50FootHead Chart Music.
Or, in full:
[very broad Nottingham accent] “AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAYYYYYYYUP YOU POP-CRAZED YOUNGSTERS, and welcome to the latest episode of Chart Music.” The man with the accent is Al Needham, who is interviewed about the podcast here. The collective of former Melody Maker journalists is (in order of appearance) David Stubbs, Sarah Bee, Taylor Parkes, Simon Price and Neil Kulkarni. Those links tell you what it’s about. They can’t really convey how consistently intelligent, insightful and riotously funny it is, or how 3-4 hours just flies by every time. Or how much swearing there is. The longest episode is 4 hours and 45 minutes – it’s also one of the very best so far.
Judging from the gender breakdown of pop-crazed youngsters supporting them on Patreon, most of the listenership is probably male. I suppose the subject matter tends to appeal more to men than women, and the humour can be quite laddish. However, as the youngest contributor is in her early 40s, and the median (including Al) is late 40s, it never even comes close to Unilad style “banter”. And yes, certain former TOTP DJs (18:55) are treated with due contempt (though, perhaps mercifully, THAT one has yet to be discussed).
As for what the hell it has to do with 50FootHead, well… In early summer I saw several people recommend it in the comments section here. I downloaded all episodes to date and started listening in mid-July. The first episode is much shorter than average, and clearly a podcast finding its feet. Episode two sees the debut of the most consistently witty contributor (Taylor Parkes). As an important aside, if you’ve never come across him before, start here, with a genuinely legendary book review. He doesn’t just nail his immediate subject but delivers a peerless indictment of 21st century Britain and celebrity culture.
The third episode is the first time the most frequent contributors (Parkes and Simon Price) are combined, and this is where CM really hits its stride, never letting up thereafter. I listened to the first 8 shows over the two weeks before starting the next stage of the walk, including #7 on the train to Bristol and #8 in my hotel on Thursday evening. It was ideal for long walks and perfectly-timed for me to catch up. Chart Music is inextricably linked to this five-day section of the walk especially. I get through another 13 of them before returning home.
It’s now my favourite podcast, I have listened to every episode at least twice, and heartily recommend it to any music fan who remembers Top of the Pops. A new episode dropping makes me grin like a little boy at Christmas. I have no idea whether there’s any overlap between distance walkers and lovers of Chart Music, or whether I’m in my own little Venn diagram here. But what the hell, it’s my blog. The CM podcast is going to be a staple of ‘My Listening Pleasure’ for a while to come, but this is the only blog post where I will pay an extended tribute. Fair?
“All right then, pop-crazed youngsters, let’s go all the way back to”…
LEJoG Day 23 (Friday 27 July 2018)
Chew Magna to Bristol – Clifton Suspension Bridge (9½ miles)
Cumulative: 317 miles
Facts: Time on walk: 2 hours 40 minutes. Average speed: 3.56 mph. Weather: Warm but breezy, some cloud. Nowhere near the forecast temperatures of over 35C.
Practicalities: The idea for this stage was to reach Ledbury by the end of the month, after four consecutive days’ walking from Bristol, starting on Saturday 28 July. Already booked to stay here on the Friday evening. It was convenient for my finish, about half a mile from the northern end of the suspension bridge. After the abandonment at Chew Magna, booked an extra night for Thursday so I could reach Clifton on the Friday. Train to Bristol Temple Meads on Thursday. Arrived mid-afternoon and spent the next couple of hours walking around Clifton and taking photos of the bridge. Evening meal at the hotel restaurant, then Chart Music #8 on the iPod.
Took a taxi to Chew Magna after breakfast on Friday.
Start: Cemetery gate, Chew Magna, 11:10am. End: Clifton Suspension Bridge (north side), Bristol, 2:15pm.
For today’s walk I was following the remainder of the SWSW route from Cheddar to Bristol. We start with a stroll through the cemetery and past the church. There are a few changes of direction in quick succession. But as long as you have a map you’ll find it difficult to miss the exit road (Hanny’s Lane). The first field is long but easily crossed. The second is shorter. I think I headed too far south before catching sight of the stile into Wells Road. The route through the next field and into Dundry is straightforward. As you reach the highest point on the walk just north of Dundry, Brunel’s* most famous design appears for the first time in the distance:
View of the rest of the walk, from… its highest position
(Clifton Suspension Bridge just below the horizon, just left of centre)
*William Henry Barlow and Sir John Hawkshaw should also be credited.
Descending the road from Dundry, you soon branch left into a field and head gently downhill to the A38. From here, proceed straight across the road and into Yanley Lane, which heads north towards the Ashton Court Estate. Though there are no verges, it is very wide and among the safest such roads for walkers. Had lunch just before the sharp right hand bend on the map.
You then skirt the suburb of Long Ashton before entering the Ashton Court Estate proper. This is probably the best part of today’s short hop – a pleasant half hour in the grounds of a stately home. Quite reminiscent of Wollaton Park, close to where I grew up. On the LDWA map of the route, the red line follows roads through Bower Ashton. I’m sure that doesn’t match what the Bristol Ramblers set out to do.
You will meet up with the red line again on Clanage Road (the A269). Walk on the right hand pavement. As it bends left and climbs Rownham Hill, the pavement runs out and it would clearly be dangerous to proceed, even facing traffic. Again the red line is inaccurate here: it continues to follow the main road. Instead, there is a clear path through the woods on the right, emerging on the S-shaped road which links Rownham Hill with the B3129. Turn right and, then right again into the B3129. The Clifton Suspension Bridge is now a hundred yards or so ahead of you. My route continues on the north side of the Avon tomorrow, so I walked along the full length of the bridge before stopping the Fitbit.
