Which Decade Is Tops For Pops? – Year 7 – the Number 6s.

OK, are we ready to genre-hop? Today’s selection takes us from blues to disco, and thence to new jack swing, commercial rap and… well, I don’t quite know what you’d call that last effort, but I’m sure you’ll be quick to tell me. So open your minds! It’s the Number Sixes!.

1969: Albatross – Fleetwood Mac. (video)
1979: Contact – Edwin Starr. (video)
1989: My Prerogative – Bobby Brown. (video)
1999: Enjoy Yourself – A+ (video)
2009: Broken Strings – James Morrison featuring Nelly Furtado. (video)
Listen to a short medley of all five songs.

wd09-06-69It’s difficult, nay impossible, to write objectively about this atmospheric instrumental from Fleetwood Mac, as it’s one of those pieces of music that is so deeply embedded within my childhood memories that I almost experience it synaesthetically. Indeed, its 1973 re-appearance inside the Top Ten must have occasioned one of my earliest experiences of nostalgia. Was this ever used on the BBC test card, I wonder? Because that’s one of the images which springs to mind: of still weekday afternoons in the school holidays, waiting for the children’s programmes to begin.

Consequently, I can’t place “Albatross” within a genre; to me, it sounds like nothing other than itself. I’d struggle even to quantify the feelings it expresses, “contemplative” and “brooding” being the best I can come up with.

It therefore came as quite a shock when K declared his irritation with it after the first twenty seconds (“Will this thing never end?”), as I’d have put money on his being similarly transported. He’s full of surprises. (See also his awarding five points to The Prodigy, who operate in a genre for which he has historically felt little but disdain.)

wd09-06-79In the absence of a good short-length video, I’ve linked to the extended 12-inch version of Edwin Starr‘s “Contact”. And it gives me great pleasure to do so, as this was the first disco 12″ single that I ever bought – largely on the strength of James Hamilton’s column in the back of Record Mirror, which I began following in earnest at the start of 1979. It may not have been a landmark release of its genre – indeed, there’s a whiff of corniness about it which I didn’t have the faculties to spot at the time – but on a personal level, this was a landmark piece of vinyl, which hastened the widening of my public school punk rocker’s tunnel vision.

The lengthy DJ-friendly percussion break was of particular fascination, as this was the first time that I became aware of dance music’s functional aspect; you weren’t necessarily supposed to listen to the whole thing from beginning to end, and I found this a radical new concept. And with its blend of mechanistic electronics and uncomplicated euphoria, perhaps this was also a pointer towards the hi-energy music of the early-to-mid 1980s which was to thrill me so much.

wd09-06-89Speaking of pointers towards the future, late Eighties “swingbeat” – soon to be re-christened New Jack Swing – helped form a bridge between the stark urban funk of Prince/Cameo/Janet Jackson and contemporary R&B.

Bobby Brown, Keith Sweat, Alyson Williams and their ilk didn’t play at all well on my dancefloor, but this didn’t stop me eagerly embracing the new sound, which struck me as a logical extension of the soul/funk tradition.

And so “My Prerogative” still has a touch of the Shock Of The New about it – even though I always preferred “Don’t Be Cruel” and the fabulous “Every Little Step”. Pity he turned out to be such a Whitney-wasting plonker, eh readers?

wd09-06-99But of course, the trajectory of urban music in the 1990s wasn’t always an upwards one, which brings us to this long-forgotten piece of drivel from some chancer called A+. (Sheesh, the lengths to which some people will go in order to be optimally alphabetised…)

Much as I enjoyed Walter Murphy’s “A Fifth Of Beethoven” (from the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack), the track has been shoddily appropriated, its only saving grace lying in imagining the appalled outrage that it must have caused amongst upper middle-class parents of wannabe b-boy sprogs. Oh, the travesty!

There was an awful lot of lazy, sample-heavy pop-rap around in the late 1990s – Will Smith, I’m looking at you – and this is a prime example. Eww to the power of Eww!

wd09-06-09I was going to award bottom marks to James Morrison and Nelly Furtado‘s dismal, life-sapping dirge – for if there’s one 2000s genre that I hate, it’s this kind of MOR/AOR mope-pop (Chris Martin and James Blunt, I’m holding you personally responsible) – but I’ve pulled back for two reasons.

