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Tuesday, December 28, 2004

This will be the last post ever on Enthusiastic but Mediocre. It's been a delightful 13 months, existing just on the cusp of the MP3 blog phenomenon and the new wave of poptimism, but a variety of circumstances will soon make it impossible to continue.

I'll spend 2005 vying towards a Masters degree, which spells the end of this blog in the long-term, and my current lack of pop access means there's nothing to say in the short-term. I'm beginning to feel boxed in by the format I've chosen and that I've run out of things to say for now (given that I've logged close to 125,000 words), so it's for the best.

I'll still write the occasional piece over at Stylus, I wouldn't mind putting fingers to keyboard for other places if they'd have me, but in all likelihood, I'll be pretty quiet until I launch anew in the new year.

Good night, poplings. Thankyou for reading, writing, linking and recommending.


Top 100 Singles of 2004-ish: Number One

1. LOTO - Back To Discos

I ummed and aahed about it. Any of my top.. seven.. would have been worthy, but I kept coming back to this one. I wasn't sure why, but then the other day it hit me. This song, well, not the song itself, but the things I take from it, do a pretty good job of justifying why I a) listen to pop music, and b) get so wordy, meticulous and anal-retentive about it.

I can't engage with film, TV or books or whatever else. I don't have the patience, I suppose. Also, you can't take them with you a lot of the time. Do you recite favourite lines from books in your head constantly? Can you re-enact film scenes when you're by yourself? It's probably not much fun. But a melody, a beat, an individual line stays with you. If nothing else, the fact that I feel so engaged with 2004-model pop music sometimes feels like the only proof I have that I belong in 2004. There are too many opportunities, unexpected events and, I'll say it, great records that will come out to disengage from the world, as tempting as it sometimes seems.

Pop music that becomes important, becomes a part of you, is often the stuff that seems to be about your life without actually being so. Those records that sometimes hit a little bit close to home but nonetheless raise a smile - those which seem to be invoked by even the slightest similar sound - those which don't seem to leave you after you hear them - Back To Discos is this to me, and it is this to an extent unrivalled by Fuori Dal Tunnel, Hey Mrs or Chewing Gum or Nostalgia Locomotive. In a way, something so personal and unique to my life, my situation, my taste is impossible to put on paper, but I feel the need to dissect it, if for no other reason than to better understand it myself - certainly I don't feel the need to justify this one.

The chorus of Back To Discos is two lines repeated over and over: "Pills, sex and a hard beat/So it's back to discos, back to discos", but the verses belie a slightly darker frame of mind.

"I never said my life was a mess, but I deserve a second chance" is the pivotal line that leads into the chorus. It's infused with a sense of weariness in its first half, but the second half allows a little bit of desperation to appear through the cracks. Loto's brand of ESL, 80s-influenced pop occasionally throws up some interesting lines on their album, but that line is spot-on. You don't have to necessarily give up to want to start again, and that's pretty much typified my 2004, both as a symbol of the way my life's been, and my musical tastes. Because it has been incredibly difficult, and I've wanted to give up loads of times. Finding new ways to convince yourself that things are going to be OK can sometimes become difficult. Back To Discos has the potential to make me revisit the horrible lows while engulfing me in a giddy kind of euphoria - the soundtrack of the quagmire and the light that leads to the end of the tunnel.

"Pills, sex and a hard beat, so it's back to discos". Back to the disco, but from where? Bad relationships? Sexual frustration? Depression? The general ennui of day-to-day existence? It can be anything you want it to be, without actually being about anything specific at all.

But when it's actually playing - out of speakers or in my head, none of this actually matters, because I enjoy it as a collection of excellent, catchy pop moments as well. The five drum hits before the chorus - a great moment of clawing urgency, the sirenic screech of some alarming synths after it,

Musically, it might sound dated, but it's an exciting, surging kind of dated. The most obvious kinship is certainly New Order - especially True Faith, though the bass has a more synthetic sound, but I can't be alone in hearing it as a cousin of Martha and the Muffins' Echo Beach - though this may just be the common theme of having a place to go back to or long for - here the disco is a place to shut out the outside world and start again, Loto's safe haven.

The song opens with a clear statement of intent - a pair of distinct sounds - one a fat synth line as clear of purpose as a clarion call, and underneath, a scrawly, scratchy noise that recurs in the pre-choruses. The bass comes in within seconds, and the best word to describe it is pumping - and very retro - but the song doesn't cave in to the easy temptation of taking its roots too far - there's no cloying backward-looking, anachronisms here, it's just the sound of a few guys from Portugal who've used the sounds they loved without blinkeringly emulating everything about their source.

The drum machines pound crisply and clearly to give this some wonderful dance-floor potential, but that said, I can't quite imagine any club actually playing something like this. Surely any discerning music listener would get up to the bit with the 80s house piano and the high-pitched repetition of the chorus and laugh it off the turntable? Maybe. How would you even dance to it? Again, I don't really know. Even the anthemic, euphoric "Yeah yeah!" towards the end doesn't sound like an exaltation to pump your fingers, raise your lighters or jump around - there's something too melancholy in this song's dancefloor pulses - it'd be like dancing with tears in your eyes, only without the dancing.

Every last repetition of the title destroys the initial impression that it's some kind of mantra - which you could be forgiven for thinking at the front. By the very end of the song, all the desolation and worry and hurt are in the delivery, and there's nothing else for the song to do but finish, lest it collapse under the weight.

Back To Discos feels like a part of my life like no other record this year. Everything's going to be great, everyone can have as many second chances as they need - I believe that when I listen to great pop music, and in the case of exceptional pop music like this, I believe it long after it's finished.

A really good pop song brands the time it comes from with its sound - think Vogue, Groove Is In The Heart, Common People, Baby One More Time, Groovejet (If This Ain't Love) or Can't Get You Out Of My Head. And your very favourite ones remake your whole life while you listen until you can't imagine life without them. This song sounds like one I've loved nearly all my life - like a radio classic from my early childhood.

