Friday, January 29, 2016

SDP Music Awards 2015 (Part 1)

Ladies and gentlemen, 2015 has rolled out and 2016 has rolled in, and as always, I'm here to celebrate the occasion with one foot in the past.  Specifically, a run-down of the past year's popular music.  Now, normally I've done so with a pair of top-ten lists, but this time around I'm going about it differently.  Partly I'm doing this to save on a little work, but I also got to thinking that maybe sticking to a ten-best and ten-worst list doesn't provide the most appropriate description of what the year's soundscape was like.  In order to qualify, all nominees must have placed on Billboard's Year-end Hot 100 Songs list for 2015, unless otherwise noted.  Each song's ranking on said chart will be noted within parentheses, after the title and artist.  And there are no rules as to the number of nominees I can put within a category, because I just couldn't stop myself picking them out.  Some have as few as three, other have as many as ten.  Deal with it.

Worst Sample or Interpolation
Looking at the top 100 songs this year, I’m surprised that there weren't a lot of songs that used samples.  But there were a few examples of how to do sampling right, and how to do it wrong.  A good sample does something new with the old track to create a different sound altogether, whereas a bad sample fails to do so, and just reminds of the original song instead.  Or worse, the old song clashes with the new one, either in sound or in meaning.  These songs, obviously, fall into the "bad" camp.

- "Centuries" by Fall Out Boy (#43): "Tom’s Diner" by Suzanne Vega
- "Somebody" by Natalie La Rose & Jeremih (#41): "I Wanna Dance With Somebody" by Whitney Houston
- "Uma Thurman" by Fall Out Boy (#60): Theme from The Munsters

The winner: "Uma Thurman" by Fall Out Boy
I had assumed Fall Out Boy were going for a Pulp Fiction vibe for this song, as evicenced from the surf-rock sound of its sample, and from the title named after one of the actors in that film.  But the thing is, they didn't use any music from Pulp Fiction in their sample.  They used the theme song from The Munsters instead.  Why?  I mean, it sounds similar to "Misirlou", from Pulp Fiction's opening titles, so why not just use that?  Is it because the Black Eyed Peas beat them to it ten years ago?  You do know more than one artist can sample the same song, right?  And the recording quality of their sample is a bit off compared to the live instrumentation of the rest of the song, so they might as well have just re-recorded it themselves!  As it stands, the Munsters theme still keeps "Uma Thurman" fun to listen to for a while, but it still clashes with what they were trying to accomplish.

Also, if I had done a category for the Best Sample or Interpolation, the winner would be "G.D.F.R." by Flo Rida, Sage the Gemini, and Lookas (#32), which sampled “Low Rider” by War.  As I said before when I reviewed "G.D.F.R.", it takes a part of the song not many people could identify as easily as the hook, and really makes the sample its own.  Ah, but then again, all that work was done by Lookas for his own song, which Flo Rida sampled instead of the original "Low Rider", so it probably wouldn't deserve the award anyway...  Lucky it wasn't running against anything, then.

Worst Lyric
Music, and by extention sampling, is only half of the songmaking process.  Chances are, your song's going to need lyrics to sing to, and let's face it, not everyone can manage their A-game all the time.  So with those facts set up, now would be a good time to segue into the worst lyrics of 2015.

- "Blessings" by Big Sean & Drake (#88): "I done lost homies who been with me since Ed, Edd / And Eddy, who flip like confetti"
- "Dear Future Husband" by Meghan Trainor (#74): "I'll be sleeping on the left side of the bed / Open the door for me and you might get some… kisses"
- "Downtown" by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis feat. Eric Nally, Melle Mel, Kool Moe Dee, and Grandmaster Caz (#84): "I'm so low, my scrotum's almost dragging on the concrete"
- "Good For You" by Selena Gomez & A$AP Rocky (#27): "And syncopate my skin to your heart beating"
- "Jealous" by Nick Jonas (#39): "It's my right to be hellish / I still get jealous"
- "Marvin Gaye" by Charlie Puth & Meghan Trainor" (#75): "Let's Marvin Gaye and get it on"
- "No Type" by Rae Sremmurd (#70): "I ain't got no type / bad [noun]es is the only thing I like"
- "Uma Thurman" by Fall Out Boy (#60): "The blood, the blood, the blood of the lamb / It's worth two lions, but here I am"

