Well now, there’s a thing. At the time of writing, “Don’t Leave Me This Way” by Harold Melvin & The Bluenotes has scored a maximum 5 points from every single voter, making it the first single ever in the history of Which Decade to do so – and therefore, if you stick with my admittedly patchy logic, The Best Single Ever In The History Of Which Decade, If Not Of All Time.
But hark! And hist! What’s that coming over the hill? Could it be a victory to rival that of Harold Melvin? Only one way to find out: it’s the Number Fives.
1977: Isn’t She Lovely – David Parton.
1987: Almaz – Randy Crawford.
1997: Clementine – Mark Owen. (video)
2007: Exceeder – Mason. (video)
Listen to a short medley of all five songs.
As JonnyB rightly points out in the previous comments box, The Rolling Stones were actually in the Top Ten with a double A-side single, which combined “Let’s Spend The Night Together” with “Ruby Tuesday”. I’d feel guiltier about this oversight if the Stones weren’t already in the lead – but I’m certainly not about to make the same mistake with this double A-sider from The Beatles.
Despite breaking their four year run of consecutive Number Ones, “Strawberry Fields Forever”/”Penny Lane” is regarded by many – myself included – as the Best Beatles Single Ever, and regularly tops the sort of magazine polls to which men of my age and background are so irresistably drawn. I’ve written about it before, so shan’t bang on for too long – except to re-state that “Penny Lane” evokes memories of my 1960s childhood with an almost supernatural accuracy, and an almost overwhelming poignancy. Meanwhile “Strawberry Fields Forever” – Side One, Track One on the first album I ever bought – more or less invented the future. Not bad going for a pop single, is it?
Given Stevie Wonder’s refusal to release “Isn’t She Lovely” – already a major airplay hit – as a single from his massively successful Songs In The Key Of Life, it fell to some previously unheard-of (and never to be heard of again) jobber called David Parton to seize the commercial opportunity, and to milk it for all it was worth with this carbon-copy cover version. Since the song is dedicated to Wonder’s baby daughter Aisha – even mentioning her by name – Parton’s already shabby opportunism looks all the more artistically indefensible. Still, since carbon-copy cover albums (such as the perennial Top of the Pops series) were still selling well in the late 1970s, nobody outside of the music press and the Wonder fan club cared too much – indeed, Parton was widely hailed as nobly fulfilling a public demand, in the face of Wonder’s stubborn intransigence – and “Isn’t She Lovely” duly peaked at Number Four. God, but the Seventies could be such a shabby decade.
Randy Crawford, whose breezy, carefree, seemingly effortless vocals worked so well on The Crusaders’ “Street Life” in 1979, got bogged down during the 1980s with a right load of syrupy cabaret gloop, and “Almaz” is one of her very gloopiest. It’s a pleasant enough tune, and the essentially likeable Crawford does her best with it – but the song itself’s an utter dog, whose endurance – often as source material for TV talent shows – totally baffles me.
By early 1997, so-called “manufactured” pop was right at the bottom of the cycle of popularity, the rise of the Spice Girls notwithstanding. East 17’s final hit was on its way down the charts, Kylie had “gone indie”, and the former members of Take That were having to adapt to survive, with mixed fortunes. Gary Barlow was enjoying an immediate but short-lived flash of success as a pretender to the thrones of George Michael and Elton John; Robbie Williams was floundering and looking increasingly marginalised (this was still 10 months before “Angels” saved his career); but on the face of it, Little Marky Owen (The Cute One™) seemed to be re-inventing himself quite successfully as a more “mature” artiste, working with Radiohead producer John Leckie and replacing the cheesy grins with moody pouts.
I say “on the face of it”, because “Clementine” – like “Almaz” before it – is another array of pleasant noises thrown over another utter dog of a song (in this case, a remarkably depressive ode to a desperate single mother). Weirdly, it also sounds as if it could have fitted – stylistically at least – onto Take That’s all-conquering comeback album. However, when placed next to TT’s two current Top Twenty singles – “Patience” (justly voted Best British Single at last week’s Brits) and “Shine” (lead vocals by one Mark Owen), it stands revealed merely as an object of minor historical curiosity.
