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Saturday, May 13, 2017

Number 1 - "Sea Within a Sea", The Horrors

The Horrors. They wrote the best song of the Noughties. You now it.

Sea Within a Sea
- The Horrors

Primary Colours (2009)

No, I'm not entirely sure where this came from either. Their first album gave frankly little indication of how brilliant the sophomore effort would be. That's not the way it's supposed to be done.

And just look at these punks. They look like they're auditioning for Baby Edward Scissorhands. They can't possibly have the experience, the gravitas, the canniness to occupy this echelon, surely?

Well they flipping well CAN. And they did. We're not assessing artists here, we're assessing songs. Their body of work is by now impressive and solid, and we've heard them once already in the countdown with "Scarlet Fields". But this is the masterwork - it's an epic, grandiose, sprawling beast that touches all the standard bases for musical greatness while coasting into home.

It sounds at one level like an extended jam session, the rhythm section is basically CAN's "Mother Sky". So base one would be doing structured improvisation to sound like the best of them. Jog on by.

I'm getting this on borrowed wisdom, since I've rescinded my qualifications to keep doing this, but I did come across one reviewer who claimed copiers of the rhythm section became so many that it had been "reduced to the late noughties equivalent of the 'funky drummer.'" I wonder if they're aware they're just following in a fine tradition.

So that's it. There's no other track from the entire decade that I find myself NEEDING periodically to return to for musical sustainance. There's no other track that continually seems to present hitherto hidden facets of itself on repeated listings.

It's not the track you spent most time flinging yourself around a dancefloor to. It's not the single that's going to get you all nostalgic for the decade in years to come because it speaks to some significant event. It's probably not going to stay on any list of songs anyone recalls from the decade for long.

But none of those invalidate it. Remember the criteria. It's simply the finest song that was released during the last decade. And this story is over.

A very big thanks to those who have been following along this absurdly epic project from the beginning. I literally first began making this list in 2011. First blog post was about eighteen months back. That's all a measure of LOVE, not incompetence, readers can be reassured.

But y'know what? The reality is that I don't think this decade was up to much. How many of this top ten would make my all time top ten? Not many. Recapping the theoretical palaver that I first pushed this bat out with, the lesson here is welcome to postmodernity.

Welcome to a world with fewer genuinely inherently stellar things. But also a world where the ability of everyone to participate in the "making of stellar things" in a genuine way has never been greater. There is a greater chance of a given unknown artist being 'found' than ever before because the barriers to global music distribution have been torn down.

But there's a significantly lower chance that your society is going to have a body of people within it called "musicians" who genuinely make a meaningful living from their art.

Is this a better world? And does it matter? Because we're not going to be able to wish it away. We're going to have to live in it.

Or you could take this author's own approach, and remember very regularly to look backwards. Nostalgia actually performs a vital role for humanity's collective psyche. It grounds us in higher ideals, elevates our eyes to nobler horizons.

The Top Ninety of the Nineties starts Monday. A real decade. MY decade. We are done here. With a very large and sustained thanks to those who have sustained me, endured all of this and taken the time to give feedback.

Remember this started out as an exercise in right of passage, my letting go of being eighteen forever. It's actually been quite painful. I never started that band ... and now ...

But The Horrors might just have said it as well as I ever could...

Though youth may fade with boyhood's cares
New fear will catch us unawares
I know it will

So you might say
The path we share is one of danger
And of fear
Until the end

Monday, May 8, 2017

Number 2 - "Machine Gun" - Portishead

Beth Gibbons from Portishead with Beth Gibbons from Portishead

Machine Gun
- Portishead

Third (2009)

I hear tell that they once did this live with Chuck D from Public Enemy rapping "Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos" over the instrumental section. If anyone knows of a recording of whatever quality of that, I will pay good money for it. Pints of blood even.

And so, much as I try to keep these fresh, it's very hard to find anything at all original to say about this track, and that may well be some sort of testament to why it belongs here.

Yes, the band that we loved, the band that the nineties regaled for never putting a single note in the wrong place, well we turned around one day and, like your best mate from high school, we realised we hadn't heard from them in a decade. Not another flipping overdose???

