2009: Songs of the Year

I’d love to have the energy to make end of year lists as wonderfully detailed as the mighty XO London. Unfortunately I’m full of a stinker of a cold and generally distracted by everything else. This year I’ve been a little rubbish at listening to as much music as I should do. There’s a whole back-up of albums in my LISTEN TO ME folder on spotify, so this may well be missing some corkers. Like I’m sure Fever Ray and Metric would be likely candidates for my favourite albums had I actually listened to them more than once or twice. I need to catch up pronto.

Anyway my favourite songs of the year:

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1. Black Eyed Peas – I Gotta Feeling
Simply for packing as much joy and celebration as possible into just under 5 minutes. It’s utterly infectious and I’m even more convinced this is my song of the year after feeling just how amazing it was to both play it and watch others enjoying it at Popstarz NYE last night.

2. Daniel Merriweather – Water & A Flame
I’m not entirely sure what I think about Daniel Merriweather but his album surprised me. Red grew on it to a manic extent but this later released single is without doubt the heart-achingly gorgeous highlight. It’s one of those moments that could make me cry so hard I start to feel sick (see De-lovely, last 10 minutes of ‘Doomsday’, Mr Shue & Emma on Glee etc.)

3. Lady Gaga – Bad Romance
It was tough to choose between this and Pokerface, but again Popstarz last night tipped this one as best. It was as if I could have played it on repeat for 4 hours solid and no one would have minded. Paparazzi was my favourite video of hers this year, but the first 2 seconds even of Bad Romance absolutely smash it. The decade’s most exciting popstar.

4. Royksopp – The Girl and The Robot
A bleak surprise song from Robyn. I interviewed the band earlier say everything I could possibly need to (600 words worth) over here.

5. God Help The Girl – Musician Take Heed
I’d not heard of this album until Colin stuck his iPod on loudspeaker at a late summer BBQ and the brilliant God Help The Girl album came out. It’s a teaming up of Stuart Murdoch from Belle & Sebastian with various female vocalists. Just pipping Perfection As A Helper, this song showcases why I love the album, full of gorgeous, melancholic harmonies.

6. Cheryl Cole – Fight For This Love
I know some people (hello Naomi) fully despise Cheryl, but I’m happy to be swept away with the hype of loving her. Hooray for her pipping Nadine to a solo album. FFTL was unexpected and provided the opportunity for a wide range of new, fascinating dance with your fist type moves from the Talia camp.

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7. Jack Penate – Be The One
When Jack released his first album I wasn’t particularly interested in the jingly-jangly nature of it all. Who knows what happened before the release of album #2 (a long holiday in Ibiza?) but it’s euphoric, Balearic sounds were the surprise of the year. A blissfully uplifting song that featured the best use of trumpets since Mark Ronson got his hands on the instrument, and provided a brilliant moment at Wireless in Hyde Park.

8. Shirley Bassey – Apartment
I have absolutely no idea what this song is about. Written by Rufus Wainwright for the latest Shirley Bassey album, it’s entirely nonsensical. That said, the spanish guitars and a roaring vocal make it a quirky and utterly memorable oddity.

9. Rumble Strips – Daniel
I think I should have listened to the latest Rumble Strips album more but this is the song that stuck with me the most. That’s probably because I have a friend called Daniel and when we’re talking about him I like to belt this out. I feel like I want to sing it while standing on a windswept bridge in the rain. Dramatic and dastardly.

10. Lily Allen – Not Fair
A funny, silly, even stupid little song that captures everything we first loved about Lils. It causes a regular barn dance each week at Popstarz and provided a very odd moment with a bride and groom dancing and singing it to each other when I, retrospectively inappropriately, played it at a friend’s wedding.

Special outside the top 10 loving goes to Never Forget You, Bulletproof, Flashback, Empire State of Mind, Battlefield, Warm in The Shadows & Heads Will Roll.

Review: Black Eyed Peas – The E.N.D

Black Eyed Peas

Since the last Black Eyed Peas album four years ago, Fergie’s surprised us all by becoming one of the world’s most popular solo stars. Despite penning most of her album, Will.i.am had no such success with his own record, even if he managed to woo the UK by taking Queen Cheryl of Cole under his arm on Heartbreaker.

Now the pair are back with fellow BEP comrades Taboo and apl.de.ap for their fifth studio album. While Monkey Business was a fun party album, The E.N.D steps it up a gear and through the power of the mighty vocoder transforms the Peas into in your fave dancefloor creatures.

