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July 30, 2011

A.V. Club writers Genevieve Koski and Steven Hyden have decided to explore the Billboard charts every two weeks in search of the good, the bad, and the ugly of contemporary pop music in all its forms. This week, they take a look at the rock songs chart for July 30, 2011.

Foo Fighters, “Walk” (No. 1)

Steven: We don’t write much about the devil’s music in This Was Pop, so this month GK and I decided to draw exclusively from the Billboard rock chart. And, unsurprisingly, it’s topped by Foo Fighters. Actually, the top two songs are by the Foos—we covered previous rock chart No. 1 “Rope” back in March—which seems like impressive chart dominance until you consider, as Al Shipley of the Village Voice wrote last month, that this is nothing new for Dave Grohl and company. Over the past decade, the Foos have been No. 1 on the rock chart 12.5 percent of the time, which speaks to the band’s consistency as well as the stagnation of this chart over the years. Foo Fighters are generally considered one of the few bright spots amid the non-stop gray blah-ness of modern-rock radio, but this band defines the status-quo as much as anybody. I think “Walk” is a pretty good song—basically on par with the solid “Rope”—and there are certainly worse tracks that could be in the pole position here. But it’s safe to assume that any passably rockin’ song that Grohl turns out will go on to dominate contemporary rock music for the foreseeable future.

Genevieve: “Walk” takes a minute or so to get going, idling through a sleepy introductory verse and chorus that’s slightly reminiscent of, believe it or not, Coldplay—whom the Foos take a dig at in the video—before kicking into second gear and becoming a real Foo Fighters song. The towering chorus is energetic and melodic as always, and the song builds impressively toward a punchy bridge, but as with “Rope,” “Walk” takes a few spins to get its hooks in—though when it does, they go deeper than the somewhat muddled, prog-ish “Rope.” I think this is the superior single by a nose, by virtue of its more straightforward songwriting and Grohl’s excellent vocals, but I’m happy to have both songs buoying the rest of the rock chart this month. 
Steven’s grade: B
Genevieve’s grade: B+

Foster The People, “Pumped Up Kicks” (No. 4)

Steven: Foster The People belongs in a class of bands I like to call “silent-majority rock,” distinguished by their lack of press coverage and blog buzz—two indicators typically used to determine the reach and status of “cool” groups—and stealth ubiquity on the radio. Mumford  & Sons is the defining band of silent-majority rock; Airborne Toxic Event and Edward Sharpe And The Magnetic Zeroes also belong in this unfashionable but lucrative category. If you get your music news exclusively from Pitchfork and Stereogum, you’d have no idea these groups even existed. (That’s not so much true for Mumford at this point, but that group was already huge before major music publications started paying attention.) The latest example of silent-majority rock is Foster The People’s “Pumped Up Kicks,” which has been a major radio hit this summer. It’s not hard to see why: The drum and bass pulse recalls the in-vogue retro-soul movement; the synth splashes, treated vocals, and chirpy whistling are on loan from MGMT and Peter Bjorn And John; and the chorus is big, dumb, and catchy. This is mass-produced, poppy indie that’s been smartly designed to be instantly likable and tolerable over many, many spins. It’s a fine product, and a pretty decent song.

Genevieve: “Pumped Up Kicks” pulls the classic pop-music trick of dressing up disturbing lyrical content in a lighthearted, catchy musical package. Best I can tell, this song is about a messed-up dude shooting at kids because… he’s jealous of their Reebok Pumps? Honestly, I don’t really get it, I just know there are guns and bullets involved; but more importantly, there are handclaps and whistling involved! Proof once again that a solid hook conquers all, and considering Foster The People is led by a former commercial jingle writer—Mark Foster wrote TV-ad ditties for Verizon and Honey Bunches Of Oats, among others—they have an obvious proclivity for earworms. Lyrical content aside, “Pumped Up Kicks” could easily soundtrack a commercial (one that would have teenagers frantically pulling up their Shazam apps, no doubt) or a hip-but-not-too-hip mall boutique; it exists smack dab in the intersection of music and commerce. That may sound cynical, but don’t worry: The whistling and handclaps should drown out all that icky calculation.
Steven’s grade: B 
Genevieve’s grade: B+

