1 Call Me Maybe
Carly Rae Jepsen
Since Jepsen is twenty-six this isn’t technically tween pop, but it shares all the virtues of the genre and then some. It’s bright and bouncy, with a gorgeous and striking arrangement, but with enough of a self-possessed edge to make it hit home in ways you don’t expect. Not enough is made of how strong girls are in tween pop—even when they’re crushing over some boy they maintain their sense of dignity and self; in fact, one of the virtues they see in boys is the possibility of using them to increase their own strength and worth—not in the trophy sense, but in the sense of a real partnership. It’s a far more mature point of view than you find in most pop written for people in their twenties, which is why it has always seemed ironic that radio programmers think of tween pop as kiddie music. Jepsen may change that, because what she adds to the usual mix is sex. “Where you think you’re going, baby?” is one of the sultriest lines of the year, and the ambiguity as to who’s saying it, Jepsen or the boy she’s infatuated with, only makes it hotter. A great record.
Maroon 5 featuring Wiz Khalifa
The sheer hackery of this record is revealed by the very elements that are designed to disguise it. That is, the subject matter itself—just mentioning payphones these days is guaranteed to get people’s attention: “Who uses those, anymore?”—and the expletives in the chorus, which in the era of “Fuck You” sound as false and clichéd as moon June spoon. And I hope never to hear Adam Levine’s falsetto again. The most irritating and possibly the worst record of the year; certainly the worst to make top ten.
3 Somebody That I Used to Know
Gotye featuring Kimbra
Imported from Belgium, this sounds like it could become the sort of sleeper hit that “Pumped Up Kicks” was, only without the pretentious seriousness. The mid-sixties Latin groove (courtesy of Luis Bonfa’s “Seville”) gives it the feel of a Nancy Sinatra-Lee Hazlewood track, minus the camp value of Hazlewood’s singing. And the woman’s part, which starts with the best line in the song, “Now and then I think of all the times you screwed me over”, carries echoes of Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me”. In other words, this contains enough familiar pop landmarks, without any of them being obvious on first listen, to make it sound both familiar and out of the ordinary.
4 Wide Awake
This starts well, with a surprisingly subdued opening, but soon the bombast sets in, and you’re left to marvel once again at the willingness of pop stars to commercialize their personal lives. The only thing worthy of note is the way Perry uses clichéd biblical images —should a former Christian singer really be tossing off a phrase like “born again” with such apparent disregard for its deeper meaning? And didn’t anyone involved in this figure out that Perry singing the title phrase like an android wouldn’t convince anyone that she was even conscious, much less wide awake?
A good record that should be especially enjoyed by those who wish Bjork’s career had moved in the direction of pop instead of the avant garde. The catchiness of this, though, sounds more like a piece of luck than anything else, and since Goulding isn’t Bjork, I don’t expect much from her in the future.
6 Where Have You Been
Dance music isn’t designed to stick in your memory, and I have the same problem with these that I have with the last couple of Rihanna’s records: I enjoy them when I hear them, but then forget all about them after. She’s so perfect for this sort of music, her slightly unreal buzz of a voice mixing seamlessly with the synths, that I barely notice a word she says, much less remember any afterwords (the same can’t be said of Jay-Z, though, who sounds newly energized, even if he doesn’t say anything special). She still doesn’t have any real personality on record other than sexy tough gal, and these tracks add nothing to that other than a few more hooks.
David Guetta featuring Sia
Guetta wisely lightens up his sound before the bombast takes over completely, and though this is nothing special at least it isn’t openly hostile to anyone with sensitive ears or a working brain. If he had found a singer other than Sia, whose lack of enunciation I find even more irritating here than on her own records, it might have been even better.
8 We Are Young
fun. featuring Janelle Monae
A problematic generational anthem. The message goes something like this: “The parties over. Sorry I hurt you. I’ll help you home and we’ll get some sleep and tomorrow we’ll change the world.” Fair enough, but I worry whether the scar he gave his ex is metaphorical or actual. Janelle Monae’s presence is negligible, which is just as well in this case. The melody has a certain lift, but the arrangement is too sparse and the overall effect is hollow. I’ll blame that on the band, not on their generation.
Minaj’s chameleon voice is one of her greatest strengths; she can shift effortlessly from tough hood rat to ethereal angel and a range of roles in between. In some cases, like this record, that versatility is the only thing holding her music together, or that keeps it from falling into cliché. But it also emphasizes her greatest weakness: the lack of connecting tissue between her many ideas. I couldn’t begin to suggest why she starts singing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”, or why parts of this sound like a Rihanna impersonation, except as a distraction from the cliché lyrics and overworked strobe-light synth bursts. I like the line about not paying the rent, but that’s the only sign of personality on the record.
No one expected Usher to top “Climax”, which may be the greatest thing he’ll ever do, but after all his talk about the new album and how different it would be, this is surprisingly ordinary. It’s not terrible, but it’s a standard Usher track with a slightly more electronic backing than usual. He’s trying to have it both ways—the old R&B Usher and the new, electronic Usher—and as should be expected the result is something that’s neither. I wouldn’t call it half-assed, exactly, but if he’s going to embrace a new style he should go at it full-force, not in baby steps like this.
11 Wild Ones
Flo Rida featuring Sia
Why did I never notice that Flo Rida has a lisp? No wonder he raps so fast. As for Sia, she seems willing to degrade herself in any way—first David Guetta, now this—if it means becoming the third-rate Robyn she’s always been destined to be.
Flo Rida has two things going for him: a mastery of hooks, and a gift for meaningless flow that never gets in the way of the hook or the beat. As pop rap intended purely for dancing it couldn’t be improved. Which means, of course, that it can only get worse, especially as the vagaries of pop taste lean toward lyrical clarity and force him to make his words more explicable. It’s not that he doesn’t have a gift for them—his flow wouldn’t work if he didn’t—it’s that he has no sense of taste when it comes to subject matter. Following the rough sex endorsement on “Wild Ones”, he comes up with yet another record , following “Down”, about oral sex. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, even if it does sound somewhat obsessive, but the sing-songy, teen-pop emphasis, combined, once again, with the sexual power-play aspect of his approach, makes it more than a little creepy. I’m not suggesting that Flo Rida actually is a leering, lisping sociopath, but that sure is what he sounds like.
