I’m ready to hibernate with Annie’s new album. It’s the perfect dose of introspective pop.

It has been an amazing year for pop music. This year we have had releases from Dua Lipa, Lady Gaga, Jessie Ware and even Kylie Minogue is about to release her Disco record in November. There has been a pattern with these albums. All of them share a sound palette that is upbeat, direct and irresistibly melodic. They are albums that provide a simulacrum of a dancefloor, as the real thing has had to surrender to the pandemic. Norwegian singer/songwriter Annie hasn’t followed suit. Her first album in over a decade, Dark Hearts, provides some much-needed space for reflection.

I can understand why many artists have increased the BPM on their records this year. Or how many female artists have peppered their albums with disco references. When we were first in lockdown, pop music was a source of entertainment. Saturated by the news, the uncertainty of what was going to happen and our new work from home set up, pop music was what we used to navigate ourselves through all the chaos. It gave us pleasure. 

On Dark Hearts, Annie ditches her trademark leftfield, often tongue in cheek approach to pop (Chewing Gum and I Know UR Girlfriend Hates Me). There are fewer remnants of previous albums Anniemal and Don’t Stop. There aren’t any pop heavyweight producers like Brian Higgins and Richard X. Instead, it’s a much more capacious record, produced by Stefan Storm from The Sound of Arrows.

I like Annie’s new direction. It feels appropriate for the autumnal backdrop as we head into winter with a pandemic still in full force. More interestingly, it reflects the shift from our initial optimism that the pandemic would be over in a few months, to the sad reality, that unfortunately, it is around to stay. 

I am not saying that the albums I mentioned earlier have lost their power, and without a doubt, I am excited about the new Kylie record, I just feel that Annie’s new album with its relatable nostalgia and introspection fits in perfectly with the world’s current emotional state. 

The Streets Where I Belong has echoes of Bruce Springsteen, the 80s influenced track that documents the story of Annie meeting her first love. Forever 92′ additionally perpetuates this message, with a bit more oomph, it’s faster, slightly more euphoric at times, but it still has its pathos. It is in an interesting track nonetheless, The Cocteau Twins inspired guitar at the start could be from a different song altogether.

Dark Hearts also reinforces the notion of the present moment. Despite the bulk of the album being about Annie’s past and her sentimental retrospective of falling in love, the death of her boyfriend and her return to Norway tracks like In Heavenand Stay Tomorrow look at the opposite. There is, therefore, a slice of optimism on this album, perhaps what we would normally expect from Annie.

There is also room for fantasy, and many of the songs possess a cinematic aura. Lead single American Cars sounds like a snapshot from the film DriveMermaid Dreams drips in a seductive spoken-word monologue before becoming a wave of electroclash as it intensifies in its instrumental towards the end. Corridors of Time is this haunting recollection of the ghost of an old love. Melodic enough to be likened to Abba due to the presence of a chorus, then again, it’s the arpeggio of the guitar that renders it more experimental.

I do think that Annie’s sentimental record feels more nostalgic because I associate her with my own nostalgia. I discovered Annie in 2004. I remember feeling triumphant as if I’d discovered a pop secret nobody else knew about. When I think back to 2004, I think of freedom. I think of earning money for the first time and sneaking into pubs in Manchester, hoping that I wouldn’t get caught drinking half a lager and black in the ominous, Picaddilly Tavern which was the closest bar to my bus stop.

Nostalgia is often seen as a dirty word. Many see it as a form of weakness, or at least in the pantheon of self-help books.  I feel as though the pandemic has made us embrace nostalgia more than ever. What we once took for granted no longer feels banal, normality has never looked so appealing. The reaction to Dark Hearts will not be as instantaneous as Chromatica by Lady Gaga or Future Nostalgia by Dua Lipa, but it is an album that reveals another side to pop, and more importantly, another side to Annie.

 

THE ALBUM DIARY/2006/MUSIC/MEMOIR

As a curious 19-year-old, I was never aware of how much this album would make sense right now.

My album diary 2006: Fundamental by Pet Shop Boys

By 2006, I had changed dramatically. I always thought it would have been university that would have changed me, but it wasn’t. It was the world that was opening up around me as a consequence of being at uni. As I mentioned in the last instalment, I had become acquainted with the Manchester nightlife scene and now I was about to move in with my friends. The nucleus was definitely music and for the first time ever, we were all interested in each other’s music tastes.

One of my fondest memories of this time was buying CDs. Singles and albums in 2006 had an entirely different meaning. It was the thrill of walking into Fopp or HMV and seeing something you wanted at a reduced price. Walking around with stacks of CDs asking one another “should I buy this? I only like one of the songs on there”. I am often nostalgic for these times. 

Most of my friends probably think that the Pet Shop Boys are my favourite band. To an extent they are, but in 2006, I was still getting to know them. Looking back now, I was more drawn to Neil Tennant. Seduced by his lyrics, his monosyllabic yet articulate singing voice, his intellect and the fact that he started his career in music at the age of thirty-one. It is insane to think that people would describe the Pet Shop Boys laconically. Two men who wear strange hats, or the duo with the silent member who stands behind the synthesizer in a wig. 

Tennant has always pioneered lyrics that incorporate enough of the zeitgeist so that many Pet Shop Boys albums can be listened to like a novel. They consolidate the importance of pop music, providing a time capsule for their listeners, rather than something ephemeral.

