Singles of 2014

Playlist here.

No particular order here though Ghost is easily my most played single released this year. My most played song is the demo of Rebel Heart by Madonna, which will shock precisely no-one. The Kira Isabella song was a great discovery – definitely an artist to get excited about. And it’s amazing to have a properly brilliant Smashing Pumpkins song again. If it was on Spotify I’d have had Morrissey’s Istanbul too.

Ghost – Ella Henderson
Take Me To Church – Hozier
Ghosttown – Madonna
Crying for No Reason – Katy B
Wrong Or Right – Kwabs
Seasons (Waiting On You) – Future Islands
Quarterback – Kira Isabella
Say Something – A Great Big World & Christina Aguilera
Dark Sunglasses – Chrissie Hynde
Uptown Funk – Mark Ronson feat. Bruno Mars
Love Never Felt So Good – Michael Jackson
High Society – Betty Who (from Worlds Apart EP)
Solo Dancing – Indiana
Yellow Flicker Beat – Lorde
Walk Me to the Bridge – Manic Street Preachers
Going Out – Dinner
If It Wasn’t True – Shamir
A Sky Full of Stars – Coldplay
Living – Adna
Being Beige – Smashing Pumpkins
Falling Short – Lapsley
B a noBody – SOAK
Queen – Perfume Genius
Disclosed – Call Me
Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime) – David Bowie

And not on Spotify, the first EP from Alphabetical Order Orchestra:

1989 and Pop in 2014

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So Taylor Swift is a pop star now – it’s true, she said it herself. 1989 is her ‘first documented official pop album’, a pretty bizarre description which has nonetheless pretty much been taken at face value. She may previously have had record-breaking albums, multi-platinum singles and arena-filling tours but this was…something else. Something not pop. Something to do with guitars.

1989 has been greeted with the kind of hysterial, ostentious hyperbole which characterises poptimism, with lots of CAPITAL LETTERS about SQUEEING and imagined ‘real music’ snobs who are gnashing their teeth at her popularity (hello, NME). I’ve written about this kind of thing many times previously – about how it stems from a patronising, insecure relationship with pop where there’s an implicit sense that this stuff is actually beneath the person SQUEEING. They write in the persona of what they imagine a pop fan to be – an over-enthusiastic child. They think they’re being transgressive in liking the most popular act on the planet, simply because it’s ‘pop’.

One of the central tenets of this approach is an opposition to any serious consideration of what they’re professing to love: see the big push-back against critical discussion of Swift’s Shake It Off video. This stuff is just fun! It’s just silly! Don’t take it seriously! SQUEE! So the critics don’t actually perform any criticism. Yet the concept and execution of 1989 says some rather interesting things about modern pop. The fact that it was signposted very explicitly as Swift’s first pop album is fascinating enough in itself, given that she’d sold over 100 million units prior to its release. Yet the signposting did its job, with pop audiences previously ambivalent to Swift jumping on board and delivering her biggest first week album sales to date.

Swift is clearly a canny operator but I think both this and the Red campaigns have marked her out as an artist with an enormously perceptive appreciation of how pop music currently works. Previously viewed as a ‘country’ star, with Red she made a real push to broaden her already massive audience. This happened most obviously with the choice of Max Martin as a collaborator but there were more subtle aspects too. The lead single features that line about her douchebag boyfriend listening to ‘some indie record that’s much cooler than mine’ while third single 22 features ‘cool kids’ scoffing at her (“Who is Taylor Swift anyway?!”) as she sings of dressing up ‘like hipsters’. I didn’t see a single review which grasped just how clever this was in positioning the enormously popular, all-American Swift as some outsider artist who wasn’t taken seriously by ‘music snobs’ (as opposed to being a multi-Grammy Award winner who’d performed with very-credible-indeed artists like Stevie Nicks, the Rolling Stones and The Civil Wars). Swift got the poptimism which dominates the current music scene and was tickling its tummy with an imagined victimhood. Suffice to say, it worked a charm.

With 1989, it was pushed further. Signifer was heaped upon signifer to let everyone know that Swift had ditched those boring, ‘authentic’ guitars and was now FULL-BLOWN FUN POP YAY! Yet, again, I’ve not seen any review which has grasped this as a marketing approach above all else (and I’m not particularly saying that as a criticism). Swift understood perfectly that this was the route to the hearts (and more importantly, the wallets) of listeners turned off by the ‘rockist’ trappings of the country-pop she’d previously been associated with. So in comes more Max Martin and also the equally ubiquitous Ryan Tedder. The first single, Shake It Off, was a self-conscious statement of intent which went out of its way to sound like it could have been from a heap of other current pop acts. As it happened, most of the rest of the album wasn’t particularly different from what she’d done previously in terms of the actual songs – but the production (synths over guitars) and the framing concept were more than enough to turn this into a sense of some dramatic transformation.

