In a recent Guardian piece, columnist Charlotte Raven took modern pop to task, contrasting the current crop of British stars – Craig David, A1 et al. – with those of a bygone age. “I think it should be compulsory for every teenager to listen to a compilation of records from just one year of the period that, to us old fogeys, really advanced the argument for pop. In 1981, you wouldn’t have had much trouble taking issue with any highbrow who dismissed the genre as limited and unsubtle.” She also listed a load of records, most of which didn’t come out in 1981 (the year Craig David was born!) but we won’t hold that against her.

Because the thing is, what if she’s right? We at Freaky Trigger like to talk about pop music a lot but hey, let’s face it, it was better back then, wasn’t it? To help us answer the question Greg Scarth and I turned to our old friend science. In one of the objective musical experiments this site is justly famous for, we took the Top 40 best-selling singles of 1981 and of 2000, and then gave them marks out of 10. I tackled 1981 because I can just about remember it. Greg did 2000 because he’s the kind of thrusting young teenage buck Raven seems to hate and fear. Furthermore, we doled out our marks not just taking instant pop thrills as the yardstick, but (in Greg’s case) trying to work out how these records will be seen in years to come.

Our conclusion? Well, 2000 was better than 1981. But there’s not much in it. The problem with pop and memory isn’t that you pamper the good stuff but that you tune out the bad. We have useless clunkers like The Corrs and Westlife to embarass us now, but we also have “Pure Shores” and “Stan”. Similarly, Charlotte Raven remembers Adam Ant clearly, but seems to have missed out Shakin’ Stevens. There’s no shame in growing out of pop, but if you’re going to play the comparison game you’ve got to be on firm ground.

By Greg Scarth and Tom Ewing. Thanks to Ian for inspiration.

1 “Tainted Love” – Soft Cell: 1981 off to a cracking start with this fetish-soul classic. A drum machine on the point of collapse and Almond giving it his all. 10 Bob The Builder – “Can We Fix It?”: No, fuck off. 0
2 “Stand & Deliver” – Adam & the Ants: Another masterpiece. “The devil take your stereo and your record collection / The way you look you’ll qualify for next year’s old age pension!”. Need more proof? Listen to the drums. 10. All Saints – “Pure Shores”: “Take me to The Beeeee-eee-eeeeeach” line aside, one of the most beautiful, surprising tracks of 2000. 8
3 “Prince Charming” – Adam & the Ants: A fanzine I once read claimed this sounded like “Spacemen 3”. They were wrong, thankfully. 8 Sonique – “Feels So Good”: “Dance” music for grown-ups who read Harry Potter books and enjoy them. The people that bought this were also responsible for Toploader. 4
4 “This Ole House” – Shakin’ Stevens: Put me off rock and roll for life, did Shakey. An absolute fool, and as I recall the Stray Cats did well with a similar schtick. 1 Baha Men – “Who Let The Dogs Out?”: with the benefit of a couple of months’ hindsight, all the points are for the line about his sneakers. 1
5 “Vienna” – Ultravox: “This means nothing to me” – the “to me” bit a tad unneccessary, surely, Midge? Deeply memorable bombast. 4 Robbie Williams – “Rock DJ”: However little I want to admit it, it’s a floor-filler and it’s catchy. 5
6 “One Day In Your Life” – Michael Jackson: watery ballad from King of Pop. Ballads = bankers, sadly. 3 Eminem – “Stan”: See NYLPM passim. 8
7 “Making Your Mind Up” – Bucks Fizz: Tsch, pop these days, all sounds the same, listen to this stuff, not as good as the Beat – hold on! She’s taken her skirt off!! Foggy specs of Euro juries mean glory for Britain. Um, 6, even though C.Raven would give it 0. Fragma feat. Coco – “Toca’s Miracle”: The last dying breaths of pop-trance. 7
