Tuesday, December 8th, 2009

The Singles Jukebox End-of-Year Best-Off 2009: Round 1, Group 2

Des Lynam: Evening. A great night of action in prospect here, five songs vying to go through to the second round of this inaugural Singles Jukebox End-of-Year Best-Off, only two places available Of Course. Fistful of top contenders in the mix here, headed by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs“Heads Will Roll” was the second-highest scorer in the regular season, carding an 8.46 back in June. Vistoso Bosses, on the other hand, only turned up three weeks ago, but “Delirious” found a firm place in the hearts of the jury – with a helping hand from a certain Mr Boy. Then there’s the surprise package from Denmark, Medina“Kun For Mig” shook up the Jukebox top ten all the way back in April, but can it still do the business in the bleak mid-winter? Louche smoothie Maxwell’s been winning over the fans and the pundits all year, and ”Bad Habits” carded an impressive 7.31 in July — the kind of score that forgives anything, in my experience. Last but not least, Florence and the Machine — Brit Award winner, Mercury Music Prize nominee, and now a shot at reaching the knockout stages of the world’s premier December-based pop music tournament. She’s got the love, but has “Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up)” got the legs to last the course?

We cross live to the stadium now, where Kent’s finest, Iain Mew, is all set to get us underway.

Iain Mew: Group 2 is an easy win for “Heads Will Roll” (5 points). Its foreboding synths sound like a sci-fi RPG villain’s theme, it turns glitter into an apocalyptic signifier and it’s massively enjoyable from start to finish. It also single-handedly turned me round on a group who I never really thought much of. “Kun For Mig” is a much less instant hit, but sinking slowly into its deep bass and melancholy alike remains a great feeling (3 points). “Delirious” is so light, almost weightless, that it totally passed me by on first listens, with only the (actually quite likable) Soulja Boy bit making any impact. What I missed: it’s incredibly, addictively pretty and doesn’t really need anything else (2 points). That really strong top three leaves Maxwell and Florence Against the Machine (0 points), and I’m not particularly keen on either. I didn’t already give Maxwell a [3] for sounding ridiculously cluttered and grating (and for being unnecessary alongside Bat For Lashes), though, so he gets fourth place (1 point).

STANDINGS: Yeahs 5, Medina 3, Bosses 2, Maxwell 1, Florence 0

Al Shipley: “Bad Habits” (5 points) is the default favorite here, although honestly it doesn’t have shit on “Pretty Wings,” and Medina is a close second (3 points) just by virtue of having a pretty appealing voice. This Florence thing…man you guys like women singing synth pop, huh? I mean, I guess I do too (2 points), but not all the time. The Vistoso Bosses song would be greatly improved if the monotone zombie boyfriend part played by Mr. Tell ‘Em (1 point) was removed. Don’t know why people are still paying attention to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, kinda hoped all that would be over by now; that lady’s singing is almost as stupid as her haircut (0 points).

STANDINGS: Medina 6, Maxwell 6, Yeahs 5, Bosses 3, Florence 2

David Moore: Medina’s chilling ode to loneliness on the dancefloor (I presume that’s what it’s about, not speaking Danish) has been a slow burn all year, and ultimately I decided to let it (5 points) trump reliably unstoppable dorm-dance-indie from Yeah Yeah Yeahs (3 points). There’s nothing particularly inventive or revelatory about “Kun for Mig,” but there’s a kind of desperation in it that’s haunting, and the perfunctory English lyrics only reinforce the feeling that something special is happening almost imperceptibly in the original version. FloMac tries her best to “haunt,” too, but her poetry trips over itself and this original version of “Rabbit Heart” feels a bit too leaden (2 points). I prefer the dumbed-down and day-glo’d Jamie T. remix, which makes you wait so long for the chorus that you unconsciously start craving it—in the original the repetition starts to dilute everything, there’s too much stuff cluttering up that build to the chorus climax. I have even less to say about Maxwell than Vistoso Bosses—just find everything he’s done this year dull but also haven’t paid enough attention to him to formulate why and won’t try to now—but ultimately I think his song is slightly prettier (1 point) than theirs (0 points), and in the end whoever gets the pretty points gets the dubious honorable mention distinction.

