Sunday, January 27, 2008

X-Axis comments thread - 27 January 2008

It's one of those happy coincidences where I'm very busy, and there's very little of interest on the shelves. So just the two books this week - Astonishing X-Men, concluding its 24-issue run (technically), and X-Men, with the final part of "Messiah Complex."

Royal Rumble 2008

After a break of a month, it's time for the first PPV of the year. This is the 21st Royal Rumble show, hence the rather corny late-1980s name. It's one of the major shows of the year, partly through venerable history, and partly because the winner of the titular battle royal gets a world title match at Wrestlemania. So basically, this is the point where somebody breaks from the pack to become the Heroic Challenger, and begins a three-month build for the main show of the year.

It's also the first PPV in HD, at least if you're an American. All of the WWE programming shifted to HD this week, complete with a shiny new set. However, Sky is still running everything in standard definition, because the WWE airs on Sky Sports 3, and that channel isn't available in HD. We'll have to see how long that lasts.

Actually, it doesn't make much of a difference to me, because I don't own an HD TV. At the moment, the technology is in a rather awkward phase over here, where the picture quality is wonderful, but there's not much being transmitted in HD. There's the film and sport channels, but I hardly ever watch those, and I can't justify getting HD just to watch the occasional show on Sky Arts.

Although they've been singing HD's praises publicly, the WWE are privately rather ambivalent about the technology. They certainly accept it as the way things are going. But professional wrestling is the art of not hurting your opponent, as convincingly as possible. It's designed to be viewed from halfway back in the stalls - preferably through a smoky haze by somebody who left their glasses at home. It's not entirely TV-friendly to start with.

High definition pictures only make it easier to see lack of contact - not to mention other embarrassing features such as mysterious forehead scarring. Apparently, there's also an increase in sound quality which makes it easier for the audience to overhear wresters improvising by "calling spots" in the ring.

The upshot is that the wrestler on HD television will spent a lot more time being legitimately punched in the face in the name of verisimilitude, while the director is careful to switch camera angles at crucial moments to disguise any moves that might not look convincing. (Hey, if it looked good after all, they can always run a replay.)

But on to the card. Since the Royal Rumble itself is an hour long, and takes up at least a third of the show, the card is on the short side.

1. The 2008 Royal Rumble. For those of you who don't follow wrestling: the Royal Rumble is a 30-man battle royal. Notionally, everyone "draws a number at random" before the show. Wrestlers #1 and #2 start the match, and everyone else enters in sequence in two minute intervals. Elimination occurs if you're thrown over the top rope and BOTH feet touch the floor (because if one foot counted, it would be terribly risky to tease eliminations). Last remaining wrestler is the winner and gets a shot at the world title - or, in these multi-brand days, a shot at whichever world title he chooses - in the main event of Wrestlemania.

The match is, of course, logically ridiculous, because it blatantly favours the wrestlers who enter later, and theoretically ought to result in some bozo headlining the main show of the year because he drew number 30. In practice, naturally, this never happens.

The Royal Rumble more or less sells itself, and the WWE have been quite relaxed about attaching storylines to it this year. The philosophy for 2008 seems to be that this is the start of the story, not the end, and therefore they only need to remind us that the match is happening and that it's always cool. And it usually is.

They've been running "qualifying matches" on live shows for the last few weeks, in an attempt to make the live crowds think they're seeing something meaningful. Naturally, this is a bit of a swizz, and they've been repeating the same qualifying matches on multiple shows. Nonetheless, as things stand, 25 participants have been announced, leaving five slots for surprise guests. One of those is probably the Big Show, who has decided to return to wrestling after all.

Of the 25 announced wrestlers, the most plausible option from Raw is Triple H, who's been floating around as a main eventer for months with nothing much to do. Shawn Michaels is an outside possibility. From Smackdown, Batista or the Undertaker would make sense. The main storyline on that show is Edge scheming to stop them getting a shot at his world title. From ECW, CM Punk was entered into the match last night, but I can't imagine him actually winning.

It's a silly match, but it's always fun. I'm looking forward to it.

2. WWE Championship: Randy Orton v. Jeff Hardy. Well, this is a surprise. Lifetime midcarder Jeff Hardy won this title shot on the last PPV by defeating Triple H in an upset, which got a rather underwhelming reaction from the live crowd. However, over the last few weeks, the audiences on Raw have really got behind Jeff, to the point where it's conceivable he could actually win. Reportedly, some people internally have been lobbying for a title change.

That said, the Royal Rumble is always a weird show, because you want the top guys in the battle royal. Jeff Hardy is a stopgap challenger, and he's getting a shot tonight so that the big names will be free for the big match. That's the reality. Stranger things have happened, but I think Orton's retaining (probably on a DQ screwjob), with Hardy being set up as a credible main eventer for the future. The match will probably be very good.