Looking eastwards down the River Avon, from the bridge
A closer look at the chains, from the northern end of the bridge
After the walk
Had an ice lolly in the nearby park – by now the mercury was creeping closer to 30C if not 35. Finished listening to the podcast before walking back to the hotel and getting changed. Had a meal at Pizza Express in Clifton. It’s a lovely area to walk around and easy to imagine living there. Well, at least until you remember the laws of supply and demand vis a vis one’s own wealth.
This place had a lot of very tempting guest beers. This week they included one of my favourite British discoveries of recent years, Titanic Plum Porter. Sadly, if not surprisingly, TPP had already run out. However there were plenty of other options, and I spent two hours in there. Kicked off with Thornbridge Halcyon (which I know well). Proceeded to sample Sierra Nevada Otra Vez and Stone Tangerine Express. Finished off with the exceptional Delirium Tremens (linked elsewhere on this page). Anyone checking the ABVs on those links will know that my attempt to listen to Chart Music #10 afterwards was doomed to failure.
While I was in the Mall, a proper British heatwave lasting the best part of two months finally broke with a refreshing thunderstorm and heavy rain. The forecast for tomorrow was changeable.
Postscript – My Listening Pleasure
WARNING: This is a long postscript! Feel free to move on to the tale of three motorway crossings, one river crossing and one severely delayed crossing of a cow-field.
The specific episode of Chart Music I listened to on the walk from Chew Magna to the Clifton Suspension Bridge was this one. Before that I listened to the iPod for a bit.
Here comes the really long bit
Finally, in honour of Chart Music, my version of a playlist that’s been doing the rounds on Twitter amongst similarly-inclined and generally lovely middle-aged people. For example this guy, who came up with the idea I think. Final warning: anyone who’s here purely for the walking and not bothered about 46 years of popular music, skip to Day 24 now. I enjoyed writing this section so much it became way longer than I expected.
The concept is simple: the best song in the Top 40 on your birthday, from your actual date of birth to the most recent. I should probably call mine ‘Perfect Balance’. Some years, including my actual date of birth, are very hard to decide and there are plenty of honourable mentions. I’ve added a second rule: no re-issues of old songs (hi, 1974). I think some people, including the originator, may also have avoided repeating a particular artist. Me, I just want the best song regardless.
Age (chart position in brackets): Title/Artist [peak position in square brackets]
0/DOB (15): Virginia Plain/Roxy Music . Honourable mentions for example: T.Rex, Simon and Garfunkel, Mott The Hoople, David Bowie, The Sweet, Michael Jackson. The full version of ‘Layla’ with the Goodfellas coda would have won had it not just dropped to no.42.
1 (12): Goodbye Yellow Brick Road/Elton John . Easy: always my favourite song of his by miles. Forever associated with this extraordinary piece of TV social history. Start from 1:05:20 – those who have seen it and understand the context might need a tissue handy.
2 (4): Kung Fu Fighting/Carl Douglas : The weakest birthday chart of my childhood. Without my second rule, one of the Motown re-issues (‘Baby Love’ or ‘What Becomes of The Brokenhearted’) would have won easily. According to my mum this was the first song I ever tried to dance to as a toddler. It is obviously one of the definitive ’70s No.1s.
3 (13): SOS/ABBA : The start of the greatest run of singles by any artist in my lifetime. From here to ‘Take A Chance On Me’ in 1978. The re-issue of Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’ (just in) would probably have edged it though. Incidentally, no apologies: I loved ABBA in the late 80s, before they became cool again in 1992 (Bjorn Again, Erasure‘s No.1 EP, ABBA Gold). Never in an ironic way. They’re just immense, which is why I don’t particularly want to see fine actors warbling their way through these incredible songs. Do I want to see Agnetha’s Sophie’s Choice, or Anni-Frid’s Mrs. Overall? No I do not.
4 (1): Dancing Queen/ABBA : HM to James Brown and Rod Stewart, but no contest. This is the greatest single by one of the greatest singles acts of my lifetime. One of the most objectively perfect pop creations ever. I recommend the Chart Music team’s discussion of its timeless sublimity here.
5 (33): Another Star/Stevie Wonder . Ludicrously brilliant freakout and final track on the non-extended version of Wonder’s Grammy-winning opus Songs In The Key Of Life. Also the favourite album of my favourite artist (Prince). Shame about my no re-issues rule, otherwise 1975-77 would be a consecutive run of the three greatest artists of the 1970s. Danced to this and the rest of the album here. He did a Prince medley and ‘Superstition’ afterwards. Possibly the greatest pop genius alive. He once made a record with one of his few serious rivals, but it wasn’t very good, was it?
6 (1): Summer Nights/John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John . Heh. This is where I’ll probably part company with the cool people, even those (like Team Chart Music) who are cool but also revel in the joy of pop. What else could I have picked: the Buzzcocks, Blondie, Jilted John, the Jacksons. And there are two other good Grease songs in there, i.e. the title track and ‘You’re The One That I Want’ (which I’m guessing most prefer to this). Yeah, I think every single other record I’ve mentioned deserved at least a week at no.1. But I don’t love any of them as much as this. It’s such a beautifully-judged pastiche, and it just makes me happy.