Well, no. This story ends well. Not dead, only resting. Only taking the requisite time to produce  again at the standards we expected.

The song is everything that was ever great about the band, it's a micro-studious take on one riff married to a vocal that never sits perfectly at ease with its musical partner, and in the zone of that semi-awkward interplay greatness is born.

Only Beth Gibbons could render a melody this jarring and disjointed so effectively well-contained and melodious. Ask yourself when was the last time you had some many weird minor notes bouncing round your head was, as you humm along as if it were some Madonna chorusline.

So once again we see the prevailing formula in effect. Great art is crafted from one well-conceived concept, however humble, rendered by artists whose focus is singular and set within a coherent and meaningful purpose.

And should you ever have the opportunity to catch these folk at work live, do not pass it up at any reasonable price, for the aesthetic they bring to their songwriting is unlike many acts, equally present in their performance work.

Music was only capable of clambering a mere rung higher than this during the decade. And tomorrow, having spent literally years ascertaining that fact, I'm finally ready to declare it. Seems like an anticlimax now. It feels like in finishing this thing I have to kill it ... gulp!

See you tomorrow.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Number 3 - "Say Valley Maker", Smog

Smog, aka Bill Callahan

Say Valley Maker - Smog

A River Ain't Too Much to Love (2005)

And a big welcome everyone to probably my largest personal indulgence of the countdown.

No, this wasn't on any other lists, Smog wasn'y on many full stop. Both situations are wrong. This album is possibly my favourite of the decade. Smog/Bill Callahan (although somehow the eponymous releases were kind of B grade) would have to vie for the title of its greatest singer-songwriter.

If readers have been following at all, they'll have already discerned that this particular commentator values above all else sell-crafted simplicity and poecy in songwriting above almost all else. And this simply excelled at both to an extent in my musical pantheon that this was always going top five.

It's just a beautiful song, but it's little more than a two chord arpeggio. It is however perfectly married to a lyric strong enough to virtually carry the song itself. Callahan's incredible bass emotes to the exactingly calibrated level he's perfected, hovering perpetually between irony and pathos. And some weight it hefts around.

"With the grace of a corpse in a riptide/I let go/and I slide, slide, slide/downriver"

But it's the repeating sections "There is no love ..." and most particularly the "Bury me in wood" 'crescendo' that concludes the song that render it truly memorable. These can scarcely be done justice in printed reproduction. But it's this section in particular which really earns this song it's spot amongst the decade's mightiest.

But if anyone's ever written a better pop lyrics than "bury me in fire/and I'm gonna phoenix", I'm keen to know what it is.

Because that's just one of the most perfect twenty seconds of songwriting you'll ever hear.

Number 4 - "Maps", Yeah Yeah Yeahs

Karen O, Yeah Yeah Yeahs

Maps - Yeah Yeah Yeahs

Fever to Tell (2004)

And didn't this lot burst well out of the blocks. It's hard to believe a track this polished came from anyone's debut album.

This deserves its spot here as much as anything for being the pinnacle of the short-lived but significant mid-decade 'garage punk revival' that also spawned the likes of The Strokes, The Black Keys, The Hives, White Stripes, etc.

It's beauty is in its ability to maintain a rock tempo while at the same time being so utterly languid in most of its elements. From the blissed out guitar treble that mutates just occasionally into a big dirty solo, to Karen O allowing her otherwise perfectly tempered voice to run occasionally just that tiny bit out of control "theydontloveyoulikeiloveyou" this song ebbs and flows perfectly, and our emotions with it.

The song navigates effortlessly territory that sinks most pop music - that between sentimentality and affectation. Maps' power is in its ability to linger in the former without invoking the latter.

It achieves this in its fairly raw simplicity, exquisite production and above all else in Karen O's extraordinary vocal. She was without doubt one of the greatest new such talents the decade produced, and I submit the following evidence....