Firstly, I have an abiding horror of scoring the decades in exact reverse-chronological order, as this suggests a conclusion about the declining state of pop which I refuse to countenance. Secondly, there is at least some degree of crafted workmanship about “Broken Strings”, even if its effect causes my brain to blank the song out entirely, every time I try to listen to it. And that, my fellow voters, is as much rational critique as you’re going to draw out of me on this one.

My votes: Fleetwood Mac – 5 points. Edwin Starr – 4 points. Bobby Brown – 3 points. James Morrison featuring Nelly Furtado – 2 points. A+ – 1 point.

It’s neck and neck on our cumulative scoreboard, with only one point separating four of the decades. However, the 1990s are already sinking way behind the pack, with a yawning seven point gap that A+ is unlikely to close. OR IS HE? As ever, it’s over to you.
Continue reading “Which Decade Is Tops For Pops? – Year 7 – the Number 6s.”

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

Apologies for the service break, folks. I was all prepped to make this post over the weekend – but ended up being overcome by a powerful urge to do Absolutely Sod All instead.

(Apart from an over-vigorous bout of hooray-it’s-March-at-last garden tidying, which left me in considerable muscular discomfort on Sunday night. But what’s this, a personal blog? Good grief, whatever gave you that idea?)

There probably won’t be another post until Wednesday evening, as I’m off to Leeds tomorrow; Clare “Boob Pencil” Sudbery is taking part in Countdown, and I’ll be part of her cheerleading squad in the audience. Following the recording (which requires us to stay put for a full FIVE shows; I only wish I could take some knitting in), I’ll be travelling to Sheffield to watch Elbow. So that’s a nice little day out in Yorkshire to look forward to.

Yes, I’ll get on with it now. Look lively, crew! It’s the Number Sevens!

1969: Dancing In The Street – Martha Reeves & the Vandellas. (video)
1979: Tragedy – The Bee Gees. (video)
1989: You Got It – Roy Orbison. (video)
1999: Heartbeat/Tragedy – Steps. (video 1) (video 2)
2009: Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It) – Beyonce. (video)
Listen to a short medley of all five songs.

wd09-07-69Three places ahead of Stevie Wonder, here’s another unimpeachable Motown classic, courtesy of Martha Reeves & the Vandellas. I’m unclear as to why this 1964 recording was re-released, four and a half years after peaking at Number 28 – but 1960s Motown recordings did have a habit of re-appearing in this way. (See also “Tears Of A Clown”, “My Guy”, “I Can’t Help Myself”…)

I’m going to hand the remainder of this commentary over to Martha herself. Here’s what she said to me about “Dancing In The Street”, when we spoke towards the end of last year:

“I’d heard Marvin Gaye sing it, and it was a love song to a girl. He sort of crooned it, and then he said: man, give this to Martha, let her try it. So when I tried it, I called to mind New Orleans, and Rio De Janeiro where I had been at carnival time. Actually, I had seen people get in the street and dance.”

“This song was used to quench a lot of the evil feelings that were out in the streets, because of the riots that happened in every major city. And the words were simple: ‘Calling out around the world, are you ready for a brand new beat’. Not the hate that everybody was feeling, but the happiness that it brings.”

“And we’ve changed a lot of ordinances with our song. Now, some cities allow you to block off the street and actually have dance parties. So it didn’t start a riot; it quenched one.”

wd09-07-79While we’re in a copy/paste kind of mood, I see little reason to start from scratch when it comes to The Bee Gees‘ fourth chart-topper – so, for the majority of my readers who don’t hang on my every word in Tom Ewing’s comments boxes, here’s what I said about “Tragedy” last September:

“This is a GREAT example of how to follow up a worldwide mega-success [with the soundtrack of Saturday Night Fever]. For rather than stick to the slinky, smooth-funking SNF template, the Gibbs have pulled out all the stops, ramping up the drama to tremendous effect. This fairly screams “Top Of The World, Ma” confidence, even as the anguished lyric subverts all the surrounding bombast. Perhaps all that lets it down is the Gibb vocal style, which does admittedly take their characteristic castrato right to the brink of self-parody – but in the strident, diva-like hands of a Donna Summer (or even an Amii Stewart), this would have been viewed as the sort of unassailable classic that would never have required subsequent rehabilitation by cover version.”

wd09-07-89Ah yes, the rehabilitation by cover version. We’ll come to that in a minute – but not before we’ve dealt with Roy Orbison, returning to the singles charts in 1989 after a gap of nearly twenty years. This has become a well-worn theme on “Which Decade” over the years, but Trendy Eighties Mike gave “You Got It” very short shrift indeed – not least because of the involvement of the ELO’s Jeff Lynne, whose very name was anathema to me back then.

