1. Nicola Roberts - “Gladiator”

    I don’t have much truck with the generally understood idea of “authenticity” but Nicola Roberts Cinderella’s Eyes feels terrifyingly enjoyable in a way that is difficult to describe but as authentic. Superfically, the songs on the album may appear to be generic diva pop. But listen to the album the whole way through, and it feels like you’ve had a disco-powered crash course in the oddest parts of Roberts’ psyche. Roberts’ lyrics crossbreed the giddy wtf-ness of the best of Girls Aloud with lacerating autobiography. And her big, nasal voice bosses and inflates the quirky work of producers into anthem-sized dance floor annihilators.

    Take “Gladiator.” Much of the album makes reference to the way Roberts was pilloried in the British press in the beginning of her career. While this could be irritating - and on the weaker songs, it is a bit tiresome - on “Gladiator,” it becomes the source of her conquering might. You’ve held her down, she says, but now she’s going to fuck you up real good. Sounding like a sped-up remix of “Ding Dong The Witch Is Dead,” “Gladiator” pummels and trills, squelching its enemies under high heeled boots. Roberts capably commands through the verses, riffing out lines like “Make up is make believe/so slap it on/be my best friend” and advising you that if her “balls of steel” (not making this up) get stuck in your “pipe” she’s got some “K-Y” to ease it out. (The lyrics are unsummarizable - you should probably check them out here). It leaves me speechless - its carnival-esque, apocalyptic heights feel like being machine-gunned by an army of marching drag queens. This may not sound very authentic, but queerly, that’s exactly what it feels like to me. ”Gladiator” is a representation of the underestimated’s electric joy as she grabs all that she deserves.

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  3. Nirvana - “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle”

    • "Frances Farmer. Rose had never heard of her. That was the name. And Mavis went and bought herself a big hat that dipped over one eye and a dress entirely made of lace. She went off for the weekend to Georgian Bay, to a resort up there. She booked herself in under the name of Florence Farmer. To give everybody the idea she was really the other one, Frances Farmer, but calling herself Florence because she was on holidays and didn’t want to be recognized. She had a little cigarette holder that was black and mother-of-pearl. She could have been arrested, Flo said. For the nerve.” - Alice Munro, Wild Swans.
    • Courtney Michelle Harrison was born in San Francisco, California. According to Love, her mother named her after the alcoholic, fledgling debutante protagonist of a 1956 “dime-store novel” called Chocolates for Breakfast by Pamela Moore. Love would discover, in later years, that her biological grandmother was novelist Paula Fox. (Wikipedia)
    • Frances Farmer was born in Seattle, Washington. In 1931, while attending West Seattle High School, she entered and won $100 from The Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, a writing contest sponsored by Scholastic Magazine, with her controversial essay “God Dies”. It was a precocious attempt to reconcile her wish for, in her words, a “superfather” God, with her observations of a chaotic and godless world. (Wikipedia)
    • Love and Cobain were married on Waikiki Beach in Honolulu, Hawaii, on February 24, 1992. Love wore a satin and lace dress once owned by actress Frances Farmer, and Cobain wore green pajamas. (Wikipedia)
    • In January, 1943, Frances Farmer was arrested at the Knickerbocker Hotel. At her hearing, she behaved erratically. She claimed the police had violated her civil rights, demanded an attorney, and threw an inkwell at the judge. She ran to a phone booth where she tried to call her attorney, but was subdued by the police. They physically carried her away as she shouted, “Have you ever had a broken heart?” (Wikipedia)
    • “‘He’s desperate!’ Otto shouted. His distraught glance suddenly fell upon the ink bottle on Sophie’s desk. His arm shot out and he grabbed it up and flung it violently at the wall. Sophie dropped the phone on the floor and ran to him. She flung her arms around him so tightly that for a moment he could not move.” - Paula Fox, Desperate Characters.
    • "I miss the comfort in being sad." - Kurt Cobain, "Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle"
    • I’m a survivor, at least that’s what everyone tells me.” - Courtney Love

  4. Patti Jo - “Make Me Believe In You”

    Finding someone to love is a problem of belief. If you’re like me, when you look inside yourself, you feel scattered and shapeless compared to everyone else; an impostor among all of the naturally confident. So when I - we - look for love, we look for someone who seems the opposite to all of our fragmented yearning. Someone mysteriously whole, beautiful and right in every way. Like Patti Jo, we want someone to believe in.

    But no one is this perfect whole person. So, if things are slightly off, love is impossible. Show too much vulnerability to your lover, and your lover might think you can’t be someone to believe in. But be too confident, and you might start to believe that you don’t need anyone to believe in but yourself.

    Here Patti Jo presents herself as pure need, as someone desperate for love. She has suspicions that her lover will treat her like shit. Her lover might be “another man playing on me,” she says, but she thinks that, “you don’t seem quite like the others.” Which makes her coming sadness a horrible inevitability. By being so needy, she’s opening herself up to be treated as worthless by her lover. How could he believe in someone needing so much belief?