Back To Discos may not even rate a mention from anyone else, everyone reading this may hate it, but I'm so helplessly, stupidly in love with it that I'm willing to go out praising it even against the most convincing arguments that can be made.

None of which will mean anywhere near as much to me as any of this song's 265 perfect seconds.

Also search: So Happy Together, Celebration, The Club
# 11:45 PM []
And now, a brief diversion back to last year...
While assessing what the point in counting down is, I realised that people do it because it's fun to do so, and it compartmentalises things nicely. Even if 12 months down the line, it's a bit embarrassing. To prove this, I've gone through my 2003 list, and worked out exactly where I went wrong, not that it gives me any clues as to where I'll know I've gone wrong this year.

Songs I overrated:

Outkast - Hey Ya! (Was: 28. Would probably now be: low 60s)

Maybe I was swept away on a wave of enthusiasm by my peers, but a year on it doesn't have the same sparkle it once did. Overplaying does that, but since I don't listen to the radio, it's taken a bit longer for me to realise its charms do wear thin a little with time. That said, it's still a great song. It's just that Ghettomusick is better. Best song of the year it came out in, as so many have said? Not even close. Moderate consensus is the bane of collective canonism.

Jamelia - Superstar (was: 30. Would probably now be: high 40s)

I really hate this woman now. Slag off Samantha Mumba, why don't you? No, let's swap this with the infinitely superior Surrender by Javine, which was #46, and we'll be square.

Turin Brakes - Pain Killer (was: 69. Would probably now be: nowhere, really)

What was I thinking? It's still the best thing they've ever done, but WHY DID I NOT PAY ATTENTION TO THE LYRICS? How could I have put a song with an oblique oral sex reference at 69? Plus, it's a single by Turin Brakes, who officially, I really don't like. I should not have second guessed my inner indie snob on this one.

Pet Shop Boys - Miracles (Was: 6. Would probably now be: mid teens)

Maybe I was so shellshocked to have PSB put out a solid gold single again after a few lean years, but now I've remembered how amazing I Don't Know What You Want But I Can't Give It Anymore actually was and this doesn't seem so lustrous in comparison. It's still a marvellous record, it just isn't quite as earth-shattering as I thought it was. Except when i'm actually listening to it. 2003 was in hindsight a very good year for singles.

Vitamin C - Last Nite (Was: 50. Would now be: high 70s)

I was just as shocked to hear that there was actually a tune in that Strokes single, now I just wish the Blondie interpolation was done a bit better, and Vitamin C's disco coos just don't seem to cut it anymore.

Songs I underrated:

Avril Lavigne - I'm With You (Was: 74. Would probably now be: 10)

This one hit me in a vulnerable moment, it was blaring out of the stereo next door and I realised I actually liked it even though I was an Avril hata. Then I didn't hear it again for a few months, leading me to put it at a rather low 74. If only I'd heard it a few more times I would have given it the placing it deserves, because soft power-ballads do not come much better than this. I love her wailing! Please record a proper country song, Avril, and do it soon.

Sinead Quinn - What You Need Is (Was: 29. Would probably now be: 12-15)
Ainslie Henderson - Keep Me A Secret (Was: 35. Would probably now be: high teens)

Amazed how well these Fame Academy singles stack up. Both of them were in the top 20 before I finalised the numbering, but slipped out for some reason. What You Need Is in particular is something that must be considered a lost classic - one week at #19 despite being magnificent.

Moloko - Familiar Feeling (was: 88. Would probably now be: low 30s)

Possibly I was a little harsh on this because the album version is slightly meandering and overlong, and it was that which was fresh in my mind, but the single edit is tightly focussed and is generally quite an improvement. Windswept and gorgeous it is, and even if it was a blatant attempt to recreate The Time Is Now then it at least has plenty of charm of its own to make it a very nice four minutes of your time.

Abs - 7 Ways (was: 64. Would probably now be: high 30s)

I should have erred on the side of insanity, because basically this is Xenomania approximating The Streets, and as such would never have got the props it deserves, even if the physical single release hadn't been canned at the last minute.

The Rasmus - In The Shadows (was: 57. Would probably now be: low teens)

Yes, I liked this a lot in 2003. But I preferred First Day Of My Life at the time, but I got confused about when it actually came out, so stuffed up and didn't include that. Subsequent exposure left me liking this one even more, and as such I really shouldn't have been so cautious in placing it. FDOML would probably slot in the 50s somewhere in a revised list.

Sophie Ellis Bextor - Mixed Up World (Was: 17. Would probably now be: 6)

The fact that this wasn't an immediate winner made me suspicious. But I somehow knew I would grow to love it, so I inflated its ranking quite a bit when I drew up the list. Except I didn't overrate it enough at the time, so now I feel all stupid. Shame that I Won't Change You cut short her run of absolutely sublime, perfect pop singles a few months after this and that her rather excellent second album flopped. This might be her second-best song, time puts it right up there with Murder On The Dancefloor but it's not quite as earth-shattering as the criminally unrated Move This Mountain.

TATU - All The Things She Said (was: 16, would probably now be: 7)

I thought I was overdosed on them, but coming back a year later reveals this to be the marvellous pop song that would have been a massive hit no matter what. Remember, we are living in a world of homophobes, and this is a blatantly heterosexual love song - the voices are female, but they're expressing the desire of a male speaker. And young heterosexual girls loved it, really, they did. And they're doing it over the most unabashedly arrogant, expensive thrashing Europop backing imaginable. More a song about naughty forbidden love than lesbianism, and who can't relate to that?

The top three (Moloko, Siobhan Donaghy, Girls Aloud) are still my three favourite singles of last year, but despite there being something about the blank pain of Siobhan that I found endlessly fascinating and attractive, I think I should have put Girls Aloud at #2 as it really has set the benchmark for quality pop for the thinking person. Nowhere near enough to outshine the manic depressive charms of Forever More, every listen to it bringing it ever higher on the list of my favourite singles of all time.

My Number One of 2004 will be revealed tomorrow. It's not by LCD Soundsystem, but you already knew that.
# 2:25 PM []

Monday, December 27, 2004

Top 100 Singles of 2004-ish: 5-2
(Update: MP3 link works now!)

