Wednesday, 28 October 2009

48: Arctic Monkeys - Leave Before The Lights Come On

One day, years from now, cultural historians will appraise the lyrics of a certain Mr. Alex Turner, and will conclude that he was the premiere popular poet of his generation. In the same way that Morrissey had his finger on the pulse of British life in the 80s, the Sheffield frontman has a knack for describing society accurately, and with great wit.

'Leave Before The Lights Come On' is a prime example. At first glance, the song would appear to chronicle that moment at which the club lights come up at the end of a night, to reveal the carnage and devastation that has gone before. But dig deeper, and Turner is also describing the feelings of dread and regret that result from waking up alongside a stranger.

The Arctic Monkeys came out of nowhere, and took the music scene by storm. The story has been well recounted - the first big MySpace success story, they sold out London's famous Astoria whilst still unsigned, hit #1 with their first two singles, had the fastest selling debut album in history, and headlined Glastonbury less than two years after signing their first record deal.

Amazingly, 'Leave Before The Lights Come On' was rejected as an album track for 'Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not', and so never appeared on an Arctic Monkeys album. Despite this, it peaked at #4 in the charts in August 2006, and remains one of their fans' best-loved songs. In particular, it showcases the extraordinary drumming talents of Matt Helders, whose drum fills, particularly on the instrumental bridge are a sight to behold.

49: So Solid Crew - 21 Seconds

The Urban Dictionary defines So Solid Crew as "a band with more members than collected brain cells, So Solid specialise in banal, derivative, and hectic garage. Lyrically, though, they're just a bunch of Romford chavs pretending to be West Coast bad-boys, rapping about money, gats, and hoes like you'd think it had never been done before. As far as garage acts go, this lot should have been left in the garage with the engine turned on. They wrote a song called 21 Seconds, in which each of the 10,000 members had to talk bollocks really quickly for 21 seconds, one after the other, otherwise the single would have lasted for at least 2 hours..."

Yup, that just about sums it up. Except that, in my opinion, '21 Seconds' was a clever idea for a track, well executed and delivered. The proof is in the pudding, and '21 Seconds' topped the charts in the summer of 2001. Looking back at the chronology of #1 singles in the UK, you'll struggle to find a track that looks as out of place as this one. Sandwiched between Atomic Kitten's awful Bangles cover and 5ive's 'Let's Dance', '21 Seconds' was a controversial chart-topper (because of the content of the lyrics), and probably the high watermark of the UK speed garage scene.

The collective approach to the rapping on the record worked well in places, less well in others. My highlights would be MC Harvey's verse (which begins "every lyric I do..."), the way Romeo hands over the mic at the end of his verse ("two multiplied by ten plus one.... Romeo done"), and the world's first introduction to the exceptional talents of Lisa 'Leeeee-saaa' Maffia.

It turns out that So Solid Crew have recently begun recording songs for a comeback album. The world of music has moved on immeasurably since they made this remarkable debut, but with so many rap talents to draw upon, they've probably got a decent chance of more success.

50: Ladyhawke - My Delerium

2008 was a huge year for New Zealand culture. Backed by slogans such as "New Zealand: Like Scotland, But Further", Flight of the Conchords took the world by storm. And stirring up just as big a storm was Wellington native, Pip Brown, whose debut album 'Ladyhawke' sold over 100,000 copies in the UK.

That Christina Aguilera has chosen to cover 'My Delerium' for her new album should be considered a massive compliment to the Kiwi songstress, but it's not all that surprising - 'My Delerium' is a great pop song. Written by Hannah Robinson (Annie, Rachel Stevens, Sugababes, Saint Etienne) and produded by Pascal Gabriel (Soft Cell, Kylie, New Order), the song dazzles, occupying a berth somewhere between the synth-led glam disco of the 80s, and the harder grunge sound of the early 90s.

