One Call Away

The Best UK No. 1’s of 2016 (posted April 2017)

Right, let’s finally finish 2016! Only four months late! Then move onto Ed Sheeran! Oh God, pop music is torture!



Special Mentions

‘Paradise’ – Charli XCX

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A staggeringly gonzo bricolage of 90’s rave tropes, all turned inside out and formed into a club smash that’s romantic, exciting, alien and more. I didn’t enjoy a single song in 2016 as much as I enjoyed this.
[Listen]

‘Suitcase Jimmy’ – Evans the Death

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Evans the Death continue to be my favourite British band going at the moment. Their latest album – Vanilla – was recorded on a barge using guest musicians they found on Facebook, continuing to both diversify of their sound and increase the anger in their work. A particular highlight of the album is Suitcase Jimmy: a stonking barrage of trumpets and shouting which would be the defining sound of British Indie if only I had my way.
[Listen]

‘Madeleine Crumbles’ – Major Parkinson

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A beautiful nightmare; all sweeping violins, ethereal choruses and gritty verses. It’s parent album can’t come soon enough.
[Listen]

‘Higher’ – Carly Rae Jepsen

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I didn’t start listening to Carly Ray Jepsen’s Emotion album until early 2016, meaning that it missed out on being included in my Best of 2015 list. I’ve always been slightly ashamed of this: the album’s great. Luckily, Jepsen’s 2016 appendum – Emotion Side B – is just as good as it’s big sister, even if it doesn’t quite hit the same heights. ‘Higher’ probably comes closest to those highs, hence why it’s on the list, though shout-outs have to go to the songs ‘First Time’, ‘The One’, ‘Body Language’, ‘Cry’, ‘Store’… hell, all of them. Everything gets a shout out. Carly Rae Jepsen’s the best.
[Listen]

‘Same’ – Clarence Clarity

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Clarence Clarity specialises in throwing discordant noises, random computer sounds and distorted voices together into labyrinthine messes that somehow work as solid, cathartic pop songs. Same is technically the B-side to his single Vapid Feels Are Vapid but I prefer it, so on the list it goes.
[Listen]

‘Stained’ – HMLTD

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A baroque piece of 80’s throwback goth electro, married to an actively tasteless aesthetic which combines The Damned and Bauhaus into something distinctively new. Its music video also wins the prize for most disgusting of 2016, so you know the band’s doing something right.
[Listen]

‘Ain’t It Funny?’ – Danny Brown

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Maybe funny’s not the right term: boisterous, demented, trumpet-filled and swinging are better. The most enjoyable rap track of 2016 for me.
[Listen]

‘Me And Your Mama’ – Childish Gambino

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An immense two-part soul throwback featuring intense vocals, biblical gospel backing, meaty instrumentation, and the most delightfully childish name of the year. An astonishingly fun track with some real impact behind it.
[Listen]

‘One Call Away’ – Charlie Puth

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What can I say, this song just gets me. Is it trite, cheesy and overly earnest? Yes, it is. I love it.
[Listen] [Original Review]



And now the list itself:

#5 – ‘Love Yourself’ by Justin Bieber

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This is my least favourite song of Bieber’s ‘Actually Quite Good Phase’, coming well under both What Do You Mean? and Sorry in my estimations. Unfortunately, due to the absolute dirth of No. 1’s in 2016, the number five slot either had to go to this or Cold Water by Major Lazer, Justin Bieber and MØ. I can’t remember what Cold Water sounds like, despite the fact that I last listened to it five minutes ago. Love Yourself it is.

#4 – ‘Shout Out to my Ex’ by Little Mix

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Easily the least interesting song Little Mix has ever released. As previously explained, it’s little more than “an repeat of Love Me Like You, which in turn was a repeat of Black Magic, only without the magic bits”. Love Me Like You and Black Magic are both fantastic hits though; being a direct retread of them still means that you’re a pretty good pop song, particularly given how joyless everything else was that year. Little Mix on autopilot is still better than almost everything else in the pop scene; that’s how good a band they are.

#3 – ‘I Took a Pill in Ibiza (Seeb Remix)’ by Mike Posner

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It grew on me. Though I’m still convinced that the remix instrumental completely misses the point of the song, I can’t deny that it sounds wonderfully atmospheric, resulting in the minimalist pop hit of early 2016 that was the easiest to lose yourself in. This became the song that I most enjoyed listening to in the first half of the year; at least, it was light years ahead of it’s nearest contemporaries Stitches and 7 Years.

