Saturday, December 30, 2006 

Scum-watch: Saddammed.

The Sun is utterly ecstatic with the death of Saddam Hussein. Following on from celebrating the deaths of other mass murderers, such as Harold Shipman (SHIP SHIP HOORAY was the following day's front page headline) the Sun printed a "3 AM NEWS SPECIAL" which screams "SADDAM HANGED - Iraq butcher sent to hell". Previous editions had used puns based around "OGRE" having used up "SADDAMMED TO HELL" when he was first sentenced.

The website meanwhile advertises the "Amazing" first picture from his execution. It's not amazing - the image instead conveys the banal, less than extraordinary reality of a man about to have his life taken from him. If anything, the video of his final moments is remarkable for its similarity to the tapes released by Zarqawi et al - the denouement may not be as brutal, bloody, sadistic or shocking, Saddam may have been convicted by a court of law - yet the rough edges and the general lack of humanity are still evident in both.

As could also be expected, the Sun leader does its best to justify the execution:

NO ONE should lose any sleep over Saddam going to the gallows.

A few bleeding hearts have managed to protest at his sentence — but without much conviction.

As Prime Minister Tony Blair has pointed out, this country stands against capital punishment anywhere.

But WE haven’t been under the heel of a murderous dictator for nearly three decades.

WE don’t know what it’s like to see members of our families disappear in the night.

Or witness tens of thousands of our fellow countrymen put to death.

The fate of Saddam was sensibly left in the hands of the Iraqis.

It’s no surprise they decided to put a noose round his neck.

It would be worth pointing out that we also weren't subjected to sanctions for 13 years that resulted in the deaths of a possible 500,000 children, a statistic which former US Secretary of State Madeline Albright said was worth it. Our houses also haven't been under threat for 16 years from the skies, with us not knowing whether the night might result in our families being vapourised by good-faith US/UK bombers, who have always only wanted to remove the Butcher of Baghdad and help the Iraqi people. One death should never justify another. As Stalin pointed out, one death is a tragedy, but a million is a statistic.

Juan Cole and David Hirst, in his exemplary obituary of Saddam, have also pointed out examples of how we stood by and watched, only intervening when Saddam threatened "our" interests.

The Sun is right however in its main point that there should be no sleep lost for Saddam. I very much doubt there will be. I challenge anyone though not to admit to feeling at least uncomfortable watching the pictures of the man having the noose placed around his neck, even though we have been spared his dropping through the scaffold. Not to feel at least some pang of pity or another emotion is surely down either to comprehensive desensitisation or a general lack of humanity, whatever the person being executed is responsible for.

Elsewhere, the Sun yesterday continued its campaign of pointing out the foibles of "our Muslim community" which Osama Saeed excellently puts into context.

Happy new year!

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Friday, December 29, 2006 

Give him the respect he deserves?

I wonder who you think you are
You damn well think you're God or something
God give life, God taketh it away, not you
I think you are the Devil itself

Manic Street Preachers, Archives of Pain.

One of the finest and most controversial songs that Richey Edwards wrote for the Manic Street Preachers' Holy Bible album shortly before he disappeared, Archives of Pain, always comes into my thoughts when I consider the rights and wrongs of capital punishment. Although Edwards intended it as pro-capital punishment, whether those were his beliefs or not, the lyrics themselves are ambiguous enough for it to be taken either way, potentially an attack on those who believe in vengeance for its cleansing, wiping the slate clean nature, while also making a reasonably compelling case exactly for that. After all, wouldn't it have been so much easier for Myra Hindley and Ian Brady to have met their maker for their crimes instead of spending the next almost forty years in prison, respectively yearning to be released and to die? Does anyone truly pay full penance, let alone regret their crimes by spending decades in prison? At the same time, the belief that executing those who have killed somehow solves everything is both a false one, and one which potentially opens the state itself to accusations that it is no better than the murderer themselves.

I admit, despite all these conflicting arguments, to be an anti-capital punishment fundamentalist. It may be because I have never suffered any serious crime, or had one happen to my relatives that I see almost no merit in seeking physical revenge for any slight committed against me. Sure, I hold grudges. I enjoy schadenfreude as much as the next person. I would like nothing better than to see the likes of Fred Phelps, Richard Littlejohn or Mazher Mahmood for example, to get their deserved comeuppance for the hate, lies and fear they've expressed time and again. Yet for them to be killed or seriously injured, rather than just suffer mentally for a short while, or to see the other side of the story that they so ignore is something that I could never condone. I'd love to see Ayman al-Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden answer for their crimes and murderous preaching in a court of law. For them to be blown apart by a laser-guided missile would be poetic justice, but not the kind of justice I could agree with when they could have been captured instead.

So it is with Saddam Hussein. As rumours that his execution is due to take place within hours reach fever pitch, there's a feeling that everything would have been so much easier if the Iraqi people could have beaten him to death with their shoes just like they did his pictures and his statues when the resistance to the US/UK invasion collapsed. Instead, what we've been left with is a deeply flawed trial, which in the circumstances may well have been the best that could have expected, but has not helped Iraq either come together or entirely fall apart. The brutal fact is that life in Iraq now is so much less secure that the imminent demise of their former dictator is unlikely to affect anything at all in the long run; it will raise cheers in the Shia districts for sure, potentially further antagonise the remaining Ba'athists and remnants of the Sunni community which refuse to involve themselves in the governing of the country, but in the long run, nothing is going to be inexorably changed by his death.

Why then is his trip to the gallows so urgent, not counting the legal strictures that have been set down? Why could the other trials still going on or yet to be held not continue to take place? Saddam himself has showed little to no contrition; his apparent suggestion that he and only he should be held accountable for what happened in Dujali was the only thing that has come anywhere close to either an admittance of wrong-doing or an apology. As predicted, Saddam has also prepared the ground for his death to be seen as a martyrdom. Whether this will be accepted by those who opposed him while he was in power as a nationalist socialist is uncertain, but in years to come the nuances may yet fade and appeal to a youth growing up hating America and the West and looking to find someone as a potential hero who did die for the cause, bin Laden and his henchmen not being prepared to sacrifice themselves when they can send their followers instead.

