|Kiesza keeps on dancin'.|
The Vertigo Shtick Top 40 Pop Singles of 2014
I've accepted the reality that Kelly Rowland is not going to grant my oft-repeated wish and transform into a fabulous postmodern Donna Summer for our time. In fact, I'm not even going to mention it again. I promise! It helps me endure the heartbreak that an alternative candidate has arisen who might be even better suited to the office, so I'm officially changing my vote: Jennifer Hudson for Donna Summer 2015! Oscar winner Hudson's foray into disco revival this year seemed oddly regressive, given EDM's fall from grace the previous year, but considering how white dance music has grown to be, and how out of hand the white-folks-do-black-music thing has become, maybe it's only proper. Hudson is the perfect disco diva because her voice is as massive as her personality is blank: she can deliver the sound and the simulacrum of emotion techno dance requires without getting in the way of the hypnosis of the beat. "Go All Night" gives co-writing credit to Canadian newcomer Kiesza, which totally makes sense once you know it (more on her later). Hudson's vocal works better than the fire-haired dance artist's might have, partly because Hudson's steamrolling power irons out the imperfections in the writing ("Between every misfortune there's a fortune in between"), and Gorgon City's reliable if not quite revolutionary throbbing-bass deep house production is served well by this type of low-stakes, high-octane club banger.
CHOICE LYRIC: "I'm ready for your love/ Don't hold it back on me."
Rita Ora is neither the best nor the hackiest pop star around, and although she leans toward the latter, she seems to deserve less of the blame for it than others of her sort. That awful Iggy Azalea duet? Blame Katy Perry. The less awful but still bad Charli XCX duet? I blame Charli. You can't knock Ora for wanting to be a star and being game for things, especially when she's not gone fully prostrate like Jessie J and especially when her work is nominally in the interest of "girl power," or at least girl power that makes labels lots of money. But it's been said many times before that an artist like Rita Ora is often as good as the song she's singing, and "I Will Never Let You Down" is a really good song despite being the brainchild of Calvin Harris. It's the kind of song about which you don't want to think too hard - just go with it, and it's a delight. Harris' synths still sound like the gnashing teeth of a forced grin, and Ora's album is still nowhere in sight (not that I'm impatient for it), but dude. This is a good pop single.
CHOICE LYRIC: "Cuz I've been sick and working all week and I've been doing just fine."
When Beyoncé's self-titled visual album appeared in swaddling clothes lying in a manger just in time for Christmas 2013, among the countless tweeted reactions, at least from the gays, were the word "PARTITION" in all caps, reminding me of how many responded in kind to Lady Gaga's "Heavy Metal Lover" in 2011. We gays may be particularly fucked in the head about sex these days, but we still respond enthusiastically to our female pop stars diving headlong and legs-up into the dirty dirty sex pit with an apparent freedom I think we envy. I'd all but written Beyoncé off before the album appeared, for her apparent disinterest in actual sexuality, nor any particularly interesting personality traits more relatable than pre-recorded, polished perfection. So even if most of BEYONCÉ wasn't quite my jam., I was - and am - more than won over by her brazen humanity and commitment to high-cult elitism, not to mention her new-found appreciation for le sexe. "Partition" encapsulates it all, not just the sex but also a strangely empowering celebration of wealth and privilege and a stylish and classy approach to feminist sexuality (paraphrasing the French dub of The Big Lebowski is pretty hipster, too). The video, inspired equally by pre-Civil Rights Era burlesque star Josephine Baker and modern-day Parisian cabaret club Le Crazy Horse amplifies all those themes (she drops her napkin just to make the maid come over and pick it up for her because she's Beyoncé and she's horny!) and oozes European-style sensuality in a way my father still speaks of appreciatively (and which drove Bill O'Reilly and, recently, Mike Huckabee mad).
CHOICE LYRIC: "Chauffeur eavesdropping, trying not to crash."
Queen of the Clouds
I don't listen to the radio by choice anymore (five years of glorious freedom!), although that doesn't mean I'm entirely sheltered from it - this is America. I Shazam-ed Tove Lo's song on three separate occasions before finally getting it together and downloading it, though I'm not sure if that's a positive or negative reflection on the song, or both (probably both). There's nothing more attention-grabbing than hearing a female voice singing about voyeurism and inter-generational playground hookups (although barfing in tubs we've pretty much got covered) without a "just kidding" caveat, and being generally unapologetic about it, at least not for our sake. When an old high school friend put up a disappointingly hand-wringy post on Facebook about the song ("think of the children!") I guess it galvanized my defensiveness of nuanced music for grown-ups that gets played on mainstream radio in this country - and becoming a big hit, too! And it's interesting - I felt so attached to a song representing an unpleasant period in my own life of amnesiac drug-taking (and the occasional sex club), which experience and perception had taught me was not a common reality among most reasonably put-together people. Yet the song's enormous popularity - and it is the song, since the Swedish singer is not only a total newcomer but has hardly developed a sense of character in the US consciousness - has been a strangely comforting indication that this particular brand of destructive behavior is maybe an experience that is not really as much mine alone.
