The line-up of our Tunes of the Decade list thus far has underlined two things: 1) that commercial pop music is relevant to the zeitgeist in a perhaps unprecedented way, and 2) that the implications of this fact are frustratingly difficult to make sense of.
Amerie, Girls Aloud, JoJo, R Kelly, Tatu, Nelly Furtado; all are utterly worthy of their places in a list of the most brilliant music produced over the last ten years. But how are we supposed to react to this development, this fact that music created by a bizarre conglomerate of songwriting teams, super producers, faux-lesbians, 13-year-olds, talent show contestants and (alleged) paedophiles, is at the forefront of the most innovative, exciting, artistically worthwhile stuff around? How can a new generation of bands, songwriters and creative individuals possibly hope to come up with a pragmatic response to this sort of confusing, hyperreal (non-)blueprint for making music?
One radical suggestion was provided in 2007, in the shape of Burial’s ‘Archangel’, the lead-track from his glacial sophomore masterpiece Untrue. The basis (if you can call it that) of the tune, is a sample of American R’n’B-pop maestro Ray J (more specifically, his 2006 ballad ‘One Wish’, a song I have been profoundly in love with since hearing it on Trevor Nelson’s Saturday evening Radio 1 show not long after my parents died).
Ray J’s tune exemplifies the extraordinary in the ordinary. There is no really sophisticated way to talk about it, nothing particularly remarkable about the production or the lyrics or the delivery, just a beautiful, emotionally-attuned melody based around the pentatonic scale (an Orient-evoking mode that often brings out the best in US R’n’B, see Brandy and Monica’s ‘The Boy is Mine’, Dre’s ‘The Message’, T-Pain’s ‘Can’t Believe It’ etc).
Burial’s response to this glorious if un-exceptional pop record is ingenious. He (whoever he is) manages to completely warp the Ray J original at the same time as he maintains an absolute grasp on its plangent emotional expressionism, picking up on the hint of melancholy, using this as the starting point for a Lynch-like paean to the sad, subterranean darkness of modern city life.
‘Archangel’ pays homage to mainstream pop, at the same time as it provides a thorough and exhilarating reorientation of its parameters. It takes the most apposite and vital musical developments of recent times (UK garage, dubstep, ambient techno) and enacts a discerning synthesis of these elements with only the most useful and worthwhile aspects of a commercial pop record.
To say this man is a lone visionary in a depressingly middlebrow musical Britain would be something of an understatement. He provides an example we should all be doing our darndest to follow.
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