It’s Raining Voices
Hot 100 Roundup—12/20/14

Ed Sheeran—“Make It Rain”
#34

It’s interesting to hear Sheeran sing someone else’s material: stripped of all his convoluted lyrical and musical tics, he turns out to be a decent singer—controlled, intense, even moving at times. “Make It Rain” doesn’t justify it’ length or its mournful tempo, and the lyrics often don’t make much more sense than Sheeran’s own, but this is a pleasant surprise. He should try out this sort of simplicity on his own records.

Matt McAndrew—“The Blower’s Daughter”
#40

Lilly Wood & The Prick and Robin Schulz—“Prayer In C”
#87

This has the darkest lyric imaginable, going from a broken relationship to apocalypse in just a few lines (with forgiveness denied in both cases), but for Robin Schulz it’s just a way to follow up “Waves” with another light, rolling groove. It sounds as fine as before—and almost exactly the same—and makes no sense at all.

Sheppard—“Geronimo”
#90

An Australian melange of 90s indie rock/pop, as bland and empty as they come. If that doesn’t sound bad enough, imagine it becoming a crowd favorite at Washington Redskins or Cleveland Indians games. Since Australia’s treatment of its indigenous people is no better than ours, I won’t even give Sheppard’s cluelessness the benefit of the doubt. Also, since their album is called Bombs Away and not “Geronimo”, I’m assuming someone in the band or at their label had a sense of how offensive the title is, but apparently not enough to change the lyric. Which makes them worse than clueless.

Blake Shelton Featuring Ashley Monroe—“Lonely Tonight”
#95

Only the second single from his latest album and it already sounds like barrel scraping. The promise he was showing last year seems to have disappeared. All that’s left is a skilled vocalist wasting his time—not to mention Ashley Monroe’s—on generic material. Considering Shelton’s schedule over the last couple of years, maybe he’s just exhausted, but he barely sounds like he’s trying.

Randy Houser—“Like A Cowboy”
#98

“Like a Cowboy” is an ecapsulation of everything that’s wrong with mainstream country: overloud, overwrought, overlong. If you listen to it in the right frame of mind, though, especially to Houser’s vocals, it becomes an outrageous parody of “sensitive” male country. The way he sings the second verse (note the stress on the word “tucked”) should have you rolling on the floor. The fact that Houser probably means every word makes it sadder, not funnier, but not enough that I can stop laughing.

Taylor John Williams—“Royals”
#100

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Working Out, Going Out, Hanging Out
Hot 100 Roundup—12/13/14

James Newton Howard Featuring Jennifer Lawrence—“The Hanging Tree”
#12

For a minute or so this almost works. Jennifer Lawrence’s singing, like the song itself, is simple and crude, which in the context of the movie is exactly what it should be. Then the strings enter, and the choir, and we’re back in movie soundtrack land, where nothing is real and emotions exist only to be manipulated. Even before that, though, the songwriters have demonstrated their lack of understanding of folk music by breaking up the word “midnight” in a way only a professional would. Hollywood: where good ideas are ruined by the hour.

Beyonce—“7/11”
#18

Even geniuses produce throwaways, and like most geniuses, Beyonce foolishly worked “7/11″ to death to try and make it more than that. The results would be better if she hadn’t, and would sound a lot less like an extreme workout at the Beyonce Executive Fitness Club, but what the hell, geniuses can do what they want.

Ariana Grande—“Santa Tell Me”
#65

I wouldn’t expect Grande to come up with her own “All I Want for Christmas” straight off the bat, but this comes close. Of course, it does so by upping the tempo and slightly rearranging the chord structure of Wham’s “Last Christmas”, but that’s the way these things work. She oversings as usual, but right now this is my second favorite Ariana Grande record.

OneRepublic—“I Lived”
#71

After a couple of decent singles they return to their bad old ways. I’m not sure if I consider this their worst record only in comparison to what came before or in actual fact, but I’m sure as hell not going to listen to it again to find out.

