Out, In, Up, Gone
Hot 100 Roundup—11/1/14

Taylor Swift—“Out Of The Woods”
#18

The album may be called 1989, but the real source, for this song at least, is 1965 and the melodramatic girl-group sound of the Shangri-las. The wistful, echoing background vocals, the bracing shifts in dynamics, the car crash climax: all the parts are there, modernized just enough to make them seem contemporary (which is a weakness, since what they really are is timeless). None of this necessarily makes “Out of the Woods” a great song—most of the Shangri-las’ weren’t, and this inherits and continues the style’s overwrought shallowness—but I appreciate the recognition of a great tradition. Who knows, once the heat of Swift’s career has cooled down, this may seem as good a record as “The Train From Kansas City”.

Nico & Vinz—“In Your Arms”
#82

The music, despite its African influence, is pleasant but nothing more, and the melody is uninspired. The lyrics, though, are something else, tracing as they do the shrinking opportunities of a young man’s life until he’s left with nothing but the boring nine to five. Everything is fine, though, as long as he can lay in his lover’s arms. This is sweet in its way, and the realism a surprise, but the music is too bland to drive the point home. Still a deeper song than you’d expect, especially at this moment in pop history.

Jessie J Featuring 2 Chainz—“Burnin’ Up”
#86

I know I’m not supposed to use the word “strident” when referring to female singers, but what other adjective applies? Sharp? Shrill? Stabbing? Jessie J takes her readymade pop so seriously that she forces all the fun out of it and beats you half to death with her stiletto heels in the process. 2 Chainz, meanwhile, tries to turn himself into Pitbull but only makes it halfway to Flo Rida.

Glen Campbell—“I’m Not Gonna Miss You”
#90

A song about fading into Alzheimer’s by an artist who actually is fading into Alzheimer’s, and, yes, it’s as creepy as it sounds. Maybe more so, due to the creakiness of Campbell’s voice and the bland arrangement. Which doesn’t mean it doesn’t have an effect. Whatever you might think of “I’m Not Gonna Miss You” or even the fact that Campbell recorded it, there’s no doubt that the honesty is brutal. Campbell knows that it’s selfish to be glad that he’ll never notice his loved ones’ pain as he fades away, but he can’t help thinking of it as a blessing. The problem is, he may be wrong. He may very well see and feel their pain but never be able to express it. That’s the dark undercurrent of tragedy that gives the song its depth and resonance, and it’s doubled by the fact that we may never know whether Campbell intended it or not.

Bobby Shmurda—“Bobby Bitch”
#96

Successfully following up a viral hit is a near impossibility, so it makes sense for Shmurda to strike while the iron is still in the top ten. This is mediocre at best, though, built on a beat that seems to have wandered its way here from 2004 or so. Those horror-movie synth-strings don’t carry quite the same menace anymore.

The Weeknd—“Often”
#97

The voice is decent but nothing special, the music willfully obscure, the lyrics banal when not offensive (and sometimes even then). And yet this guy has been an indie darling for a few years now. I’d like to think there’s a disconnect in there somewhere, but I’m afraid there isn’t.

Lee Brice—“Drinking Class”
#99

The audience pandering is so thick you almost miss the pretension built into the arrangement, which consists largely of a mixture of humming and grunting by a choir made up entirely, I assume, of good ol’ boys. If there was an actual song attached it might be interesting. All “Drinking Class” really does, by replacing the rhyming word “ass” with the off-rhyme “backs”, is prove what a chickenshit Brice is.

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Yes, That Means Everybody
Hot 100 Roundup—10/25/14

Jimmy Fallon featuring will.i.am—“EW!”
#26

I appreciate Jimmy Fallon’s love of music, because it results in great bookings on his show, but I’ve never found him funny, and this joke was done better earlier in the year by “#selfie” (even then it was out of date). will.i.am, who’s a bigger joke than anything Fallon will ever come up with, provides the professional gloss and grease.

Florida Georgia Line—“Sippin’ On Fire”
#62

Slightly deeper lyrically than usual, but these guys sing about romance and cheating the same way they do about partying and drinking, which makes it sound like the only reason they want the girl to dump her guy is so she’ll be more fun to be around on the weekend. If she doesn’t, there’s always another girl on the tailgate.

