sugaround Xenomania – the songwriting and production team on “Round Round”, led by Miranda Cooper and Brian Higgins – defined 00s British pop, at least in the eyes of chart-friendly critics. Their magpie approach to genre, their patchwork song structures, their knack for a resonant line, all added up to music that wore its artfulness and populism with equal pride. If you believed that pop was worth celebrating, Xenomania provided gift-wrapped proof.

With hindsight, they weren’t the centre of UK pop – their crafty flourishes were a rearguard action, a heroic but doomed skirmish in a losing fight against acoustic drear. That’s for future entries, though. The signature Xenomania group – which didn’t even exist when “Round Round” came out – was Girls Aloud, and it’s their hits I’ll use to think more broadly about Higgins’ and Cooper’s style and project and legacy. But in Popular terms, the most successful was their partnership with the Sugababes. “Freak Like Me” was a masterpiece, but it could easily have been a singular masterpiece – it made a self-contained point, and if that had been the last the world heard of the group, you wouldn’t have been too surprised. It’s this follow-up that has to stabilise the Sugababes, establish them as an ongoing group without losing their moodiness.

It does so magnificently, and – in classic Xenomania style – it uses the structure of the song to do it. “Round Round” is built as a posse cut, with three entirely different verses each resolving into the “round round baby round round” churn of its chorus, whose shuddering foundation is an inspired lift from dance track “Tango Forte”. The structure works thematically – three different scenarios, each of which ends with the ‘babes shrugging off a suitor and returning to the nightlife rotation. But it also works practically, establishing the Sugababes as individual but indivisible.

The “Tango Forte” rhythm makes “Round Round” sound like an older sister to “Overload”, the group’s excellent debut – both tracks have a sense of subdued but irresistible momentum. (With its third verse “Round Round” also borrows “Overload”’s trick of a last flamboyant push against that rhythm before it locks back inexorably into place.) But emotionally, the tracks are very different. “Overload” is suffused with the dreamy passivity of early adolescence, the fatalistic sense of waiting for events to happen to you. In “Round Round” the ‘round’ – the rhythm of events – is a part of life the singers are fully at home in.

And this changes the appeal of the Sugababes. With the original trio, the queasy hook was their internal chemistry – who disliked who, how long would their surly alliance last? But “Round Round” builds out from that, picks up where “Freak Like Me” left off, setting up the reformed group as a team, each strong on their own, taking on the night together. I don’t know enough about the dynamics of girl friendship to say how true it is, but this is certainly familiar territory from fictions of that friendship – the double-sided stereotype of teenage girls as uniquely cruel to one another and also as sharing unbreakable ties. These were powerful ideas to be tapping; they helped make the Sugababes stars.

Score: 8

[Logged in users can award their own score]