Sep 13

Ten Years In Ten Marks

Popular49 comments • 5,229 views

Ten years ago tomorrow, I started writing a review of Al Martino’s “Here In My Heart”. I’d never heard the first UK Number One, and thanks to P2P networks I had the chance. Somewhere between starting the blog entry and finishing it, I thought of reviewing all of them.

I had no idea how long it would take. That hasn’t changed: I still have no idea how long it will take. At the time, the No.1 was The Black Eyed Peas’ “Where Is The Love”, and we’ve had around 300 new ones since then. Unless the Official Charts Company dies before I do, the project is unfinishable – but I admit I’d imagined I’d have reached the present day before now. For a variety of reasons – job, family, fluctuating motivation, other things to write about – I haven’t managed that. Maybe by 2023!

Popular has been a terrific hobby. I started it when I was an established blogger but not a published journalist: I was feeling wrung out and underconfident, and wanted something I could write quickly and thoughtlessly, about songs nobody cared about: a reaction to the higher-powered, febrile blogosphere of the time, which was very focused on being up-to-date and expert. I wanted to be able to feel my ideas and opinions out, like I had when I started blogging.

The blog has now outlasted my part-time career as a music journalist, and probably played a big part in me getting those opportunities. I now think a lot more – sometimes too much – about each entry, but Popular is the most satisfying writing I do. I’m also conscious of the marvellous, entertaining, informative and – by web standards – fantastically good-natured comments each entry will attract – which also means I can leave stuff out, and zoom in on a particular feature or scrap of context if I want to. If I felt I had to be comprehensive I’d have given up long ago.

Thanks so much for reading, and commenting.

If not for the trick of putting a mark out of 10 at the end of each review, I would have far fewer readers. So here’s a Popular “highlights reel” centred on the marks, one entry/thread for each.

ONE: The lowest mark available, reserved for records I have a particular loathing of. Occasionally these are songs other people quite like but mostly they’re tracks almost everybody thinks are shit too, and as such easy targets. I’m pleased that with “The Stonk” I attempted to rise above my disgust and try and understand Hale & Pace as men of their times. Still a bloody awful record, of course.

TWO: I regret no 1s but a few 2s I’ve been talked around to – since in a lot of cases this is the mark where I’ve seen a tiny glimmer of something forgiveable… such is not really the case with “No Charge” but it has to be the highlighted thread, because it’s the longest comment thread on the whole blog – the one where the comments crew decided, spontaneously, to have the conversation about whether punk “had to happen” or not.

THREE: The upper hell of the ordinarily bad records – the tedious, the mawkish, the overlong. “We Are The World” is all three, and a charity single too – to my surprise I’ve enjoyed writing about charity records, because the dynamics of how and why they happen are interesting and tell you plenty about the pop of their time.

FOUR: The limbo of the underrated (by me) – as well as a host of uninspired makeweights, 4 – sometimes 5 – tends to be a mark I hand out when I know a lot of people like a record, but I basically don’t. Whether I manage to justify the distaste is your call. “Hey Jude” is one example: re-reading it from a more forgiving place I’m not sure I even convince myself, but there you are.

FIVE: In the year-end polls, the boundary of “Any Good At All”-ness is the 5/6 split, so this set of reviews is full of regrets – songs I basically like, damned by my mood, or because they fell apart on repeat plays, or just by me being a chump. On a lot of 5s I simply haven’t listened enough, though, and it’s a good score for the commenters to talk me round – witness “Woman In Love“, where Wichita Lineman (among others) spun me right round (baby). It’s that kind of experience that makes doing Popular so fun.

SIX: For better or worse, one of the things I end up doing in Popular is zooming out sometimes and talking around a song more than addressing it. A 6/10 mark is often a good platform for that – when the context around a record might be more interesting than the perfectly serviceable track at hand. The recent Britpop threads saw the commenters joining in: “Some Might Say” is one of the meatiest threads we’ve ever had.

SEVEN: Looking at the list of 7s it seems particularly full of entries I don’t remember writing, which tells its own story! Every now and then you get a record that’s flawed but kind of magnificent too, like “Earth Song” and those are the 7s I enjoy most. (Great thread, too.)

EIGHT: We’re now into records which are definitely good, and the challenge is working out what’s good about them. One of the other really good things about doing Popular is the rare feeling of satisfaction I get when I think I’ve cracked why I feel how I do about a particular song and isolated what makes it go for me. “Maggie May“, for instance.

NINE: Most 9s would be 10s on another day, so there’s an “I need to get this right” pressure on the writing. “Hoots Mon” was almost the first 9 I gave, and it was probably the first entry I researched in any way or where I felt I really wanted to sell the record. Not saying it’s a brilliant entry, but it’s the point at which Popular turned from therapeutic exercise into ‘project’.

