[Now with a handy Spotify playlist] If you have spent any time drinking with me in the latter half of this year, I’ve probably bemoaned that 2012 and I haven’t clicked musically. And not for lack of trying – apart from clawing at friend’s sleeves and demanding recommendations, the workday mix of Spotify, This is My Jam, and finally discovering BBC 6Music should’ve given me plenty of chances to dig up stuff I’d dig.There’s been plenty I liked, but not much I fell in love with. With some notable exceptions, of course. Notable exceptions Looking back at the year, two pop singles stand out – Carly Rae Jepsen’s Call Me Maybe, and Taylor Swift’s We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together. They’re sleek colossi of purest pop. Songs for dancing, for pretending you’re in a pop video to. They are, of course, filled with some of the most perfect Moments of 2012. We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together is absolutely overstuffed with them – extra yeahs, switched intonations, the spoken asides. “Like, ever.” The way Taylor inserts a series of full stops in “Said. You. Needed. Space” and immediately follows it up with a fourth wall-breaking “what?”. The last bit is a raised eyebrow to her audience – can you believe this guy? – and though the song’s “you” is the (ex-ex-ex)boyfriend, you get the impression she’s talking to her mates here. The eye-rolling sneer of “some indie record that’s much cooler than mine”, and the layered-over laugh that follows. It’s all put together to ensure you never get bored of its simple repeating chorus, that constant machine-gun punchline. The song itself comes off as slightly insecure, trying to convince the listener, which is just perfectly right given what it’s about. There are moments when another Taylor breaks in, impatient to hammer the point home. The song is constantly rushing forward, desperate to get to the second listen, the third, so much so that it forgets that the rest of the time it’s trying to convince you this is live, individual and performed just to you, because that’ll get you on side, right? True to her country music past (which, just FYI, I am actually very fond of) Taylor’s voice breaks and cracks, with occasional moments of show-offery. At the song’s end, the music drops out a second early, so Taylor’s voice can plant its flag one last time – a live outro if ever I heard one. By comparison, Call Me Maybe is much more controlled. It’s confident it knows how to push the right buttons, and it does. For its Moments, it mostly goes to stuff built into the structure of the song – the slow build of its opening, into the glitter-confetti explosion of the first chorus. The mid-song verse tumble of words, rushing past with no time for breath or line breaks, especially next to the sharp punctuation of each line of the chorus – that violiny stab, which is a Moment in itself. Turning up the drumbeat for the final couple of choruses. Every single time the volume peaks. And if we’re talking about outros, listen to the way the song’s close just melts out of existence, a trick last played on Justin Timberlake’s Cry Me a River. It knows it’s a pop record, and wants to remind you of that fact, but it’s also a big ‘Game Over’ screen. PLAY AGAIN? That’s pure confidence (of course you will), and just like the slight self-doubt of We Are Never…‘s delivery, it fits the subject. Jepsen makes it clear she knows all the other boys want her, so why wouldn’t this one? It’s interesting because the pop archetype it’s tapping into – the fancying from afar song, so often the unrequited love song – is often the preserve of the boy looking nervously at his shoes. Here, the consummation isn’t a foregone conclusion, but the power is undeniably in Jepsen’s hands. She’s a force of sexy nature. Honestly, it could be creepy with the gender roles reversed. Instead it’s an excellent bit of female gaze (see also: the video’s ripped abs moment). While most chart-bothering songs seek for new ways to tell a girl her tits look nice, her ass is perter than average, Jepsen delights in little thrilling details – those ripped jeans, skin was showing – which feel more like the marks of real human sexuality. And healthy sexuality too: there’s no shame here, no debasement. Ultimately, I think it’s telling that there’s no question mark at the end of the song’s title. There’s only question to ask, of both the listener and seducee: WHERE D’YOU THINK YOU’RE GOING, BABY? Dancing like a mutha I used to dislike dancing, at least in public, and not without reason: my body is clumsy, all elbows, and has little sense of rhythm. But as I get older, and have less and less opportunities to dance, it’s just another embarrassment I’ve learned to slough off. The most formative musical experiences I’ve