the illiterate top ten record review archive
 

This archive contains my review of every song to make the top ten in 2008. Songs are arranged alphabetically by artist and then in order by date. The date under each review marks it's first appearence in the top ten, followed (in red) by it's peak position. The row of pictures above is the current top ten.

2008    2007    2006    2004-2005    1966

 

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Akon
Right Now (Na Na Na)
My distaste for Akon is so strong that this, competent and inoffensive as it is, almost took me by surprise, and I find myself tempted to overate it. The man has his talents, after all, and this is skillfully put together and has its enjoyable moments (I especially like the subdued drum track, which almost sounds like a real kit at times, though I'll bet it isn't). I still think that his voice has lost much of what made it interesting a few years ago, but when he isn't singing about banging strippers or trying to justify his crude behavior it still carries enough of the old plaintiveness to get by. He lacks any true style or charm, though, and he still has nothing to say. Competent and inoffensive may be the best we can ever expect from him.
11/7/2008 #8

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Christina Aguilera
Keeps Gettin' Better
At the risk of offending 90% of the few people who read this page, this is Katy Perry without balls. Her retro move having tanked, Aguilera wisely modernizes her sound, but refuses to go all the way, and unwisely holds on to her least appealing feature, a tendency to oversing and bring out the brass on the choruses. The rest is electrically filtered, mild-mannered Chapman-Chinn, and who needs that?
10/10/08 #7

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David Archuleta
Crush
Having been robbed (the verb his fans would use) of the opportunity to release one of American Idol's sickening big finale ballads as his first single, Archuleta finds a sickening ballad of his own. A better one than David Cook's, in fact--which means that it only induces faint dizziness and nausea instead of actually making you want to vomit.
8/22/08 #2

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Natasha Bedingfield
Pocketful of Sunshine
After all the hoops her record company put her through to get her second album released in the US (roughly half the tracks are different from the original UK version--among the missing is the daringly satirical, woefully misunderstood "I Wanna Have Your Babies"), Bedingfield's bright, catchy ode to a life free and uncontrolled carries more resonance than first appears. If only I could believe her dreams of a place where rivers flow and there are "no lies, only butterflies" (ugh), were at least partly ironic. I mean, even if you've already admitted to yourself that you're not Shelley or Keats, that doesn't mean you stop trying. Unless, that is, you've been totally ground down by your record company.
5/9/08 #5

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Beyonce
If I Were A Boy
No one does the combination of anger and hurt, rage and vulnerability, better than Beyonce, and this is almost a textbook example of how to dramatize a lyric and milk every ounce of emotion you can get out of it. It helps that the restrained arrangement allows her to take center stage without distraction and that the lyrics themselves, with their sudden shifts in perspective, give her a chance to flex her dramatic muscles. But that doesn't mean that you ever for a moment forget that it's an act, or that as true as the message may be to some, that the record is anything more than highly crafted sentimentality.
10/31/08 #3

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Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)
This is so widely recognized as a sharp and perfectly executed dance number that I'll forgo any specific criticism and go straight to a more general question: is Beyonce capable of recording a song about male-female relationships that isn't full of either malice or menace? As bouncy and upbeat as this is, there's a miasma of ominous chords filling the background, as if the guy she's singing to not only risks losing her, but being cursed by all womankind as well. She doesn't just slap him around, she threatens him with extinction. Has she always had this chip on her shoulder, or is it just living with Jay-Z? Whatever the case, there's something that seems both compulsive and calculated about it, and it certainly makes her one of a kind.
11/28/08 #1

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Chris Brown
With You
I may as well say it out front: I hate Chris Brown, and every record he puts out just makes me hate him more. Whether it's the cliche ridden material, his mush-mouthed singing, or just the overall sleazy vibe I get from his records I can't quite say, my reasons shift from record to record. Here, it's cliche overload combined with a sort of pseudo-"We Are The World" bait-and-switch effect. That is, the music makes the song feel like some banal world peace anthem, when it's really about Chris' desire to get into his Boo's hot pants. Then again, maybe it's just the word "Boo" itself, an intended endearment I find even more offensive than "Shawty". "Shawty" is patronizing and condescending, but at least it sounds like it has real affection behind it. "Boo" is not only patronizing and condescending, it's childish, vague, and cute in the most repulsively manipulative manner possible. Kind of like Brown himself.
1/18/08 #2

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forever
In most cases, when a producer (here it's Polow Da Don) slaps together obvious borrowings from previous hits in the hope of making a big score, the result is so calculated and false you can almost hear the cynicism and smell the desperation. This is an exception. The borrowings--from "Umbrella" and "Don't Stop the Music", along with some T-Pain-style auto-tuning and a Ne-Yo-like uptempo four-four--are impossible not to notice, but their familiarity, which might have killed a lesser record, instead fills this with pleasing echoes of every buoyant, joyous moment to grace a pop record over the last year, tying them all up in a single irresistible package. The lyrics, as usual, are nonsense, and Brown still sings as if he has an oversized wad of bubblegum in his mouth, but it doesn't matter. By the end of the summer we'll all be sick of it, but right now this sounds like the first great top ten record of the year. It's about time.
5/2/08 #2

