Rock columns, Mail on Sunday, December 26, 2010, December 27, 2009, December 28, 2008, December 30, 2007, December 31, 2006, and December 18, 2005
Cee Lo: Forget You. My song of the year 2006 was Crazy by Gnarls Barkley, a classic that seemed destined to be a one-off. Then the man who sang it came up with this: another bristling, lovable, retro but relevant soul song, and another massive hit.
Plan B: She Said. A British Forget You: a snappy, uplifting soul song that felt as if it must have been recorded by Smokey Robinson in 1966. Somehow it emerged from the pen of a white East End rapper in 2010, and inspired him to start singing like Smokey too.
Gorillaz: Stylo. Electro meets soul: Damon Albarn comes up with a classic synth riff and ropes in Bobby Womack for an authoritative cameo.
Robyn featuring Snoop Dogg: U Should Know Better. Commercially, and in news terms, pop’s woman of the year was Lady Gaga, but artistically it was Robyn, with her pinpoint dance-pop. This song offered a great tune, some memorable swearing and a nonchalant guest in Snoop Dogg.
Rumer: Slow. An elegant melody and a voice like a mountain stream: the ballad of the year.
Fyfe Dangerfield: She’s Always A Woman. Billy Joel has long been a guilty pleasure. This well-judged cover by the Guillemots singer was possibly the first hit to be borne aloft by a John Lewis commercial.
Neil Diamond: Feels Like Home. Randy Newman’s recent albums are packed with ballads waiting to be recognised as classics. Diamond brings out the shimmer of gospel here, singing with loving care and limpid diction. Immensely moving.
Peter Gabriel: The Power Of Your Heart. On the album Scratch My Back, and particularly on this Lou Reed song, Gabriel showed a quality that a few other singers have come to late in life, notably Johnny Cash: a lethal simplicity.
The xx: VCR. The xx’s debut appeared in 2009, but it was only this year that their pulsing electro-pop became part of the fabric of life.
Lawrence Arabia: Look Like A Fool. The damp squib of the year was the arrival on iTunes of the Beatles, who lost their sense of occasion by putting all their wares out at once. But their influence lives on, and this track from a young New Zealander, catchy, polished and candid, was worthy of Rubber Soul.
Jolly Boys: Great Balls Of Fire. Today’s pop is a case of all styles served here, to quote Roxy Music – but early rock’n’roll often gets forgotten. This cover, by a Jamaican mento band with an electrifying 72-year-old singer, put it back in the mainstream.
Laura Veirs: Sun Is King. From an Oregon singer who ought to be famous comes a song that conjures its own mood: wistful and warm, with a strikingly feminine guitar solo, there not to grandstand but to share a feeling.
She & Him: Thieves. If you’re stuck for an album to give as a present, check out M. Ward, who goes by several names including She & Him. This charming Sixties-style pop song, written and sung by Her (the actress Zooey Deschanel), has His fingerprints all over it.
Elvis Costello: Slow Drag with Josephine. Yet another bullseye to add to his collection: a minimal miracle consisting of little more than a guitar, a fiddle and a way with words.
Tom Petty: The Trip To Pirate’s Cove. Another ace craftsman, another masterclass in narrative songwriting.
Massive Attack: Splitting The Atom. Every act has its emotional range, and Massive Attack’s goes all the way from darkly brooding to thoroughly miserable. By their standards, this mid-tempo number, driven by a genial organ, is almost sprightly.
The National: Runaway. One of Brooklyn’s many fine bands deliver a late-night brooder which pitches Matt Berninger’s inky baritone against a radiantly gentle trumpet.
Broken Records: Dia Dos Namarados. A song of grave beauty from a young Edinburgh band, halfway from traditional folk to The Blue Nile.
I Am Kloot: The Moon Is A Blind Eye. Mournful brilliance from Manchester, featuring some of the best pauses since Harold Pinter died.
Bryan Ferry: Tender Is The Night. A song that pinches a title from Scott Fitzgerald had better be good. This one combines the sweep of Avalon, the soulfulness of Windswept, and something new - a shiver of elderly regret.
