Closer To Perfection
Music Diary Project - Final Leg

As the week ends, i can finish writing up all the music i’ve listened to over the last seven days for the Music Diary Project. It’s definitely worth searching Tumblr for the tag -there have been over a hundred blogs involved. 

9/04/11

I spend much of the day adding somewhere between 900 - 1000 new songs to my iPod while watching a couple of films and the excellent French detective thriller Spiral. As a result, the only music i listen to is incidental, via the television -none of which is easily identified.

10/04/11

Again, music takes a significant back seat to films. Session 9 is the pick of the day,  a well-made low-budget horror film with an ending song by Lou Barlow of Sebadoh.

The music i do listen to comes exclusively from the forthcoming 2011 Eurovision Song Contest. I make my way through about three quarters of the 42 entries on my iPod. Sweden and Hungary look like decent bets but my heart belongs to Belarus. Eschewing the Eurovision norm, they don’t have a song about pan-European cooperation or making the world a better place, they have one about how awesome their home nation is. Whether 300m viewers are going to vote for a cute girl shouting “I LOVE BELARUS!” at them remains to be seen though.

Music Diary Project Day V (and a bit)

Continuing to write up all the music i listen to this week for the Music Diary Project.

08/04/11

7:00 - 8:15 (walking to work, listening via iPod)

DMX - Ruff Ryders’ Anthem

Wasn’t a huge fan of DMX the first time around but made more of an effort after seeing constant references in Waka reviews. Ruff Ryders’ Anthem is stunning, built around a stark guitar line / beat that Swizz sold him at the age of 17.

Girl Unit - IRL (Bok Bok Remix)

New headphones sound a little bass-heavy and spacey so i flick through a few things to find something that works with them. This does.

Ke$ha - Cannibal (mini-album)

Inpired, in part, by Tom Ewing’s article on Auto-Tune - not that i ever need an excuse to listen to Ke$ha. Occurs to me how strange it would have seemed a year ago to be thinking that the new Gaga is going to have to be excellent to keep pace. 

Tina Karol - Ni K Chemu

It’s difficult to pinpoint precisely what has made this album track from the Ukrainian star my most-played song of the last three years - the thumping disco beat? The ‘lai-la-lai-la-la-las’? The bit where, apropos of very little she shouts ‘ALPHONSE!’? What ever it is, i listen to it at least once a week on the way to work.

Aaliyah - Complete (compilation)

Had More Than A Woman stuck in my head for three days so run through more Aaliyah until i get to office.

16:30 - 18:00 (walking home, listening via iPod)

Fabrika - Mi Takie Raznie (album)

One of the most consistently brilliant Russian girl-groups of the last few years. They sound wonderful in the blazing sunshine, particularly the ridiculous summer anthem More Zovet. It reminds me of inflatable crocodiles and all manner of other seaside tat in Odessa. One of these days i’ll make an effort to find out what happened to the guest rapper.

Mylene Farmer - Bleu Noir (album)


I foolishly slept on the new album from Mylene for months after its release but it’s reliably brilliant. The Moby-produced title track is one of the highlights. The combination of her peerless synth-pop and the sunshine takes me back to sweltering in a enormous queue to see her in Toulouse .

20:30 - 21:45 (watching TV)


BBC4 has a very entertaining documentary on the history of opera followed by a trad music session featuring folk singers from Ireland, Scotland and Nashville. I quite enjoy the latter (Cara Dillon is good) but Claire, who has probably heard enough tin whistles to last her a lifetime, demands i turn it off.

09/04/11

8:40 - 8:55

Paola e Chiara - Milleluci (album) (listening via iPod)

Walking round to my parents’ house, i listen to a few songs from the new Paola e Chiara album. I swear the Italian sisters haven’t made a good record since 1998, but i give them the benefit of the doubt again. It’s ok.

9:20 - 9:35 / 10:45 - 11:05 (in parents’car)


Various - Soca / Calypso compilation


I’ve missed going to the supermarket with my parents while my father’s been in Trinidad. The CD compilation of calypso and soca from a few years ago he plays sounds incredible on a warm Spring morning. The only thing i instantly recognise is Rupee’s What Happen In De Party.

