Katy Perry – Roar

First Hit #1: September 14, 2013

Katy Perry’s general “everything is awesome” template did gain a wrinkle post-divorce, and Roar is pretty much “everything is awesome, except for some jerk who may or may not be my ex-husband”. So here we have a song about how great Katy Perry is, which is probably meant to be a general inspiring song for people coming out of a breakup. Yes, the unnamed Brand of jerk is a terrible person, but they won’t hold you down, because you know how to make Rocky references and have self confidence. It’s not unexpected from Perry, of course, and I’m actually kind of glad she’s never really shook her Christian rock instinct towards at least trying for uplift. In an era where pop music is generally influenced by a crew of different writers and producers, it’s to Perry’s credit that she’s forged her own musical identity while still being attached to the Dr. Luke/Max Martin hit machine. You can tell a Perry song, even if it’s very similar to other songs, which is an accomplishment of sorts.

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Robin Thicke feat. T.I. and Pharrell – Blurred Lines

First Hit #1: June 22, 2013

Blurred Lines has the problem that Robin Thicke comes across as an unrelenting perv. He’s far from the first pop artist to come across as a perv, I mean R. Kelly has had a career for years, and honestly the majority of the charts is people trying to remove the pants of someone else. I mean, the song is mostly fun, Thicke keeps jumping to different parts of his range in order to give a varied and rather enjoyable vocal, the entire thing is above a goofy carnival beat that remains jaunty and fun in spite of not being particularly varied. It’s easy to get carried away in the whole thing, and honestly it shouldn’t feel any worse than all those songs about butts that littered the charts for years.

But then he sings domesticated, or repeats the line “I know you want it”, and I just can’t help but think he’s kind of asking for a drink to the face. It’s just that the lines put me in mind of an old man who tries to pick up much younger women with very little success. There’s a line between sexy and creepy, sometimes it’s a blurred one, but Thicke is kind of on the wrong side of it here, accidentally making the theme song for creepy uncles.

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Macklemore & Ryan Lewis feat. Ray Dalton – Can’t Hold Us

First Hit #1: May 18, 2013

Can’t Hold Us isn’t really the follow up to Thrift Shop. Oh sure, it hit later, and it follows the general pattern of an artist going a bit more serious and thoughtful after smashing through with a novelty single, but that wasn’t the plan of either Macklemore or Lewis. Hell, the single itself was initially released in 2011. But, as a follow up, it’s not as though the duo could have actually planned it better, since this is a pretty good follow up to a novelty hit.

The strength of it is that unlike what I mostly complained about with Thrift Song, this is something where it seems like Macklemore put a bit of effort into the lyrics and the delivery. He isn’t serious, he still prizes a humorous turn of phrase, but here there’s no obvious lyrical clunkers, and his unrelenting flow helps hide any weaknesses that might be there. This is the song that proves Macklemore can rap, and he’s actually got something to say which he finds meaningful. It is quite referential – direct name drop to Wu Tang, references to Kanye West – but it’s a respectful referential, and it does come across that Macklemore considers this an attempt at a breakthrough, an attempt to inspire via music. It didn’t work quite as planned, but this is a much better showcase for him than his actual breakthrough.

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Pink feat. Nate Ruess – Just Give Me A Reason

First Hit #1: April 27, 2013

Breakups have been a big part of the charts, so clearly we need to see our pop artists going to couple’s therapy. Thus, here we have Pink and Nate Ruess – he of fun. – with a duet about two sides of a relationship trying to work out their problems. It both is and is not a departure for Pink. On one hand, she does this song as couple’s therapy thing a lot, and has had hits from that material. On the other hand, the song isn’t at all the energetic pop-punk on which she has built a career – it’s a piano ballad and duet. She’s so comfortable doing a ballad that it’s a wonder she doesn’t do it more, and Ruess is a great duet partner since their voices are not even a bit similar but work together extremely well. I kind of wish she would have done what Bruno Mars did earlier and just kept the arrangement spare – it was a disappointment when the song became a bit more typical of pop ballads from the era – but it’s still an appealing ballad from someone who really isn’t known for that kind of music.

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Bruno Mars – When I Was Your Man

First Hit #1: April 20, 2013

Bruno Mars, after a brief time being Sting, is back to being himself again. But he’s stripped down to the bare essentials, just voice and piano. Mars is someone who can pull this off, he’s got a great voice that can fill out a song with a relative minimum of overdubs, and very basic instrumentation does a really good job of highlighting Mars’ technical ability.

That said, he hasn’t created a song that’s lyrically all that interesting. It’s basically a high school romance song, reflecting on someone screwing up the details of a relationship. It’s not bitter or resentful, which is nice in a song that’s about a breakup, but it’s actually pretty silly. One could certainly draw comparisons to acts like Boyz II Men, though the composition doesn’t leave room for more voices, since it’s in the same sensitive man wheelhouse as that group. Mars has always been kind of positioning himself as the new sensitive man, of course, so that comparison is inevitable. It’s not a complicated song in any sense of the term, but it works better as a showcase of ability than it does lyrically.

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Baauer – Harlem Shake

First Hit #1: March 2, 2013

Harlem Shake’s ascent to the top of the chart is due to precisely one reason: Including Youtube views in chart calculations. The bit of silly dance music was not there on it’s musical merits, it’s there for an odd joke that cropped up in the early part of the decade, where people would make wacky dance videos set to the song. It is, in fact, a hit song where the song has very little to do with why it’s actually a hit.

Outside of the videos though, is there anything worth listening to on its own? Well it’s got a decent build at one section, though that is undercut by the fact that it seems to be sampling an angry bear drinking a slurpee. It’s in a kind of nebulous area between goofy and annoying, and I can’t imagine listening to it on a regular basis. It serves its function, and it does work as the background for something else, but as a song on its own it just makes one wonder if Billboard’s streaming calculations might have needed a bit more work.

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Macklemore and Ryan Lewis feat. Wanz – Thrift Shop

First Hit #1: February 2, 2013

Never explain the joke. At one point in Thrift Shop there is a line about “Smelling like R. Kelly’s sheets.” That’s actually not a bad line, considering the rather outre sexual history of R. Kelly. But then immediately after there’s someone saying “pisssssssss” with no music behind it, just in case you didn’t get the reference, and it kills the line. It’s not funny because it assumes you don’t get it, and once you include an explanation it just isn’t funny.

That’s not the only problem with Thrift Shop, a song about buying out of style clothes for cheap. The lyrics could have done with another pass, especially the chorus which starts really well and then you get to “fucking awesome” which is not the most musical of phrases. It will have some clever lines about thrift song finds and fashion, but then it’ll throw in something really awkward and poorly phrased – there’s a Gucci t-shirt line that’s a major clunker surrounded by some lyrics that actually flow well, and it seems like it was just in there until he could figure out a better way to link the thoughts. It feels like a lark, a last minute bit of silly improvisation that somehow became a hit.

Of course, it has a highly amusing video and this was immediately after Billboard incorporated Youtube into their calculations. That certainly didn’t hurt it.

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