Project X Goes To England

nickelback.jpg

As part of Idolator’s continuing effort to geekily analyze every music chart known to man, we present a new edition of Project X, in which Idolator Critics’ Poll editor Michaelangelo Matos breaks down rankings from every genre imaginable. After the click-through, he looks at the Top 10 UK Singles for the second week of February, explores cultural differences related to Europop synths, and comes to grips with the Nickelback song he didn’t entirely hate (at first):

According to BBC Radio 1, here are the Top 10 UK Singles for Feb. 10, 2008:

1. Basshunter, “Now You’re Gone” (Hard2Beat) 2. Nickelback, “Rockstar” (Roadrunner) 3. Adele, “Chasing Pavements” (XL) 4. Rihanna, “Don’t Stop the Music” (Def Jam) 5. David Jordan, “Sun Goes Down” (Mercury) 6. Kelly Rowland, “Work” (Columbia) 7. Hot Chip, “Ready For the Floor” (EMI) 8. Britney Spears, “Piece of Me” (Jive) 9. Lupe Fiasco ft. Matthew Santos, “Superstar” (Atlantic) 10. Wet Wet Wet, “Weightless” (Dry)

For an American pop fan, the British charts can sometimes seem like they might as well have come from Mars—or at least like looking at a familiar room and trying to figure out which pieces of furniture have been replaced or moved around. I say this affectionately–plenty of my favorite music is English, and so are several of my favorite thinkers about it. Plus, compared to the clock-punching exercise the Billboard tally can feel like, the U.K. charts seem more like a force of nature, or a sport. (How else can you explain a national Top 10 that features both Lupe Fiasco and Hot Chip?) For the English, predicting the charts is like playing the horses; for American chart-watchers, it’s like deciding between nuking a Stouffer’s Macaroni & Cheese or a Swanson’s Hungry Man, for months.

Maybe that’s why I surprised myself by not actually hating the Nickelback song at No. 2. This caused me some alarm, usually in the form of rightfully ignored IMs to a few colleagues along the lines of, “Am I nuts?” Which I probably was, temporarily: I think the fact that “Rock Star” actually exhibits something close to a sense of humor so disarmed me that the song almost sucked me in. Fortunately, I escaped–hearing a song deteriorate over a handful of plays really is its own kind of experience. In an ever-changing world it’s good to know there are some constants–like the No. 1 song, Basshunter’s “Now You’re Gone,” whose Autotuned vocals and just-this-side-of-oompah house beat both bounce so aggressively they automatically code the thing “unfit for American ears.” We will always have Europop that flirts with toytown techno, as is made obvious by the filtered synths that take over a minute in. (On the 2:39 edit at the iTunes Store, anyway–apologies, completists.)

So, is Adele’s “Chasing Pavements” going to break America? Can it please not? The song has a Huge Chorus that’s mostly a giant slobber, with a vocal that makes it worse: Adele invests everything with even more straight-backed drama than the overbearing string arrangement that accompanies it. All of which makes it perfect for dumb Yanks who (forget her personal life) wish Amy Winehouse were a lot more maudlin. Maybe they’d like David Jordan, too. Trevor Horn produced his album; he’s Indian-English, still in his teens, seems ambitious, yet the first thing I thought of listening to “Sun Goes Down” was Lenny Kravitz. That’s almost certainly wrong, but after too many re-plays to try to nail down something else, my first impression will have to stand, however flawed.

Hot Chip have been a long-standing problem for me–I find them pretty blank, a puzzle too minor to solve, or maybe they’re just that old standby, “too English.” But prolonged exposure to Made in the Dark gave me some respect for them simply as songwriters: “Ready for the Floor” is one of a handful of songs I liked far more than I expected to; it burbles in an appealingly cheap way. They also have a skewed relationship with their inspirations, but who doesn’t?

The story that fascinates me here, though, is Kelly Rowland’s. She departed Destiny’s Child, she sang on Nelly’s “Dilemma,” but personality-wise she’s pretty much a blank. “Work,” from her second album, Ms. Kelly, doesn’t offer much help there. The track’s obvious inspiration is–big surprise–Amerie’s “1 Thing,” much of the music being a drum loop with occasional string stabs and, on the bridge, a guitar line that echoes the vocal. It’s bright, professional, anonymous.

It’s also not the version of “Work” that’s in the Top 10. That honor belongs to the remix by the Freemasons, which jettisons the original track altogether and substitutes a harder digital beat, the theme from Knight Rider (coded on the pop psyche thanks to Panjabi MC’s “Mundian To Bach Ke/Beware of the Boys”), and on the chorus, high-street house piano chords. I hear those keyboards, as well as the easy string stabs and the song’s shuffling rhythmic undercarriage, as an update of late-’80s Soul II Soul. In that way, the Freemasons’ remix of “Work” is probably the most British-sounding record in the Top 10–not counting, of course, Wet Wet Wet’s comeback power ballad. And if you don’t know who Wet Wet Wet is… well, just take my word for it.