A little note: these are not what I consider to be “the best garage tracks this year”. For starters, I only heard a fraction of the goodness waiting out there to be discovered. Secondly, I decided not to write about tracks I’d already covered in depth on my old site, ’cause hey, I’ve got better things to be doing. And there are heaps of other tracks just as good as these I could have written about but decided not to for one reason or another (an attempt to avoid repetition mainly). But these tracks represent a smattering, a representative selection, of all that was more than just good about UK Garage in the year 2 G.
The Architects – Bodygroove
Never mind “Re-Rewind”; by the time garage nights started in Melbourne in earnest, “Bodygroove” was the garage anthem, and as such it occupies a special place in my heart. Like so many excellent tracks this year (c.f. MJ Cole’s “Crazy Love” particularly), “Bodygroove” is largely built on pizzicato strings laid over a fierce beat. More than “Crazy Love” though, “Bodygroove” sounds street, and its the combination of classicist influences with a grimy functional approach that makes this so successful. Not to mention the self-reflective lyrics, which mark this out as a self-conscious attempt to make the “UK Garage theme song” or something. The Zed Bias remix takes the track and bungs an evil bassline underneath, making it even better, so nab that too if you can.
MJ Cole – Sincere (Y2K Dub)
Just when I had Cole pegged as an anoyingly upward-mobile West End dilletante out of step with the real sound and spirit of garage, he released this, perhaps the most stunningly unexpected slice of bass-heavy garage this year. This track suffers from schizophrenia, careening from tinkling piano runs and effervescent strings to hard-as-fuck beats and miasmic cloud of low-end frequencies as punishing as anything Ed Rush might make. The original diva’s plea “Don’t do it… I’m crazy….” is pitched down and morphed, transformed from a devoted lover’s plea to a sick murderess’s threat. The tinkling piano rolls back in to give the false impression of calm, but the diva’s peturbed, rumbling “be sincere” is a premonition of future harm, like a clear blue sky with a crash of thunder in the distance. It’s the schizophrenia that makes this track – plenty of producers had basslines up their sleeves this year, but none had Cole’s engineering finesse, or his love of sheerly beautiful sounds. My big hope is that garage producers can somehow manage to hold onto this amazing combination of light and dark well into 2001.
Monsta Boy – Sorry
“Sorry” is a prototype for the new brand of garage-pop set to break through next year. It’s poppy as anything – a full vocal track with a guy apologising for sleeping with his girl’s best friend and beggin for her to come back, it’s worthy of the Backstreet Boys – it avoids the perils of blandness by matching the catchy melody to the loudest, most morbid bassline in existence. As commercial as it is, the bassline makes it palatable to the underground contingent of the scene who sniff at Craig David. Luckily the anti-pop contingent are anything but anti-cheese; check the ultra-cheesy keyboard line mimicing the vocal melody towards the end.
All Saints – Black Coffee (Wideboys Mix)
Strange to think that one of the hardest garage tracks to come out this year was an All Saints remix, but what should I expect from the Wideboys, purveyors of rougher-than-rough beats and bad-boy basslines? One of the interesting things to note is that the much-touted “breakbeatification” of the garage scene was not quite accurate; most of the really hard tracks still don’t actually use breakbeats. Instead producers like The Wideboys have substitued the skinny beats of early 2-step for “butcher’s block” beats: kickdrums that really kick and sharp, snapping snares. If they’re mistaken for breakbeats, it’s because they resemble in their hardness nothing so much as a slamming jungle break. “Black Coffee”, with its incredibly complicated beat programming full of neverending snare hits, could actually be a jungle track (it reminds me of Omni Trio’s “Renegade Snares” actually, but with a bassline that could have come straight from LFO’s first album), and it’s as good an example of this effect as I can think of.
So Solid Crew – Oh No (That’s The Word)
The biggest and best breakbeat garage track yet, “Oh No” sounds like a weird-and-wired early techstep jungle track (specifically, Hidden Agenda’s “Dispatch #2″ for those who know) crossed with a darker Timbaland track, overlaid with a fierce MC rap. Actually, that is a Timbaland track in there – Missy Elliot’s excellent “Smooth Chick”. I always thought Missy’s Da Real World had a number of excellent almost-garage tracks (see also “Sticking Chikens” and “Hey DJ”), and this just confirms my suspicions. Anyway, the beat on “Oh No” is simple but severely asymmetrical in the grand style of Dem 2, and the unstable bassline has a nasty radioactive glow to it. “It’s just the little things…ah ah…those sentimental things in life…ah…ah…ohh” the looped female vocal goes, and she sounds like she’s talking about LSD flashbacks or something. The equally excellent remix by Oxide & Neutrino (Oxide and fucking Neutrino, of all people!) chops up the beat a bit.
