Insanity, Fever, Drugs, and Other Lies
Hot 100 Roundup—4/12/14

Shakira—“Empire”
#58

“Empire” is so insane that I couldn’t tell you whether it’s any good or not. Shakira borrows half a dozen different vocal effects, invents a few of her own, ties them to some of the silliest lyrics you’ve ever heard, piles dramatic climax onto dramatic climax, and somehow makes it all work. In Shakira’s deranged delivery the line “and the stars make love to the universe” sounds silly, pretentious, illogical, and indescribably profound all once. I doubt there’ll be another moment quite like it all year. And I still don’t know if the record is any good.

Lady Gaga—“G.U.Y.”
#76

You can hear elements of her great past—hints of “Bad Romance”, her flair for hooks and dance rhythms—but this is like a ghost of Gaga’s old self. The talent and craft are still there, but it’s hard to tell where her passion lies anymore. Not in creating cohesive pop songs, that’s for sure.

The Black Keys—“Fever”
#77

Cut the length by about half (mostly by removing the last minute or so), remove most of the vocals and mix the organ up (yes, even higher up), and you could have the garage instrumental of The Black Keys’s dreams. Or maybe nightmares, which might explain why they screwed up a good idea so badly. Deep in their hearts they know what they’re doing is trash, but they’re too intellectualized to admit it.

Rixton—“Me and My Broken Heart”
#87

Now that OneRepublic has become tolerable and The Fray and The Script have essentially disappeared, somebody had to step in and fill the vapidity gap. Ladies and gentlemen, meet Rixton.

B.o.B. featuring Priscilla—“John Doe”
#89

Priscilla is a Rihanna wannabe who is only here because B.o.B. can’t afford, or can’t approach, the real thing. B.o.B. himself is a wannabe rap star who lucked into a couple of stunning features a few years ago (Bruno Mars and Haley Williams), and has been trying to recreate that luck with diminishing returns ever since. Here he cops to addiction, an honorable enough thing to do, but also a calculated career move. I would trust his confession more if he didn’t slip into a flow reminiscent of Eminem in the middle of it. Either he couldn’t come up with a flow of his own for the subject, which means he’s cheating or at least shortcutting his own emotions, or he’s lying. I’d bet on the first. It’s a misdemeanor at worst, but it still looks bad.

Jake Owen—“Beachin’”
#94

Properly arranged, the chorus here could be worthy of the Beach Boys. It isn’t properly arranged, though—there’s nothing daring in it—and it’s tied to the most godawful country rapping you’ve ever heard. And I bet Owen thinks he’s being brave releasing this as a single.

Tyler Farr—“Whiskey In My Water”
#98

While one version of Farr goes “Redneck Crazy” and threatens to crash his truck into women’s bedrooms, the other likes to sit by the fire, unroll a lot of romantic cliches and get drunk on his darlin’s eyes. Which one to believe, I wonder.

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No, No, and Oh My God No
Hot 100 Roundup—4/5/14

Calvin Harris—“Summer”
#69

When pop producers go EDM, their productions are still recognizable as pop—the beats and flourishes may be different, but the overall structure holds tight to tradition. When DJs go pop, though, the result is often a clumsy mess. Approached from the EDM side the traditions don’t merge as well. The structure is all wrong, builds and bridges are truncated or stuck in the wrong places, and the emotional resonance built into the forms are lost in the collision. This isn’t to fault the DJs. Anyone can hang a new sound on an existing structure, but attempting to make music in an entirely new framework is much more difficult. I get the feeling Calvin Harris really is trying to do something different, but I’ll be damned if I know what it is, and I’m not sure he does, either. Harris doesn’t write songs in the formal sense—”Summer” consists of a single verse with no actual chorus—and his music is full of cliches, taken either from EDM or rock. He does his own singing, though, which, considering his voice is reminiscent of Dr. John’s, only without resonance, is brave of him. His voice provides the only semblance of humanity on the record, and it’s welcome. But with these lyrics and this music, it doesn’t make things that much better, and I doubt that anything could.