5. ANNIE - Chewing Gum

This writer considers Heartbeat to be a 2005 single, as it has only just recently come out in Norway and a release outside the borders is not until February. Two songs would just be greedy, she's already got one solid-gold pop classic this year, two would just be pushing it*. Here, Richard X turns wispy, whispery Annie into a pop goddess via the slightly unfitting character of a bored cheerleader, and why not?

She's singing to herself with two different voices, which wouldn't normally work if not for the fact that her asides - "Was there anything else?" - are deliciously arch. Her dismissal of the boy who thinks he's chocolate is a perfect kiss-off the first time around, but when coupled with a nonchalant whistle, it a perfect encapsulation of this record's sonic playfulness and Annie's declaration of boredom with her beau.

Its elastic grooves weren't quite tailor made for the mainstream dancefloor, but its bleeps, echoes, pops, scratches and boings make for a fantastic earphone listen. Also, full marks for the most deliriously wonderful use of an extended metaphor in pop since Supersister's Coffee. And for all the dismissal, Annie makes it sound like being her temporary plaything wouldn't be all bad (the queue to marry her starts here, behind me). I've always swallowed my gum, personally...

* Heartbeat would have been my #2 single of 2004 if it counted.

4. THE MO featuring KRIS LE MANS - Nostalgia Locomotive

Or, the song I thought I might be able to turn into a cult hit. I made a pretty good go of it, really. I even got it mentioned on Fluxblog after Matthew Perpetua asked me to recommend him something really weird. The ever-trailing Pitchfork even picked up on it a week later with an appreciative but not especially affectionate three-star write-up in We Are The World - six months after it had stopped charting in Sweden, of course. The Mo aren't cool in their home country. Unlike The Knife or The Radio Dept or even Alcazar, they don't seem to have a loyal group of fans extolling their virtues to the outside world. So I really felt like this song was my discovery, as stupid as that sounds.

I knew the song was good, and was flattered when my plugging of it got it to #38 on Stylus's singles list - again, the lower end of the 40, but ahead of several hundred other songs. I even saw a few people mention it in their end-of-year write-ups. I wasn't entirely sure what these people were hearing in it, I only knew what I was hearing. And again, on my third attempt to explain what that is, I don't seem to be getting any better at this. So let's go back to what I wrote in February:

Probably the oddest thing in any chart at the moment-it's got a lovely ascending/descending piano line and a bloke who sounds a bit like Robbie Williams but rather much less punchable, sounding all lamenting. But that's all before a yelping woman who thinks she might be as kooky as Kate Bush jumps in and intones the chorus, strangling the life out of every word in it "Here comes the choo-choo! Come on! The nos-tal-geeeaaa locomotive gives you a hell of a ride!" comes in. It's all a bit kooky, odd and far too strange to imagine this being a hit. But a hit it was in Sweden, bless.

But that's selling Nostalgia Locomotive bloody short, because none of those things described therein are necessarily any bloody good, are they? But saying that it's a kind of alchemy wherein disparate elements come together to make something greater than the sum of the parts is such a pointless cop-out; it doesn't excuse the fact that I haven't, and perhaps cannot, get exactly to the centre of what makes this a great pop record, even if there are three from this year I like better.

All I know is that when it's playing, it's like a tiny, immaculate piece of theatrical pop, there's something very stagey (in a good way) about it, almost like a sing-along variety show-tune given wings by clattering drumming, piano, marimba and hammy overacting in the singing, exacting meaning and feeling out of words that on paper simply don't have any, and all of those in the context of a song vaguely about the concept of the past and nostalgia (I still am not quite to the bottom of the specifics here) seems strangely natural and in its own way, suspiciously perfect.

3. I MONSTER - Hey Mrs

Ah, I Monster. They were part of the All Seeing I, did one one of my favourite remixes ever (of Pulp's The Trees), their Daydream In Blue sampling track irked the indie kids when it scuppered The Beta Band's chances of hitting the top 40 with their similar Squares and when nobody was looking, put this little gem from their album of last year out as a single in September.

I wouldn't even have noticed it if it hadn't been for the guidance of the ever-spot-on Diego, who recommended it. It comes in at Number 3 on my list by virtue of having (appropriately) no less than three brilliant pop moments.

The first is the way the verses - terrestrial narratives on the lives of three people with coloured names (only two of which are Mrs) leak into the airborne choruses with a simple "aaah, look at you" behind some airy, spacy sound effects. It sounds less like a mere application of words to music and more a deliberate confluence, with both the lyrics and the music telling the exact same story. The fit is glove-like.

The second is the comical heavy breathing noise that accompanies the line "Do you still flirt with her next door?", which keeps the second verse, about Mr Blue's flirting with a girl next door while in drag, amusingly afloat in flippancy, as well as being a humorous enough non-sequitur if you're not even paying attention to the lyrics, which would be fair enough amidst such an arrogantly lush electro-glam soundscape.

The third, and best, comes in the third verse, and puts the lie to anyone who thinks the vocoder is the death of emotion; right on the line "This Woman's Weekly keeps you young", the narrator freezes on the last word, turning the song from an observation into a condemnation for one stunning moment before taking the listener back to the only slightly uneasy ethereal journey of the other four minutes.

2. CAPAREZZA - Fuori Dal Tunnel

Another one of the very first things I ever wrote about (and if going back through my archive hasn't been half painful and embarrassing..), in fact, the second MP3 I ever posted and the first song I loved that I heard after doing my 2003 countdown, hence I consider it to be the first single of 2004, and since it peaked at #7 in Italy in February, I'm sticking to that story.

For someone who basically turned off the radio and didn't listen to any music for some time because he didn't really like rap and there were lots of bad rap singles around, coming to terms with a world in which hip-hop is king has proved surprisingly easy, largely because of the genre's (broadly, ignoring all the subgenres) huge supply of novelty and gimmick.

Such as rapping in a foreign language, of course. I learned Italian for four years. Well, not properly, I learned a few words but never learned to put a sentence together - I was five at the time, but even then I liked the sound of the language. If this song had been around at the same time, I think my tiny little mind would have been blown completely.