Ed Sheeran—“Thinking Out Loud”
#69

A decent mid-level British soul ballad ruined by Sheeran’s inability to shut up. Chop off the first verse and spice up the too-spare production and you’d have a palatable record, if not a great one. He’s learning, but only by fits and starts, and I doubt he’ll ever get it right.

Avicii—“The Days”
#78

EDM producers love their machines, but they don’t seem to know how to record vocals. Avicii makes Robbie Williams sound like just another John (Martin, Newman, etc.). This doesn’t matter much in pure EDM, but Avicii is trying to make pop music, writing structured songs and inserting electronic imitations of Clarence Clemons to give them that “rock” feel. It makes perfect sense for Avicii to model his music on Bruce Springsteen at his most bombastic, but it doesn’t mean he’s any good at it. Maybe he should aim a little lower.

Ariana Grande & The Weeknd—“Love Me Harder”
#79

Despite the presence of The Weeknd, who takes the idea of an emotionally harder love and crudely turns it into a reference to the pressure between her thighs, this may be Ariana Grande’s best record. The more emphasis she puts on her sultry lower register the better she sounds (which shouldn’t be a surprise, since it was true of Grande’s model, Mariah Carey, as well), and the production sets it perfectly, especially on the chorus. She should take this as a lesson: less strain equals more emotion. Even Carey figured that out in the end.

Brad Paisley—“Perfect Storm”
#85

Even when he’s exhausted, which he obviously is, Paisley still knows how to put a song together, and there’s nothing technically wrong with “Perfect Storm” except for a couple of dud lines and a less than stellar guitar solo. It doesn’t have much energy, though, and when he makes pop by the numbers Paisley doesn’t sound any better than anyone else. You’d never mistake him for Kenny Chesney or Keith Urban, but please, someone needs to make this man to take a vacation.

Fergie—“L.A.LOVE (la la)”
#97

This travel itinerary for the rich, dull as it is, does bring one nagging if unimportant question to mind: is Fergie doing Iggy or was Iggy doing Fergie all along? And if they made a record together, would both their careers implode? Here’s hoping.

Yo Gotti—“Errbody”
#98

Musically it’s ordinary, but the lyrics, which lay out as well as anyone ever has the problems I have with rap in general these days, are perfect. “Errbody on Instagram looking like they’re rich/But they’re not” pretty much sums it up. He even admits that he helped start the ball rolling. Gotti’s a little late to the game, to be sure, but it’s nice to know that even those who are most invested in the role are starting to get the message.

Kid Ink Featuring Usher & Tinashe—“Body Language”
#100

For a guy with minimal talent, Kid Ink sure gets a lot of big names to guest on his records. Or maybe Usher is just selling off hooks he doesn’t want to expand on himself. Whatever the case, Tinashe is wasted, though she sounds good, and this is as ordinary as an Usher hook gets.

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Ordinary People
Hot 100 Roundup—10/18/14

One Direction—“Steal My Girl”
#13

The lead single from their fourth album in four years, and not only do they not sound burned out, they keep getting better. They’ve learned how to sing—though I still can’t tell them apart—and, more importantly, how to write (or at least how to choose songs to attach their names to). This is over-arranged and over-loud as usual (the teenyboppers love those booming drums), but it’s a wonderful song, full of clever details. I bet their fifth album will be even better. After that all bets are off.

Carrie Underwood—“Something In The Water”
#24

I love the forward rush of this, and when Underwood sings “changed” (an idea she probably stole from Rascal Flatts) she sounds more lyrical and spiritual than she ever has before. But the rest of the time she’s still a dreadful oversinger, who demands music to match. This is a bad thing to do to any song, but especially one that has snatches of “Amazing Grace” in it. It’s neither graceful nor amazing.

Jason Aldean—“Just Gettin’ Started”
#61

Boy howdy.

Florida Georgia Line—“Bumpin’ The Night”
#69

The “Walk On the Wild Side” bassline on the intro is either a joke FGL, or one of their session people, threw in, or they’re totally oblivious to what it, and perhaps music in general, means. I lean toward the former, but the latter is not out of the realm of possibility. They certainly sound that dumb.

Lorde—“Yellow Flicker Beat”
#74

Soundtrack fodder, and since Pure Heroine is essentially a Hunger Games soundtrack already, this seems like overkill. It’s also dull, especially for Lorde. Who knew she was capable of such flat, ordinary beats?

