With Christmas lurking furtively round the corner again, it’s a sure fire bet that the record companies are greasing up their artist roster for the usual glut of year end releases. As is always the case this is the last chance for the big names to squeeze out hastily packaged compilations just in time to serve as stocking fodder for the last minute dash round the shops. Are such items a timely retrospective or the flogging of the proverbial horse? Well that’s open to debate.
However if you’re looking for some last minute music to pick up for that hard to buy for relative, or you’re just out to give yourself a touch of retail therapy here are five considerations that have served me well this year. In no particular order…
Saint Etienne’s Tales From Turnpike House was without a doubt one of my favourites of 2005. Twelve snapshots of London delivered with the meticulous pop sensibilities that have made Saint Etienne the band they are. As a collection the songs are unafraid to wear their inspirations on their sleeve. This is why you’ll find harmonies reminiscent of the Beach Boys, strident backbeats that could have marched in straight off the back of any number of Northern Soul records and at the same time some gentle underpinnings of electronica. Such use of their influences could be seen as a dangerous thing, however when done right the results can have a quiet majesty all of their own.
The Shortwave Set were another band that delivered this year, opening up with a heady mix of leftfield pop that seems to draw breath from the age of the wax cylinder. The Debt Collection is not one of those albums that can be categorised easily. Strange blends of acoustic guitar, mandolins and drum machines (and that’s just for starters) punctuate this collection of songs. The deliberate style of antiquity in some of the recordings only serves to up the ante in the quirkiness stakes, but this is by no means a novelty record. There are some quite wistful moments in this collection both in terms of melody and vocal. This is a record that you might find has the ability to get under your skin, if only for the reason that it offers something genuinely different.
Another little gem that came my way this year was Picaresque by The Decemberists. Larger than life stories presented by a band that pass more than a passing nod and wink to The Smiths, The Cure, The Pogues and a whole host of other British bands. This is something of a diamond in the rough in album terms, The band are hardly household names but if the quality of the songs presented here are anything to go by then maybe they deserve a higher profile than they have currently achieved. This is melodic guitar pop with a hint of the theatrical about it. Stories that are often told in a balladeering style with an occasional smudge of the sea shanty about them (think early Pogues here). While I doubt they could be accused of matching their forebears, they do a captivating job with this selection (a particular standout example being the heart tugging track The Engine Driver) and that alone makes this album worth tracking down.
Now just because I’ve got a downer on a lot of the compilations that emerge for the Christmas rush that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re all bad. The first one that gets the thumbs up from me is New Order’s Singles collection. Fair enough their back catalogue has been mercilessly raided over the years and with varying results, however this time Manchester’s finest play to their strengths and present the classics in an easily digestible package. All the goodies are here, Blue Monday, The Perfect Kiss, and True Faith to name but three. The beauty of this collection is the songs are here in their original versions, so no unnecessary remixes or padding can really be found with this collection.
Secondly another singles collection that could pass muster as stocking filler is The Prodigy’s Their Law collection. This is fifteen years of work from Braintree’s dance collective. Ranging from the bubblegum rave of tracks such as Charly and Outer Space right through to the retro electro of tracks like Girls and Spitfire. The mood gets suitably dark and the beats become suitably bone crushing along the way, but this is as good a way as any to track the progress of one of dance music’s most influential bands. Sure some of the tracks might have dated in production terms but hell, it all still sounds good and is essential for those random shape throwing moments that will doubtless come over you when you start listening.
So there you have it, five of my best from this year and in my opinion these are the CD’s that you could do worse than add to your wish list for Santa (or for the more cynical, go out and buy yourself). Either way, happy listening. And remember if you’re reading this then you’re only a click away from your online retailer of choice.