Monday, 25 January 2010

TOP OF THE POPS, TOP OF THE POPS!

You remember Christmas; you know, tinsel, presents, over-indulgence. When all you could hear were the classic Christmas hits, and the big Christmas Number One. Killing in the Name Of.

There’s more to say about the event than even this lengthy article has room to support. Rage Against The Machine getting to #1 with a song that peaked, nearly two decades ago, at #25. Not just that, but to Christmas Number One, the one chart result the whole country is trained to care about. People’s reactions? Well, we’d need a whole new website to talk that one through.

All the backlash about “oh it’s still going to Simon Cowell” (not true, the man doesn’t own Sony) or “it’s a silly song” (being honest, 17 years removed, it kind of is) isn’t the point. The point they missed is, do we still care about the Top 40?

The music in the is the world to a certain demographic (shudder); the pop-discovering, identity-forming young teens. But the spread of that isn’t top-down, it’s bottom-up: what a marketing person would be able to call viral without having difficulty ever looking their reflection in the eye again.

It spreads across playgrounds and the backseats of buses, through word-of-mouth and mostly, through phones. Ringtones; playing a new song to your mates; Bluetooth, if you’re that old-skool. Y’know, for the kids...

It’s this kind of able-to-hear-it-anyway method that renders the chart unimportant, I guess. Who needs the public at large acting as a taste-maker, when you’ve got your friends skimming for the best bits and playing them to you?

For me, card-holding Indie Kid, this means flicking through blogs and occasionally even traditional magazines with Spotify close to hand, and the recommendations of a few particular friends. I get to choose whose taste I trust and listen to the songs immediately.

No more relying on the general public. But us alternative types, the indie kids, the obscurity seekers, we never should have to care about that anyway, should we?

But I think the charts are important. As historical record for one. What was it like being young in 1977, really? 1982? Check the charts. Look at freakytrigger.co.uk’s genius Popular, which is going through every British #1 ever since the first (Al Martino's Here In My Heart, since you’re asking) and writing an essay on each.

They're also important as a way of making music feel like it matters. Giving us a story. You might well have sneered at a sudden Michael Jackson fan produced by his death. But, to go one notch more credible, how much of the Blur/Oasis enjoyment rode on that feeling of being in a gang? Still sneering? Have you ever worn a band t-shirt, liked someone because they liked the same type of music? You like being in a gang, admit it.

But ultimately, it’s all just music, right? Sounds that do or don’t vibrate your ear drums the right way to make you feel something. Why should all the trappings matter?

Because it makes people interested. Let’s look at the Top 40 right now as I write this (for the blog-o-sphere, now a week ago). Numbers five and six in the chart right now are the same song, in two versions- Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’, the original and as performed by the cast members of American smash-hit TV programme Glee (which I still haven’t seen and am holding out hope will be good, but that’s a mainstream-embracing story for another time).

That song has snuck back into the public consciousness loads of late- your university life has probably crossed paths with an anthemic singalong at some point. We’re all just a smalltown girl… It’s the same story as Rage- a third-party makes you suddenly care about the song, and before you know it it’s being thrust to the forefront of pop culture all over again.

But those are old songs. The Top 40 is a signifier of the new. Singles are the currency of freshness in music; something new every week please, more and more until I’m full. My esteemed colleague Tom Lowe suggests here that this is a dangerous attitude.
But how is this desire any different to the music obsessive’s constant hunt for a new favourite band?

Not necessarily following them but being aware of the charts, I have discovered a lot of stuff I genuinely love. It took months of singles for Lady Gaga to click with me and now I celebrate every time I hear Bad Romance (#7) because something so unusual made it through. Weirdness being the lifeblood of pop, the home of the novelty single.

The rest of the chart is hit and miss. I hate Iyaz’s Replay (#1), still don’t get Florence or her Machine (You’ve Got The Love, #8). I can’t help but raise an eyebrow at Owl City’s blatant Postal Service rip-off Fireflies (#2, and I implore you, if you like this, to seek out their seminal album Give Up). I probably shouldn’t but I adore Sidney Samson’s Riverside (#3, though it seems much bigger than that) and rather like 30H!3’s Starstrukk (#4) which cheekily combines Katy Perry, a few great lyrics and some good gimmicks to hide the fact that it’s a bit generic. There’s no denying that ‘pop music’ today is an umbrella that covers a whole lot of ground, a lot of it really interesting. Who’d have thought something that sounded like a Death Cab For Cutie cast-off would ever make it to number two?

And more good stuff more popular means less overplaying. Only you can prevent another Sex On Fire, kids.

...But maybe it’s just me. Maybe I’ve hit that point in life where I mellow out, stop caring about music with the intensity of a teenage zealot. I’m also less exposed to overplayed, overproduced rubbish- I club a lot less these days (getting old), am generally exposed to the radio only for short bursts, and can’t afford music TV. But I think the charts are important- even when they were, or are, rubbish they’re important. And right now they’re better than usual, so I follow them and celebrate when someone I like wins.

Rage 1 – Cowell 0, for example.

(A shorter version of this article can be found on the Redbrickonline.co.uk website, or in their lovely pretty paper, for whom I originally wrote it. They're good people, them 'Bricks.)

