Frank Ocean—“Thinkin Bout You”
Even without Ocean’s personal revelations, it’s hard to imagine how much further into the confessional form anyone could go than Channel Orange. His emotional confusion and the yearning that go with it shape and dictate the style and sound of the album, especially on this track, which opens the record and sets the stage for everything to come. He talks about the weather and begins to cry; jokes about the shallowness of his feelings and then admits he’s lying while collapsing on his bed in a single, brilliant line; finally he bares his hopes, his dreams, and his disappointments in a sweet, shaky falsetto that’s beautiful and unsettling, accusatory and pleading. Not a pop record, and its appearance on the Hot 100 may be the result of curiosity as much as quality (and I worry that some people are drawn to him because he reminds them of Drake). But anything that gives attention to a great record is fine by me.
French Montana featuring Rick Ross, Drake, Lil Wayne—“Pop That”
Montana’s raps are so difficult to understand that it’s no surprise that people think he’s making up new words. There could be two or three in every line for all I know. Rick Ross is Rick Ross, which is neither good nor bad. He’s just there, as usual. Which leaves Drake and Lil Wayne, one becoming more ordinary with every rap, and the other trying desperately not to be. Drake sounds more confident than ever, but all that means is that except when he gets off a good line (there are a couple here), he sounds like every other bragging rapper. Meanwhile, Lil Wayne flails around trying to find something that will stick, and comes up with one of the most disgusting sexual images I’ve ever heard. I’m not going to repeat it; you’ll know it when you hear it (I hope).
Thomas Rhett—“Something To Do With My Hands”
The title told me exactly what this would sound like, but it didn’t fill me in on how good it would be. If country is going to be the new rock and roll (or the old rock and roll with more twang and banjos for texture instead of synths) that’s fine with me, especially if the up-and-comers’ tastes in early ’80s rock continue to lean more toward Rockpile than The Eagles or Tom Petty. Like Eric Church, Rhett brings an energy to his music that’s missing from that of most of their peers, and he avoids the sheen of studio perfection that mars so many Nashville versions of rock (compare CHurch and Rhett to Tim McGraw or Kenny Chesney). Rhett is a little more laid back than Church, and sounds like he comes from the more privileged side of the tracks (he should; his father, Rhett Akins, was a minor country star in the late ’90s and still writes hits for others, including Blake Shelton’s “Honey Bee”), but he’s just as good at putting a song together. And in a genre that makes stars of overbearing hacks like Jason Aldean and Brantley Gilbert, he’s another glimmer of hope.
Ed Sheeran—“The A Team”
An old-fashioned piece of singer/songwriter acoustic balladry, with all the flaws inherent in the form. The hushed romanticism sentimentalizes the darkness of the subject—a young girl hooked on opium (at least I assume that’s opium in her pipe; who would sing about a crack addict like this?), forced into prostitution to support her habit, and slowly dying to boot—while the attempts at lyrical profundity and poetry end up trivializing the subject rather than illuminating it. The girl’s face, for instance, is described as “crumbling like pastries”. It’s evocative, but of what is hard to tell. Is her skin flaky? Buttery? Dusted with powdered sugar? And why change the pronoun in the final chorus? Is Sheeran blaming us for this situation he made up? Or is he saying we’re all addicts? Is being simplistic and engaging in faux-profundity another flaw inherent in the singer/songwriter form, or is it just Sheeran?
Train—“50 Ways To Say Goodbye”
Train’s hooks are so simple and obvious you find yourself humming along before they even start (especially, as in this case, when the new chorus sounds so much like the last one). Their beats are so bouncy that some rhythmic spring in your lizard brain sproings along in time no matter how hard your conscious mind tries to shut it off. Lyrically they’re goofy without being witty or challenging, though they do a good enough job at avoiding cliche to keep you listening for whatever nonsense they’ll come up with next. Their records are devoid of any actual emotion other than the desire to write a catchy chorus, even when the song is about a broken relationship, like this one. Even their irony is fake. In other words, they make children’s records for adults (or at least adult—cough—radio). They’ve been doing this for a couple of decades now. I’d admire their commercial acuity and tenacity if I didn’t hate them so much.
Big & Rich—“That’s Why I Pray”
Less than a decade ago, Big and Rich looked like the future of country music. Somehow, though, they never moved forward in the way people hoped they would, and the future they helped to anticipate arrived without them (see above). Now they seem a bit old-fashioned and out of touch. This is an above-average “trust in God” song, but just when you hope they’ll do something different (I would love to hear more from the unemployed guy who tells them not to mention God in his presence), they start pulling out well-worn and outdated ideas that we’ve not only heard too many times before, but are just plain wrong; i.e., teen pregnancy rates have been dropping over the last decade, not going up. Except in the bible belt, of course, where they’ve been trusting in God a little too much.