Thursday, December 28, 2006

The Big Top Ten Is Here Again

So how about that year in pop music, huh?

I can’t remember the last album I bought, frankly. The migration of music from the hi-fi to the computer has changed the way we (okay, I) think about the experience of music. The cohesion of the album is a lesser consideration than the immediate rush of the individual song. In a way, we’re back to the era of singles, and the Internet—particularly the mp3blogs—have become a wondrous sort of freeform radio collective. Now is the time of the great one-off, the earworm, the manic pop thrill. Every second counts; all killer, no filler. It’s pop at its purest. In no particular order:

[ all MP3 links expired - so sorry ]

DeVotchKa, “Last Beat Of My Heart.” Christmas music has been much on mind lately, for obvious reasons. One of my most-loathed Christmas songs is “O Holy Night,” which I’ve been unfortunate enough to hear butchered by too many would be divas and not a few divos. But the song has one genuinely thrilling moment; on the line “Fall on your knees,” the accompaniment changes from the sort of “Unchained Melody” arpeggios to a rolling, percussive bolero, just as the voice starts to soar. DeVotchKa take that moment and extend it to the entire length of “Last Beat,” making a Siouxsie castoff a thing of high drama. I want to go back in time and dub this over the closing credits of The Princess Bride. This is what storybook love sounds like.

Prince, “Black Sweat.” For a while there, it looked like Prince was a past-tense proposition. From the overstuffed, underfocussed band records of the 90s there was a sense that the torch had been passed, and that a new generation of nerds in bedroom studios were making better Prince records than Prince himself would ever make again. Then this, so good as to be shocking: Prince reclaiming the genre he created, riding the most skeletal electro-groove this side of “Kiss” to funk-pop glory. Lesson learned; the attempt to recast himself as ringmaster of a Family Stone-style funk circus was admirable, but ultimately a betrayal of his true genius. Plays well with others, yeah, but plays best by himself.

Goldfrapp, “Slide In (DFA Remix).” Man, that guy from LCD Soundsystem loves his cowbell like Bruce Dickinson, doesn’t he? Like most remixes, this’n radically extends the length of the song; but with its layers of live and live-sounding percussion acting as an extension of Alison Goldfrapp’s voice, putting human fingerprints on the backdrop of immaculate-but-sterile machine music, it lifts the song to heights of real joy. It’s the flipside of “Black Sweat,” really—by opening up the sound, by inviting someone else inside the hermetic bubble of studio-boffinism, Goldfrapp finds a hidden strength. The long, slow ending of the tune, with two chords endlessly cycling as the Shaft guitars rise, peak, recede, is like watching a time-lapse film of flowers blooming; it is constant motion, simultaneously breaking itself down and building itself up. Never has electronic pop sounded so, well, organic.

Neko Case, “That Teenage Feeling.” I missed the boat on the New Pornographers. Don’t know why. Maybe the name put me off, or maybe the hype did. And then I heard The Voice, in a kid’s video, no less, and was transfixed. It’s like when I first heard LeAnn Rimes—there was a sense of having come unstuck in time, of a great pop voice from an era and a style long gone-by suddenly being present and real. But where Rimes and her handlers exploited her vocal resemblance to Patsy Cline with a retro reverence bordering on necrophilia, Neko Case manges to sound timeless. “That Teenage Feeling” would have been a tremendous song in 1956, and it’s fucking tremendous today.

Prototypes, “Who’s Gonna Sing?” AKA “that song from the iPod commercial.” In a year filled with terrific Gallopop, this was the worldbeater. That fuzz bass, that drumline—lumbering and yet nimble, like a dancing bear—the vocal interplay, the utter earworm insistence of it all. And it’s so playful, so giddy, so inviting, defying you to not join in the dance. Who’s gonna sing? Anybody who listens past the first chorus, that’s who.

Charlotte Gainsbourg, “The Operation.” A perfect pop song. The extended lyrical metaphor of intimacy as surgery, leading to a terrific punchline, is strong enough; but the sound is what sells it. The instrumentation is sparse, but the record feels spacious rather than claustrophobic; whispery vocals, quicksilver bass, a naggingly-familiar café piano line into Steve Cropper-esque guitar stabs, chilly synth tones underscoring the clinical, detached mood of the lyric. It’s adult and contemporary without be “adult contemporary,” and it is absolutely teh sex.

Cat Power, “The Greatest.” You know what I hate? I hate the mythology about art and addiction and madness, hate the boneheaded notion that artistic genius and self-destructive tendencies are inextricably twined. Hate the mixture of envy and pity it engenders, hate the way it alienates people from the process of making art, hate the way it turns well-meaning fans into enablers. Hate most of all the way that artists who release substandard work after cleaning up only reinforce the myth.

Which is why, even apart from its sound, I love “The Greatest”—Chan Marshall, after getting sober (and can you imagine the tremendous pressure around her to not get sober?) has made a record that’s not only strongly written and surely sung, but relaxed—there’s no tenativeness, no overstriving, no sense that she’s desperate to prove No, I’m all better now, really—she’s just doing her thing, making the record we all knew she had in her.

Brazilian Girls, “Jique.” A glorious mess. Polyglot electropop with the swagger of glam and the compulsion of disco. Sweet nothings in a half-dozen languages, held together by a throbbing pulse and a breathy vocal that commands the whole enterprise even when the background wails and generous lashings of sheer noise threaten to swamp it.

White Rose Movement, “London’s Mine.” I grew up in the Eighties, and I love its music still. White Rose Movement is a shamelessly retro outfit, on the one hand—from its name (undoubtedly meant to recall Joy Division) to the “Kids In America” square-wave synth bass to the brittle stomp of its drum machines—but it marries that with an edge of mall-punk snottiness to the vocals and a big, surging rock chorus. Compulsive.

Rickard Javerling, “Ice Princess.” The new music that has spoken to me most in the last few years—the Go! Team and CSS, for instance—has been all about the Big Pop Moments. Which is why I’m surprised to be so beguiled by this melancholy little instrumental. It’s almost insubstantial—harmonica, a plunking Rhodes, and distant tremolo guitar; the musical gestures are so restrained that when there’s a tiny splash of cymbals towards the end, it’s like the gong that summons King Kong. And I cannot stop listening to it.

Belinda Carlisle, “Bonnie et Clyde.” The former lead singer for the Go-Gos records a trip-hop cover of a Gainsbourg chanson. Looks like a disaster on paper, doesn’t it? But goddammit if it doesn’t work. Carlisle was always a great belter, but her voice has grown more supple with age; the guitars shimmer and swirl; brief hints of Arabic melisma connect French music’s past to its present.

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