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.
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.
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.
It was not immediately obvious that everything had changed. I was at an engagement party, and was introduced as a music fan to someone, and they asked me a question: “Will or Gareth?”. I didn’t really get what they were talking about. Pop Idol, of course. Oh, I haven’t been watching it. “You haven’t?” It seemed bizarre to them, that someone into pop music wouldn’t have felt the show was important. They were right.
There is an economic maxim called Goodhart’s Law: when a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure. Reality TV pop was the application of this to the charts. Being number one was the measure, already a shakily symbolic one, of popularity and fame. To be a pop idol meant having massive pop hits. And so the winner of Pop Idol would have the biggest hits anyone could. But what actually happened was the colonisation of the charts by TV, for several weeks a year. It became an annual event, like the flooding of the Nile delta. Instead of proving that Will or Gareth or Darius or anyone else could compete with the best, it made the weakness of the charts as a metric of best-ness – or anything else – absurdly obvious.
It’s taken them until their 10th number one, but Westlife finally bring us an original uptempo song. Within the band’s corpus “World Of Our Own” is a break from the norm, with half-hearted ‘party’ noises under the intro acting as cues for the lads to rise up from the stools and shake a tailfeather. On anyone else’s terms it’s reliable workhorses Steve Mac and Wayne Hector trying to write a Gregg Alexander song. The string of emphases on the bridge – “Took! For! Granted!” – feels particularly like a stab at New Radicals style euphoric lift-off, but Westlife is not a rollercoaster. It’s barely even a teacup ride. The chorus bumps repetitively along, its sing-song melody irritating before the first pass is even through. And the scenario is a standard Westlife one – our hero has strayed but regrets it and realises real happiness lies with the comforts of home. A decent metaphor for this mildest of experimental moves, then, which ends with the inevitable – and reassuring – key change.
In Britain it was another ballad, another global import megahit, arriving here with the spontaneity of a powerpoint build. But in America it was jetsam, a fragment of wreckage to cling to in a time of fear. Within days of the World Trade Centre falling, “Hero” had been remixed to incorporate found audio from 9/11, a collage of sobbing witnesses, panicked rescuers, and the drained sincerity of politicians interrupting Enrique Iglesias’ every line.
It’s a remarkable thing to listen to, pop snatched up into history, pushed beyond the limit of what it can accommodate. The sentiment of the song – Enrique as hero as lover – shifts into Enrique as firefighter, as cop, and as anyone desperately trying to help and to reassure. But the juxtaposition of pop and tragedy, grotesque as it is, works, because Iglesias himself is so lachrymose: his stagey chokes and moans and trembling lips mix into place smoothly alongside the real agony caught on tape. “I just wanna hold you… I just wanna hold you…” Iglesias murmurs at the end, exhausted and bereft. Romance turns into terror sex.
2. Spitfire And The Troubleshooters #1 (Brown/Morelli/Conway/Trimpe/Sinnott/Morgan/Roussos)
The New Universe was intended to be more ‘realistic’ than the main Marvel line – “the world outside your window” as the early editorials put it. In the comments to the first post in this series, Phil Sandifer reasonably asks how much of this was hastily added after the fact, perhaps to cash in on a vogue for gritty realism following the success of Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns.
For some of the New U titles, the relationship to ‘realism’ is obviously a very tenuous one. But there’s clearly something to it. Several comics read like attempts to solve puzzles, where the starting point is “the real world” and the end point is, say, “an Iron Man comic”. If you must do a comic about a powered exoskeleton, who is most likely to be building one?
Iron Man’s answer to this is – clear-sightedly for a 1963 comic – ‘arms manufacturers’. Spitfire And The Troubleshooters arrives at the same rough conclusion: a genius scientist is building it, the military want it. The wrinkle the comic adds is that it’s not about the genius scientist, who is killed off on page one. It’s about his daughter, an MIT Professor, who sets out to keep his final creation out of the hands of the military. With the help of five of her students, who essentially go on the lam with her.