Indeed, 1989 was presented by Swift as an homage to an era of ambitious pop when artists like Madonna, the Eurythmics and Phil Collins (all name-checked by her) were making “the most incredible, bold, risky decisions as far as pop music goes”. Again, this has largely passed without comment. Yet if you look at the execution of Swift’s vision it’s surely a testament to just how moribund pop is right now? If we look to Swift’s apparent inspirations, they had little in common beyond being popular. In fact, if you look at the big pop acts of 1989 it’s pretty remarkable just how diverse they are and, not uncoincidentally, how little overlap there is in their collaborators. Swift, in contrast, has ‘gone pop’ by working with the same writers/producers as Katy Perry, Britney Spears, P!nk, Beyonce, Kelly Clarkson, Avril Lavigne, Jessie J, Jennifer Lopez…I could go on. Far from being ‘incredible, bold, risky’, Swift has again managed to package a pretty conservative move as something transgressive.

Now this isn’t to say that Swift doesn’t stamp herself over 1989 creatively or even that it’s a bad record – at times it’s a very good record. Nonetheless, it seems sad that that rather than being perceived as previously delivering her own unique take on pop, Swift has to be incredibly obvious and aim for homogeneity in order to be widely received as a ‘pop artist’. It’s even sadder that few amongst the folk who are supposed to love this music the most have bothered to take it seriously enough to move beyond patronising stock responses.

One such stock response is the accusation of ‘nostalgia’ when contrasting the present with the past. Yet if Swift calls on the spirit of 1989 to frame her record, it seems fair enough to look at how pop and its appreciation has changed in that time. There may undeniably be much brilliant music being made now but there’s a real sense that the possibilities for pop music have narrowed. I thought about this while reading a compelling piece on ‘the scourge of relatability‘ which argues that the criteria for judging art, and how we approach it, has been changing:

…to demand that a work be “relatable” expresses a different expectation: that the work itself be somehow accommodating to, or reflective of, the experience of the reader or viewer. The reader or viewer remains passive in the face of the book or movie or play: she expects the work to be done for her. If the concept of identification suggested that an individual experiences a work as a mirror in which he might recognize himself, the notion of relatability implies that the work in question serves like a selfie: a flattering confirmation of an individual’s solipsism.

Now certainly that’s pushing all the buttons that will lead to accusations of ‘snobbery’ and the rest, but it’s difficult not to look at 1989 and its reception without thinking that we do indeed ‘expect the work to be done for us’. People had to be told that Swift was now pop and, for a great many, that meant it was now okay to like her. It’s ‘ambitious pop’ as something dreamt up in focus groups rather than as a dazzling ferocity which demands to be noticed, which shakes things up, which does something different. I think today’s pop scene is starved of this – it’s why there was such an enormous response to Beyonce’s audacious album release, something which seemed to belong to another age of other-wordly superstars (even if it still featured people like Tedder, Pharrell and Sia). 1989, then, is a perfect album for our modern pop age – but that’s not necessarily a good thing.

Let’s Go To War

When the Manics released Futurology earlier in the year I wrote that:

The aesthetic and publicity of Futurology seems to have blinded many to the fact that it’s a continuation of (obsession with the past, with nostalgia) – and one which draws far more heavily on the Manics’ musical past. In its way, then, it also understands and plays with this post-nostalgia age. It offers a frictionless return to previous highs, mixing nods to a more aggressive and radical past with a distancing from (and sometimes apologising for) it (this distancing has been crucial to the Manics’ success with a particular kind of critic, who could never have stomached their early belligerence without that gap). It offers nostalgia under the guise of modernity, drawing on the past to present a comforting, easily-digestible image of a future. “We’ll come back one day… we never really went away. ” This is Futurology.

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The since-announced tour reviving The Holy Bible (to mark its 20th anniversary) fits in perfectly with this. Lest we forget, THB is an aggressive, uncompromising album which acts as a chilling testament to humanity’s brutality in the 20th century. It features song about the holocaust, the violence of the British Empire, serial killers, eating disorders, suicide, racism. More than that, it deliberately baits the liberal sensibility to distance onself from this bleakness and believe that it’s the fault of people ‘over there’ – who’s responsible, you fucking are (it also more directly baits liberals with its pro-gun, pro-death penalty lyrics and its ambivalence towards violence in general). While it’s inevitable that its unsettling power has dimmed with familiarity, we should be under no illusions that this album would be met with a chilly and/or bewildered response from many critics today. We live, after all, in an age where ‘music critic’ is viewed as an aspect of your broadsheet-friendly brand which easily lends itself to writing about fashion or Disney or yourself – all done with the same ironic wink at the audience. THB deliberately tries to shut down this distance, directly addressing the listener and implicating them in its litany of horrors. The band’s performance of Faster on Top of the Pops famously garnered the most complaints in BBC history – there was to be no easy escape and no backing down.