Music Diary Project Day IV

Day four of writing up all the music i hear during the day (with Youtube links)

06/04/11

22:35 (listening via Claire’s laptop / Flip Camera / Xbox)

Warren G and Nate Dogg - Regulate 

Luniz - I Got 5 On It 

Salt ‘n’ Pepa - Push It

Claire’s entertaining herself by watching surreptitiously-filmed footage of me and an accomplice butchering a variety of hip-hop classics on Def Jam Rapstar last week. The pick is Regulate, of course, with my best friend taking the role of Warren while i sing Nate’s parts. I glare at her until she stops.

07/04/11

7:10 - 8:25 (walking to work, listening via iPod) 

I’m running late and require something with a suitable amount of pep to wake me up so it’s an early run of energetic singles to start the day. 

Paradiso Girls - Who’s My Bitch?


I don’t buy into the idea of guilty pleasures but Paradiso Girls come as close as anything to inspiring a mild sense of shame. For anyone unfamiliar with their short-lived ouvre, they were an attempt to create a European franchise of Pussycat Dolls with the questionably-named, and alarmingly flexible, Aria Crescendo taking the Nicole Scherzinger role. They managed two singles, as far as i can tell, including this anthem to female empowerment, delivered while wearing ‘outfits’ made of gaffer tape and doing upside-down splits. It’s set to music from Carmen, though, so it’s classy. Nobody involved can really sing but if there’s was a more audaciously silly chorus in 2010 i didn’t hear it.

"i’ve got your friends all knockng at my door /I’ll take my pick, even your chick /I even heard your mama wanted some of this" 

Mika Newton - Anomaliya 

I once lazily described Newton as Ukraine’s answer to Avril Lavigne, which someone subsequently added to her Wikipedia site and has remained there for four years. It doesn’t really do her any justice - her bubblegum punk songs are much more fun and her ballads genuinely affecting. She’s the Ukrainian entrant for Eurovision this year, with a slightly lacklustre slow number. Anomaliya from her debut is cute, fizzy pop-rock. 

Zhanna Friske - Zhanna Friske 

Friske belongs to an increasing class of Russian stars more famous for their celebrity status and gossip column escapades than any particular talent. Unlike Ksenia Sobchak or Julia Kova, say, she’s actually pretty good at the business of being an entertainer as well - proving a more than capable actress and a thoroughly charming pop star. Her eponymous single bit enough from Paris Hilton’s Stars Are Blind to prompt Muz.TV to institute a special award for best use of plagiarism at their equivalent of the Brits. Her warm, effortless vocals make this several cuts above her rival model/actress/whatever, though.


Activ - Visez

Delightfully addictive Romanian Euro-pop - probably one of the biggest international hits to come out of the country in the last decade.

Tove Styrke - Tove Styrke (album)

Tove’s album impresses me a little more each time i hear it.

17:00 - 18:20 (walking home from work, listening via iPod)

I have to drop into a shop playing what i think is probably Kings Of Leon to buy some new headphones.

Sky Ferreira - As If! (EP)

Still fun the second time around.

GD & TOP - GD & TOP (album)

Sharp-cheekboned Korean kids doing enjoyable party rap. Some of the slow jams are a little cloying but it’s consistently entertaining. The high highlight is, naturally, High High but the Diplo-produced Knock Out is also pretty great.

Ice Cube - It Was A Good Day

Because sometimes when the sun’s shining, and the breeze catches you just right, it’s necessary.

Katy B - On A Mission (album)

Best British pop album in ages.



Music Diary Project Day III

Day three of the Music Diary Project:

05/04/11

23:15 (listening via Claire’s laptop)

Justice - D.A.N.C.E (Live on Jimmy Kimmel)

Claire’s on Facebook trying to get her sixteen-year-old brother to listen to dance music through the medium of Justice’s Michael Jackson tribute. It’s one of my least favourite songs on their monumental début album, but it’s still pretty great. 

06/04/11

7:00 - 8:20 (walking to work, listening via iPod)

Nyusha - Vibirat’ Chudo (album)

An album i’d been after for a while and listened to the first chance i had. She’s a 20 year-old Muscovite pop star pushing no boundaries with her traditional mix of R&B, italo disco and downbeat vocals but showing a much stronger command of the genre than most. The title track is magnificent - resonant, melancholy electro-pop in the style that no other country can quite match.

4 Minutes -Diamond (album)

I’m trying to catch up on K-Pop at the moment and 4 Minutes are a fairly successful girl group. It’s noisy, heavily-Autotuned R&B. I might come back to it later but i decide after two tracks that it’s not going to work for me now.