Last year, Neil Tennant published a book of his lyrics, the appropriately titled One Hundred Lyrics and A Poem. To read such a book is an interesting one as the melodies have eclipsed the words somehow, making the lyric subsequently a secondary force in their music. As I progressed through the book, that started to change. Tennant included many lyrics to songs which have not surfaced as singles, perhaps to promote the fact that he is indeed an incredible lyricist. You might think, how do we quantify an incredible lyricist?

Well, reader, it goes back to my argument that I mentioned earlier. The Pet Shop Boys are synonymous with the likes of West End Girls and Go West, but have a look at the lyrics to Love Is a Bourgeois Construct and ask yourself the question, where have you seen Marxist rhetoric in a pop song before? The lyrics were inspired by the novel Nice Work by David Lodge, in which a factory worker falls in love with a university English professor. I remember being at a house party in Manchester, feeling slightly like a wallflower when an old friend of mine once took my hand and said: “Liam, Neil Tennant is basically Morrissey, but a disco version”.  Someone agreed with me.

My trajectory as a Pet Shop Boys fan began with their 2003 greatest hits collection, Pop Art. I remember hearing Flamboyant, which was the lead single from that album and being instantly drawn to it. I probably didn’t even understand what the word flamboyant meant, but I wanted to know more. My brother Martin is a Pet Shop Boys fan. He mentioned their album Nightlife, but at the time, it felt too much like a house album for my electro-pop appetite. I hadn’t been to a club at this time as I was only sixteen and fresh out of a school uniform and my GCSE curriculum. 

Nightlife, however, did a get a second look thanks to Kylie Minogue’s Showgirl tour in 2005. She performed In Denial with Tennant’s vocal beguiling and persuasive amongst the pink cowboy hats and the screaming waves of Kylie fans at the M.E.N Arena. I hadn’t realised that In Denial was an album track off Nightlife.

It was their 2006 album Fundamental which became my first earnest Pet Shop Boys album. After years of listening to their back catalogue, I was about to experience having a PSB album in real-time. I bought Fundamental impulsively in HMV in Leeds. With my loyal Sony Discman, I started to preview the tracks on the coach back to Manchester. A rainy Chorlton Street bus station clashed beautifully with the song The Sodom and Gomorrah Show.  

It was a Trevor Horn produced album, who many have described, as the man who defined the eighties. Starting off as one half of The Buggles, he has subsequently established himself as one of the most innovative producers we have seen. Horn’s repertoire boasts orchestral productions, to Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s Relax and he also produced All the Things She Said by the Russian duo Tatu.

Sonically, Fundamental is the consequence of the hurricane that was electroclash. Both Tennant and Lowe remixed many songs that were played in nightclubs such as Nag Nag Nag and so the impetus for this record was for it to be electronic. The antithesis perhaps to their 2002 album, Release. In addition to its being an electronic album, it was indeed going to be a directly political album.

As a nineteen-year-old listening to it in 2006, I could never imagine how this album would feel seminal in 2020. There were obvious winks to the Blair/Bush relationship in the lead single I’m With Stupid, but who would have thought that the song Indefinite Leave to Remain would make perfect sense in a post-Brexit Britain?. A love song that uses the document that affords the individual the right to remain a permanent resident in the UK as its source of inspiration.

It is by far one of my favourite Pet Shop Boys songs and one of my favourite loves songs ever written. The matter of fact lyrics and now, its meaning more vivid and more significant than ever. Tennant wrote that song under a Labour government. Now, we listen to it under the leadership of Boris Johnson and his cabinet who have made immigration a priority as part of their political manifesto.

Other songs present this Orwellian image of the world. Integral talks about surveillance, a Big Brother society, contextualising the advent of ID cards that were once being discussed by the government. The idea of safety and security which was a consequence of 9/11. In Twentieth Century the lyrics go “well I bought a ticket to the revolution and I cheered when the statues fell” hitting more than the tip of the iceberg at recognising what happened post 9/11 and the consequence of the Blair war on Iraq.

Fundamental portrayed a socio-political landscape that on the one hand may look foreign to us now. It is Tennant’s acute observations embedded amongst the electronic theatrics of the record that highlighted a possible future existence. The album provides us all with something to reflect on.

Another example could be how smart phones have monopolised our lives. Social media hadn’t reached its zenith in 2006, but it was certainly climbing the stairs towards it. Most of my friends and I used MySpace. In retrospect, there was something just as hierarchical and political about that platform. Perhaps it was less narcissistic as Instagram, but the infamous top friends list which would change like a fickle barometer. Whoever had the coveted number one spot status on the list received immediate kudos and publicity.

2006 will always remain a significant year for me. It was a year in which living away from home provided the type of freedom and independence I had never experienced before. Our house, with its basement of opportunities, an energy that still felt adolescent. A fearlessness that is now anchored by responsibility and domesticity.  There was still an essence of innocence around which began to feel like an interloper in my life as 2007 arrived.

DUA LIPA: FUTURE NOSTALGIA REVIEW

Dua Lipa’s second album, the flawless Future Nostalgia is the best pop album since the noughties. I dive deep into some pop history whilst celebrating this significant pop moment.

