Greatest Hits 2020

Happy New Year! To celebrate, here are ten reviews from the last few years that you might have missed:

History of the UK Charts – Specialist Charts

These days, there are no shortage of official UK charts. As long as you aren’t trying to do anything too obscure or mainstream, and you can fit your work into a particular bucket, there is probably a specialist, or genre-specific chart for you – from R&B to rock, classical, dance, and even Americana.

Soul, Northern Soul, R&B, and Urban Music

For all the obscure modern genre-specific charts that we’ll meet later in this post, the concept is, surprisingly, nothing new – they were already well established as far back as the 1970s. It fell to our old friend Record Mirror, which had been publishing a singles chart since 1955, and had adopted the new official chart on its launch in 1969.

This is not a well documented history, but its first specialist chart seems to have been the Body ‘n’ Soul Record Mirror Chart, which looks as though it was an occasional guest chart compiled with help from another magazine. More established at this time was a chart dedicated to Northern Soul music, named after the legendary Wigan Casino All-Nighter which ran from 1973 to 1981. The Wigan Casino All-Nighter Top 20 was a regularly published piece in mid-1975, which we can only assume was an opinion-based chart, was supplemented by the UK Soul Chart from September 1975.

The first official UK R&B Singles chart launched in October 1994, followed in 2003 by the R&B Albums chart. Related, but not quite the same, the UK’s Official Charts Company also started compiling the MTV Urban Chart in early 2011.

Disco, Dance, Hi-NRG, and… Futurism?

In June 1975, Record Mirror had launched what appears to be the UK’s first chart dedicated to disco music. Starting as a top 20, the UK Disco Chart gradually grow to become a top 90, and ran all the way through the 1980s until it was finally replaced by the Black Dance Top 100, which gave way the following year to The Club Chart, which continues to this day.

In December 1980, they launched one of their most fun charts, the Futurist chart, which lasted a couple of years and allowed early new wave and the likes of David Bowie and Kraftwerk to dominate for a little while.

From 1982, they launched the Pop-Oriented Dance Top 75. This evolved, confusingly, into the Nightclub chart, which lasted until 1985, but shouldn’t be confused with the more recent Club Chart. Alongside it, the Gay chart, which evolved into the Boys Town Disco chart, then the Boys Town / Hi-NRG chart, the Hi-NRG Disco chart, and eventually the Eurobeat chart. This survived until 1989, after changing its name several times.

By 1988, there was also a Pop Dance chart, which, as with some of Record Mirror’s more obscure chart offerings was retired in 1989. Some of the others ran right up until Record Mirror’s untimely (and apparently unexpected) demise in 1991.

The UK’s official Dance Singles and Dance Albums charts launched in January 2003, but inclusion criteria appear to be a bit of a mystery. Accurate as ever, Wikipedia’s entry on the subject talks about “sales of songs in the dance music genre (e.g. house, trance, drum and bass, garage, synthpop),” but synthpop act Pet Shop Boys are an interesting case study, having had exactly four hits since 1994: Yesterday, When I Was Mad (#16), Paninaro 95 (#29), A Red Letter Day (#5), and Miracles (#1). Their hit albums are similarly confusing: Fundamental (#1), Disco 4 (#3), and the recent reissue of Introspective (#10).

Rock ‘n’ Roll and Heavy Metal

Record Mirror carried a Heavy Metal chart from December 1980 onwards, with a separate Rock ‘n’ Roll chart following five years later. Meanwhile, Kerrang launched their own charts, which continue to this day. Then, like the R&B Charts, the Rock & Metal Singles chart also started in 1994, and the Rock & Metal Albums chart followed in 2003. Inclusion criteria are similarly confusing and enigmatic.

Classical

Classic FM had broadcast its own chart since its launch in 1992, which subsequently and perhaps somewhat unpredictably boasted Mark Goodier as its presenter. As a competitor, not one but two official classical charts launched in October 1999, the Classical Artist Albums chart, and the Classical Compilation Albums chart.

