Not sure he’d appreciate the title, but this record makes Pharrell the king of easy-listening retro R&B. It’s only a soundtrack cut, probably nothing he invested much work or thought in, but it’s turning into a huge hit, and he’s stuck with it. As are we–it’s so catchy that after two or three hearings you’ll never get it out of your head. It isn’t horrible, but we’re all going to be sick of it come spring, if not sooner.
2 All Of Me
The problem isn’t that John Legend is a wimp, it’s that he’s a boring wimp. A boring wimp with pretensions: what the hell are those weird vocals effects at the end supposed to mean?
3 Talk Dirty
Jason Derulo featuring 2 Chainz
Derulo has set himself a simple goal: he wants to be the next Chris Brown, or, since the original won’t go away, another Chris Brown without all the negatives attached. Musically he gets closer with every record—”Talk Dirty” is as fun as a single can be, with its bass sax punching the beat and the jazzy solo as a punchline. It’s all borrowed, but it’s good. There’s a problem, though. I disliked Chris Brown long before anyone knew about his anger problems and his tendency to beat up his girlfriends because his general attitude about women and about himself was evident in almost every record he made. I get the same kind of vibe from Derulo. I’m not suggesting he’s a batterer or will ever become one. But he does sound like an A-class jerk. Especially when he hires young women to act stupid on his records.
4 Dark Horse
Katy Perry featuring Juicy J
In which Katy Perry goes dirty south, or something, and Juicy J cashes a check. I appreciate Perry’s willingness to experiment, but this sounds like the worst kind of entitlement. Racial, maybe, but definitely corporate. She’s the biggest star of the last five years, so she gets to engage in hostile takeovers of any style she chooses. Sort of like Kanye West, only without the ranting, and with less interesting music.
5 Let It Go
When you name your band for one historical event, and then name your single for another, you’re talking pretension few artists could live up to, or a level of gimmickry only a huckster could admire. “Pompeii” itself is pure ‘80s overkill, Big Country mixed with Adam Ant. If it were goofier I might enjoy it, but they seem to mean every word. They seem to suggest that even if the world comes to an end everything will remain pretty much the same. Which is true, but since no one will be around to notice it doesn’t make much sense to be an optimist about it.
7 Turn Down For What
DJ Snake & Lil Jon
The best yeller in the business shores up the cracks in an overwrought pastiche of trap cliches. I like the yelling, I even like some of the cliches, but it doesn’t add up to much.
8 Not A Bad Thing
A perfectly fine record by a perfectly fine artist, a man from whom, based on previous achievements, many people (not me) expected better, even though, little more than a year ago, they expected nothing at all. This will probably be the last music from the 20/20 project to hit the charts, and whether Timberlake ever makes a record again depends not on this one’s success or failure but on his whims and his ability to read the fine print in his contracts. I would prefer that he care more about what he’s doing next time, if there is a next time, but I’m sure it will be fine all the same. If he does or doesn’t, I mean.
Chris Brown featuring Lil Wayne & French Montana
As Brown’s legal troubles continue to mount, he decides to release a record about how untrustworthy women are, begging for rap radio airplay by putting Lil Wayne on the intro and creating “East Coast ” and “West Coast ” versions with French Montana and Too Short. The east version is so dull and irritating I haven’t even bothered with the west (sorry). The beat’s not bad, but otherwise this is the definition of clueless.
“Royals” was a lucky piece of high-level juvenilia; “Team” is mediocre juvenilia, and if Lorde is as smart as she thinks she is someday she’ll be embarrassed by it. I don’t think she’s racist, but the line “I’m kind of over gettin’ told to throw my hands up in the air/So there” isn’t just an insult to the (no longer) dominant form of popular culture, but to the entire history of hip-hop (it would also help if she didn’t sing it with the haughty disdain of a born snob). First they threw their hands up in the air, then they took over the world (while still throwing their hands up in the air). Lorde’s “team”, meanwhile, which appears to be made up of listless teens from whatever the New Zealand equivalent of the fly-over states would be, doesn’t seem interested in doing anything at all, certainly not taking over the world (or maybe even their own minds). Because I like to see everyone improve, I hope Lorde grows out of this into something worthwhile. But I have to admit there’s a large part of me that doesn’t care. So there.
11 Counting Stars
I still believe that, musically at least, OneRepublic is getting better. Their sound has become less self-serving, more like a band than a studio monstrosity. But nobody as rich as Ryan Tedder should write about trading in counting dollars for counting stars, at least without suggesting that he’s talking about his struggling, early days. It would still be a lie, but it would be a romantic lie, not a hypocritical one.
12 The Man
Partly because such determined self-exaltation seemed unlikely, and partly because it opens with an Elton John rip, I thought at first that “I’m the Man” might be a joke—a stylish satire of bragging and sexual posturing. But something about the way Blacc sings—and his voice is striking, like a mix of Lou Rawls and Bill Withers—suggests that he’s serious. This is the guy who sang “Wake Me Up”, after all, a song that suggested wisdom comes, like a “Participant” ribbon, from just being around long enough. If he going to convince me he’s the Messiah, though, he’s gotta come up with some miracles first. This isn’t one.
13 Best Day of My Life
This tidbit from their Wikipedia entry tells you almost everything you need to know:
Their second single, “Best Day of My Life,” was featured in a Lowe’s television advertisement in the United States, a Hyundai television advertisement in the United Kingdom, a Telecom New Zealand advertisement, a trailer for the film Delivery Man, and the opening sequence for ESPN’s 2013 World Series of Poker coverage.
If that’s not enough, consider this statement of purpose from their web page:
We express our experiences as a shared unit, through music and an agreement of sound. With lows come highs and fighting always has an end. We accept struggle and are passionate about the lives we lead. We create the music that comes naturally to us and we’re not afraid of change. We are thrilled about the present. We all have a story to tell, whether it’s audible, visual, silence or motion. We are constantly creating new moments to share. We are American Authors from Brooklyn, New York.
