Thursday, 24 February 2011

My Top 10 Radio-Orientated Pop Songs of 2010

It seems a little late to be doing a list like this, what with it being two months into the new year and all of that. Around a week ago my friend Tevs sent me a link to a guy called Todd In The Shadows and his list of  “Top 10 Best Hit Songs of 2010”. Give a couple of days and I was bound to reply, with my first list on my first blog, so here we have it, without further ado, in it’s (highly) edited form:

10. Plan B - "Prayin’"

Best to start off in my own merry England I think. Before the release of his second album The Defamation of Strickland Banks rapper Ben Drew was more likely to be seen playing roles in the Michael Caine-starring Harry Brown and the Noel Clarke films Adulthood and These films play a large part in identifying Drew’s musical persona Plan B for anyone who has seen them; the London accent and swagger coming from the U.K.’s largest gang-related crime hotspot and also a city with a huge ethnic diversity.  Drew chose to adopt the influences of soul that he grew up with for his breakthrough effort, opting to sing more often than rap, coming across as a combination of fellow London dwellers Mike Skinner and Amy Winehouse. This hybrid brought breakthrough success for Strickland Banks, netting Plan B the #1 position on the U.K. Albums Chart in its first week, and also a string of Top 40 singles. Arguably the best of these was “Prayin’”, one of the bleakest chapters of the concept album, a unique, refreshing take on  the murder ballad where Drew, singing through the titular Banks sings for repentance of his sins, praying through his guilt-ridden hands. His voice, and the moving horn section that carries it made “Prayin’” one of the most emotionally charged singles on British radio in 2010, and Plan B a unique national treasure.

9. Brandon Flowers - "Crossfire"

When people look back on the last decade years from now, they’ll likely remember the presence of one particular band, and single after single dominating the charts, radio, every karaoke, birthday party, wedding and other social event. The inescapable presence of the Killers meant that Brandon Flowers was a household name long before the release of his debut solo effort Flamingo in September 2010. Lead single “Crossfire” on paper shows to be much of the same for Flowers: the sparkling guitars, gritty bass and percussion set it up to be another Vegas pop power ballad we’ve come to expect from the Killers’ tunesmith. However this isn’t just another feather in the cap for Flowers. Beyond the Vegas lights lies the punishing Nevada Desert, and this is where the song appears to be coming from: the dark piano chords play nicely off the lead guitar, making the song sound like the great lost Eagles song, especially with Flowers’ as-ever melodramatic chorus delivery. All this song needed was for Slash and Axl to jump out towards the ending and it would’ve been one step closer to becoming your dad’s new favourite stereo-hogger. Which it may have been anyway.

8. Lady Gaga - "Telephone" (ft. Beyoncé)

Two titans of female pop come together on this early 2010 hit, so naturally it sold by the bucketload and was heard everywhere. Beyoncé was the more veteran of the two,  having worked her way up from her early Destiny’s Child days, cutting her teeth as a solo performer with the 2003 smash hit “Crazy In Love” (with a little help from future husband Jay-Z), where she has remained as one the most consistent vocalists in terms of popularity of the last decade. That was until her crown was seriously challenged by oddball, controversial upstart Lady Gaga, who rose to popularity at the end of the decade. The public’s obsession with her often provocative, shocking yet lucrative behaviour spawned  a ton of rumours both sides of the Atlantic, and indeed all over the globe, keeping interest in Gaga‘s every breath and fashion decision. The now-famous 9-minute music video tells the story better than any review ever could; along with the top class production and Gaga’s carefully hidden pop sensibilities all work in favour of this multi million dollar tune, and leaves the eye and ear even more to ponder, share, debate and consider.

7. Rihanna - "Rude Boy"

We all have our opinions on Rihanna it seems, but this Rated R single at the start of the year remains one of her strongest efforts yet. I’m not the only one who expressed concerns for a single such as this, in light of her previous personal relations of the last few years, however  look beyond the surface and this song appears to be much more dualistic than you might imagine. On the one hand Rihanna uses her voice, obvious sex appeal and lyrics to seduce even the most reserved of male listener, and clearly this is where most people have the issue. However  on the other hand the softness of voice, steady beat and synths set up a different side to Rihanna, a more delicate, even vulnerable one, making her performance seem genuine, unlike many of her contemporaries. And this is exactly the right career move to make, unlike what many may think. Sub the release of this single with “Love the Way You Lie” and it makes the release of “Rude Boy” seem even more outrageous. The song and video seen to fit somewhere between the world music fused dance of M.I.A. and the sly coyness of Yo-Landi Vi$$er on Die Antwoord’s “Enter The Ninja”, and Rihanna seems to draw on the ambition and zaniness of both, bringing them to the forefront of primetime radio.

