Best of 2000: Wilson Neate

1. Primal Scream, Exterminator [XTRMNTR] (Astralwerks)
Writing in another venue back in February, I went out on a limb and claimed that Primal Scream had already made the album of 2000. The year having run its course, I stand by my rush to judgment. No other band or performer came close to recording an album that matched the sheer energy, range and relevance of XTRMNTR. A Detroit garage/Krautrock homage put through the Techno wringer, spiked with the punk spirit of ’77 and carried off with millennial urgency and intensity, XTRMNTR mixes up music and politics in an unprecedented fashion. While others were making music to wet beds to — sorry Ed! — Primal Scream were seriously kicking out the jams and recording the soundtrack to the perennial revolution, in the process making allegedly radical bands like Rage Against the Machine sound like a bunch of earnest liberals.

2. The Fall, The Unutterable (Eagle)
Whoever came up with the saying about death and taxes being the only two safe bets in life clearly wasn’t a Fall fan. If he/she were, then a third certainty would have been added: namely, that the Fall would never release a crap record. I readily admit my bias here. Mark E. Smith could release a CD of himself reading selected highlights from the Congressional Record and I’d be first in line to buy a couple of copies of it. On the heels of 1999’s The Marshall Suite, this is post-millennial Fall’s 973rd album. The Unutterable easily ranks alongside some of the best records that the band has put out in the 21 years that have elapsed since their debut album, Live at the Witch Trials. It’s pretty much business as usual on The Unutterable as the brilliantly irascible Smith holds forth in his inimitable vocal style, preaching his singular brand of heresies and home truths. At the level of creativity, idiosyncratic vision and a complete unwillingness/inability to compromise, Mark E. Smith — the Mancunian cousin of Captain Beefheart — is without peer in indie/alt. British music today.

3. The Cure, Bloodflowers (Elektra)
Bloodflowers was widely billed as the final installment in a Cure trilogy that began some 18 years ago with Pornography, continuing on 1989’s Disintegration. And what a wonderful, bitter-sweet closer to this monumental exercise in pop existentialism it turned out to be. This final installment sees all the standard Cure leitmotifs dusted off for one last, sublime bash. The cheery old lyrical chestnuts are audible as Smith moans forlornly away in vintage style about feelings of ennui, meaninglessness, futility, alienation, and so forth while spiraling guitars, melancholy synth/keyboard melodies, and doomy bass-lines all conspire to forge the epic, anthemic textures befitting this coda. Somehow Bloodflowers manages to be both camp and oddly moving at the same time. If this is indeed Robert Smith’s final statement — as some have conjectured — then so be it. Apparently writing himself into musical history on the track “39”, Smith sings, “I used to feed the fire but the fire is almost out . . . and there’s nothing left to burn”. It’s a masterful way to go out.

4. Godspeed You Black Emperor, Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven! (Kranky)
Thus far, fans of Godspeed You Black Emperor have had to content themselves with the five tracks featured on f#a# (1998) and Slow Riot For New Zero Kanada (1999). Consequently, this more-than-generous double CD set is a welcome release indeed. Lift Your Skinny Fists is par for the course for the Montreal collective — willfully obscure, grandiose, orchestral rock with a razor’s edge. Godspeed’s familiar musical narratives abound here: measured, ambient string-driven build-ups littered with found monologues, followed by crashing climaxes that showcase sustained guitars buzzing and whining like ethereal hornets to the accompaniment of pounding, regimented drums. Yes, it’s often totally pretentious and overblown, but so what? — it’s also completely compelling and strangely affecting. In a sense, what they’re doing is so obvious — a marriage of prog rock concept and good old-fashioned punk attitude — and yet they sound like nothing else I can think of.

5. Arab Strap, Mad For Sadness (Jetset)
In addition to showing fans how convincingly Arab Strap translate their sound to live performance, this album offers the uninitiated a perfect introduction to this band from Falkirk, Scotland. Dirge-like, atmospheric stasis, hovering guitar minimalism (courtesy of Malcolm Middleton) and periodic irruptions of searing intensity provide the ideal setting for vocalist Aidan Moffat’s relentlessly despondent monotone mumblings offer variations on the themes of birds ‘n’ booze. But while Moffat’s lyrical vision and vocal performance may be terminally grim, he somehow succeeds in inscribing his songs with a measure of irony, thereby snatching them from the jaws of dour earnestness. “You’ve got to have a sense of humour about yourself if you want to communicate something quite depressing,” Moffat has said, and this album offers ample evidence of that philosophy. Imagine, if you can, a vaguely comic version of Joy Division and you have a pretty good idea of what Mad For Sadness sounds like. Uncompromisingly miserable and, as far as I’m concerned, endlessly amusing.