Tim McGraw—“Lookin’ For That Girl”
#96

I appreciate McGraw’s willingness to toy with his sound—here he uses a drum machine, voice filters, and a lot of autotune—but it doesn’t make his songs any better. In fact it may make him settle for mediocre material figuring he can gussy it up. He can’t.

Ellie Goulding—“Beating Heart”
#98

“The departure lounge of disbelief”? Are you fucking kidding me?

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I Luh Ya Pop
Hot 100 Roundup—3/29/14

Soko—“We Might Be Dead By Tomorrow”
#9

Yet another YouTube flash, debuting in the top ten and disappearing completely the next week. Soko herself isn’t a flash—she made a wonderful record with Cornershop a couple of years ago—but this is hardly normal pop material, and most likely even those who watched the video didn’t really notice it. There have always been media driven hits, but this may be the first one where the music is secondary and it’s chart placing is essentially an accident. There have been plenty of top ten hits that no one remembers, too, but now we have one that no one was even trying to remember. How can you say a record is popular when no one is consciously listening to it? This odd, inoffensive blip, not a great record but not a terrible one, whose arrival in the top ten barely generated comment, may be the greatest argument yet against Billboard’s current chart formula.

Kristen Bell and Santino Fontana—“Love Is An Open Door”
#49

Cute; unbearably cute.

Luke Bryan—“Play It Again”
#78

The chorus has a lustful quality that’s rare in country, but overall this is Bryan at his most overbearing and mediocre. Everything bad about current country is in it, and very little of the good.

YG featuring Drake—“Who Do You Love?”
#78

I read somewhere that YG represents a return to straightforward rap or something. Which apparently means guys bragging about how rich and tough they are over minimalist beats. Where have we heard that before? Drake easily walks away with the track, but it’s not like he had to break a sweat to do it.

Eminem featuring Nate Reuss—“Headlights”
#86

The dark past that was, in a sense, Eminem’s muse, has become his crutch—whenever he runs out of juice he can always dredge up his mother, or his ex-wife, or his kids, to apologize to or berate or both. He’s become the John Wayne of rap: stolid, predictable, always playing the same role in the same costume, with rotating guest stars. Here he employs Nate Reuss to provide the plangency. Reuss sings very well, but his part amounts to an entirely separate song uncomfortably wrapped around the other. Sounding uncomfortable is one of Reuss’s trademarks, but in this case it doesn’t work.

Sara Evans—“Slow Me Down”
#89

Even in country, there should be a limit to how many comeback attempts you can make. Evans is way over it.

Ty Dolla $ign featuring Wiz Khalifa & DJ Mustard—“Or Nah”
#91

Even more straightforward than YG, with the addition of sexual power games thrown in. Bad enough to put you off the sound of squeeky bed springs forever.

Tiesto—“Red Lights”
#97

I understand Tiesto once showed promise as a DJ, but that doesn’t mean he can make a pop record. He can’t sing, has a lousy sense of structure, and stole the best bits from “Teenage Dream”. I bet he was never that promising a DJ, either.

Jennifer Lopez featuring French Montana—“I Luh Ya Papi”
#98

You can hear Beyonce’s influence all over this, but coming from Lopez it doesn’t mean much—just another way of scoring a hit, she hopes. It doesn’t seem to be working, largely because the record is too low key. It’s jolly enough, but it doesn’t jump out at you the way a great pop record should. Not that I would expect a great pop record from Lopez, but you’d think she would understand this stuff by now.

Future featuring Pharrell, Pusha T & Casino—“Move That Doh”
#99

As good as much of this is—especially Mike Will’s beat, Pusha T, and Pharrell’s old school flow—it still boils down to ancient tropes on the usual subjects. Even the best beats and the most inventive raps aren’t going to revive them or turn them into something new. The reality behind them hasn’t changed, but if that reality is going to matter again, if it’s going to mean anything to anybody, it needs to be approached in a different way. I have no suggestions; just pointing out the problem.