13 What Makes You Beautiful
A boy band almost literally put together on TV (all the members had tried out and failed as solo singers for X Factor, when the producers suggested they work together), One Direction are, in sound and history, essentially the British version of Disney pop. As such I welcome them gladly to our shores. Let’s face it, Disney pop (aside from Miley Cyrus, whose breakthrough was the exception) should have been all over American radio between 2005 and 2010, and if it hadn’t been for radio programmers’ odd belief that the music wasn’t “mature” enough for top forty, it would have been. But immature Brit-kids are different from immature Americans: they have novelty value, and accents. That the music is the same catchy guitar pop that Disney put out only makes the landing of these clean-cut invaders easier. The pump has been primed, so to speak. It’s the same old story, the British selling our own ideas back to us after we’ve failed to appreciate them ourselves. Oh, and the record? Pretty good.
Kanye West featuring Big Sean, Pusha T, 2 Chainz
In just about every way, West’s rap doesn’t fit this song: it breaks the flow, simplifies the beat while complicating the record as a whole, and shows up everyone else’s ignorance by promoting his own intelligence. It’s as if he expects the whole world to come to a halt every time he opens his mouth. Gee, I wonder what that could be a metaphor for? But aside from the exotic main beat, his rap is the only thing that makes this record interesting. West is right: those other guys should shut up and go home.
15 Glad You Came
An earworm and a half, with a blatantly obvious double-entendre title hook designed to make the tweenies giggle between ecstatic screams. Already a smash in Britain (one of five top five singles for the band), there are a few clever moments slipped into the dance-pop clichés. I like the verse where each line starts with the last word of the line before it, and overall it isn’t cloying or bland. A perfect record for those who find Taio Cruz or Rihanna a little too hard.
This may be a magic leap in quality and maturity for Bieber, but it’s still derivative as hell—music via Justin Timberlake, phrasing via Chris Brown. And the lyrics are dumb on every level. The worst isn’t the infamous reference to fondue by the fire, but a couple of lines later when he warns the girl of his dreams that his falsetto is coming. We already know that falsetto represents ecstasy and climax and all that, Bieber; you don’t need to tell us about it—especially not in the middle of the song.
17 Good Time
Owl City & Carly Ray Jepsen
Adam Young, better known as Owl City, should not try to be David Guetta (especially if he’s going to sing), and Carly Rae Jepsen, who, despite “Call Me Maybe”, still needs to establish herself as a career artist, shouldn’t be trying to help him. It’s been a long time since I’ve heard a record that sounded like such an obvious cash-in on the part of everyone involved. From Young I don’t expect anything better, but “Call Me Maybe” is going to be in the top ten for the rest of the summer, and it’s way too soon to indulge in such an obvious ploy to keep Jepsen in the public eye. I also hear she’s working with Ryan Tedder. In a recent article in Billboard, Jepsen’s manager, Scoot Braun was quoted as telling her that her life wasn’t going to be much fun for awhile. Doesn’t look like it’s going to be much fun for her audience, either.
18 Everybody Talks
Starting off with a rip of “At the Hop”, the most mechanical of the great early rock records, this proceeds to become at least as mechanical, and even more of a pastiche. When Bruno Mars trades in fifties styles he does so because he lives and breathes them—it may not be original, but it’s organic. These guys, on the other hand, are dabblers playing at cut and paste. But just like “At the Hop”, sometimes being mechanical works; this moves fast and hard, and never lets up. It’s as shallow as they come, but it’s also exciting. Wonder if we’ll hear from them again?
19 Give Your Heart A Break
Interesting. This is from Lovato’s LP Unbroken, which came out last September. It’s only the second official single from the album, and releasing something bright and bouncy after the ballad, “Skyscraper”, makes perfect sense, but it’s impossible not to wonder if its release doesn’t have something to do with the success of Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe”. Aside from the lyrics, the first few bars are almost identical. So is this a cash-in? Lovato establishing a prior claim? It’s easy to imagine that Jepsen and her producers drew on this for inspiration, so is this release Lovato’s way of calling them on it? Whatever the case, it’s a great record, if not as great as Jepsen’s. It’s good to hear Lovato doing something upbeat that doesn’t focus on vulnerability or depend on her usual vocal tics.
20 Drunk On You
Yet another song about a country girl shakin’ it for her man. In rap, women work the pole; in country, the tailgate. Bryan even steals an image from the blues: “Honey drips on the moneymaker”. Country radio programmers must know what that means, but I bet they’ll play it anyway. Pretty slow for yet another version of “Whole Lot of Shakin’”, though. I imagine Bryan intended this as a sexy grind, but since he doesn’t know sexy from a rusty pickup truck, all he gets is the grind.
21 Drive By
There are lots of reasons I can think of why I should like Train. Their songs are bouncy and catchy, which is always a plus as far as I’m concerned, well-crafted, and even demonstrate some intelligence. Their lyrics, though never great, are generally free of cliché, and have an offhand quality that suggests they don’t take themselves too seriously. Serious or not, however, they still think very highly of themselves, and their sense of superiority and smugness, combined with a complete lack of depth, guarantees that their records will irritate the hell out of me every time. They’re like The Eagles without pretensions, but guess what? That doesn’t make them any better. This record has everything in it that has made them successful, and everything that makes them awful. Did they really think they could get away with that image of their love packed into a garbage bag? Did they think it was cute? For Train, acting like you’re clever is the same thing as being clever, which is just one of the many things they’re wrong about.
22 Back In Time
Sue me, but I love this, if only because six months after her death we finally get at least a partial homage to Sylvia Robinson, plus Pitbull at his silliest and the hackiest, most obvious dubstep insert you’ll ever hear. A stupid novelty that sounds exactly like a stupid novelty is supposed to sound: fast, funny, and irresistible.
23 Come Over
The mindless “Feel Like a Rock Star” to the contrary, in many ways Chesney has matured as an artist, and he’s become especially effective at songs like this, which emphasize a sense of regret while hinting at a barely restrained longing and sensuality. This may be more a matter of craft than sensibility—Chesney knows his stuff better than most anyone else in country—but it works as long as you don’t listen too deeply and catch the mechanics at work. I doubt he’ll ever top “You and Tequila”, but this is in the same ball park. Enough records like this and I may learn to tolerate him.
