Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Top 40 of the noughties : 30-21

30. The Darkness - Christmas Time (Don't let the bells end) (#2 December 2003)

What used to be a genuinely interesting contest over who would grab the prestigious mantle of Xmas #1 has long since descended into a dull one horse race dominated by the X-Factor’s build up over the weeks approaching the festive season leaving little doubt that the winner of that musical popularity contest will also walk away with the top slot in the Xmas charts. And if we’re being completely honest, even before reality telly took over the battle for the festive charts there was little in the way of interesting competition for the top slot, inevitably another notch on the chart bedpost of teenypop acts like Westlife or the Spice Girls or some ghastly toddler-friendly novelty record like Bob the Builder.

2003 stands out as the only year any of this would change, with the reality TV franchise cobbling together a weak cover of John Lennon’s ‘War is over’ only to finish third to a gripping face-off between two half-decent bids for the treasured festive top seller. The winner of the duel was the Donnie Darko-inspired remake of Tears for Fears’ ‘Mad World’ (more on that later) but the more vigorously festive of the two records was undoubtedly The Darkness’ barnstorming glam rock masterpiece ‘Christmas Time – Don’t let the bells end’. Reaching the end of 2003 on a massive high after a string of successful singles and a breakthrough debut album, the boys had made their name in the business of loud retro rock anthems and schoolboy humour, a style they would arguably showcase to greatest effect on their Xmas effort, a stadium-sized rock show closer packed with Finbarr Saunders style puns (‘Don’t let the bells end….just let them ring in peace’). It seized on the inherent silliness of the British Xmas experience and drew on the past classics of the 1970s where glam rock heavyweights duked it out for the top slot, giving a new generation another festive classic to indulge in bouts of drunken air guitar to at the office party for years to come.

Coining a Xmas classic is often confirmation of your ascension to pop royalty, yet for The Darkness conquering the festive charts would be the turning point in their career as the public began to get tired of the whole joke metal thing – they bagged one more hit from the first record before embarking on their troubled second album which, although not actually all that bad, met with critical savagery upon release and fell some way short of replicating the success of their debut. Nevertheless, Xmas compilations still honour their biggest moment and they can rest easy in the knowledge that Justin Hawkins’ rehab bills and hair transplants will surely be covered for years to come with royalties from this festive favourite.

29. My Chemical Romance - Welcome to the Black Parade (#1 October 2006)

Certain #1 hits surprise audiences, presenting us with proof that sometimes the most unlikely songs tap into the public mindset and become best-sellers. Others are so obviously written to become chart-toppers that it would seem a monumental under-achievement to even see them come in at number two, and ‘Welcome to the Black Parade’ belongs firmly in this category. A pompous, overblown broadway-style set piece created to usher in their third album, the single took the band from Kerrang-approved Goth Rock middleweights right to the top of the pop charts and made them into one of the biggest acts in mainstream rock for a while, turned singer Gerard Way into a genuine celebrity and pissed off most heavy metal fans so much that they became hate figures for the scene they were supposed to represent.

Crossing over from scene success to genuine mainstream fame takes a number of things, namely an accessible radio hit that draws in new audiences amongst kids who’ve never heard your music before whilst retaining enough of your original appeal to not alienate your more longstanding admirers. It also helps if you have a nice MTV friendly video and a look that chimes in with movements in pop culture – MCR had risen to prominence as standard goth rockers coated in eyeliner and black hair dye, but they revamped their image slightly in the run-up to their third album and presented their new look to the crowds at Reading 2006. The crowd turned on them violently, pelting them with bottles and slagging their poppier new direction, but behind the scenes they had put together a commercial package that would make it all worthwhile – ‘Welcome to the Black Parade’ landed at the end of festival season and shot straight to the top slot. Just as The Offspring’s ‘Pretty Fly for a White Guy’ had thrust its creators into the mainstream after years of singles chart invisibility with a sanitized version of the music that made them famous and made pop punk a lucrative sales device, ‘Black Parade’ marked the point where the whole Hot Topic Emo Vampire thing became officially mainstream and therefore not cool anymore unless you were about 12. The press started freaking out that teenagers were now being drawn into some kind of sinister vampire suicide cult and suddenly you couldn’t sell anything to teenage girls unless it featured black hair, fake blood and cartoon goth imagery. The band soldiered on regardless and, if I’m being totally honest, actually managed to knock out a few decent singles in their new Broadway Emo style – punk purists sneered at them, but for my money MCR are easier to deal with as a massive mainstream rock spectacle than they were as just another vaguely ambitious goth rock troupe prior to the single’s success. At least when you’ve had a #1 single you don’t have to justify whether your new direction is working or not. Let the bottle throwers do their thing, MCR proved their point with this record and walked away as winners.

28. So Solid Crew - 21 Seconds (#1 August 2001)

Eek ! Scary gun-toting cockney oiks top the singles charts! Head for the hills tabloid journalists and prepare your fear-mongering articles about how it’s no longer safe to leave the house! These days almost a decade later, the whole UK Garage thing looks a little ridiculous and most of its leading lights have long since faded into obscurity but it’s worth remembering how big and threatening it all was back in 2001 when bad boy posturing, copycat American gangster rap and 2-step breaks ruled the airwaves.

‘Grime’ as a musical concept had an air of the ridiculous about it, but back in the early noughties there wasn’t much else going on in dance music to write home about and it was genuinely quite exciting to have something distinctly British dominating radio at the time – and where the music journalists left off, the tabloid press eagerly picked up the baton and spewed forth endless column inches panicking about the nefarious influence was having on the country’s youth. OK, So Solid were perhaps not the best role models for kiddie Britain – the posturing in their videos was not just a front and the distinctly unpleasant activities of many of the members soon stole the limelight from their music – but up against the distinctly inoffensive likes of Craig David, Artful Dodger and that excruciating ‘Do you really like it?’ record, ’21 Seconds’ stands out as the strongest single of the movement. Based around the principle that none of the featured rappers would get more than the title’s time slot to leave their mark on the track, it sounded like the equivalent of eight twokkers trying to chat up the same girl in a loud nightclub – none of them were particularly skilled lyricists and most of the content consisted of wholesale pilfering from the likes of infinitely superior Yank rap acts like the Wu Tang Clan. Yet for all its faults, the single was a memorable moment in chart history and one of the few examples of an original idea translating into massive chart success.

The Crew didn’t stay at the top of pop’s pecking order for long, due to various reasons including the fact that they never seemed to be able to decide how many people were in the band and the obvious drawback that those who were designated members seemed to spend more time in jail than onstage. Nearly ten years down the line, ’21 Seconds’ sounds as daft today as 2 Unlimited did at the end of the 90s but we should remember them for the force in pop they briefly were back in 2001 – the British record industry was thrown off balance for a short while in the face of this lot, and it’s good to shake the lazy buggers up once in a while.

27. The Gossip – Standing in the way of control (#7 April 2007)

The media was maybe getting hungry for another style icon in the mid-noughties – the airwaves and magazine pages were full of skinny little indie boys twanging guitars and penning odes to their mundane everyday existence. It was probably time for a sea-change, and what better way than to pluck the physical embodiment of the polar opposite to malnourished male indie adolescence and thrust it straight onto magazine covers?

Another NME staple, fronted by the lady voted ‘coolest person in rock 2007’ by scribes of the aforementioned indie rag/lifestyle guide, The Gossip made their presence felt via this particularly head-turning rock’n’soul moment in late 2006 – the track rose slowly to prominence, making a gradual ascent towards the top ten the way records used to back in the good old days before peaking at #7 in early 2007. Tapping into the nightclub friendly disco indie popular at the time, the band stood out for a number of reasons but the most obvious one was that their vocalist was HUGE – Beth Ditto, a product of trailer trash America looking like the lovechild of Roseanne Barr and Pavarotti, got people’s attention straight away with her larger-than-life stage persona and devastating vocals. However, it wasn’t just a gimmick – let’s not forget that one of the inherent advantages of being stacked like a sumo wrestler is that you can pump out vocals that the skinny girls can only dream of matching – Aretha Franklin, Jocelyne Brown, The Weathergirls, fat chicks have always had a place in pop as they’re the only ones whose physique allows them to spill drinks at the back bar with their voices. Ditto’s trademark yowl backed with the track’s pummeling indie disco production made it an instant dancefloor classic and a gateway to the charts for the group – though it outstripped their other singles by a long way, The Gossip are in no danger of fading off the back of one successful single as their more recent output and bitchslap brutal live show have proven.

