Jan 3 2023

Top 50 Albums of 2022

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Jan 2 2023

Top 300 Tracks of 2022

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Jan 1 2023

Quarterly Review – October-December 2022

Once every three months I list the best of what I heard in albums/songs/remixes for the quarter. I do this to personally keep up with all the awesome music I hear, as it ultimately helps me at the end of the year when I do my overall listing for the previous twelve months. I also do it to introduce you cool cats to tunes you may have missed independently.

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Oct 31 2022

Taylor Swift and the Continuing Decline of the Billboard Hot 100

Today Billboard released the latest Top Ten of their flagship chart, the Hot 100, and historically speaking, it’s a doozy. For the first time ever, one artist has dominated the entire ten spots. That artist is Taylor Swift. And all the songs are from her newest album Midnights.

For those of you who are chart watchers like myself, you already know how this happened. For those of you who don’t, basically Billboard changed its rules regarding the Hot 100 a few years back to better reflect the public’s tastes in the Streaming Era. And while the company has altered its policies many times before, this time it was particularly significant, in that, over time, it has completely transformed the look (and relevancy) of the chart.

In the 1990s, record companies got the bright idea that they could ship singles to radio and decline to press physical copies, forcing consumers to purchase the entire album outright. Once the practice got so ridiculous that HUGE songs weren’t seeing proper placement on the country’s biggest singles chart, Billboard decided to change the rule. Another big change happened in the mid-2010s, when streams and sampling on platforms like Spotify and YouTube were included in tabulations, resulting in the overnight success of Baauer’s “Harlem Shake” meme and Psy’s ubiquitous “Gangnam Style.”

But the latest major rule change to the Hot 100 has basically rendered it an absurd shell of the important document it once was. Now ANY song, new or old, single or album cut, can see placement on the chart. It’s no longer a singles chart, it’s a songs chart. And that means when a blockbuster album from a marquee artist drops, you will see most, or usually, all, of the songs from that album chart on the Hot 100, in addition to the actual project topping the album-focused Billboard 200.

This post isn’t an album review, for the record. I’ve got nothing against Taylor Swift or her record-setting feat here. She’s a huge star, and huge stars should rack up big numbers. To paraphrase the artist herself, she’s NOT the problem, it’s NOT her. Billboard, and the way they have diluted the relevancy of their most prominent product, is the problem.

Today’s record-breaking feat has been a long time coming; just last year, Drake notched nine out of the ten spots when his Certified Lover Boy project dropped. So really today’s news isn’t surprising, or even interesting, it’s just exasperating. Why should we care when chart records are broken in the streaming age, when they’re seemingly broken three or four times a year? When the Beatles captured the top five spots in April 1964, it was at the height of Beatlemania, a cultural phenomenon that dominated almost every single conversation happening around Western culture at the time, with record buyers packing into retail stores and purchasing stacks of physical copies of 45s, calling radio stations nonstop to hear those singles repeatedly, and even dropping spare change into jukeboxes to listen ad nauseam. Those five singles are all remembered fondly; they are compositions a huge number of the population still know every word to. In a word, they are timeless.

That Top Five dominance was an unprecedented chart record that remained unbroken for five decades. But once Billboard retooled their rules to better reflect the numbers in the streaming economy, that record was decimated. And the result is a handful of songs topping the biggest music chart in the world that will leave no lasting cultural footprint. Ask yourself this: will those top nine Drake songs be remembered the way “Can’t Buy Me Love” or “Please Please Me” is? How about those deep album cuts from a veteran pop star’s tenth album? Of course not. Some of them might not even be on the chart at all next week, as we have seen countless times before.

The other frustrating thing with the Swift album (and of course we’ve seen this before, too) is a song’s chart placement based on where they fall on the album’s tracklist, as an astute Stereogum commenter noted today (and I’ve screenshot below). Basically this is evidence that these songs aren’t actually liked by the public, they’re just being listened to as millions of people browse the album for the first time. The ones out of order usually get a boost because they were also released as promotional singles or achieved virality through memes or TikTok. As evidence of a larger trend, because the streaming economy has rendered music a near-valueless product, we can now see the Hot 100 not as an indication of how people are spending their dollars on songs, but rather how they are spending their time. And the public’s attention is very, very fleeting.

