Which decade is Tops for Pops? – the results.

1st place – The 1960s. (36 points)

Most popular: Anyone Who Had A Heart – Cilla Black.
Least popular: Diane – The Bachelors.

Yes! It’s a middle-aged Mojo reader’s wet dream! With the 1960s winning by a decisive margin of 5 points, the final result sees our five decades neatly stacked up in reverse chronological order, thus adding weight to the theory that pop music really has got steadily worse over the past forty years. As Groc said in a recent comment:

Of course the 60s had to win. It’s when pop really hit its stride. Everything since has been a remix and remodelling of everything that was invented back then – hence that first rush of authenticity and joy and naivety and energy has been lost forever. Sad but true.

Or maybe we just hit a good week in a year of rapid change and growth, as the British beat boom revolutionised the way that pop music was made. Suddenly, everyone was in a group with a singer, guitarist, bassist and drummer (there are six in this particular selection) whereas even a year earlier, such a commodity was bordering on the non-existent. The notion of the pop group as a gang-like, creatively autonomous unit had arrived; it persists to this day.

Lyrically speaking, the focus here is overwhelmingly romantic in inclination, with nine songs in the Top Ten being more or less straightforward love songs. Or maybe not so straightforward; for as well as being the most romantic of the five decades, 1964 is also the most heartbroken, with exactly half of the top ten dealing with jilted, absent or cruel lovers. (Compare this with the lust-drenched chart of 2004, where only Jamelia’s Thank You addresses the pain which love can bring.) It is also somewhat disconcerting to note that while the intervening three decades brought a dramatic widening of lyrical scope (nostalgia, surrealism, social commentary…), this appears to have narrowed right down again in the last few years. Simply put: we have moved from love to lust, passing experimentation along the way.

Your two favourite Top Tens are also by far and away the most British: apart from Jim Reeves (USA) and The Bachelors (Ireland), all of 1964’s other acts come from the UK, with four of them hailing from Liverpool. In 1974, nine singles in the Top Ten are British. In both 1984 and 1994, there are just two, and in 2004 there are four. Is this mere coincidence, or does this reveal a sublimated nationalism in your voting patterns?

Or am I just extrapolating wildly from insufficient data samples, and drawing unsafe and even slightly insulting conclusions? Oh, quite probably. But – once again – what huge fun I have had in doing so.

Thank you to everyone who took the trouble to vote and leave comments; unless I’ve flounced off in another hiatus by then, you can rest assured that we will most certainly be doing this all over again next year.

Until then, I shall leave you with the combined decade scores for the past two years of the project. Just five more years to go, and then we shall truly know…
Which Decade is Tops for Pops!
(Cue end titles.)

Cumulative decade scores, after two years.
1. The 1970s (67 points)
2. The 1980s (65 points)
3. The 1960s (64 points)
4. The 2000s (53 points)
5. The 1990s (52 points)

(This has been another absurdly maximalist interactive stunt from Troubled Diva Productions – where more is always more. Much, much more.)

Which decade is Tops for Pops? – the results.

2nd place – The 1970s. (31 points)

Most popular: The Air That I Breathe – The Hollies.
Least popular: Remember (Sha La La La) – Bay City Rollers.

Last year’s winner fought back hard this time around, pulling itself up from fifth place to second place in the last four days of the poll. Like 1984, this was a transitional year, which saw the glam-rockers of 1973 peaking and then quickly distancing themselves from the genre, with Slade, Gary Glitter and T.Rex all releasing uncharacteristic ballads within a few weeks of each other. By the end of the year, glam would have yielded to early disco (George McCrae, Three Degrees, Hues Corporation), The Osmonds would have yielded to the Bay City Rollers, and a new breed of slightly artier, more self-consciously literate pop acts (Sparks, Queen, Cockney Rebel, 10cc) would have gained ground.

The overriding theme of this particular Top 10 was, however, nostalgia. The New Seekers and the Bay City Rollers waxed wistfully about the songs of the “old days”, Ringo Starr covered one of them, and both Suzi Quatro and Alvin Stardust referenced the styles of classic rock and roll. Meanwhile, The Hollies and Charlie Rich delivered what for me were the two most pleasant surprises of this year’s selection: stately, well-crafted ballads, sensitively arranged, and performed with genuine feeling. As with Van Halen in 1984, sometimes it’s the uncool, unfashionable material which ends up sounding the most timeless and enduring (and in the case of The Air That I Breathe, directly influencing a classic of 20 years later, Radiohead’s Creep).