And so to Mason, whose club hit “Exceeder” has been re-worked as a mash-up with the vocal line from Princess Superstar’s “Perfect”. Or so I’ve read, at any rate; never having heard either of the originals, the combination of the two sounds perfectly natural to me – as if it was always meant to be. I like the chunky electro-house feel, and I like the way that the basic themes are subtly developed over the course of the track, and I particularly like the “whooshy” bits later on (they’re not on the MP3), which sound like something that the rather ace dance act Vitalic might have put out two or three years ago. Heavens to Betsy, a more-than-decent club track in the Top Ten, whoda thunk it? There is hope.
My votes: Beatles – 5 points. Mason – 4 points. Mark Owen – 3 points. Randy Crawford – 2 points. David Parton – 1 point.
OK, so the Beatles are a shoo-in for first place – but how are the rest of the votes going to pan out? As predicted, former leaders the 1990s have taken a nasty tumble, as the old order of the 1960s and 1970s re-establishes itself. Can Mason keep the 2000s in the running? Or will Randy Crawford lead a resurgence for the rapidly flagging 1980s? Over to you.
1967: Strawberry Fields/Penny Lane – The Beatles (151)
As soon as I saw the list I knew that this would be my number one by a mile, and I suspect the same for almost everyone else, although in RL I know a couple of people who really hate the Beatles. Objectively, this has to be the best, because it has that enduring and widespread popularity amongst such a range of people including professionals, critics, the discerning public, small children etc etc. Both of these fulfill the first basic requirement of a song – a tune, and the second basic requirement of being accessible on first hearing (I guess…) and yet issuing a sense of freshness on subsequent hearings despite the elapse of time and the familiarity/ubiquity… (Gert)
Proving how incredibly rare it is to be able to write something perfectly simple and simply perfect. Twice. (diamond geezer)
I’ve been to Strawberry Fields. I’ve even stayed in an apartment overlooking Strawberry Fields and I’ve heard upteen wannabes perform unspeakable vocal assaults on Penny Lane, but when I close my eyes, I’m in The C kids’ rec-room on a Saturday night being introduced to magic. It’s still magic. (asta)
It’s almost unfair to the other songs to have these on the list, innit? You cannot feel stressed when you hear Strawberry Fields, and Penny Lane is so uplifting. (SwissToni)
Ah yes. I – er – have this one on 45RPM as well. Isn’t the trumpet solo the best moment in pop music that there’s ever been? Great bass playing as well. (JonnyB)
Penny Lane takes me back to being 5, too. In my dad’s car driving round London for some reason although I’m sure there wasn’t a radio in it. (Geoff)
This is like comparing a ferrari with 4 horse-drawn carts, and possibly the best ever song with a mellotron? (Marcos)
As much as I hate to be such a blasphemer, the ‘genius’ of this track (these tracks?) isn’t quite as obvious to me as most other voters seem to think it should be. Personally, I do feel people lose their ability to discriminate when it comes to the Fab Four. ‘S’alright I suppose. (Oliver)
OK, cards on the table: I really really dislike Strawberry Fields. I hate the vocals, the guitar, the lyrics, the self-consciously arty production… “Penny Lane” is ace, of course, if a little twee. It could have earned my 5 points on its own. But right now, there’s no way I’m voting Macca over the Superstar. (jeff w)
2007: Exceeder – Mason (98)
I do much prefer the original “Perfect” by Princess Superstar – and I urge you all to check out the bonkers concept album from whence it comes, My Machine, a satire on celebrity set in the future – but it’s been edited nicely with “Exceeder”, a brilliant rave track in its own right. (jeff w)
This really ought to be awful, but even I can imagine being drawn onto the dancefloor by it. (diamond geezer)
The different components are brought together really well whilst keeping their different flavour. (Amanda)
This doesn’t do anything that isn’t done by a raft of other contempory dance tracks, but it’s catchy and quite likeable. (Adrian)