Disclosure featuring Sam Smith—“Latch”
#100

I’m having a hard time making up my mind about this record. I like it, but I don’t like it a lot. The music is often lovely and Sam Smith deserves all the positive press he’s been getting. The main problem is the overall structure: the way “Latch” is constructed it seems like it should be much longer, but it could benefit from being rearranged and made shorter, as well. The first would turn it into a great dancefloor track, the second into a good to great pop song. I know Disclosure are trying to create something new by tredding that middle ground, but they haven’t done it yet, and the current result is a fairly pleasant mishmash, but not much else.

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Unconscious: Hot 100 Roundup—3/22/14

Coldplay—“Magic”
#24

The news of Chris Martin’s breakup with Gyneth Paltrow, conscious or not, lends this song a certain poignancy. It sounds like too little too late, as if Martin was arguing with someone who’s already made up her mind. Half the time, he doesn’t seem certain whether he believes what he’s saying or not. The resignation in the music backs this up: sad, regretful, but not necessarily devastated. Of course, that sound, coming from a man who normally trades in the vaguest sort of sentimentality, may be a sign that Martin doesn’t know what to do with a real, cutting emotion when it rises up within him, just like the rest of us. It almost makes you feel sorry for him, no matter how much he may have deserved it.

Phillip Phillips—“Raging Fire”
#58

Mumford & Sons with strings, or, didn’t you always know it would end like this?

Young Money featuring Drake—“Trophies”
#73

A Drake solo cut in all but name, left off his last album and stuck on a Young Money mixtape. That should give you an idea of how much attention you should pay to it.

Rick Ross
“Sanctified” (featuring Kanye West & Big Sean), #78
“The Devil Is a Lie” (featuring Jay Z), #86

If all it took to be a great rapper was will power, Rock Ross would be one of the best. You can feel how hard he works, how much he wants to be great. But it takes a lot more than that. It takes talent, and intelligence, and imagination. Ross has an average share of the last two, but of talent he has next to none. This time out, he’s found music that matches his clunky, need-to-take-a-breath-every-five-words flow, but that only emphasizes his weaknesses. His guests (except Big Sean) easily run circles around him. It’s unfair to compare Ross to two of the best, even on his own records, but it is fair to mention that if it wasn’t for them, these tracks wouldn’t have made the chart at all.

Iggy Azalea featuring Charli XCX—“Fancy”
#88

Charlie XCX steals the record—considering she’s one of the greatest hook writers to appear in the last few years, this is no surprise—but she doesn’t save it, because nothing can be rescued from Iggy Azalea. The problem isn’t what she is—a white woman trying desperately to recreate black style—it’s that she sounds like what she is. Her vocals are so fake, so forced, so distorted, that it’s impossible to hear anything but her misguided ambition and self-importance. I don’t call racism every time I hear a white artist imitate black style, but this is minstrelsy plain and simple: not love and theft, but insult and theft. And it makes me sad that an artist as promising as Charlie XCX is involved in it.

Wisin featuring Jennifer Lopez & Ricky Martin—“Adrenalina”
#94

For his first solo track in something like a decade, Wisin pulls out all the stops, and the result is fast, loud overkill, with Jennfer Lopez contributing not much more than some name-recognition outside the Latin market. She sounds just as anonymous in Spanish as she does in English. As for Wisin, his personality is overwhelmed by the arrangement, with its constant shifts and rush. Then again, maybe he doesn’t have one, either.

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Don’t Go Cryin’: Hot 100 Roundup—3/15/14

The Chainsmokers—“#SELFIE”
#55

Of course the music is all cliche—that’s part of the joke. And of course the vocals are incompetent even at being stupid—that’s part of the joke, too. As is the already dated quality of the words themselves. Problem is, laughs are supposed to be part of a joke, too, and I don’t hear any. Not one. Which makes all the other stuff sound even worse than it’s supposed to. Makes it sound crueler than it needs to be, as well.

