Twenty’s Plenty, April II

A lovely and busy April for me. New ladies, new jobs, new horizons to hit, new songs written, another boring Passover and, as I post this Twenty, an FA Cup Semi-final involving Watford.

I’ve written the Twenty annotations before the match, on the afternoon of April 24, based on songs I have heard as I put together a football newspaper. If you want a copy, send us your address and I’ll get one out to you. Contact me via email helloblasto@gmail.com or jonny_brick@yahoo.co.uk or on Twitter @jonnybrick.

A quick note. Prince made none of his music available through Spotify so, although I have listened to Prince since he passed away, no Prince song makes it in. Let’s get into the Twenty!

20 Rihanna ft Drake – Work. It did it, it reached the Hey Ya threshold, the number of times necessary for a popular song to become a favourite. It’s more than just an audio meme (‘work-work-work-work-work!’) and it has been the most popular song in the States for nine weeks, thus closing each one of the seven Popular Song radio shows – mixcloud.com/blastocast – so far.

19 Pet Shop Boys – The Pop Kids. Thirty years on, they are still arch, still poppy and still entirely their own genre. Chris and Neil return with Super, the latest collection, and this is the one picked out by interviewers. Must explore the LP.

18 Kimya Dawson – I Like Giants. She’s a cult performer with a fanbase of misfits, and is the topic of discussion in the April Opportunity Inbox podcast. ‘I am just a speck of dust inside a giant’s eye’ is a superb lyric, sung over the top of twee instrumentation that sounds gentle and quotidian. A lovely person who has overcome many personal issues, I am a Kimya convert and encourage you to dip into her catalogue.

17 Mayer Hawthorne – The Only One. Listening back to Mayer’s stuff before checking out his new album, this track leapt out from his 2013 LP Where Does This Door Go along with Backseat Lover. It’s funky and poppy, like Prince; it’s well-sung and slinky, like Prince. In fact it is evidence of how totally a man can be influenced by the production values and grooves of Prince’s music. Listen to Mayer if you want a great take on pop and funk, and get your head nodding to this. More from him later in the Twenty.

16 Steve Balsamo – As Soon as I Can. Steve was Jesus in Jesus Christ Superstar and played in Les Miserables for a long time, but in 2002 he was pushed into the pop direction with the album All I Am, released by Columbia. He had hits, appeared on TV and played live too, and it is fab to listen back to the album, which sounds like an early-2000s pop album (think Will Young or Ronan Keating). This one jumped out, with sweet strings, when I was working on a Friday afternoon. My friend Laura is a huge fan, as am I.

15 Hayley Tucker – Cold Side of the Bed. Laura is a trained soprano. Her friend Hayley has vainly tried to make a name as a singer-songwriter which, in this day and age, demands a great deal of patience and a great voice. A three-track EP is on Spotify, and I dutifully listened, impressed with her tone and her writing. This song, a perfect midtempo dance, is better than a lot of Paloma and as good as the best of Corinne Bailey Rae. I love the chord progression (A to G to E) in the chorus too.

14 Bleached – Keep On Keeping On. Remember rock music? Loud guitars and sass and attitude? Bleached are a rock’n’roll band in the tradition of all female-fronted rock bands. The production is astonishing on this track, the clapalong chorus supreme and the album one of the Opportunity Inbox Albums of the Year in waiting. Hear if it makes the cut (SPOILER: it will!) in the June edition of the podcast.

13 Sam Palladio – Shine. Poor Gunnar Scott, off of the TV show Nashville, is always down on his luck. A songwriter and a friend of Scarlett, his ex-girlfriend, Gunnar has a lovely voice and a lovely face. Sam Palladio, a songwriter and good friend of someone I met at the Country2Country festival in March 2016, sings Shine, a song from Season 1 of the TV show with a soft drum backing, a nice chiming riff and some sultry chords.

12 Weezer – King of the World. You know Weezer? This sounds like them. Multiple harmonies, a punching bass line, some woahing and above all a nasal killer pop vocal from Rivers Cuomo. Chopsticks and atom bombs feature in the verses, and the chorus is one of the best of the hundred great ones Weezer have written. Keep Fishing and Buddy Holly are both in my Top 100 tunes of ever!

11 Striking Matches, Chaley Rose, Jonnie Jackson and Sam Palladio – I Ain’t Leaving without your Love. Striking Matches are a guy and a girl writing good country-tinged pop, lending many of them to the TV show Nashville. This one, a featured song in series 2, is gorgeous, a meet-cute with a melody. ‘Under the downtown neon lights, that’s where you caught my eye.’ Sam and Chaley and Jonnie sing on the live version alongside the pair, and flesh out the harmonies.

10 Ben Watt – Gradually. Interviewed by Si and Bri for the Sodajerker podcast, Ben comes across as charming. He is Mr Tracy Thorn, and has just put out his third solo LP Fever Dream. Critically acclaimed, Ben is a consistently excellent writer of pop songs; he wrote Missing for Everything But the Girl, the band he and Tracy used to be in (they may reform but that day is a long way in the future), and put out a song called Forget from his last LP Hendra. As for Gradually, it follows the pattern of the songs on Hendra, midtempo, with great instrumentation and moments which explode quietly. Quiet Explosion, that’d be a good songtitle…

9 Mull Historical Society – Peculiar. Colin Macintyre is a supremely underrated talent who is also a master of quiet explosions. He opened his last tour with this song, from his This Is Hope LP of the middle of last decade. I spoke to him for 45 minutes this fortnight about new album Dear Satellite, of which more later, but his back catalogue is full of fun songs with great melodies. This one is a narrative song that reminds me of Andrew Gold’s Lonely Boy.

8 Jason Aldean – Lights Come On. One of those country stars I know is big but would struggle to name more than one song, Jason has a new record out this year, and this is the lead single. It’s a rock song in all but name, a perfect opening song of a setlist for his ‘six-string circus’. It’s a very contemporary song, and Jason is someone who would be brilliant playing in Europe to crowds used to Foo Fighters and Muse. I wonder if this has been planned…

7 Royal Blood – Little Monster. Meanwhile, in rock news, I spent an hour or so one morning this fortnight going through past performances on Later…with Jools Holland. With a chunky riff, a pedal that brings the bass up an octave and a great sound, Royal Blood will hopefully be back in autumn with album two. From album one that hit the top in 2014, I love this one, which has made its way onto the ‘Modern Rock Classics’ playlist alongside songs by Wilco, Arctic Monkeys, Doves, Bloc Party and several ‘the’ bands like Coral, Libertines and Fratellis.

6 Skepta – Shutdown. Nominated for an Ivor Novello Award, this is one of the most important songs of the decade. Not just because Skepta is mates with Drake the human meme, but because the British act, with ‘no label, no A-list songs’ as he sings here, has grafted and worked his way up, starting from the bottom. Now he’s here, he is playing Glastonbury in June, is about to crack America (his sister is a DJ on the Apple Beats Radio service, his brother JME is also a top British act) and is getting white folk to sing along to a song that is equal parts career advice and equal parts brag. Stunning.

5 Steve Balsamo – Sugar for the Soul. The man who is now half of Balsamo Deighton had a pop career in the 2000s for which he apologised to me when I met him in March 2016. I still love the way this song explodes in the chorus, and I wish the new band luck as they continue to tour their recent LP Unfolding.

4 Judee Sill – Jesus was a Cross Maker. Bob Harris turned 70 this fortnight and marked it with a three-hour celebration. Within the show was an interview and session with the marvellous Graham Nash, who picked this song to play. I think I knew of it, but I didn’t realise how gentle the vocal was.

3 Carrie Underwood – Church Bells. A modern standard with a story in the verses and one hell of a chorus. Carrie is writing top pop songs with a country twang, and this one is about a strong girl whose man mysteriously dies in the third verse after beating her up in the second. The key to the song is the chorus where the bells are ‘ringing, ringing’ and the choir is ‘singing, singing’. Great imagery, great banjo licks and a wonderful vocal.

2 Mull Historical Society – Try to be You. Paul McCartney would be proud of this, I told Colin Macintyre when I spoke to him for Blastocyst.org.uk this fortnight. It shimmers, with great production from a man who worked with Amy Winehouse and a superbly syncopated chorus. It was my song of the first week of the fortnight, but that is sometimes not good enough to top the fortnights…

1 Mayer Hawthorne – Love Like That. I love this singer. A former DJ he incorporates the way of the setlist into tracking albums. His latest Man About Town came out this month, the first since 2013. It’s 33 minutes long and contains gem after gem, produced like Quincy Jones and tailormade for the discotheque. This song was premiered on Jimmy Kimmel’s show and with some style it hastened its way to the summit of the Twenty, where it stayed for ten days. Is there a better song than this? That is what I ask when I listen to songs for the Twenty, and every time I hear this addictive endorphin rush of a pop song I sing along. Unison vocals led by Mayer (not his real name, alas!) get me chanting and clapping and dancing (shoulder-shimmies!). One of the songs of the year already.

Lin-Manuel Miranda, Prince of all Broadway.

How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman

Dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean

By providence impoverished, in squalor,

Grow up to be a hero and a scholar?

With those lines, sung live on CBS at the GRAMMY Awards 2016, beamed over from New York, the world had a musical theatre equivalent of Bob Dylan plugging in an electric guitar.

I often think to myself, on hearing a great song or seeing a great film, ‘This is dangerously good.’ What I mean is that the creator and the created thing have the power to win awards, influence other artists and become a yardstick for that genre.

Taylor Swift’s ‘Blank Space’ was dangerously good. So was the movie The Lives of Others, about 20 years in the life of a Communist state. The performance given by Jack Garratt at the BBC Music Awards in December 2015, announcing himself to TV viewers by playing synth, guitar, drum pads and singing at the same time? Dangerously good.

I first read about the musical Hamilton in a piece in the New Yorker magazine that seemed to run to about 15,000 words, but felt too short. The show was off-Broadway but was due to move up to the main thoroughfare in summer 2015, an immigrant’s story which seemed perfect to tell using the idiom of hip-hop, America’s peerless late-twentieth-century export.

The piece was effusive in its praise for the writer, lead performer and maverick Lin-Manuel Miranda (henceforth ‘Lin’). Lin had created his first work as an undergrad. In The Heights updated West Side Story to incorporate Latin rhythms from someone in whose blood Latin music was.

In the show, the characters are three-dimensional, rap and sing and dance all at once and drive the story forward with panache. Here’s a description taken from the show’s website:

At the crack of dawn on the hottest day of summer, Usnavi opens up his tiny bodega [cornershop] in his neighbourhood of Washington Heights…Usnavi dreams of a return to his native Dominican Republic. His childhood friend, Nina, has just come home from her first year at Stamford…Salon owner Daniela is packing up her sass and taking it to the Bronx.

Things happen, people learn about themselves and you leave the theatre crying with joy at humanity and its characters. And you go and book to see it again.

The musical, which won the Tony for Best Musical in 2007 and a Grammy in 2009 for its soundtrack, plays at London’s Kings Cross Theatre. It is amazing, and tear-jerking, and you must see it before it closes; you have no excuse, because its original run has been extended until the autumn. There are seven shows a week (two on Tuesdays), and tickets for under-25s are £15. David Bedella, who plays Nina’s father in the show, won the Olivier Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role in a Musical. In The Heights itself could not slap Best New Musical nominee on its poster, as it was beaten by Kinky Boots, but can say it has the Best Choreography, thanks to Drew McOnie, and an Outstanding Achievement in Music Olivier.

Lin Miranda himself played the role of Usnavi on Broadway. Usnavi is our narrator, commenting on the world around him and doting on his grandma, his abuela Claudia. In fact, Lin had a nanny as a kid named Claudia whom he called Abuela, and that makes the ending of In the Heights the most amazing personal tribute to her, for which bring tissues. Eve Polycarpou plays Claudia, who has one brilliant aria in the first half that stops the show.

Usnavi is played in London by Sam Mackay, for whom it must have been torture to have to listen to the soundtrack over and over again. American actor Joe Aaron Reid takes the role of Benny, while another Urdang graduate Antoine Murray-Straughan, fresh from a role in Cats, plays Graffiti Pete.

Jade Ewen (yes, the former Sugababe) takes the role of Vanessa, and Philippa Stefani plays Daniela. Lily Frazer plays Nina, the crop-haired girl who got out of the barrio but found herself at the bottom rung in her new surroundings in California. As in Hamilton, the girls are given great roles and fleshed-out traits.

In The Heights has elements of Fiddler on the Roof, Rent and Latin ballads, but it is the unique voice of the show as a whole that makes Lin so dangerous. As outlined on the CBS show 60 Minutes, Lin grew up surrounded by vinyl records of old show soundtracks, many of those by Stephen Sondheim; when he saw Les Miserables aged seven, and a decade later enjoyed Rent, it instilled in Lin the love of live theatre and gave him ‘permission’ to be a musicals-man. Now, at 35, he has jolted American musical theatre into a new era. In the future, there will be BH and AH: Before Hamilton, and After Hamilton.

Lin’s voice was used to bring the film Bring It On to the Broadway stage (very briefly) in 2012. About a mile from the King’s Cross Theatre, students of the Urdang Academy, which trains actors and dancers for professional jobs in London and beyond, put on the musical in a well-received performance at the Pleasance Theatre, Islington.

The musical includes songs co-written by Lin using the cheerleading squad as an outlet for drama and tension, and the students of the Academy had to tackle quite a tough book, full of Lin’s internal rhymes and one-liners.

From the opening song What We Were Born to Do:

These Truman girls are superhuman girls
And there is nothing that they can’t do
And beyond all the squads
They’re semi-demi-gods
And when our powers combine
We do what we were born to do.

From It’s All Happening:

It’s a little different isn’t it?
Your thinking is limited, give it a minute
Envision it, dead in the middle of seventy women
On television. Every little bit of precision is magnificent!

If anyone can tackle Lin’s tongue-twisters it is the Urdang kids, who follow in the footsteps of greatness. The brilliant Matt Henry (Class of 2003) is taking on the starring role of Lola in Kinky Boots, while Victoria Hamilton-Barritt (2001) was Daniela, the owner of the hair salon and a terrible gossip, the original London run of In The Heights in 2012. The thing preventing her from reprising the role? Giving birth to She would reprise the role, but has been nurturing a life which has now been brought into the world and given the name Sanchia Arla Nyx.

It was when the musical’s soundtrack was released in autumn 2015 that the local phenomenon went global. The smallish theatre sells its 1300 seats months in advance, but a nightly raffle ensures the proles can see it at a low price. While the queue forms, and before the cast get into costume, Lin and his cast entertain the crowds with Ham4Ham, a five-minute improvised or planned set. Filmed by keen punters, the world gets a free show from the hottest ticket in town. They have, for the winter, brought the show inside and film Ham4Hams themselves; recent guests have included Weird Al Yankovic, Barack Obama and Jimmy Fallon, and in ‘Groff Week’, Jonathan Groff took centre stage.

The story of Hamilton is actually three stories. In fact, it could easily be a trilogy split over six hours of drama, rather than condensed into three in one night.

Alexander Hamilton is the man who founded the Treasury; Thomas Jefferson is the President who succeeds George Washington; Aaron Burr is the scheming VPOTUS, the US Vice-President trying to influence things and win power for himself.

Burr and Hamilton are orphans. Both are educated, driven and hungry to be at the vanguard of this new nation. In an act of charity, Lin has written the score’s best songs – Wait for It and The Room Where It Happens – for Burr. The former, Lin has said in interviews, was written in a hurry after he had to excuse himself from a friend’s party; he got to the shindig, quickly said hello and goodbye, and wrote the line “death does not discriminate between the sinners and the saints”, which forms the basis of the song.

“Burr hangs back while Hamilton charges forward,” Lin said in the New Yorker profile. Ultimately the message is bigger than the characters, something Lin makes clear in his script, which is ‘sung through’ in the manner of an opera. ‘Immigrants, we get the job done!’ always gets applause on Broadway; ‘If you got nothing to stand for then what will you fall for?’ and ‘I am not throwing away my shot’ are motivational quotes rooted in universalism and ripe, in this day and age, for fitting in a box which must contain fewer than 140 characters.

The musical is subtitled ‘An American Musical’, and not just because it is about the Founding Fathers of the American constitution; it’s about hope, friendship, career opportunism, graft, aspirations and a bit of luck. And, for all of this, every character is played by a non-white actor.

The show is driven by Hamilton’s story. His passions for government and his wife Eliza and son are undercut by an affair which drags down his reputation. In the first act, Eliza wants him to ‘take a break’ but Hamilton seems on a mission. He does NOT want to throw away his shot, a line which becomes horribly ironic when foreshadowed in the opening song by Aaron Burr, who sings ‘me? I’m the damn fool that shot him.’ We know what the ending is, and Lin spends three hours getting us there.

Hamilton is like Adam, who fails to ‘say no to this’. He had fallen in love with Eliza, one of three Schuyler sisters along with Angelica and Peggy. The song ‘Helpless’ is a meet-cute in four minutes, and takes a pop song structure with verses, a bridge and a chorus. Lin knows his pop radio, and this song is a relief after the heavy hiphop of the opening few songs, including the one directly before it, where the main gentlemen of the show boast that they’re ‘reliable with the LAYDEEZ!’

Much focus has been given to the role of hiphop culture in the show. Lin has written each character as a different sort of rapper, as evidenced in the first appearances of Lafayette (a sort of Biz Markie figure) and Hercules Mulligan. ‘That has to be a rapper’s name!’ Lin had thought when reading his source material, Ron Chernow’s biography of Hamilton. Mulligan raps in the hyperactive style familiar to fans of early 1990s rap, hardcore, brutal and full of extreme vocab, like Busta Rhymes.

Coming full circle, Lin and the cast visited the White House to celebrate the continuation of Hamilton’s face on the ten-dollar bill (hence the POTUS on the Ham4Ham). The main cast entered ‘the room where it happens’ to deliver a spoken-word version of the famous Cabinet Rap Battle. Visit the Hamilton Youtube channel, Hamilton the Musical, to see it and other goodies (like the POTUS on the Ham4Ham saying ‘will this go viral?’) and to learn more about the cast. Also visit HamiltonBroadway.com for more

While working on Bring It On, Lin was undergoing the two hardest things a man can keep up: his work and his family. He had married in 2010, and on his honeymoon had written a song inspired by the Beatles to be sung by King George III, who tells the Americans launching an independent nation that they’ll “be back…I will send a fully armed battalion to remind you of my love. Da da da da DA!”

Hear an audio version of this essay as part of the fourth Popular Song radio show at https://www.mixcloud.com/blastocast/popular-song-show-four-with-lin-miranda-sonia-leigh-ace-of-base-kenny-chesney-and-rihanna/.

The Popular Song Radio Show, at Mixcloud.com/Blastocast

The popular song is the dominant mode of expression, I reckon, in the world today.

In the past it was the novel or the cartoon, but there is money to be made in crafting a song, selling it to the public then playing it in the live arena.

For this reason, I am trying to write a big song that will make me rich. This websiting is fine and dandy but it’s a passion project. To run alongside my ambition I have created a radio show, uploaded weekly to Mixcloud.com/Blastocast, which profiles some popular songs.

There are five shows there so far, and the structure is worth bearing in mind.

We start with a fun jingle with the theme tune, which is This Is Pop by XTC. Then I play and discuss a Modern Standard. You know the Great American Songbook? It needs updating with pop classics, hence the name. In recent weeks I have played Wagon Wheel, My Church, Thinking Out Loud, Roll Away Your Stone and Merry Go Round.

Then onto the First Impressions of a New Act. So much new music, so little time to hear it. In the first five shows I have shone the spotlight on Dan Dunlevy, Bent Shapes, Lauren Alaina, Josef Salvat and Tedeschi Trucks Band.

A quarter of the way through the show it’s time to plug Opportunity Inbox. It’s still going!! Head of Music for Blastocyst.org.uk Chris Imlach and site editor Jonny Brick discuss an act or theme. In March we did the Albums of the Year so far; in February we looked at Pulp and their LP Different Class. In April Kimya Dawson is in town and, since Chris is a superfan (or at least a super fan), we took ourselves along to see the songs of Kimya performed live in London in anticipation of April’s OppInbox podcast.

Straight after a song that plugs the podcast I go Under the Apple Tree. Alas Bob Harris has had to postpone his music festival, due to take place in May, but he did hold a stage to himself at the O2 Arena as part of the London leg of the Country2Country festival, and plans a Festival in a Day reprising such an event in September 2016. I play a song by an act Bob loves. Past shows have had Sonia Leigh, Kimmie Rhodes, Ward Thomas, Ethan Johns and Lewis & Leigh (no relation to Sonia).

Halfway through the show are two songs with the same title but a different tune. They are Songonyms. So far we have had ‘Hello’, ‘Save It for a Rainy Day’, ‘Rapture’, ‘Crazy’ and ‘I Will’.

Then for the main thrust of the show, which is either a trip to the Songwriter’s Room OR a dabble in Country Nation. Here I either spotlight a songwriter, recently Irving Berlin or Colin Macintyre AKA Mull Historical Society or Lin-Manuel Miranda, or country music, as I did with a review of the Country2Country Festival and, combining the two, the work of country songwriter Ross Copperman.

I finish the way Paul Gambaccini ends his show America’s Greatest Hits. My show is an homage to his show, on air on BBC Radio 2 on Saturday nights at 8pm British Summer Time (and for thirty days afterwards on the iPlayer). He plays two songs with the same title, and always ends ‘on the singles side’. In the Hit Parade section I play a number one from this date in Billboard music history (the American charts have always been the benchmark for the world’s musicians) and the current Hot 100 number one. For the first five shows it was always Work by Rihanna featuring Drake, but the past hit has come from The Beatles, Vanessa Williams, Ace of Base, Madonna and Joe featuring Mystikal.

To suggest your own songonym, tweet @Blastocyst_.

The sixth show will go to air on Sunday 17 April and may or may not feature Adele, Bruno Mars, Prince and Kimya Dawson, who plays Islington Assembly Hall on April 14. Tickets are available as this piece goes online!!!

