Long-cherished beliefs are under threat. We go through our lives convinced Win Butler has no sense of humour and then he raises the curtain on his new puffed-up high-concept album with the unmistakable sound of Benny Andersson playing Yvonne Elliman. Is it a subversion of pop’s sturdiest bedrocks, or of his own band, or does he just know how to rip off a tune? A couple of tunes. Good ones, and he does it well. Arcade Fire have always been beholden to “the kids” of course, so let’s see what they think.
I don’t wanna talk
About things we’ve gone through
Though it’s hurting me
Now it’s history
I’ve played all my cards
And that’s what you’ve done too
Nothing more to say
No more ace to play
That’s what I sang the moment I heard ‘Steal My Girl’. My wife looked a bit uncomfortable.
I’ve since learned we’re supposed to think of Journey’s ‘Faithfully’ too, but, well, I’m British and we didn’t pay Journey any attention until ‘Don’t Stop Believin” was on The Sopranos. OK, I mean Glee.
The point is, ‘Steal My Girl’ sounds like other things apart from itself, which is just one of those things that pop does – you just twist it into different shapes, throw in a hands-clapping-above-the-head chorus, draw back, release, give that little tingle that makes you forgive any corniness. Whatever’s been stitched into its patchwork, ‘Steal My Girl’ is proof One Direction are making increasingly strong records, no longer content to churn out shrill will-this-do-isms that satisfy every top 10 criterion but subtly short-change the fans. I find it pretty implausible that anyone’s going around trying to spirit Harry Styles’ girlfriend away from him – unless they’re John Mayer or something – but at the same time it’s charming there’s still some vulnerability about him/them, however affected.
“You’ve been singing this at bathtime,” accuses Junior 2. She’s right. She also has a series of hand signals to describe the lyric, and she and Junior belt it out. Still, Junior herself has some reservations: “Everyone says they’re show-offs,” which is reasonable in every way. She likes it despite all that.
Last word to Junior 3, who judges it alongside the Neneh Cherry track we played earlier. “It’s a thumbs-up from me because it’s One Direction and it’s a bit more cool.” This is the world we live in.
So who’s to blame for Annie’s peculiar lack of chart success? Is it her? Is it us, the diehard pop fans who only bought one copy of each record? Or is it a shady cabal of music industry insiders, a manipulative coven with a vested interest in undermining Scandinavian pop; perhaps executives who were once hungry A&R people who saw their Number 1 dreams for their acts come to naught at the dread hand of ABBA in the 70s? It looks pretty clear from here.
Because how can pop music this flimsy, this breathy, this shaky on its pins not win the hearts of a nation? It’s better than ‘Fight For This Love’.
Junior says: “I’ve heard this before,” which puts her a step ahead of 60-odd million people in this country. “It sounds like robots.” And just to prove she’s down with Annie, she quietly joins in with the chorus.
Best bit: The first airing for that pumping Motown beat. It sounds like Annie’s heart bashing its way out of her ribcage.
This is a hindsight Top 20, taking place a year before I started buying my own records and making my own tapes and obsessing over Duran Duran and the Top 40. 1981 was the year my sister began to record the chart rundown, introducing me to the wild sounds of Landscape and, erm, Alvin Stardust. Up to this point, all I knew were Beatles and Boney Ms, ABBAs and Brotherhoods Of Man. Now we had a dead Beatle and a declining, rended ABBA.
Partners in rhythm Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz were no longer satisfied with merely pushing the very corners of rock’s envelopes in Talking Heads’ engine room – or perhaps David Byrne and Brian Eno left no elbow room – and Tom Tom Club was the joyous diversion. Mixing funk, bags of funk, with pop, rap and world music, they revealed a sunnier side nowhere brighter than on the glorious ‘Genius Of Love’. It’s a tribute to a spiffing boyfriend wrapped up in loyal dedication to their funky forebears, and in a nice piece of symmetry has become one of the most sampled records – seized upon by trailblazers from Grandmaster Flash to, yes, Mariah Carey.
‘Genius Of Love’ locks into a groove, but Junior ain’t for dancin’. Apparently her baby sister “doesn’t want me to,” which is an impressive bit of inter-sibling communication – and we thought all they did was laugh at each other. But what does she think of the song? “I don’t like it; it makes me sad.” I’ve got it all wrong.
Junior was poorly this morning, so her mother kept this one back ‘til later. I had no worries about it being a smash with her, though, because we’ve been wallowing in the peculiar cooing sound of Lykke Li all year long. She already had a foot in the door of our house before I’d heard a note – what with my compulsive love of Scandinavian pop – but when she turned out to be a Swedish Björk with enough glorious tunes to fill an ABBA Best Of… well, we practically had the guest room made up.
Whatever you might expect, there’s nothing flimsy about ‘I’m Good, I’m Gone’, the most plainly obvious single from the gossamer-light but hard-nosed Youth Novels album. It sashays about while piano is gamely thumped, and even though Lykke sounds cutesy she’s still letting us know who’s boss. Cementing the Scandi-pop credentials, this and Youth Novels enjoy the production magic of Björn of Peter, Björn and John fame; that’s Peter, Björn and John of ‘Young Folks’ fame; that’s ‘Young Folks’ of Jukebox Junior No.1 Single of 2006 fame; that’s the 2006 Top 20 of I-haven’t-yet-transferred-it-to-this-version-of-the-blog fame. Got all that?
Eventually, Junior listened on the way home from Sainsbury’s and was observed to clap in time (you’ll hear Lykke Li herself declaring, “I know your hands will clap”). It enjoyed a second play at home, where Junior danced like a dervish. So much for being ill. She then asked for “lemico, lemico”, which Lykke fans may recognise as a bastardised refrain from ‘Tonight’. Yes, we’ve played this album a lot.
