* * * * The Popologist Panel * * * *
- The Pop Messiah - Dean Boudreau is our lone Canadian panelist, which means he's pretty much like us but can't get Spotify and you can't send him iTunes gifts. That doesn't stop him, and his witty but wise blog, from getting it right when it comes to pop music (if not Ke$ha, who is in fact the pop Messiah). (@thepopmessiah)
- Taking Over the Universe - Gaosalad's fabulously enjoyable young blog is another interesting mixture of two interests pop music and drag queendom.(@gaosalad)
- Popledge - Sarah runs one of the hardest-working respectable pop music news blogs around; follow her on Twitter and you can get top-notch critical thought in betwixt posts like "One Direction – full webcam video from their Hasbro chat, plus Niall Horan eats head!" (v.g.) (@popledge)
- Vertigo Shtick - The spark that grew into Vertigo Shtick came when one overly critical-thinking arts writer noticed that there were almost no pop songs on Pitchfork's Best of the 2000s list, nor most other outlets either; it now exists to question, decipher, explicate and dispense the critical and artistic elements of mainstream pop, down to the nitty gritty details. (@vertigo_shtick)
- SmartPopScott- Our newest panelist Scott Interrante is a music student who grew so tired of the blogging world that he decided to join it. Wanting to counter the satanically emblemed music site's preference for fashion and scene over musical content, he focuses his writing on the music and theory of Pop. His writing can be found at Dear Song In My Head, (@SmartPopScott)
- Lost in a Melody - Mike Jennings is a blogger and pop aficionado from across the pond. He's more of a tweeter, though, which is why (@mikeinamelody)
- Techno School - You may know Techno School from contributions on Vertigo Shtick as dance/electronica correspondent. Based in Detroit, Techno School's blog is an interesting look at life in a new city woven into insights on today's EDM and the state of techno. (@itstechnoschool)
- Unapologetically POP! - Minna, having recently moved to Israel, is still out this month, but Gregory is here to providehis intermittently stinging sense of wit and unerring sense of positivity and overall sense of questioning on our singles section. (@unapologeticpop)
NOTE: All the music discussed in this article can be heard by clicking on the album artwork provided; most of the selections are available on the Spotify playlist at the bottom of the post or by clicking here. Of course, we also encourage you to patronize those you enjoy by buying their material. (I did). Dates and label info are for US releases.
* * * * Albums of the Month * * * *
P!nk - The Truth About Love (RCA, September 18)
Popledge: Let me preface this review, I am not a huge Pink fan, I only own her debut LP Can’t Take Me Home as a full album. I wish she’d off explored her RnB side more than her pop side which she now leans towards. Having said that I do love her as a live performer and I do think she is a unique character in the pop world. First track ‘Are We All We Are’ would go straight on my iPod – it is punchy and catchy and sets the tempo of the album. Single ‘Blow Me’ (One Last Kiss) I could do without, to me it is too Kelly Clarkson sounding and would sound better in her hands. I read on twitter a couple of days ago that Pink had cried after listening to ‘Try’ with baby Willow in her arms, it is the only song that Pink hasn’t co-written on the album. The track is essentially about keeping your life moving after set-backs, it didn’t make me feel emotional at all but I guess Pink was thinking about where she is in her life now and how she got there by trying. ‘Just Give Me a Reason’ I preferred, I really like the drum beat that enters in at the minute mark and Nate from fun. who I think is an excellent singer adds another level to the track, I’m a sucker for duets in general and I loved this one, their voices worked really well together and I hope to see a live version of this soon.
True Love I think is the kind of song people expect from Pink, it is more in-line with her more famous singles. There’s another guest on this track in the form of Lily Allen (now Cooper) – it is a quick few moments from Lily but it’s a nice dusting of sugar on top of an already sweet sounding track. "Slut Like You" obviously has a title which is meant to get people talking – I didn’t like it at all. I actually liked the structure and the sound of the track but the lyrics ruined it for me. I get what she is trying to say – the dichotomy between being a ‘slut’ and a ‘player’ between the sexes isn’t fair but I think she could have got her point over in a different way. "Here Comes the Weekend" I thought was a great party track and one that will be amazing at her live shows, I can already picture the choreography and ticker tape cannons in my head. Pink remains at her brattiest and most honest on this album, I wasn’t for me ("Most Girls" remains my Pink jam) but I think Pink fans will be very happy that she has stuck to her guns and not dropped bass or dub-step into her mix to follow the current pop trends.
Taking/Universe: So I must have missed it when the "i" in Pink's name became an exclamation mark, but I guess that is irrelevant to the situation at hand. Honestly I've never been a fan of Pi(!)nk. It has nothing really to do with her music, I've always found her catchy. It has more to do with her image, as she tires so, so hard to be the bad girl of pop but a lot of her songs are too silly to even take seriously. Anybody who uses "too school for cool" as a line isn't hardcore. I'm sorry. As far as this album goes, it is pertty good. I regret missing reviewing it for my own website, but life gets in the way sometimes. I have to say that I will be using the line "I'm not a slut, I just love love" whenever people call me out for getting around. Not that I do or anything.
Pop Messiah: Since her debut in 2000, every album release from P!nk has been preceded by great enthusiasm on my part. Unlike her contemporaries, Pink has always felt like a true voice for the underdog, emerging from the same era that brought us Britney and Christina but even at her poppiest, refusing to be typecast in their image. Where modern day artists like Gaga unite with their fans over their sameness as victims, Pink has always managed to rise above her oppressors in her sheer defiance of their oppression. As her career body of work goes, The Truth About Love isn't really her finest hour but its a pretty good one! After a few good listens arguments can be made for a number of tracks as stand outs. As always, the album is chock-full of genre-crossing sass-tracks that sometimes approach taste lines ("Slut Like You" just doesn't sit right with me). Personally, I connect to the more emotional side of the album, starting with gorgeous current single: "Try." Also among my other favorites are the smash-hit-waiting-to-happen "True Love" (which features a completely unnecessary appearance by nearly always snoozeworthy Lily Rose Cooper, formerly Lily Allen) and "Just Give Me A Reason" which features Nate Ruess, lead singer of 2012 breakout act: Fun. Lastly, ever P!nk album needs to have a heartbreakingly introspective ballad or two, and ".. Truth.." is no exception; "Beam Me Up," "The Great Escape" and "Run" are all beautiful, but they're no "Love Song" (2003) or "Stop Falling" (2000).
SmartPopScott: I have to admit right off the bat that I’m not a P!nk fan, and I honestly came into this album not thinking it could be any good, which I know is unfair. But actually, I found myself very surprised on my first listen. The opening track, "Are We All We Are" kicks off the album with crazy a drum sample and then moves into a really stellar pop song with a huge chorus and interesting production. The album covers an wide range of styles rather eloquently and P!nk’s voice sounds as strong as ever. What I find myself groaning at is her lyrics. She seems to want to take on the role of the wild-girl reckless-soul, which is fine, but to do it in such a straightforward pop format becomes very off putting. "Blow Me (One Last Kiss)" is a very well written song, but when she says, “I’ve had a shit day/You’ve had a shit day/We’ve had a shit day” I can’t help but cringe. Her bad girl image is not very convincing in this context, even with the ‘hard-rock’ of "How Come You’re Not Here." "Just Give Me A Reason" is a rather lovely duet with Nate Ruess of fun., but P!nk’s aggressive voice doesn’t pair well with Nate’s silky tenor, despite the theatrical leanings of both vocalists. And the ballad "Beam Me Up," which has some really gorgeous moments, is brought down by a few sections of very awkward string writing. But Eminem’s guest verse on "Here Comes The Weekend" shines bright on the backside of the album, with a fast paced syncopated rap that pops like popcorn over a fire. Overall, I was impressed by what a solid pop album P!nk crafted with The Truth About Love, but put off by her attitude, which seemed to oppose the pop style she executed so well.
Vertigo Shtick: Hi, Pink! Welcome back. I like your new album and thank you for not making it all about your baby because I hate that. The truth about The Truth About Love is the opening is weak and the closing is weaker, and you know I like my ins and outs solid so that's one strike. However, the stuff in between is pretty consistently B+ hooky pop that like Britney's latest doesn't hit any big heights but maintains a quality level throughout that's at or above the average for mainstream pop. This approach makes sense; Pink and Brit-Brit (and soon Xtina, on her second try?) have found success with it as a reliable way to come back after a baby/30th bday and affirm relevance, awareness and audience support for these veterans to chug along a while longer. For women especially this is no small achievement, but as a musician Pink really is one of the best: her vocal power and range are on display (but not showboated) on the lead single and the delightful Nate Ruess collab “Just Give Me A Reason,” while her trademark big-sis character and songwriting style makes tracks like “How Come You're Not Here,” the camp gem “Walk of Shame,” and the title track work. I don't think the “Stupid Girls” rewrite “Slut Like You” is necessary (the biggest flaw of the album is its pandering overuse of profanity), but as long as it's here I'll have it...it's like Max Martin cole slaw. WAY to utilize Lily Allen Rose Cooper Jingleheimer Schmidt on “True Love” in an exemplary guest spot: "I'm here either because I make sense or I make so little sense that my nonsensical presence is a statement in itself, not Dr. Luke is trying to make me happen or I'm Nicki Minaj/Pitbull/Lil Wayne and that's how we do." Even the ballads in the middle work for me and I am NOT into ballads: “Beam Me Up” is a moving message to a loved one since departed (like for real, not figuratively), while “Try,” the upcoming second single, speaks enough to my personal experiences in the verses (and many others' I imagine) that I can give the trite chorus a free pass. “Here Comes the Weekend” is either over my head somehow or simply just awful, and the two ballads that follow it aren't nearly enough to get me back into it at that point. Trim those off and lose the opening track and you've got a solid, if brief, comeback album; I haven't heard the bonus tracks but I'd wager one or more could have improved the final track list. I wanted to say I love the chorus on the title track - “I think you just might be perfeeeeeeeect/You're the person of my dreams/I've never ever ever ever ever been this happy/but now something has changed” - because it's hilarious and 100% true, and Pink is making fun of herself as well as us, which is why it works when it could have been totally preachy (“Try” pushes that line already). All in all, I liked the album on the whole, and it has remained in my head for a good portion of the past month, and considering how shitty this month has been I'm grateful to have something decent in there.
No Doubt - Push and Shove (Interscope, September 30)
Popledge: Excuse my while I vomit a little with excitement! I love No Doubt and I LOVE Gwen Stefani, there is something incredible about her presence and the fact that she hasn’t aged in twenty years..I would kiss her feet if she would let me! ‘Settle Down’ kicks off the record, I don’t think it did very well in the U.S and I know when I have heard them performing it in a live setting that it hasn’t been transferred very well from the LP. I really like it though, I like the fact it is a song about being a woman ("Just a Girl," "Excuse Me Mr." are also my jams) but yes I love the attitude and the sound of the track, especially the chorus. It is also amazing to look at the track-listing to see that all of the tracks on the album were written by the core members of the band after ten years apart they really seem to have gelled back together well. "Looking Hot" has been confirmed as the bands second single from ‘Push and Shove’ – featuring a faster beat and some impressive drumming moments it is a strong song, BUT I do not think it’s a single release, if they are chasing that worldwide smash then this won’t bring it home. "One More Summer" again I don’t love but it would have been a better single choice, it definitely has the capacity to pick up radio play with it’s sing-a-long chorus.
Thank the lord for ‘Push and Shove’ with its fast as fuck beat and ska influence and trumpets it’s one I love! I love the breakdown section in which Gwen’s voice gets a change to shine. The two other vocalists also add to the general party feel of the track it’s no ‘Underneath it All’ but it’s definitely one of my favourites so far. ‘Easy’ is pretty descriptive of the song by it’s title…Gwen sings about ‘taking it easy’ and this is exactly what this song does, it is middle of the road, nice to listen to but nothing special, some nice production moments though. I’m afraid I felt the same about ‘Gravity’ – it was a nice love song but I don’t want nice from No Doubt, I want more! This drags on for another couple of tracks before we reach ‘Sparkle’ which I really liked, basically anything with trumpets on it and I’m there. Interestingly it was co-written with Dave Stewart the legend from the Eurhythmics s and it was the lyrics that really endeared me to this song, I think it’s totally relatable about the ending of a relationship. ‘Heaven’ was a natural progression to Sparkle and I found myself getting back into the groove of the album after that ‘blip’ in the middle. "Dreaming the Same Dream" also rounded off the album nicely the ethereal vocals were a nice sound to end the LP on. I think it might be a case of expectations with this record and album, I mean it is not bad at all, I just think that when you’ve had ten plus years to fall in love with some of their earlier work then you are never going to get that same feeling for new songs straight away. This will be an album that I will listen to again and probably put in my car as a travelling companion and by the end of 2012 I expect to love it! Gwen if you read this, you are still my hero and you rock!!
