It’s that time of year again. The End-of-Year List mincer is well in motion, Rough Trade firing off the opening shot and consequently setting keypads a-typing, heads a-scratching and records a-spinning in the fervent battle to be definitive, or at the very least distinctive. So it is – maw stuffed with advent chocolate and ears poured full of sonic sugar – that Arbiter of Taste set their stall out for the month.
What lies before you is Round 1, Arbiter of Pop 2.0, 40 songs of the finest morsels of pop goodness, provisioned by chart botherers who pulled up their sparkled boots and threw some of that pizazz all over some A-game jams, ballads, down-right bangers and everything in between. Tell us how wrong we are via @arbiter_of
20 // MØ – XXX 88
Diplo throws down a gauntlet to his myriad of peers on a scarily regular basis (like ooh… Express Yourself, Get Free and Climax in the last two years), but the resonant pep rally he concocts here, laid down to herald the stand-out from Karen Marie Ørsted’s debut EP and appropriately fuelled by gargantuan horns, cloudy synths and cheerleader chants, is nonetheless jarring in its hookier than a fishing tackle superstore enormity. Within it lies Ørsted’s gorgeous ode to a lovelorn dreamscape, the promise of blue skies seemingly beyond the reach of an isolated, cynical youth. The two elements interweave in one perfect body, fusing into the kind of maximalist intimacy which fuels the regeneration of each wave of pop’s finest Time Lords. Don’t be surprised if MØ‘s blue skies come true in 2014.
19 // PET SHOP BOYS – Vocal
For a band as prolific and intimidatingly consistent as the Pet Shop Boys, it feels odd that they’d feel overdue, or warrant, a “return to form”. Yet, more than anything else the band have released over the last decade, Electric is indisputably a statement of renewed intent. Last year’s lushly produced if largely subdued and even forgettable Elysium, met its riposte quicksmart in July via a record possessed of buckets of wit, sizeable cojones and an overwhelming sense of sheer sublime class. Vocal encapsulates that rejuvenation better than any other track. It’s Tennant and Lowe at their most brazen, closing the album out with synthesisers that scream: we are EDM, we were here before you, and we’re better at it than you. The genius of it though, is that it’s simultaneously the inverse. The perspective is in the dead centre of the crowd, all-encompassing and intimate, head down and arms in the air, sweat-drenched and euphoric. In a phrase: it’s the sound of a band madly in love with the music they’re making all over again.
18 // LILY ALLEN – Hard Out Here
Every aspect of Lily Allen 3.0 has thus far been perfectly poised to counter my initial reactions. Hyper-commoditised cover just in time for Christmas? Eesh. Followed up by a bold, witty, amused/despairing/enraged feminist takedown of the media-entertainment industrial complex patriarchy? Fuck yes. Those irritatingly auto-tuned chorus vocals? This is a song about the mass production of vacuum-packed, air-brushed into transparency popstars, of course it’s going to sound synthetic! “Bitch” repeated into ad nauseum nothingness? What better way to reclaim – for the purposes of ceremoniously killing off – a word. SILVER BALLOONS?! Wait. That’s complete genius. As Arbiter contributor Monsieur Cullum pointed out, “Lily Allen Has A Baggy Pussy” is the pop moment of the year. Song ain’t too shabby either.
17 // BLOOD ORANGE – You’re Not Good Enough
Both biting and raw and steeped in rich texture, woozy and yet compellingly driving. He’s tried on numerous hats – quite literally – between Test Icicles and Blood Orange, frequently excelling underneath each one. You can’t help but feel though, that that patent leather and white-socked wander down the street is the moment Dev Hynes truly arrived.
16 // HAIM – The Wire
Intensely irritating. Sickeningly overhyped. Willing to be photographed with David Cameron. How dare those Haim squiblets be responsible for something this well-hewn, honest and exquisitely infectious. I tried really, really hard to loathe this band. But I fumbled it when it came down to The Wire.
