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What the Hell are we listening to?
That’s a question often placed straight at my door. At work (because I try to sneak on 6Music for a bit). At home (because I try to sneak 6Music on for a bit). At house parties (because invitations to use Spotify always turns my head into a mush of mainstream chart music and cheese at the worst possible times).
Question me again, then, folks, because here’s Palomino Party and I haven’t got an inch of an idea. To what am I listening? To whom? For why?
Great though, eh? Unhinged at the start, in that way which would cause the unsuspecting outsider to reach for the “skip” button. And you’re talking to an expert here, I had a barmaid use the BIG BAD JUKEBOX SKIP RED BUTTON OF DOOM before “One Night In Bangkok” had got past the orchestral sweep of its introductory movement. “Black Russian” turns into a sludgy, murky, pop-sprinkled guitar wigout and I ruddy love it, so skip button be damned, I don’t know much about this band at all although I’m certain we could prop up a few bars.
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A conversation picked up at work, I think from something I heard on the radio, about those albums released at the height of 1990s Britpop-infused guitar frenzy. Many of the albums which came from that period now seem awfully dated and “of their time”. Further, of course, many of those bands have either moved lightyears away from those Britpop chart-toppers (that’ll be your Blur) or disappeared through various ways and fashions (that’ll be your Pulp.)
Then there’s those whose albums seem to be watchwords for the 1990s and early 2000s who have carried on quietly, methodically and doing so with loyal fans in happy rapture (that’ll be your Gomez, your James, your The Coral.)
The lights may have faded, the live music shows have all been yanked off air or marginalised, music itself may have transformed into an unrecognisable industry, yet here these bands remain. In the specific case of The Coral, remaining with songs far removed from the quasi-Merseybeat image of their mainstream hits: this new material is broad and brashy and satisfyingly trippy. I’ll suggest very early “The Actor” era-ish Moody Blues as a companion piece.
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You know a good song when you hear it, yes? The innate sense of immediate approval, the pursed lips, the nod, the whispered “oh yeah”, the click of “Buy Now” or “Download This”. Something about a good old fashioned no nonsense song when all the elements of what has been recorded clicks with whatever you’ve been wanting to hear; that’s a darn good feeling.
In what I call a “previous life”, advice was given to me to never review guitar-based music as “raw”. It’s like saying “I support healthcare” as a politician: of course guitars are going to make a rock song “raw”, that’s the whole point. I retort now. many years later, how else could I describe “Hummingbird”, have you noticed the lyrics?
It’s not that this track, number 12 in my in-no-particular-order run down, happens to be the unofficial number 1 by the way. There’s been plenty of pursed lips and nods with my headphones in, let me tell you. “Hummingbird” blimey heck should be on far more lists than this one, and very high in the rankings too. What hits me about the song is how it’s clearly crafted but without any artificial polish: if there’s no way around the ban on “raw”, might I get away with “natural” ?
Or a less flim-flam way of putting it: a damn good song.
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“Green Man” by Mark Owen. Remember it? Of course you don’t. Nobody does. I doubt Mark does (if the “green” in the title means what it likely did, check the art work.)
Not long after the slow release/rapid collapse of Take That, “Green Man” sneaked out like a fart in a church, the first full album of a former member which didn’t ostensibly represent a full-on peroxide hair dye pill-chomping breakdown. That we know about. By most measures and considerations, Owen’s stepping away from boyband unity to mucky-haired indie boy was a disaster of epic proportions: those who were convinced that the lad had musical chops on the basis of “Clementine” soon found themselves knee high in festival mud and new-age whimsy. It’s not always sensible to leave the comfort of manufactured pop *and* reinvent your output all in one go.
Fast forward to 2016, slap bang in the middle of the immediate post-Bowie aftermath indeed, and reinvention was clearly the topic du jour. Enter stage left Zayn Malik. Sorry. I mean Zayn. Sorry again: ZAYN. Capitals. Important business. Significant. Goes well with a hashtag and sans serif fonts.
ZAYN took an almighty dump on just about every element of his boyband life in the moments between leaving and releasing “Pillowtalk”. Shit dumping on this scale would usually require an expert in colonoscopy. Achingly cool to the point of parody (HE SWEARS IN SONGS NOW! HE SAYS SWEAR WORDS!) this would have been the start of something quite significant (HE SINGS IN URDU ON THE ALBUM! WITH A THICK BRADFORDIAN ACCENT! TAKE THAT BREXIT!) were it not for commercial radio to take one collective listen to the follow up single and go “…..nah, not for us.”
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Boxed In, back in.
So it goes that my annual selection touches on similar themes. Boxed In featured last year with “Full Circle”. How could I resist this fantastic groove, another to mix and mingle the blatantly retro with the cutting edge?