Craig Wayne Boyd—“I Walk The Line”
#84

Luke Bryan—“I See You”
#89

I read somewhere that Luke Bryan is moving away from bro-country, so you could say that on “I See You” he’s just miking that cash cow once more for old times sake. But my guess is he’ll keep his hands on those udders as long as the cow’s producing. I’m also beginning to doubt that he’s capable of anything else.

Fifth Harmony—“Sledgehammer”
#93

Because we watch them struggle, there’s always a bit of sentimental desire for singing competition contestants to do well (there’s also the thrill of watching the takeoff of unknown talent). So I was happy that Fifth Harmony’s previous single, “BO$$”, showed real promise. “Sledgehammer”, though, is a mess: a bad song (co-written by Meghan Trainor, btw) badly arranged and, at times, badly sung. Just like that, whatever promise “BO$$” held, and it wasn’t much, is gone. Bring on the next contestant!

Pitbull & Ne-Yo—“Time Of Our Lives”
#94

The music is too average for this to be a great record, but it’s a surprisingly good one. Taking the point of view of a guy who’s low on rent but has enough for the club’s cover charge and a few drinks is one of the best ideas Ne-Yo has had in a while, and may even help him get out of his own rut. Pitbull, meanwhile, parties as usual for two verses, then delivers a few simple homilies. Though it doesn’t seem like much, declaring in the context of this song that “everyday above ground is a good day” is as good an answer to YOLO culture as you’re ever going to hear, even while defending it. Ne-Yo emphasizes these contradictions while Pitbull seems to be ignoring them, but don’t believe for a second that he doesn’t know they’re there.

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Oh Shit, It’s Christmas
Hot 100 Roundup 12/6/14

Pentatonix—“Mary, Did You Know?”
#26

Lyrically risible (“This child that you’ve delivered, will soon deliver you”), theologically unsound (Jesus was never the lord of any nation, and he rejected the opportunity when Satan offered it to him), vocally undistinguished (if it weren’t for the fussy arrangements, you wouldn’t notice these people on a street corner), “Mary Did You Know” is a living example of why people with music degrees can’t be trusted. Especially one’s whose taste barely ranges beyond the Glee soundtracks.

One Direction
“Night Changes”, #55
“Stockholm Syndrome”, #99

When I said that Louis Tomlinson looked to be at the forefront of the One Direction members writing their material, I didn’t mean he was the only one doing any writing—Harry Styles does, as well—but that he seems to have a hand in all their best songs. Both “Night Changes” and the earlier “Steal My Girl” share small, homely touches that ground them in real life and raise them above the generic norm of boy band songwriting, and since Tomlinson is credited on both songs and Styles only on “Night Changes” I’m assuming those touches are his. “Night Changes” may well be the better of the two, though, with a subtle melody and a simple story written largely from the girl’s, and her mother’s, point of view. The song’s guarded optimism and dye-eyed sentimentality are a welcome break from the boy band (and One Direction) norm. As for “Stockholm Syndrome”, the idea is silly if not, in this era of hostage taking, tasteless. But it does allow you to add XTC to the band’s surprising list of influences: the song is a dead ringer for “King For A Day”.

Band Aid 30—“Do They Know It’s Christmas? (2014)”
#63

Speaking of risible lyrics, this time with a post-colonialist condescending tinge, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” has been the champ for 30 years, and it’s still going strong. “…the Christmas bells that ring there are the clanging chimes of doom” should be on every goth’s Black Christmas card, and the rest is on almost the same level (and that’s putting aside the fact that many of the people this charity single aims to help don’t celebrate Christmas to begin with). In an age where oversinging is the norm, the horrible lyrics are given an even greater dose of ridiculousness. Ellie Goulding, who has apparently decided that her vocal quirks are singing, comes off worst, but no one escapes unscathed. And just think: Bono has done this three times now.