8 “Shuddup You Face” – Joe Dolce: Hold over from 70s aka classic era of funny European songs. Those Continentals are cheeky monkeys. Hateful. 0 Spiller – “Groovejet (If This Ain’t Love)”: Played out but still originally lovely. The most requested song by me in clubs a couple of months before it came out. 7
9 “Birdie Song” – Tweets: I’ll tell you what, though, house music has really improved novelty records. 0 S Club 7 – “Never Had A Dream Come True”: Was this for Children In Need? Nice outfits in the video. 4
10 “You Drive Me Crazy” – Shakin’ Stevens: Another hit for Shakey! The man’s a national treasure. 2 because I can’t remember it. Craig David – “Fill Me In”: Yes, he actually probably is. 10
11 “Ghost Town” – Specials: Everyone remembers this and with good reason. Had the same effect as all political songs i.e. none but an excellent tune and a really good video too. 10 S Club 7 – “Reach”. Overplayed, overrated, but the horn arrangement is still good. 6
12 “Being With You” – Smokey Robinson: Oh no, our passionate clinch has spilt pina colada all over the waterbed! 3 LeAnn Rimes – “Can’t Fight The Moonlight”: Catchy mainly due to the melody being a rip-off of something I can’t quite place. 4
13 “It’s My Party” – Dave Stewart & Barbara Gaskin: Record label was called “Broken”. Broken…record – do you see? When you buy that Rough Trade box set remember that this is what indie records were actually like. 2 Gabrielle – “Rise”: Dire. 0
14 “Woman” – John Lennon: Come on now, do you really imagine that this would have got higher than 32 if he’d not got shot? 1 Eminem – “The Real Slim Shady”: The best comeback single possible? 8
15 “Happy Birthday” – Altered Images: Helium-voiced Scots muppet given free pass by hundreds of critics who fancied her in Gregory’s Girl. Me included. 5 Britney Spears – “Oops!… I Did It Again”: Will be forgotten in 20 years’ time (the song – not Britney). Sold because of the name. 5
16 “Hands Up (Give Me Your Heart)” – Ottowan: By the time I got to hear this is was a wedding party stomper classic. Still, at least an attempt at feet-moving going on. 5 Modjo – “Lady (Hear Me Tonight)”: Not, ultimately, very interesting. 5
17 “Stars on 45” – Star Sound: Another trend Charlotte R. strangely misses out in her look back. A proto-sampling record you may say but I bought a copy for 10p and it is bilge. High amusement value because of course they’re not the real tracks, but copies played by the “Starsound Orchestra”. 2. Craig David – “7 Days”: The best week committed to record. 8
18 “Green Door” – Shakin’ Stevens: What is behind the Green Door? The gateway to Hell, perhaps? 0 Melanie C feat. Lisa “Left Eye” Lopez – “Never Be The Same Again”: Reasonable attempt at R&B by awful-voiced Mel C. Left Eye is still talking absolute rubbish, though. 5
19 “Imagine” – John Lennon: Don’t get me started. 0 Madonna – “American Pie”: Ha ha. 0
20 “Jealous Guy” – Roxy Music: Lennon’s best tune sung by ambulance-chasing old rogue. 6 The Bloodhound Gang – “The Bad Touch”: A bad idea done exactly as they intended. Will be cult classic in 2021. 6
21 “Kids In America” – Kim Wilde: This is the other mad thing about Raven’s argument. Home-grown Brit pop stars have always been ghastly knock-offs. I remember the cheapo production on this making it quite effectively paranoid, so 5. True Steppers feat Victoria Adams & Dane Bowers – “Out Of Your Mind”: Proficient arrangement hindered by big superstar singers (and Dane). 4
22 “Japanese Boy” – Anika: woman from Birmingham puts on Japanese costume and funny accent, sings song. Oh, sorry that should be “rings rong”, ha ha ha ha ha. And could she not have done that thing with the fingers and the eyes while she was at it? 0 Ronan Keating – “Life Is A Rollercoaster”: The sound of Gregg Alexander counting his royalties. In the hope that we won’t remember it in 20 years, 3 points.