If there’s a theme emerging here, it’s that inclusion criteria for the specialist charts tend to be arbitrary at best. Back in 2000, William Orbit famously caused something of a furore with his album of updated, electronic covers of classical music Pieces in a Modern Style. Exactly what they were talking about with this talk of a “ban,” I don’t know, as its chart run was still going strong months later, but

The Specialist Classical Albums chart followed in 2010. I don’t honestly understand the criteria for what makes them so special, but suffice to say, William Orbit would not be welcome here.

Finally, the Classical Singles chart was added in May 2012, but only lasted three years before being ignominiously retired. Four years later, the Official Charts Company started carrying another classical singles chart, the Scala Singles Chart, although its remit is rather broader, talking in the description about “classically inspired music,” and including Thom Yorke, among others.

Asian Music

For the benefit of non-UK readers, the UK is home to a substantial population of people of Indian, Pakistani, Baangladeshi, and Sri Lankan origin, with a strong culture and vibrant music scene. In recognition of this, the Asian Download chart launched in early 2010, later renaming itself the Asian Music Chart. This has a strong following, broadcast weekly on the BBC Asian Network digital radio station.

Other Specialist Charts

Record Mirror carried two other regular charts that I could find, plus a whole load of one-off personal charts. The Reggae chart launched in December 1980, but was sadly retired by 1987.

The Official Charts Company website now carries official Country Artists Albums, Country Compilations, and Jazz & Blues Albums charts going right back to January 1994. They then took things in new directions with Soundtrack Albums chart, which launched in early 2002, and then the official UK Christian & Gospel Album Chart kicked off in March 2013.

Perhaps the oddest is the official Progressive Albums chart, which launched in October 2015, an oddity for the Official Charts Company because it was only published once a month. This led to them forgetting to publish it a lot of the time, and it hasn’t now been updated since the start of 2017.

The most recent addition to the UK’s ever-growing list of official charts was the Americana Albums chart, launched in January 2016

So, all in all, there is a long list of historic and current UK specialist genre-specific charts, and, perhaps inevitably, just one thing is common to all of them – all rely on somewhat spurious rules to decide whether a release does or doesn’t fit. Sometimes, if a release underperforms on a regular chart, they can be a handy way to find out how it is performing. At other times, they can be confusing and more than a little disappointing.

Next time: format-specific charts

This post owes a lot to the following sources which weren’t directly credited above:

Chart for stowaways – 22 June 2019

Moving into June now, here’s an update from the singles chart:

  1. Pet Shop Boys – Agenda EP
  2. The Future Sound of London – Yage
  3. The Beloved – Your Love Takes Me Higher (Evil Mix) / Awoke
  4. Mark Ronson feat. Lykke Li – Late Night Feelings
  5. Marshmello feat. Chvrches – Here With Me
  6. Ladytron – Horrorscope
  7. Kraftwerk – Trans Europa Express
  8. Jean-Michel Jarre – Flying Totems
  9. David Bowie – Boys Keep Swinging
  10. Tiesto / Jonas Blue / Rita Ora – Ritual

Marsheaux – E-bay Queen

Marsheaux are, for me, fascinatingly enigmatic. They’re a Greek female duo, who I really know nothing about. Their debut E-bay Queen was released fifteen years ago this week, and it’s really hard to know what to make of it. It encourages you, somehow, to just close your eyes and enjoy it at face value – and that can only ever be a good thing.

It opens with M.A.R.S.H.E.A.U.X., the beautifully squawky band manifesto. Apart from the eponymous initials, it’s a thumping electro instrumental, with some great acid noises that appear halfway through. You would not, I think, buy an album just for this, and with that in mind, it’s confusing that anybody bought this in the first place, because there weren’t any singles either, but it’s definitely good.

It isn’t until Flash Lights that things really start to make sense. We know now, of course, that this isn’t Marsheaux‘s finest work, but it’s still enough to hook you in as a listener, and even if the “follow the tits” instruction in the lyrics is somewhat crass, there’s still plenty to enjoy here.

