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Saturday, December 27, 2003

ALBUMS THAT DON'T GET ENOUGH LOVE (or sales): ABS - Abstract Theory
No, really, it's good! Trust me. It's silly fun and Abs is barely on the thing, leaving anything even remotely important to female singers. It proves (by science) that you cannot fuck up the Detroit Spinners' It's A Shame - interpolated liberally in the best track, Shame. One song sounds a bit like Tricky if he were groomed in boy band theatrics rather than in trip-hop, and is surprisingly un-rubbish! Samples from unexpected places: listen to Back To The Limbo to get an idea of what I mean. 7 Ways also deserves a prize for being the Best Single of 2003 that Got Pulled At The Last Minute as the Artist Got Flushed. Bye, Abs! Don't come back, your legacy cannot be improved!
# 6:17 PM []
I hate this time of year. There's no new pop coming out and the well of pre-release leaked Mp3s has come to a standstill. I do like going back over things I hadn't listened to enough over the year, but it usually pales in comparison to the thrill of the new. It is nice to come back to things and fall in love with them once again, and that's what Mew has done to me this last week.

Frengers (not quite friends, but not quite strangers... apparently) is much, much, much better than that last Radiohead album, believe me, I was an obsessive. It's got lots of guitars. It's got really high vocals, glacial loveliness, swooshy, creepy keyboards here and there, and each song sounds completlely different - the mix of styles and songwriting is actually very strange - but actually genuinely nutty rather than being a polite mix of styles like every other indie rock band that tries to do this. Stina Nordenstam is on it too. Admittedly, some of these songs were done better on the original versions released in Denmark prior to this album, except perhaps for 156 and She Came Home For Christmas which are actually better in the rerecorded versions, and maybe putting out the 9-minute closer Comforting Sounds as a single was just a tad ambitious, but there's plenty of lovely epicist prog-pop on here. If there were more great albums like this, I wouldn't be trying so hard to cover up my indie past.
# 6:15 PM []
One of the things that's struck me as unjust in the world is that you can find literally dozens of weblogs expounding the greatness of some indie album nobody actually went out and bought but is actually really brilliant - even from people who claim to like pop, but when it comes to pop's lost gems, the critical mass is usually silent. Yes, We are the Interweb Music Community! We like our indie obscure and our pop mega-popular!

So anyway, Kelli Ali. She was in Sneaker Pimps. She was really great too. Tigermouth took ages to make, then the record company sat on it, sending out 11-track promos in June 2002, issuing a single, the lyrically daft but rather catchy Inferno High Love, rejigging it (adding three new tracks and cutting another), before finally putting the thing out this year. I would suggest that everybody reading this never purchases an album from One Little Indian records ever again - that is, if anyone had ever considered buying anything on their current roster in the first place.

This is a bona fide lost classic. Teardrop Hittin' The Ground, supposed to be the track to launch the album, is the great hit single that never was because the record company botched its release, as they did with the whole album; promo was non-existant and the album cost a bomb to make and will never even come close to recouping it. But it should, because you should go and get it now if you can find the damn thing. Sunlight In The Rain is endlessly lovely, Beautiful Boy extravagant, vaguely exotic and undeniably catchy, Keep On Dreaming is dramatic and ethereal, and the hidden title track is monstrously good. I'd really recommend this to anyone who is still waiting for Madonna to do another album like Ray Of Light, as this is expensive, expansive, eclectic and exquisite. That was an atrociously bad sequence of words, but this is an astonishingly good sequence of songs. Except, perhaps for Angel in L.A. which is a bit stale. But the other 12 are good.
# 11:44 AM []
Okay, this one was the general record buying public's fault. Bad general public, no soup for you. Take a listen to the opening track, the heart-breaking but deeply unusual Nothing But Song, with its crowd noises, scratching and yearning, minimal piano refrains. Little Bits and Revolution In Me are two of those really slow-burning trip-hop-lite dense bits of lushness, and As You Like It is a slinky R&B-influenced pop thing with a great middle eight, and Iodine is the greatest Christmas single that never got a chance. Always inventive, occasionally brilliant, as good a debut album as you'd hear this year. And where else are you going to hear xylophones, steel drums and sampled Spanish-language drills on the one album? Really, can't see where Ms Donaghy put a foot wrong with this album, Overrated went top 20, so what was so different about the rest of her work, which was just as good, that led people to shun her so? Perhaps she never hits the heights of an Overload or a Round Round, but this is miles better than the last Sugababes album.
# 11:41 AM []

