For the past six months or so, we’ve been mooching in and about the Significant Albums released every year since 1980. And if we’ve learned anything at all, it’s that we really shouldn’t be changing light bulbs with wet hands. That young people are evil. And that, when you compare these release schedules side-by-side, there’s a surprising disparity from one year to the next.
For whilst there were occasions when the record gods looked down upon us mortals with benevolence smeared across their chops, and did bless us with a musical harvest most bountiful, other times saw the crops fail. Deities that shunned our affections, and punished us for our heathen sins.
Or to put it another way – without any awkward medieval allegory – 2005 was a strong year for album releases. To the extent that space constraints saw a clutch of rather fine records allocated but a brief mention in our Significant Albums blurb, whilst several notable LPs were excluded altogether (I’m thinking specifically here of Into The Woods by Malcolm Middleton, but there’s other titles we could also mention).
2006 however – meh. Fluctuations in the release schedule we’d been expecting, but perhaps not to this extent. Recollection doesn’t have the vinyl emporia devoid of interesting stock in the year in question – but then again, recollection does grow increasingly cloudy when faced with anything earlier than last week, so perhaps we were all kneeling in parched fields after all, and the only words falling from our lips where along the lines of “Oh Lord, why hath thou forsaken us?”
Let’s take a peek at what the official arbiters of taste have down as important albums. The New Musical Express very much likes Kasabian, The Killers, and (stop sniggering at the back) Muse (Empire, Sam’s Town and Black Holes & Revelations, if you must know), whilst along with entire phalanxes of music journalists the globe over, they got their knickers horribly in a twist about Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not – the début album from The Arctic Monkeys. Cue fear. Cue alienation. For although you could argue that I’m not target demographic for any of the aforementioned – and you may be correct – it is a quartet that emphasises how safe, how derivative, how bland, and how cynical (plus in Muse’s case: how fucking ridiculous) mainstream “indie” (note inverted commas) had become, once fully compromised by the corporate push.
Still, that is a push no-one can accuse Luke Haines of aligning himself with. Agent provocateur isn’t the correct phrase, because if he’s subverting anything it’s possibly the notion of subversion itself; whether recording as The Auteurs, Baader Meinhof, Black Box Recorder or solo, his songwriting flits between celebration and the evisceration of nostalgic trope. This movement is beautifully detailed on 2006 album Off My Rocker At The Art School Bop; the first in a triptych of discs themed in a ’70’s (and very English) hinterland – all tawdry showbiz metaphor and polyester accoutrement. The composition underpinning this record is trademark crisp, lyrics that operate through a word-weary, wry amusement – so far, so Haines. But where this really comes into its own is the realisation – either his, ours, or the music industry’s – that by 2006, Haines had nothing else to prove, and was perfectly comfortable turning up in the robes of the outsider. Because there’s a deeply-appealing swash of liberation about its presence. Tongue even more firmly in cheek than ever, these songs fizz with wit and slanted memory.
And that’s without a certain reading of Off My Rocker as concept album. There’s an extremely seedy – even sordid – undertone to some of the lyrical content, even if you overlook the veiled and not-so-veiled references to Jonathan King, Gary Glitter and Jimmy Saville, et al (the latter’s ugly, ugly reputation well-known way before 2006, even if the media didn’t go near the story until recently). In interviews, Haines has played down talk about this album existing as dark study of revolting showbiz, yet it’s hard to shake the notion that he wants us to face up to our naff, collective pop culture heritage. Here’s to old England, indeed.
When released, Ringleader Of The Tormentors certainly wasn’t the recipient of universal acclaim. Yet whilst lacking the implicit swagger of a Your Arsenal or a Vauxhall And I, there’s a refined, tonal maturity to this record – particularly the contemplative sheen behind the lyrics, which find Morrissey at his most baroque. Yet it’s also far from being a museum piece, or something with which to passively address; opener ‘I Will See You In Far-Off Places’ snarls and woofs. ‘Life Is a Pigsty’ utilises ’80’s synth motifs to aplomb. The epic, sarcastic drama of ‘The Father Who Must Be Killed’ echoes The Smiths circa The Queen Is Dead – in fact, the entire album feels as if transposed across shards of Morrissey back-cat. Again – not nostalgia for it own sake, but as a setting for something new, something that highlights the artist in a tight beam of confidence.