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Buckcherry
sorry
I was going to go the easy route on this song, pointing out its obvious cliches, how it fit in perfectly with the current string of apology songs, the whole wrapped in yet another overly-melodramatic power-ballad. Then I would consign Buckcherry to whatever circle of hell is reserved for lying, manipulative, boring rock bands (which is probably damn full by now), and forget about it. But let's face facts: Buckcherry, and so many bands like them, produce this crap because it sells, and it sells because there are people out there who love the idea of their worthless mates down on all fours begging forgiveness. In other words, it appeals to the audiences' worst fantasies of emotional power and revenge, with the added bonus of sweet sweet love with a regretful, fully compliant, and humiliated rock star (after they've finally deigned to forgive him, which probably won't take long). Meanwhile, the guy is just saying whatever he can to get himself laid (or sell his record). The song is so vague in its details he may have done nothing more than forget to wash the dishes, but the melodramatic quality of it all suggests something far worse (as does the title of the next song on the LP: "Crazy Bitch"). Whichever side you look at, it's an unhealthy relationship. Is there such a thing as battered audience syndrome?
2/15/08 #9

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Mariah Carey
Touch My Body
Whatever Mariah Carey's "emancipation" actually means, it certainly has loosened her up. This record contains all the requisite melismatic writhing and moaning, but it saves it for the end, where it belongs, and submerges it under the chorus, so that it becomes subtle decoration rather than, as it was so many times in the past, the whole point. The rest is relaxed and sexy and funny in a way Carey has rarely managed in the past. It's also more realistic--she'll give her partner everything she's got, but, with one eye always on the lookout for the tabloids, if the guy is stupid enough to brag about it, she'll waste him (or, as she puts it in the most intelligent use of her vocal prowess I've heard, "I will hunt you down"). This is fluff, and no doubt there's plenty of balladic bombast to come, but as a lead-off to the new album it's more promising than expected (and the remix, featuring Rick Ross and The Dream, is even better).
4/4/08 #1

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Coldplay
Viva La Vida
Brian Eno's production ads musical focus, and Chris Martin's voice sounds sharper when he has real things to sing about, as opposed to spiritual vagaries we'd understand if only we could see them flying out of the underground like he does. All the same, melodically this sounds a lot like "Speed of Sound", and the toppled king Martin goes on about seems more metaphorical (a broken romance? Tony Blair? EMI?) than actual. What's more, pair this with the simultaneously released Violet Hill (can't really call them a and b sides, can you?), and you catch a whiff of that old dinosaur, the concept album. Talk about fallen kings.
5/30/08 #1

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David Cook
The Time of My life
Given the notorious quality of the songs chosen for American Idol's finales, Cook has no choice but to croak cliches, and whether or not he has any actual talent or ideas of his own is impossible to say. The other ten performances he put on the Hot 100 this week don't provide an answer, either--Idol's arrangers and producers are incapable of creating anything but muzak, even out of the Beatles and Chris Cornellized Michael Jackson. It's almost enough to make you wonder if there isn't a decent song here, buried under all the glop, just waiting for the right producer to bring it out, though the banality of the lyrics and the total absence of melody in the verses would seem to rule that out. As for Cook--he signed the contract, and he sings as if he's still signing it.
5/31/08 #3

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Miley Cyrus
See You Again
The idea here seems to be cute but determined, and it would be a good one if the record weren't so lacking in charm. Considering her Disney stardom, it's something of a surprise to find that Cyrus doesn't do cute very well, at least not vocally: the awestruck clutz on the choruses sounds like more of an act than the tougher girl-on-the-prowl of the verses. Since this is technically Cyrus's record as opposed to her Hannah Montana character, maybe she's trying to play down the cute, but as a fifteen-year-old there aren't too many other options, at least as far as love songs are concerned. That hasn't stopped the slightly older Taylor Swift from making great records, but then Swift doesn't have the puritanical ghost of Walt Disney breathing down her neck, either. Of course, if Cyrus didn't have Disney to provide her with exposure--as well as songwriters like Tim James and Antonina Armato (who also wrote Aly & AJ's far superior "Potential Breakup Song")--she wouldn't have gotten into the top ten at all.
4/25/08 #10

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7 Things
This has its charms, and if there's one thing the writing and production team of Amato and James know it's how to deploy hooks and make performers sound good. But let's face it, Cyrus isn't a performer so much as a marketing scheme, and this is designed to hit the tweener demographic right between the eyes. The sophistication of the arrangement hints at maturity, which only makes Cyrus sound more like a teenager, and the shifting tempos allow tweeners to cycle through all their moods (do they have more than three?) in the space of a single song. The final result: demographic button pushing at the highest possible level of achievement, and I bet it makes daddy proud.
6/27/2008 #10

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Danity Kane
Damaged
Though in the recent past some may have acted more repulsively (stand up and approach the bench, R. Kelly), or more hypocritically (take a bow, Akon), is there anyone in pop music right now who's capable of such levels of self-serving, self-aggrandizing horseshit as Diddy? He knows how to put a record together--though I doubt anyone would use "Damaged" as an example of that--and he certainly knows how to market them, but all of those skills are in service to nothing but his own ego, and Diddy's ego, at least in musical terms, is as tasteless as they come. This record is nonsense from start to finish: the flashy production, designed for nothing more than to show off Diddy's command of vocal arrangement, is in direct contradiction to the song's crudely realized lyrical theme (which could actually serve as a fitting follow-up to "Bleeding Love"). This disconnect is bad enough, but it's nothing compared to the coda, when Diddy steps out of his producer's chair and up to the mike to offer a few supposedly comforting words on the transience of emotional pain. The trouble is he sounds like he's kissing off his protege's musical careers more than anything else. "This too shall pass," he murmurs, "Danity Kane". Is he delivering a eulogy? Then, as the record fades out, a sampled woman's voice utters the single word "stereotypes". Am I just hearing things, or is this as sadistically cruel as it seems to be? I'm sure the members of Danity Kane know they're disposable commodities and little else, and they're milking their brief time in the spotlight for all they can get, but do they realize that Diddy's already burying them? Can't they feel the dirt he's throwing on their faces?
5/16/08 #10