Not very briefly, Fuori Dal Tunnel is a rap single in Italian set at a carnival, where Caparezza is a geek (no, not that kind of geek, consult a dictionary, please). It features the greatest use of tuba in popular music ever. It is filled with a ludicrous amount of rhyme, assonance, internal rhyme and words that just sound fantastic even if I don't understand them. It features an initially incredibly annoying but eventually catchy hook wherein Capa repeats the last syllable of the title three times. The production is effective without bothering in any of the tired trends; the (now) extremely dated minimalism that the Neptunes are still passing off as cutting edge, the skittering beats that used to work for Destiny's Child or whatever it is that Kanye West is doing to far too much applause for my liking. Most of all, Fuori Dal Tunnel worked as entryism for me into a whole other world and crams more fun into its five minutes than nearly every other rap single this year put together. If you're even remotely interested, his album, Verit? Supposte, is fantastic and does not disappoint.
Also search: Guida Me, which may be even better but was, alas, not a single.
# 10:21 PM []

Sunday, December 26, 2004

Albums of 2004 (an incomplete, crap list)
You didn't ask for it, but here they are, my favourite 40 albums of 2004. The order is probably wrong, I think at least the first nine are in the right order, beyond that, it's pretty inexact. I've also included the one (or two for the top 10) non-single track off each album that I think would probably give you an idea if it's for you. Again, that's a very inexact science because in the case of some of them, good non-singles aren't that obvious, and because my opinion changes daily, they might not even be the songs I say "Also search" if it appeared in the top 100, and you'll notice an awful lot of those, because I'm a single-ist, and again, most of my preferred single artists this year delivered on the album front. I wouldn't pretend this list is really comprehensive, because frankly, I don't listen to anywhere near as many albums as I do singles, so this is really just a year-end tidying up exercise in categorisation rather than being necessarily accurate.

1. GIRLS ALOUD - What Will The Neighbours Say? (Hear Me Out, Big Brother)
Even if they will in all likelihood never top No Good Advice, this album boasts two songs, album tracks both, that are vying for second place; firstly, the much-hyped and precisely as good as everyone hoped Graffiti My Soul which sounds exactly like Hit 'Em Up by Quarashi, except even more ferocious and fun, and secondly, and even more surprisingly, the astonishing ballad Hear Me Out, co-written by Sarah Harding, thus justifying her placement as my second favourite Aloud member behind the Goddess of the Sideline, Nicola Roberts. But the album doesn't dip in quality at any point, in fact, the album tracks really do seem to be better than the singles; Cheryl Tweedy's Big Brother is sly and sleazy, the Moonbaby tracks (Here We Go and Deadlines And Diets) are both highly worthy of being rescued from obscurity and even the much-maligned Real Life is fine, even boasting my favourite lyric of the year: "It started as a kiss that pretty soon became a waterfall". But, but, but, where's Androgynous Girls?

2. DARREN HAYES - The Tension And The Spark (Void, I Forgive You)
Striking, disheartening, honest and surprising electro-pop exercise in self-destruction.

3. THE DELGADOS - Universal Audio (Come Undone, Girls Of Valour)
An endlessly affecting, draining and frequently breathtaking listen, with some very rousing exceptions.

4. WEEPING WILLOWS - Presence (Hold Me, Heart Of Hearts)
If Morrissey dropped the facade and actually wrote some proper love songs without those needless layers of smirking disdain.

5. ANNIE - Anniemal (Come Together, Me Plus One)
By turns dreamy, insistent, hymnic, flippant, mournful; she describes the world using only the vocabulary of beautiful pop music.

6. VANILLA NINJA - Traces Of Sadness (Heartless, Stay)
7. JC CHASEZ - Schizophrenic (Come To Me, 100 Ways)
8. UNIVERSAL POPLAB - Universal Poplab (Days Astray, Bedhead)
9. EMMA BUNTON - Free Me (Breathing, No Sign Of Life)
10. SCISSOR SISTERS - Scissor Sisters (It Can't Come Quickly Enough, Tits On The Radio)

11. ESKOBAR - A Thousand Last Chances (Under These Stars)
12. CANDY BUTCHERS - Hang On Mike (Sparkle)
13. ERIK FABER - Century (It's Alright)
14. STINA NORDENSTAM - The World Is Saved (On Falling)
15. AVRIL LAVIGNE - Under My Skin (Slipped Away)
16. BERTINE ZETLITZ - Rollerskating (Back Where I Belong)
17. AIR - Talkie Walkie (Run)
18. SHAZNAY LEWIS - Open (Mr Weatherman)
19. THE GO! TEAM - Thunder Lightning Strike (The Power Is On)
20. NELLIE McKAY - Get Away From Me (Ding Dong)

21. VENKE KNUTSON - Scared (I Wonder)
22. THE RADIO DEPT. - Lesser Matters (Strange Things Will Happen)
23. COURTNEY LOVE - America's Sweetheart (I'll Do Anything)
24. RUFUS WAINWRIGHT - Want Two (The Art Teacher)
25. CURSOR MINER - Cursor Miner Plays God (Man Made Man)
26. BEVERLEY KNIGHT - Affirmation (Straight Jacket)
27. LENA PHILIPSSON - Det Gor Ont En Stud Pa Natten Men Ingenting Pa Dan (Det Nya Europa)
28. NANCY SINATRA - Nancy Sinatra (Baby's Coming Back To Me)
29. THE HIDDEN CAMERAS - Mississauga Goddam (In The Union Of Wine)
30. DOGS DIE IN HOT CARS - Please Describe Yourself (Apples And Oranges)

31. AC NEWMAN - The Slow Wonder (The Town Halo)
32. TEDDYBEARS STHLM - Fresh (Black Belt)
33. FRANZ FERDINAND - Franz Ferdinand (Auf Achse)
34. THE STREETS - A Grand Don't Come For Free (Empty Cans)
35. KEVIN LYTTLE - Kevin Lytte (Dancing Like Making Love)
36. A GIRL CALLED EDDY - A Girl Called Eddy (Tears All Over Town)
37. KELLI ALI - Psychic Cat (Voyeur)
38. THE KILLERS - Hot Fuss (Smile Like You Mean It)
39. THE WALKMEN - Bows And Arrows (Hang On Siobhan)
40. NEGATIVE - Sweet And Deceitful (Secret Forgiveness)
# 3:21 PM []
Top 100 Singles of 2004-ish: 10-6
10. JC CHASEZ - All Day Long I Dream About Sex

As far as little parts that stick in the memory, there's more here than on Justin Timberlake's entire album. He... well, perhaps "sings" isn't the word to use here, delivers lines like "Keep in mind I'm a love machine" with the untutored glee of a 10-year old pretending to be a rock star in front of a mirror, seemingly completely oblivious to the fact that the backing is about as cheap and plastic and pop as it's possible to get without opening a freak wormhole into Sweden.

