Graham’s soundtrack to 2003

Disc 1

1 British Sea Power – Men Together Today
2 Radiohead – 2+2=5
3 Blur – Ambulance
4 The Raveonettes – That Great Love Sound
5 Echoboy – Automatic Eyes
6 The Fall – Contraflow
7 The Thrills – Big Sur
8 The Crimea – Lottery Winners On Acid
9 Four Tet – She Moves She
10 Boom Bip feat Dose One – Mannequin Hand Trapdoor I Reminder
11 Shack – As Long As I’ve Got You
12 Syntax – Pray
13 Ladytron – Blue Jeans
14 The White Stripes – Black Math
15 James Yorkston and the Athletes – I Spy Dogs
16 Mull Historical Society – The Final Arrears
17 Ballboy – I Gave Up My Eyes To A Man Who Was Blind
18 Spiritualized – Lord Let It Rain On Me
19 Clearlake – Treat Yourself With Kindness
20 Yo La Tengo – Take Care

Disc 2

1 History At Our Disposal – A Day’s Work, A Day’s Bread
2 Jane’s Addiction – Just Because
3 Four Tet – As Serious As Your Life
4 Outkast – Hey Ya!
5 The Fall – Recovery Kit #2
6 The Crimea – White Russian Galaxy
7 Clearlake – Wonder If The Snow Will Settle
8 Blur – Out Of Time
9 Radiohead – Sail To The Moon
10 Doves – Darker
11 The Raveonettes – Remember
12 Yo La Tengo – Little Eyes
13 The Thrills – One Horse Town
14 British Sea Power – Carrion
15 Pet Shop Boys – Liberation
16 The Delgados – Mr Blue Sky
17 James Yorkston and the Athletes – Sweet Jesus
18 Ballboy – A Europe-wide Search For Love
19 Elbow – Grace Under Pressure

‘I ain’t got nothing to be scared of’

A ridiculous year. A move into a new digs having spectacularly fallen out with my old housemates, a car crash, and being unceremoniously dumped from an internship meaning having to move back from America to England with 72 hours’ notice. That’s just the first eight weeks of the year covered right there. The rest of the year was spent trying to put the pieces all back together.

Musically my conversion away from slavish devotion to Q and NME was complete, and now the almost-sole influence was whatever John Peel was spinning on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday night. Having struck up email correspondence with his producer during my months in America, I was lucky enough to be invited to a number of live Peel sessions at Maida Vale studios, witnessing performances by the great and the good. But given the fact that I wasn’t at my smiley best through much of the year, it’s no surprise if the music here isn’t the cheeriest either. What it is is the first soundtrack I’ve written about that sounds like it could have been put together by the Graham of 2013.

With the Camp Mason CDs taking care of all of the stuff that will forever remind me of times with my friends in the summer, my own 2003 soundtrack as distilled purely down to my own tastes. After a brief intro from British Sea Power’s own album The Decline Of… album – what a prescient title that was for their debut, given the direction they took – it’s Radiohead that kicks things off proper with ‘2+2=5’. Hail To The Thief is one of the more maligned records of Radiohead’s career – perhaps fairly, given its overlong duration and seeming desire to keep every faction of their fanbase happy in one go – but ‘2+2=5’ is a gem, its chorus of ‘You have not been paying attention’ a blast of post-9/11 paranoia. It’s followed by ‘Ambulance’ by Blur – another lead-off track from a patchy later-career record by British guitar heroes. Both records remind me of returning to America after unceremoniously being forced out the previous time – ‘Ambulance’ was the first song I played on landing, with its refrain of ‘I ain’t got nothing to be scared of’ turning into a bit of a slogan for someone who felt like he had a few points to prove to himself. Hail To The Thief was a record that came out a week after arriving as I was getting familiar with my new surroundings in the hills of western New Jersey as the summer was about to start. Add to that the unrelenting, propulsive genius of ‘Automatic Eyes’ by Echoboy – a track I played as I left the American Embassy having been granted a seemingly-unlikely US visa at the end of May – and you’ve got a trio of songs that remind me of a very exciting time.