Which decade is Tops for Pops? – the results.

3rd place – The 1980s. (30 points)

Most popular: Relax – Frankie Goes To Hollywood.
Least popular: Joanna – Kool & The Gang.

This is unexpected, to say the least. In my (possibly nostalgia-addled) memory, 1984 was the final year of a protracted Golden Age which started with Heart Of Glass and Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick, peaked with Relax and Two Tribes, and ended with Do They Know It’s Christmas and You Spin Me Round (Like A Record). Sharp, sussed pop music, with wit, style and substance. To say nothing of all the fantastic early 80s soul/funk/late disco/early electro which had me bopping round my boom box in my fluffy white towelling socks.

So why was almost none this represented in our sample Top Ten? The preposterous Rockwell, the condescending Billy Joel, the borderline-offensive Lionel Richie, the whining Nik Kershaw, the patently counterfeit Break Machine, the anodyne Kool & The Gang… this is not the 1984 which I eagerly documented each Tuesday or Wednesday with my own personal top forty (yes, forty) of current favourites. On the strength of this pitiful evidence, it’s a wonder that the 1980s even managed to climb as high as third place. This was only achieved on the strength of the remaining four songs (It’s Raining Men, 99 Red Balloons, Jump, Relax), all classics in their own way, which between them picked up 19 points out of a possible 20.

No, this wasn’t my 1984 at all. Perhaps I should check those old handwritten personal Top 40s once again. Let’s see what was really rocking my world twenty years ago – and let’s hope that it’s not too embarrassing.

top20-1984

Hmm. Tolerable – distinctly tolerable – if a little Wine Bar in places. (Look, Sade was on the front cover of The Face! We didn’t know any better!)

Which decade is Tops for Pops? – the results.

4th place – The 1990s. (27 points)

Most popular: Girls And Boys – Blur.
Least popular: Breathe Again – Toni Braxton.

Unlike the witless puppets of 2004, at least the charts of 1994 can still be credited with some intelligence. Whatever we might think of the offerings by Tori Amos, Blur and Bruce Springsteen, at least they are all, in their own ways, offering something which hadn’t been offered before, and thus stretching the definitions of chart pop.

Would that the same could be said for perhaps the most unmourned genre of the 1990s – the power ballad. With Celine Dion mercifully absent, it is left to Toni Braxton and Mariah Carey to fly the flag for ghastly, torpid, air-brushed, over-egged, fake emoting.

At the same time, dance music (as represented here by I Like To Move It, Renaissance and Doop) had established itself as a regular feature in the Top 10, with many hits having started their lives in what was then a thriving and expanding club scene. The rapid decline of dance music in the singles charts is perhaps the most surprising development of recent years.

But the most prescient of these ten hits has to be Girls And Boys. The glories of the Britpop years were just about to begin. Had our sample been taken from the Top 10s of 1995, 1996 or 1997, I suspect that the 1990s would have placed a lot higher than fourth.

Which decade is Tops for Pops? – the results.

5th place – The 2000s. (26 points)

Most popular: Toxic – Britney Spears. (Watch the fantastic video for this here.)
Least popular: Cha Cha Slide – DJ Caspar.

“Tuneless – atonal – a horrible racket – call this music?” There is an argument which says that the 2000s have, in a sense, scored a victory by finishing last in our poll. After all, aren’t grown-ups traditionally meant to hate modern chart pop? It’s not made for us. We’re not supposed to get it. By shifting its emphasis away from the melodic and towards the rhythmic, 2004 pop has done a fine job of alienating many of us.

It is, however, a slender argument. There is another more compelling argument which says: yes, today’s pop music really is the worst it has ever been. Marketed to death, with all remaining traces of innocence, rebellion and inventiveness squeezed out of the formula. Too focus-grouped, too demographically targeted, too cynical, too knowing – and with a horrible spiritual vacuum at its core. I suspect that this is the line that most of you will prefer to take.