Death Cab For Cutie, “You Are A Tourist” (No. 6)

Steven: It’s weird to think of Death Cab For Cutie as veterans of modern-rock radio, and yet here we are six years after Plans made this group a commercial juggernaut. I respect the band’s standing and the members’ reputation as nice-guy rock stars, but Death Cab’s music has always struck me as the very definition of bland, by-the-numbers indie-rock. I approach Death Cab’s songs like I do Ikea stores: Lots of people seem to like them, and I’m not against spending time with them. But they make me a little restless and I have no urge to go back once I’m finished. That’s more or less my reaction to “You Are A Tourist”—I’m sure a Death Cab fan could explain how this song is different from every other mid-tempo ballad-y Death Cab song I’ve ever heard, but to my ears it sounds pretty stock and generic.

Genevieve: Well, I’m not the person to explain it to you, Steven, as I’m usually similarly Death Cab-neutral; but in the case of “You Are A Tourist,” I’ll play the role of advocate. I think there’s a lot more to recommend this song than you give it credit for, first and foremost that excellent jangly guitar riff, but also its generally uplifting vibe—which is a bit off-model for Ben Gibbard, but quite welcome in this case. The lyrics are a little precious, which is a criticism I could apply to pretty much every DCFC song, but that sort of thing is much more tolerable in the context of a lighthearted song than a brooding one. I think this is a different Death Cab, Steven, and I happen to like it.
Steven’s grade: C+ 
Genevieve’s grade: A-

Sixx: A.M., “Lies Of The Beautiful People” (No. 7)

Steven: When The A.V. Club spoke with Nikki Sixx in April, he talked about the song “Skin” from Sixx: A.M.’s recent album This Is Gonna Hurt, and how its message of prizing inner beauty over physical attractiveness didn’t clash with his habit of boning porn stars. “How can I be the ugly misfit of society and now be a sex symbol?” he asked at one point. This same nonsense applies to the heavy-handed “Lies Of The Beautiful People,” which loads up a heaping dose of self-empowerment and social critique and injects it into the vein of Sixx’s usual cock-rock pyrotechnics. If this prevents one girl from the Midwest from getting an ill-advised boob job and hooking up with somebody like Nikki Sixx, perhaps “Lies Of The Beautiful People” will justify itself. But let’s hope that same woman doesn’t get around to hearing “Girls, Girls, Girls.”

Genevieve: Nikki Sixx’s “Lies Of The Beautiful People” is to the rock chart as Pink’s “Fuckin’ Perfect” is to the Hot 100, serving up a big bowl of lukewarm be-yourself platitudes with a light sprinkling of “edginess” for taste. Personally, I find it less convincing coming from Sixx, who’s spent the last three decades making up for being an “ugly misfit” by cock-rocking a string of ill-advised boob jobs. Not saying a man can’t change, but judging by the lack of conviction in his voice—and his current model girlfriend—Sixx’s scorn for the Beautiful People is more premise than practice. Which is totally fine; I don’t really want to live in a world where Nikki Sixx isn’t banging hot chicks on the reg. But if songs like this are the best he has to offer the rest of us non-Beautifuls, he can keep it. 
Steven’s grade: C
Genevieve’s grade: D

Incubus, “Adolescents” (No. 9)

Genevieve: Incubus guitarist Mike Eizinger recently described “Adolescents,” the first single off the post-nu-metal band’s If Not Now, When, as “the most easily digestible song” on the record, which translates to “sounds most like Incubus.” And as someone who hasn’t heard an Incubus song since 2002, I can say with very little authority that, yep, this sounds like Incubus. A little smoother, a little more adult perhaps (judging by the video, Brandon Boyd seems to have finally figured out how to button up his shirt), and the soft-loud dynamics aren’t quite as extreme as they once were, but “Adolescents” pretty much sounds like “Drive” or “Wish You Were Here” post-chill-pill. Incubus’ music has never been that interesting to me, and a toned-down version is even less so, but like the band’s earlier songs, “Adolescents” is perfectly listenable, which, considering what comprises most modern-rock-radio playlists, counts as a win.

