But it didn’t come into our family lives until a month later, my mum’s 32nd birthday, 4 July 1967. We were on holiday in mid-Wales, on a hillside farm owned by family friends (my godfather) a little up from Aberdyfi. Dad hadn’t joined us immediately — in those years he often had to travel to London from Shrewsbury for days on end, to attend work-related meetings. So he drove up a few days later — we were a two-mini family, very Italian Job in that one way at least — laden with presents for everyone, especially mum.
Mum’s was Sergeant Pepper, of course. And it went straight onto the ancient gramophone in that farmhouse, probably immediately damaging the surface (I bet the needle hasn’t been changed to this day). It was played non-stop the entire holiday — bearing mind that that summer was famously warm and clear-skied, and full of generational hope. My parents weren’t hippies — they were a bit too old and too cautious, dad was 36 that year — but they were caught up in the sense of possibility, working (and living) in a place staffed by young adults committed to natural-science fieldwork and what wasn’t yet widely known as ecology. My sister and I were brought up semi-communally in this space, often babysat by these many idealistic young adults. This summer has remained the perfect snapshot for me of that idealism.
The record itself — the physical object, the sleeve and the inner sleeve and the disc and the label — my sister and I scoured for all its loving, baffling details. The fact — which I know now and knew nothing of then — that this was a land-grab made by the artists (so hugely successful their sales were a not-be-sniffed proportion of the national GDP at a time when other sectors were struggling) to strip control of product-terrain, like sleeve space and label space and even the run-out groove, from EMI (who generally used the spaces to shill rival LPs or EMITEX record-wiping cloth or whatever) and place them at the whim of the musicians, to hire artists like Peter Blake or whoever. In terms of aesthetic decision-making and conceptual control this was a revolutionary and transformative move. (Of course many of the decisions subsequently made were quite poor: musicians are not always artistically smart in other realms than music, and the gatefold-sleeve has been rich in crimes against art.)
I could read at that age — my sister was five, I don’t remember if she could yet— and just loved that all these words were there, the lyric-printing a first, I believe, not that I knew this then, of course, or cared. I loved the bright acid-pop colours of the sleeve — I still own my parents’ copy and they’re still sharp and vivid and dense with memory. I loved the mystery of it: why were they dressed like this, what was the story, how did these scenes and anecdotes connect? I loved to read but was easily disoriented by children’s stories not working as convention demanded — the obvious strength of all this (as demonstrated by my parents’ enjoyment) presented me with a new way to present story material, which I didn’t quite get. This was as thrilling as it was strange: an invaluable sensation to learn in such a lovely context, I think. At least if you think puzzled curiosity is a good quality in a critic — certainly it’s a reaction I continue to favour.
We loved the Blake insert pop-art cut-outs, the moustaches and glasses: in fact we cut them out and donned them, and scampered round the garden in the sun with them (lots of scampering around in the s childhoods). Ruined for future collectors, perhaps — but this wasn’t about the future, it was about an utterly delighted present. And mum and dad enjoyed our delight.
It wasn’t actually such an easy year for them, though we didn’t then know that. Dad had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s the year before, unusually young at 35. In fact he had been given just ten years to live — the synthesis of L-Dopa (key study published 1968) would change this (he lived until 2010) but in 1967 only a tiny handful of researchers knew anything about L-Dopa. So in this sunniest of summers, mum and dad lived under a shadow of expected grief and trial, which — to my grown-up astonishment and admiration — they entirely kept from their children. I remember dad talking a little to me about no longer being able to draw well, or write — as a young man he had beautiful calligrapher’s penmanship, he and mum both, and was a gifted amateur artist, mainly drawing plants, with occasional gorgeously evocative Christmas cards and such. All that he had to give up (he had to teach himself to write with his left hand instead of his right). I don’t remember ever being told that he probably only had ten years to live — though I must have been, because if I think of it now, this feels like a fact I knew all my life. But I didn’t; I just suppressed the first moment I discovered it (which I think must have been after this summer holiday when I was only seven).
They hadn’t been pop enthusiasts much before this — I have one much earlier memory, of dancing in the staff dining room with other members of staff to “She Loves You” as it played on a transistor on a high window-ledge with the sun streaming in past it. But it was not mum and dad’s radio — and in our flat we really only listened to classical music on radio three now and then, and much more often to classical music on records. Dad had read the famous — infamous — review of Pepper in The Times, by its respected classical critic William Mann, and been impressed by Mann’s admiring approval. (I still have the cutting he kept, inserted into their copy.) As a family we owned the LPs after Pepper — the White Album and Abbey Road anyway — but none from before it.
My favourite track was — and still is — “Within You, Without You”. Dad’s was “Lovely Rita Meter Maid”. My sister can’t decide between “Lucy” (one of her iddle names), “She’s Leaving Home” and “A Day in the Life”. Mum’s was “When I’m 64” — she loved the line “Vera, Chuck and Dave”, especially the way Paul sings “Chuck”, and the sentiment too, certainly as coloured by this situation my sister and I knew nothing of then. She lived — it only occurs to me as I write this — to be 69: margaret s (1935-2005)
Which fact is poignant to me in ways that become so much sharper when suffused by all this. I once asked dad, years later, about what new music he and mum might like to listen to. “We don’t really want to listen to new music any more, Mark,” he said. “We want to listen to the old music.” (I wasn’t on ilx when my dad died, and never wrote it up there, maybe I should…)
Cross-posted on ilx, where this evolved as a response someone asking which the best song on the record is — but I can’t separate it from all this flood of memory; both are wound much too deep in the making of me, and I find it literally senseless thinking about such a ranking, it’s just tooo far from how I first experienced the LP.
You can listen over on Silent London here or on iTunes and Stitcher. If you like what you hear, please subscribe and leave a rating or review too. The podcast is presented in association with SOAS Radio by Peter Baran and Pamela Hutchinson.]]>
So join myself, Pamela Hutchinson and special guest Julian Coleman (you can follow him on Twitter here). Listen over on Silent London here or on iTunes and Stitcher. If you like what you hear, please subscribe and leave a rating or review too. The podcast is presented in association with SOAS Radio by Peter Baran and Pamela Hutchinson.]]>
Modern comics events seem to demand endless lead-ins and spin-offs, and sadly Doomsday Clock, from the blockbuster team of Geoff Johns and Gary Frank, is no exception to this trend. Watchmen, the extended prequel to Doomsday Clock, feels wholly unneccessary to 2017’s much-anticipated DC Rebirth (TM) event. For a start, it’s not even by Geoff Johns – how big a clue do you need that DC see ‘Watchmen’ as simply a cash-in? The storyline has been farmed out to a British writer-artist team who are given the task of introducing us to the universe which will “collide” with the DCU in this winter’s mega-event.
It’s an important job and one which might have been suited to a special issue or even an annual-length story, but no – DC had to drag things out to 12 long issues – for comparison purposes, the Death Of Hawkman (in which Hawkman dies) was only alotted 6 issues. Watchmen includes several issues focusing on characters who don’t even survive to take part in Doomsday Clock! And don’t get me started on the sequences set on yet ANOTHER part of the DC multiverse, where pirates still rule the waves – yes, it’s a cool concept for an alternate Earth, but an editor should definitely have stepped in and asked for a bit of clarity.
In general the editorial reins are rather lightly held on Watchmen – for all the criticism Mr DiDio has received for interference, it’s a certainty he wouldn’t have made the basic mistakes here. While Dr Manhattan is clearly Superman and Nite Owl is Batman, it’s very unclear who each of the various Justice Society analogues (the ‘Minutemen’) are meant to be. If this DCU veteran couldn’t follow it, what hope does a new reader have? Also at no point is the membership of the Watchmen clearly delineated, and the team never really come together to solve the threat – an attempt at a clever bait and switch which goes sadly wrong in the hands of this inexperienced creative team.
The threat itself is handled marginally better, though aside from a couple of cool spreads the stiff artwork can hardly stand comparison to previous DC events like Blackest Night and Forever Evil which set the highest standards for realism in superhero action. A little more variation in page layout wouldn’t have hurt!
The story is along the lines of Identity Crisis (a comic those curious about Watchmen should investigate for a REAL universe-shaking interrogation of the superhero form – it’s strictly for adults, though). A hero lies dead and his fellow crime-fighters have to investigate – but might one of their own be responsible? Quicken the pace and introduce some more action and you might have a tense storyline here, but instead the writer is too busy showing off all the backstory he’s worked out for this universe, and there’s a LOT of backstory. I only hope some of this stuff pays off in Doomsday Clock because otherwise it’s yet another rookie error by creator and editor – SHOW DON’T TELL GUYS. If I wanted pages of prose I would read a novelisation. All this background simply obscures the story beats: the creators could learn a lot from modern storytelling in my opinion. Apparently the writer has already vowed never to work with DC again, and frankly it feels like they’ve dodged a bullet. I can’t imagine they were queueing up to work with him after this.
So overall Watchmen is a dud, with no recognisable DCU heroes appearing, and fans of Doomsday Clock should probably save their money for some of the awesome variant covers I expect to be announced. Only a couple of things save Watchmen from being a complete turkey – HERE BE SPOILERS I guess! The squid monster at the end is very cool, though once again a pretentious storytelling decision to cut to AFTER the fight against it lets the comic down. And there is one character who stands out from the rest – a badass hero called Rorschach who is absolutely driven to hunt down evil with zero, and I mean zero, compromise. He gets some extremely cool scenes and if he shows up in Doomsday Clock – which looks unlikely but keep your fingers crossed – expect Johns and Frank to crush it. In the right hands this guy could be a serious breakout star.
But on the whole this is a rip-off and yet another slap in the face to fans. It’s so different in style and substance from what we expect from an epic DCU story in 2017 that it’s almost impossible to see how it’s going to connect to Doomsday Clock. In Johns We Trust – but this is his toughest job yet.
View all my reviews]]>
I hope you enjoy this piece of multimedia content, I certainly enjoyed making and presenting it – we will be back to the written word (and to Popular) before long, I promise.]]>
A Planet Unknown (April 2017)
1. “Watcher Of The Skies” – Genesis (LP: Foxtrot, 1972)
2. “Encryption” – Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah (LP: Ruler Rebel, 2017)
3. “Zukunft” – Julie’s Haircut (LP: Invocation And Ritual Dance Of My Demon Twin, 2017)
4. “Luglio, Agosto, Settembre (Nero)” – Area (LP: Arbeit Macht Frei, 1973)
5. “Desafio” – Arca (LP: Arca, 2017)
6. “Midwinter Rites” – Graeme Miller (LP: The Moomins OST, 1982/2017)
7. “Invocation To The Horned One” – Master Wilburn Burchette (LP: Guitar Grimoire, 1973)
8. “Thruft” – Oto Hiax (LP: S/T, 2017)
9. “Constant Growth Fails” – Hauschka (LP: What If, 2017)
10. “Strangers” – Goth Trad (LP: New Epoch, 2012)
11. “Sea Gulls Audience” – Software (LP: Digital-Dance, 1987)
12. “Loser’s Hymn” – Talaboman (LP: The Night Land, 2017)
13. “Lose Your Love” – Joe Goddard (LP: Electric Lines, 2017)
14. “Thank You” – Mary J Blige (LP: Strength Of A Woman, 2017)
15. “Open Doors” – Lydia Ainsworth (LP: Darling Of The Afterglow, 2017)
16. “Ooh Ooh La La La” – The Raincoats (LP: Moving, 1984)
17. “Martinique” – Martin Denny (LP: Quiet Village, 1959)
18. “Story Of A Heart” – Steps (LP: Tears On The Dancefloor, 2017)
19. “Supreme Nothing” – Tiger Trap (LP: Tiger Trap, 1993)
20. “Lonesome Train” – Johnny Burnette And The Rock N Roll Trio (LP: Johnny Burnette And The Rock N Roll Trio, 1956)
21. “Wrangled” – Angaleena Presley (LP: Wrangled, 2017)
22. “It’s Sweet” – Liz Phair (LP: Liz Phair, 2003)
23. “Figures” – Jessie Reyez (LP: Kiddo, 2017)
24. “Musicawi Silt” – Hailu Mergia and The Walias (LP: Tche Belew, 1977)
25. “Englesia” – Geko (LP: Lionheart, 2017)
26. “Weight In Gold” – Gallant (LP: Ology, 2016)
27. “Rockabye Baby (ft Schoolboy Q)” – Joey Bada$$ (LP: ALL-AMERIKKKAN BADA$$, 2017)
28. “33rd” – cupcakKe (LP: Queen Elizabitch, 2017)
29. “Crushed Glass” – Freddie Gibbs (LP: You Only Live 2wice, 2017)
30. “PRIDE.” – Kendrick Lamar (LP: DAMN., 2017)
Thanks as ever to SOAS Radio, you can listen to the podcast here on Silent London
Or on iTunes here.