#2 – ‘Rockabye’ by Clean Bandit feat. Anne-Marie and Sean Paul

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Possibly Clean Bandit’s best song, combining their trademark pristine instrumentation with a solid tale of single motherhood and female strength. Even Sean Paul is used to the best of his abilities, being slotted into the background so as to provide pretty vital backing vocals. A fully fleshed out and realised track: at last, Clean Bandit have a song that feels worthy of them.

#1 – ‘Closer’ by The Chainsmokers feat. Halsey

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Yeah, it’s a failed mess, but it’s exactly the type of failed mess we need right now. The Chainsmokers are not good artists but, for just one track, they managed to accidentally hit gold, producing the track that most encompassed what 2016 was – for better and for worse.


Right then Ed Sheeran, I’m coming for you!

Pop Song Review: “Me Too” by Meghan Trainor

Yeah, I apologise about all these Meghan Trainor posts. Blame Drake: he’s been at No. 1 for way too long now and I need something to talk about. Seriously, One Dance does not deserve to be No. 1 still.


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The problem with most current (Post-Club era) pop music is that it’s being written by hacks who are over-stretching themselves, trying too hard to be respectable, and (as a result) are writing things which they’re not suited to doing. As an inverse of this, Charlie Puth has recently written a good song by not trying to be respectable and by writing something that fits his public persona, while Meghan Trainor has finally written a good song by simplifying her work to the point where she’s actually capable of doing it.

If Meghan Trainor’s No represents a step forwards for her though, then her next single, Me Too, proves that she hasn’t improved as much as she’s progressed. You see, improvement implies that someone was making mistakes they don’t make anymore, while progression implies that they’ve stopped making old mistakes and are now making brand new ones. Meghan’s current works fit the later.

The problem with Trainor’s first album, quite surprisingly, was that her work was actually ridiculously complicated and thus somewhat out of her reach. Me Too, much like No, fixes this by actually being very simple: it’s a bog-standard brag track, nothing more, nothing less. More than that, it’s a song which requires Trainor to be a sickly egotist, something she does well. Add to this over-the-top egotism an over-the-top club beat (and note how I’ve frequently equated ego and club songs on this blog, making them good matches for each other) and you have a song which fundamentally makes sense as a cohesive piece. It isn’t over-stretching itself, it works entirely on it’s own terms, and it works within a framework in which Meghan Trainor’s personality fits. Unlike anything from her last album, there’s a genuine accusation of competence to be made here.

I really like the music too. It’s highly processed and wobbly: in short, it doesn’t sound like a Meghan Trainor song. This might sound like damning with faint praise but Meghan Trainor is meant to be a subversive figure: as such, her work should be actively trying to subvert expectations. The doo-wop sound doesn’t do that anymore (it’s too closely associated with her, and it’s not exactly like old fashioned music is rare on the radio nowadays) but Me Too does, shocking you because it’s exactly the opposite of what you’re expecting Trainor to sound like. Again, it’s a step forward for her and one that marks a movement away from the “respectable” sound of the innocent 50’s to a more challenging one.

So Me Too is yet another song that doesn’t over-stretch itself, isn’t concerned with using respectable forms and is directly tied to the singer’s personality. To all intents and purposes, it’s good pop music.

Except it’s missing one thing: a point. For art to mean something, it needs a point; if you want to speak to people, you first need something to say. Pop music has historically done even more than that though. Pop music, for most of it’s history, has been positively alchemal.

Pop music largely came around in the 1950’s alongside the invention of Rock ‘n’ Roll and the teenager (this is greatly disputable but let’s slightly bawderise the invention of pop for the purposes of what is fundamentally a blog post) and has historically been the way that youth culture has imposed it’s values and ideas on the world around it. Rock ‘n’ Roll; Glam; Punk; New Wave; Grunge; Rap – all of it is the new generation commenting on and imposing itself upon the world of the old generation. Tellingly, all represented stepping stones to a better world: Glam and New Wave were about transgressing the modern world in order to bring a more utopian one into existence, Rock ‘n’ Roll and Punk were about tearing down the modern world so it could be replaced, and Rap was about creating a media form in which black voices would actually be taken seriously. As such, a fundamental part of pop music is to critique, challenge and (attempt to) supplant the world around it. Through the power of word and sound, new worlds are created, old ones are crushed, and everything is rendered better. It’s magick.