I love the way Ladyhawke's voice sounds on the verses of this song, echoey and distant. Contrast that with the "hey" and "stop" (at the beginning of the first and third lines of the chorus respectively) which seem to carry real force. Alongside the shimmering keyboard loop, it makes for an intoxicating mix, and whilst the rest of the album sounds more conventional, it's 'My Delerium' which stands apart as a song of the decade.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009


Well, I'm halfway through my countdown now, so here's a Spotify playlist of songs 100-51 (minus two exceptions that I couldn't find on there).

Monday, 26 October 2009

51: R Kelly - Ignition (Remix)

Bringing the first half of my countdown to an end is a man whose decade will largely be remembered for his 90 minute "hip-hopera", 'Trapped In The Closet' which was widely regarded as "so awful that it's actually brilliant". But in 2003, ten years after entering the public consciousness with 'She's Got That Vibe', R Kelly released his finest single to date, a slow-grinding r'n'b anthem with a significant hat-tip to the likes of Barry White and Lionel Ritchie.

'Ignition (Remix)' - incidentally, I have no idea what made this a remix, nor what the original may have sounded like - is yet another story of a one-night stand, as R Kelly describes what would seem to be his fantasy evening with the "mama" who has "got every man in here wishing". The lyrics are crude at times, full of innuendo - "I'm about to take my key and stick it in the ignition" - but somehow still fairly sensual. Unlike the Mystery Jets and Laura Marling (the previous song in my countdown), Kelly doesn't seem overly bothered whether the night leads to anything longer term. For him "it's the freaking weekend, baby I'm about to have me some fun".

File under 'songs to make love to'!

52: Mystery Jets feat. Laura Marling - Young Love

The second consecutive duet in my countdown couldn't be further away from the gangster rap of Dre and Eminem. Eel Pie Island natives, Mystery Jets teamed up with Hampshire folk-pop singer, Laura Marling, to record one of the loveliest songs of this, or any decade. Criminally, it only sold enough copies to hit #34 in the charts, but it's a song beloved by many.

It's a difficult record to define, by virtue of a tune that sounds as though it was written in the 70s, but with the "woah woah" backing vocals so popular in the 80s, and yet somehow sounding unmistakeably contemporary. The key to the loveliness of this song though are the vocal harmonies achieved between William Rees (Mystery Jets' lead guitarist, who took over vocal duties from singer Blaine Harrison for this track) and Marling.

Singing a story that has been told a thousand times previously, Rees and Marling each recall a one night stand from a different perspective. Rees is desperately seeking the woman he met that night. "If I only knew your name I'd go from door to door" he sings, before bemoaning the fact that "you wrote your number on my hand but it came off in the rain". Marling is more pragmatic, remembering that "young love, it never seems to last" before noting that what was supposed to be "one night of love, nothing more, nothing less" has actually had a profound effect - "that left my heart in a mess". It's a classic 21st century urban love story - the one night stand that could have been so much more. But put in on your stereo, and you'll be humming along and smiling before too long.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

53: Dr. Dre (featuring Eminem) - Forgot About Dre

Forgot about Dre? No chance. Andre Young has been to West Coast rap what Jay Z has become to the East Coast. A highly successful artist in his own right, as well as a producer, and a businessman; Dre is a multi-millionaire, multi-Grammy winning global superstar.

Following a successful career in rap group World Class Wreckin' Cru, and then, alongside Ice Cube and Easy E in NWA, Dre decided to branch out as a solo artist. His 1992 breakthrough, 'The Chronic' was a smash hit, and is widely regarded as one of the finest rap albums of all time. In the mid 1990s, Dre separated from Death Row Records, fearing that label boss Suge Knight was corrupt, and instead launched his own business, founding Aftermath Entertainment as a subsidiary of Interscope Records.

Dre's finest business decision must have been the one he took in 1998, when he signed a white boy from Detroit as the first artist on Aftermath. Eminem's debut album, 'The Slim Shady LP' was released in 1999, and sold over 9 million copies worldwide, and the album's first single, the Dre-produced 'My Name Is' reached #2 in the UK charts. A further hit followed with 'Guilty Conscience', which featured Dre and Eminem as voices (good and bad, respectively) in the heads of the song's protagonists.