Of course I was going back, though. And you can’t have the same epiphany twice – this year I realised what Pop Conference reminded me of was Glastonbury. OK, a Glastonbury where all you have to brave is jetlag, not rivers of mud and piss, and stumbling on the best DJ in the world in the healing fields at 4AM is replaced by catching a presentation about a drag king One Direction tribute act in the quiet of Sunday morning. But something just as surprising and nourishing, if a bit kinder to my mid-40s constitution.
(There’s a structural resemblance, mind you – several people told me how the real party had got started on Wednesday in the hotel bar, and I made a mental note to arrive a day earlier in 2018. So it begins.)
The topic this year was Politics, which in an odd way made for a mellower event, with less challenge and confrontation in the panels I heard this year than last. After all, the presentations at Pop Conference are always political, no matter the topic: perhaps explicitly naming the event’s presiding demon served to remind people of commonalities, not differences, particularly in a political moment where sides are sharply drawn and most, if not all, attendees are on the same one.
Here are quick mentions of some highlights. (I enjoyed everything I saw! But these stand out in the memory.)
Clare O’Connor on Justin Bieber’s use of Christian iconography and symbolism, from his explicit identification with angels to more subtle choices of staging and lighting which implicitly suggest a Christian context.
Tim Quirk telling the story of how his 90s band, Too Much Joy, leapt to the defence of 2 Live Crew when they were in trouble for ‘obscene’ lyrics, covering the songs in question at the same club 2LC had got busted at. The media wouldn’t take the protest seriously; the Florida sheriff did.
Patrick St Michel on Japanese pop responses to Fukushima – while the highly managed idol industry stayed silent (or coy), fringe musicians got angry. Featured extraordinary videos by Japanese reggae veteran Rankin Taxi and independent Idol group Uniform Improvement Committee.
Andy Zax on paranoid records made by the American Right in the 60s, from box sets of 17-hour speeches by the founder of the John Birch Society to conservative attempts to beat the folkies and hippies at their own musical game. A prototype of future (and more successful, sadly) media takeovers.
Charity Singles! Both Chris Molanphy’s chart-oriented survey of the multi-vocal charity jamboree and the entire panel devoted to them on day 2. And still you feel there was more to be discussed. A highlight among highlights was Carl Wilson’s deconstruction of Canada’s mild-mannered and reproachful contribution to the cause, “Tears Are Not Enough”.
Sarah Messabauer’s sterling bit of ethnographic research on Allentown natives’ mixed reactions to Billy Joel’s post-industrial lament “Allentown” – one of the few presentations I saw to foreground the sung-about, not the singer, in political music.
Glenn McDonald’s data machine built to identify which genres, micro-genres, and nanogenres have the most political skew among their listeners. (And why symphonic power metal has the least.)
Keith Harris on the rueful nostalgia of post-9/11 country music, the other side of the coin from ass-kicking nationalism (though still very much the same coin).
Damon Krutowski reframing the free music/paid music debate to be about signal and noise, arguing that signal is cheap and noise worth paying a premium for – a good way of talking about what was lost in the shift from physical media without sounding like a finger-wagging old-timer, and copacetic with the arguments I’ve been having about The Charts.
A fascinating paper by Katherine Meizel about a friend of hers who sold her voice as a vocaloid, and felt very uneasy at how her non-musical vocalisations (laughs, coughs, sighs) were also captured and sold. It expanded into a great discussion of vocal theft and loss in Western culture, from Echo to the Little Mermaid.
Laura Snapes happily naming names during a righteous kicking to the “Where has all the protest music gone?” subgenre of hot takes, whose supposedly right-on request for politically engaged pop just ends up reinforcing the existing hierarchies of the British music biz.
Hazel Sheffield on whether and why Sleaford Mods are mods – tracing the legacy of the 60s mods through Britpop and the post-Britpop disillusionment that plays a part in the bands origins, tying it in to the wider social trends that culminated in Brexit.
Actual dancing about actual architecture in Anna Leszkiewicz’ paper about brutalism and pop videos, focusing on how different acts used the Barbican’s architecture as setting and prop.
(This panel also had me talking about Eurovision and Brexit, which will be up here as soon as I can master the complex technical requirements needed, viz. I used some videos.)
Karen Tongson giving an enthusiastic primer on the Indigo Girls’ work and fandom, in which I learned that I am an Emily, not an Amy.
Eric Weisbard’s reconstruction of the history of pop writing and aesthetics as a pendulum swinging between the sentimental and the vernacular.
Elaine Kathryn Andres exploring the physicality – and the racialised reception – of blues singer Sugar Pie DeSanto, one of the few women blues performers to get much exposure during the European 60s blues boom.
And finally, that awesome paper on ‘boi band’ Every Direction by Jessica Pruett, with interviews with the five drag kings who take on the One Direction roles on stage, talking about how the performances intersect with their offstage sexuality and gender presentation.
So PopCon was an absolute treat, as it always is. Thanks as ever are due to Ann Powers and Eric Weisbard, who organise it, and the rest of the programme committee, and all the speakers and the very helpful and friendly MoPop staff. Should you go? If you have any interest in pop music, and can possibly afford it, yes, yes, yes.
(The photo shows the 22nd April Science March moving past MoPop, the museum the PopCon happens in.)]]>
Took Time Off From My Kingdom (March 2017)
1. “Miles Beyond” – Mahavishnu Orchestra (LP: Birds Of Fire, 1973)
2. “Time Slip” – Horse Lords (LP: Interventions, 2016)
3. “Exuberant Burning” – Earthen Sea (LP: An Act Of Love, 2017)
4. “Rhesus Negative” – Blanck Mass (LP: World Eater, 2017)
5. “Vibsing Ting” – t q d (LP: UKG, 2017)
6. “Give Me A Reason” – Ibibio Sound Machine (LP: Uyai, 2017)
7. “Hands Down” – Dan Hartman (LP: Relight My Fire, 1979)
8. “Atokple” – Serge Beynaud (LP: Accelerate, 2017)
9. “Roll Call ft Mya” – Goldlink (LP: At What Cost, 2017)
10. “Go Back Home” – FKJ (LP: French Kiwi Juice, 2017)
11. “Mornings” – Lowly (LP: Heba, 2017)
12. “In The Heat Of The Night” – Imagination (LP: In The Heat Of The Night, 1982)
13. “Selfish ft Rihanna” – Future (LP: HNDRXX, 2017)
14. “Lucid” – Kelly Lee Owens (LP: Kelly Lee Owens, 2017)
15. “Sora Ni Mau Maboroshi” – Mariah (LP: Utakata No Hibi, 1983)
16. “Lipgloss ft CupcakKe” – Charli XCX (LP: Number 1 Angel, 2017)
17. “Hot Thoughts” – Spoon (LP: Hot Thoughts, 2017)
18. “Puppet Of Wax, Puppet Of Song” – Mick Harvey (LP: Intoxicated Women, 2017)
19. “Sunlight Bathed The Golden Glow” – Felt (LP: The Strange Idols Pattern And Other Stories, 1984)
20. “Sgt. Major” – Shack (LP: Waterpistol, 1995)
21. “Roses Of Picardy” – Frank Sinatra (LP: Sinatra Sings Great Songs From Great Britain, 1962)
22. “The Pain Of Loving You” – Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, and Emmylou Harris (LP: Trio, 1987)
23. “Heartland” – The The (LP: Infected, 1986)
24. “Almost Grown” – Chuck Berry (LP: The Great Twenty-Eight, 1982 (compilation))
25. “Pills” – Sunny Sweeney (LP: Trophy, 2017)
26. “Walkin Up The Road” – Betty Davis (LP: Betty Davis, 1972)
27. “Hungry Ghost” – Hurray For The Riff Raff (LP: The Navigator, 2017)
28. “You” – Stef Chura (LP: Messes, 2017)
29. “Remain” – Jay Som (LP: Everybody Works, 2017)
30. “Chains” – William S Fischer (LP: Circles, 1970)
31. “Astral Plane” – Valeria June (LP: The Order Of Time, 2017)
Keep the recommendations coming!]]>
Myself and Pamela Hutchinson talk politics, poetry, lens flare, crabby acting, snow and inevitably facial hair as we play our cinematic game of top trumps to determine which movie is the best. And your FreakyTrigger correspondant might say the word “interesting” a few too many times. Subscribe on iTunes here:
Or listen on Silent London here: https://silentlondon.co.uk/2017/04/16/sound-barrier-neruda-the-beloved-rogue-1927/
Presented in association with SOAS Radio.]]>
You can listen to it here on Silent London:
Here on iTunes (usual give us a review plea to bump us up search function)
And any suggestions for future pairings let us know, or just come back in a fortnight for the next one. Enjoy.]]>
All of these need further listening to ‘settle down’ into a coherent list but here’s what I’ve dug this far.
1. SPOON – Hot Thoughts (Indie rock vets in lascivious mood)
2. T Q D – UKG (“Bass supergroup” brings the wub wub)
3. SACRED PAWS – Strike A Match (Sunny highlife-inflected indiepop)
4. IBIBIO SOUND MACHINE – Uyai (Afrobeats old and new plus lazer noises)
5. GOLDLINK – At What Cost (Catchy go-go influenced DC hip-hop)
6. SERGE BEYNAUD – Accelerate (Tuneful coupe-decale from Cote D’Ivoire)
7. VALERIE JUNE – The Order Of Time (Oak-aged Americana with cawing vocals)
8. CHARLI XCX – Number 1 Angel (Hyperreal pop plus surprisingly good guest spots)
9. KEHLANI – SweetSexySavage (Slinky, opulent R&B)
10. DUTCH UNCLES – Big Balloon (Herky-jerk nerd pop from Manchester)
11. BLANCK MASS – World Eater (Bludgeoning Fuck Buttons side project)
12. VISIBLE CLOAKS – Reassemblage (Don’t call it vaporwave! PS it’s vaporwave I think.)
13. NOVELLER – A Pink Sunset For No One (Sternly beautiful guitar ‘scapes’)
14. WILEY – Godfather (Wiley gives consistency a try for once)
15. STEF CHURA – Messes (World-weary indiepop with beguiling vocals)
16. LITKU KLEMETTI – Juna Kainnuuseen (Joyful Finnish garage pop)
17. STORMZY – Gang Signs And Prayer (Most accurate LP title on the list)
18. HURRAY FOR THE RIFF RAFF – The Navigator (Politics! Americana dept.)
19. AUSTRA – Future Politics (Politics! Synthpop dept.)
20. MICK HARVEY – Intoxicated Women (Gainsbourg covers with plenty of female guest vocals)
21. SYD – Fin (Moody, spartan R&B)
22. THUNDERCAT – Drunk (Brief vignettes by funky bass virtuoso)
WHAT A WELL-MADE WORLD
Every generation of Pokémon games reacts, inevitably, to the one before. In Gen III’s Hoenn region, nature had the upper hand – man had to compromise and adapt to it, literally carving out his niche. In Sinnoh, home region of Pokémon’s fourth generation and the Diamond and Pearl games, nature has been thoroughly tamed – delved, cultivated, and exploited. The first areas of interest you visit are a working mine, a flowery meadow and a wind farm. None of the towns have the wild, precarious character of the Hoenn settlements – instead, they are solid and well-established, to the extent that they seem to blur together. Oreburgh, Veilstone, Hearthome… it’s one well-rendered stony town after another.