As such, to me, a fundamental part of pop music is alchemal critique: in short, a pop song should identify a problem and then create a solution. No does that – if being hassled by men, tell them to piss off. One Call Away does that – if your girlfriend’s sad, talk to her and help. I Really Like You and Bills did it, as did Black Magic – if you’re feeling done-in, express that feeling; if sexist society is trying to repress you, actively refuse repression.

Which returns us to Drake’s One Dance, the song that doesn’t deserve to be No. 1 still. If pop needs a problem and a solution, then my issue with One Dance is fundamentally that this song lacks both (Drake has no problems because he’s in love, even if he doesn’t sound like it; and if the song does present us with a problem, then it’s the need to close the disconnect between the words and the way they’re presented, something which the song never does). Thus the reason why I’m so set against it: in many ways, I can’t truly define it as pop. It barely counts as a song to me.

To a lesser extent, the same goes for Me Too. This song has no problem because Meghan Trainor, in the context of the lyrics, is so awesome that nothing will ever be able to affect her. If the song does present a problem/solution though, then it’s the same one present in Black Magic – sexist society keeps bringing women down, so Meghan Trainor isn’t going to let it. The only problem is that Black Magic is about womanhood: when Little Mix enter the club, they represent every woman who has ever done so. Me Too has too many references to Trainor’s adoring fans, her work in studios and her general lifestyle to be about anyone but Meghan Trainor though; as such, the song’s solution to institutionalized sexism becomes that you should be a mega-successful, award-winning pop star, something which is highly unlikely to happen and, as a piece of advice, is next to useless. Plus, a large of the song is that most people want to be like Meghan Trainor and will never manage it, meaning that a valid reading of the song’s meaning would be “Society actively tries to repress you; you can’t win; so give up”. So it might provide a solution, but it’s solutions are awful.*

What this song does allow us to do though, alongside One Call Away and No, is finally define what aspects make a song good/worthwhile and what aspects don’t (as least according to the aesthetic standards of this blog). In order to be worthwhile, a song needs to do four things:

  • Use an appropriate form for it’s message, not just what’s popular at the moment
  • Work within the singer’s character and abilities
  • Work within the writer’s character and abilities
  • Identify a problem and propose a valid solution

Conversely, bad music chases the zeitgeist no matter what, overstretches the singer/writer beyond their abilities, and either has no problem to solve or no valid way of solving it. In short, pop music needs to have a purpose for existing and be written well. Is that too much to ask?

Of course, now we’ve defined it like this, there’s almost certainly going to be a large batch of songs which prove me wrong. Either that or there’ll be songs that appear which fulfil all the above criteria but which I still don’t like.** For the moment though, I think it explains a lot of my problems with Post-Club Music, and it represents a new starting point that we can build on later. It might not be an improvement but signifies a progression: it won’t make up for the blog’s mistakes of the past but at least it will allow me to go off and make some brand new ones.


* Please note that it is not enough to make a solution, it has to be a valid one. A valid solution doesn’t have to be an easy-to-achieve one though, nor does it even have to be particularly sane: it just needs to give the listener something to do which they could feasibly manage.

** Hell, I’m not convinced that my review of Stitches hasn’t already disproven me. I suppose it depends on how you define the word “valid”: Shawn Mendes’ problem was that his girlfriend’s dumped him and his solution was to be a whiny self-important prick, something I don’t consider valid.

Pop Song Review: “One Call Away” by Charlie Puth

Previously on this blog: Charlie Puth and Meghan Trainor released Marvin Gaye. I did not like it. Nor had I liked anything released by either artist before then.

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So Charlie Puth is back at the piano and singing another love song which is basically Rachael Platten’s Stand By You but done by a guy. You see, Puth loves someone and they’re going through a hard time but it’ll be ok because he’s there and is available to talk if they need it. He’ll be their rock; he’ll be their strength; he’ll be so strong that “Superman has nothing on him”.

Already a discrepancy has presented itself, and it’s the same one as Rachael Platten’s song: this is a slow piano ballad sung by a soppy person about how badass and powerful they are; it’s another song about strength which sounds inherently weak. First Puth’s song of mourning was devoid of sadness; then his song about sex was devoid of sexiness; now his song of strength is devoid of strength. At this point, the only constant part of Puth’s aesthetic seems to be his inability to produce work which reflects its subject matter; being unable to write tone correctly is his defining attribute.

Yet… I really like this song.

