Sunday, December 20, 2009
Back online after a somewhat inconvenient computer mishap (thankfully now sorted out), I'm getting ready to post my selection of the best and worst singles of the decade - in the spirit of positive thinking, the list of best singles will be up first followed by the list of songs that made my blood boil, fists clench and swearing vocabulary expand even further.
In preparation for the first selection of top pop moments of the last ten years, here's a few ground rules I've laid down for my choices :
1. The song in question has to actually have charted as a single at some point in the decade - the rules governing the singles charts were modified around 2006 to allow songs to chart even if a physical version (such as a CD single) was not available in record shops to allow for the increasingly popular MP3 format to count towards chart placings, so any tune that has featured on the UK Top 40 between 1st January 2000 and now is eligible. Album tracks, live-only staples and other miscellaneous titbits are not.
2. No more that one song per artist (excluding collaborations).
3. Rather than just reflecting my own record collection (hey, who wants to read a list consisting of nothing but Slayer, The View and obscure Dutch Happy Hardcore?), the entries have been selected on the grounds that they either shaped or exemplified a trend in popular music at some point over the last decade. Which doesn't mean that I don't like them, it just means that I acknowledge their influence on pop culture over the last ten years. None of them should be obscure enough to make the average reader scratch their head in confusion - most were established hit singles upon release and the few that didn't become big mainstream hits were tunes that I thought should have been in a perfect world. Ideally, once we get far enough into the next decade for 'noughties nostalgia' to kick in (I'd predict about the second week of February 2010), these are the songs that I hope would be on the setlist for a noughties club night.
Hope all that makes sense. Let's get it started!
Sunday, December 06, 2009
Let’s kick things off with an admission that not all Reality TV pop is complete crap. If the artificial fame machine churned out a string of production line pop atrocities, the by-products weren’t always that bad : Hear’Say were outlasted by the infinitely superior Liberty X whose line-up was composed of the rejects from Popstars’ first series, and the sequel pitted two rival groups of girls and boys against each other in the run up to Xmas 2002 with the public using the singles chart as a means of deciding who was the better outfit. The winners’ debut not only secured the year’s Xmas #1 but also kickstarted a successful pop career that has yet to grind to a halt and produced some of the decade’s best singles.
Girls Aloud may have been conceived in the evil womb of Reality TV, but they managed to detach themselves from the concept fairly quickly – bypassing the variety performance ballad route taken by many of their solo contempories, the five-piece made their name in the kind of brash, colourful girlband pop that soundtracked the 1990s proving that teenypop could still work on the old model. Initial success granted them a string of hit singles and they soon came to dominate the pop market without reaching saturation point, which is probably the key to their longevity – even most of the big names in 90s teenypop struggled to make it past the three-album mark before everyone became whole-heartedly sick of them, and by the time the Spice Girls imploded in 2000 the gap between breakthrough success and calamitous fall from grace had narrowed even further. Where Girls Aloud succeeded was in their return to pop’s roots as good clean fun rather than a cynical marketing circus – they remained in the public eye for the rest of the decade, notching up cheery pop hits without ever getting in your face so much that you got sick of them. Rather than a post-2000 rehash of groups like All Saints and Eternal, they had more in common with their 80s predecessors such as Bananarama and Kim Wilde, artists who carved out careers at the forefront of pop for a full decade without ever slipping out of fashion. ‘Something Kinda Oooh!’ isn’t significantly better than any of their other releases, it’s just the first one that springs to my mind as an example of what they do well – check out this bombastic TV performance from Xmas 2007 if you need further explanation.
Whilst pop has changed hands over the course of the decade and undergone something of a rebirth since its low point at the start of the noughties, some constants remain and Girls Aloud are one of them. Girlband pop has endured where boybands have faltered – looking back at the girls’ original TV rivals, the hopelessly crappy One True Voice, it’s easy to see that the better side won. Whilst teenypop’s male contingent floundered in the early years of the decade only to resurface on a wave of 90s nostalgia later on, Girls Aloud along with their contempories the Sugababes have carved out admirably consistent careers of pop performance and left us with some cracking singles. Now that the decade’s nearly over, let’s give them the credit they deserve.
39. George Michael – Shoot the dog (#12 August 2002)
Every decade has its war, and previous ones have managed to carve out some decent protest songs to counteract all the bitterness and bloodshed. So it was disappointing that the war-mongering ways of our leaders in the early 2000s went largely unquestioned in pop music – there was nothing to rival Country Joe & the Fish’s denouncing of the Vietnam war in the late 60s or Bono’s emotive yarblings on the troubles in Northern Ireland….nobody seemed all that bothered. OK, Radiohead might have taken a half-arsed pot shot at Tony Blair on ‘You and whose army’ from ‘Amnesiac’ but you’re hardly laying your career on the line by whinging a bit about politics on an album track. It takes real balls to put out a single at the height of the conflict ripping on your country’s leader and his misguided toadying up to George W Bush, and surprisingly enough the only person to display sufficiently unfeasible gonad girth was someone hardly renowned for political protest.