To be fair, the Hot 100 has always been a reflection of the populace’s music tastes at any given time, and so it is usually, from week to week, a stale endeavor, as songs of varying quality slowly rise and fall as tastes ebb and flow. Historically, however, and as a whole, the Hot 100 is a beautiful way of researching cultural trends, changing behaviors and shifting attitudes. To an extent, it still can be. Even before Taylor Swift’s gatecrashing, the chart recently saw the slow TikTok-aided climb of indie artist Steve Lacy’s well-deserved number one smash “Bad Habit,” not to mention the first number one from both a non-binary and transgender artist in Sam Smith and Kim Petras’ “Unholy.” And once the dust settles, it’s very likely the hits that were previously atop the chart will return next week (with a couple of enduring Taylor tracks, most likely the singles she’s decided to make promotional videos for). Of course, their reign will be disrupted once again after Drake and 21 Savage release their highly anticipated collaborative project Her Loss on November 4th. And here we go again.

So, then, what’s the point of this chart at all? What does it signify now? Is it now just another indication of the collapse of the monoculture, a glimpse of how ephemeral our society has become? I’m not sure exactly how Billboard should fix this problem – and, though others might disagree, it’s definitely a problem, not just for Billboard, but the industry at large. Because in its current iteration, the Hot 100 looks absurd, and if the trend continues, the entire chart might become something it’s never been before: utterly meaningless.

Sep 30 2022

Quarterly Review – July-September 2022

Once every three months I list the best of what I heard in albums/songs/remixes for the quarter. I do this to personally keep up with all the awesome music I hear, as it ultimately helps me at the end of the year when I do my overall listing for the previous twelve months. I also do it to introduce you cool cats to tunes you may have missed independently.

Continue reading

Jun 30 2022

Quarterly Review – April-June 2022

Once every three months I list the best of what I heard in albums/songs/remixes for the quarter. I do this to personally keep up with all the awesome music I hear, as it ultimately helps me at the end of the year when I do my overall listing for the previous twelve months. I also do it to introduce you cool cats to tunes you may have missed independently.

Continue reading

Mar 31 2022

Quarterly Review – January-March 2022

Once every three months I list the best of what I heard in albums/songs/remixes for the quarter. I do this to personally keep up with all the awesome music I hear, as it ultimately helps me at the end of the year when I do my overall listing for the previous twelve months. I also do it to introduce you cool cats to tunes you may have missed independently.

Continue reading

Mar 25 2022

Song Review: TLC – Waterfalls

When I was a kid, I had no idea “Waterfalls” had a rap verse for a long, long time. This actually happened with a lot of R&B songs that had rap verses. Blackstreet’s “No Diggity” is another one that comes to mind. Because my local pop radio station had this infuriating practice of cutting the rap verse “for time” during the midday shifts, but when I listened in my bedroom in the evening, suddenly I would hear the full song, rap verse intact. I suspect my local station wasn’t the only station in America that did this, and I also suspect it wasn’t done “for time.” If the whole point was to get to the commercials quicker, wouldn’t that logic still apply during the evening hours? I was still hearing ads, but now I was hearing rap verses.

Of course it was racially motivated; maybe the station just thought white listeners, who weren’t used to hearing rap verses on their radio in the 90s, would change the channel. Sure, they were playing chart-topping R&B hits, which were integral to modern Black music, that had Black messages, but the rap verses? That was a bridge too far, I guess. We couldn’t have that. We couldn’t have the best part of the song.

In the case of “Waterfalls,” the rap verse from Lisa Left Eye Lopes is not only the best part of the song, it’s actually the most important part of the song. It’s the part that explains the song’s message in the most explicit terms. It’s a message of tough love, of realism, and ultimately of hope. In “Waterfalls,” we get two sung verses about young people making bad decisions, and of course, the chorus, which uses a metaphor of a waterfall to act as a word of caution. But the rap verse is the one that lays it all out, that talks about Black American struggle, of poor American struggle, of the challenge of keeping one’s faith. “Waterfalls” is a very REAL song, that deals with real shit. It was like nothing else on the radio. Especially that rap verse.

There’s a moment after the second verse of the song, sung by T-Boz. In the verse, she talks about a young man who falls victim to HIV because of his decisions. It’s a tragic few lines, but at the end, before the chorus kicks in, T-Boz sings “y’all don’t hear me.” It’s a poignant moment, mainly because it’s true. The majority of people who hear “Waterfalls” likely aren’t listening too closely to the lyrics, they’re vibing to the song. The production is laid back and casual and evocative of the style of hip-hop at the time. The horn samples and effects-laden guitar are based in funk; they’re certainly more playful than the lyrics they’re attached to. The effect should be jarring, but it actually helps “Waterfalls” not get bogged down in its message. It pairs perfectly with the overall thesis, which is ultimately one of optimism, especially that rap verse from Left Eye. “Dreams are hopeless aspirations / In hopes of coming true / Believe in yourself / The rest is up to me and you.”