Finally, to finish the picture, you should know they all attended the Berklee College of Music, made two failed albums as The Blue Pages while living in Boston, and then moved to Brooklyn where the big time beckoned. This is indie pop in 2013. You can’t make this shit up.
With Pharrell in the producer’s chair, this was guaranteed to at least not be a rhythmic embarrassment. The acoustic guitar driven beat is a welcome change from the usual drum machines, Sheeran’s vocals are fine overall, and if “Sing” is only dinky-funky, at least it’s funky. But boy is it dumb. Sheeran honorably tries to avoid lyrical cliches, but what he comes up with to replace them is even worse. He sounds both naive and ridiculous, and the further he swerves from the basic beat the worse it gets (the bit about her bringing him tequila is embarrassingly bad). The funk would need to be a lot less dinky to make up tor that.
15 Play It Again
The chorus has a lustful quality that’s rare in country, but overall this is Bryan at his most overbearing and mediocre. Everything bad about current country is in it, and very little of the good.
16 Hey Brother
This is almost ridiculous enough to be funny. A Swedish DJ with an Italian name creating the theme music for a second rate spaghetti western is ripe with humorous possibilities, none of which Avicii either recognizes or tries to take advantage of. The laughs are all in the idea, not the performance. He means every word, and that saps the humor. Makes you wonder if he gets his own joke.
17 West Coast
Lana Del Rey
Iggy Azalea featuring Charli XCX
Charlie XCX steals the record—considering she’s one of the greatest hook writers to appear in the last few years, this is no surprise—but she doesn’t save it, because nothing can be rescued from Iggy Azalea. The problem isn’t what she is—a white woman trying desperately to recreate black style—it’s that she sounds like what she is. Her vocals are so fake, so forced, so distorted, that it’s impossible to hear anything but her misguided ambition and self-importance.I don’t call racism every time I hear a white artist imitate black style, but this is minstrelsy plain and simple: not love and theft, but insult and theft. And it makes me sad that an artist as promising as Charlie XCX is involved in it.
19 This Is How We Roll
Florida Georgia Line featuring Luke Bryan
Not only is this how Florida Georgia Line rolls, it’s how they roll every time. It’s become impossible to tell their songs apart. Luke Bryan better watch out, or the same will go for him.
Pitbull featuring Ke$ha
Pitbull’s best in a while, thanks to Ke$ha, whose I-could-give-a-shit attitude is almost the opposite of Pitbull’s desire to please the entire world at once. Each is almost the perfect corrective for the other. Fun beat, too.
21 Ain’t It Fun
I’m sure there are some I’ve missed, but you’d probably need to go back to “Like a Prayer” to find such effective use of a gospel choir on a pop record. The trick isn’t the voices or how they fit in the arrangement (though both are excellent), it’s the words, which are funny without being less serious, and uplifting without resorting to cheap homily. Though “Ain’t It Fun” is obviously directed toward the departed members of the band, the message is universal. The words “real” and “reality” are the center upon which all of Paramore (the album and the band) spins, and I can’t think of another recent pop star who has matured as suddenly or brilliantly as Haley Williams. She’s done it without losing an ounce of her vitality or sense of fun, either. If anything, both have increased. I don’t know if she’ll ever top this album, which grew out of special circumstances, but I can’t wait to hear her try.
22 Bottoms Up
Gilbert replaced Jason Aldean as my least favorite country singer about a year ago, and though “Bottom’s Up” is a step up from the contrived heavy metal of his previous singles, it’s not a big step. Gilbert’s moved from AC/DC to Blue Oyster Cult is all, without any appreciable increase in intelligence or decrease in offensiveness. With luck, the double entendre of the title will be the most disgusting thing we’ll hear in country this year. It’s good, I guess, to get it out of the way early.
23 Show Me
Kid Ink featuring Chris Brown
Now that Chris Brown is in rehab and possibly looking at some real prison time, this is the perfect moment for his imitators to step up and claim the throne. First, though, they have to be as good at picking beats as Brown is. Then they have to not be boring, like Kid Ink is.
It’s probably unfair of me to think of the current strain of pop EDM in this way, but every time I listen to “Animals” the first thing I think is “Wow! Real electronic dance music!” That feeling only lasts for a minute or so, though, and then Garrix starts throwing in more pop-acceptable EDM sounds, including some Skrillex-style screaming vocals. He seems determined to use every possible effect that could get him on the radio. It’s kind of like a Girl Talk record, except all the music is “original”. After a while it sounds desperate. I do like that intro, though.
25 Na Na
I have no idea whether Songz has read Emile Zola, but I find it fascinating that his “Na Na” matches almost perfectly with Zola’s Nana, a novel about a dancer and courtesan who destroys every man who dares to pursue her. Songz believes he can win his Na Na over, of course, or at least get her to come home with him for the night. He’s aware that many men have tried and failed, but, being the hero of his own fantasy, he assumes he’ll succeed. That’s what all the men in Zola’s novel thought, too, just before they were bankrupted or driven insane. It’s interesting that Songz doesn’t finish the story; he boasts about his prowess, but we never learn the result. The similarity in names is probably a coincidence (I’m not sure in Songz’ case that Na Na even is her name; it may just be the reaction her appearance produces), but the echoes of Zola’s story are there all the same. Too bad the music is standard issue at best.