No other song in recent memory has married my childhood love of 8-bit bleeps and bloops with my adult love of the ludicrous like this one. I mean, JC is not even remotely convincing (it really is an act), the chorus doesn't even bother with anything as trifling as a melody, the lyrics are a collection of incredibly stupid couplets that are downright dorky and not even remotely fitting with the persona of sex-crazed ubermensch that a lesser performer would think was necessary. Machismo is boring and not fun, camp exaggerations are funny.

What is incredible is that, shorn of the long break in the middle populated by 80s video game noises - the thing about the song that made me initially elevate it from "great" into "stunning" - the song still works extremely well as a radio edit, and forget about cutting down the repetitions of the chorus - it just seems to go on and on and on, because why spoil a perfectly serviceable moment where the stupid becomes sublime with something tedious like an ending?

9. GIRLS ALOUD - The Show

Well, if it isn't the extremely dated sounds of 90s Europop given a bit of a repaint? Doesn't it look shiny and new? Every single part of this song sounds like a chorus, and Xenomania write great choruses. If the Girls Aloud album weren't uniformly excellent, they would have been ruing the fact that they wasted three of them in this. It doesn't really matter that this is the only Girls Aloud single on which the (normally stupid) complaint that they don't really have distinct personalities holds any water, because like you go to the club and expect to interface with someone's personalty while you are being completely slaughtered on the dancefloor. No, this is a succession of increasingly frenetic adrenaline rushes, lovingly gaffa-taped together with the abandon of a mad scientist, fronted by blank automata who are going to knock you out if you even so much as offer them a lollipop.

Even on the one line where there's even a hint of Real Emotion: those "should have saved me now" before the last chorus (that is to say, the second repetition of the "Should've known/Should've cared" bit, remembering that this song brutally massacres any traditional idea of song structure) is mixed as an accessory some deliciously blank "ooh-ooh-ooh"s - not so much a cry for help from within the endlessly deep abyss, but just one more gloriously crafted hook stuffed into a package that would explode if it had any more in it.

8. VANILLA NINJA - Don't Go Too Fast

Formerly an own-song-writing, instrument-playing girlband from Estonia, they surrendered to the Europop machine, and verily, it was glorious. Their songs are now written by the same guy who did "Max Don't Have Sex With Your Ex", except he's doing Darkness-esque guitar hits. And fantastic ones at that. Everyone knows that everythng is better when sung in a funny Eastern European accent.

This would have been pretty good done by anyone though, as it's a proper power ballad, replete with hilarious guitar solo, verses that are down and desperate and a chorus that's exactly the same as regards the desperation except three times louder, five times punchier and ridiculously catchy. Not to mention a video in which they get felt up by probably-lesbian prison wardens.

Lyrically, only a Western European could get away with writing a couplet as bad as "Don't go too fast/Play cool and make it last", or one as hopelessly naive and doomed as "Love can be so beautiful/Feel the rhythm of my heart", but only the Eastern Europeans could have pulled it off so superbly. Even the "unplugged version" on the CD single is magnificent - actually properly delicate, while still having the thematic and melodic subtlety of a brick in the face.

7. RACHEL STEVENS - Some Girls

I was wrong, and so are you. Rachel Stevens wasn't the perfect vehicle for this song because she's so blank. She is perfect for this because, with her limited vocal range but airily pleasant tone, she can actually deliver a pop song the way God (or Richard X, near enough) intended. This is a tale of ambition in the land of pop and yet the ambition isn't even hers, she doesn't sound like the climbing, fame-hungry whore that she clearly MUST be if she is to deliver this song with the arch raises of eyebrow you'd think it requires.

No, her delivery is not blank, but it's guileless. She's delivering it like it's the most melting, flowing, sickly-sweet, giddy pop song ever invented. Which it is. If she's aware of the savage subtext, she's not showing it - which is why I don't think anyone else really could have pulled this off. She just sings the tune (which she can do) without needing to underline how clever what she's doing is, because she knows she's just a cog in the machine. Having no delusions to an awesome level of talent, personality or importance, Rachel Stevens sounds like anyone could do what she does, but why then is every other British pop star trying to drown in their own cleverness and uniqueness?

Rachel Stevens is the prettiest face in faceless pop, and like her or not, she's going to keep getting given the occasional piece of genius like this to keep her afloat amidst her more mediocre moments, so get used to her. Also: best "HEY" in a pop single since I Want Candy.


A heavy Pet Shop Boys influence hangs over the Universal Poplab album, and this song, sonically, is their Love Comes Quickly, an almost unassuming, slow-burning synth-pop opus, less immediately hooky, but over time getting into your head and refusing to leave. Try as I might to think of bad songs which feature counting in the chorus, I can only think of Back At One, whereas there are plenty of great songs which have it: Step By Step, Don't Mess With The Radio, and now this.

"I wonder where you could have been all the time" Christer Lundberg muses breathily at the start, over the kind of lush heavenly synth-pop backing that I can't think of a single recent parallel for. And the chorus is a little awkward, but it's forgiveable: "One, just let go. Two, let love flow. Three, just wait and see.", the lyrics hiding an assortment of varied but uniformly wonderful progressive synth lines.

