With just a week to go before Christmas, music fans are playing the pub game of collating their favourite records. Journalists are getting paid to do much the same thing. Poll results are published, votes are totted up and critics redraft our lists of Best Albums to ensure we come across as intimidatingly knowledgeable connoisseurs. And while 1999 hasn't been much of a year for consensus, one name keeps recurring. Everyone seems to agree that is, to quote the cover of this week's Time Out magazine, "the voice of the year."
Her album, On How Life Is, collected rave reviews when it came out in July, but it wasn't until the release of "I Try", surely this year's most addictive single, that her sales matched her plaudits. Now that they have, it seems more and more likely that On How Life Is will stand as a contemporary but timeless classic record. It's amazing how much it fits into 45 upbeat, uncluttered minutes.
Gray studied screenwriting at the University of Southern California before the fateful night she filled in for the singer in a friend's band, and her lyrics tell stories of love, sex, violence, lethargy and murder, before they arrive at "The Letter", an easy-going, syncopated party track that happens also to be a suicide note ("So long everybody / Mama don't be sad for me / Life was a heartache / And now I am finally free"). In a pop milieu as sanitised and synthetic as this year's, Gray matters.
On How Life Is is so perfectly formed and satisfying that you wonder how Gray can follow it. Her plan is to put together a live album, or so she told the audience in Manchester on Monday. She announced that the show was being taped and that we had to join in on one new song. "I'm gonna give you a tempo and all you have to do is clap," she squawked. "It's simple. So don't f--- it up."
This was Gray's persona all over: mischievous, funny, bossy and earthy. The gulf that separates her from so many of her contemporaries was never wider than when she chatted to the audience before "Still". She asked if any of us had ever been in love - hardly an unprecedented query in the annals of stage banter, and one which didn't get much of a response. But Gray wasn't going to leave it at that. "Me 'n' the band come all the way out here from LA just to talk to you," she scolded the crowd. "When I ask you a question, I want you to answer."
She repeated the question, and when, this time, the audience reacted more loudly, she proceeded to her next enquiry. "You ever loved the wrong motherf-----," she sighed, and launched a jaded stand-up routine about how a relationship can go wrong. Then came the song, with its opening line, "In my last years with him there were bruises on my face." So vividly does she depict how life is - with pain and humour in the same breath - that the empty, superficial likes of Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey fade to holograms in comparison.
Indeed, Gray presents an image of femininity markedly different from that of most female pop stars. While a whole catwalk of sleek, underdressed r'n'b temptresses exploit their sexuality to sell records, they're trading in unreal, idealised sex: you can't believe they would risk any sort of human contact that might put a hair out of place. Then there's Gray, whose fright wig of Dennis-the-Menace spikes looks as if it couldn't be messed up - or messed up further - by anything short of a tornado. Her lyrics and her remarks between songs leave no room for doubts about her sexual appetite and tastes. And her authoritative physical presence as she mooches around the stage in shiny blue pyjamas is more magnetic than the choreographed pole dancing of her napkin-wearing competitors.
But what really sets Gray apart from the greys is the crunchily husky holler that got her bullied at school in Ohio. The easiest way to describe it is to cross-breed a soul legend or two with a children's television character; previously I've hybridised Billie Holiday, Tina Turner and Marge Simpson, but for a change I'll go for James Brown, Janis Joplin and the Great Gonzo from the Muppets.
In any case, the dissonance between the cartoonily cute and the raucously human in Gray's vocals ensures that she doesn't need to prance up and down her scales and arpeggios to make an impression; nor do her records employ a virtual choir of multitracked harmonies. She just sings the tune. Along with the material from On How Life Is, in concert she presented funky versions of "Que Sera Sera" and "With A Little Help From My Friends", plus an a capella "Winter Wonderland".
Mind you, Gray does have a little help from her friends, specifically two backing singers, three wind players, a guitarist, a bassist, an organist, a drummer, a percussionist and a DJ. Swaying along with their boss, the band combine rough and smooth; disciplined and casual; rock and soul; 1960s rootsiness and 1990s rhythms. Even their wardrobe mixes different styles. For the main set the musicians are decked out in hip-hop street gear. For the encore, they are dressed in Persil white.
By this point, Gray has proven that she has a whole lot more to offer than just "I Try", although if that's what you came to hear, the finale ensures that you get your money's worth: Gray embellishes the song with a spoken interlude, tempo changes and a theatrical collapse worthy of the aforementioned James Brown. With a final, energetic wave she leaves the stage while the band play on. Then they sneak off, one by one, until only the DJ is left. If I were compiling a list of the best gigs of 1999, 's would be on it.
EXIT POLL: On how is
The sound wasn't very good, but she has a great voice - and the atmosphere's a bit like early-1980s New York so I enjoyed that. But I expected it to be a bit more mellow so I could get into the voice.
FASHION STUDENT, 20
I think she's absolutely wonderful; I didn't realise what a big woman she is. I have her CD at home and it's one of my favourites at the moment, I've probably worn it out a bit. But she's even better live - I've been right down at the front. and
PROJECT MANAGER, 24
There's a wicked atmosphere. She's a bit like a female Freddie Mercury; she's a performer, she's got it. And there's loads of them up there, so there's a massive sound. When she first came onto the stage it was quite unusual, because there wasn't any smiling.
MUSICAL DIRECTOR, 34
I'm with the support band and I'm addicted to her show. She's got everything going for her. She's Marvin Gaye, she's Aretha, in one. The last time I felt an atmosphere like this was in 1977 when I saw Marvin Gaye at the Apollo, Victoria.
WELFARE RIGHTS ADVISER, 27
I thought the show was damned sexy, she's really hot. The band was good as well but she has presence, she works the stage really well. I like that "Venus" one, and the one that goes, "I thought he was going to call me".
INTERVIEWS BY MAXINE CAMPER