|Alexandra Stan dances with the boys|
The Vertigo Shtick Top 40 Pop Singles of 2014
Any realistic pop music observer knows that the Fergie and Gwen Stefani comeback projects, due in 2015, are doomed to disappoint a consumer base with punishing expectations and a dog-like conception of time. The difference between them is, of course, that we expect a lot from Gwen after a lifetime in her thrall, whereas Fergie... well, no one's expecting a late-career masterpiece from the singer of "My Humps". That's why her trashy, lazy, derivative single - in which the Ferg thumbs through the atlas, occasionally in some half-assed accent or another, to DJ Mustard's most DJ Mustard-y beat to date - works so well where Stefani's "Baby Don't Lie" failed with a thud: all hail the gift of low expectations. And it's no accident: "L.A. Love (la la)" is stupid, and brilliantly so, the heir to "My Humps" we didn't know - and maybe didn't want to know - we needed.
CHOICE LYRIC: "To Londahhhn, Jamaica then Frohnce"
The Golden Echo
It's a bit strange that this single should appear on this list, given the fact that I can't stand it, but hear me out! (Maybe I'll even convince myself) If, like me and like many others, you know Kimbra only for her brief but memorable turn as the jilting ex-lover on Gotye's "Somebody That I Used to Know", then this lead single to her sophomore album The Golden Echo will likely throw you for something of a loop. It's as lout, style-heavy, bombastic, and ostentatious as "Somebody" was understated and straightforward. She mines vaguely 90s pop and disco sounds you know are familiar but can't quite place (the "ahhh"-ing male chorus almost sounds pulled from the first Beachfront Property record), but anyway the entire soundscape changes every few bars or so, like an early, coke-fueled Robin Williams sketch without the personality or context to keep it, however tenuously, together. It all arrives in a boisterously pretentious blast that easily mistaken for next-level genius; it's more like being beaten into submission with an award statue. Eventually you realize the statue is simply a cheap replica from some skeezy shop on Hollywood Boulevard, and you end up hating it at a level reciprocal to how deeply you fell for it in the beginning.
CHOICE LYRIC: "Now I'm fast awake/ Your love is like a revelator"
It's the Girls
Bette Midler's influence on pop music as it exists in 2014 isn't as obvious as Madonna's or Janet's, nor as revered as Donna Summer's or Whitney's, nor as emotionally fresh as Alanis' or Gwen Stefani's. Neither is she still a part of, or attempting to be, contemporary pop in real time, like Cher or Madonna, and because her biggest hits all pretty handily sucked, it's easy to forget and miss how considerable an influence she has actually had on the very current pop rulebook for female acts (big voice, big shows, big gay fan army corps). Her latest studio album, her first in six years, recalls the Some People's Lives girl group tracks I used to sing along with in the imaginary recording studio of my bedroom, and her takes on girl group standards from "Mr. Sandman" to TLC's "Waterfalls" are mostly a pleasure. But the showman in Midler remains, and she strips it all down on her eleven o'clock number, a simple, powerful ballad arrangement of the Shirelles' "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow" for solo vocal with piano. In Midler's hands it's a poignant message from an againg legend of days now gone, but she doesn't spoil the effect by playing up the subtext in her delivery; as with most of the covers on the album, she sings the lyrics as someone else's feelings she's merely there to transmit, leaving any deeper, more personal meaning up to you to realize for yourself.
CHOICE LYRIC: "Is this a lasting treasure?"
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Pt. 1 (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
Lorde's Hunger Games soundtrack very clearly builds on Jay Z's 2013 hipster-bible curation for the Great Gatsby movie, and although the result undeniably reeks of indie cred, there are a few corners where the distinctions of master versus novice resonate. Take the front-loaded opening track, whose cast list reads like something she might have come up with before someone explained she had an entire album to work with, not just one song. There's almost a pungent scent of beard clippings, kombucha and corncob pipes: French deejay Stromae, 2010s rapper Pusha T, late 90s rapper Q-Tip, alt sister act du jour HAIM, and Lorde herself, natch, whose identification with Kanye West seems to stretch beyond the song of his she covers on tour (see Kanye's "rework" of Lorde's solo single "Yellow Flicker Beat"). It's a glam, sexy, perfectly tuned atmospheric opening statement (one that's unfortunately not lived up to by the rest of the soundtrack), and it reminds me of Mark Ronson's 2011 collaboration with Q-Tip and MNDR, "Bang Bang Bang." It's nice to hear Lorde anywhere, between albums as we are, plus I get a little thrill hearing the 17 year old anti-pop star seeming to sing "drop a molly in your glass" (I think she says "olive") with fucks given numbering zero.
CHOICE LYRIC: "Putting on your disguise/It's an opera of lies."