It’s been widely noted that THB came out on the same day as Oasis’ Definitely Maybe with the comparison invariably contrasting the former’s desolation with the swaggering optimism of the latter. Yet both had their roots in almost two decades of a largely-successful war against the working-class. The 1984 miners’ strike has become emblematic of this and it’s notable that (what remained of) the mining industry was fully-privatised at the end of 1994. In retrospect we can easily see this act as cementing the defeat of the working-class, yet at the time it was subsumed beneath the 20-point plus leads which Labour were enjoying over the Tories. There was a real sense of optimism that real change was coming – the first Labour government in almost 20 years. Definitely Maybe captured this zeitgeist but we can now see that THB was a more accurate harbinger of what was the come. Blair’s New Labour may have become almost comically demonised in recent years but, if it did some good, it certainly confirmed that the powerful forces represented by Thatcherism had won.

The left still hasn’t come to terms with this comprehensive defeat – one which stretches around the world and largely ensures that any government attempting to pursue radical left-wing policies is swiftly and aggressively punished (as Labour were in the late-70s). 20 years later we have another Tory government (let’s ignore the Lib Dems) which is widely viewed as being more Thatcherite than Thatcher and a left which is not in good shape. Fragmented, directionless and defeatist, much of the left prefers to dwell on the so-called glory days of the Spirit of ’45 (ignoring the unpleasant aspects of the context in which this happened, not least Empire) and pin its hopes on a Labour Party (or SNP for many in Scotland) which it hopes will be left-wing…just because. An analysis of power, the pressures which position political parties and the need to organise are frequently replaced by a blind optimism.

It’s into this context which THB is being re-born. The many pieces marking its anniversary may have paid lip service to its radicalism but they are steeped in nostalgia – a force which creates the crucial distance necessary for listening to the album without personal discomfort. There is often a sigh at the fact no band in 2014 could be envisaged releasing such a work, an attitude which bears comparison with the Spirit of ’45 nostalgia (we could draw a line from the complaints about the latter’s lack of acknowledgement of race and Empire, for example, to the notion that because no British white men with guitars are singing about politics it is currently absent). The fact that THB gigs were the fastest-selling ones the Manics have done in many years is testament to the power which the album holds over many people around my age and also an uncomfortable reminder of how easily we seek solace in sentimental reminiscing. In 1994, a BBC performance of Revol would have felt dangerous – now it feels like a crowd-pleasing offering to an audience who’ve just put the kids to bed and are relaxing with a drink. That’s what happens – we age and in doing so we hark back to when we weren’t sure who we were, when everything seemed more vivid and when life exploded with possibility (real or imagined). Yet we aren’t defeated until we stop trying and nostalgia is ultimately the enemy of progress. The Manics’ current playing with the past, both in straightforward reliving and in Rewind The Film/Futurology’s more experimental playing, risk obscuring the really important message here:

Working class skeletons
Lie scattered in museums
And all the false economies
Speak falsely of your dreams

Let’s go to war
To feel some pureness and pain
Let’s go to war
We need to go to war again

Zombie Pop

I’ve written quite a bit about the current contempt for pop music which bubbles away beneath the surface even of much ‘pop fandom’, not least in my recent Lily Allen piece. As I noted there, pop isn’t taken seriously as an art form yet a trite populism means that it’s instinctively defended against any and all criticism. When the banal output of One Direction is celebrated as a joyful cultural force, the pressure to do something great is pretty much non-existent. Add to this the fact that record sales are in decline, resulting in labels increasingly relying on their star artists for revenue (which itself comes more and more from advertising and endorsement deals) and you have a recipe for conservatism. The results of this have been unavoidable this year in most of the big pop releases: Prism’s dry self-denial; Gaga and Justin’s need to smother their music in tortured conceits to lend it ‘worth’; Miley’s ‘will this do?’ singles-and-filler effort. There’s been a singular lack of vision and, more to the point, a lack of daring. If Thriller was the music industry’s Star Wars, it feels like we’re at the stage where the results are market-driven dreck akin to Pearl Harbour.