How utterly up my own 501’ed arse I was, not to have recognised its genius! Every year on “Which Decade”, at least one previously dismissed old chestnut pops up out of nowhere, making perfect sense at last – and more than any other record in this year’s selection, “You Got It” has caused me to flip my opinion 180 degrees in the right direction. The critical re-evaluation afforded to Jeff Lynne over the past few years has been one of the happier by-products of the whole “Guilty Pleasures” phenomenon, and “You Got It” deserves to stand proud against the best of his work with the ELO.

wd09-07-99History repeats itself; first as Tragedy, second as Farce.” – Karl Marx.

And here’s the farcical Steps, tragically re-appropriating “Tragedy” as a cut-price jingle for kids’ tea parties and shit gay discos – oh, the HAND MOVEMENTS! – speeding up the tempo by seven beats per minute and, as per usual, not giving a two-bit session singer’s cuss for lyrical content. What WAS it with this perma-grinning fivesome, and their consistent failure to spot a sad lyric? (“One For Sorrow”, “Deeper Shade Of Blue”, “Better Best Forgotten” – all performed with the same joyless, stick-on mirth.) Was it some sort of high conceptual joke on the part of their puppet master, Pete “you done good, kiddo” Waterman? With this in mind, it was scarcely any wonder that Faye Tozer from the band failed to recognise and complete the line “When the feeling’s gone and you can’t go on”, when appearing as a contestant on Never Mind The Buzzcocks.

As “Tragedy” was a double A-side, duty compels me to include its companion track “Heartbeat” in the MP3 medley. It’s a rare mid-tempo moment for the group, which perhaps explains the bet-hedging, no-risk presence of the Bee Gees cover version. The single duly became their first of just two chart-toppers, the other being the actually-quite-decent “Stomp” from 2000.

wd09-07-09It wasn’t until I overheard a colleague whistling the “If you liked it then you shoulda put a ring on it” refrain that I made the connection – but Beyonce‘s “Single Ladies” does bear a passing melodic similarity to the signature tune from BBC1’s Nationwide, does it not? Skip to 0:42 in this YouTube medley, and maybe you’ll see what I mean.

(Er, maybe. Well, try whistling them instead. That should work.)

Cannily released at the same time as the classic soul ballad “If I Were A Boy” in order to ensnare both halves of her constituency, “Single Ladies” is a representation of Beyonce’s “sassy”, “foxy” alter-ego Sasha Fierce. The entire second half of her current album is given over to “Sasha”, with ballads occupying the first half – a conceit which doesn’t altogether work for me, but there’s good stuff to be found in both halves. As for “Single Ladies”, the proliferation of home-made “tribute” videos on YouTube has greatly added to my enjoyment of it. Here’s one! And here’s another!

My votes: Martha Reeves & the Vandellas – 5 points. Roy Orbison – 4 points. Beyonce – 3 points. The Bee Gees – 2 points. Steps – 1 point.

So, will Martha walk it for the Sevens, just as Stevie walked it for the Tens? Will Steps trounce the Bee Gees? Will you give your Big Five to The Big O? Or will Beyonce’s bumping booty-shake bring it on home for the Thrill of the New? There’s everything to play for, as the 1970s and 2000s jointly lead the pack after the first three rounds, with the 1980s in hot pursuit. The 1960s and 1990s are lagging behind at this early stage, but all is far from lost. Over to you.
Continue reading “Which Decade Is Tops For Pops? – Year 7 – the Number 7s.”

Which Decade Is Tops For Pops? – Year 7 – the Number 8s.

Today, we’re extending a special welcome to temporarily displaced Freaky Trigger‘s Comments Crew refugees, all of whom should be well-versed in this sort of collaborative caper. They join us for a hearteningly strong selection, which offers ample scope for some enjoyably Tough Decisions. So please be upstanding! It’s the Number Eights!.

