In real life, this is the last Hot 100 of 2012, not the first of 2013, but since Billboard starts and ends their year ten days ahead of the rest of the world, in Chartland we’re already into the new year. Trying to sort all of this out would be as confusing as straightening out the dates in 19th century Russian history, before they adopted the Gregorian calendar; it isn’t worth the trouble, and it would make my head hurt. So even though these will be officially listed as hitting the chart in 2013, it was actually 2012, though if you don’t care to remember that it doesn’t matter. A place in limbo is all these records deserve anyway.
Kid Cudi—“King Wizard”
Cudi is smart, but he isn’t a genius. “King Wizard” sounds like the foundation for a brilliant track, the concept and the music are perfectly meshed and in place, but Cudi doesn’t seem to know where to go after that. He’s still thinking his way through instead of letting his instincts take flight. For all his bragging, much of which is earned, I’m not sure he trusts himself. “King Wizard” never steps over the line into pretension or egocentric folly, but it doesn’t go anywhere, either.
“C’mon” has more life to it than “Die Young”, but it still sounds rote, and Ke$ha appears to have little interest in making this sort of record anymore. It’s not just her performance—it’s the words, the music, everything. All the touches and details that made “Tik-Tok” and “Sleazy” such enjoyable records have disappeared. She’s painting by numbers, and she isn’t even trying to color outside the lines.
Casey James—“Crying On A Suitcase”
“Crying On a Suitcase” isn’t a bad song—the chorus is standard issue but I like the tumbling, headlong rush of the verses—and in the hands of a good singer it could be a decent record. But Casey James isn’t a good singer: his voice is thin, and he doesn’t seem to have enough control of his breath to give those verses the flow they need to come across with their full power. I appreciate his trying to avoid the John Mayerish trap he could easily fall into (and that the producers of American Idol encouraged), but he needs to find another way.
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.
A week of big names, with three new records debuting in the top 20. A great Taylor Swift (the third in a month, with more coming each week up to the release of the album on the 22nd, when I expect all the remaining tracks to appear on the chart—she’s done it before), disappointing Ke$ha, mediocre Rihanna, Flo Rida, Pitbull channeling Toots and the Maytals, and more Mumford’s than you can shake a banjo at. Next week promises more of the same: Swift again, Bruno Mars, One Direction, Kid Cudi, Brad Paisley, Gary Allan, and, oh yeah, Adele.
Taylor Swift—“Begin Again”
For the first of the preview singles leading up to the release of Red (the second, the title song, is already out), Swift takes a conservative turn, falling back on the soaring romanticism she’s famous for, with carefully placed steel guitar to keep her country audience happy. But this commercial calculation doesn’t take anything away from “Begin Again” or keep it from being one the best records she’s made. If there’s another songwriter at the moment who’s capable of capturing small romantic moments with as much skill and grace as Swift, I haven’t heard them. The verses set the stage, and the middle-eight is a delight, but it’s the chorus, which may be the best thing Swift has yet written, that makes this a great record. I only have one question: when Swift wrote the song’s best line, “I’ve been spending the last eight months/thinking all love ever does/is break, and burn, and end” did she realize she was echoing the 18th century English poet John Donne’s Holy Sonnet XIV (“That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend/Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.”)? I wouldn’t put it past her.
In pop music, professionalism is essential, but it’s also a curse. “Die Young” is intelligent and professionally crafted, but it contains the merest whiff of inspiration. There are a few good moments, but overall it’s the dullest record Ke$ha has ever made. Considering the stuff that Ke$ha put out since her last album–the Dylan cover (terrible, but never boring), the collaboration with The Flaming Lips–”Die Young” is a surprising disappointment. Sounds like she was trying too hard.
Written by Sia, produced by Stargate, and with a weird, Robyn-inspired vocal on the intro that has been noted by many, so much so that I’m beginning to think of all the attention paid to the Scandinavian influence on “Diamonds” as cover for the mediocrity of the rest of the track. Structurally “Diamonds” sounds odd and disconnected, and yet the arrangement is ordinary and, compared to what Rihanna has been doing the last couple of years, conservative. Considering she had just released a remix of “Cockiness”, it seems strange to issue a new single so quickly. But then, “Cockiness” was received with a yawn, so maybe this was a rush job to save face.