15 // LITTLE MIX – Move
Move: a doing word. Move: a doing song (though refreshingly, not that kind of doing). It just makes sense. Dripping with confidence, clever, quirk-ridden production, intricate harmony, and most importantly furiously vibrating with an attitude that just wasn’t quite in the formula first time around, Move is pure pop brilliance, whilst simultaneously effervescently bubbling underneath and all over conventional pop structures. There’s so much energy in each composite part that there’s no need for a specific chorus, and every bit is the best bit. Lyrically there’s nothing going at all, but then again there’s absolutely no need to think in the first place. This is all about dizzying immediacy, a veritable bully circle of spectacular voices – though Perrie Edwards admittedly totally steals the show with her hat and pre-chorus – clicks, pops, hums and incessant catchiness surrounding you on all sides. Yes.
14 // ALUNAGEORGE – Attracting Flies
Over-long, over-earnest and over-worked, as an album Body Music frankly wasn’t quite all we hoped. Touches of brilliance and singles of outright excellence softened the blow, but all the signs in 2012 that this would be the year that the duo stormed the airwaves didn’t quite translate. And yet, here’s Attracting Flies. It fizzes and pops magnificently. There’s the underlying clinking percussion that kicks in from the first pre-chorus, and it operates as the secret ingredient that ensures the track continues to worm its way deep inside your brain long after its run-time is through. On top of that are Aluna’s satisfyingly snarky ripostes to the poser with the titular behavioural characteristic, a delicious lyrical contrast to the dominant romantic themes of the record. It’s a reminder of what could have been and a beacon of hope for what’s to come. There’s far too much talent in Reid’s finger tips, too much warmth and character in Francis’ vocals for this to be all there is. It’s none too shabby in the meantime though.
13 // DRAKE – Hold On, We’re Going Home
As a hip-hop record Nothing Was The Same is an ultimately underwhelming hodgepodge, ostensibly offering the declarative – “I’m just telling you the truth I swear” – but skimping on the necessary edge and thus falling into blogpost ennui, promising much but ultimately bringing out the Diet version. As a testament of contemporary R&B though, it frequently soars, earning those clouds that lie beyond the glazed-eyes album cover.
If the album can soar though, then Hold On, We’re Going Home is the album’s Icarus, reaching for the sun on a tide of egotism. Appropriately however, Drake has traded in the wax and feathers for a chrome-plated private jet. Which is now headed to the moon. That is his home of hot love and emotion now. You should probably go with him, Richard Branson wants $250,000 for that trip.
This is just under 4-minutes of diamond-encrusted brilliance. Unless he’s singing it to pre-teens on stage. Then it’s weird. Stop it Drake you silly bean.
12 // MACKLEMORE & RYAN LEWIS – Can’t Hold Us
Two years old this is. From an album that came out last year. The bloody cheek of putting it on this list eh? It’s that gestation and the accompanying history though, which allows the sense of sheer exhilaration Can’t Hold Us is fuelled by to really hit home. What in 2011 might have felt like admirable braggadocio – a flaming arrow of independence being fired into the distance as a benchmark to reach – in 2013 is now utterly legitimised, the soundtrack to the kind of party required in honour of perhaps the greatest pop success story of our times. Dancefloor escapism fuelled by a narrative of risk-taking and working your socks off.
11 // LONDON GRAMMAR – Wasting My Young Years
The cult of the voice – typified by, but evidently not just on The Voice – is rife in pop music. We demand our singers can sing, sing perfectly – even better if they’re not trained – and hell-fire be upon thee if thou art lip syncing. Emotionally in the mainstream* that spins one of two ways. It can exist as just a guide, in aid of the song itself, essentially a chant, propulsive rather than directly engaging. Then they’re almost a cypher like Miss Sandé, coldly admirable and serving as a channel through which we can put ourselves in their place, the more massified the sentiment the more chart-worthy. Slipping through the net though is Hannah Reid, the shining star in London Grammar’s delicate, blissful night sky. There’s something so aching and personal about Reid’s voice that it’s utterly paralysingly engaging – it’s slightly terrifying whenever they come on the radio in the car – that makes it impossible to ignore and impossible to place yourself within. It’s not in any way isolating – the polar opposite in fact – but it’s just so very much hers that we can only engage with it as immediately empathetic onlookers, sharing without replacing. Wasting My Young Years is this at its most sublime on an album that’s a Babylonian garden of tiered sublimity.