Justin Timberlake—“Not A Bad Thing”
#65

A perfectly fine record by a perfectly fine artist, a man from whom, based on previous achievements, many people (not me) expected better, even though, little more than a year ago, they expected nothing at all. “Not a Bad Thing” will probably be the last music from the 20/20 project to hit the charts, and whether Timberlake ever makes a record again depends not on this one’s success or failure but on his whims and his ability to read the fine print of his contracts. I would prefer that he care more about what he’s doing next time, if there is a next time, but I’m sure it will be fine all the same. If he does or doesn’t, I mean.

Pitbull featuring G.R.L.—“Wild Wild Love”
#89

Riding the Avicii-inspired gravy train, here’s yet another c&w/dubstep mashup from a man who, over the last couple of years, has almost created a private genre out of EDM and style-jumping pop samples (Flo Rida sticks to the blues, but Pitbull will sample anything). “Wild Wild Love” is less catchy than “Timber”, and the joins are more obvious, but Pitbull has made himself the king of stupidly entertaining dance music, and I for one hope he never stops.

Fitz and the Tantrums—“The Walker”
#93

You know how to whistle, don’t you? You just put your lips together and suck.

Paramore—“Ain’t It Fun”
#96

I’m sure there are some I’ve missed, but you’d probably need to go back to “Like a Prayer” to find such effective use of a gospel choir on a pop record. The trick isn’t the voices or how they fit in the arrangement (though both are excellent), it’s the words, which are funny without being less serious, and uplifting without resorting to cheap homily. Though “Ain’t It Fun” is obviously directed toward the departed members of the band, the message is universal. The words “real” and “reality” are the center upon which all of Paramore (the album and the band) spins, and I can’t think of another recent pop star who has matured as suddenly or brilliantly as Haley Williams. She’s done it without losing an ounce of her vitality or sense of fun, either. If anything, both have increased. I don’t know if she’ll ever top this album, which grew out of special circumstances, but I can’t wait to hear her try.

Neon Trees—“Sleeping With a Friend”
#100

After the retro-hop of “Everybody Talks”, the seriousness and emotional depth of this record is a surprise, if not exactly a pleasure. “Sleeping With A Friend” fits better with their past records than you might think, though: remove the noisy electronics and the dense arrangement and you have power pop without the twang, not that far removed from what they’ve done before. The chorus could easily be that of a lesser Squeeze song. The lyrics aren’t as dense as Squeeze, in terms of wordcraft or emotion, and the arrangement disperses a lot of the song’s power. Still a promising bunch, maybe even more promising than before. I just worry about them taking things too seriously.

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Old Guard, New Guard, Right Guard: Hot 100 Roundup—3/8/14

Lorde—“Glory and Gore”
#88

In case you missed the overarching metaphor the first time out, Lorde would like to explain The Hunger Games to you. The battle for adulthood is on, only in Lorde’s version it’s three-way combat: against the establishment, against her fellow teenagers, against herself. But there’s more involved than just growing up to be the person you want to be. It’s also about creating the world you want to live in, which sometimes means destroying the old one. Lorde’s singles seem to be moving in a definite direction. On “Royals” she set herself against the dominant pop paradigm, on “Team” and “Tennis Courts” she urged her fellows to join up and come along, and now, on “Glory and Gore”, they enter the ring, ready to do battle. World domination is the obvious next step (isn’t it always?). I don’t think she’s joking, either. But it will be interesting to see how long her determination holds up, even metaphorically.