Aaliyah - Complete Works (compilation album)

After the abrasive 6 minutes i spend with 4 Minutes, Aaliyah sounds even more unearthly than usual. The compilation skips around between old and new, out of sequence, following Try Again with Back and Forth, but it’s all perfect. Ten songs in and i’m at the office.

16:30 - 17:50 (walking home from work, listening via Pod)

E-40 - Revenue Retrievin’ Graveyard Shift

I give another play to Graveyard shift, having pretty much exhausted the superb Day Shift over the last few months. 40 is one of the most straight-up likeable rappers in the game, whether he’s talking about selling cocaine in the eighties or complaining about his gout. As the name would suggest, it’s probably a little too nocturnal for the first truly warm afternoon of the year, but it works well enough.

Britney Spears- Femme Fatale (album)

I have time for the first six tracks of Femme Fatale, one of two albums (the other being Katy B’s) i’ve been going back to again and again over the last few weeks. I liked Circus more than most people but it’s heartening to hear her making music that sounds fresh and vital again. Hearing her swear feels surprisingly transgressive, which it shouldn’t do, given that she’s 29 and was wearing a PVC catsuit ten years ago. I suppose, regardless of the hyper-sexualised imagery, she has never really lost that sense of innocence and vulnerability.

Music Diary Project Day II

Day two of the Music Diary project - writing up what i’m listening to for a week.

18:45 pm 04/04/11 - 18:45 05/04/11 


23.05 - 23.10 (listening via Claire’s laptop)


Modjo - Chillin

Claire started to play what initially sounds like a sped-up Jamiroquai remix, but was shortly identified as Chillin’ by Modjo, on her laptop. It’s ok. I love French Touch house music but Modjo always seemed a little slick to me. Claire tells me they had three great songs though (Chillin’, Lady and …?). 

23:10 - 23:35 (kitchen,  listening via iPod)

Emma Shapplin - Etterna (album)

The last thing i want, while doing the washing up, is anything too noisy so i scroll through my iPod looking for something dark and folky.

I stop at Emma Shaplin’s Etterna, which doesn’t really fit the bill but calls out to me anyway. I hadn’t listened to the album in about five years but saw the name somewhere online and unearthed the CD over the weekend. It’s absolutely ridiculous, she’s a quasi-operatic French diva singing baroque, stormy, windswept pop in archaic Italian. It has enough passion stay the right side of polite Enigma territory. It reminds me instantly of listening to the album while falling asleep in the bath at the Ismailovo Delta Hotel in Moscow, circa 2004.

 7:00 - 8:15 (walking to work, listening via iPod)


Oh Land - Oh Land (album)


Still making my way through a few new albums. I’m keen to hear Oh Land, having racked up 10m views on Youtube despite not really making much of an impact in the UK or, to some extent, her native Denmark. It’s electro-pop, a little softer and less angular than i was anticipating. I’m not sure it has the emotional depth of someone like Bertine Zetlitz, at first listen, but it works well as the rain starts spitting down.


Carpenters - From The Top: Disc 2 (album)


By the time i reach Angel, the rain is coming down heavily and the wind is getting spiteful. I want something melancholy and comforting so opt for the 1971 - 1973 disc of the Carpenters retrospective. It’s difficult to get my head around the fact that Karen was 21 or 22 when she was singing Superstar and Let Me Be The One. I cherry-pick five of the best songs (Superstar, Rainy Days and Mondays, Let Me Be The One, Yesterday Once More, Goodbye To Love)


Christian Falk ft Robyn & Ola Salo - Dream On

Diddy Dirty Money - Coming Home

Urban Symphony - Randajad


Approaching the office, i increase the energy level marginally with Christian Falk’s hymn to falling asleep and putting your cares behind you, Skylar Grey’s cashmere blanket of a voice and Urban Symphony’s 2009 Eurovision entry for Estonia. The latter has some of the most wonderfully rolled ‘r’s since Tatu’s Robot.


13:35 - 13:40 (desk, listening via iPod)


The Dream - Yamaha


Put on Yamaha by The Dream but am interupted by phone call two thirds of the way through and forget to go back to it.


16:30 - 17:50  (walking home from work, listening via iPod)


Halcali - Tokyo Connection (mini album)

Halcali are, or rather were, a super-cute Japanese electro-rap duo. The new mini album drops almost all of the hip-hop influences for Puffy-style bubblegum guitar-pop. If you’re going to steal, you might as well steal from the best pop group of the last fifteen years, i suppose. It’s fun.


