Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Radio Daze Vol. 8: September/October 2011

The following is based on the Billboard Hot 100 chart dated October 8, 2011.

1. "Moves Like Jagger," Maroon 5 feat. Christina Aguilera

Remember once, long ago in the halcyon days of the early 2000s, when American Idol would produce a legitimate superstar who would top the Billboard charts? Well, that role now apparently belongs to The Voice, and the ones benefiting from exposure on the show aren't the competitors, but rather the judges themselves. Blake Shelton saw his Red River Blue debut at number one, and Cee-Lo Green avoided becoming "the 'Fuck You' guy" and has had several more minor hits. But it's clear that Maroon 5's Adam Levine and Christina Aguilera benefited the most, with this collaboration saving both of their music careers. Before they performed "Moves Like Jagger" on The Voice, Maroon 5's latest album Hands All Over was a non-starter, and Aguilera was flailing between the failure of Burlesque (and album Bionic) and her botching of the national anthem at the Super Bowl. Who knew that within six months they'd both be ruling the airwaves?

So what about the song itself? The strange thing about Maroon 5 is that underneath the glitzy blue-eyed white-boy soul-rock is a surprising bit of menace, as if Levine and Co. are threatening you as a means of seduction. Here, he sings in the chorus that he doesn't "need to try to control you / look into my eyes / and I'll own you." Of course, this is all a metaphor for sex, as just about any pop song is, but there's no denying that even when he's promising you control, he's the superior one. It's kind of off-putting in the way that Maroon 5 song is, yet the buoyancy of the beat makes it easy to miss. Aguilera doesn't add much outside of a reminder of her gigantic singing voice, but really that's enough. Bonus points for never once rhyming "Jagger" with "swagger." B

2. "Someone Like You," Adele

I'm still completely flabbergasted by Adele's popularity. It's not that she's not talented, it's that she is so truly talented that she stands out among the regular Top 40 crowd. Take, for instance, "Someone Like You." When it hit number one a few weeks ago, not only did it make a tremendous jump from the bottom to the top, but it became the only song in the history of the charts to reach that position featuring only piano and voice. In an age when processed, club-ready thudding beats are the requisite for pop success, how the hell did a song so beautifully, achingly spare make it to the top? The key, I believe, lies in those words: "beautiful" and "aching." With only her powerful voice and a arpeggio-playing piano, she sings a kiss-off to an ex that's full of pain and heartache. It's a gorgeous ballad, one that easily cements her in the tradition of the great soul singers rather than her comtemporary pop-tart peers. Like "Rolling in the Deep" before it, it's sure to spawn plenty of bad, drunken karaoke, but is there any better measure of a truly great talent? A

3. "Pumped Up Kicks," Foster the People

Here's another oddity for the top of the charts: a low-profile outfit that I guarantee not a single one of you could pick out of a lineup, singing a bouncy, instantly-hummable ditty about...murdering all of the kids with better shoes than you. It's seriously disarming, and I wonder if the audiences out there who made this reach number three realize what it's actually about. On first listen, it's a fun, cheery sounding song, complete with whistling (whistling!), but then the darkness seeps in when you realize it's essentially Columbine by way of The Polyphonic Spree. There's nothing wrong with making a song like this, but it's just weird that it would be so popular. It also doesn't help that Foster's lead singer Mark Foster doesn't have enough menace or exuberance in his voice to really sell the song for what it is. Whatever it is. B-

4. "Party Rock Anthem," LMFAO feat. Lauren Bennett and Goonrock

The last time we check in, this was the number one song in the country, and I blasted it for being a basic affront to America's eardrums. Which is still accurate, though I must admit that I've heard worse songs since then (see this volume's #10), and it's grown on me just a little bit. The isn't to suggest that Redfoo and Sky Blu (who, incidently, are relatives of the great Berry Gordy, founder of Motown Records) have any skill in rapping, but the production here is probably their finest. Which isn't really a compliment, but it's an improvement. D

5. "Stereo Hearts," Gym Class Heroes feat. Adam Levine

The first of two songs to be featured in Bonus Tracks to crack the top ten, "Stereo Hearts" is further evidence that Levine is indeed seeing a resurgence. This is vintage GCH, charmingly sweet and inoffensive rapping from Travie McCoy over a rollicking beat. As I said last time, you wish they'd really shake things up and do something different, but as it is it's perfectly enjoyable aw-shucks pop-rap. B

6. "Lighters," Bad Meets Evil feat. Bruno Mars

Even though this isn't a strictly-Eminem song (Bad Meets Evil is his collaboration with former-rival Royce Da 5'9"), it serves as an interesting referendum on the direction of his career. Take a listen to the whole Bad Meets Evil EP Hell: The Sequel and you'll hear Em revisiting his Marshall Mathers LP days, with demented, misogynistic lyrics that could only come from his mind. The most accessible song, however, includes none of this: it has verses from both Em and Royce about redemption and forgiveness, with a hook sung by one of pop music's current favorite hook-men. So of course it's "Lighters" that finds traction, but it's not really anyone's best work, and compared to even other recent Eminem singles ("Not Afraid," for example, or "Love the Way You Lie") it's tame and...well, rather boring, knowing that all three are capable of more. B-

7. "Cheers (Drink to That)," Rihanna

I've written before that in general, I'm ambivalent about Rihanna. Specifically, she has some of the best pop songs written for her, but you can't listen to them without thinking about how much better it would be if someone else had done it. It all goes back to my thesis that Rihanna has no real musical personality, and that drags down her songs. Take, for example, "Cheers (Drink to That)," a song that should be fun and perfect for a night of barhopping (solidified by the group-chant chorus toward the end). Instead, Rihanna sounds almost bored to tears with the idea, with barely a hint of fun or excitement in her voice. The only life comes from the "yeah-yeahs" seemingly sung by co-writer Avril Lavigne. I would love to hear what kind of bratty energy she could have brought to it. C+

8. "You and I," Lady Gaga

Lady Gaga's Born This Way, as I wrote back in May, is a messy, sprawling work in which the music and the persona finally align in gloriously bizarre harmony. The apex of this comes here in "You and I," easily the album's strongest track. The combination of Nashville stomp, Elton John lyrical flamboyance, and hard guitar shredding by Queen's Brian May is the perfect example of how Gaga can (and should) combine her many obsessions into a perfect slice of pop that's, in a word, irresistible to sing along to. She's finally found a musical identity that fits, and I hope she keeps it. A+

9. "You Make Me Feel...," Cobra Starship feat. Sabi

As I wrote back in the first Bonus Tracks, this is a surprisingly fun song from a group that was sort-of supposed to be a joke. Guest vocalist Sabi really steals the show though, which makes me wonder, when are we going to hear her solo work? B+

10. "Sexy and I Know It," LMFAO

Remember when I said that I'd heard worse from LMFAO? Well, here it is. Granted, it doesn't reach the "Shots" nadir that pop music can only reach when it willingly decides to self-destruct. It should be noted that this is LMFAO on their own, without the help of a guest to distract from the duo's god-awful lyrics (they may have reached a new low when "wiggle wiggle wiggle" becomes your bridge), nor do they have production that allows you to tune them out. Instead, we get an over-busy, twitchy train wreck that sounds as if it was meant to become the anthem for the next season of Jersey Shore. And I wouldn't be surprised if it is. F

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