Echoboy – whither he now? – was one of a whole load of songs from John Peel’s shows, which I used to religiously rip off the BBC’s internet catch-up service, a sort-of clunky proto-iPlayer. His favourite band was of course The Fall, who produced their strongest album of the whole 2000s in 2003, the snappily-titled Real New Fall LP Formerly Country On The Click. ‘Contraflow’ is the pick, Mark E Smith finding something arbitrary to rail against – the countryside, on this occasion – while his band thrash away in the background like their stipends depend on it. Later on you’ve the clinical precision of Ladytron’s ‘Blue Jeans’, the avant-garde hip-hop of Boom Bip and Dose One, the first of many appearances by James Yorkston on my soundtracks, and ‘Black Math’ by the last globally-huge band that Peel could arguably have claimed to have introduced to a wider audience, The White Stripes. But perhaps the archetypal John Peel song is the one that he played to death at the back end of 2002 and into the following year, ‘Lottery Winners On Acid’. A work of simple beauty, from the Hawaiian-sounding guitar, Strawberry Fields organ and a tale of too-good-to-be-true love.

The flow of disc 1 is punctuated a little by two very different but equally brilliant dance tracks. Kieran Hebden, aka Four Tet, released the seminal Rounds in 2003 – and ‘She Moves She’, with its static-y beats and seemingly random bursts of noise (though not so random on multiple listens), was a startling listen and hasn’t dated at all in a decade. More conventional-sounding was the pummelling techno of ‘Pray’ by Syntax, a spin-off project from the more well-known Fluke, who made spectacular use of that dance touchstone, the bassline from Donna Summer’s ‘I Feel Love’. I’m surprised Giorgio Moroder’s lawyers never had a quiet word.

Disc 1 ends on, shall we say, a bit of a downer. Mull Historical Society’s ‘The Final Arrears’ may sound cheery enough but it’s a pretty sombre song about divorce, and in any case reminds me of the Monday morning I turned up on my internship and found there was no job there for me (I was also listening to MHS when I crashed my car so I think listening to Colin McIntyre’s work is a bit of a curse). It’s followed by the standout track from my album of the year – the perhaps leftfield choice of The Sash My Father Wore by Ballboy. If you’ve raised your eyebrow at the title, rest assured that it’s a sarcastic take on Scottish sectarianism (and the title track’s chorus simply consists of the line ‘You’re a big, fat, bigoted arsehole’). Most of the songs are acoustic and lovelorn, no more so than ‘I Gave Up My Eyes To A Man Who Was Blind’, though I could have picked any number of songs in its place. Spiritualized’s ‘Lord Let It Rain On Me’ is the one bum note struck here, so underwhelming does it sound compared to their blockbusting early output. At least the closing pair of tracks, Clearlake’s bombastic ‘Treat Yourself With Kindness’ and Yo La Tengo’s countrified cover of Big Star’s ‘Take Care’, cut through the crap and tell the listener to snap out of it – sound advice.

onest I don’t think I’m going to think any of my mixes are rubbish from here on in (particularly since I’ve got 2001 out of the way), but this one in particular has been a pleasure to write about. Despite me alluding in my disc 1 blog that it wasn’t a fantastic year, it certainly had its fair share of fantastic moments (summer camp aside) and this has brought a lot of them flooding back to me.

Actually, one of them wasn’t quite from that year, but of New Year’s Day in 2004 – I was in Burlington, Vermont after coming over for Camp Mason’s winter reunion, and I ended going with a load of staff there to my friend Dana’s university digs for a new year’s party. The next day, nursing a fair old hangover, I took a walk by Lake Champaign to blow away the cobwebs and was listening to this (newly put together) disc on the way round.

The first few tracks certainly do the trick on that score. Kicking off is a track by a band from Denton, Texas called History At Our Disposal – I’ve heard nothing of them since, but John Peel (who else?) played their track ‘A Day’s Work, A Day’s Bread’ on his show a couple of times and I was straight on to Amazon to pick up a copy. The intro is all spooky, echoey guitar chords and incoherent falsetto, like it was knowingly recorded in a haunted house. Then the lolloping drums kick in, taking it into more traditional college rock territory, before out of nowhere, the track cranks up a gear and plays out with a tremendous fist-punching crescendo. From there, it’s straight into the comeback single by Jane’s Addiction, ‘Just Because’. I don’t profess to being a great expert on this band (most of their material came out before my time), but I do know that if a favourite band of mine was coming out of a 13-year hiatus, I’d want them to lead off with a single which sounds as kick-ass as this. With no respite, it’s on to the spider-limbed percussion of ‘As Serious As Your Life’ by Four Tet – making the Camp Mason CDs had the nice side-effect of teaching me how to mix properly – before a song that I’d end up associating more with the following summer at said camp, Outkast’s ubiquitious ‘Hey Ya!’. I think I’ll save all my words on that for my next blog, as it’ll appear there too.

