1 Uptown Funk
Mark Ronson featuring Bruno Mars
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.
2 Thinking Out Loud
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.
3 Blank Space
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.
4 Take Me To Church
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.
5 Shake It Off
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.
6 Lips Are Movin
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.
7 I’m Not the Only One
I’m guessing it’s the sob in Smith’s voice that makes so many people hate him (though in this day of careful treading, the thought of another white guy trading in older black style may have something to do with it). They seem to place him in the same slot as Roland Gift of Fine Young Cannibals or, going further back, Johnnie Ray (aka The Nabob of Sob). I’ll admit there are times when Smith’s phrasing makes me want to throw up my hands in frustration, but his material is good enough to make up for a lot of it, especially the matter-of-fact quality of the lyrics. There’s no beating around the bush in these songs, and whether they were written particularly for his voice or not, I can’t imagine anyone else singing them any other way. I also like the simplicity of his solo material (as opposed to his features on other records). He’s still learning, and he’s sticking to what he knows he can get away with. “Not the Only One” isn’t great (“Stay With Me” is far better), but it isn’t as bad as “Leave Your Lover”, not to mention most of the rest of the chart. I’m not sure he’s capable of doing anyyhing beyond this sort of emotional catharsis—a voice like his tends to limit your options—but I’d like to hear him try.
“Sugar” is simpler and less cluttered than Maroon 5′s last two singles, and purer in it’s pop sensibilities. The lyrics attempt nothing special, and the music lifts bits wholesale from Justin Timberlake and Michael Jackson, but I find myself liking it a lot more for exactly those reasons. This is pure pablum, of course, pablum packed with high fructose corn syrup, but it’s also the level at which Maroon 5 do their best work. The pumped-up arrangements of “Maps” and “Animals” suggested they were taking what they do too seriously, that they believed there was something special they could achieve within the framework of modern pop, which is almost always a mistake. They’re a pop machine, nothing more, and it’s about time they fessed up to it.
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.
10 All About That Bass
Her favorite genres of music are soca, fifties rock and roll, and doo-wop. She played in her father’s jazz band as a kid, and got her start in the biz writing for Rascal Flatts. She’s got attitude to spare, but knows how to be silly. Her hooks glide and cascade and will bounce around inside your head forever. In other words, if she can keep her current trajectory and find the right collaborators, Meghan Trainor could be the Kirsty MacColl of her generation, and I don’t know why anyone would complain about that. To actually pull off a pop confection like this is an amazing thing, involving the alignment of the planets and the interference of the gods. Complain people do, though. Yes, it’s a little showtuney, but since the show is Hairspray, so what? And I actually like the fact that the bass isn’t overwhelming—it puts the emphasis on her voice and the body it emanates from. Worst of all are the false comparisons between this and Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda”, and the suggestion that “All About That Bass” was somehow designed to keep Minaj off the charts. Coincidence isn’t conspiracy, and anyone who believes it is is destined for a deeply unhappy existence. As is anyone who can’t appreciate this record for what it is, instead of projecting their own prejudiced principles on it or wishing it would go away.
11 Love Me Harder
Ariana Grande & The Weeknd
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.
Fall Out Boy
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.
13 The Hanging Tree
James Newton Howard Featuring Jennifer Lawrence
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.
14 I Don’t Fuck With You
Big Sean Featuring E-40
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.
15 The Heart Wants What It Wants
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.
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.
17 I Don’t Mind
Usher featuring Juicy J
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.
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.
Nicki Minaj Featuring Drake, Lil Wayne & Chris Brown
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.
20 No Type
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?
iLoveMakonnen Featuring Drake
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.
This is a competent R&B rehash, and Henderson is an OK singer, but this is neither ghostly nor memorable.
