Saturday, December 12th, 2009

The Singles Jukebox End-of-Year Best-Off 2009: Round 1, Group 4

Peter Alliss: Yes, good afternoon, and isn’t a lovely day? The sun is out, the birds chirruping in the trees, nice, clear skies, all deeply wonderful, and some top-notch pop action in this fourth heat of the first round here at the Singles Jukebox End-of-Year Best-Off 2009. Saw a young lady out here earlier, pushing her baby in a buggy, reminded me of a young Helen Shapiro. Do you remember Helen Shapiro? She had that song, you know, “A-walkin’ a-back a-to a-happiness-ah”, yes? All comes flooding back now – but anyway, back to today. Serious Business Afoot, chaps! Five songs in play today – you’ve got the lovely American lass, Taylor Swift, and her song which is called Fifteen, or at least that’s what the producer’s told me; then there’s Royksopp ft. Robyn and something or other to do with a robot, then those French fellers and that song about 1901 — far more my cup of tea, that – and there’s this delightful young lady called Keri Hilson, though she does seem to be keeping company with this chap called Wayne, which I’ve always thought was a terrible thing to call your child – but I suppose that’ll be getting the PC Brigade on my back again, won’t it? Dear oh dear… anyway, their song’s called Turnin’ Me On, because apparently what people like these days is for one to drop one’s “G”’s at every given opportunity, like you were born behind the launderette in Basildon or some such nonsense. Dear oh dear… oh, and then there’s some chaps in hats that have called themselves Das Racist for some reason, God only knows why. They’re singing about going to Pizza Hut and then what Our Friends In America call a Taco Bell – if you can call it singing, which I suppose people do nowadays. Takes me back to the time I saw Gracie Fields – do you remember her? Wonderful lady, lovely voice, could charm the birds out of the trees – though obviously nowadays they’d just do their business on your car instead. Anyway, a magical night, marvellous concert, met this delightful young lady at the bar, but then she started talking to me about socialism…

Anthony Easton: The best thing about Swift is that she makes the sexual longing of early teenagehood seem real, legitimate, and autonomous. Some of it is about love, and some of it is about caution, but for a whole range of songs about high school written and performed by adults that dismiss or refuse to remember the lust and boredom, the desire and ennui that mark being 15, Swift allows for an explicit corrective. This is good for pop, and good for country (5 points). The first decade of the 21st century is all about living with in a world where dystopian and utopian visions have failed. It is an attempt to make real the end of history, the scrap heap of competing texts, signifiers, and information. The pop has become dangerously melancholy in the nostalgia and bricolage. There is no future, and little past. Even the drugs that used to make us happy have stopped working. We make do. There is an entire aesthetic based on making due. Previously, where epic songs about fuckbots had a gloriously stainless sheen, “The Girl and the Robot” is pock-marked and skips around. It has the mark of its time (3 points). Do I have to be English to understand “1901” (2 points)? “Turnin’ Me On” is generic R’n’B, but sexy enough to keep me half aroused for the first couple of minutes, which must mean something (1 point). Which leaves “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell”. IT IS NOT A CRITICISM OF CAPITIALISM. IT IS NOT INTERESTING-STUPID, IT IS JUST HIPSTER BULLSHIT. Yes I am yelling. You disappoint me (0 points).

STANDINGS: Swift 5, Royksopp 3, Phoenix 2, Hilson 1, Racist 0

Jonathan Bradley: Such a strong group, this one, with the Nordic vacuity of the Robyn/Röyksopp connection the sole dud (0 points); I suspect a real automaton would be programmed to do pro forma dance with a more effective result. Meanwhile, I really wanted to give the top place to “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell,” because, as Tal Rosenberg and Dave Moore pointed out last week: I’M AT THE PIZZA HUT! I’M AT THE TACO BELL! I’M AT THE COMBINATION PIZZA HUT AND TACO BELL! Also, those woozy, stinking horns satisfy like a stuffed-crust pie chased with a pick from the dollar menu. But (3 points) when I followed that with a serve of Taylor Swift’s “Fifteen,” my stomach did a back flip and my heart took over. “Fifteen” is not quite as beguiling as its predecessor, “You Belong With Me,” but to deny its marvellousness would be to quibble over a matter of degrees; this is a song so achingly earnest it makes me feel as giddy with dumb joy as Swift does after her amazing first date (5 points). I’ll be writing mash notes to it all semester. Making up the numbers is Phoenix’s brilliant neon-bright pop confection “1901,” whose only fault is that it is forced to compete in this illustrious field (2 points), and a Keri Hilson song that, with its blank bass knocks and autotuned Weezy verse, tick-tocks away sounding quite forward-thinking and left-field, but with little purpose to its daring sonics (1 point). Maybe we’re spoilt for choice these days, but merely sounding clever is no longer good enough for R&B.