TEN: The original inspiration for the “marks out of 10” thing was videogames magazine Edge, which very rarely gives 10s, so they feel like more of an event. I suspect Edge is extremely calculating in its scores, and I don’t try to be, but I probably am too. They all feel right at the time. And a 10 always means a readership spike – so in an ideal world, the writing on the 10s would be the best on the site. Is it? Not always – but some of them I’m proud of. “The Winner Takes It All“, for instance – scroll down and you get one of Punctum’s terrific comment-box reviews/essays too, and an intense debate about the value of absurd value claims. It’s as good a snapshot of why I love doing the blog as you could wish for.

And off we go into the next 10 years!


1 2 All
  1. 31
    fivelongdays on 17 Sep 2013 #

    I’m not sure when I started commenting/reading Popular – I discovered FT via search for something, I know not what, and was aware of the project – but I can remember These Boots Were Made For Walking getting a ten and thinking ‘oooh, that’s exciting’. Not sure when I started commenting either, although a quick search shows that I posted at some stage in the 60s.

    Aaaaanyway, I love this blog (doesn’t everyone?), and I’m looking forward to the next entry – largely because we’re slap-bang in the middle of my charts obsession. I’m sure my comments will decrease over time, but I’ll always make sure I’ll read it. Tom’s my favourite music writer in Britain by a country mile, even though he doesn’t normally write about the stuff I listen to, he always makes me think.

  2. 32
    enitharmon on 17 Sep 2013 #

    The buildup to the first 10 was a marketing coup whether wittingly or not. I remember my personal outrage when it wasn’t given to House of the Rising Sun, which I’d been quietly predicting would be it for some time.

    Thanks to Popular I now have every official number one from Al Martino to John Lennon’s Starting Over, and from John Lennon’s Imagine to the first incarnation of Do They Know It’s Christmas in my random music mix (there are one or two items, not necessarily those given a 1 by Tom, that provide an excuse to take the rubbish out or go to the corner shop but there’s a line that has to be drawn). DTKIC formally marks the beginning of my fifth decade and the end of my interest in charts but there’s a smattering after that of things that passed me by at the time.

  3. 33
    Will on 17 Sep 2013 #

    Congratulations Tom! To stay ten years at the coalface of such a daunting project and for it to be of such a consistency high quality is some achievement.

  4. 34
    Rory on 17 Sep 2013 #

    All of these excellent comments have had me thinking I should say more than a quick line of congratulations dashed off at midnight. I knew Freaky Trigger from my early blogging days, following Tanya Headon’s amusingly grumpy outbursts at the time, so I did notice when Tom started Popular. But those early hits meant little to me, and I lost track, picking up as a reader again somewhere in the early 1970s. By the time Tom reached all the ABBA number ones I knew I would have to start commenting here, but held off until I reached a song I had actually bought with my own pocket money back in the day – appropriately, an Australian one. In hindsight I was too mean with my own score for Down Under, but I was trying for at least some objectivity – not really possible when we’re talking about such formative influences, as I later came to accept.

    That was four and a half years ago, so in online terms I can feel like an old hand here now, a proud Populista, although sadly I rarely make it down to London and haven’t been able to join you all in the pub. After a productive 1980s of commenting I tailed off for a while when the UK charts deviated strongly from my own 1993-94 listening, but a string of 1995-96 singles is bringing me back into the fold, and I’m as excited for the next entry as ever.

    When I survey my regular online haunts over the years, three stand out: a group weblog where users post and comment on anything and everything, a mad project to write a limerick for every word in the English language, and this project covering every UK number one. All-encompassing and unfinishable online projects are clearly the ones most worth doing – for me at least, and I’m glad there are so many kindred spirits who agree.

  5. 35
    Tom on 17 Sep 2013 #

    Punctum – thanks so much for your mighty comments over the years, they’ve expanded the conversation in all sorts of unexpected ways. You’re always welcome back, and I really hope that you keep coming back to post TPL links on the relevant threads (and some irrelevant ones!).

  6. 36
    Billy Hicks on 17 Sep 2013 #

    Still feeling a little like a Popular newbie, it was a link on James Masterton’s blog in about 2009 that first directed me here, and then after lurking for a bit I made my first post here when we reached my stork #1 of He Ain’t Heavy He’s My Brother a year later.

    I also still feel like I’m yet to make my best contributions – the further we go into the 1990s and into the noughties we enter “my” musical era that, intermittently, continues to this day. Still to come are the glorious run of #1s in 1999 that first truly opened my ears to the world of pop, a certain noughties chart topper which was playing as I received my first kiss, and then an almost uninterrupted run from, ooh, about 2008 to 2011 which sees me leave my teens and enter an immensely happy early 20s existence, memories – good or bad – associated with almost every track. It may take several years, but should I still be around I can’t wait to look back at the next 17 years of music and beyond and relive the very best and worst of what the British public’s music taste has to offer.

    A very happy ten years indeed and here’s to the millennium!

  7. 37
    mintness on 17 Sep 2013 #

    Crikey, Billy, if *you’re* a newbie… you certainly look like part of the furniture from where I’m standing, anyway. :)

    On that note, while I’ve barely contributed anything compared with some of the esteemed members above, they (and Tom, of course) often make it unnecessary or superfluous to do so – “my” points are already made, and made terrifically well. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve told someone to “read this blog! and make sure you read the comments too!”. Indeed, in an online world where “under the line” is becoming increasingly synonymous with intolerance, trolling and abuse, Popular has, if anything, helped reinforce what’s actually good about comments threads.