STANDINGS: Medina 11, Yeahs 8, Maxwell 7, Florence 4, Bosses 3

Alex Macpherson: Three superb tracks here! Vistoso Bosses came up with a stellar take on my favourite kind of pop song, and I can’t count the hours I’ve spent absent-mindedly losing myself in “Delirious” (5 points) this year. There’s little I’d rank it below. I’d be surprised if I heard from them again, which is both sad but somehow…right. On the other hand, the next two are from two acts with Proper Careers who made two of 2009’s best albums. “Heads Will Roll” (3 points) is the most obviously anthemic track on It’s Blitz, moving between its disparate sections with beauty and ease; Karen O’s vocals are somehow both convulsive and propulsive, twisting and turning in on themselves without ever losing forward momentum. I’ve found that Maxwell’s BLACKsummer’snight works best as an album qua album; I rarely pull its constituent parts out to listen to by themselves, and if I do it tends to be “Cold” or “Help Somebody”. None of this detracts from the fact that “Bad Habits” is basically perfectly crafted and relegating it to third place (2 points)hurts me, seriously. “Kun For Mig” is still as pleasantly ignorable as it was the first time round, with the Booka Shade breakdown still the best bit, though I was wrong to think that an English version would help me actually care about it (1 point). As for Florence, she’s not as hateable as La Roux or the various female twee irritants that we’ve been plagued by this year (0 points), but… look, she’s basically a C-rate Sophie B Hawkins, right? And Hawkins only had a handful of songs worth a damn anyway, and you can probably iTunes or youtube “Damn I Wish I Was Your Lover” if you really want to listen to it.

STANDINGS: Medina 12, Yeahs 11, Maxwell 9, Bosses 8, Florence 4

Martin Kavka: When I first saw the songs in this group, I wailed in despair at having to rank them. Except for “Heads Will Roll” (1 point), these are all songs from which I learned and re-learned Pop’s Great Lesson: love makes you flush reason down the toilet, and teaches you that a life of making good choices is a life that forbids you from, you know, actually living. Maxwell was the best instructor of 2009 (5 points), edging out Medina (3 points) and Florence (2 points), and in “Bad Habits” he can’t decide whether he should embrace his physical responses to a woman or resent her for driving him to abandon. Yet perhaps such melodrama misses the point that self-abandonment might be not just a good thing, but the best thing in life. If Maxwell is wrong (and on many days I think he is), Vistoso Bosses would be at the top of the heap. It’s a crying shame that Interscope cravenly added that Soulja Boy rap (0 points), though.

STANDINGS: Medina 15, Maxwell 14, Yeahs 12, Bosses 8, Florence 6

Pete Baran: A controlled group, either subdued or going through the motions — albeit with panache — from the get go. Of the songs in this group the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s is the most controlled and clever pop song (5 points). Flo has energy and delivery, but there are two songs folded into one here and I am not sure that it has legs beyond the impressive histrionics (3 points). Same is true for “Kun For Mig” — everything works in this song but I am not quite sort what I am going to do with it (2 points). Clearly a dance mix which makes use of its awesome breakdown is required. Vistoso Bosses is sweetness incarnate (even with super sap Soulja Boy on there) but it is flat on a dancefloor (1 point); they sing it with the suggestion that none of them understand the word delirious. As for Maxwell, he has always impressed me with his soul credentials, but generally bored me with the tunes. This is better than a lot of his stuff (0 points), but still doesn’t electrocute me with fun.