6. Michael J. Sheehy, Sweet Blue Gene (Beggars Banquet)
Having never been a big fan of Dream City Film Club, I was pleasantly surprised by this solo debut from the band’s former frontman, Michael J. Sheehy. On a musically diverse album that encompasses tender folk-oriented acoustic simplicity, hymnal poignance, experimental ambience, manic blues noise, and cacophonous mad waltzes, Sheehy’s versatile vocal performance leads listeners through decidedly bleak lyrical territory. Fucked-up relationships, deception and betrayal, familial dysfunction, abortion, insanity and, worst of all perhaps, inadequate pub opening hours and draconian licensing laws are among the themes of Sheehy’s songs of love and hate on this record. A barrel of laughs Sweet Blue Gene is not; a stunning album by an immensely talented songwriter it is. While the influences are numerous — Nick Cave, Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, Hank Williams, PJ Harvey, and others — the resulting sound is entirely unique.

7. Radiohead, Kid A (Capitol)
Although Kid A reached number 1 in the album charts in both the UK and the USA, a number of critics — most of them British, predictably enough — had their reservations about Radiohead’s much anticipated fourth album. “Too clever”, “too difficult”, “too prog”, “too complex”, grumbled the dissenting voices in the face of an intelligent, subtle and challenging pop record whose implied listener was not a 7-year-old. With Kid A, Radiohead refused to take the soft option and record OK Computer again. Instead, they re-grouped and took a markedly different approach. The result, while still pop music, boldly redefines what can be done within a pop framework. Here the band opts for a more experimental, almost cinematic approach that often dispenses with — or re-arranges — the familiar components and the familiar narrative conventions of the “pop song” itself. Sure, it takes more than one listening to appreciate, and why shouldn’t popular music demand something of its listeners? Not convinced? Oh well, you know where to find the Matchbox 20 section of the store.

8. The Damage Manual, The Damage Manual (Invisible)
Featuring Killing Joke guitarist Geordie Walker, ex-PiL members Martin Atkins and Jah Wobble, and former Revolting Cock Chris Connelly, the Damage Manual reinvent the hackneyed concept of the “supergroup”. Although this self-titled, full-length debut certainly draws on musical signatures that the various members patented elsewhere in their illustrious careers, the sound that results from their meeting on this album is unprecedented. Dangerously potent on their own, the elements joined in this sonic equation — Atkins’ crashing drum beats, Walker’s relentless, churning guitar, Wobble’s impossibly deep bass rumble and the consistent menace of Connelly’s vocals — combine to explosive effect on track after track. The original title of this album was apparently to have been Music To Be Murdered By. I think that sums up the overall spirit and feel of the album better than anything else I can say.

9. Richard Ashcroft, Alone with Everybody (Virgin)
When Ashcroft’s solo debut came out, nay-sayers whined that it was over produced, that it wasn’t like the Verve, that it wasn’t better than — or even as good as — Urban Hymns, or that it was the work of a man who’d lost his edge and run out of things to say. Of course, it’s impossible to listen to Alone without bearing in mind Ashcroft’s past achievements. But it’s also impossible not to appreciate the ways in which this album signals his growth as a songwriter. The guitar-oriented psychedelic spaces of the Verve are all but replaced with lush arrangements comprising layers of varied instrumentation, and while the resulting sound is less obvious and less immediate than that of Ashcroft’s former band, it’s no less rewarding for the listener. Moreover, in lyrical terms Alone is more mature and balanced than much of Ashcroft’s previous work — just because his new songs don’t center on angst doesn’t mean that he’s run out of ideas. Nothing could be farther from the truth if Alone With Everybody is anything to go by.

10. Ian Brown, Golden Greats (Universal/Interscope)
Ian Brown probably wouldn’t make it onto a list of 10 people I’d enjoying having as a traveling companion on a British Airways flight, but he does occupy a much deserved place on the present list. Bouncing back from a nine month prison sentence for his highly publicized mid-air antics, Brown made good on the promise of 1998’s Unfinished Monkey Business with this, his second solo album. Many of the Stone Roses’ influences still show through here on Golden Greats: the rave scene that provided the immediate context for the rise of the band, Led Zeppelin and ’60s guitar pop. However, the gazillion-guitar-overdubs approach of latter-day Stone Roses is traded in for a greater emphasis on keyboards, spacious grooves, house beats, and dub inflections, all of which make Golden Greats consistently danceable. Poor live renderings of his work notwithstanding, we should be thankful that Ian Brown didn’t opt for that career as a landscape gardener that he considered after the demise of the Stone Roses.