60 Years of the Official Album Chart: #MyFavouriteAlbum – Girls Aloud, “What Will the Neighbours Say?”

60 years

A very special blog today this one. This month marks a huge 60 years since the Official UK Charts Company published the very first Official UK Album Chart. 60 years! To mark this occasion, they are celebrating a month of all things album (or LP for the old ‘uns amongst us) and have not only published a list of the UK’s 60 biggest selling albums of all time (some absolute gems amongst them. Hello to you, The Corrs’ “Talk on Corners”) and on their Twitter handle they’ve been asking music fans to tell them all about their favourite album using the hashtag #MyFavouriteAlbum.

I duly accepted this challenge, and so I am now going to write about #MyFavouriteAlbum and just why I think it’s the absolute best. I had a very tough time deciding what album this would be, but I knew deep down that it had be one album and one only. Ladies and gentlemen, and esteemed readers of this above average blog, I present you to my candidate for the title…

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It’s Girls Aloud, with their second album from 2004, ‘What Will the Neighbours Say?’.

Now it kind of goes without saying for anyone who really loves good quality pop music that Girls Aloud’s albums were as shit hot as their singles were. But why this album in particular? Well, it’s a number of reasons both personally and musically that this is the one I chose as my all time favourite. I’ve spoken before on this blog about how I discovered new music growing up. Cheryl, Nadine, Kimberley, Sarah and Nicola were a heady part of that process for the then early to mid teens me.

The year they launched in 2002, as winners of ITV reality show ‘Popstars: The Rivals’, was a bit of a non descript one by my standards music wise. Only Coldplay and Sugababes (the second line up with Mutya, Keisha and Heidi) were pushing my buttons at this time music wise. S Club were six months away from splitting, and the best pop got around this time was Atomic Kitten doing naff covers of Blondie and/or Gareth Gates doing his one man Westlife skit. It was all generally very not fun.

Over the next year though, starting with their chart slaying Christmas number one and debut single “Sound of the Underground”, the girls quietly became a force to be reckoned with, with some cracking singles to boot (“No Good Advice” and “Life Got Cold”, hello to you), courtesy of pop production giant Brian Higgins and his team at Xenomania. But it was in 2004 and into 2005 that I really began to sit up, take notice of, and then become completely obsessed with them.

Two key moments happened in quick succession for 16 year old me. The first was seeing the girls performing ‘Wake Me Up’, the fourth single from the album, on the BBC’s now defunct chart music programme Top of the Pops, where they were riding the Harley Davidson motorcycles from the song’s music video. It was catchy, sexy, trashy and flashy in one heaving mass of pop goodness, whilst they looked like the hottest Hell’s Angels ever – and the single was an absolute belter too, all crunchy techno pop rock with a pumping disco beat.

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A couple of weeks after this, and only two months away from sitting my GCSEs, I had my appendix out which rendered me out of action for six weeks (more on that on this previous blog I did here). Whilst I was at home, bed bound, eating chicken noodles and toast, and crying over the scene in ‘Casablanca’ with Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, my mum decided to buy me some music as a treat to cheer me up and help with my recovery, and she bought me three albums: Green Day’s “American Idiot”, Gwen Stefani’s “Love. Angel. Music. Baby” and Girls Aloud’s “What Will the Neighbours Say?”.

I loved all three of those albums back then and I still love them now, but it was Girls Aloud’s I kept coming back to time after time after time – to the point where, a year later, when I was doing my A Levels, I actually had to get myself another copy of the album, as I’d worn out my first one. I loved it that much, it was like a pop comfort blanket. From the minute the album opens with its first single, “The Show”, with the gnarly, 80s synth riff that jags through the track like a neon lightning bolt, and the girls detachedly, wittily sing in unison ‘Shoulda known, shoulda cared / Shoulda hung around the kitchen in my underwear’, I was hooked.

It’s immediately followed with ‘Love Machine’, a technicolor word salad of 60s styled electropop and a guitar riff that, even now, only takes people all of five seconds to hear before they’re humming along and doing that infamous dance routine for it, and also put the phrases ‘We’re gift wrapped kitty cats’ and ‘Let’s go Eskimo’ into common parlance. Further down the album, more gems await. The All Saints-esque ‘Deadlines & Diets’, a trip hoppy ballad about nursing a hangover from the night before is one of their great lost singles that never were. So too, is ‘Graffiti My Soul’, a track originally offered to Britney Spears but that her people turned down due to its lack of chorus.

