There is one topic of argument in music, among everyone I know and everyone online of my generation, that seems to result in one inescapable conclusion: the current UK Top 40 is terrible. Not in comparison to any chart of the past, but in comparison to having your innards whipped out by a bear. Having said that, single sales – physical sales – peaked around the late 70s and early 80s, and this period is markedly different to today in one major aspect.
Basically, if I were to awake chloroformed and hogtied with my wife and children before me, tied to chairs with guns against their heads, and their salvation were conditional on my singing an Ed Sheeran song, or in fact any current top ten song, they’d be fucked. The same goes for most of the apparently well-known artists and best-selling tracks of this time.
Chart songs of earlier decades worked their way by cultural osmosis into the general population. Songs were parodied on comedy shows, and became fondly remembered, even if ironically, many years later. Though it is syphilis inducingly bad, for instance, anyone can sing I Should Be So Lucky. People are actually fond of even the more nauseating songs of the past, save their love for Save Your Love as much as for Don’t You Want Me and more to the point they knew about these songs at the time. The top 40 simply does not resonate within culture anymore. It does not reach or affect a general audience.
On the other hand, maybe I am old and jaded, and fail to understand modern culture. After all, to me the Sleaford Mods just sound like thingy from The Streets with a thorn stuck in his paw, angrily waiting for the political analog of Androcles.
But no, that is not the point either. I am sure most people in 1987 did not have a firm understanding of Acid House but most could still quote Pump Up the Volume at you. They at least knew it existed and could name it. My dad – bless him – was born in 1933 and his favourite musical acts were Mario Lanza and Jeanette MacDonald but in the 90s when he wanted to illustrate an anecdote about a jobsworth he quoted Snap!’s The Power. I’m pretty sure he never listened to Radio 1 or bought Now! Compilations but he must have got it into his head somewhere. Long story short, to test all this I’m going to do something we never actually do, that probably no-one who enjoys music does anymore, and that is I am going to listen to the top 40 and give a short review of each thing I encounter. Maybe we are wrong and it is full of musical genius. Perhaps the problem is the lack of Top of the Pops or an equivalent to supply the watercooler moments that cultural absorption requires. Or perhaps it is all just shit.
Chart as of 16/3/23, and hearts out of five.
40. Tom Odell - Another Love: A reissue of an old hit, this begins as a slow, emotional ballad but builds into a strong, cathartic outpouring of regret. It’s a good start to this countdown, a perfectly good song.
39. Meghan Trainor - Made You Look: The shtick is 50s style doo wop with “body positivity” messages, that ring somewhat hollow when she merely assumes the perfection of one body type as opposed to another. Very similar to her previous efforts, I might find it mildly amusing if I was lobotomised. It’s downhill from here, I feel.
38. Kid Laroi - Love Again: Hiccupy auto-tuned vocals are immensely irritating. Just having a semi-acoustic guitar does not make you hip. And while I am sure the breakup/makeup lyric is heartfelt, the chord sequence is annoying and pedestrian and doesn’t go where you hope. It’s short though, so there is that.
37. J Hope/J Cole - On the Street: A member of BTS and an American rapper. A pleasant enough beat and almost old-skool sound. Whistling as well, I have a soft spot for whistling. J. Cole’s attempt to rhyme “creator” and “theatre” does please me, however. No idea what they’re on about, of course. The lyric seems to boil down to everything I do I do it for you, but this includes “everytime I love”, which makes little sense unless he texts her a thumbs up every time he bones someone else.
36. Sza - Snooze: Slow, rap, I guess, about her boyfriend. Lazy vocal which makes me want to get her to enunciate more clearly, I guess it’s not really aimed at me. “In a drop top ride with you I feel like Scarface, like the white bitch with the bob I’ll be your main one.” How, how exactly do you feel like Scarface? Does being “Your main one” mean not being their “only one”? Do you have any self respect? Is that the point of this?