The Princess Superstar rap is funny but I loathe the trance backing track which sounds like Benny Benny Benassi’s “Satisfaction”. The video is better, some of the girls in it are surprisingly ugly. (loomer)
Dreadful. Perhaps I’m just too old to have my heart’s natural rhythms attacked like that. I wouldn’t mind so much if it was real percussion but it’s just a random arrangement of bits and bytes that my fifty quid keyboard could do. Shame really because all the other No. 5s are at least tolerable. (Gert)
OMG…that was horrid. If that turns into an earworm I’m going to have to hunt you down. (jo)
1987: Almaz – Randy Crawford (86)
The endearingly acceptable side of tear-flecked balladeering. (diamond geezer)
I don’t listen to the words. Her vocal line is gorgeous. (Hedgie)
When you’ve got a voice that good, the song doesn’t really matter. (Alan)
Very mushy, but something about her vocals always affects me when I’ve got PMT. Ahem. Then again, I am a dimwitted middle aged housewife, so this is ideal to listen to when I’m crying into the washing up. (betty)
I like the voice. The melody is simple, but not particularly interesting, and badly orchestrated but the lyrics. Dear Lord. ” Men will want her, because life don’t haunt her” urrrgh. (asta)
I’m conflicted. Hearing it now, it has a reasonable tune, and she has a reasonable voice, although not especially to my taste. The words have some meaning, perhaps not to me. But I also recall how very very annoying it became when it was in the charts and on the radio. (Gert)
1977: Isn’t She Lovely – David Parton (68)
I don’t mind this cover of “Isn’t She Lovely” – true it knocks a few of the rough edges off Stevie’s version, but it’s also commendably shorter than Stevie’s. Did we really need five minutes of bathtime gurgles, Stevie? No we bloody well didn’t. (jeff w)
It’s not a bad imitation, and frankly if Westlife can make a career out of it why shouldn’t this guy. (Alan)
Before I was a wizened teenager I was tricked in my early preteen years into buying some of these carbon copy hits. Thinking when I saw them in the shops that I could buy two of these albums with my allowance…two! Why were the ohers so expensive? Perhaps this store had a deal. My preteen angst at realising that I had been had and my determination to not let any of my friends to know what an idiot I had been has led me to not make this confession until this very moment. Bastards. (jo)
I don’t know if it was cowardice or good sense that kept this from release in North America. I’m grateful, either way. (asta)
The original is one of my least favourite songs of all time, and this is a hundred times worse. Nothing against Stevie Wonder in general but all musicians who feel compelled to write songs about their newborn children should be SHOT. (betty)
1997: Clementine – Mark Owen (62)
He can’t sing or pronounce his “R’s” but this was his most memorable song, which at the time was compared to Marti Pellow. He annoyed me in Take That by being the so-called “cute” one, but at least he isn’t Robbie. (loomer)
Adequate, but not really the best song to kick-start an oh-so-fragile solo career. (diamond geezer)
I always have a problems with his vocals. I always have a problem with ex boyband members going slightly rocky and slightly profound. (betty)
It’s not bad, but the drum and cymbal put me off. The amateur percussion acts as a barrier to hearing what lies behind it. (Gert)
Oh Marky – thank goodness you’re back to singing along with the boyband. ‘Shine’ is one of my top ten current tunes… (Sarah)
It was rubbish at the time and still is. And yet as I type Take That are singing (well, miming) their new Scissors-esque single on Dancing on Ice and entertaining me so at least it ended happily. With better competition, this would be bottom. (Will)
So forgettable I’ve forgotten what it sounded like and I only listened to it thirty seconds ago. (Alan)
1= (3) The 1960s (18) — Nothing to get hung about!
1= (2) The 1970s (18) — Isn’t she pretty! Truly the angels’ best!
3= (3) The 2000s (14) — Try a little harder honey! Give me some more!
3= (1) The 1990s (14) — It was never meant to be this way!
5 (5) The 1980s (12) — You lucky, lucky thing!