7 (7): Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough/Michael Jackson . I could probably write an entire blog post about this chart alone. And another one about the relationship between the public and this particular subject or between art and artist. It’s at this exact point that my interest in pop music exploded. In particular ‘Video Killed The Radio Star’ (no. 6) became an obsession and my first ‘all-time favourite record’.
There are a ridiculous number of fantastic records in this chart, and the number increases every week for the rest of the month. Here’s just some: Police, Blondie again, Gary Numan, the aforementioned Buggles, Frantique, Madness, Crusaders, the best Cliff Richard song made after 1962, Sad Café, Sister Sledge. On the way in: Chic, XTC, Earth Wind and Fire, ABBA in their second great singles run, Fleetwood Mac, Queen, Selecter, Jam…
BUT this – THIS – is one of the best things created by human beings in the late 20th century. And it will always remain so, regardless, if you know what I’m saying. The only solo record he ever did that rivals DSTYGE is ‘Billie Jean’. It was given its entirely appropriate dues here by Messrs Stubbs, Parkes and Needham. It helps that I’m a dancer, but I can’t get on board with anyone who thinks post-Thriller Michael Jackson ever got even close to this, sorry. (Not sorry)
8 (3): Baggy Trousers/Madness . Bit of a photo finish with the Police’s ‘Don’t Stand So Close To Me’ (no.1) and Stevie Wonder’s ‘Masterblaster (Jammin’)’ (no.4). It could have been a perfect birthday top 3 but for D.I.S.C.O. at 2. Which was of course the only one of those four the eight-year-old me actually bought… Ideally it would have been the divine magnificence of the follow-up, my favourite single of 1980, ahead of even ‘Atomic’. But you can’t have everything. WARNING: nostalgia overload.
9 (12): Tainted Love/Soft Cell . Another chart where it causes pain to overlook some amazing stuff. Two brilliant Human League records, Adam and the Ants, Madness yet again, Depeche Mode, Altered Images, even Dollar! But hey, as obvious as it is, for one thing it’s a phenomenal, career-making re-interpretation. And for another there’s only one 1981 record I like more than ‘Tainted Love’ and it hasn’t come out yet. Because its lead singer thinks it’s rubbish. [Belated edit: later covered in depth by Chart Music #42]
10 (36): Come On Eileen/Dexy’s Midnight Runners . Again, my second favourite song of the year, behind this. An old favourite from Day 4 would come close, as would the respective best singles by ABC and Culture Club. I know this song is an overplayed wedding reception staple, but the lyrics transformed it for me. It captures the universal in 4 minutes and deserved to sell a million copies in any era.
11 (10): Blue Monday/New Order [9*]. Not a re-issue: it entered in March and charted again in September. One of the easiest choices – nowhere near as many strong records around and it’s probably still in my top five records of the entire 1980s.
*the original, not the 1988 remix.
12 (39): White Lines (Don’t Don’t Do It)/Grandmaster Flash and Melle Mel . Lucky blighters: still clinging on for its 17th consecutive week in the Top 40, having peaked in July. A remarkable, daring, cheeky slice of genius – in common with many other songs from the first 25 years after punk and disco I don’t think I fully appreciated its greatness until I read This Is Uncool by Garry Mulholland. Yet another song that’s my second favourite of the year, this time behind, well, only the best by the best. Lots of unlucky songs in ’84, not least my third favourite ‘Purple Rain’ (at its peak). But HMs also for this (now take a cold shower…), George Michael, Giorgio Moroder/Phil Oakey, U2 and Kraftwerk.
13 (29): Into The Groove/Madonna . Actually I expected my teenage birthday choice to be this (no.36). No single Top of the Pops moment of my teenage years had a more instant and profound effect on either the hormones of the opposite sex or our general sense of what the pop video was capable of. Also, it may be overplayed now but ‘Take On Me’ remains a scintillating pop record. And A-ha the second best thing to come out of Scandinavia in the 70s and 80s.
But ‘Into The Groove’ must win, because it’s simply one of the most important records in my entire pop history. It was my second ‘all-time favourite’ record. It turned me from a Madonna sceptic into someone obsessed with her for the rest of my teenage years. I still love her 1984-90 period, plus ‘Ray Of Light’, ‘Music’ and ‘Confessions’. It reminds me of my first girlfriend, who could actually dance at the time. And, perhaps most importantly, that first verse and bridge is an eternal inspiration to an introvert who became a dancer in his 20s. In my dreams, the woman who sings this meets the man who sings this and they have the sexiest monogamous relationship ever. I truly love this song and always will.
14 (13): Walk This Way/Run-DMC featuring Aerosmith . And here’s one of the most important touchstones in the general history of late 20th century pop music. I would have chosen ‘True Blue’ at the time and remember being chuffed that it was my actual birthday no.1. There’s a lot of other good stuff: Communards, Paul Simon, Cameo and the Pet Shop Boys are all in the top 10, along with a contender for most criminally underrated single of the decade.
15 (3): Bad/Michael Jackson . Sadly this birthday falls in the fortnight between two imperial phase Pet Shop Boys singles, either of which would win at a canter. It’s doubly frustrating because my 15th birthday was literally the day I received my first ‘all-time favourite’ album, featuring both. Triply frustrating because Neil Tennant actually coined the phrase ‘imperial phase’. And quadruply frustrating because I don’t think the best group of my teenage years will have another strong contender at the right time of year.
In a weak chart I’m left with two. The first of which (at no.1) I hated at the time but have come to appreciate as another major touchstone. And the winner, which I bought and still like even though it pales by comparison to his own imperial phase (see 7). I also received its parent album on my 15th birthday, and that paled next to the Pet Shop Boys as well.
