Got Buns?
Hot 100 Roundup—8/23/14

Nicki Minaj—“Anaconda”

In pop terms, “Anaconda” is Minaj’s best record since “Superbass”. It doesn’t have the same highs, but it isn’t an unstructured mess or a sentimental wallow like most of the records before it. And even if she had to steal it from Sir Mix-a-lot, “Anaconda” has a great hook. But what really matters is the words. Unlike every other rapper to make the chart this year—and I mean literally every other rapper—Minaj tells stories and creates characters, characters who aren’t her and have real names and maybe even lives. Troy from Detroit and Michael with his motorcycles may not have much depth—all we really know about them are their sexual proclivities and the size of their equipment—but they feel real. The most important character, though, is the one Minaj creates for herself to play: the woman with the big ass who knows how to use it to get what she wants and harbors no confusion as to what that is. What she wants may not seem like much, but turning a hunk of leering raunch like “Baby’s Got Back” to your advantage by making the men who swear by it live up to their boasts is a real achievement. It levels the playing field in all sorts of ways, not just sexual.

Jack & Jack—“Wild Life”

Every time a white guy or group scores a rap hit, people shout about Caucasians taking over hip-hop, but the industry is so bad at follow-up that I guarantee it’s never going to happen. Somewhere on the planet is a record executive who think these guys could be the next Macklemore. They’re actually worse, if such a thing is possible. I mean, even Macklemore never resorted to lame hashtag rap, animal noises, and tampon jokes (though I wouldn’t put it past him). Jack & Jack are too stupid to be a threat to anything, except maybe the career of the idiot who signed them.

Pitbull featuring John Ryan—“Fireball”

People who hate the EDM version of Pitbull might consider this a step in the right direction, but to me it feels like he’s moving backwards. That he should come up with a new take on the “Tequila” blueprint is no great surprise, but that he should play it so softly, so old school, is. His more recent records had an insane, in your face quality that made me admire them even when I hated them (which I rarely did). Most of those singles flopped, though, while the relatively softer, and even melodic, “Timber” was a big hit, so now he’s playing it safe. It’s worth pointing out, however, that to Pitbull these distinctions are meaningless, if he even bothers to think about them at all. What he cares about are hooks, and he probably doesn’t worry about the style of music that’s attached to them as long as it’s got a good beat. In its way, it makes him more broadminded musically, and more stylistically diverse, than anyone else on the charts. That’s not the only reason critics hate him so much, but I can’t help but wonder if it isn’t part of the mix. P.S. Based on this scant evidence, it appears that John Ryan can sing. Where’s his record?

Eric Church—“Cold One”

It’s fun, but maybe too much fun, or too heavy-handed of fun. “Cold One” is built on a good joke, but it’s a slight joke, and the music pummels it into the ground.

T.I. featuring Young Thug—“About the Money”

Just like Eminem, T.I. seems more interested in the technical side of rap these days, in creating an impressive, death-defying flow completely devoid of, or detached from, content. He succeeds at it, too, but what exactly does that success mean? I can’t understand what he’s saying, and I bet he isn’t saying much anyway. Since the whole idea is to leave his competitors in the dust, with nothing to follow, this will have zero influence on upcoming rappers. At least he seems to be enjoying himself.

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Pop Guns
Hot 100 Roundup—8/16/14

Jessie J, Ariana Grande, Nicki Minaj—“Bang Bang”

Jessie J’s voice doesn’t just grate, it stabs deep into your brain, making your extremities twitch and probably causing impotence. Arianna Grande, though she has plenty of defenders and the effect is much less harmful, isn’t much of an improvement (she doesn’t do Christina Aguilera any better than she does Mariah Carey). That leaves Nicki Minaj to hold “Bang Bang” together, which, amazingly enough, she does. When she’s on even the overblown arrangement makes sense. The best line comes when Minaj warns Jessie J. and Grande to stand back and watch themselves. She’s just being polite, though. If it were me I’d tell them to go away completely.

