10 October 2006

pop goes the canon

hi girls! want to reserve a spot in the pance-dop pantheon? just throw your hands in the air!

the topic is pop albums. good ones, i.e. all the songs are good (or, only very few are noticably not good.) (pop=dancepop, basically, because that's what it means, basically.) there aren't very many of them, it seems (exactly why that is is the bulk of the thorny analytical tangle i've just decided to absent myself from.) at least, there aren't very many compared to the very many pop albums that have some good (or great) music but are no-way good albums.

i hope we can agree to agree on this.

ignoring roughly everything before the birth of "modern dancepop" - which i shall somewhat arbitrarily designate the late '90s teen-dance xplosion - my canonical example of a good pop album (and ergo, practically, a bona-fide classic) is kylie minogue's fever. only one truly unmemorable cut (track 10, "love affair"), and the next weakest thing is probably the opener for goodness sakes. which, if nothing else, is a seemingly-revelatory departure from the single-first pop tradition.

coincidentally or not, i trace my modern pop fixation - as it has become - to my first exposure to this album, a good year or two late, in the winter of '03. i it borrowed from rabi, along with avril's let go, after being curious, if not entirely surprised, to find them in her sacrosanct collection. (she'd deny it or laugh it off, but at least in terms of wonky 'net-message-board cool, she was definitely a good step or two ahead of me.) anyway, the avril disc didn't do much for me (though i liked the singles, which i'd heard. i have recently acquired it for myself, but haven't really revisited it properly)...but fever, damn. i can't say it was its albumness that did the trick - indeed, i was mostly just falling in love with individual songs one after another, most chiefly the title track (which i still don't think gets enough love) but also <3@1stsite. but its consistency surely helped encourage my repeated plays.

from there, the combo of my "professional" interest as a dj, my culture-satured summer in nyc during the reign of many of the most attention-grabbing pop singles of the young decade, the continued influence of rabi and her mysterious multi-aliased friend, and of course the effects of great populist critical glasnost worked collectively on my musical sensibilities such that, when dave moore started raving about annie and then abba and skye and pretty soon bet the farm and, you know, became "unusually shrewd pop blogger dave moore" - i'm going to stop talking about him now, since he's evidently the only person who reads this page anyway, and this sentence is ridiculously long - well anyway i was primed and ready to take up the charge of poptimism, lining up to fight behind dave's (purple, dumb-pun-happy) standard. ashlee lindsay rah rah rah.

except... i still have a strong attachment to the album, and though i wouldn't say it's exactly been a stumbling block in my open-armed investigation of this brave new genre-world (the good news: teen-pop cds are generally so cheap that it's easy to forgive high filler ratios) it leaves me conflicted as to how i actually want to experience it. exploratory mp3 downloads, cream-culling mixtapes, and dj-career-writeoff-patchfest-purchases are all very well, but i still want (it feels naive) to be able to put on an album, sit back, and just enjoy away (i never bother with skip buttons) naturally, i'd rather not waste time on mediocre music that shares plastic with tunes i actively enjoy, but the record collector/librarian/completist in me won't really be satisfied unless i can assimilate and, hopefully, learn to like all the things by the artists i like. (why else would i seek out the best-of comps with the longest possible track-listings for artists in whom my true interest probably doesn't extend beyond a couple of big singles.)

all which means i'm going to keep buying (used) and being disappointed by well-intentioned pop records, in the hopes that i can force myself to construe them as good albums even though they're probably merely angling to avoid embarrassment.

eh, that sounds too dire. let's get on with the listing that you probably thought was going to be the focus of this post. to be honest, fever isn't a very interesting album - apart from the electroclash appropriation/apotheosis of the CGYOOMH monster and its clone with the clone-centric video, nothing even tries to feel innovative; and save the classic[read: 60s]-pop formalism of the title track and the funk jitter of "give it to me" there's hardly any sonic or textural variety.

