Daft Punk featuring Pharrell Williams—“Get Lucky”
Good music is its own justification, and “Get Lucky” is OK, but I still find myself questioning its necessity. It’s more of a museum piece than a pop record, a careful reconstruction and distillation of everything that made disco enjoyable with all the rough edges that made it vital removed. Though I can’t exactly explain what I mean by this, to me it sounds very French. Or like smooth jazz with a beat. Even Nile Rodgers’s guitar sounds generic. And its debut in the top twenty seems like the last gasp of a movement that lost its energy long ago.
will.i.am featuring Miley Cyrus—“Fall Down”
How did I miss the fact that what will.i.am really wants to be isn’t a pop star, or even a pop empresario, but the Brian Wilson of EDM? The big influence here isn’t some piece of European minimalist disco, but Beach Boys’ records like “Good Vibrations” or Smile. Maybe I’m only realizing it now because this is the first time one of his musical collages hasn’t sounded like a cut-and-paste job designed to save a batch of disconnected ideas. Or maybe the strings tipped me off. There’s a big difference between will.i.am and Wilson, though (besides the fact that Wilson didn’t have to hire out the singing): Wilson didn’t just slap together stray parts, he thought out great parts and then meshed them into something more. Great as the combinations were, as Smiley Smile proved, even the oddest fragments could be separated from the body of the piece and still be enjoyable. The various parts of this record are improved by being heard in conjunction with the others, but not by much, and they could never stand on their own. Also, Wilson got decent lyricists to write his words for him, words that added to the music, rather than limply decorating it. This is an unfair comparison, I know, but will.i.am invites it, because his ambitions are that big, even though his talent is much smaller.
Jason Derulo—“The Other Side”
A hopeless rehash of Usher’s “DJ Got Us Fallin’ In Love” hampered by the brash mindlessness of the beat and the simple fact that DeRulo can’t sing. And I don’t mean as well as Usher. I mean he can’t sing.
Calvin Harris featuring Ellie Goulding—“I Need Your Love”
Who needs hooks when you have Ellie Goulding’s voice to work with? Baby-doll innocent one moment, Bjorkishly weird the next, breathy and sincere in between, she constantly creates tiny, micro-pitched melodies between the usual notes that are either pleasurable or irritating depending on your point of view, but captivating either way. Harris, pro that he is, throws in some hooks of his own, just for spice, and the result is the best record from him I’ve heard.
Miguel—“How Many Drinks”
This seems cold and callous at first, and it is, but it’s also respectful in its own single-minded way. Miguel is more than willing to play the game, he just wants to know what the results will be beforehand. Of course, he’s also betting that telling the truth and self-serving candor will work as a seduction technique. If I were his chosen companion, he’d probably have me at the end of the first verse, when he rhymes “get in your pants” with “am I going too fast?” But that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t want to hear the rest of his line.
Robin Thicke featuring T.I. & Pharrell—“Blurred Lines”
This is so perfectly realized that I keep thinking there must be something seriously wrong with it, but aside from a certain level of slick calculation and the usual mild sexism, I can’t find anything. Thicke and Pharrell’s voices blend so perfectly that half the time I can’t tell them apart, and the record is so beautifully constructed that it doesn’t make any difference anyway. The high-point, though, is T.I., who first nails the beat and then toys with it like a master. It’s his best rap in years.
Sean Kingston featuring Chris Brown & Wiz Khalifa—“Beat It”
Kingston is a one-shot artist who’s career was fading long before his accident, so though I respect this attempted comeback, I don’t see much chance of success, and certainly not with material as generic as this. Meanwhile, Chris Brown continues to be trapped, or to flaunt, sexual metaphors that remind us of the darkest moments of his past. He won’t just “Beat It” for you, girl, he’ll “beat it up”. Is he that callous, or that oblivious? Is there a difference? Does it even matter anymore?
As the weather warms up, so do the charts, and the result is weeks like this, with twelve debuts, and without even the excuse of a big album release or a TV singing competition (the pop-chart equivalent of steroids; they bulk you up, then they drive you insane). There is, however, controversy, which puts no less than three records on the chart this week. Add a YouTube phenom, a non-LP country (!) single, and a batch of new tracks from artists who have been away for awhile, and you almost have a case study in how records make the charts these days. All we need is a track from a commercial, one from a TV show, and somebody who died.
The real secret of Psy’s success isn’t his goofiness in both looks and approach, or his so-called satire (he’s more an ironist than a satirist), but his masterful command of pop structure. “Gangnam Style” was probably the best structured pop record to hit the chart since Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance”, and “Gentleman”, though simpler, is even tighter. It also helps that he knows how to write captivating melodies over his austere beats, and comes up with lyrics that, even if you don’t know what they mean, fit perfectly in terms of sound with the beats and the music. In other words, Psy’s success isn’t just a freak happening; he really knows what he’s doing.