Having listened carefully and repeatedly to all ten tracks in this year’s selection, two particular observations stand out. Firstly: that much of this music is not even intended to be concentrated upon. In today’s multimedia-saturated culture of immediate gratification, we are losing the ability to concentrate on anything much. Many of the consumers of these songs will hear them as nothing more than backwash – as the backing track to their lives. Thus it is that many of these songs (Dude and Cha Cha Slide particularly come to mind) set out their stalls within the first minute; the rest is merely repetition of those first few simple ideas.

Secondly: that modern pop is dripping with lust, more explicitly stated than ever before. While the songs of the 1960s speak of romantic love, exactly half the songs of the 2004 Top Ten (Dude, Red Blooded Woman, Not In Love, Mysterious Girl, Toxic) can be lyrically read as unambiguous expressions of directly erotic intent. It’s a commonly heard complaint: that popular culture is becoming alarmingly – some might even say inappropriately – over-sexualised. Where will it all end, we ask ourselves, furrowing our brows in concern.

We are becoming our parents.

Which decade is Tops for Pops? (10/10) – 2004 edition.

Finally, after a long and arduous slog, our musical journey reaches its summit, as we prepare to stroll amidst the very peaks of popular song from the past five decades. And what peaks we have in store! There’s menace, there’s war, there’s death, there’s destruction… and, to complete the horror, there are novelty euro-dance crazes. I did warn you these were going to be a bit weird, didn’t I? Buckle up tight! It’s the Number Ones!

1964: Little Children – Billy J. Kramer & the Dakotas.
1974: Billy Don’t Be A Hero – Paper Lace.
1984: 99 Red Balloons – Nena.
1994: Doop – Doop.
2004: Cha Cha Slide – DJ Caspar.
Listen to a short medley (about a minute each) of all five songs.

For the past forty years, one song above all others has given my beloved K The Fear, to the point where he is physically incapable of listening to it. Not because it’s a particuarly bad record – if pressed, he would admit that it has considerable merit – but because, quite simply, it creeps the living f**k out of him. That record, ladies and gentleman, is Little Children by Billy J. Kramer & the Dakotas – the fourth Liverpudlian act in 1964’s top ten, and also the sixth “beat group” to feature in it.

So why should a seemingly harmless Merseybeat ballad have caused K such sustained mental anguish? Listening closely for the first time last week, I began to understand why. The track fairly oozes menace, with unspoken threats hanging heavy in the air. You can almost see the bag of sweeties outstretched in one hand, the switchblade concealed in the other. To the tender ears of a four-going-on-five year old such as K, I can well imagine this sounding quite terrifying.

With Paper Lace (still the most successful Nottingham band ever, which tells you all you need to know about our local music scene), the nightmare continues, as our second singing drummer tells the terrible tale of heroic, tragic, foolish young Billy and his poor, unheeded, heartbroken fiancée. Once again, we are in ambivalent territory. Is this chicken-in-a-basket variety-club cheese, or a bleak noir masterpiece? An innocuous campfire singalong, or a seething anti-war polemic? What would it sound like if Billy Bragg had recorded it? More to the point: what would it sound like if Nick Cave had recorded it?

With Nena‘s 99 Red Balloons, our terror scales new heights. Again, that ambivalence: is this the nadir of fake plastic schlager-punk, or the apotheosis of cold war paranoia? And more importantly, how ever did that atrocious English language translation slip under the net?

In its original German version (99 Luftballons), the words sound great: spiky, crunchy, memorable, even vaguely credible. So why – in the name of God, why – go and make the sodding balloons red? And where the Hell is “99 Decision Street” when it’s at home? (Apart from being a place to “worry, worry, super-scurry“, of course.) And was “there’s something here, from somewhere else” really the best description you could come up with? And couldn’t you have at least bothered to make the thing rhyme properly?

As a student in West Berlin during much of 1983 and 1984, I came to regard the ubiquitous, inescapable 99 Luftballons with great fondness. As for 99 Red Balloons, I successfully managed to avoid hearing it more than a couple of times at most. The process of assembling this project, and having to stare this appalling version in the face, has trampled over my cherished memories, and has almost succeeded in killing off my affection for the original. Quick, I need cheering up! Let’s have some Doop!