Britney Spears’ Britney Jean is the last big pop release of the year and (quite remarkably) it’s possibly the worst. Talked up in advance as being her “strongest album ever” and comparable to Madonna’s classic Ray of Light, in actuality it’s completely wretched. This shouldn’t be surprising: no artist has better personified the lack of respect afforded to pop music than Britney. Yet there have been moments, most notably Blackout, where Britney’s blankness has been put to brilliant use; for the most part however, she has cruised on her celebrity and the indulgence of beguiled fans who project themselves into the void. The lead single from Britney Jean, Work Bitch, was depressingly generic fare which very firmly fell into the latter camp. Interestingly enough, though, the single bombed.

If being a hyper-famous void wasn’t enough to sell that song, Britney Jean as an album is very clearly fucked. It’s a quite extraordinary listen – decay and decline seep from its every second. The opener Alien, a William Orbit variation on the existential angst of fame, is actually a decent song but Britney’s vocal is breathtakingly terrible. To say it’s processed would be an understatement – it sounds like some bizarre other-worldly approximation of what a human sounds like, sterile and vacuum-packed. It offers no warmth and no trace of emotion, only a cold technological dejection. As noted, Blackout had great fun with this – here it’s clear that we’re supposed to buy into these vocals being ‘heartfelt’ and ‘real’. It’s such a miserable black hole that the English impersonation of Work Bitch sounds positively sparkling in comparison.

If the album is hobbled by this from the off it’s mortally wounded by a succession of similarly dead-eyed conveyor belt contributions from will.i.am, David Guetta, Sia and a host of others. The ‘personal’ lyrics consist of little more than sweeping allusions to everyday emotions which allow chasms of ambiguity. Passenger is a prime example, seeming certain to be interpreted as being about Britney’s conservatorship yet being a standard love song with lyrics which just seem sinister if taken in a personal context (if you’re in your 30s and deemed to be incapable of managing your own affairs, singing “this is living, yeah!” about the situation is more than a little twisted.)

Britney is a zombie popstar, staggering on long past the point when blood last pumped through her veins and feasting on the low expectations of a catatonic audience. The cracks, however, are bursting wide open. It’s simply astonishing that, throughout the album, other voices crop up to paper over Britney’s contribution; at one point (on Body Ache) it actually sounds like someone else takes an entire verse. The fact that the people behind the record either think no-one will notice or (perhaps more likely) that no-one will care is remarkable. I suppose it’s a fair enough expectation when you have an artist who never actually sings during her ‘live’ shows but you surely need to have a semblance of respect for your audience?! Yet respect is entirely absent here. Britney Jean is one of the most depressing albums I have ever heard. The glimmer of hope lies in the failure of Work Bitch, offering the possibility that even Britney’s own fanbase are tiring of an act that is increasingly less about illusion and more about derangement. It’s ironic, after all, that in the end it’s the listener who has to work to maintain some pretence that this is a functional record.

Maybe, just maybe, this will indeed be pop’s Pearl Harbour (movie). There has to come some point where we say ‘enough now’, quit making excuses for the phoned in crud and start expecting again. Perhaps it’s already happening, with artists like Lorde enjoying the kind of swift and enormous success which testifies to a malnourished audience craving sustenance. On the other hand, One Direction sold over 100,000 copies of their album in one day this week and will be joined by Gary Barlow at the top of Sunday’s album chart. The battle lines are drawn: what do you want your pop to be?

My review of the new Elton John album. Sir Elton, to you.

Elton John – The Diving Board

In Which Lady Gaga Betrays Her Contempt For Pop

They’re not grateful any more…It used to be a very unique and blessed experience to be able to experience theatre and to go to see it and only the most highest-class people in Shakespearean times would be let into the theatre and everyone else would have to watch it in the square. Nobody feels that way any more. It’s so easily accessible on the Internet it’s treated like McDonald’s, it’s treated like trash…I’m not a French fry, I’m foie gras.

Taken from here in which Lady Gaga actually complains that ‘the plebs’ aren’t forced to enjoy ‘art’ from the square and so no longer feel grateful. She also complains that people “think that they have the right to say whatever they think” about your work.

Betraying her class origins certainly but also underlining what I’ve long been saying about this ‘ArtPop’ business: she has nothing but contempt and a lack of understanding for pop music as a mass-appeal art form and thinks that throwing in some obvious signifiers of ‘high art’ makes it more valuable. She is wrong. More depressingly, the fans who so ostentatiously love pop and have a permanent chip on their shoulder about wider snobbery regarding it eat this elitist, damaging nonsense up. I guess when you think respect for pop music means being a peasant in the square you’re inclined to eagerly gulp down the stale scraps thrown from the tables above.