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Estelle
American Boy (featuring Kanye West)
The beat is too heavy at times for my taste, but otherwise you'd need to strain your memory to its limits to find a record of the last few years as breezy and charming as this one. Most of that charm is Estelle's alone, though Kanye's lighthearted boasting provides a perfect bridge. She's funny, self-deprecating--her ideal boy stands 5 foot 7, a neat reference to Estelle's own lack of elevation--with a voice that's lighter than air (she's obviously spent a lot of time listening to Cory Daye). Not even a major label's major stupidity could keep this out of the top ten. How wonderful, after the rest of this painfully mediocre year, to finally find a record (at least one that was actually released this year) that so obviously deserves to be here.
9/19/08 #9

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Lupe Fiasco
Superstar (featuring Matthew Santos)
It would be easy to write Fiasco off as a Kanye-clone, but if his vocal rhythms aren't quite his own, his rhymes are, and for all his apparent knowingness he carries a sense of innocent theatricality that West can't manage anymore. But then, West has lived superstardom, while Fiasco is still watching from a distance. For all the reservations that invade his bathroom mirror fantasy of fame, he still has no real idea of what he's talking about. Still, there are worse things than being a clever outsider, especially one who can stretch a metaphor, or a spotlight, to its outer limits without sounding ridiculous.
3/14/08 #10

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Flo Rida
In the Ayer (featuring Will.I.am)
Not long ago, Will.I.am's productions were so packed with ideas that, even when they didn't work--when they seemed misdirected or in need of some insightful editing or often plain ridiculous--they were at least entertaining. Here he balances that unguided overabundance by producing a record that, as far as I can tell, has no ideas in it at all. He couldn't have been expecting Flo Rida to take up the slack, could he?
9/12/08 #9

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Ray J &
Yung Berg
Sexy Can I
Minimalist ringtone stripper rap, with every cliche in place except Akon and T-Pain; they must have been on vacation.
3/14/08 #3

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Jay-Z & T.I.
Swagga Like Us (featuring Kanye West & Lil' Wayne)
This, as Kanye has already suggested in reference to his new single, "Love Lockdown", is the new gangster. T.I. says it best: "You go see Weezy for the wordplay/Jeezy for the verbplay/Kanyeezy for diversity/and me for controversy." In popular terms, these are the four hottest rappers around, and with M.I.A. providing the tough-guy framework they're free to express an attitude that relies more on brains and style than strength and bluster. It's like the shift in gangster and detective movies from Public Enemy and Scarface to The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep; suddenly a sharp suit and sharp wits are more important than strong fists and a gat (though those help in a pinch). And they don't waste their time in strip clubs. Compare this with D.J. Khaled's records (the best of which also includes T.I. and Wayne, who are still willing to work both sides of the divide) and you have as neat an illustration of rap's past and its (possible) future as you could want. Until some upstart shows up in a few years and blows them all out of the water, that is.
9/19/08 #5

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Jonas
Brothers
Burnin' Up
The one thing I appreciate about teen punk-pop--even, or perhaps especially, the Disney version--is the tempo. It sounds, to me at least, the way pop music is supposed to sound: fast, catchy, exuberant. So even if this ultimately comes across as nothing more than a teen take-off on Maroon 5, complete with its own form of Disneyfied sexism, in principal I approve. Eventually someone with more talent and sense and artistic ambition is bound to jump onto the bandwagon. Given a chance, it might even be the Jonas Brothers themselves. I know that train left the station years ago, but the kids don't know, or better yet, don't care. More power to them, I say.
7/4/08 #5

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Tonight
Another insta-hit from the boys, on the charts one week and off the next, and as high speed bubblegum it isn't bad. You don't expect anything profound from a bunch of coddled teenagers, especially when they write their own material, but they should be congratulated for not embarrassing themselves. None of the teasers they've been flashing from their new album has been worth getting excited about, but none of them have been disasters, either. As Disney tween fodder they're tougher than you might expect, and as pop-punkers they're better than The All American Rejects and The Plain White Ts. If Nick would only dump that affected nasal punk sneer, I might even mistake them for the real thing.
8/8/08 #8

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Kardinal Offishall
Dangerous (featuring Akon)
As a songwriter and producer, Akon has become a master at placing readymade hooks--usually with a touch of New Jack Swing--in uncomplicated settings where they jump right out at you and take your money before you realize what's happening. But if he's capable of much else, I haven't heard it. I do find it interesting, though, that since his initial success his songs have become increasingly less sweet, and that the perfidy of women has become a major theme (he even convinced Gwen Stefani to call herself a bitch). As for the good Kardinal, in six months he'll be yet another example of that age-old one-word question: Who?
7/25/08 #5

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Sean Kingston
Take You There
Though I'm sure there are many people who think so, "Beautiful Girls" wasn't just a fluke. There was real talent involved there, though whether it was Kingston's or his producer J. Rotem's is a perfectly justifiable question. Whatever the case, here they both come up a little short. Though it's nice to hear social comment wrapped in something other than gangsta rap, the overall effect of this record is so bland it doesn't come close to getting their message, whatever it's supposed to be, across. It doesn't help that Kingston sings about the pleasures of the beach with as little feeling as he sings about the terrors of the Jamaican slums. His lack of vocal maturity added charm to "Beautiful Girls"--here it makes you wonder if he's had much actual experience of the beach or the streets.
1/18/08 #7

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Lady GaGa
Just Dance (featuring Colby O'Donis)
With a name like Lady GaGa, it's no surprise this record hooks on the line "I love this record, baby, but I can't see straight anymore." Not to sound like a prude, but I do have my doubts about a record that advises women who are so drunk they don't even know where they are and whose cell phone has disappeared to just keep dancing until they find a guy who'll be nice enough to notice them and take them home. Especially when that guy turns out to be Colby O'Donis (who sounds like he wants to be Chris Brown), with Akon playing puppetmaster in the background. The music plows ahead regardless, though its muddy melange of hip-hop and techno doesn't lend much in the way of excitement. The doubling of GaGa's vocals at the end (is she seeing double, too?) is nice, though, and there are some other neat little vocal hooks which suggest that she may have more brains than her moniker, or this song, let on. If so, I bet she's really going to regret this in the morning.
11/28/08 #1

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Leona Lewis
Bleeding Love
Yuck. The over-the-top arrangement is tasteless enough--dirge organ slipping into a portentous hip-hop rhythm decorated with Casio beats, fading at the end into strings playing what sounds like a requiem--but the lyrics, with their constant references to cutting, open veins, scars, and life bleeding away, are even worse. For the final touch, Lewis sings with a pseudo-operatic, melismatic intensity that puts her somewhere between Celine Dion and Mariah Carey in the gifted-but-totally-self-absorbed sweepstakes. If Beyonce or Ciara or Pink or some other woman with an ounce of self-respect doesn't get back in the top ten soon, this piece of romantic masochism could set pop-feminism back twenty years. Brought to you by the Diva-loving Simon Cowell, and endorsed by Oprah, who should know better.
3/21/08 #1

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Lil' Mama
Shawty Get Loose (featuring Chris Brown and T-Pain)
This is a good record, but it pisses me off. What was great about "Lip Gloss", in addition to its thundering old school beats, was the aggressive, sarcastic, attitude-filled force of Lil' Mama's personality. She was all that and then some. Here she's some of that, but not much, and you'll need to strain to find it. She could be anybody, and once Chris Brown and T-Pain arrive on the hook, the record's theirs, so much so that Lil' Mama's second verse almost comes as a surprise. Considering how long it's taken for this follow up and her long-delayed album, this doesn't bode well. The world doesn't need another anonymous rapper with guest stars; it needs the glossy Lil' Mama. I only hope she hasn't disappeared for good.
3/28/08 #10

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Lil' Wayne
Lollipop
The real indicator of how stoned Wayne was when he made this isn't the sparse, distorted, stretched-out sound, it's the length. At five minutes, it's a one-idea, single-entendre track that seems to go on forever. Eventually, it turns into a looping, blissed-out, groove for the sake of the groove--an exercise in blunt-sharpened attention to the infinitesimal details found in the silence between the beats. He isn't in There's A Riot Goin' On territory (the lyrics are too generic for that), but he's heading in the right direction. Since dope is generally less damaging than freebasing, Wayne may avoid the inevitable self-collapse that usually follows the kind of artistic breakthrough he's demonstrated over the last year. He may still have a career, and even something to say, five years from now. Then again, if the lyrics are any indication, he may just say fuck it and turn into 50 Cent.
3/28/08 #1

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A Milli
What's most surprising about this record is how formally unpop it is while still being catchy as hell. The hooks, if you can call them that, are built around those moments Wayne pauses for breath or to gather his thoughts in the midst of his stream-of-consciousness freestyling. His delivery is so distinctive, in its sense of both rhythm and timbre, that he makes every bit of boast and brag sound original. And when he chuckles to himself he's as cute and charming as Miley Cyrus. But even though he's king of the non-sequiter simile, he's not saying anything here that you haven't heard before. Which is why this is a good record and not a great one.
7/18/08 #6

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Got Money (featuring T-Pain)
Are you tired of Lil Wayne yet? I have to admit that I am, though I also admit this may be simple exhaustion at hearing him on every other rap record rather than an aesthetic judgment. Like the old saw about actors giving their best performances in rehearsal, Wayne seems to have left a lot of his best stuff on his mixtapes. This is the third single from Tha Carter III to make top ten, and though it isn't bad, it's easily the least interesting cut from the album that I've heard. Is the presence of T-Pain really that powerful? Or are we reaching that "inertia of fame" point, when everything Wayne releases (or appears on) will sell, regardless of quality?
9/19/08 #10

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Demi Lovato
&
Joe Jonas
This Is Me
On principal, I have nothing against the current public embrace of old fashioned show-biz verities, whether it's on American Idol or the Disney Channel or even The Pussycat Dolls. Most of it, like this record, is soulless crap, but at least it has style and energy and a refreshing--and probably feigned, but what the hell--innocence and lack of irony. Better yet, its willed belief in itself as the mainstream--which, at the moment, doesn't actually exist--will give the real mainstream, once it reassembles itself, something to push and strengthen itself against. The kids who, in years to come, will form that rebellious force are probably some of the same ones who are eating this stuff up right now, internalizing its self-help homilies and calls to action and vows of determination. Think with what joyful, wistful nostalgia they'll remember these carefree, innocent facades, and what uninhibited glee they'll take in knocking them all down. And think of what fun it's going to be to watch them, even when they're as wrong as they are now.
7/4/08 #10

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Madonna
Four Minutes (featuring Justin Timberlake)
The sheer amount of craft evinced on this record is impressive. Not a single rhythmic trick is missed, from Timbaland's vocal interjections to Timberlake's grunts to Madonna's "Tick-tock" panning across the stereo field. But Timbaland's vocal interjections are no different from those he's applied to dozens of other records, Timberlake's grunts sound forced, and Madonna's "Tick-tock" is the only clever moment on the entire record. For a track that reprises the theme of Prince's "1999", it also lacks in what might be called apocalyptic gusto. In other words, long in craft but short on inspiration, with Madonna's implied suggestion that only bad intentions (i.e., sex) can save the world the sole sign of the spirit that drove her records in the past.
4/4/08 #3

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Jesse McCartney
Leavin'
Compared to McCartney's previous output, this seems like a tremendous step forward, but considering how far back he started that's not saying much. Throw Christopher "Tricky" Stewart, The Dream, and The Neptunes at a track, no matter whose, and you're bound to come up with something bright and listenable. The arrangement and production's real achievement, though, is covering up and discouraging McCartney's more irritating vocal mannerisms. Now, instead of veering dangerously close to minstrelsy, he just sounds like a second-rate Justin Timberlake.
5/9/08 #10

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metro station
shake it
With its barely disguised double entendres, this is surprisingly adult in tone for a band whose main members were introduced to each other by their mothers on the set of Hannah Montana. With a sound that can barely be separated from kid sister Miley's, "Shake It" could easily be taken as a more realistic version of the teenage fantasy life pushed by the Disney Channel--one more baby step up the shaky ladder to adulthood. Otherwise, this is pretty standard, catchy pop-punk, and without the Montana connection (MySpace phenoms, my ass) they wouldn't be on the charts at all. There is one thing that fascinates me about this record, though. On the intro, as the drums kick in, the lead singer shouts what I first heard as "Let's Rock!" What a retro cliche, I thought, but it turns out I heard it wrong. What he says is "Let's drop!" There's nothing wrong with applying rap and hip-hop terminology to rock (they'd hardly be the first), but converting "Let the beat drop" in this way opens up some interesting possibilities for future catchphrases. Will people shout "Drop on!" at their shows? Will fans of the style (drop 'n' roll?) be called droppers? Will they spend their nights reelin' and droppin'? Will there some day be a Hard Drop Cafe? Will Kid Rock need to change his name?
6/20/08 #10

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M.I.A.
Paper Planes
If the theory that stoners made this year-old record a hit is correct, then we have them to thank for putting a near perfect song--one in solidarity with third world revolutionary movements, at that--into the top five of the usually bland and apolitical pop charts. It's almost enough to warrant a Congressional investigation. Except even when she's cutting the third world equivalent of gangsta rap, M.I.A.'s solidarity is ambivalent at best, and not above being critical. She isn't espousing the idea of kids running around with shotguns, looting and smuggling and running drugs to finance revolution. She's simply pointing out their existence, their confused motivations and sense of pride, and, via the sample from The Clash's greatest song, "Straight To Hell", their origins in the chaos left by colonial and imperial collapse. In others words, there are more depths of subtlety here than most stoners, and most other members of the pop audience (not to mention members of Congress), will ever seek out. It makes every other record on the charts seem not only simple--which, in a way, it is as well, and should be--but simplistic. And it should make every rapper who's parked his soul in the strip club bow his head in shame.
8/15/08 #4

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Jason Mraz
I'm Yours
You knew there had to be a male version of Colbie Caillat, right? Only since he's a guy he's a little more down to earth; he also goes on a lot longer. His job is to convince you, for tonight at least, that he's the man of your dreams, and with his "you're really too much for me but if you really wanna, well I guess so" schtick, he may succeed. But any self-respecting goddess would spit him out as lukewarm as soon as they'd had a taste.
9/5/08 #6

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Yael Naim
New Soul
Although the success of this record, along with Feist's "1, 2, 3, 4", might suggest that whoever is picking the songs for Apple's ad campaigns is some sort of programming genius, in reality the process is a no-brainer: find a young woman with striking but non-traditional good looks, singing songs that are cute and quirky and with the highest possible catchiness quotient, and flood the airways with them (and, yes, that goes for Sara Bareilles and her Rhapsody ad, as well, even though it's a much better song). "New Soul", which has the added hook of a singer with an intriguing European/Israeli accent, is not only the fastest seller of the bunch, it's also the worst. It's even worse than the non-commercialized "Bubbly", which, despite a similar simplemindedness, at least had some sexual suggestiveness working for it. "New Soul" is nothing but bland daily affirmation music; chicken soup for Steve Jobs' soul, if he has one.
2/8/2008 #7

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Ne-Yo
closer
This has all the elements of a classic, but then so has every other Ne-Yo single, and none of them have come any closer (no pun intended) to being the masterpiece his fans, including me, claim is in him. The problem is that despite his mastery of hook and groove, like so many hit making machines (think Mariah Carey or Rihanna) he lacks any distinctive personality or vision. Think of the great soul hitmakers of the past, from Smokey Robinson and Curtis Mayfield through Al Green and Eugene Record to Michael Jackson and Prince and Timbaland. For good or bad there were more than sharp hooks or hot grooves to their records. Sometimes the vision was ridiculous, and sometimes the personality might piss you off, but their force and importance were undeniable. The comparison is probably unfair, but as of yet, I hear nothing like that from Ne-Yo. This is more a problem for him as a performer than as a songwriter (think how much Beyonce added to "Irreplaceable"), but it's a major deficit, and it keeps him from being anything more--at least on his own records--than a high-classed craftsman.
8/8/08 #7