BEFORE I EVEN begin to look at Dua Lipa’s new album, Future Nostalgia, I think it is only fair to cast our minds back to the years 2000 to 2010. This was the decade where earnest pop monopolised our musical landscape. From Pink’s Missundazstood, Kylie Minogue’s Fever and then Confessions on a Dancefloor by Madonna. Post-2005 saw Britney’s Blackout and of course, the incarnation of Lady Gaga and The Fame Monster. Throughout this time pop had one objective, to entertain. 

Dua Lipa brought the release of Future Nostalgia forward in an attempt to cheer people up. It’s being branded as the official quarantine album, but the undertone to her message is that during these dark times, pop music is the antidote. If I were Lipa, I’d feel a certain sense of schadenfreude, other artists have postponed the release of their albums. She has managed to release, promote and even perform live thanks to social media. Where there is a will, there’s a way, showing us all how popstars work from home.

In all its 37 minutes, Future Nostalgia takes you out of your ‘work at home bubble’ and forces you to not only dance but bow down to what I believe is the finest collection of pop songs we will hear this year. The singles have only affirmed such a cocksure statement. It is hard to objectify what makes a decent pop song, but with the likes of the disco romp of Don’t Start Now and the electro-pop delight of the 80s inspired Physical, there’s no denying that these are songs that become embedded in your brain that even hypnotherapy wouldn’t help. The flawless trajectory of singles included the album’s title track in which she presents herself as ‘a female alpha’. Recent single Break My Heart keeps up the retro-sounding continuity thanks to its main melody referencing INXS’ Need You Tonight. The song builds around the famous hook, before piling out melodic brilliance after melodic brilliance, the bridge is this stunning crescendo and the middle 8 dreamy ‘oohs’ wink at the disco theme that consolidates the bulk of this record.                                                                        

Cool tones things down, with its 80s sounding synths, it is also heavily influenced by its co-writer, Tove Lo. You could see it as a ballad against the rest of its up-tempo counterparts. Dua’s voice manages to combine a stunning sense of vulnerability whilst simultaneously demanding attention and personifying authority. Hallucinate is an echo of how pop songs used to sound. By that I mean lyrically interesting, melodic yet powerful enough to fill a dancefloor on a Saturday night. The song is almost like a retrospective to those anthemic songs from the noughties. Taking us back to the pop lexicon of the likes of Kylie’s singles from Fever and Girls Aloud’s more high energetic moments like Something Kinda Ooh.  It is arguably the standout track on the album. Thanks to Dua’s falsetto in the ‘no, I can’t live without your touch’ pre-chorus, with echoes of Donna Summer.

Pretty Please excels in its simplicity. Co-written by Julia Michaels, it orbits around Dua’s lascivious lyrics, every now and then it is joined by the occasional appearance of some synthesisers, to keep our feet tapping along.  Love Again is the longest track on the album, over four minutes. Its orchestral introduction quickly unfolds into a sample of the 1997 track Your Woman by White Town. The track is sophisticated. Spearheading this new disco-inspired era for Lipa. Its melodies are intelligent and seem to appear behind every corner.  It has winks to Girls Aloud with the idiosyncratic lyric ‘I’ll sink my teeth in disbelief’.  Levitating glistens with the album’s disco blueprint, it comes equipped with an infectious rap section in which Dua talks about rockets and dancing her ass off. 

Future Nostalgia kicks off a new decade in pop. One that hopefully brings back the sincerity of producing songs to entertain. I understand Gaga delaying Chromatica but releasing an album of this standard whilst we are in quarantine is a smart move. We turn to entertainment at such precarious times. Good pop unites. It’s been twenty years since pop shifted on its axis. I am talking the arrival of Kylie’s Spinning Around. But as Lipa sings ‘did a full 180’ , here is to the popstar who is definitely taking us in the right direction.

https://open.spotify.com/playlist/6nB0ZJcesrDo9aYjENDcJm?si=3EHBvg14RRCAH9-hHF-4CA

THE ALBUM DIARY/2005/MUSIC/MEMOIR

A rather romantic look at what Supernature, Goldfrapp’s most commercial album means to me, fifteen years later.

My album diary 2005: Supernature by Goldfrapp

By 2005, Goldfrapp had become my favourite band. When their second album, Black Cherry, was released, I was hooked on electronic music. I was also hooked on their song titles, Hairy Trees and Deep Honey to give you an idea. It was their song Strict Machine that caught my eye before my ears. I remember saying to my brother “Martin, they’ve got a song called Strict Machine, really?”. I couldn’t quite believe it. Goldfrapp’s songs have always contained a strong visual message. Similar to Prince or Kate Bush, this relentless poetic mystery in a song’s title. An attention-grabbing promise. Something theatrical in a pop landscape.

For Christmas last year, I was given a limited-edition purple vinyl of Black Cherry. The same brother who got me into Goldfrapp reminded me that this year is the twentieth anniversary of the band’s debut, Felt Mountain. As I return to listen to a group which punctuated my late teenage years, my early twenties and now mid-thirties, I realised how imbued their music is with memories. Even though Supernature isn’t my favourite Goldfrapp album, I can’t deny how significant 2005 was. An album which became the official soundtrack to probably the most exciting part of my life. Turning eighteen and heading to university to study English.

