by Jon Hunt
I am ever more convinced that we are smack in the middle of one of those great pop music moments, the kind, in the words of Chuck Eddy, “that comes around once in a lifetime, if you’re lucky.” The charts this summer were chock full of amazing pop confections; earworms of the highest order and at least a couple timeless classics (hello, “Call Me Maybe”). And now that they’ve regenerated themselves for Fall, there’s a whole new batch of killer bubblegum tunes.
I have a theory about this. Think about pop music ten-ish years ago, before the big economic crash. It was diverse – you had a lotta minor-key stuff (especially the hip-hop) mixed in with the major-key Disney-channel pop music. Now, post-crash, it’s almost pure major-key bubblegum. I’m thinking: escapism. People have enough tough stuff on their plates right now that they don’t want the harshness of, say, a gangsta rap gumming up their worldviews. Awesome for us – the gum they’re plying is better than it was ten years ago, honed to absolute perfection by some great songwriters and producers. The last time I can remember the charts being this gummy is the early ’70s, the “AM Gold” era. I kid you not.
Basically, if you’re not listening to top 40 radio at least a little bit – think of it as leavening, perhaps! – you’re missing out, buddy. In forty years, they’ll be talking about 2012 as one of those amazing nexus points. As always, of course, l’étoile is here to help you navigate. We’ve gone through the top 20 and ranked ‘em for your listening pleasure, allowing you to separate the wheat from the chaff and jump straight for the pure stuff, the straight-to-the-vein pop music that’ll make your life just a little more candy-coated.
(Technical note: I cheated a little bit. Last time, I think I used the Billboard charts as a reference. This time, I turned to the iTunes charts, as they reflect more accurately, I think, the listening habits of top 40 listeners. Plus, there are fewer repeats. I don’t wanna have to write about Maroon 5 more than I have to.)
Here, again, is our rating system:
Terrible: Dear god — avoid, avoid, avoid.
Eh: Give it a spin, but have a pillow handy. You’re gonna sleep.
Maybe?: Hell, why not give it a shot? It’s not like you’ve got anything better to do. It’s this or “Honey Boo Boo,” and do you really wanna go there?
Hell Yes: The pure stuff. The uncut stuff. Get ready for the headrush, pal.
20. “Begin Again,” Taylor Swift. There’s a lo-o-o-ot of Taylor Swift on the charts right now. She’s been releasing a new preview single every week from her forthcoming album Red, and every one of ‘em is rightfully charting. This one is a tragic, pretty little ballad that namechecks James Taylor (fairly so – you can just about imagine him singing this one) and sports a fantastic hook that Ryan Adams would murder Bryan Adams for. It’s also the most country-sounding song from her new batch, but you know how people bitch about how country songs don’t sound country enough anymore? This one totally does. Basically, it’s great. More about Taylor later. Hell Yes.
19. “Good Time,” Owl City & Carly Rae Jepsen. We talked about this one last time, but I’m ready to upgrade it from a Maybe to a Hell Yes on account-a I spent a near-sleepless night last week with this thing rotating endlessly through my head, and I’ve decided it’s a bigger, better earworm than I gave it credit for last time. Plus, I’m not sure poor Carly is gonna have another single to write home about again (her album is only okay) so call it a sympathy vote.
18. “Cruise,” Florida Georgia Line. I’m bitching that this country song doesn’t sound country enough. Jesus Christ, the adenoidal singing, the terrible drum-machine programming, the checklist of stupid country shit (“brand new Chevy,” “Marshall Tucker song”) – God help us all, this thing is appalling, like the worst hair metal song ever, performed by the worst country cover band ever. Terrible.
17. “Let Me Love You (Until You Learn To Love Yourself),” Ne-Yo. There’s something overwhelmingly condescending about the title, and a little advantage-taking — you can just about picture Ne-Yo coddling some poor, broken post-teen and thinking about getting in her pants the whole time. I usually love Ne’s Michael Jackson-isms, but this one is so dance-floor-by-numbers I can’t recommend it. The melody is wishy-washy, the beat is pure mid-00s disco. I wish he’d gone the other way, into pure R&B, instead of following dance-floor trends, but what can you say? He’s doing what every other mainstream R&B guy is doing right now. Eh.
16. “50 Ways To Say Goodbye,” Train. Why is it that every time I write one of these, there’s a fucking Train song on the charts that makes me want to rip my ears off and feed them to the pirhanas? I hate Train so much. Buncha 40-year-old session idiots – think Toto with smaller balls – following every possible chart trend to its logical, hideous conclusion (in this case, dance-floor-isms mixed with Christ-awful pop-country). And dig the “horns of ethnic” — these guys are whiter than whitey white white white, I’m not buying your Latino try, boys. Terrible.