SONGS OF 2009
Jay Z featuring Alicia Keys: Empire State Of Mind (Roc Nation). Mr Z’s contribution was routine braggadocio, but Ms Keys brought something special: a soaring chorus that captured the majestic optimism of New York.
Black Eyed Peas: I Gotta Feeling (Polydor). Will.i.am and co can be crass, but that's not always a crime in pop. This track spent six months in the charts for a reason: it was catchy, uplifting and irresistibly simple.
Franz Ferdinand: Ulysses (Domino). Sizzling disco-pop from a band whose third album veered between the fierce and the feeble.
Little Boots: Remedy (679/Atlantic). The hills are alive with the sound of synth-pop. Lady Gaga and her imitators are doing it with choruses so big they are almost oppressive; Little Boots managed it with more delicacy.
Florence And The Machine: Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up) (Island). In rock, the woman of the year was Florence Welch. Here she shows her ability to whip up a storm with not much more than a drumkit and her own lungs.
M Ward: Epistemology (4AD). Fifties-style pop, as delicious as its title, from this year’s most underrated album.
Bruce Springsteen: This Life (Columbia). At 60, Springsteen has become the most dignified of superstars. He shows it here with a reflective lyric, an elegant tune, and the sweet full sound of the Sixties pop he grew up on.
Jace Everett – Bad Things (Theme From True Blood) (Wrasse). From the vampire drama that seems designed for people who don’t usually like vampire dramas, comes a country song for people who don’t usually like country. It’s steamy and succinct: ‘When you came in, the air went out.’
The Duke And The King: The Morning I Get To Hell (Loose Music). A witty country-soul shuffle from the most engaging new band of the year.
Bob Dylan: It’s All Good (Columbia). The old boy released two albums this year, both overpraised. But one song did live up to the hype: this lethally dry commentary on an empty-headed phrase. The times they are a cliché.
Elvis Costello: Down Among The Wines And Spirits (Hear Music). Costello reunited with T Bone Burnett, producer of Spike, to make a superb country album. This song had warmth as well as his usual bite.
Richard Hawley: Open Up Your Door (Mute). A lush, late-night ballad that feels as if it has been around for ever.
Elbow: Running To Stand Still (Parlophone). The best-loved band of 2008 pop up again with a beautiful cover of a song from The Joshua Tree. Recorded at U2’s own behest for the excellent War Child: Heroes album, it is both intimate and grand.
U2: Moment Of Surrender (Mercury). The one gem on the mostly frustrating No Line On The Horizon: U2’s most touching ballad since One.
Prefab Sprout: Music Is A Princess (Kitchenware). Paddy McAloon now looks like an Old Testament prophet, but he sings like a choirboy and writes like an angel.
Pet Shop Boys: Legacy (Parlophone). A cross between a chill-out track and a state-of-the-nation novel, as Neil Tennant surveys the dashed hopes of New Labour with stately regret.
Benny Andersson Band: Story Of A Heart (Polydor). Female vocals, gracious melody, immaculate craftsmanship: the closest thing to a new Abba song in 15 years.
The Duckworth Lewis Method: Jiggery Pokery (Divine Comedy). Neil Hannon sings about Shane Warne’s famous first ball in Ashes cricket, from the point of view of the befuddled batsman, Mike Gatting – and somehow comes up with the greatest song ever written about cricket. The music-hall tune catches the game’s exhilarating quirkiness.
Billy Bragg featuring Florence: Fairytale Of New York (unreleased). The original, by the Pogues and Kirsty MacColl, has slowly become Britain’s favourite Christmas song: it’s back in the Top 20 this week, outselling the likes of Slade and Wizzard. This cover, recorded for Rob Da Bank’s show on Radio 1, loses some of the Dickensian bawdiness, but makes up for it with Bragg’s perfect diction, Florence’s searing disappointment, and a plaintive harp. The video is on the BBC website: just Google 'Bragg Florence da Bank'.
Paolo Nutini: Comin’ Up Easy (Atlantic). Soulful pop, warm horns and and a cheering vocal from the young Scotsman who sings like a very old Scotsman – in a good way.
SONGS OF 2008
This was a so-so year for albums, but another good one for songs. So
if you haven't got this lot, head for one of the download sites, where they should all be available for 59p, and pick up a sliver of genius for the price of a packet of crisps.