Twenty’s Plenty, April I

It’s April in England and summer is coming. You can tell because people are wearing flip-flops when the sun comes out and then splashing through the puddles that arrive later on. On both days of the first weekend of April, we had scorching sun and awesome rain.

I’m trying to get out of my flat, and spent too long cancelling my council tax (but got a nifty single-person discount) but things are go! I’ve started a new trial for a job, which is more or less a dream job, am drafting the book, have spent the first week finalising the football newspaper due out in the middle of April, and met Troy Deeney, star of Match of the Day 2 and the Barclays Premier League.

Musically I laid down some more tunes for the Country Jukebox, one of which has over 1000 listens and, in the real Brett Eldredge version, is the most-played song on American country radio! But will Drunk On Your Love make the Twenty this fortnight?

20 Barei – Say Yay. By virtue of being one of the ‘big five’ European broadcasters Spain get a direct entry to the final of the Eurovision Song Contest, hitting Stockholm the week of 9 May, with the final on the Saturday 14. This is passable fare, palatable on first listen. More Eurovision stuff in the next few Twenties as I hear all the entries. Ours is fine too, maybe a top ten tune.

19 Justin Currie – If I Ever Loved You. Justin, off of Del Amitri, featured on the Sodajerker on Songwriting podcast, one of the only and best shows that discuss the art of song. He plugged his appearance on his Twitter feed by saying ‘guy talks about rubbish [real word redacted] songs’. I shot back, ‘I hope he talks about his rubbish solo career too’, which he liked. I love this song, which he played live on his tour in 2008 to support What Is Love For, his first solo album since Del Amitri took a break. One of my favourite bands, and Justin has written three or four of my Top 500 songs: Always the Last to Know, Roll To Me, Some Other Sucker’s Parade and Not Where It’s At. This one, a tearjerker about not crying tears, is a modern standard.

18 Turnpike Troubadours – Down Here. Hanging around in the Twenty, this has been doing my head in this fortnight. I tried to record it, and am not happy with the result. The harmonies are still lovely and the lyric is still cute.

17 Gwen Stefani – Make Me Like You. From a number one album, because she’s been on TV this year, this is a nice poppy number from the former Mrs Gavin Rossdale that sounds great on the radio.

16 Kiran Leonard – Secret Police. What a man Kiran is. I reviewed his London gig this fortnight for PressPlayOK.com and felt he was the next great Mancunian voice going back to Mark E Smith and Ian Curtis. Smart and cool, this is the highlight of his live show.

15 Anderson Paak – Am I Wrong. The next big rapper to come out of the States. In a session for KCRW, from which this song leapt out, he started at a mic and then moved to a drumkit. Not as electric as Kendrick or Chance the Rapper, he’s one to watch all the same.

14 Miike Snow – Genghis Khan. The blokes who wrote for Britney and made Animal (the theme of Friday Night Dinner, the TV show) are back with their third album. Poppy, hooky and a good strong entry in the Twenty.

13 Mull Historical Society – Sleepy Hollow. As featured in the fifth Popular Song radio show (mixcloud.com/blastocast), I am a huge fan of Colin Macintyre AKA Mull Historical Society. I have seen him play solo and with a band, and will catch him touring his first album of new stuff in five years. Of the ten tunes this is the one I like best.

12 Justin Moore – You Look Like I Need a Drink. Climbing up the sales and airplay chart, this behatted country star has already inspired a tee shirt with this slogan! I love the groove in the song and the message and the vocal and the chords.

11 A Thousand Horses – Southernality. Down from last fortnight’s three, I still love rocking out to this super tune, which ends soon enough to make you want it more.

10 Sonia Leigh – Put It in your Pocket. Sonia has been in the TV show Nashville, briefly, thanks to her ability to write pop songs like this, which is chirpy and droll.

9 Carrie Underwood – Church Bells. What a song. Carrie, like Blake Shelton, is moving from noob to heritage artist after her Greatest Hits of 2014. Storyteller, the album that came out in 2015, is full of story songs like this, which has an awesome chorus.

8 Tedeschi Trucks Band – Anyhow. A former number two from February that re-enters the Twenty after I laid down my own version of it and featured it in a recent Popular Song show, I like this more and more. See especially live versions in a studio, at Bob Boilen’s Tiny Desk at NPR Music and at Austin as part of the Austin City Limits TV show. No UK dates scheduled as yet, but the band come to Europe in June, playing Denmark, Germany and Holland.

7 Billy Joel – Everybody Loves You Now. I have written a song as a present for someone and before I signed off on it I checked that I hadn’t ripped it totally from this song, written at the start of Billy’s career and side one track three of his first album, which begins with one of his best tunes She’s Got a Way. As covered in the TV show SMASH, I love the way he takes that Elton John-type driving piano riff and puts it after a great refrain. I’ve chosen the punchier version live from the Shea Stadium farewell concert. Still performing the hits (and why not?), and coming to London in September 2016, Billy is one of the pillars of classic American songwriting; not bad for a mensch from The Bronx!

6 Blake Shelton – Mine Would Be You. What a tune. Driving a hire car with Chris Country Radio, I was cruising down the M25 back to Wimbledon and this song came on. With a killer punchline in verse three and a structure which puts the verses in 7/4 time, this is one of Blake’s best songs. It takes on a whole different meaning when you realise Blake has separated from his former partner Miranda Lambert, whose Country2Country festival performance I am listening to as I type these words. Blake’s new partner? Gwen Stefani!

5 America – Sister Golden Hair. Paul Gambaccini’s America’s Greatest Hits show is a model for my Popular Song show, and one feature is A Matter of Life and Death. When choosing a song to mark the passing of Sir George Martin, the most important postwar British producer and songwriter who had a hand in the Beatles’ record-smashing string of hits in the 1960s, Paul instead went for a song by America, also produced by George and which gained popularity in recent years thanks to an appearance in The Sopranos. I love the classic nature of the song, hence its high position in the Twenty. The song’s writer is Gerry Beckley, who has an English mum and a father in the Air Force, so was based in Bushey, believe it or not, at the London Central High School for American expats at the end of the road from the house I grew up in. Small, small world!

4 Adele – All I Ask. Bruno Mars and his Smeezington writing mates will not write a better song, or one that grosses as much money (thanks to being on 25, which has sold eleventeen million squillion copies). This is a modern standard, all about loss. ‘Hold me like I’m more than just a friend’ is the line in the chorus; I initially heard it as ‘more than just a breath’, which I like better(!) but the theme of the song is very much in keeping with Brand Adele. Heart’s at the door, words have been said before, ‘there is no tomorrow’ so ‘all I ask’ is to break up with decorum and grace. Not available on Spotify (which accounts for the instrumental), but her performance on the Ellen DeGeneres show back in February has had 10 million views. Five-year break? Please no!

3 Margo Price – Hurtin’ (On the Bottle). I knew her BEFORE she was famous. A top ten recording artist on Jack White’s label, I reviewed the new LP by Margo for PressPlayOK.com. I loved it, and I am looking forward to seeing Margo on her UK tour in May. Her sound is authentic, her story amazing and this song in particular is brutal. As seen on Saturday Night Live, and as heard on rotation for the rest of the year!

2 Blake Shelton – Came Here to Forget. Well look who just walked in…Blake is drinking to lost love again, in a sophisticated song that positions him as a Heritage Brand of country music. No longer the boy of Sure Be Cool if you Did, no longer the happy married man who covered Michael Buble’s Home with his former wife Miranda, this is a super pop song written by Craig Wiseman, who is Blake’s go-to writer. Expect this to be added to the second Greatest Hits set; the first one, including Gonna, came out last year.

1 Justin Timberlake – Drink You Away. ‘Nashville! Can I put a little Memphis up in here?’ With that moment country music changed irrevocably. We will look back (as I have in the last fortnight on Youtube) on the Country Music Association Awards 2015 performance by Chris Stapleton and Justin Timberlake as the moment country went mainstream around the world; it also helped Chris get to number one. Never mind that Justin will have a number one album of his own and a stupendously high-grossing tour in 2017; never mind that this man is America’s great entertainer of his generation, comfortable enough rapping on a late-night show as he is performing live to thousands. This is a superstar, and Justin’s career is only going to rise. Breaking out of NSync at 21 to put out a great album of r’n’b-pop (Justified), starring in movies like The Social Network (‘Drop the ‘the’: just ‘Facebook’), becoming a father and leaving the limelight in the years after 2013’s relative flop The 20/20 Experience and writing with Little Big Town and, probably, Chris himself, Justin will move from superstar to whatever level is above that. The CMA performance of this song, tucked away on the second volume of 20/20, will see to that.

Review: Bleached – Welcome The Worms

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Despite the less than optimistic name and the tumultuous time the band members were having when recording it, Bleached’s second album Welcome the Worms is a triumph of resilience and positivity. It is also a downright brilliant record.

As the singles Keep on Keepin’ On, Wednesday Night Melody and Sour Candy suggest, the band have moved away from the surf-pop influences of their excellent debut album Ride Your Heart. Instead, punk and hard rock play a far more prominent role, making this a visceral experience, a sonic adventure into a dark Californian underbelly.

That being said, the pop sensibilities displayed on Ride Your Heart remain to some extent – this is an album full of catchy hooks, singalongs and irresistible, driving guitars. Nowhere is this more evident than on the aforementioned Sour Candy, the album’s high point and surely one of the songs of 2016.

Wednesday Night Melody, with its unforgettable line “It’s good to feel just a little alive” and drums like a crashing sea, is a standout; the barely controlled fury of Sleepwalking, and Wasted on You’s superlative bounce and catchy ‘ooo-ooo-ooo’s are also great.

The emotional turmoil the band were experiencing during the making of this record is undoubtedly evident but it is gloriously devoid of self-pity. Welcome the Worms is an album about being knocked down, for sure, but even more so it is about getting up, setting your feet and moving forward, stronger and more determined than ever.

Twenty’s Plenty, March 2016 II

What an amazing weekend I had, 11-13 March. I felt part of a true community of country music fans. I paused along with thousands of others as Kacey Musgraves and Chris Stapleton played songs constructed like the best of them. I firmly believe country music will be the main global music genre by 2020. Ask me for the reasons but the songs speak for themselves. Many of them are in this Twenty, which is also infiltrated by songs from the albums of 2016 so far, which Chris Imlach (our music editor) and I will discuss in our next Opportunity Inbox podcast, which will be on the audio site mixcloud.com/Blastocast just after April Fools’ Day.

20 The Marshall Tucker Band – Can’t You See. As in ‘Sippin on Southern and singin Marshall Tucker’ from verse two of Cruise by Florida Georgia Line, this is the most-streamed song by the renowned American band who can be filed with the Allman Brothers, Grateful Dead and Grand Funk Railroad. I like it, and it’s got a good groove.

19 Balsamo Deighton – Unfolding. ‘Sorry!’ said Steve Balsamo after I told him I had a cassette of his pop classic Sugar for the Soul. ‘It’s a long story,’ said the former singer in the band The Storys who has also been Jesus Christ Superstar. Now Steve is doing what he loves, thanks to his partnership with Ms Deighton, daughter of musicians. This song closed their set Under the Apple Tree at the Country2Country Festival, and they told Maverick Magazine what it was about. A man used to come and see the Storys with his son, a soldier. When we played a return gig the tour manager received a call saying the son had been killed in Afghanistan. The song is about ‘we are probably part of something bigger that goes on, so we were part of his unfolding, as we were part of his.

18 Ashley Monroe – Bombshell. It’s very disconcerting when, with manflu, you struggle to West London to be told that no, your name is not on the guestlist. Surely shome mishtake, I say politely, and the promoter comes brusquely to let me in. Then Miranda Lambert walks past, looking like a star, and stands at the back of the venue to watch her friend deliver a solid hour of music, including a new song about a sparrow. This midtempo song impressed me, as did one or two others that make the Twenty, and despite being very very svelte, Miranda’s fellow Pistol Annie made a big impression on me.

17 Charlie Rich – Behind Closed Doors. One of ten country songs everyone should know, according to a piece on the BBC website, this is a killer tune from the 1970s that is a proper country standard. ‘I know she’ll be leaving with me/ And when we get behind closed doors/ When she lets her hair hang down/ And she makes me glad that I’m a man.’ It’s about sex, but done in a way that Elvis Presley would sing it, with a knowing croon.

16 Montgomery Gentry – Gone. Country rock! As played on Paul Gambaccini’s Greatest Country Hits, I was sold before the vocals came in by the shimmer of the guitar. Monty G could be singing about anything I’d still be in love with the groove of the song. Then comes an organ, and harmonies in the chorus. Must investigate them further.

15 Ashley Monroe – The Blade. ‘You caught it by the handle, and I caught it by the blade.’ Not just a pretty face, this track is the title track of Ashley’s new record, produced by Vince Gill and featuring songs about love and loss and heartbreak. This one is the best, and a modern standard that sounds like the best contemporary country music. What a bridge.

14 Nappy Roots – Good Day. They have rap in Kentucky! This band, introduced to me by a friend, are a good-time, De La-type band and this song ropes in a load of kids in the chorus. A positive song, this is great for picking you up after a bad night.

13 Chase Bryant – Take it on Back. Chase is ace – is that a banner? – and this song proves it. His current single has hit the top ten after ONE YEAR on the airplay charts. I have loved it since I first heard it, but the single before A Little Bit of You was this, a lovely hymn to nostalgia in the key of A.

12 Anna Krantz – Burn Baby Burn. My dad knows Anna’s dad. My dad said Anna needed a writer so I dropped her a note. No she didn’t but who are you? Nobody yet, I said. She laughed through text and we swapped conversation. Anna has been in Nashville since 2012 writing and recording but is back in Blighty for 2016 now she’s got songs like this in her arsenal. A great mood, lovely chords and a pure vocal add up to a song that, say, Juliette Barnes would kill for. (Speaking of which, mazaltov to Rayna and Deacon, for reasons that will not yet be clear to UK viewers unless you watch the TV show Nashville through a naughty VPN.)

11 Eric Church – Like a Wrecking Ball. What a gig, even with a cold, Eric put on when he headlined the O2 on March 13. In front of thousands, he drew on five albums’ worth of tunes to entertain for ninety minutes. He played all the hits, including Springsteen, Mr Misunderstood and Drink in my Hand but he was at his most mellow with this. Just a drummer for company, Eric strummed his tale of wanting to be back at home with his wife and child. The lyric to this song seems to imply that he wants another child, ‘love you baby like a wrecking ball’ being the refrain. The imagery is brill, about sending pictures of her sitting on a sink while the house is being renovated; Eric thinks he will knock down the house just by making sweet love to his woman. Why not?!

10 Turnpike Troubadours – Every Girl. TT return, after success in the Twenty with Down Here, with a track played by either Bob Harris or Baylen Leonard on their country music shows. From an early album, it leaps out of the speakers and has the TT sound of rootsy fiddle, thwacked percussion and a passionate vocal. ‘She was born in the morning…Now she’s every girl I’ve ever known’ is a great line.

9 Ashley Monroe – Like a Rose. Inspired by a chat with a record company executive this is Ashley’s description of how she grew to be a songwriter. It’s a lovely line, and was my highlight of her set. Joined by a double bass and fiddle the song was rooted in the American South. ‘I was only 13 when daddy died/ Mama started drinking and my brother just quit tryin’ is both one of the great opening couplets and pure country music: lil ol’ me getting’ on by.

8 Kelsea Ballerini – Love Me like you Mean It. It came out a year ago, and has the same chord pattern as Dibs, another favourite. This girl is the business: cute, a great smile, a wonderful voice, and articulating what it is to be a young girl. It’s rare for someone not called Carrie to get to number one and be a lady in the Country Airplay chart, but this one did, as did Dibs. It’s because her voice is so strong and the character is fun: ‘if you’re gonna hold me, hold me like I’m leaving’ is a great lyric.

7 Kacey Musgraves – Late to the Party. Her new single, and part of her C2C set, this is a gorgeous song. Delivered with a pure vocal, and written with superstars Brandy Clark and Josh Osborne, this is another of those ‘I’m with you so I don’t care that life is passing us by’ songs that Nashville does so well. Her record has songs written with Shane McAnally and Luke Laird, two of the biggest guns for hire in town who helped Kacey produce the album of songs about dimestore cowgirls and how family is family. Her set was the best I have ever seen, the most complete and the most arresting. I marvelled at how an hour had just flown by, and exhaled with the diversity of her set (up at BBC Radio 2 Country until the second weekend of April). As you’ll hear, she has one even better than this.

6 Lauren Alaina – Next Boyfriend. As featured in the First Impressions part of the Popular Song radio show this fortnight, I am in love with this girl. Second in the 2010 iteration of American Idol, she has since experienced her parents’ divorce and put out a debut album and an EP. A friend of Meghan Trainor, Lauren co-writes her songs and sings them with gusto. This one, performed in his set at the Indigo2 venue over C2C, included a chap from her home town who was dragged up on stage to whip and naenae. Listen to this chorus and marvel at how brilliant pop music is when it’s done properly!

5 Bonnie Raitt – The Ones We Couldn’t Be. What a vocal and a song that sounds like a Modern Standard. As played by Paul Gambaccini on his America’s Greatest Hits show, this closes her Top 20 LP Dig In Deep. The song stops you because it’s another girl-and-the-piano tune. She wrote it, and Joe Henry produced it. Joe is one of the top Americana producers who has also worked with Loudon Wainwright, the late Allen Toussaint, Aimee Mann and Hugh Laurie on his blues records AND co-wrote Don’t Tell Me for Madonna. For this song he creates an awesome and intimate mood as Bonnie sings the brutal line: ‘My glass is raised for all the ways we tried to get it right/ And I’m sorry for the ones we couldn’t be.’ Class songwriting, which may well be a GRAMMY Song of the Year nominee. Certainly a better song than ‘Love Yourself’, which will win.

4 Chris Stapleton – Whisky and You. Ten thousand people, not a peep. Chris is the most important artist in country music because he can do it. He can write songs with the lyric ‘I drink cos I’m lonesome/ I’m lonesome cos I drink’, sing in harmony with his wife Morgan, play blues licks and write toe-tappers like Traveller and remain undaunted on his UK debut. Listening back to the audio recorded by BBC Radio 2 Country, it is impossible that it took until 2015 and a performance with Justin Timberlake for him to break into consciousness of ordinary mortals. This song is now my favourite of his, but any of those on Traveller could have that role tomorrow. Where he goes from here is his choice but as long as he can come back to the UK soon, I’ll be happy.

3 A Thousand Horses – Southernality. This is a two-minute blues-rock song that wastes not a second. I saw the tail end of their set at the Brooklyn Bowl at the O2 over the C2C festival, then went home and heard the title track of their debut, released by Big Machine, the same label who put out Taylor Swift. It’s a stunner of a track, and the band impressed the crowd throughout the weekend. I prefer this to uber-single This Ain’t No Drunk Dial, and I love that one.

2 Ray Stevens – Mr Businessman. As written about by Richard Williams on his Blue Moment weblog, this song stunned me with its lyric and delivery. Ray was actually a businessman, so knows of what he speaks, but the bile and invective in the song is stunning, delivered almost without a pause. The chorus is punchy, the arrangement very ‘Eurovision orchestra’ and the vocal declamatory.

1 Kacey Musgraves – Merry Go Round. When you have heard a song and realise it’s good, you mentally file it away. When you see its writer play the song live, in front of the biggest crowd away from her home country she has ever played in, it hits you that it’s a modern standard. This song, which is about Kacey seeing what goes on in her little town in Texas, is an absolute distillation of what it is to grow up in Smalltown USA. Every line has been exhaled with a sigh. The chorus is outstanding, and the verses are vivid. She may never write a better song.

Not Exactly Bossing It: The Most Disappointing Finish to a Video Game Ever?

So I just finished playing Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor. 

Yes I know I’m late to this party given that it won a load of Game of the Year awards for 2014. I’ve just been busy, OK? But now, after just over 30 hours of gameplay, the story is completed and a vast majority of the side missions have been finished.

In short, I enjoyed playing the game, roaming Middle-Earth, carving up Urok, riding carragor, mind controlling warchiefs – a lot of fun was had.

Until the end. There is a bitter taste in my mouth, thanks to potentially the most underwhelming final boss battle in the history of gaming. You thought the notoriously weak final fight in Batman: Arkham City was bad? You ain’t seen nothing.

Shadow Mordor

As the somewhat lacklustre story reaches its conclusion, you meet your final foe, an encounter that the entire narrative has been building to. Your character Talion seeks vengeance for the brutal murder of his family. Then you dispatch him with a bit of control stick movement and following a few on-screen prompts.

That’s right, a game built on a brilliant combat system, tactical foresight and gory arse-kicking ends with an extremely basic quick time event sequence.

Urggh.

The final boss or level in any game should be a final test, a culmination of everything you have learnt up to that point, Victory should be achieved by playing the game to a higher level than you previously have.

Video game history is full of great examples of this: facing the Elite Four in the original Pokémon games; the time-twisting, perception-changing finale of the beautiful Braid, Portal 2’s final battle with a megalomaniac robot; Dark Souls’ final encounter. (Or so I hear, that game left me a quivering mess a long time before the last battle unfortunately.)

Final levels and boss battles should be utter satisfaction. The ultimate test of your gaming skill, they should be a rewarding end to the hours you have spent reaching that point. The conclusion of the story that has been told and that you have been invested and pivotal in.

Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor did none of that and now I feel cheated. I had developed many ways to use my sword, bow, dagger, beast riding and mind control powers to devastating effect, ready to use them to take down the biggest baddie in the game. Instead I just had to hit the triangle button when I was told to. If I wanted an experience that passive and unchallenging I could have spent a few minutes flicking through the Netflix menus before watching a TV show.

For over 30 hours I really enjoyed Shadow of Mordor. I may go back to it for the free-flowing combat, visually impressive game world and fun of mind controlling uruks to invade their army’s power structure. But when I look back that enjoyment will always be tainted by one of the most disappointing experiences in all my years of gaming.

Think you’ve experienced a worse final boss or level? What about your favourite game endings? Or have I missed the point entirely? Let us know in the comments or on Twitter @Blastocyst_.