Score: 10/10

Mar 23 2022

Song Review: Bryan Adams – Have You Ever Really Loved A Woman

Move over Ricky Martin, here comes Bry- oh just kidding. The Latin explosion of the late 90s was a real, authentic, notable moment, but before that, flamenco flourishes in Anglo pop music were mostly a novelty, especially when deployed by a balladeer like Bryan Adams. And no amount of Spanish guitar could save this track from becoming yet another work-for-hire theme for another forgotten 90s movie soundtrack.

The Spanish-tinged production (courtesy of Mutt Lange, hilariously) likely has something to do with the movie the song is tied to – the Marlon Brando / Johnny Depp rom-com Don Juan DeMarco. I haven’t seen this movie, but I have read its plot synopsis on Wikipedia, and it sounds very, very dumb. It has a 70% on Rotten Tomatoes, and it made money at the box office, so perhaps Brando’s performance gives it the gravitas it probably needed. Apparently, however, Depp has a fake Spanish accent, so yeah…. doesn’t sound great!

Adams, for his part in his latest Hollywood escapade, does not pretend to be a Spanish person. The results would have been undeniably terrible, but at least interesting. Instead we get another plodding movie ballad from the raspy Canadian crooner; the effect is the same as that of his previous #1 songs. I’m not sure if I could tell them apart without that flamenco guitar, to be quite honest. The main melodic hook is memorable, but overused, and the song drags along far too long, with Adams’s overwrought, wannabe Rod Stewart delivery fully at the forefront. The lyrics describe getting to know a woman so intimately that you can “taste her” and “see your unborn children in her eyes.” As the kids would say, they are cringe af.

Tom Breihan’s Number Ones column revealed to me that Tori Amos and Michael Stipe were considered for a song for Don Juan DeMarco instead of Adams, and they even wrote and recorded one that has never been released. Oh, what we could have had.

Score: 3/10

Mar 21 2022

Random Song Reviews – 3/15-3/21/2022

Bob Moses – Love Brand New

Canadian duo Bob Moses have garnered a large (but probably not devoted) fanbase with their safe, staid blend of alt-radio-ready, festival-friendly, electronic-based pleasantries. Their sound is designed for late night studying or other activities that don’t require someone to actively listen, but rather take in the whole… you know, vibe. They fit in nicely with an approach that has worked well in recent years: music that is designed to comfort and fill a room, rather than captivate and feed a soul.

Their latest single “Love Brand New” is more of the same, tired, moody atmospherics. The beat and synths wash over the listener with little effect, similar to an uninteresting style Jungle mastered a few years back. The chorus is somewhat catchy, though not enough to render any active repeats. But that’s not the point, is it? This isn’t music anyone seeks out on their own; it comes to them via mood-fitting Spotify playlists and radio stations that have Imagine Dragons in heavy rotation. It fits somewhere almost too well… and then it disappears just as quickly as it came.

Score: 3/10

Machine Gun Kelly & Lil Wayne – Ay!

MGK took a calculated, market-tested risk when he pivoted from rapper to pop-punker, and after that success he’s now able to remake himself once again into a trap pop star akin to blackbear or another second-rate Post Malone. He does just that on his newest single from Mainstream Sellout; it’s a pleasant enough track with a memorable sampled vocal hook and an unsurprising work-for-hire verse from Weezy. This version of Kelly honestly feels more authentic than his Hot Topic posturing, which has had bright moments but overall just feels more like a rebranding adventure than an actual creative shift. He’s already making clear with “Ay!” that he’s not committing to anything other than chasing trends and streams, so why should we?

Score: 6/10

Dominic Fike & Zendaya – Elliot’s Song

As of this writing, I have yet to watch a single minute of Euphoria, though I intend to correct that error soon. At this point, I’ll just say that the show is probably the closest example we’ll get in 2022 that there is some form of monoculture still alive and thriving. It seems like Euphoria has dominated the conversation (or at least my Twitter feed) for months, even weeks after its latest season has concluded. This likely has a lot to do with the pervasive effect the show has had on music streaming services and the Billboard charts; the dream of The O.C. music supervisors is alive and well twenty years later. But this isn’t just limited to increased streams of older songs, but even tracks made specifically for the show. Case in point is this viral track from cast members Dominic Fike and Zendaya, sung in character.

Maybe the song is effective in the context of the plot, but as a standalone track it’s incredibly tepid. Zendaya’s background vocals add a bit of flair, but “Elliot’s Song” can’t be lifted from its acoustic-based plod. Fike’s vocals are mumbled and unconfident; rather than set a particular tone, they absorb into a formless blob of indistinct dead air. The song is painfully boring and likely unrepresentative of the scandalous show I’ve heard so much about.

Score: 3/10

TLC – Creep

The story of TLC is a tragic one, filled with label betrayal, arson, and eventually the death of one of its members. But you wouldn’t really know that listening to their hit singles, most of which were playful, devious, horny, or all of the above. TLC were ridiculously forward-thinking, and now they sound timeless. Their first chart-topper “Creep” is a great example of the confidence the trio evoked.

Of course we all know what “Creep” is about; it’s certainly not great advice for any relationship. Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes refused to participate on the song due to its message of revenge infidelity and references to toxic power dynamics. (The group’s next #1 “Waterfalls” would contain more of a pragmatic, positive message, probably more to Left Eye’s liking.) But never has a song about cheating sounded so damn convincing, so reasonable, and so… well, fun. Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins glides over the beat with a husky, slightly raspy delivery, almost as if she’s relaxing after a romp in the sheets with her side piece. Line after line, she justifies her unforgivable actions, and you don’t want to take her side, but you can’t help yourself.

Dallas Austin’s production sounds just as effortless and cool; a trumpet loop mixes perfectly with a satisfyingly hard-hitting Slick Rick drum sample as T-Boz and Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas ooze nothing but swagger. Austin made the beat and then got out of the way, and it shows: TLC’s charisma is all over this thing, and it carries “Creep” to classic status.

Score: 10/10

Madonna – Take a Bow

And so we enter Madonna’s successful “good girl” phase, as she herself called it, and thank god it didn’t last long. After scandalizing the world with Erotica and the infamous Sex book, the star received a slight backlash… and a slight downturn in unit shifting and chart placement. The course correction came via the album Bedtime Stories, a very of-its-time R&B-influenced album that is not one of Madonna’s best efforts. She worked with a lot of big-name producers of the day, but maybe none were as well-known as Babyface, who co-wrote “Take a Bow,” her #1 smash from this period. Typically we think of Madonna as an artist who always had her finger on the pulse before the rest of the world did; many times in her impressive career, she was setting the trends rather than chasing hits. With this era, and “Take a Bow” we see a brief exception to that narrative.

Any pop fan in 1995 would have grown excited for a Babyface/Madonna collaboration, but the end result sounds fairly phoned in by both artists’ standards. The melody doesn’t fade from memory as quickly as the tepid “This Used To Be My Playground,” but Madonna’s play-it-straight delivery is a bit alarming, given her usual commanding presence. Compared to the grand statements we usually get from her best-known ballads, her delivery here sounds like she needs a nap. Meanwhile, Babyface borrows from the same template that was garnering big R&B hits for him and others; the only difference, really, is a tasteful string arrangement, a first for the producer.

“Take a Bow” finds Madonna trying to fit in with the trends of the time, rather than calling the shots; she holds her own on a track designed for more melismatic runs from peers like Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men, but that doesn’t make the song memorable.

Score: 4/10

Montell Jordan – This Is How We Do It

The influence of Slick Rick is all over “This Is How We Do It,” but then, at the time it seemed like he was everywhere. He was sampled in TLC’s “Creep” (which you just read about) and previously I’ve written about “Here Comes the Hotstepper” from Ini Kamoze, another #1 hit from this era that sampled Rick. In the mid-90s there was a ton of goodwill around the legendary rapper, who was serving time for a shooting. Montell Jordan even imitates Slick Rick in his rap verse on “This Is How We Do It” and it’s pretty impressive, no joke.

Actually, all of “This Is How We Do It” is impressive. The “Children’s Story” beat and piano melody it lifts is one of those timeless hip-hop creations that seems ageless. But while Slick Rick’s track dealt with a cautionary narrative, Jordan’s song is all about partying. Legend has it he invited over two dozen people in the studio for the recording, which likely explains all the background talking and party atmosphere on the track. Jordan is a charismatic presence, paying tribute to his hometown of South Central LA in memorable fashion. Everyone in my generation knows every word to this song; Jordan’s one-liners are seemingly endless and iconic.

This is technically an R&B single, but it feels more like a hip-hop track, due to the sample and Jordan’s rap-adjacent cadence (and aforementioned rap verse). This was the direction R&B was moving, as rap started to dominate the conversation thanks to people like Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg. This trend would continue, as we started seeing more hip-hop inspired tracks from artists like Mariah Carey, and eventually, rappers that sing more than actually rap. It didn’t start with “This Is How We Do It” (probably we should give credit to R&B royalty Mary J. Blige’s “Real Love”), but Montell Jordan was the one who took the style all the way to #1 for the first time. And with placement on current TV shows Yellowjackets and Euphoria (soundtracking party scenes in both instances), the song and its “Children’s Story” sample have aged unbelievably well.

Score: 10/10