    The late-90s period that approaches, with me currently at age 17 in Popular terms, promises to throw up some fascinating contrasts. I suspect I’ll be giving more 1-3 and 8-10 marks than at any other point along this journey. Bring it on…

    And, as a Eurovision nerd, I suppose I’m all but bound to end on a hearty “Congratulations” to Tom. Let’s pretend it’s the Silvia Night take on the title.

  8. 38
    Auntie Beryl on 17 Sep 2013 #

    Heh, as is standard I get to the comments box to find all the pertinent stuff has already been said…

    I’m new here, but have spent large dollops of the last year working back to the point before my birth, comments becoming scarcer as I went. It’s such a shame web gremlins ate the pioneering comments from the fifties and sixties – I’d have loved to have seen them.

    Thanks, Tom and FT, for hosting, writing and conceiving all of this. It’s remarkable and I hope the recent burst of enthusiasm persists. Thanks too, though, to everybody else’s thoughts below the articles. There were clearly some prickly moments but here we find one of the most treasurable corners of the net. Hats off one and all.

  9. 39
    wwolfe on 18 Sep 2013 #

    I think the first entry I read was the Shadows’ “Wonderful Land.” As an American, I missed out on the Shadows completely, so it was fascinating to read a good piece of criticism about the band and what it signified. I downloaded the song, and was able to find my way into its musical world, based on what you wrote, and I’ve been keeping up with your entries ever since. What keeps me here are your critical acuity and your, for want of a better word, kindness – a quality I appreciate more the older I get. I haven’t commented much since the mid-1980s, since reiterating “I don’t know this record” doesn’t seem to add much to the conversation. (The extent to which the American and British pop charts were two very different worlds after the early 1980s has been an eye-opener for me.) But I continue to find that conversation very rewarding. Thanks for all your work.

  10. 40
    LondonLee on 25 Sep 2013 #

    Haven’t commented here in a while (still in the sidebar though! Cheers) cause you’ve entered an era I don’t know much about having moved to the other side of the Atlantic. But I still love this blog even when you’re writing about records I’ve never heard of (99% of the time these days).

    10/10 for Tom.

  11. 41
    ottersteve on 26 Sep 2013 #

    Nice to see tom getting good feedbacks for his efforts.
    A 10-year project of any kind can get a bit “wearing” at times to put it mildly.

    As for me, my interest in “pop” music faded from the early 90’s onwards (it’s an age thing!).

    However, I still enjoy looking up a randomly chosen No.1 just to see what Tom has to say about it. In 8/10 times I feel we are kindred spirit when it comes to music.

    My only criticism (with a very small “c”) is that cover versions of previous hit singles should not be awarded a 10 – as in in the case of a certain 1987 Xmas hit. A 9 for that particular song would still recognize the greatness of it.

  12. 42
    punctum on 26 Sep 2013 #

    This is as good a place as any to mark the return of TPL – 15,000 words on The Lexicon Of Love, with contributions from Martin Fry himself: http://nobilliards.blogspot.co.uk/2013/09/abc-lexicon-of-love.html

  13. 43
    swanstep on 27 Sep 2013 #

    @punctum. Woo-hoo, well done. I look forward to reading that this weekend!

  14. 44
    Rory on 27 Sep 2013 #

    Throughout August I was wondering to myself how long it would end up – I wouldn’t have been surprised if it had been 40,000 words. A wonderful piece, punctum, and a towering achievement to get there.

  15. 45
    thefatgit on 27 Sep 2013 #

    Marvellous, marvellous work. And Martin Fry’s input is the icing on the cake.

  16. 46
    pink champale on 28 Sep 2013 #

    Wow. A piece that’s worthy of the record – the Lexicon of Love of writing about Lexicon of Love in fact. I hope Martin liked it too (christ, who wouldn’t? Imagine someone writing THAT about something you’d done…)

  17. 47
    Chelovek na lune on 28 Sep 2013 #

    Aye, a toweringly outstanding piece, and one worthy of a toweringly outstanding record. Or, indeed, and excuse the allusion, vice versa.

  18. 48
    Steviebab on 22 Nov 2013 #

    I love Popular, it not only feeds my nostalgic, completist pop obsessions but it inspires my own writing

  19. 49
    Chap_with_Wings on 6 Sep 2014 #

    Somehow I’ve only just discovered your blog & am working my way backwards. Once I reached this entry, I had to comment for two reasons.
    (1) In 1998, I started to watch all of Doctor Who in order, writing about each one. I’m still nowhere near finished.
    (2) In 1993, I started to write down the top 40 every week. I made myself stop last year.
    All power to you!

1 2 All

Add your comment

(Register to guarantee your comments don't get marked as spam.)

If this was number 1 when you were born paste [stork-boy] or [stork-girl] into the start of your comment :)


Required (Your email address will not be published)

Top of page