Alesso Featuring Tove Lo—“Heroes (We Could Be)”
#89

Giving David Bowie and Brian Eno a courtesy writing credit on this piece of self-absorbed EDM schmaltz is almost an insult. Musically it owes almost nothing to Bowie’s “Heroes”, and lyrically, except for the title hook, even less. As for the message, it’s the exact opposite. “Everyday people do everyday things”, sings Tove Lo, “but I can’t be one of them”. But everyday people engaging in simple but daring acts of defiance through love for each other was the whole point of the original. That’s what heroism is all about. To Alesso and Lo (they sound like a bad comedy/juggling team) being a hero means nothing more than being different and popular: superior in their eyes to everyone else, louder, the center of attention. This isn’t a generational comparison; I place the blame squarely on Lo, who I assume wrote the lyrics. If anything, the fact that this isn’t much of a hit gives me more hope for the current pop generation. They recognize a line of self-serving crap when they hear it.

OG Maco—“U Guessed It”
#94

As long as it sticks to OG Maco’s shouting and mumbling and that tinkly piano, “U Guessed It” is a great record. It turns toward the ordinary when 2 Chainz steps up to the mic, though, and never quite recovers.

Tim McGraw—“Shotgun Rider”
#97

Flawless craftsmanship tastefully applied. “Shotgun Rider” is no masterpiece, and you’ve probably heard a hundred songs much like it. This one is just a little bit better than most.

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Rap Week: Hot 100 Roundup—10/11/14

I can’t remember a week when so many rap records hit the chart all at once. Most of them are pretty good, too, though one of them (guess who?) is among the worst things I’ve ever heard. The rest of the debuts are bad country, faux and otherwise. Maybe I should have called this no pop week, instead.

Kendrick Lamar—“I”
#39

You can’t love others unless you love yourself, the old self-help homily goes, but Kendrick Lamar knows that’s bullshit, or at least ass-backwards: you can’t love yourself until you love the world around you. And love it he does, so much so that he tries to pack all of it, with all its contradiction and beauty and violence and grace, into a single song. He fails, of course (how could he possibly succeed? nobody else ever has), but his ambition is so refreshing that the record works anyway. It helps that he plays it cool, hiding his ambition behind funny voices and soft 70s funk, but those things also illuminate his transition from hesitant street rapper to full-blown art rapper. They may also signify self-doubt and a lapse in confidence, but self-doubt is part of the equation—one that Lamar is obviously used to—and any rapper who puts down the Nation of Islam (“Satan wants to put me in a bow tie”) doesn’t need to worry about their confidence level.

Jason Aldean—“Tonight Looks Good On You”
#53

“Ain’t got a pair of jeans that don’t fit you just right”. Oh, Jason Aldean, you silver-tongued devil, you.

Big Sean Featuring E-40—“I Don’t Fuck With You”
#70

At last. Digging down to the very depths of his soul, Big Sean finally strips away the bluster and braggadocio that marred his career until now and reveals himself for what he truly is and always has been: a vindictive little shit. Kanye West, DJ Mustard, and E-40 pull some old beats and raps out of their respective closets to lend him a hand. Worst rap record (if that’s what it is) of the year, hands down. And of course it’s a hit.

Rae Sremmurd—“No Type”
#76

They may not have a type, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have pop sense. Latching on to a good Mike Will beat is one thing, but layering it with a flow that’s borrowed, at least in part, from Lorde, lives up to the title’s promise better than anything they have to say. I mean, every rapper’s mama thinks they ain’t living right, right?

Florida Georgia Line—“Anything Goes”
#76

Between Tyler Hubbard’s vocals and Joey Moi’s garish production, even when they get off a decent song—and this isn’t bad—Florida Georgia Line are the most irritating thing on the radio. And not just country radio, either. All radio, of all time, ever.

iLoveMakonnen Featuring Drake—“Tuesday”
#90

Catchy and different, but it goes on too long, and iLoveMakonnen’s voice grates after a while. Drake meanwhile, raps better than he usually does, and almost has something interesting to say. I’m afraid, though, that my memory of this song will be permanently altered by this, which says more about where Drake is coming from than anything else I’ve read or seen.

Migos—“Handsome And Wealthy”
#92

Let me get this straight: this guy walks into a club covered in chains, he’s handsome and wealthy, all the “bad bitches” are in his face, and he wants to know how the woman he brought with him feels? Because he’s worried she only hangs with him for his money and his looks? And he actually asks her? These guys really are different, aren’t they?

