Tough Love

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Wired For Sound

Well, 2005's heading off to that Great Dumper in the Sky. You know the place - it's where Rachel Stevens songs go to die.

But anyway, before we toddle off to kiss goodbye to the Noughtie's halfway point amid the company of square-jawed and icy-hearted German boys, here's our thorough, unadulterated and 100% non-biased round-up of the year's best music.

And no, we're not being paid to endorse any of these products (it's not Myspace, you know). But if you'd like to offer, answers on a postcard to good ol' Tough Love Towers.

Happy 2006 to all who can be bothered to read this gubbins.

Goldfrapp - Supernature
After an all-conquering summer, the Goldfrapp backlash seems to be kicking in already, with accusations that this third album is a retrograde step compared to Black Cherry and Felt Mountain. Balls. A nakedly commercial album, yes, but one that shows lesser, lazier pop acts how it should be done. Every song a gem precision-designed to sell thousands without ever losing its cool or sense of fun.

Roisin Murphy – Ruby Blue
Never having been much of a fan of Moloko, who – a few singles aside – always seemed a bit self-consciously weird, I didn’t expect to like this much. I was wrong. With collaborator Matthew Herbert on board, Murphy has turned out an album of skittish, left-leaning electro jazz which charms and impresses but never intimidates. It was marketed stupidly as a pop album at the time and seems to have sunk without trace. Let’s hope she picks a smarter label next time.

The Arcade Fire - Funeral

Forget the muso bullshit about this being a ‘post-rock affirmation of life in the face of death’, this album’s nowhere near as boring as the praise it generates. Listen instead to the spine-tingling Bjork song Bjork never wrote that is In The Back Seat; the way Tunnels managed to sound like a gospel choir covering a Talking Heads song with a gypsy band in the background. An exceptional album.

Girls Aloud – Chemistry
Perhaps the group’s swansong, but certainly a calling card for Xenomania as songwriters at the top of their game. This is a ‘manufactured’ pop album that sounds like it’s been assembled by artists rather than clueless marketers. Chemistry fizzes with energy, ambition, innovation and imagination: a concept album on what it is to be a young woman cast adrift in Generation Heat. A witty, sassy pop album that pushes, but never strains, the boundaries of pop’s vocabulary.

Antony And The Johnsons – I Am A Bird Now
Antony Hegarty’s rapid rise from the fringes of the avant-garde to near on universal adoration has been one of 2005’s most unexpected and pleasurable developments. A Julie Burchill-lookalike borrowing Nina Simone’s voice may not sound like a pop phenomenon, but that reckons without the fragile, yearning beauty of songs like Fistful Of Love and Hope There’s Someone. Music that tastes of rich red wine: dark, heady and intoxicating.

Madonna – Confessions Of A Dancefloor
Why is Madonna like Mark Twain? Because rumours of her demise are greatly exaggerated. She may have got a tabloid battering for everything else: her side projects, religion, marriage – but still she managed to pull another accomplished, effortless comeback out the bag. An album of unreconstructed disco hits, it takes Madonna back to her roots and many thousands more back on to the dance floor.

Saint Etienne - Tales From Turnpike House
Another in 2005’s growing list of notable concept albums, Tales From Turnpike House takes Pete, Bob and Sarah’s trademark indie loser pop sound into lusher territory. Beach Boys harmonies; lyrics about middle-aged disappointment rather than young love; pop music that lifts and punches you at the same time. Take out the exceptionally bad David Essex collaboration and you have a near perfect album for a summer day.

Patrick Wolf – Wind In The Wires
Wunderkind Wolf wowed the emerging nu-folk scene back in 2003 with his drum n bass influenced folk album Lycanthropy. Back in February 2005 with Wind In The Wires a more mature, less tricksy album the comparisons to Joni Mitchell and Kate Bush began to bear fruit. Songs like Teignmouth and Ghost Song suggest an elemental, wilful artist determined to please himself and drag us along with him.

Seth Lakeman – Kitty Jay
A spiritual cousin to Patrick Wolf, albeit one who lives on a diet of real ale rather than absinthe. Lakeman’s album turned out to be another surprise seller after being listed for The Mercury Music Prize. Kitty Jay is a spirited album of brittle, beautiful folk songs evoking the landscape of Lakeman’s home in Dartmoor.

Jose Gonzalez – Veneer
Expect to be sick of this album by the end of 2006 – but in a good way. Gonzalez’s album of wispy yet never insubstantial vocals and spidery flamenco guitar is a thing of loveliness. Crosses sounds like sunbeams slanting across a cathedral; his cover of The Knife’s Heartbeat turns an android love song into a bittersweet ballad. David Gray: start planning your retirement now.

Rufus Wainwright - Want Two

The second part of Wainwright’s Want project brought us a darker more difficult album than the first, but one that rewarded repeat listening. It may have nothing as poppy as I Don’t Know What It Is but it has The Art Teacher: a sparse, angular song that is quite possibly the best he’s written yet.

Kate Bush – Aerial
It was always going to be good to have her back, and while she didn’t innovate with Aerial, she didn’t disappoint either. Who else could put a washing machine into a paean to a hypnotic love song, or give Rolf Harris an unembarrassing cameo? Proving she’s still up there among the best living songwriters, Bush delivered something very rare along the way: an example of domestic bliss made solid and available for £12.99.

Keren Ann – Nolita
She’s big in France and Belgium but don’t let that put you off. Another singer-songwriter, this one with her roots in jazz, Ann’s Nolita is a languid pleasure: half in English, half in French, but 100% listenable.

Ladytron – The Witching Hour
After two albums that failed to quite deliver on the hype, electroclash’s poster children made good with their third album. Eschewing the electro-Puritan sound that made their name in fashion magazines, the band emerges from the freezer with a surprisingly touching album that occasionally verges on the shoegazey.

Martha Wainwright – Martha Wainwright

It’s taken her a while to step out of her brother’s rank of backing singers, but younger Wainwright Martha has delivered a bruised, country-folk tinged debut which shows great promise. It’s selling fairly well for something put out on a label so small it’s practically microscopic too.

So there we go. A few things to buy in the sales. Now go on, be off with you. Shoo! Have yourselves a lovely New Year.