3. World Heavyweight Championship: Edge v. Rey Mysterio. Similar considerations apply here. The big story is that Edge is trying to get out defending his title against Batista or the Undertaker. But he's clearly got to defend against somebody, so here comes Rey Mysterio, the number three babyface on Smackdown. There's no way Mysterio is winning. His job is to keep Edge occupied while Batista or Undertaker pursues their chase for the title. Edge has only just been inserted into a stable alongside Chavo Guerrero, Zach Ryder, Curt Hawkins and Vickie Guerrero, the idea being that they collectively control the Smackdown and ECW titles (which Chavo won on Tuesday). That would be out the window if they had a title change now.

It'll be a straightforward match in which Edge defeats Rey through devious trickery. And it'll probably be a great match, so I'm fine with that.

4. ECW Championsh... oh, hold on, this isn't on the card. Chavo Guerrero won the belt from CM Punk on the weekly TV show on Tuesday, but they're not doing the rematch. How weird. Chavo isn't scheduled to be on the show at all, although I expect he'll show up at ringside in Edge's match.

Chavo Guerrero as ECW Champion is, er, an odd choice. He's got a lot going for him as a technical wrestler, but he's never struck me as having the charisma for a main event spot. Still, if they're acknowledging the reality that the ECW World Title is a D-list championship, there's nothing wrong with putting it on Chavo, I suppose. The long-term future of ECW is a little bit up in the air, because it's only got a TV contract from year to year, and nobody really knows why it's on the Sci-Fi Channel in the first place.

4. Ric Flair v MVP. MVP is the United States Champion, but his title apparently isn't on the line here. Instead, this is the latest instalment in a wonky storyline where the idea is that veteran wrestler Ric Flair must retire the next time he loses a one-on-one match... for no adequately explained reason. It isn't really working, and the haywire selection of opponents suggests nobody's given proper thought to the build.

In fact, the WWE do know where this is heading. Flair is planning to retire, for real, at Wrestlemania in the spring. I think a large part of the problem is that audiences either know he's retiring at Wrestlemania, and therefore don't take these matches terribly seriously, or they don't know, in whch case they don't believe that he's retiring at all. Either way, this needs a rethink.

MVP is one of the most promising younger guys on the roster, and Flair (despite his advanced years) still knows how to put a match together. I'm sure this will be fine. Flair will win.

5. Chris Jericho v JBL. Last month, Jericho was about to beat Randy Orton for the WWE Title when JBL cost him the match. This turns out to be the set-up for JBL's return to the ring, after months as a commentator on Smackdown (where he was often the most entertaining thing on the show). However, this feud is a weird piece of booking. Jericho has yet to convincingly beat anyone of importance since he returned to wrestling late last year. He really should be winning convincingly tonight. Except he's facing JBL, who is also in the position of needing a big win with his return to the ring.

The feud hasn't really taken off, and I suspect a clumsy fudge in the finish in an attempt to protect both characters. The wrestling itself will be good, but the writers have done it no favours. JBL has been sufficiently dominant in the lead-in that I suspect Jericho gets the win, and then gets destroyed after the bell. Or something like that.

Worth buying? Actually, yes. This looks like a solid show from top to bottom. The worst thing on the card is Jericho/JBL, which should still be comfortably above average in terms of the in-ring work. They'll probably chuck in something else at the last moment to fill out the card - most likely another defence of the Women's Title - but it's hard to imagine this show disappointing.

Monday, January 21, 2008

X-Axis comments thread - 20 January 2008

This week: New Exiles launches a series not a million miles different from the last one; New X-Men stutters to a halt; and '76 gives us two different stories set in the mid-seventies.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Number 1s of 2007: December


"What a Wonderful World" by Eva Cassidy and Katie Melua (16 to 23 December, one week). This is an oddity. It's a charity single for the Red Cross, released exclusively through Tesco, who pushed it quite hard. But not for that long, which is why it dropped out of the Top 75 entirely after only four weeks. Presumably it also picked up a lot of impulse buys from Tesco customers who don't normally go anywhere near the singles chart. By any standards, it's a weird anomaly; even as a charity record, we don't get many MOR cover versions at number one.

The record is one of those awkward posthumous duets, where a dead singer's vocals are recycled. Eva Cassidy died of cancer in 1996 after releasing three albums that the general public largely missed. She became posthumously famous in the UK when Radio 2 picked up on her, and a compilation album did rather good business a few years ago. However, although a couple of singles have been released before, she's never made the Top 40.

Katie Melua is originally from Georgia - the ex-Soviet one, not the American one - but moved to Britain as a child. "Katie" is an anglicisation of "Ketevan." She's been a very successful albums artist around Europe, under the management of Mike Batt, of all people. Batt, you might remember, was responsible for the Wombles and Vanessa-Mae. Personally, she's not really my thing, but she's one of the better MOR acts. Her previous biggest hit was "Nine Million Bicycles", which got to number 5 in 2005.

It is what it is. And it was never going to spend more than a week at number one, because next up, we have the X-Factor 2007 winner...

What is it about X-Factor winners that makes YouTube carry all their videos in the wrong aspect ratio? Believe me, I've searched, and nobody seems to have thought of taking a correct version from the TV...

Anyway. "When You Believe" by Leon Jackson (23 December 2007 to 13 January 2008, 4 weeks). As is traditional, it's a sappy ballad about triumph over adversity. This one was originally recorded by Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey for the "Prince of Egypt" soundtrack ten years ago, and it wasn't much better when they did it. It got to number 4 in Britain.