Scotty McCreery—“Feelin’ It”
#96

Now that he’s older and no longer seems as much of a wonder of nature, McCreery needs to come up with some solid material. I appreciate his attempts to ween his audience off his amazing lower register, but he needs to produce something equally entertaining if he expects them to keep listening. This isn’t it.

Parmalee—“Close Your Eyes”
#98

Worse than the Swon Brothers, if such a thing is possible. Slicker, too, which may be why.

alt-J—“Left Hand Free”
#99

As false in their own way as the Black Keys, only artier. What this really reminds me of, though, if I can be allowed to show my age for a minute, are the faux-western fantasies that Bernie Taupin used to dream up for Elton John in the early 70s on albums like Tumbleweed Connection. “Left Hand Free” leaves out the jumbled sentimental mythos that Taupin traded in, but it has the same movie set feel to it: all banal facade and no depth.

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You Only Live Once, But You Can Make Bad Pop About It Forever
Hot 100 Roundup—10/4/14

Jennifer Lopez featuring Iggy Azalea—“Booty”
#18

Note the use of the third-person: it isn’t her own booty Lopez is singing about, it’s some nameless object of male attention. She sounds more like a madame, a famous courtesan herself once upon a time, showing off the finer points of the merchandise to her gentleman customers. Not sure where Iggy Azalea fits in that scenario, but her presence doesn’t make things any better.

Jason Aldean—“Gonna Know We Were Here”
#63

This isn’t just bad—lazy, boorish, barely thought out—it borders on the offensive. Maybe it’s the hackneyed YOLO sentimentality, or the line in the chorus about leaving a few stains (Jason Aldean’s bodily fluids, what a delightful image that is), or maybe it’s the tacked on sound of a scratchy record on a track that contains no samples courtesy of an artist whose music isn’t even available on vinyl. What a fraud.

August Alsina featuring Nicki Minaj—“No Love”
#73

Forget about Alsina, who’s a bore: this record is all about Nicki Minaj, whose most recent MO is to grab a guest spot and use it to call out her host on his sexism and/or stereotypical attitudes. “No Love” is the best of the bunch so far. First she softens Alsina up by declaring “No Love” her favorite song, then she croons her affection for him, and then she goes for the kill, still crooning: “You’re so fuckin’ conceited/Why you coming over weeded?” It doesn’t save the record, but it comes close. Could someone sneak her onto a Chris Brown track again?

Florida Georgia Line—“Sun Daze”
#83

“Dirt” was a downer, an obvious, calculated paean to country pieties, but here Florida Georgia Line return to their three great loves: booze, pot, and sex (not necessarily in that order, but close enough). As dumb pop music goes, theirs may be among the dumbest, but they do mange to keep their hooks strong, and if wasn’t for that stupid whistling this would be almost as good a record as “Cruise” (the original, not the remix). They should never go near a reggae beat again, though, or even be allowed to mention Bob Marley’s name.

The Script—“Superheroes”
#88

The Script’s superpower, apparently, is banality and the ability to launch self-help homilies at will. What kind of accent is that on the middle eight, though? Irish, Jamaican? Whatever it is, it sounds even more fake than usual.

Chris Brown—“X”
#98

The Diplo beat is OK, but it’s a rehash; if anything it’s less adventurous than some of the music Brown has used in the past. As for Brown himself, for all his declarations, nothing has changed. He sings better than ever, but he still blames everybody else, especially women, for his troubles. He’s hasn’t learned a thing, and there are too many people in the world invested in making sure he never does. I never thought one of them would be Diplo, though.

Wiz Khalifa Featuring Snoop Dogg & Ty Dolla $ign—“You And Your Friends”
#99

The beat is good, but that’s not Khalifa. The hook is OK, but that’s not Khalifa, either. Where is Khalifa? Oh, he’s that guy who raps before Snoop Dogg. Sorry, dude, didn’t even notice you were there.

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Future Games
Hot 100 Roundup—9/27/14

Fall Out Boy—“Centuries”
#22

I’d like these guys a lot more if they didn’t seem so concerned about their place in the rock and roll pantheon. Of course, the fact that they believe in a rock and roll pantheon at all, no matter how ironically they may approach it, is a major hurdle. They’re very good at what they do, but I’m not sure what they do means much (what exactly is the “Tom’s Diner” rip supposed to imply?). Besides, aren’t they a little young to be acting like cranky grandpas? “The kids are all wrong”, my ass.