STANDINGS: Medina 17, Yeahs 17, Maxwell 14, Bosses 9, Florence 9

Ian Mathers: The Soulja Boy-less version of “Delirious” is neck and neck with “You Belong With Me” for my song of the year, so it was never not going to take this division for me (5 points), even with that tacked on verse at the beginning (it’s not bad, but anything in the song that’s not the chorus is kind of a waste of time). Then I’m in an odd position, because those Florence + The Machine and Yeah Yeah Yeahs singles are both great, but neither of them are the best single the band’s produced this year. Honestly, in a “Zero”/”Drumming Song” showdown I don’t even know who I’d pick, but as much as I like “Heads Will Roll” it’s far from the second best song on It’s Blitz! (2 points) and “Raise It Up (Rabbit Heart)” is nearly as great as “Drumming Song” so it gets the edge (3 points). I don’t care much about Maxwell (0 points) or Medina (aside from thinking both singles have been overrated by our lovely Jukebox writers); I neither like nor dislike either song, but “Kun For Mig” has a better beat and is shorter, so it wins (1 point).

STANDINGS: Yeahs 19, Medina 18, Maxwell 14, Bosses 14, Florence 12

Chuck Eddy: Clearly the women win here — especially the ones who like *Alice In Wonderland.* Hey, I’m a Grace Slick fan, too! But Florence sounds like she has considerably more fun pulling rabbits out of hats (5 points) than Karen O does chopping heads off (3 points). (Their ’09 albums were probably equally overrated overall.) As for Vistoso Bosses, I guess I’m just not charmed enough by their theoretical cuteness (1 point) to ignore how meh their voices sound; though maybe I’d be more charitable if Soulja didn’t drag them down. And I’d probably like Maxwell more if he made instrumental albums (0 points).

Chuck Eddy also gave Medina 2 points, but he doesn’t like to talk about it.

STANDINGS: Yeahs 22, Medina 20, Florence 17, Bosses 15, Maxwell 14

Andrew Brennan: “Rabbit Heart” is better than everything else in this group (5 points) because it has one of the most powerful and beautiful choruses of 2009. The synth progressions and vocal delivery in “Heads Will Roll” are great, and I love how all the different layers and textures work together. It isn’t the anthem that “Rabbit Heart” is (3 points), but it’s better than the rest: “Kun for Mig” is a bit too repetitive for its own good — the minimal backbeat and synth work, and I like the Everything But The Girl vibe, but its lack of sophistication puts it in third here (2 points); “Delirious” isn’t bad, but it also isn’t good — the Soulja Boy rap in the beginning is really off-putting, and overall the song is just boring (1 point); and Maxwell… blah. This (0 points) starts out whiny and slow, then it dials up a ‘lo-fi’ tropical feeling that I’d probably enjoy more if it lacked the vocal.

STANDINGS: Yeahs 25, Medina 22, Florence 22, Bosses 16, Maxwell 14

If we were to end it here, Medina would go through by virtue of having scored higher in the regular season. We have one vote left.

But first –Lord Cut Glass didn’t manage to qualify, but he’s still the people’s champ, so here’s “Look After Your Wife”:

Tremendous. But now, back to the action. Medina vs. Machine. Deciding who goes through to the second round, it’s…

Tom Ewing: I’ve listened to “Rabbit Heart” more than any other song this year — to my somewhat shock — so the least it deserves is an admission that YES FLORENCE I LOVE YOU or at least I love this song and its absurd Joseph Cambell histrionics (5 points). Midas is King! Raise it up! Vistoso Bosses on the other hand is quite new to me but is so gorgeous and tender on first listen that it (3 points) muscles out “Heads Will Roll” which is only my fourth favourite thing on It’s Blitz! (2 points) anyhow. “Off with your head! Dance till you’re dead!” is the hook line of my year mind you. Medina is poised, sad Europop that will get admiring 8 out of 10s as long as there’s a Jukebox, and good for it (1 point). Maxwell? I like it but I like the album as a whole: the “it’s not you, it’s me” of single reviewing (0 points).