35. Nathan Dawe - Oh Baby: (and a lot of other people) – A sample from Au Seve by Julio Bashmore, rap by Nathan who is from Nottingham, apparently. His girlfriend is on hand to warn him that he is not the only one with eyes on her. Fortunately he is a rude boy, because she does not want a polite one. I hope they have a good night out, which seems to involve a lot of riding around and a five-a-side football match, from the video. Seem like a good bunch.
34. Jax Jones, Whistle: More whistling! It’s a bit Robert Miles for me though and actually saying “Whistle” over the whistling seems a bit carbs on carbs if you see what I mean. Not bad though. Good for a club song.
33. Sub Focus and Dimension - Ready to Fly: Bit of drum and bass, another song that makes no real sense to me out of the context of an actual club, no reason I’d listen to it at home really. The ending where it kicks up a gear gives pleasantly nostalgic 90s vibes.
32. JayO - 22: His girlfriend is 22. He likes fucking her because she looks prettier then. She is too hot to handle but he puts his hands on her anyway. A slow Afrobeats track. I don’t have anything to add really. I can’t imagine listening to this in any context. Misogynistic rubbish. ZEROs
31. Lil Uzi Vert - Just Wanna Rock: I did not think I’d like this at all, going by the artist name, but I actually quite like the spacey synth intro and the drama of the whole thing. It sounds more like the intro to a track than an actual track though, it could almost be the theme music for an 80s sci-fi movie set in the Bronx.
30. Nicki Minaj - Red Ruby Da Sleeze: Another case of assuming I’d hate it but actually quite enjoying listening to it. It’s obvious that the lyrics and delivery are related to Nicki’s heritage and probably outside my frame of reference. A lyric such as “Dorito bitches, mad dat they nachos” (i.e. Not Chose(n)) is either completely bonkers or some kind of genius. I have no idea which.
29. Sam Smith & Kim Petras - Unholy: What’s to say? It isn’t that the song, from a musical perspective, is that awful, although it is, it’s the ridiculousness of everything around it. The video, the live performance, the visuals, the tik tokkery. The faux-offence, the cringeworthy 1970s ”no-sex-please-we’re-british oohh look at me I’ve got a bustier on and a liquorice whip”. (Momus reference there). Just…. No. To paraphrase Slade: Wham bam no thank you, er, they. The fact that people are listening to this for their fix of sophisticated sleaze instead of, for example, the album Shag Tobacco by Gavin Friday is very depressing. Strong -10's.
28. Arya Starr - Rush: Clearly this celebrates culture from the singer’s home nation and I don’t pretend to understand all the lyrics. It’s pleasant, I really do like the bridge and chorus, and from what I do understand there are positive sentiments here: “Can never take my cake away”, I can get behind that.
27. Metro Boomin + Weeknd + 21 Savage - Creepin: Complicated origin story to this one. An Enya song – Boadicea, was sampled by the Fugees for Ready Or Not, which was then sampled for the song I Don’t Wanna Know by Mario Winans in 2004. This new song is a sort of cover of that. I just listened to the Enya track to save time. It’s all right I guess. I think Boadicea was a less calm and reflective person than the track suggests though.
26. Caity Baser - Pretty Boys: Christ, Lily Allen and Kate Nash have a lot to answer for. Caity is complaining about the pretty boys with nothing in their heads because she keeps falling for them, I guess it’s amusing and catchy but like the boys it has little else to offer.
25. Taylor Swift - Lavender Haze: I tried to listen to this and concentrate on it, but I just couldn’t. There’s just nothing there to listen to. It’s the absolute aural equivalent of thin air, wafting around you with nothing to actually grab onto (missus). She seems to be complaining about being made to do “1950s shit” like being a bride, doing what she is told etc. She’s a multimillionaire. She can do anything she wants. Shut up. ZEROs
24. Venbee and Goddard - Messy in Heaven: No, it’s not Messi in Heaven, and it’s not Vic Goddard, either of which would make this somewhat more interesting. I’m pretty sure I’ve heard this backing track or something virtually identical before. Substandard 1990s aping beats.The lyrics, about drug use – by Jesus, in heaven, are at least a little arresting. Hardly shocking though.