Friday, December 26, 2003

This one gets lots of love, but has sold bugger all and I for one am utterly stumped. Aargh, it seems like they finally do a whole album I adore (rather than just amazing singles like Red Alert or Romeo)and they're going down the tubes commercially. Why oh why won't you buy this album? Do you think that just because you don't like Dizzee Rascal that there is nothing on here for you? You fool! I don't even like Dizzee Rascal! And I hated Wheres Your Head At, but this album screams genius from the top of the tallest mountain! Big breakup pride anthem with monster diva soul vocals? Check (Good Luck). Sexy disco club stomp? That'd be Right Here's The Spot then. Gorgeous, introspective number as respite from the disco? You want If I Ever Recover. Mega-sexualised boy-band-member grunting over electronic armageddon? Yes, Kish Kash even has that too (Plug It In). Oh, why bother? Either I'm preaching to the converted or a brick wall. Or it's not out in your part of the world. But even in that case, you probably downloaded it anyway if you have even half a brain.
# 5:28 PM []
Oh, now this is just a travesty, people. Sure, it sold three copies in Lene's home country of Norway but that's because some cunt didn't playlist any of the songs. Now, I don't normally use that word, but I've looked at the Norwegian pop charts and while there is some great stuff in there, there is, as of this writing, a truly appalling single by Scooter in there, so anyone who presumably okayed that and vetoed It's Your Duty is a cunt. So all the people in countries who are sitting on this and not releasing it, or releasing it with minimal promo, TAKE A GOOD LOOK AT YOURSELVES, smack yourself stupid and then RESIGN FROM YOUR CUSHY RECORD COMPANY JOB - after recommending me as your replacement. To summarise: Play With Me is a brilliant album. Virgin Superstar is sinister, shuddering and glorious, Pretty Young Thing is very pretty indeed, and Lene's helium vocals are a bit sexy and husky too, Play With Me is made of plastic guitar sludge, is oh so shiny and is about sex toys, Here We Go is No Good Advice II - maybe not an improvement but certainly a worthy successor, Up In Smoke has an elastic pop groove, daft male backing vocals and a fat crushy synth chorus, Pants Up has the best talkie bit in pop this year, and Surprise" might repeat the chorus about 7 times, but that's because it's a good chorus. Oh, it's great except for track 12, Scream which overdoes it just a little, but since when was that a hanging offense.

No, while creatively this was a fine year for Ms Nystrom, lest we forget she co-wrote No Good Advice which is almost universally adored (as it should be) by pop fans everywhere and a good smattering of not pop fans too, this sparkling, shiny daft opus hasn't given her the success it should have. I live in hope I shall be able to get a copy of the version with bonus tracks locally soon.
# 11:33 AM []
ALBUMS THAT DON'T GET ENOUGH LOVE (or sales): APPLETON - Everything's Eventual
First single Fantasy = sounds like five other songs = genius.
Second single Don't Worry = (warning! oxymoron coming up) Quite decent Texas-esque ballad. All going fine here, I think you'd agree.
Album = totally storming with an absolute stack of potential singles in there like Waiting 4 Your Love, M.W.A. (perhaps the only pop song to sledge iridology and Kirlian photography) and best of all, the gorgeous ballad 5 am. Lots of quality album tracks too, the 6-minute Ring-a-Ding-Ding (which recalls Kylie Minogue's Cowboy Style and Alanis Morissette's Uninvited, but much better), and the lush closer Anyone. Exactly one bad song on there, the quasi-title track, Everything Eventually, which was plodding, hookless and boring, and not even half as good as the quite good B-sides they were putting out.

