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Archive for January, 2012

Le Kid - They're actually Swedish

Le Kid make the kind of music that Sweden has become justly famous for producing – lushly melodic, naggingly infectious and underpinned with just a hint of melancholy. Which is not to say they’re content to slavishly follow the ABBA blueprint, they’re very much their own band and this song sounds more like a great lost Girls Aloud single than a Benny & Björn composition.

A great chorus is often enough for a pop tune to do its job, but what makes America my favourite song of 2011 is the way the song is structured so that every section really matters. It does have a classic pop chorus, building up to a euphoric climax, but the verses are also beautifully wistful, built around a looped gasp surprisingly reminiscent of Laurie Anderson’s 80s art-rock hit O Superman. Then there’s that majestic middle-eight, where the heavily layered vocals are pulled back, then brought in again over the space of just two lines. It’s a subtle, but perfect pop trick.

The groups debut album Oh Alright! is crammed with beautifully constructed songs of this ilk, and it’s a huge shame that thus far they haven’t gained much recognition outside the Europop blogs. In a chart scene dominated by David Guetta’s thumpingly repetitive beats and Jessie J’s caterwauling, music like Le Kid’s doesn’t really have an obvious entry-point. But hopefully they’ll stick around long enough for that to change.

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The National Pre-Selections for the Eurovision Song Contest have really started to kick off over the last few weeks, although early signs weren’t good when both Switzerland and Denmark opted for boring dirges over far more fabulous competitors. Thankfully, Cyprus made the right choice tonight with this poptastic (albiet utterly, utterly generic) slice of dance pop from Ivi Adamou.

She almost certainly can’t sing a note, but she looks good and she’ll doubtless be surrounded by backing dancers, so I reckon this has a good chance of being Cyprus’ first decent placing since way back in 2004.

Excellent.

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Medina - The best thing to come out of Denmark since 3/4 of Aqua

For some reason the UK doesn’t really ‘do’ foreign language music as a general rule. While our European neighbours are happy to accept a catchy tune in any tongue, a mainland hit doesn’t stand a chance on these shores unless it’s a largely instrumental dance track with an easily repeatable vocal hook, or been re-recorded with new English lyrics for our ease of consumption. Even a song as boneheadedly simplistic as Basshunter’s Boten Anna only crossed over here when it was re-titled Now You’re Gone and had all the forenz taken out.

The funny thing is that of all the major modern art forms – reading, cinema etc – it’s music that can be most easily enjoyed without compromising the native tongue. Two series’ of The Killing and a lifetime of Eurovision fandom have not yet given me the ability to speak fluent Danish, but I understand the visceral heartache communicated in Medina’s For Altid as easily as I understand any English pop ballad. It’s there in the dreamy, With Every Heartbeat-esque synths – which drop out to magnificent effect before the final chorus – and in her husky, melancholic delivery.

Nevertheless, for whatever reason the UK music industry is as resistant to linguistic diversity as it’s ever been. As far as I recall, the last foreign pop track that wasn’t a one-off club track  to become a significant hit on our shores was the magnificent Moi… Lolita by Alizeé way back in 2002, and even that was treated as a novelty, with none of her excellent subsequent singles making the slightest impression (Check out J’en ai marre, it’s almost as good).This song probably won’t be the one to break the drought, but rumour has it that the inevitable English version is on its way. She’s already tried this with her earlier megahit Kun For Mig – which made a brief UK chart appearence as You & I – but as so often happens it lost a fair part of its magic in the translation. I wish her the best but personally, I’ll be sticking to my Sarah Lund impressions.

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Nerina Pallot - Closet disco queen

To glitter or not to glitter? That is the question that presumably confronted Nerina Pallot when she wrote the discotastic Put Your Hands Up, one of the very best pop songs of last year. In fact, the song was so good that it was initally shopped to the queen of glittering disco-pop, Kylie Minogue, who bewilderingly didn’t choose to include it on her ultimately disappointing Aphrodite album. Rather than allow the song to be passed down through the ranks of the second-string disco divas, perhaps eventually turning up as a Geri Halliwell B-side or something, Nerina wisely chose to keep the song for herself.

Needless to say, what works for the empress of high camp might not necessarily work quite so well for a singer-songwriter best-known for Joni Mitchell-esque piano ballads and anti-war protest songs. Whether or not Nerina can pull off Gold Lame Hot Pants is a matter between herself and her loved ones, but artistically it probably would have been too much of a left turn, and a more bluesy, toned-down version subsequently appeared on her fourth album Year of the Wolf.

The final version was perfectly enjoyable, and enjoyed considerable airplay on Radio 2, but personally I found that it paled quite significantly in comparison to the ‘1987’ remix – presumably the template for the Kylie version – which Nerina kindly released as a B-side. As the title suggests, it’s pure retro cheese, with Nerina cooing, whispering and ‘la la la-ing’ over an 80s synth backing so chunky you could probably use it as insulating winter-wear.