1969: You Got Soul – Johnny Nash. (video)
1979: Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick – Ian Dury & the Blockheads. (video)
1989: Last Of The Famous International Playboys – Morrissey. (video)
1999: When You’re Gone – Bryan Adams featuring Melanie C. (video)
2009: Omen – The Prodigy. (video)
Listen to a short medley of all five songs.

wd09-08-69Although his output has been overshadowed by more significant talents, Johnny Nash was by all accounts a crucial figure in the development of reggae music. Not a Jamaican resident himself, a chance visit to the island in 1968 led to Nash discovering the almost unknown genre, and forming an immediate affection for it. Links were forged with Bob Marley and the Wailers, whose early recordings were financed and distributed by Nash – albeit with limited success. As for his own recordings, Nash’s first excursions into the genre proved more successful, “You Got Soul” providing him with his second UK hit.

For all its plesant period charm, “You Got Soul” strikes me as a much weaker record than its predecessor “Hold Me Tight” and its early 1970s successors “Stir It Up”, “I Can See Clearly Now” and “There Are More Questions Than Answers”. It was more difficult to source than any other track in this year’s Which Decade, and perhaps there’s some significance in that.

wd09-08-79I’ve blogged before, and at some length, about this towering masterpiece from Ian Dury and the Blockheads – both here, and in the Freaky Trigger comments box. This time around, suffice it to say that “Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick” – which had topped the charts a few weeks earlier – is one of my favourites of all UK Number Ones. Perhaps it’s even my absolute favourite.

In December 1978, as “Rhythm Stick” was still climbing the charts, The Blockheads played the third gig I ever attended, and the first gig I ever loved, setting an almost unfairly high standard for all the hundreds of the gigs that followed in its wake. The second album Do It Yourself came out in May 1979 – a fine piece of work, but one which could never hope to equal the impact of their classic debut, New Boots and Panties!! “Rhythm Stick” therefore remained their commercial and artistic high water mark: a deceptively subtle and intricate piece, whose bawdy titular hook was always its least interesting feature.

wd09-08-89And so to Morrissey, scoring his third solo hit with a devotional love song to the Kray Twins, if you please. Moz’s fetishisation of the butch and the brutal would become increasingly apparent over time – to the detriment of his artistic vision, many would argue – but “Playboys” is a third-person narrative, which establishes clear distance between protagonist and performer.

Twenty years on, the performer appears to have been consumed by his self-invented mythology, rendering him incapable of representing any viewpoint other than his own bunker mentality. There have been partial returns to form along the way – 1994’s Vauxhall And I, 2004’s You Are The Quarry – but hearing “Playboys” again reminds me of how much ground has been lost, and of how diminished these returns have become.

wd09-08-99The enduring affection in which Bryan Adams is held by vast, silent swathes of the population serves as a salutary reminder: that there are some facets of popular culture which will always be closed off to me, no matter how hard I try to understand them.

That said, I find the appeal of “When You’re Gone” easier to identify than most. It’s a feisty little drivetime FM rocker, whose easy-going, thumbs-in-belt-loops swagger suggests that fun was had in its making. A matey rapport prevails between Adams and Melanie Chisolm, as emphasised by the unison of the duo’s delivery: no harmonies, no solos, no counterpoints, no call-and-response. It’s more open-mike night than lover’s duet, with Adams cast as the experienced host and Mel C as the humble, slightly starstruck auditionee.

For this marked Mel’s first leave of absence from the Spice Girls, who were still very much seen as a going concern. Before “When You’re Gone”, only Melanie B had broken ranks (with “I Want You Back”), and even the departed Geri Halliwell had yet to launch her solo career. It marked the moment when people begain to remark – with no small degree of surprise (and condescension?) – upon Mel C’s vocal proficiency (not bad for a manufactured pop act, who’d have thought it, etc.) In our eagerness to confer legitimacy upon her, we might have over-estimated her interpretive powers – but this felt at the time like a brave step forwards, and it holds up none too shoddily today.

wd09-08-09It’s been four and a half years since The Prodigy last had a new single in the charts, and nearly seven years since they had a Top Ten hit. And with only two albums to their name since 1997’s massive-selling The Fat Of The Land, The Prodge come close to rivalling that lonely old stoner George Michael as the ultimate laurel-resting slackers of their generation. (Oasis might have been crap for years, but at least they’ve kept churning out the product.)

