Tom Ewing’s Top 100 Singles Of The 90s

Pop myth of the nineties #1: the success of the post-Nirvana grease and gloom brigade somehow killed off dumb, peppy, air-punching AOR or its sappier balladic equivalent. Pop myth of the nineties #2: this would have been a good thing.

AOR is a wiry, adaptable beast, though, and like most other musics (the notion grunge bumped off metal is even stupider) when the new thing hit it just changed its clothes and hepped-up its attitude somewhat. Twist the dial today and you’ll hear as many big ballads and hooksome guitar-driven pop tracks as you ever did, all of them lovingly styled to sound kinda respectable and meaningful and classic, all of them as glossy and ephemeral as anything by Aguilera or Spears, some of them even as good.

Same as it ever was, then: the only difference is that the nu AOR has aspirations to outsiderdom and mild profundity, where the old AOR had aspirations to technocracy and musicianship. At worst this results in guff like Joan Osborne’s peerlessly stupid (if catchy) “One Of Us”, Deep Blue Something making a concept album about ancient Byzantium, and Alanis’ grisly confessional soup. At median it means Sixpence None The Richer covering overrated Britpop classics in the style of a decaffeinated Sundays. At best it produces records as safely breezy as OMC’s “How Bizarre” and as safely sleazy as Sheryl Crow’s expensive and entertaining bar-girl impersonations.

At the very best it produces a record like “You Get What You Give”, the most anthemic, enthusiastic bit of radio schlock I’ve heard in years. I hated it passionately until I heard it in a car, usually a fair test of quality. You can sneer at the lyrics all you like, but it’s the delivery that counts, a frenzied, gabbled yelping, an urge to say something and say it big which comes off like Kevin Rowland gone stadium. Gregg Alexander fills every second he can with gasps, yells, fist-aloft cries and all manner of cheerleading affirmations, over and above the tumbling word-packed song. The effect is to blur his meaning completely and turn the song into a huge, bouncing, grinning call-to-anything rather than the muddled wake-up-America it was probably intended as. The only bit of the words anyone remembers is the Beck/Maz Manson dissing, anyway, about which all you can really say is that Alexander has fairly good taste in enemies.

The music is as catchy as it needs to be, but what’s surprising is how hi-fi it sounds. While it never lets its opulence get in the way of its drive, “You Get What You Give” is the shiniest sounding pop/rock hit in ages, the least ashamed of its studio origins. That’s why, in the most self-conscious, second-guessing decade in pop’s history, this single keeps pulling me back despite myself, with its excitable, innocent love for its own bigness. Single of ’99….but what a shame about the hat.