23 Bang Bang
Jessie J, Ariana Grande, Nicki Minaj
Jessie J’s voice doesn’t just grate, it stabs deep into your brain, making your extremities twitch and probably causing impotence. Arianna Grande, though she has plenty of defenders and the effect is much less harmful, isn’t much of an improvement (she doesn’t do Christina Aguilera any better than she does Mariah Carey). That leaves Nicki Minaj to hold “Bang Bang” together, which, amazingly enough, she does. When she’s on even the overblown arrangement makes sense. The best line comes when Minaj warns Jessie J. and Grande to stand back and watch themselves. She’s just being polite, though. If it were me I’d tell them to go away completely.
24 Time Of Our Lives
Pitbull & Ne-Yo
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.
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.
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?
27 Stay With Me
Up to now, Smith’s chart placings have been features on EDM records. These have been good but not great. The format is too loose for him, the high emotionalism of his vocals needs a solid structure to provide context and tension. “Stay With Me” proves this. Classic soul in style, it runs less than three minutes, and it’s close to perfect. Even the massed vocals on the chorus which seem like overkill on first listen turn out to be emotionally precise, the sound of a mutitide of channels of pain and loneliness bursting out. Vulnerability isn’t the only trick in Smith’s bag, but he plays it very, very well.
28 Habits (Stay High)
The lyrics about sex clubs and bulimia are no doubt getting this record more attention than it deserves, but the chorus is ordinary, as is the arrangement in general. I’ve heard at least one remix that’s far superior to the original, so Lo may have a better idea of what she’s doing than this suggests. The lyrics are pretty sharp, after all.
29 Elastic Heart
“Chandelier” was both overwrought and underthought, but this piece of loudly baroque pop, the arrangement packed with details that are often off-base but never overwhelm, seems just right. The main background, made up entirely of vocal interjections and exclamations, is old hat, but the firecracker drums leading into the chorus pack an emotional punch, and the operatic background vocals are just off-kilter enough to make you think there’s something serious at stake. Mind you, there probably isn’t, because the lyrics are loaded with nonsense. The oddest effect, it turns out, is Sia herself, who, in attempting to match the arrangement, twists her voice and phrases in such an odd way that you wonder if the elasticity of her heart has metastasized to her vocal chords, her lips, and her tongue. If this description makes it sound like “Elastic Heart” is a mess, it is, but it’s a mess that ultimately seems to makes sense, even if you never quite understand how.
Hey, babe, sit still while I mansplain my love for you. To summarize: you’re hot, dumb, and remind me of Michelle Pfeiffer. And hey, ain’t I cute?
At last Sheeran comes up with a record worth listening to more than once. Funky enough to pass, with a great hook, and the title clevery buried in the mix. The story is suggestive enough to keep gossip mongers guessing (he swears it’s not about Taylor Swift), but holds interest even without speculation. “Don’t” also contains what may be the best line Sheeran will ever write: “I never saw him as a threat/Until you disappeared with him to have sex, of course”. There may be hope for him yet.
32 I Lived
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.
After hearing this, I feel as if I should apologize for all the times I’ve said a record was overwrought or overdone. “Chandelier” is the sort of record those words are meant for, and even they can’t do it justice. It’s almost impossible to convey how over the top this record is, from its booming drums to Sia’s screaming vocals. There’s a song in the maelstrom somewhere, but good luck finding it, and when you do you won’t find much. Even Rihanna, who Sia imitates in her phrasing, shows more restraint than this. Hell, Demi Lovato shows more restraint than this.
34 Hot Nigga
Really? Then how come I’m not feeling any heat?
35 Heroes (We Could Be)
Alesso Featuring Tove Lo
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.
36 Love Me Like You Do
This is so retro (those strings!) that it’s almost a joke, but it works anyway, because Goulding sounds so deeply invested in it. I don’t know when the trend of writing soundtrack songs that actually echo the plot of the movies, even when they don’t appear in them, started (I first noticed it with The Hunger Games soundtrack) but it’s allowed Goulding to step out of herself in a way she obviously needed to get back on track. She sounds submissive and lustful and desperate all at once, and the lyrics, written partly by Tove Lo, are better than anything she’s found in the last couple of years (the best and most meaningful line is also the simplest: “What are you waiting for?”). Maybe this will inspire her to step away from the EDM madness and find some real songs to sing.