Maroon 5—“It Was Always You”

A couple of years ago, when Maroon 5 sampled Amadou and Mariam’s “Sabali” on “Wipe Your Eyes”, I shrugged it off as a fluke. The track was co-produced by J.R. Rotem, who is notorious for building songs around the most obvious and catchiest of samples, making them seem more like remixes than original songs. Now, though, since “It Was Always You” is so obviously an attempt to recreate Amadou and Mariam’s sound in an American pop context, I’m wondering if it wasn’t a statement of intent. It isn’t just that Levine’s vocals are patterned after Mariam’s (it goes a long way toward explaining how his singing has changed over the last couple of years), but that the rhythm track carries a distinctive Malian influence as well. Being the lunkheads they are, Maroon 5 don’t come close to the grace or rhythmic complexity of the originals (not to mention Amadou’s guitar), and the lyrics are as dumb as always, but I give them credit for trying. Now maybe Levine could perform a greater service and get Amadou and Mariam a guest spot on The Voice and let America hear what real singing sounds like.

Maddie & Tae—“Girl In A Country Song”

I love the idea behind it, but I wish “Girl In A Country Song” was a little more angry and a little less hokey. The spoken introduction cheapens their message before they even get started, their little stabs at comedy are dumb, and the giggle at the end makes it sound as if they’re merely exchanging one stereotype for another. That shot at “Redneck Crazy” is long overdue, though, and it’s almost impossible to dislike this. But I doubt we’ll ever hear from them again.

Hilary Duff—“Chasing the Sun”

Didn’t Paris Hilton already do this? And better?

Katy Perry—“This Is How We Do”

Even before Perry’s attempt at stand-up comedy “This is How We Do” was easily her worst single: a celebration of hedonism so exhausted and mindless that it sounds like it was recorded at the beginning of a three day binge. The comedy bits, however, take it into an entirely deeper realm of badness, the fourth or fifth level of pop hell, though not the very bottom of the pit. The bottom is reached when she asks to bring the beat back as if she were requesting an extra towel from the pool boy just because she can, not because she plans on swimming.

Bobby Shmurda—“Hot Nigga”

Really? Then how come I’m not feeling any heat?

Rae Sremmurd—“No Flex Zone!!”

Tilt the the rhythm far enough off-center and just about any phrase can become a hook; the more irritating the sound the deeper it bites. That doesn’t mean you have anything worthwhile to say, just that you have a minor gift for a catchy turn of phrase. At least this time.

Rita Ora—“I Will Never Let You Down”

The arrangement isn’t bad—it has a slinky quality, and at least it doesn’t beat you relentlessly over the head—but Rita Ora is such a non-presence it barely matters. “I Will Never Let You Down” does everything it’s supposed to do but make an impression.

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Cow Juice Opportunity?
Hot 100 Roundup—8/9/14

Jason Aldean—“Burnin’ It Down”

This is the most tolerable Aldean has ever been. He isn’t shouting or boasting or laying on too much schmaltz, and his hip hop influences, for the first time, sound integral instead of tacked on. Mind you, he still sounds stolid, and he’s still just singing about how much he loves sex, and while he’s been getting his R&B right others, like Brad Paisley, have moved on to EDM, but for Aldean this is a huge accomplishment. I’m almost proud of him.

Drake—“0 To 100 / The Catch Up”

Michelangelo Matos said it best: “Drake raps like he’s in business school.” Oddly enough, though, that may be a large part of his appeal. He doesn’t have a dominating or particularly distinctive voice or flow, but he makes up for it by presenting himself as a simple conversationalist; his raps just sound like someone talking, and the rhythmic patterns are so subtle as to be almost invisible. It’s an achievement in technical terms, whether you care for it or not. Like the world’s worst party guest, however, his conversation has only one subject–how’s Drake feeling–and his self-absorption and mansplaining get boring fast. It would be interesting to hear him apply his style to a subject other than himself. If he could learn to be a storyteller rather than a monologist, he might become as great an artist as he thinks he is.

Troye Sivan—“Happy Little Pill”

Another YouTube sensation—not that I should have to tell you, since the blandness of his music and the banality of his lyrics are an easy tip off. If this is what passes for social commentary on the internet, we’re all going to need more than one happy little pill. And we’re going to need a hell of a lot of booze to wash them down with.

Milky Chance—“Stolen Dance”

Their name should be enough of a hint, but even without knowing they’re German it’s obvious English isn’t Milky Chance’s first language: the vocal rhythms and inflections are off when they aren’t blatant imitations of other records (“do the boogie all night long”), and their accents are subdued but hardly hidden. This makes the blandness of “Stolen Dance” seem more interesting than it actually is, though not by much. There will be no Gotye aus Deutschland this year.

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All Grammar and Syntax Weird Al Approved
Hot 100 Roundup—8/2/14

5 Seconds of Summer—“Everything I Didn’t Say”

This is where 5 Seconds of Summer’s love of late 90s emo comes to the fore, and of course it’s their worst, not because of the influence, but because “Everything I Didn’t Say” (including the title) never rises above it. I’d swear they’re better than this, but this record makes me doubt that belief more than ever.

Weird Al Yankovic—“Word Crimes”

Sometimes I get the feeling that Yankovic is praised as highly as he is simply because he exists: no one else does this sort of Mad magazine-style parody anymore, and Yankovic is good at it; often better, in fact, than Mad itself ever was (though someone should make the effort, when praising Yankovic, to mention the obvious influence of Mad’s poetry parodist, Frank Jacobs). “Word Crimes” is funny in spots, and it’s nice that Yankovic has found a different group of nerds to make fun of and patronize (copy editors and proofreaders, now there’s a giant demographic), but the laughs mostly come from recognition, not from any twist that Yankovic puts on the references. And his parody never extends to the music itself: the tracks are so faithful to the originals that they add nothing to the humor. I’ve always balked at calling Yankovic a satirist, but now I’m not even sure he’s a parodist; this is comedy karaoke if it’s anything at all.

Luke Bryan—“Roller Coaster”

A country groove so steady amd so bland it reveals Bryan’s greatest weakness: his voice (that and his love of deathless cliche, but he’s hardly the only country singer with that problem). His vocals lack depth, don’t contain much resonance, and seem incapable of any real emotion. Not that his songs call for any of those things, of course.

Rich Gang featuring Young Thug and Rich Homie Quan—“Lifestyle”

In this autotuned age, who am I to complain if Rich Gang want to rap in voices that make them sound like drunken seven year-olds? It’s as good a way as any to get attention, and sometimes it’s even funny. I draw the line however, when they use those voices to give feminine hygiene advice to women they obviously hate (i.e., all of them). These are not the sort of guys who should be talking about douches.


“Hideaway” is possibly the purest house music ever to make the charts, at least in the US, which may be causing a lot of people to praise it more highly than it deserves. This is growing on me, and I love the downplaying of passion while trying to play it cool of the lyric. Like a lot of house, though, it tends to fade into the background even when you concentrate on it, at least for me. As for Kiesza herself, I’m reserving judgement. There are times when her vocals are perfect, but others when she seems like just another competent house vocalist and little more.

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Empowerment With a Giggle
Hot 100 Roundup—7/26/14

It’s theme week: two country songs about dirt and dust (and titled as such), and three about female self-image and self-empowerment (four if you count Echosmith, and you might even include John Legend, though he’s just buttering his lady up and it’s hard to tell how much he means it). Even though Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass” is the only one worth hearing more than twice, I don’t take a week like this lightly. It means something, even if that something is as vague as the idea that some people are starting to think harder about certain things. It also means something not because of the songs themselves, but because for this one week at least, they’re among the 100 most popular songs in the country (give or take a few, depending on how much you trust Billboard’s chart formula), which means that for a large number of people, at least for a moment, these messages are registering and getting across. There are all sorts of caveats that need to be attached to that idea (Colbie Callait, for instance, has enough fans to guarantee chart placement no matter what her songs are about or whether people even listen to them more than once; how many of her fans appreciate her message is open to question, especially since the song has already dropped off the chart), but it matters all the same. I don’t much like writing about music as sociology, but the Hot 100, for all it’s flaws, is one of the best barometers we’ve got. So even if I don’t care for most of the music, this week makes me hopeful.

Florida Georgia Line—“Dirt”

From dirt they came and to dirt they shall return. And as goddamn soon as possible, please.

Fifth Harmony—“Bo$$”

A good idea for a song, but except for the bridge this is so repetitive it kills it’s own message. There are a lot more independent black women out there than Oprah Winfrey and Michelle Obama, and just think what a great hook could be built out of listing them. Names, ladies, we need names!

John Legend—“You & I (Nobody In the World)”

In some ways this is more interesting than “All Of Me”: more enticing rhythmically, with more variety and maybe even emotion. But Legend is a guy who seems to make up his songs as he goes along, probably in his sleep, and if he can’t even wake himself up why should anyone else bother?

Colbie Caillat—“Try”

Word is that Colbie Caillat loves “All About That Bass”, and it’s a shame she couldn’t have heard it before she recorded this piece of overly earnest self-acceptance, especially since her colleagues on the adult contemporary chart have been outdoing themselves this year. She’s always lacked humor (she faked it with charm), but who knew she took herself this seriously? Or could be this dull?

Meghan Trainor—“All About That Bass”

Her favorite genres of music are soca, fifties rock and roll, and doo-wop. She played in her father’s jazz band as a kid, and got her start in the biz writing for Rascal Flatts. She’s got attitude to spare, but knows how to be silly. Her hooks glide and cascade and will bounce around inside your head forever. In other words, if she can keep her current trajectory and find the right collaborators, Meghan Trainor could be the Kirsty MacColl of her generation, and I don’t know why anyone would complain about that. To actually pull off a pop confection like this is an amazing thing, involving the alignment of the planets and the interference of the gods. Complain people do, though. Yes, it’s a little showtuney, but since the show is Hairspray, so what? And I actually like the fact that the bass isn’t overwhelming—it puts the emphasis on her voice and the body it emanates from. Worst of all are the false comparisons between this and Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda”, and the suggestion that “All About That Bass” was somehow designed to keep Minaj off the charts. Coincidence isn’t conspiracy, and anyone who believes it is is destined for a deeply unhappy existence. As is anyone who can’t appreciate this record for what it is, instead of projecting their own prejudiced principles on it or wishing it would go away.

Echosmith—“Cool Kids”

Comparisons to Lorde are too easy with these guys, and, except for the vocals, totally beside the point. Cheap irony like this is beneath Lorde, and she’s way beyond caring about who’s cool and who isn’t. She has no interest in rehashing the nineties or Foster the People, either. Most of all, her music is barely touched by self-pity, whereas Echosmith are interested in nothing else. They’ll really have something to feel bad about when their fifteen minutes are up.

Migos—“Fight Night”

The simple genius of a track like “Versace” is something most groups are lucky to achieve even once, so it’s no surprise that the follow-up is packed with dumb sound effects, endless, boring raps, and crudely violent sexual metaphors. Needless to say, “Fight Night” is now the bigger hit of the two. And with that feng shui reference I’m now beginning to wonder if “Versace” was the joke I thought it was. They aren’t as smart as I thought, that’s for sure.

Eli Young Band—“Dust”

I still think Young has promise, but you’d never know it by this pale Tom Petty imitation. Even paler than Petty, if you can imagine such a thing.

Frankie Ballard—“Sunshine & Whiskey”

I liked Ballard’s last single, “Helluva Life”, but this is way too cute for its own good, especially the second verse. He sound as if he thinks far too highly of himself, and he hasn’t done enough yet to deserve even that, much less our admiration.

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Promises Promises
Hot 100 Roundup—7/19/14

Ariana Grande featuring Zedd—“Break Free”

If Grande wants to be the second coming of Mariah Carey (or third, since the second was Mariah herself), I’d prefer she take her business elsewhere. But if she decides to become an EDM diva instead, I’m all for it. It would be an ambition more in line with her talents, for one thing; and it would match her up with people like Zedd, who really outdoes himself here. It would also, one hopes, keep her away from the icy grip of people like Ryan Tedder. The only flaw in “Break Free” is that just as it gets really crazy it comes to a sudden halt, and instead of a false ending followed by a jump back into the chorus it’s the end of the record. Here’s hoping for an extended mix that rights this mistake.

5 Seconds of Summer—“Amnesia”

Always figured their power ballad was just around the corner, but “Amnesia” is nowhere near as horrible as I feared, at least in terms of what it could have been. It’s still fairly horrible, though. The main problem is the same one that afflicts all their records: throwing everything they can at the songs at as high a volume as possible. In terms of arrangement and production they never shut up, and they never stop shouting. So why do I keep giving them the benefit of the doubt? Because every once in a while they hit on something real—a hook, a bit of melody, a decent line or two—and there’s a moment like that in almost every record. Maybe I’m just fooling myself, but I’d swear that somebody involved has actual talent.

Trey Songz—“Foreign”

“Foreign” is essentially Jason Derulo’s “Talk Dirty” with all the hooks and fun removed. Where Derulo is stupid and offensive in a fun way, Trey Songz is just offensive. “Foreign” is like a one-man argument against immigration reform: if we let foreign ladies in, Songz will force them to twerk to his boring beats and fulfill his cliche sexual fantasies. Better for everybody if they just stay home.

Chris Brown featuring Usher & Rick Ross—“New Flame”

Another good beat from, or discovered by, Brown, and it sounds especially great when Usher is singing over it. “New Flame” even makes Rick Ross sound good. But Brown himself makes no real vocal impression and basically disappears from his own record. If the courts really want to get some community service out of Brown, they should sentence him to finding beats and songs and producing new singers who are better than he is. That would be of far more value than picking up trash or whatever else they’ve been trying to make him do.

Busta Rhymes featuring Eminem—“Calm Down”

Two oldsters proving they not only still have the flow but the energy to propel it. If anybody else comes up with anything near as technically, gobsmackingly accomplished this year he or she will be the rap god Eminem claims to be. Proficiency aside, however, these guys are still lost in the nineties. Rhymes actually uses the word fahrvergnügen, while Eminem quotes “Jump Around”. The closest thing to a contemporary reference is Eminem calling out Clive Davis over Davis’s memoir. Why pick a fight with a guy forty years older than he is? Because Eminem knows damn well that nobody younger than him is paying any attention.

Iggy Azalea featuring Rita Ora—“Black Widow”

Rita Ora’s hook is decent, though nowhere near as good as Charli XCX’s on “Fancy”, and Azalea’s vocals are less irritating than her previous records, and that’s about all there is to say. Except that my feelings about Azalea’s records echo almost exactly my feelings about Lady Gaga’s first couple of singles, so I feel as if I should hedge my bets a bit on Azalea’s ultimate worth. Whether or not Azalea has a “Bad Romance” or even a “Paparazzi” in her is open to question. I do know this much, though: no matter how flamboyant her costumes or her music, Gaga always sings like herself, where Azalea’s voice is nothing but imitation. It’s as if she can’t tell the difference between herself and her outfits. Gaga would never make that mistake.

Afrojack featuring Wrabel—“Ten Feet Tall”

Zedd with Ariana Grande is EDM with intent, and even if you don’t like those intentions it’s worth something. Afrojack with Wrabel (who?) is EDM as product, and even if people pay for it it’s worthless.

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Some Weeks Just Don’t Deserve a Headline
Hot 100 Roundup—7/12/14

Shawn Mendes—“Life Of the Party”

A fifteen year-old Canadian who jumpstarted his career posting six-second covers of pop hits on Vine delivers a lyrically cliche-ridden party song converted into a dubsteppy self-actualization power ballad. Who knew the end of the world was so near?

Robin Thicke—“Get Her Back”

For Thicke, this is a return to standard form after the quirk success of “Blurred Lines” (which was barely Thicke’s record to begin with). The repetitiveness of the lyric makes his desperation believable, and conceptually “Get Her Back” is as good as any record he’s made. But it goes nowhere. That may partly be the point, but it doesn’t make for a very enjoyable record. Which it doesn’t have to be. But it’s missing something all the same.

