Showing posts with label Show all posts
Showing posts with label Show all posts

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

the top ten worst hit songs of 2013

It's that time again.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it's that time of year where I take a look at the biggest hit songs of the year and pick out the top ten best and worst to the complete indifference of artists, producers, and fans alike! Sounds like fun, eh? Okay, let's get started, and I think the prime place to begin is at the absolute bottom: the top ten worst hit songs of the year.

First, some ground rules. For one, a song will only ever make the list if it debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 Year-End chart this year. Of course there are holdovers I dislike from last year, but they had their chance to pop up on my 2012 list (which is available here). And I'm only choosing songs from this list - of course there were worse tracks that I covered in my album reviews, but I want to make the point that not only are these songs terrible, they're also impossible to escape throughout the year.

And here's another thing to keep in mind: for a song to reach my list, it has to actively annoy or irritate me, and simply being boring is often not enough to propel a song into my line of fire. The year-end charts are less aggressively bad than they are boring, and this year had that problem more than previous years, mostly because the indie boom lost momentum and mainstream radio had no idea what to replace it with. That means large tracts of this year were dominated by easy listening slow jams, interchangeable EDM, increasingly listless hip-hop, and a disco revival that came out of nowhere. 

But that's not saying there weren't songs that pissed me off, so let's begin by tackling some Dishonourable Mentions, shall we?

Saturday, April 20, 2013

album review: '#willpower' by

You know, people have occasionally asked me why I write this reviews/essays/rants. 

People have wondered aloud why I bother to listen to music I know full well that I might despise and then spend my time writing at great length about it. People have raised the argument that these little musings will never really amount to anything, and that since I'm not getting paid as a professional, I'm just wasting my time. People have said that since my opinion is worth the exact same as everyone else, my attempts to spur debate or inform others is nothing more than ranting from a soapbox. People have argued that since my voice will likely do nothing to sway people from buying an album or changing the critical discourse, I do not have the legitimate authority to pronounce an album a 'failure' or 'bad'. I mean, the album sold hundreds of thousands of copies and the singles charted well and 'since success is defined by the majority opinion of the masses, what gives you the right to judge it one way or the other'? Do I really have the conceit to say something is 'wrong' or 'bad' or 'a failure' when society has deemed it otherwise?

Yes, I do have that conceit - because I love music. 

Because music is more than just notes in a time signature, but is an expression of art. Because music isn't just poetry set to a tune, but a transmission of ideas unlike any other. Because music is an expression of art and culture that can encapsulate prevailing cultural attitudes and themes in ways that historical texts cannot. And sure, some people can dismiss music as being inconsequential art that really doesn't 'matter' all that much, but if we look through the timeframe of history, to the things that might survive our paltry human existence, that has the potential to last forever, art and culture are the few things that can hold their meaning and relevance outside of the passage of time. 

And yes, I know that I probably won't shape anyone's opinion, or that my words hold any great sway. I know that writing this blog outside of any burnished publication is as noteworthy as screaming empty words into the wind or scrawling graffiti in a bathroom stall. I'm fully aware that nobody in the industry is listening to me or taking any heed to what I'm saying, and that because of that, people are likely to draw the apt conclusion that I'm wasting my time.

But there is a place in society for the critic, for his role to analyze, discuss, and interpret the art presented in front of him. People use the line 'everyone's a critic' to disparage critics they don't like, but I'd argue there's more to it than that, and that there's a difference between being a critic and being a good critic. A critic will say he or she liked something - a good critic will say why, and explain why, and will provide the context for his opinion. The good critic will strive to interpret the art before him and speak truthfully, and then be able to communicate his analysis and interpretation and opinions to the masses. Because, at the heart of it, the good critic believes that the artist is showing something of himself through his art, and the critic's role is to interpret and analyze that something, and place it within its cultural context.

Which is one of the biggest reasons why pisses me the fuck off.

For those of you who are unaware, is the frontman of the Black Eyed Peas, and has been widely touted as one of the most influential performers/producers of the past couple of years. Yet outside of his work with The Black Eyed Peas, he has consistently run into considerable difficulty finding solo success. Now there are a number of reasons for this, but to explain them, you all need to understand a few things about and his approach to music.