Avril Lavigne - Goodbye Lullaby (album)


I have an open mind about Lavigne - i tend to like her singles, What The Hell included. The new album is absolutely appalling, however. The worst elements of her music magnified until the whole thing collapses into a whiny, self-absorbed mess.


Fanfare Ciocarlia - Asphalt Tango


On the way home, i notice a poster in a cafe window advertising a ‘Balkan brass battle’ between Fanfare Ciocarlia and Boban Markovic at Koko, a prospect tempting enough to make me break my self-imposed bar on attending that horrible venue (although, in fairness, free tickets to My Life Story were also good enough in 2009). It inspires me to play this wonderful piece of rolling Roma funk.


18:30 (home, listening via Youtube)


Ntjam Rosie - In Need

Scanning a music aggregator, click through to a link for Ntjam Rosie’s In Need. She appears to be a Dutch jazz singer. It’s very good. Sounds a little like Erykah Badu.


Music Diary Project - Part One

Over the next week, i’ll be taking part in SickMouthy Music Diary Project, blogging all the things i listen to over the course of the next seven days. The first part (with Youtube links) - 6:45am to 6:45pm 04/04/11 - is below.

 

6:40 - 7:00 (getting ready for work, listening via iPod)


Scraped five-and-a-bit hours of sleep, as usual, and have to face an 8:30 start at work. I use music in the way other people use caffeine so it’s punchy, energetic singles to wake me up.


 Yelle - Comme Un Enfant


Yelle’s albums are up against an immense challenge in trying to capture the vivacity of her live shows but Comme Un Enfant, from Safari Disco Club has a headrush of a chorus that comes as close as anything to nailing it.


 GD and TOP - High High


Ludicrous Korean pop hip-hop, everything but the kitchen sink is thrown in - distorted guitars, booming bass, stuttering electro touches, four separate sing-along sections (“G.H.E.T.T.O E.L.E.C.T.R.O!”) - and it all comes together thrillingly.



    Boy Better Know - Too Many Man 

Like most BBK stuff, it’s all about the sense of momentum. They never let the beat rest for a second.


7:00 - 8:15 04/04/11 (walking to work, listening via iPod)


Tove Styrke - Tove Styrke (album)


Glittery Scandi-pop in the Robyn / Margaret Berger mould. Shiny surfaces overlaid alternately with sass and melancholy. London’s mornings are starting to get bright and crisp, rather than grey and wet, and this, particularly single White Light Moment, has a self-possession and optimism that makes it perfect for Spring.


 Sky Ferreira - As If! (mini-album)


Lord knows if / when her debut album will ever come out, or what it’ll sound like. Being stuck between teen-pop and iD-covergirl electro might be posing her label problems but, creatively, it seems to be working. Highlight is Haters anonymous, a daft banger about people being mean to her on the internet. It’s probably fair to say that she’ll have more material from that well to drawn on before the year is up. It’s a very strong EP.


 Avril Lavigne - What The Hell


Haven’t mustered the enthusiasm to tackle the album yet (a song called 4 Real?) but the first single is a wonderfully bratty hook-laden throwback. Criticised as juvenilia by many, Avril having fun still works for me almost every time.


 Erasure - Always


I wanted to listen to Wut by Girl Unit but, approaching the office, i realised i would only have time for something half as long so settled on Erasure’s most affecting single. A flamboyant, open-hearted synth-pop confection adopted the meme-generating /b/-boys (via Robot Unicorn Attack).



8:30-9:00 (desk, listening to Youtube via headphones)



I used to blog quite extensively about foreign-language pop music and rarely pass up the opportunity to rattle off a few recommendations whether they’re requested or not. The Guardian mentions a few Polish pop stars in an article this morning, including (wonderfully) Monika Brodka, and i add a couple of suggestions of my own, while eating breakfast at my desk. 


I opt for Kasia Stankiewicz’s stunning Francuzeczka, one of my favourite songs of the last ten years, Deer’s Cure-sampling dancehall effort Balagan, Monopol’s electro-funk Zodiak Na Melanzu, the beautiful trance-pop of Reni Jusis’ Niemy Krzyk, along with Blog 27’s enormously silly teen-reggaeton Turn You On To Music. It would be impossible not to mention the unique disco-polo scene so i round things off with MIG’s Co Ty Mi Dasz. I listen to them as i go.