Media sleazebags may have made a great deal about how awfully progressive they were being by promoting Beth as a style icon despite her noteworthy girth, but it all would have been totally token if she didn’t have the tunes to back it up with – and thankfully, she did! No Rik Waller this one! And if the by-product was that magazines decided to ditch the boney bitches for a while in favour of ladycurves then so much the better – The Gossip became your girlfriend’s favourite band overnight because she could bust one out on the dancefloor to their music and then go home and feel comparatively slim looking at the CD cover. Everyone’s a winner!

26. The Killers - Mr Brightside (#9 September 2004)

Indie has historically been the refuge of those cast out from the mainstream due to their reluctance to compromise artistically in favour of musical sincerity and sticking to their vision. This is all very well if you’re a bunch of Wakefield holier-than-thou types like The Cribs (don’t get me wrong, they did some good singles too but none of them made this list) but when you’re a mormon cabaret act from Las Vegas it doesn’t really cut it spending years doing the upstairs at the pub circuit when your music is tailor made for gargantuan stadium venues and moments of indie disco ephiphany where entire dancefloors bellow your lyrics out at the top of their voices, eyes shut and fists raised like participants in some religious cult with snakebite spilled down their T-shirts.

That The Killers were aiming for the stars from the very beginning is hardly surprising. That they succeeded in reaching them is what’s impressive – even the indie luminaries of the early 2000s (Strokes, White Stripes, Franz Ferdinand) pitched their product at the NME set of punters, and though their records sold in massive quantities they still failed to bring in the sort of not-too-bothered-with-music types who were buying Lightning Seeds albums in the 90s. This is where the Vegas boys, and ‘Mr Brightside’ in particular, came in – despite the fact that their keyboard-propelled Hollywood indie seemed rooted in a land far, far away and lacked the kitchen-sink realism that virtually everyone in British indie was trying to cram into their material, The Killers were the sort of immense proposition that became accessible to pretty much everybody whether or not they were Match of the Day slobs or pretentious indie hipsters. ‘Mr Brightside’ was their breakthrough success and took over the mantle from James’ ‘Laid’ as the kind of record that could ignite indie club dancefloors despite being more of a mainstream chart hit than anything else. Impressively, it was far from the only solid gold pop hit on their debut album ‘Hot Fuss’ – they bagged another two massive hits and even managed to lodge album track ‘All these things that I’ve done’ into public consciousness (it even returned to the charts this year as a charity ensemble effort, surely proof that they’ve entered pop royalty).

‘Mr Brightside’ isn’t the band’s only great moment – like many entries on this list, it was simply the first of their singles to cross over into the mainstream and many others since then have done the same. As the decade closes they remain one of the nation’s best-loved groups, still able to rope in serious indie audiences and Tesco music section plebs whilst their music stays just the right side of pompous and ridiculous. If we ever get a ‘Life on Mars’ style TV series set back in the noughties several decades down the line, you can bet that one of their songs will be playing in the background whilst proto-mulleted youngsters lounge around playing Sudoku on their I-phones. The soundtrack to an era? Probably.

25. Michael Andrews & Gary Jules - Mad World (#1 December 2003)

Pop music is at its most satisfying when something truly unique and unexpected rises to the top of the charts just because it strikes a chord with the public. Nobody would have bet on a minimalist rehash of Tears for Fears’ 80s classic ‘Mad World’ becoming a massive success over the festive period in 2003, and for that matter I don’t think most people expected Donnie Darko, the film whose soundtrack provided the track to make much of an impact either. Just goes to show that we need to sit back and let nature take its course sometimes, letting film and music make their waves with the general public without interfering too much with them and surveying the results afterwards.

Culled from the same Xmas chart campaign as The Darkness’ marvelous ‘Christmas Time (Don’t let the bells end’), ‘Mad World’ actually pipped the glam rockers to the top slot and romped home to massive sales in the lucrative festive singles market. It seemed an odd choice for Xmas #1, a bit of a morose number for what is usually a fairly jaunty time of year – however, take Xmas out of the season and you’re left with the bleak mid-winter, a period where folks like to curl up in the warmth and chill out to something peaceful. The unlikely 80s cover tapped into that mindset perfectly – one of the reasons 80s chart hits have been such popular choices for cover versions since their first spell in the top 40 is that a lot of the originals were so marked by the production of the time that a modern rehash can turn them into totally different tunes – the new version of ‘Mad World’ stripped the track back to its bare bones and brought out a hitherto unseen element of sensitivity and reflection at the heart of the song, putting this at the fore over a stirring piano backing to pretty powerful effect. The subject matter of madness at the heart of society chimed in with the film’s own theme, one that many audiences completely misunderstood when they saw it – and I’m glad they did, it’s nice to have to dig for meaning a little rather than to be slapped round the face with ‘message movies’ just to make sure you weren’t asleep during the key moments. The mates who watched the film with me spent most of it cackling at the giant bunny rabbit and thought the whole thing was a waste of time but it struck a chord with me and has stood up to repeated viewings – ‘Mad World’ works for the same reasons, it’s not an obvious choice for a festive hit but it stands out as one of the only truly memorable Xmas hits of the decade and one that it would have been hard to predict even weeks before it landed. Try imagining that when you’re watching X-Factor’s blanket TV coverage in mid-November and see how exciting the whole thing feels in comparison.

24. The View - Same Jeans (#3 January 2007)

If I were compiling this list based purely on personal preference and filling it with the tracks that crop up on my I-Pod most frequently, this would be top by several country miles. Not exactly the most original indie anthem from the fertile post-Arctic Monkeys period of 2006/07, ‘Same Jeans’ was derided by purists for nicking the chord structure from Cornershop’s ‘Brimful of Asha’ – whether it did or not is irrelevant of course, a good riff is a good riff, it’s what you wrap it in that determines whether or not the song is going to be a hit. Which ‘Same Jeans’ was, shooting to #3 in early 2007 to complete a trilogy of fantastic singles from the young Dundonians and paving the way for their debut album ‘Hats off to the buskers’ to top the charts a couple of weeks later.

Performers over the course of the decade have made a lot of their supposed origins, laying on exaggerated versions of their own actions to lend their music a gritty, real quality and provide a sense of location to what could otherwise be empty, vapid sentiment. The View may have let their distinctly Scottish twang seep into their music but there was nothing forced about it – their debut album focused almost exclusively on stuff that happened on the Dundee estate in which they grew up, yet there was none of the kitchen-sink melodrama you’d expect from such subject matter, rather a glorious collection of pop songs and nuggets of everyday life for the boys. ‘Same Jeans’ picks a snapshot of personal philosophy amidst all that, extolling the glories of being an essentially scruffy bugger and staying true to yourself, saluting buskers for their tenacity in the face of grim reality and generally reveling in the moment at hand. It was as life-affirming as it was deceptively simple, all topped off with a ‘Paradise City’ style wig-out tagged on the end to pump up concert audiences to a state of delirium. And, as I have pointed out elsewhere on this blog, it remains the only top three hit ever to feature the word ‘c*nt’ (listen to the second chorus – that’s Scotland for you). Despite flinging out what to my mind was a brilliant second album earlier this year with several potential smash hits on it, the band have faded from view (no pun intended) since their meteoric rise with this single but I wouldn’t bet on them staying away from the charts for too long. In the meantime, this slice of Caledonian rag-tag indie rock remains one of the most ‘barry’ moments of the noughties.

23. Lily Allen - Smile (#1 July 2006)

The decade would have been considerably duller without Lily, a fine example of British womanhood who showed the world why our females are so great – she’s a good laugh, she likes to party and she doesn’t take any crap from people. Another star to seemingly emerge from nowhere with a smash hit single, ‘Smile’ launched her into the charts in 2006 where she has managed to stay since then without losing the cheeky appeal that made her stand out from the pack in the first place.