STANDINGS: Swift 10, Phoenix 4, Royksopp 3, Racist 3, Hilson 2

John Seroff: I was a big fan of Phoenix’s first album but the first single off Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix is a mediocre, derivative disappointment. It’s as if the boys heard Vampire Weekend and The Killers and opted in (0 points). The quality ramps up sharply with Röyskopp and Robyn’s ‘The Girl and the Robot’, a blatant and emotional Moroderfest on the heartbreak of loving a sarariman. “Girl and the Robot” is a very personal gift; I have a big ol’ Orange Crush on Robyn and my ringtone for the past year has been “Faster Than The Speed of Love”. This is an undeniable powerhouse, but I can’t in good conscience rate this higher than fourth as I’ve not had more than a few days to acclimate (1 point). It’s galling; on most other ballots this would certainly place higher, but this bracket’s competition is just fierce. Ordering Taylor Swift and Das Racist into place and show is difficult and more a reflection of my own priorities than of their respective quality. Both are spot-on bulls-eyes at totally different targets. “Fifteen”’s pitch-perfect coming-of-age story is improbably, consistently affecting; Swift coaxes a fragile nostalgia from me for moments that I not only never experienced but that I’d never want to experience. “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell” is a galumphing knuckleheaded hoedown of raucous mindlessness with all the teenage kicks of a bottle rocket fight. For whatever reason; be it leftover hard feelings from being snubbed by the prom queen, a preference for the absurd (“COMbiNATION”) over the sublime (“and we both cried…”), the sadly apt reflection of 2009’s increasingly frantic end-times tone in pop music or just a reliance on alphabetical order; I opted for tetched (Das Racist, 3 points) over touching (Taylor Swift, 2 points). Tell me I got it backwards and I won’t argue. None of these quite reach the heights of what shakes out as my favorite pure pop single of ’09, “Turnin’ Me On”. It’s the song that finally brought definition to the all too malleable Hilson and features Wayne’s best verse of the year, but most of the magic is in the meaty production. Polow has gone from being Timbaland’s student to matching the teacher; this is his long-awaited “Are You That Somebody”. A few hundred spins later, “Turnin’ Me On” sounds just as good to me today as it did twelve months ago (5 points).

STANDINGS: Swift 12, Hilson 7, Racist 6, Phoenix 4, Royksopp 4

Jessica Popper: It was an easy choice for me to put Robyn (5 points) and Taylor (3 points) at the top, as two of my favourite female popstars of recent years. I can’t believe “The Girl and the Robot” wasn’t even a hit in the UK. I preferred Phoenix’s earlier singles such as “Run” and “Everything is Everything”, but “1901” has grown on me quite a bit with time (2 points). Das Racist was my fourth choice solely for reasons of amusement (1 point). Keri Hilson came last because I found her song irritating and Lil Wayne’s presence certainly didn’t help matters (0 points)!

STANDINGS: Swift 15, Royksopp 9, Hilson 7, Racist 7, Phoenix 6

Keane Tzong: Let’s start at the bottom: “Turnin’ Me On” sucks (0 points). Keri Hilson has all the star power of a sponge, and Lil Wayne steals the show with a fairly subpar guest verse, but I dislike this even more than I would otherwise because I hear “miscarried baby” every time I listen to this song. Then there’s Taylor Swift, whose “Fifteen” is a truly lovely melody wrapped around lyrics that are as didactic as they are smug (1 point), so while Das Racist manage to drive their joke into the ground before the song’s halfway over, I think I’d still rather listen to them (2 points). At the top, we have two songs I listen to frequently and think are totally spectacular. But I must say that “The Girl and the Robot” doesn’t quite compare to “1901”, which I think may well be the best thing Phoenix have ever done (5 points). “The Girl and the Robot” isn’t even the best song on Junior (3 points).