13:30 - 14:30 (desk, listening via iPod)



E-40 - Revenue Retrievin’: Graveyard Shift (album)



I had a few boring MailMerge tasks i’d been avoiding for two weeks so put my headphones on to block out the office noise and got stuck in. Normally, when i have something dull and monotonous to  accomplish, i’ll put on something by Raekwon or GZA. the spartan, martial beats help me lock into a rhythm and get it done quickly. For a change, i thought i’d listen to E-40’s excellent Revenue Retrieving: Graveyard Shift, which was a mistake. His flow draws you in too much and ended up being distracting. 


16:30 - 16:35 (Embankment Gardens with Claire)


By four, i was already planning what i’d listen to on the way home, deciding between Night Slugs All Stars Vol.1 or the new TV On The Radio album. Those plans were cut short when the office was informed that there was a suspicious vehicle outside the building and the whole of The Strand had been sealed off by police, meaning i’d have to take the tube home with my other half, rather than walk. On the brief stroll through Embankment Gardens, i heard a kid with a guitar strumming The Beatles’ Come Together, watched over by his embarrassed-looking girlfriend, which was thankfully soon drowned out by Kylie’s In My Arms, perhaps her best single of recent years.


17:30 - 17:35 (street, listening via iPod)


My father has been in Trinidad for three months and returned today so i stopped off on the way home to say hello and load up on all the startling combinations of sugar, coconut and condensed milk the West Indies are famed for. I also note a new soca MP3 CD i’ll have to get him to duplicate for me. I just have time to listen to the soca refix of Gyptian’s Hold Yuh before i get back to my flat.


18:15 - 18:45 (kitchen, listening via iPod)


Meisa Kukori - Magazine (album)


Making my way through a stack of new albums, i settled upon Meisa Kukori Magazine to listen to while making dinner, not knowing much about it. It veered a little too close to generic Japanese R&B at times but there are some good Gaga-inspired moments like the single Lol!. As with many Japanese pop albums, there are lots of curious / probably misheard lyrics (“life is not a toaster to be branded”).


Gotta Go Home

Music lost an iconic presence yesterday as Bobby Farrell from disco superstars Boney M passed away in Moscow at the age of sixty-one. Although never critically acclaimed, the group’s ability to interpolate minors hits or traditional folk songs into impeccably-arranged dance floor killers left them with more unimpeachably brilliant, and fondly remembered, singles than almost any other 1970s pop act. 

My reasons for loving Boney M have always been a little more personal. When I was very young, my mother would sing Rivers Of Babylon and Brown Girl In The Ring to me as I was falling asleep and, although I missed their late-seventies heyday, the continued popularity of both songs gave me one of my first experiences of hearing what I considered to be ‘my music’, the music of the West Indies (albeit in a highly modified form), on British radio. The fact that the male vocals were actually performed by a German guy called Frank and not the dancer from Aruba was neither here nor there.

An equally formative moment was seeing a re-run of  their classic 1978 Top Of The Pops clip for Rasputin on television. To call Farrell’s performance distinctive would be an understatement - dressed in what looked like an ermine-fringed bacofoil cape and tights, and sporting a ludicrous stuck-on beard, he left most of the vocal duties to girls and just jigged and twirled like a lunatic in the background. More than anyone else. I think Farrell opened my eyes to the possibilities of pop music. Armed with imagination, an ambivalence towards making a fool of himself and a microphone that was clearly never plugged in, he showed, to quote a later star, that ‘ridicule is nothing to be scared of’. Rather than getting hung up on ideas of authenticity, music could sometimes simply be about having fun. Every time I see chutney Santa, Robyn dressed as a bee or anyone else just getting up there and ignoring the criticisms of the super-serious and deadly boring, I’ll think of Bobby.

Black and Blue

2010 marked the passing of Satoshi Kon, one of the world’s greatest directors of animation. Kon’s work dented, with its humanity and insight, the common perception of Japanese anime as being the sole preserve of teenage boys with tentacle fixations. It’s a fitting coda to his career that a film so heavily indebted to his 1997 masterpiece Perfect Blue should be sweeping all before it as awards season approaches. It’s a debt that Black Swan director, Darren Aronofsky, explicitly acknowledges at several points during the film, paying homage with a number of shots lifted directly from its predecessor, even if the influence has been played down in interviews.