Sinnoh is based, like all three prior regions, on an area of Japan, but for this Westerner the geography it most reminds me of is Switzerland – a combination of mountainous, cold, sometimes damp terrain and a refined, genteel outlook. Features like Floaroma Town and the Pokémon Mansion are tasteful, even fancy. There’s a hotel and leisure complex to explore, and even an exclusive park you can walk your Pokémon in – if they’re cute enough. Sinnoh is the most developed, and in some ways most placid of the regions. You get the feeling the burghers of Sinnoh are a stout and prosperous lot.
This isn’t to say Sinnoh is free of geographical incident – far from it. In Ruby and Sapphire, the addition of weather – and the greater graphics capacity of the GBA – let the designers run wild with a region that was a magnificent but senseless patchwork of terrain, like Flash Gordon’s Mongo. Sinnoh feels better planned and more credible. It’s a mountainous region, which means snow, lakes, and plains. Everything springs from a single feature – the mighty peak of Mount Coronet, which splits the region in two, and whose ascent marks the climax of the game’s main plot. Sinnoh is the most coherent Pokémon region – it makes sense like Kanto and Johto did, but also manages to fit in some dramatically different, highly atmospheric areas.
It’s also the most physically demanding region, in terms of the in-game requirements. On top of the standard progress blockers – trees, rocks and water – there are steep slopes and foggy areas, which need new moves to negotiate. And there are two sections – the swampy areas in and around the Great Marsh, and the snowbound routes in the north of Sinnoh – where the game specifically impedes the player’s ordinary movement, making them stick in the mud or slowing them down.
Like an awful lot else in Diamond and Pearl, this is a clever idea that quite quickly becomes irritating through repetition. The first time you get stuck in the mud, it’s atmospheric. By the second or third, it’s more skill-free button mashing in a series with no shortage of it. These games play slow anyhow – everything from saving the game to the shrinking of your HP bar seems to take longer. Some of this is the programmers getting to grips with the DS (the save glitch was ironed out in third game Pokémon Platinum), but some of it is the consequence of a series which is becoming bogged down in detail. The curse of combat in Ruby and Sapphire – extra animations every round due to weather, then more extra animations thanks to Pokemon Abilities – returns, except it all feels even longer.
BY CALCULATION I’M WAY TOO MUCH
Diamond and Pearl carry this rococo design philosophy over into the rest of the game, too. The Gen IV games are defined by excess – in new features, new mechanics, and a glut of extra evolutions and legendaries – but this excess is squeezed into an increasingly tight game formula. For instance, this generation is the apex of the HM (Hidden Machine) era: Rock Climb and Defog join Surf, Fly et al as field moves, giving you fewer team options as you have to cart around creatures who know all these. And while the game contains a bunch of new evolutions for old monsters, they evolve in particularly fiddly and unintuitive ways. Woolly mammoth monster Mamoswine is, as it happens, my favourite beast in the series. To get him you need to find a 2nd Gen Pokémon and level it up after it’s learned a certain move which it has to be taught by an NPC tutor. None of this is intuitive, or explained in-game: Pokémon at this point is assuming a meta-game of information trading and online searching.
Plenty of stuff is explained in-game, though – at length. Contests return with more complex rules, berry patches reappear, Pokeblocks get a makeover as Poffins, and there’s an entire ‘Underground’ section which feels like an old-school Wumpus Hunt type of game and replaces and expands on the Secret Bases from Gen III. As with the original Contests in Ruby and Sapphire, you can opt out of much of this – but it all makes the game seem that much fussier, and whether you join in or not you’ll still have to sit through long stretches of NPCs describing it.
That’s in addition to plenty of time spent listening to people explaining the plot. Which, as in Ruby and Sapphire, revolves around ultra-rare legendary Pokémon and a villainous team’s attempts to exploit them. Yet again, it’s a scaling up of the role of legendaries. In Blue, legendaries were simply local colour, exotic super-pokémon whose capture showed how far you’d come as a trainer. In Gold, they had a proper backstory but were still tangential to the plot. In Ruby, they moved to the centre, and in Pearl, the entire third act involves chasing around multiple locations trying to stop the evil Team Galactic abusing three different legendary Pokémon to gain control of even more powerful ones.
Given how railroaded any Pokémon game is, it’s impressive how well these sequences work – from the moment the region is rocked by an explosion while you’re in the Canalave Library, to the denouement of the Team Galactic plotline, there’s a real momentum to the story. It’s a race against time that is, in any gameplay sense, entirely fake – you can spend weeks in between destinations training up your Pokémon and still arrive at Lake Snowpoint seconds too late – but it jacks up the excitement considerably after what’s been a rather tortuous game.
The race to stop Team Galactic is the most successful example of something the games have been trying to do all along. Diamond and Pearl, like their predecessors, want you to explore their geographies and moods, but they also want the games to feel a little less linear. They have occasional branching paths, but mostly they try and achieve this by filling your adventure with loops and there-and-back-again quests where you’re continually checking out new locations only to be sent back to the older ones.
While other Pokémon games resemble a circuit, the Sinnoh games are like tracing the petals of a flower, constant journeys out from and back to a set of central locations – Mount Coronet, Hearthome City and the Valor Lakefront. This helps Sinnoh seem like a working, well-planned region, but hurts the satisfying sense of progress central to most Pokémon games. Once again, Diamond and Pearl feel fiddly and overloaded with detail. But once you’re rushing – or dawdling, just as you like – to stop a terrorist threat, the back-and-forth nature of Sinnoh’s mapping feels more legitimate.
The terrorists in question are another place Diamond and Pearl try something new. Like the Legendary Pokémon, and alongside them, the villain team have changed their role. As the storylines have shifted gear from a narrative of personal mastery – being the very best, winning the league – to something more along the lines of epic fantasy quests, they’ve run up against the problem of poor antagonists. The charm of Team Rocket was that they were small-stakes racketeers and crooks, but that’s not enough when you want your villains to threaten the world (whether you should want this is another question). Team Aqua and Team Magma’s farcical opposition made thematic sense but reduced both teams to packs of equal and opposite idiots, with the plot set in motion by their naivety more than their villainy.
With Team Galactic, though, we get a new kind of villain team. They feel like they’ve stepped out of Marvel Comics or James Bond films – a super-science society whose plans, it’s clear from the beginning, go far beyond petty larceny. There are hints – particularly in Pokémon Platinum – of rivalries and factions within the group, and there is a hierarchy of grunts and Commanders that makes some kind of sense. They have an overall air of fascistic competence and malice quite lacking in Ruby and Sapphire’s teams. It helps that Cyrus, their leader, actually gives you a tough fight or two.
The elevation of the team boss into the story’s primary antagonist is linked to another change: a permanent shift in the role of the Rival. Barry, your occasional foil in Diamond and Pearl, is not remotely your enemy – in fact, he’s a great chum of yours and helps you out (if ineffectually) in the plot. We had two agreeable rivals in Ruby and Sapphire, but they were still people you met on your journey and whose main importance to the plot was battling you. With Barry the new rival role is set: a friend who will test your strength occasionally but help out too.
Why does this shift happen, particularly when in the first two generations the Rival is the most memorable NPC around? Some of it is just that Game Freak likes to emphasise that the Pokémon world is a benign one, where co-operation is the rule and antagonism the exception. Friendly rivals are a way a game about battle can avoid being a game about domination.
FOR WHAT GOOD WILL LOVE DO ME?
But there’s another, thematic reason. All through the series the Pokémon games like to give the player character analogues – people who stand as examples of what not to do as a trainer, or represent paths not taken by the player. In the early generations these are the rivals: Gary Oak/Blue is the overconfident, arrogant trainer; Wally is the underconfident trainer who doesn’t realise his own ability; Silver is an angry trainer who uses his Pokemon as tools of his vengeance. The differences with the player here aren’t differences in battling styles (which the game’s AI can barely gesture at anyway), they’re in-game differences in philosophy.
For the first three Generations, the rival’s role is to demonstrate that the game’s conception of a harmonious, kind relationship between – well, take your pick: man and nature, bosses and employers, children and pets, teammates, different elements of society – is the correct path. But as soon as the team boss becomes the antagonist, they inherit that job. (X and Y is a partial exception – there certainly is a huge philosophical gulf between Lysandre and the rest of the game, but for once this distance isn’t really expressed via the metaphor of Pokémon training.)
So the important thing about Cyrus isn’t so much his actual plans – which fit his Marvel science-villain archetype – but how he comes to them. For the first time, we encounter a relative of the boss, Cyrus’ grandfather, who tells us that Cyrus was a talented boy and great student, but he was asocial and over-pressured by his parents. His subsequent rebellion took the – somewhat extreme – form of a decision to destroy the universe and replace it with one with perfect order and no emotion.
In other words, he’s another failed player analogue – this time operating at a more meta level: the player who wants complete control with none of the communication and sharing that Pokémon likes to promote. Cyrus wants the cheat codes to the Universe. There’s obviously a lot to unpack with him, impressively so since his actual dialogue is dull and melodramatic. There’s a contemporary Japanese worry about pressuring kids, and how brilliance can tip into nihilism. There’s a rather less attractive thread about how Cyrus doesn’t get emotion and prefers machines to people, a stereotype of neuro-atypicality. And there’s the fact that this solipsistic control freak is the villain in the Pokémon game where Game Freak are taking their first tentative steps towards online gameplay, finding ways to open up their own neatly structured, perfect worlds.
Cyrus’ villainy is about control, but also about cheating and hacking – rewriting Pokémon’s code on an in-game level. Within the neat, ordered, setting of Sinnoh this is expressed as a plot which contrasts legitimate energy – the windworks, the ironworks, even the mine – with the illegitimate energy Cyrus wants to exploit by abusing Pokémon.
Cyrus’ experiments are presented as fundamentally wrong on a wider, more cosmic level, too. There’s a mystical side to what he’s doing, harnessing Pokémon who represent higher human qualities (will, spirit and knowledge) to open a portal on top of Sinnoh’s highest, most mystical place. But the place was there waiting to be used: all through the game the player has found fragmentary details of Sinnoh’s (and the Pokémon world’s) creation myths which imply that primal forces lurk beneath the region’s well-ordered exterior. Cyrus’ plot is not just science gone wrong, it’s science gone wrong in a particular way, disturbing the remnants of an older cosmic order which Cyrus has accurately realised is waiting to be unleashed. And the Pokémon he wants to harness go further than any we’ve seen before, controlling Time and Space itself.
The archetypes the series is toying with here are miles away from Pokémon’s previous reference points. Cyrus’ plot thread is a Lovecraftian one about cosmic horror – if you go Too Far in your search for knowledge and power you unlock things man was not meant to know. In PokémonPokemon Platinum this becomes explicit: Cyrus succeeds in opening his gate to the “Distortion World”, a reality where the laws of physics (expressed by game controls and directions) break down and which is haunted by Giratina, a kind of cosmic worm who is the most Cthulhoid creature the series has ever created and was apparently banished from our dimension for some Hadaean crime. In opening the Distortion World, Cyrus’ search for control has corrupted reality itself, and the player has to put it back.
The strand of cosmic weirdness of Diamond, Pearl and Platinum overflows the rest of the plot. It’s the endpoint of its commitment to excess – a surfeit of themes, ideas, side quests, mechanics, evolution methods and artificial obstacles. The weird aspects both work and don’t – they mesh badly with the setting and the rest of the story, but that also makes them more memorable and uncanny.