*[N.B. that these voices in the aforementioned pattern are almost always female – in the mainstream the angel/monster dichotomy is particularly localised vocally – the Beyoncé Superbowl hubbub for instance – is just as strident, if not more so, than lyrically (Rihanna) or aesthetically (Miley)]
10 // SAY LOU LOU – Fool of Me
Fool of Me, in a way, is the utterly gorgeous, completely heartbreaking reverse of the aforementioned Blood Orange. Where Hynes swaggers off into the distance tearing your heart upon into pieces as he goes, the Kilbey twins instead pick through the pieces of the shattered emotional landscape he leaves behind, carefully reflected in the shattering, shimmering, crumbling percussion and synthlines that backs their interweaving vocals. Chet Faker as the male counterpart sounds distant, vaguely demonic even, with the effect that the dialogue between the two parties feels completely imagined, straws of bitter reasoning being clutched at. Consequently, the transfiguration in the bridge of this male figure as a machine, whose emotional capabilites and engagement are just a switch away is perhaps more crushing than anything else. That feeling of complete incapacity in your ability to effect the feelings of another, an utter lack of control in matters of your heart.
9 // PARAMORE – Still Into You
A spine-tingling, butterfly-inducing, nigh-on perfect pop track, all about the pop of butterflies in your stomach which induce the kind of spine tingles that only come with a love that ensures you’ve got your heels so far over your head that the soles of your feet are sunburnt.
8 // CHVRCHES – The Mother We Share
[Masterchef voice adopted:] Synthpop doesn’t get better than this. CHVRCHES are the results of some kind of sick experiment conceived of at the exact centre of the fictional ley line between Glasgow Tower and the High Kirk. There lies a laboratory in which The Knife’s latent pop impulses are released from their cages, doped up on distilled Depeche Mode 12″s and then released to run riot in M83’s studio. Or something. Otherwise, I’m struggling to work out how else to justify how unspeakably fantastic a run of singles Lies, The Mother We Share, Recover and Gun has been. The Mother We Share is the pick of the bunch, soaring, tottering, cascading, surging as it reaches skyward, and at its nub an intimate, heart-felt analysis of sibling complexities, unshakeable habits and inescapable blood obligations.
7 // KATY B – 5AM
There’s been so many songs about “the club”, that even referring to it through the your speech-mark armour of protective cynicism is as sticky, worn and shame-laden as an SU dance-floor. This is Katy B’s domain though. No one captures the weird, timeless, awkward out-of-body euphoric disappointment of a club night in their lyricism like her. On 5 AM she’s once again a documentarian of these specific sights and sounds. She’s a connoisseur of the clichés “‘That beat’s so sick’/’This tune’s so ill'”; the speculative and misread glances across the room; the underlying desire for a connection and that crushing loneliness when you leave for the morning alone. In a similar manner to Katy On A Mission this thematic and sonic context gives rise to – or is a façade to allow – an analysis of a darker truth within these crowded spaces of movement and brief connection, that they’re both an attempt to escape from and a source of dislocation from the collective, inherent individual isolation and imminent conclusion.
6 // DAFT PUNK – Lose Yourself To Dance
First up, I’ve had long-awaited rant about Get Lucky to release into the aether. It’s nigh-on perfect. It knows it. I’m desk-dancing at the mere idea of it. In the consumption though, there’s just not enough there to justify either of those declarations. I’ve never fallen in love with it. The reek of over-confidence rises up my nose until its cloying insistence can be taken no longer. I gag, but on the tongue it tastes metallic. I wake up with a start at the nightmare of this pop T-1000 leaning over me, a red light glowing with hidden menace as it pumps out its automated jam, on every level executed with the exact and exacting manner of these calm, cold robots who are reconstructing the idea of fun from the gore-drenched DNA extracted from decades of pioneers. I fear Nile Rodgers is a hostage.