Steven: I know as much about Incubus as you do, but I think my feelings on this band are a bit more positive. This was always the wussiest of the nu-metal bands, mainly because Boyd was one of the scene’s only actual singers (and its prettiest pretty boy). As corny as Incubus records sound now, these guys had a way with a pop ballad, evidenced by “Drive” and especially “Warning,” a big guilty pleasure for me from the early ’00s. As you point out, “Adolescents” is cut from the same cloth, though it actually registers as one of the more rocking songs on the exceedingly sleepy If Not Now, When. It’s incredible that ’90s nostalgia is now extending to late ’90s acts like Stinkubus, er, Incubus, but this song is a fitting reminder that this band was the best of a sorry lot.
Genevieve’s grade: B-
Steven’s grade: B


Sublime With Rome, “Panic” (No. 10)

Steven: In my review of Sublime With Rome’s Yours Truly, I questioned whether new music from what amounts to the world’s greatest Sublime tribute band really needs to exist. I’d argue no, but taken at face value, the single “Panic” is about as good of a track as you could expect from this ’90s alt-rock Frankenstein. New singer Rome Ramirez is a bit of an airhead, but he’s the David Lee Roth to Bradley Nowell’s darker-minded Sammy Hagar, and this is decent-enough revivalist ska for bro-heavy beach parties. 

Genevieve: New Sublime music in 2011 seems like a dicey proposition to begin with, and while I was never a big enough fan of the band to argue that Nowell was the only man capable of bringing the band’s ska-punk magic to life, it’s kind of hard to square this song with something like “Santeria” or “Wrong Way,” songs that are simultaneously dated and enduring. “Panic” is like a cover of a demo of a B-side of a lost Sublime single, and I guess I can see how that would be appealing to fans who still rock 40 Oz. To Freedom during their summer barbecues; to me, though, it feels like a cheesy, vaguely offensive, but ultimately harmless novelty, like one of those tip-and-strip naked-lady pens in song form.
Steven’s grade: C
Genevieve’s grade: C-

The Airborne Toxic Event, “Changing” (No. 14)

Genevieve: I really want to hate this song based on the video, with its incongruous step-dancers and douchey-looking, leather-jacketed lead singer Mikel Jollett, but damn if “Changing” isn’t persuasively likable. (The amazing power of handclaps at work once again, ladies and gentlemen.) This song is the Los Feliz band’s big major-label, mainstream-radio push, and it bears more than a passing resemblance to another modern-rock-radio breakout from an indie band, Modest Mouse’s “Float On” (but with more step-dancing—seriously, what is that?). Unlike that song, though, there’s really not much to grab on to here beyond that squiggly guitar line and the aforementioned handclaps, ensuring that “Changing” will earn a few replays on the ol’ mental jukebox before fading once more into the background.

Steven: As far as I know, this is the first Airborne Toxic Event song I’ve ever heard. And, yes, it bites hard from “Float On,” except with a less distinctive singer and a quarter of the catchiness. As I mentioned before, ATE is a “silent-majority band” that you never hear about and yet somehow is afforded major-label, mainstream-radio pushes. More than any other band of its ilk, ATE’s chief attribute is the convenience it affords lazy radio station program directors that want to pretend to focus on “new” music while in reality pushing cut-rate reiterations of shopworn sounds. Spin this all you want in the mental jukebox; just don’t sing this faceless faux-hawk faux-rock around me. 
Genevieve’s grade: B-
Steven’s grade: D

Rise Against, “Help Is On The Way” (No. 15)

Genevieve: There are few bands that could get away with releasing a relentlessly earnest, pissed-off anthem about Hurricane Katrina five years after the fact without coming across as cheesy and opportunistic; but few bands are as relentlessly earnest and pissed-off as Rise Against, so not only does “Help Is On The Way” work, it’s actually pretty damn effective. The lyrics—which also reference the BP oil disaster—are evocative without being overly specific, and the music’s driving punk energy makes it more anthem than eulogy, such that the mantra “help is on the way” could apply to almost any difficult situation. (Even, apparently, wrestling-ring feuds: “Help Is On The Way” was the wildly inappropriate theme song of WWE: Over The Limit.