STANDINGS: Swift 16, Royksopp 12, Phoenix 11, Racist 9, Hilson 7

Tal Rosenberg: I first heard “Turnin’ Me On” on R. Kelly & DJ Drama’s The Demo Tape, having no idea that the song was originally by Keri Hilson. At the time, it was my favorite song on the mixtape, largely having to do with the beat. Polow Da Don’s creeper has a menacing entrance, the bass foreboding yet muffled enough to convey tension, and then suddenly a giant “OOOOOOHHHH” while Hilson reverses, telling the hot guy approaching her that he has no idea what kind of woman he’s talking to. And then Hilson snakes in and out of the beat, singing around the 1/16 hi-hat—a beat motif that Lil Wayne dines out on, which he continues to do here—while she exudes sassiness and coyness in equal measure (5 points). Robyn doesn’t quite transmit the same type of cockiness: She’s fearful of living a life with someone devoted to work and routine more than he is to her. Röyksopp try to have that fear play out in the music, but the drama is overdone, and so Robyn’s confident voice gets lost somewhere where the song’s sentiments and its music commingle (1 point). Taylor’s female experience doesn’t have any place in Robyn’s or Keri’s world, since it deliberately takes its stance from that of a high school perspective. But Taylor has the same fears that Robyn does, expressed this time in dejection and rumors and emotional chaos. My problem with “Fifteen” this time around, hearing it out of the context of the album, where it seems more fitting, is that Taylor talks about not knowing where she’s gonna be instead of dreaming about what she wants to be, which strikes me as more realistic. In the end, I don’t hear Taylor’s hurt and fears in the sounds of wispy mandolins and brushed drums (0 points). Both Phoenix (2 points) and Das Racist (3 points) rest on killer riffs, steady rhythms, and lots of glammy energy. But Phoenix seem beholden to seriousness here in a way that’s less sexy than the emotional turmoil they detailed much better on most of It’s Never Been Like That, though the song does still pack the band’s knack for hooks and punch. Das Racist are all fruit punch, though, and they’re also laughs-a-million, Slurpees, and all sorts of superlative rolled into one striking neon mutant. They’re a big gluttonous meal, sort of like a pizza-flavored burrito with mozzarella-melted nachos and a bucket full of Pepsi.

STANDINGS: Swift 16, Royksopp 13, Phoenix 13, Racist 12, Hilson 12

Tom Ewing: A mix of weaker entries by people I like – Keri, Taylor – and strong ones by people I don’t – Phoenix, Robyn (and Royksopp). Can Das Racist come through the middle and nick it? Nope (2 points). Liked it a lot, then got bored of it, will always be happy to hear it but that’s “friend on Facebook and ignore” status, not love or hate. Phoenix do their usual self-consciously joyful thing but the hooks are stronger than previously (3 points). Love the lyrics and feeling in Taylor, but the melody doesn’t stick for me on this one and the arrangement is a bit Sixpence None The Richer (1 point). Keri is the kind of song you wouldn’t bother blurbing unless you had a good joke (0 points), so that leaves Royksopp and Robyn, both of whom I usually find rather smug but they’ve hit a vein of frustration and passive anger here that’s worth something (5 points).

STANDINGS: Royksopp 18, Swift 17, Phoenix 16, Racist 14, Hilson 12

Kat Stevens: All excellent songs these, it was really hard to pick. Phoenix (0 points) and Taylor are the least sonically interesting for me but Taylor has the hormonal gutwrench factor edging it ahead (1 point); Das Racist and Wallpaper’s dumbass fastfood disco (3 points) doesn’t have a ‘piranha bite’ clanger (Keri Hilson, 2 points); Robyn soars up above the Norwegian electro forests and tells us what happens to Taylor’s heartbroken teenager once she’s grown up and got a mortgage (5 points).

STANDINGS: Royksopp 23, Swift 18, Racist 17, Phoenix 16, Hilson 14

Erick Bieritz: Ten years in, few bands are as consistent as Phoenix at pumping out solid little rock jams (5 points). Is it Taylor Swift’s fresh-faced earnestness that disarmed critics and connected her with listeners in numbers that supposedly don’t happen in an Internet-savvy hyper-niched world (3 points)? Keri Hilson is more than a hook girl, but she still hasn’t established a personality of her own, and frosty mechanization with an assist from the Omnipresent One isn’t helping matters (2 points). Röyksopp drops a brisk little backing track, but too much is expected of Robyn, a decent singer who has received a disproportionate amount of critical love (1 point). “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell” could probably earn either a 10 or a 0 after a few hundred mind-numbing listens, but as I don’t have time for that, I’ll go with my gut and say that like it’s namesake(s), it’s full of things that are done much better elsewhere (0 points).

