In the penultimate episode of our look back at the cultural highlights of MostlyFilm’s past, Mr Moth takes on a seemingly impossible task: condense seven years worth of Mostly Pop into seven singles.
Pop music is like a Saturn V rocket – you burn through stages until all that’s left is the important stuff, the rest tumbling behind you as a hybrid of garbage and history. You could lose your mind trying to hold on to things you liked then, trying to force yourself to squeeze that last dopamine hit from a brain dull to the charms of an outdated tune. It takes a lot for a pop song to stay with you. I had a look through a lot of old Mostly Pop columns and YouTube/Spotify playlists to write this, and I honestly couldn’t remember maybe 90% of the stuff I reviewed. Even those that I liked! My “best of the year” lists looked like jigsaw puzzles, half-worked out and abandoned without even finding the corners. So to make this list – and obviously this list was a lot longer when I started out – the song has to mean something. It has to be special.
The final few songs I cut out were the hardest, and I don’t want to leave them out entirely (consider them the second stage of booster rockets) so I’ll just take a moment to tell you that Janelle Monae’s Dance Apocalyptic and Icona Pop’s I Love It (ft Charli XCX) are epochal songs that deserve space in your playlists. Absolutely incredible, both of them; uplifting, electrifying pop music. I cut others – the soaring Sign of the Times from Harry Styles, a true redemption for a singer I have loathed since the first One Direction single was reviewed here. Kiss and Not Tell by La Roux, because while excellent it’s more of an album track and I’m not here for that. Sia’s Cheap Thrills made a beautiful argument for the existence of Sean Paul and only just REALLY ONLY JUST, like halfway through writing JUST, got bumped because, well, I don’t know, but I could only take seven. We Are Young by Fun., (again, there is Janelle Monae) teeters on the edge of perfection even as I have to admit it didn’t define the way I feel about the last seven years as the following tracks did. Also – check out Daft Punk’s new single “Get Lucky” if you get the chance. Sound of the Summer.
So, with these and others screaming back through the stratosphere, let’s examine the contents of the Command Module.
Nicola Roberts – Beat of My Drum
This is a golden thread leading back to Girls Aloud, the greatest band ever to stalk the planet DO NOT @ ME. The best fit for songwriting powerhouse Xenomania’s all-in approach to pop, GA were untouchably brilliant at their height. All other girl bands now stand in their shadow I SAID DO NOT @ ME. Sadly, when MostlyFilm first rumbled to life, Girls Aloud were nowhere to be seen. So what was there?
Beat of my Drum came out during their three-year hiatus (which was broken only to release an average single*, tour a bit, then break up), and was the first and maybe last to really capture the spirit of the band; the restless invention, the forceful hooks, the awkward rush of joy every new twist brings. It comes at you like a punch; defiantly high energy, a background player stepping to the front. When it drops a fake ending, it comes back so hard the sound blows out, higher frequencies fluttering like a butterfly’s wing. One of the first songs that really energised me while writing Mostly Pop, and it still gets to me when it turns up on a playlist, it’s a flat-out brilliant tune and Roberts never followed it up with anything half as good. Indeed, she never even managed a second album, though we live in hope.
*Average for The Aloud being spectacularly good, ofc, but still.
M I A – Bad Girls
This has grown and grown since 2012. When I first heard it I was taken with it but was it as great as Paper Planes? Cause Paper Planes is one of the few songs that I never ever skip. It’s unskippable. That’s just a simple fact. There’s a bunch of remixes with guests doing the verses and stuff, you should definitely listen to them if you’ve listened to and enjoyed Paper Planes, ok thanks for coming to my TED talk. OH WOW imagine me doing a TED talk. I don’t know anything about bears.
Anyway, Bad Girls. Blimey. What a song. The swirling, always-ready-for-a-fadeout backdrop fuses the old 90s chestnut of “World music” with MIA’s drawling art-pop hip-hop style to near-perfect effect. Lyrically it’s absolute filth, of course, but that’s the secret of pop music, isn’t it? If they’re not explicitly about just taking drugs and having a lovely nap, they’re pretty songs about fucking*. This makes no attempt to hide it, and is absolutely a better song for it. If you’re going to celebrate being a “bad girl”, fucking go for it. Kick hard at the expectation to be a “good girl”, take no prisoners and leave no doubt. It’s not a one-size-fits-all solution of course, but that’s not the point, is it? If it was, it’d just be another mould to fit into.
This extends to the music video. Shot in Morocco, presumably because that was way easier, it’s a statement of solidarity with the women to drive movement in Saudi Arabia, which won a significant recent victory in that women will soon (soon! Not even NOW, but SOON) be issued driving licenses. The video also contains a series of badass stunts and some fancy driving skills, in case that sounded a bit worthy. It’s… it’s not dull.
*My second choice for the name of this column was “Pretty Songs About Fucking”, just so you know.
Azealia Banks – Yung Rapunxel
Real talk – Azealia Banks is a fuck-up and we should all feel bad for liking her music. But, like, Dave Grohl, maybe, has never had years-long Twitter beeves that got him banned for life from every Wetherspoons in the country or whatever, and Foo Fighters are dull as shit so fuck it. This kicks hard, and is basically the song that had the most immediate impact on me of all the, god, hundreds of songs I listened to for this damned column. I vividly remember sitting at the computer after it finished and just exclaiming “What the fuck was that?” Let’s play it again and re-live the experience.
Yyyyyyeah, still uncomfortable, dazzling, confounding. You can barely hear the lyrics, but you know they’re not polite and they’re not safe for work. The tune plucks at you, then vanishes in a haze, a gossamer ribbon of razor wire caught in a breeze. A shimmer of the earlier 212 passes by, like a tune on a car stereo in a distant street. Mainly, though, the feeling is of disorientation and flat-out terror. This is music as a haunted house, a ghost train ride. Four years on and I’m still not sure what to make of it. If Banks does make a comeback – and many, many worse people do – let’s hope she remembers how to do this.