You probably don’t see Outkast segued into The Fall too often, but next up is the alternate version of ‘Recovery Kit’ that appears on the B-side of their Christmas single (that’s right, they did a Christmas single). Keeping a sort of theme going here, there’s some awesome percussion work going on here – drumming often being the least-talked-about feature of what makes a good Fall song, but one of the most important, if you ask me. The Crimea appear next, on a bit of a hot streak of singles by following ‘Lottery Winners On Acid’ with the melodic, metaphor-heavy ‘White Russian Galaxy’.

Having negotiated the opening series of bangers, we move on to what we might call the ‘reflective section’. Clearlake’s second selection on this soundtrack is ‘Wonder If The Snow Might Settle’, sounding a little dourer than I remember. Clearlake were a very good, underrated band in their time – and I’ll always cheer on a Brighton band who made good – but I think I probably could have cut this for a more willing song. It’s followed by two songs that’ll remind me of evenings spent at camp – Blur’s ‘Out Of Time’ for singing it with Stumbles at a campfire (hence its appearance on both my soundtrack and the camp CD), and Radiohead’s ‘Sail To The Moon’, for one particular night that I had time off and felt like spending a bit of it just sitting on my own listening to music looking over the moonlit lake rather than hanging out with others in the staff lounge. Radiohead often get stick for writing songs that sound like rewrites of ‘Pyramid Song’, but it’s probably my favourite mode of Radiohead, evidenced here and also much later on with tracks like 2011’s brilliant ‘Codex’.

Flowing rather perfectly into ‘Sail To The Moon’ is Doves’ ‘Darker’. Doves were very much one of my favourite bands of the time, and so this fanboy was grateful for them releasing a B-sides collection which hung together like a proper album in itself – ‘Darker’ was the highlight but I’d end up also loving ‘Northenden’ which became my favourite people-watching song (not in a creepy way, mind).

The Raveonettes feel like a very of-their-time inclusion, even though they’re still a solvent band. Not only were they one of a raft of bands of the time that had a definitive article prefix, they also had a couple of gimmicks – a duo with no drummer, and all their songs on one album written in the same key. Both ‘Remember’ and disc 1’s ‘The Great Love Sound’ fell into this template, and rather good they were too (if listening to 13 songs all in the same key can be a bit draining). Following the summery double-bill of Yo La Tengo’s ‘Little Eyes’ and The Thrills’ moderately-charting ‘One Horse Town’, we have the gorgeous ‘Carrion’ by British Sea Power, probably the song that evokes memories of the aforementioned Lake Champaign walk more than any other song here.

It’s followed by what might seem an odd choice, given that the Pet Shop Boys’ ‘Liberation’ was ten years old by the time I’d put this together, but by now I’d realise the futility of putting together an album of a year’s worth of memories if I completely excluded stuff which wasn’t from that year. And although I’d known the song for years, ‘Liberation’ was never a song that stood out massively. Like the best songs though, it aged well for me, and when it was released on the brilliant PopArt compilation – a definitive document on the genius of the Tennant/Lowe songwriting partnership, by the way – it quickly became a. Although the lyrics are among the most content they ever wrote, it still seems almost overwhelmingly melancholy. So began my trend of including a couple of ‘wildcards’ on my soundtracks – songs from any year that made a real impact on me.

Entering the home straight, we get a trio of tracks from Scottish artists – thanks again to Peel, I was becoming an enormous fan of that country’s indie scene. First it’s a track from the Delgados’ covers-only Peel Session. As big a Delgados fanboy as I was, I think my insistence at the time that their cover of Electric Light Orchestra’s ‘Mr Blue Sky’ was twice as good as the original – well, maybe I was going a bit over the top there. But I still like it. It’s followed by James Yorkston’s ‘Sweet Jesus’, from the much-loved Moving Up Country album, and then by Gordon McIntyre’s beautifully-scored spoken-word monologue, ‘A Europe-Wide Search For Love’.

In many ways that would have been the perfect way to end, but I left the best to last – my favourite song of the year was Elbow’s ‘Grace Under Pressure’ – an almost perfect storm of gospel choir, manic drumming and 15,000 people at Glastonbury recorded singing the pay-off line, ‘We still believe in love / So fuck you’. As the credits rolled on a particularly challenging and traumatic 2003, it seemed like an appropriate line to sign out on.

2003

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