16 (12): A Little Respect/Erasure . Yeah, apart from ‘Teardrops’, this was an easy choice. The PSBs offered ‘Domino Dancing’, which would happen to be my least favourite single of their imperial phase… I do like the deadpan literalism of the ‘A Little Respect’ video and recommend literalist dancing to the chorus if you have the expressions, hand movements and speed to carry it off. Sole (of the shoe); eye; ear; point; hand to open mouth; finger and thumb in ‘o’ shape; rocking motion; pleading look; hand towards you; ‘a little’ as in charades; “respect me” face; two fingers; point at self.
17 (4): Drama!/Erasure . They’ve done it again! The band who filled a gap for me after the PSBs imperial phase ended obviously timed their releases perfectly. Slim pickings in this chart; I was even considering ‘We Didn’t Start The Fire’.
18 (11): Groove Is In The Heart/Deee-Lite . In This Is Uncool, Garry Mulholland describes this as his lifesaver if he were playing “some crazy DJ version of Russian roulette, where you had one chance and one chance only to make a roomful of disparate people dance or you die.” I’ve never seen a better description of the effect this record has on me, and many other people still getting funky to it on dance-floors 29 years later. PSBs maintain their status as perennial contenders with ‘So Hard’, and the Farm’s ‘Groovy Train’ is up there too, but neither is quite as de-lovely and delicious.
19 (39): Gett Off/Prince and the New Power Generation . Ah, my Freshers Week chart. Bloody Bryan Adams and ‘Wind Of Change’ at no.1 and no.2. Erasure with yet another contender. Right Said Fred. A week too early for the rave Twin Peaks of ‘Go’. Thank goodness for Prince, finally getting a nod (and ‘Cream’ would have been runner-up as well).
20 (9): My Name Is Prince/Prince and the New Power Generation . The odd gem aside (‘Sleeping Satellite’ for instance, and ‘Just Another Day’ by Jon Secada is one of the great exceptions to my general AOR-aversion) this is a piss-awful Top 40 and I ended up with a dead heat between this and the no.1. I have to choose Prince because this was the very week I bought both the Symbol album and Purple Rain and became a fan for life.
21 (23): Creep/Radiohead . ‘Go West’ by the PSBs would have won otherwise, and that really is their last chance gone. But here’s a modern classic with a reputation for being hated by the band who created it. Yet I’ve seen them six times live between 1997 and 2016 and they’ve performed it on four occasions. Including here (29:40): still the greatest live gig I have ever seen.
22 (36): Regulate/Warren G and Nate Dogg . Apart from the no.1, which I spent some of my 22nd birthday dancing shamelessly to with all the moves and everything, all the best records are on the way down. ‘Voodoo People’, ‘Confide In Me’ and ‘7 Seconds’ would have been worthy winners. But to my surprise and delight, the sublime ‘Regulate’, which I associate with high summer, was still in there. You don’t want one of the most frustrating radio edits ever inflicted on human ears, and you don’t want the PG version.
23 (2): Mis-Shapes/Sorted For E’s And Wizz/Pulp . WAHEEEYYYY! BAN THIS SICK STUNT! I bloody love every single thing about Pulp. The preceding single, which you may know, is (drum roll) my current and probably final ‘all-time favourite’ record. But – and this is absolutely non-negotiable – it has to be the full version with ‘Like a dog… wonder why’. Otherwise it’s just about Himalayan, but certainly not Everest.
Different Class is my favourite album released since I was born. And this is the best double-A side of the 1990s, and probably has the biggest winning margin of any choice so far. Honestly, for a really good pop year, this week was diabolical, TLC notwithstanding. Intelligent, honest outsider anthem b/w intelligent, honest outsider view of rave culture. I just think the world was better when people like Jarvis Cocker were around to provide satirical comfort. We felt like we were winning.
24 (36): Born Slippy .NUXX/Underworld . I looked 7/8 of the way down this chart assuming the no.1 was unbeatable. And then the best record of the year turned up in its final week in the Top 40. Here’s why, although ‘Born Slippy’ originally came out in 1995, I am not breaking my re-issue rule. Everyone associates ‘Born Slippy’ with Trainspotting, and in particular the most inspired piece of film soundtracking since Scorsese’s ‘Layla’ (see 0/DOB above). Final word: I genuinely don’t think there has been a better British single made by anyone in the 23 years since this came out. Final final word: the no.2 in this week’s chart is always the first song that comes to my mind if someone asks for ‘worst record ever made’ nominations.
25 (15): The Drugs Don’t Work/The Verve . Quick smile to myself about this title coming up right after the Trainspotting anthem… I much prefer Bitter Sweet Symphony, which reached no.2 behind a far inferior record (the way of things in the 90s). Never understood the fuss about Urban Hymns and regard its Brit award for Best Album ahead of OK Computer as a travesty right down there with Dances With Wolves v Goodfellas at the 1991 Oscars. But frankly this chart is so unspeakably dreadful that the only other song I even like was a Jam re-issue. I regard 1997 as a fantastic year for music, but the singles I most associate with early autumn (‘Elektrobank’, ‘Bentley’s Gonna Sort You Out!’) had already entered and disappeared within a fortnight.