The dramatic Boom Boom Pow lays out the album’s intentions perfectly and with its “You’re so two thousand and LATE” snap gives us a brand new insult to throw out there. I Gotta Feeling practically screams it’s producer David Guetta from the off and fellow anthems Missing You and Rock That Body continue pummeling us with wild basslines and vocal snarling.

When it’s time to take a breath of fresh air from the all-night rave, Meet Me Halfway is there to show you what BEP doing a Coldplay song would sound like. Answer: very good. Fergie regains some of the softness she explored on Big Girls Don’t Cry on gorgeous love song Alive, but you’re advised to give her attempt at a Jamaican accent on the instantly skip-able Electric City a miss.

Daring and constantly innovative, the Black Eyed Peas have taken the techno/RnB door opened by Kanye West and flung it open wide.

Originally written for BBC Music

Review: The New Yorkers, Lilian Bayliss Theatre, Sadlers Wells

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Musicals come and go. The lucky ones get turned into films and are immortalised. Everyone’s heard of Oklahoma!, Anything Goes and Guys and Dolls. But what about Allegro, Nymph Errant or Greenwillow? No, us neither.

Since 1989 Ian Marshall Fisher has been a one-man musical preservation industry, every year dredging up unfairly forgotten shows by the great writers of the early 20th century and labelling them the Lost Musicals. His latest project at Sadler’s Wells (Sundays until April 26) is Cole Porter and Herbert Fields’ 1930 society satire The New Yorkers. What hits you first is the minimalist approach. Smartly decked out in evening dress, the company files onto a brightly-lit stage – empty apart from a row of chairs. Each clutches a black folder containing the script. There are no props and only piano accompaniment. It’s almost like watching an early BBC radio drama recording. But the performances themselves are boisterous, especially from the remarkable Michael Roberts in a role originally taken by Jimmy Durante.

There’s a negligible plot: wealthy young New York socialite falls for shady nightclub owner and ends up organising a jailbreak when he is busted. This being the Prohibition, there are plenty of jokes about alcohol and the lengths people will go to for it, including an entire song, ‘Say It With Gin’. The links between the revue-style numbers and story are sometimes tenuous, but sometimes that helps: after one particularly rowdy comedy routine, Corrie Mac steps forward and sings ‘Love for Sale’, Porter’s great, sad song about a prostitute. The effect is devastating.

What’s most surprising though is how funny the show still is. Yes, some of the contemporary references are missed, but the acidic swipes at the uber-rich, the justice system, and above all lovely ‘liquor’, still have the power to raise a laugh. If something as classy as The New Yorkers can be lost, what other musical marvels might still await rediscovery?

The New Yorkers plays each Sunday at 4pm until April 26. Full details here. If you only see one show this month, this should be it.

Review: Metro Station – Metro Station

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If Billy Ray is your Dad, Miley your little sister, and you want to have a career in rock music, you’d have to come up with something pretty amazing to be taken seriously. Latest Cyrus on the block, Trace might be trying to do just that as part of Metro Station, but their debut album leaves us feeling distinctly underwhelmed.

Originally released in the US back in 2007, it’s taken two whole years for the Metro Station sound to hit our shores. In that time similar sounding but much better bands like Shiny Toy Guns, The Answering Machine and Stefy all failed to make any impact at all over here. So what is it about Metro Station that makes them different?

Their first UK single ‘Control’ might have fizzled by without anyone noticing but it’s the 2nd, ‘Shake It’, that’s made us sit up and pay attention. Powered by a huge sing-a-long chorus that would have any dancefloor stomping and chanting along to. It’s a power pop, almost Disney, version of the darker emo sounds offered by labelmates Fall Out Boy. Similarly the gloomier ‘Wish We Were Older’ has a brilliantly goofy ‘Woah-e-o-e-o’ hands in the air chorus. The problem with both these songs and perhaps the rest of the album is that they seem to be built entirely to support the chorus with the verses being utterly unmemorable. Indeed songs like the twinkly ‘California’ and dreary ‘True To Me’ easily merge into the background.

Utterly harmless, Metro Station have shown they have the potential to write a killer hook. Their debut album is just not the showcase for that talent we were hoping for.

Review: Ronan Keating – Songs For My Mother

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Ahead of Mother’s Day each year albums designed to appeal to your mum trot out in stores around the country. As well as dabbling with a Boyzone reunion, 2009 is the year for Ronan Keating to make his mainstream comeback starting with a release of ‘Songs For My Mother’.

This, his fifth studio album, is a collection of covers recorded by Ronan with a live orchestra. It’s no rapidly chosen covers album though; instead it’s a group of songs Ronan remembers his mother, who he lost to cancer at the height of his success in 1998, listening to throughout his childhood.

