Weeks like this not only make you doubt the importance and durability of pop music, they’re almost enough to sap your will to live. Pitbull is bad enough, but put Currington and Underwood on top and you’ll be crushed by the mediocrity of it all. Only Capital Cities manage to lighten the load, but not by much.
Billy Currington—“Hey Girl”
Currington’s been around for a while, which means he has a jump on most of the other mediocre cowboys who populate country radio, and he sounds more confident, more professional and assured, as a result. But that doesn’t make him their king. He may have a little more meat on him, but he’s still just another part of the herd.
Carrie Underwood—“See You Again”
“See You Again” is the fourth single from Carrie Underwood’s most recent album, Blown Away. It also happens to be the fourth track on the album. The first three singles were the album’s first three tracks, in order. “See You Again” is easily the worst of the four and represents a massive drop in quality compared to Underwood’s last single, “Two Black Cadillacs”. Really makes you want to hear the album, doesn’t it?
Arianna featuring Pitbull—“Sexy People (The Fiat Song)”
This isn’t truly terrible—Pitbull’s Cuban-American pride gives it a level of meaning most of his records lack—but it’s still a Fiat commercial, and the music overall is a dumb joke that gets less funny every time you hear it. There is one good thing about it: it should pretty much kill any chance of Arianna becoming a star in the U.S.
Capital Cities—“Safe and Sound”
I enjoy their steals, especially when they’re ripping off the Pet Shop Boys, but their L.A. distance and cool makes me doubt their humanity. Oddly enough, they remind me more of Devo than anyone else, only romantic and legato instead of dystopian and staccato. This is interesting, but “Safe and Sound” isn’t much of a song. Even more than the singing, the lyrics seem off—the apocalyptic romanticism isn’t felt, it’s just stuck on, like something they learned in a movie.
It’s been something like six years since Ciara had a big pop hit, and it’s a tribute to her tenacity that after years of missing the mark she finally created something that connects. For that she, and everyone else, can thank Mike Will Made-It, who delivers the most stunning (those drum beats!) and friendliest track of his career. Not his most daring or deepest mind you, but it’s good that his sound is adaptable to artists who aren’t rapping about how stoned they are. Still, this track could use a little depth, and it isn’t going to come from Ciara, who needed her tenacity for the simple reason that she never was that good, even when she had hits.
DJ Khaled featuring Drake, Rick Ross & Lil Wayne—“No New Friends”
How dare people try to be friends with Drake now that he’s famous? They just want some of his fame and money to rub off on them. He’d rather hang with his real friends, his true friends, the ones he knew before he was famous. He’ll even stick with the ones who can’t really hack it anymore, like Lil Wayne. After all, you won’t catch Wayne hanging with people he didn’t know before he was famous. Except for Drake, of course. But Drake is special. At least, that’s what he keeps telling us. But then, why should we believe somebody who isn’t willing to be our friend?
Just like Michael Buble, Sara Bareilles is an artist I enjoy when she’s being sarcastic, and find unbearable when she engages in sincere uplift. This isn’t horrible, but it pales next to Bareilles’s previous singles, and portends a load of schlock in the future. C’mon Sara, there must be someone who still pisses you off. Maybe you and Buble could do a duet where you really tear into each other.
Lana Del Rey—“Young and Beautiful”
Del Rey’s inability to project or phrase makes it hard to tell just what direction she’s approaching this song from, but I’m going to assume, since this is from The Great Gatsby soundtrack, that she’s pretending to be Daisy Buchanan. Problem is, she sounds more like Myrtle, the gas station owner’s wife who deludes herself into believing that Daisy’s husband, Tom, is in love with her and ends up being killed by Gatsby’s car while Daisy is driving. Myrtle isn’t young and beautiful, and she’s too shallow to have an “aching soul”, but she’s convinced herself of both all the same. Sounds like Del Rey has, too. But she hasn’t convinced me.
Hustle Gang featuring T.I., B.o.B., Kendrick Lamar & Kris Stephens—“Memories Back Then”
Another great T.I. rap (two in a row!), and this time the words are as important as his timing and flow. But B.o.B. is ordinary as ever, and it’s beginning to look like Kendrick Lamar’s misogyny is not only real, but deep. Either that or he’s been doing so many features lately he’s started to fall back on cliches to get by. So, if you feel like it, edit out the T.I. verse for a best of, and hope for a remix with someone equally inspired. Just think what Andre 3000 could do with an idea like this.
Zac Brown Band—“Jump Right In”
Ever wondered what James Taylor would sound like if he fronted a jam band that was really into Jimmy Buffett? Me either, but here it is all the same.
