Top of the World, Ma! Hot 100 Roundup—2/15/14

Romeo Santos featuring Drake—“Odio”

This is fine, if Less loco than Santos usually gets, but I’m becoming more and more wary of his attempts at crossover. Drake singing in poorly accented Spanish is bad enough (though his rap is kind of cute), but the portentous spoken intro—”Envy is a sign of admiration” Santos croaks, and follows with a non-sequiter that’s even more obvious—is worse, and there’s no one Santos can blame for that but himself. The music and his voice are as gorgeous as ever, but Santos needs to be careful; he’s pointing himself in a direction where those won’t be enough to save him.

Kacey Musgraves—“Follow Your Arrow”

Compared to the hard truths of “Merry Go ‘Round”, “Follow Your Arrow” is more than lightweight, it’s damn near non-existent. “Arrow” is pleasant enough, but if Musgraves thinks YOLO is a way out of the darkness of Same Trailer, Different Park, then she has a hell of a lot to learn. What if a person’s arrow leads them to alcohol and drugs, or prostitution, or the Westboro Baptist Church? It’s easy to offer advice like this when you only imagine the positive outcomes. Unless this is meant to be a version of the lies those living in trailer parks tell themselves to get by (and it doesn’t sound like it is), Musgraves is more simplistic than most thought her to be. The next album well tell, I guess, but in the meantime this is just depressing.

Keith Urban—“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.

Eric Church—“A Man Who Was Gonna Die Young”

The best song from The Outsiders to hit the charts so far, “A Man Who Was Gonna Die Young” is also the simplest musically, harking back to Church’s first two albums, only with a deeper level of emotion and experience. Thin as his voice is, he’s becoming one hell of a singer: when he lowers his voice he sounds like an aching national guitar. The song has one dud line (“pushing up daisies” is too cliche to fit with the rest of the song), and there are a couple of brief moments where Church overreaches, but otherwise this is perfect.

K. Michelle—“Can’t Raise A Man”

“These are the signs of a grown-ass boy” is the line of the year so far, and I wish there was better music to go with it, but “Can’t Raise a Man” drags too much and is too ordinary. Michelle has a lot of promise, but she hasn’t learned to put it all together yet.

Imagine Dragons—“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 sense of grammar: “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.

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Pop and Power Ploys: Hot 100 Roundup—2/8/14

Austin Mahone featuring Pitbull—“Mmm Yeah”

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.

ScHoolboy Q—“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.

Enrique Iglesias featuring Marco Antonio Solas—“El Perdedor”

If I knew Spanish I’d be better at seeing through Iglesias’s lover man pose, but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s far more believable in Spanish than he ever is in English. Apply these vocals techniques in English, as Iglesias and others have tried to do, and you drip with smarm, but in Spanish you sound like the world’s greatest and most sincere lover even as you lie through every pore of your body. I understand why Iglesias and others, like Romeo Santos, want to cross over, but they shouldn’t. Everything they do is more effective in Spanish, and the market gets bigger all the time. Instead of being kings of Latin, they may find themselves nowhere at all.

Hunter Hayes—“Invisible”

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 (though it is odd for a guy who’s been pegged as a country singer), but he lacks their saving graces of 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 whatever 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.

Trey Songz—“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.

The 1975—“Chocolate”

The bouncy hooks and the light, boyish vocals provide cover for the dark, violence-tinged lyrics, and though that may be an unusual combination in the US, in the UK it’s a fairly standard pop ploy (and one that I’m normally a sucker for). Standard enough, and pop enough, in fact, that whatever serious message they’re trying to convey is so heavily obscured it gets lost. I don’t think they’re toying with violent imagery just for the fun of it, but I still can’t figure out what they’re getting at lyrically, and the music, catchy as it is, doesn’t provide any clues. If the music were more than catchy I might not care, but it isn’t.

Rico Love—“They Don’t Know”

Erotic power games are fascinating in their way, but I’ve always found them a little dull on record, especially when it’s the man who holds all the power. Making his mistress keep their relationship a secret, even when his wife knows about it and occasionally takes part, is just another way for Love to demonstrate his dominance over both women, and he makes sure we never hear their side of the story (the only thing he praises his mistress for is keeping her mouth shut). Suave and sophisticated as the music might be, this is the equivalent of a rapper ordering that bitch to get down on her knees. It’s all about the power.

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Feet Don’t Fail Me Now: Hot 100 Roundup—2/1/14

Shakira featuring Rihanna—“Can’t Remember to Forget You”

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.

Chris Brown featuring Lil Wayne & French Montana—“Loyal”

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 $hort. 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.

Rascal Flatts—“Rewind”

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.

Blake Shelton—“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.

Calvin Harris featuring Ayah Marar—“Thinking About You”

Perfectly passable soul-based EDM. Maybe even more than passable (love that crunchy drum sound), but overall it’s much too generic.

Cash Cash featuring Bebe Rexha—“Take Me Home”

Is it just my imagination, or does no one in the UK know how to sing like an adult anymore? And to hear this particular little-girl voice sing joyously about enduring emotional abuse because her man is “the only thing I know” only makes it worse. The music isn’t bad, but it’s corny, and it would need to be a lot better to excuse that level of offensiveness.

Thompson Square—“Everything I Shouldn’t Be Thinking About”

The best thing about this is the opening guitar riff, which is almost a direct rip of The Apples In Stereo’s “Rainbow”, right down to the lo-fi sound. Not sure if this was intentional or not, but it sure is weird, at least to anyone familiar with The Apples. The rest of the record is OK, though like most country songs about sex, it gets hokey and sentimental by the end. It’s not very sexy either.

Hillsong United—“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 (check out 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 you adhere 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 (in other words, 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 bowdlerized 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.

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Small Towns and Limousines—Hot 100 Roundup—1/25/14

Lucy Hale—“You Sound Good To Me”

A perfectly decent record, and solo female voices have become so rare on the country charts (unless they’re named Taylor, Carrie, or Miranda), that I won’t even complain about Hale having gotten there by acting on a TV show first. Can’t complain about the music, either, which is straightforward but tougher then you might expect. I can complain about the lyrics, though, which fall too neatly into line with the dominant bro-country aesthetic. They’re almost, in fact, an explanation of why bro-country is so popular with women as well as men: it’s all those friendly, gravelly voices pouring sugar in their ears. I’ve long suspected as much, and it’s good to have my suspicions confirmed, but that doesn’t mean I’m happy about it.


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 I’ll-do-anything-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.

Randy Houser—“Goodnight Kiss”, #93
Thomas Rhett—“Get Me Some of That”, #94

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.

Eric Church—“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.

J. Cole featuring Amber Coffman & The Cults—“She Knows”

Cole’s problem is that even though he has decent ideas and a good ear for beats and hooks, he isn’t a good enough rapper to make any of those things stick in your head. I’m always impressed by the sound of his records (especially this one) when I’m listening to them, but I have a hard time remembering them afterwards. Maybe, in his own way, he’s too tasteful to make things stick. Whatever the case, his music, as good as it often is, leads nowhere.

Flo Rida—“How I Feel”

Another great blues sample (Nina Simone this time), and overall this thumps along as well as all the rest of Flo Rida’s singles. But where did he get the idea that we actually want to understand what he says? He speaks eloquently enough with hooks and rhythm; the raps are just filigree. Yet suddenly he’s slowing down the flow and enunciating, like he can’t wait for us to appreciate his clunky verbal gymnastics. When a hit machine loses track of what makes his records sell, that’s a bad sign. Expect worse soon.


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.

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Insert Clever SEO Headline Pun Here: Hot 100 Roundup—1/18/14

The Fray—“Love Don’t Die”

Their toughened-up sound makes them more bearable—though you still have to listen to the lead mumbler suck in his saliva between every line (he’s so sincere about it, too)—but it doesn’t make their stockpile of cliches any more interesting. It might even make them worse. Also, when The Fray go uptempo they sound like Train.

Jerrod Nieman—“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.

Bruno Mars—“Young Girls”

The Smeezingtons, of which Mars is the public face, are good songwriters and decent producers, but they’ve yet to make a record that captures the energy and showmanship of Mars’s live performances. This song, which sets the basic theme of Unorthodox Jukebox (bet you didn’t know it had a theme, did you? Mars is full of surprises), is solid and professional, but it never comes to life the way it should, even when that “Be My Baby” beat comes crashing in. Whether this is the Smeezingtons’s fault or Mars himself (his greatest flaw is polishing all his edges off) is hard to say, but it’s time one or the other of them, preferably both, stood out and dirtied themselves up a bit. They’ve got the chops, now they have to stop thinking about them so much and get down to business.

Dan + Shay—“19 You + Me”

Now that Rascal Flatts has 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.

Pharrell Williams—“Happy”

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.

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Freezie Pop: Hot 100 Roundup—1/11/14

DJ Snake & Lil Jon—“Turn Down For What”

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.

Kristen Bell, Agatha Lee Mon & Katie Lopez—“Do You Want To Build a Snowman?”, #65
Kristen Bell & Idina Menzel—“For the First Time In Forever”, #74

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.

Demi Lovato—“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?

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Beyonceworld: Hot 100 Roundup—1/4/14

“Drunk In Love” (featuring Jay Z), #12
“XO”, #66
“Mine” (featuring Drake), #99

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, 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 bunch 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.

Tessanne Chin—“I Have Nothing”

Brantley Gilbert—“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.

Tessanne Chin & Adam Levine—“Let It Be”

Jason Derulo featuring 2 Chainz—“Talk Dirty”

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.

Ty Dolla $ign featuring B.o.B.—“Paranoid”

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 Dolla $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, or even let them stay the night. 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.

Dierks Bentley—“I Hold On”

This starts out well enough—if the lyrics are obvious at least the music is good—but it quickly turns into another over-loud 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.

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Naptime, or How Did You Stay Awake in 2013?

If one word could sum up pop music in 2013, I would choose “exhausted”. “Tired” isn’t enough, and “comatose” would be going too far, but “exhausted” seems just right.* It isn’t that people aren’t trying—if anything they’re trying harder than ever, which is part of the problem—but they simply don’t have the energy left. Pop music, and the fame that comes with success, has become a 24/7 endurance test, and anyone who has been in the game longer than a couple of years, especially those who have been at the top, is running out of energy, out of breath, and out of ideas.

The most obvious examples of this are Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, and Justin Bieber, whose new albums, despite containing decent cuts, lacked the verve and intensity of past efforts (Bieber’s album, in particular, seems almost devoted to the idea of exhaustion, at least musically). The same could be said, to a lesser extent, of Taylor Swift, Rihanna (both of whom, except for some touring, essentially took the year off), Selena Gomez, Demi Lovato, and any other stars who established themselves in the last five years. Miley Cyrus may have caught the pop audience’s imagination not so much for her onstage antics as for having the energy, after a few years away from the spotlight, to engage in them in the first place. It’s no surprise that people are worn down and out: from 2008 to around the middle of 2012, things were pretty exciting. “Call Me Maybe” may well have been the capstone to the previous four years of development. In 2013 it was time for a nap.

The same sense of exhaustion goes for genres as well as artists. The first wave of pop EDM and dubstep has already depleted itself, and though both are still injecting atmosphere into recent hits, for the most part they’ve been absorbed into more traditional pop forms (Avicii is the most obvious example of this). R&B, meanwhile, has been fading on the charts for the last half decade, and despite attempts at revival by reality TV stars and Italian-American teenagers, has reached an all-time low in terms of chart presence. It’s doubtful that it will ever again be as dominant as it was a decade ago. Rap, with a few major exceptions, has become an assembly line of disposable heroes, each having a hit or two before settling into obscurity. Rap, in fact, is beginning to look more and more like current country, with its endless succession of factory approved rock and rolly good ol’ boys driving their trucks, drinking their beers, and keeping women dancing on tailgates (the country equivalent of a strip club) and off the radio.

Thanks to Billboard counting YouTube plays in their new chart formula, combined with YouTube itself devising a method to monetize fan-made videos, almost all the interesting action on the charts happened in the top ten. A lot was made of records like “Harlem Shake” hitting number one based on video plays, but the widespread irritation seemed to ignore the fact that other, more mainstream records, like “Blurred Lines” and Rihanna’s “Stay”, also benefited from the new policy (both also emphasized—surprise!—female nudity) .

Aside from the occasional novelty, the top ten was largely dominated by old hands (Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Rihanna, OneRepublic), even older hands making a sudden re- or even first appearance (Justin Timberlake, Daft Punk, Pharrell, Robin Thicke), and one foxy future grandpa (Jay Z). Those new artists who managed to make an impression (Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, Imagine Dragons, Avicii) were either terrible in general or scored with terrible records. It’s fair to say that the only great record to make the top ten was Icona Pop’s “I Love It”, which hit the chart almost a year after its initial release. This fact alone gives you an idea of what the year as a whole was like.

Not that there weren’t other great records on the Hot 100, but there weren’t many, none did better than top twenty, and most did worse than that. The two biggest surprises among these were Mariah Carey’s “#beautiful” (really a Miguel track but with Carey listed as main performer), and Paramore’s “Still Into You”. Both are big enough names that you would have expected them to easily glide into the top ten with records of this caliber (especially Paramore, whose new album, their best, debuted at number one). But both struggled (“Still Into You” actually dropped off the chart a couple of times before finally climbing into the top thirty), and their time on the chart was relatively short.