24 I Won’t Give Up
Being the minor talent that he is, I expected Mraz to play it safe with a snappy sound-alike follow-up to “I’m Yours”, but it seems his talent is so minor he doesn’t realize where his best interests lie. This is super-serious, packed thick with sincere clichés that appear to have been lifted at random from self-help books. Each verse ends either with an affirmation or a “deep” question: “I had to learn what I’ve got, and what I’m not, and who I am”; “God knows we’re worth it”; and my favorite, “How old is your soul?” These seem to have no connection to the lines that precede them, or a connection so vague that only those well versed in the jargon could understand them; I’m not sure that group includes Mraz. Just to give him the benefit of the doubt, I’d like to think this is intended as parody, but the music suggests otherwise. Which leads me to the conclusion that Mraz isn’t even a minor talent, but as long as he keeps trying this hard he is good for a laugh.
25 The Fighter
Gym Class Heroes featuring Ryan Tedder
Ryan Tedder has appeared on God knows how many records, but as far as I can tell he’s written only two actual hooks, recycling them from song to song while changing the words and varying the arrangement just enough to cover his tracks. The good thing is that Tedder’s plaintive sentimentality forces Travie McCoy to act like a human being rather than a wind-up snark toy, making him far less irritating than usual. Not that it prevents McCoy from throwing out one of the worst ever examples of hashtag rap: “That’s when you press on/Lee Nails”. It’s so stupid and meaningless and so belittles the song’s message it’s almost disrespectful, especially coming from a guy who says he does it “for the kids”. I’m sure the twelve year olds who think he’s funny appreciate the effort.
26 Let’s Go
Calvin Harris featuring Ne-Yo
I have a hard time understanding how Harris manages to get hits out of records that are so musically uninteresting, so lacking in the ebb and flow of melody and structure that create enjoyment and meaning in pop music. All he has is a beat and occasional shifts in dynamics and texture (most of which, in this case, are provided by Ne-Yo’s vocals, not the music). Which doesn’t mean he’s a minimalist: it just means that he’s dull. It’s sad to see Ne-Yo, who’s career has been in a stall for a couple of years now, being wasted on music that ignores his melodic and rhythmic gifts. He’s a better singer than Harris to be sure, but on records like this what difference does it make?
27 Want U Back
This is a step up from other British trash pop singers like Jessie J and Rita Ora, but not by much. Details that seem distinctive at first—the frustrated grunting in the background, the pouting phrasing, Lloyd’s feeble attempts to mimic Nicki Minaj’s vocal pyrotechnics—quickly become irritating, and presenting herself as a woman who only want’s her ex back because somebody else grabbed him doesn’t exactly strike a blow for feminism, even she is just playing a part. Judging, though, by her previous single, “Swagger Jagger” (no, I didn’t make that up), Lloyd is a one-shot and then some. Thank God.
28 Some Nights
I’m still not entirely sure what to make of this record, but it’s growing on me. Stylistically it’s a jumble: country-folk harmonies on the intro, then Brazilian drums, with subtle touches of auto-tune and other electronics, and lyrics that are half chant and half Paul Simon-like confessional, covering a lot of uneven and difficult to navigate emotional ground. They do work one neat trick: the song starts as a generic complaint about a directionless life and then progressively adds more and more personal detail, as if the singer were realizing the roots and depths of his feelings as he goes along, and ends with what sounds like a breakup—whether from a lover, a city, or an entire life, is hard to tell. I suspect the jumble is intentional, and meant to lead somewhere, but they haven’t quite figured out how to do that, even if they do know where they’re going. Allowing the generic parts to overwhelm the personal stuff is a big mistake, and sometimes the connections they hope to make aren’t there. Promising, for sure, but I’ll withhold judgment for now.
I’ve always been a fan of Church, what he sometimes lacks in inspiration he makes up in energy, intelligence, and principal—he may not always know what to do, but he always knows what not to do. This, I think is something of a breakthrough, not just because it’s a great song with an unusual subject (or at least an unusual way of presenting it), but because the sheer craftsmanship involved suggests that Church is capable of even more than he’s done so far. It’s a little stiff in spots, but so what? So is Springsteen. The groove is wonderful, and the emotion overwhelms what at first might seem like a ridiculous, over-sentimental concept. And I love the way he echoes Springsteen without ever directly imitating him. A near perfect record.
30 Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You)
I wish I liked this more, but for all of Clarkson’s strengths as a vocalist there isn’t much she can make of this song, which is essentially a gussied up version of “Since You Been Gone”. It doesn’t flow dynamically or build like “Gone” though; it settles in at a certain volume level and stays there, leaving Clarkson with nothing to bounce her vocals off of. Unfortunately, this is the kind of stuff Clarkson seems to like. When she has material that allows her to vary her voice and take advantage of both her timbre and her emotional and vocal range she’s one of the best pop singers around; when she doesn’t she’s just another shouter.
31 Feel So Close
Harris is less bombastic than David Guetta or Levels or just about any other dance-pop producer right now, but that doesn’t make him any better. His subtlety doesn’t have any actual idea behind it; it’s just the way he prefers to approach things. It does make for a more dynamic listen, I’ll admit, but unfortunately during the quiet bits you have to listen to Harris sing, which isn’t a dynamic experience at all.
If this song, which is catchy and in several ways not terrible, were performed by some Disney ingénue, or even someone in the Glee Cast, I would find it tolerable, maybe even enjoyable. But it’s not. It’s performed by a couple of trained music students in their late twenties who sound above it all, eternally pleased with themselves, and lacking in any sense of what pop music is for or what it provides both for its performers and for its audience. They’re prigs, and their bouncy but lifeless music is better proof of it than anything I could say, so I never intend to mention them again.
33 Even If It Breaks Your Heart
Eli Young Band
In the main, the shift in influence in country rock from The Eagles to Tom Petty is an improvement: the songs are faster, the grooves stronger, and the sense of self-satisfaction is more manageable. But even at his best Petty had his own pretensions, to say the least, and most of the bands that are influenced by him tend to lean on his trademark hits rather than his better, more eccentric numbers. They all want to be “The Hardest Part” instead of “American Girl”. Eli Young is no exception, and sings about his early days learning his rock and roll over a backing band that may as well be The Heartbreakers jamming the usual changes. It isn’t terrible, but streaming your personal perspective through clichés doesn’t break the clichés, it reinforces them. Which, come to think of it, is almost exactly what Petty did most of the time.
