Which Decade Is Tops For Pops? – Year 7 – the Number 10s.

Goodness, has it been a year already?

And bearing in mind my recent lack of enthusiasm for writing original new blog posts, can I really be arsed to pull this stunt for a seventh consecutive year?

Yeah, course I can! Shall we crack on?

When you last left us, the 1960s had just enjoyed their second consecutive victory, thus keeping them in pole position as the Official Best Decade Ever For Pop. But can 1969 sustain the momentum of 1968 and 1967? Or will the 1960s see a slide in popularity, taking them back to the dark pre-Merseybeat days of 1963?

Moreover, can the once loved, now derided 1980s reverse their seemingly terminal decline (from third to fourth to fifth, in three consecutive years), and recapture some of the winning spirit that saw 1985 bring it home for them four years ago?

These questions – and so many more – will be answered over the course of the next three or four weeks, as we re-engage our pop-critical faculties and seek to determine anew the answer to that age-old question: Which Decade Is Tops For Pops?

As Paxman would have it on University Challenge: we all know the rules by now (but if you’re new then they’re summarised here), so let’s get straight on with the game… starting with The Number Tens.

1969: For Once In My Life – Stevie Wonder (video)
1979: Car 67 – Driver 67 (video)
1989: Wait – Robert Howard & Kym Mazelle (video)
1999: Westside – TQ (video)
2009: T-Shirt – Shontelle (video)
Listen to a short medley of all five songs.
UK readers only: Listen to four of these songs on Spotify.

wd09-10-69It’s always good to start with a classic, isn’t it? For those of a certain vintage (i.e. mine), the shine was rubbed off “For Once In My Life” during the 1970s, as the memory of Stevie Wonder‘s joyful rendition was steadily erased by a slurry of chicken-in-the-basket cabaret covers on various crappy light entertainment shows. Thankfully, a period of “laying down” has worked in Stevie’s favour, leaving the song sounding – to these jaded old ears at least – fresher than ever.

Which is perhaps hardly surprising, given that I’ve been going through a major “I MOTOWN” phase in recent months, spurred into a critical re-appraisal by a delightful series of interviews with Martha Reeves, Lionel Richie and Temptations founder member Otis Williams. Of all the people I’ve interviewed over the past couple of years, these Motown veterans stand out as some of the most charming, courteous and co-operative – and there’s something about the way that they speak about the label which communicates an abiding love of, and genuine pride in, their musical legacy.

Oh dear, I’m gushing already. Let’s move on.

wd09-10-79It wasn’t until viewing the video earlier this evening that I realised – or rather, re-realised – that the lovesick taxi driver and his oppo back at base were voiced by the same person. This was a chap called Paul Phillips, who quickly sank back into obscurity – not least because Driver 67‘s follow-up single “Headlights” was banned by the BBC for being (quite genuinely, as it turns out) disturbing, creepy and several shades of Wrong.

As for “Car 67”, one of its minor claims to fame was being chosen by our dear departed Queen Mum as one of her Desert Island Discs, because it reminded her of once being stuck in a traffic jam. (I have Googled for confirmation of this evidence of the “common touch” which endeared her to millions, but can find no supporting documentation.)

A version was subsequently cut for the US market with the Brummie back at base replaced by an excitable American, and the iconic “83 Royal Gardens” yielding to the presumably more Yank-friendly “83 Brook Terrace”. (Incidentally, I have also Googled “83 Royal Gardens” and was disappointed to find no real-life version of this iconic address.)

wd09-10-89It’s difficult to form an objective assessment of Robert Howard (aka “Dr Robert” of the Blow Monkeys) and Kym Mazelle‘s “Wait”, as this was one of the Big Tunes at the weekly mixed gay night that I was running at the time, and I have reason to thank it for filling my floor in the first hour, several weeks on the trot. As such, it’s inextricably linked in my mind with the “She Drives Me Crazy” by the Fine Young Cannibals, which had just dipped out of the Top Ten.

Partly because I never played it into the ground, partly because it was always a “first hour” floor-filler, and partly because I haven’t heard it in the intervening twenty years, “Wait” still sounds gleaming and box-fresh to me now. Yes, Dr Robert might have been jumping on the house bandwagon – but he did it convincingly, and with enough suss to rope in one of the hot new garage divas of the day, giving Kym Mazelle her first UK hit (her “Useless (I Don’t Need You Now)” already having done the dancefloor business during the second half of 1988).