But the big question about Diamond and Pearl is what all this excess is in aid of: why did Game Freak make these games so fiddly and baroque? I have the sense that Diamond and Pearl has a case of overcompensation – that it’s a game slightly ashamed of its formulaic aspects: the battle system, the trading, the 8 badge quest. It doesn’t yet feel able to break out from these so instead it gives people too many other, weaker, things to do, hoping that the different gameplay styles will widen its appeal without the need for a major rethink becoming apparent.
Of course, the games are also a response to the new technical challenges of the DS – Pokémon was built for a single-screen game and dealing with the DS’ second screen (and especially its wifi connection) offers a much bigger challenge than adapting to colour did. This isn’t truly a challenge Game Freak passes – particularly in terms of integrating the second screen – and it will trouble them for several generations to come.
As of writing, Diamond and Pearl feel like awkward, misfit games. If you buy a new 3DS, they are the earliest Pokémon cartridges you can actually play on it, and compared to the step changes in storyline, graphics, and user experience the next three generations bring, they feel horribly unwieldy. There’s much talk of a remake of the games in Gen VII, which makes commercial sense in some ways – Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire were major hits – but would also be a kind of rebuke. Diamond and Pearl remakes would be the first time Game Freak have redone games which you could, in theory, still just find and play on the same machine.
And fitting Diamond and Pearl into the Sun and Moon template would require more than just graphics and stat tweaks. The two generations have completely opposite ideas about gameplay – Diamond and Pearl is all about making it artificially harder to do things; Sun and Moon goes out of its way to be fair to the player and offer a smooth playing experience which lets the game’s genuine difficulties surface naturally in the course of the story. A remake would be more of a rescue job than any of the other revisitations the series has enjoyed.
Yet there are continuities between the two generations. Sinnoh had the potential to be what Alola eventually was – a region that feels genuinely organic and well-planned, a living setting. Gameplay choices – and to some extent the plot – meant it never achieved that potential. But it deserved better, and perhaps might receive it. For now, Diamond and Pearl are the worst main series Pokémon games (though the overall quality is high enough that this is faint damnation).
But the issues the Sinnoh games were trying to address were real ones that the series had to deal with. What makes a good villain in a kids’ monster-collecting game? How do you attract a wide variety of audiences with the same core gameplay? How do you make a region feel real? How do you incorporate online play? And most of all, what the hell do we do with over 400 Pokemon? Diamond and Pearl were asking the right questions, even if most of its answers were lacking. With the DS proving popular enough to support two generations of Pokémon games, the next instalment would allow for some far more radical responses.
A SINNOH GAZETEER
OPENING SEQUENCE: Diamond and Pearl have one of the best opening sequences in the series – you’re dragged off by your friend on a hunt for legendary Pokémon, a minor transgression which leads to the beginning of your adventure. It’s a nice variant on the rather staid coming-of-age Pokémon quest, which promises a game that pays a bit more attention to narrative and motivation. (A promise only half-kept.)
FLOARAMA TOWN AND VALLEY WINDWORKS: Sinnoh is a well-planned and thought-out region overall but individual setpieces are a bit lacking compared to previous games. After the geographical crazy quilt of Hoenn, the designers seem short on inspiration. But some locations do stick in the memory: the vast fields of flowers in Floarama Town and the neighbouring Valley Windworks cement the impression that Sinnoh is a gentle (and genteel) place to spend time.
POKETCH: The “Poketch” is Game Freak’s first answer to how to use the lower screen on a DS, a problem they repeatedly have trouble with. The solution this time is to use it for a bunch of bonus minor tools that the standard interface doesn’t have room for: step counters, Pokémon compatability checkers, reminders of the last beasts you caught, and so on. These are presented as apps on a watch, which is a rather neat bit of futurism for 2006. And most have some genuine use – the one that shows you where ripe berries are, for instance. The only problem is that switching between the apps involves cycling through all of them, and as you get well over a dozen it becomes yet another feature that’s too fiddly for its own good. Almost brilliant, like so much in the game.
SINNOH UNDERGROUND: The second use of the double-screen system is more ambitious: using it in combination with the DS’ nascent internet capabilities to provide a whole secondary gameworld for multiplayer online play. In the Sinnoh Underground you could mine for treasure, discover and set traps for other players, and take part in capture-the-flag games, assuming you could find anyone else online. For players in the first month or so of play in Pokémon-heavy areas – Tokyo, for instance – you can imagine the Underground working well as Pokémon’s first true multiplayer environment. But – and this will come to be a familiar complaint – for most, it was a lonesome experience, wandering around featureless tunnels only to occasionally bump into a trap it turned out you’d laid yourself on some previous visit. There’s an eerie feel to the Underground tunnels – supposedly dug by one man (“the Underground Man”), they feel post-apocalyptic (or maybe pre-apocalyptic), a whole Morlock labyrinth under the game’s elegant surface, with their own rules and currency. But nothing you do in this netherworld affects Sinnoh proper – with one exception…
HALLOWED TOWER: If you talk to other players in the Sinnoh Underground, it has a gradual impact on one particular overworld location – a small, crumbling pile of stones off to the side of one grassy route. As you talk to more people, the description of the location alters, and it slowly becomes clear the place is haunted. Speak to 32 people, and investigate the tower, and an item in your possession – the Odd Keystone – releases the ghostly Spiritomb (“A Pokémon that was formed by 108 spirits”). Spiritomb is one of the signature Pokémon of Diamond and Pearl – it takes real effort to get, and it’s used by the Champion in your final battle. But why does talking to strangers underground disturb the spirits above? The link is – like a lot in these games – an entirely arbitrary detail, one you’d be unlikely to hit on without online research. But unlike most of the detail, it has something uncanny about it: it feels like there should be an occult connection between the deserted underworld and the bound spirits of the damned. It chimes with one of the games’ hidden themes – the idea of the corners of this neatly-planned region holding ancient secrets, things that don’t quite fit.
BUDDY DUNGEONS: At points in Diamond and Pearl you find yourself involuntarily teamed up with an NPC to trek through an area – like a forest, mine or island. These people fight by your side and heal you up after every battle. With such abilities on tap, you might think they don’t really need you at all, but it’s a painless way to get through maze-like locarions and grind a few levels. It’s also, like the shifting role of the rival, a demonstration of one of the series’ emergent themes: Pokémon is meant to be a game of co-operation and friendship, not just solo success. This worthy aim has been hard for Game Freak to realise, since the entire point of the gameplay is sending beasts into endless fights. The buddy areas are no exception: as Cheryl and her indefatigable Chansey blow away yet another creature with Egg Bomb, you mostly feel that the game is needlessly holding your hand.
SUPER CONTESTS: Pokémon has never been explicitly marketed as a boys’ game. Its implicit targeting is another matter – the lazy chauvinism of videogame design originally giving us yet another male default protagonist, and the adherence to formula meaning that the games take a long time to shake off the central motif of a young boy breaking away from his mother. It’s true that if the videogames had been developed in America, their mix of cutesy, cool and strange Pokémon might have tilted more to the violent and monstrous in quest for disposable boy income, and the games were such a success partly because they didn’t take this route. It’s also true that after 21 years the face of the franchise is still Mr. Ash Ketchum.
Anyhow, Pokémon has a player base that is (or was as of Black and White) around one-third female, and as the 00s progressed, the designers (all male) made occasional attempts to appeal to them. This seems like the best explanation for Super Contests in Diamond and Pearl, an expansion of the contest concept which feels exactly like what a stereotypical ‘girls’ game’ version of Pokémon would look like. There’s a dress-up round, a singing and dancing round, and a talent show round. There’s even a cooking minigame, which you go through every time you want to feed and groom your beasts. The anime reinforces the gendering of contests by having the main female characters (Ash’s friend Dawn and Team Rocket’s Jessie) become obsessed with them. Meanwhile in the games, they are the first thing to get your Mom out of the house.
There are two problems with this. One is that, broadly, girls who play Pokemon like it for the same reasons boys do – catching and evolving the animals, winning badges, becoming the very best, and so on. If you don’t enjoy that stuff, there’s very little reason to play the games at all. If someone of any gender is put off the games by the emphasis on battling, you won’t win them back with a third-rate rhythm action minigame. The second problem is that the Contests are even less integrated with the main game this time – they’re simply another bunch of features in a title already stuffed with them. And it’s not like the minigames are good – yes, it’s great fun dressing your Pokémon up with ridiculous accessories, but the dancing and cooking sections are a chore.
VEILSTONE GAME CORNER: Speaking of minigames, Diamond and Pearl also see the final (so far) appearance of a Pokémon staple, the game corner, where you can gamble endlessly on slot machines in the hope of racking up enough coins to grab rare Pokémon or moves as prizes. The Game Corners made no pretence of being anything beyond an in-game gambling simulator, and are a reliably joyless experience. For all that it’s hard to imagine anyone becoming addicted to one, they fell foul of gambling regulations in South Korea and Europe. They returned one last time, as a game of skill in the Gold and Silver remakes, and were far more entertaining. But by then Game Corners were more trouble than they were worth. With the villain teams moving onto greater things than racketeering, any in-game purpose for them faded.
SOLACEON TOWN: Sinnoh’s surface placidity finds its best expression in the gloriously sleepy vibe of Solaceon Town, a kind of Little House On The Prairie themed town where the grass grows high and assorted ranchhands and farmgirls welcome you. Pokémon had tried farmland areas before – there’s a ranch in Johto – but the old-timey feel of Solaceon Town is its most successful attempt. So successful that at least two areas in future games feel like straight lifts of it.
HOTEL GRAND LAKE: At the other end of the scale from Solaceon’s rural folksiness, the hotel complex at the Valor Lakefront is the first successful realisation of anotherPokémon Pokemon trope – the swanky leisure resort area where assorted NPCs relax, generally oblivious to the world-shaking events taking place in the main plotline. Like Floarama Town, the sprawling Hotel Grand Lake feels idiosyncratically Sinnoh-ish in its fussy gentility, and for once even the game’s finicky hidden paths and hard-to-reach areas feel earned. After all, you’re in the playground of the ultra-rich, who value their privacy and don’t want to open themselves up to a gym challenger on a rampage. The Hotel also includes something that will become an ever-more-regular feature – the NPC who talks happily of the regions from earlier games, lending the “Pokémon World” a gauze of surface cohesion, even if inter-regional travel is strictly verboten to the player.
THE GREAT MARSH: In place of a Safari Zone stocked with hard-to-reach Pokémon, Sinnoh has the Great Marsh, which makes a lot more sense as a nature reserve, but whose very realism also makes it rather less fun. In the Safari Zone, the joy is never quite knowing whether you’ve met everything and what bizarre and rare beast might spring out next. The Great Marsh, on the other hand, is just another environment, its Pokemon a parade of sensibly swampy creatures. Still, it’s beautifully visualised, and the viewing platform and miniature trains through the mire make it feel vast.
THE BLOWN-UP LAKE: Sinnoh’s geography is centred on its lakes and mountains, and the game’s central plot involves ping-ponging between lakes, trying to stop Team Galactic. But there’s a twist: this time, you fail, and in spectacular fashion. Team Galactic manage to detonate a bomb at Lake Valor, and the resulting scene of devastation gets the game’s final act underway. Lake Valor after the bomb is one of the most striking locations in any Pokemon game – the pools of water and gasping, flapping Magikarp feel as shocking as a game aimed at pre-teens can reasonably be. By this point, Magikarp is a much-loved franchise mascot, so this is a terror attack on something at the heart of the series. Nothing else in Diamond and Pearl – not even the climactic fights – really matches this sense of dislocation and wrongness.
CRASHER WAKE: Every Pokémon region has a few memorable gym leaders, as well as some who got that way only via anime treatment (there’s no way Misty would be a series icon based on her walk-on role in Red and Blue itself). But a lot of them you only care about when you’re battling them and a gym leader you actually want to see more of is seriously rare. Step forward Crasher Wake, the boss of the Pastoria City Gym, a delightfully bumptious fellow who combines running a gym with a career as a masked wrestler. Wake is a treat – loud, hearty, and self-mocking, Brian Blessed as a Pokémon trainer, and it’s obvious the scripters have had a hell of a time writing him. He’s such an asset it’s a shame he doesn’t play a bigger role in the plot.
