Sunday, January 23, 2011

Forty Favorite Pop Songs of 2010: #20-16

20. “Teenage DreamDarren Criss & the Tufts Beelzebubs (as "Glee Cast")

Believe me, I'm as surprised as anybody to see the name "Glee" show up on a list of music of which I particularly approve, considering my more than a little chilly opinion of the Fox karaoke-fest, but it's not what it looks like. The delightful a cappella cover of Katy Perry's solid "Teenage Dream" was one of the less than half dozen Glee singles to earn consecutive frames on the Hot 100 as opposed to the much-ballyhood near-record number that appeared for just one week (this caveat doesn't seem to come up in media reports heralding Glee's approach to the record for career Hot 100 singles), and I will add that it is the one and only of said tracks I have myself purchased. As someone with a history in vocal performance and such an intense fascination with harmony and the intricacies of production, I can eat up a good a cappella performance with a spoon any day, and while I usually prefer co-ed groups I fell for the arrangement by the renowned Tufts University men's a cappella group the Beelzebubs, the real artists behind the beloved single along with actor Darren Criss, who has since become a regular on Glee, thereby providing the only tenuous justification for the single being credited to the "Glee Cast." The Beelzebubs (who actually Marni Nixoned it for the jumping, joyful boys lip-synching on screen) subsequently contributed a rendition of Train's "Hey Soul Sister" on another episode; the digital single is credited to "Glee Cast."

19. “Holding You Down (Goin' in Circles)Jazmine Sullivan (Love Me Back)

Only three times have I slipped up and gotten truly upset about the Grammys (instead of my usual practice of ignoring or otherwise let's just say Kanye West and I share a cause celebre, if apparently not quite the same sense of tact) instead of dismissively waving them off as an irrelevant charade no more an authority on greatness in contemporary recorded music than Perez Hilton is on the qualities of a superlatively desirable young woman. One of these was in 2009, when Jazmine Sullivan's fantastic track "Bust Your Windows," the second single off her critically beloved debut R&B album Fearless, lost the Grammy (as most pundits held that it would, but still) for Best R&B Song to Ne-Yo's deceptively chauvinistic supposed ode to strong women, "Miss Independent," a song so patronizing and anti-feminist yet so beloved by so many from the fairer sex as to nearly prove his point. I thought "Bust Your Windows" was beyond incredible, and I still do: beneath the textual surface of benignly stereotypical urban romantic female problem-solving is a musically dynamic monologue as precise and effective in its theatrical story as it is showstopping vocal showcase for Sullivan, the closest to a "new Lauryn Hill" to hit the R&B scene thus far. The Missy Elliott-produced lead single from Sullivan's sophomore set Love Me Back is such a near-perfect example of the extension and summation of polished skill and talent with alluring hints at new musical ideas or paths soon to come that make for the ideal lead track off the album of an artist whose debut was as successful (commercial or critical) as Fearless (a pyrhhic feat to say the least). Sullivan's tormented, powerful voice - so enthrallingly rough and beautifully rife with the kind of supposed imperfections Auto-Tune was invented to exterminate - sounds better than ever singing material that similarly outshines her earlier repertoire...and there's even a Mary J. Blige sample tossed in at the beginning for good measure (and shrewd payment of alms to the genre's earlier stars). It's simply a top of the line production all around, not that one would expect less from Elliott; it saddens me that the album, while no Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie-esque career killer, fell rather short of expectation, and that in a possibly-but-almost-certainly-not unrelated note, the 23 year old recently pulled an Amanda Bynes, announcing a temporary hiatus from music via her Twitter feed. The new Lauryn Hill indeed, perhaps?

18. “Cooler Than MeMike Posner feat. Big Sean (31 Minutes to Takeoff)

Like the Harry Potter books, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Back to Black, I was fortunate to stumble upon Yale grad-turned-Top 10 hitmaker Mike Posner's inventive single "Cooler Than Me" in an early radio edit some good weeks before it (rightfully) became an inescapable breakout hit. I therefore ignored the traditional pageant that inevitably follows such success, the track played to death and then some as one of the two dozen or so on Clear Channel's extra-super-high-please-kill-me-and-that-singer-now rotation list (approx. 92% of mainstream airplay impressions*). In this case, insult met injury as the version that rocketed Posner into the highest echelon of 2010 singles success was in the form of a separate and truly regrettable radio edit that's miles off of the jovial jingle that first won my love, having been all but stripped of the unique touches that made the song so intriguing in the first place, most egregiously the fantastic summary rap verse by Big Sean. Still, even without lines like "now don't you dare act like you don't know/ know what's up/ cuz' your nose is up/ when you approaching up/ yup," it's still (as I wrote on this blog back in May 2010) catchy as heck, with lyrics and attitude interesting enough to capture a first-time listener's attention and a simple and clever chorus repeated just the right number of times to facilitate memorization without activating fatigue (yes, we get it Rihanna, you're "hard"...e.g.). And second, it's four minutes of plain old fun, neither too mean-spirited nor too stickily romantic, maintaining a tone and tempo with more universal appeal than most of what is currently in rotation on the radio. It's the kind of record that teems with so much personality

17. “Release MeAgnes (Dance Love Pop)

I appreciate when personal growth opportunities as a music lover and writer come by way of a song I've grown to enjoy as much as "Release Me," the infectiously Swedish dance gem by Agnes Carlsson (just Agnes to us, though), who won the second season of Sweden's Idol series in 2005 and popped out her third album in 2008, which finally trickled into our shores through the dance club play tunnel following the genre success of this, the lead international single. As I noted early last year when I first covered the song, its trance/deep clubhouse sound at the outset originally turned me off, and for quite some time I never bothered to extend it a full listen. That is, until the singer came up in my research one day when Britney Spears (an artist I care a marginally greater deal about), who shares a manager with Carlsson, made mild waves when she appeared at the White Party in Palm Springs to watch the singer perform at the closing concert (from a giant secluded cage, but still) It was then I discovered that after thirty seconds of hard trance production, the song mutates into an upbeat, danceable blend of, say, Donna Summer, Samantha Mumba and September - and instantly became one of my new favorites of the moment...and, it turns out, of the whole bloody year.

16. “Smack YouKimberly Cole (Smack You - The Remixes)

Kimberly Cole is the kind of artist I started writing this blog about in the first place, and she's only just getting started, so place your beacons of hope over in this direction should you ever worry about pop music one day imploding from the weight of so much vapid commercial junk (e.g. Orianthi, a good portion of Katy Perry/Miley Cyrus/Britney Spears albums, post-meltdown Mariah Carey/Whitney Houston). Cole got a bit of a later start than most dance-pop solo female acts (a world where Katy Perry was considered a late bloomer for debuting at 24), but she's been studying for this role all along, be it at UCLA, as an MTV host, or her legitimately cool resume highlight, a competitive roller skater (I'm going to assume this entails something along the lines of Roller Derby, or hot chicks speeding around circular track while regularly beating one another out of her shit, in a gritty, glam postmodern ballet semi-choreographed to music...even if that's completely wrong; ignorance is bliss). Cole's precocious skills as an above-average newcomer in a genre where rough early cuts are more the standard M.O. helped the solid, irresistable stomper "Smack You" (which first appeared on this blog in May) maintain an impressively resilient slow burn that recently culminated with a peak in the top 5 of the notoriously fairweather Billboard Dance Club chart, buoyed by a late push following the premiere of the remarkably well-made music video (watch below), which stands comfortably alongside the better videos by stars far more established and funded than the then-still unsigned ingenue. The surprise release of Cole's debut LP in the waning final days of 2010 carried the support of the Oxygen Network, who signed Cole as the first solo artist under the network's new music label after "Smack You" proved a serendipitous unofficial theme song on the fourth season of the channel's guilty pleasure reality show Bad Girls Club (which is about exactly what you might imagine). The album (which I recently reviewed) serves as the official soundtrack for the show's fifth season, but it's really a showcase for Cole in the way Dianne Reeves' soundtrack album for Good Night, and Good Luck stands as an excellent album in its own right (or in the way it appears Christina Aguilera intended for the soundtrack to Burlesque to be, but...let's just say 2010 wasn't really Xtina's year), and an uncommonly good one at that. Best of all, there is apparently a real-life story behind the refreshingly succinct dis track, and while Cole is far too classy to drop names (or even letters of the alphabet, as one '70s singer has so vainly done) the veracity just adds another layer of excellence to one of my favorite play-on-repeat jams of the year.

*Not an official statistic but I dare you to disagree 

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