Friday, May 5, 2017

Number 5 - "Strange Overtones" , Brian Eno and David Byrne

Eno and Byrne in the 80s

Strange Overtones - Brian Eno and David Byrne

Everything That Happens Will Happen Today (2008)

Pitchfork had this as their #11 for 2008. Pfft. It's way better than than. It's a fairly obvious meta-song about songwriting from two absolute past masters of the craft, both of whom seemingly needed the other to finish this project.

This was I believe the only single released from the album, which was given away free online. It was apparently based on a number of gospel-based tracks that Eno had written but couldn't write lyrics for as he was unable to write anything "hopeful" enough.

The album was completed largely by correspondence, and while it doesn't really reach the heights of their more seminal "My Life in the Bush ...", this is an absolutely killer single that stays with you for days.

The music video you see above apparently features some of Eno's own paintings.

The album dealt with themes that have occupied both artists in the past - around the interaction of humanity and technology.

Strange Overtones/In the music you are playing
We're not alone/It is strong and you are tough
But a heart is not enough--
I'm reminded fairly acutely of one of Talking Heads' more forgotten gems - Nothing But Flowers, which I've generously furnished you with also.

The backing is reasonably by-numbers Eno, but still astonishingly accomplished. After what going on forty years of this, the guy just farts these things out in his sleep, I swear.

Both Eno and Byrne have dubbed this "Electronic Gospel, which is probably fair enough. The world could do with a bit more "electronic gospel."

And so, brethren, today's hymn ...

Number 6 - "Dem Never Know", Rhythm and Sound

Dem Never Know - Rhythm and Sound

See Mi Yah (2005)

Another one that was largely absent from the other charts. What is this? Well it's essentially Basic Channel, Berlin duo Mark Ernestus and Moritz Von Oswald.

Von Oswald is a particularly interesting character, kind of like a less annoying but far more Tuetonic Adrian Sherwood. He's been almost singlehandedly responsible for pioneering this genre of ultra-authentic roots/dub/reggae with a minimalist techno bent.

The point of the exercise is to obtain a purist, authentic original dub reggae (analog) sound with modern (digital) technologies.

And that he's been able to work with some of the biggest names in the notoriously insular reggae business like Cornel Campbell, Jennifer Lara and Love Joy is some testament to the authenticity of the effort.

And this here outing carries the imprimatur of none other than legendary 70s/80s Jamaican DJ Joseph Cotton/Jah Walton, appearing here just for simplicity's sake as Jah Cotton with Ranking Joe, U-Brown AND the Blood & Fire Sound System.

Basically nothing could possibly go wrong, and so nothing does.

The track is lifted from what is unquestionably one of the most obsessively purist of musical exercises ever attempted, and one of the greatest. It's ten different vocal and one instrumental versions of the one rhythm.

They're for the most part only subtly different from each other, but the tonalities of the differences are the work's genius. The artists' claim that

"the tracks are lined up in a way that allows the listener to enjoy See Mi Yah as one continuous program running for about 46 minutes. It's never a bore - and goes on in the listener's head, when voices, rhythm and sound will be long gone."

is entirely credible. But the pinnacle is unquestionably this track.

It belongs here for electing to utterly excel at only one thing. And for honing in on that thing with an obsessive's mania. It soars above the rest of the decade's noise.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Number 7 - "Idioteque", Radiohead


Idioteque - Radiohead

Kid A (2000)

Never released as a single, you can just imagine a bunch of drunk record execs in navy suits slurping paella, not knowing what to do with it. Especially way back in 2000.

But of course it was actually the soaring highlight of this entire masterwork.

You've never heard anything quite like it. It's an exercise in playing off jarring syncopation against a smooth falsetto that contains just enough melody to warrant the name. The vocal seems perpetually poised just this side of panic.

It's a cloying, claustrophobic, almost sinister track that you just so happen to be able also to dance to. There's a sense of alarm from an external threat. The lyric supports this.

"Who's in a bunker, who's in a bunker?/ Women and children first"

The album itself is peppered with references that Yorke has acknowledged regarding what was taking place in the former Yugoslavia at that time, and it's hard not to read this in the same context. The riff is a sample from Paul Lansky, apparently.

Lansky wrote an essay about the song explaining all the nerdy complexities of the chord progressions which is no doubt lurking around online for the truly avid fan.