2 August 2013
Year poll time! I give every No.1 a mark out of 10. In this poll, you can tick any that you would give 6 or more to. My highest marks this year went to Livin’ Joy and Coolio, my lowest to Robson And Jerome.
Writing the 1995 entries has been tremendously enjoyable, reading the threads even more so. Thanks, as ever, to everyone who reads and comments on Popular and waits patiently for the oft-delayed new entries.
As ever, use the comments to share your own favourites from 1995, other lists, thoughts on the year in general, etc.
Tom in Popular • 78 Comments
31 July 2013
“The environment” is something of a pop graveyard, and no surprise. Beyond specific conservation efforts, the problems we’ve created seem simply too vast for us to cope with as a species. No wonder our pop singers have mostly failed to rise to their own challenge and write great songs about it. “When I think about the hole in the sky,” a Lennon simpered, “Salt water wells in my eyes”. And that was about the level of it.
“Earth Song” isn’t strictly about green politics – whales and elephants get a cameo, but it’s more of a general ‘why oh why’ address-stroke-sermon-stroke-meltdown on the general rottenness of mankind. But actually, if you were to write a song which really captured the impotent 3AM anguish of the environmentalist, their horror at human civilisation’s slow, placid self-immolation, it might sound a bit like this. more »
Tom in FT /Popular • 127 Comments
28 July 2013
A bit of business I need to take care of, here. I owe Frankie Laine – and you – an apology. The review of Frankie’s “I Believe” is from the very early days of Popular – 2003 – and was based on a track which, while certainly Frankie Laine and certainly “I Believe”, is a different, slicker and sicklier recording to the slow-building eye-bulging studio-chewing intensity of Laine’s actual 18-week balladzilla.
I handed the track I had a 3; the actual recording should have got more, and anyway I’m now far fonder of early 50s studio belters than I was when I was reviewing them. Too late, alas! But not too late for you to go and give Frankie a listen. Especially if the alternative is this.
And with that out the way… more »
Tom in Popular • 119 Comments
23 July 2013
Coolio was 32 when “Gangsta’s Paradise” came out, but the man he’s voicing is 23 – born in ’72, then, the year Stevie Wonder released Talking Book. For some critics, to draw a line from Stevie Wonder to hip-hop was to trace a decline: to tell the story of black American pop’s lost soul, from a 70s full of hope, warmth and conscience to a present day of seeming aggression and amorality. With that reading, Coolio using Stevie Wonder’s beautiful “Pastime Paradise” so fully was flaunting rap’s supposed lack of creativity. But those critics were wrong. Isolating musical developments is a luxury: it means ignoring music’s social and economic context. And “Gangsta’s Paradise” deliberately forces Stevie Wonder’s conscious, anti-materialist soul music into dialogue with that more brutal context. It wants you to remember how sweet soul could be in the early 70s, and then it wants to tell you, as straight as it can, why it can’t be that way now. more »
Tom in Popular • 101 Comments
17 July 2013
The scales of pop injustice tip in both directions. It is often taken as scandalous that Prince only managed a single Number One. But what then to make of Simply Red’s total? Mick Hucknall’s blue-eyed soul brand trampled the LP charts underfoot with Stars: they were a ruby-toothed sales goliath. But as far as singles go, “Fairground” is your lot. And it’s hard to imagine many people being sad about it.
Simply Red were one of those bands who are easy to loathe. In a way they were the Mumford And Sons of their day – successful to such a degree they stood in for a pile of musical wrongs: bogus authenticity, misplaced nostalgia for older musics, the supposed complacency of the Great British Public. The traits which might have won another musician a fair hearing – his socialism, his love of dub reggae – were brushed aside in Hucknall’s case. Instead we heard about his arrogance, his pettiness, and his colossal libido. more »
Tom in Popular • 123 Comments
15 July 2013
The key to dealing with hot weather is economy of effort – do the things you really have to with the least possible fuss, and the rest of the time, slow down, refrigerate. Which makes “Boombastic” a great heatwave hit, whenever it actually reached #1: there’s a ton of space in this record; shady, cooling space. Around the space, snatches of instrumentation: a bric-a-brac of sounds, almost unrelated, all doing the minimum. A hammered piano note; a plink higher up the register; a repeating see-saw noise; a loping bass. Drums snap and sometimes boom; a guitar confines itself to a terse lick or two then gives a sudden, thrilling squeal. It’s pop production as a fairground dark ride, a set of looping mechanisms forming themselves into a world for all the family to enjoy (or imitate in the playground). more »
Tom in Popular • 42 Comments
9 July 2013
Whatever grim spirits drove Michael Jackson, they were hovering around his music long before HIStory – a double album that, through hubris or masochism (or commercial good sense) directly linked his greatest songs to his newest. There’s terror and paranoia to spare on the hits, even before Jordan Chandler’s accusations against Jackson curdled his public profile: the HIStory songs were darker still. Whether it was the agony of wrongful accusation or the cold horror of discovery motivating Jackson – or just a development of his existing demons – his music around this time is a sea of sorrow and fear. more »
Tom in Popular • 62 Comments
5 July 2013
A “heavyweight battle”, the NME cover-billed it. And if “Country House” vs Oasis’ “Roll With It” was a title bout, the music press were desperate to play Frank Warren.
Perhaps they had most at stake. It was, in a way, their last great fight. Many other moments define Oasis. Blur are best remembered for different songs. Britpop itself? Well, this was the high tide – probably the main reason Oasis even count – and the rivalry became an ongoing, rather tiresome, pop storyline for years after. But even then the battle is just one of a scrapbook of memories: Britpop had to be a thing already for this tussle to even matter.
The press, though – this is the climax of its 80s and 90s story, its turn away from other music to keep the indie flame burning, and how it saw its favourites gradually win over first the radio establishment, then a wider public. And look – here they are! Top of the charts, ma! Whoever wins, we won, is the NME’s message, but in that final ridiculous week the story had outgrown them. After Britpop, readers dwindled, and no new story emerged: the price of ‘we won’ turned out to be that there wasn’t a “we” anymore. more »
Tom in FT /Popular • 171 Comments
30 June 2013
I’m a sucker for a self-conscious farewell. I bought final issues of comics I’d never prevoiously read. My best Doctor Who memories were the regenerations. As a student, my favourite Shakespeare was The Tempest. And look! Here’s Gary Barlow as Prospero, drowning his songbook, letting Caliban free to hang out with Oasis at Glasto, moving on and leaving behind him maybe the most self-important single a boyband has ever produced. more »
Tom in Popular • 58 Comments
26 June 2013
A dilemma, here. On the one hand, the second Outhere Brothers number one is somewhat better than “Wiggle Wiggle” – it shouts at you less, for one thing. On the other hand, the very words “second Outhere Brothers number one” suggest we have left the borders of necessity far behind. The Brothers here sound a little less obnoxious, a bit more playful – nursery rhyme goofs instead of unabashed horndogs. They have better ideas, too – a breakdown early on that sounds like it might be going somewhere, with an atmospheric dancehall intro. But the basic approach, constipated rappers leching over ordinary beats, really hasn’t changed, and “Boom Boom Boom” outstays its welcome just as surely as “Wiggle Wiggle” did, so you send it on its way still wondering why it bothered us in the first place.
Tom in Popular • 68 Comments