As summer nears its sputtering end, the time seems right for our annual rite of passage: I will listen to all of Billboard’s Top 40 pop songs consecutively, counting down from 40 to 1.
A wise young prince once said that it’s like summer’s a natural aphrodisiac, so perhaps it’s time to give popular music another chance. To see if we can find love and romance, not suffering and missing teeth.
Last year’s match-up was bruising and intense, but I came out victorious. It was one of those fights, though, where even when you win you’re never the same again. It was my Thrilla in Manilla, and will.i.am is my Smokin’ Joe Frazier. I’ve spent much of the intervening 16 months in a concussed haze, wandering the country’s highways and byways and wondering where it all went wrong. Wondering how what passes for popular music in this declining age is so consistently unlistenable garbage.
And now the Top 40 wants another shot at me. I don’t know if I can handle it again. The body blows. The rabbit punches. The Ke$ha.
But fighters fight. That’s how we do. Lace me up, motherfuckers.
To be clear, I have not peeked ahead at the countdown. I have no prior knowledge of what awaits me in the hours to come. I will simply start at #40, press play, then scroll up.
40. Take a Back Road/Rodney Atkins
We start off with a typical modern country song — all of the twang with none of the authenticity. Atkins references George Strait early in this paean to getting away from traffic. Good topic. Just a good, worthwhile topic for a song. “Back Road” is as blandly inoffensive as you’d expect from a country song popular enough to make Billboard‘s pop chart. I know this is a marathon, not a sprint, but the Top 40 is going to have to hit me harder than this to score a knockout. I can listen to 600 Rodney Atkins songs without either breaking a sweat or enjoying a one of them. Perhaps I’ve grown tougher these past 16 months, and more inured to the horrors that pop culture serves up on a daily basis.
39. Every Teardrop is a Waterfall/Coldplay
/runs from the room screaming
Gah! I’d actually never heard this song before despite blogging about what a terrible name it is for a song. Eh. It’s not that awful, I guess. It’s what we’ve come to expect from Mr. Paltrow in this post-Clocks era. I mean, the title is idiotic and the lyrics match — there’s something about “sing a rebel song” — but I’ve certainly heard worse from Coldplay. Don’t get me wrong: it’s not good. It’s pretty fucking far from good. But it’s the absolute ceiling for a Coldplay song called “Every Teardrop is a Waterfall.” Under those conditions, we’ve achieved maximum potential.
38. God Gave Me You/Blake Shelton
Is Blake Shelton an American Idol dude? No, says Mrs. Dilemma. She also informs me that he’s married to Miranda Lambert. This song is interchangeable with the Rodney Atkins song in terms of production, vocals, lyrics and style. It’s just a little more Jesus-y. Nothing of note to hear here — just another pandering country pop ballad. Somewhere Jessica Simpson’s probably getting wet listening to it.
37. E.T./Katy Perry ft. Kanye West
The first song on the countdown I’ve actually heard before, which probably tells you a lot about both me and the countdown. I don’t mind Katy Perry as far as she goes — I’ll take her over the likes of Britney, Christina, Ke$ha and whatever other pop tarts are out there these days. Who knows why? She just never strikes me as though she’s as offensive as the rest of the lot, though I’m sure she is. That being said, this is probably the worst song I’ve heard by her. It’s a silly attempt to match lyrics about making love to an alien with cheesy “spacey” sound effects and synths straight from the ’80s. These sound effects are the aural equivalent of the visual effects in Flash Gordon. Kanye’s guest verse is about as lazy as he gets as a rapper.
36. She Ain’t You/Chris Brown
Beloved, put-upon lady-beater Chris Brown gives us our first truly vile experience of the countdown. “She Ain’t You” is a tough four minutes to get through — there’s no melody, no hook, no interesting instrumentation. Just repetition and half-hearted vocal effects. And lady-beater Chris Brown, who you just know is feeling persecuted as he sings this. Do you think Mike Vick and Chris Brown should have a Persecuted Off? Despite being the less persecuted of the two, and despite arguably committing a more heinous crime, I think Brown would win. Let’s move on. The less time we spend on this lady-beater, the better.
