Doing it differently
Listening to a batch of new releases, it struck us that 2015 might finally have been the year that pop music got interesting again. So we wondered, why?
A trawl through the charts (whilst wearing our music theory hat) made us realise that some producers are no longer happy to just pump out tracks with the same verse-chorus arrangements as before. Song structures are becoming more complex and surprising, which is just fine by us.
We've gathered together a collection of hits, both current and classic, that showcase unusual arrangements.
Whilst researching this feature we kept returned to the same group again and again: The Beatles. We could have easily filled our list with 10 Lennon/McCartney-penned productions that upset the arranging applecart. From the beat-dropping Yesterday to the operatic A Day In The Life, the group and their Abbey Road engineers innovated at every turn and established a precedent for future artists.
Here are 10 huge hits that ride on their coat-tails, from artists who succeeded in creating some songwriting sorcery of their very own…
1. Underworld - Born Slippy .NUXX
The .NUXX remix that’s popular (with the ‘lager larger lager’ shout-out) was initially the b-side to the original mix but took on a life of its own after being featured in the movie Trainspotting.
Distorted megaphone vocals from Karl Hyde are devoid of any rhyming couplets and come across as a semi-spoken rap over the incessant drums. With no discernible chorus or verses, the runaway beats and synths simply build and build throughout the track. When the dreamy pads resurface towards the end of the song it’s a big relief.
2. Katy Perry ft. Juicy J - Dark Horse
This tune surfed the wave of one of the biggest trends of 2014: the chorus-less song.
The verse sections are built around a pretty standard trap workout. After a minute or so the pre-chorus build begins, introducing synths, sweeps and shouts. But the big build up goes nowhere and simply drops back to the sparse trap beat.
The very final section at the 3 minute mark has an even more epic crescendo, and then the song explodes into... the end. Oh.
See also Iggy Azalea’s Black Widow, Jason Derulo’s Wiggle and Arianna Grande’s Focus, which pull off the same trick.
3. Nicki Minaj - Anaconda
If you ever thought that Sir Mix A Lot’s Baby Got Back could have done with a few more rear-end references then you’re in luck, as Ms Minaj’s Anaconda provides them.
This is less of a song and more like a series of small build-ups, bridges and drops. Nicki’s rapping skills can’t be faulted, but the structure of this track is so far away from a traditional song arrangement that it’s pretty much impossible to work out where it’s going.
Nevertheless, just try and stop yourself from shaking your derriere when this classic is spinning.
4. Demi Lovato - Cool For The Summer
This recent chart hit is pretty standard from a songwriting point of view in all but one distinct way. The verse-chorus structure is pretty much intact, but hides the surprise of a guitar solo jammed in after the verse and before the chorus.
In interviews, writer Savan Kotecha (whose credits include Britney Spears and Ariana Grande) has said that he deliberated for some time over whether to place that solo before or after the main chorus. Thankfully, his unusual decision makes for a far more interesting musical framework than most bubblegum pop hits.
5. Journey - Don't Stop Believin'
You think you know this rock anthem inside out? Well, listen again from an arrangement point of view and you might be surprised.
The title of the song doesn’t even get sung until several verses, bridges and a guitar solo have been played. Finally, the chorus shows up at 3:30 - the point at which most rock songs would already be over.
It’s the leisurely route to the chorus that gives the track its delicious sense of anticipation and anthemic singalong release.
6. DJ Fresh feat. Sian Evans - Louder
It’s the tempo and rhythmic changes that mark this dance track out as unusual in structure. The production begins at 140bpm but quickly halves to 70bpm, adopting a leisurely dubstep feel.
The finale of the track ramps up to a DnB tempo of around 170bpm. This provides a frantic crescendo to the song. DJ Fresh is a fan of unusual rhythms; other singles Make U Bounce and Dibby Dibby both feature some interesting syncopation and rhythmic shifts.
7. Alanis Morissette - Uninvited
Beginning with a simple 3-note piano riff, this track from the movie soundtrack City Of Angels was a Grammy-winning success for Morissette and a club smash when reworked by The Freemasons.
Regardless of the version, the structure is a simple repeated motif building slowly, introducing strings that play ever more frantically as the track progresses.
The stream-of-consciousness lyrics closely resemble ‘strophic form’, a popular storytelling framework in folk music. Morissette has written other songs with similar structures and strophic form, notably The Couch and Unsent.
8. Corona - Rhythm of the Night
This club classic seems to be a pretty standard arrangement, but on closer inspection it’s anything but.
For starters, each chorus has five bars rather than the usual four. This gives each chorus a curiously crooked feel. Secondly, there’s a rave-style bridge section directly after the chorus which pushes the normally C minor song into C major, an uncomfortable transition.
So uncomfortable, in fact, that Bastille entirely ditched these sections for their 2013 shoe-gazing cover version.
9. Prince - When Doves Cry
Thanks to Prince’s self-enforced online lockdown on his videos, we can’t give you a legit YouTube link for this track, but you really should have it in your collection anyway.
This track breaks the mould in a couple of distinct ways: firstly, the chorus is just a simple synth riff with improvised vocal work from the pint-sized popster. Secondly, the song has no bassline at all. Apparently, Prince tried one but then removed it.
This minimalist approach to the arrangement is one of the things that makes the song a classic.
10. Queen - Bohemian Rhapsody
You thought we’d forgotten this vintage slice of rock opera? Of course not.
It’s arguably the best example of a band ignoring traditional tropes and going completely freestyle with their songwriting. The track contains elements of piano ballad, opera and rock.
Despite countless shifts in rhythm, pacing and style, you might be surprised to know that the whole 6-minute masterpiece is actually at roughly the same tempo throughout. It doesn’t sway more than 10 BPM in either direction.
That the song is 40 years old, yet remains fresh thanks to its weaving together of so many different threads, makes us bow down in admiration to Freddie’s expert songwriting skills.