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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The All-American Rejects
Gives You Hell
Too clever by half and twice as nasty, with a cruel streak a mile long, these guys are the Jonas Brothers as sociopaths. You know, the kind who are into punk because it allows them to say rude things and not only get away with it, but get paid as well. Even then, I'd give their bitterness toward women the benefit of the doubt if it wasn't for the fratboy sing-a-long of the final chorus, which turns that bitterness into straight misogyny. That's what she gets for being his dirty little secret.
1/16/09 #4

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Beyonce
Halo
Despite the fact that Beyonce has helped to create a new model of pop feminism over the last few years--or maybe because of that--whenever she sings about a happy relationship she tends to switch from the fiery independent woman she is on most of her records into a fawning supplicant who blubbers unceasingly about her sainted lover. This is no exception. It isn't as nauseating as Destiny's Child's "Cater 2 U", but it's almost as slavish in its devotion, which should feed the fires of Beyonce/Jay-Z fan fiction quite nicely. Two other strikes against this record: the chorus sounds too much like "Umbrella", and it was co-written by Ryan Tedder of OneRepublic, who also co-wrote Leona Lewis's "Bleeding Love". The fact that the guy is a one-man schlock factory is bad enough, but he really needs to stop putting his sexual domination fantasies into women's mouths (no double entendre intended--at least I don't think so).
5/1/09 #5

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The Black
Eyed Peas
boom boom pow
I've been thinking about this record a lot since it first appeared--stewing over it, actually, which is probably more than it deserves. It not only isn't a new idea to bring techno minimalism into hip-hop dance clubs, it's one that a lot of people have already moved beyond; it isn't even a new idea on pop radio. What makes this different and fascinating, at least to me, is the pop brashness of it--it isn't intellectual or cool, it's just another mindless excuse to shout and get rowdy. That may not be a good idea, and because of the formal stiffness that afflicts many of the Peas' records (you can almost see the gears turning in will.i.am's mind) it doesn't quite come off. It also doesn't help that minimalist records build over a long period of time--when you squeeze those ideas into a four minute pop song they tend to sound rushed and gimmicky. But then, pop music is at least partly about rush and gimmick, and "Boom Boom Pow" is, in its own way, as appealingly stupid as early rock and roll, disco and rap. Which means a lot of people are going to hate it. As for me, I'm still making up my mind.
4/10/09 #1

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I Gotta Feeling
For a band that claims to be "so three thousand and eight" this sounds awfully nineteen eight-ohs. Reminds me of Wang Chung somehow, even though it doesn't sound anything like them. What it does sound like is three or four different hooks searching for a song that ran into each other in a dark dance club hallway and decided to slither out onto the floor together in a minimalist conga line, never noticing how much their styles clashed with each other. The one bright spot is that by declaring this the music of the future, the Peas have guaranteed that it won't be. That's a relief, anyway.
6/19/09 #1

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Ciara
love sex magic (featuring Justin Timberlake)
This isn't a great record, but it's a very good one, which makes it 200% better than most anything else to make top ten this year. It's also, though her records have been interesting enough the last couple of years, 200% catchier than most of what Ciara has released since 2006. Justin Timberlake helps a lot, along with a rhythm track that channels the feel of early Janet Jackson. Timberlake, in fact, may be helping too much--in places this feels more like his record than Ciara's. But after nearly three years in the pop wilderness, I bet she doesnít care.
4/3/09 #10

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Kelly Clarkson
My Life Would Suck Without You
This sounds tired for a number of reasons. After fighting for her independence (whether she has the talent to back it up or not), Clarkson is obviously none too happy to be treading the same ground as her now three-year-old breakthrough, "Since U Been Gone". Her vocal is all technique and no feeling, trading back and forth between vocal mannerisms--breathy sultriness on the verses, over-the-top bellowing on the choruses--that she's already over- and misused too often in the past. The production doesn't help. Dr. Luke, who has been in the top ten with one record or another for over a year now, has obviously reached the end of the line when it comes to spunky ladies singing pop-punk anthems. It's hard not to wonder if the absence of a bridge on this song isn't so much staying true to punk as it is exhaustion on the part of all involved.
1/30/09 #1