35. You and I/Lady Gaga
It’s amazing to me that Lady Gaga is what passes for controversial in 2011. Just because she wore a bacon dress? GAGA JUST WANTS TO OPEN OUR MINDS. But if we forget about that part of her press release, what we’re left with is sub-Aguilera pop/dance crooning to an unappealing hybrid of rock and electronica backing tracks. This song was tailor-fucking-made for the trailer of the inevitable Eat Pray Love sequel (“What happens when one well-to-do woman has the courage to take a trip around the world and stay in well-appointed hotels…again?”). Hang on, hang on….this verse just happened:
We got a whole lot of money, but we still pay rent
‘Cause you can’t buy a house in Heaven
There’s only three men that Imma serve my whole life
It’s my daddy and Nebraska and Jesus Christ
Umm….A) What does that first couplet even mean? B) There is no chance Lady Gaga has ever been to Nebraska. And I’m sure she’s singing about a character and not herself, but come on! The word “Nebraska” should never come out of Lady Gaga’s mouth. Next she’s gonna do a cover of “Johnny 99.”
34. Someone Like You/Adele
I am predisposed to like Adele because I’ve seen in commercials that she’s kinda fat, and to my shallow brain, that means that she’s somehow more legitimate as a pop diva than Selena Gomez or the like. That she’s somehow more deserving of her success. That’s bullshit of course, and just as much an ill-conceived stereotype as liking a singer because she’s pretty. But that’s where I’m coming from. You can’t deny that Adele has a great voice, but this song doesn’t do anything for me. It’s a fairly standard ballad with some pretty piano riffing in the background. Jennifer Warnes would have sang this in the ’80s.
33. You and Tequila/Kenny Chesney ft. Grace Potter
I am super ready to hate this song based on the title and the artist, and the fact that this is already the third country song on this goddamn chart. And I’m not disappointed. I fucking hate this. I saw Grace Potter perform a bit on the live stream of Lollapalooza, and she seemed more early-Sheryl Crow than hardcore Nashville country, but her vocals here say otherwise. I believe that Kenny Chesney craves “poison in his blood” the same way I believe Lady Gaga is a huge Cornhuskers fan. (I heard she wears a Tommy Frazier jersey to all the home games.) “One more is never enough.” Ha ha ha ha. OK, Kenny.
32. Rain Over Me/Pitbull featuring Marc Anthony
What the who? What is Pitbull, you guys? I’m old and need help understanding your modern culture. It’s becoming apparent that Pitbull is a rapper (rappers?) and also that Marc Anthony is still the absolute fucking worst at singing and music-making. Pitbull is not exactly distinguishing himself (themselves?) on this song, either. First of all, Pitbull hired Marc Anthony to sing the hook. Second of all, there’s some kind of blaring dance track in the background that sounds like a Rob Base b-side. Third of all, Pitbull’s rapping is terrible. Also, I don’t like pit bulls as a species, so instant bias. (Right, right, right — they’re trained to be killers by people and are perfectly innocent on their own. Sure. And guns don’t kill people, people kill people.) This song gets under my skin so fast that I want to tear all my skin off just to get it out of there.
31. Just Can’t Get Enough/Black-Eyed Peas
Oh, God. What the fuck? Do the Black-Eyed Peas even have a fucking album out? Do they just reside permanently on the charts, all the fucking year round? This is not fair, and I was not expecting this. To rub salt in my wounds, this just happened:
“I like this song!” — Mrs. Dilemma
The ultimate betrayal.
Holy fuck, we’re ten songs deep and: we’ve had three country songs, zero good songs, and the mother-effing Black-Eyed Peas, the scourge of my existence. I’m not doing so well. I’ve been knocked down once, head butted, ear-bitten and now hit with a low blow. (I can keep these boxing metaphors going all fucking night, I promise.) Also, this song is never-ending. It’s going to be playing until we all die.