23. Pink - Never Gonna Not Dance Again: An unnecessarily complicated double negative spouting title there. This sounds like nothing so much as a Eurovision song contest entry. The verse and chorus hit various “that sounds a bit like…” moments and it’s very much a Dad/Aunt dancing song. She is, after all, not exactly in the first flush of youth now. So it’s aimed mainly at her die-hard fans. I really don’t care if she dances or not. Having said all that, and being objective, it’s nicely composed and fun.
22. David Guetta - Blue: A redo of Blue ba-da-fucking-be using the word Good instead of Blue. Features Bebe Rexha, who describes the kind of exhausting party-all-night situation that would drive me to tears of boredom. ZEROs
21. Stormzy - Hide and Seek: No doubt he’s a great writer, and role model. I can’t say this song excites me much though. It’s kind of the rap equivalent of Dire Straits. Again, as usual, I may not exactly be the target audience.'s for me. I know, I’m a terrible person. But it’s just boring.
Half-way and so far I’m not massively impressed, it would seem, but also it’s not quite the total shit pit of racism and misogyny I imagined it would be. My favourite so far though is the Enya track that gave me a break from listening to all this.
20. Niall Horan - Heaven: Typical boy band escapee grabs an acoustic guitar and puts a 4/4 stomp over what is actually a typical boy band song. There are the usual sonic cliches, holding the song underwater for a bit, the whistle-like keyboard trilling, rhyming kiss and miss.. it’s too easy to mock the lyrics, but “even if our love starts to grow out of control”, “and you and me go up in flames, heaven won’t be the same”… sounds like he’s inducting some poor girl into a death cult. I wouldn’t get in a car with him for fear of his driving straight off a cliff while pouring Kool Aid all over me.
19. Taylor Swift- Anti-Hero: So there is another cliched idea here, singing to and about yourself. Taylor, unfortunately, does not have the language skills or talent of, for instance, Ren. “It’s me, I’m the problem, it’s me”, she warbles, as if the fact that depression and angst have internal origins is some kind of Shyamalan level twist or a revelation that Taylor is generously imparting to us. As previously noted on this site, the song includes the deathless line “Did you hear my covert altruism I disguise as narcissism”. It also includes the line “Sometimes I feel like everybody is a sexy baby”. Is it an unusual or original melody or arrangement then? Is it fuck. She’s already a star, I will supply her with no stars if I was giving them but since OL only does love hearts for music, ZEROs
18. Mae Stephens - If We Ever Broke Up: Not a bad beat, another clipped singing voice, sort of annoying, but a funky track. This could be by Metronomy, musically at least. She’s saying if she broke up with – the boy – she wouldn’t be sad, so maybe they should, in fact, break up. Oh these lyrics, so dull, so obsessed with shallow relationships. I miss the early 80s when all the songs were about nuclear war or obscure german film stars.though for the funkiness.
17. Cian Ducrot - I’ll Be Waiting: And if the songs aren’t about shallow relationships, they are about missing fathers. It feels cruel to attack what may well be a heartfelt song from Cian about this perceived betrayal, but the more soulful piano that is piled on, the more autotuned glitches that are added to the voice, the less it is actually emotionally effective. The cracks in his voice towards the end suggest that he means what he is singing, and that is what we want, just some kind of sincerity. So 3 hearts, but he loses one for supporting Ed Sheeran on tour.
16. Pink - Trustfall: There’s an advert for British Gas, the greedy arseholes, using Mr. Blue Sky which comes on first. Now I’m in a worse mood than I would be just from having to listen to more blandery. It’s not pink so much as off-white. You can imagine the lyrics, the music is speedier than the previous one, not as much fun. She wants to be Roxette, I think.. No-one would spend money on this.
