Friday, September 27, 2013

7 Random Thoughts I Had While Listening To/Watching This Week's Top 20 on Billboard's Hot 100

1. Where did this pretty young thing who calls herself Lorde (real name: Ella Yelich-O'Connor) come from? I must have blinked and totally missed the 16-year-old Kiwi newcomer's 11-week ascent to No. 3, where she sits for another week this week. It's hard to believe that she's half a decade younger than the likes of Selena Gomez, Demi Lovato, Ariana Grande and Miley Cyrus (incidentally, at No. 1 for the second week with "Wrecking Ball"). The guys in One Direction have a few years on Lorde, but she already sounds way too old for them, which is a lot more than I can say for 23-year-old Taylor Swift.

But how does Lorde sound? Like a low-fat smoothie blend of Fiona Apple, Lana Del Rey and 19-era Adele, with a swirl of dark, hip hop-inflected rhythm to give her musical dissertation on suburban ennui some color and flava. The slurred, lumbering percussion on top (right up there in the mix, alongside Lorde's vocals) makes "Royals" sound like it's slowly creeping up on you. Beware: Once it catches you, its grip is tight. Give in.

2. The Swedish/Scandinavian pop invasion continues. What sets "Wake Me Up!" (No. 4) by Avicii apart from recent DJ/producer-driven hits and even from his fellow countrymen Swedish House Mafia's "Don't You Worry Child" (a song that snagged Top 10 status last year, before Icona Pop's "I Love It" continued Sweden's recent pop domination, which, sadly, still hasn't made Lykke Li's "I Follow Rivers," so ubiquitous in Europe, a similarly super-size smash in the English-speaking world), are its, um, levels of daring. It succeeds where "Levels," Avicii's previous international hit (and sadly, the source material for Flo Rida's dreadful "Good Feeling") didn't because you don't spend the entire song wondering where you've heard bits and pieces of it before. That's thanks, in part, to Aloe Blacc's distinctive vocals, but mostly it's for the way the song itself incorporates elements of folk, country and a bit of Irish jig into its musical mix, never lapsing into electronica cliche or becoming just any one thing.

3. Technically, "Holy Grail" (No. 6) is a Jay-Z song, and Justin Timberlake is the guest vocalist, but it sounds the other way around, particularly on the YouTube lyric-video version, which has logged nearly 8.5 million more views than the official video version. The confusion over what song is Timberlake's latest single (a mystery compounded by the release or "TKO," which debuts at No. 54, and the several Jay-Z-free versions of "Holy Grail" floating around YouTube) might be why "Take Back the Night," the first single from Timberlake's The 20/20 Experience: 2 of 2 (out today), couldn't get higher than No. 29.

The songs were released a mere two days apart in July, and since radio rarely embraces two simultaneous singles by the same headliner, one was probably destined to fail. Personally, I prefer "Holy Grail" to the color-by-numbers mirrorball pop of "Night," but "Grail" would have been better had Jay-Z sat it out entirely. That might have meant losing the clever lyrical props to Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit," but its not like it's as pivotal to the song as Billy Squier's "The Stroke" is to Eminem's "Berzerk" (No. 11).

4. Following in the chart-hopping footsteps of Sia Furler and Florence Welch after trying on their dancing shoes, Lana Del Rey is the latest avante-pop singer-songwriter to ride the glittery coattails of a DJ/producer into the Top 10 for the first time. My question is this: Why wasn't the original version of "Summertime Sadness" good enough music for the masses? I suppose I should give credit to Cedric Gervais for accomplishing the previously unthinkable with his "Summertime Sadness" remix (No. 9), on which he shares equal billing: He's made a Lana Del Rey song sound like everything else.

5. The duo known as Capital Cities is going to have quite the pop challenge stopping "Safe and Sound" (No. 10) from being its one hit wonder. The debut Capital Cities album, In a Tidal Wave of Mystery, thus far has climbed no higher than No. 66 on Billboard's Top 200 album chart, which indicates that the people who are loving the song probably have no idea who is singing it, nor do they particularly care. I suppose the odds for continued chart success are more in their favor than they are for the Top 20's other duo, Norwegian comedy team Ylvis, who are No. 13 in three weeks with "The Fox," whose viral-on-YouTube status makes me wonder why, when the entire world catches on to something at the same time, is it never very good?

6. This week's Top 20 is a hit list of extremes: On one side, we have nine headliners who are charting with their breakthrough hits (three of whom -- Avicii, Gervais and Zedd, at No. 18 with his former Top 10 "Clarity" -- are DJ/producers), and on the other, we have now-veteran hitmakers like Justin, Jay-Z and Eminem, along with, Lady Gaga (No. 8 with "Applause"), Britney Spears (debuting at No. 12 with "Work B**ch") and Katy Perry (No. 2 with "Roar" and debuting at No. 17 with "Dark Horse"). It's the most genre-hopping, genre-blurring and all-inclusive Top 20 I've seen/heard in as long as I can remember, with the exception of the exception of a straight-up soul diva.

Here's how far we haven't come, part 2: In May of 1997, when Meredith Brooks released her future No. 2 hit "Bitch," it was spelled out without asterisks on the cover, while 16 years and four months later, Spears sidesteps profanity -- and potential controversy -- with two. In the Spears vs. Perry showdown, I was totally prepping to root against Perry, just as I'd done a few weeks ago when it was Perry vs. Gaga. Then I heard the songs, and I didn't want "Dark Horse" to end. Now I'm actually kind of looking forward to the release of  Perry's Prism on October 18. After treading too-familiar ground with "Roar," she steps slightly outside of her comfort zone on "Dark Horse," sliding into a Rated R Rihanna-style dirrty groove. It's the best thing she's done since "Hot and Cold" and her blackest song ever (I wonder how John Mayer's "white supremacist" penis reacted the first time he heard it), and unlike "Work B**ch," it's not all production no substance. I miss the dark minimalist grooves of Blackout Britney. I want that b**ch back.

7. Someone, preferably a decent stylist, really needs to have long talk with Justin Bieber (who debuts at No. 19 as a featured artist on Maejor Ali's Lolly," which also features Juicy J, the rapper also featured on Katy Perry's "Dark Horse"). Now that he's all of 19 years old, if he wants to be perceived as a grown up with street cred, what good are arm tattoos, hip-hop accessories and a guest rap (yes, Bieber raps, and he doesn't sound half bad), if he's going to wear a tank top that's a few sizes too big and makes him look like he's 19 going on 12?

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