Supernature was spearheaded by the glam rock throb of the lead single, Ooh La La. It flirted with Bolan’s slap on vocals with a video to rival the 70s band. It possessed both a British eccentricity whilst slipping in a reference to Baudelaire. French poets aside, it sounded like an after-party to Black Cherry. A binge of Numan- sounding synths on Slide In and Koko. How both Goldfrapp and Gregory are erudite songwriters thanks to the melodies of Ride A White Horse and Fly Me Away. To the romantic yet lascivious ‘howl under the moon’ lyric in Number 1.

It was an album that my friends grew to love. As we all started our university degrees in our native Manchester, we were discovering a side to our hometown which was new to us all, its nightlife. After a month of starting university, Manchester introduced itself to a melting pot of dive bars, underground discos and an alternative scene that made us reject the mainstream nocturnal playground. The problem with many places in Manchester was that they were trying to emulate the past. The result was a carbon copy of the Madchester era. Knowing that there were clubs playing electroclash and an alternative to ‘funky house’ that was monopolising the gay clubs.

One club night, in particular, was Tramp. Tramp was held at the Bierkeller, a now-obsolete venue in Piccadilly. I remember walking past it and thinking how rough it looked from the outside. Little did I know it would be the place where I would discover so many iconic and important songs that designed my youth.

The club itself had a pretentious quality about it. In a pre-Instagram era, it was the eyes of Manchester’s fashionable scenesters who instantly decided whether you were cool or not. It was also a place where I saw people taking drugs for the first time. Opening my eyes to another layer of the clandestine world.

At 18, I was still finding out what my personal style was. I had grown my hair in 2004, so I must have looked as if I was trying to look ‘indie’. As 2005 progressed, I chopped my hair off and started to style it with a quiff. Thanks to my dear friend Jenny, who was studying a degree in fashion, I discovered vintage clothes and that changed everything.

Clothes made me confident. Clothes made feel like I could say something. I didn’t feel attractive, I didn’t feel that people fancied me. Clothes connected me to the music and that was my main goal at that age. 

After many nights at Tramp, it began to feel like our place. I’ll never forget how the dancefloor was empty until they played Being Boiled by The Human League. From that song, our fate was in the hands of the DJs from Tramp. They were earnest when it came to electronic music. I knew a little about bands, but as you have read from my previous album diaries, I felt like a pop kid still. I may have been dancing to obscure 14-minute remixes of the group Can, but I was listening to Madonna on the way to university with my hangover the next day.

My Supernature journey dominated my first term at university. I became less and less interested in my studies and more attracted to music. I began to frequent music shops across Manchester’s Northern Quarter. Places like Piccadilly Records and Vinyl Exchange, spending my money on anything that had synthesisers. I never pretended to know about music. I would always ask the Bob Dylan music snobs who worked there if an album was “really electronic”. Very few would react, mostly with a nonchalant shrug of the shoulders.

I now had three Goldfrapp albums and also their visual trajectory too. Yet, she needs no introduction whatsoever, my ultimate muse was Alison Goldfrapp herself. I love the imagery and art direction for the Supernature era. The Marlene Dietrich inspired poses, the relentless jumpsuits and not to forget that strange phallic-looking image in the Supernature album booklet. 

I was drawn to her strength. I was drawn to her outstanding repertoire as a vocalist. I was drawn to her contrarian disposition in interviews. She was an idol of mine. She still is, but now I appreciate her more, a sort of teacher/student relationship. Back then, however, I wanted to be her. 

Jenny and I went to see the Supernature tour live. It was a standing gig at the Manchester Apollo and, as two formidable fans would have been, we got to the front. I was curious to see if the crowd would be dressed like a Goldfrapp fan. I mean, I wasn’t expecting something as elaborate as a horse’s head, but I was expecting something theatrical. What I did notice was a more mainstream crowd. Writing that sentence makes me slightly nauseous as I sound terribly arrogant. Before Alison appeared on stage, I thought to myself how people were here simply for Ooh La La.

Supernature wasn’t my album, it was everybody’s. I did take real pleasure in seeing many bored faces as she opened with Utopia. A pugnacious look planted itself on my face thinking that these new Goldfrapp fans aren’t going to know this song. Every time she and her band performed an album track or a song from Black Cherry or Felt Mountain, Jenny and I screamed with joy. We wanted to prove to Alison that we were genuine fans.

Alison possessed a strength that rendered you weak at the knees. Whilst she was performing Satin Chic, I still claim to this day that she looked directly at us, before providing us with a grimace only she could make look sexy. I have tried to copy it many times. Let’s not go into that.

It was my first Goldfrapp concert. It was one of my first concerts at the Manchester Apollo. In retrospect, Supernature has played such an instrumental role in my coming of age story. To write this piece, I revisited the album and all its glorious moments. I even unpacked this era further by listening to the B side All Night Operator. To this day I still believe that it should have made the album. I also think the live studio version to Ride A White Horse remains unsurpassed in the world of electro-pop. I can only end this piece how Alison would, so cheers!. 

A hair salon in London is now offering ‘silent’ hair appointments in an attempt to encourage good mental health. This may offer a solution to our overstimulated lives. Britain is more burnt out than ever.

The news that a salon in London is now offering ‘silent’ hair appointments has been a revelation. On the one hand, it seems like such an obvious idea as we live in a world where people turn to a salon for some much-needed downtime. The concept of small talk certainly isn’t synonymous with relaxation. However, on the other hand, it is also a significant milestone in the landscape of British culture to request this type of appointment. As a nation of well-mannered folk where politeness is championed over individual needs, this is a step in the right direction.