Daft Punk featuring Pharrell Williams—“Get Lucky”
Good music is its own justification, and “Get Lucky” is OK, but I still find myself questioning its necessity. It’s more of a museum piece than a pop record, a careful reconstruction and distillation of everything that made disco enjoyable with all the rough edges that made it vital removed. Though I can’t exactly explain what I mean by this, to me it sounds very French. Or like smooth jazz with a beat. Even Nile Rodgers’s guitar sounds generic. And its debut in the top twenty seems like the last gasp of a movement that lost its energy long ago.
will.i.am featuring Miley Cyrus—“Fall Down”
How did I miss the fact that what will.i.am really wants to be isn’t a pop star, or even a pop empresario, but the Brian Wilson of EDM? The big influence here isn’t some piece of European minimalist disco, but Beach Boys’ records like “Good Vibrations” or Smile. Maybe I’m only realizing it now because this is the first time one of his musical collages hasn’t sounded like a cut-and-paste job designed to save a batch of disconnected ideas. Or maybe the strings tipped me off. There’s a big difference between will.i.am and Wilson, though (besides the fact that Wilson didn’t have to hire out the singing): Wilson didn’t just slap together stray parts, he thought out great parts and then meshed them into something more. Great as the combinations were, as Smiley Smile proved, even the oddest fragments could be separated from the body of the piece and still be enjoyable. The various parts of this record are improved by being heard in conjunction with the others, but not by much, and they could never stand on their own. Also, Wilson got decent lyricists to write his words for him, words that added to the music, rather than limply decorating it. This is an unfair comparison, I know, but will.i.am invites it, because his ambitions are that big, even though his talent is much smaller.
Jason Derulo—“The Other Side”
A hopeless rehash of Usher’s “DJ Got Us Fallin’ In Love” hampered by the brash mindlessness of the beat and the simple fact that DeRulo can’t sing. And I don’t mean as well as Usher. I mean he can’t sing.
Calvin Harris featuring Ellie Goulding—“I Need Your Love”
Who needs hooks when you have Ellie Goulding’s voice to work with? Baby-doll innocent one moment, Bjorkishly weird the next, breathy and sincere in between, she constantly creates tiny, micro-pitched melodies between the usual notes that are either pleasurable or irritating depending on your point of view, but captivating either way. Harris, pro that he is, throws in some hooks of his own, just for spice, and the result is the best record from him I’ve heard.
Miguel—“How Many Drinks”
This seems cold and callous at first, and it is, but it’s also respectful in its own single-minded way. Miguel is more than willing to play the game, he just wants to know what the results will be beforehand. Of course, he’s also betting that telling the truth and self-serving candor will work as a seduction technique. If I were his chosen companion, he’d probably have me at the end of the first verse, when he rhymes “get in your pants” with “am I going too fast?” But that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t want to hear the rest of his line.
Robin Thicke featuring T.I. & Pharrell—“Blurred Lines”
This is so perfectly realized that I keep thinking there must be something seriously wrong with it, but aside from a certain level of slick calculation and the usual mild sexism, I can’t find anything. Thicke and Pharrell’s voices blend so perfectly that half the time I can’t tell them apart, and the record is so beautifully constructed that it doesn’t make any difference anyway. The high-point, though, is T.I., who first nails the beat and then toys with it like a master. It’s his best rap in years.
Sean Kingston featuring Chris Brown & Wiz Khalifa—“Beat It”
Kingston is a one-shot artist who’s career was fading long before his accident, so though I respect this attempted comeback, I don’t see much chance of success, and certainly not with material as generic as this. Meanwhile, Chris Brown continues to be trapped, or to flaunt, sexual metaphors that remind us of the darkest moments of his past. He won’t just “Beat It” for you, girl, he’ll “beat it up”. Is he that callous, or that oblivious? Is there a difference? Does it even matter anymore?
As the weather warms up, so do the charts, and the result is weeks like this, with twelve debuts, and without even the excuse of a big album release or a TV singing competition (the pop-chart equivalent of steroids; they bulk you up, then they drive you insane). There is, however, controversy, which puts no less than three records on the chart this week. Add a YouTube phenom, a non-LP country (!) single, and a batch of new tracks from artists who have been away for awhile, and you almost have a case study in how records make the charts these days. All we need is a track from a commercial, one from a TV show, and somebody who died.
