Monday, July 25, 2011

Ultimate Pop Song Tournament #1

Mark Blankenship of The Critical Condition asked me, of all people, to help nominate the songs in his prodigious Ultimate Pop Song Tournament, in which readers vote on the very best pop song to chart in the Billboard Top 40 between 1981, when "9 to 5" peaked at #1, and 2011, which has so far been owned by Adele. Only one track per artist was deemed eligible, which was already murder for artists like Michael Jackson, Madonna, and Prince... and, if you're me, for the Eurythmics, Salt 'n' Pepa, George Michael, Notorious B.I.G., Cyndi Lauper, and Stevie Nicks, too. How do you choose between "Shoop" and "Push It," "Edge of Seventeen" and "Stand Back," "Hypnotize" and "Juicy" and "One More Chance"? Weep, Orpheus, o'er these inhuman predicaments.

Furthermore, Mark, Joe Reid, and I had to agree on the song's intrinsic appeal as well as its influence on the artist's career, or on popular musical culture in general, and sometimes on pop culture as a whole. Which means these aren't necessarily our votes for "the best" songs nor for the "most popular," but somewhere in the middle—maybe bridging the two. Trust me that 64 songs sounds like a lot until you start making the list, and then (gah!) you start making the cuts. It was all so civil and so much fun that I have every confidence that Mark, Joe, and I could slash government spending and raise the debt ceiling in just a couple of days. Still, there was a little blood on the floor, and each of us snuck out of the nominating court a few times to shed a few tears in a bucket, as though the others wouldn't notice. Police, Bangles: I tried. Britney, a-ha, Fugees: they tried. Everybody calm down.

The four best things about the outcome are that we didn't forget about anything, took into account every single Top 40 hit in existence, have utterly irreproachable taste, and made absolutely no mistakes. Mark has asked us not to invoke any runners-up or any personal pets we would have loved to promote, out of respect for the 64 absolutely inarguable choices that we wound up with. This is killing me a little inside, as I would love to share a list of "B-Sides" I compiled that are not runners-up or preferred choices so much as they are a personal list of favorite Top 40 tracks by 64 different acts than the ones in the tournament, paired off with the competing songs that I consider their closest cousins. We'll see if we can work on him.

Meanwhile, I notice that Joe is sharing his votes in the published match-ups, and I figure that's a game at which I can join him. Follow along, and by all means, go vote in the rotating series of open races. Enjoy Mark's zesty defenses of the nominated tunes in the "Joy Bomb" and "Deep Feeling" derbies. Once we turn to the "Rock Warrior" contenders, Joe will take over on blurb-writing, and I'll be making the pitches for all the "Groove Thangs." The fun lasts through August.

Joy Bombs, Game 1 (Vote Here)
"Like a Prayer" (Madonna) vs. "Higher Love" (Steve Winwood)

I like "Higher Love" enough that I'm pretty sure I was the one who initially added it to the ballot. I love it even though I can barely understand Steve Winwood when he sings. If you read his lyrics, he clearly spends a lot of time on them, but then they come out sounding like a lot of disarticulated vowels. Trying to sing along always leads to outright catastrophe; I end up sounding like some kind of aphasic Dutchman. Doesn't matter, though, when the song combines different pop-musical idioms as energetically and with the melodic gusto of "Higher Love," which obviously gets elevated by Chaka Khan's late-erupting drawling out of the word "braaaang."

But still, and much more succinctly: "Like a Prayer" is "Like a Prayer," and Madonna is Madonna. The deck is just way too stacked. Obviously, my vote is pre-claimed for this song for at least the next few brackets.

(As a side note, a disturbing balkanization of opinion has broken out over the issue of whether the album track was made even more sublime or grossly vandalized by the electronic interference of the now-standard Immaculate Collection remix. I am a firm partisan of the original mix, but again, if Madonna fans can achieve entente around an issue this combustible, there is no reason why the U.S. Congress can't strike a deal about debts. Perspective, people.)