The "winner": "Dear Future Husband" by Meghan Trainor
What could be wrong with this little joke of a couplet?  First, let's address the fact that Meghan's attempt at a joke resulted in these two lines not rhyming.  Second, it's quite obvious that she meant to say she'd give "head" to her "dear future husband".  It's too late to start censoring yourself now, Trainor; your first single had the "s"-word!  And it isn't like this was censored for the radio edit or anything, because I could understand that.  No, this is the real, original version of the song!  Third, based all the demands she piles on the listener over the course of the song, if I actually were her dear future husband, I'd expect a lot more than... kisses in return!  (Take that as you will.)  Come to think of it, I'm surprised she didn't write "Marvin Gaye" as well, because the line I nominated from that song fits right in with her sense of humour -- or lack thereof.

I'd also like to award my Wildcard slot for this category to the entire third verse of "Truffle Butter" by Nicki Minaj, Drake, and Lil' Wayne.  It would have been cheating for me to have given the real award to a whole verse instead of any specific line, but dang it, this song was enough to ruin its entire song for me!  See, the first two verses (done by Nicki Minaj and Drake respectively) are alright in a generic rap sort of way, and the beat is minimalistic, but not in a boring way (a la DJ Mustard).  Then... Lil' Wayne happens.  Every time I listen to this guy, I come out feeling like I need to scrub myself.  A few lines in, he mentions "Truffle butter on your [noun]", and his sexual descriptions only get dirtier from there.  And the pitched-up voice he does from that line on does not help matters.  Sure, he does wrap up his part with some well-deserved switch-ups in his vocal rhythm, but by then it's too little and too late to change my opinion on his contribution to this song.

Most Boring Song
There some songs out there which make me instinctively change the channel whenever they pop up on the radio.  It's not because they're bad, mind you.  Often they have something going for them in terms of lyrics or themes.  It's just that they do nothing to engage me musically.  After all, when what you're doing is called "listening to music", the music itself is nine-tenths of the law.  And in that regard, these songs are downright felonies.

- "Fight Song" by Rachel Platten (#20)
- "Girl Crush" by Little Big Town (#63)
- "Lay Me Down" by Sam Smith (#81)
- "Like I’m Gonna Lose You" by Meghan Trainor & John Legend (#76)
- "See You Again" by Wiz Khalifa & Charlie Puth (#3)
- "Take Me To Church" by Hozier (#14)
- "Thinking Out Loud" by Ed Sheeran (#2)

The winner: "Girl Crush" by Little Big Town
The sub-genre of country music that seems to get the most crossover success is the downtempo adult-alternative lite ballad style, and "Girl Crush" is in the deep end of that.  Musically it sounds like a slow dance at a school prom for narcoleptics, not helped by the droning vocal melody.  Surpringly, "Girl Crush" also sets up the intrigue of a lesbian infatuation, in a usually conservative genre.  Oh, but of course the manage to knock her down, though.   The female singer's only verbally dolling this other girl up because -- get this -- she reminds her of her own man!  For example the line, "I want to taste her lips / Yeah, 'cause they taste like you".  This was still enough for some people to protest their local country radio stations for "promoting a gay agenda", which of course wasn't really the case.1  But while that ignorance speaks volumes about their conservative society, this song is so boring and toothless anyway, so I'll take any excuse to pull it off the turntable!

My Wildcard entry for this category is "Writing's On the Wall" by Sam Smith.  The theme from the latest James Bond film, Spectre, seems to be going for the same kind of slow-burning style of Adele's theme from Skyfall, but fails miserably.  There's no denying that the guy has range and even a little bit of power to his vocals, but so often he wastes his talents on these boring songs with nothing much going on musically.  It's like they took an orchestral piece from the soundtrack, slapped Sam's vocals on top, and just shipped it out the door.  It has a few good lyrical themes, so I can't bring myself to be too hard on it, but it's not something I'd listen to outside of the film it was made for.

Most Generic Rap/R&B Song
I have to admit, I don't like the direction mainstream rap is going these days.  All that drug-dealing, strip club-frequenting, product-placement-enforced luxury, having sex with YOUR girlfriend, and butchering of the English language, all irrespective of whether or not they actually lived in the ghettos where that sort of thing would be acceptable and/or desirable.  And no, it's NOT because I'm racist, but instead, it's because I know African-Americans are capable of so much more than what their (predominantly white?) producers have arbitrarily decided is easier to sell to us all.  So let's improve an entire race by symbolically sacrificing those who would drag it down.  NOTE: In addition to the Hot 100, nominees were also selected from the 2015 Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs and Hot Rap Songs charts.