Luke Bryan—“Crash My Party”
This is a surprise, at least in business terms: a non-LP single released at the same time as the album, which already had a lead-in single, “Buzzkill” released a month ago. But then, “Buzzkill” hasn’t done that well (it’s been sitting at 38 on the Hot Country Songs chart for three weeks now and isn’t on the airplay chart at all), and with the increasing power of digital in the country market an experiment like this makes a lot of sense. It also sets up a possible deluxe edition of Spring Break…Here To Party sometime in the near future. But even though I have a soft spot for non-LP singles and think there should be more of them, the mediocrity of this record leaves me cold. For a guy who’s supposedly making party records, Bryan sure does have a fondness for sluggish tempos.
Hunter Hayes—“I Want Crazy”
Remove Hayes’s vocals and what you have is a Nashville session group’s version of Mumford & Sons, or rather what Nashville session groups think M&S would sound like if they were country boys who could actually play. This is interesting. Put Hayes’s vocals back in, though, and all the interest goes away.
Selena Gomez—“Come & Get It”
I’m all for Gomez becoming a dance music diva, but if she’s going to succeed she needs to find better material than this, and she especially needs to find something that suits her voice. She’s trying too hard on the chorus, and the strain shows. The best part of this record is the bridge, where her voice matches perfectly with the music and you can hear the promise in it. Working with Esther Dean and StarGate isn’t going to fulfill that promise, though. I hope there are some RockMafia cuts on the album. They know how to set her voice better than anyone else ever has.
Ray J featuring Bobby Brackins—“I Hit It First”
There are, of course, examples of rap sexism more despicable than this, but not by much. Whatever you think about Kim Kardashian and her version of celebrity for celebrity’s sake (I don’t think about her at all, myself), no woman—no human being—deserves to be talked about the way Ray J talks about her here. That is, as an object (not even an object, but an amorphous thing, an “it”, desired for nothing but sexual pleasure) to be passed around, with the first person to temporarily enjoy its services claiming permanent ownership, even though they’ve long ago moved on to other “its”. In terms of maturity, this song is roughly the equivalent of blog commenters shouting “First!” I just hope Kanye West doesn’t make an answer record: anything he could do would only be stepping down to Ray J’s level, and suggest that his feelings for Kardashian aren’t on a much higher plane.
Avril Lavigne—“Here’s To Never Growing Up”
Written by Lavigne, her producer, her boyfriend, and a couple of song doctors, this is product at it’s purest. I bet her boyfriend wrote the chorus, since he’s shown a talent for that sort of thing in the past, and the rest was filled in from various Ke$ha records. I wonder which of the five came up with the Radiohead line, the only hint of life in the entire track? Does anyone actually shout along to Radiohead, though?
If this record stopped before LL Cool J comes in, you’d have a sincere, if often mistaken, attempt to make sense of the disconnections of southern life, history, and myth. It wouldn’t be a great record, and it would still, especially in the country market, be a controversial one, but it wouldn’t be the laughing stock LL Cool J’s ignorant presence turns it into. I can forgive the clumsiness of his rap (it’s not like Paisley gave him much a of a beat to work with), but not the stupidity of it, which is half ignorance and half the entertainer’s desire to play along and reinforce his host’s point of view no matter what that might be. If there’s a demonstration of anyone’s moral corruption on this record, it isn’t Paisley’s. Not that Paisley is right. Any form of southern pride that embraces the myth of the confederacy as opposed to the reality (face it, folks, your ancestors fucked up, and for all the wrong reasons), should be rejected by anyone with half a brain. Maybe Paisley realizes that, but if so it doesn’t come across here.
Paramore—“Still Into You”
Cutting down to a three piece has worked wonders for this band. First off, it allows them to concentrate on playing up to the strengths of Haley Williams’s songs instead of rolling over them and squeezing the life out. Second, and even better, Williams rises to the opportunity by broadening her approach, widening her emotional palette, and refusing to back down from her view of reality. The end result, Paramore, is the artistic breakthrough of the year, the equivalent, say, of what Soundgarden did on Superunknown, or Lil Wayne did on Tha Carter III. There are a couple of ordinary songs, and a couple of less than successful experiments, but there are no bad tracks, and the best of them are more than great, they’re revelatory. Even when Paramore utilize pop cliches (pomp-rock synthesizers, gospel choirs, ukelele), they make them signify by putting them in service to William’s sarcastic, angry, never bitter, and ultimately optimistic point of view (the gospel choir goes “Don’t go crying to your mama/’Cause you’re on your own in the real world”).
“Still Into You” is a love song, of sorts, but one dedicated not to new love but to a long standing relationship. Williams removes any chance of sentimentality by singing it in a slilghtly sneering but still emotional voice, as if she felt the need to cover up her gooier feelings for fear of making a fool of herself. It’s a perfect match for the music, which rocks up and remakes what would otherwise be a hackneyed set of changes. Williams means every word, though, and the verse about meeting her boyfriend’s mother and then telling him for the first time that she loves him is perfect, even in its ambiguity (was meeting mom wonderful? terrible? The sentiment works either way, and we don’t really need to know). Here’s hoping they can continue in this vein for a long while to come.
WE the Kings—“Just Keep Breathing”
I knew there’d be fun. imitators, I just didn’t think they’d be this bad. But how could they not be, when fun. itself skirts the edge of self-parody? Maybe I was lying to myself.
Scotty McCreery—“See You Tonight”
I wish his material was better, but McCreery is turning into one hell of a singer. It’s not just his voice, which has always been a wonder, but the way he handles it. He knows he sounds best when he’s smooth and controlled, so he makes a point of never overstepping, even on the chorus (he also wisely downplays his lower register, which was beginning to sound like a gimmick). As his voice matures, that control is going to sound even better. Now he just needs to find more mature songs. He’s only nineteen, so it makes sense for him to still be singing material pointed at a teen market, and this is smarter than it appears at first. But in another year he’ll be beyond this sort of corn-fed, safe romanticism. Here’s hoping he’s smart enough to make something out of it.
Fabolous featuring Chris Brown—“Ready”
Brown’s hook is bland and the beat is nothing, but even if they were better I would find it impossible to listen after Fabolous says “get your shit wetty/Oops I mean your shit ready, can’t believe I said that”. I can. Fabolous may not be the dumbest rapper in the world, but he’s certainly the dumbest on the charts.
Rocko featuring Future & Rick Ross—“U.O.E.N.O.”
Decent beat, good hook from Future, a competent rap from Rocko, and then in steps Rick Ross and his big mouth to mess everything up. And I don’t just mean the molly-rape lyric. Ross has become so full of himself that almost every word he utters drips with self-love, so much so that he’s lost the ability to distinguish between what’s “street” and what’s stupid. If he says it, it must be right, right? His product-placing of Reebok (right before the rape line; no wonder they dropped his ass) is on a much lower level of offensiveness, but it’s still offensive, and the rest is nonsense. What’s even more depressing is that even without the controversy this would probably still have made the chart on name recognition alone. That’s how rap works these days, and this is what you get.
A surprisingly good week, even if the best of the tracks are imitations of their betters. It’s interesting that many of those being imitated are relatively new artists: The Black Keys, Miguel, and (next week, via Hunter Hayes and We the Kings) Mumford and Sons and fun. A year or so ago, no one would have thought of any of those people as influential in any meaningful way, but now they’re working a sea change on pop radio, one that may be even more profound than EDM. I’m not saying it’s an improvement, but then pop rarely improves, it just sounds different.
Florida Georgia Line featuring Nelly—“Cruise (Remix)”
Technically a chart re-entry, but since it’s more a remake than a remix, I thought I’d review it anyway. It’s terrible. Nelly would record with Alvin and the Chipmunks if he thought it would get him back on the charts, and this adds nothing while losing all the rough and ready charm of the original. The chorus still works, but that’s about it. Low moment: the southern white boys greet their guest with “What up, Nelly?” At least they didn’t say “Whoa”.
Chris Brown—“Fine China”
Even when his records are good (and this is one of his best), Brown’s past continues to haunt him, and it doesn’t help that he keeps reminding people of it. I don’t think he does this intentionally, but he seems oblivious to what the words of his songs mean. The title “Fine China” immediately calls up images of Brown as the bull in the shop, and when he assures his lover that he’s not dangerous all you can do is cringe. Musically, though, this is just about perfect, with it’s mix of a Stevie Wonder-ish distorted bass line, Michael Jackson-style hiccups, and a striking, if overzealous, string arrangement. The arrangement is too busy, but that bassline makes up for a lot. Brown has obviously been paying attention to Miguel, and decorates his slightly subdued vocals with slurs and falsettos, though not always in the right places. His falsetto isn’t as pure as Miguel’s, either, and his lyrical ideas (or the ones he buys, anyway), are as empty as always, even when they’re not cringe-worthy.
Jonas Brothers—“Pom Poms”
This is fluff, but I like it, which is more than I can say of any previous Jonas record. Their inability to maintain a career at Disney, though probably not their fault (Disney is much better at grooming female pop stars), is a kind of merit badge: they went through the pop sausage machine and came out whole, and maybe better than when they started. In a show of business savvy, they even bought back their masters (can we look forward to de-Disneyfied remixes? hope not). It’s odd to find them falling under the influence of The Black Keys, but that influence not only inspired them to write (or steal) a wicked bassline, but to clean up and focus their sound. And unlike the Black Keys, the Jonases have a sense of humor. “Pom Poms” is sheer nonsense, but nonsense has always made good pop, and this is a giant step in the right direction.
Nicki Minaj featuring Lil Wayne—“High School”
This is not only Minaj’s best single since “Stupid Hoe”—and a lot more thought-provoking—but she even got a rap out of Lil Wayne that follows a single train of thought for more than two bars (is she the only rapper in the world he feels challenged by, or is she the only person who can whip him into shape?). “High School” may be about nothing more than sex and dope, but it’s also about Minaj being in total control of the sex and dope (or, more specifically, taking over her lover’s drug business when he gets arrested), which means a lot. It also tells a story, which I haven’t heard any rap song on the pop charts do in a long time. The music is good, too, beautiful but vaguely sinister. This may be a step that will eventually take Minaj off the pop charts, but it’s still the right direction.
This thoroughly enjoyable piece of imitative craftsmanship provides the answer to one of the great mathematical questions of the age: how many people of average talent does it take to almost equal one Beyonce? Answer: four singers, one three-man production team, and fourteen songwriters. And she makes it seem so easy.
The best way I can find to describe Lovato’s style of vocal attack is to quote something Robert Christgau once wrote about the late Replacements guitarist, Bob Stinson: “…Stinson’s guitar was a loud, unkempt match for Paul Westerberg’s vocal, only he’d juice the notes with a little something extra, and probably wrong…”. This is exactly how Lovato sings (listen to the second verse of “Give Your Heart a Break” for an example of her making all the wrong choices but adding to the emotional power of the song in the process). The difference is Stinson was working with Westerberg, one of the best songwriters of his time, while Lovato depends on industry pros who focus on formula more than inspiration. When she finds a good song like “Give Your Heart a Break” or the earlier “Don’t Forget” she can make something fascinating, if often frustrating, out of it. But on a generic song like “Heart Attack” she overcompensates. The verses are all right, but she screeches the chorus, making a mediocre song an unbearable one. It doesn’t help that the production is even louder. I hope Lovato finds another good song soon, but I have a feeling there’s going to be a lot of stuff like this in her career. I also worry that she doesn’t know the difference.
The rise of teen pop has opened a window for contemporary Christian music, which trades in the same themes of uplift and aspiration. This allows Nicole, who’s been recording since 2004, to partially remake herself as a Cher Lloyd sound-alike and push her spiritual ideas without once having to mention God or Jesus. Nicole—27, married, and pregnant—doesn’t exactly match the teen pop demographic. But then, neither does Carly Rae Jepsen, which may be what Nicole’s new label, Capitol, is betting on. But “Call Me Maybe” was a masterpiece, while “Gold” is generic teen pop, too basic to be particularly meaningful (a common problem with Christian pop), and too sugar-coated to get the attention of anyone but candy freaks.
Michael Buble—“It’s A Beautiful Day”
For someone who’s been stereotyped as an easy-listening crooner, Buble is an interesting guy. He made millions off his Christmas record, and on his regular albums, which consist mostly of covers, he plays the smooth, sophisticated balladeer to the hilt. His singles, however, tell a different story. 2009′s “Hollywood” was a nasty swipe at celebrity culture, and “It’s a Beautiful Day” is yet more sarcastic, and even vicious. It’s a beautiful day, you see, because the girlfriend he was planning on dumping anyway saved him the trouble by dumping him first. Both “Hollywood” and “Beautiful” cover their bitterness in upbeat, bouncy arrangements with catchy choruses. The only part of the music that reinforces the lyric is the horn charts—nothing sounds more sarcastic than a drunkenly sliding trombone, though the trumpet solo at the end of “Beautiful” comes close. It’s enough to make you wonder if Buble isn’t toying with his audience, seeing how far he can go, at least symbolically, in telling them off. It may also be a way of stretching the envelop a little to make his cage of a career more bearable.
There’s also a third, darker, possibility: that Buble is a closet misogynist. The way he addresses the women in “Hollywood” and “Beautiful” is, at its best, condescending and patronizing. At its worst it’s hateful (listen to the way he clips off the words “It’s a beautiful day”, skipping away as he flips her off). The coupling of catchy music with bitter sarcasm only makes that impression greater. He’s sugaring the pill, partly because he believes it’s the only way the women in his audience will take it, and partly because he enjoys the idea of watching their reaction when they realize what they’ve swallowed (not that he risks losing them; if the career of Chris Brown has proved nothing else, it’s that some fans will take, or ignore, anything). Buble is either a true artist yearning for more and striking out at his audience in frustration, or a sadistic misogynist getting his kicks in as cruel a way as possible. Like I said, an interesting guy.
Brantley Gilbert—“More Than Miles”
Merely mediocre, which for Gilbert is a step up. The lyrics, at times, are both laughable and touching—”I’ve been changing lanes without my mirrors/Cause every time I look behind me I see her”—though you’d never know it by the way Gilbert sings them.
On “Don’t You Worry Child”, Swedish House Mafia paved the way for the final merger of EDM and pomp rock, and Hadouken! are happy to deliver the final product. Geeks to their bones (the band’s name comes from an attack move in the Street Fighter video game), they’ve embraced the sense of technological grandiosity that lies at the center of geek culture and made loud music out of it. It’s not terrible (there’s one great key change), but if Tom Scholz had grown up in the 00s instead of the 60s and 70s, this is what Boston would have sounded like.
This is hilarious. Nelly has always experimented with mixing different genres into his-hop, but over the last few years, as his pop success has faded, he’s started to sound desperate. On “Hey Porsche” he dredges up the old idea of comparing a car to a woman (or vice-versa) mixes in some touches of EDM, tosses a “nigga” or two into the lyric to maintain his cred, and, most inexplicably, copies the riff from “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”. And after all that effort, what does he end up with? A hip-hop version of Train. Maybe he should try something else.
AfroJack featuring Chris Brown—“As Your Friend”
Though it rarely gets mentioned, for obvious reasons, Chris Brown has done as much, if not more, to bring EDM into hip-hop as anybody. Whatever his other flaws, musical or personal, he knows how to pick beats. His biggest problem is that he often doesn’t know what to do with them, penning cliche lyrics around banal, or non-existent, melody lines. On “As Your Friend”, though there still isn’t much of a tune, the lyrics are better, and Brown intentionally plays down as low as he can. He also manages to avoids the defiant self-pity that makes him so easy to hate. He sounds resigned, almost repentant, which is a big change for him. As for the beat, it’s pop on the insane, dubstep side of the EDM spectrum, and far better than anything David Guetta or Calvin Harris have come up with recently. “As Your Friend” isn’t great, by any means, but it’s a step in the right direction.
Emeli Sande—“Next To Me”
Those overpowering drums owe an obvious debt to Adele, but Sande takes them back to their source, the driving martial rhythms of gospel (you didn’t think “Next To Me” was about a lover, did you?). Also like Adele, Sande has the ability to get loud without ever sounding shrill or losing her emotional connection to the song; she can go places other singers wouldn’t dare. I have some doubts about the lyrics, especially the paraphrase of Kipling at the end, but a record this powerful almost defies criticism.
Eric Church—“Like Jesus Does”
Church is so good at what he does that he almost pulls this off. Though I appreciate his refusal to turn this into a power-ballad, which is what 90% of country singers would have done, it gets stolid by the end, and the lack of rhythmic and melodic variety becomes wearing. His metaphors don’t always gel, either. Is a Waylon Jennings song more sinful if it’s on vinyl as opposed to CD or MP3? How would that work, exactly? Church must think it means something, because he repeats it at the end, but all I get from it is that it’s a way of establishing his country traditionalist bona fides without dragging his truck into the song. This is a good thing, but it doesn’t quite work.
Future featuring Lil Wayne—“Karate Chop (Remix)”
It’s a feeling that’s been coming over me for the last couple of months, and now it’s taken an unshakable hold, no matter how I try to ignore it: I dread the idea of listening to Lil Wayne. He has become the worst part of almost every record he appears on (including his own). Here, after being provided a near-perfect lead-in by Future, he half-assedly replicates the flow Future has established, then tosses it aside like something that’s beneath him and proceeds to delivers a few bars of rote misogyny before giving up completely. He’s more than the worst thing on “Karate Chop”; he pretty much ruins it. To compound my despair, last week Kanye West called a radio station to announce that, whatever MTV may say, Wayne is the greatest MC in the game. Which only makes me fear that the two most dominant rappers of the last decade have both lost their minds.
There’s not much new to say about features; they increase star power, they give the primary artist a rest (and sometimes a challenge), they give new artists a chance to make a name for themselves, etc. But it’s worth mentioning that there are five debuts on the charts this week that most likely wouldn’t be there if it wasn’t for the features. Three from Rihanna, two from Nicki Minaj, one from Pitbull. All are from new albums, and all are being picked up from curiosity (especially Rihanna’s “Nobody’s Business”, with Chris Brown) as much as anything else.
This is especially true when you consider that the power of a new album to load the charts with individual tracks in it’s first week of release seems to be fading. At one point or another, every song from Taylor Swift’s “Speak Now”, including nine debuts on the week of release, made the Hot 100. But Red only managed to put five tracks there, despite the album selling over a million copies its opening week. The same is true of Mumford & Sons. One Direction, the only other performers to sell over half a million their debut week, and who are singles band if anybody is, only got two new tracks into the Hot 100 (thought there were a bunch more on the Bubbling Under chart). Neither Rihanna nor Minaj managed to get a Hot 100 record from their new albums (not counting official singles like the number one “Diamonds”, of course. Pitbull meanwhile, whose star appears to be fading (though “Don’t Stop the Party” is turning into a hit), barely squeaks into the bubbling under chart, thanks largely to Christina Aguilera and the a-ha sample the track is built around.
I’ll talk more about The Voice when I do the Hot 100 Roundup, but for now I just want to mention that Cher Lloyd, Rihanna, will.i.am and Britney Spears, and Ke$ha have all been prevented from entering the Hot 100 this week by the competition show’s souvenir singles. But then, how much fire power can these guys still have if they would have debuted so low anyway?
Finally, we have the year’s first new Christmas record, a remake of “Holly Jolly Christmas” courtesy of Lady Antebellum. It’s pretty bad, though the horn section is good. The worst part is Hillary Scott’s misguided attempt to sound sultry. When was Burl Ives ever sultry?
Here are the debuts from the charts I’m following at the moment. This list may expand as time goes on.
Loveeeeeee Song – Rihanna (featuring Future) #2
Scream & Shout – will.i.am (featuring Britney Spears) #3
C’mon – Kesha #4
Lean On Me – Nicholas David #7
Gone Gone Gone – Phillip Phillips #12
Who Booty – John Heart (featuring iamSU) #14
Trust and Believe – Keyshia Cole #17
Love Sosa – Chief Keef #21
Feel This Moment – Pitbull (featuring Christina Aguilera) #24
Hot R&B Songs
Loveeeeeee Song – Rihanna (featuring Future) #31
Love Sosa – Chief Keef #38
Nobody’s Business – Rihanna (featuring Chris Brown) #39
I’m Legit – Nicki Minaj (featuring Ciara) #40
Numb – Rihanna (featuring Eminem) #42
High School – Nicki Minaj (featuring Lil Wayne) #44
Neva End – Future #49
Hot Country Songs
Over You – Cassadee Pope #3
Give It All We Got Tonight – George Strait #25
A Holly Jolly Christmas – Lady Antebellum #48
In which the group who jump-started their career with “If I Die Young” goes full bore into country gothic. The woman in “Better Dig Two” not only vows to follow her husband in death, but appears to threaten a murder-suicide if he ever dares to leave her. It’s Miranda Lambert’s “Crazy-Ex Girlfriend” taken to the emotional limit. I wish I could say it was great, but somehow it doesn’t work. The music is menacing, but their pop roots show, and the tone is off in places. They’re trying too hard.
Normally I could care less about rappers bragging about how often they get laid, but this one works, largely because everybody here, even Drake, is at the top of their form. Drake, in fact, walks away with the record; bragging about his dick must inspire him. I’ll admit Kendrick Lamar sounds a little out of place—this isn’t really his zone—but he makes the best of it anyway.
Chris Brown—“Don’t Judge Me”
With titles like this, you have to wonder why Brown complains so much when anyone brings up Rihanna in interviews. Uh, because you keep bringing her up in your music? Not that this is technically about Rihanna, of course; I’m sure it’s a complete fiction. Besides, it’s about womanizing, not battery. But didn’t the fight with Rihanna start because she was calling Brown on his womanizing? Maybe he should write a song called “The Ballad of Chris and Ri Ri” and get it over with. Whatever. It’s a boring record, anyway.
The Weeknd—“Wicked Games”
The sound is impressive, and so is the voice, but every time I listen to The Weeknd I find myself faced with a supposed soul man who devotes himself to the same misogynistic crap as the hardest rappers, and I suspect that has a lot to do with his appeal. I admit that this time out he confesses his sins, but it’s the sort of manipulative candor that’s designed to make him look deep; even as he admits to taking advantage of you he still expects you to do whatever he wants. He’s soulful, but he’s a con man, and I don’t trust him.
Kelly Clarkson featuring Vince Gill—“Don’t Rush”
Finally a decent song, and better yet, Clarkson takes another step toward fulfilling my dream of her becoming this generation’s Dusty Springfield. Her vocals are stunning: alluring, sexy, self-possessed, and smart. The ’70s easy-listening soul feel is a perfect fit for her. All the ironic yacht rockers should either give up or ask Clarkson to give them lessons—this is what you can do with the style when you put all your heart and soul and brains into it.
Thompson Square—“If I Didn’t Have You”
Of all the mixed pairs in country music, Thompson Square is probably the least interesting: there’s no tension between them, and no sign of passion, either. This isn’t the worst record you’ll ever hear, but it is one of the blandest.
Dierks Bentley—“Tip It On Back”
For a beer drinking song, “Tip It On Back” is surprisingly slow, almost mournful. That makes sense on the opening verse, which is about the travails of life that make you want to get good and drunk on the weekends, but the chorus, oddly, is the same. It doesn’t get any faster or more joyful, just louder. Makes you wonder why he drinks at all.
As we ease, or force, our way into October, the release schedule continues to ramp up, and probably won’t ease off until Thanksgiving. It would be easier to be happy about this if the music were better. This week is a mixed bag, not just between different tracks but on the records themselves (nothing has exhilarated and disappointed me at the same time as much as the new P!nk single). Next week is more promising. Maybe I’ll feel better about rap by then.
Christina Aguilera—“Your Body”
Aguilera still oversings, and her love of meaningless bombast is undiminished, but “Your Body” is easily her best record since 2006. She sounds on top of things again, and her voice, which has deepened and toughened with the years, makes up for a lot of the oversinging. It’s also worth mentioning that she was onto EDM back in 2008, and though all the records she released in the style up until this one tanked, she was ahead of the curve. So far ahead, in fact, that now she’s behind. I have strong doubts about the message of this song, though. I have nothing against celebrations of sexual pleasure by women in the their mid-thirties, but the cougar-on-the-prowl idea has been overworked, the song lacks sensuality, and Aguilera’s sexual aggressiveness sounds forced and unpleasant.
The verses on “Try” are so beautiful that there’s a palpable let down when the track devolves into yet another of P!nk’s motivational choruses. Up until then, this is almost a textbook example of how experimental influences can be folded into pop music to create something both stunning and comfortably familiar. It’s one of the things pop is best at, but P!nk makes the mistake of not trusting her instincts and falling back on old ideas. In commercial terms, it will probably work, because no one else is better at this sort of thing, but “Try” could have been much more.
Swedish House Mafia featuring John Martin—“Don’t You Worry Child”
Have you ever wondered what Coldplay would sound like if they went the EDM route? Wonder no more.
Kanye West, R. Kelly—“To the World”
The beat is excellent, as always, and West politely gives R. Kelly the floor, limiting himself to a few of his usual boasts, allowing Kelly enough room to flip off the entire world. My only question: who gives a fuck? The level of willful self-delusion and fallacy on this record is unbelievable. Kelly talks like his inability to break a pop record anymore is all about his artistic principle and his determination to go his own way. But of course it isn’t. The quality of his music is as high as it ever was, and even flights of ridiculous fancy like the endless Trapped In the Closet wouldn’t put people off of him in large numbers if there weren’t other things to consider, like the fact that he videotaped himself peeing on a fourteen-year-old girl. Face it, Mr. Kelly, you are never going to live that down, and it has nothing to do with your talent or your artistic principle. Shut up. As for West, I await the day when he stops bragging about how rich he’s become and what a great artist he is and starts making some real art again. Besides, I don’t trust anyone who labels himself a tastemaker while foisting Big Sean on the world. That may be the greatest fuck you of them all.
Game featuring Chris Brown, Tyga, Wiz Khalifa & Lil Wayne—“Celebration”
At a certain point the quality of the beats, the flow, even the words, no longer matters. Just like country singers and their pickup trucks, I don’t care if I hear another rapper bragging about the high life ever again. There are always exceptions, of course, but this isn’t one of them. In its own way, “Celebration” is as soft and self-satisfied as a Jimmy Buffett record, only nowhere near as smart, and without a hint of irony.
Carly Rae Jepsen featuring Justin Bieber—“Beautiful”
Kiss is such a kaleidescope of pop styles that even an obvious Colbie Caillat/Jason Mraz imitation like “Beautiful” fits right in. It helps that it’s better than its influences in almost every way, and that Beiber sings as well as he ever has. The style is perfect for him (it should be, he wrote it), though I’m not sure it fits Jepsen as well as it might. Still, “Beautiful” is a good deal better than her pairing with Owl City.
Usher deserves credit for absorbing modern dance music into his style, but I’m beginning to wonder if he’s been paying as much attention to modern R&B. After Frank Ocean’s “Novocane” it’s hard to believe anyone would use the term numb as a symbol of personal liberation or sexual exploration. As far as Usher is concerned, though, you can’t really feel until you can’t feel your face, or something like that. He may just mean letting yourself be taken over by the music, but even then numb is the wrong word, especially on a record that drives as hard as this one. There are times when I think Usher doesn’t even know, or care, what he’s singing about, a major flaw when you consider your vocals as important as your beats. In the clubs no one is going to care, and the Swedish House Mafia beat is better than just about any David Guetta or Calvin Harris track you care to name, but the disconnect is still puzzling.
Kip Moore—“Beer Money”
Since country is embracing Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty these days, I suppose it makes sense to include John Mellencamp as well. But unless you’re imitating Mellencamp at his most inspired, all you’ll come up with is insipid pseudo-rock like this. The lyrics are clever in spots, and Moore’s last single, “Somethin’ ‘Bout a Truck” was far better, so I’m not giving up on him completely, but he might want to aim his sights a little higher.
Greg Bates—“Did It For the Girl”
Love the intro, but it’s stolen from Smokey Robinson, and after that “I Did It For the Girl” turns ordinary fast. If you’re going to steal from the best, you may as well keep going. And a country version of “You Really Got A Hold On Me” could sound pretty good.