According to the salon in London, this new approach to dealing with their clients is to allow people to choose how they want to be treated. It offers a more bespoke appointment experience, meaning that the client no longer has to endure the archaic “are you going on holiday this year?”.

Promoting good mental health is essential, people are working harder and longer hours than ever, and the rise of people being ‘burnt out’ has increased. Over 595,000 people suffered from workplace stress in the UK alone according to some government statistics in 2018. People should have a right to remain silent if it means they can simply have time to themselves. Surely this would only improve our current relationship with exhaustion. The problem isn’t just exhaustion. It’s our unreserved commitment to being available. A society built on strained necks thanks to our Smartphones has manipulated our cognitive behaviour into believing we must reply immediately to things.

With the advent of this one salon offering silent appointments, it could have a chain reaction for other salons to follow suit. Whether people decide to opt for a standard non-silent appointment or one free of conversation, what is important is that there is a choice. What is important is that as people we can recognise that individuals need some time out.

Despite thinking about the client, it also made me think about the needs of the stylist too. Relentless small talk for them would equally be as exhausting. I am sure if their next customer requested a silent appointment, for them it would be a feeling of professional rest bite. 

But I feel there is another aspect that is coming to the surface. British people aren’t known for asking for what it is they want. As a nation, we are praised for our manners and politeness, however, this can often be an issue when we need to be open and honest about what we want. Choosing a silent appointment with your hairdresser may appear as something innocuous, nevertheless, it is the first step in expressing our authentic selves. If we can request something that may appear as superficial as a silent hair appointment, perhaps we can say that we are not feeling ok or perhaps we can change the unwritten rule that we are not available to be contacted after office hours. 

Small talk for me is something that was ingrained in me as a child. Being a northerner, it is inevitable that I don’t mind chewing the fat about the weather. I am no stranger to sharing a compliment here or there and this has only been accentuated through living in Spain. Going to the hairdressers for me was less of a relaxation process, but more an opportunity to be part of a cultural conversation.

My favourite barber, Bernado, provided me with insightful conversations which subsequently felt that I was wrapped in my own spa date. As we conversed about Fleetwood Mac, Spanish politics and running, it was one of the USPs for me to frequent his salon. It wasn’t a silent appointment per se, but it did allow me to disconnect for a while. Since then, I have never really had another hairdresser who has provided me with much conversation. Perhaps it is something reciprocal, a wave of reluctance on my part as I often find myself dozing in the salon chair. 

On the other hand, back in June this year, I managed to not say a word whilst the rest of the barbers were making all the noise. In the heart of Chueca, I was given a charcoal face mask as a way to inject a feeling of relaxation. My soundtrack, however, was not a prescription of Enya, it was the musicality of the Argentinian hairdressers. I admired their ability to multitask. They were able to cut hair, gossip and manage to catch many a glimpse of their reflection in the mirror. Even if I had wanted a slice of small talk, in that salon, thanks to my tight face, I wouldn’t have been able to. Maybe the mask was a way to silence their customers, a type of gag so that they could discuss their love lives without unnecessary interruptions.

QUEER EYE DIDN’T LEAVE MY DRY-EYED

I have never really watched Queer Eye as I often find such programmes terribly repetitive. I have, however, devoured the latest dose of the Fab Five as they’ve taken their show to Japan. The tenderness of Tan and Jonathan completely seduced me. I also thought it shone a light on how we rarely see Japanese people expressing their true emotions. My favourite episode is the one with Yoko. An eccentric nurse who lost her sister to cancer. It will indeed make you cry, and, in my case, it gave me an impulse to start baking.

MUSIC: FIVE REASONS WHY DUA LIPA’S NEW SINGLE IS THE PERFECT POP SONG.

With its nod to a more disco-sounding Dua Lipa, Don´t Start Now may just be the years most exciting pop offering. Here are five reasons why.

1. THE PERSONNEL

Don’t Start Now is penned and produced by the team behind her breakthrough single New Rules. Sonically, the result couldn’t be any more different. Dua’s comeback is a nod to disco with its string arrangements and a more organic instrument-led production. This reinforces the importance of a solid songwriting team. 

2. THE MICRO MELODIES

Any memorable pop song should have an array of melodies that satisfy the hunger until the chorus makes an appearance. Don’t Start Now has many. From the wink of the pre-chorus “If you don’t wanna see me dancing with somebody”, to my favourite use of melody writing with the line “I’m not where you left me at all”. Much to my delight, the latter is repeated as an isolated one-liner.

3. THE PERFORMANCE

Due to the way singles are now distributed and released and the monopoly that YouTube has as a platform, the idea of a TV performance can often seem obsolete. Back in the day, we had to wait for CD: UK or catch a GMTV performance before we were meant to go to school, how times have changed. Dua’s EMA Awards performance thanks to its memorable simplicity only heightened the exposure of this song. 

4. THE LYRICS

Pop lyrics often get overlooked and the melodies are what people remember. However, when a song begins with “Did a full 180”, the listener can’t help thinking that Dua Lipa is actually telling the truth. She has evolved. The mastery is also in the chorus “Don’t start caring about me now”, a good songwriter knows how to make a simple line more nuanced. Play with pauses and syllables if you are an aspiring songwriter.