Ms. Spears’ gain was the Aloud’s loss, however, as it’s by far one of the best songs they recorded in their entire catalogue. From the minute it opens with Nadine’s sultry war cry of ‘Spiked heels and skin tight jeans / I gotta fist full of love that’s coming your way baby’, it builds and builds into this darkly comic monster of a track, part The Prodigy, part Madonna and part Neneh Cherry’s “Buffalo Stance”. It even won praise from traditionally more ‘serious’ music acts like Franz Ferdinand and Arctic Monkeys, the latter of whom went onto famously cover ‘Love Machine’ for Jo Whiley’s Live Lounge show on Radio 1.

Also delightful is their 60’s cop show styled ‘Here We Go’, the deliciously frenetic ‘Real Life’, and a solo ballad from Nicola titled ‘I Say a Prayer for You’ which is all wistful and folorn and heartbreaking and has to be heard to be believed. It’s an album that stretches pop to its very limits whilst sounding completely fresh and unique at the same time – what The Guardian writer and critic Julie Burchill, one of the girls’ biggest champions, dubbed ‘pantyliner punk’ at the time of its release. Even now as I sit here, listening to the album again, I still hear new things or sounds on it that I maybe haven’t noticed before, and that’s what keeps me coming back to it 12 years on. And that is why I’ll keep blasting it in the 12 years to come – regardless of what the neighbours say.

What’s your favourite album of all time? Tweet me @ThePensmith10 or leave a comment below and I might even feature your favourites in a future blog 🙂

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A #CrazyStupidPlaylist Special: 20 Years of the Spice Girls (Part 2 – Solo Spices)

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As we left the first part, we touched on the release of “Viva Forever” being – at the time at least – the Spice Girls’ final single as a five piece before Geri walked out of the group in May 1998. Though the Spices would go onto release one final album together – the much maligned “Forever” in 2000 – before their triumphant reunions in 2007/08, and again in 2012 for the London Olympics closing ceremony, Geri’s departure was the signalling of a new chapter that would help extend their legacy to the two decades’ worth it has now spanned.

Over the last 18 of those 20 years, the girls’ individual solo releases have sold over 12 million units worldwide, as well as amassing a further nine UK number one hits. This month has seen renowned pop culture blogger, Quentin Harrison, publish his first ever book ‘Record Redux’ which chronically documents and reviews all the group and solo releases of the girls from 1996 to now. In the second and final of our specially curated playlists to celebrate the Spices’ 20th anniversary, I bring you my five personal highlights of the girls’ individual efforts…

1. EMMA BUNTON – “Maybe”

(2003, from the album ‘Free Me’, 19 Recordings, Highest UK chart position: #6)

When the Spice Girls initially parted company the first time round in 2001, and the press began their harried talk of who was ‘going to do a Robbie’, it’s fair to say Emma’s name barely came up in passing. Baby just didn’t seem like a viable solo star, even with a chart topping debut that year in “What Took You So Long?” and a gold selling album with “A Girl Like Me”.

What a shock everyone got then, just two years later, as Emma readied the release of her second solo album, “Free Me”. The record in itself is a 60’s styled Motown and bossa nova influenced affair, all clever, lush production and aesthetics, but it’s second single “Maybe” was the real standout. Highly influenced by musicals like “Chicago” and “Sweet Charity” (even the video is an homage to the famous Bob Fosse choreographed scene in the latter) with an ultra catchy chorus, it’s the one solo Spice track that I use to convert the disbelievers.

2. MELANIE C – “Never Be the Same Again” (with Lisa ‘Left Eye’ Lopes)

(1999, from the album ‘Northern Star’, Virgin, Highest UK chart position: #1)

It’s fair to say that the one they called Sporty has always been seen as ‘Serious Spice’ when it comes to her music – her first venturing away from the girls was as guest vocalist on Bryan Adams’ worldwide smash “When You’re Gone” in November 1998. Melanie’s debut album that followed just under a year later, showcasing a rougher, tougher punk girl look (see uber-shouty first single “Goin’ Down”) was even more of a shock (and one partially met with derision to begin with).