Taking/Universe: I'm so beyond tired of talking about this album and defending my points of view on it from the rabid fans. I've been a fan of No Doubt since I could talk, but this isn't their best. Look at it this way: It makes for a poor "No Doubt" album, but a great "Gwen Stefani" album.
Pop Messiah: I've listened through Push and Shove three times and as I begin writing these words I'm still not sure what my verdict on it is. The problem: 1995's Tragic Kingdom was No Doubt's Jagged Little Pill (see last month's Panel). It was a masterpiece that defined their sound and our expectations of them, earning a spot in the Pop Gospel. As a result, I continue to punish them for not living up to it's legacy. This isn't to say that they've never released anything else that was worthy of Pop Heaven, there were several brilliant singles here and there, but as albums go Tragic Kingdom is pretty hard to beat. Nearly eleven years since their last album and a publicized four year struggle in the studio, Push and Shove is solid in it's ease and familiarity, but doesn't entirely live up to the energy of it's predecessors. Given that the group seemed to have so much trouble getting their groove back after reuniting, I expected to maybe hear more of that tension in the music. All of this opinion sounds kind of negative, but in truth there's a lot of good on this album. In addition to the signature ska influence on lead single "Settle Down" and title-track we get breezy pop/rock tracks like "One More Summer," the 80's infused "Easy" and the nearly-Country ballad "Undone." These stand out for me as songs I wouldn't expect from No Doubt but actually really like for that very reason. In fact, flipping through the tracks now to come up with more track-specific comments I'm hard pressed to find one that I don't like, aside from second official single "Looking Hot" which I find a tad vapid and trite in an un-endearing way. It seems the rest of the album just snuck-up on me as I contemplated my indecision and made me flip-flop like a U.S. presidential candidate. Seems like a grower, then?
SmartPopScott: They first teased about a new No Doubt album back in mid-2011. I was very excited then and my excitement didn’t wane until the album was finally released last week. Growing up in the 90’s, I was obviously a huge No Doubt fan (though I inexplicably always associate "Don’t Speak" with LazerTag. Anyone have any insight into what that says about me?). Push And Shove is as great as I expected it to be. Gwen Stafani’s vocals sound as seductive and strong as ever, and the songwriting is consistently great. But it’s very different than I expected. The whole album, though it still keeps elements of their reggae and ska past, is very 80’s synth-pop. The songs are very dance based and eclectic, but like a lot of what has been coming out in 2012, the 80’s influence is almost overbearing. (As someone who loves 80’s pop music, this is a perfectly welcome thing). This, however, should not be seen as a bad thing. The problem with a lot of the reunion albums this year (all years, actually) is that they try to hard to sound like the good-old days. If we had gotten another reggae-rock album like Tragic Kingdom or Rock Steady, I think everyone would have been happy, but it also would have been a novelty. Instead, true to the No Doubt spirit rather than style, they produced an album that sounds fresh, current, and relevant, while still being mature and respectful to their past and their fans. Highlights for me are: "Settle Down," "Push and Shove," "Gravity," and "Sparkle."
Vertigo Shtick: This is not a simple album, for better or worse. It isn't challenging in the way of, say, Fiona Apple's The Idler Wheel, but I doubt it will ultimately prove as rewarding over time as Apple's album – but The Idler Wheel took some time to fully gestate so I won't count out the possibility in No Doubt's case quite yet. That's not to say that Push and Shove isn't a valuable piece of work as it stands: it's a mature, complex, intricate, and most of all surprising album, packed with subtle yet powerful details and nuances, and it's clearly the product of an enormous amount of thought and care and effort. Those details are enough to sufficiently intrigue, and sometimes unnerve, during an otherwise almost hypnotizing first listen to draw you back for a closer second listen, wherein they gradually become clearer like stars in a darkening night sky, to use one of the album's recurring metaphorical motifs. The triplets at the end of “Looking Hot;” minor seconds on the first verse of “Easy;” the brief tonal tweaks near the ending of “Gravity” and of “Undone;” the backing vocals on “Undercover;” the bass line on the bridge of “Heaven;” all offer something ever so slightly unexpected so you're forced to pay attention even as the overall sound and vibe invites you to relax and submerge yourself in the music, like a jellyfish in a hot tub. This is really the first time No Doubt has gone for style over substance in this way, although that doesn't mean the substance is a wash. “Settle Down,” “Push and Shove,” and “Undercover” each is quite experimental and unconventional in its way, while “Easy,” “Sparkle” and “Looking Hot” are deceptively unremarkable until you find they're in your head a week later. “Gravity” looks nostalgically back to the mid-90s when it all took off for No Doubt and for its fans, but then the band has always been looking back toward Anaheim in some way, be it in the new wave sound they appropriated for Tragic Kingdom and Return of Saturn or the lyrical memories of “Underneath It All” and “Cool” (from Gwen's Love.Angel.Music.Baby but still a collab with Tony Kanal). “Dreaming the Same Dream” is the best example of the band's most solid and determined songwriting over the years, with Gwen's excellent lyrics (“Who taught you how to love?” “It's not fair, but who's keeping score?” “We always come back for more”) and exhilarating vocals, particularly on the bridge, and its protracted ending that only a real garage band would do, one in which musicians actually play instruments, together, in the same room, at one time. And that's the thing about No Doubt that has allowed them to successfully span some of the widest stylistic gaps of any act except possibly Christina Aguilera, from garage band ska to cutting edge early 2000s electronica: underneath whatever extra production or electronica that contemporary trends demand, there is a real band, four musicians who have been playing together for most of their lifetimes and who have never stopped wanting at the end of the day to create worthwhile music that makes sense to them as artists, and you can hear it as the album fades to a close with the indulgent outro of “Dreaming the Same Dream.” It's a powerful closer to an album that turns out to be much deeper than first it appears. It takes some effort but I think it's worth the work; I do wonder, though, if there's such a thing as too much thought and care and effort when it comes to creating pop music, and can't help wondering what might have come from Gwen and company had they gone a bit less “Push and Shove” and a bit more “Easy.”