It's not too late for the death sentence to be converted to life imprisonment. This would enable the other trials to finish, perhaps crouched in a more amenable way that adheres to international law, and for full justice for all those who died at the hands of his regime to be served. Who knows, perhaps a truly democratic and free Iraq, one not marred by sectarian bloodshed may yet one day emerge while he remains alive, the one thing that would show that his reign was an illegitimate and brutal aberration that will not be repeated, breaking the man himself. Idealistic and not crouched in realism this may be, but what's wrong with dreaming every once in a while?

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Thursday, December 28, 2006 

Joined-up government in two short bursts.

Just two weeks after the government was heavily criticised in rather sensationalist BBC reports for spending over £100 million on translation services, the government is due to announce that it is stopping the free language lessons it provides for asylum seekers whose claims have not yet been processed. Phil Woolas, who appeared on Newsnight to defend the government's position, instead decided to use the "even talking about this helps the BNP" card to evade answering any questions whatsoever, despite previously saying that Aishah Azmi should have been sacked for her refusal to the remove her niqab before the disciplinary panel had reached its verdict.

Elsewhere, the ghastly Blairite automaton Hazel Blears thought she'd earn some brownie points from someone other than the Dear Leader by joining protests in her constituency against the closure of maternity services. That she's a firm believer in the introduction of market forces into the NHS, the terrible wastage of money going to independent private treatment centres and into PFI schemes doesn't matter when the actual cuts are in her own backyard. She doesn't even have the excuse that John Reid came up with when he previously joined protests against proposed cuts in his constituency; even though he was health secretary, health matters are devolved to the Scottish parliament. She is the very worst of hypocrite, the kind so utterly shameless that they regard principles as a middle-class disease afflicting only limp-wristed liberals. Thankfully, when Brown ascends to become the next Dear Leader, she's likely to find herself without a job.

On other blogs, Blood and Treasure examines the conflict in Somalia then and now.

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Wednesday, December 27, 2006 

The 30 best albums of 2006.

30. Arctic Monkeys - Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not

When you're quite possibly the most hyped band in the history of music, that you even manage to produce half an album of brilliant material is a decent achievement. For that is what the Monkeys' debut is - an album that undoubtedly has some of the finest songs of the year on, but which also has more than its share of terrible filler. What kind of person would honestly want to listen more than once to "Perhaps Vampires.." or "From The Ritz to the Rubble"? "Still Take You Home" contains the causal misogyny that afflicts many of the post-Libertines bands, and "Red Lights Indicates Doors..." has this line which would make even Lily Allen blush:
But this lad at the side drinking his Smirnoff Ice
Came and paid for her tropical reef
Thankfully, all this tosh is made up for by the debut single "I Bet...", the social comment of "Riot Van", the tender, affectionate "Mardy Bum", the sheer swagger of "When the Sun Goes Down" and the awareness of the true picture of Britain's streets on "A Certain Romance". That the Monkeys have since gone on to release an EP and a single that have vastly improved on some of the material found on "Whatever" makes their appearance here all the more worthy.

29. Cat Power - The Greatest

2006 was certainly the year of the cat. Chan Marshall, after spending years as a delicate, troubled woman, suddenly appeared to find the confidence that had been denied her. Helped undoubtedly at her live shows by the backing of the Memphis Rhythm Band, her previously erratic performances were transformed into fully-formed bodies of work. Released in the early months of 2006, the Greatest could undoubtedly be described as her most mature work so far. While it doesn't quite contain the emotions that littered 2003's "You Are Free", the Greatest perhaps holds the key to her new-found charisma. This is summed up by the song "Hate", where Marshall, backed only by piano, openly states her desire to die, while on tour the lyrics have been changed to "I don't hate myself and I don't want to die". She still has much to give.

28. Gossip - Standing in the Way of Control

You somehow can't imagine that Beth Ditto thought that 2006 would end with her being voted the coolest person on the face of the earth by the readers of NME. As you've doubtless read countless times already, fat tattooed feminist lesbians don't generally win such awards. Standing in the Way of Control, best described as an indie-soul-dance hybrid, however proves otherwise. Ditto's voice soars, while her band-mates provide the backing that has kicked the Gossip into the limelight. The title track has been the club hit of the year, ably remixed by Soulwax, but the original also holds all the successful elements. Short, sharp kicks to the throat are what the Gossip deal in, and this album contains 10 of them.

27. Yeah Yeah Yeahs - Show Your Bones

Show Your Bones wasn't anywhere near as well received as their debut, Fever to Tell, but there was a good reason for that. While Fever was an immediate hit, Bones was that impertinent reminder that sometimes good music has to grow on you. Releasing Gold Lion, one of the weakest tracks on the album as the first single probably also wasn't the smartest move. The guitar licks of Phenomena, the Maps-like Turn Into, and the simply awesome Cheated Hearts, which finds Karen O admitting to her own narcissism, with the line "sometimes I think I'm bigger than the sound" all contribute to what has been a bizarrely overlooked follow-up record.

26. Jeniferever - Choose A Bright Morning

At times, post-rock gets a bad press. Liked only by internet nerds and chin-stroking beardies, no one else cares about it. The likes of Jeniferever thankfully prove otherwise. Predictably compared to Sigur Ros, Jeniferever hail from the similar climate of Sweden, but go about things different Ros. While Ros have gone towards the commercial side of things following their move to EMI, Jeniferever have retained their desire to build slowly, their orchestral semi-ambient soundscapes at times going nowhere, yet still being enthralling. This, their first true album, has hidden depths. It can be both admired for its chill-out qualities, and also for the climaxes, which while never rivalling GY!BE, for instance, still charm and move.

25. Thom Yorke - The Eraser

The Eraser is far, far better than it had any right to be. Announced to general surprise, released within a couple of months, many assumed that it would be a filler record while Radiohead's numerous fans waited for their next album, due to be released this coming year.