Calvin Harris Featuring John Newman—“Blame”
#31

The are lots of reasons to criticize EDM, but perhaps its greatest sin is the infliction of a universe of horrible male singers on innocent ears. Harris himself doesn’t have much of a voice, but at least he’s smart enough not to emote the way John Newman does. If you need to gargle, dude, do it before you sing, not while.

Jason Aldeaan—“Two Night Town”
#76

Not great, but at least Aldean shows the good sense to keep things straightforward and resists the urge to turn this into yet another power-ballad. Slightly above average for current country, way above average for Aldean.

Nick Jonas—“Jealous”
#78

The music is a weird, era-warped, EDM jumble; it’s feels all wrong but it holds your attention. Jonas, however, continues to be one of the world’s worst singers, overwrought with little in terms of vocal equipment to compensate. There’s nothing technically wrong with his falsetto, but it sounds awful, and his normal range is almost worse. Every note sounds forced, and it destroys whatever promise the song held to begin with.

Train—“Angel In Blue Jeans”
#91

“Faux-folk based on old western movie themes?” Train asked themselves. “Hell, we can do that with our brains tied behind our backs.” So they did.

Lil Jon Featuring Tyga—“Bend Ova”
#92

Having found a new sound (at least for him), Lil Jon pumps it for everything it’s got, only this time with more words and a guest spot. It isn’t an improvement on “Turn Down For What”, but it isn’t much worse. And that yoga ball line makes me laugh every time.

Meghan Trainor—“Dear Future Husband”
#94

“I never learned to cook/but I can find a hook” Trainor sings, and the key word is “find”. All her hooks are pre-tested, pre-digested, and possibly bad for you. They stick, though, and she and her producer know how to keep them light and airy and frame them to perfection. But her message is troublesome to say the least. It isn’t just her music that seems to come from the 50s. Her announcing that she doesn’t consider herself a feminist can be put down to being 20 years old and lucky, but her embrace, at least here, of a slightly tougher version of the old “treat me like a lady and I’ll give you want you want” trope is cause for worry. It’s a pop staple, of course–even Beyonce plays a variation on it every now and then—but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be batted down every time it shows up.

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Yawn
Hot 100 Roundup—9/20/14

Sometimes the Hot 100 almost literally puts me to sleep. Feel free to skip this week; I wish I could have.

Jason Aldean—“Sweet Little Somethin’”
#71

Rock by the numbers; country by default.

Jeezy Featuring Jay Z—“Seen It All”
#85

Listen up, you wet behind the ears molly slinger, grandpa and his pal here are gonna tell you what the drug dealing game was all about back in the day. Try to stay awake, all right?

Mary Lambert—“Secrets”
#92

Lambert may be more talented than Macklemore (at least that’s what everybody says), but that doesn’t mean she’s any less simple-minded. By mixing things that people—in the past, at least—kept secret out of true shame or fear with the most banal sort of confessions (who doesn’t admit to being scared of the dentist, and what does “extrapolate my feelings”, at least as a negative, even mean?), she only diminishes her message. Which may be just as well, since, just like Macklemore, she’s claiming victory in battles long over, waving her flag as if she’d actually achieved something and deserved credit for it. Unearned self-satisfaction, that’s the thing she should really be ashamed of.

Trey Songz Featuring Nicki Minaj—“Touchin, Lovin”
#95

The only decent moment comes at the very end, when Nicki Minaj finally calls Trey Songz on his inability to tell the difference between making love and fucking (there needn’t be a difference, but this is pop music, so sentimental fallacies apply). The rest of the record, though, is Songz making a joke out of his confusion and Minaj letting him get away with it, maybe even endorsing it. No wonder Songz has never made any sense: he literally doesn’t know what he’s singing about.

DJ Khaled Featuring Chris Brown, August Alsina, Future, & Jeremih—“Hold You Down”
#98

Three crooners (four if you count the auto-tuned Future) is two (or three) too many. Especially when the song is nothing more than a collection of wannabe hooks. DJ Khaled continues to shout, no matter what the rest of the track sounds like. And I continue to be confused and frustrated by the use of “hold you down” as a statement of affection as opposed to ownership.