34 Work Hard, Play Hard
The most pop-oriented track from Khalifa since “Black and Yellow”, the first in a while that doesn’t emphasize his dope smoking, and, no surprise, his best in a while. It’s very controlled for a rap brag track, almost stately, and ends with a little bit of self-help advice. Despite the repetition of “nigga” in the opening verse, it seems custom made for radio, and gives off the feeling that Khalifa is holding back more than he’s giving out. But then, the idea of self-control is the unspoken heart of the lyric, so maybe that’s the point. Not a great record, but a very smart one.
35 No Lie
2 Chainz featuring Drake
Drake’s misogyny is more subtle than that of other rappers (and rockers, and country singers, and so on), but it’s still misogyny. Instead of calling women names and physically and/or verbally mistreating them, he argues that they’re complicit in his manipulation of his celebrity to test drive women who strike his fancy. They all know what he’s about, right? So fuck ‘em and forget ‘em. It’s an old story, and Drake can’t be completely blamed for it, but considering the guy has built a career partly on his own self-doubt and worries about his moral compass, his inability here to cop to his own bullshit is offensive. And for all that, Drake, who is rapping better than ever, is the least offensive thing on this record and the only reason to listen to it. 2 Chainz wouldn’t recognize a woman as a human being even if she kicked him in the nuts. Though I do encourage somebody to try.
36 Cashin’ Out
This so reminiscent of Soulja Boy that Soulja has already done a freestyle over it (it’s awful). It lacks its model’s brashness, though, and his wit. Good hook, but the rest is the same old blunted-out bragging about money and women. I’m glad he’s having a good time, but I don’t really care, either.
A lot of people are impressed by Bentley—or at least they were impressed by “Home”—but I’m not one of them. He’s a better than average country rocker, but only slightly. Put him in a battle of the bands with Eric Church or Miranda Lambert, even Blake Shelton, and they’d wipe the floor with him before the second song. On a good night he might be able to take Justin Moore, but I wouldn’t count on it.
Little Big Town
It’s hard not to think of this as the country version of “Call Me Maybe”, a song so happy and infectious that attempting to resist it would cause a minor seizure. Though it never mentions the subject, it’s also about as sexy as country ever gets, with its deep, gently swelling groove and slide guitar creating a simmering heat. Like too many country records, there’s a certain smugness in its craftsmanship, and the sound could be looser to go with the light lyrical content, but otherwise it’s perfect.
39 One Thing
One Direction want to have it both ways: they want their pop to be simple enough to appeal to young girls, but they also want it to be hard and modern enough to appeal to girls who are a few years older. The instrumentation here sounds like it comes off a modern dance floor, but the song also uses pop tricks that are so old they probably seem fresh to anyone under the age of twenty (I haven’t heard the stutter beat they use in the chorus for over a decade, at least). The problem is the modern part of is so heavy-handed and leaden that it kills the older, poppier bits. If they want to last more than six months they (or their handlers) need to come up with better stuff than this.
40 We Run the Night
Havana Brown featuring Pitbull
More dubstep dabbling, this time from producer RedOne, for whom you’d think the style would be second nature, what with his own leaning towards the brash and garish. It turns out, though, that the best parts of this are the more Euro-disco moments, which are decorated with intriguing shifts and sudden turns. Pitbull is added to give the record more commercial heft, but also finds himself the victim of the best joke on the record when a burst of dubstep insanity drowns out his trademark sotto voce growl at the end of his verse. Not that Pitbull cares; he’s too busy jumping on another dance-pop gravy train. Oddly enough, I respect him for that.
41 Part Of Me
Straightforward dance music like this does Perry a favor. The more she strays from groove and traditional structure the more irritating she becomes (it does something weird to her voice, for one thing). She also tends to be at her best when she’s telling her man off. She likes fireworks metaphors too much, and this is more an example of craft than inspiration, but it’s still her best single since “Teenage Dream”.
42 The Motto
Drake featuring Lil Wayne
It’s strange to think of Drake as being such a divisive figure, but there are few other artists who inspire such praise (Sasha Frere-Jones, in The New Yorker, called Take Care brilliant; Pitchfork gave it an 8.6) and such hatred (many others think Drake is not only terrible but possibly evil). His music is quiet, nonthreatening, and totally insular. The minimalist beats are often excellent—listen to the way the emotional tension subtly and suddenly increases during the break on “Take Care”—but the raps sound like a guy talking to himself in a mirror, or to his girlfriend’s voice mail in the middle of the night, conversational monologues that occasionally slip into a bit of chorus or melody and then slip right back to their solipsistic norm. Not only does he have a limited range of things to talk about, but he has a limited range of ways to say it. There are occasional good lines, but the closest thing to an enlightened thought is the opening of “Take Care”, which is lifted from a fifty-year old Bobby Bland record. His attitudes are somewhat unenlightened, as well: his feelings toward women (and he thinks about women almost as often as he thinks about himself), are only slightly more progressive than, say, Cat Stevens and others of the old, singer/songwriter type, a group who Drake is, in truth, more easily comparable to than most of the rappers who have come before him (I can’t help put wonder if he thinks of himself as following in the tradition of Nick Drake, but that may just be the coincidence of the names putting ideas in my head). It’s unfair to judge him by these scattered tracks, of course, most of which are bonus cuts from the deluxe version of the album that charted only because of the featured artists or for their titles; if you were a devoted Drake fan, wouldn’t you want to hear “Hate Sleeping Alone”? Like his previous singles, all of these probably sound better on the album. Despite all of his charting records, Drake isn’t a singles artist. His albums work far better than his individual tracks, with the songs playing off of and reinforcing each other, though the sameness of the sound is wearing. For now, though, you can file me with the Drake agnostics: not terrible (at least when he isn’t wallowing in self-pity), but not brilliant, either. Different? For sure. Important? I’m afraid so.