The real secret of Psy’s success isn’t his goofiness in both looks and approach, or his so-called satire (he’s more an ironist than a satirist), but his masterful command of pop structure. “Gangnam Style” was probably the best structured pop record to hit the chart since Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance”, and “Gentleman”, though simpler, is even tighter. It also helps that he knows how to write captivating melodies over his austere beats, and comes up with lyrics that, even if you don’t know what they mean, fit perfectly in terms of sound with the beats and the music. In other words, Psy’s success isn’t just a freak happening; he really knows what he’s doing.
Luke Bryan—“Crash My Party”
This is a surprise, at least in business terms: a non-LP single released at the same time as the album, which already had a lead-in single, “Buzzkill” released a month ago. But then, “Buzzkill” hasn’t done that well (it’s been sitting at 38 on the Hot Country Songs chart for three weeks now and isn’t on the airplay chart at all), and with the increasing power of digital in the country market an experiment like this makes a lot of sense. It also sets up a possible deluxe edition of Spring Break…Here To Party sometime in the near future. But even though I have a soft spot for non-LP singles and think there should be more of them, the mediocrity of this record leaves me cold. For a guy who’s supposedly making party records, Bryan sure does have a fondness for sluggish tempos.
Hunter Hayes—“I Want Crazy”
Remove Hayes’s vocals and what you have is a Nashville session group’s version of Mumford & Sons, or rather what Nashville session groups think M&S would sound like if they were country boys who could actually play. This is interesting. Put Hayes’s vocals back in, though, and all the interest goes away.
Selena Gomez—“Come & Get It”
I’m all for Gomez becoming a dance music diva, but if she’s going to succeed she needs to find better material than this, and she especially needs to find something that suits her voice. She’s trying too hard on the chorus, and the strain shows. The best part of this record is the bridge, where her voice matches perfectly with the music and you can hear the promise in it. Working with Esther Dean and StarGate isn’t going to fulfill that promise, though. I hope there are some RockMafia cuts on the album. They know how to set her voice better than anyone else ever has.
Ray J featuring Bobby Brackins—“I Hit It First”
There are, of course, examples of rap sexism more despicable than this, but not by much. Whatever you think about Kim Kardashian and her version of celebrity for celebrity’s sake (I don’t think about her at all, myself), no woman—no human being—deserves to be talked about the way Ray J talks about her here. That is, as an object (not even an object, but an amorphous thing, an “it”, desired for nothing but sexual pleasure) to be passed around, with the first person to temporarily enjoy its services claiming permanent ownership, even though they’ve long ago moved on to other “its”. In terms of maturity, this song is roughly the equivalent of blog commenters shouting “First!” I just hope Kanye West doesn’t make an answer record: anything he could do would only be stepping down to Ray J’s level, and suggest that his feelings for Kardashian aren’t on a much higher plane.
Avril Lavigne—“Here’s To Never Growing Up”
Written by Lavigne, her producer, her boyfriend, and a couple of song doctors, this is product at it’s purest. I bet her boyfriend wrote the chorus, since he’s shown a talent for that sort of thing in the past, and the rest was filled in from various Ke$ha records. I wonder which of the five came up with the Radiohead line, the only hint of life in the entire track? Does anyone actually shout along to Radiohead, though?
If this record stopped before LL Cool J comes in, you’d have a sincere, if often mistaken, attempt to make sense of the disconnections of southern life, history, and myth. It wouldn’t be a great record, and it would still, especially in the country market, be a controversial one, but it wouldn’t be the laughing stock LL Cool J’s ignorant presence turns it into. I can forgive the clumsiness of his rap (it’s not like Paisley gave him much a of a beat to work with), but not the stupidity of it, which is half ignorance and half the entertainer’s desire to play along and reinforce his host’s point of view no matter what that might be. If there’s a demonstration of anyone’s moral corruption on this record, it isn’t Paisley’s. Not that Paisley is right. Any form of southern pride that embraces the myth of the confederacy as opposed to the reality (face it, folks, your ancestors fucked up, and for all the wrong reasons), should be rejected by anyone with half a brain. Maybe Paisley realizes that, but if so it doesn’t come across here.
Paramore—“Still Into You”
Cutting down to a three piece has worked wonders for this band. First off, it allows them to concentrate on playing up to the strengths of Haley Williams’s songs instead of rolling over them and squeezing the life out. Second, and even better, Williams rises to the opportunity by broadening her approach, widening her emotional palette, and refusing to back down from her view of reality. The end result, Paramore, is the artistic breakthrough of the year, the equivalent, say, of what Soundgarden did on Superunknown, or Lil Wayne did on Tha Carter III. There are a couple of ordinary songs, and a couple of less than successful experiments, but there are no bad tracks, and the best of them are more than great, they’re revelatory. Even when Paramore utilize pop cliches (pomp-rock synthesizers, gospel choirs, ukelele), they make them signify by putting them in service to William’s sarcastic, angry, never bitter, and ultimately optimistic point of view (the gospel choir goes “Don’t go crying to your mama/’Cause you’re on your own in the real world”).