- "Ayo" by Chris Brown & Tyga (#86)
- "Hit the Quan" by iLoveMemphis (#83, Rap #18)
- "Nasty Freestyle" by T-Wayne (#50, R&B/Hip-Hop #15)
- "No Type" by Rae Sremmurd (#70, R&B/Hip-Hop #25)
- "Post to Be" by Omarion, Chris Brown, and Jhené Aiko (#24, R&B/Hip-Hop #9)
- "Throw Sum Mo" by Rae Sremmurd, Nicki Minaj, & Young Thug (Rap #21)
- "Trap Queen" by Fetty Wap (#4, R&B/Hip-Hop #2)

The winner: "No Type" by Rae Sremmurd
The name "Rae Sremmurd" apparently means "Ear Drummers" spelled backward, and man is that an unfitting name for this juvenile rap duo.  "I don't got no type", the chorus of their song goes, immediately followed by, "Bad [noun]es is the only thing that I like".  Okay... casual misogyny aside, I thought you said you didn't have any specific taste in women, and now you're telling me that you do have a taste, and it's bad [noun]es?  I guess that is a wide enough category of females, given the phrase's over-use in hip-hop.  Whatever, what else is the song about?  "Chop the top off a Porsche / That's a headless horse"...  "Extendo long as an extension cord"...  "Blowing on the kush / 'Till I'm out of sight"... "I don't check the price / All I do is swipe"...  Yup, just as I thought: absolutely nothing.

Oh, and if you were curious as to what I thought was the worst song out of this category, I'd pick "Ayo" by Chris Brown and Tyga.  Sure, they breeze through all the cliches I listed at the top of this segment in this song, but they did manage to inject some personality into it all.  Namely, the personality of being douchebags.  Breezy, and to a lesser extent Tyga, have this smug cockiness about themselves which just manage to get at me.  How bad is it? When I watched the music video for this song, I flipped it the double-bird -- before the song itself even started.  Oh yeah, and Tyga can't rhyme to save his life.  I thought that was the first rule of rapping.

Most Generic Country Song
In an effort to divert any accusations of racism the previous category might have brought upon me, allow me to employ the same scrutiny to a genre whose production and consumer base are dominated by white people.  Now, sadly, Miranda Lambert's "Something Bad" from last year did not completely warm me up to country music, but I guess it was worth it if I managed to let the following songs slip me by.  But let's see if we can identify a pattern and pin down the epitome of that trend, shall we?  NOTE: In addition to the Hot 100, nominees were also selected from the 2015 Hot Country Songs chart.

- "A Guy Walks Into a Bar" by Tyler Farr (Country #30)
- "Ain’t Worth the Whiskey" by Cole Swindell (Country #34)
- "Drinking Class" by Lee Brice (Country #15)
- "Homegrown" by Zac Brown Band (Country #7)
- "House Party" by Sam Hunt (#85, Country #2)
- "John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16" by Keith Urban (Country #9)
- "Kick the Dust Up" by Luke Bryan (#87, Country #4)
- "Sun Daze" by Florida Georgia Line (Country #35)

The winner: "Kick the Dust Up" by Luke Bryan
Surprisingly, "John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16" did not clinch this award despite the title.  But at least some of that phrase's rural spirit exists in the real winner "Kick the Dust Up".  This is a song about driving trucks and other farm vehicles around as if they were luxury cars they were willing to get dirty, and lining up at a bar with everclear liquor in hand.  In other words, it's got both the work life and party life most commonly exemplified by country music covered.

By the way, my pick for the actual worst song from this list is "Sun Daze" by Florida Georgia Line.  See, I like to call FGL "the LMFAO of country music" for being two buffoons that caricature the public image of their genre with zero self-awareness.  At least "Kick the Dust Up" mentioned the kind of stuff these people do for a living -- you know, when they need to make the money needed to keep partying!  Oh, and the grating drawl of their voices doesn't help their image either.