15. George Ezra - Green Green Grass: Well, Shotgun was inarguably a great pop song. This is basically the same sort of thing, with reduced impact. It unfortunately has nothing to do with the Tom Jones classic or the inexplicable sitcom featuring that Boycie from Only Fools and Horses. Soonly for being a lazy git. Resting on his laurels, he is. The other thing to note is that I have actually hear this before, I mean, I remember it. So… it has hooks, I guess.
14. Raye - Escapism: Starts with screaming synth string noise which promises much, and descends into the typical (but very good) urban female voice, which has been cloned across much of the top 40 so far. The actual sequencing and chords are good, there are more interesting segments to this than in any song so far. The drama here actually matches the samples and instrumentation used. The story, having been dumped the character goes out on a sexual rampage and night out, is slight, but everything here ties together better than I expected it to., and to be fair it may be much better than that, but of course, I probably don’t “get it”. I haven’t been out on any kind of rampage for years. This was number 1 apparently.
13. Mimi Webb - Red Flags: Very chirpy, hooky song from the point of view of the girl in a relationship (the same hiccupy voice yet again) who seems unable to leave despite all the clear “red flags” that are displayed by her utterly detestable boyfriend. Kind of similar to Pretty Boys at 26 but slightly more serious in approach, I can see this being popular and it’s an important message.
12. Strandz - Us Against the World: Exactly the sort of rap and beat that I can’t be bothered with, the video in a boring club, lots of champagne and bling. I like the samples at the start, classy stuff. Then it’s all “grew up in the ghetto” and “us against the police”, etc. etc. ad nauseam.
11. Tiesto -10:35: Generally, you know it’s going to be terrible if there is a title card with the name of the song and the artist in large letters. It isn’t that the singer - Tate McRae – is bad. It isn’t that the song isn’t mixed well or produced by someone with every device that exists at their disposal. The problem is that there just isn’t a melody you can remember. The lyrics are meaningless, not in a memorable way, but just forgettable. It isn’t any different to a million other tracks. ZEROs, because of boredom.
Before the top ten, I should mention that up to now I haven’t recognised a single one of these songs apart from the George Ezra one. I either haven’t heard them before – and I do go out of my way not to hear the top 40 – or I have heard them and instantly forgotten them. When will I hear something I recognise?
10. Coi Leray - Players: Oh for fucks sake. This is not what I meant. What am I supposed to say about this? Go and listen to it, yourself. Stars? I mean,for the sample. ZERO s for everything else. “Bitches get money all around the world cos girls is players too”, is the intelligence on display here.
9. Harry Styles - As It Was: I have heard this, of course. And if I was a teenager I would be desperately trying to hate it while secretly singing it in the bath. Now I’m older I can admit things more easily. The bell like riff that opens the song, a production that marries an 80s pop aesthetic with a modern club rhythm, a modulated nostalgia and melancholy against what should be an upbeat melody, this works so well where Anti-Hero massively over-eggs the pudding. As It Was has no over tricksy word play or ludicrous imagery, just a plaintive but honest set of statements, which boil down to “Harry, you’re no good alone”. Also, just compare Harry’s assault on fashion and image to that rendered by Sam Smith – this is how you do it, with warmth, humour and without seeming to try too hard. Oh how I’d love to hate him, and this, but I don’t.
8. Libianca - People: A slow song, with a sad but pretty melody disguising a pretty heavy discussion about responsibility, about depression and about looking after each other. “I’ve been drinking more alcohol for the past five days, did you check on me?” With the current crisis in mental health it is not surprising that this sort of topic has arisen in the top 40 in a number of contexts, along with toxicity and loneliness. It needs raising and addressing, in all communities. This is a good one.
7. Lizzy McAlpine - Ceilings: I thought McAlpine did windows and doors. Anyway, this falls into the sensitive acoustic guitar led category, as the protagonist agonises over a fantasy romantic figure, in a situation that doesn’t really happen. The ending is strong, and it’s a relatable piece for young people.