Ting Tings: That's Not My Name. As pop grows older, it becomes less
bolshy, which is rather a shame. Katie White and Jules DeMartino
filled the gap with this lovably stroppy riposte to the record-company
types who had patronised them along the way – and who then had to
watch as they strolled to number one.
Vampire Weekend: I Stand Corrected. African-flavoured pop from the
barnstorming New Yorkers who are the most fun of the latest wave of
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds: We Call Upon The Author To Explain. Raw
energy, sly humour, sharp scansion, a hefty chorus and a little light
metaphysics: vintage Cave.
Kings of Leon: Closer. Their finest hour: a slow-burn rocker lit up by
a ghostly synth and a spooked vocal from Nathan Followill.
Grace Jones: Williams Blood (Mad Professor remix). Jones finally
rediscovers her early-Eighties strengths – melody, drama, pinpoint
rhythms – and adds a twist of family history.
Estelle: American Boy. Sweet, airy pop featuring Kanye West, who
brought Estelle on to sing it at the O2 in November and was startled
to find it getting a bigger cheer than any of his own songs.
The Killers: Human. The only band ever to resemble both Duran Duran
and Bruce Springsteen, the Killers still haven't quite worked out who
they are, but they do know how to write a great single.
Elbow: One Day Like This. From the album of the year, an epic pop
anthem with just the right amount of bombast.
Robert Forster: Demon Days. Grant McLennan started this song, an
elegant ballad that could have been his masterpiece. Instead, it
became his memorial, finished off by his Go-Betweens partner after his
tragically sudden death at 48.
Portishead: The Rip. Ten years in the making, the album Third was
half-excellent, and the highlight was this slippery electronic ballad.
Scarlett Johansson: Fannin' Street. Johansson's debut album, largely
consisting of covers of little-known Tom Waits songs, was a flop, but
an interesting one. And this stately ballad featured the backing vocal
of the year from David Bowie. The producer was Dave Sitek, from …
TV On The Radio: Golden Age. Handclaps are usually a way of showing
spontaneity, but TV On The Radio use them as part of a scientific
palette of sounds that add up to a genre all their own,
REM: Man-Sized Wreath. In their pomp, this would have been a big hit.
Michael Stipe sings a swaggering rock song with nonchalant fire.
Gnarls Barkley: Who's Gonna Save My Soul. In 2006, Gnarls Barkley
released a classic song (Crazy) that appeared on every
best-of-the-year list. In 2008, they released a song that was almost
as good, and everybody forgot about them. Light-footed, under-produced
yet packed with reality, this is worthy of Marvin Gaye.
David Byrne & Brian Eno: Home. Eno spent the year battling musical
snobbery by co-writing a good song with Dido (Grafton Street) and
helping Coldplay return to form. But he also made another album with
Byrne, full of big warm choral pop songs.
Elbow: Weather To Fly. So good I've picked them twice: literate,
intimate, and highly empathetic.
kd lang: I Dream Of Spring. Her new album, Watershed, was
hit-and-miss, but it began with a moment of magic: a country ballad
featuring a languidly powerful vocal on top of a delicious mixture of
acoustic, electronic and orchestral instruments.
Neil Diamond: If I Don't See You Again. Unflinching words and an
effortless tune from the man who has become the Johnny Cash of easy
Randy Newman: Potholes. It had to happen: a song about going senile,
suavely pioneered by the elder statesman of satirical jazz-pop.
Leonard Cohen: Hallelujah. You wait 40 years for a Cohen hit, and then
he has three at once, all with the same song – largely thanks to Simon
Cowell, who did a Scrooge and reversed years of obnoxiousness to
emerge on the side of the angels after all. Hallelujah indeed.
SONGS OF 2007
Welcome to The Mail On Sunday’s seventh annual selection of the songs of the year. This is my top 20, not in order of merit – they’re all excellent – but in the order you might want to hear them, starting raucous and getting more reflective, with some interesting detours along the way.
The Hives: Tick Tick Boom. While several British guitar bands went into reverse, a Swedish one raced ahead. This single, punky but polished, is a blast from the present.
Arcade Fire: Keep The Car Running. The year’s most stirring song. The Bo Diddley beat has never been put to such emotional use.