Late in 1999, Dre released his second solo album, the confusingly-titled '2001', selling over 7 million copies globally, and further enhancing Dre's reputation as the daddy of late-90s rap. The second single from that album, released in the summer of 2000, reprised the collaboration with Eminem from 'Guilty Conscience', and earned the pair a Grammy for best rap duet.

(NB - video contains explicit lyrics)

The song revolves around a simple, yet effective looped sample, with Dre rapping the first and third verses, boastfully reminding listeners of his rap career to date. Eminem takes the mic for the second verse, rapping about random acts of violence straight out of his Slim Shady persona. And the chorus sees Em at his chattering finest. His rapid, machine-gun-like rhyme is one of the most memorable of the decade: "nowadays, everybody wanna talk like they've got something to say, but nothing comes out when they move their lips, just a bunch of gibberish, and motherf**kers act like they forgot about Dre".

The video (above) is a classic too, and features KTTV Fox 11 news reporter, Jane Yamamoto, reporting from the scene of an arson attack. Ms. Yamamoto has an impressive track record of cameo appearances - she appears in Eminem's video for 'Stan', as well as popping up as herself in episodes of '24', 'Prison Break' and 'The Sarah Silverman Program'.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

54: Sugababes - Push The Button

In amongst the frequent personnel changes, that have rendered them a mere shadow of their original lineup, it's easy to forget that Sugababes have been responsible for some of the finest British pop of the past ten years. It was the second lineup (Mutya, Keisha, Heidi) that were responsible for most of the group's finest moments, with four of the nine singles released by that incarnation topping the singles charts in the UK. The string of hits between 2001 (when Siobhan left) and 2005 (when Mutya was replaced by Amelle) reads like a Greatest Hits tracklisting... 'Freak Like Me' (#1 in the charts), 'Round Round' (#1), 'Stronger' (#7), 'Hole In The Head' (#1) and this song.

'Push The Button' was the first single from their fourth album, 'Taller In Most Ways', and was the last single released before illness forced Mutya to leave the band. With the perspective of hindsight, she either jumped from the sinking ship at just the right time, or her exit was the iceberg that began the process. Aside from 'About You Now', nothing in the post-Mutya era has even come close to the heights achieved between 2001-5. Mutya quit at the top of their game. In the October 2005 week that 'Taller In Most Ways' went on sale, the 'Babes were simultaneously top of the singles, album, airplay and download charts. And leaving the group after a song which sold half a million copies at home (as well as topping charts in Austria, Ireland and New Zealand and reaching #2 pretty much everywhere else) can't have harmed the bank balance either.

'Push The Button' is my favourite Sugababes song. It chugs along nicely, with the girls bouncing verses off each other. Keisha's vocal always stood out for me on this, when she raises the vocal stakes (and the tone) for the bridge: "I've been waiting patiently for him to come and get it, I wonder if he knows that he can say it and I'm with it". And then the harmonised chorus... the sweetness in the girls' voices shines through. It's just a lovely, sunny pop song.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

55: OutKast - Hey Ya!

"Shake it like a Polaroid picture"

With one memorable lyric, OutKast not only sealed their place in the history of popular music at the start of the 21st century, but also immortalised a dying technology. Thirty years from now, hardly anyone will even remember Polaroid cameras, consigned to the passing winds of change in the digital age. Yet you can be certain that people will still be dancing to OutKast's electrifying, vivid ode to relationships.

'Hey Ya!' is such a bizarre record, so difficult to place within the Noughties music history. It inspired some brilliant journalism, being described by Blender as "electro/folk-rock/funk/power pop/hip-hop/neo-soul/kitchen sink rave-up" and by NME as "a monumental barney between the Camberwick Green brass band, a cruise-ship cabaret act, a cartoon gospel choir and a sucker MC hiccuping 'Shake it like a polaroid pic-chaaaa!' backed up by the cast of an amateur production of The Wizard of Oz."