It's boringly obvious to point out the irony in a show called "The X-Factor" being won by this guy. What seems to have happened is that viewers with any interest in personality whatsoever banded behind the only two acts with genuine charisma (of any sort). So by the time we reached the final, Leon was left as the sole representative of the crushingly tedious, against two acts who were a little more divisive. If you didn't like Leon, your options were...

...Rhydian, an astoundingly camp baritone who was clearly the best singer but probably belonged in the musicals, or...

...Same Difference, the disturbingly wholesome and enthusiastic brother/sister duo who are doubtless on their way to a long and happy career on Disney cruise ships.

Given the history of dodgy phone lines this year, there was some controversy about the final vote, partly because some people were reporting engaged tones, and partly because a lot of people honestly couldn't believe that Leon actually won. According to ITV, the engaged tones are deceptive: it's not a case of each contestant having separate lines. All the numbers go through to the same lines, and the specific number that you dialled merely determines which vote is registered. So, if one number is engaged, so are all the others. According to ITV, anyway. Didn't stop people complaining.

The X-Factor has had a pretty good track record in the last couple of years, with Leona Lewis (doing quite well) and Shayne Ward from 2005 (still around). I honestly can't see Leon Jackson keeping up the streak. He looks to me like another Steve Brookstein, who won the first series in 2004 and was back on the pub circuit by the end of 2005; or Michelle McManus, the winner of Pop Idol 2003, who only lasted a single album before being dropped. But we'll see.

US number ones in December: "No One" by Alicia Keys, for the entire month. It got to number six over here.

And that concludes 2007. What have we learned from this exercise? Um... probably not a great deal, to be honest. Oh well.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Number 1s of 2007: September to November

Three months, and only three number ones between them...

Sean Kingston's "Beautiful Girls" (2 to 30 September, 4 weeks) appears to come from a record label who are peculiarly obsessed with purging embeddable copies from YouTube, so you'll have to settle for the link.

This is one from the "issues with women" file, isn't it? Mind you, there's a lot of love songs out there which would be downright creepy if you took them literally. ("I can't live if living is without you" is not romantic. Really, it's not.) Apparently there's a radio edit which replaces "suicidal" with "in denial", but I don't recall ever hearing it in Britain. We're robust over here. Or maybe it's just that by the time you've heard it for the hundredth time, suicide seems like quite an appealing prospect.

Oh, alright, it's not that bad. It's a bland, vaguely reggae-ish song, sampling Ben E King, and I'll grant that it's got something. But to be honest, I just find it a little bit creepy. Four weeks at number one? Really? I must have been asleep that month.

The follow-up, "Me Love", only made number 32, so he's probably a one-hit wonder.

"About You Now" by the Sugababes (30 September to 28 October, four weeks). Proud possessors of the worst band name in pop, and ploughing through members so that only one founding member (Keisha Buchanan) remains, the Sugababes are still a surprisingly consistent girl group. We've heard from them already this year, teaming up with Girls Aloud for a dreadful cover version of "Walk This Way." But that was a charity single, and this is business as usual.

This is the second time that the Sugababes have led off a new album with a single that initially struck me as a little bit sedate, but slowly worked its way into my head. The other one was "Push The Button", which eventually won me round completely.

I'm coming round to "About You Now" as well. In fact, it's still outselling the follow-up single now, which is the sort of embarrassing situation that record companies used to avoid by deleting old singles. But they can't do that any more, short of deleting the album as well.

The Sugababes have been through so many line-up changes now that they barely qualify as a band any more. They're more of a contractual entity that has songs assigned to them. But whoever's choosing the songs is doing a pretty good job of it, so who cares that the band might as well be three session singers by this point?

Oh, yes - "About You Now" technically holds the record for the biggest climb to number one. That's because they released the remix version (which counts as the same single for chart purposes) a week earlier, and virtually nobody bought it, resulting in a jump from 34 to 1 the next week. Isn't that exciting?

According to Wikipedia, the Sugababes have never had a hit in America, which is hardly surprising given that they do a sort of chart-friendly electropop that Americans have never shown much interest in since the 1980s. It's perhaps worth mentioning, then, that like many other acts in a similar vein they're actually very successful around Europe and Asia. But the genre doesn't seem to do anything for the North Americans.

"Bleeding Love" by Leona Lewis (28 October to 16 December, 7 weeks). YouTube seems to have this video in a whole range of versions, all of them in the wrong aspect ratio. Oh well.

Leona Lewis, you might remember, was the winner of X-Factor 2006. We started off the year with her version of "A Moment Like This." Now, reality show winners fall into two categories: the ones who might actually have a career, and the ones who should be exploited for all they're worth before people forget about them. Since Leona Lewis can actually sing, her management took the wise decision to remove her from circulation for months and make a proper album, instead of going for the rush release.

