My songs of 2019 are in no particular order except that I’d probably place God Control at number one. I think it’s one of the best things Madonna has ever done and find it remarkable she’s releasing music like this almost 40 years into her career. It’s a towering testament to what pop music is capable of and a necessary reminder of what Madonna brings to the game. If one of the current pop divas had released it I think it would be topping end of year lists everywhere, because it’s exactly what we need more of in these dark times: soaring, ambitious, political pop.
In no particular order.
Spotify playlist at the link above. Last year I initially didn’t think much of Call Me Maybe, the song that ended up being my favourite single of the year. That’s kind of a theme this year, with at least half the tracks being ones which I either purposefully avoided for a while (hello, Miley) or which took their time to grab me (I hated Mirrors for a while, Full Of Fire was difficult to extricate from the album). It’s difficult to pick one of these songs as my favourite – Roar, Royals, The Next Day and Flatline are probably my most listened to. I only very recently discovered Song for Zula and it instantly blew me away.
Wrecking Ball – Miley Cyrus
Royals – Lorde
Reflektor – Arcade Fire
Roar – Katy Perry
Rewind The Film – Manic Street Preachers
The Next Day – David Bowie
The City – The 1975
Get Lucky – Daft Punk
Everything is Embarrassing – Sky Ferreira
Flatline – Mutya Keisha Siobhan
You’re In Love – Betty Who
#Beautiful – Mariah Carey ft. Miguel
Hold On, We’re Going Home – Drake
Full Of Fire – The Knife
Mirrors – Justin Timberlake
Song for Zula – Phosphorescent
Sweeter Than Fiction – Taylor Swift
Drew – Goldfrapp
Copy of A – Nine Inch Nails
After You – Pulp
I bought tickets to see Gloria Estefan at the Royal Albert Hall on a whim, months ago. Like most people, I dipped out just after Destiny in 1996 and hadn’t heard any music by her in a long time. Nonetheless, the promise of ‘the hits’ was alluring for someone who went through a pre-teen period of being obsessed with Into The Light and then her Greatest Hits. The latter must surely be one of the greatest pop compilations of all time? The rhythmically-charged dance songs effortlessly soar while the stark, moody ballads were what I imagined love and heartache to sound like (I was right!) Throughout everything Gloria’s charisma leaps from the speakers with a silky ferocity – it really was a no-brainer that Miami Sound Machine retooled themselves to be focused entirely on her.
Into The Light, meanwhile, chimed with me in ways which I didn’t begin to understand until years later. Coming Out of the Dark. We seal our fate with the choices we make. Never be afraid to dream but follow it through cos it won’t get done unless it comes from you. You don’t exactly need to be a psychologist to see what was going on there. 1996’s Reach was one of the songs I listened to obsessively while ‘struggling’ with coming out and I can vividly recall sitting on a bench listening to it while trying to work up the courage to visit my university’s LGBT society room.
So, yeah, my main interest for wanting to see her was nostalgia. That’s kinda the raison d’être of any Royal Albert Hall pop gig these days. It’s where once-big pop stars go to relive the golden days before an audience more than willing to be complicit in the illusion. The level of Gloria’s stock can be ascertained by her appearances on shows like The One Show and Alan Titschmarch – being a special guest on The X Factor would be out of the question. This did, as an aside, cause my friend and I to wonder if Cher would have been granted this ‘honour’ if she hadn’t ‘retired’ for much of the past decade but had kept releasing records – the question of which middle-aged superstars are considered ‘relevant’ enough and why is an interesting one. As seems grimly inevitable for stars in Gloria’s position, she’s recorded an covers album of classic songs – The Standards, as the title succinctly puts it. It’s no disaster but the suffix of ‘and the hits’ to this concert’s advert underlined what the real draw was.
As we took our seats we surveyed the crowd, having wondered what kind of audience she would attract. For the most part it was as predicted – gay men, middle-aged couples dolled up for a rare night out and groups of loud women who nipped to the bar every ten minutes. What we had rather foolishly neglected was the Hispanic and Latino contingent. Many had apparently travelled from around the world to be present and they loved her, giving regular standing ovations and being possessed by the Holy Spirit every time she spoke or sang in Spanish. It made our pre-gig joking at the thought of anyone being a ‘hardcore fan of Gloria Estefan’ look pretty silly.