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Miss Independent
Like all great soul men, Ne-Yo's subject is love and romance, but within that he's carved his own special niche: the ins and outs of relationships between men and women who are, in every essential way--emotionally, intellectually, economically--equals. Ne-Yo is a gentleman partly because he wants to be, but also because he has to be--it's the only correct way to approach the ladies he sings about. On Year of the Gentleman, "Miss Independent" serves to set the scene for the more detailed and personal observations of relationships that follow. As a single, it's somewhat generic, but its mixture of admiration suffused with lust gets the message across. It's not the best song on Year of the Gentleman, but it's a perfect introduction to the themes that drive the album, and it's not bad on its own, either.
10/17/08 #7

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Nickelback
Gotta Be Somebody
Hey, maybe these guys have brains after all. Having watched Daughtry ape their style with great success over the last year, they expand their reach by modernizing just enough to keep on top of the post-grunge, leather-vocal-cords heap. Why, the tempo is so fast and mechanical you could almost dance to it! So as not to scare their longtime fans, however, they keep the lyrical cliche quotient (for which Chad Kroeger, amazingly enough, gets a special songwriting credit) as high, if not higher, than ever. And Kroeger still sings as if he were crushing his own balls with his newly acquired effects pedal.
10/10/08 #10

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Katy Perry
I Kissed a Girl
Just to state the obvious, this is not a lesbian or bisexual anthem; this is burlesque. It has the same quality of knowing coyness, the tease and titillation, designed to arouse and amuse without making any promises. I imagine most of its sales are to women who can't wait to sing along and taunt their boyfriends--and maybe some of their more uptight girlfriends--to death. The rest of the sales are to guys who've been suckered, with maybe a few to guys who know they've been suckered and appreciate the fact. Pro-sex feminists should love it. Me, I like it, and it certainly brightens up the top ten. But it isn't anything new or the end of civilization (or pop music) as we know it. If it were about two guys making out, though--now that would be something to get excited about.
6/6/08 #1

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Hot N Cold
Though it lacks that mid-70s chug cha-chugga, this is even more reminiscent of the glory days of British bubblegum glam--with '40s pinup iconography instead of shiny sci-fi jumpsuits unzipped to the navel--than "I Kissed a Girl". If Dr. Luke and Max Martin want to play at being Mike Chapman and Nicky Chinn for awhile, as long as the songs are fun and properly meaningless, I say more power to them. As for complaints about Perry's voice, have you listened to "Ballroom Blitz" lately?
9/26/08 #3

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P!nk
So What?
As much as I appreciate P!nk's off-handed honesty and sense of humor, this is too much of a generic throwaway to make an impression. I understand the need to maintain an ironic distance even from what appears to be an amicable divorce, but does that have to extend to making a record with thin sound, lame hooks, and not a single decent joke? Maybe the divorce took more out of her than she's willing to admit.
8/29/08 #1

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Plies
Bust It Baby Part 2 (featuring Ne-Yo)
This is like some old time comedy act: the smooth, handsome, sophisticated straight man, and the cruder, lewder, more down to earth funny guy. Except Ne-Yo sounds more mechanical here than sophisticated, and Plies is a grotesque: lewd and crude to be sure, but never funny. There's a case to made for this kind of record, revealing the two sides of male desire, etc., but that would require some sort of human connection between the performers and the audience, and I don't get any sense of that here. Plies is just showing off, which he wouldn't be able to do if Ne-Yo--who's doing nothing more than cashing a check on a decent hook he doesn't consider worth developing himself--wasn't there to hold the record up.
6/27/08 #7

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The Pussycat Dolls
When I Grow Up
Unlike a lot of people, I don't mind the idea of The Pussycat Dolls. Though the singles off their first album were of varying quality (only to be expected when there's a different producer for each one), I enjoyed their one dimensional, burlesque quality--if we're going to be constantly bombarded with songs about strippers, we should at least give the strippers a chance to sing as well. This, however, is an overarranged, overproduced mess, packed with mixed messages, and sung, apparently, by automatons. And though normally I would applaud the absence of a guest rapper, even someone on the level of Busta or Plies (maybe even The Game) could only improve things. Or, since this contains a Yardbirds (!!!) sample, maybe they could've gotten Jeff Beck to add a few more hoary riffs.
6/27/08 #9

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Rihanna
don't stop the music
D.H.T. and Cascada having broken the ice for retro-Eurotechno on the pop charts, Rihanna, with the help of Swedish producers Stargate, dives right in and finds the water fine. With no complicated emotions to get in the way, she sounds more comfortable and human singing this simple dance music than she does anything else, and, with the exception of "Umbrella", this is her warmest and friendliest record since her first, "Pon De Replay". I still suspect she's little more than a tool of her producers--but they're good producers, and what a versatile tool she is.
1/25/08 #3

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take a bow
This gets by on the lyrics, which are balder and nastier even than "Irreplaceable", Stargate and Ne-Yo's last foray into this territory. But with her umpteenth top ten in hand, it's finally time to speak the unspeakable about Rihanna: her problem isn't that she sings like a machine, but that she can barely sing at all. Though you'd never know it by listening to her voice, this song has a melodic chorus that should lift it straight up to pop heaven. But not only can't Rihanna soar, she hardly gets off the ground, and in deference to her weakness the arrangement downplays the moment and the whole song lies flat. I will admit, though, that she's a better singer than she is an actor. I mean, please.
5/16/08 #1