37 Heartbeat Song
Something about this record makes me sad. It’s fine in many ways, and excellent in a few places, but it’s too obviously an attempt on Clarkson’s part to recapture the energy of “Since U Been Gone” a decade after the fact. There are two problems with this. One, “Since U Been Gone” was lightning in a bottle, a record that blew a hole in pop and ushered in an entirely new era—people who are hearing it now for the first time no doubt wonder, to a certain degree, what all the fuss was about. It’s a great record, but it was a great record “of its time”, and our impression of it will be forever biased by that. Two, and this is the more important point, Clarkson is beyond this. As an artist, as a star, as a human being, she moved to another plane years ago, a plane where it’s more difficult, if not impossible, to make music that appeals to everybody, and especially the you that used to be. Clarkson has come across as such a master of herself and what she wants that I can’t help but wonder why she would make a record like this now. To prove she can? She already did that, and better. But for some reason, a lot of critics are cheering her on. Doesn’t anybody want to grow up?
Flo Rida Featuring Sage The Gemini & Lookas
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.
39 Don’t Tell ‘Em
Jeremih featuring YG
Music aside—which is OK, though DJ Mustard gets less spicy every time out—this is as tiresome as current hip hop gets. What bothers me most, though, is the recurring motif of guys urging their women not to tell anybody that they get together. Since they spend a good deal of time bragging about putting one over on the other guy or their other women, fear of being caught cheating is probably the least of it. Whatever the reason, it’s just another form of manipulation and power play. It’s about as far from love, or even lust, as you can get, though the songs are usually presented as being about both. It’s an unhealthy state of affairs (no pun intended) all around, and “Don’t Tell ‘Em” is unhealthier than most.
Calvin Harris Featuring John Newman
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.
41 Something In The Water
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.
42 Night Changes
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”.
No, this piece of fluffy reggae isn’t a Police rip-off, or even a Train rip-off—it’s a Vampire Weekend rip-off. It is, in fact, so exact an imitation that there are moments when I wonder if VW aren’t playing some sort trick on us. But if you’re one of those people who think Vampire Weekend represent the voice of privilege, wait until you hear these guys. They’re so self-involved they think anyone who dares to say no to them is being “rude”. They also think they’re cute and clever as hell and that those things matter. I do like the guitar solo, which makes the “rude” father sound like the parents in a Peanuts cartoon, but that’s all I like.
44 Black Widow
Iggy Azalea featuring Rita Ora
Rita Ora’s hook is decent, though nowhere near as good as Charli XCX’s on “Fancy”, and Azalea’s vocals are less irritating than her previous records, and that’s about all there is to say. Except that my feelings about Azalea’s records echo almost exactly my feelings about Lady Gaga’s first couple of singles, so I feel as if I should hedge my bets a bit on Azalea’s ultimate worth. Whether or not Azalea has a “Bad Romance” or even a “Paparazzi” in her is open to question. I do know this much, though: no matter how flamboyant her costumes or her music, Gaga always sings like herself, where Azalea’s voice is nothing but imitation. It’s as if she can’t tell the difference between herself and her outfits. Gaga would never make that mistake.
45 I See You
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.
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.
47 Prayer In C
Lillywood & Robin Schulz
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.
Zac Brown Band
Under the bland exterior lies definite proof that Brown has absorbed more from the seventies than James Taylor’s vocal phrasing: he’s become a goddamned hippie. The worst kind of hippie, too, a rich one. “I got everything I need, and nothing that I don’t” he sings on the chorus; “It’s the weight that you carry from the things you think you want” he says later. Yeah, yeah, yeah, it’s easy when you’ve struck gold with mediocre countrified jam band music. Wonder how he’d feel about that life if he had to work at something he hated for a living and had such a hard time getting what he needed that even the simplest luxuries looked like an unobtainable slice of heaven? I bet it would make his music a damn sight better, that’s for sure.
49 Sun Daze
Florida Georgia Line
“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.
50 She Knows
Ne-Yo featuring Juicy J
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.
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!
See “Blank Space”
53 Try Me
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.
