Welcome to Day 7 of our pop culture advent calendar. Every day we’re handing out a little treat in the shape of an award or recognition of something big or small in pop which has made 2012 a better place for all of us . Yesterday it was beards. Today we’re talking Missing In Action pop bands. There’s a little bit of an introduction here.
Given that we were genetically bred to be a positive, upbeat blog, we have tried hard not to harp on about what a dreadful year 2012 has been for pop music. Yes, Lana Del Rey began the year in style with her utterly intoxicating “Born To Die” single and only slightly less intoxicating album, but there has been precious little to celebrate since, with the exception of the gratifying rise of Frank Ocean. For the most part, the charts have been a dispiriting wasteland of generically grinding autopop, all production pomp and no melodic circumstance.
But instead of focusing our anger on those who have made 2012 so difficult to listen to, we choose instead to mourn those bands who have been absent and could have saved us from our misery. Please note – this is not about bands reforming, which we did a couple of days back, but bands or singers who are still theoretically “active” but simply not releasing any new music.
A few years ago this award would automatically have been named the Kate Bush award in “honour” of her long and frustrating leave of absence from the pop scene. But since 2011 – when Bush practically became Rihanna in her spewing out of new material – this award must be named after The Sundays, one of the UK’s loveliest and now longest absent of all bands.
Now isn’t the time for a full history lesson on The Sundays, though we will be returning to them one day in the future, quite possibly demanding a full public enquiry into their absence (well, if there’s one thing our Conservative Government seem generous with, its public enquiries). For now, what you need to know is that they released three albums in the 1990s, one of them being one of the ten perfect albums ever made, “Reading, Writing and Arithmetic”. They also wrote one of the ten greatest songs of all time, “Goodbye”, and were rather successful in an understated sort of way, even winning riches and fame in America, largely thanks to a sublime cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses” (this remains the greatest version of this song in existence). And then their architects – singer Harriet Wheeler and guitarist David Gavurin – decided to concentrate on raising a family. Their last album was released 15 years ago.
We could break down right now weeping at all the beautiful music that the band could have made during that time. We could rage against their hard-hearted selfishness in choosing those brat children over us. But instead let’s focus on a rather more recent pop act who have also been quiet and who we need back in our lives right NOW. That’s right, we’re talking about…
We know that Goldfrapp are still active and working on a sixth album, thanks to a stream of brilliantly mad tweets from their wondrous singer Alison Goldfrapp – please see below, for an image of Ms G drinking a cup of tea underwater. However, the only new material that they’ve unleashed upon a desperate world was a couple of extra tracks included in their singles collection in February.
What this singles collection proved beyond any doubt was how much we need Goldfrapp.
Emerging from trip-hop’s ashes, the duo’s debut Felt Mountain dealt in moody, manicured atmospherics, purpose-built for adverts and dinner parties. Then came their dramatic, wildly successful volte-face into Black Cherry’s sleazy, scuzzy electro. Just as they seemed to have settled down as dancefloor dominators with Supernature they mutated again, into the semi-acoustic, mumbling melancholy of Seventh Tree. Their singles retrospective finally offered a chance to assess their wayward career as a whole. It made one thing absolutely clear: whatever else they were up to, Goldfrapp have always delivered astonishing pop singles.
From the moment the swaggering Ooh La La begins its slow-building throb from the speakers until the moment the hushed, stunned Black Cherry staggers to its tear-stained denouement, Singles offers a master-class in how to write pop songs as alluring and adventurous in their sonic texture as they are addictive melodically. Alison Goldfrapp’s greatest achievement hasn’t been her power and range, which she has often concealed, but her willingness to surrender her voice to the needs of the songs she and Will Gregory so lovingly assembled. She’s the anti-Aguilera, enemy of X Factor showboaters everywhere.
On one of their biggest hits, the stately synth prowl of Number 1, Goldfrapp barely breaks a vocal sweat, restraining herself to a seductive, low-key purr throughout. It’s only in the dying seconds of Utopia, a song that is somehow both sinister and almost unbearably beautiful, that she finally unleashes an operatic wail so electrifying it paralyses the listener. Elsewhere, on the ravishing fusion of Moroder disco, glam strut and snarling electronica that is Strict Machine, Goldfrapp is all gasps, gulps and sexual ecstasy, while on Rocket she goes for the pop jugular, slamming home the monster “wo-oh-oh” chorus with glorious nonchalance.
It’s perhaps inevitable that a singles collection smoothes out the awkward edges and perversity that made Goldfrapp vastly more intriguing than their rivals, and which have profoundly influenced our best new pop stars, from Lady Gaga to Robyn. Only the buzz-saw synths that carry the lurching Train along and the shredding electronic howls that shatter Lovely Head’s narcotic sleepiness remind us of how deliciously odd they could be.
Fourteen songs that veer between the perfect and the merely outstanding, The Singles was proof that Goldfrapp have been the most versatile and most consistently, glitteringly brilliant pop band of our new millennium. And we need them back – now.
(Note: some of the above is borrowed from a BBC review of the Goldfrapp singles collection by one half of Pop Lifer, to be found in full here).