1. Yeah Yeah Yeahs, “Heads Will Roll” – 27 points
2. Florence and the Machine, “Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up)” – 27 points
Yeah Yeah Yeahs finish top by virtue of getting a higher score in the regular season
3. Medina, “Kun For Mig “ – 23 points
4. Vistoso Bosses ft. Soulja Boy, “Delirious” – 19 points
5. Maxwell, “Bad Habits” – 14 points

Well. Well well well. Another six finishes like that, and my theoretical grandchildren will never be hearing the end of it. Florence’s finishing flourish propels her into the last sixteen at the expense of the plucky young Dane, and is very nearly enough to topple Karen O and chums — on this kind of form, who knows what she might do? At the same time, the closeness of this finish can’t bode well for the snazzy New York outfit’s chances in the later stages, particularly in light of T-Swizzle’s cakewalk earlier today. Poor Vistoso Bosses never really got going, but they’ve an awful lot of future to look ahead to; as for Maxwell… well, who’s saying we’ve seen the last of him?

Tune in tomorrow to see if “Zero” leaves a bigger impression on the voters in Group 3, and whether “Fifteen” can continue Her Serene Blondeness’ domination of our hearts in Group 4. Also – lesbians, ninjas, and MSG up the wazoo. Keep it locked, kids…

70 Responses to “The Singles Jukebox End-of-Year Best-Off 2009: Round 1, Group 2”

  1. “much of the time the “point” of R&B is selling the cliché”

    Just to get back onto turf I’m more comfortable talking about in a more sweeping way, this is exactly what I don’t like about a good 80% of Avril-derived confessional music, though — the cliches don’t interest me, and I’m most likely to be attracted to a performer who can take a general subject matter and pull something that isn’t cliche out of it. Which is exactly how I feel about R&B — not just as a “better lyrics” thing, but also more viscerally. When I feel like performers are going through the motions, I don’t tend to be very interested in what those motions are. Which isn’t to say the motions are bad ones, but that just going through them by definition is usually going to turn me off, or at least prevent me from really getting into a song. (The Medina translation makes “motions” out of something with a bit more mystique and seeming depth in the Danish version. Call it the foreign-language escape hatch, I guess.)

  2. The flipside of the foreign-language escape hatch is that it can also be really difficult for me to start to care about tracks that don’t at least give me a couple of words to think about, but that’s because I’m a word person and secretly resent most pretty music for being so hard to describe in words. (Kidding?)

  3. The english version of Medina’s track, “You and I”, is not representative of the original lyrics. Not that the original lyrics aren’t simple, but they communicate that fleeting nighttime feeling a lot better.

    For example, “You and I” says that “the music is making me growing” and “there’s no one here to break me or bring me down”, which does convey the message of the original, but the original does it by saying (literal translation, no attempt to rhyme): “The club fills my veins, and hides all the scars, here you can’t see weak tears, I am alright”.

    And when the english version ends with a cliche of words: “We are at the end, no more stupid lies / I’m better off without you here by my side” the danish goes with “When darkness falls / I’m back at the club, to forget you / can’t believe what you did to me / you made it good”

    The original goes for a more specific setting and more concrete feelings, and it makes the song find its own place better. I like the english version, but it’s nothing compared to the danish one. Perhaps being scandinavian, subconciously I connect with the original video as well, the urban scandinavian weekend landscape, and remember how many girls eclipse that exact state of mind through their growing up.

  4. ^Thank you, much appreciated! (I seem to recall a similar discussion of lyrics on the Medina thread itself, or on some comment thread.)

  5. Yes to what Dave said: re: on the verge of saying “black folks can’t write songs (unless they are doing it for a primarily white audience).”

    Additionally, I would have felt Elly was slightly justified if she had made the same statement about my personal pet genre, teenpop, or whatever genre the Katy/Kelly/Britney/GaGa axis belongs to, too. Together with R&B, those are the mainstream (at least in the US), and like R&B, they each have a top tier of writers & producers with credits on almost every successful album — and I think that factory farming of material is why lyrical nothingness is so common in those genres.