Many have written already about this single marking the end of Britpop as a cultural force. The standard thesis is, step by step:
Be Here Now comes out, it’s bobbins. Then Princess Diana dies. This song is released for the first chart after her death, so it goes to no.1. But then ‘Candle In The Wind 97’ is released and becomes the best selling single ever. The next no.1 is by the Spice Girls. And then there’s a genuinely astonishing spike in singles sales during which six more* singles each sell a million copies in under three months. All of them being about as far from Britpop as it’s possible to get. One week before Christmas, five of these six singles made up the Top 5, with ‘Torn’ at 8 and Elton still at 10. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a period in which one culture was so swiftly and completely destroyed by another.
*’Barbie Girl’, ‘Torn’, ‘Perfect Day’, ‘Never Ever’, ‘Teletubbies Say Eh-Oh’, ‘Angels’
‘Torn’ and ‘Never Ever’ are better than The Verve as well.
26 (6): Doo Wop (That Thing)/Lauryn Hill . The most honourable of mentions to this, but I knew there would be only two contenders for 1998, and both by women. Which is refreshing, because as someone with enormous fondness for all sorts of girl-pop, I’m amazed the only female voices in this entire list so far have been Agnetha, Anni-Frid, Olivia Newton-John, Madonna and Lady Miss Kier from Deee-Lite. The other contender (which would have won, actually) dropped out of the charts last week and is here. Also, along with ‘Cannonball’, ‘Loaded’, Smells Like Teen Spirit’ and ‘Born Slippy’, that one makes up my top five of “YES!!!!” songs from 90s indie dance floors. Anyway, Lauryn Hill. Feminist but sexually egalitarian rap that would destroy almost any rap record made this decade.
27 (40): Sing It Back/Moloko . I’m writing this ‘live’ without checking ahead, so I can’t be sure, but my suspicions are that this sudden trickle of female voices will become a flood in the 2000s. Again the only other contender was performed by a woman (Alice Deejay). This is twenty years old and still glorious: danced to it at a silent disco in Paradiso, Amsterdam as recently as September 2018.
28 (20): Groovejet (If This Ain’t Love)/Spiller featuring Sophie Ellis-Bextor . See…? I don’t know if it’s even possible to evoke a summer holiday more perfectly than this, one of the most joyous, justified No.1 records of its decade. It had just been no.1 when I had my only ever fortnight in Ibiza, which helps. But I’m not sure context or time and place even matters all that much. It’s just awesomely done. I could be fighting through Pennine rain and if this came on I’d still think it was beach time. A far better chart than we’ve seen in several years as well.
I’m most upset about not being able to pick this (no.9) because ‘Groovejet’ is ahead only by the length of the gorgeous Sophie’s eyelash. ‘Overload’ was a moment of staggeringly precocious originality which opened so many doors as to what was possible for girl groups in the 2000s. However the band responsible will definitely come around again, whereas this is Ms Bextor’s only moment in the sun.
29 (1): Can’t Get You Out Of My Head/Kylie Minogue . Not quite: actually, she has one of the three other contenders in 2001. And again, the future is entirely female. As well as Sophie’s ‘Take Me Home’, there was this and this, both co-written and produced by Dr. Dre. But I am not arguing against Kylie. I don’t even rate her that highly: I loathed or barely tolerated her early S/A/W work, apart from one track which only a true snob could hate, kind of enjoyed her post-Hutchence stuff, loved this, and ignored most of the rest. But ‘Can’t Get You…’ is, exactly like ‘Groovejet’, one of the most undeniably brilliant No.1 singles of the last 20 years. And in this case, seasoned with one of the most unforgettable pop video aesthetics of the last 40.
30 (25): Round Round/Sugababes . Is this a flood yet? I want to shout with joy here the same way I shouted about Pulp turning up in 1995. The Sugababes (by which I mean any iteration including Keisha Buchanan) were, alongside Girls Aloud, the best thing to happen to British music in the 2000s. Well, except when they came together to record my 14th birthday choice, which was horrible, but for charity.
I was a total Britpop kid, but you cannot even register my lack of interest in the landfill indie which replaced it, whereas here we have women working with genuinely innovative writers and producers and generating some of the most delirious sugar rushes of my adult life. Talking of which, this is Xenomania‘s first no.1 single. There are 7 Sugababes records I would have put at no.1 – wonderfully, 5 of them actually got there. This is probably the weakest, actually. But it was so good to prove that ‘Freak Like Me’ (the best) wasn’t a fluke chart-topper dependent on ‘Are ‘Friends’ Electric’. And it was still way ahead of everything else in my Top 40 at 30.
31 (2): Sweet Dreams My LA Ex/Rachel Stevens . Yeah, I think Noah’s rounding up the animals now. First thing to say is that THE best single by a woman THIS CENTURY had only just dropped out of the chart after 3 months (it was no.40 last week). You can’t win ’em all. This is a perfectly serviceable British substitute, miles better than anything S Club 7 did (yes, including ‘Reach’) and it deserved to knock the Black Eyed Peas off the no.1 slot. At least until the cavalry arrived again two weeks later.
32 (40): Lola’s Theme/Shapeshifters . They went in two by two… Kind of cheating. Female voice again, but a male house duo were behind this club anthem that had been no.1 in July and was enjoying its last week in the Top 40. One of the more interesting cogitations of recent years, with other floor fillers ‘I See You Baby’ and ‘Mymymy‘ coming close. Beforehand I expected the winner to be this, which had only just been no.2. But that’s not even one of their ten best songs. Better they’re represented by something else. Finally, we were one week away from giving serious consideration to some unapologetic, heady filth.