Light as air, carefree and – what? – hard to get? Junior’s mum pointed out that Junior and Juniorer are both Sunday Girls (“You were born on a Sunday, J” “I was very born on a Sunday”) but perhaps not in the way Debbie Harry is hinting. We all love the song, know the words – even the French ones on this Best Of version – and Junior sways in front of her sister, hips in time to the gossamer rhythms.
Blondie were bang into their flow by this point, succeeding ABBA as the singles band du jour, knocking the classics out at a rate to make Paul Weller jealous; not that he was far behind. I’m always seduced by a band that respects the single, that can put so much care in for so sustained a period. You know the suspects: Wham!, Erasure, Pet Shop Boys, Girls Aloud… hmmm. I feel like I’m coming out.
I shared a bed with Debbie Harry last year. Well, she draped herself across it, while I perched at the end, asking questions she’d answered a thousand times before. In all the excitement, my tape recorder broke, but she let me have an extra five minutes once I’d taught myself shorthand. Lovely. Anyway, that’s one for the After Dinner circuit.
No one actually realised that we needed a reworking of ‘Video Killed The Radio Star’, but need it we did, and at this point in time these glossy disco-techno robot chiefs were the men to bring it to life. ‘Digital Love’ tickles the underbelly of naff, wraps it in fake-fur and plasters it with thousands of tiny mirrors. Yes, it’s a hugely uncool mirrorball of a dancefloor clearer, doing more for the synthesised electric guitar than any record since ABBA’s we-really-should-be-going-now farewell single ‘Under Attack’.
Junior’s mum and I are the biggest ‘Digital Love’ fans this side of Justice. Junior herself wasn’t so sure. This was played in my absence and I’m told that comments ranged, rather narrowly, from “Too loud, Mummy” via “Stop singing, Mummy” to “Stop dancing, Mummy”. On being told that a guitar solo was coming up, she replied “I don’t like guitar”. Anyone who’s seen her pulling Gary Moore faces while wielding the plastic Stratocaster will know that’s a blatant lie. Must have been one of those days.
The Swedish popstress graced the charts before, back in the ‘90s, with ‘Show Me Love’. No, not that one. It did nothing to prepare us for this swooning beauty. What did prepare us was the fact that ‘With Every Heartbeat’ had been hanging around for a good year or two, but let’s gloss over that. It hit No.1 this year, so that’ll sway the arbitrary rules.
Sad techno is an occasionally populated genre, yet rarely is it rendered as gorgeously as this. Kleerup provides the synth washes and electric strings, while Robyn drops her standard tough-girl shtick to bare all – emotionally, dirty fans. The building melody is off-the-peg, but delivered with a lump in the throat and when Robyn punctuates every word of the chorus with a caught breath it would be a hard soul to resist. ‘With Every Heartbeat’ is a stunning marker, a genuine sign of a woman who can make the pop world her own. Good old Scandinavia – first Annie, now Robyn… well, first ABBA, then A-ha… then The Cardigans… um, there’s a point here.
Well, Junior was delighted to have it on the turntable, and graced the baby doll with a waltz. She likes the shinier side of pop – a weakness of mine too – perhaps she’s been brainwashed. Anyway, that’s two heart-rending tunes in a row. Time for unfettered joy!
No.11 might be a bit high for this, but I also wanted to pay tribute to a sparkling album, Kala. It’s a flibbertigibbet of a record, magpie eyes on an array of styles, brimming with ideas, and ‘Jimmy’ is its catchy pop face.
Much has been made of M.I.A.’s careless politicising on this song – “Take me on a genocide tour, take me to Darfur” – which, while they lyrics are somewhat glib, is missing the point. Boney M are past masters at this, weaving outrageous tales of a priapic Russian monk into a disco storm, and by accident or not, ‘Jimmy’ does sound a lot like ‘Rasputin’. It also recalls ABBA’s ‘Gimme Gimme Gimme’ and hence Madonna’s ‘Hung Up’, with Bollywood strings (it’s a semi-cover of a Bollywood soundtrack tune about Jimmy Aaja, Disco Dancer!) creating an endless swirl around the dancing beats. Annoyingly contagious and infectiously vexing.
These strings have Junior twirling around too, with and without Dad. She holds a hand in the air, turning it around and around in apt style. The picture disc was a hit too, and she insisted on putting it on the turntable herself, superfly young DJ.
20-11 always feels a touch random, as if it doesn’t matter where each song is placed. 10-1 is more rigorous. Readers, it’s been a bit hectic, so take time to digest and ruminate. We’ll resume on Monday, December 17. Cheerio.
We had The Beatles in 65/66, ABBA in 76/77 and Blondie in 79/80. Top singles bands captured at the very peak of their powers. Erasure were showing this kind of form at the back end of the 80s, unable to stem the flow of startlingly good pop songs. ‘Drama!’ doesn’t even have a CHORUS, not really, but it’s no-sweat Top 10 gold dust.
And I’m nothing if not a sucker for sparkly pop music with killer hooks, squelchy noises, shouts of “GUILTY!” at various pitches and legions of battling synths – always have been. Junior’s going to go this way too, if I have to frogmarch her. She looked pretty sanguine about the whole thing, anyway, her arms propelling her ceilingwards on Vince Clarke’s 303 skyrocket.
Ol’ Vince, eh? 80s pop’s ubiquitous eminence grise. His dread hand will appear twice more in this chart, actual and implied. Oooooo.