If we can make “Dark Horse” and “#SELFIE” massive, cross-genre hits, surely we can give these 14 inspired pop songs a week or two (or twenty?) in the spotlight? Clear out some room for some songs that need to be hits in 2014! Here we go:
I Wanna Get Better
Bleachers, Identify Yourself: You like Fun., right? I’m in Fun.! No, I’m not Nate Ruess. It’s me Jack Antonoff, the lead guitarist! I’m dating Lena Dunham, and she directed the video for my side project band Bleachers (made up of the members of my pre-Fun. band, Steel Train [in Fun., we all have sorta-famous-not-really pre-Fun. bands]). I’m buds with Taylor Swift and Hayley Williams. And Nate. We’re still cool, don’t worry, there’ll be more Fun. music.
The Song: You are going to be hearing a lot about Jack Antonoff through 2014 and for many years to come if this song is any indication. If you love the album Some Nights (who wouldn’t?), you’re going to love this opening salvo from Antanoff’s side project. “I Wanna Get Better” is glorious, soaring pop very much in the mold of what Fun. does so so well, but with a more low-key vibe. Without Ruess’s absurd Freddie Mercury-esque tenor, Antanoff opts for a fast-paced, almost spoken-word verse structure and a deliriously fun sing-along chorus. Of all the songs on this list, this is the one most likely to blow up when a full Bleachers album comes out and we all fully realize what a pop visionary Antonoff is. America, we don’t really need your help to turn this into a smash, it will be, I’m sure of it. Just don’t stand in its way.
Martin Garrix, Identify Yourself: First off, I am 17. How old are you? Oh, are you older than 17? I’m sorry… I guess they just feed us Dutch kids our veggies and help us grow into internationally famous DJs at the same age you were trying to mack on your junior year crush. Me, I’d be the coolest 17 year old in the world if not for Lorde. Damnit Lorde! And how’d I get here? Well it all started when I saw DJ Tiesto at the Athens Olympics and knew I wanted to do what he does. This was when I was 8. (That story must make Tiesto feel so old every time he hears it. Poor guy…)
The Song: Lest you think I could never care for EDM because I dismissed “#SELFIE” and “Turn Down For What”, I believe “Animals” is a downright electronic symphony. Not just compared to those insipid songs. Generally. It’s just great. Garrix understands that, even without lyrics, music can and should tell a story, and his composition ebbs and flows, builds and releases, bringing in and out various arrangements of instruments and beats that introduce and play with a variety of interesting musical themes and motifs. This track has been kicking around the world music scene for almost a year, and has topped or nearly topped just about every other country’s charts, and it’s always threatening to break out in a big way stateside. And boy should it!
Clean Bandit, Identify Yourself: Are you sure you want to talk to us? You don’t want to talk to Jess Glynne? She sings the song, and she’s really good! No, you want to talk to us? Okay, that’s fair; no one actually knows that much about Jess even though she’s the voice on two huge dance hits in Britain right now. We can certify that she is female, that’s about it. As for us, we are a quartet that combines proficiency on orchestral strings (two of us met in a chamber ensemble at university) with electronic music chops. For a good idea of what we’re all about, check out this killer cleanbandit.
The Song: Platonic ideal of dance music right here. Reminiscent of Ariana Grande’s breaktrough album last year in its use of pounded piano chords, soaring strings, and, oh yeah, a superior vocalist with quirky inflections that take you back to listening to party jams in 1995. There’s something about the way Jess Glynne sings “Kyoto” that will never stop charming me, and Clean Bandit does everything it can to back up Glynne’s vocal workshop. They pull out all the stops, creating an instrumental/electonic mix that is so infectious it deserves the right to spread like a contagion from Britain, where it’s number one, to right here in the U.S.A.
Jealous (I Ain’t With It)
Chromeo, Identify Yourself: If it gives you some idea of where we’re coming from, we like to describe our collaboration as the only successful Arab/Jewish partnership since the dawn of time. Kidding, not kidding. We are Patrick Gemayal and David Macklovitch, a Montrael electro-funk duo that’s sort of serious about evoking the funky soul of Hall & Oates, but cuts that with some Lonely Island-style irreverence.
The Song: If you can believe it, the boys from Montreal passed up on this one for a while because it sounded too Katy Perry. Those opening chords may evoke Teenage Dream, but if we’d had to lose out on this absurdly catchy ditty about jealousy because of their similarities, I would have taken this and ditched Katy in a second. And Teenage Dream is good album! I love the way these guys say “Back in 2011,” rushing the “eleven” as if the year itself doesn’t matter because it is absurdly close to our current date. As a song, it works as both irony and genuine emotional storytelling in ways that “#SELFIE” could only dream of. I’ll be really upset with America if this isn’t a hit.
Sia, Identify Yourself: Fool, YOU KNOW ME! You just may not know you know me. Maybe you know me as the Australian singer-songwriter who wrote one of the most beautiful songs of the 21st century, which famously underscored the conclusion of one of TVs most beloved finales. Or maybe you know me as the big voiced belter that makes the hooks of otherwise ordinary David Guetta and Flo Rida tracks soar. You’ve definitely heard some pop hits I’ve written. “Diamonds”: that was me. (I emailed it to my BFF Katy Perry, but she didn’t check her mail, so Rihanna got it.) “Let Me Love You”: also me. My transformation from foreign-born balladeer into R&B muse has been downright Furtado–esque, but Nelly Furtado ain’t got nothing on me. That said, I’ve never had a hit that was purely a “Sia song.”
The Song: UNTIL NOW! (Fingers crossed.) No, Sia is not Rihanna. She’s just trying to sound like her for half of this song for some reason. The verses of this song are actually pretty pedestrian, sounding like anything that could have been churned out of the lucrative RiRi hit factory. I mean… “1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3, Drink…” Was that a placeholder for lyrics that never got written? Is this actually a skilled Rihanna parody? (Turns out she wrote it for Rihanna and then said “You know what, this one’s for me!”) All that matters is the hook, which (as evidenced by her work on “Wild Ones” and “Titanium”) Sia is the Da Vinci of. A Sia hook is bigger, bigger than life, bigger than Ri or even (gasp) Bey (don’t send the Beygency after me); Rihanna could never convince me of those swoops into those high F#s on “chan-da-la-ee-er” and “exist.” I’m not sure we’ll hear a better chorus all year. America, it’s time Sia had a hit to call her own!
Magic!, Identify Yourself: We’re the new kids on the block, fronted by (recurring theme) a writer most famous for making hits for others (both tolerable and intolerable) and for reuniting the actual New Kids on the Block in 2007. Our frontman, Nasri Atweh, wanted to make some music of his own, pulled us together, and heck, we found the process of writing this neo-reggae ditty so fun and easy, we named our band after the feeling: Magic! (Respect the exclamation!)
The Song: Alright, “Rude” is a little bit Kidz Bop Sublime, sure, but if you’ve been thirsting for that “Santeria” sound, here it is. You’ll notice that a lot of the songs on this list have one really strong component (a strong intro, a killer chorus) but are lacking in other areas (the verses are dull, the bridge is tedious). No such problem with “Rude.” I love the A section (the verse), the B section (“Can I have your daughter…”), the C section (“Why you gotta be so rude?)”, the D section (“Marry that girl!”), and the E section (Roo-ooo-ooo-oode”). From start to finish, this is a perfect pop song, even finding time for a chill, crunchy guitar solo. The story is clear-cut too, one of those rare pop songs that isn’t some ambiguous romantic entreaty, but actually has a narrator and a conflict. Not sure if that benefits the song or not, it’s not exactly nuanced. But who needs lyrical nuance when you have a composition like this one? America, help Nasri out, make this song a hit!
AJR, Identify Yourself: We’re three brothers from New York who love tight harmonies but aren’t afraid to distort that doo-wop sound with some electronic futzing here and there. But that doesn’t get in the way too much; it’s a proven fact, bands made up of three brothers just make the catchiest jingles. They just do. Oh, and thank Sia for our being here. She saw one of our videos and passed our music along to our manager. She’s seriously everywhere.
The Song: A Spongebob sample… A Spongebob sample! This song is repetitive millennial pandering without an original thought in its head! It’s production is grating, with an overbearing bass groan. It’s… It’s… “Oooo-weee-eee-eee-eee-eeeee… Oh-wo-o-o-o-oh.” Dammit. I realize that, by every possible marker, this song should be irritating. Intolerable. I love it. With all of my being. Hand-clapping, nonsense lyrics, the freaking sponge with the square pants. It tickles every pleasure center in my brain, and I both hate myself for it, and love myself for admitting that I don’t really care if you like this song or not. America, if you can bear it, make this song a hit?
Iggy Azalea, Identify Yourself: Well, first things first, I’m the realest. That’s the opening line from my single “Fancy,” and in it I imply that I am the most real (and not that I am the realist, as in “the one who doesn’t go in for all that idealism,” though, hey, either could work). Which is an interesting way to start the song, my first major crossover hit, because questions about authenticity make up anywhere from 98% to 99% of the conversation about my burgeoning music career. Why? Because my story is pretty startling in that it really happened but seems like something that only an imaginative writer could have dreamed up; it is much discussed in the relatively small circle of rap fans that knows about me and about my beef with Azealia Banks (and knows that we are not the same artist), a female MC who is also more famous for being a female MC with potential to break out than for actually rapping anything anyone knows. See, thing is, I am white. And Austrailian. Not that you’d know it from my Southern-inflected rapping style. After working low-wage jobs with my mom to save up, I left home at 16, telling my parents I was going on holiday in Miami, and, yeah, I never came back. In Miami, Houston, and Atlanta, I’ve started both a modeling career and, under the tutelage of T.I., a hip-hop career. Now my first album has dropped, and while New Classic was better received than the debuts of my rivals, it still hasn’t exactly been hailed as, per its advertising, a new classic.
The Song: How do I get into my feelings on Iggy without diving into the murky waters of race and appropriation everyone else seems more than happy to dive into when anything Iggy comes up? I like half of New Classic. A lot. The other half falls into the trap of so much of the hip-hop done by female artists that is asked to conform to an industry appropriate standard: it must aim for the mainstream, taking the form of disposable trend-chasing pop, with a focus on inspirational anthems and songs about the acquiring and loss of men, with not a lot of concern for notions of sisterhood. (For instance, on New Classic: “New Bitch.”) It’s the personal stuff that sneaks through there that impresses me, and I feel like, in a rush to offer a referendum on Iggy’s viability as a white female rapper, music critics have stated unequivocally that Azealia plays it safe, only offering up her utterly unique perspective in platitudes. That’s not true. On the better half of the album, Iggy leans on her own fascinating story (“Walk the Line,” “Don’t Need Y’all,” “Work”). And then there’s the one song that is neither hip-pop drivel nor “how I got here” storytelling. “Fancy” just exists to be crunk, and from the first bass riff, it is that. “Fancy” may not be the best track on New Classic (for my money, the best track associated with the album is “Rolex” from the Deluxe Edition), but it’s the one that has does have “new classic” written all over it. With that minimalist bass beat, a catchy Charli XCX hook, just the right amount of Iggy spelling out her own name (I-I-I-G-G-Y, and yes, she can overdo it, so restraint is imperative), and a great Clueless inspired video (yes, Complex, it is basically a musical Buzzfeed article…), America, this could be one of 2014s most enduring jams if we let it!
Me and My Broken Heart
Rixton, Identify Yourself: We’re four affable British hunks who straddle the increasingly blurred line between rock band and boy band. We all play instruments in our video, and are more than happy to take the piss out of the pop world (check out this makeout in which we parody all sorts of famous music videos), but ever since we were plucked from YouTube cover fame, we’ve been pretty much marketed as a cheekier One Direction.
The Song: I find myself breaking out into this chorus all the time. And why not? It’s a freakin’ brilliant chorus, the kind of chorus that’s so classic, so melodic, that it instantly dwarfs any accomplishments of the boy bands of recent vintage. Seriously, the JoBros would have torn each other limb from limb for this chorus. Even when they still liked each other! But you know what happens every time I get to the end of the chorus? I can’t remember for the life of me what comes next. And sure, the rest of the song bops along satisfyingly on those 2s and 4s, but really there’s nothing all that special about everything in the song that doesn’t open with “All I need’s a little love in my life” and end with “me and my broken heart.” Can we make half of a song a hit, America? If the answer is “technically no,” than I’ll allow the whole song through on a technicality.
She Looks So Perfect
5 Seconds to Summer, Identify Yourself: Psssh, those four British lads think they can be the next One Direction?!? We four Australian blokes (Australia again, it’s a full-on invasion!) got discovered by Sony based on our YouTube videos, and now we open for One Direction on tour! We’ve been personally blessed by the hands of the chosen ones!
The Song: If I found out tomorrow this song was the product of an unholy product placement deal whereby American Apparel promised these four Aussies free underwear for life in exchange for a pop hit that memorialized their product, y’know what? I wouldn’t care! This is an all-quadrants brain-pleaser, from start (a guitar note that hangs there until the start of the best chant this side of Bastille) to finish. You can sell my boy band pop-punk to the highest corporate bidder anytime you want when it’s this effervescent.
Move That Dope
Future, Identify Yourself: At age 30, I’m releasing my second LP, Honest. I’m an Atlanta-based, Haitian-American rapper who gained wide acclaim for my artful use of Auto-Tune, which turns my raspy bellow of voice into an instrument that is alien-sounding and haunting. My stage name is Future because I’ve been called “the future of hip-hop,” and, you know what, many people think that might very well be the case.
The Song: “Move That Dope” abandons all that hype about the Autotune, as Future comes at this one with a whispered Salt n’ Pepa call-out, a slinky syncopated hook, and a Mike WiLL Made It beat over which he can trade verses with his buds Pusha T, Casino, and Pharrell. Awww, shoot, Pharrell’s here?!? Well this has got to be a hit, because Pharrell doesn’t collaborate on any darn thing that isn’t going to blow up. It’s fun to be reminded, after a year of seeing him hang with Alan Thicke’s son, French robots, and Gru, that Pharrell has street cred to spare. Actually, he has cred everywhere. There’s not a place on earth where Pharrell doesn’t have cred, which is why he can get away with his, as he calls it in his verse on “Move That Dope,” “Gandalf hat.” Lest we forget, Pharrell has made DISCO POPULAR AGAIN, so surely he can help turn this vibrant Future song into a hit.
Oh Honey, Identify Yourself: You might associate Brooklyn, and Williamsburg in particular, with a certain brand of skinny-jeaned disaffected irony. Well, we may look the part of the prototypical Brooklyn hipster duo, but our music is pure distilled sunshine, and there are no dark rainclouds of irony in our blue sky. See, even saying that, we weren’t being ironic! It’s just true! Namaste, and you are beautiful. Would you like a meaningful hug?
be my forever
Christina Perri, Identify Yourself: Since I broke through with “Jar of Hearts,” I’ve been the go-to-girl when someone needs a ballad about eternal love or heartbreak. It’s likely that most of America has never seen me smile or even thought I was capable of smiling. Right now the song you’re likely to hear on the radio is my big single “Human,” which is, true to form, achingly tender and melancholy. But, hey, I’ve brought in Ed Sheeren to help me out (it’s hard not to smile from ear to ear just looking at him, with his adorable mug!), and now I have a genuinely cheerful song out on the market. I swear we didn’t steal it from Jason Mraz and Colbie Callait. I swear!
The Songs: I’m lumping these two songs together because, while there’s not much substance to them, I cannot deny that I am a sucker those things which are twee and full of unchecked adorableness. I’ll give the nod to “Be Okay” as the superior song and the more likely hit, because on top of its propulsive drums and jaunty, folk-tinged strumming rests the perfectly melded vocals of Danielle Bouchard and (an octave below) Mitchy Collins. In comparison, Sheeren seems like an afterthought on “be my forever,” a Mraz clone non-entity outside of one or two solo moments where his distinct personality shines through. That said, as an arrangement, “be my forever” never fails to warm my heart. If there’s room for two doses of unfiltered sunshine on the charts, can we make them both happen?
Ingrid Michaelson, Identify Yourself: Remember this? And this? I know, awwwww! When you think of “girl who sings in coffee houses with ukuleles,” I’m what you think of. For better or worse. But it should be for better! I am a versatile singer-songwriter who initially found major crossover success thanks to Shonda Rhimes, who really loves to use my songs on Grey’s Anatomy. Unlike my buddy Sara Bareilles, I haven’t had a major hit since that first breakout, and unlike Regina Spektor, who I’m also frequently compared to, I’m not a critical darling, but I am, rightly, adored in certain circles for my songcraft and my powerful but gentle vocals, which I like to layer in rounds.
The Song: Ingrid is great. Ingrid is always great. Can we talk about the X-factor here, the make or break component? The boys from A Great Big World, who broke out big with “Say Something”, are divisive. The primary thing A Great Big World has been associated with is the plaintive singing of Ian Axel. To many, Axel is a nasal-whiner, a Broadway belter wannabe, but I enjoy his non-vibrato expressiveness, and hear in his voice notes of Rufus Wainwright and Ben Folds. Do I kind of wish this were just an Ingrid song? Maybe at times (she does outclass Ian by direct comparison on the verse/chorus), but as the three voices build on each other and harmonize on one of Ingrid’s signature rounds, I grew to appreciate this collaboration on a very powerful arrangement. I hope having A Great Big World helps this low-key ballad to crossover success, and doesn’t hinder it too much because of Great Big Haters.
Still to come, my top songs of 2014 thus far. (I know, these weren’t even the top songs! They’re just songs I admire and hope will find a bigger pop audience than they already have. So imagine how good the best ones will be!) If you haven’t yet, check out my post on 14 songs to know to be fluent in 2014.