When the first verse is repeated, you can even hear a snatch of guitar, but if that's too boring, it's augmented by faintly echoing vocal tracks that lead you into the final chorus. Colourful swirls engulf the close, the counting stops and it's a perfect denouement, the realisation of Universal Poplab's big aim; "to create a shimmering spectacle of synthpop art". "Six, we roll the dice again", I hit the repeat button again as the shimmering spectacle but passes me by.
# 11:55 AM []

Saturday, December 25, 2004

Top 100 Singles of 2004-ish: 15-11
15. MANIA - Looking For A Place

Dear world,

I am sorry. This song's underperformance is all my fault. The fault of me and everyone else who didn't catch this song's supreme genius from the first 10 listens. It wasn't immediate enough, it just didn't seem all that bothered. People like me didn't go out and buy it and it stiffed. The excellent follow-up, Money In My Pocket - which provided the sass and immediacy this one didn't have - ironcally got canned, and the rumoured-to-be excellent album sits in Brian Higgins' cupboard. A grave injustice, and I only have myself to blame.

How could this have not burrowed into my skull on the first listen? How could I have seen its insouciance as being anything other than an enormous plus? Why wasn't the whistle the number one sound in my head from the first listen? I don't know. Whatever it was, I promise I'll do better next time. But it's too late now. I'd get properly angry about this, you know. OK, Chewing Gum only did slightly better, but it was a hit in its native Norway, and she's got underground buzz. Mania have just sort of vanished, and listening to the songs they've done that have leaked in one way or another, they really did have a lot to offer. In fact, I'd go as far as saying that this is what the second Sugababes album would have sounded like if Siobhan hadn't left - like a step into an alternate universe without having to destroy the one we're in now.

I said it was subtle before, but until you listen to it on headphones, you might even miss that. The backing vocal "oohs", the way Giselle seems a bit louder in one chorus, then Niara in the next, a little bit of guitar underneath the second verse, despite it not sounding all that concerned with itself, it's absolutely immaculately put together, every detail worked out for maximum critical appeal, though something's gone wrong and it passed everyone by. Maybe if they'd said "fuck" a lot in the chorus.

14. ALCAZAR - This Is The World We Live In

Because pop kids do everything better, that's why Sugababes went to #1 with their re-recorded We Don't Give A Damn About Our Friends and Speedway only sent their version of A Stroke Of Genius to #10. It's that simple, really. And who is more shiny, glittery and downright obnoxious than Alcazar? Many have quite correctly identified the key thing about this song as being about the handclaps. I can't really add anything to that, but I will just say that there is a kind of well-meaning love of the absurdity of mashing up Genesis and Diana Ross that is just too pure and perfect for your average bedroom bootlegger to do - they can make it, but they can't love it almost to the point of a sticky death but not quite, so This Is The World In teeters on the brink, but stays just on the right side of camp stupidity. There's really very little else to say about such sheer, simple inspiration.

13. J-FIVE - Modern Times

Glee. One of two songs I managed to smuggle into Stylus's Top 40 Singles of 2004 - even if it was Number 40 and my attempts to describe why this song is so good continue to fall completely flat. I shall try again, for the third time.

Charlie Chaplin is an icon. He needs no feting in song. But, for the soundtrack to the re-release of Modern Times - the movie, here we have it, and if you're going to do it, do it right. It's almost cartoonish in its simplicity - there's no fancy beat happening here, and as far as the samples go, even though it's a new source, it's nothing that hadn't already been done by Kelis, or, indeed, Lucas way back in 1994. But what wins for this song is the breathless enthusiasm with which Mr Five (Johnny to his friends) earnestly toasts his subject - not even smirking one inch when he declares Charlie "The Mack Daddy of the 1930s" - and the line from modern rappers back through the original Rat Pack is extrapolated that little bit further. Not to mention the fact that "He kicked the game/Go figure/Had no time for gold-diggers" has this infectious swagger that was unmatched by any other hip-hop single this year. Take your Jay-Zs and your Kanyes, I'll dance in my chair to this.

12. HITCH HIKE - Travel Girl
GWEN STEFANI - What You Waiting For?

Included as one entry because a) they're really similar, b) they're equally great, and c) they came next to each other alphabetically, so it just seemed logical. Yes, I'm cheating. Cheating because, technically really, Travel Girl is from 2003, but it ran out of the gates in January and February. I still don't know anything about it really. I just know that if (when?) pop music gets bloated and becomes psychedelic, it probably won't be too bad.

A complete accidental discovery when I scoured the Greek charts, I couldn't even tell you where they're from. What I do know is that a brashly-accented American girl telling clipped anecdotes about her hitch-hiking should have been a cult dance hit this year. As it is, it's still languishing in obscurity... and I kind of like it like that. Not enough to not repost the MP3... Shame that single cover looks like an out-take from that Alanis Morrissette video for Thank U, though.

Gwen's single is pretty much the same musical formula, except with her using all of the vocal tics she has that either endear her to you, or make you froth at the mouth and, to be completely fair, a slightly more substantial song. But the sheer shock value of a 35-year-old American superstar so brazenly doing a Europop single was a bit diminished for me, but at least it's a quality piece of work.

Lyrically, it's got to be about her biological clock again, doesn't it? Stuff the Harajuku Girls for now, Gwen wants kids, and there are enough lines in this song that work with that theory to cancel out the ones that don't.


Oh, Cathy Dennis doesn't need any more plaudits, she's got a barrelful of money, and she deserves every single red cent of it. We've got a world where Britney's people turned down Graffiti My Soul and Sweet Dreams My L.A. Ex and we're still here somehow, so perhaps the world wouldn't have stopped spinning on its axis if they'd said no to this one as well, but the fact that they said yes has made the world a much less hostile place in which to be a Britney Spears fan, given the indie kids a jolly good spanking (which they enjoyed, I suspect) and basically strode across our screens again with such confidence and presence that the idea that she was past-it was no longer demonstrably false, but also faintly ridiculous. Someone who was past-it cannot command the power to seize a song of this quality - those magnificent strings! - sure, every man and his musical stoat wanted to be the one to write the song that made her big again, but the fact is, if she weren't still big, there'd have been no reward. Not a bad point on the curve for her to have been, you know.