Review: Hand To God – Vaudeville Theatre

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Whilst uneven overall, when Hand to God hits its stride, it is painfully funny.

Moritz von Stuelpnagel’s Broadway hit about a foul-mouthed sock puppet in a Southern Lutheran church is far from consistent. The tone jolts from shocking humour to unsettling pathos and violence; the play’s prologue and epilogue are both rather heavy-handed, and the storyline stutters forward; some of the characters feel undeveloped.

However there are some fantastic performances, the frenetic energy of the cast is invigorating and there are a couple of scenes, including the best depiction of puppet sex since Team America, that are utterly hilarious.

Hand to God tells the story of Jason, a teen in Southern USA whose dad has passed away, while his mum runs puppet classes at the local church. Jason becomes a little too attached to his puppet Tyrone, with the demonic sock taking on a life of his own, becoming an outlet for all the darkness within the normally shy and awkward Jason, leading to chaos at the little church.

Caught up in the havoc that is wrought by Jason and Tyrone are Jason’s mum Margery, the church’s pastor Greg and Jason’s fellow puppet=making teens, Tim and Jessica. Jason and Tyrone are particularly brilliantly acted, with Harry Melling acting and reacting brilliantly. He adeptly handles both the physical and verbal aspects of the dual role, switching between Tyrone’s angry rasp and Jason’s timid demeanour effortlessly.

Whilst Hand to God is inconsistent and the message is both obvious and delivered without subtlety there is enough here to make it an enjoyable, energetic experience if you like your comedy to be dark and absurd.

Hand to God runs at the Vaudeville Theatre, London, until June 11 2016.

John Darnielle – Going Back to California

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The Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle has released a new song Going Back to California. It’s part of a series of songs that Darnielle wrote with Scott Solter about Ozzy Osbourne and Black Sabbath that the Mountain Goats frontman says will “probably never see formal release” and concerns the plane crash that killed guitarist Randy Rhoads.

The song itself is typical stripped-back Mountain Goats fare: with beautifully gentle vocals, lightly-played guitar and heartbreaking lyrics, Darnielle describes Rhoads’ burnt-up jewellery recovered from the crash site, Rhoads’ last words to Ozzy and the inevitable continuation of life as the tour carries on two weeks later. It is a sucker punch delivered with a beautiful, delicate voice, but a sucker punch nonetheless.

Darnielle has released Going Back to California as a free download to thank fans for donating money to his charity bowling team The Reproductive Justice League which raises money for The National Network of Abortion Funds.

You can download the track here, and  you can donate to The Reproductive Justice League here.

You can also hear the discussion of his career which Blastocyst.org.uk recently posted onto the sister site here.

Album Review: TEEN – Love Yes

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The third album from Brooklyn four piece TEEN is full of intricate ideas, lyrics and instrumentation that hits far more than it misses. Love Yes is at its best when the tempo picks up and encourages hitting the dancefloor on top of giving you a lyrical tapestry.

Created in Nova Scotia as the band attempted to escape the intensity of city life to focus on making this record Love Yes is driven by 80sesque synths and the yearning voice of lead singer Teeny Lieberson. Whilst these two components remain central throughout the album, there are many twists and turns, both sonically and lyrically, throughout the 12 tracks of Love Yes. This will likely throw some people off, especially at first listen.

When the pace picks up and things are kept slightly simpler this album really shines. The opening one-two of Tokyo and All About Us is particularly strong, with the former telling of a man questioning is marriage and very much drawing from the same influences as a lot of Summer Camp’s recent work. All About Us is the album’s standout track, with a catchy vocal hook, incredibly danceable percussion and smart lyrics about an other half not pulling their weight in a relationship.

Animal is an interesting track that sounds like a monastic chant, if monks had synths and drum machines, and Push veers towards a Christmas carol at some point. These and other tracks don’t reach the heights of the more visceral, upbeat parts of Love Yes, yet there is lots to enjoy and wrap your head and ears around here. Whilst not perfect, this is a strong entry into the TEEN canon and, with its mix of synth pop tinged with darkness, it’s their best album to date.

Album Review: School of Seven Bells – SVIIB

 

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Almost impossible to divorce from the tragedy in its background, SVIIB is the first album from School of Seven Bells since band member Benjamin Curtis lost his battle with lymphoma in late 2013 and likely the outfit’s last. The record was largely recorded during Curtis’ lifetime with bandmate Alejandra Deheza working to bring the album to its finished state – a wonderful 40 minutes of dream pop that serves as a fitting farewell to the New York City band.

Across SVIIB’s 9 tracks we may be hearing School of Seven Bells at the best they have ever been, bringing an intimacy that can be hard to find in such synth-led pop. The standout track is the wonderful On My Heart, a sparkling tale of a broken relationship on which Deheza sings the line: “There was a you before me, there was a me before you, and that’s the way it goes”, demonstrating School of Seven Bells’ ability to write smart, beautiful and yet disarmingly simple lyrics.

Despite the sadness of the situation hovering in the background of this record there is a surprisingly joyful sound to most of SVIIB which proves positively upbeat. There are moments of disconcertion as well though, with Elias in particular using the synths to far more ominous effect. One song opens with a tense synth line that could easily soundtrack a foreboding entrance to a cyberpunk warehouse in an action movie. Once the vocals hit the vibe becomes more positive, but there is always an undercurrent of danger bubbling away as the song continues.

Whether you are a School of Seven Bells fan who knows the whole story behind this album or someone listening with no context, SVIIB is a cracking dream pop record: warm, personal and accomplished with tinges of darkness.

Twenty’s Plenty, March 2016, I

It’s Country2Country time! I spent most of the last four days of this fortnight listening to Radio 2 Country, a pop-up station relaying live coverage of the C2C festival at the Greenwich Arena aka ‘the O2’.

It also broadcast original programming, including an ace interview with Loretta Lynn, whose new album was released this fortnight. Sara Cox presented ‘When Country Goes Pop’, Alex ‘the Dark Lord’ Lester helmed a two-hour request show, and there was an extended edition of Bob Harris Country – last year he had the Mavericks in, this year XXXX.

Famous musicians did some DJing: Don Henley, announced this fortnight as Carole King’s support act for her first UK show since I was ONE year old (July in Hyde Park), did his hour; Hillary Scott of ‘Lady A’, aka Lady Antebellum, did a gospel hour on Sunday, before an Appalachian journey from broadcaster and Catatonia vocalist Cerys Matthews.

The highlight was Jeremy Vine, a noted Elvis Presley fan, presenting ‘Stompin Country’. Hear every show at bbc.co.uk/radio2country for the next month!

Surprisingly, the Twenty is short on country this week, possibly because for the entirety of the first week I was either on trains or preparing for the Blastocyst.org.uk Sport Relief Radiothon. It includes, however, a Top 11 chart rundown with journalist and biographer of Manchester United Jim White. Hear that, a quiz, two documentaries, a little talk and a Sports Report at mixcloud.com/blastocast.

20 Macklemore & Ryan Lewis – White Privilege II (ft. Jamila Woods). Ben Haggerty returns with an album, again on his own label, featuring some comic songs and some hard hitters. I heard this while wandering around Tesco looking for bread. It’s a really hard-hitting song about cultural relativism and appropriation

19 Molly Pettersson Hammar – Hunger. The first of four songs that Sweden had to decide whether or not to make their Song for Europe 2016. They host the Eurovision Song Contest on May 7 (with semi-finals that week) and did not select this to get beyond the semi-final stage. A shame, because this is as euphoric as Euphoria, the song that won it for them a few years ago. The land of Aviici and Swedish House Mafia can do this thing in their sleep, so maybe it was just too Swedish to get through.

18 Josef Salvat – Diamonds. The first of two in the Twenty from our Joey. Thanks to my friend Tallah, who runs the venue, I was able to get a complimentary pass to see Josef at the Electric Circus during my jaunt to Edinburgh. This cover of Sia Furler’s song for Rihanna, Diamonds, turns it into a torch ballad, and hearing a man sing it works as well as Rihanna, who has trouble with her diction but nobody seems to care. What a chorus too! This song features in the first Popular Song podcast I do, as does Rihanna, since she has the most popular track (Work) in America today.

17 Wiktoria – Save Me. A Mumford-influenced song that placed fourth in the search for Sweden’s Eurovision entry, which is their version of the FA Cup: many songs enter, some make the semi-finals but only one can win. They’ve picked a rotten song by Frans called If I Were Sorry (he’s cute, it sounds like something you’d get in the charts, but mid-tempo songs NEVER win) but Sweden should have gone for this, which has a great chorus (‘Save me! I can’t get enough of you!’). The performance has Wiktoria in a dress that has things projected onto it: it looks tremendous and would have done well in Stockholm in the final.

16 Phil Cook – Great Tide. A Baylen Leonard selection from his radio show The Front Porch, my second favourite show. Baylen was the DJ for the aftershow parties at C2C. Phil Cook could fit into a DJ set with this smart tune with a lovely guitar line. It pops out because the vocal line follows the guitar, and it has a chorus full of ‘hey’s.

15 Lucinda Williams – Dust. Her father was a poet, who recently passed away. Americana queen Lucinda is still plugging on, putting out records every year. She performed this one on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, and I loved the vibe of it, with a languorous chorus of ‘even your thoughts are dust’ and verses about sadness and depression, I think (‘the sun seems black’). It becomes celebratory, and Lucinda remains one of the poets of country/roots music. Expect more tracks from her latest LP The Ghosts of Highway 20, a top 40 LP in both the UK and America, her seventh consecutive US Top 40 studio album.

14 Andrew Combs – Foolin. Still hanging around thanks to its infectiousness. Andrew wowed the crowds in Glasgow and London. He’s been supporting Eric Church on this tour to promote the All These Dreams LP, and I did my own version of this which is up at soundcloud.com/jonny_brick.

13 Josef Salvat – Hustler. Josef is back. The live show was the first time I’d heard this song, with its ‘heart of a hustler’ chorus and lovely build. It actually reminds me of Hold On We’re Going Home by Drake.

12 Bleached – Wednesday Night Melody. Chris Imlach, Head of Music at Blastocyst.org.uk, is excited for the new record by Bleached. So am I, after hearing this brilliant piece of music. Power-pop with driving drums and lyrics you can hear, Robin Hilton of NPR Music is a huge fan of the ‘baba’s. I love the way the chorus kicks in, and the lyric is really strong. It may climb next fortnight!

11 Turnpike Troubadours – Down Here. ‘You can have a nickel out of my last dime’ is my t-shirt slogan of the week. Another one heard on Baylen Leonard’s Front Porch, the groove is insatiable and it’s one of those ‘play it again and again’ roots songs. Expect more from their three LPs to feature when I delve into their catalogue this fortnight.

10 The Steeldrivers – Where Rainbows Never Die. Winners of a GRAMMY this year, the band recorded at Muscle Shoals in Alabama. Their lineup is missing their singer Chris Stapleton, who himself won GRAMMYs and Country Music Association Awards for his Traveller LP, and so I asked my friend from Kentucky, the state of Bluegrass, which Steeldrivers song I should start with. She suggested this one. From the opening guitar motif to Chris’s vocal entry to the sublime passages of banjo, fiddle and steel guitar in the middle this is a lovely song that deserves to become a standard.

9 Parquet Courts – Berlin Got Blurry. What a return from the lads from Brooklyn. We remember Borrowed Time and Stoned and Starving, but what if they were more verbose and set it to a 1970s-style guitar line and beat? What if the lyric included the slogan ‘nothing lasts but nearly everything lingers in life’? What if it was set in Berlin, land of ‘Teutonic frankness’? It comes from the band’s European tours of recent years, and when you transplant cool New Yorkers into cool Berlin, it gives you the coolest song of the fortnight. From the forthcoming Human Performance LP out on Rough Trade records, whose opening track is called Dust, funnily enough!

8 Aimee Mann – Nothing is Good Enough. Effortless. I subscribe to the American Songwriter magazine mailing list and every Monday Jim Beviglia (who has written books on Dylan and Springsteen and Elvis Costello) picks a tune to critique and explain. This fortnight he picked Aimee’s 1998 tune from her Bachelor No. 2 record. The organ is by Benmont Tensch, famously of Tom Petty’s band but a mainstay of American music for forty years. The chorus sweeps up and down, with a lyric that castigates record executives who didn’t hear a single. I remember listening to Aimee’s Forgotten Arm LP on a plane and falling in love with an idiosyncratic vocalist who has been going since Til Tuesday in the 1980s. A friend of Brian Koppelman, director and screenwriter, Aimee deserves a reappraisal and to be remembered for more than just the soundtrack to the film Magnolia, on which this song features.

7 Bent Shapes – Realization Hits. Last fortnight’s number one slips to seven. There’s a chat I had with Ben elsewhere on the site, in which I print the lyric in full. ‘Talk is cheap but no one seems to care anymore’ is my slogan of the year so far.

6 Mimi Werner – Ain’t No Good. The first line of the chorus is ‘My mama warned me’ but it took ten listens to get it. Not picked for the final of the Melodifestivalen, this bounces along with glee and buries its way into your ears, and has ‘a Eurovision key change’ up a step. Sounds like a pop song to me! Mimi looks great in the performance from the contest, but the lyrics trip over one another so maybe it put people off. She has spent time in Nashville too, so watch out for her. The performance, with dancing men, is fun and very Eastern European, so it would have done well had it gone through to the final, which takes place in the same arena as the Melodifestival in Stockholm on May 7.

5 Bent Shapes – New Starts in Old Dominion. Wolves of Want was released to the world this fortnight, and this is the other real banger on an album full of ‘zingers and riffs’. I love how it stops halfway through and comes back in with a verse which includes the words ‘debutante’, ‘matriculate’ and ‘canaries’. Great writing, and I hope to see the band on UK shores soon.

4 Tedeschi Trucks Band – Anyhow. Last fortnight’s number two slips two. Still wowing me with its class, I need to dig into the album but keep getting stuck on this, one of my songs of the year so far.

3 Carrie Underwood – Good Girl. I bought a CD player for £35, batteries for £8 and Carrie Underwood’s two-disc Best Of for £8. I put the second disc in and skipped to her 2012 number one. And then replayed it over and over. Why? It’s class. ‘You better get to gettin’ on your goodbye shoes’? Who writes stuff like that!? Nashville songwriters, that’s who, and it has been a pleasure to meet several of them in London and ask for tips about my own writing.

2 Ace Wilder – Don’t Worry. Came in third in the voting for Sweden’s Eurovision entry, this would have cleaned up if the voting had sent this through. An amazing rhythm that recalls piano house (the great lost genre of pop) and a decent lyric about everything being alright despite everything being wrong, I love this the more I hear it, but it’s quite hard to sing live and doesn’t really explode. The live performance features boxes and holograms, so maybe people thought it was gimmicky.

1 Thomas Rhett – T-Shirt. Up from last fortnight’s number four to top the Twenty. Well done T! He’s been in London to promote Country2Country, has just been knocked off the number one in the US country charts (by the mighty Maren Morris) and sang on Chris Evans’ breakfast show on BBC Radio 2 to millions of ears. Crash and Burn, a co-write by Chris Stapleton, was the breakout hit, and he’s had Thinking Out Loud…I mean, Die A Happy Man make him a lot of money this Valentine’s period. He performed Uptown Funk on air with Dave Stewart of the Eurhythmics looking on. He looks like a superstar now, and played first on the bill on the Friday of C2C. His set, including T-Shirt, went down an absolute whirlwind, although many in the arena were patiently waiting to see Miranda Lambert. T will be a star this year, and well done to Radio 2 for getting behind him. Will T-Shirt stay at the top next fortnight?

Clock Opera – In Memory

London quartet Clock Opera have always felt like they have the potential for making haunting music, in no small part down to lead singer Guy Connelly’s delicate vocals and the dark subject matter of their lyrics. The band have come back after a three-year hiatus sounding downright unnervingly ethereal.

In Memory is the latest track to be unveiled from the band’s second album, which is due to drop this summer. Gone is the bouncy indietronic pop of 2012’s Ways to Forget, to be replaced by a chilling falsetto, ominous synths and a juddering bass line that give the aura of a stalking scene in a horror movie that has only one possible, destructive conclusion. The pace and tension rises, over the song’s three minutes and nine seconds, to an all-encompassing climax.

Listen to In Memory here:

The track is also available as a free download from the Clock Opera website.

Ben from Bent Shapes speaks to us about new LP Wolves of Want, full of ‘zingers and riffs’

I have found my song of 2016. It’s by a band called Bent Shapes and is called ‘Realization Hits’. You can find it on their new album Wolves of Want, available at bentshapes.bandcamp.com. The CD is nine dollars, the vinyl thirteen, and you get mp3 files with both physical products.

I love the song because it speaks to me. It’s worth printing the lyrics in full, to see if it speaks to you as well.

We are social climbers, dead to rights,  but with a crippling fear of heights.  Rung by rung we come undone  and take ourselves down a notch or five.  We are only human beings  taught to want what we all want:  the chance to monetize the things we love,  reduce a passion to a job.  I vote: “all guts, no glory”  till forever or whenever things get boring, ’cause  I believe in underachieving  as a systematic tactic to preserve your freedom.  This can’t be what we’re for; believe they need you more.  Yes, we know ‘next best’  it only tends to mean ‘more dangerous’–  those who won’t do what they’re told.  Those prone to throwing stones at the hornets’ nest.  Conscripted into culture wars  fought proxy-to-proxy on the venue floor.  Talk is cheap and no one seems to care anymore  what you did or didn’t say you signed up for.  [Oooh] We’re chasing oblivion.  [Oooh] Failure’s never been this fun.  Pick your battles, then your friends.  You’ll never work in this town again. Well, if they hedge their bets on those empty threats  you can break it down for them:  no gods, no master’s degree,  a life full of disasters yet to happen to me.  All guts, no glory  keeps me from being self-congratulatory.  [Oooh] Failure’s never been as fun  [Oooh] as when you’re chasing oblivion,  [Oooh] and you know we’ll never quit  singing realization hits.

I caught up via email with the song’s composer, Ben Potrykus, half of the band’s songwriting team along with dummer Andy Sadoway. I first of all asking who came up with the ‘oohs’.

‘The Oohs were mine. I didn’t have lyrics I liked for that part. That’s The Secret of the Oohs™.’

The song ‘took a couple of days to write, but then someone at a show pointed out that I’d unintentionally ripped the verse from another band’s song. I thanked them and we set to work re-writing it, which took another practice or so. This was right before recording!’

Wolves of Want is their second album proper, after the first album Feels Weird, made by the two songwriters. They worked on WoW with Elio from the band Titus Andronicus, a very good band from the States, from where Bent Shapes hail, and recorded onto tape with limited track space.

‘Feels Weird was almost a compilation of sorts,’ Ben tells me. ‘We’d written those songs over a couple years, and we spent months and months recording it in bits and pieces in a studio that was sort of being built out as we made the record.

‘This new album is full of songs that were written within a year or year and a half. We got recording done in about five days. Elio was both flexible and eager to try something else if someone just wasn’t feeling a certain guitar sound or arrangement or mic placement.’

The album sounds great, from the opening minutes of the album’s first track, ‘New Starts in Old Dominion’ to the lovely final track ‘Intransitive Verbs’. Both musically and lyrically it is superb, full of zingers and riffs (‘my favourite 1980s breakfast cereal!’ Ben counters). I ask Ben what is more important to him as a writer, the words or the music.

‘Reluctantly, I’ll say the melody. If you can’t hook me with your music, I’m not going to bother trying to figure out what you’re singing. That said, while I like plenty of songs with underwhelming lyrics, I will never truly love those songs, and if your lyrics are downright bad…’

Fortunately Bent Shapes write great lyrics. What We Do is Public is about the hyperconnectivity of the world, in particular the way people go to gigs and film it all on a phone. The band are sometimes awed by fellow musicians themselves, including Ted Leo, a bastion of American alternative rock.

‘We played a house show with him, which was incredible. Ted is such a sweet person and a force to be reckoned with live. I feel like I got an education just standing in front of him watching him play solo.’ Those who have not seen his version of Billy Bragg’s I Guess I Planted (where he took Woody Guthrie lyrics and added some la-las) should do so now.

Ben has spoken of his anxiety issues, which affect how he lives his life and how he does his job.

‘I don’t focus on my lyrics much while performing, as I’m mainly trying to land notes in my vocal melody and on the guitar, so in that sense it’s easy enough to “get in the zone”. Of course, if muscle memory starts working too well, there’s always the chance that my mind could wander and I could freak out. It hasn’t happened in a while, though.’

In a way being a musician is just a matter of learning your lines. It helps if the lines are bouncy and melodic and, in one case, a pastiche of 1960s pop, in the song ‘USA v POR’.

Bent Shapes can be seen over the US in spring but are playing at PopFest in New York City. The festival is headlined by Edinburgh-based band The Spook School, whose new album Try to be Hopeful is worth a listen and will be performed live with Bent Shapes watching on.

‘Spook School are great. We hope to play some more shows with them while they’re here! We’re buds with Halfsour, who are excellent, and we’re fans of Allo Darlin’, Big Quiet, and Mercury Girls, too.

‘In high school I got this “Gimme Indie Rock” comp in a bargain bin for $1, and it was my first introduction to The Chills (“I Love My Leather Jacket” was on there) among other bands, so it’s pretty insane to think I’ll be seeing them in person so many years later [they perform at PopFest too]!

‘I love that Popfest always manages to get a mix of legendary pop heroes and more-recently-formed heavy-hitters. We got to play with The Bats in Boston after their performance at Popfest a couple years back and it was a dream come true.’

I am a songwriter myself and have started a nice little podcast, Popular Song. I ask Ben the standard question. What is the best song ever written, or one you wish you had written?

‘The song I wish I had written is always the song that I’m working on at the moment.

‘I don’t know about the best song ever written, but I’ve been very partial to ‘Fear Is A Man’s Best Friend’ by John Cale the past few months, and we’ve covered it a few times as a result. And I hope we somehow get to collaborate with Cate Le Bon someday, because I think she’s an incredible songwriter. What’s up with Wales, man?’

Well, all the more reason for Bent Shapes to come to the UK some day soon.

