Thursday, July 21, 2011

Popjustice £20 Music Prize: A Guide to the 2011 Shortlist

Every year since 2003, a panel of judges bestow the Popjustice £20 Music Prize to the artist behind the best British pop single of the year. The debate takes place in a pub in London on the same night as the Mercury Prize, which pompously purports to honor the best album of the year from the UK and Ireland. It’s not unlike the Grammy Award for Album of the Year, except that the UK already has one of those in the BRIT Awards; the Mercury Prize is really more like the Golden Globes of the UK music awards circuit: just another group of music snobs whose opinion matters because it comes with £20,000 and a heck of a jump in album sales. Popjustice’s £20 Music Prize is the Razzie Award, except instead of honoring the worst (see, we do that enough ourselves on the charts) the award goes to the best of an overlooked genre. The last time a pop album won the Mercury Prize was… ha, fooled you! A pop album has never won the Mercury Prize, come on.

Since it’s been a slow release cycle in the States, and because I can’t apply to be a judge since I’m stuck in Los Angeles (not that I mind), I thought I’d look into the singles revealed this week to be on this year’s shortlist. What resulted is a comprehensive guide to the twelve (mostly) excellent singles from which this year’s winner will be selected, and it’s an exciting year because for the first time, no previous winner is up for the award. Seeing as five of the eight prizes previously awarded have gone to the group Girls Aloud, currently on hiatus, I’d say that’s enough to make things interesting. (Each of the mini-writeups below will be published separately with video or mp3 aid for purposes of clarity, variety and SEO, so if you desire to hear any of the tracks or see the videos you’ll be able to find them on Vertigo Shtick as well.) 


» Adele – ‘Rolling In The Deep’ (iTunes)

Admittedly, this one you’ve probably heard of regardless of your corner of the globe, as it’s had some success as a single and the album on which it appears hasn’t done too poorly either. I’ll be the first to confess that I don’t much care for Adele’s music, but that is simply a matter of preference. It’s definitely the most obvious and well-known choice appearing on this shortlist, I would almost bet right now on it scoring at least one Grammy and probably more. For a song with such pedigree to win even the fundamentally rebellious 20 Quid Prize would not be unprecedented, as Amy Winehouse won in 2007 for “Rehab” before cleaning up at that year’s Grammys (well not “at,” in absentia).

It’s a good song and Adele packs a wallop with her balls-out delivery. She has the ability to strike an uneasy balance between devastation and rage that gives “Rolling In the Deep” its particular effectiveness. It’s the album’s perfect single, neutralizing her audience's individual preferences and experiences from either side and allowing them all to connect with the sentiments. After all, the key to a successful single is evoking unanimity of interpretation and response – in other words, a hit single – and  “Rolling In the Deep” unquestionably is a hit – generally makes everyone feel pretty much the same way. Whether Adele carries the day will likely depend on how exactly the Popjustice judiciary chooses to interpret the definition of “Best Single.”

» Hurts – ‘Stay’

The synthpop duo Hurts comes highly recommended, earning major praise from Popjustice in particular, which named the band’s debut LP Happiness 2010’s best album. Hurts consists of handsome singer Theo Hutchraft and synth man Adam Anderson, who is handsome in a different way. The two collected a number of “Best New Artist” awards throughout Europe last year, including at the high-profile Shockwaves NME Awards in the UK. I guess I need to get my hands on the rest of Happiness, because if “Stay” is the best thing on it then I fail to see any justification for placing it above Robyn’s glorious Body Talk.

Theo has a nice, pleasant voice that’s accurate but without much personality, which of course is an excellent combination if you’re doing electronic-based music as Hurts is. “Stay” is not an electronic song, however: it’s a normal pop ballad with normal pop ballad theme (um, he’s asking her to stay…or him, we don’t judge) and most high school students could come up with a similar song in beginning songwriting class, and even if they couldn’t, Train already went down a similar melodic road with “Drops of Jupiter." Now as we well know, pop music isn’t just about the damn songwriting; there’s usually more to it than that. In this case, the “more” is overblown, melodramatic production and a refrain punctuated by what might be the Zombie Tabernacle Choir singing “Staaaaaaay,” and if I were this girl (or guy, we don’t judge) I would high-tail it out of there too. The video is very Dancing at Lughnasa and suggests that Britain may have a good chance of medaling in synchronized swimming at the upcoming London Olympics. In other words, Robyn wuz robbed (fortunately the readers’ poll set things right. How often does THAT happen in the US?).