Having spent most of her childhood getting kicked out of public schools for drinking and smoking, the singles charts seemed to be a natural outlet for Lily’s bratty persona and ‘Smile’ gave her the perfect vehicle to take her there. A four minute paen a dead relationship where her estranged lover seeks to reconcile with her, she takes great pleasure in rebuffing his miserable arse and rubbing his nose in it – such subject matter in the mouth of an American R’n’B diva would have seemed unnecessarily bitchy, but Lily managed to make the whole thing quite endearing and it brought her cheeky personality into the limelight for the first time. Future releases have only built on this, even making a minor celebrity out of her younger brother Alfie thanks to her ode to him staying in his bedroom all day smoking dope and wanking. Her brash, colourful debut ‘Alright Still’ featured an impressive roster of similar jabs at life around her, backed up by an online blog on which she seemed to take potshots at virtually everybody – her most popular target remains Girls Aloud’s Cheryl Cole, darling of the media but an obvious hate figure for a generation of young women for whom she’s just too bloody pretty. I quite like Cheryl Cole and there’s even a Girls Aloud tune in this countdown, but I’m still glad that ladies from both ends of the spectrum get to co-exist in pop music – Lily, at least when she first arrived on the market, broke the mould from what was expected from female performers and surprised many by becoming a sex symbol despite being obnoxious, lairy and not exactly skeletal. She’s lost a bit of podge since then (boo!) but she’s retained the status of the sort of bird you could go for a pint with and still take home at the end of the night. Good girlfriend material overall, although as more than one person has pointed out you’d have to be careful if you ever dated here – one false move and you’d find yourself the subject matter of a song on her next album where she goes into great detail about how crap you were in bed. Maybe best leave her to songwriting then, and ‘Smile’ remains the finest slice of gobby chart bothering of the last few years. Without Lily, the charts would be a much more boring place.

22. Sean Paul - Like Glue (#3 July 2003)

Reggae is one of the few chart trends that never truly goes out of fashion, it just comes around again and again. Roughly once every ten years to be exact : Bob Marley’s first ascent into the European charts dates back to the early 70s, the wave of Jamaican influenced British Ska laid waste to the UK charts in the early 80s with The Specials, Bad Manners et al and back in 1993 you couldn’t move for Shaggy, Shabba Ranks and co at the upper end of the charts. Back in 2003, it was the turn of a Jamaican former water polo player to pick up the baton and stamp his mark all over the global pop music scene.

You literally couldn’t escape Sean Paul when his commercial breakthrough album ‘Dutty Rock’ landed in 2002 – it gave him four massive hits in his own right and also provided him with lucrative guest vocal slots with Beyoncé and Blu Cantrell, clocking up half a dozen global smashes in barely twelve months. As with most Jamaican musicians, it’s the delivery that does it and Paul’s pop-ragga intonation struck a chord with worldwide audiences to the point where it seemed he could read out the contents of his tax return in thick Jamaican brogue and it would probably go top ten. ‘Like Glue’ is the third of his hits from 2003, landing in the middle of summer to provide the soundtrack of many a bump’n’grind dancefloor session and bringing in outside audiences to an extent not seen since Shabba’s infamous ‘Mr Loverman’ and Reel 2 Real’s equally inescapable ‘I like to move it’ ten years previously. Even if you didn’t like ragga, it was hard not to have a bit of hip wiggle to this one.

The success of ‘Dutty Rock’ and its faultless run of singles was always going to be tough to repeat, although he did have a decent go with 2005’s ‘The Trinity’ which provided the infectious ‘We be burnin’ and US Chart Topper ‘Temperature’, but by then his status as the man to turn your song into a hit had been usurped by the likes of Timbaland and Kanye West. As talented as those two are, they haven’t given us anything that can plaster a silly grin over you face like Sean Paul’s chart-friendly Jamaican pop, and ‘Like Glue’ remains one of those tracks you can whack on at a party and get everyone winding and grinding in unison.

21. Kelis - Milkshake (#2 January 2004)

There’s a key moment at the end of one of my favourite films of the decade, ‘There Will Be Blood’, where Daniel Day Lewis’ terrying incarnation Daniel Plainview turns on his nemesis Eli Sunday and works himself up into a fit of murderous rage as he details how he has already drained his rival’s oilfields. The metaphorical use of the milkshake has never been quite so powerful – that is, not since Kelis rolled it out for her signature tune in 2004 and sent booties across the globe into a state of uncontrolled shakyness, leaving carnage in its wake and providing us with one of the most infectious records of the decade.

‘Milkshake’ is one of those annoying records that I had to include on this list despite not really being able to describe why I like it so much. It’s just fucking cool. I don’t even know what exactly she is referring to as her ‘milkshake’ (although I have my suspicions that it might be quite rude) but it sounds really quite alluring and in any case she is quite insistent on the fact that her milkshake is infinitely better than mine ever could be, so much so that a full explanation on why this is would be the subject of a fee-bearing service. The nerve of this lady! Anyway, using a fast food pun with such panache deserves no small amount of credit – imagine a male R’n’B artist like R.Kelly attempting acts of seduction with his ‘Flame-Grilled Whopper’ and the results would certainly not be the same. Having already established herself as a force in pop with the cathartic masterpiece ‘Caught out there’ (you know, the one where she yells ‘I hate you so much right now! AAAARRGH!’ over a funky beat) and her groovetastic collaboration with the late Ol’ Dirty Bastard on ‘Got your money’, ‘Milkshake’ heralded an unstoppable run of three top three hits in 2004 and made her into one of pop’s biggest treasures. Like Jamelia’s utterly fanastic ‘Superstar’, which I nearly included on this list but elected to leave out in place of Sigur Ros at the last minute for the sake of diversity, ‘Milkshake’ is one of those instances in pop where the ingredients just seem to gel perfectly – R’n’B as a genre can be a bit hit and miss, but those rare moments where you chuck the right combination of elements into the mixer and whisk yourself up a classic single are satisfying in a way other styles cannot match. This was one of them, and should be treasured as such. And for the record I would gladly take up the opportunity to partake in some milkshake with Kelis, or indeed any other beverage of her choosing. No please Ma’am, put your wallet away, it’s my treat. Shall I call us a taxi?

Monday, November 16, 2009

Top 40 of the noughties : 20-11

20. Scissor Sisters - Comfortably Numb (#10 January 2004)

The sign of a true landmark pop group is that it often becomes impossible to imagine mainstream music without them around, infiltrating public consciousness to the point where it seems the artist has always been at the forefront of the market selling shitloads of records and turning up on the radio everytime you go to the supermarket. Scissor Sisters occupied this position for much of the middle part of the decade, their fun-packed debut album landing in early 2004 and spawned numerous hit singles before follow-up 'Ta-Dah!' and its inescapable lead single 'I don't feel like dancing' continued the trend two years later. Both albums topped the charts and dominated sales, their debut edging out Keane's infinitely less cheery 'Hopes and Fears' to claim the mantle of 2004's best-seller whilst its successor came close to repeating the feat in 2006, and their reign over the world of pop seemed impregnable for a good portion of the mid-noughties.

So let's trace the campaign back to its origins - emerging from the New York gay scene and named after a slang term for lesbians, the band announced their arrival on planet pop with the strangest possible choice for a debut single : a Pink Floyd cover. Their high-pitched disco revamp of Floyd's stadium staple 'Comfortably Numb' defied doubters by managing to respect the spirit of the original despite changing it into an almost unrecognisable beast - Roger Water's drugged-up paranoid lyrics were yelped out Bee Gees style over a pulsating club beat, dragging the song onto the dancefloor and into a new era. Many critics expecting to hate it were surprised at how much they liked the band's cover, and its release in Janaury of 2004 set things up for the band to dominate the rest of the year with a string of excellet singles to emerge as lords of the manor as it drew to a close 11 months later. The high-octane fun of their debut may have been dulled through over exposure and the slightly disappointing follow-up, but back in the halycon days of their first album the sisters were pop's brighest sparks - after years of lumpen guitar rock like Travis and white bread soul à la Dido, the charts had been taken back over by a pop act worthy of the name. Say what you like about Scissor Sisters a few years down the line - the decade would have been boring without them.