Arctic Monkeys: Fluorescent Adolescent. Britain’s sharpest young songwriter, Alex Turner, draws on a long storytelling tradition, but leaves his own stamp: ‘You used to get it in your fishnets, now you only get it in your nightdress’.
The White Stripes: You Don’t Know What Love Is (You Just Do What You’re Told). Their album Icky Thump started superbly with the scorching title track, the moody 300mph Torrential Outpour Blues, and this scathingly catchy kiss-off. After that, there were too many bagpipes, but nobody’s perfect.
MIA: Bamboo Banga. A London-born Tamil, brought up to make her own clothes, MIA’s middle name is DIY. This song turns Jonathan Richman’s Roadrunner into a piece of scrapyard hip-hop whose clanging vitality makes Kate Nash feel tame.
Bjork: Earth Intruders. Timbaland was everywhere this year, but nobody used his rhythmic gifts better than Bjork. A masterclass in organised chaos.
Kanye West: Stronger. His third album was patchy, but this single hit the spot by bringing some swaggering drama out of a Daft Punk sample.
Natasha Bedingfield: I Wanna Have Your Babies. As the Spice Girls made a limp new single, some wondered where girl power had gone. The answer was here. As catchy as the next chart act, and far grittier.
Holly Palmer: Leaving In Love. A strong tune, smart lyrics, a great voice, and backing from Beck’s band: the best song you didn’t hear on the radio all year.
Laura Veirs: Don’t Lose Yourself. A skittering drum machine, a compelling piano hook. One to download, along with the stirring title track of its parent album, Saltbreakers.
Bryan Ferry: Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues. Ferry does Dylan better than Dylan himself has for years, adding musicality rather than taking it away. And Dylan gives Ferry livelier lyrics than he has written since the Seventies.
Kylie: Love Is The Drug. Kylie’s playful charm went missing on the album X, but the BBC located it for the Christmas Dr Who and this crisp, camp cover for the unexpectedly satisfying album Radio 1 Established 1967. Download it along with The Gossip’s high-speed Careless Whisper and Mika’s clubbed-up Can’t Stand Losing You.
Feist: 1234. Leslie Feist’s breakthrough was the left-field pop song of the year – an irresistible singalong with a big heart and a lovable video.
Rufus Wainwright: Slideshow. He’s often over-rated, not least by himself, but with this engaging melodrama, Rufus began to live up to his press.
Nick Lowe: Love’s Got A Lot To Answer For. Wit, truth and a great horn part: the perfect country ballad.
Tom McRae: Keep Your Picture Clear. In a withering whisper, an underrated songwriter lays into new Labour with menacing dexterity.
Paul McCartney: You Tell Me. Macca-bashing remains a national sport, but he gave three great gigs and delivered a fine album in Memory Almost Full, which mixed hurt with boyish defiance. This ballad, fluent, rugged and raw, could have come from Abbey Road.
Eagles: Waiting In The Weeds. The melody of the year, woven into a seven-minute memoir. Don Henley called it his best song since The Boys Of Summer in 1984.
Radiohead: Nude. Their pay-what-you-like download album wasn’t just the business coup of the year, it was one of the best records, and the highlight was this exquisitely painful falsetto ballad. If you’re not OK about computers, In Rainbows reaches the shops tomorrow (XL, *****).
Rihanna feat. Jay Z: Umbrella. At first, it was just another R’n’B slow dance, albeit one sung by a Barbadian bombshell. Once it had been number one for ten soggy weeks, it had become the song by which we would remember 2007.
SONGS OF 2006
Thanks to the downloading revolution, we increasingly buy songs one by one. Actually it’s more of a counter-revolution, because our great-grandparents bought individual songs too, in the form of sheet music. So here, celebrating the true currency of pop, is my sixth annual selection of the top 20 songs of the year.
Gnarls Barkley: Crazy.
Pop is often said to be fragmenting, and the evidence mounted this year as two of its main outlets, Top Of The Pops and Smash Hits, were shut down by short-sighted executives. But occasionally a song comes along which recreates the old consensus. Crazy, written and performed by Cee-Lo and Danger Mouse, was irresistibly catchy and massively popular, but also subtle and thought-provoking. To confirm its status as an instant classic, it was sung live by artists as diverse as Sandi Thom, the Twilight Singers and Paolo Nutini.