STANDINGS: Royksopp 24, Swift 21, Phoenix 21, Racist 17, Hilson 16

And so, as we reach the final ballot, a number of things could happen.

IF Royksopp get first and Phoenix finish ahead of Taylor, OR IF Phoenix get first and Royksopp finish no lower than fourth, the terrorists have won (Royksopp and Phoenix go through).

IF Royksopp get first and Taylor finishes ahead of Phoenix, OR IF Taylor gets first, Taylor and Royksopp go through (in the result of a tie between Phoenix and Royksopp, Royksopp’s higher regular season score would put them through).

IF Phoenix get first, Taylor gets second and Royksopp come in last, Taylor and Phoenix go through (in the result of a tie between Taylor and Royksopp, Taylor’s higher regular season score puts her through).

Das Racist and Keri H are fucked regardless.

So who’s it gonna be? Who holds the fate of these three songs in their hands?

Let’s find out…

Martin Skidmore: A very close thing for first…

…but today…

…I have picked…

…intense and rather scary dance (Royksopp, 5 points) ahead of delicately specific country pop (Taylor Swift, 3 points). Keri Hilson easily grabs third with her consistently very good R&B (2 points), and I still think I kind of like Das Racist, though my patience may wear thin (1 point). Phoenix are last by a country mile for me, aimless indie tedium, marked in my bottom 5% of the year (0 points).


1. Royksopp ft. Robyn, “The Girl and the Robot” – 29 points
2. Taylor Swift, “Fifteen” – 24 points
3. Phoenix, “1901” – 21 points
4. Keri Hilson ft. Lil Wayne, “Turnin’ Me On” – 18 points
5. Das Racist, “Combination Pizza Hut Taco Bell (Wallpaper Remix)” – 18 points
Keri’s regular season score was higher than Das Racist’s, so she finishes above them. Though it’s not as though that really matters anymore

Whew – another nailbiter, and we were so busy biting our nails that this post is now at least three days late if not a bit worse. Sorry about that. Anyhow, Swifty’s second-string squeaks through ahead of a surprisingly strong Gallic challenge, while Royksopp’s metal machine ménage humps its way to the top of the heap. Group five sees pies flying, burgers flipping and Yet More Fucking Ninjas. Oh, and Busy Signal. Stay tuned, cos we need to get this shit sorted ASAP…

28 Responses to “The Singles Jukebox End-of-Year Best-Off 2009: Round 1, Group 4”



  3. Yes, but as Tom pointed out, J-Brad, at least the metaphor isn’t presented under the guise of Sixpence None the Richer.

    Love the The Happening jpegs.

  4. “Sixpence None the Richer” is just a code word for “not a kitchen-sink production” which is a positive for what Taylor does.

  5. Bradley:

  6. I love Martin, but Phoenix wuz robbed. The terrorists should have won!

  7. So glad Royksopp went through – obv I heart Combination Pizza Hut too but I know it’s not everyone’s cup of tea and didn’t expect it to do that well.

  8. LOL “The Happening.” Who among us does Will want murdered by plants?

    Surprised Röyksopp did as well as they did, though, considering the general apathy most people feel for them, myself included (and I really really like a good 50% of “Junior”!). I guess they really are a band to be evaluated song-by-song.

  9. I love “The Girl and the Robot,” but I agree with you that it’s probably not the best song on Junior. I think “You Don’t Have a Clue” is often overlooked when people talk about the album, but it rips.

  10. “You” being Keane, naturally.

  11. :( @ the placement of “Turnin’ Me On” (obv the best song here by some distance)

  12. Martin Skidmore is the new Harald Schumacher. 1901 deserved so much better.

  13. I have yet to be tired of “Combination Pizza Hut And Taco Bell.” That is because I am a robot. (Those would’ve been my top two choices. Then Taylor, then Combination Keri Hilson And Lil Wayne, which I like quite a lot actually, even if Keri is a robot. Then that one that Martin S. doesn’t like either.)

  14. “1901” is like a 00s Cars and as such is sort of amazing. I’d have taken it ahead of “Fifteen”, one of Taylor’s lesser singles for sure.

