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Archive for December, 2011

Kate Bush - going through something of a Johnny Depp phase...

2011 was a good year to be a Kate Bush fan, all told. She’s released more new music in the past 12 months than she previously had in the past seventeen years combined. But while her new studio album proper 50 Words for Snow was justifiable acclaimed as another spectacular artistic achievement in a career that has been defined by mining unusual concepts for musical gold, her first release was a rather more divisive affair.

Directors Cut saw Kate revisiting her selections from her relatively undervalued post Hounds of Love studio albums The Sensual World and The Red Shoes. Her liberal use of autotune on the lead single Deeper Understanding caused some fans to (as ever) question whether she’d finally lost the plot a bit. As with everything Kate does, a little bit of time was all that was really needed to adjust to her vision. However, for me the highlight of the album was a track that was almost certainly the  genesis of the whole record.

Flower of the Mountain saw Kate re-visiting the title track from The Sensual World with the lyrics she originally intended but was refused clearance for in 1989 – an adaptation from the end of James Joyce’s Ulysses. As breathtaking as I find much of 50 Words for Snow to be, it’s this that is by some distance my favourite Kate Bush track of 2011. While the original had a sense of erotic urgency; with Bush alternately trilling and purring as if she was on the very edge of romantic ecstasy, this new take is characterised by a more languid, woozy sexuality. As befits the new lyrics, it’s a warm, dreamy remembrance of past love, rather than an attempt to capture a moment in time. In that sense it’s not just a great re-imagining, it’s a perfect sequel to the original. It would have made much more sense, both conceptually and commercially as the lead single from this project. But then Kate wouldn’t be Kate if she took the easy route.

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Hungry like the Wolf

First things first, we need to take a moment to reflect on that name. Kati. Wolf. There is a strong possibility that the first name is pronounced like “Katie”, but in my head it will always sound like “Catty”. Catty Wolf. Brilliant. Eat your heart out “Pixie Lott”.

This was the Hungarian entry in this year’s Eurovision Song Contest, and a mighty disco thumper it is too. In the best tradition of Eurovision classics, she was a bit ropey and the lyrics didn’t make a great deal of sense, but sweet Sandie Shaw what a tune.

Criminally, it only finished in a fairly dismal 22nd out of 25 on the night – a combination of being overshadowed by Jedward in the running order and a complete inability to sing in tune unless she was rooted to the spot. But I can virtually guarantee that this song will be more beloved in the long term of most than the forgettable Disney ballad that inexplicably emerged victorious. Sometimes, just being present is what matters.

Note: I actually prefer the Hungarian original of this song, as if you’re going to listen to total gobbledygook you might as well go the whole hog.

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The Saturdays - Can you name them all yet?

Many people talk about the curse of the difficult second album, but for second-tier pop groups like The Saturdays, it’s the third album that can be a real pisser. The first allows an act to announce themselves, the second to firmly establish their place in the market. But by the third, if they haven’t proven themselves enough to graduate to the big leagues, a once-hot group can discover that their fanbase is rapidly losing interest.

The Saturdays managed to extend their fifteen minutes by repackaging their second album not once, but twice after it initially flopped. But by the end of 2011 – with their largely mediocre third album proper crashing out of the charts at an alarming pace – there was no getting away from the fact that they still hadn’t achieved a true crossover classic to rival the best of the Spice Girls, Girls Aloud or even the likes of B*Witched and Eternal. Legacy-wise, they’re likely to fall somewhere between Atomic Kitten and The Honeyz.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, and to their credit they’ve churned out a number of perfectly enjoyable, if instantly forgettable, pop confections. It’s just unfortunate that one of their very best songs is likely to get lost in their inevitable descent into reality TV oblivion.

White Lies is as faceless as anything, but the manic, synth drenched chorus is one of the most addictive I’ve heard all year. It also employs that wonderful pop trick where everything drops out in the middle-eight only to come surging back to the power of 11 for the final chorus. The lyrics don’t bear much scrutiny – in fact they appear to be total nonsense – but if rhyming dictionary hooks are your bag, you won’t do much better. Rush it out girls, and end things on a relative high before Ant & Dec come calling…

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Unwieldy title for relatively simple concept alert! No wonder I’m only a freelancer…

Anyway, given that the entire internet is currently in the process of compiling their year-end favourites lists, compiling my own can’t help but feel a little redundant. For the record, I agree with the consensus on the PJ Harvey album, and would also put Kate Bush and Nicola Roberts in my top 3. So instead I’ve decided to go all edgy and obscurist by compiling my ten favourite pop songs from 2011 that you probably haven’t heard. I hope you enjoy at least one of them. You should because they are all amazing, otherwise why would I bother?

So let’s kick off shall we?

10. Nicole Scherzinger – Cold

Nicole Scherzinger - Crusher of children's dreams

It’s been a mixed year for former Pussycat Doll (all lead and backing vocals performed by Nicole Scherzinger) Nicole Scherzinger. In positives, she scored a UK number one single with the unexpectedly marvellous Don’t Hold Your Breath, and she replaced Cheryl Cole in the coveted X Factor judging seat that she was in no way marked down for from day one. The fact that, despite her initially being drafted in to ‘co-present’ with Steve Jones, there was absolutely no footage of her doing anything of the sort during Sacrificial Cheryl’s stint on the show of course being purely the result of fortunate editing.

On the downside, she has so far failed to connect to the US record buying public, a problem that was not aided by the magnificent PR disaster of breaking a 13 year old girl’s heart live on television. She also let the #10 song in my list disappear into the online ether where only nerdy and overanalytical gays such as myself could moan about how it’s the best thing she’s done and should totally have made the album.

It really is though, and the reason why it didn’t end up on her middling and distinctly front-loaded Killer Love LP remains something of a mystery. Perhaps the moody, desolate tone was considered out of place on a record that combined Geri Halliwell-esque pink pound grabbing diva antics with the obligatory soul-destroying inspirational ballads. Perhaps someone else wanted it, and it will finally get the exposure it deserves on some future Britney, J.Lo or… god help us… Leona Lewis album.

Whatever the answer, this is a fantastic, relatively understated dance track produced by pop remixer-du-jour Dave Aude, and its bleak mood a great fit for Nicole’s technically powerful but curiously blank vocals. It has a lot in common with I Hate This Part which – as any of the fifteen or so people who can name more than one of them will tell you – is totally one of the Pussycat Dolls’ best singles.

Short version: She is rubbish. This song is not.

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Noted festive faves Nirvana

And a yo-ho-ho to you too, Nirvana...

The UK Charts can be a rum old affair. Back in 1991 Nirvana peaked at #7 with Smells Like Teen Spirit. Among the songs that outsold it that week were Ride Like The Wind – a dance cover of an old Christopher Cross song, and When You Tell Me That You Love Me – a decidedly gloopy effort from a past-her-prime Diana Ross. Even the most hardened grunge-hater would have to concede that Nirvana’s record has endured far better. But the singles rankings are no meritocracy, and the near unimpeachable status that …Teen Spirit now holds was not reflected in its mediocre six-week chart run.

The history of the hit list is full of stories like this. Whether it’s Joe Dolce keeping Ultravox’s Vienna off number one, or the fact that AC/DC never achieved a top ten single while 2 Unlimited enjoyed eight, the singles chart does have a tendency to favour the ephemeral over the enduring. Nowhere is this more clearly expressed than in the battle for Christmas number one, held for five of the past six years have been held by the incumbent winners of the X Factor. Can you remember them all? Probably not. I can, but then I am quite tragic.

To a large, vocal portion of the British public, this is not an acceptable state of affairs; hence the annual campaign to artificially push an ‘alternative’ song to the top of the festive charts. In 2009 Rage Against The Machine managed to ride a wave of X Factor antipathy to hold the hapless Joe McElderry off the all-important Christmas #1 (though he moved into pole position the following week). This year the aforementioned Nirvana hit has been anointed as the potential dragon slayer, and with the endoresement of the surviving members of the band, plus the obligatory charity angle, it has a good chance of challenging whoever emerges victorious from the ailing reality titan this weekend.

Personally, I find the whole thing dreadfully tedious, and quite hypocritical to boot. Buying a song you already own because a bunch of people on the internet told you to doesn’t exactly strike as the greatest blow for individualism. Besides, much as I respect …Teen Spirit as a song, I fail to see how a depressing, twenty-year old grunge snarlathon is any more festive than an aspirational ballad by a dead-eyed reality show winner. If the sanctity of the Christmas number one is so important, surely the best anti-X Factor campaign would be one that involved a current chart act releasing an original Christmas song that’s actually any good? The last original Christmas track to get anywhere near the top spot was the dreadful Darkness with Don’t Let The Bells End. The only (outside) challenger this year is Justin Bieber’s latest effort. Hardly inspiring.

As things stand, there’s an unpleasant undercurrent of musical snobbery to the whole campaign. Needless to say, the dread phrase ‘real music’ has been bandied about more than once – as if pre X-Factor the Christmas number one spot had been routinely fought over by the likes of Billy Bragg and Bob Dylan as opposed to Mr Blobby and Bob The Builder. (Dylan, coincidentally, released a fantastic version of ‘It Must Be Santa’ a couple of years ago which would have been a far less po-faced choice of people’s champion if we must go down that route).

Don’t get me wrong, I have no interest in whatever drippy cover version the X Factor victor releases this week either, and I certainly don’t think they ‘deserve’ a number one single – although the very concept of a number one single being deserved for any other reason than having sold the most records that week is more than a little absurd – but the fact is that their annual storm to the top spot has become a self-fulfilling prophecy; no other major event singles even try for the top spot any more. Where are the twenty-first century Spice Girls, who held three consecutive Christmas number ones with three consecutive marvellous wintery pop ballads without being fuelled by reality TV or a protest vote? I’d like to see some fun back in the Christmas charts, and having them hijacked by a bunch of pompous Q Magazine readers who don’t even care what’s at number one for the other 51 weeks of the year isn’t my idea of a good time any more than surrendering to the Syco machine is. We need a third way. Somebody get Girls Aloud back in the studio.

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