Most Generic EDM Song
And now we move on to a most-generic category for a genre I actually like.  The thing about EDM, electronic dance music, this year was that it basically split into two sects.  On the one hand, we have your traditional trance-based EDM, from guys like Calvin Harris and Avicii.  And on the other hand, we have the newer "trap music" style, which is generally slower and louder.  One of trap's biggest, and arguably best, hits was last year's "Turn Down For What" by DJ Snake, and despite his numerous appearances throughout 2015, it became abundantly clear that he could never duplicate that song's magic, which in all honesty had more to do with the presence of the "king of crunk", Lil' Jon.  But by gum, the old school isn't going down without a fight.  NOTE: In addition to the Hot 100, nominees were also selected from the 2015 Hot Dance/Electronic Songs chart.

- "Get Low" by Dillon Francis & DJ Snake (Dance/Electronic #28)
- "Heroes" by Alesso & Tove Lo (Dance/Electronic #12)
- "How Deep Is Your Love" by Calvin Harris & Disciples (#100, Dance/Electronic #9)
- "I Want You To Know" by Zedd & Selena Gomez (Dance/Electronic #10)
- "Prayer in C" by Lillywood & Robin Schulz (Dance/Electronic #7)
- "SummerThing!" by Afrojack & Mike Taylor (Dance/Electronic #32)
- "You Know You Like It" by DJ Snake & AlunaGeorge (#59, Dance/Electronic #4)

The winner: "I Want You To Know" by Zedd & Selena Gomez
Despite what I said about DJ Snake and other trap EDM this year, the "winner" of this category belongs to the old-school camp, such as it is "old-school".  Personally, I blame "I Want You To Know"'s blandness on its actual singer, Selena Gomez, who has the least personality out of all our current pop princesses.  If you look at the other singers Zedd has worked with in the past -- Foxes, Hayley Williams, even Ariana Grande -- they've all been able to "break free" of the typical EDM production.  But Selena's voice is so generic that she could have been replaced with anyone else and the feel of the song would have been the same.  Not that Zedd's production fill in any of the blanks, either; it sounds just like any other modern vocal-trance song.

And finally, my pick for the actual worst song from this list is "SummerThing!" by Afrojack and Mike Taylor.  That may seem strange at first, because it starts off really well.  The beat for the verses combines a sprightly acoustic guitar riff with a funky drum beat, and Mike Taylor's singing is soulful, in a discount Aloe Blacc kind of way  Then, Afrojack just HAD to bring in a bass-drop segment that sounds NOTHING like the rest of the song!  I ought to sue him, because I could get whiplash from that transition, or lack thereof!

Biggest Guilty Pleasure
What defines a guilty pleasure?  According to Wikipedia, "A guilty pleasure is something, such as a movie, a television program or a piece of music, that one enjoys despite feeling that it is not generally held in high regard."  You'll notice the term not used in that description is "a bad song".  You won't see much overlap between these nominees and those of the upcoming Worst Song category, because if a song managed, time and time again, to keep me tuned in despite myself, it must be doing something right.

- "Bad Blood (Remix)" by Taylor Swift & Kendrick Lamar (#15)
- "Dear Future Husband" by Meghan Trainor (#74)
- "G.D.F.R" by Flo Rida, Sage the Gemini, and Lookas (#32)
- "Hotline Bling" by Drake (#30)
- "Jealous" by Nick Jonas (#38)
- "Marvin Gaye" by Charlie Puth & Meghan Trainor (#74)
- "Trap Queen" by Fetty Wap (#4)
- "Uma Thurman" by Fall Out Boy (#60)

The winner: "Uma Thurman" by Fall Out Boy
Oh, Fall Out Boy... as we say on TV Tropes, you are just so "adorkable".  Despite this song's previous nominations and/or wins for Worst Sample and Worst Lyric, its mistakes in those regards are still endearing.  Yeah, the Munsters theme sample doesn't fit into a song supposedly about an actress from Pulp Fiction, and virtually every line in the song makes zero sense whatsoever.  The end result is that I just cannot take this song seriously, but I never got the impression that was what Fall Out Boy were going for.  And now that we've established that, I am left free to enjoy this song's company as I please.

My Wildcard entry for this category is “[noun], I’m Madonna” by Madonna & Nicki Minaj.  Maybe it's because I find most dubstep unintentionally hilarious, and "[noun], I'm Madonna" takes just the right cues from dubstep to keep me laughing in spite of myself.  It's loud, obnoxious, in your face, and I just can't stay mad at it.

Surprisingly Best Song
There are quite a few artists out there who have never impressed me with their bodies of work, so I just write them off as stuff that's just not for me.  But every so often, the planets align or something, and I discover a song I end up liking, only to discover it was by one of those artists.  These are the songs which prove that hope springs eternal.  By the way, in the interest of full disclosure, this was the category that inspired me to do this award-show dealie instead of a traditional top-ten list.

