When XTC burst on the scene with the frenetic herky-jerky post-punk pop of “Science Friction”, little did the world know that the band’s manic frontman would turn out to be one of the greatest songwriters of his generation. Swindon, England native Andy Partridge brought a hyperactive intelligence and innate melodic and compositional skills to bear on a series of good and great albums, with XTC evolving throughout, going from new wave stars to orch-pop kings over the course of twentysomething years. Partridge seems to be having a crisis of confidence, admitting he has songs but not up to the task of committing them to a fixed product. This is a shame, but I certainly understand the weight of his legacy, as XTC is a band who can be said in the same breath as the many great ’60s bands and artists who inspired them (from Captain Beefheart to The Beatles to Judee Sill) and the comparison is clearly merited. Let’s pay tribute to Andy on his birthday by grabbing your iPod or MP3 player, hitting shuffle, and sharing the first 10 songs that come up.
De La Soul — Jenifa Taught Me (Derwin’s Revenge) (3 Feet High And Rising): One of the most striking tracks on my favorite hip hop album of all time. The odd sampled drum track along with the repeating odd noises in the background (a manipulated guitar, a female voice) is matched well by the tale of sex with an experience girl which leads to a fairly mature observation at the end. The interlude of Derwin playing “Chopsticks” is clever, but I’m glad that the deluxe reissue has the original single, with all of the lyrics. This still sounds fresh and innovative today.
Pet Shop Boys — Miracles (Pop Art): It’s hard to say much about the Pet Shop Boys other than I think they are one of the all-time great pop groups. Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe mastered a mix of dance music with killer hooks and smart lyrics. This is from a two CD comp of some of their best work that is a pretty essential collection, in my book.
Mission Of Burma — Forget (Vs.): The opening sounds are mesmerizing. Peter Prescott’s rolling drums, Clint Conley’s ringing bass and Roger Miller’s guitar squalls over this relatively beautiful rhythm. It’s as if the guitar squalls are a prelude to the burst of emotions that come through in the first chorus, which sends the song into overdrive. One of MoB’s best.
This Perfect Day — Bryant Lake Bowler (C-60): A acoustic guitar driven mid-tempo power pop number from this swell Swedish power pop band. While I think they are at their best when they are at their most frenetic, with their unerring melodic skills, this is a pleasant little ditty.
XTC — Helicopter (Drums And Wires): Hey! The birthday boy came up on the shuffle! Barry Andrews left XTC and was replace by David Gregory, swapping a frenetic keyboard player with a skilled guitarist, allowing XTC to do some great things with their arrangements on this peppy number. Terry Chambers lays down a steady beat that approximates a helicopter’s rotating blades, and both Andy and David play around the undulating rhythm, while Andy goes ape over (perhaps) being cuckolded by his girl. Great tune.
King Khan & BBQ Show — Am I The One (The King Khan & BBQ Show): Sadly, Khan and Mark (BBQ Show) Sultan have split, due to musical differences. It’s a shame, as they play to each others strengths. Khan loves gritty funk and R & B, done garage rock style, while Sultan’s smooth vocals provide a different texture and force more melodicism into the proceedings. This is a good riffy ’60s style rock number.
Cliff Hillis — Medicine (Be Seeing You): Hillis started in Starbelly, but left after one album to pursue his own power pop muse. Hillis plays a very clean, classic version of power pop that would appeal to fans of Matthew Sweet, Tommy Keene and Teenage Fanclub. He has an effortless voice and the ability to make music that is upbeat but, at times, as on this song, tinged with a bit of sadness. A really consistent artist.
The Last — So Quick To Say (Confession): The first album from The Last after their reunion is an underrated gem. The garage rock elements of their earlier work receded a little bit, but the Nuggets styled folk rock remains, played with aggressiveness and passion. The harmonies are so good, the guitars jangle and they sing like they believe every word.
The Housemartins — We’re Not Deep (London 0 Hull 4): On both of their albums, The Housemartins mixed their R & B inflected indie pop with some political content. At times the lyrics were a bit clunky, which is true in spots here, but the buoyant music and multiple hooks make me very forgiving.
Shudder To Think — Kissi Penny (Pony Express Record): I still marvel how Shudder To Think made a major label debut that was even artier and weirder than their final album on Dischord. Artistically, it was a logical progression, as off-kilter melodies (some of which remind of the solo work of Pere Ubu’s David Thomas) are melded with bursts of more traditional rock tunesmithing and slabs of aggressive rhythm guitar. This song does a great job stitching this together into a coherent, albeit inscrutable, tune. Only Craig Wedren’s distinctive warble could pull this off.