It was Dr. Pepper that did it. Promising a free can to everyone in America seems to have embarrassed Axl Rose in a way that the multi-million dollar ‘hurry-up’ payments and tales of chicken coops in the recording studio did not. And with a cheery “what’s the worst that could happen?” Chinese Democracy was released in November, a mere 15 years after Guns N’ Roses’ previous effort.
And 2008 seemed to be the year of the comeback for aging rockers, with new material from The Verve, Paul Weller and Oasis, along with news that Britpop rivals Blur are to reform. In pop, Britney and Boyzone returned, with varying degrees of success, while Snap’s Rhythm is a Dancer blasted its way back into the charts, presumably on the back of Brains from Thunderbirds pulling shapes around bottled water.
But most of all, 2008 was a great year for quality, well-written pop, with new-comers Katy Parry and Alphabeat laying down the challenge to established acts. So much so that picking 10 songs of the year out of songs that have made the top 40 takes a huge amount of whittling down. This is why I can’t bring myself to agree with Phil Seaman that the late 2000s have been devoid of pop classics.
If anything , it was the first few years of this century that were awash with the flotsam and jetsam of the 90s disposable culture – Crazy Frog, Eric Prydz, Cheeky Girls, DJ Sammy – and which have been in marked decline since. The nadir for Phil, 2006, may prove to have been the turning point, producing a couple of belters from Nelly Furtado, Say it Right and All Good Things, a storming return from Take That, Patience, and my vote for song of the year, Rihanna’s SOS. In a further blow to the ubiquitous TV star-makers, Leona Lewis’ valedictory single was outsold by little-known Gnarls Barkley.
There are a couple of reasons for the resurgence. The first is that taking downloads into account give a much better picture of what people are actually listening to. Previously, singles were only bought by tween-agers and DJs, skewing the charts towards saccharine boy-bands and dance/garage/happy house. Downloads have brought tunes back to the people, and tunes means pop.
Second, and maybe as a reaction to pop’s return to prominence, more has been invested in writing and production. Whilst in the 90s and around the turn of the century a few pop tracks stand out, probably peaking with Genie in a Bottle, nothing from the period was as well produced as anything by Justin Timberlake, Rihanna, or Girls Aloud. Cry Me a River, from Timberlake’s first album is the first in a number of astonishingly well layered songs produced by Timbaland, a regular Rihanna collaborator, while Girls Aloud’s partnership with Midas-touched Xenomania has ensured competitors have been left in their wake.
Pop is suddenly a big business again and where there’s money to be made, record companies are willing to create the best product they can, whether this is by throwing money at big name producers – Timbaland, Dangermouse, Mark Ronson – or supporting the artists they already have in promotion (Lily Allen, Amy Winehouse etc) or totally new partnerships like Girls Aloud touring with Coldplay.
A word of caution though: pop may be back, but it will take a while to regain its lustre. The perceived decades of swill poured over the charts have damaged its good name, while labelling bad pop ‘manufactured’ has hamstrung pop innovators. Dismissing manufactured pop means waving goodbye to almost all Motown recordings and ignoring The King himself. And it’s important to recognise that just like any other human output, there is going to be more bad than good – the charts have always reflected this, despite what blinkered nostalgia tells us.
But with more time, money and respect now flowing towards pop, it seems a blow has been struck for intelligent, well-written music. And to celebrate here, in no particular order, are my picks of the 2008 top 40:
She kissed a girl and she liked it. We liked it too, but we liked this one so much more.
Funky, swirling hippy pop from New York’s most psychedelic twosome.
Sounding like an upbeat Robert Smith, the irony of Black Kids’ ace single is that it’s impossible not to dance to it.
Quite probably the best thing ever to come out of New Zealand, this is catchiness embodied
A great year for pop, a terrible year for commercial hip-hop outside of Kanye, Lupe Fiasco and the outrageously talented MIA.
Reinvented again, this time as a switched-on press-baiting starlet – perhaps a bit of wish fulfilment?
What’s pop without Kylie Minogue? Another slice of disco magic from the evergreen pop princess. Plus a funky as Hell remix from CSS.
Girls Aloud are the bellwether for girl bands and this track was probably their peak this year. There will be more to come from the girls.
Sound of the summer? Inescapably catchy from a band who do a mean cover of Girlfriend in a Coma.
Chairlift – Bruises Those chaps advertising iPods rarely get it wrong; here’s the best of the lot
Santogold – L. E. S. artistes Favoured by advertising moguls but yet to break the charts
Ting tings – Be The One Their best offering by a long chalk – crystalline 80s minimalist pop. Lovely.
Hot Chip – Ready for the Floor leading the way in accessible dance
Weezer – Pork and Beans Great song, even better video
And Will Nichols’ song of the year…
It seems churlish to blame Iceland for the credit crunch when they produce gems like Sigur rós. Við spilum endalaust is their best moment from the slightly disappointing Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust album. If the hairs on the back of your next aren’t standing up by the end of this you’re either not human or really, really bald.