» Jessie J – ‘Do It Like A Dude’ (iTunes)

It’s both uplifting and depressing to revisit the great whopper of a debut single from Jessie J, winner of this year’s Critics’ Choice at the BRIT Awards as the most promising newcomer on the scene. Especially considering that “Do It Like a Dude,” an aggressive, urban-electro jam wherein the singer jumps from pinched squeaking to full-on, brassy belting to patois, was pretty much all anyone had heard from her thus far, and the single is many things, including fascinating, but accessible and pretty it is not. Originally written for Rihanna as another “Rude Boy,” the song doesn’t fit Jessie J but the other way around, which is interesting. At the time, without the context that would follow, it was a gutsy move to get noticed in a crowded pop market. Now that we’ve gotten a look at the disappointment of her uneven debut album, this doesn’t seem as much a brave move as an insincere calculation designed to obtain the hype it did for reasons – and a product – rather less fun and less groundbreaking than it was made out to be. Who You Are is a messy collection of variously good songs and filler a la early Britney Spears or any Katy Perry, and “Do It Like a Dude” is one of maybe two or three standouts "(“Mamma Knows Best” is another) that doesn’t seem like pandering, but it’s hard to erase the rest from my mind when I listen to it now, which is a shame. It would have been KILLER for Rihanna.

» Joe McElderry – ‘Ambitions’

One of the many ways England is a parallel universe – recognizable, but with a few key differences – is that on The X Factor, the UK equivalent to American Idol, the better finalist generally does win in the end… even if he’s GAY! Also, sometimes they pick girls! And because there’s only one time zone, results come in the same night, which not only makes it all more exciting and staves off the obsessive ballot box stuffing of horny adolescent girls that we have here, it also means no ridiculous “Results Shows” and their endless stalling and commercial time. Occasionally the televised singing competitions churn out (or at least discover) a bonafide star: Girls Aloud (Popstars: The Rivals), Will Young (the original Pop Idol on which American Idol is based), Leona Lewis (The X Factor), Susan Boyle (Britain’s Got Talent, although she did come in second) and recently the suspiciously stunning Joe McElderry, winner of the sixth season of The X Factor in 2009.

“Ambitions” is a cover of the 2009 debut single by Norwegian band Donkeyboys, which shot to number one in Sweden and Norway it failed to gather much interest in the UK. McElderry’s version raised some admiring eyebrows and earned comparisons to lauded falsetto master Mika, although for a US audience I’d describe it as a softer Adam Levine from Maroon 5. It’s kind of inspirational, upbeat hopefulness in a nice little package, like something you wouldn’t be shocked to hear on Glee, or from someone standing with arms flung wide in the wind at the bow of a ship or leaning out the window of a train. And boy, is he cute!

» Mark Ronson & The Business Intl feat Boy George etc. – ‘Somebody To Love Me’ (iTunes)

Mark Ronson may be the man who brought us Lily Allen and Amy Winehouse, but with both singers currently on hiatuses of varying severity, what has he done for us lately? Good news is that his 2010 album Record Collection offers up some interesting and occasionally fantastic noises to keep the more snootily adventurous among us entertained for a bit. It also contains a pair of riveting singles, one being the opener “Bang Bang Bang,” on which glasses-wearing protégée Amanda Warner (MNDR) gets some introductory shining time, and the second being this touching, dramatic showpiece for troubled icon Boy George, alongside Miike Snow vocalist Andrew Wyatt. Even though pop and dance lyrics are generally of minor importance and are sometimes disposable, especially when producers or DJs are the lead artists, it is always a nice surprise when the words connect as well as they do here. This track succeeds where T.I. and Christina Aguilera’s almost haunting “Castle Walls” failed, because Boy George can add unique poignancy to universally accessible lyrics like “I want somebody to be nice/ See the boy I once was in my eyes” without presenting them as proprietary, specific to his circumstance alone. We all know what it’s like to want someone to love us; fewer people have first-hand understanding of the difficulties of castle living.