How can anyone NOT like this? Guess you lot will be telling me soon enough…

wd09-10-99TQ‘s “Westside” was my Official Favourite Single of 1999, fact fans… and yes, I thought that would surprise you. I loved the internal tension between the tough and the tender, the elegiac and the thuggish… and I loved the rolling, tumbling melodies and counterpoints, and the cascading, almost overspilling flow of the lyric… and its overall vibe of high summer in the pressure-cooker city… of baking sun beating down on sticky-hot tarmac… of fond, almost regretful nostalgia for people, places and situations that don’t tend to turn rose-tinted over time…

…and then I bought his album, and didn’t warm to it much, the thug-talk taking too much precedence over the tender touches for my liking. But this still sounds great: a handy bridge between 1990s G-Funk and the route that R.Kelly and The-Dream would take during the 2000s.

wd09-10-09Speaking of contemporary R&B, here’s Shontelle, whose recent success follows in the wake of fellow Barbadian Rihanna. “T-Shirt” is a slight confection, with an over-familiar chord progression (I’m hearing echoes of the Black Eyed Peas’ “Where Is The Love?”, and maybe even All Saints’ “Never Ever”), but its central conceit is cute enough. For if Shontay is to be believed, she misses her fella sooooo badly that, oooooh, she’s just going to step out of these designer clothes, all casual-like ‘cos she can’t be messing with that shit right now, and oooooh, maybe she’ll just slip his T-shirt on, and mmmmm that feels gooood

Cleverly, “T-Shirt” appeals to girls for its “Are you feeling me sisters?” insouciance, and to boys for its “Your skanky old T-shirt actually carries a Deep Erotic Charge” hotness. Sadly, the conceit doesn’t really stretch to the end of the song, which fades away into endless re-runs of the chorus.

But then if we’re going to start docking points for Failing To Develop A Theme, then “For Once In My Life” pretty much states its case in its opening lines, and that noodly harmonica solo doesn’t add much… and “Wait” has that equally twiddly piano break… and “Car 67” takes an awfully long time to deliver a rather cumbersome narrative “reveal”… which leaves me scoring the Number Tens thusly:

My votes: TQ – 5 points. Stevie Wonder – 4 points. Robert Howard & Kym Mazelle – 3 points. Shontelle – 2 points. Driver 67 – 1 point.

Over to you. As always, please place all five songs in descending order of preference – NO omissions, NO tied places – using as much objectivity as you can bring to bear on the exercise (because kneejerk nostalgia for one’s personal Golden Age makes for boring scoring).

When you’ve done that, please leave your votes in the comments box, along with any supporting observations. I’ll be totting the scores up as we go, with frequent updates as the project progresses.

You got that? OK, we’re good. I’ll be back on Tuesday or Wednesday with the Number Nines.

Ah, isn’t this just the Best Time Of The Year?

Running totals so far – Number Tens.

1969: For Once In My Life – Stevie Wonder. (190 points)

This is just magnificent. (Sue Bailey)

Feels like entering a groove of joy. (Billy Smart)

I hear joy in this song. I can’t think of many songs where joy plays any significant part. Even the harmonica is happy. This is the exact opposite of Frank Sinatra’s interpretation which is angry and defiant. These days, I vote for joy. (asta)

You cannot fuck with late 60s Stevie. A criminally underrated phase of his career. (Nottingham’s ‘Mr Sex’)

Will outlive every other song on the list by about five centuries. (diamond geezer)

Simply a classic. I have no idea when I first heard it,and no idea when it seeped under my skin. I don’t think I have ever consciously played it, but I know it so well. (Gert)

Catchy, soulful and sounding more modern than the year suggests. And got to love the harmonica. (Will)

I like the way he jumps up and down enthusiastically, and only bothers miming on occasions. A class act. Oh, the song? It’s Motown. The ’60s Motown house band could have played the work of Dave, Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Titch and made it sound divine. (An Unreliable Witness)

I find myself revisiting Mowtown and Brill and finding them better than ever. Time away, as you said, is good. (jo)

The only one of the five I recognised, unsurprisingly. Pity – wouldn’t it be great to come upon that for the first time, rather than for the thousandth? (Z)

Hard to go wrong with a solid gold classic like this isn’t it? The kind of song that makes you realise just what a crime “I just called…” is. Genius era Stevie Wonder. (SwissToni)

I’m not a huge Motown fan, but when they got it right, they really got it right. Strong song, great voice, and the harmonica really pulls everything together. (Alan)