Further exploring Yorke's experimental side, and mainly created entirely on laptop, the beats throb and Yorke's voice takes on a mainly hushed tone. The stand-out track and first single, Harrowdown Hill, is one of the songs of the year; describing the final moments of Dr David Kelly's life, Yorke manages to move and ask some awkward questions at the same time. While nothing else here comes close to it, the album further provides anticipation for the next Radiohead record proper.

24. The Futureheads - News and Tributes

The music industry continues to get harsher. Despite creating a more than decent follow-up to their self-titled debut, the Futureheads have found themselves dumped by 679 for failing to create sales, as opposed to praiseworthy music.

For sure, it's less immediate than their debut, and doesn't include any cover versions to excite the pop moguls, but this is a far more mature (yes, that word again) record, finding the band realise their own potential. The title track itself, which remembers the Munich air disaster, is poignant without descending into mawkishness. The singles, Skip to the End and Worry About it Later are fantastic, well-contained three minute indie-rock songs, while the opener, Yes / No, sets the store for the rest of the album. Expect this gem to become more popular in the years to come.

23. Morrissey - Ringleader of the Tormentors

2006 also saw the reappearance of a Morrissey that could honestly be compared to the one who lead the Smiths during the 80s. Dropping the pretence that many have about him, Ringleader is a surprisingly honest record, one that sees him coming to terms with his own limitations and his sexuality. Not only does he admit on "Dear God, Please Help Me" that he has explosive kegs between his legs, he also recognises that he's unlikely to be anyone's hero now. Instead, he's released an album filled with gems, such as the single "You Have Killed Me" and the album closer "At Last I Am Born". Ennio Morricone provides strings on one track, while the band themselves do their best to live up to their vocalist's own high. Not even the appearance of a children's choir, usually the death knell of lesser records, can destroy this one.

22. Howling Bells - Howling Bells

2006 additionally saw something of a renaissance in female indie vocalists. Previously the refuge of the skinny white boy, along with Karen O, Beth Ditto and Kate Jackson, Juanita Stein led the fightback. Despite the band name, her voice is more haunting than howling, being compared by many to PJ Harvey's. The record itself makes full use of her range, which alternates between being intimidating and sultry depending on the song. If there had been any justice, this record would have sold as well as it won critical praise, but it appears not to be.

21. Peter, Bjorn and John - Writer's Block

Another critical success that didn't fly off the shelves, Writer's Block was heralded by the magnificence of the single Young Folks, which featured Victoria Bergeman of the Concretes. The perfect summery indie-pop single, the album from which it came is full of similar catchy numbers. The title is wonderfully deceptive, as PB&J certainly aren't suffering from it; this is their third album, and by far their best.

20. Be Your Own Pet - Be Your Own Pet

With the record hardly begun, when Jemina Pearl Abegg starts snarling that she's an independent motherfucker, and she's here to steal your virginity, she sets the tone for the rest of the album. Be Your Own Pet aren't pretending to be anything they're not; they're a teenage band making songs for teenagers to dance around like idiots to. That they do so with such energy, creating the record that perhaps some Yeah Yeah Yeahs fans were hoping that Karen O's mob would, only bears out that you only get one chance to make an album like this. Be Your Own Pet thankfully have seized the mantle. Where they'll go from here is anyone's guess.

19. CSS - Cansei De Ser Sexy

CSS really shouldn't work. They ought to be in the same realm as the Scissor Sisters - over the top, daft and annoying. Instead, this may well be the best that electro-pop has ever sounded. Add to it foul-mouthed rants about Paris Hilton, tributes to Death from Above and the great "Music is my hot hot sex", which may well be the best description of how the best music really should be, and CSS have produced one of the funnest, most well lubricated albums of the year.

18. The Hot Puppies - Under the Crooked Moon

2006, ignoring the travesties committed against indie-pop by Lily Allen, has been one of the best years for it in a long time. Becky Newman shares with her peers an absolutely gorgeous voice, while the song-writing side is by the guitarist Luke Taylor. That he has produced such feminine sounding songs as Green Eyeliner, The Girl Who Was Too Beautiful and the soulful slow stomp of How Come You Don't Hold Me No More is more of a surprise. Consider this an almost female answer to the Arctic Monkeys male club worship.

17. Mono - You Are There

While everyone waits, hoping, praying that Godspeed You! Black Emperor do eventually reform and record at least one more record, Mono are doing their level best to keep the immense, moving, hugely powerful post-rock movement going. Recorded by Steve Albini, as was the last GY!BE record, this time Mono add strings to their previous reliance on just guitar, bass and drums. The album has three main movements, with two more "quiet" intermissions separating them. This is by far their finest album, kicks off the accusations that they were ripping off Mogwai, and puts them squarely in the premier league of post-rock artists, alongside Explosions in the Sky and Red Sparowes.

16. Hot Chip - The Warning

There were few albums from this year as genuinely joyous as the Warning is in places - Over and Over, in particular, with its sheer infective bounciness is special enough, but add to that the other single Colours, and Just Like We Breakdown, and Hot Chip have created a crossover hit. That they continue to do top notch remix work is an added bonus.

15. Milburn - Well Well Well

It may be potentially heretical, but Milburn's debut album is a far, far more polished and substantial offering that that of their related cousins the Arctic Monkeys. To clear up any confusion in the chicken and egg style conundrum, Milburn came first. Unlike the Monkeys, Milburn have expanded their horizons further than the club. There are songs here about awfulness of reality TV in Stockholm Syndrome, the local thug in Brewster, the oily lad who thinks he's everything that he isn't in Showroom and quite possibly the finest song of the year "What You Could've Won", about being rejected at the end of the night, but done without the histrionics you'd expect from less subtle bands. The expanded version released also features Billy Bragg adding his own touch to Brewster, which is well worth seeking out. Whether Milburn will last as long in the memory or ever touch the success which the Monkeys have grabbed is uncertain, but their debut deserves better than it has probably had so far.