I’ve not lived with “Omen” for long enough to be able to plonk one of my “Stunning Return To Form!” stickers on it just yet – but based on my first few listens, I’m liking what I’m hearing. Blokes in their forties making an almighty, unholy racket should always be encouraged; that’s my default position. Shall we move to the voting?

My votes: Ian Dury & the Blockheads – 5 points. Morrissey – 4 points. The Prodigy – 3 points. Bryan Adams featuring Melanie C – 2 points. Johnny Nash – 1 point.

Over to you. A string of Perfect Fives for Ian and the Blockheads? Oh, I do hope so. As I said several hundred words ago: it’s Tough Decision time. Off you go, then…
Continue reading “Which Decade Is Tops For Pops? – Year 7 – the Number 8s.”

Which Decade Is Tops For Pops? – Year 7 – the Number 9s.

Slowly but steadily, the Which Decade tribe appears to be re-assembling itself – along with a couple of newcomers, whom we warmly welcome. Now, I’d hate to dampen anyone’s enthusiasm at this still formative stage – but after yesterday’s strong opening, today’s selections are… not all they could be, shall we say.

On the other hand – and seasoned regulars will back me up on this, I’m sure – we’ve had far worse. Far, far worse. So have at ’em, crew! It’s the Number Nines!

1969: The Way It Used To Be – Engelbert Humperdinck. (video)
1979: Milk & Alcohol – Dr. Feelgood. (video)
1989: Fine Time – Yazz. (video)
1999: Changes – 2Pac. (video)
2009: Day ‘n’ Nite – Kid Cudi vs. Crookers. (video)
Listen to a short medley of all five songs.

wd09-09-69Gawd strewth, not him AGAIN? The annual appearance of dreary old Engelbert Humperdinck in the listings has become Which Decade‘s unique curse, I fear. But hold up, hold up: compared to previous excursions, this one’s not so bad. Sure, we’re still mired in expansively lugubrious “Soundtrack for a Suburban Divorce” terrain – but it does sound like one of Engelbert’s people might have been taking notes from that younger, edgier, more vital Engel – better known to the world as Scott Walker. Certainly, the orchestration is less soupy this time round: there’s more colour, more definition, and a keener sense of dramatic ebb and flow. None of which can altogether mitigate against the wearily corny weepalong sway of the statutory Big Chorus – but credit where it’s due, eh?

wd09-09-79In the autumn of 1976, our boarding school’s so-called “underground” magazine polled us all for our favourite bands. A few hundred adolescent poshboys duly submitted their top tens, revealing two clear winners (and this just goes to show how popular culture distorts itself in the memory over time)… Santana and Dr. Feelgood.

Younger readers may never have heard a note, but The Feelgoods were a big draw in their day, even scoring a UK Number One with their live album Stupidity. Always more of a live band than a studio act, many felt that they never successfully captured their stage sound on record. And when it came to having hit singles, “Milk And Alcohol” was their only significant success.

Listening to it afresh, and finding less of interest than I was expecting – it’s a nifty enough pub-rock chugger, but little more than that – I find myself wondering whether the single’s success was largely down to a “Buggin’s Turn” vote of confidence in “the good old Feelgoods”, rather than a specific response to the merits of the track. Or am I being overly harsh on an unfashionable genre? Perhaps, perhaps.

wd09-09-89At some stage in early 1989, I must have thought enough of Yazz‘s “Fine Time” to have bought the 12-inch – but twenty years later, I’m struggling to remember why. Sure, she had been the Queen of my dancefloor through 1988, thanks to the triple punch of “Doctorin’ The House”, “The Only Way Is Up” and “Stand Up For Your Love Rights” – but the languidly loping “Fine Time” was no floor-filler, and in retrospect it probably broke Yazz’s spell.

As I see it, there are three problems here. One: the song’s kinda blah in the first place. Two: Yazz just doesn’t have the requisite vocal chops to get the job done. She sounds thin, uncertain, exposed. And three: for all the tasteful elegance of the backing track, this kind of post-Sade wine-bar skanking was about to get buried for good by Neneh Cherry’s immeasurably superior “Manchild”, Soul II Soul’s nothing-short-of-epochal “Keep On Moving”, and all the glories which followed in their wake.

wd09-09-99Perhaps it’s just that we finished Season One of The Wire last night, with the fate of some of its central characters still resonating inside my head – but anything that combines ghetto-toughness with wistful reflection and a twist of regret is currently scoring Big Points with me. With that in mind, I’m happy that yesterday’s TQ track has segued into today’s posthumous hit for Tupac Shakur: an artist who charted just twice in the UK before his death in 1996, and no less than fourteen times afterwards.

