Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Radio Daze Vol. 6: May/June 2011

A bi-monthly feature that reviews the current top 10 songs in America to catch a glimpse at the status of pop music today. This entry is taken from the Billboard Hot 100 chart dated May 28, 2011.

1. "Rolling in the Deep," Adele

As you'll see in the rest of this post, I didn't wait for the usual amount of turnover for this post, as there are four returning songs from the previous edition. Now, that's more of a statement of the durability of those songs (it's been almost two months since Vol. 5), and a part of me is hoping that by doing this now, Vol. 7 will be almost completely new. But more importantly, I wanted to catch this particular moment in pop because there's something very special and unusual about these ten songs and their placement on the charts, and it captures the current state of pop and the trends that are simultaneously being defined, solidified, and undercut.

The lattermost of those can clearly be seen here at #1. Back in 2008, Adele, a 19-year-old songstress from London, released a modest-selling album, 19, and snagged two Grammys for it, including Best New Artist (in a category that included the Jonas Brothers and Lady Antebellum). If you had asked anyone then if she would become the next pop sensation, you'd hardly find someone who would agree. But now, in 2011, something absolutely bizarre has occurred. Adele's sophomore album, 21, has been the best selling album in America each week for most of the year, and is the first album of the year to sell a million copies. And the lead single from that album, "Rolling in the Deep," is the number one song in the country. And most astonishingly, she did this without changing her sound a bit; there's nary an AutoTune or a dance beat in sight in her music. How did something so retro and organic go straight to the top in a world of dance-pop and processed vocals?

"Rolling in the Deep" is a song that is immediately timeless, a true-blue instant classic if there ever was one. The song plays over a rollicking gospel beat, as Adele's husky vocals carry the torment and blues of a love that could have been if it hadn't gone so sour. The backing chorus cements that bloozy gospel feel, adding force to the biting lyrics. It's the kind of song that could have been a hit five years ago or 35 years ago, and indeed it gives Adele the status of being this generation's Dusty Springfield. She may have never been to Memphis, but she's got the state of mind and the sound to seem like a lost artist from that scene, only now being discovered. And compared to the rest of the pop field, it's an exciting breath of fresh air. Here's hoping the second half of the year treats her just as well. A-

2. "E.T.," Katy Perry featuring Kanye West

The first holdover from Vol. 5 is actually in the same place as it was then, though it did hit the top for a while in between. It's still a silly song, but it's still fun enough to enjoy. I have a feeling this could be a potential "song of the summer," so I'll probably be reviewing again in the future. We'll see if it holds up come late summer. B+

3. "The Edge of Glory," Lady Gaga

I actually already wrote a bit about this song in my defense of Lady Gaga's latest output (I'm getting her new album tomorrow - so pumped!), but I want to go into it a little more. This is unabashed power pop, no doubt about it. And I maintain that behind the dance production, there's still an obvious Springsteen-ness about this song. It's in the lyrics, running with the one you love to a destination of dreams coming true, harking back to the best of Springsteen. There's also a bit of Bon Jovi in there as well, especially in that massive hook that thunders over the song in a burst of pop escapism that recalls the feeling of the hook for "Living on a Prayer." And that's ultimately what this song is all about: a big burst of emotion and the feeling that you're unstoppable now. Huge bonus points for that terrific Clarence Clemmons saxophone solo. As I previously stated, by looking backward, Gaga's never been better. And this song, which actually debuted in this spot, is far and away one of her best. Is it better than "Born This Way?" Please, don't make me choose! A+

4. "Give Me Everything," Pitbull featuring Ne-Yo, Afrojack, and Nayer

There's still something so strange to me about Pitbull's popularity. The Cuban-American rapper has become an unlikely pop by fully embracing the dance-pop trend, leaving his peers behind and capturing a wide audience to the result of several huge pop hits. With "Give Me Everything," he teams up with R&B gentleman Ne-Yo and newcomers Afrojack and Nayer for a jam that immediately recalls the Black Eyed Peas' "I Gotta Feeling." Pitbull still has yet to impress with his actual lyrics, relying mostly on undercooked references to Lindsay Lohan and boasting about, well, how awesome he is. But he gets by on his pure joie de vivre, making the prospect of going home with him seem like the best choice imaginable. Like "I Gotta Feeling," there's something strangely uplifting and cathartic about the song, but it never quite reaches the pop bliss of the former. B

5. "Just Can't Get Enough," The Black Eyed Peas

Hey, speaking of the Black Eyed Peas, look who it is! Look, this song is still terrible, and I haven't changed my opinion of it since late March. I do want to take this time to say that I don't think the Black Eyed Peas represent the death of pop music and are abominations to the very idea of music, as I've seen a lot of lately. The Peas do tend to be hit or miss with me, and I think the problem is that you have to adjust your expectations and your mindset when listening to them. There is no depth to a Black Eyed Peas song; there never has been, and there never will be, no matter how hard they may try. And honestly, when they do try, the results are disastrous (see: "One Tribe," "Now Generation"). What the Peas excel at is dumb pop music, something you can dance to without having to think about it. These guys aren't great, or even good, rappers, and Fergie is more often than not only a passable singer, but think about songs like "I Gotta Feeling" (their best track) or "Hey Mama" or, if you dare, "My Humps." No one's going to regard these as classics anytime soon, but there's no denying the delirious giddiness they put into these tracks. It's not smart, but it definitely works. And when they're on their dumb A-game, there usually aren't better examples of pure, unadulterated pop. "Just Can't Get Enough," though, just isn't one of those songs. C-

6. "On the Floor," Jennifer Lopez featuring Pitbull

Jennifer Lopez is the perfect example of the factory-produced pop star. She's not an especially talented singer, her dancing is good but not phenomenal, her acting career went nowhere as a result of her mediocre performances; apart from natural beauty, she doesn't really have anything going for her. So when her early-2000s heyday came to a close, she seemed destined to vanish from the pop scene completely, a supernova that had imploded. But here she is, back on the top of the charts, thanks in part to her high-profile gig as a judge on American Idol. She actually owes much of her career rejuvenation to Idol, though it didn't make her a pop star again, just a celebrity. "On the Floor" doesn't feature anything special from J. Lo; in fact, for the most part she seems conspicuously absent from song, her vocals disappearing into the background. Pitbull contributes a tossed-off verse that doesn't really add or subtract from the song as a whole. No, this song belongs completely to producer RedOne, formerly best known for Lady Gaga's "Poker Face." The song serves as an opportunity to showcase his terrific production skills, as he shifts between various beats at a breakneck pace while creating a true party song. Consider this his audition tape to be the next big producer in pop. B

7. "The Lazy Song," Bruno Mars

Oh, Bruno Mars. After the marathon run of "Grenade" in this column, he's become a mainstay at the top of the pop charts, and he continues that success with "The Lazy Song," a simple, silly song that is perfect for summer. Mars knows his way around a hit song, and he's proven to be more than adept at crafting hits that are pure pop bliss. "The Lazy Song" is no exception, featuring a simple guitar line and Mars' gleeful ruminations on all the things he could and will do on a lazy day, simply because "today I don't feel like doing anything." There's nothing deep going on here, but that's not in any way a problem because, really, why should it be? It's fun, and Mars is effortlessly charming in his vocal delivery that you can't help but want to just hang out with the guy and do nothing all day. Bonus points for that terrific video. A-

8. "Till the World Ends," Britney Spears

There's really no reason why I should like this song. For one, as I've said before, Britney Spears is not a good singer, even by pop standards, with a voice that's so over-processed that its impossible to tell if there's even a human being behind it. Then, the song sounds like it would be a better fit for Ke$ha (she did write the song, after all). Yet there's no denying that, for the first time in my life, I actually like a Britney Spears song. There's an undeniable buzz running through the production, and you can't help but wanting to dance to it whenever it comes on. Sure, there's no improvement to Britney's vocals, and she's not really doing anything here that she hasn't done on every one of her other songs. But the combination of the ridiculous lyrics and infectious production make this one a keeper, a guilty pleasure that's more of the latter than the former. B

9. "Look at Me Now," Chris Brown featuring Busta Rhymes and Lil' Wayne

Another holdover from the last volume, I have to make a slight change in my opinion. In the last entry, I wrote about how I more or less despise Chris Brown, and that his contributions to this song are minimal and are greatly overshadowed by his guests'. The latter part still holds true, especially when you consider the remarkably complex, sophisticated wordplay and flow that Lil' Wayne implements in his verse (every time I hear it, I get a little more excited about Tha Carter IV). And I still think that Brown is a despicable human being, but as an artist, he does have a good ear for what makes a hit song, and he's pretty talented when it comes to singing (not rapping). I wouldn't say he's one of the best, but he's not too shabby, either. B+

10. "Down on Me," Jeremih featuring 50 Cent

A part of me is still surprised this is as popular as it is, since it comes from an R&B singer who's only had one other song of any importance ("Birthday Sex," a "hit" in the stretchiest of terms) and a rapper who is now basically a parody of his former self. It does, however, belong to the dying subgenre of strip-club music, which makes it even more baffling. Maybe America just can't stand the thought of not being able to bump and grind to seductive music that ought to come with a pole, after having the economy tank? It's still catchy in spite of itself, though, and I still kind of hate myself for liking it. B

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