Steven: Man, this guy is going to be really pissed when he hears about the ’08 real estate collapse. But I bet he’ll be pumped about Obama getting elected, though the Tea Party resurgence will likely just set him off again. Okay, I kid, but seriously: Hurricane Katrina is one of the most shameful chapters in American history, and it shouldn’t be forgotten. But “Help Is On The Way” has all the timeliness and urgency of a Daily Kos post from 2006. It’s true that the lyrics aren’t overly specific, but that’s just representative of this song’s overall sense of run-of-the-mill riffage and standard-issue punk-dude testiness. This sort of radio-made “protest” punk-rock had a lot more power before the Internet, but don’t kids today have access to harder, headier stuff than this?
Genevieve’s grade: A-
Steven’s grade: C+

Korn featuring Skrillex, “Get Up!”  (No. 22)

Genevieve: Oh good, Korn and dubstep, together at last. Now hyper-aggressive 14-year-old boys of the last decade and this one have a borderline-unlistenable rage-anthem they can share. This malfunctioning chainsaw of a song is the aural embodiment of “kids these days,” as interpreted by a 40-year-old man (Korn frontman Jonathan Davis). It’s not that I’m expecting maturity from Korn or anything, but you’d think after a couple decades, Davis And Co. could do better than angst-by-numbers like “peace through pain is precious” and “Shut the fuck up”—then again, who has the mental capacity for lyrics after that Skrillex “beat” has pummeled listeners’ brains to dust? Ever wondered what a song focus-grouped by YouTube commenters would sound like? Of course not, that would be terrible; and yet, here’s the answer.

Steven: Okay, there’s no arguing that this song blows. But I’ll give Korn this: Long-running rock bands must be able to acknowledge the latest trends, absorb them, and seamlessly work them into their overall aesthetic. “Get Up!” is where Korn meets dubstep, but it still sounds unmistakably “like Korn.” Now, as far as I’m concerned, “like Korn” might well as be “like shit,” but I’ve never gotten this band, and I never will. I freely admit that. But unlike most of their contemporaries from the late-’90s butthead brigade, Korn isn’t in the midst of an attempted comeback. This band really never left, and as obnoxious and ephemeral as Korn’s music seemed when the group was at the peak of its popularity, it has to be acknowledged that these guys are hard-rock lifers with a devoted fan base that relishes every “shut the fuck up” that spills from Davis’ mouth. I don’t like it anymore than you do, GK, but Korn ain’t going anywhere, and subtle stylistic shifts like “Get Up!” help explain why.
Genevieve’s grade: D-
Steven’s grade: C-

Red Hot Chili Peppers, “The Adventures Of Rain Dance Maggie” (No. 23)

Genevieve: In case you were wondering: Yes, after a five-year hiatus, the Red Hot Chili Peppers are still totally funky, bro. The vaguely blues-y contributions of new guitarist Josh Klinghoffer—not to mention that cowbell accompaniment—gives “The Adventures Of Rain Dance Maggie” (ugh) a slight classic-rock vibe, but Flea’s bass work and Anthony Kiedis’ non-sequitur lyrics (“Tugboat Sheila is into memorabilia / Who said three is a crowd?”) are unmistakably Chili Peppers—the latter-day, hit-making Chili Peppers of “Scar Tissue” and “Dani California,” anyway. “The Adventures Of Rain Dance Maggie” (still, ugh) has the same sort of radio-friendly sing-along quality of RHCP’s more recent hits, so expect to hear drive-time DJs bungling its title many, many, many more times in advance of the upcoming I’m With You.

Steven: I appreciate that the Chili Peppers have progressed to the point where they can title a song “The Adventures Of Rain Dance Maggie” and not give a fuck about how stupid it sounds. That’s the kind of courage that only comes with having the status where iffy new albums won’t affect the tour’s bottom line. So long as Anthony Kiedis remembers the words to “Give It Away” and Flea can fit a tube sock on his lil’ chili pepper, Chad Smith will be flush with enough cash to justify making horrible records with Sammy Hagar in his spare time. As music, “The Adventures Of Rain Dance Maggie” isn’t all that courageous, though it’s moderately more rocking and funky than the rut of “Scar Tissue”-style ballads the band fell into long ago. 
Genevieve’s grade: C+
Steven’s grade: C+