anniemal, which shares fever's consistently "icy" cast, encompasses far more musical range - and accordingly has much more distinctive singles (by which i actually mean standout album tracks, by which i mean almost all of them.) which translates to an album that's similarly cohesive (and equally consistent, quality-wise) but has a lot more personality, even if annie's vocal presence isn't that much more empathetic.

rachel stevens' come and get it is very much in the same camp, and even though nothing on it quite matches the lovable idiosyncrasy of "chewing gum" or the blissful rush of "love at first sight" (or, i'll admit it, the smile-inducing scene-solidarity factor of "heartbeat") it's probably the best album of the three. rachel herself may not present much of a persona (certainly compared to annie), but her singing is undeniably fuller and more emotive, albeit in a sort of mannered way. her album definitely has less of an emotional arc than annie's does, however, despite a nearly comparable diversity of musical approach and tone.

indeed, the sequencing of the album feels almost arbitrary, its most potentially poignant moments stranded mid-album amongst incompatible, higher-energy numbers. but more to the point: nothing on come and get it even approaches filler. (was gonna say the clunky-funky "je m'appelle" comes closest - but screw that, it's totally good!) on the flipside, nothing on it stands out as an obvious single choice (if pressed, i might tap "so good," although "i will be there" is perhaps my favorite song) - and i can't decide if that might feel like a failing even though the reason for it (every bloody song on the record is great!) is obviously to the album's undying credit. maybe if it did somehow have a true head-and-shoulders stand-out (it'd have to be seriously classic calibre) the album would have been a hit (in the u.k. i mean) - i seriously do not understand how it wasn't; i mean, rach's an established celebrity, right? 'course, look at paris, but rachel's a famous singer. well, blimey. maybe her affectlessness hurt her more than you'd expect.

a very different cd in many respects, and one which i enjoy at least as much if not more, is robyn's dramatically unconventional self-titled 'comeback' from last year. robyn does share with rachel's album a dearth of unambiguous single contenders, although the number one slot is appropriately given to a banger - "who's that girl?", whose only (quibbling) fault is rubbing up dangerously close to (its producers/composers) the knife's "heartbeats". actually, there are really only two or three other dance numbers on the whole album, including "crash and burn girl," whose infectious, sinuous bass slither resembles nothing so much as a double-time "closer." but "be mine!", it's ultimately obvious, is the album's most singularly glorious moment. that exclamation point in the title - and even the title itself - seem to have less to do with the subject matter of the song than the sheer effervescence of the song itself, so sublimely conceived that it can't help but exult despite the heartbreak of its lyrical content.

trying not to turn this into a yawning/fawning belated capsule review here, but singling out songs, even as a hypothetical exercise, is like choosing among children. reasonably ignoring the two cute but tiny introludes and the truly bizarre, scene-setting first track, this record only contains ten songs; but each one feels like a world in itself, a perfect little construction that follows its particular lyrical and stylistic conceits to their necessary ends. just as important, each seems to fulfill a vital role in the context of the whole, combining to present a complex and engaging portrait of this tremendously likable woman, among whose attributes are a top-notch melodic sense, a dynamic and versatile voice, a totally nutty sense of humor, spiky cattitude, and a mile-wide sentimental streak. sigh. (don't even get her started on her bada-boom-booms.) especially effective is the closing quartet of songs, each a sweet and affecting portrayal of a different aspect of romantic relationships, which taken as a whole form the tail end of the non-narrative yet unmistakable emotional arc that renders he album so deeply satisfying.

these are the albums that come most clearly to mind. girls aloud have a lot of supporters along the lines of these things, and i like several of their singles, but what will the neighbors say? - the album of theirs i know best - leaves me unconvinced. i may also need to hear a different sugababes disc (angels... gets half marks.) madonna's music and possibly confessions... should probably be mentioned, especially since we're canonizing kylie - the former, in particular, was a favorite of mine pre-poptimism (at the time of its release i heralded its use of house-based beats as a triumphant reclamation of contempo dance music from the essentially undanceable teen-pop legions - and i'm not entirely sure i disagree with that assessment.)