5. THE SIGN OF THINGS TO COME

A comeback single should be an aural aperitif before the main course arrives. Don’t Start Now is only a preview of what Dua has up her sleeve for her sophomore album. 

MUSIC: THE FORGOTTEN XENOMANIA ‘COULD HAVE BEEN’ HITS

Girls Aloud and Xenomania monopolised the pop landscape in the noughties, but Brian Higgins and co are also responsible for some of the best lesser- known pop anthems.

 

MADE OF GLASS-KYLIE MINOGUE

One of the biggest mysteries in pop music is the fact that there isn’t a Kylie/Xenomania album. They have worked together on her single ´Giving You Up, but an album has never materialised. Highlights from their collaborations include the incredible ´Mighty Rivers´ which eventually found its home on the Japanese edition of her Aphrodite album. The sultry electro-pop thrill of ´Lovin´You´ which wouldn’t have sounded out of place on her X album, however, it is definitely one of Kylie´s more leftfield tracks.

´Made of Glass´ triumphs over all of these songs. It was the B-side for the ´Giving You Up´ single. Very few songs lyrically throw in the adverb “naively”, or the spoken word whispering rap of “bohemian boys and Brazilian girls”. Additionally, it was a Kylie co-write with Xenomania. I am keen to know who came up with lines about doing things in the darkness and in the cold. Sonically, it has echoes of New Order´s ´Krafty´ at times. It is heavy on a more guitar-led melody, but enough synthesisers to have made it a contender for her Body Language album. The song paints a quieter Kylie, but the melodies of this song trump many of her subsequent album tracks (No More Rain and Cosmic) for example. 

NOTHING GOOD ABOUT THIS GOODBYE- RACHEL STEVENS

Rachel´s ´Come and Get It´ album in 2005 provided some of the most idiosyncratic pop songs of that year. In fact, 2005 was probably one of the best years for pop music. Madonna´s ´Hung Up´, Sugababes released ´Push the Button´ and as the clocks went back in October, pop went forward in the form of Girls Aloud´s ´Biology´.

Sadly Stevens´ sophomore album didn’t have the desired effect commercially as it sold badly. The fourth single, subsequently scrapped was the Xenomania produced electro ballad ´Nothing Good About This Goodbye´. Originally written and performed by Alexis Strum,whose version is far slower than Rachel´s reinterpretation, is one of the catchiest songs on her album. A moody synth-led, midtempo ballad, with its euphoric chorus and the 90s guitar moan for its middle eight. Having listened to this song thousands of times, I just wish it had been longer in length. As the song fades the appearance of a piano playing the chorus melody should have been extended, the song itself should have been a single rather than ´I Said Never Again (But Here We Are) ´. It was the wrong single choice that led to the demise of this pop ‘could have been’.

SHOT YOU DOWN- FLORRIE

The pop mysteries continue. Since her debut Introduction EP in 2011, Florrie hasn’t released a studio album. One could argue it is the tapestry of our times as the EP has become an acceptable alternative to an album. Florrie has been part of the Xenomania alumni since 2008 having played the drums on GA´s ´The Promise´.

´Shot You Down´ was the single from her 2012 EP, ´Late´. It still remains one of her lesser-known tracks despite having been a single. The track follows Xenomania´s lack of rule book for pop music formulas. With its erasure of verses, just an array of hooks that appear to be never-ending like a Russian doll. Affirming the unlimited possibilities of Xenomania´s assiduous songwriting skills. Then there is the chorus.

The chant-like “I pulled the trigger on our love” cries over a bass guitar before leaping into an infinity pool of synthesisers that go from major to minor over the space of 30 seconds. The song goes from some haughty foot-tapping romp into something far more capacious. 

MOVE IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION- GOSSIP

Xenomania has had success at championing established artists. This was made apparent when they collaborated with the Pet Shop Boys on their 2009 album Yes. The issue with Gossip is that they are the antithesis of Xenomania, so this partnership in production came as a shock.

Then ´A Joyful Noise´ was released. It sounded very much like a Gossip record, but with Xenomania as sonic mentors. Beth Ditto even said how it was the hardest album they have ever written. I think this was a reference to the way Higgins writes songs, often his team write the melody and then, once the song is finished, they start again from scratch. In addition to her observation, she even mentioned in interviews how she had listened to nothing but ABBA in the run-up to recording the album.

´Move in The Right Direction´ is undoubtedly the most Xenomania sounding song on the album. It has all the bells and whistles of a Girls Aloud anthem, in fact, it could have slotted in nicely on their Out of Control album as a neighbour to ‘Rolling Back the Rivers in Time’. With its optimistic lyrics, the euphoric instrumental bits after the chorus, it probably left Gossip fans initially with a nasty taste in their mouths as it is unapologetically pop. I admire the Gossip for this collaboration as they managed to convey the skill and intelligence it takes to create songs at Xenomania HQ.

THE ALBUM DIARY/2004/MUSIC/MEMOIR

With Anniemal playing on my Discman as I started my second year of A-levels, it provided more confirmation that all I wanted to listen to and learn about was electronic music. 

My album diary 2004: Anniemal by Annie

BY 2004 I had become a fan of electronic music. I spent the bulk of 2003 accepting that I was going down a route of synthesisers and pop as opposed to guitar music. While my peers were feasting on Bloc Party and The Killers Hot Fussalbum, I was making friends with Annie Strand from Norway.