George Michael’s star was on the wane in the early noughties, focused more on nostalgia for past glories in the aftermath of his immensely successful best-of in the late 90s than on what he could offer the new millennium. Musically he was stuck in limp R’n’B territory, but briefly broke free into calculated protest with ‘Shoot the Dog’ in 2002 – the track savagely criticized the master and servant relationship between Bush and Blair, backed by a 2DTV-produced cartoon video that ridiculed the hapless pair and poured scorn on the war effort. It was all too much for the flag-waving wankers on Fleet Street, with The Sun reacting particularly viciously to the star’s impertinence and lack of nationalist pride in Britain’s military intervention in the Middle East – their response to GM’s refusal to back our boys was to publish cheaply concocted photoshop images of his head disappearing down a toilet as his career crumbled in the fact of public outcry. Their smear campaign worked at least in the short term – the single fell short of the top ten, not a bad result but a proportional failure for someone with George’s pop pedigree and it triggered a general retreat from the pop charts for him which culminated in limiting future releases to internet-only download packages. Nevertheless, he returned with a couple more #1 hit albums and another best-of before the decade ended and retained his dignity throughout unlike the right-wing tabloid tosspots who tried to wreck his career for daring to disagree with them. ‘Shoot the Dog’ is more of a curiosity than a classic piece of pop, but it deserves its place on this list as one of the few real commercial risks of the decade and a testament to the power of pop music in challenging popular opinion. Nice one George.
38. Glasvegas – Daddy’s Gone (#12 August 2008)
Despite the fact that they looked and sounded like relics from Indie’s past, Glasvegas still sounded like a breath of fresh air when their debut landed in 2008 – against a backdrop of starry-eyed indie kids in tight jeans and ironic T-shirts, the band looked and sounded like grizzled veterans of the Glasgow indie scene of the late 80s, the perfect antidote to the excitable scamps clogging up the music press at the time. Their sound wasn’t anything radically new – the fuzzed-up guitar waves and black-clad dour delivery harked back to the Jesus & Mary Chain in their heyday, as did the band’s reverence for Phil Spector and 50s rock ‘n’ roll – but their sound stuck out like a sore thumb in the musical landscape of 2008, as did their morose choice of subject matter (social workers, racist attacks and Glasgow’s miserable sectarian bickering).
‘Daddy’s Gone’ preceded their impressive debut by several months and was picked up by the NME in late 2007 as one of their tracks of the year – it was easy to work out why on first hearing it, the track managing to craft a genuinely touching moment of pop tragedy on the thorny subject of absent fathers. It’s not easy to write a decent tearjerker without descending into schmaltz, and it’s even harder to put one into the upper reaches of the charts but the band managed it admirably – over a musical backdrop of Ronettes-style pop and thunderous reverb, singer James Allan bemoans the childhood realization that his dad has done a runner in a robust Glaswegian accent, packing in a hearty dose of bitterness and vitriol at the trail of destruction left in his wake. It was genuinely moving, bringing a tear to the eye of your emotionally-hardened scribe upon first listen and stands up to repeated plays as a finely balanced moment of pop sadness in the vein of ‘Every breath you take’ - it may not have matched Sting’s stalker anthem in terms of chart success but it set the stage nicely for their debut album to clean up both critically and commercially in 2008. They may have been guilty of laying it all on a bit thick in places, and reliable contacts of mine have remarked that they suck live, but Glasvegas still achieved the rare feat of cramming a universe of pent-up emotion into a four-minute hit single, one that will endure in the minds of many even if their star fades in future years.
37. Klaxons – Golden Skans (#7 January 2007)
Hit singles last the test of time, trends don’t – ill-advised haircuts and wardrobe decisions will have characterized the decade for many but they remain snapshots of what was in at the time and went out five minutes later. The whole ‘new rave’ movement was a classic example of this, another media launched trend that resulted in scenesters all over the nation covering themselves in ludicrous fluo and digging out their old Prodigy records. Many hopefuls laboured away at transforming the trend into a genuine crossover hit but few came close to Klaxons’ breakthrough success with ‘Golden Skans’ in early 2007.