had this year have all involved dancing – Grimes’ Oblivion pulling me into a warehouse in Ljubljana and setting off a night of furious dancing and repeatedly losing my friends. Atta Girl in Birmingham back in March, scribbled requests on my hands and being held aloft to Heaven is a Place on Earth. Various points throughout Sam Lewis’ wedding. But most of all, despite it being a comics event (and the best one in the UK), Thought Bubble in Leeds. At the mid-con party, I was the first one on the dancefloor, along with Dance-Comrade Tim Maytom, and we stuck there until it had filled, and they’d played Call Me Maybe twice, and it was triumphant. But being quiet means DJs can take the opportunity to play songs you’d never heard before, or only in the confines of your bedroom, and getting to test them on a live dancefloor. Especially, I’m thinking of Lies by Chvrches – which, it turns out, kicks and stomps in all […]
Christina Aguilera – Bionic Sometimes, I think that famous British prudishness is misunderstood. It’s not that we’re scared to hear about sex – not the generation I know – it’s just that we’ve heard it all before and it’s not that shocking. I remember the weekend papers when Bionic came out. They all sang the same couple of tunes: yes, Christina likes sex, we get it / cor, Christina ain’t half ripping off Lady Gaga. Two months later, The Times published a ‘demolishing’ analysis of that Lady Gaga. The central thesis of which was: Gaga’s not sexy enough. Which is ridiculous, of course. Pop doesn’t have to be sexy. Gaga’s the girl you never think to ask if she’s ever had sex, let alone with who or what. Xtina is the girl at the party with nothing else to talk about. Songs as subtle as Sex for Breakfast, lyrics as nuanced as “when the morning comes/I know I will too”. And so, naturally, the British press looked up her up and down, and shook their heads disapprovingly. Not with the horror of broken taboos, but with boredom. And all this is true, and fair, and it whirrs around my head every time I stick the album on (which has been surprisingly often the last few months), but it doesn’t matter. Because the girl has some interesting friends, and she’s brought them with her. The MIA song is the best MIA song of the year; Nicki Minaj infects Woohoo with Minaj-ness, and makes that ridiculous oversexualisation work. But most importantly, it just sounds gorgeous. Turned up loud enough, you can feel the shapes of the music. Of course, it all comes crashing down by the end, when the album strays into attempted seriousness, and the accompanying ballads. But that first half: it might be shallow, it may lack nutrition, but it just sounds so good. Pop doesn’t have to be sexy. This album isn’t shocking and it isn’t sexy. But, hey, this is pop music. Words don’t matter, right? Xiu Xiu – Dear God I Hate Myself I’ve never gotten Xiu Xiu before, but Miles ‘Tails’ Bradley informs me this is their Pop album. And, well… that title. That’s all you need, really. That’s pure Pop. I played the title track to Liv one drunken Sunday afternoon, in endless rotation between California Gurls and Mystery Jets’ Flash A Hungry Smile and it just fitted in perfectly. The overblown melodrama is giggle-worthy, to hear someone cutting all the indirect subtextual crap and just singing ‘dear God I hate myself’ as a chorus. But like the best Pop, it also manages to take you in, and make you feel it. And then titles as light and friendly as Chocolate Makes You Happy encourage quiet giggles in a different way. But there’s always something underneath, something savage with glinting eye. Pop. Best Coast – Crazy for You Girl loves boy. Girl loves weed. Oh gosh how she loves both these things. As many times as I listen to it, this album remains essentially a half-hour of just Boyfriend in my mind. Which isn’t a bad thing, and is probably fitting, given that this is the musical equivalent of a stoner movie. But … good, like. Big Boi – Sir Lucious Left-Foot Guaranteed to add an extra 30% of swagger to whatever you’re doing while it plays. Mystery Jets – Serotonin & The Arcade Fire – The Suburbs Grouped because they are each other’s evil twin. Both are albums of pretty music that can be dialled down and left to settle into the background and the back of your mind. The difference is that Serotonin makes that into a virtue. It’s easy listening in the Belle & Sebastian sense, the kind where you spot your fingers creeping towards the volume dial, catch yourself singing along half-way through a song. Whereas Suburbs is easy to forget. It’s easy not to notice that it’s on. Occasionally something will snag your attention and you’ll wake up, with no idea where you are in the album, or which songs have slipped by unnoticed. The album occasionally hits on a typically