Wolves of Want by Bent Shapes is out now on Slumberland. PopFest runs from 19-22 March, tickets for which can be found at nycpopfest.org.

The Goon Sax – Up To Anything

Up To Anything is the title track from Aussie threesome The Goon Sax’s debut album and it revels in its introspective teen drama, providing a charming tale of a humdrum existence and adolescent desire for recognition to strains of jangling Pastels-esque guitars.

Being teenagers themselves no doubt helps the trio capture teenage feelings of awkwardness,  boredom and stagnation quite so authentically, in lyrics such as the understated yet ear-grabbing opening line “I only do these things, so I can tell you all about doing them”. Listen to the track here:

The album Up To Anything comes out on April 8th and The Goon Sax will be touring the UK in September.

Bleached – Sour Candy

As the release of their second album, Welcome The Worms, fast approaches, LA trio Bleached have unleashed Sour Candy, the latest track from the record and it’s a doozy. Crunching guitars and sneering vocals combine with pure pop sensibilities to perfectly showcase the new, punkier direction Bleached are taking, whilst never forgetting the catchy hooks, sing-alongs and melodies that made their first album so fantastic.

It’s easy to see why Sour Candy is lead singer Jen Clavin’s favourite song from Welcome the Worms, with its bounding energy and stellar lyrics about the beauty and positivity that people can find in being self destructive, as it tells of how the protagonist is “up to nothing good, trying to kill time” because “the past ain’t kind and the future scares me”.

Give it a listen here:


Welcome The Worms is out on Dead Ocean on April 1st and can be pre-ordered here.

M83 – ‘Do It, Try It’

There’s joyful house piano abound in Do It, Try It,  the new single from French dance chameleons M83. This is the first taste we’ve had of the new album from the band, Junk, and it’s got us excited for April 8th when the album drops.
Do It, Try It, which will open Junk, has a broken hearted lyrical tenderness beyond the bubbling, bouncing, neon fun of the music that makes for an intriguing piece of extremely danceable electronic pop. Listen here:

Review: The Boy Least Likely To at The Betsey Trotwood 03/03/16

Last night twee popsters The Boy Least Likely To sold out the cellar of the Betsey Trotwood in Clerkenwell, for a gig billed as “an intimate show and a lovely evening” that proved to be both, as it delighted the fans that crammed into the warm underground room on a cold Thursday evening.

The Boy Least Likely To Betsey Trotwood

Kicking off with second album opener Saddle Up the pair quickly worked through a few sound issues and were soon entertaining with a performance largely focussing on their first and second albums, The Best Party Ever and The Law of the Playground. Jof and Pete themselves were as charming as ever, interspersing their catchy indie pop songs with gentle ribbing, fits of giggles and tales of record label missteps.

From classics like set closer and multiple ad soundtrack Be Gentle With Me and the dreamy, Brian Wilson inspired Paper Cuts, to Warm Panda Cola, a 49 second ode to the horrifically coloured soft drink, the set was received warmly by the fans, with singing and bopping along aplenty. Whilst favourites like Rock Upon a Porch, I See Spiders When I Close My Eyes and Boxing Up All The Butterflies showed that no-one does child like wonder tinged with occasional darkness quite like The Boy Least Likely To, it was the stripped back version of the creepy, synth-led Monsters which stole the show, as it became even more haunting and bleak with just two voices and an acoustic guitar.

As the encore finished with the anthemic I’m Glad I Hitched My Apple Wagon to Your Star and The Boy Least Likely To thanked the audience for a fun evening two things were clear – the audience had had at least as much fun as Jof and Pete and the pair shouldn’t leave it so long to play their wonderful collection of bittersweet, imaginative pop songs live again.

Twenty’s Plenty – February 2016, 2

Well, well. Twenty is plenty but there have been plenty more than twenty this fortnight.

It’s tough to cut it to 20 when the GRAMMY awards introduce so much great music to you. It’s tougher still when the quality of country radio is so strong. The current radio number 1, ‘Dibs’ by Kelsea Ballerini, isn’t even here!

As always I have been rotating a lot of country and a lot of American music and have come up with an impressive running order as winter turns into spring. As always, scroll to the bottom to hear the Twenty as you read.

20 M Lockwood Porter – Chris Bell. The Front Porch is my new favourite radio show. Hosted by DJ Baylen Leonard, I am introduced to country acts and Americana over two hours. As a member of the UK Americana Music Association I feel I have to listen. As a fan of Big Star, I approve of this track that hymns their songwriter-guitarist who died tragically young. Set to an awesome pedal steel and backbeat, I love this celebration of Chris, the lesser known songwriter of the band. Alex Chilton has had songs and praise, but ‘the beauty in the music shows that you’ve got what it takes’. The chorus is marvellous too. Go seek out Big Star, and their pop classic ‘September Girls’, now!

19 Brett Eldredge – Beat of the Music. So shocked was Brett at his first UK gig when he played this song, a huge US hit from his first album, that he got out his phone and recorded the fans reprising the chorus. It’s a singalong and, oddly, put the middle 8 after the first verse, where it usually follows the second verse. This helps us get to the chorus, which is all about ‘falling in love to the beat of the music’. Not even in his Top 3 songs, this is his biggest hit.

18 The Steeldrivers – Ghosts of Mississippi. The vocalist is Chris Stapleton, who has done great things since pursuing a solo career. His old band, perhaps by proxy, won the first GRAMMY of their career for their recent record, but I asked my friend who lives in Bluegrass country, USA what songs to consider listening to in an introduction to the band. She suggested this one. And there’s a Helter Skelter-style fadeout-then-fade-back-in!

17 Frankie Ballard – Sunshine & Whiskey. I met a girl at the event the other week who loved Frankie. I only really knew Young & Crazy so I paused a while on the title track of his 2015 debut album. It’s great, and I bought the album as part of my stupid £300+ spending spree buying up the history of country music for my Country Jukebox alias. ‘Every time you kiss me feels like sunshine and whiskey’ is a proper chorus!

16 Danny & the Champions of the World – What Kind of Love. Heard on Baylen’s show, Danny and the Champs are the UK’s leading Americana act, if you see what I mean. This is a charming song with a great vocal. Expect more of them in the coming weeks!

15 The Mavericks – All Night Long. Raul Malo has one of the best voices in the world. The Mavericks are their own genre: not country, not blues, not xydeco, but in a category of their own along with Los Lobos, the great American group whose members have played with Bob Dylan. I love this song, which they played at the GRAMMYs. Everyone knows them for their two-chord marvel Dance the Night Away but, along with Calexico, Arcade Fire and Bellowhead, they are one of the best bands in the world in terms of how good they make you feel. Oh-oh!!

14 Viola Beach – Swings & Waterslides. We’re not here for very long. The aim is life is to get paid to do something you would happily do for free. Have a kid if you want to, make loads of friends and get them to come to your funeral. Viola Beach were four lads on the cusp of huge success when their van plunged into a gap where a bridge should have been. After a campaign to honour the memory of their manager and the four of them, this song entered the UK Top 20. It’s a great song which I remember hearing on BBC Radio 1 last year. A travesty that they cannot realise their dream of being rock stars.

13 Lucy May – Whirlwind. An independent country artist who is playing on the small stages at C2C. This is a great chorus – ‘love is like a whirlwind…just don’t let it pass you by!’ – and the song starts magnificently, with drums on every beat, sparkly production and a great vocal.

12 The Moody Blues – The Voice. Listening to Radio 2 can be a chore sometimes, with lots of middle-of-the-road fare, but sometimes an old choon catches you out. This one sounded like ELO but is in fact the Moody Blues. It leaps out with its chords, production values and guitar licks. Why did I not know about this song?! It’s ace and is my top MB song, above even Nights in White Satin.

11 Kendrick, Thundercat, Anna Wise and Bilal – These Walls. Kendrick won at the GRAMMYs, thank goodness, and proved he is the voice of his generation. He seems a reluctant superstar, admitting to depression and confusion. Notable in the acceptance speeches of people who worked with him on To Pimp a Butterfly, the Rap Album of the Year, was the fact that without music they might be dead. Compton in Los Angeles, California, is not known for many of its success stories, but Dr Dre got out, and a generation later Dre has ceded his title of West Coast King to Prince Kendrick Duckworth. These Walls is a smooth groove which tells a cutting story of Kendrick sleeping with a former girlfriend of his incarcerated friend. It’s ‘shade’ in hiphop form. Best followed with the lyric sheet, I like this one a lot. Alright doesn’t even make the 20 this week!

10 Chris Young & Cassadee Pope – Think of You. He’s a superstar, she’s a great voice too. The song, which is the best one on his third record I’m Comin’ Over, is a wicked tune. The characters have split and everyone asks the other how the other is doing; ‘when they think of me, they think of you’ is a true sentiment, and the chorus is both explosive and harmonious. Watch out for Chris as he continues his ascent to Luke Bryan-type success.

9 Mavis Staples – Love and Trust. What a record Livin’ On a High Note is. I wrote a review for PressPlayOK.com and was blown away by that voice, 76 years young, and the songs written for her by, amongst others, Neko Case, Benjamin Booker, Nick Cave and Merrill from TuneYards. This one, with its ‘wap-wap’ homage to David Bowie’s song Golden Years, could be a modern standard. Ben Harper, the acoustic-folk singer, wrote it for her, and she absolutely storms it. See her performance of Take Us Back on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert and cherish her while she’s still on this earth. She is America’s version of Cilla Black.

8 Justin Bieber – Sorry. What a pop song this is! Infectious, danceable, not annoying when you hear it ‘maybe a couple of hundred times’. Biebs will break records with his Purpose tour. He’s been a silly boy but now he is becoming a Credible Artist. With One Direction on baby leave, Justin is set to hoover up their fanbase. It really does help when you have a worldwide smash.

7 Miranda Lambert – Automatic. My good friend Gaz has a lovely wife named Terra. I met Terra and asked if she was familiar with Brett Eldredge, a fellow Illinoisan like her. She said of course, and I asked if she was to go to the big Country2Country event in Greenwich, South London, in March. No, she’s got an infant child (her and Gaz’s son) and won’t be going. But she does know someone who is good friends with Miranda Lambert. I ask if it’s true that Miranda split with Blake Shelton because she didn’t want kids. Terra said yes. I said, That’s interesting. She said, Miranda’s a diva (she used a stronger word). Then I bought Platinum, her recent album, and put Automatic on repeat for an hour. It’s the harmonies in ‘hey whatever happened to’ and the seventh chord on ‘it always seemed so good’. Beyond that it’s a song that references cassette tapes, letters, Polaroids and the practice of ‘staying married’ being the ‘only way to work your problems out’. That line is amazing, considering Miranda’s quite public divorce. Blake, it seems, is now with Gwen Stefani, another divorcee.

6 Maddie & Tae – Girl in a Country Song. They will be in the UK in March performing this and other songs from their LP Start Here, and I still love everything about this song. The video is brilliant, and the album is fab. Their combined age is about 40, and they’ll be around for a wee while.

5 Andrew Combs – Foolin. Opening the main stage on Sunday in London at C2C is this chap, the only real unknown. You better know him! He did a session for Bob Harris which was broadcast last month. This song is toe-tapping and showcases Andrew’s pipes very well. Expect him to win some new fans; he’s already won me over!

4 Thomas Rhett – T-Shirt. These names won’t mean anything but this song was written by Ashley Gorley, Luke Laird and Shane McAnally. The Song of the Year 2015 was Girl Crush, written by three women who between them have written most of the great pop-country songs of the last 20 years, and are the Girls Writing Country Hits on Music Row in Nashville. Along with the three writers of ‘T-Shirt’, only Ross Copperman has a claim to be part of the Rushmore of Blokes Writing Country Hits. Just Google their names as you listen to this future number one, from which there will be no escape from about May until it stops being sunny. Thomas is only stalling on this because Die a Happy Man is still in the higher reaches of the charts (it was number one as 2015 became 2016), but this is a far better song. Bo Diddley beat, lyrics that namecheck Guns ‘N’ Roses and an earcaterpillar of a chorus. Song of the Summer, without a scintilla of doubt.

3 Brett Eldredge – Don’t Ya. He closes his set with this. An incredible 75 minutes of pop-rock with a pretty high hit-to-dud ration, I loved seeing Brett and especially not having a date for Valentine’s Day, the day he performed at London’s KOKO. There was an onstage proposal, a crowd that knew every word of every song, a band introduction set to the strain of I Got a Woman by Ray Charles, a version of Pony by Ginuwine and, during one song, I actually leapt in the air. I NEVER leap during gigs, preferring a hands-crossed stance with head nodding, but Brett’s performance was so infectious that I was utterly amazed during ‘Drunk on your Love’. As I write, my version of that song (soundcloud.com/jonny_brick) has had over 130 listens. The Country Jukebox is having nickels and dimes inserted into it already!

2 Tedeschi Trucks Band – Anyhow. Paul Gambaccini presents my favourite show on radio. America’s Greatest Hits (an independent production for BBC Radio 2 by Howlett Media Productions!) is on air from 8 till 10 on Saturday evenings. I would prefer Gambo to the club any time! He plays music of every genre and from every decade; just yesterday he played the Beatles, Michael Jackson’s McCartney-penned ‘Girlfriend’, Josh Groban (who turned 35 this fortnight), Dr John, Elton John, Billy Joel, a Christian worship group, Elvis, Thomas Rhett, Tyrese and of course Adele. This song started in the show of February 20, and my ears pricked up. It seemed to go on and on, yet be over too soon. Top 10 in the blues chart, and recent performers on the Austin City Limits TV show, TTB are my new favourite band. I love the chords in this song, and the vibe. Please listen, as it only just missed out on the top spot.

1 Bent Shapes – Realization Hits. The song of the year. No contest, and it’s only February. I have sent some questions about it to its co-writer, Ben, and I am waiting for a reply because he works during the week. Wolves of Want comes out this month; this is one of three lead-off singles, and every second is a gem. Some of the words are as follows: ‘the chance to monetize the things we love,/ reduce a passion to a job’; ‘I believe in underachieving/ as a systematic tactic to preserve your freedom’; ‘Talk is cheap and no one seems to care anymore’; ‘no gods, no master’s degree,/ a life full of disasters yet to happen to me.’ It’s Ben Folds, Tom Lehrer, Elvis Costello, Britt Daniel from Spoon and Randy Newman, set to the brilliant guitar pop of a band like The Cars. The riff is good enough, the way the guitar kicks back in during the chorus even better, but the genius comes from the structure of the song. Intro, verse, seamless chorus, riff, verse, chorus, ‘ooh’ bit, instrumental section, drums, verse, chorus, then an outro played by Ben and drummer Andy on a Steinway piano. It may be number one next fortnight!

Brett Eldredge, the country crooner

Scroll to the bottom of the piece for a Brettlist, comprising Brett’s original songs, including every one of those played in London.

Unless you’re an expatriate or a fan of country music, you will never have heard of the swarthy man who headlined a show at KOKO in Camden on February 14 2016.

Brett Eldredge is his name, and he’s one of country music’s up-and-coming superstars. His Youtube channel and Twitter feed both exceed 100,000 followers, with 750,000 signed up for Facebook updates, so he’s not stratospheric in the way Luke Bryan or Garth Brookes are. His Youtube channel still carries a series of webisodes from 2010 which introduced the world to Brett in three-minute weekly chunks. One plays a clip of Brett singing The Star-Spangled Banner at the stadium of the Green Bay Packers in January 2011. He hits every note brilliantly, holding onto some of the notes in the final chorus. He packs a punch vocally.

In one, Brett admits to being a huge admirer of Frank Sinatra, both of his phrasing and how to be a performer in the public eye; he does a decent ‘Summer Wind’ and a nice ‘My Way’. In London on Valentine’s Day 2016 he tried ‘The Way You Look Tonight’ for the first time on stage. Hence the title of this piece: ‘country crooner’.

Illinois, Brett’s second LP, has sold over 100,000 copies in the US since its release last year. With over 50,000 of those helping Brett to a first-week position of 3 in the US album charts, he is rather well known and well loved. To his utter disbelief, Brett is known in the UK too, and stopped his show twice to record the crowd singing along to two of his biggest hits.

A hard core of country music fans, fresh from the inaugural Nashville Nights party in Chelsea 48 hours before, were in fine voice as they congregated to hear one of country radio’s most consistent hit-makers. I first heard of him last year singing Lose My Mind, a two-verses-and-a-hook tune. Early adopters may have loved Beat of the Music and Don’t Ya, his two radio hits from 2014, but if you saw him play Raymond in 2010 in any of the four corners of the US, you had a headstart on us all.

Raymond, from 2010, had a video set in a nursing home. “My grandmother, who suffered from Alzheimer’s, had been progressively getting worse. We built a story around a guy who worked in a nursing home, where a woman mistook him for his son.” The lyric is all about a mother still able to be a mother even though her faculties are fading; it’s tearjerking, and very lovely, a slow cousin of Elvis Costello’s ‘Veronica’. Raymond has dropped out of Brett’s set, probably as a result of playing it for most of 2010 and 2011.

Since then Brett has written with a chap called Bill Anderson, sort of the Smokey Robinson of country music who has had hits of his own and written many for others. His producer is Byron Gallimore, longtime sound shaper of Tim McGraw, Faith Hill, Sugarland and Lee Ann Womack, all massive artists with loads of hits. Brett is signed to Warner, one of the big major labels, which means he’s no slouch and also, thanks to promo budgets of the majors, able to do what Elvis Presley never did: play Britain in a brief stopover which took in Manchester, Dublin and Glasgow too.

Brett toured with Thomas Rhett, an even more photogenic version of Brett, in 2015 on a co-headline tour of the US, and the pair duet on You Can’t Stop Me. Thomas is over in Britain next month performing at the Country2Country Festival, while in summer 2016 Brett is opening for the great Keith Urban. All three men can be termed acts with ‘crossover potential’. In a year when Justin Timberlake will make the biggest country album of them all, could Mr Nicole Kidman or Mr Rhett make waves in the post-Taylor Swift pop environment?

Thomas Rhett has more or less poached Ed Sheeran’s Thinking Out Loud and turned it into Die a Happy Man, the biggest hit of his career by some distance; another chap, Luke Bryan, is perhaps too American for an international market, so I posit Brad Paisley, with his massive hat, as the main cheerleader for the genre in Europe. His recent hit Country Nation explains what ‘being country’ is: working hard, providing for the kids, but underneath the uniform there are ‘mountaineers, volunteers…Wildcats and Wolverines’. Also watch for other stars of ‘C2C 2016’, including Sam Hunt and Carrie Underwood, and the delicious Maddie & Tae.

Brett seems like a pop songwriter ready to break out of country’s clothing, doing a ‘reverse Timberlake’. Indeed, the singer of the support act Pauperkings said he was a ‘soul singer’. He’s the least ‘country’ of all country radio’s new breed. Brett’s output has encompassed quickies and slowies, most of them about relationships and the human condition. None is about beer or drinking, and there is little by way of trucks or Friday nights. If anything Brett is a pop songwriter but, by virtue of being a country star, is working in that idiom.

Beat of the Music comprises four-chord cycle setting a lyric about a girl in Mexico asking Brett to dance – “smiling that smile and reaching out your hand” – and Brett ‘falling in love to the beat of the music’. It is infectious, and opens Brett’s 2016 set. He sang Beat of the Music as one of many straight-to-camera ‘couch sessions’ in the months leading up to the release of his debut album, also uploaded to Youtube. The song was written with the great Ross Copperman, who also wrote nine tracks on Illinois including Fire, Drunk on your Love and Lose my Mind.

Brett’s setlist is full of tracks from his two releases, 2013’s Bring You Back and 2015’s Illinois. The radio hits Lose My Mind (on which pop producer Dangermouse has a writing credit) and Drunk on your Love get an airing, as does Don’t Ya, which forms the encore along with Shadow, a bluesy track about the dangers of drink, with a thudding piano and a chorus that swoops up and into our hearts.

Album cuts in the set included the opening tune Fire (‘You look good in the palm of my hands’, it smells like the next single to me), Time Well Spent, Tell Me Where To Park and I Wanna Be That Song. Halfway through the gig he sang his version of the tune Pony by Ginuwine, as used in the Magic Mike movies, which leads to much whooping in London. His band introduction was set to Ray Charles’s I Got a Woman, but sung as Gold Digger. The man knows his pop.

The set was 75 minutes long, and included One Mississippi, Brett’s most musical ballad, which rhymes ‘seconds’ and ‘wreckage’ and is a fan favourite.

The best thing about the gig? A marriage proposal onstage just before Mean To Me. She said yes. Brett gave the couple roses and a hug. What a lovely chap.

Illinois is out now on Warner Music Nashville.

rhiannon2

Twenty’s Plenty – February 2016, I

The middle of February is a time seized upon by card and chocolate companies to sell product. It’s the romantic version of Hallowe’en and, as a single man, it is nice not to be part of it.

I don’t want your sympathy.

All the better to listen to loads of tunes and pick the best twenty because Twenty’s Plenty.

At the end of January Chase Bryant and Dustin Lynch were pipped by Maren Morris in a country-heavy Twenty. This time there are Broadway tunes, pop songs, lo-fi classics, a Rihanna reject, a Swedish pop classic masquerading as a country radio hit, at least one song that wowed the crowds of Superbowl Half-time Spectaculars. And, as is standard, Ex’s and Oh’s by Elle King, which may have won a Grammy by the time you read this. (Grammy Awards are on the evening of February 15.)

Honourable mentions to Field Music. Their UK top 40 album Commontime was on rotation this fortnight, as I spoke to the Peter half of the Brewis Brothers for PressPlayOK.com. Disappointed could have made the Twenty any other fortnight, as could the song Open Season by Josef Salvat, a song playlisted by BBC Radio 2. They may get spins in the next two weeks, so all is not lost!

But the question, as Bill Hader once asked on a hilarious skit on Saturday Night Live, is this: Whooooooooo’s on top? Hear all the songs in a 20-to-1 playlist at the bottom of the piece.

