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.

Posted in Hot 100, Hot 100 Roundup, new this week, singles | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off

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.

Posted in Hot 100, Hot 100 Roundup, new this week, singles | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off

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.

Posted in Hot 100, Hot 100 Roundup, new this week, singles | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off

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…

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off

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.

Posted in Hot 100, Hot 100 Roundup, new this week, singles | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off

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?

Posted in Hot 100, Hot 100 Roundup, new this week, singles | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off

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

5 Seconds Of Summer—“Good Girls”

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”

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)”

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”

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”

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”

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”

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”

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

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off

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”

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”

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”

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”

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

Lady Antbellum—“Bartender”

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”

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)”

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.

Posted in Hot 100, Hot 100 Roundup, new this week, singles | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off

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

5 Seconds of Summer—“Don’t Stop”

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”

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”

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”

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”

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”

Posted in Hot 100, Hot 100 Roundup, new this week, singles | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off

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

Usher—“Good Kisser”

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”


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”

Sara Bareilles—“I Choose You”

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”

AKA “Blurred Lines Redux: Blur More”

Brad Paisley—“River Bank”

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”

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”

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?

Posted in Hot 100, Hot 100 Roundup, top ten update | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off