“Still Into You” is a love song, of sorts, but one dedicated not to new love but to a long standing relationship. Williams removes any chance of sentimentality by singing it in a slilghtly sneering but still emotional voice, as if she felt the need to cover up her gooier feelings for fear of making a fool of herself. It’s a perfect match for the music, which rocks up and remakes what would otherwise be a hackneyed set of changes. Williams means every word, though, and the verse about meeting her boyfriend’s mother and then telling him for the first time that she loves him is perfect, even in its ambiguity (was meeting mom wonderful? terrible? The sentiment works either way, and we don’t really need to know). Here’s hoping they can continue in this vein for a long while to come.
WE the Kings—“Just Keep Breathing”
I knew there’d be fun. imitators, I just didn’t think they’d be this bad. But how could they not be, when fun. itself skirts the edge of self-parody? Maybe I was lying to myself.
Scotty McCreery—“See You Tonight”
I wish his material was better, but McCreery is turning into one hell of a singer. It’s not just his voice, which has always been a wonder, but the way he handles it. He knows he sounds best when he’s smooth and controlled, so he makes a point of never overstepping, even on the chorus (he also wisely downplays his lower register, which was beginning to sound like a gimmick). As his voice matures, that control is going to sound even better. Now he just needs to find more mature songs. He’s only nineteen, so it makes sense for him to still be singing material pointed at a teen market, and this is smarter than it appears at first. But in another year he’ll be beyond this sort of corn-fed, safe romanticism. Here’s hoping he’s smart enough to make something out of it.
Fabolous featuring Chris Brown—“Ready”
Brown’s hook is bland and the beat is nothing, but even if they were better I would find it impossible to listen after Fabolous says “get your shit wetty/Oops I mean your shit ready, can’t believe I said that”. I can. Fabolous may not be the dumbest rapper in the world, but he’s certainly the dumbest on the charts.
Rocko featuring Future & Rick Ross—“U.O.E.N.O.”
Decent beat, good hook from Future, a competent rap from Rocko, and then in steps Rick Ross and his big mouth to mess everything up. And I don’t just mean the molly-rape lyric. Ross has become so full of himself that almost every word he utters drips with self-love, so much so that he’s lost the ability to distinguish between what’s “street” and what’s stupid. If he says it, it must be right, right? His product-placing of Reebok (right before the rape line; no wonder they dropped his ass) is on a much lower level of offensiveness, but it’s still offensive, and the rest is nonsense. What’s even more depressing is that even without the controversy this would probably still have made the chart on name recognition alone. That’s how rap works these days, and this is what you get.
A surprisingly good week, even if the best of the tracks are imitations of their betters. It’s interesting that many of those being imitated are relatively new artists: The Black Keys, Miguel, and (next week, via Hunter Hayes and We the Kings) Mumford and Sons and fun. A year or so ago, no one would have thought of any of those people as influential in any meaningful way, but now they’re working a sea change on pop radio, one that may be even more profound than EDM. I’m not saying it’s an improvement, but then pop rarely improves, it just sounds different.
Florida Georgia Line featuring Nelly—“Cruise (Remix)”
Technically a chart re-entry, but since it’s more a remake than a remix, I thought I’d review it anyway. It’s terrible. Nelly would record with Alvin and the Chipmunks if he thought it would get him back on the charts, and this adds nothing while losing all the rough and ready charm of the original. The chorus still works, but that’s about it. Low moment: the southern white boys greet their guest with “What up, Nelly?” At least they didn’t say “Whoa”.
Chris Brown—“Fine China”
Even when his records are good (and this is one of his best), Brown’s past continues to haunt him, and it doesn’t help that he keeps reminding people of it. I don’t think he does this intentionally, but he seems oblivious to what the words of his songs mean. The title “Fine China” immediately calls up images of Brown as the bull in the shop, and when he assures his lover that he’s not dangerous all you can do is cringe. Musically, though, this is just about perfect, with it’s mix of a Stevie Wonder-ish distorted bass line, Michael Jackson-style hiccups, and a striking, if overzealous, string arrangement. The arrangement is too busy, but that bassline makes up for a lot. Brown has obviously been paying attention to Miguel, and decorates his slightly subdued vocals with slurs and falsettos, though not always in the right places. His falsetto isn’t as pure as Miguel’s, either, and his lyrical ideas (or the ones he buys, anyway), are as empty as always, even when they’re not cringe-worthy.