4 points, because he is Stevie Wonder, although for me the chicken-in-a-basket covers have killed this dead dead dead dead dead. (Hedgie)

Yes, Dorothy Squires, bless her flooded basement of a Welsh heart, made this song her own (very loudly) not long after Stevie had the big hit and all detours to seventies TV showbiz opened up their groaning gates, but Stevie’s lightness wins out; a triumph (is the harmonica more androgynous than his voice? Where does his voice end?) of delayed liberation, the sun which can never set. That scurrying flute chart in the middle eight like February butterflies sent to banish the ice. (Marcello Carlin)

Was just waiting for the brass to kick in and it cut to the next track😦 The version on the compilation mp3 has more bass than the one I ripped from my CD of his too. Am now wondering if I need to embark on the great re-ripping-at-higher-quality project that I’ve been dreading for years… Easily the best here. (Adrian)

Not my favourite Stevie Wonder song. It’s too jazzy for my taste. Still a proper song from a proper singer. (Amanda)

Far too happy-clappy for my tastes. (Hg)

I want to vote for whatever you put from the 60’s in first place in all rounds, and you can randomize the other four places. Will you do that for me? I will keep in touch and see if I recognise any of the tunes that come from later than 1969, but I won’t pay too much attention to your dissertations on obscure 1990’s singers, any more than I read in detail your interviews with the lead singer of the Rusting Gonads. (Vicus Scurra)

1989: Wait – Robert Howard & Kym Mazelle. (134 points)

The unacknowledged brilliance of early ’89 chartpop – as the decade drew to a seemingly inglorious close, back comes New Pop to slap complacency up a big bit – has to be illuminated wherever and whenever possible; see Telstar’s Greatest Hits Of 1989 double for a peerless portrait of how good those times were. The last big chart flourish for the Blow Monkey (and they have now reconvened with a rather fine new album), flourishing fluorescently through the ghost conduits of Detroit Fairlight hushes and determinedly ticking beats with the considerable aid of Kym Mazelle (what a perfect name for the spring charts/spring clean of 1989!). (Marcello Carlin)

One of my favourite records of the year I first became properly obsessed about music, so it perhaps as a slight headstart for me. Sounds great though. (Geoff Itinerant Londoner)

House and pop and soul and really works on all 3 levels. Tremendous TOTP appearance, too. (Billy Smart)

I probably haven’t heard this for 20 years either, so it’s a nice reminder how good it is. Two people I saw in the flesh at the time. Bonus points for Kym Mazelle’s magnificent breasts, pushed up before me when I was in the audience on The Word. She’s great fun. (Chig)

4 points, mainly because it reminds me of coming home from some rubbish night at Rock Citeh with my mate to have a good sneer at Hitman and Her. (Nottingham’s ‘Mr Sex’)

First time I thought the splashes of cymbal were dated, second time I thought they were bewitching. (Tom)

Not really my style, with that computer generated disco beat. But it’s intelligently constructively, and I like her voice. And the tune. (Gert)

This song needs a much better chorus. For some reason I kept singing “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now” over the existing chorus. Despite this, Kym Mazelle lifts this above the generic 80s dance tune. (asta)

I would have hated this at the time. I’d quite like to like it now, but it sounds dated and formulaic. Historically interesting, I suppose, as a demonstration of where Living In A Box met Ride On Time. (Hg)

Very much of it’s time, a bit of an identikit of a lot of disco-ey music being released in the late eighties. Not distinctive, eminently forgettable, but pleasant enough on the ears. (Alan)

Can’t stand his voice but this has the most life of all these songs. (Geoff Mild Peril)

I loved this era, but this one didn’t really stand out for me. Mind you, could that video *be* more 80s? (Sarah)

That instrumentation just says late 80s doesn’t it? Didn’t think I remembered this until it got to the chorus. That’s not a good sign is it? (Adrian)

No. I’m not having it. Dated production and overwrought and under-thought-through vocal performances. (SwissToni)

They may have been Socialists, but I loathed and despised the Blow Monkeys with a passion. Plus, he had stupid hair, even by 80s standards. (An Unreliable Witness)

Laboured vocal performances and faux funk backing. (Amanda)

2009: T-Shirt – Shontelle. (109 points)

Not unpleasant. Not a capped sleeve t-shirt, I presume? (Geoff Mild Peril)

Not sure why but I just like this the best. (Amanda)

Gosh, there still is decent music outside of my narrow ouevre. (NiC)