The function of Lose Yourself To Dance then, is to absolve all my worries. Daft Punk are still on top of their pedestal leering down at me through their visors but it’s now too late: those intravenous hand claps have done their work, and I dance mindlessly back and forth, anime eyes sparkling, goofy grin etched into my face, utterly lost in the wonderment of the merry-go-round as it goes round and round and round and round and round and…
DISCLOSURE // White Noise
Electronic music in its entirety – let alone just house and its many sprawling mutant offspring – rarely reaches heights as dynamic, as frankly plain essential, as the second single from Settle. Sophisticated for your head and primal for your feet, White Noise swoops expertly between gloom and euphoria, mood and tempo honed, every texture refined into the realm of the exceptional without ever losing any of that ever-appealing filth and immediacy.
It’s guided by the Lawrence brothers’ glorious knack for pinpoint percussion that’s informed all the highlights of their career thus far. That framing bass drum stomp, compelling hi-hat, the subdued beat echoing in stereo through the intro and verses, the intermittent influx of cowbell and tambourine patter, in the pre-chorus build all dropping out in the name of laying the stage for that gigantic chorus clap.
That’s before we even contemplate the preposterous arsenal they have at their disposal that lies above this percussive core. White Noise is an absolute monster and it’s been out there uprooting trees, kicking up sandstorms and shattering dance-floors all year. Travel in pairs.
LORDE // Royals
There’s a telling difference between the “US” and full-length, ostensibly International, version of the video for Royals. It’s the same video from the same director Joel Kefali, but the US version has been resolutely VEVOfied, and deliberately dilutes the artistry of the original in place of foregrounding youth and beauty in search of dollar signs – using another face as a brand to launch a hundred million clicks.
May’s version is as cold and sparse as the song’s gloriously minimal production, focused on intensely scrawny protagonists worming their way through another disaffected day in beige, hollow suburbia. Distinguishing features are rain, an unmade bed, TV static, interior daylight, boxing gloves, shaven hair and blood.
With each radar-like percussive pop the scene changes, but only thrice does it return to the 16-year old in the 4-minute run time. The longest take is a wonderfully drawn out 26 seconds, which swaps out the quick cuts, and focuses on an isolated, small brunette – not for aesthetic reasons – but instead to foreground the calmly composed, patient interchange of her lead and harmonising vocals. The effect is to emphasise the maturity of the music, the significance of the lyrics, and pinpoints Lorde’s role as a narrator, side-stage from these beautifully mundane – yet bordering on George Saunders-esque asbract – extracts that dominate, and yet completely complicit in, and familiar to, them.
The US version meanwhile, does away with this rare patience, and instead returns to the carefully batted eyelashes with a regularity that distracts from the overall message. Intentionally so patently, the advertisers that interrupt your YouTube stream and the fast food chains that sponsor her interviews wouldn’t want you to think too deeply on themes of consumerism and conspicuous consumption now would they?
Because this is the central significance of the song, not solely teen suburban blues, or a racist agenda*. This is the closest pop music has come to even vaguely registering the effect and moral underpinnings of the 2008 financial crash and its continued zombified continuance.
Like Lorde, all we can see is the impervious aristocrats marrying off with only commemoratory dishes and Disney for any kind of realistic frame-of-reference, because “it don’t run in our blood”. Social media, television and advertising offers us an ever-escalating and impossible glimpse of “grey goose […] jet planes” and “islands”, probably on the plastic smart phones we bought on credit, and which we now huddle around for warmth because we can’t afford to heat our homes.
Royals isn’t a sophisticated treatise, or even a suitably brutal takedown of the hyper-rich and their protective socio-industrial exoskeleton. But then, I don’t expect sixteen year olds to know what to say, let alone do, about the 1% still persisting with the neo-liberal charade even with the curtain half-torn down, donning their face-stomping boots and topping up the punch bowl with We Can’t Stop/Greed is Good/No Such Thing As Society cocktail to anaesthetise the masses. Yet equally, I didn’t expect a teenager from New Zealand, who thinks Rumours is a perfect album and digs Majical Cloudz, to compose a pop song that’s possessed of world-weary wisdom down to its sonic foundations, and that perhaps most reassuringly, balances that cynicism with the legitimate realisation of the value of innocence before it’s been lost. So let’s see what happens.
[*Bayetti Flores piece is noted, her position wholly understood, and ultimately rejected. I honestly believe this to be the first tentative mainstream transmission from a youth who conceives of pop culture through a post-racial (not de-racialised – that we are most certainly not) lens, in which “hip-hop culture” is no longer other (by which you can read black if need be), shocking somehow, or ironically adopted, but just part of the large body of all-pervasive mainstream codes and conventions of reference**. The key is “everybody’s like”, “every song’s like”.