26 La La La
Naughty Boy featuring Sam Smith
The music is ordinary when it isn’t silly, but the message, even if the lyrics get muffled and didactic at times, is serious. Willful ignorance being my least favorite thing in the world, I don’t normally applaud those who support it in any way, but if younger people are going to have any chance of creating a world anywhere near what they want, the first thing they’ll have to do is stop listening to us oldsters and start thinking for themselves. But it isn’t as if Naughty Boy and Sam Smith have stopped their ears completely; it’s only when they realize that they’re hearing nothing new or helpful that they tune out. I still go back and forth on this; that hook is often more irritating than it is entertaining, and childishness is never the answer to anything. But it’s a start.
27 Let Her Go
I knew we’d reach the bottom of the British singer-songwriter boom eventually, but it’s happened faster then I suspected. The vocals sound like a twelve-year-old whose voice broke early, and the level of sentimentality makes Ed Sheeran look like a stoic. All designed to make little girls hearts flutter with romantic arrhythmia. Grown-up girls know better, I hope.
28 Story Of My Life
Writing their own material adds a level of idiosyncrasy that was missing from One Direction’s first two albums, and this is a good song, if not a great breakthrough. It’s especially nice that they blame themselves for their relationship problems, turning the usual meaning of “story of my life” on its head. They’re learning how to sing, too.
I stand by Goulding’s voice, but this is a terrible record, and I can’t help but think that only the hope of capitalizing on the success of “I Need Your Love” convinced her to record it. She’s too intelligent and quirky an artist to depend on anything as bland as this to solidify her career. As for writer/producer Ryan Tedder, apparently the minor success of his softcore EDM experiments with OneRepublic convinced him he could do a full on banger. He was wrong, but then I don’t expect Tedder to know any better. Goulding should.
30 Wake Me Up!
Back in the 1950s, for a brief period before the arrival of rock and roll, the pop charts went crazy with fly-by-night trends. Country crossovers were popular for a while (Tony Bennett and Rosemary Clooney both had hits with Hank Williams songs). Then it was Italian music in the hands of crooners like Eddie Fisher. And then there was the mambo, which for a while looked like it was truly the next big thing. Latin acts like Perez Prado and Xavier Cugat had big hits, and pop managers, if not always with the support of the singers themselves, quickly jumped on the bandwagon, often mashing the sounds of different trends together. Today almost the only record anyone remembers from the craze is Rosemary Clooney’s “Mambo Italiano” (Clooney hated the song and fought with all her might not to record it, though you’d never know that from her performance). I’ve suspected for a while now that EDM—the purely pop version—might be this generation’s version of the mambo, and “Wake Me Up!”, a horrifying mixture of dance beats and Mumford-style pseud-folk, just about confirms my suspicions. Despite containing the best unintentionally hilarious line of the year so far (“I tried carrying the weight of the world/But I only have two hands”), this record has nothing to recommend it, even as a curiosity. But as a marker, either of the death of something bad or the birth of something worse, it may be worth taking note of.
Underneath the melodramatic arrangement and Perri’s limited vocal talent is a very good, if not great, song desperately trying to get out. Stripped of all of Perri’s usual metaphoric flourishes, it presents the straightforward emotions of a woman doing her best to live up to the demands of what sounds like a very dominating man, and if you want to read that as a metaphor for the plight of all women in the current culture, you probably should, because the song is that good. Instead of filling her lyrics with flowery analogies, Perri has written a song that’s one giant, hard-edged analogy. It’s an amazing leap for her, and I only hope that a decent singer with a sense of restraint takes a whack at it. In the meantime, this has standard written all over it, and will no doubt result in many a hastily arranged rendition from contestants on The Voice and American Idol, not to mention the next season of Glee. I have no problem with that at all.
The things guys will say to get laid. Geez.
33 The Monster
Eminem featuring Rihanna
The hook and the beat are different, but Eminem has done this rap, in one variation or another, several times. He spends so much time explaining and excusing what he does that you wonder how he has time to do anything at all. Saying it’s unfair to call him crazy does nothing but make him sound petulant, and Rihanna’s affectless vocals don’t help. He may be clean and sober, but he’s still in a rut.
The first section is something of a pale M.I.A. imitation, but the second is pure Beyonce, and except for the brief French interpolation (too tired a trope to work) it’s nearly perfect. Though the chorus leans a little toward Beyonce’s what-can-I-do-to-please-you schtick, the rest is lustful equality, even if it’s Jay Z doing most of the tearing and spilling. I just wish I could be sure this was charting based on its quality and not people’s pornographic fantasies about the Carters’ sex life.
35 Say Something
A Great Big World featuring Chritina Aguilera
This confirms it: Nate Reuss, the voice of .fun, has now officially become the vocal model for sensitive guys the world over, and on “Say Something” Ian Axel matches him almost phrase for phrase. This is, I admit, an improvement over Ryan Tedder or whoever the lead mumbler in The Fray is, but it’s a sound we’ll all be sick of soon enough. Christina Aguilera steals the record (not that it’s worth having), without doing much more than singing quietly and breathing prettily at the end of each line. She should try this on her own sometime.
36 Neon Lights
I bet recording an EDM track seemed like a good idea last year when Lovato released her album. But putting it out as a single now, nearly two years after EDM’s peak, seems like desperation, or at least a throwing up of the hands. Especially when the record is as bad as it is. Did anybody really think this sub-Guetta exercise could be a hit?
37 Drunk In Love
Beyonce featuring Jay Z
I have a lot of respect for Beyonce. Detailing all her virtues would be redundant, especially considering how much has been written by others over the last month. But I’ve always had a problem with her music. She’s always struck me as strident, too let-me-tell-you-what-I-know in her delivery. Her personal drive is both impressive and inspirational, but it infects her music and sometimes gets in the way of simple enjoyment. She constantly emphasizes how strong and superior she is, and often presents this, and many people accept it as such, as a form of feminist self-respect. That may be true, but it also just happens to play comfortably, and profitably, into the longings of her audience, and fuels their sometimes fanatic devotion. I don’t doubt her principles, but she’s learned how to play all the angles on them, and takes full commercial advantage. There’s an air of calculation to everything she does, and the feeling that she’s watching herself in a mirror even when she’s in front of an audience. She’s the Meryl Streep of pop singers. She’s very good at what she does, but it’s easy to catch her acting, and that artifice is part of her appeal.
All that being said, the simple fact is that BEYONCE is her best album, an artistic breakthrough and a major step up from her previous records. This is largely due to so much of it being about sex, which allows her to show off her more vulnerable, less strident side (the gravelly tone of her vocal on “XO” is a great example of this; if that’s a calculated effect, it’s a brilliant one). The division between her superwoman persona and her super-please-my-man side is narrowing, and the result is a more complete, more complicated, more rounded presentation of her personality.
These three songs, though, are not the best representation of that shift, because those more complicated ideas may not be what the majority of Beyonce’s audience wants. Except for “XO “, it’s unlikely any of these songs were considered as singles. Maybe it’s part of Beyonce’s marketing plan to let her fans decide what songs to promote as singles, but she must have known that they’d go for the features. “Mine”, which wanders on for over six minutes trying to tell a story that, if I’m not mistaken, runs backward chronologically, is only here because of Drake. The same is probably true of “Drunk In Love” and Jay Z, though its holding on in the top fifteen suggests people actually like it rather than just being curious about the couple’s sex life. “XO”, meanwhile, though it’s a great performance, still bears the fingerprints of writer Ryan Tedder. It’s better than average Tedder, but that’s Beyonce’s doing, not his.
Overall, this is a fine batch of records, but there are better ones on the album, and these represent the smallest part of what Beyonce has pulled off. More than ever, she’s a pop artist with a capital A, and if that means no longer being a pop star, then so be it. She, and we, can only be better off for it.
38 Drink To That All Night
Nieman is such a tasteful experimentalist that this party record feels beneath him. Not that I can’t imagine Nieman in a honky tonk, but I see him sitting off to the side, sipping an expensive scotch and watching the carryings on with a bemused smile on his face, not as the center of the action. He throws enough change-ups on the cliches to make this an interesting listen the first couple of times through, but it really is just another country party record, and his sense of taste makes it less rambunctious than it should be.
When you have your studio pre-sets tuned to “I Want You Back” you can get away with almost anything, but only if you don’t sing like a couple of Glee cast rejects.
40 Give Me Back My Hometown
Another epic production, but this time with the sense of detail and proportion that “The Outsiders” lacked. It’s hard to imagine anyone coming close to tears over memories of a Pizza Hut, but Church makes you believe it. His voice is thin, but he uses it so effectively that he almost covers up the John Mellencamp elements in the backing track. But then, Mellencamp is exactly what the people Church sings about would be listening to.
41 Me and My Broken Heart
Now that OneRepublic has become tolerable and The Fray and The Firm have essentially disappeared, somebody had to step in and fill the vapidity gap. Ladies and gentlemen, meet Rixton.
Smart, sly, with a great hook, good words, and a message that means something. Coming from a sixteen year old, this holds promising signs for the future of intelligent pop music, as well. But if taste and intelligence were all Simon and Garfunkel would have been The Beatles, and as a warning of what’s to come keep this name in mind: Suzanne Vega. In the meantime, enjoy “Royals”; it’s a damn fine record.
43 Wild Wild Love
Pitbull featuring G.R.L.
Jumping on the Avicii-inspired gravy train, here comes another c&w/dubstep mashup from a man who, over the last couple of years, has almost created a private genre out of EDM and style-jumping pop (Flo Rida sticks to the blues, but Pitbull will sample anything). “Wild Wild Love” is less catchy than “Timber”, and the joins are more obvious, but Pitbull has made himself the king of stupidly entertaining dance music, and I for one hope he never stops.
When pop producers go EDM, their productions are still recognizable as pop—the beats and flourishes may be different, but the overall structure holds tight to tradition. When DJs go pop, though, the result is often a clumsy mess. Coming from the EDM sife the traditions don’t merge well. The structure is all wrong, builds and bridges are truncated or stuck in the wrong places, and the emotional resonance built into the forms get lost in the collision. This isn’t to fault the DJs. Anyone can hang a new sound on an existing structure, but attempting an entirely new framework is much more difficult. I get the feeling Calvin Harris really is trying to do something different, but I’ll be dammed if I know what it is, and I:m boy sure he does, either. He doesn’t write songs, per se—”Summer” consists of a single verse repeated three times—and his music is full of cliches, taken either from EDM or rock. He does his own singing, though, which, considering his voice is reminiscent of Dr. John’s, only without resonance, is brave of him. It provides the only semblance of humanity on the record, and it’s welcome. But with these lyrics and this music, it doesn’t make things that much better, and I doubt that anything could.
Of course the music is all cliche—that’s part of the joke. And of course the vocals are incompetent even at being stupid—that’s part of the joke, too. As is the already dated quality of the words themselves. Problem is, laughs are supposed to be part of the joke, as well, and I don’t hear any. Not one. Which makes all the other stuff sound even worse than it’s supposed to. Makes it sound crueler than it needs to be, as well.
46 Get Me Some of That
47 The Worst
I’m not sure whether to laugh at or admire a line like “Don’t take this personal, but you’re the worst”, and I often feel the same way about the music. The beat is OK, but it doesn’t grow or make any strong point, and Aiko, even though she’s from California, has created a variation of the irritating little-girl voice that dominates current British pop. The record is good at sustaining an atmosphere, but it’s an atmosphere generated by a spoiled brat who thinks very highly of herself and pouts when she doesn’t get her way.
This is so heavy. Not only is it about the Apocalypse (it says so, right in the lyric: “This is it, the Apocalypse”), but it’s also about the coming of a new age (“Welcome to the new age”). The singer himself, it turns out, is the one who’s radioactive (“I’m radioactive! I’m radioactive!”), and it’s all so heavy he has to stop before the end of the first verse to catch his breath; his inhalation is mixed higher than even the lumbering drums and super-distorted pseudo-dubstep bass, so you know he’s really feeling it. Somebody must like these guys, because this is the second track off their EP to make the Hot 100 in the last month. Every generation has its Queensryche, I suppose.
49 Mmm Yeah
Austin Mahone featuring Pitbull
No matter how I try I find it impossible to understand why anyone with any business sense would push a nondescript talent like Mahone. Somebody’s investing a lot of money in this kid, who’s a competent singer and projects infinite good cheer but has not a single distinguishing feature or an ounce of personality. How much do you suppose they paid Pitbull for this feature? Whatever it was, Pitbull cashed the check with a smile on his face, a playa’s chortle, and a conspiratorial wink at the teller. Another sucker who thought he could buy a hit.
50 Cop Car
Less smarmy than usual, mostly because Urban is telling a story instead of simply declaring his passion. Trouble is he’s a terrible storyteller—”Cop Car” rambles so much it takes three or four listens to figure out what’s going on. Narrative points don’t matter, anyway, because nothing’s more important to Urban than how he feels. Everything else is just decoration. The same goes for his guitar playing: he feels like he’s expressing himself, so what difference does it make if the resulting solo is a showboating monstrosity? Urban has become the definition of self-absorption. When he gets old he won’t need Depends; he can be his own diaper.
Young Money featuring Drake
A Drake solo cut in all but name, left off his last album and stuck on a Young Money mixtape. That should give you an idea of how much attention you should pay to it.
I still think they’ve gotten better, but it’s beginning to look like “Changed” was an anomaly, not a new direction. “Rewind” is standard country romance, with an intriguing but often confusing lyrical conceit—running time backward to re-enjoy romantic pleasures. It’s fine overall, and it avoids the shiny overkill of the records they made before they signed up with Big Machine, but it isn’t anything new or particularly special. Just a bunch of pros marking time.
Everytime I listen to this song I wait for the payoff, the verse or middle eight where Lambert exposes some deeper personal detail that reveals the real reason for all this reactionary blather about marriage as the solution to all problems and manual gear shifts. But there isn’t a payoff, the song really is about the joys of snail mail and clutches and payphones and nothing else. Even with that payoff this would be a mediocre song at best—though still a relief from the endless grind of bro-country. Without it it’s a mystery, and even farther from average country fare. It’s not a fake, though; I have no doubt that Lambert means every word. That’s what bothers me.
54 She Looks So Perfect
5 Seconds of Summer
Australian boy band, One Direction approved, bouncy, loud, maybe slightly better than average. None of that matters. What matters is the chorus, an insidious earworm that implants itself instantly in your brain and never goes away. Ever. It’s about underwear (I won’t mention the brand—if this wasn’t product placement the company is getting enough free advertising as it is). I dare you to forget it once you’ve heard it, and not to feel dirtied when you do. It’s disgusting and captivating at the same time. People of a certain age or maturity level are going to be shouting it all summer. 5 seconds my ass.
55 19 You + Me
Dan + Shay
Now that Rascal Flatts have become interesting (no, really), a whole range of contestants are vying for the country vacuity title. Parmalee came close, and Florida Georgia Line are winning on the charts, but this duo may be the best candidate yet. Note the near absence of twang, the dependence on the most obvious harmonies, the sunshiny metaphors. The song should actually be called “California Beautiful”, but why alienate the rural audience before they’ve even heard the record? Besides, you’ve got to keep that plus-sign brand element going. Then again, when your song takes place on Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, why mention California at all unless your shooting for the west coast country audience as well? Their first single and they’re already trying to play all the angles.
56 Move That Doh
Future featuring Pharrell, Pusha T & Casino
As good as much of this is—especially Mike Will’s beat, Pusha T, and Pharrell’s old school flow—it still boils down to ancient tropes on the usual subjects. Even the best beats and the most inventive raps aren’t going to revive them or turn them into something new. The reality behind them hasn’t changed, but if that reality is going to matter again, if it’s going to mean anything to anybody, it needs to be approached in a different way. I have no suggestions; just pointing out the problem.
57 Beat of the Music
Eldredge’s last single, “Don’t Ya”, was entertaining if nothing else. This is closer to the nothing else, but it wins points for being a bro-country song that never once mentions trucks, muddy backroads, or daisy dukes. Otherwise, “Beat of the Music” is pretty much the same song as “Don’t Ya”, only it takes place in Mexico (without once sounding like Kenny Chesney or Jimmy Buffett, which is another point in Eldredge’s favor). His voice isn’t bad, and he sets up a decent mid-tempo groove, but Eldredge needs to come up with better material if he wants to be his own man. Not doing what the other men do isn’t enough.
Ty Dolla $ign featuring B.o.B.
Ah, the poor life of a player: when you’ve got more than one woman, and they know about each other (largely because you’ve been bragging about it and buying them identical Range Rovers), it’s hard not to wonder if they’re plotting against you in some way, though exactly what they might do is never explained. It’s a credit to Ty Dolls $ign that he gets his sad story across, even if he spends the last half of the record reassuring us that he’ll never be so stupid as to actually marry one of these women. The music does a good job of setting the mood and then stays out of the way, while B.o.B emphasizes the not getting married part and then disappears. All around not bad, and if Ty Dolla $ign has anything else to say this could be the start of a promising career. But I bet he doesn’t.
Disclosure featuring Sam Smith
I’m having a hard time making up my mind about this record. I like it, but I don’t like it a lot. The music is often lovely and Sam Smith deserves all the positive press he’s been getting. The main problem is the overall structure: the way “Latch” is constructed it seems like it should be much longer, but it could benefit from being rearranged and made shorter, as well. The first would turn it into a great dancefloor track, the second into a good to great pop song. I know Disclosure are trying to create something new by tredding that middle ground, but they haven’t done it yet, and the current result is a fairly pleasant mishmash, but not much else.
60 Sleeping With a Friend
After the retro-hop of “Everybody Talks”, the seriousness and emotional depth of this record is a surprise, if not exactly a pleasure. “Sleeping With A Friend” fits better with their past records than you might think, though: remove the noisy electronics and the dense arrangement and you have power pop without the twang. The chorus could easily be that of a lesser Squeeze song. The lyrics aren’t as dense, though, either in terms of wordcraft or emotion, and the arrangent dispels a lot of the song’s power. Still a promising bunch, maybe even more promising than before. I just worry about them taking things too seriously.
61 Red Lights
I understand Tiesto once showed promise as a DJ, but that doesn’t mean he can make a pop record. He can’t sing, has a lousy sense of structure, and stole the best bits from “Teenage Dream”. I bet he was never that promising a DJ, either.
I may as well say this straight out: rap isn’t much fun anymore. That doesn’t mean it isn’t any good—a lot of it, including this record, is great or near great—but it’s become more insular and idiosyncratic, turning in on itself musically and lyrically. There are brilliant records being made this way, but they’re rarely the sort of thing you’d expect to find near the top of the charts or in heavy rotation on radio. “Stoner” is a perfect example. The beat is great, Young Thug is an excellent rapper, and the record is funny in its way, but its way is one that someone not familiar with stoner, or stoner rap, culture, would most likely never get. The record makes no attempt to explain or apologize for itself to any other audience. That it’s done as well as it has on the charts just means that the niche audience for this kind of hiphop is large enough to make its presence known and possibly influence the development of pop as a whole. But I suspect that power will wane, and that the days of hiphop as the dominant pop genre are soon to be over, if they aren’t already. That doesn’t mean it’s dead—no genre ever dies—or render it meaningless, it just means it will be moving, for want of a better word, “underground” for a while, where it will no doubt transform into something else and reappear stronger than ever. Meanwhile, you might have to start hunting to find the good stuff. In a short time, I suspect the best of it won’t be appearing on the charts, or the radio, at all.
63 Can’t Remember to Forget You
Shakira featuring Rihanna
I think its fair to say that the last thing anyone would expect from either Shakira or Rihanna is ska, especially ska that sounds so 90s in origin. Neither singer comes across well, though Shakira seems more in her element. But they both sound like they can’t wait for the song to be over.
64 Doin’ What She Likes
What she likes, apparently, is listening to Shelton run on autopilot. Except for some tasteful wah-wah guitar, there’s nothing of interest here.
65 Who Do You Love?
YG featuring Drake
I read somewhere that YG represents a return to straightforward rap or something. Which apparently means guys bragging about how rich and tough they are over minimalist beats. Wjere have we heard that begore? Drake easily walks away with the track, but it’s not like he had to break a sweat to do it.
The news of Chris Martin’s breakup with Gyneth Paltrow, conscious or not, lends this song a certain poignancy. It sounds like too little too late, as if Martin was arguing with someone who’s already made up her mind. Half the time, he doesn’t seem certain whether he believes what he’s saying or not. The resignation in the music backs this up: sad, regretful, but not necessarily devastated. Of course, that sound, coming from a man who normally trades in the vaguest sort of sentimentality, may be a sign that Martin doesn’t know what to do with a real, cutting emotion when it rises up within him, just like the rest of us. It almost makes you feel sorry for him, no matter how much he may have deserved it.
Properly arranged, the chorus here could be worthy of the Beach Boys. It isn’t properly arranged, though—which means there’s nothing daring in it—and it’s tied to the most godawful country rapping you’ve ever heard. And I bet Owen thinks he’s being brave releasing this as a single.
68 You & I
69 John Doe
B.o.B. featuring Priscilla
Priscilla is a Rihanna wannabe who is only here because B.o.B. can’t afford, or can’t approach, the real thing. B.o.B. himself is a wannabe rap star who lucked into a couple of stunning features a few years ago (Bruno Mars and Haley Williams), and has been trying to recreate that luck with diminishing returns ever since. Here he cops to addiction, an honorable thing to, but also a perhaps necessary career move at this point. I would trust his confession more if he didn’t slip into a flow reminiscent of Eminem in the middle of it. Either he couldn’t come up with a flow of his own for the subject, which means he’s cheating, or at least shortcutting his own emotions, or he’s lying. I’d bet on the first, which is a misdemeanor at worst, but it still looks bad.
70 Lettin’ the Night Roll
Sample titles from Moore’s new album, Off the Beaten Path: “Beer”, “Wheels”, “Dirt Road Kid”, “One Dirt Road”, “Field Fulla Hillbillies”, “For Some Ol’ Redneck Reason” (featuring Charlie Daniels). Not only does that path sound beaten, it sounds graveled, steamrolled, asphalted, landscaped, and about six lanes wide to accommodate the bumper to bumper pickup trucks that roll on down the highway 24/7. The album also includes Moore’s last single, “Point At You”, which isn’t bad, and Moore has done good things in the past. But “Lettin’ the Night Roll” is bro-country at it’s most obvious and irritating, and I’ll bet the rest of the album is worse.
71 The Walker
Fitz and the Tantrums
You know how to whistle, don’t you? You just put your lips together and suck.
72 Goodnight Kiss
I complain a lot about the bro-country assembly line, but that doesn’t mean nothing good ever rolls off of it. These are both solid, above average records. Rhett is better at shifting the cliches around and making something fresh out of them, but Houser creates a comfortable niche for himself, as well, and plays the soft/loud trick like a true pro. Musically,they both roar as hard as country rock ever does, and Rhett even manages to work a little swing in (though not as much as he has in the past). Just wish they were a little less bro about women, especially Houser, who’s still trading in high school scenarios at the age of 38.
73 Man of the Year
The sound is different, and sometimes mesmerizing, but the message is old school: I’m rich, I’m buying, dance for me and have sex with me. ScHoolboy Q doesn’t sound as blunted-out as some of his contemporaries, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t. It just mean he handles it better than they do. Raps better, too. I wonder if he’ll ever have anything interesting to say?
74 Do You Want To Build a Snowman?
Kristen Bell, Agatha Lee Mon & Katie Lopez
I don’t dislike these songs from Frozen anymore than I dislike any other piece of recent show music. They’re not my style but they’re fine for what they are—they do their job—and as long as they don’t try to be anything else and leave the rest of the pop world alone I don’t have a problem with them and can even enjoy them in the right context (i.e., the movie, which I haven’t seen yet) . But the fact that these songs, along with the earlier “Let It Go “, refuse to budge from the charts portends something awful. We are now faced with a generation of pop listeners who grew up on Glee and various singing competitions and believe that highly dramatized, precisely enunciated, woodenly delivered singing is the epitome of pop vocalization. They’re not old enough to dominate the pop scene yet, but just wait. All we can hope is that the generations that follow them reject the style as energetically as they seem to be embracing it.
75 Do I Wanna Know?
What do you know: guitar rock that isn’t teen pop, heavy metal bluster, or an americana cash-in. Didn’t. Know that Arctic Monkeys had a large enough US fan base to get them on the charts, but here they are and they deserve it. Tense, angry, uncertain but defiant, most of all proud, they provide a level of emotional complexity you won’t find anywhere else on the Hot 100. This isn’t their best record, but it’s more than good enough.
76 For the First Time In Forever
Kisten Bell & Idina Menzel
77 Or Nah
Ty Dolla $ign featuring Wiz Khalifa & DJ Mustard
Even more straightforward than YG, with the addition of sexual power games thrown in. Bad enough to put you off the sound of squeeky bed springs forever.
78 Whiskey In My Water
While one version of Farr goes redneck crazy and threatens to crash his truck into women’s bedrooms, the other likes to sit by the fire, unroll a lot of romantic cliches and get drunk on his darlin’s eyes. Which one to believe, I wonder.
79 I Hold On
This starts out well enough—the lyrics are obvious but the music is good—but it quickly turns into another overloud paean to country virtues. Nothing to get excited about. It bothers me, though, that Bentley’s list of beaten and battered possessions that he’ll never give up ends with his wife. Someone wasn’t paying attention when they put this one together. I hope.
Eminem featuring Nate Reuss
The dark past that was, in a sense, Eminem’s muse, has become his crutch—whenever he runs out of juice he can always dredge up his mother, or his ex-wife, or his kids, to apologize to or berate or both. He’s become the John Wayne of rap: stolid, predictable, always playing the same role in the same costume, with rotating guest stars. Here he employs Nate Reuss to provide the plangency. Reuss sings very well, but his part amounts to an entirely separate song uncomfortably wrapped around the other. Sounding uncomfortable is one of Reuss’s trademarks, but in this case it doesn’t work.
81 Love Runs Out
82 Girls Chase Boys
When Michelson had her one hit years ago, I thought she was smart and talented but too cutesy and shallow for her positive attributes to ever add up to much. But now, on “Girls Chase Boys” at least, she’s not only brought everything together, but has used her cute side to stunning effect: this is the sweetest, catchiest, most emotionally realistic piece of pure pop since “Call Me Maybe”. The sunniness is a neat trick,too, since in lyrical terms this is the polar opposite—a resigned kiss-off song that marks the end of a relationship rather than the beginning. The machine-like throb of the backing provides a sense of regret and here-we-go-again repetition, but it also confirms the one hopeful line in the song: “All the broken hearts in the world still beat”. Not as great as “Call Me Maybe”—it fades on repeated plays instead expanding like Jepsen’s song did—but then what is?
For someone who claims to be offended by Miley Cyrus’s antics, Katy Perry sure does like to talk about her breasts. Or, rather, as she puts it here, her “big, big, big, BIG balloons.” I suspect her hypocrisy is the result of professional jealousy, though it could be a more personal form of jealousy, since Cyrus has managed to turn herself into a sexual beacon while possessing much smaller balloons than Perry’s. Whatever the case, Perry’s balloons are on full display, at least lyrically, on this piece of slick retro-disco, besides which Daft Punk seem packed with personality. It isn’t terrible, and it’s probably the best song I’ve heard from Prism after “Walking On Air”, but it’s empty and bloated, just like…well, you know.
85 Come With Me Now
Every couple of years another great white rock and roll hope rears its head, makes a fuss for a while, and then disappears (remember Kings of Leon? Have you forgotten Imagine Dragons yet? And how about them Black Keys?) KONGOS could easily fall into the same trap, but I hope not—they’re too good. They certainly fit the mold and are prime press fodder: four brothers, sons of John Kongos, who had a few UK hits in the early seventies and was famously sampled by Happy Mondays, born in South Africa, raised in the UK, now based in Phoenix. And their music shows all these influences: touches of British blues and psychedelia with a huge, very American sound, a touch of U2 style balladry, and grace notes of township jive. Sometimes they sound overwrought, and I have no idea what the song is about, but it’s enjoyable all the same. Even if they’re full of themselves, like every other great white rock and roll hope, at least they don’t seem to be. They don’t even think the devil finds them tasty.