Jeremih featuring YG—“Don’t Tell ‘Em”

Music aside—which is OK, though DJ Mustard gets less spicy every time out—this is as tiresome as current hip hop gets. What bothers me most, though, is the recurring motif of guys urging their women not to tell anybody that they get together. Since they spend a good deal of time bragging about putting one over on the other guy or their other women, fear of being caught cheating is probably the least of it. Whatever the reason, it’s just another form of manipulation and power play. It’s about as far from love, or even lust, as you can get, though the songs are usually presented as being about both. It’s an unhealthy state of affairs (no pun intended) all around, and “Don’t Tell ‘Em” is unhealthier than most.

Vance Joy—“Riptide”

Hey, babe, sit still while I mansplain my love for you. To summarize: you’re hot, dumb, and remind me of Michelle Pfeiffer. And hey, ain’t I cute?

Sam Hunt—“Leave the Night On”

Better than average bro-country, with decent lyrics and a reference to Train that’s smarter than anything the guys in Train itself have ever come up with. Still, it is a Train reference, and though Hunt skirts the edge of bro-country cliche he doesn’t avoid it either. So let’s call him promising and wait to see what he does next time.

Ca$h Out—“She Twerkin”

All styles exhaust themselves eventually, but this particular type of rap seems too new to have been drained already. Unless, of course, there wasn’t much to it to begin with. I don’t think it’s Ca$h Out, because in spite of the overall weakness of the track, he comes up with some decent, clever rhymes. He has nothing new to say, though, and the music and the pace drag everything down.

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Yes Mediocre
Hot 100 Roundup—7/5/14

Maroon 5—“Maps”

Adam Levine is no longer a vocalist, he’s a special effect designed to get the maximum amount of attention by sounding both human and machine-like (synthesizer-like really) at the same time. This is perfect for Maroon 5, since their records always sound less like songs than machine-made imitations of songs. Here they imitate the Police, who in comparison sound like the Beatles. There’s not a single moment of inventiveness or good feeling in this record, just the usual calculation. They may as well be machines.

5 Seconds of Summer—“Kiss Me Kiss Me”

Kitchen-sink pop, where they throw everything they can at an average hook and distinctly below-average verses. It all makes a loud, grating noise as it lands, too.

Ed Sheeran—“Afire Love”

“Don’t” is Sheeran’s best record so far; “Afire Love” is his worst. Does he really believe he’s honoring his grandfather and his family by putting out this self-pitying, sentimental tripe?

T.I. featuring Iggy Azalea—“No Mediocre”

In order to meet T.I.’s standards, there are, apparently, two criteria: a woman has to be above mediocre, i.e., a “bad bitch”, and she has to shave her pussy. The first criteria is so vague as to be meaninglessness, the second so specific it’s idiotic (and no, I don’t care if Iggy Azalea meets either one). Of course, T.I. doesn’t mean any of it. He’s just being silly in his usual dumbshit manner. I blame reality television, but it’s also possible prison messed him up. Whatever the case, he’s a lost cause.

Kenny Chesney—“American Kids”

Chesney wants to be more than just a country star, he wants to say something, to be an artist, so he wisely brings in songwriting pros like Shane McAnally to lend a hand. It helps, but it doesn’t change the fact that Chesney’s idea of an artist to emulate is John Mellencamp. There are worse models, but there are also far better ones. “American Kids” is a step up for Chesney, but it’s hardly a masterpiece. Sure is catchy, though, especially the parts stolen directly from Mellencamp.