For “Running Out”, those retro touches are unbridled tributes to synth pioneers over a twenty-to-thirty year period. It rushes past you quickly and unashamed: this is power pop with something of the swish, the urban, the inner city. The outside world can be pushed aside with the strut of this track’s attitude, just put in the noise-cancellers and get out there.
I compare and re-visit the previous lists quite often. Patterns do emerge, of course they do. Humans like their patterns. Maybe there was, just at the back of my mind, a narrative reason behind choosing certain songs to follow each other. An inner DJ thinking process? Occasionally showing that I can review and research these things, now and then? A little from column a, a little from column b.
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An unexpected selection.
Remember when a fringe element of the dance scene took it upon themselves to pretend that sounding like a Commodore 64 loading screen was somehow a “thing”? This track has that “thing” running through it. And it sounds fantastic. The retro bleeps-and-sparks are but one layer to this veritable signature dish of elements; and yes, I am “down with that”. It’s in the title. It all works.
BOSS sound boss, la. There’s a great use of the vocal equivalent of ellipsis about a third of the way through, the croak in the voice playful and a touch menacing, before the all-out indie feel makes way for something a touch more psychedelic. And yes, I’m “down with that”.
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Pop. What kind of year has it been for pop? As with 2015, it feels as though pop bangers of yore are, well, exactly that. Of yore. No longer guaranteed. Pop has been ripped apart like a chunk of Play-Doh, endlessly remodelled and reshaped, endlessly rolled into squashed up boulders which sort-of resemble dog-dirt. I accept that we live in a world of post-truth, are we also living in a world of post-irony? What even is post-irony?
Shura is not quite the all-out pop starlet we need. That said, “What’s It Gonna Be?” is pop banger material all the way through, and with the sweetest and most relevant accompanying video of the year. Yes, people still film pop videos. Presumably without irony. Or with. Maybe both? I don’t know where we are with irony, pre- or post-. Somebody help me.
“What’s It Gonna Be?” may not have broken through the mainstream channels as successfully as it should, but I’m not putting Shura to the back of my mind just yet, she’s got much promise yet to realise.
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Me! Disorganised?! Heaven forfend!
Okay. Disorganised. C’est moi. I have pencil sketches of this year’s list, possibly ensuring that I can at least prove the “in no particular order” part of this exercise. Best laid plans, however, do not respect the retractable pencil nor the shorthand writer’s notepad. And so, please get acquainted to De Montevert.
Who? No idea. I hear the sound of almost every other song Mary Ann Hobbs plays on 6Music…in a good way…the dreamy and ethereal, the insistence and the reticence playing off each other. It’s indie as heard through very modern filters, the vocal delivery shrug-shouldered, the lyrics playful and unforgiving. What came to me very late in this extensive/improvised process was a song with all the hallmarks of a late 1990s song popping up through means of time travel, and I’m a sucker for both the 1990s and tenuous metaphor.
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I have absoultely no idea what this song is on about.
But the same was true/is true of most of “Kid A” and that’s considered a contemporary classic. “22, A Million” is a counterpart to many game-changers, Bon Iver taking liberties with hip hop and soul where Radiohead took apart the conventions of rock bands at the time.
Lyrically challenging, musically interesting, as with Frank Ocean not too far away from this in my countdown Bon Iver explores what a man of my aged years still calls ‘sampling’ but which is a far more complex and sophisticated art than the use of a familiar riff somewhere in a backing track. Interpolation and interpretation rule this roost now, sewing rather than patching. I could merrily stepping-stone from track to track, discovering new sounds as I go, and what is wrong with that?
What does “33 “GOD”” mean? A spiritual paean, an exploration of faith, a real time description of the merest meeting of eyes with a former lover? There’s much more, and likely much less, to be taken from such a beautiful, beguiling song, one of the most cryptic songs on my chosen list.
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Here’s the T.
Ru Paul’s Drag Race had pickied up cult status long before 2012’s Season 4 came around. Self-aware and knowing, as all reality TV shows must be, the additional element of brand savvy drag queens just added the ingredient needed to push ‘potential’ into ‘phenomenon’.
For Season 4 the reality TV trope ‘series-length rivalry’ was edited to within an inch of its life between Sharon Needles (whose début runway look involved a bald cap and fake blood) and Phi Phi O’Hara (the more traditional ballgown and pageants queen). Of course the drama was ramped up to eleventistupid, it involved reality television, gay men and narrative convenience. What transpired generated enough social media content and Twitter friendly memes to guarantee Drag Race success from the first episode onwards for ever more.
Here’s another grand tradition of drag queens: their inevitable pop careers are usually disasters. Cheap songs, cheaper videos, in-joke lyrics. If Sharon Needles represents anything, it’s the results of knowing your gay history and working on songs with depth and content. It may not be a coincidence that the hit count for this video is much lower than would be expected from anything released by a series winner. #Choices.