Monday, January 12, 2015

The Vertigo Shtick Top 40 Pop Singles of 2014, Part Two

The best pop singles of 2014 were a motley crew. The third tier is populated mostly by established or major-label acts (not as true in the lowest tier, and, you will find, remarkably untrue as we get closer to the top), some of them dialing down the star power for lower-profile work and others making big career-launching smashes often as problematic as they are massive. Throw in two standout tracks from heroic final albums from differently but undeniably pop career victors and some uniquely British pop sensitivities and you've got ten more of the best tunes of 2014.

McBusted's "Air Guitar"
 Read on for #21-30 of the VS Top 40 Pop Singles of 2014

Part One: #31-40                                    Honorable Mentions

The Vertigo Shtick Top 40 Pop Singles of 2014

30. "Feels So Good" - Kylie Minogue

Kiss Me Once

Kylie Minogue is basically your traditional pop star, only a little classier. She may not do things much differently than the rest of the top pop stars, she just does it a bit classier. This does not make her immune to the perils of pop stardom, like making a pretty crappy album now and then - she just does it a bit more classily. Kiss Me Once was pretty much a dud, unsure whether it wanted to be luxurious Europop or more down-key, moody love pop, and ultimately half-assing both options. (It should be noted, though, that reception of the album is split between fans of each style, so it's not a clear-cut flop.) "Feels So Good" isn't a single, nor does it stand out for any reason per se: it's just a refreshing piece of the sort of effortlessly competent album filler the best stars of the millennium, Minogue included, packaged with hits so big it didn't matter if the other tracks were shit. It shouldn't be the type of track you'd pick as the best of the album, but at least it's there, keeping Kiss Me One from Britney Jean-grade horsepoo.

CHOICE LYRIC: "People come, people go, but I'd like to get to know you"   

29. "Somebody New" - Jakwob feat. Tiffani Juno


There's a magical land far across the sea called England, where the people look like us and speak the same language but where so much else is different. For one thing, they have a different #1 single every week! Sure, it's mostly due to a very different method of counting, but realize this means they have like over forty songs a year as "#1 hits!" (We had ten in 2014.) In this enchanted land, songs that here we'd barely notice or dismiss as, well, *dance!*, are real singles that people hear and buy! It almost boggles the mind to imagine a place where something like Jakwob's sleek, simple club pulsator "Somebody New" can be a thing. It's like a really nice fluffy robe just out of the dryer (robes! imagine), with an irresistible and understated drop and slyly biting vocal by Tiffani Juno telling a very British tale of calm, realistic romantic dissolution. They make breaking up with dignity seem so easy.

CHOICE LYRIC: "Listen if you want to; sit down if you want to"   

28. "Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)" - Lady Gaga

Cheek to Cheek

Gaga haters were served with a nice piece of "suck it" when her somewhat misunderstood and underappreciated jazz album with Tony Bennett not only didn't suck. it was utterly charming - and well made, too. The standards album was a great move for Gaga, and the delight the odd couple clearly shared for the project and one another was palpable and contagious. It's not an album suited for cherry-picking standout tracks for lists like this, but the bonus live recording of Gaga's rendition of the Cher/Nancy Sinatra tune works as a good representation of the ways Gaga shone in the project. A flamboyant product of jazz and musical theatre, Gaga loves a story to sink her teeth into, and "Bang Bang" frees her of the pressure of her own material and gives her license to chew scenery without choking on the splinters. The song and album remind those who needed reminding that beneath all the brilliant dada performance art is a fearsome musical talent who has only just begun to explore what she can do. We're lucky to have her.

CHOICE LYRIC: "He didn't even saaaaaay goodbye"   

27. "Boom Clap" - Charli XCX


So, "Boom Clap" on a Best of list. Groundbreaking,  I know. A lot of people liked this song this year, and it could be for many reasons: it's a pure tra-la-la pop single that mashes all the buttons that allow the simple to seem sublime; it was an (arguably) overdue mainstream hit for a once-musically adventurous young electropop rebel with un- and partly-sung hand in two of the biggest hits of the last couple years; it's a feel-good single from a weepy kids-with-cancer-in-love flick. That's not why it's on this list; I hate all that shit. My reasons are more perversely nihilistic: "Boom Clap" is here because of how gorgeously it represents the ickiness that comes from compromising one's artistic intelligence for mainstream success without the deftness to maintain enough of it to come out the other side like a Frodo instead of a Smeagol. It's here for how embarrassed Charli XCX seems in her early Popjustice interview not long after its success; for how predictably and vehemently her early fans turned against her; for how down she is about playing the down chick like she's really above it all when actually she's just turned into the down chick; for how blithely she's transformed from actual rebel to the girl with the most conventional "rule-breaking" release since the last Pink album; for how eagerly seasoned publications like Rolling Stone and even Pitchfork lapped up the faux-revolution in their haste to get the then-not yet released album onto their year-end lists before some November deadline. "Boom Clap" is a brilliant, chilling update of a very Hollywood story we've been telling since "Citizen Kane", and as someone who never really developed any special fondness for Charli XCX to begin with, I find it can be equally entertaining watching a star go wrong as it is to see it go right.

CHOICE LYRIC: "Sunbathing on the moon"   

26. "Monument" - Röyksopp & Robyn

Do It Again

By now it's become apparent that Robyn simply operates on a different level, and most of us are more than willing to accept and admire her from below, knowing we can never fully comprehend her powers. While this certainly makes for a thrilling pop star, it does mean even her strongest fans view her with a certain intimidation, leaving the Swede with a chillier effect than one of warmth and relatability. Robyn and Röyksopp's EP Do It Again doubles down on that awe, foregoing the amiable inclusiveness of Body Talk, and I suspect its a work a lot of people praise and say they love because they know it's supposed to be that way and not because they listen to it all the time, like Britney or something. It's not aggressively highbrow, it's more a glimpse at the private work among deeply creative artists we've been allowed to witness. The title track leaves me underwhelmed, but it's impossible to deny the power of "Monument," the ten-minute opening track, a meditation on death and immortality that foretold Röyksopp's subsequent farewell album. It's as touching as it is musically exploratory (it came out of an experimentation with software that slowed down loops to almost crawling), and while it gets a bit self-indulgent around seven minutes, it's quite a trip for the conscious and subconscious senses.

CHOICE LYRIC: "So that when the moment comes/I can say I did it all with love"   

25. "URL Badman" - Lily Allen


Lily Allen's comeback album Sheezus was a bit of a hot mess whose vulnerability would've been more powerful if it didn't feel like things weren't always under control. It has some sharp, piercing messages that get muddled by unwitting contradictions and accidental or thoughtless offenses (race issues in 2013's "Hard Out Here" video and the album's styling), and she sometimes aims at the wrong targets and fights and furthers the feminism she's trying for. But on "URL Badman" she's rock solid and brutal like the Lily Allen of old toward a reliable enemy: the internet troll. Some suggested that she was hitting below her weight, but that underestimates the power of these trolls. Her sarcasm drips like acid because she never crosses a line: no vulnerability is here to muck things up, either. So much truth is packed into the lyrics that it's amazing they're so clever and hilarious. Greg Kurstin, the producer, is on the offense as well, with the finest use of ironic dubstep yet and two goat samples that get the last bleat. Don't feed the trolls, but if you must, this is how to do it.

CHOICE LYRIC: "I don't like you. I think you're worthless. I wrote a long piece about it up on my Wordpress"   

24. "Jealous" - Nick Jonas

Nick Jonas

It's increasingly clear that Nick Jonas, like beer, is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy. The youngest of erstwhile family boy band The Jonas Brothers, who oozed Disney squeaky-cleanliness with much-vaunted Christian good boy values - and famously took fellow Disney alumna Britney Spears' infamous no-sex-til-marriage vow and put a ring on it – has always had in him the makings of a pop superstar slash heartthrob (the other attractive Jonas, Joe, tried and failed, but he lacks the musical intelligence of his younger brother). And nobody who knows the Britney Spears playbook expected a world devoid of Jonas brother sexuality at some point (psst...that's part of the “purity ring” gambit). Pop music has been so long without a good old-fashioned (Eurasian) beefcake sex god (thanks to a decade and a half of alt rock, indie rock, EDM, and ultra-nonthreatening Twitter-age British boy bands – oh and of course an industry in which Rolling Stone requires swimsuits or less for women but never asks a dude to take his shirt off); it's been over a decade since Justin Timberlake put in a year or two (around the time he was spoiling that Britney vow) and Enrique Iglesias was at his physical peak.