SNOW ROUTES: Diamond and Pearl are so obsessed with hindering you – via fog, marsh, and obstacles – that it’s remarkable their most extreme move in this direction works as well as it does. But the snow routes – designed to show off the game’s new weather condition, Hail – are truly effective. As a player you’re almost blind, pushing through the map with visibility reduced to a handful of squares and constantly threatened by monsters and trainers (who have skis, the swine). The sight of a well-lit cabin halfway up this trackless path is a genuine, joyful relief. The games have always had dark areas which are similarly hard to navigate, but you had an in-game mechanism for dispelling those. The snow routes are better because they’re merciless, because they summon memories of scenes we know from TV and films, and because the gradual worsening of conditions is so effective in creating atmosphere. No Pokémon location since has been so brutal.
MOUNT CORONET: Yet another example of a Sinnoh idea that should be great but falls flat in execution. Mount Coronet is a powerful, resonant concept – the tallest mountain in the Pokémon universe, with mysterious ruins at the summit which can even touch other worlds. Its final ascent is – quite rightly – the climax of the main plot. But the actual playing experience has very little of this mythic dimension. From the player’s perspective, Mount Coronet is just a really vast grind of a cave, with the particularly annoying monsters that tend to crowd such places. Some of this is a case of decor – the game doesn’t have the capabilities to dress the location in ways that could make it feel as monumental as it wants to be. Since every Pokémon game already ends with a gruelling slog through a cave – Victory Road – all Mount Coronet does is double the amount of final-act spelunking you have to endure.
CYNTHIA: Diamond and Pearl have plenty of flaws, but they do boast the series’ best Champion. Cynthia isn’t just a truly tough end-of-game opponent, she’s a Champion that does her region proud, a presence through the game which brings its themes to life and restores some of its mystique. Cynthia is Cyrus’ conceptual opposite – someone who is equally obsessed with the mysteries and origins lurking beyond Sinnoh’s elegant exterior, but out of a love of knowledge rather than power. (In meta-game terms, she’s the dedicated player, not the cheat). She continues the mentoring role that Steven, the Hoenn Champion, adopted, but it suits her better. She’s a more enigmatic figure, magical even, rather than just some dude outsourcing their actual job to a small child. Cynthia has shown up in almost every game since – she’s only absent for X and Y – generally as a super-tough post-game opponent, and she has a good claim to be Diamond and Pearl’s most enduring character.
HALL OF ORIGINS: The Hall Of Origins is the final excess in Diamond And Pearl, one last word from the uncanny. It’s a location which it’s impossible to legally reach, an extra-dimensional space in which you can catch God. Or rather, Arceus, the “Alpha Pokémon”, who created the Pokémon Universe from an egg. Arceus is itself an insane escalation – a Pokémon who can be any type, with the game’s highest stats. (God looks a bit like a cosmic goat, if you were wondering). It was ultimately given away directly to players who went and saw one of the Pokemon movies, and its original distribution to players was botched for prosaic reasons involving glitches and patches. But in one sense, this botched distribution completes the game better than it could have if things had gone to Game Freak’s plan.
Originally, you would access Arceus by playing a mysterious item, the Azure Flute – it “emits a sound not of this world” and summons an actual stairway to heaven, at the top of which is the Hall Of Origin, and Arceus. Summoning the Universe’s Creator by the nameless pipings of a flute is Lovecraftian enough, but made more so by the fact the Azure Flute is a genuinely forbidden item. It was never given away to players. You have to hack the game’s code to obtain it and trigger the event. Cyrus, in other words, was absolutely right: cheating really will help you break down the dimensions and gain enormous power. The inaccessibility becomes the point: the Azure Flute and the Hall of Origins form the ultimate occult space within a game which is all about the mysterious, the excessive, the extra. Just like Arceus himself, the Hall Of Origin stands on the far shore of the Pokémon series’ internal mythology.]]>
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.
Or to be more exact, it used to play two roles. It had a role as a neutral record of consumer activity, and it had a role as a bundle of songs which existed as a cultural artefact in its own right, a snapshot of “pop” that was entertaining and diverse enough to get people interested. There’s no reason these two roles have to converge. In fact they often don’t: there are lots of neutral records of consumer activity which don’t achieve ‘cultural artefact’ status as a bundle. The list of Top 10 UK leisure attractions, for instance, is of immense interest to the leisure industry but has no salience in its own right – it’s just a bunch of places which doesn’t change very much. Meanwhile, the Turner Prize shortlist is a bundle with a strong claim to cultural artefact-hood but clearly it’s got sod all to do with consumer activity.
Still, the consumer record and cultural artefact roles did in fact converge in the UK Top 40 singles chart, to a degree I don’t think was matched anywhere or anywhen else. But the nexus points where it could most fully play the artefact role – like Top Of The Pops – gradually vanished, and technology meant the things the record role needed to measure changed. And so the two aspects diverged.
But the format of the chart itself – a weekly bundle of 40 songs – didn’t change. It became a ghost form, no longer fit for purpose as a cultural artefact but haunted by the memory and expectation of being one, and the Sheerageddon is one weird result of this: the chart is in fact only newsworthy now when it looks broken.
Growing up my cultural life was full of these kind of bundles – the charts, Top Of The Pops, the music press, and then further afield newspapers, terrestrial TV channels, commercial breaks, even libraries. Packages where you would come for one thing and be exposed to plenty of others, because that’s how they worked. The attraction of the bundle – the feeling that this unasked-for exposure is productive, that it creates unexpected encounters and serendipitous outcomes – is sunk very deeply into me as a lover of pop culture. It’s the feeling that made me take on a project like Popular in the first place.
But of course, the last decade or so has been tough on these old bundles. Their operating logic was the idea of serving different audiences – “You lot like this, and you other lot like that, so let’s have some of both.” Of course the NME knew that most of its audience wanted to read about Morrissey. But some of its audience wanted to read about De La Soul. The most effective and successful bundles resolved disputes between different audiences by appealing to some higher arbitration – sales, in the case of the charts; an ideal of newsworthiness, in the case of a newspaper. Even if this arbitration was, well, arbitrary, it served its purpose of creating a patchwork, a more diverse bundle.
What has killed those bundles? Porosity. As soon as the individual components became easier to access than the package – and just as important, as soon as you could SEE which individual components were being accessed more, and by whom – the old-school heterogenous bundle that I grew up on was screwed, a victim of the corrosive implications of attention metrics. One of the early evangelical texts of the web, The Cluetrain Manifesto, argued for a more human, customer-centric approach to business by proclaiming that “markets are conversations”. Lurking unstated beneath that hopeful statement was its brutal inverse – cultural conversations turned out to be markets.
The old bundle was a necessary way of keeping up with something in an age of limited distribution, and the happy price you paid was that you might discover more than you wanted to. But bundles per se have not gone away – they still have one enormous advantage, which is that they’re so convenient. The bundles which have arisen in the 2010s operate on a different principle, though. It’s that of the Amazon recommendation list or the Spotify algorithm – “People who like THIS also like THAT”. Spotify editorial playlists, indeed, are a great example – those things on the homepage like “Rap Caviar” or “Grime Shutdown” or “Future Pop” are bundles like the Top 40 once was, but their mission is subtly different: discovery within a pre-defined range.
The bundles my kids will grow up with are things like Lootcrate, the service by which ‘geeks’ who subscribe to it get a monthly box of assorted tat – sorry, cool merch – from whichever geek-friendly IP has product it wants to shift. Lootcrate amps up the ritual of discovery and surprise – it’s a service built around the idea of “unboxing”, the delighted revelation of new stuff – while strictly regulating the possibility of a truly serendipitous encounter for its 600,000 and rising subscribers. It’s a monthly box of delights which only contains a single trick.
Lootcrate got $18m in venture capital funding last year, so it’s a model with muscle behind it, which investors (including Robert Downey Jr, who knows a thing or two about what gets geeks going) see as the future. For me, these new bundles make me feel old and uselessly nostalgic, ready to take up cudgels against the modern on behalf of my own adolescence: a mug’s game however you package it. But Lootcrate and playlists have one major advantage over the bundles I knew: they are functional. A glance at the Top 40 tells you that my old haunts can no longer make that claim.]]>
I Always Had Such Awful Taste (February 2017)
1. “Buzq Blues” – Acid Arab (LP: Musique De France, 2016)
2. “Fast Food” – Fjaak (LP: Fjaak, 2017)
3. “Mr. Skeng” – Stormzy (LP: Gang Signs And Prayer, 2017)
4. “Them Changes” – Thundercat (LP: Drunk, 2017)
5. “Lake By The Ocean” – Maxwell (LP: BlackSUMMERS’night, 2016)
6. “Bully Of The Earth” – Jidenna (LP: The Chief, 2017)
7. “Pheremone” – Prince (LP: Come, 1994)
8. “Body” – Syd (LP: Fin, 2017)
9. “Valve (Revisited)” – Visible Cloaks (LP: Reassemblage, 2017)
10. “Cool Night In Paris” – Lewis (LP: L’Amour, 1984)
11. “Marcellino” – Luv’ (LP: Lots Of Luv’, 1979)
12. “Gotta Go Home” – Boney M (LP: Oceans Of Fantasy, 1979)
13. “Oh Yeah” – Dutch Uncles (LP: Big Balloon, 2017)
14. “Jj” – Priests (LP: Nothing Feels Natural, 2017)
15. “Makkarirakkautta” – Litku Klemetti (LP: Juna Kainuuseen, 2017)
16. “Strange Warnings” – Rose Elinor Dougall (LP: Stellular, 2017)
17. “Crying On The Bathroom Floor” – MUNA (LP: About U, 2017)
18. “Nothing” – Sacred Paws (LP: Strike A Match, 2017)
19. “City-Crazy” – Bridget St John (LP: Songs For The Gentle Man, 1970)
20. “The Other Side Of Town” – Curtis Mayfield (LP: Curtis!, 1970)
21. “Stay” – Rufus ft Chaka Khan (LP: Street Player, 1979)
22. “Do Like You Do In New York” – Boz Scaggs (LP: Middle Man, 1980)
23. “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” – Vanilla Fudge (LP: Vanilla Fudge, 1967)
24. “Ui” – Mara Balls (LP: Vuorten Taa, 2015)
25. “Rituals” – Noveller (LP: A Pink Sunset For No One, 2017)
26. “Sister Green Eyes” – Josefin Ohrm and The Liberation (LP: Mirage, 2016)
27. “Nannuflay” – Tinariwen (LP: Elwan, 2017)
Recommendations for anything I might have missed in February are warmly welcome in the comments!]]>
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.
That was then. Eight years on, much had changed. Most obviously, Oasis now were the establishment – almost the only remaining British rock group who could guarantee hits and sales. Meanwhile, their artistic fire had conspicuously gone out. The hooks dried up and where they once alchemised the past they now merely and habitually quoted it. And finally, the cultural landscape they were operating in had shifted. The battle with Blur, a media confection the Gallaghers happily dived into, set Oasis’ molten populism against Blur’s art school detachment (one album past both bands’ peak). But Blur and the other Britpop bands turned out to be the last flare-out of the art school lineage as a major commercial force in British pop. An older light entertainment tradition represented by stage school performers (and now reality TV graduates) was now resurgent.
All of this made the likelihood of Oasis producing great records again very low. They had an industry happy to push whatever they did as a return to form, and a fan base ready to accept even their lowest-grade work as plainly and inevitably superior to ‘manufactured pop’. There was no incentive for them to make an effort or change the formula, even if they could have. So they didn’t, and you get “The Hindu Times”, named for no reason other than the lead guitar sounds a bit like a sitar.