So, ten months after winning the show, this was her second single - timed to coincide with the start of X-Factor 2007. It's got the melodramatic balladry for the X-Factor fans, but it's also making a passably successful bid for credibility. It's co-written by Ryan Tedder from OneRepublic. And it's actually quite a good song, which, combined with the TV promotion, made it number one for the better part of two months and the biggest-selling single of the year.

Rihanna had a significantly longer run at the top, but the initial sales for "Bleeding Love" were astronomical. The charts also suggest that a lot of people visited download sites for the first time just to buy her single. In a telltale sign of newbies aplenty, the B-side "Forgiveness" charted in its own right at number 46. That can only happen if lots of people were buying the B-side separately, presumably because they didn't realise they could click a single button to download the whole single at a discount.

"Bleeding Love" was a number one hit around Europe, so evidently she doesn't need the TV show to have a career. Simon Cowell quite obviously hopes he's found another Kelly Clarkson here, and you never know, he might be right.

Meanwhile, in America: "Big Girls Don't Cry" by Fergie (number 2 in Britain, and godawful); "Crank That" by Soulja Boy for seven weeks total (number 2 in Britain); "Stronger" by Kanye West" (we've already had it in a previous post); and "Kiss Kiss" by Chris Brown featuring T-Pain (bombed out at number 38, showing once again that second-tier hip-hop doesn't travel very well).

Sunday, January 13, 2008

X-Axis comments thread - 13 January 2008

This week, Wolverine completes the "Logan Dies" arc; "Brand New Day" begins in Amazing Spider-Man; Jeph Loeb and Ed McGuinness relaunch Hulk; and believe it or not, Youngblood is back yet again.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Number 1s of 2007: July and August

"The Way I Are" by Timbaland featuring Keri Hilson, D.O.E. and Sebastian. (29 July to 12 August, two weeks.) We've already had Timbaland back in April, so I can take this one quickly. On paper, it ought to be hideously irritating. It's got a silly title, and it's got a superfluous verse about shoehorning a fat woman into a camper van. And rich people singing songs about poverty are usually desperately embarrassing. But Timbaland knows what he's doing, and this is somehow pretty good despite it all.

Robyn, "With Every Heartbeat." (12 to 19 August, one week.) This is surely the most unexpected number one hit of the year. It's certainly not a case of fans rushing out to buy it. Robyn is apparently quite successful in her native Sweden, but she hadn't had a UK hit since 1998. Her previous single, "Konichiwa Bitches", was essentially three minutes of gibberish recited over a Game Boy, with a technicolour video. It missed the Top 75 entirely.

Mind you, it did get a bit of airplay, which might explain why people were paying some attention when "With Every Heartbeat" came out. It's got a great hook, and Radio 1 pushed it in a big way, but I'm still a little surprised that somebody with such a moribund UK career suddenly had a number one out of nowhere. (And then quickly returned to obscurity - the follow-up peaked at 17.) If nothing else, the download chart format is very friendly to word-of-mouth hits, since it's mitigated the problems of getting copies onto the shelves.

Kanye West, "Stronger" (August 19 to September 2, two weeks). I'd hoped the "talking over somebody else's record" school of rap had gone out of fashion, but apparently not. The original record, if you don't know, is the latter parts of "Harder Better Faster Stronger" by the French duo Daft Punk, which was a number 21 hit back in 2001.

This is actually an extract from Interstella 5555, a full-length video for the entire album, but the clips for individual songs were used out of context as videos for the singles. They've generally had good taste in quirky videos - Da Funk and Around The World are two of the best known, although for their last album they produced some strange over-saturated mock-80s films such as the repetitive "Robot Rock" and the downright disturbing "Prime Time Of Your Life." (And seriously, don't say I didn't warn you about that one. I'm honestly surprised YouTube didn't come up with an age/content warning for it. Not that I'm recommending it, mind you... personally, I think it's a bit over the top and ends up being more about the shock value than the point it was trying to make. But I digress...)

To be fair, although West has used whacking great chunks of Daft Punk's record, at least he's gone to the trouble of giving it a remix to beef it up a bit. They're a bit samey, Daft Punk, and there's something to be said for the view that they're often at their best when somebody else uses them as a springboard - such as the video directors for Da Funk and Around The World. I saw them live at T In The Park a few years ago. God, they were boring. Never has a band been more in need of a radio edit.

Kanye West's UK sales are a bit inconsistent. I suspect he's in the odd position of being taken seriously because he's a big name in America, while having a relatively modest core audience over here. His back catalogue is a weird mix of big hits and singles that stalled in the mid-table (such as the follow-up, "Good Life", which only got to number 23). "Stronger" is his first UK number one, althoguh it's his sixth top ten hit. I suspect what we've got here is a combination of a better-than-average Kanye West single and people remembering the Daft Punk record.

Meanwhile, in America: "Umbrella" by Rihanna, which we covered in the previous post; "Hey There Delilah" by the Plain White T's (number 2 in the UK); and "Beautiful Girls" by Sean Kingston" (we're coming to it).

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Moving Wallpaper/Echo Beach

It's a rare day when ITV tries something even vaguely unusual for its mainstream drama, so the high-concept tag team of Moving Wallpaper and Echo Beach seemed worth a look, if only for the curiosity value.