Nicki Minaj Featruing Skylar Grey—“Bed Of Lies”
#70

Why Minaj feels the need to essay an Eminem imitation, even co-opting the unbearable Skylar Grey, is beyond me. To prove that’s she’s better than him? What would be the point? Everybody is better than Eminem right now. Whatever the case, the song is worthless except for yet another line that makes me giggle: “A thousand count and not a single threaded truth”. It’s a good week for bad writing.

O.T. Genasis—“CoCo”
#77

Yes, just like everybody else, I love the way he shouts “Baking soda! I got baking soda!” But ever since Chief Keef’s breakthrough there’s been a growing trend toward rappers who sound as if they’re barely skirting the edge of mental health. Maybe it’s all an act, but it’s beginning to feel more and more like exploitation. I know, what else is new? But if you’re looking for evidence of rap’s continuing decay, you couldn’t do better than this. Remember when indie rock did the same thing?

Idina Menzel with Michael Buble—“Baby It’s Cold Outside”
#78

I generally refute any claims of stalker-like creepiness in regard to this song, but with Buble turning the smarm up to 11 it’s hard to deny in this case (“I like to think of it as opportunistic”—yuck). Considering the accusations recently leveled at Bill Cosby, didn’t anyone question whether it was wise to have Menzel sing the line “Say, what’s in this drink?” while Buble leers over her? There’s a simple solution to this problem, of course: reverse the genders the way the original performance, in the movie “Neptune’s Daughter”, did. That’s how Lady Gaga performed it on her gaghastly Christmas special, but I haven’t heard any other recent versions that do the same. Gives you an idea of how much thought most people put into their Christmas records. And hey, why isn’t there a Lady Gaga Christmas album?

Matt McAndrew—“Take Me To Church”
#92

Usher featuring Juicy J—“I Don’t Mind”
#95

Give Juicy J credit, he’s a hell of a lot more honest on this song than Usher is. He knows “I Don’t Mind” is nothing more at heart than a male fantasy about having other men ogle your woman but only you being allowed to touch her, and he caps it by asking her to bring some friends with her when she comes home at 3:00 AM. Usher, meanwhile, trades in well-meaning paternalism. He never suggests that he owns this woman or that she owes him anything, but it never seems to occur to him that she didn’t ask for his permission or even needs to. And let’s face it, the Beyonce reference is just crass.

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“Sounds Like It Got a Three On It”
Hot 100 Roundup—11/29/14

Mark Ronson featuring Bruno Mars—“Uptown Funk”
#65

The late-seventies James Brown riffs are welcome, and Mars sings his heart out (I bet he kills this live), but the music is Ronson’s usual stiff, ersatz soul-funk, and I find it impossible to get as excited about this as some people seem to be. The best part is the breakdown, where Mars takes the track over, but even at his best he’ll never sound as propulsive or intense as Brown. If people were saying this was as good as above-average Kool and the Gang I might nod in bemused agreement, but that’s as far as I’m willing to go.

One Direction
“18”, #87
“Where Do Broken Hearts Go”, #88

“18″ was co-written by Ed Sheeran, in a style he’s pretty much abandoned (it sounds like an outtake from his first album), and it doesn’t seem as if One Direction veered far from the demo, right down to the nuances in the vocals. Someday Sheeran will issue his version as a B-side or bonus track and no one will be able to tell the difference. “Where Do Broken Hearts Go” is even worse: bombastic, lyrically confusing, just plain dumb in general. And these are the first two tracks 1D’s fans singled out from the rest of the album. Doesn’t look like they’re as smart as some people claim, does it?

Thomas Rhett—“Make Me Wanna”
#99

I like Rhett, and I still hear a lot of promise in his music, but as fresh as this sounds compared to most modern country it’s competent at best and too slick by half. It also comes from his first EP, which was released over two years ago. Has he run out of ideas already?