20 Turin Brakes – Rome. I remember making Pain Killer my song of 2002. They are still going, with chugging pop-rock songs like this one, on their top 40 album Lost Property. Harmonies still there, syncopation still there, references to nice places in the world like Rome still there; a fixture of British pop whom we will mourn when they stop making records. They tour this year, in Rome in April and in London this month (sold out!). They return to London in December.

19 Elton John – Social Disease. The first appearance from Pinner-born Reginald Dwight is from his classic album Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. I had a load of CDs I was sorting through this fortnight during a week of admin back in Watford, and it seems apt that I stumbled upon this lost gem, from the fourth side (FOURTH!!) of the record, which will be played in full on February 17 as Daniel Buckley’s pick for the record club I run so I do not get lonely as a single man. This song is a Bernie Taupin lyric and a fun melody from Elton, who was 26 when he recorded this and on the cusp of superstardom. More of him later.

18 Guided by Voices – Echos Myron. A tough album, Bee Thousand was Emmett’s pick for the first of my fortnightly record club socials. It’s lo-fi and full of non-poppy songs but this one leapt out. The band are still going, but not in their ‘classic’ line-up. There is an annual fan festival in Brixton every April – I said I’d go, because I hope to sing along to this one.

17 Sia – Cheap Thrills. Meant for Rihanna, which is obvious with the ‘hit the dancefloor’ loop, this is a Sia track through and through. Great at writing disposable pop, Sia was interviewed in the Observer this fortnight by Kate Mossman. She comes across as someone doing a job in an industry where looks are the dominant mode of communication. The album entered at three, and was patchy to me, but this and former Twenty hit Alive both hit the spot. Someone pointed out that Sia outsold both Rihanna and Adele the week the album came out. Good on her.

16 Rhiannon Giddens – Tomorrow is my Turn. She’ll feature later, but what a lovely song this is, the title track of Rhiannon’s album released a year ago this fortnight. Her version of the Charles Aznavour chanson keeps the Frenchness of the original and adds Rhiannon’s voice, which is fine here. She’s up for the Best Folk Album Grammy award, which has never been won by a solo femal. (Joy Williams was half of the Civil Wars when Barton Hollow won in 2012, the first year the folk categories were amalgamated.)

15 Maren Morris – My Church. Slipping from the top because I played 14 songs more often this fortnight, Maren is however climbing up the country airplay chart, where she may reach the top 20 next fortnight. Her voice and harmonies are lush, and I love the way she pulls up in the second verse. It may rise back up the Twenty, especially because she’s coming over ‘ere in March.

14 Elle King – Ex’s and Oh’s. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again (no that isn’t mine). This is still hanging around, a former number one and a song I still love. In verse two after Elle says, ‘My my’, I like to sing ‘Mah wife!’ in the style of Borat, because I used to say that a lot in the flat when my former girlfriend was living here. I don’t want your sympathy.

13 Thomas Rhett – Crash and Burn. I don’t want your sympathy but I am newly single. ‘I let another lover crash and burn,’ wrote Chris Stapleton for this Thomas Rhett number one hit. Down from last Twenty’s top five, I’ve been spinning this and humming it an awful lot, including for about two hours on the day I came back to an empty flat. ‘It’s the sound of teardrops falling down’ is the lyric but, as you’ll learn, this one did not make me cry.

12 Luke Bryan and Karen Fairchild – Home Alone Tonight. Luke’s a good old-fashioned Jesus-lovin’ beer-drinkin’ spring-break-enjoyin’ star. He has now been nominated for a fourth consecutive time for Entertainer of the Year at the Academy of Country Music Awards, a sort of award-related determinism because he has also hosted the ceremony for the last three and is hosting in the first weekend in April along with the mighty Dierks Bentley, who is due in the UK in spring. Luke headlined the Country2Country festival in the UK last year, before he put out his 2015 monster smash album Kill the Lights, off of which comes this latest single, the most-played song on country radio this fortnight. When sales and streams are considered the song is only beaten by fellow handsome blokes Thomas Rhett and Sam Hunt, who are both in London (ladies…) next month for C2C.

11 The Mountain Goats – The Young Thousands. Of the 24 songs mentioned in our discussion, up at mixcloud.com/blastocast now, no song is better than this one. I was blown away by Chris’s selection of his favourite Mountain Goats tunes, and I have loads of respect for their songwriter John Darnielle. This sounds to me like a Smells Like Teen Spirit for the post-Cobain kids, and I love the way it feels familiar yet novel. Awesome, and a late addition to the Twenty that edged out Gilbert O’Sullivan’s new single No Way.

10 Chris Lane – Fix. This is a Swedish pop song but it’s filed under ‘country’. This is like giving the Trojans a wooden horse when the Greeks are inside, ready to kill them. This song could change country music, because it’s a pop song with the words ‘hey girl’ in it, it references a ‘Walter White high’ and has the most amazing chorus. Climbing up the country airplay charts, expect this to ‘cross over’ soon. In a just world.

9 Alex Newell – This Ain’t Over. I grew up with house music, even though I was still in short trousers. Tracks like U Got 2 Let the Music by Capella, C&C Music Factory’s Things that Makes You Go Hmmm and I Love You Baby by Original were never off my tape player, and Alex Newell’s new song brings that spirit back. Alex won the contest to be in the show Glee, and sang with Clean Bandit on their tune Stronger. 2016 is his breakout year, and Jessica ‘This Must Be Pop’ Pinkett led me to this song, which is a hit in the gay clubs for a good reason. The house tune of the summer? I bet big money it is!

8 Old Dominion – Break Up With Him. ‘Hey girl, what’s up?’ Oh no it’s another bromantic song from US country music. Except it isn’t! A country airplay number one, this is a clever song about a man calling up a girl telling him to dump a man because ‘stringing him along any longer is just wasting precious time’. Nice internal rhyme, chaps, and a nice three-chord loop (the same as Waiting on the World to Change by John Mayer and, interestingly, the same loop but one semitone down from former Twenty hit ‘Gonna’ by Blake Shelton). The band are nominated in the Academy of Country Music Awards in the Vocal Group categories. Past Twenty entrants also nominated for the ACMs include Maddie & Tae, Thomas Rhett, Chris Young and Luke Bryan.

7 Brett Eldredge – Don’t Ya. Hugely excited to see Brett in London on February 14, he’s a swarthy songwriter with a great voice. Why did I wait so long to hear this hit from his debut album?! It’s ace, has a superb chorus and is a co-write with Shane McAnally. Powerless to resist, this is the complete package. Long live Brett.

6 Bent Shapes – Realization Hits. As featured in the Opportunity Inbox discussion of seven new tracks at mixcloud.com/blastocast, this would in any other fortnight be a chart-topper but for the five ahead of it. Great chords, great harmonies and a great sound from a band from Boston whose songwriter suffers from anxiety issues. I’ve heard the album it comes from, told the band they are great and said I would see them when they come to the UK.

5 Bruno Mars – Runaway Baby. I remember being absolutely blown away by Bruno Mars’s 2013 Superbowl Show, featuring the Red Hot Chili Peppers doing Give It Away. Bruno is the pre-eminent pop artist of this generation who isn’t called Justin, with two huge albums, a great stage show and a likeable persona. For a bloke named Peter Hernandez he’s done very well for himself. This is still my favourite of his songs, for which he adds a dance routine live. It pulsates, pushes forwards and is over too soon on record. Even better than Grenade, it was the highlight of my half-time show watching on Superbowl Sunday, when I spent a few hours going back over past performances in anticipation of what I didn’t realise would be the most important moment of Beyonce’s life. Could Beyonce be black America’s Trojan Horse?

4 The 1975 – The Sound. Matt Healy’s mum is Denise Welch, the famous British soap actress. Matt is the face of British pop, with straggly hair and lithe limbs. As showcased on Saturday Night Live, this song is the pop song of the month, nay the summer (and it’s Februry). Great stabs of synth, a nagging riff in the chorus and even (quelle horreur!) a guitar solo in the middle, I love the theme of this song. ‘I know the sound of your heart!’

3 Elton John – Looking Up. I first heard this one in November when Elton announced the release of Wonderful Crazy Night, his first album since the mellow The Diving Board in 2013. Coldplay sold more copies condemning Elton to sixth place. Now a father-of-two, Elton is content to be the queen of British Pop, spending time on the phone with Vladimir ‘That is NOT the truth’ Putin and residing in Vegas as he entertains tourists and daytrippers. This song fits nicely into his set, and is one of his poppier tunes, certainly his poppiest since I’m Still Standing. I love the diminished chords in the verse, the way the tambourine chimes at the end of the song and the way he sings ‘my feet don’t touch the ground!’ He’s a national treasure, and it is a joy to support the same football club as him!

2 Phillipa Soo as Eliza Schuyler – Helpless. The trouble with putting songs on loop on a personal mp3 player is that they get lodged in your head. This one soundtracked a long journey up to Leicester this fortnight, and I finally fell in love with Lin Miranda’s tune. This is the ‘meet-cute’ in song: Hamilton and the other young ‘rebels’ go to a party, while the Schuyler sisters Angelica, Eliza “and Peggy!” gaze on. Angelica pushes Eliza forward and Eliza is besotted: ‘I look into your eyes and the sky’s the limit.’ That’s love. The chorus is so brilliant, with a magnificent passing chord. ‘If it takes fighting a war for us to meet, it would have been worth it,’ says Lin’s Hamilton on first meeting Eliza. Three weeks later, Eliza takes him to meet her father: ‘I panic for a second thinking we’re through…And you turn back to me smiling!’ Then the music rises, Hamilton gets a few lines to boast of his prowess, hit the most amazing grace note in the final bar and then the chorus comes with ‘Here Comes the Bride’ interpolated. Rosie O’Donnell went on James Corden’s chat show to warn James, host of the 2016 Tony Awards for Broadway shows, to practice saying: ‘And the Tony Award goes to…Hamilton.’ She has seen the show 14 times, and can rap the opening number convincingly. Lin Miranda must get tired of being called a genius, but he sweated out the best show in town. However…

1 Rhiannon Giddens – She’s Not You. ..not my Song of the Fortnight! I split up with my girlfriend of two years last month. I don’t want your sympathy. This is the song, written by Hank Cochran and originally sung by Patsy Cline, that made me cry, on the afternoon I came back to an empty flat and a farewell note. ‘The only thing different, the only thing new/ I got your picture. She’s got you.’ It’s a cover of a song made famous by Loretta Lynn (who has a new record out soon at the age of 83). This version is sung expertly by ‘how is she not a star!?’ Rhiannon. A country standard for the ages, I must go and see Rhiannon live, having missed her recent UK visit with the Transatlantic Sessions. She performed it at the Ryman Auditorium last year, with a tenor guitar and cello behind her rather than the horns in the recorded version. I love how she delivers the song, and how the arrangement puts her vocal first. It is superb, and a worthy number one in the Twenty in spite of the poppier songs that challenged it. Hank knew it was a number one, he said, the moment he wrote it and showed it to Patsy. The second I broke down to this, I knew this would be the song that soundtracked the loss of a former friend. I don’t want your sympathy, just a tissue or two.

Twenty’s Plenty – January 2016, III

The fourth of these Twenties, who will come out on the top of the popular tunes I’ve been listening to in the last fortnight? Last time, in the middle of January 2016, it was Sara Bareilles with a tune from the forthcoming Broadway musical The Waitress. Will ‘Opening Up’ still be hanging around?

Find all the songs in an embedded playlist at the bottom of the page!

20 Backstreet Boys – Show me the Meaning of Being Lonely. John Seabrook’s The Song Machine is one of the best books I’ve read. It’s a clever examination of pop music from a journalist’s perspective. John points out the great men (sorry, it IS usually men) behind the great pop songs of my lifetime. Dan Wilson of Semisonic (and co-writer of ‘Someone Like You’) wrote a sizeable essay for the site The Talkhouse despairing the paucity of awesome tunes mentioned in the book, but I think this is pretty good, with nice flamenco guitar touches.

19 Stephen Bishop – It Might Be You. Jimmy Fallon’s power has diminished over the last few months for me, but he can still do genius things on the Tonight Show. With Stephen playing the theme from the movie Tootsie, behind him members of The Roots, Fallon himself and assorted stagehands performed a ‘School Play’ version, with unicorns, suns and skipping. I’d never heard the song, which is ruined by the production of the time, but the performance is worth a look.

18 Elle King – Under the Influence. She’s a Top 20 recording artist. Go Elle Go! Brilliant on Graham Norton’s show, where she played former Twenty number one ‘Exes and Ohs’, she came across as a superstar in the making. Her album doesn’t have many classic songs, but this, last fortnight’s number three, is still hanging around my most-played. ‘It might be criminal but I just can’t quit’ is a good line. A Grammy-winning artist next month? Could be.

17 Milos – Eleanor Rigby. I often planned to arrange the strings my own way but the arrangement here is great. In the first verse it underscores the guitar, played by a classically-trained guitarist whose move into pop music comes fifty years after this song was released to the world. Milos then trades the melody with the strings in the second verse, and it’s a lovely question-and-answer piece, a masterful display of orchestration which embellishes the original melody. McCartney’s finest? One of many!

16 Frank Sinatra and Vivian Blaine as Nathan Detroit and Miss Adelaide – Sue Me. As a birthday treat I went with Mum to the Savoy Theatre in London to see Guys & Dolls, a hit in rep and now a hit on the Strand. I knew this song, which was written before the rock’n’roll era established the shape of a pop hit (verse-chorus-verse-chorus-break-verse-chorus), and the new version is faithful to the original tune, with the rushed vocal of Adelaide contrasting poor Nathan’s “Sue me/ What can you do me” and even better “I’m a no-good-nik”. Its unconventionality marks it out from other musical standards, and is a perfect characterisation of the two of them. Sinatra sounds pretty good here.

15 Marlon Brando – Luck be a Lady. Brando snarls his way through the role of Sky Masterson (Sky’s not his real first name). The voices surround him at the end, and it feels like a musical representation of the scene, where Sky has to roll a score to get all the gangsters to the prayer meeting where his beloved is. It was the best number in the show I saw. Elvis Presley would have made a brilliant Sky, and would have delivered a better vocal. This recalls West Side Story with its horn stabs, and the melody is quirky and stands up 60 years after it was written. They still sing it in Vegas at the crap tables.

14 Kyu Sakamoto – Sukiyaki. An American number one in the 1960s, this track floats away, but the strings keep it grounded. It sounds like a kid is looking up at a balloon against the sky. Check the xylophones too! Can Japanese and Korean pop make more of an impression in the West than solely to expatriates and fans of PSY? I hope so. John Seabrook devotes an entire chapter of The Song Machine to the Asian pop industry, its production-line bands and the fact that acts cannot have boyfriends while in the band. Brutal.

13 Chris Lane – Fix. A new hit for country radio, this tune has a killer pop chorus that would actually be at home in Eurovision sung by a hot Swedish model. This tune can be a European hit, something Nashville must secretly want to happen in the next few years. Amazing production, too; perhaps Max Martin is a secret force here.

12 Stubby Kaye as Nicely Nicely – Sit Down You’re Rockin’ the Boat. Done brilliantly in the West End production, this foot-stomper takes place in the meeting house of the missionaries in New York at midnight. All the gangsters have lost a dice game that meant they had to attend, and this song is the climax of a very funny scene. I know the song, but its brilliance can only be appreciated with choreography and staging.

11 Sara Bareilles – Opening Up. Down from last fortnight’s number one, but still making an impression on my ears a month since I heard it. Everything in a musical number is here, and it’s a great opening number.

10 Blake Shelton – Gonna. Blake’s back! Still ‘gonna take you for a ride, gonna getcha over there on the passenger side’. It’s ‘melodic math’, a term coined by Max Martin to describe how lyrics take second place to melody. Blake comes across as oleaginous, but maybe that is his persona; Brad Paisley seems more like someone I’d want to hang out with.

9 Jellyfish – Too Much, Too Little, Too Late. Still hanging around, down four places from number 5. Great to play on guitar, and there are so many words not usually used in pop: ‘greasepaint’, ‘collection plate’, ‘musketeers’, ‘grind’ used in the context of ‘axe to’, and the phrase ‘spare me the punchline’. Apparently the album this was from, Spilt Milk, had a troubled recording process, and ended up costing a lot more than planned; it’s worth it when tracks like this glimmer. The band split in 1994, and have never reformed.

8 Brett Eldredge – Drunk on your Love. Ol’ Brett re-enters in the 20 with this track, number 11 in the second Twenty a month ago. He performs a slower version live, but I prefer this quicker tempo, which finishes all too soon; he’s in town on February 14, playing Camden Town’s KOKO venue. I hope people go; I would sing along to this and the brilliant ‘Lose My Mind’. Harmonies still shimmer here.

7 Robyn – Show Me Love. John Seabrook’s book reminded me of Robyn, the pre-Britney Swedish popstar who had a comeback in her twenties with ‘With Every Heartbeat’. This was produced by the late DennizPop, a national hero in Sweden who took Max Martin under his wing (Martin also had a hand in ‘Show Me Love’); it’s got a great backbeat and a syrup-sweet chorus. I love the harmonic variation throughout, and that makes me replay it again and again. Check out the layering of vocals, laying the blueprint for commercial ‘contemporary hits radio’ all the way back in 1997.

6 Steve Earle – Telephone Road. I was going through some old, unlabelled CDs and leapt on this track. What a vocal, what a sound. Of course it was Steve, the closest thing alternative music has to a patron saint. In the first 20 seconds it’s got organ, chugging bass guitar and a killer first line (‘My brother Jim and my other brother Jackie/ Went off down to Houston and they’re never coming back’). Research reveals the titular road is a key street in east Houston with a reputation for having people who walk on the wild side. Harmonies on the track are by the Fairfield Four, a century-old a cappella/ gospel group from Nashville, who last year put out their first album in over a decade.

5 Milos – Blackbird. A Serbian who threw himself into classical guitar to ameliorate a life in a war zone, Milos plays the song the way it should be played. Written in India by Paul McCartney, inspired by his new mate Donovan’s finger-picking style, this is a great song for beginners to learn. Milos plays lead and rhythm on the same instrument, with some neat improvisational skills (the first time he’s used them in a career which has been rigidly note for note as it appears on the score). The whole album is fun, and it includes Tori Amos and Gregory Porter for good measure.

4 Thomas Rhett – Crash and Burn. My earworm of the fortnight, with personal pertinency. Thomas is currently doing well with his ‘Ed Sheeran goes Country’ hit song ‘Die a Happy Man’ but this one was his 2015 big smash about crashing and burning. Co-written by the mighty Chris Stapleton (soon to be Grammy-winning Chris Stapleton? Kendrick will win Album of the Year in any genre, but Chris is sewn up for Country Album). This song, either the live Opry version or the studio recording, has been on a loop in the last week for various reasons. All the same, ain’t like I’m the only one that’s in the shoes that I am!

3 Chase Bryant – A Little Bit of You. Another country music contemporary favourite, Chase is a left-handed guitarist and cherub whose grandpa backed Roy Orbison. The vocal here is powerful, even though I disliked the production aspect of the song the first few times I heard it on the Country Top 40. This proves that enough airplay will make you appreciate a pop song, even if it takes weeks! I love when the guitar drops out for a beat and a half in the final chorus, and I love his vim in the live version at the Ryman Auditorium.

2 Dustin Lynch – Hell of a Night. I actually had to stop listening to Dustin’s good 2014 album which had this as its opening track. All the songs seemed to sound the same, so rigid is Dustin’s sound, which is good commercial country music that works over 3 minutes but not over 33. The live performance of this song on the Grand Old Opry stage shows off how good a frontman he is, and I like the line ‘on the edge of wild and reckless’. This trope is much explored in commercial pop-country, but DL sells it well. His second time in the Twenty, after ‘Mind Reader’ featured in the first Twenty in December.

1 Maren Morris – My Church. Hallelujah! Amen! When a pop song comes along that tackles familiar themes in a new way, it’s worth applauding. This song takes the idea that country music is the protagonist’s church, drops in references to Hank Williams and Johnny Cash and layers lush harmonies over countrified instrumentation. An early contender for the Country Music Association Song of the Year, and it’s only just gone to country radio!

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Bruce Springsteen embarks on ‘The River’ tour this winter

Bruce Springsteen is one of the only singer-songwriter-bandleaders in rock.

If you want to see a rock show, Bruce is your man. Regularly playing for three hours, taking requests from fans who hold up cardboard placards during the show, and running on ‘Boss Time’, Bruce has been inspiring young musicians in small towns all over the world since Born to Run broke him in 1975.

Influenced by Sam Moore, Gary Bonds and James Brown, he gathered a disparate group of players for his E Street Band, which toured with him between 1974 and 1985, and then again between 2002 and the present day. Two of these men have passed away in the last decade: Clarence ‘Big Man’ Clemons, the saxophonist, and Danny Federici, the organist.

Still touring from those of the original iteration are Garry Tallent (bass), Max Weinberg (on drums, who also played drums on Conan O’Brian’s TV show) Roy Bittan (keys and accordion) and ‘Little Stevie’ van Zandt (guitar and vocals). The brilliant guitarist Nils Lofgren and Bruce’s wife Patti Scialfa joined for the Born in the USA tour, and this lot had another Clemons, Jake, for the recent few tours since Clarence’s death.

In the hour-long documentary to promote the four-disc edition of The River, Bruce’s 1980 double-album, Bruce speaks engagingly about his process. He really wanted to make an album that his fans wanted to hear, enlisting van Zandt to produce alongside Jon Landau, and going against the type of production styles of the time. 36 years on, it sounds brilliant.

There were plenty of out-takes for The River, originally a single LP but released as a double with 20 tracks. In fact, the new box-set’s third disc is a single-disc version of the album. It includes ‘Cindy’, ‘Be True’ and ‘Loose End’, which all fall off the double-album in favour of denser songs like ‘Independence Day’ and ‘Jackson Cage’. Present and correct on the single disc are ‘Hungry Heart’, ‘The River’ and the sublime ‘You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)’.

The River will be played in full in 2016 around the US, with two dates at MSG in January, and hopefully abroad. In 1981 Bruce made it to London for six dates at the Wembley Arena, then the biggest indoor venue in Britain. He had famously been shocked at the posters proclaiming him as a messiah when he came over for 1975’s Born to Run tour, which rather ruined his debut show at the Hammersmith Odeon, which has since been released on CD.

