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Single review: Ed Sheeran’s ‘Shape Of You’ & ‘Castle On The Hill’

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Is it just me? Am I just an old humbug? Or are Ed Sheeran’s two new singles really nothing special?

There. I said it. I am underwhelmed.

It’s not that Shape Of You isn’t sensual, poetic and catchy – it is. It’s not that Castle On The Hill isn’t a tender, uplifting piece of pop – it is. And it’s not as though either of those singles could do anything other than hit the apex of the charts in a heartbeat – they did.

But after two years of the incessently ubiquitous hits of X, surely it wasn’t too much to hope for something…fresh? Sheeran has always been a passing interest of mine, an artist to play when I need a sentimental or angst-ridden singalong. He owes me no particularly great debt of fandom, and yet I feel cheated.

If you’re not too outraged to keep reading, I’ll explain myself now, I swear.

Shape Of You was always going to steal the limelight. Flirty, sexy, catchy as all hell…on paper it works, out loud it sounds like a rework of Nina with a little bit of Don’t thrown in. Is this really all Sheeran has to offer? It’s a solid comeback, but it’s so. damn. safe. Also, TLC’s No Scrubs keeps popping into my head every time the pre chorus starts and that is just not a good thing.

Castle On The Hill offers a surprising change of pace – perhaps Sheeran’s attempt at a new flavour of songwriting? – but it sounds strangely anonymous after the textbook songwriting of the sister single. Although Sheeran delivers with satisfactory character, Castle On The Hill could belong to anybody. Most plausibly, in the introduction, U2 circa The Joshua Tree.

Are you still reading? Did you make it? Do you think I’m crazy?

It’s just…after the sweet nothings of +, 2014’s X offered grit and swagger and a maturing sound. While Shape Of You and Castle On The Hill are deserving chart-toppers amongst the swirl of radio favourites, they have ultimately failed to build on Sheeran’s ever-promising foundations. Did Thinking Out Loud leave such a big void that we will happily greet regurgitated inspiration with such enthusiasm? Evidently so.

But keep grooving, kids – there are worse songs you could get excited about. Having had my vent, I shall now banish my disappointment to the quietest murmurings and leave you be. (Bah. Humbug!)

In defence of an unabashed love for Mariah Carey’s ‘Merry Christmas’

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There are two types of people in the world…those who hate this album, and those who love it.

Gather ’round children, and let me tell you a story of the 90’s.

Once upon a time, before Michael Buble was a household name, before his Christmas album was a twinkle in a producer’s eye, there was Mariah Carey and Merry Christmas. The year was 1994, and this reviewer was a wee tot of 2, but she was destined to cross paths with Carey’s holiday album in just a few years…and the year after that…and the year after that…and all the years after those.

I’m not entirely sure when Merry Christmas first came on my radar – I was probably 5 or 6 – but I do know that after that first encounter, nothing has sounded more like Christmas to me since. Two decades later, all I require to get into the holiday spirit is to hear the first rippling piano chords of ‘Silent Night’ and I’m good to go.

Whacking great dose of nostalgia aside, it is my humble opinion that Merry Christmas also delivers a musical treat the likes of which Michael Buble has yet to top. This was my first encounter with a gospel choir, a Hammond organ, and a voice of superhuman capabilities, and my childhood imagination was entirely captivated by this ridiculously groovy take on the season.

The prime time for listening to Christmas music when I was a kid was in the car with Mum and younger bro, on our way to our grandparents’ for various festive visits (tree-decorating, setting up the inflatable pool, delivering presents…). This was a 40 minute trip – just enough to blast out the 38 minutes of MC – during which all three of us would pump ourselves up on holiday spirit, ready to decorate the Christmas tree with gusto upon arrival at our familial destination.

“She has such an incredible voice,” my mother would say, shaking her head in wonder at Carey’s vocal acrobatics. It was the only time I really heard Mum admire a musician, so I listened to the mind-boggling melisma with rapt attention. Carey’s voice sounded like some wondrous alien instrument, flying up and down octaves of notes with fearless abandon.

And then there was the gospel choir.

I had no concept of gospel music at age 7 or even 8, but listening to the joyful cloud of harmonies sounded to me like there was a crazy good party going on inside that tape cassette. It was also the first time I heard a Hammond organ…there were so many things to listen to! For me, Merry Christmas was a festive patchwork of musical magic with no comparison.

By age 9 I’d been playing classical piano for three years, and the prominent piano solos and accompaniments across the album (but perhaps especially in ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’, ‘Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town’ and ‘Jesus Oh What A Wonderful Child’) did much to reassure me that piano could be a ‘cool’ instrument, used for other purposes than Mozart. I promised myself I would learn such groovy riffs when I was older and had mastered Bach and Beethoven.

