm Here" before you even dare tell us the man can't flow.

6. Starkey "Miracles (Jamie Vex'd Remix)" (Planet Mu, 12")

American dubstep steps out from the shadows

"Jamie out of Vex'd takes on "Miracles", from Philly resident Starkey's "Ephemeral Exhibits" LP last year, and with a remix burning with the same cinematic vigour that informed his own "In System Transit" 12", he helps bring the original out into the open, all spooked-out edits curling up to cuddle fabulously warm, disembodied vocals."

Since "Untrue", an increasing number of people have been picking up on how the best instrumental tunes really can conjure up depth and emotion, far less cynically and cheaply than many a sung "I love you". (The worst can drain your pocket and your patience, but that's another story). "Miracles" is unpretentious, but a real pepper-upper: a sleek, modern soundtrack for the journey home from the office that can make you breathe contented smiles just as readily and surely as it makes your head nod.

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7. DJ Honda featuring Mos Def "Magnetic Arts" (DJ Honda Recordings, download)

Exquisitely cut diamond that might remind you why you loved hip-hop in the first place

"This is peaches and cream... DJH, following his long-player with fellow local Problemz, is here limbering up for his next showcase album ("IV"), and the multifaceted, too-often inconsistent yet still underrated Mos Def deigns to join him for some horn-happy, full-on, no flagging old-of-skool dextro-freestyling that is over waaay too quickly (not even three minutes on the clock)."

Mos watchers will point out that half the lyrics are nicked from "Casa Bey", as if that's a bad thing. Here's a worrying precedent, though - a few months after issuing the single as reviewed, Honda issues an "extended" (four minutes not three) versh as another single, meaning that if like us you're a sucker, you have to buy it again (because the four minute version is indeed one-third more ace).

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8. Raffertie "Antisocial" (Seclusiasis, 12")

In which Caspa and Rusko frankly get OWNED

""Wobble Horror!" gained a few broadsheet plaudits, but "Antisocial" is much more interesting: two enormous bouts of big-city wobble from Birmingham's up-and-coming earl of crunk-step which surround a subdued, ambient halfstep middle while themselves being bookended by busy, vocal sample cuts that sound not unlike that "Miracles" remix again."

Yes, interesting. It is possible, and sometimes even scene darlings are scene darlings for a reason. "Antisocial", like "Miracles", speaks a different vocabulary than the Wild Swans or Rakim, but still one that delivers a cosy glow, albeit through the medium of a wobblefest in several distinct parts that's in patches urgent, in others chilled to oblivion. As such, it reminds us a little of the Fall's marvellous, and so overlooked, wonky epic "Chiselers".

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9. Kryptic Minds "Life Continuum" (Osiris Music, 12")

DS arrivistes effortlessly secure their place in its first XI

They may have emigrated from the very different world of drum and bass, but Kryptic Minds seem to have effortlessly adapted to dubstep's more gently yielding textures. The Minds' Simon Shreeve is a true music man: someone in it for the right reasons, whose work is always thoughtful, even if this means having to give it the very un-2009 luxury of several spins before the true rewards are revealed. "Life Continuum" is a gently pulsing, bass-led groove, the needle tracing the subtlest dark-of-step signatures while revealing hidden depths and subtexts one listen at at time. And like their Tectonic single "768", this is not on their ripplingly gorge "One Of Us" album, which means that's now three Kryptic Minds releases we urge you to investigate.

10. Socialist Leisure Party "Turktown Saints" (Cloudberry Records, 7")

Return of a couple of Action Painting! peeps with irresistible POP! single

"The swashbuckling debut(ish) of Socialist Leisure Party... a song that just floats along, giddily semi-drunk on a layered combo of fluttering rhythms and breezy flute motifs, but never lacking energy or pace."

This was the point for us at which the Cloudberry project eventually gathered (we hope) unstoppable momentum... our joy at this record confined only by later going on holiday at the precise moment SLP were playing in London (them and Insect Warfare, in the same week GRRRR). The way that "Turktown Saints" cheekily rushes by gives the same inward glow we had when we first got "These Things Happen" home from the record store, a feeling that - like our first taste of tens of Sarah singles - hasn't evaporated to this day.

Can't recall if we mentioned this before, but "Vulnerable Adults" on the other side was very nearly as good, you know: rare to see a song so catchy squirreled away on a B-side, but it's a further treat that does rather make this single a *must-buy*.

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OK. We outta here.