Jonas Brothers—“Pom Poms”
This is fluff, but I like it, which is more than I can say of any previous Jonas record. Their inability to maintain a career at Disney, though probably not their fault (Disney is much better at grooming female pop stars), is a kind of merit badge: they went through the pop sausage machine and came out whole, and maybe better than when they started. In a show of business savvy, they even bought back their masters (can we look forward to de-Disneyfied remixes? hope not). It’s odd to find them falling under the influence of The Black Keys, but that influence not only inspired them to write (or steal) a wicked bassline, but to clean up and focus their sound. And unlike the Black Keys, the Jonases have a sense of humor. “Pom Poms” is sheer nonsense, but nonsense has always made good pop, and this is a giant step in the right direction.
Nicki Minaj featuring Lil Wayne—“High School”
This is not only Minaj’s best single since “Stupid Hoe”—and a lot more thought-provoking—but she even got a rap out of Lil Wayne that follows a single train of thought for more than two bars (is she the only rapper in the world he feels challenged by, or is she the only person who can whip him into shape?). “High School” may be about nothing more than sex and dope, but it’s also about Minaj being in total control of the sex and dope (or, more specifically, taking over her lover’s drug business when he gets arrested), which means a lot. It also tells a story, which I haven’t heard any rap song on the pop charts do in a long time. The music is good, too, beautiful but vaguely sinister. This may be a step that will eventually take Minaj off the pop charts, but it’s still the right direction.
This thoroughly enjoyable piece of imitative craftsmanship provides the answer to one of the great mathematical questions of the age: how many people of average talent does it take to almost equal one Beyonce? Answer: four singers, one three-man production team, and fourteen songwriters. And she makes it seem so easy.
If I didn’t know that Grande came from Victorious I would have assumed she was a contestant in a Mariah Carey sound-alike contest where the runner-up gets stuck with a Mac Miller feature (the winner doesn’t have to use a feature at all). Not terrible, but Miller is always irritating, and the song is too derivative to be anything but a curiosity. At least Grande imitates the more recent Mariah Carey, and not the ballad and helium queen of the 90s.
“Boys ‘Round Here” is such a leap for Shelton, so obviously the best music of his career, that if I’d heard it unlabeled I probably wouldn’t have recognized it as him (though the presence of Pistol Annies might have tipped me off). After Miranda Lambert’s last album I was afraid that Shelton’s version of country was starting to creep into her music, but now it looks like the opposite is happening. Either that or Shelton’s been spending a lot of time listening to Roger Miller. It’s not perfect: the lyrics are limp at times and it could use some editing. Worse, nothing else I’ve heard from Shelton’s new album comes close to it, so maybe this was an inspired one-shot that will never be repeated. Unless, that is, it becomes such a smash that he’s forced to follow it up. Which makes me wish he didn’t say “shit” so prominently in the chorus, even though that’s one of the things that makes this record so wonderful. You still need radio play to be a country star, and Shelton is taking a real chance with this record. I just hope he keeps it up. (By the way, this is the second country single this month to reference “Teach Me How to Dougie”; kind of late, but for country something of a miracle. I wonder when “Gangnam Style” will pop up in a lyric?)
Fall Out Boy—“The Phoenix”
The album is called Save Rock and Roll, and that would appear to be what this is about. Which means that Fall Out Boy have managed to maintain their pretensions over their hiatus, and maybe even added a few. It’s just possible, though, that this time they’ll live up to them. The hook here is amazing, and if the rest of the song doesn’t quite match its power it comes damn close. This sounds as over the top as they always have, but it’s also more controlled, less a shambolic rush and more of a structured explosion. They’ve always had hooks, but now they know how to make them stand out and signify.
Ed Sheeran—“Lego House”
All the sensitive, breathy singing in the world couldn’t redeem this nonsense, in fact it makes it worse. When Sheeran says he’s going to paint her by numbers and put her on the wall, does that mean he’s placing her on a pedestal or claiming her as a possession (as if there’s a difference)? Does he even realize how insulting that metaphor is, that he’s making her out to be a blank canvas that can be filled in by formula to meet his desires? Or is that breathy voice the result of his head being filled with nothing but air?
The main symptoms of which are ennui and procrastination, hence the lateness of this. It isn’t just that mediocre records are hard to write about, though they are, but they drain whatever energy you have for writing, as well. And so far this has been a very mediocre year. There’s not a single record this week—and this is the biggest debut week so far, in terms of the number of records—that I have any strong feelings about. It’s been that way for three months now, which is why my Best of the Hot 100 playlist only has four songs on it (and one of those is over a year old). Even though it’s still early in the year, there’s little sign of it getting better. I wonder where the real action is?
