I recently read an article on Ourstage, the website for which I write my weekly Sound And Vision pop music column, in which a writer listed 10 terrible songs by great artists. I couldn't argue with most of the choices, but "In the Ghetto" was one of the King of Rock & Roll's crowning mid-career achievements, and the Queen of Soul has done far worse than "Freeway of Love."
Today, instead of aiming at easy targets (Come on, "Ebony and Ivory"? "I Don't Want to Miss a Thing"?), I'm going focus on finding the good in the usually barely listenable.
"Prove me wrong," my best friend used to always say. I second that. I always try to listen without prejudice and when an artist I hate produces a song that I love, no one is happier than I am because good music, no matter where it comes from, is a gift.
Here are 10 great songs that knocked me off my feet as much because of the songs themselves as because of who was singing them.
Pussycat Dolls featuring Snoop Dogg "Buttons" Around the time that "Don't Cha" was a massive hit, one of my best friends spent months trying to convince me that PCD was the best thing since TLC. To this day, I can't understand why anyone would listen to any of the group's hits more than once -- with one exception. More recently, another friend sent me a Facebook message that went something like this: "Agree or disagree? 'Buttons' is the only reason to care about Pussycat Dolls." I couldn't agree more.
Nickelback "How You Remind Me" So shoot me! Not only do I think the band's lead singer Chad Kroeger is super-hot (especially with shorter hair), but the hit single that made Nickelback stars gets my head bangin' every single time.
Faith Hill "Dearly Beloved" Have I ever mentioned how much I dislike Faith Hill's music? She only seems to operate in full-on Pearl Harbor power-ballad mode, delivering every line as if her life -- and the existence of mankind and womankind -- depended on it, or as if she was fronting the U.S. armed forces with a microphone instead of a weapon, which I suppose most of her songs are. (An artist like Celine Dion can get away with it, because she has the vocal power to lead any brigade.) But on this track from 2005's Fireflies album (her last regular studio album to date, and boy, do I not miss her!), she sounded footloose, fancy free and, for once, pure country.
Macy Gray featuring Erykah Badu "Sweet Baby" I never understood all the short-lived fuss over Macy Gray. To me, she was always better in theory (unconventional black woman singing genre-defying tunes) than in execution (a gratingly affected vocal style that came off as more gimmicky than sincere). But if she had to be a one-hit wonder (as opposed to a no-hit wonder), why couldn't it have been for these four minutes of quietly heartbreaking beauty?
Ke$ha "Blow" I've never heard the song separate from the video (one of my favorites of 2011), so I can't say if it would hold up without the visual of Ke$ha vs. James Van Der Beek to entertain me. Whatever. It's a true example of a video really selling a song, so for that alone, Ke$ha deserves all the props I'm (finally) giving her.
Lionel Richie "Love Will Conquer All" Am I alone in thinking that Lionel Richie's solo career was one nearly decade-long study in pop treacle unworthy of the lead singer of one of the great funk and soul ensembles of the late '70s and early '80s? The former Commodore's penultimate Top 10 solo single may sound dated today, but it's the one Richie hit that actually made being in love sound kind of sexy and cool.
Michael Bolton "Can I Touch You... There?" The '90s version of Lionel Richie? Possibly. And just once, on "Can I Touch You... There?," his 1995 penultimate Top 40 hit, Bolton toned down the hatchet-faced over-emoting and sold his soul -- in the good way. I think once or twice I even may have touched myself... there.
Kenny G featuring Smokey Robinson "We've Saved the Best for Last" The sax-playing version of Richie and Bolton? Definitely. He's cool right now, thanks to his appearance in Katy Perry's "Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)" video and his saxophone cameo during Foster the People's October 8 Saturday Night Live performance of "Houdini," but back in his heyday, the only time he sounded cool was blowing alongside the great Smokey Robinson on this should-have-been-a-bigger-hit from 1989. (P.S. I recently heard "Songbird," his 1987 biggest single, somewhere in Asia, and it sounds a lot better now than it did back then.)
Milli Vanilli "Girl I'm Gonna Miss You" Admit it, you liked it, too. The band will remain in the hall of infamy until the end of time, and not just because "Girl You Know It's True" was such a crapfest. Had it not been for the lip-syncing scandal (and had the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences not been stupid enough to give the duo the Best New Artist Grammy over Indigo Girls, Neneh Cherry and Soul II Soul), MV's follow-up hits "Girl I'm Gonna Miss You" and "Blame It on the Rain" would rank right up there with the best of late-'80s pop.
Justin Bieber "One Time" So shoot me again! Once upon a time, for a day or two in March of 2010, I suffered from a touch of Bieber fever when his debut 2009 hit was all over MTV in the UK. I made a full recovery, but I still love the song.