In truth, there was nothing ravey about it – their cover of Kicks like a mule’s 1992 classic ‘The Bouncer’ would have been a better example of how dance music played through guitars could really hit home, but ‘Golden Skans’ was a safer bet for crash-landing the top ten. Built around a high-pitched vocal sample, the track detailed a night out back in the original rave era that the band were too young to have experienced first-hand – nevertheless, it struck a chord with indie kids everywhere and provided the soundtrack to many a night out for the new fluo-clad generation. NME creamed itself over the band’s pseudo-groundbreaking sound and named both the track and parent album ‘Myths of the near future’ as 2007’s best of the year – the album left me a little underwhelmed, leaving a lot of trendy pop fluff to pad out what was essentially a cluster of great singles of which ‘Golden Skans’ was probably the strongest. The cashing-in process was complete when the track turned up on a shampoo commercial earlier this year, leaving no doubt that the band had managed to pull a genuine hit out of what could have easily been nothing more than a passing fad in pop music. As the decade closes it’s still too early whether Klaxons and their 2007 contempories will be able to follow their original success with anything substantial but for the moment this track stands as one of the decade’s more palatable moments of trendiness transformed into accessible pop product.
36. System of a Down – Chop Suey ! (#17 August 2001)
This list is going to be filled with a predominantly poppy content due to its very nature – the selections have to not only be decent songs, they also need to have crossed over to a major audience in order for them to be considered. Heavy rock doesn’t feature particularly highly as it’s not best-suited to success in the singles charts, but there are a couple of notable exceptions where artists have managed to bag themselves an unconventional radio hit with something loud and skuzzy. One such example is Armenian-American heavy mentalists System of a Down’s breakthrough hit ‘Chop Suey!’ which thrust them into the unsuspecting confines of the UK top twenty in autumn 2001 and marked their passage from cult metal-circuit success to major force in international rock music, a field they would dominate in for the next few years.
The best thing about ‘Chop Suey!’ is the total randomness of it all – aside from the lack of any reference to the Chinese dish in the title, the track sounds like a Tasmanian Devil romping through a record store and chewing through various music styles over three frantic minutes of freeform mayhem. What starts off sounding like a ballad suddenly jackknifes into bulldozing metal bombast before breaking into rapid-fire stop/start noise bursts and vocals that go from operatic baritone to guttural brute force and 100 mph yelped diatribes. It was hard to work out what the fuck was going on upon first listen, but repeated spins left you in awe of one of the most bafflingly brutal slabs of heavy rock to make the charts since Rage Against the Machine first broke into the mainstream a decade earlier. The band would capitalize on its success in typical fashion – they followed the success of the single’s parent album ‘Toxicity’ with the gargantuan twinset of ‘Hypnotize/Mesmerize’ and the massive tour that accompanied it, then promptly disappeared from view completely. Many have striven to take their place at the creative forefront of heavy metal since then but none succeeded in marrying vicious delivery with accessible chart-friendly prowess in the same way that ‘Chop Suey!’ did back in 2001. This one stands as an example of how you can be loud, proud and crazy as fuck whilst still bagging yourself a hit single in the process. Result!
35. Sigur Ros – Hoppipolla (#24 May 2006)
There was a heavy weight of expectation on this decade to produce sonic marvels that had never been heard before, pieces of music so progressive and innovative that the human ear would not be able to handle them and would instead collapse in on itself out of sheer desperation. All of this was bollocks of course – apart from Radiohead basically alienating most of their original fanbase with a bit of guitar-free abstraction and people like the Aphex Twin carrying on doing what they had been doing for a while anyway, there wasn’t really any kind of post-millennial new form of music to usher in the new era.
We got close a couple of times though. The market for abstract, otherworldly rock music was growing as legions of listeners grew thoroughly bored with the trad rock ruling the airwaves at the time, and in the early years of the decade the more experimental factions of both indie and heavy metal drew away from recognizable song structures to favour something more ethereal and majestic. Metal gave us the mighty Isis, Cult of Luna and arguably later the much more commercially palatable Mastodon, but none were ever likely to batter the singles charts into submission – indie on the other hand has enjoyed a lucrative decade, bringing in a new generation of skinny Myspace-loving kiddies into the mix whilst retaining older fans who moved into the Observer/Radio 2 hinterland for those who felt a bit old at a Subways gig but still wanted to keep their finger on the pulse. The one band they all agreed on was Iceland’s Sigur Ros, a millennial variant on lo-fi, shoegazing and post-rock that modern indie fans embraced as their new favourite band that nobody else was supposed to know about. Their first album landed as the decade commenced and by midway through the noughties they had notched their first crossover hit with the twinkly end of the night classic ‘Hoppipolla’, a none-too-obvious choice for a single but one that seemed like it was always destined to be massive once it broke into the mainstream. Two separate chart runs saw the track peak at #24 in early 2006 but it was one of those whose chart longevity granted it classic status – and, in the vein of Moby’s ‘Play’ era material, it became even bigger thanks to numerous runs on adverts, film soundtracks and as the backing music to compilations of sporting moments, career highlights or anything that needed a bit of magic dust sprinkling over it to make it look majestic.
