A side effect of the death of physical singles in the face of the proliferation of downloads is that, well, there’s loads of music out there that falls through the cracks by not being, well, categorisable: iTunes bonus tracks, vinyl-only tracks, remixes that never got properly released, weird stopgap EPs compiling songs that would otherwise have been b-sides back in the day, Record Store Day releases…
In any given year at least some of these odds and ends songs (or b-sides, as I still think of them) make up some of my favourites; this year the only difference is that I own barely any of them physically (still a bit of a bind, I must confess – but having spent 45 minutes earlier this evening fiddling with the glorified spreadsheet that is iTunes, I definitely still like having music physically; it’s less like being at work).
So, here are my top 10 musical odds and ends from 2011
Tongue Tied – The Antlers
This Elbow-ish slow-burner, built on a mechanised rhythm, is (in the UK at least) an iTunes bonus track with the group’s excellent Burst Apart album; it’s as good as anything on there, to be honest, and well worth hearing.
Hey Boy (Nicolas Jaar Remix) – The Blow
I have no idea as to the provenance of this remix – I heard about it on ILM, and sought it out via Hype Machine – but I love it. Minimal dance-pop built on a kick drum, handclaps, and cut-up, looped, female vocals; it’s more direct than anything on his album proper but just as much of a synaesthetic treat.
Pinnacles – Four Tet
This is from a split 12” with Dan Snaith (AKA Caribou) under his Daphni nomenclature. The Snaith track is good, and eminently danceable, but this elongated jazz-house workout from Four Tet, which I think he played in his solo set at ATP (if it wasn’t this, it was something very like it), is an absolute star, one of the best, grooviest things he’s done thus far. It ties together the early, jazzy part of Kieran Hebden’s career with his more recent dance dalliances almost seamlessly.
You’ll Improve Me (Caribou Remix) – Junior Boys
I’ve no idea what the original sounds like (having not really kept up with Junior Boys after So This Is Goodbye), but I heard this remix on 6music in late November and finally remembered to download it (legally) a couple of weeks ago; I could listen to Caribou remix people forever, and seemingly do, some days.
Video Games – Lana Del Rey
We saw her on Jonathan Ross’ show last weekend and were both let down by her vocals and lack of presence – I know her whole schtick is sexy insouciance, but she went beyond laconic disinterest into irritating absence. The recorded version, however, remains excellent. I have doubts about her ability to sustain much interest over 45 minutes, but we’ll see in a couple of weeks, I guess.
Flicker and Fail – Laura Marling
Another iTunes bonus track, this time accompanying Marling’s excellent third album; this isn’t up there with The Beast, but it fits right in with her regular quality control.
The Big Guns Called Me Back Again – PJ Harvey
A bona fide b-side, except that, as far as I can tell, the single it accompanies (The Words That Maketh Murder) only exists virtually. Which makes this… what? Spam? A cookie? What else do you call something you download alongside the file you’re actually after? Whatever; writing this off as digital junket is harsh, because it could easily have fitted on Polly’s magnificent Let England Shake, mining that same misty, blood-drained aesthetic and war-poet lyrical seam.
Staircase / The Daily Mail / Supercollider / The Butcher – Radiohead
Radiohead seem to be going out of their way to throw random songs into the ether, starting a couple of years ago with (the really rather excellent) These Are My Twisted Words. People complained that The King Of Limbs was too short, but given the four songs Radiohead put out on vinyl / download this year separately, it was clearly an aesthetic choice to make it concise, as they had plenty of quality material. Staircase might be my pick of these.
Catherine Wheel / Smother / Thankless Thing – Wild Beasts
Three more bona b-sides, released to accompany digital singles and then compiled together on 12” vinyl for the Reach A Bit Further EP. The would-be (were it on the album) eponymous Smother is a minimal, piano and ambience rumination, and Catherine Wheel a spiralling, reserved but still dramatic salutation, both in keeping with the evolving sophistication of Wild Beasts’ latest record. Thankless Thing, though, is a step above – as good as if not better than anything on Smother, establishing an compelling, synthetic rhythm before exploring both emotional sides of… not an argument, but an instance of discord, in an established relationship; the protagonist rails against a partner’s foible, curses their love, leaves, realises he only cares because he cares, and returns. I first listened to it when I was in… similar emotional territory, and it hit me hard.
Bitten / Anthem / Divine Intervention / Mercia / The City (Richard X Remix) / Sing (Acapella) / This Time Of Year / etc etc etc – Patrick Wolf
Patrick’s also pumped out reams of material this year in addition to Lupercalia; the Lemuralia EP accompanied pre-orders of the album, and contained alternate versions of album tracks, and later in the year Brumalia contained a selection of all-new songs. Add to this bona fide vinyl b-sides, remixes of singles, and the obligatory iTunes bonus tracks, and Patrick produced more than enough material for a full second album this year. Choice picks are Bitten, Brumalia’s lead track, which combines the fulsome, confident songwriting of his current phase with something of the strings and evocation of Wind In The Wires; Sing (Acapella), a Lemuralia-version of an iTunes bonus track which features an extraordinary choral arrangement; Richard X’s remix of The City, which strips away the excitable saxophones to show the song’s inner pop strength; and This Time Of Year, his ‘seasonal’ (but not Christmas) song…
Some thoughts on 6music
Since moving into a new office in November I’ve been listening to 6music for approx 3 days out of 5, which is the first time I’ve listened to any serious amount of music radio (rather than 5live) in what seems like an age.
For the most part, this is a good thing – it’s great to hear obscure Beta Band tracks (if Dr Baker counts as obscure), Boards of Canada, aforementioned Caribou remixes, Roots Manuva, 60s classics (be they Eight Miles High or You’re Love Keeps Lifting Me Higher and Higher) – but the sheer amount of arse-end Britpop dross (Kula Shaker, The Bluetones, Marion, The Bluetones, Catatonia, The Bluetones, etc etc) is frustrating when, to all intents and purposes, the DJs have the entire history and breadth of recorded music to pick from.
Even stuff I love (and I’ll admit to having a soft spot for some Bluetones songs, just not Slight Return every single day) like She Bangs The Drums becomes annoying when you hear it often, and seems like lazy, consensus-reinforcing comfort-blanket indie choices; yes, we’ll play you this awesome new boundary-pushing music, but don’t worry! Shed Seven will be along in a minute, like a big plate of mashed potato to wash that foreign muck away. It makes all the fuss about the potential axe hovering over the station seem like little more than conservative-white-male protectionism. Maybe I’m being harsh.
Also, the other day Huey from Fun Lovin’ Criminals played one of my absolute favourite piece of music ever – I Believe In You by Talk Talk – and, shorn of context and respect and fidelity and so on, it seemed pointless, and strange, and lacking in all the grace and power it has in situ on Spirit Of Eden. And, at the same time, he had the temerity to say he distrusts critics (Spirit Of Eden being “a critical favourite”) because “those who can, do; and those who can’t, write about it”. Presumably those who can’t even write about it just play records.