» Nadia Oh – ‘Taking Over The Dancefloor’ (iTunes)

This is probably the most controversial entry on the 2011 shortlist, and it’s also one of the more interesting picks on a list that’s about 50/50 on the sentimental vs. the experimental. Nadia Oh is a protégée of producer Space Cowboy, who produced or co-wrote several early Lady Gaga tracks including the great “Christmas Tree.” This is the lead single off her second album, Colours, which is probably why it’s been renamed from its original title, “Kate Middleton,” although the name remains in the song and lends a nice social commentary aspect to the mechanical proclamations of “Take your money/ We gon’ take your money/ Throw your wallets in the sky.”

While dubstep is currently working its way into American pop, this track plays with a much newer subgenre of dance music called Moombahton, characteristics of which include chopped electronic vocals, 108 BPM tempo, and creative and new percussion elements. Accordingly, Oh comes off like M.I.A.’s hotter, less obnoxious little sister, and she’s really just taking the robotic/bionic theme Christina Aguilera, Robyn and Britney Spears have been playing with up a level and being more direct about it, and if that isn’t so 2011 I don’t know what is. “Taking Over the Dancefloor” is the kind of track one either loves from the get-go (as I did, I’m surprised to say), hate until having a sudden epiphany after the eleventh play, or find instantly obnoxious and never listen to it again. If a song is a popular radio staple, the last reaction, being doomed, can often be reversed over time, but then again so could the first; in this case, they might as well have stuck with the first title for how accurate the new title has been (it hasn’t exactly taken over anything). But, as Popjustice rightly points out, she rhymes “Moombahton” and “Don Julio Patron” with “Middleton,” which is pretty fantastic.

» Nicola Roberts – ‘Beat Of My Drum’

Two girl groups (both alike in dignity)
In fair pop music land where we lay our scene,
Amidst rumors and grudges break to new solo careers,
But have judging gigs revoked or find fathers’ hands unclean.
From forth the newfound freedom from these woes,
A pair of clever singers ready albums (nice!).
To produce lead singles each of them gets Diplo,
One orders a fresh beat, the other a used one on ice.

Nicola Roberts was sixteen when she was one of five girls voted into a new band called Girls Aloud on the reality competition show Popstars: The Rivals. For the next seven years she was part of the most extraordinary success story to come from reality television on any side of the globe, as Girls Aloud, quickly separated from their initial management, made it on its own  and with the help of the innovative production team at Xenomania became a critical and commercial hit. But Nicola, a redhead (“ginger,” they say) with pale skin and none of the ostentatious sex appeal of her girl group predecessor Geri “Sexy Spice” Halliwell (incidentally, a judge on the show that created the group), became the target of less than friendly quips targeting her hair, skin, attitude, and all of her attempts to compensate for these supposed flaws as well. She was often described as the “ugly,” “miserable,” or “mousy” one (I’m still not sure what that means. I happen to think mice are darling, but it’s apparently not flattering). In other words, a great artist was brewing.

It will be especially interesting to look at Nicola Roberts’ solo career from an outsider’s perspective. I lived for a year in London so I am familiar with the celebrity of Girls Aloud in the UK, but because the legend is not ingrained in me or my fellow Americans we will have no choice but to see her work outside of the cultural influences that shape it. The lead single from upcoming album Cinderella’s Eyes has Diplo’s hand, like Beyoncé’s “Run the World (Girls),” with the key difference that Roberts called the edgy producer to ask for his input anew, whereas Beyoncé simply took the beat off an old Major Lazer track and put a melody over it.