Mumford & Sons
“Lover’s Eyes”, #85
“Whispers In the Dark”, #86
“Holland Road”, #92
“Ghosts That We Knew”, #94
In musical terms Mumford & Sons have improved since their first album. The arrangements are straightforward and less cluttered, the lyrics more pointed and less confused. They’ve still got a long way to go, though. Since they don’t possess much of a melodic gift and lack rhythmic variety, they fall back on gimmicks to get their point across: sudden stops and starts, dynamic shifts, and lurches in tempo are the only real tools they possess. They tend to use the same tricks, to the same effect, over and over again, often within a single song. It’s tiresome, but their unerring precision keeps the tracks moving even when there’s not much else going on.
What is going on, most of the time, is rage. I wish I could tell you what their anger is about or directed towards, but the lyrics are vague and fall too readily into cliche, making it difficult to get a clear picture. Biblical imagery suits them, but it doesn’t clarify their ideas. That may be a good thing, since many of these songs revolve around the perfidy of women, or one woman anyway. It’s possible the lyrics are about something else–society in general, or the church–and the feminine pronoun is a way of personalizing the imagery. But that only makes it worse. If Mumford is striking back against a real woman who did him wrong, his imagery would be acceptable, but not if it’s intended as allegory. The world has endured enough Bible-based misogyny. The last place we need it is in pop music, which has too much of its own misogyny already.
Flo Rida—“I Cry”
The serious subject matter of “I Cry”–the mass murder in Norway, the death of a sister–explains the lack of a new hook from this hook machine, but it doesn’t explain the usual club-banging arrangement. Talking about tears falling into a champagne bucket doesn’t elicit much sympathy, either. In most cases, when a pop star who’s traded in party music releases a “serious” record, it’s a sign their days on top are coming to an end. Next stop: a greatest hits album with a couple of new tracks. Should be a good one.
Pitbull featuring TJR—“Don’t Stop the Party”
Another insane track from Pitbull, and a perfect example of a sample chain. Having heard TJR’s funk/house track, “Funky Vodka”, Pitbull brought the producer into the studio, and re-edited and remixed the track with his vocals over the top. Like so many dance records, “Funky Vodka” itself was based on a sample: Toots and the Maytals’s “Funky Kingston”. So if you want, you can credit Toots Hibbert with writing the riff that makes the song move, though he no doubt borrowed it from someone else. Whatever the case, Pitbull’s version isn’t a desecration: all he does is up the party atmosphere and modernize the sound. He also delivers one of the best lines I’ve ever heard from him, mixing his usual bragging with a healthy dose of Latino pride: “Just cause you ain’t me, don’t hate me/As a matter fact you should thank me/Even if you don’t, you’re welcome, yankees”.
Just for the season, Bieber steps out of hip-pop into Jason Mraz/Colbie Caillat/Coca-Cola commercial territory. At least I hope it’s just for the season.
Christina Perri—”A Thousand Years”
Perri is actually getting better. This is merely mediocre instead of out and out terrible like “Jar of Hearts”. But then, this is a soundtrack cut, so maybe she wasn’t trying as hard.
Rick Ross featuring Nicki Minaj—”You The Boss”
Did Nicki Minaj really know what was going on when she gave Ross the hook to this piece of sexist, misogynistic tripe? Had she heard the rap, or more importantly, the second female vocal (I’m assuming it isn’t her, and I hope to God I’m right) before she laid down her part? I’m trying very hard to avoid personally insulting Ross, because he may very well just be playing a part, but can I help it if I always imagine that part as Jabba the Hut?
Not bad for a by-the-numbers country love song; I like the chorus a lot. But there’s nothing special about Young’s voice or his ideas. He just happened to write a half-way decent song this time, is all.
Romeo Santos featuring Usher—”Promise”
Not as delightfully insane as “You”, but odd and pleasant enough. Santos’s voice is so ethereal that almost everything he sings drifts off into the stratosphere, and not even Usher, who sounds a bit out of his depth, can hold him down. I’d love to hear what a production team like Stargate could do with him, but my fear is that the closer he gets to crossing over the more he going to sound like Enrique Iglesias. If he gives Pitbull a guest spot we’ll know it’s over.