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Disturbia
This is a clever record--the "dum-dum-de-dum"s serving as an approximation of obsessive behavior, and Rihanna's endless melismalizing suggesting the approach of madness (which may be the first time anyone has applied it in quite that way)--but for the first time in her career Rihanna and/or her producers are starting to repeat themselves. Granted, "Disturbia" is the polar opposite of her other current top ten, "Take A Bow", but it still sounds and feels a lot like "S.O.S.". In "S.O.S.", though, it was love that was driving her crazy; here, there is no explanation, it's just an all-purpose breakdown. If "Take A Bow" wasn't so centered and defiant, you might start to worry about her. But I doubt if Rihanna herself, much less her fans, pays much attention to what her songs actually mean.
8/1/08 #1

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Kevin Rudolf & Lil'Wayne
Let It Rock
If we can have laptop dance music and laptop hip-hop, I suppose there's no reason we can't have laptop hair metal, as well. But there's still no reason we have to like it any more than we like regular hair metal, especially at this tempo, and even with Lil' Wayne shilling for it.
10/10/08 #5

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Snoop Dogg
Sensual Seduction
Say what you will about Snoop, but the guy is a master of adaptability, able to straddle multiple trends without the slightest show of strain. Retro-seventies soul? He can do that. A reemphasis on sensuality over lust and domination? No problem. Giving the woman her's first? Why certainly. Sing? Why not? Make it all sound so effortless you'd think he's been doing this schtick for the last twenty years? Dogg! One interesting thing, though. Every time I hear this, the first musical reference that comes to mind isn't Zapp or Rick James or any of the other soul singers who are constantly being mentioned in connection with this record, it's the Pet Shop Boys. Just listen to that intro again. They should cover it--it would be great, even if it couldn't possibly be as funny.
2/1/2008 #7

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Jordin
Sparks
No Air (featuring Chris Brown)
This is a good song perfectly produced, but the vocals are strictly amateur night. Sparks voice has no force behind it and when she reaches the climaxes she glides her way through the arrangement instead of dominating it. Meanwhile, Chris Brown is his usual mush-mouthed self. Put a couple of real singers on this track and you'd have a masterpiece; as it is it's pleasant enough, but it's also a missed opportunity.
3/7/08 #3

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Britney
Spears
Womanizer
All the signs point to Spears having pulled herself together (or maybe her family has done it for her). I'm happy for her, really I am, but this record has one of the dumbest choruses I've ever heard, and the rest isn't much better. The background is somewhat reminiscent of "Piece Of Me", but without the snap or menace that made that record so impressive, and Spears sounds as if she's just going through the motions. I can understand why she might want to play it safe, but why would she want to turn herself into an even blander Gwen Stefani?
10/17/08 #1

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Circus
The irony of Spear's plunge into personal and tabloid hell is that for the first time she has something to sing about--something beyond romance, that is--that resonates for her, and that her audience can feel, even if they don't completely understand it. Songs like "Gimme More" and, especially, "Piece of Me" (which moves further up my list of the best of '07 every time I hear it), demonstrated an emotional intensity and intelligence that she'd never approached before. If the singles from Circus sound less intense in comparison, in a way that only makes sense. Now that she appears to be back in control, or at least on an even keel, the emotional and sonic extremes of Blackout fade into the background--you can still hear them, but they're muted, less desperate in tone, as if she were acknowledging their existence but denying them any real power. The problem is that without their immediate emotional impact, whatever message Spears may be trying to get across gets lost, because in intellectual terms she doesn't have much to say. Though I understand why she wouldn't want to revisit those emotions, I don't understand why she wouldn't be willing to fake it. Does she think hauling out tired metaphors for the media whirl is going to get some deeper meaning across (especially when T-Pain and Pink are floating the same imagery at the same time)? This isn't a bad record, but let's face it, reflection, even uptempo pop reflection, doesn't really suit her.
12/12/08 #3

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Taylor Swift
Change
What the hell is going on here? The lyrics of this call to political action--from a country singer who's barely old enough to vote, no less--are intentionally generic and vague, never explicitly stating who it is Swift says she believes in. But it's also not-so-subtly anti-war--the lines "You know it's all the same/another time and place/repeating history/and you're getting sick of it" run over a military rhythm that appears nowhere else in the song--and unusually strident. When Swift uses the word "revolution" in the chorus she's not being ironic or engaging in romantic metaphor; she means it. She also means it when she says "hallelujah", though, and for all I know this is a call for conservative Christians to rise up and take over the country. But I suspect this is Swift's sneaky way of endorsing Obama. The Dixie Chicks should be proud. If only the song was better.
8/22/08 #10

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Love Story
Unsurprisingly, this is more sophisticated and considered--and sounds a lot more expensive--than the singles from Swift's first album, and though the Romeo and Juliet theme keeps her firmly in teenage territory, it's also more mature. Not mature enough, however, to make up for greater glops of Nashville gloss and the diminishment of the inspired simplicity that separated her first singles from the usual heartland-pop fare. She's got brains and maybe even a little soul, but she's well on her way to Nashville divadom. That doesn't mean she won't continue to make good records, but this isn't one of them.
9/26/08 #5

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Fearless
This is overproduced in the same way that Swift, at least in her publicity photos, is overdressed and over made-up. That is, her charm and taste still show through (as do her songwriting skills), but it's getting harder to tell Swift herself from the overall gloss. She's only eighteen, and the size and speed of her fame--what other country star, or other pop star, for that matter, could debut three records in a row in the top ten?--must be overwhelming. But if she doesn't watch out she could find the gloss overwhelming the charm in record time.
10/24/08 #9