19. O-Zone - Dragostea Din Tei (#3 April 2004)

One thing the last decade has lacked has been a bit of decent Europop. After the 90s provided us with an absolute deluge of cheesy yet loveable Eurodance in the shape of 2 Unlimited, Aqua et al, the noughties have been a barren land for all that is goonish, continental and generally ridiculous. The genre has been revived slightly towards the end of the decade with the rise of acts like Cascada but even they seem to fling out more crappy cover versions rather than original material. The one bresh of fresh Euro air came in 2004 from the most unlikely of places and went on to utterly dominate the European charts in the way that only the massive Eurodance hits of the previous decade could have managed.

Moldovan pop trio O-Zone had notched up success in Eastern Europe in the decade’s early years but they were understandably invisible anywhere further West due mostly to the fact that their songs were all in Romanian – however, their style of brash bouncy Europop coupled with flambouyant videos and metrosexual pop attire endeared them to many and their hopes of notching a truly international hit were realised when ‘Dragostea Din Tei’ hit airwaves in 2003. The track, a ludicrous Euro dance club hit whose lyrics read more like a folk song than a pop hit (the title translates as something along the lines of ‘Love under the linden trees’), was one of those tunes that tapped into the collective light-heartedness of every European territory – including the UK where it reached #3, a virtually unheard of feat for a non-English language record. The track, backed by a decidedly silly video featuring the three band members dancing on the wing of a plane, reached the top of the charts in virtually every European country – the only exceptions were Italy and Sweden, where imitation versions were rush-released to beat the group to the domestic charts. We hadn’t seen this since the halcyon days of Whigfield and KWS in the 90s, where summer dance tracks swept the continent so quickly that record companies could hardly keep up with things and multiple versions of the songs would jostle for position on the charts of every country. Viral video versions of the track swept the States whilst a Spanish parody version conquered the South American market, and for a while it seemed like you would have to try pretty hard to find anywhere on planet Earth where the song wasn’t a hit single.

‘Dragostea Din Tei’ is hardly the most well-crafted song on this list, but I decided to include it as a novelty as it’s one of the hits from the last decade that nobody really saw coming. Having the entire planet bounce around to the same (admittedly not very good) tune gave us all a brief sense of unity under the same banner of cheesy pop music. For a short period it felt like you could stop wars with this tune, and although it will doubtless go down as one of the cheesiest tracks of the era I would rather pick it out as an example of how penning a catchy hit can catapult you to the top of every chart on the planet if you pitch it right. Moldova’s best export since……erm….well…..

18. Missy Elliot - Get ur freak on (#4 March 2001)

For reasons best known to themselves, NME writers decided to forgoe guitar music at the dawn of the decade and instead begin fawning over R'n'B and Hip Hop records to an unprecedented extent - maybe this was because there was only so excited you could get by the likes of Starsailor and Toploader, but the new focus on Black American music revealed some decent tunesmiths and captivating performers, none more loveable than Missy Elliot. Having arrived into the chart landscape of the late 90s alongside Foxy Brown and Lil' Kim, Missy eschewed the edgy gangster rap trappings of the former in order to cater her music towards pop radio and club dancefloors, flinging out two decent albums, a cluster of memorable hits and some groundbreaking videos in the process.

By the time the new decade dawned, she had forged a partnership with new producer extraordinaire Timbaland and unleashed 'Ger Ur Freak On' in early 2001 to instant chart success and critical acclaim. The production was hailed as groundbreaking at the time, combining Indian tablas and Hindi vocal samples with Elliot's trademark delivery but what made the track a breakthrough hit was the catchy vocal hook and the stop/start rhythmic bounciness of it all. The title of parent album 'Miss E....So Addictive' pretty much encapsulated the direction of Missy's new material - it was full of infectious,
immediate pop hits, and also gave a slightly confusing nod towards the emergent trend of ectsasy use in Hip Hop circles. Whether drugs had any role in the creation of 'Get Ur Freak On' is besides the point though - you wouldn't need to be chemically refreshed to become seized with the irrepressible urge to boogie to this, it was practically impossible to sit still when it came on the radio. Still sounding fresh nearly ten years down the line, the track laid things out for a decade of pop princesses à la Beyoncé, Kelis, Rhianna and countless others to come along and clean up with super-production R'n'B megahits - whilst they produced some undeniably great moments, few could rival Missy's breakthrough success in terms of sheer originality and unorthodox appeal. Classic pop for the noughties, this one will run and run.

17. Britney Spears - Toxic (#1 January 2004)

We all love a bit of Britney don't we? Mind you, you can pick and choose your moments - whilst she's been the mouthpiece for some of the catchiest pop tunes of the decade, she's also found herself thrust into the foreground of some truly awful pieces of cynical pop-exploitation, vulgar image rebranding and shittier-than-actual-shit plastic pop music. Since emerging clad in Catholic schoolgirl garb in 1999, her image is one that has run throughout the decade in pop culture - from her debut as a wide-eyed nymphette sworn to pre-marital chastity through to her failed marriage and ensuing shaven-headed single mother blunderings, she's been the quintessential image of the decade much in the same way Madonna was in the 1980s (although you have to admit that Madge in her heyday did seem a little more worldly wise than Britney in the noughties, who seemed happy to frolic around doing pretty much whatever her producer told her if it would sell records).

'Toxic' captures the blond bombshell at a mid-career high - taken from her fourth album 'In the Zone', the track repeated the trick of Missy Elliot's 'Get Ur Freak On' (see previous entry!) in sampling Bollywood breaks and crafted a slinky, sexy dancefloor number for Spears to frolic over in the memorable video (feast your eyes on it here). It marked her passage to a different period in her life as a perfomer - whilst her beginnings were mired in clunky Max Martin Disney pop production, by 2004 she was starting to morph into a slightly more credible perfomer, freed of the squeaky adolescent naivety of her debut and newly matured into a sassier, seductive perfomer who could take on a potential hit like 'Toxic' and give it the delivery it needed to go global. Much like Kylie's image rebranding circa 'Better the devil you know', 'Toxic' cast Britney in a different light and made many onlookers cast aside their cynicism for a moment to admit how much they actually liked the track. Follow-up ballad 'Everytime' was equally effective and the video showcased Britney in an apparent suicide attempt, and it looked like the starlet was headed towards a new performance era as a relatively serious pop prospect.

Sadly, it didn't last - a crap Bobby Brown cover came and went before her premature Greatest Hits collection landed in late 2004 to effectively draw the curtain on the first act of her career. A prolonged absence would follow during which she spent more time in the press for her bumbling actions in her troubled private life than for her music, but she returned later in the decade with another global hit ('Womanizer') and seemed good for a few more years onstage before she finally loses her marbles permanently. As the noughties draw to a close, let's try to remember her as the nubile supervixen of the 'Toxic' era rather than the calamitous descent into Hollywood purgatory that followed.

16. t.A.T.u - All the things she said (#1 August 2002)

Despite what seems like an endless stream of soundalike British and American acts dominating the pop landscape, the noughties have actually been quite musically diverse, at least in the geographical origins of the decade's biggest stars. Aside from longstanding strongholds such as Jamaica and Sweden, some of the biggest acts internationally have succesfully made the transition from stars in their own backyard to global pop phenomena - whilst Shakira is the most obvious example having traded in Latin American ubiquity for planet-straddling megastardom and a string of hits, Russia's t.A.T.u were the first to really step up a notch internationally back in 2002 with the notorious debut English-language release.

Having been groomed for pop stardom by a pop svengali in their homeland much in the same way Britney and Christina were in the States (plucked from kiddie pop troupes and marketed as a slightly salacious pop music act for the global market once they became legal), the girls shared many characteristics with the likes of Miss Spears - their debut video saw them dolled up as schoolgirls in the pouring rain, engaging in a spot of girl on girl snogging designed to back the somewhat unconvincing idea that the two were lesbians (later debunked by the girls themselves, claiming 'We've always advocated love with boundaries'). Weirdly enough, it wasn't actually as crass as it could have been - whilst Britney Spears prancing around in schoolgirl garb despite preaching pre-marital abstinence had all the trappings of middle American morality, t.A.T.u's take on the formula seemed to have a bit more Soviet mystique around it - bizarre follow-up moves such as their cover of the Smiths' 'How Soon is Now?' and narrowly failing to win Eurovision in 2003 only enhanced their image as one of pop' more weird and wonderful creations, as did the fact that the English translation of their lyrics often made very little sense. Success in the UK faltered after the mid-00s but they continue to pull audiences in South America and Japan (surprise!) and as the decade closes they rank as Russia's most successful pop act of all time. Their debut ranks as one of the biggest international hits of the noughties and ranks alongside Roman Abramovich's arrival in London as Russia's greatest cultural gift to the decade - Lord only knows what those crazy Kremlinites have in store for us over the next ten years.