And it keeps getting better – for the first time, Shake Me is a track that quickly shows itself to be brilliant. With its catchy chorus and rippling synth lines, this nods sweetly to the past without actually being retro, and yet it isn’t exactly contemporary either. This is music for uncomfortable and awkward misfits, the world over. Which, by the way, is very definitely a good thing.

So wouldn’t it be really clever if Marsheaux threw something contemporary and familiar in at this point, just to subvert the pattern the have built already? Something like, say, the Lightning Seeds‘s lovely Pure? So that’s what we get – a great song, given new life with a female vocal and gloriously “pure and simple” synth lines, if you’ll pardon the pun. It’s a fantastic rendition of the song, and really deserved to be a huge hit by itself. If only it had ever been released as a single.

Play Boy keeps the run of great tracks going. It’s slower, and perhaps also a little darker, insofar as darkness ever really shows up on this album. It’s hard to define in a way – this is really a pure pop album, but it’s also slightly challenging, subversive pop – something that only comes as an import from Greece. Who knew that Greece had a strong music scene with its own synthpop artists? And with budgets to release items with packaging as beautiful as this, too?

Computer Love is, of course, a bit of a nod to the track of the same name that Kraftwerk debuted in 1981. While there’s little direct homage in the lyrics or sounds, and I’ve never seen them talk about it particularly openly, a lot of the sounds on this album seem to take inspiration from the Düsseldorf quartet – the focus is on tight, clear sounds, not broad pads or sweet, mellow atmospheres. Yet despite that, there’s a certain soft charm.

Tonight is one of my less favourite tracks on here: somehow the synth line is a bit too manic; the hand claps a little too heavily distributed; and for the first time it feels as though you’ve heard this all already. This is a consistent album, certainly, but that comes at a price of some tracks being a little too similar to one another at times. Then, of course, Marsheaux subvert their own form by covering the vocals with some crazy and unusual effects, and you start to wonder whether anything really makes sense any more.

The Game quickly picks things up again, though, with a brilliantly odd blip that doesn’t quite ever seem to be hitting its beat. It’s a lovely song, and possibly for the first time uses softer pad sounds to change the mood somewhat. They aren’t prominent, by any means, but this is a great song. Then comes Analyse, somewhat less subversive but every bit as much fun.

Ola Girizhoun is next, the only track to be sung in Greek. That’s a bit of a shame, really – they’re singing in English in order to make themselves seem more accessible to global audiences, and that absolutely works in their favour, but not without anonymising one of the things that makes them special – they aren’t native English speakers, and hearing them singing in their own language is a treat. Which makes it all the more interesting that this is actually a Chris & Cosey song, where Marsheaux have added their own lyrics. Work that one out.

Hands on Me is a lively piece with resonating synth sounds, but honestly a bit less actual melody than some of the earlier tracks. Then we’re onto the final track already – another cover, this time of the eternal instrumental Popcorn. This was, apparently, a huge radio hit in Greece at the time, and it’s a worthy cover, somehow just managing to stay on the right side of being extremely cheesy. It’s great, but at the same time hard to take very seriously. Maybe that’s a good thing, though – while lovely, and occasionally a little subversive, this seems to have been a pretty serious album up to now.

Five or six albums on, Marsheaux remain enigmatic, always taking unexpected steps. E-bay Queen, with its odd name and entirely unpredictable packaging, is a great debut. It has its weaker moments, but nothing that you could actually call a flaw – which is a very impressive way to kick off your career. But will we ever see them gracing the charts? It seems unlikely, somehow.

Your best option for hearing E-bay Queen is to find the mp3 download.

Kraftwerk – Aerodynamik

Kraftwerk singles are a rare enough treat, but it’s only in recent years (and by that, I mean perhaps the last two decades or so) that I think you would be able to safely regard them as a full single package. With Aerodynamik, I think you could argue that they reached their pinnacle.

