Trumpets and Tripe
Hot 100 Roundup—6/14/14

5 Seconds Of Summer—“Good Girls”
#34

Oh, good, I don’t need to like them after all. Not just because this is lumbering, overblown, sexist tripe, but because they haven’t got the brains to produce even semi-interesting sexist tripe. I.e., in the middle eight, they repeat “Good girls are bad girls” twice instead of reversing it the second time and singing “Bad girls are good girls”. How stupid do you have to be to miss a joke as obvious as that?

Lil Wayne featuring Drake—“Believe Me”
#36

Wayne sounds alive for the first time in years, but the fact that he’s previewing his next album with Drake as support suggests the old confidence still hasn’t come back. His rap is good, but almost hidden, and Drake is as dull as he’s ever been. As for the beat, I haven’t decided whether it’s abstract or just lazy.

Tove Lo—“Habits (Stay High)”
#66

The lyrics about sex clubs and bulimia are no doubt getting this record more attention than it deserves, but the chorus is ordinary, as is the arrangement in general. I’ve heard at least one remix that’s far superior to the original, so Lo may have a better idea of what she’s doing than this suggests. The lyrics are pretty sharp, after all.

Lana Del Rey—“Shades of Cool”
#79

Since all music at it’s root defies logical explanation, it’s not necessarily a compliment to call Del Rey’s mysterious. She’s obviously trying to go deep, but it’s hard to say just what deep means to her, and her noirish affects seem tacked on rather than absorbed. I like the build to the guitar solo, but all that tells us is that she has feelings, not what those feeling are, and since her voice rarely connects her personality (if she has one) gets lost in endless posing. “He drives a Chevy Malibu” might tell us something if there were some vital context, but here it’s just another meaningless detail, blown up out of proportion. She knows what she wants to do (I think), but she has no idea how to do it, and that’s the exact opposite of how things should be.

Jason Derulo—“Trumpets”
#87

Third time to the goofy funky well, and though it may not be completely dry the contents aren’t exactly palatable. Derulo’s voice certainly isn’t. He may have the worst falsetto I’ve ever heard, and even without the leering name check his debt to Katy Perry is obvious. I dread the possibility of a ballad where he does his Chris Martin imitation. With luck, though, now that he’s exhausted this particular style and needs to find a new one, he’ll disappear.

John Mayer—“XO”
#90

It’s not that Mayer’s performance is bad, necessarily, but this was the wrong idea from the start. Modern R&B doesn’t react well to minimal acoustic treatment and “XO” especially so. It can’t gather emotional meaning simply through repetition, it needs the variation that Beyonce gives each chorus, it needs a deeper vocal intensity, and most of all it needs a bassline. Without that it’s mind-numbing sap.

George Strait—“I Got A Car”
#96

It gets schmaltzy near the end (there are even strings), but Strait has never lost his ability to tell a story and make it stick, even with a metaphor as heavy-handed as this. The first two verses are wonderful, with their sense of falling into a life almost by accident, and even the schmaltz is handled deftly enough to have some effect. Strait has no true point of view, at least not one I ever identified, but for a storyteller sometimes thats a benefit.

Tim McGraw featuring Faith Hill—“Meanwhile Back At Mama’s”
#100

The usual reactionary rustic nonsense, better played and sung than most, but still nonsense. And it goes on forever.

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Slave To the Bad: Hot 100 Roundup—6/7/14

Before we get started with this week, I just want to point out that despite the fact that I’ve panned the first two singles, Miranda Lambert’s Platinum is her best album since Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, if not her best album, period. Both singles are buried fairly deep (“Automatic” is sixth, after a string of five brilliant tracks, and “Somethin’ Bad” is twelfth), and why Lambert decided to release the two worst tracks on the album as the opening singles is anybody’s guess. I suspect she’s merely playing the Nashville game: “Automatic” is a sop to traditionalists (when the rest of the album is anything but traditional), and “Somethin’ Bad” is good old brand leveraging. In other words, she not only knows how to make great music, she knows how to play the game, and she’s learned how to enjoy it. The chip on her shoulder was starting to become the beam in her eye, and she was smart to get rid of it. All the same, if the next single isn’t “Smokin’ and Drinkin’”, I’m going to be royally pissed.