So of course, what happens? They put out the WORST FUCKING TRACK ON THERE AND were surprised when it didn't even make the top 30? Morons! I'm calling for a moratorium on releasing title tracks as singles because usually they are shit ("Oh, this track really sums up what the album is all about for me. It's the song I'm most proud of on the album/the song that really defines me as an artist"), and if it flops, there's a major part of your branding irreparably damaged, viz Rachel Stevens' "Funkydory". Everything's Eventual is a very, very good pop album that was scuttled by having its one bad song put out as a single, fucking the whole project up. Unfair. Go and buy it from a bargain bin - it may be too late to save Natalie and Nicole, but it might make you happy.
# 11:24 AM []

Thursday, December 25, 2003

Merry Christmas to my handful of regular readers and the random Googlers who think I have what they're looking for. I'll be finishing up my Messy 2003 Rundown with a look at 10 albums from 2003 that I don't think got the love or the sales they deserved, intermingled with the usual thoughts on new and newish pop.

Enthusiastic but Mediocre will be on vacation from January 1-6 as I shall be in Sydney and Canberra. No, not at the same time, obviously. But I will be away from my computer, so no posts. Round 2 of the Cross-Europe Chart Challenge... of Death will commence immediately on 7 January with a few countries that I couldn't squeeze into Round 1.
# 9:35 PM []

Wednesday, December 24, 2003

This has got to be simultaneously the most joyous gleeful noise in the world, while also being deeply sad on any number of levels. Quite extraordinary, really. If you just heard the radio edit, which tries to tame the wild animal of this song's bona fide disco cojones into a three-minute cage, it's pleasant and nothing more - just another slightly downbeat dance single by those wacky Moloko peeps. But in the full 7:22 version, let loose in all its glory, it's even more than the sum of its parts - and all the parts are very, very good.

Where to start? The song itself is top-notch, but it's the arrangement that elevates it to something a bit beyond that. Like how a cymbal crash comes in on just one channel in the first verse. Like how Roisin Murphy's vocals harmonise with themselves while at the same time fighting off another vocal line underneath for supremacy of the track. Like the wailing synth underneath the verse- let your attention wander even slightly and you won't notice it. The way you get a piano line midway through recast as a bassline at the song's conclusion.

Of course, not all pop is in the fine details, and there's nothing subtle about the duel between the stabbing brass and the frenetic organ around five and a half minutes in, nor in the way both musically and vocally, layers are continuously added in. I've always chided long dance songs that go for nearly eight minutes basically repeating the same thing over and over again, but I wouldn't if I got this sense of progress from the start of the track to the end - "let this house... be progressive" I recall SM Trax saying some years back, but it all sounded the same - this, then, is progressive indie-dance-disco-glee, exquisitely structured, violently manic depressive, simultaneously uplifting and downer-inducing and gorgeous from go to woe.

Never do I feel more unhappy than when the final brass stab signals the song's collapsing in on itself after seven minutes of non-stop fury, but never do I love pop more than when it repeats from the beginning - on my stereo or in my head. No Good Advice or Automatic are both better summations of my tastes in 2003, but this just has something that says "best single of the year" and I'm going to keep listening until I work out what it is.
# 9:11 PM []
Um, right. You may not know this one. Mercury 4 are an Australian boy band. Now I'm not opposed to boy bands (anymore). Unless they are Blue or Westlife, obviously. But this is quite simply appalling. This single went in at Number 5 on the back of an advertising blitz and then promptly went down the s-bend. This is because it is one of the worst songs that has ever been written, and the "boys" sound really uncomfortable saying they "wanna get me some of that" - it's like it's a foreign language. Except it's not, it's some kind of street-slang aspiration, obviously. In an attempt to sound modern (i.e. cognizant if not redolent of US R&B), it actually sounds laughably dated, and even had this come out ten years ago it still would have lagged behind the products of the pop powerhouses by a good few years.