otherwise, you may note that everything i've discussed so far has been european. americans are traditionally limited at this kind of thing (that is, electro-pop, and i guess i should really say "uninterested") - anyway our contributions in this period have been more r'n'b focused (would be good to do a good albums survey there too - aaliyah, sure, but what else?) or more rock than dance. but i have been wondering about britney spears - britney, in particular, has a lot of strong, and envelope-pushing (i guess) album tracks, towards the end especially. i should also probably spend more time with m!ssundaztood.

likewise, i haven't mentioned anything from this year (last year was the glut, it seems, and i haven't even discussed i am me - which is not really a dance-pop album, and anyway isn't adding anything new to the conversation dave and i and those guys have all the time.) it just occured to me to bring up the junior boys, who are obviously (or just seemingly?) in a somewhat different category, but are somewhat cordoned off by themselves anyway, and definitely made at least one album of brilliant dance-pop (last exit: the new one is more brilliant, more pop, but less dance, though possibly still dance enough - will have to consider whether and how to deal with this.) does that mean including ladytron (yeah, they and also goldfrapp are valid contenders, though i'm not sure if either fully deliver the goods. black cherry maybe.) however... and this is pretty straight up: erlend øye. definitely sweet. whoops i forgot the knife too. or maybe not, now i'm just confusing myself. indiedance affirmative action should not be allowed to make me feel better about my pop album quandary, no matter how poptastic it is.

all of which brings me...or rather, it was meant to...to paris. which i'm not going to write about now, because you've had rather too much to read tonight, and i to write, with the realness. but. hopefully somewhere in here i've managed to dispense with some preliminarities that will allow me to get down to business next time, when i thrillingly assert that (wait for it) ms. hilton has crafted (see what i did etc.) a fully worthy addition to the petit canon of post-teenboom dance-pop album statements. surprised yet? and despite what you may think, on the robyn-annie-kylie-rachel spectrum (is that right?), i say she lands firmly left of center.

yow is it ever bedtime!


Greg said...

Good post. This underscores why I'm so unwilling to buy albums these days, and probably why digital downloads are so popular.

I'd probably include Breakaway in this group, but it's surprisingly tough to come up with good examples.

Ross said...

thanks. breakaway is great - i didn't include that (or i am me) because i don't really think of them as dance pop. (i have been enjoying dropping "gone" in my dj sets recently though.)

makes you wonder whether ye olde record industry would be doing better (losing fewer sales to downloading anyway) if they were making better full albums. if the response instead is to "give up" on the album format and pursue single-focused download sales...well that's sad. mind, i'm not sure the spottiness of pop full-lengths is an especially new thing - pop acts have been filling lp sides with covers since the pop album was born. and it's not like there aren't good albums being made nowadays - just not so much in this genre which has captured so much of my (our) attention of late.

Dave said...

(Mentioned this in a kinda half-assed post about this but) do you think this is really specific to dance-pop? I know I've been focusing on pop lately, but I've kept an ear on indie releases and they don't seem to be faring any better in terms of consistency. I still think that there are probably several good pop/dance-pop albums in Europe (not necessarily great albums, mind) that I still haven't heard...I mentioned Bertine Zetlitz (haven't heard) and Marie Serneholt (good & dance-pop, not 100% by a longshot, but about same ratio as, say, Veronicas).

Part of the dearth of AOP (acronym's growing on me...) in the US might have to do with lack of interest here, so the Robyns and Annies that are putting out great dance-pop albums in Europe only make it to the states as exceptions to the general disinterest. And even then they usually only make it in spirit/discussion, still gotta buy the import.

Dave said...

