[20] Karl Blau, ‘Fallin’ Rain’

karl-blau-2016

Before we start, a word on Brexit and Trump.

Not really. More pertinent questions: what’s a single? What is this? Who are we?

A single is a single, and we’re going to make the best of it. It’s also an ‘impact’ track these days, and pretty much any song that’s even marginally promoted outside the confines of its album. Look, these are confusing times.

This is a blog that’s been running since November 2005. Admittedly, it’s running rather sporadically now, but if I’m going to go through my favourite songs of the year, it’s still the best place.

We are me and my three daughters. Junior (J1) who’s 11 and has been doing this since she was flapping her babygro arms to Kanye West all those years ago; Junior 2 (J2) who’s eight and massively into Top Of The Pops 1982, smuggling Dexys and Haircut 100 CDs up to her room; and Junior 3 (J3) who’s six and opinionated.

Finally, Karl Blau is a honey-toned C&W geezer from the Pacific Northwest who, after years on the circuit, released the wry Introducing Karl Blau this year, a collection of covers that’s the best of 2016, pipping good old Dexys’ mind-bogglingly loose selection of ‘Irish and Country Soul’. They both did the Bee Gees’ ‘To Love Somebody’ but Blau wins there too by the length of a Hammond organ. This wildly extended version of Link Wray’s ‘Fallin’ Rain’ uses gently tinkling piano to evoke the raindrops and Blau’s own gentle commitment to convey the woes of the world. He’s a Nashville Isaac Hayes.

Over to our panel: J2 is measuring angles on her mum’s macbook, J1 is watching her. J3 is bouncing a cuddly tiger on my head.

J1: “It’s all right.”
J3: “It’s bad.” She pops on her headphones and goes to play the little Yamaha keyboard on the rug.

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[8] Kanye West, ‘Bound 2’

2013-kanye-west

I think you can imagine how much of this I played. “Uh huh honey,” parrot Juniors 1 and 2 because that’s about all they heard – that, and a bit of Charlie Wilson. Anyway, they like “Uh huh honey”.

This cut-and-shut brainstorm proves the adaptability of the Yeezus template – Noise plus lunacy doesn’t necessarily equal aggression. Kanye West has found a way to engage with every notion, sonic or lyrical, that pours out of his twisted cranium, making an album that’s stupendously exciting whether he’s belting out nonsense over Daft Punk drones or softening up over his beloved sped-up soul. It’s the first time one of his records has actually matched the contents of his head. We knew it was a maelstrom in there, we just weren’t sure of its scale.

[7] Kanye West featuring Jamie Foxx, ‘Gold Digger’

Gold Digger

Is Kanye a dick? Let’s look at the evidence: spoiling poor Taylor Swift’s big moment; giving airtime to the horrific Mr Hudson; the gauche title of Diamonds From Sierra Leone, disguising its content; banging on for 10 whole minutes about his record deal on The College Dropout; an inappropriate – but, yeah, funny – takedown of George W. Bush… well, it’s small beans, isn’t it? In the pro column are great tunes and generous sprinkles of wit. In context, his flow is as good as it needs to be.

On ‘Gold Digger’ he deserves his moment for the trickster’s gambit of getting Jamie Foxx to reprise his Ray Charles, legitimising the sample and giving him a fly mate for the video. And what a video – it’s utterly made by Kanye’s jerky throw-your-torso-back show-off dance, stamping surplus cool on an already deeply funky record. ‘Gold Digger”s lyric is amusing, but to call it uncharitable would be praising it with faint damnation. Still, go on, Kanye, you can have this one.

Junior says: “I like your dance.” I nicked it off Mr West. Somehow I look sillier. She tries it too, and dammit if she doesn’t get her groove on with way smoother coordination than me.

Best bit: “WE WANT PRE-NUP!” Yeah.

[14] Keri Hilson featuring Kanye West & Ne-Yo, ‘Knock You Down’

Nobody told me that you become more susceptible to glossy R&B with age; I’ve had to find out for myself. It was shocking at first, thinking “This Ne-Yo album knocks most modern pop into a cocked hat/Jordin Sparks sounds awesome on ‘No Air’/Everything Beyoncé does is – how do you say it? – The Bomb/Christ, I like more than one Leona Lewis song” etc, but now I wear my bling on my sleeve. Well, I’ve got a 10 quid Casio watch.

Although blessed with a silky, appealing voice, Keri Hilson doesn’t have the charisma to pull off the hits, so she gets in the smartest talent bankrolling can buy. Seem to remember Kanye being a smart talent, anyway. 808s & Heartbreak sounded superb on first listen, then turned out to be a moany nothing; neither was I sold on ‘Supernova’, but if we’re talking charisma, Mr Hudson hasn’t even come within a universe of an ounce of it. Kanye’s rap on ‘Knock You Down’ is a mess – the Michael Jackson gag not in the same league as the same on ‘Slow Jamz’ – so it’s left to Ne-Yo to give the song some class. His disbelief at wanting to spend more time with the missus than his mates – “I used to be commander-in-chief of my pimp ship flying high!” – is enough to carry the track alone, but credit to Hilson for some fine cracked vocals as this soppy song peaks.

“This is a lady singing,” Junior points out, puzzled because she thinks Keri is a boy’s name. Maybe if you’re a rotten Chelsea player. She then confirms that it looks like a lady on the cover, so it’s a relief for Keri even as the boys threaten to subsume her. Not that you can tell Junior anything – when I inform her Ne-Yo’s on the mic, she says “I knew that”, and it’s possible she did, what with the bounder being everywhere these past few years. His touch is magic enough, and Junior demands a repeat play.

What? This isn’t ‘Miss Independent’?