Justin Bieber featuring Ludacris—“All Around the World”
You knew the Eurodisco was coming, right? But this is better than expected, with a great beat and all sorts of nice touches (love those live-sounding drum fills). Bieber’s singing continues to be a pleasant surprise, despite his occasional lapses into Chris Brown-style slurring. The inclusion of Ludacris, however, is a major stumble. When was the last time Ludacris contributed anything worthwhile to a track? I honestly can’t remember, and this is even worse than usual.
Lil Wayne featuring Big Sean—“My Homies Still”
The beat isn’t as stunning as, say, “A Milli” or “Lollipop”, but at least it’s in the same ballpark, and suggests that Wayne is coming out of his post-prison funk. His raps aren’t brilliant, but he sounds like he has his energy back, even if he admits that he’s stepping aside from the game (at least the illegal parts of it). What I want to know is if he really spends his spare time skateboarding and listening to Rebirth?
Little Big Town—“Pontoon”
It’s hard not to think of this as the country version of “Call Me Maybe”, a song so happy and infectious that attempting to resist it would cause a minor seizure. Though it never mentions the subject, it’s also about as sexy as country ever gets, with its deep, gently swelling groove and slide guitar creating a simmering heat. Like too many country records, there’s a certain smugness in its craftsmanship, and the sound could be looser to go with the light lyrical content, but otherwise it’s perfect.
Waka Flocka Flame featuring Nicki Minaj, Tyga & Flo Rida—“Get Low”
This is built around one of the best hooks Flo Rida has come up with (which, whether you hate him or not, is saying something), but I have to admit that much of its appeal for me is based on what isn’t on it. No Flo Rida raps about rough sex and blow jobs, for one thing; Waka Flock Flame not yelling another. Nicki Minaj contributes nothing special, and the same goes for Tyga. But they probably felt that they didn’t need to; the hook carries the record along so well you barely notice the paltriness of everything else.
The Lumineers—“Ho Hey”
Try to imagine a combination of .fun and Mumford and Sons. No, no, stop. I don’t want you to hurt yourself.
Imagine Dragons—“It’s Time”
It would be unfair to label Imagine Dragons as merely fun. imitators. Most likely they were making this sort of record anyway, and are being seized on and promoted by the record company in an attempt to cash in. You can’t blame the band for that. But that doesn’t mean this is any good, or that if “We Are Young” didn’t exist anybody would pay attention to them. This sounds like fun. might if they were fans of Kings of Leon. The total lack of emotional confusion and/or subtlety in the lyric doesn’t help any, either.
The Black Keys—“Gold On the Ceiling”
The worst kind of country acoustic balladry, based on an extended metaphor that might have worked if they hadn’t tried to get too much out of it or if they hadn’t tried to change it up in the last verse: they’re not just glass, but oil and water and gasoline too. That inconsistency might not have mattered, though, if the arrangement and singing weren’t filled through and through with sap. Oddly enough, that makes it even easier to see through them.
“We’ve Got Tonight”, #97
Though it’s nice that American Idol has decided to go with something besides a third-rate Diane Warren imitation for its winner’s first single, a second-rate Mumford and Sons imitation is not an improvement. In fact it’s almost the same thing.
Katy Perry—“Wide Awake”
This starts well, with a surprisingly subdued opening, but soon the bombast sets in, and you’re left to marvel once again at the willingness of pop stars to commercialize their personal lives. The only thing worthy of note is the way Perry uses clichéd biblical images —should a former Christian singer really be tossing off a phrase like “born again” with such apparent disregard for its deeper meaning? And didn’t anyone involved in this figure out that Perry singing the title phrase like an android wouldn’t convince anyone that she was even conscious, much less wide awake?
Lupe Fiasco—“Around My Way (Freedom Ain’t Free)”
Though I understand the beef regarding the “They Reminisce Over You” sample, that’s hardly the most embarrassing thing about this record. That would be the lyric, a “We Didn’t Start the Fire”-style laundry list of celebrity-endorsed liberal causes. Fiasco’s flow is impressive, but his choice of metaphors is staggeringly off base. “Two croissants short of a continental breakfast”? Not exactly the voice of the masses, is it?
Chris Brown—“Don’t Wake Me Up”
Brown sounds as self-satisfied as ever, and, just like Diddy, he even hires a female vocalist to provide a few loving words to him on the intro. This time, though, the music doesn’t save him: the beat provided the Benassis is such a mess you wonder why Brown thought he could make a decent record out of it. But when your ego is that big, you’re bound to fall into it sooner or later.
It’s not often that someone makes a comeback after breaking their neck, and I congratulate DeRulo on his recovery. If you listen closely enough, you can hear his joy in being able to make this record at all. But DeRulo remains a minor talent, and this is a very minor song. I like the clean quality of the sound, but it doesn’t go anywhere.
Rita Ora—“How We Do (Party)”
Wait a minute. England is sending us yet another version of Jessie J? Isn’t there some import law we could invoke against this?