- "Hey Mama" by David Guetta, Nicki Minaj, Bebe Rexha, & Afrojack (#31)
- "See You Again" by Wiz Khalifa & Charlie Puth (#3)
- "Style" by Taylor Swift (#29)
- "Time Of Our Lives" by Pitbull & Ne-Yo (#39)
- "Want To Want Me" by Jason Derulo (#17)
- "Where Are U Now" by Skrillex, Diplo, & Justin Bieber (#19)

The winner: "Want To Want Me" by Jason Derulo
"Time of Our Lives" was probably the best song out of the pack, and "Where Are U Now" demonstrated improvement for two artists, Justin Bieber and Skrillex.  But for the purposes of this category, the award has to go to Jason Derulo.  I've never liked the little twerp, especially last year when the double-whammy of "Talk Dirty" and "Wiggle" resulted in his worst showing since his unforgivable first single.  So you can imagine my surprise when he followed that up with something actually tolerable.  He seems to have traded in his ear-raping vocal flourishes in favour of a straight-up falsetto, and it works in a Prince sort of way.   This analogy is further served by the music and its 80s-funk synthy production.  And the lyrics are still kinda pervy, but at least he's not directing his lust towards you, the listener.  So through this song, Jason Derulo has finally found his niche: pretending to be other people.  (Bruno Mars says hi.)

Furthermore, if I had done a category for the surprisingly worst song, the "winner" would have been "FourFiveSeconds" by Rihanna, Kanye West, and Paul McCartney.  Let's see... I like McCartney, I like Kanye, and... I was willing to be positively surprised by Rihanna.  However, I was disappointed on all accounts.  Rihanna's voice is all squeaky and scratchy, almost as if she didn't have time to warm up her vocals before recording.  (Although at least she's restored the range she had before her years of constant singles wore her down.)  Sir McCartney just sticks to a low-key ukelele riff, and while I know he was never much of a shredder, is still kinda lame.  Kanye probably came out the best out of all three artists, but he just can't get across his emotions to the full when he's not rapping (his own songs).  Which is kind of a dealbreaker, because for a song that's supposed to be about losing one's temper, it just sounds quirky and not in the least bit angry.

Worst New Artist
One of the major categories at the Grammy awards is the "Best New Artist" category.  A running joke about the Grammys is that this award generally tends to spell doom for the careers of those who win it.  For proof, look at its lineup of such illustrious alumni as the Starland Vocal Band, Debby Boone, Men at Work, and Marc Cohn.  Plus, one such winner was Milli Vanilli who, as you know, got caught lip-syncing with performers who didn't even sing on the record, and as punishment had their award revoked.  So in the interest of riffing on them, I present in turn my award for the worst new artist of 2015.  if nothing else, consider it payback for all the love they gave Sam Smith last year.  NOTE: Nominees were selected from the 2015 Top New Artists chart.

- Charlie Puth (New Artists #7)
- Fetty Wap (New Artists #1)
- Rachel Platten (New Artists #6)
- Silentó (New Artists #4)
- T-Wayne (New Artists #9)

The "winner": Silentó
Silentó's debut hit this year was "Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae)" a song, such as it is, which consists entirely of calls to do whatever stupid dance steps have been floating around middle-school dance parties and Vine videos over the past decade.  I mean, pretty much literally, that's all there is.  In interviews,  Silentó says that what he writes "just pops in my brain, and I just write the record before it go[es] away"2 , and it shows.  Silentó fails as a singer, he fails as a songwriter, and he fails as someone who shows even the slightest sliver of promise for a musical career.

I only have two categories left for these inaugural SDP Music Awards: Worst Song and Best Song.  Now, being the two biggest and most vague categories of this ceremony, I decided to add a little blurb to go with each of the nominees, explaining why they belong there.  And I even managed ten nominees for each category.  However, this article's gone on long enough already, so I've decided to split them off into their own post.  Until then, stay very cool, people!

1 Yahn, Emily.  "Why stations are pulling Little Big Town’s 'Girl Crush' - and what that says about country radio".  The Washington Post, 25 March 2015.

2 Jones, Kathryn E.  "Meet Silento, the 17-Year-Old Who Has the Nation Whipping and Nae-Nae-ing".  Vibe.  2 July 2015.

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