Want to be conversant in the pop landscape circa early 2014? These 14 songs are your homework. They’re not the best songs in the land (expect a seperate post on those), but they are the most unavoidable. Here they are, from lowest in quality (subjectively, of course) to highest:
#SELFIE: This is vapidity distilled into a composition. Call it The Vapid Symphony, Movements I-V. You know what it reminds me of? “Baby Got Back.” It’s got that Valley Girl talk intro, and immense amount of repetition, but it’s missing the one thing that “Baby Got Back” has in spades: charm. Whatever you think Sir-Mix-A-Lot’s clever wordplay was pushing towards – innocent objectification, outright sexism – you have to admit, it’s clever wordplay. If #SELFIE (no MORE HASHTAGS!!!) is a parody – and obviously it is to some extent, the writers of the song think the girl talking about her selfie is absurd – it’s not a funny one, and it’s so unbarbed that it has inevitably become adopted by the culture it mocks. And outside of the selfie soliloquy that sells this song, #SELFIE is the blandest of compositions. utter and complete least-common-denominator EDM with no peaks or valleys, just an incessant drone.
Dark Horse: Katy Perry the vengeance wiccan is not as fun as the chibi princess whom we all came to know and kind of love. We can all agree to this, right? Understandably, something big delineates the former from the latter, and while a very public divorce may have emboldened the pop queen to explore her true inner self, all the power to her, her music has suffered and can now be pretty easily reduced to two modes: “empowerment for girls” (the insipid “Roar”) and “screw you men” screeds. “Dark Horse” defines the latter camp and boy is it something I want to turn off the second it comes on – from that inexplicable baby coo that opens the song to the unwelcome return of absurd voice modulation on the “There’s no going back” gurgle, there is nothing keeping me hooked on a production-level to a song that also features clichéd lyrical content and a color-by-numbers rap break, least of all Perry’s vocals, incapable of anchoring a dark dance track in the way that they floated above a more effervescent jam like “Walking on Air.”
Turn Down for What: Not much point in putting a tremendous amount of thought into this one. For me, 99 times out of 100, I wouldn’t be in the mood to hear this. I guess it’s because I’m never turned up and therefore never need to, in the songs parlance, reject any and all means of turning back down. Even I have to admit, sobriety notwithstanding, that hook is pretty infectious. Got anything else for us, DJ Snake and Lil Jon? Seems not. I can’t see the benefit of championing a song with this little to say lyrically (“Fire up you’re loud, another round of shots… TURN DOWN FOR WHAT!” And… repeat.) and compositionally (Bzzz. Bzzz. Bzzz… And repeat.) Not much point in damning it either. It’s sort of fun.
Can’t Remember To Forget You: That ska beat comes in and this sounds like it should be fun. Shakira is fun and bubbly. Rihanna finds hit songs under her couch cushions when she’s searching for change. We can’t go wrong, correct? This track – which is Shakira’s big post-Voice play for relevance a la Adam and Christina’s “Moves Like Jagger” – dashes just about all those expectations, proving to be a better composition than “Moves Like Jagger,” probably a little, but failing to be even a quarter as mind-arrestingly catchy. The ska opening is more of an empty promise than anything, as the chorus and bridge and just about everything but the verses is straight 4 guitar thrumming. Also, what is Rihanna doing here? This is a love song to a guy, right? (At least I don’t think this is some Shakira/Rihanna slashfic where they’re singing to eachother, not that there’s anything wrong with that if that is what’s going on here. [It’s not…]) Shakira’s voice is the only voice on the planet that sounds like Shakira’s voice, so why give some of its real estate to someone else? It’s not like Rihanna has a guest verse or sings the hook. Sometimes she just sings the lines Shakira would sing. No artistic reason for her to be here at all. Her name just sells more records.
Talk Dirty: I have to admit, on a production level, this sounds great. It’s all about that saxophone, 200%. The longer edit of the song even gives that raspy sax a chance to break down in a full solo which, I mean, what is this, a 1960s Christmas record? Bring that sax! But, if we’re going to be sticklers (and, you know what, let’s be) and delve into what this song is about… Jason Derulo, could you be more of a Caveman? (Sorry Geico Cavemen.) “Been around the world, don’t speak the language, but you’re booty don’t need explaining.” No, but your retrograde, ugly American, sexist braggadocio might require a brief explanation (sings autotune-ily) Jayy-sahnn Derulo.
West Coast: After the debut of the walking authenticity-debate known as Lana Del Rey, Lana the media figure kind of sublimated her controversial “sexy bad girl” image, instead contributing to soundtracks (The Great Gatsby’s “Young and Beautiful,” a “Once Upon a Dream” cover for Maleficent, both magnificent). Also the anti-Lana camp lost some of its basis for argument when a young teenager from New Zealand whose real name is distinctly not Lorde became a media darling and everyone managed not to lose their ever-loving minds. Still there seems to be a conscious attempt to give Lana a more mature sound on this, her return to the spotlight as THE lightning rod Lana Del Rey, and you know what? It’s really dull. I liked the overblown bombast of “Video Games.” The Lana of “Video Games” knew who she was, even if “she” was fictional. This artist… Not sure who she is. Since Lana only has one setting – cooing sensually – and since the lush symphonic backgrounds that justified that cooing have abandoned her, replaced by a lazy surf rock vibe (or actually about four different lazy surf rock vibes, since the track can’t pick just one and crashes from one to the other abruptly), Lana might just be stranded on that beach with the tide rolling in.
The Man: The main question here is this: Aloe Blacc, who are you? (Apperantly, you’re the man, you’re tha man, you’re the maaaan.) Without Avicii’s beats swirling behind your Southern growl (heard by everyone on the planet in “Wake Me Up” on those singy parts between Avicii’s electronic banjo melody), what is your artistic persona? Judging from the video and the soul-fanfare swagger of the composition, one thing he wanted to clear up immediately with “The Man,” his big solo breakthrough, is that he is African-American, which will probably surprise a lot of people who heard his country twang on pop radio. This is a song that evokes the notion of “swagger,” and has been used in a lot of “swagger” commercials for athletes and brands that are all about owning your superiority, but, once that fanfare pumps me up, I always get a sense of deflation listening to this song. Apparently Blacc composed it to impress Dr. Dre, who was curious about the singer after his “Wake Me Up” breakout but hated his old folky stuff. So Blacc aimed to write a song that Dre would want to blast from his car windows on a drive around L.A. And I while I could see that, I don’t feel like Dre would be speeding down the highway with this playing. I feel like he’d be cruising along to that opening wave of trumpets, and then get caught in mild traffic for the rest of the song.
Sing: Ed Sheeren is essentially the offspring of Jason Mraz and Ron Weasley. He’s adorable and a fantastic, smooth singer. One light I had never thought of him in, however, was the funky, hip-hop, blue-eyed soul mode inhabited, now and forever, by Justin Timberlake. “Sing,” the Pharrel-produced attempt to make Ed Sheeren as viable of a Justin Timberlake substitute as we can get between the biyearly releases of the outtakes of Justin’s jam sessions (also known as albums), is a fair reminder that not everyone can sing “Senorita.” There’s nothing wrong with “Sing,” per se; Sheeren has the falsetto and pseudo-wrapping chops to back up the production. Yet the fact that Pharrell – Pharrell, who could make Robin Thicke sound edgy – could not draw out of Shereen a song stronger than most of the material on either 20/20 Experience record (which is sayin’ something) is a fair indication that Shereen might be better off sticking to balladeering. Which is fine. I love his balladeering.
Magic: I don’t buy into the line of reasoning that Coldplay is uniformly dull. Coldplay is sporadically dull. I crave a soaring, melancholy Coldplay melody when they can give it to me. “Magic” scratches that itch a little bit, but, for a grand pronouncement of love, it’s truthfully a rather sleepy affair that doesn’t really get anywhere. Which, considering lead singer Chris Martin’s recent conscious uncoupling from his wife Gwenyth Paltrow, seems sadly apt. There’s something extremely soothing about the low-key way Martin almost mumbles “Call it magic, call it truth,” but the climax of the song is neither big enough nor melodic enough. It’s not the tuneless noodling of the post-“Viva La Vida” Coldplay, but it’s not “Viva La Vida” either.
Best Day of My Life: Woo, woo-oo-oo-oo! Is there much else to say really? I’ll give The American Authors, who sound like just about every other Neon Trees/Imagine Dragons aspirant out there, this – their lead singer shouts the heck out of those verses. He does not believe in easing you into a song. For such a gentle little sing-along, it adds a not-unpleasant sense of urgency.
All of Me: In his less than favorable review of “All of Me,” Todd in the Shadows (great reviewer of pop music!) calls this latest pop breakthrough by soul singer John Legend his “Three Times a Lady.” What can I say? Cheesy ballads are great. I’d say it’s more “I Just Called to Say I Love You.” I’m pretty deeply invested in “All of Me.” Admittedly, it’s hokey, cliched, and really, really melodically simple for such a virtuosic talent. Yet I find it beautiful, its simplicity belying an economy of expression that moves me to both sing along and sigh contentedly. Legend’s voice is velvet and his piano arrangement, while not complex (and while using those four chords, I know), registers emotionally and builds in all the ways that “Magic” fails to. No, Todd, you’re right, it is no “Ordinary People,” the masterwork of a composer at the top of his game. But it is the best love ballad of the year so far.
Let It Go: The most extraordinary thing about “Let It Go” (and to be clear, there are a lot of extraordinary things about this song, from Idina’s iconic performance, to Lopez’s immaculate songcraft, to the film the song hails from which is just, you know, the biggest animated movie of all time, but this is the MOST extraordinary thing) is that it is a pop hit. A mega pop-hit. That the album is the country’s best-selling album for so many weeks running it hurts to comprehend isn’t that surprising, but to see Idina Menzel – not Demi Lovato – on the Billboard Hot 100, setting up a permanent camp at #5 is a veritable shock. The days when popular movie songs ruled the Billboard charts are long gone, and those that have had recent chart success, like “Happy” and “Skyfall,” have been pop songs from massive radio artists. This is Idina Menzel – she is our Broadway goddess, yes, but you never thought you’d hear her introduced by a DJ. When Frozen debuted, I knocked “Let It Go” for sounding a little too radio friendly in the context of the film, but that didn’t mean I thought I’d ever hear it on the radio. Let alone that I’d hear it all the time. And shout along with it in the car. Thank the Internet’s obsession with covering and satirizing (lovingly) this song for its incomparable popularity. The cold never bothered me anyway. It’s our new credo. Welcome to the new world.
Happy: Are you happy yet? Pharrell wants you to be happy… You will be happy! It’s alarming how prophetic the 24 hour music video for this song was, predicting as it did what has essentially become a police state in which the only enforced law is that we all must listen to Pharrell all the time. And you know what? If any song can stand up to that immense amount of scrutiny, it’s this jam that the phrase “This is my jam!” was made for. What Pharrell understands so well, better than anyone else in the music industry, is that the space between music is as important as the music itself. That space is the music. No arrangement allows more space than “Happy,” which syncopates and drops in and out with absolute, unceasing glee.The hicuppy, descending “Happy, Happy, Happy, Happy” bridge will be the progenitor of Soul Train dance lines at weddings for generations to come.
Pompeii: As it reaches “Happy” levels of ubiquity, we have to question whether this out of nowhere hit by an out of nowhere British band stands up to the same test – if you hear it on what essentially amounts to a loop, do you want to punch those chanting monks in the face? I do not. I want to hug them. From the chant that announces the song’s arrival on your dial or your playlist, all the way through to the somber bridge (“where do we begin/the rubble or our sins”), you could make the argument that Bastille is being pretentious even as you chant along. I wouldn’t disagree – the primary mode here is uninhibitedly bombastic. Yet that bombast is leveraged in all the right ways. Of all the big hits of 2014 so far, this is the one I hope stands the test of time.