Thursday, June 20, 2013

Popologist Panel: Little Boots, Betty Who, Annie, Becky G., Gatsby

June is busting out all over, and music is getting good again! So before we get started on the summer of 2013, the Popologist Panel takes a look at some of the last of the spring pop to see if there's anything - ANYTHING - that's still in bloom.

*   *   *   *   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)
  • SmartPopScott - 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 and Pop Matters (@SmartPopScott)
  • Vertigo Shtick - The spark that grew into Vertigo Shtick came when one overly critical-thinking arts writer named David Kenniston 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)
  • 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 smoking something on £2.3 million pound yacht!" (v.g.) (@popledge)

*   *   *   *   Albums   *   *   *   *

Various Artists - The Great Gatsby (Music from Baz Luhrmann's Film) (Interscope, May 7)

Pop Messiah: While it seems it would be quite foolish for anyone to be surprised that a Baz Luhrman film would have an unconventional soundtrack, based on the reviews that I've read of The Great Gatsby, its music seems to be a major point of contention for critics. (I have to wonder if they have no knowledge of his previous body of work. Did they think that it was perfectly normal for electronica to be playing in Elizabethan times, or for singing, hyper-color hookers to dance to medleys of 1980's pop hits?) This time, our story is set in the 1920's, where Jazz would have been their poison, but in Luhrman's adaptation, we get a mix of hip hop and indie pop/rock. Go figure!

The songs from ..Gatsby seem to straddle a binary of epic cinematic-ness and minimalism. Unfortunately, within each category there was still plenty of room for boring.

The Good: I can't believe I'm about to type these words, but the best track on the album may be "Young and Beautiful" by Lana Del Rey. It's gorgeous and melancholy, and puts me one step closer to understanding what the stanning is all about (Don't worry, I'm not there yet!) Nero's "Into the Past" is also a contender, and it is INCREDIBLE; a serious WOW moment. Gotye's contribution, "Heart's a Mess," has a quirky rhythm that won me over on the first listen. Rounding out the album's better offerings are several songs that take a more obvious inspiration from the music of the 1920's, including Emeli Sande's wig-snatching cover of Queen Bey's "Crazy in Love," "Love is a Drug" by Brian Ferry Orchestra and "Bang Bang," a surprisingly effective track (and genius sample) by will-i-am. (By the way, is that an uncredited Brit Brit appearance on "Bang Bang?" or am I crazy? Wait... don't answer that! P.S. will-i-am denies Britney is on the track, so just a reasonable facsimile, then.)

The Bad: Andre 3000 & Beyonce shit all over Amy Winehouse's "Back to Black," stripping it of the raw emotion that makes the original such a classic. The musical backing is somewhat compelling but the vocals leave a lot to be desired. Sia's "Kill & Run" sounds a bit like a lost Bond theme, which in my opinion is not a good thing. Her vocals and lyrics are business as usual (meaning: mostly amazing,) but this song, and several others, are nothing to really write home about. Lastly, even with lines from the film edited in, Jay Z's "100$ Bill" felt rather out of place for me, despite it existing in an otherwise eclectic set, but I digress. I've written far too much, already!

Overall Summary: Uneven with moments of genius.

Popledge: I am actually going to see this movie tomorrow evening so I’m glad to have the opportunity to listen to some of the songs before I judge the movie, interestingly the film hasn’t lit people’s imaginations and it will be good to see if the sound-track contributes to the lack of connection with the visuals.

The first track opens with the curator/organiser of this sound-track Mr Jay-Z, I’m not a huge fan of rap music but his is one of those voices that I really enjoying listening to, I’m not sure what the song taught me, something around money and fame but it was a good lesson. Where you have one Carter you of course get another (how else are they going to make more billions?), this is one cover I object to, I still think it is too early to cover Amy Winehouse’s track, I really think they should have asked her family if they minded re-working Amy’s song with her original vocals and perhaps the addition of Andre 3000’s rap, it just seems like a cheap way to get his wife involved. The song isn’t better either; the punch of Amy’s vocal and emotions has been ripped out of it.

Now if there was someone who suited the 1920’s theme of this movie I would argue it is Lana Del Rey, she embodies the glamour and style of the era. I also like that she wrote this song, I have to be in the mood for a bit of Del Rey and when that strikes I love listening to her voice, this song suits the story/mood of the movie, worries about holding onto your youth and beauty and if you get the chance do check out the Myndset remix of the track, it puts a dance spin on the number without it sounded totally out of place.

Jack White is up next channelling his most inner David Bowie vocals combined with a sense of anger, I didn’t enjoy listening to this song but I can see it working well in a dramatic scene and fitting in with Luhrman’s vision of the film. The track goes into another one that I don’t like, the ‘new’ version of “Crazy in Love” by Emeli Sande, again I like Sande’s voice but it just seems like another pay-off for the Carter house-hold and isn’t a patch on the original. From that we go into a song (this section is definitely a low point for me!) his vocals are particularly out of place in this sound-track, there are too many effects used through the track and the beats he uses don’t merge well with the more tradition moments in the track, I can see why the female vocalist was mis-taken for Britney Spears though, she does have her style of vocals.

"A Little Party Never Killed Nobody (All We Got)" perked me up a bit mainly for the inclusion of Fergie, I’ve missed her solo career over the last few years. Again I think I need to see the movie to see how this could fit into the 1920’s, it’s a mix of the old and the new which fares a little better than’s track but still feels odd when I place with the images I have seen of the film. As a stand-alone track though I can see it doing well in clubs and dance-halls, even the fake dub-step part doesn’t fully turn me off the song. It’s the first one I feel inclined to share with friends and say ‘hey did you hear this?’