Friday, 1 January 2010

...AND YET MORE LISTS

Top 10 Singles of 2009
(with Spotify links/some kind of link when not available)

1. Shakira - She Wolf
(I've said a lot about this already: it's the latest in a long line of songs reinvigorating my interest (and belief) in Pop Music this year. Found out recently this was written by Sam Endicott, the guy from- flashback time- The Bravery.)
2. The Horrors - Who Can Say
(Researching this list is creating a lot of weird discoveries. I didn't know the spoken-word part of this track- definitely the reason I pick it out of an album I liked, but didn't listen to enough- was taken wholesale from a 60s boy-band song. Not sure whether that pleases or unsettles me. Like Primary Colours, this is something an 'anticipating future me' choice, but I specifically remember grinning uncontrollably to it strongly enough that I know exactly where I was. I don't know how many times I've listened to it since.)
3. Lady Gaga - Paparazzi
(The song that let me finally get Lady Gaga. So glad.)
4. Los Campesinos! - The Sea Is A Good Place To Think Of The Future
(To which I've listened loads but only recently realised, in the middle of its gloom-fest, lie the lyrics "to left and right a crazy golf course". One day I'll actually write about how Los Campesinos! are what Emo promised to my young mind, before I actually heard Emo*.)
5.Yeah Yeah Yeahs - Heads Will Roll (A Trak Remix)
6. Major Lazer - Pon De Floor
(Both of which I discovered like 10 days ago. This list is skewed, kinda purposefully to what's in my head now. 'Cus that's the nature of singles, right? Also worth noting that Major Lazer actually sounds better in my mind, making those ears-submerged-in-the-bath laser sounds.)
7. Yeah Yeah Yeahs - Zero
8. Lonely Island - On A Boat
(I went a bit mental about this for Redbrick and overstated a little, I reckon, about what it does. Still, for a lowly comedy song, it sounds really good, and is as listenable as it is singable as it is quotable.)
9. Camera Obscura - French Navy
(I've listened to My Maudlin Career many, many times now and as far as I'm concerned this song is still everything Camera Obscura have ever done.)
10. Black Eyed Peas- Meet Me Halfway
(This is the one I'm going to regret saying, isn't it? But it just feels so epic. The video hardly hurts, but that bit where he's all "Build a bridge- to the other side". That just feels so comic book. Gave me the Ex Machina hard-on I'm missing having not read any of this year's Ex Machina.)
11. Are You Gonna Bang Doe - Funky Dee
(Apologies to anyone on the end of my fever for this ludicrous, ludicrous song the last few days. Powered me through the 2009/2010 transition without sleep- largely thanks to its first 3 seconds "You should know about me/You should know about me/I'm Funky Dee". I've never learnt, in my music journalist training, how to describe how unexpectedly choppy that is, and subsequently how funny. Holy, in its shallow way.)

*Almost definitely my favourite album of 2010, about which I've already had as a rich a conversation as anything from 2009. And I haven't even heard it yet.

Top 5 Albums of the Decade
Just to give you a glimpse of how the Redbrick Top 40 might've looked, if I'd been given free reign. Not necessarily what I voted for there, largely because I was being tactical and sneaky. Because that's how I operate.

#5 Daft Punk - Discovery
#4 Los Campesinos! - Hold On Now, Youngster
#3 Yeah Yeah Yeahs - Fever To Tell
#2 Arcade Fire - Funeral
(The only one of these I didn't get to write about. I always remember it as a safe choice, and then go back and actually listen to it again and, bam.)
#1 Radiohead - Kid A
Top 5 Comics of 2009

#5 League of Extraordinary Gentlement: 1906
(Pretty much a token mention; it was my discovery of the series at large that really defined the year. It's a brilliant idea, which happened to link up perfectly with a lot of my university reading list.)
#4 Batman & Robin
#3 Invincible Iron Man
(Just good superhero comics. But something about it- and I'm not quite sure what- felt special. A cut above. Which allows me to excuse picking this when I'm still not quite up to date with the 12-part epic that was World's Most Wanted.)
#2 Scott Pilgrim Vs. The Universe
(One of the two cultural artefacts that kicked this blog into life back in March- along with Britney Spears' Circus album. I said a lot about it then. IT HAD A SHINY COVER!)
#1 Phonogram 2: The Singles Club
(The single thing off all these lists which will, I suspect, sit heaviest on my brain for the longest. Got to a point where I don't even necessarily enjoy Phonogram that much, it's just necessary sustenance- there's a reason the only thing I (directly) wrote about it this year focused on consumption. As I work with my own music/prose experiments, it's for seeing how in-line Gillen's thinking is with mine**, and where he's ahead of me, and where I should go, and where he's using ideas I had for my own stuff. Enjoyment can come later.)
I lost track of a lot of comics this year. I've already mentioned Ex Machina and Invincible Iron Man. But also Secret Warriors, Chew, Mighty Avengers, Young Liars... I never finished Umbrella Academy: Dallas. Hell, I really liked the first couple of issues of that X-Men Noir thing.

It was a year for reading around comics- continuing to dive back into the history and back-catalogue; discovering writers (Jason Aaron, Matt Fraction and Jonathan Hickman all broke into my consciousness) and learning how to write about comics. But truth be told, off the top of my head, I can barely remember what I actually read this year. A bit of a twin to my year in music, actually.

**Worth noting is that I suspect I might be the Laura Heaven to his Emily Aster in this way. Oh well. There are worse things to be.
The 5 Best Things I've Written This Year
(The Self-Indulgening)

1. Viva Pinata: The Death Simulator 2. (In?)Glourious Basterds 3. Lost, Damned: The Loss of Novelty in Games
(One of my many attempts this year to hammer out a theory about games. Probably the thing I like writing most- this is probably the attempt I like most.)
4. Flaming Lips Interview
(Because...it's the Flaming Lips.)
5. Eurogamer Expo 09: Heavy Rain preview

About Me

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London, United Kingdom
Videogames, film, music, comics: feed them into the Alex-Spencer machine and out come neat little articles. Like the ones you're looking at here.