15. Fischerspooner - Emerge (#25 July 2002)

We’ve been a wee bit short-changed for dance music since the turn of the millennium – compare the myraid trends and shifts over the course of the 1990s to the feeble attempts at crafting something new in the post 2000 landscape and you have to admit that there’s not really anything on a par with breakbeat, jungle or trip-hop. However, that didn’t stop people trying and there were a couple of bubbles of fresh air in there – UK Garage, New Rave and the neon beast that briefly threatened to devour the charts in the early 2000s : Electroclash.

There wasn’t really anything particularly complicated about Electroclash, it was just another shift in club culture that allowed dance music to gravitate towards festival stages and mingle with the big name rock acts. Acts such as The Rapture and Chicks on Speed succeeded in filling hipster playlists with their take on the formula, but it was Warren Fischer and Casey Spooner who set their sights on Rolling Stones-sized venues with their new band of stadium electro. ‘Emerge’ was their mission statement, a slow building club thumper that gradually whipped up into an absolute frenzy. Although their confrontational interviews took place largely in the rock press, the tunes were 100% suited to the dancefloor – unlike the later New Rave explosion, the best parts of electroclash could work in any club across the world without relying on the hipster contingent on the dancefloor to get things started. Immediate, ambitious and self-consciouly massive, the track should have been #1 across the entire planet but in the end just stalled in the mid 20s and disappeared soon afterwards. Consider this one of the decade’s great injustices – for once we had a track set to split the mainstream in two like the best rave classics of yester year but it missed the moment for some reason. Like Andrew WK’s awesome ‘Party Hard’, the tune pinpointed a moment in time and whilst it wasn’t an anthem to millions, it became a party staple for the privileged few. A tinge of nostalgia creeps over me when I think of nights out spiraling out of control to this one – as the soundtrack to a nightclub boiling over into total neo-rave frenzy, there was nothing better suited.

14. Bloc Party - Helicopter (#29 October 2004)

Indie underwent quite a transformation over the course of the decade, losing its way early on in a deluge of thrashy, tuneless 'garage rock' à la The Hives, The Vines, Jet, The Datsuns and many more like them penning two minute guitar fests extolling the virtues of being young, reckless and really rather dumb. Student Union types were bound to reclaim the dancefloors after a while and their flagship band became Bloc Party, themselves a bunch of skinny introverts looking like the Physics department reps on an episode of University Challenge.

I'll admit to judging Bloc Party on their appearance and dismissing their music as trendy student bollocks before actually listening to it properly - once I bought their bombastic debut album on a whim, I was pleasantly surprised at how much it actually rocked. Jam packed with potential singles and future live favourites, 'Helicopter' remains my favourite track on the record as it embodies what the band do so well - tightly wound and rhythmically vibrant, it chops along much like the vehicle in the title and comes suited to both indie dancefloors and bedroom philosophy sessions for the timid student in all of us. Whilst the acts that had dominated indie in the years prior to BP's emergence had favoured big, dumb and loud over intimate, clever and complex, the band marked a sea change in the genre by favouring emotional depth and sober analysis of the world around them (the track, according to some, is about George W Bush). What's more, it is perhaps the best display of the band's nimble fingered musicianship - unlike two-chord trogs like Jet, these guys were pretty handy with their instruments and didn't shy away from showing it (I saw 'em live for the first time this summer and the stage show ups the ante even more - these guys are tight).

Like many of my favourite bands (Stone Roses, Smiths), the band have declined to rely soley on the album format and have put out many of their best moments as non-album singles (Two More Years, Flux, Little Thoughts) - 'Helicopter' may not have been one of them, but as one of five tracks on their debut album to grace the singles charts, it stands as one of the moments that launched them as one of the best singles bands of the decade. Five years and numerous hits down the line, the band's future remains uncertain - even if, as rumours suggest, we may have seen the last of them the memories triggered by their music will only be positive ones. Choppy, danceable and intelligent, 'Helicopter' is the sound of indie shedding dead weight and re-emerging lean and mean for its strongest period of the decade.

13. Kaiser Chiefs - I predict a riot (#9 August 2005)

There’s about a zillion quizzes on Facebook asking you to name celebrities based on photos of them from back before they were famous, culled from high school yearbooks or childhood sports team photos. I haven’t checked out whether Kaiser Chiefs are in there yet, but chances are I’d be able to pick out at least a couple of them quicker than I did when I saw them on the cover of the NME on a plane back from Dublin – hungover and slightly confused, I had to flip backwards and forwards between the band interview and the cover photo before it eventually dawned on me : ‘Holy Crap! That’s Ricky fucking Wilson!!’.

Which, ironically, was exactly what he was hoping would happen in the interview inside – a frustrated pop star who’d been treading water for years as front man to the thoroughly unremarkable Runston Parva, Wilson and his cronies underwent an image re-tuning in the mid 2000s and re-emerged as an out-and-out pop group and set to work chronicling their everyday lives in Leeds on their debut album ‘Employment’. ‘I predict a riot’ was one of four incredible singles culled from the record and is arguably the most recognizable, a bombastic pop headrush detailing a night out in central Leeds in impressively witty fashion – sure, it was in vogue at the time to make your lyrics as familiar as possible to young British audiences but nobody did it in quite as clever a fashion as Wilson with couplets like ‘I tried to get to my taxi/A man in a tracksuit attacked me’. You didn’t need to have spent your formative years against the backdrop he was singing about to get the joke, and thousands did as the album sold by the truckload and the singles ruled the airwaves for what seemed like forever.

Wit is a valuable commodity in pop music – not everyone has it, Alex Turner has certainly retained it and Ricky Wilson may have seen his contributions reap lesser returns as the decade has progressed but he will still be remembered as one of the era’s cheekier raconteurs. ‘I predict a riot’ still gets a dancefloor going to this day and remains a timely reminder of that point in the middle of the decade where it seemed the British indie kids that had been struggling to gain recognition for years all suddenly got their dues at the same time. The subject matter may have been a less than glowing image of modern Britain, but the musical output was a great example of the kind of thing us Brits can be fiercely proud of.

12. Andrew WK - Party Hard (#19 October 2001)

A passing fad to the cynics out there, for his followers Andrew WK was a hairy bolt of energy into an indie scene too wrapped up in itself to just knuckle down to some serious rocking for a change. Once The Strokes had broken through to the mainstream, the NME had acts queuing up at the door begging for a spot on the cover as the next big thing – Andrew WK was one of the first in line and duly bagged his space on a double fold out cover in late 2001 under the banner ‘so good we have to put him on the cover twice!’ and the hype machine was in motion.

None of this would have mattered if he didn’t have the tunes to back it up, but one spin of his unspeakably fantastic debut single silenced all doubters – ok, maybe not all of them but anyone trying to voice criticism over the deafening wall of guitars that ushered in ‘Party Hard’ would have had a job making themselves heard. Seeing him perform the track live brought home exactly how simple the whole thing was – three enormous guitarists all playing the same riff, bass and drums straight off the death metal circuit (tubthumper Donald Tardy previously warmed the drumstool in Florida DM legends Obituary), plinky plonky piano lines and vocals that sounded like a werewolf coaching a rugby team, the track was the most thrilling three minutes in years and duly sent nightclub dancefloors into sweaty delirium every time it was played. I can’t describe how much I loved this record when I first heard it, and I still stick it on fairly regularly when I’m on my way to work half awake. Parent album ‘I get wet’ (featuring an infamous cover shot of WK bloodied from the nose down after a stage-diving mishap) was full of more of the same and Andrew briefly became the new face of fun for the indie renaissance of 2001.