It’s debatable whether or not the world needs Rihanna 2.0, as version 1.0 seems capable of hoovering up the music-buying public’s money all on her own, thank you very much, but I quite like this. (Chig)

I’m so out of touch with the charts these days. This sounds vaguely familiar, but I’ve never sat down and listened to it properly. I love the chord progression in the chorus, it has an anthemic quality that reminds me obscurely of U2’s With Or Without You. (Hg)

Would probably have scored higher if it was one of the various records it sounds like it’s ripping off rather blatantly. (Geoff Itinerant Londoner)

The album’s decent enough without being startlingly brilliant but “T-Shirt” is a good medium strength post-Rihanna ballad; more winking than worried. (Marcello Carlin)

Passable but you’ve heard this kind of thing hundreds of times before – granted, the lyric has an original twist. (Erithian)

Like the phased backing: this is mid-ranking current R&B lifted by a strong chorus. (Tom)

Not too sure about the lyrics, but a reasonably pleasant pop track gives it the nod over the other also-rans. (Adrian)

Also quite good. It doesn’t induce any sense of fondness in me, really. Maybe if I come back to it in 2029 it will feel out of time and its stranger qualities will become more apparent. (Billy Smart)

It’s like watered down Rihanna, sort of decent but too pointless. (Simon C)

I could do without the vocal effect. There is a vocal effect right? Still bland and missing an umbrella. (Will)

Really? I have to vote this in as second? It’s vapid shite, isn’t it? Dear oh dear. Nice rhyming of “witchoo” with “Jimmy Choos” though, eh? (SwissToni)

A local radio station had fun one day playing this song cut with bits of Natasha Bedingfield. Listeners couldn’t tell the difference. Nuff said. (asta)

I literally cannot listen to this: there is a weird production effect that hurts my ears. (Sue Bailey)

Tries to be sexy, fails miserably, really quite bland. (Alan)

Anonymously dreary R&B. I would have been more impressed if her boyfriend’s t-shirt had said ‘I’m With Stupid’. It didn’t. I lost interest about 2 seconds into the R&B drum machine regulation pattern kicking in. (An Unreliable Witness)

If this were one of my 8 Desert Island Discs, I’d smash the gramophone. (diamond geezer)

1979: Car 67 – Driver 67. (104 points)

Strip away the novelty trappings and this gentle, melancholic song expresses a sparse heartache that (wing-)mirrors the best of country & western. Within the first minute I was thinking someone could do a great cover version (Bonnie Prince Billy?), then the TOTP2 video tells us it’s already been done by Belle & Sebastian. I’m no fan of B&S, but I feel validated. (Hg)

Oh, this has worn much better than I might have expected. I must be getting old to be almost giving a novelty single top spot. (NiC)

I dont know why, but I have always had an affection for cheap novelty songs and the 70’s had PLENTY of them. (jo)

Entirely unfamiliar, highly intriguing, I enjoy those broad brummie vowels. (Tom)

If it’s good enough for the Queen Mum, it’s good enough for me. (diamond geezer)

Although I voted it my least favourite, I’ve become borderline-obsessed with “Car 67” over the last 24 hours. For a supposed novelty song, there’s something unexpectedly lugubrious about its delivery; something recognisably late-70s ramshackle about its arrangement and execution (it somehow captures the spirit of dowdy, prosaic everyday existence most effectively), and something unexpectedly heart-warming about the cheerful Brummie guy back at base, burbling away in an essentially well-meaning and sympathetic fashion. So I might have underestimated it! (mike)

Initially you want to dismiss it. Then it becomes rather compelling. Certainly presents the listener with a fully realised world. (Billy Smart)

Never heard it before, and although it is clearly the most dated of all the contenders, and a novelty record to boot, it’s actually quite interesting. (Hedgie)

I was quite fond of this one back in the day. Yay for the Brummie accent. (Wasn’t The Streets’ dad was he??) (Erithian)

3 points. This might just be a bit nostalgia for things Brummy on my part. I’d completely forgotten it so it evidently didn’t make much impression the first time round. (Amanda)

3 points. But only, and I repeat ONLY, for the accents, and the fact that the driver looks like a younger, thinner Timothy Spall. (An Unreliable Witness)

Ah, Paul Phillips, erstwhile boss of Logo Records and sometime producer of John Howard, with a disc best described as R Dean Taylor does Crossroads and which I routinely got mixed up at the time with Paul Evans’ contemporaneous (but rather creepier) “Hello This Is Joannie.” Probably a far more accurate reflection of the Winter of Discontent than most of its illustrious chartmates (do I even see Numan hovering in the faraway distance?) but not really worth regular revisits. I presume it’s Phillips’ great personal mate Pete Zorn on accordion duties. (Marcello Carlin)