Here's the gimmick. Moving Wallpaper is a half-hour sitcom about a crassly commercial producer taking over a show at the last minute, stripping it of its artistic pretensions, and turning it into a commercial soap juggernaut. And immediately following it in the schedules, we get the show they're making: Echo Beach itself.

This isn't a totally original idea. The behind-the-scenes drama is pretty much a subgenre in its own right. But I don't think anyone has previously attempted to actually make the metashow, in full, and broadcast it as a twin show in its own right. It's an unusual idea. It could have worked.

But it doesn't, really. ITV is keen to stress that the programmes stand alone and you don't need to watch both. Bad call. For this to work, they had to be much more intertwined. The result is a show which is neither one thing nor the other.

Moving Wallpaper, for example, wants to be a sitcom about a moron producer dragging a show downmarket. But to follow that through to its logical conclusion, Echo Beach has to be awful, or at least seriously camp. They haven't taken that leap. So MW has to stop short of suggesting that Echo Beach might be, y'know, bad. It's prepared to admit that Jason Donovan and Martine McCutcheon were cast in Echo Beach solely because of their name value - but it also has to suggest that this is some sort of huge coup. At the end of the episode, the trustworthy script editor informs us that Echo Beach is, honestly, a good show despite its troubled production.

As for Echo Beach, it's hard to know quite what to make of it. It's awful. Bits of it are so clunky that you'd think they must be some sort of self-parody. Except they're not funny. They're just... bad soap. I have a sinking feeling that Echo Beach truly thinks it's a good mainstream soap, and that its blatant delusions of being a Cornish O.C. (when it's actually a Cornish Hollyoaks) are completely genuine and unironic. Moving Wallpaper cuts its legs out, by inviting the viewers to watch it as a metafictional stunt - and then leaving us confused when the show is neither good nor funny.

Echo is seemingly oblivious to the metashow concept, and what's the fun in that? Or maybe it does get the joke, but only in the dullest way possible, by writing a show which isn't cleverly bad, but merely bad.

Oh, and Wallpaper also gave away the ending of Echo Beach, despite the fact that Echo was trying to play it as a dramatic moment. Genius.

This doesn't work. They simply haven't committed fully to the concept, and the shows are working against each other. They should be thinking of this as a one-hour show, and playing the whole thing for laughs. What they've produced is a half-formed mess, unfortunately, and a pretty clear demonstration of what's gone wrong with ITV these days. This channel wouldn't know a decent concept if it saw one. They had one here and they didn't even begin to grasp what might make it work.

You can do a show about the making of an okay show - Larry Sanders did it - but not if you're going to present your production team like this. The whole premise of Wallpaper is that Echo Beach is a cynically tailored show aimed at drooling idiots. And then it turns round and expects the audience to take Echo Beach at face value. Are they on crack? I suppose it's always possible that week two will open with the Wallpaper characters sitting around reading the reviews in morose silence after realising that their show is, in fact, unwatchably bad. But I'm not holding my breath.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Number 1s of 2007: May and June

McFly, and their double A-side "Baby's Coming Back"/"Transylvania" (13 to 20 May, one week). "Baby's..." was originally done by Jellyfish in 1991, and the McFly version is a straight cover.

This only spent four weeks on the chart. It's an increasingly rare example of a single that got to number one solely because of a devoted fanbase buying it on the first day. It entered at number one, and the next week it dropped to number twenty - a new record. Needless to say, it's the lowest-selling single on this list.

They're a semi-manufactured boy band (nothing wrong with that, mind you), who emerged to fill the hole left when Busted split in 2004, and I suspect they're probably approaching the end of their natural lifespan as a group. Busted and McFly are both essentially kid-friendly acts, and their archetypal fan is a twelve-year-old girl. But they both deserve credit for aiming higher than the usual gloopy ballads.

Initially, McFly were positioned as a sort of ersatz Monkees, and more or less got away with it. But over time, they've increasingly emphasised their musical credentials, to pave the way for a longer career. And good luck to them. Nothing wrong with commercial pop music when it's done well.

Well, you knew it was coming. And no, I couldn't find a version of the video that wasn't topped and tailed with adverts.

"Umbrella" by Rihanna featuring Jay-Z (May 20 to July 29, 10 weeks). Astoundingly, this is still in the charts today. You'd have thought that massive overexposure would have finished it off by now, but "Umbrella" seems to be invulnerable.

Set aside the crushing overfamiliarity, and it really is a fantastic record, to be honest. Ten weeks at the top is an enormous length of time. Granted that the new chart format seems to have slowed down the turnover of singles, it's been ages since anyone stayed at number one for that long. In fact, you have to go all the way back to Wet Wet Wet's insufferable version of "Love is All Around" in 1994. That's a hit.

It's also the sort of hit that you'll probably be hearing on a semi-regular basis for the rest of time, unless the tide of fashion turns against the production style in a major way. It's catchy enough to overcome the burden of awful lyrics like "You're part of my entity for eternity." When even someone like Amanda Palmer is using it in her live set, it's clearly become some kind of landmark.

