15 December 2006

The Music of 2006: Part 2 - Uncovering Old Gems

As mentioned here 2006 was rather sparse for me in terms of new releases. However what saved this year is that the relative dearth of new discoveries allowed to uncovering of some older gems. This includes both albums I already owned which jumped into my consciousness anew in the last 12 months and things that I picked up for the first time along the way.

Notable artists on this list of uncovered or rediscovered gems include:

  • Horace Andy
  • Martina Topley-Bird
  • Thievery Corporation
  • Sneaker Pimps
  • Red Snapper
2006 was the year that I went from liking Red Snapper to listening to virtually nothing else for long periods. I never travel without them and I perk up when I hear them. Yes, there are poorer tunes and weaker albums but as a rule Snapper means snappy, up-beat and energizing and downright funky. What comes across most of all, more than most artists manage, is a sense that they enjoyed the recording; whether this is true or not, I find it is rare that I, as the listener, get this sense from studio albums no matter how clear it is in a given group or artist's live performances. This sense of genuine enjoyment and digging what they're doing permeates into me as I listen and all is right with the world while the tracks spin. Pity that isn't universal.

In a similar vein, 2006 was the year that I grokked the Sneaker Pimps - I decided to buy up Splinter and Bloodsport in January, having owned Becoming X for a fair while. But like so many purchases they arrived, were listened to once or twice then disappeared onto the shelf for a month or more. But at some point they came off again, and from that point they have both been catapulted into my list of favourites; they make the debut look positively weak (and Becoming X is not particularly weak - just a different type of work and with a few tracks that really stand out quality-wise rather than a consistently high-quality disc). Splinter, particularly, is a masterwork in a way I find rare these days: its an album that feels like an album. By that I mean it works best listened to in order in its entirety in a manner that seemed to go out of style with prog rock. The tunes on Splinter are great, and do stand up in a shuffled playlist but there is just that extra little something when you put the disc in and just hit play. Bloodsport, on the other hand, is more what most albums are these days: a collection of tunes. Where this album stands out for me is in the quality of those individual tunes - they all, with the possible exception of M'aidez, have something that really grabs me, whether it is the cynicism of the title track, the beats of The Fuel or Think Harder or the wind-down of Grazes. The two discs are similar in tone but subtly different in expression and are both now etched permanently into my musical landscape.

Thievery Corporation burst into my consciousness with The Mirror Conspiracy some 5 years ago now, when I was commuting from Oxford to London during my Masters, and their layers of laid back tunes, infectious beats and thoughtful application of vocals caught my imagination right away. TMC has remained a firm favourite ever since, but I stopped following their releases after The Richest Man in Babylon which seriously underwhelmed me on first listening and had sat in the CD rack for a couple of years or more without re-visitation. Boy, was that a mistake! I listened to it again the other day after seeing it mentioned elsewhere and couldn't believe I'd shelved it for that long: its a phenomenal album carrying on where TMC left off just with a slightly different flavour. I still prefer TMC but TRMiB is certainly going to get regular airings now and I am very interested once more in hearing their later releases just as soon as I have some liquid cash to spend.

Another overdue find was when I got around to picking up Quixotic by Martina Topley-Bird. This album was nominated for the Mercury Music Prize in 2003 but somehow escaped my attention. This is doubly surprising since I should have been aware of her through her work with Tricky and the fact the album is very much placed in the trip-hop genre (however much I think genre-typing in music is largely of no benefit) with groups like Massive Attack, whom I have had a long-standing interest in. Well I'm thoroughly glad I found it in the end, 3 years late, after I happened to swing by to see who this year's Mercury nominees were (A poor list: Thom Yorke aside I'd no interest though Garry assures me I should give Hot Chip a serious listen). Quixotic is excellent and, with hindsight born of seeing the other lisings, thoroughly deserved its nomination. Need One and I Still Feel are right up there with the best things I've heard all year, and I'm still kicking myself that I missed out on 3 years of listening time!

Horace Andy is an artist I knew about. He's done vocal work on every Massive Attack album to date, and his distinctive voice is one I rate higher than just about every other male singer I have heard. But this year, for the first time, I made the decision that I was actually going to get hold of some of his stuff. On the one hand this makes him the "token reggae artist" in my collection (as I've no others, rather than because I dislike reggae per se); on the other it has led to a couple of genuinely great purchases and the realisation of the roots of many MA tunes: more than I had been aware are based on, sample, cover or borrow from Horace Andy classics (Angel and One Love to name two, plus Spying Glass which I knew about already). Besides opening my eyes to this information (which increases my appreciation), songs like Johnny Too Bad (from the 1999 release Living in the Flood) just ooze with class - but it's hard not to with a voice as distinctive and as musical as Horace Andy does.

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