Many didn’t get the joke of course (tour mates The Coral derided WK as a ‘sweaty fucking gimp’ during their nationwide jaunt the following year) and the chart performance of ‘Party Hard’ (an impressive yet still slightly underwhelming #19) contributed to his swift categorization as a one-hit wonder. It was never going to be career-building stuff, but this list is all about moments that have marked the decade and for me, ‘Party Hard’ sticks out like the memory of a particularly good night out. Loud, brash and thoroughly irresponsible, it’s still the quickest way to put a smile on my face after all these years.

11. Kasabian - Club Foot (#19 May 2004)

The musical landscape of the decade hasn’t been marked by a wave of never-heard-before trends like those seen in previous eras – much of what has topped the listings over the last ten years has been stuff that those of us who’ve been around a while have heard before plenty of times. The thing is, we’re probably not the ones out there buying the records – as has always been the case, the people deciding what gets into the singles charts are ‘the kids’, and they have pretty short memories. Plus, they don’t spend ages analyzing what are essentially floor-filling, crowd-pleasing mass appeal anthems trying to find some hidden meaning – they’re too busy out there having a good time to care whether the soundtrack has been around before.

I’m maybe being a little hard on Kasabian here – they’re not totally unoriginal, but a large portion of their style has been pilfered wholesale from the likes of Primal Scream, Stone Roses and any number of indie bands whose time in the sun dates back to the early 90s. But if we’re going to compare them to anyone from the previous decade, the obvious choice is Oasis whose fanbase they had succeeded in casually usurping over the course of the last few years – the Gallagher brothers weren’t re-inventing the wheel either when their debut landed in the charts, but they did succeed in bringing droves of lagered-up football fans into the record shops to partake of the phenomenon, something most of their contempories failed to do. Kasabian preached to the same congregation and saw their music instantly coupled with pissed-up festival crowds, smelly soccer hooligans and clusters of beery blokery at kicking out time in pub car parks across the nation. These are people you would rather not get stuck next to at a gig but it was hard to begrudge them their band of choice – Kasabian’s familiar blend of indie and dance provided the ideal soundtrack for a lairy night out or the half-time lull at Premier League games, it was entertainment for the masses and there was nothing round with that. ‘Club Foot’, to finally get onto the record at hand, was their debut statement of intent and pretty much sums up what they do well in four minutes – the lyrics are meaningless drivel, the music blunt force proto-Madchester thuggery and the delivery verging on boorish and irritating, but the end product was irresistible. More would follow in the same vein, but nobody’s looking tired of it for the time being.

Now that Oasis have finally closed the book, the lads from Kasabian wasted no time in declaring to the NME that they were now Britain’s biggest band – they might have some way to go before matching Noel & Liam’s vice-like grip over the nation’s airwaves back in the day, but for the moment you’d have to agree that there are few other serious contenders for the place at the top of British guitar music’s food chain. With a third hit album under their belts and pummeling live show to back it up with, there’s no sign of these guys dropping the ball any time soon.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

2000 : The Death of Pop

Reality TV pop is going to come in for quite a bit of (richly deserved) stick on this blog, but we should at least acknowledge that it only conquered the pop landscape of the early noughties because there was very little to stand in its way. Pop music at the turn of the millennium was in such a sorry state that someone needed to come along and put it out of its misery so that the genre could be stripped back to its roots and revived at a later date to greater effect - which it was, at least in my opinion. It was hardly surprising that given the dearth of new ideas and industry preference for quick fix gimmicks, cheap and tacky marketing techniques and a universally recognised decline in the quality of hit singles (it's not just me, honest), pop would be taken over at one of its lowest ebbs to be rebranded and repackaged for a new generation of punters.

Those of you who've perused my laborious trawl through 90s boy and girlbands will have picked up on the perceived sea change in general culture over the course of the decade which I feel was reflected in pop music, most obviously in the lucrative sphere of teeny pop. Pop music has always been important as a soundtrack to the times, even if the general quality of the recorded output can vary drastically. Look back at the 1980s and you'll find no end of great pop music from the first half of the decade (Early Hip Hop, New Romantic, Synth Pop, British Ska, New Wave, MJ's 'Thriller', Prince, Kim Wilde, Cyndi Lauper, Blondie, The Police, The Jam, the list goes on) - whilst most of the aforementioned produced sounds that were configured for maximum chart success, they nevertheless allowed room for creativity and innovation, allowing popular music to evolve and advance at the same rhythm as popular culture in general. Go to any 80s night on the planet and chances are you'll hear a lot of stuff the pre-1985 era, pop gems you can throw shapes on the dancefloor to without indulging in any kind of raised-eyebrow post-modern irony. Look at the later years of the 80s however and you'll be struck by a shift towards production line SAW pop in the UK (Rick Astley, Kylie & Jason, Bros, Sonia etc) and the emergence of shopping mall teeny pop in the US (Debbie Gibson, Tiffany) - the charts were swamped with grinning, inane pop muppets plying the kind of faceless, plastic crap that provided a quick sales fix at the time but sounded cheap and tacky only a couple of years down the line. Sure, hen night parties still go mental to 'I think we're alone now' but you can't compare the finished product to 'Thriller', 'Dare' or even 'Welcome to the Pleasuredome' - the latter are finely crafted pieces of universally accessible yet stylistically complex pop music, the former is tacky, plastic musical afterbirth that only sound goods on a sticky nightclub dancefloor as you screech along to the lyrics with your similarly tasteless cronies and spill Reef down your bra. Case closed.

This was the musical climate that we inherited as the 90s dawned - pop as a sales device, not as a cultural artform. New Kids on the Block were at their global peak, notching the decade's first #1 and dominating the charts of 1990 with back to back hits - their competition came in the form of Kylie, Jason and anyone else from 'Neighbours' that Pete Waterman could get to stand in front of a drum machine for 3 minutes flashing their dental work and lip synching to some tinny disco garbage. Jason Donovan had brought home the best-selling album of the previous year, a nadir in pop terms which also brought us the exruciating Jive Bunny, Big Fun and a host of other musical atrocities - the final blow was the revival of Band Aid's 'Do they know it's Xmas' in December 1989, a neat summary of everything that was chronically wrong with the state of pop at that dark time. The first outing of the charity classic succeeded in creating a landmark moment in pop culture, one that can be seen as the last piece of classic 80s pop before the second half of the decade before things went pear-shaped - the second was an example how bad things had become since then. Check out the video here to take it the full undiluted shittyness of it all. The only redeeming feature is the Bono isn't on it.

Things needed to change, and change they did - the stars of 1990 faded quickly, with NKOTB all but finished a year later and Kylie & Jason forced into frantic image rebranding as SAW struggled to match their earlier hit rate. The mantle passed to British boybands such as Take That and East 17, themselves the product of UK based production companies keen to replicate the global success of New Kids on the Block - they would conquer domestic markets but fall short of planetary domination, something the Spice Girls would acheive a few years later as Britain reached the peak of the 'Cool Britannia' marketing frenzy. The ladies' sales stranglehold over the worldwide charts in the middle of the decade (alongside the rise of Blair, Euro 96 and Britpop's similar success in foreign climates) represented a peak in British popular music unseen since the early 80s - singles sales were at a high due to new techniques such as multiformatting (releasing 3 CDs with different B-sides for each single) and the exposure of chart music to new audiences via bastions of lad culture such as Loaded and TFI Friday or the increasingly important ankle-biter market wedge (the average age of a the person buying a single in the charts of the late 90s was about 8 years old).