Covering songs as cherished as Don McClean’s ‘Vincent’ and Joni Mitchell’s ‘Both Sides Now’ is always going to aggravate fans of the original but on the whole, Ronan manages to create careful versions filled to the brink with emotion. Bob Dylan’s ‘Make You Feel My Love’ crackles with tears, popular Celtic folk songs such as ‘Carrickfergus’ and ‘The Wild Mountain Thyme’ are tender and the orchestral arrangement of Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Time After Time’ adds an extra layer of euphoria coupled with the sadness of the lyrics.

Only a cold heart could refuse to be moved by the gentle ‘Mama’s Arms’. Originally performed by American singer-songwriter Joshua Kadison, the heart tugging lyrics must have been hard to Ronan to sing, his voice cracking on the beautiful line ‘all you want is mama’s arms’. The mood is only ruined somewhat by the suddenly jolly ‘Suspicious Minds’ and echo-heavy cheese fest cover of R Kelly’s ‘I Believe I Can Fly’.

It would be easy to thrown scorn on ‘Songs For My Mother’ but instead it’s a sweet, and surprisingly enjoyable compilation of gorgeous songs. Perfect to show your mother how much you care.

Originally for Orange Music

Review: Taylor Swift – Fearless

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Taylor Swift is a Nashville girl. She’s very nice, very sweet, and not one bit a popstar designed to work over here. Everything about her is so very American that her long stay at #1 in the States comes as no shock. But Taylor having a big hit in the UK? No chance.

How wrong we were. Instead of drifting by, Taylor has captured the hearts of British teenagers with her slushy songs. Her first UK hit ‘Love Story’ is a simple tale of girl meets boy, falls in love and later gets swept away by her Romeo. There’s a subtle difference from the American original – a lack of twangy bassline. In fact ‘Fearless’ has entirely been slightly tweaked to zap out the country vibes and make her more palatable internationally.

The teenage audience is really the key to her success though. At 19 she personally knows the emotions of teenage girls, a knowledge she demonstrates perfectly on Fifteen singing “when you’re fifteen and somebody tells you they love you, you’re gonna believe it” or when chastising her boy feeling on the feisty ‘Tell Me Why’.  It’s sickly sweet at times, none more so than in the schmaltzy ‘The Best Day’, an ode to her parents in which she labels her mom “the prettiest lady in the whole wide world.” Pass us the sick bucket.

Yet if you can get over the syrup, Taylor’s music is packed with delicate melodies and an idealised view of romance despite protestations on ‘White Horse’. “Fearless” could easily be described as dreary and inoffensive, but if you connect with her lyrics, then she could be the very person to help guide you through your first love.

Review: Starsailor – All The Plans

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Since Starsailor first burst into the mainstream in 2001, most famously declaring ‘Your daddy was an alcoholic,’ singer James Walsh’s voice  has become an immediately recognisable part of the UK music scene. Now on their 4th album, returning after a considerable break, the best new band to come out of deepest, darkest Lancashire this decade are back with ‘All The Plans’, another brilliant slice of indie pop realism.

Having moved record labels and inspired by all the ‘rights and wrongs’ they’ve experienced in the last few years, lead single “Tell Me It’s Not Over” showcases compelling harmonies and an emotive vocal that sizzles with passion. Reminiscent of Coldplay’s “The Hardest Part”, it’s just as epic and makes a strong impression as the album’s opening track.  ‘All The Plans’ and the yearning ‘Boy In Waiting’ have a similarly epic quality and capture that essential festival anthem spirit with hints of Oasis creeping into James Stelfox’s bassline on the title track.

Equally there’s a honesty in Walsh’s voice that makes the gorgeous ‘The Thames’ feel like a genuine insight into his broken heart.  Despite sounding like it could soundtrack a Western, were it an instrumental, lyrics like ‘the birds & the bees, the leaves on the trees, die all at once, now that you’re gone’, coupled with a compelling belief that his girl will one day be back in his arms, crackle with heartbreak.

Starsailor have unfairly become a band most people sneer at but “All The Plans” has recaptured that special something that made debut album “Love Is Here” so exciting. Whether it’s too late to change people’s opinions remains to be seen, but were we not so bothered by the ‘cool’ factor, there’s no doubt the songs on this album show an anthemic return to form.

Review: Mongrel – Better Than Heavy

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When Jon McClure first bound onto the music scene, he was full of endless optimism. Originally a writer for the Arctic Monkeys, the Reverend (of Reverend and the Makers) was convinced that his left wing politics could be put to music and make a difference to the world. Sadly after just one album he became disillusioned with the music industry and formed Mongrel releasing ‘Better Than Heavy’, their debut album, for free via The Independent.