“Teenage Dream”, #8
“Start Me Up/Living On a Prayer”, #31
“Stop! In the Name of Love/Free Your Mind”, #38
“One Love (People Get Ready)”, #41
The Black Eyed Peas—“The Time (Dirty Bit)”
Since I didn’t listen to radio much in the late ’80s, the use of one of the more irritating hits of that period doesn’t bother me as much as it does some others (besides, will.i.am, with far less of a voice, still sings it better than Bill Medley did), but there’s no doubt that this record represents the group running in place, if not retreating a bit. This is nearly as good as anything on The E.N.D., but it doesn’t break any new ground (unless you consider letting Fergie play diva over minimalist dance grooves a step forward). The E.N.D., whatever you think about the music, was undoubtedly one of the more daring albums of the last few years in terms of a band remaking it’s sound and image, so it shouldn’t be a surprise if the Peas spin their wheels a bit this time out.
“Scott Mescudi Vs. the World”, #92
These are good records—moody, reflective, self-absorbed but intelligent and with little evidence of self-pity. They’re only on the chart, though, because of 1) the tile; and 2) the presence of Cee-Lo Green. In other words, curiosity. Whether or not the audience is paying attention to what these songs, with their honest consideration of substance dependence, actually mean, is open to question. But Cudi deserves respect for putting the message out there.
Lupe Fiasco—“The Show Goes On”
I like the sound of this, but it doesn’t really go anywhere. And I liked the sound a lot more when T.I. did it five years ago.
Jeremih featuring 50 Cent—“Down On Me”
I like the music: a catchy pop mix of dancehall, dubstep, and hip-hop. But 50 Cent’s presence is a waste in more ways than one—even when he isn’t mumbling he utters nothing but cliches. Jeremih himself starts off shaky, but evens out once he gets to the hook. An interesting change of pace, but an uncertain one.
Lady Antebellum—“Hello World”
When they sing about love, Lady Antebellum play it subdued and classy; they’re not great, but it’s a welcome change from the usual over-arranged country blather. Here, though, they’re delivering a message to the world, and they pull out all the stops and pump all the pedals at once. To compound their sins, their obvious inspiration is R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts”, both the song and the video, an exemplar of emotional intensity and restraint they warp and curdle for the purposes of their own soft-headed sentimentality before the end of the first verse. If this is how country music is going to move into the ‘90s, I prefer they stay where they are.
Jason Derulo—“What If”
A power ballad written and produced by J.R. Rotem. Think about that for a minute.
Tastelessness can be a virtue in pop music, but only if you’re funny, or if you’re being tasteless about subjects people are (secretly) attracted to. This isn’t funny, and the cannibal demographic is, as I understand it, somewhat limited. It’s like a big budget version of a zombie movie–the effects are more expensive but somehow less impressive, and all the insane amateurism has been taken out and replaced with studio gloss, resulting in something that’s not only gross but boring.
Twista featuring Chris Brown—“Make A Movie”
Fresh from his bunker, where it’s always 2003, Twista does his best to revive his video-porn fantasies, just like the good old days. Someone should take him aside and explain the difference between being retro and being in a rut.
“Maybe I’m a dreamer/Maybe I’m misunderstood…” What else do you expect from a band that rose to fame via the “Free Hugs” movement? Yuck.
Having softened up the AC demographic with two kinda cute, uptempo ditties, Train goes in for the sentimental kill. Chances are, this will be in the AC top ten for the next year. I’ve only listened to it once and I’m already sick of it.
Don Omar & Lucenzo—“Danza Kurduro”
Since I can’t understand the words (and even with a translation would probably miss subtleties that only native speakers would pick up), I’m not a good judge of this record. The music, though, sounds ordinary—the arrangement too busy, the production too harsh. Until I know better, I think I’ll stick with Pitbull.
Eric Benet—“Sometimes I Cry”
This retro-soul number has it’s attributes: it’s not a bad song, and the arrangement has a nice, mid-’90s Prince feel to it. But Benet’s falsetto gets old fast, and when he strains it near the end that’s all you hear: no emotion, just strain.
Ke$ha—“We R Who We R”
Far too reminiscent of “Tik Tok”, only with half the jokes, half the hooks, and a lot less appeal, which leaves you with almost nothing at all. A sop to her fans, and an obvious one, at that.
