A Spotify playlist featuring Girls Aloud’s eleven best tracks
For a band manufactured for a TV show – sorry, for an ITV show – Girls Aloud were bloody good, the perfect collision of the zeitgeist, a gap in the market, and a production team at the zenith of their powers. In fact, the combination of the band – Nadine Coyle, Sarah Harding, Nicola Roberts, Cheryl Tweedy-Cole-Fernandez-Versini and Kimberley Walsh – together with the Xenomania team of Brian Higgins and Miranda Cooper was so good, it practically justified the continued existence of ITV at a stroke.
Sitting somewhere at the junction of electronic dance-pop, indie guitar pop and product marketing, the band’s music was always strongest when there was a playful middle-fingered experimentation about it. Here at Airstrip One Towers we would probably argue that in many cases the singles were not the strongest songs on the albums; merely the most commercial. Hopefully, this Spotify playlist will illustrate both the commercial and experimental sides of the Girls Aloud project.
1. No Good Advice (Sound of the Underground, 2003)
The band’s second single – “a disco track with guitars” – was released in May 2003 and only kept off the top chart position by balladeering insomnia cure R. Kelly. It did however scoop a far more prestigious title that year, the Popjustice £20 Music Prize for best single of the year (one of several the girls would win). Although the girls were never fans of the video, the song itself featured in at least the first three tours. For the first tour, the musicians played the intro to Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick In The Wall” which then segued into “No Good Advice”. For the second, the girls and their backing six-packs were dressed as mad scientists and the extended middle 8 featured Cheryl disappearing from the stage only to reappear moments later. This willingness to play with the format of their live shows was as much a part of their tours as the hideous hairstyles seemingly imposed on Nicola.
Bonus fact: there isn’t a version on Spotify of the original vocal track as heard in the live show seen below, which features the phrase “shut your mouth because your shit might show”.
2. Graffiti My Soul (What Will The Neighbours Say, 2004)
The most glorious single Girls Aloud never released almost wasn’t even recorded by the band. It was originally written for nasal mobile phone network shill Britney Spears, but her management team said it needed “more of a chorus”. Her loss was certainly GA fans’ gain; it was the album track voted by fans to be included on the 2012 reunion compilation “Ten” in remixed form. Critically lauded by everyone from the Observer to the Arctic Monkeys, it was destined to be the last single from the album but time pressures on the band prevented that from happening. It’s a brilliant sonic experiment, driven by a guitar sample from Peplab’s “It’s Not The Drug” and featuring one of the girls’ many attempts at rapping.
3. Models (Chemistry, 2005)
The group’s third album is, mystifyingly, their least successful, failing to even bother the top ten. It’s the most consistent of the first three and apart from the obligatory Christmas ballad “See The Day” and throwaway UK bonus track “No Regrets”, it’s fizzing with ideas, fun, unconventional structures and incredible sounds – not to mention “Biology”, officially The Greatest Pop Song Of All Time.
“Models”, the album opener proper, encapsulates everything that makes the album great. Each girls sings (or speaks) what appears to be parts of entirely different songs whilst backing tracks of electronic pop and lift muzak wrestle behind them. The whole thing is perfectly odd and wonderfully good fun.
4. Biology (Chemistry, 2005)
The most perfect pop song since The Beatles did “Help!” and officially The Greatest Pop Song Of All Time. It eschews the traditional ABAB, verse-chorus-verse-chorus structure of most pop songs in favour of a more avant garde ABCDEFAF, intro-verse-bridge-another bridge-is this the chorus or the bridge-no wait this is the chorus-hey this is the intro again does that mean it was a verse-oh crikey it’s another chorus-goodness me I need a lie down structure. The whole thing is Quite Magnificent and the fact that it didn’t even make number one in the chart shows a collective, country-wide stupidity that would manifest itself a dozen years later as a vote for Brexit. Don’t say you couldn’t see it coming, the signs were there all along.
5. Swinging London Town (Chemistry, 2005)
Or, “Graffiti My Soul” part 2, the spiritual follow-up in sonic experimentation. The lyrics are a straight jab at the vapid airheads that occupy the Mail Online’s sidebar of shame, and an uppercut to the paparazzi who involve themselves in Girls Aloud’s (okay, primarily Sarah’s) private lives – or at least, the idea that they are trying to sell of what the girls’ private lives are. There are some brilliant lyrical gymnastics and as with “Models”, very distinct musical segments. It’s a real shame that this didn’t feature as part of the Chemistry Tour. As with “Model” and “Racey Lacey”, there’s a lot of fun that could have been had on-stage.
