Thursday, November 1, 2012

Popjustice £20 Music Prize: A Guide to the 2012 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.


The 2012 Mercury Prize will be handed out this evening in London, which means that, at the same time, 55 pop lovers will be meeting in a pub elsewhere in London to decide the winner of the 2012 Popjustice £20 Music Prize from the twelve meritorious singles below. Last year I offered readers a user-friendly guide to the 2011 shortlist, and it went so well I decided to do it again. Be sure to tune in tonight on Twitter (@vertigo_shtick) because I will hopefully be live-tweeting my second-hand coverage of the event, which is always irreverent, maddening, and exciting as hell.  



Lawson - "Taking Over Me" 

Hey, look, a boy band! There's something we haven't seen in a while! Lawson's sound is more self-consciously grown-up, or at least alternative, than either of its more successful competitors, One Direction and The Wanted, although “Taking Over Me” easily could have been performed by the latter. It has some nice touches – the “ooohs” over the instrumental breaks, alternating “love (love)” stuff on the chorus, rich but not overbearing production. But lyrics like “touch my skin with your body” may have aimed for profundity but fall awkwardly flat, and ultimately Andy Brown's high notes become so shrill I had to turn down the volume. Those “e” vowels are a bitch.


Little Mix - "Wings" 

This was one of the delightful discoveries in this year's shortlist for me. Like One Direction, Little Mix was formed from solo contestants on The X Factor UK (they won), because Britain, like Gaga, loves it in groups. “Wings” is the quartet's first official single, and it's a smash: a jazzy, soul-pop number that's simultaneously retro and modern (it owes as much to En Vogue as to Beyonce). Over horns (a recurring element in the 2012 shortlist) and a clapping drumline beat, the girls convincingly belt their own version of “Born This Way,” complete with “Mama told me....” It all comes to an exhilarating head at the massive, wonderfully harmonized chorus, which I was singing the rest of the day. It's a wonderful record. I can't help thinking about how it might have been if performed by a solo artist. Another missed opportunity for Kelly Rowland, I guess.


Marina and the Diamonds - "Power and Control"

“Power and Control” is among the stronger cuts from Marina and the Diamonds' ambitious sophomore release, Electra Heart. As a concept album it's a bit shaky, but as a collection of songs about relationships and the roles we play in them (or in pursuit of them) it's compelling if not enormously profound. Lyrically “Power and Control” may not seem to be saying much beyond “You're no good, let's fight,” but the way Marina alternates between confidently powerful choruses, defensively aggressive verses, and the haunting bridge (on which she contradicts her claim that “It doesn't mean that I am weak” by repeating “I am weak” in desperate falsetto) creates a tonal picture of the unsettling fluctuation of power that goes on in any relationship. 

The details in the song are what interest me: the rhythm and word ordering of “women and men, we are the same”; the enunciation of the repeated “think you're fun-ny”; the “ahhhh” on the bridge, recalling The Fame Monster-era Gaga. “Power and Control” may not be the best track on Electra Heart (“Starring Role” or “Fear and Loathing,” perhaps), but in terms of singles it's far and away the best representative for this imperfect but intriguing album.


Nero - "Promises"

Before Alex Clare's Major Lazer-produced “Too Close” rode an Internet Explorer television ad placement to the top ten of the Billboard Hot 100, UK dubstep trio Nero broke through in the US with “Promises” thanks to an HP laptop commercial (it peaked at #70 on the Hot 100). In the UK, “Promises,” the fourth single from Nero's debut album Welcome Reality, debuted at #1; it also hit the top of the charts in Scotland, and the group was nominated for the BBC's Sound of 2011 poll (Jessie J won, so...). Imagine a Skrillex song with a woman singing and you're not very far off; in fact, the group has teamed up with the multi-Grammy winner several times on some joint remix projects. In addition to its critical and commercial popularity, among electronic music lovers especially, “Promises” was nominated for an Ivor Novello songwriting award for Best Contemporary Song, losing out to Lana Del Rey's “Video Games.”