  15. Hilson > Swift >>>>>>>>>> Phoenix > Röyksopp > Das Racist.

    “Turnin’ Me On” is definitely Keri’s finest solo moment – easy to dismiss as generic or whatever, but it’s a lot more than the sum of its parts, it was just completely addictive this year. Any song that I listen to so many times that I end up knowing it off by heart – especially Lil’ Wayne’s guest verse! – has to come first, really. I hold the songs I default to while drunkenly trekking home after a night out very dear, and this was one of them this year. Not happy she didn’t go through but happy she finished above Das Racist (Anthony E OTMFM) on a technicality.

    Also good to see Taylor beat out Phoenizzzz.

  16. It took me ages and ages to get the “miscarried baby” thing, which is a shame because I really love the “Miss Keri, baybehhhh!” exclamation.

    Tom if you like Keri but think “Turnin’ Me On” is a weak song by her, what do you think are the strong songs? Apart from “The Way I Are” (and that ancient “Hands & Feet” demo) nothing she’s done touches this – the no-personality criticisms are sadly true (luckily she doesn’t need one for this song) (weirdly, going by Twitter, she has quite a lot of personality IRL, but this obviously isn’t translating to her songs).

  17. Keri’s lack of personality is of a weird sort. John is OTM in calling her “all too malleable” because where most similiarly-afflicted artists are just simply unable to convey a convincing character, her personality defecit seems to arise from the fact that she seems able to effectively take on any persona, but only for one song at a time. Any two given Keri Hilson songs, while probably effective individually, are going to be at odds in the process of telling you who Keri Hilson is. She’s chameleonic to a fault.

  18. I had the exact same ended-up-listening-to-it-so-many-times thing for “Knock You Down” that you had for this, Lex! The album I think is solidly enjoyable without being memorable – this was memorable but also a bit irritating.

    Sixpence None The Richer is a code word for “sounds like Sixpence None The Richer” mat: I own their album! (I also quite like it, but only quite)

  19. I’d say Das Racist > Taylor > Royksopp > Hilson > Phoenix.

  20. “Knock you Down” is kind of on the verge of awful. “Turnin’ Me On” is maybe my favorite top 40 single of the year.

  21. I feel like the whole point of Taylor Swift is that it’s confessional and she’s writing what she knows. And “Fifteen” is, like, the only song where she’s not really doing that.

    Like Anthony said here, a valedictorian address.

    “1901” is a load of non sequitirs, but I think it’s actually more personal than “Fifteen” (and it’s a much higher number). The synth makes the whole song sound fragile.

    If people want to find more specific complaints than calling something “indie” or saying it sounds like Vampire Weekend … I guess I would like that.

  22. You’ll get in trouble round these parts if you’re suggesting that “indie” isn’t a self-evident pejorative, Brendan. Some folks don’t like hearing that.

    As for “Fifteen,” it seems that it’s one of the best examples of Swift writing what she knows, right down to the lines about “sitting in class next to a redhead named Abigail,” which the Fearless booklet helpfully illustrates with a photograph of a fifteen year old Taylor with a redheaded Abigail. Sure, it’s constructed as a valedictorian address, but it seems pretty clear that by “you,” she means “I,” and the song seems more convincingly autobiographical than, for instance, “White Horse,” or “You’re Not Sorry,” or, especially, “Love Story.” (Which doesn’t mean they’re not autobiographical.)

  23. But welcome to the fray, Brendan! Glad you’ve finally decided to join the free-for-all. We need more people who aren’t us.


  24. I guess the difference is that the song “Fifteen” is sort of about everything. Like, if she made the song just about Abigail, or else just about a first date, or else just about the first day of school, I would completely love that song. But this song does not have enough time to tell all those stories. Autobiography is one thing and personal is another.

    The best Taylor Swift songs are, like, “You Belong With Me” and “Tim McGraw” and “Hey Stephen”, where they capture one moment and really sell you on how it feels to be in that moment.

  25. ^^^ very OTM assessment.

  26. Fifteen really is just about one thing.. “don’t think those days are your whole life, your only shot at success”.

  27. I think this is why “Fifteen” is the one that gets pinpointed so often as a good example of Taylor’s craftsmanship – because she skims over so many specifics but is able to pull you inside them in just a line or two. It rings true as a whole, though, especially from the perspective of looking back on school, when all the memories are a bit jumbled and blur into one big whirl and everything seemed to happen at the same time – and crucially, when you realise that the tears and heartbreak which seemed like a big deal are just one piece of the picture, and melt into everything else.

  28. I’m very happy with the top two, and with the way the voting was structured so it looks as if it is specifically my doing that Phoenix didn’t get through!