Plus, the one that can supposely really sing is incredibly ugly - and since clearly this song required almost no talent to sing and the prime target market is young girls, his presence is baffling. But I try not to think about such things too much as it might cause flickers of memory of this vile, worthless song. And that would be bad. Yes, easily the worst single of the year, probably the worst that will come this decade if we're lucky.
# 9:02 PM []
Could have picked Eat You Alive, but this being a cover proves convincingly that Limp Bizkit being one of the most singularly irritating entities on the planet isn't solely down to Fred Durst's childish and appalling songwriting. A fair proportion of it is down to Fred Durst's utterly atrocious singing, which is often not noticed because the songs themselves are fucking rancid. Not that I really like the original all that much, but the fact that I included this over Westlife's Mandy as the year's obligatory terrible cover should give the reader some idea about how utterly meritless this tripe is.
# 5:05 PM []
Their first song sounded like a Supergrass tribute band covering Iggy Pop. Badly. They copied the style but as for the substance they thought throwing some tired old rawk cliches against the wall and seeing what stuck would work. It didn't. And yet it was still miles better than this load of toss. It seems obvious why Jet guy would be ambivalent about someone with a big stack of records - because every single one of them is likely better than this vapid, smug non-song. And the ironing is delicious (as pointed out by lots of people) when they hate on people for "playing other people's records all night". Get thee back to pub-rock obscurity, morons.
# 4:37 PM []
OK, enough! J.Lo has clearly realised that since even when she has a half-decent song it sounds like pants that she might as well put out any old arse and god this sounds like the bottom of the barrel has been scraped and licked clean. If there's one thing that's worse than her up-tempo numbers, where she sounds about as unelated as it's possible to get, it's when she slows the pace down. It's horrific.
# 12:45 PM []
Now really, if your name was Robin Thicke, and you were going to use one of your names as your stage name, why would you Picke your surname? Because you're a fucking moron, clearly. He is a longhair minger, the sample has been used before, and better, and the song is really terrible. Plus there's lots of needless emoting, always a ticket to Pop Hell.
# 12:45 PM []

Tuesday, December 23, 2003

I don't normally root for the underdog. The fact that this single basically killed Siobhan's career shouldn't bother me other than that it could sour the chance of her being able to continue making the albums she wants to - and judging by her excellent debut, Revolution In Me, that's exactly what I want for her. I thought this was an amazingly good guitar-led pop song on first listen, and a thousand listens later, it still sounds excellent.

This is not an important song. This is not a song that towers above the regular ex-girl-band-girl mill because it merely dares to rock along engagingly. This is a song that wins through its cramming together of a chugging guitar melody, a lyric that's blank enough to self-project onto and bleak enough to make you rather not want to, and hooks piled five-deep onto each other. The style is different, but the nimble melodics of Sugababes Mk I are all over Siobhan's album, and this song in particular.

I do like to wonder what would have happened if this had been her debut single, and released under its original title of "Hate". But part of me knows it still would have gone in at #52 anyway, like a lot of great pop, it was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Maybe the world didn't need another pretty girl with some self-penned tunes, some guitars and slick production. But I bet they didn't really need another Dido album and they bought that, possibly because they at least knew that existed. More than 20,000 people downloaded this track off Mp3sfinder so people had enough interest in Siobhan as a brand to be curious, but nobody went out and bought it.

London Records really underpromoted Siobhan, certainly, and maybe it was fitting that the star they poured money into, Holly Valance, also ended up flopping rather badly this year despite her album also being rather good. I hear records like this and I begin to romanticise pop again, something that I haven't done in a while despite liking it a lot - not just the music, but as some kind of ideal that's above commerce and industry - basically everything music writers and fans like to believe but maybe don't anymore. A little heartbreak as our favourites miss the charts boils the blood and stirs the passion.
# 10:37 PM []
EMMA - No Sign Of Life
Yes, Emma Bunton. She really needs to rethink this one-name entity thing she's got. Anyway, this is a track off her upcoming LP called Free Me, named after its rather atrocious first single, instead of its rather brilliant second single, Maybe. This isn't the next single, she's left this sure-fire hit on the album and is putting out the token ballad gotta-be album track with strings and a harmonica bit (I'll Be There) sometime next month I think.