54 Lonely Tonight
Blake Shelton Featuring Ashley Monroe
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.
55 Shotgun Rider
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.
56 Stuck On A Feeling
Prince Royce Featuring Snoop Dogg
If Royce really wants to cross over from Latin to pop, he could find better ways than recreating early-oughts dance tracks and inviting Snoop Dogg to pretend to rap on it (every time he repeats the title as if it were a question I wonder if Snoop even knows where he is). This isn’t terrible, but there must be a better way to achieve Royce’s career goals than this. Would it be that difficult to convert bachata into English? If it is, I’d rather Royce stick with Spanish.
57 Beg For It
Iggy Azalea Featuring MØ
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?
Calvin Harris featuring Ellie Goulding
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.
59 Make Me Wanna
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?
60 Til It’s Gone
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.
61 Feeling Myself
Nicki Minaj Featuring Beyonce
How confident is Nicki Minaj? Confident enough to bring in the biggest R&B star of the last decade to do little more than chant a title, fill up a bar or three, and then disappear for the last minute and a half of the track. Also confident enough to step aside herself for the same amount of time on another track and let a burgeoning star who hasn’t found her own style yet play dominatrix for a while (I’d like to think Minaj wrote the best line: “I don’t need no pretty poet, ooh, getting all emotional”, but it may well have been co-writer Katy Perry). Minaj herself, meanwhile, raps as well as ever, mostly about cunnilingus. It may be a matter of perspective, but I think she does it a lot better than Lil Wayne ever did: “Give me brain like NYU” she demands on one track; “Make me way smarter like you was a magician” on another. Despite all the brain she’s getting I still don’t think she’s a genius, but that doesn’t mean, besides being more talented and working harder, that she isn’t sharper than everybody else.
62 Touchin, Lovin
Trey Songz Featuring Nicki Minaj
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.
63 Drinking Class
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.
64 Just Gettin’ Started
65 Perfect Storm
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.
66 L.A.LOVE (la la)
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.
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.
68 Hold You Down
DJ Khaled Featuring Chris Brown, August Alsina, Future, & Jeremih
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.
69 I Bet My Life
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.
70 Earned It (Fifty Shades Of Grey)
Of interest only because it’s the first release from the Fifty Shades of Grey soundtrack, which will be some sort of cultural event whether you like it or not, and because it’s in 3/4 time. I haven’t really been paying that much attention to time signatures, but I can’t remember the last waltz to appear on the Hot 100. Norah Jones, maybe? Too bad it’s in service to The Weeknd’s usual doom-laden, mealy-mouthed ideas about sex and romance, decorated this time with some obvious James Brown-style string samples.
71 Take Your Time
If there has to be country-rap, this is what it should sound like, just a guy talking in his own moseying way, without trying to echo hip-hop flows or beats. I’m not as impressed by Hunt as some others are—his songs and his music lack resonance—but this is an above average step away from bro-country, with a good chorus and a lyrical conceit that stresses honesty and respect. There’s no preening, no cheap romanticism, no empty promises. He just wants to get laid and figures maybe she does too. And if he’s wrong he won’t make a big deal about it. He’ll just step away with a nod and a courteous smile and try somewhere else.
Chris Brown & Tyga
Another above-average beat with a mediocre song built on top of it, all in service to the usual bragging about wealth and sexual prowess. But five years after his self-induced collapse, Brown has reached a point where he doesn’t really care anymore, which makes even his stupidest boasts and declarations (“All my bitches got real hair”) easy to take, and even friendly in their way. Maybe the anger management therapy is working.
73 Uma Thurman
Fall Out Boy
Just like Maroon 5, I prefer Fall Out Boy when they don’t sound like they’re trying to save the world, or rock and roll, or even themselves (and I’m pretty sure they think all of those are the same thing). Here, with the help of some borrowed surf music, they do nothing heavier than praise/complain about women. They go on too long, and this is heavier than it needs to be, but compared to their last few singles it’s relative lightness and humor is a breath of fresh air.