Although there’s something grisly and false about the whole 2Pac Heritage Industry, and the way that any old studio offcuts could still be passed off as new material over a decade later (Boy George on Elton John’s chart-topping participation with “Ghetto Gospel”: “She’s digging them up now!“), the Bruce Hornsby-sampling “Changes” is still seen by many as one of the rapper’s defining works, and it’s easy to see why. Every gangsta rapper needs their “What madness have we wrought?” moment, and 2Pac snatches the moral high ground with the best of them here. The BPMs are a bit on the swift side for total comfort, and there’s a lazy over-reliance on Hornsby’s hook – but the rapper’s flow is basically sound, and lines such as “We ain’t ready to see a black President” cannot help but take on an extra resonance in February 2009.

wd09-09-09I don’t know about you lot, but when it comes to voting, I often find myself at the mercy of two equal and opposing forces: The Comfort of the Old, versus The Thrill of the New. In Kid Cudi‘s case, I’ve decided to allow myself to be thrilled. Will the Crookers remix of “Day ‘n’ Nite” sound tired and played out in a few months’ time? Perhaps I shouldn’t even try to form a judgement – but for now, it works a treat.

If the Crookers remix is all you’ve heard, then duty compels me to point you in the direction of Kid Cudi’s original version: an altogether starker, more sombre, more sinister affair, which effectively conveys the bleak mood of his “lonely stoner” lyric. (With this in mind, it’s no wonder that Kid Cudi was called in by Kanye West to collaborate on his equally strange, stark and sad 808s and Heartbreak album.) But for the European market, an Italian production team were drafted in to give the track some clubland clout – hence the electro-house thump, the vocal cut-ups, and – oh joy, I’m SUCH a sucker for this – the sort of Wonky Parping that was last heard on Fedde Le Grand’s 2007 output.

You could argue that the remix is a travesty – and even Kid Cudi himself might agree with you, given his angry reaction to the admittedly terrible remix video – but pop’s a dirty old game, and it’s the remix which the Eurokids are hoovering up in gleeful droves. It’s ugly, it’s wrong… and it totally works. Hey, what can you do?

My votes: Kid Cudi vs. Crookers – 5 points. Dr. Feelgood – 4 points. 2Pac – 3 points. Engelbert Humperdinck – 2 points. Yazz – 1 point.

Over to you. If you’re my age, then I’m guessing you’ll be leaning towards the Feelgoods. Or has Engelbert finally bludgeoned you into submission, after all these years? Nostalgists might be feeling more charitable towards Yazz, poptimists might be preparing their cases in favour of Kid Cudi… and I’m not sure who’s going to champion 2Pac, especially consdering the battering that most of you have already given TQ’s sublime classic… but then again, You Never Know. Go on, surprise me!

(Oh, and don’t forget: voting remains open for all rounds until I blow the whistle – so if you want to play catch-up with the Number Tens, then please go right ahead.)
Continue reading “Which Decade Is Tops For Pops? – Year 7 – the Number 9s.”

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?
Continue reading “Which Decade Is Tops For Pops? – Year 7 – the Number 10s.”

Which Decade: Cumulative scores, after six years.

1 (1) The 1960s – 205 points.
2 (2) The 1970s – 202 points.
3 (3) The 1980s – 182 points.
4 (4) The 2000s – 164 points.
5 (5) The 1990s – 150 points.

Although the positions on our cumulative league table remain unchanged, it’s worth looking a little more closely at the gaps between each decade.

At the top of the table, the 1970s are still chasing the 1960s hard, with last year’s two point difference widening to a mere three points. However, these two decades are now pulling ever clearer of their nearest rivals, as last year’s 7 point gap between the 1970s and 1980s becomes a yawning 20 point chasm.

The 2000s are making reasonable ground, but with last year’s 26 point lag behind the 1980s only reducing to 18 points, they still have a lot of work to do. As for the 1990s, now lagging by 14 points as compared to last year’s 8, it does look as if they are already out for the count.