In 2010 Bruce fans could enjoy The Promise, a double-CD of outtakes of songs that didn’t make it onto 1978’s troubled Darkness on the Edge of Town, Bruce’s fourth album and first since his elevation to rock deity. Lawsuits, writer’s block and trouble getting the right drum sound all contributed to a tough process. The album wasn’t toured abroad, but Bruce spent 1978 on the North American road with his band, with three dates at Madison Square Garden in New York.

Bruce was approaching 30 when he worked on The River, and was trying to write a record appropriate to his age. Grown-up ballads like ‘Point Blank’ and ‘Wreck on the Highway’ rub shoulders with rowdy bar-room pleasers like ‘Two Hearts’, ‘Cadillac Ranch’ and ‘Crush On You’. Spread out over four sides of vinyl, it was definitely value for money, and showcased every side of Bruce, from meditative crooner to funky stomper.

The River also saw him embody characters, such as the worker of the title song and the swaggering kid of ‘Out on the Street’. There was even, in ‘Hungry Heart’, a hit song, written ‘in the time it takes to sing it’ after meeting The Ramones and thinking it’d be good to write a song for them. Unlike some songs from the Darkness sessions which he did give away (‘Because the Night’ to Patti Smith, ‘Fire’ to The Pointer Sisters), he kept ‘Hungry Heart’. At gigs ever since, the crowd have always sung the first verse before Bruce does it himself. Stats from Setlist.fm show that of The River’s twenty tunes, ‘Hungry Heart’ is the most performed, just ahead of ‘Out in the Street’ and ‘The River’. The big two are ‘Born to Run’ and ‘Badlands’.

The sound of Bruce and the E Street Band is expansive and varied. I love the big drums of The Rising, the acoustic chugging of Nebraska and the declarative musical statements of Wrecking Ball, but The River seems less like the grab for hit singles that Born in the USA was, and also less like the outlaw blues-rock of both Born to Run and Darkness. (There was a period when Bruce went synth-mad between 1987 and 2000, with albums like Tunnel of Love, but reunited with the E Street Band for tracks for a mid-1990s Greatest Hits album.)

Now aged 66, there is no real need for Bruce to go out on these tours; he’s been doing it since he was 24 and may be 124 when he stops. Fit, healthy, with kids he loves and a formidable set of earnings from his catalogue, he can afford to take retirement. But he won’t!

SaraBareilles_Kirk_2

Twenty’s Plenty – January 2016, II

It’s mid-January, the Mondays are biting but music continues. Coming to mixcloud.com/blastocast this month is the Opportunity Inbox Sound of 2016, an introduction to who the big record companies will be funnelling money to, and which acts Chris Imlach and I want to see or hear.

In the meantime, here is the third Twenty. Last fortnight Elvis Presley (who would have been 81 this month if he hadn’t snuffed it) topped the Twenty with ‘Burning Love’, assisted by a massive orchestra. Will Elvis be present in this Twenty, or will someone steal his crown?

Find the link to a Spotify playlist of the Twenty at the bottom of this page.

Lots of new entries, so let’s go go GO!!

20 Sara Bareilles and Jason Mraz – Bad Idea. The first of three from Sara, this one with her male equivalent, in a duet written for a Broadway show. I like the back-and-forth, what writers call ‘stichomythia’, and I like when the voices meet. As in all her songs, the chords are interesting and the lyrics fun, with lots of dramatic tension to resolve. One of the show’s more memorable songs, they’ll be humming it in the aisles. ‘It’s a really good bad idea, wasn’t it though?’ is a cute line.

19 Rhiannon Giddens – Moonshiner’s Daughter. What a voice. She’ll be a durable artist as long as she wants to be. The singer of Carolina Chocolate Drops went solo in 2014, and followed up a strong album Tomorrow is my Turn with an EP. This song, from that EP, has a very contemporary groove, and a super vocal. Rhiannon performed her song ‘Up Above my Head’ as part of Jools Holland’s Hootenanny. Pure and full of character, Rhiannon’s voice leaps out here. Also recommended is her vocal expertise on ‘Mouth Music’, which is like watching a violinist improvise.

18 Virgo – In a Vision. Guardian pop critic Alexis Petridis wrote a piece about a deep house duo from 1990. I am a big fan of house music, so it was great to hear eight songs I had never heard before, each as good as the other. In a Vision leapt out, but next fortnight it could be another. Perfect music to work to, and sounds outstanding even in this Protools era.

17 Cage the Elephant – Mess Around. The mark of a good producer is that you know they’ve had a hand in the track just by listening to it. Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys has shaped the new album of his Kentucky frie(n)ds, the lead single from which is this, an addictive ditty that sounds like a Black Keys offcut.

16 Billie Marten – As Long As. Funny she’s at 16. As Louis Walsh would say on The X Factor before he was retired, ‘You’re 16!!!’ Laura Marling was also a teenage starlet (in 2007, which means she’s still mid-twenties!) but Billie started even earlier. I’m watching a clip of her performing an internet session in 2002, as a twelve-year-old with long hair and a purple guitar. Finally, with GCSEs out of the way, she’s ready to put a full-length album out. She’s just been one of eight acts to play a BBC showcase, having been longlisted for the Sound Of 2016 poll. Her USP is her love of alpacas, but her voice is pretty enough on its own. Every time you read about her you’ll find out Ed Sheeran liked her song ‘Bird’, but I prefer the title track of her 2015 EP, which has some yummy suspended chords.

15 Foxes – Amazing. In 2011 I went to Camden Town to see a set of bands perform ‘Breakout’ sessions. One of these performers was a girl with an acoustic guitar and a sweet voice named Louisa Rose Allen. A few months later she had become Foxes, and was a year away from becoming a staple of radio playlists by guesting on the track ‘Clarity’. In 2014 she was the musical performer at a TV recording I attended, promoting her first album. Her second one, All I Need, is now due for release, and the lead single is ‘Amazing’. If not amazing, it’s a smart dance-pop song with addictive musical E numbers. One of the album’s tracks, ‘Scar’, is a Babyface production, but will that make it to the Twenty?

14 Bloc Party – The Good News. It’s not just choppy guitars any more. Kele has matured in his songwriting, done a ‘Robert Smith from the Cure’ and recruited new band members. This song is very good, with a winning chorus and a lyric about ‘going to the water to pray’. Then comes some slide guitar and a chantalong of the title; sounds like a hit, or an A-listed track on BBC 6Music.

13 Ra Ra Riot – Absolutely. Selected by Chris Imlach for the Sound of 2016 podcast, this is a super tune with multi-tracked vocals, a fun riff and the recurrence of the title throughout the chorus. It’s a banger. Vampire Weekend fans will be sated, as will fans of Mika (whose Radio 2 show over New Year was terrific and is still iPlayerable).

12 Sara Bareilles – Never Ever Getting Rid of Me. She may pop up later, so I’ll save the precis of The Waitress for then. In brief, this is a song that bops and shimmies and will please fans of musical theatre. Some of the chords are Cole Porter-inspired, while I can imagine the lead witch in Wicked singing this in her warm-ups. The second verse is all about a cat, while the chorus is about ‘doing this right…wherever you go I won’t be far to follow’. Only after a few listens did I notice that the verse is in the key of G, while the chorus is in F, a real Porter-type chord shift that merits my applause!

11 Frankie Ballard – Young and Crazy. ‘How’m’I ever gonna get to be old and wise if I ain’t ever young and crazy?!’ Good point well made. Another one of these young men doing good things with country music, this song chugs along like a country-rock song from 1973. One of the bit 50 hits counted down in the Country Top40 Hits of the Year, this is a ‘weekend’ song dedicated to having fun. ‘I gotta do a little wrong to know what’s right’. Also includes enjambment, a run-on line, so he can rhyme ‘porch’ with ‘glory days’.

10 David Bowie – Lazarus. Bizarre, waking up at 6 and then following breaking cultural news even before it was confirmed. I listened to Bowie’s final album Blackstar on Monday morning, as millions of others did, and found it tough in places. I liked ‘Dollar Days’ but was locked into the groove of a track from the new Broadway musical. This is the track which had clues in its first verse that Bowie was not long for the world. Read my piece on Bowie, written as I was listening to BBC 6music prove it should never have been earmarked for closure, on the site.

9 Cam – Hungover on Heartache. She started the year playing the Ryman Auditorium in her home town of Nashville, after the massive success of album Untamed. ‘Burning House’ has been the hit, but the album’s full of potential ones. This one has the pop sheen of Taylor Swift’s country songs. I’m a sucker for syncopation and good melodies; this tune has both. Make it a hit!!

8 Chairlift – Romeo. From a new album released in January, Chairlift are one of those ‘Pitchfork bands’, appealing to hip music fans who like beats and rhymes. This song sounds very contemporary, with a chorus that goes ‘Put on your running shoes, I’m ready to go’, but has some fun chords to match a really driving riff played through an effects box. Chris Imlach chose this for the Sound of 2016 podcast, so if you like this, you’ll like the hour.

7 Julius La Rosa – Eh Cumpari. ‘Oh this is just ‘I am the music man!’ I shouted when Paul Gambaccini played this song as part of ‘A Matter of Life and Death’ during his successful Radio 2 show America’s Greatest Hits. Julius, who just turned 86, was born in Brooklyn and was infamously sacked live on air from his job as a singer on the popular Arthur Godrey show; Gambo pointed us towards the Youtube clip of it, where Julius talks of his tyrannical and jealous boss, defying him by getting himself an agent. This song, a US ‘terrific two’, is familiar to those who loved the movie The Talented Mr Ripley. It’s a ‘smile to the face’ song in Italian whose lyrics are easy to work out: the guy says to the cumpari ‘What’s that sound over there?’ The guy replies ‘It’s the flute/ saxophone/ mandolin/ violin/ trumpet/ trombone’. The inquisitor-narrator says ‘And what’s it sound like then?’ To which Julius makes a noise with his mouth, be it whistling, ‘chinga’, ‘doo-doo’, ‘bah-bah’, adding a new instrument each time, before finishing with ‘dippity dippity dot’. It’s life-affirming, and more fun than Benjamin Britten as a guide to the orchestra for young people. Arthur Godfrey is dead; Julius La Rose is alive!!

6 Vant – Parking Lot. Guitars are dead etc, but some kids still know how to rock. Vant have built a big following through lots of live gigs in 2015, and 2016 sees them play a sold out London show under the NME tour banner. This song gets going instantly, with some talk of vampires, and reminds me of Foo Fighters and Air Traffic, the latter of whose ‘Just Abuse Me’ combines melody and power like the best work of The Hives. ‘Wait a minute cos your heart’s not in it’ is the hook, with a close harmonic interval. Fans of bands like Sloan and The Cars will find stuff to love here, the best of the four tracks put out so far.

5 Jellyfish – Too Much, Too Little Too Late. Last year I wrote a long piece on Acolytes of McCartney, singers who write melodic rock songs in the manner of Macca. One of these men is Andy Sturmer, who was a quarter of the band Jellyfish. In summer 2015 their two records, Bellybutton and Spilt Milk, were reissued on CD, and I spent happy hours embracing the powerful pop and marvellous arrangements. This song, from Spilt Milk, is structured sublimely, with soft bits, Beach Boys-y harmonies and a guitar-led instrumental break. Hopelessly uncommercial in 1993, this is music made to last, and sounds so fantastic through my new earphones. This fortnight it was revealed that an ‘official unofficial’ book on the band was finally due in spring. There’s a Facebook group for it.

4 The Chiffons – One Fine Day. Well specifically Janelle Monae’s take on it, performed at the Kennedy Centre to honour Carole King. Much was made of Aretha Franklin’s appearance at the end, but Janelle’s personality can sell the dullest tune. Fortunately ‘One Fine Day’ isn’t dull, but a burst of hope and reverie that speaks across the decades. Carole wrote it as a young lady, and it is so brilliantly structured in that old New York style beloved of Mann & Weill, Neil Sedaka and Gerry Goffin. It’s stunning just how many tunes King has written, from bubblegum to torchsong, and even though she has hardly written a note in forty years, she never needed to. Tapestry remains a touchstone for young (especially female) songwriters, but her uptempo tunes, many showcased in the Broadway and West End musical Beautiful, are the sound of Young America.

3 Elle King – Under the Influence. She played ‘Ex’s and Oh’s’ at a New Year televised hootenanny in the States, where she’s preparing for her big tour over there. But fortunately RCA has made her album available on European streaming services so it was high time to investigate. This tune is what Lana Del Ray sounds like with a bit of gristle. ‘I got no defence,’ sings Elle on a track written with the same bloke who wrote ‘Ex’s’. I wrote at length about Elle for the site; take a looksee as you listen.

2 Cam – Half Broke Car. Like ‘Hungover on Heartache’ this is clever country from Cam, with lyrics that follow the Kacey Musgraves school of smart & cute: ‘A half-truth’s still a lie/ “I’ll be back soon” is still goodbye’ made me sit up and notice, but the musicality of the song, which bounces along after a delightful piano intro, keeps me coming back.

1 Sara Bareilles – Opening Up. What a confection! The Waitress is a Broadway show based on a movie I never saw, but seems topical because baking is recession-proof! Sara, whose ‘Love Song’ is one of my top pop songs of the century, has composed a set of songs which she put out last year to whet people’s whistles for the show, which starts previews in spring this year. I am a sucker for one particular chord progression – I to diminished V – and it’s present and very correct in the chorus to this song, the first song proper in the musical. “Opening up, letting the day in” is a marvellous lyric, and I am sure Sara has studied the work of the best contemporary writers for Broadway. This tops the Twenty, and is good enough to top the next!

<> at Eden Stadium on June 30, 2015 in Prague, Czech Republic.

The FA Cup: Romance is Alive and Well (Watford 1 Newcastle 0)

What a stodgy game.

I suppose it’s supposed to be. It’s the second weekend of January; those under the elements are shivering and drenched because it’s winter rain. Some fans shiver while branded, having spent money on Watford-monogrammed windbreakers.

I spent forty minutes hopping seats, after ensuring I bought one ninety minutes before the game. Fans queue up as I go in, because away fans have been given the entire stand, rather than just a third of it. 18,000 people on a Saturday, at 3pm, on FA Cup Third Round weekend.

One of the questions I wanted to investigate was whether or not the FA Cup was the last breath of romance in what I call Generation Live on Sky Sports. Proudly terrestrial broadcasting still holds the rights to the Cup, now sponsored by a well-known airline that services the Middle East. After a few years with ITV, now the BBC hosts rich coverage of the tournament, with BT Sport also covering games to cater to their subscribers to counterbalance their oodles of Champions League and UEFA Cup games and all the highlights and top games from Germany, Scotland, Italy, France, Portugal, Australia and Brazil. And the Conference, now called the National League.

Eastleigh, the giants of non-league football, almost beat Bolton, the financial strugglers of the second tier. On the radio on Friday night, and on television if you fancied it, Liverpool’s well-remunerated 30s and 40s (speaking in squad numbers) could not defeat the mighty Exeter City. The goal of the round was the third of the round, Lee Holmes scoring from a corner and providing a meme for fans of Everton and beyond.

The big teams in blue and red went through, Manchester United with a last-minute penalty after a front four of Ander Herrera, Juan Mata, Anthony Martian and Wayne Rooney could not pass Sheffield United’s stern defence. Easy wins came for Chelsea, Manchester City, Everton, Arsenal and Watford. Crystal Palace beat Southampton, and Swansea’s reserves amazingly lost at the Kassam Stadium to Oxford United.

Does it matter that Newcastle fans chanted that some players were ‘not fit to wear the shirt’? I think it mattered that Mitrovic looked like a Serbian version of Nicolas Anelka, diving and sulking and missing and moaning, and that the wingers Thauvin and Ayoze looked very bullyable.

For Watford fans we got to see Obbi Oulare, a gangly nineteen-year-old, and young Steven Berghuis, both ‘the future’ of Watford according to manager Quique Sanchez Flores. Newcastle played their best XI, and Watford were lucky that Jack Colback was injured, despite great efforts from FA Cup winner Ben Watson and reserve midfielder Adi Guediora.

The game was chess. Newcastle tried to work the ball to the wing-backs while Watford’s midfield covered and broke with pace: Jose Manuel Jurado and Berghuis ran back, while Troy Deeney and Oulare stayed forward. Often Deeney pointed to where he wanted the ball but I could remember no attack of note in the first 43 minutes from the home side, who defended expertly. As ever, Heurelho Gomes palmed and swatted everything away, two decent shots right at his throat.

Then a blessing: bad defending. Georginio Wijnaldum prodded it back thirty yards from goal, Coloccini left it, and Deeney did what he’s paid to do, with extra coolness, and right before half-time Watford had a lead they barely deserved.

The second half was pretty much all Newcastle, who usually don’t care about the FA Cup, but their season needed a boost. Their manager, a brolly-less Steve McClaren, had criticised the mood of the club in the months since he took over as manager; it may have been that he was auditioning his team for the league game in two weeks’ time. Moussa Sissoko looked pacey and excellent; Ayoze Perez has scored some goals this season and missed a big chance in the first half that sometimes would have gone in; Mitrovic did well to last ninety minutes, at one stage being talked to with Wijnaldum present for half a minute. The rain continued, as did Newcastle’s attacks, and embarrassingly they were caught offside on more than one occasion. Their fans, straining to see the other end of the pitch, were already thinking of the schlep back up to Toon.

They deserve better, but at least the owner is spending some of the money they get for treading water in the top division: £50m has bought Wijnaldum, Mitrovic and Jaanmat. Siem de Jong, injured for most of his Newcastle career, came on too late to make a difference. Kevin Mbabu, in for Colback, was fine at left wing-back, but he’s only 20 and was making his fifth appearance.

Since the poor treatment of Jonas Gutierrez, told his contract wasn’t being renewed by Ryan Taylor, his teammate, I have thought less of Newcastle. They exist, some critics have said, as a shopfront for Mike Ashley’s company Sports Direct; the stadium was, of course, briefly renamed the Sports Direct Arena around the time Newcastle were doing very well.

Remember that? It was only a few seasons ago. Papiss Cisse or Demba Ba kept scoring, fed great through balls by Cabaye. Tiote (who played against Watford) and Coloccini broke up the play, while Tim Krul was dominant in the penalty area. Half of Newcastle’s problems stem from the season-ending injury to Krul; Rob Elliot has been an able deputy, and he may have to make more saves in the league game (23 January) with Ighalo sure to return to the starting XI.

What Newcastle need is a new Geordie hero, not quite a Messiah but someone who can galvanise them. On the bench against Watford was Jamie Sterry, a Geordie-born centre-back who tweeted “I will persist until I succeed”; yet to start, he may well play before the season finishes. Other young players are there and thereabouts: Adam Armstrong, who made his first-team debut at 17, is a local lad out on loan, going great guns at Coventry, while Rolando Aarons had enough potential to play as a teenager for the first team. Still only 20, he has played for an England Under-20 side managed by former Watford gaffer Aidy Boothroyd.

With Cisse struggling and Mitrovic off the pitch more than on it, it would be super if McClaren would pick Aarons or Armstrong. Maybe next year Armstrong can lead the line; perhaps he would have finished one or two of the chances against Watford; his loan finishes on 16 January, but Coventry are going for promotion, having been upset in the first round of the FA Cup by struggling Northampton, with whom they recently had to share grounds. Their midfield now contains Joe Cole and Stephen Hunt, both former internationals, and they are back in the Ricoh Arena, doing the man whose statue stands outside the ground, the late Jimmy Hill, proud.

Coventry should not be in the third tier, just as Newcastle should not be in the second tier. I went to St James’s Park in 2009 to see Newcastle thump a hapless Watford 2-0, where the fans were happy to be winning under Chris Hughton. I remember Craig Cathcart, then on loan from Manchester United, hitting a Wijnaldum-type back-pass which led to their first goal, and I remember seeing half an hour of young Andrew Carroll. I recall Nathan Ellington, Watford’s record signing, coming on in a long-sleeved jersey and gloves.

Cathcart is a better player now, despite his slip against Tottenham that led to their first goal. With either Britos or Proedl beside him, the defence is sturdy, especially at home. The next fixtures have the potential to be tough, but Watford are in better form that Southampton (13 Jan), Swansea (18 Jan, Live on Sky Sports) and Newcastle (23 Jan). Seven points from those will set up Watford for the two league games against Chelsea (3 February, Live on BT Sport) and, so quickly again, Tottenham at White Hart Lane (6 Feb).

Before Chelsea, though, comes FA Cup round four at the City Ground. Nottingham Forest will be a stern test. Perhaps former Hornet Henri Lansbury will play; Forest can do with a good cup run to go alongside their decent league form. The romance is alive and well and there’s all to play for!

Come on you Horns!

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What did David Bowie mean?

I remember hearing Space Oddity for the first time, with its handclaps and weirdness. Perhaps I was 10 but it doesn’t matter. I love the chord progression, especially underscoring the line “tell me wife I love her very much/ She knows.”

It was the first Bowie tune I heard in a post-Bowie world. Odd, because I had the night before seen the episode of Mad Men’s final season when the moon landings are broadcast on TV. A major character passes away while Neil and Buzz are extraterrestrial. It’s a kind of metaphor, as it always is on Mad Men.

Many obituaries will be written and many heads will talk, so go to them to learn why Bowie was an iconoclast. One of the first rock’n’roll stars who dabbled in performance art, film, electronica, drum’n’bass, disco and ‘glitter rock’, it seems inconceivable that nobody aged between 15 and 55 was not profoundly sad on hearing that cancer had beaten Bowie the very week his final album came out.

But the first thought from people settling down to bed on Sunday evening in the West Coast, or those rising from their beds for a Monday morning at work, was that it couldn’t be. Not Bowie!

He made it to 69 years of age, having been ‘retired’ for a decade from live performance after falling ill on stage. Having spent the 1970s (his late-twenties and early-thirties) as one of the most fantastic live draws in rock, before succumbing to addiction and heading to Germany to recover, Bowie also seemed to have been a family man. Happily married for 23 years to his second wife, the model Iman, he fathered her child Alexandria, half-sister to Duncan (formerly Zowie) Jones, child of Bowie and his first wife Angie.

