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.

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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

Mar 14 2022

Random Song Reviews – 3/8-3/14/2022

Boyz II Men – I’ll Make Love To You

The early 90s were something of a golden era for R&B. We had the likes of R. Kelly, Jodeci, Silk and others scoring big hits, and a lot of those songs were freaky deaky shit. For a (scorching) hot second there, it looked like the clean cut quartet in Boyz II Men were playing catch up to a genre that had suddenly gotten a LOT hornier in just a couple years. The burgeoning success of gangsta rap and the raunchy lyrics of artists like The Notorious B.I.G. and Snoop Dogg forced R&B to dive deep into the sexy slow jam template. Boyz II Men had to follow suit, but they were going to do it on their own terms.

The end result was “I’ll Make Love To You,” a boilerplate slow jam with pristine 90s production that followed the formula of their blockbuster song “End of the Road” a little too well. The song was written and produced by hitmaker Babyface, a guy who knew exactly what he was doing in order to make a monster hit. Throughout “I’ll Make Love To You,” he layered keyboards, steady percussion, and canned strings to the desired effect, while Boyz II Men gave a melismatic vocal run around ridiculous, soft-focus lyrics about candles, a fireplace, and (duh) sweet, sweet lovemaking, baby.

The whole ordeal is laid on a little too thick, to the point where, if there’s any humor to be found in the sterilized lyrics and overwrought arrangement, the joke wears out its welcome pretty quickly. At least Boyz II Men’s peers sang about sex with a fiendish, ribald hunger, like they were wild animals. But that just wasn’t this quartet’s brand; they couldn’t sex you up or sing about knockin’ boots or how they were going to be freaks in the sheets. They had to class it up. They were going to “make love,” a phrase so sanitized and old-fashioned it must have sounded odd even in 1994. In the hands of Boyz II Men, sex isn’t a fun activity, but an act to express intense devotion. The Billboard charts don’t lie; a lot of people liked that message. But I prefer a little more heat in my slow jams, and “I’ll Make Love To You” strikes me as ice cold.

Score: 4/10

Ini Kamoze – Here Comes The Hotstepper

By 1994, Ini Kamoze was an elder statesman of Jamaican reggae and dancehall, but in America he was basically unknown. That all changed with the unlikely rise of “Here Comes The Hotstepper,” a great song that’s only made better by its unusual history. You can read that history here, courtesy of Tom Breihan’s excellent Number Ones column on Stereogum, which I recommend adding to your regular online reading digest.

Breihan’s entry also runs down all the samples used in “Hotstepper,” and there are quite a few. This was the standard practice in the early 90s, and it made for a glorious, adventurous era in hip-hop that sadly faded once the clearance process became more structured. Producer Salaam Remi added a mix of old and new sounds and references to craft a hip-hop song with dancehall cred; US audiences were already primed for this sound thanks to artists like Snow. Meanwhile Kamoze’s work on the track is confident and clever. He glides over the track with absurdly fun one-liners and endless hooks, and his patois, unlike the aforementioned Snow, is coherent and accessible to American ears.

“Here Comes the Hotstepper” is a JAM. It’s a 90s hip-hop song with dancehall flavor, and it works in every moment. Every sample is immaculately utilized, every one-liner perfectly timed, every hook strategically placed and repeated for maximum effect. It boggles my mind that it took so long to climb the Hot 100, but this was the era of Boyz II Men dominance, so in that context it makes sense. Regardless, the track is so damn fun it renders itself somewhat timeless, especially since Jamaican-influenced sounds would continue to make their way into pop music. “Here Comes The Hotstepper” hits just as hard as it first did on the dance floors of 1994.

Score: 9/10

Mar 7 2022

Random Song Reviews – 3/1-3/7/2022


R. Kelly – Bump N’ Grind

Let’s attempt to set aside the elephant in the room and solely focus on this awful song…. oh, who am I kidding? This is R. Kelly we’re talking about here, convicted sex offender and all-around terrible person. He’s certainly not the first atrocious human being to score a #1 hit… but he’s perhaps the first to blatantly tell us who he was in his music, so much so that listening to his output will make the listener feel complicit. That he was able to make sex romps for so long while news of his criminal activity persisted through the decades is a fact we all will have to live with.