I remember hearing Chewing Gumfor the first time. I didn’t it like it instantly, but after repeated listens I knew what it was that I was starting to like. Listening to it now in retrospect, it nods to the electronic winks of the Tom Tom’s club Won’t Give You Up.A rather insane pop song with its sexualised metaphor of comparing chewing gum to the disposing of, in Annie’s case, boys. Marry that metaphor with the songs endless Artu Detu bleeps and you’ve got a winning, idiosyncratic pop song. Richard X proved to be an assiduous producer and one of the vanguards in this shift into bringing back 80s synth-pop into the pop zeitgeist. 

2004 was an interesting landscape for pop music. Due to the rising success of Goldfrapp and their single Strict Machine, many producers were keen to emulate their sound. Richard X created Some Girls for Rachel Stevens. Xenomania produced Giving You Up for Kylie Minogue. It was also the year when Gwen Stefani released Love Angel Music Baby. As 2005 loomed, Linda Perry created One Word for Kelly Osbourne. Needless to say, the presence of a synthesiser was ubiquitous.

After hearing Chewing Gum, I was unaware that a subsequent album was going to be released. This was before social media. Before we knew everything that was going to happen. I had to rely on magazines and the music blog Popjustice as my gatekeepers of information.

I remember reading a review of Anniemal in the August edition of Q Magazine. It was given four-stars and the journalist compared Annie to both Abba and Daft Punk. There had to be a Scandinavian reference there, obviously. The Daft Punk deduction though, I couldn’t find. Perhaps it was an attempt to make the album appear cooler, less pop almost. 

Annie released Greatest Hit five years before her debut single surfaced. An underground dance track which samples Madonna’s Everybody. Falsetto vocals decorated with disco sounding tongue popping and a reference to a red old car. Slightly more effortless than some of the other tracks on the album, perhaps if Greatest Hit had been injected with the pop oomph of a zealous Richard X with his eyes on the singles chart, it could have had a different destiny.

Heartbeat became the second single to push the album. It showed a different side to Annie. She left behind the haughtiness of Chewing Gum. The single made way for a New Wave sounding guitar-led song about meeting someone at a party and never seeing them again. Catchy as it may be, it isn’t indicative of what the album sounds like.

It does, however, serve as a somewhat aural palate cleanser before Helpless Fool For Love. The album’s sixth track which sounds like Kylie being produced by Bjork. The lyrical simplicity of ‘you make my love so easy ABC’ sung against a protruding bass and some pitch pitch oscillating synths in the chorus. It is an eerie yet sexy nuanced track on Anniemal.

Me Plus One became one of my anthems in 2004. I don’t think The Human League were referenced in the credits, but there are certain aspects of Don’t You Want Me that seem to punctuate this song. Just listen to the verses! Richard X, in my opinion, produced the single with this song. If Girls Aloud had released it, it would have been a top 5 single, but Annie’s objective was never really to achieve commercial success. Me Plus One, lyrically reveals the shift in how celebrity culture has changed. Annie sings ‘the wrong picture in the paper’about a struggling pop star who is grappling with the idea of fame which would now be documented on Twitter or Instagram.

Like Kylie Minogue’s Body Language,I still felt that Annie wasn’t cool. I remember being in a gay club and requesting Chewing Gum and the DJ eventually playing the Mylo club remix. I wanted the original, but it wasn’t that well–known, plus in a disco setting, the remix always wins. But with the Q Magazine review and an NME review following that, she opened my eyes to another part of pop. A form of pop that can both possess a dollop of camp and aggressive electronica. Anniemal represents a pop album that is both sonically confusing and invigorating even though it fitted in with the pop landscape of 2004. 

There are moments of subdued reflection in No Easy Love and My Best Friend. It also bends the rules of how songs are not just made for a three-minute radio edit in Come Together. Anniemal also has a solid sense of continuity in its cult intro as Annie insists ‘Let’s start the record!’. A line which puts an end to Richard X’s synth exhibition and peculiar animal noises.

With Anniemal playing on my Discman as I started my second year of A Levels it provided more confirmation that all I wanted to listen to and learn about was electronic music. Fifteen years later, the album remains understated. Nothing beats the feeling of discovering it again, sharing it on my Instagram and reminding friends of its brilliance. Listening to it now I can hear things that I couldn’t all those years ago. I know it is wrong to compare the 2004 pop landscape to 2019, so I will bite my tongue and not do it.

MUSIC: Confession, I quite like Taylor Swift.

Polarised opinions aside, there’s no denying she writes good pop songs

NEIL TENNANT ONCE referred to Taylor Swift as a sort of Margaret Thatcher of pop music. It wasn’t an insult per se. It was more of an observation of how Swift is interested in the economics of music. In 2014, she removed all her music from streaming services in her fight to say how music should not be free. However, supply and demand meant Swift’s music has returned to streaming platforms. I mentioned the Thatcher comment to one of my colleagues unaware that she was a Taylor Swift fan. Let’s just say she was not pleased, and I was, well-deservedly, put in my place.

Yet, the ‘Thatcheresque’ image is nowhere to be seen in the videoclip for her single ‘You Need to Calm Down’.  A series of cameos from familiar faces of the LGBTQ community makes it a manifestation against hate crime and equal rights. A smart move for Taylor to politicise such an issue. In addition to this, she is also seen being the fries to the cheeseburger dressed Katy Perry. Closing the door on what can be described as a playground spat between them. Immortalised nonetheless, in both of their songs.