6. Rema - Calm Down: Pleasant enough beat and rapping, utterly ridiculous lyrics, again not a culture I can really comment on, I imagine. For instance, “Then I start to feel her bum bum, but she dey gimme small small”. It’s just really simplistic in many ways.
5. Miguel - Sure Thing: Another pleasant enough rap, but again it’s so simplistic, “you can be the blackboard, I can be the chalk”…. It’s just dull. I really can’t think of anything of interest to say about it. Like the previous song, the chords and progression are just uninteresting and uninspired.
4. Sza - Kill Bill: Hello it’s her again! The video is a literal interpretation of the film Kill Bill, as a caravan containing Sza is shot up by her ex. I had no idea that producing insipid pop music was such a dangerous business. Having said that, this one isn’t that bad. The chorus of Kill Bill is quite nice, as Sza sings “I might kill my ex, not the best idea”. There’s a sense of humour here, and the video is a nice little pastiche of Tarantino’s over the top nonsense. Once the joke wears thin though, what’s left is a fairly attractive production. I like her voice here much more than I did on the other song.
3. Weeknd - Die for You: A strong production, a big, electronic sound, building well through its length, strong vocal and lyric about a collapsing but longed for relationship. Still not something I’d listen to as such, but it would be churlish to say it is less than.
2. PinkPantheress - Boy’s A Liar: A song in which PinkPantheress dissects a useless ex, but not without doubting her own worth “What's the point of crying? It was never even love Did you ever want me? Was I ever good enough?”. Nice little keyboard patterns, good beats, nostalgic sound from the noughties, I can see the talent, will probably never listen to it again.
1. Miley Cyrus - Flowers: This is yet another bloody break up song isn’t it. With a sample from I Will Survive, or at least strings very like it. She can buy herself flowers, she can take herself dancing. Good. Because I don’t want to. Go away. ZEROs.
What have I learned from this?
The main problem with the chart, for me, is the lack of diversity. Oh, not in terms of colour, race, ethnicity etc. There’s a wide and healthy variety of people in the chart. I mean in terms of sound. The equivalent top 40 of 1982, for example, had room for reggae, rockabilly, folk, electronic and experimental electronic, funk, rock, whatever Bowie’s Baal’s Hymn qualifies as, a bit of Julio Iglesias, some heavy metal, new wave, mod, cheesy pop, manufactured bands, AOR, a torch song or two.. you get the point. 2023’s top 40 is really very homogenous sounding, with two or three main categories of song.
The other issue is lyrical: I said earlier that an 80s song was as likely to be about the nuclear holocaust we then expected as about a thwarted love affair. Pretty much all the current top 40 is about relationships, with a couple of exceptions around the theme of mental health awareness. Whereas I enjoyed earlier pop music for the enigma that was often on offer, working out what the song was about and perhaps never really getting it. From that 1982 chart, Party Fears Two, The Damned Don’t Cry, Love Plus One… these songs did not give up their intentions after one listen only, they often required considerable contemplation.
These current songs literally wear their hearts on their sleeves, and give nothing to think about beyond the literal message. They are surface level and boring, and that is the main takeaway I have. In order to grab the few seconds of attention available on streaming services, everything needs to be immediate. Which is also why you won’t get the bonkers openings of songs like OMD’s Maid Of Orleans anymore. I mean, listen to those industrial sounds and imagine that on streaming services now or the radio. As a sidenote, there are no remotely political messages I the current top 40, and you have to ask, why on earth not? There should be protest and rage against the current national and international situation, but you would think it was happy-happy-party-time if you listened to this top 40, there’s very little reference to anything in the real world.
This is not, of course, to say that “all” modern music is like that. It absolutely is not. That is why outsideleft exists. It’s just useful occasionally to listen to the actual charts and wonder what it is that draws people to these songs, a world completely divorced from my own musical landscape.
Based in Scunthorpe, England. A writer and reviewer, working as a Computer Science and Media Lecturer and Educator. Sometimes accused of being a music writer called John Robinson, which is not helped by being a music writer called John Robinson.
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