43 (Kissed You) Good Night
As followers in the footsteps of Lady Antebellum, these guys are almost as good, which means they’re almost as bad, too. I appreciate the romanticism, but there’s something unsettling about the line “I should have pushed you up against the wall”, especially when the woman sings it. I’m sure it’s meant in all innocence, but the possessive, domineering tone of it (after he’s admitted to being scared to kiss her in the first place), followed by the woman’s submissive tone when she repeats it, grates and sets off alarms. It’s kind of creepy. Takes all the romanticism right out of it, at least for me.
44 Heart Attack
Trey Songz’s new romantic sincerity is an interesting turn in his career, but it isn’t resulting in interesting music. “Sex Ain’t Better Than Love” was too quirky and went on too long, while this one barely exists at all. I appreciate that he has something to say, but he needs to find a more exciting way to say it.
45 Drank In My Cup
A Drake sound-alike without the self-doubt or the well-meaning sexist condescension—that is, without any of the things that make Drake more than just another rapper on the make. The beat’s good, but it’s a Drake imitation, as well . Except for the intro, that is, which is lifted, uncredited, from Cream. Somehow I can’t see Drake doing something like that, either.
46 Burn It Down
As long as they’re driven by decent hooks and can be taken as metaphors for personal drama, I can just stand Linkin Park’s apocalyptic scenarios. When the music drones loudly like this, however, and when their need to say something important overwhelms any sense of proportion they may possess, they’re unbearable. This is only half way to unbearable, but that’s far enough for me.
47 Both of Us
B.o.B. featuring Taylor Swift
Well-meaning, well-crafted sincerity, devoid of any deep emotion. Swift’s hook is gorgeous, and B.o.B., despite the clichéd lyric, gets a certain intensity into his voice, but not even the most talented pop artists could make much of such generic sentiments. As the success of “We Are Young” suggests, we’re going to get a lot more of what I call “get together” music in the near future, which is a good thing overall. But fun. had the sense to include some specific personal details in their anthem; this is just B.o.B. and Swift wishing the world well and signing off. I expect more from both of them, especially Swift.
48 Take Care
Drake featuring Rihanna
See “The Motto”
49 Party Rock Anthem
LMFAO featuring Lauren Bennett & GoonRock
I have no idea who GoonRock are or is, but I’ll assume they’re responsible for the beat, which isn’t bad—a somewhat derivative mix of Pitbull and The Black Eyed Peas with some decent hiccups and hooks of their own thrown in. I have no idea who Lauren Bennett is, either, and her vocals are so ineffectual I doubt I ever will. Not as ineffectual as the supposed leaders of this romp, however. LMFAO aren’t the worst rappers in the world, but their voices are so lacking in distinction and personality they may as well not be on the track at all.
50 Beez In the Trap
Nicki Minaj featuring 2 Chainz
“Beez In the Trap” is a classic, “Va Va Voom” likable but nothing special, “Right By My Side” another of Minaj’s unfortunate forays into generic pop (on which, once again, she does an expert Rihanna impersonation). So goes another week in the life of the most promising and frustrating rapper of the last two years. And now she’s cut herself off from Twitter and is complaining about lackluster sales. I suspect if she had only released “Starships” and “Beez In the Trap” before the album came out, instead of all the Roman stuff, that wouldn’t have been a problem (just because you’re the female Weezy doesn’t mean you have to match his release schedule). Whatever the case, it sounds like she could use a vacation.
51 Lemme See
Usher featuring Rick Ross
This is a step up from “Scream”, but nowhere near “Climax” (a tall order, I admit). The beat has a jumpy, eerie quality to it, but the song itself doesn’t work. Ross’s Trayvon Martin reference is too soon, and in some ways too little. Usher himself sounds, especially when he shows off his chest, as if he’s engaging in self-parody. That would be fine if it fit with the music, but it doesn’t. Maybe he hasn’t quite figured out all this electronic stuff.
When it comes to teenage country singers, I prefer Scott McCreery (not to mention Taylor Swift, though she isn’t a teenager anymore). McCreery has major flaws, but at least he doesn’t sound like he was made in a country-pop factory and delivered cellophane-wrapped and ready-to-serve.
I’ve never been much of an Usher fan, but thanks to Diplo this is as stunning as everybody says it is, a mix of lust, regret, self-realization and despair built on the most minimal of grooves. What’s most impressive is that even though the sound is open and spacious, the overall effect is one of claustrophobia, with electronic buzzes servings as symbols of the singer’s darkest and most despairing thoughts as they surround him. Best touch: the disembodied, wordless vocals that are sampled and dropped seemingly at random throughout the track, like some long-hidden pain suddenly rising to the surface.
54 You Don’t Know Her Like I Do
I have to give Gilbert a certain amount of credit: he knows that most of this song is cliche, so he does his best to highlight the few non-cliche moments. There’s something off about putting melodramatic emphasis on a line like “She’s my best friend”, though, and tricking it up with a false ending and an extended coda only makes it worse. And all the rest of the song is still cliche.
55 Angel Eyes
Love And Theft
I have no problem in general with power pop influenced country, even if it necessarily leans toward Tom Petty. The Band Perry, for instance, does very well with the idea, as does the more rock influenced Eric Church. But Church and the Perrys both dig into the emotional side of the form, while Love And Theft are nothing but machines. They get the sound right, the structure, even some of the clever lyrical turns, but they’re far more interested in technical perfection and hitting all the marks than expressing emotion. The result is a well-constructed song that is built from one tired trope after another and adds nothing to them: Songwriting 101 personified. The smartest thing they’ve done is name themselves after a Bob Dylan album, though I doubt they’ll ever live up to it.
56 Beers Ago
After demonstrating, on “Red Solo Cup”, how a country beer-drinking song should go, Keith now focuses on the subject of country teen nostalgia, which once again features beer. It’s almost as if he’s presenting a masters class on how to rejuvenate tired country themes. Rule number 1: include as much realistic and humorous detail as possible. Rule number 2: don’t lose count of your beers.
57 Tongue Tied
Another group of privileged white kids (they met at an art school in Crete) who owe their chart placement to an advertisement for a well-considered, hip product. That being said, I like it. Though it’s about lost teen love, it avoids sentiment; it has a good, early 90′s, pre-Britpop groove, and though cloying in spots it’s never embarrassing. Unless the idea of privileged white kids making bouncy pop music embarrasses you already.