* * * * EPs * * * *
Charli XCX - You're the One (IAMSOUND, June 12)
Popledge: You’re the One is the best thing I’ve listened to for this panel. Heartfelt, emotional, evocative I really really liked it. The only thing that let the track down was the spoken bit, I liked the fact that it broke the track up a bit but a change in the instrumental would have suited me more.The Blood Orange remix of the song I didn’t enjoy as much because of the distortion on Charli’s voice but it still emphasized the beautiful melodic structure of her vocals so I wouldn’t totally deplore it. Plus the xylophones, excellent. "Nuclear Sessions" was including in the EP I listened too..it was a good B-side to "You’re the One" but the former remains the star of the show. *TOP PICK*
Taking/Universe: This EP was actually a very nice change of pace from the overhyped bullcrap I've been sifting through lately. Had it not shown up on this panel, I probably wouldn't even know it existed. "You’re The One" features a very nice low-key talk-rap bit towards the end that highlighted her accent, and the track had an outro that would put Exodus era Utada Hikaru to shame. The second song was a bit faster pace and used a lot of industrial influences that took me back to the dark era in the 90's of bands that only existed for long enough to be put on a compilation and then disband or reform. The EP also contains a remix for both tracks. These remixes do it right, and by that I mean that they aren’t ten minutes long, and they add a new depth and meaning to the track as opposed to just adding a pulsing techno background. The people who did these mixes for her need to be in my life more. Like now.
Pop Messiah: This month's artist that I've had no previous exposure to, Charli XCX, actually seems to be pretty promising. The original mix of "You're The One" has a great melody and the kind of mid-tempo pop sensibility that tends to be right up my alley. The Blood Orange Remix takes on a slightly more island feel with the addition of steel drums and more strings. It's pretty good, but the excessive vocal effects make me prefer the original. U.K. B-Side "So Far Away" has a certain retro-soul feel that when combined with sing-spoken, edgy lyrics creates a unique, electro hip-hop kind of vibe. Meanwhile, the U.S. B-side: "Nuclear Seasons" reminds me a bit of Marina & the Diamonds Electra Heart album and is probably my favorite of the tracks. Also included on the American release is a remix of "Nuclear Seasons" that pales in comparison to the original. Overall, this is unique-sounding, moody pop and another great new find brought to me through my involvement on this prestigious panel! (Thanks David!)
SmartPopScott: This is actually the first time I’ve listened to Charli XCX, and I feel like I’ve been missing out! Her EP, which makes for a weird listen by including two remixes placed directly after their original versions, is a cool mix of indie electronica production and pop songwriting. Her vocals are silky and vulnerable with a similar timbre to Marina and the Diamonds, but, with the inclusion of the remixes especially, this EP is more dance oriented than Electra Heart. This shows her as a very strong artist, but I’m still waiting for a full length or more substantial and coherent work. The highlight for me is the ethereal Balam Acab remix of "Nuclear Seasons"
Vertigo Shtick:Confession: I very nearly gave this a pass, but I already did that once (sorry Florence) and I'm trying to be serious about this so at the last minute I reconsidered. I was initially put off by the oppressive mass of noise, moody, melodramatic, 80s on steroids - melodrama and 80s music being two of my least favorite things. But I'm glad I gave it another shot, as to my surprise I found myself singing along to the chorus of "You're the One" even though I can't remember listening to it before; but apparently I have, and there was that chorus embedded in my mind. The Blood Orange remix is fine but since it accentuates the elements I dislike it's not for me; what I did find from it was how powerful that chorus still is no matter how much stuff it's buried beneath, and I suspect it would probably permeate through any barrier. Wow. That's going to stick with me. "So Far Away" initially intrigued me but ultimately I pass on it, while "Nuclear Seasons" may not pack the emotional whallop of "You're the One" but it's perfectly listenable on its own. I'm still not sure I'm on board Charli's crazy bass-filled soap opera spaceship yet but I'm glad I managed to overcome my initial concerns because "You're the One" is a heavyweight champ of a tune.
* * * * Music Videos * * * *
PSY - "Gangnam Style" (YG, July 15)
Popledge: This is the second time I’ve seen this video, the first being on a referral from Robbie Williams on twitter. I will admit it I like Psy and I like the video – I think it’s pretty funny. I mean a middle aged slightly over-weight Korean man doing a full on comedy dance routine – I’m there. As for the track it’s shit but let us enjoy it for what it is and remember all of this will soon be forgotten.
Taking/Universe: What can I say about this that hasn't been said before? Apparently Gangnam is a district in Seoul where the upper class lives. The real meaning of the song is gotten by watching the video along with listening, as he's talking about wanting an upper class woman contrasted to the hilarious and outrageous dances and people he has about. Also, my friend asked if he was saying "open condom style" and ever since then, I haven't been able to sing along correctly.
Pop Messiah: One of my best friends is serving his last semester in school in another province as part of his training for the Canadian navy and he was home for a few days at the end of the summer. We didn't get to spend much time together while he was home for a visit, but we went out one rainy Sunday looking for some grub and during the drive he wanted to play a song that everyone back at school was going nuts for. He abridged his playing the track by saying it was K-Pop. Having only really read about some K-Pop artists through a handful of fans on twitter, I see it as something I know nothing about so I sat back and took it all in. I had no idea then and still can't understand the sheer magnitude of how many times I would be subjected to that song in the month to come. Within weeks, Psy's "Gangnam Style" became more overplayed than "Call Me Maybe." Suddenly Psy was on every TV show and "Gangnam Style" started moving up the Billboard charts and will surely go down in the history books with "Mambo #5," "Cotton-Eyed Joe," and "Macarena" to demonstrate the collective shame of the worlds love for novelty songs. As a music video, "Gangnam Style" is as ridiculously overblown as the track sounds outside the context of it's Korean cultural relevance ("Gangnam" referring to an uppity district in Seoul where people exude over-the-top "class" [a.k.a. "Gangnam Style"] but would never admit to it.) It's a funny video, and contains everything but the kitchen sink (horses, booty girls, weird costumes, fancy cars, explosions, lasers, etc.) but they throw in a toilet for good measure. One must wonder if the Western obsession with it is based purely in ignorance since a good number of those spinning it have no idea what the lyrics mean (I know I don't!) As it seems that Asian artists have had a pretty hard time breaking into the North American pop music scene, is Psy's success as a one-hit wonder a foot-in-the-door or will it being widely seen as comic relief hurt the cause for serious pop artists that happen to also be Asian?
SmartPopScott: I first saw this glorious video back at the end of July. Katherine St. Asaaph posted about it on Popdust.com urging everyone to stop what they’re doing and watch it. I’m glad I did. I’ve been very into K-Pop this entire year, finding wonderful artists like IU, 2ne1, CNBlue, and Girls' Generation, but I had never heard of PSY. Even though he’s been a huge superstar for 13 years in Korea, this video was his introduction to worldwide fame, and it’s not entirely hard to see the appeal. Through reading interviews with PSY and speaking to some of my Korean friends about it, I’ve learned that Gangnam is a district in Seoul, the wealthiest district in all of South Korea. So the joke here is that Oppa which means ‘Big Brother’, which Psy is referring to himself as, is going Gangnam Style, like the Beverly Hillbillies or the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. The video is filled with famous Korean actors and popstars, and knowing them would probably make the video even more fantastic, but my favorite cameo is the ever-sexy HyunA. But perhaps the best way to sum up this video is with a few lines from a Saturday Night Live sketch about the Gangnam Style craze: “’Did he just scream at her butt?!’ ‘Yes!’ ‘We’re going to live forever!!!’”
Vertigo Shtick: This video makes me happy to be alive. Of course there's its impact on one of one of my long-time pop music issues of particular interest, that being representation of Asian performers (or lack thereof); how cool is it that the first Korean hit this big in the US is actually in Korean (incidentally, the only previous Asian song to top the Hot 100 was in Japanese – and in 1967). It's undiluted K-pop, even though it actually lampoons K-pop from just outside the center circle of the genre; unfortunately for Interscope's upcoming Girls' Generation US roll-out, the nuances there may be too subtle for Americans to grasp entirely, so the question remains whether the US will see this as a preemptive repudiation of soon-to-be globalized K-pop or a flagship of the style. I'm also glad, in this post-Rebecca Black world, that the latest viral phenomenon is by an artist who's in on the joke. This is what a post-racial society would look like, when the issues, ideas, art, music, music videos, and horse-riding dances we moon over in the US can just happen to be in Korean, or Farsi, or that language Gaga speaks in “Scheiße.”
Natalia Kills - "Controversy" (September 13)
Popledge: Think the style of Jameela Jamil, mix in the dirtier side of Nicole Scherzinger and then add a set of quirky, meaningful lyrics and you’ve got this girl spot on. A straightforward video of Natalie herself whilst it flashes to pictures of controversial images gives this track even more of a mysterious air to it. I can understand why it would have an acquired taste, as to some she is literally just listing controversial issues in society today and getting a little agitated about them – but I LOVE it. Give me more of this feisty little popstar, she’s awesome!
Words by popledge writer Holly Braine - https://twitter.com/hollieeemary
Taking/Universe: I'm pretty sure David only included this song to appease me. I probably would have caused a riot had it not been chosen. Would you all like a mini history lesson? This song's hook "Drink the koolaid - Don't drink the koolaid" is a reference to the People's Temple incident where psychopath Jim Jones started a cult for wayward souls and convinced everybody to commit mass suicide. Now that I've brought you down and got you good and depressed, give the video a watch. The song is flawless, the video is edgy and has a great artistic vision. This wasn't meant to be a big budget blowout - its just a preview of what's to come. Natalia's next album is going to be killer, and if you don't agree you can suck it. *TOP PICK*
Pop Messiah: What!? Is this really an official music video? I'm only thirty seconds in and I already want to shut it off, so that doesn't really fare well for it. For a song called "Controversy," this video is pretty tame as we see shot after shot of Natalia in black outfits/white outfits with random TV/movie clips super-imposed over her while she stands there looking judgy and unimpressed. For the record, the song itself is also a steaming mess, despite a couple of striking statements that are somewhat thought-provoking (i.e. "technology destroyed reality") Near the end of the video we realize that the disgruntled look on her face might have just been an upset stomach, when she seems to regurgitate a butterfly! Oh Natalia, next time you suffer from indigestion from all that inner beauty, say it with me - "Tums-Ta-Tum-Tum-TUMS."
SmartPopScott: Why is she staring into my soul?! This being my first experience with Natalia Kills (I guess I’m not up on my British Electro-Pop singers) is a very strange introduction. I feel like maybe I’m missing something, but it seems pretty heavy handed to me. The video is cool, with great editing and effects, but the song, and its Born This Way-esque spoken word verses, and its "Niggas In Paris" static production, and its ‘Society is so shallow and sucks’ M.I.A. tilt is very off-putting. Maybe she should drink that Kool-Aid!
Vertigo Shtick: First of all, “controversy” is one of those few pesky words that I always seem to misspell, so thanks to Miss Kills for the opportunity to grind it into my head once and for all. I don't think Natalia is too far off with this concept; however, the first time I watched the video I felt quite relieved as soon as it became apparent there would be plenty of cuts away from the performer's subtly disapproving, ' accusatory stare. But after a few more viewings I realized it is precisely that which is the main weakness preventing “Controversy” from hitting the bulls-eye for which I think the artist was aiming. True, the arrow lands on the board, but by letting us off the hook and allowing us – I assume I'm not the only one – to retain some sense of comfort as we watch the proceedings, Natalia Kills hedges her bets and when the game is provocation, that's just not a good decision (see Aguilera, Christina: Bionic). That said, I'd love to think that Miss Kills has been listening to some Janelle Monáe considering the lyrics' structural relation to Monáe's “Many Moons” and the video's stare-at-the-camera concept's root in a lineage that includes Monáe's “Cold War.” While she's definitely making progress, Natalia Kills could still use a little guidance as she perfects her shtick, and, as I think she's learned, having a spirit guide like Janelle Monáe is probably going to be much more fruitful, and far more reliable, than Lady Gaga. (OMG there she is AGAIN.)
* * * * Singles * * * *
Christina Aguilera - "Your Body" (RCA, September 17)
Popledge: Reasons why ‘Your Body’ is a hit!
Taking/Universe: I was a bit on the fence about this track to begin with. Last year's The Voice single was a huge disappointment, mostly because I don't like Maroon 5 and all Aguilera did was moan in the background. Thankfully "Your Body" is a much better track. It takes a couple of listens to really get into it, but it makes my heart smile to welcome Christina back into the pop world. She looks like she is finally spreading her own wings, as opposed to trying to be Lady Gaga. The lyrics are a bit simplistic, but not so much that it fades into the background as "just another pop track". Hell, being a mid-tempo pop single is rare enough these days. She may have a real hit, given that The Voice does well in ratings this year.
- Christina’s vocal
- Dance beat trend
- Damn this song is sexy!
- Strong chorus
- The Voice US is giving her career a huge boost
- It brings the XTina brand into 2012
- The explicit version is pretty amazing
- Her personality fits this song
- She will slay this live
- Fresh and exciting RnB meets dance
- Slutty video to boot
Pop Messiah: As songs about dirty, anonymous hook-ups go, "Your Body" is one of the best pop singles of 2012. I wasn't among the hordes of haters who blasted Aguilera's Bionic in 2010 (What!? It was innovative in a lot of ways!) but I do have to admit that I'm happy to hear the return of those powerful Xtina vocals!! (SAY!) The production is at times minimal and others lush and layered and it's packed full of vocal hooks and steamy lyrics. This is the kind of track I would have lived for in my club-going days, dirty dancing with a friend at the local club just to eye-fuck the D.J. whom I had a steamy flirtationship with! (Scandalous, I know!) My only dilemma is that the album version (thus far leaked only in demo form) contains a completely unnecessary and gratuitous eff-bomb in its main hook. I know that I always seem to be the one who criticizes artists for the swearing and trust me, I'm not a fucking prude but if someone ever said "Dean, All I wanna do is fuck your body." I would probably laugh and throw tomatoes! Imagine my surprise however, when I heard the radio version and found myself thinking that "love your body" just didn't have enough audible impact. Well, now what!? "Fuck your body" sounds stupid and "Love your body" is kinda wimpy.. how about "Rock your body?" Yeah, it's been done but the lack of hard "k" sound leaves the hook sounding a little lazy. Those that didn't spoil themselves with the demo probably don't mind the edited version and truthfully I'm totally used to it now, but that's because I listen to it at least 10 times a day, on repeat. Ok, so I lost count. (SAY!) *TOP PICK*
SmartPopScott: Max Martin and Savan Kotecha have both had pretty great track records lately, and the work they’ve been doing together has been consistently top-notch. The two seem to bring out the best in each other melodically. Their compositions together ("I Wanna Go," "Scream," "One More Night," etc.) utilize strong and simple motifs very efficiently, trimming off the excess and relying melodic development for variation. This song, the long awaited single from Xtina, is no different. Though the chorus melody bears a striking similarity to Jessie J’s "Abracadabra," this production is much more detailed and exciting. The lyrics can fall a little flat (We’re going faster than slow?), and I honestly kinda miss the “fuck your body” of the leaked version (I’m really not sure why though), but overall, this is a killer track and Christina sounds great as usual.
Vertigo Shtick: Vertigo Shtick writer Kurt Bitter pointed out that my reaction to “Your Body” went a bit differently than usual. Typically I latch onto winners right away while it takes him a bit of prodding. This time, it took a day or two before I heard in “Your Body” the smash that Kurt was howling over immediately. He was right that a midtempo song is gutsy in this four-to-the-floor era, but it's a bold move with a big payoff. He's also right that Max Martin can still make something entirely fresh when he wants to, and I admit Martin's done a good enough job to realign my raised eyebrow at Xtina hopping in bed with Britney's man. What won me over was “I think you already know my name...” so HOT and woman-in-control! It has a great balance of universality and personality with Xtina clearly in the driver's seat. I don't even care about the fuck vs. love question. All I wanna do is lay “Your Body” oh-uh-ohhh-oh-oh-oh-ohh-ohh-ohhhver and over and over and over and over and over again. *TOP PICK*
Anjulie - "You and I" (Universal Republic, October 3)
Popledge: Produced by Benny Benassi is always a good start to the track, I really enjoyed this little dance monster, Anjulie’s vocals are very clear and strong, those top notes sound perfect. The beat is infectious and it just sounds like a really well presented and produced song, like a lot of care and thought has gone into it. Fans of soft dance music and the club scene will love this one, it’s a euphoric sound and would go down well in Ibiza.
Taking/Universe: I'm pretty sure if all I wrote was "I freaking love Anjulie" over and over again, everyone would get mad, so I guess I'll go into a bit more. I really, really freaking love Anjulie. Is that better? This song is a bit less electronic than what fans of this lady may be used to, But never fear, the synths are there, they are just hidden with an acoustic guitar front. I actually wish the entire song was like the first half, as it allowed her to really shine with her voice in a more naked setting, but alas, pop is what it is, and these days that means having a techno beat. I sincerely hope this single is a sign of what is to come, and that Anjulie doesn't end up one of those indie artists who perpetually releases singles as opposed to a full body of work. I still have my hopes up for her, and with this genre-meshing track, she has my attention.
Pop Messiah: I have to admit that Anjulie's material thus far has failed to really win me over. 2011's "Brand New Bitch" was catchy enough but never really captured my heart. Her follow-up single here in Canada was a track called "Stand Behind the Music" which was always on MuchMusic every time I happened past channel-surfing, and there was something about that one that really irked me and will probably continue to irk me now that UK artist: Cher Lloyd has released her own version of it. Most recently, Anjulie's latest video "Headphones" fell into the ok-but-not-great category for me. Benny Benassi-produced "You and I" however, makes me reconsider. Groovy and uplifting, this track is infectious and euphoric and recalls the vibe of the disco era in a very current way. Best of all, and Ryan Tedder, Dr. Luke and David Guetta should take notes here, while Benassi has produced for a few pop heavyweights, the melody and overall vibe haven't been recycled from his other productions (i.e. "You and I" sounds nothing like Chris Brown's "Beautiful People".) Nicely played, Anjulie. Pop Heaven it is, this time!
SmartPopScott: I haven’t heard this name since "Boom!" And what a great song that was. "You And I" is good as well, but not as cool as "Boom." Anjulie’s appeal to me back in 2009 was never her vocals, it was the interesting production and songwriting. You and I is certainly not a stock pop song, but I think I was expecting something a bit more. As I listen more and more though, I can take it on its own, and it is a superb dance-pop song. The circular chord progression and the simple melody keep the song moving forward and lyrics are forgettable (meaning nothing stands out as good OR as bad).
Vertigo Shtick: This is what Benny Benassi should have done for Madonna, although I adore Anjulie so I'm glad she's the beneficiary of his better work. Anjulie's project right now is bringing storytelling to to dance music, and I think this, along with her other recent single “Headphones,” does it beautifully. I like the detail of emotion and experience, and found the second verse (“last week/you with some chick/same bed/barely sleeping”) strikes a nice note of evocative lyricism. It also plays well into the whole techno idea of whooshing David Guetta whirlwind of passion. It's a lovely song and I like it a lot.
Missy Elliott - "9th Inning" & "Triple Threat" (feat. Timbaland) (Atlantic, September 18)
Popledge: I am out of my comfort zone with Missy Elliot..but I know of Timbaland through J-Timberlake and Nelly Furtado etc…I could barely stand him then so I’m not sure I’ll warm to these tracks. Yep it’s just not my taste, way too cool for me! Also that talk of ‘niggas’ and hyping themselves up..bleurgh..I don’t even know what to say, I’m not there target market, to me it’s just all a bit crap..I don’t even like the production. That was 9th Inning, Triple Threat is much the same, anyone who uses that phrase in the UK normally ends up being a knob (Andrew Stone if anyone from the UK is reading this!) I can’t even listen to 30 seconds of this.
Taking/Universe: So Timbaland is still around. I thought he was out of the game. I know she has a reputation for being pretty bad-ass, and I'll give it to her, for a rap track, this couple of songs really had me going -- until Timbaland started in. His part is rather boring, and goes on for far too long. Who do I have to blow to get more Missy in a Missy track around here. Oh look, there I go loving love too much again.
Pop Messiah: Praise the Pop Gods!! At long last Missy Elliot has returned to us to show us why Nicki Minaj is NOT the Queen of hip-hop, no matter how many hissy fits she throws about it! After a painfully long hiatus from her solo career due to her suffering from Graves disease, Elliot has reunited with Timbaland for two new singles, Elliot's first since 2005. While I'll admit, neither "9th Inning" or "Triple Threat" would make a list of my Top 10 Missy Elliot tracks, it's refreshing to hear her back on her game. While both tracks go hard, I would say I'm more likely to choose "Triple Threat" as the stronger track and the one with the most replay value. In my favorite moment, she rhymes "I slap whoever said I'm irrelevant. God, I'm pissed and mad and upset. Music dead, we make it ressurrect." Ultimately, neither of the singles really have the fun/bizarre vibe that's become so synonymous with Missy's work over the years, and for that reason I'm just a slight bit disappointed.
SmartPopScott: When rumors started surfacing that Missy Elliot and Timbaland were working on music together again, it was pretty hard to curb my enthusiasm. Even though I had already been teased and fooled by rumors of Timbaland/Timberlake, this seemed more likely and realistic. They even put a date on the release of two tracks. But that date came and went. Eventually, the tracks appeared online, and I hurried back to my apartment, sat down, put on my headphones, and prepared. The Missy Elliot/Timbaland dream-team back in the late 90’s and early millennium was aggressive, innovative, and oddly commercially successful. While Timbaland’s production on both of these songs is still interesting and aggressive, the tracks aren’t particularly innovative, and Missy’s rapping feels restrained and uninspired. The majority of both tracks focuses its lyrical content on talking about being the best, and how great Missy and Timbaland are together, but I’d much rather her show me than tell me. I’m still hopeful that something great can come from these two again, but this isn’t it.
Vertigo Shtick: I think Missy was wise to drop two comeback singles at once, because no one track could possibly bear the expectations inherent of so accomplished an artist after so long an absence. As it is, the two she dropped are solid jumping-off points for whatever is ahead, and whether you like their style or not at least we didn't get some outdated mess or quixotic attempt to re-create what worked a decade ago. Not that we should be surprised, since at their best Missy and Timbaland (possibly the best sexless marriage since the Clintons) have always been ahead of the game, but in a way that helped the rest of us catch up rather than leaving us, and our wallets, in the dust (*coughAlaniscough*). Interesting then that “Triple Threat” is based over the sort of classical loop they used to give Aaliyah back in the late 90s, while the beats are minimal, fast and repetitive; like “We Need a Resolution,” this gives the track a languid, relaxed mood that allows Missy and Tim's rhymes sit more like royalty than the defensive, hard raps on “9th Inning.” The latter is darker, more intense, and I have to say I prefer it. Oh, P.S., Gaga, hopefully you aren't too distracted stage-barfing and having Twitter wars with people nobody's heard of to notice that offer from one of the best producers of modern music...that could be an interesting collaboration to add to your impressive catalog of interesting collaborations. Oh look, it became about Gaga again! Jeez, everybody wants to be Ke$ha!
Deadmau5 - "Professional Griefers" (feat. Gerard Way) (Ultra, August 16)
Popledge: Again sorry not a big fan of deadmau5 but I do like My Chemical Romance, however on this song Gerard Way sounds more like Luke Steele from ‘Empire of the Sun.’ There were some redeeming features to this song, when the shouting parts stopped and the singing started it definitely improved. I can see why people like Deadmau5 and Skrillex though, it does sound polished and I guess if I liked the dance scene more I would be getting excited about how their music was impacting on more of a mainstream level.
Taking/Universe: So you are telling me Gerard Way still exists too? This is a very enlightening month for me! The song itself isn't bad, but I really don't care much for either of the artists in this song. Had I gone into it blind, not knowing either, I probably would freak out and love it, but I have my guns that I stick to, along with other cliche sayings.
Pop Messiah: Pop Punk meets Electro-House in this angsty track about some of the darker aspects of modern-day life. Gerard Way from My Chemical Romance takes the vocals and alternates between aggression and introspection as he pleads: "Give me the sound to see, another world outside that's full of all the broken things that I made". It's a song that feels intentionally heavy, which I appreciate, given that as a genre EDM is largely seen on a mainstream level as a movement that's all about forgetting troubles and dancing. While all of the sonic elements of this track are great, as a writer I'd say my biggest praise for this track is in the lyrics. Despite popular opinion, dance music can be thought-provoking, well-written and intelligent. Go figure!
SmartPopScott sat this one out.
Vertigo Shtick: deadmau5 is a drama queen. This makes him almost insufferable in some venues - say, being childish and humorless in yelling at Madonna for glamorizing drug use (the horror!) - but guess where it works magic? Yep, music, especially the high-drama techno of which he's been an unquestionable icon for longer than it might seem (he was around long before the current EDM class of Skrillex, Avicii and Zedd but also predates Kaskade, Diplo, Calvin Harris, (and Guetta?)). He has a way of making really satisfying music, and can do mellow (his understated remix of Medina's "You and I" is exquisite) as comfortably as ribald ("Cocktail Queen?"), where most producers excel at one over the other. This is in the latter category, but within seconds I saw that it had been miscast - but then I guess Luciana would have ruined the whole bro vibe so beloved of EDM producers, who are really just frat boys in suspended adolescence. Too bad; without her this took on a Dead or Alive/Depeche Mode feel (80s references, nobody's done that before) when it could have been something truly ...gasp!...original.
Nicki Minaj & Cassie - "The Boys" (Cash Money, September 13)
Popledge: If ‘Starships’ is the Yin then ‘The Boys’ is her yang. Managing to straddle both the pop and urban music scenes has been one of Nicki’s main achievements. For this new US and UK single Nicki sets aside that crazy Roman and teams up with Cassie for a song about love. ‘Man, I'm stingy with my puddy-cat’ is my favourite lyric from the single with Nicki poking fun at other girls who ‘put out’ for some dollars. I enjoyed listening to the lyrics on this one and the fact that it show-cases Nicki’s rapping talents off to full effect. Also good to hear from the feminine side of Nicki my interpretation of the song was that from her point of view it was actually men wasting their money on the ‘hoes’ and that they got sucked into thinking that this was a pre-requisite of being successful in the rap industry. A good single which Cassie compliments.
Taking/Universe: I swear to God this woman releases a new single every week. This one should never have been picked for a single. It's a bare-bones track, with only a drum track and Nicki for most of the duration. It allows you to hear how incredibly auto-tuned she is. I know what you are thinking. "GaoSalad against Auto-tune? What?" What I'm getting at is Auto-tune sounds great in a pop track where it's used an effect or as a way to make the song better, but here it serves no purpose. The song is boring and I'm being extremely judgmental. At least Cassie does a pretty good job on the chorus, even if it has some rather tacky sounding lyrics. Ten bucks says next month we review another Nicki Minaj track.
Pop Messiah: While I reserve the right to change my mind should repeat listens suddenly find me in love with this track, on a first listen "The Boys" may just take the title of worst Nicki Minaj single (in my opinion of course) which was previously held by "Starships." Cassie's guest bits sound like she's been heavily medicated and then digitally slowed down even further to ensure that not an ounce of personality remains in her performance. Minaj certainly livens things up on her verses, but just never hits a sweet spot for me. As a whole package, "The Boys" is just too erratic and inconsistent for me. Next! (Oh wait, that's the end!)
SmartPopScott: I’m not someone who likes Nicki Minaj very often. I think that she’s very talented, and I think she’s done a lot of great things early in her career, but I also think she can be horribly obnoxious and ruins a lot of things ("Beauty and a Beat" is a fantastic song outside of her obscene and unnecessary verse). I’ve hated everything from Roman Reloaded, and couldn’t even make it through the whole album. But this track is exactly what I love about her. It’s weird and absurd, but amazing and even beautiful. Co-written with Anjulie, I would have loved to hear her sing on this instead of Cassie, but either way, the vocals are great. Nicki’s verses are explosive without being overbearing, and the production by Jonas Jeberg and Jean Baptiste is unique and intricate. I can’t stop listening. As odd as this makes me feel, I have to say that this is my *TOP PICK*
Vertigo Shtick: I've suspected for some time that Nicki Minaj might become the next major postmodernist trailblazer in pop music, applying and continuing to define its tropes to hip-hop leaning pop as Lady Gaga has been to dance pop since The Fame Monster. "The Boys" is clear evidence that I'm on the right track. This one-off single (written, incidentally, by Anjulie) may not seem all that consequential and it's not going to single-handedly launch a movement, but it suggests some of the ways Minaj might apply postmodernist theory to hip-hop, a genre setting less obviously primed for postmodernist shenanigans as pop (though Minaj would benefit from proto-PoMo groundwork laid by Missy Elliott, just as Gaga has from Madonna). It almost seems like a test run as Minaj experiments with various postmodernist elements to see what sticks. There are obvious touches, like the Blossom and Scottie Pippin references; incorporation of other generic styles (guitar, the Anjulie-penned pop portion performed by Cassie), references to Train's "Hey Soul Sister" and Daft Punk's "Technologic" (not the first time in hip-hop; Elliott performed a bit of it on Busta Rhymes' "Touch It"). Then there's the particularly postmodern cut-and-paste collage assembly of the piece, pasting an old work of their own, in fact, which is both derivitive and self-referential. The disjointed segments work on their own: Nicki's eight-line rhyme in the first verse and four-line "rrr" rhymes are bomb; the pre-chorus is nicely done; and Cassie's main hook is emotionally strong (yay Anjulie) and was the reason I first connected with this piece. As a whole, it's a very interesting postmodernist warmup and it joins Missy and Ciara's "Lose Control" and Eve and Gwen Stefani's "Let Me Blow Ya Mind" as one of a small but mighty band of all-girl rap/sung collabs. "The Boys" is an ironic nod to the fact that popular music looks to be the only art form wherein the postmodernist movement will be defined and determined by women.
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