Pulling together Joe Moskow from The Makers on synths, Drew from Babyshambles on guitar, London rapper Lowkey, Arctic Monkeys drummer Matt Helders and former Monkey Andy Nicholson on bass to form a grindie supergroup was presumably his attempt at a multi-skilled masterplan. Yet the mid-way position between grime and indie, the aptly name Mongrel can’t help to fail to excel in one particular field, instead falling somewhere into the middle under adequate.

Sometimes, when paired with a brilliant bassline, McClure’s politics make sense. In ‘Lies’ we’re told “the whole country is full of lies, you’re all gonna die, I don’t trust you anymore” and ‘Barcode’ offers up a chilling warning of the human race being ‘a commodity, we will quantify’. Yet sometimes, his lyrics can move too far towards preaching with the listing of oppressed countries such as ‘Lebanon, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Darfur, too many to name,’ in the otherwise brilliant ‘The Menace’, sometimes being too hard to stomach for your average music fan.

A good effort for sure, but ultimately ‘Better Than Heavy’ leaves us yearning for the catchy tunes and daily life descriptions that made Reverend & The Makers debut so special. We admire the message but can’t help but feel we’d rather have The Reverend back in his very own church.

Pussycat Fail

Pussycat Dolls

Pussycat Dolls: MEN Arena
29 January 2009
**

If there’s one thing you’d expect from a Pussycat Dolls concert it’s a performance to put most acts to shame.  With their burlesque background, these five women should be able to fill a stage and excite. So what went so wrong at their Manchester ‘Doll Domination’ date that meant solo support acts Lady Gaga and Ne-Yo utterly stole the show?

Arriving astride shimmering motorbikes, Nicole and her gang took to the stage suitably attired in barely-there tartan outfits gyrating their way through much loved singles ‘Beep’ and ‘Buttons’.  With furious routines, we can forgive them for lip synching but when it came to should-have-been #1 ‘I Hate This Part’ we expected a little more.  That is, of course, until it burst into a hilariously over the top hi-NRG remix – a strangely fascinating tactic later employed again on the similarly slushy ‘Stickwitu’. When the mics were on there were mixed results with only Nicole managed to sounded perfect on the powerful ‘Halo’. Plus whoever thought that a segment of each member performing solo tracks was a good idea needs to be removed immediately from the world of pop.

This wasn’t the only mistake. A dull video backdrop and ungainly stairs left the stage feeling empty and flat.  Despite regular disappearances, costume changes were far and few between, and save for a raunchy routine to a sultry cover of ‘I Will Survive’, the girls naughty spirit that gave them their edge seemed confined to a sequined top.

Only when the encore of ‘Dont’cha’ mixed gleefully into Robin S’s Show Me Love’ and recent single ‘When I Grow Up’ arrived, did the dolls finally seem to perform with the zest and charm we expected. Disappointing, but perhaps only because we know they can do so much better.

(Originally published at Orange, written in a nice fashion rather than my actual horrified beliefs – at one point I went to the toilet and walked back the long way just to kill some time)

Fall Out Boy – Folie A Deux

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Following on from the stats grabbing initial review of the new Fall Out Boy album, this was the review that was actually published back in October. It’s about to be finally released.

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Could Fall Out Boy be any more perfect? They make songs you can stomp along to, give us the eyeliner hotness of Pete and have donated $50k to a pro gay marriage campaign. Three hoorays from Attitude. French for ‘shared madness by two’, ‘Folie A Deux’, might be more thoughtful but remains packed with melodramatics that leave us pondering just how amazing an FOB musical would be.

Lead single ‘I Don’t Care’ steals a glammy beat from ‘Spirit in the Sky’ and almost sounds like a Xenomania production with campy ‘oohs’ sandwiching a dark chorus. With special guests including Pharrell and Debbie Harry popping up,  Elvis Costello delights on ‘What A Catch, Donnie’ – born to soundtrack the moment that goofy boy everyone laughs at has a Tyra style makeover becomes the fiercest girl in school.  Although nothing can top last album’s ‘Gay Is Not An Acronym For Shit’, the boys would still win awards for song titles  with the random likes of ‘Disloyal Order of Water Buffaloes’ and the creepy, epic sounds of ‘Head First Slide Into Cooperstown On A Bad Bet’.

Though ’27’ might claim ‘We’re all just fucked’, the anthemic (Coffee For Closers) stresses that ‘change will come’. Released on US Election day, Folie A Deux is ultimately the sound of a frustrated generation looking for a way out.