Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Music Review: 2014 Honourable Mentions, Part 1

For the past few years now, I've supplemented my top-ten and bottom-ten hit song lists with separate articles for the runner-up songs.  And while I am carrying on that tradition for 2014, I thought I'd do things a little differently this time.  I was going to do an article for the honourable mentions that missed the top ten, and the (dis)honourable mentions of the bottom ten, but as I put these lists together, I realised that some of these songs blurred the lines of being good and bad.  If you'll remember from one of my past reviews, I've started calling these kinds of things "Janusian", meaning they posess both good and bad qualities.  So, for this year I'm lumping both sets of honourable mentions together in alphabetical order.  Let's begin.

"Ain't It Fun"
by Paramore
from Paramore
Year-end position: #47

America, you don't know what you're missing when you keep shunning true rock music.  Maybe that was a bad way to start this paragraph, because Paramore and their single "Ain't It Fun" actually did pretty well this year.  But Paramore are one of the few mainstream acts who can pull off a song like this.  It's a sarcastic statement to anyone leaving the lap of luxury and expecting more than they actually get.  And while Hayley Williams can make sarcasm sound appealing, I was a little put off by the lyrical dissonance, however.  The music, which reminds me of a major-key version of Banarama's "Cruel Summer", comes across as a bit too happy for what the song is really about.  For that reason, I just know some advert or trailer's gonna take the title phrase ("Ain't it fun / living in the real world") at face value.

by Nicki Minaj
from The Pinkprint
Year-end position: #36

Songs like this are why I chose not to break up my honourable mentions list by whether they were cut from my top-ten or my bottom-ten lists, because its good and bad qualities balance each other out.  I actually reviewed "Anaconda" late last year, and I have to say I've warmed up to it since then.  The lyrics it samples from "Baby Got Back" are wasted in their brevity and repetition, but the musical aspects of that song are enhanced.  Nicki's performance is over-the-top stupid in certain parts and rapid-fire fun in others.  And while there's something to be said about a woman using her sex appeal to do stuff, Nicki in this song does so just in the name of getting some luxury posessions out of it.  But when you consider that most hip-hop over the past couple of years has gone down the dreary route of espousing their lifes' luxuries with zero enthusiasm whatsoever for them, I say we should give songs like "Anaconda" a bit more credit.

"Bang Bang"
by Jessie J, Ariana Grande, and Nicki Minaj
from Sweet Talker
Year-end position: #27

Some songs you respect because they do something smart or original, and some songs you like just because they're fun.  "Bang Bang" is the latter, but it does have some good concepts as well.  I enjoyed hearing Jessie J and Ariana Grande's playful competition of trying to hook up with the man du jour, sort of like a gender-swapped (and better) version of Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney's "The Girl Is Mine".  The Nicki Minaj verse isn't about anything really, but it's fast, furious, and fun, and somehow is arguably the best thing she's done all year.  And with lazy minimalism apparently being the norm for 2014, it's refreshing to hear a beat with so much going on.  Background harmony vocals are used effectively to build a faux-Motown style of production.  That's all I ask, really, for producers to put a little more work into their pop songs.

"Boom Clap"
by Charli XCX
from Sucker
Year-end position: #34

I relished every time I heard "Boom Clap", for the same general reason I liked that other onomatopeia-based song, "Bang Bang" from the last paragraph.  And to think it should come from Charli XCX, of all people.  I'm one of the few people who hated her on Icona Pop's "I Love It" from last year, on account of her sounding so shrill and in-your-face.  But weirdly, I thought she was one of the best parts of Iggy Azalea's "Fancy", for much the same reason.  And when "Boom Clap" came around, she finally managed to tone herself down just enough to not turn me off, but still keep enough presence to make a memorable performance.  Among the silly love songs of 2014, "Rather Be" had that little bit extra musically to give it the edge, but "Boom Clap" is nonetheless catchy and, like the heartbeat it imitates, feels like being in love.