Ne-Yo featuring Juicy J—“She Knows”
#100

Juicy J’s crude sexual references (he opens his first verse by ejaculating on a woman’s face and works his way down from there) have their place, I’m sure, but that place isn’t on a Ne-Yo record, even one where Ne-Yo spends most of his time praising his woman’s ass. I assume Juicy J’s presence was the label’s idea, not Ne-Yo’s, but after the latter’s mistaken foray into EDM last year there’s no way to be sure. Without J this would be a good record, but it would also be one you’ve heard before. I’d like to think that there’s something out there that would get Ne-Yo back in his groove, but it’s beginning to look like Gentleman was a peak he’ll never reach again.

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White Boys
Hot 100 Roundup—11/22/14

Selena Gomez—“The Heart Wants What It Wants”
#25

Preparing to leave Hollywood Records for Interscope, Gomez reteams with her Disney producers RockMafia, who generously provide her with her best single since “Naturally”. Tim James and Antonina Armato load the track with all their trademarks: a throbbing bass buried deep in the mix, ghostly background vocals and other odd noises, and a truckload of sultry eroticism. They also capture Gomez’s voice better than anybody else ever has, and this is probably her best vocal performance. I’m not sure about the stutter in the chorus, and the middle-eight may be a little too lush, but this is a high point for everyone involved.

One Direction—“Ready To Run”
#77

If, as Matthew Perpetua suggests, the secret of One Direction’s success is the idea of five cute guys singing the praises of a single teenage girl (that girl being whoever is listening to them at the moment), it’s also their greatest musical weakness. It enforces a homogeneity in the vocals that makes it impossible for them to reach beyond the most generic emotions. It’s the curse of all boy bands, and it’s the reason so few of them last long: if your group contains an individual talent like Justin Timberlake or Robbie Williams, it’s destined to break apart; if it doesn’t, the group will quickly drown in its own mediocrity. What’s fascinating about One Direction is that even after four albums it’s impossible to tell which fate will be theirs. “Ready to Run” is as bland as they come, and I still can’t tell the five of them apart, at least on their records, but there’s the nagging feeling that someone within the group has more influence and potential than the others. Based on current evidence, I’d go with Louis Tomlinson, who has a larger share in the writing, and recently skipped one of their endless string of live performances, but that’s just a guess. Who knows, maybe they’ll be the exception to the rule and hang on as a group. But if they flew apart the next time they get to take a decent vacation (they’ve been going five years now non-stop) I wouldn’t be surprised.

Shawn Mendes—“Something Big”
#92

I’ll admit my bias up front: I harbor a strong distaste for the massed, wordless, tribal chanting that serves as hooks for a lot of white male pop right now, and this is a particularly egregious example. “Oh. Wuh-uh uh-oh. Wuh-uh uh uh uh-uh-uh oh” or something is how this one goes, and matched to the vagueness of the lyric it could either be a gathering around a bonfire, a sports stadium in full cry, or a fascist rally. Something big is happening, but for the moment, thank God, it isn’t being led by a bunch of clueless white teenagers on YouTube.

Brett Eldredge—“Mean To Me”
#95

Eldredge produced two decent uptempo singles this year, “Don’t Ya” and “Beat of the Music”, but on “Mean To Me” he moves into ballad territory and lets the sap run free. Not terrible, but the fact that I keep mistaking him for Darius Rucker at his most bland is not a good sign.

Darius Rucker—“Homegrown Honey”
#97

Rucker is the perfect mediocrity, and even when he goes uptempo and demonstrates a sense of humor he never rises above the average.

Walk The Moon—“Shut Up + Dance”
#98

“Shut Up and Dance” is a near perfect distillation of a certain strain of 80s white pop music, and if that’s your idea of heaven you’re welcome to it. For me, though, the distillation comes complete with the leaden machine beats and synthetic emotions of the originals, and even though this has its moments it leaves me cold. Sometimes recreations can be too perfect.

