The Vertigo Shtick Top 40 Pop Singles of 2013
The gimmick of Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers was placing Disney teen idols in bikinis robbing shit, and Gomez, one of said idols, mines a similar attraction on her raucous album opener. I've always pegged Gomez as the most interesting Disney grad of the recent pop class, the Britney to Miley's Christina (stay with me) in that while Miley's appeal (and talent) is more straightforward, bleached fauxhawk and twerking-at-the-VMAs antics blaring her sexuality and rebelliousness like a neon sign, Gomez is more demure and her talent less bombastic, yet there's something inexplicably magnetic about her, even when she doesn't even seem to try. On an album where Gomez takes up where Dev left off, a gonzo Sleigh Bells-style party anthem is a neat way to reintroduce herself (I love the blase "hooraaaay" fading in and out near the end). And listen to her having so much fun! It's every parent's worst nightmare, proof that it's not just the tongue-wagging Mileys of the world they have to fear - good girls can be just as bad, and they don't come with hazard lights.
CHOICE LYRIC: "SO YUMMAYYY"
New electronic outfit Gorgon City teams up with one of Britain's best new talents for this late night dirge of disaffected regret. Yasmin, who sounded great on her breakthrough single, "Finish Line," sounds even singing about an octave lower; her voice is immaculate. At five minutes, it's a long track, but the energy never flags, even if it never breaks a sweat. Each time Yasmin sings "We used to be real" is punctuated by what sounds like the knell of a depressed church bell, swelling in your ears (the record has something of a Fever-era Kylie Minogue-on-downers vibe). The whole track operates with that sort of 3D sound, and even though there's not too much going on, the attention to detail makes for a truly immersive experience.
CHOICE LYRIC: "Now all I know is that we used to be real."
“Heart Attack” is an interesting followup to Lovato's last single, “Give Your Heart a Break,” in that she's essentially playing the exact sort of gun-shy romantic conscientious objector she'd been exhorting to give love a chance the last time around. But such character continuity issues are the nature of the interpretive pop performer (as when, on Funhouse, Pink blithely follows “Sober” up a few tracks later with a drinking song). As a performer and persona, Demi Lovato falls somewhere between the cooly disaffected Selena Gomez and personality-heavy Bridgit Mendler. What she lacks in personality she makes up for in passion; whatever she's singing about is a matter of life and death. Her melodramatization of often pretty benign stuff can be amusing, but it is fitting to the way in which everything seems like the end of the world at the age of her core audience, and I'm sure it's why she is more passionately beloved of said audience than Gomez or post-Hannah Montana Miley Cyrus. And even those of us who are older and jaded can't help but grow concerned, given the intensity of her performance – 'Oh dear...someone should do something. She could have a heart attack!' Whether it's genuine or has to be tricked out of you, “Heart Attack” will win your affection whether or not you intend to let it (there is one particularly sublime moment, at the end of the bridge), so you may as well not even bother putting your defenses up.
CHOICE LYRIC: "Won't wash my hair, then make 'em bounce like a basketball."
ARTPOP's second single is irresistible from the first moment, and it's the one track that nails the R&B-injected pop style Gaga tinkers with on the first half of the album. When Gaga sings, one can almost hear echoes of Christina Aguilera from a parallel dimension, so it's no surprise that the two teamed up for a duet on The Voice and a subsequent studio recording. R Kelly's presence is a bit unsettling given the subject matter (especially his verse), but you can't deny the smooth and seductive allure of his voice. And anyway, the song isn't really about sex; it's an intriguing reversal of the usual trick of disguising sexual meaning in more everyday terms that perhaps only Gaga, with her unique blend of sexuality and self-obsession, could pull off.
CHOICE LYRIC: "But then you print some shit that makes me wanna scream."
My only regret in life is how much time I wasted hating "We Can't Stop." I was too turned off by the "written for Rihanna" thing (especially after "Come and Get It") and confused by its non-party sound to understand what was really going on. But after waking up one fateful morning and, in my grogginess, hearing the song in my head and liking the way it fit with my mood, I listened to it again, and everything fell into place. What I realized was we don't need another "Woohoo let's party!" song - we've got tons (TONS) and there will be tons more to come - and we don't particularly need another hangover theme song either. Miley's nihilistic party anthem celebrates that 4am part of the party - and isn't that about the time we're having the most fun? I don't think Rihanna could have pulled it off; she's either too good or too boring to get sloppy drunk in a song for us. Miley's neither putting on an act nor being taken advantage of; she knows where she stands, and, like Ke$ha before her, knows how valuable it is to celebrate one's hard-partying rebellious youth while acknowledging that it's merely one step on the road to maturity and not a permanent state of being.
CHOICE LYRIC: "We run things, things don't run we."
The 20/20 Experience
The 20/20 Experience was a triumphant comeback for one of our best male pop starts, not to mention one of our best hip hop producers. Timbaland's return to form is hardly better in evidence than on this seven minute slow dance, with low-tuned wind chimes, bass down to the toes, and snare crackling like the rafters of an ancient discotheque beneath Timberlake's breathy come-ons and exquisite vocal harmonies. After the mid-act stylistic shift that marks each track on the album, an old-fashioned woman's voice asks "Well? How'dya like it?" I echo Timbaland's response: "I love it."