I cannot believe I’ve never heard this before, as it coincided with my obsession with the charts and going to Spend-It in Top Valley on Tuesday dinnertimes. I can’t believe someone would even consider releasing the follow-up in the era of the Yorkshire Ripper – it sounds like a darker Yorkie advert. (Nottingham’s ‘Mr Sex’)

Haven’t heard this before, is this from a little-known Brummie version of Convoy? (Adrian)

Like Convoy all over again. Quite enjoyed it but found the Brummie inserts distracting – and yet did want to go back and listen all over again. Rubbernecking. (Will)

I’m loving the regional accent, but not really finding terribly much else to enjoy about this record. The Brummie is the best part of this by bloody miles. (SwissToni)

Point of information. That’s no Brummy accent in Car 67; that’s a Black Country accent. It’s more Dudley/West Bromwich than Birmingham. Believe me, these things matter up here. I live in one and work in the other! (Chig)

It’s not terrible, but it somehow lacks a climax – the reveal in the song is all too obvious. Also, the back at base voice adds very little value. (The Lurker)

Brings back memories,and not in a good way. One of those songs that is quite interesting on one hearing, but has nothing to justify a repeat heating. (Gert)

Gimmicky and derivative. (Sue Bailey)

Thank heavens Taxi-pop never caught on. Uggh, and a lilting accordion to boot. (Stereoboard)

I never liked novelty songs. I am fast approaching the point where I actively despise them. (asta)

I think I must have repressed this song from my memory, and I’m not going to thank you for reminding me of it. Nauseating sentimental shite recorded to give mums and dads something to listen to because punk made their ears bleed. (Alan)

1999: Westside – TQ. (93 points)

A classic which you converted me to back when you did best of year cds (remember cds, readers?) (Dymbel)

A fine, dark night of a gangsta ballad and something of a signpost of the duality to come in the succeeding millennium (David Banner in particular) but as with yourself I don’t think he quite got the thuggery/wistful balance right on the album. (Marcello Carlin)

The gangster balladeer balance is always quite interesting to follow. (Billy Smart)

Atmospheric and with some nice lyrical touches, evocative of life on the streets without too much of the over-the-top Gangsta bravado. (Alan)

This probably sounds lovely on a hazy summer’s day, but I can’t do mellow at this time of the year. (Objectivity? What’s that?) (Hg)

Pleasant enough but I can’t identify the special qualities that Mike does. (Amanda)

I should pay more attention to the names really. As it kicked off I thought to myself, this doesn’t sound like Westlife… Thank god for that. Not that this is a lot better, but it’s fairly harmless listening. (Adrian)

Couldn’t muster much enthusiasm for this but it grew on me as it went on and on. S’all right I s’pose. (Will)

I don’t know this singer at all. I have no desire to learn anything about him. It’s all a bit too Boyz 2 Men for my likeing, so the reference at the end to Tupac threw me a bit. My first thought was he was looking for validation in name-dropping. (asta)

Oh good grief, did he just do the old “waving their hands in the air like they just don’t care”? Maybe that wasn’t a cliche at the time… (Sarah)

Rap and nostalgia don’t mix. (Sue Bailey)

Smug cliquey geographical tosh. (diamond geezer)

Am I the only commenter who is filled with a burning desire to hear Blue’s “Fly By II” listening to this? (Tom)

Not great. Name-checking greater rappers does not a great rapper make. Well, sometimes it does, but not in TQ’s case. Oddly reminds me of Blue. (SwissToni)

I approached this with an open mind, having not heard it for ten years and reading your fulsome praise, but sorry, it was crap then and it’s crap now. Boring cocktail music for Independent readers who think rap’s a bit ‘edgy’. And no song that mentions gunshots gets airtime in my house; we have some standards. Zzzzzz. (The bit about gunshots was a hypocritical lie, I have suddenly realised, as MIA’s Paper Planes is rarely off my playlist. Damn my inconsistent moral standards!) (Chig)

What does TQ stand for, anyway? Tangy Quail? Terrible Quality? Tight Queen? I don’t know. I don’t want to know. I skipped through the song and alighted on a bit where he said ‘Break it down, yeah’. Then I had to stab myself. (An Unreliable Witness)

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