But it was never going to last, and true to form it didn't. 2000 saw pop plough new lows of creative laziness and cynical marketing - the boy/girlband phenomenon of the previous decade had evolved from innocent fun into either postmodern image manipulation or predatory sexploitation. 1999 had seen the emergence of a new breed of American pop performers such as Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera who had learnt their trade in the squeaky clean confines of Disney's 'Mickey Mouse Club' - now older and barely legal, they burst onto the pop music scene cooing lasciviously over Max Martin's studio production line backing with a sound aimed at the pop charts but an image that turned more than a few heads. The infamous video for 'Baby one more time' brought the slightly uncomfortable premise of kiddie porn into pop for the first time since 'Like a Virgin' - the difference being that, whilst Madonna was well into her 20s and fully aware of what she was up to when her debut hit the charts back in the mid 80s, Britney Spears hit global paydirt at the tender age of 16 with the inherent naivity that you'd expect from someone that young (and, unlike Madonna, her pretensions to virginity were deadly serious). Back in Britain, we had the likes of Steps and S Club 7, the former a charmless sales device pitched somewhere between gay men, hen night tarts, ironic students and squealing schoolkids, the latter a more blatant persil-washed pop gangbang backed by a TV show that topped ratings amongst both pre-pubescent kiddies and the readership of FHM, who broke the mould when they began doing raunchy photoshoots of Rachel Stevens et al in 1999. Pop had been sexed up and deprived of its innocence in favour of bluntforce marketing techniques aiming at getting your attention and your cash quickly.

The results were clear to see - 2000 saw a relentless turnover of #1 singles, 43 in the space of 52 weeks of the calender year, a record which has yet to be beaten. And if 2000 raised the bar in terms of sales turnover, it also plumbed new lows in the quality of material hitting the upper reaches of the charts. Westlife begun the year at #1 and would bag themselves a brace of identikit ballad chart toppers before the year was out, whilst the Spice Girls' era as solo performers yielded #1 hits for Geri (once), Mel C (twice) and a high profile near-miss for Victoria whose 'Out of your mind' garage tangent famously lost out to Sophie Ellis-Bextor's infinitely classier 'Groovejet'. Whilst their days as a pop juggernaut in the mid 90s had yielded a run of memorable hit singles which will be forever linked with the era, the ladies' solo output was a directionless attempt to rebrand each of the five as independant recording artists in their own right - though it didn't backfire in purely sales terms, the results were toe-curlingly dreadful : Geri veered between chubby showgirl, anorexic aerobics instructor, faux-latin vamp, gaybar cabaret tart and woefully unconvincing human rights activist, whilst the others hacked away frantically trying to rebrand themselves as serious R'n'B (Mel B), 60s style sex kitten (Emma), mainstream pop rock (Mel C) or classy club diva (Victoria). Whatever the direction, the recorded output was plastic pop bereft of any kind of personality, hopelessly grasping for relevance and individuality in the cynical pop landscape of 2000 but ending up looking as clueless and two-dimensional as Kylie and Jason did ten years earlier. The tragic spectacle of all five members clogging up the singles charts with their unlistenable attempts at musical rebirth almost made you long for the time when they functioned as one combined unit (after all, one shitty record in the chart is preferable to five) - however, the girls put paid to that little fantasy by unleashing the unspeakably awful 'Forever' album and their final chart-topping single 'Holler/Let love lead the way' in October 2000, a hapless attempt to rebrand themselves as a credible R'n'B collective in the vein of Destiny's Child who had begun their spell in the limelight around the same time. Check out the video here and see if you can make it to the end without barfing.

Elsewhere, the teeny pop genre showed its age with a general lack of creativity in the form of tired cover versions such as A1's 'Take on me' (the first of their two #1 singles that year), Westlife's versions of gear shift classic 'Seasons in the Sun' and Mariah Carey duet 'Against All Odds' (2 of their 4 #1 hits in 2000), 5ive's ham-fisted rehash of Queen's 'We will rock you' (#1 in July) - even Madonna got in on the act with her career-low cover of 'American Pie' (#1 in March). Stars of yesteryear were reheated and served up to varying degrees of success : All Saints managed to bag two more #1s ('Pure Shores' in February, 'Black Coffee' in October) whilst preserving the classy, urban edge their debut had trademarked in the late 90s, whilst Billie Piper inexplicably returned to the top with the faceless 'Day & Night' in May, offering no further clues on what her fans saw in her than her original sales peak in '98. Perhaps significantly, neither artist would reach the top ten again. Post boyband figures such as Ronan Keating and Robbie Williams both hit #1 with their solo efforts ('Life is a rollercoaster' in July for the former, 'Rock DJ' in August for the latter), and although their records continued to sell large amounts, it became obvious that both had permanently abadoned pop to move into new territory (Country & Western and Variety for Ronan, an endless string of flavour of the month genres for Robbie). Britney and Christina continued to dominate with their Max Martin-branded slut pop (the former bagged two #1 hits, 'Born to make you happy' in February and 'Oops...I did it again' in May) whilst their male counterparts N*SYNC and Backstreet Boys broke sales records with their albums and tours in the US over the course of the year on the back of the clunky key samples and breathy vocal routines characteristic of MM's studio production which successfully homogenised pop in the same way Stock Aitken & Waterman had ten years earlier.

If you still want proof that pop was in a wretched state in 2000, look no further than the year's best-selling single. The traditionally lucractive Xmas chart period has always meant that you can condense sales of several months at any other time of year into two or three weeks in December when the market becomes increasingly fertile as people buy music as gifts - it's also synonymous with the novelty pop record, the irritating likes of which would not be tolerated outside the festive season. 'Bob the Builder' had been a runaway hit on kids' TV that year and the theme song was released unaltered as a single in the hope that its charm might replicate the programme's success in the music charts. It provded a wise investment - the track was Xmas #1 and outsold all other singles that year.

This prompted a reflection amongst the casual observer - how can a self-consciously irritating novelty hit comprised of the theme music to a kids' TV show outsell EVERYTHING else on the market? The track hadn't been tampered with or remixed, it was a straightforward version of the theme music yet it was more popular than any of the studio engineered pop singles released that year. 90s kiddie TV crossovers had scored high returns in the pop market before (Mr Blobby, Teletubbies etc) but none had been so successful that everything else paled in comparison - pop always had one trick up its sleeve to outsell the TV themes. Until now.

The status of 'Bob the Builder' as 2000's best-selling single coupled with the rapidfire turnover of forgettable pop records at the top of the charts hinted that something had to change if pop was to be regarded as a threat in the musical landscape of the future. A look at the end of year charts revealed an emergent trend in urban pop fronted by some bloke called Craig David, the continued domination of club culture (Modjo, Fragma, Zombie Nation, Sonique) and Eminem's rise to prominence with his potent form of hip-hop self analysis - all would leave their mark, but none could claim surpreme power over the pop landscape in the same way that Take That and the Spice Girls had back in the 90s. Reality TV pop would land the following year with the screening of 'Popstars' in early 2001 culminating in Hear'Say's 'Pure and Simple' becoming the fastest-selling non-charity single of all time in the UK (a record Will Young would break a year later, again following weeks of relentless talent show promotion). Mainstream pop music, a bright colourful genre back in its heyday of the 80s and 90s, was about to sidestep into bland variety performance and shameless imitation of past glories - once Reality TV laid its mark on pop, things would never be the same again.

So let's remember why things go that way in the first place - pop music in 2000 sucked ass, it's as simple as that. Something else was bound to come along and take its place, and that's what happened with the TV talent shows. If the Simon Cowell-sponsored hordes are ever to vacate their spot at the top of popular music's foodchain, one they've held for the rest of the decade, it'll take either something really potent and new to dislodge them or we'll need a public acknowledgement that the whole reality TV thing has gotten dull, repetitive and faceless. Not wanting to be the eternal cynic, but we might be waiting a while longer than ten years for times to really change again. I for one am not holding my breath.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Reality TV Bites

When George Orwell was writing the original draft of what would become his masterpiece of dystopic fiction set in a nightmarish version of the future, he predicted a lot of things that would happen in the second half of the 20th century - ironically, he also provided the worldwide media with a tag name for a phenomenon that would irrecovably alter the broadcasting landscape into the new millennium. 'Big Brother' first hit screens in Holland in 1999 where it was originally conceived, and the craze spread to almost every other TV-savvy country in the world over the next year or so - contestants went from everyday nobodies to overnight stars, and although for most their fame was short-lived, it lit a fire inside many heads : this is how to get famous (and potentially rich) very quickly.

