New York London Paris Munich
Ed Sheeran’s absurd dominance of the singles chart is great news for him, his fans, Asylum records, and Paul Gambaccini’s agent, but it’s hard to argue it’s good news for the chart itself. It demonstrates the utter weakness of the post-streaming Top 40 as a separate entity from the Album chart (since the release of any big new LP can swamp it) and frankly as a separate entity from the Spotify UK Top 50 playlist, which at least has the decency to update a few times a day.
If the problem were just “too many Ed Sheeran songs in the Top 40” then it’s easily fixable – just cap the number of tracks which can chart from any individual LP. But that’s not really the problem. (If you like Ed, it’s not even *a* problem). It’s of a piece with the sclerosis of the chart, that deathly slow turnover of new hits which started in the download era and has been accelerated by the dominance of streaming. And Ed or no Ed, there’s no real sense that the singles chart has a role to play any more.
These are 27 of the 28 albums I listened to for the first time in February as part of this project. (The 28th, Joanna Newsom’s Divers, is not on Spotify: it would have been represented by “Time, As A Symptom”). The pleasure for me in the project is discovery: the pleasure for me in the playlist is sequencing, and hopefully this mix makes a kind of sense.
One of my resolutions this year was to listen to a record I’d never heard before, new or old, every day. I’ve kept it up for all of January and here’s a list of what I’ve heard (below the cut), and a playlist taking a track from each. Since there’s no guarantee I’ll like a record I can’t pretend that everything on the playlist is solid gold but I had fun sequencing it and attempting to give it some kind of coherence.
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.
Six days ago I was about to do an EMP talk and I saw rumours about Prince on Twitter. I thought for a second about what I would do if I had to break the news that Prince had died to a room of women and men who loved him. Only for a second, because the answer was very obvious. I would tell them, and end the presentation, and we would all go to the bar and talk about Prince. Prince had not died. Prince has died. I would prefer to be with the friends I was with then, not in an open-plan office which feels like the least Princely place in the world right now, without any of his music to play. Prince is a star who makes most sense with people – dancing, talking, gasping at his ideas, sharing ideas and memories. There are probably other things you might think of to do with other people that involve Prince.
But I also wish I was there, talking to Americans, because for me Prince was America. My first idea of America as a place that could be wilder, stranger, funkier, deeper, more committed to itself, more religious, more dangerous than where I lived. British stars I understood. Prince was a myth, a creature of scandal and rumour; from Smash Hits I understood Paisley Park as a city of music, an Oz. Prince’s records sounded electric and frightening. At that time he was the centre of pop’s map and its edge at the same time. Nothing I learned about him later changed any of that, or of my sense that he was a key to America’s music and its secrets.
He was a star, I want to say the first, where that dynamic of incomprehension turning into awe hit me, very strongly with “When Doves Cry”. “Do I like this”, “I love this”. The pop uncanny. Without that, pop is just things you like and things you don’t. Prince gave me things that made no sense then suddenly did. Every so often in the decades since I’ve heard something and thought, ah, pop has come back to Prince. He was a meeting point of all the ideas America had about pop, soul, and rock music and the ones it was about to have. This will go on for decades more, there are futures to mine in Prince beyond easy reckoning.
That’s what he meant to me, a long time ago, and as an adult. There is so much more to say and learn. I will read the stories. Thankyou to Prince.
One of the many remarkable things about David Bowie’s career is that it came so close to not happening. Bowie seems like an archetype of individual genius – even his most misguided detours have something interesting about them, as Chris O’Leary’s blog (collected in part in this book) patiently shows. But his career had a multiplicity of false starts – even once he’d scored a big hit, five years in, there was no particular sense he’d become a constant presence in pop. Let alone rewrite or dominate it.
I am delighted to share the news that Popular (or rather me) is GOING WEST, with a speaking slot at this year’s EMP Pop Conference in Seattle. You can find full details here. Come along if you happen to be in Seattle and otherwise stay tuned for publication of my paper right here.
What is it about? I’M GLAD YOU ASKED. Here is the, if you will, poposal that got the nod.
VOX POPULAR: The Charts As Soapbox In A Digital Era
I wrote a thing for here about David Bowie and how I felt about him and what he meant to me, but then Pitchfork kindly decided they wanted to run it, so it’s below. (Original title: He Could Be Dead, He Could Be Not, He Could Be You). And to any other good pieces I see, or that you want to point me to, or memorial threads.
Meanwhile this feels like it deserves more than an RIP on a Popular entry, so by all means use this thread too to post, comment about Bowie, list your favourite songs, fit him into your history or pop’s history. Whatever, really.
David Bowie: RIP
I must glumly report that my relationship with contemporary music seems to be broken. Not because I dislike it. The distillate of year-end lists I’ve been playing this week is full of wonders. But the part of me that knew where and how to find those things for myself has vanished. My desire to gatekeep went years before. And often once I do find new music, it’s like parts of a jigsaw where I’ve lost the box and half the pieces. What consequences this will ultimately have for Popular are uncertain. Still, the hits keep coming and they don’t stop coming, and some of them are better than others. Here are the records that reached Number 1 in the second half of 2015, arranged in order, from best to worst.
The intro: 00’00 – 00’39
In December 1987 the Pet Shop Boys released “Always On My Mind”, a cover of the song made famous by Elvis Presley and Willie Nelson. It became the Christmas Number One that year. Almost a year later, they released Introspective, their third album, whose fifth track is a nine-minute version of “Always On My Mind”, including an acid house inspired breakdown that features Neil Tennant rapping. Introspective marks, in Tennant’s words, the end of the band’s “imperial phase”, where virtually anything they tried came off and was commercially successful. It charted at number two, behind U2’s Rattle And Hum.
Sixteen years later, at the end of a Freaky Trigger pub crawl, someone said that “Always On My Mind/In My House” was the best record of all time, and around a dozen of us agreed, or at least did not disagree, and that installed it at number one on our list, a list, we promised, that we would write up for the website over the course of 2005. And so we all went home the merrier for it.
And ten years after that, here we are.