Shadows to Light EP
The music of Broadway veteran and local pop-soul live cabaret sensation Shoshana Bean is a curious hybrid of conventions that doesn't seem to fit pop music in its simplest forms as we know them, yet what she does is certainly pop where it counts. "Runaway Train" is a solid if not singularly exceptional representation of Bean's signature arms-raised, hands-clapping, souljazzpop jams, a nostalgic rootsy train metaphor adding just enough Americana to settle the song somewhere more specific than typical global pop without sacrificing the universality that welcomes everyone else. Bean's recordings tend to capture a simulacrum of live sound, like the old live session recordings of the 50s and 60s. If this removes some of the intimacy of a traditional contemporary studio session, she makes up for it in sheer style and energy, not to mention the power of her massive voice. Even if I don't ascribe to a belief that one is superior to the other, it is great to have modern-minded artists like Shoshana Bean putting a reasoned rather than stubbornly traditional
CHOICE LYRIC: "My love's on the loose like a runaway train."
The Prelude EP
Kimberly Cole's 2014 EP The Prelude is the sort of music that drives genre categorizers nuts. After half a decade making good-to-top notch dance pop, the Los Angeles dancer/singer/songwriter/brand ambassador took a sudden and unapologetic left turn toward moody, deep electro, mildly R&B influenced sound nobody else was really on at the time. Sure, like many musicians in 2014, Cole is looking back at the 90s, but she's repping Zero 7 and Sneaker Pimps while others ponder Alanis, Backstreet Boys, or Robin S. "Cruel" is the best emulsification of The Prelude's arresting sonic alchemy, a hypnotic and emotionally resonant electroballad for a music scene that still doesn't yet know what it's looking for.
CHOICE LYRIC: "You took me down like the setting sun."
Romanian pop star Alexandra Stan's fascinating omnibus of international pop styles, 2014's Unlocked, launches early into its most relentless and spot-on representation with the K-Pop banger "Cherry Pop," a single in itself as baffling and brilliant as the album as a whole. Stan plucks K-Pop out of its cultural context and raises tons of useful questions about appropriation and the meaning of cultural ownership of certain musical ideas that are particularly timely and make for challenging thought exercises while we in the US deal with some more clearly defined borders and group differences. At first, the unabashedly crude and simplistic lyrics seem to suggest a simple lack of refinement and craft, but what Stan is doing with this sog, is no different from, say, Girls Generation ("Cherry Pop" is written and produced by a K-Pop veteran who's worked with GG, BoA, and TVXQ) except that her accent sounds choppy in a different way (and she sings in English) and she's white. (The video is very K-Pop-meets-Kylie too.) Whatever conclusions the considerations "Cherry Pop" brings up lead you to, and even if you aren't one to think that deeply about pop, "Cherry Pop" sticks to you and holds on until you learn to love it - if you haven't already.
CHOICE LYRIC: "I bet that he's not your kind."
I'm In Love - Single
Robyn has been doing an odd sort of tantra with her chummy team-up with Royksopp, a random trach from their awe-inspiring global tour, and so forth. But she also contributed a new artist to the world with Zhala, the very first signee to her personal record label, Konichiwa. Zhala's rollout was a bit jerky, with the almost impenetrable single "Prophet," the pop equivalent of the undergraduate student film. The followup track, the hypnotizing and elegant "I'm In Love," is more accessible even while not abandoning the boundary-pushing weirdness Zhala, like Robyn, clearly goes for. It sounds more like a seasoned pop star than a less-than-surefooted rookie's second try. It, like Zhala, doesn't say much but appears to have some legs.
CHOICE LYRIC: "Occupy my time/Take my crown/I don't mind."
Ingrid Michaelson has had my affection for many years now, even though I don't make a ton of effort to seek out her stuff. The lead single from her fourth album, Lights Out, is a lightweight, quirky, easilyt digestible souffle that capitalizes on her promising previous singles like "Parachute" and "Black and Blue". It's also a bonafide hit, because underneath all the personality and indie quirk, boxes get checked that need to be checked, but it's not making a big deal out of it: hand claps, strategic buildup of sound and track layering (especially in the final chorus), a mix of optimistic vulnerability and steely "fuck love"-iness. What keeps it interesting is that it's in Ingrid Michaelson's voice. We don't really want anything new in our pop hits, we just like the same thing in slightly different voices. (The Robert Palmer homage of the music video, while a bit tired, is worth checking out, if only because it manages to find a new way to twist the worn-out parody machine.)
CHOICE LYRIC: "All the broken hearts in the world still beat."
Broke With Expensive Taste
Azealia Banks sure brought us the "She's gonna make it! She's...not gonna make it? ... She didn't make iOH MY GOD SHE MADE IT!!!!" narrative of the year with her critic-silencing debut Broke With Expensive Taste, so her Twitter trolling violations have been completely erased from the record as far as I'm concerned. It's hard to find a place to start with about all that Broke does well, but among them is Banks' mainstream conscious "Chasing Time." It's the apotheosis of Nicki Minaj's brave rapping pop star efforts, taking Minaj's blueprint (pinkprint?) laid out on "Super Bass" and "Starships" and building something better with better materials. The wall-smashing LCD poppiness of "Starships" gives way to words that mean something; the confrontational banality of Minaj's battering ram has made room for something more thoughtful. Banks historians might recognize some details in the lyrics as resembling the creation story behind her breakthrough hit, "212," which is also on the album - just one of the countless layers to be explored on the deliriously creative debut.
CHOICE LYRIC: "And since we can't get along, I think we should both move on."
Stay tuned for more of The VS Top 40 Pop Songs of 2014
See the Honorable Mentions