“Sparks Fly”, #17
“The Story Of Us”, #41
“Dear John”, #54
“Better Than Revenge”, #56
“Last Kiss”, #71
“Never Grow Up”, #84
“Live Long”, #85
What I’m about to say may sound petty, as if I’m just looking for something to criticize in the face of the almost universal adoration of Swift and Speak Now. But it needs to be said. These are all good songs, some of them excellent (though none as good as the preview singles that have come out over the last month), and Swift performs them with an intelligence and emotion that few can match. All the same, this is one of the worst produced pop albums I’ve ever heard. Whether it’s the production itself, the arrangements, or the fact that they’ve been mastered at too high a volume, most of these tracks sound over-loud and shrill, lacking dynamics and bottom, and I find it impossible to listen to more than three or four at a time. This may not be Swift’s fault. Even though she’s credited as co-producer she may not have had a lot of control over the final mastering process, which is 90% of the problem. My worry is that it’s all intentional, that the shiny sound is meant to be a match for Swift’s shiny dresses and golden hair and the whole fairytale aura she surrounds herself—or at least her career—in. She may be more of a Stevie Nicks imitator than most of those who champion her would care to admit. She writes wonderful songs, and the fairytale imagery and plot-lines are disappearing from her lyrics, which is a good sign, but you have to listen past the production in order to hear them. Time for a new producer, if not a re-think of her entire musical approach.
Chris Brown—“Yeah XXX”
This is, admittedly, Brown’s best record since “Forever”, but of course that’s not saying much. Once you’ve made a record like “Douches” “Deuces”, there’s no way to go but up. The only interesting thing about this record is the fact that, considering Brown was once a hip-hop star, it isn’t hip-hop at all. It’s more like a heavily edited early ’90s hardcore dance track, and when I say heavily edited I mean one with all the hooks removed.
Rascal Flatts—“I Won’t Let Go”
It’s hard not to be impressed by an act that’s been as successful as this one has been at rewriting other people’s hits. Last time it was Loggins and Messina’s “Your Mama Don’t Dance”; this time, for a change of pace, it’s The Pretenders’s “I’ll Stand By You”. They barely even bother changing the chorus, just the title. It’s like a karaoke contest where you get to make up your own lyrics as you go along.
Kid Cudi—“Mr. Rager”
Easily Cudi’s best record since “Day ‘n’ Night”, and about roughly the same thing—getting wasted—only from a different perspective. The lonely stoner of the earlier song got wasted to get away from his problems; “Mr. Rager” suggests getting wasted is the problem, though it wisely doesn’t say so straight out. Cudi may be too subtle, though. The record lacks any real tension or sense of emotion, as if the guy were already wiped out and not just considering the possibility. If Mr. Rager is intended to be some sort of Pied Piper, it doesn’t work. There’s no suggestion that anything is being risked, that anything can be lost. I understand what Cudi is getting at, but somehow it doesn’t work.
Ne-Yo—“One In A Million”
Reviewed in Bubbliing Under, 10/17/10
Luke Bryan—“Someone Else Calling You Baby”
Reviewed in Bubbliing Under, 10/17/10
This and the earlier “The Man I Want To Be” paint Young as a concerned, spiritual soul, yearning to live up to an image of manhood taken straight from the Bible, age-old rural wisdom, and whatever his management and record label say will make him a star. All artists pander to their audience to some extent, but Young jumps in with both feet, and he’s a master at it. Either that or this steaming pile of crap is proof that the voices in his head don’t give him a single original idea, or even tell him to choose decent songs.
Taylor Swift—”Speak Now”
Another cute fairy tale, a song form at which Swift has become an absolute master. Sassy, funny, and sharply observed as always, only this one is streaked with some real bitterness, including details and descriptions that would be considered, um, mean coming from anyone else. As the title cut from the new album, it obviously serves as justification for the deeper anger that permeates some of the other songs. Like most fairy tales, however, this ends at the point of victory, and says nothing about the aftermath. Which makes me wonder if Swift, both as a character in her songs and as a real person, is ready for the tempest she’s stirring up.
Kanye West featuring Pusha T—”Runaway”
Ever since 808s and Heartbreak, and even more so since his disastrous VMA fuck-up, the main focus of Kanye West’s audience, and certainly the press, has been not his music, but his state of mind. Is he falling apart? Does he regret what he’s done? Will he apologize? Will the new record present a more humble, subdued Yeezy? The answers so far (No. Yes. Sort of. Are you kidding me?) are fascinating in their way, but they distract from the main point, which is the music. In the last three months he’s released two excellent official singles, plus a boatload of good to great tracks as part of the G.O.O.D. Friday download series, and all I read on the blogs and in comment sections is analysis of his emotional ups and downs, as if every new piece of music were nothing more than the latest installment in a soap opera: Kanye West and the Price of Fame or As the Rapper Yearns. Part of this is West’s fault—his self-absorption is far beyond the call of duty of even the most egotistical rappers—but at the same time he’s one of the few whose work lives up to their own hype. And even if the latest records break little new ground—“Power” harks all the way back to The College Dropout, while “Runaway” sounds like an 808s track with some pop sweetening—the ideas he’s already dug up would be enough to fuel any number of lifelong careers. If, that is, he doesn’t drive his into the ground by making music about nothing but himself. It’s a narrowing of the palette that few artists survive, no matter how brilliant they are. I just hope this album gets it all out of his system and he can go on to something else.
“I Want To Hold Your Hand”, #36
“One Of Us”, #37
“Only the Good Die Young”, #50
“Losing My Religion”, #60
“Papa Can You Hear Me?”, #65
“Bridge Over Troubled Water”, #73
“I Look To You”, #74
P!nk—”Raise Your Glass”
For a Max Martin-produced party record this is surprisingly stiff, never more so than in the throwaway vocal interjections that are supposed to provide that loose, freaky atmosphere (and all the jokes). It’s all far too calculated and machine-tooled, without a single moment left to chance. I don’t know if this is Martin’s fault or P!nk’s, but it sure isn’t freaky.
Bruno Mars—”The Lazy Song”
Dear Bruno Mars: You can be a pop guy with serious undertones, or you can be a serious guy with an instinctive pop sensibility, but you cannot be Jack Johnson with keyboards. Not if you want any respect, that is.
A Rocket To the Moon—”Like We Used To”
One of those records that’s upended by the details guys like this learn to put into their songs in their Songwriting 101 class. Pleading with an ex-girlfriend you caught naked in a car with somebody else fourteen months ago does not make you sensitive or passionate—it makes you a wimp. As does the music and the vocals.
Justin Moore—”How I Got To Be This Way”
By being kicked in the head by a horse, apparently. This explains a lot.
Ne-Yo—”One In a Million”
This is the catchiest and most pop-oriented of the preview singles off Ne-Yo’s new album, which also means it’s the most familiar sounding and the most ordinary. Ne-Yo’s style and class set him apart from almost everybody else on the chart, but they also hold him back somehow. It feels as if he’s not telling us everything he could because he’s afraid of stepping outside of the image he’s concocted for himself. Maybe it’s time for him to be a little less of a gentleman, or at least find an outlet for the tension that stance implies.
Trace Adkins—”This Ain’t No Love Song”
In fact, it’s barely a song at all.
Luke Bryan—”Someone Else Calling You Baby”
Bryan is a decent, mid-level country singer, and this is interesting for being essentially 70s country pop with a more soulful, modern rock setting, The Bellamy Brothers turned up to 11. Past 11, actually, which is the problem.
Willow—”Whip My Hair”
This is far better than anyone had a right to suspect, and surprising, as well. Willow’s voice is literally unbelievable—it’s not just the strength, but the mature phrasing—if I hadn’t already known I never would have suspected her real age; I would have gone for thirty. The track is rougher than you’d think, as well, a poppified mix of electro and crunk that never lets up. Tougher than anything her dad ever did, that’s for sure.
My Darkest Days featuring Ludacris—”Porn Star Dancing”
With Nickleback’s Chad Kroeger as co-writer and co-producer doing his best 3Oh!3 impersonation, the presence of Ludacris helps this record achieve a perfect storm of demographic triangulation. The sheer commercial shamelessness of it almost makes its stripper pole sleaze appealing. Kind of catchy, too.
If it were anybody else turning to poker metaphors to describe their passion, I’d assume they were shooting for a country crossover, but these guys sound like the same old boring rockers they’ve always been. Only without hooks. It doesn’t mean much to go all in if all you’ve got left is a couple of bucks.
“Empire State of Mind”, #21
“What I Did For Love”, #51
Yet another “I Gotta Feeling” rip, only this time not from someone directly associated with the original record, which is a relief. Akon’s voice may have changed, but his gift for hooks remains, and here he strings enough together to make for a bearable dance record. My only question is whether this is intended as a tribute to Lady GaGa, who has guaranteed Akon a comfortable living even if he never has another hit. Maybe he should just go into promotion and forget this whole making records business. He wouldn’t be the first.
Update: Whoops, there I go forgetting to check the credits again. This was produced by David Guetta, so just ignore that first sentence.