33 (1): Push The Button/Sugababes . The last time we see original member Mutya Buena on a Sugababes single, and it’s my personal bronze medallist behind ‘Freak Like Me’ and ‘Overload’. It’s such a simple, almost basic, song, elevated to something wondrous by two things above all. Primarily by Keisha’s Clifton Suspension of a bridge. Plus a hook scientifically proven to be more addictive than strong Belgian beer (the most addictive vice known to me, never having been a smoker). ‘Don’t Cha’ (just knocked off), ‘Dare’ and ‘Pon De Replay’: well done and thanks for playing, but you were up against the masters here. So the Sugababes join ABBA, Michael Jackson, Erasure and Prince with two songs in the playlist.
34 (17): Chasing Cars/Snow Patrol . What kept ya, guys? More surprises here: I expect a great chart in 1997 and it’s dire, I thought little of 2006 and it featured three of my top five and four of my top seven singles of the year. The other contenders, for the record: ‘Sexyback’, ‘Hips Don’t Lie’ and ‘I Don’t Feel Like Dancin’.
You can read about the huge general impact of the winning song here. I understand the criticisms of songs like this, but (and this is an enormous but) I think so many people have been able to find their own meaning in these lyrics, and I’m one of them. ‘Chasing Cars’ feels to me like the aural equivalent of The Shawshank Redemption: of course you can set your heart aside and pick holes in it, yet it’s helped a remarkable number of people out of their own private holes.
It is very difficult for me to listen to this song with any objectivity. On a personal level, 2006 was the worst calendar year of my life. This is the soundtrack of lying in a bed in a private psychiatric hospital (and yes “if I just lay here” brings that back instantly), a week after the last stag do I ever attended and around a month before I was sectioned for the second time. Indeed there’s an actual birthday connection. I was supposed to attend the groom’s wedding on my 34th birthday. Instead I texted him from my hospital bed to apologise for my non-attendance that very morning.
But the song is also, for reasons I won’t go into here but may cover in the ‘Head’ section, an affirmation of my mother’s faith that I would one day get better. And this is the first time I’ve had a tear in my eye during this run of songs.
35 (32): Umbrella/Rihanna featuring Jay-Z . For what I think is the first time, my three favourite singles of the year are all in the chart on my birthday. This means I can’t pick Girls Aloud (no.26) or the last unequivocally great Sugababes single and their biggest seller (no.1). So, fighting it out for silver (I change my mind weekly) we have ‘Valerie’ and ‘With Every Heartbeat’.
‘Valerie’ is a much-missed singer at a seemingly effortless peak and was one of the first records I danced to after recovering from my illness. Something as unusually structured and melancholy as ‘With Every Heartbeat’ reaching no.1 restores your faith in the British public. It’s also the best late-period ABBA song Andersson and Ulvaeus never wrote, and praise comes no higher. But ‘Umbrella’, well… it’s an absolute behemoth. There are only six or seven songs from the 2000s I like more, including ‘Don’t Stop The Music’, the ‘Into The Groove’ of my recovery period. And she might be the most heart-breakingly beautiful pop star ever to walk the earth.
36 (38): Sweet About Me/Gabriella Cilmi . Three weeks away from GA’s best No.1 single, so it looked set to come down to two massive No.1s from Katy Perry and Kings of Leon. But what’s this? A re-entry at no.38 for my favourite song of the summer, seemingly everywhere as I travelled all over Europe via train and boat between July and October. And yes, it’s another Xenomania production. They just ruled.
37 (2): Empire State Of Mind/Jay-Z featuring Alicia Keys . I’ll let you into a slightly embarrassing secret. During the year between recovery and being allowed back to work (the week before this birthday, as it happens), one of the things I did to fill the time was to compile my top 10 singles for each year, going back to 1963. I haven’t revised them for five years and have used them as a guide during this playlist. I have yet to go against them… until now. Four of the top ten are in this week’s chart, and my winner for the year was ‘I Gotta Feeling’ (no.5). Which I haven’t renounced as a banger, but it does seem over-rated in retrospect.
The other two great songs in this chart feature Jay-Z again (with a stunning guest vocal from Rihanna, kicking off her own three-year imperial phase) and his wife (performing a song that’s far from her greatest but still sounds like a smooth Belgian praline in musical form). ‘Empire State Of Mind’, however, is the true landmark record here and the only one that sounds timeless ten years later. It spent almost a year in the British charts, fuelled in part by the release of Alicia Keys’ own version, which itself ended up staying around for more than a year.
Incidentally, this is the first time I can’t link the video. Because whatever Jay-Z’s other problems, he always ensures YouTube copyright violation ain’t one.
38 (11): Love The Way You Lie/Eminem featuring Rihanna . The best-selling single of 2010 in the UK, even though it was somehow blocked from reaching no.1 by four different records. Also in my view the best single. Eminem created what remains my favourite single of this century and quite possibly my favourite UK No.1 ever. This, however, was the first thing he’d done since ‘Lose Yourself’ that I had any time for. You can tell he’s raised his game from the first line. Rihanna, straight off her most critically-acclaimed album Rated R, was about to go absolutely stratospheric, releasing four million-selling singles (including this one) in little over two years.
Given the obvious subject matter of the song, Rihanna’s appearance was inevitably linked to her history with some worthless unmentionable. ‘Window pain’ notwithstanding, both she and Eminem sell the shit out of this:. It’s a real tour de force and one of the main reasons I got excited about chart music again for a few years even in my late 30s. Hon mensh to ‘Airplanes’ (B.O.B. ft Hayley Williams) and ‘Higher’ (lightning in a bottle from the band Al Needham might call “Shakin’ Girls Aloud”, the Saturdays).