58 Blow Me (One Last Kiss)
P!nk’s persona, the pop diva with the heart of a riot grrrl, can create interesting tensions in her music, but sometimes it forces her to overplay her hand. This is a step up from songs like her pre-maternity leave self-help ballad “Fuckin’ Perfect”, but she tries to hard. The song is already tough enough without the double entendre title parenthesis or the ear-piercing pitch of the “shit day” section. It’s not that I don’t believe that P!ink has shit days, it’s that the whole section is overkill and seems designed to do nothing more than give her a chance to swear and remind everyone how down-to-earth she is. Without it, despite it’s worrying 90s feel (guitar line courtesy U2, vocal harmonies on the verses courtesy Liz Phair), it would be a much better song. As it is, it’s slightly above-average and nothing more.
59 Too Close
Alex Clare appears to be a genuine singer/songwriter, but it’s hard not to view this as just another part of Diplo’s concerted effort to inject dubstep into everything. Someday someone may succeed at making a record like this work, but not this time. It would help if the song wasn’t so ordinary, but I’m not sure I would buy the idea even if it was better. The electronics sound tacked on in the worst sort of way, as if someone were trying to do a mashup of Gavin DeGraw and Skrillex and gave up after sorting out the chorus. To get theoretical for a moment: pop music requires an organic mix of structure and texture to create emotional cohesion; you can’t just throw any old thing over the top and expect it to work.
60 Take It To the Head
DJ Khaled feturing Chris Brown, Rick Ross, Nicki Minaj & Lil Wayne
Sub-par performances all around on the latest, less boomy than usual, Khaled extravaganza. Only Brown sounds like he’s interested. Bet he ends up wishing he hadn’t wasted that hook.
61 Nobody’s Perfect
J. Cole featuring Missy Elliott
Cole is a good rapper, but his ideas are so confused that you’re never sure where he’s going or what point he’s trying to make. The beat is above-average but not great, and Missy Elliott, though always a pleasure to hear, provides only enough quality to maintain her reputation and nothing more. The only thing that’s noteworthy is the second reference to Plato to make the Hot 100 this year, but it’s a throwaway; Cole doesn’t build the whole track around it like Jay-Z and Kanye West did.
62 Leave You Alone
Young Jeezy featuring Ne-Yo
Ne-Yo didn’t just write a hook for Jeezy— it sounds like he gave him a whole goddamned song, one that he had a chorus and a bridge for but no verses. This shouldn’t be a surprise; lyrics have always been Ne-Yo’s weakness; he’s melodically gifted, but he has a hard time making words both flow and mean something. What he should do, instead of handing songs to rappers like Jeezy, is find himself a decent lyricist and finish the songs himself. Easier said than done, I know, but this is just sad.
63 Good Girl
I appreciate Underwood’s willingness, even desire, to rock out, but this jumble of clichés isn’t the best way to go about it. For one thing, she needs to settle on a single rock style; this jumps from Joan Jett to hair metal to glam without ever settling down long enough to plant its feet on the ground (or the stage). Plus, like too many of Underwood’s records, both the rockers and the ballads, it sounds mechanical—even when she gets loose everything seems to be carefully planned. It’s weird to think that right now the best country singer to come off American Idol is Kellie Pickler: any song you could choose from 100 Proof is better than this one.
Shelton has one great commercial advantage: it isn’t necessary to actually listen to his songs in order to appreciate them. You still have to hear them, of course, on the radio, in a bar, or a department store. But all the emotional effect they’re going to have on you can be had at a distance. The words and the details of the arrangements don’t matter. The texture of the music, the dynamics, the tempo, the familiar, reassuring chord changes, that’s all you need to hear to get everything there is out of his records. Listening closely, or even thinking about it, only diminishes the effect. It’s music to do other things to: washing the dishes, fixing the car, shopping. Once you hear the opening acoustic guitar, you anticipate the crash of drums and electric guitar in the chorus, and instead of delivering an emotional jolt, it’s comfortable and calming, just the thing to help you decide if you want to stock up on laundry detergent while it’s on sale. I doubt if this was Shelton’s intent—he may well see his overwrought melodramatic clichés as true emotion and pathos—but it’s still an achievement of a kind. And it’s certainly made him successful.
65 Postcard From Paris
The Band Perry
This shares all the strengths of the band’s previous singles—the clever turns of phrase, the melodic grace, the youthful romanticism—only in a milder form, and in a way that makes them feel rote. But then, this is the fifth single from their first LP, so it’s understandable if the inspiration seems pale this time out. Where’s that new album?
66 Little Talks
Of Monsters and Men
I knew there would be Mumford and Son imitators, and I knew they would be terrible, but I didn’t know they’d be quite as bad as this. I’m reminded of the ghastly folk-pop groups of the mid-sixties, The We Five, maybe, or even The Seekers. This is faster and rougher, because that’s the style, but the result is pretty much the same: pseudo-folk for pseudo-folkies, only this time with blaring, witless horn charts. Some things just never die.
67 For You
Urban is a lightweight talent who takes himself too seriously, so of course when he gets a hold of an important subject he bites down too hard and grinds too slow. The record doesn’t reach the point of being disrespectful, but it does little honor to anyone involved, especially the men and women it’s about.
68 How We Do (Party)
Wait a minute. England is sending us yet another version of Jessie J? Isn’t there some import law we could invoke against this?
69 Truck Yeah
Not a great song, but there’s no doubt McGraw is re-energized now that he’s free of Curb Records. Anyone who thinks Emotional Traffic wasn’t pure contractual obligation should listen to how fired up McGraw sounds here. He’ll come up with better material, but as an announcement of liberation this isn’t bad. Also, the image of McGraw rocking out to Lil Wayne is pleasing in all sorts of ways (though I do wonder how you do that).
70 Chasing the Sun
I like this better than “Glad You Came”, even though it comes close to being a cover version while demonstrating even less personality. The arrangement changes up in a more attractive way, and the absence of bald double entendres makes the meaningless lyrics more enjoyable as pure sound. It’s a pleasant little piece of Eurodisco-influenced pop, and it would be foolish to expect anything more from them.