The first and only instrumental track in this year’s selection, Doop is a one-hit-wonder novelty track that has actually worn rather well. It’s frisky, it’s fun, it’s a little bit different, and it conjures up cartoonish images of gurning 1920s flappers doing the Charleston on E – which is no bad thing, right?

Would that we could say the same thing about DJ Caspar‘s one-dimensional, hectoring, Cha Cha Slide. Is he a DJ or a drill instructor?

“Criss Cross! Criss Cross! I said f***ing Criss Cross, OKAY? Pay attention, you slackers at the back! Five hops this time! No, five hops, you useless f***ers!

So there we have it: the most sinister of this year’s songs, the two daftest and most meaningless, and the only two which describe some sort of narrative. Tough choices, huh?

My votes: 1 – Billy J. Kramer & the Dakotas. 2 – Doop. 3 – Paper Lace. 4 – Nena. 5 – DJ Caspar.

Over to you. With the 1960s now seven points clear at the top, the real race is now between the remaining four decades, who are bunched up together with only a single point separating them. Like last year, it’s going to be another photo finish…

Please leave your votes in the comments box. VOTING REMAINS OPEN UNTIL THURSDAY NIGHT FOR ALL TEN SELECTIONS. I’ll be announcing the final results on Friday.

Running totals so far – Number 2s.
1984: 99 Red Balloons – Nena. (111)
1974: Billy Don’t Be A Hero – Paper Lace. (88)
1964: Little Children – Billy J. Kramer & the Dakotas. (81)
1994: Doop – Doop. (80)
2004: Cha Cha Slide – DJ Caspar. (40)
Decade scores so far (after 9 days).
1 (1) The 1960s (33) — Congratulations, and celebrations!
2= (4) The 1990s (26) — You’re gorgeous! I’d do anything for you!
2= (2) The 1970s (26) — I was defeated! You won the war!
4= (5) The 2000s (25) — Where is the love?
4= (2) The 1980s (25) — The only way is up!

Which decade is Tops for Pops? (9/10) – 2004 edition.

Maybe it’s the effect of dealing with the astronomic levels of sustained vitriol that have been directed, on a daily basis, towards the fine ladies and gentlemen of our popular music industry – but over the past couple of days, both online and off, I’ve become quite the sneery, snidey, little git. Time, therefore, for some corrective therapy. When commenting on today’s selection of tunes, I shall endeavour to say nothing but positive things about them. Even if it kills me.

Seconds away, Round Nine. Here come the Number Twos. Feel the love, people!

1964: Bits & Pieces – The Dave Clark Five.
1974: Jealous Mind – Alvin Stardust.
1984: Joanna – Kool & The Gang.
1994: Without You – Mariah Carey.
2004: Toxic – Britney Spears.
Listen to a short medley (about a minute each) of all five songs.

Barely a year into the Beatles-driven beat group explosion, and the genre is already splitting and mutating: witness the Searchers with their proto-West Coast jingle-jangles, the Stones with their grubby, rebellious blues, and the Dave Clark Five with this thrillingly brutal, gonzoid, dumb-as-f**k stompathon. If you wish, you can trace a line from Bits And Pieces through to The Kinks’ You Really Got Me (a hit five months later), The Troggs, US garage punk (Louie Louie, 96 Tears), Iggy & The Stooges, The Ramones… and, um, the Radio One Roadshow in the 70s and 80s, where it was used to introduce a daily “guess the artist” music quiz. (It won’t surprise you to learn that I used to sit eagerly by the radio waiting for the “Bits & Pieces” slot, biro and notebook to hand, ready to score myself against that day’s contestants.)

And best of all, the band had a singing drummer. Let’s hear it for singing drummers!
(Although I might be eating my words on Monday. A little clue for you there.)

When those of us of a certain age remember Alvin Stardust, the one track that immediately springs to mind is his debut hit, the immortal My Coo-Ca-Choo – a record which, like so many of its glam-rock contemporaries, somehow managed to be both cool and ridiculous at the same time. (“Cool” being defined strictly within the sensibilities of an eleven year old, I hasten to add.) However, it was Stardust’s largely forgotten follow-up that proved to be his biggest hit, and his only Number One.