A psychological thriller in the vein of Alfred Hitchcock and Dario Argento, Perfect Blue sits alongside The Monkees’ classic Head as one of the greatest films about pop music ever made. As J-Pop princess Mima leaves idolised girl-group CHAM! to embark on a career as an actress, she faces an emotional and, ultimately, physical struggle to retain control of her identity. The question posed, as with Head, is who gets to determine the direction of a constructed artistic persona - the loyal audience, the star, the handlers or, in some way, the persona itself?

It’s a theme the excellent Black Swan takes up with relish as Natalie Portman’s emotionally fragile ballerina, having instinctively mastered the role of Tchaikovsky’s white swan, is pushed to the limit to perfect her wicked counterpart. Like Perfect Blue, the potentially unreliable lead narrative ensures that we’re never quite sure who, or what, is responsible for the trail of destruction that ensues.

Perhaps we’re inured or acclimatised to how utterly bizarre our relationship with stars can be at times. The tabloids thrill to judgemental stories about off-the-rails celebrities but rarely reflect on the immense mental strength it must take to not allow yourself to be defined by external influences when you’re in your teens or twenties and asked to live as a fictional character at the centre of a perpetual tug-of-war between fans, managers and the media. And when they go crazy, develop substance abuse issues or go to jail, we’re all here to laugh at them. I’ve long been of the opinion that, however many mistakes she has made, anyone who doesn’t have at least a modicum of sympathy for Lindsay Lohan probably lacks a soul.

Although the rest of the album deals with themes covered better in Britney’s I’m Not A Girl (Not Yet A Woman), as improbable as that might sound, there’s one song on Miley Cyrus’ Can’t Be Tamed that really resonates. The sole stand-out is the stunning Robot - not just streets ahead of everything else on the record but capable of being read as a fairly damning critique of the rest of her career. In the hands of a cosseted Home Counties rock star lines like “i would scream / but i’m just an empty shell” and “i can’t love, i can’t speak / without somebody else operating me” may be unbearable. Given to a girl who has clearly been groomed for stardom since birth, deprived of any real childhood and had her every action, along with every inch of her body, pored over by the press, it’s electric and oddly poignant.

Jai Ho

While Europe and much of the US are locked down by freezing weather, preparations are well underway back in Trinidad & Tobago for March’s Carnival. Although fairly wealthy and influential in the region on the back of liquefied natural gas, the twin-island Republic off the coast of Venezuela is known internationally for relatively little other than its rum, its musical heritage and the annual bacchanal that provides a famous showcase for both.  Traditionally, when people think of T&T, they think of calypso and its faster cousin soca – two hugely influential forms of music predominantly, although certainly not exclusively, associated with the island’s Afro-Caribbean population. Far less visible is the music of the various Indo-Trinidadian communities, chief amongst them the variation on soca known as chutney. With the exception of crotchety Nobel laureate V.S Naipaul, Nicki Minaj’s mother and the occasional cricketer, T&T’s South Asian population, although making up the single largest ethnic group in the country, remains virtually unknown to most outsiders. It often seems to come as a shock to those with a cursory knowledge of the region that we’re there at all.

Having abolished slavery but still needing someone to do the backbreaking work of harvesting sugar cane without compensation, the colonial rulers came up with the brilliant wheeze of importing labourers from another corner of the empire.  Conditions were almost as brutal for the new arrivals, effectively replacing slavery for life with slavery under long fixed-term contracts. Today, the rural heartland of T&T, where the sloooow national pace of life is even slower, is dominated by their descendants. Although English has largely replaced Hindi as the working language, lots of traditions remain either intact or heavily influenced by Indian culture. Chutney takes the soca template (itself a hybrid of African and Asian rhythms) and adds layers of traditional instrumentation, folk themes and bilingual lyrics. Rikki Jai’s Mor Tor is a peerless example.

As chutney has won over Trinis of all backgrounds, the pendulum has swung back in the direction of English-language, soca-style party songs. The biggest of 2010 was Jai’s superb Barman, in which he turns to turns to his local publican for assistance in keeping up with his insatiable wife. I’m not sure which element of the song is more indicative of countrified Trini culture –Jai’s complaints about his partner’s physical demands when he just wants to relax or the fact that he goes to get advice on the issue from her parents. The advice he gets (“take your tonics, vitamins / even rub on dey / so when she call, you’ll be man to answer right away”) inspires the chorus – Puncheon rum, stout, ginseng and Nestle’s fortified milk drink are all meant to improve stamina and energy levels.