It also introduced the concept of audience voting to mainstream TV - sure, phone votes were hardly unheard of prior to BB but they went from a peripheral feature (opinion polls, phone-in discussions) to the centre of the programme. The audience was now seemingly in control, able to select who they would like to continue the on-screen adventure....and perhaps more significantly, who they would just love to see shot down in fucking flames. From the very first season, BB provided us with pantomime villains, scheming tricksters and gormless bigots whose shortcomings were exposed on national television for all to see - the pleasure to judge these fools for having the temerity to expose themselves in such a way took many of us by surprise, and we were suddenly given the possibility of contributing to the downfall of our hate figures for the cost of a text message. 'Big Brother' and the subsequent rise of reality TV as the decade dawned showed us that the apparent democratization of primetime TV was an attractive development, as was the chance to fuck over the contestants we didn't like without the chance of them ever catching up with us to exact revenge. Screaming the telly now seemed like wasted energy - you could clusterbomb the voting polls to make these fuckwits suffer! Hoorah!!

But, you might ask, why are we talking TV when this is supposed to be a music blog? Well, dear reader, my answer to that would be that wherever TV goes, popular music follows. Ever since the dawn of the pop charts in the early 50s and the profileration of TV around the same time, the idiot box has proved the most effective way of sending people bouncing off down to the record shop to buy your product. From Elvis prompting legions of teenage girls to cream themselves by strutting his shit on the Ed Sullivan show in 1956, through 'Top of the Pops', TV commercials, soap opera stats turning to music, MTV and much much more, telly took over as the best way to bring your pop product into the homes of millions of viewers. And then getting them to buy your music.

The impact of reality TV was slow at first - whilst the producers of 'Big Brother' eschewed musical sidelines aside from the obligatory club remix of the show's theme tune, wisely acknowledging that whatever talents the contestants claimed to have, few were founded in music. However, around the same time a seperate production team was gearing up for another Saturday night media event called 'Popstars' tracking the formation of a new pop product, wittling down contestants from a field of thousands of hopefuls with the aim of producing the next big thing in pop. The concept was coined in New Zealand and had proven massively successful, prompting record-breaking sales from the acts it produced in almost every territory, although few acts from its stable notched up significant sales outside of their own country - prompting the reflection amongst cynical gits like myself that it was the TV and press coverage that appealed to the public rather than the generally fuck-awful music.

'Popstars' was a big event at the time - I remember billboards in Manchester advertising the encroaching start of the series and tuned in out of curiosity. What I saw made me long for the now familiar option of inflicting suffering on complete strangers - droves of shrieking hyenas turned out at the casting sessions, desperate to emulate the success of the major pop acts of the period (Steps, S Club 7 etc), most of whom specialised in the studio-tinkered hi-octane pop that dominated the singles chart at the dawn of the decade. Sadly, there was no such option at the viewer's disposal - a group of self-appointed pop experts presided over the auditions, which were broadcast as part of the show's format to highlight the gulf between the talented few and the punchable attention-seeking many. Seeing such a proliferation of gormless, big-mouthed gonks charge willingly towards their own high-profile humiliation like a pack of lycra-clad lemmings was undeniably satisfying at first - for a while, you wondered whether every village in the UK had nominated its idiot to take part in the proceedings - but we felt ultimately let down by the final product : five Argos-brand 'entertainers' whose individual characteristics made them vaguely likeable on their own merits but when packaged together came across as a bog-tedious hodge podge of faceless vanilla soul. The final selection were named 'Hear'Say' (pffff. I could have done better), their debut single and album sold shitloads over a brief period but they were soon discarded and forgotten because they were dull. And we didn't choose them.

However, a lurking pop svengali (or oppurtunistic, self-satisfied yuppie shitstreak depending on how generous you're feeling) latched on to the idea to allow public voting to determine the outcome of events the following year. Simon Cowell, attracted to the idea of huge ratings and huger record sales, decided to go one better and launch his own TV talent show 'Pop Idol' in 2002, tinkering the formula to accomodate public voting and allowing viewers to pick their favourite candidate who would ultimately be rewarded with a record deal at the end of the series. The reaction was seismic - huge audiences tuned in, voted and most importantly ran to the record shops afterwards to buy the end product. By the end of 2002, Will Young and Gareth Gates were household names and their string of hit singles dominated the charts to an almost embrassing extent - Hear'Say's debut 'Pure and Simple' ranked #2 on 2001's end of year sales lists behind Shaggy's tale of romantic indiscression 'It wasn't me', however 2002 saw Will Young emerge victorious, following by G-g-gareth who himself managed two entries in the year's top ten. Even 'Popstars' reject Darius Danesh got in on the act, himself notching up a chart-topper before the year was out.

Cowell's tilt on the formula also included another feature that would prove key to its success - the obnoxious twat of a judge. Presumably seizing on the public's appetite for judgement of their fellow citizens on 'Big Brother' and the tepid reaction to the the judges' choices on 'Popstars', Cowell created a role for himself on the new franchise where he would act as scourge to the weaker contestants, gleefully humiliating the talentless in front of a TV audience of millions. A few years' previously this might have all seemed a little cruel - a rich, arrogant businessman with an apparent contempt for any kind of creativity passing judgement over simple members of the public, grinning as he crushed their self-esteem at the drop of a hat. But, surprise surprise, in the post-millennial media landscape it turned out to be a huge hit - the public lapped up the tough love approach, and even if they didn't agree with Cowell's outbursts, the spectacle provided them with a pantomime villain to boo and hiss at in the same vein as the stock of baddies on each series of 'Big Brother'. Coupled with the rise of bitchy publications like 'Heat' to replace the more innocent likes of 'Smash Hits' in the field of pop music, the new merciless approach became the norm, allowing Cowell to not only maximise his profits as owner of the franchise but to also rise to celebrity status in his own right as Mr Bad Guy.

By the end of 2002, pop had changed hands entirely - the boy/girlband boom of the previous decade had pretty much breathed its last, with past high-sellers such as Atomic Kitten and Blue notching up their final chart-toppers. Only Westlife continued to conquer the singles charts, although even they suffered a fallow period over the middle of the decade - whilst they still made #1 with every release, I'd like to meet someone who can actually remember any of the fucking tunes (actually, cancel that - I'd rather not). Pop's mantle was taken up briefly by the emergent trend of boybands with guitars, and the likes of Busted and McFly bagged themselves a brace of chart-toppers over the course of 2003-2004 (with the latter going on to bag even more as the decade evolved) whilst a younger generation of female pop ensembles (Sugababes, Girls Aloud - themselves the product of series 2 of Popstars) began their own run of successful single releases. Solo artists also re-emerged as valuable commodities in the post-girl/boyband landscape, with past participants in the now dead genre revived as mature, fully-formed adult pop perfomers (Robbie Williams, Ronan Keating, Ricky Martin, Justin Timberlake or the similarly marketed Christina Aguilera & Britney Spears, by then grown-up veterans of USA's 'Mickey Mouse Club'). But nostalgia being what it is, the genre hadn't lain dead for too long before its corpse was revived by way of reunion tours for the likes of Take That, which to the surprise of many matched the peak of their 90s success and produced another brace of massive hits. Even Peter fucking Andre made a bewildering return to the charts with his cast iron turd of pop 'Mysterious Girl'. All flourished in their own way for much of the decade, but none could match the all-out market dominance of the 'Pop Idol' star stable (and its successfor 'X-Factor' which landed in late 2004), whose singles ranked amongst the year's top-sellers for the remainder of the noughties. If obsevers were waiting for a new era in pop music to dawn post-2000, the reign of the reality show provided us with one.

I'm gonna take a bit of time to look back over the last ten years and aim to pick out a few developments and trends, mixed in with a spot of well-earned vitriol directed at the individuals whose contribution to pop music over the last 10 years has to my mind been less positive than it could have been. If you feel like joining me, watch this space.

xxx John

Decade's End

Hi folks,

Prompted to return from a lengthy absence by the slightly feeble splattering of 'best records of the noughties' lists that are starting to pop up in the press, I thought I'd mark a long-delayed return to blogging with my own review of the last 10 years in music.

Subjects currently lined up for my own unique brand of vitriolic deconstruction are reality TV talent shows, filesharing & streaming, the rebirth of British indie at the expense of heavy metal and dance music and a few others along with a retinkered version of my albums of the decade post. If you can think of any more, let me know.

That's all for now, watch this space for upcoming posts (promise).

xxx John