Catchier than their previous records off the new album, but in its own way just as stiff and claustrophobia inducing. Their clockwork groove is like a wall they build between the music and whatever emotion is supposedly generating it. Which means they’re either trying too hard or are too tasteful to get really funky. Working with a producer other than the tireless careerist Robert John Lange might help.
A few years ago, Jesse McCartney was the equivalent of Justin Bieber, only with a little more funk and without the hordes of screaming girls. Now he seems to be in limbo. His voice has matured, but his material still has a teenage quality to it (doesn’t everybody’s?) that doesn’t quite match with his voice. I like the telephone gimmick leading into the chorus, and this is catchy and almost funky enough to get by, but the song’s slightly Bieberish quality throws me off. He’s like a solo version of Maroon 5: his heart is in the right place, but his music is too stiff to catch up.
Diddy – Dirty Money featuring Drake—”Loving You No More”
This goes down smooth and easy in the background, but like most muzak, once you get up close you notice how barren it is. And that’s even before Drake clears his throat and starts to rap.
Mike Posner—”Please Don’t Go”
Pleasant but forgettable, which is a step up from his last record, which was brainless (often mistaken for pleasant) and irritating. I like the random electronics on the last verse, but the rest of it is sap. With guys like Posner and Owl City on the scene, the hipness quotient of electronic music is going to nosedive fast, if it hasn’t already.
Zac Brown Band featuring Jimmy Buffett—”Knee Deep”
When Zac Brown sings by himself, he sounds like James Taylor. When he sings with Alan Jackson, he sounds like Alan Jackson. Guess who he sounds like now? And no, despite the presence of the original inspiration, this is not as good as “Toes”.
Bon Jovi—”What Do You Got?”
Ann Powers swears that Bon Jovi is a great arena band, and though I’ve never thought of that as a distinct genre, I’m willing to take her word on it. All the same, should I ever find myself in an arena with Bon Jovi, this song is when I would seize the opportunity to find a bathroom.
Maroon 5 with Lady Antebellum—”Out of Goodbyes”
Apparently anyone who comes in contact with Lady Antebellum turns immediately into another version of Fleetwood Mac, and though the voices don’t blend as magically as Buckingham’s and McVie’s, this has its moments (the line about the “storm brewing in his eyes” is perfectly set). But moments is all it has, and though the playing is as precise as you’d expect, Fleetwood Mac was both precise and passionate, and that makes all the difference.
David Guetta featuring Kid Cudi—”Memories”
Never, ever listen to a song called “Memories”. It’s guaranteed to be sentimental, even when it comes on with garish, hard-edged dance beats and features a vocalist who sounds like he’s coked himself hoarse. In fact, that might be even worse.
Bruno Mars featuring Damian Marley—”Liquor Store Blues”
This doesn’t work, largely because Mars’s overdeveloped pop instinct undercuts whatever sense of “the blues” he may possess, but I’m fascinated by his attempts to show a serious side, or at least some sort of social conscious (this, “Billionaire”, maybe even “Fuck You”). It’s not the sort of thing you find in most masters of lighthearted melodic hooks, and it suggest that if he can ever manage to balance the two, he could become a major artist, instead of just a highly successful one.
Kid Cudi featuring Kanye West—”Erase Me”
Nerd rap has been around for a while, of course, but so far I don’t think anyone has has taken the trouble to mix it with nerd rock. So here it is: Kid Cudi rapping over what sounds like a stripped down Weezer track, complete with strained falsetto climax in the chorus. Whether this is a good idea or a bad one depends on execution, and here Cudi delivers nothing but cliches, while West creates a fictional woman whom he calls Maria simply so he can use her name to create a pun on diarrhea. Nerd doesn’t have to mean immature, guys, honest it doesn’t.
Jason Aldean—”My Kinda Party”
Aldean’s kind of party appears to be somewhat slow, with the same elegiac rock touches that Kenny Chesney put on “The Boys of Fall”. Does this mean that the old ways are fading, or that Aldean’s just getting old? Unless he comes up with something beside the same old cliches, I guess we’ll never know.
Katy Perry—”Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)
In terms of persona, Katy Perry is a naughty girl, but she’s not a dirty one. She isn’t a drunken slut like Ke$ha or a coked-up horndog like the guys in 3Oh!3. Partying isn’t her life, it’s just something that she does when she has some spare time at the end of the week. If she gets arrested, or ends up in a menage a’ trois, it’s not a big deal, they’re just a couple more items on the list of things she does when she gets a little too tipsy. Though I don’t think much of this song (it’s too calculated, and Perry makes the mistake of repeating jokes that should be one-time throwaways), I like its “that’s life” attitude, and how non-judgmental it is—her partying isn’t a point of pride, but it isn’t anything to be ashamed of either. Which suggests that her Christian upbringing wasn’t quite as strict or narrow as people tend to imagine.
