Ed Sheeran’s absurd dominance of the singles chart is great news for him, his fans, Asylum records, and Paul Gambaccini’s agent, but it’s hard to argue it’s good news for the chart itself. It demonstrates the utter weakness of the post-streaming Top 40 as a separate entity from the Album chart (since the release of any big new LP can swamp it) and frankly as a separate entity from the Spotify UK Top 50 playlist, which at least has the decency to update a few times a day.
If the problem were just “too many Ed Sheeran songs in the Top 40” then it’s easily fixable – just cap the number of tracks which can chart from any individual LP. But that’s not really the problem. (If you like Ed, it’s not even *a* problem). It’s of a piece with the sclerosis of the chart, that deathly slow turnover of new hits which started in the download era and has been accelerated by the dominance of streaming. And Ed or no Ed, there’s no real sense that the singles chart has a role to play any more.
These are 27 of the 28 albums I listened to for the first time in February as part of this project. (The 28th, Joanna Newsom’s Divers, is not on Spotify: it would have been represented by “Time, As A Symptom”). The pleasure for me in the project is discovery: the pleasure for me in the playlist is sequencing, and hopefully this mix makes a kind of sense.
The biggest band in Britain grinds on, and as usual when an Oasis single toils its way by, their own past is the best stick to beat them with. In 1994, Oasis’ approach – putting great chunks of rock’s past in a smelter and using noise, hooks and force of will to forge something fresh from it – was a thrill. For all Noel’s occasional trolling in interviews, what Oasis represented an alternative and challenge to wasn’t pop. Instead they rebuked rock as it stood in the early 90s, only sometimes unfairly. British indie, first of all, the wan inbred descendent of punk rock, for its habit of simply aping the past, not trying to match it. Shoegaze and post-rock, for their refusal of the possibilities of a mass audience. Grunge rock, for finding that audience and turning away from it with a shudder. And most of all, the classic rock establishment, packing arenas and scooping BRIT awards by offering the same tired product, year upon year.
“Hi I’m The Brave Little Toaster, star of the 1986 film The Brave Little Toaster and its direct to video sequels The Brave Little Toaster To The Rescue, and The Brave Little Toaster Goes To Mars. You know, the late 80’s was a brilliant time to be a Toaster, we were flying all over the place on screensavers, being fancipantsed up by Duralit, and then there was me, an honest to god appliance hero for a consumer age. These days though, you’re all in tha cloud, and there is no room for toast in the cloud, so I have been told. So I sit with my friends, Lampy, Air Conditioner and Two Faced Sewing Machine and watch Entertainment Centre and all the great films that came out last year like these ones. I mean, I assume I got back from Mars, I have to admit I didn’t watch it, it seemed far fetched. ”
Cheers Toasty, and you should just be proud that as a Toaster you got your own film franchise. The mind boggles. Anyway here is the top ten:
One of my resolutions this year was to listen to a record I’d never heard before, new or old, every day. I’ve kept it up for all of January and here’s a list of what I’ve heard (below the cut), and a playlist taking a track from each. Since there’s no guarantee I’ll like a record I can’t pretend that everything on the playlist is solid gold but I had fun sequencing it and attempting to give it some kind of coherence.
“Call me Ron. I’m a straightforward sort of pup, me – what you see is what you get. But when I’m not out clubbing with my six older brothers, I do get to wondering what it’s all about. You know. Life. Death. Sardines. It’s all just a game of chess at the end of the day, isn’t it? Good versus evil, light versus dark, rockism versus poptimism – society would have us carve ourselves up into ever-smaller and ultimately-arbitrary factions, each believing we are on the side of righteousness, solitary brothers and sisters fighting pointlessly amongst ourselves to avoid having to think too hard about the impending apocalypse. I guess many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view!”
Thanks Ron, if indeed that is your real name. On to our Top 10!
“Hi I am Elliot from Pete’s Dragon. I suppose you could call me Pete’s Dragon, except Pete clearly doesn’t own me, we are just buddies who hang in the woods. And yes, I am the proper Pete’s Dragon, not that godawful 2D drawn travesty from the 70’s. I’m the Pete’s Dragon from the much better 2016 film Pete’s Dragon, which I expect will pop up on this list of best films of 2016.
Oh, just looked below. Must be in the top ten. Well these are all pretty good too I guess. Not elegiac and majestic like some sort of kids film made by Malick in the 1970’s, not good like Pete’s Dragon, but good. ”
Thanks Elliot, but I have some bad news for you. Pete’s Dragon just missed our list at number 42. I know, it was a travesty. Don’t blow fire on me. I’d have voted you higher, except you weren’t as good as Mustang. Which is…
TASH-BED: Hi everyone! It’s us, the singing Bedingfield siblings! Remember us? You must remember us.
DAN-BED: Summon Tash and she will appear!
TASH-BED: We’ve been keeping busy for the last few years, doing a turn on the New Zealand X Factor, manning the tombola stall at our ancient religion’s summer fête, organising the occasional covert raid on government strongholds. You know the drill. There’s not been much time for pop stardom!
DAN-BED: Tash the inexorable!
TASH-BED: Well, I say ‘we’, it’s mostly been me doing all the work. My darling brother here has just been sitting on his arse babbling about some old Pink Floyd record and looking up spiritual retreats in the west of Ireland.
DAN-BED: Tash the irresistible!
TASH-BED: Sigh. See what I have to put up with? He’s never been quite the same since he went on that ‘vision quest’ in the tropical house at Kew Gardens a few years ago. I found him a week later dancing away in the woods on Wimbledon Common with a bunch of hairy hippies and had to drag him home for a bath.
DAN-BED: All hail Tash!
TASH-BED: You’re really starting to get on my wick, Dan.
I’m sure the Bedingfields will kiss and make up soon. Here’s #20-#11!
Making sense of Simon Cowell requires negotiating a maze of banalities – a host of things which are, like judges’ verdicts on a reality show, obvious and lacking insight, but nonetheless true. For instance, saying “Simon Cowell cares about money more than music” is a lazy criticism, but it’s also surely right. Saying “Whoever wins, Cowell is the real winner” is a similar no-shit-Sherlock conclusion, and equally hard to deny.
If we turn over these obvious stones, is there anything wriggling underneath? Maybe there is. Take Simon Cowell’s taste in music. It’s not that he doesn’t like music – he has a set of preferences. It’s more that once he became a reality impresario, the exact contours of his taste became a source of competitive advantage. Some of the reality TV judge’s power is unpredictability – anything that compromises the unpredictability, like a known aesthetic, is a weakness.
Well, that was a year. It’s not what 2016 will be remembered for, but this was the year that streaming broke the charts – or fundamentally changed what they reflect. The structural impact is obvious – TEN records got to number one, meaning we’re back to the 50s as far as turnover goes. The aesthetic impact is more obscure – is the torpor I sense a function of a moody wave in current pop, or the sluggishness of the countdown, or my own elderly disengagement, or all of the above?
Best to worst, as usual. I liked very few of these very much, and even the higher placings don’t reflect much enthusiasm.