Animal Collective, ‘Summertime Clothes’

Animal Collective

So it’s Junior’s fourth birthday. It seems only three and a half years and a bit since we were reviewing Antipop Consortium records together and plumping for Kanye West over Missy Elliott in the 2005 chart. How time flies, innit.

And in those few short years, Animal Collective have gone from quirky indie electronica nerds to quirky indie electronica nerds with something approaching proper tunes. There have always been squirts of brilliance, but 2009’s Merriweather Post Pavilion has pulled together more than most and set them to some full rave dynamics. The jaunty ‘Summertime Clothes’ isn’t the best single on it – mayyybbeee we’ll save one for the year-end chart – but it’s a ray of hope as everything goes haywire outside the window.

Newly grown-up Junior is more interested in the flashy magic eye madness on the album sleeve, gracing the song with a mere handclap or two. She’d have loved them at Glastonbury though, where they stole the show with disco lights and hands aloft and sent all my mates packing to buy their album.

AndIwaaaaannawaaaaalkarooouuundwithyou:

N.B. Coming soon(ish) – The Top 50 Singles of the 00s

[11] Estelle, ‘1980’

Estelle

Estelle’s warm and joyous, splendidly old skool autobiography is heavily abridged – I met her in about 2000, and there’s not even the briefest mention of that fleeting, significant moment. She was about to make a record with Blak Twang, and was small, but you probably knew that much. I gave the rest of her sparky debut album a spin this morning too, and it’s clear her proper breakthrough second wasn’t a huge departure – it just has a few more Kanye Wests.

For Junior, ‘1980’ is just catchy enough to have her dancing and acknowledging some non-Girls Aloud records aren’t so bad after all. She takes her baby sister’s hands for a turn around the living room, making hearts leap in mouths as they career past sharp-cornered furniture.

There were a hundred and fifty of us living in t’ shoebox in t’ middle o’ road:

[8] Kanye West, ‘Love Lockdown’

Kanye West

If it’s not conventionally danceable, you’re in for a rough time with Junior. Somehow, though, Kanye’s wail from the left field is a hit, eliciting a full-blown disco freakout. She’s hearing the floorfiller behind the bassy thrum and to-the-fore tribal drums; or perhaps she’s thinking what I’m thinking and hearing K-Klass’s Italo piano riff coaxing the song on. It’s not ‘Let Me Show You’, but it’s near as dammit. ‘Love Lockdown’ is a house track in desire if not action. Junior identifies our auto-tuned singer too, pinpointing the fur-coated chap invading Estelle’s personal space on ‘American Boy’.

The new album 808s & Heartbreak has missed the boat this year, arriving too late for the critics’ lists and too near to the Christmas meltdown to be seen above the parapet. Perhaps that’s what Kanye wanted (apart from, erm, megasales – but he seems to be headed there in a less frenzied US market anyway). ‘Love Lockdown’ is a close, panicky affair in form and content, that fits nicely with the depressed, downbeat tone of a broken album. It’s a bold move for a rapper to make an album with nary a rap in earshot, but Kanye’s never been scared of flexing his ambition even while licking his wounds. He mourns his mum and tears down his ex in hurt confusion, and we’re left with a frankly great record. Someone has to come out on top, I suppose.

[19] Estelle featuring Kanye West, ‘American Boy’

Estelle

Junior recognised this from the mere ambience before the beat slips in – “It’s American Boy!” – and spent at least the first couple of verses shaking booty around the kitchen while dressed in her new hat, scarf and gloves combo. She must have been cooking. Or cookin’, to the schmoove r’n’b rhythms.

The record brims with chutzpah, a bare-faced attempt to grab a slice of the American market. And fair enough; if Britain isn’t going to appreciate its urban stars then why shouldn’t the US? Becoming best buds with John Legend and Kanye West (who muscles in with a hilarious, offbeat cameo here) can’t have done much harm either. Estelle has come along way since I met her working in a video-editing suite, persistently turning up late for work and eventually getting sacked. Video-editing’s loss is truly jazzy hip-pop’s gain.

[18] Kanye West, ‘Stronger’

Kanye West, ‘Stronger’

Jukebox Junior’s first ever Single of the Year, in 2005, was Kanye West’s ‘Gold Digger’. The wire-jawed walking ego has slipped a bit since, but still knows how to make an impact in the increasingly staid world of commercial hip-hop. ‘Stronger’ samples Daft Punk’s ‘Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger’ (the fourth best single from Discovery), slowing it down and weaving its central line into Kanye’s big man narrative. It’s sharp, witty and massively sure of itself. Like our favourite blind-shaded rap maverick.
 
For Junior, a maverick herself, it’s a chance to dance with suitcases. This is not a routine I’ve seen before, but as Mr West says, “she’ll do anything for the limelight” – and I indulge her. What else is this place for?

[17] INXS, ‘Need You Tonight’

Taking INXS’ Kick into school in the fifth form brought some unexpected kudos, but they were never really loved, were they? There were enormous global sales, unprecedented female attention for Michael Hutchence and a funky bar room sound that could appeal to the boys, yet still no one would ever say that they were their favourite band.

So when Hutchence knuckle-shuffled off this mortal coil, the posthumous Number Ones didn’t ensue. There were no voices raised in grief, wailing “First Kurt, then Diana, now Michael – when will the killing end?” and no fountains commissioned. No, we became voyeurs, and took cheap shots at the names of Paula Yates’ children.

‘Need You Tonight’ has retained its groove. Junior, in fact, is in raptures as it kicks off and Dad discovers he can do a passable Kanye Gold Digger dance to it. It’s a sexy record, I suppose, of the sort that INXS could pull off every album or so, but it’s ultimately unsatisfying. It peters out, and loses its gist through false endings. Even its real ending seems false. You can almost sense the ghost of Bruno Brookes wondering when to cut in.