The first thing you need to note is that he puts the majority of his work into his production and sound, not his lyrics. This is why the majority of his lyrics seem to be unfinished or incomplete, or at the very least shallow as all hell. Now as someone who likes good lyrics and songwriting, this already sets me on edge, but shallow cliches can work if they're phrased correctly or are about something that's actually interesting/fun. 'I Gotta Feeling' (arguably the best song The Black Eyed Peas ever wrote) is a great song because the cliches are about partying and having a good time - but most of's cliches on his solo work is about much greater he is than everyone else, something that gets old really fast.

Now to be fair, as I've said before, ego can work well in music, provided there's enough personality to back it up - and here's where we run into my second big problem with, namely that he never sounds like he's engaged in his material. I've read articles and interviews with him where he appears to have a lot of interesting things to say and a lot of energy in which to say them, where people rave that he's some sort of genius savant, but none of that intellect or energy comes across in his music, which only seems to be about the most superficial and shallow of things. Once again, there's nothing wrong with writing silly and stupid songs about partying and having fun - Andrew W.K. built a career out of it - but Andrew W.K. brings energy and an abundance of personality where just doesn't.

But okay, if puts the majority of his effort into his production, that's obviously where I should look for more personality and excellence, right? But here's the thing, and my third big problem with the guy: his instrumentation is bland as all hell. Yes, his work can be catchy, but that doesn't make it good. Sure, I see more personality in his beats than in his vocal delivery, but too much of it is glitchy and atonal and minimalist in the worst possible way. And comparing him to talented and interesting producers like Timbaland or Kanye West or even fucking Mike Posner, he falls flat. Hell, even David Guetta, who I consider one of the most boring and bland producers working today, at least manages to channel some of EDM's 'bigness' into his material to give it presence and personality! And that's not even discussing's usage of sampling, which at best is glaringly out of context and at worst is this. It almost seems like appropriates music not because it fits the context of his song or might be interesting, but because it's somewhat popular and can be retrofitted into something guaranteed to sell.

And here's where we run headlong into my biggest issue with he's not so much an artist as a marketer, a pioneer of buzzwords and advertisement in music unlike anyone else working today. I remember reading an article that talked about label executives raving at's mastery of powerpoint presentations detailing well-researched marketing and business plans associated with his music and discussing brand recognition and market penetration. Now, I get that artists have to sell their material - as gauche as it is to suggest it, music is a business and requires money - but's approach to music is so nakedly commercial that I can't help but feel that I'm listening to advertisements instead of, you know, songs.

And when you think about it further, all of his stylistic choices bear the mark of commercial advertising: shallow, borderline meaningless lyrics; earworm hooks designed to lodge in your mind; and subject matter that tends to be about emphasizing how much better he is than his competitors. If anything, it seems like naked commercialism might just be the core of's artistic soul: making music designed to sell and sell again. I mean, for fuck's sake, he titled his new album with a hashtag, how much more transparent can you get?

And yet, I am willing to put all of this aside. After all, if Mad Men taught us anything, it's that advertisement can indeed be a work of art, and it's entirely possible that's embrace of the nakedly commercial can be considered a commentary on it, analogous to the artwork of Andy Warhol's examination of consumerism in the modern world. Sure, it could be considered nakedly commercial and displaying seething contempt for the plebeian masses that buy into his brand, but maybe that's the point is trying to make. So, with all of that in mind, does's brand new album #willpower work?

Saturday, June 30, 2012

album review: 'looking 4 myself' by usher

Short version: a very good collection of singles about sex that unfortunately lack the coherence to be a truly great album. Still, outside of a few hiccups, Usher does a pretty great job singing elegantly minimalistic songs about sex, sex, and more sex. Also, sex.

When Michael Jackson stopped making pop music, there was immediately a race in the pop culture scene for his replacement, and while a number of artists were aspiring for the crown, it very quickly came to pass that only two artists would have a chance in hell of rising to the occasion.

The first contender was Justin Timberlake, and with Timbaland, he found his Quincy Jones. And for a while, Justin Timberlake seemed to have the race sewn up convincingly. Emerging as one of the few surviving artists of the boy band collapse in the early 2000s, Timberlake had the right mix of swagger, charisma, bombast, and sexuality that made him a good contender, and his release of Futuresex/Lovesounds in the mid-2000s cemented his dominance as a pop star. 

Now granted, I've never liked the majority of the music that Justin's produced in his solo career. With a few exceptions, Justin Timberlake's music has lacked the soul necessary to assert dominance in the pop star world. And maybe it's just me, but Justin Timberlake has never seemed to try all that hard. He lacks the rawness that made so many of Michael's singles and albums work so damn well. To him, a genuine triple-threat, music and stardom came naturally, and thus I've always been disappointed that Timberlake has never pushed himself in his experimentation. Now granted, he has experimented, but never in a way that I found particularly compelling - it's all too slick, all too controlled, and never quite achieves the epic scale that he should.

Well, it seems like Justin himself agreed with me, because after doing a few jokey (albeit brilliant) videos with The Lonely Island, he seems to have departed the pop star universe to pursue roles in movies, where he's established himself as a pretty damn great actor. And that leaves us with only one candidate for Michael's throne: Usher.

Okay, I've got to be honest here, I've always really liked Usher. The man has a great voice, is a superb dancer, and a ton of charisma. Even with his early songs, the man always sounded genuine, and that earned a lot of points with me. He's confident without the need to brag, and he's always deserved his spot in the pop star A-List, at least in my opinion. Of course, it's also helped that the man solidified his claim to pop stardom with the fantastic Confessions album in 2004, but I bought into him earlier with his hit 'You Remind Me' in the early 2000s, which won me over with some slick production and Usher's genuine charm. Overall, I was all set to support Usher all the way through the rest of the decade.

And then... something happened. Some have blamed his marriage, some have blamed a lack of ideas, some have blamed his repeated collaborations with Black Eyed Peas frontman and wannabe-auteur/hack, but in the end, I'm not sure of whom the blame truly lies (I'm fairly certain it's, though). What I do know is that for a period of about six years, from 2005-mid-2010, Usher stopped being good in a shockingly immediate way (I blame Part of it, I will admit, was the embrace of Autotune, and while I'm not against the use of Autotune in ways to enhance one's personality (Ke$ha, T-Pain) or to convey specific themes and styling (Kanye West), I don't like it when good singers feel the need to use it, or when lazy singers (see Jason Derulo and Katy Perry) use it to cover up their inability to hit a note (or, you know, So like the Backstreet Boys, Usher began using Autotune, and like my favourite boy band, his music suffered for it, reaching a low with 'O.M.G.', featuring, one of the clumsiest and stupidest songs to come out of 2010 (which I'd argue was a really, REALLY bad year for music - thank you so much,

However, I will give Usher some credit, in that his 2010 album Raymond v. Raymond wasn't terrible. It wasn't great - the abundance of bad singles completely overlooking the fact the album was a breakup album didn't help matters - but there were a few gems in the pile. And upon closer examination, I was rather psyched when I heard the opening singles for Usher's new album that dropped a few days ago. Not only had Usher opted for a more mature, complex style, he'd also dumped the autotune and bad production, and looked prepared to engage in some pretty serious themes. 

And then the opening song was a club song courtesy of production from, and Usher was singing with Autotune. Fucking wonderful.

And believe you me, 'Can't Stop, Won't Stop' is fucking horrible. Arguably worse than O.M.G., the beat is recycled garbage the Black Eyed Peas would have embarrassed to put out, and the lyrics are fucking wretched, to the point where I refuse to type them in this note on the fear that they'll make my readership collectively stupider by reading them. Suffice to say, it failed cataclysmically as both a dance song and a sex song, and considering this is coming from one of the most successful singers about sex since Prince, that's saying something.

And it's clear from the opening tracks that Looking 4 Myself (and yes, that's the title of Usher's brand new 'single-and-loving-it' album) that this album is going to be chiefly loaded with songs about sex - but to be fair, this isn't a bad thing. I made the Prince analogy earlier, and the reason it fits is because Usher, like Justin Timberlake, can sing about sex and make it sound adult and sexual instead of juvenile and pornographic (unlike, say, Chris Brown, who feels the best way to sing about sex is write a song called 'Wet The Bed' - dear god, I wish I was kidding). 

So after the horrible opener, Usher immediately hits two hits straight out of the park with 'Scream' and 'Climax'. The first song is a club sex song, but it works pretty much because the lyrics aren't stupid and Usher can carry a song like this in his fucking sleep. And honestly, it's probably one of the best club sex songs I've heard in a long time. However, his latter song, 'Climax', is fantastic not just because it emulates Prince-esque falsetto, but because the restraint on the song gives Usher a chance to make a song that's pure sex. This is one of the few times where sexuality can carry a song, an object lesson to every R&B singer in the industry now.

In fact, 'Climax' contains two important traits that symbolize the entire album: overarching themes of sex, and constrained minimalism. Fortunately, unlike the era of minimalist R&B (2002-2005), Usher's production is modulated to precisely the right scope to nail the theme of the track. So while 'Climax' and 'Dive' are epic in their broad emptiness, quieter tracks like 'What Happened To U' use their stillness to create a much more contrained atmosphere. Part of this is aided by Usher's impressive layering of harmonies - instead of relying on heavy overproduction to create a wall of sound, Usher uses a much more delicate touch, overdubbing his voice multiple times to create a powerful chorus that still manages to fit the atmosphere of the songs.

Now, granted, the minimalism does slip at points, but even the more heavily produced tracks like 'Scream' or 'Numb' have an impressive air of restraint, blending modern synths (with a thankful lack of dubstep drops) with a feel that's more analogous to Prince's Purple Rain than anything produced by anyone else in the industry. What's more, when Usher does choose to use instrumentation, he doesn't shy away from raw electric guitar or keyboard, tightly constrained to create the potent sound he wants. In an era where raw silence and pacing is abhorred by the music industry, it's a welcome change. The big exceptions to that trend are the first track and the Euro-trash house-inspired final track 'Euphoria', which was produced by the Swedish House Mafia (and it shows), but I'll even give it some points for having more restraint and class than most modern house music.

Do I have any complaints about the instrumentation? Eh, the reverb is abused on a few tracks, but I can forgive it for the reason that it's used to augment the empty minimalism that aids the album's atmosphere. Less easy to forgive are some of the unnecessary synth choices, the most glaring was the choice for a really annoying electronic plinking that bleeds over 'Lessons For The Lover' and detracts from a pretty impressive multi-part harmony on the chorus. 

But moving away from the instrumentation, what can I really say about the lyrics or the themes of the album? Surprisingly, not much - namely because this isn't as much of an album as a series of sexually charged singles. The majority of songs seem primed to be played in the bedrooms of young couples looking for ambient sex music (with the exception of 'Sins Of My Father', which is an odd standout that has a bit more lyrical complexity and a real noir feel, but the sweet bass line and multipart harmony means it's still useable in the ambient-sex-music role as well). Some of them are danceable enough, but in a way that seems to imply explicitly sexual dancing that translates into sex later. 

Now I've made the argument that sexuality isn't an excuse for artistic creditability, and that I've castigated bands like the Pussycat Dolls for simply playing on sex appeal to sell songs. So am I a hypocrite for then not having much of a problem when Usher publishes an album that is effectively the soundtrack for sex in 2012?

Well, here's the point that redeems Usher in my eyes: quality. On the majority of songs on this album, Usher's production is top-of-the-line, and the man is seriously vocally talented, with the technical skill to manage a multi-part harmony on his best tracks. There is so much constraint and control on the album, not a single wasted moment on his better tracks, and there's an elegance that's impossible to fake. Compare to, say, the Pussycat Dolls, or Chris Brown, both who sell explicitly sexual material. The problem is here is that while the production is okay on some of their tracks and the vocals might be decent, there's no artistry or creativity, nothing to distinguish the Pussycat Dolls from Girlicious or Chris Brown from any one of his imitators. It also helps that Usher has dignity and poise for his sexual anthems that add a welcome layer of maturity that I'd even argue Ludacris and Lil Wayne don't have. 

So yeah, am I going to say that I'm a little disappointed Usher didn't experiment with differing themes besides sex, sexuality, and more sex in his lyrics, or explore a more coherent overarching theme for the album as a whole? Yeah, a little bit. Am I annoyed that the album isn't quite as strong as it could be, due to its lack of broader experimentation besides flirtations with minimalism, constraint, and multi-part harmony? Yeah, a little bit. 

But I can't deny the truth of the matter: in refining his craft on this album, Usher has probably produced one of the best albums that's universally about sex in a long time, and with songs like 'Climax', he's got it down to an art form that outstrips his nearest competitors by miles. Definitely a step in the right direction, and definitely the right - if explicit - step for Usher. He's still got work before he's ready to take on Michael's vacant throne, but he's getting there.

Move over, Justin Timberlake: in 2012, Usher's bringing sexy back.