Fans had been somewhat divided over album Tour de France Soundtracks (2003), but this single, now with a slightly tweaked title (on the album it’s Aéro Dynamik) and released fifteen years ago this week, was better received – although you would be pushed to notice this from its chart performance, as it peaked at just number 33 in the UK – although that far eclipsed its German performance, where it hit just number 80.

Key to the single is the new Kling Klang Dynamix version, Kraftwerk‘s own seven-minute remix with heavily reworked drums and percussive sounds. You would, of course, have to appreciate the original, but I suspect most people did, as it’s clearly one of the standout tracks on Tour de France Soundtracks. Having established that, even just an extended version would be great – but this is more than just expansive – it’s a comprehensive rework of the original, while still entirely in the same spirit – it’s absolutely brilliant. Before that, though, we had already had a taster with the Kling Klang Radio Mix, a four-minute edit of the Dynamix, which is exceptional too.

Another nice thing that happened with Kraftwerk was their embracing of remix culture from the early 1980s onwards – it almost feels out of character for them, given how purist they have become about their own music, but a small group of artists have been let loose on their catalogue, and they have created, pretty much without exception, wonderful versions. Hopefully one day, the Düsseldorf quartet will formalise these versions in a remix album – I’ll be at the front of the queue.

To prove my point, the brilliant Alex Gopher and Étienne de Crécy turn up for the third version on this single, the Dynamik Mix, adding some wonderful eccentricities – the drums are a bit more metallic, and are augmented by some nice woodblock usage, but the key to the mix is the enormous acid synth arpeggio that runs all the way through. At the risk of repeating myself, this is exceptional too. For Kraftwerk to have returned the preceding year after twelve years of silence with material this good is very impressive.

Closing the release sees longtime Kraftwerk remixer François Kevorkian turn up for his Aero Mix, a broader and more expansive take on the track. Like all of François’s Kraftwerk remixes, it’s a subtle reworking, almost a dub mix or a “part two” version at times, with relatively few new sounds, but it’s always good to have his take on a track. If I had to choose, I’d say that of these remixes I probably like this one the least, but there’s really nothing in it – his is a typically subtle reworking of some great material.

So if you buy any Kraftwerk singles, I can provide a list of which you should track down, but this one should be high on the list. It would be a full three years before the next single, which ironically saw Aerodynamik coming out again, this time as a double a-side with La Forme, remixed by Hot Chip, and in a bright green neon sleeve.

The CD version of Aerodynamik is hard to find now, but the digital release is widely available.

Erasure – Pop! Remixed

Ten years ago this week saw the release of Erasure‘s slightly odd remix album/EP Pop! Remixed. Packaged as CDMUTE405, the catalogue styling normally used by Mute Records for singles, it appears that it was originally intended to be released as a four-track EP, a version which did end up being released as a download version. The CD, though, was a ten track album, with an odd mixture of new and old mixes.

It opens with the entirely pointless 2009 Mix of the lovely Always. It is slightly different from the original, with a punchier bass and some improved squawks in the background, but the only difference that the casual listener will spot is the inexplicable omission of an “and” from the first chorus. It was there in the original, and you’ll never quite get used to its absence in this version. But grab yourself a decent pair of headphones, and there’s plenty to enjoy here in its place.

Komputer turn up as the first guest remixer to tackle Victim of Love. They were, obviously and unsurprisingly, big Erasure fans, and so they have changed relatively little here. It would have been a great mix, if it had been released in 1987, and honestly it’s fine for 2009 too – it’s just a little unambitious. Komputer are the people who, most recently, were to be found experimenting with post-Kraftwerk electronics, but there’s little sign of that here.