Gloria’s voice was deeper and more ragged; whereas with Joni Mitchell or Barbra Streisand this became an appealingly weary ‘lived-in’ quality, here it seemed like Gloria was frequently straining to recreate vocals from her heyday. This was a minor quibble, however, as it quickly became obvious that Gloria’s incandescent charisma was entirely present and correct. A consummate entertainer, she exuded warmth and openness and as you can see in the clip above she frequently interacted with her fans. If you watch the video of Conga you’ll see her stop to sign autographs mid-song. It was the kind of relaxed confidence which it’s all but impossible not to fall for, especially in an age where the default settings seem to be either laconic detachment or insincere and patronising affection. This connection (and the accompanying personal anecdotes) lent the ‘standards’ an energy and affection largely absent from the flat record but, as expected, the classics mostly came from Gloria’s own back catalogue with an orchestral Coming Out of the Dark proving a particular highlight.
Being old enough to remember Gloria in her heyday, it’s a strange thought to imagine Lady Gaga or Katy Perry playing gigs like this in twenty years’ time (some would uncharitably suggest that Lady Gaga would be lucky to play them in five years’ time – I couldn’t possibly comment). Pop clearly has an implicit link with youth but we’re living in interesting times where, from Cher and Madonna to Gloria and Janet, we’re witnessing the superstars who once dominated the landscape attempting to negotiate ageing. There’s much to be said for raging against the dying of the light – it’s a great thing that you can’t envisage an MOR covers album any time soon in Madonna’s career – but when acceptance that you’ll never be a major player again is done with the grace and good will which Gloria displayed last night, it’s charming and delectable.
All the photos and videos from the gig are here.
Click the link for Spotify playlist. Along with many others, my single of the year is undoubtedly Call Me Maybe – a track I initially dismissed as asinine and bland. I was a fool! My song of the year has not, however, been released as a single – Taylor Swift’s astonishing All Too Well floored me when I first heard it and still does so, its dissection of a break-up displaying an understanding of the power dynamics in relationships which belies Swift’s age. Various pitch-shifted versions can be found on Youtube but you’d be best just buying it on iTunes.
Happily, quite a few songs floored me this year: Solange’s Losing You is appealing and accomplished in an almost cursive way while iLL Manors remains powerful despite its adoption by hand-wringing liberals as ‘the voice of the London riots’. The most recent addition to the list is Don’t Rush by Kelly Clarkson – I first heard it only about a fortnight ago and its gloriously relaxed bliss quickly burrowed its way into my affections. Meanwhile, acts I have previously loved but whom I’ve drifted away from in recent years recaptured me with brilliant tracks like Let’s Have a Kiki and Cut the World. The Misha B and Azealia Banks songs already point to an exciting 2013.
Call Me Maybe – Carly Rae Jepsen
Losing You – Solange
iLL Manors – Plan B
We Take Care Of Our Own – Bruce Springsteen
We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together – Taylor Swift
Born to Die – Lana del Rey
Turn Up The Radio – Madonna
Your Body – Christina Aguilera
Wide Awake – Katy Perry
Let’s Have A Kiki – Scissor Sisters
Every Single Night – Fiona Apple
Try – P!nk
Melancholy Sky – Goldfrapp
Don’t Rush – Kelly Clarkson
Cut the World – Antony & the Johnsons
Magic Chords – Sharon van Etten
1991 – Azealia Banks
Leaving – Pet Shop Boys
Do You Think Of Me – Misha B
Die Young – Ke$ha
I have banged on about Poptimism and its ultimate position as a snobbery every bit as tedious and shallow as Rockism far too often. Yet pieces like this recent, pointless attack on Dylan, every bit as predictable and depressing in its way as a Kerrang! column attacking Britney Spears, make me weep. They reduce music to a lifestyle signifier and are far more about how the author wants to be seen than about the music itself. The endless cry from many pop fans is that the best of ‘their’ music is just as worthy of attention and respect as the established canon of greats. This is of course true. However the intention must surely be other than to build a new, separate canon with which to beat the other ‘tribe’ – knee-jerk dismissal of Bob Dylan and praise of Ellen Allien seems no better to me than the converse. Positively revelling in disliking music which you feel you are expected to like seems to be an attitude we should aim to leave behind with our teens. Worse than that, it can prove rather limiting to the pop we profess to love.