All this must have seemed odd for a bunch of Icelandic indie weaklings who didn’t even sing in a proper language (their material was delivered mainly in ‘Hopelandic’, presumably what Icelandic sounds like when spoken by toddlers before they actually learn to talk properly) and made zero effort to sell their records via press appearances and publicity campaigns. But then I suppose that’s what made them every indie boffin’s favourite band – you could whip out one of their CDs from amongst your collection of Coldplay and Badly Drawn Boy albums and attempt to impress your mates with it : ‘Hey, have you ever heard of these guys? They’re really unique and great and….oh wait, you’ve had their album for a year already? Shit!’. And they also had the added bonus of not being Swedish – if this had been made by a bunch of clever bugger blond cherubs from some Ikea-furnished treehouse outside Stockholm, I’d have hated it on sight but there’s something a lot cooler about the Icelandic that makes this much easier for me to like. Oooh don’t get me started on the fucking Swedes! Those BASTARDS. Maybe I’ll save that for another post – let’s just state for the record that Iceland rules and so do Sigur Ros.
34. Scooter – Ramp! (The Logical Song) (#2 June 2002)
Stop sniggering at the back. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of Scooter. Some of us fell for the Teutonic techno outfit’s charms back in the mid 90s around the time that gems such as ‘Move your Ass!’ were notching up moderate success in the singles charts, and it was always somewhat of a surprise that they didn’t reap greater rewards for their efforts in what was a fairly commercial field. But as always, the wheel carries on turning and those who persevere always end up rising to prominence at some point, which is what happened when the boys finally split the UK charts in two with ‘Ramp!’ in 2002 and kick started their most lucrative period in Britain.
Scooter’s bombastic style of ‘Stadium Techno’ is now so easy to recognize that they could adapt it to pretty much anything – Supertramp were first through the mangle, their ubiquitous ‘Logical Song’ given the Scooter treatment and transformed into a barrage of squeaky samples, cacophonous keyboard noises and incomprehensible gibberish barked over the whole thing by their hilarious MC HP Baxxter. The end product was wholeheartedly ridiculous yet very difficult to dislike and it was quite satisfying to see the British public finally embrace the band when ‘Ramp!’ launched a string of hit singles for the band in the early part of the decade. Their success also paved the way for a resurgent wave of clunky Euro-Rave in the shape of Basshunter, Cascada and a cluster of other acts who seized on the commercial potential of boisterous techno pop, a sound that had faded from fashion before Scooter revamped it with their breakthrough hit. And it wasn’t just a flash in the pan either – their best-of compilation coined it in and they even managed the impressive feat of knocking Madonna from the top of the album charts in 2008 when their ‘Jumping all over the world’ album gave them a surprise #1.
Now an almost inconceivable 15 years into their career, Scooter’s charms are as irresistible as ever – their unmistakable brand of ludicrous techno pillaging looks unlikely to go away as new generations of ravers, toddlers and embarrassed serious music fans fall prey to their undeniably enjoyable records. They’re not exactly Radiohead in terms of musical complexity, but sometimes you have to cast all that to one side and drive off in a huge rave bulldozer blasting out ‘Siberia! The place to be!’ at ear-splitting volume whilst a field full of nutters lose their shit raving to the nonsensical gibbering of a platinum blond German. What could be more logical than that?
33. The Automatic – Monster (#4 June 2006)
The line between addictively anthemic and horrendously irritating is a fine one, and staying on the right side of it depends on whether or not prolonged exposure to your biggest hit makes the public want to turn on you and beat you to death or not. The Automatic managed to stay just the right side of that line with ‘Monster’ in 2006, a track that proved so massively successful that it almost became their undoing – fortunately, it fell just short of passing into the realms of records that make you want to smash your radio into tiny pieces when you hear them and will instead go down as one of the decade’s most infectious singles.