Amazingly, it only peaked at #3 in the UK singles chart, despite hanging around the Top 40 for five months. But it will remain as one of the most universally beloved tracks of the decade, a short, joyful burst of energy that all ages can appreciate.

One final thought, regarding that most memorable of lyrics. It falls into the "I never knew that" category. According to Wikipedia, "because current Polaroid film is sealed behind a clear plastic window, casually waving the picture has no effect on the film's development. Vigorously shaking the film may actually distort the image by causing the film to separate prematurely and creating blobs in the final image."

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

56: Kaiser Chiefs - I Predict A Riot

Despite it being this decade's equivalent of 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' or 'Jump Around' (massively overplayed on radio, churned out by DJs at pop club nights to appease the rock fans dragged along by their friends), and despite the Kaiser Chiefs being this decade's Oasis (lad-rock, shouty, repetitive lyrics, lots of 'na-na-na' vocals), somehow, 'I Predict A Riot' still retains a certain charm. That's probably largely down to the Yorkshire-isms of the song. The second line of the song uses the word "thee", whilst revered civil engineer, John Smeaton gets name-checked.

The Leeds band released their debut album, 'Employment' in March 2005, and it went to #2 in the UK albums chart, and five times platinum, selling over 1.5million copies, no doubt helped by the presence on the album of 'I Predict A Riot'. Actually, the song performed surprisingly poorly in the charts four months earlier, when it was released, failing to even crack the Top 20.

The lyrics detail a disorderly night out in their home town, and as such, provide a direct link with their Yorkshire peers, the Arctic Monkeys. But where the Sheffield lads paint a grim picture of urban life, the 'Chiefs' seem to revel in the bad behaviour of the ASBO generation. "I predict a riot and I want to join in" seems to be the message of the song. For rebellious teenagers, this was the UK's answer to America's burgeoning emo scene; for balding mid-lifers, it was a chance to relive past glories. Its universal appeal is unquestioned.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

57: We Are Scientists - Nobody Move, Nobody Get Hurt

I love We Are Scientists. I fell in love the minute I first clapped eyes on them. It was October 2005, and I was at the Astoria with my then girlfriend to see Editors. We Are Scientists were one of the support acts, but they blew me away with their high energy take on the post-Strokes indie-rock world. That said, my initial assessment on my blog proved to be miles wide of the mark, when I said that they "look like Placebo and sound like a cross between The Strokes and Franz Ferdinand". In reality, they look like the Beastie Boys and sound like...., well, they sound like We Are Scientists. It's a unique and distinctive style that continues to give me great pleasure every time I pop on either of their two albums to date, 'With Love & Squalor' or 'Brain Thrust Mastery'.

Two weeks after the gig, 'The Great Escape' was iTunes' free download of the week, and my love affair began to blossom. Shortly after that, XfM began pummeling 'Nobody Move, Nobody Get Hurt', and I was head over heels. Track 1 off any debut album is important to set a marker, an indication of what fans can expect from a new band, and there can be few better debut album openers this decade. The guitars are legendary, and the drumroll heralds the arrival of the band. Indeed, the drumming is probably what I love most about W.A.S., filled with inventive time shifts and rhythms which just insist that, at the very least, you're tapping your feet.

Friday, 2 October 2009

58: Sonique - It Feels So Good

When news broke in June of this year that Sonique (a.k.a Sonia Clarke) was suffering from breast cancer, I found myself questioning "why?" Not in the sense of "why her?" - cancer can strike any of us at any time. No, rather, I was surprised that the story about a one-hit wonder, who had been out of the public eye since the early part of the decade, was considered newsworthy. After all, one-hit wonders, by their nature, do not retain much celebrity status. It's even more surprising in the dance genre, where the singers/DJs are largely faceless. Hands up if you'd recognise Rui Da Silva or Mr Oizo if you bumped into them in the street?