Scissor Sisters: I Don’t Feel Like Dancing.
A falsetto floor-filler which seemed a little too derivative, but soon became so much part of the fabric of the year that resistance was futile. Not the most original band in the world, but possibly the most entertaining.
Nelly Furtado: Maneater.
Magic: Timbaland lays down a sizzling rhythm, and a straight-laced songbird turns into a sexpot.
Pink: Stupid Girls.
The year’s most effective protest song, deploying the kind of music pre-teenage girls prefer – jittery R’n’B – to rail at the way they are encouraged to idolise nonentities. It should have made the people responsible for Paris Hilton’s album hang their heads.
John Cale: Outta The Bag.
Another falsetto, and a perfect dance-pop track from an art-rocker who came storming out of the history books in 2006.
The Raconteurs: Steady As She Goes.
Jack White’s pop-rock quartet were only half as interesting as his blues-rock duo, but they hit the spot with this song, a crunchy chugger with a glorious chorus.
The Killers: When You Were Young.
A stirring rock anthem which helped make their Brixton show one of the events of the year. Chris Martin of Coldplay sang it at a benefit gig the same night.
Bruce Springsteen: Erie Canal.
The Boss had two new roles this year: unlikely inspiration to the Killers, and leader of a folk troupe, bringing big-band oomph to some dusty old tunes. Life-affirming stuff.
Loudon Wainwright III: Good Ship Venus.
The bawdiest moment from the producer Hal Willner’s star-studded set of sea shanties, Rogue’s Gallery (Epitaph). It’s filthy, and it’s gorgeous.
Jenny Lewis with the Watson Twins: You Are What You Love.
From a radiant album (Rabbit Fur Coat, on Team Love Records) comes a swinging shuffle with an elegant lyric: ‘I’m in love with illusions / So saw me in half’.
Cat Power: Lived In Bars.
A fitful performer finds her feet with a delicious slow dance that revolves around an immaculate piano part.
Candi Staton: His Hands.
Not so much a song, more a miniature memoir. Staton told Will Oldham (Bonnie Prince Billy) about her experiences at the hands of an abusive husband, and he ghost-wrote a southern-soul ballad, dealing with God as well as men, which she sang with heart-wrenching intensity.
Amy Winehouse: Rehab.
The music was like Ray Charles, the voice was pure Motown, the words were those of a 21st-century girl from Camden, and the effect was dynamite.
Fiona Apple: Extraordinary Machine.
Slinky Forties pop from the sparkling album of the same name (Epic). One to seek out in the sales.
Morrissey: Dear God, Please Help Me.
An old ham takes a close look at himself and comes out with the rhyme of the year: ‘there are explosive kegs / between my legs’.
Pet Shop Boys: The Sodom & Gomorrah Show.
Melody, wit, social comment, biblical references, lashings of camp, and Trevor Horn throwing the kitchen sink into the mix: it could only be the Tennant & Lowe show.
Paul Simon: Wartime Prayers.
Iraq songs were all the rage in 2006, a case of better late than never. This was the most memorable, a gospel epic that reminded you who wrote Bridge Over Troubled Water. Simon and his new producer, Brian Eno, are shaping as the Cee-Lo and Danger Mouse of the Saga generation.
Flaming Lips: Free Radicals.
The best track on a patchy album: skewed, succint rock in the great tradition of David Bowie, with a riff worthy of Mick Ronson. We could do with more of it; perhaps Bowie himself, who turns 60 next week, will oblige.
Last Town Chorus: Modern Love.
Meanwhile here’s something that doesn’t happen very often: a clever cover of a Bowie song. Megan Hickey, a singer and lap-steel player from Pennsylvania, recasts a hyperactive stomper as a pensive ballad.
Roddy Frame: Rock God.
His acoustic show at Shepherds Bush was a joy, and this strummed pop song was a handsome tribute to the boyhood idols – Bowie and Marc Bolan – who first entranced him on Top Of The Pops. This is why we need a prime-time pop show. When University Challenge was killed off prematurely by ITV, the BBC shrewdly picked it up. Couldn’t something similar happen to TOTP?