Since I’m expecting the usual will.i.am haters to raise a fuss about the lift from Daft Punk and the emptiness of Justin Bieber’s vocal, it’s probably a waste of time to mention that this is easily the best thing will.i.am has produced since The E.N.D., way back at the dawn of the EDM era he helped create. It’s nowhere near as good, partly because it’s a rehash, and partly because of Bieber, but just like The E.N.D. it’s better than most people will give him credit for. Me, I respect him for sticking to his electro guns, and just want to point out that Bieber sounds a lot more alive than Britney Spears did, though not as much as Fergie.
Justin Timberlake—“Pusher Love Girl”
The news that Timberlake’s 20/20 Experience is essentially a contractual obligation album—though for a performance contract rather than the usual recording contract—explains a lot. The length of the songs, for one thing (just like “Mirrors”, “Pusher Love” runs over eight minutes): when you need to put an album together in a hurry, there’s nothing like extended breakdowns, intros, and codas to make it look like you’re giving your audience their money’s worth. It also explains the relative shallowness of the lyrics, and occasionally the music. No doubt Timbaland has a ton of beats and backing tracks piled up on his hard drives, but lyrics, and even lyrical themes, can be harder to come by. “Pusher Love” could almost be a case in point. It features a lengthy and unnecessary orchestral intro, an even lengthier and perhaps even less necessary breakdown and coda, and, in between all that, a B+ level beat and lyrics that add nothing. All the same, this is the best track from 20/20 to hit the charts so far, and a decent radio edit could work wonders. It’s good enough, in fact, to make you wonder why it wasn’t released as the first single instead of “Suit & Tie”. I assume it had something to do with branding the upcoming tour, and maybe to lower expectations for a project Timberlake doesn’t have much of his heart invested in. The question is how much respect he’s willing to lose. He’s certainly lost a lot of mine.
Sometimes I like Tyga, sometimes I hate him, this time I don’t care.
Lil Wayne featuring 2 Chainz—“Rich As Fuck”
A couple of lines suggest that Wayne may have some brain cells left, but then it winds down into the usual rap misogyny, which used to be unusual for Wayne. The beat’s dull, too.
“Another J. Dash production!” Are we supposed to have remembered the last one? I don’t. Though it’s harder to create a one-word hook than it might seem, it isn’t that hard. Besides, Dash doesn’t put anything worth hearing between the hooks. I thank him, though, for reminding me of The Coasters “Turtle Dovin’”. I wonder if Dash has heard it.
Zedd featuring Foxes—“Clarity”
Another small step in the direction of turning EDM into just another form of pop music, as opposed to a revitalization. This has it’s moments, but the music is so loud that the vocals get stretched out of any recognizable emotional range in compensation, which the music, ironically enough, isn’t full enough to hide.
Jake Owen—“Anywhere With You”
For some reason I keep confusing Jake Owen with Luke Bryan, which is unfair to Bryan, who has some brains and is willing to experiment. Owen’s a hack, but country radio must love him because he’s managed to milk Barefoot Blue Jean Night for over a year now, even though each single has been duller than the one before it. Maybe it’s because he’s so willing to pander: the opening line may be the most egregious and ridiculous example I’ve ever heard.
Kip Moore—“Hey Pretty Girl”
Eric Church may use Bruce Springsteen as a symbol of romantic nostalgia, but Moore goes a step further: from his cover pose in a leather jacket, Fender in hand, to the careful, repetitive folk plainness of his style, it’s obvious Moore wants to be Springsteen. That he fails isn’t a surprise, but it’s also for reasons you might not expect. “Hey Pretty Girl” goes on too long and repeats itself too much, but that’s the least of Moore’s problems. The big issue is his inability to break out of the country straitjacket, which forces him to pay the usual lyrical homages to family and motherhood and true love, even though the music is speaking Springsteen’s language of thwarted dreams and diminished hopes. If he wants to be Springsteen, or even get close, Moore is going to need to go all the way. Either that or try something else.
As a rapper, French Montana is negligible, but he sure knows how to pick hooks and choose guests. Nicki Minaj is perfect here, even if you can’t understand half of what she says. Since she not only plays the freak, but goes freak hunting at the same time, she can serve as both a sexual object and a role model (though I have no idea who could possibly follow the pattern she’s set), and blows Montana’s more generic rap sexism away with a giggle and a shout. There’s a reason this is officially Montana’s record, though. His chorus holds the track, which would otherwise be pulled apart by its eccentricities, together.