**I.e. Accepting, without even the necessity of a question, that Jay-Z can headline Glastonbury, blue-eyed soul dropped the prefix, Miley’s twerking, Justin Bieber owns a Maybach, Lil Wayne can play guitar, and white teenagers have their New Era peaks pointing stage left.]
KATY PERRY // Roar
2013 was (/is/hopefully always will be) the year in which I’ve never felt more intensely, deeply shitty about myself. Trigger over-share alarm.
My life isn’t hard. I’m fortunate enough to be completely healthy and still not look after myself well enough. I have a core group of people who care about me deeply, who I love deeply back and don’t tell often enough. I’m intensely lucky and intensely dumb-foundedly aware of that fact. Yet still – whether it be my perceived absence of capabilities and potential, the Fort Knox full of flaws, almighty balls-ups and terminal mistakes that lay behind me and probably ahead of me, or the crippling sense of ennui surrounding my place in and impact on the world around me – the last eight months in particular have felt entirely out of my control, bright moments drained of all their colour, my small ship cut adrift from the fleet and taking on water. Rejections, essay all-nighters, a lonely slog through my finals, 17 years of education arriving abruptly at its apparently definitive end, and, most crushingly of all, my heart broken.
It’s now July. My achievements feel immediately worthless. Various escape plans ranging from Snowdon to Tuscany don’t work out beyond immediate distraction.
I’ve missed the boat, have no future and have moved back home.
I hate myself.
I wish I hadn’t done this to myself.
Katy Fucking Perry – full title – should not have been one of the people to come closest to resolving that utter mess of a situation.
It is now August. These keys are brazenly ripped near-wholesale from Sara Bareilles. These lyrics are almost impossibly generic.
I’m falling madly in love with friends I thought I might have lost all over again.
I’m all-too-briefly writing for one my favourite music websites.
I’m in Yorkshire.
I’ve never felt more open.
I’m in Edinburgh.
I’m running out of money.
I’m getting creative again.
I’m passionate and stupid.
I’m starting to like myself.
I realise I have always been myself.
It is now September. This song should not be absobloodypositivifuckinlutely amazing. Those drums have no right to be so huge.
I should not be inwardly and outwardly screaming this and pumping my fist in the shower/whilst walking the dog/at my desk/in the car/in public spaces.
I should not be connecting with someone I’ll never meet, who I’d conceived of as a product, this deeply.
Things are getting better.
It is now December. I read that Scott Hutchinson also loves this song. I read that I should stick to my guns. I read that this song is important.
I’ve never felt more comfortable being this uncool or writing about myself.
My heart still aches daily, but no longer constantly.
I’ve not managed to take any huge strides forward yet.
But I’ve never been more ready and desperate to turn the page, believe in myself and get on with the next stage of my life.
I’ve never listened to Prism. I don’t really want to. Roar is still more than enough. Thanks Katy.
JANELLE MONÁE // Q.U.E.E.N.
In her breath-taking performance on Later… earlier this year, our white suited heroine skidded round Holland’s studio with visceral energy, all the while pitching every note to perfection. That forcefulness on stage, combined with the fact Monáe’s responsible for some of the decade’s smoothest, most soulful R&B, might seem a tad contradictory, but the Atlanta-based Electric Lady seems to take dismantling preconceptions, however small and seemingly insignificant, as a personal responsibility, and it’s precisely this which makes her such a great writer of pop music – with Q.U.E.E.N. one of the loftiest peaks in a pristine discography.
Just take the way the track’s opening spring-loaded guitar wobble is controlled and choreographed to perfection as the song evolves, sometimes teasing, sometimes entreating, but rarely losing its purchase on your (frankly overjoyed) earlobes. As layers build Q.U.E.E.N. is never blatant or manipulative, because it relies on its own infectiousness to do the dirty work of finding that part of you, however small or well-disguised it may be, that really wants to dance, before proceeding to feed it with soul and feel-good sound.