As most of Alvin’s target audience were far too young to have heard anything by Buddy Holly, we perceived the “ah-huh-huh haa-huh” hiccupping on Jealous Mind as something fresh, new and fun. Indeed, our tender young minds perceived the whole notion of Alvin as something fresh, new and fun – which partly explains why this otherwise slight song fared so well. At this early stage of his new career (he had already enjoyed modest success in the early 1960s as a Brit-rocker called Shane Fenton), we weren’t buying the song so much as we were buying the idea of Alvin. As the idea grew more familiar, and the songs ever more slight, so the novelty quickly faded: Alvin’s last Top 20 hit came less than a year later, before his miraculous third re-invention as a hit maker in the early 1980s.

Bit of an old trouper, our Alvin. You’ve got to admire him for it. (And I’ve got to stick to my pledge.)

Before leaving 1974 for today, perhaps a brief postscript on 1950s revivalism is in order. Like Devil Gate Drive, You’re Sixteen and Remember (Sha La La La) in the same Top 10, there’s an unmistakeable streak of Fifties nostalgia in Jealous Mind – further evidence of a trend which was continued during Spring/Summer 1974 by the likes of The Rubettes, The Drifters and Showaddywaddy. Up until this point, chart pop had been resolutely contemporary, “now”, of the moment. Now, nearly twenty years on from Bill Haley & Elvis, it was old enough to have a history, with many of its adult songwriters and producers having come of musical age during the 1950s. A new rule of pop was duly born: the “twenty year revival” rule. This rule – which continues to this day, with early 80s influences clearly detectable in many chart hits of the 2000s – can also usefully provide pop kiddies and their parents with some measure of common ground. Even if this amounts to not much more than the whole family bopping around the living room carpet to Westlife’s Uptown Girl, or Dad fetching his old AC/DC and Def Leppard albums down from the attic to show his Darkness-loving son, in a well-intentioned if slightly embarrassing attempt at familial bonding. After all, let’s not pretend that all worthwhile pop music has always been about generational rebellion. It has always been just as much about light entertainment, and only the most dedicated rockists would seek to pretend otherwise.

Now then. What kind words can I find to say about Kool & The Gang‘s Joanna?

Well.

Um.

Okay.

It’s a simple, happy tune, expressly designed to provoke gentle finger-tapping on the steering wheel, soft-shoe shuffling at the “smart dress only” disco, smiles in the saloon bar, la-la-las on the factory floor. A little taste of early spring sunshine, to lighten up our cold war/miner’s strike gloom. These are far from ignoble aspirations for a pop song, and there are far more deserving records than this to hate.

Which brings us to Mariah “The Singing Kettle” Carey, with her fantabulous multi-octave range, her astonishing improvisational skill (why sing just one note when you can squeeze in twelve?), and her intuitive talent for sensitive, empathetic interpretations of much-loved classics such as Harry Nilsson’s Without You. Can’t you just feel the pain in this record? Doesn’t it leave you emotionally battered and spiritually drained? Mariah: yours is indeed a special, special gift.

Bidding an emotional farewell to our favourite “troubled” diva (and, lest we forget, a major inspiration for this site), we descend, with loud shrieks of untrammelled glee, upon the best Britney Spears single for years. Toxic is C21st pop at its best: energetic, inventive and bold; smart, sexy and thrilling. Who but the dourest of indie-snob purists could fail to succumb to its heady delights?

My votes: 1 – Britney Spears. 2 – Dave Clark Five. 3 – Alvin Stardust. 4 – Kool & The Gang. 5 – Mariah Carey.

Over to you. With just one more set of songs to come, the 1960s have increased their lead to a seemingly unassailable five points – although last-minute voting further down the charts could still theoretically change all that. Meanwhile, at the bottom of the pack, I’m hoping that a strong showing for Britney Spears will raise the 2000s from the ignominy of defeat. Please leave your votes in the comments box – then come back on Monday for what I promise you is an utterly bizarre final round of Number Ones. (Death! War! Horror! Menace! Novelty dance crazes!)

Continue reading “Which decade is Tops for Pops? (9/10) – 2004 edition.”