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Not Fade Away 2002: Freak Like Me, by Sugababes

"I got into the idea of fictional pop music, which is so much more exciting than the real world. I used to think, 'What a fantastic group this would be' - not if Whitney Houston actually joined Kraftwerk, but if four dour art-school synthesiser types and a beautiful soul diva formed a group because they all lived near each other and they were bored." - Producer Richard X

Here's this week's half-baked theory. At some point in the 21st century we forgot how to do pop music. By we I mean Britain. The country that basically invented pop music. The Americans gave us rock 'n' roll but from the sixties to the nineties the UK continually reinvented the form.

And then somehow mislaid the instructions.

Not totally obviously. In the weeks to come you may well see entries from everyone from Damon Albarn's Gorillaz to Girls Aloud, from Dizzee Rascal to Amy Winehouse, all vying for contention. But skim off the top layer and there's not much depth there, I'd suggest.

You could put it down to the dead hand of Simon Cowell which will increasingly smother British pop in the years to come (and in 2002 Girls Aloud and Will Young are already making inroads, although they are still the best two acts that have emerged from TV talent contests - though neither managed a record in 2002 as good as talent show runners-up Libtery X).

You could maybe blame Britain's guitar bands most of whom spend the noughties desperately - and let's be honest, drearily - trying to reveal their softer sides (what Alan McGee might term as the "bedwetter" genre; you know who he means - Travis, Coldplay, Snow Patrol; though, if I'm honest, I quite like Snow Patrol now and then).

You could maybe even blame Britpop and the long-tail consequence of that genre's obsession with pop's past rather than its future. And so even a talent as stellar as Amy Winehouse looked backward rather than forward to find her musical cues.

Whatever the reason, British pop in the noughties suddenly seems fusty and dated when compared to what was happening on the other side of the Atlantic. And if you wanted a clever, stylish twist on the American original you started to look not to Britain but to Scandinavia. Most of the best quirky pop of the last 14 years comes from Sweden or Norway or even Denmark.

All of which is all the more reason to celebrate a record such as Freak Like Me (the second "freak" record in a row, come to think of it). A genuine barnstorming pop song. So let's give praise for Sheffield DJ and producer Richard X and the mash-up phenomenon.

Something of a bedroom boffin, Richard X - or Richard Philips as presumably his mum calls him - came up with the bright idea of in the early years of this century of taking the vocal from Adina Howard's original version of Freak Like Me and replacing the lazy, plump-cushioned funk that made up the backing track with the tune from Tubeway Army's Are Friends Electric.

The resulting track - We Don't Give A Damn About Our Friends released under the name Girls On Top - could have been a hit except no one had bothered asking for permission and when she heard it Ms Howard didn't approve.

Her loss, in the end. Universal saw the mash-up as the perfect vehicle to relaunch their girl group Sugababes who had by now shed original member Siobhan Donaghy and replaced her with a former Atomic Kitten in Heidi Range.

Freak Like Me was a neat fit for the trio. The aggression of Numan's music - which on Are Friends Electric contrasted sharply with the sense of alienation and loneliness and sexual frustration that suffuses the lyrics - is matched by the sexual aggressiveness of the Adina Howard lyric. As such the song played to the perceived teen stroppiness of Mutya Buena and Keisha Buchanan and threw concealer over Range's obvious light entertainment tendencies. Throw in a video that implies that all three are vampires and you suddenly have a rather more grown-up vision of girl power. Emasculation as aphrodisiac, if you like.

That and the familiarity of Numan's original turned Freak Like Me into a huge hit. And a reminder of how potent good pop music could be.

Sugababes would polish and polish their image in the years to come before eventually watering down the punch of this particular reinvention by shedding Buena and Buchanan in turn (they have now reformed with Donaghy).

Richard X, meanwhile, moved on to work with Liberty X (no relation) and former tween titan Rachel Stevens of S Club Seven, but soon ceded his position as backroom British name to drop to the Xenomania crew.

In fact the major beneficiary of Freak Like Me might have been Gary Numan. The feedback loop success of this song and endorsements from industrial types such as Nine Inch Nails saw him on the up after years in which no one had paid him any attention.

But that's all after the fact. This is the best record of 2002 because it reinvented its stars, Numan and the art of what was possible in pop that at that point. It also was freakish in the best way - in the way it managed to marry sonic ambition to popular acclaim.

It had the X factor, in other words.

Other Contenders

Lose Yourself, Eminem

Just A Little, Liberty X

There Goes The Fear, Doves

Losing My Edge, LCD Soundsystem

Work It, Missy Elliott

Dy-Na-Mi-Tee, Ms Dynamite

Strange And Beautiful, Aqualung

You Held The World In Your Arms, Idlewild

Oops (Oh My), Tweet

Hot In Herre, Nelly

Like I Love You, Justin Timberlake

Sound of the Underground, Girls Aloud

Here to Stay, New Order

I Against I, Massive Attack

Ugly Face, Nina Nastasia

Finisterre, Saint Etienne

NME Single of the Year: There Goes the Fear, Doves

John Peel's Festive 50 Winner: Girls Are The New Boys, Saloon

And the best-selling single of 2002: Evergreen, Will Young

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