WHICH SIDE ARE YOU ON
There was little middle ground among the year’s best (and worst) albums, writes Brian Boyd
SO, WHERE to stand on the Arctic Monkeys question? The best debut since Definitely Maybe, clatter full of acerbic social commentary and acute colloquial observations that steamrolled its way across the musical landscape with an insouciant swagger? Or merely the case of a band catching a wave and ending up at destination “right time, right place”?
There was a Libertines-sized hole out there, and the Monkeys found themselves sucked into the vacuum. Certainly, the levels of hyperventilation surrounding their album were almost unprecedented – and MySpace managed to make a name for themselves in the ensuing maelstrom.
Whatever way you cut it, though, Whatever People say I Am was an impertinently good record that highlighted an admirable John Cooper Clarke lyrical approach and some winning musicianship. Enjoy it now while you can; the next album may well be a Be Here Now.
Over in Razorlight land, people who got over the gobby singer Johnny Borrell (a sort of male Lily Allen) found that the band had set the controls for the heart of stadium rock on their eponymously titled work. While many bands head off to the musical research and development laboratory in search of something new, Razorlight just riff off an old theme but punch it around a bit so it’s not that recognisable.
Mainstream guitarpop made a long overdue return with The Automatic and The Feeling. Both have admirably ignored the strictures of standard indie rock for something a bit looser and more chartfriendly. The Automatic had one of the songs of the year in Monster, and their bright, breezy sound is as infectious as it comes. The Feeling locate themselves even further towards the MOR dial, and you sort of have to admire any band who list Supertramp and Wings as two of their main influences (it makes a change from The Stooges and The Dolls). Retro? Maybe. But who’s complaining when it’s as exuberant as this. See also: Guillemots and Orson.
It was odd to see The Killers trying to rewrite a Bruce Springsteen album for Sam’s Town. Odd only because it is seemingly mandatory now for rock bands to have at least one an- ti-American song in their set. What The Killers manage to do on Sam’s Town, the counterpoint to American Idiot, is reinvent a mythic America. But it’s how they do it that matters most. Sam’s Town sounds like Tom Petty fronting a pissed off Duran Duran.
Springsteen himself went even further back with We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions. In one of those unfathomable ways, his choice of songs said more about the current state of US politics than any nominal contemporary “protest song”. And who would have thought that someone with such an enviable catalogue of his own could turn in some of the most vivacious live shows of his career by covering an old folkie?
Three other leadingmales returned with notable works. On 12 Songs, Neil Diamond threw away his karaoke machine tendencies, removed the syrup and came up with one of his best-ever collections. Whether this was down to Rick Rubin’s much-touted involvement or the simple realisation on Diamond’s part that he is, at core, a singer-songwriter, is debatable.
Thom Yorke took a sabbatical from Radiohead on the unfairly maligned The Eraser. True, it was a bleakly lo-fi affair and it certainly didn’t offer any respite for fans of his The Bends- era work, but somewhere deep down in these songs there was a bristling intensity that got him over all the unnecessary noodly bits.
Sir Stephen of Morrissey was also back and, while his album did oscillate a bit, a song such as the rather glorious Life Is a Pigsty could be safely filed under “classic”.
While a lot of the rowdier new kids on the block wear their Smiths influences a bit too screechingly obviously, this year we had the very rare occurrence of someone actually outMorrisseying Morrissey. Jarvis Cocker is superbly sardonic on Jarvis (the title makes him sound like an X-Factor contestant). The person once known as “the fifth most famous man in Britain” and who once compared his distaste for fame to a nut allergy, first resurfaced with a anti-Live 8 song last year, archly titled Running the World. On the album he sings about Disney and fat children. And it all somehow makes perfect sense. Mistakenly described as a “protest album”, Jarvis is in fact more righteous anger than anything else.
The Pitchfork effect was a big talking point, with the site assuming a make ’em/break ’em status. All well and good if it’s an Arcade Fire or the related Broken Social Scene, but not all well when it comes to impenetrable post-rock excursions. But with Rolling Stone now successfully transformed into a comic for baby-boomers, Pitchfork has become the medium thatmatters.
Elsewhere, all new bands seemed to be getting their names from scrabble games; Tom Waits misfired with Orphans; Hasidic rap, in the shape of Matisyahu, didn’t even make it to the 15-minute mark; Music for Robots soared; Towers of London didn’t; The Great Western, a solo album by James Dean Bradfield, was wrongly overlooked; Young Folks by Peter, Bjorn and John sounded great; TV on the Radio made the avant garde look simple.
Who would have thought that the album soundtrack from a Las Vegas show would be one of the musical highlights of the year? The Beatles’ Love was a mash-up album in all but name that could have been disastrous for all concerned. But by deftly re-imagining the songs, this is more like a sound collage than a tie-in accompaniment to the stage show. Forget about The Grey Album – this is the real deal. A different class.
There’re too busy singing. . . Nuts for Arctic Monkeys in 2006