86 Part II (On the Run)
Jay Z featuring Beyonce
87 On Top of the World
After all the monsters and demons and radioactivity (not to mention the apocalypse), suddenly Imagine Dragons get happy—a happiness they telegraph, just like their inner torment, with cliches. Hand claps, shouted choruses, steel drums, they’ll misuse anything to get their point across. The real point being, of course, that they don’t have one; they’re just trying on different attitudes to see what clicks. This one hasn’t, so far. They should be back with their doom mongering any time now. Which probably won’t improve their faulty grammatic sense: “Been dreaming of this since a child” they sing. Since a child what? Stole your toys? Ripped your comic books? Beat you bloody with a whiffle bat? I don’t even want to think about what “I’ve had the highest mountains/I’ve had the deepest rivers” means. If you’re going to fill your songs with cliches, at least use them correctly.
Hayes is a talented guy, and as cliched as much of this song is, it’s well-crafted and, lyrically at least, never gets too sappy. But his instincts are pure show-biz, and he’s about as believable and trustworthy as an infomercial host. There’s nothing wrong with patterning your music on Michael Buble and Sara Bareilles (tbough it is odd for a guy who’s been pegged as a country singer), but he lacks their cynicism and sarcasm. They know it’s all an act, even when they mean what they say (which is why you believe them), but Hayes, as far as I can tell, doesn’t know anything at all. He’ll buy into anything, especially if it comes out of his own soft head. There’s no doubt, no pain, no tension, even in a song about bullying. The result is music so bland and yet so confused it wouldn’t even work as background in a mall. Maybe he’ll learn someday, but it’s hard to change direction when you start out this young and in this way. At the rate he’s going, he’ll be playing Branson before he’s twenty-five.
89 I Don’t Dance
90 Cut Her Off
KCamp featuring 2 Chainz
The shift back to the streets is almost complete. While the richest rappers, like Jay Z and Kanye West luxuriate in their mansions, collecting royalties and raising children, and while the second rank continue to brag about their foreign cars and their ability to still afford bottle service, a batch of younger rappers, their flow as jagged and stilted as their lives appear to be, rise up and try to reestablish the ancient rap values of dealing, pimping, and violence. They don’t seem as volatile as their predecessors, not as violent or headstrong, but their problems with women—not just particular women, but women as a concept—seem as impossible to solve as ever. The problem, of course, is in their heads, not in the women, but it would be almost impossible to make them understand that, much less admit it. At the same time, it’s that tension that makes their music worth listening to. The paradox is the real problem. Or a large part of the problem, anyway. Why would they give up a way of thinking that gives theirlife meaning and makes them rich, and makes their art, even if it causes them endless trouble at the same time? These are not new questions, but they’re no closer to being answered. Good record, though, even if it offends me.
91 Am I Wrong
Nico & Vinz
92 We Dem Boyz
93 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.
94 Where It’s At
95 Helluva Life
A great chorus, and it’s nice to hear someone trying to follow in the footsteps of Brad Paisley. The lyrics,though, are banal when they’re not cliches, and the music is flat. Nice try, though.
96 Oceans (Where Feet May Fail)
I wrote this off at first because it’s so obviously a failure: the opening section is ordinary, the big repetitive build doesn’t build enough, and the ambient close is too obvious and calculated and possesses only the slightest trace of spirituality (checkout Moby’s “God Moving Over the Face of the Waters” to get an idea of what they were probably going for). But I’m not sure this is the fault of Hillsong United so much as the limitations of the genre. It must be hard to be a contemporary Christian musician: your subject matter is limited unless you’re a genius at dramatizing religious ideas as they apply to everyday life, and even when sticking to the approved themes you need to stick to the tried and true and don’t dare dig into the thorny issues of doctrine. If you’re not multi-denominational (i.e., lukewarm) you’ll never get played on Christian radio. And because you’re a representative of the relatively staid white Christian community, the spiritual/sensual emotionalism found in black gospel is frowned upon (there are no Sam Cookes or Al Greens in contemporary Christian music). The result is nothing but generic praise of God and Jesus, platitudes, and bowlederized bible stories set to bland music (I’m sure there are exceptions, but I’ve never heard them). Only a true genius could make something worth listening to out of it, but no true genius could live in that straitjacket. So I give Hillsong United credit for trying something different (though “Oceans” is still just a Bible story set to music), even if the result is a failure.
“Empire” is so insane that I couldn’t tell you whether it’s any good or not. Shakira borrows half a dozen different vocal effects, invents a few of her own, ties them to some of the silliest lyrics you’ve ever heard, piles dramatic climax onto dramatic climax, and somehow makes it all work. In Shakira’s deranged delivery the line “and the stars make love to the universe” sounds silly, pretentious, illogical, and indescribably profound all once. I doubt there’ll be another moment quite like it all year. And I still don’t know if the record is any good.
Ever wonder what Alicia Keys would sound like if she were a man who talked dirty? Me either, but here it is all the same. Even the dirty talk can’t distract from how dull the music is.
99 Feelin’ Myself
will.i.am featuring Miley Cyrus, French Montana, Wiz Khalifa, and DJ Mustard
This is will.i.am’s best solo record, a fact that you can credit to DJ Mustard, Miley Cyrus, even Wiz Khalifa, who sounds better here than he has in ages. Only French Montana fails to top his host, and even he comes close to a draw. will.i.am ran out of ideas a long time ago, and it’s interesting to find him abandoning his electro sound for something closer to current hip-hop. Maybe he’s desperate. The piling up of guests on this remix certainly suggests so. I bet he still thinks he’s the shit though. At least that’s what he keeps telling himself when he looks in the mirror. But even then he has to have Cyrus backing him up.
100 Slow Me Down
Even in country, there should be a limit to how many comeback attempts you can make. Evans is way over it.