But for those who invested in the album, produced with the likes of Rick Rubin and William Orbit, they were in for a surprise, as the rocker in Mel wasn’t the only side of her as a singer and performer that was showcased – as demonstrated by this album’s chart topping third single. A sweetly ambient, electronic R&B styled ballad with TLC’s late lead rapper Lisa ‘Left Eye’ Lopes, “Never Be the Same Again” was a cool and contemporary cut that was still getting consistent radio play even in the years after it’s release.

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3. GERI HALLIWELL – “Look at Me”

(1999, from the album ‘Schizophonic’, EMI, Highest UK chart position: #2)

When Geri walked away from Spiceworld in the summer of ’98, an unusual but perhaps expected silence descended from the quarters of the girl who flirted with royalty and stomped down the stage in a skimpy Union Jack dress at the 1997 BRIT awards. Geri being Geri though, wasn’t silent for long – she did after all, in her parting speech, said “I’ll be back”. Everyone was looking to her as the spirit of the Spice Girls, even as the remaining four continued on with their success.

‘Look at Me’, her first solo single, was a bold statement of intent, announcing her arrival in a brassy big beat number that Dame Shirley Bassey would have been proud of. Shame then, that it succumbed to an even mightier force than girl power on release – namely, Louis Walsh scheduling Boyzone’s latest single for release the same week, which pipped it to the top – and whilst Geri would eventually score four UK chart toppers on her own, none or indeed much else of her solo venturings come close to the impact of this musically.

4. VICTORIA BECKHAM – “Not Such an Innocent Girl”

(2001, from the album ‘Victoria Beckham’, Virgin, Highest UK chart position: #6)

It’s hard to imagine, looking at her now with a successful fashion and business empire, that Victoria Beckham even attempted solo material away from the rest of the other girls, more so as she seems to dismiss that period of her life ever existing now. But in the early 00’s, that’s precisely what she did – albeit to a fair amount of overly harsh criticism, such was her ubiquity as one half of Britain’s best loved power couple.

Whilst on paper she may seem like the least successful – she was the only one of the girls who didn’t score a solo chart topper – those with an open ear would be surprised by what she put out. ‘Not Such an Innocent Girl’, complete with a visually eye grabbing, futuristic video with her playing Good and Bad alter egos of herself, was a polished and preened offering of early 00’s pop, the sort of thing early Britney Spears would have turned out on a lunch break. Not ground breaking, true, but not the unlistenable horror the press made Posh out to be.

5. MEL B – “I Want You Back” (feat. Missy Elliott)

(1998, from the album “Why Do Fools Fall in Love? – Original Soundtrack, Virgin, Highest UK chart position: #1)

Ginger may have been the first to up sticks from the Spice rack, but it was Scary who gave us the first ever solo Spice single all the way back in September 1998. Recorded in New York whilst the remaining quartet had a day off from the American leg of the Spiceworld Tour, Mel B released this very hip R&B styled cut with female rap superstar Missy Elliott for the soundtrack of a Frankie Lymon biopic, and scored a UK chart topper straight off the bat.

With hindsight though, this was about as good as she ever got solo wise. She was never going to make a convincing, bonafide R&B singer – her debut album “Hot”, released two years later, had all the right people for such a record at that time – Darkchild, Sisqo, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis amongst others – but none of the punch or pizzazz to get either that crowd or her existing Spice fans excited.

A #CrazyStupidPlaylist Special: 20 Years of the Spice Girls (Part 1 – Their Greatest Hits)

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Picture the scene exactly 20 years ago, in July 1996. Pop has never mattered the least in such a long time. Take That have split, and neither Gary Barlow nor Robbie Williams are yet emerging with viable solo prospects. Oasis and Blur, the two heavyweights of Britpop, are the main games in town. And Peter Andre is flashing his giant man chest all over the shop in the video for ‘Mysterious Girl’. Hardly cause for celebration, is it? But behold, what is plastered across the back of that fortnight’s copy of the much loved pop bible, Smash Hits:10509600_790185421022249_302676545059108279_n

And girl power, did well, come at us. And not just at the UK, but the rest of the world too. In the 90s, the Spice Girls became an unstoppable force, as Ginger, Posh, Baby, Sporty and Scary stomped their way to worldwide domination, with number one hits on every continent (including nine in the UK – a record for a girl group), record sales of over 50 million, BRITs and MTV awards, a smash box office movie, sponsorship deals aplenty and America conquered into the bargain too. They achieved more in their short time together than most bands manage in 10 years, with some of the most glorious, unapologetic pop music since ABBA, delivered with a sisterly touch.