So what's this like, then? Strings and piano and sweeping drama are the order of the day, and Emma, who was probably the second best singer in the Spice Girls, delivers efficiently without ever threatening to be brilliant, or to try to be and fail. The string break is pretty divine, too, but that's not to speak of the big, sweeping verses and the uncertain plaintive chorus.

Lazy parallels will be drawn by lazy reviewers with The Cardigans' Life or First Band On The Moon albums, and perhaps Bond themes or 60s pop, but this is really one of those alternate-universe 1960s songs with the old arrangement, but the song sounds very modern, partially the songwriting, but partially in just how clear and crisp it sounds. Someone in Camp Emma has a copy of Saint Etienne's Foxbase Alpha and has listened to it a lot (and I don't think I'd mind hearing Emma do a cover of Spring - she'd do it well) - it's that sort of 60s revivalism, almost revisionism, that's at play here, and it's quite refreshing to hear it done (again) and done well.

Grab it now off the sidebar. It's special.
# 11:42 AM []
Also up on the sidebar is Surferosa's Neon Commando. Their album, Shanghai My Heart, is one of my favourites this year, and apparently this song is coming out as a UK and maybe mainland Europe single in January. It'll be familiar to anyone from Norway, but perhaps not to other readers. It's made me very, very happy and it might make you so too. It's up-tempo, glorious, cheesy synth-poprock, and either this sort of thing makes you gurgly with joy or it makes you want to hurt adorable puppies.
# 11:30 AM []

Monday, December 22, 2003

The problem with the real sound of the underground is that it really doesn't sound that cool at all. It doesn't sound like fun. The music of a thousand indie or dance scenes doesn't make me want to go there and be part of it. But The Sound Of The Underground, the first Girls Aloud album, does. At least the original version, the re-release is a complete fuck-up and everyone involved in it deserves to be slapped silly.

Anyway. Girls Aloud's producers and songwriters remember the early 90s, and a goodly proportion of GA's fans remember that era with fondness, and the same sparkling magic that seemed to coat that period's classics has rubbed off on this song. As a 10 year old in 1991 I didn't care about keeping it real, popstars writing their own songs, or indeed anything other than the beat and the hook. No Good Advice transports me back there completely - the illusion is that perfect.

This is Girls Aloud's Say You'll Be There - kind of, stay with me for one second - the follow up to monstrously addictive mega-selling Number One bliss-bomb of pop heaven, but actually even better - catchier, funkier, groovier and altogether a more solid song quite apart from its impeccable pop crunch and tag-teamed girl gang vocals.

Does it sound like My Sharona? A bit. Does it merely retread My Sharona in the bits that sound like it? No, because we get sassed-up defiance, cute allusions to parental rebellion over an elastic groove. The pace quickens in the pre-chorus, dashing along a metaphorical runway before the chorus takes off, as anthemic as these things can get, and from there it's just a case of piling on as many catchy bits as possible without getting bogged down. And it sounds cool, more than just a wash of great influences, but like a perfect equilibrium between them, moving into states where it's more one than the other, but switching back again with rapidity AND grace.

People can go nuts over "cool" indie column inch fillers but zero sellers if they want, but the swooshing noise underneath the talkie bit in this song is the coolest sound in music this year, high chart positions be buggered.
# 9:11 PM []
TOP SINGLES OF THE YEAR: #4 DANNII MINOGUE - Don't Wanna Lose This Feeling
People might not admit it, but they probably could identify a lot with Dannii Minogue. Kylie's (supposed to be) prettier and more talented, and you get the impression that Dannii thinks it too - the sheer amount of drastic cosmetic surgery, much of it making her even more like her sisterthan she used to couldn't plant too many other conclusions.

Insecure, she may be, but she can belt out a dance pop anthem. And her best vocal performances have always been ones where she's tapped into that insecurity. Prior to this, her best single was probably the similarly uncertain - but euphorically so - Disrememberance. I'm not sure which I love more, the album version's faux-Ibiza horn stylings, the radio edit's comparative sleekness or the Madonna-sampling official bootleg thing. Even the least melodic bits have their catchiness expertly stroked out by Dannii, as she works with her surroundings - and in each version, her voice catches perfectly on different parts of the backing, and suddenly the colours around Dannii don't seem to matter that much.