    Re: Only if you think the lyrics are of necessity the most important aspect of a song.

    I think lyrics are an important aspect of a song, and I think it’s kind of ridiculous to be all “this song is super fucking awesome OMG what are you people thinking liking other songs better than it???” about any song that totally drops the ball on an important aspect of songcraft, no matter how passionately the singer sings it.

  6. Well, if said this before here and elsewhere, but if the lyrics I hear don’t either (1) make me like a song more or (2) make me like a song less, I have no problem ignoring them. There are scads of songs I love that I have no idea what they’re about, and that’s never bothered me at all — as a reviewer, I’m reviewing the record, not the lyric sheet. There are scads of songs where I’ve never noticed what the bassist is doing, either! So in Maxwell’s case, he could be reciting his credit-card bill inside out, and if I thought his singing was passionate and his music was compelling and he had a way with a hook, I might well not mind. For me, though, he does none of those things. In fact, as a fairly huge fan of the classic soul people compare him to, I find him particularly inept.

  7. “Well, I’ve said this before….,” I meant.

    And to be fair, he’s probably drawing on certain strains of ’80s quiet storm (and late Prince) (maybe not in this particular song) that I’ve never had a use for. If others do, that’s great. I just find the guy really, really tedious.

  8. And I simply don’t understand criticisms like “lo-fi”, “whiny” or “boring” as applied to him.

    I think Dave’s comment about the subtlety of the track making it hard to believe he’s addicted to this woman does a lot to explain it. (Well, not “lo-fi.” There is no explaining “lo-fi.”) Sans lyrics — that is, if I intentionally ignore the words, and listen only to the vocals and the instrumentation — this track strikes me as casually sexy, composed and in-control, not “this attraction is so strong I need to come back twice a day, this woman is a drug I’m addicted to and being with her is as harmful as an overdose” or whatever the song is supposed to be about. I mean, sort of — the little irregularities in the beat, and around 4:00 where it goes all sparse and foreboding. But not really — the rest of it is just so neat. I mean, that chorus! That is the chorus of a dude who is totally on top of things.

    I don’t know, maybe this is a song about a dude who is totally on top of things, except when this woman is around? Or like, he secretly is on top of things, but he’s pretending not to be? Or the other way around? I don’t know. If only there were lyrics to provide some sort of clue.

  9. If only there were lyrics to provide some sort of clue…

    Assed out all over town” — not “asked out,” as Dave thought — describes a guy who is not on top of things at all, because of teh sexy woman (“addicted to the way you move”).

    Nonetheless, Guy needs to be on top of things (“I can’t control the feeling” = “the highest cost”).

    Therefore he must leave this woman (“I gotta break from you”).

    Yet he is racked by guilt — he is leaving her for selfish reasons — and so begs for her forgiveness (“will you forgive me?”).

  10. My votes were utterly unreflective – the same “one play only” rule I apply to everything on the jukebox and then instant justifications. It may not be the best playing field but it’s a level one. This meant that of the things I didn’t know well (Vistoso, Medina, Maxwell) instant beat considered, but for me it usually does.

    No apologies for the five points to Florence though – she will probably never make anything this good again but it’s a great, florid, silly dressing-up-box of a record.

    I’d like to say, by the way, that everything in this group is better than everything in the other group I voted for.

  11. group of death

  12. I feel a sudden urge to say the phrase “Nelly Furtado.”

  13. It really hurts me that one of the most beautiful songs of the decade, “Say It Right,” is also so STUPID, all because of shoddy (lyrical) songwriting. And that’s one of her least stupid songs! This kinda stuff does tend to bug me indiscriminately, for whatever that’s worth. (I would rate “Say It Right”‘s lyrics as OK-not-great, but they’re nowhere near where they need to be considering how good the song is.)