14. The Blood Brothers - Young Machetes

Returning after their 2004 album Crimes, the Blood Brothers are less openly angry about the Iraq war and at times, even more laid back than some of the slower numbers on that album. While "Burn, Piano Island, Burn" may yet turn out to be their finest moment, there remains something to be said for the Brothers when they're not being so damned heavy. The old violent imagery that we know and love remains, with "John Lennon and the Rolling Stones breathing in plastic bags" being one of the more memorable lines from YM. Album closer "Giant Swan" contains the best moment, as in true Blood Brothers style everything goes mental, the guitars sawing and drums pounding, with Johnny Whitney sounding terrified, screaming "Who's at the door? What the fuck!". While they may be an acquired taste, Machetes is in places even more accessible than Crimes was, without losing any of their power to both shock and sonically astound.

13. Red Sparowes - Every Red Heart Shines Toward the Red Sun

Even by post-rock standards, the titles which Red Sparowes give to their songs, are, err, long. The second track from "Every..", for instance, is called "We Stood Transfixed in Blank Devotion as Our Leader Spoke to Us, Looking Down on Our Mute Faces With a Great, Raging and Unseeing Eye". The others are little shorter. While this practice is undoubtedly pretentious, the music itself is far from it. Following on from their previous album, At the Soundless Dawn, Every Red Heart is even heavier, yet without letting up on the seamless soundscapes, or sacrificing the riffs and melodies which are at the heart of the album. In the year in which Isis, who share a member with Red Sparowes, were widely regarded as producing their first disappointing album, the Sparowes immenseness is even more welcome.

12. iLiKETRAiNS - Progress / Reform

Apart from the name, iliketrains are far from your ordinary post-rock band. Emerging from the Leeds DanceToTheRadio scene, they not only use vocals, but make full use on this, their mini-album, of first person narratives. Terra Nova is from the perspective of Scott on his doomed mission to the Antarctic, A Rook House for Bobby examines the exasperation of the chess master Bobby Fischer in his isolation, while Stainless Steel is the story of the revenge of a wife on her adulterous husband. What completes it is the at times utterly peerless guitar work, especially on Stainless Steel, which ends with 3 minutes of Godspeed rivalling crescendos. If this is what they can produce with limited resources, then their eventual full-length is going to be eagerly awaited.

11. The Young Knives - Voices of Animals and Men

When we look back in years to come, we'll have Carl Barat and Pete Doherty to thank for the deluge of quite frankly shit bands who've plagued us to an extent in 2006. That the Libertines were never that great or doing anything new in the first place now seems besides the point: we've got the likes of the Rifles to deal with. While they are the worst of a semi-decent bunch that includes the Fratellis, the Holloways, the On-Offs, Larrikin Love and others I've probably forgotten, the Young Knives, who've been around since their 2002 EP ... Are Dead have been showing them how it should be done.

Never forgetting that wit and humour have just as much of a place in music as they have in everything else, the Knives debut is filled with the sort of infectious melodies and riffing that the Libertines followers have utterly missed. The singles, The Decision, She's Attracted To and Here Comes The Rumour Mill are joined by the insanely catchy chorus of Mystic Energy, the slow-burning In The Pink and the ode to dead towns that is Loughborough Suicide. That they're great live too is simply a bonus.

10. Mystery Jets - Making Dens

Released back in March, Making Dens seems to have been rather unfairly forgotten about. Drowned in Sound named it as one of the best 66 albums of the last 6 years, then didn't include it in their vote for the best 15 of the year. Best described as the most eclectic indie-prog outfit you'll probably ever find, they can change from the near instrumental rhythm of Zoo Time to the love song dynamics of Alas Agnes within moments. They've since rerecorded Diamonds in the Dark, done some b-sides with indie-dancefloor production superstar Erol Alkan, and are soon to release an acoustic EP. Making Dens suggests they'll be around for a long time yet.

9. Liars - Drum's Not Dead

Few would have suspected that when the Liars released their dance-punk debut "They Threw Us All In A Trench.." in 2001 that a few years on they would be producing avant-rock masterpieces, but that's the way the world has turned. Taking solace from their justified belief that their follow up, "They Were Wrong" was far far better than the critics said, they stuck at their game and produced this sort of concept album, based around two characters, Drum and Mt Heart Attack. The percussion is at times utterly hypnotic, while the distorted guitar drones echo and ebb and flow in much the same way. The closing song, "The Other Side of Mt. Heart Attack" sees the band turn full circle, as they produce the kind of lush ballad that their friends the Yeah Yeahs Yeah may at some point have tried to have produce. The album comes with a DVD featuring strange, weird film pieces by each band member, recreating the record in their visual perspective.

8. TV on the Radio - Return to Cookie Mountain

Return to Cookie Mountain is the record that the TV on the Radio's first few EPs suggested they could make. While their first album was well received, it never quite reached the heights that their "Staring at the Sun" intimated they could reach. Their second, thankfully, sees them returning to that sort of form.

Return is at turns, dense, harsh and disorienting, but also has more delicate moments, like the single Wolf Like Me. Listening to it all the way through, it sounds like an album of continuing ideas that don't let up, with there being few lulls and no gaps to speak of. Even the appearance of David Bowie, who provides backing vocals, can pass you by completely. Repeated listens though bring out the complexities of what Pitchfork describes as fairly conventional rock record; it's just not like anything anyone else is doing at the moment, and that is the beauty of it.

7. The Pipettes - We Are The Pipettes

Why didn't someone think of doing this before? The Pipettes are a creation just as much as the Spice Girls were, to be honest, formed by the eponymous "Monster Bobby" as a modern take on the Ronettes and Shangri-Las. Their singles, especially "Pull Shapes" though have been anything but the modern dreariness of manufactured pop, instead relying on sassiness and sheer charisma to win the day. While it's no longer an apparent sin to admit that you like the odd Girls Aloud song, the Pipettes have provided the indie-kid with the ability to maintain his full cred.

