Tuesday, January 31, 2017

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - february 11, 2017

So this was an important week on the Billboard Hot 100 - which on the surface might be a surprising statement, given that it didn't seem that out of the ordinary, at least on the surface. But for those who pay attention, something big happened this chart cycle: Billboard changed their formula. And despite what I might have said earlier on Twitter, upon giving it more thought, I'm actually entirely behind this change - looks like Billboard got it right for once!

So before we get into the top 10 in depth, let's talk about this formula change. There are two big factors that need to be considered, the first being that Billboard finally added Pandora streaming data to the aggregate streaming numbers. I have no idea why it took so long for this data to get integrated, but if the dataset is refined enough to support Billboard, I'm behind it. Now given the current formula, this sudden addition to streaming numbers would skew even further in that direction, so Billboard made a slight rebalance to tilt away from streaming and give a little more weight back to digital sales. Now before you streaming defenders go crazy here, it's not like it's any less dominant here: if the balance had truly been tipped, 'Bad And Boujee' by Migos & Lil Uzi Vert wouldn't still be at #1! Sure, it's got some radio and it actually picked up sales gains, but its dominance on streaming is the reason it's at the top. Now granted, the margins have been cut back thanks to Ed Sheeran's 'Shape Of You' making a frankly incredible run up radio while still holding strong on sales, YouTube, and considerable streaming... but not quite enough to get back to #1. Now here's where things get a little messy: despite losing hard on radio, 'Closer' by The Chainsmokers ft. Halsey went back up to #3, and you could almost certainly chalk that up to Pandora streams, because it sure as hell wasn't getting there on sales or on-demand! Similar case for 'Bad Things' by Machine Gun Kelly and Camila Cabello, which rose to #4 because Pandora streams and the slight boon to digital sales gives it even more traction. And when you throw in the videos for 'I Don't Wanna Live Forever' along with strong sales and airplay, it's no surprise Zayn and Taylor Swift picked up to #5 - at this point, its losses in on-demand streaming barely matter. Where they do matter a lot are for 'Black Beatles' by Rae Sremmurd and Gucci Mane, which fell to #6, but that might have happened anyways as it started tanking on the radio and had an absolutely awful sales week, and the latter is not good given the formula adjustment. Then we have 'Don't Wanna Know' by Maroon 5 and Kendrick Lamar, which actually picked up to #7 despite losing radio - and really, I'd argue that's more because that other Chainsmokers song dropped out at 'Starboy' by The Weeknd and Daft Punk also lost hard down to #8. No, I'm not pleased about it, but even despite good streaming, the sales just aren't there, and the radio is diminishing. Unfortunately, it looks like it'll probably be retaken by 'Fake Love' by Drake which returned to the top 10 at #9, which is just strong enough on airplay that the addition of Pandora streams was enough to compensate for weaker sales and propel it into the top 10. And on a slightly similar note, we have a new entry to the top 10: 'Scars To Your Beautiful' by Alessia Cara. And look, I don't hate this song nearly as much as some critics do, but I'll definitely admit it's a lesser entry from her - and yet thanks to Pandora streams and her radio dominance, she just managed to slip in.

But where the formula changes matter a lot more are in the shifts up and down the list, so let's start with the losers and dropouts! Now in the latter category, the only really significant dropouts are 'You Was Right' by Lil Uzi Vert, 'All We Know' by The Chainsmokers and Phoebe Ryan, and 'In The Name Of Love' by Martin Garrix & Bebe Rexha, and you could easily make the argument they were all on the way out anyway... but you can tell the streaming and sales shifts didn't help. Although if you want considerably more evidence of that, you need to look at our losers. And here's what you need to remember: despite more streaming getting added to the pot, the tilt towards sales was done considering streaming as a whole. As such, songs that might be dominant on one streaming platform over the other or just in on-demand will take a serious hit... and that means it just got a lot more difficult for 'meme' songs or your one-hit trap anthems to surge up the charts. As such, many of the bigger drops can be traced to this: 'Juju On Dat Beat' by Zayion McCall and Zay Hilfigerrr fell hard to 30, 'No Heart' by 21 Savage and Metro Boomin fell to 61, 'Swang' by Rae Sremmurd went to 75, 'Sneakin' by Drake and 21 Savage fell to 95, 'Water' by Ugly God lost all of its momentum down to 99, and 'Redbone' by Chlidish Gambino fell to 76 - hey, they can't all be winners here! The rest... well, 'Song for Another Time' by Old Dominion fell to 96 on its way out regardless, 'How Far I'll Go' by Alessia Cara down to 68 because it was a phenomenon that her cover got traction anyway, 'Party Monster' by The Weeknd slipped back to 50 because the video boom dried up, 'Castle On The Hill' by Ed Sheeran continued down to 39 because he's throwing more of a sustained push behind 'Shape Of You' and we can't have nice things for once, and 'Alone' by Marshmello looks to be hitting the same brick wall that hits so many modern EDM songs these days, traction before a sudden crash.