39 (32): Someone Like You (Live At The Brit Awards)/Adele . Also the best-selling single of the year, except this one got to no.1, obviously. What else is there to say here? A genuine, out of the blue, communal landmark of modern popular culture and instant folk memory that made her career in just over 5 minutes. I don’t even think the studio version of the song, shorn of that Moment, is all that great. Rolling In The Deep is her masterpiece, and one of the many ‘travesty’ number two singles in my lifetime (‘Grenade’ by Bruno Mars? Really, Britain?). But, two days before Rihanna would conquer all again (alongside Calvin Harris) with the biggest seller of her career, ‘Someone Like You’ was easily the best song in this chart.
40 (4): Skyfall/Adele . Around this age, many people will be struggling to find anything they like in the chart. I’m still enthusiastic and it isn’t difficult at all. ‘Diamonds’ (no.1) isn’t peak Rihanna but it’s the last of her singles I truly liked, and if this (no.2) doesn’t at least make you smile then I don’t even wanna know you. My choice edged what was pretty much a dead heat with this, a classic ‘song I love by an artist I really don’t’.
‘Skyfall’ is splendid, so far superior to that excruciating Sam Smith dirge that – appallingly – went one better in 2015 and became the first Bond theme to top the UK charts. I’m not even an Adele fan, and she’s the biggest surprise on the list of artists with two picks. In particular it’s remarkable that the supreme artist of the last 20 years hasn’t appeared, either solo, with her husband or with her trailblazing girl group. And although she’s about to reach her critical and artistic peak, her singles chart positions won’t reflect that at all (see 44/2016 below).
41 (15): Summertime Sadness/Lana Del Rey vs Cedric Gervais . Still not hard to find contenders, though I am disappointed that the best song of the year by a very long way, and one of the best this decade, had only just dropped out to no.45. Anything that rejuvenates the career of Nile Rodgers, while sounding simultaneously Chic and contemporary and inspiring people to go back to his phenomenal legacy, warrants the highest praise.
Pharrell Williams, meanwhile, was casually outdoing Rihanna with three million-selling singles in nine months. I haven’t checked, but I suspect only the Beatles can beat this with three in seven months in 1963/64. Including a song we might describe as “problematic”. I loved it at the time without ever taking it seriously and poor old #Thicke soon made a bit of an arse of himself without much help from #MeToo. It was one of two possible choices for this birthday and I played them next to each other in order to decide. ‘Blurred Lines’ sounded a bit naff to be honest, while ‘Summertime Sadness’ isn’t quite ‘Video Games’ but is one hell of a driving song and has stood the test of time significantly better than “what rhymes with hug me?”
42 (3): Shake It Off/Taylor Swift . Yet another of those travesty number twos. I don’t have strong feelings about anything Taylor Swift did before or has done since, but 1989 is a genuinely tremendous pop album and the soundtrack of my last three months of unemployment in early 2015.
There are better songs than ‘Shake It Off’ on there, notably the irresistible, self-satirising ‘Blank Space’ and best of all (from the deluxe version), ‘New Romantics’. A song I’m only slightly less enthusiastic about than Rob Sheffield, it is surpassed as the great non-hit of the 2010s only by Beyoncé’s ‘Partition’. No shortage of other fine pop songs in this chart either: Pharrell’s ‘Happy’ is still there, as are ‘Problem’ and two Body Pump classics: best warm-up track ‘Break Free’ and best cool-down track, the awe-inspiring ‘Chandelier’.
43 (25): The Hills/The Weeknd . Competing only with his own ‘Can’t Feel My Face’ in the weakest birthday Top 40 this century. Honourable mention to another Body Pump track: ‘Peanut Butter Jelly’, from the days when Les Mills knew how to choreograph great lunge workouts without switching legs every two seconds.
44 (21): This Is What You Came For/Calvin Harris featuring Rihanna . Now firmly into an era where I only know chart songs from trusted artists, Body Pump and occasional music television/Radio 2. So, with all necessary caveats, I quite liked ‘The Greatest’ (from two trusted artists, Sia and Kendrick Lamar), ‘Starboy’ (The Weeknd and Daft Punk; also from Body Pump) as well as ‘Can’t Stop The Feeling’ (Justin Timberlake, with a song known from driving home after walks listening to Radio 2’s All Request Friday with Simon Mayo). My vote nearly went to ‘Cheap Thrills’ (Sia again, this time with Sean Paul).
But in the end, it’s RiRi for a third time, with the warm-up from Body Pump 100, also heard in one or two clubs during my European holiday in September 2016. Most annoyingly, Beyoncé’s peerless Lemonade album came out in 2016, but its singles never stuck around long enough to qualify. Any one of ‘Formation’, ‘Hold Up’, ‘Sorry’ and ‘All Night’ would have taken a baseball bat to everything in this chart but reached numbers 31, 11, 33 and 60 respectively. As Al Needham might say, “Fucking British cunts.” Just look at her…
45 (8): What About Us/Pink . My interest in chart music fell off a cliff after 2016. So now we’re in an era where I thought I’d look at the chart and say “I’ve heard of that but can’t sing it” and decide between just those four. Played them twice each to try and be fair.
In reverse order: ‘Despacito’ is just crap. ‘Look What You Made Me Do’ had an interesting verse and bridge but a forgettable chorus and a wasted middle eight. ‘Havana’ showed promise but shot its bolt too early and nothing much happened in the second half at all. The best of those four was ‘New Rules’, but even that never took off like my favourite single of 2017, ‘Green Light’, and its chorus brought back unwelcome memories of ‘We No Speak Americano’. So I scanned the chart again, found another Body Pump track, listened twice and decided it was much better than the original four. Years of being appreciated but not adored, for stuff like ‘Most Girls’, ‘Just Like A Pill’ and ‘So What’, finally pay off for Pink.