    "I’ll do anything you want me to do," she sings, "Just make me believe in you." It’s a desperate sentiment. But its hurt is surgical. We’ve sung those lines to ourselves, like lullabies, on many, many hopeless nights.

  5. Madonna - “Burning Up”

    It’s Madonna’s birthday, and my Facebook feed is *clogged* with gays wishing Madge a happy bday. (I don’t think she’s going to notice, guys!) I like Madonna fine - she’s got a wide roster of indelible hits and no one can deny her impact on popular culture. But I think acknowledging her as some cold-hearted potentate of our musical souls might be a truer tribute to her than some cheery dirt-groveling. (Or worse, expressing actual warm feelings to her.)

    That being said, I have some sweet (and recently sweet) memories attached to this song. That bass is enough to raise a room’s temperature a few degrees. And the flimsiness of that naked handclap drumbeat - your hips have to do some of the work to make the song stick together. The only relief is that liquid guitar and icy keyboard. August’s dying days sound exactly like this.

    Even better, you can hear Madonna trying on “Burning Up.” Madonna has a fairly unspectacular voice, and on her early records, she thrust it in your face. After all, how could she hit fully rounded notes when she was always out of breath from all of the sexy sex? Or, at least, cat-on-a-hot-tin-roofiness. It’s hot up there! There’s no air for singing.

    Back then, she was sex’s loneliest cheerleader; nowadays, she’s a crumbling Venus de Milo. So, happy birthday, early Madonna! I miss you.

  6. Spoon - “The Ghost of You Lingers”

    One of the great things about Spoon during the Gimme Fiction/Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga period was the way their lyrics and musical aesthetic fused. Ghosts, photographs and summoning repeatedly pop up, all of them metaphors for memory and forgetting. This mirrors the way the band’s signature style erases instruments or notes, leaving auditory memories and imaginings to stand in for what isn’t present. In “Ghost” a piano, sounding like a panicky heartbeat, strikes staccato chords so rapidly it’s difficult to differentiate between sound and silence, chords and memory. Flitting around it are distorted voices, recalling a lost loved presence. The song is hard-edged and romantic; simple and enigmatic.

  7. Whitney Houston - “I Wanna Dance with Somebody”

    This is probably close to my favourite song: I don’t think a song can get much happier or more exuberant. The synths perpetually and colourfully explode in your ears, percussion pops like confetti, and the whole time, Houston’s voice is bubbling along, bouncing and frothing. She starts out singing about skipping down to the club for a spin. On the verses, you almost believe her. It’s on her magnificently bossy chorus and bridge that you realize that these are skimpy lies: it’s scorching sex she’s after. After all, in her neat collapse of lust and love, she wants a “love that burns hot enough to last.” But can anyone match up to her? In the video, she’s emasculating every man she meets. And Michael Walden’s production tosses humpy basslines and stuttering drum fills and even a sax at her, but her clear voice effortlessly rings through the joyous mess. By the end, the dance floor innocent has torn up the song in her sexual fury, and we’re all left, hunched over and panting, on the sidelines. No wonder Osama Bin Laden wanted to fuck her.

  8. OWOB Update

    Björk - “Enjoy”

    Both Post and Debut are very “spastic” (Björk’s term). They jump from genre to genre between and within songs. Trip-hop beats nestle next to orchestral strings and mambo drums. Trying to describe what is exactly happening, musically, in “I Miss You” (whistles, saxophones, tabla drums, organs) makes it sound like a joke rather than an ecstatic ode to hopeful expectations. It’s this heterogeneity and novelty lust that characterizes Post. And it’s an approach to sound we’ve lost. While several pop artists in the nineties approached music as a postmodern smorgasbord – think of Basement Jaxx, Beck, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness – pop music has become increasingly interested in nailing one specific sound and never deviating from it. As SFJ notes, Daft Punk are the avatars of our current state of pop, not Basement Jaxx - and certainly not Post-era Björk. (Note the name Post: it’s not just about mail; it’s also about being postmodern.)

    This makes it strange to consider Post in terms of Björk’s career. While Post is universally loved – a few years ago, Stereogum hired several of indie’s big stars to make a cover album for it – almost no contemporary artists seem particularly influenced by it. The covers illustrated this dynamic. While everyone involved gushed over the album, the covers tended toward the overly ornate and fiddly (likely a consequence of hiring a bunch of ornate and fiddly indie artists). Most of the contributors seemed to read the album as a Vespertine warm-up. They saw only a maze of sounds intricately arrayed, and they generally passed on replicating its immediate joy. Pattern is Movement did a version of “Enjoy” that seems to have ignored several of the song’s key lines, like “look at the speed out there/It magnetizes me to it.” Björk chose most of her album’s collaborators after partying with them in London. I can’t imagine how you could party to this cover album.