6. It’s Magic (Chemistry, 2005)
The track that follows “Swinging London Town” on “Chemistry” is its hidden delight. It’s an only slightly more conventional structure, but its downbeat brilliance comes from the subtle sonic layering mixed with Nicola’s sombre singing (she performs solo). Whereas “The Loving Kind” is a similar sort of downbeat but uptempo number, that has an optimism and twisting, shimmering brightness that “It’s Magic” simply doesn’t have. As we know from the lyrics on her solo album, Nicola was given a difficult time in the band from external sources and both the lyrics and performance are probably representative of her state of mind at the time.
“See the Day” and “No Regrets” aside, practically any track from “Chemistry” could feature on a list such as this. Whilst “Out of Control” represents a more polished, professional and consistent peak (apart from that “intern spending 10 minutes in PhotoShop” cover, FFS) it simply doesn’t match the joyful experimentation and sense of fun that “Chemistry” has.
7. Hoxton Heroes (2007)
The lyrical and sonic experimentation wasn’t just reserved for albums and special mention must be made of the B-sides, of which there are two standout examples. “Hoxton Heroes”, co-written by the girls and poking fun at trendy indie bands who made more headlines in fashion magazines than music papers, was written during the “Tangled Up” sessions and appeared as the B-side to “Can’t Speak French”. The other B that almost made the list is “Androgynous Girls” and its wonderfully world-weary lyrics:
Pretty boys back in fashion with androgynous girls
Pretty soon shit’ll happen, what a wonderful world
And your mum’s getting younger to your daddy’s delight
But he can’t feed his hunger, what a beautiful life
8. Black Jacks (Live from the O2, 2008)
Some tracks – I’ve mentioned this phenomena before, in connection with Duran Duran – simply sound better live. “Black Jacks” is one of them. On “Tangled Up” it’s a perfectly acceptable dance-pop track with an oddly chunky rhythm, but live, as seen in the clip below, it becomes a soaring, quasi-Motown blockbuster. It showcases both the girls’ growing confidence in the live arena (mixed with what Popjustice called their trademark endearingly shambolic choreography) and their willingness to play, to experiment, and where required to vamp/ham it up completely. It says something that this is the highlight of the show, even though it comes in the same segment as “Biology” and “Can’t Speak French”.
9. Fling (Live from the O2, 2008)
Another “Tangled Up” track that lives for live performance. It’s a pop dance affair which in concert is preceded by a completely ridiculous/brilliant spoken word sketch, which no doubt sowed the seeds for Sarah Harding’s future acting career. The live version features a beefed-up rock guitar sound not present on the album version and some hitherto unimagined vocal pyrotechnics from the girls.
10. Miss You Bow Wow (Out of Control, 2008)
Prior to the album’s launch, Brian Higgins of Xenomania was quoted as saying that the band were moving more mainstream and that the new album would need to reflect that. “Out of Control” is the band’s biggest selling studio album and easily their most polished, sonically and lyrically. Probably because of that, it’s a little soulless, especially when compared to “Chemistry” and “Tangled Up”. Whilst “Untouchable” is probably the group’s most polished song ever and remains the album’s scintillating standout, “Miss You Bow Wow” is the only song that could have appeared on “Chemistry”. It has the same unorthodox production and frankly bonkers lyrical content that made “Chemistry” such a high. I literally have no idea what the song is about.
11. Untouchable (Out of Control, 2008)
Prior to Brexit, the greatest injustice inflicted on the population of these Isles was the radio mix of this, the group’s most ambitious single, the stand-out track from “Out of Control” and their best work pre-hiatus. The instrumental breaks which gave the track its emotional depth were removed and the girls’ vocals vocodered to the point where they sound like C-3PO singing in the shower. If the album version had been paired with an extended version of the high-concept, high-budget video that accompanied the single, it would have been their greatest moment and the perfect way to call time on the Girls Aloud project.
At the end of this, a special mention has to go to Nicola Roberts for her solo album, “Cinderella’s Eyes”. Whilst Cheryl may have scooped up the big sales and Nadine bossed the bargain bins at Tesco, Nicola produced the one critically-acclaimed and credible post-GA work. The three singles are the rousing “Beat of my Drum”, poptastic “Lucky Day” and contemplative “Yo-yo”, but as with Girls Aloud there’s even more interesting fare on the album. In particular, check out the fiercely personal lyrics for “Sticks + Stones”.