great Arcade Fire lyric: “watching the end of the world on a badly compressed “ or a great song. Sprawl II is absolutely stellar, a contender for best Arcade Fire song. It’s possibly telling, though, that it is the one song that doesn’t sound like the others. It barely even sounds like Arcade Fire at all. With the Regine-led vocals and pulsing synths-y electro beat at its heart, it could almost be a Knife song. But to steal a line from my handsome comrade Mr Christopher Sparrow, the album is less than the sum of its parts, somehow. I like the album a lot more than on first listen. Being able to buy it for £1 helped a lot. A lot of people – some of whom I trust, many who I don’t – have raved about this album, and so I keep listening and waiting. I’m still waiting on a metamorphosis. Maybe it won’t come, maybe it will, one day. Whereas Serotonin comes on sexy straight away, muttering in your ear. It’s a continuation of the Jets’ journey into an imaginary universe where it was ’80s pop still roams the earth, unchallenged. It’s polished, crowd-pleasing stuff, with just enough Mystery Jets flair and eccentricity to keep it recognisable as, y’know, something the NME would talk about. The passion’s beginning to fade a little, I think, and it’s possible our time together is coming to an end. Maybe by year’s end I’ll feel the opposite way about these two albums. We’ll see. Robyn – Body Talk Pt 2 Which is, of course, just great. It’s more Robyn, in a year full of Robyn (though not full enough: I’m indignant about the news that Part 3 is set to be half greatest-hits, with only five new songs). Nevertheless, this is a brilliant way to do pop music. Releasing three albums […]
Welcome back to the internet’s most glacially regular feature. I talk about what’s been dominating the last three months, culturally. Not reviews as much as thoughts. It’s half a way of getting to talk about everything I might possibly want to, half a way of keeping track of what’s going on at the moment. Please, recommend, and help make the next one. Musically, April was pretty heavily dictated by what I was writing my 30 Days on. Which remains, in the months that I finished my degree, handed over responsibilities at Redbrick and prepared to face the big bad world, and moved house, probably the most important anything has felt to me. The panic at 11 o’clock the nights I hadn’t written an entry yet… But since, then I have gone seeking the hott new stuff, and I haven’t been disappointed. The year has been pretty sexy so far, musically. But it wasn’t always so… Laura Marling – I Speak Because I CanAlbum #2. That’s nearly that all that needs to be said about I Speak Because I Can. I haven’t read many reviews of it, but I reckon a lot will have leant on the old Difficult Second Album cliché. It’s just not as compelling as Alas I Cannot Swim, lyrically or musically. I could try and pick apart why: less tricks up Marling’s sleeve, a shift in tone, a generic move into more trad.country territory. But it’s actually a bit exhausting to try and pull anything out of Album #2. That’s all that really needs to be said.Gorillaz – Plastic BeachIt’s probably telling that the newly Glastonbury-headlining Gorillaz have dropped their cartoon faces for those of Albarn, Simonon, Jones, et al. There’s no less sense of novelty on Plastic Beach than Demon Days (see the fake breakfast cereal ad Superfast Jellyfish), it’s no less sprawling, ambitious, or plain weird (Glitter Freeze), but it’s somehow less of a cartoon, and that’s stopped me from immediately falling in love with the whole twitching, shaking mess. Doesn’t mean it’s a worse record, of course. I think it’s probably their best. I’m just broken. Kate Nash – My Best Friend is YouThere is a definite Kate Nash formula. When her guitar goes like, y’know, and maybe there’s a bit of piano, and her voice is all like… The new album opens sounding exactly like that, like the old one. Throughout, she use of those typical Nashisms: the blunt state-the-obvious observations (“Barbecue food is good/You invite me out to eat it, I should”) with the purposely flat language and rubbish rhymes. They occasionally shine in the verses, but as usual, fall flat when they have to carry a chorus, looking like Lily Allen-lite. So more of the same, you think. But it’s a trick. My Best Friend is You is more a series of blueprints for a possible second album than an actual record. That first track, Paris, imagines a slightly evolved, slightly more euphoric Nash. There’s hyper-neurotic wordy Nash elsewhere. Then there’s Don’t You Want to Share the Guilt? (an example of Nash’s ability to stumble onto simple but handsome and evocative phrasing, every now and then). It opens with that BBQ couplet, and slowly winds up, ending in a big dense spoken word