There were things I didn’t appreciate until I was older, too. As a child I couldn’t understand why there seemed to be so many things that made Carey sad at Christmas (‘Christmas: Baby Please Come Home, ‘Miss You Most At Christmas Time’)…surely this season was the best distraction from a lame boyfriend who’d dumped her unceremoniously? I didn’t understand the magnifying effect of Christmas until much later, although I’ve always tried to remember my childhood approach to heartache.

Perhaps the best thing about Merry Christmas however, was the way it drew my mother into as childish a state of Christmas excitement as our own. As the chorus of ‘Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town’ hit, Mum’s usually strict observation of driving safety would melt slightly, allowing her to take one hand off the steering wheel to punch the air with the ‘hey!’. We always knew it would be a good day if Mum was fist-pumping to MC.

I can’t be sure, because this is not the kind of thing grown-up people discuss, but I refuse to believe I am alone in this once-a-year obsession with a 90’s Christmas album (whoever DJs for Westfields clearly shares my love, for one). But as the years slip by and the baby-faced pop stars of today release their own takes on seasonal tunes (looking at you JB and Ariana Grande), the haters are so quick to trash my beloved MC.

Well, save your “bah humbug”s – the only crime Merry Christmas has committed here is to be so damn good it gets mercilessly overplayed. And may it be so for many years to come!

Things I think while listening to the radio: part II

25. Drake – One Dance

WHY THE HELL IS THIS STILL ON THE RADIO.

24. Andy Grammar – Fresh Eyes

This actually does sound fresh, given it hasn’t reached grotesquely overplayed status yet. It’s average in the extreme, though.

23. Zara Larsson – Ain’t My Fault

That I am switching radio stations right now? Yes Zara, it is.

22. Illy ft. Anne-Marie – Catch 22

I like my rap with a catchy chorus to break up the monotony, so I am SOLD. Plus, there’s a sense of camaraderie about this track that means it’s unlikely to go stale anytime soon. Winning.

21. FRENSHIP – Capsize

Peaceful filler material. Good driving music. Mindless ease. And yes, those are all backhanded compliments.

20. Mike Perry and Shy Martin – The Ocean

I guess I can groove to this. For the millionth time.

19. Jonas Blue – Perfect Strangers

I guess I can groove to this. For the millionth time.

18. Starley – Call On Me

I guess I can groove to this. For the millionth time.

17. Shawn Mendes – Mercy

NONONONONONONONONONONONONONO. No more. Mercy. Please. #ironyintheextreme

16. Nevada et. al. – The Mack

I guess I can-…but really, can we just inject some new tunes already?!

15. Little Mix – Shout Out To My Ex

If you do not hear the fun in this, you are surely a rock in human form.

14. Martin Garrix and Bebe Rexha – In The Name Of Love

Time to headbang in slow motion/sing with much angst. I have no shame.

13. Bruno Mars – 24K Magic

New Bruno Mars?! OMG yay!! Wait…it’s a lukewarm Uptown Funk. Dammit.

12. Drake – Fake Love

Oh Drake…I don’t know how you do it, but your voice annoys the absolute bejeezus out of me. This song is no exception.

11. Sia – The Greatest

Oh God, how am I going to convince my vocal students not to try and sing like that? Sounds simultaneously painful and kickass. Thanks Sia. Technique aside, I shall happily endorse this song.

10. Calvin Harris – My Way

How am I not yet sick of this song? That riff, dammit. So catchy, so danceable.

9. Ariana Grande and Nicki Minaj – Side To Side

I may have to wash my ears out afterwards, but I am going to listen to this song anyway. Coz hot damn, that beat.

8. Hailee Steinfeld – Starving

I didn’t know that I was starving until you reminded me Hailee. And now I’m hungry and grumpy, because all three major radio stations are playing your song at the same time. For the fifth time this half hour.

7. DJ Snake ft. Justin Bieber – Let Me Love You

Good lyrics, good groove…I am going to holler that chorus like my life depends on it.

6. Major Lazer ft. Justin Bieber and MO – Cold Water

More Bieber?! What luck! A little less catchy, but still seamless. Good times.

5. Maroon 5 and Kendrick Lamar – Don’t Wanna Know

Meh. *nods head absentmindedly*

4. The Chainsmokers ft. Phoebe Ryan – All We Know

All you know, Chainsmokers, is how to make songs that sound like Closer.

3. James Arthur – Say You Won’t Let Go

Ladies and gentlemen, successfully filling the void that Jamie Lawson left when we finally got over I Wasn’t Expecting That, please welcome Mr James Arthur! Can we all move on from the cutesy acoustic ballads now?