CHOICE LYRIC: "Well...I'm the best ever."
"White Noise" is one of the more traditionally pop structured tracks on Settle produced with the detailed techno-driven style and sound of the sample-based electronica of the rest of the album, in this case with a kiss-off vocal by AlunaGeorge that's as firm and sensual as the electronic production beneath and around it. The track starts with a thumping four on the floor beat and a sort of pogo stick effect that eventually gives the illusion of muffled crowd noise, like the murmur of a restaurant with four Michelin stars. That sort of luxury pervades "White Noise" and much of the rest of the album; listening to it makes you feel like you're in the VIP lounge gorging on caviar and Cristal. The synthy-xylophone hook is inventive and bonkers, and, like the track as a whole, it keeps you guessing; nothing about "White Noise" is predictable, yet everything sounds exactly as it should. Such is the precocious genius of this young duo that has so arrested audiences and critics - they give you exactly what you never knew you wanted.
CHOICE LYRIC: "You got me washed out, washed out, color drained."
Timbaland's joyful production, anchored by an African-influenced percussion beat, remains thrilling from the first moment to the last, while densely layered details of vocal production over and within it twist and turn and shift from segment to segment just enough for the over-five minute track to maintain its freshness and energy all the way through. As for Beyoncé, she is in rare form, in a way I haven't heard since "Ring the Alarm." Her vocal performance bursts with personality and attitude, and her shrieks, mhm's, and repetition of the hook/mission statement, "I'm a grown woman. I can do whatever I want," sound genuine rather than cynically designed. "Grown Woman" is much broader than the heavily Britney-specific "Piece of Me," and many women in particular are more apt to identify with the lyrics than hear them as proprietary to Queen Bey. Despite her ascension to almost deific status in the past few years, Beyoncé is canny enough to have found a piece of common ground between herself and the peasant folk who listen to her music. Long before Beyoncé's surprise album release revealed the unrecognizably flourishing artistic personality of this post-Blue Ivy American royal, she and Timbaland had made something unique, risky, interesting, and unexpected - and made it sound like a tried and true hit.
CHOICE LYRIC: "You really wanna know how I got it like that? Cuz I got a cute face and my booty's so fat."
Samson & Delilah
August 10 was a big day for pop music. Katy Perry released her first single from Prism, the eventual #1 hit "Roar"; then Lady Gaga, true to form, leaked "Applause" so as not to be outshone. But there was a third giant pop moment that flew somewhat under the radar: VV Brown's exceptional single "The Apple." What's so astonishing wasn't just that "The Apple" is perfect (though it is), it's also that Brown has never been that remarkable an artist - certainly not one from whom one would expect something this divine. The production is immense and deep, with a bass line and background effects that hit like a thick fog, through which Brown's strong, echoing vocal pierces like a lighthouse beam. The lyrics are powerful and surprising, on the verses ("Hold my soul now/Inside your box/Make me loose/Psychological locks"), the pre-chorus ("In the middle of the night I see you go/We have grown apart into lonely souls") and the chorus ("Don't patronize me/I'm not your clown/Don't cause me suff'ring/It's over now"). Halfway through you hear Brown singing (shouting?) over the pre-chorus, and each line has a different sort of vocal layering that punctuates every lyric. The instrumental middle eight is orgasmic and always makes me say aloud something like "SO GOOD." "The Apple" is fearless, innovative, and one of the most thrilling pop songs I've heard in years.
CHOICE LYRIC: "Don't patronize me."
I vacillated for a bit on which song to put at #1, until I realized that it simply had to be "Royals." The first time I heard "Royals," at work, I stopped everything to go over to the radio and listen to try to remember enough of the lyrics so I could look it up at home (no Shazam, alas). The harmonies - and a woman's voice on alternative radio - were what initially got my attention, and when I went home and listened to my hastily purchased mp3 copy I found there wasn't much more to it - snaps, kick drum, a little wubwub, a gong, and Lorde. But what more do you need, really? The melody lilts and cascades and descends like a singalong, and those lyrics! "I've never seen a diamond in the flesh." Well hello there! (I did have to look up "Maybach.")
That I can simultaneously love "Royals" and "We Can't Stop" and not feel like that makes me a hypocrite is one of the joys of pop music. And I still love "Royals." Every time it plays on the radio I feel like my day has met its minimum purpose. When I listen to the album and it comes up I shout "hooray!" When it plays on my iPod I turn it up and sing along. When there's no music playing anywhere around and I need to be making noise of some kind, I sing "Royals." I know I should be saturated to the point of boredom, if not outright hatred. Even the most ardent Lorde supporters among my friends have eventually tired of "Royals," like the sleigh bell in The Polar Express. But the bell still rings for me, as it does for all who truly believe, and I believe I will love "Royals" until the day I die, and if I'm together enough on my deathbed, I'll try and manage it that my last word before I croak is "Roooyyyyallllls." If there had been no other music released this year, I would still be pleased enough with "Royals" to consider 2013 the best year for pop music since 2010. "Let me be your ruler," she sings. Here, Lorde, take the crown. The throne is yours.
CHOICE LYRIC: "Let me be your ruler; you can call me Queen Bee, and baby I'll rule."