6. White Rose Movement - Kick

If there has been a better indie-dance hybrid this year, then I have yet to hear it. While the world awaits the so-called new rave wave's albums, WRM spent 2006 kicking back with the best pieces of the 80s, splicing the Joy Division and New Order in with the Human League, Soft Cell and Duran Duran, and coming up with an absolute winner. Produced by Paul Epworth, who worked the board on Bloc Party's debut, WRM come across as the Killers without the egos and shit lyrics, except more set on getting everyone to dance. OK, so they're not going to win any prices for theirs either, but the dancefloor destruction provided by Love is a Number, the contender for single of the year Girls in the Back and identity crisis of Testcard Girl more than make up for it. The assault against senseless violence provided in "Deborah Carne", named after the victim of a horrific crime in Essex around the time WRM formed adds additional flesh to their intellectual bones.

5. The Decemberists - The Crane Wife

It was always going to be difficult for the Decemberists to follow up Picaresque, an opus which will certainly feature in the top ten of the decade, but they could have done a lot worse than the Crane Wife. While Picaresque focused on individual tracks, Colin Meloy's troop here return in places to the form taken by their Tain EP, a seamless 20 minute track with movements. While not experimenting with their progressive side, Meloy duets with Laura Veirs on "Yankee Bayonet", a song which channels the souls of a husband and wife during the civil war to great effect, while the menacing lullaby "Shankhill Butchers is more like to terrify than soothe. "When The War Came", with its droning riff keeps things going nicely, while the Japanese myth of the Crane Wife ties everything together. There may not be anything here to rival "The Bagman's Gambit" or the "Mariner's Revenge..", but it at times comes mighty close.

4. Jarvis - Jarvis

In the year when those from his home town (or near it at least) have attempted to conquer his lyrical crown, it was fitting that the old man of British indie himself made a solo return, and a hugely impressive one it is too. His years spent away have not mellowed Cocker in the slightest, and both his anger and depression are voiced here. "Fat Children", by turns hilarious and horribly accurate, voices the anxiety of wondering if everything is going wrong, while the hidden track and download only single "Running The World" points the finger firmly and repeatedly in the strongest of terms. "I Will Kill Again" is the frustration of a man who sees those like him always getting the blame, while "From Auschwitz to Ipswich", which has acquired a tone to it which Cocker wouldn't have intended thanks to the events of the last couple of months, is the sound of desolation from someone who sees the insanity of the world at large. "Big Julie" is the song the Arctic Monkeys wish they could write: about a girl coming to terms with her sexuality and her teenage life. Let's hope he never stays away so long again.

3. The Long Blondes - Someone To Drive You Home

Without Kate Jackson, the Long Blondes probably wouldn't be sitting here at 3. Her presence and her voice are what drives Someone To Drive You Home. Best heard on "Once and Never Again", Jackson pleads with a 19-year-old girl that really, she doesn't need a boyfriend, and that she knows how it feels to be that age. Only being 27 herself, coming from someone else this might seem patronising, yet here it feels natural and makes for a swirling pop song. This theme is touched on again on "Heaven Help the New Girl", a song about being ditched, while the huge former single and soon to be released again "Giddy Stratospheres", with its glorious chorus features Jackson trying to tempt someone away from their partner herself. "Weekend Without Makeup" is the sort of song that only a female fronted band could do, although it follows that sort of chain of conciousness that Milburn and the Monkeys like to tap into. "Only Lovers Left Alive" though perhaps says it best; something will eventually have to give.

2. Guillemots - Through The Windowpane

This is the album that should have won the Mercury prize. Fyfe Dangerfield's groups record is however going to split opinions; for some it's overblown, trying to do too much all at once. One thing that can't be denied is the emotion that shines through throughout: especially on the almost vocals only "Blue Would Still Be Blue" where Dangerfield's voice soars with only basic occasional instrumentation for company. The real standouts are the two singles, "Made-up Love Song #43" and "Trains to Brazil", which has morphed from its initial beginnings into something of a tribute to Jean Charles de Menezes, and the closing "Sao Paolo", which clocks in at ten minutes, and is all the more enthralling for it.

1. ¡Forward, Russia! - Give Me A Wall

Is this the best album of the year? Perhaps not, but as well as the music the simple fact that FR have been successful outside the normal strictures of the music industry is something additionally worth recognising.

Despite having released singles on the bassist's label and charting highly for an indie-band using only their own promotion, no one was still prepared to give FR the benefit of the doubt and release their album. Saying fuck it, the band went away and self-released it instead. They've since gained a distribution deal in the US with Mute, and they're getting ready to record the follow up.

As for the album itself? It's best described as what you'd get if you threw Bloc Party and At-The Drive In in a blender. The post-punk is combined with the energy and furiousness of post-hardcore, while the nonsensical lyrics relate well to the latter comparison. Rather than name their songs properly, they're simply titled in the order in which they were written, although the band have since suggested this will change on the next album. Twelve and Nine, both singles, are a good reflection on the work as a whole, yet there are hidden depths, with Sixteen being slow to build before the drummer Katie's yelps combine with Tom's shrieks to form a massive breakdown. The last track, Eleven, ends with Tom pleading for us to "just don't forget". FR should be strong enough to ensure that's the case.


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Tuesday, December 26, 2006 

The worst music of 2006.

The Strokes - First Impressions of Earth

5 short years ago, the Strokes were hailed by the NME as the new saviours of music. 5 short years later, their third album should be cementing their position as one of the finest bands of the early stages of the 21st century. Instead, what we have is First Impressions of Earth. Julian Casablancas wasn't noted for his profound lyrics, but even by his standards this is a death rattle. Most of it based around Casablancas' apparent ennui of being in a hugely successful band, but that doesn't excuse this from the single Heart in a Cage:
See, I'm stuck in a city / But I belong in a field
Which unless Casablancas is projecting himself into the body of a cow in Mumbai is unforgivable. Sadly, it gets worse. On the Other Side is about as navel-gazing as it gets, relating how Casablancas hates everyone and hates himself for hating them. It's almost a relief when later on he starts warbling about how he has nothing to say; the first step is admitting that you have a problem. What makes it all the more aggravating is that the band themselves do sound tighter than ever: Juicebox especially is a punishingly angular attack. They've simply been let down by someone whose heart no longer seems in it. It's little wonder that Albert Hammond Jr has since escaped and launched his own solo side project - his album is far, far superior to this.