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Cobra Starship
Good Girls Go Bad (featuring Leighton Meester)
Coming on the heels of Lady GaGa and 3Oh!3, this single suggests a new trend: bombastic electro-influenced records about women losing (or intentionally throwing away) their inhibitions. This one buries the sexism a bit, ups the overall silliness quotient and includes an appearance by a member of the cast of Gossip Girl, which should cement the idea in the minds of culture watchers nicely. Now that this is a hit, there should be a piece in the New York Times Style section before the summer is out.
8/7/09 #10

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Miley Cyrus
The Climb
There are two things that set this record apart from previous Miley Cyrus singles. Number one, unlike most of Cyrus's records, this isn't uptempo teen pop--it's a somewhat more mature-sounding, somewhat twangy power ballad, with all the requisite vague new-age sentiments firmly in place ("The Journey is the Destination" seems an odd choice of theme, though, for a record guaranteed to do no journeying whatsoever before reaching its top ten destination). Number two, "The Climb" is the first solo Miley Cyrus record to be promoted to country radio. These two facts are, of course, not unrelated, and though country may be Cyrus's heritage, to Disney it's just another untapped demographic waiting to be exploited. I'd like to believe that this record was shipped to country because it just happens to be a power ballad, but I suspect the reality is that Cyrus recorded a power ballad in order to ship it country. That's not a sin, but just like her dad was no George Jones, Miley is no Taylor Swift. She's not even Kellie Pickler.
3/13/09 #4

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Party In the U.S.A.
Despite its bouncy, universalist tone, the lyrics of this song reveal it to be nothing more than the usual declaration of egotistical, posturing self-importance. This isn't a party in the U.S.A., itís a party in one small part of the U.S.A., namely whatever part of Hollywood Miley Cyrus is currently occupying. Her only gesture to the outside world is inviting everyone else to watch her have fun. It makes sense that she namechecks Jay-Z, since this song shares an attitude with any number of self-aggrandizing rap records, including Jay-Z's latest. I know it's too easy to criticize Cyrus as a spoiled celebrity princess, but in this case it's true.
8/21/09 #2

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Drake
Best I Ever Had
When I first heard this, I pegged Drake for a slightly more soulful version of Kanye West. Turns out I was only half right, or maybe a third. His raps are an almost even mix, in terms of rhythm and rhyme, of West and Lil Wayne--almost as clever, too. It's not a perfect synthesis--there are still a few seams showing--but it's impressive nonetheless. On top of that he has something that neither West nor Wayne possess: a respectable soul man croon (when Wayne croons it's a joke; when West croons it's painful). Mix those three together into a single voice and give him time and space to create a sound and personality that's his own and he could take over the world (he's got the looks, too, in some photos he reminds of the young Marvin Gaye). But first he'll need to figure out something to say besides "fuck".
6/26/09 #2

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Eminem
We Made You
The carnival atmosphere and hooky chorus are appealing in their way, but this represents an amazing drop in energy and ambition on Eminem's part. During his time off he seems to have slipped into a Perez Hilton/TMZ moderated echo chamber where the mere mention of celebrities and their missteps guarantees gales of laughter. There isn't one real joke on this record, just a listing of names that are already punchlines and the rote fratboy sexual fantasies those names conjure up. He's become the Jay Leno of rap, a comedian whose supposed edginess consists in repeating things people already know and find mildly funny with flawless timing and sarcastic intonation. It's a talent, I suppose, but once upon a time Marshall Mathers was more than a talent. He wanted to destroy the world and rebuild it in his image. Now he just wants to rebuild an audience, and he doesn't seem to care whose audience it really is.
4/24/09 #9

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Eminem,
Dr. Dre & 50 Cent
Crack a Bottle
The reappearance of Slim Shady doesn't mean he isn't dead, it just means that Eminem is hoping to restore some of his former, seemingly effortless genius by propping up Shady's lifeless corpse in a half-hearted ventriloquist act. Eminem's revealed too much of his real self on record to get away with an act anymore, and he knows it. Not only is his heart not in it, his mind seems to be wandering as well. He sounds bored and wooden and, just to extend the metaphor, you can see his lips move. The wordplay is there, but it's all craft and no feeling. All the same, what little life there is in this record comes from him. Dr. Dre sounds more bemused than anything else about returning to the public spotlight. As for 50 Cent, it will take a lot more than this to revive the corpse of his dead career.
2/13/09 #1