The single works in so many ways: it’s got a great beat and is fun to dance to and sing along with; the message of overcoming the past is a healthy one; and the hook ("L! O! V-E! Dance to the beat of my drum! Dance to the beat of my drum!") is as winkingly dumb-smart as the one Gwen Stefani rode all the way to number one (and the bank) in 2003 with “Hollaback Girl.” In the video, Roberts, who no longer bothers with fake tan or highlighted hair, and looks all the better for it, plays up the shock factor. Not “shock factor” like Christina Aguilera’s not-so-shocking attempts at out-Madonna-ing Madonna (and Lady Gaga) with “Not Myself Tonight” but simply letting herself fly, starting out acting shy and uncomfortable in the way she was often derided as being, before sassily knocking over the mike stand and shaking her booty like a free woman. It’s a great single, made even greater by the story behind and around it, and the possibility that her solo project might actually take off just when high-profile Cheryl Cole, fresh off being fired from the U.S. version of The X Factor, is finally ready for the Girls to reunite, is really blowing the UK media’s mind. Bravo, Nicola.

» The Saturdays – ‘Higher’

The Saturdays are in many respects the British incarnation of the Pussycat Dolls, assembled with Robin Antin-like aesthetic precision (a blonde, a redhead/ginger, a brunette, a mildly black brunette, and a vaguely Hispanic brunette) and debuting in 2008. Their best songs, like “Up” and “If This Is Love,” are like good Katy Perry tunes: enjoyable as hell, but no one’s changing the world here, or even the formula. There’s a nice little moment in the video where the girls do a little choreography crossing Abbey Road, but mostly they just sit around and smile at each other like they’re in a tampon commercial. “Higher” is a solid piece of summery pop (that came out in the winter), but I don’t imagine I will remember it in the morning (Flo Rida shows up for a useless bit of fun I didn't even notice the first listen through.). However, word has it that their next single off the upcoming fourth album and tour is to be written and produced by Space Cowboy, the wizard behind Nadia Oh. That, of course, could potentially be something at which to sit up and take notice. Until then, at least they’re still hot.

» Sunday Girl – ‘Stop Hey’

Sunday Girl singer Jade Williams’ voice is distinctive, but not unique; frankly, to me she just sounds like a number of other husky-voiced indie singer/songwriters except not really as good. The tune is a decent attempt at emotional heart-tugging regarding longing and fear of loss, but it sounds too much like Sting’s “Fields of Gold,” and Sting’s smooth, effortless accuracy makes her voice sound like sandpaper by comparison. Williams’ vocal in particular is either sloppily executed or it intentionally shoots too vigorously for some sort of valiantly anti-AutoTune authenticity. At one point Williams tries leaping a major sixth but botches the upper landing, not in a charming, let’s-remind-people-that-I’m-human kind of way but a thirteen-year-old-boy-whose-balls-just-dropped-mid-phrase way. I’m sure that the break was left in on purpose because it’s about as subtle as Lady Gaga’s wardrobe, but here’s the thing: when Beyoncé, dancing with New York public school kids, sings “Now run to the left, to the left, to the left” and accidentally runs to the right, that’s funny, mainly because Beyoncé is so spot on the rest of the time, she’s in a school, everyone else goes the correct direction, and she laughs with us at her mistake. Williams hasn’t built up any of the credibility necessary to ask us to ignore or appreciate the raw errors in her delivery, so there’s not much to think at that moment besides “would it kill you to have done another take?”

» The Wanted – ‘All Time Low’ (iTunes)

Basically, The Wanted is the male equivalent to The Saturdays, which may or may not have anything to do with the fact that both groups spawn from the same creator. In a way the UK is a bit like Jurassic Park, where supposedly extinct creatures like boy bands and soap operas and royalty roam free as if they never died out. We’re so used to the individuality of reality singing competition shows over here (because let’s face it this is America where “compromise” is a bad word and sharing is for Socialists) that the notion of boy or girl bands is pretty antiquated. Then again, it’s easy to say so for those of us who actually did have boy/girl bands to help calibrate our raging hormones when we were becoming horny adolescents. At least when Justin Timberlake started dating Britney Spears we had like nine other boy band hotties to re-center our crushes on. Nowadays young girls have only Justin Bieber, and after the backlash Esperanza Spalding got simply for winning an award (that she deserved) over Bieber I wouldn’t be surprised if Selena Gomez’ security detail has had to call for reinforcements because these millions of obsessed girls have no one else to obsess over. Are we dooming our children?