YG—”Toot It and Boot It”
The great thing about the current crop of LA rappers, whether they’re jerkin’ or not, is how relaxed and off the cuff they sound. Talking dirty means nothing to them (and this is the first hit on the charts to get anywhere near the general level of horniness of most young underground rap in LA), and the general attitude is one of relaxed acceptance of the good things that come their way. What’s more, most everything that comes their way is good; aside from party anthems these are some of the least negative rap records I’ve ever heard. Here, YG presents a perfect encapsulation of the idea, and if you’re offended by his “fuck ‘em and forget em’” theme, he would like you to know that women can toot it and boot it, too.
Cee Lo Green—”Fuck You!”
What’s so surprising about the reaction to this great record is that after over a decade of graphic rap records finding their way onto the charts, its language still has the power to shock. Largely that’s because this is a pop record—and a great up, at that—and though pop records often deal in broken romance, they rarely deal in the anger stage of the grieving process, and when they do they tend not to sound so bright and catchy. The retro-soul arrangement adds to the effect, by seeming to come from, and pay homage to, an era when those sorts of words never appeared on pop records. Of course, if you do a little digging you can find alternate versions of some big pop hits with amazingly dirty lyrics, often recorded by the original artists as a break from their clean-cut facades (check out Jackie Wilson and Lavern Baker’s “Think Twice (Version X)” some time). Cee Lo’s just working the idea in reverse.
I’d appreciate the bouncy friendliness of this song a lot more if every verse didn’t start with a promising idea that went nowhere. Just when you think Keith is going to break through a cliche he comes back with another one. Tom T. Hall he ain’t.
Jazmine Sullivan—”Holding You Down (Goin’ In Circles)”
Every time I hear this song I like it more, but every time it seems more like a lost opportunity as well. The problem isn’t Sullivan, who has matured since her last album and will probably make great records in the future, but Missy Elliott’s production, which is too weird and hit and miss to work. There are great moments here, including some of a soulful intensity that’s truly surprising, but too much of the rest, with the constant shoutouts and odd sounds coming from nowhere, is confusing and inexplicable. Maybe someday I’ll understand, but right now this sounds like an experiment that doesn’t quite come off.
Josh Thompson—”Way Out Here”
Yet another country elegy, only this one sounds both pumped up and defensive. It opens and closes with a threat, and in between spouts enough defiant rural cliches to sound like a candidate for a Tea Party anthem. I wonder how Johnny cash would feel about being on Thompson’s list of of what people “way out here” are all about.
Drake featuring Kanye West, Lil Wayne & Eminem—”Forever”
The beat is rote, the raps display a high amount of craft but little inspiration, and the air of self-congratulation is so thick it’s a wonder anyone else can breathe when these guys are in the room, but that’s not what makes this record so offensive. What’s makes this record so offensive is Drake, who lies through his teeth every damn minute of it. Exactly when did a guy who was a regular cast member on a successful TV series from the time he was fifteen shovel shit at the mall? When he was signing autographs on promotional tours? Or was that an episode of DeGrassi High he somehow confused with real life the way Ronald Reagan used to argue government policy by reminiscing about movies he’d been in? And when Drake says “nothing was done for me” what exactly does he mean? He’s got Lil Wayne for a mentor, he’s got a father who’s a well-respected session drummer, and his uncle is Larry Graham, formerly of Sly and the Family Stone and Graham Central Station, one of the most influential bass players in the history of funk and R&B. None of them lent him a hand or showed him a few chops or opened the occasional door or offered a few words of advice? Ever? I realize it’s accepted in the rap world to emphasize and exaggerate your hard knock past, but inventing one out of whole cloth strikes me as going way too far.
Drake featuring Lil Wayne & Young Jeezy—”I’m Going In”
Drake has nothing to say, Lil Wayne sounds uninspired and repeats himself, and Young Jeezy says “motherfucker” a lot. This is a statement of purpose?