For the length of this song, there's no question that Dannii Minogue is more beautiful and more talented than Kylie Minogue, even if she isn't. The Botox may have rendered her a little expressionless, but she's got Kylie beat for emotional depth in her dance stormers. Neon Nights is the best dance-pop release this year - and it's better than Fever and Body Language put together.
# 1:11 PM []
Firstly, a brickbat; bad Courtney, only allowing people from certain countries permission to download your song and making the rest of us put up with streaming. Naughty.

But now a bouquet; Mono is pretty damn great. You know what this sounds like, don't you? Big dumb riff, classic Courtney lines (three chords in your pocket tonight!), her snarl, her bruised sexuality and the rock swagger that was a bit toned down on some of Celebrity Skin to make way for the 70s AM radio rock influence - which I loved - and that's not as pronounced here, which is why I don't agree with people who say that this sounds like it could have been on CS - it's more straightforwardly rollicking, and a bit more carefree in tone.

It also benefits nicely from production top-up from Linda Perry, who officially I think I'm required to hate (if she's such a great songwriter, why were 4 Non Blondes so horrible?) - but I'm willing to acknowledge she's doing good work nowadays. Courtney is a strong enough personality AND songwriter (something she's not rated as highly as she should - Billy Corgan didn't have a writing credit on any of the 3 best tracks on Celebrity Skin anyway!) to not be stifled by the Perry juggernaut.

What I mean by that is that when Christina or Pink are singing one of Linda's songs, it sounds just like it. Family Portrait was Pink precisely enunciating someone else's painful memories, or at least it sounded like it. Beautiful sounded like an elaborate, albeit exquisite dramatic act; plaintive but ultimately detached from the pain. Courtney more than holds her own, projects her personality and as a result sounds like herself and nobody else. She spits out each word - barely threatening to launch into a tune as the hooks are her words and the snarl - as if her career depends on it. If anyone's qualified to bellow "I wanna hear you say that I'm so much better than you" (OK, it's hardly "I want to be the girl with the most cake" but recognise lesser degrees of genius, please!), it's Courtney. She's hungry, which is good to hear, and she's succeeded wildly which is even better. I want her album to totally own me in 2004.
# 1:04 AM []

Sunday, December 21, 2003

Part Five: Dizzee Rascal - I Luv U. Right, this is my bad. I don't get it. Sorry, naughty me. Will try harder next critical (under)ground swelling, honest. (I don't hate it, mind.) I like the bit where the girl says "that boy's some prick y'know". But that's about it. Acknowledging talent and originality (which this oozes) doesn't necessarily equate to loving the work. When I listen to this, I feel like I'm playing an old Commodore 64 game where the sound effect for when you jumped sounded exactly like this. Maybe Dizzee's fire button was broken?
# 8:26 PM []
Take that, Jennifer Lopez, you've just been owned by the girl with the coolest name in pop. Sarah Whatmore. What a great name it is. This nicks bits of Play wholesale, it sounds really very similar, but it dispenses with the two weakest links; firstly, the really boring play-that-song-DJ lyric, and secondly, J-Lo's seeming abhorrence of anything whimsical and fun - listen to Play again, people, you'll realise it's boring. It's not sexy. This is sexy.

"You try to videotape me/then you try to rent me out" is my favourite line of the year bar none. It works figuratively, but it's also cute if you take it literally. In alternate reality, this would have become a huge girl-power anthem - maybe it doesn't have the full-blown divaisms of an I Will Survive, but that didn't have funky bassy blurps, and the music in this sounds so much more like its message - empowered and totally confident - "ladies get up to get down" is a better solidifying cry to a listener than anything in recent years too. And it's catchy, the deep house piano underneath the pre-chorus would be gold even if it didn't lead into the perky addictive refrain, and Sarah extracts every bit of funk from the decidedly 90-style electro-pop backdrop with her clear pop siren delivery and her witty, wounded but invincible lyric.
# 8:26 PM []
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