Thursday, 28 January 2010

5: The Killers - Mr Brightside

Xfm, the radio station I listened to more than any other over the past 10 years, named 'Mr. Brightside' their Song of the Decade. So did Absolute Radio. I haven't gone quite that far, but #5 in my countdown is still a respectable showing for a much-loved indie anthem. If you needed further proof of the song's popularity, consider this - the song, first released in June 2004, has just re-entered the UK Top 100, and has now spent a total of 71 weeks inside the singles chart (including 14 re-entries).

Brandon Flowers, the Mormon frontman of The Killers is a true showman. The way he moves about a stage, the way he delivers his lines, the costumes, videos and elaborate set designs, Flowers clearly believes in the value of a performance. Which is to be expected, from someone who hails from Las Vegas.

I first saw them at Glastonbury 2004, in the New Bands Tent. They drew the biggest crowd of the weekend, and I described them (in my festival review) as "the HOTTEST band around, unquestionably the biggest new band in the world." At Glastonbury 2005, I saw them again, this time on the Pyramid Stage ahead of the Friday night headliners, The White Stripes. And I mentioned that they "should have been replacing Kylie" (who had pulled out due to her breast cancer), but that they "preferred their existing slot - it virtually guarantees that they'll be headliners in 2007". And then, I saw them again at Glastonbury 2007, and surprise, surprise, they headlined the Pyramid on the Saturday night. This time, I noted that there was "no-one in the crowd who didn't know every word to every song, and at the end of a long day, when you're tired and muddy and damp, what better to cheer the spirits than a big singalong."

If you're sensing a trend here, you'd be right. For me, The Killers are a festival band, and 'Mr. Brightside' is a festival song. It's full of pomp, well-enunciated lyrics (i.e. easy to remember the words and sing along) and, when viewed from the perspective of 100,000 people, it's an exhilerating experience. I'm sure I'm not the only one who can place the exact moments at which the collective enjoyment reaches its peaks - the "... chest, now, he takes off her dress, now" lyric, the first chorus, "it was only a kiss, it was ONLY a kiss", the keyboard bridge into the "I neeeeevvvvvveeeeeeerrrrrr" outro. Best enjoyed live, no doubt, but if you're interested, here's what the video for the single looks like.

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

6: Mary Mary - Shackles (Praise You)

Erica Campbell and Tina Atkins are probably the least famous act to appear in my list, yet they have probably been the premiere act in their genre for the past decade. The genre in question would be best described as urban gospel, and it has earned the sisters two Grammys, book-ending the decade (in 2000, for this song, and in 2009 for their latest album). Few other acts have managed to take the spiritually-uplifting traditions of gospel, and convert it into a chart-friendly sound.

The song did receive some criticism for being too modern and not staying true to its gospel roots. But read the lyrics and whilst they can be interpreted in many different ways, the key themes are those of faith, hope, and religious belief, the central tenets of gospel music.

The song's subject is how faith can help you overcome the "shackles" that make life difficult, and how we should be thankful to our chosen deity for giving us that strength. I'm starting to sound like a preacher now, so I'll leave you in Mary Mary's more-than-capable hands. "Take the shackles off my feet so I can dance, I just wanna praise you, I just wanna praise you. You broke the chains now I can lift my hands, and I'm gonna praise you, I'm gonna praise you."

The vocals are predictably superb, as one would hope, from a gospel-based group, never more so than at the end of the first verse, as the girls display their full range to sing "cause you see I've been down for so long, feel like the hope is gone, but as I lift my hands, I understand, that I should praise you through my circumstance."

But more surprising is that the tune managed to achieve crossover status into the R'n'B and even pop markets (it reached #5 in the UK singles chart). Back in my DJ-ing days, I always found 'Shackles (Praise You)' to be a surefire floor-filler. It wasn't even that big a hit, yet everyone seemed to love it. And I do too.

7: T.A.T.U - All The Things She Said

"It's not the song, it's not the girls themselves, it's the way their manager has admitted that he's marketed them as under age entertainment."
Judy Finnigan

The furore over the video for T.A.T.U's debut single was front page news in Britain, especially when Richard Madeley and Judy Finnigan described the song and its video as "sick" and "paedophilic entertainment". In response, T.A.T.U's fans managed to garner 26,000 signatories on
a petition to defend the group's right to free speech and freedom of expression. What gets my goat is that the history of pop music is littered with examples of acts being marketed at a younger audience. That lesbian kiss in the video was controversial, but how would banning the video have helped? What message might that have sent to sexually-confused teenage girls? The BBC saw sense of course, denying that they ever had any intentions to ban the single. Ban Richard & Judy, that's what I say.

Thankfully, the nonsense spouted by Britain's least-loved TV presenters only served to raise the song's publicity, not that any such profile boost was needed. The song went straight to number one, sold over 2 million copies, and, worldwide, was the third biggest selling single of 2003 (behind Eminem's 'Lose Yourself' and Black Eyed Peas' 'Where Is The Love'). And T.A.T.U went on to represent Russia in Eurovision (which itself spawned further controversy, after they were narrowly beaten into third place, with Russia alleging vote-rigging).