Olly Murs - "Heart Skips a Beat" 

Olly Murs got his start...oh you wanted to guess? Go on then. Yes, The X Factor! However did you know? Like Cher Lloyd, Murs earned dubious renown as a contestant many loved to hate, but unlike her he hasn't entirely shaken off that reputation - nor has he made much headway in the States with this, his international debut single off his second UK LP In Case You Didn't Know (and the US release of his third album, Right Place, Right Time). It's cute and playful, but Murs doesn't sell it, and he sounds like he's trying to play younger than he is. Plus, the skip-skips a beat idea was executed better by Selena Gomez in the far superior “Love You Like a Love Song” (“and I keep hitting repe-pe-pe-pe-peat”). The tune picks up at Rizzle Kicks' guest spot (excised from the US version in favor of Chiddy Bang), but it's a mild boost. “Heart Skips a Beat” is moderately hummable and somewhat charming on paper, but while in a different world the song could have prospered if it had another artist behind it, to paraphrase Britney, it can't 'cuz it don't. 
 

One Direction - "What Makes You Beautiful"

Rolling Stone's Rob Sheffield described “What Makes You Beautiful” as “the song 'NSync spent so many years trying and failing to get right,” and he's not wrong; it's the best boyband single since the Backstreet Boys. Everything about it is expertly crafted and well executed, from the playable chord progression to the casual mix of British and nondescript accents, to the cowbell (“(You Drive Me) Crazy,” anyone?). “What Makes You Beautiful” has proven influential in some subtle ways – try singing Ke$ha's single “Die Young” over it sometime and you'll see what I mean. It's not surprising, nor undeserved, that this single broke the band, formed from solo contestants on The X Factor UK (the same year Cher Lloyd competed, but one year before Little Mix won it all), in the UK as well as the US and other global markets. It's like what Max Martin used to make for Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys, and once it's in your head it has a way of sticking around. Only unlike with most earworms, this is a tenancy you might not mind so much.


Rizzle Kicks - "Down With the Trumpets" 

The boys of UK rap duo Rizzle Kicks have come to have fun, and if they throw a few threats your way about taking your woman, don't worry: they're just playing, really. Like kids at their first college party, Jordan "Rizzle" Stephens and Harley "Sylvester" Alexander-Sule are harmless and excited to be there, and their enthusiasm and youthful spirit is contagious (“Got 5s in charisma,” one rightly proclaims). So is the dense, bouncing beat with its trumpeted descant, and the chorus (the title, repeated, basically) is irresistible by design. The duo use back-and-forth and on- and off-beat asides to create a conversational, buddy-buddy atmosphere, and the rhymes are alternately clever and humorous in their simplicity: "Just be careful you don't lose your chick (when I dance)/ That might just happen/ So listen deep/ Stick with your madam/ Or she might just leave." A definite standout of the group. 

 
Rudimental - "Feel the Love"

What's innovative about “Feel the Love” is how it blends the concepts of “dubstep” and “happy song.” It never occurred to me until listening to this deliriously uplifting single how much dubstep has been confined to “dark” music or at least “dark” themes, as opposed to the “Woo! Life rocks! Feel the love!” thrill ride new electronic group Rudimental has created, with the help of John Newman's soulful vocal loop. It works, really effectively – so much that the unhinged bullet train of joy seems liable to fly off the rails in a fiery crash that Chinese Communist officials will have to try covering up. It doesn't, ultimately, but you'll want to take care when opening the overhead compartment, as baggage may have shifted, and when exiting onto the platform, make sure to use the handrails. 


