illiterate top ten record review

August 28, 2009

My review of the top ten records in the US, according to Billboard. Entries new to the chart are in red. Songs re-entering the chart are in green.

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I Gotta Feeling
The Black Eyed Peas

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.


Party In the U.S.A.
Miley Cyrus

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.


Jay Sean
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?


You Belong To Me
Taylor Swift

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.


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.


Use Somebody
Kings of Leon

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.


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".


Knock You Down
Kerri Hilson
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.


Good Girls Go Bad
Cobra Starship
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.


Hotel Room Service

"I Know You Want Me (Calle Ocho)" was dumb and catchy. This is just dumb.


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