SONGS OF 2005
The Mail on Sunday's Christmas choice of songs of the year used to be somewhat hypothetical. You couldn’t expect anyone to spend hundreds of pounds on albums, then devote half a day to copying each song onto a C90. But thanks to the downloading revolution, what was once pie in the sky has become a piece of cake.
Readers who use ITunes can put these 24 songs on a CD in about 15 minutes for less than £20. Subscribers to Napster wouldn’t even have to pay that. And you don't even have to bother with the CD. The songs are in the order you might play them to friends – a blast of energy first, then a chance to chill, followed by a rowdy singalong.
If you haven’t yet reached planet download, I recommend Now 62 (EMI). It’s perhaps the best Now ever. But it’s not as good as this …
Franz Ferdinand: Do You Want To
Arctic Monkeys: I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor
If not quite as compelling as the band’s rise from nowhere to number one, the song was still strong – sparky, spiky and distinctly Northern. And as a memento of 2005, it sure beats You’re Beautiful.
Clor: Love & Pain
Clever floor-filler from a band with more flair than fame.
El Presidente: 100 mph
With Scissor Sisters busy making their second album, there was a vacancy for a flamboyantly catchy disco-glam act. This Glasgow quintet filled it with stompy aplomb.
Goldfrapp: Ooh La La
A steamy spin on Norman Greenbaum: it should have been called Spirit In The Sack.
Kanye West featuring Jamie Foxx: Gold Digger
The crown prince of rap salutes the grandfather of soul, Ray Charles.
Gorillaz: Dirty Harry
Demon Days was solidly brilliant, but this stood out. Funky, tuneful and lovable.
Arcade Fire: Neighborhood No 1
Surging emotion from the world’s best new band.
Richard Hawley: Coles Corner
Stylish homage to Sinatra with a twist of Sheffield wistfulness.
The Go-Betweens: Finding You
Just when the world seemed to have run out of perfect pop tunes, Grant Maclennan came up with this. Give it to someone you love.
Paul McCartney: This Never Happened Before
His collaboration with U2 on Sgt Pepper topped the download chart, but this was more durable: an intimate ballad with a dreamy melody.
Antony and the Johnsons: You Are My Sister
The most emotional four minutes of the year. Hear it and melt.
Bruce Springsteen: Devils & Dust
Current-affairs song of the year, tackling Iraq with stately empathy.
Willy Mason: Oxygen
Protest song of the year: a 20-year-old American aims an elegant dart at his fellow countrymen.
Bono and Alicia Keys: Don’t Give Up (Africa) (iTunes exclusive)
U2’s re-recording of their own classic One, with Mary J Blige, fell flat. But this remake of Peter Gabriel’s great duet with Kate Bush is spot-on: fresh and stirring.
Brian Eno: Under
Sublime skewed pop from the godfather of ambient.
Kate Bush: Somewhere In Between
The long-awaited Aerial, patchy at first, turns out to be a grower. No other recent album so effectively captures the great outdoors, or the great indoors – the world of childcare and housework, which by rock standards is almost exotic. This track is a gorgeous shimmer of ruminative femininity.
Tori Amos featuring Damien Rice: The Power Of Orange Knickers
It could have been pants, but this discussion of underwear and secrets was a treat – a beguiling piano chugger with the two voices mixing like oil and vinegar.
Magic Numbers: Which Way To Happy
Sparkling warmth from Britain’s cuddliest new act.
Cantamus Girls Choir: Fix You
Coldplay’s X&Y was mostly chicken soup, this song included, but in the hands of 43 Notts teenagers, it became irresistible.
Kate and Anna McGarrigle: O Little Town Of Bethlehem
An old chestnut with all the saccharine stripped out, leaving a thing of great beauty.
The White Stripes: I’m Lonely (But I Ain’t That Lonely Yet)
Classic country-gospel from America’s sharpest act.
Rolling Stones: She Saw Me Coming
The album A Bigger Bang was a damp squib, but this was a raucous gem, fit to ring out around the new Wembley next summer.
Rachid Taha: Rock El Casbah
Delirious cover that made The Clash look sedate. Worth buying just for the way Rrrachid rolls his Rs.