After the new we have a bit more of the old in Bryan Ferry (sorry Bryan!) he does a good job of ‘jazzing’ up the 1975 classic with his full orchestra but again I wanted him to bust out the old style track. The rhythm of the ’75 track is irresistible, this isn’t.

Gotye’s track twinkled past me without making an impact as did the xx’s offering but I really enjoyed Coco O’s vocals on “Where the Wind Blow”, again I can see this being more suited to the 1920’s but still sounding modern, I think Jay-Z should have tried to achieve this sound for the majority of the sound-track.

“No Church in the Wild” remains an amazing track and when Kanye West combined with Jay-Z he suddenly becomes a lot more bearable to me. Jay’s next artist Florence and the Machine I could also see flourishing in the 1920’s with her fashion sense, I enjoyed their track “Over the Love” as one of the more ‘straighter’ ballads on the LP as I enjoyed Nero’s track as more of a chilled out dance track. I was also pleased to see Sia included as a solo artist on the sound-track, she deserves to have her own career away from the Guetta’s and Pitbull’s of this world, her vocals were very touching during “Kill and Run” and she serves up a Lana Del Rey style track.

I think if you want a roaring 1920’s styled album then stay away, this isn’t the Gatsby of old but if you are looking for collaboration from modern artists around a theme then this maybe for you. In terms of my personal use I can only see it being useful for me in the background of a dinner party of an occasion where you wanted to talk over the music but bring it up as a conversation topic if you needed it, I can’t see myself going back for repeat listens.

Edit – I have now seen the film, it wasn’t all that, if you like the 1920’s then go for it, otherwise give it a miss, the song that stood out most in the movie was Lana Del Rey’s, classic quote from Mum ‘I don’t know why they put rap in that!’

Vertigo Shtick: I didn't read The Great Gatsby or see the film, so feel free to disregard my testimony if you wish. The soundtrack album to Baz Luhrmann's latest was curated by Jay-Z, and "curated" is an appropriate word for this future museum piece of 21st century takes on 1920s glamour, consumerism, and melodramatic woe. The album comes in three acts inhabited by different styles and artists as appropriate. The highlight of Act 1 is Jack Black's rocking "Love is Blindness," while the lowlight is Andre 3000 and Beyoncé's misguided cover of Amy Winehouse's "Back to Black." It's not that Winehouse's music is untouchable; the new track just doesn't provide clear enough textual justification for its new interpretation of the song, which is not intriguing enough in itself to stand on its own. The second act is the best of the three, and the most fun, because it's all about the paaaaartaaaaaaaaaaaaay (in case that wasn't clear from Fergie, Q-Tip & GoonRock's succinctly titled "A Little Party Never Killed Nobody (All We Got)" or the ten-second dialogue interlude, "I Like Large Parties"). Gotye contributes a nice tabla-infused number called "Heart's a Mess," and, of all people, wows with the goofy/brilliant "Bang Bang," the best number on the album. The third act gets far too WE'RE SAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAD for me, but I guess the xx's "Together" ("toohhghehhhhhhhhthehhhhr"...I honestly wondered how they recorded that song without cracking up, or are there really people this humorlessly emo?) and Nero's "Into the Past" fit with Luhrmann's melodramatic over-the-top M.O. The album is far too long, but the clips of dialogue do a good job of setting the scene without being too heavy-handed.

SmartPopScott: The dialogue over Baz Lurhmann’s recent adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby has stayed mostly away from whether it was good or not. Rather, most people seem fixated on the notion of whether it’s ‘right’ or not. Meaning, is the anachronistic, highly-stylized approach to this story appropriate for the source material? Obviously, the soundtrack is a huge part of this debate. Some people feel that the hip-hop of Jay-Z and Kanye doesn't accurately represent the Roaring 20s.  Personally, I feel that the soundtrack, which is mostly hip-hip and/or jazz inflected pop, captures the spirit and excitement of the time and of the story. As has been pointed out by many writers, the effect of using modern music matches the energy of the original text. Oddly enough, James Franco said it best in his review for “The jazz music of the 20s was raw and dangerous, but if Luhrmann had used that music today, it would have been a museum piece—irrelevant to mainstream and high culture alike, because they would’ve already known what’s coming.”

So now that I’ve argued for the philosophical merits of using this style of music, I’ll move on to whether I think it’s good or not. Although it is kind of hard because a soundtrack like this doesn’t have the same coherent feeling that an album from a single artist has. But what is important is that most of the songs here are very good. Most immediately, the Lana Del Rey song "Young and Beautiful" is a flawless piece of pop. Generally, the tracks I like are by artists I like, and the tracks I don’t like are by artists I don’t like. So Beyoncé, Gotye, Jack White, Jay-Z, Good! Florence+The Machine, Fergie, or Nero? Not as much. The small interludes of dialogue from the film do a good amount to bring everything together and the sequencing is very nice. But the album does feel a bit too long, and I think a lot of the fat could be trimmed.  Overall, I think that this music serves the film very well and works pretty well on its own as an album.

Kurt Trowbridge: If the sounds of the Roaring Twenties were to make a resurgence in the next decade, it would sound much like the soundtrack for Baz Luhrmann's adaptation of The Great Gatsby.  As executive producer, Jay-Z spent two years working with Baz Luhrmann to compile a group of artists ranging from alternative and electronic to jazz and hip-hop, including Jack White, Gotye, Lana Del Rey, and Made In America festival performers Beyoncé (of course), Emeli Sandé, and Nero.  While there are several nods to the jazz styles of the twenties - why else would deliver a scat solo? - the album as a whole touches on themes of parties and romance with more of a focus on alternative and electronic genres.  It's not exactly a revival of the Jazz Age, but elements of the music of the era are presented through a contemporary lens that seem to comfortably suit the film.