Jennifer Lopez—“First Love”

If this had been released in, say, 2006 or 2007—that is, at around the same time as the Amerie record it rips off for its verses—it might have been a hit. Now it doesn’t stand a chance. “First Love” isn’t bad; in fact, coming from Lopez it’s a pleasant surprise. But it doesn’t add up to much, and nothing is going to revive Lopez’s pop career at this stage. I mean, if Mariah Carey can’t do it…

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Hot 100 Roundup—6/28/14

PSY featuring Snoop Dogg—“Hangover”

The main thing wrong with “Hangover” is the thing that takes up the most space: Snoop Dogg. It’s not that his rap is bad—it has a couple of decent moments—but Snoop’s blunted, laid back flow doesn’t fit with PSY’s speed-freak style. Whether he was imposed on PSY by the label or it was just an idea that didn’t work out, Snoop’s presence ruins what is otherwise a brilliant record. If they had to match PSY up with an established rapper, couldn’t they have found someone who would have been a better fit, like Twista or Busta Rhymes? Better yet, PSY should have done it all himself. This is a great track wasted.

Ed Sheeran—“Don’t”

At last Sheeran comes up with a record worth listening to more than once. Funky enough to pass, with a great hook, and the title clevery buried in the mix. The story is suggestive enough to keep gossip mongers guessing (he swears it’s not about Taylor Swift), but holds interest even without speculation. “Don’t” also contains what may be the best line Sheeran will ever write: “I never saw him as a threat/Until you disappeared with him to have sex, of course”. There may be hope for him yet.

Brantley Gilbert featuring Justin Moore and Thomas Rhett—“Small Town Throwdown”

I can’t stand Gilbert, and the way he treats his voice I may not have to listen to him much longer, but this is a decent record, helped big time by a slightly retooled Aerosmith riff. Maybe Gilbert’s taste in metal is getting better, or maybe he’s getting better. Then again, Thomas Rhett is credited on this but doesn’t sing, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s the one who does the riffing. So maybe nothing has changed and Gilbert just got lucky.

Clean Bandit featuring Jess Glynne—“Rather Be”

Everytime I concentrate on this it sounds OK, but when I don’t concentrate it disappears. I’ve listened to it seven or eight times and still can’t conjure any of it up from memory. That doesn’t make it bad, just absent. Absent, though, is not how you want a pop record to sound. Is it?

Cole Swindell—“Hope you Get Lonely Tonight”

Another well-made mediocrity. Country bros on.

Jamie N Commons & X Ambassadors—“Jungle”

It’s obvious X Ambassadors have never been in a jungle—tropical, urban, or otherwise—so they overcompensate with the biggest beats they can muster and shout out their hooks as if their listeners were deaf. There’s a lot of this sort of melodrama going on this year; it’s one of the ways people react to cultural fragmentation. It isn’t a jungle, though. It isn’t even a zoo.

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It’s A Song About Boom
Hot 100 Roundup—6/21/14

Charli XCX—“Boom Clap”

Soundtrack fodder, reportedly a leftover from True Romance, and still better than 98% of whatever else has appeared on the chart this year. Charli XCX’s gift for hooks is amazing enough, but her gift for planting those hooks inside darker, more emotional structures is even greater, and if this is the least of her singles, that’s just makes it more evidence of how good she is. There’s nothing that can be said about this that hasn’t already been said about her previous records, and I do worry about her repeating herself, but even if she isn’t breaking new ground here that only shows how fertile that ground is. Here’s hoping that fame doesn’t ruin her.

Sam Smith—“I’m Not the Only One”

I’m guessing it’s the sob in Smith’s voice that makes so many people hate him (though in this day of careful treading, the thought of another white guy trading in older black style may have something to do with it). They seem to place him in the same slot as Roland Gift of Fine Young Cannibals or, going further back, Johnnie Ray (aka The Nabob of Sob). I’ll admit there are times when Smith’s phrasing makes me want to throw up my hands in frustration, but his material is good enough to make up for a lot of it, especially the matter-of-fact quality of the lyrics. There’s no beating around the bush in these songs, and whether they were written particularly for his voice or not, I can’t imagine anyone else singing them any other way. I also like the simplicity of his solo material (as opposed to his features on other records). He’s still learning, and he’s sticking to what he knows he can get away with. “Not the Only One” isn’t great (“Stay With Me” is far better), but it isn’t as bad as “Leave Your Lover”, not to mention most of the rest of the chart. I’m not sure he’s capable of doing anyyhing beyond this sort of emotional catharsis—a voice like his tends to limit your options—but I’d like to hear him try.