Big & Rich—“Look At You”
#100

These guys were important once, but that was before the rest of country took their ideas and bro’d them over. Now they sound like a couple of pros fulfilling a contract and nothing more.

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Darling Nicki
Hot 100 Roundup—9/13/14

Eminem featuring Sia—“Guts Over Fear”
#22

Eminem says it best himself: “Sometimes I feel like all I ever do is find different ways to word the same old song.” Then he says it again: “Feel like I’ve already said this a kabillion-eighty times. How many times can I say the same thing different ways that rhyme?” And then again: “So to the break of dawn here I go recycling the same old song.” Restating this lament over and over isn’t self-awareness, it’s self-consciousness and self-pity. If he was self-aware he’d realize how much he demeans his message by repeating it in less interesting variations from record to record. Instead he rationalizes his obsession and circles in on himself a little more. Sia’s hookless chorus doesn’t help him, though it’s doubtful anything could at this stage.

Beyonce Featuring Nicki Minaj—“Flawless”
#82

Though it’s possible to accept Beyonce as a feminist, it’s important to remember that she’s what might be called a showbiz feminist. That is, even her principles come with glitz, and their presentation is carefully shaped to go down as easily and simply as possible with her public. Her feminism is real enough, but it’s curated in the same way Beyonce’s public persona has been curated since she was a teenager. That the form of much of her career has been Beyonce’s own doing serves as a major part of her feminist credentials–it may even be her feminism. But it also means that after 18 years as a star, she can’t get away with a line like “I woke up like this”, even if it’s true, and even if she intends it as a prod to all the other women in the world. But if Beyonce can’t, Nicki Minaj can. She may be just as showbizzy, but it’s a different type of show business, with a different path to success. She’s Carmen Miranda to Beyonce’s Ginger Rogers, eccentricity and electricity opposed to glamour and poise. With her big boobs and big butt and the emphasis she puts on them, Minaj is everything that Beyonce isn’t–which is to say that she’s everything a large number of Beyonce’s fans are–and when she says she woke up like this it means more and resonates in more important ways than Beyonce saying it ever could (and, unlike Beyonce, Minaj only needs to say it once to get her point across). Minaj’s presence improves the record in every way, allowing, first of all, the removal of a spoken introduction that saddled the original with a ponderous, if well-meaning, seriousness, and second, forcing Beyonce herself to toughen her approach. She may not have taken the right direction by using wealth as a defense of bad behavior (whoever’s bad behavior it might have been in that elevator), but then her feminism, just like Minaj’s, has always been financially aspirational, and you can’t blame someone who’s public appearance is so carefully controlled for venting a little now and then. If she were truly flawless, she’d be a bore.

Usher Featuring Nicki Minaj—“She Came To Give It To You”
#89

The verses, which lift mightily from the S.O.S. Band’s “Just Be Good To Me”, are wonderful. The rest, which lifts wholesale from every other Pharrell Williams production ever, is passable. Nicki Minaj, as usual, steals the record. I await the day when some DJ strings all her guest appearances together in a YouTube mix and saves the world. Maybe that could be the next Girl Talk album.

Keith Urban—“Somewhere In My Car”
#91

For once, let’s not talk about the preening, pandering voice and—oh God—the lyrics that match. Let’s talk about the guitar solo. Urban plays it himself, apparently. I once saw him on a country awards show trading solos with Brad Paisley, which was like watching an advertising jingle writer swapping lines with Shakespeare. Urban likes his guitar loud and squalling, which is one way of making up for his wimpy songs and vocals. It’s also another way of preening and pandering. At least he’s consistent.

TeeFLii Featuring 2 Chainz—“24 Hours”
#97

She has 24 hours to please him, and 2 Chainz, too. Bet that’s more time than they spent making this record. Bet they didn’t think about it any more than they do her, either.