Looking back at his first chart topper, 1994’s “Bump N’ Grind,” it’s impossible to separate the art from the artist. His desperately horny persona was a perfect fit for the pervasive style of R&B that was trendy at the time. The music was extreme, emotional, passionate, but, I would argue, not always completely genuine. I’ve written about this recently when reviewing hits from Silk and Boyz II Men. Some acts were aware that the music was ridiculous and funny, and that was part of the appeal. And for a while, that’s what R. Kelly was doing, too. This is a guy who made “Trapped In the Closet,” for god’s sake. He knew what was going on. From the acapella intro that everyone remembers to that incessantly repetitive refrain, “Bump N’ Grind” dives head first into that experience, and it introduced the entire world to R. Kelly. But the song is one-note, overwrought, and not nearly as engrossing as other similar hits of the time. And, as Kelly’s actions came to light, the humorous aspect of “Bump N’ Grind” completely vanished.

Score: 2/10

All-4-One – I Swear

Can we all just take a moment to chuckle at the fact that All-4-One was basically an R&B vehicle for John Michael Montgomery songs that were too twangy for 90s pop radio? Not only did they take “I Swear” all the way to #1 on the Hot 100, but their only other Top Ten song was ANOTHER Montgomery country hit, the superior “I Can Love You Like That.”

Due to my age in 1994, and probably because I was raised in the Texas Panhandle, I heard the original country version of “I Swear” first; it likely happened while riding with my mom in the car. I didn’t even know about All-4-One, or their then-ubiquitous cover of the song, for several years. The country version maintains a special place in my heart, probably for nostalgic reasons, and also because it’s way, way better than All-4-One’s version. “I Swear” in Montgomery’s hands is a typical country ballad. It’s filled with earnest lyrics about devotion and soaked in pedal steel. But it also feels genuine, and that all comes down to Montgomery’s world-weary delivery. He truly sounds like he’s ready to settle down and, for better or worse, til death do they part, love his girl with every beat of his heart.

In comparison, All-4-One’s cover sounds like a sappy cash grab, swallowed by the pop ballad production tropes of its era. Those are courtesy of David Foster, the same guy who built an arrangement for another pop hit with origins on the country charts, Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You.” With that one, Foster’s staid choices are saved by Houston’s otherworldly vocal performance. Sadly, All-4-One, a then-newcomer vocal group, cannot rescue Foster this time around.

It’s not really fair to compare All-4-One (or anyone, really) to Whitney Houston. Instead we should compare them to other vocal groups that were all the rage in 1994. But after sex-soaked #1 singles from Silk and R. Kelly, All-4-One were relatively safe and radio-friendly. They were more like Boyz II Men, but with less vocal talent, to be frank. With “I Swear” the quartet plays it fairly straight, delivering the song without much flair or vamping. All the guys were pretty young, and their delivery gives that away; they hit all the notes and have a knack for four-part harmony, but they sound timid and unremarkable. Meanwhile, Foster lays on the sentimental gloop via snaps, cymbals, keyboard plink-plonking, and a syrupy soft-focus sax solo.

After All-4-One flirted with the Hot 100, via two songs from the same Nashville star, they faded into obscurity, and eventually the 90s nostalgia touring circuit. If there’s a country version of that tour, I think I’d rather see John Michael Montgomery, or at least hear his version. I swear.

Score: 3/10

Lisa Loeb – Stay (I Missed You)

Lisa Loeb’s only chart topper perfectly represents a moment in time. In the early 90s alt-rock had infiltrated the cultural zeitgeist almost completely, but you wouldn’t know that from looking at the Hot 100. There’s a number of reasons for that, some of which have to do with Billboard’s rules for the chart at the time. But probably the biggest reason is a lot of that music wasn’t really designed for a mainstream audience. Bands like Nirvana and Alice In Chains were loud and confrontational, and artists like Celine Dion and Boyz II Men made songs that were more accessible. With her biggest hit, Loeb seemed to bridge the gap, if only in a very nebulous sense.

“Stay” is the most enduring song from the Reality Bites soundtrack; the film is also a product of its time, but we won’t get into that. The track’s core melody is undeniably catchy and pretty, yet the song structure is a bit unorganized, at least for a pop hit. Loeb sings conflictingly about a confusing point in a romantic relationship. The song successfully found a home on several radio formats at the time; it worked as a pleasant adult-contempo track, a pop song, and, yes, an alternative radio track. But instead of being loud and abrasive, “Stay” was a bit of a precursor to the staid Lilith Fair trend that happened later in the decade. Lisa Loeb was the first of a wave of female singer-songwriter types that ran adjacent to what was happening in alternative rock, sometimes sounding more plaintive and honest than aloof and angsty. “Stay” is the closest representation of the alt-rock boom on Billboard’s biggest chart, and it sounds nothing like the music from the biggest bands of that period.

I like the song, but somewhat indifferently. In 1994, this style of acoustic pop was probably pretty unique; Lisa Loeb (and her thick-rimmed glasses) was a new kind of musician that echoed the Laurel Canyon sounds from the 1970s more than the emotive balladeers of her own time. Without the success of “Stay” we probably wouldn’t have signature 90s hits from Natalie Imbruglia, Shawn Colvin, Paula Cole and the like. But the song itself, while pleasant to listen to, doesn’t really move me. I suppose I enjoy pop’s more histrionic moments than I would like to admit; for me, the track plays it a little too straight, and it comes and goes with little resonance. “Stay” is perfectly fine and an important cultural touchstone, but as a standalone song, I could take it or leave it.

Score: 6/10


Portugal. The Man – What, Me Worry?

Who actively chooses to listen to this? I blame Beck for this stale amalgamation of disco-tinged, orchestra-sampling boredom destined for supermarket PA systems. It sounds like something in the lineage of Midnite Vultures, but far less interesting. Maybe actually I should blame Pharrell Williams and his deathless hit “Happy”, because “What, Me Worry?”, as the title implies, is a derivative, formless pastiche of feel-good mashed potatoes, as forgettable as a bad issue of Mad Magazine. Perhaps I shouldn’t be pointing fingers, because the song actually could be from a number of influences, all of which combine into something designed for the current, risk-averse era of alternative radio we’re living in. It’s a song so unbelievably boring and unmemorable that the artificial joy the song attempts to evoke actually makes me quite sad.

Score: 2/10

Feb 28 2022

Album Review: Def Leppard – Hysteria (#MWE)

Let’s state the obvious first: Hysteria is a monster of an album. We’re talking thundering drums, loud-ass guitars, screeching solos, to-the-rafters vocals from Joe Elliott, in-the-pocket background vocals from everyone else, unforgiving hooks. It’s an hour-plus of Mutt Lange-produced maximalism. Even when the tempo slows (as on hit “Love Bites”), everything is still in the red. The choruses are confrontational, even when you know they’re coming (and you always know when they’re coming). It’s an album of its time. You can vividly see all of the big hair if you close your eyes.

Hysteria sold 20 million copies worldwide, buttressed by hit songs like the deathless stripper anthem “Pour Some Sugar On Me” and the fucking excellent title track. But anyone who bought the record probably wasn’t disappointed with the rest; every song follows the same template, and it all sounds, rather gloriously, like the summer of 1987.

Four years had passed since Def Leppard had broken through to the masses with their smash album Pyromania, and the band almost missed their shot to capitalize on the glam metal takeover that would come to define the decade. The band began work with Jim Steinman before parting ways; apparently the Bat Out Of Hell mastermind was too grandiose and not pop-focused enough for Def Leppard’s objectives.

Tragedy struck the band when drummer Rick Allen lost his arm to a horrific car crash; the ensuing overzealous media coverage inspired the album’s title. This event, of course, delayed recording, but probably the biggest slowdown was Lange’s meticulous attention to detail; he had ambitiously sought to make the hair metal version of Thriller, where every song could conceivably be released as a single. This resulted in a laborious process of stacking and processing background vocal harmonies and painstakingly filtering drum sounds through a Fairlight CMI sampler.

I love the 80s, but the whole hair metal thing has eluded me. There was something about the sameness of the sound, the overused, indistinct template of big gated drums and screeching guitar solos that I found slightly off-putting. As a fan of big hooks, pop production, and pyrotechnics, there are moments and songs I have enjoyed, but as a whole I had dismissed the era as dated, something that you had to be there for to truly enjoy. It was slightly before my time, which means that by the time I was paying attention to what was in fashion, hair metal was very, very uncool – old enough to seem out of touch, and not old enough to have been critically reassessed.

With that background in context, I really enjoyed my cursory listen to this grandiose, expensive-sounding album. Hysteria is a lot of fun, if completely trapped in the moment it was created. Most songs work by themselves as potential radio singles, but taken as a whole it all starts to sound the same. That’s one misstep from Mutt Lange and the band, I think. They completely overdid it – in an effort to make the glam version of Thriller, they forgot an important element to that blockbuster album from Michael Jackson. It works as a collection of great pop songs, sure, but it’s also a fantastic album – a diverse listen from start to finish (and of adequate length). Hysteria has too much going on, and a lot of it is the same thing over and over. No amount of monster hooks is going to fix that issue.

The whole ordeal of recording and producing Hysteria was excessive and expensive and the end result was shiny and glossy and ready for mass consumption. Are those Ronald Reagan samples in “Gods of War?” Is Hysteria the most 1980s album ever? I will not attempt to answer these burning questions. Instead, all I can say is that the entire listen is egregiously slick, regularly brilliant, and occasionally overcooked. But, more than anything, it’s a thrill ride.

Score: 7/10