Pop – or rather, the perception of it – has come a long way since 2003. As a forum-frequenting witness to the feverish hostility between fans of the UK’s most prolific noughties girl groups, I appreciate that crowbarring Girls Aloud into a reappraisal of a Sugababes album may scan as a mammoth failure of imagination. But while it’s safe to assume that at gunpoint any pinhead could muster a joke about the Sugababes’s infamous line-up changes and the philosophical implications they present, there appears to be significantly less interest in the Freaky Friday-style swap that took place between the perceived credibility of each band by the end of their Top 40 tenures.
Sugababes began life as young counterparts to All Saints, with their remarkably cohesive but underrated debut One Touch setting the precedent for the adolescent trio; they were moody, despondent and reluctantly cool. One change in personnel and one triple-platinum album (2002’s Angels with Dirty Faces) later, and the ‘Babes were bona fide popstars with a skilfully retained edge over the talent show-assembled Girls Aloud. The addition of glossy Liverpudlian Heidi Range may have resulted in some welcome lad mag coverage, but the Sugababes were still ostensibly seen as credible and streetwise when compared to their nubile pop puppet rivals. This is despite the fact that each group’s launch – or in the Babes’s case, relaunch – hinged on the work of the same production team.
“Round Round” and “Sound of the Underground” remain alien to cliché, and both came courtesy of Xenomania. Even though their full-time musical avatars Girls Aloud could knock out a flamboyantly aggressive masterpiece like “Graffiti My Soul” by their sophomore album, the band’s tacky image, along with the singer / songwriter marketing angle the Babes established with the release of One Touch, allowed the latter to emerge as identifiably credible. But as we learnt during the risible busker-rock revival of 2005-07, credibility means zilch if you have nothing else to offer. There’s no doubt Range, Mutya Buena, and Keisha Buchanan had something special between them, and it was the Three era that distilled this in its most potent form.
Try our own mix of “Three” via Spotify.
5. Mutya Keisha Siobhan – Flatline, TBA
Before being swallowed into an never-ending maelstrom of pushbacks and false starts, it seemed like the S.S. MKS was in pretty competent hands. The girls’ story – that of three girl group members who were each alienated from a once-credible British institution over a period of nine years – was as hipster-friendly a narrative as anybody who performed on CD:UK could ever hope for. A sly A&R team hooked the trio up with a clutch of hot-property producers including Sia, Naughty Boy, and Dev Hynes, who gained notoriety helming acclaimed tracks for Solange and Sky Ferreira. “Flatline” chases the sleek, disenchanted 80’s sound of 2012 favourites “Losing You” and “Everything Is Embarrassing”, but rather ironically lacks the sugary energy of either.
The opening lyric of “Don’t say it, no / Please wait till were sober” is delivered with a depressed choke by Siobhan Donaghy, whose own 2008 solo album “Ghosts” would be the most obvious reference point were it not also so obviously inspired by the work of Kate Bush. Hard, thundering drums and riotous male-led battle cries evoke memories of “Hounds of Love”, although it appears someone onboard was smart enough to corroborate “Flatline” against a checklist of the original line-up’s own idiosyncrasies. Mutya Buena’s gravelly tone and Donaghy’s verbose lyricism both make appearances, while Keisha Buchanan’s trademark adlibs draw a devastating break-up anthem to a strangely euphoric close.
4. St. Lucia – Elevate, When The Night
This is St. Lucia’s second appearance on our list, and it’s a tribute to the South African-born musician’s range as a performer that he can just as easily put his name to a relentless EDM banger such as “Modern Hearts” as he does to more organic fare like this. That’s not to say “Elevate” is lacking in thrills; conversely, it’s something of an aural carnival. Gilded synths swirl like an ice cream van’s siren, while swathes of electronic fuzz aim to leave your head swimming. The ecstasy of the song’s production offers a distraction from the dark subject matter; “Elevate” is ostensibly a love letter to a rather tragic character. “No one / elevates you / elevates you, now”, St. Lucia (née John –Philip Grobler) belts throughout the song’s chorus, presumably to a loyal if despondent friend. It’s tempting to see the irony of such a lyric being used as such a soaring, undeniable hook, but perhaps that’s the point; sometimes a song isn’t enough.
Not that you’ll be focusing on subtext by the halfway mark. The real magic of “Elevate” comes with the arrival of a morbidly obese bassline, squalling trumpets and a barely intelligible chant that dominates the track’s denouement. If it sounds like a mess, let it be known that this flourish is achieved with a stupefying sense of elegance, resulting in a song as colourful, bittersweet and regrettably brief as life itself.