Richie Dan – Call It Fate (Underground Mix)
With his nasal, high-pitched ragga whine and always-interesting pronunciation, Richie’s one of the best and certainly the most distinctive male vocalist on the garage scene. “Call It Fate” was his big anthem this year, and rising producer K Warren’s remix matched his imperious demands for love with kinetic beats and the year’s best bassline – a shuddering, impactful sub-bass dub explosion improbably shaped and fashioned into a tearjerker melody worthy of both Peter Hook. A peerless example of garage’s badboy-energy-meets-pop-smarts equation.
Amar feat MC Rankin – Sometimes It Snows In April (Dub)
Sugary-sweet pop garage at its best always sounds like a Jam & Lewis track from the eighties. This is no exception, with an ultra-melodic bassline, electro keyboard jingles, floods of synth strings, and a great instrumental break where the hardhitting beat shudders underneath a sunny guitar sample. The female vocals are high-pitched and slightly squeaky, making it hard to here what’s being said, but the textural effect is like an angel’s coo.
Artful Dodger – Please Don’t Turn Me On (Stanton Warriors Mix)
Not just the hardest garage track I’ve yet heard (ironically, since the original’s so lightweight), but perhaps the hardest thing I’ve heard this year, period. Jettisoning everything but the vocal track, the Stanton Warriors substitute a pounding, truly evil bass riff and stiff-jointed industrial beats. Indeed if this was an instrumental track I’d probably think it was Nine Inch Nails or something. The absolutely genius aspect of this track is how the duo leave Lifford’s ultra-smooth, soulful vocals untouched; it’s a combination so incongruous that the end result could only be garage. But it’s garage like none you’ve heard before.
Ruff Cut/Bias – Down
All the big club tracks this year followed the same tried-and-true but never-failing formula: melody and vocal lead-up, breakdown, drum roll and then BOOM – a minute’s worth of nothing but nasty, acidic sub-bass and roughed-up beats. “Down” navigates the rocky path between melodic accessability and bass action with admirable aplomb, throwing in little guitar glints, tacky string synths and at the culmination of the bass attack a stormshower of floating divas ordering you to “lose your mind”, as if the bassline hadn’t already done the job perfectly.
Matt Darey – Beautiful (Dubaholics Mix)
The best programmed track of the year by far, this Dubaholics remix of a progressive trance track is an exercise in sparseness, but has a number of tricks up its sleeve, not least that heavenly piece of vocal science when the beat suddenly stops and the vocalist sings “Oh-uh-oh-oh-uh-eh-oh!” at once fearful and blissed-out. The beat’s a minefield of insectile ticks and whirs, with woody-woodpecker beats so far they sound like the winding of a clock. And what can be better than the tongue-in-cheek tribute to Joey Beltram’s “Energy Flash” when the bassline floods in and you hear a whispered “Ecstacy…Ecstacy…”?
Pink – There You Go (Sovereign Mix)
The best bootleg track this year, and something of a thrown gauntlet for American R&B – garage is always dismissed as being lightweight fluff, but has any American producer crafted beats as hard as these (a mechanical 2-step loop reminiscent of harder drum & bass, overlayed with rat-a-tat snares) or unforgettable? Hell, hardly any hip hop is as hard as this, and certainly none of it is as catchy, although why Sovereign thought to add birdtweets to the mix is beyond me. It seems to work though, as does that excellent farting bassline.
Sweet Female Attitude – Flowers (Sunship Mix)
As Greg pointed out to me, it’s almost pointless specifying that this is a remix, as hardly anyone’s heard the annoying R&B-fluff of the original. Anyway, this track is destined to go down as high-point of garage’s flirtation with pop (or was it pop’s flirtation with garage?). Sunship has always has great, incredibly busy beats (check out his own “Try Me Out” especially) with a wonderful, three-dimensional feel to them, but as dancable as it was, “Flowers” didn’t owe its success to da beats. Rather it’s the dewy production, with woozy, almost morose keyboards in the verses followed by fanfares of hornblasts like firecrackers in the chorus. But what’s especially great is the peerless vocal science at work here, with Sunship cutting up the vocals into insanely catchy riffs, tics and octave jumps that’s the aural equivalent of watching a Olympic gymnastics. One of the larger fallacies at work in garage is the idea that to go overground requires a full-on vocal track, when here we have incontravertible proof that in a world of Britneys, it’s garage with vocals at their most android-like and fucked-up that has the greatest potential to draw a wider audience.
James Lavonz – Mash Up Da Venue
The most bizarre breakbeat track I’ve heard: a truly maximalist bed of emotionally ambiguous female quasi-ragga vocals, turgid multilayered basslines, juddering kickdrums and whipcrack snares. There’s almost too many different sounds to listen out for, but special mention goes to the beatbox vocal action, a spit-and-splutter rhythm track reminiscent of that on Aaliyah’s “Are You That Somebody”. The most disquieting piece of garage since Wookie’s “Down On Me” from last year, “Mash Up Da Venue” more than any other track making the rounds promises an interesting future for garage in ’01.
– Tim Finney