Like the best pop stars who don't write their own material, Britney is an endlessly varied selection of cavasses for listeners and crucially, songwriters, to project upon. And if it weren't for her bizarre, erratic persona, we wouldn't have this bizarre, erratic strike of lightning to adore.

Britney Spears has done more good songs in her four albums than Madonna managed on her first. She has done fewer show-stoppingly classic ones, but as long as her star doesn't wane appreciably, more will come. A hundred shots of her sans make-up in ironic trucker hats doesn't alter the fact that her robot frog voice, distorted to such a point that she may not even be real, is sexy. She is a golden, plastic icon for children, gays and horny boys. She provides a fascinating, user-friendly front-end to some great pop songs. She is every inch a star, Toxic is every inch a timeless classic and I'm drooling on my keyboard again.
# 4:05 PM []
Top 100 Singles of 2004-ish: 20-16
20. V - You Stood Up

I was laughed at for saying this was the best boyband ballad since O-Town's All Or Nothing. I now see the error of my ways, it's much better! That said, I don't really find boyband ballads that appealing, being as they usually accompanied by really awful videos in which all the members usually bear really punchable expressions.

This song isn't perfect - the lyrics in the chorus are a bit repetitive and clumsy - one of those lines about standing up and stealing it could have been changed, but V, or at least some of them, can really sing, and have found the exact point on the emotional spectrum where it's felt enough to detect, but not so much that it drowns in a treacly mess.

And if "give it all back, give it all back" is not one of the most gloriously glurgy and enjoyable moments of the year, then there's something wrong with me, and even if it isn't, it makes for a nice break between the choruses regardless.
Also search: Fools

19. ANTTI TUISKU - Yrita Ymmartaa

Antti once got bottled off at a live perfomance. Well done. Not bad for someone who can't really sing and looks a bit like a ferret. He's basically second-string on this record, in which an absolutely divine string snatch is the real thing to listen out for. I actually asked a number of well-educated people if they recognised it, and amazingly, none of them did - it's in all likelihood an original composition, yet it sounds absolutely timeless and classic. It's basically sitting out there waiting to be either sampled or covered wholesale.

All of this would mean nothing if the song above it wasn't strong, and fortunately it is, meaning ferret-boy doesn't have to do too much work. He delivers more than adequately here, taking a delightful, flowing Finnish track and alternately singing it like a lullabye and an R&B ballad (the latter not quite as convincingly) - the line after the second chorus - "Taas yritan, mut sanat ei riita" if you can imagine what that sounds like - is the key line (not that I have any idea what it means), as its first iteration comes over a lovely isolated guitar, the last just over the string sample - it starts and ends on its highest note.

18. CORTEZ vs X-RAY featuring LEMON JUICE - What U Get Is What U C

It's a travesty that lots of people outside mainland Europe have not heard this one, but I'm remedying this - some months too late, admittedly. I think they're Spanish, I could be wrong, but what I am not wrong about is that this is the greatest comedy rap single of all time. I'm not entirely sure whether it's funnier if you assume that they don't know that they're hilarious, or if it's seriously a joke.

What I also know is that rather than being a hip-hop single, this is basically a cheesy Mediterranean Eurodance single with rap on it, delivered with a straight face that works equally well if it's a punchline or if it isn't. You'd never get away with this in your own language thanks to that irritating thing called shame. "You're in the presence of a motherfuckin' rap star!". Pure, unadulterated genius. And bloody fun with it.

17. ERIK FABER - Century

That'd be the token Song With Guitars in the top 20. Well, sue me. But Erik made me feel his anguish, even if for one perfect line - where he bellows out with what sounds like his last ounce of strength - "Stumble through the fire! Sweet sweet fire!". Even if, on the surface, this appears to be the same gutless angst peddled by all too many pale British indie kids, there's a lightness of touch and an honesty that places this streets ahead.

It would have to be, because as far as it goes structurally, it's nothing special. Verse, chorus, verse chorus, another verse with the music stripped away, short guitar bit, chorus, outro. But each piece is so expertly produced and precise, and the lyrics belie a sensitive poeticism that normally is a massive turn-off: "Tell me, what did you wear? Innocence and red?" - tell me, who else has managed to incorporate such seamless hendiadys into the opening line of their opus? And there's even whistling at the end, lest the waves of wall-of-sound pop guitar prove just a little bit too weighty.
Also search: Yesterday's Call, Open Your Eyes

16. LENA PHILIPSSON - Delirium

It's funny that a by-rights past it disco diva who couldn't get into Eurovision in the 80s should end up as arguably one of the best pop stars of 2004. Or is it? This writer doesn't look down on Eurovision rejects, obviously, but how surprising is it that Kylie Minogue is still selling massive units in 2004? A bit, really. Lena Philipsson is 38 and looks like Posh Spice's naughtier, much more fun sister. This song still sounds exactly like Laura Branigan (RIP), features a kazoo and a series of the most infuriatingly ingratiating hooks imaginable. I actually thought some lines of it were in English - the chorus sounds like "you're living in a fantasy/you're living in delirium" but it's basically similar equivalent Swedish words.

The best bit is the middle section, where Lena is accompanied by some extremely cheap 80s synths that are taking her on a whirlwind trip into space - whooshing as if about to take off. The divine chorus comes back one more time, but it's what Lena does after it that makes this her best performance and thus her best single of the year - her repetition of single lines and here and there with more urgency just sounds so right, particularly swirled over such decadent 80s excellent. It may be the most unashamedly retro single I've loved this year, but Lena's been there and knows that the 80s aren't a cheap gimmick, they're a way of life for some, and she delivers with sincerity as if her life depends on it.
Also search: Det Nya Europa, Stopp! Nej! G? Härifr?n!