This is laziness bordering on contempt, a band trundling along in second gear and telling the world they’re racing. For all that, “The Hindu Times” isn’t a terrible record. It’s marginally the best Oasis number one since 1997, and does indeed clear the mighty bar of being better than “Anything Is Possible”. But next to any of the early fiery stuff, it’s another aimless slog.
The problems aren’t hard to diagnose. After “Go Let It Out”, this is another track proving Liam Gallagher’s voice has turned from the band’s fuel into their biggest liability – he sounds bored out of his skull, and the cramped melody of “The Hindu Times” and its flaccid brain/vein/rain rhymes only make that clearer. But the reason for those lyrics is the same reason the guitar is doing a spot of Eastern cosplay – the song is trying to be specifically Beatley, and its obvious model is “Rain”.
“Rain” is a key track for Oasis in general – Liam’s proto-Oasis band was named The Rain, and its aggressively drawn-out vowels are the Rosetta Stone for his entire vocal approach. It’s one of the bits of the high 60s Oasis and their soundalikes drew most inspiration from – psychedelia, but run through a draggy, heavy, earthbound filter that suited 90s sensibilities better than the more whimsical end of psych. The fact that the band so overtly drew on it at this late stage might be a symptom of creative exhaustion but might also be to do with the arrival of Andy Bell from Ride, another musician with a proud reverence for 1966. Compared to Noel’s other attempts to go back to the source, “The Hindu Times” has more in common with “All Around The World” than “Setting Sun”: the song drones, lifted up by its riff then pulled back down by a pedestrian tune and lyric. Wikipedia – rather generously – compares it to the band’s “Rock N Roll Star”, but in that song rock’n;roll is what lets you tear away from drudgery, if only briefly. In “The Hindu Times” it is the drudgery.
So this song is a worn-out songwriter with nothing to prove, getting an indie supergroup to do “Rain” as a pub rock jam, sung by a man who audibly can’t be arsed. It ends up only a little better than that sounds. And taken with the last two number ones it suggests a fearful doldrum for pop as a whole. Both the main currents the charts took after Britpop (lad rock in the LP rankings, stage school pop for singles) feel exhausted, commercially viable but creatively wiped out, two approaches orbiting each other in futile opposition. There has to be another way.]]>
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:
Aka Zootropolis due to an Irish theme park, but the original US name is a better joke in a film full of better than average jokes. The lines between Pixar and Disney have blurred enough for me to expect any original Disney computer animated film to be as good as Pixar, and Zootopia certainly is up there. Plenty of thought is put into this shared world of animals, its somewhat honest conversation about prejudice and typecasting, and that whilst you can “try to be anything you want to be”, that doesn’t mean it will be easy. In the centre is a great pair of characters, Judy the rabbit cop and Nick the conman fox both constrained by the perception of their nature. Along with that though it is really funny, properly suspenseful and the visual design is detailed and exceptionally layered. It could do without the Shakira gazelle dance party ending but it’s pretty perfect outside of that.
9: Things To Come
Mia Hansen-Løve’s film is an odd beast, its a year in the life of a woman getting a divorce. Isabelle Huppert is controlled in the lead, this is not a film about histrionics. Instead it is a film about how life goes on, how there is no such thing as stability and how to cope with that change. The result is a very lived in film, it feels totally real, whilst still feeling totally like a French film (no other country has philosophers as lead characters). There are hints of regret, and political capitulation, though Huppert is too young to be active in ‘69, that seemingly French national spirit has dissipated in her life. Which leaves cynicism, and perhaps a slow lonely crawl to death. So the fact that the film ends up mildly optimistic is rather remarkable.
I’ve never liked the character of Deadpool, it’s difficult to write an ultra-violent, mentally damaged pop culture spewing character well. And whilst I don’t think the film is brilliant, it does find a way of walking that line in making the character likeable enough to tolerate his smart arsed nonsense whilst revelling in the scatalogical violence. Nearly all of the credit should go to Ryan Reynolds, an actor with a seemingly bottomless well of smarm, who manages to turn that liability into a positive. I thought some of the jokes were tin eared and obvious, but there were a lot of them, and the central sex scene is a highpoint and its game cast (bland villain notwithstanding) were good enough to keep things ticking over – though I think there is a much tauter, more subversive film waiting to get out.
Did it destroy your childhood?
I liked Ghostbusters. I didn’t really like Ghostbusters II. I liked Ghostbusters. A weird cover-version remake, perhaps with too many nods to the original, but a really good central gang cast of very funny women being pretty funny. And saving the world. Clearly cut to pieces in editing, with a very long Chris Hemsworth sequence relegated to the credits, and yes the villain is in the end a big whirly light in the sky, this exhibit A of the culture war was just a fun summer competence porn blockbuster. With female leads. Get over it.
Victoria is primarily a gimmick film, a single uninterrupted take following our heroine first through a night out in a club, with young love, romance, and then into nastier crime shenanigans. However the gimmick here works, the actors stay on point and in character for the two hour running time and there isn’t too much tedious wheel spinning improv to keep things going. And considering where the story goes, and how serious everything gets, there is a degree to which enjoying the film is due to its technical difficulty. But there is also the joy of following Victoria herself as she undergoes massive changes (a great performance from Laia Costa), a film about spur of the moment choices, and also, presciently a film about Europe.
5: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
I was promised a heist, I was promised some spies, instead I got some dour dirty rebels arguing with each other and climbing things because there is one thing about the Star Wars Universe, there are lots of times when you have to climb. I thought it was a kind of mediocre film about a footnote to the original film, and whilst I think it did some good work fleshing out the universe (and certainly adding some diversity), it did that at the expense of telling that much of a compelling story. There were attempts to give the characters back story, but you know they are still fighting the space Nazi’s so good on them. But it was rarely boring and has opened the door for other types of Star Wars stories, hope they have a bit more oomph to them.
Or, if you will Rocky 7. Because despite the focus on Apollo Creed’s son, this is a film about the end of Rocky, about legacy and about what all of that means. And it cleverly has Michael B.Jordan embody the question – what does a rich kid have to fight for (and convincingly answers it)? Our highest scoring remnant of last years Oscar race, this is an exceptionally made commercial film, hitting all the right beats a boxing movie needs, and taking smart notes from the original Rocky. A smart archivist could probably make a Boyhood like epic watching Stallone age through these films, but writer director Ryan Coogler understands when to homage, when to steal and when to go to Goodison Park.
3: Love And Friendship
There is a degree of relief to see that Kate Beckinsale can not only be in a good film again, but be so good in what is basically a minor Jane Austen adaptation. Minor Jane Austen, quite major Whit Stillman, who manages to combine his ability with a dry wit, with the grandmother of the form. But it is absolutely Beckinsale’s film and she uses the opportunity to be catty, manipulative, despicable and thoroughly convincing that this is the only way for a woman in her position to get by. Excellent dimwitted support from Tom Bennett (which perhaps is part influenced by his Dad Mr Bennett) and a fluid filming style makes it a really satisfying, and very funny, watch.
It is interesting that a lot of the films tiptoeing around award season have split audiences, with some very extreme reactions. I really liked Arrival, in the way of enjoying something really well made, this continues the idea of competence porn to an extreme position. Amy Adams is great in the lead role, managing her melancholic air through the machinations of the plot, making the piece feel tonally satisfactory. Others hated it, many sci fi fans felt the plot development was obvious, lots of people hated the tone, and that the whole thing was slow. I think I worked out what was going on about two minutes before the reveal, and just enjoyed how it had been set-up in form and content. Villeneuve uses the history of idea-based sc-fi film well to ground the film and also deliver his story, and the film is never not beautiful. A terrific bit of big screen film making.
1: Hail, Caesar!
I was underwhelmed by Hail, Caesar! the first time I saw it. I thought it was flippant, too light about the HUAC and blacklisting, its pastiches broad and I didn’t need to see George Clooney doing his comedy mugging again. I wanted the singing and the dancing and the comedy: you shouldn’t tease me with a Esther Williams homage and leave me hanging on for more. But on rewatch I actually saw what was going on, The Coen Brothers were throwing everything against the wall to create an alternate Hollywood where Charlton Heston had been enlightened with communist philosophy, where Gene Kelly was actually a Russian spy and this was all not going to destabilise the USA. Hail! Caesar posits the world actually suggested by the HUAC, but also one overseen by gold hearted thugs like Mannix. None of this really matters, you can enjoy the screwball plot, the set pieces and sweetness of the sprawling cast. But it was interesting that the things I wanted to give more on the first viewing, became the very things I wanted them to be on repeat, comforting and fun. And frankly its refreshing to have an adult comedy voted the best film of the year.
So there you go, argue in the comments. Exactly 50 films got more than one vote, the bottom nine (which I think is on a par with the top ten for average quality) were:
48: Edge Of Seventeen
47: Train To Busan
46: Where You’re Meant To Be
45: The Nice Guys
43: Pete’s Dragon
42: Childhood Of A Leader
And there you go. Will you remember this months big movies when we get round to December this year or will LaLa Land and Cameraperson fade? See you in December to find out.]]>
It’s Like We Were Alive (January 2017)
1. “Crashes In Love” – William Onyeabor (LP: Crashes In Love, 1977)
2. “The Telephone Always Rings” – Fun Boy Three (LP: Fun Boy Three, 1982)
3. “Tale In Hard Time” – Fairport Convention (LP: What We Did On Our Holidays, 1968)
4. “Black Crow” – Beyond The Wizards Sleeve (LP: The Soft Bounce, 2016)
5. “Ego Loss” – Flowers (LP: Everybody’s Dying To Meet You, 2016)
6. “We Were Alive” – Austra (LP: Future Politics, 2017)
7. “Tuck” – Katie Gately (LP: Color, 2016)
8. “Arthropoda” – Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith (LP: EARS, 2016)
9. “Same River Twice” – Steve Hauschildt (LP: Strands, 2016)
10. “25 25” – Factory Floor (LP: 25 25, 2016)
11. “BERLIN” – China Amobi (LP: Airport Music For Black Folk, 2016)
12. “4 Degrees” – AHNOHNI (LP: Hopelessness, 2016)
13. “Signal” – SOHN (LP: Rennen, 2017)
14. “An Echo Of Night” – Brian Eno and Harold Budd (LP: The Pearl, 1985)
15. “Everything Is Yours” – Kehlani (LP: SweetSexySavage, 2017)
16. “Tilted” – Christine And The Queens (LP: Chaleur Humaine, 2016)
17. “Side To Side (ft. Nicki Minaj)” – Ariana Grande (LP: Dangerous Woman, 2016)
18. “Weekend” – The Todd Terry Project (LP: 2 The Batmobile Lets Go, 1988)
19. “Dissolve” – Ronika (LP: Lose My Cool, 2017)
20. “Parking Lot” – Anderson.Paak (LP: Malibu, 2016)
21. “Deadz (ft. 2 Chainz)” – Migos (LP: Culture, 2017)
22. “Back With A Banger” – Wiley (LP: Godfather, 2017)
23. “Drinking In The West End” – Kano (LP: Music In The Manor, 2016)
24. “My Hood” – RAY BLK (LP: Durt, 2016)
25. “Gone Clear” – William Tyler (LP: Modern Country, 2016)
26. “Hammond Song” – The Roches (LP: The Roches, 1979)
27. “Reunion” – Bobbie Gentry (LP: The Delta Sweete, 1968)
28. “If This Is Love” – Glen Campbell (LP: Galveston, 1968)
29. “You Bring The Summer” – The Monkees (LP: Good Times!, 2016)
30. “The Future” – Leonard Cohen (LP: The Future, 1992)
31. “Healing Chant” – The Neville Brothers (LP: Yellow Moon, 1989)
What came out in January that I missed?]]>
Thanks Ron, if indeed that is your real name. On to our Top 10!
10. Justin Timberlake – “Can’t Stop The Feeling”
Remember Justin gatecrashing the Eurovision interval? It was with this song! Sunny bop with the sort of sustained piano chord favoured by the tropical house merchants. I didn’t like it at the time but it’s grown on me since then.