CHOICE LYRIC: "I eat my dinner in the bathtub, then I go to sex clubs, watching freaky people gettin' it on."
I scrapped the first draft of this writeup because I thought it came off too mean, and I think just mentioning that is enough to get my point across more accurately. I haven't liked everything about Jessie Malakouti, the erstwhile member of girl punk band Shut Up Stella and artist formerly known as Jessie and the Toy Boys who is now breaking out her fourth professional incarnation with the better but still frustrating name Eden XO (xo? Xo? Just Eden? Do we call her xo? Eden? Malakouti? Hey you? See what I mean?)[edit: xo, according to the artist]. Though the 25 year old has been active since 2006, and on my radar since 2011, I haven't much cared for most of her songs, and her most significant achievement seems to have been having her song ripped off for one of Britney Spears' worst career singles - although coincidence and irony led to her big last-laugh break opening the first leg of the Femme Fatale tour. Normally when an artist doesn't do it for me, I wish her well and move on, but amongst all the so-so pop blather, Malakouti does have one Perfect Pop Single to her credit (and one music video that comes close) and you know that's my weakness: any untested artist who's cracked the Perfect Pop Single code has theoretical potential for more pop greatness, and I make sure to keep them in the corner of my eye. "Too Cool to Dance", her first single with Virgin records, is the first to live up to this potential, a polished, well-written, solidly performed dance pop single that at once sounds dated and current and is her first to crack the pop radio infrastructure, which is a significant achievement. I don't know if Malakouti/xo will capitalize on the foot she's got in the door this time around (I would be interested to see what a full album of hers would be like), but I'm kind of rooting for her, and I'm not sure why.
CHOICE LYRIC: "Platinum lightning in my eyes."
Unlocked (Japanese Edition)
Alexandra Stan's under-the-radar album Unlocked is so remarkable not for breaking molds but for pure-heartedly embracing, embodying and exalting in the simple joys of the pop format in its various global iterations, thereby highlighting surprising differences and common threads that make them distinct yet link them all together. While "Cherry Pop" is an intriguing study in identity associated with, if not intrinsically specific to, a certain culture, its sibling, "Zoom Zoom," is a simpler triumph of sheer formula pop alchemy. A speeding car-as-love metaphor setting with an intoxicating chorus and crisp, energetic production that makes neat use of a synth effect that sounds like a split-second sample of a drag race - I eat it up every time it plays. And this is just album filler - the most expendable of album fillers, in fact, since it only appeared on the original Japanese release and was replaced on the subsequent International Edition.
CHOICE LYRIC: "We're cruising to a full moon rising."
Jazmine Sullivan broke through in 2008 with the great Ne-Yo penned masterpiece "Bust Your Windows," making a splash not just by happening to have landed a killer song, but by giving a performance that elevated it beyond the sum of its written parts. But after releasing her sophomore album, Love Me Back (which debuted at #17 with 57,000 copies; Reality Show is expected to move 27-32k in its first week, which should land it in the top 5), Sullivan suffered a breakdown of confidence and withdrew from the industry indefinitely. But the 27 year old from Philly is a rare talent, and her third album, released last week, shows that it's not just limited to her powerfully expressive voice; Sullivan's songwriting often takes over the spotlight, as if she's daring herself to succeed, like Peter Pan fighting Captain Hook, without the use of her most advantageous asset. But "Forever Don't Last," a team-up with "Russian Roulette" producer Chuck Harmony, is a minimalist ballad over acoustic guitar, bongos, and simple harmonies that allow Sullivan to really let the beast out of its cage midway through the album, like the seventh inning stretch. The scratches of her high notes, the capacity of her low notes, her scat duet with the guitar on the bridge, and the way she slides all over her vocal range without being too showy about it - it all showcases the powerful fundamentals this magnificent singer brings to an industry not especially going in that direction at the moment.
CHOICE LYRIC: "Forever doesn't last too long these days."
Lily Allen's third album struggles the way a lot of albums do when once high-flying stars attempt something a bit more nuanced than pop hits, and even more so because it comes after a lengthy break from music during which she got married and had two kids while new 20-somethings (or younger) moved in to take her spotlight. That's partly what the opening title track is about; it's an aware and disarming confession of Allen's anxieties about the unique challenges awaiting her as she re-enters the atmosphere. But there's another element Allen must fight against, and it's one that she admits she shares with every other woman who deigns to attempt a career in music, or in general. She frames the problems faced by women competing in an artificial zero-sum game where the fabricated battle for too few spaces at the top is exacerbated by a bored and ethically lazy blogosphere, and the tabloid consumers that fuel it, pitting women against one another to satisfy their own, often sexist bloodlust. She sings admiringly about the superstars who she feels have managed to rise above the fray, from Rihanna to Katy Perry, Beyoncé and even Lorde, who gets two whole lines ("Lorde smells blood, yeah, she's about to slay you/ Kid ain't one to fuck with when she's only on her debut:), and the knee-jerk misinterpretation of these references as a diss by even some respectable critics was gloomy confirmation of her point.