The band emerged onto the fertile indie scene of the mid-noughties with a sound tailor made for the pop charts, a territory that had become newly accessible to guitar pop in a way that hadn’t been seen since the peak of Britpop ten years previously. Bands like The Kooks and Razorlight were making inroads into the upper reaches of the singles charts and challenging the most established pop acts for position at the very top of the chain – ‘Monster’ landed at the right time for a young band like the Automatic to decimate the mainstream with their debut single, and it soon became so unavoidable that even the band’s critics had to admit that they had penned a classic. Some indie bands looked on scornfully at the band’s commercial delivery, but they seemed largely unaffected by any negative press and capitalized on their success with a hit album and a string of high-profile TV appearances – but it was the song rather than the band that stuck in people’s minds and became so widely reappropriated that you heard it everywhere from football games to nightclubs to festivals and anywhere in between. Rumour has it that the song was even taken up by inmates to welcome sex offenders into prison at the height of its popularity. Now there’s notoriety for you.
Inevitably, they couldn’t follow it up with anything quite as successful and the band have faded from the limelight since their 2006 heyday although they are still touring and releasing records – some will saddle them with the tag of one-hit wonders, but in truth there’s nothing negative about the way they managed to conquer the mainstream so easily. ‘Monster’ remains four of the decade’s most infectious minutes and will live on in parodies, reproductions and compilation appearances for years to come. In the end, the beast they created fell some way short of destroying them – its status as a classic is assured.
32. The Ting Tings – That’s not my name (#1 May 2008)
Pop took on various new forms over the course of the last decade, and many of them saw it stepping away from big studio production and back towards making music in your bedroom. The original peaks of punk and rave both saw newer, more immediate channels to success opened up to generations of kids who didn’t have years of classical training behind them but did have some basic ingredients and a couple of good ideas – fast forward to the present day and we have a similar situation where thanks to internet publicity and easily accessible technology, you can fling out a #1 single in about five minutes if you put your mind to it.
The Ting Tings emerged seemingly from nowhere in 2008 with their addictive debut single ‘That’s not my name’, five minutes of squawked vocals, thumping drumbeats and rhythmic sampling that stuck in your head as soon as you heard it for the first time. Hyped up as one of the next big things that year along with a cluster of other hopefuls, they were the only ones to coin in with a genuine hit – the immediacy of their debut gave rise to the image of a fresh art school music project who had hit the big time, rather than a calculated studio affair (which was in fact a misconception – drummer Jules de Martino had been on the music scene since the mid 80s whilst singer Katie White previously supported Steps and Atomic Kitten in failed girlband TKO). Whatever the reality behind it, ‘That’s not my name’ showcased a duo with enough understanding of what works in pop to crank out hits in their sleep – parent album ‘We Started Nothing’ (another chart topper) contained ten potential hits and no filler, and success on the global pop market soon followed.
Some scoffed at the über trendy gimmickry of it all and you had to concede that the group were not going to be palatable to fans of the mainstream rock spectacle, but they proved their doubters wrong with a string of strong festival appearances and equally faultless follow-up singles, establishing themselves as one of pop’s heavy hitters as the decade closes. The best example of crafting a #1 out of nothing since White Town’s ‘Your Woman’ in the late 90s, ‘That’s not my name’ not only brought in quick returns in the singles charts but also set the group up as one to watch in future years.
31. Just Jack – Starz in their eyes (#2 January 2007)
You can hack away at crafting a hit single for years without ever hitting the target - most success boils down to either plain luck or hitting on an idea which leaves your rivals scratching their heads and wondering why they didn’t think of it first. Step forward Jack Allsop, aka Just Jack, a British hip hop artist who had been labouring inoffensively for several years until an appearance on Joolz Holland in 2007 launched him into the public sphere with a hit single that nailed the decade’s most prominent musical trend with a bit of savage analysis.
‘Stars in their eyes’ bit back at the rise of Reality TV which by its release in early 2007 had already dominated the media for the best part of a decade and was beginning to get a bit tiresome – as I’ve pointed out in other articles in this series, the TV phenomenon had also spilled into the singles charts which had suffered five years’ domination by the Pop Idol/X-Factor stable acts by the time Just Jack popped up and beat them at their own game. The track ripped into the artifice of taking glorified karaoke singers and mass-marketing them to the point of total saturation, leaving behind nothing but a trail of half-baked C-list celebrities and shitty records – sure, we were all thinking it but it took someone to actually knock together a hit single saying it. Allsop may have been one of the numerous middle class white kids trying to craft a convincing cockney accent to conjure up some previously non-existent street cred, but his delivery was smooth enough for us to overlook the Dick Van Dyke impersonation – ‘Stars in their eyes’ harked back to the nice guy hip hop of Jurassic Five and their ilk, the sort of people who you wish would breakthrough and put twerps like 50 Cent in their place but never seem to succeed. Follow up releases failed to match its popularity but ‘Starz’ remains one of the decade’s more likeable hit singles and one whose appeal will endure a lot longer than that of the Reality show muppets it derides.