74 Shut Up + Dance
Walk The Moon
“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.
75 Mean To Me
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.
76 God Made Girls
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.
77 Like A Cowboy
“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.
78 All About It
Hoodie Allen Featuring Ed Sheeran
In which two white British guys step into the pop space opened up by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis and try to make hay. Sheeran, with greater verbal acuity and confident of his place in the current pop hierarchy, gets the joke, but I’m not so sure about Allen. He sounds like he has too much riding on this. Even Macklemore is smart enough to act like he doesn’t care about fame.
79 Lonely Eyes
For two verses this perfectly illuminates a certain kind of male longing: not desperate or pushy; lustful, yet respectful, tinged with melancholy and loneliness. Then the middle eight comes in as desperation takes hold and it turns into just another country rocker (I can almost hear the producer talking to the session people: “I want that Tom Petty vibe, only more plodding and louder—lots louder”). Since there isn’t a third verse there’s nothing to help get that initial feeling back. Another good country song ruined by lack of imagination.
80 Homegrown Honey
Rucker is the perfect mediocrity, and even when he goes uptempo and demonstrates a sense of humor he never rises above the average.
One half a tribute to his mother, the other half a tribute to his dick, both clever and shallow, neither one worth much of your time. What Cole needs, most of all, is a new producer; the guy he’s working with now (one J.L. Cole, according to Billboard) isn’t doing him any favors.
82 Steal My Girl
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.
83 Ain’t Worth The Whiskey
If Swindell sang with any intelligence or irony, this song would be almost revolutionary, intimating as it does that good ol’ boys’ devotion to country music, friendship, and even their patriotism, is nothing but cover for the fact that they’ve never been able to get the girl, and by extension, the life, that they really want. It could explode any number of country cliches while exploring romantic connections in a way few country songs ever had. But irony is not Swindell’s forte (I’ll refrain from comment on his intelligence). He sings this straight, as if there wasn’t a sarcastic bone in his body—though there are plenty of mean ones. It’s rare to find a singer, and songwriter, who so obviously doesn’t understand what he’s saying.
84 Dear Future Husband
“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.
85 Only One
Kanye West featuring Paul McCartney
Talk about a meeting of minds: Kanye West and Paul McCartney are a matched pair of over-confident pros who believe their instincts are always gold, even when they work them over and over in the studio to get that just right off-the-cuff feeling. Comparisons to John Legend are an insult: even at their worst—and this is nowhere near their worst, if far from their best—these two reach for more than Legend can ever imagine. The real marker is Stevie Wonder, who McCartney attempts to channel through his electric piano while West does the same with autotune. The end result sounds like something Wonder would dash off in an hour and then archive, but that doesn’t make it bad, it just doesn’t make it great. This is basically tabloid pop—the song only works if you know the backstory; the music itself doesn’t generate enough emotion, and McCartney’s doodling at the end adds nothing. If you believe, though, that West’s true genius is autobiography (as he certainly seems to), then this is worth your attention, because it explains a lot: if West’s mother really spoke to him this way, is it any wonder he has a head as big as Chicago and a pool of self-esteem larger than Lake Michigan?
86 Take It On Back
This is like Florida Georgia Line without the swagger, and without the swagger Florida Georgia Line is nothing at all.
87 Throw Some Mo
Rae Sremmurd Featuring Nicki Minaj & Young Thug
Nicki Minaj and Young Thug put their hosts in a bit of a bind: Minaj’s hook is so simple and clean, Young Thug’s rap so complicated and messy, that Rae Sremmurd are left with nothing but the middle ground to work with, where the opportunity to make an impression is severely limited. They do fine, considering, but this is no “No Type” or “No Flex Zone”, and Minaj and Young Thug walk off with it easily. Rae Sremmurd are a promising, impressive duo, but they may have put themselves in comparison with the best a little too soon.
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.
89 Body Language
Kid Ink Featuring Usher & Tinashe
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.
David Guetta Featuring Sam Martin
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.