23 “Chi Mai Theme (Tune Life and Times of Lloyd George)” – Ennio Morricone: yeah, weirdly enough I don’t remember this one. Classical music in the charts – something else we seem to have binned. 3 Bomfunk MCs – “Freestyler”: How the fuck did this sell this many? “Like Celine Dion, Karma Chameleon.” 1
24 “Begin The Beguine (Volver a Empezar)” – Julio Iglesias: Ah, the Iglesias family and their bedroom-eyed grip on the pop charts. Awful. 1 Madonna – “Music”: Really really not a classic. 2
25 “Hooked on Classics” – Louis Clark/Royal Philharmonic Orchestra: Kind of like Classic FM meets Jive Bunny. Not to be encouraged though for ‘musical blasphemy’ value it deserves 2. Destiny’s Child – “Independent Women Part I”: A song people genuinely love, myself included. 7
26 “Souvenir” – Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark: Was this really the 26th best selling single of 1981? Those people at have a point I think. Great broody raincoated synthpop. 7. Darude – “Sandstorm”: Sinking sand. 0
27 “Can Can” – Bad Manners: A very fat man sings about a dance it would kill him to attempt. 6. Melanie C – “I Turn To You”: I wish you’d turn towards fucking off. 0
28 “Antmusic” – Adam & the Ants: It is hard to deny the hypothesis that none of our modern pop stars are as cool as Adam Ant. But then nobody before him was either. 9. Mariah Carey feat. Westlife – “Against All Odds”: Anyone else still expecting them to admit they were taking the piss? 0
29 “Do The Hucklebuck” – Coast To Coast: Before Ibiza, young people went to Butlins in the Summer. 1 Sisqo – “The Thong Song”: The Pop Music Focus Group can be wrong. This time only slightly, seeing as it’s still good but not that good. 7
30 “Hold On Tight” – Electric Light Orchestra: Fairness compels me to say that I’ve no idea how this goes. But, it’s by ELO and it’s called “Hold On Tight” so it’s not in truth going to be any good. 3 Artful Dodger feat. Romina Johnson – “Movin Too Fast”: Has anyone got the glockenspiel melody as a Siemens ringtone? 9
31 “More Than In Love” – Kate Robbins & Beyond: Yeah, similarly. This is actually more likely to be good than the ELO song. 4 Madison Avenue – “Don’t Call Me Baby”: Don’t call us, we won’t call you anything. 3
32 “Body Talk” – Imagination: Sinister, campy Brit-funk. Imagination were ace. 8 Britney Spears – “Born To Make You Happy”: See, Charlotte, the Americans (and Swedish) can still do it even if we can’t. 8
33 “Love Action (I Believe in Love)” – Human League: This is Phil talking…..has weathered the years extremely well, due mostly to the deadpan charisma of Mr.Oakey and that great riff. 9 The Corrs – “Breathless”: Was this a failed Song For Europe entry? I think Ant & Dec might call it “epic” or “windswept” or something. I call it shit. 2
34 “Stars on 45 Vol. 2” – Star Sound: C’mon everybody C-C-C-C’mon everybody… 0 Tweenies – “Number 1”: If it wasn’t by the Tweenies you’d love it. 3
35 “Lately” – Stevie Wonder: no, it’s no use. I haven’t the foggiest how this one went. Probably a ballad, mind. I will be fair minded and chuck it a 5. Westlife – “My Love”: More palatable than their others. 4
36 “In The Air Tonight” – Phil Collins: About that guy who could have saved some other guy from drowning but he didn’t? Then Phil saw it all then at his show he found him? That’s kind of how this is. 5 Oasis – “Go Let It Out”: Even Toploader fans think this is boring. 2
37 “Going Back To Our Roots” – Odyssey: A bit of proper disco joy. Retro-disco joy at the time, but now it’s all retro, so who cares? 8 Sweet Female Attitude – “Flowers (Sunship Remix)”: Beautiful and unexpected. 10
38 “Under Your Thumb” – Godley & Creme: laughable murder ballad by silly post-prog twosome. 3 Zombie Nation – “Kernkraft 400”: Still undecided. Could be a 0 or a 10, so 5.
39 “Happy Birthday” – Stevie Wonder: bloody hell, another song about birthdays! Strong all-year sales, bish bosh, very nice. Now admittedly this isn’t just anyone’s birthday, it’s Martin Luther King’s. But tell that to all the grannies who bought it.5 Westlife – “What Makes A Man”…cry. 2
40 “Kings Of the Wild Frontier” – Adam & the Ants: Adam Ant could have put out a really bad comedy rap in 1981 and it would have sold…oh hold on. Luckily this sold more. What’s the Native American equivalent of a wigga? 8 Black Legend – “You See The Trouble With Me”: Interesting hard and noisy turn for pop-dance, but not much song. 5