Meanwhile, in America... "Girlfriend" by Avril Lavigne" (number 2 in Britain), "Makes Me Wonder" by Maroon 5 (number 2 again), "Buy U A Drank" by T-Pain (failed to chart, proving again that hip-hop is one of the few areas where American hits don't necessarily travel to the UK) and "Umbrella" for seven weeks...

Monday, January 07, 2008

Number 1s of 2007: April

"Give It To Me" by Timbaland featuring Nelly Furtado and Justin Timberlake (April 15 to 22, one week). No matter how many times I hear this record, it always takes me the better part of a minute to figure out which is the first beat of the bar. Weird, that.

Timbaland's had a remarkably good year. We'll be seeing him again in July, and if you count his guest appearances on other people's records, he's had four top three hits this year. (Oh, and "Anonymous" with Bobby Valentino, which stiffed at number 25.) He's been charting on and off since 1999, but it's only recently that he's started releasing records in big numbers. "Give It To Me" only spent a week at number one, but it's still in the top 75. In previous years, record companies would have deleted the thing to make way for future singles.

But the most memorable thing about this record, for me, is stumbling across it on "Signed By The [insert name of channel here." This bizarre show crops up on several music channels late at night, and consists of music videos... with on-screen sign language for the deaf. Even better, the videos are signed by bouncily enthusiastic dancing interpreters, almost invariably middle-aged and thoroughly un-glam. The woman who does hip-hop looks a bit like Anne Widdecombe, only much, much happier. She is a cheerful, if baffling, presence.

It seems there genuinely is a demand among deaf people for this service. But boy, it's weird television. Especially when they choose records where the lyrics are almost totally irrelevant.

Perhaps there really are deaf people watching that video and thinking, "Boy, I wish I knew what the vampire cheerleaders were saying..." But they must have been terribly disappointed to find out the answer.

"Beautiful Liar" by Beyonce and Shakira (April 22 to May 13, three weeks). I'm assuming we all know the original, so this is the Freemasons remix, which probably got more airplay in the UK. I actually prefer this version, since the original has some ill-advised pretensions to soulfulness, tragically undermined by the persistent name-bleating. This version is stupid, and so it can get away with the persistent name-bleating. Just.

Wikipedia's entry for this song is hilariously nerdy. Did you know that "Beautiful Liar" is an R&B song written in the key of G minor, written in common time at 96 beats per minute, with a vocal range spanning from G3 to B♭4? That information is followed by a tag warning that "This short section requires expansion", and I for one will be checking back regularly in the hope of updates.

It's a worldwide hit - number one in Argentina, Brazil, Holland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, New Zealand and Switzerland, apparently. I've been largely underwhelmed by Beyonce's recent singles, but I'll grudgingly admit this one's got something.

The US number ones in April: two weeks for "Give it to Me" (see above), and two weeks for "Don't Matter" by Akon. (It got to number 3 in Britain.)

Sunday, January 06, 2008

X-Axis comments thread - 6 January 2008

Since last week was an epic, I'm taking advantage of a lull in the release schedule. So just the two books this week - Mike Raicht looks back on a hundred issues of Exiles in Exiles: Days of Then and Now, while Warren Ellis and Cary Nord begin their Ultimate Human miniseries.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Number 1s of 2007: March

"Shine" by Take That (4 to 18 March, two weeks). I already wrote about Take That a few months back, so we can skip over this one fairly quickly. It's a good record, which cemented their comeback album as a legitimate success. It didn't chart in America, but the ever-useful Wikipedia informs me that it was a top ten hit in Ireland and Italy, and got to number one in the prestigious Bulgarian Airplay Chart.

Until 2007, the story of Take That had ended on an ironic note. The band were formed as a vehicle for songwriter Gary Barlow, but his solo career had faltered while Robbie Williams had gone on to international stardom. But last year, everything went right for Gary Barlow, while Robbie was... well, still shilling his "Rudebox" album, which the public has not taken to. And frankly, can you blame them?

The Sugababes vs Girls Aloud, "Walk This Way." (18 to 25 March, one week.) Oh dear.

Comic Relief is a charity telethon that airs on BBC1 every two years. It features an awkward combination of comedy laughs, starving African children, and Lenny Henry yelling at you to donate money. In fairness, it's a lot more watchable than "Children in Need." And of course, it does a lot of good. I'm all for Comic Relief.

Every time, they stick out an official Comic Relief tie-in charity single, which people are invited to buy as a sign of support. They're usually dreadful, but when you combine the forces of novelty records AND charity records in one unholy union, what do you expect?

More recently, they've done two singles. The first will be a more-or-less straight single by an established act, with a comedy video featuring B-list stars of BBC television. The second will be some comedy segment from the telethon itself, "spontaneously" released due to public demand. So, in 2005, we had boy band McFly's "All About You" (actually not bad) as the "official" single, and Peter Kay miming to "Show Me The Way To Amarillo" as the "comedy" release. Both did well.

This year's official lead-in single was Girls Aloud and the Sugababes teaming up to massacre "Walk This Way." Yes, it's a charity record, yes, it's raising money for worthwhile causes... but dear god. Girls Aloud are usually good. So are the Sugababes (in all their many rosters).