91 Post To Be
Omarion Featuring Chris Brown & Jhene Aiko
I like the basketball metaphors, and that Jehne Aiko gets almost as much solo time as Chris Brown (it’s not as much as Nicki Minaj would get, but Aiko is, to say the least, a lesser talent). She also talks as tough and dirty as the men. But Omarion has never come across as anything but a light weight, and the five years he’s spent off the Hot 100 hasn’t changed that. He just found a decent hook, is all.
Common & John Legend
It would be unfair to say this piece of drudgery and doggerel is an insult to Dr. King’s memory; Common and John Legend meant well, after all, and who knows what kind of deadline they were working under. But surely Legend knew he should do more than just string a few chords together and get a choir to shout “Glory” every now and then. Or did he expect Common to do all the heavy lifting? Maybe Common was thinking the same thing about Legend, since the only line of his that stands out is “Justice for all just ain’t specific enough.” Neither is this song, and it suffers for it.
Beyonce Featuring Nicki Minaj
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.
94 What We Ain’t Got
Some people should never try to be serious, at least not in a philosophical sense, and Jake Owen is one of them. The banalities of the first verse lead straight into the cliches of the second, and Owen sings both as if they were the word of God weighing on his soul. It doesn’t help that the payoff that reveals the personal aspect of all his musing comes too early, forcing Owen to soldier on in his heavy-handed way without telling us anything new or deepening our perspective.
95 Not For Long
B.o.B. featuring Trey Songz
The best Trey Songz hook in ages helps B.o.B. create his best record since the days when he was teaming up with Bruno Mars and Hayley Williams. Just like that golden era, B.o.B.’s entertainment value increases with the catchiness of the chorus, and this one is very catchy. The only question is, why doesn’t Songz come up with hooks like this for his own records?
96 Say You Do
Bentley sings this as well as anybody could, but why the hell would anybody want to? The message is basically “Please say you love me and sleep with me one more time because I’ve been feeling really lousy since you stopped doing that.” If it’s hard to imagine any self-respecting man approaching a woman with a line like that, it’s even harder to believe any self-respecting woman would fall for it. Love and lust will make people do bizarre things, but I can’t put my head around this one. Still, you know that old country motto: “Women will go for anything if you ladle enough syrup onto your voice.” One any number of things Nashville is wrong about. I hope.
97 No Love
August Alsina featuring Nicki Minaj
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?
98 The Body
Wale Featuring Jeremih
Men have been comparing women to cars in song for almost as long as cars have existed, but I’m not sure it’s ever been done as badly as it is here. Wale is so incompetent as a rapper that I’ve never understood how he continues to have a career, and Jeremih apparently wrote his hook while walking to the studio from the parking lot. They can’t even decide what kind of car the woman is, and for some reason, at the end, Wale decides to mix his metaphors and become the “snake in her garden”. She should turn herself into a lawnmower and run him over.
99 A Guy Walks Into A Bar
I like the way the chorus circles back to the beginning of the story—you can almost see him turning away from those fading taillights and walking straight back into the bar where he met her looking for someone else. And Farr uses his limited, ragged voice to good effect. But the verses don’t say much of anything, and after the first chorus the song is essentially over. I though they knew something about song construction in Nashville.
100 I Mean It
G-Eazy Featuring Remo
All white rappers stand in the shadow of Eminem (not to mention Vanilla Ice) whether they like or admit it or not. G-Eazy tries to dodge the issue by creating a flow that is devoid not only of Eminem’s self-conscious technique, but that’s so white, so flat, so seemingly devoid of emotion that he comes close to being a machine. Instead of overcompensating by trying to sound tougher than any human could possibly be, he sounds disaffected, like the narrator of a film noir told from the point of view of a corpse, a guy who’s seen more bad things than anyone could ever imagine. It’s a vision as bleak as gangsta, only with—if such a thing is possible—even less hope. He’s as much a braggart as any rapper, but he doesn’t get puffed up about it. He’s done what he’s done, he’s seen what he’s seen, and tough shit if you’re not on his level. This is just an introduction, but if G-Eazy can fold this character into scenarios that mean something, he could have a very impressive career.