30. Where Them Girls At/David Guetta ft. Flo Rida and Nicki Minaj
The good news; I know who Nicki Minaj and Flo Rida are. The bad news: I don’t know who in the fuck David Guetta is. Or how to pronounce his name. Let’s go to Wikipedia. A French house music producer. OK. Fair enough. This song is yet another refugee from the ugly late ’90s era when hip hop too often bled into what was then called “techno.” Hey, you know what’s never been done before? The track breaking down, and then there’s a loud whistle, and then the beat kicks back in even more intense than before. Original! Also, this is in the running for worst music video of all time.
29. Knee Deep/Zac Brown Band ft. Jimmy Buffett
Ha ha ha ha ha. Zac Brown Band featuring Jimmy Buffet. Of course! Why not?
Christ, I’m punch drunk already. We learned who the Zack Brown Band were at the Grammys last year, and here the Zac Brown Band is letting us know that Jimmy Buffett wishes he were knee-deep in water somewhere. Huh. Never would have guessed. What’s that? That was Zac Brown singing that line, not Jimmy Buffett? Well, that changes everything! Buffett’s changed his ways! He’s not obsessed with tropical accoutrements anymore! He’s evolved! Buffett’s ready to get a 9-5 job and accept responsiblity in his life for once! What’s that, JB? “My mind’s on a permanent vacation/The ocean is my only medication.” Oh. Nevermind. Enjoy your pina colada.
28. Country Girl (Shake It For Me)/Luke Bryan
…the fuck? Doesn’t country music have its own chart? This dude’s voice sounds like that Scotty McCreery kid from American Idol but somehow even more devolved into self-parody. Bryan just yelled “Guitar!” before a guitar solo. It’s 2011. What percentage of country songs include the word “catfish”? 35? Let me state now for the record that I have nothing against country music in its original form, just as I have nothing against pop music or R&B. But the modern, commercial, bastardized versions of all those formats are too slick, and each strum or vocal rill is designed to make the highest possible return on investment. They’re all awful.
27. Otis/Jay-Z and Kanye West
Ahhhhh, sweet relief. Atta boys. Guess I got my swagger back! This is just what I needed just when I needed it. These two really are the saviors of modern radio. They’re not just a bright spot, they’re a fucking second sun. I’ve written about this song and this album already, but in the context of the rest of the dreck on this chart, “Otis” sounds delightful. And it’s a kickstart. And it gives me hope for all of us.
26. Barefoot Blue Jean Night/Jake Owen
“Barefoot Blue Jean Night”? Really? That had to come from a country song title generator, right? And Jake Owen and all his backing musicians are automatons carefully constructed to play an approximation of what a producer and a label thought would be a country hit in 2011. Well, joke’s on me. It’s a fucking hit.
25. Dirt Road Anthem/Jason Aldean
And the same title generator definitely gave us “Dirt Road Anthem.” This song is guaranteed to be a Republican presidential candidate’s 2012 campaign theme song. “Ice cold beer” — “boys in blue” — “good old days” — “the way we were raised” — “cornbread” — I think the title generator might have gotten a little carried away and just gone ahead and written all the lyrics too. Bonus fact: Aldean’s daughters are named Keeley and Kendyl.
24. Best Thing I Never Had/Beyoncé
While Beyoncé is always welcome, this song is unfortunately part of her power ballad repertoire, as opposed to her collection of shit-kicking dance songs. It’s not bad, and it’s better than all the similar pop ballads that have made appearances thus far (looking at you, Adele), but I definitely hoped a couple other tracks from this album would make the countdown. Maybe they still lie ahead. This is from the “Irreplaceable” line, complete with similar theme.
23. Motivation/Kelly Rowland ft. Lil Wayne
Yowza! A Destiny’s Child battle royale here in the mid-20s. Rowland is ahead a notch on the chart, but “Best Thing I Never Had” is by far the better song of the two. And Beyoncé carries it by herself with no help from any superstar rappers, though I think she has an in there when she wants it. “Motivation” is really slow to start and get going — it just kinda floats along until Lil Wayne shows up with a sleepy verse. Maybe Wayne should marry Rowland as a shot across the bow at Jay-Z and Beyoncé; then they could release competing married duet albums for the next decade.
22. Just A Kiss/Lady Antebellum
Finally! In a year when country dominates the charts, we sure had to wait a while for the ultimate modern country archetype, Lady Antebellum. These guys were all over the charts last year, and…uh…it’s nice to hear them again? It’s a welcome callback to 2010? It’s not as pandering or insulting as “Dirt Road Anthem” or “Barefoot Blue Jean Tar Baby Iced Tea Night”, I suppose.
My opinion of Drake has dropped precipitously the more I’ve heard of him, both on his own and guesting on other artists’ songs. Even so, and even though this is one of his worst songs — dull, mid-tempo and by-the-numbers — he’s a welcome respite given what else I’ve had to listen to thus far. His voice is familiar to me, and as such, comforting. So I stumble toward it, toward anything I can cling to in this coldest of hours.
20. Remind Me/Brad Paisley with Carrie Underwood
We made it to the halfway point before we got to an American Idol winner or contestant — is that a fluke or a sign that the show’s influence on music is beginning to fade? Hang on a sec, let me ask Clay Aiken for his opinion. Perhaps you can tell I’m just stalling so that I don’t have to come up with something to say about yet another country ballad. If I can just write a few more words, this entry will look long enough; as though something of substance were actually here. If I can just think of something, anything to say about any subject or topic. If…
19. You Make Me Feel/Cobra Starship ft. Sabi
Cobra Starship is a “pop rock/synthpop band from New York.” They apparently rose to “fame” with the song “Snakes on a Plane (Bring It)” from the classic film Snakes on a Plane. Sabi is an “American singer who has been featured in songs by Britney Spears” and others. Together, they make….whatever the opposite of magic is. If peanut butter and chocolate is the best possible of all combinations, Cobra Starship and Sabi is pretty much the absence of either peanut butter or chocolate. “You Make Me Feel” sounds like something from a Mountain Dew commercial featuring multi-ethnic kids dancing in an airport for no reason.
18. I’m On One/DJ Khaled ft. Drake, Rick Ross and Lil Wayne
The Billboard charts are so incestuous: Drake is with DJ Khaled here, Lil Wayne over there; Wayne is with Kelly Rowland one minute, Rick Ross the next. It’s like there’s a cult located on a cul-de-sac in a nondescript suburban town that spits out people with moderate singing, rapping and producing talent, and they all live together, fuck each other, and appear on each others’ songs. Also: this song sucks, in almost the exact same ways as Drake’s “Headlines.” It’s just fucking boring. Where are the up-tempo summer jams? Where’s Gnarls Barkley or even fucking Mase?
17. Cheers (Drink to That)/Rihanna
Not here. And this isn’t even bouncy like “Umbrella.” Look, for a summer song to have a pretty girl singing lines like “Let the Jameson sink in,” and for me not to like it, you know it’s got to be pretty awful. Where’s that repetitive, annoying “yeah, yeah” sample from? Oh, Avril Lavigne you say? That explains a lot.
16. The Edge of Glory/Lady Gaga
Gaga’s back: our first repeat artist, unless you count Drake and Lil Wayne appearing on 37 of these 40 songs. This one is basically Gaga by numbers. She’s singing about being dangerous over the least dangerous pop music since Belinda Carlisle’s solo career.
15. Stereo Hearts/Gym Class Heroes ft. Adam Levine
I know exactly one thing about Gym Class Heroes, and that thing is this — their frontman has the following tattoo:
So out of respect for that, I’m not going to even say how terrible this song is, or how you can tell how douchey Adam Levine is just by listening to him sing.
14. If I Die Young/The Band Perry
Based on the name of the song and the name of the band, you would think this might actually be a rock song. Nope. Country. Shitty, shitty country music. This is now the 27th song I have listened to tonight, and the 10th country song. And not one of them has even had the hint of containing one decent goddamn element. Not a cool turn of phrase, not an interesting vocalist, not a fun genre tweak, not a cool fiddle solo — fucking nothing. It’s a vast pit of Nashville emptiness. Just one jab after another. I’m fading. I might fall asleep in the middle of this blog post. If I die young, it’s because I tried to listen to the 40 most popular songs in America consecutively, for the second year in a row.
13. Rolling in the Deep/Adele
Oh my God, I’ve never been so happy to hear “Rolling in the Deep.” And I don’t even like this song. But you know what? It’s not atrocious. Maybe it’s just because the song has been so ubiquitous this year (I can’t even believe it’s still this high on the charts) that I find the melody comfortable and familiar. But as I said earlier, Adele has a nice voice, and I admire her heft, and…hmm…that last part probably didn’t sound good. But whatever. If you’re still reading (and/or listening along at home), you’re probably as slap-happy as I am at this point. This is a fine, well-crafted song. It’ll be forgotten by next year, but it’s better than The Band Perry, I can tell you that much.
12. Tonight Tonight/Hot Chelle Rae
Dear Hot Chelle Rae: I don’t know who you are but please let this be a cover of the Smashing Pumpkins song of the same name. Even if your version sucks, I could coast on the nostalgia for three or four minutes. Nope. It’s not. I didn’t have my hopes up or anything, but I don’t know…when things are at their darkest, you grasp at straws. Like when James Franco was trapped by that boulder, before he figured out that he had to cut his arm off, he probably thought that every little noise in the desert was someone coming to rescue him. Hot Chelle Rae is not coming to rescue me. Instead, they are here to play their generic Train/Maroon 5 alt-rock balladeering. I suppose if I knew that Hot Chelle Rae looks like this…
…I would have known what I was in for. Also: worst band name on this countdown, bar none.
11. Give Me Everything/Pitbull ft. Ne-Yo, Afrojack & Nayer
Pitbull’s back! Hi, Pitbull! “Grab somebody sexy, tell them ‘hey, give me everything tonight.'” That sounds a little greedy, Pitbull, if I’m being honest with you. I’m not going to tell somebody sexy that at all. If I do grab somebody sexy, I might say something like “hey, give me a tiny percentage of everything tonight/a fraction, really/don’t put yourself out.”
Since Ol’ Pitbull is making a repeat appearance, I’ve gotta do some fucking research.
/scans Wikipedia page
/boring…boring…Neptunes…Lil Jon…Cuban immigrant….blah blah blah
Well there goes 30 seconds of my life I’m never getting back. That’s already giving you too much, Pitbull. So now do you see that asking for everything is a little presumptuous?
HOME FUCKING STRETCH. Am I allowed to listen to “Eye of the Tiger” before the top ten to psych myself up? No? That’s cheating? Well, fuck.
10. I Wanna Go/Britney Spears
It’s Britney…I didn’t even realize she was still a viable chart-topper. I know that Britney was never renowned for her vocals, but this is Auto-Tuned to death. No need to pile on Britney, so what’s the nicest thing I can say about this song? Maybe someday, Girl Talk will appropriate a little snippet of “I Wanna Go” and combine with a great ’90s rock song and make us realize that it’s not really that bad? Maybe?
9. Good Life/OneRepublic
Fuck you, OneRepublic, for not putting a space in your name. That’s moronic. That makes me hate you. Just pure, seething hatred. Why would you do that? Who raised you? What’s wrong with you? That’s seriously just not right. Your career should be forcibly ended just for that. Oh God, the more I think about it, the angrier I get. It’s just so fucking dumb. JUST PUT A FUCKING SPACE IN THERE, ASSHOLES.
8. How to Love/Lil Wayne
I have heard Tha Carter IV, and I’m not exaggerating when I say that this is the worst song on it. And it’s not like it’s the worst song on an amazing album, like “Meeting Across the River” on Born to Run. It’s the worst song on a pretty solidly mediocre album that has a few good songs, a few OK ones, and a lot of bad ones. And here we are with the worst. And America reward Wayne’s worst instincts with the #8 spot. Typical.
7. Pumped Up Kicks/Foster the People
Can I make a confession? I kinda hate “Pumped Up Kicks.” I liked it the first few times I heard it, but it’s really grating. Why this is making Foster the People American’s most beloved new “indie” band, I don’t know. But Foster the People is no MGMT. As much as I’m sick to death of this song, though, it’s still a welcome break, not unlike “Rolling in the Deep” a little earlier. I can sit here and let my mind wander, and stupidly nod my head to the nonsensical lyrics and overly repetitive melody.
6. Lighters/Bad Meets Evil ft. Bruno Mars
So I think Bad Meets Evil involves Eminem somehow? And Royce Da 5’9? ‘Cause I read about how Eminem played this song at Lollapalooza and how everyone actually had lighters instead of cell phones to hold up and how that was so so so beautiful and magical. Good Lord, we’ve lowered our standards. This is pretty standard recent-period Eminem, in that it features a rage-fueled rap interspersed with a legitimately dreadful pop hook in the chorus. And the rage-fueled rap can’t touch Eminem at his ever-receding peak. But…you know…now the worst, I suppose. Well, no, the chorus is definitely the worst, about “the sky full of lighters.” Jesus, what disgusting crowd bait. The verses might as well say “Hello (your city here), it’s great to back/I love (local sports team)”.
5. Super Bass/Nicki Minaj
I like Nicki Minaj in theory and occasionally in practice — like her verse on Kanye’s “Monster” — but everything I’ve heard from her own album leaves me cold. This might actually be the best song on Pink Friday, but like “Lighters,” it’s killed by an out-of-place pop chorus sung by some generic voice. The insidious chorus makes the verses seem less impressive by association because once that awful hook is in your head, it stays there.
4. Moves Like Jagger/Maroon 5 ft. Christina Aguilera
Uh oh, it’s a union of judges on NBC’s The Voice. Not a promising development.
Let’s get one thing straight, Adam Levine. You most certainly do not have moves like Jagger. Not even Steel Wheels Jagger. Not even Bridges to Babylon Jagger. Not even Scorsese documentary Jagger. So shut up. Aguilera’s still got an impressive voice, but she still doesn’t know how to keep it under control.
3. She Will/Lil Wayne ft. Drake
Lil Wayne and Drake definitely rule the day. They’re this year’s Ke$ha or Black-Eyed Peas, and honestly that’s a massive upgrade. Even if none of the work that Wayne and Drake do in this countdown is particularly impressive, it still looks good under the “at least it’s not Ke$ha criterion.” Upgrading from Ke$ha to Lil Wayne is like upgrading from…Michael Bay to Chris Columbus, maybe? Dog food to turkey bacon?
2. Party Rock Anthem/LMFAO ft. Lauren Bennett & GoonRock
Here’s where a lesser man would just throw in the towel and say, “You know what? I’m just too fucking old for this.” But I am not that man. I will keep listening, even though this is among the worst songs I’ve heard — by far the worst of these 40 — and even though there are things named GoonRock and LMFAO involved. I mean, LMFAO? Really? I guess it was inevitable. “Party Rock Anthem,” as you might be able to ferret out based on its title, sounds like someone took the most generic song from Jock Jams, stripped out the vocals, and rapped over it.
39 down, 1 to go. Just for reference, the Top 40 songs of 1981 included: Blondie, John Lennon, “Jessie’s Girl,” The Rolling Stones, Tom Petty and “Young Turks. The Top 40 of 1991 included: Prince, “Losing My Religion,” “Wicked Game” and…uh…EMF. The Top 40 of 2001 included: U2, Outkast, Daft Punk, and Eminem at his absolute peak. The Top 40 of 2011 will include LMFAO, OneRepublic and Pitbull. Progress!
1. Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)/Katy Perry
Katy Perry singing about a menage a trois in a song that’s one step above Rebecca Black is as appropriate a way to wrap this up as any. It’s fraudulent, it’s empty, it’s musically personality-free, it’s synth-heavy, it’s hedonistic. It’s 2011!
There you have it, kids. The Billboard Top 40. All of them. Every excruciating quarter note and unnecessary melisma. I listened to every fucking bit of it and came out the other end — I’m the human centipede and these songs are what passes through my system.
If anything, pop music seems like it’s in even worse shape than when I did this exercise in self-flagellation last year. Granted, I was spared Ke$ha, but there was only one good song out of 40, and maybe 2 or 3 others that were decent if I’m feeling generous.
I’m not feeling generous.
But I’m alive. Until next year.
* The single best feature of WordPress is that it include Beyoncé, with the accent mark, in its spelling dictionary.