    Listening to the original of “Enjoy” reveals the key problem to covering Björk. So much of Björk’s artistry is anchored in her iconic, immediately expressive and virtuosic voice. Covers of her work often fail because few can approach the instinctive command of melody and phrasing that she has, and her vocal quality is the point of all of her songs. The melody of “Enjoy” is simple enough that I can sing it. But listen to the “there” in that first “Look at the speed out there.”  Björk turns the word around, shaping its bright, sharp curves and adding a slight ripple, before cutely panting from exertion. As the verses marches on, she bursts further and further outward into the cave echo-augmented belting of “ENJOY! ENJOY!” This is the opposite of Auto-tune.

    Again and again on Post, she builds from the intimacy of verses that sit on your ear. From there, her voice slides up a scale until she hits an explosive chorus. This is a punk artist’s vocal interpretation of pop’s basic trick; Björk’s sweeter version of grunge’s whisper-to-a-scream. But it’s the key that holds the insanity of the instrumentals together. Björk’s voice is the wide-eyed adventurer from Debut, venturing into the sonic novelty of Post. By making it easily approachable and immediately understood, we follow her into its overblown thickets. “This is really dangerous,” she sings on “Cover Me,” “but it’s worth all the effort. Cover me!”

    Fifteen years later, Post seems ambitious, engaged and excited by the world, but also determined to stir mighty emotions in the listener. It sounds too weird and happy to be dated. While I may love other Björk albums more intimately – Homogenic and Medulla are my favourites – Post is the album for everyone. It is pure pop, pure delight.

    I’m still writing about Björk over at OWOB. Please come over and enjoy all the Icelandic fun!

  9. Colin Stetson - “Awake on Foreign Shores/Judges (Live on A Take Away Show)”

    From Lady Gaga to Bon Iver to Destroyer, it is clear that 2011 is the Year the Saxophone Was Rehabilitated for Pop Music. But while those artists seek to re-engage with the sax’s cheesy, easy-listening or bombastic connotations, Colin Stetson turns up completely alien ones. On one of his Youtube videos, a bunch of metal heads have defended Stetson’s aesthetic from the haters (“sounds like farts”) by declaring his music to be, well, metal. And so it is. Emitting sounds like the Tripods in Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, Stetson’s sax resonates anxiety and fear and claustrophobic menace. Watching him play is difficult: Stetson wears the face of someone squeezing his pain down an awkwardly shaped wind instrument. He rocks it like a bloodied, wounded limb, fidgeting the keys open and shut. This is animal energy virtuously expressed, barely held back by the thin and scarred metal of his instrument. You cannot think your way out of these songs. You either turn away in annoyance, or let it charge and frighten your blood.

  10. The strange thing about “Tell ‘Em” is that I’m never prepared for it. Each time I listen to it - and I’ve listened to it more often than any other song in my iTunes - I can’t understand how it is constructed. There’s the artillery percussion blasts, sure. And the hyper-stylized, Ratatat-esque guitar figures make bright shapes like a sparkler in the night. Allison’s singing in there: sweetly and breathlessly offering whispered support, like the good schoolteacher she was. And there’s finger-snapping clicks, and laser blasts and what sounds like echoing gun shots in a morning field, and at one point I swear I always hear seagulls. That any of this adds up to a song - a song that I’ve only recently noticed has a guitar solo instead of a sung chorus - and that this song is a song that I love, deeply confuses me. What is this song?

    The one thing everyone agrees on is that it is a loud song. But it is not a consistently loud song. That artillery blast startles because it keeps fading away. For most of the song, the guitar and the blast do not overlap each other. And you can hear that gun shot echo clearly each time. Like strobe lights in a dark club, we forget that the sounds sound so loud because they are delineated by their opposite. There’s yards of space in here, and it gives us room to hear the song. After those few moments where the chaotic churn of feedback tests our ability to enjoy the onslaught, the noise drops out and it’s almost only Allison singing a capella. Doesn’t that feel cool on your lips? This isn’t a wall of sound where undifferentiated noise coats every frequency. It’s the impression of noise, due to the artful placement of the song’s elements. Look at the frequency of those artillery blasts in Audacity, and you’ll see a thin, crude sine wave. It’s embarrassing that it sounds so loud.

    With most art, there’s a point where you stop noticing the parts and can only read it emotionally. Or maybe that’s the first thing you do. But I can’t read this emotionally yet. The emotions it conjures - aside from pleasure - seem more alien than the actual sounds being produced. That guitar is saying something: something proud and triumphant, but also anxious and fun. Allison - I could trust her. She could be giving me good advice, if I could figure out what she’s saying. There’s other things in that morning field and the finger-snap and the lasers. But much of what it could be saying seems hidden by the body of the song. What is in there? I don’t feel I have the tools to unlock this song, and I’m not sure how to get them. It’s like a crystalline artifact, beautiful and fragile and prickily impenetrable to my concern. The song’s been out for over a year, and it still feels like it is an undecoded message from the future.