How to avoid playwriting by spewing a few meaningless opinions
Has it always been this way, and I’m just now figuring it out? Or is this a 2009 thing? When did pop/rock become dominated by women? Why is it men are stuck with heavy but banal dirges on finding second chances and being all hurt n’ stuff while women get to explore every avenue of music and emotion?
Beats me. But nearly every bit of pop that made an impact (on me, anyway) was delivered by women this year. Even the reliable rockers like the Foo Fighters and hip hop provocateurs like Kanye forgot to be interesting (on record, anyway). You have to head into indietown to find men who aren’t stuck in “everything I know, I learned from Nickelback” territory.
Fortunately, the ladies – and a few of the indie fellows – came through this year. Below are my choices for the good stuff – and some of the bad. Enjoy, friends!
Oh, and as always, these opinions are solely those of the author. Where do I get the nerve?
THE BEST POP SINGLES OF 2009
“I Do Not Hook Up,” Kelly Clarkson. Oh-h! No-o! Kelly’s defiant roar of pride is pop at its most pure, most joyful, most fun – it’s everything disposable music SHOULD be, and more. Heck, the only reason we aren’t unanimously crowning it “The Pop Single of 2009” is because “My Life Would Suck Without You” is so damn good too.
“Sober,” Pink. I know it was released in 2008, so it’s a bit of a cheat, but most of us found it after January, so it counts. Good thing, too…Pink’s finest hour is perhaps the best song of any year. Some of her rock tracks suffer a bit from quick-paced formula (short verse, loud catchy chorus, repeat), but “Sober” is so strangely complex, emotional, and lyrically & musically risky that it’s an instant classic. You hear it, and you want to hear it again. And geez, how about that video?
“Zero,” Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Listening to “Zero” – to all of It’s Blitz!, actually – takes you (well, me, since I’m old) back to the glory days of New Wave, back when indie music felt new and pure and not so damned self-conscious and ironic. “Zero” is a sincere delight – plus, thanks to Karen O’s very adult and sexy voice, it’s a great transcendent rocker.
“Single Ladies,” Beyonce. Overplayed? Sure. But not only is “Single Ladies” a magnificently punchy, genre-defying slice of attitude, it has a genuinely odd structure that keeps you guessing, even on the 300th listen. Listen to those changes under “if you like it/then you should’ve put a ring on it”…not exactly cookie-cutter chords, are they? Besides, nobody knows the power of a well-timed “oh-oh-oh” like our own Miss Fierce.
“LoveGame,” Lady Gaga. So what was YOUR favorite Lady Gaga song of the year? Many swear by the odd mashup of “Bad Romance,” some still love the sneaky “Poker Face,” still others prefer “Just Dance” or “Paparazzi.” All fine choices, but with its bold dance-all-night synth lick, sexy-sweet come-ons, and Grace Jones-evoking chorus, “LoveGame” is my fave Gaga jam to date. Still, what’s truly amazing is that we all have a pet song by Ms. Germanotta – love her or hate her, you still love her.
“Day ‘n Night,” Kid Cudi. Try to classify this one – stoner hip-hop folk, maybe? Kid Cudi takes us on a lyrically adventurous trip into his mind, letting the simple, hypnotic melody and haunting synth licks guide us into pop bliss. Even as it keeps a foot firmly in iTunes-happy territory, it could be the most original song of the year.
“Sometime Around Midnight,” Airborne Toxic Event. I know…they’re named “Airborne Toxic Event.” They wear wool caps and skinny jeans, too (I assume, anyway). But here’s a song that takes the offbeat observational skills of Okkervil River and infuses it with the kind of sincere emotion you don’t expect to hear from indie folks…and then the music just builds and builds until it surrounds your soul. Plus…it rocks. If there’s a post-hipsterdom movement in 2010, this song will kick it off.
“People Got a Lotta Nerve,” Neko Case. It sounds a bit like a throwaway at first…jangly guitars, subtle hook, an almost effortless vocal. But then you catch those lyrics and sneaky, sexy chorus, and you hear that really odd and disturbing second verse, and you realize Ms. Case knew what she was doing all along…and then, just as it’s soaring into pop bliss, it all ends. But oh, while it lasted…
“Battlefield,” Jordin Sparks. Every American Idol finalist record is loaded with pop potential – hooks galore, repetitive choruses, a chance for the singer to hit a money note or two. Unfortunately, they almost always sound like what they are – pop ditties composed by committee, stripped of idiosyncrasies and personality. “Battlefield” could have been one of those, but Ms. Sparks gives it just enough emotion to let it truly soar and become something sublime. It’ll get stuck in your head for days, but you won’t be sorry.
“Heavy Cross,” Gossip. I’m a big fan of Beth Ditto, but I was a little disappointed when I first heard the disco-singed “Heavy Cross.” I thought it too dense, too processed, too far removed from the awesomely spare, pokey dance punk of Standing in the Way of Control. But the more I listened, the more I loved – sure it’s disco, but it’s damned good disco, sexy, rocking and satisfying. And the Divine Ms. Ditto refuses to get lost in the mix – she delivers a powerful vocal that gives the whole enterprise a healthy dose of sexy soul.
“The Rake’s Song,” The Decemberists. You have to go all the way back to the Violent Femmes’ “Country Death Song” to find another awesomely catchy song about, er, murdering your own children. Of course, Gordon at least had the courtesy to feel bad about what he did…not Colin, who sounds relatively pleased. Creepy as hell…and really fun. Which just makes it more creepy. And fun.
“Waking Up in Vegas,” Katy Perry. Katy’s got a fantastic look, and she got off to a slyly provocative start with the strictly PG “I Kissed a Girl,” but with her limited range and by-the-numbers delivery, she’s going to have to count on great material until she finds her own voice (if she ever does). Fortunately, “Waking Up in Vegas” has got a killer chorus, a great beat, and a sense of humor – everything a disposable summer pop song needs to cross the line from good to great.
“1901,” Phoenix. Now that radio is in such a weird place and MTV and VH1 barely show videos, I suppose there’s a case to be made for licensing as a means for launching little-known acts. But what a freakin’ shame that Phoenix’s towering bit of electronica will forever be associated with car commercials.
“Honey West,” Betty. I don’t think it was ever a single, but man, it should be…Betty’s paean to a forgotten 60’s TV detective is a delightful rocker.
“What Are You Like,” Indigo Girls. Subtle production and a great groove make this one nearly irresistible – unless you’re a diehard Indigo Girls fan, in which case you’ve essentially heard it before. Still, it’s a good ‘un.
“Me With You,” Brian Turner. A great songwriter turns in one of his very best. When BT drops his CD, get in line for a copy – it’s gonna be awesome! In the meantime, go to Brian’s ReverbNation Page and give it a listen.
THE WORST POP SINGLES OF 2009
“No Surprise,” Daughtry. Look, I don’t object to the sentiment, or even the guy’s voice. No, my problem is that every note, every chord, every drumbeat in this humorless dirge is more predictable than the last. The absolute nadir of overproduced, oversung, oh-so-earnest white-boy “power chord” pap.
“Second Chance,” Shinedown. I stand corrected.
“Gives You Hell,” All-American Rejects. Damn you, Green Day – you see what you did? You inspired guys like the All-American Rejects, who think they’re being “edgy” with their braggy, twee little kiss-off song, in which they crow about sleeping all day while their ex has to, like, have a real job. Obviously, this little bastard struck a chord, since the song was a smash. But “obnoxious” and “slickly produced pop” are a bad combination, and “Gives You Hell” is the worst of both worlds.
“We Made You,” Eminem. Eminem’s “comedy” songs used to have some zip. But more and more they belong on the Dr. Demento show. He’s still got a raw talent, but this one’s dumb and irritating.
“I Gotta Feeling,” Black-Eyed Peas. My God, the Peas have grown lazy. If their habit of repeating a single word to fill in the gaps in poorly-metered lyrics isn’t bad enough, now they’re not even bothering to rhyme, write melodies, or provide an interesting beat. Sure, it’s catchy, but so is a pre-programmed drum n’ bass track on an old Casio keyboard.
“Use Somebody,” Kings of Leon. These guys came loaded with hype as the next big rock band, and hell, maybe they are. Truth be told, the only bad part of “Use Somebody” is the chorus, where the title is repeated in a choked whine over and over until the song becomes nothing but an aggravating little earworm.
“3,” Britney Spears. Shouldn’t a song espousing the manage-a-trois be, y’know…sexy? Not this time. Britney sounds as detached as ever, and the beats are tired and square. Imagine what Lady Gaga woulda done with this one and you can see the trouble Britney might be in.
“Fireflies,” Owl City. It’s okay to admire Ben Gibbard. It’s okay to ape his voice and inflection. It’s even okay to give your track the exact same cheap-synth sound you might find on any Postal Service song – we all gotta start somewhere. But it’s NOT okay to give your song the most maddeningly cloying lyrics in recent history. Seriously…the hilariously vague ”everything is never as it seems” is the best line on the track. Even Spandau Ballet would have rejected “Why do I tire of counting sheep/when I’m too tired to fall asleep.” (Maybe.) By the time 10,000 lightning bugs are holding a sock hop, you’ll want to heave 10,000 meals.
“Good Girls Go Bad,” Cobra Starship. I get that the, er, Cobra Starship (ugh) are going for humor with their contribution to junior-high dance playlists across the country. We should encourage that, as humor is too rare a thing in pop music. But still…what an inane little song. Too silly to be truly offensive, but too stupid to be anything but annoying.
“1 2 3 4,” Plain White T’s. I don’t think it’s horrible, exactly, and I give them all the credit in the world for miraculously avoiding one-hit-wonderdom. But Lord do I hate that chorus. It’s the equivalent of setting a 4th-grade love note to music.
COULD GO EITHER WAY…
“Party in the U.S.A.,” Miley Cyrus. You either love it or hate it. The haters find it pandering (absolutely) and overproduced (certainly). The lovers are too busy moving our hips like yeah.
“If You Seek Amy,” Britney Spears. I love the chorus, even though it’s based on an old joke. I love the throwback “oh baby baby’s” in the verses. But something so “outrageous” shouldn’t be so forgettable. I dunno…either it’s too dumb, or not dumb enough.
“Boom Boom Pow,” Black Eyed Peas. The epitome of “It’s got a good beat and you can dance to it.” And it’s so big and infectious that yes, dammit, you even want to dance to it. But oh, the brain-dead lyrics…so stupid, off-putting, and unnecessary that they almost kill the fun.
“She Wolf,” Shakira. An infectious groove, clever lyrics, and a nifty chorus are compromised (for me, at least) by Shakira’s less-than-inspired delivery, making what should be a pop masterpiece into something mostly forgettable.
“21 Guns,” Green Day. Green Day were always a commercial-minded pop band in punk-poseur costumes – but there’s nothing wrong with that, as long as the music’s good, which it usually is. “21 Guns” basically picks up where “Wake Me Up When September Ends,” but it’s not quite soaring enough to make up for its soft-pedaled repetition and “perfect” (thanks to studio manipulating) vocals. Still, I catch myself singing it an awful lot.
Anything by Taylor Swift. She’s got a knack, that’s for sure, and she’ll be around a long time, but her songs tend to get away from her. “Love Song” is catchy but cloying and lyrically ragged (at best…has she READ the stuff she’s referencing!?), “Fifteen” walks the line between sympathetic and condescending, and not even her pure n’ innocent voice can keep “You Belong With Me” from sounding a bit creepy. Give her a few years and she may just be onto something.
Well there you go, my friends – keep on rockin’ in the new year!
Love & kisses,