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Hot Lips
Hot 100 Roundup 11/15/14

Taylor Swift
“Blank Space”, #18
“Style”, #60
“Wildest Dreams”, #76
“Bad Blood”, #80

Fans choice: now that the album is out we find out what Swift’s audience wants to hear. In the past, nearly every track from a Swift album would chart, but fans are pickier now—or maybe, despite her dominance, she has more competition—so there are only four. What we get are easily the two best tracks from 1989, along with two that do little more than brush up some old cliches with timeworn hooks. Three of the four songs make mention of Swift’s red or cherry lips, which I’m assuming is her euphemism for sex, since “Style”, thanks to its timeless synthesizer throb and near fetishistic chorus, is the most erotic track she’s ever recorded. “Blank Slate” is, of course, tabloid-Taylor self-parody, but it’s also the fantasy of a woman who thinks she can control her love life the same way she controls her career. Despite all her talk of learning to live without love, she’s still a romantic at heart, and her ever more generic sentimental fantasies, good and bad (i.e., “Wildest Dreams” and “Bad Blood”) still drive her writing. She’s rich enough now to hide from the real world as long as she wants, but I await the day she realizes she’s too famous to ever rejoin it. I wonder what turn her fantasies will take then.

Imagine Dragons—“I Bet My Life”
#53

This is the sound of modern “folk”: a stomping 4/4 with a shouted singsong chorus and hired gospel singers to give it added spiritual heft, all in service to cliche lyrics about how if his woman leaves him he’ll die (no pressure there). They’ve gone from being “Demons” to overbearing, constipated macho wimps. As if there was ever a difference.

Nicki Minaj Featuring Drake, Lil Wayne & Chris Brown—“Only”
#54

Minaj invites Drake and Lil Wayne to ogle her T&A and fantasize, and they respond with their middle-school lizard brains in pretty much the way you’d expect. With Chris Brown around for the hook, Minaj has the opportunity to hand all three their dicks on a platter but let’s them go without even a warning. Label loyalty and past history may have something to do with that, but it’s also possible that Minaj is being more subtle. Hearing themselves preen like assholes on a lousy record may be all the warning they need.

OK Go—“I Won’t Let You Down”
#71

Decent standard-issue 80s pop-funk as soundtrack to one of their ever-more grandiose videos. I miss those treadmills.

Ella Henderson—“Ghost”
#75

This is a competent R&B rehash, and Henderson is an OK singer, but this is neither ghostly nor memorable.

Kenny Chesney—“Til It’s Gone”
#100

Putting aside his artistic ambitions for a spell, Chesney goes back to the second-rate country that made him a star. Some interesting chord choices on the verse, but that may just be the session guys keeping themselves awake.

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You’re Gonna Make It After All. And Then What?
Hot 100 Roundup—11/8/14

A hodgepodge this week: eleven records with only two of any quality, one by a new artist who’s most likely a oneshot (Dej Loaf), the other a decent throwaway by an artist capable of far better (Eric Church). But most of the others address, directly or indirectly, the question of how one continues a career in pop once you’ve been successful. Taylor Swift leaves her Nashville kingdom and tries to establish another fiefdom in New York; Gwen Stefani takes a break from motherhood and steps onto The Voice, hoping to jumpstart the third phase of her career; Flo Rida tries to create a second phase in his; Meghan Trainor and Iggy Azalea follow-up huge debuts with weak soundalikes; and Calvin Harris and David Guetta try to maintain career continuity in the flash-in-the-pan world of EDM. I’m not saying that business interests trump artistry every time, but on a lot of these records the balance is at least fifty-fifty, and that’s not counting the ego share involved in both. Sometimes you can hear the desperation. Sometimes that’s all you hear.