Maybe it isn’t likable as much as it’s relatable. The greatest love I never had was with a woman who moved out of the area just after we started getting close but just before we could get together. She moved away for a new job but found that that job was much tougher than she was expecting and that making new friends in the area was almost impossible. Meanwhile I was stuck in my normal life, only now I was in it without her and it seemed so much emptier than before. We both struggled. Luckily for us, we had telephones. She should ring up and complain about her job and I would sit back and listen to her. We’d laugh, moan, talk about what was on TV. She got someone to fall back on; I got a few more hours with one of the few people I cared about. It was exactly what both of us needed. So a song about a man wanting to be someone’s emotional rock by talking to them over the phone: yeah, I feel that. One Call Away could be considered old-fashioned and trite, but I feel it more than I have any song since Carly Rae Jepsen’s I Really Love You and Lunchmoney Lewis’ Bills.

The old-fashionedness of the song isn’t exactly a negative either. This song shares a lot of its DNA with the soft pop songs of Phil Collins and Lionel Richie, etc, whose music is similarly “weak” but undoubtedly romantic. And the main way these types of songs work is by being entirely unconcerned with being artistic or respectable*. I’ve complained about this before but most artists nowadays are trying way too hard for their work to be respectable with their attempts serving only to ruin the material they have. Shawn Mendes wants to sell the pain he’s in so much that he’ll happily reach for any metaphor he can, resulting a clichéd 10-car pile-up of uninspired dreck; while Ed Sheeran wants us to feel his love so much that he ends up trampling all over his song with the grace of an elephant, turning what are supposed to be off-the-cuff remarks into a series of belaboured groans; and even Zayn’s Pillow Talk, a song I pretty much like, suffers from Zayn wanting it to feel like a reinvention of the wheel when in reality it’s little more than a wheel with the word “WHEEL” written on it. Phil Collins doesn’t care though. He expresses himself how he deems fit, nevermind whether the result is respectable, zeitgeisty or not. The result is that his songs sound honest; even his crap ones (and he has a lot of them) sound fundamentally like him. This gives his work a sense of intimacy and thus a genuine sense of romance; something which is hard to achieve for artists whose works are overly workshopped and masterminded for mass appeal. When I listen to Mendes or Sheeran, I can only feel the mechanics which underlie the song’s attempts to elicit emotion; when I listen to Phil Collins, I only hear the emotion. It’s the same when I listen to One Call Away. The song’s not trying to sound cool; it’s not trying to sound bigger than it is; it’s not trying to be clever. It just is what it is. It’s honest. It’s simple. I’m able to ignore the construction of this song and just feel it because the emotion feels actually genuine.

It also helps that the song actually plays to Puth’s image. Too many people in the pop world are trying to over-reach themselves, resulting in a pop landscape of people constantly falling short of their own standards. You can see this in Puth’s last song, Marvin Gaye, which ultimately asks him, a nerdy white boy, to sell himself as a credible sex symbol comparable to one of the greatest sexual icons there’s ever been. Meanwhile See You Again asks him to deeply mourn someone he’s obviously never met before. Both just obviously ask for too much; he can’t do either. One Call Away, though, features Charlie Puth, a nerdy white boy, sitting around on the phone and trying to compare himself to the comic book character Superman. It sounds like him in a way his previous songs don’t.

It’s even internally consistent. My main complaint about Stand By Me is that Rachael Platten tries to portray herself as someone who can fight against her enemies and protect someone else from harm; this doesn’t work though because she doesn’t sound like she could fight anything. Charlie Puth isn’t fighting anyone though; the fight’s already happened and Puth’s lover has lost. Charlie’s role is thus entirely supportive here; he doesn’t sound strong but he doesn’t need to because his strength doesn’t come from his resilience and muscles. Indeed, that’s the whole point of this song to me: what we’re told are weak characteristics for a man to have are actually the strongest and most useful attributes he has, hence the “Superman” line which might sound corny (because it is) but which says some really great things gender-identity-wise. The character in this song just works; he feels like a real person. More than that, he feels like the type of person I’d like to be. Charlie Puth isn’t just likable in this song; he’s a genuine male role model.

Everything just works for me here without any of the usual mistakes that every other pop song seems willing to make. For one song, me and Puth are entirely in sync. It took him a few attempts but he’s finally released a love song which I actually find romantic. I know: the sky is falling; cats and dogs living together, mass hysteria; etc. The next thing you’ll tell me, Meghan Trainor’s released a song I really like.

Well, about that…

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* Phil Collins’ weak and sappy songs were considered weak and sappy, even when they were in the charts.