The Thin Pop Line by Jake Robinson

Posted on September 9, 2011

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The morning of Monday August 15 seemed, on appearance, the same as any other. Birds flew in the sky, fish swam in the sea and that morning, like every other Monday morning, the weekly ARIA charts were released. At #1 sat Gotye and Kimbra’s ‘Somebody I Used To Know’. While it had justified its position by endless repetition on commercial radio across the nation, it was particularly notable for one fact. It was the first time in nearly 5 years that an independent artist had a number #1 song (the last was Silverchair with ‘Straight Lines’ in early 2007).

Although it can easily be argued that in the current climate of digital downloads the charts don’t accurately reflect what is really popular, a #1 song is still an incredible achievement by an independent Australian artist. And the song itself is amazing too, Gotye utilising his fantastic ability to make deceptively complex arrangements and simple melodies join together to make a magnificent whole. Kimbra too is in a rich vein of form and her new album Vows features one of the best songs of the year, ‘Cameo Lover’.

This month also marks the 20th anniversary of the greatest crossover from alternative to mainstream ever, Nirvana’s Nevermind; an album that fundamentally altered the landscape of music throughout the nineties.With this in mind, alternative acts appear to have a defining moment or song which moves them from alternative Triple J fandom towards mainstream acceptance:

  • The Presets had a sleeper hit in the form of ‘My People’ (with the longest chart-run in ARIA history);
  • Kings of Leon released the worst song they’ve ever written, which went on to become their biggest hit: ‘Sex on Fire’ (hopefully the last popular song about an STD);
  • Eskimo Joe didn’t get mainstream popularity until ‘Black Fingernails, Red Wine’, despite previously releasing much better pop singles such as ‘From the Sea’, ‘Older than You’ and ‘Liar’;
  • Empire of the Sun had an incredibly eccentric image and album, yet went massive with ‘Walking on a Dream’ and then ‘We are the People’;
  • MGMT released an album half-filled with psychedelic wig-outs and the other half with incredible pop songs. ‘Electric Feel’ was the money shot. Their second album continued the psychedelic tones and was all but ignored.

The ARIA Top 40 Charts.

This is a notoriously fickle line and here I present a few songs which I feel could easily have rotted brains on commercial radio or fitted oddly into a Top 40 chart:

  • PNAU ft. Luke Steele – ‘With You Forever’

The song that gave birth to Empire of the Sun. The collaboration between PNAU’s Nick Littlemore and the Sleepy Jackson’s Luke Steele is how people know them now, but this is the song that started everything. The opening track from PNAU’s sophomore 2007 self-titled album has a pulsating bass line, swamped in a field of beautiful arrangements while Steele’s voice soars elegiacly over it. The album was filled with a host of amazing songs that could have gone massive. While ‘Embrace’ picked up a fair bit of play and they caught the attention of Elton John, they never quite got the credit they deserved. Their new album, and particularly the song ‘Unite Us’, may change that.

  • Crayon Fields – ‘Mirror Ball’

A beautiful example of classic pop song-writing. Melbourne’s Crayon Fields specialise in this kind of wistful indie pop. ‘Mirror Ball’ is my favourite, a throwback to the classic Rn’B pop of the 50’s, “i look at you and suddenly I’m a virgin in a dancehall’. It reminds me of the old classics such as ‘Blue Moon’, the Ronettes ‘Be My Baby’ or even, at a stretch, Otis Redding. A criminally overlooked song.

  • Cut/Copy – ‘Lights and Music’

One of those songs that you feel must have been big. It certainly helped garner attention for the band overseas, particularly in America, yet Cut/Copy’s erstwhile calling card only reached #68 in Australia. ‘Lights and Music’ mixes elements of dance, pop, rock and everything else into a small bout of catchy brilliance. Cut/Copy is part of  a whole movement of Australian bands that have fused the fundamentals of dance beats, grooves and crescendos with awesome pop hooks. Empire of the Sun and the Presets have received more commercial success, yet Cut/Copy’s choice cut from In Ghost Colours is arguably the finest example.

  • Bob Evans – Nowhere Without You

This song should have been HUGE. It has all the elements of a classic pop song. Add to that Bob Evans (aka Kevin Mitchell from Jebediah). The lyrics are poignant, sweet; the orchestration beautiful. ‘Nowhere Without You’ is a simple love long driven along by the chimes of piano chords. Other comparable acts like Pete Murray and Angus and Julia Stone achieved breakthroughs with songs tinged with melancholy and if anything Mitchell’s pop treat is perhaps too sweet.

  • Mystery Jets ft. Laura Marling – ‘Young Love’

The Mystery Jets never really took off. They abandoned the psychaliea of their first album for pop hooks for their second (21) and  their record deal was subsequently terminated. ‘Young Love’ had everything going for it, sweet melodies, jiving riffs, Laura Marling and a really cool video; yet somehow it didn’t work out for the Mystery Jets. The song most likely suffers from not having a readily identifiable chorus hook. Their last album Serotonin was pretty much ignored, including the brilliant single ‘Flash a Hungry Smile’.

  • Animal Collective – ‘Summertime Clothes’

Animal Collective surely aren’t the first band anyone associates with ‘pop’, yet this cut from their breakout smash Merriweather Post Pavilion is a tremendous pop song. Displaying Noah Lennox’s oft-overlooked lyrical brilliance, ‘Summertime Clothes’ somehow encapsulates those rancid hot summer nights. Animal Collective’s trademark use of samples and electronic glitches pulsate through this song, culminating in perhaps the best pop chorus they’ve ever written. To be sure there is the freak-out bridge, but a man can dream.

  • Yeasayer – ‘O.N.E.’

An incredible song. It has an astonishingly composed chorus that spirals into the final crescendo. Every line of instrumentation in this song is a fantastic hook. Yeasayer have a very particular image, merging the absurdities of hippy counter-culture, with flouro raves and experimental art. The accompanying video for ‘O.N.E.’ seems to imagine David Lynch choreographing a rave, which is nowhere near as bizarre as ‘Ambling Alp’s Maya Deren filming the apocalypse (or something). Amazingly ‘O.N.E.’ didn’t even fare that well in the Hottest 100, only reaching #30. Maybe it’s all the cowbell?

  • Girls – Lust for Life

They’re probably slightly too weird to be mainstream popular. The band’s frontman Christopher Owens had a particularly strange upbringing (including time with the Children of God cult) and this is reflected in the acute sense of uncertainty that permeates Girls’ songs. ‘Lust For Life’ probably was never going to be a hit mainstream song with the opening lyrics of ‘I wish I had boyfriend, I wish I had a loving man in my life’. The accompanying X-rated music video probably didn’t help. It really should have been though.

(Jake rates this clip ‘PG’)

We naturally defer opinion on all musical matters to Jake, but what do you, readers, think? Do you agree with Jake’s assessment of these almost-nearly-not-quite-Top-40 hits, or do you wish to challenge his authority? Allow your musically-infused comments to flow, below.

Jake Robinson is You’re Dripping Egg’s music staff writer (ooh-err!). To read more from Jake, have a gander at Suck It and See: Arctic Monkeys and A Review of Fleetwood Mac’s Importance to Popular Music

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Posted in: Music, Opinion