This didn’t have to do with a lack of popularity so much as the amount of room pop radio allows for the kind of music they make. Rock and roll has virtually disappeared from the mainstream pop charts, and, as I mentioned before, r&b has been fading, leaving little opportunity for anyone in that genre, no matter how big a star they once were.

The biggest story of the year, though, and certainly the most depressing, is the near disappearance of black artists in general, whatever their style of music, from the top ten. By the most basic metric—the percentage of top ten records made by black artists—there hasn’t been a worse year in the history of the Hot 100. That’s fifty-five years. Even in 1964, when the British invasion knocked the girl groups out of the charts, a higher percentage of black artists made the top ten than in 2013. I plan on writing more about this soon, so for now let’s just say it’s bad but shouldn’t have been unexpected, most likely it won’t get any worse (though it could), and I don’t think it can be ascribed to racism.

That reminds me, I forgot about Lorde, didn’t I? And I barely mentioned Miley Cyrus. Or twerking. Or any of the other stories we’ve heard too much of all year. Talk about being exhausted. It’s possible, I suppose, that I’m the only one who’s worn out, but I doubt it. Maybe everything will revive this year. I’m not counting on it, but I’m ever hopeful.

*I want to emphasize that I’m talking specifically about pop music here—that is, records aimed at mainstream radio and designed to place as high on the charts as possible. There was a lot of great music released in 2013, just like any other year, but little of it has impacted pop radio or the pop charts—at least as of now.

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Men and Their Stories—Hot 100 Roundup 12/28/13

Justin Bieber featuring Chance the Rapper—“Confident”

Saving the best for last, Bieber finally reaches the end of his string of Journals singles. “Confident” is uptempo reggae with dub touches, a surprise after the moodiness of the previous records. Bieber’s voice is still an issue (he’s much better when he isn’t trying to be soulful), but the music is good, and Chance the Rapper adds a level of humor and brains that’s sorely needed.

Rebecca Black and Dave Days—“Saturday”

Black has put her voice lessons (and maybe some autotune) to good use. Whatever the ultimate value of “Saturday”—and it isn’t much —there’s no doubting she’s a hundred times better singer than she was (wherever this guy Days came from, though, somebody should send him back immediately). She’s more confident, too. Black is well aware that most people see her as a joke, and she’s willing to turn that to her advantage. This isn’t a great record by any definition, but except for Days, it isn’t an embarrassment, either.

Tessanne Chin—“Bridge Over Troubled Water”

Lea Michele—“Cannonball”

A striking intro leads into an ordinary uplift song based on a misguided metaphor: cannonballs don’t “fly”, they describe a simple arc and fall, solid chunks of lead that blindly knock down everything in their path. Is that what Michelle wants to be? Well. We’d all better stand back, then.

Aloe Blacc—“The Man”

Partly because such determined self-exaltation is rare, and partly because it opens with an Elton John rip, I thought at first that “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—makes me think he’s serious. This is the guy who wrote “Wake Me Up”, after all, a song that suggests wisdom comes, like a “Participant” ribbon, from just showing up and hanging around long enough. If he’s going to convince me he’s the Messiah, though, he’s gotta come up with some miracles first. This isn’t one.

Jacquie Lee—“Angel”

R. Kelly featuring 2 Chainz—“My Story”

Surely Kelly, of all people, knows that when you start a tale with “This is my story” and end it with “and I’m sticking to it” everyone assumes you’re lying—or at least leaving certain things unsaid. Is this Kelly’s way of clueing us in on something? Or is he that brazen? Whatever the case, the rest of the song tells us nothing and shows us nothing new. At least, that is, until 2 Chainz steps up to the mic and rhymes “12 plays” with “12th grade”. Brazen it is.

Childish Gambino—“3005”

The chorus imitates Drake, the verses cop from Kendrick Lamar, and there’s the occasional Eminem flow for spice. With these models to work from, the fictional rapper pledges his 1001 years of devotion. Anybody who believes it deserves him.

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

Pentatonix—“Little Drummer Boy”

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

Justin Bieber—“Change Me”

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

Avicii—“Hey Brother”

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

John Mayer featuring Katy Perry—“Who You Love”

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

Childish Gambino—“Crawl”

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

Frankie Ballard—“Helluva Life”

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

Kelly Clarkson—“Underneath the Tree”

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

Lupe Fiasco featuring Ed Sheeran—“Old School Love”

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

Tamar Braxton—“All the Way Home”

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

Arctic Monkeys—“Do I Wanna Know?”

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

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