by Sia
from 1000 Forms of Fear
Year-end position: #25

Maybe it’s just my hair-trigger cynicism talking, but I gather, the universe hates me right now. I thought we had finally ridden ourselves of Rihanna, the mistress of mediocrity in music, only for the Rihanna knockoffs to crawl out of the woodwork in 2014. Specifically I am referring to former indie darling Sia, of all people, for her work on the single "Chandelier". (Indeed, Sia did write the song for Rihanna or Beyonce before deciding to record it hserself.) She -- pretty much literally -- mumbles her way through most of the song, except for the choruses. At least those parts are belted out well, but the morose music -- which I can best describe as a sort of hip-hop version of "Adagio for Strings" -- is at an unfortunate loggerhead against the lyrics about tearin’ the place up and having a good time as if you wouldn’t have tomorrow to do so. I appreciate these wannabe party anthems having an emotion of some kind, but that emotion should not be sadness or desolation.  Heck, "Fancy" was more of a feel-good party song than this -- and its beat was a second-rate DJ Mustard knockoff!

At least, that's what I thought before I discovered what the song was about.  Apparently it's about being high.  An admirable choice of topic, honestly; that would explain the somber tone of the music, creating dissonance with the party-party-party lyrics in order to encompass the entire spectrum of moods associated with substance use.  But it's not good enough to get on my top-ten list for the following reasons.  One, as I mentioned before, Sia's voice on this track is so slurred as to render these concepts unintelligible until I read the lyrics separately.  And two, we already have a song about this sort of thing.  But whereas "Chandelier" focuses more on the moment of the high, "Habits (Stay High)" takes a wider view on the subject, and for that reason I personally gravitate towards the latter song.

"Dark Horse"
by Katy Perry & Juicy J
from PRISM
Year-end position: #2

"Dark Horse" is like one of those "beware the femme fatale"-type songs of old, except from the point of view of the lady herself. An admirable concept, I must admit, but even that long-range pass gets fumbled at the hands of clumsy lyrics. For example, of the many metaphors one could use to describe a woman capable of both great loving and great wrath, "dark horse" should not be one of them. I get that you’re trying to conjure an image of power with those words, but last I checked, "dark horse" is supposed to mean an ignored entity capable of a come-from-behind victory. Also, there’s a guest rap verse by a mister Juicy J, whose only defining feature is that he is a former member of Three 6 Mafia. I’ll give him this: his part at least tries to tie into the central theme of the song, which is more than I expect from most rappers of his ilk. But Juicy J is so generic as a rapper that you could replace his part with, for example, the first verse from Jay-Z's "Holy Grail" and no one would notice.

"Do What U Want"
by Lady Gaga & R. Kelly
from Artpop
Year-end position: #84

These days is seems every artist, independent and mainstream alike, with a drop of electro blood in their body is turning to '80s aesthetics for their grooves, and Lady Gaga's "Do What U Want" has one of the grooviest of them all, if I may say so myself.  And it even has a well-deserved point: one of defiance.  The title phrase is a middle finger to the paparazzi who, try as they might, will never control who she is on the inside.  So, why didn't this get on the list?  Because R. Kelly's verse has nothing to do with the rest of the song.  Worse, he flipped the title to sing about doing what he wants to her body.  And we all know what happened when he did what he wanted to some other girl's body!  (If you need a hint, listen to the first verse of Macklemore's "Thrift Shop" again.)  I still love this song, and if I could find it in myself to put a Pitbull song on my top ten, maybe I should've made room for this as well.  Still, it's a bit too "Janusian" to give it full honours.

"Don’t Tell 'Em"
by Jeremih & YG
from Late Nights
Year-end position: #42

"Don’t Tell 'Em" was on my bottom-ten list for a while because it was the biggest hit out of all of this year’s DJ Mustard productions, but I in the end I had more important things to deal with. But oh boy, did this song get on my nerves by popularity alone. Sung by perennial R&B also-ran Jeremih, this song is supposed to be about keeping one’s romantic activities with a girl on the down-low, but as usual, you wouldn’t get that impression if you were to listen to the verses alone. And there’s a tepid rap verse by a mister YG which does nothing of note, except for the opening line "I got a missed call from your [noun]". If nothing else, I have drawn some amusement from the thought that said two-timing girlfriend is calling about something other than sexy time. But such extraneous ideas do not save the song by any means. It might be too drastic (and racist) to call DJ Mustard’s stylings the musical counterpart to ebola, but it certainly is spreading, and it’s caused me great (mental) pain.

To be continued...

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