Little Boots - Nocturnes (On Repeat, May 5)

Pop Messiah: In music, a nocturne is a composition that is inspired by, or evocative of, the night. On her second album under the alias: Little Boots, Victoria Hesketh certainly succeeds in creating a collection of songs that feel like they live in the dark, but unfortunately in the passiveness of their execution, she may have guaranteed that they stay there. Opening track "Motorway" immediately reminded me of the aesthetics of driving at night, the city lights dancing past, even before the lyrics made the connection. It's also one of my favorite tracks on the album, along with the Kylie-esque "Beat Beat," the gorgeous "All For You," and album closer "Satellite." Despite everything on the album being a bit middle-of-the-road, I honestly think that EVERY OTHER SONG on this album would have been a better single than the insufferable "Broken Record!" Perhaps her intent was to make a song that was as nagging and irritating as its namesake, but I can not warm up to that track at all, even though it's inclusion makes sense upon hearing the rest of the set within the context of the album's theme and range of emotions/situations. Overall, Nocturnes is solid, but a little bland. There aren't any obvious hits, but there is a lot of beautiful, atmospheric production and I have a feeling that if I stick with it, I could grow to love it. (On a side note: Hesketh has a voice that reminds me of a less-sweet Emma Bunton, which could never be a bad thing! I also really love the cover art, with the ghosted images superimposed to resemble a human heart.)

Popledge: Little Boots is an amazingly cute little pop-star who I have met on several occasions, the feeling I picked up from her is that she loves her music but isn’t so keen on actually being a pop-star and the change in life that sometimes comes along with that tag. Her track ‘Remedy’ remains one of my ‘perfect pop’ tracks to this day and I really want her to succeed with this album although I think it took a little too long in coming from 2009’s Hands.

From the moment I heard opening track “Motorway” I always got the sense there was something ‘missing’ from it, perhaps it is the choice of the word ‘motorway’ that irked me, like how would you meet on the motorway, it’s just too fast on there! But more than that it just ‘plod’ along to me, I want a bit more drama in the track, something to boost it from a C to an A! I much prefer “Confusion” which is a delicious slice of 90’s inspired electro-pop, her vocals sound effortlessly smooth as lots of electronic noises and bells spin around her.

“Broken Record” takes things a further step to the dance genre but still combines her ethereal vocal styling, in terms of beats and sound it lies quite close to “Remedy” in its structure and I imagine that was a factor in selecting it as the lead song and a single from the album. As a ‘broken record’ sounds some parts of this track just get near the edge of annoying in their repetition but that is my only near fault of the track. Another track selected for a single release was “Shake”, one of my favourites on the album is somehow manages to guide you gently through a track full of dance floor potential and beats, it should have been a bigger hit in my opinion and hopefully will make a comeback as the Ibiza season heats up.

“Beat Beat” is also a cute pop/dance number which sounds very Swedish in its approach to the beat and the melodies, it’s a happy song about how that special someone makes you want to dance, I really like it and in face Daft Punk could learn a thing or two from Victoria on staying cool but making your music accessible. If this song were a person I’d give them a kiss smack on the lips!

As you listen to more of the album is becomes increasingly apparent that this is quality over quantity, “Every Night I Say a Prayer” is also a delicious track, harking back to the 90’s again but managing to also introduce a bit of modern disco into proceedings, it never sounds like Victoria is over-singing anything but she hits every note with a clarity and confidence with other artists could really learn from, you don’t need to use vocal gymnastics to sound good, sometimes simplicity is best.

This album is slaying me!! “Crescendo” also appeals to my core personality – happiness and hope for the future and for my love life (hey sometimes all I have it hope!), this track to me is about those first flushes of love where it comes over you and builds up like a crescendo, those wonderful first moments when you are getting to know each other and what makes you both tick. It’s a perfectly constructed pop song which again manages to sound progressive and modern. I should also point out that people have pointed out to me that this is in-fact a song about an argument, I can concede that point but I think I’ve just chosen to put a positive spin on the track in my head so there! Perhaps the crescendo is because they have so much to say to each other, have you ever thought about that?

“Strangers”; now there is a break-up song if ever I heard one, all about raised voices and slamming doors and those horrible feelings and the actions you take to numb them. The track did in fact make me feel sad, the imagine of two people in a room dancing separately when they used to hold each other, it is kinda beautiful. You also get the feeling that at 29 years old this probably comes directly from her experience, if feels true when she sings the track and as she has co-written all the album you hope it comes from the heart. Beautifully sad.

After the last couple of tracks I’m afraid that “All For You” didn’t really hold my attention at all, I guess my thoughts were still with the previous tracks, however when “Satellite” came on with all its talk of space and electronic noises it caught my attention again. I’m a sucker for a bit of sci-fi sounding pop and this ticked the box for that as well as being a great ending to the album, I’m not a fan of LP’s going out with just a fizzle and Little Boots has ensured that Nocturnes went out with a big super sonic boom!!

Vertigo Shtick: Little Boots' sophomore album rollout has been a protracted one, but at least it seems the extra time has been used well. Four of the ten tracks on Nocturnes had been released before the album, but it sounds like one or more of them undergone subtle engineering touch-ups, and the set sparkles with polish that toes the line between luxury hotel suite and sterile surgery operating room. In fact, one thing I noticed was how much I didn't notice Viktoria Hesketh's lisp, which has often stood out to me but hides cunningly disguised here.

Much of what Little Boots is up to with this album is summed up in the first two singles, “Motorway” and “Broken Record”: swelling, swirling, synthy dance pop with prosaic lyrics and a moderately “night time” energy. Some of it is pretty trite: a the crescendo of “Crescendo”; the “stuck on repeat”/“brokenrokenroken record” in “Broken Record”; “I'm gonna keep on dancin'/Dancin' to the beat of your heart.” (*Eyeroll*) (Cute song, though) The best bits are when Hesketh doesn't try to be clever and just takes an idea and runs with it, like on the album's best track, “Shake,” which shakes, sees the throbbing bass line thud in just past the one-minute mark, shakes for another four and a half minutes, and is done. Nocturnes is a pleasant listen but it pushes no boundaries and explores no new territory, but as ethereal pleasures go you could do worse with 50 minutes of your time.

SmartPopScott: A cool mix of synth pop and disco grooves, Nocturnes is a thoroughly enjoyable record, but not a particularly memorable one. It ultimately comes across like many other European synth pop singer/songwriters, particularly Sally Shapiro, whose recent album, Somewhere Else, is a far more exciting blend of disco and house. There’s nothing particularly bad about this album, but there aren’t many moments that really stand out to me. One interesting thing, however, is that I never realized how much Guns and Roses’ "Sweet Child O’ Mine" and Madonna’s "Express Yourself" sounded alike until closing track "Satellite" instantly reminded me of both of them.

Kurt Trowbridge: I first learned of Little Boots (Victoria Hesketh) through Twitter and the blogosphere as they reacted favorably to tracks like Nocturnes single "Every Night I Say A Prayer" and non-album release "Headphones."  The goal of releasing strong tracks to interest potential listeners in the album was achieved, but I arrived to Nocturnes disappointed that more material didn't reflect the strength of these preview selections.  Much of the vocals seem buried under too much production, and Hesketh's range and thin voice are underwhelming.  There are a few tracks in addition to "Every Night..." that grabbed me from the first listen, such as "Broken Record" and "Crescendo," but the rest of the album melted into a sea of sonic sameness that made much of it non-engaging and unmemorable.

*   *   *   *   EPs   *   *   *   *

Betty Who - The Movement

Pop Messiah: Right from the opening notes of lead single "Somebody Loves You," a track rife with the dreamy, 80's-90's-ness of Alphabeat's 2009 single "The Spell," I was SOLD on Betty Who. I'd been a lot of hearing good things, as is often the case when one follows a bunch of fellow pop bloggers on Twitter, but the EP exceeded my expectations. The melodies and production are BIG and nostalgic for a child of the 80's, like myself! Second single (also second track) "You're In Love" is actually my least favorite on the EP. There's nothing particularly wrong with it, it just feels the most filler-esque (were it on a full-length album). Track three "Right Here" is a haunting love song that throbs a bit like a nervous lovers racing heartbeat (It's SO Beautiful!!) and the set closes with my favorite track, the inescapably catchy "High Society." It boasts one of the catchiest hooks I've heard in a long time and doesn't sacrifice good lyrics to achieve it. Well done, Betty Who! Well done! - TOP PICK!!

Popledge: This Australian pop-star is a new one on me. I have seen her name on various music blogs but hadn’t ‘looked into her’ as yet. This EP starts off with ‘Somebody Loves You’ a very cute track about love which features an effortlessly catchy chorus, my one big fear though is that I won’t like her voice, I like the song but I would rather hear someone like Nicola Roberts singing it.

A big plus for this EP is the fact that it sounds expensive and glossily produced, considering Betty isn’t even signed yet I am imagining they didn’t have an endless amount of money to spend but you really couldn’t tell by listening to this. Track two “You’re in Love” showcases her vocal skills whilst “Right Here” leans towards a darker and more alternative pop sound. Although “Right Here” didn’t have the drums and bass-lines of the previous two track I found it appealed to me more with it’s chilled out song and I also found her voice listenable on the slower track, it all seemed more mellow and gentle to relax with.

“High Society” could have been popped straight on a Katy Perry album and I would not have blinked, lyrically it reminded me of Lana Del Rey’s escapades but the rhythm and thrust of the track was very Perry pop combined with a Pet Shop Boys 80’s mode.

If you like a bit of Madonna combined with a splash of Robyn then I would give Betty Who a go! It’s a great 15 minutes and you could be witnessing the start of something great!

Vertigo Shtick: I've grown warier and wiser about the new pop acts over whom my fellow pop bloggers stumble over themselves to fawn and offer the most hysterically enthusiastic accolades to prove their #1 fandom and to catch the artist's usually still attainable attention. (Not that I'm entirely guiltless.) First, not all of them are that special, and almost none of them can live up to such impossible hype; also, I can't always tell if they're being sincere or ironic. The newest of these blogger darlings is Aussie Betty Who, and while I will say I was not as hardcore as my fellow writers seem to have been (but who knows with them), I did find her short debut EP both admirably crafted and mostly enjoyable as well, so cheers to her. I thought I might have liked some of it more at first listen than subsequent casual listening has borne out, but I don't tend to skip the expertly emotionally tailored lead single "Someboy Loves You" and I usually sing along in spite of myself, so it's sinking its way in. The second single, "You're in Love," is nice, but too similar to the first and not as good, so why? "Right Here," a slow ode to intimacy, is poetic and recognizable in its sentiments, but I can appreciate its achievement without liking it. "High Society" was instantly my favorite, and on repeat listen I stand by that, and notice a little Katy Perry hidden beneath the accent and indie-pop facade. As long as Ms. Who is the sort of artist who would understand that observation as a high compliment, The Movement suggests the makings of a pop musician worth keeping track of.

SmartPopScott: This is my first experience with Betty Who and I hope it’s not my last! Her debut EP shows off the singer’s dreamy synth pop music and her sweet vocal performance. It might be a little bit hard to distinguish her from the other 80s-inspired dreamy synth pop artists, but that doesn’t make it any less good! The song writing is strong throughout and all signs point to better things to come in the future!

Kurt Trowbridge: Betty Who (née Jess Newham) has seemingly shed any chance of her fictitious surname becoming the only notable part of her legacy with the well-received release of debut EP The Movement, which was originally premiered on Billboard's Pop-Shop column in April and has since received much critical praise.  The set contains three twinkling, upbeat pop songs as well as a more-reserved ballad in "Right Here."  Who does best in her uptempos, particularly "You're In Love," which shimmers with infectious romantic sentiments and bouncy electro-pop beats.  Being an independent artist means she'll have an uphill climb before she garners much radio airplay here, but the material is definitely worthy of success.  I can additionally identify with Who's comments in the Billboard premiere article where she notes that she originally moved from Australia to Michigan to study classical cello at the Interlochen Center for the Arts, but found herself more at home with the pop world ("I wanted to play because I loved it, not because I had to") with a lack of discipline that rings true in my own experience as well.  I'm glad to see that she has comfortably asserted a position for herself in the pop music world where I expect she'll be happily seated for many years to come.

*   *   *   *   Music Videos   *   *   *   *

PSY - "Gentleman" (YG Entertainment, April 13)

Pop Messiah: *Sigh* (Pun intended.) It's bad enough that "Gangham Style" ever happened, but now we have to deal with yet another terrible piece of trashy k-pop that makes Asian music the butt of the North American joke. I'm sorry, but I still think PSY sucks, and this piece of "tongue-in-cheek" video misogyny doesn't really help my opinion of him. This video would amuse me much more if the women he's stepping all over, stopped following him around like he's sex on a stick and instead kicked his balls into his stomach for all of the Asian pop artists out there (from ALL over the world, even the U.S. and Canada) who can't break the North American market, while tripe like this gets eaten up by the masses like potato chips.

As far as the video goes, "Gentleman" repeats the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink formula that made the video for "Gangham Style" popular: overly simply choreography, pretty ladies, PSY doing silly things, PSY wearing silly clothes and OH... laser beams!  I was willing to entertain this guy when I hoped his sudden popularity might blaze a trail and open some doors for some really talented, slept-on artists, but it's increasingly evident that PSY is a one-trick pony, and the trick - for me - isn't terribly entertaining or impressive.

Popledge: Please, I’m so over Psy…I think I watched this once when it came out, I’m not going back there. He kicks over a cone, it was banned in South Korea, the end!

Vertigo Shtick: Like most of the millions who have or will at some date have experienced "Gentleman," I am almost entirely ignorant as to 99% of the ins and outs and in betweens of Korean pop culture, and the other 1% largely consists of what I picked up from "Gangnam Style." This kind of thing happens all the time and has ever since we started becoming a global society, and from a cultural anthropology standpoint I think it is, on the whole, a positive thing even when the specifics are problematic. Obviously I can't speak for Koreans, but as far as this reasonable outsider can tell, PSY's work, which by happenstance has become the global ambassador for K-pop, is probably close to the best any culture could hope for. PSY is clever, smart, and savvy enough to make the best of his accidental status to ensure it has at least remained in his basic control, and his works are actually deserving of their fame. What I get from "Gentleman," perhaps even more than from "Gangnam Style," is a convincing rebuttal to assumptions about East Asian sense and taste of humor. That PSY himself is clearly a riot is not terribly surprising - I've known many an Asian-American frat boy - but the biggest impact of these videos is in their evience of Korean women being really, purposely funny. I know it's probably silly and naive to feel as liberated as I did by seeing K-pop star Ga-In not covering her mouth, especially as she eats a piece of sushi representing something so dirty it made me blush as I laughed (seriously). This is 2013 and I'm supposed to be a feminist and have no doubts about women in any sense, but maybe that's exactly why I'm so jazzed about Ga-In and why this nominally entertaining bit of pop culture means so much more to me than it's meant to: once more, pop music, that seemingly frivolous art form to which I've chosen to devote my brain, has once more been the vehicle of major human understanding and supplier of confidence in my fellow man (and woman). 

SmartPopScott: 2012 saw the return of the One Hit Wonder. For a few years, we had seemed have gotten rid of that phenomenon, instead limiting our radio space to the same five or six artists over and over again. But in 2012, all of the biggest songs were from One Hit Wonders. So far, Fun. seems to be the only one to break that spell, scoring another big hit with "Some Nights" and then continuing with Nate Reuss’s duet with P!nk. Carly Rae keeps trying, but despite how great her follow-up singles have been, nothing has caught on. Gotye hasn’t even tried, and PSY may have waiting too long.

To be fair, we shouldn’t actually call PSY a One Hit Wonder. He has been extremely successful in the Asian market since 2001, but, obviously, nothing came close to what happened with "Gangnam Style". "Gentleman", and it’s video, is pretty much just a "Gangnam Style" rip-off, but should anyone really care? The song is great, and the video is even funnier than "Gangnam Style". The signature dance here is actually not original. It’s adapted from a very popular dance move in the Brown Eyed Girls’ music video for "Abracadabra". The female K-pop idol in this video is Ga-In, a member of BEG and a fantastic solo artist in her own right. (If you remember, her mini album, Talk About S, was my non-panel EP pick for the Best of 2012 panel). But it should also be noted that although "Gentleman" did not spread the same way that "Gangnam Style" did, it did set the record for most YouTube views in its first 24 hours, most views in any 24 hours, fastest music video to reach 100 million views, fastest overall video to reach 200 million views, and to 300 million views. The song has also reached number on the charts of three countries and has topped iTunes charts in 40 countries. So it might not be totally accurate to see this as a flop.

Kurt Trowbridge: While likely no one expected a follow-up from PSY to do as well as "Gangnam Style," which practically broke new records daily toward the end of last year, "Gentleman" is a considerably strong attempt.  PSY juxtaposes the prim and proper definition of the titular word "gentleman" with racy lyrics and vulgar actions toward the women he attracts.  In addition, he incorporates multiple dance breaks, which were a large part of the formula that originally turned him into a viral sensation, though the missing element of surprise makes it a little underwhelming by comparison.  However, the video for "Gentleman" does its job well: it follows up ideas and favorable aspects of the "Gangnam Style" video, fits with the lyrical content of the song, and showcases the same types of GIF- and reenactment-ready moments that helped him blast to fame in the first place.  (Can this trend of drop-crotch pants come to a screeching halt immediately, though?)

*   *   *   *   Singles   *   *   *   *

Jonas Brothers - "Pom Poms" (Jonas Enterprises, April 2)

Pop Messiah: I admit that I'm not terribly familiar with the Jonas Brothers back catalogue. Aside from Joe Jonas' "See No More" I doubt that I could sing along to any Jonas offering. I have no specific reasons for not following their career, I blame the sheer amount of music coming at us in today's society and having to "pick your battles." All of that being said, "Pom Poms" is pretty catchy. I think the track has great energy and love the use of the school band vibe and the key change at the end. Fun as it is, it's unlikely it will win it's way into my regular iPhone rotation. It reads a little strange for a guy who loves Glee, teen movies and bubblegum pop, but it's just too high school for me.

Popledge: Living in the UK I escaped the Jo-Bro mania which seemed to grab everyone in the States under the age of 16, hence my knowledge of the brothers is very limited to ‘Lovebug’ and the South Park episode they were mocked in as part of the Disney corporation. Having said that in a weird way I am glad to have them back, just like Hanson before them the brothers might end up ‘coming’ good and having a long career.

Pom Poms is certainly a more ‘adult’ direction especially if you read into the line ‘baby put your poms poms down for me.’ Unfortunately the song doesn’t show much musical progression, the most annoying inclusion being the girl-ish chants used during the song. There is that magical ingredient missing from this track, the ‘X’ factor if you will, it had a lot going on – drums, marching bands, guitars and some good vocals from Joe Jonas but it doesn’t have a flow or cohesion that would make the track stay in your head. By the end I’m left thinking of the words ‘frenzied’ and ‘incomplete’, their producer should have spent more time honing the final edit.

Vertigo Shtick: The current crop of Disney alumni achieving mainstream success naturally invites comparison to the class of '99, especially since that group, including Ryan Gosling, Christina Aguilera, and Justin Timberlake, continues to be relevant today. "Pom Poms" suggests that it's not Miley Cyrus or Demi Lovato or Selena Gomez but the Jonas Brothers that have plenty in common with Britney Spears, in terms of the gimmick of their act. Britney's appeal in her formative years was largely found in the power of the tease - never explicit, never even salacious, but always hinting at something sexy you couldn't touch. Just as Spears famously announced she'd remain a virgin until marriage, the JoBros made a point of advertising their chastity rings in their earlier years, and like Britney they, especially the younger two, Joe and Nick, have blossomed into powerful objects of sexual desire. This single shows they don't mind flaunting their forbidden fruits. "Pom Poms" would come off as an ode to the hand job/hands-free blow job were it performed by the Jonas Brothers, The Wanted, or Susan Boyle, but only with the chaste and sexy JoBros is it so tantalizingly "wait...but they can't mean that...can they?"

SmartPopScott: I’m very excited that I finally get to talk about the Jonas Brothers here. The Jonas Brothers, along with Hanson, were what converted me to poptimism a few years back and they have remained one of my favorite bands of all time. So, needless to say, I was very excited when they started making music together again. But I wouldn’t need to be a huge JB fan to like "Pom-Poms". The song, produced by Nick himself (Nick is the talent of the group and AIN’T HE SO GOODLOOKING?!), is pretty typical Jonas Brothers fare. Despite being on their own record label now, they decided to release a single that, sonically, at least, bears a strong resemblance to the sleekly produced singles of their Mouse years.  It certainly shows progress though, and although it’s not their most adventurous track melodically or harmonically, it does show the same level of sophistication I’ve grown to except from them, while focusing it on a more modern sound. The lyrics are the biggest deviation. There is certainly innuendo, though I can’t be entirely sure what it means. “Put your pom-poms down for me”? What are the pom-poms here? Tits? Because that doesn’t make sense. But I get that its meant to be sexual, and Hey, good for them!

Judging by the other tracks that we’ve heard snippets of from their upcoming album, "Pom-Poms" is definitely the poppiest and most like their older material, but as long as its all good (which I know it will be), I’m excited! I hope we get to talk about the full album when it comes out.

Kurt Trowbridge: During their peak, the Jonas Brothers were Disney stars, adored by their teenage-girl demographic and reviled by most everyone else.  However, it would be a disservice to deny that some of their singles, such as Billboard top 5 hit "Burnin' Up," were catchy, effective slices of pop music.  In much the same way, the Jo Bros lead off their upcoming fifth album with "Pom Poms," a peppy, rhythmic track backed with high energy and high volume, thanks to the accompanying guitar line and marching band.  An avid trombonist myself, I'm a sucker for brass and key changes, and with both put to good use here, I admit I'm a fan despite some of its lyrical missteps.  They still have some work to do before they can release such a heavy hitter as Demi Lovato's "Heart Attack," easily one of my favorite radio singles from a former product of the Disney machine, but this is a good first step.

Janelle Monae - "Q.U.E.E.N." (feat. Erykah Badu) (Bad Boy/Wondaland, April 23)

Pop Messiah: As a big fan of Monae's The Archandroid, I was thrilled to hear that she would be releasing a new single to launch the campaign for follow-up The Electric Lady and that it would feature the incomparable Erykah Badu. I have to admit, though, that "Q.U.E.E.N." was not (at all) what I was expecting from Monae. It took me a bit of time to realize that this was a good thing.

This track is smart, sassy, fun and funky. It has a lot to say, but does so in a way that doesn't feel preachy; empowering and energizing with an almost Prince-like swagger. With lyrics like "..throwing shade from left to right, They be like ooh, she's serving face," it seems Monae is sending a shout out to her ever-growing gay following. Erykah's contribution is somewhat subtle, and the song would still be great without her, but I've always loved her voice and it's great to hear her on a high profile single again. Monae's rap on the bridge is a particular highlight for me. "Q.U.E.E.N." is glorious gift from The Pop Gods, but I wonder why the title is written as an acronym... What does it all mean Janelle!?

Popledge: The video is way better than the single in my opinion; it reminds me of Destiny’s Child/TLC without any of the heart or love in the track. I guess I like both these ladies as artists because they aren’t easily labelled, it’s a little rap a little jazz and a little of pop combined with some strings sections but it’s just not my kind of music when it all comes together.

Vertigo Shtick: I think Janelle Monae is so interesting and pure and I'm pleased she's been successful. Even when I don't get or care for what she comes up with, I find it fascinating to hear her play. And play is what she does in this new single with the inimitable Erykah Badu, whose "booty don't lie" feature segment is a testament to two artists who know how to move an audience as well as their bodies. Everything that makes Monae Monae is here: trumpets, choral vocals, social commentary. I dig it.

SmartPopScott: Janelle Monae and Erykah Badu doing a retro pop/soul song together? What could possibly go wrong?

Now I know that normally when someone says, “What could possibly go wrong?” they mean that something went wrong. I don’t mean that. I’m very sincere. What could go wrong? Nothing.

Kurt Trowbridge: I was shamefully a late arrival aboard the bandwagon for Janelle Monae, but have become very interested in watching her career progress after hearing The Archandroid, her feature on fun.'s inescapable "We Are Young," and now "Q.U.E.E.N.," the first song to be released from her upcoming sophomore album The Electric Lady.  With a vast array of sonic influences including Prince, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Jimi Hendrix, and James Brown, in addition to the mysterious persona with which she has surrounded herself throughout most of her career, Monae has the ability to please the tastes of many a musical palate.  "Q.U.E.E.N" places Monae over a funky backbone of bass and synths as she sings with lyrics full of rhetoric questions and self-affirmations, whose messages are doubled in Erykah Badu's well-paired feature.  These lines point toward topics of acceptance and sexuality to my ears, though she is predictably tight-lipped over their inspiration at the moment.  Nevertheless, the single marks Monae's long-awaited return, and I look forward to what The Electric Lady presents next.

Becky G. - "Becky From the Block" (Kemosabe Records/RCA Records, April 23)

Pop Messiah: "Becky from the Block" is a cute introduction to 16 year old Becky G. - a Latina singer/rapper from California. The track samples Jennifer Lopez's 2002 hit "Jenny from the Block" which sampled multiple other tracks - some credited, some not. Previous to this catchy little track, I had only heard Becky G. guesting on other tracks (i.e. Cher Lloyd's much-underrated "Oath," which I LOVED despite it not really making many waves.) Delivery-wise, Becky's flow is somewhere between Nicki Minaj and Lisa "Left-Eye" Lopes (R.I.P.). She seems to have a much better singing voice than Minaj, however, and hopefully won't reveal herself to have such a polarizing personality. This track seems to be all about getting to know her, talking about her family and her likes and dislikes; an effective buzz track. I'm looking forward to hearing more solo material from her!

Popledge: NO NO NO NO NO…how anyone had the guts to release this is beyond me, surely even 12 year olds are still aware of Jennifer Lopez? Honestly I sat through this stunned and then clicked here to cleanse my ears and eyes.

Vertigo Shtick: So, is Dr. Luke not even trying anymore? I almost admire his balls - in a better world this would all turn out to be some Warhol-esque act of satire of the postmodern pop/hip hop penchant for pastiche and plagiarism, but I doubt it. Dr. Luke is less an artistic philosopher than lazy/arrogant shlock peddler, and I fear he may actually destroy pop music one day if he keeps up his present course down the road to cynical commercial pop purgatory. What he sees in this girl he's devoting all his Ke$ha time to is beyond me. All I get from this introductory single is that Becky G. knows Los Angeles landmarks, she's studied Latina stereotypes, and she is not Ke$ha nor anything I have any interest in hearing more from. "Jenny From the Block" was both embarrassing and sublime; "Becky From the Block" is an embarrassment to pop music and the so-called genius behind it who once again has found a level lower than rock bottom.

SmartPopScott: Fun Fact: before I started my music blog, the first tumblr post about music I wrote was about Becky G. It was December 2011 and at the time, I wrote that, “Dr. Luke just signed this girl. In less than a year she will be the biggest shit ever.” Well I may have been wrong about the timeline, but it’s looking like my dream is prediction is coming true. Ever since that post, Becky Gomez has been getting steadily more ubiquitous. She’s been doing a lot of feature rapping for artists like Cher Lloyd and Cody Simpson and then putting out great solo tracks like this. She’s a decent vocalist, but a great rapper and she has an amazing presence with star power written all over her. This track, which interpolates the hook from J. Lo’s "Jenny From The Block", is pretty good, but the best part is the last chorus. She’s singing the hook over the normal beat, and repeating it for what would be way too many times. But then the track switches gears. The hip-hop beat is replaced with rhythmic acoustic guitars that change the harmonic progression. Except that the guitars don’t start where they should. They come in two beats later than the hook begins, effectively creating a bar of 2/4 and displacing the melody by two beats for the rest of the song. It’s super cool.

Kurt Trowbridge: Sixteen-year-old Becky G has made a name for herself as a singer/rapper for the Radio Disney audience, with the backing of Kemosabe Records, Dr. Luke's Sony imprint.  She's scored kid-friendly features on singles from Ke$ha, Cody Simpson, and Cher Lloyd; she was initially discovered through an original, storytelling rap to Kanye & Jay-Z's "Otis" uploaded to YouTube; and she titled her debut mixtape @iambeckyg in reference to her Twitter handle.  Therefore, it comes as no surprise that her single "Becky From The Block," a remix of the similarly-titled Jennifer Lopez hit, discusses living with her family in Inglewood, California while trying to make it big in the music industry.  None of the lyrics provide any particularly original commentary, but it does provide a backstory to the artist that could be translatable to teen audiences looking to follow their own paths to success.

Annie - "Tube Stops and Lonely Hearts" (Totally Records, May 1)

Pop Messiah: Over the years, I've heard many a time about how "amazing" Annie is. I have to admit that I have yet to hear what others do in this artist. Being one of the older members of the panel (perhaps even the oldest, I conveniently forget!), I lived through the whole 90's dance music sound she seems to be appropriating here, and during my adolescence to boot. As a teenager, my friend and I spent our Friday nights watching Canada's Electric Circus (Think Soul Train but with club kids!) and dreamed of being DJ's while we recorded songs from radio shows onto cassettes, making labels under DJ monikers we created for ourselves. Recently, however, I dug out several milk crates full of old, forgotten compact discs (CD's for short) and re-lived much of this era. In listening to dozens upon dozens of dance compilation CD's, which - believe it or not - used to dominate music sales, I realized that while there was a lot of great music from this era, there was also a lot of CRAP. Seriously, what was I thinking?

Right, the review! "Tube Stops and Lonely Hearts" isn't exactly terrible, but (to me) it is somewhat dull, and walks a line between the good and not-so-great side of that musical era. There are parts that I enjoy, but then the bridge starts at around 1:53 and all I can think about is how awful the lyrics are. The whole thing feels a bit repetitive and completely lacks any punch (emotional, musical or otherwise). Is it danceable? sure!.. but personally, I need more than that.

Popledge: I am a big fan of the infectious ‘Chewing Gum’ by Norweigan pop star Annie and I also love the team, Xenomania (Girls Aloud) who worked on this new track. Unfortunately those two facts didn’t make me fall in love with ‘Tube Stops and Lonely Hearts’, it’s got a decidedly 90’s feel to the whole thing and seems to be a nod back to her raving/dance days. The video also fits into this mould with lots of LSD inspired moments combined with some 90’s video clips.

I mentioned that I didn’t fall in love with this track but my relationship had improved with it over the last couple of weeks, it has now made the progression onto my gym play-list and the more I listen to it the more I like the simplicity of it including the ‘oh ma ma ma na na na na’ bits which annoyed me on the first listen. I think I was just wanting/expecting a "Chewing Gum" 2.0 which is a lot more pop driven in its structure. Take a leaf out of my book, forget about that track and try and start a new simpler laid-back relationship with this one.

Vertigo Shtick: “Tube Stops & Lonely Hearts” had me at the first ticks of the clock that Annie sends spinning backwards, in this delightful new dance-pop single, to the neon club nights of the 1990s. It's interesting to see her re-emerge at the same time as Little Boots' new album arrived; I think that dance, as in the European-dominated pop-leaning variety, is making a bit of a return to its roots now that the “EDM” explosion is abating. You can hear how much Annie influenced some of her successors, including Little Boots, Queen of Hearts, and sometimes Florrie, and I wonder if we're heading toward these kinds of voices again instead of the sledgehammer sound of Florence Welch and Jessie Ware. I loved this song, although over time it hasn't so much made a lasting impression than as earned the right to come up on shuffle without getting skipped.

SmartPopScott: Woah. I’ve never heard any of Annie’s music before this, but it sounds just like I would expect from the description given: “Tube Stops and Lonely Hearts" is Annie's emotional tribute to the rave culture in the early nineties. It’s very European, very house, and very good. That being said, like the Betty Who EP, this song is a little forgettable.

Kurt Trowbridge: While I have admittedly never heard of "Norwegian dance queen" Annie before this, at least not knowingly, this new single (apparently her first in over three years) is a great introduction.  Embodied in the lyrics and music alike, "Tube Stops and Lonely Hearts" feels like an accurate sonic representation of a dark, dizzy night out, with the passage of time noted in the verses from the start of the night to sunrise.  Being the somewhat-introverted music geek that I am, I am most drawn in by the song's sonic elements rather than the rave culture it discusses.  In particular, I enjoy the minor intervals between notes in the verses and chorus, which provide an unsettling air that goes hand-in-hand with the spinning, intoxicating night out presented in the lyrics.  If all of Annie's material is as infectious and simultaneously moody as this, I clearly have some catching up to do.

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