Joy Bombs, Game 2 (Vote Here)
"Tubthumping" (Chumbawamba) vs. "Don't You Want Me" (Human League)

Much more fairly matched competitors, and I initially found it hard to skip checking the box next to Chumbawamba's bolshy, roustabout, bar-side anthem. But I'm a sucker for a pop song with a strong narrative line, and Human League's breakout hit is stocked with a barbed and detailed story between two he-said, she-said speakers. Still, it's so bouncy and slick you can close your ears to their squabbling and just drift on the shimmery sheen of the production.

Joy Bombs, Game 3 (Vote Here)
"Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)" (Eurythmics) vs. "Freedom '90" (George Michael)

I expected "Sweet Dreams" to be one of the dozen songs that slid onto the final ballot with no friction whatsoever, proving that one man's axiom is another man's like-but-don't-love. As it is, internal campaigning was definitely required. I'm not even saying it's the Eurythmics' best chart hit ("Missionary Man" is spikier fun, "Here Comes the Rain Again" at least as haunting), but this song is so iconic that everyone in the Western World recognizes it inside of five seconds, and it still fills the dance floor if you pop it in, despite not really doing a lot. Two rudimentary couplets, a basically repetitive arrangement, some disembodied melisma, but the whole thing is so immeasurably charismatic. George Michael is a genius songsmith ("Kissing a Fool" is a perfect emblem of unmatchable pop-song craft), and "Freedom '90" is a tasty, spirited, energetically evolving track that doesn't feel nearly as long as it is, but I just can't go there over Annie's imperious alto and Dave's authoritative synth.

Joy Bombs, Game 4 (Vote Here)
"I Want It That Way" (Backstreet Boys) vs. "Heaven Is a Place on Earth" (Belinda Carlisle)

I can relate to people who swoon over the creamy rises and falls of the melodies and harmonies of the Backstreet track, and the elegant way all five singers are able to seize different parts of the lead vocal for themselves without the song feeling fractured. The structural and sonic coherence of the whole is so immaculate that it almost doesn't matter that the lyric is often generic (fire rhymes with desire!) and often totally impenetrable (who wants what like what?). A high-point for modern boy-banding, but I don't think it holds a candle to the pure, ebullient candor of "Heaven Is a Place on Earth," which expresses a sentiment just as bubble-headed as, say, Katrina and the Waves' "Walking on Sunshine" and is filtered through just as limited a voice. But the voice doesn't feel limited, because the eponymous slogan is so earnestly sung, in registers both dreamy and subtly carnal. The sentiment is perfectly scaled to the register of open-hearted pop, and the production takes Carlisle right to the edge of her growliest convictions without overstepping ("rrrrrAND we're spinnin' with the stars above!"). The background vocals are mixed to sound like fellow feelers, not insulation for a modest chanteuse. The Diane Keaton-directed video is a bit of a laugh—why is Belinda trapped in that Caligari corner, and why is she trying to make out with it? But even the visual nonsense of the trotting girls in their joyless Zorro masks feels infectious and bright in the context of this song. An easy vote from me.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

The omission of Push It makes me sad. :(

11:35 PM, July 25, 2011  
Blogger Kangarara said...

I voted exactly as you did. Everyone else is wrong. (You're not from saskatchewan, are you?)

11:40 PM, July 25, 2011  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Derek: Me, too, except every other thing about "Push It" makes me ecstatically happy, as does every single thing about "Shoop." Rejoice!

@Kangarara: I am not from Saskatchewan, although this is handily my favorite thing I have been asked on this blog for as long as I can remember. Big Belinda Carlisle fan club there? I'll bring my cassette of Runaway Horses. Leave a light on for me, etc.

11:44 PM, July 25, 2011  
Blogger Catherine said...

The Human League are just one of a handful of stellar Sheffield bands and "Don't You Want Me" is easily their triumph. For a lot of bands, that opening synth riff could be the most memorable section of a song, but then Philip Oakley comes in with one of the best opening lines in pop history. But even that isn't the best part of the track; for my money, it's those gloriously deadpan girls. The story of schoolgirls Joanne Catherall and Susan Ann Sulley being spotted dancing in a local nightclub and immediately being signed up to the band is a lovely piece of pop history, and their bored, can't-quite-reach-the-notes crooning are so distinctive to the song. I love it!

9:50 PM, August 01, 2011  

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