Tool - 10,000 Days

Could there be a less auspicious start than having the album information derided as fake by your own fans? Sure, Tool are well known for their trickery and jokes: a few years back Maynard announced to a fan site that he'd converted from being an affirmed atheist to Christianity. Some didn't notice it was April the 1st. Even so, for the first reviewer on Amazon to call "Rosetta Stoned" and "Lost Keys (Blame Hoffman)" obvious jokes didn't augur well. More embarrassing perhaps is the pages that follow of 5 star reviews. Far be it from me to suggest that Tool fans are deluding themselves, but 10,000 Days is by far their weakest record since their very first EP.

The opener, "Vicarious" is classic Tool: so much so that it sounds almost identical to previous tracks "Stinkfist" and "Schism". From there it's all downhill. There's nothing here that snarls as much as "Ticks & Leeches" or "Ænema", nothing as moving as "Reflection", and nothing as technical as the stomp of "Lateralus". It's the sound of mediocrity, of a band that has run short of ideas. When Maynard starts growling from the perspective of a hospital patient about "shitting the bed" it's an apt metaphor for what the band have in fact done: besmirched their own reputation by releasing an album that simply cannot compare to anything in their discography. That it took 5 years (although to be fair Maynard especially had been keeping busy in that period with A Perfect Circle) for this to take shape is all the more depressing.

The MySpace effect - Lily Allen / Sandi Thom

If you needed another reason to despise MySpace, look no further than Allen and Thom. Whether both really do owe their fame to the social networking site recently bought by Rupert Murdoch is open to question, especially in the case of Ms Thom, but it can't be denied that without the hype behind MySpace neither would probably be where they are now. Before you point fingers and say, hey, wait a minute, didn't those Monkeys emerge thanks to MySpace too, remember that their page there was never anything to do with them; rather set-up by fans themselves who then shared their demos. The same can't be said about our two female friends.

Both are products of the PR machine that many have duly accepted rather than protested against. How Allen, a product of numerous private schools, can somehow be considered "street" is a mystery, but it's one which has worked. In any case, the PR wouldn't matter if she was actually good, but Alright, Still proves otherwise. Allen, in case you haven't heard her, doesn't sing per-se, but rather speaks. This works fine when it comes to Eddie Argos of Art Brut, the irony being apparent, but here there is none: just a young woman pretending to be something she so obviously isn't. The single Smile, which reached number one, wouldn't be so bad if it wasn't for the fingernails down the blackboard sound of Allen attempting to harmonise on the chorus: "and then I just SMIIIIIIILLLLE, I just SMMMMMMILLLLLLLLLEEEE". The follow-up, LDN, has quite possibly the worst lyrics ever written, this being the pick of the bunch:
She was struggling with bags from Tesco.
There were people from the city havin' lunch in the park,
I believe that is called 'al fresco'.
The whole song contains the sort of lines that make you want to repeatedly slam your head into your desk, desperately hoping for the sickening wet thump that will represent the shattering of your skull and the welcoming incoming perpetual darkness.

Compared to Thom however, Allen is a genius. Thom's single, I Wish I Was A Punk Rocker (With Flowers in My Hair) is the deafening sound of the fast approaching musical apocalypse. Conflating the hippy and punk movements together, having no apparent insight or knowledge of either, Thom nonetheless sings about 69 and 77, trying to suggest that music from those eras genuinely meant something. The irony is that Thom's own recordings are so lacking in any individuality that her created tribute is in fact an insult, the equivalent of digging up Janis Joplin's corpse, pissing on it and then making her a permanent exhibit in Tate Modern. The only comfort is that Thom is now destined to fade into deserved obscurity; we may have to put up with Allen for years yet.

Fergie / Gwen Stefani

Not content with inflicting such masterpieces as "Shut Up", "My Humps" and "Hollaback Girl" on us respectively, 2006 saw the return of Fergie, freed from the restraints of her band mates in the Black Eyed Peas, and Stefani, freed from the apparent restraints of anyone who knows how to write an at least half-way decent song.

Despite probably having never been near London Bridge, Fergie's horrific take on a song about the structure will doubtless lead tourists to stay as far away as possible. Accompanied by a farting bassline, the lyrics could not possibly be any less vacuous, meaningless or unintelligible:
Grey goose got your girl feeling loose.
Now I’m wishin’ that I didn’t wear these shoes. (I hate heels)
It’s like everytime I get up on the dew,
Paparazzi put my business in the news.
Here is a clearly unconnected photograph of Fergie performing:

Stefani, deciding against the going down the Fergie route, instead samples yodeling. Yes, fucking yodeling. Wind it Up, the lead single and opening track, is so ghastly that it resembles the carnage at the end of Titus Andronicus, only converted to music form and played on the radio. The one thing that can be said in her favour as that when this decade's music is assessed, her onslaughts against the eardrums of the world will surely feature at the end of one chart, even if it is the worst.

Scissor Sisters - Ta-Dah

How? Why? Now? All questions that have to be asked about the utterly baffling success of the Scissor Sisters. Taking the worst excesses of 70s disco, adding to them the brain destroyingly bad influence of Elton John, with a liberal mixture of 80s glam, their music shouldn't work, and it doesn't. The Bee Gees sounded bad in their heyday, why the hell would anyone want to recreate it? Each member of the group has a stupid nickname, a trait that used to be confined to ridiculous over-the-top metallists and early punks. Add to this that one of them is called Ana Matronic, and has wires tattooed on her arm, and normally you'd have something that would be laughed about and sneered at. Something, sadly, has gone wrong in the machine. The terrifying single, "I Don't Feel Like Dancin'", with its faux-falsetto vocals and fizzing noises is enough to curdle the blood. The album itself, if it's possible, makes even "Candle in the Wind" look seminal.

Expect the best of 2006 tomorrow.


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Saturday, December 23, 2006 

War ain't over.

OK, I nicked this from Guido, and it's by Banksy, but it seems appropriate.