Duncan was the ‘second source’ I was waiting for. He sadly broke news of Bowie’s death to the world, after a Facebook post appeared in the wee hours of January 10. The director of the films Moon and Source Code has always been asked questions about his dad, which will be more poignant in the promotion of Warcraft. Born in 1971, Duncan told the Mail during the promotion for Source Code that his dad “really, really wanted me to learn an instrument” but he never practised. “He kept on trying and nothing was happening!”

Duncan recalled being pushed about in flight cases by Bowie’s roadies, waiting for the show to finish so he could go home. He detested being photographed: “It was like ‘Hide him!’”…me being whisked into a car before my dad came out separately.” Hanging out on the sets of films like Absolute Beginners and Labyrinth informed Duncan’s love of movie-making, as did watching A Clockwork Orange with him as an eight-year-old.

From what I read (I’m a 1988 baby), David Bowie was the man whose silver jumpsuit lit up the lives of young people in the drabness of being a kid in 1972. ‘Starman’, performed on Top of the Pops, still seems odd, a culmination of a decade of attempts by David Jones to become a new creature, but with a cracking chugging tune. That era between 1971 and 1975 produced some albums still held up as important rock records: Hunky Dory, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, Aladdin Sane (a lad insane!) and Diamond Dogs. I also like the ‘plastic soul’ of Young Americans and the experiments of the records with Iggy Pop and Brian Eno (Low, “Heroes”, Station to Station, Lodger). All eight of those albums were recorded in the same period of years (eight-ish) that the Beatles made theirs; it’s true to say that Bowie was the Beatles of the 1970s. Peter Doggett wrote a version of the Beatle-commentary book Revolution in the Head which made this fact irrefutable. Grab or borrow a copy of a song-by-song breakdown of Bowie at his pomp.

Being young, I know Bowie more from the Best Ofs than for his ‘next trick’ phase. Among all the tributes, the music should come first. Be it the jam with Queen, ‘Under Pressure’, or the funky Nile Rodgers-produced ‘Let’s Dance’ (made when both were without a record deal!), everyone has danced, snogged or had a sort of sexual awakening with Bowie as the soundtrack.

He has hardly given any interviews since his illness, getting on with his life in New York, sometimes joining bands like Arcade Fire and TV on the Radio on stage and on record; he popped up on the title track of the former’s 2013 album Reflektor. Alternative music holds Bowie in high esteem, for reasons that bands will make clear in the following few weeks: shape-shifting, chameleonic, concerned with the visual as well as the audial.

So many musicians have crossed paths with Bowie in the fifty years of his career, and from many genres. Acts like Spandau Ballet and Duran Duran brought their stylish pop to the masses in the 1980s while Bowie was reinventing himself as a blue-suited Thin White Duke; as well as Queen, Eno, Iggy and Chic, Bowie worked with Lou Reed (producing the Transformer LP), guitarist Pat Metheny and Mick Jagger, although that was a one-off hit for Live Aid recorded in separate continents.

Only last week, to celebrate Bowie’s birthday, I heard Buxton’s love letter, which had been broadcast on BBC 6music on the release of The Next Day, a surprise album sprung upon the world in 2013. (The show is on Youtube here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mpCrIZamdQE.) At the end he said he would never want to meet Bowie but, as a guest on Jonathan Ross’s radio show, Bowie had held a mix CD Buxton had compiled for Ross’s DJ set at a Bowie event. Buxton was content with this.

The internet is a great place when its users rally together for a common good. The whole world has been touched by Bowie’s music, and with people wanting to react (as they did when Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston and Paul Walker died, to name three recent entertainers who have passed away), everyone is forced to stop and reflect. The key tribute was a stop-motion montage of Bowie’s looks, turning from one side to the other: so many looks, but one man’s face.

People will recall seeing him in concert, meeting him for interview, laying down tracks behind him. A new book about Bowie’s time as a lodger in South-East London in his folkie days, pre-Ziggy, will sell well, as will biographies like Starman by the eminent writer Paul Trynka. The same people who reviewed Blackstar will now be giving orations and obituaries.

“He had this ability to epitomise the moment or be just ahead of the curve,” said Trynka on the BBC two days before Bowie died. Referencing another dead rock star, “Elvis had one great explosion of creativity and that was it; Bowie had several. He’s jumped off that hamster wheel of celebrity.”

Will Gompertz, the BBC’s entertainment editor, called Bowie ‘the Picasso of Pop’, which is also true. I admire Bowie’s older tunes but those of his late period are quite good too. The Next Day had rockers like ‘The Stars are Out Tonight’ and ‘Valentine’s Day’, but also the quiet ‘Where Are We Now’. Before those, I loved ‘Little Wonder’, an odd hit from the 1990s, and other songs that found their way into the Top 40 as I listened weekly as a kid: ‘Everyone Says Hi’, ‘Slow Burn’ and ‘Survive’.

Amid a lot of great pop and rock, I found his voice fascinating. It has been much lampooned but always with love, notably by Flight of the Conchords in their song ‘Bowie’ (written by Arj Barker) and by Adam Buxton in his career as a Bowie nut with a microphone. Ricky Gervais had Bowie guest in his show Extras, with a song that insulted Gervais’s character Andy, who had ‘sold his soul for a shot at fame’; on hearing the news Gervais told the world he had lost a hero. Many millions will feel the same.

Bowie’s new album Blackstar will now be heard by more than just hardcore fans; be warned, it’s tough and free-jazzy. The video to the single ‘Lazarus’, a song with a sombre saxophone melody, may have been Bowie’s last trick. “I’ve got scars that can’t be seen…I’ve got nothing left to lose,” intones the singer, filmed from above writhing on a white bed with a white bandage over his face with holes cut out for his eyes. Then he is at a desk, writing something (a will?) and biting his fingernails, as expressive as he was in his twenties learning mime and clowning, which he incorporated into his stage shows. Then he stands up and dances, his final performance: “I was looking for your ass!”

When a rock star dies, history is rewritten, but even in his lifetime, and thanks to taking an early retirement, David Bowie became a paragon of what it was to be a rock star. His influence will last until the last drop of glitter is spent in the world.

David Bowie died of cancer, aged 69, on January 10, 2016

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Roy Hodgson’s Book Club: ‘#2Sides’ by Rio Ferdinand

The scene is a room at St George’s Park, England HQ, January 2016.

England manager Roy Hodgson sits down next to Gary Neville, his coach, back in England after some days in Spain for a prior engagement the first meeting of Roy’s Book Club

The door opens, and in walks Wayne Rooney and Harry Kane. Wayne has some time between a commercial engagement for adidas and picking up his kids from school. Harry has had this in the diary for months, which is why his form in 2015 was so good. Only England call-ups can join the Book Club.

Two minutes later, and with massive headphones in his hand, Rio Ferdinand enters. His book #2Sides is the first book for discussion in the group.

Roy: Gentlemen thank you all for coming. We had apologies from Daniel Sturridge, who is unwell, and Raheem Sterling, who has to see schools for his kids. In their place, Harry Kane has been kind enough to come by.

Harry: It’s great to be here, I’m really thankful to be handed my first start in this Book Club and I can’t wait to help the team.

Roy: It’s great to have you, Harry.

Gary: Can I just add my thanks for your appearance, Harry. It’s so good that you’re committed to the cause.

Roy: Yes, gents, thanks for hosting this inaugural Book Club. Rio, it’s great that you could postpone your doctor’s appointment for us.

Wayne: Oi oi, doctor again…

Rio: Shut up!! It’s an honour to have my memoir, Hashtag Two Sides, co-written with David Winner, as the first Book Club pick.

Wayne: I’ve written books too. I know how hard it is to get your thoughts on paper.

Gary: I didn’t need a ghostwriter for mine.

Roy: I have not written my memoir yet, but prepare for some explosive revelations…

Gary: And tips on contemporary art, right, boss? I think Sky Sports want an interview with you.

Roy: So does The Economist. And something called Copa90.

Harry: That’s on YouTube

Roy: Yes, my grandson watched it. Rio, your book is called Two Sides.

Rio: Hashtag, Two Sides.

Roy: Hashtag, Two Sides. Right. Rio, would you like to make some opening remarks about why you chose to write the memoir now.

Wayne: He needed the money!!

Rio: Classic bantz, Wazza! Anyway, yeah, I wrote the book because I knew I’d be leaving Man United.

Wayne and Gary: The greatest club in all the world.

Rio: I knew I had some time on my hands, especially in a World Cup year. So I sat down with David Winner and we wrote it together.

Roy: Yes David is one of the best journalists. Did you read his book with Dennis Bergkamp?

Harry: I did. I read all the books about strikers. Henry, Bergkamp, Jamie Carragher…

Gary: He was a striker when Jimmy GREAVES was a striker!

Harry: I think his ability to read the movements of strikers came about because he was a striker in the youth team days.

Roy: I agree, he is a class act on and off the field. Rio, did you enjoy the process?

Rio: It was bare long!! If I can I would like to read out some key passages and then ask you guys to discuss, if that’s okay?

Roy: Yes of course, Rio. Silence in the room, please…

Rio: Let me just put on my reading glasses…“I had to have discipline and desire. Kids I played with who checked out birds are now working on building sites. I was playing and I had to get a train to get to training. No disrespect to Harry Kane but kids these days are ferried to and from training by car.”

Harry: Wow, I got mentioned! Thanks! None taken. I bought my chauffeur a trip to Dubai for the holidays.

Rio: Weird place…“My motivation was always the same, I played for respect. Money was never an issue. I just wanted my teammates and the fans and the coaches to respect me.”

Gary: You and Keano had my respect at all times. Remember when I stood by you when the FA wanted to ban you?

Roy: The FA wanted to make a statement.

Gary: One that wasn’t about who slept where with whom.

Wayne: Isn’t it with who?

Gary: No it’s with whom.

Roy: It depends on the context, Wayne. I’ll explain later.

Rio: Anyway, the crowds were intense everywhere. I always tell young players I meet, “Don’t get caught up in the atmosphere, cos you’ll have had it then. The more fans for the opposition, the sweeter the victory cos they’ll have lost as well. At least for me!”

Harry: Like Theo Walcott holding up two fingers to our fans.

Rio: Precisely right, my dear Harry. Some of the players, Gary, it was just a privilege. “Sometimes I’d go up to Giggs or Ronaldo and just go, It’s great to play with you, to share a field and a shirt with you! I let Giggsy lift a trophy once even though I was captain…”

Gary: I think Ronaldo chopped two years off my career. I had to mark him in training and Wayne would just point and laugh.

Wayne: To be fair, I feel like that now when Memphis runs at me!

Gary: But Ronaldo’s different class.

Rio: True, off the pitch too. He would fly in a chef to make his food. He had his own pool. Wayne, how’s your phone mate? You would just smash them all the time…

Wayne: I’m calmer now, saving up for Kai’s school fees!

Roy: Where’s he going?

Wayne: Probably City’s Academy but don’t tell anyone.

Gary: Your secret is safe.

Roy: Wayne, would you consider punditry or management after your career?

Wayne: Dunno, boss. What’s John Terry doing?

Gary: Ooooh, don’t mention the war!

Harry: What war?

Roy: I’ll explain later.

Rio and Gary: “Don’t tell him, Pike!”

Harry: Who’s Pike?

Wayne: Isn’t it ‘whose Pike’?

Roy: John Terry was a great player, what a terrific defender.

Rio: What an awful person.

Gary: Come on, Rio, he gave you some of his chips once.

Rio: Only cos Sven told him to! Here’s what made the papers. “Ash and JT are idiots – if they’ve just said something in private we could have avoided it. Anton didn’t even hear anything JT said.”

Gary: The whole thing was appalling. I hope it never happens again.

Harry: I have loads of black friends.

Rio: It was so bad, almost the worst day of my life. My mum was stressed, bullets came through her door.

Harry: Bullets!

Rio: Let’s move on. Roy, you wanted me back in 2012 when my back was sorted! You fessed up on the tube, man!

Roy: I was getting enough stick for thinking about recalling John, but the other coaches and almost every journalist wanted me to move on, to play Gary and Phil.

Wayne: Neville?!

Gary: No Wayne, the new Nevilles! Cahill and Jagielka, our hopes for France.

Wayne: Has either of them scored fifty goals for England, eh?

Rio: Golden Boot, they should call you. Wouldn’t you go with Stones, though?

Gary: You need experience.

Rio: Oh here we go.

Gary: Our squad needs to be full of characters, and players quick enough to catch Bale and Ronaldo and that lot. Stones may play some of the games, but he won’t be helped by all the transfer talk.

Rio: Yeah but can you imagine the stick the gaffer’s gonna get if he goes with two old guys if Stones and Jones are playing well.

Harry: Stones and Jones, phones and bones…

Rio: Sounds like a hit, Harry. What about the influence pros can have? As kids we always ignored racism. We never brought it up cos we just wanted to play with older, better players.

Wayne: It was tough on the estate for the black kids. Both of them were decent lads.

Rio: Down in Peckham we were all decent lads, but the kids today are off the streets in the academies, doing work with the community, teaching little ones. Different world down there.

Roy: As a South Londoner myself I could not be happier. Apart from some of the guns…

Harry: And machetes.

Rio: Only nutters have machetes. The problems are at home. Anyway, I wish Twitter was around when I was a kid.

Roy: What is the point of Twitter?

Harry: To arrange your social life and for banter.

Gary: To follow influential businessmen like my mate Peter Lim.

Wayne: Banter. With Piers Morgan.

Rio: Banter, boss. If Twitter were around 20 years ago, I’d’ve asked John Barnes how he got so good and how he trained to be at top condition.

Roy: Very good. Frank Lampard credits his success to hard work.

Rio: Yeah, with Lamps, who worked really hard to be able to shoot from just outside the box and wasn’t a silky runner with the ball, we lost touch because he was in London with a rival club. Silly really, but maybe he’ll invite me to Manhattan so we can go to see some shows now he’s in New York.

Roy: He’s just got married, hasn’t he?

Harry: I was following it on Instagram. Ed Sheeran was there, Schofield, Piers Morgan…

Gary: Ugh.

Roy: Yes, Piers told me he introduced Frank to his wife. So that’s ONE good thing.

Wayne: Piers just wishes he could play for Arsenal.

Gary: We want Piers to interview some of the players before Euro 2016. Wayne, are you up for it?

Wayne: What, Good Morning Britain? I’ll just rinse him for ten minutes.

Harry: I’ll do it.

Roy: Yes that sounds safer.

Rio: Guys, can we focus, I’m gonna talk Barcelona, “David Villa was so crucial, him and Pedro on the wing. Messi, man, Thierry Henry told me once that Messi was so angry in training that he didn’t get a foul that when his goalie got the ball he ran back and went all the way through the other team and scored. That’s Xavi, Busquets, Pique…not your mates in the park.”

Wayne: I’d love to play with Messi, me.

Gary: I wonder how many people have played with Messi AND Ronaldo.

Rio: Tevez, mate. Pique, possibly.

Gary: I’ll do some research.

Roy: Di Maria.

Gary: Larsson. Henrik Larsson, played at Man United for a few weeks. Gaby Heinze.

Rio: Deco! Played for Portugal and at Barca. Great player.

Roy: Some of the other Argentineans…Gago, Higuain, Garay. All at Madrid.

Harry: I just googled it. All correct. I could only get Pique, boss.

Wayne: I hate quizzes.

Rio: You love them! Here’s one: what did we eat after games to get our sugar levels up?

Gary: Haribo! Wayne used to ask for the sour cherries.

Harry: That’s what SHE said.

Roy: What does that mean? Harry, tell me later.

Rio: Yeah, sweets, man. Pasta before the game, sweets after. I’d always be so hyper I couldn’t sleep till 3 or 4.

Roy: I should get Haribo to sponsor the England team.

Rio: I got a better idea, boss: bring in Glenn Hoddle. Forget what the suits say, he is a legend. “We haven’t, with respect, been as good as we were with Hoddle. He could trap a ball from thin air, he was that good. Then he talked about his beliefs.”

Gary: Venables gave me my debut, back in the Neolithic era.

Wayne: I’m too young for Hoddle, Gazza was the best.

Harry: No you were, Wayne.

Gary: Awww, get a room! What about the gaffer?

Rio: Sir Alex? He just wanted you to prove you were good enough. Does the boss do it with you, Wayne?

Wayne: I’m his captain so I’m biased, but he used to push me all the time. He’s a second father, really.

Roy: And I’m your grandpa!

Wayne: No, my older uncle, boss! Anyway, Rio, I’ve gotta get back home soon to watch some WWE with Kai.

Rio: Keep the kids close, mate. And the missus, cos you never know how many moments you’ve got left. Since I retired I’ve got my Foundation, and I’ve got Jamie Moralee as my agent. I used to have a guy to book holidays, one for property, one for investments…Then I almost got into gambling debts. Jamie’s great. He was at Watford but got into problems with lifestyle. He said a lot of footballers are dumped by agents when they retire and they just get depressed, lose it a bit because they can’t find anything to replace the feeling of Saturdays at 3.

Gary: Best feeling in the world. They should come to Salford City! They can get on the bench!! Ooh, sorry guys I’ve got a plane to catch.

Roy: Yes and I have to get a car to the match. I’ve got to watch Troy Deeney.

Harry: Bully.

Rio: Nah, Deeney’s a top lad. I’d take him.

Gary: So would I, but then you have to leave out Walcott.

Roy: Catch 22, eh, Gary?

Harry: I’d be happy to help. I’m captain of Spurs.

Roy: Well thank you for your contributions, gentlemen. I’d love to do this again.

Gary: Not until the season ends.

Harry: Not until the season ends.

Wayne: How about next month? I need distractions.

Roy: So does your club manager.

Gary: Giggsy’s waiting…

Rio: Don’t forget me!

[All exit.]

51Qimu6Sp2L._SL500_AA280_

Twenty’s Plenty – January 2016, First Week

Each fortnight Blastocyst.org.uk compiles a playlist via Spotify of the only 20 songs you need for the next fortnight.

Elle King topped the first chart in mid-December 2015, but has she held on for a second Twenty?

Two other songs hold steady in the Twenty, but can the King topple King? Scroll down to find out below, and find a widget at the bottom of the page to listen to the songs as you read,

20 Chris Carmack – Being Alone. Nashville and country music makes many appearances in this Twenty, but here is something from Nashville, the TV show. Will Lexington is the heart-throb who unhappily finds himself as a gay man on campus. The man who plays him is also starting a career in the genre, writing sweet songs like this, which has a very adult-rock chorus full of yearning.

19 Kara’s Flowers – Oliver. One of many tracks on a power-pop playlist discovered through PowerPopaholic, one of many such online resources, Kara’s Flowers is led by the singer Adam Levine. The same man has put his voice to many top pop songs as the voice of Maroon 5, but none is as poppy as this one. Guitars drive, minor chords chime and there’s a sitar break in the middle. There’s also a key change!

18 Shoshana Bean – Skywriter. ‘Ooh what’s this?’ I called to Amanda when the harmonies kicked in. She’s been a vocalist with Post-modern Jukebox, the Internet stars who take pop hits and twist them inside out. This is traditional vocal pop that recalls Regina Spektor and Imogen Heap, but even better! Is the title to do with the type of person who writes romantic notes in jet spray? Will need more listens to decipher.

17 Tyler Farr – Better in Boots. Yep, another country radio hit. Tyler takes the sultry route in the verses before encouraging his girl (or guy, but probably girl) to wear some KCs. He really likes the fact that it’s Friday night (country music loves gettin’ off for the weekend), but I like the riff which recurs throughout the song. The solo is pretty good as well.

16 Dustin Lynch – Mind Reader. Another country radio hit, with pedal steel guitar, a decent beat, a good riff and a nagging chorus with some cool syncopation. The verse structure relies on “how’d’ya know”, while the vocal is contemporary and worth a listen. Doesn’t make it stand out too much from hundreds of other country radio hits, but that’s what tight formatting does.

15 The Beatles – There’s a Place. I wonder how many new streaming subscribers, throughout the array of big ones, will be sucked in by the introduction of the music of Lennon-McCartney to them. Christmas came a day early for those few who don’t own the back catalogue (some tracks, though, are like the air we breathe and are all around us), and I immediately went to the specially-compiled Spotify playlist to hear some favourites. Yet tracks from the first Beatles LP including There’s a Place sound great, and will find their way next to Justin Bieber, with any luck, on any young fan’s own Twenty.

14 Brett Eldredge – Drunk on your Love. The album’s decent but this track is still the highlight. Deserves to be a pop hit as well as a country hit. One of three tracks still in the Twenty.

13 Badfinger – No Matter What. Two men wrote Without You, the song made famous by Harry Nilsson and Mariah Carey, but both hanged themselves within a decade. Badfinger, the band they emerged from, were signings to the Beatles’s Apple label; their song Come and Get It was McCartney’s, while their melodic pop made them the forebears of one of my fave genres of music, ‘power pop’. Twin guitars, lovely vocals and on No Matter What some sultry chord shifts, the band deserve a bigger place in music history.

12 Zara Larsson – Lush Life. Katy Perry would have killed for a track like this, the kind of music ‘bloggers’ usually like. Like Dua Lipa, this lady, a former Sweden’s Got Talent contestant, can really sing and has some songs which work with her voice. Bouncy and really Swedish (think Ace of Base with an 808 drum machine), this is the sound of pop music. It isn’t seedy or raunchy, just fun. She’s already been on a hit dance record, Never Forget You by MNEK, and this is a great start to a (relaunched) solo career.

11 The Stellas – It Wouldn’t Be This. Later in the Twenty will be a little Stella, but her mum and dad are this duo. This song, on the soundtrack to the latest season of Nashville, is a super tune with the title used as a refrain. It’s a warm love song with spectacular production, harmonies that recall (obvious but testament to their power) The Civil Wars and a pretty fine bridge. The music video is full of home-movie footage of the couple with their kids, Lennon and Maisy, who play the kids in the show. They’ve also covered ‘Perfect’ by Fairground Attraction.