Put simply, 'All The Things She Said' is classic early-Noughties pop/rock. A powerful tune - the immediate precursor to songs such as Kelly Clarkson's 2004 smash, 'Since U Been Gone' - and lyrics (by Trevor Horn, and clearly designed to provoke) combine to produce a fine "troubled teenager" protest song. It's the most gimmicky entry in my Top 10, but since when was popular entertainment any different? And frankly, it still sounds listenable and fresh nearly a decade on, as clear a sign as any that this song was right on the money, in every sense.

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

8: Beyonce feat. Jay Z - Crazy In Love

I went on YouTube last night, searching for the video for the next song in my countdown. As has often been the case in my research for this list, the record label have prevented the official music video from being embedded, so I was forced to look for a suitable live video.

In doing so, I discovered exactly why Beyonce is such a special live performer, the most gifted pop star of her generation. I must have watched 10 live performances of 'Crazy In Love', from gigs all over the world, recorded at various points during her solo career. Every performance was unique. The one I chose sees her working a remix of Gnarls Barkley's 'Crazy' into the song at a 2007 show in Los Angeles, but there were countless others I could have picked. Her performance from outside the Rockefeller Center in NYC, live on breakfast TV, is just one example. Check out YouTube yourself, if you want to see an incredible variety of performances. Each one has a stunning or unusual costume, unique choreography, and most important of all, astounding vocals.

The other noticeable point about all these videos is that in many of them, 'Crazy In Love' appears to be the opening song of the set. This is understandable - with its triumphant horn intro (sampled from The Chi Lites' 1970 hit, 'Are You My Woman?'), it is the perfect crowd-pleasing set opener. Jay Z's contributions aren't half bad either, especially as he reportedly wrote his rap interlude in just 10 minutes. (Incidentally, I love the "Jay Z in the range, crazy and deranged, they can't figure him out, they're like 'hey, is he insane?'" line)

There are numerous statistics I could wow you with - about 'Crazy In Love' being nominated for SIX Grammys, or about the mobile ringtone version of the song being certified gold (for 500,000 copies sold). Or I could note that it was voted the 3rd best song of the decade by Rolling Stone, the 4th best song of the decade by Pitchfork. But I don't need to do any of this. The song speaks for itself, and in the finest tradition of the Motown divas that Beyonce seems to be emulating, this song will live on long after its creators.

Monday, 25 January 2010

9: Los Campesinos! - We Throw Parties, You Throw Knives

It was the pace with which I fell in love which startled me the most. I'd never heard of Los Campesinos! before the final week of May 2007, let alone heard any of their songs. Within a month, I'd seen them play two live shows - one at the Scala in London, and the other in a torrential downpour at Glastonbury. They were on the brand new Park Stage at the Somerset festival, and it was a testament to my burgeoning admiration for them that I was willing to drag myself out of my sleeping bag at Way-Too-Early o'clock to stand in a thunderstorm and watch their set.

'You! Me! Dancing' came first... on the radio initially, and then in a club on a balmy late-May evening. That was like the first date, whereas 'We Throw Parties, You Throw Knives' felt more like the engagement. As soon as I heard it, I knew we were meant to be together. I mean, what's not to like about Gareth's opening line? "When you play 'Pass the Parcel' with human body parts, somebody might get head but someone will get hurt". It was love at first... listen.

And then Alexsandra's sweet sweet chorus, playful and charming and witty and everything I was looking for from an indie band. As an introduction to the prolific* seven-piece (often referred to as Welsh, even though none of the band actually hails from the country where they met at university), 'We Throw Parties...' was perfect. It even goes to the trouble of describing their fancy dress outfits of choice - "Team Campesinos trick-or-treating on the driveway in the middle of August, one of us dressed as a zombie, one of us dressed as a pirate, one of us dressed as a ninja, four of us dressed as schoolgirls". LC are fun, both on record and in the live setting, and music is meant to be enjoyed.

*Third album, 'Romance Is Boring' is released next week, less than 2 years after their debut.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

10: Evanescence - Bring Me To Life

Yes, yes, I know. Should've been finished with this list before the end of 2009. I can only apologise for my extreme tardiness. Now, on with the Top 10.

At number 10 in my countdown (and I'm prepared for a lot of mocking criticism of this selection), one of the more surprising hits of the past decade. In June and July 2003, sandwiched between number ones from R Kelly ('Ignition') and Beyonce ('Crazy In Love'), a little-known metal group from Arkansas had one of the biggest hits of that summer, a song which topped the charts for four consecutive weeks.

Admittedly, 'Bring Me To Life' benefitted hugely from its use in that summer's blockbuster movie hit, 'Daredevil'. But that can only partly explain its success. After all, it went Top 10 in virtually every country on the planet, and won a Grammy for Best Hard Rock Performance.

Ultimately, I put the success down to a flawless, powerful, near-operatic vocal from frontwoman Amy Lee, Little Rock's second most famous daughter (Chelsea Clinton was born in the same town, ten months before Lee). Lee sings the verses herself, then allows guest vocalist Paul McCoy to sing the chorus, with Lee contributing the backing vocals.

The lyrics tell of redemption from unhappiness, not, as was originally assumed, of Jesus. The song was originally propelled into the spotlight by Christian rock stations, but Evanescence had a huge falling out with the Christian rock community, with Lee saying in a 2006 interview "Can we please skip the Christian thing? I'm so over it. It's the lamest thing. I fought that from the beginning; I never wanted to be associated with it."

So not Christian rock then. But nevertheless, a fine piece of work from a woman with a remarkable voice.