  14. yall are fucking up…shaking my head @ erika especially w/ that comment. lol @ caring about lyrics that much in the first place.

    rodney is right:

    Yeah, the lyrics are gibberish, but frankly who cares, because his performance imbues it with more meaning than it could ever need. I’m not sure how one song’s lyrical foibles justify an indictment of an entire genre, though.

  15. Additionally, I would have felt Elly was slightly justified if she had made the same statement about my personal pet genre, teenpop, or whatever genre the Katy/Kelly/Britney/GaGa axis belongs to, too. Together with R&B, those are the mainstream (at least in the US), and like R&B, they each have a top tier of writers & producers with credits on almost every successful album — and I think that factory farming of material is why lyrical nothingness is so common in those genres.

    fucking christ, every single genre has its hacks and its geniuses. elly was just being a racist, and you repeatedly defending her is not a good look

  16. really, all that needs to be said is:

    This time baby,
    I’ll be,
    Bulletproof x2

    thanks for playing, elly

  17. i like “bulletproof” but glass houses and all

    and anyway, i think maxwell’s allowed to write a song that doesn’t scan in a completely linear sense. as rev says, the song is all about his vocal performance, the way he slides up and down with the horns etc. it’s an inherently sexy performance, and on top of that i don’t think the “bad habit” lyrics are that bewildering anyway.

    like, “pretty wings” is a beautifully written song. i think the image of a woman being unencumbered by maxwell’s cheating/lying and “spreading her wings” is really novel and evocative. just, so much off the money in these comments.

    and yeah, it’s assed out

  18. I dont know if anyone is reading this any more but i just want to say that i think you guys cede too much ground saying “sure maxwell’s lyrics are nonsense, but …” Maxwell is an arty, smart & thoughtful dude. R&B tends not to get credit for having songwriters who can be abstract or arty w/ their use of lyrics — I think its pretty clear that this is supposed to imply feelings, give you an abstract idea of what is going on in a relationship.

    I’m not sure why R&B isn’t allowed the same courtesy that is always extended to plenty of rock tracks, especially within indie.

  19. I find this argument fascinating, because a lot of those lyrics are in a uniquely American/urban/soul vernacular. Not to mention, this song could be about love, OR about addiction, all by itself.

    Taking it alone as a tome of addiction is powerful on it’s own, whether he’s addicted to love…or something else, remains up to the interpretation of the listener. You can feel the darkness exuding from the lyric and the incredible arrangement, with a complexity not found in modern R&B often. At about 3:00, I always have to turn the song to really appreciate it, because the song gets really intense, almost like the addiction being described therein.

    Having been a Maxwell fan for 14 years, I am somewhat biased, but I think he is one of the few in R&B that appreciates the layers and intellect of his audience (and gives an amazing live show as well – not to be missed).

    I think Erika’s right earlier when she says this is a guy who’s totally on top of things, totally in control, except in this instance, making it a “bad habit,” the one thing you can’t really control -despite yourself.

    I think that when he says he’s “assed out” maybe it’s easier to say “come undone, essentially the same thing.

    But, you all get the gist, he’s so IN this thing, so wrapped up, that it teeters on the edge of being out of control, a habit all it’s own. It’s a relationship that’s toxic, yet neither can resist. That good/bad relationship we’ve all had.

    The song’s amazing to me, it’s a great contrast to the lush, soft, delicate “Pretty wings,” and marks a new chapter for Maxwell, darker, deeper, and sexier, I say. It’s an intoxicating song that really does push the listener in a few directions, and you all seem to be right on; the lyrics are inconsequential, the feeling is important here. But, after all – that’s just my opinion.

  20. ^^Well, I wish all comments from randoms (non-Jukeboxers) were as good as that one. Well put.

    I’m SO PISSED OFF that I missed Maxwell’s live show here a few weeks ago.