The fact that the BBC and most of the national newspapers chose to publish this story probably indicates what high regard the population hold for Sonique's one hit. 'It Feels So Good' was the third biggest selling single of 2000, spending three weeks at #1 and an amazing fourteen weeks hanging about the Top 40. Indeed, it has been named as the biggest selling dance song of the 21st century, having sold over 650,000 copies in the UK alone.*

As dance tunes go, it's a rather uplifting song, bursting into the joyous chorus ("your love, it feels so good, and that's what takes me high, higher than I've been before, and your love it keeps me alive") as North Londoner, Sonique flexed her vocal muscles. I don't know anyone who doesn't love this song. Given that I'd already chosen this song to appear at #58 in my countdown before news of her cancer broke, it seems apt to use this opportunity to wish Sonique a speedy recovery, and thank her for one of the greatest dance tunes of the decade.

* Bizarrely, the only other major market where it topped the charts was Norway. But it did reach #2 in Switzerland and Austria, #3 in Sweden, and went Top 10 virtually everywhere else, including the USA.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

59: Jimmy Eat World - The Middle

Often unfairly labelled as emo (and thus bundled in with the likes of Panic At The Disco, Fall Out Boy, My Chemical Romance et al), Arizona's Jimmy Eat World have been one of the most consistent US pop-punk bands of the Noughties, and are as much of this decade as anyone on this list. True, they had been around for nearly all of the 90s, but it was fourth album, 'Bleed American', released in July 2001, which saw the band hitting the big time.

'The Middle', the band's highest charting single (#26 in the UK, but an impressive #5 in the Billboard Hot 100 across the pond) was the song that the band wrote after being dropped by Capitol Records in 1999, following the commercial failure of their third album 'Clarity'. Once demos of 'Bleed American' started doing the rounds, Capitol even attempted to re-sign the band, but they preferred to sign with Dreamworks.

The hook is catchy, the lyrics are about as emo as Jimmy Eat World have ever been, and the video is surprisingly good. In it, a fully clothed teenager arrives at a house party, where Jimmy Eat World are performing, to discover that everyone else at the party is naked. Feeling excluded, he climbs into a cupboard to strip off and feel more a part of the crowd, only to discover a girl who is doing the same. They leave the party together, still fully clothed. The message is not very original - that individuality is valuable - but the method of delivery is clever, and peaked my interest when I first saw it.

Jimmy Eat World fact: The album 'Bleed American', and its eponymous opening track were both renamed as 'Salt Sweat Sugar' (under pressure from record label bosses who were concerned that it could be misinterpreted) after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Copies of the album with the original cover were considered highly valuable until 2008, when the band released a deluxe version of the album reverting to the original title.

60: Muse - Knights Of Cydonia

When Matt Bellamy, Chris Wolstenholme and Dominic Howard emerged on a platform in the middle of Wembley Stadium in June 2007, walked along a gantry to the stage, and burst into the opening chords of 'Knights of Cydonia', that song's importance in the canon of Muse's discography became immediately apparent. It's their call to arms, uniting the brotherhood of Muse fans in a whirlwind of screaming vocals, feedback-heavy slide guitars, and military drum rolls.

The final track off of 'Black Holes And Revelations' reached #10 in the singles charts in December 2006. Matt Bellamy has explained that the song's meaning is to teach people to stand up for themselves and make their own destiny. This is most apparent as the song reaches its peak, with Bellamy singing "no one's gonna take me alive, the time has come to make things right, you and I must fight for our rights, you and I must fight to survive". It's fairly inspirational stuff.

The splendid
album cover also links to the track. The four men pictured are the Knights, four guys who each represent a part of the apocalypse, each wearing a suit which represents an ailment of humanity. Cydonia is a region of Mars where some believe life has existed. These themes of apocalypse, the human condition and the possibility of alien life are central to the Muse ethos, and nowhere are they more strongly verbalised than in 'Knights of Cydonia', arguably their finest hour.