Now, as today marks the 20th anniversary of the release of their debut single that started it all, and with ‘Spiceworld: The Exhibition’ curated by fan and Guinness World Record holding artist Liz West on my agenda to visit this month at Watford Coliseum, today I begin a two part look back at their incredible legacy on pop with two specially curated Spotify playlists from myself, as we celebrate the music of five normal, loud and in-yer-face girls who taught the world how to zig-a-zig-aah…

1. ‘WANNABE’
(1996, from the album ‘Spice’, Highest UK chart position: #1)

Well, I couldn’t not start this playlist without it, could I? Not before or since (with the possible exception of Girls Aloud’s “Sound of the Underground”) has there been a more arresting, manifesto setting debut single from a girl group. Written by the girls in half an hour with Richard Stannard and Matt Rowe, who would go onto write and produce this and many of their biggest hits, when they signed with Virgin Records in late 1995, they were absolutely adamant it had to be their first single. Executives weren’t convinced, but took the gamble nonetheless, and complete with a madcap, unscripted video, seeing them gatecrash a bohemian party at St Pancra’s Grand Hotel in London, the world instantly wanted to be their lover and get with their friends.

2. ‘SAY YOU’LL BE THERE’
(1996, from the album ‘Spice’, Highest UK chart position: #1)

Even for all its worldwide chart trajectories, sales and ubiquity, ‘Wannabe’ was one of those records that could very easily have been a one hit wonder in a year, and indeed decade, full of them – ‘Macarena’, anyone? Exactly – but ‘Say You’ll Be There’ proved that the lightning bolt struck twice. A cool but cute R&B styled pop gem, coupled with a visually impressive video set in the Mojave desert with the girls re-imagined as space vixen B-movie characters a la ‘Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!’, it too flew to number one upon release in October 1996 and established the Spices as bonafide pop giants.

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3. ‘2 BECOME 1’

(1996, from the album ‘Spice’, Highest UK chart position: #1)

If there’s one type of single that the Spice Girls were always surprisingly really good at, it was their slower numbers, and this, their first of three consecutive Christmas chart toppers, was the finest example in their canon. Crisp, heart warming production and stunning vocal turns from all the girls – but in particular Emma Bunton, who shines the brightest of all in her pre-chorus verses on this single – even now when December rolls around, it doesn’t feel like December until we’ve heard the girls seductively crooning ‘Wanna make love to ya baby’…

4. ‘STOP’

(1998, from the album ‘Spiceworld’, Highest UK chart position: #2)

I remember clearly two days in 1998 – one of which we’ll get onto in a second, but this being the other. Namely, the Sunday when Mark Goodier was running down the new top 40 on BBC Radio 1, and the shock amongst all that the Spices had, for the first time in seven single releases, failed to make the UK number one spot (the record that did beat them, a hard hitting dance rework of Run DMC’s “It’s Like That” by top DJ Jason Nevins, went onto spend 6 weeks at the top and sell over a million copies). Shame then, that this misfortune happened to easily one of their best singles for me. Complete with an iconic hand jive dance routine mimicked at school discos for the rest of the years following, “Stop” was an endearing and catchy pastiche of Motown flavoured pop, right down to the Supremes inspired ad libs on the second verse.

5. ‘VIVA FOREVER’

(1998, from the album ‘Spiceworld’, Highest UK chart position: #1)

So the other memorable day from 1998? Ah yes, that would be 31st May, when, following a no-show appearance at the Helsinki date of their world tour and the BBC National Lottery show, Geri Halliwell had announced that she was packing up Ginger’s platform shoes and walking away from the group that made her a household name. What followed with almost impeccable timing, as the remaining four girls continued their world tour around the arenas and stadiums of America over the summer of that year, was a genuinely moving and heartbreaking, almost “Bright Eyes” esque ode to a fleeting Mediterranean romance, and indeed, to a Ginger snapping away from the Spice.