Justin Timberlake – Mirrors
Further real talk – Justin Timberlake is a trash human and… look, let’s get this out of the way, there are no good people in pop. OK? They’re not there. Pop music is made by arseholes for more money than is reasonably justifiable, which they then gamble away on cockfighting or whatever. Let’s try to separate the art from the artist, unless they actually bring it in to the music. In which case, Morrissey, we can ditch them like a cross-section of Lincolnshire. Yeah, they should do better but they don’t so we have to make a choice.
So now let’s talk about Mirrors, cause it’s kind of special. JT’s best stuff has always been his 7-minute switchback rides like this. He started it on Futuresex-Lovesounds, his terribly-named but very good second album and it was showcased best right here, in an outstanding track from the otherwise rather tedious product of contractual obligation The 20/20 Experience.
It’s not simply that it shifts into a different song entirely, mid-way through. It’s not simply that both songs are tender and sweet, open-hearted love songs. It’s not simply that the second half of the song illuminates the first half, melodically and thematically. It’s all that, and just god damn it, it’s catchy as fuck. A monumental song, somehow.
Taylor Swift – Blank Space
Again, I don’t care, leave me alone. As far as I can tell, where Azealia Banks says too much, Taylor Swift says too little and in silence is complicity? Is that it?? What do we want from our pop stars??? GOOD MUSIC?????
Well I do, anyway, and 1989 (the album, not… not the year… I was 12, what did I know about good music?) is a good place to look for it. I hadn’t really been interested in albums for a while by this point. Why bother, when there are so many good singles around? It was an article of faith for me that if a song wasn’t good enough to be a single it wasn’t good enough. This is why, to loop back to the beginning a bit, the best Girls Aloud album is GENUINELY their Best of, because it has all the singles. I realise this is Accidental Partridge, but it has the benefit of being completely factual. Which is a long way round to say that this changed my mind. I am perfectly aware that I was caught in a hype bubble, but it worked and it got me listening to the album as a whole, appreciating the quieter, “lesser” tracks, ones that could never make a single.
So why Blank Space? It wasn’t the first track I heard from the album, but it was the one that really showed to me that the album might be something special. Yeah, yeah, some obvious Max Martin tricks in the production but it stands in its own as a soaring, triumphant kiss blown from on high at gossip-mongers (they’re like fishmongers? But instead of fish – gossip!) and, ugh don’t make me say “haters” it’s 2018 fgs. It’s a beauty of a song, filled with hooks and extremely quotable, backed with a classy video and tied up with a “being in exactly the right place at the right time” bow.
Nadia Rose – Skwod
Hey, I don’t think I have to caveat Nadia Rose at all, I reckon she’s pretty sound. Neat-o. Now the obvious choice here might be her cousin, fully-formed star of the second coming of Grime, one Mr Stormzy. In fairness Big For Your Boots is an absolute monster of a track and there was that Brits performance and all that, but despite making less impact, Skwod is the more persistent tune. I mean, it helps that it is primo earworm material doesn’t it? That’s always a good sign for a song that will stay with you. It’s also bursting, perhaps overflowing, with personality.
A zig-zag musical bed lets Nadia Rose unspool her lyrics at a pace that suits her – sometimes lazily, sometimes frenetically, but never letting the tempo get away from her. This is an exercise in control; slyly fun, swaggeringly menacing, charmingly goofy. And – ok, I think there is a slight cheat part way through – basically a one-take video! YES MY FAVOURITE GENRE OF VIDEO GETS (kind of) INTO MY LAST POST, FUCKING AWESOME.
Lorde – Perfect Places
And here we are at the end of all things. It is, duh, impossible to say if this will stick with me like the other songs here but it’s a good bet. I reviewed this in what was an exceptionally good month for pop, and for Mostly Pop. It sat alongside Charli XCX’s Boys and Selena Gomez’s Bad Liar, either of which could have been here in Lorde’s place (and, if this piece had been written two weeks, two months, two minutes earlier or later, maybe they would have been). I picked Perfect Places because it seemed to me like an artist on the way to something huge. It’s such a considered, contained song. It signals ambition and vision in a way the other two did not, not quite.
Also, in short, it bangs. A pretty song about both fucking and taking loads of drugs and having a lovely nap. Starts quietly, then at exactly the one minute mark there is a pause for breath, a rapid tch-tch, then the chorus swoops down on the listener in all its hazy-Sunday glory. I recognise here that I have made it very clear that I am a sucker for stops and starts in songs, for grand changes, for switchbacks and trip-ups. And yeah, I am. But that’s been this column all along, hasn’t it? Me falling for a small bag of tricks, over and over.
And getting annoyed by One Direction. In meaner moments I feel that I should have done my seven least favourite songs, because the real pleasure in all this has been in ripping up and stomping on terrible things, but that might have been an indulgence too far for my editor.
For the record, though:
7. Superlove – Don Broco
6. Don’t Judge Me – Chris Brown
5. Good Intentions – Dappy
4. What Makes You Beautiful – One Direction
3. We Own the Night – The Wanted
2. Sweatshirt – Jacob Sartorious
1. Rude – Magic!
Not gonna link, even. Never listen to those songs. Avoid bad songs entirely, for the matter of that. Never punish yourself with music you feel you should like. It’s not good for you, you don’t get brownie points in the afterlife. Music is an indulgence, a pleasure. Love music, people. Even if it’s just for 3 minutes at a time, it can make you fly. It can take you into space. See you on the next planet over.