Here’s the latest batch of Music Musings and Miscellany’s unapologetically subjective selection of the twentieth century’s best 1000 singles. All the Us and Vs.
PHOTEK – UFO / Rings Around Saturn (Photek 1995)
ORIGIN UNKNOWN – Valley of the Shadows / The Touch (RAM 1993)
There was a time around fifteen years ago when I listened to little else but drum & bass, the only time in my life when my listening’s been so focused on a particular genre. The best tunes of the period sounded like a clattering, swirling rush into a nightmarish urban future. And you know what – fifteen years on, they still do. UFO on Photek’s own label had that X-Files thing going on, only the samples were genuine. They were taken from an investigation into mysterious lights that appeared near a US airbase in East Anglia some time in the eighties. Tension rips through the track, as it does in the bass vortex of Origin Unknown’s Valley of the Shadows (aka 31 Seconds). The vocal sample was taken from a BBC program about near death experiences, and the whole track has a feel of being sucked spinning into darkness.
THE THE – Uncertain Smile / Three Orange Kisses From Kazan (Epic 1982)
One of the few moments in music history where the ivory tinkling of the perma-grinning Jools Holland actually enhances a track. Like most of Matt Johnson’s early work, Uncertain Smile seems to concern depression, angst and low self-esteem. And yet there is something almost sunnily optimistic about it.
MASSIVE ATTACK – Unfinished Sympathy / mixes (Wild Bunch 1991)
Very possibly the best record of the century’s final decade. Everything about Unfinished Sympathy is perfect. The beats, the strings, Shara Nelson’s pleading vocals and the unforgettable video featuring a single five minute tracking shot of Nelson walking through an urban mainstreet in the orange glow of dusk (with 3D, G and Mushroom skulking in the background).
DOORS – The Unknown Soldier / We Could Be So Good Together (Elektra 1968)
I’ve always found Jim Morrison a boor and a bore, whose self-mythologising is hard to stomach. The Doors have also been responsible for some pretty dire records. At their best, though, they had an instinct for (melo)drama that was gripping. The Unknown Soldier is like a mini play about the execution of an army deserter. A bold choice for a single, especially in 1968. It works brilliantly, partly because, for once, Morrison immerses himself in a role rather than trying to be some hedonistic mystic.
DRIFTERS – Up on the Roof / Another Night With the Boys (Atlantic 1962)
“At night the stars put on a show for free / And, darling, you can share it all with me“. By the end of the decade (actually just six years later), the Temptations were finding escape from urban pressure through thinly disguised narcotics in Cloud Nine (although they’ve always refuted that interpretation), but in 1962 a tenement roof was all the Drifters needed. Certainly a more romantic notion than just getting out of your box.
JESUS & MARY CHAIN – Upside Down / Vegetable Man (Creation 1984)
Skkkrrreeeeeeeeeeeee!!!! Perfect – like surfing through a sheet metal works; like lathes through steel plate while some Brill Building popsters attempt to do a Beach Boys cover. Yeah, noise records had been done before, but no one had been so impudent as to make pop records the same way before the Mary Chain. And Vegetable Man is madder than a box of Barretts.
STEVIE WONDER – Uptight / Purple Raindrops (Tamla 1965)
By 1965 the former twelve year old genius was now a fifteen year old with a remarkable vocal maturity. This is one of those tunes that the Motown hit factory through the works at, leaving three minutes of stomping, unfettered joy.
MONKEES – Valleri / Tapioca Tundra (Colgems 1968)
At the time it mattered that the Monkees were a ‘manufactured’ pop group. But then so were the Sex Pistols. Who actually cares? In Boyce and Hart they had a couple of grade A songwriters, and the efforts of Nesmith, Tork and even Dolenz weren’t too shabby either. If singles as good as Valleri had been released by a group of pimply teens from Nowheresville Iowa, they would have been the Holy Grail for fans of sixties garage pop.
PIXIES – Velouria / I’ve Been Waiting For You (4AD 1990)
These days the band is just a money-grabbing cabaret act whoreing out their back catalogue. Back then, they were refreshing and exciting. And that’s how I’d like to remember them.
BJÖRK – Venus as a Boy / There’s More to Life Than This (One Little Indian 1993)
There is something both pure and whimsical about Venus as a Boy. I’ve always like Björk’s music best when it exudes a kind of child-like wonder, combined with a magic realism. She’s terrific at conveying intangibles such as beauty and wonder in slightly off-kilter ways. It’s a quality that much of her more recent work lacks.
FATAL MICROBES – Violence Grows / Beautiful Pictures (Small Wonder 1978)
It gets on my fucking nerves, you know, all this ‘Broken Britain’ crap, like we’ve descended into some hellish time compared to the ‘good old days’. What? Like the seventies, you mean? Like football violence, razor gangs, kids getting their heads kicked in because they like the Clash, NF skins, the SUS laws, three channels of shit council telly, cheap skag etc etc. A golden era, to be sure. Violence Grows is one of those records that is indelibly linked to its era. It’s not so much angry at all the daily shit, as resigned to it. Like you could possibly expect any better? Chilling.
ROXY MUSIC – Virginia Plain / The Numberer (Island 1972)
Of course, this is the seventies people prefer to remember (although I was only a small boy at the time). The glamour, the sheen, the space age hardware. Of course, it was all artifice. Roxy, like Bowie, peddled artifice in a knowing way that both celebrated and satirised it at the same time. And they made great tunes to boot (before turning into the epitome of eighties dinner party blandness).
JEFFERSON AIRPLANE – Volunteers / We Can Be Together (RCA 1969)
I”m in unstoppable rant mode now, but there’s no better example of how the sixties’ ideals were shredded than the dual personalities of Jefferson Airplane / Starship – counter-culture revolutionaries to paragons of empty AOR bombast. This is where they should have stopped – a two minute call to arms that gave a militancy and urgency to the hippie ideal that had long lost its veneer of innocence. It sounds like its meant, and I’m sure it was, but it was only a fleeting moment. Drugs, money and personal bickering always seemed to have the final say.
JIMI HENDRIX – Voodoo Chile / Hey Joe / All Along the Watchtower (Track 1970)
Better you die before you soil your reputation? Of course not, that’s just romantic rock & roll bullshit. Voodoo Chile was a two year old track rushed out by the record company before the corpse was even cold. And their tawdry efforts were rewarded with a number one single. It’s in this list because it’s an awesome piece of music, and not for any other reason.
A GUY CALLED GERALD – Voodoo Ray / Escape (Rham 1988)
Nothing encapsulates that Hacienda summer better than this. Magnificent. Of its time, of course, but it still has that swirly head-rushiness about it that gets the endorphins going better than any chemical ever could.