And then...enter Nick Jonas fully formed – and we get a tv show, great magazine spreads, and even – hey! - a pretty quality solo debut album, which eschews the obvious and by now over-traveled wagon ruts of the Michael Jackson trail in favor of a surprising and very effective nod toward Lenny Kravitz. “Jealous,” the album's strongest cut and hit single, best nails the bassy, lounge-y, maturely sexy get-it-on feel Jonas is going for, and since Jonas himself hasn't had a chance to develop his own sexuality, all the seduction labor is taken on by the music he and his co-writers and producers have written. And goofy songwriting blips like the “chin music” reference on the chorus keep this very professionally crafted work from feeling overpolished and impersonal.

CHOICE LYRIC: "Wish you didn't have to post it all"   

23. "Word Crimes" - 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Mandatory Fun

What makes the English lecture so entertaining - I literally laughed until I cried, and I do mean literally - is Yankovic's inspired use of meter (like the clever split line in "Say you've got an I-T/Followed by 'apostrophe/-'S' Now what does that mean?") and rhyme, both in its own context ("It's apparent/Your grammar's errant") and in relation to the original "Blurred Lines" lyrics ("You the hottest bitch in this place" becomes "You would not use "it's" in this case!").

Also contributing enormously to the effectiveness of "Word Crimes" is the truly brilliant graphic design and animation of the video, by Jarrett Heat. "Word Crimes" is technically a lyric video, but whereas lyric videos are typically the way labels go about putting official music on YouTube (now that YouTube streaming figures into the Hot 100 calculations) before a music video is complete, in this case it's the most appropriate way to visualize a song that's entirely about language. Seeing the lyrics on screen is helpful, of course, but the clever ways Heat presents them are a delight and achievement all of their own. Sometimes the visuals actively enforce or explicate the lyric itself; there are cute diagrams with simplistic drawings clarifying the differences between "doing good" and "doing well," "less" and "fewer" (!), and my favorite, "irony" and "coincidence," which gets in a wonderful visual dig at Alanis Morissette with a pair of bride-and-groom stick figures standing in the rain. (Adapted from "Rejoice and Sing, Grammar Nazis, for Weird Al's "Word Crimes" Is Here", July 15, 2014)

CHOICE LYRIC: "That was sarcastic (Aw, psych!)"   

22. "Air Guitar" - McBusted


In the wake of NKOTBSB's nostalgia novelty tour and album, UK/Island pop rock groups McFly and Busted joined forces in late 2013 for a tour and new album after the latter guested on the former's tenth anniversary special at Royal Albert Hall. Unlike NKOTBSB, though, McBusted (cute) has produced at least one relevant new work, the jubilant single “Air Guitar,” which muscles out 5 Seconds of Summer and Rixton for top boy band song of 2014 by playing to the timeless strengths of the genre like only veterans can. It's a silly fantasy song for the everyman: “I'm not extraordinary, but I can pretend!” – though like Britney Spears singing “I'm like a performer, the dance floor is my stage,” this requires professional musicians to pull off the role of the talent-impaired wannabe, which is always a tricky proposition. It's got great, personality-specific vocals (so you can pick out your favorite singer), heavenly choral harmonies, and of course unthreatening male appeal by the pound. The video, too, deftly toys with naughty undertones while remaining family-friendly without the cloying hedging of the “She Looks So Perfect” nudity video. (P.S., these decade-old grizzled veterans performing at RAH are on average just about to hit 30, so how great do you feel about your life?).

CHOICE LYRIC: "I'd probably date a popstar - a popstar (and a model on the side)"   

21. "All About That Bass" - Meghan Trainor


I've definitely gone on a journey with this song, as I have in the past with other megahit singles that challenge any admittedly tortured position twixt critical observer and emotional fan. I started out anti-, because it had started getting popular before I'd heard of it (I know, I know). Then, once I got over that and listened to it, I liked it, because it's totally likable. Then I was anti-, because of the thin-shaming and the white artist-does-black music thing and all other social criticisms I could latch onto to bolster my rejection on principle. Then I faced a choice I've faced plenty of times in the past: commit to the energy and frustration and hard work of being against a massively popular piece of culture that's gonna be around for a little while, or decide that its sins (for, as Roxane Gay always says, nothing is ever perfect) are, in the grand scheme, harmless enough to overlook both in order to focus dissenting energy where it's more urgently needed and, ideally, to allow something that's otherwise pretty great to be a thing of joy - at least as long as you're going to be subjected to it whether you like it or not for a while. Can I just request a new theme for next year - the revenge of the treble? This boob man thinks we really need some good boob pop, stat!

CHOICE LYRIC: "I can shake it (shake it) like I'm supposed to do"   

Stay tuned for more of The VS Top 40 Pop Songs of 2014

Part One: #31-40                 Honorable Mentions

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