2. The Chainsmokers ft. Halsey – Closer

Why is that riff not more annoying? Is it annoying? Do I like it? Oh yay Halsey’s singing.

1. The Weeknd ft. Daft Punk – Starboy

Must there be a counter-intuitive emphasis on the end of each phrase? It messes with my classical brain. Also there’s only so many times I can tolerate ‘ah’ and its rhyming colleagues. Not feeling this one Weeknd, soz dude.

Things I think while listening to the radio: part I

It’s been a long week. And a long week – for me – involves long drives. Or at least, multiple longish ones.

This week I was also unhappily disorganised – read, left key items from my beloved CD collection at home. So, FM radio it was. Oh woe was I.

Don’t get me wrong, mainstream radio offers me guilty pleasures on a regular basis (I am a newly converted Belieber, after all). But one week solid of JUST. RADIO. was more than any person should have to resort to.

While it may feel like I listened to the same five songs all week, apparently there were at least 50 in rotation…HEAVY rotation.

Strange things happen to songs when they are overplayed…here’s an insight into the mental anguish* that occurs:

*strong use of melodrama intentional

50. Adele – Send My Love To Your New Lover

Thank God 25 hasn’t passed its radio date yet. *cue heartfelt singalong*

49. Justin Timberlake – CAN’T STOP THE FEELING!

WHY IS THIS TITLE ALWAYS IN CAPITALS? WHY DOES IT ALWAYS SOUND LIKE IT’S BEING SUNG IN CAPITALS? I USED TO LOVE THIS AND NOW IT’S A MONSTER.

48. Calvin Harris ft. Rhianna – This Is What You Came For

Taylor Swift should be singing this, Rhianna sounds bored.

47. gnash ft. Olivia O’Brien – i hate u, i love u

Nononononononononononononononono. *changes station*

46. Drake and Rhianna – Too Good

A venomous song, without the venom. Bring back Carly Simon please.

45. Joel Adams – Please Don’t Go

Emotive moaning. Next.

44. Lil Wayne et. al. – Sucker For Pain

Not sure if this is an ode to S&M, or a misguided commentary on mental dysfunction. Feel safer betting on the former.

43. Terror Jr – Come First

Thought this was a lacklustre version of Can’t Keep My Hands To Myself for a second…then realised it was just lacklustre.

42. The Chainsmokers ft. Daya – Don’t Let Me Down

Okay. Yes. This is cool. Overplayed, but cool.

41. Twenty One Pilots – Heathens

What is this edgy piece of intelligence doing on the FM airwaves? Transcending the drivel, that’s what.

40. Cheat Codes and Dante Klein – Let Me Hold You (Turn Me On)

Next.

39. NEIKED ft. Dyo – Sexual

Hell yes, this is a nice little piece of songwriting. Grammatically dubious chorus lyrics, but I’m singing along anyway.

38. Niall Horan – This Town

Niall, Niall, Niall. You aimed valiantly for ‘poignant’, missed by a mile and landed squarely in ‘yawn-worthy’. Also ‘whingy’ and ‘cliche-riddled’.

37. MO – Final Song

*adds to list of songs to learn all lyrics to because it’s such a damn cool singalong*

36. Coldplay ft. Seeb – Hymn For The Weekend

A Coldplay song I almost care about! For two minutes. Pity it’s 3’32”.

35. Cashmere Cat et. al. – Trust Nobody

Sexy talk, autotune and celeb cameos. Ahh, the tried and tested formula…packaged into something as charismatic as plastic. Next.

34. Marc E Bassy and G-Eazy – You & Me

Oooh, there’s a reggae thing happening. I like.

33. Shawn Mendes – Treat You Better

Ahhhh, it was only a matter of time before you showed up, Mendes. This is a decent tune, I’m sure I can listen to it for the bazillionth ti-…nope. Nope. I’m done.

32. Peking Duck and Elliphant – Stranger

*zones out and focuses on traffic/what to cook for dinner*

31. Alessia Cara – Scars To Your Beautiful

I am okay with listening to empowering cliches. Bored, but okay.

30. Calum Scott – Dancing On My Own

There is a reason she’s not dancing with you, Calum. Go and tell Shawn Mendes about it, he’ll understand. Could even be a collab in it.

29. Flume ft. Tove Lo – Say It

Yessssssssssssssssss, there is something so inherently bad-ass about this track. So much tension, so much release. Crank. That. Volume.

28. Anne-Marie – Alarm

Yeahhhh boi, another solid TUNE…well, for the first chorus anyway. Then it has the same monotonous effect as a real alarm. Wahh why does all this music lack staying power?!

27. Illy ft. Vera Blue – Papercuts

Yeah. Mm. Maybe. Kinda. Sorta. Next.