But there's no defending this one, except on the grounds of charity. "Walk This Way" is a classic. It's practically sacred. You don't cover it as badly as this - even for charity.

This atrocity only spent four weeks in the chart, perhaps because Comic Relief offered an alternative single that people actually wanted to buy. Then again, it actually made the top ten in Croatia, Poland and Greece. I honestly can't imagine why.

And so... you can probably guess what's coming next.

"I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles)" by Brian Potter, Andy Pipkin and the Proclaimers (March 25 to April 13, three weeks - yes, THREE WEEKS). The original version of this got to number 3 in America in 1993, so I'm going to assume you know it. Suffice to say that Brian Potter is Peter Kay doing his character from Phoenix Nights, and Andy Pipkin is Matt Lucas doing one of the characters from Little Britain, and I'm not sure any further explanation would assist overseas readers.

The Proclaimers were one-hit wonders in America, and even English audiences tend to regard them as slightly nerdy anachronisms with alarmingly strident regional accents, who haven't had a hit in years. But the Scots love them, and the Scots are right. "Letter From America" was a great single. "Sunshine on Leith" is beautiful. (It wasn't even a hit in Britain, but as you can imagine, it gets played a lot in Edinburgh.)

Irritatingly, the novelty remake of "Letter From America" will now go down as the biggest hit of the Proclaimers' career - not that they're complaining, I'm sure. On the strength purely of spontaneous downloads from their Greatest Hits album, the original DID re-enter the charts as well, making number 26. Still, it just feels wrong.

So, March - not an especially great month. What about America? Well, they got through three number ones that month- "What Goes Around Comes Around" by Justin Timberlake, "This is Why I'm Hot" by MIMS, and "Glamorous" by Fergie. UK chart positions: 4, 18 and 6 respectively. And MIMS was lucky to get that high, if you ask me...

The Golden Compass

Okay, so it's been out for weeks. But I've only just got around to seeing it.


As you almost certainly know, The Golden Compass is the adaptation of Philip Pullman's Northern Lights, which is the first part of the His Dark Materials trilogy. It underperformed at the US box office, but it's done rather better internationally. The studio is apparently still trying to decide whether it's going to bother with films two and three.

The film has problems. It's not as bad as all that. Judged by Hollywood blockbuster standards, it's okay (in an unenthusiastic, "meh" kind of a way). But it's vastly inferior to the book.

The British media coverage has had a slightly condescending tone to it. Ah yes, those dumb Bible-bashing Americans just Don't Get It. Well, mmm, no. Let's be blunt: His Dark Materials is indeed an anti-religious story, and an anti-Christian one in particular. It's broadly anti-religious in the sense that anything pro-atheist is anti-religion by default. And it's specifically and actively anti-religious by casting organised Christianity as the bad guys.

America is the most religious nation in the developed world. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that plenty of reasonable, open-minded, tolerant American Christians were never going to find this film a particularly appealing prospect for a fun evening out with the kids, any more than British liberals would flock to its Christian counterpart. That's perfectly understandable.

His Dark Materials always struck me as deeply unpromising adaptation material - partly for that reason, and partly because it has major structural problems as a film. Book three devotes an inordinate amount of space to a subplot about wheeled elephants that never really connects to anything else; and its climax comes rather earlier than it ideally would. And, without spoiling the plot, it features quite a few things that were never going to fly with a mainstream American audience.

There's been a tendency to blame the studio for cutting out the philosophy, but actually, I don't think that's the problem. Book one was never particularly heavy on the philosophising. The Magisterium is still quite clearly an organised church. (Yes, it's less blatantly Catholic, but it's not like they talked much about God in the books either.) They still think that Dust is something to do with original sin and have warped ideas about protecting kids from corruption. None of this has been removed. In fact, in one respect, the Magisterium/Dust strand is actually given more prominence than in the book, by reversing the final two sequences so that the story ends on Dust, not on the polar bears.

The real problem is that Northern Lights is an incredibly plot-heavy novel, not to mention an episodic one. The writer is struggling manfully to shoehorn it all into the running time. It shows. You can practically see the writer sweating over his plot synopsis, thinking to himself "What can I cut out of this?" The bit with the polar bears? No, it's the climax of the first novel. Serafina Pekkala and Lee Scoresby? No, I need them for the next two movies if they get made. The London-society period? But I've got to establish Lyra's relationship with Mrs Coulter...

The result is a film that feels more like a plot synopsis, as characters race on and off screen, extended sequences are dashed through with unseemly urgency, and it's just one thing after another. This is where the themes got lost; the film is so busy trying to squeeze in all the plot that it barely has time to stop and think about what any of it means. Perhaps they should have gone for a more drastic re-write to streamline the story. Instead, they've tried to be faithful, and it was the wrong call.

His Dark Materials just doesn't want to be a film. It wants to be a TV series, or even anime. It wants to stretch out over a long period. There are events in this film, unavoidably compressed to five or ten minutes, which could have filled a whole hour of TV on their own. But cramming it all into a single film loses too much.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Number 1s of 2007: February

"Ruby" by the Kaiser Chiefs (25 February to 4 March, one week).