It’s nice to hear Freedom on here, as Erasure‘s Loveboat era tends to get forgotten somewhat – perhaps justifiably so. Mark Picchiotti has clearly had a lot of fun with this version, turning it into a flamenco mix, with some added guitar work. Part of the problem is the source material, to be honest – Freedom is fine as a song, but it isn’t great. The other part is that Picchiotti isn’t a flamenco guitarist – his forte is overlong, over-repetitive, dull house, and so inevitably this mix is a bit of a mess. Not an unpleasant mess, but it would have been much better to have kept it as a short novelty on the original single rather than a full mix on this compilation.

Drama!, long overlooked by Erasure themselves, gets an overdue remix from Andy Bell himself, aided by DJ Jason Creasey. It’s a bit more contemporary than any of the tracks we’ve heard up to this point, but there’s also little new here. At this point, you could be forgiven for wondering why Erasure bothered with this release at all, but it’s worth remembering that in 2009 they were still in the throes of the creative downturn that had first hit them with the aforementioned Loveboat at the start of the decade. Just three studio albums had appeared in that time (plus Andy Bell‘s first solo effort), and, despite some brighter moments, the quality was never quite up to the standard of the preceding decade.

One-off collaboration Avantara turn up next, for a banging but somewhat dull remix of A Little Respect. The song works well to a huge Euro beat, but there just isn’t a lot of variation between each section here – it sounds a bit like Euro-by-numbers. Then Swedish producers SoundFactory turn up to tweak Fingers and Thumbs (Cold Summer’s Day), and do a slightly better job, although again, there’s little to write home about.

Finally, a mix that actually hits the mark. Soil in the Synth‘s reworking of Ship of Fools is brilliantly glitchy without being challenging to listen to, and spacious in a 1980s way, without being too long. It’s quite brilliant – if there was a reason to buy this release, this surely must be it.

Erasure‘s fascination with Manhattan Clique during this era has always been a bit of a mystery to me – they’re fine, they definitely have good taste, and they know how to jazz up an eighties or nineties classic. They’re also a bit formulaic, to say the least – they occupy a similar space in the world of music as Richard X, except because he’s always doing soundclashes, at least his tracks don’t all sound the same. As “always”, Manhattan Clique‘s take on Always is fine, even if it does sound a little too much like a chipmunk remix at times – but it does sound exactly the same as all their other mixes. Which is fine, if you like that kind of thing.

Next, Electronic Periodic take on Chorus, with a few naff handclaps added in, for some reason. Oddly, the deeply analogue sound of Chorus makes it seem a little more contemporary than most of the tracks here, but the handclaps don’t really give the retro charm that was likely intended, and the weird gaps in the vocals don’t entirely work. Some of the extra sound effects do, though, so this is really a bit of a mixed bag – like this release as a whole.

Finally, closing this release out, Vince Clarke himself turns up to remix Stop! It’s an odd candidate to take on, and I can imagine he probably enjoyed the challenge of trying to turn it into something more contemporary and modern. It just about works – I’ve never been entirely convinced by this song, but if you like it and aren’t too protective about the original, I can imagine you would enjoy this remix. For me, it just about makes the grade. If nothing else, it has a good bouncy beat and bass line.

So Pop! Remixed doesn’t exactly come with the strongest recommendation, but it’s not bad either. Unlike their Club remix EP, which was finally commercially released around the same time, I wouldn’t go out of my way to find a copy, but it’s not something I would be rushing to get rid of

You can still find Pop! Remixed at all major retailers, at a bargain price.

Chart for stowaways – 10 November 2018

Here’s the latest album chart for stowaways:

  1. The Future Sound of London – My Kingdom (Re-Imagined)
  2. The Radiophonic Workshop – Burials in Several Earths
  3. The Radiophonic Workshop – Possum (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
  4. The Prodigy – No Tourists
  5. Moby – Long Ambients 1: Calm. Sleep.
  6. Culture Club & Boy George – Life
  7. Dead Can Dance – Dionysus
  8. Primal Scream – Give Out But Don’t Give Up – Original
  9. Neneh Cherry – Broken Politics
  10. Kraftwerk – 3-D Der Katalog