Gwen Stefani—“Baby Don’t Lie”
#46

Just like Jennifer Lopez, Stefani is a former A-lister trying to revive her career by working as a judge on a singing competition and slightly modernizing—and in Stefani’s case, simplifying—her sound. The surprise is that Stefani is worse at it than Lopez, and has created a record barely worth listening to once. Where’s Pitbull when you need him?

Taylor Swift—“Welcome To New York”
#48

The problem isn’t that it sounds like theme music: all songs about New York sound like theme music, and rightly so. But “Welcome To New York” doesn’t sound like movie music, it sounds like sitcom music, a kind of modernized Mary Tyler Moore theme. Only this Mary has money and success and thinks she knows how the game works. “The lights are so bright but they’ll never blind me,” she sings, and that’s only the first of the lies she tells herself. It could be worse, though: wait until she turns 30 and moves to L.A.

DeJ Loaf—“Try Me”
#67

Words matter in rap, but sometimes voices, and even beats, matter more, and this is distinct and striking on both counts. Dej Loaf might be just another woman worn down by life in the inner city, boasting about how tough she is in order to get by, but then again she might be the equivalent of Snoop on The Wire, worn out but ready to kill you if you get in her way. “I been out my mind since they killed my cousin” she says, and the voice and the music make you believe it in a way no male rapper has in years. Chances are this is a one shot (how could you follow it up?), but it’s the kind that sticks in your mind forever.

Calvin Harris featuring Ellie Goulding—“Outside”
#68

If I had time, I could name any number of other songs that are a worse fit for Ellie Goulding’s voice, but I’m already too far behind, so “Outsiders” will have to do. It uses none of her strengths, highlights all of her weaknesses, and Harris’s bashing away in the background adds nothing and offers Goulding no assistance. They may as well have been making two entirely different records. I have no idea what the lyrics mean, either, but I suspect I would like the song even less if I did.

Flo Rida Featuring Sage The Gemini & Lookas—“G.D.F.R.”
#84

Flo Rida is determined to be taken seriously, but if he keeps flopping like this he’ll just become another kind of joke. Of course, the same thing will happen in a different way if he tries making pop hits again. I hope he’s invested wisely.

Eric Church—“Talladega”
#90

Perfect in it’s simplicity, which is a relief after the first batch of singles from The Outsiders, but this is the sort of song Church could write in his sleep. Lovely and heartfelt, and you’ve heard it before.

Iggy Azalea Featuring MØ—“Beg For It”
#92

Soundalike number one: not sure who MØ is, but since Charli XCX gets a writing credit, I’m assuming she’s here to make sure “Beg For It” comes across as a new song instead of a remix of “Fancy”. Charli XCX should get a cut of anything Azalea makes in the future, anyway, because Iggy wouldn’t have a career without her, but this is discount record making at it’s most obvious. Is Azalea that hard-up for material already?

Meghan Trainor—“Lips Are Movin”
#93

Soundalike number two: the formula’s still working, so why mess it up? This is weak stuff, though, and the “bass” references make it sound even more like a quicky cash-in. Trainor will only get away with this once, though, so she better find a new schtick fast.

David Guetta Featuring Sam Martin—“Dangerous”
#96

This is horrible, but I have to admit that faux-classical fits Guetta perfectly. It was only a matter of time before EDM turned into pop prog, and better Guetta than a Styx or Kansas revival, I suppose.

Snootie Wild Featuring K Camp—“Made Me”
#97

Nothing wrong here, but I swear I’ve heard this record every three weeks for the last five years, if not ten. This adds nothing.

RaeLynn—“God Made Girls”
#98

I long to hear more women’s voices on the country charts, but dear God not like this. “God Made Girls” is not just anti-feminist, but anti-woman, suggesting that the world would be just the way the big bro in the sky wants it if the ladies would all stay in their skirts, drive men crazy, and never move beyond the mindset of a fifteen-year-old (RaeLynn is 20, but makes herself sound much younger). Brought to you by Joey Moi, the same guy who produces Florida Georgia Line, which just figures.

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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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