15. “Whistle,” Flo Rida. We talked about this one last time, too. Blow-job metaphor stretched out over three terrible minutes. Terrible.
14. “Locked Out Of Heaven,” Bruno Mars. This one is super damn interesting – I know people have dissed Bruno for having a kind of squeaky R&B voice, but here he marries it to a frantic, frenetic beat that sounds at first like the best Police song you’ve never heard and morphs into a dubstep toe-tapper over the hook. Plus the line “Your sex takes me to paradise” cracks me the hell up. A great, great song, well-written and marvelously arranged and constructed, and rightfully hugely popular. Almost – but not quite – this year’s “Fuck You.” Hell Yes.
13. “Home,” Phillip Phillips. Another pop-country tune, but this one a fairly interesting stomper that’s not a million miles off from Avetts or Mumford or whatever, but with a stronger, poppier hook. Basically, this: STRUMMY STRUMMY STRUMMY STRUMMY, with “aaah-ahhh-ooh-oooh” on top of it. You feel like you’ve heard it before just from that description, right? And yet, it’s not bad. A strong melody, a strong, clear hook. I’m going with Maybe.
12. “As Long As You Love Me,” Justin Bieber. There’s something disingenuous about the Beebs singing about being “homeless or broke,” even hypothetically, that really bugs me (if he ever found himself destitute, you just know he’d be writing jingles for second-hand sporting goods stores to get him through). A fairly decent and gritty beat, though, and part of a weird trend recently where the chorus of the song is actually quieter and less beat-y than the rest of the song (see also: just about every other song on the charts anymore). Big Sean’s rap break is…unfortunate. Unlike the fairly excellent “Boyfriend” from this summer, this one only gets a Maybe.
11. “Too Close,” Alex Clare. This is that one from that one commercial. I dunno. I like it. It has an interesting beat during the verses and the chorus is ENORMOUS AND DUBSTEPPY and the melody ain’t too bad. There’s something a little bit annoying and David Grey-ish about his adenoidal singing voice, though, that kind of colors my opinion – the kind of singer that likes to remind you via vocal histrionics that he has soul and also might be packing it pants-wise if you wanted to, you know, get in them and find out. Seriously, though, not a bad song at all. I’m gonna go with a strong Maybe, leaning towards Hell Yes.
10. “Diamonds,” Rihanna. Not my favorite Rihanna song ever, but not a terrible song, really (I realize that’s damning it with faint praise — it kinda deserves faint praise). It kind of sounds like she’s singing with a mouthful of, dunno, diamonds or something. Basically, the entire thing hangs on how annoying you find the hook, which is her chirpily singing “Shine bright like a diamond.” Can I also just use this soapbox to say how god-damn disappointed I am in Rihanna for getting back together with the man who beat her within an inch of her life? Christ, girl: self-respect. It’s going to happen again. Sigh. Don’t say the entire country didn’t warn you, honey. Maybe, leaning towards Eh.
9. “Some Nights,” fun.. (No, that’s not a typo — there really is an annoying period after their name. I’m just properly representing it.) Much like the last fun. song, I know everybody in the world loves this thing, but I’m not at all sure where I stand. People keep comparing it to Queen, but really? Freddie and Co. would have thrown some god-damn grit on this thing. On t’other hand, it has a pretty masterful set of hooks and a pretty ingratiating drumbeat, and some pretty decent harmony singing (though tweaked within an inch of its life with Autotune – god, listen to that gurgly, Autotune-nightmare high-scream at the end of the song). I’d go with an Eh, but I bet everybody else would go with at least a Maybe, huh?
8. “Die Young,” Ke$ha. Not as strong as her Max Martin-produced stuff, but a pretty damn great first single from her new album nonetheless. Look. The thing with Ke-dollar-sign-ha is that she’s essentially a pop construct – the artist herself is canny and self-aware and has basically genetically engineered this dumb-ass party single to hit the top of the charts. To that end, she employs every trick of the trade – the gritty dancefloor beat, the drunk-party-girl rap bits, the Katy-Perry-ish “yeahs” and “uh huhs” and a stellar hook (I absolutely defy you to remove it from your head once it’s in there). It’s fake, it’s plastic, but it’s damn smart underneath all the dumb, and I have to give her credit for basically knowing what the fuck she’s doing, and doing it so damn well. Hell Yes.
7. “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” Taylor Swift. If the first half of 2012 belonged to Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe,” the second half belongs to this song, which I’m officially calling the Second Best Single Of The Year. Words cannot express how much I adore this song. Besides being funny as hell and sporting an amazingly catchy chorus (hell, “catchy” doesn’t even begin to describe it. This thing is the black plague of hooks), it’s also very well written (great verse melody) and arranged (I love the little talky bit in the middle that sounds like a bit of found-sound from a phone conversation or something). Taylor’s conversion from pop-country to pure-pop-for-now-people is complete, and utterly glorious (sorry, country fans – your loss is our gain), and I’m betting Red is going to be a killer record, as chockful of singles as Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream. (note: I just noticed, several hours after I wrote this, that “We Are…” is a Max Martin production/co-write. Figures! The Phil Spector of the modern era.) Hell to the Yes.
6. “Live While We’re Young,” One Direction. I did my “teen idolism” rant last time, so I’m not going to repeat myself. You know how it goes — big boy group has hit single, follows it up with near-soundalike tune. It’s been happening since the 50s, hasn’t changed a jot in 2012, and doesn’t change the fact that this is, in fact, quite a great song. Maybe not quite as great as “What Makes You Beautiful” in the way that “Get Offa My Cloud” wasn’t as good as “Satisfaction” (and believe me, I am in no way saying these songs are as good as those songs, but you know what I mean) but still really quite damn good. I love how the intro guitar riff quotes the Clash without knowing its doing it (if any of these guys have heard a Clash song I’ll eat my hat) and I love the fists! raised! in! the! air! “wo-oooh-oh-oooh-oh-oooh” hook (this is the year of the wordless hook). Fun. Pure fun. Hell Yes.
5. “One More Night,” Maroon 5. I may have mentioned how much I fucking hate Maroon 5. I also have to mention, just for the record, that I’m not overly fond of reggae. Imagine my dismay at Maroon 5 doing reggae, or rather trying to do reggae, squeaking like Peter fucking Brady on every line of the verse and sounding about as Jamaican as Sugarland. You can just picture that fucking singer doing his god-damn fat-pants-dance that he does in every god-damn video. I want to punch him full in the face so badly. Terrible. So, so, so Terrible. Worse, even, than “Pay Phone.” If we could ship them and Train off to some kind of remote island with no communication with the outside world — well, I’d vote for whichever candidate would advocate that, basically.
4. “Red,” Taylor Swift. Another amazing, amazing song from Taylor Swift. The first hit-single ode to synesthesia, assigning different colors to emotions? You decide. I like this one almost as much as I like “We Will Never…” but it’s a different kind of thing, a little sadder and a little more serious, colored with one of the most interesting uses of banjo in a pop song ever (it sounds like a synth – it probably could have been a synth, but I love that they went for banjo thinking it’d make it more “appealing” to country audiences). Look: she’s a great songwriter, full stop. I wish to god yr. indie artists would take a page from her and write songs like this, with great verse melodies and great choruses and a great middle eight. Hell Yes.
3. “Gangnam Style,” PSY. Every year has one of these novelty-type hits from another country – remember Las Ketchup? The Macarena? This one is a lot more listenable than those, a hysterically fun dance single with a subversive message that you cannot understand, and an ingratiating little damn hook. Trust me, you wanna watch the video for this one if you haven’t already – PSY’s dancing makes the whole thing worth it. K-Pop may indeed be the next big thing – more danceable and fun than J-Pop and a hell of a lot better than T-Pop. I’m going with Hell Yes, with the thought that I might downgrade it later if it starts to get overplayed. Which it will. Trust me.
2. “Skyfall,” Adele. I know you all love Adele, and I just don’t. Or at least I didn’t prior to this song, which is easily and handily the best Bond song since Duran Duran’s “View To A Kill.” It hits all the right notes, with the little quotes of the original Bond theme and a slithery little chord progression, and Adele’s silky, velvety voice over the top of the whole thing. Huge plus: organic instrumentation, including some really well-played drums and a phenomenally epic orchestra. Rightfully a hit, the first the Bond series has had since I don’t even know when (maybe the aforementioned “View To A Kill?”) Hell Yes.
1. “I Knew You Were Trouble,” Taylor Swift. So new I’ve barely had time to absorb it – and yes, this is the fourth Taylor Swift song in this chart, which should prove something, anyway (Moby Grape tried this in 1967 with a phenomenal record and failed – I guess they were a little ahead of their time, no?). On first blush, the dubstep-isms sound a little out of place with the rather sweet verses, but I like that she’s trying something this dark and epic, chorus-wise, and I love that she’s stepping out of her comfort zone and absorbing other types of music that don’t fit in the narrow pop-country worldview. S’good. S’very good. Hell Yes.