Realistically, releasing this version in all likelihood would have been a mistake that alienated a lot of Nerina’s core audience, but as a more fairweather sort of fan I feel quite sad that this song never got the exposure it deserves. Kylie was a fool to let it go.

On a semi-related note, Nerina is by all accounts a very funny and intelligent woman, and this clip of her explaining how big-bucks major label record contracts frequently leave the act out of pocket is a fascinating watch, particularly if you are a fan of X Factor or poor hapless Joe McElderry, about whom Nerina – whose song Real Late Starter became the title track on Joe’s commercially disastrous debut album-  fleetingly wonders ‘did I kill his career?’

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Darren Hayes - Never knowingly under-dressed

It was never particularly cool to enjoy the music of Savage Garden. Despite (or perhaps because of) their stadium-packing success and infectious pop hooks, they were always considered a bit drivetime radio naff, a sort of Roxette for the late 90s. (I have a lot of time for Roxette too, but that’s another blog post…). In the ten years since the group disbanded Hayes has largely moved away from the MoR balladry and produced a series of interesting and at times deeply personal solo albums, but the nagging suspicion remains that it’s only really the faithful long-time fans who are still listening.

This is a shame, because Darren deserves far more than his current position as a sort of male Melanie C. His fourth solo album Secret Codes and Battleships was in many ways his most conventional since his debut, packed with the kind of soaring choruses that could probably be chart guzzling smashes in other, more Radio One-friendly hands. Unlike many artists in his position, he’s not content to rest on nostalgia; there are no attempts to re-write Truly Madly Deeply, just twelve tight, expertly crafted modern pop songs- of which Bloodstained Heart is one of the very best.

Listen to this song and imagine Coldplay had released it, or Bruno Mars. It’s not coincidental that Simon Cowell originally comissioned him to write one of the other highlights on this album – Black Out The Sun – for Leona Lewis; which he thought better of and had to fight hard to get back. Forget about I Knew I Loved You and listen without predjudice. This is one of the very best pop songs of the year, and it’s a crime that so few people got the chance to hear it.

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Loreen - Big on vocals, not so hot on lipstick application.

Sweden has long been a breeding ground for magnificently morose electro-pop and – spoiler alert – this isn’t the last we’ll see of it in this countdown. First emerging through the Swedish incarnation of Pop Idol, and with the pipes to prove it, Loreen combines the tortured introspection of Lykke Lie and Robyn with the powerful diva belting of Leona & co, though thankfully with more conviction and less melisma.

My Heart Is Refusing Me was her breakout hit this year, spending over four months on the Swedish charts. It’s a masterclass in controlled tension, with the moody, understated verses giving way to an explosive chorus.Crossover dance hits in 2011 have tended to be of the vacuous Alexandra Stan variety, but it’s still a surprise that this song hasn’t yet been given a push beyond the Swedish borders. Leona Lewis’ unconvincing attempt to reinvent herself as a club diva earlier this year would have been far better served by a song like this than the dreadfully limp Collide.

Still, these things take time, and with an album due later in the year, Loreen may yet get the attention she deserves. Get on board now and prepare to look really cool when everyone is talking her up in six months time*.

*this might not actually happen.

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Sophie E-B. Take a cha(r)nce on her.

Sometimes an artist is cruelly ill-served by their biggest hit. Such is the case with Sophie Ellis-Bextor. Murder on the Dancefloor is a marvellous record, but even on her debut album it was something of an anomaly. So much so that she was forced to re-release it with the similarly campy ‘Get Over You’ to keep the momentum going at the time. But in any case, while she has remained loyal to the dance-pop genre for over a decade now – gathering a small but feverishly loyal fanbase in the process – her music is generally much more sophisticated than that one hen party classic would suggest, and the fact that none of her subsequent albums spawned a hit anywhere near as big has turned it into something of an albatross.

In truth, Sophie has long since been relegated to that frustrating no-mans land where you’re no longer young and hip enough for Radio 1 (bizarre now to think that she was once a staple of their playlist) but too pop to segue into MoR album selling land a’la Will Young. I often feel that the death of Top of the Pops and CD:UK has killed mid-level local stars like Sophie, for whom there are precious few opportunities for national exposure.

Still, she seems happy to soldier on, and this year saw her self-released fourth album briefly chart in the top 40. The lead single proper (after a variable string of hit-chasing dance collaborations), Starlight is the kind of lushly produced dream-pop that Sophie’s instantly recognisable voice was made for. The sense of novelty around her RP delivery has long obscured the fact that what Sophie lacks in the shrieking stage-school melisma re-popularised by X Factor, she makes up for with a gorgeously smoky tone. I suspect there may be a genuinely iconic record in Sophie somewhere, when she finally stops chasing the charts. But until then, records like this one more than justify her continued presence on the fringes of the British pop scene.

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