There's a lot to admire about this single, from its unorthodox song structure (three stanzas before the first chorus! Imagine) to its trip-hop inspired minimalism (it's one of the only non-Greg Kurstin co-writes on the album) to its blunt honesty, in a different way than the blunt honesty of the Lily Allen of old, in that it's still biting but much more willing to show the vulnerability underneath. And as the opening missive of what is surely intended as a strongly feminist message album, even if it doesn't always measure up, "Sheezus" does have the album's feminist highlight:
"It makes me angry; I'm seriousSuch eye-opening verbiage has a double meaning, of course, referring to the life cycle of the pop star with a sly nod to the short attention span of the internet, which crowns a new queen every 72 hours and also hyperventilates with equal supplication about the return of some marginal former Disney star as the new Bjork album. But it's not like cycle metaphors are hard to come by, and Allen's deliberate choice to confront the audience with an unexpected mention of menstruation in which she says "periods" three times in two lines is a feminist shot across the bow on par with Kreayshawn's boast that she had swag pumping out of her ovaries. Nowhere else on the album is Allen this unapologetic about being a woman or as comradely with her fellow female artists without slipping on her own banana peel (although on the whole I think she does more good than harm), but if just for one number, Lily Allen nails the role of feminist superhero, illuminating and embodying the 2014 pop feminist at its best.
But then again, I'm just about to get my period.
Periods. We all get periods.
Every month, yo; that's what the theory is.
It's human nature; I know the cycle."
CHOICE LYRIC: "Can't just come back, jump on the mic, and do the same thing."
I've heard it suggested, both sincerely and ironically, that if pop is so much about hooks and choruses, why not just make a song that's all chorus and be done with it? British newcomer Indiana takes that bet on this slow-building bullseye of a debut, although this writer didn't actually notice this until sitting down to write this tribute. Sounding about as enthused as Daria, Indiana iterates and reiterates in no uncertain terms her simple pronouncement that she's not here to dance with you, or anyone - she's here alone and that's how it'll stay - like she's fending off one sleaze after another drawn to her red light. No jilted Robyn on the floor, but more the ice cold Blackout-era Britney. who might have a story but gives too few fucks to bother sharing it with you. The song is a grower and a half - I initially put it aside after judging it unremarkable, only to find it worming its way into my memory weeks later. Upon revisit, "Solo Dancing" had me, too, caught in its forbidding tractor beam; as in the dance floor of the song, she won't let you in, but she won't let you leave, either.
CHOICE LYRIC: "Don't hold back my dance devotion, It's the path that I have chosen."
Sound of a Woman
This I also had to rewrite entirely after the first attempt came off far too disdainful, and I also thought long and hard, accordingly, about the placement of this song on this list. Ultimately, you can see it still sits proudly at a relative height, just outside the year's top ten but fully deserving to be considered among, if just beneath, that pack. Kiesza is the sort of dazzling pop star Lady Gaga has been on a few occasions in her career, although I don't mean to suggest the two are on equal footing in terms of artistry or potential. It's just that they're both fantastically unstable, like a toddler learning gymnastics, and yet every so often they stick the landing in a way that's thrilling and remarkable. Case in point: the Canadian redhead's breakout single "Hideaway," which wraps itself unabashedly in early 90s house like Azealia Banks' "1991" or Kelis' "4th of July (Fireworks)," the only difference being Kiesza actually got played on mainstream radio for a bit in the US, alongside her predictable European success, including a UK #1. She's got pipes that can reach notes Broadway singers would kill for (and I wouldn't be surprised to see her try her hand on the Great White Way sometime in her career), even if she doesn't have the control over them to maneuver with dynamics and subtlety; she's also a stirringly eager dancer despite a similarly tenuous mastery of the art, as famously depicted in her gimmicky but earnest single-shot music video, viewed nearly 200 million times to date. I think Kiesza will probably age like a bottle of wine, and that as she hones her chops and abandons her excesses she will be able to offer some good and thoughtful pop work, whether as performer or just as songwriter, and all in all I have to remind myself that we cannot all be Lorde-like prodigies right out the gate (not to mention that even Ke$ha bugged me now and then at the beginning) and someone this creative on their first go of it should be embraced and cultivated, and that's what I have done here - even if it took me two tries.
CHOICE LYRIC: "Ooh. Ahh. Ahh. Ooh."
Stay tuned for the final part of the VS Top 40 Pop Songs of 2014!