71 Time Is Love
There are people I respect who love this, but I’m not one of them. Turner’s made good records in the past, and this isn’t bad, but it’s essentially an updated George Strait record, and since Strait is making those himself I’m not sure I see the point. It sounds fresh because, aside from Strait, not too many people are making records like this, but it’s above-average commercial country and nothing more.
72 The Wind
Zac Brown Band
This is better than most of Zac Brown’s stuff not only because it’s fast, but because it’s so loose. He lets the band show off in the best possible way, and the record not only zooms but swings (maybe Brown’s been listening to some Kentucky Colonels in between the Jimmy Buffett and James Taylor). And, for the first time I’ve heard, Brown sings like himself instead of one of his heroes. Turns out he doesn’t have much vocal personality when he’s being himself, which explains a lot.
73 Ho Hey
Try to imagine a combination of .fun and Mumford and Sons. No, no, stop. I don’t want you to hurt yourself.
74 HYFR (Hell Yeah Fucking Right)
Drake featuring Lil Wayne
See “The Motto”
75 Dark Side
Clarkson is in a groove where every record she releases has some magical quality that makes it compelling, if not overwhelming. There’s a sense of both comfortableness and humility in the music she’s making now. After a couple of shaky years she trusts herself, her talent, and her audience more than ever, and it shows. More than any other singer I can think of, she wants to draw her listeners into her world, welcome them and reassure them, even when what she’s singing about is pain and the loss of emotional control. This isn’t a brilliant record, but it’s very, very good, almost as good as “Stronger”. For the moment, at least, Clarkson may be the world’s friendliest, most sublime, and perfect pop star.
76 Why Ya Wanna
Kramer’s traditionalism is refreshing, but her songs aren’t. This is fine, but it’s also ordinary, and it lacks something to give it a kick and allow her real personality to come through. Though I like Kramer better, in its own way this is as mechanical as Lady Antebellum.
77 Cowboys And Angels
In country, if you string enough well-worn clichés together with a decent title hook, you’ve got a song. Find a singer with an air of rough sincerity and enough gravel in his voice to be taken for a real cowboy, pair him with an arrangement that touches all the right buttons, and you’ve got a hit. Here’s another one.
78 I Wish You Would
DJ Khaled featuring Kanye West & Rick Ross
Having decided that drunken award show ramblings and all-caps Twitter rants are damaging not only to his reputation but his self-respect, West has wisely decided to express his vehemence and air his frustrations on his records instead. The result, so far, has been a succession of singles in which his anger, instead of being diminished by expression, has grown, as if each record was feeding off the one that preceded it. “Mercy”, “Theraflu/Way To Cold/Cold” (the succession of titles alone gives you an idea of how focused West’s rage has become), and now “I Wish You Would”, are all rants directed at anyone who has ever gotten in West’s way or dared to consider themselves his equal (excepting, of course, his mentor Jay-Z). Each has been more bitter and pointed than the one that came before. The most brilliant part of this campaign has been his using the bombastic, rap brag production of DJ Khaled as his base, taking the already prominent anger of the form and amping it to the breaking point. Rick Ross does his best to keep up, but he’s out of his league and Khaled’s best contribution, aside from the beat, is a brief interjection expressing amazement at the majestic vehemence of West’s rap. West is working out so much aggression that I fully expect his next album to be full of laid back soul ballads and Chi-Lites samples. Then again, if he keeps up like this, it may end up as an album length equivalent to the intro of “(For God’s Sake) Give More Power To the People”.
79 Fly Over States
As someone who has “drove through Indiana”, I can appreciate Aldean’s point of view, but once again the defensiveness of rural pride becomes a stumbling block. Or maybe I should say offensiveness, since the catalog of rural charms always seems to be used to attack shallow urbanites for their lack of appreciation of things like farmers (someone should write a study of how farming has become a self-sacrificing, patriotic act in the southern imagination while remaining a corporate monstrosity in reality), “water color” sunsets (which can be found anywhere) and girls from Amarillo (who can also be found anywhere, especially on the coasts, because they can’t wait to get out of Texas). Aldean doesn’t milk this as much as Montgomery Gentry and others, at least not lyrically, but since he’s a master of musical overkill the effect is much the same. It’s still chauvinism turning towards bigotry, no matter how you play it.
80 Birthday Cake
Rihanna featuring Chris Brown
Despite all the controversy over Chris Brown’s appearance on this record, the only real reason to listen to it is The-Dream, who creates a track that’s far dirtier than any of the lyrics and has more personality than either of the principals. One question, though: is that Robyn singing the bridge, or Rihanna imitating her? Uncanny, either way.
81 Bag of Money
Wale featuring Rick Ross, Meek Mill & T-Pain
What a generous guy Rick Ross is. Here, after giving Wale a brief guest spot on one of his many tracks, Ross turns around and allows Wale release it under his own name, letting a little of that Rozay magic rub off on him as he struggles to establish a career (based on his rap here, he needs all the help he can get). Mind you, Ross knew this wasn’t a great track, and that it wouldn’t be a huge hit, even with T-Pain autotuning (or T-Paining I guess it’s now called) in the background. Generosity has it’s limits.
82 As Long As You Love Me
Justin Bieber featuring Big Sean
Bieber isn’t stupid, and he tries harder than he probably even needs to, but he’s still young, and he still feels the need, in order to connect with his fans, to couch even his most serious messages in the form of love songs. Hence this astute but confusing foray into dubstep. Bieber demonstrates true concern for the poor and disadvantaged while at the same time belittling their problems by saying that he could endure it all as long as he has “you” by his side. His vocals have never been better—just listen to his phrasing and dynamics on the line that ends “we could be broke”—and the arrangement has real darkness and urgency to it, but in the end it’s just another love song; he still hasn’t learned to merge rote romance with his more “serious” ideas. He’s right, though, I think, not to throw the romance out—if he could merge the two ideas he’d be on to something deeper than he may yet realize. The fact that he’s trying, though, is already a point in his favor.
83 One More Night
Less irritating than “Payphone”, but also less catchy, with both the band and producer Max Martin running on automatic. Since “Payphone” still hasn’t peaked (God help us), I’m not even sure why they released this. To prove to themselves they can still make hits without guest spots?