6. Gorillaz - "On Melancholy Hill"

Damon Albarn knows how to put a collaboration together. After the huge success of  Gorillaz’s 2005 album Demon Days, expectaions were high for follow-up Plastic Beach, and it didn’t disappoint. Despite the huge list of collaborators (Mick Jones and Paul Simonon of the Clash, Mos Def, Bobby Womack, Snoop Dogg, Lou Reed, Mark E. Smith, De La Soul, the list goes on), “On Melancholy Hill” is much sparser, the only vocalist being Albarn himself, who manages to produce one of his most soulful vocal performances since Blur’s “Tender”. It manages to be the centrepiece of the album thanks to it’s simple lyrics and quietly confident instrumentation, addressing matters which anyone can relate to. Staccato chords hold the hazy, shoegazy feedback in place, tied up with deliciously simple electronic drums, sounding truly as plastic as what the album’s title suggests. Gorillaz are a rare project in that they manage to appeal to both casual music listeners to specialists of all genres, something which only a few bands before them have managed to accomplish, and is even rarer for today's musicians.

5. Kanye West - "POWER"

It’s odd to think that America’s biggest music star has been largely left unnoticed by U.K. radio in recent years. Kanye’s album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, released towards the end of last year went straight to #1 on the Billboard 200 and for many critics was Album Of The Year. It seems as though the most crucial element of Kanye’s superstar status, the media, has managed to influence the British public away from any credibility for him to be considered musically credible. Which is a huge shame, as MBDTF may be the most poignant, artistic mainstream hip-hop, or even pop album of recent years. Kanye’s assurance, like Jay-Z and the Notorious B.I.G. before him come from his rise through raw talent as an M.C., beat maker and producer, and even if he isn’t as great as he says or thinks he is, he definitely isn’t too far off. His media image gives his lyrics more to address, he knows exactly what he’s doing, and on “POWER”, just one of many great cuts from the album, these elements come together seamlessly in just under 5 minutes: tight lyrics, a mesmerising female choral vocal cut up out of recognition, and an excellent sample in the form of King Crimson’s "21st Century Schizoid Man", which appears to have been written just for him, such is it’s potency, and Kanye’s lyricism and creativity. I could write so much about Kanye West and his position in music and culture today, but with songs like this there isn’t really any need. The video for another album track “All of the Lights” has just been released, and something tells me it may just give Kanye the publicity you’d expect him to recieve for this career-defining effort.

4. Janelle Monáe - "Tightrope" (ft. Big Boi)

A stunning debut album, The ArchAndroid was definitely one of my favourites of 2010. Each track is filled with ideas coming from the world of soul, jazz, swing, contemporary classical, funk, pop and rock, and despite it’s length manages to sustain interest and establishes Janelle Monáe as a true force to be reckoned with in the near future. The leftfield appeal of “Tightrope”, a collaboration with an artist firmly coming from the world of leftfield success, Outkast’s Big Boi, comes from it’s refreshing take on all it’s influences and vast instrumentation. It’s almost the opposite of an entry previously featured on this list, Rihanna’s “Rude Boy”. The only thing Monáe’s lyrics address is walking a tightrope, and she sounds confident and assured. Unlike Rihanna she comes out of nowhere, with no previous successes to fall on, and has no media image. Everything about her should prevent her from being a star, yet her popularity continues to rise, by raw talent alone. The tightrope she walks is between popularity and artistic integrity, on which she is perfectly poised. Big Boi’s verse manages to be fast flowing and laid-back, and balances alongside the track where any other rapper would take over the limelight and ruin the effect. “The funkiest horn section in Metropolis”, acoustic guitar, funk bass, and Monáe’s own warped backing vocals flow in and out of the song, making Tightrope a true delight for the ears, and one of the standout cuts of the album.