(Wouldn't include Ashlee or Kelly, would include tATu Dangerous and Moving, BWO Halcyon Days, maybe Veronicas, maybe but probably not Pink's new one, Marie Serneholt, Paris, and Justin Timberlake as contenders for strong dance-pop albums within the last year or so. Not quite but related: Lillix, Beyonce, Amy Diamond...the Rapture?)

Ross said...

well...i'm not just talking about there being a dearth of good dance-pop albums this year. i think that mediocre full-lengths are endemic to the (dance)pop genre, perhaps especially in the last decade or so, but historically as well to some degree. (it probably has gotten worse, though i don't know enough to say for sure.) i wrote a bunch about why this might be but then decided not to include in the post. but it's definitely an open question and topic for future discussion.

meanwhile, i'm sure that there are plenty of great rock/indie/etc. albums this year (i've heard at least a few, and a glance at recent release lists reveals plenty more i'd love to check out) - i just think 1) that's not where our primary focus has been, and 2) those albums might be less likely to speak to us in our current phase of music appreciation. (not to blithely conflate our experiences, of course.) i don't think that, like, there's been some mysterious disease or something that's prevented any good albums from being released this year.

Frank Kogan said...

Americans traditionally are very good at this thing - disco, basically, though if that's too much a club-based "dance" subgenre compared to "dance-pop," then think of Madonna, Paula Abdul, Will to Power, Mariah Carey, etc. etc., w/ Stacey Q's Hard Machine being the genre's masterpiece. The first Cover Girls, first Exposé, first Sweet Sensation, and second Company B albums are crucial too, though spotty (dance tracks good, ballads not), and you might count them as more club than pop. Thing is, in the U.S., hip-hop/r&b took over from everthing else, while Europe kept going with its Europop and Italo-disco and hi-NRG. But you do have to count Britney and *NSync and Backstreet Boys - of course, you can argue that their best stuff was produced by Swedes, but it was nonetheless a different sound from what those Swedes were creating with Europeans.

I'd say that all genres produce good albums and bad, and the problem with dance-pop albums isn't that they have "filler" but that they have ballads.

Ross said...

yeah, i know i am woefully historically under-equipped to address this issue, which is why i limited myself to the last decade or so. i'll have to check out the things you mention - and there's also a lot of synthier '80s pop that i'm curious to explore in album form (much of which has recieved retroactive canonization, or at least compared to the groups you mention. i don't think i've ever heard of will to power or sweet sensation.) there's also michael and janet jackson, of course, not to mention prince (which would probably be cheating), so i'm not sure what i meant about americans not being good at dance full-lengths. (actually at that point i was talking about and specified electro-pop, which is a bit different.)

and i'm still very confused about how to contemplate dance/pop in relation to albums. i'm tempted to say that even if there are plenty of great full-length dance records (as with any genre), they tend to function as showcases for singles - and many people approach them that way and assume lower standards for album tracks - much more than other genres where this is not the case.

jazz, punk, idm/electronica, singer-songwriter stuff, a large amount of rock, esp. from the late '70s on. this doesn't mean there are more good albums in these genres per se, but it seems to me much more likely that, if a few songs on an album are good, the rest of the album will be good, whereas in dance-pop that's often not true. (as you seem to agree, since even the 'crucial' albums you mention are spotty.) it would seem that the dance-pop full-length is in some ways a distinct breed of album which is hard not to judge on somewhat different criteria.

what's hard to gauge, though, is how much this perception is influenced by cultural and contextual assumptions and biases. (for one thing, it's hard for the singles not to stand out from the rest of the album, even if they aren't previously familiar. it seems that the optimal situation is to have quality so consistent that an uninformed listener wouldn't be able to tell which songs are singles. but maybe that's an inappropriate/biased criterion.)

the historical mainstream dance-pop music that i am familiar with - motown and similar '60s pop - bears this out in terms of reception and possibly intention as well, though on the other hand it all sounds so great that it's hard to begrudge for instance lp-sides filled with covers (of other good songs.)