Oh, and I've been memed (ugh). I'll find a way of fitting that in when I do my masturbatory post on the best/worst music of the year in a couple of days. Until then, have a happy Christmas. I'm sure I won't.


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Friday, December 22, 2006 

Who will rid of us this meddlesome commissioner?

"Sir" Ian Blair really doesn't know when to shut up. When he's not making speeches urging 90 days detention for terrorist "suspects" be reintroduced, he's giving interviews in which he either lies through his teeth or exaggerates the "threat" without any regard for historical reality.

Defending the high security levels which have been maintained in London, Sir Ian said the threat of terrorism was "far graver" than those faced during World War II, the Cold War or the IRA.

It's not clear whether Blair is suggesting that the threat of terrorism now is worse than threat we faced during World War II, or whether he actually means that the threat of terrorism is worse now than it was in the past. If he's seriously trying to suggest that the threat we face now is worse than that from the Nazis in 1940-41, when close to 30,000 were killed in the Battle of Britain, or that from the Soviet Union, where our cities actually were potentially hours away from being vapourised, then he is a either a knave or a fool. Judging by his speech to the Urban Age summit in Berlin, he's not a fool. The only rational conclusion that can be reached is that his scaremongering is designed purely to further the police's demands for 90 days to be reintroduced, a demand that the attorney general and even Dr Demento himself have concluded there is no evidence to support.

Oh, and to add the icing on the cake:

However, he said there was "no specific intelligence" about an imminent attack but the threat was "ever present".

This really though is just a continuation of John Reid's previous remarks that there may be an attack before Christmas. We have no evidence that anyone is planning anything, but you know, you never really know with these exploding brown young men, do you?

Sir Ian said: "I'd say this: I, for my own part, I am quite confident that I will not face any kind of misconduct... in relation to Stockwell."

When questioned about his confidence, he added: "I'll just say that I'm confident, shall we leave it at that?"

Misconduct no. The fact that senior officers didn't want to "depress" their boss with bad news, or were involved in a cover-up not involving the commissioner though are two other distinct possibilities.

And he defended an anti-terror raid in Forest Gate claiming the shooting of a man during the raid was an accident.

Oh, that's all right then. The fact that the Koyair brothers were smeared relentlessly in the tabloid press while they were under arrest, most likely by those on "Sir" Ian Blair's force, with some even possibly involved in a elaborate plot to convict one of the brothers with possessing child pornography, which itself was leaked to the News of the Screws, obviously isn't worthy of a mention.

"We have learnt a lot from Forest Gate and you saw that in the way we handled the airline plot."

Yes, exaggerate wildly the true threat which those arrested posed, then quietly later release some without charge, while the authorities in Pakistan throw out terrorism charges against the alleged ringleader.

Back in March I suggested that we might be better with the devil we know, having Ian Blair as the Met's commissioner. I was wrong. There is not a snowflake's chance that anyone could be worse than this politicised, lying, mendacious shit. One Blair is bad enough, but two is hell itself.

Update: the Guardian's report on the interview is a lot more clear on what Blair actually said than the BBC report was. According to them:

"The level of threat is of an unparalleled nature and growing," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme. "In terms of civilians - you would have to go back to probably either the second world war or cold war for that threat.

"The IRA, with very few exceptions, did not want to carry out mass atrocities, they didn't want to die, they gave warnings and they were heavily penetrated by the intelligence services. None of those apply with al-Qaida and its affiliates."

This isn't necessarily true though either. The Madrid bombings were not suicide attacks although the bombers did later kill themselves when the net had closed in, and the main explosion in Bali in 2002 was from a car bomb, although a suicide attacker was involved in causing people to flee into the path of the larger explosion. These groups can be infiltrated, and the methods used by such Islamist groups will not always involve suicide, but whichever is deemed more appropriate. Adjusting to this new threat is going to take time, but for now vastly exaggerating the true threat to the public and politicising the debate over terrorism will only increase cynicism and disbelief. This is something the government and police have still yet to take heed of.

Speaking of which:

Sir Ian suggested the threat raised questions about the need to extend further the detention period for suspects.

And we're back to square one yet again.

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Thursday, December 21, 2006 

Scum and Express-watch: Veiled abuse.

Especially considering that Stephen Wright has now been charged with the murders of all five prostitutes, today's tabloid reporting on the man has been an absolute disgrace. As well as being linked to other alleged deaths, he's been accused of being a cross-dresser, and a ex-wife has jumped at the chance to grab some money from both the Sun and the Mirror. If this now doesn't cease, as you hope and expect that it will, then the attorney general should start looking into doing something other than simply kindly asking the editors to mind what they print, as they have up to now took no notice whatsoever.

It's the veil though that is once again causing "outrage" in both the Scum and Sexpress. There has been absolutely no evidence presented by anyone that
Mustaf Jama actually did manage to flee the country wearing the niqab, but as is as usual in the gutter press this doesn't matter one jot, as neither the Scum nor Express have even bothered reporting the statement from a police spokesman that Jama may have been wearing a pantomime horse costume for all they knew.

The Express front page also hints that the farce has continued, suggesting as it does that someone wearing the niqab was able to get on board a plane without first having her identity checked. They present no evidence of this, and clearly haven't tested whether someone wearing a niqab would now have their identity checked, presumably because this would a: cost money that Richard "Dirty" Desmond would rather be paying himself (having made £52 million last year) and b: it's easier just to pretend that the same old system is carrying on as normal, even though the adverse publicity would suggest that airlines would be extra vigilant as a result; and with the number of flights being canceled due to the fog enveloping many parts of Britain, staff not dealing with keeping passengers informed would be more free to make extra checks on the reduced number of those actually boarding flights.

Nonetheless, the Scum has decided to start up another of its usually incredibly successful campaigns:

THE Sun today launches a campaign to close the veil loophole making a mockery of Britain’s airport security.

We told yesterday how a member of the gang which killed WPC Sharon Beshenivsky sneaked out of Heathrow by donning a Muslim niqab, with just a slit for eyes.

Now we are calling on Home Secretary John Reid to turn passport control at every airport in the country into a veil-free zone.