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T.I.
Whatever you like
The thought of his impending jail sentence is definitely having an effect on T.I.'s music; this is surprisingly warm and friendly, even loving. The lyrics, however, are the usual rap brag, and you can only hope, for her sake, that the promises he makes will survive his prison term.
8/29/08 #1

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Live Your Life (featuring Rihanna)
According to another track on Paper Trail, "Dead and Gone", T.I. has changed: he's no longer hot-headed and violent; he's matured; he's learned the difference between what's important and lasting and what's merely ephemeral; the old T.I. (or T.I.P.?) is dead. If that's true, can someone explain to me why, in his latest carpe diem anthem, he threatens to rip someone's face off if they cross him? Why he angrily insists on his superiority, artistic and moral, to everyone else in the room? Why this superiority is tallied in terms of money and sex, and nothing else? And why he uses a sample that does nothing but conjure up images of an overweight, pasty-faced white guy making a fool of himself in front of a webcam? The Numa Numa dance, at least, featured bursts of insane ecstasy; "Live Your Life" sounds more like a miser dancing jerkily round his piles of gold, singing his own praises and threatening whoever comes near. Don't worry, T.I., it will all still be there when you get out--minus attorney fees and whatever you paid Rihanna to guarantee this became a hit, of course.
10/10/08 #1

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T-Pain
Can't Believe It (featuring Lil' Wayne)
This is a clever and fairly daring record for the first minute or so. T-Pain expands the idea of hip-hop minimalism from the beats to the melody line itself, large parts of which, at first, appear to be missing. This ruminative delivery gives the record an almost dreamlike quality, and it's easy to imagine him lying in bed, thinking about his latest object of affection (a stripper, of course--this is T-Pain after all), rehearsing possible futures and what he'll say to her to make them come true. But then it goes on, and on, and he starts repeating himself, and Lil' Wayne enters with a rap that is incomprehensible most of the time and ridiculous the rest, and then T-Pain repeats himself some more, and then, after four and a half minutes, it's finally over. Though I respect in principle what T-Pain's trying to do here, in the interest of staying awake, I can't approve.
9/19/08 #7

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Usher
Love In This Club (featuring Young Jeezy)
As the first Usher single in almost four years, most people figured this would make number one, but the commercially desperate tone of parts of it suggests that Usher himself wasn't quite so sure. The arrangement keeps throwing in change-ups that are guaranteed to grab your attention, if only by reminding you of other hits released in the years since Usher last made the charts. Maybe he's just testing the waters with this single, and something more interesting will come along when the album is (finally) released. But this record, and the repeated rescheduling of the album itself, suggests both confusion and a serious drop in inspiration.
3/7/08 #1

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Webbie,
Lil' Boosie
& Lil' Phat
Independent
Though it's nice to know that after 14 years a few rappers have finally caught up to the idea behind Prince's "P Control", that still doesn't mean they have the style or the chops to make it matter. Where Pussy Control was rich enough to have a "weepy-eyed white girl" for a chauffeur, this independent lady's greatest achievement appears to be not smelling like onion rings. That and having enough cash on hand to pay Lil' Phat to have sex with her. If "Independent" is actually selling on its supposed message, then its audience is lying to themselves big time. Then again, if they're buying it for the music, which is essentially a rehash of Lil' Boosies "Wipe Me Down", they're lying to themselves even more.
2/22/08 #9

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Kanye West
Love Lockdown
Whether or not this is a great record is still up in the air--I lean more that way every time I hear it--but there's no doubting how daring it is. West has shown signs of moving toward minimalism in the past--certainly much of Graduation pointed that way--but this is a grand and daring leap into something beyond minimalism, and certainly beyond anything anybody has heard in hip-hop. The big difference, for me, is that unlike minimalist techno or even other examples of minimalist hip-hop, there's nothing slick or machine-like about it. Give an idea like this to Timbaland or T-Pain, or even Soulja Boy, and, though the basic arrangement might be the same, the sound would be smoother, less jarring, more professional. West, a superstar working on his fourth album, sounds more like an inspired amateur now than he did on his debut. And with "Love Lockdown", he may have totally redrawn the future of R&B and hip-hop.
9/26/08 #3

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Heartless
There's so much right about this record that it's easy to pick out what's wrong. That Dr. Evil line, for instance. Not just because Austin Powers references became a rap cliche within months after the first film's release, but also because it makes no sense. If this woman has stolen his soul, why would he compare her to the ineffectual villain in a spy spoof? And then there's the line about all those bad things being done by the "old me". When somebody says that, you know their "old" selves are still very much around , self-rationalizing as ever. Maybe that's West's point, but I doubt it. More likely, as in too many of West's songs, the lyrics were something of an afterthought. The music, however, more than makes up for those flaws. The raw minimalism of "Love Lockdown" cleared the air and destroyed any preconceptions--while at the same time suggesting infinite possibilities--as to what the new album will sound like. "Heartless", though less intense and more accessible, digs in deeper. The structure is Songwriting 101 at its most basic, the arrangement stripped down, with keyboards keeping the rhythm while the heartbeat bass provides commentary on the melody. What little other decoration there is, West hums. While too many others have spent the last few years trying to get at deeper emotions by adding layers of atmosphere and meaningless filigree, West bears down on the essentials and gets to the heart of the matter without a single wasted breath. If he'd done the same with the lyrics, this would be a perfect record.
11/14/08 #2

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