Naughty Boy featuring Sam Smith—“La La La”
#98

The music is ordinary when it isn’t silly, but the message, even if the lyrics get muffled and didactic at times, is serious. Willful ignorance being my least favorite thing in the world, I don’t normally applaud those who support it in any way, but if younger people are going to have any chance of creating a world anywhere near what they want, the first thing they’ll have to do is stop listening to us oldsters and start thinking for themselves. But it isn’t as if Naughty Boy and Sam Smith have stopped their ears completely; it’s only when they realize that they’re hearing nothing new or helpful that they tune out. I still go back and forth on this; that hook is more often irritating than entertaining, and childishness is never the answer to anything. But it’s a start.

U2—“Ordinary Love”
#99

Meanwhile, U2 keeps on trucking the good fight, hooking itself to a Nelson Mandela biopic and applying its impeccable craftsmanship to another plea for (what else?) love. “Ordinary” love, at that, which I’m not sure even exists—shouldn’t love be extraordinary by definition? This sort of thing is second nature for U2 by now, and in its own way this is perfect, if hardly earth shattering. They’re not making any new discoveries, just driving home what they already know, which besides metaphysical paradox includes an enduring bass and drums groove. I mean, would anybody outside the U.N. or the Gates Foundation listen to Bono at all if it wasn’t for Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen, Jr.?

Justin Moore—“Lettin’ the Night Roll”
#100

Sample titles from Moore’s new album, Off the Beaten Path: “Beer”, “Wheels”, “Dirt Road Kid”, “One Dirt Road”, “Field Fulla Hillbillies”, “For Some Ol’ Redneck Reason” (featuring Charlie Daniels!). Not only does that path sound beaten, it sounds graveled, steamrolled, asphalted, landscaped, and about six lanes wide to accommodate the bumper to bumper pickup trucks that roll on down the highway 24/7. The album also includes Moore’s last single, “Point At You”, which isn’t bad, and Moore has done good things in the past. But “Lettin’ the Night Roll” is bro-country at it’s most obvious and irritating, and I’ll bet the rest of the album is worse.

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Everything is Automatic: Hot 100 Roundup—3/1/14

Tegan and Sara featuring The Lonely Island—“Everything Is AWESOME!!!”
#62

Children’s music from a children’s movie, and therefore easy enough to ignore. I find it fascinating, though, that this song was created by three groups of artists—counting producer Mark Mothersbaugh—whose approach to music is largely formal, as stiff and geometrically straight-edged as the product they’re promoting. It’s hard to imagine a more perfect match of brand and representative. Enough so to make me wonder if there isn’t something wrong with Legos that I never suspected before. Something cute and colorful, but still sinister.

Miranda Lambert—“Automatic”
#63

Everytime I listen to this song I wait for the payoff, the verse or middle-eight where Lambert exposes some deeper personal detail that reveals the real reason for all this reactionary blather about marriage as the solution to all problems and manual gear shifts. But there isn’t a payoff, the song really is about the joys of snail mail and clutches and payphones and nothing else. Even with that payoff this would be a mediocre song at best—though still a relief from the endless grind of bro-country. Without it it’s a mystery, and even farther from average country fare. It’s not a fake, though; I have no doubt that Lambert means every word. That’s what bothers me.

Young Thug—“Stoner”
#75

I may as well say this straight out: rap isn’t much fun anymore. That doesn’t mean it isn’t any good—a lot of it, including this record, is great or near great—but it’s become more insular and idiosyncratic, turning in on itself musically and lyrically. There are brilliant records being made this way, but they’re rarely the sort of thing you’d expect to find near the top of the charts or in heavy rotation on radio. “Stoner” is a perfect example. The beat is great, Young Thug is an excellent rapper, and the record is funny in its way, but its way is one that someone not familiar with stoner, or stoner rap culture, would most likely never get. The record makes no attempt to explain or apologize for itself to any other audience. That it’s done as well as it has on the charts just means that the niche audience for this kind of hiphop is large enough to make its presence known and possibly influence the development of pop as a whole. But I suspect that power will wane, and that the days of hiphop as the dominant pop genre are soon to be over, if they aren’t already. That doesn’t mean it’s dead—no genre ever dies—or render it meaningless, it just means it will be moving, for want of a better word, “underground” for a while, where it will no doubt transform into something else and reappear stronger than ever. Meanwhile, you might have to start hunting to find the good stuff. In a short time, I suspect the best of it won’t be appearing on the charts, or the radio, at all.

