Spaghetti Western Christmas: Hot 100 Roundup—12/21/13

Pentatonix—“Little Drummer Boy”

My second least favorite Christmas song (number 1: “Do You Hear What I Hear”), done with a human beatbox (how did that take so long to show up?) and a group of singers who desperately want to be the cast of Glee. Only they’re not as good. Not even close.

Justin Bieber—“Change Me”

A torch song? Really? Let’s face it: Bieber’s extincts are bizarre, as disconnected from the world as can be imagined. Whether this is the result of fame, or being a Canadian born-again teenager, or some combination of the two, would be impossible to say. Maybe it’s just being a teenager in general. Whatever the case, his emotional wandering and wallowing are getting him nowhere, and inviting a woman to “change” him will only make things worse. She wouldn’t be able to, to begin with, and if she tried too hard he’d resent it, and then… Let’s face it, the poor kid’s going to end up a twisted adult, if not a downright freak, no matter what he does. A banal conclusion, I know, but whoever said the travails of pop stardom were profound?

Avicii—“Hey Brother”

This is almost ridiculous enough to be funny. A Swedish DJ with an Italian name creating the theme music for a second rate spaghetti western is ripe with humorous possibilities, none of which Avicii either recognizes or tries to take advantage of. The laughs are all in the idea, not the performance. He means every word, and that saps the humor. Makes you wonder if he gets his own joke.

John Mayer featuring Katy Perry—“Who You Love”

Speaking of the price of fame, here are John Mayer and Katy Perry, recording together for the first time, devoting their talents to a tautology that’s designed as both a love song and an apology to their fans for becoming a couple in the first place. It’s an amazingly tasteful piece of defensiveness, but it’s still defensiveness. They play and sing very prettily all the same, and the outro, where Perry plays call and response with Mayer’s guitar, is more charming than both of them probably deserve. They should try the same thing with an actual song sometime.

Childish Gambino—“Crawl”

Scarey noises, catchy hook, rapping that’s insulting when it isn’t incompetent–that’s the Gambino way. As a comedy routine it’s never funny, even though as rap it’s a joke. Just how gullible does Donald Glover think we are?

Frankie Ballard—“Helluva Life”

A great chorus, and it’s nice to hear someone trying to follow in the footsteps of Brad Paisley. The lyrics,though, are banal when they’re not cliches, and the music is flat. Nice try, though.

Kelly Clarkson—“Underneath the Tree”

Clarkson’s retro instincts are impeccable, and the arrangement and production (Spectorish on the choruses, Motown on the verses) is a delight. Enough of a delight, in fact, to make up for Clarkson’s occasional screechiness. It’s not her fault that she’s not Darlene Love or Martha Reeves, but she should be careful about trying to be.

Lupe Fiasco featuring Ed Sheeran—“Old School Love”

Not sure about old school, but old fashioned, for sure. Old hat, too. And condescending, don’t forget condescending.

Tamar Braxton—“All the Way Home”

I didn’t think much of ‘Love and War”, but this is as excellent a piece of r&b as I’ve heard all year. The whole record is lovely, and Braxton’s performance is classical if not quite classic, but the kick is the drum programming, which drives the underlying emotion home while Braxton glides over the top. What a way to restart a career.

Arctic Monkeys—“Do I Wanna Know?”

How about that: guitar rock that isn’t teen pop, heavy metal bluster, or an americana cash-in. Didn’t know that Arctic Monkeys had a large enough US fan base to get them on the charts, but here they are and they deserve it. Tense, angry, uncertain but defiant, most of all proud, they provide a level of emotional complexity you won’t find anywhere else on the Hot 100. This isn’t their best record, but it’s more than good enough.