46 (4): Electricity/Silk City and Dua Lipa . Even my 2017 policy failed here: I’d heard of absolutely nothing in this birthday chart. Ended up reviewing the year’s Top 45 singles from Popjustice and Top 50 from the Guardian to see if any appeared, and then listening to those. I trusted those sources because their overall winner on points (3rd for PJ, 2nd for the G) was the same as my favourite single of 2018: this beauty, which those “f***ing British c***s” took all the way to no.74 (Shatner’s Bassoon handclap). This completed a triumvirate of great 2010s singles which got absolutely nowhere (see 42/2014 for the other two). ‘Electricity’ won very comfortably, and in Dua Lipa’s case it neatly makes up for her losing the recount in 2017.
Appendix: “I Got New Rules“
So what would the playlist look like if I adopted the strict “one song per artist” rule? There are two ways of approaching this: 1) Ensure the best song by each duplicated artist is retained at all costs or 2) Consider the overall quality of the playlist. So, if a combination of the artist’s second best song and the runner-up to the artist’s best song is better than the combination arrived at from sticking to alternative 1), go with that.
The best illustration of the difference in approach is 2007, where ‘Umbrella’ is both Rihanna and Jay-Z’s best song on the list, but ‘Valerie’ and ‘With Every Heartbeat’ are so far superior to the runners-up from 2009 and 2010 that it might actually improve the playlist to keep both ‘Love The Way You Lie’ and ‘Empire State of Mind’ rather than ‘Umbrella’. I then just have to pick one of Mark/Amy and Robyn, which is hard.
Here goes anyway… Years that would have to change only. Alternative 1 is given first, then Alternative 2. For ease of reference, the acts with more than one pick are as follows:
3 Rihanna (35, 38, 44); 2 ABBA (3, 4), Michael Jackson (7, 15), Erasure (16, 17), Prince (19, 20), Sugababes (30, 33), Jay-Z (35, 37), Adele (39, 40).
3 (1975): ‘Dancing Queen’ is superior to ‘SOS’, so ’75 has to change. My top tens dictate that Rod Stewart’s ‘Sailing’ takes over. However, method 2 offers another possibility: Roxy Music’s ‘Love Is The Drug’ comes in for 1975 and their ‘Virginia Plain’ is replaced with ‘Children Of The Revolution’ by T-Rex (clearly better than ‘Sailing’) in 1972.
15 (1987): It’s no contest between ‘Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough’ and ‘Bad’, so ‘Pump Up The Volume’ automatically steps into the breach as the only other plausible candidate. No Alternative 2 necessary.
17 (1989): ‘A Little Respect’ is their finest single and so clearly the better Erasure choice, but there isn’t much in 1989 I fancy over ‘Drama!’. I have to go with ‘We Didn’t Start The Fire’. I don’t think there’s too much doubt that the Alternative 2 choice of ‘Teardrops’ over ‘A Little Respect’ is a net gain on Erasure/Billy Joel though.
20 (1992): ‘Gett Off’ is the better Prince single, leaving me with ‘Ebeneezer Goode’ for 1992. I can’t make much of a case for anything from ’91 which, in combination with ‘My Name Is Prince’ would be superior to ‘Gett Off’ and The Shamen. Monty Python’s ‘Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life’ comes closest.
30 (2002): The weaker Sugababes single (these things are relative) appears in one of the poorest charts. I would have to pick ‘Just Like A Pill’ (Pink), which has several knock-on effects. It means I can’t have Pink in 2017 and would pick Dua Lipa instead, but in turn this means I can’t have ‘Electricity’ in 2018 and would be stuck. I’d probably just have to swallow ‘Havana’ in 2017. Alternative 2 looks better: ‘Round Round’ with ‘Don’t Cha’ from 2005, though losing ‘Push the Button’ is a shame.
37 and 38 (2009/2010): Jay-Z’s appearance on ‘Umbrella’ eliminates ‘Empire State Of Mind’, and ‘I Gotta Feeling’ steps up. A year later ‘Love The Way You Lie’ concedes its place to ‘Umbrella’: the best alternative is ‘Airplanes’. However, as demonstrated in the intro to this appendix, choosing ‘Valerie’ or ‘With Every Heartbeat’ is a better idea. I go with ‘Valerie’, just. Then again, Mark Ronson is half of Silk City (46/2018), so even if he’s not credited it might be a cheat. Easier to go with Robyn while losing nothing in terms of quality.
40 and 44 (2012 and 2016): ‘Someone Like You’ (live) is better than ‘Skyfall’. The loser in the 2012 photo finish, ‘Spectrum (Say My Name)’, is the obvious replacement. Calvin Harris’s credit on ‘Spectrum’ would force out the 2016 winner. However, this would be knocked out anyway due to Rihanna’s vocal, regardless of whether I kept ‘Umbrella’ or ‘Love The Way You Lie’. So, in both cases the obvious solution is choose ‘Cheap Thrills’ in 2016.
Apparently some people are trying to do this with albums as well now. If I do so, it’ll be private and not on here…! I have 24 days’ walking to catch up on and spent a week on this birthday bonus.
Picture (taken 28 July 2018, near the start of Day 24’s walk) shows Clifton Suspension Bridge, from the high ground just below Clifton Observatory.