Buck 22 featuring Billy Ray Cyrus—“Achy Breaky 2”
#80

A novelty record based on what was essentially a novelty record to begin with, and if it were an actual hit this would no doubt inspire all kinds of essays on the collapse of popular taste and the enduring grip of schlock. But it’s not a hit; it spent one week on the chart and then disappeared. So score one point for popular taste. At least now we know the modern audience isn’t completely stupid (though only idiots would think it was in the first place).

Mariah Carey—“You’re Mine (Eternal)”
#88

A lot of people are citing this as another Carey comeback, her best single since, well, her last single, but all I hear is a slightly modernized version of the same schlock she put out in the nineties, including a meaningless and misplaced demonstration of her vocal gifts. “You’re Mine” is less sentimental than Carey at her worst, but that just means it’s ordinary as opposed to insulting. It’s not exactly tearing up the charts, either, so I guess she’ll have to put off her latest comeback until the single after this one.

MKTO—“Classic”
#96

When you have your studio pre-sets tuned to “I Want You Back” you can get away with almost anything, but only if you don’t sing like a couple of Glee cast rejects.

Ellie Goulding—“Explosions”
#100

Overall I like Goulding, but this is terrible: overwrought, pretentious, and most surprisingly, poorly sung. Plus it includes a background choir that sounds like a sample from The Wizard of Oz. How do records like this even get on the chart?

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Human: Hot 100 Roundup—2/22/14

Jhene Aiko—“The Worst”
#87

I’m not sure whether to laugh at or admire a line like “Don’t take this personal, but you’re the worst”, and I feel the same way about the music. The beat is OK, but it doesn’t grow or make any strong point, and Aiko, even though she’s from California, has created a variation of the irritating little-girl voice that dominates current British pop. The record is good at sustaining an atmosphere, but it’s an atmosphere generated by a spoiled brat who thinks very highly of herself and pouts adorably when she doesn’t get her way. Echh.

Christina Perri—“human”
#90

Underneath the melodramatic arrangement and Perri’s limited vocal talent is a very good, if not great song desperately trying to get out. Stripped of all of Perri’s usual metaphoric flourishes, “human” presents the straightforward emotions of a woman doing her best to live up to the demands of what sounds like a very dominating man, and if you want to read that as a metaphor for the plight of all women in the current culture, go right ahead, because the song is strong enough to bear the load. Instead of filling her lyrics with flowery analogies, Perri has written a song that’s one giant, hard-edged analogy. It’s a leap for her, and I only hope that a decent singer with a sense of restraint takes a whack at it. In the meantime this has standard written all over it, and will no doubt result in many a hastily arranged rendition from contestants on The Voice and American Idol, not to mention the next season of Glee. I have no problem with that at all.

Brett Eldredge—“Beat of the Music”
#97

Eldredge’s last single, “Don’t Ya”, was entertaining if nothing else. This is closer to the nothing else, but it wins points for being a bro-country song that never once mentions trucks, muddy backroads, or daisy dukes. Otherwise, “Beat of the Music” is pretty much the same song as “Don’t Ya”, only it takes place in Mexico (without once sounding like Kenny Chesney or Jimmy Buffett, which is another point in Eldredge’s favor). His voice isn’t bad, and he sets up a decent mid-tempo groove, but Eldredge needs to come up with better material if he wants to be his own man. Not doing what the other men do isn’t enough.