84 Midnight City
This is a classy and in some ways striking piece of electronic pop, but it’s also packed with musical and thematic clichés, and its mixed up evocation of 80s pop and dystopian sci-fi cityscapes —as if Blade Runner had been scored by A-Ha—results in a curious but less than compelling pastiche. I think they want to be noir. They’re not.
85 Hard To Love
Hard? Try impossible.
86 Snap Backs and Tattoos
The beat gets inventive after a while, and Graham isn’t a bad rapper, but most of this is standard issue stuff, if more fashion conscious than the norm (he also has a rap about hightop sneakers). Hard to get past that name, though. Is that supposed to be a pun on Tricky? Dicky? A mix of the two? Who knows. I doubt we’ll ever hear enough from him to make it worth finding out.
87 Dance Again
Jennifer Lopez featuring Pitbull
The music on the chorus is too garish, and Pitbull is wasted, but the verses are great, and this record officially establishes Lopez’s comeback as more successful than Madonna’s. Of course, Lopez achieved this by ripping off the more easily copied bits of Madonna’s style, but she still has the advantage. Does MDNA have any tracks produced by RedOne? Sounds like it should have.
88 Don’t Wake Me Up
Brown sounds as self-satisfied as ever, and, just like Diddy, he even hires a female vocalist to provide a few loving words to him on the intro. This time, though, the music doesn’t save him: the beat provided the Benassis is such a mess you wonder why Brown thought he could make a decent record out of it. But when your ego is that big, you’re bound to fall into it sooner or later.
89 Crew Love
Drake featuring The Weeknd
Interesting to find this on the chart. Is it actually being promoted as a single? Are people grabbing at it because it’s the weirdest sounding thing on Take Care, as well as being one of the few tracks that could be described as up tempo? Or are they mistaking The Weeknd’s deconstructed R&B for dubstep? Whatever the case, it has a decent hook, and it’s nice to hear Drake finally admitting to his privileged background (did he really turn down an opportunity to go to Harvard, or is that just more bragging?). It’s a throwaway, but a good one.
90 She’s So Mean
matchbox twenty write and perform with such smugness you’d think they’d invented dumb. The song is stupid enough, but Rob Thomas’s phrasing, which I’m sure he put a lot of thought and effort into, results in some of the worst singing I’ve ever heard. Thomas is the kind of guy who thinks it’s funny when he pouts and whines like a five-year-old. There’s a reason that woman treats him like shit: he deserves it.
91 It’s Time
It would be unfair to label Imagine Dragons as merely fun. imitators. Most likely they were making this sort of record anyway, and are being seized on and promoted by the record company in an attempt to cash in. You can’t blame the band for that. But that doesn’t mean this is any good, or that if “We Are Young” didn’t exist anybody would pay attention to them. This sounds like fun. might if they were fans of Kings of Leon. The total lack of emotional confusion and/or subtlety in the lyric doesn’t help any, either.
92 My Homies Still
Lil Wayne featuring Big Sean
The beat isn’t as stunning as, say, “A Milli” or “Lollipop”, but at least it’s in the same ballpark, and suggests that Wayne is coming out of his post-prison funk. His raps aren’t brilliant, but he sounds like he has his energy back, even if he admits that he’s stepping aside from the game (at least the illegal parts of it). What I want to know is if he really spends his spare time skateboarding and listening to Rebirth?
Skrillex featuring Sirah
Autotune, pitch-shifting, skittering digital snares, massive explosions of distorted bass, these are all ideas that have come and gone and come again over the last few years, all having their moment in the sun, all eventually derided as overworked and clichéd (and they were). Not to mention dubstep. Skrillex uses them all, and then some, mixes them all together, and doesn’t give a shit what you think about it. He’s having fun, and learning a craft, and making art all at the same time. Every single has more packed into it, is more strongly structured and thought out, and is better than the one before. He’s taken a bunch of stuff that the cognoscenti had discarded as played-out and breathed new life into it. Isn’t that the way art is supposed to work? We’re stepping into what promises to be one of the most inventive eras in the history of pop music, and right now, Skrillex is out front.
Meek Mill featuring Drake
Mill has nothing to say beyond the usual rap bragging, but he’s funnier and more clever about it than most: the line about drinking so much that when he takes a drug test he pees rose is perfect, as are the lines about building himself a crib with a moat. As for Drake, he’s been using his post-Take Care guest spots to work out new vocal and rhythmic approaches, and so far he hasn’t taken a wrong step. He’s almost unrecognizable here, but he’s also very good, and his rap raises what would have been just an above-average track to a higher level. Not that much higher, mind you, but still an improvement.
95 Right By My Side
Nicki Minaj featuring Chris Brown
See “Beez In the Trap”
The worst kind of country acoustic balladry, based on an extended metaphor that might have worked if they hadn’t tried to get too much out of it or if they hadn’t tried to change it up in the last verse: they’re not just glass, but oil and water and gasoline too. That inconsistency might not have mattered much, though, if the arrangement and singing weren’t filled through and through with sap. Oddly enough, that makes it even easier to see through them.
97 2 Reasons
Trey Songz featuring T.I.
It’s nice to hear Songz breaking out of the soul ballad niche he had come close to exhausting and being trapped in, and T.I.’s trying out a new flow and voice is a relief, as well (he’s barely recognizable as his old self). This is nothing but a goof, and suffers from not going far enough into the inanity that drives it, but I like it more every time I hear it, and it may turn out to be a keeper.
LoveRance featuring 50 Cent
50 still sounds like he enjoys sex as sex, and not just as power, but he appears to be ambivalent about rapping. He slurs so much and speeds so quickly through his bars you’d swear he couldn’t wait to get out of the studio. With company like this, who can blame him?
99 Get It Started
Pitbull featuring Shakira
What a mess. Pitbull’s willingness to try just about anything is one of his greatest strengths, but here he comes out with a start and stop dance track that doesn’t make sense even when it’s banging. Shakira’s presence adds to the mystery. This sounds like two failed productions slapped together in the hopes that the marquee names on the label will make the accumulated trash a hit anyway.
100 Ayy Ladies
Travis Porter featuring Tyga
I like these guys, and I especially like their producer. This has a great beat, but their raps were more interesting on their earlier records, and they seem to be settling into a strip club groove that will soon become a rut. As broke, horny guys roaming the streets they were at least funny; now they sound exhausted and too experienced for their own good.