The rock/pop divide came to mind today as I read about the fate of two albums released this week. Both The Killers and Nelly Furtado previously released their third (English) studio albums in 2008 and the intervening four years have seen curios – a live album and a couple of solo projects from The Killers, a Spanish album and a barely promoted Greatest Hits from Furtado. Curiously, both have returned to their second albums in 2012 – the sweeping Americana of Sam’s Town is the clear precursor to Battle Born while Furtado’s The Spirit Indestructible updates the eclectic folk and experimentation of Folklore, still her bravest and best album. Clearly the two artists have few similarities, yet they both straddle genres – The Killers flirt with electronic music, perform with Pet Shop Boys and receive dancefloor-friendly remixes from Stuart Price; Furtado, meanwhile, liberally mixes club-oriented beats with those most authentic of genres, folk and world music. Broadly speaking, however, I think it’s fair to say that The Killers are seen as a rock act while Nelly Furtado is seen as pop.
It’s difficult not to think of the differing contexts offered by these definitions while looking at the fate of the records. Both had under-performing lead singles but, looking at the charts available today (Amazon, iTunes, HMV) it seems that Battle Born is cruising towards the number one spot while The Spirit Indestructible will struggle to enter the top 30 (perhaps even the top 40). Crudely speaking, I think Furtado having to compete in the pop arena makes things that much more difficult for her. If we look at the acts who could be considered peers of The Killers – Coldplay, Kings of Leon, Green Day, Arctic Monkeys – it’s common for them to disappear from view for two, three years at a time between albums. The pressure isn’t quite there for them to be in the charts constantly and their records can breathe as a result. Yet if you look at the dominant pop acts of the moment – Gaga, Rihanna, Katy Perry – they have barely been ‘away’ in the past few years. They’ve released albums, re-issued albums, released EPs, performed on other people’s songs. Rihanna is rumoured to be about to release her 7th album in 7 years, while Lady Gaga is gearing up to release her 4th in 4. It seems almost that our modern popstars are increasingly terrified of ‘going away’ for too long lest they be forgotten. Whether it’s being a judge on ‘The Voice’ or ‘American Idol’, making guest appearances on other artists’ songs or being a staple of the gossip columns, modern pop stars seem to be on a gruelling treadmill to stay ‘relevant’. Whitney Houston 4 massive albums in the span of 1985-1998 or Michael Jackson’s 5 from 1979-1995 look like a Kate Bush-esque work rate by comparison. Indeed, it’s inconceivable to think now that Warner Bros had massive issues with Prince wanting to release an album every year. Nonetheless, when artists like Prince, Stevie Wonder or David Bowie had periods of prodigious prolificness you got the sense of an intense creativity at work; with Rihanna (however good the results sometimes are) it feels like a mix of fear and having nothing better to do.
The idea still remains that albums are by and large a ‘rock’ thing while singles are a pop thing. Witness, for example, the argument that Madonna had become a ‘classic rock’ act when MDNA did decent business despite the failure of its singles. Perhaps this has much to do with the genesis of the album as the pinnacle of popular music being tied up with artists like Dylan and The Beatles. Despite strings of classic singles (and in the case of The Beatles, enormously successful ones) they have become totemic of Rockism, associated with rock bores who think everything after 1980 is dreadful. Whatever the reason, it seems reasonable to argue that this is why a rock band can disappear for a decent amount of time and still sell albums once they return while current pop acts feel the need to throw everything they have and hope something sticks. If anything this seems counter-productive in terms of great pop music: Rated R is undoubtedly Rihanna’s greatest album and one which has artistic merit, yet its relative commercial failure has seen her pull back from the potential it realised to become a one-woman Now! compilation. Since P!nk’s Try This underperformed she has released three variations on Missundazstood while Christina Aguilera has become the latest in a long list of pop stars to go down the Max Martin route after the failure that was Bionic. Heck, even Taylor Swift at the peak of her career has just released a Max Martin single which you could easily imagine being performed by P!nk/Kelly Clarkson.
Furtado’s The Spirit Indestructible really doesn’t fit against this backdrop of homogeneity, which is perhaps surprising given the involvement of Darkchild. As the title suggests it’s a testament to the human spirit, to hope, and it has an identifiable ideology and cohesiveness. It struck me while listening to it that major pop albums which show such a messy but clear artistic impulse seem to be getting rarer. Given the almost certain commercial failure of the record, we can perhaps expect Furtado to rush into the arms of Dr Luke in 6 months’ time.
The point of all this rambling? We should worry less about which side we’re on in the rock/pop divide and try to support artists who are trying to do something interesting/different. Artists who have an identifiable voice and who provide that little bit more than a catchy song. Ultimately it seems that this is the only way we’ll get big pop artists taking creative risks again at a time when the big trend is towards uniformity. We need to give pop artists room to breathe, the courage to fail and, more than ever, the strength to know that we don’t need them throwing another Max Martin/RedOne/Dr Luke song at us every 3 months.