One Direction—“Live While We’re Young”
I have nothing against party music or teen lust, and I could even forgive the Clash rip-off of the intro, but this is crass and insulting. “Let’s get some” is not something you say to a sexual partner, even a one-night-stand, it’s something you say to your brain-dead buddies when you go out looking for sex. Since finding willing partners is no longer a problem for these guys, it may not seem to matter to them what they say, but in reality it matters more. Either they don’t understand that, or they don’t give a shit. Plus, they didn’t give The Clash credit for that intro, so fuck ‘em.
Taylor Swift loves words. She loves the way they flow and mesh and swerve and can double up meaning and emotion with the slightest change in emphasis. She loves them so much she overstocked “Red” with them and then felt she had to come up with an arrangement to match. Her willingness to experiment is appreciated, but this goes too far. And not all the words work: the Maserati reference is wrong for her, and some of the similes fall flat. Still, I wish half the songwriters in America tried this hard.
Not only the best Bond theme since Paul McCartney’s “Live and Let Die”, but the best thing Adele has ever done as well. The lushness of the string arrangement is perfect for her, allowing her voice to cut through like a knife, and a vast improvement on the harsh sound of her previous records. Not having to fight with the arrangement let’s her focus on the emotion of the song in a way she hasn’t in the past, and gives her a chance to be subtle instead of pounding the listener over the head with the power of her voice. The song itself is something of a pastiche, especially the arrangement, but it’s a great sound, and if it encourages Adele to sing like this I’m all for it.
Bruno Mars—“Locked Out of Heaven”
I actively enjoy a lot of Mars’s music, and the fact that he has a working knowledge of the entire history of rock and roll only makes me like him more. That knowledge hasn’t yet synthesized into a personal style, though, so when he decides, as in this case, to base a song on the early days of The Police, all he comes up with is pastiche. It’s alright to wear your influences on your sleeve, but if you don’t rise above them you end up looking like a hack.
Brad Paisley—“Southern Comfort Zone”
Paisley walks a very fine line on “Southern Comfort Zone”, which is easily his best single since “American Saturday Night”. Like that song, this is about expanding the horizon of country music, admitting, and even enjoying, the existence of a world outside the rural stereotypes that dominate the genre. The deepest moment comes at the end of the second verse, when Paisley says that he knows what it’s like to be in the minority. It’s a plea not just for a broadening of outlook beyond the south, but for greater tolerance at home as well. He’s careful, though, to soften the message as much as possible, layering spoken bits from The Andy Griffith Show, Nascar, and The Grand Old Opry over the intro and the outro, emphasizing that he always wants to come back home, and assuring his fans that a life outside the south doesn’t automatically lead to debauchery, since the only “west coast girl” he’s kissing is his wife. I have my doubts about the choir singing “Dixie”, though. It’s a musical triumph, especially when it’s paired with his guitar solo, and for Paisley it’s obviously the ultimate form of southern pride, but to a lot of people, including me, it’s also a symbol of the Confederacy and the antebellum south. Paisley has already declared his hatred of racism, and it may only be a sign of my own narrow point of view that I’m bothered by this, but I worry that Paisley thinks he’s living in a post-racist world where southern pride has been safely cleansed of the memory of slavery. I wish he was right, but he isn’t. Still, Nashville needs more songwriters who love the tradition but also question its flaws and weaknesses. I only hope that Paisley’s influence will be as powerful as his music.
Kid Cudi featuring King Chip—“Just What I Am”
A hymn to self-delusion, this may be as deep as a pro-marijuana song can ever get. While dope rappers like Wiz Khalifa are just having fun, Cudi is self-medicating, hoping to alleviate the mental issues that his therapists and prescription medication don’t. Whether that’s because they can’t work or Cudi lacks the patience to let them is open to question. His defiant tone suggests the latter. Whatever the case, Cudi sounds more focused and on top of things than in the past, as if his anger at his situation had cleared away some of his confusion. If he is self-medicating, though, I wouldn’t count on it to last.
Gary Allan—“Every Storm (Runs Out of Rain)”
If you’d written a song encouraging someone to start over again after a bad breakup, and filled it with images of storms lifting and new beginnings, would you base the arrangement on an earlier song that embraces death? Neither would I. Then again, after 35 years of being inured to it on oldies radio, most people have probably forgotten what “Don’t Fear the Reaper” is about, and those chord changes are a perfect fit with the Allan’s storm metaphors. So, hell, why not? Most people won’t even notice the disconnect, but whenever Allan sings about standing on the edge and setting yourself free over those doom-laden chord changes, all I hear is an invitation to suicide. And I can’t help but wonder if that message isn’t being conveyed even to those who aren’t familiar with Blue Oyster Cult. The music has it’s influence, after all, regardless of the lyrics. Not that I’m expecting a wave of suicides below the Mason-Dixon line if this becomes a hit, but a surge in depression statistics wouldn’t surprise me.
Glee Cast—“The Scientist”
Mumford & Sons—“Lover Of the Light”
Another muddle of personal relationship and religion, and though Mumford sounds like he knows what he’s singing about, I doubt if anybody else does. That includes the band, who go through their regular soft/loud, stop/start business regardless. The instrumental break may be the most vacant thing they’ve ever produced.
DJ Drama, 2 Chainz, Meek Mill, Jeremih—“My Moment”
A better than average rap uplift song, but the arrangement is too busy and the meaning, such as there is, gets lost. I’m still trying to determine whether Drama’s shout at the end is intended as a parody of DJ Khaled or just a following along. I hope it’s the former; Drama’s too talented to waste on Khaled’s brand of nonsense.
Randy Houser—“How Country Feels”
This is as ordinary as country-rock gets, but at least Houser has the good taste not to stress the double entendre of the title. Then again, maybe that’s why this is so ordinary.