Which makes it a grand total of three LPs of an essential jut, when we include the song and dance act that is the traditional curtain closer on these Significant Albums visits Three, plus Mogwai’s Mr Beast (the interplay between piano, bass and bleeps is simply astonishing). My mood-swings rarely chime with Hot Chip, but I can’t leave 2006 alone without mentioning The Warning. The Jarvis Cocker album. Light Travels At Illegal Speeds by Graham Coxon. Show Your Bones by those Yeah Yeah Yeahs is far superior to their new album, whilst I have soft spot for the fuzzy (and at times awkward) stoner neo-psychedelia of Secret Machines; Ten Silver Drops – out this year.
Earlier on, I vaguely recall encouraging us to laugh at the favourite 2006 albums of a well-known bible of musical bibble. So we won’t mention that the NME had Someone To Drive You Home by The Long Blondes at #7 – just six places lower than LGM. And whilst records that bathe in the glare of hype are a reflexive, tiresome turn-off, there are just a few that – once extricated from media attention or the strife of remaining a going concern (rather sad circumstances behind the end of this band, by the way) – sound as fresh and important as when released. Yes, I know that Kate Jackson’s look, pout and lyrical positioning consciously target the (male) indie hipster crowd – she’s sassy and sultry and bitchy and just that little bit saucy – but that’s only one angle of the appeal. Because Jackson doesn’t so much act as a focal point for the band’s sound as allow the waves of music to flow through and around her vocals. A framing device, in other words, and whilst the aesthetic is tinged (but never smothered) by a spiky, poppy, new-wave relevance, its charm lay it how it glamorises yet never patronises the emotions of early adulthood. The narratives behind Someone To Drive You Home– its viewpoint deliciously twenty-something – operate within a never nostalgic, never patronising skein of realism. Where mistakes are made because we’re human, and that’s what we do. Where if there’s anything to be learned, it’s to be yourself.
Oh – and great songs, too. Energy, melody, indie pop guitars. I can’t fail to get swept up in tracks such as ‘Weekend Without Makeup’ or ‘Giddy Stratospheres’. And then there’s the majestic, art school jealousy of ‘You Could Have Both’. Which I wrote about, in depth, on this very site, in August 2011. And I make no apologies for finishing this look back at 2006 with two paragraphs of what I scribbled back then – because it still oh-so relevant:
And so to ‘You Could Have Both’, a song about boy meets girl from a deliciously dark and slanted angle, all of it propelled by fierce instrumental energy and a fine jangly guitar. This is a song that subverts its subject matter (I don’t kid myself about happy endings, I’m too old for that now), facing up to the fact that matters of the heart are predisposed to complexity and atavism with panache, with an endearing form of elegance.
This is also a song that approaches perspective intelligently, counterpointing the intensity of chorus and verse (first-person female narrative) with the spoken break. This is probably the reason why it’s this track and not another that appears in the Festive Fifty; love as suburban. Mundane, even – the interesting things in life (listen to St. Scott Walker, on headphones) weighed down by the humdrum (on the bus; what about us?). Here, even the art school references work: The Apartment just happens to be one of my favourite films, a tender, intricately crafted comedy that parodies the mechanics of why people want to have sex with one another. Name-checking C.C. Baxter, the film’s warm-hearted protagonist, would be gratuitous without context, but when inserted into the subject matter, it never fails to raise a smile.
Luke Haines / Going Off My Rocker At the Art School Bop
Morrissey / The Father Who Must Be Killed
The Long Blondes / You Could Have Both