Top 12 of 2012: Songs More Fun To Write About Than Samantha Jade's
Usually, I don’t get to choose what songs to write about for TheVine – it’s the nature of writing about the latest Number One. Most of the time, I’m cool with that. A song as rich in cultural allusions as ‘Thrift Shop’ or as perfectly crafted as ‘Call Me Maybe’ gives me plenty to write about. Samantha Jade’s ‘What You’ve Done To Me’, however, was a test of character. And will. So here’s my list of 12 songs that would have been much more fun to write about than ‘What You’ve Done To Me’.
Muse – 'Madness'
Muse once came off as humourless. Maybe it was song titles like ‘Thoughts of A Dying Atheist’ or maybe it was the sheer amount of hysteria so often present in Bellamy’s voice? But recently, like Skynet, Muse have become self-aware. The 2nd Law is an album that’s meant to be fundamentally ridiculous -- Muse channelling their inner R Kelly or The Darkness. They sound suspiciously like they’re having fun. I mean, ‘Madness’ is totally shameless in its aping of early 1980s Queen (‘I Want To Break Free’ in particular) in the best way. I can’t help but laugh every time I hear the Brian May guitar solo, because it’s pitch perfect. Weird Al Yankovic or Flight of the Conchords doing a Queen pastiche wouldn’t nail it so convincingly. The stack of harmonies at about 1:58 is both a thing of beauty and the best imitation of Queen harmonies ever committed to ProTools.
When I watched them play it live on Jools Holland, I was in awe of the bass player playing one of those, you know, double guitars that incorporated a Misa Kitara, a fancy new electronic instrument which basically looks like a guitar with an iPad in the middle of the body, where you press the screen rather than pluck strings. I mean, don’t get me wrong: playing a Misa Kitara is fundamentally a silly thing to do. And I still totally want one. Muse are that good at silly. Also, this is a m-m-m-m-m-m-m-m-mad-maddeningly catchy pop song.
Ben Folds Five – 'Michael Praytor, Five Years Later'
Ben Folds is a songwriter who often sounds like he’s overthinking it on his solo albums. But back in the 1990s when he was in the band Ben Folds Five, Darren Jessee and Robert Sledge (the ‘Five’ part of the equation) would expertly accentuate Folds’ melodies while keeping him honest and in the moment. The Sound Of The Life Of Mind, the band's comeback album, is up and down (as comeback albums usually are), but ‘Michael Praytor, Five Years Later’ is the one song where the band sound absolutely on top of their game. It's unmistakeably Ben Folds Five, where the sound of those three particular musicians playing together is absolutely integral to the song working.
The song itself is pretty enough, full of complicated emotions, minus the smarm Folds sometimes falls back on. But it’s the performance that makes it shine, the way they make that unlikely piano trio format totally work. It’s the little things in the song, the way they nail a harmony, the way the cymbal crashes wax and wane, the way their voices come together on the falsetto chorus. It’s been stuck in my head for months.
Allo Darlin’ – 'Tallulah'
A few years ago, I moved to Surfers Paradise. I’m a Sydney boy at heart, and it’s been a bittersweet time up here for so many reasons; moving up here was meant to be more temporary than it was. Anyway, this year I’ve worked as a lecturer at UQ in St Lucia, a suburb of Brisbane, a little over an hour away from Surfers Paradise. Driving up to work one day, I was listening to Europe by Allo Darlin’ for the first time. In my head, Allo Darlin’ were an indie pop band from the UK. I think I had vaguely heard that the lead singer was Australian, but I didn’t really hear it as a big thing (people who have your accent don’t have accents, you know?). So I was very surprised to hear what I was doing reflected in song, almost literally; the song starts with the lyrics "on the drive from St Lucia to Surfers, in my old university car".
The song is just Elizabeth Morris’s bittersweet nostalgia sung sweetly over a ukulele, and it will come off as irredeemably twee to you if you like your music to reflect testosterone poisoning. Still, I can’t help but hear myself reflected in it. I mean, I do prefer 'Liberty Belle' to 'Tallulah' (Morris sings about having a tape of the Go Betweens’ album in her car, thus the song title). But at heart what gets me about ‘Tallulah’ is not the creepy levels of ‘hey that’s me’ but that it’s a song about wondering about the couldabeens you left behind. And I’ve been wondering a lot about them recently.
Fiona Apple – 'Hot Knife'
Once upon a time, Fiona Apple was another youngish, 1990s, vaguely alternative singer-songwriter. Her song ‘Criminal’ was a hit with the kind of people who also liked ‘Mother Mother’ by Tracy Bonham and ‘Who Will Save Your Soul’ by Jewel. Fast forward 15 years and The Idler Wheel resembles ‘Criminal’ about as much as Radiohead’s In Rainbows resembles ‘Creep’. And ‘Hot Knife’ is the weirdest and best thing on The Idler Wheel. It’s basically uncategorisable as pop—the ominous timpanies in the background are the kind of thing you’d have heard in Kurt Weill’s 1920s avant-garde opera The Threepenny Opera, while Apple’s multitracked harmony vocals remind you of 1940s vocal group The Andrews Sisters, while simultaneously sounding like they’re from 2040.
Apple is at the stage where she fairly effortlessly can pull any of two dozen tricks out of her bag in order to say, perfectly, exactly how she wants to say whatever she wants to say. And Apple sounding so joyous and full of life when she sings about how he makes her melt is really what makes the song.
R Kelly - 'Feelin’ Single'
People seem to be confused about whether R Kelly is serious or not. Does he really take Trapped In The Closet seriously, or is it all a big joke? In the end it doesn’t matter -- ‘Feelin’ Single’ is no more and no less than throwback 1970s soul, made by someone who knows this shit off by heart. R Kelly fairly effortlessly invokes Off The Wall-era Michael Jackson, with his trademark tentative vibrato and his ‘ooo!’ interjections, but you can also hear a fair bit of the impossible smoothness of Philly soul here, as well as bits and pieces of the 1970s Motown of Stevie Wonder or Marvin Gaye. I mean, sure, he does sing “she said ‘forever’ / it turned out to be the greatest lie of all time” without breaking into laughter. But perhaps his ability to sing that line straight is also what makes the song great; R Kelly’s greatest strength is his ability to not think before he sings. And the mix of unrestrained id and utter smoothness of ‘Feelin’ Single’ is strange and wonderful.
Little Mix – 'Wings'
I called this end-of-year-list ’12 songs I’d prefer to write about rather than Samantha Jade’s ‘What You’ve Done To Me’, but I don’t want to give the impression that X-Factor winners are unredeemable trash by nature. Little Mix, in fact, won the 2011 UK X-Factor competition, and ‘Wings’ is awesome. The voices of the Little Mix girls have the girl-group urgency and sisterly solidarity of the best Destiny’s Child songs – think ‘Bootylicious’ or ‘Independent Women, Pt. 2’ – and the song effortlessly does some fairly odd things with song structure and sound, reminiscent of Xenomania’s work with Girls Aloud. There’s more than one different verse, and you don’t hear the chorus for ages. The arrangement never sits still -- there’s always some new sound coming in, or some new combination of sounds. The tricks with song structure and arrangement mean that there’s basically a hook every seven seconds. And the tightness of the singing on the song’s biggest hook - "these wings were made to fly-y-y-y-y" - is a thing of beauty.
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