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7. Jay-Z – 99 Problems

17/12/2009

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Or: “Hey everyone, since I started steppin’ out with my new girl, life’s tribulations seem somehow lighter”. The joyful invincibility that comes with newfound love is an intoxicating feeling – sure, life still has its twists, but suddenly they seem more manageable with someone at your side. And doesn’t Jay-Z know this. Written as he started dating Beyoncé Knowles, here he is, being harassed by racist cops, being accused of selling out, scrapping with loudmouth Big Time Charlies, but with the help of his beau he’s dealing with it. He casts each problem aside with swagger and panache, charm and wit, and, in his rebuke of the policeman, with a street-level intelligence sexy with chutzpah. The only time he shows any sympathy is when he commiserates with the listener having girl trouble, and indirectly 99 Problems becomes a sort of love song. Of course, with the huge, clattering drums and monster riff, there’s no room for soppiness – indeed, the track is more a magnificent boast than anything more affectionate – but, nonetheless, the source of Jay-Z’s strut here is romance and love, and from a rap community heavy with guns and bling, that tenderness is brilliantly refreshing.

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8. Erin McKeown – La Petite Mort

16/12/2009

La Petite Mort is not a grand song, nor famous or particularly groundbreaking, but it is sung and played with such joie de vivre that it’s impossible not to fall for its charms. It is the sound of lightness and life, of love and fun, airy but tender and sweetly succinct. A backroom bar country shuffle borne of drinking with old friends and reminiscing about absent ones, it manages to combine intimacy with playfulness, charm with sincerity, never feeling po-faced or mawkish. Ostensibly the tale of a newlywed husband who loses his wife in the throes of wedding night passion (but perhaps more than a little allegorical) the twinkle in McKeown’s eyes when she sings “We both found heaven right then, but you just chose not to come back!” is not just audible, but almost tangible. And while a song about death is bound to be tinged with a little pathos, La Petite Mort avoids any hint of whinge by opting instead for an almost celebratory tone – when the cartwheeling guitar solo skips away and the backing singers commiserate with a smiling “oh, Estelle!”, the overpowering emotion is of gladness and joy rather than anything more baleful. Giddy, mischievous and glimmering, La Petite Mort isn’t just the catchiest song on this countdown, it is also three minutes of beautifully understated, perfectly paced bliss.

9. Johnny Cash – Hurt

15/12/2009

By the time he came to record Hurt, Johnny Cash could have lent Old Testament gravitas to a recitation of the phone book, so shot were his vocal cords and battered was he by life’s misfortunes. But Hurt’s magic doesn’t simply derive from Cash’s newfound heavy-headed tone, and the serendipity of its arrival shouldn’t detract from the song’s grandeur – on the contrary, it is precisely that pure, unforced sadness that makes the song so affecting. But it’s not just Cash’s quivering voice: Rick Rubin’s production is a masterstroke too. Embracing the natural distortion of the final crescendo and retaining each of Cash’s ageing wheezes may go against the traditional rules of pop, but they leave the record feeling unfettered and uncorrupted by outside interests, and consequently sounding deeply personal. The outcome is a song that is entirely Cash, with the according fragility of a recently unearthed lost recording. But aside from its form, Hurt is so moving because it sounds like a legend dying (in a way, it is – Cash succumbed to chronic illness within a year of its release). Alongside its promo video, which acts like an epitaph to a great career, Cash took a song written by a 29-year-old about self-harm and heroin, and made it his own, with the same lyrics but new themes of missed lovers and one’s own mortality. No other record this decade sounded as heartfelt. No other record this decade sounded as soulful. And no other record this decade left as strong a taste in the mouth.

10. The Streets – Has It Come To This?

14/12/2009

“Sex, drugs, and on the dole” – it doesn’t get much less glamorous than that. But the gritty verité of Has It Come To This is also its charm: amid the bling and braggadocio that accompanied the early-noughties’ two-step and garage heyday, surrounded by the promo videos full of tacky jewellery and champagne, this record reflected how 99% of that scene’s fans actually encountered the music: in hotboxed bedrooms on Saturday nights, or cheap, grimy suburban house parties. The references here are of normal things and places – PlayStations, Vauxhall Novas, Mile End, Bounds Green – the lifestyle of Skinner’s narrator is simple and transparent. A kitchen-sink vignette of simple approachability, Has It Comes To This is brilliant because of its modesty and honesty, its story-teller’s eye for detail and its wry humour. Its sense of inclusivity – “whether you’re white or black, smoke weed, chase brown or toot rock” – lends it a warmth and community that few tracks even aspire to. And, as a debut single, too, that sense of togetherness – less a “come with me”, more a “come with us” – is quite beautiful: no other artist of the last ten years has implored the listener to “make yourself at home” with such nonchalant but sincere invitation.

Enter the top 10 – pick a random post

14/12/2009

So it’s home straight time, but with 90 tracks down, and 10 to go up, I’ve just discovered a “random post” feature – just click the link below to be taken to a random entry from the past three months of the countdown. There’s a permanent link to randomness in the sidebar, too.

Give me a random post!

11. Roots Manuva – Witness (1 Hope)

13/12/2009

In its timbre and delivery, Witness is every inch the archetypal modern dancehall record – superpolished and futuristic, its sci-fi bleeps body-pop their way across the dubby beats, Manuva’s Caribbean-tinged voice rumbling low around the echoing soundscape. But what relocates Witness closer to Kingston-upon-Thames than Kingston Jamaica, and indeed renders it perhaps the most quintessentially British record on this countdown, is Manuva himself. The now-legendary lyrical references to cheese on toast and ten pints of bitter are planted into the song like Union Jacks on a sun-drenched beach, patriotic and proudly incongruent. His quaint use of “frig” in place of the f-word is uniquely British whimsy too, self-deprecating and modest, but with a knowing wink of naughtiness. But, crucially, what makes Witness such fun is that Manuva sounds so confident and relaxed. His irregular, rugged verses are less like raps and more like languid slam poetry, but Manuva survives that eccentricity on gusto, and then delivers the choruses like football chants. A curious cultureclash of a tune, Witness may have many parents, but in terms of its elevation to the status of hip-hop anthem, it’s something of an only child.

12. Radiohead – Idioteque

12/12/2009

…and for their next trick, Radiohead will disappear completely. “I’m not here, this isn’t happening”, Thom Yorke sings, four tracks earlier on the same album, but it’s not until Idioteque appears that every last lingering preconception about how Radiohead should sound is completely erased. That a band with as rich and expressive a palate as Radiohead should choose to dehumanise themselves so utterly is alarming to start with; that they do it so successfully only augments the effect. But the chinkless facelessness of Idioteque is precisely its success – this isn’t Thom’n’Johnny anymore, this is machine and machine and machine, robotic beats usually reserved for anonymous electronica, auto-generated lyrics, primitive computerised drones. The finished product is shrink-wrapped vacuum packed mystery, a giant steel slab of a recording, a huge, windowless building. “This is really happening”, implores Yorke – it’s one of the song’s more incongruent moments: so disconnencted is Idioteque from its surroundings, nothing could feel further from the truth. Even encountered as part of the staggering unexpectedness of the Kid A album, Idioteque remained startling. Belligerent and paranoid, it is the sound of one of the world’s most emotionally scrutinised bands deliberately reducing themselves to machines and abstraction. Both intellectually and psychologically, that’s quite some vanishing act.