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For so many years, I referred to Girls Aloud as my 'guilty pleasure'. Then something changed - I began to accept my love, no matter how many times people around me smirked. Because really, pop is a medium as valid and wonderful (and equally as cynical and flawed) as anything else in the ecosystem of music. That doesn’t necessarily mean that people should like it: not everyone likes metal, minimalist electronica, folk or classical music. But pop shouldn’t necessarily have to be a dirty word either. When done right, it can be as spectacular as any other genre.
And this is precisely what transpired with Girls Aloud. Five ordinary girls knitted together by a reality show. Should have fallen away…should have dropped like a stone after a couple of mediocre singles. But no. What happened was this: Brian Higgins and Xenomania. Who crafted songs for the group – wondrous and weird, dirty and daunting, sexy and sublime songs. And the rest is history. Ten years on, where Hear’Say are a footnote, Gareth Gates a speech therapist and One True Voice (t’was a contest back in 2002, remember?) a source of ill-recalled mirth, Girls Aloud are selling out the arenas. It’s not just because they’re aesthetically pleasing, or that they possess a good marketing team. It’s because for most of their career, they delivered blindingly good pop music. Certainly between 2004 and 2007, their musical output was near flawless.
Hence why Ten proves something of a disappointment. See, Girls Aloud never necessarily had the smartest choice of singles, upon which this retrospective focuses. Which is an error, as one of their laudable factors was that rather than following the tired trend of releasing albums that were singles and sawdust, Xenomania took care to create coherent records, on which many of the general album tracks were superior to their singles bedfellows. Which is why it’s galling to see the dreary ‘I’ll Stand By You’ included at the expense of Chemistry’s magnificent ‘Whole Lotta History’ and the sheer adrenaline-shot audacity of Tangled Up’s ‘Close To Love’ usurped by the eminently inferior ‘Sexy! No, No, No’ from the same record. And they never could do covers: ’Jump’ being a particular lowpoint here.
As for the new songs, lead-off ‘Something New’ does at least build to a full-throttle climax but is persistently interrupted by that unwieldy rap section. ‘On The Metro’ admirably attempts to marry J-Pop with trance synths and sub-bass in their typically OTT manner, but never quite delivers the knockout punch. And ‘Every Now and Again’ is simply an identikit Hi-NRG pop disco track. Oddly enough considering their poor track record on ballads, the sweet and heartfelt ‘Beautiful ‘Cause You Love Me’ comes across remarkably well amongst the new tracks – its Nineties power ballad vibe (specifically Maria McKee’s ‘Show Me Heaven’) spun deftly around a strong central vocal. But none of the new additions can hold a scented candle to their previous highs.
But like a teacher getting the initial failings out the way at a particularly precocious student’s open evening, the great vastly outweighs the adequate and there remains enough stunning pop alchemy here to thrill beyond requirement. The dirty guitar-twang knee-tremblers of ‘Sound of the Underground’, ‘No Good Advice’ and ‘Love Machine’ still sound fresh and uniquely innovative, but when they began to fully embrace electronica and dance rhythms, they became peerless. ‘Call The Shots’ is an impeccable piece of melodic layering and dynamic majesty – as elegant, sad and seductive as a torn designer evening dress. ‘The Show’ swapped DNA with the electroclash and mash-up era and evolved its own giddy electronic niche. ‘The Promise’ drips with effortless doo-wap glamour and ‘Can’t Speak French’ carries a striking and ethereal beauty that simply defies explanation. And then there’s their absolute masterpiece – ‘Biology’. An improbable three-way car crash between blues-rock, pop and electronica - with the sheer songwriting genius to combine such disparate elements – it still stands as a beautiful Frankenstein’s monster of modern pop. You can admire its multiple levels and structure; you can nod at the intelligent twists and about-turns. Or you can just dance like crazy. For me, that is the epitome of great pop. And as far as the last decade goes, pop attained some degree of perfection in November 2005. It still sounds like nothing that came before or since, and the astonishing switch of gear at the pre-chorus still makes me want to applaud with sheer unadulterated joy.
To put your finger on the moment when Girls Aloud first bucked the trend, listen to the point at 0.30 on ‘No Good Advice’ when Nadine Coyle sings a deliberately jarring dropped note to convey a dirty and rebellious affectation. That was the point where convention headed off at a tangent and a wonderfully diverse pop band was born. There’s a lesson here too. Manufactured pop (from reality TV or otherwise) is not the enemy per se. The enemy is in not understanding the value and role of the song itself within pop and the magic it can convey. The proof is here to see.
The collection and especially the new songs have the feeling of a last hurrah and it’s almost certain that next year’s tour will be their swansong. But I’ll miss them. As will many others, regardless of whether they openly choose to admit it or not. Simply put: the greatest British pop band of the past ten years.
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