3. Cee-Lo Green - "Fuck You"

Frank Zappa would be ashamed of today’s entertainment industry. I feel that if he were alive today "Fuck You" would be one of his favourite songs, but "Forget You" would be one of his least. And I would have to agree. Censoring this song misses the point entirely, and robs it of it’s emotional message. It’s a high that everyone who heard this song in either form rode on. When Cee-Lo sings "Fuck You" live, you can tell how much more enjoyment he gets out of it when compared to his televised "Forget You" performances. It’s amusing to think of this song as a hit if it had been released in the time it evokes, making it truly a 21st Century hit. Lyrically Cee-Lo right on cue, and possessing on the most powerful and diverse pipes in pop doesn’t hurt either. This song is a perfect showcase of those, especially during the wailing bridge, which Cee-Lo can‘t help but smile on. The song has masses of appeal in the same way that Outkast’s “Hey Ya!” did all those years ago, by being catchy, intense, and just hugely enjoyable.

2. Duck Sauce - "Barbra Streissand"

This shouldn’t work. But it does. And we all probably shouldn't like it as much as we do. Taking an odd sample from Boney M. hit “Gotta Go Home“, cutting it up with the deadpan lyric “Barbra Streissand” and looping it for 2 minutes (5 minutes for the preferable extended mix), big name collaborators A-Trak and Armand Van Helden have managed to create the most infectious dance hit of recent times. Everyone and their nan can’t resist singing and dancing to any part of this song, with or without prompt, even months after it’s initial release. It’s that good. There really isn’t much more to say about it than that.

1. Robyn - "Dancing On My Own"

What makes a great pop song is it’s radio friendliness, ability to reach the general casual music listener, great songcraft, lyrics and production, resonance with the current times and music scene, and Sweden’s Robyn has it all. A truly underappreciated treasure, “Dancing On My Own” is Robyn’s biggest hit to date, and part of the reason it’s been so sorely overlooked in my opinion I think is it’s lack of warmth for the British public to truly accept it, and simply too popular for most underground music listeners to give it a chance, it lies somewhere in the middle. A refreshingly dark take on the dancefloor theme and orientation of so many songs of 2010, the top quality sinister and icy production mirrors Robyn’s torn lyrics and vocals perfectly, truly heart-wrenching for anyone willing to give it a chance. The superior  album version exemplifies these ideas even further (as opposed to the radio edit that made it all over the radio for a brief time).The new-wave sounding synths which open the song sound truly menacing and immediately give it gravitas and purpose. As it progresses towards the chorus the song truly opens up, strengthening Robyn’s vocals and as their contents become even more poignant. As the percussion develops into the second chorus and synths collide just before the bridge the song achieves further weight, truly drawing the listener in to it’s cold, torn beauty. Robyn may only have a small but dedicated group of fans, but for them this year must have been a real treat. I feel as if giving the #1 spot to any of the other top 5 would be a cop-out. This song was an absolute delight.

What did you think of my choices? What was your favourite pop song of 2010?
Oh, and here is the original video which was the inspiration behind this list:

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

The birth of on-Tenori-on

Here we are all, the place where I imagine a lot of my spare time and effort will go into: my first-ever blog on-Tenori-on. Now usually I'm rubbish at naming things but I think I did quite well for myself with this one, even if it did take me four days of looking for movie references, books and other stuff. That's the kind of guy I am. For those of you who were wondering, the Tenori-on is an electronic instrument which incorporates light and sound to create a new kind of musical experience. You could always use Wikipedia to find out more.
They do look pretty cool but much too expensive for me. I'll leave it to you to find out how much.
Anyway, this is (or will be) a music blog where I will get to let loose my opinions on the latest tracks and albums, as well as my favourite albums and artists from years gone by. By no means do I have an encyclopedic knowledge of all there is to know, there are often times when reading about music from other sources I frequently come across names which mean nothing to me, so this will be a learning experience for me as well.
I seriously doubt this blog will get many views so if you're in the mood to suggest stuff for me to share my opinion on (particularly new music) I'll try and give it a listen and give you feedback on it, as long as it isn't the classic albums that I can give nothing but praise for (Pet Sounds, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, Dark Side Of The Moon, OK Computer etc.)
I'm probably (at least to begin with) going to produce a series of lists to get the chance to talk about stuff (Top 10's, Top 5's, etc.)but I'm also thinking about doing straight reviews as well. The only thing is I'm wondering about what form scoring should take, because I don't think a 5-point system will be detailed enough for me (I'm such a snob, as you'll soon find out). On the other hand a Pitchfork-style 100-point system would be far too complicated (seriously how do they do it?). Therefore I'm likely to go for scores out of 10, but I think there may be a more interesting way. Well whatever. I'm sure I'll come up with something.