Popular

24
Jul 14

CHER – “Believe”

Popular29 comments • 1,584 views

#806, 31st October 1998

cher believe In an age of one-week wonders, “Believe” was a phenomenon – a massive global hit, bossing the charts for close to two months. It has a formidable legacy: as well as a triumphant capstone for Cher’s career, it sets the tone for a surge of dance-pop successes over the next couple of years, and opens the pop career of writer/producer Brian Higgins and his Xenomania team, whose idiosyncratic approach to pop will illuminate the early 00s.

Except none of that matters. “Believe”’s place in history and conversation has been all filled up by that unnatural bend in Cher’s voice in the verses, the moment the public discovered Autotune. So “Believe” stops being a rather good pop song about rubbing your ex’s face in their folly, and instead is treated as Patient Zero in an epidemic that defines or ruins modern pop. All the debate and the disdain over Autotune starts here, and all of it since lands back here. Cher, what have you done?

23
Jul 14

SPACEDUST – “Gym And Tonic”

Popular24 comments • 1,106 views

#805, 24th October 1998

gymtonic In another world, the crassest Number One of 1998 might have been its most chic. “Gym And Tonic” steals a name, a concept, a hook and most of a sound from Bob Sinclar’s “Gymtonic”, written with Daft Punk’s Thomas Bangalter, who also co-wrote the gorgeous Stardust hit “Music Sounds Better With You” – from which Spacedust lifts the rest of their ideas, and their band name. It’s not so much filing off the serial numbers as daubing luminous paint on them. “Music Sounds…” had just missed reaching Number One a few months before this – which meant that at the peak of French pop cool in my adult life, the sole representative of “French touch” on Popular is a knockoff by a pair of Brits with an, ahem, “deliberately cheap” video. C’est la vie.

20
Jul 14

BILLIE – “Girlfriend”

Popular31 comments • 1,368 views

#804, 17th October 1998

billiegf “Because We Want To” worked by leaning on Billie Piper’s energy and nascent dramatic flair rather than her singing. For “Girlfriend” her voice is more central, which is a problem – it’s a mushy, gobstopper-mouthed instrument, prone to sliding words together so that every line sounds shrugged through. It makes “Girlfriend”’s chorus – Billie asking a guy out – sound really grudging and reluctant. The awkwardness doesn’t end with the vocals, either – like Peter Andre’s hits, “Girlfriend” is professional songwriters trying for cool and ending up with a supermarket own-brand version of R&B, clumpy and thin.

18
Jul 14

B*WITCHED – “Rollercoaster”

Popular42 comments • 1,650 views

#803, 3rd October 1998

coaster Once upon a time there was a whimsical, backward-facing tendency in British life, with a habit of surfacing just as things were at their shiniest. The Beatles released Sgt Peppers, for instance, and the world proclaimed a revolution: but some took a subtler view. George Melly, a man with an interest in fashion, the texture and the cut of things, noticed right away how old Pepperland looked. The cavalry twill, the black-and-white photos, the circus posters, the childrens’ drawings – this was as much retreat as advance. The golden youth of Britain reached back into playful memory, storing up an attic chest of precious bygones against a rupture they had helped begin.

The Beatles weren’t alone – its childish streak is the first thing anyone notices about UK psychedelia. But if childhood could be appropriated by the hippies, the process could work in reverse. Primary school pop, thirty years later, could assume the grown-ups weren’t listening and borrow a few of the sixties’ better ideas.

14
Jul 14

MELANIE B ft MISSY ELLIOTT – “I Want You Back”

Popular37 comments • 1,809 views

#802, 26th September 1998

melb iwyb This ought to be something special: the most outspoken member of the biggest group in pop teams up with the most exciting new female MC for years. Instead, the first solo Spice No.1 finds Missy Elliott barely in attendance and Mel B flailing as she tries to carry a song that plays entirely to her weaknesses.

One issue – and it’s the one that seems to sum “I Want You Back”’s puffing mediocrity up – is that Mel B is a fairly woeful rapper. The opening minute is like an excruciating pro-celebrity golf match, with Mel and Missy trading rhymes and Mel struggling to find any variety or charisma against even the most softball lines from her bored-sounding co-star. “How can you ‘beep beep’ with no keys?” indeed.

4
Jul 14

ROBBIE WILLIAMS – “Millennium”

Popular49 comments • 2,754 views

#801, 19th September 1998

millenn Expansive of theme, expensive of sample, “Millennium” is a self-conscious event single, carrying itself as if Number One was never in doubt. But while Robbie Williams was the biggest star in Britain, he’d fluffed getting to the top with several iconic songs. Robbie’s most famous track of all, career ignition ballad “Angels”, had missed by several places. He was taking no more chances. Sweeping into the charts wearing a borrowed John Barry tuxedo, “Millennium” is as brazen a Number One as I’ve ever covered, but as needy a one too.

29
Jun 14

ALL SAINTS – “Bootie Call”

Popular20 comments • 1,468 views

#800, 12th September 1998

bootie All Saints’ pitch to be the classier girl group option rested on several things: their fashion sense, their songwriting, their metropolitan sophistication. But also their comfort with R&B – British cool, not for the first time, was being underwritten by familiarity with the music of black America. So “Bootie Call” is All Saints’ tilt at a straightforward, state-of-the-art, late 90s R&B single. It almost works.

24
Jun 14

THE MANIC STREET PREACHERS – “If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next”

Popular117 comments • 4,316 views

#799, 5th September 1998

tolerate “You can interpret the lyrics,” huffed a Nazi goon caught nicking this song for the BNP’s website, “any way you want.” The specific double meaning of “if I can shoot rabbits, then I can shoot fascists” eludes me, but it’s true enough that the Manic Street Preachers’ lyricists had a taste for the oblique. Simple polemic was rarely their style: on their early records they favoured harsh, dense word-blocks, crushed by the transition to song into something barely singable, their uneasy imagery delivered by James Dean Bradfield as a compressed bark. But for all their rough treatment, the words mattered – for The Holy Bible the band took out double-page ads printing the record’s scorched, self-lacerating lyrics in full. They made records About Things, things number ones only occasionally break bread with: self-harm, depression, the decline of class consciousness. And here, apparently, the Spanish Civil War.

11
Jun 14

BOYZONE – “No Matter What”

FT + Popular48 comments • 2,558 views

#798, 15th August 1998

nmw “No Matter What” has an elevated position in Boyzone’s catalogue. It’s their big crossover hit, the one by songwriters of real mass-appeal pedigree – Andrew Lloyd Webber and Jim Steinman – and the only one to have done well in the USA. You might see it as Boyzone asking to be taken seriously, except it fits so well with the stately, windy ballads they were already making: this isn’t a stylistic change so much as a levelling up in songwriting competence. There’s an efficiency to the hook and a solidity to the structure here which you’d expect from two men made swinishly wealthy by their ability to pull out a show-stopping ballad.

3
Jun 14

SPICE GIRLS – “Viva Forever”

Popular47 comments • 2,556 views

#797, 1st August 1998

spiceviva A single overtaken by events, “Viva Forever” found its modest theme – the embers of holiday romance – completely sidelined when it turned out to be the Final Spice Girls Single, meaning the last single by the founding quintet. Suddenly the pressure of attention warped just another enjoyable Spice ballad into a grand valedictory statement. “Viva Forever” still just about bears that weight, though “fleeting, doomed and bittersweet” wasn’t quite the emotional note the band would have picked for a send-off. And sure enough the remaining four members decided to take a second shot at mythologising the Geri Era (and the band), which we’ll get to in time, and means I can take this track at face value.