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Top of the World, Ma! Hot 100 Roundup—2/15/14

Romeo Santos featuring Drake—“Odio”
#45

This is fine, if Less loco than Santos usually gets, but I’m becoming more and more wary of his attempts at crossover. Drake singing in poorly accented Spanish is bad enough (though his rap is kind of cute), but the portentous spoken intro—”Envy is a sign of admiration” Santos croaks, and follows with a non-sequiter that’s even more obvious—is worse, and there’s no one Santos can blame for that but himself. The music and his voice are as gorgeous as ever, but Santos needs to be careful; he’s pointing himself in a direction where those won’t be enough to save him.

Kacey Musgraves—“Follow Your Arrow”
#60

Compared to the hard truths of “Merry Go ‘Round”, “Follow Your Arrow” is more than lightweight, it’s damn near non-existent. “Arrow” is pleasant enough, but if Musgraves thinks YOLO is a way out of the darkness of Same Trailer, Different Park, then she has a hell of a lot to learn. What if a person’s arrow leads them to alcohol and drugs, or prostitution, or the Westboro Baptist Church? It’s easy to offer advice like this when you only imagine the positive outcomes. Unless this is meant to be a version of the lies those living in trailer parks tell themselves to get by (and it doesn’t sound like it is), Musgraves is more simplistic than most thought her to be. The next album well tell, I guess, but in the meantime this is just depressing.

Keith Urban—“Cop Car”
#74

Less smarmy than usual, mostly because Urban is telling a story instead of simply declaring his passion. Trouble is he’s a terrible storyteller—”Cop Car” rambles so much it takes three or four listens to figure out what’s going on. Narrative points don’t matter, anyway, because nothing’s more important to Urban than how he feels. Everything else is just decoration. The same goes for his guitar playing: he feels like he’s expressing himself, so what difference does it make if the resulting solo is a showboating monstrosity? Urban has become the definition of self-absorption. When he gets old he won’t need Depends; he can be his own diaper.

Eric Church—“A Man Who Was Gonna Die Young”
#89

The best song from The Outsiders to hit the charts so far, “A Man Who Was Gonna Die Young” is also the simplest musically, harking back to Church’s first two albums, only with a deeper level of emotion and experience. Thin as his voice is, he’s becoming one hell of a singer: when he lowers his voice he sounds like an aching national guitar. The song has one dud line (“pushing up daisies” is too cliche to fit with the rest of the song), and there are a couple of brief moments where Church overreaches, but otherwise this is perfect.

K. Michelle—“Can’t Raise A Man”
#94

“These are the signs of a grown-ass boy” is the line of the year so far, and I wish there was better music to go with it, but “Can’t Raise a Man” drags too much and is too ordinary. Michelle has a lot of promise, but she hasn’t learned to put it all together yet.

Imagine Dragons—“On Top of the World”
#100

After all the monsters and demons and radioactivity (not to mention the apocalypse), suddenly Imagine Dragons get happy—a happiness they telegraph, just like their inner torment, with cliches. Hand claps, shouted choruses, steel drums, they’ll misuse anything to get their point across. The real point being, of course, that they don’t have one; they’re just trying on different attitudes to see what clicks. This one hasn’t, so far. They should be back with their doom mongering any time now. Which probably won’t improve their faulty sense of grammar: “Been dreaming of this since a child” they sing. Since a child what? Stole your toys? Ripped your comic books? Beat you bloody with a whiffle bat? I don’t even want to think about what “I’ve had the highest mountains/I’ve had the deepest rivers” means. If you’re going to fill your songs with cliches, at least use them correctly.

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Pop and Power Ploys: Hot 100 Roundup—2/8/14

Austin Mahone featuring Pitbull—“Mmm Yeah”
#60

No matter how I try I find it impossible to understand why anyone with any business sense would push a nondescript talent like Mahone. Somebody’s investing a lot of money in this kid, who’s a competent singer and projects infinite good cheer but has not a single distinguishing feature or an ounce of personality. How much do you suppose they paid Pitbull for this feature? Whatever it was, Pitbull cashed the check with a smile on his face, a playa’s chortle, and a conspiratorial wink at the teller. Another sucker who thought he could buy a hit.