Weird lyrics; they seem defensive, as if they were trying to justify the metaphorical excesses of her first hit, “Bleeding Love”. Maybe somebody suggested to Ryan Tedder he’d gone a little too far last time. Whatever the case, this is, thankfully, less self-abusive than “Bleeding” (or at least less graphic), and the chorus, surprisingly enough, almost lives up to the title. If Lewis wasn’t trying so hard to be the new Mariah Carey this might even be tolerable.
Kid Cudi featuring MGMT & Ratatat—”Pursuit of Happiness (Nightmare)”
It opens with Cudi (or at least his “lonely stoner” persona) rolling a joint, ends with a booze and dope fueled hangover, and in between ruminates, without relying too heavily on banalities, on a stoner lifestyle that sounds half fun and games and half self-medicated chronic depression. In other words, an interesting record, but also a trifle boring. The sound effects provided by Ratatat and MGMT are far less interesting than the borrowed dubstep of “Day ‘n’ Nite”; if this is the kind of music the guy listens to on a regular basis, it’s no wonder he doesn’t want to get out of bed
LMFAO—”La La La”
Their borrowed lover man moves and borrowed techno are far less entertaining than their borrowed offensiveness (see “I’m In Miami Bitch”). Which wasn’t all that entertaining to begin with.
Mariah Carey—”I Want To Know What Love Is”
In a way I feel sorry for Carey. After mounting her comeback and making the best music of her career over her last two albums (which wouldn’t be saying much, I know, execpt that there was truly excellent material on both records), she finds the ground shifting under her feet once again. The modern R&B she mastered so effortlessly had peaked with Usher over a year before her comeback album, and her older, massively successful style has been usurped by the likes of Leona Lewis, who gushes over-the-top sentimentality in a way Carey wouldn’t think to do now. And so, after a few flop singles and a couple of hits that were nowhere near the overwhelming sellers she’s used to, Carey goes back to the safety position of the power ballad (and a hoary old 80′s classic power ballad at that—”classic” in this case meaning a Foreigner song that everyone has heard to death already), unleashes her pipes at the upper limit of her range (though only near the end and deep in the mix, thank God), and generally pulls out all the commercial stops, and still the best she can get for a debut is number 66. The shame of it is that until this takes off for the Church of Our Lady Mariah of the Golden Larynx it shows more maturity and subtlety and soulfullness than any ballad she’s ever recorded. It’s not a great song, but for awhile she almost makes something great out of it—until, that is, she feels the need to ignore the song completely and massage her audience with her voice.
The Black Eyed Peas—”Meet Me Halfway”
Like it or not, Fergie’s feigned soulfulness is a kind of home truth for a lot of fans out there, and I for one think that the Peas’ resistance to polishing up their singing is an attribute, certainly commercially if not always artistically. They appear to have no aesthetic principals at all, yet also come across as both friendly and likeable. This could be nothing but commercial calculation, but since they were pretty much like that even when they weren’t selling any records (and since “My Humps”, which is obviously the pattern for a lot of the new album, took them as much by surprise as anyone), I doubt it. They may well have fallen on this formula by accident, but who can fault them for running with it? Like it or not, they’re producing something that’s truly new, and they’ve convinced an army of fans to go along with them.
Bon Jovi—”We Weren’t Born To Follow”
No, you were born to endlessy repeat yourself. And you’re good at it.
The All-American Rejects—”I Wanna”
There’s actually a fairly nifty, if totally unoriginal, song under all the ego flashing, and under the influence of the remasters I detect a similarity in structure, melody and rhythm to the Rubber Soul era Beatles. But the Beatles usually knew how to keep their egos from getting in the way of their music (at least most of the time), something I doubt these guys will ever learn. To them, flaunting their ego is the music.
Carrie Underwood—”Cowboy Casanova”
Always hip to the latest fab trends, Underwood harkens to the success of Katy Perry, mines some bubble-glam rhythms from the seventies, and even dresses up in a glittery drum-majorette jacket for the cover (or icon, or whatever you call it these days). It’s nice to see Nashville paying attention to a different part of the seventies, even if they still remain lost in that decade. The lyrics are generic, and this doesn’t hit as hard as “Before He Cheats”, but I suspect good clean fun like this is the best we can ever expect from Underwood.
Alice In Chains—”Check My Brain”
I have one question: did they distort those guitars the old-fashioned way, by playing with the tape reels, or did they auto-tune them? Also, is it just my imagination, or is this song actually about how nice it is to live in California? I’m probably missing some ironic or cynical lyrical clue, but I can’t bring myself to listen closely enough to find out. Those guitars give me too much of a headache.