Counterbalance No. 156: Pulp's 'Different Class'

You'll never live like common people. You'll never do what common people do. You'll never fail like common people. You'll never watch your life slide out of view and then dance and drink and screw, because there's nothing else to do. You can listen to the 156th most acclaimed album of all time.


Different Class

US Release: 1995-10-30
UK Release: 1995-10-30
Label: PolyGram/Island

Klinger: Do you realize that when Pulp's Different Class came out in 1995, the group had been toiling away as an underground band in various incarnations for over 15 years? Were you aware that prior to being embraced by the emerging Britpop explosion, Jarvis Cocker and company had far more in common with the Sheffield sound of the 1980s? Or that Different Class actually debuted at No. 1 on the UK album chart?

Of course you didn't, because you and I are Americans, and almost none of the proper nouns in the preceding paragraph have any meaning to us. To the extent that Americans were aware of Britpop, our knowledge extended about as far as Oasis' What's the Story (Morning Glory) and that "woo-hoo" song that Blur did. Pulp had virtually no impact here that I recall, and Jarvis Cocker could bum-rush the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade and throw shapes right next to Santa Claus and it wouldn't register with us. Once again, though, the Great List has forced us ugly Americans to consider music beyond our borders. And you know what? I now very much wish it had been Different Class that had been ubiquitous back in 1995 instead of those yobbo Gallaghers. Think how much more pleasant that would have been, Mendelsohn! "Common People" instead of "Wonderwall"! "Sorted for E's and Wizz" instead of Champagne Supanover"! Can you even imagine?

Mendelsohn: Throwing shapes? Yobbo? Speak proper English, Klinger; I have no idea what you are talking about. I also have no idea when it comes to Pulp, but, as you noted, that has a lot to do with me being an ugly American. Had I been given the choice to swap Oasis for Pulp, I would have jumped at the chance. Hell, I would have taken Adam Sandler farting on a snare drum over Oasis. The problem was, in 1995, the two main purveyors of new music were alternative radio and MTV, pretty much the epitome of ugly America. Thus, I know more about Oasis' dumbed-down, mediocre brand of monkey strumming than I care to and not nearly enough about Pulp's different, defiant but unfailingly likable brand of off-beat pop tunes. Listening to Different Class, I finding myself wanting to know more. Like how did Pulp finally break out of the underground to achieve mainstream success? Why isn't Jarvis Cocker related to Joe Cocker? Joe Cocker is English. Jarvis Cocker is English. How many Cockers can there be in Sheffield? And why are we so ugly? Is it because we have a tendency to be completely and willfully ignorant of anything that sounds slightly foreign?

Klinger: Erm, apart from the bit about two nations separated by a common language and all that, I'd say the main thing that we're accused of (and what helps perpetuate that stereotype even when we're not over there calling things Ley-cest-er-shire Square and whatnot) is not getting two things: irony and class structure. So when Cocker (Jarvis) comes over all creepy and dad-kissy on "Pencil Skirt", we tend to have trouble getting that he's writing from a character's perspective (see also: Newman, Randy, although he is American). I know I did a few double takes when I first listened to that number.

And on "Common People", which is in many ways the centerpiece of the record, we get an incisive look at the Brits' relationship with class structure, which is complete anathema to our bootstrap American views of social mobility. The sense of resignation that you feel as Cocker lays out the realities of being not just broke, not just poor, but stuck in a caste that's set to be your lot in life is real, and you feel it. The fact that it's accompanied by a clever video and a nice dance routine was the icing on the cake, which explains how they crashed the mainstream seemingly out of nowhere.

Mendelsohn: If there is one thing I love about the British (aside from the way tea seems to dictate the way they live their lives) it is their complete distrust of anyone famous or rich. I like the suspicious way they view the upper class, as if those folks did something scummy to get into that position. As opposed the Americans, who are all temporarily embarrassed millionaires, and therefore much more like to go along with the notion that what must be good for the billionaire gander is good for the poor, exploited goose. I'm butchering John Steinbeck, but it serves to illustrate the point and goes to the heart of why I found this album so perplexing from the get-go. Looking at Different Class from this angle really starts to illustrate just how on point Cocker's songwriting is compared to his fellow Britpop compatriots. Cocker's jabs aren't directed solely at the upper class -- it seems that no part of society of even his own life is safe from his acerbic wit. "Sorted for E's and Wizz", is a great send-up of the festival culture, a tongue-in-cheek portrayal that simultaneously ridicules and winks at most concert goers.

But even as he's taking broad swipes all large sections of British society or working out a character study, it's Cocker's more personal numbers that I find really engaging. "Disco 2000" is a tale of young love that never came to fruition, and I still can't decide whether the song should make me sad or make me smile.

Klinger: You can do both—the ability to smile sadly is what separates us from the animals. As I've been listening to Different Class, I've found myself thinking about glam a good amount, and for a while there I wasn't quite sure why. Then I started to figure it out. Not only does the group—and they do give each band member composing credit—employ certain epic, highly Bowiesque chord progressions (most notably on tracks like "Mis-Shapes" and "Something Changed") and expressive synth washes from keyboardist Candida Doyle, but they also dig into the seamier side of life ("Live Bed Show", "Underwear"), which puts me in the mind of Roxy Music's "In Every Dream Home a Heartache".

The big difference (sparkly unitards aside) seems to lie in their ability to simultaneously connect with and distance themselves from those influences. It seems to me that the group understands that even if their music comes across as a larger-than-life sound, their audience by now has to know that it's coming from fairly regular humans. I think that's why they come across as the more relatable, third-way option in the ginned-up Britpop battles of the 1990s. The Gallaghers were more than willing to be rock stars; Cocker and company seem to recognize it for the farce that it is. Maybe it's because they had been at it longer (and were a few years older), but they seem to have a perspective that was (and still is) all too rare. Am I making sense, Mendelsohn?

Mendelsohn: More sense than you know. That connection between Pulp and the glam-rock forebears is actually really illuminating. After a couple of spins through Different Class I found myself pulling Roxy Music's For Your Pleasure off the shelf. About half-way through that album I began to wonder why I had felt the need to get it out and promptly put it away feeling slightly confused. Strictly speaking, Roxy Music's dark art rock doesn't quite match up with Pulp's brightly colored pop because Pulp isn't really a direct descendant of Roxy Music, but they both inhabit very important points in the glam rock spectrum. Roxy Music was a step or two to the left of Bowie, picking up the avant-garde cues while Pulp is further down the right side toward the pop end by way of Marc Bolan and T. Rex.

I also like the idea that Pulp represented the third choice in the Britpop invasion, much the same way that Bowie had previously represented the third choice. Glam rock, the all-encompassing term that it is, offered an umbrella to artists looking beyond mere pop convention to turn rock music into an expressive art form, a sort of hallowed middle ground where art and commerce came together.

Klinger: Yes, and apparently that's what happened over there in the UK when Pulp crossed over into the mainstream. But then, they seem to get a few more opportunities to have smart, literate songwriting take over the pop charts, in a line that extends from Ray Davies through Bowie and toward Jarvis Cocker. Of course, they pay for that by having to endure Crazy Frog ringtones topping the charts (not to mention whatever that whole Cliff Richard thing is about over there). Still and all, more's the pity that we ugly Americans had to miss out on this whole Pulp thing. I suspect we may have gained a great deal from it.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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