Polarised opinions aside, there’s no denying she writes good pop songs. I began to dip my toe in the sea of Swift in 2017. Her album ‘Reputation’ made me pay close attention to the pop production of Max Martin and Jack Antonoff [Lana Del Rey, St. Vincent and Lorde]. One of the standout tracks was ‘Dancing With Our Hands Tied’ especially its bridge. However, whilst I was basking in the glory of enjoying her music, I felt slightly uncomfortable admitting it. 

On the one hand, I felt far from her target audience of teenage disciples and on the other hand, just slightly embarrassed. Maybe the Neil Tennant observation had scarred me for life or maybe I just wasn’t completely convinced. August 2019 has seen the release of ‘Lover, her seventh studio album. Punctuated with its celestial cover which is a far cry from the wet hair and pouty ‘Reputation’. Both sonically and visually there has been a U turn. Thematically however, the songs are about, you guessed it, love.

Cruel Summer’earns some kudos as it has been co-written by Annie Clark [St. Vincent]. Needless to say, regardless of her songwriting credits, its chorus would take amnesia to get out of your brain. ‘The Man’sees Swift contemplating the old subjunctive of what could have been. It is the electropop cousin of Beyonce’s ‘If I Were A Boy’.False God’ is a nod to the ‘Emotion’ album by Carly Rae Jepsen, moody synth pads unspooling over the appearance of a saxophone. Possessed by an 80s Lauper sound, it is by far one of ‘Lover’s’ bow down moments.

The song ‘London Boy’will annoy people like rain on a wedding day. Swift somehow is able to go from Shoreditch to Brixton in a flash without the obstacles of changing several tube lines, a sweaty armpit in her face or a lack of credit on her Oyster. A recent article in The Times also commented on this, a somewhat galvanizing distraction from the excess of Brexit.  Despite the corny delivery about high tea and fetishising a somewhat mockney alter ego, it is really quite harmless.

So, confession, I quite like Taylor Swift, and, in all fairness, I could omit the use of that adverb there [doing so as I stare at the floor].

MUSIC: The pop perfection of Unperfect.

Xenomania’s new girl band prove that Brian Higgins is still the top dog in pop producers.

XENOMANIA HAS BEEN my pop religion of choice since 2002 when the world was blessed with gift that was ‘Round Round‘ by the Sugababes. Since then, I act like an enthusiastic Jehova’s witness, trying to convert everyone I meet to join the church of pop. Yet, it’s not any church mind.

Thanks to their production credits for Girls Aloud, who arguably were their muses, the pop rule book was thrown on the bonfire. Brian Higgins and his team removed what is expected from a pop song (verse, bridge, chorus, middle 8) and planted more melodic hooks into a song than a school cloakroom. The idea of a chorus even became obsolete as Xenomania made it possible for there to be three potential chorus ideas [see Girls Aloud’s ‘The Show’].

Unperfect are the latest pop project to be launched by Xenomania records and yes, thanks to Higgins, they are being produced by Xenomania. The result is a brand of pop which runs a mile from the overproduced and antiseptic creating an authentic pop renaissance not just for Xenomania, but also for girl bands.

Their breakthrough single ‘Gots to give a girl’ captures a somewhat charming nonchalance, a song that is not forced at you like a hard sell. Their debut is mostly guitar led with sonic accents from the ‘One touch’ era of the Sugababes. The song then takes a U- turn with the insatiable grab of the ‘boy you better run run run run ‘ section which is then overlapped by ‘ooh, ooh,’ which takes the listener to the end

In April, the girls released their debut EP, casually titled, ‘Yeah, why not’. Single ‘Looking for a hug’, which can only be described as, sitting at an after hours party and being forced to imagine what the Love child of Sugababes’ ‘Hole in the head’ and GA’s Biology ‘ would have sounded like. Again, the song works around the main melodic core ‘if you wanna love and you’re looking for a hug ‘ over an obscure nineties sounding house track. The song ends with such attractive insanity with the looped line ‘I walk and run in my shoes boy ‘.

Another highlight from their EP is the stunning ‘Rope’. Vocally the girls shine without the intervention of any vocal trickery or excessive use of a delay effect. Once more the song is a product of the anti-formulaic uniform Xenomania champion. The girls this year have also tried appealing to a more commercial demographic. The aspirational girl band anthem ‘I’m a dreamer’ which was commissioned by a drinks company manages to combine both a clever marketing strategy with a catchy single.

Now, the girls are planning to release their forthcoming EP by releasing a single each week. Latest single ‘Champagne’ shows no signs of Xenomania’s lyrical dexterity slowing down, managing to get the word ‘Kryptonite’ in there. Then again, these are the minds behind the genius ‘we’re gift wrapped kitty cats‘ and ‘beautiful robots dancing alone’. The result is an uptempo summery flirt, bulging with different sections that keep the listener on their toes, the girls have obviously attended seminars in the ‘Biology‘ school of pop.

Xenomania have tried to launch their own homegrown bands previous to Unperfect in the shape of pop outfit MiniViva. Their hit single ‘Left my heart in Tokyo’ was a huge success, nevertheless, their subsequent singles failed to make much of an impact. Let’s hope that in these less cut-throat times for pop music these girls get the chance they deserve.