All Tan Everything

Something I’ve always experienced (with amusement, rather than irritation), is people making wild, and wildly inaccurate, guesses as to my heritage, from the understandable (white with enviable tan, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Indian, Brazilian, Latin American, North African, Roma, Georgian, Azeri, Albanian, Turkish, Iranian,  both sides of the Arab-Israeli divide, etc) to the somewhat improbable (Native American, Samoan). Clearly, as Das Racist’s brilliant Shorty Said demonstrates, I am not alone.  DR are the best lyricists in hip-hop at the moment and it’s with characteristic sharpness and sparkling humour that they relate the experience of being compared, by girls they’re trying to pick up, to a range of stars including ‘a chubby Jake Gyllenhaal’, ‘Slash with no hat on’, Jesus, Ritchie Valens, Haruki Murakami and six different Hindi actors called Khan.

Indian-American Himanshu Suri and Dominican-American Victor Vasquez, over the space of two outstanding mixtapes (Sit Down, Man / Shut Up, Dude) and a series of op-ed pieces on politics and pop-culture, have positioned themselves as two of the most interesting and insightful commentators the US has to offer on the question of what it means to be, in their words, ‘brown’. Perhaps partially as a result of routinely being mistaken for each other and partially as a result of the most violently contentious issues in contemporary US politics (immigration from Central America, post-9/11 loyalty on the part of immigrants from South Asia and the Arab world) playing out beyond the boundaries of the traditional tropes of black /white racial politics, there’s a tendency on songs like All Tan Everything and Who’s That Broooown to form a united front.

Das Racist were, for me, unquestionably the most inspired and important group of 2010. The scope of their cultural reference points, covering everything from 8th Century Persian poets to obscure figures in the hip-hop canon, is dazzling - their ability to engage with high politics while dropping weed jokes, even more so. They’re angry and polemical on the serious issues without ever being didactic. They also know how to get stupid. The overall effect is like the Harold and Kumar films, a series they homage (“no trusting white-face man like Geronimo / tried to go to Amsterdam, they threw us in Guantanamo”), with a vastly elevated political consciousness.

Above all, however, is an incredible ear for a good pop song, amply demonstrated on Fashion Party. Aided brilliantly by Caroline Polachek from the synth band Chairlift, they burn through the correct pronunciation of Lanvin, ‘Gucci’ visors from the dollar store and the irony of both the Pope and Devil wearing Prada in six minutes of reference-laden fun.

They somehow managed to get deported from Gatwick Airport when attempting to come to London for their first UK dates. Hopefully, they’ll be back soon.

Code Red

From the sublime to the…well, ‘ridiculous’ would be putting it mildly. For reasons far too boring to recount (ie. not because I stabbed a co-worker with a fork, or something), I recently underwent a battery of psychological tests, supposedly designed to allow my employers to determine what kind of person I am and what kind of attitude to life I take. The glitteringly successful results told me little other than that I’m smart and cynical enough to provide the answers that the HR wonks wanted to hear – as with all psychometric profiling of halfway competent people, the outcome is at least partially determined by our ability to play to preconceptions. A far more interesting, and honest, assessment would probably be made by looking at my last.fm profile. The beauty of the system is that the stat-based approach  reveals a stark truth based on precisely what you are listening to, not what you think you’re listening to or want other people to think you’re listening to. With music as valid and flawed a way of looking at someone’s weltenschauung as any other, the psychological portrait it paints is a potentially revealing one.

It’s something that I was reflecting on while looking at my list of most-listened-to songs of the last twelve months. The closest any record in the top twenty comes to gravitas is Robot by Miley Cyrus. While I might have spent a good portion of the year enthralled by Zola Jesus, Salem and Mater Suspiria Vision, the songs I instinctively, unthinkingly clicked and clicked again were Eurovision entrants, seventies disco confections, frothy Slavic pop and, making a late burst up the charts, Like A G6.

Topping the list was Persona VIP by the Russian group Dress Code, an act whose only brush with fame outside the motherland came with a series of concerned articles in the Western political press surrounding their borderline unlistenable piece of pro-Putin popaganda A Vova Rulit. The bulk of their work seems to be either terrible or lifted wholesale from songs by other Russian or Ukrainian acts but everything came together beautifully on their standout 2009 single.