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Flo Rida
Right Round
With the help of a 25-year-old Dead Or Alive track, Flo Rida and producer Dr. Luke get bouncy-bouncy in the strip club, and for pure, mindless, throw-your-aesthetic-and-moral-principles-out-the-door entertainment it isn't bad. Granted, it's about as subtle as a sledgehammer (hear it twice and you'll have it memorized), and it wears thin fast, but it's also over fast, and subtlety will get you nowhere on the pop charts these days.
2/20/09 #1

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Sugar (featuring Wynter)
There are no rules in pop music, but there are guides. Guide number one: no matter how catchy your hook, or how seemingly effortless your flow, you do not start a love or lust rap with the line "I've got a mouth full of cavities." Believe me, that's not going to turn anyone on, not even a dentist.
5/1/09 #5

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Jamie Foxx
Blame It (featuring T-Pain)
The one notable thing about this record is its proof of Foxx's unimpeachable skills as a vocal mimic. If T-Pain wasn't introduced before his verse begins, I would find it impossible to tell the two apart, and that's not just a matter of autotune. As far as I can tell, Foxx has no vocal personality of his own, and though that may be a huge attribute to an actor and comedian, it's a disaster for a singer. It renders his records lightweight, even if the point, as it is here, is just to be funny. The song is your standard T-Pain goof--not terrible, but nothing special either. Maybe, instead of mimicking whoever he's singing with, Foxx should go the opposite route: if he had sung this like Lil Jon, or Yung Jeezy, or even, god help us, Ray Charles, it might have the variety it needs to get over. As it is, it's nothing but a slightly pleasant, and slightly boring, trifle.
3/13/09 #2

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The Fray
You Found Me
These guys may have a perfectly legitimate reason to complain to God, but you need to wade through an ocean of oversensitive self-importance to figure out what it is, by which time you may find yourself possessed of the uncharitable thought that they deserved it. Their self-importance is so deep, in fact, that they appear never to have considered the metaphysical paradox of getting rich off the very troubles they claim God has refused to help them with. Unless, that is, they think that's how God "found" them. I wonder if they've been introduced to Mephistopheles yet?
1/30/09 #7

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Glee Cast
Don't Stop Believin'
The first forty seconds or so, where Journey meets Steve Reich in a high school choir room, are brilliant. Once the band enters, though, it becomes just another damn cover of that same damn Journey song. Here's hoping that once the series-I haven't seen it, but it sounds like High School Musical for fans of Election--goes into regular rotation, the producers will pay more attention to the first forty seconds here than the remaining three minutes. Bad songs brilliantly arranged; that would be a first for television, wouldnít it?
5/29/09 #4

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Kerri Hilson
Knock You Down (featuring Kanye West and Ne-Yo)
Hilson's first two singles failed to break pop not because she doesn't have talent, but because that talent moves in decidedly eccentric directions. Here, with help from West and Ne-Yo, she finally makes the big time. Unfortunately, she also lets Ne-Yo steal the record, and it's hard not to wonder how much of an impression she herself is making on the audience. This is a good song, with a great chorus, but Danja's production, which is too busy, almost loses it, and I suspect without Ne-Yo it wouldn't even have made top thirty.
6/5/09 #3

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Jay Sean
Down (featuring Lil Wayne)
In which Lil Wayne expands his already enormous empire by guesting on a record by a British crooner who sounds like Flo Rida run through some kind of teen pop converter, the two of them bouncing along like the little cupids Wayne mentions on his cuter than ever rap. Can an appearance on Hannah Montana be far behind?
8/7/09 #6

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Jay-Z
Run This Town (featuring Rihanna and Kanye West)
Jay-Z's career is becoming confusing. On American Gangster he was on top of his game, cool and confident. Without Denzel Washington's example, however, he seems a little more insecure. "D.O.A." was just dumb, and this negates a not bad black pride rap by ending with West belittling a woman for having less fashion sense than he does. And why would anyone who hates autotune feature Rihanna, who sounds like a machine even without the help of special effects? If these guys are the new Rat Pack, then this is the original Oceans 11: lazy, self-absorbed, and self-satisfied.
8/21/09 #3

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Jeremih
Birthday Sex
Every year or so there's a record like this, a sex jam so full of sham intensity and sensitivity--and itself--that the only honest reaction is to laugh out loud. Last year it was J. Holiday's "Bed", a couple of years before that Pretty Ricky's "We Be Grindin'". This is nowhere near as shameless as "Bed", which means it isnít as funny, but it has its moments. "You kiss me so sweetly, taste just like Hersheys" is one. My favorite, though, is "We be grindin' with passion, cause itís your birthday". I guess the other 364 days are just a plain old grind.
5/22/09 #4

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Kid Cudi
Day 'n' Nite
This is so expertly crafted and lacking in sentimentality that it's easy to forget the basic situation: a poor guy whose girl has dumped him sitting up all night, smoking dope, listening to dubstep records, and feeling sorry for himself. The obvious comparison is to 808s and Heartbreak, only less intense and with most of the ego stripped away, or at least hidden. What ultimately comes across is a new kind of cool: minimalist, intellectual, sensitive, a modern anti-hero--he does dub himself "The Lonely Stoner" after all. It will be interesting to see if anybody else follows in this direction, and how long it will be before they fall into the trap West and Cudi have so far avoided, and become James Taylor with drum machines.
4/10/09 #3

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Kings of Leon
Use Somebody
You can understand why this sells. By linking emo with epic rock borrowed straight from U2 and burying it all under a muffled production that makes them sound both more intelligent and humbler than they really are, Kings of Leon manage to score off any number of genres all at once, with the metal influenced drums providing the demographic icing. Underneath is the usual rock nerd self-pity, southern division, with vocal tricks that make them sound like they really mean it without sounding like simplistic, sentimental jerks--a neat trick I doubt they'll ever be able to pull off again. It took them six months to get this into the top ten; now I fear they'll be there forever.
7/31/09 #5

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Sean
Kingston
Fire Burning
If the electroclash sound here seems familiar, it's because this was produced by RedOne, the same guy responsible for Lady Gaga's singles. Sonic garishness seems to be his forte. If it wasn't for the distinctiveness of Kingston's voice, this could be anybody. Some small part of the charm he brought to "Beautiful Girls" survives, but only enough to make him recognizable--not enough to make this interesting.
6/5/09 #5

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Lady GaGa
Poker Face
Let's give Lady GaGa the benefit of the doubt, and take her at her word that The Fame is a concept album about people living as if they were famous, whether they really are or not. In that light, you could say that on this record she's engaging in a bit of satirical role-playing, and that her portrait of a woman intent on casual, emotionless, rough sex is meant as meaningful social commentary. Pair this with "Just Dance" and you have the first of what is likely intended as a series of portraits of women lost in a world of decadence, sex, and drugs. But even if that's true, it wouldn't save the music, with its clumpy beats, heavy-handed vocal effects, and cliched techno influences. And then there's the matter of misogyny. If there's such a thing as gender self-hatred, this is a prime example. The hapless drunk falling out of her clothes in the middle of the club in "Just Dance" was bad enough. The woman here, though, isn't hapless, she's simply evil, and Lady GaGa's suggestion for how to deal with her is equally simple (if somewhat hidden--listen closely to the bridge): "...fuck her face". Putting aside the possibility that a woman who's into rough sex might enjoy such an act (consistency or thinking through an idea is obviously not one of GaGa's strong points), you still have to deal with the disgust and vindictiveness of the suggestion, and wonder exactly what could have been going through GaGa's head when she came up with the line and decided to emphasize it by repeating it on the fade. It's higly likely that GaGa is just trying to be shocking, but that doesn't lessen the line's effect or significance. Which isn't to say that it signifies anything important--other than the fact that "Poker Face" isn't satirical at all, just hateful.
2/20/09 #1

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Lovegame
It's becoming common, in just about anything written about Lady GaGa, to find references to Andy Warhol, as if this cemented some idea of artistic attainment, or at least honest desire. The problem is that the Warhol GaGa seems to have attached herself to is the Warhol of the late 70s, when his artistic drive had dissipated and his obsession with the surface trappings of fame and outrť sexuality (and pornography) all but consumed him. That's probably too reductionist, but the fact remains that GaGa has attached herself to an artistic movement that was in decline over thirty years ago, and has gained no ground since. This is the most ordinary and simpleminded of the three records she's put on the top ten so far (with "Papparazi", its video packed with sadistic Helmut Newton-like images of dead women--talk about being behind the times--still to come), with music even more garish than her previous singles. She may not be a fraud, but if she isn't, that only makes her more of a fool.
6/5/09 #5

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Linkin Park
New Divide
Oddly enough, Linkin Park's apocalyptic metaphors and musical bombast make more sense when they're singing about broken relationships than they do when they're singing about actual apocalypse. They're a perfect match for a certain brand of teenage emotional self-seriousness, and I suppose they deserve respect for so effectively pushing those buttons. But facts are facts: these guys haven't been teenagers for over a decade, their music is boring, and, as in most apocalyptic scenarios, there are some buttons that should never be pushed.
5/29/09 #6

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Hannah Montana
He Could Be the One
Derivative as hell, of course (what pop record isn't?), but after four or five plays I find this pretty much irresistible. In one of the most common of pop ironies, Miley Cyrus demonstrates more personality when she's singing in character as Hannah Montana than she does when she's singing as herself--and more maturity, too. The difference is the songwriting--this was whipped up by old pro and American Idol judge Kara DioGuardi, no doubt with one hand tied behind her back. The result is youthful and energetic but also smooth and professional, without ever being coy or stupid. You've heard every one of this song's hooks before, but they're deployed with such precision you'll be suckered by them anyway. So much so that after a dozen plays you probably still won't know what the lyrics are, even as you sing along.
7/17/09 #10

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Katy Perry
Waking Up In Vegas
Nowhere near as titillating as "I Kissed a Girl", or as catchy as "Hot 'n' Cold", but nowhere near as awful as "Thinking of You", either. This is a little clunky, and reaches for effects Perry doesn't know how to pull off yet, but it isn't horrible, and it offers the same idiosyncratic lyrical quirks that made even "Thinking of You" an interesting listen. I know a lot of people were hoping that Perry would be a one shot, and I thought the same myself at first, but now I think she's in it for the long haul. I wouldn't base that judgment on this record alone, but remember she also co-wrote Kelly Clarkson's "I Do Not Hook Up", the best song to hit the Hot 100 so far this year.
5/29/2009 #10

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Pitbull
I Know You Want Me (Calle Ocho)
I bet this sounds a lot better in the clubs, where the boom of the bass would cover and diminish the harshness of the percussion, and I'm happy to see Latin music of any persuasion make it into the top ten, but other than that I can find little to say about this. Even with as little knowledge of Latin music as I have, this strikes me as mediocre. It's not just the language barrier--the lyrics would have nothing to tell me even if I could understand them--but even great records designed solely for dancing operate in a sphere beyond any conscious appreciation or appraisal. And this, catchy as it is in parts, is not a great record.
5/22/2009 #2

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Hotel Room Service
"I Know You Want Me (Calle Ocho)" was dumb and catchy. This is just dumb.
8/14/09 #9

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Shinedown
Second Chance
Songs like this make me wish there was some sort of remedial program for songwriters. If you're going to scatter your lyrics with laid back colloquialisms like "I'm not angry, I'm just saying", does it make sense to match it with music that sounds as if you're announcing the apocalypse? If he's leaving his parents, wouldn't that be his first chance (unless of course he's been working for an investment firm and had to move back in with his folks after he got laid off)? If the man in the moon is heading into the stratosphere, doesn't that mean he's falling to earth and not soaring away into the freedom of space, which I assume is what they really meant? And if these guys can't even get these simple things straight, why were they even given a first chance, much less a second?
6/12/09 #7

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Soulja Boy
Tell 'Em
Kiss Me Thru the Phone (featuring Sammie)
This record reminds me of a famous story told about James Thurber. When, after many rejections, the New Yorker finally started accepting Thurber's odd, crudely drawn, almost sub-conscious cartoons, he made an attempt to improve his work, adding shading, crosshatching, etc. When his officemate, E.B. White, saw what Thurber was doing, he warned him against it: "If you ever get good you'll be mediocre." Soulja Boy Tell 'Em has gotten good.
2/27/09 #3

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Jordin Sparks
Battlefield
I've liked some of Sparks's earlier records, but the bombast here is too much, with whatever personality and charm she possesses overpowered by thundering drums. Note to songwriters and producers: "Umbrella"-inspired songs with choruses that consist of nothing but the title repeated over and over like an echo are old and overdone. Time for a new trick, please.
7/31/09 #10

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Taylor Swift
You Belong To Me
The combination of charm, talent, and intelligence Swift possesses isn't just rare in nineteen-year-olds, it's rare in pop singers of any age, and almost guarantees, if she can keep going, that she will be not just a major talent, but a major artist in the years to come. The best sign of this isn't in her obvious skill as a performer, but her lack of pretension. Light romantic fluff like this may seem unimportant, but the near perfection of this record suggests a sense of balance and understanding and empathy that may ultimately be of more value than all her other talents. No one that I know of documents the inner life and dreams of teenagers better than she does (if you haven't heard "15", what are you waiting for?). Lyrically, some of this is received and stereotypical, but the performance is so perfect you believe every word of it. She's just getting started.
7/10/09 #3

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30H!3
Don't Trust Me
Sexism isn't the real issue--I can imagine a female band in the same sort of scene thinking much the same about their male (or even female) fans. Neither is misogyny--the target isn't all women, after all, but a particular type and class. The issue is hatefulness, repulsion so strong and ugly that it implies sexism and misogyny, whatever they really think. Their tasteless suggestion that women, or at least this particular woman, should be deaf, dumb, and blind doesn't help their case. Since this has all the marks of a oneshot we may never find out what these guys really think, which is probably a blessing. And if I sound a little wishy-washy about their sexism, that's because I'm trying to give them the benefit of the doubt, which is more than they'll ever do for her.
5/8/09 #8

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T.I.
Dead and Gone (featuring Justin Timberlake)
Since T.I. has already convinced me that he's changed his ways, or at least channeled them into a more positive direction, I don't feel much need to have him tell me again, even with Justin Timberlake providing the hook. Bombast doesn't sit well with a return to reality, the sincerity is overdone, and the self-congratulation is as off-putting as ever. Besides, JT's hook isn't that good, and once he starts boxing the compass I get lost. Stop telling us how you've changed, T.I., and show us something new.
2/13/09 #2

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Carrie Underwood
I Told You So (featuring Randy Travis)
Want a crash course in the subtle differences a performer can make in the impact of a song? Start here. Carrie Underwood sings this old Randy Travis number in tried and true American Idol fashion: loud, without once indicating that she knows what the song is about. Travis, meanwhile, sings his verse in his normal, relaxed, stately manner, highlighting the romantic paranoia and sadness at its heart without breaking a sweat or piercing anyone's eardrums. Unfortunately, Underwood does most of the singing, and Travis, knowing this isnít his record, is perhaps too relaxed--leaning politely forward just enough to put his mark on the song and collect his royalty check. I'd love to see more country in the top ten, but please, not like this.
3/27/09 #9

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Young Money
Every Girl
If it wasn't Lil Wayne on the first verse, Jay-Z would hate this record. Wayne not only autotunes his voice to within an inch of its life, but applies the software to the keyboard parts as well. The radio version, where Wayne covers his obscenities with even more autotune (kind of a shame, since he says "pussy" better than anyone since Sean Connery), is completely incomprehensible. It sounds like he's singing through a broken, overmiked accordion. The rest of Young Money give us their vocals straight, and they're equal parts stupid, offensive, and funnier than any other rap so far this year. Every time I hear this, I find myself waiting for Mack Maine to tell us he doesn't discriminate against midgets and exchanges V-cards with retards. I'll go to PC hell for this, I know, but I'll be laughing too hard to care.
6/26/09 #10

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