Lana Del Rey—“Ultraviolence”

Forget the dying young brew-ha-ha in the press, what’s with this “He hit me and it felt like a kiss” bullshit? This is not an homage the late Gerry Goffin would appreciate, not to mention Carole King. If Del Rey is going to plumb a noirish modern L.A. landscape, then I suppose a certain amount of sexual violence goes with it, but sexual violence is the least defensible thing about noir (you can say that the strong female characters are a form of feminism, but they’re usually villains or temptresses, which makes them, in the eyes of misogynists, deserving of any punishment that’s meted out to them; and we get, or are forced, to watch). I realize that Del Rey is creating a character, but she isn’t enough of an artist to separate herself from that character or maintain any sort of distance. If she was, her songs would be less one dimensional. Maybe she’ll get it right someday, but in the meantime, this is pouting and posing of the most oblivious sort. I don’t think she’s condoning sexual violence, at least of the non-consensual kind, but she’s having a hard time, or barely trying, to make a distinction between the two, and that’s dangerous.

Little Big Town—“Day Drinking”

Love the drum line, maybe even the whistle. Like the guitar solos, which remind me of the Beatles in their tone and texture. Don’t think much of the song or the singing. Their confidence is on a high (they probably think this is their version of “Tusk”), but they need to come up with material that matches it. They also need to align their aural gimmicks with their material. As much as I like the drum line and the whistling, they sound stuck on, not organic. A little less harshness in the production would help, as well.

Becky G—“Shower”

It has a hook, largely stolen from Rihanna’s “Umbrella”, but this goes nowhere. The problem is Becky G’s voice, which seems incapable of anything approaching ecstasy, but it’s also Dr. Luke’s production: stripped-down hip-hop is not a style that suits him.

ScHoolboy Q featuring BJ the Chicago Kid—“Studio”

The beat is decent, if nothing you haven’t heard before, but all Q does with it is moan about being stuck in the studio and wishing he were somewhere else. Specifically, he would like to be in a woman’s vagina, though he doesn’t make that sound much more exciting than being in a vocal booth. Mostly he sounds like he’s falling asleep.

Tiesto featuring Matthew Koma—“Wasted”

Considering how awful “Red Lights” is, there was no reason to expect anything worthwhile from “Wasted”, but Matthew Koma gives Tiesto a great hook, and Tiesto makes the most of it. Classic electronic music may thrive on beats and textures and repetition, but EDM thrives on hooks and pop structure, compressing those builds and beats into three minute explosions. “Wasted” is the closest anyone’s come to getting the formula right since Skrillex’s “Bangarang” (though it’s nowhere near as good). It even has decent lyrics.

Eric Paslay—“Song About A Girl”

Bro-country isn’t dead by a long shot, but this may be a sign of it’s ultimate demise, and in the best possible way. Paslay has managed a neat trick: he guarantees himself conventional notice by hoisting all the usual flags—tailgates, small towns, back roads, etc.—but maintains his individuality by denying them at the same time. “Song About A Girl” could be described as post-bro-country meta songwriting, or something like that, but the important thing is that almost every second of it works perfectly. Musically it creates a great country groove without resorting to heavy metal guitars and booming drums. The only weak spot is when Paslay gets around to describing the girl herself; we expect something original, but get nothing but more cliches. I thought Paslay showed a lot of promise on his previous single, “Friday Night”. Who knew he’d fulfill almost all of it on his very next record?

AJR—“I’m Ready”

If the old TV series Happy Days took place in the late oughts instead of the 1950s, this could be it’s theme song: cleaned up and bleached-out 3Oh3!, played purely as a reminder of old times, and patched together with no concern for coherence or substance. It’s not a song, it’s a nostalgia trigger, made up of the most obvious readymades. Isn’t it too soon for this sort of thing, though? I mean, shouldn’t they wait until the style is actually dead before they smother it in syrup?

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