The Band Perry—“DONE.”
It would seem that the lighter, dreamier, romantic version of The Band Perry, (that is, the one that made their first album) is already history. “Better Dig Two” traded in obsession and psychosis, and now comes “DONE.” (yes, all caps and a period; never say these folks aren’t up-to-date), a break-up song with teeth. The bite isn’t just in the lyrics, either; the music is tougher than anything they’ve done before, but never falls into the pseudo-metal that mars a lot of country music. For that you can thank Kimberly Perry’s power-pop-loving brothers, Reid and Neil, who did the bulk of the writing. In other words, not a one woman show by a long shot. They may be around a lot longer than people thought.
DJ Drama featuring Wale, Tyga & Roscoe Dash—“So Many Girls”
If I had to choose between screaming DJs, I’d choose Drama. He screams less than Khaled, for one thing, and his beats show a lot more variety and subtlety. Khaled scores bigger and better rappers, though, and every once in a while his guests make all the shouting and bombast worthwhile. On “So Many Girls” the raps drag an impressive track down with generic, mindless boasting. Maybe Drama should try releasing unfinished instrumentals. It worked for Baauer.
This is so goofy that it goes a long way towards making me think Aldean is an actual human being, as opposed to a country cliche machine. How can you help enjoying a song that, instead of paying obeisance to Hank or Johnny or Waylon, serves up some respect to Joe Diffie? This doesn’t make Aldean a genius, of course: he should never be allowed to rap again, or even say hip-hop. I do like the line “teach us how to Diffie”, though, even if it is a little late in the day for dougie jokes.
Through most of the first verse, I kept hoping that “Buzzkill” was about Bryan castigating one of his drinking buddies and that it was at least meant to be funny. Once he added the adjective “little” to the title, though, I knew it was another girl-who’s-driving-me-crazy song, with just enough of a twist to make it seem original. The biggest twist is the tempo, which is slow enough to make nonsense of the lyric, and leaves you to wonder if Bryan has figured out where the emotional center of the song lies. The protagonist could be angry, sad, sardonic, whatever, but Bryan doesn’t seem to be going for any of those. He does realize that “wimp” isn’t an emotion, right?
Kelly Rowland—“Kisses Down Low”
Rowland has been on a lot of records that made the Hot 100 over the last year or two, but only one of them, “Motivation” with Lil Wayne, was worth listening to. Two of them, including “Kisses Down Low”, are among the worst R&B records of the last six months (the other is Ludacris’s “Representin’”). “Kisses” is actually the worst of the two, a record so obvious and blatantly pandering it’s hard to believe that anyone with any self-respect would release it (Beyonce has recorded orgasms that are more subtle). I have no idea whether Rowland is running her own career or has put it in the hands of someone else, but whatever the case she’d better find another caretaker soon. If she had been in a group like the Pussycat Dolls, it wouldn’t matter. But coming from Destiny’s Child and having a solo career reminiscent of Nicole Scherzinger’s? Somebody’s making a big mistake somewhere, and I suspect it’s Rowland herself.
Brad Paisley—“Beat This Summer”
The most open-minded artist in the most closed-minded of genres, Brad Paisley finds himself in a bind. He obviously feels the need to expand his music and his themes beyond the limitations of modern country, but at the same time doesn’t want to offend his audience or move so far out that they can’t follow him. The last thing Paisley wants is to come on as an elitist or spell artist with a capitol “A”. Hence the breezy likability of his stronger message songs, such as “American Saturday Night” and “Welcome To the Future”, and the sometimes bizarre tightrope-walking of “Southern Comfort Zone”. At the opposite pole, on a simple, nostalgic love song like “Beat This Summer”, Paisley feels free to pull out all the musical stops, deconstructing the rhythm track, applying decidedly un-country melodic intervals in the chorus, and tossing in sound effects and yet another peerless guitar solo. But by taking the music too seriously Paisley loses track of the song and it’s lighter-weight pleasures. In the end, the two ideas cancel each other out, and we’re left with a beautifully crafted track that doesn’t make much of an impression. Paisley is so smart he’ll work out his difficulties eventually, but I’m not counting on it happening this year.
Juicy J featuring Big Sean and Young Jeezy—“Show Out”
Mid-level rappers bragging over Mike Will Made-It beats have become something of a sub-genre in the last year or so, and here’s another one. The beats are still good, but they’re starting to become repetitive. As for the rappers, there’s a reason they’re mid-level.