While slightly drunk, a German colleague came up to me at a party  a few years ago and, with a brief apology acknowledging that my girlfriend at the time was born in Murmansk, proceeded to tell me that she did not ‘very much like the Russians’ and that, in her opinion, they are ‘rude and crass and arrogant’. While gently pointing out that the British have traditionally held a similar misconception about her own nation, I had to admit that the perception of Russian culture and attitudes, while wholly false in general, had gained ground in recent years thanks to the often fairly hyperbolic reporting on the country’s ‘golden youth’ or ‘zolotaya molodyozh’.  In truth, newly-wealthy young Russians are charming and obnoxious in similar proportion to newly-wealthy young people from anywhere else on the map but the image of hard-partying, brash and conceited kids does have at least some basis in fact, as anyone who has ever visited a Russian elitny superclub or almost been run over by an nineteen-year-old in a Hummer driving up the pavement can tell you. Persona VIP picks up that theme and runs with it, adopting as a mantra “I am a VIP/ I have a Jeep/ Overtake, cut, all the signals beep-beep”, “huge sunglasses, gum, pedal to the floor/ they don’t teach you this in driving school”. It has the same kind of aspirational sincerity as Gucci Mane or Trina. Image is crucial, the ability to redefine yourself as a rich fantasy figure, even more so. The way the girls attack the verses is stunning.  

Harder, Better, Faster, Brodka

http://i53.tinypic.com/2hr36sx.jpg

Regardless of whether you view X Factor as a brutal, cruel and degrading spectacle that preys on the unrealistic ambitions of vulnerable people and cheapens us as a nation or as a brutal, cruel and degrading spectacle that preys on the unrealistic ambitions of vulnerable people and totally brings the lols, there’s no denying that the format has occasionally produced some great acts. Alongside Girls Aloud, the finest group the UK has produced since The Clash, sit the intermittently superb Kelly Clarkson, Norway’s queen of icy electro-pop Margaret Berger and Russia’s effervescent girl-group Fabrika. In theory at least, giving unpolished singers a chance to demonstrate their ability before they’re put through the industrial buffing machine of the record labels should help highlight the kind of raw talent that critics of the whole process of star-making constantly harp on about missing. Whether that works in practice is another matter – most winners have tended to come from the class of people that can be easily moulded into pliable MOR stars, rather than the tougher-to-handle talented wildcards – but Poland’s Monika Brodka shows that it can happen.

Having avoided the Will Young / Gareth Gates showdown and Popstars: The Rivals, Poland’s 2004 series of Pop Idol was my first experience of the SyCo process in action. It was, at the same time, totally compelling and slightly farcical – compelling because of the jaw-dropping performances of  elfin sixteen-year-old Brodka and farcical because all the supposed tension the competition was meant to engender was completely undercut by the impossibility of anyone else coming close to winning. Bombing her way through everything from Erykah Badu’s Appletree to Gloria Estefan’s Conga to Goran Bregovic’s crazy Balkan knees-up, Kalashnikov, it was clear that Brodka was not only head and shoulders above everyone else on the show but in a different class to any other mainstream Polish pop star of the era.

Her debut, when it came, was the traditional mix of covers and new material, both uncommonly good but still only hinting at her potential. The follow-up, two years later, was a little underwhelming. As gorgeous as songs like Znam Cię na pamięć were, they felt like a step backwards into well-worn daytime radio balladry. Taking four years off to rethink her career and refine her sound has paid enormous dividends with Granda –arguably the finest pop record of 2010 and the first album to fulfil her astounding early promise. The CD comes with a making-of DVD that, unusually for making-of DVDs, genuinely provides an insight into the album. At various points she’s captured gazing out a car window at the snow-saturated Polish countryside, in a creaky small-town hall surrounded by improbable-looking traditional folk instruments, chain-smoking as she pores over lyric sheets and almost reducing an elite session drummer to tears with a demanding perfectionism. It’s a record that draws on electro, rock and roots music but remains resolutely pop in its approach and execution. Whether it’s sparring with the low-slung bass of the title track or soaring over the epic K.O, her voice, cracked, jazz-inflected and absurdly versatile has never sounded better. Crucially, it’s an album that, for the first time, feels like an entirely personal labour of love.

W Pięciu Smakach (The Five Flavours) was the lead single, positioned somewhere between Kate Bush and Jenny Wilson. Wonky translation notwithstanding the lyrics juxtapose a headlong rush through the city (I pretend I don’t see the traffic lights, the signs / little demon with GPS) with the memory of a lover singing beautifully as they cook Chinese food. The connection to China is an interesting one as the star Granda reminds me of most closely is the legendary mainland singer/actress Faye Wong.