Strange band, the Kaiser Chiefs. At their best, they've got the rare ability to write songs that sound like they must be cover versions of some obscure classic. "I Predict A Riot" and "Oh My God" are both killer singles.

And then again, they also make quite a lot of self-consciously quirky, trying-too-hard music such as... well, most of the singles from their second album, to be honest. When you hear those ones, you can understand why they're sometimes dismissed as a poor man's Blur. Sometimes, they are. If you really want an example, here's "The Angry Mob", a song which would be right at home on Blur's second-worst album, "The Great Escape." Not BAD, exactly, but missing the mark a bit, especially that overlong coda.

"Ruby" was the lead single from the second album, and it's somewhere between these two categories. It does have a classic feel to it, but it also feels like they've been sitting around the studio working through their classic rock ticklist. I kind of like it, though, and the video is cute. Oddly, the two follow-up singles didn't do that well at all (peaking at number 19 and 22 respectively), but at least that shows that "Ruby" got to number one on the strength of broad appeal rather than just a fanbase buying the new record in the first week.

Meanwhile, in America, Nelly Furtado's "Say It Right" got to number one on February 24. It scraped the bottom of the top 10 in Britain, but hung around the chart for ages, so it's a genuine transatlantic hit.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Number 1s of 2007: January

The UK singles chart has now completed a year in its new hybrid format, as a mixed singles and download chart. Partly to commemorate this entirely unimportant event, and partly to see just how much resemblance the UK chart bears to the American one, I thought I'd run through the official UK Number One singles of 2007 and see what we ended up with.

The main difference with the new chart is that it counts any official download sale, as long as it isn't a whole album. So if you buy an individual track, that's a single, even if nobody's promoting it as such. This has had two major effects.

First, the charts are no longer controlled as rigidly by the record companies' release schedules; the moment they start promoting a new single, people start downloading it from the album. They also sometimes keep buying the old single for months and months, when the record company would rather sell them the follow-up. All of this has put paid to the pre-2007 system, where singles would crash into the charts at their highest position on getting a physical release, start dropping immediately, and get deleted if they had the nerve to stick around longer than planned. So the chart is now a better reflection of a record's popularity over time.

Second, from time to time the public simply decides to buy a record that isn't even being promoted as a single at all. Usually this is because it's cropped up in an advert. "In the Air Tonight" by Phil Collins has had a lengthy chart run on this basis, and the Christmas chart was swamped in old singles from the seventies and eighties.

Mind you, there's still ample room to get a record to Number One through massive hype and not much else. And our first single is a pretty good illustration of that.

This is "A Moment Like This" by Leona Lewis (24 December 2006 to 21 January 2007, four weeks). She won the 2006 series of "The X-Factor", and this is the coronation single that was released immediately after her win. It is now a tradition that the X-Factor will release a godawful, maudlin ballad in mid-December, deliberately chosen to sound vaguely inspiring whoever wins. The video will consist largely of clips from the show. Regrettably, "A Moment Like This" is precisely such a song. It's the same one that Kelly Clarkson used for her American Idol victory song, but her version wasn't released over here.

The X-Factor and its forerunner Pop Idol have a questionable track record for generating actual stars. 2005 winner Shayne Ward is still around, to be fair. But Steve Brookstein and Michelle McManus are back on the pub circuit. And while the original Pop Idol winner, Will Young, is still around, he's drifted into a career of making gentle MOR ballads with frankly weird videos. When Simon Cowell was looking for a mainstream star, this is surely not what he had in mind.

(Although it's a great video, worth watching in full.)

But I digress. "A Moment Like This" is dreadful, and the fact that it stayed at number one for four weeks is pretty depressing, even if that does cover the dead week between Christmas and New Year (in which nothing is released, the shops are closed, and the chart doesn't really count). However... Leona Lewis CAN sing, and has more potential than most talent show winners in this country. We'll be hearing from her again at the end of the year, with a significantly better record.

You won't be surprised to hear that "A Moment Like This" didn't chart in America.

Well, this is an improvement. "Grace Kelly" by Mika (21 January to 25 February, five weeks). He's a Lebanese singer-songwriter, based in London, although I can never quite shake the feeling that he might be a comedy character played by a vertically-stretched Ben Stiller.

This was his second single - the first one missed the charts altogether and is about to get a re-release. It's easy to see the appeal of this one, which is verging on Queen territory. Now, at their best, Queen were rather good, and nobody's really tried to fill that gap in years.

His follow-up singles are a bit hit and miss, and lean more towards the Scissor Sisters. Now, the Scissor Sisters are fine, but we've already got one. "Love Today" is really rather good, but as for the cloying "Big Girl (You Are Beautiful)"... well, the less said the better, really. He's got a good ear for a hook, though. He'll be around for a while.

According to Wikipedia, "Grace Kelly" did get an American release, and stiffed at number 57. The follow-up got to number 92, and after that they gave up trying.

The US number one single in January was "Irreplaceable" by Beyonce, which spent ten weeks there. In the UK, it peaked at number 4, although it had a respectable enough run at the top.