December again, and everyone is making their end-of-year lists. I’m always impressed by people who can come up with their 50 top albums of the year. Good God, I think, I haven’t even heard 50 new albums this year, let alone liked them. So I’m currently compiling a playlist of my favourite tracks. And if that seems reflective of our current appetite for consuming music in bite-size chunks rather than Long Players, well that’s the way I roll nowadays, finding too many albums too long in any case.
I’d even go so far as to say that in my mind I break songs down into even smaller morsels, getting hooked by tiny details, passing moments that offer fleeting glimpses of heaven. I think of that great line in “The Pop Kids” by Pet Shop Boys – “We loved the pop hits/And quoted the best bits” – and I realise that I’m always mentally making a list of what I feel are the Best Bits.
In that very same song, Neil and Chris are responsible for one of my favourite ever Tiny Moments on a record, which comes in the middle-eight spoken word section. Neil (or the character he’s playing) is talking about going to a club midweek, expecting it to be empty, but it’s packed, and as he walks in he says, “Oh, I like it here/Oh I love it.” Except it’s not really an “Oh”. Instead the sound he makes, an appreciative little murmur of approval, is a mixture of “Mmm” and “Oooh” and is utterly perfect. I can listen to that on repeat. And do.
So in that spirit, I want to offer up some of my Best Bits of Pop, 2018.
Like for instance, Ezra Furman’s “Love You So Bad”, which is full of inventive couplets, but most especially the glorious rhyme: “We bought drugs from a parking attendant/But sober nights in your car were transcendent.”
Or the melancholy urban beauty of “Pat Earrings” by CASisDEAD, with its lovely squelchy Eighties synths, and the way in which the girl’s vocal – so happily married to the deadpan lyrics about a gritty love affair – is lazy enough to be a split second late.
Or the rarely heard sound of funky steel drums in Neneh Cherry’s rocking “Natural Skin Deep”, and the moment when we hear her request to the engineer to adjust her headphones: “How do I get a little bit more track?”
Or how about that bit in Lucy Dacus’s “Night Shift”, where a song which starts low-key, and prowls along in a dark, accusatory mood for a full four minutes, suddenly EXPLODES into a blast of swirling, churning, overdriven guitar.
Or the bass line of Róisín Murphy’s “Plaything”, which boings like a tightly stretched rubber band.
Or the super-funky, kinetic joy of the triangle part on Chaka Khan’s “Like Sugar”.
Or the thrilling way the toms in Sharon Van Etten’s “Comeback Kid” seem to bounce off the vibrato of her voice, all rich with melodrama, all energy, all forward propulsion.
Or the bit in Loyle Carner’s “Ottolenghi” where you find out where the title comes from. He’s on a bus, and gets caught up chatting to a mum with her little girl: “They asked about the bible I was reading/I told them that the title was misleading/Labelled it Jerusalem but really it’s for cooking Middle-Eastern.”
Or what seems to me to be the vocal delivery of the year, Janelle Monáe’s “Django Jane”, which also contained some of the most killer lyrics, and in particular that bit where she spits out the line, “Remember when they used to say I look too mannish/Black girl magic/Y’all can’t stand it” – a moment that made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck.
Or finally, perhaps my ultimate Best Bit of the year – the opening of Christine and the Queens’s superlative track “Girlfriend”. Out of nowhere comes a Jam and Lewis-style bass swoop, and the single spoken word: “Chris”. It’s so bold, so simple. Unbelievably sexy. An announcement, but also a declaration of intent. Both introductory and reverential, it seems to say: “Here she comes. Take the mic. Take centre stage. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you, Chris.”
Every time I hear it I go WHOO. And I think, that’s confidence in a nutshell. The opening heartbeat of a song. 2018. That was the Best Bit.
This article appears in the 08 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special