26. Tove Lo – Cool Girl

*zoning out again*

The CD-lover’s guide to surviving the digital revolution: swim, don’t sink

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I bought an iPod last month.

“Did you want an iTunes voucher with that?” chirped the sales girl breezily.

“Uhh…no thanks, I’m right…”

“Are you sure? We’ve got 20% off at the moment!” enquired Breezy Sales Girl, with that careful mix of concern and encouragement that conjures up FOMO faster than logging out of Facebook. It was at this point that I decided to gesture awkwardly to the pile of CDs I was holding – and fully intending to purchase – in their tangible, plastic-cased, liner-notes-filled glory.

“Erm, no thanks…I…I prefer to buy the actual…CDs…”

For a second there, my helpful neighbourhood shop assistant failed to comprehend my motives. For a second there, I have to admit, so did I. After all, she had just helped me select a digital music device; and now, with an opportunity to buy 20% more music, spend 20% less money…I was still firmly clutching my environmentally-unfriendly, bookshelf-filling, dust-collecting, old-fashioned stack of compact discs.

Ex-Breezy Sales Girl recovered herself admirably, though the concern thing she’d had going suddenly became a little more genuine. “Oh! Oh…yep…you’re right…sure!” Leaving my perplexed companion, I made my way to the sales desk, quietly pondering my  progressive/stick-in-the-mud music consumption habits.

I fell in love with MP3 players at an early age. At an engagement party for a school friend of my mother’s, I met no less than 5 fellow thirteen-year-olds in possession of these magical pocket-sized jukeboxes. When I eventually obtained my very own predecessor of the iPod, I couldn’t have been prouder. With its impressive capacity of 128MB, I could finally take the entirety of the ABBA GOLD collection everywhere I went. Occasionally, I swapped it for my 1980’s compilation of U2 hits. This, I thought, was technology at its finest.

This is almost exactly what my first MP3 player looked like. Gotta love that sneaky USB connection!

The good old days. This is almost exactly what my first MP3 player looked like. Gotta love that sneaky USB connection!

By the time my musical taste required me to have the entire Beatles catalogue close by at all times, I had upgraded to a snazzy little 512MB number, which was followed in later years by my becoming a patron of the omnipresent iPod. See? I can move with the times! With each increase in storage capacity and sound quality, my excitement bubbled over – today, holding the latest generation of iPod nano in my hand, I feel that same thrill of having all my music on tap, in such a marvellous little device.

But quite paradoxically, if the albums in my iTunes library aren’t also on my bookshelf, I feel strangely deflated. In a day and age when a music nerd such as myself should be jumping up and down praising the availability of my favourite art form, I find myself disappointed with every digital purchase or streaming opportunity.

Perhaps it’s because as a working musician, I have always felt music to be an experience, rather than a commodity. Attending live music is much more than the notes that reach our ears, playing music is much more than reading those notes off a sheet; owning music is not just the songs, it’s the feel of the packaging, the look of the artwork, displaying it in alphabetical order alongside the rest of an ever-growing collection (is that just me? It’s not just me).

Perhaps it’s because I associate the purchase of CDs with my tender university years, lingering in music shops and making the delicious choice of which album I’d bring home with me that week. Either way, my primary source of music has always been real, actual, CDs…that I then rip to my iTunes library. I’m a musician, not a logician, okay?!

But despite this love of album-collecting, I have signed up for an Apple Music trial. I’ll admit: I was slightly terrified.

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SO MUCH CHOICE. HELP ME.

(Source)

Digital music offers such a gratuitous overload of choice, it feels much like going into a bookstore and being told I don’t have to buy whole books anymore, I can just buy my favourite pages. WHICH PAGE, WHERE DO I START. And do they even mean anything when ripped from their original context, shuffled into a ‘genius’ order and spat out again?

Well, I’m not gonna lie: I feel like a kid in a candy store.

For the first time in my life, I don’t have to consult my budget before deciding to listen to all the latest albums in full. I can explore the unchartered waters of bands I’m curious about, but not convinced enough to buy into. I don’t have to actually own any of the music that I reluctantly admit to enjoying *coughsTaylorSwiftcoughs*.

So now I’m faced with the startling question: could this be my music consumption future? Even with my starry-eyed love affair with pretty packaging and outdated technology? I think it could. Maybe.

As I seriously consider allowing Apple to take my money every month in return for this glut of music, I realise that if I choose the digital path, that means ceasing to buy albums in their hard copy form. Which means dealing with a distinct sense of loss. Not just of lingering in the aisles and revelling in liner notes, but also of the delayed gratification involved in deciding which album to commit to.

But given my insatiable appetite for new sounds, perhaps moving with the times won’t hurt quite so much.