Now where things get significantly interesting are in our gains and new arrivals. Now keep in mind that Pandora has been around a while and tends to attract an older audience, and when you combine that with a refocus on sales, one genre that tends to get left out of the streaming conversation suddenly gets some significant presence: country. Now I'm not saying this is all great news: my feelings on 'Dirt On My Boots' by Jon Pardi up to 44, 'Star Of The Show' by Thomas Rhett up to 45, 'Seein' Red' by Dustin Lynch up to 55, 'Think A Little Less' by Michael Ray up to 62, 'Sober Saturday Night' by Chris Young and Vince gill up to 63, 'Today' by Brad Paisley picking up big to 74, and 'The Weekend' by Brantley Gilbert up to 79 are mixed to say the least - there's quality there, but a whole lot of crap too. Granted, you could say the same thing for the hip-hop that picked up traction like 'Goosebumps' by Travis Scott and Kendrick Lamar up to 51 balancing against 'Not Nice' by PARTYNEXTDOOR off its debut to 83, or the sudden pickup for 'Congratulations' by Post Malone and Quavo to 58. And that's not to discount rock music either: 'Way Down We Go' by Kaleo clearly benefited from the formula change and surged up to 54. But if we're looking at the track that seemingly benefited the most, it was 'Down' by Marian Hill, because while its sales were indeed good, just like with Kaleo the further emphasis in that category was a huge boost, enough to get it up to 52. And that's not counting our returning entries, where it seems like Pandora streams and better sales did pay dividends. Why else would Lady Gaga's 'Million Reasons' be back yet again at 97, or 'If The Boot Fits' by Granger Smith returning to 80, or 'That's What I Like' by Bruno Mars returning to 82... although that might be more because it's Bruno's next single. The song I'd argue that probably got the most from Pandora here thought was 'Love On The Weekend' by John Mayer, because where else would this sort of tepid dreck gain traction back to 90?

Ugh, again, they can't all be winners... but for a change of pace, let's consider our new arrivals, starting with...

100. 'Running Back' by Wale ft. Lil Wayne - believe it or not, there is a part of me that kind of feels sorry for Wale, because from his artistic progression it's at least clear that he wants to try and do different things or think outside the box... the problem often becomes is that he's not especially good at it, his ideas heavily outweighed by his execution. But after the embarrassment that was 'My PYT' he's back with a new single, even teaming up with Lil Wayne... and it's better? Look, with all of the triplet flows and the semi-mumbled delivery from Wale, it's hard not to see this as these two jumping on a trend, especially when the content isn't all that special, with Wale still flubbing rhymes and Lil Wayne... actually, he sounds more sober and focused than he has in years, nothing he said was all that special, but he's clearly the highlight of the song. The other thing is the production - it's got this muted toot of a melody against very sandy trap percussion and it picks up a lot more bounce and layers on the verses, oddly cooling down for the hook, and while the melody didn't initially hook me, I actually don't mind this at all. Look, it's clearly a plea for mainstream attention given what's popular, but honestly, I don't think this is bad, it's got some decent bounce to it. So yeah, I'll take it.

94. 'Dancing On My Own' by Calum Scott - so here's a trend that needs to die: taking otherwise energetic or bright songs and stripping them down to make moaning, droning mediocrity. I may have given Disturbed's cover of 'The Sound Of Silence' more credit than most, but it was always understood that the original Simon & Garfunkel version was far better. But if you want to see where the gulf in quality is much more considerable in my books, you need to look to Robyn's utterly brilliant dance-pop song 'Dancing On My Own', which is absolutely wonderful, and Calum Scott's piano dirge cover, that of course completely missed the point and is absolutely worthless. And yet of course thanks to his performance of it on Britain's Got Talent he got himself a record deal and this cover charting higher than the original, which offends me on every level. Let me make this clear, the reason why 'Dancing On My Own' works is because it's something you can actually dance to, holding the balance between rejection and loneliness and yet finding it within yourself to actually dance regardless. It's why Kesha's 'Die Young' works so well too - but when Kesha released the deconstructed and stripped back version of that song, against all odds it also worked thanks to a subtly brilliant performance from Kesha and the subversion of her typical persona. With Calum Scott, I have to assume the idea was similar, but not only can you not dance to it, but it's got none of the emotional complexity that made the original so damn brilliant. Yeah, in case you were wondering, I've loathed this ever since I saw climb the UK charts months ago - it has the feel of someone trying way too hard to cover 'Creep' by Radiohead at karaoke. I hear enough of that every week, and I don't need to hear it here - next!

93. 'Any Ol' Barstool' by Jason Aldean - so if you remember that review I gave of Jason Aldean's last record, you'd remember it was mostly perfunctory - it was generic, tedious, and I barely remember it to this day. And given that this particular track didn't resonate enough to land on a best or worst tracks list, I made the initial assumption that I wouldn't remember it. But then I got into the song and... well, it's a bit better than my lack of memory reminded me. I mean, it's definitely douchey in its thinking of 'hey, now that this girl is gone replacing her in my life isn't that hard' but you can at least tell that Aldean is trying to subtly interject some subtext between the lines that he's hurting more than he's letting on. Which sure, it's not a bad idea, but you'd think the instrumentation would play for a little more melancholy to support it, or Aldean would prove capable of emoting to sell those quieter emotions. No such luck across the board there, as despite a thicker groove, the guitars still lack a lot of distinctive melody and feel drowned in heavier cymbals, and Aldean is still as flat and distant as always. So eh... not bad, not great, probably will end up forgotten.

92. 'Good Drank' by 2 Chainz, Gucci Mane & Quavo - you know, I kind of feel bad for anyone trying to still cover the neverending stream of mixtapes you get from artists like 2 Chainz or Gucci Mane, mostly because it never seems like the content or wordplay evolves or changes - which probably says plenty about my expectations going into this song off of 2 Chainz' Hibachi For Lunch that dropped last year. And yeah, those expectations were promptly satisfied by dreary piano-driven production from Mike Dean and some of the most hollow and fake sounding drill-like snares I've heard in a long time. And really, the most interesting thing about this song doesn't come from 2 Chainz's interchangeable bragging about wealth or Gucci Mane's disconnected shots at Kevin Durant and saying he wants a girl with perky breasts and turkey neck - what? Nope, it's from Quavo's hook, where he says he says 'whips out, Kunta Kinte' - which I'm fairly certain is offensive to somebody - and then follows it two lines later with a Harambe reference. If that's not all the more evident that this belongs back in 2016, I don't know what is - pass!

87. 'Issues' by Julia Michaels - so, following in the path of Bebe Rexha, we've got the newest behind-the-scenes pop singer to step out with her own single. For those who don't know, Julia Michaels has been steadily racking up writing credits behind Selena Gomez, Britney Spears, Gwen Stefani, and plenty more, but I first became familiar with her on 'Carry Me', a Kygo song where I actually thought she had some real promise, it was my favourite track from that debut. This... well, it's not better than song, but that's because I'm not quite certain what to make of the song as a whole. The main melody is anchored in very sparse strings hits sitting in a cushion of reverb, but the bass beat courtesy of Stargate and Benny Blanco swallows the entire track, and yet somehow doesn't distract from how frail Michaels' voice sound on the hook, especially on the final lines, where her backing vocals barely help at all. And then there are the lyrics, acknowledging both partners have issues and problems with each other, but it seems like a big one for Michaels is that this guy is so clearly wrong for her and yet she can't let go. In other words, I see this being followed by a pretty explosive breakup... and yet the instrumental tone here is so elegant and bright that it doesn't fit the framing or anchor the drama. It's a weird mishmash, parts of a few different songs mashed into a composite that's not precisely bad but far from as good as it could be. Which for a big debut single, that is disappointing.

86. 'Road Less Traveled' by Lauren Alaina - so I'll be having a lot more to say about Lauren Alaina when I cover her long-awaited sophomore album in a day or two, but the truth about this song is that it's actually older, released as a part of an EP back in late 2015. And given what I've heard of the rest of the record, it doesn't quite fit all that well, clearly aiming for a more modern, percussion-driven pop country sound, complete with handclaps, thicker drum percussion, and a pluckier melody - and yet in comparison with, say, Kelsea Ballerini, Lauren Alaina's approach to this sound is actually better. For one, it never compromises the momentum or groove, with a considerable bit more flow and rollick that relies on percussion that actually sounds real, and while the content of the song isn't all that special - striking out on your own, taking the road less traveled, going in a different direction - to her credit Alaina's got the firepower to make it feel believable and the chops to avoid any major slipups in the writing. I do wish the production had given her a little more intensity - you can blame busbee for that, and I do - and this is far from the best track on the album, but as a whole, in comparison with a lot of mainstream trends in pop country, Lauren Alaina's path actually works pretty well for me, I'll take it.

84. 'Guys My Age' by Hey Violet - I'm a little stunned to see this here... mostly because I remember people talking about this group back when it was called Cherri Bomb. Yeah, does anyone else remember when this group was signed to Hollywood records and was cranking out pop rock that wasn't stellar but wasn't bad either... and then their frontwoman quit to do her own thing and the group decided to change their name and carry on without her? Well, in any case they wound up in similar circles to 5 Seconds Of Summer, wound up as their opening act, and after a few EPs, this being their first actual hit on the Hot 100. And yet if you were expecting actual rock here, this instead seems to Hey Violet adapting Melanie Martinez's baby-voiced routine and production style to woo older guys, and wow, can anyone else call sell out? Seriously, outside of that drowned-out guitar, this is a trap-infused modern pop song with too much bass, fake percussion, pitch-shifting, bleak melodies, and it's about the furthest thing from sexy! Seriously, with frontwoman Rena Lovelis singing about being all grown up because guys her age don't know how to touch her, with that delivery and presentation, I'm not into this whatsoever - and given that I'm 26 and she's 18, I get the unsettled feeling I'm the target audience! But that's the thing, guys my age or even a little younger aren't listening to this, so I have no idea who is served by a song like this. Either way, it's gross, and not in a good way - skip it.

81. 'Fast' by Luke Bryan - you know that when you're going down to your sixth single from an album, you're starting to seriously run dry on material... but on some level I'm not surprised Luke Bryan is continuing to mine Kill The Lights as long as he can, prolong the spotlight given an increasingly uncertain future where country music is going. And it's hard not to see 'Fast' as a pretty calculated response to it all - a little more organic percussion on the hook to counteract the drum machine, attempts to dredge organic instrumentation out of the muddy production that ends up getting swamped by the cymbals regardless, all focusing on how time is moving way too fast in order to cater to an older country audience who sees their best years behind them. And you know, it almost works - Bryan's a good singer, and underplaying for a midtempo song like this could work if that thick bass beat wasn't reminding me this is still very much a badly produced Luke Bryan song, and it kind of neuters the vibe as a whole. By the standards of songs from that album, this is not bad, but if there's any more evidence that Luke Bryan is feeling left behind by how te scene has pivoted away from bro-country, it's this one.

So that was our week, and wow, for as much as I was hoping the formula change would bring quality, we didn't really get much. The worst of the week is easy, 'Dancing On My Own' clinches that with 'Guys My Age' by Hey Violet narrowly behind. But the best... I'm giving it to 'Road Less Traveled' by Lauren Alaina, with the honourable mention to 'Running Back' by Wale and Lil Wayne - neither song are particularly great, but hey, I'll take what I can get. Next week is Migos showing if they have crossover appeal - joy - which the new change to streaming might put a damper on, it might not - we'll have to see.

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