Saint Etienne - "Tonight"

Saint Etienne has been around forever. No, I mean like since 1990 forever. That's almost as long as Kylie Minogue. Actually, the “indie dance” group's lead single “Tonight,” off their eighth album, Words and Music by Saint Etienne, sounds a lot like a Kylie Minogue song. It shimmers, pulses, and swirls like Kylie spinning around (get out of her way), and exemplifies the throwback and big-production feel that seems to dominate this year's shortlist. It's a nice, uplifting (Kylie) song, supposedly about the excitement of seeing one's favorite band play a gig, although it could be about anticipating any number of engagements. But if you're not invested in the band, and you've heard Fever, “Tonight” won't necessarily be anything new. 


Siobhan Dillon - "Powerless"

The first single from West End fixture and British reality competition show How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria? third place finisher Siobhan Dillon is big, dramatic, and Nicole Scherzinger-esque. That's not to say it's without merit: the production is immense, with the bouncing oceanic notes I remarked on in reviews of Ingrid Michaelson's Human Again and Diplo's Express Yourself, and it's relentless and overpowering (not unpleasantly). With less than revolutionary lyrics like “Am I powerless like a bird with a broken wing?” “Powerless” certainly has the power to move the more emotionally inclined listeners out there, but on the whole it's nothing to twirl around the hills singing about.


The Saturdays - "All Fired Up"

I wasn't a big fan of defending champs The Saturdays' “Higher,” which inexplicably won out in a not-entirely-fair final battle against Girls Aloud singer Nicola Roberts' “Beat of My Drum” to win the 2011 Prize. At the risk of once again falling on the wrong side of history, I'll say that “All Fired Up” doesn't improve much on my opinion of last year's nominee – particularly in light of the band's breathless declarations that it represented a “new sound” and a more “grownup” direction. Despite the involvement of the great producer Space Cowboy (Nadia Oh, early Lady Gaga) and Girls Aloud creators/producers Xenomania, “All Fired Up” doesn't fire me up much at all. Its structure (“Do this thing two times, then this thing two times, then etc.”) is repetitive and unoriginal, and the loops it repeats often aren't that interesting the first time. It's a fine pop song, as in “okay,” but it certainly doesn't meet its lofty expectations.


Will Young - "Jealousy"        

Will Young is the Kelly Clarkson of the UK (except he predates her), having won the first season of Pop Idol, the inspiration for American Idol, The X Factor, [Your Country Here]'s Got Talent, and so forth. He's a star I'm not sure could make it in the US: handsome yet vulnerable, openly gay yet relatively conventional and subdued in style, intelligent and self-aware yet modest and unassuming. He's been around long enough and had enough ups and downs in his career that his 5th studio album, Echoes, plays like a precautionary farewell, as if just in case it turned out to be his last. 

With shimmering dance floor dreamscapes (“Hearts on Fire), groovy, synthy throwbacks (“I Just Want a Lover”), and dreamy, emotional ballads like “Jealousy,” Young packs Echoes with the sort of lush pop rarely if ever delivered these days by male artists. It's all anchored by his beautiful falsetto and heartfelt performance. “Jealousy” sounds like “17 Again” or a Cher song from the late 90s, but somehow in Young's hands it works.



So there you have it. As for my thoughts, there are certainly a few worthy omissions from this years list, among them Cher Lloyd's “Swagger Jagger,” Queen of Hearts' “Neon,” Little Boots' “Shake,” and Nicola Roberts' “Yo-Yo.” As it stands, because it represents so much of the best of what pop music is, my vote (not that anyone asked me) would probably go to One Direction for “What Makes You Beautiful,” closely followed by Little Mix's “Wings” and Rizzle Kicks' “Down With the Trumpets.” My commendations also to Marina and the Diamonds' “Power and Control,” Rudimental's “Feel the Love” and Will Young's “Jealousy.”

But if it's a prediction you want, well... given the historical predilection for girl groups, don't be surprised if The Saturdays pull off another upset, unless they're outdone by Little Mix, the new girls on the block, or One Direction, which often sounds like a group of girls (in the best way).
 

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