One other short note: as always, I’ve avoided reviewing any of the tracks that have come out of The Voice. I wanted to mention, though, that this was a lot easier than last year, when I was impressed enough to consider reviewing one of Danielle Bradbery’s releases. There doesn’t seem to have been anyone on the show this year who could sing, and that includes Adam Levine. Most of the tracks I found impossible to listen to all the way through (I barely got past the intro to the Gotye cover; the arrangement—or the mix–is shockingly incompetent). Isn’t it time for this horror, this madness, to end?

Miranda Lambert with Carrie Underwood—“Somethin’ Bad”
#39

Much like Lambert’s last single, “Automatic”, “Somethin’ Bad” is a decent idea waiting for a payoff that never comes. There are characters, and there are situations, but there’s no story. Two women meet, run off to New Orleans, anticipate raising hell. That’s it. As if to compensate, the arrangement is blown far out of proportion, much closer to Underwood’s style than anything you’d expect from Lambert. All the bombast does, though, is make it harder to understand the lyrics, thereby destroying any chance the song has of meaning anything. I’m beginning to think Lambert shouldn’t record duets; not counting Pistol Annies she’s yet to make a good one, largely because she always lowers herself to the level of her partner. For the moment, at least, she has no peers, and she shouldn’t pretend that she does.

Michael Jackson—“Slave To the Rhythm”
#45

The arrangement and production get the twitchy, tic-filled late period Jackson perfectly, and the lyrics, though rough, are as weird and full of mixed-messages as anything he ever did. It’s not feminism, it’s a tale of sexual obsession, using the most mundane references. There’s no actual mention of sex, though, which leaves open the possibility that the rhythm the woman is a slave to is the rhythm of life itself, the insistent beat of the ordinary and routine, i.e. the life Jackson himself was never allowed to live. From anyone else’s viewpoint the woman is defeated, crushed by her responsibilities. For Jackson, though, this may have looked like a victory. Who knows? The more you investigate the more complicated Jackson gets (just like anybody else). You can dance to it, whatever the case.

Nicki Minaj—“Pills N Potions”
#47

I get a certain absurd enjoyment out of watching critics tie themselves in knots every time Minaj releases another single. “Yay! She’s going back to rap!” “Boo! She’s turning into a pop singer!” “Gah! What is this thing!” The idea of a rapper also wanting to be a pop singer, and vice-versa, is so foreign to them that Minaj’s flipping back and forth strikes them as almost a personal insult. This time, after rapping hard on “Lookin’ Ass Nigga”, she comes up with a pop ballad that includes some softer, laid-back raps. The result is neither bad nor good, just mediocre and only slightly interesting; certainly nothing to get upset about. She’s supremely talented, but she isn’t a genius. Maybe that’s why her shifts in style seem so odd, willful instead of brilliant, driven by the desire to be a genius rather than genius itself. Critics, and Minaj herself, may be expecting more of her than she can deliver.

Christina Grimmie and Adam Levine—“Somebody That I Used To Know”
#66

Christina Grimmie—“Can’t Help Falling In Love”
#74

Lady Antbellum—“Bartender”
#78

One thing that was missing from Jon Caramanica’s recent article in The New York Times about the growing influence of hip-hop in country music was women. Hip-hop’s influence was considered only as an an offshoot of bro-country, a place where women either aren’t allowed or apparently aren’t interested in. The reality, of course, is different: hip-hop’s influence on country is genre wide; it affects everybody, and “Bartender” is a case in point. In its structure and its vocal rhythms, the song is hip hop stuck on top of country backing. The influence is obvious, and the fit is perfect. In fact, the fit is better than most of the bro-country “rap” songs I’ve heard. That was the other thing Caramanica left out of his article: most country rap is terrible and reinforces the most deathless country stereotypes. This isn’t, and doesn’t. In fact, it’s the first uptempo Lady Antebellum song that’s any good at all. Which doesn’t mean it’s great, but it isn’t bad.

Sam Smith—“Leave Your Lover”
#92

Unlike almost every other critic in the world, I like Smith, who has three other records climbing the Hot 100. “Leave Your Lover”, though, is close to terrible. The only thing that prevents it from slipping all the way to the bottom is the occasional baldness of the lyric and a hook that isn’t too cloying. He’ll get better (I hope), but this is a big misstep.

Shakira—“Dare (La La La)”
#95

Bad EDM is bad EDM, no matter how big a star you are (were). You can hear the desperation on this one. You can also hear Shakira hating the song with every breath.

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Second Rate Doesn’t Always Mean Bad
Hot 100 Roundup—5/31/14

5 Seconds of Summer—“Don’t Stop”
#47

Pop-punk readymades perfectly applied, and this time without the irritating product placement. Not as deep (cough) or experimental (cough cough) as their pals in One Direction, and there’s still too much teen-boy leering for my taste, but they’re also less pretentious and less preening. God I hope I don’t start to like these guys.

Ed Sheeran—“One”
#87

Pleasant enough, but as a song “One” meanders and doesn’t get anywhere. The drums are a big mistake; as quiet as they are, they still suggest an intensification of emotion when there’s no such thing. Sheeran is always intense emotionally, so it’s impossible for the song to build. He doesn’t seem to know how to modulate his intensity or turn it on and off; the guy just vibrates all the time. This is appealing for about thirty seconds, then it gets irritating, and then you laugh. Not enough to make you want to go back and hear it again, but you laugh.

Dierks Bentley—“Drunk On A Plane”
#91

For the most part, Bentley is a second rate bro-country singer. Second rate, that is, if you consider Brad Paisley as the top of the heap. Since, on that scale, most other bro-country singers are third rate, that makes Bentley the closest thing to quality you’ll find aside from Paisley himself (not to mention those slightly outside the mainstream orbit, like Eric Church and almost every woman in country). “Drunk On A Plane” is funny, sad, angry, and all the other things it’s supposed to be in just the right combination. But it isn’t great. If all the verses were as good as the last one, it would be.

Kid Ink featuring Chris Brown—“Main Chick”
#92

With the support of Chris Brown (again), and DJ Mustard producing, especially since both bring their B+ game, this is bound to be a hit. It may even have something interesting to say about the life of fame. Whether Kid Ink would be worth listening to without his pals is another question. His flow is fine and he fills in all the details the way he should, but his rap doesn’t go anywhere. And with Brown and Mustard, that would probably be the state of his career, as well.

The Band Perry—“Chainsaw”
#94

This restores a little of the grace that was missing from their last two singles, and loses very little of the fire, but let’s face it, over the last few years spurned, angry woman songs have become as much a cliche as truck and party songs in bro-country (don’t call it sis-country, though; people might think you mean something else). “Chainsaw” doesn’t do anything to diminish the style, but doesn’t add anything, either. Still, I like this a lot better than “Done” or “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely”.

Jake Worthington—“Heaven”
#98

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Just Kissing Down By the Riverbank
Hot 100 Roundup—5/24/14

Usher—“Good Kisser”
#70

I’ll admit to never being much impressed by Usher. He’s made some great records (including this one), but, much like Beyonce, you can hear how hard he’s working, the calculation and ambition behind every moment. I know that for some people this is part of his appeal; we live in a time where people are given more praise for the quantity of their work, for the amount of time and energy they put into it, than the quality. Even a record as lascivious as this sounds devoted more to a puritan work ethic than to sex. Or perhaps it’s closer to say that the sex itself seems more like work, a practiced skill rather than a libidinous release. Don’t get me wrong, this is a great record (the way Usher’s vocal echoes the bassline may be the best thing he’s ever done), but it comes from a world I’m fairly sure I’d never want to live in.

Josh Kaufman—“I Can’t Make You Love Me”
#71

Sia—“Chandelier”
#75

After hearing this, I feel as if I should apologize for all the times I’ve said a record was overwrought or overdone. “Chandelier” is the sort of record those words are meant for, and even they can’t do it justice. It’s almost impossible to convey how over the top this record is, from its booming drums to Sia’s screaming vocals. There’s a song in the maelstrom somewhere, but good luck finding it, and when you do you won’t find much. Even Rihanna, who Sia imitates in her phrasing, shows more restraint than this. Hell, Demi Lovato shows more restraint than this.

Chistina Grimmie—“How To Love”
#79

Sara Bareilles—“I Choose You”
#81

This is what her haters have been waiting for, the love song she swore she’d never write. But guess what? It’s also her best record since “Love Song”, emotionally glowing but astringent in approach, all pizzicato tippy-toeing around the emotions she’d like to shout about. The lyrics get sentimental, and occasionally fall into cliché, but the music saves everything. What with this and Ingrid Michaelson’s “Girls Chase Boys”, this is turning into a pretty good year tor adult contemporary. I wonder what Colbie Caillat is doing.

Pharrell—“Come Get It Bae”
#82

AKA “Blurred Lines Redux: Blur More”

Brad Paisley—“River Bank”
#88

I don’t buy the idea that this is a reaction to the controversy over “Accidental Racist”. Paisley has always balanced his genre-stretching and challenges to the philosophical narrowness of country music with simpler, more relaxed, and more humorous takes on country life. Besides, “River Bank” is easily as genre-stretching, at least musically, as anything he’s ever done. The sound is familiar enough to lovers of pop, but for the country audience it’s close to revolutionary, and since Paisley is one of the better songwriters of the last decade, this is a good deal better than most of the pop it’s influenced by. The first verse alone demonstrates such mastery of craft it’s almost awe-inspiring. Paisley can, I suppose, be partly credited with the invention of bro-country, and for that he should take his lumps, but he’s also far beyond it. He works on so high a level no one else in country can touch him.

Tinashe featuring Schoolboy Q—“2 On”
#89

Reminiscent of early Ciara, only DJ Mustard’s production is less defined, to say nothing of Tinashe’s vocal. “Make money like an invoice” may be one of the dumbest lines I’ve heard all year, and that’s saying something. Schoolboy Q is on here, too, though I find it hard to remember just where.

Brantley Gilbert—“17 Again”
#90

On his last record to chart, “My Baby’s Guns ‘n’ Roses”, Gilbert rhymed “pretty” with “Paradise City”. On “17 Again” he rhymes “pretty” with “Panama City”. But wait! Last time “pretty” came before “city. This time it comes after. Is there no end to the man’s inventiveness?

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Remember When Iggy Meant Pop?
Hot 100 Roundup—5/17/14

Arianna Grande featuring Iggy Azalea—“Problem”
#3

Produced by Max Martin, and in the great Swedish pop tradition this is catchy as hell while making no sense whatsoever. Or, to put it in the form of a question: why is the whispering voice on the chorus male? Isn’t Grande the one who’s happy to be rid of the guy? If the feeling is mutual, why isn’t that indicated somewhere in the lyric? This is a kiss-off song where it’s impossible to determine who’s kissing off who. And why is the unbearable Iggy Azalea on here at all? Catchy as hell, though.

Michael Jackson & Justin Timberlake—“Love Never Felt So Good”
#20

Fine for what it is, and it’s certainly not an embarrassment, but you can understand why Jackson didn’t finish the song. People have been comparing this to the sound of Off the Wall, but it feels even older than that, and if Jackson had been presented with this song in 1979, he still wouldn’t have recorded it. It’s well-made fluff, at best, exactly the thing you’d expect from a lifetime hack like Paul Anka. It was generous of Jackson to even consider recording it.

Coldplay—“A Sky Full of Stars”
#24

Ordinary EDM. So ordinary, in fact, it should have been credited to Avicii featuring Chris Martin. Eno to Avicii; talk about lowering your ambitions.

Jason Derulo featuring Snoop Dogg—“Wiggle”
#68

“Talk Dirty” is fun. This is less fun, built as it is on old funk cliches and even older jokes. The only bright spot is Snoop’s rap, which is dirtier than Derulo could ever imagine being.

Christina Grimmie—“Hold On, We’re Going Home”
#74

Enrique Iglesias featuring Descemer Bueno & Gente Zona—“Bailando”
#81

It’s hard not to wonder how long Iglesias’s career can survive on songs featuring singers who are far better than he is. This is the third in a row, and it’s a good one, but Iglesias is starting to seem like the host of a variety show who does a turn with each of his guests (who are polite enough not to outshine their host too much). Here the guest is Descemer Bueno, who sounds like a Latin Rick Ross, only with a more supple flow. Very nice overall, but how much of that is due to Iglesias himself is impossible to say.

Brantley Gilbert—“My Baby’s Guns N’ Roses”
#87

There was just the slightest chance earlier this year that Luke Bryan would replace Gilbert as my least favorite country artist. No more. Do you think Gilbert knows that “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” was a cover? He sounds like the kind of guy who doesn’t.

Iggy Azalea—“Work”
#88

Hard work and suffering are worthy of respect, but they don’t guarantee quality. Ever.

Blake Shelton featuring Gwen Sebastian—“My Eyes”
#97

Shelton’s best since “Boys Round Here”, which isn’t saying much to say the least. At least he doesn’t sound as full of himself as usual. Gwen Sebastian, despite her inexplicable featuring credit, does nothing but provide some harmonies on the final chorus. Wonder what she did to deserve that sort of visibility.

Craig Campbell—“Keep Them Kisses Comin’”
#99

You can almost heat the conveyer belt grinding along on this one.

Katy Tiz—“The Big Bang”
#100

I would be happier about the return to the charts of the production team Rock Mafia, who were responsible for most of the best Disney pop of the late oughts, if “The Big Bang” didn’t hail from roughly the same time. The original version was released in 2010, spent a couple of weeks on the Hot 100, and since then has been used in various commercials (including, of course, for The Big Bang Theory), TV shows, and movies. Now they’ve reworked it for a British up and comer. The reworking is good enough, but haven’t they written anything else in the last four years? They’re producing Tiz’s album, so I guess we’ll see, but I’m not hopeful.

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Fluffer Than Fluff
Hot 100 Roundup—5/10/14

Avril Lavigne—“Hello Kitty”
#75

Unless you believe that copying or borrowing elements from a foreign culture for the purpose of creating art or entertainment is racist—a broadening of the term that renders it almost meaningless and smears every artist who has ever lived—there is nothing racist about this song or its video. Stupid it may be, perhaps even offensive, but it isn’t racist. I also don’t have a problem with Lavigne and her husband, Chad Kroeger of Nickelback, known and celebrated heterosexuals, creating a record that’s essentially a leering peek at experimental lesbianism among teenage girls. That’s their right. But what seems to be left out of every account I’ve read is the fact that “Hello Kitty” is Lavigne’s best record since “Girlfriend”, and it may be even better. Funny how all the people who defend pop get so upset about a record as bright and energetic as this one when it says, or seems to say, things they don’t like. It’s just like democracy: everybody thinks it’s a great idea until they find out what the other people are voting for.

Josh Kaufman—“Stay With Me”
#92

Chris Young—“Who I Am With You”, #94
Billy Currington—“We Are Tonight”, #96
Joe Nichols—“Yeah”, #98
Craig Morgan—“Wake Up Lovin’ You”, #99

Four more pieces of product from the Nashville factory, and the only reason I can tell them apart is because I have no choice; there’s one or two of these nearly every week, and I’ve learned to spot the subtle, meaningless differences that make them distinguishable to the cognoscenti of the country version of yacht rock. Currington, who has been at this longer than the others, tries to stretch the boundaries of the form a little, at least musically, which only makes him sound more ridiculous. Otherwise, though each of these records has its moments, the overall effect is of formula correctly and unimaginatively applied and little else. And that’s being extremely generous.

MAGIC!—“Rude”
#97

No, this piece of fluffy reggae isn’t a Police rip-off, or even a Train rip-off—it’s a Vampire Weekend rip-off. It is, in fact, so exact an imitation that there are moments when I wonder if VW aren’t playing some sort trick on us. But if you’re one of those people who think Vampire Weekend represent the voice of privilege, wait until you hear these guys. They’re so self-involved they think anyone who dares to say no to them is being “rude”. They also think they’re cute and clever as hell and that those things matter. I do like the guitar solo, which makes the “rude” father sound like the parents in a Peanuts cartoon, but that’s all I like.

Future featuring Kanye West—“I Won”
#100

Called “I Won” because Drake nabbed “Trophies” first, and it sounds like a runner-up as well. Treating women as trophies is a step up from a lot of rap, but it’s still sexism, if slightly more tolerable (and barely that). This mess reveals Future’s autotuned “poor me” vocal style for the hypocrisy it mostly is, and West does nothing more than crack jokes and talk about his wife as if she’s a pet rather than a partner. The music’s mediocre, too.

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They Got a Sayin’
Hot 100 Roundup—5/3/14

Lana Del Rey—“West Coast”
#17

My difficulties with Del Rey revolve around performance rather than concept. Her intelligence is as obvious as her lack of vocal talent, and the music she places around her voice is smart but often overdone, low-key but lush and melodramatic at the same time. “West Coast” solves most of those problems. Beefing up her vocals with the help of echo, double tracking, and harmony allows her to sound less waiflike while maintaining a sense of exhausted vulnerability. It also allows her to shape denser, more interesting arrangements. This opens with a dub drumroll, shifts into a noirish, electronic drone on the verses, and then into a spaghetti western backdrop on the chorus. I still have doubts about her washed-out sexuality and the feeling of submission it creates, but it makes a lot more sense with this music than it did before.

One Direction—“You & I”
#68

A decent power ballad, though their lyrics often stretch their metaphors into the ridiculous (“I see what it’s like for day and night/Never together/Cause they see things in a different light”). Do they take these things seriously, or do they take turns laughing at their audience when they’re not taking turns at the mic? Hard to say, though it’s nice to know they’re thinking, for what that’s worth.

OneRepublic—“Love Runs Out”
#81

The hollow sound of drums beating in an emotional and intellectual vacuum. Plus shouting. They will do this until the love runs out. Shoot me now.

Coldplay—“Midnight”
#84

On first listen, from a distance, this sounds like the best thing Coldplay has ever done: moody, tight, emotionally wasted. Closer inspection reveals the usual borrowed musical ideas and vague lyrics. Chris Martin would appear to be afraid of the dark. Still better than I ever expected from them.

Lee Brice—“I Don’t Dance”
#89

This sounds good, quieter and more subtle than the norm in bro-country, and Brice’s voice is fine. But he sings about being in love the same way he sang about his dead brother in “I Drive Your Truck”: with stolid seriousness and self-importance. Since the title conjures up fond memories of Tom T. Hall’s (and Graham Parson’s) “I Can’t Dance”, the thudding tempo here seems even more of a mistake. Being in love is about being alive; so why does Brice sound like he’s going to a funeral?

Nico & Vinz—“Am I Wrong”
#91

A couple of black guys from Norway, formerly known as Envy, cobble together a pastiche of Senegalese rhythms and riffs, write a bunch of banal lyrics to go over the top, which one of them sings as stiffly as possible. It’s the Swedish House Mafia formula all over again, though the rhythms make up for a lot. A number two record all over Scandinavia, though I wouldn’t look for the same thing here.

Wiz Khalifa—“We Dem Boyz”
#92

More of a chant with vocal asides than a rap, and more boring than not. It’s not a bad chant, but it wears down fast, and the asides say nothing new and then some. Oh, and the response vocals in the background are really stupid. Think maybe it’s the dope?

Dustin Lynch—“Where It’s At”
#94

A slightly above average song of marital—or at least connubial—bliss, but not so far above average as you’d notice.

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Bring Out the Big Balloons!
Hot 100 Roundup—4/26/14

Ed Sheeran—“Sing”
#15

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 for that.

Pitbull featuring Jennifer Lopez and Claudia Leitte—“We Are One (Ole Ola)”
#88

A made-for-World-Cup anthem with pre-fab stadium chanting and just enough flashes of energy to keep you listening. Things sag mightily when Jennifer Lopez slides up to the mic, but rebound thanks to Claudia Leitte, who even outdoes Pitbull in the energy department (wish they’d given her more space). Pitbull, in fact, sounds somewhat restrained. He’s much happier claiming to own the world than trying to unify its various peoples, though he does his best to sound interested. As World Cup anthems go, not terrible, though I know that’s not saying much.

KCamp featuring 2 Chainz—“Cut Her Off”
#89

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. This paradox is the real problem. Or a large part of the problem, anyway. Why would they give up a way of thinking that gives their life 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.

Katy Perry—“Birthday”
#91

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.

Bastille—“Bad Blood”
#95

I can do without the tribal chanting and the Tarzan yells, but at least here they signify something, i.e., the hold that childhood experiences and friendships and grudges can hold on us, at least into our mid-twenties. Once you get older, though, those things fall away, as these guys will learn soon enough. And then what will they think of this well-crafted, not particularly deep attempt at art? A little embarrassed, I bet, but not too much. After all, what it really expresses is a desire to be older and wiser and free of those childhood connections. All worthy goals. Maybe rock bands can grow up, after all.

will.i.am featuring Miley Cyrus, French Montana, Wiz Khalifa, and DJ Mustard—“Feelin’ Myself”
#96

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.

Ingrid Michaelson—“Girls Chase Boys”
#98

When Michaelson 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 of expanding like Jepsen’s song did—but then what is?

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[How Did I Post This Without A Headline?]
Hot 100 Roundup—4/19/14

5 Seconds of Summer—“She Looks So Perfect”
#60

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.

Sam Smith—“Stay With Me”
#68

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 multitide 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.

KONGOS—“Come With Me Now”
#98

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, though, 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, some 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.

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Insanity, Fever, Drugs, and Other Lies
Hot 100 Roundup—4/12/14

Shakira—“Empire”
#58

“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.

Lady Gaga—“G.U.Y.”
#76

You can hear elements of her great past—hints of “Bad Romance”, her flair for hooks and dance rhythms—but this is like a ghost of Gaga’s old self. The talent and craft are still there, but it’s hard to tell where her passion lies anymore. Not in creating cohesive pop songs, that’s for sure.

The Black Keys—“Fever”
#77

Cut the length by about half (mostly by removing the last minute or so), remove most of the vocals and mix the organ up (yes, even higher up), and you could have the garage instrumental of The Black Keys’s dreams. Or maybe nightmares, which might explain why they screwed up a good idea so badly. Deep in their hearts they know what they’re doing is trash, but they’re too intellectualized to admit it.

Rixton—“Me and My Broken Heart”
#87

Now that OneRepublic has become tolerable and The Fray and The Script have essentially disappeared, somebody had to step in and fill the vapidity gap. Ladies and gentlemen, meet Rixton.

B.o.B. featuring Priscilla—“John Doe”
#89

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 enough thing to do, but also a calculated career move. 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. It’s a misdemeanor at worst, but it still looks bad.

Jake Owen—“Beachin’”
#94

Properly arranged, the chorus here could be worthy of the Beach Boys. It isn’t properly arranged, though—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.

Tyler Farr—“Whiskey In My Water”
#98

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.

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