ScHoolboy Q—“Man of the Year”
#81

The sound is different, and sometimes mesmerizing, but the message is old school: I’m rich, I’m buying, dance for me and have sex with me. ScHoolboy Q doesn’t sound as blunted-out as some of his contemporaries, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t. It just mean he handles it better than they do. Raps better, too. I wonder if he’ll ever have anything interesting to say.

Enrique Iglesias featuring Marco Antonio Solas—“El Perdedor”
#85

If I knew Spanish I’d be better at seeing through Iglesias’s lover man pose, but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s far more believable in Spanish than he ever is in English. Apply these vocals techniques in English, as Iglesias and others have tried to do, and you drip with smarm, but in Spanish you sound like the world’s greatest and most sincere lover even as you lie through every pore of your body. I understand why Iglesias and others, like Romeo Santos, want to cross over, but they shouldn’t. Everything they do is more effective in Spanish, and the market gets bigger all the time. Instead of being kings of Latin, they may find themselves nowhere at all.

Hunter Hayes—“Invisible”
#88

Hayes is a talented guy, and as cliched as much of this song is, it’s well-crafted and, lyrically at least, never gets too sappy. But his instincts are pure show-biz, and he’s about as believable and trustworthy as an infomercial host. There’s nothing wrong with patterning your music on Michael Buble and Sara Bareilles (though it is odd for a guy who’s been pegged as a country singer), but he lacks their saving graces of cynicism and sarcasm. They know it’s all an act, even when they mean what they say (which is why you believe them), but Hayes, as far as I can tell, doesn’t know anything at all. He’ll buy into whatever comes out of his own soft head. There’s no doubt, no pain, no tension, even in a song about bullying. The result is music so bland and yet so confused it wouldn’t even work as background in a mall. Maybe he’ll learn someday, but it’s hard to change direction when you start out this young and in this way. At the rate he’s going, he’ll be playing Branson before he’s twenty-five.

Trey Songz—“Na Na”
#91

I have no idea whether Songz has read Emile Zola, but I find it fascinating that his “Na Na” matches almost perfectly with Zola’s Nana, a novel about a dancer and courtesan who destroys every man who dares to pursue her. Songz believes he can win his Na Na over, of course, or at least get her to come home with him for the night. He’s aware that many men have tried and failed, but, being the hero of his own fantasy, he assumes he’ll succeed. That’s what all the men in Zola’s novel thought, too, just before they were bankrupted or driven insane. It’s interesting that Songz doesn’t finish the story; he boasts about his prowess, but we never learn the result. The similarity in names is probably a coincidence (I’m not sure in Songz’ case that Na Na even is her name; it may just be the reaction her appearance produces), but the echoes of Zola’s story are there all the same. Too bad the music is standard issue at best.

The 1975—“Chocolate”
#96

The bouncy hooks and the light, boyish vocals provide cover for the dark, violence-tinged lyrics, and though that may be an unusual combination in the US, in the UK it’s a fairly standard pop ploy (and one that I’m normally a sucker for). Standard enough, and pop enough, in fact, that whatever serious message they’re trying to convey is so heavily obscured it gets lost. I don’t think they’re toying with violent imagery just for the fun of it, but I still can’t figure out what they’re getting at lyrically, and the music, catchy as it is, doesn’t provide any clues. If the music were more than catchy I might not care, but it isn’t.

Rico Love—“They Don’t Know”
#100

Erotic power games are fascinating in their way, but I’ve always found them a little dull on record, especially when it’s the man who holds all the power. Making his mistress keep their relationship a secret, even when his wife knows about it and occasionally takes part, is just another way for Love to demonstrate his dominance over both women, and he makes sure we never hear their side of the story (the only thing he praises his mistress for is keeping her mouth shut). Suave and sophisticated as the music might be, this is the equivalent of a rapper ordering that bitch to get down on her knees. It’s all about the power.

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