10 Tame Impala – The Less I Know the Better. I missed this track, swept up in the majesty of the two singles ‘Cause I’m a Man’ and ‘Let It Happen’. NPR Music’s All Songs Considered reviewed the year in music and spotlighted on the album Currents, choosing this track, which has the multi-tracked vocals, toe-tapping beat and marvellous synths. Saw him/ them (he makes the music himself, gets a band to perform it) at the Latitude festival and knew he was a talent, as does Mark Ronson, who got him to help out on his last album.

9 Blossoms – Charlemagne. It’s hard to be a new rock band in the city, especially when you know the first wave of guitar bands from Britain in the 1990s, but there’s something in this song. Ones to Watch, according to the NME, the Manchester band are tipped (or rather heavily supported by the industry) to break through in 2016; they sound like a band Xfm (now Radio X) would like, and they’ve already played BBC sessions for Phil ‘P-Tag’ Taggart and Steve Lamacq. This song will get feet shuffling and fans bellowing, with an earworm of a chorus, a reference to an historical figure and a vocal style that recalls a less histrionic Brett from Suede.

8 Maisy Stella & Will Chase – Have a Little Faith in Me. I’ve enjoyed watching the American TV show Nashville while growing in appreciation for the country song. This one is more traditionally pop, a duet between Will, who plays country megastar Luke Wheeler, and Maisy, the daughter of Luke’s former fiancée and former queen of country Rayna James. This song played near the end of the show’s third season, in an episode where Daphne’s school was raising funds for its music studios. The purity of Maisy’s voice, which is usually found duetting with her ‘sister’ Maddie (really her sister Lennon Stella), is stark, especially when it changes key from C to G (an unusual ‘dominant modulation’). Will, who has done Broadway shows and was in the TV show Smash, is a great harmoniser too.

7 Elle King – Ex’s and Oh’s. Number One last time, this is still a joy on every listen, especially the last pre-chorus. Perhaps some songs from her album Stuff Happens will populate the next Twenty.

6 Blake Shelton – Gonna. Hey hey, alright, Blake’s digging on me and the Twenty tonight. He even admitted the lyric was nonsense, especially ‘love you every night and day-tona’, but the more I hear it the more I celebrate its familiarity. That makes it pop music. Still in the Twenty, climbing up several places.

5 Vince Guaraldi Trio – Linus and Lucy. I had never seen this song in the context of A Charlie Brown Christmas. I watched the special, which celebrated its golden jubilee in 2015, where this jazzy tune is given two airings, the first to accompany the dancing Peanuts stars, the second to fill some time in the episode while Charlie Brown gets irritated at the friends. An American tradition in the way Wallace and Gromit is in Britain, the Charlie Brown special was uplifting, especially when Linus steps forward to recite Scripture. I heard an NPR report that said they made it all in six months, from conception to completion; I wonder how long the new Charlie Brown movie took to make…

4 Maddie & Tae – Shut up and Fish. The smartest young stars of Nashville, they follow up their satirical ‘Girl in a Country Song’ with the irresistible track that recalls the best of Shania Twain in both lyric and sound. I’m sure they grew up with songs by sassy female heroes, and they reflect it with harmonies like those of The Dixie Chicks. The syncopated chorus is smashing, the pay-off makes you laugh and the song title is a t-shirt slogan I’d be willing to sport. They’re over in London in March for the big Country2Country festival on the same day as Carrie Underwood, and I would not be surprised if Carrie brings them out for her own set.

3 One Direction – Olivia. Harry Styles will certainly go solo at some point. With 1D taking a break (Louis will be a dad, Niall may do some more caddying for his mate Rory McIlroy), I hope for a full album of Styles’ styles. Olivia is the highlight of a so-so album, with McCartney-type horns and a chugging guitar. It sounds like ten Beatles songs at once, and the chorus is smashing.

2 Anderson East – Satisfy Me. A guy who grew up with spiritual music, Anderson is the latest man whose record has been produced by Dave Cobb. A great NPR Music piece profiled Cobb, a rock guy who moved to Nashville more for the fact that music is made there than the type of music churned out. Anderson’s white-boy r’n’b will please fans of James Morrison and Eli ‘Paperboy’ Read, and this live version of his song Satisfy Me, recorded at the renowned Muscle Shoals in Alabama brings out the quality of his voice.

1 Elvis Presley – Burning Love. Radio 2 playlists can throw up annoying ditties, but in December every time this song came on I stopped to listen. His late-period hit has been reinvented as part of the orchestra-enhanced set of recordings that filled many stockings this year. I love the revitalised opening, with the descant upwards just before Elvis comes in and the deep pitch of the strings underscoring the riff in the guitar. The drums sound fresh and Elvis’s voice (taken from the original recording) is superb. Top of the Twenty.

Here’s the link to the audio:

 

The next Twenty will be published on January 17.

elle

Girls with Guitars: Elle King and Alabama Shakes blaze a trail

Can guitar-led music still make an impact?

Ask Elle King. Her 2015 album Love Stuff came out in Europe around the time that her tune ‘Ex’s and Oh’s’ made the top of the US Rock charts. The song is one of the finest guitar-led ones of recent months, with a strong lyric, stronger pre-chorus (‘They always wanna come but they never wanna leave’) and the chorus, which is strong too.

Elle – nose ring, huge eyelashes, blonde hair, red lipstick – is another female rock singer. There aren’t as many as there could be, but those who have impressed in recent years are a counterpoint to ‘indie guitar bands’ who followed in the last gasps of the big labels throwing money at trends.

Tanner Elle Schneider grew up in New York and Ohio, taking her mum’s surname rather than that of her father, Rob Schneider, from whom she learned “I don’t wanna be in movies. Rock’n’roll is more fun cos you can be drunk at work,” as she told one interview online.

Elle filmed a scene in one of the Deuce Bigalo films where she knocked on the door and caught her dad’s character watching pornography: “You’re a sick man and I’m gonna tell!!” she shouted. Her stepdad is a rock musician, which bled into the attitude of a young Elle, who was made to listen to soul singers and Debbie Harry.

Kitty Empire, critic of the Observer, imagines in Elle, seeing her at a label showcase to promote Stuff Happens in London, a cross between Dolly Parton and Beth Ditto or, better, between Meghan Trainor and Amy Winehouse: curvy and potty-mouthed, but with some pretty ace songs. Stuff Happens, has been in development since she signed a deal at 22. She released it aged 25.

Elle opened for James Bay and Modest Mouse in 2015. Previously she played before Ed Sheeran came on stage on two dates of his + tour, and there are videos online of a performance in Texas in 2013 for Paste Magazine, where she played her version of the raunchy rap song My Neck, My Back.

If anything, Elle’s development shows how cautious big labels are with their acts. I read recently that only 120 acts were signed to the big three labels in 2015, many of who started off as featured vocalists (Jess Glynne, Ella Eyre, Sam Smith and many more started in this way). The Sound of 2016, Jack Garrett, finally puts out his debut in spring 2016, but people have known about his talent for over a year; ditto acts like Little Simz, Blossoms and Shura, who have been bubbling under and will surely break through.

Elle’s album includes songs co-written by Mark Ronson and Patrick Carney of the Black Keys (‘Last Damn Night’, a tune which led to the album being delayed), Jacknife Lee (a superproducer who has worked with U2 and Snow Patrol, whose contribution is the toe-tapper ‘Make Me Smile’ that recalls KT Tunstall) and Amanda Ghost, a reputable singer-songwriter who was briefly president of Epic Records.

There’s a song in which she sings “I’m not America’s Sweetheart” over a Mumford beat. The other song written with Dave Bassett (who co-wrote both ‘Ex’s’ and ‘Fight Song’, the Number One song by Rachel Platten) is ‘Under the Influence’, which is even better than ‘Ex’s’, and will appeal to fans of Lana del Rey.

Elle isn’t the only contemporary female pop singer to break into the charts. Aside from Adele and Taylor Swift, who both co-write their material, Alabama Shakes have topped their first album with Sound & Color, a stunning set led with ‘Don’t Wanna Fight’, which matches the addiction of Elle’s best songs. Brittany Howard has the most fearsome voice in rock since Beth Ditto of Gossip, and sings confidently of love and loss. Both Brittany and Elle have studied the ‘restraint and wail’ style of Janis Joplin and Debbie Harry, while putting a lot of their personality into the live sphere. Personality is all when everyone can reveal theirs online, star or not.

Elle isn’t quite as rootsy in her style, but she plucks a banjo on some tracks and has one murder ballad-type song ‘Ain’t Gonna Drown’. In a genre-covering exercise, Elle ticks many a box in the same way Alabama Shakes do: rock, roots, Americana, pop, soul, r’n’b. The whole thing sounds like America, though.

The future of rock music as a genre is cross-pollination. Rock as an attitude is less important a mode of expression for kids today: what with Snapchat and blogs they can do it more cheaply, without instruments or amps, and their audience is the world, not CBGB’s.

Most music publications see rock music (or at least the acts they cover) as beginning with John Lennon’s Tomorrow Never Knows and ending with John Lennon’s death. Hiphop began its rise in the 1980s alongside MTV, when the big beast of pop and its colourful stars (Prince, Madonna, Michaels Jackson and George) brought in the new arena era. Then alternative rock knocked on the barricade and Nirvana, REM and Oasis led the charge. Radiohead inspired Muse and Coldplay, then Coldplay inspired Snow Patrol and Keane, then Simon Cowell inspired the melisma craze advanced by Beyonce, Mariah and the rest.

The Libertines and Arctic Monkeys put poetry over drums and guitars, inspiring hundreds of others. It got to the stage in about 2008 where the market seemed saturated. A couple of female-fronted bands – The Kills, Gossip, Florence + the Machine – did make an impression, but they seemed far less frequent an occurrence than the men who gobbed their way into the music press.

Then came streaming, and now everyone can hear anything at a click. The ‘music press’ dominated by those bands has now moved online, to websites like DrownedInSound and NME.com. Rock music is still here, because there are still kids who want to play like Bonzo, Hendrix or McCartney. Pop music is still here, because hormones need an outlet and Justin Bieber can’t really do anything else.

Hiphop, helped by white rappers like Eminem, is the true global musical currency. Dr Dre used his hustle to reinvent both the headphone and music radio (BeatsMusic led to Apple Music, which can only get stronger in the current climate), while his protégé Kendrick Lamar seems to be leading the charge for conscious ‘reality rap’ that Dr Dre pioneered with NWA before Kendrick was born. Mixtape culture has made stars of acts like JME, Skepta and Future, while rock musicians still have to tour the world and its festivals. Some, like Mumford & Sons, organise their own.

Yet in 2015 Melvin Benn, who books acts for Reading Festivals, said that he thinks fewer headline acts are being made. Next year at Download the big three are Rammstein, Iron Maiden and Black Sabbath; in 2016 at Reading/Leeds it’ll be the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Adele and Guns N Roses are rumoured to headline some of the outdoor festivals, catering to the millions who love their songs, but who are the most dynamic live performers? Young Fathers, Benn has said, are exciting him, as are Foals, headliners at Latitude (another of Benn’s festivals) in 2014, and Royal Blood, who are preparing their second album for 2016.

Wireless in Hyde Park attracted Drake and Kendrick Lamar, and those who have seen any live version of Kendrick’s ‘Alright’ know how he can hold thousands or hundreds in his hand. I am disappointed in Florence, whose voice often falters live, but more impressed with Muse, Foo Fighters and U2, who know how to put on a show. Like those three acts, Ed Sheeran has played Wembley Stadium, with only a loop pedal and Rudimental for company, catering to some of his millions of fans, but he’s off for 2016 writing album three.

Pop will always attract fans of spectacle, but rock has to work harder, since it puts attitude over spectacle and costume, usually. Iron Maiden and AC/DC have their mascots, as do the Grateful Dead, America’s resident rock band. Look out in 2016 for Justin Bieber, touring his Purpose LP, the return of Dixie Chicks after a ten-year break and, probably, Rihanna. I wonder if Lady Gaga is preparing another re-invention, modelling her career on Madonna, whose Rebel Heart tour has just ended.

There is no reason to doubt that Elle King will win thousands of fans in Europe in 2016, touring Stuff Happens, even though she’s spending most of the first half of the year in the States. She’d be a brilliant mid-afternoon festival booking. Alabama Shakes are confirmed on the card for the Hyde Park gig in London in summer 2016, just under Mumford & Sons. They are also in the running for Album of the Year at the Grammies. After the soft sounds of Beck on 2015 and the beats and rhythms of Daft Punk in 2014, it should be theirs, if not for Taylor Swift and Kendrick Lamar.

All the same, for fans of ‘rock’ and of Alabama Shakes, it’s worth hitting up Elle King.

elle

Twenty’s Plenty – A Fortnightly Playlist: December 2015

I am a big fan of the band The Beautiful South, and an equal admirer of the 33 1/3 series of music journalism. One day I would like to combine my passions and write a book in the series about Carry On Up the Charts, the first BS Greatest Hits album (their second hits collection, Solid Bronze, is also good, but I have a Proustian attachment to the 1994 series).

Paul Heaton, lyricist and vocalist of the BS, has for many years kept a logbook, within which he writes his top twenty tracks in any month. A fan of Northern Soul, punk and guitar music, Paul revealed his tastes in interviews to the BBC in December 2015 to promote his second album in partnership with Jacqui Abbott, the second of the female singers the BS had in their existence (1988-2005, splitting due to ‘musical similarities’).

Inspired by Paul’s idea, I started my own fortnightly countdown, ‘Twenty’s Plenty’. All songs will be in a playlist on Spotify – follow me at https://open.spotify.com/user/jonnybrick – under the playlist of that title.

You can find each playlist uploaded fortnightly, with the first one from the middle of December 2015 here: https://open.spotify.com/user/jonnybrick/playlist/3KScRoCclBm0NeXeBTO7KN

To accompany the playlist, I’ll add a few notes for every track here. You are welcome to create your own Twenty, in the spirit of mutual appreciation.

Here’s the first Twenty’s Plenty countdown:

20 Lily & Madeleine – Hourglass. Two young ladies return in 2016 with sweet voices; this is the lead single that landed in my inbox recently. (Send your music for consideration to helloblasto@gmail.com)

19 Tom Robinson ft Billy Bragg – The Mighty Sword of Justice. A combined age of 932 makes two members of punk songwriting’s pantheon sources of respect. Owen Jones has written a 300-page book recently, The Establishment, about a topic Billy & Tom sing about in about 260 seconds. “There’s one law for the rich, and another one for the poor.” Brilliant track from Tom’s 2015 album Only the Now, his first since 1996.

18 Rudimental ft Bobby Womack – New Day. We The Generation is the second album from crate-digging, forward-thinking dance-music makers Rudimental, who enlist many great artists to provide the vocals. The late Bobby is in great form on one of his last performances; stay until the end of the track to hear some ad-libbing.

17 Kylie Minogue – Warm this Winter. A contemporary festive favourite, Kylie covers this and many more on her first ever Christmas album. “War-ho-harm!” is sung in a way that proves she enjoyed the experience. (Also listen out for Iggy Pop snarl his way through ‘Christmas Wrapping’.)

16 Hunter Hayes – Wanted. A multi-instrumentalist with the face of a cherub, I don’t think Nashville knows what to do with Hunter. From his first album, and released on a compilation for international audiences, this is a great, chaste ballad (“I wanna make you feel wanted”) that could have been a One Direction pop number one. The melody is of the quality of a pop standard, so I hope an A&R guy gives this to a big pop star and Hunter gets more ears off the back of it.

15 Justin Bieber – Love Yourself. I wanted Biebz to make a good song, and he’s made a few on Purpose. This one has Ed Sheeran’s paws on it, and a sweet vocal from the Canadian ensures it hit number one, displacing his own Sorry, which isn’t bad either. Listen without prejudice and you’ll be humming it on first listen.

14 Blake Shelton – Gonna. Little known in the UK, Blake has been a star of the US version of The Voice, bantering with Adam Levine of Maroon 5; he’s been in the gossip columns as the new partner of another star, Gwen Stefani, after his divorce from Miranda Lambert, but he lands here because of his country radio hit that nags at the ears and makes Blake the country music star that pop fans like. Hey hey, alright may not be sophisticated, but the melody is a winner.

13 Jonathan Groff – You’ll Be Back. More over the next few Twenty’s Plenties about Hamilton: An American Musical, this ‘British invasion’ pastiche is sung by King George III in the first act of the Broadway musical. Perfect vocal control (you’d hope so, Groff is a bankable star on Broadway and from Frozen), a singalong chorus and some humour add up to a nagging highlight.

12 Chris Stapleton – When the Stars Come Out. Mr Country Music 2015, who duetted with Justin Timberlake on a live awards show broadcast, has a wonderful voice, a wonderful wife who also has a wonderful voice, and chose the wonderful Dan Wilson (‘Someone Like You’, ‘Closing Time’, ‘Secret Smile’) to co-write a sumptuous love song with the best chorus on Chris’s US number one album Traveller.

11 Brett Eldredge – Drunk on your Love. Each US state seems to have its own country star these days. In Illinois it’s Brett, whose album is named after his home state. This song has a chorus that tops his previous country radio hit ‘Lose My Mind’, while the arrangement is perky and rootsy without sounding too much like everything else in the Country Top 40 (Listen at ct40.com to hear what Country Radio in the USA is bigging up.)

10 Donny Trumpet – Sunday Candy. I’ve been watching this series of Saturday Night Live, which inserts musical guests among Trump impressions and movie star cameos. Chance the Rapper is someone on my radar but it took this song, recorded under the DT alias, to make me see his potential. He jived, jumped, pointed to the gospel choir backing him and looked great in a cap. A superstar to those in the know, this tune has a great set of chords with a sing-song delivery.

9 Hunter Hayes – 21. Him again. The lead track of his 2015 release, a mini-album, this sounds like ‘contemporary pop country’ and is the cousin of Taylor Swift’s ‘22’. Like Brett’s song at 11, ‘21’ has a killer chorus, while the structure of the song is united in all its parts by wanting to live like “kids on the run”.

8 Sia – Alive. As performed on Saturday Night Live and on The Graham Norton Show, this is the lead single from Sia’s 2016 release. I hope she enunciates better than she did on the last album, as I am a longtime fan of hers. She only wears a wig onstage because she wants to go about her life quietly writing hit after hit. This one had Adele’s help, so it’s hit-squared. Great structure, very karaoke-able chorus and a great vocal.

7 Phoenix – Alone on Christmas Day. Netflix has been good to its customers this year – Daredevil, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Jessica Jones – and this festive season it brought A Very Murray Christmas to air. Bill Murray plays himself, Miley Cyrus puts her voice to its proper use (her next album will be of Adele-sized brilliance, I hope) and Phoenix, a band known to director Sofia Coppola, cover an old Mike Love song with the take-home point to ‘keep moving on’. A winner on first listen with Bill’s backing vocals, it’s bouncy and fun and an unusual addition to the Great Xmas Songbook.

6 Selena Gomez ft Charli xcx – Same Old Love. I liked Sucker, the debut by Charlie xcx, and I liked the lead single ‘Good for You’, and I knew Justin Bieber used to be romantically linked with her, but what a tune this one is. Great contemporary pop with a soft shuffle and a chorus that kicks in at the right time, Selena’s delivery prompted Rolling Stone magazine to name Selena’s album Revival one of the pop records of 2015. Must check it out.

5 Chris Young – I’m Comin’ Over. He got his start on a TV talent show, and was known to me for his poppy hit ‘Aw Naw’, but this tune is notable for several things: it helped Chris have a number one country album of the same title; it seems to be about dropping everything to stay with a girl (“to hell with the closure, save it for another time”); and the chorus comes in after 29 seconds, when you usually have to wait a minute or so. He also co-wrote it.

4 Robert Glasper – Levels. The New Yorker magazine got its biggest exposure, perhaps, in an episode of Family Guy when it was ‘revealed’ that there was no bathroom in the offices. This was unfair, as the paper is a great cultural bastion for America and its smartest city. On one of the audio episodes of the magazine’s podcast, pianist Robert plays a solo version of his cover of Bilal’s ‘Levels’, improvising around the theme but laying clear his debt to non-jazz sources. Jazz for people who don’t get jazz, Robert’s new album was recorded live at Capitol Studios, and may be my go-to ‘jazz’ album for a few Plenties.

3 Courtney Barnett – Debbie Downer. Kurt Cobain meets Jerry Seinfeld, adopts Australian child who spends a lot of time questioning existence, has gardening accident which inspires a song ‘Avant Gardener’, then records a full-length album that hovers near the top of the critics’ lists. This track, with its yearning chorus, subtly inverts the chords of the verses and chorus while Courtney speak-sings confidently. Not as punchy as ‘Pedestrian At Best’, a great favourite of mine, but really poppy.

2 Dua Lipa – New Love. Tip of the pop hat to Jessica Pinkett, creator of the Poptastic! Twitter feed and This Must Be Pop! In tandem with the BBC’s Sound Of… poll she has tipped DL for big stuff in the next year, and seems better value than someone like Pia Mia, an Instagram-popstar according to Jessica (who gets paid to find new music for popstars). I only know a few tunes, this being the smartest, and find its aesthetic appealing; it’s like Sia and Alicia Keys mentored a young singer.

1 Elle King – Ex’s and Oh’s. The tune of the month, beyond question. Number one in the US rock charts since September, featured in the trailer for the Tina Fey goes to Afghanistan film out in spring, played on US television and nominated rightly for a Grammy Award, Elle is the name on everyone’s lips. Her birth dad is comic Rob Schneider, but she grew up with a musician for a stepdad who informed her musical style. “They always wanna come but they never wanna leave” is the sassiest pay-off in the Twenty, the verse’s chords rotate in a simple way and the chorus hits like a (and here I must note that I don’t go for much simile in music criticism) slap. She’ll be compared to people like Brittany from Alabama Shakes, but her pop sensibility makes her, to my ears, like Linda Perry (‘What’s Up’ by 4 Non Blondes) or Alanis Morrisette. Watch, and listen, to Elle as she makes it in the UK in the next few months.

Hear the tracks here: