The Vertigo Shtick Top 40 Pop Singles of 2013
25. "I Remember" - Kelly RowlandTalk a Good Game
Long I carried a torch for Kelly Rowland abandoning the R&B scene, where she'd struggled to make an impact in the dark of Beyoncé's shadow, and instead going techno, ruling the dance floor as a new millennium Donna Summer. Alas, she never appeared fully comfortable in the dance music world I so longed for her to commandeer, either; neither genre seemed suited to take full advantage of her particular talents. This album track from her fourth solo LP suggests the answer for Rowland is somewhere in between; it is Rowland's first true solo masterwork. "I Remember" deftly blends an R&B vibe and lyrical style (perfect for Rowland's voice) with a gentle but driving 120 BPM dance beat and lightness in composition and instrumentation that allows it to soar. Sound and emotion are propelled with a light hand, and carried singularly by Rowland's smooth, stirring, yet unobtrusive delivery.
CHOICE LYRIC: "Whe-en you looooooooooooooooooooved meeeeeeee."
Katy Perry and Sara Bareilles' little Patty Duke Show wasn't just a master class in handling creative controversy so everybody wins (thanks for the Windows Tablet campaign and the Album of the Year nod, guys!), even if that was most of the fun. It also gave us a pair of rock solid, radio-crushing pop smashes to enjoy, or at least admire for their towering POP-itude. Both share the same plunking keyboards, harsh syncopated drum loop, and soaring-chorus empowerment-anthem template, not to mention seriously Disney Channel lyricism - low-calorie pop, for sure, but at least it won't rot your teeth. I like how fiercely Bareilles pushes her voice out of its comfort zone, and Perry's quicksand-like soundscape, dotted with echoing battle cries and buttressed by a swollen, almost dangeorous three-note electronic bass line. Each has its flaws (the "Uh, we ran out of ideas" middle eight of "Roar"; "Show me how big your brave is!"), but in the end it's hard to fight all that positivity.
CHOICE LYRIC: "Stinging like a bee; I've earned my stripes." / "You can turn a phrase into a weapon or a drug."
Considering the success of "Scream & Shout," the will.i.am/Britney collab of the same mold that hit #3 on the Hot 100 in 2012, there's no real reason for the underperformance of "Work Bitch" except our culture of censorship, which kept the song off the radio except in its tragically bastardized form as "Work Work." Admittedly, I wasn't immediately convinced "Work Bitch" earned its spot among Britney's pantheon of great lead singles, but once I stepped back and allowed myself to hear it for what it is - a high camp techno banger - I realized Britney had done it again, even if "it" was a little different than I was used to. The absurdity of the lyrics and the Britishney delivery, the literal setting hardly obfuscating the uber-gayness of the central command ("You better work, bitch!"), the ecstatic build to the climax, the integral use of Britney's most iconic expletive - it all works, bitch.
CHOICE LYRIC: "Go call the po-lice! Go call the guh-vuh-nah!"
I'll level with you. If it weren't for the omniscience of the web, I would never have picked up on the 90s-era nightclub context informing Annie's unflashy, competent return single - not that it would have had much personal significance for me, since my club days spanned the middle of the following decade. I only learned all that stuff because the single tickled my senses and interested me enough in 2013 to prompt me to dig a bit deeper, into the song and the artist. If that's not an encouraging illustration of the major benefit of postmodernist pop, I don't know what is.
CHOICE LYRIC: "Can't stop, I'm about to begin."
Talk a Good Game
Rowland's confessional narrative on the struggles she faced after Destiny's Child, including domestic abuse, would be harrowing if read simply as words on a page. But in its musical form - verses of recitative around a thematic chorus, over spare drum beat, two-chord piano loop and minimal backing vocals - it's raw, and incredibly powerful.
CHOICE LYRIC: "Not your mama, not your daddy, and especially not Bey."
The booming beat is constant, but that's not even all of it: more bass rumbles beneath the "Mm-mmm-mm-m" chorus, and the climax has three distinct layers of bass blowing out speakers like the Skrillexiest of Skrillex. The pop vocals (by Sierra Leonean singer A*M*E) are simple and repetitive, just enough to create a song structure accessible to pop audiences, although the allure here is the big fat bass. The real magic, though, is how the amount of noise disguises the fact that at its peak there are only about six layers of sound on the track. That's pretty efficient; it's more than your average '60s Bob Dylan track, but much less than a typical 2013 dance-pop single. Certainly the most deserving nominee for the 2014 Grammy for Best Dance Recording.
CHOICE LYRIC: "Mmmm-mmm-mmmmmm-mmmm"
By the time "Confess to Me" rolls around, late on Disclosure's slick debut album, Settle, things are getting a little hazy and steamy on the dance floor as revelers start pairing off and drifting toward home - someone's home, at least. And when Jessie Ware appears, purring, "I could take the lo out of your mein," you don't stand a chance.
CHOICE LYRIC: "I'll fulfill your desires for you."
18. "Only Love" - Queen of Hearts / "Everybody Wants to Rule the World" - LordeWarrior (EP) / The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
It's such a common trope to make a stripped down, acoustic or piano-and-vocal cover of a heavily produced electronic pop record, and there's always some subtext to it that I don't particularly appreciate. When it's own song, you're proving your "real musician" cred; if it's someone else's, you're "improving" it by turning it into "real music." That's why I love when electronic artists flip the script, especially when they really succeed in bringing new meaning, and ownership, to songs from the "real music" realm. Queen of Hearts is one of the most exciting new acts on the scene; no other new artist has put out such consistently great work in advance of a debut album (expected this year). She's been making her mark both with new material and inspired covers of indie rock songs, like this one of Ben Howard's "Only Love." She transforms Howard's folksy, upbeat guitar tune into an intoxicating electronic soundscape, filling in the space on Howard's minimalist recording with her own musical choices that work in the context she's designing without imposing on the original. As for Lorde, everyone's new favorite pop rebel gets dat big Hollywood cash with a that's-so-meta cover of Tears for Fears' biggest hit ("Let me be your ruler...and baby I'll rule...") for the second Hunger Games movie, repurposing the dopey 80s tune (and playing off her vaguely goth-chick non-smiling persona) into something moody, militaristic, and melodramatic to suit the dystopian war zone of the film. It's almost laughable how on-the-nose the lyrics are for The Hunger Games: Catching Fire when performed representationally rather than warbled mindlessly from your 3-wheeler in the desert.
CHOICE LYRIC: "Now watch me fall apart." / "Welcome to your life."
Lily Allen's by-the-numbers anti-sexism anthem may not have anything new to say, and its feminism may not be airtight, but it's brash and petulant and its heart is in the right place, so chalk it up as a victory for women's lib in the grand scheme of things. It doesn't hurt that it's an impeccably crafted pop single that's immediately catchy and fits right in with the pop music of the moment without sounding obviously derivative. While there's definitely plenty of Allen in the songwriting, "Hard Out Here" is Greg Kurstin at his best (I love the echoing "ooh-ooohs" on the verses, the second a bit quieter than the first). The overblown controversy over the music video just goes to show how far we will go to avoid talking about feminism, which lends sad truth to Allen's lyric, "Always trust the injustice, 'cuz it's not going away."
CHOICE LYRIC: "Have you thought about your butt, who's gonna tear it in two?"
A large part of Lorde's charm is her mix of teenage cynicism and teenage optimism, which season her debut album, Pure Heroine, in roughly equal measures. "Buzzcut Season," along with the similarly entrancing "400 Lux," leans most heavily on the latter; it's a heartwarming expression of devotion and hopefulness amid a world of discouragement and chaos. Lorde's songwriting plays casually with the pop format without straying more than a step or two from it, which makes her little tweaks seem at once comfortable and intriguing (I particularly like the way, on the verse, after every other line she echoes the one before it), and you don't even notice, for instance, that the chorus doesn't arrive until the two-minute mark. It's simple, uplifting, and emotionally resonant; you want to live in that hologram with her, too.
CHOICE LYRIC: "Play along (make believe, it's hyper real)."
If the two great Born This Way singles, "Yoü and I" and "The Edge of Glory," got drunk one night and made a baby, that baby would sound a lot like "Gypsy." Gaga has never been so (genuinely) emotionally dialed in as she is here, a departure from the self-indulgent histrionics of "Dope" and arms-length artifice of "Speechless," probably because she's not trying so hard to show us she's feeling something. It's also the best songwriting on ARTPOP, and the only slam dunk choice for a future single. When she comes barreling into the climactic middle eight like she wants to die with you, Wendy, on the streets tonight in an everlasting kiss, it's almost unbearably sublime.
CHOICE LYRIC: "'Bust the rearview and fire up the jets 'cause it's - you and meeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee"
Settle's opener is sleek and filthy and hot as hell. Disclosure sets up an album of sexually charged, pop-informed dance music with one of the most genius off-the-wall sample choices in memory. Eric Thomas' motivational koan is seamlessly molded into the rhythm - or is it the other way around? - and manipulated in the usual variety of ways (at one point a word is snipped so as to sound like a percussive grunt) without becoming distracting or haphazard.
CHOICE LYRIC: "Right?"
Too much of Ke$ha's sophomore album, Warrior, is a disappointing retread of Katy Perry's Teenage Dream (itself based largely on elements of Ke$ha's own debut, Animal), thanks, it now appears, to the misguided wrangling of producer and label boss Dr. Luke. But this will.i.am co-write is an outlier, a succulent blend of Ke$ha's best elements: the hip-hop edge of "Sleazy," the echoing, we-are-all-one chorus, and white girl rap, with rhymes like "two cents" and "nuisance" right next to "coochie" and "Gucci."
CHOICE LYRIC: "Y'all hatin' 's useless; it's such a nuisance."
MATANGI / Nocturnes
2013 saw a pair of year-old bangers find light of day on long-awaited album releases. M.I.A. can make anything sound dangerous, vehicular sex not excepted. The lyrics blend violence and sex like a Quentin Tarantino porn flick ("don't go screaming if I blow you with a bang"). "Live fast, die young/Bad girls do it well." Little Boots' album is called Nocturnes, but "Shake," with its spine-crushing opening drop and a dubsteppy bass loop to make your teeth chatter, will be sure to keep you up all night. (It's just too bad the album lets you off easy after five and a half minutes, shaving almost a minute off the original single.) Both songs center around an indelible hook ("Live fast, die young/Bad girls do it well." / "Everybody shake/Until your heart breaks") and show two great electronic artists at the top of their game.
CHOICE LYRIC: "My chain hits my chest when I'm bangin' on the dashboard." / "Eyes become lights as the sky's growing dark."
Lest there be any doubt that Lady Gaga is the defining force in postmodernist pop music, it's all here in one exhilarating three and a half minute master class. On ARTPOP, Gaga amps up the postmodernist exploration of Born This Way the way Jeff Koons (a collaborator on the album's visual aspect) takes postmodernism a step beyond 60s pop artists like Lichtenstein and Warhol, putting it front and center and making it not just a point but the point. If postmodernism is ARTPOP's ultimate raison d'être, then "Applause," like any good lead single, is an apt microcosm of all that the album attempts to embody and express. She checks off all the postmodernist boxes: it's nothing if not self-referential, while still involving the audience, since Gaga's "self" is so thoroughly defined by her craving for love or attention - hey, that's what the song is about!
There's conflation of high and low culture ("Some of us just like to read") and declamations of pop music's relevance in higher social and cultural contexts ("Pop culture was in art; now art's in pop culture in me"), and references to Dale Bozzio and "The Gong Show." (The video, naturally, goes heavy on the visual references, hitting everyone from Janet Jackson to Botticelli to Alvin Ailey to the Hindu goddess Shakti, and pretty well covering the "pastiche" and "multicultural and -temporal reference" requirement.) If it was perhaps too Gaga-specific to be a runaway hit a la "Bad Romance" (although it spent twelve weeks in the top ten of the Billboard Hot 100), I consider it a small price to pay for a Gaga return single so unabashedly, gloriously Gaga.
CHOICE LYRIC: "I live for the applause-plause, live for the applause-plause."