9. Tegan & Sara – “Boyfriend”
I still can’t tell them apart.
8. Beyonce – “Hold Up”
BEYONCE SMASH. Well done everyone for putting my favourite Lemonade track so high up despite vote-splitting all over the place. I love the monastic monologue at the beginning and I love the air horns at the end, but most of all I love how I get genuinely frightened that Beyonce is going to step right out of the Youtube screen and punch me in the face. You’d be a brave man to give Beyonce even an inkling of an idea that you might be two-timing her…
7. Kero Kero Bonito – “Lipslap”
I saw KKB the day of the US election result and it was extremely cheering! Elsewhere I have described them variously as “if nu-rave had been good” and ”the musical equivalent of the eight weeks of arsing around between finishing your A-levels and going to university”, but in reality most of KKB’s album sounds like the Italo mix of Schnappi Das Kleine Krokodil. They’re honestly much more banging live – except “Lipslap”, which is banging at all times.
6. Pet Shop Boys – “The Pop Kids”
All aboard the nostalgia bus. If Kero Kero Bonito have just done their A-levels, Neil and Chris are in the full throes of Fresher’s Week, raving it up to Bizarre Inc in the big city.
5. DNCE – “Cake By The Ocean”
Technically a 2015 release but no-one voted for it last year, did they? For those who haven’t been following, one of the Jonas Brothers has decided to form his very own Son of Dork. This song gets played on my office stereo a lot.
4. Solange – “Cranes In The Sky”
Solange goes about solving her problems in a slightly more introspective way than her sister. The “La Ritournelle” drumbeat and unresolving bars give a very real sense of worrying away at something that you can’t tell anyone about.
3. Mike Posner – “I Took A Pill In Ibiza (Seeb remix)”
On paper this is obviously an appalling idea. I’ve never managed to get past the second line before without reaching for the skip button, but JUST FOR YOU LOT I listened to it all the way through just now and I guess the crow-playing-a-kazoo noise is okay, I guess?
2. Ariana Grande – “Into You”
Ariana’s done quite well out of sultry bangers that might have been written with Jennifer Lopez in mind, despite making inevitably terrible videos to go along with them. Let’s all give thanks that there was no ‘ft Pitbull’ on this one.
1. David Bowie – “Lazarus”
I think this our first ever post-humous winner. Fitting, I guess, for a year where everyone seemed obsessed with death: celebrities carking it, the dissolution of democratic ideals, Bake Off moving to Channel 4 etc. To me it feels like “Lazarus” is more about free will than about facing/fearing death specifically. Standing on the precipice and making a choice about what happens next – a final flick of the Vs, or just another transformation into something new? Bowie’s earned the right to do whatever he pleases in the next life and appears to be rather looking forward to it. As the rest of us will surely each face our own turning point soon enough, we could do worse than to follow his example.
That’s your lot! Thanks to everyone who voted. I’ll try and dig out some stats for the comments in a bit.]]>
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…
My favourite film of 2016 is a heartbreaking but ultimate life affirming Turkish coming of age drama. Five sisters in a rural Turkish video go from the freedom of being children, to the strait-jacket of being young women, seen as sexual beasts and chattels. A film which can broadly be read as an allegory for the Turkish political situation, however this is always secondary to its developing character drama, where the villains are never as broad as the society around them, and the sense of perseverance and need for escape is palpable. It looks terrific, feels natural but draws out drama, suspense and in the end a small amount of hope.
18: = Hunt For The Wilderpeople
Number eighteen is for the recently added to Netflix feelgood films of the year! Taiki Waititi broadens his range from oddball adult comedies to a more oddball family comedy, using his eye eye for comic visual film-making second only to Edgar Wright’s. Its nice to see a modern film use New Zealand’s landscape, and its nice to see a more modern and diverse take on the “unloved kid melts heart of grumpy adult”, but Waititi in particular makes the film very personal, quirky and therefore oddly more universal. It might be a touch overlong, and a few of his regular cast members don’t quite make the grade of Sam Neill and Julian Dennison (himself included), but a very funny, very sweet film.
18: = Sing Street
The story at the heart of Sing Street is as old and corny as the movies. Boy meets girl, boy starts a band to impress girl etc. Like Hunt For The Wilderpeople its the specifics which make this such a sweet movie. The Irish cross pollination of strict Catholic upbringing coupled with eighties pop music via Top Of The Pops (the TOTP sequences are very evocative). The linking of music to escape, physical and imagined, and a nice side order of John Carney’s crowd pleasing music (his original tunes pull double duty with a lot of eighties hits and come off well). Carney is a corny film-maker by most counts, but he does tend to win you over even at his worst with half decent songs and a big hearted belief that music makes everything better. He does give his films terrible titles though.
17: Our Little Sister
There is a small coterie of FT filmgoers who like Kore-eda a lot, and they and a few others turned up for one of his gentlest films yet. And bearing in mind that this is a guy whose most suspenseful film involves some kids making a wish over a train, that is saying something. But Kore-Eda has successfully carved out a niche for his slight but hugely empathic films, an Ozu who concentrates more on the young. Our Little Sister is about three grown up sisters who inherit a half sister when their estranged father dies. And whilst the set up could have led to melodrama, instead its a more simple affair of people trying to build relationships, testing assumptions and living their life. Sometimes its good to take a breath of clean air.
16: I, Daniel Blake*
You know those films you really should see, but you don’t because you know what you’re going to get and you aren’t quite in that mood today. Well I was never in the mood for I, Daniel Blake – sorry Ken. Because I like Ken Loach, I like what he does, often how he does it and why. But I never got around to seeing this bureaucratic nightmare. I know plenty of people who loved it and no-one who hated it, and yes I will see it.
14: = Paterson
Jim Jarmusch’s strongest film since Ghost Dog, is almost a fun frippery, a celebration of utopian everyday toil. Adam Driver play Paterson a bus driver in Paterson who is also a poet for personal pleasure, with a creative wife and a day to day routine which is the very definition of quotidien. And yet this film teases at the edges with wonder (the re-occurrence of twins, the hinted but unimportant back story). There is an interesting subtext inherent in Driver’s casting, his art, quirks and affectations (no mobile phone) makes him a brother to his character in While We’re Young, but Paterson is celebrated, the model of Blue Collar man, while the hipster is derided. But does his lack of ambition make him inherently anti-American. A very pleasant experience with surprising defts to be prodded.
14: = American Honey
I thought it was horrendously overlong, and was the classic outsiders take on the US, an infatuation with youth and poverty which felt almost exploitative. But Andrea Arnold’s road movie does have a tremendous central character constantly skirting the edges of what would be tragic danger in other films, and indeed the core danger of its own film (Shia La Boeuf!) The camera loves Sasha Lane at the heart of the movie, and there are moments of energy when these kids are in the van together or listening to their music. But a bit of Andrea’s music choices incongruously slip in and make the feeling I was watching artful but artificial realism never got away from me. And did I mention how bloody long it was.
13: The Witch
To the superstitious witch hunt New England of the seventeenth century where a family find it hard to make ends meet out on the edge of civilization. What they probably don’t need is an evil witch in the woods and their goat to be the devil. The lack of ambiguity in The Witch is oddly refreshing, you can read the goings on as the symptoms of malnutrition, isolation and madness, but the film is clear what it wants you to believe. This years breakout horror movie, though it works much more as suspense than horror, there isn’t much horrific on show but you do leave the cinema with more respect for goats. Look out for Anya Taylor-Joy in the central role, compelling in her twists from scared to scary.
12: When Marnie Was There*
I was a little surprised with how well When Marnie Was There did, thinking that perhaps the bells, whistles and teenage angst of Your Name would be more strongly voted for. But the Ghibli love is strong around here, despite Marnie whizzing through the cinemas (that’s my excuse). This is right in the Ghibli comfort zone, a contemplative, gentle piece of mysterious kid fiction with an ambiguous ghostly character in one special summer. Looking forward to catching up with it.
11: The Assassin
I saw this at the LFF in 2015 and loved its look but found it a little slow and inpenetrable. Saw it again in 2016 and re-evaluated its narrative drive, slow, but surprisingly intense. Notorious as a martial arts film with barely any fighting in it, nevertheless when the action explodes it does so on a terrific scales. But instead of flashing blades we have long meditative takes of loyalty, honour and the rueful traps we find ourselves in as adults. The student becomes the master, and rejects the life. Perhaps, but as the clouds dwell upon the mountain in the films final scene it all comes together that we are all trapped in roles, unless we know how to break out.
Top Ten coming soon, honest.]]>
I’m sure the Bedingfields will kiss and make up soon. Here’s #20-#11!
20. Bruno Mars – “24K Magic”
Tiny Bruno returns with the only song in this year’s poll to feature the lyric “Hashtag blessed” (subs check this). Not everyone was a fan however: one ballot requested a vote for ‘any song off the Bruno Mars album except this one’.
19. Mitski – “Your Best American Girl”
Cor, you lot listened to a bunch of indie this year, didn’t you? Mitski is from New York and her song reminds me of the Breeders when they’re upset.
18. Shura – “What’s It Gonna Be?”
If you recall our 80s spectrum from a few posts ago, this is high up on the Boys of Summer axis. Yes that’s right, contrary to popular revivalist theory, the 80s were actually multi-dimensional! The high school video is a good fit for the teen angst and big melody hooks.
17. David Bowie – “Blackstar”
RIP Dave. I can’t claim familiarity with any of his albums post-Earthling, so for all I know, him ahhhh-ing over some Ceephax Acid Crew skiffle-electronica then switching abruptly to a 70s horror movie score for an extended middle eight (eighteen?) is totally par for the 21st Century Bowie course. It does go on a bit though – recommend making a cup of tea first before embarking on this one.
16. Radiohead – “Burn The Witch”
I used to be a big old Radiohead fan but after spending months sorting out their annoying special-snowflake royalty requirements back in the late 2000s, I can’t really bear to listen to Thom Yorke’s voice any more (I’ll happily do Paranoid Android at karaoke though!). Luckily for me, I can barely hear Thom mumbling over the scratchy “I’m being attacked by insects in an episode of the X Files” violins, so I would class it as a ‘return to form’. (The video is also good.)
15. The 1975 – “The Sound”
MORE INDIE, bloody hell dudes. The 1975 have made a small but significant subset of my Twitter chums extremely happy this year, and who am I to rain on their parade? This track is cheerful and catchy and sounds a bit like if Years & Years had guitar solos.
14. Christine & The Queens – “Tilted”
One of my favourite moments of the 2016 Christmas TOTP was seeing Christine do this dance routine in the studio. ‘Tilted’ is musically understated like ‘iT’, but has more French in it. That reminds me, I haven’t done my Duolingo for today…
13. Miranda Lambert – “Vice”
Miranda has been the subject of some ‘dedicated’ voting in this poll and gave Beyonce a run for her money in terms of number of songs nominated – this track eventually came out on top. Here we find her rightly annoyed with herself about being unable to resist a douchey bro.
12. Beyonce – “Formation”
An unignorable call to arms. Outstanding visually and striking musically, and IF IT HAD BEEN ON SODDING SPOTIFY, I (and presumably everyone else who has forgotten how to buy individual albums) would have listened to it way more.
11. KING – “The Greatest”
For an Olympic year, 2016 was surprisingly short on bombastic motivational goal-achieving sporting montage soundtracks, but thankfully KING have stepped up to the plate with this Daley Thompson’s Decathlon inspired video. Their album is jam full of glossy RnB like this, it’s def worth a punt.
Next week: the final countdown!]]>
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.
But of course there are things Cowell likes, and we know roughly what they are. He doesn’t strike me as enough of an iconoclast to lie on Desert Island Discs, for instance, so his selection there from 2003 is a good start. “Mack The Knife”. Sinatra. “She”. Sammy Davis Jr. Herb Alpert. And Daniel Bedingfield, either as a sop to the present or a proposal that the tradition he’s outlining isn’t quite dead.