Happy Festivus, poplings.
# 1:11 AM []

Thursday, December 23, 2004

Top 100 Singles of 2004-ish: 25-21
25. PORTOBELLA - Covered In Punk

The reason why everyone is so keen to point out that Lucianna was in Crush with Donna Air is because Crush's Jellyhead is one of the best songs ever, and if you disagree, YOU ARE WRONG. It's that simple. Few people get to make two masterpieces in two separate halves of a career, so for god's sake people, stop hating and RECOGNISE that Covered In Punk is ludicrously catchy, pumping, pounding, incredibly fun to dance to AND suitable to be played extremely loudly in car. Of course, that means it crashed out of the charts and unlike Jellyhead didn't get a stomping Motiv8 remix that at least made it a minor hit overseas.

But it should have! The couplets are lovably dorky, the delivery is unimpeachable, the beat is unstoppable and that riff in the second part of the verse is the catchiest thing ever, at least until the juggernaut that is the chorus comes in (oh, and it has a proper pre-chorus. I love those things), ideal for fist-pumping or attempting to move rhythmically in a fashion to. One day someone should steal this riff and make another song out of it, it is impossible to get tired of.

24. SURFEROSA - Saturday Night

You could be forgiven for thinking that Surferosa are in trouble when the best thing about this song is "ah! Ah! AH! AH AH AH OW OW OW OW!" but you'd be wrong. Because the world needs more pop songs that are whirling dervishes of stupid, stupid fun like this one. Singer Mariann yelps and shouts over a delightful trash-pop backing as if she's going to die if she goes below a certain level of speed, ferocity and utter ear-destroying shrillness.

The only missing ingredient in their usual winning formula that's not present here is the cheap and cheery keyboards, but in the thick of a catchy riff like this one, it is perhaps possible to have too much of a good thing - I don't know if I'd want any distractions in the background detracting from any of this song's killer moments; the way Mariann sings "responsibility" as "risponsibiliteeee" - or indeed, any word that ends in a long "e" sound - "you gotta open up! you gotta!", "come on baby do the dance for me!" - indeed this may be the best song this year where the verses are even catchier than the chorus, but that's no slouch either, but when the verse is overlaid on TOP of the chorus (best trick in pop ever), that's the highlight. If I may steal a phrase from the ever-spot-on Alex MacPherson: "Sahara Hotnights as produced by Max Martin". No further explanation needed.
Also search: Neon Commando, Digital Audio Work Situation and especially the batshit-insane Chinese Moon.

23. ANASTACIA - Left Outside Alone

When shit postars become good, Part II. Whether you ever need to hear it again is debatable, but those first 500 listens were pretty astonishing, weren't they? I mean, what business has this woman got coming out with a song that is a cross between You Oughta Know and It's A Sin? None at all, that's what. This woman has a voice, but no guts. She sings a song about being weak and beholden to someone else into a hands-in-the-air disco anthem (remember I'm Outta Love, god how awful was that?), so when I heard she was going to do something called "sprock" (soul, pop AND rock, you see), I was preparing earplugs for the imminent pain. But the pain never came, because if her new direction wasn't a masterstroke.

She wails in the right places. She sounds a bit like Tori Amos, Kate Bush and maybe Amy Lee. But she doesn't copy, she's learned from them. She hates herself, and YOU at the same time. The guitar is gloriously menacing - although I'm not convinced it's real (not that I care) and when it's not buried beneath Anastacia's voice, the bass is pretty menacing too. I once started an ILM thread on this song and got accused of being a street-teamer for DARING TO SAY THAT ANASTACIA PUT OUT A GOOD SINGLE. Two months later, she had the biggest hit of her career, and I'm still not a street-teamer, so NER to the world. I'd still like to hear a proper rock cover version of it to see if it would work, though.

22. VENKE KNUTSON - Scared

There really is no broad category more maligned than female singer-songwriters with guitars who have pop hits, is there? A third of them get tarred with the Lilith brush, another third get slammed for having no proper credibility, and the other third are criticised as being pale imitations of the other two categories. Well, nuts to that, there is nothing wrong with a girl and her guitar. And no, there is nothing wrong with a girl and someone else's guitar either. So if you are unable to appreciate Venke Knutson, then the someone that's in the wrong place is YOU.

She's almost whispering the verses, and it's adorable. Then she tries to rock out, fails, and it's even more adorable. The key line - alluded to above - "I'm here and you're there, what's this space? Someone's in the wrong place", she sort of mixes them both and my heart melts and spills all over the floor as all my obvious buttons are pressed. Tragically, you only get to here it twice, as the second chorus goes into a shouty middle section that would have ruined the whole thing if it hadn't also been unfathomably adorable.

Yes, I admit it. I LIKE NATALIE IMBRUGLIA. And some of Michelle Branch's singles. And yes, I want to listen to artists who are just a little bit like that. And I'm not ashamed anymore! Venke Knutson is Norwegian for "truth serum" and Scared is magnificent and vulnerable in all the right ways.
Also search: I Wonder, Kiss

21. A*TEENS - I Promised Myself

Can you believe that I listened to this the other day and I had a bit of a blue emotional moment? Really, I did. Well, I do have extremely weak tear ducts - that's my story and I'm sticking to it. It's not as if the end of the A*Teens is something that I'm too attached to, I don't really care about them, but if the people that wrote their songs don't continue writing ridiculously sugary blissbombs of genius pop, I'll be disappointed. But is that worth it? After all, the people who wrote all those great Steps singles haven't done particularly good work for Pop!. Anyway, as far as cover versions go, this is well-thought out. The closing section of Nick Kamen's version is recast as a break in the middle. I think they could have retained the talkie bit in the middle, but the fact that it's survived a bit of jiggering around with shows that it's a fine, sturdy piece of songcraft.

And, atypically, it's one of the rare cases where in a mixed-sex group, a BOY takes the lead vocals and the song is not horrifying. Something magic's in the air. And yes, Max, it really does sound a bit like The Winner Takes It All.

It was the "In the midnight hour, I will wait for you" that did me in, in the end. It's a pretty incredible job when a song is this catchy and perfect even though it doesn't actually have a chorus, more a couple of verses and the aforementioned middle section which is absolutely to die - or cry (there was something in my eye, I swear) - for.
# 11:57 AM []
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