I think it’s time for a graph, don’t you? This shows the waxing and waning fortunes of each decade over the past six years. I’m not sure that it proves anything, but doesn’t it look nice?


Finally, and in accordance with Which Decade custom, it only remains for me to thank everyone who voted: Adrian, Alan, anne, asta, betty, Bryany, Cathy, chris, Clair, David, diamond geezer, Dymbel, Erithian, Geoff, Gert, Gordon, Hg, imsodave, jeff w, jo, JonnyB, Lizzy, LKSN, lockedintheattic, Lyle, Marcello, NiC, Nikki, Nottingham’sMr Sex‘, Oliver, Rebecca, Rob, Sarah, Silverfin, Simon, Simon C, Stereoboard, Stu, SwissToni, The commenter formerly known as, Tina, Tom, Vicus Scurra, Will and Z. Nearly everyone who took part in last year’s Which Decade came back again this year, which is particularly heart-warming – as is the record number of votes cast, with all rounds picking up over 30 sets of votes for the first time, and some even touching a new high of 40 votes. (Frankly, I’m not sure that I could have coped with many more.)

The Golden Notepad award for Outstanding Commenting goes this year – and how could it not? – to Marcello, whose extraordinary expert knowledge combined with his real passion for the subject has added much to the enjoyment of the last three weeks. Oh, and he also happens to be my favourite music writer on the planet, so it has been a joy to have him along.

As ever, it’s been a phenomenally labour-intensive but also richly rewarding slog, and I look forward to welcoming you all back next February, for what could be our final episode of… Which Decade Is Tops For Pops?

Thank you, and goodnight.

Which decade is Tops for Pops? – the results: THE WINNER.

1st place – The 1960s. (36 points + 1 tiebreak point)

2007: 1st place, 34 points.
2006: 2nd place, 37 points.
2005: 2nd place, 33 points.
2004: 1st place, 36 points.
2003: 3rd place, 28 points.

10. Gimme Little Sign – Brenton Wood. 4 points.
9. Judy In Disguise (With Glasses) – John Fred & His Playboy Band. 5 points.
8. Fire Brigade – The Move. 4 points.
7. Pictures Of Matchstick Men – Status Quo. 4 points.
6. Am I That Easy To Forget – Engelbert Humperdinck. 1 point, least popular.
5. Bend Me Shape Me – Amen Corner. 5 points.
4. Everlasting Love – The Love Affair. 5 points, most popular.
3. She Wears My Ring – Solomon King. 1 point.
2. Cinderella Rockefella – Esther & Abi Ofarim. 4 points.
1. Mighty Quinn – Manfred Mann. 3 points.

Tiebreak round:
This Guy’s In Love With You – Herb Alpert. 4 points.
Fire – The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown. 5 points.
Mony Mony – Tommy James and the Shondells. 6 points.

wd1968Yes indeed: for the third time in six years, the Sixties have swung it – meaning that either you lot are tiresomely predictable, or else that the music from four decades ago was consistently wonderful.

Looking at this little lot, one has to veer towards the latter conclusion. The creative rush of the beat boom (and its close successor, the Summer of Love) was abating, in favour of a lighter, more overtly commercial sound – but there was still an unmistakeable optimism in the air, as evidenced by all that strident brass, those straight-up boom-thwack beats, that toytown surrealism, and those soaring feelgood choruses.

Sure, Englebert and Solomon did their best to poop the party, but they feel irrelevant to the spirit of the age – especially when compared to the exquisite and heart-melting easy listening of Herb Alpert, one of my best finds of this year’s project. (If you only click on one of the YouTube links, then take a look at Herb in action, and then try telling me you haven’t fallen in love with him just a little.)

Meanwhile, the Heavy Brigade were moving elsewhere, as the first divisions between “serious” and “disposable” began to make themselves felt. It was the dawn of that most obstructive of creatures, the Rock Snob – and perhaps the first example of pop music’s periodic need to shed its skin, and to re-engage with a new set of believers.

So let’s leave the “heads” to sneer at the Amen Corner and the Love Affair, while we more enlightened souls raise a glass (I’ve actually just finished my third, but hey, it’s Saturday night) to our winners… our official, mathematically proven Tops For Pops decade… ladies and gentlemen, guys and gals, I give you… THE SIXTIES!