By rock standards, this is a square’s list, defiantly so. It’s the list of someone who believes, perhaps, that pop’s appointed role is a beloved wing of an entertainment multiplex, and that rock’s breakaway move towards emphasis on self-expression, experiment, volume and so on was a descent from these populist heights. Or to put it more kindly, since several of Cowell’s choices are excellent records, perhaps he’s a man who appreciates performance, and believes that specialist singers and specialist songwriters are best kept to their own devices.
Or it could mean neither of these things. But just those summaries are enough to suggest where Cowell might be coming from, and also to suggest that he was in tune with strong currents in pop – not just the golden-goose blandness of Westlife but the separation of producer and performer that was driving R&B forward. Whatever else he was, Simon Cowell was not out of touch. In fact, the only thing that makes me doubt the Desert Island list is that it’s a little too neat a manifesto for what the “Simon” TV persona might appreciate.
“Unchained Melody”, the song we’re supposedly discussing, was on Cowell’s castaway list too. An old song – by 60s standards – when the Righteous Brothers got hold of it, it fits his milieu of tracks with wide, adult appeal and big emotions. If “Anything Is Possible” was written as a generic victory ballad for a neophyte, “Unchained Melody” was written knowing it might end up with a heavyweight.
The hunger and need in “Unchained Melody” is explicitly geological – a longing carved over time in the heart like a river slowly cuts its path through earth and rock. It’s a stoical kind of a need, born from the original film’s prison setting, but also the product of an early 50s song culture where the heroic epitome was still the patient soldier. It’s a very different ache from the rutting, urgent desire of rock and roll – which is what makes the Righteous Brothers’ version so remarkable, as they bridge that difference, give teenage need the weight of landscape. And it’s different again from the hunger of Gareth Gates, which is more like the eager mewling of a newly hatched chick.
Gates’ version isn’t as bad as that sounds. He can’t ruin the song, so he’s instantly better than the singing squaddies. But what he brings to it – the bright-eyed, clean-voiced optimism of a boy given a lifetime’s chance – he would bring to any song. Will Young did his best with a mediocre song. Gareth Gates smooths out an excellent one. Three weeks on top of the charts plays four. I’m not sure who wins.
Aside, of course, from Simon. That was my other truism – the judge is the winner in reality TV pop. Not the only one (least of all here, where investment in the contestants was widespread and real) but the constant one. As JLucas very helpfully pointed out in the comments on the last post, what really distinguishes this series of Pop Idol was the astounding number of its contestants who managed to score hits afterwards. In a tight competition, success for the runner-up was assured. But Pop Idol meant Top Ten singles for singers who’d come nowhere near to victory.
The Simon who stood to gain most from that bonanza was Fuller, who began the series as behind-the-scenes senior partner and format developer. By the end, Cowell was ascendant, the man who realised the power of the reality show host. Which is not to determine who wins or loses, but to set the boundaries of the game, and to name the real stakes.
A reality show mogul dwells in the delta between popularity and outrage, living off the arbitrage. Cowell was cagey about the music he actually liked, but never about the contestants he favoured or disliked. By an imperial nod towards Gareth, not Will, Cowell ensured that the crowd would play their part and vote to spite him. It didn’t matter – he had shown that the drama of reality TV didn’t lie in “who will win?” so much as “will the judge get their way?”. Either outcome made the show more about him. Within the bubble of spectacle, Cowell ruled.]]>
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.
LITTLE MIX – “Shout Out To My Ex”: Still don’t quite rate Little Mix as much as many, but the pass-the-mic feel on the verses here is great. And that pretty much wraps it up for upbeat Number 1s in 2016. Into the murk we go.
DRAKE ft KYLA – “One Dance”: One of the words of 2016 was ‘hollowed-out’, used to describe the vengeful remnants of industrial communities after thirty years of neoliberalism. The production on “One Dance” – which is astonishing, definitely the best *music* on this list – is likewise an exhausted shell, just waiting for a narcissist to take advantage of it.
ZAYN – “Pillowtalk”: Overdone and sprawling, but its tangled-sheets shapelessness makes its casserole of rock-meets-trap production ideas seem more interesting than they probably are. Clutched straws or what?
MIKE POSNER – “I Took A Pill In Ibiza”: Might have more impact in a year where every other song wasn’t what-is-a-party-REALLY melancholia, but I like the way this wrong-foots you into thinking it’s going to be a shit parody track before just slithering into glumness.
MAJOR LAZER ft JUSTIN BIEBER – “Cold Water”: A central riff so inert it makes Calvin Harris sound like Scooter, with Bieber doing more of the wheedled concern that made him 2015’s darling. Enough craft to put this in the top half.
CLEAN BANDIT ft ANNE-MARIE – “Rockabye”: Uneasy mix of mawkishness and jauntiness made stranger (and better) by Sean Paul charging in like a particularly empathic bulldog. “DAILY STRUGGLE!”
THE CHAINSMOKERS – “Closer”: Lyrics that evoke the physical, delivery that seems to recoil from it. Like a thinkpiece smugly explaining that while millennials are having more sex than you, it’s inescapably grim and joyless sex.
SHAWN MENDES – “Stitches”: Post-Bieber neg-wave with none of his gross charisma. In the language of our new cultural masters, this guy is a beta
JAMES ARTHUR – “Say You Won’t Let Go”: Messy and tedious, and doubly bad because you get the impression he thinks both those things are wins for realness.
LUKAS GRAHAM – “7 Years”: Almost impossibly annoying. That must have been one bastard of a mirror we broke.]]>
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 wasn’t that Will or Gareth weren’t culturally salient – they were the hottest topic around. The public cared about them far more than about, say, Westlife or Atomic Kitten. But people cared about them as a TV phenomenon, as participants in a game show. And this, it turned out, was the saving grace of the whole Pop Idol process; the glimmer of potential, rarely realised, in the reality pop mechanism.
If the pop audience of 2002 had taken the show’s remit entirely seriously – if they’d voted purely and simply on which contestant would make the best “Pop Idol” – the results would have been worse. We’d have ended up with knock-offs – an own-brand Robbie or a Poundland Britney. As the process ground on for year upon year, and the talent pool thinned, several of those won anyhow. But Will Young wasn’t one of them. He’s thoughtful, self-effacing, versatile and impeccably pleasant. In other words, he’s a combination the reality pop method is well designed to locate: somebody with the talent to be a pop singer but the personality to win a TV show.
Like the switch from art school to stage school as the proving ground of British pop stars, this was helping to re-forge the pre-Beatles link between pop and light entertainment. The format has a bias towards ‘niceness’ which pop had spent four decades tacking away from. But at its best – Young, Kelly Clarkson, One Direction – it gave you stars who seemed unusually genuine, able to connect with and nourish especially loyal fandoms. The quality that won them their chance – they’re the kind of people you root for – managed to sustain itself beyond the narrative cycle of the show. For most, that didn’t happen, for reasons we’ll get generous chances to explore. But here, at the start, it worked. The public’s surprise choice – Will, not Gareth – turned out to be the right one.
Before he got the chance to prove it, there was “Evergreen” to sit through. “Evergreen” sounds like a Westlife song because it was a Westlife song – a non-single from the World Of Our Own album, written by Cheiron’s reliable ballad-wrangler Per Magnusson. It would have been one of their better singles, as Magnusson does a solid job with the soaring formula. And Will Young handles it better than the Irish lads, finding a querulous vulnerability in the song. It must have been a pleasant novelty for the writers to hear someone treat their verses as something to be given a reading rather than a staging post before the chorus thumps in.
Even then, “Evergreen” suffers from the same problem “Pure And Simple” did – because it has to suit any one of three singers, it can’t really attach itself to any of them. It’s written to be generic, the kind of song that pop stars sing and the kind of song a neophyte can master quickly. Still, it’s competent and brushes the memorable, which is more than you can say for “Anything Is Possible”, its AA-side.
“Anything” is our first encounter with one of the great curses of the reality pop era – the winner’s single about winning. As a narrative move, it’s necessary and savvy, which is why it later became such an unshiftable part of the process. It caps the story and gives the viewers closure, so the new ‘star’ can get on with the real work of making a debut album. But as pop, it’s almost always glurge: heavy-handed, pseudo-inspirational, and mawkish. Young does his best with “Anything Is Possible”, but it’s junk, built to serve the storyline not the listener.
And serving the storyline is the signature difference between Popstars and Pop Idol. With the introduction of the public vote, reality pop dropped its documentary pretension and became a gameshow, but one with colossal potential for engaging and soaking its viewers. Pop Idol offered producers Eurovision’s phoneline jackpot every week, but bigger and meaner. That shift coincides with the final slouch toward centre stage of Simon Cowell, the true breakout Idol star and the format’s master of narrative. Cowell is the single most prominent figure in the next decade of British pop, which is unfortunate, as he may very well detest it.
(To be continued.)]]>
Reassuring words from Toilet Duck, there. On to numbers #30-#21!
30. Rihanna ft Drake – “Work”
I thought we might get away with avoiding Drake in this poll but like the human papilloma virus he just keeps popping up, doesn’t he? “If you had a twin I’d still choose you” Blimey Drake, am I meant to feel ROMANCED by that statement? At least RiRi’s bits are all at the beginning so you can stop the track early if you like. This also means that Rihanna has now won the Most Heard Blaring Out Of Car Windows In Sydenham High Street Award two years running.
29. Zarah Larsson – “Lush Life”
Breezy, carefree, holiday romance bubblegum with about twice as many hooks as most people bother with these days. I feel incredibly foolish for only hearing this for the first time in November. The video is very Clarissa Explains It All, and no worse for it.
=27. Lizzo – “Good As Hell”
Most likely candidate to soundtrack Boots’ 2017 Xmas advert. That might sound pretty damning but if you’d written a chorus about getting yourself dolled up then surely its cash-cow potential would be at the back of your mind?
=27. Savages – “Adore”
Moody noir-guitar ballad from Sausages. There are quiet bits AND loud bits! Whatever next. Well actually, I can fully imagine ‘next’ being a BBC4 trailer for a Hungarian crime drama in this case.
=25. Beyonce & The Dixie Chicks – “Daddy Lessons”
The only Beyoncé track on this list available on Spotify! B and the girls rollock their way through some advice from Pa, not all of which I’d recommend, depending on firearms restrictions in your area.
=25. Beyonce – “All Night”
If you are reading this I will assume you have some awareness of Lemonade. This particular track somehow manages to capture the feeling of enormous scale, graft and ambition that Beyonce’s applied to (and achieved with) this project – it’s like the the song she’ll walk on to for her inauguration speech in 2025 (well, it’d either be this or Halo).
24. Britney Spears – “If I’m Dancing”
Britters! Welcome back, me old mucker. The clip clop beat sounds about 5 years old now but our cyborg queen is timeless as ever. I can’t find this on Youtube but this version sounds most like the one on Spotify? I guess the kids download it straight into their cerebral cortex these days? Who knows ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
=22. Christine & The Queens – “iT”
One of my favourites of 2016, a year in which you could hear a song about a determined and sympathetic trans* protagonist playing in a branch of Pret. Still a long way to go of course – their macaroni cheese STILL contains awful cauliflower despite my repeated protests to their twitter account.
=22. The Avalanches – “Because I’m Me”
Ah, the 2000s. Isn’t it? Wasn’t it? If you liked the title track from Since I Left You then there’s a good chance of this being up your street too.
21. Tiggs Da Author ft Lady Leshurr – “Run”
More than a whiff of a Janelle Monae/Big Boi collaboration to this post-surf-revival jiggle – they could have written it for all I know, as outrageously Tiggs doesn’t have his own wikipedia page. My favourite bit is where Lesh gives a quick nod to General Levy. (The Avalanches video has better breakdancing though, IMHO.)
Next up: we broach the top 20!]]>