A friend inherited several dozen copies of the Sugababes’ first album. She just called the distributor one day, and found out they were going to be landfilled. The fate of yet another pop record in 2002 is hardly a damning indictment of our times, I guess. Besides, the British—who may have kick-started the whole modern teenpop cycle in the mid-’90s with Take That—have been behind the curve since ” . . .Baby One More Time,” right? Sugababes’ newest record never even made it over here!
Pour a little out for the ‘Babes though, ’cause in 2002 they released one of the year’s great (already) unheard singles. “Freak Like Me” began its secret history as a 7-inch bootleg by the mysterious Girls on Top, mashing up Adina Howard’s original “Freak” with Gary Numan’s “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” Top suits at Island heard the boot and decided that it would be a good “cover idea.” So they actually brought in Girls on Top’s Richard X to reproduce it! And it sounds great! It’s riddled with great sounds (sine blurts, chirruping electro blips, caustic feedback). Sure the vocal is completely sexless—frankly anonymous, in fact—but who cares? Because like few other singles I know (maybe The Jesus and Mary Chain’s “Cracking Up,” except that never got to No. 1 anywhere) the rest of the song sounds like it’s trying to burst out from the inside.
2002’s been a weird year, what with everyone trying to party like it’s 1982. Madonna releases her best single in five years, which also happens to be the best electroclash record never made. You get underground house producers like Sascha Funke covering late-’80s Brit androgynoids Bros. Every punk band within earshot has claves, cowbell, and Chic-bass.
And Brandy puts out a single that sounds like a bootleg, the sour milk of her voice dribbled over industrial drums. Brandy’s “What About Us?” even makes the bootleg mistake of thinking that pairing the dark (noisy electronics) with the light (pop vocals) will instantly become more than the sum of a cheap idea. Girls on Top boots (including the original “Freak”) avoid this not by dangerous reverence but by holding both in equally ridiculous (and much loved) staid.
So: Zeitgeist ahoy! The ‘Babes release their second album, Angels With Dirty Faces. (Yes, the title = blah.) The album mix of “Freak” is bowdlerized, all the niggling noises replaced by huge drums and a wobbly synth line. It’s a capitulation, of sorts. But it also exiles the dark-light non-dichotomy to the back of the class where it belongs. The best tracks here do their (sly, humorous, quasi-sexy) work and go, unencumbered by Theory.
“Blue” is electroclash in nature if not name. “Supernatural” sounds like a couple of aliens with only the most surface understanding of ’70s Stevie Wonder. (Am I the only one who thinks Clipse’s “Grindin” is Stevie crossed with Ubu’s “Sentimental Journey”? A hopeful trend.) “Round Round” is just stoopid, although dig the way it sounds like two songs sutured messily together, less like a bootleg than speed-dialing across pop radio.
Of course it’s not all gravy. The title track is generic in the post-swingbeat sense. And sampling Sting should be a crime punishable under the Geneva Convention—especially to crass, mercenary ends that would have the pre-Neptunes Puffy blanching.
Like Madonna, the ‘Babes get electro right because they realize the original new wave was delivered not by brittle Miss Kittin Teutonologs but in the biggest voices imaginable. They reference an exiled side of the early ’80s: British “New Pop.” At its best, Angels is as deliriously synthetic, as archly soulful, as that era’s most addled Anglotrocities (ABC, Associates). You can envision Siouxsie covering “Stronger,” all cathedral strings and cavern dub.
But no one is stupid enough in 2002 to market teenpop as art-pop. And the New Poppers, even with their onionskin layers of third-hand irony, can’t erase the impact of 10 years of urban (in the Hot 97 sense) culture in Britain. Even the biggest Tim-and-Neps-biting tracks on Angels are 10 times funkier than anything on The Lexicon of Love.
Alternative Marketing, though, might have been the only way to break the record in America. American teenagers are awash in homegrown Radio Disney, and the original teenpop generation is aging fast. But nothing else on here has the “Freak” factor to pull in the avant-lumpen who’d have the pocket money to buy the damn thing these days. It’s just a really great pop album crippled by distribution idiocy.
So: ultimate advertisement for the MP3, then? It says something terrifying and stupid and wonderful about the industry when people want to give pop albums press and they still slip through the Net, machinery not yet in place to redirect some of that lost revenue. Schadenfreude? After all, when you make the impossible-to-find best mix of your best single sound like a cheaply coded, poorly ripped digital file in the first place . . .