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Free Shrugs
Hot 100 Roundup—9/6/14

Taylor Swift—“Shake It Off”
#1

One of the paradoxes of teen life is the younger you are, the more you want to sound mature and assume adult responsibility; then, when you leave adolescence and realize just what that responsibility entails, you can’t wait to shrug it off at every opportunity. That’s what Taylor Swift is living through now. At 16, she sounded as mature and ready for adulthood as she could possibly be, even while spinning fairy tales around teenage dreams. Now, at 24, acting like an adult is the last thing she wants to do. So, amping up the self-contradiction, she directs her talent and taste and craftsmanship toward the idea of mindless fun. Trouble is, craftsmanship has little or nothing to do with fun, and taste even less, and at a certain point producing mindless entertainment seems more like a stopgap than an ambition, especially for an artist as ambitious as Swift. Having shed her teen persona, but uncertain as to what has any meaning for herself and her fans, she forces cheer. With the exception of the awful spoken section this is a perfect pop record, but Swift has made perfect pop records with awful spoken sections before, and this is not a step up. It’s also the dullest record she’s made. In another three or four years she’ll turn toward responsibility again (as will the rest of pop and its audience; they have no choice), only this time with over a decade of experience under her belt. This is a misstep, but don’t write her off yet.

Blake Shelton—“Neon Light”
#81

A terrible song, but it doesn’t change an obvious fact: Blake Shelton is now the best male vocalist in country music. If he could find something to sing besides this “subtle” bro-howdy crap he might become as important an artist as his wife, Miranda Lambert. For now, though, George Jones returned from the dead couldn’t save this song. Since Lambert has had such an obvious effect on Shelton’s music (instead of the other way around, which was how it looked a couple of years ago), maybe he should let her choose his material, as well.

Maroon 5—“Animals”
#86

Back to the vocal special effects, with lousy words and mediocre music to go along. Maroon 5 can sharpen their tools (or is it their teeth?) all they want, but that doesn’t mean they have the brains to apply them.

Mr. Probz—“Waves”
#88

This may be wishful thinking, but there seems to be a decided African influence creeping into the charts. Nico and Vinz, Maroon 5, and now this gently swaying dance music built around a lighter than air guitar riff. For a song about drifting on ocean waves there’s not much depth to it, but it’s pleasant enough, and sometimes more than that.

Steve Aoki, Chris Lake,& Tujamo—“Delirious (Boneless)”
#96

As a hip-hop vocalist, Kid Ink is a negligible rapper who’s been very lucky. As an EDM vocalist he’s a non-presence riding Steve Aoki and friends’ cliche beats. It’s hard to say which is worse, and it’s impossible to guess whether it matters either way.

Rich Homie Quan Featuring Problem—“Walk Thru”
#99

Back when the “Rich” in his name was only an aspiration, Rich Homie Quan felt some type of way and made you feel it too. Now that wealth is no longer a fantasy, the only thing he feels is money and the perks that come with it, and you can hear the inspiration and originality seeping out of his music. It doesn’t make you feel some type of way; it makes you feel disappointed, plain and simple.

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Can I Put My Head Back In My Shell Now?
Hot 100 Roundup—8/30/14

Ariana Grande featuring Big Sean—“Best Mistake”
#49

Hooking up with Big Sean is always a bad idea, and it’s even worse when the song isn’t up to scratch (or barely a song). Never that impressive to begin with, Ariana Grande has at least deserved credit for trying. Now she’s trying too hard, and she’s burning through her inspirations fast.

Juicy J, Wiz Khalifa & Ty Dolla $ign featuring Kill The Noise & Madsonik—”Shell Shocked”
#84

It’s always curious when producers get a “featuring” credit. Does that mean they provided extra special production, or is it just belated recognition of the roll they play in shaping pop records? Whatever the case, Kill the Noise and Madsonik are the only ones who deserve credit (blame, actually) for this lumbering hunk of Michael Bay-energized Turtle Power. Juicy J and friends contribute next to nothing, and the only thing about the record that deserves the slightest attention is the “Kashmir”-like strings. Did they write that themselves, or were they just sampling old Linkin Park records?

Tyga Featuring Young Thug—“Hookah”
#94

Having perfected the cry of the blunted years ago, there’s nothing hip-hop producers and performers can do but up the ante with weirder effects and vocals so heavily slurred they’re barely language at all. Hearing a bunch of guys who sound as if they can’t stand up brag about their sexual prowess somehow makes the misogyny worse, shoveling another level of entitlement over the usual bullshit. Some people are impressed by this. Enough to keep these guys rich, anyway.

Hozier—“Take Me To Church”
#96

The hooks come easy when they’re stolen, as does the imagery and maybe even the hint of misogyny. The pretension though, the pretension is all Hozier’s own.

The Swon Brothers—“Later On”
#100

Look ma, we’re country singers!

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