MPs too are urging action after it emerged that hard-pressed staff carry out only RANDOM passport checks on passengers leaving Britain.

We want these checks to be COMPULSORY with veils lifted in a private area.

If more resources are needed they must be found. Otherwise criminals — and terrorists — are sure to exploit the weakness in future.

You mean exploit the weakness to flee the country? I thought you lot were all for deporting these people?

Seriously though, this is making a humongous mountain out of the tiniest of molehills. I can't find any figures even detailing the number of women who actually wear the niqab in Britain (if anyone has any then I'd appreciate seeing them) but I doubt it numbers more than the low-to-mid tens of thousands. The Express however, seems to have a different idea. In today's article it suggests that "dozens of veil wearers passed unchecked through ... airports", but of course doesn't provide any evidence to back up this claim. The numbers of niqab wearers which pass through airports every day has to be assumed to be extremely low. The suggestion that women would even have to lift their veils for their identity to be ascertained is ludicrous. Talking to them while examining their passport should be enough on its own to make sure the wearer of the niqab actually is female, and at the same time the colour of their eyes, the facial features that can be made out etc, could be checked. Only then if there are any doubts would it be necessary for the woman to actually lift her veil. Rather than every single niqab wearer having to lift her veil, taking up extra time, this would a much sensibler and more realistic scheme to follow. Whether we would want to check every niqab wearer entering the country rather than exiting is a different matter.

Both Mr Davis and Mr Malik called for an inquiry into how gang member Mustaf Jama, 26, an asylum seeker, fled disguised as a Muslim woman with a stolen passport.

And the reason there won't be one will be because the police are hardly likely to present their seemingly less than overwhelming evidence that he actually did. Better to blame an item of religious dress that's been in the news of late for all the wrong reasons, as well as airport staff, than to recognise their own failings in letting Jama get away in the first place.

Then we get down to the real reason that the newspapers are so angry about this. Sharon Beshenivsky's friends and relatives have been quite reasonably expressing their anger about the failure for Jama to be deported. Having come to Britain in 1993 as an asylum seeker from Somalia, Jama had been imprisoned for a number of crimes, but instead of being deported as is meant to be the case for someone here on a visa or otherwise from overseas, it has been determined, rightly in my view, that it's not safe for anyone to be forcibly deported back to Somalia.

Even the Sun hints at the anarchy which has ensued across the country since 1991, describing it in the campaign article as "war-torn" and "lawless". There are no such caveats though in the Scum's leader column, which is mainly an unwarranted attack on the Labour immigration minister:

Absurdly, they are allowed to stay because it would breach their human rights to send them home.

Well yes, generally sending someone back to a country which they fled from in fear of their lives, especially one which now appears to be close to total war, where according to the CIA factbook major infectious diseases are also listed as being of very high risk, could "absurdly" breach their right to life. The various elements of human rights law which can on occasion seem absurd have to be balanced against the benefits that they have also given us: such as protecting the right to protest, the right not to be held indefinitely without charge, and requiring the setting up of inquests into deaths where the authorities themselves may be implicated in the death. While no one may be happy about Jama not being deported, would we feel the same way if we knew that an asylum seeker who had committed a minor crime had been deported and ended up being tortured or killed in their home country? Would the Sun also deport asylum seekers convicted of crime or those here on visas/illegally under similar circumstances back to Zimbabwe, Iran or North Korea?

Meanwhile, over in the Express, the Tory MP David Davies (not David Davis, the shadow home secretary, although he has similar views) was more than happy to do the Express's dirty work for them in suggesting the right to wear the niqab should be curtailed:
Fellow Tory David Davies said the manner of Jama’s escape furthered his belief that the Government must begin examining ways to discourage or even outlaw the wearing of the full veil in public.

“Many European countries, and indeed Muslim countries, have taken steps to ban the wearing of the veil in public,” said the Monmouth MP.

“One example is Tunisia. They take the view that the wearing of the veil is not stipulated by the Koran, it is a political act.
Davies is echoing previous arguments made by the Express itself, but let's take them apart again anyway.

The only European country heading towards a total ban in public is the Netherlands, and whether it will ever actually pass is in doubt. France has a ban on the wearing of all religious symbols in state buildings; several municipalities in Belgium have banned the wearing of the niqab or burqa in public; a similar ban to the one in France exists in several German states. As for Tunisia, what's the government there like? Democracy is it? Err, no. A quick trip over to Wikipedia reveals:

Tunisia is a republic with a strong presidential system dominated by a single political party. President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali has been in office since 1987, the year he deposed Habib Bourguiba in a bloodless coup. The constitution has been changed twice to allow Ben Ali to remain in power: initially from two to three terms, then from three to five. The ruling party, the Democratic Constitutional Rally (RCD), was the sole legal party for 25 years, known previously as the Socialist Destourian Party (PSD). The RCD still dominates political life.

Facing virtually no opposition, the President is elected to 5-year terms. He appoints a Prime Minister and cabinet, who play a strong role in the execution of policy. Regional governors and local administrators also are appointed by the central government. Largely consultative mayors and municipal councils are elected. There is a unicameral legislative body, the Chamber of Deputies, which has 182 seats, 20% of which are reserved for the opposition parties. It plays a growing role as an arena for debate on national policy but never originates legislation. The Chamber virtually always passes bills presented by the executive with only one minor change. The judiciary is nominally independent but responds to executive direction, especially in political cases. The military is professional and does not play a role in politics.

Tunisia is noteworthy for its lack of public political discourse. Tunisia's precise political situation is hard to determine due to a strong level of silence and lack of transparency maintained by the government. There is compelling evidence that dissidents are routinely arrested, for crimes as minor as viewing banned web sites. There are currently six legal opposition parties all with their own newspapers. However, the Committee to Protect Journalists, in its 2005 country report on Tunisia, details a persistent record of harassment, persecution, imprisonment, and physical harm perpetrated on journalists critical of the government. Even Western journalists, when writing on Tunisian soil, are not spared this fate[1].

David Davies was also recently taken to task by Unity.

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