Phillip Phillips—“Gone, Gone, Gone”
Not a Lefty Frizzell cover, unfortunately (I doubt if Phillips would even know who he is); just another Mumford & Sons imitation. Phillips is less pretentious than Mumford, and puts a little more variety in his music. That is, he’s more pop. But that doesn’t make him any better. It might even make him worse, if such a thing is possible. Better than the Lumineers, though, for what that’s worth.
The best way I can find to describe Lovato’s style of vocal attack is to quote something Robert Christgau once wrote about the late Replacements guitarist, Bob Stinson: “…Stinson’s guitar was a loud, unkempt match for Paul Westerberg’s vocal, only he’d juice the notes with a little something extra, and probably wrong…”. This is exactly how Lovato sings (listen to the second verse of “Give Your Heart a Break” for an example of her making all the wrong choices but adding to the emotional power of the song in the process). The difference is Stinson was working with Westerberg, one of the best songwriters of his time, while Lovato depends on industry pros who focus on formula more than inspiration. When she finds a good song like “Give Your Heart a Break” or the earlier “Don’t Forget” she can make something fascinating, if often frustrating, out of it. But on a generic song like “Heart Attack” she overcompensates. The verses are all right, but she screeches the chorus, making a mediocre song an unbearable one. It doesn’t help that the production is even louder. I hope Lovato finds another good song soon, but I have a feeling there’s going to be a lot of stuff like this in her career. I also worry that she doesn’t know the difference.
The rise of teen pop has opened a window for contemporary Christian music, which trades in the same themes of uplift and aspiration. This allows Nicole, who’s been recording since 2004, to partially remake herself as a Cher Lloyd sound-alike and push her spiritual ideas without once having to mention God or Jesus. Nicole—27, married, and pregnant—doesn’t exactly match the teen pop demographic. But then, neither does Carly Rae Jepsen, which may be what Nicole’s new label, Capitol, is betting on. But “Call Me Maybe” was a masterpiece, while “Gold” is generic teen pop, too basic to be particularly meaningful (a common problem with Christian pop), and too sugar-coated to get the attention of anyone but candy freaks.
Michael Buble—“It’s A Beautiful Day”
For someone who’s been stereotyped as an easy-listening crooner, Buble is an interesting guy. He made millions off his Christmas record, and on his regular albums, which consist mostly of covers, he plays the smooth, sophisticated balladeer to the hilt. His singles, however, tell a different story. 2009′s “Hollywood” was a nasty swipe at celebrity culture, and “It’s a Beautiful Day” is yet more sarcastic, and even vicious. It’s a beautiful day, you see, because the girlfriend he was planning on dumping anyway saved him the trouble by dumping him first. Both “Hollywood” and “Beautiful” cover their bitterness in upbeat, bouncy arrangements with catchy choruses. The only part of the music that reinforces the lyric is the horn charts—nothing sounds more sarcastic than a drunkenly sliding trombone, though the trumpet solo at the end of “Beautiful” comes close. It’s enough to make you wonder if Buble isn’t toying with his audience, seeing how far he can go, at least symbolically, in telling them off. It may also be a way of stretching the envelop a little to make his cage of a career more bearable.
There’s also a third, darker, possibility: that Buble is a closet misogynist. The way he addresses the women in “Hollywood” and “Beautiful” is, at its best, condescending and patronizing. At its worst it’s hateful (listen to the way he clips off the words “It’s a beautiful day”, skipping away as he flips her off). The coupling of catchy music with bitter sarcasm only makes that impression greater. He’s sugaring the pill, partly because he believes it’s the only way the women in his audience will take it, and partly because he enjoys the idea of watching their reaction when they realize what they’ve swallowed (not that he risks losing them; if the career of Chris Brown has proved nothing else, it’s that some fans will take, or ignore, anything). Buble is either a true artist yearning for more and striking out at his audience in frustration, or a sadistic misogynist getting his kicks in as cruel a way as possible. Like I said, an interesting guy.
Brantley Gilbert—“More Than Miles”
Merely mediocre, which for Gilbert is a step up. The lyrics, at times, are both laughable and touching—”I’ve been changing lanes without my mirrors/Cause every time I look behind me I see her”—though you’d never know it by the way Gilbert sings them.
On “Don’t You Worry Child”, Swedish House Mafia paved the way for the final merger of EDM and pomp rock, and Hadouken! are happy to deliver the final product. Geeks to their bones (the band’s name comes from an attack move in the Street Fighter video game), they’ve embraced the sense of technological grandiosity that lies at the center of geek culture and made loud music out of it. It’s not terrible (there’s one great key change), but if Tom Scholz had grown up in the 00s instead of the 60s and 70s, this is what Boston would have sounded like.