Wednesday, September 9, 2015

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - september 19, 2015

You know, there are some weeks where I wonder why I even bother doing my album reviews, instead just focusing on Billboard BREAKDOWN, because in the case of certain records, nearly every song from it is going to land on the charts at some point, so why should I bother? And this week, not only do we have one of those cases, we also have a song from a previous case of it returning high to the charts. And yet, none of those have ended up being the biggest story of this week, mostly we have a new #1, the first of his career and one riding the wave of a tearful VMAs performance to take the very top. And folks, time to dust off those old pitchforks: Justin Bieber is back, and he's bigger than ever.

So before we discuss the quality of that song in detail, let's talk about the Top 10 and why 'What Do You Mean?' by Justin Bieber managed to get to the top. Quite frankly, it's what a sales rollout should look like in the modern era of charting hits: easily topping sales and streaming and surging up airplay, but also a well-timed YouTube release that only got edged out by Taylor Swift. Coupled with the performance at the VMAs, it's no wonder Bieber took the top for the first time in his career. And it was enough to knock back 'Can't Feel My Face' by The Weeknd back to #2, which might have easily held onto #1 otherwise thanks to strong streaming, sales, gains on YouTube and an airplay recovery thanks to the album. Of course, the song that again benefited more was 'The Hills' by The Weeknd, which rose to #3, holding onto its streaming position and surging in sales and airplay - hell, I predict this song probably lasting longer than 'Can't Feel My Face' as we head into fall. All of this meant 'Watch Me' by Silento finally took a blow down to #4, though that might have come anyway with losses in streaming and a dip in sales and YouTube. The larger and unexpected dip came from 'Cheerleader' by OMI dropping to #5, which took losses across the board and I expect will be exiting the Top 10 sooner rather than later. Beneath it, the position losses are probably most attributable to Bieber, because 'Lean On' by Major Lazer, DJ Snake & M0 was holding steady across the board except in sales at #6, 'Good For You' by Selena Gomez & A$AP Rocky picked up significant airplay to hold its spot at #7, '679' by Fetty Wap gained even more streaming and sales to hold #8, and 'Locked Away' by Rock City and Adam Levine picked up even more steam thanks to streaming, airplay, and sales to keep #9. And finally, returning to the Top 10 we have 'Where Are U Now' by Skrillex, Diplo & Justin Bieber, which rode a boost in streaming and sales albeit weakening airplay rising to #10. Probably won't hold long there, but apparently the resurgence of Justin Bieber was enough to get it there.

This takes us to our losers and dropouts, and wow, we've got a busy week in the latter category. 'Bitch Better Have My Money' by Rihanna, 'Nasty Freestyle' by T-Wayne, 'Be Real' by Kid In ft. DeJ Loaf, and finally 'Love Me Like You Do' by Ellie Goulding all exiting and I really can't complain about any of those losses. Maybe 'Sangria' by Blake Shelton, but if we're taking out 'Kiss You In The Morning' by Michael Ray and 'One Hell Of An Amen' by Brantley Gilbert along the way, again, I'm not complaining here! And our losses list is pretty big too: we've got our underwhelming debuts like 'Smoke Break' by Carrie Underwood falling to 76, although that might be a case of country just haemorrhaging gains because it was another rough week there. 'Real Life' by Jake Owen tumbling to 99, 'Young And Crazy' by Frankie Ballard tumbling to 90, 'Loving You Easy' by The Zac Brown Band hitting 83, and the continuing collapse of 'Kick The Dust Up' by Luke Bryan to 64, the song that I don't even think Luke Bryan fans liked because it never even got a video! Beyond that, we've got the continued losses of 'Rotten To The Core' from the Descendants soundtrack to 80 - not fast enough - and the odd slipups from two songs I honestly thought would have had a bit more shelf life: 'I Don't Like It, I Love It' by Flo Rida ft. Robin Thicke & Verdine White; and 'She's Kinda Hot' by 5 Seconds Of Summer. I wouldn't say either song is great, but to see them suddenly lose momentum did catch me off guard a bit.

And on the topic of momentum, we didn't have as many gains, but nearly all of them were big. First we have 'Levels' by Nick Jonas picking up steam after its debut to go to 70, and 'Love Myself' by Hailee Steinfeld continuing its rise to 44 - I can see this following a similar path as 'Fight Song' by Rachel Platten over the next few weeks, mostly because it's a slightly better version of that song. But the biggest gains of the week both come from the VMAs, the first being the revival of 'Should've Been Us', which might have actually given Tori Kelly some name recognition as it rebounded hard to 51. And then there's Macklemore & Ryan Lewis and their arsenal of oldschool collaborators with 'Downtown' which rocketed up to 18, breaking the Top 20. And really, I can't see this getting much higher, probably sticking around where 'White Walls' fell a few years back. I will say that as much as there has been backlash to Macklemore from the entertainment press and some critics, the mainstream public doesn't seem to care and is still ready to give him hits, which is interesting to say the least.

But our theme of songs getting a boost from the VMAs becomes all the more pronounced as we look at our returning entries, starting with...

You know, it's interesting that one of NIcki's bigger stabs at pop music off of The Pinkprint has underperformed, especially in comparison with her bigger singles... at least until you listen to the track. I'm sorry, this song just falls completely flat for me - as much as the bassline and prechorus leads you to think this song can build to a potent crescendo, the chorus is a complete momentum killer with that incredibly stiff beat. And like so much of that album, there's no colour and vibrancy to the instrumentation - even if we're accepting it's supposed to be desperate or subversive, it's too limp of a song to really move past it. Overall, not bad, but again, I'm not surprised it underperformed.

And here's the big one, Taylor Swift's big fifth single with another big video baiting controversy. And make no mistake, if it wasn't for that video, it wouldn't have come back this high, as it originally charted back when 1989 dropped almost a year ago. And we'll get to that video in a second, but about the song itself, it's fairly easy to describe why I liked it last year: this would be what a Lana Del Rey song would sound like if she had charisma or energy or decent writing. The gauzy strings, the gentle beat, the ghostly multitracking, the muffled elegance with every rough edge dusted away, and lyrics telling this bad boy she'll be the one who inspires his wildest dreams as he walks away, it's hard not to see this track fitting onto Born To Die, except better. And yeah, there's a part of me that wishes she had released the genuinely gorgeous and far more interesting Imogen Heap collaboration 'Clean' as her new single, but we've danced around this video long enough. Does it romanticize a certain 'golden age of Hollywood' and its fascination with Africa while ignoring the colonial implications of 'exoticism' that comes with it? That's a fair criticism, although I see less of the patronization that can come with those sort of attitudes that leads to films like The Blind Side and The Help and more just ignoring of everything outside of Taylor's Hollywood fantasy - which in the video is even presented as a constructed veneer that isn't real. What I find interesting is that this controversy might be signalling a greater backlash at Taylor Swift coming up - after all, you can only stay at the top so long before the knives come out.

So on that unsettling implication, let's get our slice of new entries, starting with...

100. 'In The Night' by The Weeknd - so to start our onslaught of songs from The Weeknd, I want to point out that I've already reviewed Beauty Behind The Madness and covered the majority of these songs already. As such, I'm going to aim to try and keep some of these discussions fairly brief, so let's start with one of the songs I actually really liked on this album - and unsurprisingly, it's stuck at the very bottom. Basically what I'd describe as the better version of 'Can't Feel My Face' in terms of its Michael Jackson imitation, 'In The Night' takes a razor-tight progression against a hazy synth background to form a mid-80s sound that captures the tightness and marries it to the tight grooves that drive some of The Weeknd's best material. Hell, even the lyrics tell more of a story, stepping into the story of a dead-eyed stripper who was abused as a child and is now looking for whatever paltry joy is left in her life, punctuated by The Weeknd's 'I don't think you understand'... and considering his own bleak hunt for pleasure, he might as well get it better. In other words, it's a damn solid song, and I can only hope it's a hit.

97. 'New Americana' by Halsey - so in case I didn't piss all the Halsey fans off with my mini-review of Badlands at the end of the Travi$ Scott review, here's my commentary on her breakout single 'New Americana': wow, it's been a while since I've seen a song misfire this badly. Might as well start with the fact that the vocal delivery is trying to slot itself somewhere between Lorde and Lana Del Rey, losing the poise of the former and the glamor of the latter... and then the lyrics go right off a cliff as she name-checks Rockefellers and James Dean and other symbols of old-school wealth and Americana - this isn't new, just the old school with the veneer of class torn back. And yeah, I appreciate the subversion of football hypermasculinity by implying the same-sex marriage, but outside of that, what system is this song upsetting? The Biggie implication is telling and probably why I've always preferred Tupac more, who at least tried for a bit more social commentary beyond this blatant glorification of wealth. It's vapidity trying to wrap itself in a crowd-pleasing chorus with that obnoxious face 'skrrt' sound midway through, and it can't even deliver that mostly because of a oily, tinkling percussion overloaded mix that has no old school class and little actual melody. And you want to know what's most telling to me? That Kanye West-esque filter at the end of the chorus - because really, what's a better symbol of the 'new Americana'. Except Kanye is a far better producer - we'll come back to this - and this song can bite me. Next!

95. 'Jet Black Heart' by 5 Seconds Of Summer - what do you know, the first song from the new 5 Seconds Of Summer album that doesn't make me think they owe royalties to Green Day or Blink-182! Instead, it reminds a lot of the mid-2000s pop rock that skirted the edges of emo without ever falling in, especially with the self-flagellating chorus about the jet black heart and poison pen that at least implies the rebirth of the connection with this girl is making things better. And as someone who didn't mind this sort of material - or how much this song reminds me of a Boys Like Girls chord progression - this song is fine enough, I guess. I do wish they'd settle on which of their singers is the main lead, because I probably like Michael's deeper tones more than actual frontman Luke's thinner tenor. As for composition, the guitar lick isn't bad, but the mix is still a little too muddy for me, especially on the cymbals. It's still a little weird to me that 5 Seconds Of Summer might actually become a legit pop rock band on that next album or at least the standard bearer's in the mainstream... but again, I'm not complaining.

93. 'Dark Times' by The Weeknd ft. Ed Sheeran - one of the other songs I actually really liked from Beauty Behind The Madness, the pairing of The Weeknd and Ed Sheeran does prove surprisingly potent with the smoky guitars, even if I do think the more misty, synthetic elements don't quite fit as well with the guitar lick outside of that cavernous drum kick, especially by the end with the strings and symphonic elements flooding in. And yeah, to some extent it's the sort of track Hozier could knock out of the park better than either of these two, but stepping towards more organic blues is a good fit for a song exploring Ed Sheeran's alcoholism and whatever bloody atrocity The Weeknd committed, and the two have good chemistry. I dunno, it's a good song, but I reckon it could have been better.

85. 'Losers' by The Weeknd ft. Labrinth - the first of our Weeknd songs I didn't immediately like, even despite his usage of his lower range and a pretty sticky piano hook - mostly because I thought that glittering clump of electronic oscillation at the end of the chorus felt strikingly gaudy and out of place, at least to me - even though I will admit that bridge is pretty damn striking with the multi-tracking. And as for the lyrics... bit of a mixed bag, really. I get the self-reliance castigating an established system that preaches conventional love when The Weeknd is the furthest thing from conventional, but the hook hits an odd note for me - it sounds like he's demanding this person who he considers qualified show him something... and we never get what that is. It's just an odd sentiment that throws an otherwise decent song offbalance. Still, that bridge is killer.

79. 'Shameless' by The Weeknd - hey, look, it's the second actual guitar on this track, and it's a bitter acoustic track with windswept reverb with a surprising amount of texture and a brittle hint of percussion against the bass-heavy menace and an actual guitar solo that's pretty kickass. So yeah, I have to admit, the instrumentation is pretty great here, and The Weeknd positioning his brand of sour commentary on the girl continuing to call him even as she tries to pull her life together does kind of work. But man, this song is tough to swallow - I get calling out hypocrisy, but the curdled bitterness on this track makes it a hard one to revisit, and I kind of mean that as a compliment. Good song, but not one I'd like to see get big.

77. 'Roots' by Imagine Dragons - I'm shocked to see this here, mostly because I'm fairly certain that after I covered Smoke + Mirrors and any singles dropped off the charts, everyone sort of forgot that Imagine Dragons existed. The album certainly didn't get good reviews and compared to the crushing dominance songs like 'Radioactive' or 'It's Time' or 'Demons' had, it was bound to be branded a sophomore slump. As such, this isn't a new single from that album, instead a standalone track written on the road as a thank-you to the fans. And... well, if we're looking for an example where the percussion and beats doesn't help anything, it'd be here. I'm almost inclined to say it's progressive as Imagine Dragons piles layers of choppy beats and distorted drums over a static piano line, but combined with the vocals and lyrics lacking any sort of visceral power, I'm instead left feeling like we're hearing some sloppy overmixed demo instead of a real song. At least when they piled up the percussion on 'Bleeding Out' there was visceral power to it... this is just a mess, and a forgettable one too.

62. 'Real Life' by The Weeknd - we now return to our regularly scheduled coverage of The Weeknd with a blast of distorted synth horns that sound like they could have been imported from a mutated version of 'Run Away With Me' by Carly Rae Jepsen. But after that, this track descends into bombastic strings, piano flourishes, a handclap beat, revving guitars and a chorus that I honestly wished had a little more vocal intensity. But then again, this is a song about pushing away people and love because of your own bad tendencies and habits, so in a certain way this song is its own self-fulfilling prophecy. But beyond that, I did dig the acoustic guitar on the outro and overall it's not a bad track. Unlike, say...

60. 'Acquainted' by The Weeknd - easily my least favourite song on The Weeknd's newest album, mostly because of that skittering synth swell that feels way too grainy to balance well against that popping, stuttering beat, but mostly because The Weeknd is in half-assed crooner mode, easily his least interesting persona with too much reverb. But really, the lyrics are where this song falls short for me, especially on the chorus - for as much as he's trying to deflect against the sensuality, the line of 'girl, I'm so glad we're acquainted' is just so stuffy and pompous that I don't buy for a second The Weeknd would say it. It completely kills the vibe for me with its awkward stiffness - which, interestingly, is the exact same complaint I have for 'Earned It'. But yeah, not feeling this whatsoever.

57. 'Tell Your Friends' by The Weeknd - so remember how I said I was going to be talking about Kanye's production at some point? Well, he handled the production on this song, and honestly, I'm not sure how well it fits on this track, a little more soulful to be sure and I dug the guitars but it doesn't really match the much cleaner fidelity of The Weeknd's multi-tracked vocals or the more ghostly effects, especially on the second half. And again, I don't love his half-rap/half-sung delivery, even though that hook is actually pretty solid. What redeems this song are the lyrics, where The Weeknd returns to Toronto, reflects upon the dark and debauched days of his comeup, and now the dark parallel of how while he used to avoid girls because of his bad lifestyle, he now is being told to avoid them to avoid golddiggers - advice he's already taken many times over. I do think this song runs a little long and could have afforded to dig a little deeper into that lyrical parallel, but again, it's not bad.

47. 'Prisoner' by The Weeknd ft. Lana Del Rey - now here's a match made in Heaven! The Weeknd, a self-flagellating disaster who indulges empty hedonism and exploits people with no humour or enjoyment, and Lana Del Rey, the sort of woman who would willingly let herself get exploited or even relish the experience. And the pairing of the two of them gives Lana Del Rey her "best" song since 'Video Games'... although that's still not saying much, given the atonal buzzing blur of instrumentation against the slow rollick of the beat and The Weeknd's gentle crooning that Lana then plays with even less passion. And while I don't mind the melody, I can't help but feel like I'm watching a couple get married for all the wrong reasons when you know they're just going to end up hating each other and making life miserable for everyone around them.

1. 'What Do You Mean?' by Justin Bieber - and this is the big one, the newest single from the much-loved, much-hated Justin Bieber as the lead-off song for his upcoming fourth album... and honestly, I'm kind of ambivalent on it. The beat on the song has a decent rollicking clip to it and the melody isn't terrible, but the pan flutes are so thin that they have to be fake and that does get distracting - he could probably afford real instruments at this point. And the lyrics oddly remind me of his 2010 junk single 'Eenie Meenie' with Sean Kingston, although they are less juvenile as Bieber tries to play earnest and decipher what this girl means through a series of broad contradictory actions. And I do appreciate that Bieber doesn't take any steps to force a decision or play it with anger instead of confusion. But really, that's more because Bieber's performance on this song is so limp and lifeless to me. His vocals sound more faded than usual and lacking in punch than ever, and it becomes remarkably easy to just tune him out and this song along with it. Just kind of indifferent, to be honest.

So that was our long week, and man, lots of stuff from The Weeknd here. So I think it's appropriate he's represented on both best and worst this week, in the former case snagging Best of the Week for 'In The Night', with 'Wildest Dreams' by Taylor Swift taking the Honourable Mention - for the song, folks, not the video. As for the worst, 'Acquainted' easily takes the Dishonourable Mention, but The Weeknd is getting edged out for the very bottom for 'New Americana' by Halsey for being the monumental miscalculation and tuneless annoyance that it is. It'll definitely be interesting to see how many of these Weeknd songs last another week, that's for sure.

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