On Pop

Strange brew

The joy of letting unexpected, accidental music in

This article is taken from the December/January 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

I’m slightly dreading Spotify doing its annual round up of what I’ve been listening to this year. I’ve had quite an odd one for music: because I’ve been writing a book about the noughties, my choices have been — well, “niche” covers some of it, and a lot of the rest comes under the heading “problematic”. 

There was the week I spent listening to “Sacred Trust” on repeat while I was working on a chapter about reality TV. That pretty much guarantees I’ll be 2021’s top listener for Popstars losers One True Voice, last heard of in 2003 when they split acrimoniously after releasing two singles. (I know of someone who was identified as a top listener for a grime artist, summoned to a hotel by his PR and invited to a luxury pool party, so I keep being disturbed by vague fears of having to excuse myself from a OTV fan get together at a municipal pond.)

Listening to R Kelly in 2021 felt squeamish and grim

More shamefully, there was the R Kelly interlude, which happened while the RnB star was being tried on (and convicted of) sexual offences involving underage girls this year. Throughout the noughties, Kelly’s abuses were an open secret — a subject for scandalised laughter, while he continued to collaborate with music’s best, brightest and ostensibly most feminist. (Lady Gaga released a song with him in 2012, four years after he had been tried on child pornography charges and found not guilty when the alleged victim refused to testify.)

I listened to a whole bunch of R Kelly while I was following that case and thinking about his protegee slash child bride, the singer Aaliyah (who died in 2001). There was a time when that would not exactly have been a chore — I rounded off plenty of early noughties nights out grinding away to “Ignition (Remix)”, pretending I didn’t know things I pretty incontrovertibly knew by then. In 2021, it felt squeamish and grim, voluntarily listening to a groomer do his grooming in plain sight. 

This, before anyone gets too overwhelmed with pity for me, is all my own fault. I love pop music. It’s the first thing I ever imagined myself writing about — and now I get to do that, it means I have to spend my time listening to all the stuff I hate. Which is fine, but leaves me in something of a hole when it comes to identifying the music I’ve actually enjoyed. 

My favourite song of 2021 is, well, kind of lame

Sifting through 2021’s releases, it turns out my favourite song is part of a strange, arch project by singer songwriter Angel Olsen. Olsen’s previous records — which I’ve frequently adored — have all had the mesmerising delicacy of someone sharing something intensely, painfully personal. “I lost my dream, I lost my reason all again,” she keens on the devastating “Unfucktheworld” from the 2014 album Burn Your Fire for No Witness. As the song ends, she repeats, “I am the only one now,” like the loneliest person in the world. 

This year, though, she released a collection of songs that firstly were not written by her, and secondly pretty much defied you to take them seriously at first look. Aisles is an EP of covers of “eighties songs that I’d overheard walking the aisles at the grocery store”, she explained in a press release (hence the title). There’s “Eyes Without a Face” by Billy Idol, “Safety Dance” by Men in Hats, “If You Leave” by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. These are not intense songs. These are not cool songs. These songs are, well, kind of lame. 

And the lamest of them all is “Gloria”, a 1982 disco hit for Laura Branigan. In Branigan’s version, it’s an unmodulated bray addressed to a mystery woman whose “innocence [is] slipping away”. Olsen slows it right down and turns it dreamy and haunted. It doesn’t sound like the original, but it does sound very eighties — like something Julee Cruise might have made in her collaborations with David Lynch and Angelo Badalamenti, Olsen’s aching vocals drifting gorgeously over the lazy drums and layered synths. 

My scepticism about Aisles when I first heard about it was that this would be someone playing music they didn’t really like, a grisly slathering of irony on top of something I was never going to enjoy anyway. But the point is that Olsen loves these songs, and she sings them without even a shadow of a smirk, so I love them too. The supermarket concept, which threatened to be a contrivance, turned out to be a lovely tribute to the happenstance by which music enters our lives. 

While the music I’ve sought out is increasingly stuff I wish I didn’t have to hear, the music I’ve found by chance and fallen for has the added grace of being a joyful accident. Songs half caught on the radio and sought out with nothing but a memory of some nagging hook; songs that were meant to be blared out across Ibiza dancefloors, but that I heard in a provincial leisure centre as the wave machine crashed down on me.

Music comes with so much baggage, and the more you know, the more baggage there is. Accidental music sidesteps that problem: it just arrives in your ears when you’re doing something else, so you never get the chance to ask if you should like it before you find out that you do like it. I still have to listen to the bad stuff, but Aisles is a reminder to slip my headphones off and let the unexpected in too.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover