All important works of art come in trilogies. That’s an undisputed fact. Ali and Frazier fought three times. Tolkien wrote three Lord of the Rings books. David Bowie recorded three Berlin albums with Brian Eno. They made three Mighty Ducks movies.
And now I’m back to take on Billboard’s Top 40 pop songs for a third time.
I won’t lie: last year’s epic battle left me thoroughly bludgeoned. I think the Top 40 beat me. And two years of doing this has left me an empty shell of a man. I hear phantom AutoTuning and bland country music when I’m lying awake at night in a silent house. I feat that LMFAO or Blake Shelton are going to jump me in dark alleys and make me listen to their songs. But like all true heroes and champions — like Roger Clemens and Lance Armstrong — I’m making a comeback. I’m going to win this year. This is my time. The third act will be my hour of glory.
I’ve spent some time in the wilderness, gathering strength. I’m even less up-to-date on popular music than I was at this time a year ago. But I am fucking ready.
A reminder of the rules: For the third consecutive year, I will listen to all of Billboard’s Top 40 pop songs consecutively in one excruciating sitting, counting down from 40 to 1. I have not looked 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. I suffer for you.
40. Matchbox Twenty/She’s So Mean
Matchbox Twenty is back?
OK, OK, this groove doesn’t sound so terrible. Oh wait, Rob Thomas just started singing. Nevermind. “She’s a hardcore, candy store, give-me-some-more girl.” Oh, totally. Know tons of girls just like that. Thank God Rob Thomas hasn’t lost his renowned observational genius during the band’s hiatus.
39. Drive By/Train
Train is back?
Or did they never leave? I think we just need a Nickelback song to complete the Shitty Rock Bands of the ’00s trifecta. I can see why this song is on the radio, other than being by a band that always gets on the radio. The vocal melody is catchy in a super annoying way. This is the worst kind of earworm…a terrible, weightless song that nonetheless will find its way into your brain and stay there for a while.
38. Glad You Came/The Wanted
The Wanted is back?
Just kidding. I have no idea who The Wanted are. Well, there’s a little accordion riff leading into the first verse, so this song can’t be all bad. This sounds like a sad Backstreet Boys comeback attempt. All the elements are there: the synthesizers, the generic lyrics, the bland voices, and dudes who look like this:
37. Ho Hey/The Lumineers
I actually downloaded a free EP by The Lumineers a few months ago that I liked well enough, and this song sounds like the songs on that EP except for the really fucking annoying “Ho Hey” chant that runs through the whole song and makes this sound too much like Grouplove or The Givers. The world already has too many Grouploves and Givers and certainly doesn’t need another one. Still, it’s a welcome break from the typical Top 40 shit that started this year’s countdown. I don’t ever want to listen to this song again or anything, but it’s not 100% garbage. And hey! That’s something.
36. Wild Ones/Flo Rida ft. Sia
The outer reaches of this year’s top 40 are filled with throwbacks…admittedly, throwbacks to a terrible musical era, but at least there’s comfort in familiarity. Sia, singing the hook, sounds like another in a long line of Rihanna imitators. Flo Rida’s flow hasn’t improved since his early hits, but neither is this song quite as uniformly awful as “Right Round” or “Low”. As opposed to those tracks, it’s not literally painful to sit through. I wouldn’t exactly call it a pleasant surprise, but in these early rounds I’ll take what relief I can get.
35. Heart Attack/Trey Songz
Boilerplate modern R&B ballad. Next.
34. Starships/Nicki Minaj
A holdover from last year’s countdown, Ms. Minaj has also made the news lately for coming out as a Republican and endorsing Mitt Romney. So I’m listening to the lyrics for coded references to union busting, flat taxes, carried interest and keeping God on our coins. The closest I can come:
Jump in my hoopty hoopty hoop
I own that
And I ain’t paying my rent this month
I owe that
But fuck who you want, and fuck who you like
Dance our life, there’s no end in sight
Twinkle, twinkle, little star
Oh, Nicki, if you really want to fuck who you want, you better vote Democratic in 2012. Politics aside, this is one of the worst Minaj songs I’ve heard. She’s playing it safe, and when she does that she’s pretty uninteresting.
Usher is screaming “Yeah!” in this one. A cynic might think that he’s desperately trying to subtly remind listeners of his biggest hit in a misguided effort at continued relevance. Not me though. I believe in Usher. Even if he has yet to call one of his albums “The Rise of the House of Usher” like I’ve been pushing for years.
32. 50 Ways to Say Goodbye/Train
Oh, come on. Two of the first nine songs I have to listen to are by Train? That’s like your opponent loading his gloves with lead. And then Train starts this song off with a little Latin flourish that is just embarrassing for everyone involved. I’m blushing just sitting in front of my computer by myself listening to it. Also, is this supposed to be an homage to “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover”? Because if so, it is not a very good one. And if not, well that’s even more embarrassing.
31. Take a Little Ride/Jason Aldean
Hey! I remember Ol’ Jas Dog from last year, when he regaled us with “Dirt Road Anthem.” I thought my subconscious had permanently blocked that out but it call just came flooding back. Has Jason changed in these twelve months? A lot has happened in the world and in our lives. Might cause a person to rethink some things. “I’m just ready to ride this Chevy,” he replies. So, no. I’m gonna go ahead and take that as a no.
30. Blown Away/Carrie Underwood
After a rocky start, we went through a bit of an R&B spell and now we’re firmly in country & western land. I doubt that Carrie Underwood needs career advice from me — I could be wrong — but she seems likable enough to leave the modern country ghetto behind completely and become a legitimate pop star. Or maybe she just needs new songwriters because “Blown Away” sounds like some studio dudes throwing every idea they’ve ever had together in one four-minute track, hoping for a hit. They’ve got one, and Underwood’s voice sounds strangely like Shakira at times, but it’s not good. It’s not good.
29. What Makes You Beautiful/One Direction
Why hello, One Direction. I had a feeling we’d meet this day. You are, after all, the hot new thing among tween girls and supposedly herald the dawn of yet another boy band epoch. Lemme see what you got. For starters, you’ve got a riff that sounds cribbed from “My Sharona.” You’ve got a pandering chorus about girls being so, so pretty and you’ve probably got some choreographed dance moves to go with it. But your blows glance off me like bullets into Superman’s chest. I’ve fought N Sync. I’ve fought Backstreet Boys. I’ve fought Bieber. You? I don’t even think about you at all.
28. We Are Young/fun. ft. Janelle Monae
The first song I’ve known in the last ten. It’s harmless enough and reasonably catchy, but why is the fantastic Janelle Monae involved and not given the spotlight at any point? She can sing rings around these guys. fun. — despite having one of the dumber names of current bands — sounds like a slightly more electronic Band of Horses on this track. For the first time in a while, four minutes goes by pretty quickly.
27. Don’t Wake Me Up/Chris Brown
Oh, good. I was hoping Chris Brown would show up on the countdown. Because I wanted a chance to discuss this. Because…because…because…
WHAT KIND OF PERSON GETS A TATTOO OF A BEATEN WOMAN’S FACE ON THEIR NECK? Even if you believe Brown (and why wouldn’t you? The man’s credibility is flawless.) that the tattoo does not represent Rihanna — the very woman he battered — why would you do that? Even if you were not already notorious for beating women — which Brown is — why would you do that? This might be the first-ever example of trolling an entire country with a neck tattoo. Chris Brown is always breaking new ground. (Or women’s faces. Sometimes he breaks women’s faces instead.)
26. No Lie/2 Chainz ft. Drake
Good to know that Drake, a rapper as bland as his home country, is still around. (Just seeing if Musky Canadian is still paying attention.) The beat here is actually just as bland as Drake’s voice and his homeland. There’s just nothing to it, and when you go with a beat this simple, the rappers need to carry the die with charisma, or wordplay, or flow…or something. Instead, this is nothing.
25. Let’s Go/Calvin Harris ft. Ne-Yo
What do you think a “Calvin Harris” is? According to Wikipedia, it’s a “Scottish DJ, singer, songwriter, and record producer” who has worked with such luminaries as LMFAO and Ke$ha. But according to this song, he’s a scourge upon the Earth and a harbinger of the coming apocalypse. This is handily the worst song to appear so far, and that includes Jason Aldean and Chris Brown, people.
24. Wanted/Hunter Hayes
I’m starting to feel my age here in the middle rounds. I’m a bit asea dealing with the likes of Calvin Harris and Hunter Hayes…dudes with names and music styles so generic I wouldn’t remember them even I had come across them before. “Wanted” smells like the American Idol brand of country music. Let’s see…nope, but he did appear on the apparently misnamed “America’s Most Talented Kids,” hosted by this guy:
Regardless, this is fucking audible poison. The further along we get in this countdown, the more unbearable the songs are becoming. I’m also getting PTSD flashbacks to last year.
23. Pontoon/Little Big Town
The one song in the top 40 — I’m speculating — to include the word “coozie” in the lyrics. Also the only one to quite literally be about going boating. And to be a product placement for Coors’ cans that turn blue when they get cold. A run-of-the-mill country ditty otherwise.
22. I Won’t Give Up/Jason Mraz
Judging by the title, I think Mraz has written a song just for me at this point in the countdown. This is going to be an inspirational jam a la “Gonna Fly Now” to rekindle my spirits and keep the fight in me alive. Judging from actually listening to it, that is not the case. Rather, it’s a maudlin acoustic dirge that serves utterly no purpose in this world. Admittedly, I don’t understand Mraz’s appeal, and that’s not going to change from this song.
21. Home/Phillip Phillips
Phillip Phillips…..ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha….Phillip Phillips! Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha. Whew! Phillip Phillips!! haha ahahahahahha ha ha ha ha ha ha!
20. Pound the Alarm/Nicki Minaj
Halfway home, motherfuckers.
Some years back, Beyonce instructed us to ring the alarm. I was like, “Cool. I’ll totally do that if you say so. You sound pretty authoritative about that, B.” Now, Nicki Minaj wants me to “pound” the alarm. First of all, I don’t understand the difference. Second, I’m disinclined to listen to you because of the aforementioned Romney endorsement issue. But this song is pretty good, so fuck it. I’ll do it. I’ll pound the alarm. Still, I’d have preferred “Beez in the Trap.”
19. Mercy/Kanye West, Big Sean, Pusha T, 2 Chainz
This latest effort from Kanye’s G.O.O.D. Music collective gets off to an underwhelming start thanks to a ridiculous intro sample of Fuzzy Jones. But Big Sean gets us back on the right track, helped by some backup interjections from Ye himself. Pusha T is always welcome, especially when he’s talking about dealing coke and making that fun, guttural “yech” sound. But Kanye’s verse is subpar for him, 2 Chainz loses me (again) when he raps about his “coupe the color of mayonnaise” because gross, and the Jones samples and what passes for a chorus are all fast-forward moments. Overall grade: C
18. Where Have You Been/Rihanna
This is no “Love in a Hopeless Place,” but it’s not bad, and it’s certainly better than Mr. Neck Tattoo’s entry a few slots earlier. Rihanna does a nice job of teasing us with the beat and restrained vocals in the early going, but some of her vocal tricks and structural habits are starting to feel old hat by now. Still, she’s become a comforting presence in the scary firepit that is the Top 40.
17. Want U Back/Cher Lloyd
No, I won’t do it. I’m not even going to research Cher Lloyd. There’s no fucking point. When we’ve reached the point in our culture that a Brit (I’m guessing) named after a character in Clueless (again, guessing) who blatantly apes Ke$ha gains fame and acclaim. Not cool, people of the world. Not cool at all.
16. Give Your Heart a Break/Demi Lovato
Do you think there’s massive, seething tension between American Idol contestants and Disney pop princesses? I’d like to think there’s an entire secret war being fought between the two factions that will culminate when a starlet gets her vocal chords sliced up like Nancy Kerrigan’s knee. Don’t worry, though, AutoTune can fix that.
15. Too Close/Alex Clare
Alex Clare, another Brit, sounds like a cross between a boy band and Maroon 5. Or is there even a difference between the two? Since I’ve heard this song before, I’m guessing you have too, although I feel like Alex Clare could probably still walk down an American street unmolested. Then again, that could be my age-related lack of awareness catching up to me. If you close your eyes, “Too Close” could have been a chart-topper in 2010, 2005, 2000, or 1995.
That seems to be part of a larger issue involving music becoming stunningly generic over the past couple decades, but that’s probably a discussion best left for another, more coherent time.
14. Somebody That I Used to Know/Gotye ft. Kimbra
Like “We Are Fun,” it feels like this song has been around for about two years ago. It has not improved with age. And I remain uncharmed by all the YouTube covers of it.
13. Titanium/David Guetta ft. Sia
Hey, I remember David Guetta from last year’s bout! And I remember Sia from earlier in this very countdown! I’m learning! I’m capable of learning! David Guetta and Sia are both still, unfortunately, just as milquetoast as they were in their earlier incarnations. “Titanium” is the kind of song that probably brings the house down in a sweaty club filled with MDMA-riddled fist-pumpers.
12. Payphone/Maroon 5 ft. Wiz Khalifa
Speak of the devil and the devil will appear before your ears. ‘Sup, Adam Levine? Maroon 5 are trying to cash in for every nickel they can get their overly lotioned hands on in the wake of Levine’s judging gig on The Voice. Moves Like Jagger was a crass, pandering effort, but it was a far superior song to this. “Payphone” was likely written in Levine’s Voice dressing room during a five-minute break in filming before he had to go back out and pretend to flirt with Christina Aguilera. Also, payphones aren’t things anymore, Adam. And there a lot of racial and class issues surrounding that issue, which again is probably a discussion best saved for elsewhere.
11. Blow Me (One Last Kiss)/Pink
There’s no evidence in my iTunes to prove it, but I did once download a Pink song. I think it was “There You Go” and I think it was via Napster, which just goes to show you that Pink and I are both survivors. Hilarious winking title aside, this track can’t compare with the best songs by the likes of Pink, Aguilera, Kelly Clarkson or even Avril Lavgine…that class of pop songstresses with a carefully crafted edgy side. After this last run of songs, I’m exhausted by all the mid-to-upper tempo 4/4 drum machine beats. At least half of the songs on this top 40 are instrumentally interchangeable.
10. Call Me Maybe/Carly Rae Jepsen
Really? This fucking song is still hanging around the charts? And in the top ten, even. I’ve mostly been able to avoid Jepsen’s omnipresence this year, even though many right-minded music fans hold this tune up as an example of pop music done well, a la “Since U Been Gone.” Those people are wrong, and this isn’t a pleasant transition into the top ten. Remember when songs like “Good Vibrations” made the top ten? Yeah, me neither.
9. Wide Awake/Katy Perry
Our old pal Katy, coming off a traumatic divorce and a massive flop in the theaters, is trapped between her heartfelt ballad mode and her dance-pop mode and the results are as middling as you’d expect based on that fact. The clock is most definitely ticking on Perry’s career. I’ll be doing these Top 40 battles long after she’s gone. Unless I die first of old age because I am old, which is certainly possible. Best of luck, Katy.
8. Good Time/Owl City & Carly Rae Jepsen
Carly Rae representing! She’s obviously trying to prove she’s not a one-hit wonder, which…well, good luck with that. But she and the indescribably awful Owl City are doing an excellent job at kicking me when I’m down. The vocals here sound both AutoTuned and out-of-tune, which is a tricky feat to pull off. “Hit the ATM” might be the least sexy phrase in the history of lyrics, B-T-Dubs. But what do I know? I’m a fading, crotchety old man trying to keep up with the CRJs of the world. I thought the whole point of pop stars is that they’re supposed to be good at singing (and good looking, obviously), but this combination doesn’t even try harmonizing — they just repeat each other. Simple, boring, bad.
7. Everybody Talks/Neon Trees
Neon Trees have toured with The Offspring, which probably tells you what you need to know. In case you crave more information, this song requires the bare minimum of musical talent to write and record. Look, I know, it’s easy for critics to criticize and much harder to actually DO or ACT or PLAY or WRITE. But, not knowing how to play guitar, give me a fucking guitar write now and I can write, perform and record a song better than this within an hour. Guaranteed.
6. As Long As You Love Me/Justin Bieber ft. Big Sean
I’m pleased Bieber makes an appearance here. It wouldn’t have been the same without him. In the video for this track, I’m a little concerned that Michael Madsen is going to pull a Chris Brown on Bieber. The Biebs is just so delicate. Those cheekbones! Do you think there’s even one chance in a million that Bieber pulls a Justin Timberlake with his career and rises above his ridiculous roots to become a legitimate musical talent…or a legitimate talent at anything? Yeah, me neither.
5. Lights/Ellie Goulding
Top five! So close to the end and I’m feeling surprisingly spry. Goulding seems like she’s aiming to be a poor man’s Robyn. We’ll see how that works out for him. This song, like almost every song we’ve dealt with so far, is inoffensive and ineffectual. I do appreciate that in the video she’s bashing on some drums like Sheila E. This is the least terrible song we’ve heard in a while…at least since Rihanna at 18. Don’t worry, I’m not headed out to buy an Ellie Goulding album. Save your intervention.
4. Some Nights/fun.
Aww, so adorable. fun. is trying a second song! A lot of Queen-esque harmonies going on here. And even after the harmonies break, Nate Ruess’s voice definitely has some Freddie Mercury timbre to it. I always liked The Format, so though I’m naturally suspicious of fun., I’m kind of willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. This song is actually better than “We Are Young,” and might be the single best song on the countdown so far, thanks to Kanye’s mildly disappointing effort. Re-energized!
3. Whistle/Flo Rida
Blergh. In the year of our Lord two thousand and twelve, I can accept Flo Rida appearing as a guest rapper in the Top 40 or even having his own song in the lower reaches of the countdown, but having the number three fucking song? Not cool. Wait a minute…I get it! There’s whistling in the song, and it’s called “Whistle”! Hallelujah, I am saved.
I will give Flo props for this…I never thought he would reference Mae West in a song. So…yay?
2. One More Night/Maroon 5
Adam Levine is fucking gross, you guys.
You and I go hard at each other like we’re going to war.
You and I go rough, we keep throwing things and slamming the door.
You and I get so damn dysfunctional, we stopped keeping score.
You and I get sick, yeah, I know that we can’t do this no more.
Shit, it’s like I just watched “War of the Roses,” but somehow even more real and subtle and detailed. Fuck The Voice for making this band a renewed presence in our lives.
1. We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together/Taylor Swift
OMG! You guys! It’s me, Taylor. Tay-tay! I’m number one??? I can’t believe it! How did this happen? What a crazy thing to happen to a nice, normal girl like me. I never ever would have expected this, y’all. I’m just a small town girl who hangs out with Kennedys in Hyannisport (we call it H-port for short!) and wins awards every breathing second. What a shock. What a wonderful, joyous moment for me. Thanks you guys! Thank you so much for making this Average Jane’s dreams come true!
Ahhhhh, we did it. We survived another year, and this year there was no LMFAO. No Black-Eyed Peas. Despite the best efforts of Maroon 5, Flo Rida and Train, I’ve come out on top this time. Popular music is going to need to come up with more than this to make me bleed.
The disappointing thing about this year’s countdown is that if pop music is going to be bad — which it usually is — I want it to be really, grotesquely bad. I want it to be Ke$ha or even the Peas. I don’t want the bland fare that filled this summer’s airwaves. What fun is bland? What fun is inoffensive? Bring me your worst, record labels and idiot consumers. I wanted Clubber Lang or Drago and you brought me Gerry Cooney.
By the numbers, we had no slam-dunk good songs this year. Maybe two tracks skirt the edges of good, and maybe five are truly misery-inducing. The rest fall to the lower middle. They’re the Indianapolis of hit songs — they can’t hurt anyone, they can’t make anyone happy and you certainly can’t consider them cultured.
Maybe next year, music industry. Let’s see if you’ve got it in you.