Sonically, there are all sorts of virtues here that could whip the ground out from beneath you, especially what with the way Monáe can conjoin throwback R&B with orchestral arrangements and seriously retro-sounding flourishes on the keys, barely pausing to catch her breath. Q.U.E.E.N. is as dynamic as the Electric Lady herself – at once both ecstatic and immaculately presented, switching from expansive string breakdowns and passionate rap to the playful and tongue in cheek – however, what really makes the song so damn special is that, not only is it a further realisation of the Cyndi Mayweather concept that Monáe’s been pursuing since her first EP and a polished bauble of 24 carat pop, but that it’s also the most feminist, pro-individuality, pro-equality pieces of music to have ever got anywhere near 8 million YouTube hits.
At more than a few moments it can feel as though Q.U.E.E.N. is the embodiment of that strut Monáe seems to own so well, which lets you know she’s forever the ruler of her realm. This track is almost a manifesto for everything that Monáe wants to change about the world – whether that be the demonisation of the ‘other’, judgement, infringement upon people’s human rights – and it’s the fact it pulls off this idealism without a hint of self-congratulation that’s so very important. The sound of preaching has never been sweeter.
JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE // Mirrors
Running through all of JT’s songs about love and relationships – specifically Cry Me a River, My Love, What Goes Around, and now Mirrors – is a vein of anxiety. Whether his thoughts are messing with his head, or full of all things matrimonial, these songs are riddled with doubt, error of judgement and desperate questions, either borne out in the open from present agony, or the underlying consequence of insecure fingers that have been singed.
“Why did you leave me, all alone?”
“(So don’t give away) My love”
“I guess I was wrong”
“Cause I don’t want to lose you now / I’m looking right at the other half of me”
With much of his life played out in front of lenses – from the Mickey Mouse Club to his latest album cover – a particular reason for these relationship anxieties is apparent to all: romantic loss, all the worse for being played out in public. By having relationships with such famous women Timberlake undoubtedly brings this upon himself, but nonetheless, opening his heart comes with such open consequences that the stakes might well seem all the higher. When your heart causes you to see someone’s face everywhere, a world tour can’t help the situation.
Though these songs are not always strictly confessional, first person pronouns are nonetheless one of the foremost features of his song-writing vernacular (there’s 7 in the above examples alone), and the effect is to entrench this anxiety deeply within Justin himself. How much of his relationship woes have been the result of self-deception or even self-destruction is not our business, but anyone can relate to the fact that carrying a buried wound of any sort means that even in the present, even at a moment of greatest stability, the idea of sudden loss can weigh imminent. We may not know what we’ve got until it’s gone, but we can still toss and turn at night about losing it long before it ever is.
“Coming right back here to you once I figured it out / You were right here all along”
What makes the emotional arc of Mirrors so glorious, is that all of these aspects – the anxiety, the loss, the scars, the fixation on the self – are all present, but treated from a position of self-awareness and happiness – not just reliant on another – but a sense of integral contentment instilled by progress through and life with another.
“So now I say goodbye to the old me, it’s already gone”
At the moment this self-aware realisation fully registers in the song, a sonic switch-up occurs to compound this personal development. The towering, romance bordering on melodrama conjured by the dominant synth riff, the swelling orchestral backing, and Timbaland’s idiosyncratic looping beat-box textures drop out, a dynamic already teased by the solely drum-led, open-lunged, arms in the air breakdown/chorus/BEST BIT, and the atmosphere and pace changes substantially. In their place we now have twinkling keys, a subtle metronomic beat, almost total calm, and one of the most intimate, richest vocal performances of Timberlake’s career. The self-possessed subtext fades and he gives himself over entirely, whilst never having been more entirely himself. All that’s left is the repeated declarative:
“You are, you are, the love of my life”
Mirrors is the emotional and musical highlight of one of the, if not the most, ambitious pop albums of the young century. 8 minutes 5 seconds long and – unlike the 20/20 project itself – fully justifying of its length, nonetheless perhaps most satisfying of all, is that there’s no time for grand close, only a growing sense of peace as the instrumentation floats into the increasingly minimal. Thve song ends in an ellipsis free of anxiety, resting in the comfort of ‘to be continued…
CHRISTOPHER T. SHARPE