#CrazyStupidPlaylist: Coldplay

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Last weekend, winners of last year’s Band of the Year in my End of Year prizes, the mighty Coldplay closed the Pyramid stage at Glastonbury with a showstopping setlist of their greatest hits and tracks from their recent studio album “A Head Full of Dreams” – as well as a cameo appearance from Barry Gibb of the Bee Gees, no less. I’ve been a fan of theirs since their debut album and it naturally left me to ponder what I considered to be their finest moments in a career that has established them as one of the leading players in big, epic stadium filling rock music. With this in mind, I bring to you my specially curated playlist of five of their key tracks for investigation…

1. ‘DON’T PANIC’

(From the album ‘Parachutes’, 2000)

As previous blogs have touched upon, I was an oddly schizophrenic music listener growing up. I suppose growing up in a household where you’re exposed to lots of different styles of music that’s almost inevitable. But I can clearly remember the summer of 2000, when, still in the throes of stealing my eldest sister’s cassette copy of Scot indie rockers Travis’ million selling second album “The Man Who”, she had just bought Coldplay’s debut album “Parachutes” which I then spent the whole next two years stealing off her in secret. Clocking in at just over two minutes, this is the opening track on it and it’s so simple and understated in its production, not to mention Chris Martin’s positive hook line of “We live in a beautiful world” resonating throughout.

2. ‘THE SCIENTIST’

(From the album ‘A Rush of Blood to the Head’, 2002)

Jumping forward two years, and still spinning the copy of “Parachutes” that my eldest sister had by now bequeathed to me out of frustration of it being perpetually stolen off her, the band released their all important second album just as I turned 13 (I got it for my birthday that year). Shifting a quarter of a million copies in its first week alone, “A Rush of Blood to the Head” set the groundwork for their sound to come on the albums that followed it, but its highlight was by far the second single, a moving contemporary piano ballad that again is so simple in its production, but the sentiment and feeling behind it brings out the depth and the complexity in its sound and its message of finding hope in a relationship gone wrong – ‘Nobody said it was easy, no one ever said it would be so hard / I’ll take it back to the start’.

3. ‘VIVA LA VIDA’

(From the album ‘Viva la Vida or Death and all his Friends’, 2008)

Unbelievably – although maybe not so considering they were and always have largely been an albums act – it took eight whole years for the band to score their first UK number one single, which they duly did with the title track of their fourth studio album. By now their epic, stadium filling sound was well established enough that they had found their groove, so to speak, and on this single it’s at its most grand, a lively, almost tribal march with a swelling of bells and string sections that marry so beautifully to the lyrics ‘I hear Jerusalem bells a ringing, Roman cavalry choirs are singing’. Just lush from start to end.

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4. ‘PRINCESS OF CHINA’ (feat. Rihanna)

(From the album ‘Mylo Xyloto’, 2011)

The band, and in particular Chris Martin’s singing and songwriting talents have resulted in an eclectic collection of famous fans, and subsequently some showstopping collaborations over the years, for artists as diverse as Jamelia and Embrace (he co-wrote both of their 2004 chart hits “See it in a Boy’s Eyes” and “Gravity” respectively). Their fifth album in 2011 saw them collaborate with then woman of the moment Rihanna on a stunning electro styled effort that worked surprisingly well – it’s a trick they’ve since repeated again to equally great success on their current album, as ‘Hymn for the Weekend’ saw them team up with BeyoncĂ©.

5. ‘ADVENTURE OF A LIFETIME’

(From the album ‘A Head Full of Dreams’, 2015)

Which now brings us to the present day, and to the lead single from their current album. ‘Adventure of a Lifetime’ is a song which represents fully the essence and ethos of Coldplay as a band, 16 years on from their debut. So much of what drew me in from the first 10 seconds of ‘Don’t Panic’ aged 12 drew me in from the second I heard this song, that same simplicity in the feeling and message of the song, whilst musically still remaining very current and very forward thinking. It’s this approach which has kept them in stadiums and the top rankings of album charts the world over for nearly two decades and as long as this continues, the world’s music stage will continue to be theirs for the taking.