bit, opening with… “I don’t know how more people haven’t got mental health problemsThinking is one of those stressful things I’ve ever come acrossAnd not being able to articulate what I want to say drives me crazyI think I should try and read more books and learn some new wordsMy sister used to read the dictionary, I’m going to start with that” Which is pretty much exactly my point. And, admittedly, the point of all her critics. But I think it’s easy to forget the language thing is an intentional stylistic choice and just dismissing it as stupid is borrrring. It goes on to feature the kind of lyrics I’d quote online in my statuses and profiles if I wasn’t too old and self-conscious now. Then, the next song is all banshee screams and Pixies guitars. A Nash who dived back into her record collection and decided, I could be the English Karen O (which she couldn’t and I’m glad that ultimately she didn’t, but is nice to hear her trying on for a bit). Take Me To A Higher Plane is folksy-Los-Campesinos-backing while Nash pretends she’s that woman from the Juno soundtrack. Mansion Song is the touchstone, though. Listen to it now. Okay, I’m sure you’re listening to it, but I’ll tell you what it sounds like anyway. It’s terrifying. It stirs all those things I’m unsure about with feminism, post-feminism and irony, Nash spitting the words over the looping drone of a music-box as it winds down, the little porcelain ballerina spinning slower and slower… and then it becomes this hyper version of Foundations. It’s frankly unpleasant, in the best possible way. It’s just curiosity that drives me, every time I listen to this album. I sneer the just, as if that’s a weakness. But curiosity is rare, certainly not what expected from this album. Curiosity is more than enough. LCD Soundsystem – This is Happening“Love is an open book to a verse of your bad poetry/And this is coming from me”.I’ve got a huge amount albums to talk about here (it’s been a really, really good year months for music, and it was during this album that that realisation clicked) so I’m trying to do them in a nutshell. This moment, in I Can Change (the single release of which being the point this album clicked with me, following which I had to listen to it twice a day for a week) is a pretty perfect encapsulation of the whole album. Flawless electronic waves – they could come across as cold – beat against your subconscious, while clever, funny and self-deprecating lyrics -that could come off as trite – appeal to you more directly. The song could just fall flat, but inbetween the two, somehow, […]
day 17 – a song that you hear often on the radio I’m giving up on my weather commentary. By the time I’ve taken all the typos out and got the video working, it tends to have completely changed. So make your own snappy intro to this (or don’t bother, just turn up the volume, hit play, and marvel at how it’s still not loud enough): Big Boi – Shutterbugg One of those songs I’m surprised by, for no good reason at all, every time I hear it on the radio. Having seen the video to Shutterbugg‘s (perhaps superior) predecessor Fo Yo Sorrows through the hipster-paradise Pitchfork, I think I might’ve forgot just how famous Outkast are. And of course, that ignores the true litmus test: as mentioned yesterday, my target-demographic of a sister. I exposed her to these two songs not expecting much. Within a half-hour, I could hear it blasting under her door. And here we are, and it’s getting pretty wide play on Radio 1. You might not have heard it yet, and the song’s radioplay is admittedly in its infancy, and might not go any further. But I’d be surprised if none of the songs of Big Boi’s forthcoming Sir Luscious Left Foot explode this summer. I admit, this entry is me taking the opportunity to be-there-first on something. And it could explode gloriously in my face. The irony of this choice is: Shutterbugg doesn’t sound that good on the radio. The song is carved out of pure sound, with shattering and stuttering while Big Boi works the bass of whatever you’re playing the music through. A shower radio just ain’t going to cut it. I haven’t tried it in a car yet*, but the couple of radios I’ve heard it on seems like the version being broadcast is missing the bottom layer. This terrible affliction struck Rude Boy too (and Big Boi’s similarly-carved-out-of-pure-sound Outkast song Ghetto Musick), though not as badly, and means that the song is currently being carried by waves of ‘Ooh, they’re playing this?‘ I suggest hooking this laptop up to your best available soundsystem, wandering over to your reputable music source of choice, and getting lost. You won’t be able to avoid it in a month, so get your enjoyment in while you can. *This is the exact kind of thing that the Parsonsmobile was created for.