Suddenly The X Factor, which allows groups to compete as well as solo artists (the UK edition has occasionally created groups out of solo contestants in the past) makes total sense. Musically I find “All Time Low” pretty ‘meh,’ but perhaps that’s no more the point than aspirations of stardom and acquisition of boobies groupies were for the Pussycat Dolls. A look at the video for this tune is enough to realize what I suspect Simon Cowell has already (leveraging $5 million for the winner of The X Factor instead of the standard $1 million for the Idol could be a clue): if millions of dollars preteen girls are this bowled over by one boy like Justin Bieber, imagine what they’d spend on do with FIVE!

» Take That – ‘The Flood’

Come to think of it, maybe it is getting to be time for the revival of the boy band. Pop music is shifting back toward the European dance sound and further from hip-hop, leaving the bad boy phase behind with it in favor of a more non-threatening, mildly feminized, increasingly white male ideal: he may not put out, but he also isn’t likely to beat you up in the car before the Grammys. That was the gentle ‘90s aesthetic that New Kids on the Block, the Backstreet Boys, N*Sync and Take That exploited to the hilt, and it can be no coincidence that three of the four are currently in revival. This has been more successful overseas than here, where there are few crimes more sinister than daring to age, and also to the biggest spenders on music in this country these “boys” are often old enough to be a father, and women don’t tend to find that terribly appealing until their 20s at least.

Objectively speaking, when members of a once successful boy band reunite, bringing with them the wisdom from years of experience, training, and exploration, the result should be something very much like this song. “The Flood” gives its recipe away in its structure, starting out typically and almost blandly, like a Backstreet Boys ballad. Then there’s an unexpected chord change, or a bridge enters when a chorus seems inevitable, and the track progresses from so-so to expert and better still. What starts as a seemingly predictable, sappy reunion track a knowing audience can comfortably smile down upon eventually catches up and overtakes expectations, and by the time you’re through you’re a hormone-pulsing preteen again with a familiar crush on familiar heartthrobs, except with far greater understanding and appreciation of the concept of sex appeal. (I also love that “understood” rhymes with “flood.”)

» Yasmin – ‘Finish Line’
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I LOVE when a song surprises me. I am a sucker for the unexpected unveiling of additional depth midway through a track, or a minor resolution from what sounds inevitably major, or the introduction of a beat that stops my heart. It doesn’t happen often, although I probably don’t allow for many opportunities by not being the most adventurous listener in the world.

Twenty seconds into Yasmin’s single “Finish Line,” the last of Popjustice's shortlist for the 2011 20 Quid Prize, I got a one-two punch of aural amazement. The singer, a gorgeous young woman of mixed Persian descent with a disarmingly smooth voice, sings what will become the refrain of a dirge for love grown cold over the basest of synth backing. Then she reaches the devastating line “I think this is the end of us,” and on “end” the chord changes to a dark minor that indicates something more bluesy and R&B than the initial chord changes had suggested. As she finishes the line, a deep voice speaks the song’s title, which repeats at the front and the end of each refrain and areas within and serves as a frame and in a way a part of the beat, like “Barbra Streisand” did on Duck Sauce’s 2010 track of the same name. The beat that follows, like the song on top of it, is smooth and sensual, cool and confident, edgy but not unfamilar, and the 22 year old pulls it off beautifully.

Yasmin is a new acquisition of the Ministry of Sound label, which also manages Alex Gaudino, Afrojack (whose single “Give Me Everything” with Pitbull and Ne-Yo hit number one in both the US and UK last month), and Example, and I’ll be interested to see what she produces after this. For now, this is the song I keep taking writing breaks to go listen to like it was a drug or new boyfriend, so there you go.

So there you go. Which one would I pick, one might ask (probably not but let's go with it)? For me the top the battle would be between Nicola Roberts and Yasmin, with Nadia Oh a close third and Adele, Mark Ronson and Take That rounding out the top half. For the record, I would have included Katy B's "Katy on a Mission" over several of these tracks, and Natalia Kills' "Wonderland" is even better than Sunday Girl. I love both Roberts' and Yasmin's singles, and would find either of them winning quite pleasant; however, given the entire greatness of the whole story (which is, like so many things, all a part of pop music, you know), I'd cast my ballot for "Beat of My Drum."
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